Australia: Her Ethereal Beauty Caught in the Flames of Relentless Bushfires

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Australia with all her beauty is now burning with so much at stake. A place in this world so loved by those who live and have the pleasure of taking in her allure, is now in complete ashes with potentially 1 billion, and counting, of her animal population burned alive. Here the kangaroos were plentiful with their joeys as they’d  freely hop by out in the open or just lay under a tree for protection from the warm sun during another hot Australian day. Flocks of various intelligent and colorful parrots, cockatoos, and even a Kookaburra here and there who would proudly sing their morning song, are now falling victim to the blaze of the wild Australian bushfires that are more out of control today than ever in her history. The koalas, who I rarely saw in the wild, and when I spotted one it was always with her baby clinging to her like all sweet babies do, now charred together as one. You see, majority of Australia isn’t built up in the way the United States or other first world countries are. You don’t peer outside to see cement, stores, or other giant buildings in most of this country. The human population is far less per area of land. This country is still very much beloved, rugged country. The animals and people live amongst each other, together.

This brings me to an uncertainty of how to write about this tragedy that is continuing, but I find myself naturally gravitating towards her natural exquisiteness, and what was once sprawling bush filled land with all the beloved animals that call her home. It is a country filled with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, mountain ranges with great diversity in character, and a vast array of climates, flora, and fauna.

The south coast of New South Wales, which is now in flames or threatened, Nowra, Shoalhaven, Bateman’s Bay, and the endless drive down the scenic Princes Highway to Ulladula, Mollymook, and Pebbly Beach, is where I captured my first experience of hanging out with a troop of kangaroos on a local the beach. It’s where I first crossed paths with a lethal brown snake that continued to slither by unbothered by my existence. Then, far north to the hotter drier lands of Queensland where salt water crocs, that can measure 15 feet, are roaming some of the salt water beaches while the smaller “freshies” are in the creeks and rivers; both are ready for their next meal. Where snakes are plentiful along with wallabies, kangaroos, brushtail possums, and even some platypus here and there. These are the animals who are in dire need of help.

Neighborhoods that house people with homes they’ve grown families in, loved in, fought in, cried in, and forgave in, now engulfed of these unruly flames. Thousands upon thousands of people displaced will go back to see their lives amongst the ashes, and possible their loved ones too.

Through tragedy arises hope. Hope that people will unify for a common goal. Hope that in a world of constant need and disparity, these needs and disparities have not caused us to become calloused. Sometimes it is easier to read or listen to the news, feel a moment of compassion, and then look away isn’t it? I am a big proponent that compassion needs to lead to action. It is unchanging unless coupled with movement. Let compassion lead us to feel the calling and the responsibility to one another when tragedy strikes. Let’s grasp onto the hope that in this world infiltrated by loss and brokenness, there is still so much more that is worth the fight to save and the effort to heal.

“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”  Howard Zinn

There are several charities you can donate directly to: Red Cross Australia, Australia Wildlife Fund, Salvation Army Australia, St. Vincent de Paul Society (Australia), New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Country Fire Authority, World Wildlife Fund Australia, RSPCA New South Wales, WIRES (rescuing thousands of animals), and many more.

Please take action in any way you can.

Experiencing Sydney and the Harbour

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My next stop had me entering the hustle and bustle of city life. I entered Sydney not knowing what to expect but only knowing that God opened the door for me to travel through Australia and so here I was, a country girl at heart, beginning this leg of my journey smack-dab in one of the world’s largest cities. I didn’t have much time to ponder this due to the mass amount of people in suits hurriedly power walking past me to get to their assumed appointments. The streets were filled with taxis and just a few blocks away ferries were continuously going from one Sydney harbor to the next. The Central Business District (CBD) is filled with food options from small sidewalk carts for those on the go, to fancy fine dining restaurants with world renowned chefs, and the shopping… oh I wish I could really let loose and go on a shopping spree. However, due to a travel budget I reminded myself the pretty dresses aren’t worth the sacrifice of travel experiences to come.

