Lahu village thailand

Northern Thailand Adventure

This past November, we had an incredible trip to Thailand. After briefly visiting Bangkok in 2009, I was ready to return to get to know this country better, and away from hustle and bustle of a giant city. Since we only had 2 weeks for this trip, we decided to skip the beaches, and focus on the hilly North. Here are some photos from our Northern Thailand adventure.

Chiang Mai view

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but it feels way different from Bangkok – much more laid back and provincial, with a slower overall pace. No wonder so many expats settle here – for a season, or a couple of years, or the rest of their lives.

Chiang Mai street

It also has hundreds (if not thousands) of temples, and while it is simply impossible to check out every single one, big effort was made to stop in all the ones within the walls of Old Town. Of course, the long songthaew (passenger truck) ride to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep up the windy road in a rainforest is a must.

chiang mai temple

chiang mai temple

Chiang Mai Sunday market is a treat for all senses and goes for blocks and blocks. There are trinkets, and furniture, and clothing, and art, but our goal was to eat street food until we drop (of being full, not of food poisoning, of course).

chiang mai sunday market

I had quail eggs and seafood and sausages and cheesy snacks and exotic mushrooms, and for the first time ever – some insects! Starting off easy, we got a little bag of fried silkworms, which were crispy, greasy, and tasted a little bit like anchovies. You think it’s gross? But how is it different from eating all kinds of other creatures with legs and feet (shrimp, for instance)? Don’t knock em until you try them! They are full of nutrients. The following morning, we asked our hotel staff to add them to our eggs. They were happy to do it!

omelette with silkworms

Next stop (after a 3 hour hilly road van ride) – Pai, a so called “hippie paradise” (just like a tropical island, but inland!) is a small town in a beautiful mountain valley, overlooking a river. Sometime ago, this was a tiny, quiet, and serene place. Today, it is bustling with tourists, and yet still manages to feel quiet and serene (once you walk away from the main street), so while there has been plenty of development with the guesthouses and restaurants, it manages to hold on to its charm. The best thing to do in Pai – nothing! If you have a hammock and this view – what else do you really need?

Pai thailand

From Pai, another van took us to Soppong and then a pickup truck taxi dropped us 8 kilometers uphill at Cave Lodge. A fun guest house with no-frill bungalows, it caters to backpackers and adventurers.

Cave Lodge Thailand

Our schedule was all preplanned here, and the following morning at 7 am (Thanksgiving Day), with met our trekking guide with a funny name – Gaymoo.

Soppong Thailand

This is Mae Hon Son province, a mountainous area of Thailand bordering Burma, technically in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is home to numerous hill tribe villages (such as Karen and Lasu), residents of which often do not even speak Thai. Gaymoo himself was born and raised in a nearby Karen village, and he effortlessly switches between Thai, Karen, and English (although he will tell you that he only learned English from tourists and does not read it just yet).

Trekking in Thailand

Our trek was one of the most interesting 2 days of my life. We went through hills, caves and farmland; waded through many rivers and mud. Gaymoo was super entertaining and fantastic, especially at cutting through jungle with his machete. Due to his mastery with the knife, extensive knowledge of forest, trails, and plants, on our journey we enjoyed endless amounts of fresh tropical fruit and sugar canes.trekking in thailand

I learned rice fields run around here: rice gets harvested and laid out to dry for a few days / weeks. Then it gets pounded to separate grains from straw (look, I got to help!). When it is ready for consumption, it is run through the machine that removes grains from shell. Villagers don’t get paid to work the fields, they just take turns volunteering and always have a year worth of rice stored in their common sheds (just in case, of a bad harvest year).

Thailand rice fields

We spent the night in a Lahu village hut (owned by a lovely woman who did not speak one bit of English, took care of many animals, as well as her toddler grandson). We played with puppies and pigs, ate the most deliciously cooked thanksgiving meal, and slept on (slightly bouncy) bamboo floor.

Lahu village thailand

Lahu village thailand

Thanksgiving in thailand

There was a surreal moment when I walked up the hill to take in a stunning sunset view. This small, basic village felt like it was cut off from most the world, I certainly did not have a slightest phone signal on the long trek here. Somewhere between those distant hills, is a Burma border. I raised my phone to snap this photo, and….. ding! A text comes in from a friend in Chicago. “Happy Thanksgiving!” it said. “Happy Thanksgiving to you too!” I typed back.

Northern Thailand mountains

The evening was wrapped up by local villagers bringing us rice whiskey, and everyone tasting it with sticky rice dessert, cooked inside of bamboo sticks over the fire. Morning was started with strong coffee, more rice sticks, and preparation of snacks for the road (wrapped in bamboo leaves). What followed was another beautiful, day-long, hot and humid trek through the countryside.

Lahu village trekking

After such intense 2 days, normal people rest their bodies, but instead, we woke up and chose to go scrape our feet (and knees and hands) against some sharp rock on a 6 hour trek through Tham Nam Hoo cave, one of the most picturesque caves in Thailand. Getting through this cave involved swimming against the current, and balance, which we did not have much of left. Yet, another crazy fun experience and the one I will never forget!
Thailand caving

Moving on from Sappong, our Northern Thailand adventure continued in Mae Hong Son.

Mae hong son thailand

It is a frenzy-free town, with Burmese-style temples, hills, and gorgeous views, mostly devoid of tourist crowds, was a welcome place to rest.

Mae Hong Son thailand

A nightly market here was another food heaven.

Mae Hong Son night market

We decided to visit a “long neck” Kayan tribal village, reached by a 20 minute wooden boat ride down the river. Kayan “long neck” village visits and their ethical repercussions are a source of debate (some believe that they are akin to a human zoo, as the neck rings that ladies wear are extremely uncomfortable and supposedly worn for tourists and not as much as a custom or tradition). However, after weighting the pros and cons, we made a decision to go. This informative TravelFish link presents balanced information on the current status of Mae Hong Son “long neck” villages.

Mae Hong Son river boats

We very glad that we had an opportunity to visit this place. We paid a fee to hire a local guide, and that decision made a big difference. He took us around the entire village, not just the gift stalls where ladies are selling scarves and crafts.

Mae Hong Son Karen village

We visited village residents’ homes, and dropped in on school classes where cute kids were learning Thai, Burmese, and English.

Mae Hong son long neck village

We learned about these people’s struggles, how the older generation migrated from Burma, fleeing a war zone, and how they still do not have Thai citizenship as they have not been recognized as residents by Thai authorities. As for long neck ladies themselves – they were extremely nice, and those who knew English, were happy to converse with us about their lives. The village residents make a big portion of their living from tourism. We purchased many hand woven scarves, and contributed to school’s donation boxes.

Mae Hong son long neck village

My plan for a last day in Mae Hong Son was a courageous one: to finally learn to ride a motorbike. Kurt was game. It costs $6 to get a cocktail here; it also costs $6 to rent a motorbike for an entire day. We have NEVER driven a motorbike (or a motorcycle) before, and I admit, that by that point of our vacation, I have already witnessed a couple of crashes, and almost chickened out on the way to the bike rental shop. Yet, after signing paperwork, and handing over a deposit, we had bikes and helmets ready to go! The “riding practice” took place in circles, right there in a market square – there were a couple of unfortunate turns, but overall I started to feel more confident (and, suddenly, so free!).

Mae Hon Song motorbikes

So, we set our travel destination to be a famous bamboo bridge, and then, right at Burmese border – Ban Rak Thai, a picturesque village of Chinese settlers. We hoped to make it back before sunset, relying on phone GPS. Here is the view of our travel route (not too shabby for the first time ever on motorbikes, eh?) Estimated travel time though, was accurate for cars, but was way off for us, and it took us 2 hours to reach the place.
Mae Hong Son motorbike path

Bamboo bridge (Su Tong Pae) did not underwhelm, it is a gorgeous landmark of Mae Hong Son province.

Mae Hong Son bamboo bridge

Here is a brief description of it, from “Used daily by villagers and monks, the name of the bridge translates as ‘successful prayer’ in the Tai Yai language and Su Tong Pae is a source of pride amongst the local community. Rice plantation owners donated the land and the villagers came together to construct the bridge using interwoven strips of bamboo for the walkway and wooden supports to elevate the bridge above the rice fields.”

Mae Hong Son bamboo bridge

The ride to Ban Rak Thai was steep. And hilly. Did I mention steep, as in crazy uphill curvy road? My motorbike was slow, but managed it, however, Kurt’s almost did not have enough horsepower to take those hilly roads. He was worried that he would have to get off and push it, and I stopped to wait for him constantly. Yet, eventually we made it to our destination. The Chinese village was cute and quiet and full of tea shops. We sat down in a restaurant to rest from our crazy ride, pointed at a few things on the menu and somehow ended up having one of the best meals EVER. There were mushrooms, and veggies, and meat, and was so hungry that I completely forgot to photograph it! Here is the village though:

Ban Rak Thai

Ban Rak Thai village

On the way to Ban Rak Thai, one thing we never came across, was a gas station. At the village, our tanks were nearly empty, and it was time to ask around about gas. (which is the word no one understood). “Petrol?” “Oil?” “Gasoline?” “Fuel?” People at the restaurant smiled at us, but had no idea what were were talking about. Finally, a manager was motioned over and I made some super awkward motorbike gestures. “Go around the lake, that way!” he said. After more searching and asking, we found it! No wonder the gas stations here are hard to notice. It’s not a station! It’s a bunch of plastic gasoline bottles, conveniently sitting next to flammable straw brooms. One bottle = full tank. Excellent! We can make it home now.

Thai Gas station

If the road to get here was all steep uphill, you can only guess the satisfaction of reverse. My hands hurt from gripping the breaks. It was amazing. And so freeing. And I want to wrap myself forever in that scenery of setting sun and rice fields and villages and Thailand beauty. I’m hungry for more!!! We made it back to Mae Hong Son just in time to navigate rush hour traffic. I would say, we passed our initial motorbike test pretty well, and I can NOT wait to get on one again!

Thailand countryside

From Mae Hong Son, there was a brief 40 minute flight, and suddenly, we were back in Chiang Mai, where it all started. By the way, Chiang Mai music scene is not too shabby: Croissant, the reggae band, played covers, but always rocked it. The jazz club musicians we also excellent.

Chiang Mai music scene

Chiang Mai Jazz club

Last, but not least: elephants! There are many places to visit them, some humane, and some not-so-humane. We chose to go to a no-riding elephant sanctuary, which houses a few female elephants and a baby. Adults were actually “rescued” (bought out) from places that used them in the past for riding.

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary

Elephants are so cute and weird. They are like aliens – their trunks are powerful and multi functional, which is both entertaining and awe-inspiring. That thing is a nose, and a hand, and a thumb, and just wait until one sneezes on you – you get showered with a stinky mist, and yet it is somehow also very lovable. They eat tree branches and tree trunks for lunch with ease, and readily take bananas from your hand, wapping it with their giant tongues. We gave them a mud bath and they seemed happy, prancing away to their tourist-free pastures.

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary

Northern Thailand, you were amazing. Your people are friendly, kind, and gentle, you are full of beauty and adventure. Of course, you have some strange parts, but think I’m in love with you, and no surprise, many others are, too. Someday, we will meet again, and until then – please stay as wonderful and safe and peaceful as you were to us.

jazirat al hamra historic village

Visiting empty, eerie Jazirat Al Hamra Historic Village

For my live painting session at the RAK Fine Art Festival, I had to come up with a subject that connects to Ras Al Khaimah – so, the obvious choice was to depict a local landmark. There is a lot of new construction in RAK, as this is a rapidly evolving region of a very young country – but what’s more interesting to me is historic decay. After reading about Jazirat Al Hamra Historic Village (sometimes spelled Al Jazirah Al Hamra), I became fascinated by it and decided that it had to be the subject of my painting.

jazirat al hamra historic village

After we settled in our hotel in RAK, Kurt and I took a cab out to the village to explore it. We were told that it would probably be difficult to catch a taxi back to our hotel, as there are not many that go by the village – so we made arrangement with our cabbie to be picked up in the same spot in an hour.

The historic town is located near an older residential neighborhood, where many people were out as this was Friday – non-working prayer day for Muslims. (by “people”, though, I mean men – women tend to stay at homes with families as opposed to walking to mosques with their husbands). After we entered the village, however, we became enveloped in total silence – this is a ghost village, after all, and channel a strong eery sensation it did. Not surprisingly, many locals claim it to be haunted. Overcast weather also helped set the backdrop.

jazirat al hamra historic village

Jazirat Al Hamra  – which translates to Red Island – once was a busy coastal settlement. It thrived on fishing and pearl-trading, and was occupied by the al-Zaab tribe. Its remains are full of pre-oil era architecture, with many buildings constructed around early and mid-20th century. The settlement itself dates way back to the 14th century. At one time, it actually was an island – but the space around it was slowly filled in, connecting it the mainland.

Many of the walls here were are constructed from beach rock, corals, and sea shells, mixed in with mud. Decorative elements of houses appear to be made out of porous concrete (or a material similar to it). The village has now been abandoned for about 5 decades, and many parts of it are very brittle. Hiking through these ruins, I had a feeling that some of the remaining standing walls could crumble had I decided to push them hard enough. I could have taken pieces of these buildings home in my suitcase if I wanted to. The village is wide open for anyone to enter, and yet there was NO ONE – not a single soul – there aside from the two of us.

The wealthiest residential home in the village (which belonged to a merchant) is constructed with wind towers – they were are designed to funnel any breeze into the house and served a fan in this hot climate. (Modern architecture in the Emirates mimics these types of wind towers – although now, that air conditioning is prevalent, they are only built as an imitation for decorative purposes).

al jazirah al hamra emirates

The center of the village contains one of the oldest mosques in the Emirates, along with once bustling market stalls where pearl trading and sales of goods, shipped in from faraway lands, used to take place.

At the cusp of the 20th century, Jazirat Al-Hamra had a fleet of 25 ships and many more pearling and fishing boats. Pearl divers from the village performed grueling journeys out to sea to fetch the treasure from pearling beds. Village’s positioning on the Arabic Gulf shore helped make it an important hub, into which goods from Africa, India, Iran were brought by sea and then distributed by resellers to other locations.

It was amazing to think of all this history while climbing over ruins of rock, stepping inside old buildings and not encountering a single soul. Once we reached the central market area, we had to turn around and head to our meeting place with the cab driver because an hour went by so quickly. But we knew that we did not see the entire town, and we were craving to explore the rest. Well, 2 days later we were in another taxi headed back here.

Our second cab driver had never heard of Jazirat Al-Hamra and has no idea where to go. He even consulted with other cabbies, and we pointed to it on the map, but he still did not have a clue. Luckily, we now knew the way and guided him as he drove. We didn’t ask him to return to pick us up – getting a taxi back from the village may be difficult, but certainly not impossible (we were happy to take our chances). This time, I also wore tennis shoes – because climbing rocks and ruined in fancy sandals previously proved to be a little painful.

Our return was on a sunny day, and because of clear weather and white puffy clouds, village felt less haunted, but was still very quiet and 100% empty again.

Around 1930’s local pearl trading industry started to dry up, as Japan was underpricing pearl sellers from this region. Over the next 3 decades, the village was surviving on sales of other goods and boat building, but local inhabitants began to have problems with their government. Eventually they started to relocate to other bigger cities, attracted by better job prospects in the evolving oil industry, and others were given newer residencies elsewhere in Ras Al Khaimah. Yet some locals strongly believe that people moved out because of Jinn – spirits from another world that haunted this town. One way or another, Jazirat Al Hamra was abandoned in the 1960s.

There is no other place like it in the UAE, and while efforts are underway to protect and clean up Jazirat Al Hamra, we were amazed to see how accessible and open and full of rubble it is. This ghost town is quite large – on our second day we walked for another hour and a half and saw the rest of it. And while our hotel (a 15-minute cab ride away) was packed with European vacationers, NONE of them were making their way here – it just doesn’t seem to be a tourist destination, which is mind-blowing considering how fascinated I was by this place. I certainly don’t think it will stay like this – as Ras Al Khaimah continues to develop and attracts more international visitors, the village will eventually get ‘discovered’ and tourist crowds will follow. I also believe (I hope!) that this place will become better preserved, which probably means that most fragile buildings will be off-limits. …For now though, if you are in the Emirates, want to step back in time, away from any noise, and be completely alone – there is a very good chance you will find that in Jazirat Al Hamra. Just wear comfy shoes.

As for my live painting subject, I selected the village’s oldest mosque and its entrance fort. I juxtaposed both structures on a square canvas. Go here to see painting’s progress shots along with a completed piece.

Oh, and here I am with Anna. She is a reporter who lives in Ras Al Khamiah. She has immense knowledge of the area and its people. If you are interested to read an in-depth piece on Jazirat Al Hamra (along with a link to the interactive map of the village’s center) – check our her article right here.  She also runs an amazing Facebook page, People of Ras Al Khaimah .


Ras Al khaimah School mural

United Arab Emirates Art Outreach: murals at boys’ schools & drawing demo at women’s college

United Arab Emirates Art Outreach: After the fun days of Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival, my assignment in the UAE consisted of doing some art outreach programs. So, I was asked to work on art projects with the boys in two local schools. Specifically, these boys are a part of Hands-On Learning Program.

Ras al Khaimah school

Hands-On Learning Program was brought to The Emirates from Australia by Al Qasimi Foundation. It is currently being tested in these two schools in Ras Al Khaimah, and may expand to other locations in the future if it proves successful. The program targets youth who may be at risk of dropping out of school and / or are not thriving in a traditional classroom setting – due to either behavioral issues, or lack of interest, or poor grades, or other difficulties. Boys who are assigned to be in the program, get to leave their regular class one day a week and work building various projects with their hands  – such as furniture construction, landscaping, repair, etc.  Such tasks allow them to stay connected to their local schools and communities while refining their work ethic and communication skills. A big part of the program also involves achieving fluency in English (which is the second language in UAE, after Arabic) – thus, only English is spoken during these class days. Caleb, who is American and teaches these classes, is very patient and awesome with the kids. Personally, I think this program is an excellent concept and should be adopted by every school.

Ras Al khaimah School


It was decided that in each school’s art project will be a wall mural – not a simple task, considering that I was given only one school day in each location to oversee the entire thing from start to (hopefully) finish.

Ras Al khaimah School


Boys worked on several sketches before my arrival of possible mural concepts. They were told to come up scenes that relates to the Emirates – their traditions, history, culture, or architecture. The walls for murals were chosen by each school’s administration.

Ras Al khaimah School


In the first school, (Al Jazeerah Al Hamra), the mural design that boys chose was a semi-abstract decorative pattern. But, then, after looking through prints of my work that I brought in to show, and seeing an image of my Istanbul painting, they got inspired by a mosque and we decided to include it into out wall creation.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

So how do you go from nothing to an (almost) full mural in about 4.5 hours? You paint fast! First, I sketched the design on a wall – a tricky task since I mostly eyeballed proportions.

Arab Emirates school mural

Then, “the team” and I started with black outlines.

United Arab Emirates school mural

Then, we added in color and I showed the boys how to layer texture. The point of this project was to get all of them to paint, so my role here was more of a “mural manager”.

Ras Al khaimah School


Ras Al Khaimah school mural

These kids’ English is not at a great level yet, and they were shy about answering my questions and picking up a paint brush at fist. They also have little painting experience, so initially their lines were sloppy and they were impatient about creating solid color coverage in each section. But as we continued with the mural, it was so nice to watch their transformation – they became less shy, more communicative, and seemed to really get into the project! Over the course of these few hours they started to care about quality of their work, and each of them even seemed to find his “niche” – so I deemed one kid to be my “designated cloud painter”.

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Some onlookers gathered to watch through the classroom windows.

Ras Al khaimah School

As a part of Hands On Learning program, boys were also in charge of making lunch – so they prepared a yummy salad and some “pizza”.

Ras Al khaimah School

FIRST SCHOOL’S FINAL RESULT: mural mostly completed! Impressive, considering the brief amount of time we were given. I was also taken on a tour of the school and even got to meet the principal.

Ras Al khaimah School

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Second mural project was the next day, and took place in Saeed Bin Jubair Boys’ School.

Ras Al khaimah School

Ras Al khaimah School

Here, I was introduced to another group of kids, and another, much larger, blank wall.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

The subject chosen for this mural was a landscape with a Emirati woman preparing bread – a folklore scene. In the background would be trees and mountains, on the left side – a house / shack constructed with mud and dried palm leaves, which is an older, traditional way of building in this region.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

This wall was at least 3 times as large as previous day’s wall – so, this mural would be a multi-day project, but since I only had a day to work with the kids, I was eager to get as much done as possible.

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Ras Al khaimah School mural

The wall was in an open area of a school, so during breaks between classes, we were swarmed with boys watching us work. And you know what? They were teasing our group a little about painting, but I’m pretty sure they were actually a little envious of their friends in Hands On Learning who got to work on such a fun task.

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Ras Al khaimah School mural

This mural was also more difficult because instead of flat colors, every area of it was meant to be filled with texture. I showed boys what brushing techniques I use to paint grass, mountains, tree bark – and they tried their best to imitate.

Ras Al khaimah School mural

The woman in the mural is wearing a traditional Emirati burqa (sometimes called Khaleeji burqa, or in other countries called Batula). This one is quite different from a burqa as Western world understands it – it covers a smaller portion of the woman’s face and is made of hard fabric with a metallic texture. These burqas are now mostly found in rural areas amongst the older generation, they look a bit like fighting armor, and were initially designed to mimic a falcon. Such burqas were worn to conceal a woman’s face, yes – but also served a purpose of decoration and protection from sand and sunburn.

When I finished painting the woman’s face, it was translated to me that boys said that I made her eyes look like a gazelle – I thought it was a bad thing, until they explained that it is how they give compliments to girls! Ha. The kid whose sketch we used for a mural took charge of painting her dress and rug – very colorful combination!

Ras Al khaimah School mural

SECOND SCHOOL’S RESULT: In the end of the day, we ended up with this! Not too shabby for 4.5 hours of work. Boys will be finishing this mural on their own. I left this school with memories of another fantastic day.

Ras Al khaimah School mural

Ras Al khaimah School mural

That evening, we left Ras Al Khaimah and traveled over the mountain range to Fujairah, where I did a presentation and pencil drawing demo at women’s Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT). This is the only corner of UAE that has mountains, and, unlike most of the country, Fujairah coastline sits on Gulf of Oman, facing East.


Visiting a federal university here requires government clearance, and after submitting lots of paperwork through U.S. embassy weeks ago, I was finally given clearance the day before my visit! At HCT, I talked about being an artist, and then did a quick pencil demo on how to sketch, shade, and measure proportions of a face. Funny thing is, I did not know exactly what I was going to be doing at HCT – I only found out about the drawing demo on the day I received my clearance. I’m a painter, and have never even given a pencil drawing demo before – but my Ukrainian art preparatory school classes paid off here, and I was able to wing it! I showed these ladies how to alter the face and make it look old, young, happy, sad, neutral. I gave my drawn lady ears, but then covered her head to mimic the same type of hijab that all the women in front of me were wearing.

Fujairah drawing demo

Typically, Emrati Muslim women prefer that photos of their faces are not shared by others on social media, so while they took photos with me for my personal enjoyment, they will not be posted here. But even though I can’t share their smiles, I must say that they were the sweetest. They seemed very interested in my stories, my demo, and even laughed at all of my cheesy jokes.

fujairah drawing demo

And with that, my art projects in UAE were completed. What an amazing experience! I loved every minute of it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.


Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival

Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival & my first live painting abroad

The main reason for our last month’s travels to the Arab Emirates was my participation in the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival, which generously invited me to take part as an honorary guest artist. The concept of this festival is quite different from the sea-of-art-tents kind of event that I am so familiar with in the States. This show consisted of 3 days of activities – Opening Day, Film Screening, and Garden Party, all involving wonderfully-dressed people (artists, actors, designers, filmmakers, foundation crew) with a daily red carper to boot (hey, it’s the Emirates, baby!)

Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival

The RAK Fine Art Festival took place in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. It is safe to say that Ras Al Khaimah (or RAK) is not well known in the western world, because most of the Emirates fame and tourism gets filtered into Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Northern emirates don’t get as much recognition on the world stage yet – and that is perfectly fine with me as I find it more interesting to explore the lesser known lands.

The Fine Art Festival is organized by Al Qasimi Foundation, which is headed by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, and was established to aid in the social, cultural, and economic development of RAK. While I did not get to meet His Highness (lets just get this out of the way: nope, I did not meet any sheikhs while on this trip) – the crew of the foundation welcomed us with open arms and showed us incredible hospitality (and by “us” I mean myself and Kurt – of course he talked me into letting him come along on this trip, so I assigned him the job of a “social photographer”, ha!) Al Qasimi Foundation works closely with the U.S. Embassy, who contacted me with an invitation to this adventure.

UAE is a young country with a very diverse population, which mostly consists of expats (Dubai, for example, has only about 15% UAE nationals). However, Ras Al Khaimah has the highest Emirati population rate – at about 45% – so in that sense it is, perhaps, the most authentic.

RAK Fine Art Festival was great fun. First day of the festival, Thursday, consisted of the opening party, with beautifully dressed people of many professions and backgrounds. I think the most challenging aspect of this for me was the search for a long dress to wear – turns out, it isn’t easy to find a non-tacky evening gown in the States that fits well and is not designed to be a bridal dress or a prom dress, especially for someone like myself who quickly gets nauseous from shopping. And here, in the Emirates, gorgeous long dresses of all styles are sold everywhere, but there wasn’t much time to shop. Anyway – the opening party was lovely and the most enjoyable part of it was meeting people from many corners of the world.

Second day of the festival, Friday, consisted of film screening. We watched quite a selection of Emirati and regional indie short films, some created by students and some by career filmmakers. The films offered an opportunity to take a closer look at the local culture. After the film screening, there was an award ceremony, and somehow I even got trusted to present visual art awards (my big “official” job of the evening).

Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival

Day three of RAK Fine Art Festival was scheduled for Saturday and was supposed to include a visual arts exhibition along with my international “live painting debut”.  But instead, it got wiped out by a massive sand storm that reduced visibility and made it practically impossible to go outside without a face mask! Supposedly, sand storm of this scale are not very common in the Emirates, so it was very kind of Mother Nature to present this special treat just for us!

Arab Emirates sand storm

We spent the day on “lock-down” in our hotel room – but that that gave me a chance  to dedicate a few hours to preparing the painting. Live painting is a challenging task due to time constraint – it isn’t easy to create a nice piece from start to finish in a mere 2-3 hours. So I was happy to get all the “boring parts” – i.e. dark underpainting – out of the way, while sitting on the hotel room floor, trying not to splatter paint on the carpet. (By the way, I do not recommend painting in this position unless there is a necessity – it makes for a very sore back, oy). Sand storm calmed down in the evening, and was followed by rain, which was followed by a gorgeous starry night.

Day three of RAK Fine Art Festival, Take 2 was rescheduled for Sunday. And the crowd actually showed up – because this is the right-knit community of Ras Al-Khaimah, and everybody knows each other, and they still wanted to enjoy and support this event despite Sunday being a work day in the UAE.

Ras Al Khaimah art festival

The visual art exhibition along with the “Garden Party” took place on the gorgeous grounds of RAK National Museum. The museum is housed in a 18th-century fort that, until 1964, served as the residence of the Qawasim rulers.

My live painting area, as well as the party, were set up in the museum’s courtyard – and this was, hands down, the nicest setting that I have ever painted in!

Aside from my painting, I brought 2 canvas prints (which were framed and displayed) to show the public examples of my completed work.

RAK Fine Art Festival

As for my painting subject matter – of course, the plan was to depict a local landmark. There are many shiny new ones around here, but I really like old buildings and decay. So, I chose the historic ghost village of Al Jazirat Al-Hamra – which we visited and photographed two days prior (more on that fascinating place later!). From my photographs, I created a composition of 2 structures – the village fort and an ancient mosque.  The sky / background I filled with pattern loosely inspired by Arabic texture and designs that I have noticed in this area. Here are the beginning stages of the painting:

…and the underpainting – darker, more boring part – which I completed in the hotel:

Live painting at the RAK Museum Garden Party was so enjoyable, and having conversations about my painting process and art while working was quite interesting too.

I love answering public’s questions which help them understand how time-consuming painting process actually is. For example: “Why does the piece you are working on contain so much less detail than this one?” (pointing to the canvas print on my left). Me: “Well, that original paining took about 50 hours of work. This one, so far, have taken about 4 and I only have maybe another hour to complete it!”

Visual exhibition by other artists consisted of painting, mixed media, sculpture, fashion design, and photography.

Here is Jess, she works for Al Qasimi Foundation, and this girl is the main connection to my invitation to UAE. She is from Louisville, and she spotted my artwork there at St. James Court Art Show. I’ve always loved Louisville and its people, but now I love it even more. Thank you Jess!

RAK Fine Art Festival

In the end of the evening, as the party and my painting session were winding down, it was a special pleasure to meet the RAK National Museum Director.

I took the painting back to the hotel, and after a few more tweaks and highlights and brush strokes, I deem it completed. I gifted this piece to Al Qasimi Foundation – I thought it should stay in Ras Al Khaimah, and it was the least I could do to give them my thanks for such a fantastic experience!


Anastasia Mak Ras Al Khaimah art festival program

I think I left some paint marks in UAE!

So, we just returned from the United Arab Emirates where I was invited, via a grant through the American Embassy, to come participate in Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival and do some youth art outreach programs. The trip was an unbelievable unique opportunity to create art abroad and engage with a new (to me) culture. Al Qasimi Foundation, who were in charge of organizing the festival and the programs, hosted us in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah and treated us so well that I thought I may have entered an Arabian fairytale for a week. Now that I am home and going though all of my photos and memories, I will be posting a few stories here. For the time being, here is my program page from the festival (hey, I was just fascinated to see my artist profile in Arabic – my first!).

Anastasia Mak Ras Al Khaimah art festival program

And here a press release, kindly written by Al Qasimi Foundation after my visit, describing what art shenanigans I ended up getting into while in UAE:

(Full text here in case of future link failure):

March 04, 2015

Destination Painter Leaves Mark on Ras Al Khaimah

Al Qasimi Foundation

In the international art world, Anastasia Mak is known for her expressionist paintings of some of the world’s most notable destinations, including Rome, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Istanbul. Thanks to a collaboration between the Al Qasimi Foundation and the U.S. Mission in the United Arab Emirates, Ms. Mak can now add a painting of Ras Al Khaimah to her portfolio after spending a week promoting arts and culture throughout the emirate and neighboring Fujairah.

“My art is influenced by my explorations of unfamiliar places, so I was thrilled to be invited to the northern emirates. After only a few days in this community, I can see why people visit Ras Al Khaimah and end up staying for years,” says Ms. Mak.

Ms. Mak was a featured guest artist for the 2015 Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival and also spent several days participating in outreach programs at local schools. Her visit embodied the Al Qasimi Foundation’s mission to support the social and cultural development of the emirate. It also highlighted the important role artistic expression plays in community development by bringing people from diverse cultural backgrounds together.

“Ras Al Khaimah is home to people from all over the globe and continues to be a center of Emirati heritage. The Al Qasimi Foundation wanted to host someone who could appreciate and represent our emirate through her art,” says Mr. Suqrat bin Bisher, Events Manager at the Foundation. “Anastasia’s unique background makes her a great ambassador for cultural exchange and artistic appreciation.”

A native of Ukraine, Anastasia Mak moved to the United States as an exchange student at the age of 14. She has traveled throughout the States and abroad, striving to expand her knowledge of different places and build on her appreciation of the world’s diversity. It was this spirit of adventure and curiosity that led Ms. Mak to jump on the opportunity to experience Ras Al Khaimah.

Ms. Mak began her time in the UAE at the weekend-long Fine Arts Festival where she had the chance to encourage and network with local and international artists. She also found time to explore the historic village of Al Jazeera Al Hamra, which she channeled into one of her distinctive destination paintings. In her signature geometric style, she brought an abandoned guard tower and one of the oldest mosques in the emirate to life in front of guests at the festival’s visual arts exhibition, which was held at the Ras Al Khaimah National Museum.

Ms. Mak’s success as a professional artist offered tangible inspiration to individuals in Ras Al Khaimah who sometimes struggle to find outlets for their creative interests.

“Ras Al Khaimah is growing as a hub of cultural activity and arts, and that is important to the community,” comments Ms. Jenny Reeves Manley, who brought her children and parents to the art exhibition. “I think it’s important for artists to know each other and to showcase their art so that they have something to be proud of.”

Ms. Mak did not only focus on the artistic crowd, however. Her time in the UAE included delivering messages of encouragement and a drawing lesson to undergraduates at the Higher Colleges of Technology Women’s Campus in Fujairah.

She also spent time cultivating technical skills and confidence among students who are part of the Foundation’s Hands on Learning (HOL) program, which works to engage local secondary students who are at risk of dropping out of school.

Visiting two Ras Al Khaimah boys’ schools, Ms. Mak worked alongside students as they constructed murals on their campuses. As students painted mosques, mountains, and palm trees, they learned first hand of the technical demands of art and experienced the planning and patience often required by creative endeavors.

Opportunities to work with professional craftsmen like Ms. Mak have been uncommon for most of these students, and Mr. Caleb Wilson, the Foundation associate heading up the HOL program, appreciated the chance for his students to build self-discipline and self-confidence.

“Anastasia was wonderful to work with. It was great seeing her teach our students how to add dimension to paintings through their brush strokes, to mix colors, and to work thoughtfully. I hope that she is able to visit again and collaborate on another project for HOL in the future,” says Mr. Wilson.

In addition to contributing to these murals, Ms. Mak donated three of her pieces, including portraits of Chicago, Istanbul, and Al Jazeera Al Hamra, to the Ras Al Khaimah community.

According to Ms. Mak, she came to the northern emirates as a representative of the artistic community and will leave as an admirer of Ras Al Khaimah and its people. For Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Al Qasimi Foundation, the feeling is mutual.

“Anastasia was an inspiration to our students, the artistic community in Ras Al Khaimah, and everyone at the Al Qasimi Foundation. Spending time with her and the other talented artists from Ras Al Khaimah and the broader region reminds us that life without art is no life at all: it really brings the community together.”

Exploring Paris

After our fantastic bike trip through Southern France, it was time to spend a few days exploring Paris and London. Mostly, I just wanted to get a series of inspirational shots for future paintings. The weather was unseasonably warm (60s and 70s in late October and early November) which made strolling especially pleasant. (And by strolling, I mean about 10-miles-per-day kind of strolling).

Eiffel Tower looks its absolute best when it’s glowing orange from setting sun.

The buildings across the river from Notre Dame have already inspired….

…this painting. (Titled “Paris Roofs” and sized 12×12. Many more to come, by the way!)

Sacré-Cœur will be by next piece. Maybe a little cliché, as it is a very popular painting subject – but I have always been fascinated by this easily recognizable white majestic structure, and I tend to have affinity for basilicas that are perched on top of hills, anyway.

Speaking of basilicas – it is hard to get enough of Notre Dame (another overly popular painting subject, and yep, I plan on creating more pieces inspired by it!).

Notre Dame Lock bridge

For the first time ever, we agreed to wait in an hour-long line of tourists to access its rooftop. We actually waited until a colder gloomy day to get up on that roof, because it sets the mood properly. Most of all, I wanted to see this guy – my favorite gargoyle. There he is, thoughtfully observing the city. …as he has done for a few hundred years now!

The views from here really are majestic. It is the gloomy, gothic, monochromatic autumn Europe I love and miss (sometimes).

Late night street views surrounding our hotel (in the 7th arrondissement) were exceptionally charming…

….but staying in a hotel right above a fromagerie (cheese shop) was severely drool-inducing. The smell of that pungent, stinky cheese, made its way up the stairs into our nostrils daily, resulting in our frequent purchases of various cheesy servings as “appetizers”. I am so glad that our stay here was only 3 days, as this cheese shop addition eventually started to get a little out of hand. Any possible calories lost during those 6 days of biking were coming back with a vengeance.

Narrow streets like these are my favorite parts of this city. We overheard a tour guide calling these narrow buildings “pregnant” – because they stick out in the center, overhanging above sidewalk.

Being in Paris only 3 days with nearly perfect weather, it was hard to find the time to visit many museums – but the art collection in Centre Pompidou was beyond impressive. We spent nearly 4 hours in that building, and that was in a rushed fashion.

Here is my old long-distance friend: Duchamp’s “Woman Descending a Staircase”. Very nice to meet her in person.

marcel duchamp woman descending

And it’s always lovely to see some Basquiat in the mix. (Yes, photography in the Pompidou is allowed, sans flash – with the exception of certain specific clearly-marked off-limits pieces).

Basquiat painting Paris

But our best Paris treat was in the end. Right at time of our arrival, the brand new Louis Vuitton Foundation, housed in a shiny glass building by Frank Gehry, opened to public. We were there, in line to get in, only 2 days after its opening. I expected mobs of people, but the ticket line was actually just about half-hour long – not bad at all for such a brand new famous landmark. Louis Vuitton Foundation is a cultural center and a contemporary art gallery (and no, it does not exhibit Louis Vuitton bags) housed in a ship-shaped architectural marvel. You either love Gehry’s architecture or hate it – and to me it is very awe-worthy.

The collection inside was interesting and diverse. Again, I wish we had more time to spend here. I loved watching the documentary about this building’s construction, and learning about all the immigrant workers who put their efforts into making this thing rise. Contemporary art rooms were cool and cohesive. Every corner of this brand new gallery smelled like fresh wood and paint. But most of my attention, of course, was focused on the outside.

We lucked out and got a warm sunny day for this visit (because I wanted to see the glass glisten!) and it felt like we were in a labyrinth for adults. Everywhere you look, you get a “photogenic salad” of glass, metal and concrete, sometimes enhanced by funky lights. Makes it a little hard not to constantly click the shutter.

Yep, as far as I’m concerned, Frank Gehry can do no wrong. This was simply stunning.

And here are a couple of shots of views (and graffiti) along Paris canal to close out this post. See you later, Paris!

Biking in Southern France

st emillion

So, in October we went on one of the most memorable trips – 6 days of independent biking in Southern France! For the longest time, Kurt wanted to ride a bike through Bordeaux, but we were both always put off by the idea of being on a “tour”. Typically, when you are a part of a bike tour, you are only going as fast as the slowest person in the group. Plus, you may have to negotiate stops and breaks and places to eat with the rest of the crowd, which, well, takes the adventure edge off just a little bit. On the other hand, group tours are easy…. and pre-planned, without the hassle of finding bike rentals, or accommodations….. and, most importantly, they transport your luggage! ….and are there for you in case of emergency. So we were somewhat torn on how to handle this.

