Posted by: stacylynn12 | June 9, 2020

Morocco in 5 Senses

It almost seems like a lifetime ago that we left the Seychelles – an idyllic island paradise in the middle of the Indian Ocean, bound for Morocco. Back then Coronavirus was a distant, meager threat. We wondered if we should be wearing masks as we traveled to Dubai but quickly dismissed the idea as being overly cautious and a bit paranoid. We carried on and spent a fun day in this intriguing city before boarding yet another plane and flying to Casablanca. Let us go back in time shall we? If just for a few moments… to before the world went crazy?

Dubai. A city of contrasts and ethical conundrums. When the kids heard we could layover there on our way to Morocco they were over the moon. I didn’t really understand the enthusiasm but apparently Dubai is “cool”. Even though I don’t think kids actually say “cool” anymore. I’m generally not much of a fan of traveling to big cities, much preferring to experience the natural wonders of the world but ok… it’s hard to travel from southern Africa to northern Africa without a layover in the middle east so Dubai it was. And on the subject of big cities, let me just note that exceptions could be made for say, Paris or Venice. In case anyone is planning a trip and thinking about inviting me along. I hear Prague is cool too. Ok, I’m getting off track…

I must say, the Dubai airport freakin rocked. Having traveled enough to dread the sometimes insufferably long customs and immigration lines once faces after a long flight, I was pleasantly shocked by the experience. From deplaning to being in a taxi en route to our hotel couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes. That included customs, immigration, baggage collection and procuring a pink taxi (driven by a woman for women and families) all in a seemingly massive airport.

Dubai is wealth and opulence. Glitz and shine. The streets are perfectly manicured, wide and clean. The buildings, including the tallest building in the world are futuristic in their architectural design. As we speak the Emirates are outdoing themselves and building an even taller building. This is urban planning at it’s most extreme. Build it and they will come seems to be the motto, but currently the place feels half empty. There’s no traffic and no homelessness. There’s hundreds of cranes visible in the sky and one website I checked reported the actual number to be over 1,000. But…

The underbelly of all this glitz and glamour is this… Many of those cranes sit idle. Construction has been halted due to “cash flow” issues as one local expat told us. Much of Dubai’s fancy infrastructure has been built by underpaid, overworked immigrant labor who lack basic worker protections and live outside the city they are building in slum like neighborhoods. They’ve come here much for the same reasons immigrants come to America. They’ve come in search of a better life for themselves or their families. We spoke to a few “locals” who talked of sending most of their paycheck back to their families in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal. If you talk with an Emirati, they might tell you the government is great and they benefit from the incredible oil wealth of their country. But roughly only 20% of the population of the United Arab Emirates is Emirati. That leaves 80% of the population out of the equation. The average tourist never sees any of this.

So, you can see things can get a bit more complicated quickly. But alas, this post is supposed to be about Morocco and I’m ready to move on. In summary, we enjoyed our roughly 36 hours in Dubai. We got lost inside the Dubai Mall trying to find our way to the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We enjoyed the Dubai Fountain show and wandering the streets, people watching and taking in the contrasts of this intriguing city. And, the airport departure scene was just as divine as the arrival. I’ll give the Emiratis this… they’ve got airports dialed.

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The Burj Khalifa

The flight to Casablanca was smooth and we were overjoyed to see the friendly face of our friend Pete, who has been living in Morocco for many years now. When you’ve been traveling for weeks or months and someone you know and love shows up to whisk you away… and you don’t have to think about directions, exchange money, decipher a foreign language or navigate a public transit system… when you are greeted with enthusiastic embraces and you can follow mindlessly along through the parking lot to where their car is parked and relax while they drive you to their home… well, it’s just amazing.

Pete and his family live on the beach near the capitol city of Rabat. The weather, for the first time in almost 3 months, was not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Hallelujah.

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Pete and Karima’s front yard

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The boys enjoy some boogie boarding.  The weather was perfect but the water was freezing.  Of course, they didn’t seem to notice.

 

TASTE

After a late afternoon beach walk, we were treated to a mouth watering, traditional Moroccan feast. Food traditions in much of Southern Africa seemed to be rooted more in survival than inspiration. Bush meat was interesting to sample but beyond that, with a few exceptions, mediocre versions of international dishes were what was mostly on offer. Enter Morocco… the first country we traveled to on this leg of our journey that had a rich gastronomic identity. Us being prone to foodie snobbishness, well, it was just one more thing Morocco had going for it.

Fatima, the family’s cook, outdid herself and prepared an immense feast. The main course was a tagine – a famous slow cooked stew that takes its name from the unique clay pot it’s cooked in. The plentiful side dishes were served tapas style (tapas is a Spanish tradition that means “small plates”) with the result being a delightfully overwhelming variety of flavors and textures. I’m pretty sure after that meal that I told Pete and Karima that we were never leaving.

Breakfast picked up where we left off with dish after dish of deliciousness. I submitted a change of address form. That morning we discovered a life changing, earthly version of heaven.  Rghaif. A flaky, tender, slightly crispy, square, pan fried dough… otherwise known as a Moroccan pancake. To pronounce this treat, roll your R, throw in a little g and finish with aye-f. And if you can’t pronounce it, who cares?! Google it, learn to make it and thank me later. If you do google it, you may find it is also called Msemen. I never heard anyone in Morocco call it that. Thank goodness. I have no idea how to pronounce that version but in all my attempts it comes out sounding a bit foul.

Fridays are a special day for Moroccans and their cuisine. Friday is Couscous day, the Moroccan equivalent of the Sunday dinner. This is not the dry, somewhat bland, ready in 5 minutes couscous we tend to know in the US but a slow cooked dish prepared lovingly to be enjoyed as a late afternoon meal with family. Moroccans take their Couscous Fridays seriously. The dish Fatima prepared for us combined savory spiced beef and veggies and was topped with a contrasting touch of sweet provided by raisins and caramelized onions with a textural finale of marcona almonds. The meal was served with a yogurt drink… truthfully, the first thing I tasted in Morocco that I would give a miss to. I much prefer the tooth rotting, sickly sweet traditional mint tea. Or the bountiful bottles of wine that our gracious hosts shared with us night after night.

 

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Friday Couscous

To complete our culinary adventure in Morocco, the boys and I took a Moroccan cooking class from an Arabic speaking master chef named Khadija and her English speaking daughter Salma. We learned to make a chicken tagine and a veggie tagine and… wait for it… rghaif. Of course the woman didn’t measure a single thing and made it look so easy as to be laughable but she nicknamed Josh “petite monsieur” and laughed a lot and seemed to really love what she was doing and we loved her in return. Our food, with her help, was delicious!

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Josh works the rghaif

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Bodhi prepares the tagine with Chef Khadija’s help

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Our motley cooking crew from L to R – Monsieur Mohamed, Madame Khadija, Petite Monsieur and Madame Fatima (our names for the day and her name everyday)

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Success!

 

 

SOUND

Morocco is a predominately Muslim country which means when you travel there you are likely to experience a unique aspect of Islamic life – the Call to Prayer. Five times each day, with the first one at dawn, the Muezzin (the official who issues the call) broadcasts the Call to Prayer over a loudspeaker from the minaret of the local mosque. Many Muslims will pause their daily life, set out their prayer rugs and unite body, mind and soul in worship. Prayers can be done inside the mosque, outside, in the office, airport or really anywhere. Local daily life carries on. Not everyone prays at every call, but it’s an option or perhaps an invitation, if you will. Interestingly, I never saw any women engaged in prayer in public spaces. Some mosques have separate prayer times and entrances for men and women but it certainly seems like public religious life is dominated by men.

The prayers are in Arabic and since our Arabic was limited to approximately 3 phrases, we understood not a word but the emotions that the Calls to Prayer stirred ranged from calming and soothing to irritating and annoying.

During a visit to Chefchaouen, a particularly sweet mountain town in the Rif Mountains, dawn arrived with the sound of roosters crowing followed in quick succession by the beautiful buttery voice of a Muezzin singing the Call to Prayer. I’d lay in bed, half awake mesmerized by the rural religious sounds. Until one by one more Muezzins chimed in, issuing their own calls from their own minarets. Before long simultaneous calls could be heard from multiple mosques around the town. The dueling Muezzins,  with voices ranging from delicious and delightful to fingernails on a chalkboard bad, soon turned the morning bliss into the urge to shove my head under a pillow to drown out the noise.

In earlier times, before the advent of modern speaker technology, it is my understanding that the construction of minarets and mosques correlated with the radius that the Muezzin’s voice would carry. Where one’s voice ended, another minaret/mosque was constructed to serve the adjacent community. But with electronics, that game changed. I wondered why the Muezzins couldn’t all get together? Take turns? Since the Call to Prayer from one Mosque could easily be heard throughout the entire town now, why the need for every single one of them to sound out every single time? With 5 prayer times each and every day, couldn’t they work out a schedule?

We recorded some of the more wonderful Calls and some of the more outrageous dueling Muezzins but I am unable to upload them here. Instead, here is an example I found online of a lovely sounding Call to Prayer in case you are curious.

https://folkways.si.edu/muezzins-call-to-prayer-2/islamica-sacred-world/music/track/smithsonian

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The Hassan Tower is the minaret of a never completed mosque in Rabat, Morocco’s capital city.  Construction began in 1195 and was intended to be the largest mosque/minaret in the world.  It was commissioned by a religious leader and upon his death, construction ceased.  It is now a beautiful historical site in Rabat.

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Another example of sound in Morocco.  The tassel on the hat gets swung in circles around the head in time with the drum beat… but it’s much harder than one might think to make it happen!  Here’s Josh outside the Chellah fortress in Rabat – ruins dating back to the Romans that contain a rich and interesting history.

 

 

SIGHT

Marrakech.

Marrakech is an assault on the senses. All of them. The sights were perhaps the most pronounced but rest assured it is a rich stew.

We arrived late one evening after a long car ride from Rabat. Once again, our dear friend Pete was at the wheel and as he navigated the narrow and crowded streets heading towards the medina, Marrakech’s old walled city in the center of town, I’ve never been more glad to not be in charge. We do have a bit of experience navigating ourselves through new and unfamiliar places but I swear as Pete zigged and zagged his way through the city I knew I’d never find my way out even if my life depended on it.

He pulled into a parking lot that was reminiscent of a tetris game and we sped off on foot to find our riad, a traditional Moroccan guest house with an interior garden or courtyard. Ours occupied a tiny, multi story footprint in a tucked away corner of the medina.

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Our Riad in Marrakech.  This is a common space.  The ornate railing defines the center courtyard below and is open to the sky above.  Our small room is behind the brown door.

 

In order to get to our riad we had to cross the main square of Marrakech’s old city – Jemaa el-Fnaa. I walked through this place trying to keep my mouth from hanging open. Pete encouraged us to keep up the clip. Marrakech is known for it’s aggressive touts (people selling wares of all kinds) and for it’s petty theft. Tourists hauling backpacks and suitcases en route to their riad (there are many that are inaccessible except on foot as the passageways to get to them are too narrow for a vehicle) are prime for the picking.

As we hustled through I watched the throngs of humanity, the smoke filled air from the various food vendors, the groups of old men gathered sitting on buckets and in chairs playing cards or music and the young people launching mini glow stick rocket helicopters into the air. Pete bought a couple of these trinkets for the boys and we attempted to finesse them into flight without much success. Unfortunately, they broke moments later leaving me feeling guilty about adding more plastic crap to our world’s trash heap. But I will not forget these little gadgets and how they added to the surreal experience of arriving at night in Jemaa el-Fnaa.

By day the square is occupied by fresh squeezed orange juice stalls, water sellers carrying traditional leather water-bags and brass cups, food venders and peddlers of every imaginable Moroccan craft. There are chained Barbary apes and snake charmers, despite the protected status of these species under Moroccan law, and ladies who will grab your arm and sketch out a hasty henna tattoo before you know what hit you, and then demand an outrageous payment for violating your personal space. Ask me how I know about this one.

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Water sellers

After walking the narrow cobblestone streets which quickly turned to darker, narrower alleyways we found (miraculously in my opinion) our riad. We had a dinner reservation so we quickly checked in and then headed back out into the “relentless pestering and petty swindling” that is Marrakech. 

