Athens is Magic (Delphi is Pretty Great, Too)

February 13, 2013- The first thing I do when my plane lands in Athens is to check into my hotel and take a taxi to the famous hammam baths I’d heard so much about. What could be better after a 16 hour flight than relaxing in a steam room and getting a revivifying massage?

Lots of things, as it turns out.

I’m not sure when I realized that the hammam experience wasn’t for me- possibly the very moment I saw the awkward wooden clogs and the tiny dinner napkin in which I was expected to clothe myself before maneuvering my way down the slippery stone steps into the steam room. I summoned up enough grace not to fall and break any bones, which is probably as good as it gets when you’re me. The steam room itself is a large communal space into which the host welcomes you by tossing a bucket of hot water over your head. (Why am I always traveling places where people throw buckets of water at me?) I expect this is meant to be relaxing, but actually just washes one of my contact lenses out of my eye and I spend the next ten minutes frantically trying to shove the godforsaken thing back into place. I’m pretty sure this activity has torn the lens because my eye immediately begins to burn and water profusely.

So this is nice.

From my spot on the stone bench, I can just barely see into the massage room where other guests are called in to be pummeled by large Greek men while lying on another stone slab. I watch as a muscular young man goes in ahead of me (he’s a lot more graceful in his wooden sandals. Probably he’s done this before.) He cries out in pain within seconds of starting his “relaxing” massage.

You know what? It turns out I’m actually not that interested in the whole hammam experience after all.  When nobody is looking I scamper back up the stairs to get dressed and make my escape.

I’m convinced I memorized the cab route to the hammam so I can make my way back on foot, but I’m wrong about this, too. I wander around Athens lost for about two hours before I give up and hail a cab to take me back. There’s probably an ocean of delicious Greek food within walking distance of my hotel, but because I’m tired and cranky I just order room service and immediately go into a coma.

…until 1:30 a.m., when I wake up with a splitting headache, wash down some Advil with a $12 minibar Coke, and wait for breakfast.

 

February 14, 2013- I already know today is going to be a magnificent day. I’m staying at the Royal Olympic Hotel and I’ve booked myself the Athenian Panorama Room, which has giant windows looking out over the Temple of Zeus. The view is positively breathtaking as day breaks and the massive columns come into view. The day is drizzly and overcast, but that does nothing to diminish the impressive view.

Breakfast is served in the rooftop restaurant, and although I would normally skip a hotel breakfast and go in search of something better, I’m starving to death and this turns out to be a wonderful circumstance. I’ve never had a better breakfast anywhere, hotel or otherwise. Fresh Greek yogurt with honey and “strawberry marmalade,” coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, three kinds of cheese, ham, air-dried salami, turkey, hard-boiled eggs… I *may* have made three trips through the buffet line. Don’t judge me.

The first thing I notice once I bundle myself up and set out in the cold drizzle are all the homeless dogs looking for food, shelter, and companionship. I stop and pet all of them and try not to cry.

The first item on my agenda is the Acropolis Museum. I’ve gotten there too early, so I wander around while I’m waiting. I hear chanting coming from a Greek Orthodox church and it’s mesmerizing, so I stand outside and listen even when the rain starts coming down harder. Athens is already amazing.

I’m the first person inside the museum when it opens, and I immediately head to the top floor to work my way back down to the beginning. I have the entire second floor of marble busts and faces to myself to examine completely alone for at least 30 minutes as the guards are all huddled in a corner, chatting, and never realize anyone was there until I’m right on top of them. The experience is pure magic- as the title of one volume in their book shop attests, you can actually hear the marble breathing.

My plan to see the museum first in hopes that the rain will let up before I visit the Acropolis completely backfires, as it is raining even harder by the time I get back outside. The Acropolis is still amazing even when you see it in a monsoon. It’s pretty treacherous going up and down marble steps in the pouring rain, but as I did not break any vital body parts, I still consider it 100% worthwhile.

After an hour-long visit I’m frozen to the bone and soaked like a rat, so I shuffle my way back to the hotel and take a scalding hot bath and a nap with the curtains open so I can be sure to wake up to the incredible view again.

I wake up ravenous again (this is going to be a constant theme on this trip, FYI), wander down to the Plaka and have a marvelous plate of souvlaki at a small cafe. I get lost, again, walking back to the hotel but I find a great hot chocolate shop and some of the best baklava I’ve ever had, so this makes it OK.

