Monday, March 20, 2017

Africa - Rwanda to Lisbon - Sunday, March 12, 2017

This morning, my bag is packed, at the door and ready for pick up.  So am I!  We return to the "Mother Ship" today for our flight to Lisbon.  Not to sound negative, but the visit to Kigali was the only stop on our tour that I believe could have been avoided.  Perhaps we could have used this extra day in Rwanda or Botswana.  While we did have a lovely time last night at the Heaven restaurant, I feel we would have enjoyed the Vumbura Plains Lodge much more.   Or perhaps, I'm simply ready to go home and that's why the Kigali stop seems like an unnecessary stop. 

After clearing three "check point Charlies" at the Kigali Airport, (they take their security seriously!) we are now back on our private jet for our final flight en route to Lisbon.  Looks like seven and a half hours to Lisbon, so I'm stretching out in these lie flat seats for some much needed "catch up" sleep.  As soon as we're wheels up ... I'll be seat down!!

The plan to sleep on the plane was a good one, but foiled by the activities on the aircraft.  Seems everyone was excited about our last opportunity to be together on this fabulous airplane.  So instead of sleep, we chatted, exchanged photos and contact information, had champagne toasts, farewell speeches and a great time, arriving in Lisbon an hour earlier than planned because we did not have to make a fuel stop along the way.  

A few members of our flight crew who took such excellent care of us during our flights.
Tonight, Jay Dickman, our NatGeo photographer shared his slide show of the trip with us.  He had amazing photos documenting our journey, and it was great fun re-living our tour of Africa which by now, seemed to have begun months ago.  I'm happy to report that I have a few photos rivaling some that this expert photographer shared with us tonight.  I burned up some pixels on this trip, taking over 3500 photos.  I've shared many of the good ones with you in this journal.  I appreciate all of the good tips that the photographers shared with me on this trip.  But I'm most appreciative of the advice and direction given me by my son.  Thanks Jeff.  I think you'll be proud of some of my shots.  

After dinner and Jay's slideshow, we stopped in the lobby bar for our final farewell cocktail.  Stevie, Lorri and I have had a stellar time together. 

Our last happy hour a the Lisbon Four Seasons Ritz.
What incredible friends to travel with!  Stevie has been a dear friend for over thirty years.  We've been through hell and back together and I'm so grateful for her friendship support and love.  Lorri is a new friend and I've embraced her fresh outlook and attitude on life.  She is an intense listener and offers level headed and much appreciated, sensible advice, but only when asked.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.  I'm so blessed to have these two women in my life.  To be able to spend three weeks together traveling the world has been priceless.  Thank you girls!!  

Then there's Midge, the newest member of the group.  As I mentioned earlier, we've been dubbed the "Four Muska-Babes," by Dinglespeil, from Memphis, who is a self proclaimed comedian.   Anyway, we met Midge on this trip.  The only thing I know for sure about Midge is that she's the kind of friend we want to get to know better.  The "Muska-Babes" are working on our next adventure and already have several options cooking.

Monday, March 13, 2017

It's 5:15 a.m. and I'm wide awake.  My flight leaves Lisbon this morning at 10:40, and I don't have to rush this morning.  So, I'm hitting the gym for a much needed workout before settling in on a commercial jet headed back to the good ole USA! 

This will be a long day of readjustment.  We've been "spoilt," as the British say, by the National Geographic travel staff who have lead us along the way for the past three weeks.  NatGeo handled all of the logistics and our job was to enjoy our journey.  How will I navigate the Lisbon airport without the familiar NatGeo signs greeting us at every turn directing us through airports, immigration, hotels and travel sights.  Our bags seem to mysteriously appear in our rooms and our every need has been met with smiles and attention to every single detail.  Oh my gosh!  Time for a reality check!! 

This has been an extraordinary expedition with National Geographic.  We've covered over 17,000 miles and seven countries on the huge continent of Africa.  Just to give you a perspective of how large Africa is, here is an overlay showing how many countries can fit within the boarders of this remarkable continent. 

