Friday, April 26, 2013

Expat Life: What a Drag it is Getting Old

This is about right.  via

Although MrLogical is the one who recently celebrated an iconic* birthday, it seems that MsCaroline is the one who is experiencing all of the degenerative effects of old age.  MrL - with only a little less hair that is, possibly, ever-so-slightly greyer - still weighs the same as the day we got married, wears the same size trousers, and is apparently, still as fresh as a daisy.  He goes to the gym regularly (sometimes twice in one day,) takes hideously long bicycle rides with his Korean teammates, and generally enjoys the rudest good health.
Gratuitous photo of MrL who is still as hawt as ever after all these years.  

In stark contrast, MsCaroline - who is almost 2 years younger - is having problems tying her shoes.

Up until 4 years ago, MsCaroline had never experienced back pain (except the pregnancy-induced kind) in her life, treating her back with no more consideration than, say, her knees (and they're another story) or her elbows (still good, so far.)  Then, she flipped over the handlebars of her bicycle on a 25-mile 'fun ride at mile #12 but insisted on getting up and doing the rest of the ride' took a small tumble from which she experienced no immediate obvious adverse effects (except the bruising of her person and her dignity.)

Three weeks later, she bent over to vacuum under the bed, and joined the ranks of those whose lives have been forever changed by back pain.

Over the course of the next few months, MsC experienced the joys of both chiropractic and conventional medicine, and, after more than a year of pain pills and steroids and chiropractic and injections and x-rays and MRIs and PT, finally got to the point where she was until yesterday: living with a ruptured lumbar disc which is mostly OK but sometimes flares up and causes problems.

MsCaroline is not bothered too much by this.  She knows if she keeps up with her PT exercises, doesn't lift too much, and puts an icepack on the affected area as soon as it begins to hurt, her life is not significantly affected by her quitter back, and all is well.

Apparently, however, once one part of your back starts to go, it's all downhill from there.

Yesterday morning, leaving for work,  MsC bent over to tie her shoes, and experienced the electrifying sensation of someone stabbing a knife directly behind her shoulder blade.  "Ah," she thought, "I've pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve or something.  I'll try stretching it out."

This did not work.  In fact, it intensified the sensation, to where MsC was gasping for breath - another problem, because, as it turned out, taking anything but the shallowest of breaths was excruciating.  MsCaroline's solution for this was to panic breathe shallowly and rapidly, which - I think we can all agree -is not ever a good idea when you are alone in the apartment, in serious pain, and late for work.

Eventually, MsC -still convinced that she'd pinched a nerve - hobbled back to her laptop, where she did the dumbest thing any human being can do when in pain the 21st-century equivalent of calling her mother:  she Googled her symptoms, hoping to find some stretches that would help her un-pinch whatever she had pinched.

You may be surprised to learn that, when one Googles 'sharp pain in shoulder blade,' the first 250 or so hits offer no useful suggestions whatsoever for 'un-pinching' a nerve.  Instead, the alarmists all recommend immediate transportation to the hospital via ambulance to investigate a suspected heart attack.  Even though MsC was pretty sure knew that she wasn't having a heart attack, the excruciating back and neck pain - combined with the lightheadedness from all that shallow breathing - were messing with her brain, and she started picturing Son#2 and MrL arriving home that evening to find her lifeless corpse on the floor, her laptop open to the Mayo Clinic's  'How to Tell if You're Having a Heart Attack" page.

Eventually, MsC calmed herself down enough to accept that, pinched nerve and blinding pain or no, she would not be expiring - at least not before work- that day, and that she'd just have to get herself out the door and hope she didn't pass out en route from hyperventilating.  Tossing down a handful of ibuprofen and hoping for the best, she Quasimodo'd her her way out of the building to the taxi stand (no time to wait for a bus.)

The trip to work in a taxi was actually quite helpful, because the sweet old driver's insistence upon showing her the photos of his visit to the Grand Canyon on his Smartphone - while driving in morning rush hour traffic - distracted her from the fact that she could not breathe.  In fact, during that ride, she discovered that, if she bent her right arm at the elbow, held it at a 90-degree angle to the side, and pushed it back as far as it would go while taking a deep breath, the pain was bearable, and she could get enough oxygen into her system to retain consciousness.  Needless to say, it was probably a little alarming for the taxi driver to observe this in his rearview mirror, but MsC figured he was so engrossed in scrolling through his photos on the phone, he probably didn't care too much.

