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Posts tagged ‘Evon LaGrou’

Holi in Katmandu

Splashes of color and smiles dominate the holiday of Holi to celebrate the monsoon season to come. In Katmandu, it is a day off work for all even though only the Hindu wear the bright florescent colors which are the trademark of this holiday.

It seemed to me that all boys from about eight to fourteen were heavy into the holiday spirit even if their families were Buddhist……Imagine: A free day from school and the entire point of this day was to throw color at people. A day where it was also okay to throw water balloons and squirt water at anyone in sight. I think this holiday was made for boys of this age. I enjoyed watching the the battle happening downstairs safely from the rooftop view of my patio. Such big smiles on their faces as the color and water war had begun.

At some point the boys downstairs decided that I was “free game” and thought I would like to join in the fun. Every time I left the house I had to “watch” out for my young neighbors to minimize the “attack”. Walking about, I saw non-Holi observers smiling at the the chalk covered adults and young children. In Katmandu, this may be a holiday celebrated by few, but in my opinion, enjoyed by all.

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Chitwan National Park

In the lowlands of Nepal, there is a jungle which one may have a rare chance to see a tiger or even a leopard. I did not see either while I was in Chitwan National Park even though both had been spotted during my stay. I was okay with this since I was in another national park that did not allow the rangers or guides to carry guns. Somehow the long stick my guide carried by his side was not too reassuring.

The entire time I was walking in the jungle I found myself trying to do two things. The first was to not step on any leaves that would alert an animal to my presence. The second was continually searching for trees I thought could climb if we did encounter an unfriendly animal.

To intensify matters even more, the leopard was not really seen, as much attacked, a man in the village across the field from my hotel. So, I was really okay, almost relieved to have walked through the jungle and back unscathed. I had seen the tiger in India and the leopard in Africa so these two animals were not a “must see” on my agenda.

I did get to watch the black rhino everyday I was in Chitwan. I was surprised how visually different the black rhino was from white rhino I saw in Zambia last fall. The rhino skin looked as it was a hard shell, whereas in Zambia the rhino simply looked like it had really thick grey skin. “The arrow can not pierce the skin of a rhino.” My guide informed me. “If we see one, we have one thing we need to do.” “What’s that?” I questioned. “Run.”

After trying to smile it off he said he was actually serious but we needed to run in a “zig zag”, changing directions every twenty to thirty meters. “They have poor eyesight and if we are quiet as we run then they will have trouble following us when we change directions. Another advantage of changing directions is that the rhino has a difficult time turning their large frames to follow. As we run, you should throw clothing down to cause additional confusion to the direction we are heading.” I remember that this is the same advice I was given for the white rhino in Zambia so both must have some universal traits.

Most people buy a “package deal” of activities in Chitwan so the hotels keep you busy the entire time you are here. Jungle walk, canoe trip, elephant ride, watching the elephant bath, cultural show, elephant breeding center visit. It does not matter the star level of the hotel. Everybody is doing the same activities and I found that I ran into the same people over and over. My favorite activities was the canoe trip and two activities not on the “usual” menu.

The canoe is actually a dugout canoe from a single tree and they pack the groups into each boat. “Are you sure there is room for us?” I asked my guide. “Sure, they fit twelve people.” “Twelve people of what size?” My guide, Prabin, did not respond as I careful boarded the tippy canoe with the water inching up towards the sides.

We saw lots of birds from the river, my favorite was the blue, brown and white Kingfisher. The bright blue was so beautiful when they spread their wings to fly. There were also several crocodiles hiding between the lilies and in the mud on the banks of the river.

Since my guide knew that I had spent time learning to be a mahout in Laos, he arranged for me take their elephant to the river for it’s daily bath. I felt pretty lucky to do this since I was the only tourist around which had been able to have this experience. Prabin translated for me as this elephant/mahout pair spoke Hindi. I was glad that this mahout was a gentle teacher as in my first experience in Laos. Other mahouts watched and smiled as I worked with our elephant.

