Sunshine Nights and Frozen Fires

“There , tough spirits ruled

that realm in ages past;

cold, stiffened trolls stand, their bodies turned to stone.  

Few gods live upon the land but no one I know watches still

the ocean wide and blue. “

 

Snæfellsjökull

Sunshine Nights and Frozen Fire

A Saudi Saga

 

Into the heart of slumbering giants 

Stepping over the threshold into a steel cage wasn’t the easiest decision to make. With nothing to prevent me from plummeting but a cable strapped to my harness, I walked across the little bridge that hovered over the open mouth of the volcano and tried not to think about the 120 meter (400 foot) drop below me.  Once inside the little ‘basket’ that would take us deep into the slumbering heart of Thrihnukagigur (meaning the Three Peaks Crater), I peered down through the grid flooring below my feet and saw only abyss staring back. And so, with the whining and humming of metal gears, we began to slowly sink into darkness, stone and ash, leaving the light of day behind.  

It was a tight fit, you had only to stretch your hand out to touch the raw and open-faced earth of Thrihnukagigur, the volcano that erupted some 4,000 years ago and now stands in hollowed silence.  

As we dropped, I examined the rough walls around us, noticing the volcanic stone which was much more colorful and expressive than I had expected it to be, and this was mainly due to the collection of minerals found in the lava that once spewed in maddening outbursts of molten earth that fought its way up from deep within Thrihnukagigur.  Reds, purples, greys, blues, oranges, browns and black were all melted together in an earthly masterpiece of kaleidoscopic swirls and stories of a once violent portrayal of Earth’s incredible explosive power.  

Deeper and deeper, meter by meter, color by color we sank with nothing around us but rainbow stone and passing darkness.  However as we drew closer to the end of our descent, I peered down over the railing and saw a tiny constellation of wandering stars in the distance; it turned out to be people with headlamps exploring the crater (only a certain number of people are permitted into the volcano at a time to prevent crowding and damage to the natural site).  

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It was cold and deep in the belly of the Earth, and our lamps and lights placed to illuminate the dark corners of Thrihnukagigur cast shapes and faces upon the canvas of earth, creating eerie facades and shifting shadows.  Released from our little elevator basket, it was our turn to explore the deep cavernous crater Thrihnukagigur.   

I looped around the area, following the ropes that marked the territories to which we could inspect and photograph, stepping gingerly over the slippery rocky terrain of the volcano when it suddenly hit me, I was inside a volcano that had belted fire and molten rock over 4,000 years ago! Spell-bound by this realization and the rainbow rock lining of Thrihnukagigur, I didn’t realize how cold or damp the site was until I felt the pitter patter of water droplets upon my helmet.  Looking up I saw drops of persistent precipitation revealed in my lamp’s light raining down from the top of the crater, and in the echoing silence, their drops reign supreme.  

How is it possible we are even able to travel down into a beautifully preserved  extinguished crater? A magma chamber is located at the very heart of a volcano, and it is here where molten rock waits and sits, until it angrily surges to the surface and causes a volcanic eruption.  After an explosion, the crater usually closes, and the colder temperatures outside causes it to solidify as hardened lava. Thrihnukagigur however, is a rarity.  

Her magma chamber seems to have disappeared, making her an exception to any other volcano in the world.  It is believed that the magma might have metastasised to the walls, or was simply swallowed back into the depths of the Earth. Whatever the case, we should be grateful, for where else in the world could you travel into the rainbow catacombs of Iceland?

 

 

After exploring the inside of the volcano and marvelling at nature’s mysterious wonder, we squeezed back into the ‘basket’ and rose towards the open blue dot of sky (the ascension through esophagus of Earth wasn’t nearly as daunting as our descent)

IMG_7541 We returned to base camp where we had initially geared up (helmet and harness) and sat down to a mouth-watering bowl of homemade lamb stew, coffee and local stories of the property told by the many guides who run the national park.  

 

 

After warming ourselves in the cozy confines of base camp, we hiked back to our bus.  Layers of clouds had started to move across Iceland’s sunny blue sky, and as we walked along the trail of the moss covered lava-fields, we noticed volcanic ghosts of ancient open-mouthed craters as if frozen in silent screams thousands of years ago.  

Cold Child in the City

Our bus took us back from the park of three craters to the city of Reykjavik.  We walked along the busying Sunday streets of the city, alive with joyous cries of children who were tobogganing down a giant slip and slide right in the middle of the city. How they were not cold was beyond me! I was wearing multiple layers and was still not warm enough (must be my Saudi blood). Reykjavik doesn’t get much warmer than 11 degrees celsius in the summer time.

IMG_6714 Fortunately we had done our homework and packed plenty of winter clothing.

Walking along the electric city awash in eternal sunshine was a wonderful way to get to know a little more of Reykjavik.  Graffiti murals, little carved statues, poems and prose placed for those to find them, these breadcrumbs of culture were a delight to discover, one had only to keep an sharp eye for hidden morsels to be led to more urban delights and hidden messages.

We ate, drank coffee and shopped and explored the many shops that boasted the best lava infused salts, reindeer pelts, pottery, and of course my all time favorite, coffee!  Bellies full and exceptionally caffeinated, we vibrated our way towards the historic Hofdi House that once belonged to one of Iceland’s most celebrated poets, Einar Benediktsson.  

