Myths & Tales from China 06

The Kingdom of the Sea

When westerners imagine life under the sea, it’s mostly human people with some fish attributes like fins or gills, but in many parts of Asia, the kingdoms under the waves are filled with sentient and often extremely large versions of familiar sea creatures — and dragons. Here are 3 stories about the Sea Kingdom, ruled, not by a merman King Triton or a humanoid sea god like Poseidon, but by a Great Dragon King who rules all life in the sea from his crystal palace.


Dragon King of the Boiling Sea

A long, long time ago, on the southwest side of Zhou Shan (a city in Zhejiang made soley of islands) there was a small island. On this island, under the ground, was buried a great deal of bright yellow gold, so the people all called it Jin Cang Dao or “Hidden Gold Island”. Some time later, the ever greedy and never satisfied Dragon King of the Eastern Sea learned of this news. In order to claim all of Jin Cang Island for himself, the Dragon King amassed large quantities of Dragon Princes and Dragon Grandsons and Shrimp Soldiers and Crab Generals, and launched himself at Jin Cang Island: rising tide after rising tide, breaking wave after breaking wave, a fierce torrent that overtook the sky. The trees on Jin Cang Island fell and the houses collapsed; it was an extremely miserable sight.

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On the east side of Jin Cang Island was Fang Hua Shan or “Flower Spinning Mountain”, at the top of the mountain lived the Flower Spinning Sprite. She saw the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea causing trouble for no reason at all, devastating the common people, and she felt entirely angry. She picked up her magic broom and lightly swept towards the sea surface. The water that was coming up the mountain then retreated back down with a crash. The survivors on Jin Cang Island one after another ran to Mt. Fang Hua to take refuge. The Flower Spinning Sprite changed her shape in a single shake of her body, she became a white haired, ash grey hundred year old granny, and said to everyone, “If you want to save Jin Cang, follow my lead and spin the flowers into thread. Weave the spun flowers into fishing nets and go down to the sea and defeat the Dragon King!” Everyone heard the old granny’s words: men and women, old and young, all together set about the task, united in the common effort of spinning flowers and weaving nets. They spun and they weaved, they were wholly occupied for seven times seven or forty-nine days, they wove nine times nine or eighty-one pounds of golden threaded fishing nets.

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They finished weaving the fishing nets, but who would they send to the sea to fight the Dragon King? Everyone bickered back and forth, talking about it continuously. Just then, a small chubby boy appeared suddenly out of the crowd, he smacked his chest and said, “I will go!” His fellow villagers looked and saw it was little Hai Sheng and could not help but laugh. How could a seven or eight year old child fight the Dragon King? The old granny, however, smiled and said, “Go to the sea and fight the Dragon King, there is nobility in having courage, so let little Hai Sheng go!” So saying, she took up a suit of golden threaded clothes and bade Hai Sheng to put them on. Next she passed on to Hai Sheng the secret trick to fighting the Dragon King.

Hai SHeng put on the golden threaded clothes, and his whole body immediately felt a burst of soft tickles. In accordance with the spell the granny imparted to him, he said “big”, and all at once he grew tall in height. Suddenly he became a powerful, large, inexhaustible giant. His fellow villagers stared with their eyes wide and mouths open. Hai Sheng picked up the golden threaded fishing nets and took large strides down Mt. Fang Hua, then with a plop sound, jumped into the sea.

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It’s strange to say, but wherever Hai Sheng went, the tidal waters and sea waves in that place made way for him. In actuality, the golden threaded clothes Hai Sheng was wearing were water repelling treasure clothes made by the Flower Spinning Sprite just for him. Hai Sheng took out the golden threaded nets and cast them into the sea. He said, “big”, the net flew toward the ocean in such a way that it hid the sky and covered the earth. In a short time, he started to collect the first net. He had captured Gou Manjing, the treasure guardian general for the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. As long as he had captured Gou Manjing, he would be able to get the Sea Boiling Pot; then he would have no fear that the Dragon King would not return Jin Cang Island. Hai Sheng was extremely happy, and ordered Gou Manjing to hand over the Sea Boiling Pot at once!

Gou Manjing started to struggle while still in the net. Hai Sheng shouted, “small”, and the golden threaded net instantly started to shrink. Gou Manjing was choked to within an inch of his life. He had no choice but to stop and lead Hai Sheng to the Hundred Treasure Hall of the Eastern Sea Dragon Palace to take the Sea Boiling Pot.

As soon as he had retrieved the Sea Boiling Pot, Hai Sheng then, in accordance with the Flower Spinning Spite’s instructions, set up the pot at the sea side, scooped out one ladle of Eastern Sea water, poured it into the pot, burned a roaring pile of dry firewood, and pili-pala it started to boil. Boil! BOIL! Several incense sticks burned in the time that passed; the water of the sea gave off steam. The Dragon King openly and honestly appeared on the water’s surface, behind him followed a group of hot and panting shrimp soldiers and crab generals repeatedly bowing and kowtowing and earnestly calling for their lives to be spared.

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“Ebb the tide and rest the waves, return Jin Cang to me, otherwise I will boil the Dragon King soft!” Hai Sheng said. The Dragon King hastily gave a command for the tide to retreat by three feet, and the waves to subside by thirty feet. Jin Cang Island was at last once more protruding from the sea. 

Who could have guessed, as soon as Hai Sheng picked up the pot in both hands and doused the fire, the Dragon King once again immediately rose the tide and beat the waves. One wave swept up the Sea Boiling Pot and it disappeared without a trace. “What to do?” Hai Sheng anxiously stamped his foot. The stomp was no small thing, and suddenly all the gold buried under the earth was completely brought out by Hai Sheng’s stomp, and flew one piece after another, down to the sea shallows, dropped onto the beach, and in the blink of an eye built a sparkling golden sea bank. No matter how the tide rushed forth or the waves churned over, Jin Cang stood, majestic and towering. From then on, the Dragon King does not dare come to cause trouble, the people live in peace and work happily, and Jin Cang Island, or “Hidden Gold Island” became known as Jin Tang Island, the Island of the Golden Embankment.


LongNu (Dragon Maid) Visits Guan Yin

According to legend, there is a pair of young innocents standing in attendance at Bodhisattva Guan Yin’s side. The boy is named Shan Cai (which means ‘cherish wealth’) and the girl is named Long Nu (which means ‘dragon maiden’).

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Originally, Long Nu was the daughter of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. She was clever and bright, and the Dragon King doted on her very much.  One day, Long Nu heard that the fishing village by the seaside was having a Boat Lantern Festival, and loudly demanded to go and see the bustling scene. But the Dragon King shook his head and said, “That is no place for a Dragon Princess to go!”

Long Nu thought to herself, “You won’t let me go, I must go!” She waited with difficulty until midnight, then took advantage of the Dragon King not paying attention, and stealthily slipped out of the Crystal Palace. She transformed into a maiden from a fishing family, and entered the fishing village. The main street was unusually bustling. There were all kinds of fish lanterns in numbers beyond counting: there were Yellow Croaker Fish Lanterns, Octopus Lanterns, Squid Lanterns, and Shark Lanterns; along with Lobster Lanterns, Crab Lanterns, Scallop Lanterns and Conch Lanterns… Long Nu stared east, gazed west, and then broke into the crowd without thinking.

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At that moment, suddenly a half cup of cold tea spilled down from a loft above, and splashed impartially on Long Nu’s head. Long Nu was so scared her face went white. For in actuality, whenever she transformed into a human, if she came into contact with water then she would quickly change back into her original shape. She was afraid that changing back into her dragon shape in the middle of the crowd would cause trouble, so she ran with all her might back to the seaside, she barely made it to the beach when she transformed into a large fish. She lay on the beach completely unable to move. 

Along the beach there came two fishing lads, one lean and one plump. They saw this bright and lustrous large fish and all at once they stared distractedly. The plump boy said, “What a fish! How did it get up on the beach?” The lean boy, moving the fin to and fro, said, “Let’s take it!  We can carry it on our shoulders up to the road to sell, it will fetch a good price.” So saying, the two boys carried the big fish on their shoulders up to the road to sell it.

Meanwhile, Bodhisattva Guan Yin was sitting in meditation in the Black Bamboo Forest. She saw what had just taken place, and acting without thinking from her merciful heart, she quickly called the boy Shan Cai to go and buy the large fish and release it into the sea. Shan Cai stood upon a lotus flower and flew down from high in the clouds.

The two boys carried the fish to the main street, all the people watching the lanterns all at once gathered around, pointing and talking, however no one dared to buy the big fish. An old man said, “Boy, this fish is too big, you ought to cut it up and sell the pieces.” The plump boy though this was sound reasoning. He borrowed a hatchet, raised it high and was just about to chop. Suddenly, a small child shouted out, “Quickly, look! The big fish is crying.” The plump boy paused the hatchet and looked. The big fish was indeed crying two streams of sparkling translucent tears. At that point, a young Buddhist monk came over and blocked them, saying, “Don’t strike! Don’t strike! I will buy this fish.” Everyone who heard this roared with laughter. “Young Monk, why would you buy the fish? Maybe you’ll start eating meat again and leave the monastic life!” The young monk’s face went red, he explained nervously, “I would buy this fish in order to save its life.” So saying, he took out a silver piece and handed it to the lean boy, and had them carry the fish back to the shore and release it in the sea.

As soon as it touched the water, the fish made a big splash and swam far far away, after that it turned around and nodded to the young monk, only then did it swiftly dive into the water and vanish. What’s more, when the young Dragon Princess wasn’t seen at the Dragon Palace, everyone was thrown into confusion. The Dragon King angrily puffed his mustache and opened his eyes wide. After daybreak, the young Dragon Princess finally returned, not until then was the Dragon King’s mind at rest. However, in order to teach her a lesson, the Dragon King expelled her from the Crystal Palace. 

Long Nu was broken-hearted. Weeping endlessly she arrived at the Lotus Flower Sea; the sound of her weeping reached the Black Bamboo Forest. Bodhisattva Guan Yin heard this and knew that Long Nu had come. She instructed Shan Cai to meet Long Nu and bring her in. Shan Cai appeared before Long Nu and smiling asked, “Little Sister Long Nu, do you not remember me?” Long Nu recognized him as the young monk who had saved her and she could not help but turn her tears to laughter. She went forward and was about to bow to him. Shan Cai drew her to a halt and said, “It was Bodhisattva Guan Yin who told me to go and rescue you!”  Long Nu lifted her head to look and saw Bodhisattva Guan Yin seated on a lotus flower platform so she bowed and paid her respect. Guan Yin liked Long Nu a lot, so she kept her by her side. From that point on, Long Nu and Shan Cai lived like brother and sister in a cliff cave near to Chao Yin Cavern. That cliff cave was later called “Shan Cai Long Nu Cave”.

Long Nu served as a maid to Bodhisattva Guan Yin, but the Dragon King regretted his actions, and called for Long Nu to return to the Dragon Palace. But Long Nu was unwilling to return to the Crystal Palace that imprisoned her.

**There aren’t many pictures of this myth, although it was made into a TV drama in Taiwan, the screen shot quality is abysmal. However, Long Nu and Shan Cai are regular characters in an insanely adorable web comic called “Inhuman” about how all the old magical beings are getting along in modern China. I haven’t found a good translation, but the art alone is worth a look.

This one is from a school field trip. Shan Cai asks Long Nu what’s wrong, and she’s feeling really motion sick from the bus ride and can’t help but throw up. However, because she is a princess of the sea, she fills the bus with seawater and animals, so when they get off the bus all the human students are wet and angry, but Shan Cai says “now we have enough to make seafood hot pot!”


Ne Zha Disturbs the Sea

Once upon a time, at Chen Tang Guan there was a military officer named Li Jing (historical figure 570-649 CE). When his wife conceived her third child, he was conceived for three years and six months and still hadn’t been born. Once day, very late at night, Mrs. Li felt a burst of pain in her belly, and unexpectedly gave birth to a ball of flesh. Li Jing belived it to be some kind of evil spirit, he took out his double-edged sword and cut the ball of flesh. The ball of flesh split open and out hopped a small child. As soon as the child was out, he ran all over the place. Li Jing was very happy and gave him the name Ne Zha.

Early in the morning the next day, a Daoist came requesting to see Li Jing, he wanted to take Ne Zha as an apprentice. He was the Golden Light Cave Sage Tai Yi. He gifted Ne Zha with two treasured objects: one was the circlet Qian Kun Quan (Universal Ring), and the other was the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling (Sky Budding Sash). Li Jing happily agreed.

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In no time at all, Ne Zha was seven years old. He was very active and energetic. One summer afternoon, the weather was especially hot, Ne Zha ran down to the riverbank and used the Hun Tian Ling dipped in water to bathe, and as he washed he also played. The Hun Tian Ling is an amazing treasure, when it was immersed in the water, all the water in the river shone red. This river was the Nine Bend River that feeds into the Eastern Sea, and as Ne Zha shook the Hun Tian Ling in the river, the Dragon Palace in the Eastern Sea began to sway. The Dragon King got a surprise and quickly called the spirit that patrolled the sea, Ye Cha to go and look. Ye Cha drilled out of the water’s surface to see one small child holding a length of red silk in the middle of bathing, and then called out, “Hey, small fry, what sort of strange thing are you using, the Dragon King’s Crystal Palace was disturbed when everything started to shake?”

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Ne Zha raised his head to look and saw ferocious looking (green faced, fierce toothed) monster, then said, “What kind of monster are you? Do you not want to cause harm or not?” Ye Cha heard that and became angry, he raised up his axe and swung it towards Ne Zha.  Ne Zha dodged out of the way, and fetched Qian Kun Quan and threw it at Ye Cha. There was a noise — deng, and Ye Cha’s head was broken and he died on the spot.

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Ne Zha saw that Qian Kun Quan was dirty, so he sat down on a stone to wash it. The Crystal Palace was unable to withstand the vibration of these two Treasures and nearly collapsed from shaking. At that time, the shrimp soldiers came to report, “Ye Cha was killed by a child!”. The Dragon King heard this and became enraged, he was just about to dispatch the troops, when the third crown prince Ao Bing Zhan stood up and said, “King Father, allow me to go and capture this small child.” and thus saying, he dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals and rode the great beast Bi Shui Shou. They arrived at Nine Bend River, Ao Bing Zhan called to Ne Zha, “Where are you, you Little Goblin, you dared to go so far as to kill Ye Cha, watch out that I don’t kill you!”

“I am not a Goblin I am the son of the Chen Tang Guan army commander Li Jing, Ne Zha!” Without waiting for Ne Zha to finish speaking, Ao Bing hefted his pike and ferociously began to stab. This time Ne Zha was really angry! Ne Zha flung the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling at Ao Bing, wrapped it around Ao Bing, then gently tugged, pulling him off the beast Bi Shui Shou. Ne Zha stepped on his neck, lifted the circlet Qian Kun Quan, and tapped him lightly on the head, and his true form was revealed, he was actually a small golden dragon.  Ne Zha pulled out the dragon’s tendons, wrapped it around his waist and joyfully returned home.

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The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea heard that his third son had been killed by Ne Zha, in less than (the time of) one breath, he invited the Dragon Kings of the other three Seas to gather together in Chen Tang Guan, drop a huge rain, and prepare/intend to flood the place. Ne Zha didn’t want to involve his parents and the whole village of regular people, so he calmly picked up a double edged sword and cut his own throat. Not until that did the Dragon Kings free Chen Tang Guan.