MsCaroline arrived at work, still flapping her arm at regular intervals (it looks a lot like someone imitating a one-winged chicken) to ensure oxygen intake, and started off on her long day.

While the children were blissfully unobservant, more than one of MsC's coworkers commented on her strange arm gyrations.  All of them - despite being about a thousand years younger than she is - commiserated fully and offered suggestions for relief, ranging from a few stiff belts of schnapps (after work, of course) to acupuncture.

The most practical - and immediate- suggestion, however, came from one of her coworkers who recommended applying heat in the form of one of those adhesive patches that can be affixed to the affected area (in the US, they usually smell like menthol.)  However, she assured me that the Korean version was far superior and - bonus! - did not smell like menthol.  When I expressed doubt at my ability to communicate my desire for just such a patch to the Korean pharmacist, she whipped out a pen and paper and wrote down exactly what I would need, and I gratefully tucked it into my pocket on my way to sing, 'The Itsy-Bitsy Spider' for the 53rd time that day.

This is Korean for (roughly) "adhesive back patch that will make a pinched nerve feel better."

Naturally, by the time the end of the day rolled around, the neck pain had settled down enough to the point that MsCaroline could take a reasonable breath without too much pain, and - if she was careful about it and didn't turn her head too far to the right - she was doing OK.  Based on those improvements - and the fact that she had no desire to schlepp to the pharmacy in the grey misty drizzle hanging over Seoul - she headed home, applied a heating pad, and put herself to bed at 7:45, optimistic that, by tomorrow morning, things would have returned to normal.

Needless to say, it's now tomorrow, and things are back where they started.

MsCaroline will be stopping at the pharmacy on the way to work, and someone else is just going to have to get dinner.

In the meantime, she's decided she's definitely wearing slip-on shoes today.

*A significant one ending in zero

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thinking of You, Boston

Paul Revere Statue in front of the Old North Church, Boston, Massachusetts, July 2012, back from Korea on Home Leave and trying to show Son#2 a little of his heritage.

As an expat kid, I grew up without what are conventionally referred to as 'roots.'  I didn't grow up in the same town or even the same state;  I had attended four different elementary schools in three different countries by the time I was 10 years old.  If you asked me where I came from, I knew the answer was 'America,' but a real hometown?  I didn't have one - not exactly.

So, when people asked, I told them I was " from Boston."  It was the place where my grandparents lived, the place my father and his 5 siblings had been born, the place I'd been born, and the place my parents met and married.  It was the location of our 'permanent address in the US.'    Never mind that I didn't remember having lived there:  that's where I was from, where my extended family lived, and the place that my parents referred to as 'home.'

Over the course of the next 10 or so years, I ended up spending more time in Massachusetts, visiting relatives in the summers and at Christmas -sometimes in Boston, sometimes in other towns.  I played with my cousins in the snow(the first snow I could remember seeing!) during my first Christmas back in the US;  I got up at sunrise and went digging for clams with my father and my grandfather at Wollaston Beach. I sat at the kitchen table while my father's 5 siblings, their spouses, my cousins, neighbors, and friends, came and went and drank coffee and stayed to catch up with my parents whenever we were in town.  I walked with my grandfather through the North End, watching old Italian men sitting outside in the sunshine playing chess.  I ate New England boiled dinners, franks and beans and brown bread, fried clams.  I drank coffee out of thick white china cups at Dunkin' Donuts and ordered frappes at Howard Johnson's.

We moved again - this time to Germany - but when I came back, it was to Massachusetts.  I did my first year at University there:  I got my driver's license there:  I lived and worked there during summer and winter breaks when my parents moved back to the US;  I attended weddings, funerals, confirmations, and graduations.  I drove 'down the Cape' on weekends, rode the 'T,'  went to concerts on the Common, fought for parking near Fenway, skied with my father in the Blue Hills, and played tour guide at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market whenever company came to visit.

