Danakil Depression: Hottest Place on Earth

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Well maybe there are hotter places on earth, but with highs of 40 degrees during winter, no shade to protect you and the alkaline earth reflecting the sun’s rays, you’ll believe whatever they tell you.  The Danakil depression is 120m below sea level and part of the Great Rift valley in East Africa.  There are many unique geological sites to visit, if you can take the heat.

My friend and I signed up for a 3 day tour with Magma Flow Tours.  It ended up being a 1+2 day tour.  We were supposed to spend one night sleeping in a village (which I may add had reviews of dirty camp sites with goats taking lots of interests in their visitors) but for whatever reason were brought back to the main town of Mekele to spend the night in a hotel.  Part of me was relieved while the other part of me was disappointed.  I was curious as to how the conditions of this camp really were.  I mean, waking up to a goat licking my face, why not!

Day 1- We headed to Dallol.  Here we were able to see formations made from salt, sulfur, potash.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

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Believe it or not, but this area is inhabited by the Afar tribe.  9 months of the year, you can find them here mining blocks of salt.

Day 2 & 3- The next part of this tour was our night walk to the top of Erta Ale, an active volcano, to watch a lava lake churning inside its cauldron.  Here a group of 7 Russians joined us who started the drinking the hard stuff at 11am.  The drive to the volcano is about 6 hours with probably approximately 4 hours on asphalt.  The other two hours of driving requires a 4WD vehicle with an experienced driver.  The first half of the drive is over dirt roads.  The second half of the drive is over solidified bumpy lava lumps. I had the fortunate luck of being in the back middle seat.  They call the experience of riding on dirt roads in Africa, the African massage.  This was beyond a massage.  Massages are supposed to get tension out of muscles, every muscle in my body was engaged!

Finally we arrived at base camp.  After a dinner and the sunset, we got ready to start our 3 hour walk up the volcano.  It’s not a difficult walk, just that it is done in the dark over changing terrain.  As the Russians had been drinking from morning, they were struggling with the walk.  We were the slowest group to get up there because the Russians were just too drunk to walk.  We finally arrived to the base camp at the top of the volcano.  Then it was just a short walk to the rim of the volcano where we could see probably the most awesome natural phenomenon that I have seen in all of my travels.

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Note: When you visit this region, you are accompanied by armed local guards.  The volcano has military posted there.  There is an armed group that occasionally attacks the site of the volcano.  There was a tourist attack in 2007 and 2012.  4 nights after our visit, there was an attack and unfortunately a German tourist was killed.  Travel advisories state to book with a reputable tour company in the region and to keep close to your group during your visit there.

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Ethiopia: Exploring the Omo Valley Tribes

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Omo Valley in Ethiopia is known for its tribes that give tourists an insight into ethnic groups that are so culturally different from our own.  We had amazing experiences visiting with them, learning some of their cultural practices.  We also had some adventures.  I’ll feature the different tribes that we saw:

The Mursi

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This tribe lives in Mago National Park and they are still very much nomadic living in small huts.  To be honest, this tribe can ruin the experience of visiting tribes.  It has become very much a business for them letting tourists come to take photos.  In all of the tribes, there is a fee for taking photos of people.  Usually 5 Birr. With the Mursi, as soon as you step out of your vehicle, you are surrounded by them as they grab at your arm demanding “photo.” We were ready to pay for photos but were too overwhelmed by being surrounded by everyone wanting to earn some money.  (It’s such a shame what tourism has created).

IMG_3268We only took a few photos.  This tribe is known for the woman wearing a clay plate in their lower lip.  What I enjoyed with this visit was this little interplay between my driver and some of the men of the village.  I was mistaken for Ethiopian all over the country and when we arrived here, the men were asking if I was Ethiopian.  My guide had developed a story where my grandparents were from Ethiopia and therefore that is why I don’t speak Amharic.  As he tried to convince them, they started to have doubts.  A couple of them moved close to me and then said something to me.  I just smiled and laughed.  They had a great laugh as they turned to him and said she’s a faranji (foreigner).

