I wrote this piece in early May. Of course, it is not about travel because there is no travel. But it is about something that soothed my soul better than a foreign land, distant mountain, or Glacier could ever do.
I live alone, and I don’t want to die. I want to be with people, but I don’t want to die. Such is the dilemma of living life during a pandemic. As I write this, I have been in self isolation for 52 days. When I entered this state on March 12, 2020, I thought it would be short lived, certainly not long enough that I would need to cancel a planned trip to Greece in May. But here I sit in the warmth of an afternoon shaft of sunlight, as it pours through the window next to a tall stone fireplace in my house….alone. Though the sun is warm, it is the cold stone that matches my mood. I fall into that dreaded category of people who are most vulnerable to a deathly outcome from the virus…simply because I have lived 66 years. And for that reason, I had to remove myself from my new baby grandson. An impenetrable wall went up. Not a wall of wood or stone or wire, but one of restraint. This first baby of my son, Matthew, and his wife, Nathalie, was just over 6 months old that last time I fed him, read to him, kissed and hugged him. His father goes out into the world to work each day and, therefore, poses a risk to me. So I have been stranded on my island away from the people I love most, seeing them only in the cold glass of an electronic device. I squeal at the sight of each new accomplishment my grandson has mastered over these last 7 ½ weeks. I wonder if he recognizes the woman on the screen who seems so delighted, as I coo and call his name to hold his attention.
I am like countless other grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends and families sentenced to this isolation. My story is not unique. There are breaks in the monotony of the sequestered life – long walks in the woods, planting the vegetables and flowers that bring beauty to my landscape, a drive to the little house at the beach. I am lucky. There is the virtual gathering with members of my family, blue light enhancing our flaws, through the lifeline that is a Zoom meeting. There are the driveway visits with Matthew and his family. There are the FaceTime cocktail parties with friends. It’s not drinking alone if five of my closest friends are clinking glasses with my iphone.
Three weeks into our lockdown, I stopped watching and reading the news. Each thunderous headline or opening soundbite struck a sickening spike of fear into my heart. Within days of my personal boycott of the news world, my spirits lifted. It was the right decision.
April was unusually chilly, as if our sweet earth knew that sunshine and warmth would be more than we could resist. She knew that we might break the bonds of home and safety and jeopardize the downward curve.
As I pray to God each day for a miracle, I also acknowledge how the earth is healing. It spins off the pollution and rinses its lakes, and rivers, and oceans. It’s atmosphere and beauty can be seen in places once shrouded for a century by the smog of humanity.
My family knows to alert me when there is actual good news, the only kind my psyche is willing to process. Some of the statistics are moving in the right directions. There is a possibility of a medicine that may reduce the length of time an infected person is ill. The scientists and doctors of the world are making progress in the race for medicines and vaccines. None of this means I can be with my family. Or, does it? With this new found hope, a lot of planning and preparation, a meeting is arranged. I worry he will think me a stranger. It is May. Mother Nature has granted us a beautiful day. Outside I spread a blanket, pull on my rubber gloves, even gargle with Listerine. And then there he is! Matthew and Nathalie, while maintaining our social distance, deliver into my arms this sweet child. Cason is all smiles, dimples, soft chubby arms. Oh the nectar that is an infant’s smell. As his parents wave goodbye, I perceive no anxiety on his part. He is delighted with his surroundings….the soft green grass and fragrant lilacs. He follows the flight of a butterfly and cocks his head to the sound of a bluebird’s song.
At the end of this visit, Cason will be whisked away and I will strip my shield of clothes and gloves, gargle and scrub, and wait. We will wait two weeks to be sure our little test has not been a mistake. But till then I relive and remember as though we are in the garden. Cason gazes at me with a look that says time hasn’t passed. I know you. You are my Gramma.
It has now been five months since I traveled to Nepal and India and almost that long since my last blog. It is not likely that travel is in the cards for most of us in the coming months. Today I would have been exploring the Acropolis in Athens, then sailing the Greek Islands. But it is not to be. Like the rest of the world, I am isolating in my home. So what to do with a travel blog when there is no travel? I offer a poor substitute I’m afraid. I wrote the piece below as part of a writing prompt exercise, while at a writers’ yoga retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts a few years ago. So in a way there is a tenuous connection to travel. The facilitator gave us the three sentences: 1)This is what life does; 2)I don’t want to be anywhere else; 3)What matters now.
We were given 15 minutes to write as much as we could in response to those three prompts. Not a lot of time. Now, many of us have more time than we can fill. If the prompts inspire you, please write your own responses, or even stories, as your time allows….just for yourself. And if you’re feeling especially generous, please share your work in a comment.
Stay safe, be well.
This is what life does….
It sends you hurtling out of your mothers womb one day and drops you into a brightly lit white room. Someone slaps your tiny wet behind, snips the cord of life, and wraps you into the arms of your mother.
This is what life does….
It makes you fall in love and breaks your heart. It places you where you need to be or where you shouldn’t be. I needed to be feeding my dying father as tremors wracked his body and he couldn’t hold a spoon to his mouth.
This is what life does….
It brings you summer days when teenage girls ride in cars with boys, roll down all the windows and sing Beach Boys songs, off key and loud. It brings you snowy winter days when you trudge up the steepest hill in town, dragging your chipped and dented sled behind. You wonder if the screaming seconds long ride down the hill is worth the tortuous 15 minute climb up. But you do it again and again.
This is what life does….
It teaches you that you really never use algebra ever again in real life. It teaches you that history is actually important, not the dates and names and memorization, but the lessons for humanity.
This is what life does….
It gives you trials and tragedies, love and loss, joy and adventure. Some of these last seconds and others a lifetime. But you do it again and again because this is what life does.
I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I always want to be in the place where I happen to be. It is the place that changes, not my desire to be there.
I am sitting in an open vehicle as it speeds through the African bush. The only light is from the jeep’s powerful headlights and the shimmering stars above. I am wrapped in warm clothes, huddled under a blanket, losing hope that the lion will show himself tonight. Suddenly the beam catches a golden mound of fur. And there they are…not just the king of the jungle, but the queen and three little princes. They look up sleepily at us, these nocturnal intruders.
