Tags Posts tagged with "Adventure"

Adventure

0 2059

What comes to mind when you think of Portugal? Cathedrals? Historic sites? Sixteenth Century explorers? Former colonies in Asia? Lethal jellyfish?

How about some of the best hiking in the world.

P1090588

This past October, my wife Katherine and I hiked the Algarve, Costa Vicentina and Alentejo regions in SW Portugal. For the first four days we hiked along the Atlantic coast, including two days on the Rota Vicentina, the old fisherman’s’ trail that runs along the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Walking along the flat, sandy path on the cliffs we gawked at rugged headlands, walls of rock and empty crescent beaches pounded by foaming surf. We occasionally had to hike down a steep, narrow trail to a beach and back up again on the other side. In places we hiked through pine forests and waded through streams, soon to be waterfalls, as they rushed over the cliffs into the sea. Whitewashed fishing villages broke up the wild views every few miles. The trail was easy to follow, and we never needed to use the handheld GPS provided by Macs Adventure, the tour company that hosted us on this trip.

P1090462 P1090558

If this wasn’t the best four days of hiking I have ever done, it was damn close!

After the Rota Vicentina, a taxi shuttled us about an hour north and inland to the Alentejo region, a place of lakes, rolling hills and forests of oak and eucalyptus. As soon as we arrived at the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, a lodge overlooking a lake, I plopped down on the patio in front of our cottage and decided to take the rest of the day off to sit, read and gaze at the lake and explore the lush gardens surrounding the lodge.

P1090619

The next day we went for a six-mile hike along the roads and through a forest near the Quinta. The views from the road were not as dramatic as along the Rota Vicentina, but the landscape of low rolling hills, forests and vineyards was plenty attractive and matched our relaxed, easy going pace and mood.

IMG_3468

The places we stayed during the trip, including the Quinta, added to the overall experience. Our accommodations for the first three nights were at the Aldeia da Pedralva, which is more like a village than a hotel. In fact, it once was a village with a population of about 200 people until it fell on hard times. Over the last several years the current owners purchased most of the cottages and converted the ghost town into a thriving hotel and jumping off point for hikers, surfers and tourists from around the world.

We ate every night at the excellent restaurant at the hotel. My favorite dishes were the baked camembert covered with berries and nuts, the rich, meaty chorizo, and the Portuguese classic, bacalhau (pronounced like the name of Tony Soprano’s massive brother-in-law), also known as salt cod on bread. It’s sort of like a very thick chowder or stew of cod, vegetables and garlic served in a hollowed out loaf of crispy bread, similar to the clam chowder in a bowl of sourdough bread served on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, but much better.

P1090499

Our lodgings for our fourth and fifth night were at Cerca do Sul, a comfortable and intimate guesthouse close to the Rota Vicentina (about 2.5 miles). We ate all of our meals there. The breakfast buffet was extensive and varied and the dinners were some of the best of our trip. The place was small with only a handful of other guests while we were there, so our conversations involved more than just the usual exchange of pleasantries.

In fact, all of the people we met on the trail and in the lodges — mostly from the UK, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany — were friendly and well informed. They were also polite enough to avoid the kind of argument that makes social interaction in the US such a minefield these days. That didn’t mean that the conversations weren’t interesting, just that they were always cordial. Maybe they agreed with everything I said.

And the wine! I’m not much of a wine drinker. I prefer my alcohol in the form of single malt whisky and west coast IPAs, but if I lived in Portugal, I might switch to the fermented grape. We drank local wine every night and never paid more than $11 for a bottle. As for the quality, I have to rely on the opinion of my much more sophisticated wife whose alcoholic preferences lean toward wine, vodka and tequila (not at the same time!). She was impressed.

Life is short and the world is big, so I try to avoid repeat trips to the same destination. But if I have a chance to return to Portugal, I’ll take it. There is more chorizo and bacalhau to eat, fine Portuguese wine to drink, and many more miles of the Rota Vicentina to hike.

(for more info and photos, check out Don’s Adventure Geezer blog on his website)

 

 

0 536

What are the odds?