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Explanation of the meaning of hair for single and married women

This tribe was an interesting visit.  We had to cross the Omorate river by a dug out canoe (the most primitive I’ve ever been in).  They charge a flat rate to take photos and

cofthen you can take as many photos as you want and the whole village benefits instead of just the individuals.  We learned here how you can tell by how the woman’s hair is arranged if she is single or married.  Once married, the woman does all the work while the man gets to chill all day drinking his local brew.  They put on a some dancing for us and we were welcome to join them.

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This tribe was worth the visit as they are a Unesco World Heritage site.  The structure of their village is very fascinating.  They have circular rings that are connected by zigzagged pathways.  The walls are built by rocks.  You have to see it in order to have the awe of how amazing the architectural design was.  We were able to see the stone that the young men have to throw in order to get married.  My friend tried to lift it (although she is not a man), let’s just say she is still single.

 

 

 

Dorze

This tribe had quite an interesting hut that they built for their home.  It looked like an elephant because in the past when there were more elephants roaming the lands, they lived in harmony.  Their homes are built tall and over the years as termites eat away at the bottom, the hut shrinks.  We also learned about false banana which is a banana tree that doesn’t grow bananas.  They use this plant to make Kocho, a flat bread.  When the plant is large enough, they grind down the leaves and then put the pulp into the ground for 3 months to ferment and then take it out and make the bread.

 

 

 

Bena

We befriended a 19 year old boy from this tribe, Mango, who was the happiest boy on earth.  Of course, he has the notion that people from white countries are rich and he hopes to move there.  We tried to let him know that life is not easy in our countries, but he wasn’t listening.  We were going to visit his home and he was worried that we would see his father’s cattle and think that his family was rich.  When we went to visit his home, his family was so sweet and they shared what they had with us.  Home made honey is quite normal in Ethiopia and they wanted to share it with us. Homemade honey It was in a bucket complete with some bees and honeycomb.  They gave me a spoon and I carefully was extracting honey around the obstacles.  Mango’s dad noticed I was taking little amounts so he told Mango to take the spoon and do it for me.  Big spoonfuls of honey were given to me complete with bits of honey comb and bee.

Hamer

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We were able to visit with this tribe during a bull jumping ceremony.  This is when a boy/man jumps over bulls for his rite of passage into marriage.  We were late to this day long celebration which would have included face painting, singing and dancing.  We were delayed because we had first a mechanical problem with the car and then on our way to this out of the way location (along a dry riverbed), we got stuck and lost time getting the car out of the sand.  We got there just in time to see some of the dancing and then to see the bull jumping. IMG_3543 You could not imagine it.  A naked man running across the backs of bulls that are being held in place by other men.  It was amazing to see it.  We had to leave immediately after the jumping had occurred.  It had started raining lightly for about 5 minutes.  Our local guide was getting anxious.  He mentioned that the river might flood.  The riverbed where our car and driver were waiting was very large, and I can’t imagine that the 5 minutes of rain would flood it.  But we ran back to the car and it wasn’t until we left the riverbed that we started to see the ground slightly muddy from rain.   We were out of the riverbed driving back to the town on dirt roads.  Suddenly we came upon 5 other 4WD of tourists that had left from the bull jumping about 45 minutes before us.  IMG_3590They had been held up by a river that had not been there before.  We were able to cross it in the vehicles.   Just as we were a couple of minutes from the asphalt road to town (10min drive from our accommodation), we came upon a gushing river that was definitely not there when we had driven in.  The drivers said that there was no crossing this river. If the cars got stuck, then the current would take the cars with it.  At least we had the company of the other cars.  The tour guide of those cars was constantly checking the river to see when it would be crossable.  It went from potentially crossable by foot to forget it.  We had to wait 6 hours to be able to cross by foot and the current was still strong.  The cars didn’t cross for another 6 hours.  After we crossed, we had to walk 50 minutes back to our lodge.  Did I tell you that this was 12:30am.  As we walked with our local guide (our driver remained with the car), I teased my friend as I reminded her that we were walking the same roads at night where during the day tribal men walk with machetes and Kalashnikovs.  Our driver later told us that the Hamer tribe are a friendly tribe and knowing that he allowed us to go off on foot.

