Amsterdam for Smarties


This city of over 800,000 people has enough dummies. So let’s look at how to enjoy this world renowned historic city as a smart tourist.
Did you know that the city has the same number people as it has bicycles? Ever wondered what over 800,000 bicycles in a city look like? When they rent them to tourists, amazing things happen – as you can see on any bike lane or intersection in the centre of this busy city. It’s a miracle that not more people get killed each day as they jump in front of bikes, get hit and run over… It’s fun to sit back and watch the Dutch as they maneuver traffic, traffic lights, speeding trams and hordes of pedestrians all while carrying children, instruments, groceries, and dogs on their bike AND while texting!Rather than jumping on a bike right away, it’s a good idea to get a sense of the layout of the city’s spiderweb-shaped centre by jumping on a boat. Taking a canal cruise will give you a feel for the water, the narrow roads, the tall houses and the history of this world heritage site. I learned all sorts of interesting facts, such as word origins, historic facts about trade and taxes and politics, as well as useful information on where to eat and which museums to visit. There are different companies to choose from and their cruises are slightly different. We used this one: http://www.amsterdamcanalcruises.nl and enjoyed the personal headsets and the tour of not just the inner city canals but also across the IJ and past the Scheepvaart Museum (ship industry).

Because we had our extended family with us, on this particular trip to Amsterdam, we rented a house rather than a hotel room or hostel. The house had typical narrow staircases up three floors and offered 3 bedrooms and a kitchen, allowing us to make our own meals. A blue AH is the symbol for Albert Heyn, one of the largest supermarket chains in the Netherlands. They usually offer fresh bakings as well as many ready made meals. So lunch and supper were easy. One of the smartest thing to bring from home, is a small fold-up shopping bag! Grocery stores here do not pack for you and you have to pay for each plastic bag! I have one of those nylon bags that tuck into a tiny pouch – great for groceries, markets, books and extra on the airplane.
UnknownTo get around Amsterdam, and indeed the entire country, the smartest thing to do is to immediately get an OV Chip card. OV means public transit: https://www.ov-chipkaart.nl/home-1.htm
If you will be traveling throughout the country, be sure to read this: http://www.amsterdamtips.com/tips/ov-chipkaart.php
Initially you have to pay 7.50 euros to obtain the card but it pays off since each ride using the card is almost half the cost of paying for individual tickets. You can use this card like a credit card by putting money on it and paying for all public transit: trams, busses, trains and more. You can even rent OV Chip bicycles using this card, at certain real stations.

Another smart thing to do is to plan your travel by using this website: http://m.9292.nl/en (Notice that these websites are in English!!) Here you enter your starting point, your desired destination, date and time of travel and voila! The site presents you with all options and easiest ways of getting there. If a schedule in Holland says that the train will depart at 10:32 AM you can pretty well bet on it to depart at 10:32 and not a minute later.

If you will spend more than a day in Amsterdam, you might want to invest in a museum card:

http://www.amsterdam.info/museums/museumkaart/
This will allow you unlimited, and faster, entrance into many museums including the fabulous Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandt paintings where you can spend more than a day; also the Van Gogh museum, Anne Frank House and many more.

So, what’s keeping you? Come and visit Amsterdam and, while you are here, be sure to spend more time in this hospitable, interesting country below sea level!

Seven Days: USA’s Pacific Northwest

Salt Spring to San Juan to Oregon and back.

We were ready for a break from weeding, chores and cleaning rooms.

So off we went to Oregon, hoping to explore backroads and places in between we had not yet seen.
We made reservations on the Washington State Ferry from Sidney, BC to Anacortes, WA. Since we had to take the Fulford ferry to get there, we were hours too early. But it was nice to suddenly sit in the sun and read a book. We both felt too tired to do much else. I guess once you stop working, it hits you.
It is interesting to note how different Washington State ferries are from BC ones: no fancy gift shops, no wifi, no luxurious buffets. Fare is cheaper: 107 Canadian versus 61 US from Vancouver Island to the main land. As we have been telling BC Ferries: you are not a cruise ship but a link in our highway system….

We chose to spend the first night in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We had stopped there several times before but never stayed to explore the island. Now we were there by 1 PM and spent the afternoon driving around the entire island. San Juan seems very similar in size and landscape to Salt Spring – but not nearly as artsy. My favorite stop: Snug Harbor’s marina and coffee shop.

