Looking Up All the Time- Madagascar

“Where do you come from?” said the Queen. “And where are you going? Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.”

Alice Through the Looking Glass

After surviving the super strenuous and exhausting week in Mozambique, it was off to Madagascar for the Egypt crew- or at least three of us! One night in Johannesburg, forcing me to once again say goodbye to this place I love so much led to an early flight to Antananarivo, a city with a pronunciation that still challenges me. We had hired a guide for our six days and he and our driver met us at the airport. I immediately liked this town- dirt roads, kids playing in the dirt with huge smiles on their faces and adults hanging out together on the sides of the roads. Don’t get me wrong, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries I have visited. But, as I have observed over and over again, the poorer the country, the happier the people. The Malagasy were no exception. Many of the ladies wash their clothes in the river and rather than it be a regretful experience, it appears to be a community gathering. And a happy one at that. I immediately regretted not having a suitcase full of toys to share with the children.

A quick stop at the hotel to drop off bags and run through the itinerary for the week and it was off to stop number one- a crocodile farm, complete with lemurs (didn’t see), turtles (Cecil the 60 year old turtle followed me all over his enclosure after I climbed in to scratch his head), lizards and chameleons, and snakes. If you know me, you know I am genuinely terrified of snakes, like I cease breathing terrified. I informed my guide of this which caused him to chuckle. So I took out my “Grown Up- I An Not Messing Around” face and voice that served me so well years ago when I worked at a day care center and reinforced my statement. I believed he had gotten the picture when our local guide pointed for me to go past several exhibits and wait for the rest of the group. Crisis averted. Zoo type places are quite different in Madagascar- our guide kept hopping over the fence or having us join him over the fence and pick up the animals- something we would see quite often. And, despite us staring into the trees for a bit, the lemurs declined to show their faces. No worries. We would soon be in lemur heaven.

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We got up early the next day to sit in the famous Antananarivo traffic jam, a literal standstill that rivals many I have seen in the rest of the world. As we set in traffic and marveled at the lift happening around us, we learned a bit about the country and its people. 85% of the people are farmers, which is a bit misleading as they farm enough to feed their families and survive, and 5% work in industry. Rice is eaten at all three meals and farmers grow enough to support their own family. All non farmers must purchase imported rice. There are 22 million people, French is the official language and Malagasy is the tribal language, unfortunately a threatened with extinction language.

After a few hours, we were near the eastern coast of Madagascar near the town of Andasibe and headed to Lemur Island at the Vakona Forest Lodge. I had done little research about this trip, so I had no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when a Verreaux Sifaka lemur jumped on my head. These are the bigger, black and white ones and this one bounced back and forth among the three of us, heading to whoever might be closest to a bite of banana. This lemur was cute, but I was soon to meet up with my new best friend, Frank. Frank is a brown lemur and my favorite of the species. Frank hung out with me for a long time, posing for a lot of bad selfies and generally keeping my neck toasty warm. After a tearful goodbye, we parted ways and hopped in a canoe to see a few more specie, actually a good thing as my neck was getting quite sore from staring up at the trees. Cruising up to a smaller island, we spotted a bunch of Ring Tailed lemurs high in the branches. Our guide told us that, unlike the brown lemurs, we could not pet these guys. Clearly, the lemurs do not share the same obedience as we were covered in lemurs in no time. This species liked to camp out on your head or sit on your shoulders and use your head as a table. In total, we saw five different species of lemur here. Kicking and screaming and convinced to leave only by our growling stomachs, we headed out.

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After sunset, we got to do a night walk through the jungle. This being Madagascar and not the United States, rules and the threat of litigation are far less prominent. So we grabbed our flashlights and hit the woods. We were rewarded with chameleons, lizards, frogs and home sapiens sightings but the highlight was a rarely spotted nocturnal lemur, all seen by once again, staring into the sky.

After surviving a slightly scary hotel which required mosquito nets, sleep sacks and fingers crossed, we hopped back in the car for a drive to Antserabe. We stopped at a reptile farm along the way where I befriended Veronica, my future pet. She was a super soft lizard who looked like she was smiling. When the guides weren’t looking, I may or may not have dropped her in my bag and she is watching me type at this moment. We also stopped for some koba, a Malagasy cake that looks like a giant roll cake. We were told it was a lovely cake make of peanuts, sugar and flour and rolled in banana leaves. I was beyond excited to taste this. After, I was beyond excited to never taste it again. Antserabe is the city of rickshaws and they are plentiful, with guys pulling them in their bare feet across the dirt roads while yelling to you in French. I must have been convincing because after the few exchanges we made, my driver prattled on as if I was quite fluent. Oops.

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Next stop was the town of Morondava, for the Avenue of the Baobabs. This was a long drive, where once again, my music and headphones provided the soundtrack to another journey through a nation. On this drive, I developed a serious distaste for my driver’s passion of honking at everyone and everything and making it his personal mission to force every pedestrian into the bush rather than share the road. My tongue was sore by the end of the drive from all of the biting I had done on it. We arrived at the Avenue in time for sunset over the baobabs. I have seen a lot of sunset over the past year, but this was one of the more spectacular.

Another dinner of either spaghetti or pizza (two of the three main foods in Madagascar with zebu (beef) being the third), a trip to the Kirindy forest (two hours spent staring into the sky looking for lemurs and at baobobs) and a night at the local Malagasy reggae bar rounded out the rest of the adventure and my last activities of this long journey.

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Madagascar is one of the reasons I love Africa. It always comes down to the people. While it is unlikely I will ever return to this place, it made an impact, even if most of it was me, on the ground, looking up.

And now, this journey has come to an end. Back to the States I go.

 

Time Moves More Slowly Here-Mozambique

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slow, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and wonder what was going to happen next.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After being dragged kicking and screaming onto the airplane after refusing to leave South Africa, myself and four of my friends from last year’s Egypt trip took off for Mozambique. While I would gladly have stayed in South Africa forever, the lure of a new country was strong. Additionally, the lure of laying by the pool/beach and reading books for a week was also strong. South Africa was exhausting and I could use a break!

That wish was quickly granted as I spent the entire first day firmly planted on a pool chair, reading 1 1/2 books. I did get to admire the beauty of the Mozambique landscape from my chair, although outside of a walk into the village to acquire cash, I didn’t do much else.

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The second day was filled with much more excitement as I began to discover the odd polarity of this village of Vilankulos. Up early to enjoy some coffee, I casually watched a small tour group walk in to have breakfast. They were led by none other than my guide from South Africa the previous year. Neither of us knew the other was there, yet it seems perfectly natural that we find each other. Of all the restaurants in all of the villages in all of Mozambique, we ended up at the same one at the same time.

Unfortunately, we both had other commitments so our reunion was short lived and I headed off with my friends to sail on a dhow out to a reef and what appeared to be a deserted island for some snorkeling. While the coral was average, there were some fantastic fish and the water, though rough, was quite warm. The beaches were amazing white sand beaches and I entertained myself in the style of an only child, burying myself in the sand. The dhow was a neat little boat, complete with a fire pit for cooking. Our captains and two hands pulled off hot coffee and a complete fish, chicken and vegetable lunch on this tiny boat. And to top it off, they made fresh popcorn for the return home. What struck me most about this trip, though, was how they fished. Two of the crew had lines off the back of the boat for the entire trip. They weren’t fancy poles and they didn’t have nets and bait. They had a bunch of fishing line wrapped around a wood plank. They held the plank and pulled the line by hand when they had a bite. Seemed just as effective as any other method!

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The third day kicked off with some culture. A local guide picked us up in tuk tuks and took us around the village. I knew it would be special when the first stop was the art deco hotel built in 1960. The hotel, while still decorated perfectly, was nearly empty. You could hear the ghosts of the past walking through the hotel and I could only imagine how amazing it must have been in its heyday. We also visited a local’s bar, the fish/vegetable/clothes/shoes market and the new hospital. Our guide, around age 65, had far surpassed the average age of people in Mozambique, which hovers near 45-50. 70% of the population is under the age of 30, AIDS having taken its toll on this nation. They struggle with literacy and poverty yet nearly everyone walks around with a smile on their face and a desire to talk to you. I think my highlight of the afternoon was a stop at the church, where hundreds had gathered to celebrate those that have been married for 20 or more years. There was dancing and singing and unadulterated joy.

That evening, we scheduled a sunset cruise on another dhow. Ever since we arrived, we had been searching for a dugong, a sea creature that resembles a manatee. We were told by all that they were elusive and rarely seen, even by locals. Our good fortune and the polarity of the village gave us another treat. Two large dugongs sailed with us for a bit and treated us to some tail flips. I, of course, had opted to leave my camera behind and have only a fuzzy phone photo of these guys. This group of friends had participated in last year’s crashing of the felucca on the Nile so we found it necessary to recreate the scenario. Celine Dion was called up and I moved to the front of the boat, holding my breath. Success. We stayed afloat. It was only at that moment I realized I was wearing the exact same dress that helped crash the felucca. Another weird moment in Mozambique!

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One more day of poolside reading, beach bars and strolling along the water and it was time for some more excitement.

Off to Madagascar I go.

You Ask Where My Favorite Place Is- Johannesburg and Kruger

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly.  Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

My last visit to South Africa, specifically the exact same trip I was about to take, is what inspired me to take a year off work and travel the world. I am in my last month of travel before I return home and begin searching for a job and return to reality. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to return. After flying from Cape Town, everything else felt like home. We would be staying in all of the same places, with many of the same faces yet the experience would be completely different. This blog will be shockingly short, despite the fact that I could talk about South Africa and the bush forever. I find it so hard to put into words the beauty of this country and its people and animals. This place, of everywhere I have seen, is my absolute must visit place. I would come back every year if I could. And I may.

Our first day was a drive toward Kruger National Park with stops at Blyde River Canyon, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and God’s Window, all proof that this is the most beautiful country in the world. This time I made sure to dip my feet in the water at the potholes for good luck. I happily knitted my way across the country as I stared out at mines, farms, mountains, fields, townships, forests and so much more of the varied countryside. Not knowing when I might return again, I wasn’t going to forget this. We arrived in Kruger, a 7500 sq mile reserve that houses thousands of animals, all living as they should (minus the poachers who shall get what they deserve) and an elephant greeted us next to the Welcome to Kruger billboard- a very positive sign. One of the Big Five spotted already.

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The next day was an all day game drive that did not disappoint. Four of the Big Five were spotted in addition to the hippo which both lived in the watering hole at our hotel and are considered by many to be number six in the most dangerous land animals. I would have to agree. They seem mean as snot. And louder than me. They woke most of us up during the night, apparently having quite the hippo party. The highlight of the afternoon for me was a herd of nearly 200 elephants, hanging out near the river. It was such an impressive sight to see all of them together.

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The following morning began with a bush walk, a first for me and something that will definitely happen again. We headed out with two armed guides and marched off toward a herd of buffalo. Fortunately, they were more scared of us so they bolted rather than charged when we got to close. We didn’t see a ton of animals, but we did learn a lot about the people that once lived there. We also learned some tips about the plants, that is until a herd of zebra came running towards us, turning when they spotted us.

