Tag Archives: Travel

Sunday Journey at Home

I love being at home on a sunny Sunday. I guess I’m getting comfortable. No need to travel all the time any more.  There are still many beautiful places I haven’t seen on earth, so sometimes is good. But need a bit of a break from non-stop flying. So this morning I took a quiet journey around the house. No security checks, no running to catch a connection, no sugary snacks on the plane – and no money needed. I started in South Africa.

They really know how to make African art. These birds almost made me miss my flight once. I saw them in the corner of my eye when I passed a little shop at the airport. They didn’t leave me alone so I had to go back for them. And then run for my plane. Just made it and have never regretted my sprinting record.

From South Africa I took to the west and landed in Ghana. No hurry. I could take my time to admire these huge masks that reach almost from the floor to the ceiling, protecting my office. I can only speak the truth when at my laptop, because they are always watching…

From there I took a journey across Africa, to Kenya on the east coast.  It didn’t take too long, no plane changes required. That’s where I found Amos, my Masai warrior and constant companion. He’s a world traveller by now, has been following me on three continents already, often travelling in the cabin with me. He told me he needs a “bath”, it’s been hot and dusty on the plains lately. So that’s what we will do this afternoon.

From there my journey went north, to Egypt. I am completely fascinated by their history. I have spent hours and hours in the Cairo museum talking to Tut and other pharaohs.  Tut’s belongings are just amazing. The little gloves he wore have always captivated me more than his elaborate jewelery.

And of course I got my first real (huge, or so it felt) sand grain in the eye in a sand storm at the pyramids. It became quite a nuisance. I got high fever and needed to see a doctor, but that did not prevent me from returning many more times. Today’s journey on the memory lane was very safe and not at all adventurous. Not a single sand storm, no belly dancers on the Nile, only some dust appeared in the air.

By now I was tired, you guessed it, of dusting. I decided not to continue my journey to other continents, but instead to return where I had started, to South Africa. Or our living room, to see the elephants calmly walking around my wall. Enough excitement for one morning. Time to give Amos his bath.

Chasing Queen Elizabeth’s Elephants

Many years ago when we lived in Uganda, we used to go on safaris or other adventures in the nature at least once month. Several of these Friday afternoon drives from Kampala brought us to Queen Elizabeth National Park (please also see my earlier post Elephants and Decisions). This park is located in the Albertine Rift and is the home of a rich variety of wildlife: mammals, reptiles and birds. Among its top attractions is the tree climbing lion, which we spotted once but did not manage to capture on film. It is also marked by several large craters and crater lakes formed after volcanic explosions. It is a wonderful place to visit if you want to be a guest in the wild kingdom. At the Equator in Uganda (2)   This particular Friday afternoon we were traveling with another family in two 4-wheel drive SUVs. On our way to the national park, we stopped at the equator for some pictures and arrived at the main gate just in time before it closed at dusk. Our first encounter with the wild on this trip came while driving from the park’s main gate to Mweya Lodge, where we always stayed. About half a mile before the lodge, we saw a huge lion walking on the gravel road right in front of my truck! She was walking calmly, in no particular hurry to get anywhere. She just walked and walked – and we remained at a respectable distance, until she decided to take a “side street” into the high grass. lion queen elizabeth_tonemapped Early morning the next day we decided to go for a drive we had not done before. We looked at the map and saw that a small trail, marked only by a dotted line, led to a dry crater where we might find elephants. We set off driving and soon found the hardly visible trail leading to the crater. But we had no idea about the adventure waiting for us. The trail went up and up on the side of the crater wall…and then suddenly there was no trail! Just smaller stones mixed with big boulders…how would we drive there and how would we come back down? We couldn’t turn as we were in between big rocks and going forward was clearly a hazard. We quickly realized that we could get stuck right there. With no one knowing where we were and (of course) we had no cell phones at that time. Crater in QE ed_tonemapped So we navigated on up the crater’s side by the help of our spouses who stepped out of the trucks and showed us, truly inch by inch, how and where to drive. We stopped briefly at the top take a few pictures, with no elephants visible in the carter. Needless to say that we were no longer chasing Queen Elizabeth’s elephants.  That would be for the next day. The whole effort was entirely focused on getting us out of there and safely back to the lodge. After a “drive” of about four hours, at less than walking speed, and moving carefully between the boulders, we came down  and found a small trail to follow. Lots of gratitude right there! Our reward came when we approached the lodge. We spotted a young elephant, probably a teen male who had already left his mother’s herd. He was calmly eating from bushes just a stone throw from the lodge entrance and didn’t mind us observing him for quite a while. The next morning when we woke up, we noticed that we’ve had an overnight visitor. All the rubber lining around the windows of our friends’ Nissan Patrol was missing. Eaten up. The lodge staff told us it must have been the young elephant who had been staying close to the lodge for some time. They also told us that the trail we had followed to the carter was not meant for driving…that’s why it was marked on the map by a dotted line. Always something new to learn. On Sunday, we went on a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel and saw many more interesting sights from rare birds to hippos, water buffaloes, birds and crocodiles. The channel is an amazing sanctuary for so many spices of wildlife. I hope you can visit this park some day. If that’s not possible, there are wonderful pictures from the park, including of the tree climbing lion, at the web-site of a National Geographics photographer, Joel Sartore (www.joelsartore.com). In any case, it has been wonderful to relive the memorable adventure we once had. If there is any tiny lesson I learned from this trip, it would be that we need to ensure things are what they seem to be. Because that’s not always the case.

