The S.S. Yongala Diving Experience

We dropped down slowly into the murky water. I could see nothing around me except for the occasional curious fish. Anticipation and fear seeped in as we dropped lower and lower. 10 meters, 12 meters, 13, 14, 15… Still nothing but the endless blue of the sea. Suddenly, a colorful surface bloomed up in front of us, teaming with life. Schools of fish surrounded us from all sides as oversized fish from below approached to inspect the invaders. Met with our welcome party, we had reached our destination. We kicked off to explore the SS Yongala shipwreck in the Great Barrier Reef.

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Guitar shark swimming above the colorful wreck

The S.S. Yongala was the latest in the series of dives I had done in my early diving career. Renowned as one of the best dive sites in the world, the destination quickly made its way up my places-to-visit list. After completing 11 impressive dives at the Great Barrier Reef just a few short days before, I did not think the Yongala dives could be that much more impressive. Boy was I wrong.

The Facts

The S.S. Yongala dive requires, at minimum, an Open Water certification. However, with a maximum depth of 28 meters, Open Water divers need to pay extra for a Deep Dive Adventure Dive. Trips to the SS Yongala departed in Queensland, Australia from Magnetic Island and Ayr. Magnetic Island is a large tourist destination whereas as Ayr is a small town with not much going on beyond farm work and diving. As the dive site is located only 30 minutes from Ayr compared to 3 hours from Magnetic Island, I opted to go with the company Yongala Dive in Ayr.

While the dive company is located outside of the center of Ayr, they have pickup and drop off shuttles once a day, often around 3:30 PM. Furthermore, they offer hostel accommodation for about $20 a night extra. The accommodation is literally a house and only the bedroom stuffed with 3 bunk beds gives it the appearance of a hostel. A double room is also available for booking if dorm rooms are not your cup of tea. With nothing around but beach and houses, guests should make sure to bring enough food for their stay. The company provides breakfast and lunch on the day of the dive, so snack foods and dinner are the priority.

Diving day calls for an early morning wake up with a 7:30 AM meeting time at reception. After completing the paperwork logistics, the dive site briefing, and the fittings for masks, fins, BCDs, and wetsuits, the group should be ready to rock out to the boat around 9:00 AM. Unless you are with my group. With everyone geared up, we prepared to go, only to learn that the boat was stuck on the beach because of low tide. We ended up waiting a few hours before we could embark on our dives…to our good fortune. Because we went later than normal, we experienced rare marine life at the dive site that are not often there early in the morning.

The Dive Experience

After a slightly choppy ride in a small boat to the site, we geared up and split up into our buddy teams. One by one, we flipped backwards off the edge of the boat into the water. As we swam along the mooring line to a buoy, the current fought us every step of the way. By the time I reached the buoy, I was already out of breath and happy to descend to escape the aggressive waves.

In the water, my head whipped back and forth like a pendulum as we swam alongside the plant and coral mass. With so many colorful species of marine life bursting through the water, I could not figure out what to look at. Human-sized wrass floated by underneath us as yellow angelfish darted by to our right.

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Sting rays and other marine life

Amid this underwater safari, I wondered where the shipwreck was. Swimming alongside the colorful plants and coral, there was not a recognizable ship part in sight. As I stared at the lively mass, it dawned on me that the cave-like recesses had openings that were a little too rectangular. In fact, the “caves” themselves had regularly shaped features as well… It turns out that underwater life had completely engulfed the wreck beyond recognition!

Shocked and amused by my naivete, I swam along. The search for breathtaking wreck creatures continued. And the search did not take long. At the bow of the wreck, drifted four clown car-sized marble stingrays. They hovered just above the ship, stationary except for the occasional undulation of their wing-like fins. As they sat their in mediation, little fish pecked along their bodies, cleaning them. Amongst their mass sat a massive Queensland grouper, larger than me in size. In the murky water, with a dark coloration and an irritated frown painted on its face, it lurked ominously ahead of me.

