Monday, August 31, 2015

Epic Adventures: Sky Diving

Joel and I had always wanted to go sky diving. For some reason we just kept missing the opportunities that seemed to come up. We have many friends who have enjoyed a good jump out over the fields of South Carolina, but that just didn't seem quite like how we wanted to experience this wonderment for the first time. We waited for the right moment.

This moment made itself available when we adventured to New Zealand. We were camping the South Island, slowly making our way around it in a giant looping road trip. We read many reviews and decided that we were going to lose our sky diving virginity in the most epic jump available to humans. Well, truth be told, this was the second most epic jump available to humans. The best, most amazing skydive location in the world allows you to leap out over Mt. Kilimanjaro. Since we weren't planning to visit there, the second best because our first best option. 

We chose a company called Skydive Franz because it had incredible reviews. Our jump would allow us to leap out of our plane at 12,000, 16,000, or 18,000 feet above the immense Franz Joseph Glacier on the back of Mt. Cook. From this leap into the heavens, we would see the glacier, the mountains, the rain forest with the Tasman river flowing through it into the Tasman sea. All of this would be our view as we topple to the earth. 

Since we were newbies, we did not feel like we needed to spend extra money on jumping at 18,000 feet. Any jump would be a epic leap for our systems at this point, so we chose the 12,000 foot jump. We were taken in a bus from the small national park town of Franz Joseph, to a field where this company kept their planes. 

We were suited up and were given a 5 minute instruction course by one of the tandem guides. In NZ, they apparently don't feel the need to teach loads of jumpers how to jump when really you are just going to be strapped to a professional who will land you safely. It looked like all we needed to remember to do was tuck at the right time and spread out a the right time. Seemed simple enough.

People were taken up in groups of 5 or 6 (with the additions of their tandems and photographers). The planes were incredibly tiny. There was only sitting and squashing room for everyone who went up in them. Each jumper had a tandem professional that they were strapped to, awkwardly sitting in that person's lap during the plane right as we gained altitude. I counted that in our tiny plane there were 11 people. I was strapped to a young guy named Zack. When I first laid eyes on him I prayed that I would not be jumping with him. I did the thing that I get so mad at people for doing- I judged him because he looked really young. Turns out, Zack has jumped over 500 times which truly was half of what the other jumpers had done in their life times. I thought 500 times was pretty dang good so I was comforted. 

He gave me a little tour from the air as we made our way higher and higher into the clouds. While he talked, he was strapping me to him. I was amazed that he could do this while I was half sitting on him, squashed in the plane. Joel was strapped to a fierce, short Welshman who had boasted jumping nearly 5,000 times in his life. He too was being strapped in as I was. 

Zack kept checking his watch which wasn't telling time at all, it was revealing the altitude. Then suddenly, he slide open the door and told me to swing my legs out. This was the moment were I was thinking, "Oh shit. I just chose to do this. I am doing this. I am doing it." Zack was sitting on the ledge of the door, holding on the sides while I was hanging off his chest into the vast sky around us. I felt like I was breathing under a waterfall. Then, in a flash, we were falling. 

I kept trying to breath easily but the air was rushing into my lungs and I had the thought that I was swallowing the earth. Our camera-man who was filming our premier jumps was literally swimming through the air talking to me and waving for me to look more excited. I could not stop looking at the scenery around me and feeling the sensation of falling, REALLY falling. We fell for 75 seconds before Zack pulled the cord which sent us flying back up into the air like we were nothing but a kite on a string.

For 5 more minutes, we floated, easily and slowly towards the earth. Zack showed me how to spin and flip and continued to tell me about the landscape around me that was growing larger and larger. He was so good that when we landed, we landed on our feet like we had just raced a sprint and came to a sudden stop. 

When I hit the ground, it occurred to me that Joel was already there. He jumped after me but landed before me. I ran up to him to find out what he thought and he just kept saying, "We flipped upside down. He flipped me out of the plane." I told him that was impossible, but Joel maintained that he saw his feet go over his head when they jumped out. 

Later that night, watching our jump videos, I was amazed that Joel's story was true. His guide did flip him out of the plane and sent him whirling to the earth in a spiral of stunts and wheelies that sped up his journey while also giving him a great ride. 

Did we enjoy the experience?

