What’s Happening

Although admittedly this blog has focused on our extraordinary adventures, and while admittedly some of them have been quite amazing, (and admittedly much more interesting to read about), these aforementioned adventures in reality occupy a minuscule fraction of our time here. Our minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and yes, almost a year, are, in actuality, spent working. To be imprecise, (much to my chagrin, I don’t have a spreadsheet with exact amounts like my engineer son and brother would have), I’ve spend about 2200 hours working, 5500 hours on call, and 672 hours having amazing adventures. Do the math: minuscule proportion.

So I thought it only fair to give a shout out to something other than vacation, as I really don’t want to completely misrepresent my life. I could write about work, (see below the snapshots of my office, complete with my homemade stand up desk, our well-organized pharmacy and well-stocked lab, and one of our Marine Security Guards horsing around with EK, our Cameroonian RN), but that might decrease my readership substantially, due to the boring aspect of the daily grind. (The work days are spent mainly filling out governmental forms and squeezing in a patient visit every now and then. Every once in a while something vaguely exciting happens, like when the Regional Security Office is conducting victim extraction from an armored vehicle training and shards of glass go everywhere. PPE, people, PPE.)

I could also describe our cushy “East Africa-light” lifestyle, with a generator insuring that our refrigerated goods stay refrigerated, our massive amounts of “consumable goods” shipped from the homeland stay cool and fresh, and we sleep in mosquito-free AC. But that’s not all that exciting either.

But what might give you a little insight into my everyday life is to throw a little spotlight on what’s happening here in Burundi. Nothing that I write can’t be found in any media outlet: the NYTimes, the BBC, Reuters. But reading it here might make it a little personal, a little succinct, a little simplified, and a little closer to home.

Right now in Burundi, there are two major issues going on. The first is ongoing; the second is new. Both represent an unknown future. Facts remain hard to find and rumors run rampant. Through informal discussions with everyone I know here, people are all over the map as to their predictions of the not-so-distant future. On one side of the spectrum are the bright-eyed, optimistic souls floating along in the River of Denial. (I myself am happily ensconced in this boat.) On the far opposite end are the risk-averse, nay-sayers that are packing suitcases and preparing to leave at a moment’s notice, thinking that could be any moment’s notice. (I’ll leave you to guess who’s the president of that club.) And the rest of the people, locals and ex-pats alike, are somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

The first, ongoing issue is the political situation. In a super simplified, non-politically sophisticated version of current events, here’s my take on what’s happening: After emerging from twelve tumultuous years of civil war in 2005, Burundi is set to hold its second set of democratic elections in the coming months. I wouldn’t begin to pretend that I could outline all the parties, oppositions, alliances, and intricacies of the political landscape, (it takes an entire spreadsheet just to name the parties) but here’s what is clear: according to the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, a president is limited to two five-year terms. The current president, Pierre Nkurunziza,

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has been in office since 2005. Now I’m not good in math, but that feels like two five-year terms could be up. Of course, there are some loopholes and extenuating circumstances, but the potential exists that his party (the CNDD-FDD) will nominate him to run again.

Again, I’m not savvy in all things political, but that feels like a problem waiting to erupt. And in a country with limited infrastructure, political instability, and prone to violence, you can see why those risk-averse people are camping out at their end of the spectrum, suitcase in hand.

The second, more recent development involves a fuel shortage. As mentioned earlier, facts remain hard to find and rumors run rampant, but gas lines are long.

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I wouldn’t begin to make a stab at why, because speculations and stories are all over the map, but as mentioned earlier, in a country with limited infrastructure, political instability, and prone to violence, this doesn’t bode well.

Put the two situations together, and you might pitch your tent at the pessimistic end of the spectrum, too.

I write this not to be a sensationalist, nor to alarm any of my friends and family back home, but just to paint a more full picture of our lives here in Burundi. While our adventures have been amazing, our every day lives are a bit more mundane, and sometimes, uncertain.