Where On Earth Is the Paradise?

Paradise is a very old word and we can trace it far back in time in many different languages, such as Old Iranian, Greek and Latin. It is originally a religious term generally believed to denote a higher place of peace, contentment and happiness, with more specific attributes attached to it in practically all religions, yours and mine. I will not attempt to describe where the spiritual paradise might be, but rather ponder the fact that many of us at times may feel we have been in paradise right here on earth.

At least once a week I hear people exclaim “this is paradise!” about the area where we currently live. They are mostly visitors who love the tropical beauty and the general warmth of our area. And sometimes we as residents also show our appreciation that way – in moments when we don’t take the clear blue waters, the swaying palms, many flowers and birds for granted. But of course it really isn’t a paradise, it’s not unspoilt and it’s not free of life’s miseries. But it’s close.

I have seen many beautiful places that I’ve thought could be described as “a paradise on earth”, at least that’s what I’ve felt right there and then. One of the first times I remember thinking that I truly was in paradise was many years ago on a very tiny island, Ile aux Cerfs, on the east coast of Mauritius. It was pure nature at its most beautiful. Absolutely sparkling clear turquoise water, white sands sprinkled with palms bending over the ocean greeting us when we approached it on a catamaran. That was a day in paradise!

Another island that gave me the same peaceful awe was the small island of La Digue in the Seychelles. It is only reachable by first island hopping in a small plane and then by boat. The island has many wonders such as exotic birds, beautiful gardens, dense forests and famous coconuts. Not to speak about the beauty of its shores of glistening sand and the magnificent old stone formations. Again I felt like being in what the paradise could look like.

I have had similar experiences in many other very different places, like high in the multi-colored mountains in northern Uganda close to the Rwandan border where the mountain gorillas live, or on the savannah watching the huge red ball fall into a river at sunset.

And I have been wondering what the common element is between these very different places that all made me feel I was in the paradise. I believe that it is the feeling of oneness with nature. Kind of being completely part of it. If that’s the case, then the paradise can be found  anywhere we feel the oneness, on our own beach or in the neighboring forest. Anywhere we feel peace, contentment and happiness – and that’s quite marvellous.

Grandma and the Lion

Truth comes out from the children’s mouth. Right. I trust we all have our experiences that confirm this old saying. Our parents may have told us what we said when we were kids, we tell our children what they said, and so it goes. Sometimes this truth may be easy to hear and sometimes it can be a bit embarrassing, mostly for the parents.

I have been told I was a straight shooter when I was a kid. That was particularly true when I was visiting my grandma’s house. I might have figured out there was more lattitude when not at home, more freedom of speech. My grandma was a wonderful person, loved by everyone and her door was always open to visitors. The coffee pot was continually on the stove and cookies baking in the oven. Or so I remember. It seems that I was a keen observer particularly when it came to her visitors. On one occasion, an older “auntie” had been talking about other people’s looks, apparently in a critical way. You know, so and so is fat or not looking good. I listened to her ranting for a while, then went to the rocking chair where she sat, looked her in the eye, pointed to her face and said and you have a very ugly nose. I guess I wanted her to look at herself first before criticizing others. Poor grandma, lots to smooth out.