I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I am sitting in the first pew of a tiny cathedral. My son is standing tall, his arms outstretched, holding the quivering hands of the woman with whom he’ll share the future. He has come so far, and Nathalie has enriched his soul. I will stay behind.
I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I’m sitting in a café along Rue de Marques. Tiny blossoms from a line of cherry trees flitter across the table top. Chic Parisians stroll past in their smartly tied scarves, scurry down into the bowels of the Metro. I snap open my computer and begin to write. Ernest Hemingway once said that when he was writing in Paris he always stopped for the day at a point where he knew he would start the next day. I am no Hemingway and I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to be anywhere else.
What matters now…..
Is that this work, these hours spent with writers, the silence, the movement and meditation, the walks in nature take me another inch closer to the goal, or send me sideways to another place, wherever that is.
What matters now…..
Is that there is always progress, healing, insight, and paths to peace. Standing still is only to listen to the voice within, but movement is what keeps me alive. Even a fish will drown if it is still for too long.
What matters now…..
Is being my best self. Helping without judgement or pity. Sending my own inner judge to hell and thanking God for his love and care regardless of how flawed I am.
What matters now…..
Is the child I have and one I have lost. I live my life to make each proud, one in heaven and one on earth.
Nepal! Land of Buddha’s birth and home to the mighty Mt Everest. It is a small rectangle of a country along India’s northeast border. It is also a place of tragedy and upheaval. Events like: the massacre of the royal family in 2001; the Maoist Revolution that lasted from 1996-2006; the devastating 8.0 earthquake in 2015 followed by hundreds of aftershocks…and this is just in the last 23 years. These and many other things have combined to keep Nepal a third world country.
My love of travel, combined with volunteering, has led me to new and interesting places on several continents, in vastly different countries. The experience of being embedded in a community, rather than being a tourist (although I love being a tourist too!) adds richness and understanding to the experience. Nepal has a long road to economic and physical recovery, but it is the most vulnerable of its population who can benefit from even the most minor hand up. Global Volunteers is working to be that small helping hand in Kathmandu.
Nepal will mark the first time I am not traveling alone to volunteer. My friend of 58 years, Mary Healy, is joining me and this will be her first volunteer experience in a foreign country.
Nepal has a population of approximately 29 million. Kathmandu is the nation’s capital and largest city and will be our home base. The overall literacy rate in Nepal was 65.9% in 2011. More than half of primary students do not enter secondary schools, and only one-half of those who attend complete secondary schooling. In addition, fewer girls than boys join secondary schools.
Our host in Nepal has invited Global Volunteers to help teach conversational English and business management, repair living and learning spaces, and provide support and training to marginalized women. Our host believes that education is the key to a better life for both adults and children.
Thanks to a generous baggage allowance, Mary and I were able to check not just our personal luggage, but two suitcases with over 60 pounds each of donated school supplies. There are too many generous individuals to name, but the donations ranged from children’s books, science toys, flash cards, maps, anatomy charts, to soccer balls and cash used to buy notebooks, writing utensils, and so much more. Our hosts were stunned at the bounty and the children were wide eyed and brimming with smiles.
Welcome to Kathmandu! This city of over a million people is crazy chaos, wrapped in dust, surrounded by glorious mountains, and dotted with beautiful temples. We immediately realized that it’s best not watch the traffic when being driven anywhere in Kathmandu. We gasped frequently on our ride from the airport, where we did not encounter a single traffic light, but swerved a dozen times to avoid near misses with oncoming rickshaws, motorcycles, and trucks, darting pedestrians, and a sleeping cow.
Our first day as pedestrians left us wondering if we would survive the weekend, let alone the next two weeks. With no traffic lights or stop signs and no good way of safely crossing a street, daily life became an adventure in vehicle and people dodging. As strangers in a strange land, we seemed more visible to drivers and we hoped that would be our salvation. And the dangers don’t just lie in crossing a street. Where sidewalks exist, they are often cracked, and the occasional gaping hole is not unheard of. Some of this condition can be chalked up to earthquake damage and the rest to a lack of resources for maintaining infrastructure. So don’t go gazing at your unique surroundings while walking. Stand still to do your gawking and picture taking!
On our third day in Kathmandu, we started our volunteer assignments. Mary would spend the next two weeks working with Nepali women who were denied an education in their youth, filling in for me at the business college during an illness, and finally, working with a rambunctious class of 5 year olds. Given this is her first travel volunteering experience, she adapted to each situation like a pro.
My assignment was to present a two week workshop of my own creation to students at Shivapuri Business College. Based on email conversations with the Global Volunteers Coordinator in Nepal, I prepared lesson plans that would enable the students to understand western business models, create a small business plan of their own, and enhance their critical thinking and presentation skills.
On our first day there were two classes of about 15 students each. Jeanette, my co-teacher and a PhD from Arizona, and I began by introducing ourselves and our backgrounds and asked the students to do the same. We also asked them to tell us what they hoped to do after graduation. Before I retired I had spent over 25 years as a commercial banker, so I was delighted to hear that several of the female students hoped to work for a bank. Two of them had already done internships with banks in Kathmandu. To my dismay, however, over the next two days our class sizes would shrink.
Almost all of the girls stopped coming over the next two days, along with several of the boys. It is not clear what their reasons were, but Jeanette and I surmised the following:
Speaking in class (even at the college level) is not common. Learning in Nepal is largely accomplished by listening to lectures, followed by reading and memorization, then testing.
While all of the students spoke some level of English, their comfort level for speaking in front of their classmates and two native English speakers was diminished. Lastly, the girls anxiety seemed to be heightened by the fact that they would also be speaking in front of the boys.
Our workshop was scheduled after the students’ regular class day. College classes run from 6:00 am to 10:00 am. Our classes ran from 10:00 to Noon and 1:00 to 3:00, and were voluntary, so there was no real barrier to the students just giving up. Jeanette and I are working with Global Volunteers and the college administrators on a plan to solve these issues for future workshops. For now, I’ll share our experience with the brave students who went the distance.
