A Travellerspoint blog

March 2020

Where Would You Go?


View 2020 on mrb430's travel map.

Alas, it was not to be. We did our overnight trip over to Koh Samui to visit the immigration office and try to work things out but it was a non-starter so I am writing this from half-way around the world in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.
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But more on that in a minute. First, before we left Samui, Scott indulged me in a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary.
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So much of our Asia bucket list remains empty but this was one item we could check off and we did. Along with an amazing "last meal" at Boudoir, an sanctuary of French Food on Samui.
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SAMUI ELEPHANT SANCTUARY

Thailand has a long history of using elephants as beasts of burden. I am always torn in these situations, whether it's the horses in Nicaragua or the donkeys in Morocco or Thailand's elephants, between the urge to apply Western standards and the need to understand local norms, traditions, and needs. In any case, it was nice to see that some of the ideas about animal abuse we regard as second-nature are taking root. This sanctuary rescues elephants from work and exploitation and gives them health care and a home. To pay for it, they let tourists come and interact with them. Koh Samui's sanctuary is very new and small compared to those in Chiang Mai and elsewhere so they only have four elephants right now but it was a special treat to get up close and personal with them.

We first said "hi".
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Then we made them food balls of potatoes, bananas, and a bunch of other stuff.
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We got to feed them - you have to put them right up in their mouth! They have HUGE tongues!
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Then we fed them some small bananas and cucumbers. It was hysterical. You put them in their trunks one at a time and they fire them into their mouth and are back for more in seconds. Check out this video of Scott doing the feeding.

After feeding, the real fun begins! Playing in the mud with them, washing them off, and then going swimming with them. Here's a video of me playing in the mud!

And some pics of the pool.
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It was an awesome experience and so glad we took a few hours to do it!

LEAVING KOH TAO

But back to the decision to leave. As we sat on our deck looking out at the water each morning, reading about the virus and its progression and watching the borders closing around us, we began to feel a sense of unease about staying on Koh Tao and in Asia generally. We were unable to extend our visas at the immigration office on Koh Samui because the US Embassy would not write us a letter to stay. When I called, they said "we don't have a policy on that". Ah bureaucracy at its finest. Our only choice was a border run and as all of the borders were closing that became less and less realistic. It's not expensive to overstay and there was an idea that they may forgive overstays but... In addition, Koh Tao, although they had no cases yet, has very limited health care facilities and the idea of being able to evacuate to Bangkok, if necessary, became less certain. Then the first case appeared on our neighboring island. We made the very difficult decision to leave. But to where?

We thought about the US but things were really getting crazy there and with our international health insurance we can only be in the US six of twelve months a year so we thought we better save that time for an emergency. We wanted to be closer to the US though, to my parents and our children, we wanted to have sun and sand and sea, and we wanted to be somewhere with not a lot of people. We have always thought we'd go back to Baja someday and, well, it seemed like that day had come.

Once we decided to leave, we debated staying through the end of our lease in early April but we felt like if we were going to "run" from this thing, we ought to run as fast as we could. Conditions were changing very quickly both in Asia and on the US-Mexican border. It's a good thing we did! We got a flight from Koh Samui to Singapore and on to LA on Singapore Airlines for the next day. Singapore was one of the last airports open to transit by US passport holders. We packed everything back up, leaving behind a pile of acquired items like yoga mats and coolers and dry bags and food that we had acquired thinking we were staying put for awhile and we hustled back to Samui to spend the night before our flight. Samui's airport, usually a bustling little area was deserted.
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We got to Singapore and had a layover there. For some reason this sign cracked us up and made us a little sad.
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Singapore closed to US transit the next day. Flights were cancelling in real time and there were long lines of people trying to figure out what to do. We felt incredibly lucky and incredibly thankful that we made the decision to get out when we did.

When we got to LA, we were amazed at the lack of infrastructure in place for the virus. In Singapore we got thermal scanned at least five times in the airport. At both Samui and Singapore, there were endless questions about where we had traveled and been - not one in LA. We did fill out a questionnaire on the plane but they never collected it. I have to be honest and say I can see why the US has overtaken everyone else in cases. The response is night and day in the US versus Asian countries. It makes us ruminate on the relative merits of more centralized governments and more compliant citizenry in times of crisis. Our independence is proving our undoing it seems.

In any case, even though the US-Mexico land border had closed the day before, our flight left on time. There were five people on our plane down but they said they were bringing 40 people home. Bad decision in our minds - we definitely felt like we were going the right way!

ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN LA PAZ

We arrived in La Paz and checked into our favorite hotel for the night. It's nice to come to a place you know and have that option. The next day was a whirlwind of looking at apartments, choosing one, renting a car, buying food, and unpacking. If I'm being honest, the next day it really hit us that we were really in Baja and not Thailand. And that we were starting all over. We had invested a lot of time in choosing SE Asia for our home for 2020. We had found Koh Tao and fallen in love. We had found the place we wanted to rent long-term and were making friends. We were getting yoga and diving and volunteering routines established. We had sat on the porch having cocktails imaging our future there. And life was good. We had found "home". And four days later we were halfway across the globe - trading tropics for desert, hot weather for pleasant (read cold at night, sunny and warm most days), daily swims in the sea for daily walks by it. We still have the sea and the sun and blue skies but the difference is - well - a world away.

And so we begin again. We feel extremely fortunate to have gotten here, to have a good friend to help us get settled, and to have the financial security to do it all. It's easy to settle back in and our favorite tacos stand, tamale lady, grocery store, restaurant...are all still here. We know our way around and we know how to live here. We love Baja and will be very happy here but it's just a really big adjustment and recalibration of the vision of our future.

COVID-19 IN BAJA

Baja is way behind the rest of the world on the "Covid-curve". It's just ramping up here with the first cases starting to be acknowledged. Social distancing is just going into place and masks are starting to appear as well as hand sanitizer. The streets are eerily empty now. But Scott did get one fishing trip in before it all shut down - something he never got to do last time we were here!

On his first time out, he caught a Rooster Fish. Considered a trophy fish and the holy grail of a lot of anglers down here (apparently some people fish their whole lives down here and never get one), it was one for the books and maybe a good omen of lots more awesome firsts to come!
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They also caught some Yellowtails - can you say Ceviche!
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And a Dorado.
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We have fish in the freezer so I guess we are real Bajaians now! And truly there is no where, other than maybe Spain, that I am happier shopping and cooking. The fresh produce is amazing and the hand-made tortillas delicious. I've made Pineapple-Mango salsa, Pork Chili Verde, Sashimi and Ceviche, Egg-Chorizo breakfast tortillas, Chicken tacos...We can't get enough! And don't get me started on our love of Tequila!

Of course the stores have social-distancing guides and we hand-sanitize in and out and wear our masks but there's no panic and no hoarding, which is a real relief.

La Paz has invested a lot of money since we were here last in their streets, parks, and the malecon - the walkway along the waterfront. It's just even more beautiful now and it's great to be able to get out of the house and go for a walk along the water. Since it's basically deserted, social-distancing is easy, though we still wear our masks. Heaven forbid we are the gringos that bring Covid to La Paz!
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For more on the public art in La Paz, check out this post.

We also got to celebrate Scott's birthday at one of our favorite restaurants, NIM. They closed today for lack of business and no wonder since we were the only table there for our two-hour dinner. Such a shame. Their food is awesome and they were going over and above on sanitization. They made us hand-sanitize on the way in. Sprayed and wiped our table in front of us - I assume with some sort of disinfectant, were wearing masks, etc.
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We even had a serene by a local musician. One of my favorite aspects of dining in La Paz. "Traveling" players come through and you pay them if you want a song.
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We're sure the virus will come to La Paz in bigger numbers but they seem to be taking the "flattening the curve" advice seriously - if not the test everyone advice. Testing here is next to impossible. Restaurants and stores are almost all shut down except for take away and for grocery stores and markets. People are staying home and with Semana Santa (their big Easter-based weeklong party) coming up, the military is being enlisted to keep people off the beaches and streets in big groups. For those that don't know, La Paz has a military post and also a marine military post so we have no shortage of military vehicles with men and automatic weapons cruising the streets even in normal times. Mostly it's reassuring, just kinda weird for us.

So not to worry about us, we have a roof deck for getting sun and watching sunsets without other people around.
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And the truth is, we're old hands at social distancing. We have spent two years mostly just us. We are used to long days doing nothing, to finding small outings to fill a space of time, to just being with each other. Of course we were hoping to expand our network in Koh Tao but life rarely goes according to plan. When we read about the angst and boredom and anxiety people are experiencing, we feel really lucky that we learned how to just chill out and be together a long time ago.

in short, when we look out over our new life in La Paz, the view is beautiful.
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Posted by mrb430 15:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Watching the World Go Crazy in Koh Tao


View 2020 on mrb430's travel map.

It's been a month since my last post and there are a few reasons for that disturbance in the flow.

Perhaps the primary one is that lately we've been focused on a lot of mundane things like rebuilding our life and figuring out the future. Historically this blog has been about our travels. Sure there is a bit of what we're thinking or feeling thrown in but primarily it's about the places and the people and our reactions to it all. And I suppose that's what those of you that follow us or those who stumble upon us are looking for us to tell you about. But it's also for us to look back on and remember how it felt, what we were doing and thinking, and the challenges we faced. I often go back and read old entries and even just the tone of my writing clues me in to how we were feeling. And right now how we are feeling is changing daily so it's been hard to put into words.

The other, much more practical, issue is that our mornings are now more active and that was my writing time historically. I'm less fresh and more reflective in the evenings so I wasn't sure how much that would change the "tone" and if it would change it too much.

But here we are. If I don't just jump in again I many never and I'm not okay with that. So we'll see how this goes.

LOVELY ISLAND LIFE ON KOH TAO

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Of course it's great to lead with a sunset. It's wonderful to have a balcony and beach facing West again. But really I should lead with this one.

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Because what we love here is the simple, easy, island pace of life, including that the laundry across the street hangs our clothes out on lines by the beach to dry. It's just off the beach road, at the quiet end where we are, but there is zero worry that anyone will take anything and there's this special feeling about putting those clothes on - weird as it sounds. We've moved back to beach dresses for me and tank tops for Scott. We wear flip-flops or go barefoot, which is easier because you remove your shoes to enter every establishment anyway.

This is a typical "road". There are very few cars, mostly just scooters. And although the young backpackers can be a bit crazy the difference from Bangkok or Nha Trang is that of Manhattan cabbies to the backroads of the Eastern Shore. The traffic that is here may not always do the speed limit but there's so little of it!
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This is the view from our "front yard" in Mae Haad, which is a little private area of beach with loungers. Mae Haad is the "bigger" town with plenty of businesses and dive shops but it's also less popular with the backpacker crowd so it has less loud bars and many fewer goings on at night, which we like.
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We look out on the docks that bring and take tourists to and from the island and on the dive boats that go out each day. We can sit for hours watching the activity and have learned to tell time by the comings and goings of the different ferries. Our little one bedroom apartment is in a building of just eight units, most of which are empty on any given night, and although we have A/C in the bedroom we only use it at night. It's certainly hot and humid here but we've learned the rhythm of the day: activity before two, rest on the beach or under the fan in the afternoon, evenings on the deck or out for dinner and/or drinks. It's quiet at night and easy to sleep.