Eventually, I finished grad school, got married, had kids, moved Out West. My grandparents died.  Trips to Boston became rarer and rarer.  By the time we flew back for a family reunion in 2005, my own boys were well into their elementary-school years, and had never lived north of the Mason-Dixon line or east of the Appalachians.  'Boston' to them, was a place in the history books, somewhere they'd only read about - to them, it was just another city, one that meant something to their mother and grandmother, but not much beyond that.  And for me? A place full of beloved faces, warm memories, wonderful times from years gone by, but, yes, a place from my past.

And then, yesterday, when I opened up my laptop and saw the news about the attacks at the Boston Marathon, I realized that it was all still with me, still part of me.  The people I loved, the places I loved, the experiences that shaped me - so many of them, in Boston.

I'm not a native Bostonian in the truest sense of the word - but a part of me, a part of my heart, will always think of Boston as 'home.'  And, today, thousands of miles away in Korea, that part of my heart - along with the hearts of millions of people across the world - is aching for the people who have lost loved ones, who are hurting, whose lives have forever changed.

I know Bostonians, and I know they will come through this with grace and dignity and a tough New England spirit.  Today, this rootless expat kid is proud to have called Boston 'home' despite so many years and so many miles, and today, Boston, I am thinking of you.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

We Interrupt This Message: South Korea - an Update

Oh, if it were only this simple.

(Yeah, I realize they misspelled 'warmonger' but right now I'll take what I can get.)

I realize  that my next post is supposed to be part III of my Bali trip review, but I really feel that, given the present circumstances on the Korean Peninsula, I should probably interrupt my 'fun in Bali' series with a public service announcement and address a frequently-asked question:  How are you doing there in South Korea with the threat of what seems like an imminent nuclear war hanging over your head? And why, in God's name are you still there?

The real, honest-to-goodness answer is:  we're all doing just fine, but, yeah, I'll admit it - we're a little tense.   (Just a note:  if the 1.2 million expatriates in Seoul all packed up and left, it would cause serious problems in many aspects of the South Korean economy - which is exactly what Kim Jong Un wants to happen.  It would be an excellent way to damage the South Korean economy and force concessions from the international community without firing a single missile.  In some circles, this type of behaviour is known as bullying.)

Contrary to what the media would have you believe, my family and I are not hunkered down in subterranean bunkers, and we're not crushing each other pushing our way through the embassy gates to score that seat on the last transport out of the city.  We aren't crowding the highways with our cars (well, no more than usual) as we head desperately for points south, as far away from Pyeongyang and its missiles as we can get.  The children aren't carrying gas masks strapped to their backpacks, and there are no civil defense drills taking place (well, they always have them on the 15th of each month anyway, so I suppose that will happen as usual, but otherwise, nothing extra.)

Our Korean friends are their predictable polite, calm, implacable, stoic, hardworking selves.  If they're frightened or having panic attacks, or even worried, they're certainly not showing it to anyone.  Most of them shrug off the rhetoric coming out of Pyeongyang as the same old bluster that they've heard before so many times.  If they got themselves worked up every time North Korea rattled its sabers, it's doubtful they would be in the position they are now as one of the economic powerhouses of Asia.  

I admit that this is only the first time that I have ever lived in a nation where threats of nuclear annihilation are made on a near-quarterly basis, so it has taken some getting used to.  However, I pride myself on remaining calm under pressure (I am not very good under everyday circumstances, but give me a compound fracture or a set of keys locked in a car, and I will shine) and have done my best to emulate the cool matter-of-factness of my South Korean hosts.  

The Embassies - who have only heard these North Korean temper tantrums about a gazillion times- are all saying the same thing:  no change in status, no advice to leave the country, no travel advisories for people thinking about coming to Korea.  Situation normal.  Really.  Restaurants are full.  The streets are full of cars.  People are walking their dogs and kids are riding their bikes. School's in session.  No one is boarding up their windows with garbage bags and duct tape.

But for our friends and families who are worried, you should know this:  there are plans in place at every school, every company, and every organization that serves expats.  Plans for communication, plans for evacuation, plans for safety. Frankly, between my school, Son#2's school, MrL's company, and the United States Army, I am up to my ears in safety plans, evacuation routes, telephone chains, and emergency notification procedures.  (At this point, my biggest problem is just keeping all of them straight in my mind. Actually implementing something would probably be a walk in the park by comparison.) MrL's company has a plan, and the US Embassy has a plan, which, in turn, is coordinated with the US Military plan. We are enrolled in the State Department STEP program so that the State Department knows we are here and can contact us with timely information;  we have important papers and some supplies in a 'go bag', ready if we need it.  We have a family meeting place, contact people, and a family emergency plan.  And we have the added benefit of living within a quick walk of the US military base here in Seoul.

