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 with 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.

 

Giant cockroaches and the Equator

May 20, 2010- Really sad to be leaving Kibale Forest after breakfast- I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing my little primate friends in the trees outside my banda. I’m on my way to Queen Elizabeth National Park for some game drives and a stop off at the Equator. I don’t know what the monkey situation will be, but I’m eagerly anticipating some lion sightings. It should be an easy hour-long drive to my safari camp, and I’m looking forward to having the afternoon free for adventuring.

Five hours later, we’re still driving. Apparently the safari camp I’ve booked is so new my driver has never heard of it. He neglected to mention that when we set out. Finally, in frustration, he pulls up to the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge and asks if I wouldn’t just like to stay there instead? Ah, Africa. He finally consents to look at the map in my Lonely Planet guide (I’ve been offering it to him for at least three hours now) and stops for directions.

He’s obviously cranky when we stop at the Equator for my obligatory “look at what a giant tourist I am!” picture, but at least he doesn’t leave me on the side of the road.

Standing on the Equator!
Standing on the Equator!

It’s almost 2pm when I arrive at the Simba Safari Camp and, once again, I see no other tourists around. One of the employees tells me they have just recently opened and I’ll have the entire camp to myself for the duration of my stay. If you love solitude as much as I do, that probably sounds like a dream. It’s actually a little spooky once the sun starts to set, though. I’m out in the middle of the African savanna, it’s pitch black and absolutely silent. I would go into my banda, but there’s just one little problem.

One big problem, actually.

There’s a cockroach the size of a squirrel in my room.

No, I’m dead serious. It’s so big it probably drove here by itself. I think about going to find an employee to deal with it for me, but then I consider how that might be misconstrued (“Hi, I’m a tiny female here by myself, can you come back to my room with me?”) and decide… mmm, better not.

One hour later:  Leslie 1, giant cockroach 0.

Final tally of weapons thrown: 4 plastic coat hangers, 1 bottle of shampoo, 1 bottle of conditioner, 1 Lonely Planet guidebook, and 1 elephant-dung-encrusted hiking boot.

I doze off and on all night, but never really sleep. Partly because I’m worried about more rodent-sized insects swarming my room, and partly because even though we’re on the Equator, the safari camp has not seen fit to put air conditioning or fans in any of the bandas. At 6am it’s still dark but I step outside with a flashlight in search of a cool breeze. Instead I find a bettle the size of a tennis ball.

Giant Equator bug

I’m really hoping it was worth getting up at the crack of dawn to go on a game drive, and that I see more interesting things than horrifyingly giant insects. (Spoiler alert: it was, and I do. Stay tuned!)

African Adventure- from Hoima to Kibale Forest

May 17, 2010-  My African adventure gets easier and more enjoyable every day. Presumably the jet lag is lessening and improving my mood considerably. The ride to Hoima after breakfast is an easy one- a few small parts of the road are even paved. Wildlife is everywhere. On the drive I see countless baboons, vervet monkeys, one sweet black and white colobus monkey, Ugandan kob, Thomson’s gazelles, pigs, several roadblocks worth of Bunyoro cattle, and approximately six million goats. My driver laughs hysterically when I tell him how much I like goats. I tell him they should open a petting zoo here and tourists would pay to visit. He looks at me like I’m mocking him. I can’t convince him petting zoos are a real thing, and he changes the subject. He asks if I have air conditioning in my house, and I tell him yes. He marvels. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have it in my car, too.

Goats!
Goats!
Ugandan traffic jam
Ugandan traffic jam

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I learn an important lesson on this trip: never, ever, ever get stuck behind a flatbed truck carrying bags of fish in the 100+ degree heat. Never. OMG.

We arrive at the Hotel KonTiki early enough in the day for me to wander around and take some photos. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and full of horses and cats and almost no other tourists. My room is the largest I’ve stayed in so far and there’s even a double bed that doesn’t seem to be made of cinderblocks. I revel in the luxury. There’s a huge bathroom, too- with a hole in the ceiling, so I’ll probably find a baboon in there later.

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A pre-dinner nap would be awesome, but apparently there is construction work happening on the other side of the building. Power comes on just long enough for me to charge my phone, then goes off again. Did I fail to mention the random power outages in Africa? Yeah, it’s a thing. Enjoy your electricity and hot water when you can, and never take them for granted.

The hotel restaurant is a typical open-air, thatched roof cafe serving a few random curries and rice (I opt for the veggie). An emaciated little cat immediately sits next to me and starts mewing pitifully. I give it a curry mushroom, which it doesn’t eat, but it doesn’t ask for anything else, either.

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By the time dinner is over it’s dark outside, but the construction workers are still going strong. They’ve cranked up the generator so I have some spotty power with which to charge my laptop. I turn on the TV to try to drown out the hammering, but it only gets one channel, a fuzzy British sports network.

May 18, 2010- I wake up before dawn, too excited to sleep any longer. Today I’m heading to Kibale, the forest with the largest number of primates in Africa. There are no paved spots on the road today- I feel like I may have dislocated something. I wonder if it’s possible to have permanent nerve damage from a sunburn. My left arm feels like it’s been smashed several times over with a hammer. Even wearing long sleeves and keeping the car’s tinted windows up as much as possible (remember how there’s no air conditioning, though? Yeah… that’s problematic) I can feel my skin searing.

Somewhere on the way out of Hoima I see a man and woman with a motorcycle, standing in a ditch on the side of the road. The bike was up on the front wheel and the man seemed to be lowering it back down to the ground. I assumed they had wrecked, given the state of the road, but my driver said they had just run out of fuel and he was trying to eke a few more drops out of the tank to get to town.

Little kids still yell and wave from the side of the road when I pass by. Apparently I’m just as fascinating to them as they are to me.

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Kibale may be famous for its chimpanzees and various monkey species, but I’m astounded by the butterflies. Great clouds of them fly up every time you take a step and they land all over you whenever you’re still. One big one keeps landing on my phone. He must be attracted by his reflection.

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I’m staying at the Primate Lodge, which is nice- I have a big private banda with stone floors and a nice little porch facing the jungle. I haven’t seen any other tourists here, either- it pays to travel in the off-season. I’m the only guest in the restaurant for lunch (a relatively edible ham sandwich and a blissfully cold Coke). Every few minutes I can hear things moving in the treetops and I cross my fingers that a monkey swings by to visit. On my way back to my banda I see a family of L’Hoest’s monkeys, one carrying a tiny baby.

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Torrential downpours seem to come out of nowhere in the jungle and the avalanche of rain, combined with my sheer exhaustion from the sun, knocks me out before dinner and I sleep all night. Did I ever mention it takes me a long time to adjust to being in a new time zone? I wake up when daylight starts peeking into my banda and discover something has eaten a papaya on my front porch in the night. Apparently I missed the monkey visitors I wished for.

After breakfast I hike my way out to the lodge’s famous treehouse overlooking the elephant wallow. Normally you can book the treehouse as your accommodation, and I would have, but it was closed for renovation during my visit. I climb up the steps for a great view of the jungle, though. No elephants here at the moment, but I hear one trumpet in the woods and there is fresh evidence of a recent visit. I can hear chimps hooting and grunting to each other in the woods nearby, too. I sit for at least an hour, in the middle of the jungle, just taking it all in.

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Random Impressions of Uganda

I won’t say “first impressions,” because let’s just say this trip didn’t have the most auspicious start. But once the motion sickness and what-time-zone-am-I-in wonkiness subsided, I realized Uganda is a fascinating place.

View of the Nile from atop Murchison Falls, Uganda
View of the Nile from atop Murchison Falls, Uganda

First, traveling in Uganda will make a tea drinker out of anyone. Maybe it’s just a throwback to British rule, but it’s hard to believe that in one of the biggest coffee growing countries in the world, all you can get is powdered instant blech. Everyone drinks tea, and it’s no wonder.

Birds have breakfast with you in the open-air, thatched-roof restaurants. And I’m sure I heard monkeys on my banda roof last night, along with a warthog rooting around outside.

Company for breakfast
Company for breakfast

Showering is an experience. No lights, cold water, thatched roof, millipedes on the floor. This is why every travel guide since the beginning of time has told you to pack flip flops for the shower, people.

Open air restaurants are vulnerable to random warthog attacks. No one at breakfast bats an eye when a family of warthogs storms the restaurant and knocks over all the trash cans, and half the chairs.

Solar chargers are crap. If I can’t charge my phone with this thing in AFRICA, I’m not going to be able to charge it anywhere.

At some point I realized I was sitting, by myself, in a thatched-roof hut in Africa, looking out on the river Nile, surrounded by babboons and warthogs. Oh my God, I’m actually here.

