A Day on El Camino

Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!

So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.

For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:

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In the cases where we have a private room to ourselves or everyone else in our dorm is waking up at the same time as we are, the lights go on and we begin getting dressed and packing our things.
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Occasionally, you’ll have one or two people still sleeping at six, in which case we gather all of our things in the dark and move them to the common area of the albergue to pack up.
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To make things easier (and more water resistant) we have all of our stuff separated into plastic bags. So, in the morning, we just have to put the bags in our backpack and we’re ready to go.
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Sometimes we’ll have breakfast in the albergue…
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…or on the road while watching the sunrise…
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…or, if we’re lucky enough to have a café open at the ungodly Spanish hour of 7 a.m., go there for breakfast.
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Most days begin under the stars, which means poor visibility and frequent second-guessing ourselves about whether we’re going in the right direction or not.
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Though we’ve learned that if we keep the brightening horizon on our right, that means we’re going north and in the right direction.
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Our favorite part of the day is always at dawn, when the scenery is at its most beautiful and the temperature at its coolest.
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A hilltop village at sunrise.
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We’ve also been delighted at times to find a ruin or two sitting on the horizon as the sun comes up; like this castle…
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…or this Roman bridge, which we unquestioningly made a detour to explore.
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After sunrise, it’s business as usual, trying to get into the next town as early as possible so the brutal heat of the midday sun doesn’t turn our trek into a trudge.
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In the days when we have longer walks we’ll stop in a shady patch for a picnic lunch, but usually we make it into the next town around noon and have lunch there.
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After getting our pilgrim credentials stamped and paying the albergue’s fee, which for us has ranged anywhere from free (though they ask for a donation if you have the means) to 15€ a night, we unload our bags, grab a bed, and get showered.
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Then we wash our offensively stinky clothes…
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…and hang them up…
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…before finally getting off our feet!
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To wile away the afternoon, we may work on a hobby like writing or editing pictures.
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If we don’t feel like working on a hobby, we will explore the village or city we are staying in for the night. The picture above is from Caceres, one of our favorite places we have explored so far.
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And cards are almost always played.
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Then, once supermarkets open back up after siesta, we will go get our groceries for dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day.
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Then we cook…
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…eat…
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…and almost always enjoy a drink together before ending the day around 9:00 or 9:30 when most pilgrims, including these ones, head to bed.

 

Mérida

What Rivendell was to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so Mérida was to us on El Camino: a beautiful city offering a comfortable and luxurious stop at the beginning of what would be a long and arduous journey. For us, the beautiful part of Mérida came in the form of its Roman ruins, pristinely preserved and still dominating the city’s life 2,000 years after their construction. Luxury came in the form of a one-star hotel that, through the eyes of these pilgrims anyway, looked like the Waldorf Astoria with its top-of-the-line amenities: a double bed, locking door with keys, and private bathroom. Our stay wasn’t long (just one and a half days) as we didn’t want to completely lose the pilgrim groove we had worked ourselves into with much effort over the previous week and a half, but it was a welcome and wonderful visit all the same. Below you can find some pictures from our time there as well as a poem by Kate.

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An apt start to our time in the city: a walk across a Roman bridge

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We were surprised and excited to see a hoopoe pecking around the ground near the bridge

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Enjoying a coffee in the city’s main plaza
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Roman aqueducts that ran for 6 kilometers to deliver water to the city

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Dimples in the bricks from where they would be clamped and lifted into place were still just as visible as the aqueduct itself
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The Temple of Diana. If you look amidst the pillars you can make out another structure. Apparently in the Middle Ages, a rich baron decided that he wanted to build his house amidst the temple.

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A depiction of Jupiter
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The city’s amphitheatre where gladiatorial events took place
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We were surprised to learn that they had musical accompaniment to the gladiator matches as well as a referee!

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While there were no signs indicating this for sure, we imagined this was where gladiators entered the arena.

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Neighboring the amphitheatre was the theatre, where less gruesome forms of entertainment played out.

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Looking at the theatre from one of the hallways that emerged into the stands

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Enjoying a drink back at the Temple of Diana to cap off the day
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A depiction of Medusa, the myth of whom inspired Kate´s poem below.

Epithet to Medusa

Are you aware
of the irony
of your preservation
in stone?
Sinuous snakes—
your only companions—
petrified
in a writhing frenzy.
Your staring eyes—
more damaged than before—
gaze unfocused,
no Iris,
no Pupil—
just you
and your memories
before your life
was as tangled
as your serpentine tresses.

