Mary Clark, Traveler

Elephants Galore

Elephant Family at sundown in Botswana. Photo courtesy of Gary Kramer

I confess to a long-held affection for elephants with their floppy ears and unwieldly trunks.   I’ve seen them in India still used as beasts of burden, in Vietnam as a tourist attraction around ruins and in zoos circling their small enclosures. But in protected parts of Botswana, these largest of land animals move at their pace wherever and whenever they want.

First Sighting of a family of Elephants in Botswana

After landing on an isolated landing strip in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, we were loaded into two jeeps and set out for our first late afternoon drive through the diminishing light. Not five minutes later, our driver called out “elephants to the left.” And there they were, two adults, two adolescents and a baby, moving through the high grass and woods, ignoring us as they looked for forage. Without our guide’s help, I wouldn’t have seen them as their neutral grey color blended into the camouflaged background. Our eyes became sharper as the trip progressed.

Baby Elephant at Watering Hole in Botswana

 

 

Elephants serve many purposes in the wild and receive comfort from various parts of nature. They are herbivores and will nibble on the flowers of day water lilies, tear off tree bark for its calcium and knock down trees to eat leaves. This effort maintains open plains and provides walking paths for other animals. They use the shepherd tree for shade and to take off mud.  Watering holes are created by elephants as they dig for water.  The hole fills and provides soothing mud for their skins and an underwater environment for small water creatures.   A large fever berry tree is poisonous to most animals but not elephants or giraffes.  Its roots and leaves can treat an animal wound like an antiseptic.

 

 

Lumbering elephant through camp in Zimbabwe, interrupting our cribbage game. Photo courtesy of Gary Kramer

Mid-afternoons in camp were usually accompanied by elephants following well-worn trails nearby, providing silent entertainment from our porches.  In one possession, mothers nudged their little ones to keep up and not be distracted by food. On our last afternoon in camp, while playing cribbage with my, brother, he looked up and pointed behind me.  A lumbering elephant casually passed by not more than 10 feet away heading to the nearby river.  The staff had warned us of the path through our camp used by elephants and hippos whether we were there or not.  Even growing towns have trouble stopping elephants from following their age-old highway.  Many a garden and wooden fence had been trampled down by undeterred elephants.

Honey Comb Elephant Skull

Elephant bones were easy to identify by their size but also because of the honey combed skulls, so designed to keep their heads lighter to carry.  They go through six sets of teeth as new ones push out the old ones.  After the last set is worn down, so is the elephant.  Culling of old or “extraneous” elephants has prompted much debate over the last 30 years.  It was banned completely for a while and recently allowed in Botswana where a limited number of old bulls are set aside for hunters who pay large sums for the experience.  This brings in money to the countries to continue their conservations efforts.  Poaching, though, is still a problem.

 

 

 

 

Photo Courtesy of Gary Kramer

Only twice were we examined by elephants with a more sinister gaze.  Both involved our being in their paths. During a day game viewing ride, a large elephant stood at the left edge of the road, daring us by his stare to go any further.  Our driver stopped and we observed. When the giant animal was convinced we were not advancing, she crossed the road, followed by smaller members of the family. We watched them strip small trees of their leaves and then with almost a nod to us, they moved on.  An angrier response came from the matriarch of a herd crossing the road at night when our jeep with lit headlights approached.  She flapped her ears, making several mock charges with a trumpeting sound.  Our driver, Chester, revved up the motor honking the horn and turning off the headlights, allowing the blinded elephant to see again. After a tense stand-off and when the last of the herd had crossed the road, she turned aside without a backward glance, knowing she had protected her family. Chester admitted it was a tense situation, but he knew how to handle it.

Botswana, with the second strongest economy in Africa, relies heavily on the photo safari tourist trade.  It also has the largest number of elephants in the world, possibly even too many.  We witnessed native villages built for local tribes to entice them away from hunting wild animals and to protect them against charging elephants.  They receive a portion of the entry fees from the nearby national parks.  Environmentalists and politicians have strong opinions on the way forward to maintain sufficient levels of elephants and economic development, but I am convinced all want the lumbering tusker healthy and safe.  And, despite seeing them every day of our ten-day photo safari, I never grew tired of their presence.

Zimbabwe’s anti-poaching truck. Guides often help the government units on location of possible poachers.

 

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The Finns – A People in Between

Helsinki Cathedral, Finland

I don’t know why Finland has always beckoned.  Its location between Russia, that looming communist country to the east and the very liberal Scandinavian presence on the west was intriguing.  Both sides have claimed its territory – Sweden for 700 years between 1150 and 1809 and Russia from 1809 to 1917.  Even as an independent country, Finland considered itself as the broker between East and West – ex.  Helsinki Accord in 1975 that helped end the Cold War by confirming countries’ boundaries and their inviolability.  But I wanted to know more about its people, themselves a mix of east and west.

From our Helsinki guide, the joke is that Finns didn’t need Covid for social distancing.  They come by it naturally. An individual’s privacy is respected.  However, our County Court at Law Judge Bill Harris, who lived in Finland in 1980-81, described them as quiet at first but quite amicable and generous when you get to know them, even referring to them as “friendly Germans.” They are modest, don’t talk salaries and are not showy in their dress.  Even in central Helsinki, their largest city, the streets were quiet.  Three on a road is considered a traffic jam.  Because of the tough winters, most of their parking is underground which facilities can double as air raid shelters.  Helsinki is known as a façade city with its buildings beautifully maintained on the outside and modest on the inside.

During our morning at Senate square, few people walked through even as it is considered their most important historical center with the largest Lutheran Church on one side and government buildings around.  Our guide often sees the country’s young female prime minister, Sanna Morin, strolling through the square without bodyguards.   She had caused a small uproar recently by hosting a birthday party at the official Prime Minister’s residence that included late night dancing and drinking.  Most Finns thought she deserved her privacy for the party with a few grumbles about how “it looked.”  I wished our presidential grumblings were about something so small.

Homes in Helsinki with flagpoles

Finns are proud of their flag and fly it on many occasions – some official and come by custom – including Mother’s Day, Poet’s Day, Day of Finnish Literature, and a day to celebrate Finnish music on the birthday its most famous composer, Jean Sibelius who wrote “Finlandia”, a nationalist symphony to support their independence struggle against Russia. We saw flag poles on most of the homes awaiting the next holiday.

A very active college student with patches indicating her activities

New college students

Children have strong early years as new parents are given a “baby box” worth about $400 that includes a mattress that fits in the box for an early crib and baby needs such as diapers, body suits and bathing products.  A parent may stay home the first year with a 70% salary guaranteed. College is also paid for. In a park near our hotel, a group of new college students wore bright clothes with patches indicating their various activities in the university.  They were celebrating the beginning of the school year and shared their enthusiasm with us.

  Because of its tough winters, the Finns have embraced saunas. They are found everywhere – homes, hotels, public saunas and even one of the cars on its famous Ferris Wheel has darkened windows to provide privacy for the sauna inside.

Entry of Oodi Library in Helsinki

The most impressive building we saw in Helsinki was the new Oodi library that calls itself the “living room for its people” and reflected the communal need of the Finnish people to share resources.    On the circular stairway are painted the groups whom the library serves – including the poor, strangers, the spiritually enlightened, orphans, the depressed, dreamers, stargazers and even the henpecked – meaning everyone. On the third floor, we had a wonderful cappuccino at the coffee bar as we watched a group of young mothers and their small children talk and play in a circle.  Baby strollers filled a nearby area.

Downstairs bustled with young people who took advantage of the free video game arcade, computers, printers (including 3D printers), and sewing machines.  Musical instruments and hand tools could be checked out.  Six to seven thousand patrons use the library daily, including some who dine at its restaurant.

Discussion of the Ukrainian war was inevitable. Many cruise ships had cancelled their trips since Finland is so close to Russia, hurting their tourist industry.  Wealthy Russians had entered Finland overland so they could fly to other parts of the European Union.  Since five percent of the population still speaks Russian, there was some small support for Russia. But the country itself decided to support Ukraine and had broken their years of “pro-west neutrality” by requesting membership in NATO.  They recognize their actions are “poking the bear” but are willing to take that risk and for that, they must be admired.

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Scandinavian Churches Reflect Its History

Viking Stave Church near Vic, Norway

Churches are constantly repurposed.  In Istanbul, Turkey, St. Sophia’s began as a Christian Church, morphed into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, became an historical structure in 1934 and is once again a mosque as of 2020.  Even in Paris, we’ve seen churches change their allegiance from one denomination to another and commercial buildings become churches. It’s a different way to track a country’s history, spiritual path and changing culture. We experienced this on a recent trip to Finland and Norway.

Uspenski Orthodox Church in Helsinki, Finland

The first church on our Helsinki tour was Finnish Orthodox, the Uspenski Cathedral, built in 1864 when Finland was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire.  Perched on a hill overlooking Helsinki and its surrounding waters, the church easily looks it part as the largest orthodox church in Western Europe. Reflecting its past, the cathedral’s golden cupolas and redbrick façade give notice of the strong Russian feel inside.  We climbed the steep steps past two gypsy beggars, pushed through heavy wooden doors, and came into a dimly lit space glittering with a decorative gold leaf altar.  Russian dedications remain on the walls.

Finland has long considered itself a mediator between the East and West.  Five percent of the population still speaks Russian.  Recently though, it moved towards the West by requesting membership in NATO. It’s no surprise then that the Uspenski Cathedral had severed ties with the Russian Orthodox branch and has aligned with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Turkey.  It was the first church we encountered that had changed allegiances according to its country’s history but not the last.

Names of Donors to ornate carved pulpit at St. Mary’s in Bergen

Ornate Pulpit at St. Mary’s, Bergen, Norway

In Bergen, Norway, St. Mary‘s was originally constructed as a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Olav.  After the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther came to Norway in 1539,  almost all Norwegians converted (willingly and not so willingly) and St. Mary’s became a part of the Church of Norway, a Lutheran affiliation. It is the oldest church in Bergen, surviving partly due to German merchants who dominated the community from 1408.  They displayed their wealth, using St. Mary’s for this purpose.  As our guide noted, we don’t know who carved the ornate pulpit, but we do know who donated for its construction.  Their names are listed in the church and a few paintings remain of individual donors.  Today, it still holds Lutheran services, but Anglicans meet on Sundays also.