One night the resort arranged for me to stay in one of the few “tower” accommodations in the jungle. I loved this because our second floor cabin was in the middle of a grassy field which at dusk many animals found their way to feed. It was also a safe place to watch the wildlife so I found myself enjoying this better than the jungle walks.

We watched a mother and baby rhino for a long time make their way through the field. We saw wild boar, peacocks but my favorite were the spotted deer. There were over forty grazing away in the afternoon light. After dark I was able to have an unexpected treat….Fireflies!

“Is that a firefly?” I question looking at the small bright light floating in the tree next to me. “Yes. It is a firefly.” “Wow! I have never seen one before.” Prabin went below to catch one so I could look at it close up. It looked like a regular insect on top. The florescent light came from underneath. It quickly flew away when we opened our hands wide.

I found the national park in the lowlands of Nepal a wonder place full of surprises and caring people wishing to show you her treasures.

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Learning To Be A Mahout – The Rest of the Story

Our first glimpse of the elephants saw them all hard at work. Several were already carrying tourists on bench saddles belted to their back like a horse. Others were munching on green leaves set in front of them. They too were ready to be ridden with a saddle already attached. One at a time the mahout (elephant trainer) commanded their elephant to walk to the platform where eager foreigners waited for a ride. “Okay.” I heard someone say to the next tourist in line as he tilted his head toward the elephant as if to said ‘it was his turn’ to get on.

Each tourist carefully grabbed the side of the bench and placed each foot near the front shoulder of the elephant before sitting down. I could see a look of gratefulness across each face as they realized they had “made it” without falling between the fifteen foot platform and the elephant beside it.

A large tour bus parks nearby and at least twenty people are lead to the stairway going up to the small platform.

“Okay, we need to split you into groups.” My attention is redirected back to our guide. “Everyone who signed up for the ride and the river kayak stand over there.” This is the point we realized that most of the new faces we met on the shared minivan ride would not be with us the rest of the day. Only four of us had signed up to learn how to be a mahout for a day. A teacher and baker from Ireland, an engineer from Germany and myself.

We were lead away from the elephants to change into our official mahout uniforms and to learn about asian elephants. This included learning the commands we would need when working with the elephants later in the day.

Every elephant has one mahout which always works with the same elephant. It is clear to see that the pair have a very close bond. Elephants have terrific memories and I would come to learn that each has a very different personality.

I was very lucky with my first elephant/mahout pairing. “Don’t worry. She is very gentle.” The main tour guide said to me as I reached to get on the bench on top of my elephant. I would find that her mahout was likewise very a gentle soul.

I was glad that this seat had a bar that fitted across the front of the bench. When I had ridden an elephant in Thailand, years earlier, I remember holding on to the back of a similar bench with both arms when going down a steep hill. I felt steady with the wooden bar in front of me. “This is much better. I am not going to slide off this bench with this bar to push back on.” I thought to myself.

Within a few minutes of leaving the platform my mahout, Sing, pointed at the bar. “You want bar?” He seemed to nod, “Okay, here you go.” I handed the bar to Sing as he motioned for me to scoot over. I moved to the left on the bench and he hopped up beside me. “Who is going to drive this thing?” I said looking over to him. Sing pointed for me to get on the elephant. I was realizing that the commands I had learned earlier that day were all the common words between us but we seemed to communicate just fine.

One foot after another I crawled on Tahoot. She was steady as walking on granite. I was immediately comfortable. Sing motioned for me to move my hands forward on the top of her head. It seemed more comfortable so I figured it was the proper position. I looked back to see Sing’s face and determine how I was doing. Sing had replaced the wooden bar across the bench and was curled up behind it, resting but keeping an eye on me. I figured I must have been doing okay for him to be so relaxed.