La Vía de la Plata – A Week in Photos

“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
W.H. Davies

One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.

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Outside the cathedral in Sevilla, our starting point for La Via de la Plata
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Spotting our first of what would be many yellow arrows pointing us towards Santiago de Compostela.
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Having a picnic lunch outside of Italica, an ancient Roman ruins site that has recently gained fame for being used as a shooting location for Game of Thrones.

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An olive orchard
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An old watchtower sitting over the crest of a meadowed hill

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For most of the walk, we’ve enjoyed as our companion an unending supply of beautiful natural scenery
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The symbol of El Camino. All of the lines in the shell represent the different routes one can take to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela.
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The view from our albergue over Castilblanco de los Arroyos, one of the villages we stopped in
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Many of our days have begun at a village cafe eating tostada con tomate and sipping on a mug of tea. This morning came before our first trying day on El Camino, an 18-mile trek over hilly terrain to Almadén de la Plata.

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Checking out an old, ruined house along the way.
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A steep, seemingly endless hill is not what you want to see at the end of an 18-mile day, but we conquered it nonetheless.
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A site for sore feet.

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Golden fields at dawn have been a consistent part of our walk. We’re hoping it stays that way!
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Some friendly farm dogs we came across

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Exploring the castle in Real de la Jara

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A much deserved beer along the way
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Occasionally the scenery is not the greatest…
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…but it can change quickly.

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We began seeing a bunch of these small flowers that grew out of the ground individually without a stem or leaves.

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Our seventh day took us past fields of grape trees
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Some of them were being harvested
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Exploring the town of Zafra

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Borobudur

Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.

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Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.

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The temple was not at a lack of buddha statues, boasting over 500 of them

Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.

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Apart from the three sections mentioned above, other reliefs were discovered buried under the foot of the temple during renovations. The reliefs in this section either depicted humanity’s bad habits or scenes from Buddhist hell. In this relief, as described by the original description etched above it, people are gossiping to one another, looking not too unlike how people might look while gossiping today.

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While there was plenty to take in at eye level, looking up always yielded a reward

As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.

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Archeologists believe that Borobudur’s, reliefs, which number in the thousands, used to be covered with vibrant paint

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Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.

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Looking over the shoulders of a headless buddha statue

To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana. 

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Heading through one last doorway before finally reaching the top of the temple

Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.

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Nirvana means “extinguished,” which is how the temple’s uppermost level felt in comparison to the other, more detailed sections

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Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.

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The descent from nirvana proved to be considerably easier than the climb towards it
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The source of our dinner that night, a street side warung
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…that we enjoyed on the street. An enjoyable (and delicious) way to end the day!

 

Prambanan

When tasked with describing the origins of the ruinous heap of rubble sitting amongst their villages, the people of Central Java chose to err on the side of the fantastical. Long ago, as all legends must start, there were two rival kingdoms, one ruled by a man and the other a man-eating giant. Eager to expand his empire, the giant waged war on the neighboring kingdom, but was defeated by his counterpart’s son, who was said to have supernatural powers. The victorious prince, whose name, Bandung Bondowoso, sounds like what one would expect an Indonesian Marvel superhero to be named, immediately fell in love with the giant’s daughter, who, stunningly beautiful, had apparently not gotten her looks from her father. After being asked to marry him, she reluctantly agreed to, but only if the prince could fulfill one impossible request: build 1,000 temples over the course of one night. Employing his supernatural powers, Bandung summoned an army of spirits and demons who helped him construct the first 999 temples with ease. Worried that her request would be met, the princess and her maidens lit a fire and began pounding rice (a traditional morning task) so as to make it seem like it was dawn. Fooled into thinking it was, roosters began crowing and the spirits fled into the darkness, leaving the last temple unfinished. Furious, the prince turned the princess to stone and used her statue as the finishing piece in the 1,000th temple where it still sits to this day.

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While the temple’s true origins were not quite as captivating a tale as the one conjured up by locals (its building was commissioned by a king sometime in the 9th Century), our imaginations were captured all the same as we caught our first glimpse of it in the distance. Rising from a pile of incoherent rubble were the imposing spires of the main temple complex. Tall and seemingly rooted in the earth below, they dominated the horizon. Serving as their backdrop was a sky that seemed undecided in what kind of weather it wanted to convey for, at any given minute, it fluctuated from blue and sunny to gray and rainy. As we approached the main buildings, it had apparently settled on rainy and we found dry refuge under a nearby tree which gave us time to contemplate the grounds.

