Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

To the best of my knowledge, except for some animal sanctuary in Georgia, the three animals named above do not reside together in any natural ecosystem. Africa is home to lions, Asia to tigers, and North America to bears, so I’m not sure why Dorothy and her friends were expecting to meet them on the yellow brick road. I guess in reality they didn’t really know very much about their environment.

And I guess I didn’t know very much about the wilds of East Africa either. When I moved here, I assumed that at some point I’d “go on safari” because there are certain things one does when one lives in certain places, and “go on safari” is most definitely something everyone does here. But I have to admit I had no idea what it really meant to “go on safari”. I couldn’t even have identified “The Big Five” (so don’t feel bad if you can’t either; you can read more about them here).

So, as you’ve probably guessed by now, we went on safari, and this blog post is going to recount that experience. I was going to title it “Self-Drive Safari Do’s and Don’t’s”, because although it was an incredible experience, especially the “self-drive” part, there were things I might recommend you do differently, depending on your perspective and your taste for adventure. Like do a little research ahead of time. And make some lodging reservations when you are in the middle of nowhere with limited options. But some people would disagree with me and say it’s all part of the adventure. It’s all about your comfort zone, and everyone’s is different.

Here’s how it all went down:

Our son Adam, ever the adventurer, had this idea that he and his dad would drive across East Africa, making a loop around Lake Victoria, safari-ing along the way, and crossing through Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and circling back home to Bujumbura. It was quite the ambitious plan, which eventually morphed to include only Tanzania. Forget about looking at a map; if you know anything about the roads around here, you’ll think it was a wise evolution of a plan.

So they headed east, and I was to meet them in Arusha for our climb of Kilimanjaro a few days later. For the general tourist, the Kili trip is often marketed as a week of safari, a week of climbing Kilimanjaro, and a week at the beach in Zanzibar. I guess we’ll catch Zanzibar another time.

The trip east was fairly uneventful (I think to Adam’s disappointment and Randy’s great relief), except for one small speeding ticket which Adam refused to pay unless they took him down to the local courthouse, which was what the ticket actually stated should be done. I still can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved that I missed that circus. (If you want details, contact Adam. He’d love to recount the story. “Eighty-eight.”)

So we met up in Arusha as planned and I had great plans for my one day off before beginning our hike. The plans went something like this: sleep in, breakfast, morning nap, lunch, afternoon nap, re-pack my kit multiple times, early bed. They had other plans. They had spotted this national park on the way over, and they thought we should go check it out. Since I am genetically and constitutionally incapable of saying no to any adventure, (some would say I have a bad case of FOMO*), I went along, although I had never even heard of this place.

And by the end of the day, I had a much better idea of what “go on safari” meant, and it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I guess I pictured hours of driving around, patiently waiting to spot some exotic animal in field glasses, (well, I mean, the animal wouldn’t be wearing the field glasses as that sentence appears to readand taking a few unidentifiable photos because our zoom lens wasn’t powerful enough to capture anything worthwhile, like the photos of the first time I saw a bear in Yellowstone.

But at least on the day that we drove around Tarangire National Park, it wasn’t at all like that. It was up close and personal, more like this:

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The first animal we saw. We were pretty excited. Little did we know what was to come. Thing is, for no particular reason, I’ve never liked ostriches. But we were excited for our first spotting of an animal in the wild.

And then there was this guy:

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Altogether, in the three national parks we visited, I can honestly say, without exaggeration, we saw thousands of wildebeests. Thousands.

And then we were treated to these beauties:

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It was hard to chose favorites, because it was so awesome to see them all out in their natural habitat, but these guys were way up there. (No pun intended.) They are so much fun to watch, and especially to watch them run, which is so incredibly graceful–like filming someone in slow motion.

Now these kids in their striped pajamas were to me the most fascinating of all:

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They seem so very horse-like (indeed, they share a genus Equus and a common ancestor), and it seems African civilization could have used a horse-like assistant, for transportation and agriculture as well as for their military, yet they have never domesticated the zebra. Why? I do not know, but ran across these interesting observations while investigating the mystery.

Then we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to see an elephant? And along come these big fellas:

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We saw them far away, down near the river:

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and causing a Tarangire version of a traffic jam:

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And we saw them up close and personal, like this:

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(Of the thousands of photos from five different cameras, this is one of my personal favorites. It was right about here that one of the tour guides in another vehicle yelled at us, in a language incomprehensible, something that we gathered through hand motions and context was ‘get back in the car’. However, the fine print in the park guide did not specify that we could not exit a vehicle; it just said that we couldn’t put ourselves in danger from an animal. I guess the definition of danger from an animal demands personal interpretation. This is not the closest encounter we had. Stay tuned.)

And then there were these wild animals:

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Then towards the end of that first day, we came upon this scene. First we just saw the one lion on the right in this photo, obviously standing guard.

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Then we looked a few feet over and we saw this whole pride hanging out in the shade under the trees.

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Then we saw this guy going back and forth:

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Then it took us a few minutes to figure out just what was going on: mealtime.

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Wildebeest for lunch, anyone? Ah, the circle of life. We felt so privileged to be party to this little feast; it wasn’t to be our last.

And finally we saw these ferocious looking dudes right as we were circling back to leave:

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Little did we know they were the first of so very many cape buffalo we would later see.

And in addition to the animals, which is of course, what you “go on safari” to see, there was the beauty of the landscape:

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And the brightly colored birds:

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And the famous baobabs:

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(If you don’t know about the baobabs in your life, you should read “The Little Prince”.)

And that was Tarangire National Park, the first of three.

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From there, Adam and I headed out to conquer Kilimanjaro (which you can read about here). Upon our return, we continued on our self-drive safari at Ngorongoro Crater, and another amazing day. Again, hard to pick a favorite, but this place was amazing. We headed out early thinking daybreak was the best time for animal viewing, not really knowing what to expect from the “crater”. Our early morning started in the mist:

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We got a little view down into the crater:

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then headed down into the crater for an eventful day:

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Another traffic jam:

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Male and female he created them:

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Great view of the crater lake at the end of the dry season. You can’t tell from this photo (and the roads don’t go any closer, because presumably in the wet season this lake covers the whole area), but the dots you see are hundreds and hundreds of flamingos.

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And no words will do this photo justice:

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Nor this one: (I have friends who think warthogs are cute. Really??)

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A little baboon grooming session:

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And then came one of the highlights of the day:

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We came upon these guys with their heads down in the grass and barely discernible; they were so well camouflaged. Had we not seen others cars stopped, we might have missed them.

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We made another loop and circled back to see this guy seeking some shade:

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And then this beautiful moment:

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These were the only maned lions we saw in the three parks. I could go on with the lion pictures forever. It was so hard to chose the best shots of the hundreds we took.

Then we saw this herd of cape buffalo charging, and figured there must be a reason:

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And sure enough, we circled back again to watch a lioness take down the slowest cape buffalo from this herd. It was quite a ways from the road, and while we watched it for over an hour through the field glasses, unfortunately the photos didn’t do it justice. She did chase away three of these opportunists:

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After the cape buffalo stopped struggling, she rested for quite some time, then feasted on the most treasured delicacy. If you’re familiar with Rocky Mountain Oysters, then you can guess what she devoured first.

After this exciting event, we caught a rare siting of the critically endangered black rhino, one of the Big Five:

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And so we drove up out of the crater, got lost but eventually found Olduvai Tented Lodge, one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed, where we spent the night and were treated to a sunset walk led by our very own Maasai warrior.

