Warning: Waran!!

On another hot sunny day in southern Thailand we decided to walk on up the road to Khao Lak National Park. It’s a small park (parklet?), on the coast.

Khao Lak, Thailand

Khao Lak, Thailand

It’s the typical jungly sort of place, with hanging vines and strange flowers. DS1_2058

Khao Lak National Park

Khao Lak National Park

We had the park to ourselves as everyone else was sensibly back in air conditioned rooms or by the pool or beach. I found a spot on the rocks to take in the scenery.DS1_2040

Uwe was happy trying to capture a shot of the crabs scuttling along; I gazed off across the Andaman Sea.DS1_2043

A form out in the water came into focus. Something about it was off. The proportions were all wrong. And the size. And the shape; everything about it was odd.DS1_2012

“Uwe, what’s that? Do you see it?” I asked. By now I was standing with one hand shading my eyes, trying to identify what was in the water and heading our way. And then I did.

Look! It's a fish! No, it's an alligator! No, it's a... swimming giant lizard?!?!

Look! It’s a fish! No, it’s an alligator! No, it’s a… swimming giant lizard?!?!

My next comment was a loud “Holy s=&%!!!” and I backed up as the largest lizard I’ve ever seen emerged from the ocean and climbed up onto the same set of rocks, not three feet away.

DS1_2024The thing was bigger than I am. And defnitely more threatening – long curved claws, wicked powerful legs, and jaws that just went on stretching, showing way too many teeth.

Monitor Lizard, a.k.a. Waran, a.k.a. Stepchild of Godzilla...

Monitor Lizard, a.k.a. Waran, a.k.a. Stepchild of Godzilla…

I started moving away as I wondered with some part of my brain (the reptilian stem, no doubt!) if we could outrun the waran (probably not) or survive an attack (unlikely). But the… thing…. lumbered off in the opposite direction across the rocks. Thank goodness! I thought.DS1_2026

Where I saw a painful death from crushing jaws, Uwe looked through his lens at the photographer’s opportunity of a lifetime. My husband chased it. “Uh, honey, don’t you think maybe it’ll get aggressive if you get too close?” I nervously suggested. Not only I was going to have to bag his messy remains in about 5 minutes, but I’d need to fight the critter for the camera, just to have proof that I hadn’t lured Uwe into the park to murder him.

DS1_2031He ignored me and kept pace with the lizard across the rocks. DS1_2035DS1_2037Later he explained, “I wanted just one good shot of it flicking its tongue out! I didn’t get that close, really.” Silly me. So what if a prehistoric stepchild of Godzilla might be dangerous?

We’re still marveling at the close encounter, and weren’t surprised to learn that only the Komodo dragon is larger than the monitor lizard, or waran. The water monitor we saw was an easy 6 feet long.

These clever reptiles not only are strong swimmers: they climb trees to raid birds’ nests, too. Hey, you know what? The next time we go to Khao Lak, I think I might just hang out at the pool.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Chugging Slowly Upriver in Northwest Burma, Part 2

We had arranged in Sittwe for a guide, a boat and a special day visa in order to travel on to the semiautonomous Chin State. The ethnic Chin struck a deal with the Myanmar government at the Panglong Conference. The Chin won’t fight for their own independent state. In return the government basically leaves them alone to manage their affairs.

As we headed up the river the small boat traveled slowly. It was the last day of the year, a calm morning with no winds.

Sky and water reflected one another like twin mirrors.

In a mirror

In a mirror

We sailed on for several hours, and I was overtaken by a sense of displacement that was complete. It was preternaturally still, so quiet and without movement that it seemed we had sailed to a place located somewhere between firmament and earth. It wasn’t quite attached to either.

Finally the boat came to a stop and we debarked and began our walk up into the first Chin village. The villages are extremely remote and what makes them extraordinary (for us anyway) is the fact that the Chin practice the art of tattooing. The tradition had been strongly discouraged by the government since the 60’s, and was believed to have almost died out.

