Africa Unplugged

Turns out there is no internet, no phone connection deep inside the savannah of Zambia… We did not even have TV and, several times, no electricity for a day. It was kind of nice but also meant no contact with the rest of the world. So here is, finally, a new update.

 We flew from Lusaka to Mfuwe. We knew we would get picked up and taken to the safari lodge called Lion Camp, located inside the boundaries of South Luanga National Park. But, really, we had no idea what to expect. 
Outside the tiny terminal, a safari vehicle was waiting for us. A large jeep, extended with 3 benches that are higher than the driver’s seat. It was the standard 38º C or more. Our bags were loaded and we climbed onboard for the wind blown trip down the dusty red road. It turned out to be a 2 1/2 hour drive from the airport to the lodge. After 15 minutes or so we drove through the village of Mfuwe (Muh-FOO-way): clusters of straw huts and crooked wooden stalls. The poorest of poor people sitting in the shade of a few straggly trees – some selling tomatoes. Barefooted children waving at us. We noticed campfires for cooking, some brick ovens for baking. A rusty dangling sign announced a ‘beauty parlor’ or the Good Tidings Fish Store’.
When we reach the entrance gate to South Luangwa National Park, we cross the long cement bridge over the Luangwa River. Almost immediately the drive from the airport turns into a game drive.
Elephants lumbered on the sandy banks of the almost dried up river; a huge group of hippos is almost submerged in the river to escape the midday sun so they don’t get sunburned.
To our amazement we spot a pride of eight lions sleeping under a tree. Giraffes stride through the bushes. Buffaloes with their large black judge’s wigs on their heads track to the river.
When we finally reach the lodge, it turns out to be a gorgeous large building that blends into the environment with a straw roof and mud coloured walls. One hostess greets us with wet towels, the other serves us a cold drink. What a welcome in this 4 star resort.

Radiating out from the main lodge, are raised wooden walkways that lead to a small number of cottages. They are raised to separate us from the lions… Our chalet is the far one, the honeymoon suite. Never will I forget the moment that we opened the door. We looked across the kingsize bed, covered in a white mosquito net, and out of the two large screened walls. A wooden porch surrounded our room but the view was of the river bank: absolutely teeming with animals: a large herd of zebras, snorting hippos, a few giraffes and, to top it off, a small herd of elephants lumbered by – right outside our windows. It truly was a jaw dropping view. 

We had ten minutes to wash hands, put on more sunscreen, have a cup of tea and we were off again. This time on our first official safari drive. Our guide was Hendrix, a very nice and knowledgable wildlife guide. To our amazement our safari drives have been almost always for just the two of us. I had imagined, before we came here, that we would be with a car load of other tourists. But it is just the two of us and sometimes one other person.

On the game drive, we see a large male lion devouring a piece of meat under a tree.
Coming around a bend, there suddenly is a hyena showing its teeth at us. A large herd of elephants has little ones and is lazily browsing on leaves.
The next morning we drive down the river bank, onto the white sand and find ourselves in the middle of a pride of 18 lions. Two little cubs are playing in the sun. Father Lion looks identical to the lion king, surveying his pride and his kingdom.
Zebras abound. Hippos crowd the river so that it looks like you can walk across their backs to the other side. I have never seen such huge crocodiles, one staring up at me from below the river bank.
We stop for a coffee/tea break on the morning drive, and for sundowners during the afternoon/evening drives. The first night we stop at the river bank, during a brilliant red sunset where tables with beer and champagne and chicken wings await us. For once, it is kind of nice to be spoiled in a 4 star hotel. In fact, the amount of wildlife we see in the first two days makes me realize that, if you are on a budget, it might be more economical to spend 2 days in a top notch resort with the best possible guide, then to spend 5 days in a cheaper place. We saw everything we could have wished for in those first two days.
Dining is at 8 PM by candlelight.
Zebras
We spend the next few days in a cheaper lodge but still with elephants roaming outside our door and hippos snorting into the fading evening light.

During the next few days we see a leopard: the first one has just killed an impala and hauled it into a tree. Then we spot one with two cubs. The fields are dotted with bush bucks, impala, waterbucks, kudu’s and more. I love the wart hogs who run with their tails straight up like a little flag pole. In the spot light at night we see mongoose, porcupine and curvets.

The array of animals is rounded out by endangered wild dogs, a hyena in the day time, lots of zebra and giraffes, birds of all shapes and sizes. It is survival of the fittest: on the first day we saw how wildlife officers tried to save 8 buffaloes who were stuck in the mud – it didn’t work because two days later we see their carcasses covered in vultures. Even a pride of satisfied lions had their fill of buffalo meat.
Of course I (Kees) was very interested to find out what it takes to become a wildlife guide/park ranger in Zambia. On the second day I find an operations manual for wild life guides, the same type I used to write for the park rangers in Kananaskis Provincial Park many years ago. It surprised me the amount of detail they had to learn about wildlife, laws, resource management, history, constellations, and much much more. There is no school for park ganger/guide, but they start as a scout, assisting the certified guides and over the years through self study they have to memorize the entire manual of 165 pages. Then they have to sit for an oral and written exam and a practical exam in the field. That will provide them with the Guide I certificate and after a few years, of more study they can obtain the Guide II certificate which will allow them to conduct walking safaris.

The guide also has to be a car mechanic.. When we were surrounded by lions I wondered if the truck would start again. It did. But once it did not… Just before, we had stopped next to a leopard and would not have been able to get out. When the truck died, there were no animals and the two of us pushed it downhill to start!

An option to a game drive, is to take a walking safari. Walking appeals to us. But does a walking safari mean that you can run into lions? In a way, it does. But the guide takes us to an area where he feels it is unlikely to run into anything too big or dangerous. It is not a long, arduous hike but an interesting stroll through the African bush. The guide reads the ground like the pages of an open book. “Look,” he points, “ a hyena walked here. He was not in a rush because only the two middle claws show.” [It takes me a while to understand that ‘craw mecks’ means ‘claw marks’… ]
He points out where baboons dined on the fiber of elephant droppings. We see gorgeous round clay pots, broken open. They are the large balls that a dung beetle rolls through the mud. He shows us intricately woven weaver bird weaves nests that always hang on the west side of a tree. There’s even a bird called taylor bird which stitches leaves together with real stitches. We follow trails made by elephants and hippos, see a large flock of bright green love birds that look like the leaves of a tree flying off…
One afternoon, we have lunch at Track & Trail River Camp. They’ve set a little table for us and when I look up I spot an elephant. Then three more. They come within meters. From the safety of the kitchen door we watch as they stroll passed, right next to the bar.
We visit Chipembele Wildlife Centre, an impressive visitors’ centre set up and run by a British couple. They were both police officers in England, obsessed by Africa. Seventeen years ago they moved here, built a house in the bush and now educate African children on the importance of wildlife. On the side, he catches poachers. 
He tells us about one poacher who has just been released from prison. Through some local contacts, we manage to make a date with the guy and spend an afternoon chatting with him. What motivates a poacher? Money.
The (ex)poacher has nine children and no job. 70% unemployment in Zambia means no work, no income. So how does a father provide for his family? How does he put food on the table?
The easiest way is by poaching. Edwin told us he built his own guns and would spend the night in the bush, hunting impala, buffalo, kudo and more. He ate the meat but mostly sold it.
He got caught. At some point he got offered a job but screwed up and went back to poaching. He ended up in jail. Jail in Zambia is not for the faint of heart. “1,500 mean in one cell,” he says. People right next to him died of suffocation. One meal a day of a kind of uncooked porridge. It was a wonder that he survived the year. But now he swears he will never poach again. Only time will tell. We hope he will find a job. His skills as tracker are probably unparalleled. And he now seems to agree: wildlife needs to be protected. Wildlife brings tourists and tourists bring money.
We also understand the problems caused by free roaming wildlife. Herds of elephants trample and eat the crops of corn. They brake into grain storage units. Governments try to help villagers by building stronger storage units. They supply villagers with ‘chili bombs’ and help them to plant chili hedges to discourage elephants.
In Mfuwe, the village nearest the National Park, people have lots of trouble with elephants. “They come through our village at night and eat all of the mangos,” our driver tells us, “but in the next village can sleep outside without fear of being trampled.”
I think about this as I fall asleep to the music of cicadas and the loud ‘snoring’ of hippos just outside our chalet along the river. That night we have the very first rain fall of the new rainy season – the first rain in 7 or 8 months. It will soon transform the region into a lush green forest with wide rivers and newborn animals.

Lilayi Elephant Orphanage

We have spent the past few days at Lilayi Elephant Orphanage. I am here to do research for an upcoming book. I kept pinching myself… After seeing the website so many times, after watching You Tube videos of elephant feedings, we are finally here – in real life and up close. It is heartwarming to see the small elephants frolicking, splashing in the mud, playing with each other and emptying their milk bottles in 10 seconds flat. The volunteers and caretakers are all dedicated to giving the best possible care to these little orphans.

