August 31, 2012

Kili Here we Come

My whole life for the next week in a nutshell. And in a whole
lot of Ziploc bags. God bless the Ziploc bag
This is it.

All is packed, and Zax and I are getting on a plane (at some ungodly hour - did I tell you we opted for the budget flights?) tomorrow to take us closer (but not really any closer) to our goal. First to Nairobi, then to the foot of the big mountain. To some nondescript hotel, actually, also of the budget variety I'm sure. Except then it does what all Kilimanjaro base camp hotels do. Within the space of seven days, it will magically transform itself from a dump into a 5-star luxury resort. It will entail such wonders as hot running water and, even more amazing, a toilet. Electric lights. And a bar with a cold beverage. What  more can you ask for in life?

Just two days ago, I thought I'd never make it. I'm blaming Namibia and South Africa for my stress. Namibia for encroaching into my prep time by taking me away to distant moonscapes and skeletons and flying tents and hissing tires just as I should have started packing, and South Africa for being the world capital of shops that are chronically out of things. That may or may not be restocked this season. Or ever.

I was running around like crazy for several days trying to gather the last needed items. Mainly warm clothing, to be honest, because have I told you what I fear most in life? Other than peering down from great heights, that is? Yep, being cold. I'm horrified of it. Which is why I've packed the entire Costco box of hand and toe warmers that so serendipitously traveled to our garage here in South Africa. If they put me over the 15 kg weight limit, I"m willing to dump anything from my stash to make room. Hairbrush, toothpaste, underwear, fresh socks, you name it.

Because warm always trumps clean.

God also bless this box of hand warmers

Also, I was getting last minute medicines, like Diamox for altitude sickness, which you may or may not have to take, depending on who you talk to. And Immodium, just in case. Although maybe I could save myself the trouble of lugging that around by taking a mouthful right now. Because surely being constipated for seven days is much preferable to the alternative.

I got such obscure things as emergency foil blankets and biodegradable soap that comes in little sheets.

I invested in a headlamp because unlike a South African, I didn't come out of the womb with one already installed on my forehead.

I bought a mechanical toothbrush, something I haven't used in decades. Not because I'm afraid my trusted Braun electric one won't work on Kili - it holds a charge forever - but because I'm scared shitless that someone will make fun of me if I show up with that at the community washing spot the first day.

And I resisted the overpowering urge to buy zip-off pants. For they are the sure sign of the uninitiated tourist, this much I have learned from my Kili research so far. I may not know what country we are flying to, when those flights might leave, what route we are climbing, or whether there will be a full moon during our ascent, but I did take care to read up on the fashion situation.

And zip-off pants are definitely SO yesterday.

Then there was the small matter of getting  my hands on US dollars, for tips for the porters and such. Really, I think I never mentioned that the number one item you should pack when leaving America for a new life in Africa is a big wad of dollars. Because finding them here always involves a bit of a Welcome to Africa errand, which luckily I was prepared for this time.

When I had gathered every last item from my packing list, I dumped everything into my bedroom.

In the midst of packing for Kili

Not a pretty sight, I'm sure you'll agree. I almost despaired at the magnitude of it all. Especially because at the last moment, everybody and their brother seemed to suddenly have something to say about what should be packed and how and in which bag, so that I ended up rearranging everything fifteen times. Things like "toilet paper not in a roll but in individual packs" and "gear you'll summit in not in the bag you're checking in case it gets lost."

What the hell? I spent the better part of the last month buying stuff and reading lists and borrowing things all in the name of winnowing down my life so that it fits into a 10-kg duffel bag, and now there is a chance I will not even have that bag with me climbing the mountain?

And that is why I don't like to plan, I"m telling you.

Zax, meanwhile, hasn't done a thing, and I'm sure he'll throw everything together in ten minutes just before we leave. Oh the blessings of having a mother to rely on who'll make sure you have everything you need even if you tell her to leave you alone.

Somehow I managed to wrest it all under control and get it organized. How, you ask?

That's right. Ziploc bags. A wise woman once said to me, there is not much in life you can't organize into a  Ziploc bag to make you feel better. And she was right. It's one of America's greatest inventions. And something you really have to search for here in South Africa. Because not all Ziploc bags are created equal.

As you can see, I did fit my whole life into a bunch of Ziploc bags. Or at least the next seven days of it.

I think I'm ready.

Let the hike begin.

Previous Kili posts:
To Climb or Not to Climb Kili
A Pair of New Boots... And a Countdown
Countdown to Kili: The Shopping List
Countdown to Kili: A Garden Trowel? Seriously?
Countdown to Kili: The Test Hike
Countdown to Kili: Just Give Me a Mountain


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UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

August 28, 2012

66 Notebook Pages and 13 Loads of Laundry Later...

We're back from Namibia!

