Tanzania Part 2 ~ Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge

Tanzania Part 2 ~ Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge

When I last left you I had just gotten off a local bus after traveling 4.5 sometimes not comfortable hours over rocky, dusty, hot terrain that didn’t always have a clear road. Barely 24 hours in the country and it had already been quite an adventure. As I mentioned previously, I was greeted at the border to the protected area of the national park system. It turns out my greeters were from Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge where I had decided to spend 3 nights before heading to my WorkAway at Bright English Medium School. They were the lodge manager, Joel, and Timan who would be my Maasai guide throughout my stay. After paying my park fees (the one that I had enough cash for), being luggage-less, Timan grabbed my backpack, and they whisked me away to my home for the next 3 nights.

View from my tent

I chose full board camping for my accommodations and the lunch and dinner package as I normally don’t eat breakfast. Coffee and water were always available. It was $20 per night (no difference in seasons) for the accommodations, my tent would be set up for me, I would have a nice comfy mattress and pillow, and they provide toiletries and towels. The showers and toilets were 30 meters from my tent and in the vicinity of the dining hall. I could have spent $150-$180 per night (depending on the season) for a cabin/lodge with an ensuite but somehow I couldn’t justify the price difference as neither cabin nor tent had electricity and phones and other electronic devices could only be charged in the dining hall.

Since it had been a long, hot, dusty, crowded (even had 1 chicken in a box, yes it was alive) bus ride, while they finished setting up my tent, I enjoyed a nice cool glass of beet juice and contemplated a nap. Since lunch was about an hour away, I did exactly that, nap. It was so peaceful listening to the sounds of nature as I drifted off to sleep to dream of those baobabs and the zebras and giraffes I saw out the bus window just roaming freely. After about an hour’s rest, I headed to lunch. After lunch, Timan came looking for me. You remember Timan, he was the Maasai guide that was assigned to me for the duration of my stay. Well, there is also a $20 per person activity fee which covers having your guide take you on a trek to Lake Natron, which I did, and a day hike to Engaresero Waterfalls which I didn’t do, but that story will come later. Timan told me a bit about the Maasai tribe and himself which was fascinating. He wanted to make plans for the next morning to trek to the lake.

At least I knew it arrived on the Mainland

I reminded him that I had no luggage and wouldn’t have the proper attire until my luggage showed up. I was keeping my fingers crossed that somehow it would arrive before evening. Even though I had purchased a sim card for Tanzania, the signal during the bus journey was mostly non-existent. Thankfully they had Wi-Fi at the lodge, and I did receive a photo from Nginina (my Maasai guide in Arusha) showing him pulling my purple suitcase. I at least knew it had arrived on the mainland. What I didn’t know was if he found someone who was coming to/or near the lodge with a vehicle that could bring it. I told Timan if it arrived tonight then we would take the trek. He also told me we would need to start by 07:00. He then said he would see me later and left me to explore the grounds.

Ol Donyoi Lengai

A bit about the lodge, I would go there again should the opportunity present itself. Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge is in Northern Tanzania, at the foot of the Ol Donyoi Lengai volcano, next to Engaresero, a small, isolated village. Ol Donyoi Lengai means “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language. It is an active volcano located in the Gregory Rift, south of Lake Natron within the Arusha Region of Tanzania, Africa. Part of the volcanic system of the East African Rift, it uniquely produces natrocarbonatite lava. The 1960 eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai led to geological investigations that finally confirmed the view that carbonatite rock is derived from magma. The United Nations counts the neighboring Engaresero Village among the traditional models of life of global importance. The local people living around the lodge are mainly Maasai. They perpetuate their pastoral way of life by keeping their livestock and moving their herds in perfect harmony with their environment. At the lodge, you will have the opportunity to meet them and discover their way of life and traditions. They believe in fair and sustainable tourism that benefits both the travellers and the local people that welcome them while preserving nature. All electricity in the camp is provided by solar energy. They also have a water filter at your disposal in the restaurant to fill your bottles, to avoid too much plastic waste. A part of the lodge’s profits are reinvested in solidarity projects in collaboration with the local community. Respect for nature shapes their daily practices, they reduce our environmental impact by using solar panels, and water filters, reducing plastic, and practicing permaculture or reforestation. It is a small oasis in what looks like the middle of nowhere. I was in heaven.

Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge

I was the only person on the grounds as the other guests were out on excursions. Many people use the lodge as a stopover between destinations. Some are coming from or on their way to the Serengeti or Kilimanjaro and only spend a day or two. I was thrilled to be spending four days and there was a point I wished I was staying longer, but I also wanted to get to Bright English Medium School, my WorkAway. This oasis is in the middle of what looks like a barren land, the Tanzanian bush, yet there is so much beauty in the landscape. I wandered around a bit and then made my way to the entrance area.

As I stepped out onto the driveway to get a lay of the land, I was quickly face-to-face with four Maasai children who seemed to appear from nowhere. I conversed with them as best I could before they took off toward their village. There is a lovely pool on the grounds, so I grabbed my Kindle and sat for a while. They use no chemicals in the pool and change the water every 3 days. The water from the pool is then used to water the camp vegetation. Guests were starting to trickle in from their excursions and I went back to my tent to relax until dinner.

Swimming Pool

In my prior post, I mentioned my small ordeal at the entrance to the National Park and the lack of cash to pay all my fees. As I was relaxing outside my tent, Timan came and found me to tell me that the gentleman was there to collect my park fees. He had brought a portable credit card machine that worked off a satellite. He wandered around a bit until he found a spot with a strong signal and proceeded to take my payment.

I, of course, couldn’t let him leave without a selfie. I then asked Timan if he had any word on my luggage because I had noticed a safari vehicle pull in with new guests. It appeared they had come straight from the airport and hadn’t been transitioning between excursions. I also noticed that a purple suitcase had arrived with them. I didn’t get a good look at it as it was carried away but was soon disappointed to discover it wasn’t mine. The sun was setting around 18:30 and dinner would be at 19:00. After dinner I met James, a Maasai and a student of tourism at the University in Arusha. He was working as a volunteer at the lodge to gain experience. He found me to let me know my luggage had arrived. Hallelujah! I chatted with James, and we were soon joined by Timan who also received the news and said he would meet me at my tent by 07:00 the next day for our trek to Lake Natron. My suitcase was delivered to my tent and off I went for a shower, and I might as well get in pajamas.

The Restaurant

The camp runs on solar power, there is very little light on the campgrounds after dark, and Wi-Fi is turned off at 22:00. I posted a few things to Facebook and took my phone into the restaurant to charge overnight. Luckily I had two phones with me, and I set the alarm on one so I would be ready to trek in the morning. I needn’t have worried about waking. The roosters were crowing, the birds were chirping, and I woke before my alarm. Jane and Margret, who run the kitchen, had coffee made before sunrise. I grabbed my phone, and a hot cup of coffee and watched a beautiful Tanzanian sunrise.

Dressed and ready to go, Timan arrived and said we need to take plenty of water with us. Hmmm, okay, is this trek more than I bargained for? Dressed in his traditional shuka, often red with black stripes, shuka cloth is affectionately known as the “African blanket” and is worn by the Maasai people. He wrapped the 2 bottles of water he took for me in his shuka and off we went. I had put on my Keen sandals, closed toe, and heel strap thinking that would be better than flip flops, the only other “shoes” I had with me.

Timan’s “Tire” Shoes

The Maasai are known as great walkers. They are the most widely known African ethnic group located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Most spend their days either barefoot or in their traditional shoes made of car tires. Although they walk long distances of up to sixty kilometers a day, they do not suffer from any foot ailments.

He told me the walk was easy, it was flat. What he neglected to tell me was you walk in black sand most of the way. Walking in the sand isn’t the easiest task but of course, why would he mention this? It is perfectly normal to him. The further we walked, some Maasai kids joined us. They stayed with us the entire way chatting and trying to talk me into buying their bracelets and such. They were delightful.

The first thing we saw was a “tower” of giraffes. How’s that for a perfect collective noun? I thought they travelled in herds, but a tower is so much better. I can’t put into words my emotions. I got the best photos I could on my phone’s zoom. When they took off running it was a sight to behold. I was awe-struck and didn’t think to video. Pure beauty.

Next, we came across a poisonous snake (a baby). I did venture close enough for a photo.

Next were baboons mating. They were in the distance and I couldn’t get a clear shot. We also saw a group of baboons moving in front of us. The name for a group of baboons is a troop.

Baboon Prints

Finally, as we were reaching the lake, there was a group of zebras grazing. A group of zebras is called a dazzle. We then reached the lake which was filled with thousands of flamingos or flamboyance of flamingos. Another perfect collective noun.

At Lake Natron in Tanzania, you’ll find 75% of the world’s 3.2 million lesser flamingos. The lake’s hypersaline water can strip away human skin, and breed algae toxic to many forms of animal life, but the bird flourishes in these conditions thanks to its incredibly adapted body.

Image courtesy of RSPB Images

After this, we headed back to camp. We saw more dazzles of zebras and towers of giraffes and the children were happy when I convinced Timan I needed to stop and rest on a fallen tree because I then purchased some of their wares. Of course, after that, they were happy to take photos with me. Because of my sandal design, they were also filling with sand as I walked. The children were adorable by having me put my hand on one’s should while another removed my shoe and cleaned out the sand. Let me tell you, I was also glad Timan insisted on taking plenty of water with us as the day was beginning to heat up.

After about a 6-hour round trip trek, we were back at the camp. I was extremely happy to be able to schedule a one-hour massage using African oils for the late afternoon.

If you look at the map, I was trying to find out how far we walked since I could barely move once we were back. Google maps stop at the blue dots where the “road” (if you can call it that) ends. It is 2km. We walked all the way to the shores of Lake Natron. I started to figure it out, but my body said don’t, you don’t want to know, haha. I had a lovely lunch, popped a couple Advil, and took a rest until time for my massage. I am no rookie when it comes to massage, but this was up there with the best I have had. Next thing I know, the sun is setting, and it’s time for dinner and then a good night’s sleep. Also, since my luggage had arrived, I remembered I had packed a few cans of Beefeater’s already-made gin and tonics that I bought in Bulgaria. James got some ice for me, and I settled in with a tasty G&T. As they say in Swahili, lala salama, or sleep safely. Little did I know what the next day had in store for me.

My day started with coffee and another spectacular sunrise after which I was going on what I thought was a simple excursion. I mentioned a trek to a waterfall was included in my activity fee at the lodge. But, if you recall, when I arrived near my camp on the bus, I had to pay some park fees. Not realizing I was getting off there, I didn’t have a lot of cash. I thought I would be able to get cash at the next stop where I thought I was getting off. Turns out I wouldn’t have been able to get any. Long story not getting any shorter, I needed cash. Timan said he would set up a private car to take us to the nearest town and I could go to the bank, and it would be $17 to take us. Instead of going to a waterfall, I was off to Mto Wa Mbu, which was almost all the way back to Arusha where my journey began. I went to the parking lot with Timan and saw a safari vehicle.

Little did I know, it was also taking about 20 of our closest Maasai friends. Don’t ask how we all fit in, with several spending the entire ride standing. The next thing I learned is just because the town seems like a short distance away in terms of km….there is no such thing as a short distance between towns in Tanzania…the 100 km (62 mile) drive took 4 hours some not even on a road. Oh, and that is 4 hours one way. The roads were more like dirt paths and sometimes no path. We passed so many dazzles of zebras and towers of giraffes they didn’t even phase me anymore. The driver dropped us (me and Timan) at a bank around 11:00 and said to call him at 13:30 and he would tell us what time we were leaving to go back. He had to deliver other riders to their destinations. Some would be returning with us, and we would also have new riders. We picked up and dropped off so many people along the way, I stopped trying to keep track. I used the ATM, and we had some time to kill so we got a tuk-tuk and went to a busier part of town. First, we stopped at an electronic shop because I needed a power bank for when I arrived at the school as their power could be sketchy. Then we went to find some lunch. We had stewed goat meat, rice, and beans. Timan really wanted BBQ so then we went to find a BBQ place.