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Marble stingrays partying with a Queensland grouper

I hovered there, staring at the majestic marble rays and the grumpy Queensland grouper until my air supply required me to head back. At the 100-bar mark, my dive buddy and I circled past the stationary giants and made our way back on the other side of the wreck. Pushed along by the strong current, we sped over the hull of the ship. Suddenly, my dive buddy gestured downward behind me. Turning around, I found myself swimming right above a monstrous creature with sting ray-like side fins, but a shark-like tail and dorsal fins – a shark ray. With the grace of a ray and the presence of a shark, it glided over the hull of the ship in my direction before turning off and disappearing into the murk.

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A rare shark ray

Ecstatic over the latest sighting, my dive buddy and I made our way back to the line and began our ascent. Around the 10-meter mark, I notice a few large shadows appearing through the water. Slowly, four stingrays appeared in stacked formation. The largest stingray – a small eyed ray – swam at the very bottom of the column. Above it hovered three much smaller rays, one swimming directly above the other. As a unit, they made their way by us and stayed there until we ascended beyond visibility range.

Once we reached the 5-meter mark for our safety stop, we stopped for the required three minutes. The occasional enormous fish swam by the line of waiting divers. I looked off in the distance as a large, irregular shape appeared. A dog-sized mushroom-like creature drifted into view. The large white mass looked like a fluffy mushroom cloud drifting through the water. I stared mesmerized as the large, oddly-shaped jellyfish floated away.

Slowly, we made our ascent to the surface. At sea level, the current slapped us around in the murky water. With a visibility of 10-12 m, the site gave no signs of the marine life that laid just a mere 18 m below the surface.

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The Man-Eating Mountain: What 6,088 m (20,000 ft) of Mountain Has to Say About Life

My ankle ached in the large ice climbing boots. Each crampon-weighted step up the icy incline pressed on my bruised and swollen ankle. I ignored the pain and continued. This was just a short practice session to learn how to ice climb. I can handle that. 

My mountaineering expedition up Huayna Potosi was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. My struggle at altitude, tossed with inadequate fitness, and sprinkled with an injured ankle showed me what it was like to hit the limits of my abilities. However, while the challenge physically devastated me, it also gave me a new perspective on the challenges in life.

The first day, we practiced mountaineering techniques by base camp. It was necessary preparation for the big summit up Huayna Potosi, the “easiest” 6000+ m (19,685+ ft) summit in Bolivia. The next day would be the serious hike. The next day, we would hike up, and only up, to high camp. There, we would get a few hours’ rest before waking up at midnight to hike up to the snow-clad peak by sunrise.

After 2 hours of practice with crampons and ice picks, we marched back towards the snowy base camp at 4,700 m. My right leg limped along with each step. In the silence, I thought to myself, Maybe I shouldn’t go up tomorrow. I don’t want to have a permanent injury if this is actually sprained. But after we arrived in base camp and relaxed for a few hours, I reconsidered. I’ll just see how it feels tomorrow, I thought.

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The route by base camp. 

The next day greeted us with a leisurely morning followed by an early lunch. After lunch, I put on my regular hiking boots and walked around the nearby area, testing my injured foot. Surprisingly, it felt okay. In my regular hiking boots, I did not have the issue of heavy, hard plastic pressing on my bruised and swollen ankle with each step. Not wanting to miss out on my first 6,000+ meter mountain attempt, I decided to forge ahead. I was going to high camp that afternoon. 

Even disregarding the injured ankle, the hike was tough as hell. At 5000 meters, the air was thin. Oxygen was scarce and our bodies were not accustomed to it. They rebelled in the form of headaches, stomach aches, shortness of breath, and the feeling of the heart exploding out of the chest. I struggled up the ascent only trail, dragged down by a backpack filled with heavy gear for the technical climb. 

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Stopping to breathe and enjoy the view with a pack full of gear.

At the halfway point, I thought to myself, No turning back now. I would have to walk the same distance to go up or down. Propelled forward by thought of reaching high camp after almost foregoing the hike, I placed one foot in front of the other and snailed on. 