Eight countries can fit within the boarders of Africa.
We only touched a few of the highlights of Africa, leaving plenty of other areas to explore at a later date.

We've had unimaginable opportunities to see wild animals, birds, reptiles, fossils, experience African cultures, dancers, singers, fabulous hotels and lodges.  We've been transported by busses, bush Land Rovers, quad bikes, camels, cable cars, motor cycle side cars, tuk tuks, helicopters, canoes and small aircraft, to mention a few.  We've eaten foods specific to six different African countries.  We've lived in hillside hotels, thatch roof cabins, cozy cottages and tents.  We've seen old stuff, new stuff, modern to ancient stuff.    We've listened to lectures from famous explorers and conservationist.  

Luke Dollar and Steve Boyes, our NatGeo explorer team.

We have souvenir pieces of this amazing continent as well as a lot of extra pounds to carry home.  We've experienced different cultures unique to only this world and learned so much from our guides and explorers, making new friends along the way.  We've learned different languages, customs and political views.  This has not been just a luxury vacation, rather a true expedition in every sense of the word.

My British Airways flight just crossed into US airspace.  Almost home now.  As astounding as this trip has been, it's always good to be home.  Thanks for checking in on me while I've been gone.  Can't wait to get together and show you the other 3,478 photos that I didn't put in this blog!  Just kidding about the photos, of course, but I truly can't wait to see my fabulous friends and family.  Love and missed you all!!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Africa - Rwanda, Friday March 10, 2017


The cultural differences between Rwanda and the USA are staggeringly apparent immediately upon landing here in this country that has been struggling for survival for years.  They've survived  everything from political coups to genocide.  Their current president seems to be making headway in getting the country back on track by creating laws such as making Rwanda a "no plastic bag" country.  No plastic bags are allowed anywhere in the country, intended to clean up the environment.  The government has also outlawed construction of homes with thatch roofs.  Only tin roofs are allowed to reduce the danger of fires.  They have also outlawed wooden bikes that farmers heavily overloaded to haul their crops to market.   When going down the mountainous roads, they could not stop, causing many deaths.

The government has outlawed these wooden bikes because of the high incidence of accidents that resulted in fatalities.  Imagine loading this wooden bike with a hundred pounds of potatoes, running down a mountain road, and trying to stop it.  I don't see a brake pedal, do you??  They stop by dragging a foot alongside the bike.  

Another law is that children are required to have shoes.  If they don't, there is an investigation to see what the parents are doing with their money.  They are not allowed in a bar to buy booze if their children have no shoes.  These seem like small things ... "shoes or no booze" and no plastic bags, etc., but I guess they have to begin somewhere.  

This is a country where people walk everywhere.  Babies are strapped on almost every woman's back while carrying packages or baskets on their heads.  Some of these packages include huge bags of potatoes that must weigh at least 50 pounds.  (A concept I easily recognize as I feel like I'm trying to stuff 100 pounds into a 50 pound sack when I try to put on my jeans after all the eating and drinking I've done on this trip.)  Anyway, I'm shocked at how much these women can carry on their backs and heads.  One woman was carrying a log that must have been 10 feel long, balanced on her head with a baby strapped to her back all the while wearing beautifully colored clothes.  Others carry yellow containers filled with water from local streams with water so brown and dirty, that I wouldn't even let Scruffy drink it.  We are truly spoiled in the US.

I was enthralled with the things these people carry on their heads. Must be one of the reasons they are so short.

There's that 50 pound sack of potatoes.

Love the colors!!

Water bottles.  Again ... check out the colorful dresses!!

Even the mattress man has colorful mattresses!!

Crops grow in every conceivable space available.  We saw bananas, beans, peas, corn, potatoes, cabbages, pineapples and coffee, just to name a few.  These folks are very poor and farming is their only source of income and support.  So they literally farm every square inch of the land they have access to.  The farms inch up the mountainside in terraced patches. 
Farms are etched out of every inch of space causing Rwanda to run out of farming land.
Their farming methods are very rudimentary with hand made tools.  Their homes are made of bamboo tied together to form a frame and then covered with mud bricks.  They build make shift walls around their homes using the same bamboo poles and weaving corn stalks or tall grasses into the bamboo framework.  Basically, anything they can find to form a barrier. 