After eating a delicious BBQ we still had time to kill so we went for drinks. He was sipping a beer and I had a G&T. Suddenly he gets up and says stay here I’ll be right back. Next thing I know, he returns with 2 young boys. He told me they had gotten word at our camp that 2 Maasai boys had run away. How random that we were sitting in a random bar in a random town and these 2 boys came walking past. He asked me if I had 1000 shillings (about 40 cents) to buy them some bananas because they were hungry. They ate the bananas, we finished our drinks and he said, what are we going to do with these boys? I said we can’t leave them let’s talk to our driver. In the meantime, he called the families (he knew them they were from his village). We went back to our vehicle, and again we were taking our 20+ closest friends back with us. We told him about the boys. I agreed to pay for one if he let the other one ride for free. He said okay, and we all piled in to head back. The top of the safari vehicle was up because the kids had to stand up with a couple other people because there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit.

The “Road”

About an hour into the drive one of the people standing up starts to puke…it came in the driver’s window. We stopped so he could puke his guts out and then continued on our bumpy way.

When we reached camp, the boys’ families were waiting on us to take them home. They couldn’t thank us enough for bringing them. I was back in time for dinner, a couple of G&Ts, and then a good night’s sleep. I would be leaving the camp and heading to Wasso, Tanzania the next morning.

I woke up to enjoy my last sunrise at the Giraffe Lodge. After a delicious breakfast of eggs, and chapati with plum jam, pineapple, and fresh juice it was time to say goodbye. First, there is Marco, he is one of the managers. I didn’t get a photo with Joel, the other manager because he had left for a couple of days. Jane and Margaret prepare all the wonderful meals. James is the young tourism student and volunteer. Timan, my wonderful Maasai guide, and James drove me by tuk-tuk to the next village to meet my bus. It was an amazing experience at the lodge and one I will cherish, but more goodbyes and people who you get surprisingly close to over the course of just a few days, but beautiful souls you most likely will never see again. It’s always bittersweet. I can’t say enough good things about this place. If you ever find yourself in Tanzania, I highly recommend a few days here.

Next up, part 3 Bright English Medium School, and 2 more crazy bus rides…stay tuned!

Tanzania Part 1 ~ Arrival

Tanzania Part 1 ~ Arrival

“You will never understand the true meaning of your life until you travel and experience how others are living theirs!”

I don’t know who to credit for this quote, but it sums up my most recent experience in Arusha Tanzania but most especially at Bright English Medium School.  I knew I would be spending about 9 weeks of the summer in Bulgaria.  8 working at Zenira Camp in Kiten.  I would arrive a few days early and end by visiting friends in Veliko Tarnovo for a few days after.  I knew I didn’t want to return directly to Warsaw as the new semester mostly kicks off at the beginning of October.  Last year after camp I flew to Cairo to experience the pyramids.  Then I decided to head to Casablanca and Marrakech Morocco.  Both were exhilarating journeys that fueled my soul.  I tossed around a few possibilities, including a return to Egypt for Valley of the Kings or India but I didn’t have a specific destination, and finally Kenya and Tanzania.

In my dreams, I didn’t have visions of sugar plums, not even lions, tigers, and bears, but baobabs, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and epic sunsets behind massive acacia trees.  Another visit to Egypt and a trip to India would have to wait, so I narrowed it down to Kenya and Tanzania.

I was soon researching visa requirements for both countries, looking at maps,  and what I could do while I was there.  Probably one of the most important things to do is check into visa requirements.  Many countries have VOA or visa on arrival, some have e-visa and others like China make you have one in advance.

During my research, I remembered I had joined an online community a few years ago called WorkAway.  Part of WorkAway’s Mission is “Building a sharing community of global travelers who genuinely want to see the world whilst contributing and giving back to the places they visit.  Alongside our welcoming hosts, ready to receive visitors who are able to help out.”  It is a community based on learning, sharing, and exploring new ways of life.  What makes Workaway work is the spirit and dedication of its members in providing positive cultural exchange experiences.  You can sign up as a host or a worker.  I reinstated my membership for a $50 fee for one year and was soon researching potential hosts.  Joining a community such as WorkAway provided me with an added layer of comfort when agreeing to stay in a foreign country and volunteer.  I used a different community when I volunteered at Yayasan Widya Guna in Bali and I plan to use WorkAway when I finally decide to go to India.  If I was going to this part of Africa, it had to include a safari.  The thing that finally tipped the scales to Bright English Medium School was the quote, “go big or go home”.  To me, going big was the Serengeti.  BEMS (Bright English Medium School) mentioned their proximity to the Serengeti in their host write-up.  Soon I was messaging back and forth with Juliana and Lydia from BEMS and next thing I knew; I pulled the trigger on a one-way plane ticket to Arusha from Sofia Bulgaria.

On August 25th, I boarded a train in Veliko Tarnovo at 07:20 and headed to Sofia to catch a 17:10 flight to Doha Qatar where I would have a 4.5-hour layover before my overnight flight to Zanzibar Island Tanzania where I had a 5-hour layover before a short flight to Arusha on the mainland.  At check-in in Sofia, I was assured my luggage would be checked all the way through to Arusha…I’m sure you know where this is headed, and it will end up being a blessing in disguise.

Landing on Zanzibar Island would give me a new stamp in my passport and tick country number 41.

It is an Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometers (16–31 mi) off the coast of mainland Tanzania and consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba Island.  The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the island of Unguja.  Its historic center, Stone Town, is a World Heritage Site.  I got off the plane which was a 787 Dreamliner so you can imagine how many passengers there were.

I followed the crowd to the terminal (a building not much bigger than a lot of homes in the USA).  Even though I was aware that I could get a visa on arrival, I took the time online, paid the fee, and had my visa almost two months in advance.  Tourist Visa = $100.  Watching everyone’s face as you bypass the VOA line = priceless!!  I had almost 5 hours of layover, closer to 4.5 after I got through immigration.  I found someone who looked official and told them I was a transit passenger and where should I go?  They told me I had to leave the airport as they had no transit area, and I couldn’t enter the departure area until 2 hours prior to my flight to Arusha.  So off I went in search of coffee and an ATM outside the airport.  One thing you quickly learn in Tanzania is that cash is king.  Very few places accept credit/debit cards.  You can’t help but love the money (shillings) and the elephants on the 10,000 bill.

 

Immediately outside I found several open-air cafes.  I chose one and asked for coffee, but ended up having a spiced tea, and something that would be considered a typical breakfast in Zanzibar.  It was here I had my first of many chapatis.  Chapati is a staple in East Africa influenced by Indian immigrants.  It is a thin flatbread similar to, but a bit thicker than crepes.  They are usually served with every meal and breakfast ones are slightly different.  I also discovered that chapati in Zanzibar differs from the rest of Tanzania as they are crunchier.  I also had samosas and fresh pineapple juice.  As they say in Swahili…Habari za asubuhi  (good morning).   After finishing breakfast I still had a lot of time to kill.  It seemed a shame to be in Zanzibar and not see the island.  There were a bunch of locals in the area, so I chatted it up with a few.  Luckily almost everyone spoke some level of English.  I asked if I could hire a taxi for an hour or so and get an island tour.  Someone called one of the security people over and he said he would take me.  We negotiated a price, in hindsight, I could have done better, but it was still a fair price and for 90 minutes he drove me around the island.

He even stopped whenever I wished to let me get out and take photos.  Then he delivered me back to the airport and I was able to enter the departure area as it was less than 2 hours until my flight.  Outside the door to enter the departure area sat 2 ladies who looked at my boarding pass, I told them my luggage was checked through to Arusha and they said, “well go on in and have a seat.”  There was a small shop but since I was going to be in Tanzania for the next 3 weeks, I looked around but didn’t make any purchases.

I was on an airline called Precision Air.  I soon saw a prop plane pull up and about 20 people stood up and sure enough, that was my plane.  We walked out onto the runway and boarded the plane for the mainland and Arusha.  Taking off the shades of blue of the Indian Ocean were indescribable.

No sooner than we were up, we started our descent.  If the smallness of the airport in Zanzibar was surprising, well the airport in Arusha was practically non-existent.  The only way to describe it is “open-air”.  The main building is under construction, and I kid you not, there were just seats set up out in the open with people waiting for their flights.  I had chatted it up with a man and his wife on the plane and was thankful I did.  After getting off the plane, I saw some men setting up tables…I soon discovered this was where they were putting the luggage.

 

Lo and behold and I’m sure you aren’t shocked, but no purple suitcase for me.  Godfrey ( the man from the plane) could see me looking confused and came to see if he could assist me.  I explained that I didn’t see my luggage and not only that, but I didn’t see my name on a nice little placard which meant my driver from the hotel was waiting.  He talked to one of the guys unloading the plane and he assured him that that was all the luggage that had been onboard.  Godfrey told me to look again for my driver and he would find some airport personnel to help me find my luggage.

A bit more backstory, while I knew I would eventually be traveling to Loliondo and Bright English Medium School, I had discovered during my research a place that intrigued me.  It was Maasai Eco Giraffe Lodge.  Lydia from BEMS had told me that I would need to take a local bus for about 8 or 9 hours to reach the school.  It appeared that the lodge was about at the halfway point.  I contacted the lodge and indeed, the bus passed by, and I could get off and spend a few days there before heading to the school.  They would arrange for a bus ticket to make sure I had a seat.  That comment went right over my head, but I soon discovered why that was important, but more on the bus journey in a minute.

I’m still at the airport without luggage or a driver.  It was recommended that I stay at the Natron Palace which is a hotel within walking distance of the bus station. Again, I needed to be at the bus station at 05:30 the next morning.  At this point, I am about 34 hours into my journey since I left Bulgaria.  I have not located my driver, but Godfrey has located someone to help me.  I also need to add that the owner of the lodge had messaged me with the name and WhatsApp number of a contact to help me once I arrived in Arusha.  He was going to accompany me to a mobile phone store so I could get a sim card for my phone and my portable router as there was limited Wi-Fi at the lodge and at the school.  Godfrey then offered to call Nginina (my contact from the Lodge).  Nginina told me to just stay put at the airport and he would come to get me as soon as possible.  Godfrey also informed him that my luggage was still in Zanzibar and no more planes were arriving on the mainland until the next day around 09:00….remember, I have a bus to catch at 05:30. Nginina said don’t worry he would sort that out when he arrived.  So, I thanked Godfrey and his wife and told them to please go ahead and leave, they didn’t need to stay with me until Nginina arrived.  These beautiful people checked on me that evening and the next day to make sure everything was sorted out.  I pulled up a chair and waited for Nginina.  A bit about Nginina, he is from the Maasai tribe near the Giraffe Lodge.  He works part-time for the lodge and is studying tourism at a university in Arusha.

Me and Nginina

Nginina arrived about 30 minutes later with a driver.  He spoke with the airport personnel and explained he would return to the airport the next day and retrieve the purple suitcase on my behalf.  That’s all fine and dandy but I will be long gone by the time it arrives.  He said don’t worry, there are always cars going that direction and I will make sure it gets sent to the lodge.  All I could do was trust him as I had no other option.  All I really wanted was a hot shower and a bed…but…we had things to do.  The first stop he said was the phone store because they were closing soon.  This is when I really discovered that cash is king.  The phone store wouldn’t even take a card.  While they were setting up my sim cards, Nginina escorted me to an ATM.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t safe, it is just easier to have a local to get around.  Cash in hand, that is as much as I could get at one time on my card.  I knew I had to pay cash for the sim, but I still had to pay for the hotel, which luckily took a credit card and I also needed to buy at least a new shirt to be somewhat fresh to travel the next day.  Sim taken care of, Nginina informed me the next stop was the bus station to get my ticket and so I would know where to go in the morning because he couldn’t accompany me.   I’m also starting to realize there is not a  lot of infrastructure here and the roads are mostly dirt or cinder.  At the bus station, we discovered that my ticket had not been reserved, but luckily they had one seat available.  The word seat is important.  I paid 23,000 shillings and they gave me my ticket and the next stop was the hotel.  I got settled in and thanked Nginina for his help and said goodbye.  As much as I wanted a nice long hot shower, I decided it was best to go back out into the hot, dusty streets and buy a t-shirt.  Mission accomplished.

Shower and then down to the restaurant in the hotel, I didn’t want to go out again, for a yummy bowl of carrot ginger soup and a gin and tonic.  Then it was off to bed…lala salama (sleep safely in Swahili).

04:45 came quickly and soon I was off to the bus station with my backpack.  Even though it was only about an 8-10 minute walk,  I was thankful I didn’t have to drag my suitcase in the pitch dark down the dirt, stone-filled road.

