Saturday, April 26, 2014

#683 Working Elephant/Elephant Worker's Camp, Taungoo, Myanmar (Burma)

What I'm writing about is not really a place, but an experience, and I certainly couldn't tell you how to get here, but it is one of the most magical things that I have ever done.

In the Bago Yoma hills to the west of Taungoo, Myanmar there are many Karen tribes and villages, and off the dirt road to one of these isolated places is wild teak-filled jungle. It is in a small camp by a creaky wooden bridge crossing one of the narrow brown mountain rivers that a worker's camp exists, and the inhabitants are all mahouts, who train various elephants to log teak trees to be loaded onto trucks and later floated down the Ayerwaddy (Irrawaddy) River to mills and markets. 

I had the privilege to visit this Elephant Worker's camp with a Taungoo doctor who goes to the camp sporadically and to the villages with medicines as part of a mobile clinic. His connection to them allowed us a special glimpse of how the elephants work. 
The first thing the mahouts have to do is fetch the elephants from the forest where they have been foraging for the night and morning. They issue a call and most of the elephants come. Occasionally a clever one does not want to come so he hides and his mahout has to go and find him. The elephants wear bells around their necks so that their whereabouts is easily determined. I loved the story about when one elephant decided to stuff his bell with mud and leaves to try and make it quiet so he would not be found!

Once they come in from the jungle, the elephants are dirty because they have spent all night throwing dirt and leaves on their backs (to scratch an itch and to keep the flies away), so the first thing to do is have a bath in the river. The mahouts on their shoulders often get a bath, too! They splash in the water and lie on their sides and generally look like they're having a wonderful time. Watching the trunks peeking out from below the water was fabulous, as was the scrubbing behind the ears, all to get the dirt off and prevent chafing and rashes.
After the wash, we followed the elephants into the jungle where the workers felled a large teak log then cut holes in the end to loop the elephant's chain through it. One of the working elephants was a mother, and her baby followed her everywhere she went. The different sizes of the elephants determined who would lead and who would follow, and what size of log they would pull. In order to prepare the log for pulling, the elephants would first have to push the logs around the jungle with their trunks until they were in an appropriate place.
The last event was preparing a rough saddle and taking us for a ride on the elephants. The elephants were afraid of us because the only trouser wearing people are those that give them injections. One elephant was also too afraid to cross the bridge so decided to turn around half way across and then cross the river through the water. They are amazing creatures and this was a truly out of the ordinary experience!
Source: You can read my diary of the trip here.

Friday, April 25, 2014

#684 Valle de Vinales, Cuba

The lush green, the limestone cliffs, the rich brown earth, the brightly colored buildings in this laid back town, the old cars cruising up the street, they all combine to make quite a pleasant relaxed place, so grab your pina colada, pull out your cigar (made locally), and sit back in the square to watch the world go by. 
The tobacco farms take full advantage of the rich soils and sunny climate to grow. If you take a walk out of town, you'll seen many a barn with drying leaves hanging from the rafters and a local farmer will be happy to show you how they roll them, before the take their oxen, turkey, chicken or goat, and return to the fields. 
It was in 1961 when Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo hired several local farmers to paint this 120m long painting 4km west of Vinales village. This massive mural took 4 years to complete and with its huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans, it tells the story of evolution. Mural de la Prehistoria.

Founded only as recently as 1875, and in 1999 declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vinales is part of one of Cuba's National Parks for its rocky outcrops, locally known as mogotes, all of which form part of the Sierra de los Organos mountain range. Several caves are part of the mogotes, including the second largest cave system in the America, the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomas (not to be mistaken for the Cueva de los Portales, which was used by Che Guevara during the Cuban Missile Crisis as headquarters (where he played a lot of chess, apparently). 
Source: Lonely Planet Cuba 7th Edition, 2013

Thursday, April 24, 2014

#685 Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

When I was a child we used to joke that Greenland was icy while Iceland was green, and I think when I went to visit Seljalandsfoss that green epitomy was at its height. It was a rainy, misty, miserably wet day, and it was my first day driving around Iceland -- I wondered what I'd gotten myself into because it wasn't really that much fun to drive in, even if it was beautiful (what little you could see).

Seljalandsfoss comes up out of the mist after driving along a flat boring plain for hours. It is a 60m high falls tumbling off a cliff rising from the flats, and you can see it from the ring road, along with the other cars and buses at the parking lot right below it. I stopped because it was the first waterfall I'd seen that day (I would go on to see around 15 more), not really realizing how magical it was. It's one of the most famous waterfalls in all of Iceland and adorns many postcards and calendars. A really great sunny day photo of the waterfall can be found here. The waterfall is located between Selfoss and Skogafoss just off the Route 1 Ring Road on the track going to Thorsmork.

When I was a child I watched Robin Hood bathing in a waterfall (I think that was the gossiped about naked Kevin Costner scene!) and thought how cool it was that there were waterfalls that you could go behind. I finally got to experience that magic at Seljalandsfoss. It was the fairy tale, dream-like secret path that could lead to hidden caves and mysteries... except it was just a path... although it was magical.

Wet-weather clothes were something I'd bought at the last minute before leaving for Iceland, not really having packed wisely when I'd left home several weeks before. Into dry pants and jacket I scrambled for the rain, but I would have needed them for the waterfall anyway. Going behind a waterfall is wet business!
Here are some videos where I tried to catch the magic (or at least try and catch the wet before it splashed and fogged up the camera!).