Most of our time in New Zealand I felt the landscape was alive. Especially on the North Island, I had the eerie sensation of standing on a very active volcano. The ground steams in places, thanks to the underground hot springs everywhere.
Three things remain fresh in my memory: Maori culture and architecture; the crisp Sauvignon Blancs that were all we drank; and the utter alive-ness of the nature.
The charming city of Rotorua contains all three.
We could view the wharenui (meeting house) of the Māori people from outside. I was taken by the use of local materials, symbolism, and the symmetry and beauty of every traditional building.
The Kiwis make great wine. When it comes to bottled grapes, I’m amused by the jargon. My own descriptions used to run to statements like, “A naughty little vintage. If this was a small child, I’d spank it and send it to bed without supper.” I loved it when I discovered that New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs are described as releasing a heavy whiff of cat pee when you first open the bottle. (I’m not making this up. Wine expert Jancis Robinson remarks, “Indeed one branded Sauvignon Blanc on sale in Britain is actually sold under the brand name Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.”)* Yuck! If that’s the first impression you get from a wine, what could make anyone want to go past just opening the dang thing?
It was worth the adventure to try one.
We bought a bottle and opened it in our hotel room. Phew-ee! Sure enough, there was a heady stink of feral cat which thankfully faded immediately. I dared to fill a glass, took a sip… and was greeted by an explosion of quince, green apples, citrus fruits, kiwis and gooseberries. Those Sauvignon Blancs are so delicious that I never even bothered trying any other grape varietal while we were there. Why mess with kitty litter box perfection?
And then there is the natural world.
We visited parks where everything burbled, bubbled, exploded or engulfed us in clouds of steam. We did all of the hiking loops and were wowed by the spectacle of shooting geysers, blubbering springs, and mineral ponds containing colors I had no idea normally appear in Nature.
In one park gift shop I purchased mud for facials that someone dipped out of a pond on the park grounds. No small feat as most of the park waters are at boiling point!
The park had to post signs warning people not to step in the springs. I say, let Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Nature take their course…
“A brave heart and a courteous tongue,” said he. “They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling.” —The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)
We’re in India for a few weeks and currently we’re riding in the back of an open jeep. We spent the better part of 5 hours each day on really bad roads to get here. Now we’re layered in the few long-sleeved clothes we brought along. How cold can it be if you’re not way up north trekking in the Himalyas?
How cold? Man, it’s effing freezing.
It’s shortly after 6 a.m. in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and we’ve been up since 5. “Remind me,” I beg. “What are we doing here?” I wrap the blanket the tiger lodge lent us tighter around my body. (What I really want is a sub zero temperatures sleeping bag.) “Remind me,” I ask again. “Why are we doing this?”
“You wanted to come back to India,” Uwe prompts.
“Oh, yeah. Now I remember.” And it’s true: I was really excited to return. I fell in love with the subcontinent when we visited a decade ago. In Goa we walked miles of pristine beaches. In Karnataka we attended an astonishing Nandi Purnima, the full moon festival, and Hampi was a bare landscape filled with gigantic boulders and ancient temples.
In a country this exotic and large, surely we’d experience something new when we came back. What I did not expect was that I’d be freezing my ass off.
We’re doing a mix of culture and nature. India is one of the two most populated countries on the planet, and we thought it would be smart to schedule some time in quieter areas too. I’m glad we did. The north central region of Madya Pradesh is green and varied and home to some of the few remaining wild Bengal tiger populations.
So for two days at Bandhavgarh and a day at Kanha National Park*, we haul our sorry butts out of bed at the crack of dawn, pull on all our clothes and drape ourselves in borrowed blankets. 6 a.m.-1 p.m. for the early safari; 3-6 p.m. for the afternoon attempt. If we’re lucky, we’ll spot a big cat.
We’re not lucky. We’re cold.
Later we shed layers as the day warms up. The parks contain barking and spotted deer, gaurs, nilgai,
lemurs and langurs,
wild peacocks and other birdlife,
wild boar, and a landscape filled with watering holes and high grasses, forest and farmers’ villages. On the second day at Bandhavgarh our jeep carries a park ranger to inspect a water buffalo kill from the night before. It occurred just outside the official boundary of the preserve and the farmer will be reimbursed for the animal the tiger took down.
We aren’t allowed to leave the jeep – ever – and the ranger approaches the carcass very slowly.
Where there’s a fresh kill, the big cat can’t be far.
By the third day I’ve perfected what I name the mummy wrap. I have myself wrapped so tight that I literally can’t move, but this way the blanket doesn’t unwind in the cold wind.
And, suddenly, a tiger leaps from the forest, followed by his mate. He moves into the reeds and returns dragging a dead spotted deer by the neck.
We see them for less than a minute and those seconds are absolutely worth the days of waiting. My God, they’re magnificent! During the afternoon safari we get lucky again: 10 seconds of spotting a shyer, rarer leopard.
Uwe captures the group of spotted deer nervously fleeing the leopard. He’s in Photographer Heaven.
Naturally we’re already dreaming about an African safari (… and I’ll pack a wool jacket, just in case…).
NOTES: *Kanha National Park provided the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. Go to my earlier post Travel Karma to read about our first visit to India. More pictures from India and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.
We’ve come to Paris for a quick getaway, and Stuttgart is less than 4 hours by direct fast train. As we think about what we want to do and see, we realize neither of us have ever visited Chartres.