IMG_9927The next two afternoons and two mornings were spent at Karangwe, a private game reserve and filled with highlights. Throughout the course of these two days, we saw all of the Big Five. We saw several leopards, some reclining but one walked across our jeep early in the morning, clearly looking for something. We tracked her for a bit but she was more intent on her search. We save a pride of lion lounging in the sun, bellies full from the wildebeest they had killed the previous day. We then rounded the corner and saw the rest of the pride happily munching on what was left. Once again, I found that nature is not gross when it isn’t accompanied by classical music or Morgan Freeman sharing the details. In search of rhinos, we not only found two, but found two young boys engaged in play, head to head combat. Happily driving down the road, we were quite surprised to see two large rhino bodies in a speedy chase. Aside from the leopards (my absolute favorite animal), my top moment was a walk through the bush in which we encountered three cheetah, lounging the in the sun. As one of the group pointed out, we were standing in the bush, closer to these wild cheetahs than you are to caged cheetahs in the zoo. And we all got along just fine. They watched us warily and us them. Yet perfectly content with each other’s presence. Cooler than words could convey.

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During an afternoon a break, we decided to hang out in the bird hide to watch the hippos and crocs. Slowly people headed back to camp for lunch until only two remained. All of a sudden, there was a big stir in the bush, antelope yelling to each other and a whole bunch of birds flying from the trees. A fish eagle swooped in and landed on a tree near us. Remembering my luck in seeing leopards after a fish eagle sighting the previous year, I commented in jest, “that means we are about to see a leopard.” At that moment, my friend raised her arm and said, “there it is.” Truly a fortuitous moment!  At this point, I was quite dismayed to not see any warthogs. Until, I passed a few in my camp hanging out by the swimming pool. We sang a quick rendition of “When I Was a Young Warthog” and then parted ways. After all, it was time for lunch.
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I came to South Africa saying it was my favorite place on earth. I leave South Africa repeating those words. Africa cannot be described, only felt. And once your feet touch the ground, it becomes a part of you. Many places I visit are one hit wonders. I love visiting but don’t feel a need to see again. That is not nor will ever be South Africa. I will return here again and again. It is the perfect relationship of people, animals and planet.

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And so off to Mozambique I go, knowing full well I will be back here soon.

Return to South Africa- Cape Town

‘I could tell you my adventure- beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly, ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After a brief stint in Paris to ensure their wine and cheese quality was being maintained, I headed back to my favorite country in the world, South Africa. I had been once before and loved it so much, I thought it best to begin my travel finale in the place that inspired it all. So off to Cape Town I went. And to make it even better, I was meeting three others that I met in Egypt for a South Africa/Mozambique/Madagascar extravaganza! More on those coming soon.

I had not been to Cape Town during my first visit and wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was more of why I love South Africa. The people and the land are so amazing. You will struggle to find happier and more friendly people anywhere in the world. If Cape Town was easier to travel to/from, it would definitely be on my list for places I would live. My hotel room featured a gorgeous view of Table Mountain (not that odd since the mountain towers over most of the city!).

On our first full day, we visited Robben Island, thankfully having purchased tickets a few days prior (tip for any future visitors- ALWAYS book in advance). This island off the coast of Cape Town was the main prison for political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela and Msomi Sipho. While you certainly recognize Mandela, Sipho may be unknown to you. In addition to serving many years for his political protest with the ANC, this man served as our guide and storyteller. Unlike Mandela, who was kept in a solitary cell, Sipho served in a larger block and shared stories of how they would use music, dance and plays to keep the protest alive and pass information to others, like stuffing tennis balls with newspaper and tossing it over the fences. I can’t imagine working in the place that once imprisoned you but the need for employment outweighs the struggle for these men. I suppose life is all about being a different person tomorrow than you were yesterday. Any and all afternoon plans were scratched upon return from the island and instead drinks and dinner on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront won that battle.

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Day Two  was the ultimate tourist Hop On/Hop Off bus tour, done mostly for a way to get cheap transportation around the greater Cape Town area. In addition to wind burn on my face, I learned a few interesting facts. Table Mountain is home to 8000 plant species, 69% of which are not found anywhere else. The villages have festivals during the warmer months which are often thematic and award a Beauty Pageant winner titles such as Miss Cherry or Miss Meat during the event. Aspirations- you can be a no one today and Miss Strawberry tomorrow.  The saying “women and children first” came from a shipwreck just off the coast of Cape Town. Who knew? Finally, according to Feng Shui, Cape Town is situated perfectly. Reason 343,283 to move here.

