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….

 

La Ciudad Perdida: The second Machu Picchu?

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As my Colombian adventure continued, my friend and I headed into jungles of the Sierra Nevada.  We opted to not spend our full time on the Caribbean coast moving from turquoise beach to turquoise beach thinking we’d actually get bored.  Instead, we decided we wanted variety and that we would head into the mosquito and tick infested, humid jungle for a 4 day trek to La Ciudad Perdida: The Lost City.

Brief History: It was once an ancient city inhabited by the Tairona people believed to be founded in 800CE.  When the Spanish came to the area, the city was abandoned as the natives pushed higher into the Sierra Nevada.  It was discovered in 1972 when looters discovered its hidden treasures.

Bit of Info:  This trek can be done in 4, 5, or 6 days all for the same price of 700 000 Colombian Pesos (approx 230USD).  The route is the exact same for all the days just that you will spend less time walking per day on the longer tours.  From the start point until La Ciudad Perdida, it’s approximately 23km and 1200m above sea level and then you have to return the same way you came in.  You carry all what you need for 4 days and water can be replenished at each camp site.  Sleeping arrangements can either consist of hammocks or beds. Blankets were provided as it does cool off in the night.  Nothing dries in the jungle especially over night (even sweaty clothes).  We were lucky to have no rain, but water proof gear would be essential.

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Night one Camp Adan: all of us in hammocks

Day 1: We set off from Santa Marta with Magic Tours.  We were a group of 15 with people from a collection of different countries.  The majority of us were doing the trek in 4 days and only a few in 5.  (But I’ll tell we all end up doing it in 4 days- we just wanted out).  We drove to our starting point, had a big lunch, doused ourselves in insect repellent and started our way into the trek.  This day all we had to walk was roughly 7km for 3 hours.  Easy day. What they don’t tell you is that the first 2.5 hours are up a steep hill that is a road on the side of a mountain so there are no tree roots and rocks to use as steps.  It was never ending.  Thank goodness for the entrepreneur who decided to squeeze fresh oranges at the side of the road- truly an oasis.  Then further up the steep climb, a watermelon materialized out of nowhere and we had another much needed break.  With the breaks come an opportunity to really soak in the scenery.  Finally, we reached the point where we started a descent.  After 30 minutes or so we had reached our first stop for the night.  Each camp site was situated near a river, so there was an opportunity to jump into “refreshing” water (refreshing=cold).  I went into this pool of water, it was the first and the last time on the trip as I can’t do cold water.  For our first night, we slept in hammocks.  Our hammocks were side by side and it would have been nice if our guide had told us that it might be best to sleep head to toe.  Most of us had our heads on the same side and with any little movement you were constantly bumping shoulders all night.  I had to get up in the middle of the night (and brave the possibility of snakes).  Everything was fine until I came back to the hammock.  Because we were all so close to each other, I was trying not to bump into anyone so I didn’t open my hammock wide enough and when i sat down, I ended up with my back on the ground with my feet hanging from the hammock.  Thankfully, no one saw or got bumped.

Day 2: 5:30am wake up call.  We were due to walk 8km to lunch and then another 8km to our next camp.  On this day, we were now in the jungle and we would find ourselves walking past some indigenous tribes like the Wiwas and the Kogis. We started with another steep uphill that was extremely muddy.  I didn’t even want to imagine how slippery that would be when we’d return.  We hit a watermelon/fresh orange juice stop and met up with groups making their way out and we were told of what awaited us.  We would have a downhill to recuperate.  Then our lunch stop near a refreshing river.  After a two hour rest and lunch, off we’d go for about 20min on relatively flat land, hit a bridge that we almost broke because none of the guides around us informed us that only 9 people were supposed to be on it and about double the number were on it.  AND THEN…. it came, the worst part of the trek… 1.5 hours up hill.  In all fairness, probably the climb the day before was worse, but we’d already been walking 8+km and now had to face this climb.  It was unending!  I don’t know how I did it.  By this point, you don’t notice anything, you don’t notice any scenery.  You just want it to end.  The climb came to an end and we had a descent until a pineapple stop.  This rest stop was a bit surreal.   Colombian army men were having a rest break as well.  Out of nowhere, a group of trekkers not only started posing with them for photos, but holding their guns!  After the break, we continued on.  This bit of the trek wasn’t so grueling.  It oscillated from uphill to downhill.  We eventually found ourselves at a river and we were able to cross it quite easily barefoot with the water at knee height.  Shortly after, we hit our camp for night 2.  Because it was Semana Santa (Easter Week) and so many people were doing the trek, the camp which can accommodate 150 people had 240 people staying that night.  Half of our group was in hammocks and the other half were sharing a two to a twin mattress.

 

Day 3: 5am rise.  This is the day we saw the city.  We had a short walk from the camp to another river crossing.  There was a plank to allow for an easy crossing. Then we were at the entrance.  1200 steps to enter. Uneven steps sometime shallow sometime not.  We slogged it up.  Our bodies surprisingly not giving up on us.  We found ourselves in the city.  The city was much bigger than we all had imagined.  The structure of the buildings themselves have been lost, but the foundation of the homes and buildings are still there in circular stone formations.  We learned that the Tairona people had a death ritual in that family members would initially be buried for 4 years and then be reburied under their home with the gold and treasures.  Hence what brought the looters to the area.  What is thought to have been their temple was at the highest point of the city with beautiful vistas of the surrounding area.  We spent 3 hours exploring the city before we had to return to our camp for lunch.  There are no hidden exits out of the city (as we were all hoping), it was back to the 1200 steps.   Once down the steps and across the river, we had our lunch at camp and then continued.  The rest of trek that day wasn’t that bad.  Our second river crossing we didn’t bother taking shoes off and just ever so carefully on slippery wet rocks got across the river.  There was only one 40-50 minute uphill. The whole time I was thinking, I don’t remember this downhill  being so long when we came.  That turned into the downhill (reverse of the 1.5hr uphill).  Then we found ourselves at yesterday’s lunch stop which became our last night.  Best night because we all had a bed to ourselves.

Day 4: It was just the reverse of what we had done before lunch on Day 2 and Day 1.  But we were tired.  Our legs were amazingly still working, but having to carry our bags was taking its toll.  With La Ciudad Perdida behind us, no main attraction to look forward to, this day was surprisingly deadly.  There were uphills to contend with.  I was over it.  Thankfully, no rain meant drier ground so the downhills weren’t slippery.  Then there was the big down hill from day one.  I thought this was going to be a piece of cake, but surprisingly it was so difficult.  We were out of the jungle and the sun was hot on us with no shade.  The road just never ended (or so it seemed).  I found myself on my own for this whole stretch.   If it wasn’t for my ipod, I think I would’ve given up.  But alas, I made it out.

The trek was probably the hardest trek I’ve done.   With the steep climbs and the humidity and no porters to carry your stuff, it was hard work.  I did it during the dry season, I can’t imagine the next level up of difficulty during the rainy season with muddy trails and deep river crossings.  But it was worth it.  I would definitely recommend it.  The nice thing is that there is no easy alternate way to get to the city, only the trekkers make it in, so this is kind of hidden gem right now.  One of the guys on the trek has made a little video.  I’m not in much of it because the guys were fast but sometimes you can see my curl puff.  Enjoy!

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This map shows the steep climbs of the trek.

 

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo: Clear as Mud

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After 7 years, I felt that it was time to return to South America.  Now that Colombia is safe to travel, that was my next destination.  I opted for the sun and warmth of the Caribbean cost as opposed to the chill and potential rain of the mountains.

I’d been told about this volcano that was nearby Cartagena that I must visit.  Instead of spewing hot lava, its crater is filled with warm mud.  Well, considering how much mud treatments are in my country, it was a no brainer to do this for 45000 pesos (~15USD).  Off to the mud volcano we went.  Volcan de Lodo El Totumo is just 50km north of Cartagena.  There are easy tours to jump on to get you out there.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but as we approached the volcano, it looked nothing like a volcano but more like an overgrown anthill protruding from the ground.  We were quickly rushed to change into our bathing suits and then sent up these rickety wooden steps.  The locals from the area work for tips there providing such services as photo taking, massages, and washing the mud off your body.  The tips are fixed at 4000 pesos and are optional except for the washing.  After climbing the rickety stairs, I was facing a deep pit that was filled with a viscous mud.

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The rickety stairs.

One by one we were instructed to enter the pit via a wooden ladder.  Basically, when the local boys were finished rubbing someone, they would call the next person in to rub, I mean massage.  Once you get in the pit, if you opt for the massage, they will instruct you to lie backwards as they rub mud all over you.  But let me talk about the mud.  The buoyancy factor is much more than the dead sea.  Even if you could reach the bottom of the pit, you can’t.  No matter how much you try, when you are vertical, you can’t get your shoulders below the surface.  You really have to work your abs while in it because if not you will suddenly find your body turning or losing control of a limb.  I got kicked a few times by others.  Then when they tell you your time is up and you have to leave, good luck moving across the pit to the exit ladder!  It’s so thick that you exert so much energy moving but go nowhere.  Then exiting, oh my!  Of course, since the notion of health and safety has not quite hit this tourist attraction, the rungs of the ladder are slanted and your feet are slippery with mud and the steps are slippery from the accumulation of mud from the others, that climbing out of the volcano is akin to rock climbing.  The only downside of the experience is that it is too short.

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But wait! The experience isn’t finished yet!  Getting this mud off of you is an experience in of itself.  We were there 3 months after the last rain, so the level of the volcano was low and the fresh/salt water lagoon that we are supposed to wash in was completely dry.  So locals had buckets of murky (trying to make it sound nice) water that they used bowls to dump onto of us.  This mud is persistent and doesn’t want to come off easily.  So ladies be warned, some people may see things that you don’t intend them to see.  When it came to cleaning off the top of the bikini, they just grab the material and flap it around.  You may very well  find yourself completely exposed.  With the bottoms, if you are lucky like me, she’ll just flap it around while throwing water at you.  But if you are unlucky like my friend, a hand might end up in there to clean the mud out.  Of course, while enjoying the mud you’ve got it in your hair and on your face.  So they dump water over your head without warning, and you can’t breath out of your nose or mouth, but you haven’t taken a breath in.  You are desperately  trying to hold your breath and praying that the water stops but the waterfall in front of your face is longer than your ability to hold your breath.  I had to turn my head to get a breath without swallowing water.  As I did then next deluge of water started. Who would have thought washing could be so dangerous.

Although a very rushed experience, it’s one that is worth it.  It’s these little gems that you find hidden in the corners of the world, that make traveling worth it 🙂

My Travel Companion’s Kind Words About Me

This post wasn’t written by me, but it was written by my Russian friend just shortly after we parted ways.  She posted it on facebook and I wanted to post it here as it is as much a part of the memories as the posts I have been making:

Manila is the best place to meet people. The most amazing travelers I met were in this city. There is something special about the hostel I am staying. Special atmosphere and well organized space which make people get to know each other.
Three months I met Marcia at the same place. She became my travel partner for some places in the Philippines and later on decided to change the tickets back home to be able to join me in my trip without purpose and destination for another month.
She is certainly my soulmate and we had a blast whenever we went. I have learnt a lot from this experienced traveler who has visited over 70 countries and really thankful to the universe for bringing us together at the same place and time.
When people asked us where we were from and we replied Canada and Russia you could see instant sparkles of astonishment in their eyes.
Words cannot describe what an amazing time we had together – by the end of our journey we could be able to read thoughts of each other just watching the eyebrow move or look of each other. That has been a pure harmony.
Dear Marcia, I wish that you will find what you are looking for very soon and that we will meet up again one day to travel a bit more, discuss all the possible topics and play shithead on the bus to somewhere.

 

The End of My Journey…

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Now my travels have come to an end.  I’m back in my “hometown” after a whirlwind visit to London.  Ahh…London, I truly love this city.  Although there for only 10 days, it was like I had never left.  I picked up my old routine, even went to 3 dance classes.  I found myself feeling very conflicted while there.  In theory, I know all of the reasons that I chose to leave but did I make a mistake?  But to have renewed my visa in London meant that the past 4 months would never have happened.  I wouldn’t give up these past 4 months for the world.

Out of all my adventures, this period of travel was the most meaningful to me.  I think it was because I am at a crossroad in my life.  When traveling, many other travelers are at similar crossroads.  They have finished school and don’t know what the next step is; changing jobs, careers, countries, life…  Crossing paths with these travelers can bring deeper meaning to your travels.  When you open up to them, they listen and reflect with you.  They are genuinely interested in what is going on in your head, perhaps because listening and reflecting will give them some insight into their own situations.  It’s different sharing with travelers than with others who are on defined paths.  They can be quick to advise and opine when all you really want is a sounding board.