This is my new favorite game. My friends introduced it on our recent road trip from Tennessee to Idaho. One person in the group thinks of a task for someone else to complete, and challenges that person by asking “what are the odds” that he/she will do it. If they are up to the challenge, that person names their odds, one out of whatever. On the count of three, both people say a number out loud between 1 and the range stated. If the numbers match, the challenger wins and the person who named odds must complete the task. Obviously, the game is most fun when people get bold and set very low lines for odds.

Challenger: “What are the odds that you will eat this entire jalapeño pepper for breakfast?”

Me: “Hmm… One out of five”

Challenger: “Ok. One, Two, Three…

Both: “TWO”

That pepper went down even less smoothly than I thought it would.

This was really one of the more mild dares that happened over the course of the trip. I won’t go into detail about all the ridiculousness that was imposed, but you can imagine how heinously uncomfortable/embarrassing some of it was.

What are the odds that I would end up road tripping for three and a half weeks across the country? A few months ago, when I was traveling Europe, I would have said the odds were low. At that time, I was spending my savings to visit old friends and see new countries. I was satisfying my travel bug and looking forward to a long, relaxing summer in East Tennessee—or so I thought.It was this game and other such shenanigans in the company of good friends that made my summer trip Out West so memorable, but of course, the amazing whitewater, mountains, and rocks were pretty influential as well.

After enjoying a full month back home, I was restless again and ready for more adventure. Friends of mine had a private permit for a trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a 100-mile section of class III-IV whitewater that rolls through the Idaho wilderness.

A separate group of friends had planned a climbing trip to Colorado for the week after the river trip was to end. If I was going all the way out to Idaho to kayak, why not take an opportunity to climb in Colorado as well?

I still had a little money left over, and I figured if I spent it wisely and played my cards right, I could link the two trips and make the most of my remaining time off school.

I didn’t know for sure whether the odds would work out in my favor, but I knew that I wanted to seize this chance while I had it. I knew that graduate school would make spontaneous adventures to new places much harder to realize.Was going on this trip an impulsive and irresponsible decision? Maybe. Could my time be better spent working in Knoxville, saving money, and preparing for the future? Perhaps. In a way, I was playing the odds that my savings would hold out; that I would find a place to live for graduate school after putting off my housing search to hit the road; that I would have enough time to pack for the big move after I returned home. To some degree, I was playing the odds that I would complete the trip healthy and unhurt, and physically able to move and start school at all.

So I went for it. I hopped in with friends from Tennessee and we trucked out to Idaho. We saw new cities and met new people along the way. We floated the river with old friends and a few new ones. We experienced nature in a way that most people never get to, from the bottom of a rugged river gorge, inaccessible by any road. Entirely self supported, we lived in our own isolated world of wonder for seven days. I didn’t regret one second of it.

Afterward, I hopped in a different car and rode to Colorado, seeking mountains and tall rock faces, playing the odds even further that everything would work out. It was there that I was reminded of the true weight of this game I was participating in.

On July 11, and again on July 12, hikers were struck by lightning within a radius of only a few miles in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Each strike killed one person and left others injured.They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, so what are the odds that lightning strikes would kill two people, in two days, within the same area?

I was spending that weekend in the town just outside the park. My friends and I were watching the weather carefully, knowing the dangers full well and bailing from climbs when prudent to do so.

The victims were not climbers; they were simply tourists on a short walk away from their cars, but news of the deaths spread quickly among the climbing community, because climbers pay close attention to the dangers of lightning. On a tall face or a high peak, storms can roll in suddenly, and often from the backside of the feature so climbers may never see it coming before it is upon them.

However, hearing of the lightning strikes on hikers did not convince me that I was on the losing end of a game of chance. In fact, it did quite the opposite.  The sudden deaths reminded me that life is fragile and short, and that every day we play ‘what are the odds’ that we will live to see another.

The tragedies of the lightning struck so close to home because as a climber, I have long accepted such risks inherent to the activity. I know how to minimize the risk, but ultimately, I can be killed by lightning just as easily as unfortunate tourists can, so why would I not spend my valuable time doing something I truly enjoy?Those people did not have the odds on their side that weekend. But it could just as easily have been me that lost the game of odds—driving my car, crossing the street, playing sports, or even going to school. The reality is that any mundane activity could be my last, so although kayaking and rock climbing may put me in marginally more danger than sitting behind a desk, I am willing to accept those odds because I would rather use my breath for something exhilarating than something boring.

I can name my own odds that I will eat a whole jalapeño, but I am constantly at the mercy of certain odds that I just can’t control. When I see these odds come into play in such jarring proximity to my own life, the other odds games I play seem so insignificant.

What are the odds I’ll eat that pepper? What are the odds I’ll spend too much money before graduate school? What are the odds I’ll find a place to live?

All of a sudden these things don’t matter so much. Why not just eat the pepper anyway? Just go kayaking anyway? Go climbing anyway? I should take my chances while I still have them, because there’s no telling how many more chances I will get.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

0 859

Life after Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize

As someone who can struggle with motion sickness, a 30 minute bus ride along a muddy and bumpy road seemed like a nightmare at the start of my adventure into the jungles of Belize. In a few short hours on our return trip, that ride would seem like a pleasure cruise.

It’s amazing what a little Dramamine and some perspective can do for an outlook on life.

The bus ride was just the first of many challenges on a group trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal.  A local Belizean who ran a tour company sold my husband on what was billed as an adventure of a lifetime. It’s a sales pitch perfected over time: “It’s an easy walk!” the promised.  Sure, you’ll walk through some water, but it’s always warm: “so warm!”

They lied.

The first part of our cave adventure doesn’t start at the parking lot.  These elements are left off the tour guide’s sales pitch.  First, there are the three river crossings in murky water and a healthy hike along a trail where large cats could be lurking behind the next corner. Finally, we arrive at camp only to be told the adventure is NOW beginning.

So, we leave behind everything we’ve carried along this early part of the adventure, and walk straight into the mouth of a pitch-black cave with a river running through it.

We wear miners lights on our helmets help us see, as we walk through yet another river – the same river we crossed three times earlier. The water comes up to our waists.  Sometimes, it reached our shoulders. We squeeze through narrow openings left behind by fallen boulders and balance in soaking wet shoes on loose rocks beneath our feet.

I slip.  My knee hits a rock and I bleed.  But I’m stuck in a cave miles from daylight.  So, I keep going.

After what feels like hours, we reach a rock wall.  We climb.  From there, we’re told to take off our shoes. I’m really in no place to argue, seeing that the guide who makes the request is really my only lifeline to ever seeing blue sky again. At least we’re out of the river.

From there we walk in our wet socks towards a small opening.  We squeeze through and enter a huge cave several dozen feet tall.  Our guide tells us it’s a sanctuary once used by the Maya. It’s a place they went to hide when danger came their way.  Left behind are signs of life which include a rare clay pot left behind for centuries.  But the main attraction centers on death.

We take one last climb, this time up a creaky ladder, and our tour ends with at the Crystal Maiden.  She’s a fully intact skeleton, whose bones seem to sparkle under the light of our headlamps.  Who she is, no one knows.  Questions on how she got there will likely never be answered.  One thing I do know is the discovery of these bones and they mystery surrounding her death lead thousands of people just like me into a dark, wet cave every year to look on her skeleton and wonder about life, death and everything that comes after.

 

With another tour group waiting for their chance to take their turn looking at the Maiden, our group leaves this final resting place.  We head back down the rickety ladder, though the cave littered with ancient pots and put on our wet shoes.  It’s back down the rock wall and into the water for the slow walk in the river and along the rocks until finally we see the sun.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

1 137

Have you ever heard of Dominica?

Dominica is a tiny island in the Eastern Caribbean also known as “The Nature” island, an unspoiled paradise tacked away between Guadaloupe and Martinique.

My life was completely transformed by simply spending eight days on the island. Never before had I felt so inspired and at the same time overwhelmed by a culture with a big array of sensory stimulations that touch your soul.