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I am pretty certain that you are not allowed to leave Cape Town without a visit to their famous winery. So, in addition to ensuring I tasted every vineyard’s Pinotage, we spent the day (versus the intended afternoon only) in the Constantia wine region at three of the wineries. We happened upon two guys on the same journey and scooped them into our adventure. One more dinner on the V&A Waterfront and it was off to our hotels. While Cape Town is lovely, it cannot be walked at night alone. I was harshly criticized for offering to get out of the cab a mere 1/2 block from my hotel. I understood, as I had left my Wonder Woman bracelet in the States.

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Day Four began as a lazy day. It was my last day in a solo hotel room and, as I truly treasure that time, I wasn’t wasting it. I type this as I am enjoying the quiet of my shared room while the others have gone off to tour Joburg! After dropping my laundry off with some people and doing my “Hope This All Comes Back to Me” dance, it was off to the District 6 Museum. This is a fantastic museum that honors and remembers the residents of District 6, a township that was literally evacuated and bulldozed after relocating residents to smaller, more distant locations. This museum incorporates the former residents into the exhibits, giving it a very honest feel. The ghosts of apartheid are still very strong in this country and remembrances are everywhere.

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The official tour began on day five and we were off to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the site of over 9000 plants, including a tree whose species predates the dinosaurs. A very eccentric guide shared his love and knowledge with us. While I have always been fascinated with nature, flowers have never really been my thing. Visiting this garden gave me all new appreciation of them- again a different person today than yesterday.

After the gardens, we were off to visit the penguins and have lunch. Lunch was made more interesting by the fact that we were on alert for baboons. More specifically, we were watching for the baboon guards that walk along side these crazy animals protecting both humans and baboons from rather unfortunate events.  A visit to the Cape of Good Hope and the “southernmost point in Western Africa” finished off the day.

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In addition to the four of us from Egypt, we commandeered two others who fit perfectly and headed off to Table Mountain to get some exercise before our mandatory visit to the Stellenbosch wine region. We took the cable car up to the top, but I would absolutely recommend hiking it instead for anyone with even a little physical stamina. So often when you get to the top of a mountain, the view of below is amazing. On Table Mountain, the view off the landscape on top rivals that of the land below. I would have gladly stayed up here hiking all day, but the call of the wineries was strong. We headed down and found the driver that would lead us to this debauchery.

As we drove past townships, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of guilt, knowing how fortunate I was to be doing what I am doing while oppression and poverty are so strong. We visited three/four wineries on this visit but the highlight for me was the quality and powerful rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” performed with commitment by the seven of us (recorded for posterity). It was a perfect end to Cape Town and a perfect beginning with new and old friends for the rest of the trip.IMG_9417

And so off to Johannesburg I go, yet again a changed person.

Cuba

She felt a little nervous about this, ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle.  I wonder what I should be like then?’ And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I have been quite remiss in writing my Cuba blog. In fact, I had not realized it was incomplete until I logged in to begin my Cape Town blog! I hope my memory is strong enough to pull off this post! Much has happened since I left Cuba. The travel restrictions that were loosened have been returned to their previous status, once again making it more challenging for Americans to visit. Please don’t let this hinder your visit. Go through the paperwork and red tape and visit. We must continue to grow relations with this country.

I arrived in Cuba after a really long overnight flight from Rio and the first thing I noticed that Cuba’s airport really needed my help. They have some fantastic opportunities for process improvement.  Of course it didn’t help that everyone traveling there had WAY too much baggage. I checked into my hotel and immediately made my way to the beach where I found so much of what you hear about in Cuba. First, the old cars were everywhere. I am pretty sure I took pictures of 1383 cars this afternoon. It is much like the first penguin you see in Antarctica or the first elephant in South Africa. The first is so novel.  The millionth is nearly as novel. Second, I found the friendly and quite lovely people. I was asked out within 10 minutes and despite only finding about 5 words in common, I managed to escape the date. On a side note, I was quite comforting to see that taxi drivers in Cuba share the international signal of honking at you to see if you want a cab. You know, in the event that you were walking along and forgot you didn’t want to walk and in fact, wanted a ride.