I started these travels with clarity of mind for the future and I’ve ended it with obscurity.  However, I have learned lots about myself along the way.  What I’ll do with this new found knowledge is the big question.  Continue to watch this space, I’m sure I’ll be jet setting somewhere soon.  In the meantime, I’m going to sort out the photos and work on the photoblog.  I may even pull up some old emails from the early days of my travels before blog was a word and digital photography was in its infancy (I sound like a dinosaur) and sporadically post them here.

Thanks to those that I met along the way for the insight that you brought to my journey.

Submerged in Southern Laos

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Laos is a country which when I traveled it 2 years ago, I was told that there is no defining feature to Laos unlike its neighbouring countries, but when you get there you never want to leave.  I would agree Laos is the perfect country to just lose time in. This time, my visit to Laos would encompass the southern part: the Bolaven Plateau and 4000 Islands.

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First we arrived in Pakse and we decided that it was time to try the motobike.  Although, the perfect time to do this was when we were doing nothing in Kampot; take a bike out and play around with it. We decided that our first time on the bike would be when we had to travel 46km one way.  As it was new to us, we opted for an automatic bike but it was twice the price to rent it so we just took one.  My Russian friend drove first and she made it look so easy. It didn’t take her long to get comfortable with the bike. We had gone to see an ancient temple, Wat Phou, in Champassak.  After exploring the temple in the sweltering heat, it was time to head back to Pakse.  It was also my turn to drive the bike.  Well, I didn’t go very far before skidding with bike and falling.  I got back on had a bit more play with it and then my friend said “Are you ready? Let’s go.”  Then she got on the bike and the bike swayed as I couldn’t get the balance, so I stopped and chickened out as I needed more time to get used to it.  That was my attempt at a motobike.  We kept the bike for the next two days as we ventured up to the Bolaven Plateau to see the many waterfalls in the area.  I let her do all the driving because I needed time to get used to driving it and we were always going somewhere.  I have to say, the love affair of seeing Laos on the back of a bike was totally lost on me.  You can’t read, you can’t sleep, bugs hit your face and it so uncomfortable.  Maybe when you are driving it’s more exhilarating but as a passenger, give me a bus any day.  She loved it.  She got very confident almost too quickly.  I have to admit I was a bit nervous on the back.  I was watching the speedometer to make sure she didn’t go too fast. Every time, she turned to talk to me or was looking at the surroundings, I was saying a silent prayer.

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After Pakse and surrounding areas, we headed to 4000 Islands.  We stayed on the island Don Det.   I have to say that Don Det was my favourite island/beach chill out place in the whole four months.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It didn’t offer the crystal clear waters of Gili T or El Nido- it’s on the Mekong, it’s a river.  There were no snorkeling opportunities, but there were fresh water dolphins.  Maybe it was the company, but something about Don Det just made me want to stay.  Most of our time was spent doing nothing; by this time we were professionals at it.  In all fairness, I’d say we actually were more active here than in other places.  We tubed along the Mekong and got one speed push bikes and went to neighbouring islands to see waterfalls.  We even booked a kayaking tour.

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The first time my friend and I were in kayaks, we were in single ones on our own.  The next time we had the one-sided oars.  This time when we had double kayaks and could finally kayak properly together, she ditched me for someone else! Rewind- when doing long travels, you sometimes end up randomly bumping into people who you’ve met along the way.  On the island, my friend bumped into her Greek friend who she had met in Chang Mai two months previously.  So off she went with him in the kayak.  I do not exaggerate, but not 15 minutes into the tour, I hear my Russian friend screaming and turn and look back at them as they are headed straight into an island (a lot of these 4000 islands are just green growth on top of rocks).  The guides had this look on their faces that read “You can’t be serious.  We haven’t even hit the hard part yet.”  Watching for them, as they came around the island, their kayak slowly started to tilt and turn over.  Out they fell.  I started laughing, it was too funny, words can’t describe.  Then suddenly I stopped laughing, my eyes widened and I covered my mouth.  A girl in the tour said “It’s okay, you can laugh.”  To which I replied “I know I can laugh, they’re my friends.  But they have my camera!”

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