Adventures into Unknown Territory: Begin Again in Bagan

The second day in Bagan we decided to hire a tour guide, someone knowledgeable about the history of the area, the temples, the changing face of modernizing Myanmar. The only guide we could find was an elderly man, a former English teacher during the British control of the country. He seemed friendly enough (and, of course, spoke fantastic English), so we climbed into the back of his horse cart and crept along the dusty road to our first destination, Shwezigon Temple, the main temple in the heart of Nyaung Oo, the town north of Old Bagan.

All the women were wearing colorful outfits and praying to show support for their daughters, nieces, granddaughters, etc. As the morning light spread its warmth throughout the concrete courtyards, we wandered among the bustling morning crowd of early-risers, souvenir sellers and worshipers. A group of small girls in glittery outfits sat listening to chanting monks beneath an open air pagoda. The girls, who looked between eight and ten years old, were surrounded by older relatives seated with their hands clasped before their hearts in prayer position. These girls, explained our guide, are going off to live as nuns. This is their initiation ceremony where the monks and family members pray on their behalf and wish them good luck in their coming spiritual journey.

A short ride down the dirt road from Shwezigon, we turned into the grounds of a monastery. Our guide explained that this particular monastery is primarily for orphaned children. The young kids are taken in by the caretakers at the monastery and brought up as monks. Children tumbled through the grounds of the temple as we rode in, all dressed in the crimson robes so familiar from the Mandalay monks. They darted between the horse cart, around the nearby trees and in and out of the buildings, giving the courtyard a buzzing feeling, much more like an elementary school at recess than an austere monastery. NoviceMonk

After about an hour with our guide, it became clear this was going to be a very long day. His eighty-something legs could only go so fast, so the speed of our tour was quite limited. In the crisp clear morning it seemed fine to have a leisurely tour. But after the first two sights, we stopped for tea at a nearby restaurant. Two hours passed under the shade of the restaurant patio, and, as the morning quickly slipped into the afternoon, we had only seen two sights with thousands of still-unexplored temples dotting the valley.

Hoping to speed up a bit, we asked the guide to take us off the beaten track. So we dipped down a bumpy side road to Nat Taung Kyaung, a teak temple down a few winding, shaded alleys, far from the main circuit of temples. Teak Monastery

“Perfect,” we thought. “Far from tourists, there’ll be very few hawkers here and we can really get to know the heart of Bagan.”

As soon as our horse cart pulled next to the dark teak temple, a gaggle of giggly children bombarded us as we scooted off the back of the cart.

Postcards! Baskets! Lacquer ware! Buy something, buy something, they insisted.

Hardly an escape. Our guide gave us a very brief tour of the main room inside, the characteristics difficult to discern from the dark teak and minimal natural light. After briefly showing a few intricate carvings, and statues, our guide drifted over to a friend lounging outside the temple in the shade of the giant leafy trees, for a leisurely chat, leaving us to stave off the taunting hawker children and wait to move on to the next location.

Finally, we hopped over to the Htilominlo temple, where the guide gave us a brief history of the importance of the outer carvings on the temple. With a close look you can see where the outer facade was once decorated with elaborate carvings of Buddhist lore. But through time, as rain and wind take their toll on the structures, the carvings crack and wear down, exposing the brick beneath. Here it was easier to imagine the entire valley of Bagan covered in temples gleaming in white and gold, instead of the rustic brick of today.

After lunch near the Ananda Temple, we trekked over to the Mahabodi Temple, modeled after India’s famous temple of the same name, where Buddha was said to have achieved Enlightenment. Mahabodi Temple, BaganThe temple was only a simple room adorned with a Buddha statue surrounded by a plethora of incense and offerings. The outer facade is said to be covered in more than 450 seated Buddha stone carvings, each in its own carved frame.

After a short tour around the circumference of the temple’s spire, our tour guide led us to the front of the temple again where he not-so-subtly suggested we buy a sand painting or three from his jovial friend. Each temple stop was book-ended with our guide leading us to his friend’s shop to buy jade and silver jewelry, lacquer ware , postcards, paintings.