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The second day was the start of my People to People Tour (one of the official ways Americans can travel to Cuba). We first traveled to Revolution Square- the political center of Cuba, where we historically saw photos of Fidel Castro giving his five hour speeches. It was interesting to talk to different Cubans and get their take on these speeches and his leadership. It was as varied as we see in the US these days. We learned a few things about Cuba on this ride. They do not have access to international banks and therefore cannot borrow money for infrastructure improvements. Yet someone, they grow. After over a week in Cuba, I failed to see how their economic model worked. They have 100% literacy and homelessness is illegal. Everyone has jobs. They import most of their food and continue to develop. I can’t make the math work. After Revolution Square, we went to the Fine Arts Museum for some Cuban art. It was a highly entertaining visit as you could see the very direct influence of artists around the world on Cuban Art. A fellow traveler and I had a good time pointing out the Dali, Monet, Max and Picasso influences. Continuing the People to People path, we popped into Old Havana where we went to a lecture by a professor about the growth of Cuban culture through music. It is a beautiful mix of African and European influence.

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Cubans have an interesting way of looking at their past and it varies from person to person. The 1990’s are called the Special Period. This is the time of great poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union when they lost nearly everything. Despite nearly starving, some credit Castro with saving them, while others critique him for his methods. On day three, we headed out to Las Terrazas, a national park and biosphere reserve. The area was reforested after total decimation. Most importantly, we found that Cubans love to drink. At least one drink was served at all three meals and most included Vitamin R (rum). We visited coffee farms, a women’s house turned restaurant complete with chickens under feet and a man who turns recycled paper into art.  That night was a trip to the Havana Club, a dancing and singing show staring musicians trained by the Buena Vista Social Club. This is definitely not my thing and I would have much preferred stabbing bamboo sticks into my eyeballs. I think what bothered me the most was that all of the female dancers had the same shoes. Minus one. Couldn’t let that go.

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The next day in Havana included a trip to Hemingway’s farm and an organic farm. In Cuba, organic is cheaper than non organic. We also got to go cigar shopping today and see how they are rolled. Being unemployed as well as a non smoker, I didn’t come back with a boxful! The best part of today, though, was a vintage car ride through Havana. We rented a bright pink 1957 Ford convertible and breezed around town for a bit, hitting the forest of Havana (who knew?), the necropolis (a massive cemetery) and the Fifth Avenue of Havana (restaurants and really big mansions).

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After all of these days in Havana, we were finally getting out of town for a few. This also meant more time hearing our guide’s perspective on Cuban history and the role the country and Castro have played on the world. At one point, we watched a documentary (used loosely) produced for the Cuban people to honor Fidel Castro. I can’t be certain, but I am pretty sure that they gave Fidel credit for ending apartheid in South Africa.  We also covered a very different view of Bay of Pigs.

First stop on the journey was Cienfuegos, a beautiful coastal town. The highlight for me was the number of Cubans shouting cheers to me as I marched down the street in my Chicago Cubs World Series Champions t-shirt. You could feel the history here, the ghosts of pirates were everywhere. Sadly, we could not stay for some old fashioned piracy and so we moved onward to Trinidad.

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In Trinidad, we stayed at a beach resort that included nightly entertainment, entertaining mostly in how really bad it was. This just made it even more enjoyable. That and the open bar where really grumpy men begrudgingly poured you drinks- quite a departure from the friendliness we had seen everywhere else.

Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial town whose first important economic activity was piracy and smuggling in 1514. Nearly everything in this town is original and beautifully maintained. While in Trinidad, we visited a potter whose family has had their pottery shop for hundreds of years, pulled off an impromptu zip line adventure (for $10!!!) and hit a nightclub built into the side of a cave.

The las day was then spent in Topes de Collates, a beautiful mountain area with coffee farms (farmers have to give 90% of their product to the government) and plenty of places to hike. As homes are only $5000 here, our group strategized buying one and building and adventure resort, complete with rafting, zip lining, hiking, rock climbing, basket weaving (we were a diverse group) and cooking classes. As I spent most of the drive dying to jump out of the jeep and go hiking, I was quite pleased when we stopped to do just that. It was a perfect way to end my stay in Cuba.

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I really enjoyed my time there and highly recommend it to everyone. We don’t know how long we will be able to visit this amazing country so don’t hesitate. I can’t imagine not being able to visit, but don’t wait for the candle to blow out.

Off to South Africa (via Florida, California, Alaska and Paris which don’t earn blog posts).

 

The Adventure Begins Tomorrow-Rio

So they sat down and nobody spoke for some minutes.  Alice thought to herself, ‘I don’t see how he can even finish, if he does’t begin.” But she waited patiently. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Prepare yourself for the most action packed blog of all time.  I landed in Rio after a whirlwind trip through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Galapagos, Bolivia, Chile and Easter Island. Exhausted. And tired of lugging my camera everywhere. So I jumped right into all that Rio had to offer.  Brace yourself.

Day one- Copacabana Beach. I read one whole book laying on the beach. Tomorrow I would begin the adventure.

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Day Two- Ipanema Beach. Where I read another book on the beach and sitting by my hotel pool.  Tomorrow I would begin the adventure.


Day Three- I finally muscled myself out of my swimsuit and made my way to the Christ the Redeemer Statue. I booked a tour because, let’s be honest, I had reached full on sloth mode and couldn’t be bothered to find my own way. It was a genius idea as myself and the only other person on the tour were the very first people at the statue, providing a rare photo absent of all other people. From atop the statue’s platform, we were able to overlook Rio and see the beautiful bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world (well deserved) and the favelas, the poorer parts of town. I learned that Rio is obsessed with Michael Jackson and the work he did to highlight the neglect of the people of the favelas.

After Christ the Redeemer, we made our way to Sugar Loaf Mountain to ride up the Sky Road, built by one of the many coffee barons. Turns out these barons did quite a bit to develop Rio in its early days, including building this “sky road”, creating a cinema town and roller coasters. Not what one might call humanitarian work, but it certainly brought fun to Rio early on.

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I can’t say that I came close to embracing all that Rio has to offer but exhaustion prevailed and the enticement of the beaches was too much to resist.

Off to Cuba. Where the adventure begins tomorrow. 

What Shouldn’t Be Understood- Chile But Mostly Easter Island

‘What do you know about this business?’ the King said to Alice.
‘Nothing,’ said Alice.
‘Nothing whatever?’ persisted the King.
‘Nothing whatever,’ said Alice.
‘That’s very important,’ the King said, turning to the jury.  They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: ‘Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,’ he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
‘Unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, ‘important-unimportant-imprtant-‘ as if he were trying which word sounded best. 
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
After admiring the unexpected beauty of Bolivia, we did a land border crossing into Chile where I had wifi again! Our first stop was San Pedro de Atacama. As was true for most of this trip, I neglected to adequately research my travel plans and therefore didn’t know anything about where I arrived. I have always been fascinated with space and would have loved to have become an astronaut- my lack of ability to understand complex algorithms and paralyzing fear of floating through space quickly eliminated that plan. The Atacama desert gave me a good taste of what I was missing.  The combination of low light pollution, very little rainfall and high altitudes make it one of the primary locations for stargazing.  And so I forced myself to stay up late into the night, coming up with a million excuses about why I could skip it, to attend a star gazing outing. Sometimes ignoring your manipulating mind is the best thing you can do. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done. We drove without lights into the outskirts of Atacama and found ourselves with some really energetic astronomers, spending the first hour staring up into the sky at the Milky Way, the southern constellations and a few planets. Then, we got to play with the eleven telescopes- pointing at four additional galaxies and some really cool star clusters. But the highlight for me was viewing Jupiter, both the big red dot as well as four moons in its orbit, and Saturn, the rings shining brightly around it. Not feeling even an ounce of cold or exhaustion, we then listened to stories inside the astronomer’s hut. I looked like a kid, perched on the edge of my seat, listening intently to every word from our astronomer’s mouth, sipping on my hot chocolate. Had I known about this, I would have spent a week in Atacama, every night in this very spot, already armed with more space knowledge than anyone wants me to have.