Our dinner was a continuation of the intoxicating experience. We arrived and were seated while a belly dancer performed on a circular stage in the middle of the darkened room. The 5 of us were seated around a table too small for anyone’s knees to fit under. (Most tables in Morocco seemed to fit this description and I’m baffled as to why the country has adopted this silly design.) The wine was served followed by olives, bread and a stunning array of sauces and dips to sample.

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First course

The dinner, various combinations of classic tagines, was accompanied by live musical performers. The air in this tiny, dark restaurant thrummed with the essence of Morocco. After dinner we wandered the medina until, exhausted by the sensory overload, we retired to our riad for the night.

The next day was spent shopping. The souks (various areas of the market selling a particular type of good… ie, the rug souk, the leather souk…. you get the idea) were filled with spices, natural dyes, metal lamps, copperware, glassware, ceramics, textiles and rugs. Our quest for a rug was on.

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A tantalizing “street” in the medina.  Now imagine a motor scooter zipping through the crowds.  Never dull.

 

We could have spend days, not to mention thousands of dollars on rug buying but we had neither. We ended up in tiny shop that sold more antique, historical relics than rugs but Pete knew the owner and he seemed like a nice enough guy to engage in the uncomfortable and exhausting process of haggling.

Whether you are buying a $10,000 dollar rug or a $5 dollar trinket prepare to play the game. The seller starts at double, maybe triple the price and, feigning shock, you counter with an embarrassingly low number. They in turn act out being mortally wounded by your insulting offer and this goes on until you have arrived at a price that is somewhere around half of what they initially asked for. Mind you, this is once you’ve actually become somewhat savvy at the bargaining game. It takes a while. During one such encounter where I was trying to buy some inexpensive souvenirs in a shop, the seller and I engaged in the dance. Once we finally shook on a price, he looked at me, dropping his sales persona momentarily and said “it’s exhausting isn’t it?” We both chuckled and agreed, letting our mutual guards down for a minute or two since the deal had been sealed.

We did buy a rug… two in fact… and we left happy but as is often the case with the bargaining game, wondering if we should pat ourselves on the back for business well negotiated or if we had played the ugly America and haggled the man down to a unfair profit margin.

Rugs in tow, we decided we’d had enough of Marrakech. It is a dizzying, exciting and essential part of any visit to Morocco but our mountain loving souls had were ready to move on.

SMELL

I’ve got to be honest, and this surprises me (not the being honest part but what I’m about to tell you)  I don’t have strong memories of smells in Morocco.  Neither good nor bad smells.  What can I say?  We were in Morocco at the tail end of winter, where the daytime temps are still in the 70’s mind you, but where things have not quite come into bloom yet.  So, we’ll have to use our imaginations a bit here.

We left Marrakech for an off the beaten path retreat in the High Atlas Mountains. Ouirgane is a quiet Berber village a couple of hours outside of Marrakech and a stark contrast to the loud chaos of the city.  After checking in to our lovely digs at Domaine de la Roseraie we set off on a little walk about the property. We meandered along in the tranquil acres of orchards and ancient olive groves. We passed a multitude of rose bushes (not yet in bloom), lemon and lime trees and an aromatics garden which I imagine in season is full of fragrant mint for the ubiquitous Moroccan sweet tea. Now close your eyes and imagine the scents that are possible here.  Mmmmmmmm….

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Ancient olive grove in the High Atlas Mountains

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Traditional pouring of mint tea

TOUCH

Morocco is rich in texture.  One strolls through the ancient medinas and the desire to touch everything from the crumbling walls to the fabulous textiles is strong. The texture is so rich you can see it with your eyes… which is a good thing when you are reading a blog.  Let me present to you Touches of Morocco, in pictures…

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natural dyes

Moroccan Textures

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Chefchaouen Medina

 

You may have guessed by now that the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of Morocco are not easily separated into neat little boxes or paragraphs.  They are interwoven into an incredibly complex, delightfully overlapping sensual experience for any guest lucky enough to travel through.

On Feb 23rd, the boys and I flew from Casablanca to Boston, wrapping up 3 months of international travel.  You know our story from there.  Randy stayed on in Morocco and enjoyed (survived?) a motorcycle trip through the southern Moroccan Sahara with Pete. I can’t write about that because… what happens in the Sahara, stays in the Sahara.  Or something like that.

We are all extremely grateful for the hospitality showered upon us by our dear friends in Rabat.

Before I leave you, here are a few more photos.  I could not choose which sense these belonged to so I’ll let you decide.

 

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Chefchaouen.  I did not write much about this town but we loved it.  Many buildings are painted blue and there are a few theories as to why.  The one we heard most repeated was that it keeps mosquitos away.  It certainly was lovely and I can’t say I saw too many mosquitos!

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Chefchaouen viewed through the upper wall of the city

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Josh gets tatted up

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Henna tattoos! Unlike the experience I briefly referenced above where a woman literally grabbed my arm as I was walking by and starting drawing on me and then demanded an outrageous payment, these tattoos were desired and payment negotiated before the artist began.  A much nicer experience and outcome!

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Getting lost in the Chefchaouen medina

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Turtle friends.  They’d come flying out of their hiding places for hibiscus flowers every morning.

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Hiking in the Rif mountains near Chefchaouen

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Wandering the Chefchaouen medina

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Taking in the view on Pete’s farm outside of Rabat

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Pete let me play farmer for a moment

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Pete’s sweet rammed earth home on his farm outside of Rabat

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The boys and our fabulous friend and tour guide. Thank you Pete, Karima and Mateo!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: stacylynn12 | April 16, 2020

Life, interrupted: Part 2

Alright friends, where did we leave off?  Ahh yes, we’d just arrived home to our little backyard cottage.  It was a lovely Saturday for a February day in Seattle. The crocuses were in bloom in our yard. We opened our garage, where all of our personal belongings are stored, to dig out the essentials.  Of course I’m talking about the espresso machine, the baseball gear and… “the shoes”.

Now the garage was a tad bit overwhelming.  The last rushed moments before we left for Patagonia came flooding back.  We stuffed and crammed and just barely made everything fit but both Bodhi and I had a clear memory that he had ceremoniously said goodbye to his beloved, custom designed Nike shoes and set them carefully in the front of the garage so as to be easily retrieved upon our return.  He started fishing around and didn’t see them.  Ok, well we must have stuffed them in a box.  We opened boxes and bins and rubbermaid containers to no avail.  “Well, they’ll turn up”, I said.  “Let’s go take some stuff back to the cottage.”  Now, the comparison I can draw for you is that Bodhi missed his shoes like I missed my espresso machine.  The boy lovingly designed these things online over the course of a couple of weeks.  He begged and pleaded to be allowed to get them. He put up 1/2 the money himself.  And he cleaned them with a toothbrush from time to time.

We took some essentials around to the cottage and on our way back to the garage Bodhi paused, shouted some expletives and ran up onto the back deck of our house where he found his beloved shoes stuffed into a corner.  Now, to make a long story short… we talked to the folks renting our house, who are very nice people and who don’t at all seem like shoe stealers.  They told us they’d found them under the trampoline in the yard and had brought them up onto the deck.  Now, we are all near certain that Bodhi did not leave his prized possession under the trampoline.  The shoe situation shall remain forever a mystery it seems.  The toothbrush came out, the laces were washed and they shoes were returned to an acceptable state.  I cannot say the same for the garage.  I joked frequently that I would like a dump truck to show up at our house and just haul it all away.

One of the nicest things about returning to our little cottage instead of our house was that it provided a simplified existence.  We’d grown accustomed to living in a small space be it a tent, a hotel room or a cabin.  There was never a time in our 3 months of travel where we all had our own bedrooms.  The boys were psyched when they got a room to share with two beds.  Often they shared a bed or someone slept on the floor, usually all of us in one room.  So our cottage, despite having only one lofted sleeping space, felt quite comfortable.  The expansive high ceiling and lots of light along with two bathrooms and a kitchen helped us feel like we were living large.

We decided we wanted to try and roll back into life slowly.  The kids talked me into letting them start school on Tuesday instead of Monday.  I wasn’t scheduled to see my first patient until Thursday. Since we were still adjusting to the time zone, we woke up early, had lovely, leisurely mornings and spent time reconnecting with friends.  Monday morning we walked to the boys respective schools and got them enrolled back into their classes.  Tuesday morning, their first official day back was delightful.  They were up an hour and a half before needing to leave for school and with that much time the morning felt pleasant instead of our usual scramble, stress and rush routine.  In a short time, we’d fallen into a nice rhythm.  In bed by 8pm, watch an episode of The Great British Baking Show and fall asleep early.  Wake up early, play some calm morning music, sip coffee and read the paper (me), eat a healthy breakfast and then roll out the door without a curse word uttered.  But could we sustain this?

This living situation of ours is so unconventional as to seem weird to most Americans. Wait, you all sleep in the same room? In fact it would have seemed much more intolerable to us had we not just spent 3 months in even smaller quarters together.  But it facilitated a great many things.  First of all… I didn’t have to worry about the kids sneaking off to their rooms for some screen time.  Nor did I have to continually monitor the “no phones in your rooms” policy.  Being in the same room facilitated this sweet evening ritual of watching a fun show (something we’d never ever done before) and waking to the sound of lovely music echoing throughout our tiny but open cottage set a calming tone for the day.  It felt like there was room to breath in our life.  This little home provided a spaciousness not present in our larger, more separated house.  We could be doing our own things in different corners of the cottage but we were all together and comfortable with it.

Now, it helped that I wasn’t working a full schedule.  And we knew this wouldn’t go on forever which made it somewhat novel and intriguing.  In those first few days home, life was filled with what we all want more of.  Less.  We reconnected with friends, made home cooked meals, eased back into school and work and began to attend baseball practices.  The days were full but not bursting.  There weren’t 50 million things on the calendar competing for our time and energy.

We heard from Randy regularly.  He too was enjoying a simple life –  taking long walks, planning his next adventure and relishing time with his friend.

I knew things would get more challenging.  My work schedule would ramp up.  The boys activities and social lives would get more demanding of our time.  Our bodies would adjust to west coast time and sports practices and homework would make it more difficult to go to bed at 8pm.  I was determined to pay attention to the moments that things started to shift and to see what pieces I could control to hold on to the calm we all felt.

Unfortunately though, on the day we landed in Seattle – February 29th – the United States announced it’s first COVID-19 death in the Seattle area and Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in Washington.  Within days, the greater Seattle area emerged as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US.  We carried on with our lives, more or less because we didn’t yet know what we were and weren’t supposed to be doing.

Little by little but in rapid progression, life around us started to shut down. The kids were back in school for two days when everyone started speculating about when they’d close.  That announcement came the following week. Schools closed for 2 weeks, then 6 weeks and now as we all know, until the fall at least.  I got in one week of work before my practice closed indefinitely.  The boys enjoyed a handful of baseball practices before that too was suspended.  All told, they spent 7 days in school.

Randy, who had spent an enjoyable additional two weeks in Morocco with his friend Pete, taking an exciting motorcycle trip through the Sahara (happy I missed that one, thank you!) had just headed to Spain.  Yes, right as COVID 19 was exploding in that part of the world.  

I wish I could tell you about how it all unfolded… getting back into the swing of daily life after a 3 month hiatus.  If and for how long we’d been able to maintain that sweet peacefulness.  I’d like to know myself what it would have been like to have a lighter work schedule as my practice ramped back up.  If that would have allowed me more space and energy to exercise, cook nourishing meals and support my kids in their endeavors without sacrificing my own sanity as often feels the case in our hurried and hectic world.  I’d like to have heard about Randy’s experiences exploring the old towns and villages while walking the Camino de Santiago, but we won’t know those things, at least not in the same way we might have.  

Randy ducked out of Spain – across the border into Portugal – just in time as the countries closed themselves off to try to staunch the voracious spread of the virus.  He caught a flight back to Seattle the next day and quarantined himself for two weeks, thankfully coming out of the travel unscathed and virus free insofar as we know.  

The boys and I left the city before the stay at home order was issued so Randy could have the tiny cottage to quarantine and so we could isolate ourselves in the mountains.  We’ve rented a house and are staying put as long as needed.  Randy joined us after his two weeks were up.  

The rest of our sabbatical plans are on hold, just like the plans of much of the rest of humanity.  For now, we are just taking it one day at a time and trying to adjust to this strange new world.  In many ways we are being given the opportunity to experience the slow life we tasted and I do see the gift in that.  But truthfully, I’d rather be at home, carrying on with our Great British Baking Show tradition, cozying up in our lofted cottage and watching my kids succeed (and fail) in the game of baseball.  I LOVE watching them play baseball with an intensity that baffles me.  I wish I was catching up with all of my treasured patients and carrying on with attempting to find the delicate balance of having too much or too little on our plates.  It will be interesting to see how we, the human race, emerge into a post COVID world.

Wherever you are, stay safe and be kind.  Sometimes it’s all we’ve got.

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Posted by: stacylynn12 | April 3, 2020

Life, interrupted: Part 1

Well friends, we are in quite a pickle in this wonderful world of ours aren’t we?  This world where rhinos interrupt dinner and a microscopic foe interrupts life for nearly every human on the planet.  I’d love to be telling you about our one whirlwind day in Dubai and our wonderful 2 weeks in Morocco, the last two stops on the first leg of our travels, and I will.  I’ve got a draft sitting here with one, lonely paragraph.  It will be good, I hope, when I finally find the focus to write it.

I’d wish I could be telling you about Randy’s adventures on the Camino de Santiago, a network of long distance trails leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, a town in northwestern Spain, but that plan collapsed.

Everything has changed.  I don’t need to tell you that. You are living it too, regardless of where on the earth you sit reading this.

So let me just start a few weeks back, before things spiraled into uncertainty.  I hope to distract you from the wretched state of the world for a few brief moments.  I’ll tell you about our landing back in the US for now and I’ll come back to Dubai and Morocco once I find the motivation.

The boys and I had always planned to return to Seattle for the springtime.  Baseball, school and my structural medicine practice awaited and the three of us were ready for some clean clothes and a break from being on the move.  I’m pretty sure Bodhi was down to one pair of socks (gross!) and most of our clothes had been reduced to glorified rags.  I was desperate for a pair of jeans.

May I offer you a tip?  If you are ever packing for a long trip and you are wondering… “should I bring my jeans?”  The answer is yes. Unquestionably, yes. I hemmed and hawed and in the end decided jeans were too heavy and impractical for both trekking in Patagonia and safari-ing (a word?) around Africa.  In theory this still holds true.  In practice it was an awful mistake.  There were many a day, lounging around a hostel or out camping on a chilly African night where I desperately wanted my jeans.  Lesson learned.  I hope you can benefit from my mistake.

The boys and I left Randy and Morocco on a sunny afternoon. Randy stayed behind to do a motorcycle trip through the Sahara with his buddy Pete and would then be on to adventures yet undecided at that point and would meet back up with us later in the spring to start planning our summer together.

We landed in Boston just a few hours after we departed (the magic of traveling through time zones), picked up a rental car and headed north towards Maine.  We spent the night just a bit south of the Maine border, not wanting to make the 3 hour drive after a long day of travel.  In the wee hours of the morning – 4 am to be exact –  we were all awake wondering what on earth to do with ourselves when it came to me.  The Freeport Outlets! Freeport is the home of L.L. Bean and the capital of shopping in Maine.  During the summer months the streets and stores are packed with tourists looking for a bahgen. (that’s Maine for bargain in case you haven’t had your coffee yet today.)  But at 6 am on a February day, things are pretty quiet.  In fact the only thing open is the Starbucks and the flagship L.L. Bean store which stays open 24/7/365.  So we hunkered down for some coffee and cocoa and pastries in the cozy coffee shop and waited for the outlets to open. Then, I scored myself a pair of $6 jeans.  Yep, you read that right.

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The LL Bean Bootmoblie

I had told my folks that we’d probably arrive around 2pm that day and I knew for certain they expected that to be 4pm or later, knowing us as they do, so they were dutifully shocked when we pulled into the driveway before noon.

The boys had never been to Maine in the winter and I wondered what they would think of their summer swimming and boating playground being turned into an expanse of snow covered ice. I needn’t have worried. They set to work on a fort in the middle of the frozen lake and spent hours in the sunshine and fresh air.  They even enticed the grandparents out on the lake.  Never underestimate the power of a grandchild.

We celebrated Josh’s birthday in style (and for at least the 3rd time) and then Josh stayed home with Grammie and Pepere to learn the fine and secret art of making pumpkin bread and caramels and to do an art project while Bodhi and I joined my cousin Brent (we missed you Lisa!) for our first (and it turns out only) skiing of the year. A timely storm delivered us freshies (that’s nirvana in the form of fresh snow for you non skiers) all day and despite the cold the skiing was excellent.  Especially after a warm up with Sugarloaf Mountain’s famous Bacon and Egg Bloody Mary, made with bacon infused vodka.  Seriously!

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Me, Brent and a meal in a glass

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12!

Now a sidebar because you know, everything is not always as wonderful and seamless as it seems…

We’d literally been skiing for about 3 minutes when we had an incident.  We rode the chair up and got first tracks down a beginner/intermediate slope.  Given that we hadn’t skied for a year we wanted to start slowly and Brent was kind enough to stick with us even though I’m sure he was ready to rip something more challenging.

There were huge smiles all around as we glided silently through snow as soft as warm butter.  Brent skied ahead, followed by Bodhi and then me.  And then… bam.  Bodhi hit a short steep section dubbed the “Chicken Pitch” where the wind ripped across the slope and left a crusty, icy death trap in place of the dreamy powder.  He caught an edge and went down hard.

Ok, accident aside… how great of a name is Chicken Pitch?  Like if you’re gonna crash isn’t it great to be able to say “Dude, I totally wiped out on Chicken Pitch!” Maybe it’s just me.

Now I’ve seen kids go down hard and pop back up like nothing happened so I wasn’t overly concerned. I skied down to him and found him face down in the snow, head down the slope, skis twisted into a gnarly mess.  Brent had rounded a corner and was gone. Bodhi didn’t even lift his head when I arrived. I crouched down next to him and he just groaned pitifully and alarmingly… “my head… my leg”.

Shit, shit, shit.  I just took a damn EMT course and talked to our local mountain about joining ski patrol so I really aught to have known what to do here.  First up, don’t panic. I didn’t want to move him so I checked for blood as best as I could.  Nothing.  I did a rapid exam with my hands and he didn’t scream in pain so I figured there were likely no bones sticking out.  By now I was mostly concerned about concussion despite the fact that he was thankfully wearing a helmet.  He finally rolled over and sat up. He knew his name and he knew where he was and there were no immediate signs of serious trouble so up we got and down we went.  I spent the rest of the morning annoying the bejeezus out of him by making him look at me and assessing his eyes for signs of concussion and asking him how he was feeling, if he was dizzy or sleepy or…. A mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do.

At the end of the day we had to dig ourselves out to go home, a fun and novel project for a couple of folks who’d been dying in the heat for the last two months.

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We drove back to my parents place, collected Josh, said our goodbyes the next morning and drove back to Boston.  Ok, ok, we did make one more stop in Freeport for a wee bit more shopping (and I’m dead serious when I say it was the boy’s idea).  We visited with more cousins and I had dinner with two of my high school buddies while the kids hung out with the cousins (OMG, thank you Curt and Patti!).

The next morning, we did the airport shuffle one last time and a few hours later, arrived home in Seattle.  We were greeted by good friends and Josh was literally mobbed by his two besties who surprised him by coming to the airport, courtesy of one very thoughtful mom.

We collected our car which was being stored in a friend’s carport, picked up some essential groceries (read coffee) and headed to our little cottage to settle in.  Little did we know we’d have a week and a half before the world turned upside down.

Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon…

 

 

Posted by: stacylynn12 | February 22, 2020

If you have a Bee in your Hand, what do you have in your Eye?

It was with mixed emotions that we departed the African continent.   I must say, I felt somewhat victorious.  We’d come to this mythical land and survived.  Dare I say thrived?  We’d only visited one medical clinic.  Yes, I conveniently left this detail out of previous postings as I didn’t want to worry you.  

Two days after touching down in Namibia, we were picking up our rental vehicle from the Bushlore office, getting the grand tour of how everything from the tents to the winch worked when Bodhi turned glassy eyed and pale as a ghost then promptly stumbled and collapsed.  Thankfully he’d been flanked by two strapping Africans who caught what would have otherwise been a nasty fall and escorted him inside to the air conditioning to sit down.  I tried desperately to calm myself when what I wanted to do was yell “Forget it!  We don’t want the vehicle, please take us back to the airport immediately!”  I held it together and a lovely Namibian woman with a British accent came out and quietly said “I’m sorry ma’am but what is wrong with your son?”  

My outward calm managed to say “I think he’s dehydrated and perhaps needs to eat something.”  My inner freak was screaming “Jesus lady, I don’t know!  Get me a doctor now!”  She must have sensed my motherly meltdown and suggested we take him to a medical clinic.  I agreed promptly and she arranged to have someone drive us there and called ahead.  By the time we arrived, Bodhi had mostly recovered from his “incident”.  Thankfully, he was diagnosed with dehydration, a bit of heat exhaustion and low blood sugar.  He hadn’t eaten breakfast that day and we certainly were not used to the hot Namibian temperatures.  

Shaken and stirred, (well me anyway) we arrived back at the Bushlore offices and carried on with our vehicle tour as though the whole charade had never happened.  

So, you can see how I might be amazed that the rest of the trip unfolded with nary a medical hitch.  Every bug bite (we didn’t get many), mild ache or pain sent a mini wave of panic through me.  I requested TR’s from the kids on a regular basis.  Having succumbed to dehydration in Baja a couple of years back and ending up with IV fluids instead of a surf lesson, I know the risks of mild traveler’s diarrhea. Oh sorry, I’m not supposed to use that word. 

Teens and tweens are much less comfortable discussing bodily functions than our normal climber and medical friend crowds and we had to develop an alternate vocabulary.  TR is “toilet report” and my requests for it were always accompanied by eye rolls and exasperated mumblings.  The answer could either be “AC”, for “all clear” or “Code D” which stands for… well, I’m sure you can figure that one out.  “Code D” initiated the administration of oral rehydration salts (electrolytes) and excessive mom monitoring.  Rest assured the boys are absolutely horrified I am telling you this … but a travel blogger without some good poop talk just ain’t being real.

So back to our African success story.  We’d had a phenomenal time, seen incredible wildlife and natural beauty.  We’d learned a bit about culture and politics.  And yet, our time was not without challenge and minor hardship.  I was personally ready for a change, and after driving 4000 miles visiting Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, we were all very excited about the next stop on our journey.

The Seychelles are an island nation made up of 115 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Back when I’d first started discovering the world and learning about all the places I could go, I’d heard of them.  I heard they were the islands where royalty (think Prince William and Duchess Kate) and Hollywood celebrities flew for their extraordinary vacations on private islands.  They looked amazing and they seemed completely unattainable.  But all these years later, the images were still so alluring, I wasn’t going to give up that easily.  The Seychelles are located just 5 hours by plane off the coast of South Africa. We’d likely never be geographically closer.

I hopped on-line and started researching “Seychelles for budget travelers” and lo and behold it seemed remotely feasible. “Budget” might be stretching it but we just decided we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  I booked us what looked like a lovely bungalow on Mahe, the main island where all international flights arrive.  It wasn’t on the beach and it didn’t have a pool but hey, what’s a budget traveler to expect?

The Seychelles are just 300 miles or so from the equator and are about as tropical as the Pope is Catholic.  They drip with a primordial lushness I’ve never seen elsewhere.  That sounds dreamy doesn’t it? Well it is.  It’s also so bloody hot and humid as to make one nostalgic for the dismal Patagonia weather.  Well, ok, almost.

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We arrived to stormy weather and enjoyed tropical downpours from the porch of our bungalow

After a morning sipping coffee on the patio of our bungalow and already drenched with sweat at 8am, we were eager to get to the water.  Anse Royal (anse being the French word for cove or bay), was purported to be a 15 minute walk from our place but as we quickly learned, walking was out of the question.  The roads on the islands are absurdly narrow with no shoulder and large buses screaming past.  The locals walk nonchalantly (like near death isn’t around every corner) but we decided playing chicken with a bus was not the way to start our island vacation.  Instead, we caught one of the those screaming buses figuring that being inside one was certainly safer than being hit by one.

Anse Royal was nice and perhaps in any other place in the world it would have seemed spectacular but we were in the Seychelles and the beauty bar was high.  I was expecting to be blown away.  I was not. Of course you can ask 10 different people what is the best beach on the islands and you’ll get at least 8 different answers.  Indeed, Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

The next day, armed with nerves of steel and an itty bitty island sized rental car we braved the roads and made it to the other side of the island and Beau Vallon Beach. We struggled to find public access and ended up sneaking our way into a hotel where we discreetly copped some plastic beach chairs and hit the water.  The beaches in the Seychelles are all public so we weren’t being that naughty but we did feel like trespassers none-the-less.

A local youngster rented us a couple of boogie boards and the boys and Randy had a blast catching the waves.  In fact, Randy said it was the most fun he had on the entire trip so far. While they were out there, the skies unleashed and the rain came down.  There’s nothing quite like a tropical rainstorm.  It’s really no big deal if it’s raining while you are in the ocean but there I was with our bags, towels, cameras and books running for cover in the restaurant area of the hotel, all the while hoping no one would discover my act of trespassing.

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Stormy weather rolling in

The next day after procuring some snorkels and masks, we visited a little gem of a cove under continued cloudy skies at the far end of Anse Royal called Fairyland. We were delighted with a variety of fish and some graceful rays but were saddened to see a graveyard of dead coral.  

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Fairyland Beach

I was lucky enough to snorkel (ah-hem, 20 years ago) for my first time in the Similan Islands of the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand.  My dear friend Becky and I spent 3 days on a live aboard snorkeling trip and it remains a highlight of my life.  Vibrant reefs, schools upon schools of a rich variety of fish, reef sharks and more plus crystal clear, calm water added up to be absolutely phenomenal.  The downside is that it set the bar very, very high and every experience I have had since has paled in comparison.  

The next day we decided to take an all day tour to explore a couple of other small islands near Mahe and St. Anne Marine National Park for snorkeling.  I was holding out hope that the park would be the epic underwater world I’d been looking for however, the reef was largely devoid of life and while the fish we saw were lovely, they weren’t in abundance. Coral bleaching events in recent years, global warming and environmental pollution have taken their toll on much of the world’s reefs and the gorgeous Seychelles are not immune. 

Never-the-less, we had a great time on our tour which also took us to Moyenne Island where we hung out with gigantic tortoises and did a nice hike across the island.  We also enjoyed a delicious Creole lunch prepared for us on Ile au Cerf.

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Moyenne Island tortoise

Half way through our tropical vacation I was beginning to think I was the only person who’d ever come to the Seychelles and not fallen madly in love.  We were having a great time but the weather was hot, stuffy and cloudy.  The beautiful blue hues of the ocean were absent with the cloud cover and the snorkeling kind of stunk.  We’d had to sneak our way onto a beach for crying out loud! My inner pout was reminiscent of a spoiled child and I tried not to let it out.  I was secretly just hoping for a magical, peaceful spot where I could sip a cocktail (take or leave the umbrella) poolside whist gazing out at the beautiful, teal blue ocean.  

The next day we took the ferry to Praslin (pronounced a very Frenchly “Pra-lay”) and walked the 5 minutes to our hotel.  As our trip had been pretty last minute and our budget fairly tight I booked a “chalet” that looked uninspiring but had a lovely pool and access to the ocean but no beach.  We walked into the reception area, exhausted from our short walk up the trail with our loads of luggage in the heat and were handed delicious welcome drinks of a locally made vanilla iced tea and given cold, wet scented cloths to freshen up.  We were escorted to the balcony to take a look at the view and I was finally blown away.

The sea was a dozen shades of blue, there was a light breeze and the cold drink hit the spot.  We were shown to our room which was perched above the pool with a grand view of the marina where we had just arrived and the surrounding smaller islands.

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Heaven on Earth

We quickly dropped our luggage and headed to the pool where cocktails and kidtails were served up from the adjacent restaurant.  We donned our snorkeling gear and walked down the steps to the water where we waded from the rocks on shore into the water with a delightfully sandy bottom and a variety of fish nearby.  Who really needs a beach?  Maybe you don’t need to be Brad Pitt to enjoy the Seychelles after all? 

Over the next few days we explored the island.  We hiked in the Vallée de Mai in Praslin National Park and saw the famed Coco de Mer palm which is only found in the Seychelles and has the distinction of producing the largest nut in the world – which the boys affectionately and immediately renamed “the butt nut”.  I was beginning to understand the world’s love affair with these islands.

Coco de Mer palms and Bodhi, sporting his new island look holding the “butt nut”.

After exploring Praslin for a few days, we decided to check-out another nearby island.  La Digue is the third and smallest of the three main islands in the Seychelles (Praslin being the second ) and is reached by a short 15 minute ferry ride from Praslin. When you disembark from the ferry, you rent a bike.  That is the way it’s done on La Digue.  There’s very few cars so you don’t have to fear for your life and the island is small enough that you can easily bike the whole thing in a couple of hours.  We were in heaven. 

There’s nothing I love more than a beach cruiser and a leisurely bike ride.  We set out in search of Anse Source D’Argent, the most famous beach in the Seychelles and one that routinely shows up on lists of the world’s top 10 beaches.  This was bound to be paradise!  

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I wanted to love Source D’Argent, I really did.  But in spite of it’s popularity or rather because of it, it falls short.  There are stunning rock formations at either end to be sure.  And we had one of our favorite experiences there at the Crusoe Beach Bar where the energy of the proprietors was one of bountiful love and joy.  Their vibrant personalities hooked me in and we paid way too much for delicious fresh fruit juice smoothies.  At some point during traveling, especially when you are on your 6 or 7th currency and not particularly good with the conversions to begin with, you begin to adopt an “oh, who gives a s*#^” attitude.  It’s probably right then that you should go immediately home but there we were at “the place where you find love” according to our new friends.  

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Source D’Argent looks damn good in photos where the photographer can artistically frame the shot, leaving out what is less than desirable, mainly the hoards of tourists all here to snap their own shots of the famed spectacle and the multitude of seaweed in the water.

Of course, that’s what I wanted to do too.  I tried my darnedest to get “the shot”.  I waded into the water, holding my camera dangerously above my head, trying not to trip over the sharp coral fragments that littered the sandy, seaweedy bottom.  I walked the entire beach looking for “the spot for the shot.”  It’s just what we do right? We want to capture the perfection and pretend the imperfections aren’t there mucking up our experience.     We must find the perfection amidst the mess.  On beaches and in life.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder.

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An internet image of Source D’Argent

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My reality of Source D’Argent

On our last day in the Seychelles, the boys took a surf lesson while Randy and I snorkeled  just offshore.  After feeling disappointed by the marine life and saddened by the state of the coral reefs, I happened upon a sort of underwater canyon.  I dove down, something I don’t usually do, and there, staring me in the face was a lion fish.  If you’ve never seen a lion fish, google it immediately.  It’s ridiculously cool.  There was a massive school of fish darting in and out of the canyon and more beautiful creatures than I’d seen all week.  There was even a few living coral formations.

In the future, I think I will forgo looking at those top 10 lists.  They just set me up for disappointment.  I found incredible beauty in the Seychelles, it just wasn’t in the places that others told me it would be.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Bee Holder.

Surfing Seychelles

 

Beauty all around

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Posted by: stacylynn12 | February 12, 2020

South Africa on my Mind

Nature’s Valley is a tiny little gem of a seaside hamlet nestled into the surrounding mountains of South Africa’s Garden Coast.  To get there one turns off of the “N2” – the main highway that runs along the southernmost part of the African continent from East London to Cape Town – and follows a steep twisty, turny road until it simply ends at the sea. 

The mountains envelop the valley in an exquisite peacefulness. The Salt River is to the west, the Groot River lagoon to the east and the Indian Ocean to the south.  

It is as tranquil a place as I’ve ever been.  

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Groot River Lagoon and beach, Nature’s Valley, South Africa

There is one small grocery store, one restaurant and a smattering of homes embedded in pockets of forest and barely visible as you pass by. The village stretches only 2 kilometers from end to end.  It feels as if you have stepped back in time, when living in complete harmony with nature was possible.

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Local fishermen, Nature’s Valley, South Africa

There is no where to go, no where to be except simply where you are.  There are very few decisions to be made, no noise or light pollution. The locals we met have been residents for over 40 years and nothing much has changed.  They like it that way and I can see why.  After nearly a month on the move in our Land Cruiser, it was pretty awesome to just “be”.

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We spent our time walking the beautiful beach and marveling that there was no development visible in any direction. We paddled in the lagoon where of course, the boys found some rocks to huck themselves off.  Mostly, we enjoyed being less hot than we had been at any point in the last month.  The cool waters of the lagoon were perfect for swimming and lazing about.

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Paddling the Groot River in Nature’s Valley

 

We found heaven in the form of the Nature’s Valley Farm Stall, a small working farm with a cafe and shop selling freshly made products straight from the farm… jams, homemade cheeses and yogurt, honey, fresh veggies, bread and goodies baked daily on site and more.  We had a soul soothing lunch, (I know, a bit much but I’m telling you, it was amazing) while chickens clucked about and Mr. Pig wallowed in his mud hole nearby.  And I wasn’t afraid of getting stuck in said mud hole either! The kids said it might be their favorite place in Africa.  Maybe it just reminded us of home.

Best of all, they had espresso.  Real, authentic, delicious, life giving espresso.  You know what this meant to me don’t you?  After a month of drinking Nescafe, I was ready to move into the barn and milk cows for the rest of my days in exchange for a latte.  It was that good. I’ve put all things farm stall on my list of joy.  

Nature’s Valley was a contrast to the only other place we stayed on the Garden Coast… Stormsriver in the Tsitsikamma region of Garden Route National Park.  (That’s a mouthful eh? Let me help. It’s pronounced “sit-see-kha-ma”.) It was equally beautiful but wild, rugged and untamed.  The sea has many moods and if Nature’s Valley was calm and tranquil, the Stormsriver sea was whipped into fury and frothing at the mouth… one you want to witness from a comfortable distance.

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View along the coast in Tsitsikamma

Our campsite was phenomenal… perched oceanside with waves crashing into rocky cliffs nearby.  A short day hike afforded views up and down the coast, scenery that was a welcome change and dramatically different than anything we’d seen yet in Africa.

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You can’t really see it but between our tents and the ocean is perhaps the most fantastically placed swimming pool that ever existed.

From there it was on to Cape Town where we had one short day to take it in.  We chose to take the tram to the top of Table Mountain and do a short hike around the top.  South African author Mohale Mashigo calls it “the Beyonce of attractions.” Table mountain has dramatic views of the city and the entire Cape peninsula, at the end of which is the Cape of Good Hope.  I was under the mistaken impression that this is the southern most point in Africa and the place at which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.  That place is in fact a few miles to the east at Cape Agulhas.  I don’t know why the Cape of Good Hope gets all the glory but there you have it.

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Atop Table Mountain looking south towards the Cape of Good Hope                      Cape Town, South Africa

 

 Table mountain is also a fantastic place to hike and rock climb and we lamented the fact that it was too bloody hot to do either on that day and we were just plum out of time in Southern Africa.  The Cape is indeed surrounded by stunning natural beauty.  But it is so much more.  It is also steeped in complicated history, conflict and injustice.  There is a rich stew of culture, language and an enormous wealth gap.

Nowhere has the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty been more evident than during our brief time in South Africa.  Apartheid may have ended but the country has a long way to go to realize the dreams of Nelson Mandela where people of all races live with equal opportunity and in harmony.  Of course this is not a problem unique to South Africa but it is somehow different.  It might take me weeks or months to be able to articulate just how it is different but this is one of the gifts of traveling. It gives you the opportunity to begin to learn about the world on a deeper level. To see it, touch it, smell it, feel it and taste it.  It would be ridiculous of me to attempt to speak with any authority on life in South Africa.  We are but passers by, attempting to glean nuggets of wisdom and understanding.

I can tell you that crossing from Botswana into South Africa just felt different.  In Botswana where the white population is under 1% and the majority are indigenous African tribespeople, I felt like a welcomed visitor.  Historically my people hadn’t played the same role of oppressor as we have in South Africa.  Crossing the border, I felt the shame of my ancestors and the complicated politics that continue to unfold to this day.  The pulse of resentment ripples throughout the country.  Or maybe that’s just my own whiteness and guilt.

Prior to coming to Africa, I knew little about apartheid. I knew it was a methodical oppression of black South Africans.  I remember being a teenager in 1985 and listening to an “Artists Against Apartheid” concert, more enthralled with U2’s Bono belting melody than with truly understanding what they were protesting. I knew Afrikaners were white South Africans but I did not know that they were descendant from predominantly Dutch settlers beginning in the 17th century.  There is so much more to learn.

As we had driven towards Cape Town we sped past unfathomable poverty in the townships –  underdeveloped racially segregated urban areas.  In post apartheid South Africa these suburbs are no longer legally reserved for non whites.  In reality, there are no whites living in these townships. They, like us, can just speed past them. 

We finished listening to Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” and read “Nelson Mandela’s Authorized Comic Book” which tells the story of his birth and childhood, his struggle against apartheid and oppression, his 27-year incarceration, and his eventual rise as the first democratically elected leader of South Africa.

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Joshua and Bodhi looking over Cape Town with Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, in the distance

I am still working my way through “My Traitor’s Heart” by Rian Malan.  In it he reflects on the history of his Afrikaner family, which included Daniel François Malan, the South African Prime Minister who was a principal ideological force behind Apartheid doctrine.

So what is my point here?  Not to give you a history lesson because I don’t have the depth of knowledge and I don’t think that’s what you come here for.  I guess it’s just to pique your interest.  To remind us all that we have much work to do in our world.  That travel is a powerful way to connect us, to create meaning and understanding.  I have noticed that after I have traveled to a place, I’m more interested in reading in the news about what is happening there. The places I have visited are not just mythological locations in my imagination.  They are real, living, breathing places, pulsing with life.  Traveling changes your views.  It changes everything really.  Opinions are no longer rooted in ignorant judgment but in lived experiences.

I encourage you to go!  Go to the places that you least understand.  It might just help create a better world.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” 

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

 

Posted by: stacylynn12 | February 4, 2020

Dinner, interrupted.

“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?”

– Brian Jackman, journalist/author

I’ve rarely been at such a loss for words.  Typically I write much of a story in my head before I put fingers to keyboard.  When I finally sit down, it all comes out rather easily.  Not so much this time.  In trying to describe our African wildlife experiences to you, it’s wound up coming out like a 1st grader’s travel journal entry…. first we went here and saw this cool animal. And then we went there and saw that cool animal.  You know, the kind of writing that would leave you hitting the delete button after a couple of paragraphs.

The reality is that after we left the beautiful but brutally hot Spitzkoppe, Namibia, (remember, this was the place that we nearly died of heatstroke under our awning?) we spent a lot of time sitting in our Land Cruiser driving around the game reserves and national parks looking for animals.  This was one thing I didn’t really consider – how inactive we would be for much of our time in Africa.  It was simply too hot or too dangerous to take off on a run or a walk.

However, in the two weeks between leaving Spitzkoppe and arriving at the Okavango Delta (my last post) we did have some lovely adventures.  There is something absolutely indescribable about rounding a corner and seeing your first wild elephant ambling across an open grassland.  The thrill of each new animal was something I’ll always remember.

We watched giraffes engaged in a crazy mating ritual.  Their long necks bending and swiveling and swirling around each other in a graceful dance that seemed like it should be accompanied by Mozart.  We watched a tiny chameleon inch across the sand track in front of our truck, rocking back, forward, back, forward, step.  Back, forward, back forward, step.  It was one of the most entertaining things we’d seen in weeks and we could have watched for hours.

We saw a cheetah hunker down in a ditch 30 feet from our car in an unbelievable torrential rain storm. We sat mesmerized by an elephant’s dexterity in delicately selecting a tasty morsel and then using her massive feet to hold the ground firm while the shrub was plucked with her formidable trunk and delivered to her mouth with a graceful swing. We delighted in trying to identify the many different species of antelope.  (So many freaking impala!)  We laughed at the hilarious warthog, so ugly as to be adorable especially on the run.  We squealed every time we saw a baby anything.  And of course, our mouths fell open when we saw our first (and only) lion pair… the mighty king and queen of the jungle.

Sometimes a photo is worth a thousand words (especially when the blogger can’t come up with more than a couple hundred!) Without further ado, here is a glimpse of our highlights…

 

Elephant – Isn’t she a beauty?  Chobe National Park, Botswana
Giraffes with a massive storm brewing behind them, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Vervet Monkeys, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Elephants galore!  Chobe National Park, Botswana & Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia

Black Rhino, location undisclosed per park request
Cheetah, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia
This cheetah is wearing a tracking device as it is the last remaining cheetah on the reserve.  There were 3 but the other 2 succumbed to nature, otherwise known as a lion & a leopard.

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Chameleon, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Wildebeest, Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Botswana
Vervet monkeys, Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa
European Bee Eater, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Baby baboon, Chobe National Park, Botswana
Oryx, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia
Elephant, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
Lion, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia

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Lion pair, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia

Hornbill, Senyati Safari Camp, Botswana
Pelicans, Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Warthogs, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia
Plains Zebra, Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Botswana
Spotted hyena, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia

Giraffe mating ritual, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Warthogs and Impala, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Southern Masked Weaver, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia
Ostrich, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia
Impala, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Josh and I sitting on the porch of our cottage at Senyati Safari Camp, Botswana.  The elephants came each evening, sometimes by the dozen! Here is just one at the water hole.  Such a dream to sit & watch them!

Sable antelope and Impala, Chobe National Park, Botswana
Crocodile, Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia

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Hippo, Chobe National Park, Botswana

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Competing for my favorite wildlife shot… hippos.  (photo courtesy of Bodhi)
Erindi Game Reserve, Namibia

Traditional rondavel homes, Caprivi Strip, Namibia
2,000 year old Baobab tree, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia
Victoria Falls, (Zambia is on the left where the falls are, Zimbabwe is on the
right where we viewed them.)

 

Alas, there is one story for which I have no photo so I must find the words to tell you. As we began to head towards South Africa we stopped for the night at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana.  Rhinos are particularly threatened by poachers looking to sell their gorgeous horns to buyers in Asia where they are prized for their medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties, but also as a symbol of wealth.  Such tragic, senseless killing. The sanctuary is a community based wildlife project, established in 1992 to assist in saving the vanishing rhinoceros.

We arrived in the dark, late, after a long day of driving, secured a campsite and headed to the restaurant which was thankfully, still open. We were the only patrons.  While waiting for our meal, the waitress approached us and said nonchalantly, “There is a rhino outside.”  The restaurant was a large, round building with french doors and large windows completely encircling it, all closed at this hour.  We went to a window where we saw a pint sized rhino wandering through the courtyard, drinking from a small pond.   It was simply adorable and looked a bit forlorn.  We of course wanted to take it home with us and add it to our backyard wildlife refuge with all the baby creatures we adored in Africa (that would of course never grow up and promptly eat us.)

After oohing and ahhing over the rhino we returned to our dinner.  At some point near the end of our meal the glass doors just a few feet behind Randy started to shake.  I first thought it was wind.  Then in a matter of a second or two but as if in slow motion, I saw a shadow, the glass rattled again and my mind flashed to all of the cracked glass I’d noticed around the restaurant when we first entered.  Several of the doors and windows looked just like a windshield does when a particularly large rock has hit it.  You know what I mean right?  Now what would make that sort of an impact in an African bush restaurant?  Yep… our little rhino friend was trying to invite himself to dinner.  Randy and Bodhi, who were sitting with their backs to the rhino, jumped up and came to the other side of the table.  It is both thrilling, heartwarming and terrifying to have a wild animal trying to get your attention.

We learned that the poor creature was an orphan; his mother a victim of the senseless violence of a poacher.  I really believe he was simply trying to get our attention and looking for some love and companionship.  If the little 500 pound fella had wanted to smash the glass with his horn, he could have done so and been on top of our table in an instant.

Sadly, aside from some lovely zebra in Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa this was one of our last wildlife encounters on this magnificent continent.  The next morning we headed south for 3 long driving days to the Garden Coast and on to Cape Town for our flight to the Seychelles.  Thank you for the gift little rhino, I hope you find your tribe there at the sanctuary.

Ahhh… Africa.  You are spellbinding.  “…the place of all our beginnings...” Of course, you are so much more than just your wildlife.  You are scorching sun and draught. Torrential rains, mud holes and flooding.  You are friendly, warm and welcoming. You are heartbreaking poverty, famine and sadness but also great riches, abundance and joy. You delighted us, surprised us and scared us.  Your landscapes are vast and varied, harsh yet life sustaining.  I don’t know if I will ever be back to experience you again, but I will dream about you always and maybe, just maybe, we’ll meet again.

Epilogue… just for fun.

 

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Bodhi having his first driving lesson, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Can you imagine learning to drive in a freaking Land Cruiser in Africa?
And with the driver on the right side of the car, left side of the road…
hope driver’s ed in the US goes ok for him!

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Josh, not one to be left out, got to do the steering while I did the rest.  So much fun!

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What’s going on here you ask?  Josh wickedly burned his face after a morning in the pool  and a bum sunscreen application.  He was despondently sitting under an umbrella after being banned from the sun by his parents, until he devised this cleaver sun protection!

Zip line fun, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The zip line went across this gorge!

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

Posted by: stacylynn12 | January 27, 2020

Oh! Kavango

My dear friends, I know you want to hear about the animals of Africa and I want to tell you about them, I really do.  But first, I must tell you another story while it is fresh in my mind.  

At some point in the months leading up to our trip, Randy and Josh watched a National Geographic show on two brothers who set out into the Okavango Delta in Botswana in search of its headwaters.  They found them in Angola.  The Okavango River flows southwest from there through northern Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and into Botswana.  I’m going to quote our Lonely Planet guidebook here because they describe the Delta as well as I ever could.  “18.5 billion cubic meters of water annually spread like an open palm across the flat landscape as they’re consumed by the thirsty air and swallowed by the Kalahari desert sands.  Eventually the river loses itself in a 16,000 sq kilometer maze of lagoons, channels and islands…”  It’s one of most expansive wetlands on earth.

So here we are in Botswana… oh wait.  You didn’t know we were in Botswana did you?  No, how could you?  I’ve skipped ahead so far, please forgive me.   Yes, we traveled through the Caprivi Strip, Namibia’s tiny finger of land that juts out in the northeastern most part of the country between Angola and Botswana. The Okavango River runs through the Caprivi and we spent several lovely days camping at the Nunda River Lodge, a spectacular riverside site with an unpretentious but 5 star dining experience.  4 course meals were served each night overlooking the river.  I fear the boys are ruined.  We began each evening with “cocktail hour” on the deck, watching hippos wallow in the waters.  Then we were treated to some of the best food we’d had in Namibia.  At night we listened from the safety of our rooftop tents as hippos meandered up into our campsite to munch on the grass nearby.  Just another day in Africa. 

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Hippos laze on the Okavango River

After a few days exploring the river and the nearby Bwabwata National Park with its wildlife and a 2,000 year old baobab tree, we tore ourselves away from Nunda and turned south into Botswana, leaving Namibia behind.

But I digress.  I was telling you about the Okavango Delta.  Tasting the river (figuratively of course) Randy’s interest in experiencing the Delta proper grew.  

We headed south to the town of Maun, the launching point for trips deeper into the Delta.  I should admit that I was not entirely keen on this plan.  I agreed (somewhat begrudgingly) and I thought I could convince Randy to book a day trip into the Delta from Maun.  We’d camp at a nice little lodge, have access to the pool and the restaurant, spend a few hours on the Delta and then be on our merry way.  

Nope.  Randy wanted the real, deep Delta deal.  He is pretty much always obliging when my heart desires something so I figured I’d better buck up.  In Maun, we fueled up and provisioned up.  We stopped at the Department of Wildlife office and secured the required permit to visit the Moremi Game Reserve (an area set aside to protect the most wildlife rich area of the Delta) and reduced the tire pressure in our rig to help us navigate the rough dirt roads of the Reserve.  

And then we were off.  After about 30 minutes of driving, the paved road turned to gravel.  We entered the Reserve and bumped along looking for elusive lions in the dense bush.  No luck on the lion sighting.  2 1/2 hours later we arrived at the Khwai River campsite and took a look around. 

It was a rutted out mud hole and not particularly inviting.  That, and it was totally deserted.  Before leaving Maun, Randy had inquired into a safari lodge in the area to see if they allowed camping.  He was told yes so our back-up plan if the bush camping didn’t work out was to go to the lodge and enjoy their facilities, have a good meal and camp for a fraction of the cost.  

In search of the lodge, all of our navigational tools were failing us.  We pulled into the only place that came up on our GPS, a tented safari camp.  The place consisted of several canvas tents on the banks of the river and one large tent that served as the restaurant / gathering place.  We inquired about a tent and were told by a lovely German woman that they were $600.  Per person, per night.  I’m not sure we properly concealed our shock.  Anyway, after talking with several folks, we determined that there would be no lodge for us and no camping at any lodge.  Apparently the $600/pp/pn place was the low end joint in this part of the Reserve.  We were given some directions to a camping spot about 10 km outside of the village nearby and we set off in search of it.  It was late in the afternoon by now so there was a bit of pressure to find a spot to settle down for the night.  

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An interesting bridge at the entrance to the Moremi Game Reserve.  We saw hippos under the bridge.

The road deteriorated as we drove further into the bush. Compact dirt would turn to a deep sand track with no warning. Or we’d be driving along minding our own business when we’d come across a large body of water blocking our way.  We wouldn’t know if it was 2 inches deep or 2 feet deep so we’d just barrel onward hoping our Land Cruiser was up to the task.  Only once did we get into a water hole that made us all shout out expletives.  I’m afraid our children are going to come back from Africa with a more, ahem… robust vocabulary than they left with.

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This is one of the smaller waterholes we came upon!

Sometimes there was a track around the water.  Sometimes the water had drained leaving thick mud in its place.  We often had to stop and ponder what the best of the bad options was.  At one particularly large water hole we stopped, looked around and then Randy said, “Hold on!” He veered to the left and tried to get one tire on solid ground.  The Land Cruiser lurched, the front end dipped down and we were stuck.  Randy furiously shifted from first to reverse, first to reverse, rocking the vehicle back and forth trying to move us along.  Getting stuck here was really not an option.  It had been eons since we’d seen another car.  We had a winch but there was nothing anywhere near us to attach it to.  We had sand tracks but they would be of no use in this mud.  We had a heavy duty jack but the mud seemed like a bottomless pit.  The smell of the muck and the engine being overworked was overwhelming.  I put my hand on Randy’s shoulder and quietly said, “Don’t panic.”  A few more first, reverse cycles and the Cruiser was free.  We were overjoyed but settled in the back of our minds was the irrefutable fact that we’d have to cross that mud pit again in the morning. 

We carried on looking for something to indicate we’d found the camping we’d been told about, hoping we were at least on the right road.  We typically have offline google maps, a GPS and an old fashioned paper map to guide us but not a single resource was of any use now.  We figured the signage was so poor and no-one knew about these places because most of the guests who visit this area seem to do so on guided trips and as such they arrive by private plane and are whisked away to their exclusive safari camps.  There aren’t so many self-driving adventurers in these parts.  I don’t know if I would prefer to travel that way if we had the means to do so but in that moment I did consider the benefits.

At last we saw a small sign indicating camping.  We turned off the “main” road and were disheartened to find more of the same – rutted out mud and sand with intermittent water holes.  We were quite ready to be done with this malarkey for the day.  

A bit further along we found a small concrete block building with a sign indicating the office.  The place seemed deserted.  A moment later a man ambled out from behind the building and welcomed us.  He hid it well but I sensed a hint of incredulousness… what on earth were these tourists doing out here in the low season, arriving late and unannounced?  We were frankly shocked to find someone there to greet us.  “Blue” introduced himself and told us camping would be $120 USD for the night.  I nearly lost my mind but Randy held it together, clearly understanding that our family had no capacity to leave and go in search of another option.  

I’d be inclined to think we were being taken advantage of but we’ve learned about and had first hand experience with a complete lack of corruption in Botswana.  Camping has been far more expensive than we anticipated in general but this seemed over the top.  The only facility at this campground was a run down looking ablution block (that’s the regional term for the bathroom/shower complex) and a single tap of water.  Blue ended up offering us a small discount and showed us to our campsite.  It was truly a lovely, peaceful spot right on the edge of the Delta and it was by far the furthest into the bush that we have been in Africa. 

Most places we’ve camped have been fenced in with 8000 volt electric fencing, providing a buffer between the wild animals that roam the area and the campers wanting up close and personal experiences.  Here there was no fence, no boundary, no nothing at all.  Blue told us that after dark we must not walk to the ablution block.  If we needed to go we’d have to drive the couple of hundred yards.  For us this was impossible as once we pitched our rooftop tents, the rig couldn’t go anywhere.  

We set to making camp, dinner and a wonderful fire.  The delta was alive with sounds and the stars were shining brightly with a deep black sky as their backdrop.  After a tough day of “wild driving” as they call it here in Africa, this place we had stumbled upon was certainly lovely and magical.  

And then shortly after dark we were discussing how fire keeps wild animals away when we heard a low growl that started out softly and increased in volume.  In an instant our primal instincts kicked in and even though we had never heard this sound before we all instantly knew what it was…it was unmistakably a lion.  We all shined our headlamps in the direction of the sound and glowing eyes about 50 yards away greeted our flashlights.  

A few moments of panic ensued.  I was trying to stay calm and we all were quickly up the ladders and into our tents.  Randy was last up the ladders doing whatever the alpha male in the family does, patrolling around trying to suss out the scene while the kids were freaking out telling him to get in the tent before he became lion dinner.  He later laughed at the idea that he was armed with a small hatchet and a swiss army knife.

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Our bush camp on the Delta

From the relative safety of our tents we listened to the night sounds of the Delta.  They were both soothing, magical and terror inducing.   I slept badly with one eye open all night, happy when the first light dawned and I could declare victory over the African night.

The day before, we had arranged a Mokoro trip into the Delta.  And now that we had survived the previous night, we were all really looking forward to this guided excursion by locals with actual knowledge of what to expect.  A mokoro is a traditional, flat bottomed, dugout canoe.  It’s operated by a “poler” who stands at the back of the boat and navigates the shallow Delta waters with a long wooden pole.  It was a lovely couple of hours meandering through the wetland, taking in the sounds and sights. 

I quietly marveled at just how similar this place was to the cove on China Lake.  I grew up on a lake in a small town in Maine and just across the water was a marshy, wetland cove. But for the scale and the bird and animal species, at least to my non scientific mind, the Delta and the Cove on China Lake are identical.  So strange to be so far away and to feel right at home, at least for a brief moment.  

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Our Mokoro trip on the Okavango Delta

Despite it being the wet season in Botswana, the level of water in the Delta was still quite low.  I couldn’t figure out this contradiction but it turns out that the Delta is in it’s full watery glory in the dry season because the rains begin to fall in Angola during the wet season and then it takes several months for the water to make it’s way south and fill up the Delta.  The birdlife is quite active during this time however as many birds are here during their annual migratory cycle.  Perhaps the most delightful thing was that our visit was timed with a very small window of the migration of the African white monarch butterfly.  Thousands of little white winged wonders fluttered around us, heading downstream on their journey.

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We are decked out in our “malaria clothing”.  Despite there being a surprising lack of mosquitos we followed malaria protocol  conservatively and endured the long sleeves and pants in the early morning and late afternoon.  (I’d just taken my sleeves off before the photo)

After our Mokoro trip we were ready to start making our way back towards civilization.  Originally we’d planned to spend a couple of nights in the Delta but our harrowing experience with the mud hole coupled with our lack of sleep, fear of lions and dwindling provisions (we’d thought we’d be eating the bulk of our meals in comfort at the lodge) left us ready to carry on with our journey.  

We made it back through the mud hole, taking a different track, without incident thankfully.  But then the battery indicator light came on in the Cruiser.  Randy asked me to look it up in the owner’s manual which told us that if the light came on we should “stop the vehicle immediately and call a Toyota dealership.” The relief of making it through the mud hole was short lived.  We could neither stop the vehicle nor call the dealer so we really had no choice but to continue whilst hoping we could make it out of the bush and back to town without the car dying or catching fire.  

We arrived at the Toyota dealership in Maun a long 3 hours later.  Randy turned off the vehicle, got out to look at the battery and then tried to start it again.  Nothing.  The battery was dead.  Pretty good timing I’d say.

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Our trusty Land Cruiser got us out of the bush and back to town safely!

It turned out that there was a Bushlore office in Maun. (The company we’d rented our rig from) and they were at the dealership within a half hour taking care of everything.  During our little jaunt in the mud hole, the alternator had become clogged with mud and was no longer charging our battery.  Seems like a wee bit of a design flaw for a vehicle made for rugged, muddy African roads.  While they worked on the car, a lovely South African man gave us a ride to a delicious lunch spot where we reveled in amazing chocolate milkshakes and fresh, healthy food.  

A couple of hours later we were on our way with a charged battery, a mud free alternator and a freshly cleaned Cruiser thanks to the fabulous Toyota and Bushlore folks.  We checked into a quaint little cottage with air conditioning, a restaurant and a pool.  We felt certain we wouldn’t be eaten by lions and we only paid $80 for the experience!  

I’ve spent an awful lot of nights of my life in the wilderness but I’ve never experienced anything like our one night deep in the Okavango Delta.  I’m certain that if we spent more time there and became more familiar with the environment that we’d be less afraid because of course we fear the most what we don’t know and don’t understand.  

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The Okavango Delta

I’m writing this post as we are about to cross the border into South Africa, heading towards the famed Garden Route.  With every passing kilometer we get further away from the wild African bush and closer to the comforts of modern civilization that we are accustomed to.  There are pros and cons to these comforts of course.  I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to get a glimpse into rural African life.  Through conversations, observation and experience, to begin to know and to understand what life is like for these people in this wild, incredible land.

Posted by: stacylynn12 | January 20, 2020

Africa, At Last

When I was in my 20’s, I moved to Seattle and began to realize there was a big wide world out there beyond my self absorbed existence.  I was just back from the Netherlands,  my first trip abroad to visit a friend I’d met when living in New York City. My parents helped my poor, fresh out of college self make this happen by paying my student loans and car payment while I was away.  

In Seattle, I met several families who valued travel and shared their experiences with me.*  I remember seeing photos from African safaris that left me wide eyed and wondering.  I began reading everything I could get my hands on about Africa.  I learned about Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall and their respective work with gorillas and chimpanzees.  I read Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night”  and Mark and Delia Owen’s “Cry of the Kalahari”.  My travel dreams were entirely African.  

Then I started climbing and learned about the Himalayas and the Kingdom of Nepal. When it came time for Randy and I to make a big trip happen in the year 2000, we chose Asia over Africa.  The mountains were calling.  Then, 7 years ago when we traveled with our 3 and 6 year old boys, we felt like Africa was just too much.  We didn’t want to worry about our young children getting malaria or some such thing and if we were going to spend the money to take them there, we wanted them to remember it.  We went to Central and South America instead.  

Flash forward to 2019 when we agreed it was time for Africa, at last… a good 25 years after I first dreamed of coming here.  During our planning, Namibia was this place that just kept coming up on our radar. Africa for beginners we heard. People raved about it so it was an easy choice. 

The trip from Patagonia to Windhoek, Namibia nearly did us in.  4 flights (one overnight), 5 time zones, transiting through 3 countries and a bunch of snafus along the way.  I’m pleased to report we were not quarantined in the Windhoek airport as I mentioned was a possibility in my last post.  In fact, the immigration officer never even mentioned yellow fever.  It was touch and go for a bit though for an entirely different reason. 

Having just spent 6 weeks in Spanish speaking countries, Randy kept answering the officer’s questions with “Si” instead of yes.  “You are from the United States?” “Si! I mean, yes.”  He eyed us suspiciously.  A big poster on the wall informed us that child trafficking was something the government of Nambia was cracking down on and the officer asked us to produce birth certificates for our children.  I have packed every document known to man, woman and child excepting of course… birth certificates.  The officer told us that the children and myself seemed to be from the US and Randy seemed to be… maybe… from Spain?  Uh… no.  But how do we explain why he’s saying “Si” while not tipping him off to the fact that we’ve been in Argentina which might make him ask us about our nonexistent Yellow Fever Card and leading us right into quarantine?  

Randy produced family photos while I searched for electronic birth certificates on my computer.  No luck.  After hemming and hawing and stalling long enough to make us nervous, he let us pass through and told us to get copies of the certificates to show immigration upon our departure from the country.  We all breathed a sigh of relief and were collected without further ado by a driver who delivered us to our lovely Windhoek cottage. 

Well, actually, there was a bit more ado… involving me forgetting I had a code to get in the cottage, not having access to the code without wifi and not being able to contact the owner to get in. After another hour or so of near despair and a trip to a nearby lodge to access wifi and the code, we were actually in and delighted to rest from our journey in this little urban garden of eden.

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Namibia is a dramatic contrast to Patagonia in every possible way.  Patagonia was lush, green, cold and wet.  Namibia is dry, barren and blisteringly hot.  Our guidebook actually uses the phrases inhospitable environments and vast scenic emptiness to describe “Your dream vacation destination”.  Hmmm… some marketing classes may be in order.  To be fair, it is summer and the hottest time of the entire year and we knew this going into the trip. Holy smokes though, it’s hot!

After 3 days in Windhoek resting, getting our bearings and picking up our epic Southern Africa road tripping rig we headed to Swakopmund – a town bursting with Namibia’s German heritage – on the Atlantic coast.  It seems to be the only place in the country that is a pleasant temperature.  The boys found nirvana in the form of body surfing the ocean waves while Randy and I sat on the beach in our down jackets and winter hats. Absolute insanity.  

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Josh catches air!  The boys build a flip ramp in between surfing the waves.

 

Swakopmund is the northern terminus of the famous Namibian sand dunes in the Namib desert.  These dunes actually give credibility to the mysterious appeal of the aforementioned inhospitable environments / vast scenic emptiness.  We woke up early to beat the heat (even a few kilometers inland from the coast the temperature shoots up rapidly) and drove out to Dune 7, the largest in the country.  We hiked to the top of the dune, hot sand burning our sensitive feet, and took in the view.  For miles there was nothing but sand.  Completely inhospitable.  Totally vast and empty.  The beauty of it left us speechless.  How can such monochromatic nothingness be so beautiful? 

 

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Namib-Naukluft National Park Dunes

 

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Namib-Naukluft National Park Dunes

 

Another highlight of the area was wandering some lesser dunes and stumbling across literally thousands of flamingos.  That and the kids second experience with nirvana riding in true African style on the running board outside the Land Cruiser.  (It’s ok, we were going very slow and…well…what happens in Africa, stays in Africa.  If you see our children riding around Seattle on the bumper of our Vanagon, please do call the authorities.)

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After several days, we left the temperate coast and headed inland to the Spitzkoppe, a group of rock outcroppings that rise mysteriously out of the surrounding desert.  Spitzkoppe is Namibia’s premier rock climbing destination and has a bit of a Joshua Tree feel to it.  (One of our favorite US National Parks and the namesake of our very own Joshua Sky.)  We were hopeful that early in the morning or late in the evening when the desert cooled, we’d be able to try our hand at some Namibian routes.  

Spitzkoppe feels remote.  One has to drive quite a while on a dirt road to a small  cluster of buildings that marks the entrance to the park.  From there, the campsites are nestled into the rocks and the only amenity available is a stone pit toilet.  Beyond the entrance, there is no water, no showers, no picnic tables, no concessions whatsoever.

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Spitzkoppe

 

We set up camp and evening brought pleasant temperatures.  We hiked around, trying to teach the kids to steer clear of places where puff adders and black mambas may be lurking (oh my soul there are so many things to worry about in Africa) and searched for some bolted climbing lines.  We found a few but everything looked too hard and the heat of the day had drained our energy.  

The next morning we awoke early and after breakfast set out on foot to see if we could find some friendlier climbing.  We found a few routes but they were already in the sun and it was already baking hot.  By 10am, we were forced to retreat to the shade under the awnings of our vehicle.  On our short walk I had felt the ominous wave of dehydration creeping up on me.  There is simply no room for error in this environment.  

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Spitzkoppe as the sun sets.  It’s unreal that a few hours earlier we were huddled under an awning trying not to die of heat exhaustion.

 

We spent the next 6 hours huddled in the shade, drinking water and exerting as little energy as possible.  The kids worked on a bit of schoolwork and we listened to our book on tape – Trevor Noah’s, “Born a Crime” about his life growing up as a child of a black mother and white father during South Africa’s apartheid era.  As a side note, I highly recommend this book and particularly listening to the audio book as it is narrated by Noah himself and it’s excellent.  It’s both funny and tragic, educational and enlightening.  

But back to our awning.  It was an interesting 6 hours for people who rarely sit still for that long.  We considered packing up and retreating – admitting defeat to this harsh, unforgiving land – but we thought breaking camp (about a 45 min process) would be detrimental to our health.  We felt a bit trapped, forced to bide our time until the sun dropped low enough on the horizon to cool the parched, barren land and our bodies that are so ill equipped to deal with this climate.  

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Spitzkoppe in the heat of the day.

 

It was a glimpse into the local culture which seems to be driven in large part by the need to hunker down and be still for much of the day.  I simply cannot wrap my brain around this existence that is literally and figuratively miles away from my own home ground.  The lack of modern comforts and the choice or, perhaps the lack of choice that necessitates that they live with the land and not insulated from it is thought provoking and humbling to my privileged self.

When evening finally arrived, we decide to move camp. We reflected on our restlessness, our need to move, to have a change of scenery after just a few hours of stillness.   After dinner we hiked to the top of a nearby rock formation to watch the sun set over Africa. The landscape is truly breathtaking; austere, interesting and soothing to the weary traveling soul.  At least when the sun is tucking itself in for the night.

Our new camp provided us with a bit more morning shade, being on the west side of a large rock but the desire to break camp and be on our air-conditioned way before the sun hit was strong.  We had finally found some climbing that looked friendly enough for our family but our resolve had weakened and ultimately broken in the African heat.  I’m usually pretty anti air-conditioning, preferring the natural environment in whatever form it offers but I really feel like our Pacific Northwest selves would die in this Namibian summer without it.  

As we fled the Spitzkoppe, deciding to head north in search of the African animals that drew us to this continent, it occurred to me just how much of this trip so far has been influenced by the different climates we have traveled through.  I am feeling a bit like the 3 bears… porridge too cold, porridge too hot… maybe next up is porridge just right!  😉

*Thank you Karen and Erik, Cathie and Rod, Kathy and Karl!

Posted by: stacylynn12 | January 2, 2020

Smoking Mountain

When last I left you I was heading to Argentina and the boys were still out in the soggy wilds of Chile’s Torres del Paine.  I’m pleased to report they did make it out alive and I did enjoy my solitude. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.  After 6 days alone, there was a lot more love flowing amongst the Earlywine family.  The rest of the W trek unfolded for the boys with more rain, some sun, a few tears and lots of laughter. I’m pretty sure I’m not privy to many of the details but I did learn that the boys earned new nicknames…  JB and DJ. Otherwise known as Jesus Bodhi and Dammit Josh. They all seem to think it’s hilarious so I’m not asking questions.  

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The boys in Valley Francais

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Lago Nordenskjöld with Josh (can you find him?)

 

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The boys with the Cuernos del Paine in the background

While they were doing whatever 3 dudes do when the mama is away, I visited the vast and surreal Perito Moreno glacier and saw pink flamingos at the Laguna Nimez Reserve.  I slept as long as I wanted to, read books, soaked in a hot tub and sat in a sauna. I put my things exactly where I wanted to (and no-one touched them!!) and kept a perfectly tidy, clean room.  Ahhhh…. 

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Me and the Perito Moreno Glacier 

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Perito Moreno Glacier – one of the few glaciers on earth that is in a state of equilibrium… it advances in winter and recedes in summer but has not lost mass for the last 80 years! 

I’m writing now from the airport in Saõ Paulo, Brazil and I’m hopeful that by the time this posts, we’ll be happily poolside in our Windhoek, Namibia cottage we have rented for a couple of days to recover from the long days of travel to get there.  So far it’s been an interesting day. We were detained in Buenos Aires after being told that Nambia will not allow us to enter the country because we lack the Yellow Fever vaccine. (Some countries require proof of vaccination to enter if you are coming from a country where the disease is present.) Apparently there is Yellow Fever in a small part of northern Argentina (we did not travel there) but they finally allowed us through with the understanding that we may be quarantined in Namibia for 6 days upon arrival.  Awesome!  

Next up on the “fun with traveling” itinerary was being held in Saõ Paulo security because we didn’t have boarding passes for the next leg of our journey.  Since we don’t speak a word of Portuguese we wondered for quite sometime how long they would detain us when a friendly Argentinian said someone from the airline would eventually be along to collect us.  They did and now we wait to cross the Atlantic to a new continent. Now let’s just hope we don’t have to spend the first 6 days in Africa in an airport quarantine.  (Please assume if you are reading this that we made it!)

Our last week in Argentina was spent in El Chaltén, a tiny mountain village located in Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia. One can walk from one end of town to the other in about 15 minutes. It is the Argentinian equivalent of Chile’s Torres del Paine. Mountains like Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are renowned the world over for their austere beauty and are among the most technically challenging mountains in the world to climb.  In 1992 there weren’t many more than a dozen buildings in the village.  It was more of a basecamp for climbers who would come and wait for weeks for weather good enough to make their attempt.

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The town of El Chaltén from a nearby trail

Today it is a vibrant and bustling town with most of the amenities a traveler would want. During the summer months the streets are filled with rain gear clad hikers carrying backpacks and hoping, just like the climbers, for a window of good weather to enjoy the hiking and the views.  Chaltén is an Aonikenk word meaning “smoking mountain” as the peaks are seemingly pretty much always at least partially hidden by clouds.

El Chaltén is a place that has filled my imagination for 20 + years.  An avid reader of climbing and mountaineering literature, I’ve been drawn in to harrowing tales of success and challenge in the mountains surrounding the village.  I arrived on my own a day ahead of the boys and was lucky enough to get a partial glimpse of these majestic peaks through the window of my hostel. I hurried out into the street to snap some pictures, completely enraptured being in the presence of these giants.  

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A peek of Fitz Roy and Poincenot from El Chaltén

Fitz Roy, the grandest of them all, steals the thunder of it’s lesser known but no less inspiring neighbors.  Alongside peaks with names like Poincenot, Saint Exupery and Techado Negro these mountains make up the logo of the well known Patagonia clothing brand.  I took an afternoon hike up to the Mirador Cerro Torre, a mellow trail meandering through a wide valley and up to a ridge where one may have the pleasure of seeing Cerro Solo, the Glacier Grande and the second most famous peak of the area Cerro Torre…also the most elusive.  (I did not see it.)

The Southern Patagonian Ice Field blankets the geography to the west of the Fitz Roy range and creates weather that is neither predictable nor, let’s be frank, pleasant.  The wind blows fiercely and unexpectedly.  It rains and when it’s not raining, the clouds loom threatening rain.  We wore our down jackets and winter hats every day… and this is the summer season!  Nevertheless, we spent a glorious week, waking each day with the hopeful possibility that today would be the day the mountains would present their shy faces.  

We rock climbed in the wind and rain.  To my climbing friends in Seattle… I feel I may be entitled to reclaim just a wee bit of the heartiness I lost with my rapid retreat from the rain of Torres del Paine with my ascent of a sporty climb where the water literally ran down the sleeves of my jacket and the route turned to more of a waterfall.  Ok, I wasn’t leading and I never would have climbed the route in the rapidly deteriorating weather were it not for the need to retrieve the anchor gear left by Bodhi’s awesome lead, but still… throw me a bone ok?

When it wasn’t raining it was really fantastic to see Bodhi’s growing enthusiasm for climbing.  To watch him walk up to the rock, look at a climb and lead it successfully incites both terror and pride in Randy and me.  I can only hope we are teaching him well.

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Checking the knot!

 

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Anchor building lesson

 

 

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Sharp end!

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Bodhi leads up with wind blowing and clouds looming

On the day with the best weather forecast we hiked to the magnificent Laguna de los Tres at the base of Fitz Roy.  It was Josh’s biggest trail day ever at 14 miles and it started in brilliant sunshine and ended in a drizzle with lots of variation in between. We arrived at the lake under cloudy skies with no views of the mountains but in awe of landscape regardless. Within moments however the cold rain began to pound and we were drenched despite our expensive alpine gear.  We retreated down to a lower elevation and enjoyed a damp hike back to the dry warmth of a cozy restaurant in town and our hotel.  

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Glacier Piedra Blanca on the way to Laguna de los Tres

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Some of the Fitz Roy range in view on our hike up to Laguna de los Tres.  The lake is on top of the hill ahead of us on the right.

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Bodhi in marginal weather at Laguna de los Tres… the peaks are all in the clouds

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Bodhi in further deteriorated weather at Laguna de los Tres

On our last day in El Chaltén we were given a local insider’s tip and hiked a trail off the tourist map.  After joining the masses of hikers on the final stretch up to Laguna de los Tres it was a refreshing change and a final Patagonian gift.  We hiked a trail to the mesa atop the climbing wall that seemed to stretch for miles.  We wandered and scrambled and happened upon a hidden lake.  From there we had partially obscured views across the valley to the Fitz Roy range.  She simply would not reveal her whole self.  But the sting of spending a week and not seeing these mountains on a clear, blue sky day was soothed by the enormous landscape all around us.  The glaciers spilling into lakes below, the beech forests and the windswept plateaus.  The lesser peaks and the suggestive peekaboo views we were treated to. 

I’m trying hard to be grateful for what Patagonia shared with us and not dwell on what I feel she withheld.  Over the last week I hearkened back often to a lesson Bodhi learned in his kindergarten class… you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.  Each day I awoke to more clouds I wanted to throw a fit.  But I don’t think mother nature gives a damn.

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Hidden lake and wide open space in Patagonia

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On a clear day you would see the entire Fitz Roy range behind us but instead, you just get us.  

I’m sure as is the nature with traveling…with time, the rain and the clouds will recede to the shadows of memory and what will shine through are the highlights of our time in Patagonia.  Our improved Spanish, the genuine kindness and warmth we received from nearly every person we met (a clear exception is the curmudgeonly bus attendant who yelled at us in ridiculously fast Spanish for eating on the bus and having stinky feet, but I digress…) our time together as a family – enduring, growing, laughing…watching our children experience the world.  

As if to test my resolve to be grateful for her gifts, on the day we flew out from El Calafate, the regional airport just north of El Chaltén, the sky was clear and from 10,000 feet we saw the Fitz Roy range in all her glory.  

We’re about to board a plane to Africa.  A whole new world awaits us.
Gracias Patagonia, te extrañaremos.  We will miss you.

A few parting shots…

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Josh and I visit the Chocolateria Josh Aike… an indigenous name that is pronounced “Hosh”.

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The boys begged to buy these superhero boxing mitts… oh hell no! 

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It is amazing to me that this delicate little beauty can survive in such harsh conditions

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One of our bleaker accommodations.  We’ve got gear hung up and strung out in every corner of the room to dry.  This place was on the heels of our lovely two bedroom Christmas condo and well… let’s just say I’m glad we didn’t stay too long!  

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We found some very hard bouldering and pretended to climb it!  The best part… it was out of the wind and overhung just enough to be out of the rain!

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Josh gives it a whirl on Vescho Wall.  He was wise enough to stay home the day we ended up climbing in a downpour.

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And sometimes, just when you think all is lost, you realize that without rain, there would be no rainbows.  

Posted by: stacylynn12 | December 20, 2019

Torres del Paine

25 years ago, when I became a climber and met Randy, I read stories of the wild, vast, isolated region in Patagonia called Torres del Paine.  Expert climbers flocked there in the summer to climb the unparalleled, extreme routes up the towers, sometimes waiting weeks for a window of good weather to have a chance at success.  I never had the skill or the fortitude to attempt such a climb but I knew the park had trails where the less competent (less crazy?) could go and wander in solitude to absorb the magnificent beauty of the landscape.  I imagined it as a true wilderness, unspoiled by human development.  I saw photos of hikers and I knew it was a place one could go and wander for days or weeks to be immersed in natural beauty. It seemed a paradise of perfection. 

But everything is perfect in dreams no?

Flash forward these 25 years to when the Earlywine family is planning their sabbatical.  When Randy mentioned Patagonia, I began to research, as is my nature.  What I saw of Torres del Paine made me write it out of our “itinerary” completely.  I saw photos of campsites packed with literally 50 – 60 tents.  Reports of trails jammed with people and logistical challenges for getting to and into the park.  It seemed the yesteryear of solitude was gone and this experience no longer appealed to me.  We’d go instead to El Chaltén in Argentina where the crowds were less, if not absent and one can walk from town right into the mountains.  

But things happen and a couple of friends we trust convinced us we should not miss Torres del Paine so off we went.  Puerto Natales is the jumping off point for trips to the park.  In town hikers stock up on food rations, rent gear as needed, buy bus tickets to get to the park and attend a free talk about everything there is to know about making the trip happen.  The park is vast but the majority of people come to do one thing… the “W” trek, named after the 3 distinct valleys the trek follows.  People make reservations for the campsites on this trek months in advance but of course, we had none.  So Randy and I arose early and went the first office in order to try and secure some sites.  Having success, we went to the second office.  You see, there are 3 different organizations that control access to the park.  Seriously?  Luck seemed to be on our side and we pieced together a decent plan.

From town it is a 2 hour bus ride to the entrance where you must disembark, check in and watch a video about the park.  Next you pay again for a shuttle up to the Welcome Center and once you pass through here you have officially arrived.  The Welcome Center is complete with a coffee bar, beer and wine for sale, a gift shop and a rental center.  Moving along, hikers have 3 options if staying in this area for their first night.  Camping Central (basically a big campground), the Refugio where you can have a bed for $116 USD per night and anyone can order meals, hang out, dry out, charge electronics, access wifi (for a fee) book horseback riding excursions and more. Then there is the Hotel las Torres.  For around $600 a night you can have a fancier and private room.  There is something for everyone here.  

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Our glorious view arriving at the park entrance! Those are the famed Torres (towers) on the right in the distance.

When we arrived the sun was out and it was a beautiful day. We pitched our tent so as to have a view of the glorious towers and anticipated a hike to the Mirador de las Torres (lookout) the next day. 

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Randy in our campsite

We’d do it as a day hike and return to our camp so we wouldn’t have to carry full and heavy packs.  The boys and I decided to take a walk, Randy having just returned from a little wander, and we walked to the hotel where curiosity got the best of us.  Walking down the halls we noticed a door to a room ajar (are you having flashbacks to some hot springs in Pucon yet?)   The room was empty, beautiful and inviting.  We joked about just moving in… maybe no one would discover us!  Josh had a plan if we were caught – we’d just say “Lo siento, no entiendo español!” “Sorry, we don’t understand Spanish!” I wasn’t so sure that would work.  But not to worry, we aren’t quite that mischievous!

Back in camp Chef Josh cooked us up a dinner of tortellini with red sauce and parmesan cheese and Bodhi did the dishes.  Dreamy!  That night, cozy in our tent, rain began to fall.  By 11am the next day it had not let up.  The boys were getting restless and wanted to go for a walk so we decided we might as well go ahead and walk up to the Mirador if we were going to go out in the rain.  

Torres del Paine, pronounced Pie-nay is an Aónikenk word meaning “blue” and refers to the massive glaciers that used to blanket the area, a magnificent blue color I imagine. The Aónikenk people were a southern Patagonian indigenous tribe, now declared nearly extinct in Chile and with only a few remaining (less than 200) in neighboring Argentina. Of those, less than half still speak a native language.  That a human race can become extinct is deeply sad to me. I wonder what they would have to teach us if they were still here and we had the wisdom to listen?

We donned our rain gear and set out.  The towers and just about everything else was shrouded in clouds.  I focused my mind on staying positive.  I remembered something Bodhi learned in kindergarten.  “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Bodhi and I hiked together on the way up and enjoyed conversation and periods of silence.  The landscape below us was vast and verdant. 

The trail climbed up and up and still it rained.  Bodhi and I arrived at the Refugio Chileno, about 1/2 way to the Mirador.  We went inside to warm up and dry out and found a boisterous scene of mostly young people, chatting, eating and drinking.  Randy and Josh followed shortly and after a break it was decided Randy and Bodhi would continue on up and Josh and I would head down.  It was unlikely we’d make it to the Mirador before they closed the trail for upward travel at 5pm and even if we did, we’d be in a sea of clouds.  Josh was keen to descend and I was happy to join him.  He and I had a lovely hike down despite the rain, talking, pontificating and stopping frequently. 

Randy and Bodhi didn’t quite make it to the Mirador due to our late start but perhaps it didn’t matter given the weather.  The view from the Mirador is what draws so many people to this area.  But how many people stop to consider that they may never see it?

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If you are lucky, this is your reward for the efforts of your hike.  It’s easy to see why people flock here.  (Please note, this is not a photo I took.)

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This, in contrast was our reality.

Patagonia is known for its fierce winds.  When we attended the informational talk we asked, not in jest, if we needed to be concerned about Josh getting blown away.  In 2013 wind speed at 180 km/h (over 100 mph) was recorded in the park. During our visit wind speeds in parts of the park were predicted to be upwards to 50 km/h.  That’s no joke.  We were told the weather can change 15 times in an hour.  I thought I was prepared for all of this… wind, cold, some rain, some sun, even snow… but camping and hiking in nonstop rain is difficult for me I must admit.  That night it continued and in the morning we woke to more rain.  

Thoughts swirled in my head.  Why had we come here?  Why hadn’t I stuck to the original plan and skipped it altogether?  We braved the crowds, the logistics, the fees (it’s not cheap to hike this trail even when camping) and now here I was facing another day of walking in the rain without the benefit of the views I’d come for. All those years of dreaming of Torres del Paine and it just wasn’t adding up for me.  So many emotions arose.  I am not strong enough. I do not have what it takes.  How can it be that I see people walking these trails in jeans, so underprepared, sopping wet, yet I am the one who wants out?  At some point I shifted the negative self talk to “I am smart enough to know my limits.  I could do this if I wanted to.  I simply don’t want to.” 

On this trip, I am in search of more joy.  I am not a joyless person but over the years I have become more stressed, more anxious and I hope my travels will help me find more balance, more joy, more calm.  To that end, I told Randy I wanted to go back to town.  He and the boys would continue on and we’d meet up in a few days time.  It was hard to walk away from them.  Hard to admit defeat.  Hard to imagine all my hearty climbing friends back in Seattle knowing I couldn’t hack a few days in the rain.  But in the end there is a cost/benefit to everything and knowing when the costs outweigh the benefits is perhaps a step toward wisdom.  

Torres del Paine is no longer the empty, isolated place I dreamed of visiting all those years ago.  I don’t know how long ago that was lost. Things change.  More people means more management, more rules, more services.  These are necessary to protect the fragile natural environment.  But something is lost along the way as well.  Frankly, I don’t know if I could handle the empty, isolated Torres del Paine anymore even if it were still there.  In my mind it is achingly beautiful solitude.  In reality it can be harsh and unrelenting.

Impermanence.  It’s a concept we humans struggle with.  We want things to stay the same, we embrace change tentatively, if at all.  But everything is impermanent. Many people will continue to come and enjoy Torres del Paine.  I am glad I went, grateful I caught a glimpse of the shining towers before the clouds swallowed them whole.  Often, we cannot control our experiences or our circumstances, we can only respond to them.  I am learning to listen to my heart rather than the noise in my head when responding.

As I was leaving the park, a rainbow appeared, arcing over and perfectly framing the place in the sky where the Torres would have been if not for the clouds.  I thought about photographing it but instead I paused to simply enjoy it.  It seemed metaphorical somehow.  Perhaps telling me that beauty is there, even when you cannot see it.

As I write this, I am on a bus to Argentina.  I’m going to check out the Perito Moreno Glacier, something I’d wanted to see but the timing of our W trek plans ruled that out as we have a reservation in El Chalten for Christmas.  Every day I wonder about my boys.  Are they wet?  Are they having fun?  Has the sun come out for them?  Are they drinking excessive amounts of Fanta and eating Pringles in the Refugios?  I know they are in Randy’s capable hands and I cannot wait to hear their stories.  

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Wouldn’t you know, the clouds lifted from the towers and the rain paused momentarily once we were all back in camp.

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