Today, AlaskanKangaroo's Beth blogs over on Novel Adventurers (http://noveladventurers.blogspot.com/) about a festival that we came across by accident when traveling through the minority villages of southern Guizhou Province, back in 2009. 

If you've got time, take a look both at Beth's post, and also at the other posts written by the site's bloggers. They're all novelists who love travel--and, of course, adventure--and they tell great stories there every weekday.

Picture
Scaring away spirits with firecrackers.
 
Dan and I were last into the water, slipping down the buoy line on the Green Rock dive site.


Divemasters often work as dive guides, navigating paying customers around dive sites and pointing out interesting sea life. We'd been learning about this in our course, but this was the first time that Dan and I were going to try it out, on each other.


We went down slowly, feet first, looking down, checking the visibility and feeling our bubbles caress our cheeks.


The line was tied to a big granite boulder, a good reference point for us to find our way back to it. We checked our compasses and started swimming south when suddenly I inhaled so sharply my mouth hurt. I grabbed Dan's arm and, made speechless by equipment, pointed frantically at the rocks beneath us.


Dan turned to face me in alarm. His thumb and forefinger questioned me, looped in the OK sign.


I put my right palm over the back of my left hand and wiggled my thumbs enthusiastically—the dive sign for Koh Tao's namesake animal, the turtle.


This tao sat about 15 feet beneath us on the coral-covered boulders, chewing his lunch and completely unconcerned that we were there. Koh Tao might be named after turtles, but actually seeing one is not very common—I'd seen one the week earlier, and Dan had spotted one while snorkeling in December Each sighting is a cause for a lot of thigh-slapping excitement and jealousy from other divers.


So, all our plans of mentally mapping the dive site disappeared with our bubbles and we hovered closer to the turtle, just watching. Turtles eat coral, and lots of it. They eat in the sea like their landlocked cousins do—messily. For every chomp of its beak, a half-mouthful wafted slowly downward. Cautious parrot-fish darted in to catch the remainders before they settled on the boulders.


The turtle caught sight of me and hesitated a moment, a great yellow eye rolling in the socket. I kept still in the water, inhaling slowly so the bubbles from my exhalation wouldn't worry it. I looked harmless enough, I guess, because it continued eating the leafy soft coral.


After fifteen minutes we decided to swim away and try to circle the dive site, as we'd planned. We spotted nudibranchs, angelfish and anemone fish, but nothing as extraordinary as the turtle. Thirty minutes later we made it back to the buoy line and found it still lunching. We spent another five minutes with the turtle until our air supplies got low, and then we reluctantly headed surface-ward, contemplating the turtles of Koh Tao.

 
Picture
Lion Fish
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

A
wesome!


With Beth still unable to take a boat ride, we reasoned that it was a good time for me to do some diving research and get some much-needed practice before our course to be SCUBA divemasters next month on Koh Tao island, Thailand.


I signed up for some group dives and the following morning I was on a boat headed for Hon Mun, a large island 40 minutes from the harbour. The cobalt water was very inviting. The day was hot and diving in was just the solution.


Underwater was really beautiful. When I was learning to dive, I was focusing on where my instructor was, so I wouldn't get lost. This dive I finally looked around a little. The first dive spot was Rainbow Reef and as the name suggests it was a huge bio-diverse coral garden full of hard and soft coal and a myriad of fish. I saw six lion fish, a stone fish and more other fish than I could name.


The second dive was at Madonna Rock. Named so for a possibly obvious reason, Madonna rock was lighter on the coral and abundance of fish, but had the redeeming feature of a large number of swim-throughs and caves. These were super exciting. There is a balance between buoyancy and position and controlling your movement. The 50 minute dive had five swim-throughs and two caves..


There were many fish hiding under the swim-throughs that it seemed the fish agreed with me. Swim- throughs are just fun!


* * *

Please be patient, Dan's photos from Nha Trang are coming soon!
Picture
Madonna Rock--named for the singer, not the saint
 
Picture
Tyger, tyger...
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]


Often in life as in travel, the conundrum of whether the journey or the destination rates as being more important comes into question.


We had the opportunity to reflect on this when we went on a wild tiger safari at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.


We arrived, (we being Beth and I as well as two new acquaintances, Mike and Silke,) at around eleven thirty at night. We had a prior arrangement with the Kum Kum Home hotel manager for a late pickup at Umaria, got into a smallish mini van, and proceeded to our lodgings along a tired, crater-filled road to Bandhavgarh. The 45-minute journey was highly entertaining because it included, albeit inadvertently, a night safari. Along the way we saw the reflective eyes and dark silhouettes of a number of native creatures like deer and even a jackal.


We awoke the next morning to have breakfast on our veranda. Somehow the layout of Kum Kum Guest house took us to Africa—it seemed to be reminiscent of the set of “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”


The heat was of a warm comforting quality and surrounded us like a tandoori oven. The large, broad trees were absolutely beautiful. They were of the Flame of the Forest variety. The branches were bursting with orangey red flowers that looked like tigers' claws. In the gentle breeze, the trees swayed lazily and the dark shadows that were cast on the hard compacted earth, danced back and forth. The local languar monkey troupe played on the tree limbs in a whimsical fashion.


The manager came over and announced that we could go on safaris through two gates to view the tigers, appropriately labeled Gate One and Gate Two. We booked three journeys through Gate Two, because the popularity of Gate One meant that it was booked out for the days we would be there. Gate Two also cost 500Rps more.


Here's how it went:


Day One, Gate Two, Afternoon.


We were super excited! Today was the day. We would see the tigers. We drove for twenty minutes to get to the gate. We saw some deer. The sun hung heavy in the sky. And then, our jeep broke down.


The engine cut while we rounded a corner. The driver got out and checked under the hood. Steam erupted like Mount Vesuvius. The driver poured water in the radiator. We made some jokes about it, looked on the bright side of it, and all felt relief when we continued on our way. The delay was only fifteen minutes.


After another ten minutes of driving, the jeep overheated again. We were beginning to feel a little concerned--the guide and driver had no means of defense if a tiger were to attack.


After 20 minutes we were on our way again. All of us wondering if we would see tigers that day.


Nope.


Day Two, Gate Two, Morning.

A better jeep, but . . . no tiger sightings meant none of the desperately hoped-for elephant rides were available.


And, no tigers.


Day Two, Gate Two, Afternoon.


No tigers.


Was it disappointing? For me, frankly it was. The perspiration was there. The effort was there. The will and commitment was there. What we needed was just a little luck.


Unfortunately, for our travel companions, their time was up. They had a 4:22 a.m. train to catch back to Varanasi.


Luckily for us, we had a more flexible schedule and Beth and I worked in one final trip.


On our third and final day we set off in the afternoon with a Belgian family, Christian, Genevieve and Mathieu.

Day Three. Gate One, Afternoon.

Finally, we were scheduled to enter the always busy Gate One. I had a good feeling about this: We were in a new Jeep, and making good speed. We saw a couple of rare birds.


The driver asked, “ What do you want to see today.” to which I replied, “ No spotted deer, no Sambhar deer, no barking deer, no peacocks, no monkeys, no langaurs, no kingfishers, no beetle eaters, no vultures and no jungle chickens! Just tigers please!” We had seen these other animals at Gate Two.


“They are wild pea fowl.” corrected Christian, about the peacocks, and then continued, “ Can we also see leopards and sloth bears?”


“Leopards and bears are very rare.” answered the guide.


I began to notice the position of the sun. I asked Beth with some concern, “Are we going towards Gate Two?”


“It seems like it.” she replied.


A few hundred metres more, and we received confirmation. We were driving towards a derelict trailer with one wheel missing. We had passed this trailer each of the time we entered Gate Two. We were going on the Gate Two trail again.


“Not Gate Two again!” I said.


I took Beth's hand and held it tight. I must have looked crestfallen.


Geneviere whispered, “Ce n'est pa vrai!”


The guide noticing the change in mood, responded immediately.


“No, no, not Gate Two, only Path C for five minutes.


After fifteen minutes, true to his word, we were with six other jeeps in a clearing by a water hole.

Three tigers strutted through the tall yellow grass with poise and pride. They bathed and groomed themselves and we watched on in awe.

I had seen tigers before but I hadn't seen them free. An unspoken agreement must have been made. 'You people can watch us, and we won't eat you and by the way, thanks for not hunting us.' We watched for over an hour and then left, bubbling with excitement.


The sun had set and in the mango orange afterglow we had almost reached the exit when the jeep in front of us stopped abruptly. We also stopped and saw that on a ridge just 30 metres above us was a leopard. It stretched, yawned and was gone.


The journey contained such a variety of animals. The destination only required tigers.

Was it too greedy to get the best of both?


***

Click here to see our photos from Bandhavgarh!
 
Picture
A holy rat.
If you died and came back as an animal, what would you like to be?


Bet it's not a rat.


But, the desert temple of Karni Mata in small town Deshnoke, Rajasthan, protects a whole flock of rodents the faithful believe were locals in their past lives.


We came across several versions of the story, but it seems that a girl who lived in the town some 500 years ago turned out to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga.


One of the miracles attributed to her, along with saving people from snakebites, creating springs of water in the arid desert, taking the form of a lion to fight enemies and feeding an army from just a few chappatis and a bit of yoghurt, is that she saved the souls of a group of people from going to the death god, Yama. Instead of going with Yama, these peoples' souls are reborn in the form of the holy rats that scamper about the temple consecrated to Karni Mata. Which group of people are now living rodenty lives seems to be a matter of confusion—whether it's storytellers in general, the relatives of a specific storyteller or the family of Karni Mata herself, wasn't clear to me after our visit.


The temple is a small one, down a dusty dirt road surrounded by low buildings and near the train line. At the entrance, people hawked the normal things you find by any temple in India—bangle bracelets, religious tracts, effigies of gods and goddesses and cups of tea. At this temple, they also sold food for the rats.


Entering the temple, I clumsily stepped through wet, clotted globs of pigeon doodoo, feeling the crumbs of yellow sacrificial meal (read: rat food) between my bare toes. Rats ran freely about the enclosure, snacking on the meal or slurping down milk from large steel pans placed there just for them.


The first rat—though Dan and I agreed it would be better termed a 'large mouse'--made us jump a bit.


We're in agreement--we've reached a new level of gross. But, strangely, though the thought of going to the rat temple had made my skin crawl while we were planning our trip, at the temple it seemed as normal as anything else we've done traveling.


The mice were pretty cute, really, scrubbing their little whiskered faces with tiny pink paws and scurrying back to the many holes in the temple walls to escape the increasing brilliance of the morning sun. A lady took a special interest in us and showed us how to walk around the back of the altar and where to hug the wall if we wanted to pray.


We spent awhile craning our necks in an alcove watching a few mice in the shadows, trying to spot the holiest of holy rodents—the albino rat. A man standing there, seemingly for that express purpose, told us to watch out for it. We had no luck there, but did spot a jaundiced-looking yellowy rat in a different part of the temple. The guidebook also mentioned that if the mice ran over our feet, that would bring good luck. We had brought some cookies with us on the bus for breakfast and decided to give the rest to the rats. While we did this one climbed up my bag, and later some nibbled on our toes, mistaking them for cookie crumbs. I figure, we're in good with the rats.

So, if you do come back as a rodent, mention my name.

***

Click here to see photos of the Rat Temple