I had booked a hotel online. I am still not sure if the choice was right or wrong. I had only been able to find very expensive places until I came across The Orca Inn on the edge of town. Booked a room for 68.- It was certainly the most affordable price. And the room was very clean, and it was very quiet at night. But the room was only 2 steps wider than the queensize bed. It felt a bit like sleeping in a drawer. The hotel was comprised of 9 double wide mobile home type building, each with 12 rooms cramped into them. Tiny but clean and it had a clean bathroom and shower. Really it was all we needed to sleep there, which was good ‘cause there isn’t even a chair to sit on.
We walked around town, up and down hill. Enjoyed the shops and cafe’s. Had a nice happy hour on the patio of Friday Harbor House – great drinks and a perfect spot to sit. But the servers were snooty and were not impressed that we only drank and didn’t eat dinner there.
We stopped in The Backdoor Kitchen restaurant because the ads for it were attractive. But a main course was USD 30 and up. We left and found a cozy place called The Rumour Mill, with decent food at almost half the price.
The Bean Cafe served good coffee and breakfast complete with fast wifi. We walked by several nice shops and cafe’s but Salt Spring wins, hands down, as far as galleries and funky shops are concerned.
What always amazes me if the number of cyclists on these islands. Tourist organizations seem to promote the Gulf and San Juan Islands as bicycle heaven. And they could be. But, in my eyes, they are a far cry from the ideal place to cycle. The roads are hilly and windy with almost non existent bicycle paths or even shoulders. Plenty of traffic makes it less than safe. Yet bicycles come off the ferries by the dozens. The islands truly should look at finding a way to create a safe infra structure for these cyclists who bring buckets of money on their 10 speeds.
Websites:

Anacortes to Newport

And then we steamed out of town on our way to Anacortes. No orcas or whales but the ferry did have to slow down for a deer swimming off the bow…
From Anacortes we drove south to the Port Towsend ferry – a crossing of 20 minutes.
From there is was south and west across the Olympic Peninsula, with views of Mt Olympus, Mt Baker and Mt Rainier most of the day. Gorgeous time to drive here as the fields are green and the abundant rhododendrons are still blooming.
Having lived here, the US always feels like a comfortable, old pair of shoes we slip on again. But the differences with Canada are always apparent to us. The people so jovial and kind – yet everywhere are signed for guns for sale. One store boasted a huge sign: “Guns for sale, new and used, the tools of freedom”.
I notice many more drive-by coffee shops. It’s nice to have dinner, in a typical American diner, for under 35.- including wine and beer for two. And I love being able to pick up a bottle of wine in Safeway. Bought a bottle of Barefoot Moscato for 4.- today!
We drove many backroads south through Washington, ending up at the 6 KM long (!) Astoria bridge. Can’t help wonder what Lewis and Clark would think if they saw this amazing structure connecting the north and south shores of the Columbia River at its mouth just before the Pacific Ocean.
Sauntering (can you ‘saunter’ in a car?) through small villages along Oregon’s Highway 101, we past the Haystack Rocks at Cannon Beach, the picture perfect beach of Manzanita and the green pastures around Tillamook. Here you can travel on a steam train, visit the cheese factory and an aviation museum.
We continued to Depoe Bay, which seems to have changed its slogan from ‘world’s smallest harbour’ to ‘whale watching capital of the world’. The latter does seem more attractive, even if it may be debatable. We always stop into The Leather Store, here or in Newport. Leather briefcases, belts and much more at low prices.
Three miles north of Newport we finally reached our destination for the next few days: Moolack Shores Motel. For many years we drove by this place and often said that “one day we should stay there!” Today we finally did. And it beat my high expectations.
We have a corner room with large windows looking out over the Pacific Ocean. The motel is directly over the beach, with a private balcony. We have a lovely room with a small kitchen and bathroom. I’d like to pack up all the Hawaiian yard sale junk that decorates the room and take it to the nearest thrift store: there are parrots dangling over the bed, pineapple shaped lamps and mirrors and gawdy lamps made from shells. But the location and view make up for the decor.
Unfortunately, the next two days turned cold and rainy. We enjoyed sitting on our private deck for the first afternoon but after that it was cold, wet and miserable. You just never know on the Oregon coast. But how nice to have a (fake) fireplace, wine and a laptop to get some work done.
We had dinner at the best steak house in town: Szabos looks like an old wild west saloon, inside and out. But they serve the best darn steak dinners for under 14.- Highly recommended.
Websites:

Driving from Newport to Eugene, Oregon

There are different ways to get from Newport on the coast, to Eugene in the Willamette Valley.
Our favorite way is to drive south along the 101, along the cute little town of Yachats, by the Sealion Caves, past Cape Perpetua, with its gorgeous tidal pools and visitor’s centre.
But this time it was raining, a miserable cold drizzle and fog. So we opted for Hwy 34 along the Alsea River.
This is a drive through a rhapsody of green: tall woods, moss covered branches, towering ferns. You end up in Corvallis, a small town with a university and funky stores and pubs. We had lunch at New Morning Bakery, did some chores, some shopping and then drove along backroads, through impeccable Mennonite farm country to Eugene.

In all the 40+ years we’ve been coming here, we have almost always either lived here or stayed with friends.
This time we booked a B & B right next to the campus. It exceeded all of our expectations: The Secret Garden is a huge heritage house surrounded by greenery. We are kiddy corner to the campus and love roaming the paths that we walked here when Kees was a student.
Many of the restaurants and shops remain unchanged.