The elephants in front of us were not being as compliant. The other mahouts were having to assist and prod their elephants to move. Hubert’s elephant was being particularly difficult. Turning the wrong way, stopping to eat at whatever looked greenest and deciding to halt and not budge an inch at times.

I was able to use several commands to stop, move to right or left around the others and go at will. The others used “ya, ya” several times which means “no, no.” I was glad I never had to do that with Tahoot.

Next thing I knew, Sing was off the bench and assisting the other mahouts. He walked beside Hubert’s elephant.

Tahoot and I were the last to reach the top of a steep downward incline. “Emma, do I need to do anything differently?” Emma, the teacher from Ireland had just went down the hill. “Your elephant will do everything. Just squeeze you legs together and lock you elbows.”

Emma watched from her elephant. Upon making it down the hill she said. “Good job.” She looked over to my mahout busy with Hubert’s elephant and added, “I guess they don’t think you need any help.”

From that point on Tahoot and I were bonded and I completely trusted her. I could see that Sing looked back every one in a while and it was clear I had his nod of approval.

In the late afternoon they assigned us to a different elephant team. I was not excited to leave Tahoot but I guess they wanted us to have different experiences. I am glad I was assigned to Tahoot and Sing first as I was able to build my confidence with such a calm elephant and encouraging trainer.

My second pairing was not as delightful. Both the elephant and mahout had a cantankerous streak. For example, I wanted the elephant to stop, to leave a “‘little personal space” (2-3 feet) between us and the next elephant and my mahout would command him to go budging right up to the other elephant. I would tell the elephant to go left down the stream and the elephant choose to go right up the embank on a narrow pathway. “Okay, not the way I wanted but that works too.” I told the elephant who was not paying much attention to me.

When we reached the river for his afternoon bath I found that the elephant and the mahout were paying attention. I am now positive that they conspired together to have some fun at my expense.

I gave the command to spray and my elephant completely dunked giving me a bath. I looked behind me and my mahout was standing up and balancing on the only part of the elephant not in the water. I thought, “He had to know that the elephant was going to do that to know stand on the back of the elephant before he went under the water.” Next, my mahout had the elephant walk right behind another elephant going to the bathroom and commanded her to dunk again. The elephant, which had a habit of doing what he pleased, was quick to comply. All I could do was cover my mouth and hold on. Now I knew that they were on the same wavelength….And possessed same personalities.

I seemed to pass some initiation because after that my second mahout and elephant seemed to try harder to get along. (Though I must admit I made sure my mahout did not continue to stay dry after I was dunked the second time. Maybe he just decided to back off and get along.) At any rate, the new elephant and I finally bonded and I realized that elephants, like humans, have strong nonverbal skills, unique personalities and can have a stubborn streak….But in the end, given enough time, it is hard not to become attached even to the most difficult.

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Nong Khaiw — Now That’s Relaxed Right There

When you buy a bus ticket anywhere in Southeast Asia you never really know what to expect. I find that I always serve myself better by lowering my transportation expectations by several notches in third world countries, even when the local travel agent makes assurances of air conditioning, your own seat, and bathroom stops…..Then maybe you will be pleasantly surprised.

Monique and I waited for our transfer vehicle only to find seven passengers in the back of the tuk tuk. My first thought was, “Here we go again.” After only a couple of issues at the bus station, such as the tour company forgetting to pick up the third companion in our group, we left Luang Prabang only a couple hours late.

After an interesting journey we arrived in record time to Nong Khaiw and hiked the rest of the way into town. We had reserved a lovely bungalow by the river. It is best to reserve accommodations up here, especially in high season, as there is a limited selection.

I was not sure what to expect in Nong Khaiw as my guide book only had two paragraph’s on this place. However, based on recommendations of fellow travelers we decided to explore on without guide book recommendations.

The mountains seem to keep folding one after another outside of this little valley. A river winds through. No one seems to notice or care there is a new tourist in town. When we arrived at our hotel the security guard was asleep. That would be our first real sign of the pace we would find here.

