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.

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

Chugging Slowly Upriver in Northwest Burma: Part I

I met my Australian mate Iain in immersion language class: he’d married a German, too. Together we confronted the ‘small’ detail of learning the native tongue. That was 19 years ago. Both of us are still here, still married to our Germans, and we’re still friends.

Iain likes my blog, but he’s irritated with the photo I selected for the top border. “Why do you say ‘Greetings from Germany’, and then use a photo on a river somewhere?

Billowing sail
Billowing sail

“It’s a nice picture and all that, but why don’t you have a picture of Germany?” he went on. “When all’s said and done Deutschland‘s your home now.”

“It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want,” I thought. But he’s right, and I promised Iain I’ll work up a post about beer or Christmas Markets or beer at the Christmas Markets. (Actually, at the Weihnachtsmarkt everyone drinks an amazing hot mulled wine called Glühwein, but that’s a different post.)

So, in the interests of clarity:

The photograph runner at the top of my page was taken as we chugged slowly up the Kaladan River in northwest Burma. For close to 8 hours we sailed by other boats.

Family transportation
Family transportation

We passed a continuous landscape of grazing water buffalo,

Water buffalo

high round haystacks,

Haystacks along the river

and villages along the water.

Everyone works busily

Our goal was to travel from Sittwe to Mrauk U (pronounced more or less “Mrou Oo”), once capitol to the ancient Rakhine kingdom that based its money and power on maritime  trade with Europe, India, and Arabia. Mrauk U’s king employed Japanese samarai as body guards!

There is just 1 road over land to Mrauk U. As of 2009 only the Burmese were permitted to use it. Tourists arrived by boat, or not at all.

The excitement of a boat sailing past

We needed to reach Mrauk U as a jumping-off point to get to the villages of the Chin State. This semi-autonomous region is very near the border to Bangladesh. We hoped to see the traditional tattoed elders and could visit the area with an assigned guide, a special day visa, and a goodly dose of luck. Maybe the elders would come out to meet us; maybe they wouldn’t. We’d have to hire a boat to take us even further upriver and see what happened from there.

On the last day of the year 2009 we climbed into a second, much smaller boat, this one on the Lemro River, and continued up to the Chin State.

Part 2 to be posted soon.

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

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.)