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What an amazing experience visiting with these tribes and learning a totally different way of life.

 

 

 

 

 

Madagascar: The Climbing Baobab

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Thinking of all the adventures I’ve experienced while traveling, such as relaxing in a volcanic mud, cliff climbing and rock climbing, it was time to try a more unique adventure… Baobab climbing.

We were in the spiny forest of Reniala Private Reserve which contrasted the odd shape of the baobab trees with spiky cactus like trees.  The reserve was a short zebu cart rideIMG_2085 from the beach where we were staying in Ifaty and the plan was to have an early morning walk around the Reserve mainly to see it’s flora and fauna.  We saw many Baobab trees.  One that was over 1000 years old, and another that was just a baby at 20 years old.  One that resembled a rasta with its’ long leaves.  Others that took on feminine qualities while others were bunched together like a family.  We learned about the water carrying qualities of the trees and how the people sometimes cut into the trees to get water and yet the trees still survive and even continue to grow with new sprouts.

Then we met the tree that I will always remember.  The climbing Baobab.

This Baobab had indents in it that lined up in such a way that you could climb the tree.  In some of the grooves, sticks had been secured to provide easier holds for climbing.  Our guide scampered up to show us how you climb the Baobab.  From the top of his perch, he proclaimed that this was a tree for men to climb, not for women.  How to get a woman to climb a Baobab?  Say sexist remarks.  I placed the camera in the camera bag because you know I had to get photos from the top, tightened the strap around me and headed up the tree.  The grooves were actually quite nice hand holds so even with my long finger nails, I could hold on.  It was an easy climb up and then I got to the top, he directed me onto the branch and  then I started tIMG_2181o panic.  As a child, I wasn’t a tree climber.  As a climber, I’ve always been attached to a safety harness.  Suddenly, reality set in and I realized that I was up in a Baobab tree, with no safety equipment and unsure of my movements within a tree.  I pressed my back into the trunk of the tree and straddled the branch and tried not to look down.  My travel partner yelled at me to take photos.  I said no.  She said c’mon.  So I tentatively took the camera out of the bag while trying to keep my movements as minimal as possible.  Without turning my head and trunk, I took a photo in front of me.  Then she told me to take a photo of her.  I said no.  She said c’mon (please note that she stayed on the ground). I don’t even think I turned my head, but moved the camera in her direction and clicked.   Camera quickly back in the bag and it was time to go down…But how?

Again, I’ve climbed walls that were higher, rock surfaces that were higher, but I’ve never climbed down.  You abseil down.  After he pried the camera off of me so that he could carry it down, he climbed down and saw that I was still in the tree with my back pressed against the trunk, straddling the branch.  I didn’t feel safe to turn myself around and had visions of me falling to the ground.  He climbed back up and was going to stay just below me to guide me down but first he had to get me turned around.  He instructed me to put my foot on one of the holes and thought I was slipping off of the branch.  So he told me to put my other foot on one of the sticks and push myself back onto the branch.  When I pushed myself back, my foot snapped the stick and it went flying to the ground.  Uh Oh. Even he had a momentary look of panic cross his face.  He regained his composure and tried giving me instructions and I just wasn’t feeling sure footed with where he was telling me to place my feet. Finally, I placed my foot where in my mind it made better sense and was able to turn myself around and start the descent. I wish I could say it was a cinch from this point on, but it really is hard to climb down when you don’t know where to place your feet. So it was great that he was just below me, guiding my feet.  The other challenge compared to going up was that when you climb up and the next hand hold is just out of your reach, it is easier to stretch your arm and stand on your toe or even slightly jump to get it, then to do the opposite going down- hang from your arm while you try to get a secure footing with just your big toe.  But one notch at a time, we made it back to the ground all in one piece.  I will admit, I was shaken.  Putting myself through that all because of a sexist remark.  And I still didn’t earn his respect as the remarks didn’t stop.  He then brought us to a baobab that had been cut at hip height and had resprouted.  He jumped up and said this is a tree for women to climb. So I got absolutely no respect from him for climbing the Baobab tree for men because I couldn’t climb down.

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Madagascar: The Adventure to the Unreachable (Tsingy)

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I’ve previously written in another blog that the journey is just as important as the destination.  But what if you don’t make it to your destination?  Was the journey worth it or a waste of time?

When the idea to go to Madagascar crossed my mind, I was thinking of Baobab trees and lemurs.  It wasn’t until I started doing my research that I learned about Tsingy de Bemaraha, a Unesco site of rugged Karsts that you spend days trekking around the national park walking on rope bridges and climbing through caves.  This became the one activity that I wanted to do the most.  What I didn’t realize was that it was 3 days worth of driving from the capital city to get  there with the last day on dirt roads.

Although, the rainy season ended in March and theoretically the park is accessible, it was still going to be an adventure to get there.  On day 3, in our 4×4 jeeps, we headed off with two other vehicles (one with 4 Canadians and the other with a solo traveller from Pakistan) that just happened to be headed in the same direction (little did we know that we would be bonded for life from this day).  We had already heard stories that the roads were worse than normal and that in the previous week, people who left at 4:30 in the morning, were not arriving until 8:30pm.  So for the first part of the journey, the roads weren’t so bad, there were some massive puddles in the brownish muddy roads that sprayed into the open car windows.  There were many ditches in the road, that the driver had to slow down and maneuver around.  There were a few bumpy patches that flung us back and forth in the backseat.  But the real adventure didn’t start until the “ferry crossing” was completed.

We stopped for an early lunch at 10am because from this ferry town until the village of Bekopaka, the jump off town for Tsingy, there would be nowhere else to eat.  We were supposed to stick together so that we would be with each other to help each other out.  Since I didn’t want to eat a dinner sized meal at 10am, I had a sandwich made for me, and our driver headed off on the road ahead of our convoy as soon as it was made.  Shortly after leaving the village, we came to a fork in the road.  He turned left and then slowed down, reversed and re-read the signage and continued left.  This was when my anxiety started.  Let me stop and explain, that we were driving in the middle of nowhere, complete remoteness.  Surprisingly, 10minutes down the road, there was a man walking who the driver asked if we were headed in the right direction.  He pointed in the direction we were going.  Now this didn’t calm me.  If you’ve ever found yourself in foreign countries asking for directions, a lot of times, people will point in any direction, instead of saying they don’t know.

As we continued driving along, we hit this part of the road with two stones placed on it, which was indicating a diversion.  Possibly a really bad patch of road ahead, so it was better to drive around it….in the bush.  So the driver turned into the tire tracks in the long grass drove 10m and then second guessed himself, reversed reassessed the main road and decided to take the diversion.  Now this wasn’t some short semi-circular diversion, no no no.  This was a 20 minute diversion through proper bush.  Anxiety levels higher.  Then the tire tracks, became muddy tire tracks.  Anxiety levels even higher.  Then the muddy tire tracks became muddy tire tracks immersed in low levels of water as we descended into river beds.  Anxiety levels above 100%.  This whole time I’m thinking where are the other cars?  What if we are going the wrong way and we get stuck and we can’t go out?  I’m going to die in Madagascar (Okay I’m a bit dramatic, because even in the middle of nowhere, they get phone reception).  We did get stuck.  He went out and turned the 4 wheel drive on while I was hyperventilating. Then he got back in the car and just started spinning his wheels.  We were so lucky that the car eventually budged and we got traction and moved out of there because spinning your wheels can kinda make the matter worse.  The whole time while my travel partner was sticking her torso out the window, recording all of this with her camera, I was strapped in and praying.  Let me say, everyone would have been religious at this point, because I don’t care who you are, you would have been praying to someone.

We got out of tIMG_9071hat hole and continued through more depths of the bush.  Deep breaths were keeping me from panicking.  Some more muddy patches and then out of nowhere, a tiny village with kiosks advertising sim cards appeared and we found ourselves back on the main road.  I could breath again!  The driver found a villager and confirmed again that we were headed in the right direction.  But shortly after that we hit diversion #2.  Welcome back anxiety.  But just as we turned onto this diversion, our caravan materialized behind us. Yes we no longer were doing this on our own.  So we continued forward the three vehicles and I felt so much better because we must be headed in the right direction and we would have help if stuck again.