The work I designed for this class would require the students to think independently and critically, which would push them out of their comfort zones. I brought Business Planning material from home, along with sample business plans. Despite their enrollment in a business college, none of the students had ever seen a business plan, so our first day was spent reviewing the material. In order to have them practice their English and public speaking, each student read aloud a portion of the material, after which we discussed what it meant and how it fit into the business planning process. We discussed in class each student’s thoughts about what kind of business they would like to promote in their business plan. The point was not to come up with a business that would be wildly successful, but to understand the thought process that goes into launching a business. Many of the students in our classes would not likely be starting a business, but this work would prepare them for future job interviews. Understanding how businesses plan, and improving their presentation and English skills, would all add value for them as future employees or entrepreneurs.
Over succeeding days, each student wrote and presented a section of their individual business plans. This in turn sparked discussion about the pros and cons of the student’s plan. Often, one student came up with suggestions for a tweak to another student’s plan.
In week two, once all of the students had completed their business plans, they presented them in front of the class, using a white board, speaking in English, and taking questions from other students. To see the improvement in their presentation skills was by itself worth the trip across the world to work with them.
During the remainder of that second week, we worked on two additional projects. First, we provided information to help them create a polished CV (resume) for their future job searches. We talked about how researching a company’s business plan, financial statements, and leadership experience would help them stand out during interviews. For the second project, We presented them with a list of well know, successful companies that were started by the founders in their parents’ basements or garages, or in their college dorm rooms – companies like Mattel, Apple, Google, that had very modest beginnings. Each student selected a company, researched it, and during the last two days of the workshops, they each presented a synopsis of how the company started and the steps the founders took to grow and succeed. The increase in their levels of confidence, demeanor, and critical thinking skills, over just a two week period astonished us and spoke to their intelligence and determination.
One of the college administrators sat in on a class one day when the students were doing presentations. She was thrilled at seeing them in the front of the class room, speaking with confidence in English, and clearly knowledgeable of their material. She explained that this would be unusual in Nepali class rooms where the standard is teachers giving lectures, students listening in their seats. This was all the reward I would ever need for this work I love so much.
On our last day, some of the students posed with us for the requisite selfies, wished us safe travels, thanked us. But all I wanted to do was stay….stay so I could see them reach for the stars, start their careers, be happy and successful. But I will need to do that from afar, from my own happy life at home, or wherever I am in the world.
“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I still have to go, the more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough; to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”
In the final days of a journey, whether it has been travel volunteering, a road trip in a foreign land, or just getting in touch with nature in a national park, I usually know what I will write about. Australia and New Zealand have been different. When I landed home at the end of April there was no big story calling to me, demanding that I write it. And why not? Australia and her neighbor to the east, New Zealand, are the seventh of the world’s continents I have visited. I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, helicoptered over glaciers in New Zealand, climbed the Sidney Harbor Bridge! Isn’t that a story I should want to write? Hmmm.
I’m not a poet. I don’t really like most poetry. I don’t know what that says about me. When trying to understand a particular poem, I have thought to myself….why doesn’t the poet just tell me what he/she is thinking, rather than making me guess? So I default to memoir, history, fiction….you know, material that doesn’t frustrate me. But, while I was in New Zealand, someone asked the members of our little troop of travelers to write a poem to memorialize some aspect of our adventure. Groan. Luckily, the assignment was to write a haiku. Yes, three short lines. Even I could do that! And then something sparked and one haiku became five haikus. So in lieu of my regular travel blog, here is my first and only effort at poetry. The good news is….each haiku is accompanied by photos, so you won’t have to guess what in the world I am talking about.
Towering red rock
Sunrise sunset shadows glow
Wakeful spirits sigh
White coral mystique
This underwater reef world
Breathe, swim, deep blue sea
Cool blue icy peaks
Soaring over cotton clouds
A million years old
Place of gold seekers
Turquoise waters lap the sand
They whisper my name
The land so beloved
Born of quakes and shifting plates
Lush green, down under
If my haikus have perplexed, annoyed, or even pleased you, feel free to post a comment. And I’ll sign off with some random photos from Australia and New Zealand. G’day mates.
Our stepping off point for Antarctica was Argentina, a lovely place to visit on its own….and so I did. Unfortunately, technical issues have delayed my ability to create this blog, so I will need to be brief, since departure for my next destination is just around the corner. While this blog lacks the usual longer narrative, I hope I make up for it in photos.
I landed in Buenos Aires on a sunny Wednesday in late January and met my fellow travelers that evening. While in Buenos Aires, we walked the city, ate too many empanadas, and visited several iconic locations.
First up….Recoleta Cemetery in Bueno Aires. I know…it’s a cemetery. But you have to admit….it’s kind of cool. That is Eva Peron’s mausoleum I am standing next to. Most of the famous of Argentina are entombed in Recoleta. And it was a beautiful day for a walk.
Plaza de Mayo is known for so many events in the history of Argentina – freedom from Spain, speeches by both Juan and Eva Peron among others, protests, coups, killings, celebrations
La Boca – colorful, lively, historic, friendly….I wish we could have spent more than an afternoon in this cool neighborhood!
We said goodbye to Buenos Aires and flew to Ushuaia, our launching point for Antarctica. But for a day and a half we strolled the streets of this city at the southern tip of South America, and hiked the Tierra del Fuego.
With Antarctica in the rear view mirror, we took a quick jaunt north to Iguazu, a town situated at the meeting point of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. But the reason you come here is, of course, the Falls, the widest in the world.
In Iguazu I said goodbye to my fellow travelers and boarded the short flight to Santiago, Chile. If I ever decide to become a snowbird, Santiago will be my winter (their summer) home! The sun shone every day, temps hovered in the low 80s, no humidity! Add in the affordability and friendly people, and you have a winning combination.
I rarely bother to take pictures of the hotels where I stay, but LeReve in Santiago is so charming I couldn’t resist.
A daytrip to Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso is a great way to spend some time walking, eating, or fishing.