To all of my friends who made a donation for the elephant orphanage: THANK YOU! We now saw the impact any amount of money has. It enables feedings and care and better chances of survival.
Next door, on the grounds of Lilayi Lodge, which donated the land to the orphanage, we took a 2.5 KM walk and spotted warthogs, monkeys, hartebeest, waterbucks, guinea fowl, zebra and giraffe. What an amazing experience to just hike and see these animals in the wild. I am pleasantly surprised at the lack of creepy animals, so far. No scorpions or deadly snakes like in Australia…
For three days in a row we visited the Elephant Orphanage and took lots of pictures for my future book. This is one of the main reasons why we came to Africa. Today we were lucky enough to be able to join the elephants for a forest walk. The trees are turning green in anticipation of the rain, which should come soon. Isn’t it amazing that the trees turn green BEFORE the rain comes?!
I also spent a lovely few hours at a craft market, just roaming around and drooling over African fabrics, quilts, bags, wood carving and jewelry. Love it.
Check out:

Into Africa

We took a taxi to a beautiful lodge along the Zambezi River to watch the sunset. We sat in lazy chairs on a wooden patio, right at the water’s edge.

Hippos frolick in the water, blowing air and splashing at each other. And, to our delight, we spot zebras! A whole herd. One even has a baby.
And then… giraffes! Real, wild giraffes. First there’s only one. Its thick long legs look exactly like the tree trunks surrounding it. You can only spot him when he moves. Then three more giraffes appear. They lazily munch on leaves, stretch higher for more green and then spread their long legs wide to reach down to the grass.
As the sun slowly sets, and the zebras graze behind us, while the hippos snort in the Zambezi, Kees and I grin at each other: we are finally in Africa!
A few days later we have flown back to Lusaka and, just outside the city, we see more zebras and giraffes. But we also spot our first hartebeest, impalas, vervet monkeys and warthog! What a thrill to see these African animals in the wild!
Baskets and Boreholes
 Early in the morning the book bus drives us an hour out of town, off the main road and onto a bumpy dirt road. The road winds through a tiny village of straw huts. Women squat by fires, babies tied to their back. Spindly children run and play with a string and a piece of metal tied to it. At one hut I see men butchering a pig. Chickens scratch the red dust.
The road gets narrower. More huts. Each time I think we’ve reached the village where the school is, we keep going further into the bush, across dusty land.
Finally we reach a brightly painted school house with flagpole. We’ve come to read stories and do crafts with the 1st and 2nd graders. The students here have desks thanks to a grant from a NGO. The walls have been painted with multiplication tables and slogans. One poster listed combinations of letters to sound out: ‘has, had, have’ The teacher has written under it “Practise these sounds oftenly.”
I read my Emma book and every mouth drops open when my Emma chicken puppet moves her head. They giggle and touch carefully. We make paper chickens and do more songs, read books and make crafts. For some, it is the first time they use scissors. One girl tries, mouth open, for ages to cut a little strip of paper. Another boy cuts flawlessly along the black lines, ever so careful not to miss a bit.
Then a lady comes from the village to give us a tour. Her name is Janice. She is a grandmother, a volunteer teacher at the preschool and a guide for any visitor to her village. “We are grateful to your clan,” she says, explaining that all western visitors are the clan who have made this school possible. “Our children learn, and have a future now,” she says.
We walk for a long time into the bush along a narrow, dusty trail, until we reach the first straw hut. No stone or cement buildings anywhere. No cars. Just straw huts in the bush and people walking barefooted everywhere. A few children are not in school. Their parents haven’t paid what it takes to get a uniform and shoes, about 3 dollars.
Women sweep, carry babies and water, they make fires for cooking and haul water. The village is lucky. A Japanese NGO built a water pump, solar powered, that brings water to the surface and stores it in giant tanks. They come to fill a container and carry it back on their heads. I can barely lift one of the containers with my hand, let alone carry it on my head. We meet a young girl with two little siblings. She carries a 40 L container on her head and a 15 L jug in her hand. The maybe 5 year old carries a large container too and even the toddler, maybe 2 or 3, has a jug on his head. We offer some help and carry the containers part of the way. They are on the way to their grandfather’s house, they explain, to bring him water. But the toddler doesn’t want help. He wants to do it all by himself.
Janice shows us inside the yards of some huts. A woman hangs laundry, scrubs in a tub. Another makes a fire to cook maize. Chickens have wire and branch houses and laying nests. We visit the pub, where Kees bravely tastes the local brown beer, a foul looking muddy drink. The homes are either straw or mud huts. The mud huts have a frame of branches with chicken wire stretched between. The wire is filled up with rocks and then plastered with mud. The houses have the odd wooden bench but mostly people sit and sleep on the mud floor.
I have seldom, if ever, seen such poverty.
One house has a bathroom: outside in the yard are three ‘walls’ of tall grass sheafs and a piece of metal as a door. Inside a wooden bench where you can place a bowl to wash yourself.
We chat with the village head man who lounges in an old lawn chair and makes wicker baskets for a living. His daughter looks after him, cleaning and cooking and caring for house and livestock. She shows us a game: indentations in the dirt with beans that need to be picked up and moved. I show her how we play hop-scotch and marbles. We laugh and laugh.
There is one tiny village store, where a young mother sells tomatoes, okra and eggs. This store makes me think of the ones I see on KIVA where we make loans to people who struggle, just like this. See: http://www.kiva.org
Cattle take a break from grazing in the shade of some trees. Everything is dry and dusty, yet a lot of trees are suddenly sprouting new, green leaves. “These trees sense that the rains are coming,” we are told. “When you see these new leaves, you know that it will rain in a few weeks.” Just like the cicadas who start chirping 4 weeks before the rain…

We hope it really waits a few more weeks. I cannot imagine living here when the rains come. Everything will be mud. Roads and houses flood, and all roads will turn into thick sticky red mud.

But the rain also brings food. Open areas in the bush have been burned in preparation for the planting of corn. They will plant corn soon. It will provide flour, the basic staple for the coming year. But elephants are a huge threat. They will be attracted by the fresh green plants and don;t know that they destroy the people’s annual crop when they trample and munch the corn stalks. How do you solve such a problem? The elephants are protected and can’t be shot. But how do the people protect their life line? It is a baffling problem that many villages here face.

Livingstone, I presume?

Getting up early, we left the compound at 7 AM with two local young men, each of us on a bicycle. What a great way to see the city and surrounding area. These young men are part of a job training school, with the income going to the school and the students learning different trades, like being a guide.
We cycled through one part of town, then across the railroad tracks to another. Even saw a train from Lusaka chugging along, people leaning out of the glass-less windows. Trash blowing everywhere.
The two guides took us to see the local rock quarry where people work all day long, in the blazing heat, to pound rocks into gravel. Small children sit in the dirt, helping their mothers.
A mother might have a two year old strapped to her back while pounding, and more children around her, all working away. For a wheelbarrow full of gravel that might get one dollar, if anyone needs gravel that day. Young boys haul the large rocks out of the pit and throw them up on top. Heavy, terrible work. But it is work and makes an income of sorts, with which they can buy corn and other food.  We saw one boor hole in the area where people came with jugs of all sizes to collect water.
Everyone is lovely as can be, smiling and saying “Hello, how are you?”
One smiling grandmother came over to us with her screaming 2 year old and held out her hand to us, saying to the child “See, there are just like us, just people!” The kid was scared of seeing white people…

We cycled on along dirt roads lined with tiny houses and rackety shops. Crossed over a railroad bridge and went to a market. Many stalls offered fish, fresh or dried, spices, fruits and all sorts of other wares. Others offered used clothing and shoes. It is amazing to see how clean people are, often wearing white clothing. I feel dusty and grubby much of the time.
Children came running, calling “Hello!” and waving. “Mzungu!” we kept hearing, going from child to child, “White people are coming!” And the kids would run up, wide grins on their faces, waving as hard as they could. I chatted with mothers and grandmothers, everyone with beautiful smiles.
We were home just when the temperatures got too high for cycling. A cold coke never tasted so good.  

Is the Book Bus for you?