As soon as we both landed we admitted that our first thoughts were, "Let's do that again." I would have paid every bit of that price again and again to experience this as much as the guys we were strapped to. It was awesome!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Epic Adventures: Petting Tigers

We heard tell of a magical place in Northern Thailand where tigers will let humans pet them. The story goes that none of these Tigers are drugged and they have not been trained. There is a special magic in that land that keeps them friendly and docile towards humans. 

We did not believe this for one second, but even so, we were not going to miss an opportunity to pet a Tiger! 

Joel and I ventured north of Chiang Mai, Thailand to visit the famous "Tiger Kingdom". When we arrived, we were allowed to pick the size of tigers we would like to play with. We decided that it made the most sense to visit the smallest tigers and the largest tigers. Might as well pet them on both ends of the spectrum. We were given tickets and had to wait our turn.

First, we waited outside of the smallest tiger pen. This was a very fancy pen, and about a dozen people were allowed inside at a time. I was curious to watch how the tigers were treated to try and pick up on the "magic" that seemed to keep them so calm. These babies were not calm. They were as wild and playful as our neighbor's kittens who wrestle with one another and climb everything in site. The thing was, these kittens were the size of a basset hound. Each tiger cub has a trainer with them who pulled them away from their siblings and friends so that they would make themselves available for tourists to pet them. The trainers were armed only with a small stick that they used sparingly to switch the little cubs only hard enough to distract them from whatever had currently caught their attention. It was neither forceful or cruel from what I witnessed.

When it was time for us to enter into this pen, we had to remove our shoes and wash our hands. We wore special sandals and headed in to visit the cubs. Right away, I was taken aback by how huge these babies were. Their paws were large enough to do significant damage if they so choose, and their claws were impressive. The cubs around us wanted to play and were toppling all over themselves, running past us as we tried to pet them. We were not allowed to pet their faces or heads. The goal was to keep our hands closest to their haunches in order that we would not be playfully (yet fatally) bitten. 

Joel and I sat on the ground and watched the cubs play around us. As we were sitting there I was stunned when a tiger cub crawled from behind me into my lap. The encounter only lasted a second, but it truly was pure magic. My heart leaped inside me as I stroked this orange and black feline that felt strangely like my tiger stuffed animal that I had when I was a kid. They were not silky or soft really, their hair is more wiry than I would have assumed. Joel and I were delighted by this encounter with the cubs and people around me kept saying, "Don't you feel so lucky?" I did. 

A little while later, we found ourselves at the largest tiger pen. Fewer people were allowed into this area at a time. Here, the guides would not take photos for you. Their attention was ever fixed on the tigers. Each couple of humans had a guide walking with them. I was a little unnerved because again, this guide only held that small, switch-stick just like they had in the cub pen. Looking at these enormous cats, I knew full well that little stick would not stop one of them if they decided they were tired of visitors. Our guide spoke English and liked to joke around so he kept trying to get us to reach for the full grown tigers or at one point he told me to lay on one of them that was resting. I was so uncomfortable with this but I did it...for a second. These giant cats seemed more irritated and less energetic their their young. One paced back and forth in front of the window where people would watch tourists pet the tigers, a few more lounged quietly letting people stroke their back legs. 

Twice a rogue male came up behind Joel while he was squatting next to a resting tiger for me a take a photo. Both times, our guide yelled for Joel to move away fast while he stepped in between. Whatever his presence did the beast declined his attack (or whatever that might have been). It was strange to be on the inside of the cage with giant cats while people looked on from the freedom of the outside.

I still wondered why these creatures abide such invasions. It was clear that every tiger in the kingdom had been raised by human hands and was used to be touched day in and day out by teams of tourists. But I had to wonder about the larger ones. For as much as we read that these tigers are not drugged, and as uncomfortable as I was with the fact that they did not appear to be sedated in the least (I honestly hoped they would be a little because they were very alert), there was one strange moment. 

Joel was posing for a photo when the sitting tiger in the photo began to throw up like a cat does when they choke on a hairball. Instantly, in a splash of what looked like milk on the ground, I saw a blue pill sitting in the middle of the fresh puddle of upchuck. Our guide, casually and quickly scooted us away but I know that I saw a pill. 

Of course, I will never know what that pill was or what it does to a tiger, but I had to wonder if these guys, as alert as they were, were under some sort of sedative care. It makes sense to me that they would be. I don't imagine that Tiger Kingdom would last very long if people were mauled regularly. 