Uwe and I go out of our way to see sacred places around the globe. (See my posts The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ or The Music of the Heavenly Spheres for some photos and tales from other sacred spots.) Energies gather in some unlikely places. Sometimes I stand in famous spots and am disappointed, while a place less known for religion makes me feel the presence of the divine.
Chartres. I’ve been trying for days – weeks, actually – to summarize the “facts” about this site. It was built 1140-1260 and the labyrinth was laid in the first decade of the 13th century. I wonder what to mention about Chartres’ 1,000 years as a pilgrimage destination, or the female energies of the cathedral and their tenderness. Mary’s tunic, the Sancta Camisia worn at the birth of Jesus Christ, was brought here by Charlemagne. The king in turn had been given the relic as a gift during a trip to Jerusalem.
When the earlier church building burned on June 10, 1194, the Sancta Camisia miraculously survived. Chartres remains an important Marian pilgrimage center, and the faithful still come from around the world over to honor it.
Chartres is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals on Earth. Back in my college days at the University of Oregon, Professor James Boren in his Chaucer and Medieval Literature classes explained Chartres as literally turning the architectural form inside out. For the first time the ribs holding up the entire structure had been placed outside, allowing the inside heart of the structure to soar up into the Heavens, seemingly without limits. The support of flying buttresses was necessary because of the unprecedented size and heights of the stained glass windows and the nave. Professor Boren’s face glowed; this stern and learned man radiated as he lectured about a place that he said changed him when he saw it. That lecture and the look on his face stayed with me. Chartres: someday I would see it.
Chartres Cathedral contains one of the few remaining medieval labyrinths. It’s large with a circumference of 131 feet, almost exactly the same size as the West Rose window.
In the Middle Ages, French church labyrinths were the sites of Easter dances involving clergy and the tossing of a leather ball. Sadly, the labyrinths were destroyed, covered over, or hidden by Church authorities suspicious of their powers and pagan beginnings. (Labyrinths, including Chartres’, traditionally had an disk or placque of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur at their centers. In fact, another name for a cathedral that contained a labyrinth was the “Domus Daedali” [House of Daedalus], a nod to antiquity’s Daedalus, designer of the labyrinth that held the Minotaur in Knossos.) *
But, Chartres’ labyrinth survived. I learn that while it’s covered by chairs most of the time, the labyrinth is made free for visitors to enter on Fridays. My one request to Uwe for our trip becomes, “Please let’s go to Chartres on Friday!”
So here we are, entering one of the holy pilgrimage destinations in Christianity.
Chartres. Once inside, the cathedral’s beauty immediately takes my breath away. I am so deeply moved that in the next moment I’m close to tears. Whatever I expected, this sacred soaring space is beyond all imagination. Light streams in through the windows and illuminates the visitors, pilgrims, and the simply curious. All of us are suffused in colors.
For a while I just walk around. Uwe’s already moved off with his camera, ready as always to use his art with photography to capture in images what my brain grapples with in words.
As the minutes pass I grow more and more stunned. And I remain dangerously, or is that gorgeously, close to breaking into tears. There is an energy to this place, a sense of the holy and the really, really blessed, that I have seldom felt anywhere.
The Schwedagon Pagoda in Burma comes to mind. It is the most important pagoda in the country, and I felt the top of my head buzz like it was going to blow off from the concentration of religious energies. Or a back pond in the Adirondacks with only my family as fellow witnesses: loons with a pair of chicks calling in low cries to one another as they eyed us but didn’t swim away. Or a tiny Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloniki, supposedly built on the site where Apostle Paul preached. I attended on Sunday with my friend Cynthia and our Greek host Fotis, who led us up to an altar surrounded by burning, hand-dipped wax tapers. Fotis insisted we take bread from the common basket. Tears streamed on both our faces; I finally felt the deeper meaning of breaking bread in fellowship.
All of these places’ sacred energies are present in Chartres. It is so much more than I deserve or had awaited. I take a deep breath to center myself, and move forward to stand poised at the entry to the labyrinth.
“A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. …
“A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. … It is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to “That Which Is Within.” At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. …
“A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved. It has twists, turns, and blind alleys. It is a left brain task that requires logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path into the maze and out. A labyrinth has only one path. It is unicursal. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.
“A labyrinth is a right brain task. It involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. With a maze many choices must be made and an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not. A more passive, receptive mindset is needed. The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.” – Dan Johnston, Ph.D. at www.lessons4living.com
While I walk the labyrinth and contemplate the mystery of the sacred**, Uwe photographs me. When I see his photos later I’m surprised, and glad.
NOTES: * Another name for the eleven-circuit labyrinth is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres or other places could be made instead of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
** I haven’t even tried to talk about the lunations of the labyrinth. Their meaning is still debated. A celestial calendar? Esoteric design of the deeper mysteries?
Walking a Sacred Path. Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Dr. Lauren Artress, Riverhead Books, 1995.
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.
It’s the typical jungly sort of place, with hanging vines and strange flowers.
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.
Uwe was happy trying to capture a shot of the crabs scuttling along; I gazed off across the Andaman Sea.
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.
“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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
He ignored me and kept pace with the lizard across the rocks. Later 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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. 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. These were followed by more, and more, and more, an impossible number of flying mammals swooping and looping in ribbons across the skies. “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. There 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. The 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.