Archive for the ‘Travel Essays’ Category

Last night, while reading David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I came across his essay “Six to Eight Black Men,” a travel essay about the Netherlands’ version of the Santa Claus story. Not only was it hilarious, it was the best piece of travel writing I’ve read in a while. I think travel writers can get too bogged down in the magnitude of their experiences and they forget that the most interesting stories about their time abroad can be the conversation they had with a local on their walk to the train station. It’s important to keep in mind that most of an individual’s travel experience is a very personal experience and not everything is going to resonate with an audience in the same way it did with the traveler. Rather than wax poetic about his experience admiring The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, Sedaris selects an incident from his travels that conveys the real value and rewards of travel.

Firearms aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty “kik-a-riki.” Greek roosters crow “kiri-a-kee,” and in France they scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.” (Sedaris, 158)

[On the difference between American and Dutch Christmas stories…] “We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just preten ot kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution—so what’s not to love about being Dutch?” (Sedaris, 163)

–Sedaris, David. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. New York: Back Bay, 2005.

Click here to listen to Sedaris narrating the full essay which originally appeared in Esquire Magazine.

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(–title from Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78”)

Before I left for what would be my third trip to O’ahu, I read Susanna Moore’s book (one part historical summary, one part memoir) about the islands, I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. Moore’s chapters about her own experience growing up in Hawai’i in the decades after World War II were full of vivid imagery of the islands and its people as well as potent scenes of childhood that often sounded familiar. I imagined my own Tybee Island plus the addition of proud, Polynesian locals—a tropical paradise, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Bali Hai meets the back-river… Unfortunately when I got to O’ahu I realized that things had changed drastically over the past fifty years…

My boyfriend and I stayed at the Park Shore Hotel at the end of the main strip of Kalakaua Avenue. Our room’s balcony had views of Malama Bay, Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and Queen Kapiolani Regional Park. In the mornings when we sat on our balcony with our backs to the rest of Waikiki, we could see the flamingos over at the Honolulu Zoo and hear the monk seals barking at the aquarium. The beach across the street from our hotel had about a tenth of the population of the more popular beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki’s center, and it made the place seem almost peaceful. If we had spent all of our days sunning on that beach or snorkeling in the immediate waters of the bay (of which we did plenty), and had neither curiosity, nor the need to eat, we may never have discovered the proper tourist catastrophe that is Waikiki Beach.

{Scott snorkeling}

{Scott’s snorkeling pictures}

{the Waikiki Aquarium}

{my favorites were the giant clams!}

At first, walking along Kalakaua or Kuhio Avenues is simultaneously overwhelming and disappointing. My own understanding of “the myth of Hawai’i”, inspired mostly by historical accounts of Hawai’i or 50’s and 60’s films that take place there, set me up for my disappointment. Reading Moore’s book and the first three chapters of Michener’s Hawaii didn’t help either.

Being among the people of Waikiki is the equivalent of sinking your arm into a barrel of cast-off, carnival prizes. A single block will invariably contain a combination of beefy American and glittering Japanese tourists, raggedy locals, and the ever-present homeless. At night this assortment is additionally peppered with over-eager street-performers, six-foot-tall prostitutes, and peddlers of hemp jewelry, woven palm-leaf hats and baskets, painting prints, and plumeria leis. It is not so far a stretch to consider Waikiki a modern-day Tortuga—something only the presence of a handful of five-star hotels attempt to defy. The final product is at first abrasive and appalling, but once you are willing to accept it for what it is, the experience becomes vastly amusing and even a little charming—you know, in a seedy kind of way…

{I love Scott’s double-exposure night-time shots of palm trees and the ocean}

{amazing octopus bracelet in a jewelry shop on the first floor of the Outrigger Hotel}

For dinner our first night, my boyfriend and I went to the famous Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant on the first floor of the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel. (It’s extremely touristy, but the low-lighting atmosphere helps alleviate the feeling of being too much in a crowd). We had been there the year before—I had ordered the Crab and Macadamia Nut Wontons, which were surprisingly bland, and my boyfriend had had the Kona Style Grilled Filet (which the kitchen had some trouble getting to be medium-rare…), while the salad bar had been mostly edible but uninteresting. The reason we even went back this time was to have some of what the restaurant is truly, and rightfully, famous for: the Kimo’s Original Hula Pie—a reason in itself to go to Duke’s when you’re in Hawai’i.  (I particularly got a kick out of the caption beneath the listing of the “hula pie” on the menu: “This is what the sailors swam ashore for in Lahaina”.)

The rest of the week we had some trouble finding good restaurants, and were so unlucky as to have absolutely zero good experiences with any truly “Hawaiian”-inspired dishes. The tourist industry has thoroughly corrupted. We did however find a decent Italian place and a great Vietnamese place. The Italian place made a fine risotto and had a small but good wine selection, and the Vietnamese place was one of the best I’ve ever been to outside of Vietnam. I’m sure there has to be some great restaurants in and around Honolulu; I suppose we just guessed wrong during the week we were there…

{the best meal we had in Waikiki: at Pho Old Saigon}

On our second-to-last day we drove around the east and north coasts of the island, taking a combination of back-roads and highways until we got to Kamehameha Highway which took us along the coast up around to the North Shore. This drive put all the contradictions of the island into sharp focus. One minute we’re driving past white, sandy beaches and water so blue and clear I can see sea turtles bobbing in the surf, and the next we’re passing village communities made up of trailers and tin-roofed shanties surrounding by weed-choked, chain-link fencing. Fragrant forests full of tall, silver-barked trees give way to ancient, rolling lava-fields hemmed in by jagged cliff-faces, and around the bend is a row of hedge-hidden, multi-million dollar mansions lining some beach long out of sight. The villages all had Hawaiian names, the gated communities did not. And in my mind, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s song, “Hawai’i 78″—a lament for the land and its people (“…and saw highways on their sacred grounds…”)—played over and over again…

