Where is everyone?

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The platform was deserted. Completely deserted. It was early afternoon at a train station in the middle of Taiwan, and both sides of the platform were utterly devoid of people.

What’s going on?

What should I do?

I waited.

Surely, someone will turn up. I waited 15 minutes. No one arrived.

Maybe a train will turn up. No train arrived.

Where am I?

There’a a sign on the platform, maybe that will help. Platform A to one side, platform B to the other side. The name of the platform written in Chinese. That’s no help, I can’t read Chinese, I can barely speak it.

I needed to know where I was, and I needed to know why I was the only person standing on the platform, looking forlorn with nothing but a backpack and a few words of the local language.

I descended the stairs and searched for a station guard or staff member. I found one, then remembered that I couldn’t speak Chinese. I gesticulated, as linguistically-hampered travellers do, and managed to convey that I was planning to reach Taipei at some point that day.

With the aid of a network map, the guard gleaned from me that I had boarded the train at a certain station, and that I was now at a different station – going in completely the wrong direction. If I wanted to reach Taipei, I should have headed north, but, instead, I had headed south.

Simple mistake, but one that is very easy to make, because Taiwan’s impressive national train network essentially performs a loop of the island. Hop on in Taipei and head either east or west. Hop on at a station in the middle of the country, as I had done, and head either north, towards Taipei, or south, towards Kaohsiung. At the previous station, I’d simply stood on the wrong platform.

Eventually the guard transmitted to me that I needed to head back the way I came and I would eventually reach Taipei. He had a good chuckle to himself and I eventually found a train to return me to the capital.

I still don’t know the name of the platform I had somehow arrived at, but I do know that on that particular day, it certainly wasn’t heaving with excitement.

Getting around in China.

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The streets of China are bursting with vehicles. Cities and towns of every dimension are clogged with an array of transportation.

The country’s population explosion has led to the emergence of small vehicles which serve as personal transport, taxi services and delivery vehicles.

In the cities surrounding Xiamen, in southern China, there too existed a proliferation of small vehicles, and most of them carried one prominent appendage; sun protection.

The vehicles hurtled down the streets furnished with some form of shade, be it permanently attached or loosely fixed. A number of passengers were clutching umbrellas, and one guy was just wearing a hat. Almost everyone seemed determined to avoid sun exposure.

Why?

I can only surmise that they wished to remain as fair as possible, because in China fair skin is a sign of high status, as its bearer is said to be of sufficient wealth to avoid toiling in the sun day after day.

They can’t have been concerned about skin cancer, because most of them were destined for lung cancer due to their chain smoking. Maybe lung cancer is a more glorious way to die.

In Harbin, northern China, I caught a ride in a very unique taxi. It was coal powered. Not coal powered in the sense that the earth’s minerals had at some point been extracted and converted, through a complex scientific process, into liquid form that was fed into the tiny taxi through the convenience of a petrol bowser. No, it was literally coal powered.

The driver negotiated the crowded streets of the icy city with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a spade, which he regularly thrust into a bucket of coal beside him, and fed directly into the boiling furnace which kept the ramshackle piece of tin putting along the road.

A makeshift pipe extracted the fumes from the taxi and straight into the atmosphere. This driver was certainly doing his bit for global warming. Maybe he was just sick of the bitter cold winters in Harbin. I know I was, after only three days of traipsing around the sculptures during the famous snow and ice festival. They are spectacular, by the way. It’s just so damn cold. Too cold for me to remove my gloves and take a photo of the coal taxi. Sorry, but I wasn’t willing to risk frostbite to bring you a photo of the unique contraption.

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Speaking of fuel sources, myself and some friends caught a taxi in Qingdao, China, which was powered by gas. This in itself is not unusual. What was memorable on this occasion was being told by the driver to step out of the taxi while he filled up. For safety, he said. Thus, if we’d remained seated in the taxi, we were in mortal danger, but if we stood only one metre away while he filled up, we were perfectly safe – even as other motorists and nearby pedestrians puffed on cigarettes.

Back in Xiamen, meanwhile, vehicles were also being used for other purposes. It’s not only humans who need to get from A to B.

 

 

 

Cat-eating dogs in a forest in the clouds.

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The low growl seeped through the mist. A shriek of terror emanated from a living being somewhere in the vicinity, but also shrouded in mist.

Then a chase.

The growl hastened and sharpened.

A bark.

A violent, frenzied bark and a shriek of pure terror as two sets of paws splashed through the mud and the undergrowth.

Then they emerged.

Two forms, surging with adrenaline; one in pursuit, one in danger.

A terrified cat broke through the mist of the cloud forest at Monteverde and continued its shrill cry as a feral dog came bounding through the clouds, eyes set on its target and its salivating mouth agape.

The animals ran and swerved and barked and shrieked through the forest, bounding over logs and slipping through fences, disappearing into the mist and emerging seconds later in this chase to the death.

Yes, to the death.

The dog won.

The prey succumbed to the predator. The dog pounced on the cat and proceeded to tear it apart.

All of this happened in close proximity to the cafe where we were enjoying lunch, where we were tearing into our own sustenance.

It was a horrifying sight. It certainly put us off our food.

It was also the only exciting moment of our visit to Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. We saw virtually nothing for the remainder of the morning. Everything was shrouded in mist.

Who’d have thought a cloud forest would be blanketed in a thick layer of…clouds.

Perhaps we should have set the alarm clocks earlier. After all, the early bird catches the worm, just as the angry dog catches the cat.

Image: Rachelle Blake

A trippy hippy island and a frightening encounter.

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The chants didn’t quite skip across the water, they bounded across the lake. The darkness served only to compound the spiritual bombardment emanating from the loud speakers on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

Our boat slid across the oil-slick bay, as if floating on a wave of divine inspiration. We disembarked and picked our way through the narrow lanes of San Marcos with just the faint light of a tiny torch, trusting that some form of higher being would guide us to our lodging.

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Our faith was restored after we reached our private little eco-cabin at La Paz Hostel. It was here that we drifted to sleep to the tunes of wellness zealots who had found a new home in San Marcos.

The wellness zealots woke us before the sun and we decided to continue our personal transformation with a session of Yoga before breakfast. Feeling aligned and centred, we set off for a walk to San Pedro and its famous market.

As we ambled along the winding road which hugs the shores of the immensely picturesque Lago Atitlan, past fields of crops and scarred hillsides not yet recovered from the recent hurricane, we pondered the presence of so many westerners chasing enlightenment in San Marcos. We questioned whether any of the local people shared the passion for self-awareness and the quest for a metaphysical metamorphosis.

We were soon to find out.

The walk and the views had prompted a degree of introspection among all of us, but we were soon rudely awakened from this bliss.

Two young local men emerged from the bushes as we rounded a bend. They greeted us, and we responded. They then demanded money. We politely refused. They demanded again, in a more threatening tone. Again, we politely refused, trying to hide the panic in our voices. The locals insisted, and produced machetes. Big machetes. They pointed the machetes at us and repeated their demands for money, cameras – anything. We backed off and as much as we tried to remain calm and assertive. We were genuinely frightened that the carefully-sharpened edge of their machetes could soon part us with our valuables, or something much worse.

We turned, quickened our stride and walked back around the bend we had just passed, checking continually over our shoulders to see if they were following. The distant rumble of a motor vehicle and the menacing swoops of birds of prey overhead were the only other sounds on this quiet stretch of road.

Eventually, we put enough distance between ourselves and the opportunistic locals, who disappeared into the bushes.

A farmer on a rise above the bend looked up and was surprised to see us round the corner we had passed but moments earlier. He asked us what happened and then offered to walk us back to the nearest village – displaying his own large machete. No thanks.

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Dazed, shocked, frightened and jolted savagely from our tranquility, we stopped and regathered. It was only through sheer fortune that we had not been robbed, injured or worse. It was also through sheer fortune that the distant rumble of a motor vehicle belonged to a taxi which pulled up beside us. We hopped in, relieved to be driven the rest of the way to San Pedro.

A brief conversation with the locals on the bus did little to settle our jangled nerves. They told us that even they are reluctant to walk that stretch of road because of the threat of robbery.

