Thursday, April 11, 2013

India: Maha Kumbh Mela in photos

For the first 5 days in India I didn’t sleep in a real bed or take a shower.  This wasn’t the plan, but then again I didn’t have one.  My sleeping spots included the bunk of an overnight train (the first of many of my trip) and the floor of the thatched hut of our new friend Swami G.  I never learned our Swami’s true name, but I did find out he had a website, it didn't matter that he spoke no English.  I was just happy to have anywhere to sleep in the middle of the largest human gathering on earth, the Maha Kumbh Mela. 

This 55 day long version of the Maha (main) Kumbh (pitcher) Mela (gathering/fair/congregation) Hindu religious festival takes place once every 12 years and saw 120 million people this year.  The short version of the story is that for 12 days and nights (12 human years) the demigods and demons fought over a pitcher full of the nectar of immortality that was churned from the milk ocean that lies in the celestial region of the cosmos.  During the battle, drops of the nectar fell to Earth. 

Today, the rivers where these drops landed are considered sacred and millions come to wash away their sins and attain a short cut to nirvana by bathing at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati Rivers during this auspicious time (determined by astrology).  The festival is nearly a month and a half long, and during that time there are certain “highly auspicious” bathing days.  We happened to be there for the most auspicious day, along with 30 million other people.  A truly once in a life time experience no matter if we had a place to sleep or not; we could do as the pilgrims did.  Of course there’s so much more to be said, but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

This was the scene as we crested the hill walking
from the train station.  "Sangam" means confluence.
A religious holy man was later spotted lounging on this spiked
chair while being pulled over a burning fire.
Where the heck did this random Indian kid selling tambourines at the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, India get an Alaska Grown sweatshirt?!  He spoke no English and was probably so confused as to why I was taking a photo with him.  The face that ther were 30 million people at the festival that day...and that I ran acrouss this young man with his unknown symbol of my home...on the other side of the globe...I love travel :)

Our swami who let us sleep on his floor, distributing free biryani  (spicy) rice to pilgrims.

My travel companions, both from Oregon, both met on the road not known to me from America.
A view of a few of the 18 temporary floating pontoon bridges.
Taking the holy dip.

View from my "bed".
Stuck in a holy parade.

Monday, January 14, 2013

An Ode to 2012 Travel

Perhaps posting a few of the favorite photos of places I visited but didn't have a chance to write about will inspire me to mentally re-visit those experiences and write about some of the adventures I missed!  It was an amazing year of travel in which I was able to visit 10 countries.  The only downfall is that the only thing that will satisfy me now is more travel.  You'll have to wait for the next post to see where I'm headed next...

Incense sticks in Hue, Vietnam
Foot tracing for a set of personally customized shoes in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Photo by Kristin Drenzek
Halong Bay, Vietnam (aka Never Never Land)
My favorite tropical fruit...starfruit!  Homestay farm in the Mekong River delta near Cai Be, Vietnam.
Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Largest lake in Indonesia and largest volcanic lake in the world.
Sipiso Piso ("like a knife") waterfalls near Lake Toba, Indonesia.
Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos
Monks, Luang Prabang, Laos

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Women and children near Yangon, Myanmar with thanaka on their faces.
Myanmar script in Bagan
Bagan, Myanmar
Our sleeping horse cart driver, Bagan, Myanmar
Nuns, Nyaung Shwe, Mynamar
Monks, U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar
The travelers favorite banana pancake, Nyaung Shwe (Lake Inle), Myanmar
Lake Inle, Myanmar
Myself and fellow Ambassadorial Scholar Ashley charming in Bago, Myanmar
Malay fashion, Tawau, Sabah, East Malaysia (Borneo)
We survived six hours of Advanced Adventure Caving in Mulu Caves National Park , Sarawak, Borneo

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Diving Sipadan

Greetings from the Sulu Sea! 

After a few weeks in Kuala Lumpur full of Rotary activities and, gasp...applying for jobs so I have something to do upon my return to America, I set off for another quick adventure with my two Japanese roommates. 
We flew to Tawau, Sabah and hopped a ride to the coastal town of Semporna which was our base for two days of wonderful scuba diving.  Sabah is in East Malaysia, know more to the rest of the world as Boreno.  In Malaysia they refer to this area as East Malaysia because the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak only comprise less than half of the island of Borneo.  The bottom half of Borneo is the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the small country of Brunei is also tucked in. 
We spotted a Rotary billboard in Tawau!

About to enjoy a seafood dinner on a nice evening in Semporna
Sipadan is a small island off the coast from Semporna and is touted as one of the top dive sites in the world.  The island formation rises 600 meters from the sea floor and was created by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone.  Shaped like a mushroom with a small island forming the dome, vertical sea cliffs drop off dramatically just meters from shore.  This beautiful island and underwater world was highlighted by Jacques Cousteau’s film Ghost of the Sea Turtles.      
I can see why Jacques Cousteau liked Sipadan Island

This island has a very unique history; there used to be five resorts on the island but in the year 2000 21 people (10 dive tourists and 11 resort staff) were kidnapped by Filipino pirates.  They were held for more than a year and slowly ransomed off for millions of dollars.  Our dive master told us he was working on the island during that time but happened to be leading a night dive when the kidnapping occurred.  He and his group surfaced when they finished their dive but heard people yelling “pirates!” from the shore so they quietly re-submerged and hid in a shallow area of the reef for two more hours before resurfacing to safety.  The island was also part of a territorial land dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia for many years until it was officially declared part of Malaysia by the International Court of Justice in 2002. 
In 2004, under pressure from conservation groups and others, the Malaysian government ordered all on-site dive operators to remove their structures from the island and operate from someplace else.  I assume that after the kidnappings, there probably weren’t many visitors that came for more than day trips anyways.  To further reduce impacts on the marine environment, only 120 permits per day are issued to visit the island which includes divers, snorkelers, and guides.  This means you definitely need to plan ahead if you want to dive there, and pay the price.  Many backpack type travelers show up only to be disappointed that permits may be booked out for weeks or months. 

Although I have only been diving in a few other areas before Sipadan (namely Koh Tao, Thailand and Roatan, Honduras), I believe the diving here lived up to its hype.  The diversity and abundance of plants and animals was amazing, and the underwater geography was mind blowing.  Literally vertical sea wall cliffs dropping off for hundreds of meters, never ending as you looked up and down!  We encountered sea turtles, reef sharks, and HUGE schools of fish including barracudas.  It was crazy being faced with and surrounded by walls of fish.  Diving at this location was definitely a memorable experience and worth the journey and logistics to get there.  My roommate Tomomi had an underwater housing for her camera so I can't help but share many of the great shots: