Africa: The People

IMG_1057

When most of us think of Africa, we think of the wild animals. The Big Five–lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros. The Small Five–lion ant, leopard tortoise, elephant shrew, buffalo weaver bird, and rhinoceros beetle. The birds. And these aspects of Africa are amazing and awe-inspiring, without a doubt. There is something humbling about being in the presence of wildness.

 

But we found that the greatest gift of Africa is her people. Wherever we went–the cities, the camps, the markets, the village and school we visited, we were welcomed with kindness, warmth, openness, acceptance, and genuineness. Not to mention singing, dancing, drumming, and general exuberance. Being in their presence was nothing short of sheer joy.

IMG_3678

 

On the first day of our journey into the bush, we arrived at the Victoria Falls airport to be greeted by native dancers, singing and drumming and inviting us into the dance to join them.

 

IMG_2091

Each time we drove into camp, the staff welcomed us with rhythm, song, and ululation. At the end of our time at  each camp we gathered around the fire for the boma, the traditional tribal dinner under the stars, followed by music, dance, and the sharing of our two cultures. It was truly magical, and deeply moving.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2006In addition to making us feel welcome and taking care of our physical needs, the camp staff opened their lives to us and shared many fascinating details about their culture and life experience. Many times our beliefs, customs, and traditions were vastly different, and yet their transparency gave us the opportunity to expand our view of Life, and to challenge our preconceived notions of right and wrong, primitive and civilized.

IMG_2386We learned about the complexities of polygamous marriage; about courting and wedding customs vastly different from our own; about dowries and negotiations between families to seal a marriage. We learned about the responsibilities of extended family, both living and ancestral; about respect for elders and the importance of holding modern and traditional ideas in balance. We discussed controversial issues like poverty and poaching and care for the earth. We learned, we struggled, we grew.

 

In the village, we experienced a bit of what daily life is like on a small family homestead, where there is one water tap and one privy; where the women work from 4:00 a.m. to midnight, where there is a single kitchen (where men are not allowed), an outdoor sink for washing dishes, a gathering room, storage room for grains, and several sleeping huts. The buildings, created of termite mud with thatched roofs,  are round in shape, so that spirits and snakes will find no corners in which to hide.

With the villagers, we shared tea and a couple of African delicacies:  Mopane worms (a large caterpillar) and tiny Quelea birds, which are fried and eaten whole. Together we chuckled at our hesitancy to try these new treats. But those of us willing to eat them with grace were rewarded with a certificate signed and presented by the chief of the village. A rite of passage.

IMG_2299

In addition to the village, we also visited St. Mary’s Primary School. This is a school supported in part by the Grand Circle Foundation, the parent company of Overseas Adventure Travel–a foundation dedicated to giving back to the communities in which we travel. We were greeted by the smiling faces of happy children, singing and dancing to welcome us. We mingled with them and heard about their lives and about their dreams for the future.

IMG_2296

 

But what is a visit with children without play? One of our group brought balsa wood gliders and taught the children how to assemble and fly them. We ended our time with them by all going outdoors to set the planes soaring, amid shouts of joy and laughter–both theirs and ours.

 

 

IMG_4324

Perhaps the deepest relationship we established during our time in Africa was with our trip leader, Bryson. His knowledge of the bush, and of African culture and society, was vast, but what impressed us most was his heart. He shared with us both the joys and the struggles of life in Africa, the triumphs and the tragedies. Bryson is a man whose life is committed to the way of respect, compassion, and peace. His gentleness, humor, and radiating love made an impact on us that time will never erase. We are proud to call him our friend.

 

Trying to capture the spirit of Africa in these brief posts is like taking a photograph of the mountains. You can never fully grasp the multi-layered depth and breadth and height from a mere picture. It’s so much more than can be expressed in words or photos. It’s a journey to the source, and for us it felt like coming home.

 

Perhaps this picture best sums up our trip:  Despite all the ways we may be different…

we are one.

IMG_2331

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Miscellaneous | 2 Comments

Africa: In the Bush

On Friday we returned home after an amazing journey through Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. For nearly a year we had anticipated this trip of a lifetime, and we expected to be impressed. But we were unprepared for the depth of awe and wonder we experienced.

