Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kicking Butt and Counting Flowers on the Kepler Track

Josh and I decided to spend Christmas hiking the Kepler Track. We knew we'd be away from family, far far away in New Zealand, in the summertime as opposed to our normal winter holiday season, and we figured where else would we feel at home than in the wilderness? So we booked ourselves on one of New Zealand's nine Great Walks.

Normally when we Americans think about taking a walk, it is a shortish excursion. But that is not the case in New Zealand where the term "walk" is really a euphemism for a "long, hard slog" or an "arduous adventure with great views" or what-have-you. Still, we were game and even though I hadn't been able to don my tennie shoes in over a month because of a massive scab bursting from the back of my heel, we set out on this wee walk/adventure.

Normally, one hikes the Kepler Track in a counter-clockwise direction, starting in Te Anau, then sleeping in the Luxmore, Iris Burn and Moturau huts before completing the loop back to Te Anau. Because we were late to book (only deciding two months in advance) we weren't able to hike in the usual direction or book consecutive night stays in all three huts. So our trek went as follows:

  • Day 1: Take a shuttle from our hostel in Te Anau to the Rainbow Reach car park and hike a gradual incline for 22.2 km (13.8 miles) to the Iris Burn Hut.
  • Day 2: Relax and recuperate at the Iris Burn Hut with day hikes to the waterfall and nearby river beach to be eaten alive by sand flies.
  • Day 3: Hike straight up and then across a ridge for 14.6 km (9.1 miles) to the Luxmore Hut and then drag our exhausted butts on a side trip to the glorious and quite wet Luxmore Cave.
  • Day 4: Hike 13.8 km (8.6 miles) mostly downhill to the Kepler Track car park and hitch a ride with some friendly expats back to Te Anau.

All and all, we covered more than 50 km (31 miles) in 4 days including more than 3,000 ft of vertical elevation gain and drop. Let's just say, I was beat at the end of each day and Josh came up with a new phrase for describing my end-of-day stride: the Zombie Waddle. Nice, isn't he? Alas, it was an apt description and I can't fault him for that, especially as he carried the majority of our gear.

Exhibit A: Josh's pack (at left); Mine (at right). Yes, he is a good husband. :)

In addition to the Zombie Waddle, I also found another way to pass my time on the trail--counting wildflower varieties. I found 57 different types in all! Yes, fifty-seven! That is not a typo. And they were all different, although some were less different than others--such as the small white daisy with the green center (top right) same same with the hairy yellow center (bottom right), larger version with a yellow center (top left) biggest version with a hairy stem (bottom left) and whatnot (unpictured plethora).

I also spotted several nearly microscopic flowers growing on moss and in what gardeners call bedding. Those came in little yellow varieties, white stars, white bells, white bells with red stripes, gray cactus creations, and a few other not-so-exciting-but-it's-still-a-new-variety-goddamnit! types.

My favorite was either this barely lavender beauty (lower left) or this bluish orchid-like flower (top right) or maybe one of these white ones, it was hard to pick!

Most of the flowers were seen in abundance, sometimes prompting irritation when I realized that I had already seen that one. A few were one-timers that I was bummed not to see again (or photograph the first time). Still the flower hunt kept me moving forward as my feet cried out for me to stop and my calves threatened to lock up and drop me on my face. Josh, meanwhile, maintained his chipper charm and pulled dozens of smiles across my face as we starred out on ever more impressive landscapes.

Yes, we really did hike through all these landscapes and more in our four day Christmas extravaganza!


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Things We Carry

Every day we carry things, physical things like our wallet and cell phone and intangible things like our past and relationships with loved ones. Traveling with all my belongings on my back really makes me think about what I choose to carry and what I choose to leave behind. It also makes me contemplate what I ask others to carry for me.

Last week I trekked to a lodge in the mountains of Nepal. We hired porters to carry most of our belongings, something I have done only one other time in my life -- nearly a decade ago when Josh and I trekked to Machu Picchu in Peru on our honeymoon. And just like before I felt oddly conflicted over whether it was right to hire someone to carry my things. At home, I love to backpack and I normally carry everything I need (although Josh often carries more than half our shared gear). So I wondered what about being in another country made it okay to pay a stranger to carry my things?