So, the bus trip was an experience.  I had to be at the bus station at 05:30.  Now I understand why Nginina took me yesterday to make sure I had a ticket, or more importantly a seat.  To say the bus was crowded is an understatement.  Of course, I thought it was crowded before we even pulled out promptly at 6am.

I was in the middle seat.  On one side of the bus, there are three seats where we would normally expect two.  The other side has two seats.  I also learned that seat position is important.  A lovely young lady was in the window seat next to me and explained the dynamics.  Window seats from the middle forward are the best.  The aisle seats on the entire bus are bad.  Why you ask? Because as you stop in small villages, just when you think no one else can get on, 10 more people do.  Which means they and their belongings are standing and piled up and down the aisle.  Kids sitting on buckets, a lady with a live chicken in a box.  I can’t even describe it and the pictures don’t tell the story. Sometimes we had to stop to let goats, sheep, or cattle cross the road.

Next, the terrain is rocky and sandy.  There is no real road.  A few times the girl said, I hope we don’t get stuck in the sand and need to get out and push.  There were also times it felt as if the bus could tip over.  Despite the crowded, hot, dusty circumstances (I was covered in a light layer of dirt/sand when I got off the bus) most everyone is pleasant, and I got a lot of big smiles.  The girl sitting by me said it doesn’t get more real than this.  I think I even managed to catch a wink or two, of sleep that is.

Got stopped at the border gate and my vehicle to go to the lodge.

The area we were traveling to is inside a national park, a protected area and there is a border gate. The girl told me they don’t make the people on the bus pay the park fee because they are usually traveling between villages, etc., and are residents.  I knew that I would have to pay a park fee because I was staying at a lodge within the area which I figured was part of the cost of my stay.  Of course, we go through the gate, and they pull the bus over.  Someone got on the bus, walked to me, and said I needed to get off the bus.  That in itself was a feat.  I had to stand on my seat and then walk on the armrests of several seats until I could put my feet on the floor and climb out.  Thank goodness I took my backpack with me because it was people from the lodge picking me up so I wouldn’t need to go to the next bus stop for them to get me.  Again I was thankful I didn’t have that purple suitcase to deal with.  I had to pay the “local government” fee of $35 in Tanzanian shilling. I also had to pay a lodging fee of $25 per day and I didn’t have enough cash because I thought it was paid at the lodge.  All the fees are in cash.  The gentleman was very kind and said he would come to the lodge later with a credit card machine and I could pay then.

Timan

Anyway, at least my life isn’t boring.  I made it to the lodge in a little motorized vehicle with Joel and Timan.  Timan would be my Maasai guide for my entire stay at the lodge.  I was just happy to get to my home for the next 3 nights.  That’s my story of how I arrived at the lodge.  My stay at the lodge was every bit as interesting and will be the next chapter.  Seeing the Baobab trees along the way was awesome.  Not to mention glancing out the window and seeing zebras and giraffes roaming freely.

Part 2 – My Stay at Maasai Eco Giraffe Lodge next…

 

Moments of My Life – Every Face Has a Story

Moments of My Life – Every Face Has a Story

Occasionally, looking back at my travel photos tends to make me melancholy.  Then I start looking forward and contemplating my dreams, the destinations I haven’t yet visited and those I want to return to.  There’s a quote (author unknown) that says, “It’s better to look back on life and say, I can’t believe I did that…than to look back and say I wish I did”.  When I look back, sometimes I can’t believe it’s my life I am looking at.  Did I really do all those things, go all those places, and meet all those people?  Occasionally, a few tears are shed.  Not necessarily in sadness, although I will probably never see most of these faces again, I am happy that they crossed my path and left something on my heart and in my soul.  Here are a few faces and their stories:

I moved to China in August 2015.  Not really knowing what to expect.  Not skilled in the use of chopsticks and certainly not prepared for squatty potties, I landed in a rural village that wasn’t even named on a map in Shandong Province…Xiashan.  Xiashan is considered part of the city of Weifang which is a 1.5-hour bus ride away.

The rural village was the epitome of “build it and they will come”.  While the 4-5000 residents of the village lived in simple homes, it was surrounded by 100’s of high-rise “ghost” apartments, one of which I lived in.  Since the newly built school was a boarding school and when school was in session, the population of the community more than doubled because of the student population, I guess they were hoping that the families that traveled (some over 4 hours) to Xiashan would invest in the real estate.   I soon discovered I would be teaching grades 1, 2, and 4 at Wiefang-Xiashan Bilingual School.   The students arrived staggered by grades as the small community couldn’t handle the huge influx all at once.  Soon all had arrived, and it was time for the school year to kick off.  We had a huge outdoor opening ceremony.

It was here that I first met Li Zi Han, aka “fish lips” because she was prone to making fish lips whenever her photo was taken.  She made up to me that day and I soon found out I would be her English teacher as she was in grade one.  She looked for me every day at the start of school and anytime in between.  Whenever I taught in her classroom, she always tried to be my helper.  She loved music and was always dancing.  She told me, with the help of a Chinese teacher interpreting, that she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up.  Her parents were physicians and I’m not sure her dream would be accepted by them.

I visited the school a couple years after I left and met up with her again.  She still had dreams of dancing, but what has become of her since?  Will she follow her dream?  Questions I will probably never have answers to.  Her face will forever be the one that I think about when I reminisce about my days in Xiashan.

 

The “Roof of the World”, the “Land of Snows”, “Bod”, or Tibet, the highest region on earth with an average elevation of 4,380 m (14,000 ft) has always fascinated me.  While Tibet is governed by China and it is known as Tibet Autonomous Region, there is tension regarding its political status.  There are dissident groups that are active in exile, along with the current or 14th Dalai Lama who went into exile in 1959 and currently resides in Dharamshala, India.  Living in Hunan Provence at the time, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to visit Tibet.  I also discovered as a foreigner I could not enter Tibet as an individual but must enter as part of a group with an authorized guide.  In July 2016, after securing a Tibet Travel Permit and finding a guide and tour group that fit my agenda, I took a 53-hour train ride from Guangzhou, China to Lhasa, Tibet.  I was met by an armed guard exiting the train and escorted to an area where my passport and travel permit were checked.  It was here I was met by my group’s guide and was taken to my hotel in Lhasa.  I arrived a couple of days before the tour started so I could have some free time in Lhasa.

One of the must-do items when choosing my itinerary was an overnight at Mount Everest Base Camp.  Everest Base Camp is either of two base camps on opposite sides of Mount Everest.  South Base Camp is in Nepal at an altitude of 5,364 meters (17,598 ft) (28°0′26″N 86°51′34″E), and North Base Camp is in Tibet at 5,150 metres (16,900 ft)  (28°8′29″N 86°51′5″E).  These camps are rudimentary campsites on Mount Everest that are used by mountain climbers during their ascent and descent.  Supplies are shipped to the South Base Camp by sherpas or porters, and with the help of animals, usually yaks.  The North Base Camp has vehicle access (at least in the summer months).  Climbers typically rest at base camp for several days for acclimatization to reduce the risks and severity of altitude sickness.  Being in Tibet, we had vehicle access to base camp.  The road to Everest Base Camp from Lhasa covers 613 kilometers and passes through Gyantse, Shigatse, Lhatse and Tingri.  It was on this road in the village of Mêmo in the Qomolangma (Tibetan name for Everest) Nature Preserve, I had my first glimpse of the mighty Mount Everest.  Qomolangma National Nature Preserve houses two of the poorest counties in China.  Local livelihoods depend predominantly on nomadic herding. It was also here that I stepped behind a concrete slab and put on my best OMG face as I pointed to the mountain.

 

I then looked down and saw a pair of black eyes looking up at me.  The eyes belonged to a small Nomad girl.  She was dressed in just a t-shirt and smiled at me with chapped cheeks.  She reached for me, and I picked her up and one of my travel mates snapped a photo of us.  I ended up buying Tibetan prayer flags from her mother.  Cathy, these are the ones hanging on your porch.

“Nomad children today hold the key to future wise use of the rangelands and continuance of the nomadic way of life.  Their education and health is critical.  They must learn new skills for handling animals and acquire the knowledge and expertise that will allow them to continue to use the rangelands with dignity.   As long as nomads, imbued with a sense of the sacredness of the landscape, are allowed to move in harmony with their animals across the grazing lands of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya, there is hope for the future. If we help enable this to happen, young nomads will have heroes they can identify with, and the world will be a better place for all of us.” (Daniel J. Miller, The World of Tibetan Nomads)

 

I often think of those chapped cheeks and black eyes and wonder what the last 6 years have brought her.  A face I will never forget.

It was Qingming Festival in China (April 2018).  I decided to take the time and check a bucket list item, to see Laolongtou (老龙头) or the ‘Old Dragon Head’.  This is where the Great Wall of China begins\ends at the Bohai Sea.

The Qingming or Ching Ming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, is a traditional Chinese festival that falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar.  This makes it the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, either 4 or 5 April each year.  Laolongtou (Old Dragon’s Head), so named because the Great Wall here resembles a dragon drinking water from the sea is located three miles (five kilometers) south of Shanhaiguan and about 190 miles (305 km) away from Beijing.

The Laolongtou Great Wall was built in 1381 under the supervision of Qi Jiguang, a general of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).  It was an important line of defense against enemies coming from both the land and the sea.  After the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), its military function faded, and it turned into a great tourist destination, attracting numerous visitors to enjoy the seascape and surrounding constructions.

My teaching assistant Alice accompanied me on this trip.  After visiting Laolongtou, we decided to travel about 15 km and see the Jiumenkou section of the Great Wall of China.  The Jiumenkou Great Wall was built in 1382 by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in this strategic area of a valley that that was an important pass allowing access inland.  It was built during the reign of Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398).  This portion of wall is the only part of the Great Wall that crosses a river.  So it is a unique section of the 8,850-km (5,500-mile) Ming Great Wall that stretched from Hushan on the North Korean border almost to Xinjiang far in the west. It also has a troop tunnel 1,027 meters long carved out under the wall perhaps to house troops or for use to hide troops in the event of an attack . It is thought 1000 soldiers could stay in it.

While walking around this area we stopped in a temple, and we met an 83-year-old monk.  She invited us to her simple home to share some fruit.  Since I had Alice with me to translate, I thought it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.   We spent about an hour with her, eating fruit and listening to her stories.  Another face, another soul that has crossed my path that I often think about and wonder.

After living 4 years in China, I made the decision to leave in 2019 and move to Poland in 2020.  Before moving to Poland and before spending the holidays in the states for the first time in 8 years, I decided to return to the island that stole my soul…Bali.  This time the plan was to live there for 4-6 months.  I also wanted to spend some time volunteering at a Balinese school for special needs children.  I ended up spending 6 weeks living and working at Yayasan Widya Guna in Bedulu, Bali, Indonesia.  Yayasan Widya Guna is an Indonesian non-profit organization whose focus is its children’s learning center.  It serves Balinese children who come from unfortunate situations.  They have taken in orphans and provided them with food, shelter, and an education.  They support children with all ranges of physical and/or mental disabilities, including but not limited to, downs, autism, and cerebral palsy. They also offer English lessons to the village children after their regular school day is over, free of charge.  Its mission is to: Educate the underprivileged Balinese children to be independent and bring them a better future with their own knowledge, culture, and skills.  Ketut Sadia is the founder of the school.  He encourages volunteers to use his homestay.  Just like at Kenari House, I paid for a room in the homestay.  By using the homestay of the school, the monies you pay for accommodation directly support the school.  Also, in exchange for your volunteer time, the homestay provides 3 meals a day at no additional cost.

On day 1 arriving at the school, noticing a new face, I was bombarded by kids wanting a hug, asking “what’s your name?” … you get the picture.  I soon learned that each morning, the day is started with meditation.  The meditation is guided by a teacher at the school and consists of 30 minutes of music to which the children have learned simple movements such as tapping the head lightly with their fingers and progressing down their body.  I was amazed how the children followed the guidance and were quite calm at the end of the 30 minutes which concluded with a lively dance routine.  It was during this time I also noticed many adults who seemed to be parents of some of the children.  Indeed they were and I learned they spend part of the school day on-site and help with things such as cleaning, maintenance, food preparation, and preparation of the canang sari or daily offerings.  I was assigned to my classroom which as it turns out, was the “active” group…think herding kittens.

One of my students was a smallish boy named Juna.  Mostly non-verbal and had a physical disability that affected his mobility.  Although he managed to walk and run, I was always waiting for him to topple over.  His father spent most of the day at the school and was always concerned with Juna’s welfare and assisting the teachers with Juna as much as possible.

They came and went from school on a motorcycle.  Each day as they were leaving they would pass me on the road and stop.  I would stop and Juna would give me a crooked smile and a high five.  Sadly, on April 5th I awoke to the news that Juna had passed away…fly high sweet boy!

So many beautiful faces have crossed my path during my journey “Down the Rabbit Hole”.   As I look back on my travel photos, I want to tell their story.  I wonder where they are now.  What are they doing?  Are they happy?  Have they followed their dreams?  Are they still alive?  Some are nameless, some I still have contact with, most I will never see again, and some I never formally met, but they have all touched me in some way.   I want to remember how I felt, where I was and what I was doing when our paths crossed.  My life has been blessed with these beautiful people.

As War Rages On, Will Society Become Complacent?

As War Rages On, Will Society Become Complacent?

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have despised the phrase “new normal”…an oxymoron for sure.  There is no such thing as a new normal.  There is the here and now we are living in, and life inevitably changes.  No, I’m not going to talk about the pandemic.  Most would disagree with what I have to say anyways…so it’s a moot point.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for over a month.  I’m going to pause here for a moment and ask that everyone make a conscious effort to NOT say, “the Ukraine”.  Those 3 little letters can make people from that country cringe.  Ukraine is a country, a nation, a recognized state, it is just Ukraine.  We don’t say “the” Poland or “the” France.  Okay, yes, I know we say the United States and the Netherlands.  I can explain, plural names get “the” tacked on.  “The” Ukraine is the way Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times.  Before becoming independent, the official name was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and it did have those 3 little letters.  If you have asked yourself how you can help, drop those 3 little letters when referring to Ukraine.  I have done it myself and in this part of the world, I have been corrected.  Another small change would be to refer to the capital by its Ukrainian spelling, Kyiv, rather than the Russian transliteration Kiev.  Two simple things you can do and make a difference.

Why did I bring up that dreaded phrase, new normal?  Over a month into the war, I fear that soon, unless you are directly impacted, it is going to become “normal”.  The world is going to become complacent.  Merriam Webster tells us complacent is marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; unconcerned, apathetic, indifferent.  As the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months turn to the unknown, will we become apathetic and indifferent to the plight of these people just like we have so many times before them?  I’m not pointing fingers because I am guilty as charged.  When the war broke out, everyone was gung-ho to help.  I rushed to the train stations, scurried around passing out juice boxes, asking what was needed, and hurried off to a store to fill these needs making purchases with contributed dollars.  Then I found out about Pawel and the #pinball4ukraine initiative.

My friends, my family, and my hometown newspaper all got on board and soon we had thousands of dollars to help.  Pawel is still working hard to find out where and what current needs are.  You can still contribute by sending contributions to PayPal@flippery.org.pl.  This is all great, but what next?  What can I do from here on out?  The mass exodus from Ukraine into Poland has slowed but refugees are still arriving daily.

Wandering through the train station it is “normal’ now to see people sleeping on the floor waiting for a train to somewhere.  We are still living “it” in Warsaw and across Poland, but my guess is that in the west people were shocked, they donated, they did what they could and now life goes on.  I’m not condemning this because I don’t have an answer for what’s next?  The pace of the first few weeks of the war couldn’t continue.  I’m thankful for people like Pawel who haven’t slowed their pace but who are searching for new ways to help besides just being a people mover.

An internal conflict in Afghanistan began in 1978 between anti-communist Islamic guerrillas and the Afghan communist government (aided in 1979-1989 by Soviet troops).  A US-led invasion launched in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 was the beginning of the Afghanistan War (2001-2014).  Everyone (both for and against) was up in arms when we pulled our troops from Afghanistan (completed August 30, 2021), yet the conflict continues, and it only seems to come up as fuel for the fire in political debates.

A peaceful uprising in 2011 against the president of Syria turned into a full-scale civil war leaving an estimated half a million people dead.  22 million have fled their country and 6.9 million are internally displaced with more than 2 million living in tented camps with limited access to basic services.  Although Russia was involved in a ceasefire in March 2020, it doesn’t appear the war will end anytime soon.

A few short days ago Azerbaijan has said it is ready for peace talks with Armenia.  I’m going to hazard a guess and say most people probably don’t even know about a conflict between those two countries.  I just happen to have a flatmate from Azerbaijan and a student from Armenia.  “In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh which killed more than 6,500 people.  A ceasefire deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin saw Armenia cede swaths of territory to Azerbaijan and Moscow deploy a peacekeeping contingent to the mountainous region.  Last week, Yerevan (capital of Armenia) and Moscow accused Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) of violating a ceasefire in the Russian contingent’s zone of responsibility.  A significant flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh could pose a challenge for Moscow, at a time when tens of thousands of Russian troops are engaged in Ukraine.  Moscow has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and a land corridor linking it with Armenia.  Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  The ensuing conflict killed about 30,000 people.” (Aljazeera, March 29, 2022)  And…the conflict continues.

Although my student from Armenia has been in Poland for several years, he told me he has times when his emotions run the gamut regarding the war in Ukraine.  He told me he must admit that sometimes he gets angry.  He explained that he does want peace for Ukraine, but when he sees basically the whole world trying to aid the Ukrainian refugees, he gets angry and wonders where “the world” was when Armenia needed them.  He said he feels that people think it is normal for there to be war in “his” part of the world.

Today, chatting with a student from one of my classes, she said she has felt a bit down lately.  As she goes about her day-to-day life, she fears the fate of Ukraine and its people is becoming part of our normal routine…that we are accepting that this is just the way it is going to be.  She said it’s not that people don’t care anymore, but can we or what should we be doing?  I told her I have been feeling the same way.  I’m not sure what else I can do except support the efforts of #pinball4ukraine.  If there are people in Poland, where well over 2 million refugees have settled, who are feeling like this, I can only imagine the rest of the world can easily push it from the forefront of their minds.

I don’t have any answers to my questions.  My comments are merely my opinion and the stories I tell are factual.  I can’t wrap my head around the things I have been exposed to in the last 5 weeks.  My emotions have taken a roller coaster ride but the one emotion I haven’t had is fear… I can’t fathom the fear some of these people, especially the children have felt and not only Ukrainian children.

I had a student tell me she took her daughter, age 5, with her to a shelter to deliver children’s clothing.  Alice cried.  She couldn’t understand why these children had to live with 400 other people and didn’t have their own homes.  She had questions her mother wasn’t prepared to answer.  Another student told me his young sons were very scared when the war broke out.  His older son who I believe is 10, is quite a history buff about WWII.  He was fearful about what could happen to Poland.  Again, young children with questions he wasn’t prepared to answer.  He said now they won’t even talk about what is happening.

Some mornings, recently, I wake up with little on my agenda and wonder what I should be doing.  I always have things I can do for myself, but is there a need at some shelter or the train station I should consider?  Frankly, I simply want to do nothing but curl up with a book.  Then a little bit of guilt creeps in.  Sometimes I can push it aside, sometimes I check the websites to see if help is needed anywhere, sometimes I put the pen to the paper which is where I have been the last couple of days.  It doesn’t answer the whys or the what’s but it does help me put things in perspective.  It helps me think, it pushes me to research things happening in other parts of the world that when you think about it are really all intertwined.  I have decided that accumulating knowledge can make a difference.  By understanding what is happening around the globe, maybe we can become a bit more empathic.

We are one human race.  War may not be the answer, but it has opened my eyes to the plight of people in Syria, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other places around the world.  I heard a comment, “I don’t care what happens in that part of the world but it’s terrible what is happening in Ukraine.”  I knew it wasn’t worth it to get into a heated discussion over this comment because I would get angry, and the other person would still feel the same way.  Will I soon hear, I don’t care what’s going on in Ukraine or is Ukraine enough like the “west” that people won’t stop caring.  I know it is starting to feel like a normal state of living.  I don’t like that feeling but I’m not sure what to do about it.  Maybe it is the natural evolution of feelings.  I know I’m not the only person feeling like this.

I guess all I can do is continue to educate myself, do what I can, where I can, and when I can.  I can remind myself this isn’t  “normal”.  I remind myself there are still people fleeing their homes and soldiers and civilians are dying for their country.  If you made it this far, thanks for reading my random thoughts as I try to clear my head.  If you use those 3 little letters when you talk about Ukraine, try to check yourself.  Remember the capital of Ukraine is Kyiv and most of all remember war isn’t normal.  I know that together, we can still make a difference.

My Life in Poland During the War in Ukraine

My Life in Poland During the War in Ukraine

I am currently located in Warsaw Poland.  Warsaw is no stranger to war.  During the German occupation (1939-1945), 80-90% of Warsaw was destroyed, including museums, art galleries, theaters, churches, parks, castles, and palaces.  During the International Reparations Conference held in Paris in 1946, it is estimated that Poland’s material losses were 16.9 billion US dollars, and two-fifths of the country’s cultural property was destroyed.  If this wasn’t bad enough, Poland was forced to hand over 48% of its land to the Soviet Union due to international pressure from world powers.

Even after the 178,000 km² of land (48%) was turned over to the Soviet Union, Poland continued to be under the rule of the communist party following WWII.  The fall of the former Soviet Union took place on December 26, 1991, and on October 27, 1991, the first free Polish parliamentary elections since the 1920s took place.  This completed Poland’s transition from a communist party rule to a democratic political system, but it wasn’t until September 18, 1993, that the last Soviet troops left the country.

Poland and Ukraine share a border of 529 km (328 mi).  Why is this important?  On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.  On Saturday, February 26, 2022, I attended an anti-war protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.  Little did I know at the time, this was just the beginning of what would become the world’s largest migrant crisis since WWII.  At the onset, the Polish government said they were prepared to take on up to 1 million refugees.  As I sit here typing, we are in the middle of day 24 of the War in Ukraine and nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine with over 1.9 million finding their way across the border into Poland.

What I am witnessing not only here in Warsaw, but all of Poland is a grassroots movement of epic proportion.  I never dreamed I would be living in a country and witnessing the effects of war up close and personal.  I am hundreds of kilometers away from the actual war, but the devastation can be seen in the eyes of those arriving who have no idea what their future will look like.  I also never dreamed this war would become personal to me.  My life, my heart, my soul…they have all been touched in uncountable ways through my travels.  My hope has always been to show friends, family, and anyone who happens to stumble across my social media what the world looks like through my eyes.  I want to tell the stories of the places I go, the things I do, but more importantly, I want to tell the stories of the people I meet.  I want you to know what their eyes tell me when I look into them.  I have cried a river over the last few weeks.  Not just because of the devastation of the war but I have witnessed a coming together of humanity that is close to indescribable.  Here is my story…

February 24, 2022, was a holiday in Poland,  Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday.  In Poland, everyone eats pączki on Fat Thursday.  I had spent the day before in a queue for 2.5 hours to get mine, but that’s another story for another time.  When I logged on to my classes that Thursday, no one was talking about how many pączki they had eaten, but that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine along with a question no one really wanted to voice, what does this mean to Poland?  I received many messages that day, asking, “how far are you from Ukraine?”, “are you safe?”, “do you have a plan to leave Poland?”.  I am a little over 300 km (186 miles) to Hrebenne which is a city near one of the border gates between Poland and Ukraine.  Yes, I am safe for now and feel very comfortable in Warsaw.  No, I don’t have a plan to leave Poland.  Other than some conversation about the situation during my classes, Thursday and Friday went along normally.  On Saturday, I learned there would be a protest/demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.

I arrived at the Russian Embassy about 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of 18:00.  The road was still open to traffic.  People lined both sides of the street and cars and buses passing by showed support by sounding their horns.  All public transportation in Warsaw is also flying the Ukrainian flag and the flag of Warsaw.  As the crowd grew people continued to queue up along the roadside.  About 5 minutes before the start time, the police blocked the street to traffic and then told the crowd they could fill the street.  At this point, some speakers took to a small stage.  I didn’t understand what was being said but could feel the emotion of the crowd.  When I found Zaka, my flatmate, in the crowd, he was able to translate a few things.  There was a point when the crowd chanted peace in Ukraine and free Russia from Putin.  By the time we decided to leave, the crowd had grown exponentially.  What I experienced was people from many nations, men, women, and children all coming together in unity waving Polish and Ukrainian flags.  As I stood looking at the massive Russian Embassy flanked by Polish police, I realized this war was becoming personal to me.

My flatmate in Changning, China was from Moscow.  I enjoyed her Russian hospitality during my visit to Moscow in June of 2017. When I got home from the demonstration, I messaged her and told her I had attended.  Her response to me was, “all my friends and most of the people I know want the same thing – peace for Ukraine and freedom for Russia”.   Then I thought about my other Russian friend I met when I was living in Qingdao, China.

I read her words later that night, “I want to believe that there are more Russians who realize that we’re all responsible for this.  It’s just they’re chickening out because in this country you get jailed, tortured, and you disappear for speaking up.  Some have families and cats to feed, some are just greedy and are afraid of losing their businesses and reputation, but I guess that’s also understandable.  We’re all just trying to stay safe….Let’s just try not to hate each other personally”.  As I thought about my Russian friends, their words,  and all the Russian hate right now, it reminded me of how so many were anti-China at the beginning of the pandemic. Even more so now as no one knows if China will align itself with Russia, please remember there are good, kind people in Russia who don’t want this war any more than we do.

Saturday of the demonstration was also the day Tatiana, my cleaning lady, was scheduled.  She had returned to Lviv, Ukraine a month earlier to renew her Visa.  When the war broke out, she made the decision to remain in Ukraine with her family.  I didn’t hear from her again until March 13th.  She had returned to Warsaw but because her sons are between 18 & 60, they were obligated to remain in Ukraine.  Please keep the safety of her sons in your thoughts.

I usually email lessons to my students on Sunday for the following week,  As I was doing this, I thought about a student who although was living in Poland, was from Belarus.  It was in Belarus that it was reported that military vehicles had entered Ukraine through Senkivka.  This is the point where Ukraine meets Belarus and Russia.  I sent them a separate email asking how they were.  Their mother is Russian, they have family in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.  They told me their life was a living nightmare.  Of course, I can’t talk about Belarus without thinking of my former flatmate,  “my little one”, from Belarus.  This conflict is affecting people in ways that we can’t comprehend.  Suddenly, they are concerned about repercussions if they label themselves as “Belarusian” or “Russian” and may even be fearful of returning to their country as they may not be able to return to Poland.

Monday rolls around and this war continues to become personal.  Summer 2021 found me on the Black Sea in Kiten, Bulgaria.  I was working at a summer camp, and we had two campers from Ukraine.  I learned they had both taken refuge, one in a bomb shelter.  During the first week of March, I learned that one had made it out of the country safely.  The other, as of today, I have had no word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The war is becoming more real, more personal by the day.  I find myself hungry for information on the humanitarian efforts I know are going on in Warsaw and all over Poland.  In the first 4 days of the crisis, over 220,000 refugees crossed into Poland, many coming to Warsaw.  I discovered Warsaw had 28 collection points in the city.  The grassroots movement had begun.  Ordinary citizens were organizing these collection points and through the power of social media were able to let people know of immediate needs…blankets, diapers, food, and beverage to give to people as they crossed into Poland, etc.  At this point, I couldn’t report on what was going on in Ukraine, but I could share what the people of Poland were doing. The border town of Przemyśl greets refugees with food, beverages, clothes, blankets, books, and stuffed animals for the children.  Warsaw has 3 train stations which also have nearby bus stations.   There are reception points set up in these areas.   They provide the new arrivals with food and beverage and assist them in getting information regarding trains and buses to destinations beyond Warsaw and beyond Poland.  They point them to ATM machines, to first aid stations, and just try to provide a smile and a friendly face.   It may appear these places are unorganized, but trust me, it is organized chaos.  Think about it, Poland, a country of almost 38 million, and as of March 20, 2022, 1.95 million people have entered Poland.  This is a 5% increase in population in just 3 weeks.  Even more unbelievable is that about 300,000 are currently being sheltered in Warsaw, a city of 1.77 million.  If you do the math, that is a 17% increase in the population of my city.  I don’t think anyone could explain it better than David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, did when he was interviewed at the Warsaw Central Station.  When you see the images of families sleeping on the floor of the stations, please know they are making this choice.  They have already lost their homes and most of their personal belongings, not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return to their country, their homes.  They are choosing to “camp out” on floors instead of going to a shelter because they don’t want to miss the opportunity to catch the next train to somewhere…somewhere they may have family, somewhere that they may be starting a new future…a future they never thought about.

My first visit to the train station was 15 days ago, 10 days after the invasion.  This is what I saw there.  The place was full of people just arriving in Warsaw from Ukraine.  Many with glazed looks in their eyes, some crying, others looked exhausted, and many had their pets with them.  There were volunteers helping direct them to information points, they were walking around passing out sandwiches and drinks, etc.  It was a beehive of activity. I was just passing through on this day but made the decision I needed to find out how I could help.  I went outside and caught a tram home.  As I was arriving home I was in front of my building and a woman came up to me and said Apteka which is a pharmacy.  It was easiest for me to just walk her around the corner.  I said I only speak English.  She said, no English, Ukraine.  I managed to discover (thank you Google translate) she just arrived in Warsaw 4 days ago with her family.  She said the name of her city and said the word home and motioned that it was flattened.  I literally started to cry just as I got her to the pharmacy.  She told me “thank you” in Polish and all I could do was take her hands, look her in the eyes and say good luck.  Seeing these people, looking deep into their eyes is something I won’t ever forget.  When I got into my flat, I started searching and found a Facebook group that was organizing everything at the train stations.  I joined the group and continued scrolling Facebook.

As each day passes, this war affects me in many ways.  But most of all we are living it in Poland.  We are seeing the people arriving with just a simple bag of necessities or some with nothing but the clothes on their back, their children, and many even their pets.  I had a student tell me they wouldn’t be attending class one day as they were helping at the border.  She lives in a small village in the southeastern part of Poland.  She is the mother of 3 young children, I asked if I could share a few of her words.

“My life has changed a lot in the last few days.  I had the opportunity to be at the border to help two families from Ukraine.  I have been able to see people who want to escape the actions of a madman.  I could see the fear, despair, longing.  But I also saw love, solidarity, unity.  I was able to participate in building a temporary life anew.  I was able to observe terror which with time turns into hope despite the constant specter of evil and tragedy.

I cried with people powerless in the face of events that turned many dreams to dust.  Enjoyed the kids delighted with the Frozen towel and coloring book, whose fathers and brothers were left fighting for their freedom.  In the evening, I cried with relief, looking at my sleeping children, appreciating that such terrible things had not touched my loved ones.

In recent days, I have been observing people whose lives have changed dramatically.

I have no punch line.  I only have a solemn request that we continue to be able to show our heart to those who are NOW in a much more difficult situation than we are.  WHAT, NOW?  These are words that come back to me like a boomerang in recent days.  I don’t know my tomorrow.  I know my today. And I want to share my good “today” with those whose “yesterday” and “tomorrow” is gloomy.”

During my first year in Poland, I was always searching for interesting things to do.  I happened to discover Pinball Station, an interactive museum established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists.  That evening, as I was scrolling, I saw a post by Paweł, one of the founders of the museum.  It read (translated version),  “To everyone who wants to help refugees.  Pinball Station has launched a coach bridge between the border and Warsaw.  I, Paweł Nowak, have personally been to the border 5 times.  We have coaches and drivers available.  Today at 5 am we transported another 48 people.  In total, it is already about 150 people transported in two days.  We ask you to help raise money for the next transport.  Out of 150 people transported, there were only a few men, the rest were women and children, even babies.  I am determined, I am in constant contact with foreign countries, we are looking for accommodation and further transport for them.  Please help.”

Almost simultaneously as I am reading this, I received a private message from a friend asking if they could send me money to help.  Next thing I knew I had a couple more friends message me.  Since I only worked a half-day that coming Wednesday, I decided I would go to the Pinball Station to get more information.  I had turned the monies I received into cash (Polish Zloty).  My plan had been to leave a portion of the money to help with another transport.  Paweł wasn’t there, but the young lady working immediately got him on the phone to chat with me.  After a long (Paweł likes to talk) conversation, I felt that I could trust him, the project seemed to fit the request of my friends which was to help the refugees, and the amount of money they sent was almost the exact amount to sponsor a bus.  I made the decision to leave 3000 zł with the girl at the museum and hoped I could trust my gut.

This also left me with a few hundred zloty I could use to purchase things that were needed at the train station.  On March 11, 2022, I received photos from Paweł showing a bus full of people we helped bring to Warsaw from the border.  I was overcome with emotion knowing we made a difference.  Later that evening, I was contacted by my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle asking about life in Poland during the war.  I told them my story up until that point and that I planned to return to the train station the next day to help.  I had no idea the tidal wave that was about to hit.

I woke to a beautiful Saturday… blue skies and sunshine and not too cold.  I started out heading to the Central Train Station to help wherever I was needed.  I stopped for lunch on my way and saw a post that they needed some help and supplies at the West Train Station.  I finished my lunch and changed direction.  2 buses later I arrived at a scene that I am at a loss for words to describe. Poland was prepared to accept about 1 million people across their border.  By this morning, day 16 of the war, 1.6 million people have crossed into Poland.  What I am witnessing here by everyday people in this city is beyond description.  There were people everywhere. A tent was set up almost like a small boutique.  Those just arriving could go and help themselves to whatever they needed.  Next to that was a tent that was distributing sandwiches, snacks, and beverages.  Inside the station were makeshift beds and people everywhere.  I did what I could there for a couple hours, including keeping beverage supplies stocked.  When I decided it was time for me to leave here I caught the bus back to the Central Train Station to see if there were any needs.  It was the same, people, everywhere.  Women going around offering strollers and baby carriers to mothers with young children.  There was a tent city set up outside the train station with a sign that said free food.  Tents for clothing, personal hygiene items, T-Mobile, and other phone carriers handing out sim cards with free minutes and data.   People leave boxes of snacks, beverages, and sandwiches in the middle of the hall for arrivals to help themselves.  Again, normal citizens somehow come together to make this work.  I don’t know how Poland can keep accepting people, but they are resilient and are doing whatever they can to make it work.  I struggle to find the words and pictures that do not tell the story you see in the eyes of new arrivals.  I’m tired, I’m thankful, I’m blessed.

I fell into bed exhausted, physically but most of all, emotionally.  I woke up Sunday morning to a plethora of messages.  Many who saw my post from the train station wanted to know how they could help, could they send me money?  Although a bit overwhelmed, I couldn’t say no.  After all, one of my favorite quotes is from Mother Theresa and says, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I was already witnessing the ripple effect across Poland.  I ordered my Starbucks (it’s my Sunday treat to myself), opened the Tribune app on my phone, and was shocked to see my story on the front page, “the drive to save lives”.  Between my post from the previous day, a zoom chat with friends in Florida, and now the newspaper article, my notification chime kept dinging.  It looked as if our ripple was turning into a tidal wave.  At this point, I knew I couldn’t handle this all myself.  I asked my friend Teri in Warren, Barb in Alabama, Dawn in Tennessee, and Marla in Florida if they would each handle contributions in their areas.  By that evening, I was an emotional wreck.  People I have never met, casual acquaintances, friends I went to school with, friends of friends, my family, more people than I ever imagined were sending contributions.  If this doesn’t give some hope for humanity, nothing will.  As I am writing this today, I have received over $13,000 of love and kindness for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.  One person said they had been to Ukraine last summer with their child and he wanted to help.  I heard, “my family chooses a charity to support each year and when we saw this it is what we want to do.”  I discovered that people wanted something they could be a part of and see the results.  When I said this war was becoming personal, I had no idea what I was talking about.  I think I cried myself to sleep that night with tears of joy.

Monday and Tuesday, I worked.  Wednesday, I told Paweł I would be by the Pinball Station to see him.  After hitting up 4 ATM machines to withdraw funds for 2 buses (6000 zł), I set off to walk to the museum…purse close by my side.  When I arrived there was a school group there so being a nice day, we headed out to the back patio to chat.  4 hours later, I was speechless.  What this man has organized by himself is truly amazing.  Here is his story…

If you’re like me, I never really gave much thought to bringing people from the border.  You send a bus, you pick people up, you bring them back…simple, right?  Not…In the early part of the war, there were easily 100 thousand people crossing the border on any given day.  There are border gates that everyone must pass through and be counted.  Some of these gates lead to cities that have train stations, some just lead to small towns or villages.  These people need to be moved to bigger cities because there are no facilities in many of these places to handle large numbers.  The other thing is all the regular daily train and bus service around and out of Poland can’t just stop.  You can’t send every bus and train to the border and leave the rest of the country in limbo.  Where are all these trains and buses going to come from to move this number of people?  Paweł started out going to the border in his private vehicle.  He decided he needed to find a way to get buses to the border.  After he solved the problem of getting buses, the logistics doesn’t stop there.  He got to know the police and volunteers in these border cities and for about the first 10 days traveled with the buses.  Now, he explained to me, he sends a bus, when the driver is about 30 minutes out from the border, he phones Paweł.  Paweł then phones a volunteer in one of the cities.  He finds out where the greatest need is and then calls the driver and tells him which city to go to.  Because males between 18 and 60 are obligated to remain in Ukraine, most of the passengers are women, children, the elderly, and a few pets.  He has a simple notebook he records each day for each bus.  For instance, he records each unit on the bus. (1 adult 2 children, etc.)

He also records their final or wished for final destination as this helps him determine if he drops them at the train station or orders Ubers to transport them to a shelter.  He also told me that in the beginning there wasn’t a day when he wasn’t brought to tears by something.  For example, at the border reception stations, the refugees are met and one of the things they are given is a sim card so they can contact someone that may still be in Ukraine.  He told me of a mother and daughter who arrived.  The first thing she did was call her husband.  A stranger answered…..that is how she, alone, with a small child in a strange country, found out her husband had been killed.

Working at the train station, I noticed that people were arriving with very few personal items.  Paweł explained.  People started out taking as much as they could, but as the war escalated and evacuation intensified trains, buses and cars were more concerned with moving people, not things.  Also, what might have normally been a 4-hour trip was now sometimes taking 4 days.  People started abandoning their belongings at the side of the road not being able to carry so much because they were walking or because it was more important to take people versus “things”.

I am going to pause here for a moment in Paweł’s story and ask you to ponder this question.  You must flee your home, your country, your life as you knew it because the bombs are closer each day, what are you taking in the one bag you will probably end up with?  This was a recurring question in my classes whenever we talked about the current situation in Poland.  No one could imagine having to put their life in a simple bag. What are you taking?

Paweł told me of one night that the bus was nearing the border and everywhere he called he heard the same thing, there are no refugees.  No one seemed to know why.  The bus driver said he could spend the night in the bus.  The next morning, refugees started arriving again.  Firstly, it had been cold overnight (upper teens, low 20’s) but more tragically, the Russians had been shooting at the trains.  They stopped the trains, and everyone took shelter through the night.  When they felt it was as safe as it would get, they continued their journey finally arriving at the border the next morning. There was also a rush at the border after humanitarian corridors were opened to evacuate cities. He told me of women in the border towns seeing mothers struggling with small children, would go across into Ukraine and carry their children into Poland for them.

I was stunned by his stories, his firsthand accounts.  As we are entering day 25 of the war, almost 2 million people have crossed into Poland.  Poland has said they will find a way to take everyone that needs refuge.  We are seeing a decrease in people arriving now, but there are many other needs, and this could change at any time.  For instance, there may be a need for transportation to the port in Gdynia, Poland as Sweden is transporting people from Poland to Sweden by boat.  There is also a need for large quantities of cleaning supplies at these shelters that are housing 1000s of refugees.  Toilet paper, soap, shampoo, personal hygiene items, blankets…think about it.  Within 3 weeks 2 million additional people need these supplies.  Where are they coming from?   There is a need for powdered milk which he can buy at cost if he purchases 1000 kilos (about 1 ton).  The Ukrainian army is requesting drones and they need medical supplies.  So while we will still be using funds for sponsoring buses from the border, because of your generosity we will be able to help fund several projects.

I am going to wrap this up here.  The last 3 weeks, but mostly this last week have been an emotional roller coaster.  My eyes were opened to things I never thought about.  Things I can’t imagine ever going through myself.  I have met people who have no idea what their future looks like.  I have also witnessed humanity and compassion that I thought didn’t exist anymore.

As Nelson Mandela said, “We can change the world and make it a better place.  It is in your hands to make a difference.”

Thank you for letting me tell my story.  My life, my heart, and my soul are forever changed.  Thank you for making a difference.

Teri, Barb, Dawn, Diana, Randy, Danny, Sandy, Michael, Marla, Celeste, Brenda, Wanda, Gail, Jan, Ann, Kay, Dan, Richard, Connie, the Boca Starbucks Group, Amy, Larry, Gloria, Lynn, Guy, Pat, Richard, Cathy, Sandy, Maureen, Henry, Sue, Jane, Dan, Margie, Lori, Nina, Carly, Susan, Janet, Mark, Frank, Andrea, Marilyn, Darlene, Margo, Cathy, Jeff, Judy, Marilyn, Jodi, Julia, Dennis, Ann Marie, Donita, Sean, Traci, Marcella, Linda, Nick, Rhonda, Bob, Kathy, Henry, Deb, Scott, Sharon, Bob, Sally, Lucy, Mary, Kary, John, Becky, Ann, Karen, Shane, Tom, Emily, Debbie, Bill, Bobbie, Clara, Rocky, Jan, Marilyn, Maribeth, Elaine, Wayne, Teri, Janice, Jayne, Joyce, Jan….I’m sure the list will grow.  Forgive me if I missed a name.  It has all been overwhelming.  Thank you for making a difference.

Ten Travel Tips and a Spare

Ten Travel Tips and a Spare

Spending the last nearly eight years as a nomad wandering this planet with 195 countries, 7 seas, and nearly 8 billion people, I have picked up a few helpful hints along the way.  In 2021, I visited my fortieth country.  To some people that probably seems like a lot, but it is a mere twenty percent of this incredible world.  Sometimes I am amazed that I have seen so much while other times I think how much is still there to explore.  I have been in places where my skin shade, my religion, and my language have put me in the minority.

I have sat in Hindu temples and experienced spirituality I can’t put into words.  I have sat in rooms where no one spoke my native language and I knew but a few basic words in theirs.  I have relied on the kindness of strangers when I found myself in unknown parts and a mobile phone with a dead battery.  I have shared a meal with locals and had no idea what I was eating and honestly decided it was best I didn’t know.  I had a six-hour back surgery 7000 miles from home in a small town in China.   I have slept in a home in rural North Vietnam where the animals lived under the house and meals were cooked over an open fire.  I have slept in a home with no running water.  I have also dined with a ship’s captain floating somewhere in the middle of one of the seven seas.

I was at the procession for the Queen Mum’s funeral in London, have stood in Red Square in Moscow, and sipped champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Out of all these experiences,  the most important thing I have learned, and it is not part of my “tip list”, is that no matter the country, the culture, the language, the skin shade, the religion, or the political situation, is that people are inherently good.  I would describe myself as an optimist, but I don’t see the glass as half full and certainly not half empty.  I see it as having room for more. I like to think I always have room for more…more room to grow…more room to learn.  Maybe you already know most of my “tips”, but these are some things I have picked up along my journey.  Hopefully, you too have room for more and maybe you will pick up just one thing that will make your travels go more smoothly.  As a side note, for most of these tips, I am thinking about travel of a minimum of one week or longer.  Without further ado my top ten and a spare:

  1. You Don’t Need All Those Shoes: Do you really need three different pairs of sandals?  Let me answer that for you…NO!  What you do need are comfortable walking shoes.  If you are going to a warm climate and those shoes happen to be sandals, so be it.  Although, I prefer to have my main pair of comfortable shoes as closed-toe. These are also usually the ones I travel in.   Depending on the time of year, I like a Born Mayflower II (flat) or the Toby Duo (slight heel).  These are good for fall, winter, and rainy weather.  I also like my closed-toe Keens.  The Skecher GOwalk slip-on is another good choice.  It comes in several colors, but I tend to stick with black or grey.  For warm weather, I can’t be without a pair of flip-flops.  I love my croc flip-flops and Keen has nice options also.  An essential shoe, in my humble opinion, is a shower shoe that can double as a pair of slippers for your room.  If you have the room or are planning a fancy night out and need a dressy pair of shoes, that is your choice.  For most of my travels, I can make do with the pair I am traveling in, a pair of flip-flops (depending on the time of year or destination), and a pair of shower shoes.  I rarely have more than 3 pairs total including what I am wearing.
Born Mayflower
  1. Stick to Black, Grey, Brown, and Navy: I know, I know….BORING.  I’m not suggesting you don’t pack anything of color.  Choose the core pieces of your wardrobe in these basic colors.  A pair of jeans and 3 other pairs of pants can get me by for 2 weeks of travel.  This includes the pair I travel in.  I usually travel in a pair of dark-colored yoga-type pants which can be dressed up with a nice blouse or tunic.  You need color in your life/wardrobe you argue.  No problem, a couple of colorful tops will easily match your bottoms.  Accessorize with color…take a couple colorful scarves which can double as a wrap if it gets chilly or a headcover should you get caught in the rain.  Always expect the unexpected.  This means even if you are going to a tropical climate, throw in a long-sleeve item or wear it on the plane as it often tends to be chilly onboard.  I’m not going to tell you how much to pack in the way of clothes, just don’t pack more than you can easily manage on your own.  Especially because traveling in many countries you won’t always find the convenience of an elevator or escalator and may find yourself hauling your 50lb (23 kg) suitcase up a flight of stairs.  My rule of thumb…if I have extra room in my suitcase and it doesn’t make it too heavy, I usually throw in an extra shirt or two.  It’s easier to wear pants for multiple days than shirts.  I also don’t usually pack an umbrella because they are cheap to buy on the street should the need arise.

    Just a little pop of color
  2. Buy Shampoo and Stuff at Destination: Okay, I know they make most everything in travel size nowadays. But, even in travel size, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion all add unnecessary weight to your luggage.  Unless you can give me a good reason why you can’t do without your favorite shampoo for a week or two, use what is available at the hotel.  If you absolutely hate what is provided or they don’t have everything you need, buy it at your destination and leave it behind or use those zip-lock bags I’m going to talk about and take it home at the end of the trip.  That’s all I’m going to say about that.  Trust me, the space and weight you save can be of a better use for something else.  AND, if you can afford the trip, you can probably afford to buy those things when you arrive.
  3. Baby Wipes: I just got done telling you to buy stuff at your destination and now I’m telling you to pack baby wipes.  I don’t think you will need to shampoo your hair between leaving and home and your destination, although never say never.  You may want to freshen up between here and there.  I throw a packet of baby wipes in my carry-on to wash my face, wipe my hands, clean the tray table, etc.  Believe me when I tell you they will come in handy.  Ever gone to the restroom and discovered there is no toilet paper…aha…I have baby wipes.  Need to blow your nose and no tissues…baby wipes.  Baby wipes are more versatile than a pack of tissues, although it never hurts to have tissues on you either.
  4. Scan Docs and Email Yourself: I am old school and like a hard copy of everything, but it isn’t always convenient to have a folder full of paper you must root through.  I try to scan or take a photo of important documents.  This would include, any identification (driver’s license, passport), boarding passes, tickets for museums and shows, confirmation numbers for hotels, etc., important phone numbers (bank, credit card company, hotels, emergency numbers), and in these days of coronavirus, proof of negative covid test, recovery, or vaccination.  Once I have scans or photos of everything, I create a folder on my phone and store them.  More importantly, email a copy of all the documents to yourself.  This way, should you lose or have your phone stolen, you can always access your email at any computer and retrieve the documents.
  5. Pen: Always, always, always have a pen on you.  If traveling internationally, most often you will need to fill out some type of immigration form (usually on the plane).  Also in these days of coronavirus, a health questionnaire is sometimes required.  Even if I have filled out forms online, I have, on occasion, had to fill them out hardcopy.  Even if not traveling internationally, it seems as if there is always something I need to jot down.
  6. One Splurge: I never want to be the typical tourist and do all the touristic things.  I have saved up for this trip and want to be as economical as possible.  I know I said earlier if you can afford the trip buy the stuff there.  That doesn’t mean I want to spend crazy amounts of money to have and do the best of everything or eat in 5-star restaurants every night.  In other words, I don’t want to spend stupid money either.  Do find at least one “special” thing you want to do or treat yourself to…Maybe it’s a special wine, a massage, a trendy restaurant, a special purchase, a touristic dinner cruise on the Seine at sunset, whatever your little heart desires.  Splurge on at least one thing that is going to make your trip magical.
Seine Dinner Cruise
  1. Learn Some Basics and an Unusual Phrase: This may be one of the most important things on my list, in my opinion.  Learn the basics!!  If you are traveling to a country where you don’t know the language, learning at least hello, goodbye, please, and thank you will make life so much easier.  People will appreciate the fact you tried to speak their language.  If you can find and learn an unusual phrase even better.  I have also found it helpful to learn how to ask for your check in the local language at restaurants and cafes.  Numbers….learning the basics of numbers has been beneficial when using taxis.  Of course, you should only use official taxis or take the chance of being ripped off.  Another useful phrase is to learn how they toast in the local language.  I always get a smile when I say, “sante”, “ganbei” or “na zdrowie”.  If you aren’t traveling to a place where the language is different, it is still nice to learn if they have any local custom, history, or phrase and then use it.  Locals are always happy to discover you know something about their town’s history or culture.

  1. Eat Where the Locals Eat: I get it that maybe everyone doesn’t want to try exotic foods, but are you really going to Paris and eating at McDonald’s?  Okay, that may be a bit extreme and when I lived in China, having a McDonald’s burger and fries seemed like a luxury, a little taste of home.  But I seriously know people that have gone to a faraway destination and eaten only at American brand fast food places.  I understand you don’t like raw fish so I’m not saying that you must eat sushi if you go to Japan.  Maybe you eat chicken.  Find out how chicken is typically prepared at your destination and try it that way.  Vegan and vegetarian options are becoming more popular and easier to find all over the world.  When I say eat where the locals eat, ask the person who works at the desk at the hotel where they take their family to eat and go there.  Of course if, they direct you to a sushi place and you don’t like sushi, let them know.  Explain what you do like, and I am sure they can direct you to somewhere the locals eat.  Not only will it probably be a bit less expensive, but you may also discover something new.  My favorite places to eat worldwide usually end up being the simple café, warung, bistro, or corner diner the locals go to.

  1. Zip Lock Bags: Ziplock bags take up very little space in your luggage and for me, have come in handy many times.  Try to take several different sizes.  Of course, nowadays, any liquids in your carry-on must be in zippy bags.  They also come in handy when packing to return home.  Maybe you spilled something on a shirt and washed it out by hand.  It didn’t get dry before time to go…put it in a zip lock bag.  Took a last-minute swim…suit in a zippy.  They are great for separating dirty clothes from the clean on the way home.  That shampoo you bought and don’t want to leave….zippy bag so it doesn’t leak in your suitcase.  Long layover, great to put snacks in.  Put your cords and chargers in zippy bags to make them easy to find and grab.  Again, just trust me on this.  They take up minimal space and you’ll be surprised how they come in handy.
  2. WhatsApp and Other Useful Apps: Here’s your bonus, useful apps when traveling.  If you are traveling, especially out of the USA, most people use WhatsApp as a communication platform.  You can send texts and make calls, including video calls.  The best part, when using Wi-Fi, calls aren’t charged to your data.  Traveling to a country they don’t speak your native language?  Google Translate is in my opinion the best option.  It is also a good idea to download the offline package, so you don’t need the internet for translation purposes.  Although, I would recommend Pleco if traveling to China since Google is blocked.  I mostly use Google Maps for directions and download the offline map for whatever city I am in.  Baidu Maps for use in China.  For transportation service, Uber is pretty much universal and reliable.  I also recommend downloading any other public transportation apps for cities you may be in.  For example, the Paris Metro for Paris, Jakdojade for Warsaw buses, trams, and metro…most major cities with public transportation will have an app.  Probably the most useful app, if you are travelling out of your home country, is XE Currency Converter.

There you have it.  A few tips I tell my friends when traveling.  I’m sure you may not agree with everything, I mean I have been known to spend 3 weeks in Europe with a carry-on roller bag and a backpack.  On my most recent weekend in Paris, I took an 11 L crossbody bag.  I know that’s not for everyone, but I hope you picked up an idea or two.  If you decided to leave that extra pair of shoes behind, it is always a good idea to toss an extension cord in your bag, and don’t forget the converter/adapter if traveling to a foreign country.  Peace!  Love!  Travel!

My Favorite Travel Movies

My Favorite Travel Movies

I don’t own a television, at home, or abroad.  I haven’t watched television in the last 10 years (I never watched it much as a child either) unless at someone’s home or a bar or restaurant that has one playing.  I rarely go to a movie theatre (I mostly read) but every now and then I will cue up a movie on my laptop or when I am in the states usually watch a movie when I am visiting my friend Teri.  I tend to be drawn to movies that feed my wanderlust or foodie movies.  I haven’t been able to come up with a topic for my next blog post, so I decided to do my favorite travel movies.  I usually choose movies that are in places I have visited or places I want to visit.  Some I have watched a dozen times, some only once, but all have somehow resonated with me.  In no specific order with a short synopsis and my thoughts, the following are my five favorite travel movies.  Sure, there are others I really like but after much consideration, this is my list.

Some of you may be surprised that “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain didn’t make the list, especially since I have seen it easily a dozen times.   I just consider it a fun “French” movie, not so much a travel film.  You might also argue that Midnight in Paris is just a movie set in Paris, but trust me, it may just get to your wanderlust and make you want to visit the City of Light.  I am also linking the movies’ trailers to the film title just in case you want to check any of them out.

Some may argue that when I started on my journey almost 8 years ago (WOW, how is that possible?)     that I was on my own Eat, Pray, Love pilgrimage.  While not entirely true, I did feel a connection to Liz Gilbert.  Based on a true story, Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) thought she had it all: a home, a husband, and a successful career.  Newly divorced and facing a turning point, she finds she is confused about what is important to her.  I was ending a 27-year relationship and was hating a job I used to love.  Stepping out of her comfort zone, she takes off on a quest of self-discovery that over the course of a year takes her to Italy, India, and Bali, Indonesia.  Although self-discovery was and continues to be a big part of my journey, it wasn’t my goal.  I basically just wanted to run away from my life.  I enrolled in some online language courses through the University of Miami Florida and received my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification.  I found a job, packed a suitcase, and moved to Paris, France.  While things didn’t go quite as planned, I did discover this was the life I wanted.  I briefly returned to the states and made another plan.  This time I headed to China for 6 months, which turned into 4 years.  China led me to a short stint in Bali and now here I am in Poland still discovering many things about myself and life in general.  As a side note that has nothing to do with this post, as much as I love to read, I tried 3 times to read the book, “Eat, Pray, Love” and just couldn’t get into it.  Thank goodness for the movie.

My first love…Paris!  Yes, Paris stole my heart even before my first visit.  I also love to write, so when Midnight in Paris came out it was a must-see.  In my humble opinion, the opening montage alone will make you want to visit.  Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter and aspiring novelist.  Although vacationing in Paris with his fiancée, he finds himself walking the city at night, alone.  One night at the stroke of midnight, Gil encounters a group of revelers who are strange yet familiar.  Soon he finds himself in Paris, in the ’20s, with the era’s icons of art and literature.  The more time he spends with these people in the past, the more disenchanted he becomes with the present.   While partying with these characters, there is a scene that shows a carousel with bicycles that you pedal to make it move.  It can reach speeds of 60 kph.  This scene takes place at Musée des Arts Forains.  This is a museum of fairground art, carnival games, and rides.  It is one of my favorite places to share with visitors in Paris.  My favorite line from the movie is, “actually, Paris is most beautiful in the rain”.  I believe Paris is most beautiful in the rain.  This is one of those movies I never tire of watching.

If there is one movie that best explains the feelings, the experiences, the ups and downs of the last 7+ years of my life, it is A Map for SaturdayAlthough I am not a young backpacker, on the road for a year, or staying in hostels (I have but not usually my first choice), it does do a great job of showing all the feels.  I have mostly had a home base in some country or another over my journey, but I have also traveled extensively during this time.  Those first hours of being alone in a new destination, meeting people over the course of your stay, and knowing when you leave it really is “goodbye”.  Most of the time it isn’t see you later because deep down you know you probably will never see these people again.  The movie’s filmmaker, Brook Silva Braga, quits his lucrative job as a producer with HBO Sports and documents his 11 months of backpacking around the world. During those 11 months, he spent time on four continents, Australia, Asia, Europe, and South America.  The title of the film comes from the fact that when you are on long-term travel with no obligations, every day feels like Saturday.  When I eventually return to the states (yes, someday but no idea when), I would love to talk to young people.  Their parents will probably hate me, but I want to tell them to take that “gap year”.  A foreign concept to most Americans but it is embraced by other cultures.  What you can learn when you move out of your comfort zone and embrace the chaos of Asia, or the mindset of Europe is not something you will learn in the classroom.  I agree that lifestyle, even for a year, or my lifestyle which has been even more long-term isn’t for everyone.  But I can’t repeat it enough if you have even the smallest desire…GO!  Even if you aren’t a young person who hasn’t settled into a 9 to 5 life, if you are someone unhappy with a job, or just want to experience living a different culture from your own, even if it is for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months…GO!  If you want to understand my lifestyle because it is something so hard to put into words, watch this movie.  If I recommend one movie on this list for people who have a desire for long-term travel watch “A Map for Saturday”.

Can a person be happy living abroad, alone?  I often get asked if I get homesick, feel lonely, or unhappy.  I can honestly say I have never been homesick.  I truly feel at home anywhere in the world.  Lonely?  No…I consider myself a loner and solitude (which I don’t think is the same as loneliness) is something I need.  I will admit there have been times I have seen or experienced something amazing, and I wish there was someone there to share it – at that moment instead of sharing it with them via social media or text message, or a phone call.  But that feeling doesn’t last because when I do share on social media friends are happy to share that experience with me in that way.  FOMO – fear of missing out – not really, after all, in the world of video chats I don’t have to miss out on much if I just make the effort.  Now, do I ever feel unhappy?  If I said no, that would be a giant lie.  No one, even me who tries to be positive all the time, can go through life without feeling unhappy every now and again.  Usually, that unhappiness is short-lived.  Maybe my roommate doesn’t shut the freezer tight, and I walk into a puddle on the floor at 2 am….definitely unhappy.  Or I walk to the tram stop (10 minutes), catch a tram across the river (15 minutes) walk to a museum or shop or restaurant (10 minutes), and discover I should have maybe checked to see if they are open because I just came all this way to find out they are closed….big unhappy!  Truthfully, I am happy most of the time.

I often scan the internet for books/movies on travel.  Somehow I came across Hector and the Search for Happiness.  Hector is a psychiatrist.  He lives a very organized life.  One day, he confesses to his girlfriend, Claire, that he feels like a fraud because he gives recommendations to his patients who never seem to improve or get any happier.  On a whim, he finds some courage to break out of his lackluster routine and embark on an international journey to find the formula for joy and happiness.  As he globe-trots, Hector captures in his journal his notes on happiness and things that spoil happiness based on his encounters.  One of these notes says, “Happiness is doing a job you love”.  Bingo…I knew I needed to move on when I started hating a job I used to love.  “Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are”.  Nowhere or at no time is this more apparent than when you are traveling alone in a foreign place.  No one knows your history, what you looked like (yep, how you would take that body back when you thought you were fat at 21), nothing…they know nothing about you yet like you for who you are right at that moment.  “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness”.  Don’t compare yesterday to today.  His list goes on and it’s a good list.  I could write about everything on it, but one more… “Happiness is knowing how to celebrate”.  Celebrate even the small things.  When I first got to China, I had a two-week training period with a bunch of kids on their gap year.  They celebrated everything from learning how to write something in Chinese characters to finally mastering chopsticks.  This is the number 2 movie after “A Map for Saturday” I would recommend.

