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This is the fifth post in the Travel Highlights Series sharing some of the most enduring highlights of all our travels.

Galapagos, Equador
We climb into a rubber dinghy for the short ride from our boat to Mosquera Islet; we slip off the side of the dinghy into crystal clear waters and walk onto a long empty white sand beach. Empty except for hundreds of sea lions.

The sea lions are indifferent to our invasion. They have never had reason to be afraid of humans so they continue doing their sea lion thing: walking their lurching walk, rolling in the sand, barking, swimming, rolling in the waves, pups suckling or mewing for mum. They are stacked up side by side, rolling around and on top of each other, playing together, soaking up the sun and the water, completely at one with their environment and oblivious to us.

On the groups of lava rocks dotted here and there along the edge of the water dozens of marine iguanas and hundreds of crabs are crawling floundering swarming all over each other, clinging precariously to the rocks as the waves crash over them, until there is a wave so big that it washes them all off into the sea.

During the course of our time there we see many marine iguanas,

and the wondrously colourful Sally Lightfoot crabs are everywhere.

The Galapagos, a volcanic archipelago straddling the equator, consists of 19 islands and over 100 rocks and islets. It lies about 1000 kilometres off the west coast of South America. It is a province of Ecuador, a national park, and a biological marine reserve.

On board ship our days unfold in a steady rhythm: a hearty early breakfast followed by a trip by dinghy to an island where we go hiking and/or swimming and/or snorkelling always in close range of wildlife that has no concern for our presence. A sumptuous lunch is followed by a rest then another outing to a different island, followed by a four-course dinner. Every evening there are dazzling sunsets.

Some islands are little more than harsh rock, some are covered in low vegetation, some are forested. There are blue-footed boobies,

red-footed boobies, a whole huge breeding colony of Nazca boobies,

herons, frigates, pelicans, mockingbirds and swallowtail gulls.

One day I am snorkelling alone a little way off shore, heading for a nearby islet hoping to see the fish that gather around the underwater rocks. Instead, about half way there I meet a turtle. For a few serene joyous minutes I swim with the turtle, keeping it in sight, then losing it, then finding it again, in a watery game of hide and seek.

We go snorkelling with turtles, sharks, dolphins and angelfish. And of course have several encounters with the famous giant Galapagos tortoise.

Every day there is a new adventure; we love ship-board life; we love the tropical climate and the warm clear waters; and we love most of all the close encounters with the untroubled, abundant, beguiling wildlife. It is a magical time. Then after eight days our Galapagos adventure came to an end. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.

Petra, Jordan
It is a natural geographic fault, a deep crack in the land caused by an earthquake and later worn smooth by wind and water; it is a little over one kilometre long and in some places no more than two metres wide; the rock walls of this unassailable crevasse are up to 182 metres high.

It is known as the Siq, meaning shaft, and it is the entrance to one of the most remarkable ancient sites in the world.

We walk as a straggly group led by our guide. Suddenly he tells us to stop. He knows the exact spot. On his instructions we take one more step forward and there it is. The impact is immediate. I feel as if my heart will burst. In front of me is the iconic view of the Treasury at Petra as first seen from the Siq. A sliver of something eternal and enigmatic, classical lines framed by the softly curving rock walls of the canyon. Not a photograph, the real thing there before me. I gasp, and then forget to breathe.

We continue walking. I wonder if we will ever get to the end. And then we are there, stepping out into a broad opening. The Treasury, Al Khazneh, stands before us like an epiphany. With its clean Hellenistic lines it is surely the most spectacular and astounding sight in all of Jordan.

The Nabataeans were an industrious Arab people who settled in the area more than two and a half thousand years ago. Petra, their capital, was known as Raqmu. It was a natural fortress, and by figuring out how to control the water flowing through the wadi, often in the form of flash floods, the Nabateans established an artificial oasis; in doing so they also established control of the main commercial routes that passed through the area.

Petra is vast.

From the treasury we follow the valley past hundreds of elaborate tombs carved into the cliffs. The houses of the Nabataeans were destroyed by earthquakes, but the tombs were built to last for eternity.

There are obelisks, sacrificial altars, colonnaded streets, a theatre, and temples. I am awed by the sheer size, the geometric perfection, and the elegant classical lines.

There is an ageless rock-cut path of more than eight hundred steps, the processional route to the High Place of Sacrifice of this ancient civilization.This is where the Ad-Deir Monastery is hidden away. Though less well-known, it is another of the great monuments of Petra, another grand Nabataean tomb, similar in design to the treasury but much bigger.

