Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Glamping Experience




Panoramic view of Tiziri Camp in Morocco 
Most of us have now heard of glamping, aka luxury camping, a mix of glamour and camping - the tourist industry’s answer to those who like the idea of sleeping outside but not carrying all the needed paraphernalia.  It appeals to aging campers, picky sleepers and tender children.  Many may think first of the luxury tents provided to African safari tours, but the idea has caught on world-wide, including our own neck of the woods. 

Tents near Uluru Rock
Inside tent near Uluru Rock
I’ve had two very different glamping experiences.  On a trip to the outback of Australia, I carefully suggested to my two female friends that we forego the stay in a non-descript western hotel and try a more rustic tour that provided real beds in tents but a shared bathroom across the campfire.  My roommate, Mary Grace, had never camped at all and cautiously signed on to the idea.  
Camp near King's Canyon, Australia

We joined native Australians, four French, two Germans, and a handful of New Zealanders in a very full van traveling across the Uluru-Kat Tjuta National Park to Uluru rock and King’s Canyon, stopping at prepared camp sites.  The tents barely held two single beds, a bed light of maybe 20 watts, and a bit of floor space for our bags.  Mary Grace was pleased with the beds and we tried not to think of the many Australian snakes we had recently seen at a zoo. 

While the beds were a step up from traditional camping, much of the remaining experiences felt like a true outdoor event – early rising to see the sunrise over Uluru Rock (previously called Ayres rock), sharing coffee with fellow travelers as we awaited our pancakes, night skies undiluted by nearby lights, and a common grubbiness from the hesitancy to use precious water to shower. Mary Grace was proud to check camping off her list of first-time experiences, thought her sons would be proud, and expected it to be her last foray into the campfire world.

Inside tent at Tiziri Camp
But then there was Morocco.  In planning the trip to Morocco with a local tour agency, I saw on the proposed itinerary a night in the desert in a tent offered at standard rate or luxury rate.  Being the frugal travelers that we were, we chose the standard rate. But after our guide took one look at our gray hair, he gently suggested the upgrade to luxury – an astute recommendation with little additional cost.

The Tiziri Camp had just opened two months before our arrival, and we were out of sight of the other camps used by various agencies.  For our night, the four of us were the only travelers, meaning a very personal experience. In the tent I shared with Mary Grace was a sandy floor entirely carpeted with Moroccan rugs, adequate light, heated sheets and a personal bathroom.  Snacks and bottled water were for the taking without charge and wifi was even available. This was a big step-up from our Australian experience.

In the dining tent, beautiful place settings with fine china and crystal glasses awaited the four- course meal. Our smiling waiter greeted us with the traditional tea and then began a parade of Moroccan dishes.  After dinner, we were invited to join local musicians around a blazing campfire under the same clear night sky we had seen in Australia.  Mary Grace and I even managed to arise early enough to watch the sunrise.  We sunk deep into the cool sand as we struggled up the dune behind our tent but arrived in time for a magical moment of the desert awakening.

Campfire circle at Tiziri Camp
Closer to home are glamping options - a secluded bell tent near Broken Bow, Oklahoma for $160 per night or a unique teepee near Tulsa on a horse ranch for $80 a night. Throughout Texas are opportunities to stay in tree houses, tent, yurts, airstreams and teepees.  I love the El Cosmico’s name near Marfa and it offers all the above.  Our daughter used the “Under Canvas” organization’s site near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota for her family’s first luxury camping experience and loved it.  This company is expanding and how has eight locations near many of our favorite national parks. Prices vary significantly but all provide a unique experience.

Many of these locations can be booked on AirBnB as can other interesting lodging options.  For me, I’m happy to avoid another stay at the predicable chain hotels that promote their hot breakfasts or comfortable beds when these amenities are equally available closer to the great outdoors.  You just have to look for them.



Tuesday, September 3, 2019

European Travel 50 Years ago - a Widow's Diary



At our first Bed and Breakfast in London,
June, 1969

In 2008, I discovered my mother’s three volume diary from a family journey taken almost 40 years before.  My brothers and I remember the trip well.   How could one forget a ten-week European tour?  But only now as adults with children could we understand the courage this took.  Mom had been widowed with five children under the age of 20, and yet planned the trip herself at a time when European travel was just opening up for Americans.