We mellowed out on our balcony and later rented inflated tubes to float down the river. We couldn’t find anyone to pay to drive us to where tourists put the floats in the river so we had to walk. It was the first time a tuk tuk ever refused to take a fair in all my world travels. “His day off.” someone said, as I tried to get the tuk tuk drivers attention. Then the man pointed the dirt road we should walk up.

I did not know why all the locals were smiling until I realized that we would have to carefully step down a steep muddy embankment full of overlapping greenery to get to the river. By the time we reached the water we were all laughing.

Later on we found a tour company to take us mountain biking up the valley the next day. We learned quickly that the gears on the bikes were in a bit of disrepair and only one of my brakes worked. But we figured we could survive one day on the bikes as we were excited to get in the mountains and to get some exercise.

We were able to visit four villages which, as always, were an eye opener and makes one thankful that we can afford to ride bikes in disrepair when other could not.

We saw children caring for children as their parents work in the fields. Other unaccompanied kids were picking up nuts on the side of the road to sell and eat. One of them had an untreated lazy eye. Some boys played soccer from a homemade ball. We found old women carrying heavy loads while many old men found ways to keep their hands busy. Other elderly starred off into the distance and seemed to observed the day away.

All the children seemed to be interested in the cameras we are holding as they, and some adults, want me to take a picture of them and then want me to show them photo. They want to know how they look.

We had asked our guide to fix a vegetarian meal for lunch. Somehow we thought it would be safer. We knew that he had purchase the traditional food wrapped in banana leaves from the market early in the morning. I figured the food was sitting in a warm backpack for at least six hours before lunch.

Our guide cuts down a couple banana leaves for a table and we sit beside the river. “Wow. What do we have?” We asked. “This is eggplant. Here we have noddles. This is sticky rice. Here is river weed. This is fish.” Our guide pointed to each unwrapped item in front of us.” I pick up my noodles and start eating until I notice something brownish. “What this?” “It’s water buffalo blood.” “I thought that this was a vegetarian meal?” I questioned. “It is….No meat.” “I generously offered up my portion of noodles to any takers.”

I think my mother would have been proud that I tried a small amount everything else. However, I must admit that I mainly stayed with the sticky rice for that meal.

That afternoon we would kayak back to Nong Khaiw. It was a pleasant paddle down the river with the green hills around us and the limestone cliffs above. Our guide decides that we should break for a swim. Shortly after pulling our boats on the sandy island we we realized that our guide was completely conked out in one of the kayaks. “What is it with this place? Everyone sleeps on the job.” Monique notices. We all laugh.

When our guide awoke we completed our paddle early enough to meet the sunset back at our hotel. The next day we choose to take the slow boat back down to Luang Prabang.

Several times I thought, “I could spend some time in retirement in this town.” It was one of the first places that I thought someone could get around with a cane or a walker. And well, it seems that it is perfectly fine to take a cat nap on the job. Now, that’s relaxed right there.

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Beyond the Temples

Beyond the Temples of Siem Reap are its people.

Hopeful merchants outside every temple parking lot encroaching on weary foreigners. Young children happily visiting until they notice someone entering or leaving a temple. Their eyes turn sad as they count the postcards for sale, “One, two, three…”

Other children in uniforms ride their bicycles to school. We also find locals driving the roads using a variety of mechanical contraptions. Tourist mix in, pedaling or riding tuk-tuk’s to the ancient treasures while others speed by in large tourist buses.

Outside of the main temple circuit, one can see more and more folks farming and going about their daily life away from the main attractions. In the country, families sell goodies they have created by the side of the road such as candy and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Nearby their children play carefree.

This is Siem Reap, beyond the city, between the temples.