Just look, he said. You don’t have to buy.

But the sellers’ expectant stares is enough to feel guilty and uncomfortable when you smile as generously as you can and then walk away empty handed.

The suggestions started quietly at first, but by the middle of the afternoon, I felt as if we were on an infamous tuk-tuk tour of Bangkok, where the driver makes hour-long detours only to drop you off at his friend’s tailor shop where he insists that you buy a suit.

It was about at this point, we felt the tour should be nearing its end. Our guide gave us a disappointed look, as if the tour was just getting started. But the sun’s heat was beginning to wane and our eyes and minds were fatigued from the sightseeing and barrage of Buddhist history. Temple-fatigue is easily accomplished when your guide is too knowledgeable and his explanations of each temple’s history are independently worthy of a PhD dissertation. Schwezigon is not just for the Birds

Our guide left us back at the guesthouse in Nyaung Oo and we spent the evening revisiting the temple we’d stopped at first thing in the morning, Shwezigon. This time we just watched the locals relax and socialize. It was here I realized, that for Burmese, temples aren’t only a place to worship, they’re a community center. The people are so proud of their temples, and not only for the architecture and history. But the temples are place where families and friends feel safe to gather in the mornings and evenings to spend time together, let children play and catch up on the latest gossip.

It took two days and an excruciatingly long tour of exploring every nook and cranny of the historical temples to realize that the importance of the Burmese temple lies not within the architecture, but within the people who enjoy and respect its space.

Prayer Beads

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Adventures into Unknown Territory: Bagan, Myanmar

After a few days of exploring Mandalay, our journey extended into the central part of the mysterious country. We hopped a local bus for an eight hour journey to Bagan, one of the most historically important cities in Burmese culture. The town, in the central part of the country, was a long dusty and bumpy ride from the tree-lined streets of Mandalay.

Bus-to-Bagan

To say we stayed in the town of Bagan isn’t entirely correct. The stupa-studded valley is known as Bagan, with three townships occupying a north-south corridor. Our bus dropped us off in the northern town of Nyaung Oo.  We were greeted by another horsecart, waiting to haul us back to the Inn Wa Guesthouse.

The adventure in the valley truly began with a sunrise bikeride to the older, historical Bagan. With birds still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, we hopped our cycles and raced the clock. Furious feet pushed us the short 5 minute ride to the main road in Old Bagan, a road studded by dusty red paths, each leading to a new and different temple. Just as the morning drifted over the treetops, swathing the valley in a syrupy drip of golden light, the ancient temples sprouted from the earth like dense brick trees reaching for the blue-ing sky.

Bagan Sunrise

After a jaunt down a ruddy red road, we parked our bikes at the nearest pagoda, Shwensandaw Temple, scrambled up the terrifying steep stone steps to the highest platform around the chedi, and watched the sunrise kiss the entire valley with its sweet early-morning warmth.

sunrise from Shwesandaw Temple

The Bagan valley, littered with thousands of temples (reports range anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 structures), was our playground for the next few days. After sunrise we pedaled to the Ananda Temple, one of the areas most beloved pagodas. The center of the temple is guarded at the cardinal directions by four Buddha statues, each 31′ tall and made of solid teak. (Fun fact: when viewing the statues from a distance, Buddha’s mouth is turned down, giving the Buddha a serious and pensive look. With just a few steps closer to the statues, his serious frown changes into a gentle smirk).

Buddha

Beyond Ananda, we explored innumerable unpronounceable temples, including Dhammayangyi, the unfinished temple built by one of the civilizations’ mad kings, now just a giant pile of bricks with unnavigable passageways; Htilominlo, a 150 foot tall pagoda which still struts awe-inspiring detailed plaster carvings on the exterior structure; and a slew of temples with no particular name, just a little pointed spire jutting up from the nearby fields.