This decision was not completely out of the blue.  My mother fell in love with traveling in 1931 at the age of 11.  In the midst of a depression, she ventured out of Texas for the first time.   Her father had little money and her mother had died when she was five. But her grandmother took her to California by train to visit family.   Mom’s face was always transformed at the mention of San Francisco.  She was seeing the San Francisco Bay for the first time with its deep blue water and the city on the hill and she was never the same after that. The trip revealed a world awaiting discovery and her exploration began after she married a West Texas farmer and had a few babies.

        Every summer, Mom would put her children in the back of a Plymouth station wagon and head out to a predetermined destination in the United States. Distance didn’t matter. Seattle, Los Angeles, Colorado, South Dakota, Washington, D.C., were all in her sights. My father claimed the potato and cotton crops required his attention, though he would still occasionally fly up and join us. By the time I left home, my brothers and I had checked off 35 states. But it was after my mother was widowed in 1966 at age 45 that she looked beyond the continental U.S.

In 1969, she decided the family needed to see Europe. Her original plan was a guided tour of the major cities in Western Europe.  But Bonnie, a family friend, convinced Mom that she could do it independently and more economically, even if it included children ages 20, 19, 17, 15, and 13.  Bonnie enticed my mother with comments like “You have to eat ice cream and read the Herald Tribune at St. Mark’s square.” Courageously, Mom decided to try it.

Arranging a trip of this magnitude was right up her alley.   My mother was born to organize.  This was the woman who maintained a list of the outfits she wore to her various clubs and school board meetings, so duplications were kept at a minimum. Grocery lists were arranged according to the layout of the store and the menu for the week.  As a volunteer, she kept track of recipes for local cookbooks and of names for church directories.  In our summer travels, each of us was given paper sacks pulled out of a box that held age appropriate games or reading material.  The sacks were distributed slowly over the length of the trip.  Five kids times five sacks times three surprises equals an active imagination and a lot of organization.



Of course, planning a European tour was something else.  The publication of “Europe on $5 A Day” in 1957 abolished the myth that Continental travel was only for the wealthy.  Promises of $1 a night hotels in Spain and 50 cent meals in Italy caught voyagers’ attention.   With the dollar trading at four German marks, a British pound equaling $2.25, and charter flights starting to appear, Europe wasn’t just attractive, it was attainable. And our family wasn’t alone.  In 1969, five million Americans (2.25% of the population) traveled abroad.  This was a significant increase from 1950 when only .45% of the population ventured out of the country.  Our baby boom population and higher income contributed to the growing numbers. But it was a far cry from the 27 million, or 10% of the population, who traveled abroad in 2000.   In 1969,  a European tour still was very unusual, especially in Plainview, a town of 18,000 in the Texas Panhandle, where my mother was born and raised.

Mom dove in.  She bought Europe on $5 a Day, Fodor’s Guide to Europe, and Fielding’s “Tours”.  This was long before faxes, cheap telephone calls or the internet. Friend Bonnie suggested an itinerary and Mom filled in the rest. The U.S. Postal Service was used to reserve hotel rooms at every major city on the route.  Thin, inquiring aerograms flew out of our home at 2601 W. 11th Street,  to wide- flung European destinations.  Two to three weeks later, letters in rich, thick envelopes appeared with exotic stamps and return addresses.  Formal language acknowledged receipt of her request for two rooms and most hotels confirmed the reservation.  Occasionally, a deposit was required.  Credit cards were not widely accepted at the time and we didn’t have one.

 Mom used a Volkswagen dealership in Lubbock, Texas to order a green Volkswagen van to be delivered to London where we began our trip.  The cost of $2,299.80 included $7.00 for push-out windows and $39 for an AM Radio.  The equivalent in today’s prices would be a modest purchase price of $13,633.  Where she found the information about shipping the van back to the United States, we don’t know. But in pre-internet days, it was an impressive feat.

Other preparations included clothes for all of us.  They had to be “drip-dry”, the precursor to no-iron. Jeans and t-shirts were out.  We were allotted three outfits each.  In our pictures, my brothers look amazingly well-dressed with slacks and button-down, short sleeve shirts.  Mom went so far as to buy nylon underwear for the boys.  The oldest brother rebelled, but the younger ones acquiesced, while complaining under their breath.   Baseball season was already lost for them, so what difference did uncomfortable clothes make.

I had some of the strangest clothes. Skirts were required in many churches in Europe.  So Mom cleverly made an outfit for me that was flexible.  She sewed two one - piece shorts outfits with a reversible wrap-around skirt.  One set was brown with white polka dots and the other white with brown polka dots.  It didn’t look so bad with the skirt on, but in the shorts alone, I appeared totally shapeless.  Add to that my habit of wearing my long hair in pig tails and my short five feet height, and you got, well, you got stares.