 

So it wasn’t us that got stuck, but the car carrying the 4 Canadians.  It was a long muddy patch and the wheels were just stuck in the tire trenches filled with water.  No spinning of the tires was going to get this car out.  So first solution was to do some good ole pushing of the car.  Nope.  Then they decided to pull the car out with one of the other vehicles and a fibre glass rope which had been halved and kept breaking.  They had to double it up so that it wouldn’t break.  But the car wouldn’t budge.  Now let me digress for a second.  So these 4×4 drivers know that the roads are bad.  So you’d think that they’d be equipped with shovels, planks of wood, towing rope.  But no, they had nothing but this fibre glass rope. Fortunately, the car got stuck just on the outskirts of a village and eventually our presence attracted their attention and they started to come down to watch the poor foreigners and then finally to help.  It wasn’t until they started to cut grass and shove it under the tires that the car finally had traction to start moving and get out. (I should mention that my travel partner said to do this right from the beginning but who was going to listen to a girl). We lost precious time, but we were finally out and on our way!  But were we…

So two minutes later as we drove into the village, we met with cars going in the opposite direction to us.  They had a stark warning to tell of bad roads and high levels of water as it had rained the last 3 days. There were many 4x4s stuck in that direction and that there was no way to get through.  Our drivers had a brief discussion and decided that we should venture on and assess it for ourselves as it was only 30minutes away.  As we continued minutes further through the small village, 3 cars passed us and each driver told our driver it was impossible, to not go forward, and our driver would say, I think we should keep going. Let’s go.  One car had a passenger women shaking her head vigorously and waving her arms no.  But on we ventured, but not that far.  As the lead car, we got stuck yet again just outside of the village.  It was much quicker to get the car out this time, but then we had a group meeting.

One of the other guides who felt bad that we had ventured all this way and wanted us to get to Tsingy offered us two options.  1) We abort and turn around.  2) We sleep in that village and at 3am they (I think he was referring to the villagers) would take us to the bad part and then we would walk 5 hours to Tsingy.  Then visit the smaller of the two parks and spend 5 hours there.  Sleep that night in the village there and then at 5am walk back and get picked up by them at the bad part and be brought back to the village.  The suggestion to walk during the early morning instead of from right at that moment was based on the fact that it is not safe to walk at night.  Why 3am is any safer than 8pm I don’t know.  He warned us of possible dangers on the road.  What kind of dangers, he was asked.  He shrugged.  Animals or people.  All he said was not animals.  So the car of Canadians said no.  The Pakistani said no.  Then they looked at us to decide what we wanted to do and I said this has to be an all or nothing decision.  So we all turned back.  It was a good thing we turned back, because that night it rained again.

On the drive back to paved roads the next day, we met some 4×4 vehicles who had driven through the bad patch.  They had made it to Tsingy and were returning back (so they had to proceed forward) and the stories that we heard were unbelievable.  A muddy patch of road 20km in length taking 8 hours to drive through.  All the villagers from all the surrounding villages had to be paid to help pull the cars through.  Water levels so high that the water started to seep into the cars to knee level.  Getting stuck in the cars at night and sleeping in the cars until the next day.  They wanted us to walk through this?!

We have now pledged to return to Madagascar during the very dry season so that we can finally make it Tsingy (I’m hoping that if we wait long enough, they’ll finally pave part of the road).  This experience leaves me baffled, was the 6 days of travel (to and from Tsingy); the constant getting stuck in mud in remote areas; the horror stories of those who had to venture through it; and never actually reaching the world heritage site worth it?  Potentially….

 

Coming Face to Face with the Transatlantic Slave Trade

My response to “Why did you choose to go to Ghana?” was to get a better idea of the slave trade that happened out of West Africa.  To explore what possibly is part of my ancestory.  You can only imagine how this experience chokes one with emotion at the depths to which man can be so cruel. 