In the villages we sailed to by boat, only the old women were reputed to still have the facial tattoos. The men had gone out into the jungle and gathered the materials necessary for the tattooing process. Several days of painstaking tattoo work ensued; only faces of  young teenaged girls were transformed.

We walked through the village with our guide talking to the locals.

Chin village path

Chin village path

Pigs and puppies tumbled on the path as people worked. The tamped dirt was cleared and clean.

After perhaps 20 minutes of walking through the village and watching and being watched, the female elders suddenly appeared to meet us.

Part 3 to be posted soon.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

2,000,000 Wrinkle-lipped Bats

Gabe had seen places, either accompanied by a friend or alone, that were magic. All the hardships of individual travel had been amply rewarded as he stood with the driver and guide and watched while millions of wrinkle-lipped bats flew from a cave on a hill in central Thailand. ThaiBats It was dusk when the car came to a stop on a plain with no one in sight, the sun a bright red disk sailing below the horizon. Gabe got out of the car just as the first bats emerged from the cave. ThaiBats2These were followed by more, and more, and more, an impossible number of flying mammals swooping and looping in ribbons across the skies.ThaiBats9 “Each bat will cover up to 200 kilometers of hunting grounds tonight before they’re done,” the guide told him.

Gabe heard them calling to one another, the rustle of millions of wings unlike anything he’d ever experienced. His view across the plain was filled with the streams of flying creatures dark against the crimson of the deepening night sky. ThaiBats3ThaiBats7There was not a single other human being anywhere, no buildings, no roads, no signs of human civilization, only the twisting spirals of the bat colony in the air. ThaiBats4The men stood for over two hours as the bats sailed overhead. Gabe waited until it was too dark to make out the shapes of the bats before he turned away, images of flight burned onto his retinas and his memory.

– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to my post Death On A Wet Road Between Towns Without Names for more of Gabe’s travels.

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It Was a Bitterly Cold -22°

For 14 years my husband spent half of every winter up in northern Sweden, working on a frozen lake. The engineers flew up for 2 week stints, leaving home on Mondays and returning two weeks later on a Friday evening charter flight.

The very last year that Uwe did this stint, his company began to allow family members to take advantage of the flights. At the end of March 2001, on the vernal equinox, I flew up to meet Uwe in the region broadly known as Lappland.

Limited access roads

My flight was delayed while President Putin flew through European airspace back to Russia. By the time I arrived it was close to midnight, and we had to drive an hour further north to reach Arjeplog. It was a bitterly cold -22° and on either side of the deserted road the snow piles loomed. But we kept stopping the car to get out – the Northern Lights were dancing in the heavens! So far north, surrounded by nothing but woods and the glittering of stars, the aurora borealis played across the horizen.

I heard a weird background swishing noise underneath the sound of my heart beat. I was listening to the borealis. As I stood on the frigid road my optic nerves took pictures of the Northern Lights. It was so quiet that the part of my brain which processes sound picked up signals leaking out from the images. Early explorers in the Arctic Circle reported this experience. (They discovered when they put their hands over their eyes, the sounds went away.)

The Lights are caused by disturbance in the magnetic field of the earth’s poles. Energy generated by solar winds is hurled from the sun at incredibly high speeds. The solar winds get stopped when they hit the magnetic field. Electrons and atoms from the windstorms collide, and that creates the lights.

In some parts of Sweden and Norway, people earlier described the aurora borealis as the reflection of Silleblixt, millions of herring swimming in the sea. The Eskimos have a legend about the Northern Lights. They think the aurora borealis lights up the trail of the afterlife. This is a dangerous, narrow path that souls must take when they leave dead bodies and head to heaven.

Some cultures mention the lights as dancers in the heavens. Scotsmen call the Northern Lights ‘Merry Dancers’. In the Middle Ages, if people saw the Northern Lights and they contained red, it meant a war was starting somewhere in the world. The red color was death and the blood being spilled in battles. I just saw different shades of white lights and no other colors in the spectrum. And I definitely thought they were alive, like dancers.

The next day we drove north and officially crossed into the Arctic Circle. The trees ended altogether and the landscape beyond this point was a dome of snow meeting an azure sky.