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The tree we camped under during the rainstorm
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The birds were undeterred by the rain

While the towers reigned supreme in the sky, less spectacular piles of rock and haphazardly assembled structures dominated the ground, looking as we imagined they would have the day after an earthquake rattled the area half a millennia earlier. When restoration began on the site in the early 1900’s, it had been decided that any buildings that were missing more than a quarter of their original structure would be left to their ruinous state. Given that locals had been using stones from the site for centuries to construct their own buildings and 19th century looters smuggled out statues to serve as unique ornaments for their homes back in Europe, it was no wonder that a majority of the buildings were left unfinished. One could only imagine what the site must have looked like fully restored, though the present state of it, rubble and all, was still enthralling. In fact, our imaginations had been kindled the most walking amongst the rubble, with its half-finished shrines and lonely statues rising up from the pile of rocks beneath it. It was no wonder that locals were able to come up with such an incredible myth about the temple’s origins.

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Walking through the half-finished shrines outside the main temple complex that were thought to have been used for meditation by priests

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Standing in front of one of the shrines that was fortunate enough to be fully restored

As the rain spell passed and blue skies returned, this time for good, we made our way into the main temple complex. If the piles of rubble had enticed us because of what wasn’t there, then the main temple did so because of what was. Standing amongst the towers we had appreciated from afar, we were overwhelmed not only by their magnitude but by the amount of inviting details that covered every inch of them. Bulging-eyed faces knowingly peered out from corners and from atop doors, cheerful lions sat tucked away in darkened nooks, and reliefs depicted grand tales that, like the temple itself, would remain largely unknown and mysterious to us.

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Heading in to the temple grounds
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Inside one of the three main temples, each of which was dedicated to one of the Hindu gods; either Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the keeper), or Shiva (the destroyer)

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We never grew tired of seeing these faces atop the doorways of the temples
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The kalpavriksha tree, a sacred tree said to grant wishes, was a common sight among the temples many carvings. Flanking it are two of the many birds depicted at the site, whose features are so anatomically correct that scientists today can identify their species
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More kalpavriksha trees and birds bookending the puppy-like enthusiasm of a lion

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After spending a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, it still felt like every time we turned a corner we had been hit with a bout of amnesia, experiencing the temples anew as before unseen details emerged. While this phenomenon would never truly wear off, our desire to see new things conquered our hesitation that we might have missed something at the main complex, and we left it to walk to the nearby Sewu Temple. 

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Pausing for a break to take everything in before moving on
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Just before heading to Sewu Temple I was asked if I could be drawn by a local artist who had also done a portrait of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo
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The finished product, which only took about two minutes
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The scenery on the walk to Sewu Temple was beautiful as well

Welcoming us to the temple grounds were two bulbous stone guards, whose bare, protruding bellies and bewildered expression ruined any chance they had at looking intimidating, even with weapons in tow. The temple itself, pixelated-looking as each brick that made up its facade took on a different shade of gray, was well-worth the walk. Like it’s cousin a kilometer away, Sewu existed, for the most part, in a ruinous state which did nothing to diminish its intrigue. 

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However impressive Prambanan and Sewu were though, with their alluring grandeur and inexhaustible intricacies, we always felt our attention being drawn back to the shadowed form of Mount Merapi, a local volcano that loomed menacingly behind a veil of clouds over the entire area. For all the ingenuity of the civilization that built the temple complex, the volcano served as a reminder that anything can be dismantled, whether it be by the forces of nature, time, or another, less romantic trace of humanity, division and destruction. Historians believe that either an eruption from Mount Merapi or a power struggle between neighboring kingdoms had caused the temple to be abandoned and within generations, its origins had become a mystery and the civilization that built it it and religion that inspired it, supplanted. It was now just a hollowed shell, its once hallowed halls now only filled by myths and imaginations of those who set their eyes upon it.

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Dusk added an entirely different dimension to the temples, unfortunately though our tickets didn’t allow us to stay for the sunset
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Enjoying our meal in a warung before catching the bus back to Jogjakarta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings From an Amateur Ornithologist 

An abundance of feathered creatures
stand against stone.
Tethered and flightless
they display curved beaks
with sharp points
grown smooth by age.

Why birds?

They don’t understand
the significance of this once holy place
buried by jungle, claimed and reclaimed.
Or perhaps it is we who don’t understand,
placing too much significance on our mark
and perceive our time to be much grander
than the score in sandstone that it is.