This woman tills the dirt with a handmade hoe.

Note the interesting architecture of bamboo, grass and mud.

This is an example of the fences made from bamboo and corn stalks.
Those lucky enough to have a bike often use them to haul crops.  Others use them for taxi service.  In both cases, the bikes are over stressed and it amazes me how they hold the loads they carry. 

This guy has a 100 pound bag of potatoes on the back of his bike.

These fellas use their bikes for taxis.  Note the blue seat right behind the rider.  That's where the passenger sits.

My eyes have been opened to a culture who works hard to create homes for their families using whatever resources they have and they figure out ways to "McGiver" things to make them work.  And they are happy!  My dad's words come to mind yet again ... "You don't miss what you ain't never had."

The government is also concerned about population growth and is considering a one child per family policy.  I don't even want to think about how they intend to enforce this one.  But if they don't control the population, they will literally starve to death as all available space is already being used to grow crops.

Something else the government has begun to recognize is the "yankee" dollar.  They've done an amazing job of protecting their largest "cash crop"... the Silverback Mountain Gorillas.  People come from around the world to visit these amazing creatures.  Since tourist dollars are stimulating their economy, they are doing everything possible to insure the survival of these endangered animals. 

After our three hour drive from Kigali to Volcano National Park, we arrived at our accommodations. After seeing where and how the locals live, the Sabyinyo Lodge looked heavenly.  It was sort of like taking a step back in time visiting Grandma's house with creeky hardwood floors that smell of wax.   Furnished with dark wooden furniture with that familiar smell of furniture polish, alongside comfortable, overstuffed couches and chairs all surrounded by thick bumpy stucco walls, so typical of 1940's architecture.  Not exactly the lap of luxury, but quite charming. My cottage is large and comfortable filled with Silverback Gorilla photos and paintings.   I love the fireplace that my "butler" (Get that!!  I have my own butler!  If the kids on Brown Street could see me now!!)  anyway, my butler builds the best fires!  And he keeps me well stocked with water bottles, fresh fruit and beautiful flowers in the living room.  While we're at dinner in the evenings, he turns down the bed, builds a fresh fire in the fireplace and places a hot water bottle between the sheets to warm the bed, as it gets very cold here in the mountains in the evenings.  

My cottage at Sabyinyo Lodge.

Love that roaring fire!!

Heading out this morning in search of Silverback Gorillas.

Only 80 people per day are allowed to trek into the jungle in search of the gorillas.  It is well controlled, organized and a very special experience.  Each guest is briefed on how to interact with the animals before entering the park.  There is a veterinarian program that cares for the gorillas to keep them healthy.  We had the opportunity to meet the veterinarian in charge of gorilla care tonight and she explained that sick guests are not allowed to visit the gorillas, as the animals are susceptible to human illness and diseases.

The hike into the mountains to enter the Volcano National Park, where the mountain gorillas live, begins with a forty minute hike through local farm land.  The Rwandans were tending their fields and children along the way waved and said what may be their only English word ... "hello!"  

The hike to the "wall" of the national park begins in farm land.

This little guy was a bit shy.

These two were shouting their one word of English ... "Hello."

This lady was tending her garden AND her child.
We're at altitude here, around 8000+ feet above sea level, so breathing is difficult even when NOT hiking up a mountain.  We each had a porter, or two if needed, who carried our knapsacks loaded with camera equipment, water and snacks.  Thank GOD!  It was a treacherous and extremely muddy hike.  So the porters were on standby to assist with us as well as our gear.  Although, my tiny little porter simply looked at me, smiled and communicated with me in Swahili that was universally and clearly understandable, "lady, you're on your own."   Which was fine, as I had no trouble except for the deep mud.  But I have gortex hiking boots and gators on my jeans to keep dry.  The water proof gators, which wrap around your leg from the knee down, had a stirrup around the base of my shoe, which came in handy to keep the mud from sucking my shoes off.  While navigating the thick mud, I heard two pops, sort of like a champagne cork pop (my song).  I soon realized the pops I heard were the rubber tips from my new trekking poles that had been consumed by the mud.

How in the dickens is this little fella going to carry me over a mud hole and thicket?  Very sweet, though.  He tried to teach me Swahili words. 

My porter, DJ.

Lorri's porter helps her navigate a muddy trail.
Stevie opted to be Queen for the day and rode up the mountain on a "stretcher."  Her entourage led the pack and set the pace for the rest of us.  There was a crew of eight porters, four at a time, were carrying the stretcher and every so often, they traded places.  

Queen Stevie.

Stevie's entourage.
Our guide, Jolie, is one of the few female gorilla guides.  She has been leading folks up into the mountain jungle for six and a half years.  She speaks "gorilla" and taught us a few phrases, which I promptly forgot.
Our guide, Jolie and porters for our trek.
We were accompanied by three trackers, two with machetes to cut our way through the jungle thicket and one with a rifle.  They say the rifle is a precaution in case we encounter a mountain elephant or buffalo along the way, as they are quite dangerous.  Well hello!  How friendly is a GORILLA?

Our trackers.  Two carried machetes and one carried a rifle.

Each day, after a gorilla expedition, the trackers follow the gorilla family to see where they are going to "nest" for the night.  Then early the next morning, they return to confirm the location of the family and communicate this information back to our guide.  So we know exactly where to go when we set off to meet our gorilla family.  

Our family was named Kuryama and consisted of six gorillas, including two Silver Backs, several black bucks, a couple of females and a couple of young infants.  The male gorillas are 12 years old before developing their silver backs.  Until then, they are referred to as "black bucks."  When they become silver backs, they have a choice of continuing to live with the family or striking out on their own, finding a female and beginning a new family.  But this requires defeating another silver back, taking over his females and then he will usually kill any babies fathered by the defeated male and start his own family with the females.  All very interesting.   We actually were able to witness a Silverback from another family, who wandered into the family space, preparing to challenge the leader of our family.  Lots of chest thumping and snorting later, he literally flew through the air and slammed down on the jungle path right next to us before darting back up the hill to reconsider his challenge.  Perhaps he was waiting for us to leave?  These are huge animals and while they usually don't bother guests, I'm glad we didn't get caught up in the crossfire of that challenge fight.  Just getting slammed into by one of these beasts could be catastrophic.  

Our first Silver Back Sighting.

We were very close to these animals.

Well, everybody needs a gorilla selfie!

Lunch time of leaves and branches.

This mother gorilla nurses her baby.

Gorilla profile mug shot.

This does not look like an "I'm happy to see you" look.

While this little black buck could care less.

I had to duck into the brush to avoid this fella who came wondering past me and continued on his way between Stevie and Nancy. (below)

We couldn't tell if Nancy's husband was pulling her out of the way or pushing her into the gorilla as the guide watches with obvious concern as the gorilla casually passes Stevie.

Our guide and trackers positioned us to enable the best photos, but the gorillas didn't always cooperate, often turning their backs on us.  Which was fine, because after all, that's what we came to see, right?  Silverbacks.  In some cases, the gorillas would move between us.  They could push us out of the way, but we were forbidden to touch them. 

I guess the biggest Silver Back surprise was hearing the sound of them chest thumping.  It sounded like the clop clop of coconut shells instead of fists on a chest.  The guides know when the gorilla is about to pound his chest, as they make a sort of whining noise just before hand.  The guides and trackers have spent so much time with these animals that they even think like they do.  They communicate with the gorillas, speaking their language, which they tried to teach us.  But my lack of skills with foreign languages prevailed and I left the conversations with the Silverbacks to the guides.  After all, what the heck would I say to a Silverback?  "Have you seen Tarzan lately?"  Or "Dude, don't they have showers out here in the jungle?"