It had warmed up to -6° and the day was clear and beautiful

The Swedes refer to this time of year as winter-spring, the 5thand most beautiful season of all. I made a snow angel

A snow angel for the Arctic Circle

and spotted a rare Arctic white ptarmigan. We drove past spots on the deserted roads where black garbage bags hung dark against the snow. These are a signal for drivers that a herd of reindeer is grazing somewhere nearby.

That weekend is the only time I have seen the Northern Lights. They have danced in my memories ever since.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Our Vacation of the Rocks

We fondly refer to one trip we took as “Our Vacation of the Rocks”. We did a long loop of the American SW’s national parks. From the Grand Canyon we went to Zion, on to Grand Staircase/Escalante, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands National Park and Arches. We spent a few days at Mesa Verde and then headed south into New Mexico. We ended our trip back in Arizona at the Chiracahua National Monument Wilderness and the Sonoran Desert Park.

Canyonlands

We had a national park pass and drove from one incredible natural site to the next. We spent each day in our hiking boots, holding a park map. The quality of the stones we clambered over changed daily. It was all stunningly beautiful, the hard landscapes like being on the surface of the moon. (Bonus points for those of you paying careful attention: I’ll refer back to this post when I get around to writing about Hampi, India and Mount Teide, Tenerifa.) We hiked up, around and over endless variations on red striped rocks and hillocks of crumbling yellow sandstone. We picked out way down hillsides scrubby with deceptively harmless-looking small cacti.

Watch your step at the Grand Canyon!

I needed to replace my worn-out day pack. In Moab, Utah I headed into a well stocked mountain bike shop; the young salesman actually sneered when I insisted that I didn’t want a high end all weather multi purpose pack. “I just need something for day hikes,” I repeated. He lifted the inferior item with one finger and dropped it on the counter in front of me. It was perfect (and, to this day 10 years later, I still get good use out of it).

I bought turquoise jewelry at a pawnshop in Gallup, New Mexico. We got to watch a naturalization ceremony in Sante Fe that was quite moving. Immigrants from at least 20 countries stood up when the judge called out the name of the country these new Americans hailed from.

We ate posole and regional Mexican-American dishes. In a Tucson restaurant we watched incredulous while a hot sauce seller set out samples on a table for the owner to try. One of them, he cautioned, was so hot that just one drop of the stuff would burn a hole in his tongue if he tried to taste it like a ‘normal’ hot sauce. (No, we did not try it!)***

Arizona’s Chiricahua Wilderness is like hiking through high stacks of pancaked rock. From beneath some brush a rattlesnake sounded a warning. I waited for the Swedish family I had heard talking on the trail behind us and pointed out the snake to their small boys. We met the family back up at the parking lot later, and the parents came over when they saw me. “Since we started planning this trip our boys have talked about nothing but how much they want to see a rattler! Thank you for making their vacations!” I laughed pleased (really I’d mentioned the snake both to warn the perhaps uninitiated, also to slow them down on the trail so that Uwe and I could have the section up ahead for ourselves). But I did feel I’d done a good deed.

Uwe loves the ‘otherness’ of the landscapes of the SW. I revel in the unabashed raw open nature. Rocks, stone, mountains and ravines, gorges and arches: all that geological strata. My heart resides in the leafy wooded Adirondacks, but any region with so much dedicated parkland is dear to me.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

What is astonishing about the Southwest is the balance of stony terrain, flora and fauna. Cities will rise and fall; we build beautifully, or dreadfully, and reap our efforts or laziness. Mother Nature took millions of years to figure out what works. Maybe we should take our cue from her.

*** A side comment for any enterprising cooks out there: southern Germany needs a real Mexican restaurant. I have yet to find a great Mex spot! If you come here and open a restaurant, you will win hungry hearts and minds.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

The Outback

In The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough vividly depicts a turn of the century sheep ranch in the Australian Outback. The hardships of working an unforgiving landscape, conditions that seem too extreme to be real, and the isolation are all accurately portrayed.

You’re already yawning, right?