 

Viking Stave church in Vic, Norway

Norway is famous for its Stave Churches, striking in their design and age, and loved for their Viking history.  Despite TV series to the contrary, Vikings eventually converted to Catholicism but built their churches based on their woodworking skills and the attributes of their trees.  The distinctive black exterior was a result of tar from charcoal used to seal the wood. Layered roofs kept the snow weight distributed and carvings of dragons and snakes appealed to local belief in warding off evil spirits.  We took a ferry across the Sognefjord to Vik, and walked a mile to the Hopperstad Church, one of only 28 stave churches to survive, most lost after the 1349 plague. Hopperstad had to be reconstructed after extensive damage from deterioration and lack of care. Today, it is occasionally used by the Church of Norway, a Lutheran denomination.

As we approached the Trondheim, Norway Cathedral, firetrucks and ambulances circled the church with firemen in gear moving towards the church, lugging their fire hoses.  A cleric in robes noted our concern and assured us it was a drill. Considering the history of the cathedral and the destructive fires that had destroyed various parts of the campus over the years, I thought it wise to be prepared, especially with vivid memories of Notre Dame in Paris burning.

The cathedral has several claims to fame other than its beauty.  It was used for royal coronations and St. Olav, the patron saint of Norway, is believed to be buried on the grounds.  Of course, it began as a Catholic Church, changing allegiance after the Protestant Reformation.  Today it calls itself ecumenical, but the services are of the Lutheran order.  Recently restored (again), it’s as pretty a cathedral as I’ve seen.

Recognizing that many taxi drivers in Norway and Finland are immigrants, I asked one from Eritrea if there were any mosques in Bergen.  He acknowledged home mosques (meeting in a member’s home) were available, but the only permanent mosque was in Oslo.  An Ethiopian driver talked of the small Ethiopian community in Trondheim.  For their special occasions, they rent secular space.

I’ve seen a tiny mosque occupy commercial space in a medina in Morocco, an Episcopal church become a theater in Clarksville, and a synagogue occupy the lower floor of an apartment building in Jerusalem.  All these reflect the changing culture and needs.  The Scandinavian churches are no different.  Times change and churches follow.

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Encounters with Animal Royalty – the Lions of Botswana and Zimbabwe

 

African Lion (Panthera leo) by GaryKramer.net, 530-934-3873, gkramer@cwo.com

It was his eyes that drew me in – focused on the distant horizon, unblinking, looking for what he was hearing.  A mature Botswana male lion, the largest of the big cats in Africa, had stopped suddenly, fifteen yards away, intensely still, listening.  Gazing outward, he moved his mane from side to side, passing indifferently over our near presence in the open-air jeeps.  Turning to his left he moved into the meadow, gradually fading as if he were Shoeless Joe Jackson in the movie, Field of Dreams, his sandy coat indistinguishable from the tall grasses.  When he reappeared, he knew where he was going, across the field, towards the stream.  After first roaring to scare off any crocodiles, he entered the waters, swam a short distance, re-emerging to shake the water off.  And, again, he disappeared into the grass, hopefully to find his mate. This was not our only encounter with the African lions, but because of his proximity, it is my strongest memory

African Lion (Panthera leo) by GaryKramer.net, 530-934-3873, gkramer@cwo.com

Since my return, I’ve been asked if we were afraid being that close to the king of the jungle.  Truthfully, I wasn’t.  They seemed accustomed to our presence and disinterested in what we had to offer.  And, despite movies to the contrary, lions don’t create the most danger to humans in Africa.  That distinction would go to mosquitos that kill hundreds of thousands a year.  Lions aren’t even the most dangerous big animal in Africa.  That would be the hippopotamus which takes down 3,000 humans a year. Lions come after elephants and crocodiles, killing 200, primarily by sick males or when its testosterone levels are up in musth.

But lions are a danger to every other animal in Africa as they can wrestle down antelopes with ease, cape buffalos with some effort and with a little help from other lions, even a giraffe or elephant.  We saw two leopards squeezed in some branches of a tree, having been chased by a lion that was still roaming the area.  The Okavango Delta in Botswana is known for its large Cape buffalo herds.  They like the water and lions don’t but have adjusted to be close to such tasty fare.  There’s also a large population of impalas, cousins to our deer but with more dramatic horns on the male and a white circle on their rumps.  Impalas are the breadbasket for the animal world of southern Africa, including lions, and they are the most common animal we saw.

Certain prides are known by trackers.  At our first camp in Botswana, we heard a new pride had been seen in the area.  It was always tricky to find them although they had their favorite hangouts.  My husband’s jeep was the first to see a pride of females and babies, causally crossing the road.  I had “lion envy” as I had not gone out that afternoon.  But the next day, we found two male lions lying in the tall grass.  The head of one was up as he sleepily surveyed the nearby humans.  The other was deep into an afternoon nap with only his raised foot giving him away.  Our guide thought they were brothers and had just eaten.