Luoyang

Few things weigh more heavily on the success of a trip than…breakfast. Often the first dip of the toe into the cultural waters you have decided to immerse yourself in, the first breakfast can send you off with either a good taste in your mouth or bad (both figuratively and literally) about your chosen destination and the people who live there. As we set out for our first day in Luoyang, an ancient capital of China, we found ourselves having the better of the two experiences. On a gray and chilly morning, we mused about viewing the millennia-old grottoes, historic temples, and blossoming peonies that characterized the city over a bowl of steaming soup served out of a giant metal vat on the side of the street as people bustled about us, in a hurry to start their day. The waters, we thought to ourselves, would be just fine.

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Kate waiting in line for fried dough sticks to go along with our soup

Hard hit by the struggles of China’s recent history, it became increasingly more difficult to imagine the glories of its ancient history as we made our way from our breakfast nook towards the Longmen grottoes.  From the seat of our bus, we gazed out the window at the dreary spread of shabby-looking buildings as they passed by one by one. Occasionally, to our delight, a park would flicker by, a patch of fleeting green in the otherwise monotone spread of grays and browns whose lack of vibrancy was furthered by the dim light struggling through the stoic, overcast sky overhead. After nearly an hour on the bus, we finally arrived at the grottoes and exited to find ourselves in an area that in no way hinted that a UNESCO World Heritage Site was within reach but rather resembled a scene much like the one we had been witnessing for the duration of our bus ride.  

Surely we were in the right place though, we thought, as tour buses lined the streets and a steady stream of people was moving off purposefully towards some unseen point in a manner that called to mind an ant colony crossing a sidewalk. Assuming the grottoes lay at the end of the stream, we promptly queued up and within minutes were at the entrance gates. So is the miracle of China, you can be walking down the most derelict street imaginable, turn the corner, and suddenly find yourself in a posh area feeling underdressed or, in our case, amidst a world-renowned tourist destination.

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Enjoying a hot bowl of noodles before seeing the Longmen Grottoes

After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gate, it didn’t take long for us to come across the first carving we would see that day. Heavily eroded and barely bigger than the size of our palm, the three carvings sat humbly indented into the face of the mountain. If we had seen these at the end of our day at the grottoes, we most likely would have passed them by without a glance, but there is always something special about the initial sighting of something you’ve been eager to see. Like the first animal you come upon at the zoo, or first flower of spring, your first glimpse into the whole always seems to resonate more, before you sadly become desensitized to it all and seeing things like thousand-year-old cave carvings starts to feel normal. So was the case with this first one, in no way spectacular when compared to the others that we would see, but captivating all the same.

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The first statue we saw with dead vines still clinging to the mountain beside it

As we left that initial carving and walked on, the mountain took on the appearance of a honeycomb with countless man made caves of different shapes and sizes burrowing into its side. Their holdings, dark and mysterious from afar, came into focus with each step towards them. Cross-legged Buddhas, humble deities, and even the occasional monster emerged from the shadows, emanating an aura of peace and reverence that even the raucous Qing Ming Festival crowds adhered to.

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All of the caves hanging from the mountainside made the site feel like an art gallery
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The oldest cave at the site, dating back to the mid-400s

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Moving from cave to cave, we began to realize that the carvings we paid the most attention to were not the well-preserved ones, whose sharp features time had seemingly forgotten, but rather the heavily eroded ones.  Within these, the separate carvings had all but lost their distinctness from one another, their individual traits disappearing into the marbled strokes of the mountain that ran through them, making them appear like one. 

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Sadly though, not all faded or impartial carvings that we would come across were due to erosion as some did not bear its smooth uniformity but rather jagged hack marks that were the result of the manic destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Signs welcoming visitors to the park claimed that the defaced statues were the results of natural processes but anyone with a sliver of common sense and knowledge of something that happened barely over fifty years ago could tell the difference between the two.  In nearly every cave, we could count on finding at least one statue whose face or sometimes entire body was missing, symbols of peace reduced to reminders of the perils that ensue when fear and hatred of things outside one’s own belief system become the identity of a country.

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As troubling as the defaced statues were, it was comforting to know that, in the end, the mindset that would have served to destroy every last one at the site did not prevail, and that the grottoes now draw people by the thousands and thousands to come see not the ugliness of the mangled statues, but the beauty of the preserved ones. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the latter more evident than at the center of the mountain, where the carvings, stretching several stories high, were so large that they appeared to have emerged from the mountain rather than having been carved into it.