Petting tigers was an epic experience for us. We really enjoyed it and are glad that we were able to give it a go. However, one cannot help but wonder at what this all means. Morally, it all felt wrong. I know this is the most unnatural way to raise and maintain tiger health. We learned that the tigers who get too aggressive to stay in the pens are sold to circuses and zoos. I don't like any of that and I don't like that there are hundreds of tigers not running wild in the jungles of their natural states, but being raised to be petted by people daily. However, I am torn because I also thought it was wonderful to have this experience. We left with a strange dissonance between what we know is right and what we enjoyed today. We have had many discussions about this experience since then.

While there is a lot to ponder and moral issues to consider, we did pet some tigers and that was amazing. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Epic Adventures: Whale Watching

I have always hoped to see a whale in the wild. I don't know why I have fantasized about this so much, but it was truly on my bucket-list and I was determined that when we visited New Zealand that this would finally happen. 

We decided to whale watch on the Pacific coast of the South Island in New Zealand off shore of a town called Kaikoura. Kairkroua was remarkable by itself. It is right on the bright blue water, with mountain peaks in the background, with hobbit-hole rolling hills meeting the shore. It was a beautiful, beautiful place. 

We hopped on a "Whale Watch New Zealand" Tour and were delighted to learn that they are a part of the Australasian Responsible Tourism group and have been awarded for their good work. On the boat, we sat in the main room while our guide who was a Kiwi (an New Zealander) and part of the Maori tribe (the native people of NZ) gave us more information about the whales we would see.

The whales that lived in the waters just off the Continental shelf were sperm whales. Turns out they are as big as the boat we were all piled into and it while it was unlikely, there is a possibility that they could turn us over if provoked. Sperm whales are the largest whales with teeth in the world. While great blue whales are the largest whales in the world, they have huge mouths, no teeth, and tiny esophagus's for sucking in as much shrimp and plankton as they can. Sperm whales have smaller mouths, big teeth and a big throat for swallowing larger prey. In fact, Sperm whales favorite meal is giant squid. Male sperm whales will dive to the deepest depths of the ocean to seek out and battle these giant beasts for their dinner. 

Our guide told us that sperm whales can drop 2,000 feet below sea-level in less than two minutes. Most creatures in the world (including our submarines) would explode if they attempted this feat. Researchers really don't even know how this is possible, but figure it has a lot to do with the 2 tons of oil that is stored in the top, front of the whales head. This oil is also responsible for their name. 150 years ago whalers would kills these whales and marvel at the thick, white liquid coming out of their skulls. They felt certain that the foreheads of these beasts were actually their penises and therefore this liquid was sperm. Go figure. 

Along with more helpful information, our guide ended by telling us that science has only discovered about 10% of what is in the ocean. He reckoned that we know a lot more about outer space than we know about our own oceans and said that it is far more likely that aliens will come out of the water than the sky at this rate. 

The ship had sonar running so that they could track the sounds of migrating whales. The whales that come to Kaikoura are males because the females venture to warmer waters to birth their young. Females also travel in pods and males are not welcome to join them. The waters we were sailing were full of male sperm whales who were there for only one reason- they were hunting. 

When word came that a whale was nearby and might possibly surface, the ship rushed to the location. A whale will only surface for a few minutes and bob like a floating log, spurting out water and air from their blow hole before they disappear to the depths again. Many tours would go out and come in without a sighting at all and that was just the price you pay when trying to see creatures in their natural habitat. I was really praying we would see a whale.

As it happened, we saw TWO!

Both times, we would see the spewing of the blow hole on the horizon and sail as close as possible. We would hover, breathless, as the creature bobbed in the water. You could not look away because right before the whale sinks into the water it would flick it's massive tail into the air for a mighty splash. We did not want to miss this! Incredibly, we saw it twice! 

Joel captured this amazing image!

We were absolutely thrilled. The crew was thrilled. It was an amazing day on the water. But that was not all. We saw giant albatross, blue dolphins, sharks and the mysterious mountains of Kaikoura in the distance everywhere we sailed. 

If you happen to New Zealand and you want to whale watch, this is the place to do it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Epic Adventures: Hot Springs

The most wonderful hot springs I have ever visited were found at the end of the Cajon Del Maipo Valley outside of Santiago in Chile. 