My favorite excursion in Chile by far was to Cajon Del Maipo, a stunning reservoir tucked into a gorge in the Andes Mountains. Our guides served a picnic lunch with wine from a nearby vineyard, horses sauntered by, and the changing colors of the water left us in awe. My last perfect day in Chile.
Why would this woman, from cold and snowy Pennsylvania, want to go to Antarctica….in February? I confess that more than one friend asked “why?” when told of my plans. During previous winters, I have purposely chosen warm escapes – Morocco, Thailand, Egypt. But Antarctica kept whispering in its cold, adventurous, pristine way….”come, you need to step foot on the icy continent at the bottom of the world.” As for the timing? Well, access to Antarctica is strictly managed by the Antarctic Treaty which limits the number of people who can step foot on it, where they can land, and when. Our winter is Antarctica’s summer and really the only safe time of year to visit.
Our voyage to Antarctica would be launched from Argentina, but I will talk about this wonderful country next week. For now, it is all about ice and snow, penguins and whales, glaciers and icebergs.
We stand on shore as our expedition ship, the Ocean Diamond, glides into the harbor in Ushuaia, Argentina. This small ship can accommodate 200 passengers (small by cruise ship standards, but average for an expedition ship). Our tour company has limited its use to 150 passengers in order to comply with treaty requirements. The ship is similar to a cruise ship in some respects – there are nicely appointed individual staterooms, lots of great food, excellent service. You won’t see professional entertainment on an expedition ship. Some of the crew (engineers, waiters, housekeepers, managers) did, however, put on a hilarious talent show one night.
On other evenings there was a dance party, an ice breaker gift exchange, and movies. During the day, when we weren’t out on the zodiac boats or on deck, there were lecture and learning opportunities. The Ocean Diamond expedition team was incredibly knowledgeable. These 14 men and women have degrees in marine biology, environmental science, geology, avian and mammal studies, and more. They also have years of experience leading expeditions, and clearly love Antarctica and its wildlife. We were lucky to have such a resource with us.
In order to get to Antarctica from Argentina, you must cross the legendary Drake Passage. Depending on the conditions, it has been referred to as the Drake Shake, or the Drake Lake. We had the shake on our way south, although it wasn’t terrible in my opinion. Yes, you had to hold onto something in order to remain upright when walking, items would roll off tables and bureaus, and cabinet doors would swing open and slam shut. The wait staff in the dining room could often be seen holding passengers upright as they navigated to their tables. And I might add, it takes two days to get through the Drake Passage. But the swaying and rocking became routine to me after the first ½ day, and I actually found it rocked me to sleep at night.
I did get sick with an upper respiratory infection on the second day, but the ship’s doctor was helpful and attentive. Elianna, the housekeeper, and my fellow group members checked on me during the day, the kitchen staff delivered meals, and the next day I was recovered enough to go on deck for our first sighting of Antarctica! We were very lucky during the four days we were there. The weather and ocean conditions cooperated so well that we were able to take the zodiacs and make eight landings on different parts of the continent and islands. This is not always the case. For example, the travelers on an expedition the week after us encountered such terrible conditions that they only managed one landing. The expedition companies make this possibility abundantly clear before you book, so I prepared myself for the worst, and was ecstatic at the actual outcome our group experienced.
Lots of preparations go into your first excursion. The crew inspected all of our gear – coats, ski pants, gloves, for foreign matter. A seed or blade of grass in a cuff or band of Velcro has the potential to introduce a non native species onto the continent. Before we boarded the zodiacs, we stepped our boots into a basin of disinfectant, and then we were off! Our first landings at Cuverville Island and Neko Harbor meant our first walk with penguins! The Gentoo Penguin rookery on the island is home to 4800 breeding pairs of these waddling birds. What is it about penguins that makes you smile so much at the sight of them? The Gentoos are a bit noisy. They make a loud throaty sort of yodel when they are calling to their mates and friends. And as penguins tend to do, when one starts yodeling, hundreds of others follow suit! Quite the concert! Healthy adult penguins have no predators to fear on land. They lead a relatively carefree life in the snow. Their eggs and chicks, however, are in danger from Skuas, a gull like bird. For this reason, you will usually see the chicks tucked in close to one of their parents, shielded from the hovering skuas. In the water, where penguins go to feed and collect krill and small fish to feed their young, they are in danger from leopard seals and killer whales. Speaking of whales, we saw many around our ship, mostly humpbacks. We observed seals of many types on the continent, but they could also be seen snoozing on a nearby iceberg.
From the ship and on land, we watched albatrosses soar across the sky, then dive to the ocean’s surface to pick up a snack. I realize not everyone is similarly enamored of wildlife , so as not to bore you with commentary on every type of bird and mammal we observed, I have attached a list of all of our sightings below. Please feel free to comment with any questions. As exciting as it was to see the wildlife, it was equally so to lay eyes upon the icebergs, glaciers, and snow covered mountains….just breathtaking. Snow and ice, ten stories tall, tinted here and there in shades of baby blue and pink, are just something you must see to appreciate. As we motored back to our ship on a zodiac one afternoon, we heard the loud telltale crack of a calving glacier and watched as a huge slice of ice slid with an enormous splash into the water. As for humans, we encountered a few. As the picture demonstrates, Antarctica is larger in area than the United States and yet it would be rare for more than 4000 people to be staying on the continent at any given time. None are permanent residents, but rather temporary researchers, scientists, and support staff. Where are they and why? There are numerous stations on the continent, mostly in coastal areas, some active and some abandoned. A British station that we visited during a landing at Port Lockroy includes a tiny museum of sorts. It is more a tourist attraction than a working research station now. Here they have maintained an assortment of rooms, furniture, fixtures, and artifacts from the actual 1950s working station. They even accept postcards for mailing. As I dropped my card in the mailbox, a clerk told me they expect their next pick up in a month or so. From Antarctica, the mail goes to England, then on to the addressees. Maybe it will make it to Pennsylvania on a warm Spring day and remind me of this icy adventure. At this time of year, the sun sets after 9:30, and what a spectacular sight it is. I think this must be where the expression “fire and ice” originated. And the show is not just where the sun meets the horizon. The red/gold light shimmers softly onto adjacent snow peaks. Passengers often stood mesmerized on the bow of the ship, our faces illuuminated by the reflection.