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In the morning we made a quick stop at the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leaky excavated the famous hominin footprints

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then headed on to the Serengeti, the largest and probably the most well-known Tanzanian safari destination.

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Each of the three parks we visited were different, and incredible experiences, and special in their own way, but the Serengeti was most noticeable for its vastness, its variety, and its sheer numbers. We saw dozens of species of animals we could neither identify nor had we seen previously, as well as herds of wildebeests and cape buffalo and Thompson’s gazelles numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.

These peaceful guys were lounging alongside the road just after we entered the gates, as if they were assigned the welcome committee duties:

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We saw so many thousands of gazelles, it feels wrong not to include them.

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There were multiple types, each with different, but distinctive markings.

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Now I know I must bring this blog post to a close, and I hate to shortchange the Serengeti, so I’ll end with this Close Encounter of the Third Kind. There is a river that runs through the western part of the Serengeti, and although the road parallels it, it doesn’t come very close to it except here.

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Periodically, there were vague dirt paths (OK, maybe we made some of these paths up) that could bring you all the way up to the river. So off we went, in search of our last predator, the crocodile. Before we found any crocs, we saw this scene. Now coming from Bujumbura, the land of the hippos, we don’t get overly excited about seeing them, but the sheer numbers here are incredible. Every dot you see in this photo is a hippo.

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And then we found this croc shoot, a place where they slide down into the river:

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We navigated down dirt paths a few more times, caught a few sitings of some babies, some crocs off in the distance, and even some crocs and hippos hanging out together. (Who knew those two lived together in harmony?)

Then we drove up to find three large crocs sunning themselves on this bank. Immediately two of them jumped into the water and swam off, but one stayed to taunt us:

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As we drew nearer, he grew a little more threatening:

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We took advantage of some photo ops while he stood his ground and smiled for the camera:

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We made a little lunge towards him and he showed a few more teeth. (It is worth noting here that the “we” refers to the two people in the photos above. During this entire scene, Randy is sitting in the car just this side of a heart attack.)

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We made a final threatening move in his direction, and off he swam. Chicken. I couldn’t believe we’d had a showdown with a croc and won!

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And the last scene we saw as we drove out of the Serengeti to begin the long drive home was this hyena taking advantage of someone else’s work. It takes all kinds.

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The circle of life continues, and the three of us made it back to Bujumbura, safe and sound, with a new appreciation for the wilds of East Africa, and for the splendor, the beauty, the magnificence, and the variety of God’s creation, as well as the inability to ever see wild animals in a zoo again.

 

 

*FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from the Streak

A word of caution:

This post is about running. If you hate running, or reading about running, or even if you hate runners (OMG, no way, right?!?!?), go ahead and move on to the next item on your reading list.

So I belong to a group of runners from all over the world. It’s really fun and interesting to read about their escapades, their races, and all their adventures from exotic places. (Well, at least they seem like exotic places, but then again, Bujumbura may seem exotic which it decidedly is not.)

Generally I have been mostly an observer to the group, but when someone threw out a challenge in mid-November, I decided to join in and go for it. The challenge was to run at least one mile every day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. And when you think about it, that’s quite the challenge, since traditionally that period is reserved for mostly eating and mostly not sticking with any kind of exercise or activity program.

New Year’s Day was a great celebration of my last of 36 consecutive runs: some good, some less than spectacular; some long, some short, but always at least a mile; some fast, some very, very slow, but 36 in a row! I have been running (off and on, but mostly on) since 1978, and I have never, ever run 36 days in a row. It was quite the experience.

And here are some lessons learned from the streak:

  • If you throw down a challenge, I will do almost anything ethically and morally possible to meet the challenge. But then again, I guess those who know me would admit that we all already knew that. 🙂 And as it turned out, there were still a couple of things I never had to resort to, which included running around my yard (which would have been hazardous, not to mention the guards may have decided I’d finally lost it completely), and running at lunch–something I have never done and did not end up doing these 36 days.
  • If need be, you can run almost anywhere, anytime. You can squeeze in a quick run on the way home from work, right before sunset; or in the rain; or right before guests are arriving; or while on vacation; or after you get back from an exhausting chimpanzee trek; or any other equally inconvenient, short or seemingly impossible time slot. All these things, I did do during these 36 days.
  • The circumstances don’t have to be perfect to get in a run.  I used to think everything had to be perfect to run. It had to be the right time–usually first thing in the morning. If I missed that time slot, I missed my opportunity. The weather had to be just right–not too hot, not too cold, not too rainy. If the weather wasn’t as perfect as I wanted, that was enough of an excuse to skip. I had to be “feeling it”. If I wasn’t feeling it, it wasn’t happening. But as mentioned in the second bullet point, you can run almost anywhere, anytime. The circumstances don’t have to be perfect to run.
  • Running short distances decreases the list of excuses for running slow.  I have to admit that I love the LSD run– the Long Slow Distances, despite the fact that all the research shows that we should run smart, not long, and that shorter, faster runs are overall a more beneficial investment than my favorite LSD run. So having to quickly squeeze in some short, relatively-speaking faster runs made it really difficult for me to play my silly mind games about slowing down so I could complete the longer distance. I’m already plenty slow enough; recognizing the need to speed up just a little (and the lack of excuses for not) was a valuable lesson for me.
  • Running goes better when you have a goal or a challenge and some support. I can’t describe how much a difference my fellow streakers made for me–how encouraging and fun they made it, even though I have never met nor actually gotten to run with any of them. I definitely would not have kept streaking without them. So even though I don’t have any running partners here in Bujumbura, and I don’t know of any races I can realistically train for, it’s good to know I have my fellow streakers to spur me on. I will need them more than ever now that the streak is over!
  • Grace and forgiveness make the world a better place, even when it is directed towards oneself. In fact, maybe especially when it is directed towards oneself. We live in a fast-paced, high pressured world, where expectations for perfection and accomplishment run high. Some (although admittedly not all) of us can be very hard on ourselves. On Christmas Eve, due to a packed schedule and spending time with our visiting daughter Megan, the day came and went without a run. By the time I looked at the clock and considered running around my house in the dark, it was already 1:15 in the morning–the streak was already officially broken. So instead of quitting and admitting defeat, I gave myself some grace and forgiveness, ran twice on Christmas Day to make up for it, and re-instated my standing in the streak. Sometimes getting back in the saddle after a fall is more important than never falling. I can’t put into words how important this little lesson was for me. To experience that self-directed grace and forgiveness made me appreciate how important it is for all of us to give and to experience grace and forgiveness more.
  • There are always lots of life lessons to learn from running. But like the first bullet point, I already knew this one too. And I’m not the first person to recognize this: Paul made lots of running analogies in his letters to the churches recorded in the New Testament. I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps, pun intended. 🙂

Happy New Year! Happy running, happy lesson learning, and thank you a million times over to my fellow streakers for the support, encouragement, and opportunity to experience these 36 days together and these lessons learned. Although I never posted any pictures of my runs, here is the sunset on the second to last day, and me celebrating with my husband and daughter at the close of the streak, my first day without running since Thanksgiving! Enjoy!IMG_4890

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The Road Is Never Long When The Company Is Good

“The road is never long when the company is good.” That certainly applies to our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, both to my fellow hikers–my son Adam and our friend Todd–as well as to our crew of sixteen guides, chefs, and porters from Team Kilimanjaro.

A view that still takes my breath away

A view that still takes my breath away

Here we are, the intrepid hikers, Todd, Adam, and me, while we were still fresh on Day One

Here we are, the intrepid hikers, Todd, Adam, and me, while we were still fresh on Day One

Where do I begin?

It’s been a dream of mine to hike Kilimanjaro for many, many years. I think Adam and I agreed to do it soon after he fell asleep standing up while attempting Mount Fuji in 1997 and we left him asleep (and unaccompanied) in some random mountain hut for like 10,000 yen or something and picked him up on our way down. (True story. Not one of my finer parenting moments.) Let’s just say it’s been a long time coming.

And let’s also just say that while many things were not at all like we expected, the experience as a whole surpassed our expectations.

And like many experiences that stretch comfort zones and challenge abilities, this one, too, was plagued by the demons of the “What Ifs“:

What if the weather was awful?? What if it rained every day and we were cold and wet and miserable and really not having fun at all?? That’s a lot of time, money, and effort to be miserable.

The weather was superb. We got caught in one little hail storm at the end of day six, which was actually kind of cool, but otherwise, seven days without rain! For the most part, we got cloud cover when we needed it and clear skies when we needed it. I don’t think we could have ordered up better weather had that been an option.

What if we didn’t have the right kit and our gear failed us (and we were cold and miserable–kind of a theme here)??

We had all the right stuff and not too much extra, except for Todd’s rented sleeping bag whose zipper broke. (I’m so thankful that wasn’t me. I was so afraid of being cold but I’m so happy to report that was never the case, not even on summit night.) In fact, Adam hiked every inch except the summit night in shorts and tennis shoes. Who knew?

Due to his shorts and tennis shoes attire, Adam had a daily ritual of cleaning his legs when we got to camp every day.

Due to his shorts and tennis shoes attire, Adam had a daily ritual of cleaning his legs when we got to camp each afternoon.

What if we had some freak accident and sprained an ankle or wrenched a knee on the first day?

We didn’t.  The worst thing that happened was a black toenail from not tying my shoes correctly on the descent. A familiar badge of honor.

What if one of us got the dreaded Acute Mountain Sickness and had to come down??

We didn’t.  Although the fear of it hovered around me until we actually summited, in the end, our Diamox did its job and it never materialized. But you just never know. On the second evening, I realized I had a headache, which was soon followed by a tinge of nausea, and I was devastated. Headache and nausea are the cardinal signs of altitude sickness, but how could I possibly be suffering already? We were only at 12,000 feet; I’d been there many times without problems. I knew the cure was to go down, but there was no way I was giving in already. I started the Diamox, slept for twelve hours, and forged ahead, mind over matter and all that stuff. Nothing more came of it, but the scare plagued me with doubts until the summit.

What if I failed??

I didn’t. We didn’t. We all summited and although I don’t think I could put into words what I did expect, I know the entire seven days were not at all what I expected.

Day 1 was a morning of logistics–meeting our team, packing up, driving from Arusha to the gate, buying permits, eating our first of many gourmet lunches prepared by our awesome chef, and getting weighed in. Not us, thankfully, but our gear. There are a number of organizations and initiatives in support of the porters, and in an effort to protect them, there is a weight limit to what they are allowed to carry. Their loads, which they amazingly balance on their heads, of course, were weighed before we started out and again the first couple of camps. If they are overweight, they must hire more porters.

A few of our many porters, balancing our kit on their heads

A few of our many porters, balancing our kit on their heads

I was somewhat embarrassed but overwhelmingly thankful for the tremendous porter support. I would never have made it without them. Summiting was one thing; summiting with gear would have been a different matter altogether.

Here are most of our team of porters on the last morning, getting ready to load up and make the last of the twelve miles to home.

Here are most of our team of porters on the last morning, getting ready to load up and trek the last of the twelve miles to home. I wonder if they were relieved or sad for it to be over?

Back to Day 1: So the hike part of the excursion didn’t begin until after lunch. We had a fairly easy four or so hour walk on relatively easy terrain to our first camp and our first taste of what this experience was really going to be like.

And let me tell you in a nutshell what it was really going to be like: sixteen strong Tanzanian men dedicated to getting the three of us to the summit. In addition to carrying all of our gear, they cooked three gourmet meals a day for us from scratch; they set up and took down our tents every day; they brought coffee and hot water for washing to our tents every morning; and at just the right moment on summit night, they sang to us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A glimpse into the mess tent with an array of fresh ingredients which they unpacked and repacked every day

A glimpse into the mess tent with an array of fresh ingredients which they unpacked and repacked every day; the chef and his helpers were truly amazing. We had a different hot soup, made from scratch, at every single lunch and dinner.

Much like floating the Grand Canyon, trekking up Kilimanjaro is highly regulated in an effort to protect the mountain and preserve the pristine and precious environment. You must purchase a permit; you are not allowed to hike without a guide; and you must sleep in huts or designated camping areas. The lower down on the mountain, before the groups spread out to their different routes and different paces, the more crowded the camp sites.

One of the earlier more crowded camps lower down  on the mountain

One of the earlier more crowded camps lower down on the mountain

I was afraid the crowds might be a negative, but they never were and neither were the big campsites. Since there wasn’t much to do and I craved sleep, we mostly just went to bed after our incredible dinners. Surprisingly, the noise didn’t keep me awake, but I must admit I LOVED having a tent to myself, a coveted luxury to be sure.

The camps were much smaller the higher we were

The camps were much smaller the higher we were

Day 2 was a full day of hiking, four hours in the morning, lunch then a full afternoon. By walking slowly and steadily, ( and I do mean slowly–the Kiswahili word which we had heard so much in anticipation of the climb, “po-lay, po-lay” took on a whole new meaning), we had easily ascended to 12,000 feet, which is the highest I’d ever slept.

Much to our surprise, Days 3, 4 and 5 were all half day hikes. All three days, we achieved our campsite by lunch. On the afternoon of Day 3 we took a 90 minute round trip hike just to gain some elevation and enjoy some views, giving our bodies a chance to acclimatize, in keeping with the “climb high, sleep low” maxim, which I had often read about but never really understood until we did it. We slept at 14,000 feet on the evening of Day 3 (like sleeping on a 14er!!!) but then came down to just below 13,000 on Day 4.

We didn't take near as many 'scenery' photos as I would've expected--it was difficult to capture the grandeur--but here was a frozen cape buffalo on the mountain

We didn’t take nearly as many ‘scenery’ photos as I would’ve expected–it was difficult to capture the grandeur–but here was a frozen cape buffalo on the mountain

Day 5 we achieved our “base camp”, School Hut, at 15,469 feet, from which we would make our summit attack. Our hike that day was excruciatingly, irritatingly, almost impossibly slow. I was inches behind our guide, Max, hoping I could speed him up. When we got to camp, we said, “Max, that was really, really slow.” He looked us straight in the eye and said in all seriousness, “Not many 55 year old women make it to the top.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that on my birthday three days later, I was going to be a lot older than 55. But apparently Team Kilimanjaro has decided that slow and steady wins the race, with an emphasis on slow. Po-lay, po-lay.

For lunch that day, at all of 15,469 feet, we enjoyed deep fried, freshly made from scratch, empanadas. Seriously. We think Rashide, our chef, may have been the best chef on the mountain. After lunch, we slept all afternoon (at least I did), woke up for dinner, slept until 11, then got up to prepare for our summit attack at midnight. I don’t think I’ve slept that much in ages, but it was delicious sleep at altitude.

We kept asking why we were hiking at midnight, but never really received any real answers. Our guide was good, but he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about giving us more information than we needed. It was mostly a “trust me” kind of attitude for most things. All we can say is that we’re so glad we did for so many reasons. First of all, it was super special to make the summit bid in the dark with headlamps. Plus I can’t tell you how thankful we were that we couldn’t really see what we had ahead of us, or we may not have made it.