On another occasion, I’ve been told, my grandma had a tea party. I’d been sitting silently at the table when her friends had tea and pastries. Grandma was serving the second round of tea and offered the pastry tray again when one of her visitors said no thanks, they are so good, but I already had one. To which I immediately replied you are lying, you already took three. Guardian of honesty there, and apparently had learned to count to three, at the minimum. I actually remember getting a lecture from my mom about not talking that straight to strangers, to keep a few observations to myself. I’m not the right person to tell whether or not that taught me a lesson, I might not be completely objective.

However, when I hear this old saying, I tend to think of our first safari in Zambia (See Lions out of Focus). We were on a nice morning drive in Mwufe National Park. I sat in the back of the large “safari jeep” on the highest, 3rd row with my friend and our son, who was about three at the time. A nice British couple sat in front of us. My husband was video filming as usual and sat in the front, next to the driver. We saw large herds of antelopes and water buffaloes, and a small family of giraffes. Very beautiful.

Then we drove quite a while without finding any animals. Our son had his new miniature car with him and started playing with it on the seat while we were trying to spot something in the wild. And soon we did. A little bit to the right of our vehicle, close to some shrubbery, we saw a lioness with three cubs! How wonderful and rare was that? We were careful not to disturb them, so we didn’t go too close. They were clearly visible to us, the mom lying on the ground and the cubs climbing on her, falling down and climbing up again. Fascinated and completely silent we watched them play…until we heard an ear-piercing scream: mommy, look a lion! My son had lifted his head from his toy as he realized we had stopped…and had spotted the lion. He didn’t want me to miss it! And poof, there were no more lions. The lioness hid her cubs and herself in a second. Luckily our fellow passengers were of the forgiving kind. Later on during that same drive we were happy to spot another lion, and we all got our memories on film. Like pouring balm into the wound…there she was.

Now I’m just waiting to hear what memorable truths my granddaughter might tell me in a year or so. I can only hope she likes my nose.

Déjà vu…

It’s estimated that about two-thirds of us will experience déjà vu at some point in our lives. It literally means already seen. We catch ourselves “remembering” something we actually haven’t seen or experienced before. We have the feeling of being familiar with a scene or a situation. There seem to be many types of these experiences and as many explanations – ranging from memory malfunctions and neurological aberrations in the brain to the more mystical ones. Whatever it actually is, one thing is certain: these are fairly common experiences among us earthlings. As far as I know, I’ve only experienced it once. But it was a strong experience, or rather a string of experiences in the cause of two days. They were quite interesting (to me, that is). And I can still recall them now, over twenty years later.

It was early in the morning, the sun was just rising over the small, sparsely wooded natural garden in front of our little lodge in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. I got up, made some coffee and then opened the door to sit and enjoy my coffee sitting at the doorsteps. The cool, moist air was filled with a faint, barely discernible scent of smoke from wood fire. And I felt I was at home! Everything seemed familiar, the garden, the surroundings, the scent in the air. But it couldn’t be further from the reality as we had just arrived there late the previous night from Europe through Harare – for the first time. It was a very pleasant experience, nothing dramatic about it, I just sat there sipping my coffee and thoroughly enjoyed the calm familiarity of it all. Until I had to leave for my meetings – I was there for work.

Later that same afternoon, after coming back from my meetings, we walked over to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins that were close by. Wanted to see the ancient stone city, the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, believed to have been built between the 11th and the 14th century. The ruins of this ancient city that could have accommodated as many as 18,000 people at the time, were (and still are) very impressive. Zillions of stones built into outer walls, towers and inside structures, without the help of mortar.  Walking inside, I was overcome with the same strong sense of familiarity. I was fascinated! I walked and walked among the ruins, examined the construction and the arrangement of the structures. I was not feeling like I usually did (and still do) at historic sites – curious to learn about the times gone by. What I felt now was a remarkable awareness of how this city had been. Knowing that the weekend was coming and we’d fly to Victoria Falls in the morning, I found it difficult to leave. I ended up staying long after my family had returned to the lodge, until the site was closing at sunset.

