Don’t Look Down! Final Chapter

September 27, 2013

By my second foray into the jungle to meet Pygmy tribes, I had learned a few things.  First, you will notice I’m NOT carrying my purse!
Zaire032I am also wearing a longer skirt. Despite the varying states of undress of the natives, a white woman’s knees would have been considered “enticing” to the tribe we were about to meet.  This route also went deep into the jungle and at one point, we had to cross a river using the fern covered log that served as a bridge.

Zaire033The water below was not the least bit appealing and I did my best to not look down as I crossed.  Once safely on the other side, my pilot/guide said “Sure good thing no one fell in, there are piranhas in that river.”  NOW you tell me!

Zaire034Once again we came to a clearing and found what were now familiar huts.  There was one under construction so I got a chance to see the simple, yet effective design.  Long, thin, flexible branches are collected and all the leaves removed.   One end is sunk deep into the earth then an arch is formed and the other end is also anchored into the ground.  The series of arches create the frame which is then covered with large leaves.

Zaire022Again, the band was very welcoming even though we had to rely on pantomimes and smiles rather than words.  It was apparent that despite how harsh the conditions were for ALL the residents of Zaire, now the Congo, it was especially so for the Pygmy tribes.

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In addition to the natural challenges of living deep in an inhospitable jungle, the Congo war was heating up when I was there.  Within days of my visit to this band of Pygmies, the rebels overran the nearest village and during the course of the next few years, over 70,000 Pygmies fell victim to the violence that still plagues this region.

My pilot/guide/host was monitoring rebel movement via short wave radio and a couple of days after my Pygmy visit he announced, “I think it’s time we leave.”  We packed up, loaded the plane and headed back into Kenya.  There, on my hotel television, I received the news that the country which was Zaire when I arrived a couple of weeks ago had been taken over and was now to be known as the Congo.  The hospital, schools and most of the buildings of the mission station were destroyed.  A doctor and his family walked through the jungle to Uganda to escape.

One of my husband’s nieces has been on the Mercy Ship for the past 2 years and is getting off when it docks on the west coast of the Congo in a few weeks.  My deepest admiration goes to all those who volunteer in this harsh place to try and bring some peace and comfort to the native people so long ravished by disease, poverty and tribal war.

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As I close my eyes to sleep in my comfortable bed, I think back to the time I slept under a mosquito net and the glimpse into a world few ever get to see that I was fortunate enough to have.

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Deep in the Jungle, Part 3

September 20, 2013

Not only did I hike out into the jungle to meet Pygmies with my PURSE, I was also wearing ALL my jewelry – diamond rings, diamond stud earrings – all the classic hallmarks of a rookie traveler which I was at the time!  Fortunately, though they did notice, these items and their value was not relevant in the world in which they live.

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I had brought candy and toys for the children.  They didn’t know to unwrap the candies before popping them into their mouths as they had never had a candy before.  Since we didn’t share a common language, pantomime and lots of smiles aided communication.

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The women quickly took me into their huts to show me what they were cooking for dinner.  I couldn’t imagine a family huddling together in the small area of one of their huts to eat and sleep.  Hardly the spacious living quarters most of us enjoy!

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The men used handcrafted bows and arrows to hunt birds and small animals in the jungle.  Women gathered nuts, fruits and other edible plants to complete their diet.  Being nomadic, the tribe did not plant crops but rather harvested what the jungle provided and then moved on when there was no more food in that area.

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I did say that my jewelry did not go unnoticed.  One of the women gestured to my diamond stud earrings and then proceeded to show me how they pierce their ears and weave plants and flowers together to make ear ornamentation.  She even gifted me with the tools they used to pierce – two porcupine quills which I still have to this day.
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This was the first of two treks made deep into the jungles of Zaire, now the Congo, to meet Pygmy tribes.  Next week I’ll share some photos from the 2nd hike which included crossing a river, a close up look at the huts under construction and more!

A Long Way from Home, Zaire Part 2

September 13, 2013

Once on the ground, the harsh realities of life in Zaire quickly became apparent.  Officials had to be bribed with “gifts” to allow our entry and cameras hidden deep in a compartment under the seat in our plane to keep them from being “taxed” or worse, confiscated.