Student travel and discounts were then readily available and a  perk for university students.  Thanks to having two college aged children in the family, we could purchase airline tickets through Student Travel Inc. in Austin, Texas.   The charter plane landed in London and ten weeks later, departed from Brussels.  The price was right  - $279.00 each ($1,654.47 today). “Tourist-Economy” fare with Pan American Airways would have cost $500 per ticket ($2,965 today).  Wisely, Mom bought six tickets for Charter #8.  The confirmation letter even informed us that we would be flying on a Boeing 707 and that our flying time would be nine hours with a refueling stop in Maine.  Since passenger jets were only introduced in 1958, this bit of information on the plane was not always a given.



The Student Travel Inc. organization, assuming you had never done this before and needed direction, issued two pedantic Charter Bulletins (No.1 and No.2). They made specific suggestions as to what guide books to use (Fodor’s was in and Frommer’s was out), mode of transportation (leasing or buying a car was the best with Eurail pass a second choice), who to use for your photographs for passport and student IDs (professional, please) and even the need for your banker to know how to wire money.  The implication was that small town bankers wouldn’t know the steps which was probably true at that time.   

Since the air passage price depended on the fullness of the flight, we were encouraged to sign up other travelers.  We were expected to be impressed at the “computerized flow chart that shows the location of all of the aircraft at specific times and dates” which would finally determine our exact departure time.  What they DIDN’T want was for us to call them about costs, departure times, etc. They would provide all that information in due time -    21 days before the flight!  “Trust us,” “We’ve done this before” was their mantra.

Our first train ride from the London Airport into town
June 5 was “D-day” as Mom wrote in her diary. We were dressed like we were going to church.  Three of my brothers wore a shirt, tie, and sport coat.  I was in a flowered dress and both Mom and I had corsages given to us by my aunt.  It was the only time I ever wore a flower on a plane but it signified the specialty of the occasion.  An itinerary of the “Walker’s Waltz” across Europe was left with family members. The charter flight out of Dallas left one and a half hours late.  But nothing dampened our excitement - Europe for ten weeks.

Mom had read her guidebooks well and was prepared to travel economically, especially with food.  We stayed in moderate lodgings where breakfast was always included. The European emphasis on breads, butter, and jam didn’t impress any of us.  All agreed the English breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, jam, tomatoes, juice, and hot tea was the only decent morning food of the trip. Lunch was a picnic or a meal where the locals ate - cafeterias, department store dining rooms, university dining halls, train stations, or often at what Mom referred to in her diary as a “joint”.  “We ate lunch at a joint - food was OK.”  In France, Switzerland and Italy, dinner was often included in the price of the room, another savings.  Two rooms, breakfast and dinner for six went for $36 in Chiavari on the coast of Italy.

We are fighting over the baguettes.  Please note the
robes two of my brothers are wearing which Mom
thought were important enough to take up
precious suitcase room.
We knew when a meal was expensive by its inclusion in her diary.  Lunch at the Louvre cost $6.50 for six ham sandwiches, six drinks, and four ice creams. Mom considered that high.  Of course, today that meal will set you back $88.  The most dear meal was at the Hilton Hotel steakhouse in Paris.  We were starved for American food and tired of bubbly water.  The splurge for the BBQ and steaks totaled $33.  “Expensive as the devil, of course, but worth it” read this diary entry.

             We started picnicking more as the trip progressed including an unexpected picnic inside the van, inside a train transporting our car, inside a mountain on our way to Lugano, Switzerland.   The menu was also unusual - lemon chess cake, two oranges, potato chips, and water.  Mom didn’t include any complaints but there had to have been some mutterings.



Many new food experiences were noted - steak tartare and pretzels in Germany, Swiss cheese fondue, cooked Romaine lettuce, Indonesian food, German wiener schnitzel, English beef and kidney pie and the famous Austrian Sacher Torte.  Danish pastries were so superior to the “danish rolls” we had at home, it was hard to believe one descended from the other.  In England we enjoyed our first high tea and at Coventry Cathedral, a gooseberry crumble served at the church rectory rated the superlative of “best”.  Today, none of these dishes sound exotic because of widespread traveling and availability of international cuisine in the U.S.  But in 1969, they were all new to our palates.  Some were disappointing (the Sacher Torte was dry) but others captured us.  After the discovery of wiener schnitzel, two of my brothers tried to order it wherever they went.  I still wrap my spaghetti around a fork using a large spoon as a brace, as taught us by the Italian waiters.  And for years following the trip, my mother searched for gooseberries.

We covered approximately 4000 miles as we drove through England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Holland and Belgium. My older brother (20) and I (19) took turns driving.  According to Mom’s diary, we got lost a lot, drove in a bus lane in Paris, chose back roads to find restaurants and small hotels, and used maps extensively.   We purchased gasoline coupons in Italy (30% discount cards for tourists) and hoped the hotel discounts promised would work.

Isle of Capri, Italy.  I don't know who the guy in the passenger seat is.
 I laughed at Mom’s description of ordering and paying for a lunch at an Italian roadside café.  “You first paid for the food to get a sales slip, then went to the (food) counter and fought the crowd to get your choice.  Didn’t matter whether you were in line or not, people would push their way right in front.”  I could have written that description  in 2008 at a roadside café on a tollway in Sicily.  Some things haven’t changed.

Much of our time was spent with the usual tourist activities.  As a commercial art major, Mom was determined we would explore the major museums.   To see the actual Magna Carta and original scores by Bach and Mozart at the British Museum was thrilling for this farmer’s widow.  The small, unassuming Mona Lisa at the Louvre was open for close examination, free of the massive crowds of today.  In Florence, Mom learned the fruit wreaths used at home were named for the artist, Lucia Della Robbia, who painted the sculptured fruit frames in bright colors.  And Tintoretto’s massive paintings at the Scuola de San Rocco in Venice were pondered for their contrasts in light and dark. 

Plenty of time was set aside for shopping.  Cheap ski equipment impressed my brothers.  The purchase of skis by my oldest brother at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris exposed our ignorance of tourist refunds.  We thought a discount was offered, but it was actually the right to turn in our receipts at the border and have a refund mailed to us.  All of this took two interpreters and two hours to understand.  The rest of us chose to buy ski boots.  I have no idea what we were thinking.  It just seemed cool at the time.  The equipment came in handy when we unexpectedly got to ski in Zermatt, Switzerland.  Even with new boots and skis, we must have looked pitiful coming down the mountains with socks for gloves.  For the remainder of the trip, we had to shuffle the skis and boots around in the Volkswagen bus to make room for our increasing purchases.  Thankfully, Mom collected spoons from each country which took little space.



In 1969, every country had a different currency.  Without ATMs, Mom had to bring sufficient traveler checks for the entire trip.  She learned to store the checks in the hotel’s safe.  Still, there was a constant calculation of how much would be needed to be changed for the stay in each country.  And, bank hours had to be factored in.  On a Saturday in Venice, we were down to $35 to last through the week-end.  We had to choose between a gondola ride and a real meal.  We went with the boat ride and ate cheese and crackers in the hotel room.  Interestingly, the European countries were just beginning to explore that year the idea of a common currency in their drive for economic and monetary union. The first policy statements were approved in 1969 by members of the EEC at a summit at the Hague.  It took 30 more years for it to happen (January 1, 1999).

The best experiences were personal.  At a very out of the way country inn in France, the stout owner appeared surprised to have an American family arrive. Our exchange was often through pantomime since my school French didn’t pick up the subtleties of her conversation.  Madame Reine Nantou particularly loved our being from Texas, using her hands as pistols to demonstrate her understanding of our heritage.  She imitated a snorting pig to illustrate the pork dish on the menu.  And she was horrified when my youngest brother asked for Coca-Cola, insisting on serving wine to all of us.   Even after these 40 years, I still remember her fresh tomatoes as the best I’ve ever had.   It was also our first experience of a prix fixe.  At our departure, Madame insisted on giving us wine glasses.  As we waved good-by she blew kisses.  She singlehandedly changed our impression of the French.

In 1967 our family had hosted a foreign exchange student from Asperg, Germany, named Helmut.  His family was happy to return the hospitality and welcomed us with the best food of the trip - sausages, cream cakes, pretzels, goulash, home-made noodles, pickled cucumbers, strawberry torte shortcake, and wine and beer.  It was at their home we realized Europe was still recovering from the war.  The Gabauer family had to build a fire to heat the water for our showers and they had no telephone.  Mom used the home telephone of Helmut’s girlfriend to call Texas, the  only phone call of the trip.



 Helmut joined us later in the trip on our drive through Germany and Denmark.  He was particularly instrumental in introducing the older kids to beer halls.  The casualness of teenagers drinking in Europe surprised my mother and excited the rest of us.  But we had to be careful not to match them drink to drink.   They had years of conditioning on those of us who came from the 21 year drinking age country. 

A visit to the Mumm Champagne factory in Reims introduced my youngest brother, age 13, to his first alcohol buzz.  We all were taken with the idea of free alcohol at the end of the tour and managed to explore two breweries that summer.   My older brother and I found youth clubs in most of the major cities for late evening fun.  Discos had not yet arrived.  At a Jazz Bar in Rome, Meadowlark Lemons of the Harlem Globetrotters sat at our table to chat.  In Berlin, we felt out of our league in a darkened, candle lit cabaret straight out of the 1930's.  Phones in the booths were used to invite other patrons to dance.  No one called us.
 
The siblings share many favorite memories - skiing in Switzerland, snorkeling in Sorrento, Italy, celebrating the 4th of July at the American Embassy party in Rome, figuring out the bidet, exploring the Salt Mines in Austria, and crossing Checkpoint Charlie on a tour into East Berlin.  In July, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  We were up very early to watch it at our pension in Salzburg, Austria, and later joined crowds on the street peering into store windows with televisions. 

In Switzerland, I think.  I'm wearing a wig, which was quite popular then.
By the time we arrived in Brussels ten weeks later, we were ready to return to American soil, especially my mother.  She reports none of us wanted to do anything in Belgium.  Our luggage had doubled despite boxes of goods that had previously been mailed.  Without wheels on suitcases, all of us were loaded down. The van was dropped off to be shipped.  Our plane was six hours late in departing but no one cared.  It was time to go home.

Upon returning, Mom was the toast of the Texas Panhandle.  Everyone wanted to hear what it was really like “over there”.  I found her notes for a speech she was asked to give about the adventure.  It was a take off on the question all travelers dread: “Which was your favorite country?”.  She broke the countries into categories.  Austria had the best scenery, Italy the most impressive art, England the friendliest people, etc.  For her, though, the most moving experiences were patriotic ones - being at the 4th of July party in Rome and watching the moon landing.  She missed her country and was happy to return.  Looking back, she wistfully ended her speech with, “I always thought I had as much chance of going to Europe as man had of walking on the moon.  And then there was the summer of 1969.”

It's now been 50 years since we first explored Europe.  Mildred Walker, the subject of this essay, died in 2010. Her dementia had prevented her from remembering many of the details of the trip.  When I read the diaries to her, she just smiled and said, “We had a wonderful time, didn’t we?”  Yes, we did, and this adventure opened up the entire world to our family’s exploration which continues to this day.  All it took was Mom’s courage to try.             


Monday, April 25, 2016

What we liked in apartments and missed in hotels in Spain



Apartment in Granada, Spain
The explosion of new spaces for overnight stays has given travelers many more options.  While the large hotel industry is not yet worried, local municipalities are starting to rethink how their hotel/motel tax is collected.  They should.  Over 30 million people have used Airbnb since it started six years ago.  VRBO and Homeaway have been stealing customers from hotels for even longer, causing a dip in tax revenues. 

Over the last 5 years, I’ve used VRBO and Airbnb on numerous occasions – New Orleans shotgun house, recently renovated apartment in Siracusa, Italy, farmhouse in Tuscany, attic apartment in Paris, France, and a small garage apartment in Albuquerque.  They have been positive experiences with only a few surprises. We recently explored Spain and decided in advance to only use VRBO and Airbnbs, rather than a mix of both.  It was a hard decision as I do love the small, charming hotels in Europe which are very difficult to locate in the U.S.  But we needed at least two bedrooms and the apartment scenario seemed more appropriate.  Here’s our take from our trip.

Observations of Apartment Stays -
           Space, space and more space - separate bedrooms and baths plus living areas.  Suites in a hotel with the kind of space an apartment offers would be cost prohibitive to most travelers

           Allowed possibility for bringing in food for breakfast and other meals.  All had coffee makers and most provided coffee and tea. We ate breakfast in almost every morning and brought dinner in twice.  And that cheese and crackers with a bottle of wine was great in the late afternoon.

           Hosts were helpful – some more than others.  It was nice to get one who spent time pouring over a map to be sure we were oriented and could make restaurant suggestions, etc. 

           Felt more a part of the city and neighborhood.

           Easier communication among us traveling.  With 2 or three hotel rooms, we would have had to use phones or go the rooms to communicate.

           Washing machines were available in two apartments which was helpful.

           We had balconies in three of the four apartments – a lovely addition.

           Wifi was available in all.

           Had booking fees but am not sure if the stay was subject to local taxes. 

           Had some issues with neighboring apartment noise and street chatter.

What we missed in not having a hotel.

           Always someone there to check you in.  For the apartment, you have to coordinate arrival times which can be tricky in a foreign country, especially if you can’t use your phone easily.  Whatsapp was a very popular app for communicating with landlords.

           Extra keys are available if you lose yours or leave them inside.  Most apartments had two sets of keys which was enough for this trip.

           Has regular maid service with clean towels, extra pillows, etc.

           Local telephone in room

           More likely to have lots of TV stations.

           Could change rooms if your room were loud. 

Suggestions in the Future

           Stay in a hotel the first and last stop for easy check-in and to be assured of a good night of sleep.

           Use the apartment route if you are more than 2 or 3 persons.

           Use the hotel for one night stays and apartments for 3 or more nights.  For two nights, it depends.


           Be prepared for communication with landlords.  It should be worked out in advance.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Day Our Flight was Canceled in Lalibela, Ethiopia


View from Lalibela Airport, Ethiopia





On a beautiful, fall morning, our guide, Muchaw Derebe, picked us up for the thirty minute drive to the Lalibela Airport.  Seven stops were made along the road to take pictures – of farmers using oxen to plow the fields, distinctive circular Orthodox churches, Chinese working on the roads, and children eager to be photographed.  It was a leisurely drive and we arrived with time to spare.

Our next stop was Axum where the acclaimed Ark of the Covenant resides in a chapel, accompanied only by a solitary priest. We were also looking forward to meeting up with some fellow travelers,  seeing obelisks and stelae from ancient Aksum, and attending a local wedding, all followed by a drive through the back mountains of Ethiopia.  The long awaited plans were coming together.

The Lalibela Airport is modest in size but spectacular in location.  A large plateau hosts the runways and in the distance mountains and valleys lie in shadows.   Only one couple waited with us for the flight to Axum.  Departure time of 9:35 am came and went.  A new group of travelers filled the waiting room and left on their plane.  Inquiries yielded limited information.  Our plane had mechanical difficulties and needed a mechanic and part flown to Gondar, where the plane waited.  Two to three hour delay expected.  Anxiety set in.

Muchaw Derebe, Betty Swasko, Tina Smith waiting
One small café upstairs offered minimal food and drink with most listed on the menu unavailable, including milk.  Our guide surprised us when he returned upon hearing of our delay and had four large bottle of water in tow.  We settled in for the wait.  I reviewed my pictures with Muchaw in order to correctly identify the various churches in Lalibela.  We took a couple of walks outside the airport, noting recent plantings along the driveway.  Guards waved us in as we returned, recognizing our faces by now.
  
Pasta served by airline in airport lobby
In the lobby, CNN played on a very small television next to a dead palm tree.  At 3 p.m., the airline served us pasta with a spicy red sauce.  More stranded travelers had filled the lobby throughout the day, an international group from the United Kingdom, the United States, Israel, and Japan.  With English as our common language, we visited across country lines. 

At 4 p.m., a rumor circulated that the plane was in the air but at 5:20, the flight was officially canceled due to bad weather at our destination – eight hours after our scheduled take-off.   Our now enlarged group climbed into a waiting van and more visiting took place.  The British couple lived apart – the husband measured public opinion in Baghdad while the wife lived in London.  Two young Israeli girls were traveling for seven months after serving in the military, an accepted practice in many families.  My Japanese chemical engineer seatmate wanted to know how many countries I had been to.  And across the aisle, I talked with the other Japanese, a woman who worked in their embassy.  The return trip to Lalibela passed quickly. Each of us got our own hotel room in a round thatched roof building.  Dinner was also on the airline.  Many of our travelers gathered for a drink before eating and continued the visiting. 