We reached high camp exhausted, but elated to experience sunset surrounded by  snow-capped mountains. After a quick dinner, we headed off to bed at 7 PM in preparation for our early wake up at midnight. 

The night flew by too quickly and my vibrating alarm jerked me out of sleep. My group dragged ourselves out of bed and geared up for the big day  with layers and layers of clothing, snow boots, crampons, helmet, and ice pick.  After eating a quick, small breakfast, we set off. 

The hike was so much worse than I had imagined. Starting at 5,200 m, the altitude was already beating us down. At -10° C (14° F), the cold nipped at us even through layers of clothing and the company-provided snow coats. On top of that, the climb was a relentless, steep ascent up to the summit for the following 5 hours. With nothing but our headlights to pierce the night, we were enveloped in a demotivating darkness.

I started withering. A blaring headache, stomach pains, an aching ankle, and the feeling of nausea hammered at me, but I forced myself to keep going. One foot in front of the other. Weight heavily placed on my ice pick. Sleepiness blanketing my every move.

Slowly, but surely, my strength and speed faded. Before long, the rope attaching me to my partner and the guide began tugging me forward. After a few more moments like this, I gasped out for a break. “Can we stop for a minute?” I managed. “Just a little more,” responded the guide in Spanish. “We’re stopping up ahead there,” he said, pointing vaguely at the homogenous slope. So I continued on, forcing my feet in front and up, focusing on singing the chorus of Despacito over and over again in my mind. 

At 5,600 m (18,370 ft), the rest stop finally arrived. I collapsed to the ground. I had spent the past however many minutes fighting nausea, on the verge of throwing up with every few steps. As I laid there in the relief of the soft, snow-covered ground, I knew I would not make it up. If I continued, I would barely manage a snail’s pace. And inevitably paint my vomit across the pure, untrodden snow. With great sadness, I told the guide that I wanted to turn around. He consented, unclipping my partner from our rope and tying him to the other team’s rope. As we left the group to return down to high camp, tears slowly escaped my eyes and soon ran rivers down my face. I felt like I had failed, even though I knew it was the right decision. 

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The group waddling back from the mountain in full gear.

I did not make it to the top that day, but I had no regrets. I pushed myself to the brink of my perceived limits and then some. That difficulty, that hard hike, set the foundation for all my future hikes and endeavors to come. The next hike I did, which ended at 5,200 m, was incredibly difficult, but felt easy by comparison. By then, I knew what it felt like to have your heart and lungs scream from effort. And until I reached that point, I knew I had more in me.

This applies not only to hiking goals, but to goals in general. From traveling the world to learning new skills to writing a book, I will work until I feel like I cannot go on any further. I plan on summiting, but even if I don’t, I would sure as hell be proud of reaching that 5,600 meters.

Unwittingly Saving Money Playing in the Atacama Desert

Traveling has a bad rap for being expensive. This is especially the case for tourist traps with economies that ride on the waves of visitors who flood in every season. Tour agencies, restaurants, and accommodation companies are expected to charge a premium to the wealthy foreigners with their wallets in vacation mode.

However, despite these common markups, vacations do not have to cost an arm and a leg. While spending some amount of money is a prerequisite for travel, some of my favorite experiences cost a fraction of the prices of mainstream tourists activities. As an active person who would rather have an adventure over systematically checking off items on the “Top 10 Things to Do in This Place” list, I’ve been fortunate to find savings just by following my nature.

My trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile is a prime example of this. From landing in the Calama airport to my last night in San Pedro de Atacama, I had unwittingly managed to save money just by pursuing the types of activities I prefer to do.  

Last Minute Transfer

My trip began with a late night arrival in the El Loa airport in the city of Calama, about a 1.5 hour drive from my accommodations in San Pedro de Atacama. Because of the late arrival time, I had tried to book in advance a private transport to my hostel, only to encounter an error at the payment part of the booking. A few failed attempts and a bit of exasperation later, I decided to roll the dice and left the transfer search for future Jenny after she lands in Calama. Worst case scenario, I get a taxi and try to find someone to split it with.