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There, the crowds, as epic as the statues themselves, buzzed about the plaza that sat at the feet of the monumental effigies as police with loudspeakers reminded visitors to not stop and take pictures so as to keep the crowds funneling through. Like a game of Frogger, we wove through the fast paced tour groups, stationary selfie takers, and occasional wandering smartphone zombie to secure a spot at the feet of the statues.

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Close enough to reach out and touch them, we could never shake the feeling of unattainability they possessed as we took in their every detail. Perhaps it was their height that made them seem this way as they towered well beyond the reach of our heads. Or perhaps it was their age, being carved in a time and place that we just couldn’t relate to. What we eventually determined made them so unattainable though was the thing that made them human: their eyes. While we could see them, we couldn’t meet them as their gaze stretched far above us and into the distant hills.  In the end it was our ability to get so close to the statues yet feel so far removed from them that gave the site a sense of mystery and intrigue that kept us walking back and forth for several hours before finally deciding to call it a day. 

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The view of the grottoes from across the river
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There were caves to explore across the river as well, but none could compare to those we had already seen
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One last picture before leaving the site to head back to our hostel

To say that our hostel in Luoyang felt like a home would be pretty accurate given that it was quite literally a man’s apartment repurposed to hold four small rooms. The owner, who exhibited such relentless kindness so as to make one slightly suspicious, informed us on our first night in the hostel that his hip was fractured, a feat made impressive by the fact that he rode a motorbike to meet us at the bus stop in the pouring rain, walked with us up the seven flights of stairs that led to his apartment, and slept on a mat on the floor as all of the beds were full that night.  He seemed to enjoy it though, chatting with the dozen or so guests inhabiting his apartment, being an armchair guide to the city, and waiting on everyone with as much spring in his step as a fractured hip could allow. On our second day, we asked how to get to Shaolin Temple, the famed birthplace of Kung Fu, but, after finding out it would be an over 6-hour round-trip journey to get there and back, we opted instead to visit White Horse Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Upon asking the hostel owner how to get there, he excitedly waved us to the kitchen where he unfolded a well-used map to show us the quickest route there.  

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The building our hostel was in…we were on the top floor on the side with the open window

If the Inuit have over fifty words to describe ice and snow, then it would only be appropriate for the Chinese to have an equally colorful array of terms to describe large crowds of people, one of which translates literally to “people mountain, people sea.” At no point is this arsenal of descriptors more useful than during Chinese holidays, when crowds mushroom to the mind-numbing proportions of, well, a sea or mountain. 

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Waiting in line to get our tickets into the temple
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Following the crowds into the temple grounds

As we got off of the bus for White Horse Temple, the image of reverence and peace that one would expect the birthplace of Buddhism in China to evoke had seemingly been trampled under the feet of the enormous crowd jostling for position to get in line for tickets and enter the temple grounds. It was an atmosphere that, much to our dismay, would follow us into the temple, back out of it, and culminate in the frenzy that is hundreds of people with no adherence to anything resembling a line, or order for that matter, fighting each other for position to squeeze onto the infrequent buses leaving the area.

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The temple itself was actually quite beautiful if you could ignore the crowds
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A worshipper lighting incense
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Doorways leading into one of the temple’s buildings

Like a college freshman swearing off drinking for life after their first night of binge drinking, so we swore off traveling during Chinese holidays as we sat on the overcrowded, overheated bus for over an hour, getting off only after Kate vomited in a plastic sleeve that had previously held a painting we had bought. If a perfect anecdote existed to deter anyone from traveling in China during the holidays, this surely was it.

Our third and last day in Luoyang would be dedicated to the city’s famed peonies, which were in full bloom and, more than the grottoes or temples, served as the city’s identity which was evident in their portrayal on everything from hotels to garbage trucks. Wary of facing the monster that was the crowds of the day before, we decided to skip the larger parks of the city and go instead, on the advice of our hostel’s owner, to a free park nearby that he assured us would satisfy our peony-viewing cravings. 

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Enjoying our last street breakfast before going to see the peonies

After breakfast and a short walk to the park, we found ourselves amidst a modest spread of people and an anything-but-modest spread of peonies, whose large and expansive blooms were matched only in their numbers as bush after bush swelled up from the landscape, delightfully clogging our view in every direction.  

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Just one of the many patches of peony bushes lying throughout the park

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Over the landscape, the patchy sky cast long running shadows that would stop abruptly, dulling some flowers while leaving others brightly illuminated by contrast, almost as if they were on stage, a spotlight illuminating each and every petal. 