Hey, that's the Nile over there!
Hey, that’s the Nile over there!

The sun. Oh, dear God, the sun. You never forget you’re on the equator. As soon as you step outside you feel your skin start to tingle and burn. Even with long sleeves. Even slathered in the highest SPF sunblock you brought from home.

Many things here can kill you. Sailing down the Nile, I pass a thousand hippos- including one feisty one who rears up, opens her mouth wide, lets out and angry grunt, and launches herself into the air in the direction of my boat. You would never believe these fat, cartoonish looking animals could move so fast on such short notice if you hadn’t seen it yourself. She lands a few feet shy of the boat, but hard enough to send us rocking alarmingly fast from side to side. The woman in front of me loses her purse and water comes in over both sides. An elderly man near the front loses his grip and goes tumbling out of his seat, but doesn’t seem badly hurt. Luckily for us Mama Hippo seems satisfied with the point she’s made and contents herself with floating in the water and watching us sail away as we right ourselves.

Approximately three seconds before she tried to murder me.
Approximately three seconds before she tried to murder me.

THE LIST

The most common response I’ve received to my travel photos and stories over the years has always been, “You should be a travel writer!” The second most common, however, has always been a request to see what exactly is on a 600+ item bucket list. I’ve never published it before, and I don’t plan to publish it in its entirety now (there are a few things on it that aren’t travel related and I would prefer to keep them private for the time being) but I will list the ones that I have checked off, along with the relevant blog posts where applicable, and I’ll update it as we go along. Fair enough?