Not quite the serenity we’d expected.

Image: Rachelle Blake

 

 

Which footballer would you sacrifice?

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Do you have a favourite football team, or a favourite team from any sport for that matter? Do you follow that team passionately and devotedly?

Is there a particular player in that team you really don’t like?

Do you call for the head of a player who you blame for costing your team the game, or the championship?

What if you could literally take the head of that player?

You might consider this practice extreme, barbaric, excessively cruel and impossible. But it happened. Many years ago, admittedly, but it was regular practice.

Sacrificing a player after a football match was apparently common practice among the Mayan people of Honduras. At least, it was according to a friendly guide at Copan Ruins, an ancient Mayan city in western Honduras.

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As we passed through the area which served as the ‘football field’ the guide claimed that a player would be sacrificed after every game of the sport which shared some features of modern day football and was a popular form of entertainment among the Mayan people of that era.

I sought clarification but he was drawn away by a fellow visitor to explain another aspect of the ruins. Thus, I don’t know why, or how, the player was sacrificed. Was it a player on the winning team, the losing team? Either way, it was strong motivation.

The last football game I attended, a Rugby League game in Australia, featured my beloved Cronulla Sharks and the Newcastle Knights. It was actually the first game of the new season and I was full of enthusiasm for my team after some wise recruiting during the off-season. The Sharkies lost, however, due largely to a few disastrous handling errors from one of our players.

I know who I’d be sacrificing.

Images: Rachelle Blake

Step back in time.

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Everything stopped. Everyone fell silent. Candles flickered in the darkness and threw tempered light across the rows of fruit and vegetables lined up in the market stalls.

Thinly clad feet shuffled in the soft light and murmurs surfaced from unseen corners of the vast space. Whispers of an unfamiliar tongue slowly emerged. Soft laughter and truncated sentences.

The voices spoke K’iche’, and rolled off the tongues of local women dressed in the traditional clothing which draws thousands of people to the textile market in the small mountain town of ChiChocastenango in central Guatemala.

From our vantage point on the balcony of the first floor, we witnessed a rare sight. As a blackout plunged the hall into darkness, we gazed down upon a market operating as it would have done for hundreds of years. Local people speaking their indigenous language, to the light of the candles, dressed in traditional clothing and selling produce from the land which has sustained them for generations.

A fortunate experience indeed.

Image: Rachelle Blake

 

 

 

The none too subtle art of photographing people.

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Travel offers countless opportunities to take wonderful photos. Exploration of new frontiers allows us to perfectly capture landscapes, architecture, cuisine, monuments, ruins, culture…and people.

Most visitors yearn for a keepsake image of local people in traditional attire, but capturing such an image can be problematic.

During a trip through Central America, my travel buddies and I wanted some photos of elderly Guatemalan men in traditional clothing in the villages on the shores of Lago Atitlan.

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We were mindful of keeping our distance, aware that the men may not like to be put on the spot with the request for a photo. We also wanted to photograph the men in their natural setting. Most of all though, we wanted to photograph the men because they looked so stylish.

The question was, though, how do we take a photo of the men? We could ask them to pose, but that seemed disrespectful and the photos were likely to look stilted – and we had no interest in being in the photos ourselves as we were dressed in the clothes that had served us during the last 3 months of backpacking.

We decided that two of us would pretend to pose, near our subject, while the other took the photo. The photographer would point the camera at us and just happen to catch the man in the frame.

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Despite our concerted efforts to appear natural and innocent, most of the men knew they were being photographed. One seemed displeased, others unconcerned and a few shot us a small knowing grin as they saw us fail to hide our own laughter.

We persevered with this charade for some time, and only captured a few images. We felt more foolish with each attempt and decided that enough was enough. It was time to get the bus back to the hostel.

At the bus stop, what did we find? A number of local gentlemen on their way home, looking extremely dapper. This time, my two travel buddies brushed off their fledgling Spanish and asked the men for a photo.

The men happily obliged.

I guess another thing that travel teaches you is that anywhere in the world, no man can resist the charms of two attractive young women.