On the North Shore we passed through another very touristy, but less overwhelming and rather cute area called Haleiwa—this did remind me a little bit of Tybee. There we stopped at a restaurant called Haleiwa Joe’s for late afternoon macadamia nut ice-cream sundaes and a Keoki coffee (coffee with Kahlua, dark creme de cacao and brandy). Apparently Haleiwa is a popular surfer’s destination and “cultural hub” of the North Shore. I glimpsed a lot of interesting- and cute-looking shops and restaurants that I’d like to explore. I think if we go back to O’ahu—though I’d much rather explore the other islands—we’d try to stay in Haleiwa instead of near Honolulu.

{ordering ice cream and coffee at Haleiwa Joe’s}

In her book, Susanna Moore makes an observation about the nature of even the 1960’s Hawaiian tourist that was the beginning of the bastardization of Hawaiian culture that the tourist industry on O’ahu is today:

I sometimes worried about the tourists. I did not understand why they had come so far, excluded as they were from the secret and mythical world that I knew, and I was made anxious by the ease with which they were satisfied—a boat ride around Pearl Harbor to look at the sunken warships and the Kodak Hula Show with dancers in cellophane skirts seemed to suffice. It was the first time that I was to be confused by the difference between what people were willing to accept and what more there was for the taking.” (126)

I have to believe there is more to Hawaiian culture and tourism than raggedy, stoned surfers and Germaine’s Luau. Since trips to Hawai’i seem to have become an annual tradition for my boyfriend and me, I am determined to do a more in-depth exploration of my country’s 50th state and its rich Polynesian heritage during my trips from now-on, likely leaving Waikiki alone.

*   *   *

Links to sites or addresses for places and things mentioned in this article, as well as other things I did or recommend to do on O’ahu…

I Myself Have Seen It, Susanna Moore—you can probably skip the first 120 pages though; also her bibliography is a good place to find extra reading on Hawai’i—I especially want to check out Jack London’s Tales of Hawai’i and David W. Forbe’s Encounters with Paradise

Hawaii, James A. Michener—epic, sometimes slow, but always great novel—classic Michener…

Park Shore Hotel—3-star hotel, reasonable prices and excellent location… you know, if you insist on staying in Waikiki…

Diamond Head

Honolulu Zoo

Waikiki Aquarium—pretty cool to visit before or after snorkeling in the Hawaiian waters and seeing the wildlife first-hand—my favorites are the giant clams…

Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant and Bar, Waikiki—tourist hot-spot, popular night-spot–go for the hula pie!

Bene Pesce—2310 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2288—enjoyable Italian food in a calm, bistro-style restaurant…

Pho Old Saigon—2270 Kuhio Avenue; 808.922.2668—delicious and authentic Vietnamese food…

88 Tees—2168 Kalakaua Avenue; 808.922.8832—Vintage shop with fun, cheap to moderately priced clothing at a huge variety…

Muse by Rimo—2310 Kuhio Avenue Suite #127; 808.926.9777—Cute, bohemian boutique store…

Haleiwa—popular surf town on the North Shore…

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole—iconic Hawaiian musician…

Haleiwa Joe’s—restaurant on the North Shore…

Dole Plantation

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban; all editing done by Kelly.]

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–response to a post by Suzy Guese

Check out this post by Suzy on her blog about the frustrations of the sometimes necessary, lengthy gap between travels.

This two-month span starting July 5th will be the longest I’ve gone without traveling somewhere all year. I think an important part of being a good traveler is balancing, not necessarily travel time vs. home time, but travel pleasures vs. home pleasures, and learning how to be just as happy at home as one is when one is traveling. This way traveling doesn’t turn into a form of escapism, and you don’t dread spending long stretches of time at home when work and financial strains or family time beckon. While a deep-seated and positive philosophy is an important part of success here, there are lots of little things you can do too to keep your spirits up.

Suzy’s post on the power of smells is the first clue about one thing you can do. When you’re traveling, pay attention to the smells around you, then pick up perfumes, candles, lotions, fresh flowers etc. that remind you of your favorite places to make a part of your home. But don’t stop at florals and body- and home- scents, food is also a powerful transporter. Take note of recipes and favorite dishes you experience abroad to recreate in your own kitchen. Scott and I will even bring or ship home wine, coffee, spices, and sauces we find and fall in love with overseas.

Don’t alienate whatever it is you love about traveling and your experiences abroad to the other side of the airplane flight-path. I always bring home souvenirs from abroad to scatter around my apartment, such as coffee-mugs, throw-pillows, coasters, even furniture, etc., and incorporate the elements of my travels that bring me the most joy into my every day home-life.

Another thing I like to do is take mini-trips an hour or two outside the city or even within the city-limits. There are a lot of really great places right around where I live, the wonders of which I haven’t even remotely begun to explore. Whenever I feel particularly cabin-feverish, I search for a nearby vineyard, national park, historic town, even a museum or restaurant in my own city I haven’t visited or tried before. (Also good for exercises for travel-writers in order to keep their observation, writing, & photography skills tightly honed during their “time off”). Having these close-to-home favorite places to fall back on when the dates between plane tickets feels particularly stretched, makes the pain of the distance from your favorite Italian pizzeria in Naples or confitería in Buenos Aires seem a little less keen.