Within the whitewashed walls of this acclaimed establishment, another historical event had taken place.  In 1986, two political titans met, President Ronald Reagan 

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and President Mikhail Gorbachev, to begin the end of the Cold War and to discuss global disarmament. And just beyond the house, another piece of history stood.

A swatch taken from the Iron Curtain herself;  a caricature is painted upon the shred of Curtain,  its eyes filled with painted grief, its thin mouth slightly frowning, standing in haunting silence upon the beautiful blue backdrop of the peaceful blue bay.

Circles of Gold and Glaciers

The next day we woke up early for our long awaited day trip with Super Jeeps to explore the Golden Circle of Iceland (a great way to visit popular sites in Iceland in a single day).  We were  picked up from our hotel in two Defenders with monstrous offroading tires ready to tackle any terrain that Iceland had to offer.  

Anxious and excited, we climbed into our great tanks of adventure and headed towards our first destination, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park.  The very name of the park fittingly translates to Parliament Plains, for that is what you shall see before you; high cliffs, a rift valley, and plains upon which the Althing, an open-air assembly which was  established in 930 that represented all of Iceland, and continued until 1798.  

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Site, Þingvellir holds great historical meaning for the people of Iceland, it also holds many wonderful natural treasures such as the Lake of Thingvallavatn, the iconic Birch Woodlands of Bláskógar (Blue Woods), and local flora and fauna only found in Iceland.  This park is also unique since it straddles the Mid-Atlantic Rift (North American and Eurasian plates).  

After having walked along the rising cliffs and crossing from North America to Europe, we  clambered back into the jeeps and continued our Golden Circle tour.  Next up? The belting geysers of Haukalur.

Amid the geothermal territory of Haukalur, the Earth boils and churns to the surface, trumpeting impressive blasts of boiling water towards the sky.  There are two infamous geysers, Geysir and Strokkur, in fact, the term geyser was named after Geysir (it no longer erupts following an earthquake that put it out of commission).  However it’s much more active companion shoots water up about 100 ft roughly every ten minutes.  

The smell of sulphur is one of the most noticeable things about Iceland, and I am not just talking about the active geothermal areas.  The water you wash your hands in, the water you drink, the hot springs and gurgling geysers are all from the same source.  Underground waters heated from the many active volcanoes.  

The very word Reykjavik means “smoky bay”, alluding to the nearby geothermal activity.  If you were to drive around the city limits, you would notice rising steam and smoke from several areas, including the Orkuveita Reykjavík, Reykjavík’s hot water utility, which is the largest geothermal heating facility in the world.

Not a single drop of this mineral rich water is wasted. The country harnesses the hydropower of Iceland’s high geothermal activity and is used for many things such as heating houses and buildings, geothermal public pools, produces a clean source of  electricity for over half the population of Iceland and much more.   

This renewable power source and ingenious method of harnessing the 

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power of the Earth accounts for over 70% of the country’s total energy consumption.   The smell of sulphur is a reminder of this use (it isn’t was bad as you think).

Geyser gazing done, we ventured on and took detour from the  typical Golden Circle route to go visit Langjökull, Icelandic of “long glacier, and the second largest glacier found in Iceland.  Blackened volcanic roads soon gave way to snow-covered routes, and all around us stood mountains capped in ice and mighty stillness.   

 

How odd it was to be standing upon a glacier, when only several days ago I was baking in the hot sun of Bahrain! We played in the snow, taking pictures and videos of ourselves to send to our sweltering loved ones back home of our wintry escape.  Soon however the Iceland called with more promises of adventure, and with one last glance back across the frozen field of white, we left the summer snows behind.

Back on track with the wonders of the Golden Circle, it was time for our final destinations of our tour: Gullfloss Waterfall, Bruarfoss Waterfall and Grimsnes Volcano. The mighty force of the thundering Gullfoss Waterfall was a humbling sight to behold and there is an area in which you can to stand near the rushing torrents of Gullfloss. I suggest you have a raincoat on since you will quickly be soaked in the rising mist and cold splashes of water as it barrels onward down the river.

Blue Mist and Silica Shores

The next day was dedicated to the famous Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa.  I will admit I was slightly sceptical about this location, it just sounded like a typical tourist trap, and a part of me wondered if it was as breathtakingly blue and beautiful as people claim it to be.

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We arrived, showered (mandatory before swimming in the Lagoon) and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it truly was as enchanting as people say, and an absolute must if you are visiting Iceland! Eagerly, we waded into the milky blue waters of the Lagoon.  Mist swirled across the top of the mineral-rich waters, which are reputed for healing many with skin condition and irritations thanks to silica and sulphur as cold water began to fall from the grey skies above us.  

Warm, soothing and salty, we swam around the hot waters with white silica shores.  There were different areas in the pool you could enjoy; one section offered free silica masks that you could apply to your skin, and depending on which package you purchase, you can also try their algae mask.  

Having soaked our troubles away (and skin exceptionally soft and glowing) we finally returned to Reykjavik around midnight with the sun following us all the way home to rest for the next day’s adventures.  

