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Time Stood Still

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I have always loved the beach; there’s something remarkably special about spending time in the space between the land and the sea, no matter the topography. The smell, the sounds, the air, they all have an intoxicating effect on me.  I admit to having selfishly dreamed of a vacation like this for years; what I’ve referred to often in conversation with Henry as the “white-sand beach vacation.”

I suppose these musings date back to my Tobago years, where I spent part of my youth. My family ventured often for family vacations to Pigeon Point.  I remember going so often that once my mom forgot to tell me and I had to pack on the morning of our departure.  I was mad!  Or perhaps they started a few years later in Jamaica while still in college.  I’d visit Jamaica regularly to join my dad and other members of the Jamaica Sub Aqua Club for dive trips to resorts along its north coast.  These are some of my fondest childhood memories!

Fortunately for us the Kenyan coast is just an hour’s flight away from Nairobi along with dozens of resorts, hotels and rental houses vying for our business.  It was my turn to plan the winter holidays and decided we were going to spend the entire three weeks on the coast.

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Galu Beach, located south of Mombassa, has the whitest and finest sand I’ve ever seen and is considered one of the top 100 beaches in the world.

We chose to rent a one-bedroom annex-apartment along Galu Beach, situated just five minutes south of Diani Beach and the local airstrip; directly in front of the best part of that stretch of white sand.  With direct access to the beach and a fresh-water swimming pool this place was perfectly suited to our style; quiet, peaceful, uncrowded, not overly-developed, and a bit rustic.

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The only signage from the beach road crafted from driftwood.

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View from the edge of Moringa House property

Our apartment was spacious and included sleeping space for four, one bathroom, a stocked kitchen, two-burner stove, refrigerator and house help twice a day.  The groundskeeper, Joseph, took care of our needs from sun-up to sun-down and had an endless store of energy – he was amazing.  He improvised a step stool for me to use in the kitchen, brought a standing fan to supplement the ceiling fans, arranged for some deck chairs to be placed under the palm trees (on the edge of the property overlooking the ocean), and opened fresh coconut from their trees on request.

A fish monger came everyday on his motorbike offering reasonably priced red and yellow snapper, grouper, prawns, lobster and squid.  For fresh vegetables we’d walk across the beach road to the local stand; while in Diani township there were two proper supermarkets for other staples like oil, cereal, shampoo, drinks etc.

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Notice that the stand-up fan is inside the mosquito net; the house was that hot!

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JM and I cooking together.  She didn’t need that step stool!

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Henry and JM  cleaning and de-veining the shrimp

A small stash of spices that I brought with me made cooking extra easy, delicious and enjoyable.  We had grilled fish sandwiches, lobster curry, blackened grouper fillets, seafood cioppino, fresh tuna salad, fried calamari rings, and garlic shrimp all accompanied with different rice pilafs and fresh vegetables. Unbelievably, we ate out only twice, lunch at Sails Beach Bar and Restaurant and dinner on our last night at Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant; both were delicious.

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Lunch at Sails Beach Bar and Restaurant

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A mixture of vodka, fresh lime juice, crushed ice and honey, the Dawa (which means medicine in Swahili) has quickly become my favorite Kenyan cocktail.  The honey sits on the bottom until stirred with the swizzle stick, yummy!

Two different day trips to Kitsite-Mpunguti National Marine Park for snorkeling and scuba diving helped to break up the monotony of our stay at Moringa House.  Located an hour and half  south of Galu Beach, followed by another hour long boat trip, which made for very long but worthwhile days.  Described on the web as the “home of the dolphins” Kitsite is just 8km north of the Tanzanian border and was beautiful and unspoiled.

“Kisite Marine Park was established to protect the scenic islands and special habitats of a wide range of endemic marine animals and breeding migratory birds. It lies in the coral gardens south of Wasini Island and encompasses three small coral rag forest islands, each with considerable areas of fringing reef. Kisite is one of the most rewarding snorkelling locations at the coast. Visitors can also enjoy bird watching, diving and of course, sunbathing.” (http://www.kws.go.ke/content/kisite-mpunguti-marine-park-reserve)

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JM and Henry getting ready for their first dive in a year-and-a-half on the dhow style boat.  I looked at the rental gear and decided not to join them but to snorkel!

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Shimoni township is the entry point for the boat trip out to Kitsite Marine Park.  It has a long history and dates back to the Portuguese occupation and possibly before even that.

Except for one day when JM and Henry went on a local safari to Shimba Hills National Reserve (came home very excited to have finally seen the Palm Nut Vulture), the rest of the time was spent at the house, on the deck chairs, walking the beach, eating, swimming, reading.

In order to combat JM’s utter boredom I signed both of us up for kite surfing lessons (D&D Kitetravel) located next door to our place.  I lasted for one and half lessons, but JM went on to take 12-hours in total.  That’s not saying I won’t ever give it a go again but there was too much information to take in all at once without having read about kite surfing or watched YouTube videos etc.

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JM and her kite surfing instructor, Aga.

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JM with the kite snugly harnessed and flying above her.  By the end of the two weeks she was pretty good at controlling the kite.

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The beach chairs where we spent a lot of time relaxing on mostly reading and napping.

I woke up just after sunrise each day, made a cup of coffee, put on my swimsuit and went out to my lounge chair.  So beautiful in the morning before others are up and moving about.  The days just seemed to move along, breakfast time turned into nap time, which turned into lunch and so on and so forth for two solid weeks.  I was the most relaxed I’ve been in years.

Of course all was not perfect; it was also very hot!  Not during the day or at the beach, but the house was unbearably hot especially in the evenings.  Worse, the water was brackish, slightly salty, so we never quite felt clean nor could we cook with the tap water.

In the end we were excited to move on, to Watamu another popular beach desitination along the Kenyan coast, to meet friends and scuba dive for the last full week of winter break.  We’d arranged for private transport from Diani to Watamu, a three-hour drive up the coast, through Mombasa (one of Kenya’s oldest cities).  In typical Messing fashion we left at 5:00am to beat the traffic and arrived at  Turtle Bay Beach Club in time for breakfast and a morning dive!

We spent the next six nights at this all-inclusive resort that had an excellent diving facility.  Right after breakfast, and before our room was ready, we’d arranged to go on a dive.  Yahoo!  My first time diving in a year-and-a-half.  Only other avid divers get the intense yearning we experience and the euphoria afterwards; there’s really nothing else quite like it.

The diving here is not bad at all, in fact, I was very surprised to meet repeat divers who have been coming back to Watamu for over 15 years; albeit from London, but still they think the resort and the diving worth coming back year after year.

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We rented all the equipment and it was in very good shape and well-maintained.  Look how genuinely happy we look gearing up for the morning dive.

Not a bad fact to learn when we thought we’d be giving up diving, maybe for good, but too painful to admit aloud.  We had all our scuba gear shipped back to Phoenix, all I grabbed on my way out the door this summer was my prescription dive mask.  Which by the way I love because it has a bifocal lense in them so I can see all the really small stuff,  just like I did when I was in my 20s.

Our good friends Greg, Malone and Maya come to Turtle Bay this particular week every winter and invited us to join them.  It truly was an amazing week spent with good friends – all of us scuba diving together and eating together (without having to cook).  The girls ran off on their own most of the day to the big pool; while us adults relaxed, swam and even played beach volleyball.

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JM and Maya chilling at the beach

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Greg, Malone and Henry

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Henry and JM

Henry went on a couple of birding excursions from Watamu, without us, and was thrilled with the birding but most especially for having sighted a couple of Golden-Rumped Elephant Shrews!

