Saturday, October 25, 2014

How to “Trang” Your Dragon

NOTE: Trang is actually pronounced “Tr-ah-ng.” The title’s misleading pronunciation will be justified later, I promise.

With our Ethiopian adventures behind us, we bid Africa one final farewell and set our sights on the next stop in our tour ‘round the world – Thailand. For about as long as I could remember, Belle had been telling me all kinds of stories about the amazing sights, excursions and most of all, food that we’d be getting to experience while we were in Thailand, so it was very exciting to finally be arriving there together. Once again, we arrived on little-to-no sleep, but the anticipation of our adventures to come and the over-stimulation of the development around us (i.e. fast food, water fountains and expressways) were more than enough to keep us going on empty tanks.

I was SO extremely excited to finally share this part of my life with Steve, and it would be the first time for me to visit Thailand alone (without any other family). I knew our itinerary for Thailand was packed – what with seeing the southern and northern parts of the country, visiting family (as much as we had time for), stuffing our faces constantly and getting our dive certifications! It would be a big change from living the very simple life in Tanzania, though the biggest change for me was switching from speaking Swahili most of the time to almost exclusively speaking Thai. I didn’t think it would be that difficult, but I guess after speaking it for only a few minutes a week for two years with my mom, it makes sense that I would be a little rusty. Luckily, I have so much family in Thailand that Steve and I were taken care of so incredibly well and had a place to stay everywhere except Chiang Mai! Another GIANT THANK YOU to all of Belle's family who took such amazing care of us over the 2+ weeks we had in Thailand!!

After spending our first night in Bangkok, we set off for the city of Trang along the southern strip of Thailand. The reason why we decided to go to Trang was because of the crazy anecdotes I had told Steve about the different “emerald” themed locations and the Dragon’s Belly Cave. I wanted Steve to get a quick taste of Thailand anyway, so we figured we would go to Trang for the South and Chiang Mai for the North.

Our first taste of Trang’s flavor came at the Emerald Pool. One of my cousin’s accompanied us on our trip that day. The park is accessed via a 20-minute walk through some thick jungle-y foliage. The pool on the other end does not fail to live up to its vibrant name and it was quite warm even in the early hours of the day. The temperate waters and serene surroundings made for a very pleasant swim before the afternoon rush of student and tour groups came in. A short walk from the Emerald Pool was the iridescent Blue Pool. Bubbling sulfur discharges within convinced us to heed the warnings and not enter this one, but the view from outside still made it well worth a look.

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(Left) The forest walkway leading up to the Emerald Pool and (right) the Emerald Pool itself 

(Left) Squatting in front of the Blue Pool and (right) soaking feet in a hot spring waterfall nearby the pools

Part II of our introductory day trip in Trang took us on an adventure that would prove to be equally as terrifying as exciting (which was great for me because I really enjoy scary things in a weird, masochistic kind of way). The Tum Lay (lit. “sea cave”) is probably one of Thailand’s best-kept secrets, even among locals. More telling of the experience you get upon entering, however, is the cave’s nickname – the Dragon’s Belly.

As soon as you enter your guided boat, you quickly come to realize that this is no leisure voyage. Even when the waters are low, passengers have to lay flat on their backs in the boat in order to pass into the narrow mouth of the cave, but on the day we went, near the end of the rainy season, we were told the river was only a couple of centimeters from rendering the route inaccessible. I didn’t know if we were lucky or not.

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(Left) Entrance to the Tum Lay, a.k.a. Dragon’s Belly, cave and (right) watch your head…and torso!