It turned out, I was concerned for nothing. Upon setting foot in the public arrival section of the airport, I was immediately bombarded with solicitations for ride shares by representatives of three different companies, all waiting for their passengers. Because of the competition, the prices of the three companies were the same and I just went with the first person who asked nicely. Had I booked in advance, I would have gone through a third party company charging marked up prices for the same ride.

Hostel Nights

My ride share dropped me off directly in front of my accommodations, another expense that I managed to save on. Aside from airfare and other transportation, accommodations tend to be the biggest expense for travelers. However, if you are okay with a no frills experience (I am only using it as a place to sleep and store my stuff, after all), then hostels are the best way to go. Not only are they cheap – under $20 a night in San Pedro de Atacama – they are also a great way to meet other travelers and potentially save by splitting the cost of a trip together (more on that later).

Why Book a Tour When I Can Mountain Bike It?

After checking around for tour options, I was disappointed to find that the majority of tours involved spending the day on a bus, driving from scenic point to scenic point. So I searched for more active alternatives and found that mountain biking to some of the major tour destinations was a possibility. At 4000 CLP ($6) for 6 hours (the worker actually let me slide at 7 hours), it certainly beat the tour price to just Valle de Luna for 10000 CLP ($15). I happily rented a mountain bike, which came fully loaded with a helmet, lock, repair kit, pump, and reflective vest for night time biking, and set off to one of the 5 destinations the cashier pointed out to me. I started the morning closer at Pukará de Quitor, 3 km from town, and the Tunel, 9 km from town, and planned to conclude the day with a ride to Valle de Luna, 15 km from town, for sunset.

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The oasis that interrupts the desert, view from Pukará de Quitor.

 

At this point, you might be thinking, sure that is more economical, but won’t you get lonely doing this trip by yourself? At least, that was one of my concerns. However, almost immediately after I started my ride, I found myself riding alongside a couple on the one road. We talked for the rest of the ride and shared an enjoyable hour long trek at Pukará de Quitor, a pre-Columbian archaeological site. After exchanging contact information with loose plans to meet up in Valparaiso, Chile, I continued on my own to the Tunel 6km away.

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Mountain biking towards the Túnel.

The subsequent ride was one of my favorite parts of the trip despite being low or non-existent on the lists of “Things to Do in Atacama.” I found myself biking with an incredible desert landscape all to myself; it was unlike anything I had ever seen. At the top of the hill by the Túnel, I was rewarded with a gorgeous view of endless desert landscape interrupted only by a patch of green oasis. After riding through the pitch black tunnel and back, it was time for the best part of the trip – the downhill portion. The combination of the steep angle and the beds of rock jutting out of the dirt road made the descent both exhilarating and terrifying. The level of incline meant I couldn’t brake once I started and I was left to cling to the bike for dear life while enjoying the rollercoaster of a ride. I loved it!

Strangers in a Strange Land

Around mid-afternoon, I returned to the hostel with my bike for a quick lunch with the intention of continuing my ride afterwards to watch sunset in Valle de Luna. However, the luck of hostel life rained upon me as I struck up conversation with two fellow lodgers. They turned out to be the two guys I had passed earlier that day mountain biking. After I mentioned my plan to see Valle de Luna for sunset, they told me they were renting a car to see some sights the next day, including Valle de Luna for sunset, and invited me to join. After a bit of thought, I decided it would be more fun and economical to go with them and agreed.

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A scenic drive by Volcan Licancabur on our way to Cerro Toco.

The next day turned out to be amazing, with a great mix of off-the-beaten-trail and tourist destination fun. Our first stop was to a hike at Cerro Toco, which started at torturous 5200m (17,000ft). The humans were not the only ones phased by the altitude – several times, the passengers had to vacate the car, which we named Sapphire because naming an object obviously helps it perform better, in order for it to make it up a hill. Battling the altitude and an icy cold that we were thoroughly unprepared for, we hiked away and were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the desert seen by very few. Because this hike is not covered by tours and difficult to get to without a car, we were able enjoy an off the beaten path view that rivaled or even surpassed the common tourist sights. And we got it all to ourselves.