  1.  ???
  2.  ???
  3.  ???
  4.  ???
  5.  ???
  6.  ???
  7.  Take a Train Ride across Canada (completed June/July 2016)
  8.  ???
  9.  Visit the Scottish Highlands (completed November 2015)
  10.  ???
  11.  ???
  12.  ???
  13.  ???
  14.  Take an African photo safari (completed May 2010, Uganda)
  15.  Swim with dolphins (completed January 26, 2016 in Cozumel, Mexico)
  16.  ???
  17.  ???
  18.  ???
  19.  ???
  20.  ???
  21.  ???
  22.  Ride in a hot air balloon (completed March 2009, Bagan, Burma)
  23.  Take a cruise (completed several times over!)
  24.  ???
  25.  ???
  26.  Spend the summer living in a beach house (the summer turned into almost five years, and I still miss that house!)
  27.  ???
  28.  ???
  29.  ???
  30.  ???
  31.  ???
  32.  ???
  33.  ???
  34.  ???
  35.  ???
  36.  ???
  37.  ???
  38.  ???
  39.  Watch the launch of the Space Shuttle (I had VIP access to the launch of  Discovery on April 5, 2010, the last night launch. I may have cried. A lot.)
  40. Be an extra in a film.
  41.  ???
  42.  ???
  43.  ???
  44.  ???
  45.  ???
  46.  ???
  47.  Send a message in a bottle (and I got caught in a riptide and nearly died doing it. Someone in Fiji better find that damn bottle is all I’m saying.)
  48.  ???
  49.  ???
  50.  ???
  51.  ???
  52.  ???
  53.  Shower in a waterfall (May 30, 2011 in Cloudland Canyon, Georgia. So. Freaking. Cold. But my committment to the bucket list is unwavering!)
  54.  ???
  55.  ???
  56.  ???
  57.  ???
  58.  ???
  59.  ???
  60.  Visit the World Trade Center memorial. (October 4, 2015- Don’t look for a blog post about this any time soon. I was so overwhelmed I had to leave almost immediately.)
  61.  ???
  62.  ???
  63.  ???
  64.  ???
  65.  ???
  66.  ???
  67.  ???
  68.  Get a tattoo (Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check…)
  69.  ???
  70.  ???
  71.  ???
  72.  ???
  73.  ???
  74.  See a musical on Broadway.
  75.  ???
  76.  ???
  77.  ???
  78.  ???
  79.  Climb Mayan ruins.
  80.  ???
  81.  ???
  82.  ???
  83.  ???
  84.  Learn to ride a horse.
  85.  Live in a beach house (Damn, even early on there were duplicates on the list!)
  86.  ???
  87.  ???
  88.  ???
  89.  ???
  90.  ???
  91.  Sail down the Nile (May 2010, and I nearly died. Good times.)
  92.  ???
  93.  ???
  94.  ???
  95.  ???
  96.  ???
  97.  Visit Stonehenge
  98.  ???
  99.  ???
  100.  ???
  101.  Get a college degree
  102.  ???
  103.  Go to Disney World (see what a sheltered child I was? I was in my 20s before I could check this one off!)
  104.  ???
  105.  ???
  106.  ???
  107.  ???
  108.  ???
  109.  ???
  110.  ???
  111.  ???
  112.  ???
  113.  ???
  114.  Ride a cable car in San Francisco (October 18, 2009)
  115.  Visit Alcatraz (October 18, 2009- take the night tour!)
  116.  ???
  117.  ???
  118.  ???
  119.  ???
  120.  ???
  121.  ???
  122.  ???
  123.  ???
  124.  ???
  125.  Eat alligator (spoiler alert: it’s gross)
  126.  ???
  127.  ???
  128.  Explore a tropical rain forest (May 2010 Kibale Forest and Bwindi, Uganda)
  129.  ???
  130.  ???
  131.  Spend the night at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast
  132.  ???
  133.  ???
  134.  ???
  135.  ???
  136.  ???
  137.  ???
  138.  ???
  139.  ???
  140.  ???
  141.  ???
  142.  ???
  143.  ???
  144.  ???
  145.  ???
  146.  ???
  147.  ???
  148.  ???
  149.  ???
  150.  ???
  151.  ???
  152.  Watch silverback gorillas in the wild (May 2010 Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda- my #1, all time, most amazing travel experience ever)
  153.  ???
  154.  ???
  155.  ???
  156.  Visit Mt. Rushmore (September 2016)
  157.  Visit the Crazy Horse Monument (September 2016)
  158.  ???
  159.  Visit ancient Greek & Roman ruins ( March 2012, London; February & September 2013, Athens)
  160.  ???
  161.  ???
  162.  ???
  163.  ???
  164.  ???
  165.  ???
  166.  ???
  167.  Watch bald eagles in the wild
  168.  Eat cheesecake at Junior’s in Brooklyn (October 5, 2015)
  169.  ???
  170.  ???
  171.  ???
  172.  ???
  173.  ???
  174.  ???
  175.  ???
  176.  ???
  177.  Touch a whale (April 18, 2009)
  178.  ???
  179.  ???
  180.  ???
  181.  ???
  182.  ???
  183.  ???
  184.  ???
  185.  ???
  186.  ???
  187.  ???
  188.  ???
  189.  ???
  190.  ???
  191.  ???
  192.  ???