Over the weekend I was “off” and we spent the two days at the majestic falls, world’s largest water falls and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. After settling into our rooms at the historic hotel, we spent the afternoon walking the small paths in the forest opposite the falls. The thunder was deafening and the water vapor made us soaking wet. But it was an absolutely wonderful experience.

In the evening, there was an offering of after-dinner entertainment at a small arena in the woods behind the hotel gardens. A group of dancers in traditional masks and outfits performed old, customary dances describing life’s various stages. As soon as they started to perform, the sense of knowing and deep familiarity appeared again. I had seen traditional dances, costumes and masks on many occasions in other African countries before, and since, without ever experiencing this particular sense of déjà vu. Again it was a very  peaceful and enjoyable feeling. It didn’t leave me for a long time, and I can still recall it vividly.

And that’s been it. Ever since, I have not met my déjà vu again. How I could experience the extreme and warm familiarity in these for me, then, completely new environments is still a small mystery for me. Wherever they came from, these events now form a part of my real memories, on the more affable end of the spectrum. If anything, these little encounters with déjà vu have deepened my affinity to Africa.

You Can’t Top This!

That’s how the screaming red headline announced in a magazine I was flipping through the other day while my niece, visiting from Stockholm, was cooking dinner. It was an ad, of course. While I didn’t rush to buy anything, I found the claim quite interesting. Minutes later we had dinner, my niece served us fillet and chanterelle pasta with salad and a bottle of exquisite – not expensive – Cabernet Sauvignon. My taste buds truly enjoyed the meal (if you’d like, I’m happy to share the recipe she gave me) and I found myself thinking “you can’t top this”! Meaning all of the experience: the great food (that someone else than me had prepared, for a change), the smooth wine, the wonderful company of my family, the beautiful evening – all of it.

I have noticed I make this claim more often now than I used to, find myself appreciating the little good things in life that sometimes just come together in the right way. That’s not to say there haven’t been any really special moments when this declaration would have required bold red letters, like in the ad. In fact, there have been a fair number of those occasions – balanced by others, like hills and valleys. One of them has remained a bit mysterious to me until to date, nothing over-the-top, just different from the rest. It was in July exactly ten years ago.

My family had already left for vacation in Europe, to see everybody “back home”. I had bought apex tickets on BA for all of us a while back, but we were on different schedules. I had to remain working for one more week before I could join them. I was busy at work, in the “can’t leave, things will collapse” way, which you might be familiar with. I felt completely exhausted when I finally left my downtown office late in the evening my last full day of work.  I remember that the weather in the nation’s capital was hot and humid, very sticky. Took the metro, as usual, walked home across the park and literally collapsed at my kitchen table. Next day in the afternoon I would go to the airport straight from the office, so now I had to pack and prepare the house to be able to leave it on its own for two weeks.

Somehow I managed to get everything done (we usually do). I climbed upstairs to my bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning – ah, almost four hours to dedicate to rest. But sleep didn’t come. I was too tired to fall asleep! My mind was wired up and I started worrying about the trip.  Sitting in a middle seat in row 30-something over the Atlantic didn’t promise the much-needed rest even the following night. I would be a jet-lagged “basket case” when arriving the next day. But then I started to object to that scenario. After all the hard work, I deserved better! The problem was I hadn’t thought of it when I bought the tickets. My ticket was the cheapest available apex and I had no money or miles for a last minute upgrade. My BA card was a basic blue with no-privileges and no miles on it. But still! My mind started wandering and soon I “saw” myself sitting in the newly upgraded Club World flat-bed seat, sipping a glass of bubbly. That was the way to start my vacation and I deserved it! I could feel the soft seat leaning back and the fruity taste of my champagne. I would be able to relax after  dinner and get some sleep! That felt extremely good…and I finally slept.