Southern Comfort

With only two days left in Iceland we had much to cover. Our fourth day was dedicated to exploring the south, which I was soon delighted to discover, held my most beloved spots I have ever visited and experienced in my life.

The scenery shifted as we drove on.  The grey skies began to lighten to brilliant brush strokes  of blue.  The mountain ranges rose and fell in greens and black of volcanic stone and mosses, with some crowned in ice. Wild Icelandic horses lazily grazed in open fields of sunshine as we sailed past en route to our first destination of black.

The black sand lava beach was as dark as coal with swelling waves of indigo seawater that lapped the mirror shores.  I climbed out of the jeep and walked eagerly towards the beach of black and blue, picking up the unusual colored blackened sand in disbelief and let it run through my fingers to prove itself.  

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Enthralled, I scanned the rest of my surroundings. Weathered remains of a shipwreck lay on its side as if captured forever in its final moments of sinking stupor half-hidden within the black lava sands of the south.

 

We were taken to other sensational sites, including a second beach called the Black Sands of  Reynisfjara Beach, one of the most famous beaches in Iceland.  Upon its seaside sits Reynisfjell, a 340 meter mountain with sharpened hexagonal basalt blades frequented by albatross, fulmars puffins that caw and cry as they glide upon the rising winds.  

 

Past the waves there also lies two basalt formations that rise from the ocean in stony defiance.  One resembles a pyramid while the other, a sharpened spear. Icelandic legends say that there were once two trolls who had attempted to pull a three-mast ship to shore, however they were caught in sunlight and turned to stone. Their failure frozen for eager spectators and tourists to admire and capture with their cameras.

Yet, one must also be cautious when visiting this beach, for although beautiful, it can be formidable and unforgiving.  

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They are called ‘Sneaker’ waves, and they have claimed the lives of several unsuspecting tourists who sadly ventured too close to the shore.  The waves of Reynisfjara have a way of suddenly rising, turning violent as they grasp and grope for unsuspecting tourists unfortunate enough to be in the wave’s deadly reach, pulling them out to sea to meet their watery end.  

With one call from our guide it was time to go, and we left one of the most memorable sites I have ever had the privilege to visit.  

Chasing Waterfalls

Before continuing on to more incredible sites, it was time to eat and warm up from the powerful cold winds of the beaches. We sat down for a quick lunch of fresh Arctic Char, tender lamb (best lamb I have ever tasted) and coffee as we gazed upon our next site that awaited us: Skogafoss Waterfall. At 60 meters high with a width of 25 meters, it is one of the largest and most monumental waterfalls in Iceland.  

Eyes to its flowing apex, we approached in awe and walked along the stream into the hazy bottom of the waterfall (make sure you wear a shell over your clothes when visiting this site, because you practically shower in the waterfall).  As we stood and captured pictures of the waterfall and of ourselves, a collection of rainbows appeared and disappeared as the sunshine sporadically broke through the waterfall’s mist.   

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We visited several more waterfalls during our tour, and one that particularly struck me was the final waterfall, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, considered to be an iconic natural wonder of Iceland.  Born from the Seljalands River which is fed from volcanic glacier, Eyjafjallajökull, this waterfall is especially worth visiting since you can walk behind it into a small cave and peer through its roaring falls upon the world.

The sunshine night brought our final adventures of southern Iceland to a close, and there was nothing left to do but fill our empty bellies with a delicious meal of lamb stew and reindeer and laugh and reminisce about all that which we saw, tasted and felt.

Summer Thaw

I ventured its streets and descended into its belly of frozen fire. I laughed in the thundering presence of its waterfalls that showered me in mist and cold. I walked across a glacier of snow and ice. I bathed in its Blue healing waters, and forgot the dark of nighttime sky.  And upon its churning blackened shores of sea and ash, I left my footprints which turned into little pools upon Iceland.  I was there, if only for a moment.

 

Storm Moon Rising

Storm Moon Rising

Some Native American tribes call it the Full Snow Moon, since February is the month with the heaviest snowfall, coming down in droves of silent white, blanketing the earth in frozen fabrics of stillness and pallid quiet. Other tribes named it the Hunger Moon, the Ice Moon or the Storm Moon, for with the heavy snow comes scarcity. Hunting would therefore become increasingly difficult, leaving many hungry and cold.

 

 

The moon has long been an honored cosmic feminine energy in many cultures spanning the ages. And like any female energy, she is an enigma dictating the pushing and pulling of tides of oceans and seas across the face of our Earth. She is a whitewashed muse of emotion hanging in our starry sky, scattering her seeds that take root as the fruits of creativity, strength, vigor, and sometimes, madness.
The full moon and lunar eclipse of February have been a waxing collection of rising energies that have been building up over the last five months since September 2016. Take a moment and reflect upon the last few months of your life. Have you noticed an ongoing trend of transformations and an insatiable thirst for change, one which cannot seem to be satisfied? Personally, these past five months have been a collection of tumultuous hunts of self, and of deep reflection and questioning.
During this month of February, a month of love, snow and hunger, we shall explore the full moon in Leo and Penumbral lunar eclipse that will take place on the 10th of February. We will answer questions as to what this moon symbolizes and what it means for our own push and pull of the mind and heart. We will recommend ways to prepare and garner the benefits of this Storm Moon so you do not go hungry this month. It is time to sit, eat and listen.
Total Eclipse of the Heart

Lunar eclipse energies usually spans over a period of six months and is often a period of contemplation of both our unconscious thoughts and drives. On February 10th, we will finally be allowed the opportunity for renewal of relationships and reconstruction of our lives. In a world that does not sleep or slow down, this window of rest must be taken advantage of. Make sure you set an intention of truth and grounding, for these intents will last for another six months until the next lunar eclipse, which takes place during August 2017.
The Rise of Fire and Snow

Storm moon rising in Leo, a sign of fire, loyalty and zeal, will be a time driven by the Lion’s vivacious passion of expression of self, which, unsurprisingly, draws many people to their whimsical and enjoyable company. And while Leo is indeed a patron of devotion and jubilation, its dark side takes form in aggression, arrogance, introversion and jealousy. The full moon in ‘Fire’ should therefore be a time when we embrace the positive and uplifting side of Leo, stepping out into the dazzling sunshine of exuberance that sings and radiates with joy and uplifting qualities. Leo’s ruler is the sun, embodying the light and full awareness of self. Without the sun there can be no life or growth, but too much sun can be deadly. So step out lightly in its glow, basking in rays of balance.
Preparation

So what can we do to reap the harvest of this ‘Moon of Snow Storm and Fire’?
First, let us create a sacred space to surround ourselves with, and reinforce our spiritual forte to fully relish the benefits of this full moon:
Gemstones

It is believed that some colors manifest certain energies and frequencies capable of healing, elevating and enhancing our moods and humours. As our moon reaches her beautiful round self and dances to the beat of Leo, the color we should therefore be surrounding ourselves with, is yellow.

 

 

Gather your gemstones, especially those boasting the colors of Leo, such delicious honey hues of yellows, golds and cream, and set your sacred space ablaze in their beneficial healing properties and vibrations.
You can choose from an array of yellow gemstones such as ruby and amber (the stones of Leo), dark citrine, carnelian, topaz tiger’s eye and iron pyrite. Once you have gathered your arsenal, authentically set intentions, whatever they maybe, and sit by your gemstone fireside as you feel their warmth of healing, opening your heart and mind to their welcoming powers and ritualistic embrace.
Yellow, a “sun color”, represents the third Chakra (solar plexus). It signifies all that drives our ego, and celebrates courage, self-confidence, self-orientation, joy and laughter. Sounds like our loyal Leo doesn’t it?
As well as sharing a colour and characteristics, this Chakra’s element is fire, an expressive and explosive culmination of dynamism and blazing power. Be aware of this element and respect it. It can been nurturing and life giving, but it can also be a destructive reaper of discord if left wild and unchecked.
Take this time beloved and surround yourself in a golden embrace with colors of courage and yellow gemstones, like little suns orbiting your cosmic moment of peace.
If you are going through a transition, whether is it adjusting to a new career path, a new relationship (or an end to one), this color will be extremely valuable in arming yourself as the full moon and eclipse reach their zenith of transformation.

 

 

Intentions Intentions Intentions

This is a time for spiritual purification and initiation. So allow yourself to take a much needed moment during your busy schedule to sit down in preparation for the upcoming full moon. Write, journal or meditate on specific intentions that will nourish your self-confidence and orientation.
This is a time to reinforce your sacred place and home, channeling in the power of this moon, and flooding your space with its cosmic glory.
Create affirmations and mantras. Compose music and paint! Go crazy and lose yourself in the lunar lust as you dance in the moonlight. If your body calls for rest, then do so.  Take a long hot bath in purifying salts and minerals.
Forgive yourself. Forgive those around you who you feel have wronged you, but do not resurrect buried grudges and conflicts. Do not burn bridges, but Instead, reinforce them with forgiveness, mercy and love.
Plan, stretch and inhale deeply. For the full moon cometh, and with it comes a time for spiritual purification and time for initiation.
It is a time of rising you.

Dazzles and Roars

“From here we leave the path,” said our guide.  We had embarked on a 28 kilometer hike towards Waterfall Bluff located just south of the Mkambahti Nature Reserve, and had been walking for over four hours across the many changing faces of the Wild Coast terrain, climbing steep rocky hills, treading across shifting sands and beaches, and walking through oceans of grass fields freckled with yellow flowers.

The ‘path’ that our guide mentioned was not much of a path to begin with. It was simply a cluster of narrow, winding, dirt footways carved by years of treading shepherds and their cows.  Yet we carried on, silently falling in line behind one another in silence towards the Falls. As we grew closer to our goal, our guide led us to Cathedral Rock, a breathtaking geological formation rising from the ocean in stony defiance. It had been molded by wind and water into a pyramid shaped sculpture created by nature herself. And so with renewed anticipation, we carried on, our bodies heavy with exhaustion.

Following another hour of hiking and climbing, we had finally made it. The wind was becoming stronger and coming up fast and hard.  All I could hear was the whaling gusts blasting past my ears, drowning out my racing heartbeat as we crawled down the sheer side of the rocky cliff, and I was sure that I was going to be blown off trying to get to Waterfall Bluff.  Don’t look down, was all I could think.

Once we scaled down > the side of the jagged cliff (I pretty much clung on for dear life!), and ducked down past the final rocky hurdle, you can hear it; the crashing symphony of waves and the rising crescendo of water and rock! Then you turn the corner of the protruding ragged rock face jutting out and there it is, awaiting you, Waterfall Bluff.

On this particularly cloudy and windy day, the waterfall, trapped in a torrent of updrafts and gusts, struggled to find home as it cast itself down into the Indian Ocean (it is only one of eight waterfalls in the world to meet an ocean or sea).  Our long trek was definitely worth seeing this incredible display of nature, and we sat in entranced silence, drinking the scene of majesty with thirsty eyes and hearts until we were ready to march on back towards our lodge for another 14 kilometres.

Located at the mouth of the Mboyti River on the Eastern Coast of South Africa, sits a charming resort, Mboyti River Lodge. Surrounding it is the sea and a lagoon where you can kayak in the mirror-like waters of the estuary (where the lake meets the ocean) that hugs the property. The beaches are nestled between rolling green hills, and on some days, cow herders come down with their slow moving beasts of burden to walk across the shores as the blue waters lap away their hoof prints.

When visiting South Africa, one must of course undertake a great adventure and book a safari tour! We chose Springbok Lodge located on Nambiti Game Reserve in Ladysmith. Every morning, we awoke at 4.30 AM with the wild African sun newly spilling out in golds and roses  across the jet black night sky.  Eyes heavy with sleep, we would climb into the open game viewing Land Cruiser and tour the acres of forest and open plaines, holding within their grassy folds vast treasures of wild African animals; dazzles of zebras, prides of lions and countless herds of elephants.  The first ride out was probably the most terrifying and exciting, for you do not know what to expect! The safari vehicle had no windows or protection whatsoever, and we were basically exposed to the animals should they have chosen to attack!

Four days spent on safari had to be one of the most eye opening, and impactful experiences of my life. As we drove down winding dirt roads, thrown around inside our car, we would come across incredible scenes of wildlife.  Once we stopped to take photographs of a huge bull elephant, when suddenly the African sky opened up and it began to rain heavily down upon us. Whips and flashes of lightning began to descend, and was joined by its booming brother.  Our guide and driver, Promise, told us to hold on as we sped towards the safety of the Springbok Lodge as the waters began to rise and the lightning grew nearer.  All around us animals stood still in the rain like living statues, watching the strange metallic creature slide through mud and rubble.

Our last morning was possibly the most eventful part of our safari visit.  Coffee in hand at 5 am, we went out for the final time to look for herds and prides of whatever animal chose to reveal itself to us.  Ten minutes into our excursion, a large male lion was spotted near our location in the park.  Promise hurriedly drove towards the apparent spotting of the lion and  once we arrived, he turned off the engine and told us to keep quiet and stay alert for the big cat. Suddenly, from the covering of tall grasses and shrubs, he emerged. Formidable, fierce and on the prowl for breakfast.

The largest animal I had ever seen up close was walking straight towards us, and all I could think was that he is about to jump in and rip us to shreds. The king of the jungle was so close that I could see every color of his stunning mane of dancing browns and golds, glinting to the dazzling sunshine.

Left in the wake of shock and awe, we continued on for our final drive.  Soon enough, we stumbled upon another incredible scene, two male giraffes ‘necking’ for mating rites.  At first the two males were simply circling each other silently, when suddenly one of them violently threw his head towards his opponent’s long exposed neck and delivered the first brutal blow. This dangerous display continued for ten minutes and the older male began to falter, due to the ongoing ruthless hits by the younger male.  As the older and darker fighter (as giraffes age their coloring gets darker) began to realize that he was going to lose this fight, he attempted to run away, only to be chased by the stronger, younger male.

It was here that I fell in love with South Africa. I fell for the sky during our safari drives when we ventured out for early morning and evening rides. Each time we drove out to the reserve, there it was waiting for us in a brilliant parade of clouds, awash in gold and rose. I fell in love with walking barefoot on the cool grass outside our lodge, dewy and cool against my feet. I fell for the smiles of the people, always welcoming and open-hearted to any new adventurer.

But what really stole my heart was being around nature and watching wild animals roam the South African planes. In a way it saddened me that a number of the animals we saw were greatly endangered, and were under constant threat from poachers.

Our travels through South Africa restored my love and respect for Mother Nature.  While most of us are forever imprisoned within urban jungles of concrete and steel, we often forget the importance of escaping these trappings.  Being back home makes me realize how much I miss walking out into the cool morning air as we set out for safari, and how alive our earth is with music, music composed by birds and animals, by the wind and waves. We are deaf to these songs, and it is time to listen.

A Fire in Bloom

Fireworks of suddenly ideas erupt

in explosive glows,

set off by universe

as it strikes its match.

I watch from the banks of my consciousness

as the scene of celebration unfolds.

It glitters across the waters of my contemplation.

No longer silent, but now sings.

 Like a mirror capturing a dance,

one I was too often afraid to partake in.

And so I sit on the shores of deliberation.

Toes in the waters of my decision making,

as a parade of choice marches on.

Eyes bound to the fiery spectacle

of the enlightened unknown

Blooming agains the sky.

And in my heart,

the rhythm of the revolutionary drums

beat

beat

beat.

Ladies Night Personified

 

There, in the gentle glow of a waning moon,

sat a circle of friends.

Pockets of conversations were shared and passed around,

like a tantalizing meal of morsels and dishes

flavored and garnished with the familiar and new.

The winking wine danced with the candlelight

As each one sipped, savored and spoke

of their week’s trials and tribulations,

accompanied by laughs and jubilations.

Their voices filled the still night air

Adding to the symphony of nocturnal song.

They had done this for years now, masters in their own right.

Bending time, for it frequently stood still to watch

As they recaptured their joys, sorrows and memories lost.

Each word, a granule of sand

In the timeless hourglass of sisterhood.

She understood her. They understood me.

Whether in spoken or silenced words.

In the waning moonlight rays sat,

A circle of timelessness.

Laughter and tears joined them in discussion.

And all around, witnesses stood like stone to watch

Frozen and carved from admiration,

Wishing to join,

Share,

Learn,

From these moon washed beauties.

 

 

Food for thought

Did you know that you have a second brain? It weighs about the same as the one that sits in your skull (0.9 kilos) and shares many other similarities with the first brain.  For instance, serotonin, which is a vital chemical neurotransmitter thought to be responsible for maintaining our mood, behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, sexual drive and many other vital functions, can be found in both brains. The only difference is that 80-90% of serotonin levels found in the human body is located in the second brain. What is even more remarkable is that the second brain is actually your stomach.

The stomach, so aptly named the ‘second-brain’, is usually associated with the generic responsibilities of digestion, absorption and expelling waste.  But it may come as a shock to some that deep down in our GI tract is an intricate network of neurons that line our gut forming a mass of neural tissue similar to that in our brain.  Scientists believe that our ‘second brain’, which is filled with an arsenal of neurotransmitters, can partly determine those physiological symptoms caused by nerve-wracking moments.

The enteric system, or the ‘second brain’ is made up of neurons that are found in the walls of the alimentary canal, which is the long tube located in our gut measuring 9 meters long from esophagus to anus.  There are approximately 100 million neurons in the enteric system, outnumbering the neurons found in the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system.

While our second brain is not adept at contemplating thought provoking poetry or analyzing politics, it is still undoubtedly a complex system within itself.  The magnitude of neurons mentioned above found in the ‘second brain’ has equipped the gut with its own reflexes and senses, thereby independently controlling the gut from the brain.

As mentioned earlier, our second brain is not responsible for processing philosophy or scrutinizing art work, it does however send signals to our mind regarding such things as emotions and traumas through nerves in our intestines.  An example of this would be the sensation of butterflies dancing around in your stomach when you see someone you admire for instance.  The butterflies you are feeling are part of a signal system that manifests in your gut as part of a physiological response to stress.

After examining the commonalities between our two brains, it is easy to see why and how our mental health directly affects our gut.  Ever wonder why you are warned about possible side effects of depression treatments and drugs you may encounter like nausea and diarrhea?  The enteric nervous system, similar to your brain, uses roughly 30 neurotransmitters, and as mentioned earlier, 80-90% of serotonin in found in our gut.

Certain antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are known to increase serotonin levels in the body.  This directly causes undesirable side effects in your stomach, thereby causing ‘mental illness’ in the second brain.

Intestinal terra incognita 

Deep within the dark chasms of our intestines lies a collective community of trillions of bacteria, which is also known as a gut microbiome.  While the idea of having an infestation of bacterial colonies in your GI system may make your skin crawl, these intestinal inhabitants play a number of essential roles in the internal interworking of our health, and in our lives.

They are responsible for a number of functions such as digestion, the management our immune systems and our weight.   Astonishingly, scientists are also discovering that these microbes are heavily involved in transmitting signals to the brain, altering our behavior and emotional state, and if off balance due to issues such as over use of antibiotics or irregularities in your intestinal environment, can lead to more unwanted symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

Surprising parallels are being drawn between the bacteria endemic to our gut and the impact this symbiotic relationship has on our stress management and immune system response.   Each and every one of us is affected by stress in some shape or form.  Whether it is the stress from work, family or shattering your smart phone screen, we all suffer from intestine-twisting pressures brought on my life’s little unfriendly experiences.   Further studies are being conducted concerning the potential intestinal bacteria has on bettering our mental health and tackling diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism.

As evidence continues to mount, and the gut-brain axis plot thickens, we should begin to question how we can best improve and strengthen the links between the two in order to prevent intestinal and neurological diseases.  For starters, nourishing your gut with beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, is absolutely vital towards creating harmony between this two way street of our two brains.  The old saying “you are what you eat” suddenly has a renewed sense of importance as we find out how the food we put in our mouth directly affects, not only our stomach, but our mood and mental health.

As someone who has had her fair share of  intestinal bacterial infections, which often led to doctors prescribing intense rounds of antibiotics (sometimes two at a time), I am far too familiar with the side effects these gut flora altering experiences have on mental health.

Upon starting any course of antibiotics I began to feel the immediate emotional inertia brought on by the medication.  A fog of depression settled upon me, rolling in and clouding my judgement, and along with this hazy stupor came a sense of listlessness and hopelessness.  The most isolating part of these experiences was that I could not reason nor rationalize as to why I felt so crestfallen. This in turn, isolated me from those around me.

Probiotics, I soon came to find,  were (and still are) vital during any disruptive time following antibiotics since they do not only destroy bad bacteria, but also eradicate the helpful flora imperative to our quality of life.  Once I started healing my gut with probiotics and other helpful ‘guthacks’, I began to feel the waves of malaise and depression recede from my cognitive shores.

So are probiotics the new Prozac in a sense?  Feeding and strengthening your intestinal flora may be the new way we can tackle, not only physical ailment, but mental illnesses such as depression.  One study published by the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility stated that the probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 stabilized anxiety-like behavior in mice that had colitis and did so by moderating the vagal pathways with the gut-brain axis.  One other study showed that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had profound effects on certain parts of the brain including the GABA levels, the inhibitory neurotransmitter that greatly involved in regulating a number of physiological and psychological processes. The probiotic also lowered levels of the stress-induced hormone known as corticosterone, which in turn reduced anxiety and depression in patients undergoing the trials.

A series of experiments conducted on ‘germ-free’ mice that had no microbiome in their intestines, were unable to recognize and intermingle other mice that were around them.  These studies were used to demonstrate how valuable microbes in our gut, and in the guts of these mice, may help communicate with the brain and helps us be social and interact with those around us.

Additionally, the mice that lacked good bacteria in their guts were more prone to engage in high risk behavior and as scientists tracked these altered states of gut related actions, they also found that they were accompanied by neurochemical changes in the animal’s brain.

If the ‘germ-free’ mice were exposed to regular mice with microorganisms early on in life, their anti-social behavioral patterns were reversed.   Moreover, the scientists found that if the intestines of the germ free mice were colonized and ‘seeded’ with bacteria from a healthy mouse, the animal took on personality traits from the donor.

However, once the mice reached adulthood and were isolated from beneficial germs during the formative stages in their lives, these behavioral tendencies were permanently irreversible even after scientists attempted to colonize the ‘germ free’ mice with microbes.

Along with the bacteria’s significant role in aiding our social skills with those around us, studies have also revealed that the absence or presence of intestinal microbes during infancy, can permanently alter gene expression.

Genetic profiling has enabled scientists to observe how the absence of microorganisms affects genes and pathways that are closely linked to cognitive functions such as memory, motor control and learning, further strengthening the hypothesis that the presence of beneficial bacteria found in your intestines is vital towards social development and behavior.  Along with neurological illnesses, those lacking beneficial gut bacteria can also present issues such as asthma, allergies, skin irritations and problems, autoimmune disorders.

While a majority of the research concerning the gut-brain axis is being done on mice primarily due to the fact that we do not have ‘germ free’ human beings willing to be tested on, there have been some successful human trials proving the positive side effects of ‘feeding’ the flora found in your intestines.

One study focused on a group of women who regularly consumed yogurt that contained beneficial bacteria and had improved cognitive function compared to women who did not consume the cultured yogurt.   The study further revealed that the women who did not eat the yogurt had decreased activity in two regions of the brain that are responsible for central processing of emotion and sensation: the insular cortex, the part of the brain that is linked to perception, awareness, interpersonal processing and experience and motor control to name just a few.  The second region that was affected is called the somatosensory cortex, which is the area responsible for the body’s ability to interoperate a spectrum of sensations.

The idea of harnessing bacteria and conducting microorganism transplants in order to ease the suffering of those struggling with mental malaise may seem farfetched, but everyday intestinal pioneers are discovering the undeniable benefits of beneficial flora and the positive impacts these microbes have on the delicate balance between the gut-brain axis.

Feed and seed your gut

Dietary feeding and ‘reseeding’ are paramount in the battle against good and bad bacteria. And on a personal note, after having endured ongoing treatments for Helicobacter pylori, or most commonly known as H.pylori, a not so friendly strain of bacteria that inhabits the digestive tract of its host and attacks the stomach lining, I can tell you that feeding and fortifying my stomach against an alien invader has proven to be a life altering experience, and a muse to my health.

This specific strain of bacteria resides in over 75% of the world’s population, affecting 3 out of 4 people, so chances are some of you reading this have it.  While not everyone who has the bacteria presents with signs of being infected, those of that are symptomatic may experience and present with a number of diseases ranging from peptic ulcers to an inflammatory condition in the stomach called gastritis, to more serious life-threatening conditions like stomach cancer.

H.pylori is highly adapted to living in the harsh acidic environment of our gut, and it is here where this rogue bacteria can wreak havoc on our GI system.  It can reduce the acidity in your stomach in order to create a better living space for itself, thereby affecting the pH balance of your stomach.

The word Helicobacter comes from the Greek word ‘Helico’ meaning spiral, and it is this spiral shape of that bacteria that gives it the ability to drill beyond the gut’s protective lining where the bacteria are safely protected by mucus, and by our body’s immune cell.  The H.pylori can then interfere with the body’s immune response in order to ensure that it is not destroyed and further proliferate and thrive within us.  Following three courses of specifically engineered antibiotic prescriptions called Triple or Quadruple Therapy, probiotics and the right food, I have won the battle against my spiral shaped foe.

Considering that up to 80% of your immune system is located in your intestines, strengthening it should be one of the pillars for optimum health and happiness.  One way is by consuming probiotics that can be taken orally.  Probiotics are supplements made of living bacteria and yeast, and as stated early, they are one of the cardinal tools for improving your digestive and mental health.

Probiotics can also be found in certain types of foods such as fermented foods (unpasteurized traditionally prepared are the most effective).  A number of these foods include:  Kefir (fermented grass fed organic milk), lassi (an Indian yogurt), pickled or fermented cabbage and vegetables and my favorite, kombucha (fermented tea).  There are many delicious ways to culture and reestablish beneficial microbes in your gut, by simply exploring the menu, you can find your most palatable route of dietary adventure.

One of the more powerful and healing tools to have in your gut army is bone broth.  “Good broth will resurrect the dead,” so goes a South American proverb.   This is something I have come to swear by and have watched my body flourish in the reflective golden brown savory pools of soup that I gladly sip on every day.   Broth has remained a cure-all for centuries and has been used for a number of natural remedies from reducing inflammation, improving hair and skin, boosting the detoxification process in the body, combating respiratory illness and improving joint health.

Known as nature’s multivitamin, broth is packed with a number of nutrients ranging from nineteen essential and non-essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), collagen, gelatin, mineral and electrolytes and many other nourishing compounds.

One other benefit of bone broth is that it is highly valuable towards strengthening and improving your gut health.   The gelatin and collagen found in broth works together as a healing elixir towards improving and reinforcing lining of your gut, which in today’s malnourished and stressful lifestyle has taken the blow.

Broth not only strengthens the lining of your gut, but helps battle food intolerances, allowing for the gut to heal from damages caused by daily stressors, processed foods, medication, unwelcomed bacterial or viral guests and other unhealthy lifestyle choices.  Because bone broth is so easily absorbed and digested by the body, it is able to completely utilize all of the nutrients, thereby allowing for complete absorption.

During the nineteenth and twentieth century, scientists believed that our guts were responsible for determining our overall mental and physical state.  They extrapolated that the toxic accumulating of waste found in our colons were primarily responsible for triggering illnesses linked to a term they phrased as “auto-intoxication”.  These early intestinal explores rationalized that gut released harmful poisons into the body, thereby creating and leading to severe imbalances and diseases.  This condition was then treated by either administering unpleasant colonic purges or bowel surgeries.   Fortunately for us however, these practices were proven to be nothing but pseudoscience.

But were these nineteenth century scientists and scholars onto something?  Studies have continued to emerge, mapping the unchartered fascinating waters of the gut-brain axis, and have gone so far as to say that improving our intestinal health could mean preventing mentally debilitating disorders and illnesses and improve the lives of millions up people.  But until that day comes, I will leave you with this last deliciously simple morsel.  Go with your gut.

 

The Vault of Heavens

I have had the privilege and humbling right to travel the world, collecting skies and memorizing celestial treasures bound to the heavens as I explored the many countries, cities and secrets of this world.  With the power of poetry, I paint for you these pictures so that we can walk side by side and gaze up at the stars together.

 

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The vault of heavens

 

 

I am a collector of skies which I chase

Holding a net for these butterflies of space

I swoop in with my netted memory sewn of lace

And my bounty has grown as I continue to encase

These sun-washed and jet black cosmic creatures

Never the same, made of distinctive features.

 

Some seem gentle, awash in pink and gold

While others are brazen, and blackened and bold

For if you listen, each sky sings stories

So let us delve down into my heavenly inventories

 

In the midst of night when the earth seems to sleep

Artemis stirs preparing for the nocturnal keep

Across the inky black planes of the Saudi sky

Her chariot of stars goes flashing by.

It is here on the Red Sea of blackened blue waters

I find myself looking for midnight’s hunting daughter

Rolling waves of onyx and carbon

Mix into the seamless sky like an unspoken bargain

Eyes forever locked heaven bound

As I ponder and wonder to what has not yet been found

What lies behind that planetary mask of black

An unexplored interstellar wild outback?

 

Travel to the ends of the earth, and there you will find

A sky that peers down upon a place once mined

For time has stood still here with very little change

It is a land of wildness and endless open range

Upon the grey sky of ashen coal and gold

Sits the kingly mountains made of ice and cold

 

Majestic they sit in their wintry throne

One as bright and parched as sun-bleached bone

For the glaciers of Svalbard are part of the sky

The place where the aurora is wild to fly

Across the interstellar playground of planets and stars

Where the moon and the sun dances with mars

Endless summers of immortal sunlight you’ll see

Soon to be followed by moonlight months of three

 

What other vaults of heavens have I captured you’d ask

One, a place of rolling hills upon which to sleepily bask

This memory is one of the ‘long white cloud’

Named Aotearoa for this Stratus shaped shroud

Worn by the sky of countless blue shades

Where one seems to start, as the other type fades

Turquois, azure, cobalt and teal

Countless hues of blues turning upon this stratospheric wheel

 

 

And so my hunt continues for suns and of stars

To enthral you with celestial tales and terrestrial memoirs