We are well-informed and well-prepared, and our companies/schools/organizations are doing their best to walk that fine line of assuring us that all is well  while also encouraging us to plan for every possible contingency.

So we're prepared for all contingencies - I mean, really, really, well-prepared.  Of course,  if the pattern of the last 40-odd years of my life holds true for me - it should turn out to have been all for nothing.

Believe me, I would be delighted.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Break in Bali, Part II: Learning to Dive

Displaying our Open Water Diving Certificates in Open Water

This is Part II in a series about our family's Easter holidays in Bali.  For Part I, Click here.

(Note:  MsCaroline debated creating some artificial suspense about her ultimate success (or lack thereof) in the Open Water Dive Course, but since she'd already posted the above photo on FaceBook, most of her readership (hi, Mum!) knew that she'd passed anyway.  There were a few moments when that outcome was in question, but she ultimately prevailed and is now legally qualified to dive in water up to 30 meters in depth, which she plans to do again as soon as she gets some time off and some more money.)

Those of you who have been Scuba diving before will realize that diving, in and of itself, is not particularly difficult.  Yes, there are a lot of pieces of equipment, and they're heavy, but once you actually get under the water and start swimming around, it's actually pretty chill, as Son#2 would say.  You swim around and look at fish and coral and other cool underwater things and occasionally equalize the pressure in your eardrums until you run out of air and it's time to come back up.

MsCaroline spent most of her formative years in a swimming pool, growing up as she did in Southeast Asia.  She learned to swim in Bangkok when she was barely 3, and has always been more or less completely at home in the water.

MsC, age 3, recently arrived in Bangkok and with no need for any stinkin' flotation devices.

MsC has always been pretty happy underwater as well.

The point is, while MsC had serious - and entirely justifiable - concerns about wearing a wetsuit, she did not have any qualms about the idea of spending extended periods of time underwater.  As it turned out, this was mostly reasonable - but with a few glaring exceptions.

Things MsC learned about diving:

There is a LOT of gear:  Besides the wetsuit and the mask and the fins, divers carry about a gazillion pounds of gear with them:  diving equipment is heavy, people.  All of this gear also has technical names, which (naturally) MrLogical already knew and (naturally) MsCaroline re-christened with more accessible names inside her head (eg, 'regulator'= breathing tube thing;  'backup regulator'=emergency breathing tube thing.)   The point is, the vest that holds everything (which also inflates like a giant blood-pressure cuff) is positively bristling with hoses and tubes and gadgets, not to mention the air tank, which weighs as much as a Labrador retriever.  In addition, divers (at least new ones) also wear weight belts to help keep one submerged.  There were a few times when MsCaroline was heading for the water that she seriously doubted her ability to actually carry everything there without collapsing.  It did not help at all that, in Bali, many local elderly women work at the dive sites carrying dive gear from the vans down to the shore.  MsCaroline has never felt quite so fat, weak, spoiled, soft, and Western, as when plodding down to the dive sites carrying nothing more than her mask and fins while walking behind a queue of 95-lb elderly Balinese woman balancing 150-lb plastic crates of diving equipment on their heads and an air tank on their shoulders.

Diving is all about preparing for the worst:  As MsC mentioned before, diving itself can be a fairly chill activity, and - if one's equipment is in good working order and nothing goes awry, there is not much to worry about.  Unfortunately, the fact is, humans swimming around under water can be in some deep s**t in a very short amount of time if something does go awry.  It is for this reason, then, that most a great deal of diving instruction is centered on teaching you two things:  1) what to do if something happens to your air; and 2) not to panic. One learns what to do if one's air supply stops, if one's emergency air supply stops, if one's regulator falls or is pulled out of one's mouth, or if another diver needs air.  MsC learned how to share air, find air, give someone else air, and even what to do if she were completely out of air and needed to ascend quickly (blow out all the way up or your lungs will explode, in case you were wondering)  Most of this was not too much of a problem for MsC, and things proceeded swimmingly (pardon the pun) until the time came for working on mask clearing.

