Monday, June 17, 2013

Summer Hiatus

I usually just disappear from blogworld, but I thought I'd give notice this time.

Ramblings to resume in late August.
(Upcoming posts: South Dakota!  Beijing!  An update on life in Shanghai!  Perhaps some travels around mainland China!)

This week, I'm headed to Beijing for a summer language program.  It's full-immersion (as if living in China wasn't enough?  Turns out it's not.) with a language pledge: for the duration of the two month program, I'm not allowed to speak English with my teachers, my classmates, the locals, or anyone else who can speak Mandarin.  Since B. did this program last summer, that includes him too.  We have lots of long distance relationship experience... restricting our communication to a language in which we're both effectively children certainly adds a new twist.  Hopefully by the time the program is over, I'll be able to blog about our adventures in Mandarin!


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Laos: Elephants!

Elephants weren't originally in the game plan for our trip.  There are too many places where elephants are exploited for tourism, overworked, underfed, and generally mistreated.  In Phuket, we saw a sad-looking baby elephant by the roadside whose owner was using him as a photo prop.  The majestic animals deserve better.

But then we learned about Elephant Village, outside of Luang Prabang.  

Laos was once known as the "Land of a Million Elephants" (from the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the 14th century). Today, it would more accurately be called the land of about 1600 endangered elephants; more than one third of those remaining work under deplorable conditions in the forestry industry, where injuries are common and some are drugged with amphetamines.

What happens when an elephant can no longer spend its days toiling for timber?  Elephants make incredibly expensive pets: an elephant eats up to 250 kg of food each day.  Elephants who can't "earn their keep" often face dire circumstances.  Why not just return them to the wild?  This has been tried, with little success.  Domesticated elephants lose the ability to fend for themselves.  Thus, "soon-to-be jobless" elephants may be killed, abandoned to slow starvation, or sold to the highest bidder.  

Elephant Village buys elephants out of logging -- most bear scars or blindness from their former employ.  In exchange for the relatively easy work of carrying tourists, the elephants are housed, fed, provided with medical attention, and are well cared for.  Food is bought from the local population, providing an alternative to environmentally-disastrous slash-and-burn farming practices that are prevalent in the country.  Mahouts (elephant trainers) are hired along with their elephants.

We learned the basic commands for directing the elephants and got a chance to ride up front for a scenic tour of the jungle, sitting practically on their heads, legs tucked behind their ears.  The hair on an Asian elephant's head is surprisingly bristly; their ears are surprisingly strong; their trunks are amazingly dextrous.  And they've certainly learned when to reach for bananas!  

After lunch, we walked the elephants into a deeper part of the river and bathed them.  B.'s elephant would submerge completely -- we have some photos where you can't see his elephant at all.  Without context, it just looks like he's waist-deep in river water.  My elephant preferred splashing, slapping her trunk on the water at the mahout's command.

The day concluded with a boat ride to Tad Sae Waterfall which, while beautiful, couldn't compete with our trip to Kuang Si Falls the day before.  Early the following morning, we left Laos, hopscotching our way across the globe (LPG - BKK - HKG - JFK) to see our families.  While we're living in the neighborhood (which is to say, Asia), I hope we have a chance to return to Laos and experience more of the country.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Laos: Kuang Si Waterfall

What makes waterfalls so mesmerizing?  The roar of big waterfalls, the power that pounds and shapes the rocks below; the peaceful trickle of little ones, winding their way through a landscape; even water dripping rhythmically off a leaf.  We're drawn to them.  Why?

As my mother's daughter, I've had ample opportunity to ponder this question: "... and there's a waterfall nearby!" was a common refrain on vacations growing up.  Our highlights list includes Niagara Falls, of course, as well as Bridalveil Fall (Yosemite Park), Zapata Falls (CO), the Damajaqua Cascades (27 natural waterslides, Dominican Republic), and the ones we sought off the beaten path in Kauai and Maui, to name but a few.  The Kuang Si Waterfall is a worthy addition.

Our pink Scoopy moped (like this) carried us the 18 miles from Luang Prabang to the Kuang Si falls through the serene, well-signposted countryside.  From the first little waterfall, I was struck by the colors: the deep greens of the surrounding jungle, the bright, bright translucent blue of the pools.  It's a blue color I'd never seen in nature before, one that immediately made me ask about mineral content.   

