Friday, September 23, 2016

Namibia (aka Daktari Trip)

When I was a kid, I used to love the TV show Daktari. My plan was to become a veterinarian and work in Africa. Well, the vet part didn’t work out because after working for vets for two years, I still kept passing out at the sight of blood. But, the dream to go to Africa continued. Why I waited until I was 55 is still not quite clear to me.

Nevertheless, I made it to Africa – Namibia to be exact – this past August. Bob, the boys and I flew for 10 hours overnight on Air Namibia to Windhoek, and on the drive from the airport to Windhoek, we saw warthogs and baboons scavenging alongside the Trans-Kalahari Highway. Seeing them so close to civilization seemed like an unusual sight to us, but over the next two weeks, we got used to them. They’re as commonplace in Namibia as pigeons and squirrels are in Germany and the US.

I can’t really write much about Windhoek because we spent only one night there, but what we did see was not special. In fact, we could have been in any city in the world. In other words, it too has chain hotels, fast food restaurants and shopping malls. The only thing that I can say impressed us was Joe’s Beerhouse, where they serve local game meats. We tried kudu, oryx, springbok, zebra and crocodile. The beer was also very good. Namibian beer, in general, is very good because, being a former German colony, they brew beer according to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516.

We spent the next five days in Etosha National Park and this was the Africa that I had always dreamed of. As soon as we entered the park, we saw zebras, giraffes and elephants.

Later, at the Moringa waterhole in Halali Camp, we saw rhinos and lions. Every evening for three evenings just after sunset, we watched a soap opera in which the black rhinos would come first and then the lions. The rhinos then would chase the lions away but they always returned. The rhinos would also chase other rhinos away unless they approved of them after a nose-to-nose, or should I say horn-to-horn, encounter. I never realized that rhinos make sounds, but they made a variety of squeaking, bellowing and grunting sounds.

During one early morning safari from Halali, we met four lions up close. We initially had seen them from a distance, but our guide drove the truck off-road and pulled up right next to them. I was expecting the lions to either run away or become aggressive. But, they just tolerated us. Although I thought it was a bit scary, it was really amazing to be so close to such amazing animals.

Later we saw a male – still bloody from the previous night’s kill – along the road and we followed him to a waterhole where he met another male. Of course, we expected them to fight, but they just rubbed their foreheads over each other the way domestic cats do. Our guide told us that males are very friendly to one another when females are not around and only fight when competing for females.

Our last two days in Etosha were spent at Onkoshi Camp on the eastside of the park. Onkoshi comprises 15 separate canvas, thatched-roofed chalets on stilts, all facing the Etosha Salt Pan. Needless to say, the sunsets over the pan, which we could watch from our chalet’s terrace, were stunning.

There was not as much wildlife at Onkoshi Camp itself, but we did drive to a vast savanna north of the camp and saw elephants wandering across it just before sunset – another iconic African image.

The stargazing was also out of this world – literally.

Our next five days were spent on the Atlantic Coast in Swakopmund, Namibia’s adventure capital. Swakopmund was a former German harbor town and the architecture reflects this, although in my opinion it looked more like Disneyland’s version of a German town than an actual one. There is, nevertheless, a lot to do in Swakop and we went sandboarding, kayaked with fur seals at Pelican Point near Walvis Bay and took a scenic flight over the Namib Desert and the Forbidden Coast.

We also did a self-drive tour of an area called the moonscape, which does look otherworldly, along the Swakop riverbed. There, we saw the unusual welwitschia plant.

But Swakopmund is not just fun and games. It is also a great place to eat. Of course, there’s German food (Swakopmund Brauhaus) and great hamburgers (Brewer & Butcher), but the seafood (Kücki’s Pub and the Tiger Reef Bar and Grill) was worth flying all the way to Namibia for. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but it is really good. The oysters were some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to swallow and the oryx steaks were comparable in tenderness to beef from Argentina or the US.

The last three days of our trip were in the Namib Desert at Sossusvlei and Solitaire. Sossusvlei is famous for its red dunes, which grace many Namibian travel posters, and in real life they did not disappoint. They really are as big and red as they appear in photos.

But before I write about the dunes, I have to write about our trip from Swakop to Sossusvlei. Now, the roads in Namibia are not the best. The paved roads, B1 to Etosha and B2 to Swapkopmund, are relatively good, but most of the roads are hard packed dirt and look like one long washboard, thus making for a very bumpy ride. And our brand new Toyota Fortuner 4x4 could not handle the road to Sossusvlei. It stopped dead not far from Solitaire, started up again, temporarily died a few more times and then finally called it quits about 3 km outside of Sesriem, where our lodge Sossus Dune was located. Thankfully, the lodge sent out a truck and mechanics to help us.