Botswana has a healthy supply of lions today, thanks to conservation efforts and governmental policies. It is one of four countries that have seen an increase of about 12% in lions as opposed to the remainder of Africa where the lion population has decreased by 60%. The politics of saving the lions is complicated. No one disputes the numbers of lions have decreased dramatically from approximately 500,000 in 1950 to an estimated 20,000 today.  No one argues that Photo Safaris brings in needed revenue and provide employment to many.  And it’s undisputed that lions do kill livestock.  Solutions to declining numbers have included banning hunting completely, breeding lions in captivity for trophy hunting, and predator proof fences.

Anti-poaching efforts also are used by all the countries and we saw a jeep full of soldiers doing just that in Botswana.  Our guide greeted them and told us safari guides often give assistance to the anti-poaching efforts by notifying authorities when they see poachers.

Our last encounter with the lions was in Zimbabwe in a wooded area with a pride of lionesses quietly following its leader.

She slowed down and crouched.  The others followed suit.  Her muscles were taut, and her eyes focused past us where a herd of impalas was grazing.  Slowly, she stood and crept silently forward.  We held our breaths, waiting for a kill.  But the impalas must have had a warning and moved on.  The lionesses relaxed and led the pride on to follow the herd beyond our vision.  It is those moments that need to be preserved for future generations of lions and viewers. Hopefully, the efforts to save the lions will do just that.

Some photos are courtesy of Gary Kramer, our tour leader and photographer extraordinaire.

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Volcano Climbing Becomes a Family Tradition

I’m in the yellow jacked on the right at the top of Pacaya – 1975

View of path and valley below

In 1975, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in Guatemala City where he had a medical study grant. We fell in love with that beautiful, green country that sported mountains, lakes, beaches and three active volcanos, Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya.  Not thinking too much, we decided to climb Pacaya for a new experience.  It had been dormant for a while and was considered an easy volcano to ascend.

My husband and me at the beginning of the climb of Pacaya – 1975

On a clear Sunday morning, we quickly followed the gentle rise of the path that gradually increased its incline.  As we neared the top, climbing became challenging, the dark sandy volcanic soil sinking with every step.  The ground warmed beneath our soles.  And finally peering into the crater, we saw only smoke.  But when we turned around, the valley of Guatemala City lay below.  It was an airplane view except our feet were securely planted on ground, shifty though it was.  Our son carried on the family tradition in 2007 when he was in the Peace Corps there but had to turn around when the heat burned the bottom of his shoes.

Pacaya remains the only active volcano we have ascended but there have been other experiences around the world.  These were recalled after watching “Fire of Love”, a documentary about Marcel and Katia Krafft, two vulcanologists joined by marriage and their love of volcanoes.   The two were fearless and lived for the next eruption.  Wearing astronaut like coverings, they approached moving lava and magna, took samples of hot gasses, and even sailed a specially designed boat on a river of acid.

I learned the difference between red, friendlier volcanoes that are more predictable with lava flows following distinct patterns such as old riverbeds.  Gray ones are more dangerous, unpredictable, spewing smoke like a diabolical cauldron.  Mount St. Helens, in the state of Washington, was a gray explosion that broke off the entire side of the volcano when it exploded and sent rivers of lava down through homes and communities.  The broken crater is easy to view on the airplane approach to Portland, Oregon.

Osorno Volcano in Chile’s Lake District

My encounters with volcanos over the years cover several countries.  Since 75% of the world’s volcanoes reside in the Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile chain that follows the outline of the Pacific Ocean, I have flown over many dormant and active ones across Central and South America, with the most dramatic being views of some of Chile’s 2000 volcanos. In 2014, we hiked around part of Osorno, a perfectly formed volcano in Chile’s lake district.

From my home in Quito, Ecuador in 1973, I could see Cotapaxi, a sculpted volcano along the Pan American highway.  Behind me was Pichincha, a peaceful volcano during my stay but one that erupted in 1999 covering Quito in several inches of ash.  I also regularly passed the snow-covered volcano, Cayambe, third highest mountain in Ecuador, on my way to visit my Peace Corps brother in Otavalo.  The bus always stopped in the town of Cayambe which had food stands selling the local potato soup served with popcorn on top.  I have introduced that recipe to grandchildren.

In Costa Rica, Arundel was quite active, warming the hot springs for swimming at Hotel Tabacon near its base.  Each pool posted its temperature with some too warm for me to enter. The hotel staff offered to wake us in the middle of the night if there were volcanic eruptions.  During the day, large boulders could be seen tossed out of the crater.

My most powerful view of an active volcano came at night on a cruise ship around the Big Island in Hawaii.  Red hot lava could be seen flowing from the Kilauea Volcano into the ocean, sending steam into the air.  The boat kept its distance as the steam could become poisonous as it hits the water.

Diego Clark and Walker Clark carrying Luka Clark. Photo courtesy Dorcas Cristal.

Fabricio, Diego, Luka and Walker Clark eating marshmallows cooked in hot crevices. Photo courtesy Dorcas Cristal

View of Guatemala Valley below Pacaya Volcano – Photo courtesy Dorcas Cristal

Forty-seven years later, almost to the day, the family Guatemalan climbing tradition extended to the third generation.  Our son and his family climbed Pacaya this summer.  Their pictures of the path upward were familiar.  The two older grandsons, 9 and 7, walked on their own.  Our son carried the three-year-old.  This was the third volcano our daughter-in-law had climbed this season.  Marshmallows were provided to roast in the red-hot vents in the heat below.  It is no longer possible to climb to the top of the cone, but the photo of the valley below was the same as ours decades earlier.

While climbing an active volcano sounds dangerous, scientist have learned the signs of an approaching eruption.  Guatemalan officials will shut down the climbing of Pacaya when an explosion seems imminent.  Hopefully, it will remain open to climbing for our next generation.   The view is worth the effort.

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Cape of Good Hope – Africa’s Final Destination

I’ve stood at the base of the South American continent and watched boats pass through the Straits of Magellan. At the bottom of Australia’s continent lies Melbourne, a charming city I explored more for its offerings than its location.  But to best experience the dropping off point of a continent, the Cape Point on the Cape of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa delivers with the vastness and loneliness of the Atlantic Ocean surrounding the peninsula on three sides.

The Portuguese initially rounded the Cape in 1488, but they didn’t tarry long. Later, the Dutch recognized the tranquil waters of the False Bay sheltered by the Cape as a good stopping point on their way to their riches in the Spice Islands.  They brought slaves from Malaysia to work their gardens and later rice fields that supplied food to the ships. The English also liked the Cape’s location for their expanding empire.  And, of course, there were the native Kwai Son-Koi people who had been in the area for centuries.  The Cape Peninsula and Cape Town became melting pots of cultures.

The drive around the Cape Peninsula requires two hours excluding an array of possible stops to appreciate the white beaches and blue waters, parks, rugged mountain terrain, and inland towns. Because of the relatively mild winter weather, the Cape is a popular place for second homes, including one owned by Leonardo DiCaprio.  According to our guide, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world.  Passing around Haut (wood in Dutch) Bay, million-dollar homes overlooked $200 shacks without running water.

On a clear winter day that natives claimed to be like summer, we traveled along the dramatic Chapman’s Peak Drive named for a British sailor, hugging the edge of cliffs where the road had been hewn.  A surprising array of wild animals made their appearance – baboons carrying babies along the side of the road and wild ostriches and domesticated ones grown for their leather.  At nearby Seal Island, sharks could make a feast of the surfeit of seals.  Our guide called it a “McDonald’s drive-through for sharks.”

The most entertaining birds were the hundreds of African Penguins who just showed up at Boulder Beach in 1974.  An elevated board walk takes visitors to the beach filled with the waddling crowd.  There, an impatient mother pushed her mature baby penguin into the cold water again and again.  The baby would quickly circle around and dash out of the water.  Mom wasn’t having it and cut the baby off.  It was quite amusing except for the nearby sea gull that was feasting on a killed baby penguin.  I was startled at the indifference of the other penguins.

At the end of the Cape Peninsula is the Cape of Good Hope so named for the hope that the cape was the turning point east to find India from Europe.  After a funicular ride up to the edge of the Cape, we could finally view the Atlantic from three sides.  Below, a castle like fortress cliff extended even further with waves crashing against it and Black Cape Cormorant bird nests chiseled into its wall.

Behind us was the new Cape Point Lighthouse that functions today to orient ships.  The more traditional lighthouse remains standing but without purpose.  I could only appreciate the thousands of ships that have used the lighthouses over the years as a welcoming sign of a more tranquil bay just around the corner.

Contrary to popular opinion the Cape of Good Hope is not where the Indian, Atlantic, and Antarctic oceans meet.  That point is about 200 miles further east.  But it is the “most south-western point of the African Continent,” a fine title for a remote location. We had our picture taken in front of the sign proclaiming its coordinates.

On the way back into Cape Town, we passed through Simon Town, where a military base on False Bay houses the only three submarines owned by South Africa. False Bay received its name when sailors confused it with Table Bay to the north.  Because of its more tranquil waters, many communities were founded along its shores.  In Simon Town, policemen were protecting health care workers who manned an outdoor clinic giving COVID-19 vaccine shots.  According to our guide, vaccine doubters were numerous here.  Our final stop was for dinner at Fish Bait in Kalk (another Dutch name meaning chalk) overlooking a large marina filled with fishing boats and a sizeable seal looking for a handout. 

I hadn’t expected the wildlife.   The size of the Cape was larger than expected.  And I underestimated the satisfaction of being at the tip of a continent, imagining Antarctica 3,500 miles south, beckoning this traveler to explore her only remaining continent.

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Sleeping With a Hippo in My Bed

Hippo snacking below our tents at Mana Pool, Zimbabwe

In the spring and fall in Paris, I like to sleep with windows open, with an occasional owl’s hoot accompanying my dreams.  Only dogs barking interrupt the night’s peace.  Morning sounds expand with greetings from the local birds – cardinals, wrens, and robins.  Migrating birds announce their arrivals on schedule.  And cars and trucks from Loop 286 start their steady hums.  And, so, I was looking forward to hearing new night and morning sounds from inside our tents in Botswana and Zimbabwe on our photo safari.  What I hadn’t expected was the nocturnal hippo challenging my sleep.