I'll start by revealing what I didn't let them carry for me, the things I carried myself:

  1. My first aid kit, a change of bandage for my recently surgeried foot, neosporin to spread on any new wound.
  2. My purple down jacket and wool beanie to guard against possible foul weather.
  3. The case to protect my sunglasses and Chapstick for my lips.
  4. A collapsible dusty blue baseball cap I knew I should wear but couldn't bring myself to do so.
  5. My passport stuffed with spare Nepali rupees and old airplane ticket stubs.
  6. My tiny wallet with cash, credit cards and my U.S. driver's license -- never leave home without it.
  7. Our old point-and-shoot camera in its new Nepali-made fabric case.
  8. A red water bottle acquired in South Africa nearly a year ago which leaks when I'm not careful and which I've embellished by slapping on a sticker advertising my friends' paragliding tour group in Thailand.
  9. A map of the area where we are hiking, minus a compass to help me get my bearing. I decide that the GPS on my iPhone will serve that purpose in a pinch.
  10. My small green headlamp -- ever the Girl Scout, ready for calamity, hopeful for an easy trip.
  11. A fruit leather and granola bar to alleviate sudden hunger or low blood sugar.
  12. A pair of purple trekking poles to ease my journey.
  13. Two little notebooks and a pen for jotting down inspiration.
  14. My cold, congestion in my sinuses, phlegm in my throat, which I spit out from time to time, lightening my load.

All this was packed into a tiny red waterproof backpack (15). Although my load was light, it was much more than I am used to. Josh has been carrying me in so many ways over the last eight months I've forgotten what it feels like to be self-sufficient without him.

And yet, I am not. The Nepali porters carried my change of clothes, my iPad and its charger, my watercolor paper and paints, my toiletries, vitamins and medications, my flip flops and extra snacks. For this I tipped them $10 US and I felt weird about it. Who am I to burden strangers with my things? And yet I also wondered who I would be to take a stand against porters making a living by carrying things for tourists? This is an important source of income for many Nepalis and my stuff was not particularly heavy. They are fitter for hiking than I am and they wear good shoes, unlike the Peruvian porters that schlepped our stuff up mountains in cheap plastic flip flops. I smiled at the porters and tried not to complain when my still-healing foot was angered by the rugged terrain and my light pack.

I wonder too about the things the porters carry which I cannot see. Do they carry the debt of share cropping? The sorrow of family members without enough to eat? The joy of a new child on the way? The dreams of a better life? Do they carry resentment or gratitude towards foreigners like me? These things I do not know, nor do they know the other hidden things I carry. The titanium plate and seven screws in my right ankle, the first aid kit in my pack, the passport stuffed with money, the heart that misses my husband, the eyes that see sorrow and beauty in the same vista.

For me, traveling creates a space where I can ponder these things. Where I don't have to rush about to catch the bus or crunch one last number before an important meeting. It provides time for me to reflect on the meaning of my life and the possible meanings of other people's lives as we move side-by-side on the same path with different destinations.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Moving Mountains

Note: The last couple weeks I have been in Nepal traveling with a group of writers, photographers and poets. Together we made up a Deep Travel workshop led by a dear friend of mine in partnership with two other amazing women. We saw things I never saw during my first visit to Nepal in 2011 and I thought about my writing and what I have to say in new and challenging ways. Our final writing exercise was an invitation to write a short vignette about an experience we had in Nepal and describe it with imagery and our reflections. Below is what I choose to write and then read aloud at our final dinner and celebration.

Three baby goats scamper across a slate-shingled rooftop, startled as an old man tosses corrugated metal onto the roof. Sheet after sheet, he stacks the flexing material, anchoring it in place with a few heavy rocks. I move along the stone path, deeper into the hillside village.

A little girl in ragged green sweatpants and a dirty gray shirt approaches me. She is curious but unsure. I say, "Namaste Bahini" (hello, little sister) in hopes she will understand. I cover my eyes with my hands and then throw them off, shouting "peek-a-boo!" She is solemn at first, but then gets the joke and starts to laugh. We play at this for a few minutes, her laughter growing with each iteration.

Suddenly she grabs my hand as if I'm a ghost that might disappear. She leads me straight to the stone yard where her young mother is shaking the rice seeds from their husks. The girl's mother brings out a multi-colored rattan stool for me. It is not optional and I oblige. The little girl perches on her own stool, smiling into my face. We don't speak the same language and I wish I had paid more attention in my Nepali Language class a few days before.

A second girl joins us--more confident than the first. She tugs on my dangly cut metal earrings so different from the gold hoops she and her friend wear. She is inquisitive and unbothered by my otherness. We gaze into each other's eyes, scrunch up our noses and giggle. Our faces are so close I can almost feel her breath on me. Snot runs from her nose, but I don't care. She is like my little niece, a treasured jewel, a lick of honey in sour lemon tea. She picks up my left hand slapping it against my right, playing me like an instrument as she sings a song in Nepali.

A third girl joins us, this one smaller than the other two. She wears a pink hoodie whose zipper has broken long ago and is now stitched shut. Her eyes are bright and her smile uncertain as she asks me questions in Nepali which I cannot understand. The three circle around, tug at me, touching me with abandon, like blind children trying to see me through their dirt encrusted fingertips. Within a few moments, I have ceased to be the weird white woman intruding into their village and have become their plaything. I am loving it.

And yet I know that this cannot last. I will return to the lodge to toss back handfuls popcorn and happy hour cocktails with my travel companions and live in my world apart from these girls. And they will likely grow up to become women with very few options. Someday soon, their joy and spontaneity will be replaced by days full of dirty laundry and share cropping. Silently, I ache for these three precious girls and all the others like them in Nepal, the USA and around the world who don't have the right to do what they love. The grand views of Annapurna South and the Himalayas that evoke endless possibility for me seem but an insurmountable barrier for the Nepali women who lack the freedom to choose their own destiny in this land of dust and poverty.

A village near Gurung Lodge.
Drying corn and ragged prayer flags stand watch over the village along with a black dog.
The remaining two goats after the third has jumped down to safety.

My little Bahini with her brother.

Such amazing smiles and laughs shared with these girls.

The school I hope these girls will someday attend.
Bahini's beautiful and young mother sifting rice.







Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hello from New Zealand (finally)!!

It has been much too long since I have written.* I wish I could say it was due to the lack of anything worth writing about. But that never seems to be the case when we're traveling. There is always something new, different or beautiful to share. And sometimes, more often than I'd like, there is something crappy to laugh about. Rather than focus on the downer side of the equation, below you'll find some tid bits from our recent day trips in and around Nelson.

*Note: it's not exactly true to say I haven't written, because I have been writing. I am working on my first novel for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it known). So far I've written over 30,000 words and hope to make it to 50,000 by the end of the month. But this fictional narrative has gotten in the way of me writing the nonfiction that is our daily lives and, for that, I am sorry.

Nelson is a cute town of about 60,000 people on the north coast of New Zealand's South Island. It is a sunny spot when there are clouds and rain all around and there is plenty to do within an hour's drive or less.

Tahunanui is a lovely beach right in town. It has soft sand that stretches for a long way (longer than I could walk with my limping foot) and the sand wraps around a little point that sticks out into the Tasman Sea. Kiteboarders can be seen playing in this shallow sandy shoal on windy afternoons. And plenty of dogs are keen to play in the small waves. One day we even saw a dozen or so brave souls in wet suits practicing their paddle board rescue skills -- either that, or they were awful surfers.

On a sunny day, the water in Nelson Bay is a lovely sea green, that color of Crayola crayon that never looked like the sea back home. In the distance are the blue mountains of the Able Tasman National Park. And on the water is the occasional bright red barge providing a highlight amongst the cool blue green hues that roll towards the horizon. It is truly breathtaking, even on rainy days of which we've had only a few.

Our first real outing from Nelson took us to the east about a half hour to Cable Bay. Again the water here is spectacular and the adjacent hillsides are green and covered with sheep that look like cream puff dotting the landscape. On the slightly rocky beach are piles of drift wood, including several pieces that function nicely as impromptu benches. Josh and I had a sit, and then I continued sitting as he strolled to the top of a hill and looked over into the bay beyond.

Our second big adventure took us up into Takaka Hill, about an hour's drive to the west. We stopped off for a short, ten-minute (even with my limping pace) walk to the Riwaka River Resurgence. The Riwaka River, like most of the rivers in the area, has significance to the original people of New Zealand, the Maoris. And the Resurgence is held particularly sacred. The pool of clear blue-green water that marks the Resurgence is quite stunning, especially when the clouds let the sun peek out. Josh and I were curious what lay beyond the pool as we speculated it would be a good size cave, but we didn't get to check it out. And no, we didn't swim in the water as it was frigid!