We ended up being towed to Sossus Dune, which like Onkoshi also features chalets on stilts facing west towards the dunes. In other words, another really beautiful place to stay and watch the sun as it sets over Namibia.

The next morning we got our wake-up calls, that is, knocks on our doors, at 4 AM so that we could drive out to Deadvlei (a vlei is an ephemeral marsh, dry in this case) in time for the sunrise. As much as I did not want to get out of bed, I am so happy that we did not miss seeing the sunrise from the top of a dune. We climbed up one arm of Big Daddy, one of the largest star dunes in the world, and watched the dunes change from violet to mauve to golden red as the sun came up. Then, in Sossusvlei surrounded by more large dunes, we had breakfast prepared by our guide Sammy who not only took us up the dunes and fed us but also gave us a history lesson on the Namib Desert.

The next morning Hertz delivered a replacement for our now useless Toyota 4x4 and we moved on to the Namib Desert Lodge, which seemed to be overrun by oryx, near Solitaire, which is not really a town. It is more like a highway rest stop with a gas station, hotel, restaurant and bakery, all surrounded by a collection of rusty antique cars and tractors.

Our last two days were spent hiking through Sesriem Canyon, a slot canyon on the edge of the dunes near Sossus Dune Lodge, and along the petrified dunes that tower over the Namib Desert Lodge.

Other than hiking, we spent a great deal of time poolside. Every place we stayed had a pool but the best one was at Sossus Dune. It is designed to look like a waterhole and it functions as one too. One evening, a family of rock dassie came by for a drink just as we were finishing our swim.

I definitely waited too long to visit Africa. I can’t help wondering how many more times would I have gone back if I had visited 10, 20, 30 years ago. I just hope that I still get the chance to go back and go back more than once.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Happy Birthday, Ellen!

Happy Birthday, Ellen!

Sorry that I'm one day late. I hope you had a great day. Are you 50 now? I can't remember how many years younger you are than me.

I didn't know you had breast cancer. Cara told me two summers ago when we were in Chicago. She told me that you were in remission. I was relieved and didn't think anymore about it. I know several breast cancer survivors and I assumed you'd be one too. A week later I heard from Holly and Cara that you had passed away.

How come you never told me that you had cancer? But then, you wouldn’t have. It would have been too negative and you were too positive. You knew how to fun and how to make fun. It’s like Cara said, while imitating you, “We got lost, but we’re having a great time!” I know this is cliché, but you knew how to take lemons and make lemonade. You could take a boring or annoying situation and turn it around for the better. You could also find joy in the simplest things, like the gumball machines that are all over Erlangen. I ignore them, always have, but you, while visiting us, couldn’t resist putting your extra change in and getting a gumball or a piece of stale candy or a plastic ring. You found these silly things fun.

I remember while in Bamberg you made Cara ride the seesaw at the playground with you. And you laughed and laughed as if you were a little girl riding a seesaw for the very first time.

I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. It seems that all these memories are flooding back. Things related to you that I thought I had forgotten are suddenly popping up in my brain. For example, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been humming and singing “Jump,” but not the van Halen version, the Aztec Camera version. You introduced me to them. You made me a mixed tape with “Jump” on it and I started listening to more of their songs. It’s sad, but I can’t find the tape.

I miss you, Ellen, very, very much. And I'm sorry I wasn't better at keeping in touch. I just assumed that we would see each other again and it would be as if we had been apart for only a day or two.

I love you. Always will.


Monday, August 24, 2015

The Best of Poland

This summer the boys spent two weeks at Wood Skateboard Camp, near Radom, Poland. While they were in camp, Bob and I toured Poland. Before dropping the boys off, we stopped to see the Göltzsch Viaduct, the world's largest brick bridge, the Basteibrücke, near Dresden, and the town of Görlitz, where The Grand Budapest Hotel was filmed, on the German-Polish border.

After dropping the boys off, Bob and I drove to Warsaw. There we saw the Palace of Culture and Science and the Stare Miasto (old town),

as well as the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising, Praga, and the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall.

From Warsaw we went to the Masurian Lake District, where we visited Swieta Lipka,a pilgrimage church, and Wolf's Lair, Hitler's home and bunker from 1941 until 1944.

Our next stop was Kazimierz Dolny with a side trip to Prostki, where Bob was born.

From there we traveled to Zamosc and Liski to visit Bob's aunt and cousin.

Then we were off to Lublin to visit Przemko, where we watched the Perseids meteor shower from his garden.

After picking up the boys, we spent our last night in Poland in Wroclaw.