We have been having Italian dinners at Mazzi’s for over 40 years. Smith Family Bookstore, Prince Puckler’s icecream, and many other places have been here forever it seems.
Our room in the B & B is lovely, with a large private bathroom. Breakfast is served in a beautiful parlor with flowered porcelain dishes. We highly recommend this place if you ever want to stay in Eugene – same cost as an impersonal hotel room but with lots of character and charm.
We spent time at both locations of Smith Family Bookstore today, browsing the endless piles of books scattered everywhere. This is book heaven. And they have most titles that you might be looking for. It’s amazing they can even find them among the teetering stacks of books. I was delighted to finds two of Patrick Taylor’s Irish Country Doctor titles. And Kees found some nice travel titles.
We had dinner at one of our old favorites: the Oregon Electric Station. The pub has comfy chairs and nice food.
Tomorrow we’ll be homeward bound.
Websites:

A Historic Mill and Backroads to Buckley

Our last stop in Oregon was at one of our favorite places: Thompsons Mills State Heritage Site.
We lived here for several years when Kees worked with Oregon State Parks and when the state had newly acquired this historic property. The mill was one of the first industries in the state of Oregon, build in the mid 1800’s and has a rich history of grinding and storing grains for farmers of the area. The 2 storey mill building was constructed with wooden pegs, impressive silo’s held the grains and, inside, an amazing system of pulleys and ladders is powered by the water of the Calapooia River. Once the mills start grinding, the entire building comes to live. It is a sight, and sound, to behold.
If it was once lovingly built, it has now been just as lovingly restored to its old glory. Park rangers and hosts made it possible for the mill to operate, and demonstrate, again.
I had the privilege of helping to restore the millkeeper’s Queen Anne house, built around 1900, to the proud home it once was, boasting electricity as one of the first homes in the state.
When we moved in, windows were broken, blackberries had worked their way in through the walls and rats infested the walls. It took years to restore the original wainscoting, the ceiling trim and corner pieces. To get the transom windows to work again and to figure out what color paint and wallpaper might once have been on the parlor walls. I cooked on the wood stove in the kitchen and we had new pillars turned to support the porches. It was an exciting time to live in Shedd, Oregon.
Now you can visit here, too, and see how the mill operates. Plan on spending several hours walking around outside and in the visitors’ centre, playing with several hands-on displays. And then treat yourself to lunch in the newly refurbished Shedd Cafe! A great menu at – almost – prehistoric prices…
Check out these videos of the Mill:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtvbDNzwyrQ

After our visit, we had to head north again. But instead of driving the I-5, which have done hundreds of times, we opted for back roads. I love finding a way on the map, through tiny towns, to make it to our destination without hitting major roads. We drove through towns we’d never even heard of.
At the foot of the Cascades we are now winding our way back to the Canadian border. We had dinner in a fantastic, brand new restaurant: Giorgio’s on Main in the town of Buckley, WA.
Modern and stylish with great staff, best pizza ever, decent lobster ravioli and great tiramisu. Check them out if you are in the greater Seattle area and looking for a day trip with dinner: https://www.facebook.com/georgiositaliankitchen?fref=ts

Pangani = Paradise

After working for 3 weeks in schools, with hundreds of kids each day, and after bumping around the hot, dusty interior, we had decided that we would conclude our time in Africa with a few days on the beach. Zanzibar had long been on our bucket list. In fact, Zanzibar was on the top of my bucket list, having seen photos of white beaches and aqua marine water. However, the more we read about it, the less attractive it sounded. Busy and crowded with 1.5 million people, a plethora of shops, restaurants, vendors, disco’s, bars…