This will be one of several posts about our African odyssey–no one blog can possibly encompass the enormity and majesty of the wilderness that is the African bush.

But first, the animals.

IMG_1531

 

We expected elephants and giraffes–and we got them in spades. Up close and personal. There’s no way to describe the excitement (and not a little fear) of being ten feet from a massive bull elephant feeding in the marsh outside our tent. This was no zoo. This was no tame pachyderm. This was a wild creature, roaming free in a habitat in which we were the visitors.

 

IMG_4266

 

We also discovered that adolescents of all species can have attitude. On one game drive, as we were marveling at the “Parade of Elephants” surrounding us, one young male decided to demonstrate his prowess by charging the jeep and trumpeting loudly. Believe us, that gets your attention.

 

IMG_1080

 

The beauty was almost palpable:  stately giraffes and graceful impala heading for the water hole at the end of the day;

 

 

 

 

IMG_4036

a mother lion sleeping in the grass with her cub nearby;

 

 

 

 

IMG_1236

 

an old scarred male lion sunning himself;

 

 

 

 

IMG_1278 - Copy

 

the elusive leopard

 

 

 

 

IMG_1597

 

 

and the massive hippos.

 

 

 

 

 

And the birds:  the lavender breasted roller, the tiny green bee eaters, the stately Marabou stork, the ever-vigilant fish eagle, and the red-billed hornbill–called by the locals “the flying chili pepper.” These were but a few of the hundreds of birds we saw.

IMG_1785

This complex ecosystem, so far not destroyed by human “progress,” holds valuable lessons for us. The elephants, for example, could be considered destructive in knocking down trees for food, but in so doing their massive frames open up the bush, creating paths to the water source for the smaller animals. Because they have a rather poor digestive system, using only forty percent of the food they eat, other creatures feed on the grasses and seeds found in their dung.

IMG_1127 - Copy

 

The cape buffalo is one of the largest and most dangerous of the “Big Five,” but it lives in a symbiotic relationship with the tiny buffalo weaver bird, who keeps the parasites off the buffalo and uses tufts of its fur to build its hanging nests.

 

 

 

IMG_0996

During our adventure, we lived in tents on the marsh, along the rivers, near lakes and streams and watering holes. We were entranced with the beauty, and yet the water holds its own dangers. Two of the most dangerous creatures in the bush share these waters–the vocal hippos and the silent crocodiles. For all the animals which call this wilderness home, living to see another day requires constant vigilance.

 

Life feels real in the African bush. There is a reverence here for the natural cycles of life and death. The humans who live here walk gently on the earth. This experience, sharing the world with the wild things, is a gift that has changed us. In three weeks, we have gained a deeper appreciation for wilderness. It is inconceivable that anyone would wish to harm these beautiful creatures.

And yet….

Every sixteen minutes, an elephant is slaughtered for its ivory. The black and white rhinos are almost extinct because they are hunted for their horns. While there are many efforts to stem the tide of destruction, poaching continues to threaten this primal way of life. And once these magnificent animals disappear, there will be no more. Eden will be gone forever.

Our prayer is that reverence for life will triumph over human greed. May it be so.

IMG_1372

 

Posted in Miscellaneous | 4 Comments

Africa Calling

img_2617

The first two rules of travel:

1) Plan carefully.

2) Expect unexpected changes to the plan.

 

 

In three days we leave on the trip of a lifetime–three weeks in tent camps in the heart of southern Africa. We have planned this trip for over a year. Every detail has been examined and re-examined. We have packed and re-packed; we have checked and re-checked our flights; we have read and re-read all the information provided by the company organizing our trip. In short, we were prepared.

Or so we thought.

Today, while writing down the dates of our many flights into and out of six countries, we discovered that–oops!–our flight out of Johannesburg at the end of our trip was scheduled for a day after everyone else left. How could that be, as organized and diligent as we both have been?

A quick call to the tour company confirmed the truth:  The end date of the trip in their literature is the day travelers are due back in the U.S.– not the date they leave South Africa. Who knew? Obviously, we didn’t.

What to do, what to do? Well, there was nothing else for it except to enjoy an additional day and night in Johannesburg. And so we shall.

One of the many gifts of travel is the opportunity to learn flexibility, to enjoy the adventures you did not plan and never expected. And to smile through it all.

And so, on Friday evening, we leave Ecuador on our way to Africa. Along the way we get to spend a little time in Madrid, a little time in Dubai, and a lot of time in four of the great national parks of Africa. We find ourselves wondering what other surprises lie in store.

Stay tuned….

Posted in Miscellaneous | 3 Comments

Navidad y Año Nuevo: Holidays in Ecuador

img_3059All of us grew up with different traditions around the end-of-year holidays. Since we moved to South America, we have adopted some of the traditions of our new home in Ecuador. This year we have had the pleasure of sharing the holidays and those traditions with a new friend, Christine, who is visiting from the U.S.

Two of the traditions we have come to love most are the International Chorale Concert and the Pase del Niño. Every year during Christmas week, the Cuenca International Chorale presents a free concert in the Old Cathedral in El Centro. The singers come from all over the world, but all live in Cuenca now. The selections range from traditional Christmas carols to works in Spanish, French, and several other languages, and the concert concludes with the entire audience joining together to light candles and sing Christmas carols in both English and Spanish.

img_3144Christmas Eve begins with the fantastic parade called Pase del Niño. It lasts seven or eight hours, with music, dancing, colorful costumes, and every segment of Ecuadorian society represented. One major aspect of the parade is the carrying of the Christ Child through the streets. Replicas of the Baby have often been handed down for generations, and families dress in costumes representing the Holy Family and other characters from the Nativity story. Additionally, one can also see Papa Noel (Santa Claus) walking with the Holy Family, and who’s to say that’s not how it really happened?

After opening gifts at home on Christmas morning, we enjoyed a wonderful brunch with friends. One of the beautiful parts of being in Ecuador is that we come from different traditions and different belief systems, and yet we find common ground and community here.

img_3198

Between  Christmas and New Year’s, we shared with Christine some of our favorite places in and around Cuenca. We took a city tour, visited the Panama hat museum (Panama hats are made in Ecuador, not in Panama!), and dined on cuy (guinea pig), an Ecuadorian delicacy. We also took a day trip into the mountains around Cuenca, where we marveled at the beauty of the Virgin of the Mist Church in Biblian, which is built into the side of the mountain. img_3233

img_3241

 

We met an incredible 87-year old woman named Rosita, who has been making hats all her life. In her younger days, she could make a hat in a day. Now it takes her three, but it is fascinating to watch her work. We capped off the day with a visit to the ruins of Ingapirca, the best-preserved archeological site in the country, representing both the moon-worshiping Cañari and the sun-worshiping Incas.

 

 

img_3280As New Year’s Eve approached, we–along with the rest of the world–prepared to greet a new year. In Ecuador, we let go of the old and welcome the new by burning effigies called monigotes, masked figures whose pockets and bodies are stuffed with slips of paper representing the things we wish to release. The monigotes are set on fire, and tradition says that each person jumps over the burning monigote three times. Although it sounds simple, we discovered that our monigote was wearing non-flammable clothing and was stuffed with both cardboard and plastic. Getting it to flame was something of a challenge. We laughed about the fact that letting go is sometimes a difficult process, and that change sometimes comes slowly. However, we persevered until our monigote was a pile of ash in the street.50d9a7ec-a260-4a65-87e4-30a08d01728e

img_7222As midnight approached, we were standing on our terrace watching the fireworks. Below us, about twenty members of our landlord’s family gathered to celebrate. They saw us standing on the terrace and invited us down to join their monigote celebration. Each family member had a monigote, and the bodies were piled in the street. They knew the trick of getting the fire started, and before long their effigies were blazing in the middle of the street. They shared a glass of wine with us and even invited us to a midnight supper, and although we declined the meal, since we had already eaten, we enjoyed celebrating with them.Their generosity was a testimony to the graciousness of the Ecuadorian people.

We share one more sweet tradition with you. On New Year’s Eve, each person is to eat twelve grapes, and make a wish for each grape. We were gathered with friends, and as we shared our wishes, we discovered that we were so content we had little to wish for–for ourselves. Most of our wishes were for a kinder, gentler, more loving world, and that we might be instruments of bringing this change about. We wish for less anger, more dialogue; fewer tweets, more conversation; less duality, more harmony; a deeper understanding that we are all us, and there is no them.

And so we come to this new year, wishing the same for you. May your days be filled with grace and generosity, and your hearts be filled with love. Always love.

Happy New Year. Feliz Año Nuevo.

img_3221

Pam & Penny

Posted in Miscellaneous | 2 Comments

Lomo, Vino, And New Adventures

Since we moved to South America a little over a year ago, we have done a lot of traveling, but until last month, we had not seen much of  our new hemisphere.  On November 30, we set out with our friends, Bob and Stefani, to visit Chile and Argentina. img_2478

Our fimg_2495irst stop was Santiago, Chile, a bustling city full of wonderful mercados, interesting sights, and some of the best seafood we have ever tasted.  While in Santiago, we visited one of the homes of Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and learned how his death ushered in the revolution against the Communist regime in Chile.
We rode a tram to the top of San Cristobal to visit the statue of the Virgin and to take in the panoramic view of the city.  One day we took a lovely drive out through the countryside to visit one of the local wineries and sample their fare.

 

img_2671From Santiago, we flew to Buenos Aires, a city we both fell in love with.  We visited La Boca, on the riverfront, enjoying the colorful buildings, shops, and restaurants.  We sat at a sidewalk cafe, sipping a cold beer, while listening to live tango music and watching dancers on the street.  It was magical!

 

 

We walked through the Recoleta Cemetery where Eva Peron is buried and visited  Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, where she gave her famous speech from the balcony. We sat at small cafes and had cafe con leche and medialunas, small croissants with honey.  It felt like heaven.

img_2743The highlight of Buenos Aires for us was experiencing the Mothers’ March in Plaza De Mayo.  In 1976, 30,000 protestors against the Communist government simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.  Since that time, surviving family members and supporters have marched every Thursday afternoon, vowing never to forget.  They carry pictures of their family members and read out their names.  It was, for us, incredibly moving.

img_2936From Buenos Aires we went to the smaller city of Mendoza, known primarily for the wine produced in the area’s 400 plus wineries.  On the first day we took a trip up into the mountains, near the Chilean border, and saw breathtaking snow-capped mountains, reminiscent of the Alps.  On another day we visited two wineries in the area–a large one and a small family winery.  We much preferred the smaller of the two, although we learned  a lot about the process of making wine at both places.

img_2798In Mendoza, we feasted on the famous Argentinian beef, lomo fino.  It was the best beef we have ever had, tender and cooked to perfection.  And, of course, there was always a good bottle of wine to go along with the beef!  Our friend, Stefani, chose the wine each night and did an excellent job!

 

 

We returned home to Cuenca in time to welcome our friend, Christine, who has come from San Francisco to share the holidays with us.  In the midst of this special season, we wish all of our friends and family love, joy, and peace.  Shalom!

img_2617

Posted in Miscellaneous | 2 Comments

Rollin’ On The River

There is nothing quite as exhilarating as traveling to a part of the world you’ve never seen before.  So much to learn and experience; so many ways to have your eyes and heart opened.

IMG_1259

We just returned from a 15-day trip to Eastern Europe, six countries whose history, culture, and people were completely new to us.  We began our trip with an 11-hour flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Amsterdam and then on to Prague.  In Prague we spent three days exploring this capital of The Czech Republic.  From the magnificent square with its fascinating astronomical clock to the fortress at the top of the hill overlooking the city, we were in awe of the beauty and the history of this lovely place.  By day or by night the magic of Prague captured us and made us certain that we would someday return.

IMG_1349

But on this trip, there was so much yet to come.  We traveledIMG_1556 by train from Prague to Budapest, Hungary, where we began a 12-day cruise on the Danube River.  In Budapest we visited the Jewish Quarter and were reminded of the atrocities of the Holocaust.  We met Ruth Braun who had been in the camps at age 12.  She survived while many did not.  On the bank of the river near our ship was a monument consisting of 60 pairs of bronze shoes, a memorial to the Jewish men, women and children who had been  roused at daybreak, marched to the river’s edge, shot and dropped into the waters of the Danube.  We wept at the horror of it all.

IMG_1648

 

In Vukovar, Croatia, during the Croatian war for independence in the early 1990s, the fighting was fierce and the devastation was visible everywhere.  During the battle the water tower was hit with shells and rockets over 600 times. . .and still stands, wounded but proud.  This town, the first major European town entirely destroyed since the Second World War, would not cower before the Serbian attacks.  Even the scarred buildings bloom as a testimony to the spirit of its people.

IMG_1660

 

In Serbia, we  visited the lovely town of NovIMG_1676i Sad, the center of Serbian culture, a city called the Serbian Athens.  As we strolled through the city square, Penny commented, “I never thought I would say this, but Serbia would be a lovely place to live.”  At the very least, we will be returning to Novi Sad to spend more time.

 

IMG_1869We spent a day sailing on the Danube, with Romania on the north and Serbia on the south.  This 83-mile stretch of river is called the Iron Gates.  As we rounded a bend in the river, we came upon the statue of King Decebalus, a 130-ft high IMG_1879statue, the tallest rock sculpture in Europe, carved into the rocky cliff.  We were fascinated as our ship went through two systems of locks, enabling us to continue our journey.

 

 

VIMG_1961idin, Bulgaria was our next stop.  We wandered through a medieval fortress called the Baba Vida, constructed in the 10th century.  While in Vidin we visited an 18th century mosque, notable for its minaret which is topped with a heart rather than a crescent.

 

 

IMG_2081

 

Bulgaria also offered us a lovely day in the towns of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi.  A highlight of this day was a visit to the Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel.  The walls of the church are covered with colorful frescoes depicting 3500 figures.  While there we were treated to a concert by four choir members.  It was a moving and deeply spiritual moment in our journey.

Our last day on the Danube took us to the port of ConsIMG_2253tanta, Romania, the largest port on the Black Sea.  According to legend this is where Jason and the Argonauts landed after finding the Golden Fleece.  There we visited St. Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Roman ruins just outside.  Again, we were awed by the beauty and  antiquity.  We ended our day with our feet in the Black Sea.

 

Our trip concluded in Bucharest, Romania.  Along our journey we met amazing people. . .some have become friends, some provided us with glimpses into life in Eastern Europe, and some made us realize again that there are heroes all around us.

IMG_2199IMG_1766

IMG_2014

Posted in Miscellaneous | 7 Comments

New Life, New Love

Yapa.

Pronounced Yah-pah.

In Ecuador, you hear the word a lot—in the mercados, in local tiendas, in the panaderias. It’s a Quechua word that means “a little something extra,” a bonus, an unexpected gift. A couple of buns thrown in for free when you buy two loaves of bread.  A potato or two. A few extra shrimp. More than you bargained for. And always given with a smile.

After losing Rags three weeks ago, we knew we would honor our promise to him to love another animal because of all he meant to our lives. Our plan had been to wait a while, simply to give ourselves time to grieve our loss. However, a friend of ours told us an interesting story: When she moved to Ecuador, she had to leave her beloved dog behind. She asked that dog to send her another canine companion, trusting that it would be the right dog at the right time. That struck a chord with us, and so a week ago Friday, Pam asked Rags to send us the dog he wanted us to rescue. We did not expect an immediate answer.

But that Friday night, Pam dreamed that she walked into the living room and saw a dog sitting on the sofa. At first she thought it was Rags, but it was not. Then, on Saturday morning at a monthly bazaar, we had a chance encounter with a local dog trainer. Pam told him about losing Rags, and he said, “I have a dog that may be right for you.” He sent pictures, and we arranged to meet.

It was love at first sight. She was many of the things we said we were not looking for in another dog: We didn’t want another black dog. We wanted one a little smaller than Rags. We wanted a male. And yet…IMG_1225

Here she was. Black as night, knee high, 24 pounds, with a face as sweet as any you’ve ever seen. There was no doubt Rags had sent us this dog. In many ways she looks a little like Rags, and yet she is her own girl, with her own personality. It almost feels as if Rags has coached her on how to live with us. Because we feel that she is a bonus, a gift from Rags, we’ve called her Yapa.

Our friend Barbara said it well: The veil between the worlds is thin, and when we need it most, love comes to us from the other side. Love in the form of a Yapa.

Posted in Miscellaneous | 7 Comments