Diving can be very cool:  MsCaroline has only been diving one time, so she has nothing to compare her experience to, but in her 6 dives she was able to visit two shipwrecks and see some incredible marine life.  Up until now, MsC assumed that the only people who dove in shipwrecks were either:  a) on Discovery channel-type documentaries or:  b) characters in underwater action movies.  In any case, it never occurred to her that she would get to do a wreck dive on her first day.
The Lionfish: I am poisonous.  Do not touch me.

Mask clearing sucks:  MsC had never noticed before, but scuba divers wear masks that cover both their eyes and their noses, while the regulator (breathing tube thing) is held in the mouth. This is actually a good thing, since the mask (in theory) protects the diver from having water in her nose.    However, even though the mask should stay tight against the diver's face, keeping the eyes and nose relatively water-free - sometimes it doesn't, and it's very common for some water to get into the mask occasionally.Obviously, since one is under water, one can't take off the mask and dump it out like one would do above water. One learns the technique for 'clearing the mask' (pressing on the top of the mask, pointing the head upwards, and blowing gently through the nose.)  Keep in mind, though -since diving is all about preparing for the worst - beginning divers also have to learn what to do when water fills up their masks. Completely.  Now - keeping in mind that MsCaroline has no problem swimming around underwater without any mask at all- MsC reasoned that- while having water in one's mask would be annoying - it wouldn't be an insurmountable problem.

Ah, dear reader, you see where this is leading.

Before the 'mask clearing skills session' began, MsC's dive instructor - a handsome Frenchman named Antoine with a captivating accent and long flowing hair - made this slightly prophetic statement:  'Everyone - zey hate zee mask skeelz sessions. Zey all hate eet.'  Ha, thought MsCaroline, I will not hate eet.  I will be fine with zee mask skeelz.  Those other people probably hold their noses when they jump off the diving board.  And she clambered into the pool like a baby elephant in all of her dive gear along with MrL and Son#2 to learn mask skeelz.

There is probably no need to describe what happened next, but MsCaroline is a bit of a sadist, so she will.  What happened was simply that MsCaroline discovered that it is entirely against human nature to continue breathing slowly and calmly (HA) through your mouth when there is essentially a plastic container full of salt water strapped against your nose.  In the first place, it is HARD to breathe in through your mouth without getting a bit of water in the nose (go right now to the tub with a straw and try it.  She can wait.)  In the second place, when one gets that bit of water in the nose, the instinct is to cough - which one of course does through one's mouth, which is full of the regulator (breathing tube thing.)  This results in more coughing, more water in the nose, and - in case MsC forgot to mention it - it is happening while one's eyes are closed because opening one's eyes in a mask full of water stings.

What took place then - and MsC is not proud of this - was a small underwater panic attack, accompanied by agitated hand-flapping (MsCaroline had learned many divers' hand signals, but unfortunately, had not learned one for 'I'm coughing into my regulator and it feels exactly like impending death, so I need to ascend NOW' so she invented one on the fly) and repeated gestures toward the surface of the pool while she coughed and sputtered into her mask and regulator and any other tube attached to her.

Antoine then revealed himself to be part divemaster and part Yoda, fixing her with an hypnotic  stare and waving his finger (non,non, Madame) slowly back and forth, while pantomiming deep, calming breaths in and  and out.....flap flap, cough, cough, gesture, panic, ...out..flap, flap, cough, choke.....eventually, under this calming influence, MsC found herself breathing, relaxing, and -inexplicably - staying under the water.  (This is even more remarkable if you remember that she was in a pool and could  have surfaced with one good kick.)  MsCaroline can only attribute this to the fact that she is a rule-follower and half-Canadian.  This means that she probably would have likely expired there on the floor of the pool rather than disobey the commands of the divemaster or surface rudely before the session was officially over.

Once MsC had resumed normal(ish) respiration and blood pressure, the lesson continued, but at that point, MsCaroline's internal dialogue had changed from this should be something I can do without much trouble  to I am out of here.  There were a number of other thoughts running through her head - many unprintable - but the prevailing sentiment was No more for me, thanks.  After lunch, I am soooo out of here.  