Our travel agent, Mambulu Safaris, offered an attractive alternative: Pangani. No one I asked about it had ever heard of it. But what we read online sounded just like what we were looking for: white beaches, palm trees and warm water.
Turns out it was a good decision to come here. Pangani is paradise found! There is nothing to do. Which is exactly what we wanted. We are in the lovely The Tides Lodge (http://www.thetideslodge.com/),  a perfect place to relax and enjoy solitude, or for families with children to come to the beach – although at high tide the beach disappears.
Getting here is an adventure in itself: we flew from Arusha to Tanga on a tiny plane, with 6 people on board. After Tanga it was another 20 minute flight to Pangani. To our amazement, the pilot buzzed a dirt strip in the middle of sisal plantations. This told the local kids on their bicycles to get off the air strip. We landed on bumpy dirt and, under one tree, was a car waiting for us. No airport, or anything else.
We have a spacious bungalow with immediate beach access. A king size bed, a large bathroom with a warm shower, lounge chairs outside on our own little patio overlooking the Indian Ocean. I truly feel like I’m in heaven…
The little restaurant serves meals and drinks: seafood straight from the ocean caught by the local fishermen. And piña coladas made from fresh pineapple and coconut.
We are forced to sit and read books all day! An amazing luxury… And if we really need to do something, we can swim in the bathtub-warm Indian Ocean or walk the beach and chat with local fishermen who are hauling in their nets. We watched some of them carve a new boat from a mango tree. Amazing! They hollow out this huge trunk with simple axes and tools. It takes 5 weeks to make a boat this way.
Or we can take a bike or a kayak if we want to do something. We are the only guests, at the end of the season, and revel in peace and quiet for a few days.
There are, however, perils in paradise. The sign in our room reads:
“Sitting under coconut trees can be dangerous. We advise you not to lie under a palm tree as coconuts can cause serious damage, injury and even death.” There are further warnings against sun burn (I know, having turned 50 shades of red and brown), and jelly fish. So far though, we are surviving.
The entire resort, as well as the nearby village, seems to be biodegradable: walls, roofs – everything is made from local wood and braided palm leaves. The rugs, the placemats, the coasters, the soap dishes, even the tissue box covers are made from grasses or coconut wood.
We watch local women walk the beach to gather anything for supper – perhaps some clams washed up in the weeds. They cut fallen palm fonds and stack them into bundles, to carry home on their heads to use for firewood or to fix the roof. Two little school boys walk the beach, on their way home every day. Each one carries a coconut on his head.
The waiter just walked from the restaurant to the beach where some fishermen were fishing. He picked something from the net, walked back and grinned “Calamari for lunch!” It doesn’t get any fresher than that. We’ve had nothing but fresh prawns, snapper and crab for lunch and dinner…
While The Tides Lodge is wonderful, I would check on the condition of the beach before coming next time. The sea is rapidly undermining the shore, eating away at sand and palm trees. We hear the high tide pounding all night and I worry at the rate at which the shore is disappearing.
And now, on the very last day of our amazing time in Africa, the wet season has arrived. Amazing tropical showers pour down once in a while, drenching everything. Time to go home…
The trip home took about 40 hours! We left Pangani, Tanzania in a small bush plane from a dirt runway. Spent many hours at Dar Es Salaam airport, which might just be one of the worst airports in the world. No place to sit, no place to eat… Hot, muggy, ánd a leaking ceiling.

The one good part was the airline agent who checked us in. We decided to splurge on a seat upgrade but – typical – the credit card machine wasn’t working. The agent came to find us later because he felt bad. And gave us the upgrade for free.

Once we got on board, we flew to Amsterdam where we had a hour and a half to board the next plane to the next continent: Seattle, USA.
There we had a hour and a half to make the flight to Victoria, Canada.
We did a lot of security and immigration checks in two days… Take your laptop out, take off your shoes, belt, jacket… Liquids in a ziploc bag… I always wonder who watches those full body scans…
Thanks to religious extremists in the Middle East, I can no longer take my hand lotion on a plane. But then they give you a plastic knife and a steaming piece of rubber meat to cut in a little plastic plate that slides across the plastic tray. Not sure which one is more dangerous… For two days we had unidentifiable veggies, brown things covered in sauce and a square of something. Airline food is a contradiction in terms.
I traveled to Africa with a large suitcase full of children’s books and clothing. I gave the books to Ethiopia Reads, an organization to provides books for children in small local schools. In Ethiopia I gave a bag of clothes to a street woman and the suitcase itself to the cleaning lady in my hotel. Both were thankful beyond words.
In Kenya I took clothes, books, stickers, pencils and some other little things to an orphanage. I also left clothes in my hotel room when I left.
The last clothes and shoes I had with me, I left upon leaving the last hotel: a scarf, a beach towel, a cap, a rain poncho. All of the things I took to Africa were things I was ready to part with. Instead of getting rid of them at home, ad instead of taking my best clothes, I took things I could discard along the way. I took shoes that were still fine to use but I’d had them for years. I took good clothes for my work in schools, but shirts I was ready to part with.
Not only did this make a lot of people very happy along the way. It also meant I had no laundry when I came home. On the return trip I used an expendable nylon bag to carry home my souvenirs! Cabin luggage only and no waiting for checked bags anywhere.
So, now we are back home sharing photos of zebras and lions with Nico and Aidan. And reflecting on our amazing trip of a life time. We are glad we asked Mambulu Safaris to do our bookings for us. Not only did they do a fantastic job finding us the most suitable places to stay, they arranged all of the little details. When you arrive at an airport in Africa, how do you get to your lodge? Do you have to agree on a taxi price before getting in? Do you tip?
We didn’t have to worry about any of that. We were greeted, upon each arrival, by someone with our name on a sign. They took us to the car, helped with luggage and even with getting visas, etc.
Not only that, but upon our first arrival in Tanzania they gave us emergency cards with phone numbers and arrangements to contact Flying Doctors IF we ever needed it. Thanks goodness we never needed it, but it was great to know everything was thought of.
Asanti sana, Mambulu, for a fantastic experience!
Mambulu! Safaris