There are a couple of stops along the way to get out and walk around in the cave to see all of the stalagmites and stalactites and stag-bites, etc., many of which seem to look like funny or recognizable everyday things. But then like the flip of a switch the mood of the cave changes drastically as the faint lights begin to dim up ahead and the ceiling seems to sink ever lower in a foreboding and most ominous indicator of what’s to come. Suddenly you are forced to lay as flat as the benches on the boat as you try to suck in your own belly as much as possible in order to escape the looming ridges of the dragon’s rib cage just above your face. And with the water as high as it was for our journey, I found it extremely difficult to gauge which part of my body was most at risk of scraping along the cave’s jagged roof. I laid there, holding my breath, squirming and rolling my head and shoulders instinctively in order to try and pass unscathed, while at the same time getting translated orders from the guide behind me via Belle to my right. Needless to say, all of my senses were working on overdrive and only when we came to a brief clearing at the dragon’s heart did I regain awareness of the rapid beating of my own.

As I was translating what the guide was telling Steve to do or not do, I couldn’t help but think of my own previous experience with the Dragon’s Belly a few years back. I remembered that one of my family members (whom I shall not name) was stuck in the shallow opening due to a protruding belly and I just chuckled to myself thinking about it. During that slight delay, I had been in the following boat so I could see everything and was just incredibly thankful for not being claustrophobic! I am pretty sure that if the water had been as high in the previous trip as it was the day Steve and I went, I am pretty sure we would have been stuck even longer…  Anyway, I was happy that Steve was enjoyed it because for me, it was just as thrilling as I remembered it! :)

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(Left) Not the easiest route for those afraid of the dark or claustrophobic and (right) the dragon’s heart inside the cave

Following this brief intermission, the reverse-digestion continues even more intensely as you approach the esophagus of the beast. Only now do you realize what an ample, spacious cavity the rib cage was in comparison to the sarcophagus that the boat now appears to have transformed into. You have no choice but to keep your neck straight and eyes glued to the roller coaster of rocky ridges that you can almost feel graze the tip of your nose from above. You are at the complete mercy of the guide at the rear of the boat for any instructions regarding movement. This was fine considering his level of experience, but nonetheless incredibly nerve-racking at every point when he tried to feverishly redirect the boat at the last second or had to use his own back as a springboard from which to push the boat along through the passages that were too shallow for the boat to pass unassisted. Somehow, we managed to escape the 300-meter catacomb and I finally regained awareness of time and my surroundings, and once again remembered that it was probably okay to breathe.

Altogether, surviving the Dragon’s Belly was an enthrallingly fun experience, in spite of the temporary moments of terror that came while inside. And in case you couldn’t tell, this would remain as one of the absolute highlights of my first trip to Thailand.

The next couple of days in Trang were spent snorkeling near Krabi, doing a short forest walk in a botanical garden, and visiting the Emerald Cave, or Tum Morakot. The coolest thing about the Emerald Cave is how to get there. The only way to see the cave is by sea and you have to swim through it. Steve was again the only non-Asian since this was another “unseen” Thailand excursion, so I had to translate to him what to do. Once we arrived at the cave entrance, it looked just like any other mountainous island. Not until you looked closely did you see a small opening that was the mouth of the cave. We were all instructed to jump into the water and immediately hold on tightly to the life jacket in front of us, and NOT let go. Each subsequent person was to do the same and we all had to bicycle kick our way slowly into the curving cave. The current was strong but we eventually made it into the cave and the color of the walls was a radiant emerald green. I brought my waterproof camera; however, the only way to truly soak in the brilliant green is to go and see it for yourself.

Snorkeling fun around the Trang/Krabi area

The most strenuous part of our swim was in the tavern’s cavity. After you pass the main cave entrance, everything goes black and you cannot even see the bobbing head of the person in front of you. All you can do is hope that no one in front of you lets go of a life jacket and you get stuck in a dark, cavernous abyss with no light. Just as you think you will get enveloped in complete darkness forever, you see a light ahead of you that marks the end of the cave. As you are led by a chain of people, you swim into a bright sandy clearing in the middle of the mountain, and you can finally loosen your grasp and relax. The island mountain of the Emerald Cave is hollowed out in its center like a donut and the path to get to that hole from the outside is the Emerald Cave. After relaxing a bit, we linked up with one another again and swam out of the cave.

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Forming a kanga line to enter the darkened Emerald Cave

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(Left) Emerald Cave and (right) canopy walk at the botanical gardens

With such an action- and adrenaline-packed start to our Thai tour, it was hard to believe that we had only scraped the surface of our excellent Thailand adventure with our time in Trang. We still had plenty of places to see, family to visit and, of course, food to eat over the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

‘Bela Notte

From the mystifyingly majestic mountains and glorious green grasses of Gondar, we boarded a short 30-minute flight to a small town renowned for its ancient history and magnificent architecture, the lovely Lalibela. Renamed after the king who was credited with the construction of the town’s many churches over 900 years ago, Lalibela is now a very small town long since stripped of its political significance, but retaining the foundation of the country’s religious history. Eleven monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church as a whole make up one of the nation’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, though there are a number of others further outside of the town’s center.

The second leg of our Ethiopian flight triangle, from Gondar to Lalibela

Not only did the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela display the feats of engineering in carving out structures from one piece of solid rock, they showed the prowess of architectural craftsmanship in using simple hand tools like hammers and chisels. The task of designing, locating, and then carving these rock-hewn churches seemed monumental – they were not just monasteries, they were works of art.

There are two main types of rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, monolithic and semimonolithic. Monolithic churches are carved entirely from one piece of rock or stone and are free-standing, whereas semimonolithic churches are still attached to the main rock wall. Some semimonolithic churches originated as caves and structures were carved around them.

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(Left) A monolithic rock-hewn church, carved entirely from a single rock (the columns were renovated later to maintain the structural integrity of the building) (Right) A sample of some of the fine interior carving seen in the churches

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(Left) Another expertly crafted monolithic church and (right) a 12th Century wooden church door or the start of an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

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A series of semi-monolithic churches, as indicated by one or more walls/ceilings being connected to the exterior rock

What an amazing accomplishment to carve out these massive structures from a single rock by hand, and to still include such articulate detail in the sculpting of the windows, roofs, interior columns and ceilings, not to mention the wooden doors and furniture that have withstood over 900 years of use! All of these churches are still used by locals for daily worship, which is why the entire enclosure is closed to visitors from noon to 2 p.m. everyday.

Our favorite of the monasteries was the Church of Saint George. This was the main reason I wanted so badly to go to Lalibela, let alone Ethiopia. After seeing so many pictures and footage of the Church on travel channels, I finally got to feast my eyes on the real thing, and it was completely worth the trip.

The Church of St. George was the last of King Lalibela's projects, so it was the most ornate and advanced. The aspect that set it apart from the other churches was the shape of the structure. When viewed from the top it is a perfectly symmetrical cross, and surrounding the whole structure is the square stone pit that the church was cut into. Another unique feature is its changing color that has aged over time. Unlike the other churches which are covered with scaffolding, St. George's is uncovered and an orange-colored lichen has been growing on the high exterior walls and in the crevices of the window designs. The bold colors accent the church even more and it gives it a sense of character and elegance. The inside of the church is also very captivating with its high vaulted ceilings and columns. It was beautiful and both Steve and I were in awe of its architectural prowess.

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Several views of the final and most well-known of King Lalibela’s works – the Church of Saint George

In addition to our tour of the primary circuit in Lalibela, Belle and I were able to visit another monastery outside of the town center, although this one would take us on a slightly more adventurous route. The Asheton Monastery lies perched in the mountains above Lalibela and overlooks the town at a towering height of over 3,200 meters (over 10,500 feet) which is comparable to that of the Simien Mountains. It can be reached by foot - and is regularly by locals, including students who make the over-600 meter ascent as part of their daily commute to and from school (now I see how Africans are able to continually dominate in running events…). But for tourists, the recommended mode of transport is by mule. With stronger legs than horses, these tenacious creatures are able to bound up the steep, rocky mountain terrain with remarkable speed, especially when considering the size of the cargo on their backs (a sincere pole to mine).

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(Left) All aboard the mule express to the Asheton Monestary and (Right) watch your step on those steep slopes, donkeys!