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Apart from their varying degrees of visibility, the different peonies also differed in ways as obvious as their color, as some burned a hot pink while other wore a humble white, to ways more subtle like how the petals unfurled. On one end of the spectrum were tightly coiled blooms, whose petals gave a spongy resistance when squeezed, and on the other were those that hung loose and floppy like a dog’s ears. It was a scene worth walking through several times, which we did before bidding farewell to the peonies, which, in our minds, was like bidding farewell to Luoyang itself.

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Polonnaruwa

“Hmm, that black speck moving across the horizon is much bigger than the other specks” we thought to ourselves, lazily gazing out at the animals moving around the giant, man-made lake sitting outside the Sri Lankan town of Polonnaruwa. The small specks were unmistakably cows, aimlessly grazing on the tall grass surrounding the lake, but what was the big one? Its movements, unlike the cows, were purposeful as it strode out of the surrounding forest and towards the lake. Slowly, the word popped into our heads, “Elephant!” Distracted by the familiarity of lakes and cows, we forgot that we were in a place where you could look out at any point and see a wild elephant wandering across the landscape. For us, this was Sri Lanka, never quite what we expected it to be, but always surprising us in the best of ways.

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The lone elephant making its way to the lake

If we were to describe to you a town surrounded by fields, filled with friendly, English-speaking locals, with a couple of local diners on its main street along with one good grocery store, you could be mistaken for picturing a small, midwestern town in the U.S.A. If we added in a bit about a local guesthouse owner, upon our arrival, giving us directions to one of those diners by saying, “Take a right, then another right and when you get to the clock tower, keep going and you’ll find some restaurants past there,” you may be sure of your suspicion. It wouldn’t be until we got to the part about roaming wild elephants, troops of monkeys, locals bathing in rivers, and UNESCO-recognized ancient ruins sitting within the town limits that you would begin to think otherwise. So was the allure of Polonnaruwa, with all of the charm you could want from a small town and all of the experiences you could expect from a world-renowned tourist destination.

Following the directions given to us by our guesthouse owner, we peddled into the town, past fields so green they appeared artificial as they swayed in the gentle breeze pushing in off the lake. Fruit vendors dotted the side of the road, their stalls decorated by a colorful arrangement of tropical fruits, some of which we had never seen before. Slowly along the route, guesthouses and hotels started becoming more frequent sights and finally the clock tower came into view. Heeding the advice given to us, we rode past it and pulled our bikes off to the side of the road, continuing our search for lunch on foot. There was no need to lock our bikes, we were told, as no one in the town would bother to steal them, a theory that held true for the entirety of our time there. In fact, on one occasion we returned to our bikes to find that someone had even moved them off the side of the road to a shady patch under the awning of a convenience store. We were never at a loss to find examples of the warmness of locals in Polonnaruwa.

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One of the greener than green fields that we rode past

The first shop we passed resembling a restaurant was what looked like an oversized closet with pictures of fruit smoothies plastering its exterior. Having had nothing to eat that day besides the variety of treats paraded down the aisle on our train from Colombo to Polonnaruwa that were fried to a degree suitable for a state fair, our bodies were craving nutrients and a place advertising fresh fruit smoothies seemed like a good place to start. As we entered the shop though, we found that smoothies were the only thing on the menu and the owner, aware that we were looking for a bit more than a glass of fruit juice, pointed us to a restaurant across the street that his friend owned.

If ever there was place that truly embodied the phrase hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the establishment that we were crossing the street and walking towards would certainly have been it. The roof consisted of several crooked sheets of rusted tin, the outside walls were faded and tattered, and the interior a collection of old and worn furniture that lined the stained and peeling walls. As we sat down, the owner pointed us in the direction of a large bowl of rice and four earthen pots sitting buffet style on a table near the entrance. We filled our plates with the rice along with the lentil curry, minced jackfruit, and a couple of other things we couldn’t identify that filled the bowls along with a handful of baked pita bread crisps. An ice cold Pepsi served in an opaque and chipped glass waited for us back at our table.

While on vacation, the little voice in the back of our head meant to warn us against the possibility of food poisoning at sketchy-looking restaurants always gets a bit louder, as if our mind has given it a higher pedestal to shout from just to be safe. In this instance though, the voice was silent. Despite the less than ideal conditions for a place preparing our food, we had an overwhelming feeling that the restaurant was well-taken care of, a feeling that was justified by our meal, which was one of the best we would have during our time in the country. As we left the restaurant, a man in shabby business clothes took a momentary break from eating his lunch with his fingers, as most in the country do, to look up at us and, in a delightful but fleeting way, say in perfect English, “Best buffet in town!” before returning to his meal. As we said, always being surprised in the best of ways.

