Friday, February 23, 2007

I got it bad

Trips and chips, I take one, and I just gotta have more. For those of us afflicted with severe wanderlust, it’s insidious. An intense longing to travel every path that winds through this amazing planet.

I have only been back from Africa 5 weeks. But dreams of exploring new places, saying “hello” in a different language, waking up wondering what unknown adventures the day will bring, distract me more every day. Not to the point of chucking my job, selling the house and hitting the road for a couple of years, (not yet anyway), but the ache has me checking out places on the internet, reading travel books again, and gazing at my office wall, where this hangs:

Hard to say what causes a virulent case of itchy feet. But I remember the first time it struck me. I was 12 or so, in London for the first time, having mostly only traveled in Canada before that. Our hotel, near Marble Arch, looked over a wide street, bustling even before dawn as I sat in a window seat looking out, too excited to sleep. I was enthralled by the strangeness of ordinary things, like the double deckers, big black taxis, red telephone booths, men in raincoats and shoes, not parkas and galoshes in January.

Over the next few years I lived in Tanzania, commuted to boarding school in Kenya, and traveled in Europe and the Middle East with my family. The travel bug got stronger. Once during a trip to Italy, I convinced my parents to let me fly from Rome to Paris for a week. I stayed with family friends, but they were at work and school all day. So I happily headed out alone each morning, armed with a map and metro tickets. I went to the Louvre and found Mona Lisa, had a charcoal caricature drawn in Montmartre, gaped at Notre Dame Cathedral and ate lunch in boulangeries. I was 14. At 17 my tolerant parents let me go to London for the Christmas holidays, where I stayed in a room in a nurse’s residence, and hung out with a friend from Poland. At 19 I spent the summer on an archaeological dig in the Negev Desert in Israel, riding buses all over the country on weekends. Do you get the picture?

Maybe it’s genetic. My wandering retired parents are on a houseboat in Kerala, India as I write this. My little sister is in Spain. She left Canada in her early 20’s to teach English in Japan, and has worked and lived all over the world since then. For the past ten years or so she and her hubby have sailed the globe working as crew on a fancy yacht.

Whatever the cause of this potent affliction; I hope I never lose it.

It’s almost time to reinstate the “dream destination of the day” on these pages. But first I’m curious: Where do you dream of traveling to? Or back to? Why there?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Gorgeous giants.

December 20-something, 2006, after Christmas but before New Years, Tarangire, Tanzania.

"Wapi tembo?" (Where is elephant?) I ask our safari guide impatiently. "Mimi napenda tembo mtoto." (I like baby elephant) I add.

I am speaking Kiswahili (badly) because I believe in learning some local language when I travel, it helps connect me with the folks I meet, bridge the cultural gap, and show respect for the people and places I'm visiting. Oh crap. I wish my motives were that noble. Mostly I'm just showing off.

I am excited about seeing elephants though. We are in Tarangire National Park, the last game park in our Tanzania safari, and it is renowned for huge herds of elephants. There is something about elephants, their size of course, their amazing social behavior, and well, just those long lashed eyes that has always mesmerized me. I really want to see a baby elephant up close. Except this traffic jam of a baboon troop is liesurely ambling down the road in front of our truck. I've been in East Africa three weeks now, and I've seen soooo many baboons, including one that was a little too happy to see me.

But we have only seen a few elephants, from a distance. I want to shout, "Get your lumpy red arses off the road! There are elephants up ahead!"

Finally, there they are, and over the next two days my elephant wishes are filled. Overflowing. We even find one tiny, figuratively speaking, baby only a couple of weeks old.

Aren't they beautiful?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Spring is in the air. Damn it.

Yes, it really is just around the corner. I found these signs today. Look, Crocuses (or croci?).