We are all aware that a hippopotamus is described as a large thick-skinned semiaquatic African mammal, with massive jaws and large tusks.  I would put the emphasis on large, as it can reach two tons in weight and 5 ½ feet in height.  It rests in the morning, looks for food in the evening and night.  Its comparatively tiny ears stay out of the water as the hippo rests, never losing track of what menaces might be near. We learned to recognize the shape of the hippo heads that initially looked like black rocks protruding from the water.

What is missing from the dictionary description is the hippo’s easily identifiable sounds. The male honk is the loudest – deep with the lower decibels sometimes equaling 115 or the same as a rock concert or loud thunderstorm.   Other sounds contribute to a bass melody of grunts, growls, roars, wheezing and even what sounds like a deep laugh.  And underwater, a series of clicks communicates to other hippos through vibrations and are felt by their jawbones. From the night sounds, my perception of the hippos’ schedule included convivial happy hours of socializing through the night.

Raft of hippos on Zambezi River

At our first two bush camps in Botswana, the hippos as a group were relatively close.  But at the Zambezi Expedition Camp in Mana Pool National Park in Zimbabwe, our tent perched on the riverbank with a raft of hippos just below.  These plant loving animals scrounged for grass on land in the evening and night, returning to the water at some point before dawn.  After one late afternoon animal drive in the bush, we were stopped short of our camp by a couple of elephants and one hippo enjoying their herbivore snacks and slowly, very slowly, moving on to the water.  They passed within 10 feet of our tent.

Hippo on the move

In general, the hippos we observed were safely in the water or ignored our presence.  The exception happened to my brother and his wife on a guided late afternoon canoe ride in the Zambezi River that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Billed as a smooth, quiet ride in the water, it seemed a nice alternative to another game viewing drive on dusty, bumpy roads.  But on the way back, the canoes passed a little too close to a hippo who charged the canoe on land but stopped at the water.  Another (possibly mother)  hippo in the water felt threatened and began thrashing and swirling the water around her as she approached the canoes. The guide first held an oar above his head to appear bigger and then slapped the paddle flat on the water continuously as he shouted to “keep rowing.” It didn’t help to have just learned hippos were the most dangerous land animal in the world.  Gratefully, the boats returned safely and  all passengers looked tense but relieved.

The night in the African Bush is a busy time.  Many of the animals are nocturnal due to the heat of the days.  I learned to listen for elephant trumpets, lion roars, hyena laughs, and many, many hippo honks.  It felt as if we were sharing our bed with at least one from the chorus of hippos.  I delivered that line at the breakfast campfire and most laughed.  But our leader, who has been to Africa 50 times, admitted he loved the hippo sounds.  It meant he was in the wild and he found them comforting.

Back home in Texas, my night sounds now pale in comparison to the African Bush.  Our breakfast talk doesn’t compare what animals we had heard in the dark. We don’t look for footprints around the tent to determine what visitors we had in the night.  And no hippos join us in bed – a presence that I surprisingly now miss.

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Memorable Train Rides from Around the World

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, passenger trains in the U.S.  were numerous and popular.  One even transported my kindergarten class between my hometown of Plainview, Tx. to Lubbock, 45 miles away. But with the advent of good roads and increased income, cars dominated and train routes dwindled. In other countries though, trains continued to deliver passengers and were there to be explored.

In 1972 I became enchanted by rail travel and all of its varied experiences.  With three-month Eurail passes in hand, my friend and I visited 15 countries, occasionally sleeping overnight in route, eating lunches brought aboard, and often jumping on a train without stopping for tickets.  In Spain, having misunderstood its departure time, we had to run alongside a departing train, tossing our luggage in as we ran.  In what was then Yugoslavia, I watched in horror as my train disappeared from the station after a scheduled stop just as I returned from getting snacks to eat onboard.  I had no phone and no way to message my friend who had remained on the train.  Five minutes later the train returned on a different platform to my great relief.

Not all my train rides were comfortable. The train from La Paz, Bolivia to Argentina’s border town of Villazon was painfully overcrowded.  All seats were taken and yet we were still issued tickets and told to stand. During the day, the ride was bearable.  A couple offered me a small slice of their bench seat to perch upon. Cracked windows provided ventilation and the view of the Bolivian highlands was interesting enough.  But night fell, windows were shut in defense of the cold high-altitude air, and nothing could be seen outside because of glaring overhead lights. My rare claustrophobia kicked in that evening requiring multiple trips to stand outside the train car where it adjoined the next car.  It was one of the longest nights of my travels.  Today, that train is modern and offers executive and lounge class with chairs reclining 160 degrees.  But in 1974, it was the Bolivian indigenous crowd and us, passing the long trip in a crowded train car through the cold Andean plains.

