The Monthly Bucket- March 2017

 

March Adventure Bucket Collage

Hey Adventurers! Do anything exciting this month? Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Where in the world am I? Currently traveling around the Southeast USA: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

My beloved Adventure Dog, Murphy Ann, turned 9 years old and we went on a two week road trip to celebrate. I’m not sure which one of us had more fun.

 

We had quite a few picnics in the back of the car. Can you tell she full expects me to share my french fries with her?
We had quite a few picnics in the back of the car. Can you tell she fully expects me to share my french fries with her?
I could have wandered around the grounds of the Hermitage in Nashville for days.
I could have wandered around the grounds of the Hermitage in Nashville for days.
Savannah is such a dog friendly city! We had so much fun wandering around and exploring.
Savannah is such a dog friendly city! We had so much fun wandering around and exploring.

Items checked off the bucket list this month:

  • #596 Taking Murphy Ann to her ancestral homeland at Mount Vernon- Did you know that the American Foxhound breed was created by George Washington? I’ve always wanted to take her home to see where her ancestors came from! They made the biggest fuss over her and were so sweet. 
Murphy Ann making herself at home on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
Murphy Ann making herself at home on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
  • #219 Visit the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee
  • #376 Search for gems at Crater of Diamonds, Murfreesboro, Arkansas- I’m sad to report that we didn’t find a single diamond, and the dog who spends her days gleefully digging holes in the backyard and destroying my garden couldn’t be convinced to dig a single hole in the diamond crater. We did, however, have a great time looking. One of us had a great time splashing in mud puddles, but I’m not naming names. 
Crater of Diamonds State Park, Murfreesboro, Arkansas
Crater of Diamonds State Park, Murfreesboro, Arkansas

Highlight of the month: Listening to live country music in Nashville, outside by a fire, on a gorgeous spring evening, drinking moonshine and eating Nashville hot chicken.

All the best parts of Music City.
All the best parts of Music City.

Lowlight of the month: Camping on a blueberry farm in Jacksonville, Florida. Sounds great, until the temperature drops to 40 degrees and your dainty Southern behind nearly freezes to death. Also, sleeping on the ground? I used to do that with no problem in my early 20s. Let’s not talk about how long ago that was. I’m not ashamed to say we left the campground a night early and checked into a hotel. 

Best meal: Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Gravy with hoecakes and apricot butter at the Ice Plant, St. Augustine, Florida.

I didn't even know what a hoecake was before this meal. Turns out it's basically the love child of a pancake and a biscuit, and it's amazing.
I didn’t even know what a hoecake was before this meal. Turns out it’s basically the love child of a pancake and a biscuit, and it’s amazing.

New blog posts published:  Athens is Magic (Delphi is Pretty Great, Too)

What I learned: The best way to make your dog a good traveler is just to travel with them and let them get used to life on the road. Even if they do spend the first few days trying to climb onto your lap and nearly crashing the car. Frozen peanut butter Kongs help. Screaming, not so much.

What I read: “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. I listened to this audio book, read by the author, during my road trip and it was so engrossing, hours of driving passed by without notice. Part heartbreaking, part screamingly funny- just do yourself a favor and pick it up. 

What’s next? Leaving April 19th for Bangalore, India, followed by 3 months in Sri Lanka. It should surprise no one that I haven’t even started packing yet. 

Those are the highlights of my month- how about yours? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what exciting things you got up to in March.

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.

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.

 

 

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…

 

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!

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.

Travel Sucks and I Want to Go Home

There’s a dirty little secret in the world of exotic travel, and most people don’t want to talk about it. No one wants to detract from the glowing descriptions of fabulous adventures and sunny photos of tropical splendor, but I’m always going to tell you guys the truth. Sometimes… travel sucks and I want to go home.

 Nowhere in my travels was this more evident than at the beginning of my trip to Uganda and Rwanda in May 2010.

I work until almost midnight the night before I leave- not unusual for a funeral director. We can’t just up and leave when the work isn’t done, vacation or no vacation. I have an hour drive home in the rain and then I still have to do laundry and pack, not having had a day off in weeks before my trip. Again, not unusual for a funeral director.

I wake up still groggy on departure day, but also excited. I’m on vacation! I’m going to Africa. I’m going to see GORILLAS! 

My first flight from Orlando to Detroit is delayed. I have tight connection times in Detroit and Amsterdam to begin with, so this doesn’t bode well. I make it to Detroit with literal minutes to spare and run like a crazy woman to my gate. I’m the last one to board before they close the doors. I get sick on the plane. I’m already over this trip.

The flight into Amsterdam was also late and I have to run again. Damn it, I’m wearing flip flops. I get sick on the plane again and spend an hour crying into my scratchy little airplane pillow.

I land in Entebbe, Uganda a few minutes before midnight, a day after I left home. My luggage does not. When I arrive at baggage claim there is a large handwritten sign with the names of 10 or so passengers whose belongings didn’t make the journey with them- mine included. After waiting a small eternity at the lost luggage counter and filling out forms, I’m told my bag will be delivered to my hotel by 10 a.m. tomorrow. After the last 36 hours, I’m not holding my breath.

Wifi isn’t working at the hotel so I have no way to get a message home that I’ve arrived. I feel slightly better after a hot shower, but freak out at the sight of a huge insect crawling on the mosquito netting over my bed. I’m utterly exhausted but wake up every few minutes, groggy and disoriented. I already want to go home. I finally doze off for a few hours, wake up at 9 a.m., still feeling sick. I try to eat something but there are ants crawling all over the outdoor breakfast table. My driver arrives at 9:30 and I explain about the luggage. It’s nearly 1 p.m. before my bag is delivered by an airport employee. I look at the new tag on it and see it has apparently spent the night in Nairobi without me.

My first glimpse of Africa in the daylight

My first glimpse of Africa in the daylight

The highlight of the day- I finally reach Kampala and pick up my gorilla tracking permit! This is actually happening.

Downtown Kampala is hectic, dirty, hot, and overcrowded. The traffic is terrifying. My hotel is not exactly the gleaming oasis that the travel guide has made it out to be, but there’s (mostly) hot water and (mostly working) wifi. I take a shower and collapse into bed without eating. That seems like a terrible idea when I wake up ravenous at 10 p.m., just as the hotel restaurant is closing. By the time breakfast is served at 7 a.m., I’m shaking.

Downtown Kampala: utter chaos

Downtown Kampala: utter chaos

You may be wondering at this point if I’m just going to throw in the towel and go home. If I did, could you blame me? This is not shaping up to be a peaceful and relaxing holiday.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking I’m a spoiled brat, whining about a trip some people only dream about taking. Maybe I am. But travel can be difficult and disheartening and I think it’s important to tell the whole story. If you’ve ever found yourself feeling guilty for not having a fantastic time on what’s supposed to be a dream vacation, know you’re not alone. It’s OK to admit when you’re not having a fantastic time.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it does get better. Once I adapt to the time change and get over the motion sickness and adjust to the African way of life, I have a (mostly) fantastic time. Including the most magical experience of my life with a wild mountain gorilla, that still ranks as the highlight of my life to this day. Stay tuned.

The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Boma hotel in Entebbe
The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Boma hotel in Entebbe