When you've reached Gilman's Point, it's cause for celebration: you know you're going to make it. Relatively speaking, you're almost there.

When you’ve reached Gilman’s Point, it’s cause for celebration: you know you’re going to make it. Relatively speaking, you’re almost there.

We're almost there. By this time we had shed our headlamps.

We’re really almost there now. By this time we had shed our headlamps.

And to say that seeing the sunrise from the summit was breathtaking may be the understatement of the century.

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Worth getting up at midnight for

Worth getting up at midnight for

A panorama

A panorama of the sunrise

When we came around the last corner, just at sunrise, and I saw my first view of the glacier, it not only took my breath away, I was overcome with emotion and burst out in tears. The men were all laughing at me, partially confused and partially wondering if they should be concerned, but I was just fully experiencing the moment, and reveling in it.

Feast your eyes--these are melting fast

Feast your eyes–these are melting fast

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The guides of Team Kilimanjaro, and I’m sure all the guides, are dedicated to helping each person summit. I credit my summit success to four things: having my poles, summiting at night, the incredible hot ginger tea the guides brought along, and at just the right moment, our guides sang to us. There is a “Kilimanjaro song” that we knew about, and we had heard some of the other guides singing it to their parties at some of the camps, and I have to admit feeling a little jealous, but our guides pulled it out, in soft, encouraging tones, in the dark, just when we most needed that distraction and motivation. It was sweet beyond words and a memory that will never fade with time.

Anyone care to translate? I don't know what it means, but to say it was music to my ears is another grand understatement. it was what motivated us to take the next step.

Anyone care to translate? I don’t know what it means, but to say it was music to my ears is another grand understatement. it was what motivated us to take the next step.

And then there was the summit. Words fail, but here we are: Uhuru Peak, The Roof of Africa.

Here we are at Uhuru Peak, all three of us and our three summit guides

Here we are at Uhuru Peak, all three of us and our three summit guides

What a treasure to share this moment

What a treasure to share this moment

After the summit, Max looked at Adam and said, “Your mother: strong. Very strong.” I think he probably meant stubborn, but whatever.

A high point, to say the least

A high point, to say the least

And then there was the descent. Many want to know how difficult summiting Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet really is. My answer: when you go slow and steady and take six days to get up there, not very difficult. Adrenaline (and Diamox) can carry you a long way. Coming down is a totally different story. At one point Adam had gotten way ahead of me and he stopped to wait. When I saw him, I plopped down on a rock and put my backpack down next to me, which proceeded to fall about twenty yards down the mountain. He looked at me and said, “Mom, did you think that pack was going to stay there?” And I answered, “No. Right now I am completely 100% non-functional.” And that about describes my descent. It has never been my forte. Let’s just say we made it all the way down the next day.

Adam, running down the cinder cone. If you look very closely, I think that's me miles behind him...

Adam, running down the cinder cone. If you look very closely, I think that’s me miles behind him…

And we made it. The exit gate as proof!

And we made it. The exit gate as proof!

Here we are, none the worse for wear, after our first shower and with our first beer--Kilimanjaro, of course--in a week

Here we are, none the worse for wear, after our first shower in a week, and with our first beer–Kilimanjaro, of course.

With hindsight being better than 20/20 and all, it’s difficult at this point to avoid the temptation to question if we would have done anything differently…could we have made it up to summit base camp in four days instead of five? Probably. Could we have made it all the way back to the gate the same day we summited? Adam–definitely. Me? Possibly. But for what? I conquered my doubts; the demons of the What If’s didn’t prevail; we summited the Roof of Africa; and we saw the melting glaciers of Kilimanjaro, something the next generation will most likely never see–not because they won’t climb the mountain, but because they will be gone.

Would I do it again? Not likely–not because I wouldn’t want the challenge or the effort, but because I’m not sure another trek could ever match this one in its near perfect execution.

But who knows? If you’re interested, ask me again in a month.

And thank you for reading along this far, and motivating me to capture this experience here by your sustained interest in my crazy adventures. Recording this was a chance to re-live it, and for that, and for you, I am always thankful.

The road is never long when the company is good. And you, too, are good company along this African adventure road, far far away as you may be.

 

Courage, Ma Ma, Courage

Pronounced with a French accent, as in coo-RAJ, Ma Ma, coo RAJ.

It’s my favorite thing about living here and I look forward to it every week.

Amongst the many things that figure into what makes a place a good place to live, (alongside of the people, the climate, the safety and security, the food, the freedom, the house, the adventure opportunities, the job that brought you there in the first place), for me it’s a good place to run outside. I don’t think I would much relish a place where you couldn’t, either because of air pollution, or safety, or climate, or culture, or traffic, or just no good surface to run on.

And I was doubtful about this place at first for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is lack of non-working daylight hours. But as we’re settling into a routine, I’m finding ways to make it work.

And every Saturday morning that I can, I head out to run my loop. It isn’t very far and I’m not very fast, but it is STRAIGHT UPHILL. And those of you who have run many miles with me (Carol, Dana, Marla, Clay, Katy Roark, Dr. Bob, Jennifer, Shaunda) know only too well how much I HATE uphill and how badly I suck at it.

But here’s the deal: when I run up this hill on a Saturday morning, everyone and their brother is out on this one road. It’s like The Place To Be On Saturday Morning. I see all sorts of sights, like large groups of men jogging and chanting, (despite the fact that this has recently been outlawed in Burundi), people carrying all manner of things on their heads (this must be one of the main routes to get into town from one of the nearby upcountry villages), walkers, bikers, and people exercising on the side of the road near the monument.

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And when they see this old, Mzungu female sweating and panting like there’s no tomorrow, struggling up this ridiculous hill, they all shout to me “CooRAJ, Ma Ma, cooRAJ”. Now I’ve never actually known what that means, but judging from the context, I always thought they were trying to encourage me. So on a whim, in anticipation of writing this post, I put “courage” into a French to English translator. And much to my surprise (I assumed it would just translate as courage), guess how it translated?!?! “CHEER UP!!”

And I do. In fact, I love it. I look forward to it all week.

While I’m not the only runner, I’m generally the only white female, so let’s just say I’m noticeable. And I’ve determined that the more pitiful I look (the more sweat, the more panting, the more struggling), the more encouragement I get. And judging from everyone’s expressions as they smile and shout “Courage” (or sometimes “Esprit”, which I take to have a similar encouraging meaning), I think they get a kick out of me. And I’m quite happy to provide them with the Saturday morning entertainment.

 

Adventures in Gorillas: Congo~Style

Mathematically speaking, I’m not sure if one can have a Once-In-A-Lifetime experience more than once in a lifetime, but we did. A year ago this month, we had the incredible opportunity to float the Grand Canyon. 12 days, 188 miles, 75 rapids, 0 showers, one near death experience, and one horrendous scorpion sting later, it was hard to imagine any adventure could top that.

[“INSERT ONE CLASSIC PICTURE OF THE FLOAT TRIP HERE.”  Note from Randy, the newly hired photo editor: “These were Babette’s instructions to me – sorry – no can do! Telling a geologist to put in one ‘classic picture’ of a 12 day float trip through the Grand Canyon – right. So, following are what I consider the minimally acceptable number of photos to warrant even mentioning floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.”]

[Now back to the blogpost in progress.]

But now we’re not so sure that adventure couldn’t be topped.