 

February 15, 2013- I have booked myself a bus tour to Delphi today so I can check one more thing off my bucket list- seeing the bronze charioteer statue at the Delphi museum. Normally I’m not a fan of bus tours- I like to explore things at my own pace and there’s really nothing worse than being crammed on a bus with a bunch of people who may or may not share your views on personal space or hygiene. I’m pleasantly surprised today, though- there are only 8 people in the entire group and the tour guide is magnificent.

So, the bronze charioteer? Absolutely worth the trip. The museum isn’t terribly crowded (yay, off-season travel!) and I get to sit and stare at him in amazement for quite a long time with only the museum security guard for company.

Bronze Charioteer Delphi Greece

I’m even more amazed by Delphi itself. The stadium, the amphitheater, the temple of Apollo. It’s all breathtaking, and the cool mountain air smells like pine needles and sunshine.

Delphi Greece

Delphi Greece

We stop for lunch at a small taverna.  Lunch is nothing special, but the wine is good, and sitting next to the fire is lovely. The whole bus group shares a communal table and I’m happy to report everyone has perfectly acceptable standards of hygiene. There’s a young couple from China, a family with two teenage daughters from Saskatchewan, and a middle-aged Indian man from Leicester. We all swap travel stories until it’s time to get back on the bus.

On the way back to Athens we stop for 20 minutes in the town of Arahova, which looks like an Alpine village dropped in Greece. Really lovely. I immediately add a Christmastime visit to my bucket list.

I’ve done so much uphill walking, my calves feel like they’re carved out of marble. I go to sleep as soon as the bus drops me back off at my hotel and I’m out cold for seven hours. I miss dinner, wake up at 3am, starving, and drink another real-sugar Coke out of the minibar. My internal clock is never going to recover.

February 16, 2013- It’s the first really lovely day since I arrived in Athens- the sun even comes out for a bit. I take advantage of this by seeing some of the gorgeous outdoor areas. First up is Athens’ First Cemetery, a sprawling marble metropolis of the city’s well-heeled dead. Incredible statuary and mausoleums, including one three-story domed masterpiece. Breathtaking, even if it is a bit crumbling and surrounded by scaffolding. I see something neat, too- what look at first like picture frames sitting on the end of a tomb turn out to be made of marble, so you can make Grandma’s crypt look just like her old fireplace mantel.

The care Greeks lavish on their family graves is extremely touching. Everywhere you look, even in the oldest sections, you see fresh flowers, lit candles, burning incense, and family members busily tending to their plots.

For a taphophile like me, it’s great morning outing. I’d put this cemetery up against any of the nicest I’ve seen anywhere. I think for the millionth time that I really need to write a travel guide for people who love cemeteries.

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Next I head to the National Gardens. They may have been designed by Queen Amalia,  but the cemetery was a much better sight. The gardens do have a goat and rabbit sanctuary, which is nice, but the whole place still smells vaguely like piss.

After a quick stop at a pet shop to buy some Greek dog toys for Murphy Ann, I’m off to see the Street of Tombs at Kerameikos. Extremely impressive- a cemetery pre-dating Jesus Christ by 400+ years where Pericles gave a funeral oration for the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War.

After a quick (by Greek standards) lunch of meatballs in tomato sauce, bread, and wine in the Plaka, I get a free 15 minute walk through the Ancient Agora as they are about to close for the day.

 

February 17, 2013- It’s cold out, it’s still raining, and I’ve found a lovely warm cafe with cozy nook seat couches, great cappuccino, and Meatloaf on the stereo. Never leaving.  It’s almost 11am on my last day in my new favorite city and the weather exactly matches my feelings about leaving. Sofia the barista (and in my opinion, the maker of the world’s best cappuccinos) has invited me back at 8:00 tonight for a going-away-party. Typical Greek hospitality at its finest.

I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Monastiraki & buy a replica of the head of the Delphic charioteer to take home. I get lost, but find the most darling little dive of a restaurant without a single tourist in sight. I take this as a good sign and order the exohikio- roast pork stuffed with creamy feta, tomatoes, and green peppers. It’s incredible, and washed down with quite a lot of Greek wine. I might be in love.