All right then, how about this? In The Thorn Birds, young heroine Meggie and the priest Father Ralph de Bricassart, many years her senior, fall in love. Their life long passion is both forefront and backdrop to the fates of a family in the Outback.

That caught your attention!

I’m not usually one for the guilty pleasure of romance novels, but this one works on so many levels that it’s irresistible. Whether as romance, family saga, or historical portrayal, The Thorn Birds is a great read. It’s also accurate to a fault. As you read this book, you experience Australia’s hard climate along with McCullough’s characters.

Uwe and I drove through a small portion of the Western Australia Outback. Our goal was the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and we had a long, stop-every-3-hours to stretch our legs drive to do. The Coolgardie-Esperance Highway goes on with no bends or turns (and very few trees).

We halted briefly in Norseman

Norseman, Western Australia

and purchased sandwiches and drinks for a planned picnic stop. But there was a problem: no picnic tables anywhere. We drove and drove. Why, on such an endless highway, were there were no facilities?

We finally gave up and pulled over to the side of the road.

At least there was a tree and some shade

Note the deep red soil

I got out of the car and spread lunch on the hood. I was too hungry to wait for Uwe, so I unwrapped my sandwich and yummy cake, and gazed out into the endless empty brush.

The Indian Ocean is somewhere on the other side of those mountains

Every fly in the endless empty brush left wherever they’d been snoozing. Within seconds my eyes and mouth, my hands and arms, and my lunch were engulfed with fat hungry insects. My sandwich was rendered way beyond salvaging; it had vanished under layers of crawling flies. I wrapped everything back into a bag to throw away later and contented myself with a piece of fruit (eaten in the car, with the windows all closed).

In case you’re eating your own lunch as you read this I won’t tell you what it is in The Thorn Birds that’s covered in flies. But man, that McCullough sure can write!

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Baum, Bats, and Monkeys

Both sides of my family hail from the Northeast. We lived for a while in Cazenovia, one of the most beautiful small towns in upstate NY. Caz is just a few miles from Chittenango Falls, and that town was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz.

My sisters and I first saw The Wizard of Oz film on an old black and white television set we called Lucille. Lucille was temperamental (“Dad! Lucille’s on the fritz again!”), but her screen was big.

It was years before I finally saw The Wizard of Oz on a color television. How I gasped when Dorothy opened that door and stepped out into Munchkin Land! But in color or black and white, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.

Balinese Barong

Some years ago my husband and I traveled to Bali. The Balinese fill their temples with statues of the strange half-bird, half-god creature known as Garuda, a lion-like Barong, lots of sinuous snakes, and Hanuman the monkey god. The cultural heart of Bali is Ubud, home to the Monkey Forest which contains the Monkey Temple. I wrapped a sarong around my waist before we entered to show respect, and I know I was curious as to what we’d find.

The temple grounds were filled – no, overrun – with crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys. Dozens of them rested on the platforms to the Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal temple. Many more watched us from up in the canopy of thick jungle trees and vines. But worst of all, a horde of monkeys scampered our way as we drew near. They were used to people and accustomed to visitors who bring them food. We walked slowly, not making any sudden movements, keeping our arms stretched out with our hands opened. I hoped my empty palms signaled: no food here!

Monkey Temple Gang

Monkey Temple Gang

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we left the grounds. But I wonder about the sanity (to say nothing of the later health) of tourists who bring bananas and fruit to hand to the macaques. Those critters are feral!

Bali has another disturbing indigenous species: bats.

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Bali bats from hell

A huge colony of the largest fruit eating bats I have ever seen, all with wingspans of an easy three feet, hung upside down in a very tall tree. I was horrified by their size.

Then they began flying. In the middle of the day. Bright tropical sun highlighted the reddish membranes of their webbed skins. They flew in loops, more and more gigantic bats, circling lower. I began to feel dizzy as a scratchy voice in my head murmured, “I’ll get you, my little pretty …”

Macaques and bats had morphed together into L. Frank Baum’s flying monkeys. Never underestimate the power of imagination in children…or adults. That movie scene still haunts me. Like I said, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.

PS: But, do go to Bali!

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)