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Ne Zha’s soul left his flesh body, and slowly, flutteringly it floated down to Golden Light Cave, and met his Master Sage Tai Yi. Sage Tai Yi plucked several lotus roots from within the lotus pond, arranged them in the shape of a human, and slowly said, “Ne Zha, Lotus Flower Reincarnation!” Ne Zha’s soul leaned over the lotus roots, and before long, the lotus flower slowly blossomed. A small child stretched and stood up and was exactly the same as the original Ne Zha. Ne Zha knelt at Sage Tai Yi’s feet, and spoke sincerely, “Thank you Master, you have given me a second life, from now on I won’t wantonly fight with people anymore.” Sage Tai Yi smiled and nodded. He took out two Wind and Fire Wheels and a Fire Point Spear, and gave them to Ne Zha. Ne Zha then remained with Sage Tai Yi and followed his teachings.

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Later, when Ne Zha came down the mountain, he became the officer who would lead ahead of all the troops of arms master Jiangzi Ya under King Wu (historical figure 1046-1043), beheading goblins and driving out devils, establishing outstanding military service. He also performed many great deeds for the common people, and so the people all loved him.

**This is such a beloved story in China that it has been made into a popular animated movie which is where all these images come from. It’s in Chinese, but now you know the story you can watch the video if you like:

Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

Alaina Goes to Ghana

My friend who is in pharmacy school had an amazing opportunity to go to Ghana this year with Global Brigades to help set up medical clinics and educate people about healthcare. She says she hates writing, but I’ve managed to convince her to let me compile and edit her Facebook posts into a story to share with you. It is written in her voice and only edited for grammar and clarity.


Day 1

I have arrived safely in Ghana. Our lodge was three hours from the nearest airport. The air was wet and slightly scented, like being in a sauna. On the long drive through the countryside, we got our first glimpses of Ghana, covered in green trees with deep red soil. We drove through countless small villages on the way. Every time we stopped at a traffic light, vibrant people would cluster around and try to sell us treats from the overflowing bowls balanced on their heads.

35427395_10155352333095824_7391464207599796224_oOur lodge is lovely and surprisingly ornate, compared to the small shelters nearby. We are sleeping in rooms of four with bunk beds and private bathrooms with showers. The rooms are air-conditioned and that is heavenly. There is a large common seating area with big windows where we meet to talk and eat the wonderful food they prepare for each meal. Most meals are served buffet style, with a chicken dish, a fish option in rich sauces, grilled veggies, salad, some sort of dessert or bread, and fresh juice made from ginger and pine that tastes like paradise. 

Day 2

This morning we enjoyed an English-style breakfast, with eggs, toast, baked beans, coffee and an Ovaltine-style malty chocolate drink. We spent the morning sorting and repackaging the medical supplies we brought. We counted out one month supplies of vitamins into zip-lock bags using plates and butter knives to hold and sort the pills as we worked. Directions for medications are marked with symbols instead of words: a circle for once daily and two circles for twice daily.

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We enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, salad, and plantains and then headed to one of the villages. We wanted to get to know some of the people we would be seeing and invite them to join us at the clinic the next day.

The whole village was overrun by adorable animals, wandering in and out of the houses and sleeping in pots and on roofs. Baby goats, cats, and chickens stumbled between our legs. We set out in groups of six plus a translator to meet the members of the community.

Everyone was very welcoming. They have a tradition in Ghana of inviting you into their homes and offering you a seat, water, and food in ritual fashion before asking why you’ve come. We were able to ask lots of questions about their lives and culture, as well as their experiences with healthcare.

I brought a Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone we visited. The children went crazy about it, running around and posing for us. One family played music for us on their radio and invited me to dance with them. I can’t stop smiling about how wonderful and kind everyone was. 

35490852_10155352402665824_5405476595559301120_o (1)We learned that many of them walk an hour in the hot sun everyday to farm. They can’t find buyers for their crops, so they have food but no money. That means they can eat, but can’t buy basic non-food necessities. The little kids asked us for toothbrushes by miming brushing their teeth with their fingers. I’m glad we brought lots of toothbrushes and supplies to share.

They all seemed happy to have us there and excited to visit the clinic the following day. It was hard not to give them everything I had. They were kind, beautiful, proud, and generous. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.

35634011_10155352400430824_2850625135008808960_oAfter dinner, we attended a talk from their local doctor, Dr. Cornelius to hear more about the healthcare challenges he faces in the region and the tools they are using to treat people.

Day 3

On Monday we set up our first clinic in their local hospital. It was a good building but had almost no medicine or supplies. There were only five hospital beds and otherwise it was mostly empty rooms. We set up a small pharmacy by laying out boxes of medicine on the floor.

35777187_10155357661315824_8270300656225484800_oThis particular village has easier access to medical care than most because it is so close to a facility with trained nurses. People in other villages in Ghana often have to travel on foot long distances to find a clinic with nurses and if they need any prescription medicine, they need to go farther still to reach a regional health center. This typically requires hiring a cab and taking a day off of work, which few of them can afford.

35629056_10155357662225824_2182456922446233600_o.jpgThey rely heavily on yearly medical brigades to bring medical supplies and care, however there have been several years where no aid arrived due to fear of the zika virus. I’m glad we’re here now.