There are some parts, however, which are too precipitous to pass on mule-back and must be done by foot. When you finally near the top of the ridge and are within eyesight of the monastery’s entrance, you reach a final path which is curvy and narrow, tightly hugging the jagged cliffs and dropping about 30 feet to one side. With the stunningly green scenery visible to those who dare to take it in along the nerve-racking pass, navigating this treacherous trek truly makes you feel like you’ve entered another world, or at least another time, in which real natural adventure still exists.

The treacherous final pathway to the entrance of the monastery

Once we arrived at the Asheton Monastery and went inside the small assembly room, we were shown old artifacts of the church. One of these artifacts was the most excellent tome. This 600-year old book was made from animal skin and it was scribed in mostly black ink and cows' blood. [I LOVE books, especially old ones, so this was the highlight of my Asheton Monastery experience.] There were also drawings in the book and its script sounded so spiritual - we even got a sample reading from the residing priest. What was most miraculous though was the amazing condition of the book. It seemed so well preserved, yet we were told that it is used and read from almost every day! How great to have such a wonderful religious artifact that is still used to this day! I would feel so exhilarated to read from a book that I KNEW was also read from 600 years ago - talk about time travel!

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A truly ancient religious book of over 600 years, colored with animal blood and the inks of various flowers

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Breathtaking views from the top of the Asheton Monastery

Monday, October 6, 2014

Of Mountains and Men

Gondar, the land of castles. Yes, there is a city called Gondar in Ethiopia. The crazy thing is that there is also a city in the north of Ethiopia called Shire and one that used to be called Roha (which is now Lalibela). What an excellent coincidence that there would be three cities in Ethiopia that are named like the ones from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and that we will be going to New Zealand later. I loved saying constantly that we were in Gondar haha!

As we flew into Gondar from Addis and the clouds parted for us to see the landscape, we were hit by the greenest shade of green we have ever seen. The green grass looked so bright and vivid as we landed, we both thought we had flown to Holland instead of an hour north of Addis. It was a drastic change of scenery from Addis and the views just kept getting better as our time in Gondar progressed.

A sea of green is the sight of Gondar in September, spotted only with a few patches of yellow from the daisies that bloom to bring in the new year.

Our first voyage in this ancient imperial land was to experience the castles of the Royal Enclosure in the heart of Gondar. Up until the early 1600’s, Ethiopia didn’t really have a stagnant capital city, but after being founded by Emperor Fasilides (most celebrated emperor by Ethiopians today), Gondar stood as the country’s capital for over 200 years.

There were six castles in all inside the enclosure, each built for a new emperor/ruler once he/she came into power. Every one of the castles tells a story about its royal tenant. One emperor loved music and dancing, and so built a castle as a massive dance hall (The House of Song); one liked having parties, and so built a castle with a huge dining room; one liked showing off his wealth, and so collected incredibly high taxes from his people in order to add decoration to his two-story mansion; and an empress, who came into power after her husband died, built an incredibly ornate castle for her son, who was later assassinated.

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But the thing that was probably most impressive to Belle and me was the level of skill and engineering prowess that went into the construction of the castles so many years ago. Very intelligently crafted water drainage and storage systems were a marvel to see on such ancient structures, and really seemed to make Ethiopia a kingdom ahead of its time. Much of the architecture, though carrying some outside influence, was very much the original work of the country’s own craftsmen. Coming from Tanzania, where it is difficult to find many historical items free from colonial influence, this was even more impressive (according to our guide, Ethiopia is the only African country to have never been colonized). Unfortunately, decades of civil war would erase much of the empire’s former glory and send it down its current path of underdevelopment. I couldn’t help but wonder how things could have been different for the Ethiopian empire and Africa as a whole today…