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The view on Cerro Toco.

After our scenic hike, we made our way down to Valle de Luna. In contrast to the previous segment, this time, we did all the activities of a popular tour, but without having to pay for the tour. Then, for sunset, one of my companions guided us to a less popular but equally beautiful location to avoid the crowds at the designated sunset area (and what a crowd it was). For the hour leading up to sunset, we enjoyed the views as one of only 2 groups on the ledge overlooking the valley. Then, as the sun began its descent behind the horizon, a guard approached our group instructing us to leave before the sun finished its descent – the ledge was dangerous in the dark. Luckily, we were able to convince her to let us stay a bit longer to take pictures before taking the scenic route down with her towards the sunset.

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The full moon rising over a setting sun in Valle de Luna.

By the end of the day, we had had both an off the beaten path and a typical tourist experience for a fraction of the cost of a full day tour in Atacama, at 17,000 CLP ($24 USD). What’s more, the day of road tripping and shenanigans converted five strangers into a tight-knit group of friends, an adventure that was in itself invaluable.

My time in the Atacama Desert far exceeded my expectations. I witnessed mindblowing landscapes, had an exhilarating mountain bike ride, and walked away with new friends. All without even scratching the bank.

Catalysts for a Dream: Three Things that Drove My Two Major Travel Decisions

For me, dreams used to be those things that you say you will do when you are older, when you have more time, when you have more money, or when you have a better opportunity. But you never make plans to set them into motion.

Recently, I have been living two of my major life goals, which I had originally envisioned for some faraway future.

The two biggest occasions that pushed me to pursue my dreams have both looked very similar – they included a shocking and upsetting event (alcohol optional), outside perspectives, and true consideration of a change for the present, instead of in the unforeseeable future.

My first big decision was to give up my apartment in New York City to work remotely while traveling through South America; I had always wanted live in a Spanish speaking country to improve my Spanish and experience other parts of the world. My second big decision came after the startup I worked for failed to raise enough funding and laid me off while I was working remotely for them in South America. At that point, I took the leap to do something I had always wanted to do – backpack through a foreign continent without a job tying me down. Looking back, both of these choices seem like perfectly logical, even obvious next moves. My company already had remote workers; why not work remotely as well? I was already in South America; why not continue travelling? However, each decision was wrought with perhaps too much contemplation, doubt, and stress before I finally pulled the trigger.

Shocking and Upsetting Events

In order for me to think about breaking my routine, I needed an outside force – a catalyst. Life was too comfortable and easy living in NYC with my family nearby, my office of amazing people, my friends hanging out every week, and my weekly gym and rock climbing routines. Likewise, it was too easy to continue doing work I was not passionate about when it allowed me to travel the world.

The first catalyst was election day. What started out as a jovial party of friends hanging out and drinking ended with an ambiance of despair and more drinking. In the late hours of the night, while quite inebriated, our group joked about leaving the country. Since I had wanted to live in a Spanish-speaking country from the first days I learned Spanish, I looked up plane tickets to Barcelona around Inauguration Day. “Guys, one way tickets are only $200 to Barcelona in January!” I exclaimed and posted on Facebook as a joke, “Barcelona, see you in January!” I had no intention of following through with it. I was more focused on what felt at the time like a traumatic event that hit the city. That night, a friend had sobbed loudly in the bathroom and, at work the next day, my friend hugged me tightly and cried in my arms. No one seemed to have had the energy to work. A solemn air had permeated the city.