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Phnom Pen – Rising From The Ashes

The capitol of Cambodia is a raw and bustling entanglement of street venders, vehicles, businessmen, bicycles and sidewalk restaurants. Motorbike and tuk tuk drivers ask each passerby if they need a ride. Police sit in corner restaurants or stand by street intersections and observe the daily chaos.

As I walk around the city there is an unmistakeable friendliness that fills the air. Despite the poverty and long working hours of the people there are smiles everywhere. People want to get to know you. As I walked to the river one tuk tuk driver asked if I wanted a ride, “Tuk tuk?” “No, I am walking.” As point my index and middle finder down and move them back and forth as legs walking. “Oh….. Walking!” The driver pauses smiles and adds, “Walking is good too.”

Highlights in Phnom Pen include visiting the Royal Palace, National History Museum and walking by the river. It was a meaningful experience to visit the museums and memorial for the the victims of Pol Pots reign. Above all however, I enjoyed attending two Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) performances at the National Museum.

The CLA was formed in 1998 by Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. About ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists were killed during the reign of Khmer Rouge and the traditional arts were at risk of extinction. The CLA was formed to keep the traditional Cambodian arts alive with a focus of providing opportunities for under privileged children to learn the arts and further pursue their educational endeavors.

My time in the capitol city proved that people are resilient and where there is a spark, a flame can be rekindled in the human spirit.

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The Red Khmer

When I was in grammar school, in a land I did not know, a horror overcame an entire country called Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the political party that won a revolution and their leader Pol Pot began a harsh rule to cleanse an entire nation. In four years he would be responsible for the deaths of two to three million of his own people. More than a quarter of his countries population.

Anyone who was educated or appeared educated were especially vulnerable. Schools and places of worship were closed and many in these institutions were executed. Teachers, monks, artists, doctors, business men and those with “soft hands” or who wore glasses, giving the appearance of being educated, were especially vulnerable. Children were executed with the parents because Pol Pot did not want the children to grow up with revenge against the government in their heart.

Complete cities were evacuated to camps to work in the field since city dwellers were also a root of evil. Families were separated.

Peasants from the country were Pol Pot’s heroes. However, even the peasants were treated harshly. People did not have enough food. The only religion the people needed was the new government.

As I walked up the steps at S21, a high school that was turned into an interrogation center and prison, my mind flashed to when I was a principal walking up the steps of our high school. As I walked the stairs, I thought about the principal and the teachers who worked here. ‘Did they live long enough to see what the new government would do to their students…their colleagues? Could they do anything at all before dying? How can anyone do this to children?’ As I walked from classroom to classroom little was left to the imagination as photographs of the executed were hung about. Pot instructed, “Better to kill an innocent then let an enemy survive.”

People were interrogated and tortured for hours everyday. They pulled out their finger nails from their hands, used electric shock, beat, hung them upside down and dunked them into water and cut them open with tools that should be used only for farm work.

Officials hauled truckloads of their countrymen to be executed in killing field locations all over this country. At times the victims would have to dig their own grave pits before they were knelt down beside the pit and executed.

In addition to S21, I visited one of the killing fields. After going to Rwanda just a few months ago I was going to bypass this place. I was not sure if my heart could bear witness to another genocide of a people. However, I believe that it is important that we visit, talk and write about these things so that the unthinkable never happens again.

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Final Thoughts to Consider–

After Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese in 1979, rescuing the people from this hell, the ousted government was still recognize by the UN and many western governments for years. Many governments, including the United States, continued to financially support the Khmer Rouge which had fled into hiding. As I am here in Cambodia, I wonder how our western governments pick winners and losers in these third world countries. I also encourage you to consider:

1) Why our governments are more interested in helping people who are experiencing genocide and crimes against humanity when those people live on a land with great natural resource?

2) When our government choses a side, how do we know they have chosen correctly?

BOROBUDUR

Surrounded by three volcanoes the center of the Java island rainforest sits the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere and it is called Borobudur. Built in the ninth century by the Saliendra dynasty, this temple soars ten levels and contains over twenty-five hundred panel reliefs.