Voluntourism is huge around the world. It is so much more meaningful to spend your holidays helping others, than to just fly somewhere and lie on the beach, right? But volunteering abroad can be very expensive, even when you know that part of your costs will help others. The Zambia Book Bus’s office is based in the UK and has one person running and coordinating the bus in Livingstone. She has been here for 6 years and done an amazing job. Everyone respects her: the local people all know her, the children everywhere come running and calling “Kelly! Kelly!” The police, the store people, taxi drivers, everyone seems to know her and love her. Can you imagine living in a tent for 6 years with nothing but a few clothes and the strong determination to make life a little happier for many children, to help them realize the joy of books and wanting to learn? 
The Book Bus visits Livingstone area schools. Kelly and the volunteer team read books to the children and conduct activities based on the books. For instance, today I read two African animal tales to them and then they drew an animal and decorated it. We also made book journals so that they can keep track of the books they read.
Even though I have spent most of my life in children’s literature, and done 12 years of weekly story time in a library, it’s the little things here that blow me away. The kids have no frame of reference for books about so many concepts. Of course, books are meant to be a window on the world and will teach them new things. But how can you relate to a pet fish when you live in Africa? Why would people paint eggs? Or keep a dog inside a house? These kids have no electricity or running water. Many people live in their small home or hut and struggle for a daily living. Books about food? Can’t use them… the kids are hungry. Even Dr. Seuss’ “You have feet in your shoes…” doesn’t fly here for many children.
In order to hand out coloring sheets, following the story, we (the current 4 staff members) sit and draw (or trace) 100 pictures of butterflies. No photocopier here!
The Book Bus accommodations are primitive. When we first arrived I was quite amazed at just how primitive. We sleep in a regular tent – no wooden floor, no veranda. Just a plain tent with, some broken, zippers in the red dust. There’s a kind of gazebo with a large picnic table where we spend most of the evening. It has a light. We cook outside on another picnic table. Dishes are stored in plastic bins. There is a fridge and a kettle and a power bar to charge our batteries.
After only 3 days in Zambia, I realize that I now find this place quite luxurious. There’s a pool with cold, refreshing water. A dusty bathroom block has toilets and showers with, sometimes, warm water. After working hard all day, Kelly cooks a pot of food for all of us and we do the dishes.
If you want luxury, don’t come.
But do come if you don’t mind camping in the heat, without air conditioning, it’s an interesting place. The Book Bus is based by a house with a kind-of-campground. It is shady, sheltered and safe. It is 20 minute walk into town to the supermarket, which has most things you could wish for. And your cost to participate includes all meals. You can hand wash your clothes in a large old bathtub outside, and laundry hung on the wires is dry within two hours.
We only work mornings, leaving around 8:30 and returning by 1 or 2 PM. (called 13 or 14 hours in Zambia).
The book bus takes us to a different school each day where we read stories to and with the children, followed by activities. Their school has no paper or glue or scissors. Even adults ask shyly if they can make an elephant mask or color a picture… In some places, the book bus attracts 300 children!
On Monday we drove out of town to a village school along the main road. A large group of children, grades 2 and 3, were overjoyed to see us. “Book-a-bussie!” they call. We read stories. They all love Emma and nearly fall over when she moves… Then we color paper chickens and make butterflies. “Teacha, teacha!” they call, wanting crayons or showing their work.
When we came ‘home’ with the book bus, we turned one large sheet of hardboard into a chalkboard by painting it with blackboard paint. And two large squares of soft board were turned into brightly painted bulletin boards. Kelly has worked hard to realize new schools and classrooms. And now she helps with getting desks and turning these spaces into bright, happy classrooms. She’s helped young women to became assertive teachers and children to want to learn how to read.
If you love storytelling, reading picture books, and working with kids – do consider coming here. You can work as a volunteer for two week stretches. We saw more things than any tourist will ever see, being able to visit isolated villages where people opened their homes to us. Places you will not visit while on a regular ‘safari’. Be sure to check out the website for details: www.thebookbus.org
If you live in The Netherlands, check out Mambulu Safaris: http://www.mambulu.com  They are the Book Bus’ official rep in Holland and planned our entire Africa trip for us.

Hello Zambia!

A long flight via Dubai to Lusaka. There, a nice young man from the travel company welcomed us, took our passports and money and disappeared.
Should we be worried?
But soon he reappeared with visas and ushered us ahead of the line-up. Picked up our bags in the hall full of busy African people and white visitors with suitcases.
Then we re-checked them, changed some US dollars to Zambian kwachas and waited for our next flight. Walking over the hot tarmac, seeing red dust and corrugated tin roofs – we knew we had arrived in Africa. Finally.
When Kees and I first dated, many many years ago, he had a map of Africa on the wall and we dreamed of the places we would visit and explore. It took so long to make this dream reality.
Our next flight takes us from Lusaka to Livingstone in the south western corner of Zambia. We are basically on the border with Zimbabwe. Livingstone is a small city.
We are here to work as volunteers with The Book Bus (www.bookbus.org)  staying in a compound with a large house and a primitive swimming pool – but it’s great for cooling down on a hot day. We slept in a tent – a regular large tent. It’s all very dusty and dry. We eat at a picnic table under a stone roof and cook meals outside at the picnic table. Livingstone isn’t very big. Today we drove down the main road. It has all sorts of shops – shoe stores, banks, phone shops, supermarkets. But just a few blocks away, people live in small houses and don’t have cars. They have no money to shop here. There are markets in other parts of town. If you can’t buy a large bag of sugar, you buy a tiny bag. So the stall owners measure sugar and flour and spices in bags of all sizes.
There is 70% unemployment here so many people just walking around on the streets. The women wear long colorful skirts, often with a matching headband. On top of their heads they carry their wares: huge bins of carrots or a crate of 24 bottles of soft drinks, a 2 meter long metal tube or a mattress. It’s amazing to see the things they carry on their heads.
Babies are tied to the mothers’ backs in a colorful cotton shawl. They just lay the baby on their back, bend over, wrap the cloth around the baby and tie it at the shoulder. I’d be scared to drop the child but when they stand up – the child is securely strapped to their back.
We stopped at a traffic light and Kelly told us “This is a brand new traffic light, the first in Livingstone.” She said, “When it was first installed, they held a ceremony by building a grandstand at the intersection and dedicating the traffic light.”
“Then,” she said, “people from outside of town would come in and just sit at the intersection to watch the light change colours, because they had never seen a traffic light.”
We walked across the local market as the only white people there. You can buy used shoes or plastic buckets, dried fish, corn, tires, everything at the market. We bought glorious African cotton and a long dress for me.
The Book Bus
Volunteering with The Book Bus, a UK based charity, is an incredible experience. Its success relies heavily on the one young woman who runs it here. Kelly is multi talented and accepted and loved by many Zambians. After six years here, she even speaks the local language. She capably runs the book bus. It is a huge old Safari vehicle with seats and open sides. The back and side walls have book shelves along the lengths. Together with volunteers who come from around the world, she visits local schools and community centers to introduce reading and books to the children. As soon as they spot the bus, the children come running with huge grins on their faces. Without any shyness, they come up to us and cuddle up for a book.
The older children are learning to read, all at different stages of their lives depending on how long they have been at school. They read along to learn the words. You can tell that they are used to chanting along with a teacher. Even the older students are very, very keen on any activity. A 14 year old sat quietly coloring – an activity that Kindergartens in North America might do. Her name is Abigail Nakawala and she is in Grade 5. She just started school last year and used to stay at home helping her parents. When she started school she couldn’t even write her name. Abigail was asked what she thinks of the library. She says “It is a great place because even if you can’t read, it makes it attractive and makes you want to read. Her favourite book: is Tarzan, because “Tarzan has a good heart and he helps people”. The story helps her learn how to help people. When she finishes reading Tarzan she will get to know another book so she can learn a lot. Abigail wants to be a teacher because she wants to help others learn what she is learning at school. She doesn’t want anyone to miss what she has missed before.
A very funny story about the book: Kelly took the bus and parked it somewhere. She closed the canvas walls but when she came back, the taxi drivers all called “Kelly! There are baboons on the book bus!” Seven baboons had broken in and stolen bottles of Fanta….
When we arrive with the Book Bus, children come running from everywhere – alleys and homes – they all run and follow the book bus to the community centre, which is a small 3 room hut made of plastered walls and a corrugated tin roof. Red dust flies everywhere.
Kelly recently had a new classroom added – beautiful painted in bright blue. She even had someone pay for new desks. The children were so excited to have desks to sit in, they stayed and waited all day, refusing to go home before the desks arrived.
I read my book Emma and introduced them to my chicken puppet. Their eyes popped out when they saw Emma moving. When an African child smiles, it is like the sun breaks through – brilliant and shiny. Then we read a butterfly story, did some counting songs and made paper butterflies. You can tell that a visit from the book bus, is the highlight of the day for these children.
For more details on the Book Bus, and to find out where else it operates, see:
The First Visit Ever to Victoria Falls

Today we picked up 25 children at the community centre, in the Book Bus and took them on a field trip of their lifetime. These children live 10 KM from Victoria Falls but most have never seen it.At the city center there are cars and concrete buildings. But the further you go away from the center, the fewer cars you see and the houses make way for huts. Some places seem to hang together of poles and pieces of plastic. Garbage bags make roofs. Feed bags make walls. Everything is red dust and even this gets swept in the morning. The houses don’t have any running water. The children who live here have probably never been to the city center, a 20 minute walk away.

As the bus reached the pavement of the main road, a cheer went up. Many had never been that far from home or ever left their area. They had showed up in their Sunday best clothes and in shoes. None of the other children wore shoes so this was a special occasion. However, as Kelly told us, the choices here are to buy either used clothes from Europe (which are shipped here as donated clothes from African children, but they have to buy them), or Chinese stuff which doesn’t last long. Most kids have used things, and I don’t think I saw one pair of whole shoes. A teacher wore two different kind of flip-flops; one kid had a broken flipflop which had been fixed with wire underneath but kept breaking. Some kids walked all day on shoes that didn’t fit and came off with every step… But they were clean, and proud.
They sang loudly and grinned as they received a bottle of water and a package of biscuits.
When we reached the Fall (our non-resident entrance ticket cost more than all of the local children combined!) we walked down the path to see different parts of the falls. Not much water in it this time of year. During the rainy season the Falls are over 1.5 KM wide and thundering. Their Zambian name is much nicer than ‘Victoria’ falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya meaning thundering clouds. But even now there were impressive parts, with rainbows in the spray and green puddles at the deep, deep bottom.
The children clung to our hands, sometimes I had three kids hanging on to my arms because they were scared of the heights. They were so excited. If Kelly said “wait here,” they waited. No one ever misbehaved or strayed too far. They marveled at the Falls and loved walking across the bridge into Zimbabwe. We yelled “Goodbye Zambia, hello Zimbabwe!” as we crossed the dividing line and back. Then we ate ice cream, a rare treat for these kids.