Likewise, the second big event followed a similarly upsetting pattern. One day, I was discussing plans at work for a project due to launch a few months from then. The next day, I woke up in a small Airbnb room in Santiago, Chile to an untitled meeting invitation from the Chief Operating Officer. It turned out that the company failed to raise the funds it needed that round. They had to make some tough decisions. It was the day of mass layoffs. And it was a complete shock to everyone. We had went from discussing longer term plans one day to a third of the company left jobless the next day. I walked away from that meeting with the COO in a daze. As I sat there for hours, alone in a small room in someone else’s apartment, in a country far away from friends and family, with two more months remaining in South America, waiting for the email with the logistics for my termination, I couldn’t fight off the feelings of loneliness and despair.

Outside Perspectives

While tears had drawn rivlets into my pillows following both of these events, I was fortunate to have experienced outside perspectives from people removed from the situation following each of the “disasters”. The day after the election, my coworker and friend working remotely from Europe messaged me that he would be in Spain in January. He had seen the joke Facebook post. I already had a meeting scheduled with him that day for work, so for part of that meeting, we talked about my joke post and the election. This conversation with someone so removed from the event was exactly what I needed. He wasn’t deeply invested in the election one way or another, unlike the Americans that surrounded me. Just seeing his nonchalance about the whole thing and hearing about the government in Croatia made me zoom out in perspective and see that it was not the end of the world. Things could definitely be worse.

I received a similar perspective blast when I was in Chile the evening after I got the news. I was grabbing drinks with a new friend at her hostel. There, many people were post-jobs and living off their savings while backpacking through South America. In general, the travelers I have met come from all over the world and each voluntarily chose to explore faraway lands without job security. For example, a young German woman in her early twenties hitchhiked her way through South America until she ran out of money. A British man in his mid-twenties drove around Argentina and Chile for half a year and planned to continue backpacking until the money ran dry. Then, it was off to Australia to find a job. A French engineer also in his twenties had been travelling in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay for 6 months, splitting his time between traveling and working – in a hostel in Uruguay and a vineyard in Argentina. An American woman at the start of her retirement moved to Santiago, Chile to teach English there without knowing any Spanish. All these people were having the times of their lives on a tight budget, probably more so than most Americans do in their lifetimes.

Consideration of the Dream for the Present

After the perspective doses, the final step of the treatment was to truly consider the dream for that moment, not some undetermined time in the future. This step started as general curiosity about what it would take to make the leap. In neither case did I think I would actually follow through. In fact, I did not even start considering the ideas until someone else suggested them to me. Post election, it was my coworker who told me to go to Barcelona, not because of Trump, but because I had always wanted to. With the idea implanted, I started evaluating my barriers for the fun of it. Some of these were that I was subletting an apartment in NYC until the end of June, I did not know anyone in Spanish-speaking countries, I would have more difficulty working outside of the office, and that I had a life in NYC. While taken together, these obstacles were daunting, coming up with solutions for each one individually made them all the more manageable. The mountains that stood between me and my destination were in reality molehills that I could step over with a bit of effort.

In Santiago, Chile, those mountains for me were the fact that I had a bulky suitcase with all of my day-to-day life possessions, no income to fund my travels, and the feeling that I should resolve my unemployment status by immediately jumping into the job search. These barriers melted away in my mind during a local hike, where a met and befriended a woman living in Santiago. After talking to her about my situation, she suggested that I leave the suitcase with someone in Santiago and continue backpacking for the rest of my trip. She even offered to store these excessive possessions for me. Ecstatic, I continued the hike over the dry, cactus-filled landscape, contemplating my career. I had recently read this inspirational list about when people made their big breaks and the J.K. Rowling piece immediately came to mind: “At age 28, J.K. Rowling was a suicidal single parent living on welfare.” At age 25, I have a lifetime of career ahead of me; I can afford to take 2+ months off to travel and reflect.

Conclusion

My two major travel decisions both arose from the ashes of upsetting events, and, fueled by the power of perspective, took flight after sincere evaluation of them for the present, instead of the undetermined future. While these three things served me well this time, I hope that for future endeavors, my own desire, and not these three steps, will be enough to propel me forward. For now, though, I am grateful to have the freedom that I do to pursue my upcoming travels. Chile, Bolivia and Peru, here I come!

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