After leaving the restaurant, and with little time left in the day, our agenda for the afternoon was limited to a bike ride through the town to familiarize ourselves with its layout before the next day’s more thorough exploration. Our ride took us to the entrance of the ancient city, past the lake where we saw the elephant emerge from the forest in pursuit of an early-evening bath, and to a small outpost of ruins that were aptly named as there wasn’t much left of them apart from crumbling heaps of brick, crooked columns whose ceilings had long since disappeared, and one pristinely preserved statue carved out of a rockface.

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The most well-preserved part of the outpost of ruins we stopped off at

Arriving back at our guesthouse at dusk and with time to spare before dinner, we went on a short walk towards the last remnants of the day’s sunset, an orange glow emanating from the distant mountains. As we watched the glow become slowly overtaken by the veil of night, we could see what looked to be a flock of birds steadily flowing out of the horizon. Their methodical movements across the sky left us hypnotized, a state that was only broken when one flew overhead. Its size astounded us. In the distance, the flying creatures had appeared like small dots but overhead, they were more the size of a hawk. “Surely, they can’t be hawks though,” we thought to ourselves as there were hundreds of them streaming across the sky. We watched as another darted by, then another, then another until finally one flew by slow enough for us to notice that it had webbed wings, after which we made the horrifying but exciting connection that these weren’t birds at all, rather bats! We watched, entranced by their graceful flock, for as long as we could until the night grew to a degree that made the mammals nearly invisible to the eye. As we entered back into the gate of our guesthouse, we were told that dinner was ready, a delicious home-cooked affair prepared by the owner and his mother that we unashamedly devoured before retiring to our room for the night.

The sun had barely risen on our second day in Polonnaruwa before we were on our bikes and heading towards the ruins of the ancient garden city that drew tourists to the small town by the thousands. Our tickets, large and thick enough to make one expect to find bark on their outer edges, were purchased at the site’s museum which we toured for a brief briefing on the ruins before peddling through the gates and beginning our exploration of the city.

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Breakfast for two at our guesthouse, Sunset Tourist Home

Before going to the ruins, we were told they they were relatively compact, accessible by bike and seeable in an afternoon. While the first two held true, we began to question the authenticity of the latter piece of advice as soon as we pulled up to our first site: the Royal Palace. As we got off our bikes, we found ourselves taking in a scene that looked like it had been plucked from the pages of a storybook. Paths shot off in every direction, running past various ancient buildings and out of sight over the meager hills of the landscape. The trees that filled the grounds had bark that appeared like a collection of bulging veins that wove through each other down the trunk of the tree before slithering menacingly into the ground below. The palace itself, which once stood seven stories high, was now a jagged heap of bricks whose magnificence had long since faded but whose allure was still very much intact. An otherworldly light was cast over the scenery from the sporadic canopy hanging overhead. We wandered around the grounds aimlessly, as no direction seemed like the right one to go in, eventually settling on a nice place to sit and take in all that was laid out before us.

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One of the buildings surrounding the palace
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Peeking out from one of the now ornamental pillars
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Getting up close to the unique trees that populated the grounds
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In front of the Royal Palace

Very aware of the extent of sights that still awaited us, we decided to leave the Royal Palace ruins behind and head to the next main sight in the city: the Quadrangle. Inciting flashbacks to the horrors of elementary geometry, we were relieved to find that the sight had nothing to do with math and everything to do with ancient ruins. The Quadrangle got its name from the four walls surrounding it, whose short and thin nature made us believe that they served more as boundary markers than to hinder anyone from entering. Inside the walls, a trove of religious buildings lay spread across the grounds, each one in a varying state of ruin. What caught our eye the most, apart from the buildings themselves or the statues that filled them, were the semi-circle slabs of stone that sat at the foot of many of the doorways. The name for them, moonstones, was as beautiful as the stones themselves.

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Standing on the lotus flower part of the moonstone

Named so because of their semi-circular cut, the moonstones feature various animals chasing each other in a ringed fashion across their borders. While debated, the animals are said to represent the four noble truths of life recognized in Buddhism, which are – prepare yourself – birth, decay, disease and death, which most seem to be antonyms of life, but, when thought about, sadly make sense. Beneath the animals ran a band of leaves said to represent desire, below which a lotus flower sat. It is said that once one can master the four noble truths of life and learn to suppress desire, they can reach Nirvana, represented by the lotus flower. A lot of meaning packed into a stone and a constant reminder of one’s beliefs as they passed over it to enter the Buddhist temples and structures that the moonstones sat outside of.