We are watching this space closely, and live everyday, prepared and ready. We will, of course, respond to each new development as it comes, and cross each bridge as it presents itself.

In the meantime, I remain optimistic, maintaining hope, a belief that all will continue to be well, and a basic trust that our Creator will protect and provide. Ah, you have to love my ever eternal optimism!

Randy keeps his suitcase packed.

Out Of Africa

(With apologies to Karen Blixen, of course.)

When I left The Land Of The Free and The Home Of The Brave last April for Amazing African Adventures Unknown, my intentions were (what did I know??) that I would not leave the continent for the duration of my two year commitment. That was my plan. I had waited many years to see Africa and I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of it that my limited time off, money, and energy would allow. But when my employer informed me that they were sending me to a Continuing Medical Education conference in Bangkok, Thailand, who am I to say no?? And why not capitalize on the paid travel and tack on an extra week to explore the area?

(My astute friend Jean, who knows me very well, commented on my excitement with this gem:  “And to think it wasn’t long ago that Babette was excited about her UC employer paying for mileage and a hotel for business travel to Glenwood Springs!” Jean, remember that UC paid for my mileage and lodging to Montrose as well. I was rocking the big perks.)

So off to Bangkok we went, excited about the Continuing Medical Education conference, of course, but maybe also just a little excited to explore a new part of the world and eat Thai food!!!!!!!!!!! 

The conference went along as planned, with great sessions on all manner of stuff so that we in the bush don’t emerge two years later having never heard of all the latest. (Did you know that Hepatitis C, currently infecting more than 3.2 million people in the US, will be a rare disease in the next 20 years??) Amazing advances are going on in the real world while I’m over here worrying about schistosomiasis and cordylobia anthropophaga. For real.

It was also a great opportunity for networking with my worldwide colleagues, as half of our medical providers from all over the planet were there. And since I came into the service as a cohort of one, I was excited to get adopted by the group who came in right after me. Woohoo! I have colleagues I can email and ask the simplest of questions!

While I was busy conferencing, Randy, who happily accompanied me as the Trailing Spouse, an identity he is embracing without reservation, did a bit of exploring. He visited the bridge over the River Kwai,

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and made a few purchases at the floating market.

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I only had a couple of sight seeing moments in Bangkok, but we did manage to see the Grand Palace…

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…which included a model of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.

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(This is just a model. Seeing it was kind of like going to Legoland. If you can’t go to the actual location of Angkor Wat, which is just north of Siem Reap in Cambodia, just check out the model of it in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Seriously.)

There were lots of Buddhas…

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…including reclining Buddhas…

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…and “The Emerald Buddha”, which was actually made of jade. Go figure. (No photos of it, though, as it wasn’t photogenic.)

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I feel like we can safely say we checked the Buddha box.

Then we visited the Jim Thompson House (Jim Thompson was an American who is credited with single-handedly reviving the Thai silk industry, among a few other things),

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and ate some street food.

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(You can’t imagine what this was like to our taste buds. Bujumbura has some good food…if you like brochettes and french fries, with a little Ethiopian thrown in from time to time…but lacks variety in a big way.)

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(Barked with crap??? We didn’t order this particular delicacy.)

When the conference was over, we headed north to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, to explore a little bit more of the region, neither of us having ever been to this part of the world.

There were more temples and monuments here…

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…but since I don’t speak the language, I’m not exactly sure what this actually is. It was just the whitest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I wonder if they power wash with bleach??

But Thailand isn’t all temples and Buddhas. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that we’ve had some incredible wildlife experiences, like seeing the gorillas, and our East African Safari Extravaganza, and this day with the elephants at Patara Elephant Farm, in Chiang Mai, was no exception. They advertise that you “own an elephant” for the day. They weren’t kidding.

We had to brush them…

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…then lead them to the river with voice commands (and a little gently ear tugging)…

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(I must have looked grandmotherly. Everyone else got an elephant. I got a mom and her baby.)