Over the years, I have visited several celebrated hot springs around Europe and the USA and nothing can really compare to my experience in the Termas de Banjos Colina. If you enjoy a hot spring that has been converted into a wonder-spa of nouveau-Roman experiences then this is not your hot-spot. But if you like adventure epic mountain scenery, volcanic activity and natural pools, untouched by civilization then this is right up your ally. 

We visited these springs with dear friends of ours who have been living in Santiago for several years. Fortunately, this was a new experience for them as much as it was for us. Together, we drove about 90 minutes outside of Santiago, into this lunar landscape of volcanic mountains and evident rock-slide areas. There were farms and pastures, rivers and rocks all around us. The roads were gravel for miles and miles, bouncing us all along the way. Every so often there would be a giant mining truck blocking our way or causing us to need to pull over to let it pass, often with a caravan of truck following behind it. Occasionally, we would hear a blast and see smoke rise up from somewhere deep in the hills. In spite of this activity, everything appeared pristine and untouched somehow. 

When we arrived to the Termas de Banjos, we could see them on the hillside. We stopped at a little hut and a very old man came out and asked us for a few pesos for our entry fee. We were in the middle of nowhere. After paying him, we made our way up the hillside. There were two cinder block buildings indicated for men or women to change in and there were toilets, though rustic. Once we were changed into our bathing suits we wandered out onto the hillside. 

The views were absolutely stunning. Snow capped peaks were all around us. Goats and sheep wandered the hillsides, wild flowers bloomed and waved in the breeze, and the pools steamed below us. 

There were 7 pools that trickled into each other down the mountain. The first pool was the hottest and the last was the coolest. We tried the first pool and it was scalding so we moved to the second which was still a little too warm. When we arrived to the third it was perfect. The water was a blue-white color and the bottom was thick and soft with clay, full of minerals like lime. We floated and bathed for hours, staring at the immense beauty around us. 

There were other people visiting the hot springs that day, but very few. Most of the time we were there we enjoyed having the third pool to ourselves. We ventured to the cooler pools and hotter pools for variety, but the third pool seemed to be our happy place. 

If you ever adventure to Santiago, Chile and you like amazing scenes and dipping in the healing waters of volcanic hot springs, then you should give the Termas de Banjos Colina a visit. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Epic Adventures: Elephant Riding

I wish I could say that Joel and I were very contentious when we decided what Elephant Riding organization to support on our trip to Thailand last winter. However, it wasn't really like that. We decided pretty last minute that we were definitely going to experience this incredible Thai gift so we just signed up for the most decently priced one we could find online. 

In fact, when we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for New Years, we were sure we wanted to spend that special first day of the year riding on Elephants! The riding group called us to arrange our pick up and before we knew it, we were in a bus with 10 other folks from the USA (which until this point, we had not meet any other Americans on the journey). Chatting with them on the bus we realized pretty quickly that we were not on the Elephant Riding excursion that we thought we had signed up for, so we consciously let go of expectations and prepared for a day of the unknown.

We ended up being part of a tour with the Rantong Elephant Refuge. Little did we know, we actually ended up on one of the most ecologically friendly Elephant tours that we could have chosen. Rantong Elephant Refuge is committed to finding and saving elephants who have been abused by humans for many years. They free and collect elephants who are both young and old who have been kept in dire conditions. All of these elephants have been abused while being ridden by humans. Part of their abuse comes in the form of wearing elephant saddles. These saddles, look fun at the circus or at the Renaissance Festival, but they are detrimental to the skeletal health of the Elephant. Over time, these saddles (often over packed with people) will press down on their big bones and distort or even break them. Many of the elephants we were able to meet and ride had injuries from 40 years of carrying people around with these painful saddles on. 

Learning this, Joel and I were suddenly relieved that we had not ended up on the tour we thought we had booked. At Rantong, the elephants were going through rehabilitation and as part of their treatment, they are learning to carry humans around without being beaten or hurt by their harnesses. All of the elephant riding that took place at Rantong was bare-back. Elephants would only carry a person (or two) if they were physically able and their Mahout (their personal shepherd) would walk alongside them speaking to the in the language they know best. 