Everyday I woke up in the middle of the rainforest in a place two miles off the grid reachable only by a dirt road that crossed a running river twice. Waking up to torrential rain in the middle of the night or to the deepest of silent was exciting and disconcerting at the same time. It made me wonder whether I would make it to the main road again.

In the mornings, I would allow myself to get lost wondering in thick vegetation. On the first day especially, I took a walk to the river then around a banana plantation and realized that, never before in my life. I had seen so many shades of green, not even in Oregon where I live. I lifted my eyes and I felt like a tiny creature in a vast incredible paradise of towering trees and mountains, where there were no familiar sounds, the busy and annoying freeways gone, cars gone, the sound of office keyboards gone, phone ringing gone, busy crowds gone, stress gone, it was just me, the rain forest and its concert of colors, sounds and natural beauty.

A rushing river was my only companion as it was also my only reference point to find the way back. You have to muster up a lot of courage to walk alone in a jungle without a destination or a map, not knowing much about the plants and the animals that surround you, especially at night. To be alone with your thoughts in a place completely foreign to you is to be brave. At night you can barely see your hand fully extended except when you stumble on a firefly that illuminates the path for you.

You and the immense nature and nothing else force you to go inward and take note of your fears, your joys, your emotions, and your overall state of mind. In doing so you realize that you are in the safest of places, the perfect laboratory for inspiring thoughts and ideas, the perfect time to align with your values and your passions.

Dominica did that for me. I had not expectation and not plan and found the island inspiring at every corner and every interaction with locals.

You can also test your bravery by adventuring on 2 hour hikes up stream in a river crossing water, climbing boulders and keeping your senses alert in case of flush floods. The reward at the end can be a tall majestic waterfall that you can swim under.

So, do you want to be inspired and be brave? Dominica is a destination very conducive for both.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

0 150

Big Rocks and a Brave Heart

By Nicole Dacanay

I am not a brave person. I like comfort. I like warm tea and blankets and happy movies. But I also have a fierce desire for wanderlust in my soul. The need to travel and experience new things is something my husband and I both feel within us, so for our honeymoon last summer, we decided to take a road trip. One of the stops on our road trip was Zion National Park, a high desert paradise located in Springdale, Utah. Among many things, Zion is famous for its extreme hikes, from a trek through an endless river to a trail that leads straight to the sky. That trail is named Angels Landing, and when we arrived at Zion National Park, my husband and I placed it at the top of our “to do” list. But the more I studied the hike, and the more I learned about it, the more terrified I became. The numbers made me nervous: 5 miles, 1488 feet in elevation gain, and a peak that hits over 5,000 feet. Hours after studying, I felt lost. The “once in a lifetime opportunity” tagline no longer made me feel inspired – I felt my confidence beginning to spiral as I considered excuses to tell my husband. “I can’t do it” wasn’t enough.

The following morning, I was too awestruck to complain. Mornings in Zion are unparalleled to anything else I’ve ever seen. The luminous orange landscape contrasts starkly with lime green trees that line the banks of the Virgin River. High above, sheer cliffs beg to be climbed, and trails cry out to be explored. And I couldn’t say no – not to Angel’s Landing, my husband, or myself. So we hopped on the shuttle and I crushed my hands into fists, facing the fact that I was about to attempt something I truly thought I was incapable of doing. The trail pulsed with a river of people, up and up toward switchbacks that looked like they belonged in an Indiana Jones film. I felt my stomach churn. I can’t do it.

We wound through the switchbacks steadily. The hot desert sun threw orange light from the rocks into our eyes, and the cool breeze spread dust over our faces. But as we climbed higher, we remained in a constant ebb and flow of other hikers seeking the same prize. Despite the sweat, sand, and sun, I focused on the man at my side and the trail at my feet.

Finally, the switchbacks ceased. We were met with a cool, quiet canyon punctuated with trees. For a few glorious minutes, we breathed easily. As I stood still beneath the shade, I suddenly realized something: my fears were slowly dissipating. I’d been so focused on keeping one foot in front of the other that I’d completely forgotten to be afraid! And just like that, the most strenuous part of the hike was behind me. All I had to do was focus on the present.