I forgot all about this until I arrived at the airport late afternoon the next day. At check-in, I got my boarding pass – seat 30-something E. That’s when I remembered my “positive thinking” from the night before. Strange enough, holding the document with my middle seat in the back of the plane,  I still felt I’d be sitting in Business. This feeling didn’t leave me until I was lining up for boarding with all my fellow economy passengers. Oh well, the line moved swiftly and I was only three people away from the gate agent when I suddenly heard my name being called. Was it my name? The pronunciation was a bit off (difficult name, was used to it), but since no one else moved it had to be my name. I left the line and went to the podium as requested. The agent asked for my boarding pass, her hand already reaching for it when I came upfront. I handed it to her, she looked at something in her terminal and then handed it back, no explanation. Walking back to the line, I took a better look at the boarding pass. It was for an aisle seat in Club World, row 10 – a flat-bed seat! Needless to say I was amazed, but gratefully adjusted to the comfort of my new seat. You can’t top this, I thought. But I was wrong. The same thing repeated on the way back home. Not only was my apex ticket upgraded again, but also my then teen-age son’s who was traveling with me. No explanation – two happy passengers.

I still don’t know how this all happened. In any case, this experience gave me some additional food for thought on positive thinking. To me it’s no longer the same as wishful thinking, there is something more to it. Whatever it is, stay positive.

Lions out of Focus

Focus is the central point of attention or activity. Of course there are other meanings for specific areas such as optics, geometry and geology. But in a general sence, we may agree that it’s important to focus on whatever you want to get done. My tiny lesson is on the how we focus on something we want to accomplish.

I learned this lesson many years ago in the early evening hours of a beautiful day in Zambia (there are many lessons I learned in that country, will come back to some of those in future posts). We had embarked on our first safari ever. Not driving ourselves like we used to do later, but actually buying a “package”. That meant flying from Lusaka to Chipata, a small town in eastern Zambia close to the Malawi border, in a small plane with huge windows reaching almost to the floor. And then taking a four-seater to the smallest grassy air strip you can imagine (seen “Out of Africa”, that kind) in Mwufe National Park.

We had arrived at the lodge and gotten settled in our room by five in the afternoon. Having two hours to spear before the camp dinner, we opted for a “sunset drive” in the park. Maybe we would spot some animals, with a bit of good luck even one of the “big five” on our first ever safari night? So we settled in a typical “safari jeep”, you know one that’s completely open and has a couple of seat rows behind the driver, each set a bit higher up than the one in front of it. My husband sat in the front passenger seat on the left with his RCA camcorder (they were huge then!) ready to capture the sights and any wild animals we might encounter. I sat in the next row with our son, who was about three at the time. Our guide drove us around in the park and we saw many different types of antelopes, zebras and water buffaloes. It was very exciting!

About an hour into the drive, our guide told us that before we’d return to the lodge for dinner, he would drive us down to the river to see the sunset. It was spectacular, he said, and there was a good chance we would spot animals who came there to drink in the early evening hours.   A few minutes later we approached the river banks. Already from afar, we could see a huge herd of elephants crossing the river.  My husband rigged his camcorder. Can you picture the long line of elephants against the orange-red sky, moving rhythmically in the shallow water?  The sight was almost magical. They were of all sizes: large adults, youngsters, teens and babies. The babies were hanging onto their mothers while trying to hold their heads over the water. They were adorable. My husband was filming them against the gorgeous sunset. We stopped on the high river bank and the driver left the engine running (we were in the wild).

Just at that moment we spotted 22 (I counted) lionesses! They were laying on the driver’s side of the vehicle, basking themselves in the last rays of the setting sun and strategizing, I imagined, about the upcoming hunt. They were close and very calm.  We watched them breathlessly from the relative safety of our vehicle (and the driver of course had a rifle, just in case). Suddenly my hubby moved. He stepped down onto the ground from the open jeep – to get a better shot of the sunset over the river! He was so focused on filming the herd crossing the river and the huge red ball going down that he had not seen what we saw, the lions. He had also not heard the driver’s whisper warning us about the lions (quiet, don’t move!). His focus was solely on what he wanted to capture. In an instant, he was the easy catch, a free meal, so to speak. I was about to scream, but the driver was faster. In a fraction of a second, or so it felt, and without a word he grabbed my husband’s shoulder and pulled him back into the vehicle. Then he backed out of there, slowly and calmly.

That was a close call. My tiny (my hubby’s big) lesson was on the how we focus on something. It actually matters. We should focus on what needs to get done, but not so narrowly that we lose sight of what is going on around us. Things can change fast.