Along the coast of Ghana are castles/forts where the human trade “cargo” was stored before shipping to the Americas.  I explored two castles, one in Cape Coast and the other one in Elmina.  One was run by the British and the other by the Portuguese.  The tours of the castles start in the dungeons where 1000 men were cramped into small rooms where they lived in their blood, vomit and excrement.  Many didn’t even make it to the Americas as they died in the dark, underground cells that had minimal ventilation.  The women were kept separated.  The prettiest ones were selected to be raped.  When ready to make the voyage to the Amercas, they walked through now sealed tunnels (that were sealed when slavery was abolished) to a narrow passage way called the Door of No Return.  They were packed onto boats sitting between each others legs so that they could fit in as many people as possible.  Many didn’t survive the boat trip with their bodies being thrown overboard to feed the sharks.  For every 1 person that made it to the Americas to be a slave, 4 people died.

Initially, when the Europeans arrived in West Africa, they were trading goods.  The human trade began when the natives of the Americas were dying because of the diseases that the Europeans brought with them.  It was suggested that maybe the Africans would be stronger and they trialled the first set of slaves in Haiti.  When it was found to be successful, the human trade was expanded to Amercia, the Caribbean, and South America.  When it was finally abolished, there was still an underground market that continued.  The reason for abolishing slavery was not out of some final sense of humanitarianism, but due to the technological revolution; no need for human labour.

Walking through these castles evoked so many different emotions.  What to learn from this, is how do we avoid an atrocities like this from happening again.  Unfortunately, the same mentality that allowed the Transatlantic Slave Trade to happen still continues to be prevalent in today’s society: child labour, exploitation of cheap labour, abuse of natural resources and the environment are just examples.  Traveling to Ghana to emerse myself in this history was an experience that everyone should take the time to go and visit.

Photos can be seen at http://cid-1db8a41159295e1e.photos.live.com/browse.aspx/Ghana%20September%202010

I’m Canadian not Coloured

It was interesting being in South Africa 16 year post apartheid and to see what the changes had been.  In the southern part of the country, you could still see the segregation with respect to jobs.  At the hostels, I noticed that the front desk was usually manned by white people, sometimes coloured people, but it was the blacks who cleaned the hostels.  There were areas called townships which were created during the apartheid for the black people to live (sometimes coloured and asians as well) and they are shanty towns of corrugated metal homes.  In contrast, there is a lot of money in the south and there were mega big homes all over the place.  In the north of the country, more economic progress is being seen within the African community.  It was eye opening to visit places like Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other political detainees were kept); the apartheid, district 6 and Hector Pieterson museum;  and doing a township tour in Soweto.  It was disturbing to realize what was going on in the world during the time of apartheid.  It started after world war 2 and it got worse in the 60s when the civil rights movement was happening in the US.  Being Canadian of Caribbean parents, it was hard to see the segregation between the coloureds and the blacks especially when in north america, they would all be grouped together.  There is so much I could say about it, but thankfully it ended and the healing process will be a journey.

Ostriches and Caves

Highlight of the South African trip was visiting an ostrich farm. 
Ostriches are farmed and I tried some meat and ate some eggs.  Ostriches are
quite stupid animals.  Normally they lay 15 eggs per year, but if their eggs are
removed after they lay them, they forget that they laid them and they lay more. 
If you cover their head up, they are quite calm because they think that if they can’t see you,
you can’t see them.  Even the busmen used their stupidity against them.   It was
hard to kill an ostrich from a distance because of their narrow neck and they
have good eye sight.  But the bushmen could using a stick for a neck pretend to
be an ostrich walk up right beside one and then kill it with their spear.  I
rode an ostrich. If you can call it that.  It was more like hang on for dare
life and see how many seconds you can last.  I didn’t do so hot. 
 
I also visited these caves and there we had an option of doing an adventure
tour where you could crawl and slither through the caves.  It was so much fun. 
There was one passage called the chimney and you had to climb up this tiny space
in order to get to the other side.  Another one called the post box, you had
commando crawl on your belly and then turn over onto your back and slide down
this narrow space.  After swimming thru caves holding a candle in Guatemala, and
doing this adventure tour, I will never be able to simply walk as a tourist
through caves again. 

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