The first village we went to is one that our program has visited before. It’s helpful to see that some of the positive changes brought in previous visits have stuck with them. During the first encounter with this village everyone was cooking inside, which was causing them to have respiratory disorders. We helped them create community outdoor cooking areas which they are still using.

35955080_10155362817785824_8263619722927407104_o.jpgHypertension is still a huge problem and many people came to the clinic with systolic blood pressure far over 200. (Note: below 120 is healthy, above 140 is red alert) Global Brigades has helped many people in the village become enrolled in the national Ghanaian health insurance which makes visits and medicine mostly affordable.

It is difficult to convince people to come to the clinic for chronic care if they’re feeling well. We spent a long time trying to help people understand that high blood pressure can lead to stroke, which they’re familiar with and afraid of. Those who have gotten medication in the past have only taken them sporadically, so a lot of time went into education and motivational interviewing to help people engage in maintenance care and preventative care.

35802247_10155357662475824_3485987004385067008_o.jpgWe are working to help the villages develop systems for chronic disease management, such as having a monthly day where a doctor visits from the regional center to provide care for people with chronic conditions. If we can get funding toward it, this could become a celebratory day with a meal provided to encourage people to attend. Hopefully some of these changes will help people stay healthier.

These clinics have been incredible to experience. I can’t get over how patient and grateful everyone has been. The villagers are usually lined up long before we arrive and some wait all day to be seen without complaint. When we spoke in their language or used our Ghanaian names the mothers would light up and smile proudly at us. In Ghana your name is based on the day of the week you were born. My name here is Afua, Friday born.

35894297_10155357685495824_8890960470295445504_o.jpgThe clinics are set up with a number of stations, starting with intake, triage, physician visits, optometrist visits, pharmacy, and counselling/education. We rotate between these different areas and home visits. My favorite station so far has been optometry. The doctor spent a long time teaching us about how to diagnose eye disorders and conduct exams. So many people came in with poor vision, sometimes unable to see the chart at all and restricted to finger counting at 3 meters or light only. It felt wonderful to give these people medicines and glasses and watch the change on their face as they were able to see clearly for the first time in their lives. It felt like we were peddling miracles.

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Day 5

My adventures were mildly paused when I became quite sick for a few days. It seems the food disagreed with me and after eating I had to collapse into bed with painful shivering and fever. Good news about being on a medical brigade is that you’re surrounded by doctors and medicine. After some rest, antibiotics, and restricting myself to just bread, hard boiled eggs, and rice, I’ve made it through and can go back to clinics at last. Looking forward to being back in action and grateful for the wonderful people who took care of me and luxuries I often take for granted like shelter and running water. I feel so lucky to live a life with so many gifts, when so many struggle.

Day 6

36063103_10155366573540824_2358097174769696768_o.jpgWe moved to another village called Otuam. Their health facility was much smaller and patients had to wait outside under tents to be seen. I worked with Dr. Cornelius, testing for malaria and checking blood sugar. In Ghana, Malaria is seen more as a nuisance than a life-threatening sickness. It’s similar to the way people in America relate to the flu. The flu occasionally kills people in the US, but most of us expect to get it at some point. Since we were already on malaria prophylaxis (vaccine), I followed their lead and have been mostly skipping insect repellent. Amazingly I haven’t gotten a single bite all week.

Working with the physicians was wonderful. I learned so much about how to diagnose the common diseases and developed a talent for getting blood from kids without making them cry. I was sad to see how many little ones had swollen bellies. I always associate it with undernourishment, but on our clinic intake form everyone indicated that they were able to eat.

Later in the day we went from home to home taking blood pressures and inviting people to the clinic if they needed additional care. Otuam was close to the sea and many of the houses were made out of palm fronds. There was a quality to the place that felt like Neverland, with forts hidden among the trees and laundry and nets hanging like pirate sails. Hungry cats watched as people cleaned fish and radios dangled from branches. The children were curious and wild as ever and I had fun playing and adventuring with them. It was an incredible day.

Day 7

We visited the large regional hospital that patients are referred to if they can’t be treated in the clinics. If they have Ghanaian health insurance many things are covered, but if they didn’t register or can’t afford it they have to pay cash for services. Registering can be challenging and is already closed for this year because the machine that prints cards is broken.

Getting to the hospital is difficult for people in the villages. Even those who can grow enough food to eat well still may not have any money to pay for a taxi. Those who can’t afford a cab may walk for days under hot sun.

36176328_10155366573850824_2128956022373482496_oThis hospital is rare and unique in Ghana. It has a special team to manage chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. We spent some time talking to their director and making plans to work together over the next year to bring their amazing work to more communities. We are also going to try to get them additional funding for important equipment they need, such as the ability to test HbA1c levels (a diabetes blood sugar test). We were able to tour the hospital and were overjoyed to find that, unlike the rural village clinics, they kept medical records and charts on their patients. I’m excited to see teams in Ghana working to initiate chronic condition management and hope other hospitals are inspired by their work.

36063908_10155366573485824_3676942903927635968_o.jpgOn the way home from the hospital we took some time to relax at one of the local beaches. It was incredibly beautiful, but parts were covered in litter and we were told the water wasn’t clean enough to swim in. It was nice to listen to the sound of the waves and rest in a place with a cool breeze. Such a lovely day.