I lived in Ecuador for 1 ½ years and had heard of a train ride that switch backed from the high altitude of Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil with beautiful views of snow-covered volcanos. We booked our tickets in advance but, again, upon arriving found the one-car train full.  Given the option of riding on top of the car with the luggage or standing, the four of us climbed up an outer ladder and settled in amongst the suitcases and bags. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and happened to be around Carnival when water balloons were traditionally thrown at others, including any on top of a train.  At one stop, we climbed down, bought balloons and water, filled them, and were ready for the next town.  As we approached the flat coastal area, the train approached an area of several tunnels.  We had been assured we could sit up in those tunnels, but I dove into the luggage every time.

Vietnam is not known for its train services but there was one from Hanoi to Lao Cai, landing us closest to SaPa, a mountainous town near the Chinese border used by the French for relief from the coastal heat.  Many indigenous tribes live outside Sa Pa and the three of us wanted to explore their lives and crafts.  The train left at night, and we had a sleeper cabin booked with two bunk beds on either side.  We claimed three beds and assuming the cabin was ours, locked the door.  In the middle of the night, loud knocking on our door awoke me but not the others.  I didn’t answer.  But then the conductor used his key to open the sliding door.  In walked a man in a suit who nodded to me, took off his shoes and climbed up into the available bed across from me.  After removing his tie and coat, he laid down and quickly went to sleep. I lay awake in my pajamas wondering how I was going to get dressed in the morning.  Fortunately, our unexpected cabin mate was up early, and after straightening his tie and a second nod to me, climbed down, put on his shoes, and was gone.  My traveling companions didn’t know he was up there until he was leaving.

Today, extensive train travel remains primarily outside the U.S., especially the high-speed ones in Europe and the Far East.  I still consider that mode of travel best for passenger interaction and seeing the country.  You just have to get to the station early.

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Funiculars – Funny Name – Fun Ride

View of Hong Kong as The Peak Funicular ascends

View of Hong Kong from The Peak Funicular through tinted glass

I don’t remember the first time I heard the word, “funicular.”  Inclined Railroad or an Incline are more widely used words for the steeply tilted contraption that lifts passengers quickly up to a much higher destination – a kind of mountain side elevator. The oldest funicular in the world continues to operate in Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, Austria, known as the Reisszug, and has been in operation since the early 1500s.  The original funiculars transported supplies through the fortress doors of castles.

Destinations in the United States have included the top of a mountain, a hotel, an Amusement Park, Caverns, and the top of Bunker Hill in Boston.  The latter was the first American inclined railroad, built in 1826 to transport granite for the construction of a monument to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Truthfully, funiculars always make me nervous.  Even though the inclines today are run by electricity, many still clank and jerk at the start. The ascending car is hooked up to a moving cable and counterweighted by the car descending.  They move in tandem.  It is similar to the San Francisco cable cars, but those cars are not permanently attached to the cable and can start and stop on their own,

Surprisingly, the U.S. was once awash in funiculars with Pittsburg, Pennsylvania having the most – 23.  It was a steep climb from the Monongahela River up Mt. Washington where housing was located.  The steep, 635- foot Monongahela Incline built in 1870 is the oldest continuously operating funicular in the U.S.

For those few funiculars remaining in the U.S., most have become tourist attractions leading to other tourist attractions.  Sadly, the Royal Gorge Incline Railway in Colorado was closed in 2013 because of fire.  Lookout Mountain in Tennessee still brings riders up to the remarkable view that Confederate Generals James Longstreet and Braxton Briggs had the over the Lookout Valley during the Civil War.

Funicular office in Quebec, Canada

View of base of Quebec’s funicular

Tower at top of Prague’s funicular

Abroad there are many in unexpected places.  Chile’s port city of Valparaiso once had 31.  Naples’ Funiculare Centrale has been operating since 1928 and is also heavily trafficked. In Prague, a short funicular takes the rider up to a park with an Eiffel Tower in the center – minus the cowboy hat. Quebec’s old town funicular ascends from the river level to town center, moving tourists from a street of souvenirs to a row of restaurants.  Walking down the mountain to Old Quebec was easy but I was happy to jump on the funicular to ascend back to city center.

Orvieto, Italy, brings its visitors up a 134-year-old funicular with views of the valley below.  Popes liked to retreat to this ancient city for a respite even before the funicular provided easy access. My friends, Plug and Toni Clem, claim the restaurant at the top of the Orvieto funicular provided one of the best meals of their traveling experiences.  We both agreed the church above worth the ascent.

As could be expected, Switzerland heavily uses this form of transportation.  According to Wikipedia, the country has 53 operating funiculars, including the world’s newest just opened in Stoos.  The inclined railway transports passengers over 2200 feet (almost a half mile) in four minutes.  Barrel shaped cars rotate enough to keep the inside floor level.  I don’t usually experience vertigo but in a video promoting the opening of the incline in 2017, I felt my stomach drop watching the mountain disappear directly below on the 110-degree gradient.  It’s worth a look.

My favorite funicular ride was in Hong Kong.  The Peak moves residents from the business district to the top of Victoria Peak.  It has been serving Hong Kong since 1880, originally segregating riders into three categories:

  • First Class: British colonial officials and residents of Victoria Peak
  • Second Class: British military and Hong Kong Police Force personnel
  • Third Class: Other people and animals

Beginning descent of Hong Kong Funicular

Hong Kong’s funicular cable car

It is heavily used by locals and tourists and has had up to two hour waits on weekends to ride to the top.  Recent repairs and additions will speed up the ride and help with the overload.  What I can confirm is the view going up was stunning, taking in the bottom half of Hong Kong Island directly below.  Skyscrapers gave way to ferries in the distance crossing Victoria Harbor to hotels lined up along the waterfront on Kowloon Peninsula.

Since so many funiculars have been abandoned, I think it important to ride those still available.  The views are always notable and the experience important to understand past transportation options.  I hear there’s one in Bergen, Norway – a fall destination.  I hope to check it out.

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First American Museum – Site of “Distant Thunder” debut

East facing Entrance to museum aligns with the sunrise of the March vernal and September of the autumnal equinox.

The First American Museum (FAM) https://famok.org/ in Oklahoma City was a long time coming. Since Oklahoma has more than 60 percent of all enrolled Native Americans in the U.S., OKC was the natural location for such an ambitious project.  Initially conceived in 1994 to fill a need to tell the stories of the 39 Native American tribes in Oklahoma, the legislature created the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority but without funding.  It took 27 years before the museum opened thanks to monies raised from private donors, the State, City of Oklahoma, and the Chickasaw Nation.  With appropriate fanfare, the museum opened in October 2021 to the delight of tribal members and impressing national architects, museum critics, and the general public.

Digital screen print illustration on copper by Cherokee artist, Joseph Erb.

The FAM is not centered around a collection of artifacts.  There is no dusty diorama of Indians in native garb hunting in the desert.  What has survived of the sad history of the original four tribes in Oklahoma and the removal of 35 tribes to Oklahoma from other parts of the United States along the Trail of Tears are the stories.  As noted by a museum curator, the museum is “Our place to tell our stories from our perspective.”

Stunning People’s Hall for gatherings

Beginning with an animated surround sound video of the creation stories,  histories of the tribes are gradually revealed in galleries filled with historical data and family tales. Genocide, forced removal, boarding schools, and the unusual allotment history of the Oklahoma tribes are sad parts of their history. The number of treaty betrayals by the U.S. Government is achingly presented along with the statesmen of the tribes.  Later galleries celebrate achievements in the art, science, military, and sports worlds.  An imagined ride on a bus takes you to a current day pow wow. And upstairs are artefacts from the Smithsonian in Washington that have been rescued from storage and brought to life.

Shawn Corbitt and mother, Lynn Taylor Corbitt, co-authors of Distant Thunder

All this is well worth the visit.  But we recently also experienced the world premiere of “Distant Thunder”, a musical penned by Native American mother/son duo, Lynn Taylor Corbitt and Shawn Corbitt, members of the Black Feet tribe.  Presented in a section of the enormous parade ground behind the museum building, it was buffered by one of the country’s largest earth mound, modeled after those built by southern tribes and aligned with the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. The musical tells the modern-day story of so many Native Americans who are torn between tribal traditional support and going “where the jobs are.”  Fractured relationships heal as the prodigal son returns to learn the truth of his past.

At a cast/audience talk after the show, members of the Native American cast talked of the musical bringing them closer to their roots and many used the experience to heal wounds from their own pasts.  Representing tribes from Oregon to NYC, the cast hoped the musical would become their West Side Story that had illuminated the Puerto Rican experience or Fiddler on the Roof and its Jewish journey.

Shannon O’Loughlin, CEO and attorney for the 100-year-old American Association of Indian Affairs was the MC for the talk. She noted that their organization is celebrating 100 years of advocating for the tribes to be self-determinate.  In the beginning, they had to deal with forced boarding schools and the forbidding of the use of native language.  Today, they continue to advocate for taking back artifacts on museum shelves and teaching tribes how to use their treaties.

Writer Shawn Corbitt, admits the story of “Distant Thunder” is his story. Much of the plot stems from a trip he and his mother took to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, when Shaun was 15.  He grew up on Long Island and was hungry for his Black Feet heritage.  He now returns for their annual ceremonies.  The Old Man in the play, Brent Florendo, is from Oregon and teaches Native American studies. Matoka Little Eagle, who played Grandma Jingle Dress, talked of her father being sent to a boarding school and running away every Thursday when the school staff would bleach their skin. She was taught to be a dancer even in the north where she was raised.

Tribal dancing on stage as a part of the musical “Distant Thunder”

Xander Chauncey, of Shawnee and Mapuche heritage played the veteran who suffered from PTSD but noted it was also his own personal story. Native Americans have served in the military at five times the rate per capita of any other group in the U.S.  The play touched on energy company pipe lines, gaming, economic development, and global warming. Tribal dancing and poignant songs contribute greatly to the show’s authenticity.   And the actors agreed that its dominant theme was forgiveness.

The First American Museum is well worth a visit to learn of the past and present tribal life.  Hopefully, “Distanct Thunder” will join the musical circuit and more can understand the modern day Native American experience.

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