But that, of course, is not what happened.  And here is the reason why:

With a certain amount of foresight, Antoine - who was clever as well as French - had started the course the previous day by giving a short safety briefing, suiting the Asia Vus up and taking them out immediately on their first (closely supervised) dive.  What this meant was that MsCaroline (a sucker for any kind of nature things) had already tasted the joys of diving.  She had already done this:

Clownfish in an anemone

And seen this:

And this:

And this:

And, when it came down to it, she realized that, she and MrL were having a wonderful time diving together, , and she could just envision them becoming old scuba bums somewhere after they retired, and it was one of the coolest things she had ever done -and even though she did, in fact, hate zee mask skeelz, she was willing to get back in the pool, choke a little more if she had to, and fight her natural survival instincts for a chance to do it again.

So she did.

Nothing like an underwater 'selfie.'  

If you are interested in going to Bali to do some diving, MsCaroline cannot say enough good things about the Baruna Dive Center in Amed, where she and her family did their dive course, and would recommend them to anyone, whether they are an experienced diver or a beginner.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Silent Sunday

I know it's supposed to be 'silent' Sunday, but I didn't want anyone to think we were all under attack here in Seoul or anything.  It's just that I've been in this subway station many times before and this is the first time I'd ever noticed this sign.  I suppose all of the crazy rhetoric is starting to seep into my subconscious mind.  At least I know where to go now.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Spring Break in Bali, Part I: Getting to Amed

Arya Amed Beach Resort.  MsCaroline is there right now in her mind.
MsCaroline has been back from Bali for just over 48 hours now and is slowly coming to terms with beginning to adjust to the change in weather and temperature she has returned to here in Seoul and is grieving over the end of her sunny, restful Bali holidays.
MsCaroline would be just as happy over here, too.  She's not picky.

So far, this adjustment has consisted primarily of washing mountains of laundry and staring gloomily into the refrigerator wondering why in the world she didn't think to clean out the produce drawer before leaving the country for 10 days.  (note:  it is hard enough to come home from an excellent vacation without  also discovering that shallots can, in fact, become a liquid if they are left long enough to their own devices.)  

However, now that the laundry and the vegetables have been sorted, and she has finished reading a depressing novel about New South Wales in the early 1800s  her other urgent tasks, she is ready to share the highlights* of her recent trip to Bali.

*As is usually the case, MsCaroline's notion of 'hightlights' frequently differs from those of your average bear, but she feels certain that, if you wanted the standard useful sort of information that most people share about their holiday travels, you would not be reading her blog anyway.

Regional Airlines:  MsC, MrL, and Son#2 flew to the airport in Denpasar, via Garuda Airlines, the national airline of Indonesia.  This was MsCaroline's first experience with Garuda, which had been recommended to her as the cheapest best carrier by friends who were Bali travel veterans. MsCaroline began to entertain second thoughts about her decision when Garuda's website crashed repeatedly each time she pressed 'enter' after having filled out all the interminable online forms (passport numbers, address,credit card number) and frantic calls to the help center were unproductive. Tickets were eventually purchased through a Byzantine system involving a friend and a Korean credit card, but the whole slightly vague process left MsC with a certain amount of anxiety about whether the transaction had even been valid and, even if it was, whether they would end up flying to Bali seated on packing crates surrounded by livestock in an aircraft    commissioned during the Truman administration.

As it turned out, MsC's fears were unfounded, and flying Garuda was a very pleasant experience, despite their user-hostile website.  The aircraft was modern, the food was excellent, and there were no livestock present.  As a bonus, all the exotically lovely sarong-clad flight attendants namaste-d the deplaning passengers, which, in MsCaroline's book, more than makes up for any number of website deficiencies.  MsCaroline would definitely recommend the airline, although she would also recommend that you bypass their website entirely and just go straight to your nearest Indonesian or Korean friend and have them buy the tickets for you online, which will save you a great deal of time and anguish.

Warning:  Being a (stupid) Westerner in an Indonesian Airport will cost you:  After a flight filled with so much turbulence that MsC was ready to  just go ahead and swim to Bali pleasant journey, the Asia Vus landed at Ngurah Rai International Airport Denpasar, where they were briskly funneled to the 'Visa on Arrival' kiosks, which is where arriving visitors pay US$25 for a 30-day travel visa.  While MsCaroline knew about the VOA, she did not know about the requirement that it be paid in US dollars.  Or that there would be a 3% surcharge if you had to use your credit card.  And yes, you need to pay in US$ (which most people coming from Korea don't have unless they already know the drill) for your Indonesian Visa.  Do not ask MsCaroline why.  Also do not ask why the rules governing the exit tax (yes, of course there's an exit tax) require one to pay in Indonesian Rupiyah, which - in theory - one would have already mostly used up before heading to the airport.  MsCaroline is just pleased that she was smart enough to find out about this detail before the return trip.