There is so much more to the story of Antarctica, but I’m writing a blog post, not a book. So I will end with a word of advice. Should you venture to this pristine land of ice, water, and wild creatures, take some time to just be. Put the camera down, stand alone, absorb the beauty. The bottom of the world is like nothing else on earth.
Those of you who follow this blog because I write about traveling to faraway places to volunteer or study, well….you may find this blog a bit of a snooze. Many of you may have visited Palm Springs, California. And maybe even hiked the deserts and mountains nearby. If that’s the case then…. nothing new here. My purpose in writing this blog is to document for myself a place and experience that I found somewhat spiritual, beautiful in places, and physically exhausting (on purpose). But if you are continuing to read, I hope you find something that sparks your interest.
Why Palm Springs and desert hiking? I love hiking, mid-century modern architecture, and places that are warm in winter. Because December is a busy holiday month, any getaway would have to be short. Short to me means staying in the good old USA. So a simple google of warm hiking destinations, revealed several stateside locations, but it was Palm Springs that spoke to me. BackRoads, an active travel company, had been recommended to me for its attention to detail and quality guides, so I signed on with them for their five day hiking trip.
I arrived in Palm Springs a few days early in order to visit with a friend from high school and see some of the city. Parts of Palm Springs are manicured to someone’s idea of perfection, which can make it feel less authentic. Still, many examples of classic mid-century modern architecture exist, and I was hard pressed to find a corner of the city that didn’t have a stunning view of the mountains. Then there are the palm trees and Bougainville, which to this east coaster, are a sight to behold.
On a beautiful Sunday morning, I met our guides and my fellow hikers in the lobby of the Rancho Mirage Ritz Carlton. There was something incongruous about this group of 14 (eleven hikers, 3 guides) in our rugged hiking garb, gathered in the shiny marble lobby of this fancy hotel. After introductions and a briefing, we shuttled to Joshua Tree National Park for our first hike. The sun is strong and bright against azure blue skies, but the temperatures are cool in the morning, rising to a comfortable 70 degrees in the afternoon. Joshua Tree National Park is, of course, named for the Joshua Trees that dot its vast landscape. It covers over 1200 square miles and encompasses both the Mojave and the lower Colorado deserts. One of the first things I notice is the silence. There are tiny animals among the rocks and plants, but they creep and slither quietly. The desert seems to swallow even the sound of the flapping wings of birds. The landscape can seem otherworldly. Our eight mile hike, with a break for lunch along the trail, is a workout for the first day. Joshua Tree is not just flat dessert. There are hills of huge boulders and rock that geologists estimate were formed over millions of years. As we begin our last mile, a haze surrounds the sun and the desert takes on an eerie light. Are the spirits telling us it is time to leave so they can rest from their vigil? Probably not, but a chill has flickered up my spine.
Dinner at the steakhouse in the Ritz Carlton is included and we probably eat more than we should. I won’t go into the details, but if you ever have the opportunity to indulge in a Japanese Wagyu A5 steak….mortgage the house, sell your jewelry, whatever it takes….savor this piece of beef heaven.
After breakfast on day 3, we board the van and drive to Indian Canyons, land of the Agua Caliente (part of the Cahuilla Indians). Here we hike through a lush desert palm oasis in the sacred foothills of the San Jacinto mountains. Legends say that a Cahuilla elder named Maul knew his life was ending and, with a desire to help his people, he called on the spirits for their help. Suddenly bark began to form around his legs and palm fronds sprang from his hair. He transformed into the first palm tree and they quickly spread throughout his homeland. This desert fan palm has provided food, shelter, baskets, tools, and shade for the Cahuilla people ever since.
However these palms came to be, we are awed by their size and unique style. As we hike the Murray Canyon and Coffman trails through Indian Canyon land, we are rewarded with green and fertile landscapes, waterfalls, and stream crossings. I pride myself on my rock-hopping stream-crossing skills. I’ve deftly navigated some treacherous water crossings on previous hiking trips. But my cockiness got the best of me in Indian Canyon. One slip of the foot and I was sitting in the creek. Luckily, we were near the end of the day’s hiking and other than a wet sock and shoe, I was none the worse for wear.
Our afternoon was spent on a walking architecture tour of the old Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs. As I’ve mentioned, I am a fan of mid century modern architecture. Although I’m not sure I could live in it (it can feel somewhat stark), I enjoy seeing it. The clean lines, openness, and sleek exteriors appeal to me, especially when combined with desert landscaping. We venture further to the homes once occupied by the old Hollywood elite – Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and the new stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Stefani, Brad Pitt. Palm Springs has its own walk of fame, but the names are not always recognizable. Our dinner tonight is at Workshop Kitchen + Bar in the heart of Palm Springs, where we enjoy a family style tasting menu.
Our hike on day 4 through Mission Creek is not the most picturesque, but it does remind you of the landscapes featured in your favorite cowboy movies. The trek to the Red Dome was flat and easy, if a bit uninspiring. At noon, we perched on our seats of random flat rocks, by the dry creek bed, munching on lunch and admiring the mountains in the far distance.
Tonight, we dine at Copley’s on Palm Canyon Drive. The property was once Cary Grant’s guest house and it is easy to picture it as it was in the 1940s. Three sets of french doors open from the house onto the garden, where we lounge around a fire pit sipping cocktails. We also dined outdoors under a white canopy, lit by candles and warmed by glowing heaters. I recommend Copley’s for the ambiance and Cary Grant connection, but the food exceeded expectations too.
Our last day of hiking starts in the valley where it is sunny and 73 degrees. Our little group boards the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for an eleven minute ride up San Jacinto mountain. We disembark and walk out to the Long Valley Deck where we are greeted by a snow covered forest….a winter wonderland in the middle of the desert is our hike for today. Amazing.