Temples-of-Bagan

Of course, between the temples, we were allowed a brief glimpse into life in Myanmar. We weren’t accosted by hawkers as much as I expected, and the sellers certainly weren’t as persistent as outside the Inwa village outside Mandalay. While their living certainly depends on exchanging their handmade goods for our crisp U.S. dollars, the sellers didn’t seem quite as frantic. Perhaps they’re satisfied with their own pace of life.

Woman-sitting

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Adventures into Unknown Territory: Myanmar

Part 1: Mandalay

Bustling Mandalay marketThe first thing you notice about Mandalay is the dust wafting throughout the city’s narrow streets and alleys. Minimal pavement and a fluster of activity at markets, tea houses and restaurants creates a stirring and liveliness that you feel as a prickle in your nose and between the hairs on your forearm. Just a short block away from our southeastern hotel was an outdoor market, the first corner pungent with baskets of dried fish. Further south the road was slippery with the husks of shucked corn strewn haphazardly in the street. And just a few doors away, storefronts glittered with the gold and crimson monk attire dangling from the windows. The city is certainly an assault on the senses, but an assault that’s enjoyable, even desirable.

On the first day, with a few new compadres we met in the airport and hotel, we braved the streets of the market for our first Burmese meal, wolfed and slurped as we hunched on foot-tall stools in the cramped back room of a market stall as the rain plundered the tin roof. It was a familiar moment I hadn’t felt in a long time–where you eagerly show up to a restaurant, stomach empty and angry, and, like a smack to the back of the head, you realize you can’t order. You don’t speak their language and they don’t speak yours either. And so, communication is reduced to nods, pointing gestures, and grunts. And when they lay the bowl of unfamiliar meats and grains in front of you, you’re greeted first with a sigh of relief (yay, food!), then a quickly sprouting curiosity (what exactly am I eating?), followed by a sharp pang of worry (is this going to wreak a multi-day bacterial havoc on my stomach?).

Luckily, the first meal of noodles, mixed with pickled vegetables, was successful. And after nodding a vigorous ‘thank you’ and handing over the still-unfamiliar colorful kyat bills (pronounced “chat”), we meandered on to a tea house–a national pasttime. It soon became very clear that the people of Myanmar spend a lot of their social hours chatting over a cup of tea, sweetened with a thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom of the ceramic mug. Beer, wine and whiskey were all more challenging to find, but tea houses were abound.

——-

woodcarver in mandalayThe following day we hired an eager taxi driver to haul us in the back of his truck to the outlying “ancient cities”. Our first stop was a wood carving shop with men crouched outside, whittling away at hunks of sandalwood and other local varieties. The shop was more like a dusty little gallery, stuffed to the brim with hand-carved pieces–everything from Buddhist or Hindu iconography to puppets to local hill tribe head masks carved once a year and used during annual sacrificial ceremonies. A monk and family holding hands in MandalayUnlike the Balinese tourist-trap-tours, who were tourist-eager and ready to sell every last scrap of handmade goods, the Burmese woodcarvers were more modest, quietly whittling, not at all pushy about selling.

We headed to a monastery just outside town. On the leafy road linking two buildings on the monastery grounds, the monks gather in two straight lines to collect their lunch for the day.

Clad in crimson-dyed robes, the monks line up, barefoot, elbows cupping their alms bowls, patiently waiting for the lunch, given to the monastery each day by a different donor.

monks wait here for the donated lunch every day. Back on the tiny truck, our driver zipped us over to Sagaing, one of the country’s old capital cities, where we climbed what seemed like a never-ending staircase to a hilltop temple overlooking the Mandalay valley.

Dogs lazed in the shade, a few families were walking on the colorful tiled floors as we meandered around the chedi.

After Sagaing, we were entreated to a bizarre look at the emerging tourism industry. Our taxi driver dropped us off at a boat dock, instructed us Horsecart and locals in Inwato pay the ferry across the river to Inwa, a small village resting on a man-made island in the Ayerwaddy. From there we were to rent a horse cart for a mere 6,000 kyat and tour the temples from the back of a rickety cart.