Ngorogoro: In Search of Rhinos

 We left our lodge at 6 AM, driving along a cloud laden rim of the Ngorogoro crater.
We had heard about and read about this legendary place all of our lives. To finally see it in person was pretty overwhelming.
The bumpy track descended quite steeply into the Ngorogoro Crater.
Suddenly a large herd of wildebeest came spilling over the rim and down the slope. Like a dusty river, they stream down toward the white valley floor. Not all of them made it.
We soon came across several hyenas who had caught one of the wildebeests and were tearing it apart, even before it was fully dead. Faces dripping with blood, they enjoyed their early breakfast. The sight is nearly enough to make you a vegetarian…

We continued down.
The name Ngorogoro comes from the Maasai word for ‘clanging bells’, the sound made by the bells on their cattle. The Maasai here still have the right to roam and graze their cattle in certain areas of the crater.
The crater floor teems with wildlife: enormous herds of gazelles, wildebeest, zebra and buffalo. We spotted first a few lone male lions and then a pride of some 14 lions lazing on the rocks.
We saw cranes, storks and birds of all sizes and colors.
Warthog families graze the plain and hippos wallow in the shallow waters. Elephants crossed the fields in search of grass and water. The place seems like a regular Noah’s Arc, but with many more than just two of each kind.
But the most amazing sight of all, in this specific place, came before too long. Only 45 black rhino’s live in the crater and we spotted 4 of them! We were so very lucky to see these enormous beasts lumber along. They came pretty close. Our guide said that he often is on trips where they are not spotted at all, or at a great distance. But we were so lucky that two of the rhinos came closer and we were able to take good photos of this rare, endangered animal, of which there only are an estimated 5,000 left in the world. When will people ever learn?
In the afternoon we hiked, accompanied by a ranger with a large AK 47 rifle, along the edge of the crater, some 2,400 meters above sea level. The crater’s edge winds along for 74 KM and is about 600 meters higher than the crater floor. Even from this height we could spot herds of buffalo and elephants. As we walked, more and more Maasai materialized out of the woods. Women were cutting and gathering wood to bring home in bundles on their heads. Men and boys herded goats and cows. They all grinned and waved at us, sometimes staring more at us then I wanted to stare at them. Tall and skinny, with many beaded necklaces, they are beautiful, ebony people.
The walls of the crater are covered in lush, tropical forest. Some animals come and go as they please while others remain in the safety of this reserve. It has been amazing and a special privilege to visit this sanctuary. It felt like a peek inside the garden of Eden…

Serengeti: The Circle of Life

On Tuesday morning we left after breakfast after making a donation to the Lodge’s African Roots Foundation. With very little money they make a huge difference in the lives of the Maasai by supplying them with water containers and a filter. Where the Maasai used to rely on tick brown water from a nearby pond, from which all cattle also drink, they now scoop that water into the filters and out comes crystal clear drinking water. This simple tool has drastically reduced illness among the Maasai. ARF also runs other projects, always aimed at improving the lives of people while protecting the natural environment. This is a great cause for individuals and schools to support.

Check out: http://africanrootsfoundation.org

I knew that the Serengeti was a long way from home. We flew and drove for many days to visit this lifelong dream of ours. But no one told me it would involve hundreds of kilometers on the worst bumpy, dusty, rocky tracks… Bone jarring, teeth rattling miles of washboard tracks…. Everything in our car is covered in a layer of dust. The good pavement ends abruptly at the entrance gate to Ngorogoro Crater. The view of the crater is spectacular, with not much human influence in sight.

After that the track continues across hills and plains, up onto ever higher escarpments until we are at 2,400 meters. Once you reach Serengeti all you see if flat endless grasslands. Serengeti means ‘endless plain’ in Swahili, a very appropriate name. We were anxious to take a photo of us at an entrance gate of this world famous park. All we saw was a crooked little wooden sign. No fancy visitors centre, no impressive entrance to one of the most well known national parks in the world.

But here we were, finally, in the Serengeti! I did have goosebumps to finally see this place with my own eyes. Without the first half hour we saw four lions. And then the impala. Herds of them. More and more animals until, on the second day, we caught up to the migrating wildebeest and zebras. Thousands of them, sometimes grazing and drinking and running in different directions, yet always streaming toward the same unseen destination. Their ancient pattern follows calving, moving with the seasons to food and water. Thousands of dusty bodies moving in a river of animals across the plains.

Elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetahs… the plains are teeming with wildlife. The baboons are fun to watch as whole troops walk by. The young ones climb trees and pester the old ones. The tiny little ones ride cowboy style on their mothers’ backs or cling to their front. They stop, eat seeds, swing from bush to bush and walk along.

We have watched many prides of lions. Often a dominant male with several lionesses and young ones. We watch them stalk buffalo and wildebeest, hoping to separate one to hunt. My favorite pride was reclining on rocks that looked exactly like Pride Rock in the Lion King.

I woke at 4 AM to the grumbles of a lion and the call of hyena. At 5:15 we woke up and headed out to watch the savannah come to live with the first rays of sun. I asked, in camp, if they’ve had any animals nearby. “Yeah, last week a cheetah killed a wildebeest by tent #5,” was the response.

