Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

Mirounga angustirostris

I’ve traveled all over the world, but this spring was my first visit to California, and to the west coast. I visited old friends in Los Angeles, then took the train up along the coast to Santa Barbara, where Connor was leading cycling trips for the spring. After a few days exploring the mountains and valleys and wildflowers of Buellton, we began our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to bathe in the redwood forests and gaze from the seaside cliffs in Big Sur. While this trip would have been amazing enough, we bookended it with two stops at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony, and I just could not get enough.

As we approached the beach, we could see sand dancing in the air above the seals. We walked closer along a boardwalk to see the seals flinging sand over their backs, for protection from the sun, or to regulate their temperature. The beach was littered with seals. They would emerge from the water and flipper-pull their large bodies up the beach, their fat rippling down their water-glistening backs, then squeeze in between two seals that had already lined up neatly in a row. Sometimes, this caused a commotion, and they would raise their heads and growl and bark at the disturbance before settling in for a snore-filled pile of sleep. Some buried their noses in the sand; others continued sand-flicking over themselves and their nearest neighbors.

Almost all of them were in a state of “catastrophic molt,” shedding clumps of fur that looked like patches of old carpet. These seals were all female, returned to the beach from their short, post-pupping migration to spend a month growing new skin and hair: something they cannot do year-round, because they normally must conserve energy and warmth while spending their lives in the cold ocean. In different stages of sleek skin and old fur, they colored the beach with their muted, mottled bodies.

The elephant seals at Piedras Blancas were spotted by biologists in 1990; at that time, there were only about a dozen animals on the beach. The population grew to over one thousand by 1996, and today, there are over 15,000 seals in the colony. 15,000! 15,000 snorting, sparring, snuggling, sleepy seals. I watched them with such joy, until dusk arrived and we had to drive away.

Thailand

After a long flight and a night of rest in Chiang Mai, I take the bus to Chiang Rai, a town I didn’t visit on my first visit to Thailand in 2011. My first three days in the city are the three days boys are rescued from the depths of a dark, watery cave; the hospital where they are taken to heal is only a block from my guest house.

The Clock Tower is the center of Chiang Rai. The golden, intricately sculpted tower sparkles in the middle of a traffic circle, where motorbikes rush by and spicy cooking smells from street stalls linger, hitting me in the back of my throat and making me cough while waiting to cross the street. In the evening, locals and tourists gather on the sidewalk to watch the clock tower light up; bathed in magenta, turquoise, green, and red lights, the tower glitters while music plays and the clock strikes the hour.

Only a few blocks down the street is the Old Clock Tower, a small white tower with chipped paint. It marks the entrance to the market, which is loud and colorful and crowded and full of smells. There are stalls of bright yellow shirts, gold jewelry shops sparkling on corners, motorbikes squeezing by throngs of people, sellers under umbrellas beside tables stocked with meat or produce or smelly fish or other goods. Cockroaches run around on the streets.

I visit the primary school where my students will volunteer, teaching English to students in grades one through six. The school has blue walls and tiled walkways, a lunch hall with low tables and plastic chairs, and classrooms that open to a courtyard, volleyball court, and grassy field. Shoes are lined up in pairs outside the classroom doors, and sock-footed kids in uniforms are excited to see a foreigner. Some come up in shy groups of three to practice: “Hello, how are you, what is your name?”

Before my students arrive, I visit the touristy night market. The smells of incense, street food, and mosquito coils, the colorful stands of clothing, bags, and jewelry, bring back memories of my first visit to Thailand.

I take the bus back to Chiang Mai to meet my coleader, Jay, and my students at the airport. We drive back across the mountains, through the rain, to Chiang Rai, where we start orientation. We get to know each other, complete a scavenger hunt in the market, buy yellow shirts for teaching (it’s the month of the king’s birthday, so we must wear his color to celebrate), plan our lessons for the week, buy school supplies, and eat pad Thai.

Before school starts, we spend a day visiting sites around town. The Black House (Baan Dam) consists of a shady green courtyard filled with tall traditional Thai buildings, all black, some dark and foreboding in size and presence. Animal artifacts and sculptures fill the yard and children play traditional music inside the main building.

A giant dark cloud hovers over the White Temple as we enter, and it is pouring by the time we come out the other end. Inside is gold; outside is silver. We brave the rain and run to a sheltered walkway, where lucky leaves clink as they hang from the ceiling, dangling like rain drops. The sky, white now, forms a pretty backdrop to the temple, which glitters like sunlight on snow. When the rain clears, it is hot, the humidity golden and thick.