Once the Asia Vu family had paid its fees and been herded to the baggage claim, one would assume that all their troubles were over.  In fact, things did seem to be looking up:   they were touched and amazed to observe as a small, efficient swarm of porters materialized at the conveyor belt, swooped up their luggage, and rolled it swiftly to the exit security station as part of what looked like a formal security protocol.  Being Bali newbs, it took MsCaroline and MrL a few minutes to realize that the porters (each carrying one smallish piece of luggage) were entirely unnecessary(yes, you can put your own bag through the security scanner) and that all of them expected to be tipped generously for the 'work' they'd done in rolling four bags approximately 20 meters through the airport (their suggestion:  US$10 per bag.  PER BAG, people.  Needless to say, it didn't happen.)

By the time MsCaroline and her family ransomed schlepped their own luggage out into the hot sunshine and the crowd of roaring transport drivers waving their signs, they were beginning to question the wisdom of their choice of Bali as a vacation destination.  Fortunately, it was at that point their driver from their resort materialized, with a genuine smile and a van with air-conditioning, putting the whole situation into perspective and cheering everyone  up.  MsCaroline should point out here that Darmadede, their driver - who they also saw frequently at the resort, where he works - drove them to and from Amed, was an all-round great guy in possession of driving superpowers, and if you are going to Amed, you should hire him to drive for you.  Really. She has his contact info and will share it.

Darmadede.  What a gem.

Driving to Amed:  It took approximately 3 hours to get to the dive resort,  a distance of approximately 51 kilometers, primarily because most of the route from Denpasar to Amed consists of a narrow, two-lane road that winds through the mountains (quote from Son#2:  "So, is Bali just one road?") and which must also be shared with a plethora of families on motor scooters, pedestrians carrying baskets on their heads, chickens, lethargic dogs, and the occasional goat(extra props to Darmadede for not hitting any of them at dusk in occasionally driving rain.)  After stopping on the way for dinner in Candidasa, the Asia Vus arrived in the early evening at their hotel, the Arya Amed Beach Resort, where they proposed to spend the next 4 days completing their Open Water Dive Course   They were shown immediately to their 'Bungalow Suite,' which was more or less as advertised: a charming freestanding bungalow with its own veranda overlooking the resort's lush tropical plantings, and  complete with a feature commonly found in Bali:  the outdoor bathroom.

View of the next bungalow's roof from our outdoor bathroom.

Now, before you start having visions of a pit toilet and a shower made out of garbage bags and an old coffee can, rest assured that the bathroom fixtures themselves were Western, modern, and clean (and MsC realizes that, based on what you've read before on this blog, that's not always a given.)  The bathroom was perfectly fine, excepting the fact that it was entirely outdoors.  Oh, there was an overhang (although MsC questioned just how much protection it would have provided if there had been any sort of strong wind,) but the bathroom was essentially an al fresco arrangement.   Now, MsCaroline concedes that the idea of an outdoor bathroom is very romantic and charming:

Outdoor shower +tropical foilage=theoretically romantic.  Taken from the loo. Note cat on wall.
  In fact, when the AsiaVus were in Belize, they stayed in a jungle lodge in a 'tree house' which also included an outdoor shower that overlooked the jungle and the river below, so MsC is no stranger to the charms of outdoor ablutions.
Tree House in Belize with outdoor shower.  Note that only the shower was outdoors.
While MsC had anticipated showering in a tropical outdoor setting, she was not expecting to be performing her other bathroom activities in an outdoor setting - no matter how high the wall or how lush the plantings.  Therefore, when she opened the bathroom door of the bungalow, she was slightly taken aback to discover a charming* open-air arrangement.  Imagine, if you will, that your sink, toilet, and bathtub are located on the equivalent of your patio or back deck, and that you also have the option of stepping down to a shower in the courtyard.  Granted, there is a 2-meter high wall around the whole thing, but the nature of the resort is such that, whether you are answering a call of nature, brushing your teeth, or washing your hair, you are also listening to the footsteps and voices of passersby as they traipse past your bungalow on their way to the pool or the restaurant, and it is at least equally certain that they can hear you, too.  Just think about that for a moment.