Reflections

The best part about Ghana has been the people. The adults are generous, wise, proud, beautiful, sad, and kind and the children are playful, curious, clever, and mischievous. Most people wear beautiful colors and there is a tailor in the community who makes custom clothing for everyone.

While we were setting up the clinic there were always little faces peering in the windows at us or running up when our bus arrived. They were eager to play and quick to ask for treats and supplies. One boy gave me big eyes and mimed brushing his teeth. This broke my heart and caused me to skip the normal process of giving adults all the supplies needed for their family at the end of the visit to sneak a toothbrush for this boy. It was a foolish choice. Soon they were swarmed around me begging for toothbrushes. I tried to stop handing them out and had a nurse translate that their mothers would be getting some for them, but they wouldn’t release their hold on the ones in my fingers. I eventually was able to give them to one of the mothers and escape.

I distracted them further by taking pictures of them using a Polaroid camera I brought. They went wild for the pictures, posing and dancing around. Eventually I decided I had used enough of the film and wanted to save some for the other communities. I started playing with them by showing them dance steps, like the Charleston and the salsa basic and spinning them around. They were thrilled and tried to show me their version of head, shoulders, knees, and toes as well as some local kicking games. We also taught each other different clapping games and high fives.

Whenever I had to go inside to help clean up they would follow and call for “sister Afua” after me. I got lots of hugs and happy bounces whenever I would emerge again. At one point we were finishing up at the clinic and it started pouring with rain. Everyone was huddled under the shelter but the kids were being adventurous and darting into the rain. It seemed refreshing after the hot day in the clinic so I followed and played in the rain with them, spinning around and dancing. It was wonderful and by the time I got to the bus my heart was so full it could have burst.

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A Dark Past

Our last full day in Ghana was a cultural day, where we visited a local market and enjoyed Ghanian music and dancing. We also visited Cape Coast Castle, a notorious stronghold of slavery and torture.

36347144_10155376294000824_7797909770412752896_nCape Coast Castle was a trade fortress that was converted for use to house and break the spirit of slaves before they were loaded onto boats. Our visit began wandering around the open air area and looking at the canons over the sea, then into a museum detailing the history of the castle and its role in the slave trade. When I was about halfway through the museum our guide collected us for a tour of the dungeons where the people who were to be slaves were imprisoned.

36393991_10155376293940824_8802817987510796288_n.jpgTo give us a glimpse of the fear they must have felt, he had us initially descend in complete darkness, only turning on lights once we had reached the stone wall on the other side of the male dungeon. He explained that this small underground space held up to a thousand men for months at a time. They were forced into complete darkness where they had to live in their own filth and excrement, packed against their brothers. The floor we were standing on was false, built on top of the human waste that had accumulated there.

36335527_10155376294175824_8162317408808206336_nTo add insult, directly above the slave dungeons where people endlessly suffered was a Christian church. Our guide described the thought process that many slaves went through when they decided to convert to Christianity. To a person experiencing such agony, it would seem like your God had abandoned you or was weak, yet those who followed the Christian faith were clean and happy, prospering above. It must have appeared to many that the Christan god was stronger or better to his worshippers.

The men in these dungeons would never come out the door the entered again. The governor didn’t want the people of the castle to see the slaves, so they were moved, shackled together and driven forth by other slaves, through an underground tunnel to be loaded onto the ships.

36306542_10155376294415824_4634339883559682048_n.jpgThe women’s cells were similar to the men’s, except that their door was regularly opened so they could be grabbed and raped at will. Sometimes they were bathed before this occurred, and other times drunk soldiers would not even afford them that decency. Women who resisted were beaten or put into a hotter cell where they were locked without food and water and often died if their spirits weren’t quickly broken. Our guide shut us into the boiling confinement cell for about 30 seconds, which was enough to have some of us panicking.

The last they saw of their country was the Door of No Return: a portal that brought them to the water where they were lowered and packed into the ships as cargo. By the time they emerged through that door, they had been in darkness for many months and thus were blinded by the bright sun, unable to fight. Those who did not die at sea lead painful backbreaking lives in slavery.

Immediately after walking back through the Door of No Return, our guide took us up to the airy hall where slave prices were negotiated and then up to the British governor’s chambers. The governor had a beautiful set of airy rooms with large windows that looked out on the picturesque coastline. The dichotomy was so startling I felt shaken and revolted.

36350563_10155376294695824_4792468016619061248_nWe were left with a plea to remember that slavery is not gone from this world. People are still taken against their will and forced into terrible suffering and servitude. He asked us to see, to take a stand, and to remember.

We have so much work to do, in our country alone, to ensure that people are able to lead fair and decent lives. The horror of the atrocities that we do to each other when we dehumanize our brothers and sisters is echoing around in my heart.

These terrible things happen when we group people together and see them as ‘other’. We do this sometimes because we want power or wealth, other times because we don’t understand them or are afraid of them. As we band together to stand against injustice, I urge you all to avoid the slippery road of dehumanizing those you stand against. Fight them with all of your fury, but don’t follow the dangerous path of talking the humanity away from anyone.

It is ideas that we fight, not people. Fight against the idea that anyone can be treated as less than human. Our trustest goal is to stop that idea from spreading, to take it out of the minds of people, and until that is accomplished to stop those people from acting on this deadly idea through any means necessary. Stand together against the heinous crimes happening in our country. Do not let this terrible sickness enter your minds and hearts. Keep fighting.

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You can donate to Global Brigades on their website. I don’t work for them or get any kind of kickbacks or sponsorship, I just like charity.

Hello Bohol: Balicasag with the Turtles

Bohol is especially well known for the excellent diving spots, including Balicasag and it’s famous sea turtle conclave. I had hoped to take a diving certification course while there this year, but alas, my root canals ate that budget and I had to settle for some stunning snorkeling instead. Join me on a little sailing jaunt under deep blue skies to a world of magical coral reefs, tiny territory defenders, and lazy giants. Bonus: this time I managed to actually take some of my own photos underwater!


Choose Wisely

When I was planning this trip, an old high school buddy who now lives in Manila told me, “you have to go to Balicasag, it’s like a sea turtle old boys club down there”. I love snorkeling, and the chance to meet amazing and rare sea creatures in their home turf is not to be missed. However, it can be tricky to make sure you’re doing the responsible thing. I had already made the decision not to see the whale sharks at Oslob because of the environmental impact on the animals, but I was excited about Balicasag. As far as I could find, there are no damaging practices that draw the turtles there, they just like it.

While trying to make my plan of attack, I read a few dozen similarly disappointing stories of snorkeling and island hopping around Panglao online, most of which shared three basic themes:

  • You’re rushed when you don’t want to be and sitting around doing nothing other times
  • You’re stuck haggling over prices and then dealing with hidden fees and expectations of tips even with lousy service
  • The standard island hopping tour is not a good way to do snorkeling

The best experiences came from people who were lucky enough to find a private boat owner to drive them for the day where and when they wanted to go (very hit or miss), or from the people who went as tag-a-longs with a diving group.

This advice led me to Sierra Madre divers (the people who published that article on the whale sharks I linked to and teachers of marine preservation diving classes). Sadly, they were booked solid for the whole week with Chinese tourists in for the holiday. The guide was very kind, despite his overfilled schedule, and introduced us to his neighbor Rafi at Valm Dive with whom we made a verbal reservation.

20171003_134327.jpgRegardless of who you choose to go with, make sure you ask about any extra fees for Balicasag. Some activities do require paying the national park fee and others don’t. It’s never fun to be caught by surprise once your in the ocean. Valm Dive wasn’t planning to go to any of the pay areas, and so we were only on the hook for our ride and equipment (mask and snorkel only, no fins. I think they would have let us use them if they had extra, but they had to supply the divers first and ran out). Total cost: 500p or about 10$ USD.

A Three Hour Tour?

20171003_082402That morning was one of the few rains that happened during our active times. On any other morning, we could have just waited for it to stop, but Rafi had told us to be at the dive shop at 8:30 and we didn’t want to be late and run the risk of losing our spot on the boat. We waited as long as possible, and it didn’t take long for the downpour to become a drizzle. Driving on the wet roads wasn’t nearly as difficult as I feared, but getting a face full of rain made seeing a little challenging. I thought again about what kind of gear to use to prevent that if I ever had to drive a real distance in the rain, but it seemed like all the locals, in addition to shunning helmets, only wore ponchos while driving in the rain, leaving their faces, and eyes, open to the wet.

Despite the rain, we showed up at the shop at 8:30 as we’d been told, and although Rafi was running around like a nut getting things ready, he spotted us eventually and gave us a friendly good morning and made sure things were set for us too.

Nothing starts on time here, and there’s no point in worrying about it. While we waited, the rain cleared up and the sky began its transition from gray to a deep vault-of-heaven blue filled with towering, crisp edged cumulus clouds. It wasn’t long after that when we all boarded the boat. This involved walking through the shallow water to a ladder on the side. I underestimated the depth and rolling up my pants was not enough to keep them dry.20171003_085545.jpg

Our boat mates included a very serious Japanese man who seemed to have a personal assistant with him taking care of his every need, but not diving herself (she was Filipina and had a tourism badge on, so I feel safe calling this as an employer/employee interaction). There was a Chinese couple who had some intense underwater photography rigs. It made me wonder if they were professional photographers on assignment. And finally and Australian couple who seemed just to be out to have fun. None of them were beginners.

A word about the boats

In Thailand we rode on the longtails nearly everywhere, and by now you’ve probably seen a few boats in my beach photos and have noticed that these boats are quite unique. The Filipino outrigger canoe style, called bangka or bangcas, is distinguished by the two slender bamboo poles on either side called katig. They help to balance the boat, and also mean the main boat needs less keel and can be lighter weight while still being ocean stable. Sailing versions are called paraw or parao. The outrigger canoe plan is most used by Filipino, Malay, Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people today.

20171003_115304.jpgThe Wall

Balicasag is tiny island some 40 minutes to the south of Alona Beach. I never set foot on it, so I can’t tell you how it is. Our dive boat stopped first at a reef called “the wall” because there was a goodly stretch of shallow reef and a sharp drop off that for the divers below was actually a rising wall. We were asked to wait until all the divers were in the water and then given about 45 minutes to do all the snorkeling we liked. They pointed out some Chinese snorkelers a little bit away, and warned us about the current before turning us loose.

20171003_101601.jpgThe corals were lovely, and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. It was my first real chance to play around with my new underwater photo taking capability. Almost as soon as we got in the water, I spotted my first turtle hugging the edge of the drop off. I did my best to keep pace with him, but especially swimming against the current, I had no real hope of catching up to a turtle, no matter how lazily he seemed to be swimming. Finally, I had to give up. I swam using as little energy as possible, but it was hard going because the current was much stronger than I was used to and it was impossible to hold still while taking a picture.

20171003_100627I wove back and forth above the stunning coral shapes, trying to get my camera to focus when I was spotted by a little rainbow wrasse, maybe 5 inches long. It was clearly watching me, swimming back and forth in front of me in quick zipping lines, and once it was sure it had my attention too, it swam straight at my face. I was honestly worried it was going to hit my mask, not for my safety, it was a small harmless fish, but worried that it might hurt itself bashing into the plastic. Fortunately at the last moment it turned aside.

20171003_102013It seemed like a strange behavioral anomaly, but the fish came back and did it several more times. As I got used to the pattern I tried to get a picture. I wish I could have done a video, but I hadn’t quite figured out the trick I needed for that with the waterproof cover.

Eventually I let it chase me away and went on exploring more beautiful coral shapes. I got so focused on getting a working photo that I drifted into a whole shoal of fish without realizing, and at one point when I looked up I was entirely surrounded by tiny flashing fish bodies, not unlike being in a blizzard. I saw larger fish in the hazy waters just past the drop off, fading in and out of the misty darkness. At one point there was a school of silver fish that were more round than narrow and as they passed between me and the dark open ocean beyond, they reminded me of nothing so much as cherry blossoms falling in the wind at night.

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Less Coral, More Turtles

All too soon it was time to swim back to the boat, a healthy challenge in the current without fins, but we made it and the boat moved off to the pick up point for the divers. They had to spend an hour on the boat between dives, but the snorkelers have no such restrictions. We were invited to head back into the water while they waited. The pick up point was not as interesting as the drop off had been, but the water was cool and refreshing and it was nice to just float around and watch the few fish that were braving the desert landscape between reefs. I saw a few more turtles there as well. Despite the poor quality of my pictures, the in person experience was captivating. The water was so clear that I could see the patterns on their shells and fins. I watched each one that passed through as they dug in the sand or chewed plant life growing on the bottom. We also saw a couple turtles surface for a breath once we were back on board.20171003_110919.jpg

The second dive site for the day was all about the turtles. The divers started getting ready well before their hour was up so they could hop back in the sea as soon as it was safe. Once more, we waited for everyone to get in and head off to the goal. Apparently, there is a sort of sea turtle metropolis down there, and we were parked over in turtle exurbs. I’d already seen more sea turtles in the first two stops than I’ve ever seen in the wild before, so I didn’t mind too much.

At first I was a little disappointed because there were still no corals like we’d seen at the first stop. I didn’t want to head too far from the boat, as my last two trips had resulted in very tiring swims against a strong current to get back and I didn’t want to risk getting too worn out in the ocean. However one of the boat hands came in the water while I was swimming and began helping me spot turtles. The first one was chased avidly by a nearby boat of Chinese tourists. A couple others passed by too far for a good look, but then a giant beauty showed up right beneath us. The guide held my elbow to keep me steady so I could try for a better photo, and then when the turtle began to swim away, he motioned me to follow and we swam under the boat to keep the turtle in sight.20171003_121442.jpg

Unlike the turtle the Chinese tourists were chasing which was close to the surface, this one was on the bottom and I was not about to try to free dive to reach it, so I don’t think we were being invasive. We followed it for a few minutes and I managed to get some of the best photos of the day as well as a short video clip. Of course, my phone in a plastic waterproof bag has an upper limit on quality, but I was excited about it.

Finally, I put the camera down and just watched. When the turtle swam on again we didn’t follow but returned to the boat where we motored over to the final pick up point of the day.

With the divers back on board, we made the return journey to Panglao. I happily gazed into the horizon watching the monumental cloud formations and being totally oblivious to the horrendous sunburn I was developing.

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If I Could Change One Thing?

Ideally, if I went back it would be with the time, money, and intention of actually getting my PADI certification and going on those dives, but if it turns out that snorkeling is on the table, then just two main changes: wear a shirt! No amount of sunscreen is enough. I think the reason I didn’t burn on the snorkel trip in Thailand is that it was overcast (and yes, UV happens on overcast days) which meant there was no reflection off the water as there is on sunny days which massively magnifies the cooking power. And get fins. Again in Thailand although it was tricky at first, it was not a hindrance to go without fins because the water was calm. But the current around Balicasag was intense, almost like swimming in one of those resistance pools, I had to swim as hard as I could just to make any forward progress at all, even gentle swimming could result in me drifting backwards.

The massive burn did teach me one interesting fact about fashion. I now know the only valid excuse for a tube top. I don’t own any, but I had to fold down a regular tank top to wear in tube top style for the next several days in order to avoid horrible pain. Thanks mom, for always making us wear shirts over our swimsuits at the beach!

Don’t miss out on the photo album over on the book of faces.

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