When we think back to our first few nights at Galu Beach to the end of the three weeks, it really does seem like time stood still.  But we’re back in Nairobi, work has resumed (which continues to be fulfilling), there are conferences to attend and spring break in Hong Kong to look forward to.

Samburu: 110 Speed-bumps North of Nairobi

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Fall break is the perfect time for a holiday in a teacher’s world; two solid months of teaching completed, a couple more until winter break.  It’s “mass exodus” as the overseas hired faculty leave in droves for exciting adventures around the globe – Zanzibar, Seychelles, Cape Town, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Italy, London, Paris, the Kenyan coast and Kenya’s national parks were all popular destinations this year.

We started our sojourner with a buffet brunch among friends at the Mt Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki (read about the club’s interesting history at http://www.whwf.org/history.htm), followed by two nights at the Naro Moru River Lodge before driving the additional two hours north to Samburu National Preserve.

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This lodge was built on the banks of a river fed by the snow melt of  Mt. Kenya and indeed it’s original purpose was (and still is) as a base for climbers on their way to the park.

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The grounds were beautiful with lots of grass and large shade trees and plenty of space to enjoy the outdoors. There is something wonderful about getting away from home and spending time in a beautiful place that allows the soul to rejuvenate.

There we splurged a bit and spent three nights at Elephant Bedroom Camp, a luxury tented safari camp within the confines of the park; where elephants really did roam free.  With only 12 guest rooms the experience was exceptionally personal and well-worth the money.

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We stayed in tented camp #10, really a canvas-walled luxury hotel room built on stilts.  I suppose they’re supposed to feel like safaris did in the old days with all the modern conveniences of today.

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The rooms stretched single-file along the river bank with the public walkway along the back. There were watchmen posted along the path who escorted us back and forth to the dining room so rarely traveled alone.  In the evening we had only to flash our hotel provided torch for the watchman on duty to know we needed an escort.

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The walkway up to our tent and the river beyond.  I have some video of an elephant passing right in front of our patio!  Spent a lot of time just enjoying the view and the cool breeze, especially during the middle of the day.  Each room also has a hot-tub sized plunge pool just for cooling off.

The inside of the room had two queen-sized beds with upgraded mattresses, a lounger chair and table, a dressing table and a huge bathroom with robes and slippers. It was very comfortable!

The inside of the room had two queen-sized beds with upgraded mattresses, an oversized chair and table, a dressing table and a huge bathroom complete with robes, slippers and turn-down service each evening. It was very comfortable!

We went on holiday with another teaching couple and their daughter and what a great time we had on safari with them!  Using the lodges’ guides and safari vehicles only added to the total enjoyment of our drives each morning and afternoon.

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These are two of the hotels safari vehicles. They were spacious, open-roofed, and comfortable with tiered seating.

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The British definition of a SUNDOWNER is “an alcoholic drink taken at sunset” whereas the Australian definition reads “a tramp arriving at a sheep station in the evening under the pretense of seeking work, so as to obtain food and shelter.”  I think you’ll agree that the British have it right!  (BTW Julie has fruit punch).

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The river filled up overnight after a night of rain storms in the mountains far far away.  You can see just how empty the river was when we first arrived by looking at it in the Sundowner photograph above.

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A family of elephants crossing the river spotted on one of our evening safaris.  This is my favorite photograph of the whole trip – I just love the coloring and the horizon.

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Reticulated giraffes were seen on every safari we took. So beautiful, they are one of most enjoyable animals to watch; there’s a reason they’re called gentle giants.

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Baboons families are also readily witnessed. One afternoon I watched a young male baboon being outright bullied by another much larger baboon. It makes we want to know more about how they function in family units.

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Another of my favorite safari animals are the warthogs. Their tails shoot straight up in the air when they run away, even the babies run that way.  It’s not easy to capture good photographs of their faces.  As soon as a the vehicle stops they bolt zig-zag style.

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My first leopard spotting in Kenya. This juvenile was hanging out in the tree near sunset.

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The grevy’s zebra is the most endangered of the three zebra species and is distinguished by its narrow stripes that wrap around its body. We came across a small cluster of moms and their offspring.

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Even the plants are interesting. This succulent was near the entrance gate and the guard there told me to sniff its aroma – smelled like poop!  Guessing it needs flies for pollination.

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We saw many lions at Samburu too, though mostly they were just resting in the shade.

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Henry is forever interested in the birds. These are two different species of African vultures, a lappet-faced vulture (left) and a hooded vulture (right) hanging out together on slim pickings at an old kill.

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A wild member of the dog family, this rare sighting of a wild dog was taken just seconds after a pack of them tore a dik-dik apart. We think that might be a fetus in its mouth from what may have been a pregnant dik-dik.

Though the highlight for us when we travel up-country is the seeing animals in their natural habitat it’s also a chance to learn more about Kenyan culture and to witness the countryside.

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Typical shop buildings as we passed through small towns on our road-trip

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There aren’t huge billboards once you leave Nairobi but the buildings have sponsors. This one is sponsored by Safaricom, one of the largest internet companies in Kenya (and the one we use).

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A typical used clothing shop set up along the road in open-air markets near towns and villages

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Every once in a while you’ll see these roadside shops with meters and meters of tarp and canvas for sale and  a man with a foot-operated sewing machine who will custom build and design for you.

There’s so much I don’t know about Kenya yet. The divide between us and the locals seems to grow larger with each visit I take outside the school confines and the Nairobi suburb in which we live.

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Local hotel just an hour north of Nairobi.  And no, they don’t serve Starbucks coffee in Kenya.

At Elephant Bedroom we were offered  a chance to visit one of the neighboring Samburu Villages just outside the park entrance near Archer’s Gate.  We  jumped at the opportunity even though there was a nominal fee per person attached for this privilege that left me wondering where all that money goes; the money that we handed to the “village chief”.

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Parked under the only tree around that afforded shade just outside the village we visited.

The village had no buildings, a half dozen huts made of trash and branches, no running water, no toilets and no vegetable garden.  They had instead a fence made of dead doum palm leaves (they have spikes along their ridges) and a goat pen in the middle that was empty of goats but filled with goat droppings.

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This fence surrounding a nearby village was made of wire and doum palm branches which have thornes along their edges.

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Several men and women dressed up in traditional clothing for a short musical and dancing show to welcome us to their village.

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They festooned us with local jewelry; which I found to be quite uncomfortable though it was beautiful.

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The huts inside the village we visited were made from branches and trash. We were invited inside one of them and sat on cowhide rugs while being told how each wife has a hut that she shares with her children.

I handed out candy, which was well-received, and noticed brand-new pencils ground into the dirt within the confines of the village, obvious presents from past visitors like ourselves.  There was a school building about a 1km away for the children but we visited on Thursday and saw plenty of children playing within the village confines.  I kick myself for not asking to visit that school.  What was in that building?  Who is their teacher?  And what could they possibly be learning there if pencils aren’t needed?

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Demonstrating how arrows for their sword are forged. The ladies in the background had set up a small market of goods for purchase.

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Gwen negotiating for one of the beaded place mats and a set of beaded coasters.  Gwen noticed that though the women were doing the selling, it was only the men who handled the negotiations and the money.

 I want so much to find something meaningful to do during my time in Kenya beyond the aspects of my job at ISK.  I’ve heard through the grapevine that there is a lot already happening and that it would be best for me to tap into one of those organizations; but at the same time I am working full-time. I have faith though that the right opportunity will be found shortly.