As you might have deduced from an unprecedented flurry of Facebook activity on my account after an equally unprecedented lengthy absence of the same.

This was the longest vacation we've taken in, like, forever. Two entire weeks, and all of it on the road. Or on the river, if you want to be a stickler. Most of it without any internet, some of it without any electricity, and a portion of it without any air in our tires.

I have so many tales to tell, my fingers are itchy. And yet I don't quite know where to begin. With all the things German we encountered, from Bratwurst and Apfelstrudel to Kaiser Wilhelm and his Schutztruppe? With the soul-wrenching bleakness of the Skeleton Coast and its many shipwrecks or the breathtaking beauty of Damaraland? With the 400-plus pictures I took of zebras alone? With the tent that flew off into the night and the German lady - or, as we now think, the witch posing as a German lady - who cursed three tires on our car plus the spare wheel (thank goodness she missed one, just like in Sleeping Beauty, which kinda confirms that she was indeed a witch, don't you think)? Or with the heart-stoppingly freezing temperatures of the Orange River when your canoe spits you into it?

I'm very happy to hold in my hand the treasure of 66 notebook pages I filled during our trip, so I don't have to completely start from scratch in sharing our Namibia adventure. This may sound like a lot, until you do the calculations. I wrote most of it while traveling in our trusted car, steered by Noisette. Most of it sitting in the trunk, actually, a spot I discovered halfway through the journey when everyone else refused to occupy it - we had four kids for a three-person backseat, remember? Altogether we drove 5,920 kilometers. That's one percent of a page or, at 270 words on average per page, less than 3 words per kilometer, which all of a sudden doesn't sound like a whole lot, does it?

The problem is, there is just so much to tell you. And the small fact that I'm departing for Kilimanjaro in just five days, with many things to buy and sort through and pack. What I think I'll do is relegate Namibia to the same fate as Botswana, meaning I'll attempt to add it all to an upcoming (hopefully this decade but I can't promise) book about travel in Southern Africa as an expat family (I still need a good title, any suggestions welcome).

But I promise I'll share snippets of it here along the way.

For the time being, let me just show you some of the breathtaking landscapes of Namibia.

Etosha National Park

Etosha National Park, Okaukuejo waterhole, view from family chalet

Sunset over Okaukuejo waterhole, Etosha National Park

Waterberg area

Waterpark Plateau
Twyfelfontein area

Twyfelfontein area
Between Twyfelfontein and Damaraland Camp

Damaraland,  home of the desert elephants

Damaraland, Huab River Valley

Damaraland, as seen from a peak at Damaraland Camp


Gemsbok (Oryx) herd in Damaraland

Driving towards the Skeleton Coast
Shipwreck on the Skeleton Coast
Dunes in Swakopmund
Between Swakopmund and Sossusvlei

Between Swakopmund and Sossusvlei
Sunset in Namib-Naukluft Park

Petrified Dunes in the Namib Desert
Gemsbok in Sossusvlei

Areal view of Sossusvlei dunes

Deadvlei, Sossusvlei
Sunrise in Alte Kalköfen

Alte Kalköfen Lodge
Orange River on Namibia/South Africa border

Canoeing on the Orange River

God's Thumbprint, Orange River

Herons on the banks of the Orange River

Near Sjambok Rapid, Richtersveld National Park, Orange River

August 23, 2012

People Who Have Time and People Who Don’t

You know me. I often rant about crappy service here in Africa. Like the time Telkom decided I could do without internet for a week. That's right, an entire week. And yet I shudder to think what I would blog about in a perfect world. "Hey guys, once again I had a perfect internet connection all day today, bye." I can imagine the page views mounting for such exciting fare.

No, complaining is definitely the way to go if you're a blogger. 

Still, sometimes I wonder. Shouldn't I be grateful for the things that do work, when they work, instead of moaning when I have to Google blueberry muffin recipes via cellphone rather than my laptop?

So many people around us can only dream of phone lines and internet connections at their house. 
They dream of power or running water. 
They dream of a refrigerator.
They dream of a wheelbarrow to carry firewood with
They dream of pretty much everything I've got here at my house, because they probably have mostly none of it at theirs.

Except, the one precious thing they do seem to have plenty of is time. 

I’ve always marveled at so many Africans sitting around all day doing nothing. Or patiently waiting in long lines for minibus taxis taking them home at the end of their work day. I used to admire this patience as something very virtuous, but now I sometimes wonder. Is patience only a virtue in my Western-trained eyes, tinted by my eagerness to join the rat race of running against the clock? Because it is so rare to encounter patient people? 

Maybe there is nothing special in being patient when you have all the time in the world.

In fact, my admiration for the fabled African patience has on occasion, I admit it, turned to annoyance, when, say, a row of women are walking in front of me on the sidewalk at snail’s pace, chatting all the while, and forcing me to slow my brisk pace to a crawl. I cannot for the life of me walk slowly and am quick to find it disrespectful when people aren’t making way.  