A second set of switchbacks led us to our ultimate goal: the road to Angels Landing, and a rest at Scout’s Point. At first I stood my ground, frozen by the fear of looking down and seeing the endless drop to Zion’s floor. I couldn’t move. I looked up and saw crows and vultures circling like veteran acrobats, their eyes on the ground far below, and I felt my heart race. The cool, gusty wind was urging me forward, reminding me that I did not come this far just to shrink beneath fear and self-doubt. I’d already conquered so much – what was a few more feet? So I took a deep breath, strode forward, and stood beside my husband. Together, we surveyed the vast desert land below Scout’s Point. It was a singularly inspiring moment, and one that I will never forget. Standing at what felt like the edge of the earth and facing my fears with a thrilled smile, I finally felt like the adventurer I always wished I could be. I’d taken my fear of heights and stared it down, challenged it, and overcame it. I was finally brave.

Bravery should be boxed in by any one definition. To me, bravery was staring my fears face to face, and overcoming my perceived limitations. Bravery meant that I was taking a new step, conquering a new challenge, and sharing an experience with my husband. Zion National Park helped me feel brave, because it gave me an opportunity that I’d never be given at home. Even now, when I’m writing or running, I consider my moment in the sky, staring at the earth below. And every time I think I am not enough of anything, I remember what I conquered on Zion’s peaks last summer.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

0 1731

Read Parts I, II, and 3

“Realization,” Italy: Blood and Sacrifice Part 4

Salvatore’s team won the game and as was custom after every game of calcetto we headed to a pizzeria to celebrate. It wasn’t about the celebration of victory it was about the celebration of life and being with close friends. Nicolas and Salvatore hadn’t seen each other in seven years. We arrived in Brindisi the day before after a rough and snowy twenty-four hour drive from Gaeta.   One of the things I love about Italians and Italian culture is that you can arrive on a moments notice and within thirty minutes a five-course meal and an abundance of wine has been prepared for you without complaint. Not only do they not complain they celebrate the arrival of a guest as if he, or she were family. Since I was with Nicolas, whom Salvatore and his family considered a brother and a son, I was also considered in the same light.   Without any notice of our arrival and knowing we would stay for a week they scurried to find us a place to stay, as their apartments were full with their extended family. Within fifteen minutes of our arrival we had a place to stay at no cost. With bags in tow Salvatore told Nicolas that when we entered the building we could come and go as we pleased at whatever time of day, or night, but that under no circumstances were we to speak to anybody. I didn’t get it at first, but after witnessing what we saw at the pizzeria the following day it all began to sink in.IMG_5973

Following the victory at calcetto Salvatore invited us to the pizzeria with his teammates and friends. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and so we sat outside. Beer and wine flowed with abundance. I felt good, although I couldn’t understand what anybody was saying and that frustrated me. Italian, unlike German was so beautiful, lyrical and poetic. Don’t worry Germans I’ve learned to love and appreciate your language as well. When I first heard Italian I felt like I was in a fairytale. It sang to me. I wanted so badly to communicate in their language that it ate at my psyche. I think this is when I first knew, subconsciously, that Italy and Italian would play a major role in my life.

As we sat there drinking with Nicolas translating and just being merry it happened. Around seven unmarked and marked police vehicles sped by with lights on, but no sirens. They suddenly stopped about fifty yards away on our side of the street. Many men in masks with machine guns got out of the vehicles and went inside a building. My heart began to pound. I began to speak, but Nicolas gave me a look and nodded his head indicating I should keep my mouth shut. Salvatore got up and went inside the pizzeria to use the telephone. Other men in masks stood guard outside the building, ready to pounce on anything that moved.

Nicolas leaned in and whispered, “Whatever you see, or hear, you didn’t see or hear, got it!”IMG_5672

I nodded.