But the highlight of the day was when we found a clear pool of river water, left behind from when the river is higher. With a sandy bottom it made a perfect splashing pool. At first they cautiously tiptoed in the cool water, splashing their hands and faces. But when Kelly said it was OK, they stripped off their shirts and dove in – many with clothes and all. These children have no running water at home and to see them enjoy this pool was pure joy. With huge wide grins on their faces, they jumped and thrashed and rolled in the water. We wrung out shirts and they flapped dry in the wind as we walked on. To see these kids frolic in the water is something I won’t easily forget: it was happiness personified.

When we arrived, the kids spotted a zebra and apparently a giraffe – I didn’t see the giraffe. But there were tons of baboons, many with babies. And, knowing they might steal things from the bus, we lashed it securely closed before we left. But even so, with one of us still on the bus, one baboon snuck in quietly behind us and took off with a bag full of biscuits… the monkey! The kids thought it was hilarious.
On the way home the children sang loudly, making people along the road laugh and wave. They sang a song something like this: “I am so happy today, because…” and then they took turns filling in the blanks: “.. because I had ice cream, because I saw Victoria Falls, because I swam in water, and… because the baboons stole the biscuits!”
They laughed so hard!
When we get back, they climb off the bus hugging close the water bottle and biscuits we gave them. Most kids didn’t eat them. Take bring them home to share with their family.

No Jet Lag? No Kidding!

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Have you ever had jet lag? A week or more of not sleeping through the night, or falling asleep during the day after a long flight?
I was very skeptical when my son gave me a package of these No-Jet-Lag pills. But they are homeopathic… so I figured if it doesn’t help, it won’t hurt.

When I flew to Israel, I took them.
No jetlag at all. But then, I do all the right things when I travel: set my watch for the time at destination, as soon as we depart so I have several hours to tell myself it will be morning, or evening, or whatever. I mentally ‘condense’ the day or that night.
I close my eyes and relax, even sleep – if I arrive in the morning and should sleep during the flight.
Or I fight sleep, by watching a movie or reading – if I arrive late in the day and should go to sleep shortly after arriving.
I don’t drink caffeine or alcohol during flying.But still…
I took the tiny little pills when I returned from Amsterdam to Canada’s west coast. No jet lag at all.
I was still skeptical. It could be coincidence.
But a friend, who had terrible jet lag last year, took them going home to England and she was fine, too.Then I had to fly to China. I arrived on Sunday afternoon, having taken the no-jet-lag pills as prescribed: one on take-off, one on landing and one ever two hours in between. I slept through the night, got up on Monday morning and was fit enough to speak to 500 children.
Same story coming home: no jetlag.
So.. by now I do believe these homeopathic pills are making a difference. That, and all the right moves when you travel.
I hope they will help you, too, on your next trip. I know I will keep using them.
Did You Pack This Bag Yourself?

I am now ‘on my way’ to join Kees on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. But first I have to do workshops at an international school in Venezuela. Left home yesterday for 2 months…
After Venezuela I will join Kees to hike the final week of the Camino. Then I’m happy to be speaking at a conference for international school librarians in Belgium, then we’ll fly to Amsterdam and from there to Zambia.
In Zambia it’s volunteer work with the book bus and at an elephant orphanage.
So… what do you pack for 2 months, in which you need to have some dressy clothes, some old clothes, mostly hot but also cold (the last week of October in the Netherlands)…. I need to carry my Camino pack for a week. AND I do not want to check luggage on any flight… So what do you do?
First of all, I found the perfect luggage. One small wheelie suitcase was already living in my basement. It’s small enough to be cabin luggage. I’m allowed a second piece so a small pack. I still have a small purse around my neck. If anyone argues that this is a third piece, I can pack it inside the large pack.
For the pack I decided on 40L as the ideal size. It needs to hold everything for a week including a sleeping bag. And it’s not as huge as the pack I’m wearing in the photo above. Carrying that on our last 2 hikes was too heavy.

So what’s inside?
Most people tend to take their best things. I take clothes I’m ready to part with. Sometimes I even buy something specific at the second hand store so that I can leave it behind when I don’t need it anymore. I packed one very thin, very light silk jacket that makes anything look dressy. One lightweight dress and a blouse I can wear as a jacket on it. 2 pairs of capri’s, both of which I can leave in Africa. A pair of long pants for the last week. A fleecy, some tank tops. A nightshirt. One pair of flip flops that will stay in Africa, one pair of sandals and one pair of sturdy hiking shoes. Not boots but shoes – much easier to pack.
A large scarf – which I’ve already used as blanket in the plane.
Books – yes, I can’t travel without books. But I selected titles I can part with as I go. A toothbrush that folds up. 2 small tubes of toothpaste. One cream that is also medicinal – for chapped lips, disinfectant, etc. All in one.
I also have a fair supply of pencils and bookmarks for kids in Africa. And a small photo album to show them my home town and grandchildren.

Leaving On a Float Plane…
Climbing into the little floatplane, that held 4 other people, I started on my amazing race to Venezuela.
Salt Spring Air is fabulous. Halfway across the water to Vancouver, the pilot spotted this incredible tall ship. He circled it low so that we could get a good look of the wooden decks, the masts, the sails.  Check it out: http://www.sailtraining.org/membervessels/vessel.php?@=222&pg=Public_Information)
The next flight took me to L.A. and from there I was on a midnight flight to Miami. Slept like a log all the way. In Miami airport I had many hours to wait but found a great little coffee shop with wifi. Then the 4th and final flight took me to Barcelona, Venezuela. It was cool to fly over the Atlantic and then the Carribean – seeing the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti/Dominican Republic. I’d never been to South American so am learning more geography as I go. For instance, I didn’t know that Costa Rica and Venezuela are basically at the same longitude rather than north/south of each other.  
It is a balmy 34ºC here and quite humid. I’m staying with a wonderful teacher/librarian who feels like an old friend (she did visit me on Salt Spring this summer!). I booked a few extra days so right now it feels like a holiday. Turns out that today and tomorrow are Virgin del Valle Festival, a religious holiday. First, her library assistant came over to cook a traditional Venezuelan breakfast. She made scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes, with arepas (Ah-ray-pass) – round bread made from corn flour and baked slowly on a special flat baking sheet. We had sliced avocados, fried plantains and freshly squeezed orange juice with it. Pretty awesome, what a welcome!
Then we spend some time in and by the pool under the palm trees (while Arnout emailed a photo of the first snow fall in northern Canada… heehee). We walked to the beach where the festival was in full swing, with lots of people, music and stalls with food. At the first stall we bought the most perfect pina coladas I’ve ever had.. Good festival.

Next we sampled warm tequeños, deep-fried breadsticks with melted, white cheese inside. Yummy. And of course we had to take home tres leches cake and torte de chocolate to eat on the balcony in the warm breeze after our bean soup and wine. I must say… I like Venezuela so far! But.. things could deteriorate once I have to go to work…

Smuggling Librarians!

Bienvenidos! Welcome in Venezuela!
I am learning many interesting things in Venezuela.
Did you know that the country is officially called ‘the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’?
The currency is the Venezuelan bolívar (popularly called “b’s” (as in ‘bees’ not b.s.) and how many you get for a dollar depend on wether or not you buy them at the black market.
People are very friendly and outgoing. I always love being at an international school and listening to teachers who have lived and worked in so many different countries. They teach children that speak 3 or 4 languages, even in First Grade. And they aways have interesting stories of all the places they have lived.

I am staying with the librarian and we get along famously. We have pina coladas every night and enjoy many of the same things. Every morning we get picked up by taxi to go to school. The school has verandas and a large green courtyard. The children are so sweet. We eat lunch in the outside cafeteria and I go home in another taxi. Her condo has a beautiful pool and since the temperatures are a balmy 34º, we use it a lot. I’m doing presentations all day for students, parents and teachers. The kids are so lovely and excited. They all want their picture taken with me 🙂

On the way through the city it feels a lot like the Philippines: half finished concrete buildings, lots of potholes in the roads, sidewalks that end abruptly. Palm trees. Stalls selling bananas or coca cola.

Food remains important. I’ve sampled many wonderful things: the warm fried cheese bread remains one of my favorites. We’ve had pastas, salads, barbecued meats.
Yesterday, to go for dinner, we got picked up in a huge SUV, some kind of heavy Ford. One teacher said to the driver “Tell her how much it costs to fill this thing up with gas!” I was thinking, ‘Hhhmm… 100, 150 dollars in the US..’ when the driver smiled and said, “Oh… about 20 cents.” I wondered what kind of joke this was. But no, seriously, gas is practically free in Venezuela. The other person said he just paid a dollar for 75 gallons…. How can this be? Well, apparently it is one of the few perks that the government provides for the people. They produce gasoline here and provide it for next to nothing. In North America we think that this is an amazing, lucky perk for the people here and that their government is wise to provide it instead of sell it overseas. Here, however, people tell me that they would be happy to pay more for gasoline if that meant that roads would be fixed and other services provide. But, they say, if more is charged for gas we’re not so sure the extra money actually goes to roads. It might end up in pockets.