  • The numbers in Serengeti: 14,500 square KM
  • 300,000 zebras
  • Over 2 million wildebeest!
  • Swahili:

Jambo – hello

Asanti – thank you

asanti sana – thank you very much

karibu – welcome, you’re welcome

For two days we managed these early morning game drives, getting up at 5:30 to leave at 6 AM. We watch lions on the prowl, closing in on buffalo and wildebeest but not managing to make a kill. We watch a croc grab a wildebeest and try to drown him. But, after a long while, the wildebeest wins and escapes back to the herd, leaving one cranky, hungry crocodile to look for a new breakfast.Another wildebeest was not so lucky and got stuck in the thick mud, dying a slow death but supplying food for many animals who were patiently waiting.We watch days-old zebras and wildebeest gallop alongside their mama’s and an old, lonely lion wander the plains. This is ‘The Lion King Live’ and a bit surreal.Many animas gathered at waterholes, ever weary for predators hiding in the tall grass. The lions, perhaps, seem to have the best camouflage of all – looking like heaps of hay in the waiving yellow grass. All animals are vastly different, yet they all blend in perfectly in the same environment: the sand colored cheetahs with their spots of shade are hard to see. The pattern on the giraffes is just like that of shadows cast by the branches of the acacia trees they browse. We are lucky to see three caravels, very rare cats with pointed, tufted ears.In the cool, morning hours no flies bother us. But by noon, especially near trees, I become an all-you-can-eat buffet for tetse flies. We drink gallons of water all day and night. But if you have to pee during a game drive, you have a problem. There are not many spots where you can safely get out of the car… a lion or leopard can literally be behind any little hill.

We stopped by the Maasai Kopjes, a rocky place almost exactly in the center of Serengeti. To me, it looks identical to Pride Rock in The Lion King. I can just picture Simba on top of the tallest, straight rock looking out over the plains. We’ve seen sly, old Mufasa stalking. We’ve also met Poomba and Timone in person! The circle of life continues here: the Serenget shall never die.

 We enjoy learning from one of the young men in Kati Kati Camp (meaning ‘centre of Serengeti’). He is Maasai and told us in detail how he and 14 other young men from his village, set off into the bush for their coming of age initiation. Each brings a cow. They burn a stick into a spear and that is all they own. They may face lions, or elephants or any other dangers. And they live solely on blood, milk and meat. No water…! No alcohol, no women. These young men dress in black blankets, for this special period, and have faces painted black with white stripes. We see them, occasionally, on the side of the road as they wander the countryside. They have strict rules of conduct and serve almost as wildlife wardens when they see any poaching or illegal hunting.  This young man, who was a waiter at the camp, told us he wants to be an animal doctor. He has vast knowledge of traditional medicine and wants to learn more about modern medicine for animals. He has a meeting at the college in Arusha soon to see if they will let him continue his studies. “But I may have to sell another cow to have enough money,” he says wistfully.

Speaking several languages and a few words of Swahili now, has not helped with misunderstandings and confusions…At Kati Kati camp we were told that beer was four dollars and soft drinks were free. When we went to pay, after 3 days, we discovered that the ‘free’ was ‘three’…We asked for a wake up call at 5:50 but they came knocking at 5:15 because they misunderstood…During our visit to Oldevai Gorge we found out that the name really is Oldupai but a German scientist mispelled it many, many years ago. This world renowned valley where mankind’s oldest traces have been found by the Leakey’s, is a dusty, wind swept place. We expected an impressive museum, possibly built by Unesco. Instead we found one lonely Maasai guy manning a little gate. Once we entered the compound, there was a rinky dink old museum with old, faded photos on the wall. The story remains impressive: of how the Leakey’s and other archeaologists have unearthed, so to speak, the oldest footprints of humans found on earth: 3.5 million years ago a father, son and mother walked in this valley leaving tracks in volcanic ash.  It took me a while to figure out that the park ranger, who took us on a guided hike along the edge of the Ngorogoro crater, was not talking of cooking when he mentioned the Maasai kettles. Turned out he meant the Maasai’s cattle.He also kept talking of elephant pups. After a while I wondered if he really didn’t know that baby elephants are called ‘calves’, not pups. But then he poked in huge elephant droppings and I realized he was talking about the multiple poop of elephants… Interestingly, he explained that the partly digested, dry dung contains a lot of bark, plants and grasses that are medicinal. He said “we burn the pups (poops…) and put a blanket over our head to inhale the smoke to cure illnesses….” Suddenly, my grandmother’s bowl of menthol steam that I had to inhale as a kid did not seem so bad anymore…The many ‘bastards’ flying around Serengeti turned out to be buzzards… But the story that crowns it all was one I was told by a lovely lady who came home one day and her housekeeper, a proper Christian woman, told her in a loud voice that the fucking machine wasn’t working… “What?” she gasped. “Yes,” the housekeeper repeated very annoyed, “the fucking machine isn’t working.” It took a while until she finally showed her the machine in question that she understood it was the ‘vacuum machine’…Language barriers.. You gotta love’ em.