We drove back to Nairobi in one day, stopping for lunch at Barney’s located at the Nanyuki airport and counted the speed-bumps door to door to break up the boredom.  And yes, there really were exactly 110 of them!

Whoosh!

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Showing off our Kenyan pride

Being a teacher has a strange pulse, the years are not typical, they don’t ring in with large parties, Auld Lang Syne is not heard, there are no fireworks; but there is symbiosis, there is a rhythm to the year.  A friend recently posted a photograph of teachers from my very first school gathering for dinner and drinks.  I recognized many of the names and some of the faces.  I started this path in the summer of 1994; it was career change for me.  At 30 I had decided to go back to school and to change the trajectory of my life.  What a whirlwind that has been … all the way to now …. 21 years later I find myself beginning my second year at the International School of Kenya, full of knowledge, and wisdom, and still teaching with my eyes wide-open, still learning and growing and still loving every moment (well most of them anyway).

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Creating a classroom “buzz” with my ESOL students who are sorting new vocabulary words

There have been a number of bumps and bruises along the way, but I always manage to pick myself up, and learn from my mistakes and then move on.  I am always on a quest for professional development that advocates “best practices”, workshops and books and mentors, that fill in the gaps of my training and expertise.  I love what I do and I do it with passion.

Flip-Flop Summer

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It’s Saturday morning, the last day of our first full week with the students, and summer memories are beginning to fade away as the new school year takes shape; the weeks are literally zipping by again.  Vacation this year began in Florida with a week and a half in the glorious “Sunshine State”; a state filled with nostalgic childhood memories – white pavement, blue skies, humidity, delicious sunshine,  yummy garlic drenched seafood, swaying palm trees and mangroves, white sandy beaches, and clear blue water!  It’s where I spent my summers as a preteen and a teenager and also where I went to college for a while.

This summer was our fifth summer back to the states and the culture shock we experience with each trip back is becoming more noticeable.  It is as if everything American is on steroids!

We went out for burgers and fries for our first meal in the states, the food was literally served on plates the size of serving platters; JM’s wings were huge and the price was staggering as well, but it was delicious and we ate every drop!

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Stopped at this Walmart during our first full day and all three of us were amazed at the sheer size of the place; all filled with “stuff” to buy.

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My brother, Rebel, enjoys showing us his ever evolving back yard which grows thicker and more interesting each year. He’s explaining his new kiln that he made using #10 cans and bricks.

Next stop, Gig Harbor, Washington to visit my in-laws.  Joel and Meme own a beautiful home right on the sound.  Every year they have undertaken new projects and have completely transformed the place into an amazing home.  The weather was glorious the entire time which we were told was not typical for the month of June.  Though it was hard to get used to the sun setting after 9:00pm each evening, we did enjoy many long happy hour drinks sitting on the back patio and watching the boats in the harbor.  Henry’s mom lives nearby in an assisted living village as well so we managed a few visits with her as well.

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My in-laws have a beautiful home right on the sound in Gig Harbor – best room all summer!

We took a short road trip and got a chance to visit Portland, Oregon for the first time to meet up with our long-time friends, Eric and Wenona.  Eric and I were hiking friends from our Arizona days and it was really great to get together.  JM and Wenona bonded especially well and we had loads of fun and many laughs together; it was certainly one of the highlights of our summer.

Last morning with Eric and Wenona in Portland

Will need to road-trip down to Oregon more often to explore

Visited “Powell’s City of Books” where JM loaded up on summer reading (or at least a few weeks worth).

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Of course we had to take JM to the iconic Voodoo Doughnut shop while in Portland

We also spent a full-day with some Hong Kong friends who came down for a day from Vancouver.  Laura and her family spent a whole day with us in the area.  It’s hard to move to a new home and to start making friends all over again; it takes time and we were friends in Hong Kong for about four years.

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JM knows how to take the selfies!

We took the ferry from Bremerton over to Seattle for a one-day excursion to meet up with Michelle Segal and her family for a trip to the Aquarium and for dinner.  Michelle and I were also hiking buddies from our Arizona days!

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Henry and I with Michelle in “bubble-gum alley” in Seattle. We hadn’t seen Michelle since her wedding many, many years ago. Was fantastic to meet her children and to reconnect.

Our third stop of the summer took us to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware for two weeks.  This year marked our 17th year coming to the region!  Though my sister wants to stop coming, I love that we’ve turned this pilgrimage into a family tradition and can’t fathom a summer without a visit here.  I think that our time together is very important especially as JM is an only child and we’re older parents.  She is very close with her cousins and I hope that they’ll stay close for many years.

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Our niece, Nikki came for a weekend and enjoyed the big kid rides at Fun Land with JM.

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While Henry took his great-nephew, Gunnar, on the little kids rides. How fun is that?

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JM and I checked out the new bike path to Lewes one day. Every summer we rent bikes for the whole vacation and do all our food shopping and skipping about town on them – such great summer memories for all of us.

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Summer wouldn’t be complete without seeing mom relaxing with the Washington Post on the front patio of the rental house. Thanks for 17 years of Rehoboth Beach summers!

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The whole gang at “pizza-on-the-beach-for dinner” during our last night in Rehoboth.

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JM and I flew to Oakland, California for one night to visit with family and celebrate Shaya’s first birthday.

Summers in Phoenix, Arizona aren’t ideal (because of the heat) but home-sweet-home it is nonetheless.  It’s always great to be back in the city that we call “home”, where we still own a house, and have an extensive community of friends that go back a few decades.  It’s always such a whirl-wind of a time; each year we promise that we won’t repeat that again, but it can’t be helped either – there are just too many people to see.

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We did manage to get away for 2-nights in Sedona with good friends – so relaxing to spend time catching up with amazing views of red rock country.  Arizona is a beautiful state!

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Dinner at Flo’s Asian Kitchen with  more friends from our hiking days.  Dinner is never enough time but it will have to suffice until we move back to the southwest.

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Celebrating Gabe’s 17th birthday together. JM made this cake, entirely from scratch, including the decorations.

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The Platt family cousins gathered together for a ‘celebration of life’ for my Aunt Debbie; was so nice to see everyone again.

We saw so many others while visiting in Phoenix too; an evening with most of the ‘No Longer Waiting’ group was a highlight for us as well as seeing many of Henry’s friends.  One of JM’s friends from Kenya happened to be in town and I took the girls to Sunsplash for a day too, and she got a day with her friend Hannah at Wet and Wild.  Our weekend in Sedona with Diane and Maleah was fun, as was Tubing-Down-the-Salt-River with the Wyatt’s and the Ratcliff’s!

Our summers are also filled with shopping for things that are hard to find in Kenya; new clothes and shoes are always on the top of the list but I also brought back some spices and my favorite cast-iron pot, six suitcases in all and some carry-on too.

Our last stop before returning home was a stop in the Netherlands on our way back.  But the best part of that plan was we met up with my mom, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew.  Brenda found an amazing loft style apartment for us in Amsterdam near Centraal Station just above Cafe Kobalt that had a whole lot of steps but was spacious and light.

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It was super chilly on the this private boat trip but so nice to be on the canal’s in Amsterdam.

Had a fantastic time in Amsterdam with them and crammed so much touring and seeing and doing into such a short time that it felt like we were there much longer than six days. Cycling, walking, buses, trams, trains, Gay Pride parade madness, cheese tasting, museums and boat trips. Definitely need to go back and explore more of the country.