…then bathe them in the river…

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…after which they said thank you in their own inimitable way.

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After feeding them, (and by feeding them I don’t mean gently hold your hand out, palm up, so they can daintily take the offering with their trunk. I mean stick your hand and arm way up into their mouths and deposit bananas and leaves and whole stalks of sugar cane. They have really big, soft, squishy, gooey lips)

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we were treated to a bare back ride, but not until after we figured out how to get up on these huge but amazingly gentle animals.

With simple voice commands, (it was amazing) you can have them lie down and climb on top, as Randy did…

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…or with another command, you could stand on their trunk and they would lift you up and over.

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And voila! Off we go!

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We didn’t understand the words the guides used for this little moment, but it must have meant something like hug or nuzzle. The more he said it, the tighter the hug.

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And to round out our elephant escapades, we spent some time with these little cute, but rambunctious, babies.

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All in a day’s work and we still had a week to go in Thailand! The fun had just begun.

The next day we checked out The Flight of the Gibbons. If you’re counting primates, you’ll remember that we saw the Eastern Lowland Gorilla in the Congo, went chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda with Megan, followed dozens of baboons in the Serengeti, and now watched a gibbon perform for us in the trees of Northern Thailand.

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This guy really interacted with and entertained us. He stared at us; he swung from branch to branch; he turned his back on us, then turned upside down and looked at us from between his legs. Quite the character!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cool thing about these guys is that they never leave the trees, so to see them, we had to go to where they live. We did this by means of the most incredible zip line adventure I’ve ever heard of. There were 30 different stations, and 17 different zip lines, including a tandem one, a vertical one, and the longest one in SE Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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True confessions:

In addition to the incredible Thai food and the eye-popping street markets…

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After all this excitement, we needed a break before heading back to work, so we headed to Phuket, a small island off the SW coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. We enjoyed the beach and the seafood and one last adventure, of a very different nature.

We spent the day on John Gray’s sea canoes. It was quiet, peaceful, beautiful. We explored caves and lagoons, 51-IMG_1776

 

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swam in the sea, ate wonderful sea food, and at nightfall, we participated in a traditional Thai ceremony: the Loi Krathong.

This was such a beautiful, touching ceremony I could write a whole blog post about it. (But since this one’s taken me more than a month to get up, I won’t.) We made these little arrangements on the boat,

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then after sunset

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we lit the candles and set them afloat in the lagoon.

Most of the decorated baskets only had two love birds, but we put two extra on ours and dedicated them to our son, Adam, and his new bride-to-be, Val, who had just announced their engagement!! Welcome to our family, Val!!

In the end, I decided I liked SE Asia far more than I thought I would. I could totally see us living somewhere in this region. The climate is pleasant, the food is incredible, the adventure ops abound, and the people are way funnier than I anticipated, and quite genteel as well. We will certainly keep our eyes open for SE Asia opportunities.

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Stateversary

Because so many Denverites are transplants from somewhere else, many people celebrate their “Denversary” every year on the anniversary of the day they moved to Denver. Denver is such an awesome city, it’s worth celebrating!

A year ago today, I left my beloved Denver in search of adventure, and to begin my career with the Department of State, so I thought I would celebrate my Stateversary with you. It’s a great chance to pause, reflect, and evaluate the last twelve months.

I won’t spend much time at this point explaining why I chose to leave a city I love, with people I treasured and valued, and a church and church family that was such an integral part of my life, but let’s just say I needed adventure and this was the adventure that worked out. I made no bones about the fact that I wanted to live in another country, preferably Africa, and that my first preference would have been to come as a missionary, but coming as a missionary didn’t work out and a career with the State Department did, so here I am.

A year ago today, I had just finished dealing with all this mess in the packing out process:

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And I was off:

Peace out, Denver. I love you; I'll miss you; I'll be back.

Peace out, Denver. I love you; I’ll miss you; I’ll be back.

And what do I have to show for my past year? And what do I have to say about it?

Evaluating a time period has so many faucets. There’s the personal, introspective side of things; there’s the interpersonal involving relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers; there’s the professional side involving not only work, but career and professional development as well; there’s the spiritual dimension looking at our how we’re ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling’; and oh, so much more.

Where do I begin to throw even a semblance of meaning over the past 365 days? It makes most sense to start with the simplest things and work my way deeper as I go.

The intellectual and informational mountain I’ve climbed: I can honestly say that I don’t think I can remember a 365 day period when I have learned as much as I have during this one, and in so many different categories.

My African geography skills, for example–you’d actually want me on your trivia team for that skill alone. I know almost every country and capital–not because I have studied them, but because I live them. I talk to and about people in all these countries; I know people who live there; my office walls sport multiple world and African maps. And not just geography, but history and culture and people as well. It’s a whole new world and I’ve reveled in exploring it. And the inevitable happened, as many predicted: Africa has crept into my heart.

Professionally, I’ve broadened my horizons and learned more than I ever thought possible. I dabble in tropical medicine (who’d ever heard of schistosomiasis? Now it’s a household word!), prenatal care (my first baby I took care of in utero just returned to post and oh what a cutie he is!), and bureaucracy like there’s no tomorrow. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the latter, but at least I have loved the rest of it.

Adventure-wise, it leaves nothing wanting. Climbing Kilimanjaro, seeing gorillas up close and personal, safari-ing all over East Africa, chimpanzee trekking, staying at the famous Hotel des Mille Collines, hiking the hills upcountry. And we haven’t even been to the source of the Nile yet! We’ve only just begun!!

Interpersonally, it’s been so rich. In many ways, the embassy community, because it is so small, operates like a family (or a fishbowl, depending on your perspective). I’ve made friends with wonderfully interesting people who have lived all over the world, speak multiple languages, and have a wide variety of political and social beliefs and positions, some of which I share, some I don’t. Because we practically live and work together, we’ve gotten to know people much more quickly than one might in a different (more normal) setting. I’ve definitely left my bubble! And it’s been oh so fun for this people lover!

The other side of the interpersonal coin is missing family and friends back home. I thought this blog would help me stay in touch, but it’s very one-sided. And with our spotty internet, the time difference, and a busy life here, keeping up hasn’t been easy or convenient. Even with wonderful things like Skype, it isn’t like sitting next to someone on the porch swing, or at the kitchen table, or going for a hike together. Conversation tends to be awkward and superficial and infrequent. So if you’re back home reading this, please send me a long newsy letter updating me on all that’s going on with you. I miss you! 🙂

[This reminds me of a song my mother sang to me when I went off to summer camp as a child: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”]

As for the spiritual challenges, they’ve been monumental. We’ve been so abundantly blessed to find a church where we can worship and serve, but it ain’t no Fellowship Denver or Grace Bible. And God has amazingly blessed us with a couple to share this journey with, for which we are incredibly thankful. But with no small group, and no real community of believers surrounding us and meeting weekly, I have thirsted for fellowship. And thirsted for conversation on a deeper, more eternally significant, level. But God has shown himself sufficient and that, my friend, is all that is needed.

In closing, I can say that I’m loving the adventure as a whole: the new and exciting experiences, the learning and broadening of horizons, the challenges, and yes, even the bureaucratic frustrations. And despite missing home and being close to family and friends and Denver and winter and mountains and restaurants and sporting events and the ease of civilization, I have no regrets and wouldn’t change my decision to go.

It’s been a year to remember and the adventure’s not even half over yet!

Overlooking Bujumbura at sunset

Overlooking Bujumbura at sunset

There's nothing like your very own classic hippo photo

There’s nothing like your very own classic hippo photo

Another Burundian sunset

Another Burundian sunset

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!)