This blog is called "Rambling Scientist" and, while I've focused more on "rambling" than "science" so far, I looked into the color of the Kuang Si falls.  It all comes back to geology and, of course, chemistry.  Calcium carbonate, to be be specific.  As water cascades through falls, travertine -- a form of calcium carbonate (think limestone) -- precipitates out, coating the bottom and sides of the pools with a layer of white.  Light reflecting through the mineral rich water, off the pale bottom, results in the brilliant blue color.  

Many of the travertine pools were suitable for swimming; the water was a bit cold for my taste but B. had a blast playing on the rope swing.  

Walking further up the falls, we came across a landscape photographer's dream: beautiful light filtered through the trees, creating alternating patches of brilliant turquoise and murky white, framed by dark foliage with a brightly spotlit waterfall in the background.

The trail ultimately leads to the main fall, which features a 200 ft cascade.  Once again, the sun and the water colluded to our photographic delight.  

* Bonus: for a description of different types of waterfalls (plus pretty pictures), read this.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Laos: Luang Prabang

Oh Luang Prabang.  Luang Prabang gets billed as one of the most charming places in southeast Asia.  It didn't disappoint.  

Luang Prabang, which sits at the confluence of the Nam Kahn and Mekong rivers, is a city of about 50,000 people (I live in a city more than 450x as big.  50,000 people feels like "small town" to me) in northern Laos.  It was the historic capital of the kingdom of Luang Prabang and the former capital of Laos until the communist takeover in 1975.  It's known for its beauty, its Buddhist temples and monasteries, and its chill atmosphere.  Strikingly, while Luang Prabang is full of tourists, it didn't feel like a tourist trap (unlike, say, Lijiang) -- hopefully it'll continue to withstand the ravages of time and tourism.

What did we do in Luang Prabang?  We woke up to the sounds of the rooster crowing and the procession of monks begging for alms.*  We enjoyed quiet breakfasts in the courtyard at Lao Wooden House.  We rambled down to the banks of the Nam Kahn river.  We wandered aimlessly through town, checking out a number of the Buddhist temples, which feature a striking contrast between monastic simplicity and ornately decorated wats.  We "window-shopped" in the night market and climbed Mount Phou Si to see the town from above.

Tea with sugar "for the goodtime" during breakfast at Lao Wooden House

View from Mount Phou Si

With the slow pace of life in Luang Prabang, we took time to enjoy things you won't find mentioned in any tourist guidebook.  We sat and watched local guys play a sport (I wish I knew what it was called) in somebody's backyard.  They played in teams of two, with a badminton-height net, and no hands allowed.  We snacked on crickets.  We stopped to admire the flowers.  We drank from coconuts.

Our two day trips, one by moped to Kuang Si falls, and one on elephant(!) at Elephant Village, were true highlights.  You'll see posts with photos of those soon.

* Begging for alms is a daily tradition for the monks of Luang Prabang.  The monks, all dressed in orange robes, line up and walk through town, collecting food from locals and tourists.  "Begging for alms" in Lao culture contains none of the negative connotations -- it is, rather, a privilege for the giver.

** I knew very little about the history of Laos before arriving.  In a sense, the country exists today because of French colonialism: from the 18th century until 1893, when it became a French protectorate, Laos was divided into three different kingdoms which could have been subsumed by the stronger powers in the region -- Thailand, China, Vietnam.  Like Cambodia, Laos was neutral during the Vietnam War; like Cambodia, it did not escape unscathed. "From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions -- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years -- making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history" (source).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Vietnam: Bai Tu Long Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay, the beautiful, less-touristed neighbor to Ha Long Bay

Picture this: You pull out from the harbor on an afternoon shrouded in mist, carefully avoiding the fishing boats at anchor as you enter the bay.  You soon leave the colorful jumble of boats behind.  For the next two days, you'll see other boats only occasionally -- and the only tourists you'll see are the ones who set sail with you.  It's just you, the water, and the majestic landscape.  The masses of rock protrude sharply up from the water and press through the fog.

Small floating houses dot the bay.  The inhabitants live on the water year-round, seeking shelter in nearby caves when stormy weather blows through.  They make a living farming fish and shellfish off their floating platforms.

At sunset, our monochromatic landscape was set alight with hues of yellow and orange.

We spent the night on one of the islands, guests in the home of a retired fisherman.  After a delicious dinner and breakfast, we rode bikes to a local beach, played frisbee in the sand, and then set sail back through the silent peaks to our colorfully crowded harbor.