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.

 

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.

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

 

 

 

 

The Caves of Khaybar

The drive from Jeddah to Harrat Khaybar Lave Field, 160 kilometers north of city of Madinah, was long and started  just as the sun was coming up and I was grateful for the coffee I was slowly nursing as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.   We were a caravan of 7 cars headed down a highway that seemed to stretch on forever.   The further north we drove, and colder and more beautiful the scenes around us became. Majestic mountain ranges began to blossom on the horizon and it made the six hour drive to our destination all the more enjoyable.

Within the territories of Khaybar, lies an intricate and ancient geologic system of three lava tube passages believed to be 3-5 million years old, Umm Jirsan being the longest in the Arab region measuring up to 1,890 meters long, 45 meters wide and 25 meters high. These lava tubes were formed by rivers of molten rock that had drained out of a volcano millions of years ago and eventually solidified, leaving behind its fiery wake, an encrusted channel of basalt, ash and sediment.

Eventually the stretches of highway and mountains gave way to the oceans of petrified lava fields of Bani Rasheed, who greyish contrast stood out against the deep blue hues of the Saudi sky,  and we finally made it our destination.  Travel weary and sore, we started to set up camp and I was surprised at how cold it was. I think it was the first time in living memory that I had to put on thermals and a heavy jacket in Saudi.

After setting up our tents, the instructors gave us hard helmets and masks and we were off to explore Umm Jirsan.  We hiked down a steep pile of rocks and crawled through a narrow opening and then we saw it, the gaping mouth of Umm Jirsan ready to swallow us whole into its blackened belly.

Nothing is more humbling then standing before a 3 million year old cave opening.  There was something ominous, and yet wonderfully enticing about it and I took a deep breath and pressed forward with my tribe of fellow explorers and felt the heavy curtains of darkness enfold around us.

Other than our headlights, It was pitch black and it took my eyes a moment acclimate. Once they did I began to look around and absorb the magnanimity of the cave, which held ancient wonders and mummified glimpses of the past.  Umm Jirsan has played host to a variety of animals such as wolves, foxes, bats, birds, snakes and human beings for thousands of years, and is still used by animals for shelter today. As we continued to make our way through the snaking lava tube, we noticed unusual geologic formations, such as hardened molten earth that had solidified millions of years ago and now resembled folds of the human brain.  After inspecting the mounds of rock and bones that littered the floor, I looked up to the high ceilings of the cave.  Twisted formations of basalt patterns stared back at me and they seemed to hold  grimacing faces within their geological swirls.  The air was dense and thick as we kicked up the soft powdery sand that was mixed  with ash and (to my delight) guano charitably left by bats that have lived in Umm Jirsan for thousands of years.

 

Twenty minutes into our hike through absolute darkness, the instructor called us to gather in a circle.  Once we had all congregated together, he explained that in order to truly experience the darkness and silence of this cave we needed turn off all of our headlamps and anything else emitting light and just stand in silence. And so, with apprehension we did. The darkness was crushing and I felt as if the entire cave had turned into a  cocoon that began to wrap itself around me. My claustrophobia kicked in and I struggled to take deep breaths through my mask. I have never experienced the meaning of true darkness until then and I just wanted to run back into the comforting rays of the sun.  We stood there not knowing which was up or down anymore and I wondered how much longer would we have to endure.  Finally after what felt likes hours, a flickering light sliced through the blanket of black. It was one of the instructors who had walked ahead of us and surprised the group with a fiery torch and I breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the golden flames that softly glowed against the blankets of ash, stone and bone.

 

We continued and after an hour and I finally  felt at ease in the darkness, and soon the cave had come to an end.  The growing light of day spilled into the cave’s exit and we hiked up back into the open sky just as the sun was setting over the lava fields of Khaybar.

 

Nigh time in the desert is truly spectacular and I spent most of the night with my eyes heaven bound looking upwards towards the deep blue and black canvas of the night sky. Before us was a blanket of kaleidoscopic celestial bodies, composed of starts and planets that seemed to wink at us from space.

 

The next day we explored the second cave, Majlish Al Jinn, whose cave opening consisted of a gigantic mound of 6,000 year of swift and bat guano and explored its dark corners. For the finale, we had the wonderful and terrifying opportunity to repel down the side of sheer cliff that fed into the cave opening.

Driving back to Jeddah, covered in a thin layer of ash and earth, I felt grateful for having the opportunity to explore a side of Saudi Arabia I did not know even existed.  As we left the petrified lava fields of Harrat Khaybar and headed towards the city, I began to miss the silence and serenity of the desert and silently promised that I would be back to explore the caves of Khaybar once again.

 

 

 

 

I’ll See You at the Finnish Line

Helsinki 11The city smelled of coffee and the sea, and the streets were crowded with schools of tourists swimming through the sites and pleasures Helsinki had to offer. On many corners, local musicians added to the cacophony of the urban heartbeat that thumped to the steady sounds of the city.  Gulls cried overhead, riding the soft summer breeze that swept through the parks and shopping centers.  Upon my first day I was already taken with Helsinki, it had its own flavor and flare unique to any other Nordic city I had visited so far. It seemed to be playfully withholding a secret from me, one which it promised to reveal but not until it was sure enough to trust me with.

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Located in the heart of the city at the Hotel Kamp, my sister, father and I ventured out waiting for the remainder of the Al-Yafi tribe to arrive. It was a hot summer day and I looked over at my sister with fevered skepticism grumbling, “I thought you said it was going to be cold in Helsinki, and here I am wearing a sweater and jeans!”  She shrugged and reminded me that we warned of Finland’s temperamental temperatures.  I had foolishly packed mostly winter clothes and cursed myself for not being better prepared. How was I to know that it would be almost as hot as Jeddah, from where we had just arrived.

We made our way to the harbor where a local farmer’s market was taking place. Stalls of fresh Helsinki berries and vegetables were put on display, their sweet aromas were intoxicating and I found myself immediately drawn to one of the stands to sample the local cuisine.  I gorged myself on “samples” of plump strawberries and blueberries and soon my smiling lips were painted red and blue. The pretty blonde lady then handed me some fresh snap peas, or what I assumed were snap peas, which I gratefully accepted.  As I bit into the deceiving delight, I found it to be chewy and mildly unpleasant.  I then asked the lady quizzically, “am I supposed to eat the whole thing or just the peas inside?” she answered nonchalantly, “no, just the peas inside.” I stopped chewing and felt like a fool for not asking and reluctantly swallowed my failure and shame.

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Moving on past my mishap I continued to make my way through the market to see what the local scene of Helsinki had to offer.  It had a kaleidoscopic array of handicrafts from reindeer skins to amber necklaces, all of which embodied Finland’s wildness and natural beauty.  My senses were overwhelmed with the colors and textures of funny woven hats, wooden cups and kitchenware carved from trees found in the lush forests surrounding the city.  It was all so deliciously overwhelming and I lost myself in the blur of sightseers and kiosks boasting the best of local arts and crafts.

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As he played the rain came down around us. His tinkering bottle bell tunes were joined by the drops dancing down the Finnish sky.

Once my brother and mother joined us we were truly ready to set out and discover Helsinki. Every morning, fueled with coffee and local berries that I would smuggle into breakfast, we set out to cover the cobbled stone streets of the city.  In order to cover as much ground as possible we booked things like a two-hour walking tour to visit the city’s most noteworthy spots.  The day of our walking tour was cold and rainy, again with this unpredictable weather, I thought. Luckily I was beginning to understand that in order to survive hours of walking around you would just have to carry around a sweater and umbrella and have on very comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting muddied and wet from time to time when the sun suddenly decided to escape behind a flurry of rainclouds. And so we climbed the steep steps of the Senate Square to find our guide as the rain came down. Along with the falling rain, came doubt, maybe this tour in wintery wet weather was a mistake, but I soldiered on and followed my tribe.  We eventually made it and found our guide along with our fellow foreigners who shared my look of dampened skepticism.  Our chaperon was a sweet looking young lady wearing a silly hat with reindeer antlers who turned out to be Italian, not Finnish. My doubt deepened. So there we were, a tribe of tourists led by an Italian woman wearing a green hat with antlers comically sticking out from the top ready to set out and explore the wet city of Helsinki.

Once my brother and mother joined us we were truly ready to set out and discover Helsinki. Every morning, fueled with coffee and local berries that I would smuggle into breakfast, we set out to cover the cobbled stone streets of the city.  In order to cover as much ground as possible we booked things like a two-hour walking tour to visit the city’s most noteworthy spots.  The day of our walking tour was cold and rainy, again with this unpredictable weather, I thought. Luckily I was beginning to understand that in order to survive hours of walking around you would just have to carry around a sweater and umbrella and have on very comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting muddied and wet from time to time when the sun suddenly decided to escape behind a flurry of rainclouds. And so we climbed the steep steps of the Senate Square to find our guide as the rain came down. Along with the falling rain, came doubt, maybe this tour in wintery wet weather was a mistake, but I soldiered on and followed my tribe.  We eventually made it and found our guide along with our fellow foreigners who shared my look of dampened skepticism.  Our chaperon was a sweet looking young lady wearing a silly hat with reindeer antlers who turned out to be Italian, not Finnish. My doubt deepened. So there we were, a tribe of tourists led by an Italian woman wearing a green hat with antlers comically sticking out from the top ready to set out and explore the wet city of Helsinki.

Helsinki 6

Once my brother and mother joined us we were truly ready to set out and discover Helsinki. Every morning, fueled with coffee and local berries that I would smuggle into breakfast, we set out to cover the cobbled stone streets of the city.  In order to cover as much ground as possible we booked things like a two-hour walking tour to visit the city’s most noteworthy spots.  The day of our walking tour was cold and rainy, again with this unpredictable weather, I thought. Luckily I was beginning to understand that in order to survive hours of walking around you would just have to carry around a sweater and umbrella and have on very comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting muddied and wet from time to time when the sun suddenly decided to escape behind a flurry of rainclouds. And so we climbed the steep steps of the Senate Square to find our guide as the rain came down. Along with the falling rain, came doubt, maybe this tour in wintery wet weather was a mistake, but I soldiered on and followed my tribe.  We eventually made it and found our guide along with our fellow foreigners who shared my look of dampened skepticism.  Our chaperon was a sweet looking young lady wearing a silly hat with reindeer antlers who turned out to be Italian, not Finnish. My doubt deepened. So there we were, a tribe of tourists led by an Italian woman wearing a green hat with antlers comically sticking out from the top ready to set out and explore the wet city of Helsinki.

Helsinki 9We snaked our way through the streets, stopping to take selfies and “ooh” and “aahh” at the beautiful architecture of churches, buildings and landmarks.  Eventually, and without fail, the weather changed and the sun blossomed through the darkened rainy sky casting beams of sunlight fingers that stretched across the urban sprawl as if arising from sleep.  My favorite area we visited was without a doubt was the world famous Temppeliaukio Rock Church.  Carved into solid rock and crowned with a copper dome, it was a testament to the uniqueness of Finnish design.  As we entered the cool earthly place of worship, the sound of piano and jostling tourists greeted us.  Pews of dark rich mahogany faced the source of music and my eyes swallowed the scene around me.  The raw face of stone looked back at us along with mighty organ pipes that stood in a line against the wall as if they were sentinels guarding the cavern.  Sunlight spilled into the dimmed church through slanted windows overhead as tourists sat and watched, mesmerized by the grandness and splendor of this unorthodox place of worship.

Tallinn, Estonia was on next on our to-do list. We arose early on a Saturday morning, coffee in hand of course (Finnish are the largest consumers of coffee in Europe drinking as much as 12 kilograms of coffee per capita yearly), and headed towards the harbor where the ship awaited.  It was a quick two-hour entertaining affair, quickened by an eager Estonian hostess who was adamant about feeding us during our brief seafaring endeavor.   A hop, skip and a ferryboat ride later we arrived in Tallinn harbor where the city awaited us.  The first to welcome us were the great grey steps of Linnahall, a looming concrete symbol of the city’s past SSR life and was covered in graffiti and memory that led to the city where Old Town Tallinn, a stark contrast to the former Soviet structure, awaited.  It was like venturing into the Middle Ages, what with its uneven cobblestone narrow winding roads and castle-like structures, most of which was awash in the sunlight making the town even more fantastical.  We explored the city and its many churches and ‘ye old’ buildings that still stayed true to ancient European designs.  My family and I, being a tall group of Al-Yafis, found that we had to duck our heads down from time to time inside a number of these old buildings (people were clearly a lot smaller back then).  By the end of our day trip, the sun began to become listless and quietly vanished behind a storm of clouds heavy with the threat of rain.  It was time to return to Helsinki.

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My brother and I during one of our adventures suddenly caught in the summer rain

One of the best ways to really enjoy Helsinki, or any Scandinavian city for that matter, is taking a nice long bike ride.  Not only is it time efficient, fun and healthy, but you get to experience a very local activity, since many people who live in the city use bikes as a form of public transport.  My brother and I have always made it a point to go biking in any Nordic city or region we visit and it is definitely one of my most cherished traditions. He being an avid rider, usually leads the way, and I, like his little shadow, follow him around mimicking his hand signals to alert those around us if we are stopping or turning left.  On our last day we borrowed two bikes from the hotel and embarked on our adventure together.  The hotel was located at the heart of the city so we headed down the main artery towards the park nestled by crystal blue lake.  Skimming through the streets, sometimes joined by other bikers, Helsinki had finally told me her secret.  She was a place where you could truly be yourself without worry of being judged or looked at sideways. A city where art is embraced and ego is unwelcomed, a place that honors the slow life and a laisse faire attitude, encouraging you to stop and enjoy the little fruits of life before they spoil.  This was the secret of Helsinki, humbling and silent.

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600 hollowed steel pipes welded together like a silver chorus gazing heaven bound towards the sky that capture the wind to sing

After four days of hastened tours and crammed sightseeing, my tribe and I decided to shift into first gear and take a break from the holiday.  For some, the thought of a family vacation can seem like the complete opposite of a holiday, what with chaos of closeness and relentless bickering, there are moments of absolute joy and love that reinforce the bond of blood. I experienced such a moment in Sibelius Park on our last day when my tribe and I went to pay tribute to the Finnish violinists and composer, Jean Sibelius.  At the heart of the park, by the sun-catching blue crystal waters of the lake, stands the Sibelius Monument, 600 hollowed steel pipes welded together like a silver chorus gazing heaven bound towards the sky that capture the wind to sing.  Tourists flock here like a hive of hungry bees to the monumental flower hidden away in the Sibelius Park, and we were there to collect as much memorable nectar as possible as well.  Once we had had our fill of photos, we ventured just a short distance away to a cozy little cottage by the shoreline that had been converted into a café that sold mouth-watering cinnamon pastries.  Five coffees and three pastries later, we congregated around a small table overlooking the park, reflecting on our trip and everything we had experienced, seen and tasted.  Although I hold many memories of the trip close to my heart, this is by far the best one yet—sitting with my