Safari Adventures

Sunday, March 15, 2015

After 3 weeks in international schools, it is now time to explore a part of Africa we have been dreaming off for more than 40 years!
When we were first dating, all that time ago, Kees pinned a map of Africa on the wall and we dreamed of working as park ranger somewhere in that mysterious land. We read many books of African travels, animals and parks. Books by Jane Goodall – when I raised baby chimpanzees in a primate center; books by elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton whom we once met; books by the Dr. Louis and Mary Leakey and Joy Adamson’s Born Free.
We chose to move to Canada to embark on a park career, and Africa went to the back burner. We never were able to go. Until now.
It is a dream come true to now travel through Tanzania together.
We flew from Dar Es Salaam, where it was incredible hot and humid, in a tiny airplane to Zanzibar. There we changed to a larger 12 seater which flew us back to the mainland, across the plains and to the hills of northern Tanzania to the town of Arusha.

Thanks to Mambulu Safaris (http://www.mambulu.com), a small, personal travel agency in The Netherlands, we have been able to compose an itinerary that allows us to explore the specific places we want to see, and to experience the parks and wildlife of Africa.
We stayed in a wooden cabin clinging to the green hillside outside Arusha in the shadow of Mt Meru, Tanzania’s second highest mountain. All day we drove and walked through Arusha National Park. We saw large herds of buffalo, strolled (almost) among giraffes with a park ranger and spotted pink flamingo’s, colobus monkeys, gorgeously elegant crowned cranes and a large troop of baboons. We also managed to snap photos of other exotic birds and stately trees.
This area of Tanzania is very green and lush. We walked, together with a park ranger with a large rifle, to a 30 meter high waterfall.
We picnicked overlooking Mammelo Lakes and visited a crater, like a small Ngorogoro, thick with green grass and herds of buffalo.

It was great to come back, after all the heat and dust, to a pool and a cold drink. The lodge has a large log and canvas restaurant overlooking the green gorge, and good food, too.

On Sunday March 8, our driver Charles picked us up at 8. He is a nice, quiet young man and a cautious driver. He will be with us for the next 8 days or so. The best part is that our entire safari is just for the two of us – no group of other people along!

It was a long drive but over beautiful, new pavement from Arusha to Tarangira National Park. The dusty, rusty entrance did not instill in us a sense of expectation. However, no sooner were we inside the safe boundaries of the park or we saw elephants. We took many photos of the first three young bulls we saw, very close by. But soon we came upon a herd of 20 or 30. Followed by yet another and another herd. Most with tiny new babies and elephants of all sizes. By the end of the afternoon we must have seen hundreds of elephants! Amazing. And so heartening to know that there are still such safeholds for them. We also saw giraffes, zebras, a lion and two leopards! And of course the by now common bushbucks, waterbucks, and impala.

At lunch, a monkey stole one lady’s sandwich. She watched it climb a tree, carefully peel off the plastic wrap and then pick out the tomato and lettuce, and throw those out before eating the rest.

We drove, for much of today, through Masaai land. A black paved road and a parallel running power line are two ugly scars across their traditional pastures. We spotted boma’s: a small round hut, one for each family member. So you can tell if a man has two or three wives. Once, we passed a huge group of huts. Our guide laughed and told us “This man has married 22 wives. They now have many children and grandchildren, and even their own school.”

Our tent camp for the night was a surprise: an open air shower, large private tents, even with a flush toilet, and a real safari mess tent, with a fire in front. I am now writing this by the last light of the setting sun, round and red over Lake Manyara, sitting in the mess tent and feeling like I am in an Out of Africa movie.… The music is that of birds and of clanging bells on many goats coming home for the night with their Masaai herder.