This was also the first time in my travels I chose an Airbnb that was a room with a shared bathroom in someone’s home. I would be sharing a living space with a complete stranger and not just a living space but HER living space. I was hoping and praying that this would forge a friendship and not be too awkward.

As fate would have it I roomed with a soon to be friend named Claire. She too was single and slightly older than I. We stayed up talking about our lives and how we found them so different than we ever thought they would be. I shared my faith and my belief that though very different than most women’s lives my age, there must be purpose in the difference. She too had traveled around the world quite a bit. These talks and the company was the much-needed girl time that I had been craving.

The weather was warmer than I had just come from in New Zealand and I welcomed it. Sydney has many beaches and I went to several. I was also quite impressed with The Royal Botanical Gardens with its views of the harbor and the art museum that is right next to it.  It is a perfect spot to go for a long walk and have lunch, as the walk is right along the harbor which is lined with restaurants next to the Sydney Opera House.

Sydney, with its newfound friendship and sun drenched beaches, did not disappoint. And then, I was ready to leave the city and drive south.

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My Journey Through the Waimangu Volcanic Valley of New Zealand

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With its striking presence, rock formations so grand they tower over the boiling thermal lakes, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest geothermal system on earth and the only one entirely created within written history. Nothing compares to trekking through these unabashed lands. On foot this trek takes about two hours to each way; it is a longer walk but with very clear paths and not much uphill unless you decide to take the cut-off which leads to an extraordinary uphill workout with an eye-catching view of Inferno Crater. With this much time walking along, surrounded by nature, there is plenty of time to walk, think, reflect, and to take in all that surrounds you.

For the entire two-hour trek to the lake I only passed one other couple who were taking this journey on foot. I was in complete solitude for most of my walk. I was thankful for the solitude in part due to the complete uphill trek to Inferno Crater left me panting for air and dripping sweat. There is nothing like being surrounded by nature with little human interference. This walk left me feeling at complete peace and invigorated.

Inferno Crater is filled with an aquamarine jewel toned lake that is a jaw-dropping treat at the end the uphill climb. Along the way there are a few lookout points where you can see just how far this park stretches. Filled densely with trees you can see just how far you are going to walk and where the park ends at the lakes edge.

At this point I am five months in to traveling solo, exploring this earth, and discovering more of what it is I feel passionate about. As I round the corner I see constant steam arising from a lake. It literally looks like the lake water is boiling, it was. Frying Pan Lake was given its name very fittingly. And shooting up from its edges stands Cathedral Rock. This is the moment I was so lost in thought and wonderment I turned to say “Wow, Incredible…”  out loud and there was no one there. This is the point I realized I have traveled to so many places and for most of my journey I maybe had a stranger to share in the experiences with, and through that I’ve made so many connections, but I’ve craved a partner to share with all there is to marvel. Someone to do this walk with and gazed with astoundment at all that has been created. Someone to listen when I decide to say something out loud and then after pieces of this journey, to sit, have lunch and converse, ask questions, talk, or just be with companionship.

I continued my trek all the way to the lake, passing streams that were steaming with heat and geothermal activity, a lake so black to me it looked like the gateway to the pits of hell, terraces marbles with different colors from iodine and I don’t know what else, but I was more just lost in thought. I could now see and feel clearly, with a much greater depth than before, of what is most important, partnership.

Things To Do in Mount Maunganui

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Although the South Island, with all of its grand beauty, is any outdoor enthusiasts dream, it is whipping with southerly winds blowing in from Antarctica that bring a startling chill, and I was ready for some warmer weather. My North Island discovery began with the explorations of Mount Maunganui.

This little beach town has become quite a popular surf spot and its soft sand beaches with warmer summer waters bring in tourists from all over the world. As I strolled through the main stretch of shops I heard European accents from the student workers behind the counters of several privately-owned shops and cafes. This place does draw a younger, energetic crowd that fills the atmosphere with a youthful upbeat vibe.

A must do while on The Mount is to hike up to the top. The hike itself is beautifully line with shrubbery and green foliage which also helpfully provides a bit of shade from the intense sun this mountain can get. The panoramic views of the multiple shorelines, various inlets, and the city of Tauranga are a more than worth it reward. Many people do this hike for either daily exercise or simply for the views as a visitor, so I highly recommend going early. While at the top venture out a bit and explore the various paths along the peak that will take you to different viewpoints.

The Mount has multiple hikes going around the base and to the peak; there are days filled with exploring at various fitness levels so a leisurely scenic walk with an ice cream from one of the various ice cream shops is a fun way to end the day and watch a sunset. Coming down from the hike puts you right on the main beach and the beginning of side streets filled with shops. The main beach is beautiful and full of activity from volleyball to kayaking to surfing and of course, lots of people watching.

The multitude of restaurants and cafes make where to eat a perplexing decision. The mount has food choices for every desire, from vegan cuisine, to Mediterranean to Thai this place leaves a hungry person bursting with decisions. The Mount is a great getaway for beachgoers looking for a small but lively surf town to explore and enjoy.

Deeply Rooted in Wanaka New Zealand

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When I look back to the places I’ve cherished most around the world they all have a common thread that ties them together. They are places where I was able to sit and just be. Places where all I could hear were the sounds of nature, and the voices of man were rare if existent at all. I found these spots all around Wanaka. I could’ve lumped a Wanaka post in with my Queenstown trip but it wouldn’t have given Wanaka the notoriety it deserves and unique identity it has. This is a place where I just walked for hours along the lake.

 

About 10 minutes into my walk I saw a man taking several photos of a tree that was surrounded by muddy water. The tree didn’t have any leaves on it and it didn’t seem that pretty to me, so I was having a hard time reconciling why out of all the beautiful scenery that surrounded the both of us he was obsessively photographing this tree. It literally looked like a giant stick in the mud to me. I looked at this tree and immediately had thoughts that it would probably end up dying. It was rooted in an area that will be covered in the lake waters as soon as the lake rises and it’ll probably drown, get uprooted, and eventually wash ashore. For now, it just stood there all by itself.

 

I walked up to the guy taking the photos of the lonesome, bare tree and said “I wonder if it’ll survive much longer?” He responded, “Well, I guess there’s no telling, but the locals call it a weed, and this weed has survived over 30 years, sometimes half submerged in lake water. I bet its roots are deep into the soil below, and its branches are always ready to absorb the sunlight. This tree has gotten quite a bit of tourist attention recently.”

 

“This tree has gotten quite a bit of tourist attention lately.” This statement had me thinking about this tree for a large part of my continued walk. What made this tree so special was not its eye-catching beauty or massive impressive size, but simply because it was making it through difficult environmental conditions time and time again. And, through these conditions it has still been able to push through only God knows what under this lake to grow roots deep enough to keep its stability. This tree is sometimes up too its branches in water and it has still been able to grow enough to always touch the sunlight and not completely drown.

 

It was such a parallel to the season my life is today and probably seasons that at one point or another many of us get to. Where we are completely out of our natural element and comfortable environment, plucked and placed far away from those who usually console us or give us advice and feedback, and left to decide what we are going to dig our roots into so that our soul gains stability. And, in these moments, when we feel the cold waters rising to our necks, are we going to choose to raised our hands in anticipation of the moments of sun made just for us to soak in its beneficial nutrients, provide comfortable warmth, and eventually cause the waters to recede.

When Jesus spoke again to the people He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light in dawned.” Matthew 4:16

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify the Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

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My Welcome to New Zealand Begins in the South Island’s Otago Peninsula

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It is true; there are more sheep than people. If you can’t sleep, you will never run out of sheep to count and these sheep don’t have to be purely a figment of your imagination. They are on every hillside I laid eyes on. If my excitement was bound into a bubble that bubble would’ve burst as I flew over rolling green hills that didn’t end until they either dropped into the crisp blue sea or turned into snow-capped mountains. I could taste the clean crisp air through my small oval airplane window. The greens were true greens and all the blues were rich, true blues. To say New Zealand is clean and beautiful wouldn’t do justice to these majestic pieces of land so small in comparison to its giant land mass neighbor Australia.

The Otago peninsula is home to cooler weather beaches, penguins, fur seals, albatross, sheep of course, Larnach Castle, and eye catching beauty in every direction you look. Cold or warm temps, I am a lover and enjoyer of the beach so along the coast is where I spent the majority of my time. I was able to stay in a home that overlooked the sound in Port Chalmers. A five-minute walk down the steep hill my home was perched on led to a running/bike path along water. It was my motivation to jog every day. Of course, I was there in the winter so they were jogs that only lasted as long as my frozen nose and cheeks could take. The air in the winter has an Arctic bite. I woke up early enough most mornings to see the lavender to violet beauty the sunrise was and most nights watched the sunset with the same level of astonishment. Only God himself could create a beauty of this magnitude.

One of my favorite beaches was Anderson’s beach with waves that broke clean and very few people. I searched and searched this beach for the penguins that come up from the sea and nest in the hillside bushes at night but it was to no avail. This was one of my goals while visiting all the beaches, to see a penguin in its natural habitat. It was one of my cold weather travel encouragements, and as those who have traveled for longer periods of time know you need some encouraging moments of astonishment that leave you in remembrance that this is the very reason for embarking on this venture. I was having several moments of things not falling into place and missing my friends and family. I was near the beach searching for penguins once again on a crisp sunny day and talking to God about my life and what to do next. My frustration was pretty high and I just told God, “Look, I just need to know that you are still here with me, that You still want me to go forward with this. It’s been weeks and the single thing I wanted to see in this cold climate and have been searching for daily was a penguin. I haven’t even been given that. If You are still in this with me if You are still here, please show me a penguin. I walked about ten steps forward and it was within three minutes, if that, there, right before my eyes was a penguin. My eyes welled with tears. God answered. This penguin looked at me with the same peace-filled gaze I was giving him. As I walked closer he wasn’t jarred in the least. He widened his belly, sat on his feet and got ready for his nap under a bush. I just stood there and watched for about fifteen minutes thanking God for His presence and just hearing me. This moment was such a comfort I won’t even attempt to put into words.

Otago peninsula, you are glorious.

A Quick Moment in Phuket and Time for Reflection

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As I landed in Phuket I felt a sense of deep relief as I knew rest and refuge for my soul was just around the corner. I am so thankful for everything I’ve been able to experience thus far however, I am ready to slow down. I am looking forward to waking up and having time to journal about devotionals and readings on a daily basis, having time to just be and listen to what God is trying to tell me and where He is leading me next. I’m only spending two days in Phuket and then off to a new location for an entire month. I so need this.

As I sit on the beach in Phuket, I realize it’s not so much that feel like I’ve had any epiphanies about myself over the last two months, it’s more that I’ve just had confirmation about things I already knew. One being, I enjoy traveling slow. Traveling to new locations every few days is exhausting and, yes, I get to say that I’ve been to this specific place but the places I feel a connection to are the places I was able to spend time in, create relationships usually beyond one conversation, and not have my mind filled with a to do list before I leave because my time is so short. Also, I love not being worried about getting the great Instagram worthy photos. Those are great and I absolutely love it when I get one but to be honest many of pictures you see on Instagram do look that beautiful from the angle they were taken; what you don’t see are the dozens of people standing in line waiting for you to hurry up and take the picture of yourself over the ledge. These locations are usually the most touristy and cost a lot of money to get to because you have to buy a tour with dozens of other people to get there. Which brings me to my next received confirmation. I’m not that into guided tours. Especially if it’s in large groups. I do love guided tour groups revolved around things I just wouldn’t be able to by myself like taking a boat to swim with giant manta rays or riding an elephant, but if it’s something I can do on my own or with a friend or two I’d rather go that route.

I’ve been so busy these last couple months I haven’t had a clear mind to really just be with God without the busyness soon distracting me. I’m continually hoping and praying one of the reasons for this journey is to provide clarity on where my life is going next. I left a job I wasn’t in love with, sold everything, and said farewell to so many loved ones not just to travel the world, but to also find what I can add to it. I have asked God for a revelation about this time and time again. Time and time again He provides the next stepping stone of what He wants me to do next, but never the whole picture. There are moments when I hear nothing but silence and feel nothing but inaction on God’s part and I can be brought to utter frustration. It reminds me of Habakkuk. Not that I am surrounded by a world I feel is falling apart due to evil, although I’m not saying this isn’t happening; it’s just not my point right now, but that I have had extended dialog with God about various areas of my life and many times I see inaction and wonder why. My testament to walking by faith and not by sight is being built mightily. What I love about Habakkuk is although he had moments of complete frustration and not understanding God’s inaction or timing he didn’t run from God as Jonah did. He poured his frustration into prayer, over and over again. I will choose to continue in this way.

As I lay on the beach in Phuket, I look back and can see all the things in my life I grew tired of and knew it was time for me to move on, but I also see all the good I was able to pour into some of these heavy tasks. I am thankful God used me and worked through me in these moments and lie in anticipation of what He will have for me next. As impatient as I get for the story or my life to hurry up and unfold I remember that the purpose of my life isn’t for me or my story at all. This is all God’s story and Him revealing who He is to the world, and I get to be a small piece of the puzzle.

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Thailand’s Islands Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Ang Thong National Park, and Making Decisions Based on Unsettling Feelings

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A piece of my heart was left in Chiang Mai. That is one place I just feel drawn to go back to, further build relationships, and explore more of.  As hard as it was to travel on, I was ready for some more island life. My entire life I’ve lived coastal, and if there’s one thing this trip has confirmed is I get some sort of peace being near the ocean. When looking out at its vastness I tend to daydream of all my wants and desires. Then, like a horse drawn to water, my mind gravitates and rests in thoughts of the depths of God’s love for me, His mighty sovereignty He has proven over my life, and the endless array possibilities that are far beyond what I can see, all held in the palm of His hands. The opportunities He has opened doors to so far are beyond what I ever imagined my life to be; I just had to be courageous enough to continue to walk forward. He has done and continues to do the rest. I ponder all these things for hours when looking out at the ocean. The best part of going to Koh Samui, aside from being at the beach again, was we could actually take a plane there. A friend of mine met me in Chiang Mai for a bit and we decided to travel these islands together.

Getting around on these islands is easiest if you rent and know how to drive a scooter. These islands are big and a scooter rents for about $6 US dollars a day. That’s less than one taxi ride. Our hotel was literally on the beach and also at the end of the Fisherman’s wharf that housed the fun night markets. The location couldn’t have been better. We steered away from the wild nightlife areas, wanted to be on the beach, and the semi-peaceful, semi-lively fisherman’s wharf was the perfect in between. Along the wharf’s alley like streets where many restaurants, clothing and craft shops, and every kind of variety shop you could imagine. Getting out on the scooter and venturing to other sides of the island and other beaches is a must. Hiking to and swimming in the waterfall pools was also a favorite moment.

The natural beauty of the islands east of Thailand’s mainland is astonishing, however, like many beautiful places around the world they have now make a huge amount of their money based on tourism. This means, more pollution in touristy areas, expensive guided tours that you feel like you are in a cattle drive, and locals treating you like, well, a tourist. They want to make money and the easiest way to achieve that is selling you things. Ask questions about the tours they want to sell you. How many people are on the boat? How much of the island do I actually get to see? A lot of these tours will let you go to a specific location but not allow you on the rest of the island. They will also limit your time in each area. The guided tours are okay as long as you are clear and accepting of what you are getting and where you are going. One example of this was when we went on a boat to visit a specific island. They explained that they did not want us sitting on towels or laying towels on the beach because the beaches are losing sand. So, to stop this there were dozens upon dozens of beach lounge chairs to sit in. Once you were sitting in a beach chair they then told you it wasn’t free and the cost to sit amounted to about $10 US dollars for one hour. These islands are beautiful; just be knowledgeable on what to expect where you are going. My favorite moment in all the boating amongst the island was the Ang Thong National park. It is absolutely breath-taking, and kayaking around its waters and an island is worth every penny for the life time experience. I was a bit under the weather for part of this trip so my friend helped me with some photos when I just needed to lie on the beach.

Traveling is one of those life experiences that has you constantly out of your comfort zone and your “normal”, and in a state of heightened sensitivity to what is happening around you, well hopefully. Especially when you are traveling in third world countries. I have strong guttural instincts that so far in life, have not steered me wrong. I usually know right away if someone is being dishonest, trying to take advantage or me or the situation, or something is just off. So, when I get them, I listen. I can get pretty bold when in these situations and won’t hesitate to ask more questions as needed, be very slow to answer or make decisions, often standing in silence thinking and processing all the while letting others sit in their discomfort of their own insincere motives. My friend wanted to go to a specific island that just didn’t sit well with me. I had nothing to base this feeling of just not wanting to go on. I told her I was probably just going to stay on Koh Samui and not go to Koh Tao to stay. I went back and forth in my head several times because as a friend, I of course wanted to do fun things with her and not have her travel alone when unnecessary, but something was just telling me this wasn’t this place for me to go. Literally two days before my friend leaving for Koh Tao I get a message from a friend in Hawaii with an article attached. She said “make sure you don’t go here”. The article was about several backpackers ending up missing and later found dead while staying on this island.  It is not for me to speculate what happened or make any decisions for anyone else’s future travels, however, for me this confirmed this just wasn’t a place I wanted to stay. I probably would’ve been fine however I am careful with the environments I enter into. The only reason I bring this up is to encourage fellow travelers to listen when something doesn’t feel right for you.

Next stop Phuket!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand – A Bustling City Nestled Amongst the Mountains Holding True to Its Roots

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Northern Thailand, with its lush greenery and multiple rivers flowing through, has seemingly kept so much of itself untouched and untamed. Just below these mountain tops lies a bustling city alive with markets, activities, and so many delicious cafes and authentic restaurants it’s difficult to choose which one to go to. My time in Chiang Mai and the northern region of Thailand was memorable and I left still knowing there was so much more to experience and explore.

Through advice from a friend who lives in southern Thailand I decided to stay in the Old City part of Chiang Mai. This area is rich in history and is still surrounded by the old moats and crumbling city wall ruins. These moats and walls were built, I believe in the 1200s, to keep out neighboring countries prone to invade, primarily Burma. Now, it lends itself to keeping people like me from getting too lost while wandering the many small streets lined with shops and vendors. While staying in this area everything I needed and more was within a 5 minute walk and laundry could be dropped off right across the street. The walls are built in a square to surround the city in about a mile or two radius, I could be wrong on the distance. This area of Thailand has as many temples as Bali does, but these temples are Buddhist as opposed to Hindu and the structure and artistic design is very different and unique.

Every afternoon the locals would bring their produce, meats, and cooked foods into the city to sell fresh on a daily basis. Many of the shops would have a multitude of things you could get from that one small shop. Often times I could buy a meal, rent a scooter if I chose, and buy some groceries all in the same tiny shop; maybe even get my laundry done or buy a tour. At night, there were plenty of things to do and over all I felt safe walking the inner city streets of Chiang Mai by myself. Everyone I met had a helpful and friendly demeanor and there was always a tuk-tuk at the corner ready to give you a ride if you were done walking for the evening. The streets are filled with tuk-tuks, little motorized carriages, and I took many. It’s an inexpensive and fun way to get around and see the rest of the city outside the Old City walls. Every Sunday evening there is a big night market that includes everything all the other markets hold, clothes, crafts, foods, etc, but adds music, performances and is just on a much bigger more crowded scale. Be ready to be around a whole lot of people if you decide to go. Also seeing an authentic Muy-thai boxing event is a worth it event.