…Until, that is, we found a SELF-GUIDED bike tour option (organized by Discover France). You get all the perks of being on a group bike tour – yes, yes, luggage transfer too! – minus the super steep price, and, well, a group. It was simply perfect, and our 6 days of biking were fun and gorgeous beyond belief.

The starting point was the city of Bordeaux, where, after sleeping off the jet lag, we got our bikes and helmets and got ready for the morning departure.

(But not before some surprising spontaneous carnival action which was taking place just outside of our hotel!)

Bordeaux carnival

In the morning we headed across the river to a bike trail, pedaling 30 miles towards St Emilion. Here is a great stop along the way: L’Abbaye de La Sauve-Majeure, a former monastery which is now in ruins.

The town of St Emilion is a UNESCO world heritage site with gorgeous ruins, churches, steep streets and stacked houses. It is also one of the main red wine areas in the region of Bordeax, so it has wine stores. And more wine stores. And right next to all those wine store are… other wine stores. It just so happens that Bordeax wine is my favorite, so I was in a happy place!

The following day the route was about 20 miles to Sainte Radegonde. Stunning views, biking though endless vineyards – and because this was the end of their harvest season, air was filled with the smell of ripe red grapes.

By the way, we had no guide, and all of our routes were pre-programmed in a little GPS that did a wonderful job keeping us on the small scenic country roads. Not a lot of traffic, and lots of bonjour’s, friendly honks and waves from locals. The French love cyclists!

Here is the views from our chateau in St Radegonde – which is actually in the middle of fields and farms, surrounded by cows, geese, ducks, tractors – and of course, more vineyards.

St Radegonde

From there, it was a 30 mile ride to Bergerac. It was fall, and while the days were perfectly mild and sunny, mornings were brisk and full of fog. But what fog it was! These trees made me think that were were riding through a fairy tale.

Our route – thanks, trusty GPS! – took us through many quiet, old, picturesque villages. On this route we crossed from Bordeaux into Dordogne region.

Bergerac is a charming ancient city (aren’t they all here?!), sitting on Dordogne River, full of historic renaissance buildings.

From Bergerac it was 25 miles to Tremolat. The terrain difficulty of our rides has been increasing day by day, and this one was hilliest yet. This region has less vineyards, and limestone cliffs rise along the banks of the river.

Our chateau room, 5 kilometers outside of the Tremolat village, was the cutest.

From Tremolat – 30 miles to Les Eyzies. With a lunch stop in Le Bugue (another prehistoric charming town on the river? Well, okay. If you insist!).

Hilly, hilly ride! I’m using all of my gears, constantly, now. Some hills were so steep that it was much easier to walk, but the payoff, aside from gorgeous views, was all the downhill flying. Wow, was the flying fun.

Did I also mention that my butt hurt? Yeah, the “normal” bike seat was too rough for me (my own bike at home is outfitted with a super cushy one) so I should have invested in some gel pads. Lesson for the future! But lets get back to that scenery….

The bales of hay, which were everywhere, made me imagine that we were biking through Van Gogh paintings:

Meanwhile, Kurt clearly was popular with the French ladies:

Les Eyzeis is another UNESCO site – a village which seems to grow out of a cliff. It contains some important archeological sights, which unfortunately we didn’t get to explore because we had another full day of pedaling ahead.

The last ride was to Sarlat. It was shortest in distance, but for some reason hardest in endurance for me. Another giant steep hill and then, more flying. What a great feeling it was to descend, at 30mph, onto a medieval town lined with cobblestone streets. Sarlat is very prehistoric and representative of 14th century France, full of buildings with very steep roofs. It was a bittersweet time, too, as this is  where we surrendered our bikes, and the following day – hopped on a train to Paris.

This post was only intended to give a brief overview of our tour and show some photos. Neither words nor photographs, though, can fully describe that giddy feeling of hopping on a bike every morning knowing that yet another unique adventure awaits. I also can’t quite translate how good it feels to have fresh french country air hit your face, or how delicious each wine glass was after a daily long ride. I did not even get into describing the food we ate, which was so amazing it would bring you to tears. And I did not yet mention how nice all the people were – everywhere we went (or rode) the locals gave us fantastic treatment. This was, simply put, the BEST way to discover France. I have gathered a ton of inspiration for some new paintings, and can’t wait to a similar bike adventure again!

New Orleans

I’m so happy to have finally made it back to New Orleans last month! Once before, I visited this magical place, but my memories of it were bleak and brief as I was only 16 and it was simply a day visit. This time, however, we indulged in a well-rounded, mufti-day New Orleans experience.

And what can I say? The rumors are true: this city, indeed, is filled with life, bright colors, crooked houses, great food, loud people, fabulous art, hot sauce, street music, muddy river water, creole cottages, iron balconies, humidity and wonderful Louisiana hospitality.

But I was mostly here for architecture. My goal was to capture “the essence” of this city with my camera lens, which then hopefully, would be translated into some new paintings. Because when customers ask me, over and over, to “PLEASE paint some New Orleans already!” – I do eventually give in and listen.

What I found here though, was much more than a collection of photographs of funky streets and bright colored buildings. Because that special energy of a place can not be stored on a camera’s memory card. The way it FEELS to walk into a crowded intersection dancing to a jazz street orchestra, or have beautiful abandoned houses eerily surround you like ghosts as you veer away from French Quarter, or get to know the styles of local folk artists, or take your first bite of the best shrimp-and-grits you will ever try – all that can be only experienced first-hand and not through a camera lens.

And so we walked, for miles and miles. From the Garden District, to the end of Uptown, through Lafayette Cemetery, onward to French Quarter, evenings on Frenchman Street, and then Bywater, all the way to the end. Then back to the Garden District, where was our hotel. Never bothered with a cab or streetcar, only on foot.

But we also made it out to the bayou for some lovely “swamp exploring”. And seeing how life goes on and houses get built outside the levees (all while hearing numerous Katrina stories), and how catfish traps are set, and how swamp trees grow, and how alligators live, and how everything feeds on everything –  that was nothing short of fascinating.

I think NOW I’m ready to paint New Orleans. Actually, here is my first piece. It is titled “New Orleans Quilt” – because the city is such a patchwork of styles and senses. I look forward to painting more Big Easy scenes. And also – definitely to returning here someday.

New Orleans painting

Southern Arizona: hiking and making little paintings

In the end of February, I traveled to southern Arizona for some sunshine, hiking, and color inspiration. I have a great friend Trish who lives in Tucson, and for several years I have been meaning to pay her a visit. Back at home, while snow and cold air generally don’t bother me too much, we’ve had an especially brutal Chicago winter in 2014, and this ended up being the perfect timing for some desert views!

Tucson is a sprawling small city, surrounded by several mountain ranges, and there are so many hiking opportunities within a just a 40-minute drive from downtown. These views are from Blackett’s Ridge trail, which runs above the popular Sabino Canyon.

One of my interesting Tucson art visits was DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. It consists of a series of buildings and a large paintings collection by Ted DeGrazia, who created impressionistic works of Native Americans. Pictured below is the chapel building there:

….which then inspired this little painting:

Later, we traveled for some hiking to Chiricahua National Monument. This place is full of amazing, majestic vertical rock formations, which, geologists believe, resulted from a massive violation eruption that took place about 27 million years ago.

The trail we were on ranks amongst some of the beautiful hikes I have ever done. With each turn, a new panorama of rock formations opened up, they were both surreal and playful. Some of them are shaped like people, some – like birds, some – like cartoon characters.

But most amazing and puzzling thing about this park is that it was – pretty much – empty! On a gorgeous 75 degree sunny day, after completing our 9.5 mile loop trai hike, we encountered maybe a total of 6 people (4 of whom were Amish). Could this be the best kept secret of Arizona? …and am I spoiling the magic by broadcasting it?? Nah. I don’t think I am ruining the solitude of future Chiricahua hikers, as most AZ visitors will continue to swarm up North, aiming for Sedona and Grand Canyon.

Meanwhile, colors of the Chiricahua rocks changed to different hues throughout the day, affected by positioning of the sun. At one point, they were all glowing neon green (because of lichen – or fungus-that covers them) – and orange (because of sunset)! What a stunning valley, and photos, of course, hardly do justice.

And I then I followed up my hike with some very small, Chiricahua-inspired paintings:

On the way back to Tucson, we stopped in the old mining town of Bisbee for some locally brewed beer and dinner. This town is so charming, and I so wish I had the opportunity to visit it during the day. Someday, I hope to make it back here, but for now, here is a quick night shot:

Our next trail took us to Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountain range. Surrounded by Sonora dessert and lush prickly vegetation, it was another hike-winner.

And then, sure enough, came out a cactus-inspired painting:

On the day I drove back to Phoenix to catch my flight home, I managed to squeeze in one last uphill adventure – Hunter Trail to Picacho Peak, which, from the interstate, looks like this:

What a unique mountain this is. This huge rock has eroded into a sharp spire, and trail to the the tip, while only 2 miles long, is so steep that it requires holding on to various steel cables in many places. It was a climb-hike, a perfect way to end my little vacation.

This last little painting was inspired by simply enjoying a sunset on my friend’s balcony. Bye, Arizona. Thank you for another round of gorgeous hikes, well crafted beer, fun company, and yoga. It was great to see you again!

New Zealand: Franz Josef Glacier

So, after spending a few beautiful days in Wellington and Queenstown, it was time to head to Franz Josef Glacier. These are some shots from our 6+ hour drive. We were starting to feel a little spoiled as all the incredible scenery was getting almost redundant!

And then – the patio area of our room in Franz Josef village with a view of the glacier.  Can this go on forever, please?

A visit to Franz Josef is all about getting up on the glacier, of course. But it is not always guaranteed. Full length hiking tours were allowed there up until a couple of years ago, but now ice in the lower part of the glacier is rapidly disintegrating, and due its fragility people are no longer allowed to hike up. The only way to get onto the glacier now is by helicopter. Climate in Franz Josef and all along South Island’s West Coast is very wet – it rains about 50% of the time, during which it is mostly no-go weather. Franz Josef tour operators and helicopter companies keep close watch on the forecast, and then determine which days are flying days. …All we could do is hope that we go up!

And we got lucky! After a slight delay in the morning due to fog, we (along with several other hiking groups) got outfitted with waterproof clothing, big boots, and crampons, boarded the choppers and were taken up to a magical playground of snow and blue ice.

Our hike was glorious! The fog completely disappeared and we were basking in sunshine. The waterproof clothing that we were given was almost too hot.  (Our guide’s name was Matt and he is from Cleveland, OH. Haaa! Cleveland.)

The photo below is one of my favorites – but of course, you guys can’t tell that the steep incline is just an optical illusion, right? RIGHT?

But in the end of the hike, all of a sudden everything became ominous. Thick fog rolled in, visibility gradually decreased and temperatures dropped by about 20 degrees (Farenheit). We were waiting near the heli pad for helicopters that never came. Finally guides were radioed by the base and told that conditions are worsening, and it will be some time before, hopefully, flying weather resumes.

There are several plastic bins scattered around the glacier that contain supplies in case of poor weather conditions and emergencies. Some of the bins contain “tent-tarps” which you unroll and get underneath, as a group, to stay warm.  The tarps were a little stinky, but it was a much cozier option than shaking like a leaf in the wind.

The wait went on for an hour, then two, then almost three. There seemed to be no improvement and guides started devising plans for a foot hike down the fragile ice. In order to create a path in constantly shifting ice, “stairs” have to be carved out, and then a group is carefully led all the way down to the glacier valley.  This slow descent was going to take another 3 or 4 hours. Even though we were freezing, Kurt and I got VERY excited at the possibility of a bonus adventure.  Groups that were stuck at the very top of the glacier had a rougher day – they did not have an alternative of hiking down, so their only option in no-flying weather is to get some tents from supply bins, move them off the ice and into the hills, and spend the night. Apparently that has never happened before.

But then – there was a small clearance in the weather, and pilots took a chance.  They evacuated people from the top first, and, after a few quick flights, came for us. So – no bonus adventure for us, but I admit, hearing that echoing sound of the first helicopter was very comforting. We were now that much closer to a well-earned glass of wine!

We were dropped off at the glacier valley. Which is covered by rainforest. Because that is how amazing New Zealand is. When our (very prolonged) glacier day was over, we were told that hiking groups get stranded there only once every couple of years. Frankly, I’m very surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. Or – who knows – maybe those guides said it because they wanted to make us feel special.

And that was the end of our glacier adventure. But I will leave you with some Franz Josef llamas. Because everyone loves llamas. (Or, more likely, they’re alpacas? Anyway – cute fuzzy long-necked creatures).

Our South Island adventure continued with the drive to Arthur’s Pass National Park, and then Christchurch.