But is it disrespect? It might be just a lack of understanding for people like me who never have time to spare. I'm an American, you see. Since about two years ago. When I raised my hand for that oath, I pledged allegiance to the flag, I swore to defend my country, and I signed up to spend the rest of my days running around like a chicken with my head cut off in that greatest of competitions called the pursuit of happiness. 

Americans are busy. We have no time to spare. We fill every minute of our day with activity, and when that turns out not to be enough we find ways that allow us to do ten activities at once. We complain that we never have any time, and yet when we are faced with the prospect of an empty stretch of half a morning, we sign up for yoga lessons.

Me, practicing doing nothing (or, rather, busy taking pictures)

But a lot of people here in Africa have time. Plenty of it. 

And here's the thing. We can blame all the events assaulting us from every angle every day, but what it really comes down to is the state of your mind. We could free up a ton of time and become extremely relaxed simply by flipping a switch in our brains, yet we are such slaves to our own thoughts and cultural heritage and expectations of ourselves that we don’t manage to do it.

Mind you, I’m pretty sure you’ll never find me sitting under a tree and doing nothing. Not even with a venti latte or a glass of Grande Provence Chardonnay. But what of bringing a good book with me? You would think I could regard that week of no Internet as the gift it truly is, forget about unanswered emails and unpaid bills and unwritten blog posts, and enjoy the many other uses of my time I can think of that don’t require a phone line.

I could have baked a cake. I could have practiced the piano. I could have ignored admonishings of “you read too much” and read an entire book. I could have jumped into the pool. I could have gone for a pedicure. I could have made more forays into the township to help ferry firewood. I could, god forbid, have played endless rounds of monopoly and made my kids happy.

But instead, I found myself spending the entire week trying to get the phone lines restored. Just because they should be working. And building up a rage about such inconvenience.

I think I still have much to learn from people sitting under trees. I'll get going with it just now.

August 20, 2012

Pure Joy

You might remember that I recently participated in a Help Portrait photo shoot in the township of Diepsloot, right here on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Read my previous post about how we labored for hours to take the pictures of over a thousand students if you'd like to find out what it's like to participate in one of these events.

But I hadn't yet told you about the best part of it. The handing out of the portraits, and getting to watch the pure joy radiating from these kids' (and teachers') faces.

The big day came at the beginning of August. Once again we drove on those dusty and rutted roads to Diepsloot Combined School, hauling a few heavy boxes full of photographs mounted onto white cardboard. I must give credit here to my friends Karen and Lauge, who were the main organizers and fundraisers for this event and spent countless hours printing and mounting these photographs, a part of the event I wasn't involved in (you might remember that at the time I was a bit preoccupied with sewing beanie hats, and teaching others the virtue of sewing straight seams).

We found an empty classroom, laid out the photos in neat rows, and waited for the kids to come. Or, rather, waited for another one of our organizers, Lotte, to scout out all the classes tirelessly and lead them our way. She might have had the hardest job that day. Interestingly, she said that trying to organize this on a schedule, i.e. telling a teacher to bring his class in 15 minutes, virtually never worked. It was either right now, which never seemed to be a problem, or it would be forgotten. At least until the time we were finally packing up and ready to leave, when a deluge of stragglers who'd heard about the pictures showed up to claim theirs.

The grade 11 boys in the picture above had been some of my toughest "customers" during the photo shoot, roughhousing and jostling and jeering and somehow always managing to give me their sternest look whenever I pressed the shutter, depriving me of the wide smiles they flashed to their friends whenever I put the camera down.

I think it's safe to say they were nevertheless happy to receive their pictures.

Everyone, in fact, was happy that day, but in different ways. The older kids were incredibly loud and unruly and swept through our classroom like a flash flood, always leaving us slightly rattled afterwards with the urge to take a few deep breaths. The little guys, on the other hand, would line up hand in hand and inch silently past the pictures, brows furrowed in concentration.

Then you could see their faces transform as they caught a glimpse of themselves. Pure joy radiating in all directions as if the sun had suddenly broken through clouds after a rain, drenching everything in its magnificent power. And then the urge to share it with their friends and see their pictures in return. And the urge to have another picture taken of them holding their picture. Often right in front of their face.

We were kept very busy snapping away yet again.

The sweetest thing I watched all day was when one little boy couldn't find his picture, even though he had wandered past it a couple of times already, and a little girl found it, tugged at his sleeve, and handed it to him.

It was only then that I realized what should have been obvious: Many of these kids grow up in homes that might not contain such a luxury as a mirror, and therefore don't have a good idea of what they look like.

But now, thanks to Help Portrait, I hope they do.

And they'll have a chance to realize just how beautiful they are.

To find out more about Help Portrait and how to become a volunteer, please read The Gift of a Picture.