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By far the most memorable experience I had in Thailand was visiting, learning to care for, and riding bare-back, the elephants. The Asian elephant has been used in Thailand for hundreds and hundreds of years as a way for transportation, farming, and fighting in war. You will see elephant figurines and paintings mostly due to the fact that the elephant is recognized by many here as highly intelligent, strong, hard-working, loyal, and a huge help and asset to the survival of Thailand for centuries. For many here elephants are to be appreciated and respected. With that said I feel it is just as important to be aware that due to many factors, tourism being a big one, elephants are now often mistreated and abused. There are many elephant tours and sanctuaries claiming that they are good to or saving the elephants when in fact they are not and if educated even a little you will be able to tell before giving your money to a group. I never had a desire to learn about elephants or create an awareness about their treatment until I met one and she gave me a hug. My heart melted. It was then I realized they create strong bonds and have heartfelt emotions. Elephants feel love, joy, grief, compassion, trauma, stress, and in times of stress they give each other hugs. She must have known I was having an emotional morning because while the other elephants were doing occasional naughty things she was so gentle with me and seemed so patient even when I was stumbling to do things correctly for her. I am convinced she was just an emotionally intuitive creature, as most women are.

There were only three of us who did a little research and chose this smaller elephant camp. There were only four elephants on this large property that included a river flowing through it on the bottom portion of this giant land that stretched as far as my eyes could see with mountains in the background. Each elephant had its own keeper, a mahout. The mahout for the elephant I cared for had a special relationship with his elephant, it was obvious. They were friends and it showed. I was able to feed giant sugarcane stalks to my elephant to build a good vibe, then we just kind of hung out while she smelled me and we just got used to each other. Then I mustered up enough bravery to climb up onto her neck. She lifted her leg to give me a boost. Yes, it is a trained thing to do but I took forever and she waited with no impatience. I learned the motions to slowly guide her and we trekked for about half an hour down to the river. She then got down on one knee so I could get off without completely injuring myself. She gave me a good ride and took me through these scenic lands, so in appreciation I gave her a bath in the river. Sure, she can bath herself but who doesn’t like getting a sponge bath and someone else cleaning behind their ears. Bathing her took a while. She is huge and I did both sides, haha. We then hung out in the river and I was rinsing off and finishing up. Apparently, she was so appreciative she wanted to give me a bath too. She took water into her trunk and sprayed me. More than once. It is possible she knew I needed a good laugh as well. After all the fun she helped me get back on her neck and we were one our way back up to the top for lunch. We then had to say our goodbyes.

A couple things to know about elephants if you are looking into having an experience with one. They sleep a lot, not for long periods of time but shorts naps many, many times throughout the day. If you are going to an elephant camp and the camp allows for more than two short 30 minute rides per day than the elephant probably is not getting enough sleep or the kind of sleep they need. They work in spurts and a true sanctuary allows a short time with people once maybe twice per day and the rest the elephant will sleep and exercise on its own. If it is used for farming they will also work in spurts and eat and sleep in spurts. Another thing to know is the baskets on their back hurt. Having a human or two on their strong muscle-filled necks is equivalent to wearing a necklace, but those rigid giant baskets with seats used for riding tours are not good for their backs and actually hurt. I saw many camps who had these on the elephants giving ride after ride for hours on end. It was heartbreaking to see. Also it is good to pay attention to the relationship between the mahout and the elephant. If a mahout has more than one elephant, often it is not a good sign. If the mahout walks around with a big metal thing that looks like a hook that is probably how the elephant was trained and it likely was trained in an abusive manor.

Another must see in this northern region is the famous white temple. Guided tours aren’t my favorite thing to do but this temple is a ways north near the border of Thailand and while up there seeing the “golden triangle” is another accomplishment and something just kind of cool to say you did. The Golden Triangle is the border location where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet via intersecting calm rivers. There is a small island in the center of this border that is unowned by any country, I don’t advise getting out of a boat and stepping foot on this patch of land. It is known to be the place that criminal activity can happen and no law enforcement can enforce and accountability for anything that happens there. The Golden Triangle is also one of the world’s largest and the center for drug trafficking. Largely in part due to the amount of opium that can grow here. This tiny area produces 25% of the entire world’s opium, usually then made into heroin. A guided river tour is advised and I wouldn’t take it upon yourself to wonder off alone. I briefly stepped foot in Laos but it was through the guided tour.