Our farewell lunch is at the Juniper Table, an outdoor café in downtown Palm Springs. It is an average lunch, but our guides surprise us with a special drink….fig smoothies from a nearby shop! Fresh figs are everywhere here in the Coachella valley. The smoothie was delicious and was a happy ending to our hiking days. I say goodbye to a smart and friendly group of hikers and guides. I spent another day exploring on my own in this bright, sunny, jewel in the desert. Visions of Indians, spirits, Joshua Trees and palms, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe prance through my head as I nurse a cold beer outside a café on Palm Canyon Drive. It is December. It is warm.
The flight from Nairobi to the Masai Mara in our little plane (12 passengers) takes just over 45 minutes. The plane flies low on approach to the small airstrip called Olkiombo, and we can already spot giraffe and zebra before we land. A driver from Mara Intrepids Camp greets me and we are off…..a ride that literally takes two minutes! Yes, my home for the next few days is spitting distance from the airstrip. Convenient, yes. But will the quiet and solitude of the Mara be elusive? I’m not sure why, but during my entire stay at Mara Intrepids Camp, I never heard a plane again until the day I stood by the airstrip awaiting my flight back to Nairobi.
The camp at Mara Intrepids (MI) consists of dining and entertainment areas, pool, gift shop, and reception area, all of which are shaded, embraced by palms, trees, flowering shrubs, and scented flowers. To the left of these gathering spots, down a meandering path are the tents for guests. Many of the tents sit next to the small river that runs through the MI compound. I was lucky enough to have #6 next to the river, so the water babbling over the boulders in the river was the music that lulled me to sleep each night. I have slept in “tents” before – in the Sahara desert in Morocco and the jungle in Thailand. They are all somewhat different, but these luxurious abodes are not the tents of my youth. The tents here in the Masai Mara are raised on either concrete and stone slabs, or wooden platforms. They are the size of a typical hotel room, completely furnished with real wood furniture, and have attached baths with flushing toilets and hot showers. They have electricity and WIFI, but no heat or air conditioning. Each night when I return to my tent, a hot water bottle has been tucked beneath the beautiful white comforter on my bed, making for a cozy night’s sleep.
All meals are included, alcohol is extra, but reasonably priced. The food….at every meal I asked myself how they are able to serve such a variety of food that is delicious and artfully presented…in the middle of nowhere? Breakfast and lunch were buffet style with omelets and pancakes made to order, several potato and vegetable dishes, beef, chicken, pork, yogurts, eggs any way you desire, and more. But dinner was a whole other level. It is a sit-down affair with the starry African sky as a canopy. Along with the incredible six course meal, there is a surprising selection of wines, beer, and cocktails. If all this wasn’t enough, several local Masai entertained us with their lively jumping and chanting.
In the early morning, as you wake for the day’s game drives, a thermos of hot coffee is delivered to your tent. Enjoy it while you dress, apply your sunscreen and insect repellent. A quick note about this: July is one of the coolest months in Kenya, but the sun is still strong, so apply your sunscreen and wear a hat. I did use insect repellent every day, and our beds had mosquito netting. I didn’t necessarily see any mosquito activity, but Kenya is known to have instances of Yellow Fever, so I wasn’t taking any chances. After three weeks in Africa, insect repellent becomes as much a part of your routine at deodorant.
The animals….what can I say? This is my third safari. I have visited Kruger National Park in South Africa, Ruaha in Tanzania, and now the Masai Mara in Kenya. Each one has been an extraordinary experience. There is just nothing like seeing these wild animals up close in their own habitat. Did you know that lions sleep a lot and are relatively unconcerned that you are sitting in your open safari vehicle 30 feet away? The leopard, which had eluded me in both South Africa and Tanzania, finally revealed himself to me in Kenya. Unlike the lions, safari guides keep their distance from leopards, but because they are so hard to locate, once it becomes know that a leopard has been spotted, every safari vehicle for miles converges on the viewing spot. It’s like paparazzi in Hollywood, only the starlet is a spotted animal.
Speaking of paparazzi, July in the Masai Mara means the great migration is imminent. I asked our guide why some of the people I saw on game drives were carrying such big cameras. These were cameras of more than two feet in length. Many of these photographers used large bean bag type stands on which to rest their heavy cameras on the jeep ledges. My first thought was… what were his excess airline baggage fees? But Dominic, our safari guide, explained that these were professionals, here in anticipation of the migration. They work for publications like National Geographic, Travel & Leisure, and others.
In addition to the leopard sighting (checked that box), another goal was to see hippos – out of the water. On both of my previous safaris, hippo sightings were basically just the the top half of the hippo head protruding above a flowing river. Not very exciting. But in the Mara we saw at least two bloats (herds) of 10-12 hippos each and they were walking or lounging on land. I let out a quiet squeal of delight at the sight. And then I learned that when hippos are nearby, especially a herd this large, they smell really bad. I mean really bad. But I couldn’t turn away. We stayed for another ten minutes or so when we noticed a pride of lions slowly approaching from the other side of the river. A few of them crossed the water over some rocks in a shallow area, but still kept their distance from the hippos. One hippo opened his jaws wide to display his enormous, sharp teeth as a warning to the lions. It appeared the lions were not going to risk a losing battle, when suddenly one young male trotted toward the hind end of a large hippo, and leapt onto the hippos back! The hippo opened his jaws wide, hissed, then flicked the lion off like he was a bothersome flea. Luckily, the hippo had no interest in killing today and he slid into the river, followed by the rest of his herd, while the adolescent lion turned tail. How embarrassing for him!
Our game drives started each morning just as the sun was breaking the horizon, after two or so hours we headed back to the compound for breakfast. There are many choices of things to do during the day: lounge by the pool, spa treatments, nature walks, lawn games. There is also a mid day game drive if you are so inclined. One afternoon, I asked Dominic our safari guide, to take me to a nearby Masai Village. Once there, he handed me off to a son of the chief, Lingoti, who speaks enough English that we were able to communicate. I decided to impress him with my limited Swahili, which he understood and smiled, but then explained to me that Masai have their own language….and it’s not Swahili! The Masai villages are built in a circle with the backs of their huts filling the role of village wall. The spaces between each hut are filled with sharp thorny sticks to keep out predators. If a predator makes it through, barking dogs and squealing chickens sound the alarm and the warriors emerge with their spears. Lingoti told me they have never lost a villager or livestock to a lion or other predator, and that the predators do not stand a chance against a Masai warrior.