Meeting the Maasai
This morning at 7 AM we met a young Masaai warrior who took us to the nearby boma. When we arrived at the thorny gate, he removed a large bunch of branches with his stick. Masaai are almost born with a stick in their hand. They use this as an extra limb to cope with rocks, uneven ground, animals, snakes, prodding goats and cattle, thorny bushes and much more. They receive their first stick around age 8 or 9, when the young boy becomes the goat herder – a most important job. They don’t seem to be able to part with their stick: we even see bicycle riding Masaai with the stick somehow in their hand.
To the right, inside the enclosed circle of huts, is the house of the first wife.
To the left are the houses of any subsequent wives and those of the young men. A house is constructed in about a week, with a frame of thin branches, stuffed with cowdung as insulation. This is plastered on the outside with a smooth finish of earth obtained from termite hills mixed with cow dung and water.
The cows are in their own separate boma, as well as the goats, each protected by more thorny branches.
The Masaai are probably one of very few cultures left who live such a traditional lifestyle. No TV or any other modern conveniences. They are no longer nomadic but live a very primitive life which includes a strong hierarchy. After the boy becomes a goat herder, he will become a warrior at age 15 when he is circumcised. He then has to go off into the bush for 2 or 3 months, all by himself, without water or food but with a cow. The Masaai still drink milk mixed with blood. After he returns – originally this included the killing of a lion but that is no longer done because of conservation policies – he is now ready to marry the woman his elders chose for him. As a man becomes wealthier, he needs more wives to give him children who will look after the cattle. The more sons, the more cows he can own.
“Our family has 30 cows,” our young guide told us, “we are considered a poor family. A wealthy man may have 3000 cows!”
Our guide wore sandals made from motorbike tires – very strong and helpful to navigate the many sharp rocks on the savannah.
Young children peeked out of the boma. We entered one and saw a small fire pit in the centre (no roof hole for smoke to escape), a sitting bench build into the wall and a bed constructed of branches, lined with a cow hide. On the wall was one peg holding a large beadwork collar. A gourd was hanging on the wall and used to collect water, milk or blood.
That was the extent of their earthly possessions.
The Masaai do not hunt and they do not grow crops. So their impact on the environment is very low.
Our guide told us he had gone to school in a town. “I was so surprised,” he said, “to see people eating vegetables! And fish!” He grinned and said he tried vegetables but did not like them very much… A typical Maasai diet consists of ugali, corn meal mush with milk, for breakfast. More ugali for lunch and ugali for dinner, sometimes with meat if and when the family can afford to butcher and roast a goat.
Considering the fact that we run a B & B, I am very glad that some rules differ in our culture… The Maasai are very hospitable and offer a bed to any visiting warriors. However, the husband leaves the boma while the woman stays. It is her decision as to whether she wants to sleep with the visitor… This rule, too, is because of the high infant mortality rate….
As we strolled around the boma, the young women produced necklaces and bracelets. We bought a large one of intrigued beadwork, for about 20.-
The rest of the day we drove around Lake Manyara National Park and spotted our first wildebeest! We also saw lots of baboons, giraffes, elephants and other animals in this beautiful lush green park where steep slopes of the escarpment meets the flat surface of the lake bed.
That night, just before sunset, the Maasai came to dance for us. Tall skinny men and a bunch of young girls, all wearing brightly colored shukas (blankets) and the girls with their round beaded necklaces. The dances consisted mostly of high jumps by the men, and the girls deciding who was the best jumper. There was much chanting and laughing and the colors, in the setting sun, were breathtaking..

Creation of Hope – a Kenyan orphanage with Canadian roots

Several years ago, Canadian author Eric Walters had a chance meeting with a woman from Kenya. Ruth and her husband Henry spent some time in Canada but longed to make a difference for people in their home country, Kenya. Eric also longed to make a difference and to connect young people in Canada with those in Africa.
Eric and his wife Anita founded Creation of Hope, an organization to help better the lives of orphans in Kenya. Ruth and Henry offered their land in the high hills of the Mbooni region, outside Nairobi.
Miraculously, things have been falling into place every since their fortunate meeting: people wanted to help, schools and individuals started sponsoring children. Young boys and girls without any family would have likely ended up as street children without any hope in their future. Now these same children have clean clothes, a bed and a regular meals. They attend school and even have the opportunity of university in their future.
Eric works very hard to support the 60 some children in the care of Ruth and her staff. He also encourages schools and anyone interested, to help financially. It is amazing to see how much they have accomplished.
They have been able to build a large multilevel building with dorms for boys and girls, a kitchen, a dining area and bathrooms with running water.
The stove uses bio fuel produced from manure from their own cows!
A huge garden provides healthy food like beans, corn, kale, tomatoes, lots of strawberries and mangoes. They bake their own bread and sell cakes to the community.

Eric has written several beautiful books based on his African adventures. To write his new novel, Walking Home, he actually walked across Kenya with a group of orphans. They crossed the second largest slum area in the world: Kibera. They walked hundreds of kilometers, in Kenyan heat, all the way to the hills of Kikima where the orphanage now looks out over the valleys. When you purchase this novel, $1.30 is donated to Creation of Hope.

In his picture books Hope Springs and My Name is Blessings he shares stories of real children in his care. The first one tells the touching tale of how a well was build to provide water and how the children reached out to the broader community to help a nearby village as well.

The children all attend school. Some are now awaiting exam results in hopes of continuing their education. Some girls are now in university and everyone beams with pride when they talk about their success.

In addition to the children living in the orphanage, they sponsor another 100+ children who live with a friend or relative. These children are given their own goat to get ahead in life, and food is brought regularly. Ruth smiles and says “When people ask how many children I have, most people will say 2 or 3 or 5. I say 160!” And she smiles as proudly as any mother would.

It was a privilege to visit the Walters’ success story in Kenya and to meet the very impressive Ruth who quietly moves mountains. And it was special to meet the kids whose happy grins tell the whole story.
If you would like to support Eric Walters’ Creation of Hope, you can make a donation or even sponsor a child as an ongoing commitment: