Travel Journal: Ancient Cities and Rental Cars Part One

A couple of months ago one of my Facebook friends posted an article on her timeline entitled “20 Spots in Europe You Must See Before You Die”. Number Fourteen stood out to me above all the rest. Something about the crystal clear blue water and the rising peeks called to my soul. I needed to experience Les Gorges du Verdon.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t even wanted to go to Paris. After what I thought was an adequate amount of time in this famous city (4 days), my brother and I hightailed it out of there for southern France.

We went without a plan. I wanted to white water raft the gorge but all of my phone calls to the rafting companies had been futile. Apparently, the dam only releases water twice a week and those are the only days it is suitable to raft. But the schedule is released at 5pm the day before. All the rafting shops close at 5pm… I just had hope that it would work out.

We arrived at the Nice airport in the afternoon. I rented a car with Hertz. This process had given me endless headaches. Initially it seems that renting a car is really cheap. For six days I was getting quotes of $150. But that was a manual. I understand the basic concept of a manual, but my skills are less than desirable and my experience is limited to about two hours of lessons- once from an uncle when I was 14 in our field on the farm and another from a Clove Island teammate. Mark, my brother and traveling companion, is a valet parker. He drives cars for a living so he can do it, right? That will be an extra $300 for someone under 25…

I chose the cheaper route- an automatic, which did add another $150 to IMG_2938the price- and I had to be the sole driver. I hadn’t driven anything in over 10 months. I was nervous, to say the least, so the salesperson had no trouble signing me up for maximum insurance, adding another hefty sum to the price. I left the car rental office with lighter pockets but an excitement that was only boosted when I saw the cute little Citroen DS4. It had a built in GPS that was invaluable! After a couple minutes of fiddling around and getting acquainted, I put the car into drive. Immediately the female GPS told me to “Tournez à droit puis tournez à gauche”. I’m fairly certain that Mark, speaking no French previously, could give perfect directions with a crisp accent after more than 20 hours of listening to that.

Castellane

Les Gorges du Verdon are located about 2 hours north of Nice. Mark connected his iPhone to the car and we blasted Twenty One Pilots and Avicii as we climbed higher and higher into the Southern Alps. The temperature began to drop rapidly. When we arrived at our destination of Castellane it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).

IMG_2962I’d chosen the cheapest place I could find with access to the gorge: Camping Frédéric Mistral. I booked a tent. It had two twin beds and a nightstand separating them. Nothing else would fit into the sloped space, not even our luggage. We kept our bags in the trunk and lived out of the car during the time we were there.

I’d decided we would stay in the town of Castellane for two nights, giving us one full day in which to white water raft.

Castellane is overshadowed by “Le Roc” or “The Rock”, a massive cliff topped by the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rock. The morning of our full day in the town, we made the half-hour hike to the top of the mountain. Along the path leading to the top there are Stations of the Cross altars, each with a mosaic of Christ’s suffering up to his death and burial. When we reached the top, we encountered a large headless statue. The plaque at the base describes it as a statue of the Virgin Mary dating back to 70AD. I have a little bit of a hard time believing this. Was Mary already idolized in 70AD? Enough to have a built a giant statue in the middle of nowhere France? I guess it’s possible but it seems highly unlikely.

Further exploration brought us into the chapel itself. The current chapel dates back to 1860 but there has been a church standing in that spot for hundreds and hundreds of years. Inside the walls are covered with plaques. They are different in form and color but most have initials and a date. Some hold explanations. “My brother was healed from cancer,” said one. Many, many plaques date from the years of World War II. They are all thanks for miracles attributed to “Our Lady of the Rock” who is prominent on the altar at the front of the church, holding an infant Jesus.

After descending from the mountain, we drove 5 kilometers to the supply shack for Aboard Rafting. Unfortunately, the dam had not been opened that day. However, we were able to book an airboat tour. An airboat is an inflatable, one-person kayak. It rides higher in the water, allowing it to go over rocks and such on which a raft would get stuck. We suited up in wetsuit socks, a sleeveless wetsuit and a long-sleeved wetsuit jacket. Along with our chain-smoking French guide, a young German couple and two French girls we began our half-day journey down the Verdon. After paddling for just five minutes, we detoured to the bank, climbed to the top of a rock and jumped into a deep, clear blue pool below. The shock of the water hitting bare skin on hands and feet felt like a punch to stomach; all the breath in my chest was expelled and I popped to the surface scrambling to intake life-giving air before screaming about how incredibly cold it was! That was enough of that water for the day. Despite getting stuck on multiple rocks, losing a lot of the air on one side of my boat making it very unsteady and getting run into by the inexperienced and very silly French girls, I managed to stay upright in my kayak the entire time. Mark was not so lucky, but he can tell that story if he so chooses.

The $35 spent on the kayak was definitely worth it. The “Places to See Before You Die” website was right on point with this one. But it only got better from there.

That evening we met a Canadian couple that told us about some other gorges in the area. The next day that’s what we decided to check out. Les Gorges de Daluis and Les Gorges du Cians, to be specific. You can find information about these gorges on www.dangerousroads.org. Why? Because the only route through these majestic marvels is a balcony road. The website describes the road better than I could. Here is an excerpt: “This road is one of the most famous balcony roads in France. A balcony road is a hair-raising lane cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s a kind of road not for those who fear heights. There is little room for error on these roads.”

It recommends taking the road at a snails pace with which I was more than happy to comply. The crazy French drivers were not so happy getting stuck behind me. But I just used that as an opportunity to pull over and take pictures of the amazingness. The pictures DO NOT do it justice. This is a phenomenon that needs to be appreciated in-person.

The detour through the gorges took about 4 hours, and then Mark and I headed to Arles. It was a random town I’d decided to go to the day before after searching Google maps for a minute.

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Arles, located on the Rhône River near the Mediterranean, has been inhabited since 800BC. It was an important Phoenician trading port before Roman occupation beginning in 123BC. In more recent history, Arles played host to Vincent Van Gogh who painted some of his most famous painting while staying there.

The city center is small and it was easy to walk from monument to museum in minutes. The attractions offer joint fare admission so we were able to choose one museum and three attractions for just 11 euros. We started at the Roman amphitheater, smaller but in better repair than the Colosseum in Rome. It was built in 90AD, seating 20,000 spectators and has remained in constant use since that time. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a fortress and developed into a small town and residential area until the 18th century. Today it is still used for various shows.

From there we walked to the Roman theater, taking pictures of the semicircular seating

and the fallen columns littering the courtyard. Then we descended into the depths of the city, into what is called the cryptoporticus. Arles cryptoporticus dates to the first century BC and was a part of the original Roman forum, though it was probably built by Greeks from Marseilles. It was dark and damp with no signs explaining the significance. It doesn’t have great reviews on TripAdvisor for these reasons. People called it creepy and a waste of time. But I liked it! I imagined the thousands of people over the years who had walked the stones, their feet smoothing the rough edges and creating the depressions that pooled with water. I didn’t need signs at the time. Breathing in the murky dampness was like breathing ancient history. Then I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia; who needs signs?

We ended our Arles day at the Musée Réattu. We had wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum, but we missed the opening by 2 days. The Musée Réattu was created in 1868, featuring the works of Jacques Réattu. In 1888, after three days in the city, Van Gogh wrote this to his brother Theo concerning this museum, “The women really are beautiful here, it’s no joke — on the other hand, the Arles museum is dreadful and a joke, and fit to be in Tarascon.[1]

Since that time, the museum has acquired some Picasso drawings, making it, in my humble and inexpert opinion, even more of a joke. The actual building in which the museum is housed has historical significance so that made the visit not a complete waste of time.

Stay tuned for part two of Southern France covering Carcassonne (like the board game!) and an interesting Airbnb experience in Toulouse.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_R%C3%A9attu

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Travel Journal: The City of Lights

I’m in Madrid, Spain at the moment. I shouldn’t be.

I bought bus tickets online to go to Barcelona at 9am…on May 18th, the day we arrived in Madrid. So I’m sitting here at a McDonalds on Calle de Francisco Silvela, Madrid until my new bus, that I had to pay full price for, leaves at 1pm.

The only good thing that comes from my idiocy is the time to write this post. My pain, your gain. You are all welcome.

Paris. The City of Lights.

I was in Paris 14 years ago. I studied abroad the summer between my junior and senior years of high school with the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Language. I spent seven weeks living with a host family, speaking ONLY French and taking French classes in St. Brieuc, France. We flew out of Charles De Gaulle so the last two days we were given free rein to roam Paris. Not knowing the next time I might return, I tried to do everything. I went up the Eiffel Tower and wrote my name in sharpie along with hundreds of thousands of others. I raced through the Louvre to see Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. I loved every second looking at Degas’ paintings in the Musée D’Orsay. I strolled through the Gardens of the Musée Rodin, admiring the Thinker, of which I had made a mini-replica for French class the year before. And finally, I walked around the manicured gardens of Versailles. Unfortunately, the palace was closed for renovations so I wasn’t able to see inside.

I had no real desire to go to Paris again. Been there, done that. There are so many places to see in the world and so little time! But I was meeting my 20-year-old brother, Mark, and Paris was the cheapest place for him to fly in to.

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At the airport. 1st photo.

I wasn’t broken up about it. This was to be his first trip abroad and everyone should really go to Paris at least once in their lives if they have the means. It is Paris, after all.

I arranged my EasyJet flight from Venice so that I would arrive an hour and half before Mark who was flying Icelandair from Orlando, with a very short layover in Iceland. Although his flight from Orlando was running late, he was still able to make his connection and magically his luggage arrived too.

It had been 10 months since I’d seen him last, but he looked pretty much the same. He had the backpack I’d bought him for Christmas and wore a brave face, though I knew internally he was quaking. It’s a scary thing to really travel for the first time. Fortunately, he has a well-traveled, confident, and, if it’s not too far-fetched, inspiring big sister to, in a very Type-A, control-freak fashion, control the minutiae of the three week journey.

Our first obstacle to navigate was getting to our hotel from Orly. We stayed in TimHotel Berthier, conveniently located right next to the Port de Clichy metro station. First we had to squeeze into the Orly Bus and then switch metro trains a couple times, but we arrived in tact.

Our hotel room was small but really nice- by far the nicest I’d stayed in up to that point. After settling in, we set out to explore the city.

Remember my friend Sarah? She came out to Mozambique for my 30th birthday. Well, a couple days before I arrived in Paris she contacted me and asked what my itinerary was. Then she decided on a whim to come and meet me in Paris. She was staying in a hostel about half an hour metro ride from us. That was the first thing on the to-do list- meet up Sarah. Second was to eat dinner.

We found Sarah easily enough and quickly settled into a cute little restaurant. We ordered our meals. Mark ordered steak tartare. I really wasn’t paying attention, too involved in my own choice of onion soup and salad. Sarah noticed but didn’t say anything because she knows me and I’m a fairly adventurous eater so she thought it might run in the family.

Well, fortunately, it does. The unexpected pile of minced raw meat arrived and Mark didn’t blink an eye. We had a good laugh over his ignorance of what he ordered, but when the server offered to switch it out for something cooked, Mark refused. He ate every single bite of that mass of blood, red beef. He admitted that he only did it because he knew I would make fun of him the rest of the trip if he didn’t (his bad luck, I still have :).

From there we walked to Sacré-Coeur and then on the opposite end of the morality IMG_2749spectrum, the Moulin Rouge. Sarah would have been happy to stay out all night, Mark would have gone along with anything, but I am a total stick in the mud. Eleven o’clock rolled around and I was ready for my nice, warm bed.

The next day found us on the metro. We had a bike tour scheduled with Fat Tire Bike Tours for 10am. We left a full hour ahead of time even though Google maps told me it was only a half hour. It was a new public transportation system to figure out and I hate to be late. One hour and fifteen minutes and four trains later, we arrived at the Fat Tire Office. I blame Google maps! I had typed Fat Tire Tours Paris into the search and it decided I wanted to go to Paris. Just Paris. It was a couple trains later when I realized we were headed in the completely opposite direction. From that time on, I decided to use the maps in every station to guide me rather than unreliable, tricky Google maps.

I called the Fat Tire when we I realized we would be late, but they were great and the tour waited for us. I’m so glad it did because we had an amazing time. The weather was fabulous. Our guide, an American-raised, Frenchman, was knowledgeable and entertaining. We covered so much ground in four hours and I, at least, felt oriented to the city (Mark was just along for the ride).IMG_2770

After the tour, having a better idea of the various things to see, we made a plan of attack. That night Mark and I walked up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. We were about to make our way down whIMG_2816en thousands and thousands of lights started sparkling across the Tower. There was an audible gasp, which I heard first before seeing the lights and I admit my first instinct was TERRORIST…but it was just lights so that was cool.

Full day number two was an early morning start, once again with Fat Tire Bike Tours (because we liked them so much the day before) to Versailles. This time I convinced Sarah to go with us. She’s not much for early mornings on vacation, or physical activity, but she does like hanging out with people so that was the clincher. With a group of around 12-13, we took the train to Versailles with our Canadian guide and got our bikes. Then we spent an hour going around the market buying supplies for a picnic. The tour was, once again, fabulous. Weather-amazing. We visited Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, built in 1783 to resemble her home country of Austria. We had a leisurely ride through the outer gardens and picnicked beside the water. The tour came with a fast pass into the castle. We took advantage of that and I finally was able to visit the palace! It has some great history and I loved connecting the history of the monarchs with the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about them: Man in the Iron Mask, Reign, Marie Antoinette, the Three Musketeers, etc. Obviously, those are mostly fiction but using the guise of people who actually existed and walked the same halls I was walking.

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Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

The following day was originally intended to include an early morning visit to the catacombs but it was May 8th. Not ringing a bell? May 8th is Victory in Europe Day! I heard that there was going to be a military processional on the Champs-Elysees that morning. Mark and I decided the catacombs would probably still be there but how often would we be in Paris on May 8th?? We arrived early and had a great vantage point near the Arch de Triomphe to watch all the diplomats with their flags proudly waving on their Mercedes, Peugeots and Renaults. The American ambassador drove by in the only SUV we saw in the city- a Chevy, of course.

Finally, the French president brought up the rear, with the window rolled down waving at the spectators. He was followed by the cavalry decked out in their awesome FrenchIMG_2873 uniforms, with long hair hanging from their helmets. Pretty cool.

From there we walked to Notre Dame (all the metro stations on the Champs-Elysees were closed for VE Day). It was very far. Then we walked to the Louvre. It was practically empty! Two days before on our bike tour the square in front of the famous pyramids was packed with people queuing to get in. I bought online tickets to avoid that but there was really no need. There was no line and we roamed through the massive museum unmolested.

We attempted to hit everything really famous and visited Napoleon’s rooms, which I hadn’t seen previously. Mark is a pretty fun person with which to visit a museum. He doesn’t bore easily. And we were able to have fun commenting on the works of art. But I started to feel rough about half way through the tour- stomachache. I needed to sit every couple of rooms. It was a serious drag. I wish we could have stayed longer but my stomach was draining any fun out of the day.

I wanted to go back to the hotel and stew in my misery, but I had another rendezvous. This time it was with another Peace Corps friend, Levi and his girlfriend. When I was in Italy I saw Levi post a selfie in front of Notre Dame and so I messaged him to see if he was still going to be in Paris when I visited. Turns out he lives there. So the answer was yes…and no. I hadn’t met up with him earlier because he decided to take that same weekend to go to Scotland. The nerve!

Fortunately, he agreed to meet me right after putting his luggage in his apartment. He lives in the cutest neighborhood that hosts two of the top 50 bars in the world, Candelaria and Little Red Door (according to www.world50bestbars.com). We visited both of them. They were cool; I indulged in water only since my stomach hurt, but the water was definitely topnotch.IMG_2914

I hadn’t seen Levi in the seven years since Peace Corps ended. It was awesome to reconnect, hear about what he’s been up to and meet the lady who stole his heart. Sarah, Levi and I relived some of our more memorable stories and reminded each other of things the other had forgotten. We stayed out until midnight and then raced to the metro to make it back to the hotel before metro stopped running.

And that was Paris. The next day Mark and I took our last metro train to the Orly bus, this time experts in Parisian public transportation. We left in the early afternoon for Nice, but that is another story…

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Travel Journal: Cafés that Won’t Serve Coffee

In contrast to Naples, everyone told me I was going to just love Venice. I spent one night in Florence where I participated in a “Tour of Italy” dinner. It was by far the best food I had in Italy but I also met an American couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They had just come from Venice and were raving about it.

“You’ll just love Venice. There are no cars. Florence has so many cars!”

“I can’t wait for you to go to Venice; the seafood is to die for!”

“Really, you’re just going to love it. Everyone walks everywhere and no one is in a hurry.”

And so on.

I had high hopes for Venice. Because I am not a bazillionaire I stayed outside of the city. I accidentally got off at the right train station. My ticket was for the station right outside the city but I got off at Venice- Mestre, because it said Venice and the girl sitting across from me got off. I’m a sheep; what can I say? Fortunately, it happened to be the neighborhood in which my hotel was located. Lucky coincidence that saved me about 45 minutes of public transportation time. But it also meant I arrived three hours before I was allowed to check in.

I checked TripAdvisor (of course) to find a highly-rated restaurant to hang out in. There was one right next door! I told the waitress to bring me whatever she had. And this is what I got:IMG_2591

I still don’t know what everything was but you better believe I ate every bit. I wasn’t even sure how to go about eating it and my mom’s helpful advice via Facebook messenger was “chew and swallow”. Thanks mom.

After checking in and a short nap, I took a 45-ish minute bus to the city of Venice. I’d scheduled a free walking tour for 5:00pm and it was in the middle of the city. I put the coordinates into Google maps on my phone and off I went through

 

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli made completely out of marble

the city, over bridges after bridge until I came to a water taxi port. I told Google I only wanted to walk but it didn’t listen. I was running a bit late and there was no way I could back track to a bridge across the Grand Canal (also at this point I wasn’t sure those actually existed) and make it to the meeting point. I bought the 7€50 ticket for a 10 minute ride along the Grand Canal. Upon reaching the other side, I ploughed through masses of tourists, following the winding blue line on my phone until I reached a plaza where a small American girl in glasses waited with a sign “Venice Free Walking Tour” and a tablet to check people in.

The walking tour was great for several reasons. 1. It was free. 2. We went to non-touristy places. 3. Our guide, Shannon, (while American and therefore not authentic J) knew the history and had special anecdotes to add. 4. Our guide, Shannon, was American and therefore spoke great English!

Upon Shannon’s advice, when the tour ended I went out for cicchetti at a small restaurant. Cicchetti are like Venetian tapas. Cicchetti is the plural. One is called a cicchetto (according to Wikipedia). Then it was the bus back to my hotel.

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Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute (1630)

The next day I made sure to buy a full day water taxi pass for 20€, an absolute steal considering the price for one ticket. First, I headed over to St. Mark’s Basilica, arguably the most famous site in Venice. The first building was begun in 828 when some Venetian merchants stole the relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. The horses of Saint Mark-Lysippos are fairly well known as well. They were apparently looted during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Then Napoleon stole them in 1797, but they were returned in 1815. Now they’re kept inside the basilica. The outside is adorned with replicas.

Funny history lesson, but I never got to see the inside. I waited in line in the campo for 30 minutes. There was the old man who was so sneaky. I saw him start maybe 10 people behind me and he just worked his way up the line, standing close to the people beside him, seemingly in their group. I was totally on to his game by the time he made it up to me, but he just kept looking straight ahead, walking in his slow, old-man way. By the time he made it to the door of the Basilica, he was about 15 people in front of me!

I had packed for the day with a small Camelback backpack. Like the smallest you can buy. I had my wallet, phone and a bottle of water. Ladies in front and behind me are carrying giant, beach-going purses. No problem! But me, with my tiny little backpack. Nope! The Venetian St. Mark’s guardsmen takes one look at the straps over my shoulders and tells me no, I cannot enter with a backpack. That’s it. I was dismissed.

But I stood rooted to my spot, holding up the ever-increasing line. Excuse me?!? What am I supposed to do? He points to a small sign with some line you’re supposed to follow around to the other side of the church for a bag check. It was not at all clear. And then I would have to wait in line again?!? You can’t even take pictures inside. I think not! Now the nice American couple told me I just had to go inside and see the mosaics, but really. Rude. And dumb.

The only thing I will give St. Mark’s is that it was there for the first time in Italy that I saw a depiction of the risen Christ. Right over the door was the mosaic pictured below:IMG_2662

I had started to think Italian Catholics had forgotten that Jesus rose from the dead, given all the art with him either as an infant, or on the cross, or dead in Mary’s arms. At least the artist of Saint Mark’s remembered that we Christians serve a Risen Savior. But that’s all I give that basilica. Otherwise, they made me so mad!

After my rude dismissal, I marched over to the water that would take me to Murano, the island of glass. All glassmakers were moved to this island in 1201 because of the many fires that had been caused by their workshops on the main island of Venice. Once I arrived, I watched a glass making demonstration, paid far too much for some necklaces out of the showroom and then went to the island of Burano.IMG_2690

Burano is known for it’s lace, brightly colored houses and for me, it’s rude café servers. After a rough morning, not being allowed into St. Mark’s and then walking around a bunch, I was pretty tired and wanted a coffee. I’d already eaten lunch on Murano, so I thought Burano deserved my coffee patronage. In the main plaza, I sat unobtrusively at a café, Trattoria Café Vecio, to be precise. It was cute place in a nice location looking over all of the brightly painted houses. The server approached me and asked if I was going to be ordering lunch. No, I replied, I’d just like some coffee.

We don’t serve coffee.

I craned me neck around the server to where I could see the wall decorated with paintings of coffee beans and signs, in English, saying “Coffee”.

That’s weird, I said, your signs seem to indicate otherwise.

Well, he replied, we don’t serve coffee right now. It’s lunchtime.

(It was 2:30pm)

If you want coffee you can come back at 4:00.

Are you kidding me right now?!? I didn’t say that. What I actually did was stand up, walk 5 feet away and look them up on TripAdvisor where I gave a scathing review. I mean, if there was a queue, people just dying to get Trattoria Café’s lunch, and I had taken the seat of some couple that would have paid the 20€ a plate prices, then fine. But the place was far from full!

Ok, I get it Venice. You get 27 million tourists a year. We probably annoy you a bit. But also, we are your paycheck. Not cool, Venice, not cool.

So Venice is pretty amazing. It’s mesmerizingly beautiful. The history is incredible. But be prepared for café’s that don’t serve coffee, unidentifiable seafood and backpack-discriminating churches.

One last interesting fact. The last part of my day was visiting the Jewish ghetto. The word “ghetto” actually comes from the Venetian dialect. It was the first ghetto and was created in 1516- so this year it is 500 years old. The Jewish population who still lives there is quite small, but I did find out that you can buy Murano glass a lot cheaper there than on the island of Murano!

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Bridge to the Ghetto

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Travel Journal: Why are there no toilet seats in Naples?

I must admit that I did not plan or research a lot before coming to Italy. Internet is expensive on the islands and I didn’t have the time, what with packing, saying goodbyes, endless ceremonies, etc. But I am not one of those people that can just show up in a city and blow around from here to there like tumbleweed. I am Type-A after all. So my planning consisted of choosing four cities: Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice, booking my hostels/hotels and buying train tickets.

Why those cities? Because I’d heard of them. Really, it’s as simple as that. I’ve heard of a lot of cities in Italy but those were the first ones that popped into my head. My aunt, who’d visited Italy last year, warned me off Naples the day I arrived in Rome. This was our Facebook conversation:

Me: I’m doing Italy alone. I fly into Rome, then I’ll travel to Naples, Florence and Venice. I fly from Venice to Paris.

Her: Okay well I would skip Naples if I were you. That’s the only place Rachel and I didn’t even feel safe together. Sorrento is gorgeous and safe and we would have stayed there instead if we had known.

Me: I’ve already got stuff booked in Naples and I’m really excited about seeing Pompeii. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Her: No worries but please please do be careful you definitely don’t want to be out at night alone I hope you meet some other Travelers on the way. We met a number of girls traveling alone but never there.

I put this conversation out of my mind while I was in Rome but on the hour-long train ride down to Naples I started researching on my phone. I ran across articles titled, “Why No One Wants to Travel to Naples” and “Naples: Italy’s Scariest City”. By the end of my train ride, I was quite convinced I would witness a murder before exiting the train station and I would definitely be mugged on my way to the hostel.

Stepping down from my safe train compartment, I held my luggage close and clutched my purse under my armpit. Every passerby was mafia with a nefarious gleam in his or her eye. Every child was a pickpocketer. I bustled through the train station as quickly as possible, considering what I had on my person to use as a weapon. Waiting for the metro, I ran through scenarios in my head. What would I do if someone came at me with knife? What if I was surrounded by a Vespa gang and they demanded my backpack? Thoughts swirled and fear raged.

I made it to my metro stop with no incidents. As I furtively glanced at my fellow passengers, they didn’t look particularly menacing. Not menacing, but I did notice a definite style change from the sophistication of black-clad Roman women. Entering the street from underground, I was assaulted with the sight of a large, hairy potbelly peaking out from a stained white shirt on a man standing in my path. Girls walked by with ripped jeans and badly dyed hair. Whatever else might be said, la mode of Napoli is far more grunge and laissez-faire than Rome.

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Typical Street in Naples

I immediately noticed the graffiti. It was everywhere. There was also a distinct smell- urine mixed with marijuana- that permeated the city streets. It actually reminded me a bit of New York City.

Google maps directed me the 0.2 miles to my hostel, aptly named Giovanni’s Home (as the hostel was housed in the apartment of a Neapolitan man named Giovanni). Naples is very hilly so my journey to the hostel took me down a hill, up a hill and down another. I arrived at the hostel sweating and sore. Despite the temperature gage that told me Naples was colder than Rome at 62 degrees (16.6 Celsius), it felt much hotter. Giovanni was waiting for me on the porch of his 3rd story apartment.

“Jessie!” he called down when I was still about 200 meters down the road, “Jessie! Up here!”

I was buzzed into the complex and helped to the third floor with my luggage. Giovanni bustled around showing me the bathrooms, kitchen, common area and the bedroom I would share with seven other girls. I, thank goodness, was given a bottom bunk. He told me to rest; he was waiting on some more arrivals at which point he would give us all a presentation about Naples.

Half an hour later, I sat across from Giovanni, wedged in between three Spanish girls and a British couple. Giovanni laid a map before us and began highlighting all of the things we must see, the streets we must walk and the places we must avoid. For particularly notable attractions, he pulled up pictures on his computer.

Well aware of the reputation his city has, he took some of the presentation time to give us crime statistics. Barcelona is the number one city in the world for pickpocketing. Paris, Rome, and Florence are in the top ten. Naples doesn’t have such a distinction. Giovanni advised walking around with a backpack instead of a small purse. Backpacks are hard to snatch and small purses are tempting because they will have all the essentials- phone and cash.

As I’d arrived at lunchtime, Giovanni recommended a pizza place in the area- the best in Naples. And since Naples makes the best pizza in the world, the best in the world? I set off almost immediately when he was finished, promptly got lost and ended up at the pizza place at the same time as the Spanish girls who had left after me.

I won’t go into a detailed description of everything I saw and did in Naples. Suffice to say, I believe it has an undeserved bad reputation. Aside from my terrifying walk to my hostel, hounded by the voices of cautious tourists, I felt completely safe and had a marvelous time taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the third largest city in Italy.

There are some things that do deserve special mention. The very first thing I visited was the Cappella Sansevero, a small chapel that was built in 1590. It houses some of the most beautiful sculptures I have ever seen. The most famous (for good reason) is the Veiled Christ, completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Sculpted from marble, it appears that Christ is wearing a shroud but his facial expression and form can clearly be seen underneath. Wow.

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No pictures allowed in the chapel. This comes from http://www.museosansevero.it

I can’t count the number of churches that I entered. The Duomo of Napoli houses the crypt of the city’s principle patron saint, Januarius or San Gennaro. On the stage of this grand cathedral there was a dead guy on display in a glass case. Having eight years of Catholic education, I had heard of this practice but this was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. His name was Beato Nunzio Sulprizo and he died in 1836 at age 19. He has been venerated as “Blessed” by the Catholic Church since 1963. I starred at him for a while trying to understand the purpose of having him on display. I think my deeply embedded Protestantism hampered my efforts. In addition to this mummified dude, there were offering plates placed around the church “For the worship of San Gennaro”. That’s what the plates said. And the age old debate continues; since when do Christians consider it appropriate to worship dead people? That topic is a post for another time—but it truly did disturb my sensibilities.IMG_2391

That first day I walked over 12 miles. The second day I booked an all-day tour of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Giovanni was not at all happy when he discovered I’d been tricked into booking a tour! “Oh sh*t!” he bemoaned, “You could have done so much more and for cheaper if you just went on your own. Why would you do that? Why??” I smiled and sympathized. “Darn you, tourist traps!” And I shook my fist in the air (not really). But in actuality, I was not disappointed in myself for booking a tour. I was picked up in a bus, driven around with commentary on the buildings being passed, given an expert guide of Pompeii providing information that could not have been obtained with a simple audioguide, given lunch and driven up Mount Vesuvius to where the walking path begins. I have to get myself from one place to another across Europe. When I’m in a city, sometimes I don’t want to have to figure everything out myself. I felt no guilt despite Giovanni’s best effort.

Not everyone at the hostel was so lucky. I met a young Australian girl that night when I returned from my amazing day in Pompeii. Upon walking in the door, Giovanni asked if I ate everything. Without allowing me to answer he informed me that he was going to show me how to make carbonara.

“Oh sounds good. When?”

“Now! Now. Come.”

Putting my backpack on my bed and plugging in my phone took too long. “Jessie!!! Come,” rang through the hostel. Two other girls waited to be instructed and we struck up a conversation about our days. Rose, the Australian, had also been on a couple tours during her time in Naples. She had the same reasoning I had but expressed dismay at Giovanni’s disapproval. In fact, the day before, he’d given her such a haranguing that her eyes had prickled with unshed tears. As we enjoyed a small glass of wine that evening in the Piazza Bellini, I told her not to worry about it. The clientele of said hostel seems to be overwhelmingly young- mostly college students. Most of them are probably more than happy to take any advice given by this grandfatherly figure and he is most willing (is there a stronger word than willing?) to give it. He wanted to know everything I was doing and he always had something to say about it.

“What are you doing today?”

“Going to the island of Procida.”

“Take the ferry, not the small metro boat. It’s too windy.”

(I took the small boat and it was fine).

Later…

“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”

“6:30”

“That is too early! You leave at 7:00. Take a taxi.”

“Umm…no. I think I’m still going to leave at 6:30 and take the metro.”

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The island of Procida.

The look of disapproval was evident but I just smiled. Most conversations were some variation of this. I understood Rose’s discomfort, but for me, there was something endearing about his bossiness. I also give him the credit for singlehandedly turning my fear of Naples into love. I don’t quite agree with the Neapolitan saying, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!–“See Naples and die” but it’s definitely worth the seeing.

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Toledo Station in Naples. Ranked the #1 most beautiful metro station in the world.

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One of the many churches I visited

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Travel Journal: Blisters and Fashion Faux Pas

Rome- the Eternal City. I was fairly nervous arriving in Rome. Like I pointed out in my last post, I have very limited experience traveling Europe. And the experience I do have comes from 14 years ago. I know how to travel in Africa, where you use filtered water to brush your teeth and take bus taxis that break down several times during one’s trip. Europe is different.

I arrived in jeans, a three quarter-sleeved shirt and a thin sweater. I was also wearing some new Nike sneakers I’d been given a couple days before. They are the minimalist sneakers, intended to be worn without socks. Unfortunately, as I was just breaking these shoes in, they’d given me a massive blister on my right Achilles heel. It had already popped and the shoe continued to rub it until it bled. I was limping on my way out of the airport. I knew I needed some new shoes ASAP. Aside from these sneakers, I had two pair of flip-flops. And it was 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13.8 Celsius). Flip flops were not going to cut it.

I arrived at my hostel, Orsa Maggiore (the Great Bear). It is close to Vatican City and is housed in a former convent. The hostel is for women only. I was placed in a room with

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Entrance to the hostel

three beds. After a quick lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, I passed out. I was cold, tired and sore. I slept most of the afternoon until my Indian roommate returned from her day in the city. We hit it off and decided to visit the Pantheon and have dinner together.

We made it to the Piazza Navona where we stopped for a coffee. Both of us had read that it annoyed Italians immensely when foreigners drink coffee in the evening without eating a meal first, so we relished the chance to display our irritating foreignness. From there we leisurely walked to the Pantheon,

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Entrance to the Pantheon

one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings (126AD). It has been in continuous use since it’s completion, which accounts for its preservation. We arrived about 10 minutes after it closed its doors but we were able to admire the exterior. It is really quite impressive.

I continued to limp along the rest of the night, looking for an open shoe store or a pharmacy, neither of which I found.

The following morning I had a Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica tour scheduled. The thought of putting my sneakers back on sent shivers down my spine. I would not be able to make the two-kilometer walk to the Vatican. So I put on the only other shoes I had…flip-flops. Also it’s the Vatican, right? And the Pope was supposed to be doing his popely duties in St. Peter’s Square. I wanted to look respectful and not like a complete scrub. I put on an African wrap skirt, a solid black shirt and a thin gray sweater with a black shawl that I wore as a scarf. Remember, it is cold.IMG_2261

I left a couple hours early in the hopes of finding some presentable shoes on the way. No luck. I walked all through the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica looking like a  moron. Scarf, sweater, arms wrapped around myself to ward off the chill and…flip-flops.

The tour was wonderful and the things I saw were beautiful. You can read more about them on TripAdvisor. But this post is not about that; it’s about me and my feet. After the tour, I typed “shoe store” into Google and followed the dotted blue line on my phone to a shop that was closed for lunch. I waited next door at the McDonalds where I was very excited to indulge in a frappe. But they didn’t have any. They had an entire café full of Italian mini-coffees but no frappes. I got one of their tiny little coffees of which they are so proud.

An hour or so later I walked to the shoe store. There is a large display of shoes behind a Plexiglas window but once I walked into the store there were about five styles of shoes. I stood there looking at these shoes, three attendants looked at me. No one approached me. The room was quite small. The four of us filled it snuggly yet no one offered to help me. I looked at the lady and pointed outside, miming that I wanted to try a shoe that was in the display case. I pointed to a pair of black, leather woven flats. They looked practical, comfortable and cute. I told her my European size, tried them on and bought them. Outside there was a street sock vendor so I stocked up on socks for these new shoes and my sneakers. I was ready for a night on the town.

Fortunately, I also passed a pharmacy on the way home and found bandages just for foot blisters. They had all kinds for every place one could possibly have a blister. I found the band-aids specifically for the Achilles heel. All the instructions were in Italian so I depended completely on the picture. At the counter, the cashier rang up the bandages. Eleven euros! What??? There were six bandages total in the package. Six. For eleven euros. They better have magical healing powers. But I kept a very composed exterior as I handed over the proper amount of cash. Ladida…I buy 11 euro band-aids all the time.

That night I washed my blister and stuck on the bandage. I put on my little stockings and my flats. I’d decided to visit a restaurant that was 0.2 miles from my hostel. It was highly rated on TripAdvisor. By the time I’d reached the road from my hostel, I knew I’d made a mistake. The shoes were rubbing right underneath where I had placed the band-aid and the stockings I’d purchased were making the shoes slip right off my feet so I kind of had to drag them along the ground with a weird limp to ease the rubbing. Once again, I looked like a complete crazy person, shuffling down the street with a strange limp-hobble.

My dining experience was interesting. The restaurant was small and diners were placed very close to one another, with only a tiny space (not enough to squeeze through) between tables. I was sat next to two American couples, probably all in their 60’s. One of the ladies fancied herself an Italian speaker. I feigned disinterest, while I fiddled on my phone but I couldn’t help but overhear as she translated the menu for her friends.

“Oh, spiedini, that’s a type of pasta. See, it’s listed under the ‘second plates’”. I had a suspicion she was incorrect because I’d noticed that the primero plato was always a type of pasta and the segundo plato was meat. I looked it up on Google. Spiedini means “skewers”. The menu item was skewers of fish but she translated it as fish pasta.

The server approached and she ordered for everyone by saying, “Me gusta…” and finished with “gracias”. The server rattled off some things in Italian and when she left the lady said, “You say a couple words in Italian and these people think you’re fluent.” Oh…my. In case you, my reader, are confused, this woman was speaking Spanish, not Italian. And I am quite sure the server was under no impression that she was a fluent Italian speaker. She was probably just making fun of her. Oh, my country people. There is a reason we have the reputation we do.

The next day I had determined to visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum. According to Google maps it was an hour walk away. In the morning I put on a new band-aid (since the previous one had been ruined by my new shoes) and socks. I chose to wear my elephant Ali Baba pants that I’d bought in Tanzania. I pulled the elastic legs down to my sneakers covering my legs from the chill. They were really comfortable, but once again, I stood out. Roman women, at least in the cold, were bedecked in black and jean. Asian tourists wore the only bright colors I’d seen in two days. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out, but what could I do?

I walked to the Roman Forum, arriving early enough that I had it almost completely to myself for at least the first half hour. I downloaded an App that would tell me about everything I was seeing. After two hours in the Forum and Palatine Hill, I walked right next door to the Colosseum. I was not lucky here- it was packed with people. And soon after I exited, it began to rain. My feet and back were killing me. But I knew there was a shopping district in Rome and I was in desperate need of some warmer clothes and closed-toed shoes I could actually walk in.

Once again Google saved the day and I came across the Via del Corso where I was able to buy jeggings. That’s right. Jean leggings. Judge if you must, but I love them. The next dressing room I visited, I took the opportunity to change into my jeggings so I looked like a halfway normal person. From there I found a faux leather jacket. All Roman women, and men for that matter, were sporting leather jackets. But I could hardly afford the 200€ real lamb leather jacket, even though it’s an excellent price for the quality. But my faux leather looks awesome and cost only 30€.

From there I thought I’d get some authentic tall, Italian-made leather boots. I went into a little boutique and asked to see some boots. They were beautiful and soft. And they only went up to my ankle. That’s right, I could not pull the boot past my ankle. Apparently I have colossal calves. Guys, really, I’m not fat. I’m pretty normal. But I guess I have giant calves! Next time you see me, don’t look. Just forget I told you this.

The store clerk told me that I should walk in heels for three hours every day like Italian women and then I might develop the toned, slim calves necessary to fit into these Italian boots. Well, that’s snobby. You try walking around in heels on Clove Island. Oh wait, island women do it all the time…whatever. I refuse! I decided to try a different store. No. Every…single…store. It was so embarrassing. I have tall boots in the States! They fit! I had to settle for ankle boots from Bata, a Swiss company. Bleh.IMG_2352

From there I walked home. I walked twelve miles that day. And I am such an old person. Every bit of my body hurt. My feet are swollen and red. My toenails are black from bruises. I have at least five blisters, but only two of them are painful. My back hurts. And since I’ve been in Naples, I also bought an ankle brace because my left ankle feels like it is going to crack in half. I am falling apart. Seriously, though.

But Rome was awesome!

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Travel Journal: Arrival in Europe

I’ve left the islands. And I’ve embarked on a new adventure. For the next month I will be traveling through Europe- Italy, France and Spain. When I was 16, I spent 7 weeks in France. I was in St. Brieuc, Brittany. I spent two days in Paris on my way home. And that’s all I’d done in Europe…until now.

I haven’t really had the opportunity or desire in the past. Europe, especially the places I’ve chosen, is so overdone. Who doesn’t know someone who throws out, “Oh well when I was in [fill in any large European city]…”? I prefer to sound pretentious in a less predictable way. “Was that so scary when you thought that guy on the bus was starring at you? That reminds me of that time in Kenya when my shoes were stolen and I had to outrun a bull elephant barefoot through molten lava.” Yeah…

However, it was actually cheaper to fly home from Africa with a ticket to Rome and then another from Barcelona home than it was to fly directly home from Africa. I gave in.

The trip started a little rough. I flew Ethiopian Airlines (which before you say anything, is a very reputable company and I’ve actually flown them on multiple occasions without incident). I had two large bags weighing 30 kilograms each (approx. 66lbs or 132lbs total). It was a tad over their weight limit and they charged me a pretty sum. The baggage handler whispered in my ear that they would reduce the price $20 if I didn’t insist on a receipt. I insisted.

I arrived in Addis Ababa on time and took a seat in one of their reclining chairs to wait out my 4-hour layover. In my lifetime I have spent about 48 hours in the Addis airport. In 2009, I spent two nights there. I have a love/hate relationship with it, without the love. It’s cold. There are no good restaurants. And the gates are behind Plexiglas walls that one must go through security to get to. Once at the gate, there is no exiting and there are no shops and not even a vending machine for water. There are bathrooms, thank God, but forget about getting water from the faucet unless you want to spend the remainder of your vacation as a parasite incubator.

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The Addis Airport

After several hours, I made my way to the gate. My flight was just making a pit stop in Rome and continuing on to Stockholm. I followed the inordinate number of blond heads to the correct gate and sat. Almost immediately, the departure sign flashed saying the flight was delayed for an hour. It would be leaving at 1am.

It was already 11:30 and I was pretty tired so I fell asleep leaning on my suitcase. I jerked awake, drool running down my chin and one arm completely asleep. It was 2am. I was still surrounded my blond heads speaking strange languages. And the departure sign still said the flight was leaving at 1am. I sat in a stupor, not understanding. I was thirsty. They’d made me dump out my water when I went through security. For 45 minutes I simply sat there, wrapped in my sweater and African shawl, trying unsuccessfully to fend off the cold that had already seeped into my bones. How quickly the body forgets the horrors of heat when faced with the frigid reality of the rest of the world.

2:45am. Airline employees wheel in carts of water and muffins. There is a mad rush to the front. People stagger away loaded down with water bottles, muffins stuffed into pockets. I barely made it before the water was finished.

3:00am. An Amharic announcement blares from the speakers and people rush toward the door. People are such sheep. I know those blondies do not understand Amharic! How do they know what that announcement said? Turns out it was for us, but that is totally beside the point! The line wound it’s way through the airport, down a ramp, down some stairs and finally to a shuttle. The shuttle drove us across the airfield to a rather large plane. I was in the last row, row 37. And I was the only one in my row. I had not chosen my seat, Ethiopian Airlines had. People always choose to sit in the front. I once heard that you are more likely to survive a plane crash if you’re in the back of the plane, so it is a little ironic that the front is our natural tendency. I walked through the front and it was packed. Every seat in every row was filled for the first 20 rows. I had my entire row to stretch out and sleep for the six-hour flight. Hahaha, suckers! I mean…no, that is what I mean. Hahahahaha.

We arrived in Rome 4 hours late, which was completely fine with me. I had no one waiting for me and check-in at my hostel wasn’t until 10am. With the original itinerary I was supposed to arrive at 5:30am and do something with about 160lbs of luggage (including my two carry-ons…yes, two. I am sneaky like that.) Instead I arrived at 9:30ish. Passport control was a breeze. Then came baggage claim. I found the carousel quickly enough. There were just a few bags circling around and people began arriving to claim them. Then there was only one maroon bag, circling again and again and again. Yet, people from my flight surrounded the carousel. We waited. And waited some more. Then a flight from Amsterdam arriving 45 minutes after ours was put on the board. I walked to baggage lost and found and gave the brightly-lipsticked woman my luggage tags. She told me I just needed to wait.

More people from my flight drifted over to lost and found, receiving the same answer. More people arrived surrounding the carousel…the people from Amsterdam. And then their luggage arrived…

I began to worry a bit. I’d arranged to have my luggage shipped from Rome that day. The pick-up was at 2pm at my hostel. Would they reschedule if my bags didn’t show up. Would I lose all the money I’d spent to ship and have to cart around 3 years of my life on the trains and buses and planes of Europe??!?! But as worry always is, it was in vain. Shortly after the Amsterdam luggage arrived, my flight’s bags began to show up. Mine came too, an hour after we had landed.

As I wheeled my luggage cart out of baggage claim, I cast one last disparaging glance at the SIM card shop inside the baggage area. As we waited, I and several other passengers wandered over to this little stand. This SIM card, called something like “Xpress”, was offering 1G of data and 500 minutes calling for one week costing 175€. I thought that was a little crazy since I could get 1G and 100 minutes in Tanzania for $0.69. It turns out I was correct, it was crazy. Leaving the confines of baggage claim I found TIM (Telecom Italia) and got a special tourist package of 4G, 100 international and domestic minutes for 35€. Good thing I’m awesome.

That was my arrival. Tomorrow I hope to tell you about Roma (isn’t it sooo obnoxious when people use the local name for the city!)…a story of blisters and fashion faux pas.

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Five Things I Will NOT Miss

As I get ready to leave Clove Island with no prospect of return in the foreseeable future, I feel I am at risk of over-sentimentalizing my positive feelings. In an effort to make leaving a little easier, I am going to share the top five things I will NOT miss.

 

  1. Inappropriate Stranger Questions

Yesterday I was in a taxi with a friend. She has a tattoo on her arm with her husband’s name with a Scripture verse from Song of Solomon. Taxis here are shared so shortly into our journey a middle-aged, not-so-small man joined us in the back seat. I was squeezed in the middle of said sweaty man and my friend. The man in the front seat had heard us speaking English and was asking me, awkwardly, to give him an audio CD with English dialogues because he wants to practice. Apparently, my willingness to respond to front seat man gave back seat man courage to poke me in the shoulder and demand that I translate my friend’s tattoo for him. I said it was about her husband. “Ah,” he responded, “And do you have a husband?…No?” I gave him my most exasperated look and told him that it wasn’t really any of his business.

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My exasperated face

But that’s not quite true. For island culture, asking if a woman is married is on par with asking, “What do you do?” in the States. It’s just a normal part of stranger small talk. I will NOT miss these types of conversations.

 

  1. The Heat

workoutI’ve written about the heat before so I won’t go into it too much. But it gets really hot here. Really, really hot…and humid. My body has adjusted a lot and as the years have passed I have acquired tools to help me in my effort to keep my body from shriveling into a tiny raisin, like two mini-fans, one battery-powered and the other USB that I place directly in front of my face and the small of my back to keep me cool when there is no electricity…

 

  1. No Electricity

The power situation here is ever evolving. I do not pretend to know the what or why. When we first arrived in 2013, we had great electricity. Then in February 2014 rumor has it that the director of the power company stole all the money and skipped town. We would go days and days with no electricity. All the food in our fridge went bad. We couldn’t sleep (with no fan- because there was no power- and it was hot season). We couldn’t even cool ourselves with a cold Coke because there was no power anywhere to keep a drink cold! Since then we’ve had ups and downs. Generally we get some electricity during the days. In recent months, we’ve had more. Sometimes it lasts all day and only goes out at night…makes sense, right? Who needs the lights at night?!?!

 

  1. Celebrity Status

I’m pretty famous. People know me. I get hellos and how are you’s all over town. I’ve never played in a rock band or acted in a movie. Nope. I’m white. That’s all. Many of those “hellos” and “how are you’s” are accompanied by the word “mzungu” which basically means “white person”. So imagine, you’re walking down the street and someone walks by and casually says, “Hello, white person”. It’s weird and I don’t like it! Occasionally, I have the patience to stop and explain to my greeter that my name is not “mzungu” and I do not appreciate being labeled as such. This inevitably leads to the question, “Well, what is your name” and “Are you married?” I’ve been burned by this approach a few too many times. Now I reserve it for educating children.

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Me: Incognito

Then I tried, “Would you like it if I said ‘hello black person’?” In every case, the “mzungu” offender responded with an affirmative. That would be fine.
So mostly I just ignore it. If a stranger yells, “Hey mzungu” from across the street, I walk by pretending I cannot hear them.
There’s another downside to being famous and conspicuous. Photographs. Seriously, it’s like the island is my paparazzi. Last weekend I traveled a historical site for a picnic. There were groups of high schoolers visiting, all with their smart phones and even video cameras to capture the dilapidated ruin they were visiting. Fortunately for them they were able to capture something much more interesting. Me. The braver kids would come up and stand next to me to take a picture (without asking, of course) and the shyer ones took pictures from a distance. I felt like a zoo animal.

 

  1. Trash

IMG_0214There is no sanitation department on this island, nowhere set aside for trash disposal, no recycling, nothing. We’re on an island so where does everything go? To the ocean! It’s actually quite heartbreaking. The beaches are covered in trash. Go to the remotest part of the island and you will still find discarded flip-flops and shredded rice bags. The rivers, which run less every year, are clogged with trash.
Every week a fire is set on the beach in the capital to attempt to burn some of the waste. It fills the air with a putrid smoke, making it impossible to breath anywhere near the place.
The environmental degradation of this island is epic. Trees are being cut down en masse, which leads to soil erosion and diminishing rainfall. When the rain comes, it washes the soil into the ocean. The dirt and sediment spread out a mile into the sea, killing the fragile coral and the baby fish that seek refuge there. Fishermen have to go farther and farther to sea to catch anything. The trash floats around the surface of the ocean and snags in the dead coral.
My heart aches for this place because there is no easy answer. There’s no “if only they’d change this” then it would all get better. There are so many factors that add up to create this dismal situation- historical, societal, political and religious. The writing is on the wall. Clove Island is an Easter Island in the making, unless drastic changes are enacted soon.
I will not miss seeing the waste, hearing the fishermen’s woes and the farmers’ warnings, watching a civilization creep toward disaster.

It would be easy to despair. But I do still have hope for this island. There are marvelous people here. Yes, they ask strangers awkward questions (from my cultural point of view) and yes, they treat white people like celebrities and yes, there are serious corruption issues (that aren’t as well hidden as they are in the States) but I have met some of the most kind, welcoming, real people here. They work in small ways toward sustainable change, one person at a time. My friends, I will miss.

 

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Survival Guide to Middle-of-NoWhere Workouts

The end is quickly approaching. And as at the end of most things, those who lived through said things wish to impart their learning on those who may come next. With just 32 days left before I board a plane with a one-way ticket to mainland Africa, I have the desire to share my some of my copious wisdom of island living with the broader world, aka you, my reader.

Should you ever find yourself on an island with no gym, no Pilates/yoga/barre classes, no Dick’s Sporting Goods or Walmart or Target and yet you would still like to maintain your workout regime, never fear!

A couple posts ago I wrote that I had been doing workouts with the Nike Training Club App. Unfortunately for me, most of the workouts require dumbbells, a medicine ball, a step, a stability ball or all of the above. It has taken several months of cajoling island friends (really just one friend) to do some projects, but I am happy to say that with one month left I now have all the items I need to complete a Nike Training Club workout with style. Here’s what you’ll need.

10-20 lb dumbbells

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How to make 10-20lb dumbbells:

  1. Eat through four cans of oatmeal. (Small powdered milk cans will also suffice).
  2. Fill cans with concrete.
  3. Before concrete dries, connect two cans with a piece of rebar. Repeat for other two cans using a similar-sized piece of rebar.
  4. Let dry.
  5. Voilà. Dumbbells.

These are essential in almost all of the workouts. From sumo squats with arm press to the above pictured single leg deadlift with dumbbell row, you will need these!

2-4lb dumbbells

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How to make 2-4lb dumbbells:

  1. Drink two 0.5 liter bottles of water.
  2. Fill empty water bottles with concrete.
  3. Let dry.
  4. Use.

While none of the workouts actually call for dumbbells this light, but when I first began the workouts there was no way I was lifting 10-20lbs repeatedly. Even today after 5 months of pretty constant workouts, some of the front raises and plank raises still get me. For those cases, I have my light weights.

Medicine Ball

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How to make a medicine ball:

  1. Go to the rocky beach outside your front door.
  2. Find a relatively round/oblong rock.
  3. Weight can vary based on strength. Get a bigger rock when you get stronger.

I have used this approximately 20lb rock for toe touches, full extensions (pictured above), suitcases, Russian twists, push up with feet on medicine ball, etc. I am always slightly apprehensive that my sweaty hands will lose their grip when the “ball” is directly over my head and my housemate will discover me in a pool of my own blood with a cracked skull hours later. If this is my last post…that is probably what happened. HOWEVER, it’s a porous volcanic rock and not a smooth ball, so the grip is actually quite good.

Step

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How to make a step:

  1. Find a carpenter.
  2. Tell him you want a bench for washing clothes.

While not in every workout, the step does come in very handy giving more cardio and exercising the calves and even triceps, when doing dips with legs straight.

Stability Ball

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How to make a stability ball:

  1. Find an old, rusty barrel.
  2. Turn it on it’s side (pictured above).

I admit, this was the most difficult. This old barrel has stood in the corner of my roof since we moved in. It was always covered in spider webs and placed behind building materials. It took me months to see it’s potential.

I tried other things, like a plastic chair, the wall, and settled doing crunches to attempt the same muscle exercises. Then I arrived back on the island after a two-month hiatus and BAM! it hit me like a rock medicine ball. Use the old, rusty barrel! Technically, I suppose, the barrel doesn’t have to be rusty. But the stain it leaves on my skin after a hard workout makes me feel more accomplished.

Conclusion

There you have it. Now you too can keep up with your workouts no matter where in the world you find yourself (as long as that place has cans, rebar, concrete, water bottles, rocks, carpenters and old, rusty barrels). You are welcome.

Categories: Clove Island | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Discovering Diving

It began in 1978. My mom became a certified diver. Growing up I heard her mention her underwater adventures quite often. Some aspects were appealing; others- like swimming with alligators in Florida- not so much.

Throughout my 20’s I often thought about diving. But I was fairly poor most of the time and diving is not an inexpensive hobby. When I got a real job I was nowhere near the ocean and didn’t want to spend my vacation time “working”, which is what I thought getting certified would involve.