After ten minutes the police officers came out of the building with three people in handcuffs. Some women followed and began yelling. The three individuals were put in three different vehicles and off they went. The whole operation took no more than twenty minutes. We ate our pizzas in silence. Later that night Nicolas and I returned to our hotel. We entered the building and Nicolas nodded to the lady at the front desk. She nodded back and handed him the key to our room. As we walked towards the elevator we saw three scantily clad women with long dark hair escorting a few gentleman towards a room. I smiled, but said nothing. When we got in the elevator Nicolas pushed the button for the 4th floor. Exiting on the fourth floor we headed towards our room. More scantily clad young women and men were walking about. Some of the women even winked at me. My head began to spin. The past two weeks had been crazy and today I got a glimpse of a part of Italy that was a hotbed of current political activity and represented in every newspaper around. We arrived at our room and went inside. Nicolas closed the door behind us and locked the door. In a whisper he asked me if I knew who Giovanni Falcone was. I told him no.

“What about S.C.U.?” (Pronounced sku).

“No. Sorry what is that?” I asked.

He then went into his backpack and got a pen and piece of paper.

Quietly he scrawled out the meaning of the acronym S.C.U. It was the first time I had ever seen the name, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Sacra Corona Unita.

 

IMG_0913

Coming Soon:

“The Dream Begins,” Italy: Blood and Sacrifice Part 5

0 336

I sit under a pillar of a city turning to ruin. Pompeii. How I wish I could’ve seen the people roaming around the common, the smiles and laughter. My mother trusts me enough  to sit here without causing too much trouble, being the boisterous son I am. The longer I sit here the more I feel at peace, I feel like I belong here. I am filled with courage as I think about the day of this great city’s demise. I slowly lay back on the pillar and close my eyes…

When I awaken, I am surrounded by Romans chatting with each other, bargaining for armor and daggers. A small girl knocks into me as she chases a mischievous boy. She whips her head and waves at me as if to apologize. I nod to acknowledge her. The boisterous chatter erupts from the many people, they all speak in Latin.

I can hear the hooves of a mule carrying various supplies in bags and carts hit the cobblestone path beside me. Suddenly, a shaking knocks me down to the floor along with some supplies from the small cart. I brush myself off and stand back up seeing blood run down my knee. What happened? I look up and see Mt. Vesuvius spewing out gases and ash so high I cannot see the top. A small boy starts crying, but the parent shakes her head and remarks “It’s only smoke.” That seems to calm him down, and he stops crying. The people continue with their daily lives, but something is wrong. I know something terrible is happening.

The clouds of ash cover the sun, and it turns dark. Many people look confused at what is happening. I have never seen anything like this. The sun is gone, and it isn’t from an eclipse. A woman looks at me as small rocks fall into her hands, then bigger rocks. I see a man collapse, blood running down his head. We have to get out of here; I know what will happen next. Panic sets in and people start fleeing to the openings of the city. I can see the ash cascading down the mountain. The reds and greys envelope all sights of green. I have to get out. I shove people out of the way. Run. I need to make my way to the gate. The small rocks pile up so far that they are up to my knees, and are wiping away the blood from my cut.

I’m almost to the gate. I’m surprised I can see it, considering the amount of bodies trying to cram through. I am so close to getting out when I hear a scream for help from a small girl. I can’t leave her here to die. I whip around and push everyone out of my way. I try to focus on her screams, but the cries of everyone else cloud my mind. I continue to trudge through until I break through the crowd. I target the screaming from a small hotel, abandoned. I run in to see the little girl who ran into me from earlier. Trails of tears stain her cheeks, and she is curled into a fetal position rocking back and forth. I run over to her and pick her up into my arms. There is no time to talk. I start coughing, the fumes are collecting in my lungs, almost causing me to double over in a coughing fit.

The gate is now almost empty, so I don’t have a lot of trouble getting through. The little girl’s face buries deeper into my shoulder as the smoke gets heavier. I can see the ashes plowing closer and closer towards the city. We aren’t going to make it. I see a cart with a horse and a rider running through the gates past us. I know what I have to do. I run after the cart which causes me to hyperventilate. The fumes go into my lungs with every breath I take burning the insides. I can see my vision go darker. I have to make it. I reach the small cart and lift the girl up to place her in it. She looks at me and with tears running down her crystal clear blue eyes. She gives my forehead a kiss, and I place her in the cart. She is safe from this unknown fiery disaster. I take a deep breath in relief as I see the ashes kiss my burning skin.