All of this and I feel it is all only the tip of the iceberg to all the wonders northern Thailand holds. There is much more to be educated about, see, and experience in this enchanted part of the world.

Solo Traveling through Ubud and the Wondrous Sights up to Bangli

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As I stepped away from the beach culture that a large portion of Bali is and into the cooler mountainous landscape richly seeped in Balinese culture, tradition, Hindu temples, and shrines, I had many conflicting emotions. This increased as I made a local friend who I could ask candid questions too, not offend him, and he would reply openly and honestly. Most of my discord stemmed from the fact that with every fiber of my being, to my core, I am deeply in love with Jesus. I have done nothing to deserve what He has done for me, I could aim to do nothing more for Him, and still He would love me unconditionally. I would still be His daughter and like a Father He would still have His arms reaching for me to help me up when I fall. This kind of love takes my breath away and  humbles me to the extent that it brings me to my knees with eyes brimming with tears. My relationship with my God is every day, very intimate, and impenetrable. When chaos swirls around me He is who I go to. I block everyone else out, so I can hear specifically from Him and the outside noise is muted. I crave for every person I come in contact with to have this. This is what sustains me when all else fails. With this said, I walk with open eyes still able to admire so much of the tradition, dedication, and amount of faith these people walk with day after day, year after year, generation after generation. I look at those qualities with admiration and can clearly see some things I am lacking in.

Ubud has so many holy temples and shrines; the craftsmanship is breath-taking. I took a trip to the Water Purification temple and witnessed locals coming in to a place believed to have fresh water that comes up from a spring that purifies and cleanses them of anything unholy and any wrong-doing. They bring offerings to their God in faith it will be pleasing and bring good things for their life and the life of their families. The commitment to give offerings on a daily basis, though smaller daily, is another quality of commitment that stuck in my mind. The emotion I saw as men, women, and children stood under the spouts to be cleansed by this water was convicting. Another moment of me reflecting if I am in each moment with God aware and feeling the emotions that come with it or has some of my relationship become routine and monotonous and I need to be more emotionally there. My relationship with God is like any relationship in that it needs to be fed and attention and care need to be given. One of the many questions I asked my newly made friend surrounded the cost of these rituals and he openly explained that with all of the offerings and ceremonies held he spends quite a bit of his money each year and so does each family. He explained that he like many families in Bali lives in a small house with his extended family and they live in poverty.

Another sight that should not be missed are the rice fields in Tegallalang and the lake among the mountains in Bangli. Go for the pictures you can take alone. The views in these areas you just won’t find anwhere else. There is a hike you can do to the top of the mountain but it starts at 2 am so I was out for that one. My trip to Ubud was a time for me to enjoy and regroup after bouncing from location to location so quickly. While is this region you can also visit and see a Luwak, a tiny animal, that makes apparently the most expensive coffee in the world. I tried it; it wasn’t my favorite but it was worth the experience. Apparently this animal poops out the coffee beans and the enzymes in the animal do something to the beans. They are then traditionally roasted in a pan over fire.

Lastly, Ubud is filled with some great shopping. Yes you have to dig a little and not all of it is good quality but some of it is and at a much cheaper price than sold elsewhere. I stayed in a nice boutique hotel that was a 15 minute walk to the main downtown like shopping area, and 10 minutes in the other direction was the monkey forest. Let me not forget to tell you there are monkeys everywhere. These one are not mean like the ones in Uluwatu and they are playful. And when I say they are everywhere they really are… hanging on telephone wires, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, crossing the streets with the people. It will put a smile on your face that these more non-aggressive monkeys mingle with people on a daily basis.

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