Saturday, June 21, 2008

Temples, snakes and motorbikes...

Prints, images and memories all tell stories, and as I work away at the inner pages of my website, poring over photos and writing about the countries I've been to, I find myself travelling once again.

Today it is Cambodia I am re-visiting...

The most tropical of places I have seen, where the heat and humidity wraps itself around you the moment you step off the plane.

Where, if you go there during the rainy season, the humidity builds throughout the morning and early afternoon and the skies open up with heavy rain at the same time every day, like clockwork.

Where myself and the friend I was travelling with wore yellow rainjackets as we walked through a downpour in search of an internet cafe, looking like a pair of misplaced rubber ducks.

I remembered reading about small, poisonous green snakes that liked to come out of hiding during the monsoons, and kept a wary eye; I never saw one, though I did see the discarded outer skin of a small scorpion one day on the wall of a stone temple.

Angkor, the ancient city and complex of sprawling temples, was a truly awe-inspiring sight. I spent three days exploring the buildings - some intact and others crumbled to blocks of stone and rubble - and still, I only barely scratched the surface of what there was to see.

With some of the more structurally sound buildings, it was possible even to go to the upper levels, scary though that was - a rope strung from the second to the ground floor that you would hold on to for support as you climbed the steep outer stone stairs that were worn rounded and smooth from centuries of use and exposure to the elements. This was one place you didn't want to fall.

Walking through second-floor rooms and seeing bas-reliefs and carvings that almost seemed like new, being kept from wind and rain; climbing back down was the hard part, where you had to look down and see how high up you really were.

Going from building to building, and sometimes coming across a section that hadn't yet been restored, with huge trees growing right up out of the temples, the jungle reclaiming its property like some sort of prize.

Here and there, Buddhist monks would pick their way through the complex, their bright orange robes standing out against the grey sandstone of the temples.

A long boat ride across the wide expanse of the Mekong River as we leave the town of Siem Riep and the temples at Angkor behind. First a narrow channel, people and boats clustered along the water's edge, a slow, measured pace, then the riverbank getting further away until it disappears from view completely as we clear the channel and then pick up our speed on the long journey towards Phnom Penh.

We hear about a good restaurant in the city and decide to go there for lunch. Motorbikes are the mode of transport here. We don't need to go out in search of a ride; people will stop on the side of the road as we walk along, and will ask if we need a lift somewhere. The going rate at the time is $1 U.S. for a short ride anywhere within the city.

It is my first time on a motorbike. I sit behind the owner of the bike, putting my hands on his shoulders and trusting in his ability to dart through all the other traffic.

At an intersection, there are some police officers who wave us over. I wonder if there's some law against grabbing a ride on someone's motorbike. The owner of the bike pulls over to the side of the road and tells me to wait there. He pulls something from a compartment on his motorbike and walks back towards the officers. The owner of the other bike (the one that my friend is riding on) also pulls over to the side.

They spend a few minutes speaking with the officers, then return. We can keep going, the owner of the bike says, gesturing for me to get back on the bike. As we pull away, he turns back to look at me. It's ok, he says with a grin. The police in Cambodia, they need only money...

We continue on to the restaurant.

We only spend a few days in Phnom Penh before moving on, heading overland into Vietnam...

But that's a story for another day.

Happy travels,

Sarah :)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bubbles and Buoyancy...

What is travel to you?

A short road trip out of the city, or would you only count something involving passports, planes and a healthy dose of jetlag?

Let's backtrack a week.

Saturday morning, bright and early - much earlier than I would normally be awake, let alone coherent and perky. It's 7:45 a.m. and a group of us are assembled in a Tim Horton's parking lot, waiting for everyone to arrive and I, for one, am grateful for my morning coffee, waiting for the caffeine to kick in.

The last few people pull into the parking lot, and after a briefing on the day's planned activities and directions as to where we're headed, we're back on the road.

After many pool sessions and classes in theory and the written part of the test, this is it, the big weekend - I'm about to do my Open Water check-out dives, the final thing I need to do to become a certified scuba diver.

This weekend has been made possible by the hard work of the instructors and dive masters of the dive club that I'm proud and happy to be a part of, and I can't wait to get in the water.

The site we're headed to is a short drive outside of Barrie, ON, and the weather couldn't be more ideal. It's hot and sunny, no wind and the water is calm. The water is also cold, but that's why you come prepared. My 7 mil wetsuit, hood, gloves and boots keep me nice and warm - and afloat; it amazes me how effortlessly I can just relax and bob on the surface with just the wetsuit's added buoyancy.

It's time for the dives. Everyone puts their gear together - mask, snorkel, fins, BC (the vest you can add air to or dump air from, to control your buoyancy), regs (this is what you breathe from) and, of course, the tank.

All of the students - myself included - demonstrate the skills we've learned in the pool, and then it's off for some fun dives.

My buddy and I head off, and the visibility is great - in most places, you can see for a good 25 feet, and the only times the visibility goes down is when I get too close to the bottom, and stir up silt from kicking my fins.

We're only a few minutes into our dive when I see movement below. There's a lone crayfish scuttling along the bottom, most likely in search of food. Another few minutes along, and my buddy points out to me a pair of territorial crayfish who are facing off, circling each other, claws raised.

My first Open Water dive, and I'm already seeing wildlife! Ok, these creatures might be small, but to be able to go into their environment and to see them in their native surroundings is really something.

I come back to the surface with a huge grin on my face; I can't wait to get back in the water! We all go back up on to the deck, put on a full tank, grab a snack or drink of water, and then before you know it, it's time for the next dive.

Again, I see some crayfish, including one that raises its claws in challenge to me, though I'm nowhere near it, and I'm thrilled to get down around the 45-ft mark. I don't see any fish, although I do spot a few on the second day of diving - I'm not sure what kind of fish they are, but they have black stripes on them, a little like a zebra.

On the second day of diving, the light hits the water at such an angle that, underwater, you can see the rays streaming down - if you've ever seen a break in clouds, where you can see the sun's rays breaking through, that's what this was like; just beautiful.

By the end of the weekend, I am happy and exhausted and famished - I've never gone through a veggie burger and fries as quickly as I did on my way home! And now, I can't wait for all the future dives to come.

So what is travel to you? Staying close to home or heading to other hemispheres?

To me, it's all around.

Happy travels,

Sarah :)