Our guide had other plans for us.  Muchaw wanted a happy ending to such a long day.  At 8 p.m., he picked us up and we drove to the Torpido for a true Ethiopian culture experience in a part bar, part dance hall. We entered the incense infused gathering place found down an alley.  Red Christmas lights dimly lit the space while small tables circled an open area.  Honey wine with three levels of alcohol was served.  All smiled at us as we followed Muchaw to a table and sat facing the center.  Soon, a beautiful singer and the accompanist on a one string masenquo entered and began singing, circling the room and incorporating funny comments into the music about the familiar clientele – a kind of Ethiopian rap.  All laughed and clapped.  Muchaw translated for us but sometimes was laughing too hard to do so.  The singer even stopped at our table and sang about our beautiful country and how much she loved America.  Many stood to dance the shoulder shaking Ethiopian style called the eskusta.  We couldn’t stop smiling. 

The next morning, we gathered with our new friends for breakfast, drove the now familiar road to the airport and held our breath until our plane took off.  Because of time constraints, we had to rearrange our itinerary. At the Gondar Airport, we hugged the Israeli girls and the American couple and waved at the rest before entering a waiting taxi. 

  Yes, we missed Axum and the wedding and the drive through the mountains but we passed a unique and unscripted day with new friends and experiences.  It fit my long held belief that the worst travel experiences can result in the best travel stories.  This was one of the best.





Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ethiopia's Simien National Park Faces Challenges

View of Simien National Park from Plateau
The approach to Simien National Park from Debark, Ethiopia on a newly constructed gravel road is, at first, one filled with jagged mountain tops and plateaus.   But upon encountering the plunge into valleys below, only our Grand Canyon seems comparable. Created by massive erosion, the layers of mountains, plateaus and valleys stretch for miles.  Dizzying drops in altitude lie below edges of the escarpment’s grass fields.  Distant shadows hint at hidden rivers.  The Park contains the highest peak in Ethiopia at 15,000 feet and Africa’s highest hotel.  The scenery would have been enough but we hoped to encounter some of the park’s unique animal life.

We were lucky.  The week before had been cold and misty but this week was clear with almost no one on the roads.  Our arrival corresponded with the end of the rainy season but before dry season when tourists arrive to backpack through mountains and gorges.  Our van simply stopped by the side of the road leaving us to walk across the mountain side, sometimes on a trail but often through grass fields.

Herd of Gelada Baboons in Simien National Park
The endangered Ethiopian fox and Walia ibex, a wild goat, are rare sightings and stayed hidden from us.  In higher numbers are the Gelada Baboons, nature’s only primates that are primarily grazers.  They are more closely related to monkeys than the aggressive African cousins.  Their numbers have increased from 3000 to 5000 in the park. These baboons spend nights on cliff ledges and emerge in the mornings on to plateau tops to feed and socialize.  That is exactly where we found a herd of them, defined as 60 or more reproductive units. 

Herd of Gelada Baboons follow leader 
Juvenile baboons rattled branches in a large tree before dropping to earth, chasing and challenging each other.  When tired, they hopped on their mothers’ backs to rest, carried to the next feeding area.  These primates have small sturdy fingers for pulling grass, 90% of their diet.  As they sat and tugged at grass blades and seeds, our small group circled ever closer to observe and photograph.  Warned only not to look directly at their eyes, we were able to come within ten feet of the large pack.  If bothered by our proximity, a baboon would simply slowly move away.  All followed the lead of one dominant male as they crossed the field and disappeared below.

Behind this stunning setting is a more complicated political balancing act.  Created in 1969, the Simien National Park was also designated a World Heritage Site in 1978.  As such, it is followed closely out of concern for rare birds and animals but also for overgrazing by sheep, goats, and other livestock brought into the park.  With 600 households or 3200 people residing in the park and another 1500 around the edges, over harvesting of natural resources and agricultural expansion are also problems.

Two Local Soldiers hired to Accompany tourist group
The need to bring human activities to sustainable levels requires finding alternative livelihoods for the park’s residents.  According to our guide, many are being employed by the park services, teaching them respect for the value of the baboons in tourism.  It has helped eliminate the common harvesting of baboons for clothes and food for dogs.  Two park soldiers were hired to accompany us on our visit for protection from dogs.  After ten days of service, they would return to their home and farms.  Handmade handicrafts were sold at the park’s store, giving badly needed income to local artists. These efforts have been supported by the Austrian government since 1997, a welcome and useful contribution by the international community.

Tourism is rising as more discover this beautiful but fragile part of the world.  There was a tenfold increase in numbers over the last 15 years, bringing more revenue for those who provide pack animals, guides, etc.   A Tourism Master Plan was approved in 2007 to help prepare and direct the movement.   It is being monitored by the World Heritage Organization that still rates the park as EN or endangered because of the high risk of extinction of the Ethiopian Fox and Walia Ibex. 

It seemed an African National Park Ranger must be part conservationist, botanist, zoologist,  mechanic and diplomat, not to mention resourceful and creative.  They are charged with protecting rare animals, birds and plant life with limited budgets while convincing locals of the need to cooperate.  Visitors also challenge rules established to protect the environment.  All this was obvious on our visit to the Simien National Park where we found a commitment to preserve the setting with  local involvement.   We can only hope for their success.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

International Night Food Event Brings Us Together

Oriel Carey Shows off Indian dhokla and carrot halwa
Ninety-eight percent of Americans are descendants of immigrants.  Some can trace their family tree back to Colonial days.  Many came with the Germans and Irish at the turn of the 20th century. Changes in immigrations law in the last 30 years has meant more recent arrivals hail from around the globe and particularly, from Asian and Latin American countries.  Each wave has benefited the economy of the United States as well as the richness of our cultural weave.  And, they have brought their native foods, meaning it is no longer necessary to travel abroad to have a taste of foreign food, a benefit for all arm chair travelers.  This varied menu was on full display at the International Night at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in Paris, an event to raise money for the church’s food pantry. 

Homemade ethnic food from nineteen countries lined the walls with recent immigrants next to 4th generation cooks sharing old family recipes.  Nigerians in bright shirts and dashikis served pepper soup and moi moi made with black eye peas, a plentiful plant back home.   Luis Frick wore a Swiss flag t-shirt, representing his mother’s heritage while sharing a hardy barley soup from his father’s Lichtenstein.  Oriel Carey represented the growing Indian presence in Paris with popular dishes such as dhokla and carrot halwa.  And, Eddie Clement, the lone American entrant, gave out corny dogs, claiming they were the only food offered on a stick with at least two food families represented.  

I went quickly for Honduran food, having discovered their savory tamales years ago.  Native Daniela Leyva chose her selections carefully.  The nacatamales are a traditional Christmas food, made with a blend of Spanish and Native foods – corn, capers, olives, chickpeas all wrapped in fresh banana leaves purchased in Dallas.  An Honduran lasagna featured beans, fresh cheese and plantains, imported through Daniela’s employer, MIC Foods. 

Daniela and her husband, Carlos, moved to Lamar County from San Pedro Sula,  Honduras in 2012 for his job with Prime Harvest.  As an expert in aquaculture, Carlos assists with the company’s fish farm and Daniela works from home with occasional inspection trips to food processing plants in Latin America.   Their two youngest children graduated from North Lamar and joined an older sibling at UT Arlington.  The family has loved the ease of small town living and particularly enjoyed the friendliness of the community.  They were happy to share food from their home country which ran out quickly.
Offerings from the Phillipines

Lines rapidly formed for the large selection of Filipino offerings. Featured were   roasted Pig, sticky rice, egg rolls, as well as dinuguan, a pork specialty cooked slowly and served with rice cake.  (Don’t ask about the ingredients unless you really want to know.)  Since Paris now has over 30 families from the Philippines, many were dressed in costume and helped serve and explain the dishes.

More familiar were European offerings from Poland, France, Germany, Lichtenstein, Italy, and Czech Republic.  The classic boeuf bourguignon from France, Italian meatballs, and corned beef and sauerkraut were popular.  Freshly made chicken taco flautas and other Mexican favorites were available for the less adventuresome. 

Renee Iyaha stood ready to serve Diri Djon-Djon or Black Rice from her native Haiti.  Dark, dried mushrooms were soaked in water later used to cook the rice.  Other ingredients included shrimp, scallions, garlic, thyme, and parsley, used for flavoring.  Guests that evening probably didn’t realize they were sampling party food, served at Haitian family gatherings, weddings and funerals.  Rounding out the meal were fried plantains and grio or fried pork. 

Renee came to be in Paris via New York where she lived for 16 years.  Paris Regional Medical Center recruited her to work as an RN in the coronary care unit.  As she reads of early snows up north, she is grateful to be in Texas with no need of a snow shovel.  And despite being surprised at the early closings of stores, Renee has easily adjusted to small town living.  “No problem at all,” was her comment.  


And, it was no problem at all enjoying the rich selections from around the world.  A shared meal, especially one filled with homemade fare, brought us all together. And, in this world of fear and suspicion, we need more of these occasions to recognize our common humanity and the joy of cooking.




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