I was told that, whenever people here want to protest something – high costs, or lack of products, power outages or political ideas – they gather in the streets and bang on pots and pans. Often a tweet will get more people together at a specific time and a pot-banging crowd gathers in no time.

Products can be very cheap here. Today I bought 2 cinnamons buns for breakfast, a 1.5 liter bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice and 2 pastries. Total cost was less than 4 dollars. But there is also a huge lack of some necessities.
The librarian who is hosting me asked if I could please bring a bottle of shampoo, because there is no shampoo or soap available anywhere. Some people were grading big old bars of soap with a cheese grinder to make detergent.

But the most hilarious story was that the librarian ordered my books from the States. She asked the bookseller to please pack the books in toiletpaper rolls, rather than in useless packing paper, because there is a serious shortage of toiletpaper here. The bookseller was happy to oblige.
But when customs opened a box of books, in addition to books they found toilet paper. They quickly went through all boxes and labeled the rolls as contraband. The librarian was fined for smuggling toiletpaper!

Camino de Santiago – 3

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I have been falling down on the job I guess, because my last blog was from 175 km ago: the day after I left Leon. I am now in Sarria, only 110 km to go to Santiago. I am waiting here for Margriet who is teaching in Venezuela and should be here in about 5 days or so.

Two days out of Leon I arrived in Astorga, one of the typical, cute Spanish towns in north western Spain. Since I was ahead of schedule I decided to stay an extra day there and found a little hotel on the edge of town. I explored the city and then discovered that I was extremely lucky to have decided to stay there. I was having dinner on the edge of a large plaza when someone stopped in the middle of the plaza and installed a sound system.

I had seen a stage on the edge of the plaza, but no activity. However that changed rapidly. Within an hour there were hundreds of chairs set up and people came from all sides. It turned into a huge dance festival that entire evening. What a shame that I did not have my camera with me! Beautiful colorful, traditional clothing was worn by the participants, exciting Spanish music with dances on the stage all evening. How lucky I was!

After Astorga the terrain stared to change and become much more interesting, more hills, more greenery, more small scale farming, more small villages you walked through, what a difference with the days before Leon.

The following nights I stayed in some of the nicest little cities Spain has to offer: Rabanal, Molinaseca, Villagranca, Triacatela and finally Sarria.

Again, the terrain changed more and more, higher and higher hills, more different green colors, steep terrain, difficult hiking through villages where the cows moved through the streets with the resulting slippery surfaces.

I walked into one of the nicest provinces: Galicia, absolutely gorgeous views down valleys and across hills high enough to be called mountains by some people. Until the last day before Sarria the weather was great. Only the last day I got soaking wet after 6 hours of rain and more rain.

Sometimes the food is good, sometimes not so much. Last night I had a terrific pizza in an Italian restaurant, a few nights earlier I looked forward to pizza which was advertised on a large sign out front of the restaurant, but it turned out to be a ‘Costo’ frozen pizza warmed up in the microwave, what a disappointment.

A few days ago I walked up to one of the highest points on the camino: La Cruz de Ferra, it is a large pile of rocks that is created by the pilgrims. You are supposed to bring a stone from your home area and leave it on the top of this mountain. It was started around the year 1000 by a monk called Gaucelmo. He erected a cross on the site that was an original altar built by the Romans for their god Mercury. Since the 11th century every pilgrims and there have been many millions have brought a stone to put on the pile. Of course it has grown into a large pile over the centuries. Several months ago my grandson Nico gave me a rock he picked up from the beach when we were out walking one day. I told him that I would take that rock with me to Spain to put in a special place. And carry it I did. I did put it on the pile of rocks and made my wish as you may when you bring a rock. Unfortunately that day my ipad refused to take pictures and I could not sent him a picture of my putting it on there. However with my other camera I did did pictures and as soon as I get home I can show him.

So now I have landed in Sarria. I found a cheap hostel where I can stay this week, found a bookstore with a few English language books and will be just fine holed up for awhile. I”ll check and see if I can catch a bus to Santiago to pick up Margriet from the airport and then we’ll take the bus back to Sarria to walk the last 110 km of the camino together. I can’t wait to see her after 5 weeks on my own. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

BUEN CAMINO that is what every pilgrim wishes every other pilgrim when we meet on the trail or passing a pilgrim resting somewhere. It sounds like ‘BON CAMINO’ and is usually the second greeting after ‘Ola!’. Hola is used to greet any person, pilgrim or not, and is primarily used in the afternoon because morning greetings are usually Buenos Dias (good day) which is often shortened to Dias or even Das. Even if you know little or no Spanish, as I do, these words you’ll learn pretty quickly just walking the camino.
Other than that it depends on how much you want to learn or how much you rely on the Spaniards to speak English. I found in 1999 that people under 25-30 would usually speak some English because they apparently learn it in school.
Today that age group has grown to 40-45 and it makes communicating a little easier. In the beginning of the hike you can figure out some of the words on a menu, later on, after having seen some English language menus you even start to recognize the Spanish words for certain dishes. Although a few times I have been surprised with what they put in front of me. Not to worry, usually you are hungry enough to be brave and try it and most of the time it is a pleasant surprise.

The town I am in right now, Sarria, is the starting point of the camino for about 25% of the people who walk it. It shows because the town at times looks like it is overrun by people who seem unprepared for the 100 km hike. They either have huge packs, or no packs and use a taxi or ‘porter’ service to have their luggage moved to the next place. I met a few of them and in some cases I wonder if they will make it beyond the second stage, however I hope I am wrong because some are spending a lot of money to get here and to stay in expensive hotels along the way. Four elderly people from Australia admitted that they rarely had walked more than 15 km a day and never for a whole week every day. You just hope that they don’t get themselves into trouble. A friend with whom I walked at the start of the camino for a few days, arrives in Santiago today or tomorrow and reported that after Sarria de trail got a whole lot busier and she was seeing a lot of white legs walking ahead and behind her. Anyway, I’ll find out for myself in a few days. Tuesday we hope to start tackling the last 110 km.

Random Observations Along The Camino de Santiago
“How hard can a week be?” I thought. Kees had talked about walking the Camino again ever since he did it 15 years ago. Five weeks of walking with a heavy backpack, day in, day out, were not exactly my cup of tea but I thought it would be fun to experience the last week of reaching Santiago together. I wanted to encourage him to do it. “Go!” I said.I had good hiking shoes and walked on them much at home, into town and whenever I went for a hike. I took the bare minimum so my pack wasn’t terribly heavy. But oh.. The slogging wasn’t easy. Up hill, along muddy paths… I did 112 Km in a week. Compare that to the 720 Kees completed. And he faced real mountain ranges, and heat, lonely plateaus and cities. I just trudged through tiny villages and cool forests. A couple of days of rain but, in the end, also blue sky and sunshine.It is always interesting to me to notice tiny little cultural differences in countries. Nothing earth shattering but interesting nonetheless. Here in Spain that includes pillows. In a double bed, there is one long pillow for two people. Why not two smaller ones so that you can each stomp and pummel and turn your pillow. But one long skinny one to share…The menu de diaz, day menu, for hikers along the Camino, is also interesting. For 8 or 10 euros you get to choose from one appetizer: soup, salad (a very large mixed salad) or a large plate of pasta. After this comes the main plate: usually very pale fries, a very flat piece of pork or chicken or a piece of beef. No vegetables. Dessert is cake, pudding or icecream. The meal also comes with large, dry chunks of bread. No butter. And a glass of wine or water. Along the Camino, the specialty is Cake de Santiago: a fairly dry but tasty almond cake. I find it interesting that we can’t get bacon and eggs for breakfast but for every other meal. Lunch is often bacon and eggs with bread. And hamburgers have a big fried egg on top of the meat. Most meat dinners also come with fried eggs. But breakfast is mostly just bread and jam or a croissant.I was surprised to learn that a ‘tortilla’ is not at all the tortilla we know in North America! It’s not a rolled up flat tortilla shell with meat and cheese etc. inside. A tortilla here is an omelette. A tortilla quaso is a wonderful, soft cheese omelette.The villages through which we pass are very tiny, sometimes not more than 2or 3 houses and a barn. Many citizens living along the Camino have realized the pot of gold in their backyard. They have put plastic chairs out and offer coffee or lunch. They must make a bundle because the stream of pilgrims seems endless. People from all over the world hobble along, carrying packs and nursing their feet. Many have joined the Camino in Sarria, like I did. But the real ones come from much farther away – like Kees who passed the 700 KM mark today. There’s no way I would do that…We’re picking up many Spanish words as we go and can order meals, ask for a room, etc.I enjoy seeing the many farm yards as we pass. Flowers like fuchias, hydrangias, sunflowers. And vegetables like zucchini, pumpkins, Brussel sprouts, kale, carrots and potatoes are in abundance. We pass under grape vines in small villages and hear roosters crowing. Once in a while a farmer leads his cows down the road or we let a flock of sheep pass. We do a lot of slip sliding on the cobblestones…And then, 6 days later, we arrived in Santiago. Suddenly there were major highways and many houses. We walked through the outskirts into the old heart of the city. More and more pilgrims congregated here but it was not the stream of people we had expected. Blue sky and sunshine made for a glorious last day. We reach the Cathedral – an emotional moment. We did it. Tomorrow we pick up our certificates as we show the many stamps we collected along the way in our pilgrims’ passports. For now, we will drink a glass of wine to our accomplishments. I will nurse my two blisters and then?… We will have to come up with the next plan!
To Walk the Camino or Not to Walk the Camino?
When I started the Camino in early August I wondered if I would enjoy it this second time around. Now that I have completed it a week ago and have had time to reflect I would say an absolutely YES.
It was very different this time around, many more hikers, probably 5 times as many, but also much more infrastructure to support the pilgrims. The last week of the hike it was so busy that at times I wondered if I was walking down the Camino or the Kalverstraat in downtown Amsterdam or Robson street in Vancouver.
At times, that last week, I wondered if the entire world had descended on the Camino. However overall it was the same experience I had the first time around, one of solitude, sometimes loneliness, but one of simplicity and peacefulness. At times I was very tired, but satisfied that I had completed another section. Sometimes there was boredom because the terrain was not very interesting. Other times it was awe inspiring because the skies or the landscape were so fantastic.
Sometimes it was the people you met, or the fact that you did not talk to a soul for 12 hours. It is so different from what we are used in daily life, that it was fun most of the time and boring at other times; always different and exiting and challenging.
So would I do it again???? YES, at the drop of a hat I would do it again. But first I would hike some more trails in Holland because those are flat and not so exhausting 🙂
Hope to see you on a trail somewhere!