And so, when in Rome…

Immediately swarmed by hawkers shoving jewelry and bells at us, we finally managed to rent two carts, each driven by a betel nut-chewing man with leathery skin and a squat pony. Since it was rainy season, the cart, with its giant wooden wheels, was tugged through thick mud and water as deep as two feet. We passed oxen carrying large loads of bamboo and locals shuffling along on the dirt roads, carrying materials in wicker baskets perched on their heads.

Our horse cart driver led us from temple to temple, and to a few monasteries (which required a mandatory $10 multiple-entry fee, which we skipped). Horsecart and Watchtower in InwaOn the tour, we passed a few tourists, crouched in their own horse carts, but mostly found quiet, tourist-less areas of the temples with beautiful Buddha images perched quietly in the chedis. We visited the famous watchtower, rocketed into a sideways lurch after an earthquake. A local man once told me that this particular  relic of the past had been deemed Myanmar’s very own leaning tower of Pisa.

I befriended a local seller for a few quiet moments outside one of the monasteries we decided to skip. A whole group of tourists had just entered and I was resting under the shade of a tree near the entrance. The seller, a young woman of around twenty, offered jade necklaces, dangling from her wrists. Cheap she insisted. I declined. She insisted again. We both looked at each other and for a brief moment, we put aside the seller-tourist roles and chatted for a few minutes as simple humans. Charmed by her sweetness, I decided she was a seller I could support–instead of the persistent and annoying hawkers who follow you and yank your arm to get your money.

So, under that shade tree, I bartered for two necklaces. We settled on a fair price, and, just as I was cradling the crisp kyat bills, ready to seal the transaction, a flock of tourists began to exit the monastery, an equally large gaggle of persistent hawkers following the tourists in-step. They were precisely the hawkers I was trying so hard to avoid. Well, they caught me, bills in hand. And suddenly, I was their next target. Like vultures, they surrounded me.

“Miss! Miss! You buy!”

“You buy! Cheap price! One thousand kyat!”

The charming woman disappeared in the flock. I tried shuffling back down the road to the horse cart but the other women were persistent, crowding the path in front of me, reducing my step to a mere shuffle. I was surrounded by hands waving necklaces, silver bells, bracelets and postcards in plastic slips.  I was surrounded by voices pleading with me, offering their goods and prices in sing-songy voices. One young girl was trying to convince me to exchange a $10 U.S. bill into local currency.

I kindly repeated a string of “no”s and “thank you”s and head shakes, smiling but persistent in my refusal. I climbed into the horse cart and, as the driver kicked us off down the road, most of the women dispersed, springing their tactics on the wispy, white-haired tourists who were still lingering around the nearby hawker stalls.

I chuckled as we set off on the rocky road. But as we rounded a corner, I heard a familiar sing-songy voice trailing us. It was the young girl with the $10 bill, pedaling hastily after us on bicycle. I averted my eyes but she knew I saw her.

“You change? Okay? Yes?!”

She dug into her front basket and pulled out the U.S. bill.

When I didn’t respond, she produced a jade emblem bracelet, waving it as she steered one-handed.

“Okay?! You buy bracelet? Good deal! One thousand kyat. Very cheap. Okay? You buy?”

She followed us for a long five minutes, her legs pumping against the foot pedals, her voice high and steady. She was desperate to get just a little money. Somehow.

But as we rounded a corner toward the end of the road, she disappeared. And the tour ended as abruptly as it had begun. Our horse cart dumped us right back in the muddy tracks near the river’s dock, with different young women proffering necklaces and silver U Bein Bridgebells all over again.

Back on the other side of the river, our taxi driver collected us after this bizarre tourist trap experience and hauled us off to our last city of the day, Amarapura, one of the most famous ancient cities. We headed straight to the U Bein Bridge (prounounced “Oo Bain”), a 1.2 kilometer teak bridge spanning the Ayerwaddy River. As the sun began to nestle into the clouds on the horizon, our small group walked the bridge, dodging the local Burmese tourists snapping photos, strolling monks, and women balancing wicker baskets on their heads, walking briskly from one side to the other. Boats of tourists scattered on the water below. This was the local hang out spot for families, couples, solo travelers. People were gathering here to enjoy the river, enjoy each other’s company, and to sit and ponder the wonders of life in this mysterious country as the sun dipped below the horizon.

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Heaven of the North: Chiang Mai’s Temples and Cafes

For so many foreigners in Thailand, the northern burg of Royal Gardens PathChiang Mai is gilded as a sort of heaven on earth. It’s a favorite stop for grungey backpackers swapping stories and travel advice over cups of steaming coffee in bustling cafes. It’s the California of Thailand, with enclaves of hippies sipping chilled shots of wheatgrass and musing over the benefits and merits of slow living. It’s a party town. It’s a culturally significant city as the location of Southeast Asia’s historic Lanna Kingdom.

And for those of us living  in the south, the allure of the north lies somewhere tucked between the chilly, undulating hills, the fresh mountain air, the cool and cozy cafes stuffed with permanent ex-pats, mountain-top temples, and the numerous culture variations of the nearby hill tribes.

Without the blindingly white sand beaches and throngs of flip-flop tourists, the north promises travelers a different experience of Thailand.

The two week summer trip started with a rainy afternoon just off the train. After two nights on the sleeper car, the first stop was the Art Cafe for the largest latte I’ve ever wrapped my mitts around. And a salad! The first salad I’ve had in months, featuring: apples, carrots, pineapple, bananas, cashews, raisins and a yogurt dressing–a real treat. (Lettuce doesn’t grow well in the blistering heat of the south–most vegetables in my town are limited to the heartiest gourds and cabbages. Seeing Main Chedi of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Maileafy greens was quite a pleasant surprise.)

After the vegetable feast, we decided to explore the Old Town.  Chiang Mai’s Old Town is easily navigable since it occupies a complete square and is surrounded on all sides by the old brick City Wall. The outer edge of the city wall is lined by a mote, a ribbon of deep blue water, with “Gates” at the cardinal directions. Each gate bridges the Old Town to the rest of the modern city beyond the wall. Most of the interesting historical temples are located inside the walls as well as a fair share of the quirky, cozy cafes.

We slinked around the Wat Chedi Luang Archwaypopular and most famous of the gates, the eastern-facing Thapae Gate. The gate was restored to its original construction and turned completely pedestrian, which makes it a central location for most touristy goings-on and a great starting point for a walking tour of the town’s temples.

Old Town temples are scattered aplenty through narrow streets. A two-minute walk from our hostel revealed some of the most famous temples–Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh. Fortunately, the afternoon sprinkled just enough rain to scare the throngs of snap-happy tourists.

We slogged through rain to visit the temple, Wat Chedi Luang, whose massive chedi was damaged in an earthquake in 1545. The brick chedi dome stands in the center of a courtyard flanked by the city pillar and other gorgeous auxiliary buildings.

We wandered around, marveling at the different styles of northern temples. Compared to the technicolor temples of the south, near my home, the northern temples of the old Lanna Kingdom feature elaborately-carved dark wooden trim, colorful Naga or serpent heads, and gorgeous temple gardens with pathways of hanging orchids and signs of inspiration.

But outside the historic northern Thai Where is art?temples the city is modern and thriving. Parked in a temple lot, we passed a VW van-turned-coffee-cart, the perfect place to perch during a late afternoon thunderstorm. We walked by various city walls slathered in graffiti art, linking the city of the present to the city of the past. Unlike our small, southern town, cafes and restaurants are abundant throughout the city, all unique. And, of course, there’s always a little shop with knickknacks just around the corner.

After the last temple of the afternoon, we headed into a tight little cafe for some bone-warming tea just as a thunderstorm plundered what was left of the evening light.

Frangipani at Wat Chiang Man in Chiang Mai———

Day Two, Sunny. We decided to trek through the town on bicycle, pedaling around the tight square of Old Town a few times, stumbling on some choice temples.

We wandered into Wat Chiang Man near the northern edge of the wall, slowly walking the gorgeous sprawling temple grounds and gardens. Behind the main temple stands the towering chedi flanked on all sides by giant elephants and protected at the stairways by emerald-eyed Nagas.

Wat Chiang Man Panorama

The temples were nearly deserted, only a few solo travelers meandered through the temple grounds during the walk. The temples of the south are often bustling with activity and A visiting cat at Wat Chiang Man in Chiang Maievents, worshipers in white like little bees in the gardens of the temple.  The northern temples seemed more like a place of quiet contemplation.

From Wat Chiang Man we headed farther north, beyond the city wall, to the Wororot Market. Sprawling at least two or three blocks long and two or three blocks wide, the market was stuffed with vendors selling everything from baskets and purses, to dried mushrooms and herbal teas, to wrist watches and gold chains.

With mangoes in season, we couldn’t resist an afternoon snack of syrupy sweet mangoes and sticky rice before heading back to our side of town. As the city wound down for the evening, we worked on lining up our next adventure in the north: cooking school.

For more pictures of the temples of Chiang Mai, check out my Picasa site here.

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Big Bad Bangkok

This gallery contains 8 photos.

On a recent trip to Bangkok, I learned something. Like many people, I have a love/hate relationship with cities. I love their diversity and the opportunity. I loathe the cacophony and the musty air of exhaust mixed with concrete. Luckily, … Continue reading

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Teach me Thai

Beep. Beep.

This means squeeze in Thai.

The Thai language, which seemed awkward and inaccessible at the very beginning of my new life here, has become quite a fun language to learn. Playful, with plenty of repetition. Communicating ideas is relatively simple (no need for all those crazy auxiliary verbs like the English language!)

Omit pronouns? Sure! They can be understood based on context, anyway. No need to say ‘I’ or ‘you’ in a sentence or even remember if it’s ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘him’ or ‘her’.

Present continuous? Naaah. It’s ever-present in English but Thai seems to get along well with more simple constructions.
‘I go to the store.’ Simple, yet effective. In Thai, this phrase conveys all the information you need.

In English, minor changes to the verb ‘go’ have major changes on meaning:
‘I am going to the store,’
‘I was going to the store,’
‘I will be going to the store,’
‘I will have been going to the store’
… you get my point.

In that sense, Thai can be a conspicuously vague language.
Someone, somewhere, at some unspecified time, is going to the store.

Onomatopoetic words? Yes, please! And plenty of them! Like beep, which is ‘to squeeze.’

And maew, the word for cat.

A ching is a bell.

A hoook is an owl. (HOOOK! HOOOOK!)

Oo-aak is the word for vomit. No really.

Repetition? A double helping, please!

A-roy maak maak. = Very delicious.

A-roy is delicious. Maak is very or a lot

boi boi = sometimes

chueei chueei = so so

chaa chaa = slowly

ray-o ray-o = quickly

But wait. It can get tricky too. Be careful using Thai words.

The tone will drastically change the meaning of a word.

Suay (pronounced ‘soo-wai’) with a rising tone on the second syllable means beautiful.

But if you say suay with a low tone, like you’re disappointed, you’re calling someone unlucky.  Not very polite, is it?

Your attention (or inattention) to vowel length can get you into some serious social trouble.

Like the word for snow. He-ma.

If you accidentally spend too much time pronouncing the vowels and say it, Hee-maa, you’re saying quite a vulgar phrase. Which I’m not going to explain here. You’ll just have to find that out on your own.

And, to make things more complicated, the sound of some real English words are actually quite vulgar in Thai.

Like the English pronoun she, which, in Thai, is a vulgar way to say urinate.

The sound of the English word yet, (as in, I haven’t been there yet!), is one of the worst words in the Thai language.