Further up on Takaka Hill we came to Ngarua Cave, a commercially operated cave tour. We've been on several such tours this year in South Africa and Oregon and possibly others I'm forgetting. This one was very cool, albeit half as long as it should have been. The cave is wet so a lot of the formations look like bumpy coral, which I know is special but I honestly find a bit boring. Luckily for me, there were also stalactites, stalagtites, straws, flow stones, and bones from the extinct Moa (an ostrich-like bird with no wings whatsoever). It was very pretty and I wished I had brought my headlamp and also could have ditched our tour guide who rushed us through the cave so he could get back in time for the next tour.

Having had our caving fever reawakened by Ngarau Cave, we took our rental deeper into the Kahurangi National Park along a gravel road. Knowing that our car rental insurance wouldn't cover us on thus road, Josh drove extra carefully. On the way in, we'd spotted several wild rabbits, a couple flocks of sheep and a herd of very hairy cows. After about 10km of slow going on the mostly flat road, we emerged at the trailhead. There I plopped down at a picnic table surrounded by grass to work on novel and Josh set off into the forest in search of Harwoods Hole.

Harwoods Hole reportedly drops some 183 meters from the surface into the first of many rooms that lead deep into the mountain. From the trail, you can barely see into the hole. Still, Josh enjoyed the opportunity to stretch his legs and enjoy the view.

We've have so many adventures in the area, with so many lovely photos to share, that I'm dividing this post into few shorter posts. Enjoy!


Monday, November 3, 2014

By the numbers...

This post was inspired by my good friends over at An Exposition who reported on some interesting stats for their first six months of travel. I was so excited to see my love of words and numbers come together in their thought-provoking and laugh-inducing post, that I decided to copy it. Or at least make our own version of it as Jane Austin isn't part of our adventures and we haven't been weighing our luggage... So far.


Days on the road: 294

Nights spent outside the USA: 163

Nights spent on a boat: 34

Nights spent in a spaceship (campervan): 8

Nights spent in a hospital: 1

Nights spent in a fire station: 1

Cities, towns and rural outposts we've slept in: 51

Anchorages we've slept in: 14

Where we are now: Ubud, Bali (Indonesia)

Where we're headed next: New Zealand!

Countries we've visited: 13 total

  • Australia
  • Burma (Michelle for a quickie visa run)
  • Canada
  • Fiji
  • Hong Kong (Josh, long layover)
  • Indonesia
  • Netherlands (Josh, Amsterdam layover)
  • New Zealand (Michelle, one-night layover -- so far)
  • Republic of Georgia (Josh work)
  • South Africa
  • Thailand
  • Tonga
  • USA

Planes boarded: 25 (Michelle); 30 (Joshua)

Motorbikes rented: 5

Cars rented: 4

Spaceships rented: 1

Scuba dives taken: 47 (total)

Paragliding sites flown: 12

Boats slept on: 3

Blog posts written: 79

Most popular blog post: An unfortunate series of events (or "how I broke my feet")

Second most popular blog post: This I believe...

SIM cards purchased: 12

Defective items, returned and replaced: 1 SteriPen

Epic camera fail: broken, machine washed, replaced, dropped from scooter and found, dropped from scooter and lost permanently (with 1,500,000 IDR tucked in the case)

Transportation modes: airplane, paraglider, bus, train, taxi, taxi van, taxi motorbike, tuk tuk, scooter, wheelchair, walker, crutches, kiteboard, fast dive boat, slow dive boat, jetboat, sailboat, ferry, outboard skiff, kayak, tandem sailing kayak, canoe, stand up paddle board, walking, hiking, 4WD truck, safari jeep, rental car, spaceship (campervan), SWAT armored truck, sherriff's patrol car, ambulance


Favorite places:

  • Ubud, Bali
  • Kruger National Park, South Africa
  • Pak Nam Pran, Thailand
  • Applegate Valley, Oregon
  • Sigatoka River Valley, Fiji

Least favorite places:

  • Hospital in Thailand
  • Layover in Brisbane
  • Nusa Dua, Bali

Classes taken / Skills learned:

  • Basketweaving
  • Batik
  • Silversmithing
  • Fruit carving
  • Yoga (Yin, Acro, Morning Flow, Iyengar)
  • Tai Chi
  • How to drive a stick (kinda)
  • Sailing (a little)

Purchases abroad:

  • 1 roll of pandanus leaves for weaving
  • 1 small tapa artwork
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 2 pairs of capri-length pants
  • 1 scarf
  • 1 sports bra
  • 1 rash guard top
  • 1 nalgene water bottle
  • Headlamp and batteries
  • Lots of conditioner, shampoo, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and tampons
  • Fine-tip colored markers
  • 5 notebooks

Things I haven't used but am still keeping:

  • 1 snowsuit for paragliding
  • 1 pair of warm gloves
  • 1 beanie
  • 2 long-sleeve polypropylene tops
  • 4 pairs of warm knee-high socks
  • 7 bangles
  • 1 silk sleeping bag liner
  • Car2Go membership card
  • 2 American SIM cards

Items lost: 1 fitbit, 1 tank top, 1 t-shirt, 1 snorkel, 1 shower head from a boat (recovered by Captain Jeff)

Number of times I tossed my cookies on said sailboat: 5

Rolls of fruity mentos consumed: more than 30, but less than 100

Favorite meal: Raw vegan lasagna with vegan chocolate tart in Ubud, Bali

Least favorite meal: Peri Peri chicken in South Africa

Number of massages: 11

Best massage: Thailand

Worst massage: Thailand (Shannon, you remember?)

Hair cuts: 1

Broken bones: 4

Metal parts added to fix said bones: 10

Days spent hobbling about on one foot: 83

New favorite booze: Somsung Mineu (Thai rum with lime soda -- thanks Matty!)


Favorite places:

  • Kruger National Park, South Africa
  • Porterville, South Africa
  • Pak Nam Pran, Thailand
  • Pemberton, Canada
Least favorite places:
  • Lautoka, Fiji
  • Nusa Dua, Bali

Favorite meals: Indonesian set meal at Bumbu Bali in Nusa Dua and dinner at the Long Table in Bangkok

Least favorite meal: the one that made me sick

Best meals cooked (according to Michelle): canned corned beef hash with sweet potatoes and cassava, vegan chocolate mousse

Least edible meal cooked: super spicy green curry

Longest paragliding flight: 116 km (in Thailand)

Longest scuba dive: over an hour

Deepest free dive: 35 feet

Items purchased:

  • Delorme InReach
  • Computer mouse
  • Hard drive
  • Goal Zero battery pack
  • 1 t-shirt
  • South Africa plug adapter

Items lost or broken: 1 hat, 1 camera, 1,500,000 IDR (about $125 US), 1 snorkel, 1 computer mouse, 1 printer at a hospital

Things in my bag I haven't used yet: antibiotics

In-flight movies so bad I couldn't finish them: Godzilla, Transformers

Hours worked: 615

Men seen in stirrups while treating cancer: 13

Diarrhea-free countries: 6 out of 11

Hair cuts: 5

Bottles of sunscreen consumed: 4

New favorite booze: Pinotage (South African red wine)


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ms. Crafty learns a new craft

Another country, another new craft... Or maybe two. But I'll hold off on sharing about the second one. First things first and all.

I have been wanting to try batik for decades, literally. I think I was still in elementary school when I first decided that I want to make my own fabric. And tie die did not cut it. Over the years, I've looked into fabric and yarn dying classes but couldn't work up the courage to fork over a handful of hard-earned dollars to make it happen.

That is, until Bali. Things here are affordable. And Indonesia is the center of modern batik. The tradition of dying fabrics with a wax resist dates back a long time, some say more than 1,500 years. The last couple hundred years, Indonesians living in Java have really pushed the art form farther and, lucky for me, my instructor Widya grew up in Java and has been practicing his craft in Bali for the last 25 years.

So what exactly does batik entail and what did I make this time? Well, as the saying goes, a picture is a worth a thousand words....

First I drew on paper some elephants I'd seen in South Africa's natural park. Then, I traced those onto my white cotton fabric, along with some lotus flowers and other greenery.

Next, it was time to get waxed! Not me, silly. Rather, it was time for me to attempt to retrace my pencil lines using hot wax that drips from a special tool called a chanting (or djanting, depending on who's spelling it). Yes, this wax hurts when you drip it on yourself as I inevitably discovered firsthand.

When I was done with the chanting, Kumon (Widya's brother-in-law) held my fabric up to the light, noting where it had not soaked through and then retouched my work. A lot.

Then it was time for the wax stamps. One of ways to speed up the batik process is to use bronze stamps dipped in wax and then applied to the fabric. This is also a handy way of making repetitious designs and covering the edge of the fabric which is more challenging than the middle.

With the first round of waxing done, it was finally time to paint! and paint-by-numbers I did.


I even made a cheat sheet of my design with colored pencils indicating my choices.

Using this handy color swatch as a guide. (Luckily I'm not the only Type A person in this craft!)

After the first round of painting was through, I opted to do another layer of waxing. This is totally optional, but it makes for more complicated and beautiful designs. It also takes longer, making mine a two-day project. And again proving that persistence leads to perfection... Or at least interesting results.

After waxing, comes painting. Again I relied on my trusty notes and Kumon helped out so as to speed things along.

Once the second layer of ink was dry, it was time to dunk my work five times:

  1. First in the fixative so the dyes would be permanent,
  2. Then in cold water to rinse off the fixing chemicals,
  3. Next in hot water to melt off the wax (be sure to stir well with a big stick!),
  4. Then back into the fixative to preserve the dye which was under the second layer of wax, and
  5. Finally back into the cold water for one last rinse.

Then hang to dry and celebrate!

I know you are all so impressed with my handiwork, but just in case you're having a tough time imagining what one might create in 5 days on a single project, here are some shots of Widya's and Kumon's beautiful works:

And since 2 days wasn't enough for me, I'm planning to head back into Widya's batik studio this weekend for another go.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Do nothing and feel better

I have discovered a new approach to my health. I essentially do nothing and yet feel better. Truly. Want in on my secret? It's called Yin Yoga.

So technically it's something, not nothing. But the practice is a lot like doing nothing as your muscles aren't supposed to be actively working. Instead you get into a position, find the point at which you can't go deeper, back off 20-30% (or sometimes more), and then prop yourself up so that your muscles can just relax. The result? A deeper release... all the way in your body's connective tissue. Poses are "held" for 3-5 minutes in which you essentially just try to relax, breathe and let go. Yawning is encouraged. In fact, the less you actively do, the better.

I tried Yin Yoga for the first time a little over a week ago. It was surreal.

As I lay in a somewhat contorted, but well supported back bend tears streamed down my face. It was nearly the end of my first Yin Yoga class and I tried not to be self-conscious while crying in a room of 30+ strangers. Although the purpose of the pose was to release the chest, laying with my feet tucked under me had unwound some of the damaged tissue from my accident nearly 7 months prior. In a moment of supreme clarity I realized why I had broken my feet.

No, I'm not talking about the fact that I made a bunch of bad decisions all in a row. Although, yes, that is true too. I'm referring to why it was necessary for me to break my feet.

Your feet are your foundation. Obviously. But strangely as my yoga instructor said this and as the fascia in my feet released some of their tension, I realized that breaking my feet created an opportunity for me to rediscover and redefine who I am at my core.

I grew up with the stereotypical expectations to which most women in the United States are accustomed. I would get married, have children and live happily ever after. And while I am married and happy, the assumption that I would have children has been plaguing me for years. That is, until I broke my feet and spent a month living in Oregon being introspective. It was in that safe and undistracted space that I was finally able to really embrace the truth that I do not want children.

Let me repeat that:

I do not want children.

I will not be having or raising children.

And I will live happily ever after.

Traveling around the world with my husband I have had so many people ask me how many kids we have. And when I say zero, the second question is always the same: when will we? (Or alternatively: what are you waiting for?!) For months I have felt uncomfortable telling these people that I don't want to raise children. My hope is that through this Yin Yoga practice, I can embrace my reworked foundation and confidently conclude future conversations on this topic with a simple: "no, none for me ever, thank you."

For those of you who were excited by the prospect of doing nothing and feeling better for it, don't fret. You too can practice Yin Yoga without fear of wanting to disown your children. That's not to say you won't find some other odd insight buried in your connective tissue, but I think it's doubtful that your revelations will be the same as mine. And perhaps you too will be delighted to get to know yourself better.

And for anyone who is wondering if I cry every time I do Yin Yoga... thankfully, that's only happened once. In fact, I laughed my way through another class were we shoved tennis balls into uncomfortable places like under our ribcages, which turned out to be a most excellent way to heal my bloated gut. After every class, I have found new space, mobility and/or flexibility in my body. And all for the high price of lounging like a ragdoll.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

No more canibals, I hope!

Fiji has a reputation of being a country of cannibals, rightly so as in the olden days unwelcome visitors were killed and devoured. Luckily this practice is out of vogue today, or so we'd been told.

Although we'd been in Fiji for a week, we hadn't explored its many mountains or native forests at all. From our homestay in the Sigatoka River Valley we could see majestic limestone cliffs which calling our name, begging to be explored. A quick conversation with the Fijian ladies who work at the Homestay and we learned that the famous Naihehe cave was in the vicinity. And better yet, our host Monica hadn't been before and was eager to take us.

Following the local customs, we went in search of kava to present to the village at the base of the cave. We found it for sale in the home of an Indian man, who wrapped it up nicely for us for $15 Fijian (about $7.50US).

Kava is a local root crop that when ground up and mixed with water produces an intoxicating brew. Fijians have been drinking kava for centuries and it plays an important role in local rituals and rites of passage, as well as your typical Saturday night drinking binge.

With the kava in hand, we arrived in the appointed village to ask permission to visit the cave. Normally, one of the three of us would present the kava, but although Monica speaks Fijian, she was not familiar with this ceremony and Josh and I were totally helpless knowing only hello (Bula!) and thank you (vinaka) in Fijian. A village man, who would later serve as our cave guide, offered to present the kava to his village members on our behalf. Phew!

We took off our flip flops and entered the large house. The floors were covered in tightly woven rugs made out of pandanus leaves and we sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle. Mark, our appointed representative, spoke slowly in Fijian, offering the kava as a gift, praising the village and asking that we be invited to enter their ancestral cave as friends of the village. He then handed the wrapped kava to another man who turned the it over and over in hands, saying words I did not understand but seemed to be positive. The ceremony ended with everyone smiling and us being allowed to tour the caves with Mark as our guide.

Mark presenting the kava (wrapped in newspaper and a red plastic bag).

The village elder accepting the kava and granting us permission to enter their sacred cave.

We four loaded into our rental car and drove a short ways down a muddy road to the edge of the wide but shallow Sigatoka River. Rather than pay to take a local bilibili raft across the river, we opted to wade and the cool water felt wonderful on our hot legs.

On our hike to the cave we passed an Indian family farming tobacco, climbed up a dirt slope, walked along a gravel road wide enough for two vehicles, and tromped along a narrow path in the rain forest. Finally we made it to the cave entrance, just as it began to sprinkle. We ducked into the cave with our headlamps in hand and walked in a shallow creek through the cave's various rooms.

Naihehe cave is the most famous cave in Fiji and it was the stronghold of the Saubatu people during the days of tribal warfare. When under siege, the entire Saubatu village would take refuge in the cave, staying there for 2-3 weeks at a time without any difficulty. They wisely kept the cave stocked with food and sleeping mats, among other things, so they could run and hid there at a moment's notice. It is said that during the last great battle, the Saubatu people holed up in the cave for 100 days and 100 nights, relying on a gap in the the ceiling of the largest room which they climbed up to on vines so they could resupply with root crops and fruits from above. They also enjoyed freshwater prawns and fish that swam in the river running the cave.

A little prawn caught while swimming through the cave.

Inside the cave are several large "rooms" which became the village's sleeping quarters, living room, dining room, and kitchen. There is also a raised stage from where the chief would give orders. And there was an area where kidnapped enemies were murdered, cooked and eaten. Fijians were canibals after all.

The cave is also home to some lovely limestone formations. (Yes, they really did sparkle.)

As we grew closer to the cave's exit, we could hear the rain. It was falling in buckets, like a nice, high-pressure shower. Except we weren't dressed for the rain. Still it was warm and we didn't care about getting wet. We laughed with a child-like glee, wrapped our electronics in plastic bags that we picked up on the way in (discarded litter was finding a higher use) and sloshed our way back towards the car. We even got to slide down a muddy slope, courtesy of gravity and the recent rainfall. I haven't laughed so hard in ages!

Luckily we could wash off all the mud in the river. By the end of the day, we had survived a cannibal cave, torrents of rain and a slippery muddy rebirth. What an adventure!