We begin our week of teaching. My students help the Thai children make nametags, sing songs about animals, count or learn the names of days or months, play games. During the break after lunch, they play tag and children climb on top of my students for piggyback rides. We leave happy and sweaty every day. When we get back to our guest house, we learn to cook Thai food (green curry, Thai tofu basil, and pad see ew); or we are given a Thai dance lesson (bending our fingers back as far as they go); or we learn Muay Thai (punching, kicking against big foam pads); or we learn about the Hill Tribes at a local museum; or we get Thai massages and buy elephant pants at the night market. On the last day of school, we cancel our lessons to visit a meditation center, then back at the school, we have a dance party in the lunch room. When it’s time to leave, everyone is crying—girls, boys, the Thai children, my students—I cry too, watching them all cry, and our van driver laughs at me.

On the weekend, we head out of the city. This is the Thailand I remember: clean air, trees and rain and butterflies; rice paddies and mountains and green. We read and journal and draw and relax and the students stay up late, giggling.

We pair up with local high school students on our final day in Chiang Rai and visit more temples around town. At Wat Phra Kaew, gardeners take care of blooming orchids. The Blue Temple is a million indescribable shades of sky and water and the first hours of night. We eat coconut ice cream with rice, both dyed blue to match the temple and the indigo flower perched atop the dessert. At Wat Huay Pla Kang, we take an elevator to look out the window of the Buddha’s third eye.

We take the vans back over the mountains to Chiang Mai. We spend a day at Elephant Nature Park, where we feed elephants bananas, placing the fruit at the tips of their thick, moist trunks, or peeling them for the babies who drop the bananas in the mud. We watch the elephants forage, the mother trumpeting so her baby doesn’t stray too far, then walk with them to the river, where we splash them and each other with buckets of water, everyone soaked and laughing.

The Faroe Islands

It was cloudy when Lyndsay and I landed in the Faroe Islands, and from the plane window, we never saw the runway; the transition from clouds to land seemed immediate, with views of cliffs falling to the sea. Once we picked up our rental car, we drove through the fog, then through a one-way tunnel, where lights on the rock ceiling tricked me into thinking cars were coming at us. When we came out on the other side, we were met by the sheep-flecked village of Gásadalur, where the Mulafossur waterfall plummets to the sea. Puffins and seagulls flocked to the cliff walls and eider ducks bobbed on the surface of the sea; sheep baaed and grazed in the distance and fog shrouded the mountains. Rain drizzled down and the wind blew the waterfall sideways, making rainbows. It was cold.

In the morning, we hiked to Bøsdalafossur, the waterfall that flows from the lake above the sea. We left straight from our apartment, turned by the church, then entered a field and walked with the sheep as views of the town appeared below us. It was foggy, but that only seemed to make the colors of the field more vibrant as the trail curved around the lake. The lake led to the waterfall, which crashed over cliffs into the sea. We lost the path at one point (in reality, there wasn’t a path) so we just continued to the sea, across the muddy hills and over boulder fields. We found the waterfall, but couldn’t figure out where the famous optical illusion shot was taken from. We started walking back along the shore of the lake, then saw other people on a ridge that had been hidden by fog before. We walked straight uphill until we got to the top of the ridge, and there it was—the view of the curved lake resting atop cliffs that dropped to the sea. Close to the edge, it was amazing and frightening and beautiful. We walked back along the shore of the lake, through the sheep fields, and back to our apartment, where we got in our car and headed down the road to Sørvágsfjørður, where the troll woman’s finger juts out from the sea.

The next day, we drove through the undersea tunnel to Streymoy, the largest island, then continued along the west coast to Vestmanna, where we took a crazy boat tour to Vestmannabjørgini, the bird cliffs. The Atlantic was raving, the birds were flying up and down the cliffs, the sheep were grazing on treacherous inclines. Sometimes, the boat captain told us, the sheep walk down the cliff to eat seaweed and fall into the sea. The boat navigated narrow passageways between cliffs, rocking back and forth, giving us spectacular views of waterfalls as the birds flew through the spray.

We continued north along Streymoy’s east coast to Tjørnuvík, a scenic drive with views of Eysturoy to the east that ended with waterfalls and a black sand beach. We drove south again, then inland to Saksun: sheep, grass roofs, an old church, a big waterfall, very few homes. And from there, the drive to Tórshavn, the capital city. We walked around the fort and old town and sweater shops and drank locally brewed beer.

On Eysturoy the next day, we climbed Slættaratindur, the highest peak in the Faroes. It was finally a sunny day. The one-mile walk wasn’t long, but it was steep, nearly straight up the grassy side of the mountain. The steepness made me dizzy. Eventually, the trail started switchbacking, and we continued on, eventually making it to the top, where we had views of several islands in the distance. The sea blew warm salty air toward us and the sun felt warm once we were low enough to be out of the wind.