And then, in reverse, the sound of some Thai words seem vulgar to English speakers. Like the Thai word for an older brother or sister, which is pee.

It’s the polite way to address someone, “Pee, ka!” is like saying, “Excuse me, miss!

The best one is the Thai word for pumpkin.

Well, go ahead. Look it up.

It’s all these strange characteristics that make languages interesting and exciting to learn. Not to mention it also makes for some fantastic cross-linguistic puns.

Like soi-dog. No, not a hotdog made out of soy, but a local name for the mangy stray dogs that wander up and down the soi, which is the Thai word for street.

Watch out! Here comes a soi-dog!

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Bali Holiday: Chapter 5, The Final Adventure

On our last day in Bali, we took a chance and booked a paragliding trip.

We’d seen the island via land and water. Now it was time to explore it from the air.

We were picked up in the afternoon by a young kid with a cigarette still dangling from his lips. In his beat-up SUV we pummeled through downtown Denpassar traffic and veered off onto smaller country roads near the southeastern tip of the island. As we drove, the trees began to shrink in height, the houses and commercial buildings began to slowly disappear, replaced by grassy rolling hills. Grazing cows and horses speckled the fields and spindles of cactus-esque flora stretched from the dusty earth. This was an unexpected shift in terrain from the rice paddies of Ubud.

A patchy road, snaking into rough territory of brick red dirt, led to our final destination. The fields spread open as we crested a bare hillside where the sky completely swallowed the horizon.  And right at the seam, the vast ocean spread out to blanket the rest of the landscape.

A small cluster of SUVs were parked at the base of the hill near a simple covered shelter. A half dozen people, some vendors, some fliers, were perched on the shelter’s clumsy wooden benches, hiding from the heat of the day. We walked to the crest of the dusty, barren mound to peer over the ledge. On the beach below, at the base of the sharp cliff, was a carpet of barely submerged evergreen fields stretching out a hundred feet into the ocean. Seaweed farms, someone explained. It looked soft, but from this height, surely a fatal landing.

Unceremoniously, we were greeted by a thin Balinese man with well-worn, leathery skin and a wide grin. His name was Kutut. Our guide in the air.

We spent a few minutes in the sweltering heat watching other travelers and experienced paragliders flop their massive canopy packs on the bare earth, survey the hillside and the ocean beyond (their flying space). Then they’d unravel their pack to reveal massive colorful flying canopy. Carefully, they’d untangle the white strings connecting the shoulder straps to the chute. With a brisk ruffle, the chute would flap into the air, like pulling a sheet in the wind.

Just like that. One minute, feet meet earth. The next minute, feet dangle hundreds of feet above the crashing waves below.

The wind, our guide explained, rushes off the ocean and gets pushed up the cliffside with such force, anyone with the right chute could just walk off the cliffside and be lifted into the air. The draft is powerful enough to sustain a flier, sailing back and forth along the edge of the cliff for hours.

The take off was smooth, if hurried. Once Kutut was ready to sail, chute aloft and harnesses untangled, you have to work quickly. The wind only gives you a few moments to slide into the leg harnesses, smash the helmet on, double check the latches once, then walk off the edge of the cliff.

Yup. Walk off the edge of the cliff.

There’s almost no time to be afraid. Because as soon as you reach the edge of the slope, your feet touch dirt one last time before you’re lifted eagerly into the draft with barely even a bump.

And the view?

Well, I can barely begin to describe… The first word to my mind was ‘forever,’ though I can hardly even comprehend what that even means. I thought, the great explorers must’ve felt this way from aboard their ships as they sailed between lands. Powerful, yet tiny. The cloud-pocked sky seemed to tuck neatly into the ocean right at the horizon.  And the ocean stretched out like a taught bed sheet. I wanted to reach out and touch the water. We soared hundreds of feet above the waves and yet it felt like I could just stick out a finger and the sea would feel like a single piece of silk on the bed of the earth.

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