I’m super bummed about heading back home tomorrow and wish I had planned a much longer trip. I came to Athens thinking I would check a couple of things off my bucket list and move on. Turns out I fell in love instead.

So Long, Day Job! Saying Goodbye to the 9-5

Quit Job

So the day finally came. After 15 years of being a funeral director, it was really strange to be able to drop off all of my black suits at Goodwill and sleep through the night knowing my answering service wasn’t going to call and wake me up with an urgent message. Saying goodbye to cherished colleagues was hard, but with the wonder of technology, “goodbye” really isn’t goodbye any longer. Being a funeral director was an incredibly rewarding profession and I loved knowing I made a difference in the lives of families on their hardest days, but it also reminded me day in and day out: Life is short. Do what you want to do today because tomorrow is not guaranteed. I’ve known since I was a little girl that what I really wanted to do was travel the world, share the stories people tell me along the way, and inspire other people to live the life they truly want to live. 

I have about a month and a half before I set out on my next big bucket list adventure, which *really* doesn’t seem like enough time to get rid of decades worth of accumulated stuff, put a few prized possessions in storage, and say “see you soon” to my closest friends. I’m also filling my days with lots of travel research, and getting around to a lot of cool Florida things that I somehow managed to miss over the last 13 years. I also have a road trip coming up next month that I’ll be writing about with a very special co-author. Stay tuned!

Have you ever quit your job and moved to the other side of the world, or just packed up and decided to start a new life somewhere else? I’d love to hear your tips and stories- tell me all about it in the comments!

 

How NOT to visit Rwanda

Gorgeous Rwanda landscape
Gorgeous Rwanda landscape

May 24, 2010- I make it across the border into Rwanda in one piece, which is no small miracle considering the state of the mountain roads between Bwindi and Cyanika. I doubt they’re much to write home about ordinarily and last night’s torrential rain really did a number on them. There were landslides all over, plus huge mud craters and fallen trees. The view of the rice terraces, however, is absolutely breathtaking.

Rice terraces and giant road craters
Rice terraces and giant road craters

Immigration is relatively painless and I’m handed off to my driver on the other side of the Rwandan border. He keeps asking me if I know I have to “pay some money” to go track gorillas tomorrow. I can’t seem to get him to understand that I won’t be doing that- I’ve already gone gorilla tracking in Uganda, after all, and I’m sure nothing is going to top that experience.

The first thing that strikes me as we set out to Kinigi: the roads here are phenomenal. They’re PAVED and everything. I feel like I’ve just rediscovered civilization.

Rwanda

My plan for my only full day in Kinigi is to hike to Dian Fossey’s grave at the Gorilla Cemetery in the Karisoke Research Center. When I wake up before dawn, the temperature has plummeted overnight and it’s pouring rain. Not normal pouring rain, either- Africa rain, which is different enough that 80s bands wrote songs about it. It really is a spectacle when the jungle skies open up. I’m running a fever, and my aching joints let me know there is going to be no soaking wet 12 mile hike happening today. Here’s a sad fact about trying to be Indiana Jones when you have an autoimmune disease: sometimes your body just says no, and there is no appeals process. I’ve exhausted myself into a flare up, and I’m not going to be able to do the cool thing that brought me to Rwanda in the first place. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.

Although I can never quite shake the guilty feeling from “wasting” a day of travel, I have to admit- I end up spending most of the day under the covers, letting the torrential downpour on the metal roof of my little jungle cabin lull me into the best sleep of the entire trip, and that helps immensely.

Rwanda
Note: this is not my little cabin, but isn’t the landscape incredible?

The rain lets up before dinner and I decide to take a walk around what passes for downtown. This idea is short lived, as I am immediately set upon by a group of schoolchildren asking for money, trying to touch my hair, and asking if they can have my camera. Normally in a situation like this you would just ignore the kids, keep walking, and they would move on. Not these kids. I’m too sick to put up a fight, so I just turn around and go back to the resort for another nap.

Rwanda

Rwanda

Dinnertime- not everything on the awkwardly translated menu makes sense, but I think I’ll try the “baked chicken with cheese”. The kitchen lady shakes her head “no,” so apparently I can’t have that. Instead I order the “spaghetti maman mia,” whatever that is. (Turns out that it’s awful. That’s all you need to know.)

It gets colder. I convince myself I have pneumonia. I’m so cold I talk myself out of showering just so I don’t have to get undressed. The pile of dead bugs in the shower helps me convince myself.

I can’t stop daydreaming about waffles.

The power doesn’t stay on for more than 45 minutes at a time. This is bad news for anyone who wants to watch television, but as the resort only gets one channel that plays the same four music videos on repeat, I’m not upset.

I do eventually discard the pile of dead bugs and take a shower to warm up. (I know this was bothering you.)

The rain is back in an astounding downpour. It beats so hard on the metal roof that it drowns out all four African music videos. (Don’t judge me, I’m going a little stir crazy in this tiny hut.)

Rwanda
The hotel grounds during a rare non-rainy moment.

The power goes out again, so there’s (obviously) nothing to do but sit on the restaurant’s covered patio with a lukewarm Primus beer and watch the rain. An American couple comes running in out of the rain, saunters up to the bar, and starts speaking loudly and slowly in Spanish to the English-speaking African waitress. She looks at them exactly the way you would look at anyone who did this. I guess Spanish and Swahili are interchangeable if you’re an idiot. On behalf of Americans everywhere- I’m so sorry.

Also, the chicken curry? Definitely NOT chicken.

Hey, did you know there is an hour time difference between Uganda and Rwanda? Somehow I miss or forget this until about an hour into my frantic meltdown the following morning when (I think) my driver is an hour late picking me up for the airport. I am convinced I will miss my flight and be stranded in Rwanda until I die. *cough* Sorry about that.

45 minutes until boarding and there is a commotion at the security checkpoint. A rather large African lady is having her bag searched and is, from the sound of things, fairly unhappy about it. The officer running the X-ray machine took a big can of olive oil hair spray out of her bag and is questioning her about it. Three more officers arrive to consult. The lady has crossed her arms and is tapping one foot rapidly. Someone produces a notebook and asks her to fill something out. Ah, the ubiquitous African notebook.

Olive Oil Hairspray Lady is not giving up without a fight. She texts someone and goes back to the officers to ask if she can have it back and take it somewhere. They give it to her and she leaves, abandoning her luggage next to the security checkpoint. No one seems to care. She comes back because she forgets her passport and boarding pass.

Ten minutes later she returns without the hairspray. Now they have to bring the notebook back and scribble out whatever she’d written. The next three passengers through the screening checkpoint are allowed to keep their water bottles. Water must not be as dangerous as olive oil hairspray.

Twenty minutes after my scheduled departure time there is still no airplane outside. There are no signs or screens or anything to advise about delays, so I ask one of the security officers for an update. “Just wait,” he says. The African passengers occasionally glance at their watches and sigh.

Thirty minutes later, our plane, a DHC-8 that doesn’t look much bigger than the model airplanes I used to build as a child, has arrived and we board. My seat, 10A, doesn’t exist. There are only 9 rows of seats on the plane. Someone else has seat 12D, but there is no row 12 and no seat D. Apparently Rwandair seat assignments just come out of a bingo draw-tank. The flight attendants seem incredulous that we’re asking where to sit. There’s a lot of hand waving. “Just sit anywhere.”  This feels like an accurate representation of my short time in Rwanda.

I had to choose between a 40 minute layover or a 6 hour layover in Entebbe. This is Africa and nothing is on time, so I choose the 6 hour. The earlier flight is gone by the time my model airplane lands, so I congratulate myself on my excellent choice. And promptly throw up. It wasn’t the smoothest flight, sorry.

I order a Coke and a burger at the only restaurant open in the airport. Don’t do this. It’s the worst burger of my life. I think there are rocks in it.

So there you have it. In summary, I did pretty much every single thing wrong when visiting Rwanda, and I don’t feel I did the country justice at all. I barely left my hotel, I disliked the food, I was mistrustful of the people, and illness prevented me from taking part in any of the adventures I had planned.  I look forward to returning to Rwanda one day and having a much better trip, now that I’ve already done all the things you shouldn’t do.

Rwanda

Burma in Photos

“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.”  – Aung San Suu Kyi

Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.

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Ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger

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Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.

 

 

The Widow Who Opened My Eyes

Sometimes it’s the smallest, most insignificant moments that change our lives forever. I’ll never forget the older lady who sat across the table from me in my arrangement office all those years ago. She wore a tidy blue skirt suit and had her hair in tidy, well-sprayed curls. Her jewelry was conservative and her makeup was tasteful, but smudged, because she spent most of our meeting looking down at her lap and crying silent tears.

Her husband had just died, and I am a funeral director.

I’m sure she thought I was helping her that day, and I was, but when she opened up to me about her life she helped me in a way that I will never be able to repay.

Her life had been as tidy as her hair and her clothes and her pearl jewelry, so she came to our meeting well prepared. The funeral was pre-arranged and had been paid for many years ago, because that was the sensible thing to do. She knew how many copies of the death certificate she would need to handle the business end of her husband’s death, and she had already called the church and ensured that her pastor would be available to conduct the funeral service later in the week. Plans had been made for her two adult sons to fly home from out of state.

The only thing she hadn’t been able to sort out ahead of time was the obituary, and she needed my help. Her husband had been a very special man, and she naturally wanted the newspaper notice to reflect that, but she just didn’t know where to start. I’ve written hundreds of obituaries, so I started asking her questions about her husband’s life, hobbies, interests…special memories that might give us a jumping off point.

She continued to stare down at her lap for the longest time, until she finally looked up and me and said, “All he really ever did was work. He loved us so much and wanted to provide for his family, so he sacrificed everything he ever wanted to do in order to make money to support us. He wanted me to stay home with the kids and he wanted to send them to the best schools, so he just worked and worked. You’ve never seen such a hard working man. 60, sometimes 70 hour weeks weren’t uncommon. He missed so many birthdays and holidays with us, but he had a goal in mind. We always wanted to travel and see the world together; that’s all we ever talked about. All the places we were going to go once he retired. We would lie in bed at night and hold hands, talking about it. One day, we’re going to do all the things we’ve dreamed about, and it’s finally going to be our time.”

Her husband died two weeks before his planned retirement date.
They never took a single vacation.
They never fulfilled a single one of their dreams together.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?
The entire time this poor woman was spilling her heart out to me, alarm bells and panic sirens were going off in my head while a giant neon sign flashed: THIS WILL NEVER BE ME!

I never told this lady about the switch she had flipped inside me, but I still think about her often, all these years later. When I know I’m working too hard, when it’s been too long since I took time off to travel, and most recently when I made the decision to retire from funeral directing to be a full time travel writer. I think about her small shoulders shaking under that blue suit as she cried for the death of her husband and all of their lost dreams.

Don’t be so tidy, folks. Working and planning and saving are wonderful things, but not at the expense of the things that you lie in bed at night and dream about. You can always make more money or make do with fewer material things, but lost time is never coming back. Don’t get so busy building your life that you never actually get to live it.

The world is incredible and full of beautiful, amazing things just waiting for you to go and discover them.
The world is incredible and full of beautiful, amazing things just waiting for you to go and discover them.
Don't postpone your dreams until tomorrow or next year or when the kids go off to college.
Don’t postpone your dreams until tomorrow or next year or when the kids go off to college.
What are you waiting for? Once you see how much beauty is out there, you'll never be the same.
What are you waiting for? Once you see how much beauty is out there, you’ll never be the same.

Bucket List #152, or… I am the Worst Gorilla Tracker Ever

When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.
When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.

So apparently I’m the world’s worst gorilla tracker. But I’m also pretty lucky, so I guess it all evens out. As I’m preparing to leave for my long-awaited gorilla trek this morning, I’m proud of myself for remembering to ask the kitchen staff for a packed lunch to take with me. But I forget another, slightly important, provision- um, water?

Note to potential future gorilla trackers everywhere: don’t assume your hotel staff is going to automatically provide everything you need. Seriously, who lets me go wandering around the planet without adult supervision?

There are only four other people in my group, apart from our guide, a young woman named Cathy, and the nice man with the AK-47 who doesn’t tell us his name and who is there, he tells us, in case we encounter poachers or if someone tries to endanger a gorilla in any way. He is not there, he adds, to stop any gorilla from endangering us, especially if we’re doing something to deserve it. Everyone laughs. He doesn’t.

Cathy warns us that some groups end up having to trek up to 8 hours through really dense, unforgiving jungle before finding gorillas. On rare occasions, they search all day and don’t see any. Gorillas are constantly on the move and never sleep in the same spot twice, so an advance team of searchers sets out every morning and radios back to the guides when they’re on the trail of a gorilla family. As usual, I am ridiculously lucky. We’ve barely started walking into the jungle when our guide’s radio crackles with the news that they’ve been spotted. We reach them in less than 30 minutes.

When we get close to the gorillas, we are told to take our cameras and leave everything else with the porters who have come along to hold our bags and, if necessary, push and pull out of shape visitors up and down steep jungle inclines. We take a short walk down an overgrown ravine and are standing in the middle of a gorilla family. The silverback of the family is asleep under a tree while the babies of the group play over his head.

Baby gorilla in the trees
Baby gorilla in the trees
I swear, they're in there.
I swear, they’re in there.
Babies!
Babies!

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After taking these few mostly obscured shots through the brush…my camera battery dies. I have spares- back up at the top of the ravine, in the bag my porter is holding. God, I’m an idiot.

Cathy is immensely sympathetic, and says it’s OK if I want to walk back and get a new battery. It would be a 40 minute round trip, and visitors are only allowed a maximum of one hour to view the gorillas. Not a chance, I tell her.

The gorillas take great advantage of my camera-less state and move right out into the open. They plop themselves in the middle of a tea plantation and contentedly sit there, posing for the group, for the rest of the hour. I would have been able to take amazing pictures, even with my basic little point-and-shoot.

But I can’t, so I just try to memorize every minute. Visitors have to stay back 30 feet from the gorillas, as our guide regularly reminds us. But no one tells the gorillas, so the curious babies continue to try to dart away from their mothers and check us out before being yanked back to safety. I step to the back of the group so I am not in the way of any of the other people, who are not idiots and who have brought ample photographic supplies. This turns out to be a very fortuitous decision on my part.

After a few minutes, I hear some rustling in the brush behind me. I don’t think anything of it until I hear the grunt and the acrid smell of male gorilla hits me at the same time. I turn in slow motion and find myself standing face to face with a blackback male big enough to look down into my eyes. He’s about two feet away from me, which is basically no space at all when you take into account that ohmygodthisisawildmountaingorilla.  Apparently this guy just woke up from his mid-morning nap to realize the rest of the family had moved on out of the forest without him, and he needed to catch up.

From somewhere really far away I hear the guide softly telling me not to move, not to panic, everything is going to be OK, don’t stare into his eyes and he won’t be bothered…

This isn't my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)
This isn’t my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)

Gorillas constantly make a low, guttural grunting sound in their throats. This isn’t necessarily threatening, but tell that to a 100 pound woman within mauling distance. We’ve already established that I’m an idiot, though, so I didn’t have the sense to be frightened. My gorilla (because he will forever be *my* gorilla) slowly tilted his head to one side and stared into my face. Of course you’re not supposed to look them in the eye lest they feel you’re challenging them, but again- idiot. Of course I looked him in the eye just the way he was looking at me. It didn’t last longer than a minute, but the impact has stayed with me forever. We had a brief creature-to-creature bonding moment and I will never forget it.

This is why they call it gorillas in the mist...
This is why they call it gorillas in the mist…

 

Into the Impenetrable Forest

May 22, 2010- It’s a long and somber drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. My driver is emotional when he picks me up after breakfast, his voice catching as he explains why we saw no lions the previous day. “They have been killed, the whole family. Local farmers thought a lion may have eaten one of their cows, and set out poisoned meat for revenge. The entire pride is dead.”

I feel sick, and I can’t look this poor man in the eyes. I can tell he’s choking back tears, and there’s zero chance I won’t cry, too, if I look at him. We had planned to take another game drive through the preserve before heading to Bwindi, but I don’t have to tell him I don’t want to go.

The farmers who have killed these beautiful, endangered animals have broken the law, and theoretically could face fines or imprisonment, but they won’t.

The road to Bwindi

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We arrive on the outskirts of Bwindi before noon, and it is immediately apparent why the name “Impenetrable Forest” was chosen.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Unlike the rest of Uganda, Bwindi is dark and cool and misty. Even when the sun is out, it doesn’t feel hot and miserable. You feel like you’re in the middle of Gorillas in the Mist  and you wouldn’t be at all surprised if King Kong went swinging past your little thatched-roof hut any second.