Camino de Santiago: 2

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who are these people who want to walk or bike hundreds of kilometers just to get to a particular city? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier blog Santiago de Compostela is a holy city and especially in the Middle Ages millions of people from all over Europe walked or rode their horse to Santiago for religious reasons. Nowadays many people still do so for religious reasons, although many others do it for a variety of reasons: it is an historic long distance path, it is easier than for instance the Continental Divide or Pacific Crest trail where you have to prearrange food drops because you are crossing so much wilderness. It is much easier than the Trans Canada trail which is still incomplete and is missing many sections. It is extremely well marked and you rarely wonder where the trail runs.
Nowadays about 55% of the pilgrims are male and (obviously) 45% is female. Many females are walking it by themselves and it is safe. Eighty seven percent of the people walk it, 12% do it on a bike and nowadays only 0.5% do it on a horse. Even 0.03% do it in a wheelchair (66 total in 2013).
How old are these pilgrims? Well, 28% are under 30, 56% are between 30 and 60 and still 15% are over 60. That last statistic surprises me, because the number of people I have seen of my age or older I can count on 2 hands.
Where do they come from? Well, not surprising, 50% of the pilgrims are from Spain, then Germany and Italy each ‘supply’ 14% of the pilgrims, Portugal 10%, the US 9%, France 7% and good old Canada does have 3% of the pilgrims on the trail.
There are many roads that lead to Rome, so there are also many routes that lead to Santiago. Of course in the Middle Ages people left from home and made their way to Santiago. My brother Rob in 1999 walked all the way from Amsterdam before I joined him in Pamplona to for the last 720 kms.
Nowadays 70% of the pilgrims follow the most common route, The Camino de Frances. However 14% are coming via the Camino de Portugal and the remainder are using one of the 9 or 10 other routes through Spain to Santiago.
In an earlier blog I stated that last year about 150,000 people made their way via de Camino to Santiago. Well, the latest figures from the Head Quarters in Santiago show that I was way too low: it states that in 2013 over 215,000 people did so and in the last holy year in 2010 272,000 people made their way to the holy city.
I am taking a rest day today in Burgos and spent a very interesting few hours visiting the cathedral in the old part of Burgos. Beautiful.
Tomorrow back on the trail, only about 20 km awaits me tomorrow, should not be a problem (famous last words)

Of Windmills and Lost Socks

I just sit down for a late lunch and before I notice it I have an open bottle of red wine plus a glass put in front of me. No questions asked about what I want. This is what you drink with your lunch. Fortunately I have already made my bed in the albergue next door and can sleep off my early drink after lunch.

Two days ago I left Burgos and the trail immediately starts rising out of town. I am going up onto the meseta over which I will walk almost the entire next week. It is a high plateau, ranging between 800 meters and 1100 meters. Walking across the top of the table mountain is fine, but hiking up it at a12% slope. Or coming down it at 18% is hard and tiring. However the views across the top seem to go on for ever. Fortunately there is a little wind on top and that makes it quite pleasant because otherwise it can be extremely hot in August on the meseta. Most villages on the meseta are located in a fold of the terrain and you always have to hike down into them and after a drink or lunch back up to the top of the meseta.

The Spaniards consider themselves great hunters and the result of it is that I have not seen a life animal expect cats and dogs anywhere. No birds in the sky except a few house wrens in the cities or swallows around a church. Not a dear, rabbit or anything else out in the field. Especially on weekends you constantly hear gun shots around you in the fields. What they are shooting at I have no idea because nothing has been left alive around here. Last February I was hiking in Andalusia in southern Spain and thought I noticed evidence of wild boars. However I was told the turned up soils were the result of farmers and their trained pigs looking for truffles. It is earily quiet everywhere you walk, no birds in the sky, no movement in the fields.

On weekends there also is a noticeable increase in cyclists on the trail. The Spaniards love to go out biking and you better watch out as a hiker, although I must say, 99% of them are very polite. Except that a bike bell does not seem to be part of a mountain bike’s equipment and they surprise you time and time again when they come up behind you.

In one of the last blogs I wrote about how pilgrims travel. On Monday I walked into Burgos and noticed a ‘pilgrim’ getting on a city bus to take her from the edge of town to downtown. It was not a pretty part of the hike, 1 1/2 hour of walking through traffic and an industrial area, but taking the bus is not part of hiking the Camino in my opinion.

One of the many changes I see now compared to 15 years ago are the forests of huge windmills. Just like in many other places in the world Spain has taken to building large windmill parks to generate electric power. Smart way to go, but it sure scars the viewscape of the countryside. The other change I may have mentioned, the Spaniards are spending billions on renovating older buildings and building new infrastructure. Everywhere, even over a small village, you see huge construction cranes swinging their loads through the air.

Three days ago I lost a sock, it took me days to find a sports store that sold the kind of socks I want. Finally this morning I managed to buy a new pair of socks. A few hours later I slide into my sleeping bag to sleep of  the too-much-wine-at-lunch and what do I feel in the bottom of the bag, sure, the lost sock. Now I have at least an extra pair.

The day I left Burgos I felt energetic and hiked 30 KM, I ended up in a quite village called Hontanas. This morning I did not feel as energetic and only did 20 km, so now I am in Itero de la Vega. (Population 190) so don’t look for it on the world map.

From Burgos to Leon

Boring, Boring, Boring
Ever since I left Burgos almost a week ago I have been walking on the meseta, straight roads mostly flat high country with few trees in sight and mile after mile after mile of grain fields and nothing much else.
That is nice for a day, but day after day the same in the hot sun does get tiring.
Much of the time I am walking along the road, just off the road on a specially designed path, but still along the road. Tomorrow does not offer much else, so until I get to Leon in 2 days it is boring.
In general the path is not bad, firm gravel, but also sharp rocks from time to time and since my left foot is acting up again it is rather painful at times. Today I saw a doctor about a huge blister but she just shrugged and sent me on my way.

Last night I was in Sahagun, a city I remember well visiting with Rob 15 years ago. Sat at the same outside bar on the same plaza where we sat 15 years ago. Just watching the people do their thing. Young boys playing soccer, old folks sitting on a bench where they probably sat for years, couples in love sauntering from one end to the other around the plaza.
Last night I stayed at an albergue in an old church, totally renovated, very nice and a fair amount of privacy which is something few albergues offer. In the middle of the night a terrific bang that seemed to shake the whole place, someone fell out of the top bunk in his sleep. I learned a few new Spanish curse words listening to the poor fellow.

Tonight was nice, I met another Canadian couple from Nova Scotia and they had made a stew of all kind of vegetables and sausages. They invite 8 other peregrinos and I brought a couple of bottles of wine. We had a great time conversing in English, Spanish and French as well as sign language. Unfortunately they had left the very hot peppers in the stew too long and the poor soul who had the stew from the bottom of the pan spit flames after a few bites. Even half a bottle of wine did not put him at ease.

I am sitting in a cafe because it is the only place in the village that has wifi. A soccer game is starting on TV. I don’t dare mention my Dutch background after the beating the Dutch gave Spain during the World Cup Soccer a few weeks ago.

wo more days to Leon, the biggest city between Pamplona and Santiago and I plan on taking a few days off there to take it easy, rest my feet and take in the sights. It has a wonderful cathedral, worth a visit. I might even take in a mass since it is a special place.
Boy, these Spaniard are getting into their soccer game, the noise around me in deafening.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Landed in Leon, that is half way between Pamplona and Santiago!
Time for a few days of rest so my feet can get back to normal if they still know what normal means. Found a cheap little hostel next to the cathedral and the first thing I did this morning was to visit the cathedral. It has the largest expense of stained glass of any medieval cathedral in Europe, absolutely beautiful with the sun shining though them from the outside.

