INTRIGUING INDIA: RELIGION

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Golden Temple at Amritsar

Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians – all are found in Incredible India.

“In religion, all other countries are paupers, India is the only millionaire,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator.

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Bathing in the sacred Ganges.

The majority, 80 percent, are Hindus. In Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges we witnessed the early morning Hindu bathing ritual, hundreds plunging into the non-too clean water which they believe is holy and will wash away all sins. At night, the banks of the river are a smoldering mass, fires and smoke from cremations. Many come to die in Varanasi. Death in the holy city is said to free one from the cycle of birth and death.

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Cremations on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

Khajuraho, a wondrous place with numerous Hindu temples, is a popular site, more for the erotic sculptures on one of its temples than the stunning temple architecture.

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Khajuraho, site of many temples, is one of the “seven wonders” of India.

The Taj Mahal – India’s architectural treasure, the dazzling white marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who died in childbirth in 1631, is a Muslim monument decorated with carefully inlaid Koranic verses.sikh.taj2

And Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion, is yet another fascinating religious shrine. Sikhs compose only two percent of the Indian population, yet Sikhism is the fifth largest among the world’s major religions.

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Sikhs congregate at the Golden Temple day and night.

The religion was founded in the early 16th century by Guru Nanak and gurus who followed him. Nanak preferred the pool at Amritsar (“Pool of Nectar” in Punjab and Sanskrit) for his meditation and teaching. The site in northern India, today not far from the Pakistan border, became a pilgrimage center where a great temple was built. Perhaps more than the temple, it is the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, enshrined inside which draws many pilgrims today.

Flowers cover the holy cook.
Flowers cover the holy book.

Twice per day an amazing ceremony focused on the book takes place at the temple. Thanks to guide Alok, we witnessed the lively and curious evening ceremony when the book is carried to its bedroom. Behind golden doors, it spends its night on a bed under an elaborate canopy.

We joined others in a long waiting line to view the book before the evening procession. While waiting, I had the chance to talk to a friendly Sikh who moved from Amritsar to London 17 years ago. London, where the gentleman has a fish and chips shop, has a large community of Sikhs. He was with his son. They, like many others, had a gift to lay near the book where a holy man, surrounded by other holy men sitting cross-legged on the floor, reads sacred verses.

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Evening procession transferring the book to its bedroom for the night.

After viewing the book, worshipers, all singing, line up behind ropes to view the ceremonial procession. The book, much like statues in Christian processions, is carried on a golden platform festooned with garlands of flowers.  A group of holy men follows behind, chanting. A trumpet blower announces the arrival of the book. There are stands where worshippers can take communion. It is a joyous, festive spirituality.

At 4 a.m. the same ceremony is repeated when the book is taken from its bedroom back to the temple.

We returned to the holy site the following day and were free to wander around this mystical place after leaving our shoes near the entrance and covering our heads. Vendors sell souvenir bandanas. Sikh men are not permitted to cut their hair and are easily recognized by their beards and colorful turbans. Sikh women wear either a turban or cover their head with a scarf.

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Heads must be covered at the Golden Temple. Mini scarves can be purchased.

Before entering the sacred grounds, feet are washed by wading through a shallow pool.

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All are welcome to a free meal at the Golden Temple.

The complex is large. It’s a delight to slowly stroll and enjoy the scene, the people, the peaceful ambience, the shimmering golden temple. Selfie photos in front of the temple are popular. Families walk around the lake, taking pictures of one another. Some tired souls just lie down and rest in shady spots. An underground spring feeds the sacred lake where some pilgrims immerse themselves to cleanse their souls. The complex also includes enormous pilgrims’ dormitories and dining halls where all, irrespective of race, religion, gender, are lodged and fed for free.

Feeding the hungry is a tradition among people of many faiths, but Sikhs may get first prize for generosity. The Golden Temple serves 80,000

80,000 free meals are served every day.

simple vegetarian meals every single day of the year – all paid for by donations. Anyone can partake.   Volunteers cook, serve meals and wash the dishes.

Groups sit on the floor rolling dough for naans (Indian flatbread). Nearby other groups smoother naans with a type of butter. Enormous vats of various concoctions simmer on stoves.

Some who eat at the temple volunteer to help out to “pay” for the food and assist the permanent volunteers. Sikhs who live in other countries often come and stay at the temple for several months to help in the kitchen.

Volunteers do all the food prep.

The Golden Temple’s past is not all peace and love. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on armed Sikh militants holed up there. Over 500 people were killed in the ensuing firefight. Sikhs around the world were outraged at the desecration of their holiest site. Four months after the attack, Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, leading to a massacre in which thousands of Sikhs lost their lives.

Most of the damage has been repaired by the Sikhs themselves who refused to allow the central government to take on the task.sikh.14

More on India soon—Dharamshala and the Tibetan refugees.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss this and future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

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Foreground:  Ganges bather. Background:  Yoga session.

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Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.
Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.

It’s summer and melon season – perfect time for a light, refreshing dessert. I brought Chilled Melon with Lime and Ginger to a recent pot luck. All loved it. Click HERE for recipe and scroll down for more of my tried and true recipes.

 

 

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Intriguing India

 

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In April I joined my friend Wilma and 11 other German tourists for a 15-day tour of northern India and Kashmir. The advertising campaign touts the country as “Incredible India.” It is – as well as intriguing. Following are some aspects I found incredibly intriguing during my travels.cow.2

PEOPLE: My favorite part of India. They are the friendliest, kindest, gentlest, most open and talkative folk. Indians often approach and start a conversation. Where are you from? Do you like India? They ask to have their photo taken with you, and they eagerly pose for photos.   On a train, they share their food. In Kashmir, I was invited to join a picnic. When I had a nasty crash during one of my solitary escapades in the boondocks of Kashmir (details in future post) two young men came to my aid, offered comfort and a ride.

My seat mates on our train ride to Agra were delightful: A retired gentleman and a recently-married young woman, Shruti. We chatted non-stop.   I learned a lot about India.

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Train companions

Poverty in the country is overwhelming. There are beggars. At the tourist sites, the souvenir sales crew do pester. But, if you reply with a firm NO, they usually back off. Many have mastered salesmanship. “You look like a movie star,” a crafty fellow at the

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Khajuraho temple known for its erotic sculptures told me. My hair was a disaster. I was hot, sweaty, tired and felt like an ancient hag. He won. I bought the bronze bowl with the sexy etchings which I really did not want, but now I am glad I have this bizarre treasure which brings back fun memories.

Despite the body-to-body throngs in many places, I felt safe in India. I was careful and cautious with my purse and camera, but never felt that someone would accost me and grab my valuables.

Many of my German travel companions were on their fourth or fifth trip to India. “People” is one of the major reasons they keep returning to India, they said. “The people are so friendly. They have so little but they seem satisfied. They have lebensfreude (joie de vivre, zest for life). It fascinates me,” observed Sepp.

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Celebrants at a country wedding.

MARRIAGE: Some seventy percent of marriages in India are arranged. Shruti, 27, showed me pictures on her phone of her December wedding with 1,000 guests in attendance. She had spent a mere 10-minutes with her husband-to-be before the wedding. They asked each other questions about what kind of life they wanted, what they wanted in a mate. His answers matched her desires. She is obviously happy with her new life and man, and glowed when talking about him.   She said some of her friends had married for “love,” but she preferred to honor her parents’ wishes and let them find her a husband. For India, she married late, but “I told my father not to find me a husband until I finished school,” she explained.

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The bridal couple

As is the custom in India, she now lives with her husband and his mother. Once married, daughters live with their husband and in-laws. This is old age insurance for the parents, assuring that they will always be taken care of. However, problems between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are legendary and the brunt of numerous jokes.

Shruti has no problems with her mother-in-law, but, unlike most married women in India, she is not in the kitchen cooking with her mother-in-law all day. She has a career and works in a bank. According to guide Rajesh, 70 percent of Indian women are housewives who spend six hours per day in food preparation. Indian cuisine is labor intensive.

My other train companion has two daughters, both married. He had a hard time finding a husband for one of the two as she is overweight, he said. She found a husband on her own.

COWS: Yes, they are sacred. They are everywhere — and perhaps not too bright. Now I understand the German expression: blöde Kuh (stupid cow). Hindus, 80 percent of the Indian population, are vegetarians. Cows are never slaughtered. Thanks to their milk, they are viewed as maternal figures, and are raised for dairy products, as well as plowing the fields. Cow manure is used as fertilizer and fuel.cow.1

So, what happens when a cow is too old to give milk or work the fields? The beasts are turned loose and wander freely everywhere, often in the thick of roads clogged with cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk-tuks . Horns blast. Drivers shout. The gentle beasts are oblivious to all. Traffic comes to a standstill. No one wants to hit a cow. There are other places to roam, but India’s cows seem to prefer to be in the midst of the melee.

They thrive on garbage, and there is plenty in India. In Varanasi where we witnessed numerous cremations on the banks of the Ganges, cows – and dogs — munched on the debris around the places where bodies had been burned.

Some lucky cows end up in cow retirement centers, Gaushalas.   India has 3,000 of these, but, according to animal husbandry statistics: 45,150,000 cows. Most meander ubiquitously throughout the cities and countryside.cows.4

Being an animal lover, I wanted to pet the poor fellows. The guide warned: Don’t touch. If hungry, they might be mean, buck with their horns, he said. I doubt the ones I saw would have had the energy. I obeyed nonetheless. I think these crazy cows add a puzzling, calming charm to India’s  chaotic ambience.

TRAFFIC: Cows do complicate the snarling masses of all sorts of vehicles as named above, plus pedestrians often in the midst. How could anyone even think of driving in this madness? The noise is more than incredible. Every driver seems to have his hand plastered on his horn. Who is honking at whom?   No way to know. Who has the right of way, other than the bovines? Survival of the fittest. Just plunge ahead and hope for the best.

Hats off to the drivers. We each had a rickshaw for our ride from the hotel to the riverbank in Varanasi. The traffic was abominable, but my skillful rickshaw driver kept his cool, pedaled his vehicle with aplomb, weaving around cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc. There were many close calls, making the ride more thrilling than the wildest of roller coasters.cows.5

We had frequent long journeys on a comfortable, roomy bus. In India, the bus driver is in a separate glassed in compartment with his assistant sitting next to him. The assistant is de rigueur. Four eyes are needed to watch ahead and to the sides for all-too-frequent obstacles. Our bus assistant also served bottled water, and, in our case, often stopped to purchase bananas for his passengers.

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Bus driver assistant purchases bananas for passengers.

We rode on rutted roads through the countryside and small villages, and on super highways as good as any in the developed world.

Alok told us there are 2,000 traffic deaths per day in India. Many drive without a driver’s license, but a license can be purchased – no test required.dogs.2

DOGS: There may be as many homeless dogs as there are cows. These canines are not pets, never were. They all are similar in appearance: medium size, short, beige/ tan fur. They wander freely everywhere, but most seem to have enough sense to stay away from auto traffic. They, too, thrive on garbage. None I saw looked malnourished, and they were not vicious. Yet I resisted the urge to pet. Unlike the docile cows, I feared one could bite. After experiencing India’s stray dogs, I came across this article, “The World is Full of Dogs without Collars”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/science/the-world-is-full-of-dogswithout-collars.html?_r=0   It’s an interesting read for animal people.

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I wanted to rescue this poor baby.

What about cats? I only saw two during the entire trip. No wonder. With all those hungry dogs, they would end up as dog food.

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Alok enjoying dinner in Kashmir.

CONTRASTS: The poverty, filth, garbage, noise and pollution are all mind-boggling. On our last day, Alok wanted us to see the new state-of-the art metro in Delhi. It, too, was mind-boggling: futuristic, spotless, sleek, quiet, fast.

Intriguing. Incredible. That’s India. More to come in future posts: Amritsar and the Sikhs, Dharamshala and Tibetan refugees, Kashmir.

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Weddings merit big celebrations. We came upon one in a small town during our travels. The groom was in costume  on horseback.

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No Indian recipe this time, but how about tasty Thai – sort of in the same neighborhood? See recipe column at right for Thai-Style Asparagus Beef Curry. Add some spice to spring asparagus. Click on above photo for recipe.people.4Holy Man.  Religion is another most intriguing aspect in India.  These “holy men” often pose near tourist sites, hoping for a donation.

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A Tale of Twin Toyotas –and WOE

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Toyotas I and II

 

Two Americans living in southern France set off to Germany to buy a car. Not a Porsche (pity). Not a Mercedes. Not a BMW. Not even an Audi. But — a Toyota! No, not a new model, but a very old Toyota (2004).

Crazy? Bizarre?   Idiotic?

Perhaps a bit of all. Here’s the story. Two years before moving to France from Germany 12 years ago, we bought a royal blue Toyota Yaris Verso. The back seats of this minivan collapse and slide under the front seats, leaving lots of rear space, enough for two bicycles standing up. That was the selling factor. We could park the car anywhere with the bikes chained and locked inside.  And, it was easier to put them inside the car instead of on the roof.

Back then we did lots of pedaling. The bikes went with us on cycling trips all over Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. All l that space was also practical when making large purchases: washing machine, mattress, cases of wine.

Not our car.
Not our car.

We love this car. It has been reliable, trouble free. It now has some 255,000 km, but has had only minor repairs. We knew it could not last forever and were getting worried.   No reason to spend big bucks on a new car at our age. Besides, Toyota no longer makes this model and we found no others with the same features and known reliability.

Bicycle Bob (BB) dove into Internet research on used Toyotas. He claims he could not find any in France. No wonder. I later learned that all his Toyota finds were coming from a German web site. He said he would feel better buying a used car from a German rather than a Frenchman. Those neighbors to the north treat their cars with over-the-top TLC, like rare endangered species.  Check out the cars in parking lots in France. Dents. Dirt. Rust.

The cars he was finding were old, but there were many with far fewer kilometers than ours. We had to see a car before buying it, and probably look at more than one car before purchase. That meant a train trip to Germany, hotel and meal expenses etc. The price tag was climbing.

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More to Germany than cars.

No matter. We could do more in Germany than look at cars: Satisfy cravings for good beer and hearty cuisine, visit friends, perhaps even see some new sights. He found versions of the desired Toyota all over Germany – Leipzig, Zweibrucken, Hamburg, Munich. We had to narrow our selection lest we spend weeks canvassing the entire country.

Schweinhaxe and sauerkraut.
Schweinhaxe and sauerkraut.

So, one dreary day in February we hopped aboard the TGV (fast train) from Aix to Frankfurt, then another train to nearby Erlensee where a friendly car salesman met us and took us to see the first selection. It looked just like our car, same bright blue, just two years younger (2004) but with a mere 134,000 km.

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This one looked good.

Promising, but we had another car to see in Kulmbach, three autobahn hours away. We rented a car for that trip. It rained. It poured for the entire drive. We checked out the second Toyota .   Both cars were in immaculate condition. Each car had had just one owner, elderly folks like us.

The blue Toyota owner had been male; the silver Toyota had been in the possession of a female. We test drove both cars. “There is something I don’t like about the clutch in this car,” BB said of the silver one, knowing it had had a woman owner. He maintains women drivers often ride the clutch. A sexist view, in my opinion.  “I think this car could have a problem,” he insisted. I found nothing wrong with it, but he makes the car decisions. Besides, the silver color was wimpish . And, the salesman was anything but accommodating. Our salesman in Erlensee, a Jordanian, was terrific, helpful.

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Trying different brews in Kulmbach.

We spent the rest of the day and an overnight in Kulmbach before returning to claim the blue baby. The rain never stopped, but great beer made up for it. Kulmbach is noted for its beer. We visited an artisanal brewery, bought beer to bring home, toured a beer and bread museum – all wunderbar.

We figured it would be a multi-step procedure to finalize the sale and get the car temporarily registered and insured for the trip back to France. Never underestimate the Germans.   Our salesman took us to a trailer type office in a parking lot where, within a half hour, all was complete, including temporary plates on the car.

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Seeking solace from German rain.

We set off in our new old car south to Darmstadt to visit old friends, enjoy more beer and hearty food, and then on to Basel, where we were married 26 years ago. The nostalgia visit to this Swiss city was more than moist. The rain, six days of it in Germany, followed us to Switzerland. We spent a day indoors, visiting some interesting museums, before coming home to France where we did find sunshine, but also frustration, headaches, obstacles.

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Giacometti at Fondation Beyeler in Basel.

I knew car registration in France would never be the smooth and easy process it was in Germany, however…. We started the process after our return, Feb. 15. On March 22, 36 days later, it was finally finished…or so I thought.

We began the ordeal with a visit to the mayor’s office in Reillanne, our town. Then the tax office in Manosque (1/2 hour away). We had to go there twice since we did not have one of the required documents the first time.  From there we were sent to Digne, a city about 1 ½ hours away and the seat of our region’s “prefecture,” the folks who could make our car legal in France. We thought we had all the required documents.

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Dubuffet at Fondation Beyeler in Basel

At the tax office in Manosque we had been given a list of requirements: six documents. The woman in Digne gave us a  longer list: 10 different documents. Sacre Bleu! We did not have the “Certificat de conformite,” a document which could only come from Toyota. And, we were told the safety inspection document we had from Germany would not fly. It was several months old. So, we had to make an appointment and have the car inspected in France and get yet another document.

Off we went to our nearest Toyota dealer, 1/2 hour away. A young man filled out a form requesting all sorts of technical details on the car. We sent that form and a check for 150 euro to Toyota headquarters in France — fortunately not in Japan. A week later we had the form. We were making progress.

On our second trip to Digne, miracle of miracles, we had all the correct papers. We received a temporary registration. We went to a nearby garage and had plates made – instantly. We were overwhelmed. The French are efficient at something.

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The French have mastered instant license plates.

Only insurance left to conquer. We have our cars insured with a bank in the town of Pertuis (45 minutes away), but we arranged for temporary insurance by phone, and followed up with a visit to the bank last week to sign the form.

We were elated. Finally all finished. Not quite. Today I received a letter from the prefecture in Digne. They need the original car registration from Germany immediately.   I checked our thick folder of documents on this car. We do not have it. I am certain we turned it in with all the other papers to the woman in Digne. ???

Will they cancel the registration without it? Seize the car? Insist we contact the German registration office and get a new ”original” on a car that was registered 12 years ago?

Moral of the story: If you live in France, buy a car in France.

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No, not our old Toyota, but a Tinguely creation at the Tinguely Museum in Basel.

 

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The twins

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Adventure Africa: The People – and Polygamy

Women’s lib. Not in Zimbabwe. It’s a man’s world in this African country, our safari group learned during a “Learning and Discovery” session. Polygamy is widely practiced there as it is in many African countries. To tell us all about it: Mafuka, 74, who has three wives and 10 children.

Mafuka, 74, three wives, 10 children
Mafuka, 74, three wives, 10 children

“Our wives never say they have a headache,” the jolly Zimbabwean told us. He went on to describe his family life. We were mesmerized. It was entertaining, fascinating – and somewhat unbelievable.

Mafuka, a burly sort with an infectious smile, has been a safari guide for some 50 years, often away from his village and wives for months at a time. He has a farm, grows tobacco and corn; and has livestock, chicken, cows, etc.  The wives and children work the fields and tend to the animals.

Family at town market
Family at town market

He explained that his first wife requested a second wife to help with the chores. “She invited her cousin, a beautiful girl. I agreed.” For five years, he had just two wives.

As he tells it, the two decided a third wife was needed. He took a third wife, but they did not like her. “They teamed up against her,” he said. “Women in our society are very strong. I got rid of her,” he announced matter-of-factly. Some time later, he found a replacement. New wife number three is a nurse, but it’s the first wife who is always in charge.people.e

According to Mafuka, whose grandfather had 15 wives, before taking a wife, a man must prove his manhood and impregnate a woman. The baby stays with the mother and her family, but the father may later adopt the child. If a wife cannot conceive, she arranges for a sister or cousin to bear her husband’s child which she will raise. If a man has later difficulties (infertility), he secretly asks a brother or cousin to impregnate his wife.

It was all a bit much for us to comprehend. Was he putting us on? Change and progress have come to Africa, and certainly this scenario does not apply to all?

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Women basket makers at a co-op in Botswana

I wanted to know more. “After long periods away from home, how do you satisfy all these women?” I asked.

“I drink a root preparation,” he proclaimed, beaming. “It makes me very strong. I go home with rhino horns.”

What if one of his wives would decide to take another man? ”I would kill him,” he boasted.

Mafuka went on to proudly relate that three of his ten children have degrees. He wanted to send one of his daughters to the university, “but she eloped as the fourth wife of a guy still in college… He hasn’t paid me in cows yet. I am going to go after him.”people.h

The family is of utmost importance in Africa, and big families are common.    At our camp in Zambia, there was a booklet with staff bios. One man had 12 children with two wives. Several had nine children each. Mafuka told us about the upcoming family reunion that he was organizing. He expected 1,000 guests.

people.iWhile there are many families like Mafuka’s, monogamy is gaining followers. Sally, a young married woman working at our camp, said she would not accept sharing her husband with another wife.   “It’s a controversial subject,” she said. “A man may have just one wife, but many mistresses. I think it will change. Women are getting stronger.”

Another woman told me that Africa is changing.   “Women now wear pants, but they still sit on the floor.”

Village huts in background. Our food gifts, center.
Village huts in background. Our food gifts, center.

That was the case when we visited a family home in a village. All the women sat on the floor, the men — and we — in chairs.

The village/family visit was another Learning and Discovery event.   The village, Bhangale, was actually a homestead of 434 people who live in a cluster of huts with a communal outhouse and outdoor shower.   Our hosts, Fransica Lambani and her husband Philippe, are the homestead owners. They live in a cement house which was a gift from their children. “They are lucky,” our guide Abiot said. “They have two sons working in South Africa. They had the money for the house.”

people.14Prior to visiting the village, we went to a nearby town where we visited a supermarket and bought food supplies to offer the villagers as a gift. They welcomed us with song and dance, proudly showed us their homes – all neat and tidy. A woman gave a demonstration of how they carry heavy loads on their heads.

More song greeted us as we arrived to visit a Catholic primary school which has about 800 pupils. The school is in a rural area, and most all the children walk to school, from three to 10 kilometers one way.

Children welcomed us with a song.
Children welcomed us with a song.

The principal led us to a sixth grade classroom where we had a chance to talk to the youngsters. They are taught 12 different subjects, including agriculture and HIV/AIDS, their teacher told us. An 11-year old told me he wanted to study world economics.   All were eager to pose for photos, and then see the photos on the camera or phone screens.

Kids were happy to pose for us.
Kids were happy to pose for us.

Education in Zimbabwe used to be free, but now parents must pay $45 per child per year.   Education is considered essential and Zimbabwean are considered among the best educated in Africa. According to Zimbabwean Abiot, who pays school tuition for four of his nieces and nephews, Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa.

Bob and friends.
Bob and friends.

While this school was Catholic, not all the children are Catholic. Religion is very important in the African countries we visited: Catholicism and many different evangelical religions. As we drove into the town of Hwange, we people.jpassed church after church, one after another, each representing a different evangelical sect. “Going to church” was listed as “favorite pastime “on many of those staff bios I read at the Zambian camp.

We stayed at four different safari camps, two in Botswana, and one each in Zambia and Zimbabwe.   All were run by an African company, Wilderness Safaris, whose staff are terrific. From the guides to the cooks, all were caring, helpful, knowledgeable …and fun. They danced and sang for us, entertained us with stories about close encounters with wildlife, life back in their villages and much more.

Staff performed a farewell dance for us.
Staff performed a farewell dance for us.

Our 16-day safari was organized by Overseas Adventure Travel, www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for the all-inclusive package (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa). For more on our trip, see previous posts:  Adventure Africa: The Animals and Adventure Africa: A Day on Safari

Abiot, center, with fellow guides in Zimbabwe
Abiot, center, with fellow guides in Zimbabwe

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Guide Idos in Zambia
Guide Idos in Zambia


For a taste of Africa, try the recipe for Mafe, a chicken-veggie-peanut-concoction which was a hit at my African dinner party. Click here for the recipe.

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Adventure Africa: The Animals

animal.1The Big Five – almost. The leopard, the most secretive and elusive of cats, escaped us, however we were hot on a leopard trail more than once. Sightings of lions, elephants and Cape buffalo were plentiful. We even saw one rhino. Impala, giraffes, zebra, various antelopes, crocodiles, warthogs, hyenas and lots of birds were also captured on our cameras.

Birds eat blood-sucking parasites found on may animals.
Birds eat blood-sucking parasites found on may animals.

(A previous post was devoted to gorillas in Rwanda, “Gorillas in our Midst,” truly the most outstanding animal experience during our African adventures.) Subsequent visits to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe were nonetheless rich, rewarding, often exciting, and always educational. Following are highlights of our animal encounters.

For more, see previous post, "Gorillas in our Midst."
For more, see previous post, “Gorillas in our Midst.”

ELEPHANTS: These massive creatures are a source of wonder. We spotted them in all three countries, and learned much about them. Botswana, specifically Chobe National Park, is home to 65,000 elephants. They eat 18 hours per day, as much as 150 kilos of food per day. In Chobe, most all the trees are bare, stripped clean by hungry elephants. During a Learning and Discovery session, we were told that one elephant requires about one square kilometer of space.

Elephants strip the trees bare.
Elephants strip the trees bare.

Chobe encompasses 11,000 square kilometers – clearly not enough for such a large elephant population. It is a dilemma. Sterilization or translocation is too expensive for the country. Furthermore, translocation does not usually work as elephants, no matter how far from their original home, will head back. Culling has been considered but would generate negative publicity that would surely cut down on tourism. “What can we do?” our lecturer asked. Anyone have any ideas?

Super large elephants with gigantic tusks are rare. Most have been taken out by poachers and/or hunters. In Botswana, guards “shoot to kill” poachers. The country has fewer poaching problems than many other countries, and has banned safari hunting.animal.17We marveled at solitary elephants munching on trees, large groups marching to rivers and mothers with babies in tow. Elephants can communicate for great distances with a rumbling sound, and other sounds not audible to humans. They can run at speeds up to 25 mph. If you happen to be charged by an elephant, do not run. “Stop and clap and shout.”

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The lion is not the King of Beasts as he is easily killed by elephants, Cape Buffalo, even Honey Badgers.

LIONS: None of our safari group was charged by an elephant , but one angry lion did charge an open safari vehicle. The driver saved the day and raced away at great speed. We had numerous lion sightings – magnificent, astonishing, brutal, gruesome. More than once we witnessed lion sex . No wonder. They are champion copulators, we learned, — up to 100 times in 24 hours. A male and female can be at it more or less nonstop for three to five days – without Viagra.

Lions have no need of Viagra.
Lions have no need of Viagra.

“This is National Geographic stuff,” our guide Abiot commented after we had watched a mating couple. Later that day, more National Geographic – too much for some. The Kill. Along the side of a road, a group of eight female lions was in the process of attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo. It was bloody. It was fascinating. It was agonizing.

The poor beast struggled to stand up, only to fall down and groan in pain. The killer team took turns. A few would lunge and bite, while others rested and observed. We watched and photographed for at least 20 minutes, but had to move on to our next camp. We later learned from the bus driver who passed the scene many times that the buffalo’s suffering went on for three hours before he succumbed.animal.7“This is a training session,” Abiot said. “These lionesses are young. They are not skilled at killing.”

I had naively assumed that when killing lions went for the jugular to put the prey out of its misery. That is far too dangerous with Cape Buffalo due to the horns. For this reason, Cape Buffalo, considered the most dangerous of African animals, are rarely attacked by lions.

He looks sweet, but the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous of African animals.
He looks sweet, but the Cape Buffalo is the most dangerous of African animals.

Elephants are also not normally targets for lions. “Most lions are afraid of elephants,” a guide said. Even lions have enemies. Honey badgers – small but fierce – can kill a mighty lion. “They are very clever. They go for the private parts. If you ever encounter one, back off,” we were warned. We did see one along a safari track. The driver floored for a close-up view. The petite creature stopped and bared his teeth at us, as if daring us to get any closer.animal.18A group of baboons can also kill a lion. They have very sharp teeth. They are also mischievous. Several broke into the tent of a couple in our group. No real damage was done, but all their belongings were helter skelter.

Hippos can stay submerged for six minutes.
Hippos can stay submerged for six minutes.

HIPPOS: It is rare to see more than the heads of these giants which spend most of their days submerged. They do emerge from the water at night in search of food, eating up to 45 kilos per night. During the day they must stay under water because the sun cracks their skin, and they have no sweat glands. They are fast and can run at speeds up to 34 mph.   Because of the weight of the male, hippos mate under water. Babies are born in shallow water and stay with their mother for up to eight years.   A canoe guide in Zambia where we spotted hippos on a game viewing boat excursion complained that business was down due to an erroneous report on Facebook that hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa. Not true — the Cape Buffalo as mentioned above.

RHINOS: It was at a private game reserve in Zimbabwe where we saw one rhino. Three rhinos were introduced to the reserve in 2000 and six more animal.11have been born since. The reserve has an anti-poaching team who live on the grounds.   Rhinos are dehorned every two to three years to discourage poachers, but they are often killed nonetheless. Poachers don’t want to waste time tracking a rhino only to learn it has no horns, so they eliminate all. Horns do grow back.animal.5

Horns are sold to powerful criminal syndicates who ship them to Asian countries, including Vietnam and China where their weight is valued at more than gold due to the erroneous belief that Rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to hangovers.

It’s a thrill viewing these creatures up close and leaning so much about them. As fascinating and wonderful as the animals are the people. Coming soon:  Adventure Africa: The People.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

Our 16-day safari was organized by Overseas Adventure Travel, www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for the all-inclusive package (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa).animal.25Like my blog? Tell your friends.  Please leave a comment – if you can’t see the Recent Comments list below, use the link on the right-hand menu (below “Recipes”). Feedback is welcome. I love to know what my readers think about my posts.

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Adventure Africa: A day on safari

safari.23Three countries. Lots of animals. Fantastic people. Delicious food. “Ultimate Africa,” our 16-day safari to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, surpassed our expectations. We shared this fun and enriching adventure with 12 other travelers from the US.safari.24

After the sensational gorilla experience in Rwanda (see previous posts: Gorillas in our Midst and Remarkable Rwanda) we flew to Johannesburg to begin this journey which proved to be much more than African animals. Of course, they were the focus and we were lucky enough to witness some incredible happenings, including a grisly lion kill in action, lions mating, giraffes courting, elephants on the march and more. My next post will be devoted to animals.

Safari "tent"
Safari “tent”

During our travels we stayed in comfortable safari camps, most located in vast national parks. Each couple or single traveler had a tented room with shower safari.9and toilet. Days began with a 5 a.m. wake up call. In Botswana, it was the sounds of a drum beating outside our door.  Animals are best sighted early in the morning or late in the day.   They and we need to escape the blazing afternoon sun and intense temperatures.

After breakfast (usually fruit, toast and/or homemade muffins, porridge and sometimes eggs) we climbed into two safari vehicles, seven passengers, a guide and a driver each. Off we’d go into the bush, bouncing over rutted dirt tracks. Often we’d be deep in the wilderness in the midst of jungle growth. “Branches” called out the driver, so each passenger behind could lean in and escape bodily harm. Lee, a retired diplomat from Colorado, was named trip “Branch Manger.” He had a very distinct and aristocratic manner, like a Brit educated at Oxford, to warn those behind of “branches.”

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“It’s time to read my morning paper,” a guide announced as we rolled out of one camp. He carefully surveyed the ground, his “newspaper,” looking for tracks to determine which beasts may be in the area. Our camps were not in fenced-in enclosures, but in the open where animals, big and small, were free to roam. At night when it was time to go back to our individual tents, we were accompanied by a guide with flash light and usually a gun. At our tent home in the Lufupa Camp in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, monkeys chased one another on the roof, Bushbuck munched on grass in the back yard and hippos splashed and snorted in the river which flowed right outside our front door. Fortunately we never saw lions lurking nearby.

Travel in the bush
Travel over a bush bridge

During the morning game drive, we’d stop for a coffee break at a place deemed safe by the guides. They’d clap and scout out an area for those in need “to mark their territory.”

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Brunch, back at camp at about 11 a.m. served buffet style, was an array of tasty casseroles, salads and fruit – a copious feast. Then rest time. November, when we traveled, was supposedly the beginning of the rainy season. Instead of rain, we encountered scorching heat, often temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our tents had ceiling fans, but lying down for an afternoon nap was like lying on a heating pad. Several camps had plunge pools for a welcome relief.

The British influence in food and lifestyle was evident in all our camps. Before gaining independence in the 1960s, Botswana and Zambia were British protectorates. Zimbabwe was formerly a British colony known as Southern Rhodesia. Thus, high tea was de rigueur, and almost yet another meal with something sweet, often cake, and something savory, such as mini pizzas or wraps. Learning and Discovery, lectures and discussions by locals, followed tea. The session on polygamy (widely practiced in Africa) was the overall favorite and mind boggling. It deserves its own post, or at least a good part of one. Stay tuned.

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We loved those sundowners.

At about 5 p.m. we headed out for the afternoon game drive. A regular and delightful part of these excursions was the “sundowner”  when we stopped to watch the sunset and enjoy liquid refreshment and snacks.   “I’ve been on many safaris, but I have never had a day like this,” commented Lee, who had served at posts in many different African countries during his career, as we marveled at a parade of elephants coming to drink at the banks of a river with the setting sun in the background. Heads of hippos popped up from the water to complete this National Geographic scene.   That morning we had seen lions mating, a group of hyenas, and a pride of lionesses attacking and eating a live Cape Buffalo

Elephants and hippos at sunset
Elephants and hippos at sunset

This was indeed our lucky day. There are no guarantees of animal sightings on a safari. There were several days when we did not find any exciting wildlife, but the game drives were nonetheless fascinating. Guides shared their wealth of

No need to go thirsty in the bush
No need to go thirsty in the bush

knowledge on the terrain, climate, vegetation and more. We learned about safari survival. Many plants are edible. Certain branches if cut yield a liquid to quench thirst. Others can be fashioned into rope. Tree roots can be used to brush teeth. The leaves of one tree act as mosquito repellent. Those of another act as a laxative for elephants.

The most exciting discovery one afternoon for guide Victor was elephant excrement, obviously from an elephant in desperate need of those leaves. “I’ve never seen elephant poop like this,” he said. He asked the driver to stop at a tall brown mound for a closer look.   “He must have been constipated for a very long time,” he said. It was such a sensation, Victor insisted on returning to measure the “poop.”

TJ helps Victor measure the "most amazing elephant poop."
TJ helps Victor measure the “most amazing elephant poop.”

Between countries and camps, we flew on small aircraft (a max of about eight passengers each). For half of those flights, a woman was the pilot.

We had been issued obligatory duffle bags for the trip.
No big suitcases, but obligatory duffel bags for the trip.

The majority of our travel companions were older and retired – like us. Three exceptions: Darcie, a nurse traveling with her aunt Raedeen, a Red Cross worker who had lived all over the world; Maia, a psychologist traveling with her dad, Charles, a retired veterinarian who celebrated his 79th birthday during the trip,

Bob and Charles celebrating Charles' b'day.
Bob and Charles celebrating Charles’ b’day.

and TJ, an IT specialist also traveling with his father, Ted, a retired professor. Two Southern belles, Tootsie, 84 and Marlene, 82, were an inspiration. Lois, a retired teacher, was on her 9th trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), our tour operator.  Retired US Post Office employees Helen and Bob were close behind – their 8th OAT trip. Like us, Lee was on his first trip with this tour operator. The repeat business is no surprise. Every aspect of the trip rated A+.

In the background, Lee and Maia. Foreground, Tootsie and Marlene
In the background, Lee and Maia. Foreground, Tootsie and Marlene

Abiot, our leader from Zimbabwe who accompanied us throughout the journey, deserves A+++. He was thoughtful, caring, knowledgeable, and many times went beyond the call of duty. Abiot comes from a large family in the hinterlands of his country. Between assignments, he drives 20 hours to reach his village which has no electricity. Yet, all have cell phones, he said. While at home he works the land, farming corn. Education in Zimbabwe is no longer free – about $20 per semester. He pays for four of his young cousins to attend school — and feeds 15 family members.

Abiot, our hero, who definitely deserves "tour leader of the year" award.
Abiot, our hero, who definitely deserves “tour leader of the year” award.

Prior to working for OAT, Abiot told us he worked for a luxury safari company which charged about $1,000 per day per person. He quit. “That was not Africa,” he said. “It was too much like America.” He much prefers OAT which he feels offers a genuine African experience.

Safari lounge
Safari lodge lounge

We, and all in our group, felt we had indeed experienced — and leaned so much — about “ultimate Africa.”

Refreshing moist washcloths awaited as we returned from hot game drives.
Refreshing moist towelettes awaited as we returned from hot game drives.

For more on Overseas Adventure Travel: www.oattravel.com We paid $4,495 each for our all-inclusive 16-day safari (lodging, all meals, most tips, land and air transport within Africa)

Much More Adventure Africa to come in future posts: Animals, People, Learning and Discovery… If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.safari.6

Recipes — no new recipe this time but check out the column at right for many tasty concoctions.  I recently had an African dinner party and served Spicy Peanut Dip with raw veggies for an “apero” snack.  It was a hit.  Christine asked for the recipe.  It’s up there, under Appetizers.

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In the stiffeling heat, the plunge pool was perfect for cooling off.
The plunge pool was perfect for cooling off.

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Remarkable Rwanda

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Rwandan dancers

A happy — and most important – healthy New Year to Tales and Travel readers. The following is another post resulting from Adventure Africa.  Before visiting Rwanda, two words sum up what I knew about the country: gorillas and genocide. My previous post, Gorillas in our Midst, details our unforgettable gorilla trek. The following provides a look at Rwanda 22 years after savage butchery took the lives of almost a million of its citizens.

Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are a national treasure, one that has reaped significant financial rewards for this tiny country in central Africa. Revenue from tourism was $303 million in 2014, up from $62 million in 2000 – mainly due to the gorillas.kigali.23

These gentle giants that hang out in the bamboo forests of the Virunga mountains are a source of wonder. Small groups of tourists follow a guide and a tracker into the dense jungle to find and observe a gorilla family. The tracker wields a machete, a common tool in Rwanda, to blaze a trail. But in Rwanda, the machete also has a sinister significance.

“The world withdrew and watched…and a million people were slaughtered.”

Names of the dead at mass grave
Names of the dead at mass grave

The machete was the weapon of choice during the horrific genocide that ravaged Rwanda in 1994. Hutu-Tutsi rivalry culminated in this bloodbath with Hutu rebels on the warpath, hacking Tutsi and moderate Hutu to death.

Driving through bustling Kigali, the country capital, it’s difficult to imagine that these boulevards now lined with neatly trimmed shrubs and flowers were littered with thousands of bodies 22 years ago. The Kigali Genocide Memorial in the country’s capital pays tribute to the victims. Its exhibits are an all-too vivid reminder of the carnage: photos and letters of the dead, accounts of survivors, details on child victims, such as favorite toys and food. It is shocking, heartbreaking, disturbing, chilling.

Garden at Genocide Memorial
Garden at Genocide Memorial

Some 250,000 victims are buried in mass graves at the memorial site on a lush hillside overlooking the town. Exhibits also trace the history of the ethnic rivalry, the failure of the world community to step in, and reminders that Rwanda is not the only country tarnished by genocide.   Germany, Cambodia, Namibia, Serbia, Turkey – all have dark chapters in their past.

David taught us a lot about Rwanda
David taught us a lot about Rwanda

Three million people fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries to escape death. David Habarugira, our guide in Rwanda, fled to nearby Uganda. Rwandans are now at peace, he explained. No one is identified by ethnic background. Many, like David, have returned to their homeland, the Land of a Thousand Hills where steep mountains and deep valleys create a breathtaking landscape.kigali.24

“Rwanda is a country with a vision…better education, health care, infrastructure. .. We are well on our way,” Francis, another guide commented. The economy suffered greatly during and after the genocide, but has made strides in recent years. Gorilla revenue plays a role, with 80 percent earmarked for the government.

Subsistence agriculture, however, is the mainstay of the economy in Rwanda which is slightly smaller than Maryland. Some 90 percent of the population of almost 12 million farm. David, from a farm family, told us he did not have a pair of shoes until he was 20 years old.kigali.9

Anything and everything grows, with coffee and tea the main export crops. Markets are full of vibrant color with mounds of produce for sale, including five different kinds of bananas. The national dish is green bananas, ibitoke, steamed and mashed.kigali.17

Paul Kagame, who has been president since 2000, is credited with stabilizing the country and reviving the economy after the mass killings. On Dec. 31, 2015, he announced that he will run for a third term in 2017 after his second seven-year term expires. In a constitutional referendum last month, 98 percent of Rwandans voted to amend the constitution to allow Kagame to run again.   Despite his accomplishments, many see him as an authoritarian ruler.   His government has been accused of human rights abuses, including restrictions on freedom of speech and suppression of opposition groups. The US and the EU oppose a third term for Kagame.

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On the positive side, Rwanda has low corruption compared to other African countries.   According to Wikipedia, it is one of only two countries with a female majority in the national parliament. Protection of the environment is de rigueur. Plastic bags are banned throughout the country. It is now illegal to cut papyrus, often used for building, since it filters swamp water, David explained. And Rwanda is tourist friendly – safe and delightful to visit, although some of the tourist sites are harrowing.

Mass grave at Nyamata
Mass grave at Nyamata

The memorials at Nyamata and Ntarama, about 30 kilometers south of Kigali, are among these. During the genocide, citizens took refuge in churches, assuming they would be safe. However, members of the clergy are said to have provided information to the rebels. Some of the most brutal massacres took place inside the holy shrines, including the one at Nyamata where skulls and bones of the dead are displayed.   At Natarma, blood-stained clothing still litters the floor.kigali.4

Despite the betrayal by some of the religious, faith is very strong in Rwanda with most citizens practicing Catholicism or another Christian faith. En route to the departure point for our gorilla trek, on muddy roads full of ruts, we witnessed a steady procession of the faithful in their finery, most with Bibles or prayer books in their hands, on the way to Sunday services.

Rwanda has three official languages. Kinyarwanda is spoken by most, followed by English and French. Rwanda was under Belgian rule until gaining independence in 1962. In 2009, the country joined the British Commonwealth although it has no colonial ties to Great Britain. “Pre genocide, we were Francophile, now we are Anglophile,” said David, who speaks English.kigali.6

On our drives through the countryside past poor villages where goats and cows roam freely, I asked David why there were no dogs or cats. “We prefer children,” he said. Everywhere, happy, exuberant children waved at us.kigali.7

As Francis said, Rwanda is “well on the way. ” It still has far to go. Sanitation is poor. In both rural and urban areas most use shared pit latrines. The majority of the population has no access to electricity. Yet, many have cell phones.Kigali.22

As my previous post pointed out, a trek to see Rwanda’s gorillas is very expensive. It is gratifying to know that the revenues are contributing to improve living conditions for its citizens. Gorillas also mean jobs: guides, trackers, porters, drivers, and hotel staff. We were overwhelmed by their friendliness, kindness and joie de vivre.kigali.13

“A new found air of optimism pervades the country,” states Lonely Planet. It’s an optimism that is a joy to experience.

Scroll down for more Rwanda photos. More Adventure Africa to come in future posts: On Safari, Animals, People… If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.kigali.8

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Riding a bicycle in hilly Rwanda is not for sissies. These guys cheated -- hanging on the back of a truck for an easy way up.
Riding a bicycle in hilly Rwanda is not for sissies. These guys cheated — hanging on the back of a truck for an easy way up.
Tobacco also grows in Rwanda.
Tobacco also grows in Rwanda.

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Rwanda has 728 different birds -- a passion with David who seemed to know all of them.
Rwanda has 728 different birds — a passion with David who seemed to know all of them.
We asked David to take us to a local , non-tourist restaurant This was awesome. And, heaven for vegetarians -- all kinds of tasty veggie concoctions
We asked David to take us to a local, non-tourist restaurant. This was awesome. And, heaven for vegetarians — all kinds of tasty veggie concoctions.  Rwandans eat little meat.

Gorillas in our midst

In my next life, I want to be Dian Fossey. Well, not quite. I’d rather not be mysteriously murdered as she was in the jungles of Rwanda where she studied and lived with mountain gorillas.gorilla.2b

After observing, photographing and admiring these magnificent beasts in the dense bamboo forests high in the mountains of Rwanda, I was smitten. It is easy to understand Fossey’s fascination with the human-like gorillas which share 98 percent of our DNA.

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Children romp and play, chasing one another through the thick brush. Toddlers cling to mothers, often piggy-back. Mothers nurse babies. And Big Daddy, the awesome silverback, keeps a vigilant eye over all.

“Watch out! One coming on your left….Look up, one in the tree… Be careful. The silverback is just ahead.”

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They were in our midst, the 22 member Kwitonaa gorilla family. One youngster raced by and grabbed the hand of a member of our trekking group. Another trekker was punched – lightly — by a teenager whose path he accidentally blocked. I was captivated by a nursing mother, no more than a foot in front of me. I could have easily touched her, but I dare not. We had been warned not to get closer than 10 feet to the beasts. Impossible. They were all around us, up close, and obviously accustomed to this parade of curious creatures who snapped away with all manner of cameras.

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Mountain gorillas are “about as dangerous as pet lambs,” Fossey once told Alfred Hitchcock, apparently to his disappointment.

Mama occasionally cast me a stern glance as if to say, “Oh no, you guys again.” Not far behind her, higher up on an incline, sat the silverback, a picture of majestic power, like a king with his subjects at his feet. He seemed disinterested, but weighing in at close to 400 pounds; I did not want to upset him.

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The Virunga Massif, volcanic peaks usually shrouded in mist along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are home to 10 gorilla families visited regularly by tourists.gorilla.23b

Treks to observe the gorillas are strictly controlled and organized by officials in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Eager tourists arrive at park headquarters at 7 a.m. where they are divided into groups of eight, supposedly according to the difficulty of the hike ahead. Each group (a maximum of 10 groups or 80 tourists gorilla.27bgorilla.20bper day) is accompanied by a guide, trackers carrying machetes to blaze a trail, a gun-toting guard (in case of attack by Cape buffalo) and porters. Guides are in radio contact with other trackers stationed in the mountains who monitor the gorillas and advise them of the various gorilla family locations.

No longer young and fit, we asked to be in an “easy” trekking group since we had heard the hikes to locate the gorillas can take up to four hours, one way, over difficult terrain. I had been very nervous, not certain we were up to the challenge. My fears were assuaged when I met the others in our party: Fran (66) and John (76), seasoned hikers from Scotland; Selma (72) and Barry (a bit older) from D.C., and a mother- son couple from Germany. Annette, who appeared to be in her 70s, was on her fifth gorilla trek. “I’m addicted,” she said.

Selma announced to the guide that she had had two knee replacements and could only hike if the terrain was flat. She explained that a woman in her hotel had seen the gorillas the previous day after an easy, 37-minute hike. She expected the same.gorilla.25b

Poor Selma…close to three hours later, soaked to the bone, we finally found our gorillas. The hike started out as a pleasant walk in sunshine through farm fields. The sun soon disappeared and we started to climb, over rugged, rocky, slippery terrain. Up and up. Steeper and steeper. We were at an elevation of 8,500 feet. I was frequently out of breath, but there were rest stops.

Porters help with the ascent.
Porters help with the ascent.

Fortunately I had hired a porter, Peragie, a tiny woman half my size but my savior. I had little to carry, just a small backpack with a water bottle and my gorilla.17bcamera. But, for only $10 (the standard charge for a porter), I figured it might be useful. She could hold my camera if I wanted to take photos with the phone and vice versa.

This mini power house did far more. On the steep sections, she took my hand and literally pulled me up. When the rains came, soon into the trek, she wiped my face and glasses. She tucked my pants into my boots – to keep the red ants away. She spoke no English, but I learned that she was 30 years old, a widow and mother of two young children. Her calm, gentle, caring demeanor was an inspiration and kept me going.

“My knees are wobbly. I can’ go any farther. I won’t make it,”   announced Selma, not far into the hike. Our guide assured her she could – would – make it. When we came to a high rock wall separating the fields from the forest, several porters lifted her over the obstacle.gorilla.29.bjpg We charged on, but the going in the tangle of jungle vines, roots and branches was a challenge. Rain did not help. “How much farther?” Selma asked time and time again.   However, we all were beginning to wonder if we would ever find the gorillas.

Over and over, guide Ignacie assured us they were not far ahead. “They’ve been here,” he explained as he surveyed the terrain. Of course, they were not waiting for us, but continually on the move, higher and higher, searching for more tasty bamboo.

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Playful baby

At last – a big patch of black lumbering through the jungle green ahead. We stopped. We could hear bamboo branches breaking. Suddenly more masses of matted black fur, on the right, left, ahead –all in motion. We were awestruck. After the grueling trek, it seemed miraculous.

Ignacie told us the youngest member of the family was a seven-day old baby. We came up behind the mother, cradling the infant in her arms. Unfortunately the 22-year-old silverback was ahead and she moved on to dutifully follow him before I could get a photo. The kids – all ages – were frolicking all around. Two teenagers got into a spat. “They are drunk,” Ignacie said. Apparently overdosing on bamboo has the same effect as too much booze.

The rain stopped. We moved about, each of us zeroing in on different family members for close up photos. It was thrilling, amazing, and beyond our expectations to be so close to these intriguing creatures.

Trekkers are supposed to spend no more than one hour observing the gorillas. Perhaps because our journey had been so long and arduous, Ignacie was generous. We were with them a bit longer, but not long enough. You cannot get bored watching gorillas.

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The trek down was worse than the ascent. It started to pour. This was the rainy season, and these rains were like no others I have known. The trackers decided to find a shorter route back through even denser jungle growth. The lead man thrashed a path with his machete. If it hadn’t been for my guardian angel, I surely would have slipped or tripped.

Selma survived. “I am glad it’s over,” she said as we reached the end. Had Ignacie not insisted, she obviously would have quit. We later learned that rather than sending a participant back, the guides call for a stretcher.   Trekkers are carried to the gorillas at an extra cost of $200. And, it is not uncommon for handicapped tourists to hire porters with a stretcher to take them to marvel at this wonder of nature.

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Group photo while we waited for Selma and Barry who were far behind.

The gorilla experience is costly, $750 per person for the required permit. This includes the guide, trackers, guard, but not the porters. There is no shortage of visitors, however. Since 2004, the number of gorilla customers has almost tripled: 20,000 in 2014. Much of the revenue helps fight poachers, as well as contributes to the country’s efforts to develop a high end tourist industry and continue its recovery from the horrific genocide of 1994.

Back in the early ‘80s when Fossey came to Rwanda, there were only about 240 mountain gorillas in the wild. They cannot survive in captivity. Today the number is estimated at about 900, with some 300 in the Volcanoes National Park.

Annette, our intrepid trekker from Germany, was planning to set off again the next day for another gorilla trek – her 6th.   She said she had never been so close to the gorillas as she had on our trek, nor had she ever been on such a difficult trek.gorilla.30b

Finding the Kwitonaa family did take far longer than anticipated, but only Selma complained. It is very rare that guides do not find the gorillas. If that happens, trekkers are offered the chance to try again the next day. Prosper Uwengeli, the park’s chief warden, told a New York Times reporter that in more than 30 years, guides have never had to shoot a gorilla and no visitor has ever been harmed by one.

In a research report, Fossey wrote that mountain gorillas are “dignified, highly social, gentle giants with individual personalities and strong family relationships.” Like Fossey and countless others who have watched them in the wild, I am enamored of these gentle giants and, if it weren’t so costly, would gladly endure another trek for another visit.gorilla.b1

Gorilla visitors can show up at the park at 7 a.m. with hopes of buying a permit for a trek that day, but that is risky as permits may be sold out. Most tourists book a package tour which includes the gorilla trek. We booked a 3-day package with Africa Adventure Safaris, an African company which also organizes tours in Uganda. Total for both of us was $3,250 which included a full-time driver/guide, three nights lodging and most meals, the gorilla permits, a permit and trek to visit endangered golden monkeys the day after the gorillas, city tour of Kigali and airport transfers. We were more than satisfied. www.rwandagorillassafari.comgorilla.10b

Bad - very bad -- hair day
Bad – very bad — hair day

From Rwanda, BB and I traveled south for more Adventure Africa: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Future posts will highlight our amazing experiences. But first, a bit more on Rwanda. Coming soon, “Rwanda — More than Gorillas.”

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It’s time for a hearty soup. East German Soljanka, a recipe from my friend and food writer Sharon Hudgins, is perfect to warm both body and soul. See Today’s Taste, column at right.

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CARS: The marvels of Mulhouse

Following is a shorter version of an article I wrote for the magazine German Life. I am not as enamored of cars as BB/VR, but I was enamored of this museum.car.8

On both the French autoroute and the German autobahn drivers whiz by the exit to Mulhouse, an Alsatian city in northeastern France.

Germany is next door to the east and Basel, Switzerland, just 30 auto minutes to the south. Why stop in Mulhouse which is an industrial hub?

Museums — that’s why. After Paris museums, the museums in Mulhouse are the most frequented in France. Here visitors come to admire cars and trains, not masterpieces from the art world. The car museum is to cars what the Louvre is to art, states the museum literature.

The Cite de l ‘Automobile or National Museum Schlumpf Collection is the largest automobile museum in the world with more than 400 shiny, spectacular vehicles on display, 125 of which are Bugattis.car.7

The prestigious automobile was an obsession of two brothers, Hans and Fritz Schlumpf, born in 1904 and 1906 respectively to a Swiss father and a mother who was from Mulhouse where they lived. Their story is as intriguing as the museum which houses their collection.

Mulhouse was a center of textile firms. Fritz initially worked as a wool broker while Hans worked for a bank.

They began buying shares in spinning mills, and then acquired various companies, including a textile factory in 1957. Fritz, who had a Bugatti, began buying vintage cars. Hans joined in and together over a 20 year period they amassed a secret collection of classy cars, including two of only six Bugatti Royales, the masterpieces of Ettore Bugatti.

Bugatti Royale
Bugatti Royale

Rumors circulated in the auto world about the mysterious collection. Some said the brothers were out to buy every Bugatti in the world with intentions of destroying them all to prevent them from ending up in the hands of the “wrong people.” A newspaper article in 1965 revealed the size of the hidden collection. The Schlumpfs were silent. They maintained the cars were for their personal purposes and of no business to others. However, they did take steps to prepare part of the collection for display.

In 1976 their world crashed. The textile industry in Mulhouse was dying. The Schlumpfs were broke. All their money had been spent on cars. Workers at the textile mill went on strike. They were infuriated at learning where much of the factory profits had been spent.

“I was earning 1400 francs a month, and now see where the rest of it went,” wrote an angry worker on the grill of a racing car.car.6

The brothers tried to sell the factory, but there were no buyers. It was closed in 1976.   Fritz and Hans fled to Switzerland and never returned to France, leaving behind the priceless car collection — 427 cars in mint condition including 122 Bugattis, and another 150 cars in workshops awaiting restoration.

Fritz Schlumpf had part of a factory warehouse refurbished where the cars were stored and which he had planned to open for exhibition. In 1977 trade unions occupied the warehouse, called it the “Workers Museum,” and opened it to the public.

The
The “whale,” Arzens 1938 convertible

The French government listed the collection as an historic monument in 1978. It was purchased by the National Motor Museum Owner’s Association in 1981, and opened as the National Motor Museum in 1982. Culturespaces, a private organization managing French monuments and museums, took over management of the collection in 1999.

The museum is vast, an area of four hectares. Audio guides are provided with plenty of detail on many of the 437 cars representing 97 different car manufacturers that are on display.

There are three main sections to visit: Motor Car Experience, Motor Racing and Motorcar Masterpieces. For a quick overview, hop on the museum “train,” which makes stops at some of the most noteworthy cars while the driver provides informative commentary. Then, wander at leisure.car.3

The piece de resistance is no doubt the Bugatti Royale which Ettore Bugatti designed for his mother in 1933. She loved luxury, hence velvet seats. She wanted to be able to see the stars at night, hence a glass roof and the first car to have a panoramic roof, according to the guide. The car is valued at 40 million euros.

Check out some bizarre cars, such as the Arzens convertible, a car from 1938 nicknamed the “whale,” due to its size, seven meters in length, and shape. The “tank,” a Bugatti race car from 1923, indeed looks as if it belongs on a battlefield, not a race track. Yet, it was clocked at 189 km per hour in the 1923 tours Grand Prix.

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The oldest car in the museum is a Jacquot from 1878 with a steam engine. It needed two hours to heat 40 liters of water so it could travel seven kilometers. The audio guide provides a surprising fact on the 1913 Peugeot Torpedo BB, 3,000 of which were produced, including one for a customer in China.

A long avenue lined with race cars, from a 1908 Panhard-Levassor two seater, to numerous Mercedes, Maseratis, Porsches, and Bugattis, gives a fascinating view of the changes in these speed machines over the years. Wind up the visit with the latest from Bugatti, the mind boggling 16.4 Veyron, displayed on a moving pedestal which slowly turns as spotlights highlight the beauty.

car.5 A large screen behind shows details and the car in action. It is the fastest car in the world with a top speed of 407 km per hour. Experts in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics have produced an incredible braking system. From a speed of 400 km per hour, the Veyron will come to a complete stop in just 10 seconds when the brakes are applied. It takes three weeks and eight technicians to make a Veyron, only one or two are made per week, and there are just 300 in existence.

You could spend an entire day admiring — and learning — about all these fascinating vehicles with a break at one of the museum’s lovely restaurants, including the gourmet, L’Atalante, for fine French cuisine.

But, don’t neglect trains. After a morning of cars and a tasty French lunch, we went on to the Cite du Train (French Railway Museum), another marvel of a museum in Mulhouse. Here you can see some 100 trains all displayed on 1,350 meters of track. And, here too, an audio guide provides background information and facts.

Museum entrance
Museum entrance

For more on the car museum, see www.citedelautomoible.com; for the train museum, www.citedutrain.com

A delightful and convenient place to stay in the city: Guest house Mondrian, www.maison-mondrian.fr

Alsatian cuisine and ambiance: Auberge au Vieux Mulhouse, Place de la Reunion, Tel. (00) (33) 3 89 45 84 18

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Les Rosiers: Summer 2015

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In a word, it was HOT. Week after week of temperatures in the upper 90s (Fahrenheit), even reaching 100 and above a few times. My roses, geraniums and petunias had to be watered continually. The grass (what little we have) turned brown. The pool water has never been so warm – too warm for me, but finally warm enough for delicate BB/VR* who was brave enough to jump in. This was only the fifth time he has been in the pool in the 10 years we have lived here. (Thanks to my dear mother who insisted my brothers and I all learn to swim at an early age, I am  a swimmer and love the water.  BB was not so lucky.)blog.pool2

Fall arrived too soon and too abruptly – for me… One will never be content.

Despite the heat, we enjoyed some fun activities and the wonderful folks who rented our guest apartment at Les Rosiers.

Klaus and Eva
Klaus and Eva

The season kicked off with the arrival of Klaus from Austria, his car loaded with Austrian delicacies and beer. He always brings us a generous gift of goodies, too. This was the fifth season that Klaus and his wife Eva have spent a month in our rental studio. She is still working as a legal secretary in Graz, arrives a week later by plane and only spends two weeks here. Klaus likes to cook and grill – lamb is his favorite. They know the area well, take long walks, swim, and visit friends and flea markets.  They have become friends, and it’s always a delight to have them here.

Patrick, Chantal and their bikes
Patrick, Chantal and their bikes

Then came the Belgians, Patrick and Chantal, with two motorcycles and two bicycles towed behind their car. We were amazed. Due to the heat, they spent most of their time on the motorcycles. One of the bicycles was electric, but since the terrain here is anything but flat, they preferred their motorcycles. They took long excursions, almost every day during their two-week sojourn.

Chantal said they have been vacationing in southern France every summer, but always camping. They especially enjoyed the tranquility at Les Rosiers. Camp sites can be very noisy, she said. And, they loved our town, Reillanne.

Sunday market in Reillanne
Sunday market in Reillanne

“It’s an authentic village, not a Disney village like so many in the Luberon,” said Patrick. “There are not that many tourists, not that much traffic.” They like to visit the village cafes and talk to the locals. And, they especially liked the Bar restaurant de la Place where they dined many times.

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Czech cyclists: Lara, Katarina, Luka and Jakub

More bicycles next – a Czech family of four with five bikes. Jakub and Katarina and children Lara, 9, and Luka, 5, were back for the second time. We were overwhelmed with their bicycle prowess two years ago when they set out day after day, all day on bikes, albeit Katarina towing Luka in a carriage and Lara’s bike sometimes attached to her father’s bike. Lara now rides on her own, and Luka rides the bike that can be attached to Jakub’s . We rode with them one day – lots of fun.

Jakub and Luka
 Luka behind Daddy Jakub

They arrived a day late after participating in an orientation competition in the Jura where Jakub took first place in one category. Here he conquered Mont Ventoux for the fifth time. That was the reason for five bikes – a super bike for the challenging climb.

“We always like to come back to Provence, the terrain, the living historic villages that are not just for tourists,” said Jakub.   We were happy to have them back.

The hardy cyclists enjoyed the pool after those rides in the blazing Provence sun.
The hardy cyclists enjoyed the pool after those rides in the blazing Provence sun.

Wine was the focus for Patricia and Serge, visitors who come from Brittany. They traveled far and wide to buy Provence wine, driving 1,700 kilometers in the region, visiting six wineries and ending up with 14 cases of wine to take home.

Serge and Patricia
Serge and Patricia

Each evening when they returned from a buying trek they shared their adventures and raved about places they visited – some we had not known about.   Serge says they always buy the wine of the regions they visit. They live in an area of vineyards near the Loire where he helps harvest the grapes.

Serge's bounty
Serge’s Provence souvenirs

They presented us with a bottle of Grand Reserve Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie which we tasted when they invited us to a super fish dinner Patricia prepared. She served the fish with beurre blanc, a well known sauce for fish in Brittany. She shared her recipe which I have tried to master. Mine could not hold a candle to hers, but I will keep trying. When I am successful, we will open the precious bottle of Muscadet.

Niki from Athens
Niki came to visit from Athens.  We met on a student ship 50 years ago!.

We visited the US this summer (see previous post, “USA: Summer 2015,” July14) and the Mediterranean coast (previous post: “Cannes: Far from the Madding crowd,” Aug. 20).

We recently went back to the coast for a gala evening at the Hotel Belles Rives in Juan les Pins/Antibes. Our Finnish friends, Terttu and Mikko, have a rental apartment which they generously offered us. In addition to dining and dancing, I swam in the Med which sure beats a pool, and we took a short but scenic hike around Cap d’Antibes.

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La Dolce vita.
The Med at Juan les Pins
The Med at Juan les Pins

We are not sorry the heat has subsided, but sorry that summer is over.  The days are getting too short.  Some restaurants will soon close for the season.  No more concerts and village festivals.  Winter can be bleak here, and it’s  a long wait for spring.

Photos of other summer activities follow.

BB/VR and Filippo chill out poolside.
BB/VR* and Filippo chill out poolside.

*Bicycle Bob/Vino Roberto

Lake Vannades near Manosque where I enjoyed a real swim
Lake Vanades near Manosque where I enjoyed a real swim
 A Bastille Day Mechoui-- lamb grilled on an open fire.

A Bastille Day Mechoui– lamb grilled on an open fire.

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The Med at Cap d'Antibes
The Med at Cap d’Antibes

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The lavender must like the heat. The color was especially vibrant this summer.
The lavender must like the heat. The color was especially vibrant this summer.

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Champion swimmers, Koa and Nai'a, friend Lynne's Irish water spaniels. We swim together at Lake Ste. Croix
Champion swimmers, Koa and Nai’a, friend Lynne’s Irish water spaniels. We swim together at Lake Ste. Croix