Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Land of the Three Waters

I remember back in the early days of messing around on Google Earth (before Streetview took all the glory) I discovered what the word "antipode" means and that, by inverting the coordinates of any given location, I could find its exact opposite side of the globe. It was on this day that I realized how foolish I was for thinking that if I dug deep enough in my elementary school's sandbox, eventually I'd make it to China. In reality, I would have come out somewhere in the Indian Ocean - onto some God-forsaken, middle-of-nowhere ocean floor somewhere equally far from Madagascar, Western Australia and the southern tip of India. My closest hope of salvation would have been the French Southern and Antarctic Lands several hundred miles to my south. Unless I was digging in my winter (their summer), the several dozen scientists that live on the island would have probably all gone home. In the end, it was a good thing that I never made it all the way through. It probably would not have ended well for me. 

This is all to just set the scene for my visit to Kanyakumari, India's southernmost tip and dubbed "The Land of the Three Waters". It is here that the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal all meet after the Indian sub-continent finally ends its 1000 mile separation of the three. As I stood out on the point, dipping my toes into the water, I imagined my desolate antipode resting under the water somewhere thousands of miles in front of me. There was no land between my big toe and the Antarctic. 
Dipping my toe into the southern tip of India

Waves crashing into the southern tip of India

The Antarctic is a pretty abstract concept when you're in southern India. The heavy heat either bakes you dry on the east side of the peninsula in Tamil Nadu, or steam cooks you on the west side in tropical Kerala. A narrow mountain range divides the two and, driving, you cross from West Texas to Bali in a matter of minutes. The contrast is jarring and spectacular and the only thing that seems to hold the two separate universes together is a little two lane road that we whizzed along to and fro across the southern tip of India. 

I had the good fortune of getting to tag along with my aunt and her colleague, Christine, in southern India while they were visiting a factory to set up some purchases. (Thanks again you two for having me along!) We spent a day  in Tirunelveli going over designs of dried botanical arrangements and then took off for a few days of adventure while the artists created samples back in the factory. We visited the beach town of Kovalam, saw an old wooden palace and visited a few temples. It was a great little tour of India's southern tip and I can heartily recommend it to others looking for a good corner of India to explore. 

I could write about a lot of experiences I had in India over just a few days, but I think the experience(s) that struck me the most were the temples. Maybe I wasn't going to the right temples when I visited Northern India back in 2011, but the southern temples just seem to have so much more character. Sensuous is the way that I would describe them if I only had one word. Given my rambling so far, that might be the only word of mine you read about South Indian temples, but if you'll indulge me for a few more paragraphs, I have additional observations on the subject. 

It wasn't until I was back on the plane returning to Saigon that I finally arrived at the apt metaphor to describe South Indian temples: they're like a good, cured cast iron skillet that has been passed down from your great-grandmother. This metaphor may seem strange, but let me lay it out for you.

I think the piece that finally did it for me was a bas-relief of the monkey god within Meenakshi temple in Madurai. After making my way from the imposing gate through the dark layers of the temple lined with sculptures of Hindu gods and warriors, I made it into one of the central altars buried deep inside. If I hadn't had a guide, I would have been completely lost at this point. He directed me to the monkey god altar and I noticed it was very shiny for a stone sculpture, with globs of white and yellow smeared all over it. My guide told me that it was butter and lard - that people worshipped this altar by smearing cooking fats over it and then draping it in floral strands. 

Altar to the Monkey God at Meenakshi Temple
This was the literal parallel that got me onto the cast iron skillet metaphor, but the connection goes deeper than just a shared surface for butter. Worshippers at these temples offered all sorts of organic materials in these temples. Flowers were probably the most common, followed by bananas, coconuts and other fruits. I only saw the butter used once, but oils are smeared all over worshippers' bodies and burned in tiny lamps all over the temples. Priests bless worshippers with the ash from burnt wood and you'll notice little pots of ash at other stations around temples used to worship at altars. Colorful inks make worshippers and altars standout in the darkness. Most of the inks are plant based and are gone within a few days, so it's a safe bet that anything that is colorful has to be tended to on a daily basis. Some of the inks are made from spices, which provide a powerful scent that corresponds to the vibrancy. Then there is the largest mass of organic material of all - the temple elephant. Larger temples have a resident elephant that will bless you in exchange for monetary or edible donations. 

Elephant blessing at the temple
All these oils, ashes and inks blend together and layer over each other to create a truly sensuous environment that would be lost if someone went through with a sponge and bucket of soap. The character of these places is caked into the walls over centuries of worship. The altars are enclosed in layers of inner chambers and low corridors that make it difficult for any essence to escape into the outside world. It's like these temples are designed to trap the fumes and textures of all that enters and this accumulation makes these temples so special. Like an old, well cured cast iron skillet that has cooked thousands of servings of biscuits, gravies and caramelized onions, its flavor develops and matures over the generations. If you scrub it too well in the wash, you sterilize it and strip out all of those flavors. The sandstone walls of those South Indian temples are the spiritual equivalent of Grandma's cast iron skillet. 