Last night I attended a pilgrims’ mass in another church. Did not understand a word of it, but the atmosphere and singing was nice to just sit back and let come over you.

It has been rather boring the past week, and the next 1-2 days don’t promise anything different but based on my memory and judging by my guide the rest of ‘The Way’ should get more interesting again as well as harder. The elevation maps in my guide are showing some rather high hills in my near future.

Cathedral of Leon

My guide is good as far as info about albergues / hostels / refugios and for elevations, other than that it is useless to find your way. However the trail itself is so well marked that you can find it without too much of a problem the entire way. Lots of signs, small as well as large with the well known camino emblem are showing you the way. And if there is not a sign there are arrows on buildings, on corners, on the road itself, on curbs and anywhere you care to look.
It seems impossible to get lost unless you are not paying attention. It is starting to get busier because several other caminos are joining the main trail. Plus that numerous people are starting their walk somewhere along the trail such as at Burgos or Leon.

Saturday, August 30, 2014
I think that after 50 years I may have discovered that I can slow down! Ever since high school I was made as competitive as possible: first my Phys Ed teacher, then my speed skating instructor, then 2 years of sports college and 2 years teaching Phys Ed in the army. Always I had to be the first, the fastest, the quickest, the highest jumper.

Even when I trained for the Camino I walked fast, at least 5.7 km per hour. As a result when I walked the first half of the Camino over the last three weeks, I seemed to be marching instead of walking. That too may have resulted in the injury that caused me to have to sit down for several days in Leon.
Today I decided to take it SLOW, and what a difference it made. It took me a while longer to get where I wanted to go, but I noticed much more from the surrounding area. I did not pass every pilgrim in front of me as I had done for the first 350 km. As a matter of fact I was being passed and I did not mind it for once. My previous injury did not come back because I did not need to push off as hard as I used to with each step. It worked!!

Today I left Leon after 3 days of forced recovery. First 2 hours to get out of town and then back up onto the meseta. There seemed to be a little more variety this time. Maybe I noticed it because I was sick and tired of watching crowds of people the last 3 days. Because most people only spent 1 extra day in Leon, I moved with a new “community of people”. The ones I had seen several times in refugios or rest places before Leon were replaced with a new bunch. You could also see who started the Camino in Leon because their legs were still milk white while those who had been o
n the Camino for weeks were dark brown from the sun.

In spite of slowing down I did 22 km by noon and now I am sitting in a nice albergue in Villar de Mazarife, again, don’t even try to find it on the map, it barely makes a speck.

Camino de Santiago

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In 1999 I walked the Camino the Santiago with my brother Rob. When I mentioned the Camino to people back then, I got a blank stare. Hardly anybody had ever heard of this 1000 year old pilgrim path that runs from the France/Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, a distance of over 700 km or about 450 miles.
When I mentioned in 2013-2014 to my hiking friends that I was going to walk it again, they either had done it themselves or they knew someone who had done it. This trail has become very popular over the last few decades. Where in 1998 about 50,000 people hiked it, in a recent holy year about 250,000 did the same thing.
In order to qualify to have hiked the Camino you officially only need to do the last 100 km on foot or the last 200 by bike. However, just doing the last 100 is not really ‘hiking the camino’. It requires the endurance of the hardships for the full 700 km. Including sore legs, blisters and any inconvenience you can imagine. People have made this pilgrimage since the year 800 and in the Middle Ages literally thousands of people walked it every year. The benefit is, apparently, that you cut your time in hell in half when you walk the Camino. So I figured that if I hike it twice I am scot free and will go straight to heaven 🙂

After many months of preparation I was ready to leave. Margriet will join me for the last 100 km (just to be sure she qualifies for half her time in hell). However I will start in Pamplona, the first city after the Pyrenees where the trail starts. The reason I start there is because the first couple of days you only walk downhill and several friends have had to quit right then and there because they got shin splints so bad that they could not continue. When I walked in in 1999 with Rob I joined him there after he had walked from Amsterdam, several thousand kms. Unfortunately Rob succumbed to cancer a few years ago and even though we had promised each other that we would do it again together, we were never able to do so.

So this time I was going to do it by myself, until a few weeks before I left, a mutual friend of Margriet and I, Lies, whom we have known for 45 years, announced that she would join me for the first 2 days. OK, that was fine.
Margriet took me to the airport last Wednesday to get on the plane for (eventually) Pamplona. Victoria, Seattle went fine, no problems with the customs thanks to my Nexus card, on to Amsterdam via Delta Airlines. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a crammed place but at least you can watch as many movies as you want, so it is not too bad. In Amsterdam my luggage arrived no problem, which was an improvement since last February when they left my pack in Paris.
Got on the Iberian Airlines flight to Madrid, but it left 20 minutes late and as a result it lost it landing sequence into Madrid. We circled for an hour and then we had 5 minutes to make the connecting flight. I raced over to that gate and found my friend who was going to join me in Pamplona racing to it at the same time. That was a surprise because we had agreed to meet on the steps of the cathedral in Pamplona the next day at 11 AM. So, we made it but our luggage did not.
Lies went to her hotel 20 minutes from the airport which she had arranged beforehand and I found a hotel close to the airport to await the luggage. Since there are only 2 flights between Madrid and Pamplona a day, it made no sense to sit and wait so I went into Pamplona the next day. I had to buy a few things anyway, so that worked out fine. We explored Pamplona and walked the first 5 km of the Camino through Pamplona. I went to the  airport at 9 PM and lo and behold there were our packs.
The next morning we were planning to leave early, but when I called Lies at her hotel she had not slept well and was not sure she would make it very far that day. By 10 am we did make it to the spot where we had left the trail the previous day. Lies did fine that day, we hiked, climbed and cursed our way though some of the hardest 14 km the Camino can throw at you.

Day 2 announced itself with dark clouds and a forecast of thunderstorms that day. However, we decided to take a chance and go for it. First we had to take a bus to the point where we left the trail yesterday at the southern end of Pamplona. There the real hiking started. Lies did not feel very well and was not sure how far she would make it that day. However, after the first few miles she started to improve and felt a lot better. Lunch at a small village 2 hours out of Pamplona. There we had to make the decision to tackle the hardest pass we would be facing on the first part of the Camino. Or to stay put for the rest of the day. Lies decided that she felt good enough to continue, so off we went. I had trained a lot in hilly country but Lies, living in Rotterdam never had that opportunity and obviously that played a role in her falling behind quickly. However she is a determined person and did make it to the top of the pass and down on the other side. By that time we had done probably 15 km and those were some of the hardest 15 km the pilgrims face in the first half of the Camino. We found a nice refugio in a small village on the other side of the pass and stopped for the night. These refugios are like hostels with 20 or 40 people together in one large room in bunk beds. We had the first pick of the beds, but within a couple of hours the beds filled up in the room. These refugios are between 5 and 10 euros a day and a pilgrims meal is from 10 to 15 euros, ($15.- to 22.50). Not bad, although it does add up after 30 days on the trail.

A quick shower, washing sweaty clothes, a beer and a nap or email and a meal – and we felt better. Lies and I had agreed that we would walk up for 2 or 3 days and then we would each find our own way to Santiago. I wanted to have some time to reflect by myself and be alone.

The changes I noticed compared to 1999 are (at least so far after only a day):
• in 1999 I noticed about a dozen pilgrims the first day on the trail. Today it was more like 50.
• In 1999 there were no mountain bikes on the trail, now there are numerous ones and not always very considered of the slower hikers.
• There are many more refugios, hostels and hotels along the route ( a good thing)
• the trail obviously is much more known and popular. It has become a multimillion dollar tourist attraction for the Spaniards.
These are just the initial changes I noticed between 1999 and 2014.

One Determined Pilgrim

Day 4 on the trail.
Yesterday was a ‘killer’ hike, today was slightly easier. I still don’t recognize any of the trail locations we walked 15 years ago. I wonder if they moved Santiago and had to built a new trail to get to it!
Nothing looks familiar, until I got to the overnight place today in Villamayor. Here I have been before. It is a regufio run by a Dutch religious organization so I can join in the service they offer tonight (if i am not asleep already). We left late, the last ones to leave at 8 AM. However, there are some people on the trail who are really hurting and hobbling along so we overtook several within the first 2 hours. How they ever will make the next 650 km is a wonder.
It is a lot quieter today. The first 2 days we walked, it was weekend and obviously many Spaniards are joining the trail just for the weekend. Still more hills than I liked, but that is Spain for you. My feet are not doing very well, the balls of my feet are hurting pretty good and I may have to take an extra rest day soon. In the last 20 years of hiking (including the 1999 Camino walk) I never had a blister and in the first two days on the hike now I have 2 blisters. Exactly on the same location on both feet so I blame the new insoles of my boots for that problem. Anyway even if I have to crawl the last 650 km I plan on making it. The first 3 days we did about 60 km so a pretty good average of 20 a day.
One thing that I noticed is that a lot more people are speaking English these days here in Spain. Especially the owners of all these new refugios are able to communicate in English. In 1999 nobody over 35 could speak any English and now I have not had a problem yet between their English, my few words of Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. I get what I want.
The refugio tonight is again a dormitory style with 8 bunk beds. Next to me is a deaf/mute man. I wonder if he snores being mute?
Well, off at 7 AM tomorrow because by 9:30 the sun is already too hot to walk comfortably, so up earlier from now on.