The temple reads like a book teaching the pilgrim though the carved pictures in the stone. Visitors travel around each level in a clockwise direction, following the path to enlightenment.

The first levels, called Sphere of Desire, are dedicated to the everyday activities, chaos and desires of the human existence. These walls also explain the role karma on our choices and lives.

Walls on both sides surround you. The walls on my left, the outer walls, portray the activities of man while the inside walls, to the right, show the story of Siddhartha (Budda), from his past lives to his path to enlightenment.

The next level begins the Sphere of Form as man separates himself from greed but is not separate from the material world. It is here that the outer walls fall away and the beauty of the surrounding mountains are viewable.

Inside each of the seventy-two large stupas, which circle around these three levels, there is a large statue of Budda holding his hands in front of him, one up and one down, middle fingers touching representing the truth of the turning wheel.

On the top level we reach the Sphere of Formlessness, representing true enlightenment and attaining Nirvana. There is no form or Budda found on this level. The stupa is empty. Looking around I see the glory of this place.

Through the stupas below and above the mist in the hills I see the faint outlines of the three surrounding volcanos, including Merapi, one of the most active volcanos in the world today. I am reminded of the people who built and abandoned this place. It was because of the volcanic eruptions that work on this temple was never completed and the people relocated to safer grounds in eastern Java.

Almost a thousand years later the temple was rediscovered under the ash and volcanic remains. The temple was restored with great care in the 1970s. Many stones that were taken from the temple were recovered by the Indonesian government. Where there was a perfect match the stones were replaced in the original locations. Flat stones in the panel reliefs serve as a “placeholder” for the original stones yet to be located. Stones recovered but whose original locations are unknown lay outside of a museum nearby waiting to be reunited in there original space in temple.

Borobudur is not only a great representation of how various religions use pictures to teach and a great demonstration of ancient methods of measurement and construction but also is a tribute to the modern engineering skill used to preserve such ancient wonders.

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Dragons, Mantas and Sting Rays! Oh My!

The journey to Flores Island is a rough one, when sailing is impossible due to the tempestuous seas in January and February. During this time, you must either fly, by first backtracking to Bali, or take the bus and ferry route. I chose the adventure. Thirty-one and a half hours later, I arrived on Flores Island, the gateway to the Komodo Dragons.

Once on Flores it is easy to schedule a trip or you can even go out to the docks and barter a price with a boat caption. Most trips include tracks for the dragon on both Rinca and Komodo Island and break up the trips by stopping to snorkel several reefs along the way. This time of year most people opt to sleep on the deck of the boat at night as it is cooler than the cabins.

I loved sleeping on the deck. After the caption turned off the boat generator, it looked like the stars would go on forever. Away from the modern world they peer out to play and dance in the black night. So many stars that constellations were difficult to recognize since there were so many additional specs shining in places that I have not observed before in the sky. This is the way the night was meant to be seen….In all it’s glory.

On Rinca and Komodo I stayed within a few feet of my guide during the entire hike. We were all aware that two park rangers were bit by a Komodo Dragon last week. The had just returned to the park from the hospital in Bali. I was not planning to make an early trip back to Bali and was overly cautious.

“Excuse me? That dragon is coming up pretty fast behind us. Can I walk in front of you.” I said to a ranger, knowing that dragons can run up to the speed of a horse. “Yes, don’t worry.” “Are you not afraid of them?” I asked. “Yes, I am. I think that is the reason I have never been hurt. I respect the dragon.” It sounded good to me but I wonder if those other two rangers had felt the same way before their near fatal experience.

The dragons had big claws and saliva which dripped down from their mouth. I assume that saliva contains the same bacteria that slowly kills the victim. Once dead, the dragons, which follow there prey, sometimes for days, chomp into there prize with there heavy duty teeth. I notice that the dragons walk with a purpose….Never backtracking. I wonder what is on their mind and I hope it isn’t me.

“Evon… Come look at this deer.” I walk over toward my friend and startled the deer in the process. The deer turned and just then out pops a dragon at his feet. The deer hops his front feet in the air and pushes off with its hind legs over the reach of the dragon. I think to myself, “See that dragon was hunting.” As is was the same dragon that had been walking behind us just twenty minutes earlier.

There were so many small islands and secluded beaches on the way. The rainforest was a brilliant green with all types of foliage and brown vines hanging from banyan trees. I loved sitting on the boat as it chugged onward. The water was so clear that we could see fish swimming in the shallower waters.

“Look, there’s a turtle.” Sure enough, a turtle swimming towards the side of our boat. Also the way to Komodo we saw a large pod of dolphins jumping out of the water in a parade like fashion, one behind another, a short distance from the boat. Later, when I was sitting on the bow of the boat, two dolphins jumped up twice just a couple meters away from me. We all clapped like school children at the sight of them.

My favorite part of the trip was the snorkeling. The advice I was given was correct…..I would now agree that this is some of the best snorkeling in the world. In addition to the fish I saw in the Gills, there was even more bountiful and diverse aquatic life here. The coral was more pronounced with bolder shapes and colors. Maroon, green, blue, purple, yellow…Some enormous and sturdy brain coral covered the sea floor and other coral fanned out providing a perfect place for little fish to dart in and out.

At one point I was swimming along and directly beneath me a sting ray raced from under his coral hiding place out to sea. It only took a few split seconds for him to disappear again.

When we reached manta point is was clear how it was named. Huge manta rays moving on the bottom of the sea floor with just a soft fan of its wings. “Are you ready to snorkel?” “Is it safe?” I reply. “Sure….Just watch out for the jelly fish. If you get caught in the current that is okay. We will come around and get you.” The three travelers on our boat decided to go even though the guide was going to watch us from the boat.

The mantas were so large and graceful. I loved watching them. “Come over here.” My guide yells out from the boat. “There are too big ones here.” I decided to swim out to where the boat had just been circling. After about ten meters, I can feel the current pushing back towards me. It is amazing how fast the current changes here.

I arrive directly above a huge manta ray and I have to continue to take long powerful strokes to stay above the manta who is motionless on the sea floor. It feels like I am in one of those new Hydropools I have seen on television and think they actually might work if they can duplicate this experience.

“It’s so graceful!” I yell back to my guide. I look down again in the water. Another slick black manta ray joins the large manta I had been watching. Then with a graceful partial flap of their wings they leave me behind.

I swim back to my friends looking for jelly fish as I swim. I adjust my stoke and turn slightly to let each float by me. We continue to observe the mantas until we spot five jelly fish in a lump and decided it was time to get in the boat. Swimming with the mantas was definitely the highlight my trip.

Yes, even in January and February, the trip is worth the effort to get here and should not be missed when in this part to the world. However….I will add that I am flying back to Bali.

-Please note the under water manta ray photos were captured by Eric Van De Put, Holland. Who had been diving on manta point the following day. Thanks Eric!

-Also note that the blue fish by the manta rays are just larger than my pinky finger.

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The Gili Islands – All The Little Fishes

There are over 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Bali is only one of them. A week and a half ago I had never heard of the Gili Islands. It seemed to be the place all the backpackers were talking about. “Don’t even waste your time in Kuta. It is nothing like it used to be.” I heard that over and over. That is one nice thing with backpacking, the “buzz” is always more correct than an outdated Lonely Planet guidebook. So, while in Ubud I bought a ticket for the “the speed boat” and I was on my way.

There are three Gili Islands and all have a different personality to them. Gili Meno is the quietist Island. And no wonder since it has mosquitoes…..I choose not to go there. Gili Trawangan has the most development and the most tourists. Gili Air is less developed and though would be perfect in the high season, right now it seemed almost too quiet for me.