The tender care and love that passed between the elephants and their mahouts was the most touching part of the experience to me. We were told that the mahouts do not choose their elephant, the elephant chooses their mahout. Each elephant at Rantong had a young man who walked with it, looked after it and rode it continuously throughout the day. The bond between these men and their elephants was heavenly and you could plainly see just how important these two creatures had become to each other.

Arriving at Rantong, we hopped out of the van on a cliff-side overlooking the refuge. It looked like something out of Jurassic park. We were stunned by the beauty all around us and the peaceful elephants just quickly grazing in the grassy-land below. We walked a thousand steps down and joined our guide in the middle of the stables. 

We were given special clothing because we were guaranteed to get dirty and wet and even a little sunburned if we weren't careful. Many couples chose to ride together on the same elephant as we did, so we were introduced to a mahout who guided us over to his lovely beast. Joel and I would share Meuong for the day. She was a 43 year old elephant who was kept at a circus for riding tourist around in a saddle. She was strong and a little stubborn, but there was something kind and gentle about her.

Before we set off to riding, we were given handfuls of bananas to make friends with all the elephants. It was amazing to hold out my hand and have a massive truck come probing at me, a little wet, and very curious. There was a baby elephant at the refuge who I could not keep myself from petting. She was so small (relatively) and lively. She came right up to me and wrapped her trunk around me in search of bananas. I was warned by the guide that she likes to head-butt people but that did not phase me until I had this half ton baby coming at me full force. It wasn't so bad. Her cuteness outweighed my shock from the head-butt. 

This baby was taken from her mother (who was a circus elephant) and was kept in a pen only big enough for her body to fit in. She was kept in this pen for the first 8 months of her life. When this happens to an elephant of any age, they develop a sway that will never go away. Elephants who have been abused by this type of confinement are easy to spot because they sway their heads back and forth, shifting from right to left, to keep their massive bodies in motion. This tick will not go away once it has been established. This little one had it very distinctly and on a baby, it looked playful and cute, but once she grows into adulthood, it will look more like the tick that it truly is and reflect a period of her life that was terribly cruel. 

This little one's story does brighten up, when she arrived at Rantong Refuge, they allowed her to "choose" an adoptive mother. Apparently, elephants are quick to care for the young. In spite of this, the elephant the baby chose did not want to adopt her and thus she was rejected. The next day, an enormous disabled female stepped up to the plate. The baby was quickly accepted and adopted by an elephant that was born without a kneecap in one leg. This poor elephant had been very unmotivated to walk or participate in the grazing with the other elephants and seemed to be showing signs of depression until she spotted the little calf that needed a mother. Once the pair had decided on one another, the cow's energy came back full force and she wanders everywhere her baby goes, protecting her and caring for her as any mother would. 

I had no idea that we would learn so much about each of the elephants. Each elephant had a story that brought them to Rantong. The guides had amazing stories of elephants getting away and hiking 500 miles to other countries and having to ship them back home in large trucks. Mahoots would sit in the crooks of their trunks or hang up-side-down on their foreheads talking to them like an old friends. Meanwhile, the elephants had glorious hours and hours to graze and play.

Meuong had a little itchy in her britchie...she stopped to scratch her butt real good.

For us, the tourist and riders, we were taught how to mount and dismount our elephants. The commands were simple but most elephants would really only heed their mahouts. We rode Meuong all afternoon. She didn't seem to want to stop except to graze. Riders and elephants wandered the grasslands, the sharp cliffs, and even splashed around in the bathing pools. Meuong was only interested in wading when we rode her into the pool, but other, younger, elephants would run and dive in head first, throwing off their riders with a big splash into the muddy water. We were all given buckets and pans to splash and clean our elephants who lit up with delight as we played with them in the water. 

Rantong fed us a delicious chicken and curry lunch and helped us to understand how important it is to protect these amazing beasts. Elephants are very expensive to keep up. Their food alone is very costly. Most of our fee for coming to Rantong would go to elephant food. Mahouts are hard to come by because this position as an "elephant shepherd" is looked down on as lowly in Thailand, so many gifted mahouts will leave and look for better jobs in the cities. Rantong, like many places that mean to do good in the world, struggles daily to stay afloat but the joy and life that comes from this venture is inspiring. 

Joel and I were so grateful we ended up in this heavenly valley, petting old elephants and learning more about how to respect and care for these beautiful mammoth creatures.