Gjógv, a cute gorge town by the sea on the northern tip of the island, was our last stop for the day. We wandered around in the sun along the sea coast, enjoying the waves and the gurgling stream.  

The rest of our stay involved driving around the northern islands, then working our way back to Vágar, where we started. We had lucked out with sunny weather; it poured on our last day. We escaped the weather in sweater shops and cafés, staying cozy.

Copenhagen

I met Lyndsay in Copenhagen after a layover in Iceland. In the morning, the city was sunny, quiet, and trim. Cobblestone sidewalks lined narrow canals. Jetlagged, we drank coffee in the sun at a rooftop café.

We walked across the city to Nyhavn, a canal street with colorful buildings, restaurants set up on patios, and tour boats in the water. We climbed onto the roof of a docked boat and sat in the sun before continuing along the canal to Free Christiana, a weird hippie corner of town that doesn’t consider itself part of the EU. Vendors sold hash on the sidewalks and graffiti covered skatepark walls. Houseboats on the water were painted with murals and held gardens of potted plants; rich twenty-somethings napped in hammocks as the sun lowered in the sky.

We spent another blue-sky, sunny day in Copenhagen when we returned from the Faroe Islands. We bought curry and mojitos from food stalls and dipped our feet in the cool canal.

Patagonia

On the bus ride to Puerto Natales, the bright landscape flies by: yellow grasses, rheas grazing, miles and miles of barbed wire fence, scrubby trees that look like neglected apple orchards. The town is an end-of-the-earth place, with simple, colorful houses and lots of end-of-day sunlight.

We take a bus to Torres del Paine National Park. There are views of the towers, snow-capped peaks, colorful valleys, lakes and lagoons. We board a ferry bobbing in a narrow lake of pale aqua water. It starts to rain almost as soon as we begin our hike, big fat drops that hit us like needles. But atop the ridge, there are incredible views of the lake, first with white caps on gray waves, later with pale blue hues. Closer to the glacier, bright blue icebergs float in the water. The glacier is brilliant white and blue with interesting textures at its calving face. All the way, the wind blows against us, threatening to knock me over.

Small wooden bridges lead us over rushing streams and through valleys where we are sheltered from the wind and where magenta and white foxglove bloom. Dandelions, daisies, and clover grow along the trail. Above, the snow-capped peaks are at times brilliant in sun and at other times shrouded in gray clouds. A caracara stands twenty feet from us, hopping along the ground on white legs, foraging for insects. A woodpecker drums at a fallen log, its black crest comically flipped back behind its head. A gray and bronze culpeo lounges near the side of the trail.

We walk back the way we came in misty morning light, stopping with a view of the glacier to find a rainbow stretching from Gray Lake to the glacier. We reach the place where we began the day before, then continue along the aqua blue lake, climbing grassy and flowery hills and dipping into a valley with silvery, skeletal trees. In the distance, the white trees rise up like the teeth of a comb in the mountain’s shadow. The lake is now dark gray, with white caps on the waves, and clouds move over the mountain peaks where glaciers slide down their slopes. In the forest, vegetation changes from bony trees to their living relatives. Shrubs with tiny white flowers line the path, holly-like. The trail grows muddy and the trees grow taller and closer together until we reach a suspension bridge over a gushing, glacier-fed stream. The wind blows the bridge and the water roars as we cross. Past the bridge, the stream splits in two to feed a lake below.

In the morning, the forest feels like a tropical montane rainforest. It is bright but drizzly, everything is lush and blooming, birds are everywhere, and when we come out of the trees, the views are of greenery and waterfalls and the aqua lake. The trail winds downhill until we reach a rocky beach of black and beige stones, where the aqua waves crash on the shore. The colorscape is perfect. I sit on the wet rocks and watch the waves before continuing on the trail.

The day grows hot—the sun is out and the sky is super blue—and three Andean condors soar above us. The view is always of the lake and the mountains in the distance, with hilly trails and stream crossings and suspension bridges and wildflowers. We stop a lot to lay in the sun and absorb the view.

Our last day hiking is very uphill. We walk along a glacial stream and through the forest, thickly green with a dark-dirt trail. Three Magellanic woodpeckers fly between old trees. Big rocks form both a stream bed and steps to climb, and soon we are above treeline, where the wind is whipping. We climb up a steep sandy hill and across a boulder field. It is cold and snowing at the base of the towers. They rise from a pool of seafoam green water, and there are misty clouds and snowflakes.

When we get back to the bottom, the big moon rises behind the clouds and hares jump through the meadow.