I open my eyes. Mother? Where are you? “Jonathan!” I hear her call. “There you are!” I wave smiling. She takes me by the hand and leads me to the exit gate. “So how did you like Pompeii? How did it make you feel?” I look back to the ruins and nod to her. “Brave.”

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

DSC_0218
The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given the road constructions recently, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

DSC_0335
The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei) .

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.
The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos; and, lastly,

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.
The Golden Triangle

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

DSC_0172
As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel
The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

 

DSC_0389
The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.
A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

0 152

Don’t Look Down in Bolivia

On first consideration it seems surprising that people still die when cycling the Bolivia’s North Yungas Road, more eagerly referred to as El Camino de la Muerte or ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be cautious, I reason, surely it would be a place in which ‘Death’ is half the title. But as I sit astride my bicycle, teeth chattering in the sub-zero bite of 4700 meters above sea level – the start of this revered freewheel – I change my mind.

The name is an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not. This occurs to me as a band of game-faced bikers are conjured from squalls of cold mist, yards away from splintered wooden crosses – memorials to the backpackers and locals who have plummeted to their death. Beside us is the long vertical drop that flanks the Death Road for most of its course – the reason for the well-deserved reputation.

The setting of the Death Road is as staggering as the premise of biking it: cut into the mountains of the Yungas, where jungle owns every bulge and whim of the land, the track twists a continuous descent for over forty miles and three and a half thousand vertical meters. The trees hide the rusted carcasses of hundreds of toppled trucks and cars. Among the cyclists who have dared, not all have reached the small town of Coroico near the finish line. In the last fourteen years, eighteen “I survived The World’s Most Dangerous Road” t-shirts have gone spare.

As gravity takes charge of my wheels an internal monologue kicks up: “DEATH road… be careful!” on repeat. A fleet of Konas and their hooting jockeys rampage past, in yellow elbow pads and helmets, and I can’t help but consider what the protective kit and their human contents would look like after a hundred meter free fall and a jungle canopy crash-landing. A van trails behind so the guides can assist in case of accident, or get a front seat view if a client flies a short cut to the finishing altitude, ET-style.

Throughout these upper reaches water patters onto the rocks from high above, only the truly courageous, skillful or imbecilic veer to avoid getting wet – I am none of the above and receive a sopping for my cowardice. After each hairy switchback another curling ribbon reveals itself, along with one clear impression – roads do not belong here.

The soundtrack of the Yungas doesn’t mesh with the chilling vista, a timid and quirky blend of squawks, buzzes and clicks attest to life that lurks in the greenery. Underneath, barely discernible, there’s another layer of sound – the trickle and gush of invisible streams. As well as the magic of the precipice, it’s exhilarating too being so enclosed in nature. At times it’s tempting to wonder at the rows of impossibly deep Vs formed from converging mountainsides, or to glance behind and search for whatever squawked or screamed, but then the inner voice shouts ‘DEATH ROAD!’, my knuckles pale, and I refocus on the track and the ever-present peril to my left.

Towards the lower reaches though I relax, my wheels spin faster and I realize another voice has supplanted the last, something like “YEAAAAAAH! I’m riding the DEATH road! WOOOOOOOOH!’ The temperature rises, clouds evaporate, multi-hued butterflies dance beneath my handlebars and fetching purple flowers and banana plantations crowd my peripheral vision. I’m soon coasting through a village towards a river, birds of prey fly low wheels overhead as Bolivia welcomes me back from the edge of reason with women festooned in bowler hats and traditional pollera skirts of shocking pink.

I’ve made it; I’m not sure about my brake pads. Some bikers down celebratory beers, others pull wheelies, but most don’t feel the need to show off any more than donning their “I survived…” t-shirts. A quick body count by a guide confirms that, this time, everyone gets one.