After our gorilla encounter, we took a snack break and compared gorilla stories and photos.

Stevie and I and a Silverback's back.
Our family of gorillas didn't seem to mind our visit.  We watched as they munched on Eucalyptus trees, which our guide referred to as "Gorilla Chocolate."  They love them.  

Gorilla chocolate.  Eucalyptus trees.

The gorillas would sit, munch and then move along to another munch spot.  The Silverback is protected yet Conservationist have not yet answered the question of what happens when and if the mountain gorilla population grows to the point of exceeding their food supply.  Right now, there are over 800 gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda.  They munch a lot of vegetation.  They are pretty much land locked in the mountainous regions with no place to go if their population continues to grow.  Something for the gorilla huggers to ponder.  But perhaps this isn't a huge issue as poachers continuously try to capture the Silverbacks for sale.  A Mountain Gorilla will bring upwards of $100,000.00.  Uganda and Congo do not have the same gorilla care and protection laws in place as Rwanda.  That being said, there are currently no known Mountain Gorillas in captivity except for four orphaned gorillas being kept by veterinarians in Rwanda.

After our gorilla trek, we came over the wall and out of the park.

Hiked to visit the Silverback Mountain Gorillas!  Check!!

After our gorilla trek, we were pretty much covered with mud.  I was considering just leaving my shoes behind, but the lodge keeper invited us to sit on the veranda and offered us a cold glass of lemonade while a porter removed our muddy gators and boots.  Shortly, they were returned to us cleaner than when we left for the hike.  They also washed our clothes in time to pack them up later in the day.  

Dirty shoes and muddy gators.

We had time this afternoon to get organized and pack up gear for tomorrow's three hour drive back to Kigali.  My butler had a roaring fire going in my fireplace as it poured outside.  Something sexy about the rain!!  A roaring fire and rain should be shared with someone ya love!!  

After the rains stopped, Lorri, Stevie and I met on the veranda for happy hour.  A bit later on, we were entertained by local dancers, who put on quite a show for us, followed by another fabulous dinner.  

Happy hour at Sabyinyo.

My, but the natives are restless tonight!!

The incredible view from our lodge.

All in all, Rwanda and the gorilla trek was incredibly fascinating.  I would highly recommend it.  Not many folks in the whole world have seen these amazing animals and I'm not taking it lightly.  I'm so grateful to have had this opportunity. 

Saturday, March 12, 2017

Time to say goodbye to Sabyinyo.

Going down to the parking lot was much easier than the hike up.  We were told that the hike to the lodge was more difficult than the gorilla trek.  They were absolutely correct!!

This morning, we set off for the three hour drive back to Kigali where we're scheduled to visit the Genocide museum.  I'm taking a hard pass on that visit.  Just don't need to be depressed.  There are enough things happening in the world today without intentionally visiting a place that will most certainly leave me sad and depressed.  While I empathize with the victims of the Genocide, I just don't want to revisit it.  I haven't been to the 911 memorial in New York City for the same reason.  

So instead, I checked in to our hotel, the Kigali Serena.  We had to clear two security check points before entering the hotel lobby - which made me a bit uncomfortable.  I'm told that the Rwandans are just very paranoid and take security very seriously.

After finally getting into my nondescript, but nice, hotel room, I met Stevie in the lobby bar for an afternoon of conversation and cocktails until the museum goers finally returned and Lorri and Midge joined us, somber and depressed after visiting the genocide museum.  

Stevie and I get a jump start on happy hour.

Lorri finally arrived to join us.

Finally, the girls are together and ready for dinner.   Lorri, Kathy, Julie, Stevie and Midge.

Dinner tonight was at a lovely place called Heaven.  Nice meal, but kid of anti-climatic for our farewell dinner.  

The Heavenly drink special.  They had us at "vodka."

Jen and Luke join us for dinner.  We've been named the Muska-babes by one of the guys on the trip.  Cute.
Midge is a party looking for a place to happen.  Doing her Stevie Wonder imitation.

Tomorrow, we board our jet and return to Lisbon.