Under a hundred miles from home, (but two border crossings away), Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is home to the rare Eastern Lowland Gorillas. In fact, this is the only known habitat of this endangered species. (The gorillas in nearby Rwanda, made famous by Dian Fossey, are mountain gorillas.) And for a very small amount of trouble (and not near as much money as in Rwanda), you can hike through the jungle, following a guide hacking a path with a machete, and see these gorillas. As in Up. Close. And. Personal. And honestly, words fail me. So I shall allow the pictures to paint a thousand words:

Here we are, the intrepid adventurers, with our guide in the background:33-RDM Canon Congo-149

After maybe a thirty minute hike through the jungle, this was the first sight we saw: a mother tenderly caressing her nine-day-old baby:24-RDM Canon Congo-074

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These aren’t as good because they’re from my camera, not Randy’s good one, but check out that precious little hand:

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There were teenagers playing nearby here, beating their chests in classic gorilla style (for real), but we didn’t get photos of them because we couldn’t take our eyes off this mama.14-RDM Canon Congo-041

She was so unconcerned that we were there–not at all how I would imagine a wild animal would be, especially a mother. This is one of three troops, or families, (each family consisting of one male, called a silverback, with multiple females and kids of all ages) in the park that are, according to the ranger, “habituated”. Habituated families are accustomed to being around humans, which is good for humans, which in turn is good for tourism, which supports the park and the work of conservation of this endangered species, so it’s a win-win for all.13-RDM Canon Congo-03912-RDM Canon Congo-036

Here’s one of the few shots we captured of the toddlers:11-RDM Canon Congo-033

This picture is no exaggeration; we were right there. There was no such thing as maintaining the seven meter distance recommendation.

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At nine days old, this baby couldn’t even crawl or walk yet. I love the toddler cuddling too.06-RDM Canon Congo-025

Here you can see it was a really big group we were interacting with. Simply indescribable.04-RDM Canon Congo-022

Parents sometimes post an incredibly large number of photos of their precious children…is this overkill? Just one last one of mother and child:03-RDM Canon Congo-020

Although we were supposed to be limited to one hour in total in the jungle, we probably spent a whole hour watching that group. As they moved on, we resumed our trek through the densely packed jungle, following our machete wielding guide, in search of the silverback. We smelled him first, then heard him, before we came around a bend into a clearing to see this guy a few feet away.27-RDM Canon Congo-079

Gorillas have to spend a large amount of time eating, so not minding us at all, he proceeded on with his lunch.  23-RDM Canon Congo-065

After very efficiently de-leafing a few small branches, (he’d make a great sous chef when you’re trying to get the cilantro leaves off the stem) and with no ackowledgement of us whatsoever, he sauntered on to his next dining spot.

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We followed him from spot to spot for almost an hour. Words cannot describe this experience. He is a magnificent animal. It’s not hard to see how he gets his name, silverback.

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And then, just like that, he sauntered off, and we headed back to the park welcome center, having survived an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Friends here have called this ‘the greatest adventure you never want to do again’. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

Adventures in Africa: Burundi~Style

I take my job seriously. I work hard. I try to work smart. I’m available 24/7. I’m as prepared as I can be for an emergency. I’m no slacker.

But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so every once in a while, I hand the Health Unit Duty Phone off to the local nurse, with the local doctor as back-up, and head off for adventures unknown.

Our first adventure was carefully chronicled in this previous post, Road Trippin’ To Rwanda: http://mcqueenmisadventures.com/?p=251. And since then, I’ve managed a few more, though all in Burundi, and none as epic as that one, nor as epic as the next one is likely to be. But more on that one later.

[Note: In a stroke of pure brilliance, I hired Randy as photographer and photo-inserter. So the blog should A. involve a lot more and a lot better pictures, and B. frustrate me, the non-photographer, far less. Thanks, Randy, for your excellent work here.]

The Cries of a Child

One Saturday, not long after our arrival, our CLO (Community Liason Officer) organized a day trip to a nearby orphanage, The Cries of a Child. (You can read more about what they do here: https://thecriesofachild.org/.)

It was a great day out for any number of reasons, (not the least of which was handing off the health unit duty phone). For starters, it was fun to see, up close and personal, one of the many, many organizations doing good here in Burundi. Secondly, I felt privileged to contribute, even if in a tiny, hardly life-changing way. It was just plain old good to give. Thirdly, leaving Bujumbura, means going ‘upcountry’ and there’s a reason for that. Bujumbura, nestled on the shores of large, lovely Lake Tanganyika, is one of the lowest places in the country, so leaving means gaining elevation, and while hardly mountains by Colorado standards, it’s always nice to go up. The air is cooler, clearer, cleaner, fresher. It’s just about always good to get out of the city. And fourthly, the people that participated included a number of Burundian embassy staff. And since my interactions with them are limited, it’s always fun to spend time with them and get to know them, especially outside of the embassy environment.

After touring the small campus, and hearing the story of how Isai and Samantha Torres founded The Cries of a Child, we set about to accomplish the small tasks they had organized for us. We painted the outside walls of the future clinic, painted a mural in one of the inside rooms, painted signs, built pig pens (for real) and played with the kids. All in all, it was a peaceful, wonderful, refreshing change of pace from embassy life. Like our very own mini-mission trip. I can’t wait to return and see the progress they’ve made, and bring Megan for some more work projects. I know she’ll love it!

Here we are: the work crew, some of the children who live there, and some traditional Burundian drums.

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As an added bonus to the day, before heading for home, we walked down the road and visited one of Long MIles Coffee Project’s (http://www.longmilescoffeeproject.com/) coffee washing stations. Another great organization doing good in Burundi. So fun to get out and see it in person.

We saw these kids just hanging out in the trees along the way:

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Here are some of the fresh picked cherries. One of the local workers gave us a tour of the washing station and we got a tiny glimpse into some of the steps between that luscious coffee bean and my much loved cup of joe I enjoy every morning.

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Here’s a view from up on the hill of the rows and rows of cherries awaiting whatever happens next at the Long Miles Coffee Project washing station. (I hesitate to use very definitive or technical language about the coffee bean processing process, as I have several friends who work in the business and I might get the details wrong and they’ll be insulted! :-))

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Blue Bay

After the Fourth of July event, which in the life of an American Embassy overseas, is often a Big Deal (and Bujumbura is no exception), we all felt the need to get away. So several of us loaded up in a couple of cars in search of Blue Bay. Now we had heard this was a worthwhile destination, only about an hour south of Buj, and very resort-like. We had high hopes, but low expectations, given we were still going to be in Burundi and all.

I don’t know if it’s just that we’ve all been in Bujumbura too long, or we were just all burnt out from Fourth of July ridiculousness, but the weekend, and Blue Bay itself, exceeded all our expectations. If you closed your eyes and conjured up all your imaginative powers, it could have been any beach resort anywhere, except without the hype. There was the requisite lovely breeze off the water. The sand was clean and white. The accommodations were lovely (meaning they were clean, there was electricity, running water, including some hot, and, as an added bonus, there was air conditioning). The food was good. We enjoyed grilled fish on the beach with a huge bonfire for ambiance. What more could one ask for? It was quiet, relaxing, restful, just what the nurse practitioner ordered. (And needed.)

You can actually rent this little thatched-roof hut complete with hammocks for sleeping. Maybe that’s what we’ll do next time.

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For being just a lake, it has quite the tide and wave action.

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We ran into some other embassy folks getting away for the day and here we all are enjoying a few colds ones on the beach together.

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OK, we aren’t exactly supposed to get in the water because of the risk of schistosomiasis, but you won’t tell, will you?

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Fishing boats, catching our dinner, I suppose.

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A good sunset on the beach is hard to beat.

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Our beach-side, bonfire-lit dinner. (I think someone dared me to kiss the fish…)

I’m so glad they put up a sign saying it was strictly prohibited to swim in the lake if you can’t swim. I wouldn’t have thought of that on my own.

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Beaches all over the world ain’t got nothin’ on Blue Bay.

Rusizi National Park

In mid-July, we had the distinct pleasure of welcoming our fourth guest in three months, right here in the Middle Of Nowhere, Africa. Britta Erickson, a young friend from Fellowship Denver Church, was working and playing in nearby Kenya, and stopped by on her way back to America. I managed to wiggle around some rules, and took two days off in the middle of the week during her visit. We wanted to show her all the best Burundi had to offer, so we headed north to Rusizi National Park. Now please don’t think national park like as in Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain or anything like that. Here, we were given a choice of two boats, at two different prices. We asked what the difference was between the two? In the less expensive one, we get to help the guide bail water. We splurged and paid for the dry boat.

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Rusizi is home to the mythical Gustave (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustave_(crocodile)) but alas! we did not enjoy a Gustave siting. We did however, see more than our fair share of hungry hippos, up close and personal. Man, those things are big. Did you know that they rank sixth in animals that kill humans (http://www.viralnova.com/animals-that-kill-humans/)? Way in front of lions, tigers, and bears, so don’t dismiss our adventure here.

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Here is where the brown water of the Rusizi River meets the blue water of Lake Tanganyika, at it’s northernmost point. If you look closely in the distance across the lake, that’s the mountains of the Congo.

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In addition to the hippos (and Gustave), the park is known for the incredible bird life. I’m no birder, but we had a great time watching this kingfisher.

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Before I arrived, this is what I always thought Africa would look. So glad to see it really does.

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Igenda

My favorite upcountry day so far was definitely our hike in Igenda. In late July, my state department mentor came and spent a week with me. On Friday, after a pretty intense week of question and answer after question and answer, we headed out early to stretch our legs and clear our minds before we put her on the plane back to Berlin.

After some pretty expert navigating by Randy based on information from some former embassy hikers, we found the old Belvedere Hotel in Igenda. (We’d actually been here once before, but without the maps, and were unsuccessful in locating it.) With limited language skills, we somehow arranged for a young man to lead us on a hike through the tea plantation and the eucalyptus fields. Perhaps when compared to some of the awesome things we’ve been privileged enough to enjoy, this was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was just wonderful to be out hiking again, and wonderful to be at 7500′. We strolled leisurely around the hills for a couple of hours, then enjoyed beer and brochettes (what else??) at the hotel before heading back home. And Quandary was a hit, as always.

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We’re always such a hit wherever we go. Between our Mzungu white skin, our strange habits (we walk for pleasure?? they walk for necessity), and Quandary, we never cease to draw a crowd.

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He’s my favorite hiking partner, for sure.

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I totally get that this photo looked staged, but I swear it’s not. Machetes are just commonplace around here, despite the fact that they are the scariest looking things. An AK 47 (of which there are plenty in Buj) scares me less than the site of a machete. Thankfully they were not threatening my mentor, Pamela, here. Randy just happened to catch this great shot randomly.

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A good hike always includes a few stream crossings.

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Amidst the tea plantations and the eucalyptus, there was plenty of bamboo, too.

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And there you have it, Adventures In Africa, Burundi-style.

Stay tuned. Next up, Adventures in Gorillas, Congo-style!

July 20th = One Hundred Days

Elementary school children often celebrate one hundred days of school with lots of fun counting activities. And although I’m far from elementary school in every way, I thought I’d steal their idea and celebrate my One Hundredth Day with you.

One Hundred Days in Burundi. Fourteen weeks. Sixty-five work days. Countless new friends, co-workers and fellow international adventurers. Seven crates of home-sweet-stuff. Six jars of precious salsa already devoured. Five great upcountry adventures. Four wonderful visitors. Three co-workers with their heads’ a-spinning: what in the world is this tornado that has arrived?

Conventional state department advice says that you shouldn’t make changes your first ninety days. (The locally employed staff, many of whom have worked in the embassy for years, have to endure an every-two-year changing of the guard as new Americans move in with fresh, exciting, brilliant new ideas. They say that one foreign service officer will come in and change things all up, and the next will come in and change them back to the way they were before, all because of fresh, exciting, brilliant new ideas.) I’ve been teasing my locally employed staff (one Burundian nurse; one Rwandan lab scientist; and one US-trained Cameroonian part-time nurse) that now that we’ve hit this fabled milestone, I’m free to institute some changes. But like a good American with fresh, exciting, brilliant new ideas, I’ve been making changes since the day I arrived, so they just shake their heads, grin and bear it, and hold on tight for the wild ride that working with me has proven to be. 🙂

Now back to the counting: two beers (Amstel and Primus), and one formerly reluctant EFM spouse who has been a pretty darn good sport through it all, considering he’d be happy as a clam, fun-employed in Denver, fading off into oblivion, all Africa-adventure-less.

Oh, yeah, and one really good sport of a dog who not only enjoys an adventure like the best of us, but who attracts a crowd everywhere he goes.

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(Photo cred goes out to Britta Erickson, our fourth visitor!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Not-So-Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there arrived a lovely POV (pronounced P-O-V), known in other parts of the world outside of the State Department Cult, as a Privately Owned Vehicle, or for short, a car, which in this case is a truck.

Now this POV, affectionately known as The Taco (as in Toyota Tacoma), was carefully loaded onto a vehicle-hauling-device in Denver, Colorado, many long moons ago, to make the lengthy journey across land and sea, to a place far, far away, where two vehicle-less (spoiled) Mzungus anxiously awaited its arrival. See Exhibit A.

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Exhibit A

Now if you could see into and around Exhibit A, you would see that the seats are clean, the bumpers are spotless, it is wholly devoid of scratches and dents, and the POV has clearly been lovingly cared for by its previous owner (thanks, Adam), and is in overall great shape and worthy of making the journey to the other side of the world.

What transpires from this point on will forever remain a mystery to you and to me, for all we will ever know is the end result, which was not a pretty sight (or smell, it turns out). And how we arrived at the viewing of this not-so-pretty-sight is fodder for perhaps the best, and for sure most-Burundian blog post yet. 🙂

So first came the anxious wait. It went something like this (the shipping guy at the embassy is in italics):

“Your POV is in ELSO (European Logistics Support Office in Antwerp, Belgium).”

“Oh, really? That’s good news. What happens next?”

“It will be sent to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, by boat, then shipped overland to Bujumbura.”

“Really? How long will it take to get here?”

“Hmmm, could be any day now.” (The key take-home phrase there was ‘could be’.)

And then it progressed to something akin to this:

“Your POV arrived in Dar and is being shipped here. Should arrive Monday.”

Monday arrives. No POV. “The truck hauling the container broke down.”

[Of course it broke down. We would expect nothing else. TIA. (This is Africa.)]

Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. “Your POV is supposed to arrive at the port in Bujumbura tonight.” 

Friday: “Can we go to the port and check on the POV?”

“Not today. We work half days on Friday.”

Monday: “Not today; there’s another container in front that has to be unloaded first.”

Tuesday. 3:30 pm. “Let’s go to the port and get the POV out of the container right now.”

“Woohoo! Let’s go.” (And we drop everything immediately and go.)

We arrive. The first sight is not a good one. See Exhibit B.

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Exhibit B

You’ve heard the term “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”? I think it’s safe to say that where there’s a dent in a container, there’s a dent in the contents. And a scratch. And a broken taillight.

And due to the location of the dent, the door of the container can’t be opened. And here’s where it starts to get interesting, as in interesting, Burundi-style. Fourteen Burundians quickly amassed. It reminded me of the crowd that gathered in Alice’s Restaurant. Check out Exhibit C:

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Exhibit C

Now in America, if fourteen people showed up to solve a problem, chances are there would be fourteen chiefs and no Indians, but in Burundi, there were fourteen Indians and no chiefs. And a few hammers. And a crowbar-like instrument. And a strap. And a chain with a huge hook. And a forklift. And voila! After a few thwarted attempts, the bent door opened…)

And the broken taillight and the dents and scratches we expected were there, as expected. But so were some things we did not expect. I present to you: Exhibit D:

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Exhibit D

Seats covered in bird poop?!?!?! Are you kidding me? Who left the windows open in some port somewhere and let a family of seagulls move it? Seriously.

But like in many Not-So-Fairy Tales, the story continues and in fact, the plot thickens.

After we managed to push the truck out of the container (because the shipping guy couldn’t get it started), he told me to come around to the front to take another picture of the scratched up wheel well.

“Sure. Wait. What? Are you kidding me? No phone (camera) in my pocket? One of the fourteen Burundian men stole my iPhone right out of my pocket while we were trying to push the truck out of the container??

This has suddenly gone from really bad to way worse.

I wish I had gotten the next scene on video. For a solid hour, my embassy shipping guy and the guy who appeared to be somewhat in charge of the thugs trying to open the damaged container literally yelled at each other. Just stood right there in the middle of the port and yelled at each other. In Kirundi. I kept asking my guy, “What is he saying? What is he saying? Tell him I’ll give him money if he recovers my phone. Really. They can have the phone. I just want my photos and my contacts.” But he would never stop and translate. (The next morning he told the nurse at the Health Unit that the reason he wouldn’t translate was because they weren’t really saying anything; they were literally just yelling at each other, each trying to intimidate the other. I’m pretty sure there was also some language that a nice young man wouldn’t share with someone like me.)

So now if you’re following this twisted tale closely, you’ll be asking yourself, well, how did these photos make an appearance here as Exhibits B, C, and D if my phone was stolen?

The tale twists and turns.

Here’s the end of the tale, as it was related to me the next day:

(a few of the details may have gotten lost in translation, but here’s the gist of it.)

Apparently there is a store here in Bujumbura that purchases phones, presumably stolen phones. And apparently, the guy who lifted it out of my pocket during the truck-stuck-in-the-container fiasco sold it to that store. And apparently, everyone knows about this store. So my embassy shipping guy (my new hero, who received a large box of Whitman’s chocolates for his heroic efforts) went to the store the next morning, called my phone, it rang, he bought it back from the store owner, then called the police, who then surrounded the thief’s house (because remember, here in Buj, everyone knows everyone, so the thief was easily identified), and they arrested the guy and put him in jail. (I didn’t even know Bujumbura had police.)

And a few minutes later, my phone, with all my photos intact, was in hand.

But here’s the clincher: guess how much the guy sold my stolen $450 iPhone 4S for? SIXTY THOUSAND BUFRANCS. THIRTY-EIGHT DOLLARS. I would have gladly paid him $50-no questions asked. No jail time.

And here’s the other clincher: who has ever recovered a stolen phone in the United States? I dare say hardly anyone. I guess there are some things about living in Africa that aren’t so bad. And recovering a stolen phone appears to be among them.

And so the Not-So-Fairy Tale ends on a happy note. The Mzungus got a car, albeit a dirty, dented, scratched up, very smelly one. I got my iPhone. Emmanuel, the embassy shipping guy became a hero and got chocolate. And we only had to wait two more weeks for our diplomatic plates and Voila! The McQueens are back in business.

Living Happily Ever After.

The End.

 

Adjustments

Any time any one gets a new job, or moves to a new place, or really, any number of new things, there are always adjustments to make. And moving across the ocean to one of the poorest countries on earth is no exception to that rule. So I thought a collection of Things We’ve Had to Adjust To would make for fun reading.

Now these Things We’ve Had To Adjust To are not necessarily good or bad or right or wrong nor have they necessarily been Difficult Adjustments, just Adjustments all the same.

So here we go:

  1. First and foremost, if I can be brutally honest and well, maybe a bit self-incriminating, the biggest adjustment by far has been working full time. While I was always plenty busy (as in Plenty Busy) in Denver, it was always with a myriad of various and assorted things–work, house projects, small group stuff, volunteer, getting together with people, play (OK, maybe play should have made it higher up on the list), but not the 8-5 (7-5:30) Every Day of the Week Grind. So just having to be at work five days in a row has, in itself, been a big adjustment. Not bad, just an adjustment. I’m not whining; just an adjustment.
  2. A fun and interesting (and very exhausting) adjustment has been spending a great portion of my days communicating with people for whom English is a second language. This also involves a constant and continual amazement at how difficult communication can be. Of course, the direct hire American embassy employees are all American citizens and English speakers, but the Locally Employed staff (which outnumber the Americans at the embassy by about three or four to one??) all have varying degrees of English skills and varying accents to wade through. And vocabulary limitations. And grammar idiosyncrasies. And forget about American idioms and figures of speech. I can’t wait to have one of them request my presence and me respond that I’m all tied up and they run to the rescue with scissors to cut me loose. (No, that hasn’t happened; I’m just saying it totally could.)
  3. Driving without rules. And navigating. Really, driving should be a blog post all its own, but let’s just suffice it to say that it’s a BIG adjustment. After living in Denver, the city built on a grid, and possibly the easiest city to learn your way around, this place has me befuddled. And forget about asking directions. People can take you any where you want to go, anywhere, but forget about them explaining to you how to get there. They don’t use maps; many of the streets are just recently named, so they don’t know street names; many houses have multiple numbering systems, none of which make sense, and none of which are used by the locals. No stop lights. No traffic rules. There’s one roundabout in town where they yield to cars ENTERING the round about (all the rest are the opposite). So how’s a person to just know that?? But let me put it on record that Randy is doing an AWESOME job of learning his way around, learning both to navigate as well as to negotiate the (no) rules of the road. Kudos to him! (And, no, we don’t have a car yet, just a borrowed one, but ours is due to arrive TOMORROW!! Ha, ha. We will believe it when it’s in our driveway!)
  4. Church. Due to our own language barrier, we’re limited to choices because there are only a few with services in English. I’m very thankful that there are in fact a few, but it has not been easy trying to decide on one and settle in. We’ve found two that we’ve tried out a number of times, and as fate would have it, each has parts we love and parts we could do without. As is often the case, we prefer the worship/atmosphere at one and the preaching at the other. How I would love to just video podcast Hunter in. But then I guess I could’ve just stayed in Denver…
  5. The beer choices. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Now it’s kind of embarrassing that this would make it into the Top Five Things We’ve Had to Adjust To, but the fact is, it has. Primus and Amstel (both brewed here), with the occasional Heineken import thrown in, are all the choices there are. Tusker, a Kenyan beer that isn’t half bad, is on most menus, but they never have it. (It’s just a tease to put it on the menu.) And well, it just gets old. This from a person who’s always said there are too many choices in the world. Well, I guess I meant too many toothpastes and wall color choices, not beer. Not that I ever have more than one. (I don’t. I’m on call.) But still, variety is the spice of life. You can rest assured that our consumables shipment we have coming to us sometime in the next year will be mostly Colorado microbrews! 🙂 Because when it comes to microbrews, Coloradans are just plain spoiled.
  6. My response to Mzungus. As you might remember, Mzungus is their word for us. (It actually means “traveler” but it is used almost exclusively to refer to white people.) There are plenty here, more than I would have expected, but it still takes my breath away when I see one out somewhere, and I really have to resist the urge to go over to them, hug them, say something like “Hey, where y’all from?”.  I have to remember that white doesn’t necessarily equal English speaking, and certainly not American. And many of them are here for the long haul, and are no longer fascinated by the concept of another white person all the way over here, too. So I practice restraint, not my forte, and just die of curiosity wondering what the heck that person is doing here and why they are not as interested in me as I am in them.
  7. And the flip side of that, is being a Mzungu ourselves. A novelty. The stares. Especially when we have Quandary with us. Thankfully, there are only a few places in town where the street boys accost us for handouts, so we don’t have to deal with that part of it often, because if we did, that would be way worse.
  8. The money. And the cash economy. Forget it. Period. I am and always have been exchange-rate-challenged and I just can’t figure it out. I wonder if I ever will. And since no one takes credit cards, we always have to make sure we have cash (and wads of it because a thousand bufrancs is only sixty-three cents). My greatest fear is going out to eat with a whole bunch of people without Randy and the bill comes and I have to figure it all out. Hopeless.
  9. Having people around all the time (the guards are here 24/7, our household help is living here, the gardener is here all during the week). I have a blog post brewing entitled The Help, so I’ll save the rest of those thoughts for that one.
  10. Camping out. And by this, I don’t mean, camping out. I mean, being without our stuff. This has been a particularly hard adjustment for Randy, because he is home more than I am, and therefore noticing the lack of stuff. (Our state department supplied welcome kit has four plates, four forks, four spoons, four towels, etc., and no gas grill and no cast iron wok and it’s getting old.) We are ready for our stuff to arrive.