Lingoti explained to me that the rows of beads adorning his chest represent the number of “girlfriends” a warrior has….in his case – four. I later commented to Dominic that I thought Lingoti was pulling my leg. Dominic sputtered in disbelief “he pulled your leg?” -looking as if he might faint. I could barely keep a straight face as I explained this American figure of speech to Dominic.
Before I left the village, Lingoti’s father approached. For a village chief, chatting with a visiting tourist is a rarity, so I was both awed and honored to meet him. I was struck by this tall, dignified warrior and his gentle voice. The chief felt compelled to make sure I knew certain things and with Lingoti translating, he shared.
• He wanted me to know that they never kill wild animals unless they or their livestock are threatened. (Killing a lion used to be a right of passage for a young Masai man, but Kenya outlawed it.) The chief wanted to make sure I knew they were following the law.
• the village school was built through the generosity of two Americans and a Canadian
• He very much appreciates the gift, but he worries that the culture of the Masai is being diluted. Education means that many Masai children are leaving the villages for cities.
• He told me that the president of Kenya probably doesn’t even know his village exists, and yet a year ago Barack Obama came to his village and spoke with him.
The chief thanked me for coming and talking to him and wished me a safe journey.
The early morning and evening game drives are the most productive, so I skipped the mid day drives. As with many excursions into the desert or the bush, dressing in layers is key to your comfort.
The morning drive starts out cold and the evening drive ends the same way. In between, the temperature warms up and down. The safari vehicles are equipped with blankets, but trust me and add gloves, a scarf, a sun hat, and a sweater or fleece to your packing list.
On my last morning in the Masai Mara, I thought about all the books I have read about African safaris. The accommodations have changed, getting there is easier, and the costs have increased. But the animals remain the same…wild and majestic, and the African sky at night is lit with a million stars. I hope it never changes.
A 3 hour bumpy van ride, a short flight in a tiny plane, a 5 hour layover, then we glide onto a large runway….Nairobi! At last….Kenya. Much more developed than any city I have seen in Tanzania, Nairobi is still a long way from a sophisticated metropolis. The Kenya leg of my journey did not include a volunteer assignment or any other activity that would immerse me in the community. I would be a tourist for this week. So unlike my usual blogs, this blog will be about accommodations, sights, and safari.
After my two weeks of basic lodging in Tanzania, I splurged on upscale accommodations in both Nairobi and the Masai Mara. In Nairobi I stayed at the beautiful, relatively new (completed in 2012) Eka Hotel. It’s a clean, modern hotel situated about 7 miles from Jomo Kenyatta Airport. As with most hotels that cater to tourists, the Eka is highly secure. Guards ran a mirror under my driver’s car to check for explosives (yikes), guests walk through a metal detector at the entrance, while bags are run through a scanner. Assuming I haven’t scared you off, let me say a few things about security risks in Nairobi. The airport-like security at hotels is primarily the result of terrorist bombings (US Embassy in 1998, Westgate Mall 2013). Below is an excerpt from the UK government website on Kenya:
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attacks in Nairobi and the coast and resort areas of Mombasa and Malindi, and northern border counties. The Inspector General of the Kenyan Police has called on the public to adopt a higher level of vigilance and report any suspicious people or activity straight away. Attacks could be indiscriminate in places frequented by foreigners including hotels, bars, restaurants, sports bars and nightclubs, sporting events, supermarkets, shopping centres, coastal areas including beaches, airports, buses, trains and other transport hubs. Places of worship including churches and mosques have also been targeted. Be particularly vigilant in these areas. On 14 March 2018, the Inspector General of the Kenyan Police reported that a major terrorist attack, targeting Nairobi, had been prevented by Kenyan police in February 2018. Six British nationals were killed in the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
But this should not deter you from visiting Kenya. Really. I have learned to consider government advisories as part of my travel planning, but I don’t let them scare me off. For many travelers to Kenya, Nairobi is just a stopover on their way to safari. I chose to spend 2 ½ days in Nairobi because I wanted to visit Karen Blixen’s house (author of Out of Africa), the Sheldrick Center for Wildlife, and the Kenya National Theater. I just follow my savvy traveler rules to carefully see what is important to me. There are other reasons to be safety conscious in Nairobi. Unemployment is high and street crime is a fact of life. As I do frequently, I was traveling alone after my time in Tanzania, so I worked with Go2Africa to arrange a driver/escort (Jeffrey) who picked me up at the airport, drove me everywhere I wanted to go, waited for me, and delivered me safely to the airport on my return from Safari. This is Africa, however, and not as expensive as it sounds.
If you have seen the movie, Out of Africa, you will recognize Karen Blixen’s house as you walk across the lawn to the front porch. The vision in my mind of Meryl Streep as Karen and Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton, standing on that porch gave me a moment of bliss. The interior of the house still contains Ms Blixen’s personal items and furniture. Her farm, however, is now a development of luxury, gated homes, so there are no views of the coffee plantation she labored over.
Just down the road, on the site of Karen Blixen’s original farmhouse, is the restaurant Tamambo. Here I enjoyed a delicious (but expensive by Kenya standards) lunch in the garden. A cold Kenyan beer, white tablecloths, and fragrant trees add to the ambiance. The food, the setting, and the connection to Karen Blixen make the splurge worthwhile.
My next stop was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Center, where their primary mission is the rescue and raising of orphaned elephants. The center performs vital work that supports the declining elephant and rhino populations, but I would skip it frankly. Entrance tickets include watching a parade of six or so baby elephants marched into a circular pen where mahouts bottle feed them. That ticket money supports the center and their work…a good thing. But the show feels contrived, and the crowds are daunting. And after all….you’ll be going on safari and see elephants in their habitat, without being squeezed in by crowds.
The Giraffe Center in Nairobi requires just a short visit. There is not a lot to see. Giraffes, and a few other animals roam the grounds near the visitor viewing area (a raised covered platform). The attraction here is that some of the giraffes walk right up to the platform where you are provided lettuce to feed them. So you can be really up close…touching, feeding, being licked! Kids will love it.