100 KM done, 620 to go!

Well, the first 100 KM are done, only 620 left. The last 2 days we have been lucky. Dark clouds all around us, but no rain at all. It sure helps to keep the temperatures down during the day. When the sun is out is get easily up to 30 degrees, but with a cloud cover it stays down around 25-27 which makes it just a little more comfortable. By leaving at 7 AM or even earlier, you get most of the hiking done before 1 or 2 PM when the heat starts to make walking uncomfortable.
I am not following the official stages which are described in most guide books of the Camino. Those stages usually lead from town to town but I try to find the smaller villages to stay in.
So on Monday morning (August 11) I left Lorca, half way between Puenta La Reina and Estella. Estella is famous for its beer, although it was too early in the day to try it. Ten km past Estella I stopped in Villamayor de Monjardin after a tiring climb up a steep hill.
The next day via Los Arcos on to Torres del Rio. That was enough for the day because after that village some very steep up and downs awaited. I’ll leave those for early next morning when the weather is still cool.
The landscape is interesting, but not spectacular. More and more vineyards are appearing, this area is famous for its wines apparently. The hills are primarily brown and yellow since there has not been much rain lately, few trees to be seen. Lots of old buildings, many just ruins.  Every village has a great church or even cathedral, often worth visiting.

Wednesday morning I left Torres del Rio and immediately had to climb several steep hills to gain (and loose again) several hundred meters in elevation. By 1 pm I walked into Logrono and finished the first 100 km of the planned hike. 
Even though my feet are still giving me some grieve I am glad that the head of the monster has been slain. Tomorrow is a long stage (30 km) which I am not going to do in one day I think. When I walked the Camino in 1999 with Rob we did do stages of 30 and even one of 38 km, but with 15 more years on this body I am not going to try that again. Twenty km per day is fine and that will get me well in time to Sarria where I will await Margriet’ s arrival a month from now.

A NEW EXPERIENCE – WHY, WHY, WHY?
Friday, August 15.

It is a special holiday in Spain today and everybody is enjoying a day off. Fortunately the stores and bars are open.
My last blog entree was from Wednesday afternoon I think. I was staying in a refugio run by a Dutch religious organization. That evening after a communal dinner, someone tried to make me believe something I could not believe. But his stories reminded me of a book I read 40 years ago called God’s Smuggler, an intriguing book about a Dutchman who smuggled bibles in his VW Beetle to countries behind the iron curtain. We had a cordial discussion about religion but after an hour I think he classified me as a lost soul.

Refugio Lorca

The next day I walked 20 km and by 1 PM found a refugio where I was welcomed by a very friendly nun who spoke excellent English. “Six euros for a bed, lights out by 10 and at 6 AM we wake you with music,” she told me. OK. This morning at 6 I heard some very faint chanting. It gradually grew louder and louder and by 6:30 the Gregorian chants were blasting through the refugio. Nobody was sleeping anymore. I laid back in my sleeping bag and enjoyed the chanting for half an hour before I got up. That was the first time I was awoken by Gregorian chanting, very very nice. I’ll try it on Margriet one morning when we are back home.
(Note from Margriet: not sure if this means Kees will do the chanting or if he plans to play a CD of actual Gregorian chants… The story reminds me of waking up in Saudi Arabia to the call for prayer coming from minarets).
So why in the world would anyone want to walk a minimum of 100 km – and many people walk 750 km – to a city for a look at a statue in a cathedral?
That’s what I wondered 18 years ago when I first read about the Camino de Santiago.
Well, as the article in Reader’s Digest explained at that time, Santiago de Compostela in the north western corner of Spain is considered the third most important holy city in the world for Christians after Rome and Jerusalem. Around the year 800 the bones of apostle James were discovered in the area. Ever since Christians have been making a pilgrimage to the site. Of course a church was erected on the site and it became a cathedral of great beauty soon after. During the Middle Ages literally millions of people made the pilgrimage. Considering the fact that the European population at that time was many times smaller than today’s population it was quite remarkable to have that many people make the pilgrimage. During the 18/19th century for some reason the pilgrimage became less well known. Not until the 1990’s did it again gain in popularity, primarily as the result of some articles in magazines and several books from people who had walked it.
By the mid 1990’s about 50,000 people walked the trail. However by 1999 150,000 people hiked it because it was a holy year (this happens about once every 10 years).
By 2013 the annual number in a non-holy year had shot up to 150,000 and in a holy year it is closer to 250,000.
I met a German lady who had just lost her entire family, husband and three children in a horrific car accident and she walked it to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. I met a Brazilian lady who hiked it because she had read a book about it by a famous Brazilian writer. I met a Belgian man who was in his 80’s and who claimed to have walked it 18 times. (He said he did at least 50 km a day!!) A Japanese fellow said his minister told him he needed to do it to find himself. Unfortunately all he found were some robbers who took his money and camera. I ended up sending him copies of all my pictures so he had at least some positive memories. Many people just want to experience the culture and the history of the ail. Some like myself want to do it because it is a challenge.

New albergues, even new provinces.

Finally my feet are getting with the program and have stopped complaining about the daily mistreatment I dish out on them. Yesterday I did 32 km and today 23 without any problems.

Wow, I am very impressed with the tremendous new infrastructures the Spanish people have developed over the last couple of decades. Brand spanking new highways, new subdivisions, a whole new city (Ciruela) have sprung up in places where I just saw raw land 15 years ago.

Also the infrastructure they have developed for the Camino is really impressive. Where 15 years ago you had to walk on the edge of the highway are now separate pathways, adjacent to the highway, but protected by guard rails and sometimes vegetation. I suspect that the Camino is being developed and maintained by provincial departments because signs often refer to a provincial department. Many cities have gone out of their way to develop nice picnic sites, parks and campgrounds. Not every thing is well maintained, but they sure are doing their best in my opinion.

Today I even walked into a new province: Castella y Leon, from La Rioja. La Rioja was really interesting. In the beginning I saw nothing but vineyards, and more vineyards, mile after mile. Finally after more than a day walking through those, a few sugar beet fields showed up and then grain fields, km after km of rolling grain fields, no end in sight. And today suddenly sunflower fields, still grain fields, but also colorful yellow sunflower fields.

Tonight I landed in Belorado after a 23 km day which was a lot easier than the 32 km yesterday. In two days I expect to be in Burgos and probably will take a day’s rest. The weather is absolutely fantastic for hiking, 25-28 degrees, sun, but also clouds from time to time and a little wind to keep cool. Hopefully it will stay like that for a while.

To Be Continued..

Shanghia: Face of the Future

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

There is a saying that says “If you want to see the China of the past, go to Xian. If you want to see the China of today, go to Beijing and if you want to see the China of the future, go see Shanghai.”

I think this is true.
Beijing is an impressive cohesion of ancient buildings, the Forbidden City, the mesmerizing hutongs.
Xian is amazing in its immenseness and how the terracotta warriors were ever made, let alone how they are being discovered and excavated.

But Shanghai. It’s not my favorite place. 
24 million people in one city…
It you like modern architecture, or if you like to shop, see haute couture, it will be a great place to visit. Skinny women in tiny mini-skirts, towering high-heels and dangling gold. Men in suits with smart-phones pressed to the ear. Children wearing the latest brand names, being pushed in the fanciest strollers you have ever seen. Bullet trains, elevated walkways. This is China, too.

I did not see any slums. Which is good. I’m told everything old has been bulldozed and people have been given apartments. This may be good now but wasn’t at the time.
But it’s hard to look across the street because of air pollution.
Everything is constantly grey – as if it is very foggy. The top half of skyscrapers is erased in grey. I did not see blue sky or clouds. Just grey.
There is an air pollution index which people receive on their smart-phones Something like ‘under 50’ is OK. If it is more than 85, the kids have to have indoor recess. While I was there, this index hit 300. And that was not an exception.  There is often ‘square’ dancing in the street at night.
And I did notice that every square inch is planted with trees or shrubbery. That should help. My hotel was across from Central Park and people jogged or walked there all day long. Even the sidewalk was half pavement, half running track. I enjoyed walking to school and observing people.

The food was great. Very kind teachers took me out for traditional Chinese food: homemade noodles, fresh tofu, soups, meats. I even ate a whole bowl of peanuts with chopsticks at one point!

The other best thing was massages: about 7 dollars for a one hour massage. Not as good as in Thailand but still… I love it.
Crazy traffic, wild taxi drivers. I loved shopping in local stores and brought back all sorts of packages of which I had no idea what was in it: crackers, cookies, fruit? Most turned out to be good 🙂

The rice isle in the supermarket!
The egg isle in the supermarket!