I’m staying at the Buhoma Rest Camp and am lucky enough to score one of the coveted bottom-of-the-hill bandas with an amazing view of the forest and mountains. There’s a little private porch on the front of my cabin and it feels like I’m the only person on the planet when I sit outside, unable to see any of the other bandas or hear any human noise. The forest is alive with chirps and hoots and other unidentifiable noises, and I understand why the employee who checked me in cautioned me not to leave the door to my room open, lest I find myself with a chimpanzee or other uninvited guest making itself at home.

My utterly secluded "Monkey Banda"
My utterly secluded “Monkey Banda”

As with most places I’ve stayed in Africa, the camp’s restaurant is a large, open-air space with a thatched roof. This one has the added feature of incredible views of the mist-covered mountains. I notice at lunch I’m not the only person just staring out at the view, mesmerized. Today’s lunch options are either pasta *or* spaghetti with tomato sauce. I’m feeling wild, so I order the generic “pasta”. And wait. And wait. There is no such thing as fast food in Africa. I’m so hungry, I’d walk a mile for a can of Chef Boyardee and a candle.

Two hours later- I have no idea what that was, but it wasn’t tomato sauce. V8 mixed with spinach and grass clippings, maybe. I start obsessively daydreaming about Oreos.

As soon as the sun starts to dip behind the mountains, I take back every unkind thing I’ve said about the unrelenting African heat. I want it back. I’m freezing to death. I’m wearing everything I packed, wrapped in two threadbare blankets, and still shivering.

Showering here is an ordeal. First you have to let the water run long enough to get hot, but not so long you miss the 3.5 seconds of hot water you’ll get before it runs out. Then you have to fill up a handy plastic bucket iwth water and use it to drown the baseball-sized spider lurking under the wooden pallet that makes up the floor of your shower. Then, for good measure, take the random plastic pitcher that’s in there and smash the spider’s guts all over the floor. Do this while naked and screaming for maximum effect. Then, shower with flip flops on so you don’t step in spider gut slime. Once you finish all that, you’re free to scald your sunburned arms and scalp under the boiling water (no showerhead, naturally) and do a half-assed job of shaving in the dark while keeping an eye out for more “wildlife”. Don’t forget to save enough hot water for washing out your unmentionables- no laundry facilities for 300 miles!

Sufficiently clean and mildly traumatized, I make the hike up to the top of the hill again for dinner. Tonight’s offerings are: warm Bell lager, French onion soup, some kind of roasted pork something-or-other, and an unknown dessert. I’m ravenous, so it all sounds amazing.

I wonder if the other people in the restaurant think I’m writing some kind of deep “Snows of Kilimanjaro” shit in my diary all the time. Nope, just making lists of all the American food I can’t wait to gorge myself on as soon as I get home. Pizza Hut. Dunkin Donuts. Cracker Barrel macaroni and cheese. Non-instant coffee!

So, um, when has French onion soup ever been yellow? My hopes for the pork whatsit have fallen dramatically, and they weren’t that high to begin with.

I still really want some Oreos.

I hear a chimpanzee screech close outside the open restaurant walls and decide to stop whining. I am the luckiest person I know.

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Things I Love

A completely random collection of things I love, in no particular order.

 

Tiny details

Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali
Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali

Slow travel

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Luxuriating in an exquisite meal

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Smelling flowers

Exotic flora in Uganda
Exotic flora in Uganda

Listening to a stranger’s stories

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Watching a new city wake up

A chilly November morning in Edinburgh
A chilly November morning in Edinburgh

Bonding with animals

Edgar the affectionate manatee
Edgar the affectionate manatee

Old cemeteries

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Leaving my fingerprints on every corner of the world

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore

 

What do you love? Tell me in the comments!

Why have a travel blog? Plus a holiday giveaway!

This post may contain affiliate links, which cost you nothing but help to support the upkeep of this blog. 

Know what I love to do, almost as much as I love to have random bucket list adventures all over the globe? Encourage other people to have their own. When I’m getting to know someone, I like to skip right past the usual, “What’s your favorite color?” and “Tell me about your family!” stuff. For me it’s all about the, “What’s on your bucket list??” And as soon as I find out, I’m all about encouraging you to fulfill your dreams.

Bucket list-ing in Indonesia
Bucket list-ing in Indonesia

So that brings me to why I even have a travel blog in the first place. I’ve been traveling and checking things off my own list for years without one, and maintaining a blog is actually a lot of work and expense. But I LOVE to encourage people to follow their dreams. Love it. It breaks my heart when someone tells me they have a dream they’ve given up on. If you’ve always wanted to go to Ireland/ learn Swahili/ sail to Fiji but you’ve given up on it ever happening because of time or money or kids or whatever, please don’t tell me- I’ll cry.

I think everyone has a bucket list, even if you haven’t set it down on paper or told anyone about it yet.

Swimming with dolphins... check!
Swimming with dolphins… check!

I hope reading about my adventures (and misadventures) encourages other people to remember their dreams and goals that they may have set aside and make some of them come true. If you need to save money, save money. If you need to arrange for childcare, do it. There are things you’ve been putting off that won’t wait forever, and eventually you will run out of time. I’ve been a funeral director for a long time- not to be morbid, but I promise you there will come a day when someone you love will be sitting in an office just like mine, telling someone like me about how much you loved wine, and wished you had taken that girls’ trip through Napa. Or how much you loved Greek food, and wished you had made it to Santorini. Or maybe you’ll make some of those dreams come true, and we can talk about that instead.

So…! That brings us to the fun part.

Let’s win some free stuff.

As my holiday gift to you, my awesome followers, one of you is going to win a $50 Amazon gift certificate that you can use to get you one step closer to checking off your own bucket list. Maybe you need a Bucket List Journal to start making your list. Maybe you need some new luggage, or an airplane pillow, or some extra memory cards for your camera. Whatever it is that will inspire you to make your dreams come true, make it happen!

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Gift card shown is for illustration purposes only- actual prize will be in the form of an emailed Amazon code, so you don’t have to wait by the mailbox!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Sunrise on the African savanna

May 21, 2010- Queen Elizabeth National Park. My driver and I are in the park well before sunrise, while the animals are still waking up. What an amazing sight, to see the sun come up over the African plain with herds of kob, waterbuck, and buffalo slowly grazing for their breakfast. Absolutely unforgettable. A hyena and some warthogs dart out of the bushes and run in front of our car, too. And after two hours of searching, the icing on the cake: one massive tusked elephant glides between the Acacia trees.

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I snap a few pictures of him and then put down my camera and just stare at him until he disappears off into the horizon.

My driver circles the park over and over again, occasionally stopping to talk into a radio with other safari drivers. No one can find the lions that are usually present in this part of the park. He knows I desperately want to see them, so we keep driving. The sun is high in the sky; it’s almost noon and most of the animals are taking shelter from the midday heat. We meet up with several other safari vehicles near one popular watering hole and all of the drivers get out to form a huddle. The other vehicles are full of other tourists who look as bedraggled as I feel. I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t handle the equatorial heat.

The huddle of drivers breaks up and mine returns- do I want to keep searching for the lions? No one has seen them. He looks desperate. No, I tell him. I know as well as he does that they won’t be hanging out in the middle of the day, in this heat. I’m ready to head back into the shade myself and nap until the sun begins to relent. He looks relieved.

As we leave the southern sector of the park, a fat little savannah monitor waddles his way down to road and I squeal at my driver to stop. He stops, and so does the lizard, long enough for me to take his photo before he scampers off into the brush. He looks just like Monte, the pet savannah I had in high school, who loved to perch on my shoulder and listen to Elvis Presley.

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By 5 p.m. there is a wicked storm blowing up over the Great Rift Valley, driving away most of the flies and oppressive heat. I venture outside my banda after a much-needed nap and find that the safari camp is still empty. I eat dinner in the large open-air restaurant alone again. This place is starting to feel kind of creepy in a Shining sort of way.

I walk around to stretch my legs before the sun goes down. A signpost at the base of the safari camp hill indicates that the Congolese border is only 23 miles away. My driver had mentioned earlier in the day that the border was currently open, for the first time in years, and if I wanted to hop over and get my passport stamped, he could arrange it. I could visit the weekly market and check another country off my list, but in the end I chicken out. I haven’t done enough research on the Congo to make it an impromptu travel destination. (Note: I will always regret this!)

There is zero nightlife when you’re the sole occupant of a safari camp in the middle of Uganda, so I don’t feel bad about going to bed early. My driver will be arriving at the crack of dawn yet again, this time to take me the 5+ hours to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to some of the world’s only surviving mountain gorillas.