(Left) An ancient gutter system alongside one of the castles, which leads into a water retention pool for use during the dry season; (Top) Interior arches on the ceiling of a two-story castle; and (Bottom) Lion cages within the enclosure – lions were kept by the emperors as a symbol of their power – a “King and Lionheart” as it were…
His crown lit up the way as we moved slowly
Past the wondering eyes of the ones that were left behind.
Though far away, though far away, though far away
We’re still the same, we’re still the same, we’re still the same.
Howling ghosts – they reappear
In mountains that are stacked with fear
But you’re a king and I’m a lionheart.
[“King and Lionheart” – Song by: Of Monsters and Men]
As we left behind the ruling ghosts of Gondar, we traveled far away to the mountains. The Simien Mountains were absolutely gorgeous. Steve and I did a two day, one night trek up the Simiens and stayed in a small hostel-type lodge. We first went to Debark, the junction town to the Simiens, got our trek arranged by a PCV-recommended organizer, met our cook, scout and guide to go up the mountain and boarded our Land Cruiser to the drop-off point. Once we got to the drop-off, the car left us with just the guide, scout and our small day pack which contained a few snacks. We were then left to our own devices to hike a few hours to the Sankaber camp, the location of our lodging for the night.

We were told (by the locals) that the best views would be between Geech and Chenek, which were the two camps past Sankaber on the way up to the highest peak, Ras Dashen, but I cannot even imagine how much better it could be with the views Steve and I were seeing on our hike.

A map of the Simien Mountain campsites. We only made it to Sankaber (lower left) this time, but longer trips allow travelers to reach Geech, Chenek and Ras Dashen (far right).

The mountain air was so fresh and clean and everywhere we turned there were ridges and crevices as far as the eye could see. The ranges disappeared into the distance, and we could tell that we were lucky since the fog hadn’t come in yet and it was a bright, clear day. In some places, we hiked to the edges of cliffs and felt as if we had reached the ends of the earth – it was both terrifying and breathtaking. Our hike was exhilarating and even as the wind whipped at our shirts, we felt so free, surrounded by the strong mountains around us.

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(Left) Clear skies around the Simien mountains; (Right) Watch where you’re pointing that gun, guy!  

(Left) A massive waterfall near the Sankaber campsite; (Right) Oh hey there!

(Left) A rare sighting of the Simien-native lammergeyer with its massive 10-ft. wingspan; (Right) The end of the rainy season gives some amazingly green scenery.

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(Left) Swarms of gelada monkeys along the mountain landscape; (Right) A close-up view of a red-chested gelada

The cherry on our Simien Mountain sundae was getting to partake in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony at the home of a woman who lived near the campsite we stayed at in Sankaber. Coffee is an integral part of Ethiopian culture, particularly in the villages, and we were fortunate enough to see an authentic preparation ceremony, quite unlike the ones done in town cafes and airport waiting areas.

As with most meals, it is common to start off a coffee ceremony by laying down fresh grass across the floor. The raw beans are then roasted on a large metal plate over a charcoal stove similar to the jiko’s of Tanzania. As the scintillating aroma wafts throughout the house, all nearby friends and family are welcomed to come and take part in the occasion. The roasted beans are then ground by hand using a mortar and pestle (or in this case, an iron rod), which is no small labor, especially when considering that these ceremonies take place 3-4 times per day! To keep the nostrils enticed, some incense is then lit as a small snack is prepared to be eaten with the coffee, such as injera bread or popcorn, as was the case for us.

The fresh grounds are then added to boiling water and soon after, the first cups of coffee are poured into a set of the typical small cups. In traditional ceremonies, there are actually three rounds of coffee served to each person present, so it is easy to see why the serving sizes are so small! The three rounds of coffee are derived from an old tale of the first Ethiopians to drink coffee. The three men (whose names I forget) tasted the coffee in succession, boiling it after each cup and thus diluting the coffee. So the same is done in the ceremony, except that the first (and strongest) round is actually a double dose. Needless to say, we had an energetic evening despite our tiring hike!

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(Left) Roasting beans and (Right) pouring coffee at a traditional coffee ceremony in the village home of a woman living near our campsite in the Simiens

Having conquered the land of men, our fellowship of two headed next to Roha (Lalibela, actually) for a step back in time to experience first-hand a bit of ancient history. Sound familiar? Indeed, our excellent adventure was only just underway…