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The “roads” were mud tracks through the fields and the market serving the area did not inspire holiday shopping.

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In order to visit the Pygmy tribes, we had to first obtain permission from the local Chief.  Even though the Pygmies are not part of his tribe, he is responsible for everyone in his region, including the nomadic Pygmies.  Our visit with the Chief was interesting, one of his only questions was “Do you have a camera?”  We hesitantly admitted yes not knowing what would come next.  We were surprised when he asked us to take a picture of him with his wives, children, brother and security chief.  With that we had his blessing for our visit.

Local Chief with Family

Local Chief with Family

Zaire020Now the Pygmies do not live on a street or in a neighborhood.  They live deep in the jungle and we had a local missionary who, armed with a machete to clear a footpath, led the way to their current camp.  He also shared some of the edible plants and fruits we found along the way.

Zaire028The trail was thick with vegetation and the ground, slick red mud.  Even with a walking stick, climbing up some of the hills was challenging.  Coming down was just as difficult and I ended up being the only member of our group who was NOT covered head to heel with mud from sliding down one of these paths.  My socks were definitely beyond saving though!

Zaire021After about an hour hiking, we came to a small clearing with several huts made from bent branches and leaves.  At first we didn’t see anyone, but upon seeing our missionary guide, suddenly dozens of what appeared to be children came running out of their jungle hiding places.   The adults were not much larger than the adolescent children but interestingly, the babies and younger children did not appear smaller than their western counterparts.  It seemed the dwarf stature became obvious about the time of puberty.

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Yes, I’m the travel novice with a PURSE out in the middle of the jungle!
Next week I’ll share more of our visit, let you see inside the huts and more!

Zaire/Congo

September 6, 2013

I recently had a chance to once again listen to Helen Thayer share her amazing adventures such as walking solo with a dog to the North Pole.  In the Q&A session that followed, she was asked where she would like to go. The Congo to live among the Pygmies was one of her goals not yet realized due to the dangerous political climate that still exists there today.

While I did not “live” among the Pygmies, on my first trip to Africa in October of 1996, I hiked out into the jungles of what was then Zaire (now the Congo) and met with 2 different Pygmy tribes.  I thought I’d share my unique adventure with you here over the next couple of weeks.

Those of you who know the “Travel Queen” for luxury experiences may be surprised, but I’ve always had an adventurous spirit.  In 1996 there was no tourism in Zaire.  There was already unrest and tribal skirmishes between the Hutu and Tutsis.   I traveled into and around the country on a missionary visa in a 5 person MAF plane and stayed on the mission station near the schools and hospitals built there with private donations to serve the local population.  These were the ONLY educational and medical facilities in the country.

Zaire002The scenery flying into Zaire from Kenya was spectacular!  Towering trees, huge cliffs, waterfalls and Lake Victoria.

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Shores of Lake Victoria

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My favorite sight from above was of the villages surrounded by what appeared to be planted circles of trees.  In fact, these are Acacia bushes planted around a village or cut branches woven into a “fence”.  The large, sharp thorns of this nature plant serve as an effective deterrent to carnivorous wildlife who would otherwise raid the village of chickens, goats and yes, even people!  No Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore!

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Chocolate Lovers Dream

August 23, 2013

Name your favorite food.  For so many people the answer is chocolate.  Those who regularly eat chocolate like to justify it with “health benefits” but let’s face it – it’s chocolate!  Did you really need a good excuse to indulge?

Chocolate TastingHow about a weekend of indulgence?  How about indulging at a discount?  Home Run, one of the daily discount sites is offering admission for 2 on Sunday, September 22nd to the Northwest Chocolate Festival.  Sample chocolate from over 50 artisan chocolate and pastry artists plus learn more about your favorite food.  I’m sure you can find lots more reasons to justify your love of chocolate!  Sounds like a great way to spend a weekend with someone you love – or a fellow chocolate lover and for only $35 – that’s HALF-OFF!  Have an odd number of friends (3, 5 or more?) Living Social has the same value on single tickets!

Can’t make that Chocolate Festival?  There are LOTS of chocolate festivals to choose from.  Type “Chocolate Festival” into your favorite search engine and be prepared to be amazed – I certainly was!  February is “off season” at the beaches of Washington so you can book a reasonable priced room for the 7th Annual Chocolate on the Beach Festival.

Portland has Chocolate Fest in January.  Enumclaw paired wines with Chocolate for their festival.  Port Orchard will have their first Chocolate Festival in November which opens with a Chocolate Ball followed by 2 days of chocolate fun!

Tasty Chocolate Festivals are not limited to the Pacific Northwest.  You can make a Chocolate Festival part of your travels to placeschocolate_fest ranging from Mobile, Alabama to Belize to Hawaii and beyond!  Communities both large and small are hosting Chocolate Festivals – many as fundraisers for worthy charities (see, another good excuse to indulge).

hershey-kisseesOf course, the “ultimate” for chocolate lovers could be “Chocolate-Covered February” in the home of Chocolate here in the USA, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Great memories often center around great food.  Take a girl friend, your sister, your lover, your spouse and indulge in a little chocolate.  Life is so much sweeter – with chocolate!

Nothing to “Wine” About

August 16, 2013

WAWine2011Washington Wine Weekend has begun.  When you think of a wine vacation, you may automatically think of Napa, Sonoma – the California wine region.  Certainly you can go there any time of the year and visit wineries, taste great wines and have some fun.  But there are also wine festivals all over the country, including some places you might not expect!

Here in Seattle there are wine events all year long.  Home to many boutique wineries, you can book a tour or just go visit on your own. Wine Country On the other side of the mountains in Eastern Washington, where the grapes are grown, there are even more wineries.  You can find wine events all over the area including one next weekend at Snoqualmie Casino complete with live music and over 20 local wines.

But don’t think you have to be on the west coast to enjoy a wine getaway!  There are wine festivals in North Carolina, Florida and even Iowa!  A useful website is http://www.localwineevents.com.  You can find wine events all over the country in places that range from actual wineries to art galleries.  With all these great options available in all price ranges, you surely will find nothing to “Wine About”!

Barefoot Dining

August 9, 2013

On our anniversary, we had dinner on the beach in Aruba.  Like many beach resort areas, Aruba has a number of dining on the sand options.  
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The Westin sets up tables for the number of guests who have booked.  They have a great view of the sunset and a very nice menu but all the beaches in Aruba are PUBLIC so there are people frolicking in the surf and on the sand right in front of your romantic dinner.

This is actually a factor to consider at several of the dining spots.  One of the more popular dining on the beach options is Passions.  Part of the Amsterdam Manor all-inclusive resort, it accommodates both guests and outside diners.

The palapas also can be a factor when selecting a romantic dinner on the beach location. Many of the resorts have these thatched roof “umbrellas” to provide shade on the beach for their guests.  We had dinner one night at Matthews Beachside restaurant and found both the busy beach and the palapas greatly reduced our enjoyment of what was otherwise a lovely meal.  The palapas, unlike a traditional umbrella, cannot be closed or taken down. In the case of Matthews, we couldn’t appreciate the sunset because we couldn’t see it through all the palapas!
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Our favorite beach dining location was Barefoot.  Billed as “Elegant dining in flipflops” it was all that and more!  Located far enough from the busy resorts to have minimal beach traffic and an unobstructed sunset view, it was the perfect setting.  Yes, it is close to the airport and you can see a plane or two come in for a landing but that is, in itself, rather interesting.  It’s Aruba so we’re only talking about a couple of planes in an evening – not a couple of planes every few minutes.  The food was outstanding.  The service attentive without being intrusive.
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My personal favorite takeaway from the evening;  the Royal Mojito.  A typical Mojito but with champagne in place of the traditional soda water.  Oh yeah!  I’ve been ordering all my Mojitos “royal” (yes, I have to explain what that means but all the bartenders get it and think it’s a great idea) ever since we got back.
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How do you find the perfect beach dining experience on your next vacation?  Use the internet.  Once you’ve identified options, look at the photos on their websites.  You can usually review the menu on line as well.  Read reviews of both the food AND the settings on 3rd party review sites.   If you arrive a few days ahead, go check it out in person to be sure when the special night arrives you’ll have the romantic experience you were expecting.

Aruba-doo

August 4, 2013

Aruba is blessed with an average of 20 mph wind ALL THE TIME.  It can be more, sometimes less and aruba-doo95% of the time in an easterly direction.  What that means is that it’s more comfortable (less humid) than most of the rest of the Caribbean in the summer.  It will mess your hair, but we grew fond of what we came to call our “Aruba-doo”.

The wind and their location beyond the typical hurricane belt is why we selected it for our annual July honeymoon this year.  There are a lot of other pluses to Aruba as well.

Aruba signIt’s billed as “One Happy Island” and indeed, the people are very nice.  English is spoken EVERYWHERE.  The electric outlets are the same voltage and configuration as here in the US so you don’t need converters or special plug adapters.  US dollars are also accepted everywhere and many prices are even quoted in US dollars.  They drive on the same side of the road as we do here in the States so if you rent a car, for a day or for your entire trip, you won’t have trouble driving.  It’s clean – we didn’t see a restaurant we would be afraid to eat in and we found the food to be both familiar enough and still different enough to be interesting.  There are also a number of casinos so there is adult entertainment for after dark and various musical entertainment at the different resorts as well.

A great resource if you want to plan an Aruba vacation is called “How to Enjoy Aruba”.  It’s a free booklet full of practical, useful information on everything from where to stay to what to do and even where to eat.  The author was raised in Aruba and visits several times a year so it’s like having a local show you around.  I took much of his advice and found it helpful.

Here are the LAND BASED things we did that we especially enjoyed:

The caves.  There are 2 you can visit and we went to both.  They are both in the Arikok National Park so once you pay the Guadirikiri Cavesadmission, plan to visit both.  You can do this on your own with a rental car or you can book the tours with one of the local tour companies.  We went on our own but did see the tour group as we were leaving the first cave.  Fontein features both Indian paintings and a natural spring “fountain”.  There is a local there to show you around and answer questions.   The Guadirikiri Cave  didn’t have a guide but there was a sign that it is home to bats.  Yes, we saw some but they didn’t seem to pay any attention to us.  This cave is large and you can visit 2 chambers.  We used the flashlight apps on our cellphones as our torches and that was sufficient to see in the dark passages between the chambers.  We didn’t see any lizards or iguanas in the park but they were in abundance at our resort.

Iguana

While in the park you can visit the sand dunes.  Not the most impressive dunes you’ll ever see but hey, you’re there so you might as well take time to appreciate them.

Casibari Rock FormationsCasibari Rock Formations.  These natural rock formations are interesting and there are paths to let you explore them.  Some stairs and not handicapped friendly but worth a visit if you can appreciate them.

Same is true for Mt. Hooiberg.  Sure, calling it a “mountain” is a stretch – more a hill but it is the highest point on the island Stairs up Mt. Hooibergso it’s their “mountain”.  Not for the weak kneed, it’s 587 steps – yes, actual STAIRS – to the top.  There are a couple of places to stop on the way and catch some shade and have a sip (be sure to bring water).  It’s still a LONG steep uphill climb.  You’ll be grateful for the wind.  Great view (and even more wind) from the top.  Not a good place to sit and take it all in but we managed.

Top of Mt. Hooiberg

Donkey Sanctuary ArubaAfter your visit to the top of Mt. Hooiberg, stop at the Donkey Sanctuary.  For a donation you can make friends with the donkeys and even have them eating out of your hand!

Nearby (at the coast) is the “natural bridge” – the big one collapsed a few years agoBushirbana Gold Mine Aruba but there still is one to see though not as impressive.  Also the Bushirbana gold mine smelter ruins dating from 1825 are a fun place to explore and take some creative photos.

Lastly, the Ostrich Farm.  It was a little pricey to visit and the only big attraction was getting to feed them for a photo opp.  We had planned to have lunch there, the cafe shown on their website looks great and hey, an ostrich burger at the ostrich farm sounded just wrong enough but when we arrived we learned it had burned down earlier in the year so there was no place to eat.   No, to date they haven’t updated their website…

Ostrich Farm Aruba

You can skip a visit to the California Lighthouse unless you are just checking off Lighthouses around the world.  Someone jumped from the top a couple of years ago so you can no longer go inside.  There’s a great Italian restaurant in the shadow of the lighthouse so you can snap a quick picture when you go to dinner if you are so inclined.

Caspari "signage"In the booklet I mentioned earlier he stresses how little signage there is along the roads.  THIS IS TRUE.   We had to “feel our way” a lot – we could see Mt. Hooiberg but the road that leads you to it is not marked and takes you though a neighborhood.  The locals have made their own sign to point you to the Casibari Rock formation, no doubt tired of pointing the way to countless lost tourists.   If you go prepared to make wrong turns and consider it part of the adventure, you’ll not only be fine, you’ll have fun! 

An Uber Good Idea

July 26, 2013

Do you cringe at the thought of getting into a cab?  Too many of them are just gross!  Lots of old, beat up and dirty interiors where we try not to touch anything!  In an unfamiliar city, we often fear of “being taken for a ride”.  You know what I mean, “Is this the most direct route or one intended to run up the meter?”

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Then there’s paying.  Yes, many display credit card logos but rarely have I had a cabbie who seemed happy to see my Visa card.  So usually you need cash and I just don’t carry much cash.

towncarTown Car services have existed for a long time but they need to be set up.  Unless you already have an account with a car service, you’re not going to call one when you need a ride home from an extended happy hour with friends.  Where certainly nice, they are a bit pricey and are limited to your home or the frequently visited city where they are based.

The best of both worlds is Uber.  A free app on your phone, it let’s you call for a car in a growing number of major cities.  Like a Town Car service, you need to set it up but it takes only a few minutes.  One set up covers you in any Uber city.  You enter your credit card and even set the tip percentage you want included as the default.

When you need a car, you request one using the app.  Your phone’s GPS provides your location and you can alter it if its not 100% accurate.  You will get a text confirming your request giving you both the estimated time to pick up (usually within 5-15 minutes) and a photo of your driver.  You’ll get another text or call when your driver arrives.  You get a receipt in your email.

We’ve used them both to and from SeaTac airport on our most recent trip.  Both experiences were impressive!  Quick, clean, good condition black cars with neat, friendly, professionally dressed drivers and even bottled water waiting in the back seat- all for less than we usually pay for a traditional taxi!

Time of day doesn’t matter either.  We went to the airport at 10 PM and it was after midnight when we landed.  You don’t have to just use them for the airport.After dropping us off at home, our driver planned to stay in the area to provide rides for people who have been barhopping.

Visiting New York?  San Francisco? Dallas?  Chicago?  Even Phoenix?  Check the growing number of cities where Uber offers service – even some international cities!  We are converts to this great, hassle-free service and will be using it regularly from now on!

PNVY: Mackinac Island

July 19, 2013

PNVY stands for Places Not Visited YET.  Like most of you, I have a list of places I’d like to see.  My friend, Marcia Brixey is a big proponent of “dream boards”.  She believes that what you see you make happen.  Rather than photos on poster board, I am writing a blog and posting links on a Pinterest board for my PNVY.

Mackinac Island scene

Mackinac Island is one of those places.  A small island (3.8 square miles), part of Michigan and located in Lake Huron, there virtually NO motor vehicles on the island and 80% of the land is a State Park.  Intrigued?  I am!

Imagine getting off the ferry and traveling to your hotel in a horse drawn carriage.  If you saw the classic Christopher Reeves film, “Somewhere in Time”, it was filmed here at the Grand Hotel.  Sit on the 660 foot porch (said to be the longest in the world) and just unwind.

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That doesn’t mean there is nothing to do here – quite the contrary.  You can take a several hour cruise to a lighthouse or any number of other cruises offered.  There is a renown butterfly house, a historical fort plus plenty of shops, galleries and restaurants.

For 10 days in June, there is a lilac festival and how could you NOT want to visit a place that each August hosts a Fudge Festival!?!  Even if you don’t happen to visit during the annual Fudge Festival, there are 6 – count ’em – 6 fudge shops on this tiny island all making delectable, irresistible fudge.

There’s also a lot of entertainment on the island from comedy to music.  Several music festivals take place at different times of the year and there is music in the park in the summer.

Can’t get away in the summer?  Mackinac Island has something to offer any time of year and HGTV named it a Top Ten Christmas Town.

No doubt you’ve probably just added Mackinac Island to your travel wish list.  Look around when you are there, you may just see me, your Travel Queen!

 


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