Every summer we over extend ourselves, live out of suitcases for weeks and weeks, and arrive back home thoroughly exhausted.  But we are already contemplating doing things a bit differently next year and thinking of trying to stay put for at least half the time.

Zoo Animals in the Wild: A Quick Reflection

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It’s hard not to reflect on my first year in Kenya. So many changes, so many revelations, and not really sure where or how to begin.

Where Hong Kong was a busy bustling, cement paved metropolitan city, Kenya is lush and green and colorful and moves at a slower pace.  Pole, pole!  Plants bloom here all year long; stick something in the ground and it grows!  Trample the grass at a gathering and the following week you’d never know.

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There are so many flowering plants here that something is blooming all the time making Kenya a very colorful country!

Another thing I love is that Kenyans laugh and smile so much.  Kenyans have a great sense of humor, love to dance and party!  My learning support colleagues are top-notch professionals who have been incredibly supportive and loads of fun to work with.

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Following the end-of-the-year assembly for all the teachers and staff; there was food, beer, wine and loads of dancing – African style!

The school has been amazing, through and through.  At the suggestion of a former  colleague I created a graphic organizer (Brain Frame) to show the differences between the two international schools that I’ve worked at; used A3 paper, and still didn’t have enough room for all the differences.

Some of those differences are architectural in nature while others are more administrative.  Where the school in Hong Kong is a built-up city school that has no real sports fields (beside roof top mini-fields with artificial turf) and limited teaching spaces for learning support teachers, the school here is spacious and large and covered with beautiful landscaping.

There are two huge sports playing fields, basketball courts (indoor and outdoor), tennis courts, a swimming pool, playgrounds with climbing equipment and swings, outdoor dining tables for students and teachers, and trees, trees, trees!  I’ve always been a nature girl and this place feels like home.

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During the school day the pool is fully booked with swim lessons, after-school there is swim team practice, then open-swim for us lap swimmers! During the school year different clubs, grades and teams can book swim parties. The school owns huge supply of fun water equipment for the parties such a inner tubes and noodles.

There are amazing sports program in all three schools, with enough students for intramural teams as well as local leagues and ISSEA (International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa) tournaments. On Saturdays the school is alive and teeming with action, from games to watch, farmer’s markets to shop at and open-swim at the pool.  It truly feels like a community school.

Though both of these schools have similar views on learning support their administrative approaches are vastly different. I’ll have my own classroom next year, the first time in fifteen years!  As we packed up our classrooms last week in preparation for the move to the new ES building I finally have allowed myself to get excited.

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The elementary learning support teachers waiting for our hard-hats so that we can take a tour of the new elementary school buildings

I’ll still do a lot of push-in work but I will finally be allocated a space where students can come and visit, where they can post their work on bulletin boards, where I can plan dynamic and engaging lessons that don’t have to fit into a folder or zipper pouch (or win the approval of homeroom teachers), where I can give new strategies a go and where I can meet with parents on my turf instead of “rented space”.

This huge room is going to be my classroom next year! I don't think I'll know what to do with all of that space but the students can count on lots of movement breaks.

This huge room is going to be my classroom next year! I don’t think I’ll know what to do with all of that space but the students can count on lots of movement breaks.

The creative arts program is thriving here with music concerts from all three divisions, and plays in the middle and the high school, and art shows.  What hits me the most is not just how happy the students are here, but how happy the teachers and staff are too.  It has really been an enjoyable place to work.

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The entrance displays to the elementary school art exhibit that took place two weeks ago. Each student had several pieces on display!

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The steel panels surrounding the construction site for the new elementary school were subdivided and different clubs were allowed to paint their own murals.

My only regret this year is that we never made it to the coast.  The Kenyan coast is supposed to be beautiful and I cannot wait to explore some of its magic next year.

This year we visited several of the countries national parks, Nairobi National Park, Amboseli, Tsavo West, Hell’s Gate and Lake Nakuru (just last week) — as well as Lake Naivasha and Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  We’ve seen lions, cheetahs, water bucks, wildebeest, antelopes, impalas, water buffaloes, elephants, hyenas, jackets, an aardvark, porcupines, giraffes, ostriches, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, zebras, crocodiles and countless birds – that’s a lot of zoo animals we’ve seen in the wild!  But the absolute best part of seeing all these animals is seeing their babies and they all have them.

And though we’re excited to travel back to the states tonight to see family and friends, we will miss it here too, especially our two Kenyan born cats, Paka (Swahili for ‘cat’) and Duma (Swahili for ‘cheetah’) who have turned out to be the most darling cats ever (except for the one incontinent one that is driving us all batty).

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They started out as teeny-tiny kittens that needed to be spoon fed baby formula….mewing endlessly and climbing up our legs, panted or bare, whenever we were in the kitchen (ouch).

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Almost full-grown and looking just a bit sad that we’re all packed up and ready to leave them for holiday

 

Castle Forest Lodge near Mt. Kenya

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We were invited to join friends for the long Easter weekend to this lodge nestled at the base of Mt. Kenya.  Though I like my friends quite a bit, and really wanted to spend the time away from Nairobi, I was hesitant to join only because this is the exact same lodge that a teacher from ISK had been staying about five years prior when he tragically lost both his wife and daughter in an elephant attack.  But after many days of vacillating over it decided that it was a “freak” accident and not likely to reoccur during our visit.

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The roads are surprisingly well maintained whenever we have driven out of Nairobi — that is as long as we are not on the main thoroughfare from Mombasa to Nairobi (which is full of trucks transporting goods from the docks).

Our friends have only one child, also a daughter in 8th grade whom JM befriended on the school bus during our first month here when we still lived in Loresho.

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The entrance gate to Mt. Kenya Nat’l Park and to our lodge which lies within the par boundaries

After inviting them over for dinner we quickly found out that we had a lot in common, including that they’re both biologists and scuba divers (including their daughter).  Since then we’ve been to each others houses many times, hung out on campus at the girls’ games and met at restaurants for dinners.

Henry standing outside our cottage.

Henry standing outside our cottage.

Maya milking one of the cow's

Maya milking one of the cows

Julie Mei giggled her way through the entire process as would be expected of a teenager.

JM  giggled her way through the entire process as would be expected of a teenager.

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Hanging out together on the porch of their cabin. Maya always has that red Massai blanket wrapped around her and JM always wears her HKA hoodie.

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The lodge owns just three horses available for riding – both girls went out with a guide twice and loved it!

Signage in the room warning us to hike only with a guide

Signage in the room warning us to hike only with a guide

While the adults went for a hike (with a guide).  These are pesky black flies that clung to our clothes but didn't sting.  Just gross!

So while the girls were horseback riding the adults went for a hike (with a guide). These are pesky black flies that clung to our clothes but didn’t sting. Just gross!

Hanging out as we're packing.

Hanging out in the hatchback as we were packing on our last day.

The restaurant food was delicious and the outdoor patio was very comfortable with great views of the valley below

The restaurant food was delicious and the outdoor patio was very comfortable with great views of the valley below

It was a fun, but wet weekend.  There are so many weekend opportunities here in Kenya and feel as if we’ve barely gotten started. We have one more long weekend before summer vacation and we’re going with them again but this time to a lodge near Lake Nakuru for two nights!  What a great way to end our first school year at ISK.

“Spoilt for Choice” Spring Break Fun!

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Kenyan Pride is very strong

Last month we had our first overseas visitor come to see us in Nairobi.  My mom arrived late on the Friday night, one week before our spring break and stayed for two full weeks (and three weekends). Her vacation started and ended with a jam-packed itinerary that I’d prepared which included museum visits, safaris, restaurants, home cooked meals, school trip, market shopping and farm tours.  There is so much to do and see in Kenya that anyone who visits is spoilt for choice!

On her first day, by special request, we kept the agenda low-key.  We went to the “Save our Elephants” music festival at the UN fairgrounds and then relaxed at home with a home-cooked dinner on the back patio.  The weather here is amazing and we take advantage of being outdoors all the time.

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Large billboard at the “Save Our Elephants” music festival.  Just in case you miss this fact, that’s a pen at the end of the rifle.

Then on Sunday we woke up extra early for a sunrise safari through Nairobi National Park before meeting teacher friends inside the park for a catered bubbly brunch.

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JM’s very first photograph with her brand-new camera

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White linen, china and champagne flutes while wild animals roam.

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While I worked during the week, my mom was able to visit several museums including the well-known Nairobi National Museum

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At the train museum you get to actually climb aboard some turn-of-the-century carriages

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Karen Blixen’s house is a museum run by the government — interesting bit of modern history

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Took a tour at the fair trade Kazuri bead factory where women and orphans are employed.

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Wet and dry (fired) beads which are made entirely by hand

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We also went to Ocean Soles, where flip flops rescued from Kenya’s shoreline, are recycled into colorful new and entirely fun objects — too bad they were so expensive!  Though I would have preferred the large size we did buy a medium Warthog for my collection

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A giraffe this size cost about $200

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Mom and I went to the very posh Irish Ball that was sponsored by the Irish Embassy and held downtown.

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On entry there was a nice variety of drinks — beer, whiskey and my favorite, Baileys and Whiskey over ice of which I may have one too many.

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Some of my colleagues from ISK who came to the Ball as well.

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On the table was all-you-could drink Baileys, Whiskey and red wine, but when we asked the waiter for more water, they charged us 400ksh per bottle. Only at an Irish Ball would we have to pay for water – go figure.

During my spring break from school we planned to visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Nanyuki, located north of Nairobi between Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares.  We rented a three-bedroom house inside the Conservancy called Pelican House and shared this with new friends: Jon, Josee and Mady Marshall.  We left early on Sunday morning where we devoured and enjoyed the gourmet brunch at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.  Yummy!  Rather than an omelet bar they had a “chapatti” bar.  The Indian influence is very strong here.  And the weather is always so nice and crisp.  I have always loved dining outside too.  After the girls explored the living maze, we visited the William Sheldon Animal Orphanage.

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We took our time at the brunch taking a few hours to finish off several courses before paying.

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Mom standing right on the equator – one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other in the northern.  Personally I wasn’t too thrilled to see these huge elephant tusks still gracing the entrance to the lounge but they’ve been there for almost a century so guess they’re more iconic than anything.

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The lounge/bar area at the Mt. Kenya safari club has got to be the most beautiful one ever with magnificent views of Mt. Kenya

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Mt Kenya in the background on this gorgeous day on the Earth’s equator.

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After brunch we spent an hour or two at the Animal Orphanage, right next door, and saw many species of endangered animals. This one year old cheetah was rescued from being someone’s pet and is now a permanent fixture at the orphanage.  It was purring loudly when the girls petted it, JM has the video to prove it.

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A pair of pygmy hippopotamus’s were given as a gift to Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, from Liberia’s president, William Tolbert, in the early 60s and these two are the last remaining offspring. They are sadly now mostly extinct in Liberia.

We rented a 3-bedroom house, Pelican House, located inside Ol Pejeta Conversancy for four nights along with our friends the Marshall’s.  The house comes with a fully stocked kitchen, and two house helpers who cleaned our dishes, and set the tables!  There were two dining tables, one inside and one outside, a huge viewing deck out back, directly over the mostly dried-out watering hole (it was the dry season in the middle of a drought).  But we still had dozens of animals come every day to the salt-lick.  The most exciting thing was that on our first morning we found three sleeping rhinoceros right in front of our house – beside the electric fence that surrounds the house of course.

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The outdoor dining table was also a covered patio, ideal for bird watching and relaxing with a good book.

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Each bedroom had a queen sized bed and one or two single beds. The entire house sleeps 12 people but we were only 7.

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Part of the map of Ol Pejeta Conservancy. So many opportunities for wildlife viewing right at our doorstep.

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Outside of Pelican House looking towards the water hole.

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African buffalo with a few Ox-peckers on his back.

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Impala

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Giraffe

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Helmeted Guinea Fowl

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Typical safari scene with so many different animals together – just amazing!

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Crowned plover

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Sundowner (happy hour) on the back porch

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Just another “you’re on the equator” photo opportunity

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The donation box at the conservancy – a rhino sculpture!

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Once back in Nairobi we continued with day trips to fascinating places and for some shopping. This was my first visit to Kitengela Glass and this article sums it up perfectly, it certainly was weird yet wonderful.

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Sculpture on the grounds of Kitengela

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Last minute shopping at the Masai Market; an outdoor market that sells everything from jewelry, fabric, clothing, art work, souvenirs, wooden bowls and metal sculptures. I love going there and have bought so much fun stuff over the months.

This was a hard blog post to write because I really could have written a post about each place that we visited and included so many more photographs.  But it takes so much time to put these posts together and I wanted to capture the essence of my mom’s visit and  how much we were able to do in just two weeks.  I’m already collecting ideas for her visit next year — the Aberdares, Naivaisha, Samburu’s elephant camp, village and local school visits, and of course the beautiful Kenyan coast are all on the list!

Good Morning, Madam

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In January we moved into the new staff compound, and moved out of our Loresho home, which was a 15-20 minute drive from school.  The new compound is literally across the street.  The main thoroughfare, Kirawa Road, separates the school from the beautiful hillside complex.  And I’m not kidding, the staff compound is modern, and beautiful.

This is a Google Map image of the school and the staff compound. I've marked off the campus with a black line. It used to be a coffee plantation but there isn't a single coffee tree left. The staff compound is the site just south of Kirawa Road, that separates the school from housing.

This is a Google Map image of the school and the staff compound. I’ve marked off the campus with a yellow line. It used to be a coffee plantation but there isn’t a single coffee tree left. The staff compound is the site just south of Kirawa Road, in the yellow oval, that separates the school from housing.

When I leave work and walk across the road to the staff compound, it really feels as if I’ve left work.  There is the main entrance to the east, and a small pedestrian gate on the west side of the compound.  We always walk through the pedestrian gate since we live on that side of the compound.  The guards are very formal and polite.  We always hear, “Good Morning madam (/mad-am/), good afternoon madam, how are you madam”.

There is one main road that runs through the staff compound, and we parallel park our cars in assigned spots near our unit.  We are in a house towards the end of the road.  Our unit is the first of the 3-bedroom units that have a backyard.  The units further down the road are built on a steeper grade, and their back patios are resting on cement stilts, giving the home more of an apartment feel.  Having just spent the past four years in apartments we wanted a grassy backyard.

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The main road through the complex with the marked off parking spots. You can see there are some units above the road.

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Our units are actually duplexes with one shared wall between the helpers/laundry room. These are the steps that we share with our neighbor leading from the road to our front doors.

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View from our upstairs patio (one of five) where you can see the guard and gate at the entrance to the compound that leads out to Kirawa Road.  The street lights are solar-powered.

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We chose a unit below the road so that we could be closer to the wooded hillside facing our home, and also because the units below have a foyer-area with a nice wooden front door, whereas the units above the road are a bit different.

We all are enjoying living so close to the school campus and take advantage of the beautiful outdoor, solar-heated swimming pool and indoor gym several times a week. Julie Mei had been playing on the middle school soccer team, and walked to early morning practice which started at 6:30am; she was glad the season was over!  But now she’s involved in Rugby and they too require early morning practice once a week.  She also returns home, on her own, when her after school activities are finished.  The 5-minute commute can’t be beat!

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The swimming pool on campus is solar-heated all year long. Students in all grades get swim lessons as part of the PE program, plus the school has an active MS and HS swim team. On the weekends the pool is open for the school community to enjoy with dedicated lap swimming lanes set up until 12:30.

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The foyer entrance. The dining room and a full bathroom are behind me, the stairs leading down go to the living room and kitchen, with the bedrooms upstairs.

All of the housing units share the same design, and have the same school issued furniture package.  It’s the artwork, rugs and additional pieces of furniture that individualize and make our home “ours”.  The living room was designed to be a combined dining/living room, but we found that space too small so have converted our extra room into our dining room.  We’re still working on making it cozier and plan to buy a wall-to-wall sized carpet to dim the noise; hoping for a bargain as families leave and sell their stuff.

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We have fashioned our spare room into a dining room, which is on the same level as our front door, and only half-a-flight of stairs from the kitchen. This room has a double-wide glass door that opens to the backyard.

The kitchen is amazing with an open plan so that when I’m cooking the whole family can be with me.  Most of the houses in Kenya have large, closed off kitchens where domestic helpers work — I always felt shut-off from the house in our Loresho home but not here!  The units are very light and bright too!

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Julie Mei and her friend enjoyed a breakfast claufoti at the breakfast bar.

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View of the kitchen from the living room. The door that is open is a large walk-in pantry with shelving. There is limited cupboard space in the kitchen so store quite a bit in there, including all of my pots and China set.  The door just to the right of the refrigerator leads out to the laundry room and helper’s room, as well as a private back door.

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The walk-in pantry. The white shelves on the right are permanent, and we had the book shelves from our Loresho home. Without them the pantry wouldn’t have enough shelving.  I love the IKEA trolley that I purchased and have all of my baking and cooking items that I can wheel out whenever I’m cooking.

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The desk and small bookshelf that the school supplied are also inside our pantry. It makes a perfect space for all the paperwork and clutter that would now be in the living room because of the open floor plan. The water cooler is ours but we don’t use it anymore because there is a reverse osmosis system in the housing compound and the water from the tap is potable.

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The laundry area includes space for a cloths line and a brand-new washing machine, but not a dryer (nor space for a dryer). The steps lead up to a slop sink and the helper’s room and bath. We have our clothes dryer in that room (since our helper does not live with us), as well as an extra refrigerator that we brought with us from Loresho.

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The living room and open kitchen with the stairs leading up to the front door (and dining room).

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The living room (taken from the fireplace area)

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The other half of the living room showing the fireplace and large windows. The school has supplied all the curtains and sheers too!

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There is a door that leads out to the back patio and grassy area. We enjoy eating dinner outside too.

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Dinner on the patio.  The school supplies a wooden table and four matching chairs.

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The master bedroom. All of the bedrooms and living room have the decorative stone wall.  The bedroom furniture is also school issued — the beds, pillow, night tables, lamps and dressers.

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Off the master bedroom is a door leading to this spacious walk-in closet and the bathroom. There is lots of space across the top of this where we are storing all of our suitcases (very convenient). Inside the closet is the bathroom (strange but true).

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The master bathroom is huge. There is a big bathtub and a rain shower-head, glass enclosed shower, plus a granite counter top and a sink.

The solar-power water heater on the roof top supplies hot water to all of the showers.  The only time we’ve needed to turn on the water heater is on cloudy days.  The kitchen has its own electric water heater (under the sink) with a switch to turn it off and on when needed.  The architects and housing committee thought of so much!

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View from the master bedroom is all trees and sky and it’s very quiet here.  All of the windows open  up the same way and there are no screens on any of them.  Our cats can easily jump in and out, and the occasional mosquito too.

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The IKEA daybed is supplied by the school and pulls out into a queen bed, is supposed to be in the extra room (our dining room) but we have it in her room for when she has sleepovers. It works out great there.

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View of our unit from the road. The square tiles lead to the front door. The room with the double glass doors is the dining room. There are five different patios (not including the one off the dining room) — there is a large rooftop patio (for sundowners), one off each bedroom and then the one off the hallway (above the dining room). We don’t plan to use most of these, there are simply are too many!

The compound is well-guarded by KK Security Guards and is surrounded by an electric fence, razor wire and security lights.  Each unit has two panic buttons and an intercom system. We feel very safe here.  On the weekends, Henry and I go hiking in Karura Forest and leave Julie Mei at home – no problem.

The 4-bedroom units are still under construction and some of the landscaping hasn’t yet been completed.  There is going to be a playground near the common pavilion and a 1-km lit walking and exercise path around the perimeter.

There are already exercise classes taking place at the pavilion four times a week – yoga, Zumba and Insanity.  I do the Monday yoga class and it’s such a beautiful setting that no music is necessary.

We have a helper twice a week who cleans our houses, changes the sheets and does our laundry.  And she takes care of our cats when we leave on holidays.  She works very hard and does an excellent job!

I have a professional massage therapist who visits on Sunday afternoons — have to admit that it’s one of my favorite weekend activities.  I know, it’s not really an activity.

Village Market and Sarit Centre are just minutes away (see previous blog post about shopping in Nairobi) and the PTO at school hosts a monthly “farmer’s market” on campus which we love.  The whole experience has been wonderful.  I’m still pinching myself and asking if this is really where I landed.

 

 

 

Murumbi Art Collection and Africa Heritage House

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Spent a day immersed in African Art a few weeks ago, and found it both thrilling and depressing at the same time.  Henry, Julie Mei and I went with a group of teacher colleagues caravaning downtown to start the day at the Murambi Art Collection on display at the National Gallery.

This once private collection of African art, housed in this small gallery, contained a wide-range of art from all over the continent.

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One of the exhibit rooms at the gallery

Then we all went to the African Heritage House, owned by Alan Donovan, a collector and old-time friend of Murambi.  Here we learned his story and how be came to reside in Nairobi.

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Julie Mei and Jade standing on the property with the Africa Heritage House in the background. The house overlooks Nairobi National Park and is about to be added to a national register of historic buildings (or something like that).

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Alan Donovan giving us a personalized tour of his art collection. He is leaving his entire collection in the care of the Kenyan gov’t and an American (as yet unnamed) university that has a sizable African studies program to ensure that these are not lost to corrupt government controls.

He owns a beautiful home, entirely designed and built by him, that is decorated with a collection just as stunning and expansive as what we’d seen at the museum, but this time we were his guests.  After a private tour of his collection we all enjoyed a delicious lunch and swim in his pool.

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There are four guest rooms and most of the teachers spent the night at his house. This is the master bedroom but all of the rooms are decorated. It was like staying in a museum!

The sundowner on the rooftop patio overlooking Nairobi National Park was stunning.  It was a perfect way to spend the day together with new friends!

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The entire group enjoying drinks on the rooftop at sundown (called a Sundowner).

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Julie Mei on the roof.

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The sunset.

Leeches, Lemurs and Laughs

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(THIS POST WRITTEN ENTIRELY BY HENRY)

In the pantheon of places every wildlife biologist would like to visit, Madagascar is near the top, right up there with the Galapagos Islands. Separated from the continent of Africa about 165 million years ago, Madagascar’s flora and fauna have been evolving in isolation ever since. While not hosting large numbers of species, very few places on earth can come close to the percentage of endemic species, found no where else. Forty percent of the 270 species of bird species are endemics.

Although the island’s biodiversity has affinities with Africa, its people are another story. Most of the island’s inhabitants are descended from Indo-Malayan seafarers who arrived only 2,000 years ago. Even the Malagasy language has affinities with Southeast Asia, and the terraced rice fields are reminiscent of Indonesia.

In 1883, French warships occupied the major ports of the country and forced the Malagasy government to sign a treaty declaring the island a French protectorate. It wasn’t until 1960 when the country gained full independence from France. The French influence persists today in the written and verbal language, architecture, and food that one encounters.

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French built Citroen car. Body hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

After a three and half hour flight from Nairobi, we arrived in the capital Antananarivo (nicknamed Tana by the locals) on December 20.   I immediately noted the French character of the vehicles, Renault. Peugeot and Citroens ruled the road.  We were met by Jonah, the owner of the tour company I had been working with over the past year.   In order to catch our breath and review the itinerary we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant by the side of the road.

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Enjoying our first local meal. I had the grilled fluff tail, a bird I had hoped to see in the wild but didn’t.  The Three Horses Beer was better than the any of the brews I had sampled in Kenya!!

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Alicia was in rum heaven!!!

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Bat guano is still being used for fertilizer.

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Sitting outside the guest house shortly after arriving. Almost all the hotels and guest houses had wooden shutters and no screens. In the evenings you have to shutter yourself inside making for hot and stuffy evenings spent with little light or air circulation.

Our first night was at a lodge that Jonah hoped to expand. Essentially we stayed in a few rooms that were part of his family’s home. Because of the high elevation of Tana there was no air conditioning and one invited in mosquitoes if the shutters were left open. Alicia decided to relax while Julie Mei and I accompanied Jonah to a nearby village. Along the way we encountered the first wildlife species of the trip, a chameleon crossing the road. The local kids were entertained by our excitement over this find. The houses here and throughout most of Madagascar are two stories in height with the first floor dedicated to storage and animals (mainly chickens). The walls were made of brick, plastered over with red mud. Brick factories became a common site in the landscape.  Julie Mei and I were treated to coffee by the village headman and his wife who were in their early seventies. The people lived only with the bare necessities of life; no pictures on the wall, no TV, no radios, and we soon noticed no shoes. It seemed like most everyone went about bare footed.

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Typical village cart, wooden wheels and local cows, called Zebu.

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Holding a baby in the village was the highlight of the afternoon for Julie Mei.

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The family whose home  Julie Mei and I visited.

The next day we began our five hour drive to Andasibe and Mantadia National Parks to the east of Tana. Once we left the city the roads became less congested but extremely curvy. The terrain was very hilly. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a local reptile park where we were introduced to some of the charismatic creatures we hoped to encounter in the wild.

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The Madagascar reptile guide only uses scientific names. So, just enjoy the colors and variety of these interesting animals!!

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Lunch was grilled zebu. Zebu is one of the most identifiable symbols of Madagascar.  They are cattle with a large hump on their backs and flaps of loose skin dangling from the their throats. They indicate wealth and status, are sacrificed in ceremonies, yoked in pairs to pull wooden-wheeled carts, and used to plow the rice terraces. Zebu rustling is popular amongst some of the southern tribes. Anyway, zebu was to be found on every menu we encountered throughout the country. It was good!!

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Zebu steak with green peppercorn sauce and sautéed vegetables

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The decor of most of the restaurants, and all the menus were in French.

Our next accommodation was at Grace Lodge, which had a small pool in which to relax after a morning walk through the park to spot lemurs. The number one attraction here is a lemur known as the indri or babakoto. It is fady or taboo to kill or eat indris, which has assisted in their continued survival. The cool thing about the indri is their cry, which can be heard up to 3 km away; a sound once heard not forgotten.   Unlike other lemurs they only have a small stump for a tail They are sensitive to changes in their environment and are threatened by deforestation, which was visible in the surrounding areas of the park.   Our first day of lemur hunting resulted in the sighting of 5 different species including the indri.   But the star of the show had to be the diademed sifaka, a pale grey lemur with rich orange to yellow-gold arms and legs. They are also known as dancing lemurs for their habit of occasionally descending to the ground and engaging in play bouts or wrestling. We were lucky enough to observe this behavior and watching the lemurs, the other tourists, and Julie Mei thus enchanted brought on an emotion in me that I will never forget.

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The grounds of Grace Lodge as seen from our cottage

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The characteristic eerie wailing song of the indri is unforgettable. It’s local name, “Babakoto” literally means “Father of Man.”

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Budding wildlife photographer, Julie Mei, is inching her way closer to performing diademed sifakas who put on quite a show.

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Cute bamboo lemur!

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Black and white ruffed lemur. Notice the opposable thumb!!

Probably the highlight of our stay at Andasibe was a visit to “lemur island” a sanctuary within the park where former pet lemurs are kept. As soon as we stepped on the island we were besieged bodily by four different species of lemurs waiting for a banana hand out.   Although very touristy, the animals are no longer caged or kept captive away from their natural habitat. Alicia and Julie Mei had a ball.

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Favorite photograph of Julie Mei with the lemurs

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Can’t get much closer to lemurs than this.

The next day the girls stayed behind while my guide and I went in search of ground rollers. It was tough going in the rainforest but we did manage to see the “pitta like ground roller”.   The birding highlight however was the Madagascar cuckoo-roller, a weird looking bird with a massive head and very short legs. It belongs to a taxa that is considered a living fossil.

We left Andasibe for a two day journey to Ranomafano National Park. This became symptomatic of our visit to Madagascar and illustrated the precarious state of the natural environment and its wildlife. Most of the habitat has been converted to agriculture, especially rice production, trees cut for charcoal, etc.   What remains are little pockets of rainforest or other habitats separated by long distances where the landscape has been severely impacted by humans.

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Rice cultivation is a community and family affair.

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A common sight; intensive agriculture, deforestation, and erosion.

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A common roadside sight; charcoal for heating and cooking.

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These folks were walking from their village to the church in town on Christmas day.

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Madagascar laundromat

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Entrance gate to our guest house where we spent one night.

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Malagasy people frequently wear hats!  These are like woven baskets turned up-side down.

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These children were playing in the street just outside our SOA Guest House, barefoot, grimy but always happy to pose for photographs and a chance to see themselves in the viewfinder.

We overnighted at a small guesthouse in the highland town of Antsirabe.   Antsirabe is known as THE place for Madagascan art, we unfortunately were there when every store was locked up for Christmas.   Still, the town had it’s own charm with numerous, colorful “pouse-pouse” or rickshaws carrying passengers and goods. I would estimate that half the pouse–pouse pullers were running the streets in their bare feet.

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The roads were not as twisty as before but what became noticeable was the paucity of private cars and only a few taxi-brouse or truck carrying goods. Lonely Plant describes the taxi brouse as “slow, uncomfortable, erratic, and sometimes unsafe.” Often the tops were stacked high with luggage, bicycles, and baskets of chickens.   From the looks of them, however, I thought they were in better condition and safer than the local Nairobi “matatu.”

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Two different taxi “brouse” on the windy roads in Madagascar. The one in the front has a coffin on the roof. Typically the back door is ajar, with the “conductor” standing on the back railing. Passengers get in and out of the taxis via the back door.

Two other modes of transportation were bicycles and walking. People were everywhere walking or biking along the side of the road.  With a friendly toot from our driver, they would move off the road or towards the edge. The Malagasy equivalent of the Mexican “manana” attitude was “mora mora” or “easy easy.” Two miles of potholes and craters in the road…..”mora mora.”

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You don’t find roads like this in Kenya!

The other vehicle that was commonly seen was home made carts for hauling water jugs, luggage, boxes of goods and people. Some had steering wheels and the brake was usually a piece of tire at the end of a rope for the driver to step on to slow the cart down.

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These low rider carts were a very common mode of transport for goods, water jugs, and people.

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The wheels were made of wood with pieces of tire nailed around the rim, or not.

Parc National De Ranomafana consists of 40,000 hectares of cloud forest in the cool mountains.   We were lucky to see golden bamboo and greater bamboo lemurs. I also ticked off the velvet asity a deep forest bird with striking blue caruncle around the eyes. The highlight of our stay however, was a night walk to see the nocturnal mouse lemurs as well as chameleons.

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Leaf tailed gecko!

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The wired looking giraffe-necked weevil lives on a single species of plant! The female lays a single egg.

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Nocturnal mouse lemur about the size of a squirrel.

We saw lemurs which were about the size of a squirrel but the amazing thing was the guide’s ability to spot the five chameleon species within a quarter mile space of roadside forest. Alicia and I went on our own night walk one night and saw zero chameleons.  Another mammal sighting was the lowland streaked tenrec. Tenrecs are the oldest surviving mammalian lineage on the island. They have evolved to fill several niches and have morphological adaptations that include parallels with hedgehogs, moles, shrews, otters, and even small arboreal mice.  The cool thing about tenrecs is that some have very large litters, up to 32 young!!

Setem Lodge got an A-plus for setting but the service left a lot to be desired. The grilled zebu in a local restaurant was to die for.

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Julie Mei and I sitting outside our room at Setem Lodge

After three nights we headed south for a visit to Madagascar’s most popular park, Isalo. We left the rolling hill landscape for more open, flatter terrain, and the villages became more grass hut dominated.   We stopped along the way to visit the Anja Reserve which was started by a local to promote regional tourism, create jobs and teach villagers the importance of conservation.  Great views of the ring-tailed lemurs were had by all. We also were introduced to some tombs within the caves. The local tribes bury their dead here for a period of time and then collect the bones for festivities and re-burial.

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In the southern part of Madagascar the dead are buried in caves. Years later the bones are removed and reburied with much celebration.

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The changing landscape and the agricultural fields

Madagascar is a poor country and the distances between parks and major cities are long.   The result of this is that tourist facilities i.e. lodging can be pretty rustic.   That was the case for Toiles de I’Isalo. Our little bungalow was adequate but stuffy because of the hot days.

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Standing in front of our cottage that we stayed in for two nights

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Traveller’s palm.

One fan provided some relief and kept the mosquitoes at bay.   However, the shower had hot water and the place had a pool. Parc National de I’Isalo consisted of eroded Jurassic sandstone cliffs and hills, with vegetated valleys, waterfalls, and canyons. It reminded us especially of Arizona. Or guide led us through the best hike of the trip; spectacular vistas despite the heat. However we were rewarded by the opportunity to swim in several pools below lovely waterfalls. For lunch we had grilled zebu provided by one of the locals. And of course ring tailed lemurs to entertain us and Julie Mei got to hold a tree boa!!!

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Julie Mei and tree boa!

Heading south again brought us to the Zombitse Forest where the vegetation changes dramatically to what is known as the spiny forest. We went on a short hike and spotted several Verreaux’s sifakas. This is a lemur with white pelage and a dark brown crown and can tolerate drought conditions. In the dry season, when heavy dews are common, they lick moisture from their own coats.

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Verreaux”s sifaka.

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Your every day run of the mill ring-tailed lemur.

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Julie Mei with an endangered radiated tortoise.

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Flatid leaf bugs that have evolved to look like fuchsia flowers as protection against predators.

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Sandstone landscape of Parc National de I’lsalo

Our next lodging was at the La Plage Hotel, along the beach north of the soon to be infamous town of Tulear.  The managers were French who spoke minimal English. But the room and setting were great. Alicia and I had several walks on the beach and Julie Mei enjoyed swimming in the warm Indian Ocean of the Mozambique Channel.

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Shopping for bargains along the beach!

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Relaxing outside our room at the beach

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Grilled lobster for lunch on New Year’s Day

One day we got up very early for a tour of the spiny forest with it’s spiny octopus trees and ancient baobabs that look like giant carrots.  We were a bit disappointed because we were expecting vistas like those of The Avenue of the Baobabs which it turned out was located several days drive to the north. Maybe another time!

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The iconic baobab tree!

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Sunrise at the Spiny Forest

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The highlight of our beach stay had to be the New Year’s Eve dinner and entertainment.   The hotel brought in about twenty local men and woman who performed traditional music to the accompaniment of a guitar and drum.   The melodies and beat were great and it was an evening that will stay with us for a long time.  We didn’t make it to midnight!!

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They danced and sang for hours

Well, the new day dawned and it was time to get to the airport and catch a flight on our way to a much anticipated beach resort in northwest Madagascar.  Unfortunately, Air Madagascar had decided to use a smaller plane and bumped eight passengers….us included. Come to find out that the airline also goes by the name “Air Maybe”. We were put up in the Amazone Hotel in Tulear. The air conditioning was a plus but the worst was yet to come. Our rooms faced a busy street with several open-air bars. It seems that in Madagascar the New Year celebrations go on for several days. And they like to play loud music all night long….in this case 3 AM. What was interesting was that men and women both used a nearby open, vacant lot as a bathroom. Women would just get off the street find a bush if available and just squat…pretty much in the open. And this went on all evening. The next day we got bumped AGAIN. We spent some time roaming the street and doing a little shopping.

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Public WC Tulear style.

When we finally left Tulear for Tana we were all disappointed that we would miss out on the beach but glad to be leaving Tulear. We were put up in a lovely hotel in Tana and spent the next few days touring the old town, markets, and relaxing at the hotel.   The highlight was a visit to Ambohimanga which was the original capital of the Merina royal family. Trivia—the fortress was constructed using cement made from egg whites—16 million for the outer wall alone. The king lived in a large wooden hut with a central pole made from a single trunk of sacred rosewood tree. Reportedly, it was carried from the east coast by 200 slaves, 100 of which died along the way.  All in all it was a pretty interesting site to visit. A lot better than the national museum which was housed in a old palace with high arching ceiling.   The exhibits, however, were few and in poor condition. Many of Mad’s heritage treasures had been lost in fire in 1995 that gutted the still closed royal palace.

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Palace walls made with eggs!!

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Standing just below the palace grounds

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Old town Tana.

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Local outdoor market in Tana where we went to buy a bag of rice for donation to an orphanage we visited

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With the help of our guide we also stopped at a local “wholesaler” to buy soap, oil and sugar to donate as well.

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Some of the girls at the orphanage — they loved our visit and jumped all over Julie Mei and Alicia

Throughout the trip we asked ourselves was this trip worth it. I don’t think we were prepared for the long drives and some of the “mora mora” times. As a wildlife biologist however, I think it was well worth it although it left me with a sense of despair at how the few remaining pieces of natural habitat are under threat. I think Julie Mei came back to Nairobi with a sobering view of way of life that most Americans and Europeans couldn’t imagine otherwise. We essentially high graded the country. Having talked with other people and seen the lay of the land, I would go back but do things differently; stay longer in fewer parks and finally make it to the beach resort.

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