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Keeping the space theme going, the next morning was scheduled time off and it was off to The Meteorite Museum. My inner space dork was let free and it needed to be fed. Not only was this museum super cool (did you know that meteorites hit the ground and break apart in an elliptical pattern) but the guy who runs it is a meteorite hunter who cuts and polishes pieces he finds into jewelry. Hmmm. Career possibility? Could I survive the heat of the Atacama desert? The Valley of the Moon was the afternoon destination. Had I known this was there, it would have further solidified my need to stay in this place for much, much longer. I could bike and hike for days here (early morning of course). It resembles the Grand Canyon, but has a large, oval, flat area covered with salt that resembles the surface of the moon. The next day was a flight to Santiago for a winery tour and farewell dinner with the group. But the Chilean adventure was only just beginning. Easter Island was my next destination.

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Easter Island is one of those places that you don’t think of often. But when booking my flights in Chile, my mind kept drifting to it. Sometimes it is good to trust your manipulative mind! It takes about five hours to fly to Isla de Pasqua (aka Easter Island aka Rapa Nui) and I would easily fly twice that far to visit this place. The island is small. Theoretically you could walk around it in about two days, hiking 8-10 hours per day. NASA extended the airpot runway many years ago for a Space Shuttle emergency landing site (keeping my space theme going) so it literally goes from one side of the island to the other.  Hanga Roa is the only town on the island and I loved it. After four days, I had made enough friends that I could walk through the harbor and run into people I had met, some of which were dogs and chickens.

I had booked two half day tours so that I could get a taste of the legends and histories as well as be driven to the really cool sites. I could write pages on the history so if you are curious, use the Google. But I do love the theories about the demise of the Moai. At some point between 1722-1838, all of the Moai were pushed onto their faces. There are quite a few theories, but my favorite is also the saddest. The Rapa Nui people believed strongly that the statues protected their villages. Then the Europeans landed on the island and proved they were stronger and could defeat the Rapa Nui (not really a fair fight as the Europeans had firepower and the Rapa Nui had rocks). The Rapa Nui people were so devastated that their statues failed to protect them and their long believed tradition/religion was wrong, that they pushed them all onto their faces, blocking their view.

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I was also able to visit the sacred village of Orongo, where the annual Birdman competition was held. Each of the village Chiefs chose a competitor to race down the side of a rocky cliff, swim to an island and wait for a bird to lay an egg. First one to grab that egg and swim back, climb up the cliff and deliver it to their Chief was the winner.  The Chief then got to rule all of the villages for a year.

The best thing on the island was the quarry, which was basically the production facility and distribution center for the Moai, making my supply chain mind quite giddy.  Orders would be placed for statues and the statue makers would carve them into the rocks, leaving them attached at their spine. Once mostly complete, they would detach them, slide them slightly down the mountain and partially bury them.  Here they would finish carving and use gravity to force them upright. They would then be transported upright to the ahu (platform) where they were destined. If they fell during transit, they were left as they were, either too difficult to put back upright or believed to be cursed for falling. There were a great many Moai in process at the end of the religion, making the quarry look a bit like a graveyard, a fantastic Moai covered graveyard.

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Much of Easter Island cannot be understood, but I loved learning about all of the different theories. I also could have stayed there for far longer than four days, staring at the amazing stars and visiting the Moai scattered all about the island.

But I had a flight to catch to Rio. Off to Brazil.