Next morning, after a long hike

we reach a high plateau.

Our guide tells us to stop. Once again he knows the exact spot. We move forward and there it is. For the second time in two days I disintegrate with joy into a million sparkling fragments. I am dazzled. We are above the Treasury, looking down upon it.

I’d heard about Petra, and seen pictures of course, but nothing could prepare me for the real thing. Not just the famed Treasury, but the entire ancient city of Raqmu will forever remain as one of the most astounding places I’ve ever seen. It is truly spectacular.

Kurayami Festival, Tokyo, Japan

A few weeks back, as part of this Travel Highlights Series I published a post about the best three of the many local cultural festivals we’ve attended – Guelaguetza Festival in Mexico, Candelaria Festival in Peru, and the Pushkar Camel Fair in India. A few days after I’d published I realized I’d forgotten Kurayami! Kurayami was by far the most spectacular and riveting of them all and I’d not included it?! How could that have happened? So here then is a recap of the best of the best:

Seven hundred thousand! That’s how many people descend on the Tokyo neighbourhood of Fuchu City and the Okunitama Shrine for the weeklong Kurayami Festival.

The children:
I am captivated by the transformation of playful children into serious ceremonial dancers, by the bright colours of their costumes, by their enthusiasm and dedication, by the exquisite kaleidoscopic kimonos, and by the haunting music. The children bring innocent life to the old traditions.

The Manto Lanterns:

I join a large circle of people seated on the ground. There are several teams, and the first group moves into the circle with their lantern and gathers around it. After some prayers and chanting they move away and one man is left holding the “lantern”. He lifts it and begins to spin while his team begins chanting and clapping. The man goes faster and faster spinning in circles with the 50 kg “lantern”. As he spins the arms of the “lantern” fly out higher and higher like a fairground ride.

Soon it is over. The team reassembles in the centre and then makes way for the next team. It is at once a performance and a competition. I thought the competition was to see how long they could keep the lantern spinning, but I read it is also about grace. Of course. It’s Japan. You get points for doing it gracefully.

The Kurayami Festival is held at Okunitama Shrine every year. Its roots date back hundreds of years. The core of the festival is calling down the shrine’s deities, or kami, and parading them through the neighborhood to bring good fortune for the year.

The drums:
I’m lucky to have found a place to stand on a concrete wall so I can see above the crowd, and I watch as one by one all six drums emerge from the shrine and the crowd takes up a continuous chant. A man on either side of each drum is pounding on it, throwing his full weight into the task. The sound pulsates throughout the area. The purpose of the pounding of the drums is to purify the neighbourhood for the coming parade of deities the next day.  The drums come through the crowd like the parting of the seas, six huge behemoths filling the space both physically and spiritually, the pounding sound reverberates, and I am so excited by the sight and by the energy of it all that I am literally shaking.

The Dashi:
There are twenty-two dashi, or wheeled festival floats, beautifully decorated, hung with a multitude of lanterns, and hauled by ropes. Inside each a Hayashi band is playing music that is native to Fuchu, while children, dressed as comical characters, dance. The dashi parade up and down the street for hours, the haunting music filling the air.

The Mikoshi:
In the grounds of Shinto shrines there are small wooden “houses” called jinja where the gods, or kami live. Once a year the kami are taken on an outing through the streets – to bless the neighbourhood of the shrine, and to bring good fortune for the year. They are carried in elaborate golden mikoshi, or portable shrines. The mikoshi are enormous and require seventy or eighty men to carry them. The men don’t simply walk; they want to shake up the kami so they jog while chanting, and weave from side to side. The entire thing – seventy or more men carrying on their shoulders a gilded shrine that weighs over a ton – moves slowly as one large beast out to the street and through the town jogging, chanting, shouting, waking the gods.

The festival lasts for a week. The two days I attended were a kaleidoscope of perpetual motion that had my senses whirling. The kami were definitely awakened!

For a deeper exploration:
Galapagos Islands
Kurayami Festival

Next post: A unique floral festival – geraniums cascading like a wave down a broad staircase; a poodle made of flowers; elegant women clad in wondrous floral skirts, some perched above store entrances, some lounging atop bus shelters. It’s Vancouver’s Fleurs de Villes 2021.

And after that? So exciting! May 3 we leave for Croatia and Greece for 7 weeks. At last I will have stories to tell of new places! Can’t wait!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.