And trust me, once you've walked around a temple for an hour, it stays on you. I left the Meenakshi temple in Madurai and got straight on a plane to begin my trip back to Saigon. As I sat in my seat, I could feel the oils between my toes and smell the spices on my shirt. My skin was greasy and fingers were sticky, no matter how many times I washed them. At Christian church, I approach the whole experience with scrubbed skin and crisp, pressed shirts. The whole affair is pretty clean and sterile in comparison to South Indian temples. It felt different, and even uncomfortable, to have all of these residues all over me after visiting the temple, but isn't that the whole point? What better way to remember and hold onto an experience than to feel it slide between your toes or smell it on your shirt a few hours later. I know that to some of you that might seem disgusting and, full disclosure, I  showered aggressively once I finally got home, but I can appreciate the sensuality of old time religion. In the end, it worked. I can't wait to go back and experience all that again. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Labuan Bajo, Indonesia: Sea Below, Stars Above

I can't remember the last time that I was able to see the Milky Way. Saigon just has way too many lights and hazy skies to ever have a chance at seeing anything less bright than a half-moon. It's a sad indication of how urban my life has become.

Waves crashing on Devil's Tear near Dream Beach (Lembongan)

Ten days on the Sea of Flores in Indonesia fixed that, though. The town of Labuan Bajo is located a few islands further east from the more popular Bali. It is isolated by the fact that you have to take an extra 1.5 hour flight from Bali, which seems to discourage most travelers from making it out there. However, the extra trip over stunning islands and pristine seas shimmering every shade of blue imaginable is well worth the effort.

Our final and best snorkeling sight. There's a cuttlefish down there somewhere

Those beautiful, clear, clean seas offer an abundance of marine life and diving opportunities. Bryn and I SCUBA dived six times over two days and had a blast. We swam with a pair of Manta Rays, saw countless Sea Turtles, a few reef sharks and, after numerous failed attempts to find a cuttlefish during our dives, we finally spotted one flitting alongside a sea turtle while we were snorkeling on our last day. The coral is still extremely healthy, but there is already evidence of its destruction. Like in Vietnam, it appears that the marine park charged with protecting the area is more interested in collecting revenue than protecting the park. Very few dive spots had mooring lines and a lot of boats just dropped anchor over coral beds. It was painful to watch. Like with Con Dao, it seems that the strongest force for preservation, for now, is Labuan Bajo's isolation. The sheer fact that not many people go out there means that the coral stays in tact. Who knows how long that will hold true, though.

Labuan Bajo's biggest celebrities are its Komodo Dragons. Two islands off the coast of Labuan Bajo (Komodo and Rinca) make up the only wild Komodo Dragon habitat in the world. And the 5,000+ dragons roaming those islands are out in full force. We hiked on both islands and saw dozens of dragons lounging in the sun, hanging around the kitchen hoping for handouts or females guarding their nests buried in earthen mounds. Although they're quite dangerous (our guide briefed us on all of the Komodo Dragon related injuries and deaths over the years) they're also pretty docile animals. As long as you keep your distance from them, you're fine. It's when you start posing a threat to the nest or if you come across a hungry, hunting dragon that things get dicey. On our second day in the park we spent a few morning hours walking around Komodo Island and I think it was my favorite. Climbing to a hilltop to enjoy the view, we found that a dragon had beat us up there and occupied the best spot. Cockatoos squawked in the valley below us and flew from tree to tree and a little further out, you could see the coral under the waves of the bay rolling out to the sea. He was a smart dragon.

A Smart Dragon
Logistically, you're going to have to spend a lot of time on boats while you're in Labuan Bajo if you want to get the most of it. The town itself doesn't offer much more than dive shops, restaurants and hotels. There are some cool excursions inland, but the mountainous roads are slow going, so you have to set aside a lot of extra time for overland travel. As for us, we spent every day we were there on a boat. We spent the first two days on a dive boat exploring the reefs and marine life and the next two days on a private boat touring around Komodo Island National Park. We constantly passed much larger, live-aboard ships that offered 5 or 6 days of diving much further out at sea where the day-trippers couldn't reach. I was only little jealous of them. Honestly, I probably don't appreciate diving enough to get the full benefit of a live-aboard. Two days of diving and two days of snorkeling/hiking with dragons was a good amount for us. But more is always possible.

A boat similar to ours waiting for the nightly bat evacuation from the mangroves. 
One of my favorite moments of the trip was our night out at sea in between Komodo and Rinca islands in the national park. We had anchored next to a mangrove forest to watch giant fruit bats come out for their nightly feeding. As the migration of bats dwindled, the stars began to come out. The moon was waning so we had a few hours of good darkness after the sun went down. All four days we were out there, there was never a single cloud above us - they always lurked behind mountain ridges on the horizon, but never got close to us - so the sky was clear. And to make it perfect, the closest human settlement was nearly 20 miles away behind a mountain, so light pollution was at a minimum. The only manmade light source came from a few fishing boats out on the horizon. The conditions were perfect for an amazing star show, made more amazing by the fact that it's been so long since I've seen one. The Milky Way smeared across the sky above us as we lay out on the roof of our little boat.

The coolest thing was that I had gone to Labuan Bajo anticipating amazing experiences in and under the water - and it fully delivered on those expectations. The star show was unexpected, though, and those surprises are the ones that really grab you.