  193.  ???
  194.  ???
  195.  ???
  196.  ???
  197.  ???
  198.  ???
  199.  ???
  200.  ???
  201.  ???
  202.  ???
  203.  ???
  204.  See a herd of bison on the American plains (September 24, 2016 Custer State Park, South Dakota. Happy birthday to me!)
  205.  See the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum
  206.  ???
  207.  Eat beignets at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans (too many times to count, but I never get tired of them!)
  208.  Hear wolves howl in the wild.
  209.  ???
  210.  ???
  211.  ???
  212.  ???
  213.  ???
  214.  ???
  215.  ???
  216.  ???
  217.  ???
  218.  ???
  219.  Visit The Hermitage, Home of Andrew Jackson (March 2017)
  220.  Walk the Enchanted Trail near Chattanooga, Tennessee
  221.  ???
  222.  ???
  223.  ???
  224.  Listen to jazz and blues in Memphis
  225.  ???
  226.  ???
  227.  ???
  228.  Buy a painting from a starving artist
  229.  ???
  230.  ???
  231.  ???
  232.  ???
  233.  ???
  234.  ???
  235.  Tour Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina
  236.  ???
  237.  ???
  238.  ???
  239.  ???
  240.  Take a carriage ride through St. Augustine
  241.  ???
  242.  ???
  243.  ???
  244.  Visit the Acropolis (February 14, 2013)
  245.  Hunt for antiques at the West London Fair
  246.  ???
  247.  ???
  248.  ???
  249.  Visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (October 22, 2010)
  250.  ???
  251.  See the ancient bronze statue of the Delphic Charioteer in Greece (February and September 2013- once wasn’t enough! This thing is breathtaking)
  252.  ???
  253.  Eat cheesesteak in Philadelphia (July 3, 2015- Jim’s Steaks on South Street. Legendary.)
  254.  ???
  255.  ???
  256.  ???
  257.  ???
  258.  Have afternoon tea at the London Ritz.
  259.  ???
  260.  ???
  261.  ???
  262.  ???
  263.  ???
  264.  ???
  265.  Tour the Okefenokee swamp by boat (January 21, 2016)
  266.  ???
  267.  Walk the entire Freedom Trail to visit the landmarks of the American Revolution (September 17, 2010)
  268.  Explore a bat cave (May 23, 2011- Carlsbad Caverns)
  269.  Buy a book in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore (October 17, 2009- “American Chinatown” by Bonnie Tsui)
  270.  Visit all 54 African countries (OK I’m still working on this one- Uganda and Rwanda down, 52 to go!)
  271.  ???
  272.  ???
  273.  ???
  274.  ???
  275.  ???
  276.  ???
  277.  ???
  278.  See the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery
  279.  Travel the Road to Mandalay (March 2009)
  280.  ???
  281.  ???
  282.  ???
  283.  ???
  284.  ???
  285.  ???
  286.  ???
  287.  ???
  288.  ???
  289.  ???
  290.  ???
  291.  ???
  292.  ???
  293.  ???
  294.  ???
  295.  ???
  296.  ???
  297.  ???
  298.  ???
  299.  ???
  300.  ???
  301.  ???
  302.  ???
  303.  ???
  304.  Drive a tank! (June 25, 2010 in Kasota, Minnesota. This got me a mention on CNN Money, and was dope as hell.)
  305.  ???
  306.  ???
  307.  ???
  308.  ???
  309.  ???
  310.  ???
  311.  ???
  312.  ???
  313.  ???
  314.  ???
  315.  ???
  316.  ???
  317.  ???
  318.  ???
  319.  ???
  320.  ???
  321.  ???
  322.  ???
  323.  ???
  324.  ???
  325.  ???
  326.  ???
  327.  ???
  328.  ???
  329.  ???
  330.  ???
  331.  See a blue iguana in the wild (Mexico, Burma, and Uganda. Who knew there were so many of them?)
  332.  ???
  333.  ???
  334.  ???
  335.  ???
  336.  ???
  337.  ???
  338.  ???
  339.  ???
  340.  ???
  341.  ???
  342.  ???
  343.  ???
  344.  ???
  345.  ???
  346.  ???
  347.  ???
  348.  ???
  349.  ???
  350.  ???
  351.  ???
  352.  Hear Big Ben chime.
  353.  ???
  354.  ???
  355.  ???
  356.  ???
  357.  ???
  358.  ???
  359.  ???
  360.  Visit Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut (September 19, 2010)
  361.  ???
  362.  ???
  363.  ???
  364.  ???
  365.  ???
  366.  ???
  367.  ???
  368.  ???
  369.  Visit the grave of Benjamin Franklin in Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia
  370.  Eat a 6″ sandwich at Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh
  371.  ???
  372.  ???
  373.  Visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.
  374.  ???
  375.  ???
  376.  Search for gems at Crater of Diamonds, Murfreesboro, Arkansas (March 2017)
  377.  ???
  378.  Visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee (March 2017)
  379.  Pizzeria Uno, Chicago (and why I get free pizza for life)
  380.  ???
  381.  ???
  382.  ???
  383.  ???
  384.  Little Bighorn Battlefield, Montana (September 23, 2016)
  385.  ???
  386.  ???
  387.  Explore Badlands National Park, South Dakota (September 25, 2016)
  388.  Mt. Rushmore & the Crazy Horse Monument (oops, another duplicate. It happens!)
  389.  ???
  390.  Buy a souvenir magnet at Wall Drug in Wall, SD (September 25, 2016)
  391.  ???
  392.  Hear a concert at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater (September 26, 2016)
  393.  Explore Carlsbad Caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico (May 23, 2011)
  394.  ???
  395.  ???
  396.  Find the best Chinese food in San Francisco’s Chinatown (October 17, 2009- City View Dim Sum was my final choice!)
  397.  ???
  398.  ???
  399.  ???
  400.  ???
  401.  Watch orcas off the coast of British Columbia (July 4, 2016- second only to seeing wild mountain gorillas in Uganda on the Highlights of My Life list!)
  402.  ???
  403.  ???
  404.  ???
  405.  ???
  406.  ???
  407.  ???
  408.  ???
  409.  ???
  410.  ???
  411.  Stand on the Equator (May 2010, Uganda)
  412.  ???
  413.  ???
  414.  Ride in a helicopter (September 18, 2010- Boston)
  415.  Visit Gettysburg (October 23, 2010)
  416.  ???
  417.  ???
  418.  ???
  419.  ???
  420.  ???
  421.  ???
  422.  ???
  423.  ???
  424.  ???
  425.  ???
  426.  ???
  427.  ???
  428.  ???
  429.  ???
  430.  ???
  431.  ???
  432.  ???
  433.  ???
  434.  ???
  435.  ???
  436.  ???
  437.  ???
  438.  ???
  439.  ???
  440.  ???
  441.  ???
  442.  ???
  443.  ???
  444.  ???
  445.  ???
  446.  ???
  447.  ???
  448.  ???
  449.  ???
  450.  ???
  451.  ???
  452.  ???
  453.  ???
  454.  ???
  455.  ???
  456.  ???
  457.  ???
  458.  ???
  459.  ???
  460.  ???
  461.  ???
  462.  ???
  463.  ???
  464.  ???
  465.  ???
  466.  ???
  467.  ???
  468.  ???
  469.  ???
  470.  ???
  471.  ???
  472.  ???
  473.  ???
  474.  ???
  475.  Explore ancient temples in Indonesia
  476.  ???
  477.  ???
  478.  ???
  479.  ???
  480.  ???
  481.  ???
  482.  ???
  483.  ???
  484.  ???
  485.  ???
  486.  ???
  487.  ???
  488.  ???
  489.  ???
  490.  ???
  491.  ???
  492.  ???
  493.  ???
  494.  ???
  495.  ???
  496.  ???
  497.  ???
  498.  ???
  499.  ???
  500.  ???
  501.  ???
  502.  ???
  503.  ???
  504.  ???
  505.  ???
  506.  ???
  507.  ???
  508.  ???
  509.  ???
  510.  ???
  511.  ???
  512.  ???
  513.  ???
  514.  ???
  515.  ???
  516.  ???
  517.  ???
  518.  ???
  519.  ???
  520.  ???
  521.  ???
  522.  ???
  523.  ???
  524.  ???
  525.  ???
  526.  ???
  527.  ???
  528.  ???
  529.  Ride the St. Kitts Scenic Railway
  530.  ???
  531.  ???
  532.  ???
  533.  ???
  534.  ???
  535.  ???
  536.  ???
  537.  ???
  538.  ???
  539.  ???
  540.  ???
  541.  ???
  542.  ???
  543.  ???
  544.  ???
  545.  ???
  546.  ???
  547.  ???
  548.  ???
  549.  ???
  550.  ???
  551.  ???
  552.  ???
  553.  ???
  554.  ???
  555.  ???
  556.  ???
  557.  ???
  558.  ???
  559.  ???
  560.  ???
  561.  ???
  562.  ???
  563.  ???
  564.  ???
  565.  ???
  566.  ???
  567.  ???
  568.  Go back to Greece (sometimes I love a country so much I put it back on the list even after I’ve been there. Sue me.)
  569.  ???
  570.  Visit the tomb of St. Luke in Thiva, Greece
  571.  ???
  572.  ???
  573.  Visit Thessaloniki
  574.  ???
  575.  ???
  576.  ???
  577.  ???
  578.  ???
  579.  ???
  580.  ???
  581.  ???
  582.  ???
  583.  Borobudur Temple Compound, Indonesia
  584.  ???
  585.  ???
  586.  ???
  587.  ???
  588.  ???
  589.  ???
  590.  ???
  591.  ???
  592.  ???
  593.  ???
  594.  ???
  595.  Explore Gilmerton Cove, a series of underground passageways beneath Edinburgh (November 13, 2015)
  596.  Take Murphy Ann to visit her ancestral homeland at Mount Vernon (March 2017)
  597.  ???
  598.  ???
  599.  Marry Eric (December 31, 2015) Oops. Live and learn!
  600.  ???
  601.  ???
  602.  ???
  603.  ???
  604.  ???
  605.  ???
  606.  ???
  607.  ???
  608.  ???
  609.  ???
  610.  ???

 

So there you have it- everything I’ve checked off my bucket list so far. Next up on the list? #542- explore ancient temples in Sri Lanka. Stay tuned!