So keep on with your happy travels, those here at home and afar!

[Images from weheartit and the decorista.]

[Inspiration for post from Suzy Guese’s inspiring & informative travel blog.]

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We drove to a place called Fisherman’s Camp on Lake Naivasha where Will knew there to be hippo boat tours. I immediately thought of a “fun-fact” about African wildlife I had heard somewhere: that more human deaths were caused yearly by hippopotamuses than by any other animal in Africa—that’s including lions. While I, personally, didn’t need to see hippos, I had to admit that a boat ride on Lake Naivasha (Maasai for “rippling waters”) sounded wonderful after a hot and dusty day.

We decided to do the boat ride first and then just have a big dinner at the restaurant afterwards. So while Will and Danny negotiated a price for a boat, Anna pulled out a bunch of tree tomatoes, or tamarillos, and yogurt. She cut each tomato in half and put a spoonful of creamy yogurt on each half. I bit into mine, slurping up all the yogurty and juicy goodness, and falling instantly in love. I felt a quiet pang as I thought regretfully that I’d never seen tamarillos in the produce section at any of the grocery stores back home. Almost reverently, I savored my second half of the sweet and slightly tart fruit, carefully licking up every line of yogurt running down my fingers.

Lake Naivasha, in the flickering light of dusk. A persistent and cooling breeze accompanying the gentle spray of waves splashing against the hull of our boat as it skimmed through the water. I nestled in to my boyfriend’s back and watched the flocks of pelicans gliding just above the surface of the lake. Hippos surfaced and sank silently in the distance, moving so slowly their giant, purple bodies barely made a ripple in the water. It was the perfect end to a day full of African splendor.

By the time we got back to the lodge it was dark, and I was starving. And when I’m starving, the first thing I look for is a good pizza with a lot of cheese, salami, and bacon on it—the one thing sure to fill me up. So up at the restaurant, I did a very Kenyan thing: I ordered comfort food. My decision to opt for comfort food, instead of trying a native dish like I usually do, was lucky too, and not just for the reason that it would be all I would eat except for a slice of grapefruit until lunch the next day, but because it turned out that the kitchen cooked the pizzas in a wood-fire, brick oven right on the deck of the lodge—which is, as everyone knows, the best way to cook a pizza. And indeed it was one of the most delicious pizzas I’d ever eaten. To drink I ordered a Redd’s cider. The first couple of sips tasted like a weak gin and tonic, but after that it was delicious and refreshing. I had more Redd’s the next evening and bypassed the original bad taste altogether. Apparently once you get past it the first time you’re good to go.

We had invited Boniface to eat with us, since he’d been patient and stayed on for the entire day. All he wanted was a tilapia filet. Will tried to get him to order more by telling him that we were all paying for him and not to worry about cost, but he just wanted his tilapia and sukuma wiki—a dish of chopped kale, tomato, and onion mixed with oil. Will said that that was very typical of Kenyans, who were not particularly adventurous or creative when it came to food. He told us a story about his Italian roommate who had once spent all day cooking up a delicious risotto, but when he offered some to their Kenyan housekeeper to have instead of her sukuma wiki, chapati, and ugali, she declined, preferring instead to stick with her usual lunch. Steve and Viktors of our group both ordered some sukuma wiki, which tasted something like creamed spinach, and chapatti, a flat, flakey, pita-like bread. I helped myself to some in order to make up to my arguably boring entrée of pizza. While it was by no means bad, let me just say that it was not the most interesting thing I’ve ever eaten. I actually ended up trying some ugali too, the next night at dinner. It’s a kind of stiff maize porridge that tastes and looks a little bit like really overcooked white rice. Its only purpose is to expand in your stomach and fill you up quickly. I could barely swallow my first bite. I tried a second bite, after soaking it in the sauce of my tikka masala, but I determined that it was, unfortunately, just as inedible. These are dishes that are popular because they are inexpensive and filling, not because they are tasty. I somewhat guiltily returned to the comfort of my own meaty and cheesy pizza.

*           *           *

As the darkness of evening crept in, and the sounds of the campgrounds began to die away, I couldn’t help thinking how good it would be to get back to the hotel and crash into bed. We made our way across the campgrounds to the matatu and piled in, most of us nestling down to sleep on the ride back to Nairobi. Boniface turned the key in the ignition and the bus started right up. We pulled away from the parking lot and headed towards the campgrounds entrance. We drove up the slight incline and past the welcome sign, and then the matatu decided that that was enough, and there it stopped and died.

At first I wasn’t too concerned. Cars stall sometimes; it’s not a big deal—you just have to start them up again. And when that didn’t seem to be happening, I figured it was probably just one of a dozen of any other small problems that one might have with a car, or van, or bus—especially one as old and beat up as this one—and surely one of the half dozen people from our group, including our driver and the campground guard that had come over to see what the trouble was, all now huddled around the engine, would soon figure it out.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen either, and about an hour and a half later we were still stuck at the top of the incline of the driveway leading into Fisherman’s Camp, still more than sixty miles outside of Nairobi and my nice, warm bed. For the fourth time Boniface shook his head, and pushed his palms towards the sky. “There’s nothing to be done,” he said. “We have to wait for someone who knows what to do.” I assumed he meant the mechanic that I think someone had called. He walked away from the bus to chat with the campground guard. Amidst a string of relaxed Swahili, I know I heard him say, “hakuna matata”. I groaned, and leaned my head against the window, wondering if I shouldn’t try to get some sleep in the bus while we waited for help to come.