My heather is blooming:

Buds are doing what they do:

Snowdrops are blooming, and even the ladybugs are out:

The dogs in the doggie park can smell it:

and Dandilions are blooming:

Dandilions? WTF? I'm not ready to dig up the dandilions. It's only freakin February. Those of you still in the midst of glorious, icy winter must be counting your blessings. You can still skate, toboggan, wear mitts and shovel the walk. And you don't have to worry yet about digging up the dandilions. Oh you lucky, lucky folks.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

But He Wuvs His Wittle Doggie

“Can I help you with that?” asks a man coming up behind me.
I turn gratefully from trying to reach a large dog bed on a high shelf. I am in Pet Cetera, catering to the comfort of the two furry stinkers we toil 9 to 5 to provide for. We have recently pulled up the nasty old carpet in our bedroom, to be replaced in due course with bamboo flooring. But before putting in the new floor we have to tile around the fireplace, pull out two 1980’s style cedar plank walls, drywall, and paint. So we are likely to be living with a bare plywood floor for a while. And the hairy Royal Ones cannot be expected to slumber on cold hard plywood.

Allowing these two 80 pound snorers to sleep with us on the bed is not an option, and shutting them out of the bedroom would just send them to the couches, which theoretically is also forbidden. The dogs don't get that theory. (Now if you ever visit, you will understand why our couches often have strange objects on them, preventing one from sitting, although we usually remember to clear them off when company comes. We allow most people on the couches.)

As the man pulls the doggie bed down from the shelf for me, he observes, “You must have a big dog.”

“Two big dogs actually. What kind do you have?” I ask, seeing a bag of dog kibble in his shopping cart. I have him pegged for a Pit Bull or Rotweiller kind of guy. He is dressed in biker boots, a do-rag, and he has a dragon tattoo on his neck.

“Jack Russell Terrier. Called Max, short for Maxine” he answers. “And she would be really pissed off at me if I made her sleep on a dog bed. She sleeps with me. I spoil her rotten.”

I can see that. His basket holds treats, pricey dog food, a Kong chew toy and a fluffy toy clown.

"Max is so smart" he continues, "She should be in movies. She does this adorable thing where she dances around in a circle then jumps right into my arms."

He carries the two dog beds to the cashier for me, continuing to tell me about Maxine's cuteness. This guy is gaga over his little dog. Men who love animals silly are endearing to me. And this guy is so nice, helping me carry my stuff. I mentally chastise myself for my first impression that the only pet he could have would be a spiky-collared pit bull or a boa constrictor. "Grandma was right," I am thinking, "don't judge a book by"....

SWEET MOTHER OF GOD! For the first time I notice the tattoo on his left forearm. The insignia of a local gang. A gang of very bad dudes. Dudes who have to prove they have snuffed someone before they can belong to this gang, according to one high profile ex-member-turned-snitch in a drug prosecution a while back.

"Do you want help out to your car with those?" he asks.

"Um, no thanks, I'm fine." I almost sprint out of there.

I imagine the scene when he gets home from Pet Cetera: "Hewoe my pwecious wittle Maxie, how was your day? Daddy brought some special presents for you, yes he did. Daddy wuvs his wittle Pwincess Maxie. Daddy's gotta go out again, gotta sell some cocaine to buy you that sparkly pink collar. And then Daddy might have to off a guy, but I'll be back soon, I pwomise, and then we'll go for walkies."

Friday, February 09, 2007

Ho! Ho! Ho! Part 2

December 25, 2006, Serengeti, Tanzania

If you have followed the story of my 2006 Christmas day so far, I congratulate you on your perseverance or excess hours of nothing better to do. Either is to be envied. For those with a normal attention span and a real job, a recap: After a night wondering whether we would wake up (or not wake up, to be accurate) as lion kibble or charred toast, and a morning doing the breast stroke across the Serengeti plain, the story left off with us eating heartily and singing "Santa Clause is Coming" to a bemused audience of starched and pressed expensive safari suits.

Giddy with the roller coaster ride that was our Christmas so far, we headed out on the road again, ready for anything. Our safari outfitter, busy on the phone back in Arusha, had finally found a lodge that could take us in, but it was out of the park, a long drive away on flooded tracks.

We crossed the first two rivers with no problems. Then, at the Seronera River, the evil Ho gods struck again. A line of vehicles snaked up the road on either side of the bridge. Or where a bridge would have been if it was not covered by swirling rapids and a waterfall.

Here is our guide Wellking and our worried camp staff as they seriously studied the flooded bridge situation.

Actually, no-one was very concerned, because the sun was out and the river level was falling. Our guides were confident the wait to cross would be only an hour or so. It turned out to be almost three hours. But G set up the i-pod speakers, and a rousing card tournament was played on the hood of the truck. G & my Beloved opened wine we had planned to save for Christmas dinner. They made wine glasses out of plastic water bottles sliced in half, and we toasted the lowering sun and the hippos wandering around the riverbanks.

Crossing the flooded bridge we held our breath. No problem. But a few kilometres further we came upon another stopped line of vehicles. Road wash out. Our fabulous guides knew another route around using the flooded back roads. There were more wild rides with the wheels spewing huge arcs of spray. A flat tire. Then we picked up a stranded Chilean / Spanish couple whose truck had broken down. The final stretch in the dark along a soaked track was eerie, with wildebeest and zebra scampering in and out of our headlights.

Finally, exhausted, we pulled into the lovely old Ndutu Lodge, where a decadent Christmas buffet was waiting. We pulled the Christmas crackers, put on the goofy paper hats and read the lame jokes. Just like Christmas at home. Well, except for the genets lounging in the rafters.

(Photo # 1 & 4 courtesy of our friend and fellow adventurer G. Vandegriend)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sadness and Gratitude

She was only 39 and had two young children when she succumbed to breast cancer last weekend. A beloved wife, and an ex-Olympic athlete with a shining professional career.

Yesterday I was at her funeral. The baby sister of my oldest friend.
Her family, friends and work colleagues overflowed the large church, so the rector had to open the doors to the side chapel as well. The bitter, barren Ottawa winter day was a shock as I left the church. Inside it had been stifling with love and heartbreak. My heart ached for my dear old friend. Later, as I few home, I thought I could not bear to lose my own little sister.

By unhappy coincidence, just before I had left to fly back east for the funeral, my mother told me of another untimely death from cancer the same day: a family friend. She was the mother of someone I know, who is also a member of the blogging community. She wrote touchingly of her mother's death here.

There is no fairness or sense in such sad deaths. But for me there is a light shining through the sorrow of the last few days: I am reminded what a precious gift it is that my little sister and my parents are, well, here and healthy today. And to be grateful for that each new day.

Mom, Dad, Sis, I love you.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ho! Ho! Ho!

December 25, 2006, Serengeti, Tanzania

Ho! Ho! Ho!

That is not Santa. It is a chorus of evil African Ho gods, laughing at us. Dancing in glee. Our campsite is awash, and we have been awake half the night. As the sky changes from pitch black to dull soggy grey, the rain continues. But this is not just rain. It is an ark-building, life-raft-launching, deluge. That has been pounding us since 2:30 am.

Breakfast is out of the question. We huddle in our tents, hungry and wet, trying to read soggy paperbacks, while one of our over-worked guides goes to check the level of the nearest river.There are three swollen rivers we will have to cross to get out of the northern Serengeti.

"Do you want jujubes or licorice allsorts for breakfast?" asks B, digging through his candy stash.

Suddenly D and A's tent collapses. We don't see them crawl out, so we run over to help. Turns out they were... um, ahem, naked, and are now frantically trying to find clothes. You gotta admire that. In the circumstances.

By 10:30 am. the decision is made to evacuate camp. If we can get out. We are 4 or 5 kilometres off the "main" road. Even then, we have nowhere to stay; It is Christmas day, and we were supposed to camp here tonight. Lodges have been booked up for months. But we cannot stay here, in places the water is over our ankles.

Almost three hours later we reach the road, having pushed the vehicles several times out of muck. Our driver/guides Lyimo and Wellking alternately dug us out and made wild dashes through new lakes that have appeared overnight.

Muddy, soaked, and stinky, (except for A, who was always fresh and chic when the rest of us looked and smelled like refugees from Planet Pig Pen) we pull in half an hour later to a very classy, expensive lodge. We can't stay there, it is full. Anyway, it costs almost $400 bucks a night. But they do offer us use of a couple of rooms to shower and change, and we can eat lunch in the fancy dining room. In dry clothes, with hot food and cold beer in front of us, our spirits climb. Quietly, L begins singing:

"Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry,"
and we join in;

"You better not pout, I'm telling you why"...

By the end of the song we are singing with gusto, and earn a round of applause from the well-heeled lodge guests.

But we still have three engorged rivers to cross, nowhere to stay, and the Ho gods are not finished dancing.