And there you have it. There have been many other adjustments, too, like watching AFN (Armed Forces Network) TV with their AFN commercials (hysterical). And the food. And shopping. And missing our family and friends and our church. And the weather. (Which I don’t know why that’s been an adjustment–it’s pretty much the same every day, but a few days it’s been overcast and I just wasn’t prepared for that variation.) And seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky. (How cool is that?) And dealing with state department foolishness. And having a very small social circle.

But all of these “adjustments” add to the richness of the adventure and the enlarging of our perspective, and the appreciation for all things precious. And for that, and so much more, we are thankful.

Road Trippin’ To Rwanda

After six weeks on the job, on call 24/7 (although for the record, I don’t get called often), and not having ventured more than a fifteen minute radius from either home or the embassy, we finally headed out.

Now keep in mind that “heading out”, for which I am known, is not as simple or easy as it might seem.

First of all, I have to find coverage–someone to be on call for emergencies within the embassy community. Thankfully I haven’t had any emergencies yet, but I still have to be ready and prepared. There is some back-up available–a local nurse and a local doctor, but with language barriers and cultural differences, and a lack of, shall we say, 9-1-1, I don’t take that lightly.

Secondly, we don’t have a car. (Ours is slated to arrive in just about two weeks. We’ll see if that’s like, really two weeks, or more like African two weeks, which could be two months.) This translates into being dependent on someone else. And as wonderful as everyone has been to us (and they have all been really wonderful and warm and welcoming and inclusive), that’s still hard for independent people like us who are used to planning road trips and making them happen. (Think ski days, 14er hiking, Brew Tour, Hanging Lake, Lake City, snow shoeing. If it was available, I drove there and did it!)

And thirdly, there’s safety and security. We can’t just pack up and go. If the first two issues above are addressed, then we have to make sure what we’re doing is approved by the Regional Security Officer, and that it’s safe. Safe usually means at least a two car caravan. Although the mandatory two car rule is no longer in effect, we can’t exactly call Triple A Roadside Assistance if we have a breakdown. So two cars is just a good idea. And radios. And first aid kits. And the awesome sheet of paper we carry in our cars that we’re supposed to hand out in the event of an accident: “I can’t discuss it with you right now. Please call this number.” in English, French and Kirundi. I love it.

And for someone like me who has the itch to go and the whole continent of Africa personally calling my name, you can imagine the angst.

BUT, everything fell into place last weekend, and we road tripped to Rwanda. Yea, I just said that. And it was awesome.

First the four or so hours out of Bujumbura to the border. This made me want to become a photographer, which I am not. This also made me want to have my own car so I could stop every five minutes and photograph the local color, of which there is plenty. Think: one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Think: people and villages lining the highway (African euphemism for one and a half lane curvy mountain road peppered with random speed bumps and potholes and large vans speeding by in the opposite direction). Think: colorful garb and loads of just about anything carried on bicycles and heads. Think: little scantily clad children playing right on the road. Think: just about anything you can imagine being sold roadside–chickens, produce of all kinds, (well, tropical produce like bananas, mangoes, tomatoes, beans, peas, cabbage, avocados, manioc, sweet potatoes, but no apples, just in case you’re wondering), baskets and other handmade wicker items (one whole village sold nothing but these little handwoven, three-legged round stools), furniture of all kinds, goats, pigs, fabric, clothing. In one town, we even saw a parade, but that made our friend who was driving very nervous, because although it looked colorful and fun, it was really a political rally and those can turn violent and scary very quickly. Suffice it to say, it was A. quite visually stimulating, B. quite the adventure, and C. quite Africa. For real.

Then there was the border. We’d heard horror stories of the border crossing into the Congo (on the agenda for later this summer after we get a car), but this was quite the civilized affair. First of all, they waived us through with our dip plates. No stop whatsoever. Then we decided we’d better turn around and fill out the paperwork and get the official stamps, just in case we needed to show them any time. Voila. Another stamp for the passport. 🙂

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Not like I’m collecting them or anything. Ha.

And then we were in the Republic of Rwanda. OMG. Such a different country.

Paul Kagame, the former leader of the rebel force that ended the Rwandan genocide twenty years ago and the de-facto leader ever since (officially the president since 2000), is a controversial figure in the west. I’m not here to make this a place for political rantings or for taking sides, but he has been instrumental in bringing changes to his country and progress in many areas, including courting western business interests and investment.

In fact, here we are enjoying some of the fruits of his labor, so to speak:

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What’s that, you say? That’s some really happy people eating MEXICAN FOOD at a Chipotle look alike in Kigali. Highlight of the trip? Quite possibly. 🙂

Anyway, back to the Kagame controversy. You can read this article about him and decide for yourself what you think:

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/discussions/interviews/rebooting-rwanda

but I’m here to tell you that I certainly enjoyed some of his “results” after living in his far less stable and far less developed neighbor to the south, Burundi.

After stuffing ourselves royally at Meze Fresh (the Chipotle knock off), we relaxed here

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at this place:

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You movie buffs will recognize its significance. The rest of you will just have to go look it up, but yes, we really stayed here. Way cool.

And the highlight of the weekend wasn’t really the Mexican food, it was seeing these girls, as always:

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So fun to have friends to visit in The Middle Of Nowhere, Africa. 🙂

But just so I don’t paint an unrealistically advanced picture of Rwanda, amidst all the working stoplights (Burundi has none) and other accoutrements of progress, there was this:

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If you look closely, you can see A HAND picking up the fallen pins and replacing them in the set. I kid you not. But, hey, that’s more bowling than in all of Burundi.

So after a few really good meals, a stop at the Presidential Palace Museum where the plane crashed that killed both the Rwandan and the Burundian president in 1994, and a stop at the American Embassy Kigali to tour their health unit, we headed home for a mostly uneventful return trip. There’s still lots to do in Kigali that we didn’t manage this time, so we’ll definitely be back. It’s our closest tie with civilization! 🙂

And Mexican food.