It is easy to jump over to different islands for the day. We were were really happy we spent a day snorkeling on Gili Air as we saw many different varieties of aquatic life here.

Since it was the low tourist season on the islands, I found Gili Trawangan a perfect place to hang my hat. The cost of the rooms are about half the price than in the summer and the weather was perfect. The entire time I was there only three of us occupied this hotel and we had the beach front and umbrellas to ourselves.

The nicest thing about all three islands is that there are no vehicles or motor bikes allowed. Once here you have to walk, ride a bicycle or pay a flat rate to ride a cart pulled by a pony to travel anywhere on the island.

There are no police on these islands but there seems to be no need. I guess if something “happens” there is a “guy in charge” that will resolve the issue. Though I think it is the permanent inhabitants that watch out for their own island. One time someone tried to brings a motorbike on Gili Trawangan and the locals threw it in the water. It is still visible to new comers as a reminder of the no vehicle policy.

In many ways I think I have stepped back into time…. This must have been the way beaches used to be in more famous places before being taken over by developed resorts. All accommodations are steps away from the water. In low season it is not uncommon to spend twenty to forty dollars a day on accommodation. The cost of lunch has been about two dollars a day. An expensive meal would cost seven to eight dollars. No snorkel gear? That’s okay…The place next door has gear for three dollars a day.

The snorkeling is incredible. Just a few feet off our beach we started seeing fish. Then a huge turtle! Wow. We just floated and watched this giant turtle eat on the bottom of the sea. Several minutes later he, ever so gracefully, moved his fins forward and glided to the surface for air.

The were bright electric blue and aqua fish that darted about. There were fish whose color blended in with either the sandy bottom or lime green coral surroundings each tried to appear invisible beside. There were small black and white angel fish swimming energetically and big vibrant yellow angel fish gracefully floating by their reef.

There were grey fish with orange, white, blue and purple highlights. Long transparent fish with needle noses that pointed an inch out from their faces. You could see their long spine within.

We saw a puff fish and a cutter fish with sides that rolled up and down like a flag in the wind. I loved the medium size fish with purple, pink and blue colored pastels. How lovely.

There were also fish as big as a trunk of a person. One of these was busy feeding on the coral when someone I was snorkeling with decided to get a closer look. This large fish did not like that and swam directly towards him. When the fish opened his mouth we saw it had teeth. Now the mouth was smaller than my fist and we we in no danger but our friend was sure he had just had a possible brush with death.

My favorite fish was at least two feet long and had the most brilliant colors. Bright purple and yellow splotches on the sides and tail and vibrant aqua on his face.

Off the shores of Gili Air they had millions of these little light blue minnow fish which darted about us in these massive schools of fish. Just as I thought, “Wow, really cool”, then they all changed directions unison and darted the other way. This is just a few of the countless varieties of aquatic life we encountered. More than once I thought I felt like I was in the middle of the Nemo Movie.

The people here are pretty laid back. The locals and businessmen do not haggle tourists on the beach or when walking down the road unlike in other Asian cities. One only has to say “no” once to be left alone. Restaurants are “open until closed” and no one seems to be running on a set time. Some may say that has to do with the availability of magic mushrooms but I think it is the island life.

We had to laugh one Monday as our hotel restaurant was closed for the day and it was lunch time. We had been sitting on the beach for hours and we getting pretty hungry. “I will ask if they have take out at the place next door?” James, who was staying at our hotel announced. A few minutes later he came back with a smile on his face, “No food there but he did say he had some magic mushrooms and marijuana to offer.” Needless to say we found take out somewhere else.

The snorkeling was some of the best I have ever seen. The sheer beauty of these islands makes this one of my favorite beaches ever. The absence of noise pollutants and few people makes this one of the most relaxing places I have ever been. It is not easy to get out to these islands but if you do you will not be disappointed.

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