In the summer of 2014 I traveled to Mombasa, Kenya. It was there that I learned of something called a “Discover Dive” where one could go scuba diving with a dive master by their side, even if they had never dived before. My friend Kelly (who is up for just about anything) and I decided to give it a shot.

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All suited up for my very first dive

It is hard to describe my first experience breathing underwater. It was AMAZING! The feeling of weightlessness and just…peace; it is like nothing one can experience above water. An entirely new world was at my fingertips. Now, of course, I’ve snorkeled all over the world and seen beautiful reefs in the Bahamas, Mauritius and Mayotte. I’ve snorkeled with manta rays and sea turtles. But snorkeling is very limited. I cannot hold my breath very long so I’m usually stuck at the surface marveling at the beauty of this world from an outsiders perspective. Diving makes one a part of this world as much as humanly possible. I surfaced from that first dive convinced that diving was made for me and I for it.

On my plane ride back to the islands with Kenya Airways after that vacation I read their sky magazine. It mentioned diving with whale sharks in Mozambique year-round. And so a new line was added to my bucket list. Since I was going to be off the islands for my 30th birthday with some vacation time on mainland Africa, what better time to check off this new item. And why not add getting certified as an Open Water Diver to the list?

After some research I discovered Tofo Beach in south Mozambique- a veritable diver’s paradise- a town with multiple dive shops…and that’s about it. The Marine Megafauna Foundation is based in Tofo because giant manta rays, reef manta rays and whale sharks can be found in the waters of Tofo year round.

After weeks and weeks of research and planning I decided to dive with Liquid Dive Adventures, run by a Finnish couple, Jari and Satu. They arranged my lodging, giving me different options for various budgets, and setting up all kinds of activities. I had 12 days but I thought I’d only do the four dives for certification and a couple fun dives, so I needed to fill up the rest of the days with kayaking and surfing (I don’t really “hang out” on vacation- I do stuff). I convinced my Peace Corps friend, Sarah, to meet me there and thus the adventure began.

We arrived on a Friday. And immediately my stomach started to hurt. Well, not really my stomach but it wasn’t my intestines either. It kind of felt like cramps but different. I didn’t worry about it, figuring it would pass quickly and I would be all ready for diving the next day. The whole afternoon and into the evening it got more and more painful. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and try to fall asleep but I had a friend I hadn’t seen in months so I tried really hard to be social. We went to live music at the Tofo Do Mar hotel and stayed as long as our ears could handle the bad speakers. The next morning I woke up around 5:15am; the pain was even worse and I now had a fever. I’d known there was a possibility I could contract malaria again from my time in Tanzania since it’s epidemic and the inside of my mosquito net was party haven for the little monsters. After some medical research, I learned that the abdominal discomfort was most likely my liver swelling from a malarial infection. Upon learning this, I made a (slow) beeline for the nearest doctor, located at one of the dive shops. Malaria was NOT going to ruin my vacation. I hobbled to Liquid, holding my side and breathing heavily, followed the entire time by a small beach boy peddling bracelets, to inform them that I could not start my course today. I had malaria. Bleh.

Fortunately, I was prepared. I brought the medicine from Tanzania and I began taking it that morning. It is incredibly quick acting and by Sunday morning I was well enough for the first part of my certification- three hours of watching videos about diving. I’d already read the Open Water manual online and taken the quizzes. The videos were mostly a recap of the reading, I guess to reinforce the written material for those auditory and visual learners. It. Was. Boring.

Due to my weakened condition we held off on the pool dive until the next day when I was feeling more like myself. My instructor, Jari, explained all of the gear outside the pool and then had me put everything together. We combined the three pool sessions into one. Jari had me fill my mask with water and then get rid of it. He had me remove my mask and put it back on. He turned off my air so I would know what it felt like. We practiced sharing air and emergency assents. He had me practice hovering. He floated mid water with his ankles crossed like a zen master while I inevitably sank tank first to the bottom. No matter.

The next day was my first open water dive. Sarah accompanied us to be the official photographer (she’s a good friend). All the dive shops use RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) that are launched from the beach with a lot of tugging and pulling and being knocked over by waves. Passengers then sit on the inflated sides as the boat bounds over the waves.

The first dive was about a two-minute boat ride to Clown Fish Reef. After getting all geared up with some help, we did the BWRAF check, which the manual says to remember as “Begin with Review and Friend” but I was taught “Best Women Really Are Finnish”, so there’s that. It means you inflate, deflate and manually inflate your BCD (Buoyancy Control Device- the vest that divers wear), check weights (most divers wear weight belts to help them sink), check releases (of the BCD), air check (can you breathe out of the regulator and alternate regulator?) and final check (mask on, buddy check, etc.). Very quickly after going through this checklist the boat driver counts “1,2,3 go” and everyone just drops backward off the boat. On the first couple dives I popped right back up, inflating my BCD and then ever so slowly descended, trying to make sure my ear drums did not explode and that my mask didn’t cut a ravine through my forehead.

The Open Water Certificate requires four open water dives going up to 18 meters deep. You practice the skills learned in the pool and in an area like Tofo you have the added benefit of seeing some really beautiful sea creatures. I don’t mean to brag but I took to diving like a fish to water. Jari was an incredibly encouraging instructor. Every time I did something correctly he would clap for me. As I crave positive reinforcement, I paid very close attention to everything I did so as not to disappoint him and in turn get more claps. It’s hard to smile with a regulator in your mouth but I definitely tried every time I got applauded.IMG_1389

After a dive, I feel very strange. For the rest of the day and into the night I sometimes get the feeling that I am still under water, being rocked back and forth by the surge. In the beginning my nose ran constantly as the salt water cleaned out my sinuses. Sometimes my ears would fill with water and I couldn’t hear very well. Another side effect is loss of appetite. I have looked and looked through blogs and medical diving websites, I’ve talked to the divers at Liquid and the recreational divers at my guesthouse. I seem to be alone in this. Most people report being famished after dives. I have to force myself to eat. I’m not full and when I eat, I feel fine; I just have no desire to eat. Quite strange.

As I progressed through the Open Water, Jari suggested that instead of doing to the “fun dives” I had planned after my certificate, I should go for the advanced certificate since that would allow me to go 30m, which is obviously way better than a measly 18m. Umm….yes please.

One week in, I began my advanced training. The first dive of the advanced course took me out into open ocean about 16 kilometers. There were seven Finnish men (no one under age 50) and three staff members including Jari, who would be following me around and making sure I didn’t kill myself.IMG_1378

We did a negative entry, meaning once you drop into the water you don’t come back up. Once you’re under, you’re under. Then it’s down, down and more down. The visibility was incredible! That far from shore and that deep, there was no surge. There was also no current. It was simply clear, blue water as far as the eye could see. We saw some huge moray eels and a stingray that was larger than me. When I surfaced from this dive, I literally could not stop smiling. We had an hour trip back to shore, where I was continually hit by giant waves, right in the face over and over again, but I did not care! It was a feeling of complete euphoria. I think those Finnish men probably thought I was a complete idiot with this gigantic smile on my face the entire miserable boat ride home.

For the advanced course, you must do five “adventure” dives, focusing on a different skill in each. That first dive was my “deep dive”. Later that day I did a “drift dive” that involved drifting along in a current, letting Mother Nature do all the work while I enjoyed the surroundings. I also did a navigation dive, using a compass underwater. I had to

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Navigation Dive

navigate a square, which I accomplished flawlessly. Then I was supposed to locate another reef about a 15-minute swim from the one at which we had been dropped. It probably moved, maybe washed out further to sea with the strong waves, because I certainly didn’t find it! Instead I navigated Jari and two rescue diver trainees to a great patch of sand where we swam around for an hour…

My last two dives were “Computer Diving” and “Fish Identification”. I studied my fish families the night before and had a jolly good time taking pictures and trying to figure out what I was seeing. Those last two dives also brought along a Giant Manta Ray, getting itself cleaned over the reef and three white-tipped reef sharks. Sharks and tornadoes (as I’ve written in previous posts) are my two very greatest fears. It is a testament to Jari’s amazing instructional ability and calming effect that I did not pull out my regulator (something a panicking diver tends to do) and try to swim straight up 30 meters. Instead I chased after it trying and failing to get a good picture.

My last two dives were yesterday. I am now an Advanced Open Water Diver. But it’s not enough. Despite my desperate hopes, I never saw a whale shark. That’s still an item on the bucket list that needs to be checked off. So I’ll have to come back.

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Officially a diver!

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bring the Little Children…

It’s 5:35am and my alarm goes off. Every morning for the past 10 days it’s been the same (well, except for the two days I got to sleep in because I had malaria and was up sick all night). I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, wash my face and throw on some jeans and a tank top. Making sure there are no scorpions in my flip-flops, I slip them on and grab my backpack. I shuffle outside yawning; the sun still hasn’t peaked over the rocky mountains in the distance. Andrea is already waiting in the Land Cruiser. I open the iron gate and she backs the car out.

Andrea has lived in Dodoma, Tanzania for the past eight years. Originally from Germany, she is the coordinator of the Safina Street Network here, a non-profit that ministers to street kids.

She backs the car up to the house across from the duplex we share. Children pour out of the house, little boys dressed in khaki shorts and blue sweaters with a white collared shirt peeking out from underneath. Little girls wearing blue skirts and green sweaters carry straw brooms under their arms. These are the foster kids who live on the compound in two different homes. Some are orphans and others have parents that cannot care for them for different reasons.

The side doors open and the process to fill the car begins. Twenty-four children squeeze into two rows of seats. One of the 5-year-olds, Benji, is the lucky one to sit on my lap in the front seat this morning. I practice my Swahili with him as he climbs in and I buckle the seat belt over us both. “Did you already eat?” “Ndiyo- yes”. “Was it good?” “Ndiyo”. The local language on Clove Island is a Bantu language like Swahili so I’ve been able to pick quite a lot in my two weeks in Tanzania.IMG_0995

Once all the kids, and Imma, a German short-termer, have piled in we head out along a bumpy dirt road that has been worn away by the occasional desert downpour. We jounce along for about 10 minutes before we get to a smoother road and turn off the main road to drop a few kids at school. They’re the first at the school to arrive at around 6:10am. We travel around town to four different schools dropping kids off along the way.

We arrive at the Safina Office around 6:45am. A gate brightly painted “Safina” which means “ark” lets us know we are in the right place. Seven older boys live at the office and the oldest has already begun to boil water over charcoal.

Boys still living on the street begin to arrive at the office. Every morning around 15-20 boys come for tea, bread and devotions led by one of the older former street boys. These boys, for various reasons, have chosen to stay on the street. Safina works to reunite street kids with their families and get them back in school. If a child is willing to learn, Safina will do whatever it can to make that happen.

Each of these boys has a story. Perhaps their mother lives on the street as well, or they were abused at home and don’t want to return. Many are addicted to drugs and not ready to go to school. Regardless of their willingness to get off the street, they are welcomed each morning with chai and bread to warm and fill their bellies. Most of these boys greet me by shaking my hand and then holding it up to their mouths to give it a kiss. I giggle each time, which of course only encourages them. Some are no more than babies but some are older and hardened. I pity the lone tourist that meets them down a darkened alley, but with me, they are complete gentlemen.

I retreat to the office and quickly drink a cup of coffee while reading the Live Dead Journal that a teammate gave me for this month. Shortly thereafter, Andrea, Imma, four older boys and I jump back into the SUV. Safina is building a shelter for the boys who are still on the street, a temporary place for them to have a bed and a roof over their head- safety and security from the unfeeling streets of Dodoma. The house is built but they’re building the

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The wall

wall now. I am just recovering from malaria, which completely zapped my energy but I wanted to help however I could. The guys begin by mixing sand, cement and water, then the base layer of bricks is laid. I’m given the task of putting the mortar between the bricks. I think I’m doing a really excellent job; my back is sore from bending over, as I’m not allowed to sit or kneel on the bricks behind me. But then I take a rest and one of the guys goes over my work again- filling in more mortar and packing it down. He sees me watching and beckons me over to show me what a shoddy job I’d done. Ok, I’ll try again. But doing it his way is so much harder! He tells me that a Tanzanian woman wouldn’t be caught dead doing this “men’s work”. I tell him it’s a good thing I’m not Tanzanian then but soon, I’m out of breath, my back is screaming and my arm muscles don’t want to lift the trowel and block anymore. I wait in the shade, nursing a cold bottle of water until Andrea shows up to check on the progress. I beg off, reminding everyone that I actually still have malaria…but no one is bothered. I wasn’t doing a very good job anyways!

We drive back to the office where I collapse on a fraying couch. Andrea, who never stops, is soon jaunting around Dodoma again buying shoes for the kids, more food or some other such thing. But I curl my feet under my body and try to read. Lunch is brought to me on a thin metal plate and I walk out to the courtyard to wash my hands. There’s a huge plastic water tank with a spout at the bottom. The kids use this to wash their hands and get their drinking water. I notice a leak to the side of the spout, point it out to one of older guys and proceed to use it to wash my hands. I retreat once again to the privacy of the office and I take the opportunity to call my mom. However, I’m soon interrupted by a breathless boy asking where to find “Mama Andrea”. I tell him she’s gone to the market; he harrumphs loudly and runs out again. Just then I hear, “BOOOOOOOOM!!” I make it to the courtyard

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The exploded water tank

in time to see the last of the water spill from the water tank. It has exploded, filling to entire courtyard with about 4 inches of water. The plastic just busted in two, probably right where the leak was. The force of the explosion broke the outside kitchen fence next to the tanks.

About 30 kids run out of the classroom in shoes and socks splashing around this new wading pool. I snap some quick pictures and WhatsApp them to Andrea, letting her know she should make her way back to the office ASAP.

I won’t lie. It was kind of fun, exciting in an unexpected sort of way. But my joy was quickly dampened with the arrival of Andrea as she explained that they don’t have the $300 needed to replace it. Another thing on a long list of needs.

After an afternoon of polishing 40 pairs of little girl and boy shoes, we go back to the wall. Andrea and I begin moving heavy bricks from the front of the house to the back where the wall is. A man approaches us and asks if he can help. Andrea answers that we have no money to pay him. He continues to pester her so one of the boy masons yells up from his work, “You see white skin and all you think is money. But they are black wazungus (foreigners or white people). They are like you and me! They have no money!” Our would-be helper walks away dejectedly.

After moving just about a million bricks, and seemingly seeing no dent in the pile, we make our way to a “chip stand”. “Chips”, you may know, are how the British say French fries. Being a former British colony, Tanzanians have adopted this term. Every Friday night, Andrea with a Tanzanian co-worker and a worker from a local children’s home come to this chip stand at 7:00pm. For the next two hours boys arrive in groups, greet each of us respectfully and wait for a plastic bag filled with a French fry omelet, some pieces of meat and a bottle of water. Some stick around to chat; others wander off into the darkness once they have meal in hand. Andrea combs the crowd looking for new faces, asking for updates and encouraging the boys to come to Safina the next morning for tea. This night a girl comes. She stands out as she is the only girl, she is young and she has a baby strapped to her back. Holding her hand is a small boy carrying a toy car. He gets unceremoniously plopped on my lap while his child mother talks to Andrea. I find out his name is Juma, he is two and he was born on the street when his mother was 13 years old. She is addicted to glue and uninterested in school. Juma has lived on the street his whole life. He immediately steals my water bottle that I foolishly left on the table and begins throwing his car at the other boys gathered around the table. When I stand up with him on my hip, he begins beating a small boy, who stands right at Juma’s hand level, over the head with the car. I mean, seriously beating! I am shocked, stop him and tell him to say sorry. He ignores me. So I rub the poor boy’s head and tell him I’m sorry.

The night is winding down; just a few older boys are left sitting around the table. We’re chatting companionably when a boy of about 10 runs down the street towards us crying and yelling. Immediately, the older boys stand up and start hurrying down the street and around the corner. What’s happening, I ask. The children’s home worker says there’s a fight between street boys. That’s sad, I think, but of course the other boys want to watch. Let them go. But then I see Andrea walking down the street toward the commotion. Well! If she goes, then so must I. I jump out of my chair and scurry after her with Imma close on my heels. Around the corner a large group of men gathered; some are wearing kofia’s, the round hats so popular among African Muslims. Andrea is the sole woman. She is a small woman and I see her on her tiptoes trying to hear what the men are saying. The small boy is still crying and carrying on outside the gathered men. One man is the center of all this attention and slowly the story is revealed.

The boy was walking by his store and seeing that he is a street kid (which in this man’s head automatically made him a thief), he began to choke the boy. He picked the wrong night to discriminate. This man found himself surrounded by very large, very angry street boys and former street boys. It took the mediation of many men to keep him from getting the crap beat out of him. Or at least, I think he remained unharmed. We walk away before the crowd disperses while a heated conversation is still taking place.

It’s 9:30pm and I still haven’t yet eaten. We drive around the block, thinking we’d stop by the office to pick up some stuff but eventually make our way back to the chip stand. Drained, I shovel fries, covered in a pink excuse for ketchup, into my mouth.

It’s 10:45pm before we arrive back at our secluded haven. My body is truly exhausted but my mind is full. My heart aches for the children who live pitifully on the street, dependent on the kindness of strangers for their survival. However, their lives are not hopeless; they are not forgotten. God knows every name; he knows every insult they have suffered; he sees their pain and he cares. He has called his people from across the globe and close to home to reach out to these most vulnerable and beloved children. Safina Street Network, directed by a mzungu but held together by an amazing Tanzanian staff and former street boys, is proof that God sees and cares.

I would ask that you consider donating to Safina to help them buy a new water tank. It was a completely unexpected loss and definitely not in the budget. You would be blessing the 150 children with whom Safina works and strengthening the faith of those who pour their lives into these kids day in and day out.

Here are the steps for donating:

  1. Go to https://www.egsnetwork.com/gift2/?giftid=BA2CB0A93B314EC.
  2. Scroll to the bottom and click “Search For Designations”
  3. Type “Safina” and click “Search”
  4. The Project number “ER-TAN-0169U Safina Housing” will appear. Click it, then Continue.
  5. Continue through the process to create an account. This donation is tax-deductible for US citizens.

Thank you!

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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