I must have dozed because the next thing I remember was waking up in the darkness, next to three people and a flashlight hovering around the battery beneath the passenger-side seat. “We lost a transistor belt,” Scott said coming around the side of the door. “What does that mean?” I asked, hopeful, at least, because now we knew what was wrong. “It means we’re going to need to camp here tonight.” “But why!” I protested. “Now that we know what’s wrong, can’t we fix it and go?” Scott shook his head. “By the time it’s fixed, it’ll be too late to start heading back. Everyone is saying that it isn’t safe to drive back to Nairobi so late at night.” The memory of the desperate conditions of the villages through which we’d driven on our way out here silenced me, and I consigned myself to the thought of a tent and a thin blanket.

I grabbed my backpack and headed up towards the lodge where the rest of the group was gathered around the bar. We all agreed, however reluctantly, that our best option was to stay here overnight and arrange for a new matatu to come pick us up in the morning to take us back to Nairobi. Grumpily, I grabbed a cup of coffee, thinking that I was unlikely to get much sleep lying on the ground in a tent filled with ten other people—at least one of whom was likely to be an horrendous snorer (there’s always one…). Thankfully the campground owner, Sean, was a saint, and sent someone up to the upper camp grounds to set us up with not only a tent and ten mattresses and blankets but a bonfire as well. Since it was too dark to take the narrow path that was a direct line up to the site, we all had to pile in Sean’s first generation Mitsubishi Pajero—yes that’s right, all ten of us plus Sean, in a thirty-year-old Pajero—for the ride up the winding, rock-strewn dirt road to our site.

The sky at the top of the plateau was so dark, and the stars like so many bright pin-pricks, that I felt as though a great black sheet had been pulled over my head, and I was looking out through the gaps between tiny, woven threads. I immediately ducked into the tent and, groping in the impenetrable darkness, grabbed the first blanket I could find. Wrapped up in what was thankfully a thick and cozy blanket that felt somewhat like Scottish sheep wool, I squeezed on to one of the picnic table benches next to my boyfriend and stretched my toes out towards the warmth of the fire.

It was well past midnight by the time we were all settled and mostly everyone was ready to go straight to bed. Steve pulled his mattress outside with the idea of sleeping under the stars, but the wind and the threat of rain drove him back inside. After a while it was only Scott, me, and the upper campgrounds’ Maasai guard, Ropili, left around the bonfire. A few times Ropili got up and walked away with his flashlight, telling our neighbors to turn down their music or to stop yelling, or investigating missing firewood from the stockpiles around the site. But as it got even later, and the rest of the campers seemed to have gone to sleep, Ropili made himself more comfortable at the other picnic bench near our fire. At first it didn’t seem like Ropili was going to say much and Scott and I were considering just going to sleep, but then he began asking questions about where we were from, and whether or not we liked Kenya, and if we were married, directing all of his questions to Scott. His English was very limited, but he spoke slowly, and repeated words, pronouncing them differently each time in case his first pronunciation was the cause of our not being able to understand him. After a while he and Scott were able to communicate more easily and talked mostly about their families, friends, life in Kenya and how it was different from and similar to life in the US. Satisfied that Scott and his new friend would be up for a while still, I decided to turn in and headed towards the tent, where indeed there was one person snoring horrendously.

Just as I was dozing off at last, I heard something rustling in the bags of food on the other side of the tent wall nearest me. I thought groggily that it was probably one of the cats that I had seen running in and out of the shadows around the site—or a monkey of some sort. Oh well, I thought, closing my eyes again and drifting off to sleep at last… hakuna matata.

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[See more pictures from my Kenya adventures here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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We arrived at Hell’s Gate National park closer to noon than we had planned. It took us another forty minutes or so to arrange buying everyone’s tickets and to find bikes for everyone in good enough condition to make the trip through the park—one of the draw backs of traveling with a large group. But we got it all figured out at last and were ready to set off. It was incredibly hot, and the road was covered, unevenly, in gravel and coarse dirt, pitted here and there with melon-sized rocks. For the first kilometer or so I started to think that maybe not just taking the matatu through the park wasn’t such a good idea.

Then we saw the zebras. Running in a small group, possibly a harem, of about ten to fifteen, they were galloping parallel to the road. Scott looked back at me to see if I’d noticed them, and I nodded, standing up on my pedals to let him know that we should try to catch up with them. We took off. My rickety bike bumped and skidded over rocks and divots, but I couldn’t be bothered to care as we started to gain ground on the zebras. Suddenly, the harem changed course and began to head towards the road. Scott and I slowed our pace as the group charged out across our path, separating us from the rest of our own group. We came to a stop and straddled our bikes as we watched the mass of black-and-white stripes in a cloud of fawn-colored dust cross into the next stretch of grassland to our left, the ground beneath our tires sending their vibrations up into our shoulders and chests.

Once the dust had settled, and we had helped ourselves to our respective liters of water we’d strapped to our bikes, we continued down the road. To either side a stretch of sheer cliff-faces rose towards the sky—remnants of now-extinct volcanic activity, exposed by millions of years of rift shifting.

Not far ahead we got our first giraffe-sighting. Scott and I dismounted and walked our bikes across the ditch by the road and propped them up at the edge of the field. Then we started to make our way out towards the giraffes. We walked steadily, high-stepping over the stiff, dry grass, keeping our eyes on the enormous yet graceful animals in front of us. I felt like Dr. Grant seeing the brontosaurs for the first time in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. How unusual these creatures were, how perfectly other-worldly: beautiful and solemn, moving as though they were compelled by a gentle breeze, every step made with the slow effort of cutting through water. We could have watched them forever.