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A moonstone sitting at the entrance of the Vatadage

As we walked around the grounds of the Quadrangle, we began to notice that our ability to tour the temples barefoot was becoming increasingly hindered due to the sun beating down on the bare floors of the roofless structures. Like grabbing a plate that a waiter tells you is very hot only to find that it is indeed very hot, we tested our ability to walk on the scorched stones over and over again, burning our feet as a result and leaving us to dash pathetically towards any shade in sight. Faced with this inability to tour the temples, we decided to leave the Quadrangle, and the rest of Polonnaruwa, for later viewing once the sun was a bit lower on the horizon.

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A lonely statue amidst rows of pillars
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The Vatadage, one of the Quadrangle’s more aesthetically pleasing buildings
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Looking up at a Buddha face from inside the roofless Vatadage
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A dismembered statue inside the Vatadage
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A smaller building at the entrance of the Quadrangle, it looks as if the branches and leaves of the tree are providing it with a roof

The second half of our day in the ancient city began with us being captivated not by the ruins but rather by the monkeys that called them home. As we pulled up to Gal Vihara, the first sight on our agenda for the afternoon, we noticed a rather large gathering of macaques huddled around a collection of waste bins sitting outside the souvenir shops of the area. We had seen a monkey or two scampering about the grounds earlier, but this was a full-fledged village and well worth a closer look. Inch by inch, we made our way up to the outskirts of their micro-community, watching in wonder as everyday monkey life unfolded before our eyes. There were toddlers testing their limits as they leapt from one branch to another, usually failing to come close to their intended target, adolescents chasing each other around and causing havoc that an irritated adult would sometimes speak up about, and mothers, sitting idly by and watching nervously as their children played, sometimes swooping in to stop a kid they had decided was being too dangerous or inappropriate. We watched on, our unfailing interest in the monkeys being matched only by their complete uninterest in us. Eventually, a voice in the back of our heads reminded us of the plethora of sights awaiting us and we bid farewell to the macaques and began making our way towards Gal Vihara.

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A baby monkey ready to spring into action
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Getting some motherly advice
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An intimate moment between mother and child
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Along for the ride

While ancient, to call Gal Vihara ruins would be a drastic overstatement. The humble collection of four Buddha statues, etched into the swirling, marbled granite of the site, looked as if they could have been carved yesterday, their features smooth and unblemished as they ran across the stone’s surface. The rules of erosion and time that existed in such perfect unity throughout the rest of Polonnaruwa didn’t seem to apply here.

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The marbled appearance of the rock carvings at Gal Vihara
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One of the immaculately preserved statues at the site
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A crowd taking in the reclining Buddha

After leaving Gal Vihara, I would have another encounter with the primates of Polonnaruwa, this time with the resident langur, the macaques less intelligent cousin, which was evident in their blank gaze that was broken only for the occasional itch. Separated from Kate at this point as we had split off to pursue our own interests at the current site we were at, I came across a couple of slouched langurs sitting on a crumbling wall. Mistaking their vacant expression and idle state for a creature unwilling to move, I crept closer as there was was no sign that they were even aware of my presence. After taking several pictures and pulling the camera lens away from my eyes, I was startled to see that the monkey I was snapping a photo of had moved. My surprise quickly turned to pure terror as I realized that the monkey had moved to begin its pursuit of me. No experience in my life has ever quite prepared me for an angry monkey, only a few feet away, sprinting towards me with malintent, so I relied on my primal instincts and ran madly until the monkey gave up its pursuit. I was thankful that the langur had the attention span of, well, a langur and doubly thankful that there were no other people around to witness my desperate dash.

 

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One of the langurs that I stumbled across
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In case you are curious, this is what a langur looks like just before it’s about to chase after you…
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…and this is what it looks  like after it’s given up its pursuit

The rest of the day would see us stop off at other various sights within the grounds, each as inspiring as the one that came before it. While walking past half missing statues that towered into the barren sky or past trees as timeless as the buildings that they were crawling over, you couldn’t help but feel small, like an ant crawling over a piece of gold, completely unaware of the true value of it.

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The lighting makes it hard to see, but at the back of the temple is a two-storey high statue standing against the wall
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The setting sun illuminating some of the many pillars standing throughout the city
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Pillars holding up the sky
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A tree crawling over a brick wall
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A fellow tourist staring up at a very large stupa