On the night before my flight to the Masai Mara, I asked Jeffrey to drive me to the Kenya National Theater. They were putting on the musical, Sarafina, a story about students in South Africa during apartheid. Jeffrey seemed surprised by my request. You won’t find anything about the Kenya National Theater in tourist brochures. I had to do some digging and expressly ask Go2Africa about it because I like to see live performances when I travel. It was worth the effort. This rousing, sad but inspiring, musical was excellent. The cast was talented and engaging. It was clear that I was one of just a few non-locals in attendance, but people sitting near me, as well as members of the cast made me feel welcome.
I should mention that during my travels in both Tanzania and Kenya, US dollars were widely accepted. Still, I always stop at an airport ATM and pick up foreign currency upon arrival. However, by the time I went to the theater I had used all but a few of my Tanzanian shillings and prepared to pay in dollars. This was the one and only time in Kenya I was told they couldn’t accept dollars. What to do?! Luckily Jeffrey carried cash for just such emergencies and he lent me the 1500 shillings ($15) for the show.
Early the next morning, I bid Jeffrey goodbye at Wilson Airport, Nairobi’s domestic airport. Most safari flights leave from Wilson, but rarely leave on time. This is Kenya after all.
Africa….what is it about this continent? After I lived and volunteered for two months in South Africa in 2015, I knew it would not be my last visit to this special part of the world. In early 2016, I toured Morocco for a month, and in early 2018 I travelled for two weeks in Egypt. Of course, these two North African countries are not what we envision when we think of Africa, but they are examples of how diverse the continent is.
During a chance conversation last year while I attended a workshop in Paris, I learned about Global Volunteers and the work they are doing in Tanzania. Bingo! Of course! That would be my next destination, and it didn’t hurt that Tanzania is next door to Kenya, a country I have come to love from afar through books.
The bonus to all of this is that Global Volunteers’ efforts in Tanzania are having a real impact in the villages they serve and I wanted in on that. GV assigned me to work in the little village of Mkalanga, which is a short drive from our living quarters in the village of Ipalamwa. If I had to list just two surprising things about this place they would be….it’s colder than you think, and asphalt is not to be taken for granted. This is the second time this year that I have misjudged the chilliness in a foreign country. The difference in Israel was…I went to a store and bought an extra sweater. In Mkalanga, there are no clothing stores. The roads are mostly dirt and rocks, which means long, bone jarring rides. On those rare occasions when we happened onto a paved road, we cheered with excitement.
The things that didn’t surprise me were the kindness of people in the villages, the dedication of the volunteers and local caregivers, and the beauty of the country when viewed through the lens of openness and understanding. The human spirit is an amazing thing. The people in Mkalanga live simply in basic shelter, don’t always have enough to eat, have no running water or disposable income, work with babies strapped to their backs, and walk miles for medical care. And yet, their smiling faces and generosity were evident every day. A mother with three young children offered us a stalk of sugar cane after we labored over installing her hand-washing station. A mother of four who had lost her husband last year had nothing to offer, so she went with us to other homes and helped us dig the holes for the stations…with her one year old snuggled on her back, and a big smile on her face. Everywhere we went, the littlest children, too young for school, followed us. I greet them in Swahili which causes them to erupt in surprised gales of laughter. They are dressed in raggedy clothes, not warm enough for the chilly weather, but they are still joyful, intrigued by us, the strange visitors to their village.
The school age children would run to greet us outside their schools, often serenading us with happy songs in Swahili. They cajoled us into singing American songs, and danced the hokey pokey with us. The village children have no toys, don’t really know what toys are, so these interactions with the strange visitors are a welcome and exciting distraction.
GV employs Tanzanian citizens as part of the Reaching Children’s Potential program. The caregivers, young single women, have bachelors or masters degrees and live in the village. They have left their cities and towns in order to dedicate themselves to the families they serve in these remote villages. Almost everyday I worked with Elkana, who has a Masters in Social Linguistics and hails from the town of Iringa. She was part interpreter, social worker, laborer, and facilitator and I came to admire her for her kindness, work ethic, and intellect. My fellow volunteers would offer the same praise for the other six caregivers with whom they worked. You don’t make progress like GV has in Ipalamwa and Mkalanga without hardworking, dedicated people.
So, what was a day in the life of a volunteer in Mkalanga like? During our first few days in Ipalamwa, we were awakened every morning by the roosters…at 4:30 a.m! Eventually the rooster crows faded to background noise and we slept through them. After coffee and breakfast, the volunteers and our local leader, Winnie, had a brief morning meeting, reviewed our assignments for the day, and headed off to villages and schools. About six of our group of 17 volunteers taught in the local primary and secondary schools. Others conducted workshops for the women participating in the RCP program. And the rest of us spent our days visiting women and children in their homes, getting updates on the children, and installing hand-washing stations. We returned to our living quarters at the end of the day, gathered in a sunny outdoor spot with a cold beer or glass of wine, and shared the stories of our day.
Our evening meeting was followed by dinner at 7 PM. Our dining room serves many purposes: meals, meetings, and classroom for the workshops. None of our buildings are heated, so there would often be a roaring fire in the dining room fireplace at dinner. There is no television of course, nor internet, so we entertained ourselves with getting to know each other, playing games, and an occasional discussion with a local expert on Tanzanian culture. Volunteer housing included comfortable beds, attached bathrooms, running water, and electricity.
On weekends, we went on safari at Ruaha National Park, participated in local church services, visited the city of Iringa, and star gazed at night.
We can look at pictures on the internet or the news, or in books and see an image of a faraway place. But visiting, meeting, helping, learning, living in that faraway place turns the image into an understanding of real people and their very different, but very real lives. Those rocky dirt roads I bristled at on day one looked very different to me later on. What I now saw, as the sun lowered in the African sky, was this hauntingly vivid burnished red road amidst the beautiful banana trees and sunflowers, with the occasional rooster crossing, and a stream of human life walking by – lives that have no need for paved roads.