By the time we made it to the ranger station and picnic area at the end of the road, we were getting more and more behind schedule, the hour for lunch having come and gone. I had already eaten half the granola bar I had in my backpack and thought that maybe now would be a good time to eat the other half of it. Danny and Patricia were waiting for us with the matatu, having passed up on taking bikes. I walked my bike over to where our group was gathering around the van and propped it up against a tree. “Want some sweet corn?” Anna asked me, unaware of the magic of her words. I took a huge bite of the cool, juicy, sweet kernels: the perfect, post-bike-safari snack.

Since no trip to Hell’s Gate National Park is complete without a trek through the Lion King-famous Ol Njorowa Gorge, we set off on what had been advertised as a short, leisurely stroll—a refreshing follow-up to our forty minute bike ride through sun and dust. It actually turned out to be almost two hours long and included a fair amount of rock climbing, scampering over and up fallen trees turned into bridges and ladders, and maneuvering down waterfalls—much more fun and much more “Kenya.”

The gorge itself used to be the tributary of a prehistoric lake, carved out by water. Our trek began by climbing down into the gorge through a crevice in the cliff, where we met with clear-as-glass waterfalls, about six meters high, and the beginning of trickling stream. We followed the gorge, so narrow in places I could reach out and touch both sides at the same time, around a dozen curves and bends until it widened out, and the spring flattened itself for about eight feet across, over tiny, smooth stones. The sky above was a pale, cerulean blue, and a multitude of giant trees and floral vines hung over the edge of the gorge walls.

At one point during the hike I noticed a brilliant, emerald green-colored moss growing around an area of the rock where water seemed to be seeping through. It looked almost the same color as malachite. I scrambled over the loose rock leading up to the fissure nearby for a better look. As I got closer I noticed a gentle layer of steam rising up from the rock. I gasped: hot springs!—one of the testaments to Kenya’s unique East African Rift System qualities and evidence of the dynamic geothermal activity taking place right below my feet. I reached out to touch the thin membrane of water shimmering over the moss before quickly pulling back. Definitely a hot springs source. As we continued further through the gorge we began to see little pool pockets of steaming, sometimes even bubbling, water, about a foot in diameter. One of the little, local boys who had attached himself to our group told me that if I had an egg, and were to drop it into the pool, it would be ready to eat in about ten minutes.

For the finale of our trek, we climbed up and up and up a sharp peak of a rock formation. I stepped in a pocket of thick, wet, red clay and impulsively grabbed a handful of it, feeling it slip between my fingers. There was more of that malachite moss and suddenly an outcropping of rock: the legendary inspiration for Disney’s Pride Rock. I stepped to the edge and looked out over the valley. I felt giddy with discovery. I looked and looked, drinking in the vista with all the reckless excitement of a marooned sailor who’s just come upon a fresh, clear spring. I wanted to look forever. I began to get anxious about being called by my group to continue the climb. The phrase “Cradle of Mankind” kept running over and over in my head. We could all call this place home! This place! The red clay on my hands was starting to dry and flake. I brushed at it until most of it had come off, leaving only the slightest blush of color on my skin.

*           *           *

By the time we finally got back to the ranger’s station, it was well past four o’clock. All I’d had to eat since breakfast was half a granola bar and half an ear of corn. We all agreed that we were too tired anyway to ride our bikes back to the entrance, so we all piled in to the matatu and drove back. The road was bumpy, dusty, and strewn with rocks. Had we known the kind of damage that could be done to a bus of such little mechanical integrity, I’m sure we would have taken the drive a lot more gingerly. But, oh well, hakuna matata.

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[See more pictures from my Kenya adventures here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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The sun began rising over Lake Naivasha sometime before six thirty. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I heard Scott saying goodbye to the Maasai guard, Ropili, outside—apparently they had stayed up talking all night. I rolled over on my mattress and lifted myself up to survey the rest of the tent. About half of our party of ten had already risen. I buckled on my Chacos and wrapped the blanket tightly around my shoulders before ducking out from beneath the canvas flaps—exhausted after a full night of slapping against the stiff walls of the tent. The sun filtered through the arms of the mature candelabra cacti around our campsite, making silvery lines that crisscrossed through the air like a giant spider web. As we all walked down the edge of the plateau back to the main lodge, I looked out across the lower campgrounds towards the lake and the far mountains. The sky was a sticky pink, like melted cotton-candy, slashed through with bright lemon and mango. The atmosphere gave the mountains the grainy look of old photographs, like they were in danger of dissolving into the shimmering lake. Marabou storks stood silhouetted atop the giant acacia trees at the water’s edge. A mellow, and somehow dusty, breeze pushed hesitantly at my back and slipped down through the brush.

We reached the open-air lodge by seven, at which time we had been told that the kitchen would be open, but this being Kenya, only one person had shown up by then, and he was busy sweeping and setting up chairs. I settled down on an upholstered chair by the outer porch railing and gratefully accepted a slice of grapefruit from Anna. Suddenly the call of a troop of Colobus monkeys rang out across the lawn, and I turned to see them swinging through the yellow-barked acacia trees, their fringed coats fluttering behind them like capes. I sat in my chair, with my legs still wrapped in the blanket, looking out towards the water, straining to see if I could hear the whinny of one of the giant hippos from yesterday. The rest of the group was scattered around, either collapsed in chairs or figuring out how much money to leave the owner of the camp, who had set us up so last minute the night before.