There’s a subset of cyclists who enjoy climbs, I’m one of them, and from the off my inner masochist wasn’t entirely happy with the prospect of spinning downhill for hours. Where’s the payback? I needed to know. Where the pain to go with the gain? Fortunately for the guilty, the Death Road has another currency – you pay for freewheeling with fear. It’s more than a fair deal.

For the vast majority El Camino de la Muerte will fail to fulfill its eponymous promise, for me at least the opposite was true. I finished the ride not just giddy with relief, but fiercely alive. They could change the name, somehow though, I don’t think it would have the same draw.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

10 525
Mountain gorilla baby eyes

With barely a sound the 160 kilo/ 350 pound gorilla walked right in front of me on the jungle hill side. Mountain gorillas only exist in high terrains of south western Uganda and neighboring Congo and Rwanda. For some, having the opportunity to hike to a family of mountain gorillas is the trip of a life time. I was pinching myself that here I was standing next to more than a dozen gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Africa.

gorilla head

Mountain gorillas were hunted almost to extinction and are a critically endangered species. Within Volcanoes National Park there are eighteen different groups of gorillas.

baby eating celery

Eight are observed solely by researchers and ten of the groups are the groups visitors are allowed to be guided to. We were assigned to be led by our guide Eugene to the Umubano group which had thirteen members.

baby eyes

Gorillas are considered babies from ages zero to three, juvenile from ages three to six, adult ages six to eight and after age eight females are mature enough to start reproducing. Gestation period is for nine months and female gorillas will usually have about six babies in their lifetime.

silver back

Around age twelve the black back of a male mountain gorilla will turn silver, giving them the revered title as now being a silver back.

hand gripping

For diet, gorillas are vegetarian consuming around 2000 different species of plants. An adult will eat about 30 kilos of vegetation a day and they get all their water needs from the plants they eat. Gorillas make a new nest for themselves to sleep in every day, usually on the ground and will start constructing it around 5 pm or so.

side profile

With their immense strength, visitors are often nervous to be in the jungle with these wild animals. Rest assured, the gorillas usually want nothing to do with you. They are too preoccupied with feeding, socializing and taking care of their babies. You are with guides, guards and trackers the entire time who are familiar with all of the gorillas. As long as you do what you guide tells you to do and do not use flash, (which applies for almost all wildlife photography in Africa) you will have an amazing time.

momma eyes

I couldn’t imagine having gone to Africa without having had the experience observing mountain gorillas. Looking at the faces and reactions of people when they come back from sharing the space with these gentle giants, they are impacted. Viewing wild gorillas changes you. Eugene, our guide thanked us all for coming and  told us how much our park fees are instrumental in helping the gorilla population increase. The park can pay for gorilla doctors and if an animal does get sick, usually the medicine cost a minimum of $1000.

chin up

If you want to help conserve mountain gorillas – go see them for yourself. In Rwanda it appeared that the park fees were being put to good use as poaching was down and gorilla numbers have increased from 500 to 900.

baby going for ride

With these fees the park can continue employing rangers who patrol and monitor for poachers. Among our group, some people had chosen to hire a porter (someone who will carry your bag) for the day. Eugene did not say whom specifically, but some of the porters who were hired used to be poachers in the park. Now instead of killing gorillas, they were earning an income from tourists coming to see the gorillas in a safe environment. Learning that around us were would be poachers that were now accepted and welcomed as porters, really drove home to me how impactful responsible tourism combined with effective leadership and park management can be. Seeing how the park was being run gave me hope that the mountain gorillas may have a chance to keep striving in these jungle hillsides.

mom w baby

The opportunity to view gorillas in their home was a fairytale-like adventure. Hopefully the conservation effort will continue to move forward in such a way that gorillas never become animals the next generation can only read about in a fairy tale book, but hike to for themselves and view these animals striving in their home as the magnificent creatures they are.

*     *    *

For more information:

 Volcanoes National Park

We stayed at a church mission called Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima. It was very nice, clean and well located.