Thursday, December 29, 2011


Did you know that coral is an animal, not a plant? It's odd to think of corals as having any life at all. Personally, I'm used to thinking of animals as sentient beings. (The ocean is really watching us.) Male and female corals release sperm and eggs into the water simultaneously, 4-6 days after full moon in November and December. The sperm and eggs float near the surface in threads of pink goo. I might have seen some of the remains of this goo as I was snorkling in the Coral Sea the other day. The threads float around for a while, looking for a place to implant themselves, and when they do, they immediately start building their calcium shells.

Probably the main danger that divers face is nitrogen poisoning (not sharks)--the longer the divers spend underwater and the deeper they go, the more nitrogen accumulates in their bodies. Nitrogen poisoning has effects so freaky (divers going crazy in the water, or developing nitrogen bubbles under their skin) that apparently there was a Dr. House episode dedicated to it. Divers have to come to the surface very slowly, resting at shallower depths to help release some nitrogen from their bodies. Each diver these days is equipped with a computer that monitors their exposure to nitrogen. Taking rests between dives and spending only a few hours under water each day are all ways to avoid overexposure. The threat of nitrogen poisoning is also why divers are strongly discouraged from flying at high altitudes for 24 hours after their last dive.

The tourist industry in the town of Cairns seems to be prospering from this nitrogen business. People come from all over the world to dive at the Barrier Reef, and are forced to stay in town for at least one other day. That's when they discover that Cairns is surrounded by picturesque tropical rainforest, has zoos and botanic gardens, crocodile sanctuaries, and of course lots of shopping with local souvenirs, etc. And since many tourists are wary of driving on the opposite side of the road, they are shuttled and taxied around between the various attractions. We've met only one couple from the Netherlands, Jorrit and Audrey, who after the boat, are not flying out of Cairns, but renting a camper van and planning to take a week or two to drive to New South Wales. Even in the Cairns area alone, there are lots of fascinating things to see and do off the beaten tourist track. From working dairy, sugar cane, coffee and fruit farms to old gold prospecting towns and communities. I've seen the map, and it looks very exciting. Lots more to do during our next trip to Australia. This time, Dave and I shuttled around Cairns for three days (every time being the first ones to be picked up and the last to be dropped off), and so learning the geography of all the hotels and backpacker hostels in town quite well. There's Rydges, there's Coral Tree, there's contemporary-looking Trilogy, etc. etc.

Trapped in town (and tired after several action-packed days), Dave and I camped out at a cafe in town for the afternoon. It was starting to rain, but a warm, tropical rain. We sat outside, under the awning, Dave blogging and I writing postcards. Very quickly Dave made friends with the guy working the cash register, originally from Hamburg, he likes to spend as much time as he can in India playing around with obscure computer technology and building computer games. He was only in Austrlia for a few months, working for a friend who owned this cafe. According to him, the tourist business in Cairns was down, suffering in the last 2 years from the comparatively strong Australian economy that made the country particularly expensive for tourists from other parts of the world, more affected by the economic crisis. We couldn't quite tell: it was hard to know which shops were closed for the Christmas holiday and which for good.

As we were just about ready to leave and look for dinner, Dave spotted Erika--one of the divers from OceanQuest. She and her friend Alexandra (who is not a diver and didn't go on the ship at all) were meeting up later with more people who'd spent 2 nights on the boat and disembarked only an hour or two ago. We joined in, of course. We'd met everyone the day before, and shared a few meals on the boat together. There were 8 people at dinner, including us. Erika and Alex from Gothenburg, Sweden. Amanda from Washington, DC but lives in LA, Robin from Calgary, and Jorrit and Audrey from the Netherlands, near Amsterdam. We all ate at a central "Night Markets" area -- a food court with mostly Asian shops selling some local fish and various combinations of rice and noodles. After a day of diving (and snorkling) together, we really didn't know about each other except that we were all interested in travel and colorful fish and we all liked the desserts on OceanQuest--chocolate pudding and vanilla ice cream the day we were there, and pineapple cake with whipped cream the day we left. But meeting again after a day apart felt very much like we were reuniting with family members. We had dinner together, and then most of us also had gelato. Cairns is packed with ice cream and gelato shops -- there were about ten of them in the one block radius from the Night Market.

The next morning, Dave and I ran into Eugene and Katya, a Russian couple whom we also met on the boat and who were staying in the same hotel as us. Katya is originally from Kiev, grew up near Tel Aviv, and now the two of them live in Washington, DC, working as programmers. Together, we went to explore the local Botanic gardens and the rainforest, and then they had to get back to the hotel to get a taxi ride back to the airport. Dave and I went back to town for more gelato, and then we followed them to the airport.

As we were leaving Cairns, it started to rain with some force. Cairns is in the tropics, and that's what summer is supposed to be like there: days and days of monsoon, tropical rain. We got lucky with good, fairly dry weather. A few hours earlier, when we walked in the local Botanic Gardens, it was barely drizzling, rain coming down a few drops at a time. We saw lots of different kinds of palm trees and tropical plants, birds that looked like turkeys and chickens, a lake that is known to harbor crocodiles. The morning local paper reported that a python attacked a 2-year old boy. The day before, at a little zoo in a mountain village near Cairns, Dave got to huddle a koala bear, and we took a brisk walk through another part of a rainforest. Lots more to explore in the area, and hopefully we'll come back one day, with a camper van and more diving (and snorkling) buddies.

Dave has blogged about our day in Cairns here:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lone Snorkler at the Barrier Reef

So, you decided to snorkle at the Barrier Reef? It's odd why you, a young, able-bodied woman are abstaining from diving. But don't try to explain your reasons: they aren't good enough. There really can be no reasons (except for your own strong-headedness) why, given that you're already spending a night on a live-aboard diving vessel, you're not working on your diving certification. No, no, don't try to explain. You know that you're wrong to miss a diving opportunity this good. You'll get certified on the next trip. But for now, you're insisting on snorkeling, so here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1. Most likely, you're the only snorkler on the live-aboard diving boat. No problem. You can swim wherever you like, completely alone. Hovering on top of the reef, you will see many of the same things the divers see, but likely, since you're without a guide or a buddy, you won't be able to identify what you're seeing.

2. Even if you're only snorkling, you still get a to don a wetsuit, so that you won't feel like you're standing out too much in your swim suit. You will also get a warning not to touch coral. Yes, in some parts of the reef, the water will be shallow enough so that you could dive down just holding your breath and touch fish or coral, but don't do it. Leave diving to the divers. The coral and the fish can be poisonous, and you're the only snorkler out at sea.

3. The shark that you see will be less of a shark because nobody has seen it with you (and can back up your story). Also less of a shark because you don't have an expensive underwater camera to document the encounter. Also less of a shark because you didn't find it in its den among the corals, but you let the divers find it, and then the shark found you. Even if in your own imagination the shark is more of a shark because you're the lone snorkler outside the boat, and the shark is going right for you, good luck explaining the experience to the divers, who have donned oxygen tanks and took several hours of training courses so that they can go to the bottom of the ocean and swim with the sharks. Your shark is definitely less of a shark.

4. You will make eye contact with giant, colorful fish, but you will be the one to get scared and run away. Proper divers, on the other hand, are not afraid of anything but their own equipment.

5. Snorkeling right on top of the reef plateau, you might find yourself uncomfortably close to giant purple lips of a clam that look ready to eat you. Everything within your arm's reach will look severely poisonous and/or sharp, but that's because you're a silly snorkler and don't know any better.

6. You might have a harder time seeing stingrays that stick to the sandy bottom of the ocean. If you do see one, it will be more or less by accident because you're not at the bottom of the ocean.

7. You won't see tiny, beautiful worms living in the sand or in the coral at the bottom of the ocean.

8. You might see a giant sea turtle, but it might be less of a turtle because of #3 amplified by the fact that nobody, even a snorkler, could be afraid of turtles. They are TURTLES! Haven't you seen enough movies, snorkler? Turtles are cute, cuddly animals. Turtles are your friend, snorkler! You might as well be afraid of your own shadow, snorkler, or of Nemo the fish.

9. It's entirely possible that snorklers like yourself give diving a bad name. Admit it, snorkler, you're just scared of everything. You're a) chicken and b) a stubborn chicken. Why don't you stop being so stubborn, and simply take a diving class with one of the certified instructors on board? Then you'd be safe in the company of other divers and won't be afraid of anything (except running out of air, getting disoriented at the bottom of the sea, losing your buddy, getting a nitrogen poisoning because of surfacing too quickly, and a couple of other technical details -- which are really nothing to be afraid of since you'll get your training). Stop being so silly, snorkler!

10. Good luck having your picture taken in the water by the ship's photographer. If he does happen to take it, you'll find it in the deleted items folder. Really, snorkler, you'd pay $18 for just one picture of yourself? How odd.

11. Everything about you is odd, snorkler.

12. Snorklers might not get a second helping of chocolate pudding at dinner. Just kidding. Chocolate pudding is for everyone.

Snorkling or diving, the Barrier Reef is a pretty spectacular sight. For a more in-depth view of it, read Dave's blog:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Talking to strangers

On Friday night, the evening of our first day in Sydney, Dave and I settled in for dinner at The Australian Hotel, a pub that attracted our attention by their large selection of pizza. The crowd spilled out on the sidewalk, some sitting at the communal benches all around the perimeter of the building and others standing around in groups and drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. One party left half a pitcher of beer on the table next to ours, and two young women who sat down to wait for their pizza gladly poored the remains into their own cups. Dave and I split a pie loaded with smoked salmon and shrimp, further afield from pizza as in cheese-and-tomato-sauce than we get even in California.

"California, that's where they have that pizza place... what's it called?" asked one of the guys at our table, having inquired where we were from.

"California Pizza Kitchen?"
"Yeah, that's right!"

Conversation temporarily halted. Dave and I share curiousity about people, especially when we travel--meeting people on the road is more or less the whole point of travel for us--and yet neither of us has a particularly easy time striking up conversation with random strangers. I get intensely shy and at the exact time when I get an opening to say "Hi" and "How do you do," I freeze up and run away. Dave is doing a little better than me. A few years ago, when I was doing a lot of travel to Russia, and Dave started making friends on his own and figured out mental tricks to overcome his shyness and chat up strangers at bars and parties. Still, we don't work very well together as a couple meeting new people. One particularly difficult moment was this summer, in Oslo, when Dave smooth-talked an old sailor into inviting us to a private party at a Literature Cafe, but I was too intimidated by the awkward social situation, and at the end we ran away.

At The Australian, we sipped our drinks and looked at the crowd around us. This is the thing to do in Australia around Christmas time--go out to a pub with some old friends.

"I want to have as much fun as they're having," Dave said.

I got up and went to the bathroom.

When I came back, he was chatting to Bill, Fred, Stu, and Patrick, our mates at the communal table. They were all in there 50s or so, locals, or from near Sydney, anyway. They were sort of curious about California, but even more curious about Russia. Bill's dad came from somewhere in Poland, and Bill had a long story about how he found somebody on Facebook with the same last name, but that person lived in Minsk, Belarus. So we talked geneology, and then we talked weather (which has been surprisingly cool in Sydney this summer--perfect for us), and then we talked things to do in Sydney for New Years (the most important question on our agenda for this trip, as far as I'm concerned), and also other hang outs and restaurants we should check out. Bill recommended No Names, one of the oldest Italian joints in the city, where they make their own pasta. (We tried to find it the next day, but it was closed for the holidays already).

And so, we were having fun, and then we had almost too much fun, when Dave and Bill and Fred somehow managed to turn our communal table over onto me and the other two guys. Glasses hit the pavement, two men completely drenched in beer, I escaped with only one wet toe, and what do you know, the guys wiped themselves off with napkins a bit, and then sat down and ordered another round.

Dave's blogging about our adventures here:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Synthesizing Knowledge

Ten or so years ago, my friend Johnnie and I got mired in an argument about the nature of time. It was Johnnie's opinion that time moved forward in a circular fashion, always repeating itself. Russian history certainly gives frequent causes to believe that, and yet, I protested, there's no reason to think that it can't also leap forward and develop in some entirely unexpected dimensions. Moreover, personal time doesn't need to adhere to the pattern of historical, or national time (national time, so arbitrary--who or what defines a nation, anyway?). I'd been living away from Russia for a long enough time already that I couldn't imagine myself being bound to its rhythms just because I had happened to be born there. I don't remember what geometrical model of time I proposed to Johnnie; anyway, this was not that kind of argument. Johnnie advanced his cause in rhymes, and I tried to respond in kind, by writing poetry.

In a way, what I argued against was a deterministic model of the future, a model that I felt would limit my ability to change simply by proclaiming that change was impossible or pointless. It's likely that this wasn't the point of view that Johnnie was advancing, but something I inferred and thought unacceptable. Time, the way I perceive it today, works more like sign in the de Saussure's model of language: it's arbitrary and the way it functions is determined more by social conventions than by its own inherent properties. Storytelling and literature are an important part of this mechanism, they are both formed by and form the social conventions that in turn determine our individual perceptions of time. The novels of high realism observe and structure the ways we see cause and effect and perceive our own lives in terms of plots and arcs. The post-modern novels that try to destroy the conventional notions of arc have to struggle with more than our ideas of what literature is, but also with our ideas of what time is. They are stuck in avant-garde; while time-travel and science fiction novels are too fully mired in literary conventions and offer intellectual food for thought without affecting our more deeply ingrained notions of time.

Somehow these thoughts might (but don't need to) relate to the fact that Dave and I are in Australia now. We landed in Sydney yesterday morning after a 14 hour flight that took us across the International Date Line and catapulted 24 hours into the future. It was the shortest 14 hours flight in the history of 14 hour flights -- we slept for ten of them, and then barely got a chance to do some reading. I read a few Julio Cortázar stories and was terribly disappointed by them (I'd never really read Cortázar before, but he'd been for years at the top of my lists). Maybe it's because I read him in Russian -- and lately I've started to notice that everything I read in Russian strikes me as slightly sentimental.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

InsideStoryTime Gods and Dogs

I'm reading at one of my favorite reading series in town, InsideStoryTime, with a bunch of great people: my Alia Volz, Peter Orner, Gary Turchin, and Sarah Ladipo Manyika (whom I don't know personally yet, but look forward to meeting). The show will take place on December 15, starting at 6:30 pm, at Cafe Royale. Here's the link to InsideStoryTime:

The theme is Gods and Dogs, and I'm thinking of reading from A Dark and Empty Corner, my story that recently appeared on Narrative Magazine, that features God as one of the characters. Or maybe I'll write something new by then about dogs.