Believe it or not, the ten of us hadn’t planned on spending the night packed like sardines into an old canvas tent on a little hill in the Rift Valley. The plan for our second day in Kenya had been to go about an hour outside of Nairobi to Hell’s Gate National Park, where we would rent bicycles and take a nice leisurely tour through the park. Then we would go to a place on Lake Naivasha where we could get lunch and then take a hippo boat tour, after which we would all return to Nairobi in time for a little nap before dinner. Our day, however, had turned out quite differently…

*           *           *

For breakfast the morning before, I had eaten two slightly stale slices of white bread, a few thick-skinned hotdogs the hotel was trying to pass off as “sausages,” and a cup of gritty coffee. Had I known how the day would end, I probably would have tried to eat more. The matatu (a kind of mini bus used in Kenya as a sort of share taxi) that was supposed to pick us up at nine to take us to Hell’s Gate National Park arrived at about nine-forty-five. “Kenya time,” our friend, Will, said with a shrug as he climbed, barefoot, out of the bus. Will and Anna work for the CWS‘s Resettlement Support Center for refugees in Nairobi. Anna is an old friend of Scott’s, who recently finished up a stint with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. When the low fare that took us to Kenya popped up, Scott immediately contacted them with questions about what there was to do and see around Nairboi. They immediately, and very generously, took over and planned out our entire trip for us—well, as much as anything can be planned in Kenya.

Joining us for the journey to Hell’s Gate were Danny—a co-worker of Will and Anna’s, Patricia—Danny’s girlfriend, and Stevie—a friend of Danny’s from Philadelphia. After we were all introduced, we piled in to the matatu. In order to accomplish this, one person had to sit on the floor between the two sets of middle seats, and another had to sit between the driver and the front passenger on an elevated seat which left said person’s head precariously close to the radio bolted to the ceiling. But we managed and were off on the hour and a half drive through the Rift Valley towards Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park.

We left Nairobi taking Namanga Road (the A104) towards Naivasha but turned off onto the B3, which turned in to the Old Naivasha Road—the more scenic drive through the Rift Valley. The drive was sometimes chaotic, sometimes smooth. We drove sometimes through the middle of what I learned were actually villages and sometimes through flat, dusty grassland, spotted here and there with zebras, baboons, warthogs, and eland. I found myself paying close attention to the way the people were dressed, the expressions on their faces, the structures they lived in, their children, their shops, trying to decipher a little bit of this Africa. There was so much going on: everything was tightly packed, narrow, flat, and in the shadows. I couldn’t tell what all the carts were for, why the children were carrying buckets half full of, what?, across the street to the trash heaps pressing up against the road. Why were there so many furniture shops? And why so many beds? There were so many beds! And of all sizes and materials. Who is going to buy all of these beds?

At one point, our driver—Boniface—pulled over in one of these villages to buy a newspaper. A group of about a half a dozen men rushed over to the matatu immediately, cradling melons, cigarettes, and were those headphones? While Boniface yelled over their heads, trying to get the attention of someone who would go get him a newspaper, I noticed a beautiful little girl, maybe 8 or 10 years old, in a black and yellow t-shirt and white cotton skirt, whose facial bone structure reminded me of Julia Stiles, crossing the street in front of us. She was struggling mightily under the weight of a plaster bucket, sloshing full of, what?, bringing it across the road to her village’s dump. With an enormous sigh she dropped the bucket on the side of the ditch and began carefully trying to tip it over. The bucket, too heavy for her to control, fell with a giant thud, its contents spilling over and running down the slope. The girl leapt back to avoid getting whatever it was on her feet. When the bucket was empty she used her feet to right it again; then she found the handle and lifted it up over her shoulder and began to walk back towards the town. As she crossed the street she looked over at the bus, and I caught her eye. She grinned then, a flashing happy grin of perfect, straight white teeth, and gave me an energetic wave. I waved in return and smiled too, even though my eyes had gone hazy with tears.

*          *          *

Hakuna matata,” Will was explaining, as we continued our drive down A104, “is really more a term for tourists, you know, made popular by that Disney movie. The locals never actually say it.” Danny, the only one of us who spoke any Swahili, besides Patricia who was a native Kenyan, nodded his head in agreement. Halfway to Hell’s Gate, our driver pulled over at a stop-off at a Rift Valley overlook. We all piled out to get a better look at the expansive valley spreading out for miles and miles of dusty earth and scrubby brush.

After getting my fill of the valley, I turned around to head back towards the matatu. Across the street was an enormous wall of rock, hewn away to make room for the road now passing through. It was covered in various signatures, and phrases—more paint-brush style than spray-paint graffiti. As I browsed through them, I noticed that “Hakuna Matata” was painted on one of the rocks jutting out over the highway in bright, white-out white and below it, “Kenya.”

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[See more pictures from my Kenya adventures here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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Three Days on the Western Cape

I had not followed any of the FIFA Soccer World Cup held in South Africa in 2010, had studied Nelson Mandela in School, and seen a documentary about the flying sharks in False Bay off of the Western Cape. That was all I knew about South Africa before I stepped on the Airbus 340 to Frankfurt to catch my connecting flight to Cape Town.

§Take United flight 932 from Washington DC to Frankfurt and connect to Lufthansa flight 576 to Cape Town.

My boyfriend—Scott—and I had booked the trip back in December when a low fare from Washington DC—about $1050 on a non-upgradeable, economy-class ticket—popped up for Lufthansa Airlines. Before we found the fare, we hadn’t thought much about visiting South Africa. “Well, what’s it like?” I had asked Scott. “Kind of like Australia, actually.” He had said. I was skeptical. “I mean any place is a lot like another,” he elaborated. “The world is settled, civilized, occupied. The difference is in language, geography—and even there you can whittle out the similarities.” He flipped through my passport to make sure I had enough empty pages left. “I mean, you can’t really ask questions like that,” he said, sliding the little blue book back into my travel wallet, “even when you’re there and can answer them yourself. A place is a place. People are people. You just have to go see for yourself.” So that’s what we did.

We arrive at Cape Town International Airport on a Monday afternoon in March. Leaving the airport, we drive by a township on our way in to the city. The colorful, square, tin and plywood houses pixilate the rolling countryside. I peek down each sandy alleyway as we fly by on the N1 into a kaleidoscope world of soccer balls, skinny dogs, and rusted water barrels. A young man, possibly in his early twenties, sits on the roof of one of the houses, with his feet pressed to the top of the surrounding fence. He looks off towards the city. He is dressed in black suit pants, and a crisp, white-collared shirt creates a sharp border between his charcoal sweater and the smooth darkness of his handsome face. A large field stretches beyond the last row of houses. It is clear of debris. Half a dozen groups of uniformed, youth soccer teams are gathered in huddles around their coaches, juggling, or running sprints across the parched and dusty grass.

I lean back into the car, surprised at the feeling of nostalgia, persistent in the back of my throat. How can a foreigner, who, by the very definition, is alien to place and culture, find something with which to identify so deeply after barely an hour in a new country? Why is my first experience of Cape Town not one of an encounter with the exotic, but a scene that evokes memories of my own childhood on a soccer field back home in the United States? People are people, Scott had said. Is that what he meant?

After dropping our things off at The Big Blue hostel by the waterfront, Scott and I head to the beach to relax and plan out the rest of our stay. The surf at Camps Bay is violent and chaotic, constantly crashing over the deposits of eroded granite that have scattered themselves less than half a kilometer out from the sandy beaches. The first geyser-like burst into the air in the middle of the sea sends my heart racing, and I am convinced I’ve just seen a whale. After a few minutes I realize my mistake as another swell meets one of these submerged granite boulders and sends its spray a dozen feet into the air. Disappointed, I plop back down onto the towel we’ve spread out beside a placid tidal pool. Scott and I begin to flip through the handful of brochures we took from the check-in desk and talk about how we want to structure our trip.

When you travel the way Scott and I do, by taking vacations to new and vastly complex places once a month, spending only a couple of days in each place, planning becomes not only difficult but ultimately pointless—who really knows what to expect when visiting a new city? After browsing through the options—Kreuger Park safari, wine-tours, whale-watching, Cape Point, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosche botanical gardens—we crossed out the pricey ones—whale-watching and Kreuger Park safari—and decided to split up the rest into our three full days in Cape Town.

§Day 1: Take the N1 out of Cape Town towards Paarl. Turn left onto Suid-Agter Paarl Rd. Stop at Fairview winery (25 Rand for wine and cheese tasting). Buy the Chevin cheese of your choice (14 Rand) and have a picnic on the lawn. Get back on the N1 heading towards Cape Town. Turn left onto Klapmuts Road (R44). Stop at Le Bonheur Winery (15 Rand to taste 5 wines). Buy a bottle of the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (50 Rand).

There is a place behind the estate’s manor house at Le Bonheur where a narrow flight of packed earth steps leads up through the overgrown edges of a terraced garden. I close my eyes and am led up the stairs and in to a daydream. At the top there would be a mature pomegranate tree casting a perimeter of dappled shade around a set of iron-worked chairs and a lazy, weathervane breeze slipping between the long blades of grass at my feet. The moment steps outside of time. I lose the sense of being in South Africa, of being in the twenty-first century. I have seen this moment before, on the hillside of my uncle’s estate in Virginia, or in the De Villiers portrait in the foyer of the house behind me. But then one of the grape pickers appears in my imagination from behind a vineyard row and smiles at me. I am reminded where I am when he sets the crate he’s carrying on his left hip and points behind him at the herd of springbok beyond the vineyards.  I wave, grateful to him for allowing me to make this moment my own.

I had fallen in love with delving into the leisure and rustic luxury of wine countries after taking my first wine-tasting tour in Victoria, Australia, in the Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne. So when a brochure at our hostel touted the pleasures of the vineyards outside of Cape Town, my boyfriend and I did not hesitate to go exploring. I’m no sommelier, but I am a fan of wines, cheeses, old houses, vineyards, farm dogs, picnics, and private gardens. The sun finds a particular complement when reflected off the bubbling water of white stone fountains or the soft ruby petals of vigorous roses. To spend a leisurely day in search of the perfect new wine to add to your cellar, while passively enjoying the sites and scenery of the country you’re visiting, seems to me to be the perfect essence of vacation.

Originally called Oude Weltevreden (“Well Satisfied”), the estate of Le Bonheur was established in the late sixteen-hundreds by the De Villiers family from Holland who built the house in the classic H-shape of the Cape Dutch style. It is remarkable to feel the juxtaposition of elegance and comfort the house’s interior suggests. I find myself among moments of arresting familiarity—when a ceramic dish clatters against the surface of one of the wood tables in the tasting room or when the sound of the wind in the trees outside drifts in with a dragonfly through an open window. It is strange how potently an old house at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountain in South Africa has reminded me of my uncle’s home in Virginia.

§Day 2: Drive down the M4, along Simons Bay, towards Cape Point. Stop in Simon’s Town to see the penguins, and buy a malachite bead necklace (60 Rand) from one of the art tables by the tourist office. Look out for baboons and bonteboks.