On top of this, there was the aspect of the indoor/outdoor bathroom that none of the romantic photos had included:  namely, the insects.   MsC - although she considers herself reasonably intrepid - draws the line at having to brush spiderwebs and centipedes off the toilet seat before she sits down on it; and she draws a further line at having to shuffle her feet while positioned on said toilet seat to avoid having them crawled on by ants.  Whenever she had cause to be seated, she found herself constantly scanning her surroundings so as to be alert to the approach of anything that might bite her, sting her,drop on her, or just generally freak her out.  (The slinking feral cat that perched on top of the garden wall and fixed her with its unblinking eyes while she performed her ablutions was actually rather welcome by comparison.)  In addition, MsC - although she is not afraid of snakes in theory - nonetheless has a very vivid imagination, and could only imagine what she might find - or, worse, what she might not notice - if she had to get up in the middle of the night to visit the loo. (Needless to say, she did not.)

This is not to say that MsC does not see the potential attraction of the outdoor bathroom.  In fact, if one were a frisky newlywed, the idea of some naughty hijinks in the outdoor shower or soaking tub, just a few feet away from one's unsuspecting fellow resort guests, might have a certain flagrant appeal.  However, the close proximity of Son#2 and the extremely high insect-to-mammal ratio in the bathroom area neatly squelched any randy thoughts that the outdoor shower might have inspired.  Accordingly, after a restless night full of spider dreams, MsC (wet blanket that she is) contacted the main office and requested a transfer from the charming bungalow to two more pedestrian standard rooms. Both of these, while far less exotic, had enclosed facilities, only a smattering of ants, and several resident lizards who bothered no one and seemed to keep the mosquito population in check.
MsCaroline is not complaining about how awesome this resort was. She just preferred an indoor bathroom.
Let MsC hasten to point out that she loved the resort, which was picturesque, scenic, and full of friendly Balinese staff.  From what she could see in the trip reviews, most right-thinking tourists found the open-air loos to be a tropical delight and a real highlight of their resort experience.  MsC is not blaming the resort for her personal hangups, and is simply grateful that she was able to find a room with an enclosed WC.

It's worth noting that Amed (actually, a collection of 6 or so small villages, all loosely referred to as 'Amed') is extremely rural, and - except for the dive shops, and hotel/restaurants catering to divers and snorkelers - doesn't have much of a tourist infrastructure.  It is, in truth, not much fun for shoppers - unless one wishes to shop for chickens or papayas; fortunately, MsC is not much of a shopper, and as long as she had access to cold beer and coffee, she was perfectly happy to forego any retail therapy. As for the rest of Amed,  the resorts and restaurants, while adequate and reasonably clean, are designed to provide a place to sleep and a place to eat for people who have traveled to the coast to experience some of Bali's fantastic marine life. The resorts and dive hotels are loosely scattered up and down the coast road, interspersed with fields, dwellings, the occasional restaurant, and the trappings of a rural, mostly agricultural, community.
The 'main drag' in Amed.
 When the AsiaVus walked across the street to the small convenience shop for some instant coffee and beer (priorities, people,) they had to shoo chickens out of their way, and passed more than one placid, tethered cow whilst walking to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  No sidewalks, no streetlights. People bathing in roadside ditches, and women walking by with baskets full of fruit, laundry, or flowers on their heads.
MsCaroline is not exaggerating about the rural nature of Amed.  This is only a few steps east of our resort, on the beach.  It is a chicken coop.  Lucky chickens.
As one fellow diver suggested, it was as close to the 'real' Bali as one can get, and miles away (both figuratively and literally) from the bright lights and tourism frenzy of places like Kuta and Ubud.
Bringing in the catamaran after an early-morning trip

The next morning, after a poolside breakfast, the Asia Vu family made its way to the van sent to collect them by their Dive Shop, and headed off to the first day of their Open Water Dive Course, and the beginning of MsCaroline's Trial By Water.  Stay tuned for Part II.

*highly subjective description