We've started walking again. Scott is even going on hikes with me!
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We've both started yoga again at a great studio that's not too far away. Just in the next beach town over, Sairee Beach (the party area), that you get to by walking the beach "road". Just a wide concrete path lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Scott has been diving.
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There are more dive shops in Koh Tao than restaurants, or at least it seems like it. It's really popular with the backpacker crowd for inexpensive certification classes. It's also has some pretty good dive sites. The visibility here can change from great to murky within a few hours this time of year so it's always a bit of a crap shoot. For example, Scott dove the same site two days in a row and the first day the visibility was less than two meters and the next it was 12-15. The dives are cheap here so you just go with the flow and they have pretty good communication between all the divers on the sites that were poor in the morning so afternoon dives can be adjusted accordingly.

We've been snorkeling from our beach. The water is so clean and warm and there is a great reef that even has a sunken ship just at the other end of our cove.
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I've been having fun identifying fish and lizards in my iNaturalist App and birds for eBird. I've identified eight new birds for my life list here including the amazing White-bellied Sea Eagle that flies with the Ospreys in the skies out in front of us and Pacific Reef Herons that perch all along the waterfront on the boats and piers.

I've also been volunteering at an animal clinic with these sweet pups. Nothing glamorous. I help with laundry mostly - haha!
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We've made some friends, rediscovered the pleasure of rum, and play a lot more music. We have our local bar next door owned by a hard-drinking Aussie - who also becomes our DJ some nights when the mood strikes him and he cranks the speakers and runs through his extensive music library. There's a favorite Thai restaurant where a plate of Pad Thai, a dish of Penang Curry, and two watermelon juices is $7.50 and just steps down the road. Jun runs our favorite coffee shop and doubles as our entertainment director. There's live music in a few places. Just down the beach they have a nice band on weekends that we can hear from the deck and a place up the road has open mike nights that are good three nights a week. There's lots of good, cheap Western food, grocery stores and produce stands with recognizable brands and options, and a population that speaks enough English to make ourselves understood in pharmacies and stores. Koh Tao is checking all of our boxes and we are way under-burning our budget, which is frosting on this tasty cake!

THAILAND AS HOME DURING THE PANDEMIC

The Thais are a sweet, proud, and honorable people. Some of their government types rival some of ours on the speaking, and occasionally acting, before thinking front - but most of the government seems to us to be forthright and dignified. There is something very peaceful and reassuring about being here in the midst of the pandemic. Cases are very low still, even though they were one of the first countries infected, their focus on tracking, testing, and isolating those affected seems effective and reasonable, and they are actively planning for it to get worse if it should by identifying special hospitals to take the cases. Some foreigners complain about being targeted with border closings but the honest truth is it's foreigners bringing it to Thailand - there is no local spread here yet. And, so far, they are only closed to seriously affected countries - well and also some weird ones like Cyprus and Vanuatu - which honestly seems reasonable to us. We just hope they hold off on the US until we can get our visas settled!

We've spent long days contemplating what to do. Should we go back to the States? Our insurance only allows us to be in the States for 6 of 12 months a year so we need to save that option for an emergency - plus we're not too impressed with the US reaction to the problem, frankly. Should we be in a bigger place with better access to hospitals in case we get sick? We can get medical evacuation from here to Bangkok and, as I know first hand, their hospitals are awesome. At the end of the day, we feel pretty isolated here and are hopeful it may skip us as fewer and fewer other foreigners are let in. Tourism is waaaaayyyyy down here. Fewer and fewer people get off the ferries every day. Also it's an easy place to "self-isolate" if we had to do that and the local population of expats seem like fun people to ride out the storm with.

In short, we've found our home for awhile if they'll let us stay. They do have a retirement visa that we can meet the requirements of given time. We go tomorrow to the Immigration office over on Koh Samui to figure out what it will take. We're relatively confident we can figure it out even if we have to do a border run to Myanmar (Burma). So far that border is still open and Americans can still enter (as long as we haven't actually been in America!) If we are successful we should be able to stay for up to year if that's what it takes to ride out the storm. Wish us luck! We wish you all stay safe and healthy!

Posted by mrb430 05:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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