There is a beach near Simon’s Town where titanic boulders lie half-buried in the sand as though they had been washed in by the tide. Warming themselves on the surface of the rocks or swimming in the calm waters of the sun-drenched cove are dozens of black-footed penguins. Boulder’s Beach is home to one of two mainland colonies of penguins near Cape Town. I walk down to the shore and climb up onto one of the smaller boulders, an arm’s reach from the nearest penguin who lazily swings his head towards me before lying down on his stomach and closing his eyes. On the other side of the tide pool at my feet, a penguin carefully inches his way down the slope of one of the larger rocks, heading towards the water. With a final, charming little leap he splashes into the shallows before enthusiastically waddling away and diving into the waves.

On the walk up from the beach we pass tables of “souvenirs” set up along the road. I am reminded abruptly of a book I had read in my socio-cultural anthropology class by Sally Price called Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Price discusses the longstanding confusion surrounding what the Western disciplines of art and anthropology have often referred to as “primitive” art (when they mean African art) and the desire of Westerners to own the works and display them in their homes as testament to their cultural magnanimity and open-mindedness.

Many of these tables were piled with beautiful examples of African arts and crafts: humanoid figurines, animal figurines, gorgeous trinket boxes, goblets, jewelry, colorful paintings, and beadwork. As I wander between tables, and make jokes with the vendors about the suspicious-looking ostriches who appear to be creeping closer and closer to the lovely shades thrown up over the tables, I can’t find anything that strikes me as primitive about the artwork I’m admiring. If anything, the artists seem to have achieved an aesthetic that is simultaneously confident, powerful, and light-hearted. I recognize something familiar in the philosophy and inspiration behind their creation. I want to be a part of the dancing scenes in the painting; I want to wear the beautiful beaded jewelry on display.

I pick out a string of green malachite beads and pay less than $10 for them. The woman who has sold them to me tells me that green is a good color for my heart as she points to her eyes. I’m struck by the warmth and informality of the moment as she casts another playful glance over her shoulder at the ostrich. Her face brightens suddenly as she catches sight of a little boy running up the street in his school uniform. I watch as he flings himself into her outstretched arms, waving a pencil drawing he’s made of what looks like a swimming bear. As I walk back to our car I decide that the Africa anyone might want to call “primitive” must be a different Africa from the one in which these people are living.

§ Day 3: Take Kloof Nek Road up to Tafelberg and park. Ride the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain (one way, 90 Rand). Buy a painting from the Italian artist working by the first spectator’s point (60 Rand). Hike back down Platteklip Gorge.

The native Khoi San called the mountain “Hoerikwaggo”—meaning “sea mountain”. I like to think the earthly-wise natives even knew the drama of the mountain’s geological history: its formation in the Ediacaran sea over six million years ago, how it was carved flat by glaciers, and how the granite foundation gave strength to the upper layers of sandstone when continental shifting caused it to be pushed up towards the sky where the sun asserts itself as an indomitable force on a clear day in Cape Town. Girdled lizards scurry and disappear into glacier pockets left in the sandstone. Ghost frogs dip in and out of the shadows of plants making up the smallest and yet the most diverse of the seven floristic kingdoms on Earth.

I’ve donned my double-strap Chacos and packed two liters of water in anticipation of the hike. Scott and I decide to take the path towards Maclears Beacon. It is a Thursday morning and there aren’t many other people on the mountain. We follow the path to the edge of the southeast face and settle into a grooved rock outcrop shaded by a reaching Fynbos plant. Overhead swallows dip and spiral like rogue propellers. One zips by barely a meter in front of my face with a sound like a knife slicing through canvas. Across the gorge a family of dassies emerges from a fissure to drink from a trickle of water over iron-stained rock. The weather is warm; the wind is unusually gentle for all of the open space and altitude. I fit comfortably atop my chosen perch, feeling effortlessly at home in the heart of the most diverse flora kingdom on earth, on top of a mountain older than the Himalayas.

Far to my left the web of highway systems and pockets of neighborhoods stretches away towards the airport. I remember suddenly how, upon leaving the airport in our rental car on the first day, I had leaned forward for my first glimpse of Table Mountain. Overhead, a billboard for Heineken, announcing the Dutch beer as “clearly superior”, had blocked my view. But after a few seconds it was behind us, and the mountain in all its ancient and individual glory stretched across the horizon. I smiled as I recalled that throughout our time on the Western Cape, whenever we drove through town, walked down the beaches in Clifton, or explored the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosche, the grandfather mountain stood sentry just beneath the sky. The gated homes of the Camps Bay area and the colorful tin townships alike were spread across the geography extending from the mountain’s base, nestled against its form as against the back of a sleeping parent. The diverse geo- and bionetworks of the Western Cape not only mirror the many different cultural groups who call South Africa their home, but act as a unifying force, combining all of its parts into a singular yet dynamic whole.

On our last morning in Cape Town, I checked the weather in Washington DC on the computer in the lobby of the hostel. I cringed: forty-five degrees and rainy, compared to the seventy-nine and breezy I had enjoyed all week. As I rolled my suitcase down the path to our rental car and glanced up towards one of the small foothills of Table Mountain, I saw two zebras in the shade of an iconic acacia tree. I started, not expecting to see the wild and exotic creatures so close to the city. I vaguely remembered having heard about the small herds that roamed the lower foothills of the mountain, but still I was struck by the strong sense of an encounter with the exotic as I stood watching them graze, with the sounds of the city in the background. A place is a place, I thought, swinging my suitcase into the trunk of the car, until you see zebras. As we drove away, I turned around for one more look at the zebras on the hillside. It occurred to me that the beautiful weather was not the only thing about South Africa that I would miss.

§Take Lufthansa flight 577 from Cape Town to Frankfurt and connect to United flight 917, going home.

[Photographs by Kelly Overvold.]

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