Who doesn’t love Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman?  Together in a movie … a no-brainer.  In my life, I have ticked many things off my so-called Bucket ListBillionaire Edward Cole (played by Jack Nicholson) and car mechanic Carter Chambers (played by Morgan Freeman) are complete strangers until fate lands them in the same hospital room.  The need to discover who they are and what they have done with their lives leaves them with a desire to complete a list of things they want to see and do before they die. Spoiler alert – One of the things on the bucket list is “laugh until you cry”.  This is satisfied when Carter reveals to Edward the origin of the “most expensive coffee in the world” (Kopi Luwak) that he obsesses over.  Of course, I got a good laugh from this because I have sometimes been on the receiving end of laughter when I would drink Kopi Luwak.  Some of the other items on their bucket list were see something truly majestic, kiss the most beautiful girl in the world (his granddaughter), drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China, skydive, see the Taj Mahal, drive a Shelby Mustang, sit on the Great Pyramids, and get a tattoo.  Some of these I have ticked (well I didn’t drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall, but…) and I still have the Taj Mahal on my bucket list.  The greatest thing in the movie for me is Carter explains the Egyptian myth:  When Egyptians die, the gods would be waiting at the gate of heaven to ask them two questions before allowing them to enter:  1. Have you found joy in your life?  2. Has your life brought joy to others?

I hope whoever is reading this has found joy in their life.  I know I have.  As I am winding this down, I happened to glance at the calendar on my desk, January 9, 2022.  It reminds me that 2 years ago today, January 9, 2020, my heart was overflowing with joy.  It was the grand re-opening of the Robins Theatre brought to fruition by my brother and sister-in-law.  My “little brother”, I witnessed that night something truly majestic and how his life brought joy to so many.  I hope my life brings joy to others also.

As a postscript, the next five on my list.  I had to end the main text at 5 or this post would have been a small book.  I will however link trailers to the titles.

Paths of Souls  a documentary of eleven Tibetans who prostrate themselves every few steps during a 1,200-mile pilgrimage that lasts for seven months.

Paris Je T’Aime  a collection of 18 vignettes set in Paris.

Under the Tuscan Sun  Frances Mayes, a 35-year-old San Francisco writer gets a divorce that leaves her with terminal writer’s block and depression.  Later, she decides to buy a house in Tuscany to change her life.

Mamma Mia  As Sophie and her family are busy preparing for her wedding, she secretly invites three men, who were her mother’s lovers in the past, with the hope that one of them is her father.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  A decrepit hotel hosts seven British tourists who come to Jaipur on a holiday. Each one has a past and a new ambition.  Their lives intertwine with their host, who is also trying to get a grip on life.

Happy viewing!

2021- My Year in Review

2021- My Year in Review

Here I sit on a frigid morning with a steaming cup of joe staring at a blank page.  It is a mere five days until 2022 and 23 months of living abroad during a global pandemic.  Like last year, I am again struggling with this post.  I wrote about 2020 based on the theme of duality, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, taken from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities.  While some may say 2021 was still the best and worst of times, for me, it was a very good year.  I struggle to say that as I know so many were/are still struggling with the fall-out from Covid 19.  I am sure I stepped on some toes and angered people when I wrote about why I was thankful for a global pandemic. In the beginning, I felt guilty about all the fun things I was doing.  Then I reminded myself that these opportunities don’t always come around twice, and life really is short.

I read a quote from Diane Ackerman, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it.  I want to have lived the width as well.”  That summed it up for me.  I couldn’t control the state of other people’s happiness or unhappiness for that matter.  Once you realize you can’t go about your life living it to please others, you can stop feeling guilty about enjoying yours.  I am where I am because I made a choice to be here.  I won’t feel guilty for living and enjoying my reality.  Is my life perfect?  Fuck no, but I am going to make the best of every opportunity that comes my way.  2021 ticked a few bucket list items and saw some dreams come true.  I as begin my year in review, know firstly, I write for myself.  It’s what I enjoy, and I love reliving moments of my life.  Secondly, I write to hopefully give anyone interested some insight into other people, cultures, and another view on life.  As I roll back to January 2021, remember, this is my reality, my perception of my life in 2021.  We all choose our own realities.  I just happen to choose to make the best of times….

After spending Christmas in the Tatra Mountains and the southern Polish city of Zakopane, I rang in the New Year at home with my flatmates and friends.  We represented Poland, the USA, India, and Belarus.  I made pork and sauerkraut, played Auld Lang Syne, did long-distance shots with friends in the states, and was overwhelmed with new year wishes from friends around the globe.  January was a mostly quiet month in the +48 (country code for Poland) and we had an arctic blast hit us mid-month. The beauty of it is the way Poles embrace the weather.  I found myself in Old Town on a snowy Sunday enjoying mulled wine and hot cherry vodka outside in a blizzard.  I learned the Polish word for winter which is Zima.  I love this word as it was also a favorite beverage back in the day.   By the end of the month, the world was entertaining themselves with “Bernie’s mittens”.

I spent the last snowy Saturday of January at the Warsaw Zoo popping a selfie with the rhinoceros.

February marked one year I had been living in Poland.  It continued to be a winter wonderland in Warsaw.  Not going out much I had plenty of time to read and did find a coffee festival going on early in the month.  In Poland, we celebrate Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday (not to be confused with Fat Tuesday).  This year it fell on February 11th.  Tłusty Czwartek is also called pączek day as everyone buys pączek or filled doughnuts, so I had to go out to buy mine.  My favorite has a rose filling.  The weather finally broke near the end of the month, and I went to the Palace of Culture and Science to a spider and scorpion exhibition. The Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most recognizable buildings in Warsaw.

It is also a source of controversy as it, on the initiative of Joseph Stalin, was a “gift of the Soviet people for the Poles”. This month I also tried my hand at making nalewka which is made by macerating fruits and sugar in vodka and letting them age.  It was also at the end of this month I was contacted by English Wizards to see if I was interested in spending seven weeks on the Black Sea in Bulgaria at a youth language camp.  This was especially interesting to me as I had hosted a Bulgarian student in my home 18 years ago.

After a slow start to March, I interviewed and accepted the summer job at Z Camp, the youth language and sports camp on the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria.  I would get to check off country #38 and hopefully catch up with a couple of the “kids” I met 18 years ago.  My flatmate from India moved out and a couple from Vietnam moved in.  Lucky me, Ben made homemade Pho Bo Tai for us one weekend.

I learned that in Poland for the Vernal Equinox primary school children make a doll called Marzanna.  Marzanna is the Polish incarnation of the old Slavic goddess of winter, plague, and death.  Marzanna is then set on fire and thrown in the river to ensure the timely arrival of spring.  March ended rainy and chilly and me with a head cold.

On to April…with April came Easter and my first trip out of Warsaw since Christmas.  I had learned through my students of people making a pilgrimage to the city of Częstochowa to Jasna Góra Monastery which is home to the famous Our Lady of Częstochowa painting also known as the Black Madonna.

I arrived at the monastery in time for Good Friday mass, but I had to return the next day to see the Black Madonna as it is only available for viewing during certain hours.  I spent about an hour in the chapel with my thoughts and then lit a candle in memory of all those gone before me.  Back in Warsaw, I also registered and received my “trusted profile” which basically just makes it easier for all things government-related in Poland.  The first 3 weeks of the month being rainy and cool had me thinking I was back in NE Ohio, but finally, it felt like spring by the end of the month.

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have noticed I love the Warsaw Trams.  The first weekend in May brought out a vintage tram (circa 1959) which would run on line 36 (tourist route) during the spring and summer months.  Despite being a rainy day, I was determined to ride the first run of the season.  May also found me at “The Art of Banksy Without Limits”  exhibition in the Praga district of Warsaw.  The warmer weather just had me out exploring the city the rest of the month.

With the beautiful weather the first weekend in June, I traveled by train to Krakow, Poland.  Krakow is home to the headquarters of English Wizards, the company I work for. In 1978 the historic center of Krakow was the first site in Poland to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Arriving late afternoon, I started my weekend by locating the EW office, and the next thing I knew I was on a pub crawl around the Kazimierz district of the city.  Today trendy and hipster with vintage shops, indie galleries, and quirky bars, Kazimierz was once the historic center of Jewish life in Krakow.

About 75 km west of Krakow is the Polish city that was known as Oświęcim before WWII.  Today, it is best known for Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration/extermination camps.  My day trip here was a chilling experience I will never forget.  According to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: “At the center of a huge landscape of human exploitation and suffering, the remains of the two camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were inscribed on the World Heritage List as evidence of this inhumane, cruel and methodical effort to deny human dignity to groups considered inferior, leading to their systematic murder.”  It was recognized in 1979.

The following morning I took a bus to the 3rd UNESCO Heritage Site I would visit this weekend; Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Recognized as a UNESCO Site in 1978, the salt mine produced table salt continuously from the 13th century until 2007.  I spent the afternoon walking around Wawel Castle and the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the Kazimierz District.

I spent the rest of the month wandering Warsaw…the night market, evenings at the Vistula River, and trying to wrap things up before leaving the beginning of July for 2 months on the Bulgarian Coast.  But, before the month ended, I made a spontaneous decision to go to Cairo Egypt when the camp was over and booked a one-way ticket, because who knows what else I might want to do.

July 2, 2021, I added country 38 to my list.  I arrived in Burgas, Bulgaria and a driver took me to Kiten the location of Z Camp.  The first three weeks of camp were a whirlwind, and I wasn’t sure I would survive.  After a year and a half teaching Business English to adults, working all day with kids (8-15) in hot humid weather was exhausting.  I fell into bed at night drained.  As the days passed, I found my rhythm and had a great summer.  I am headed back this year to do it all over again. Before month-end, I had decided to piggyback on my trip to Cairo and fly to Morocco.

Hello August!  The last three weeks of camp seemed to fly by at warp speed and before I knew it it was time to bid everyone goodbye.  I did have a few days before my flight from Sofia, Bulgaria to Cairo.  I took the opportunity to go to Veliko Tarnovo to stay with Hristian, one of those “kids” I mentioned earlier.  He showed me around his city, we made a side trip to Gabrovo his hometown.  We met up with Tony, another one of those “kids”, visited his mom and his grandma.  After a couple days, he put me on a bus for Sofia where I would spend the night before flying out to Cairo the next day.

Cairo – colorful, crazy, and chaotic.  I was staying in Giza at the Giza Plateau.  My room overlooked the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx.   It was a big tick on my bucket list, country 39 and a first on the African continent.  It was mindboggling.  It was surreal.  It was a dream come true and more.  I did many things around Cairo and took a side trip to Alexandria, but nothing can describe sitting on my rooftop each evening and gazing at the oldest and only remaining wonder of the ancient world.

 

On the first of September, I left Cairo and flew to Casablanca, Morocco adding country number 40.  Even though I know Rick’s Café in the movie Casablanca was just a set made in Hollywood, how could I go to Casablanca and not go to Ricks? I also went to the Hassan II Mosque which is the second-largest functioning mosque in Africa and the 7th largest in the world.  2 days in Casablanca was plenty and from there I took the train to Marrakech where I had booked a Riad (guesthouse) in the heart of the Medina.  Normally, the great square Jemaa el-Fnaa is filled with thousands of people watching magicians and snake charmers, eating, shopping, listening to storytellers and bands, or getting henna tattoos, it was virtually empty due to the pandemic.  But that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.  Marrakech was as exotic and exciting as I expected even without the tourist crowds. The highlight was my Moroccan Hammam experience.  I took a day trip to the Ourika Valley which is a valley in the Moroccan High Atlas along the Ourika River. It is located around 30 km from Marrakech and is essentially populated by Berber people speaking Shilha.  The next day I was scheduled to fly back to Poland but got word my flight had been canceled and they couldn’t get me out for three days.  Happily, my Riad was able to accommodate me, and I enjoyed 3 more days in Marrakech.  One of those days I took a day trip to Essaouira which is a coastal city on the north coast of Africa and dined on fresh grilled lobster.

I arrived back in Warsaw in mid-September and jumped right back into teaching my English classes.  Luckily, most didn’t start until October when the new semester was scheduled.  Between bi-weekly (I’m never sure if this is every two weeks or twice a week, but every other week in this case) massages, eating a lot of pho, wandering Old Town, and teaching, October brought the Van Gogh Immersive Experience to Warsaw which I saw on its opening day.

I also received my Karta Pobytu or temporary residence card for Poland making me a resident until 2024.  A new food hall opened 2 blocks from my flat in a restored facility, Fabryka Norblina, that was once a silver-plating factory.

Most exciting for me was my 15 minutes of fame, when my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle, ran a front-page story on my travels/life as a teacher.  All in all a very good month.

Somehow November arrived and the last two months of the year were a whirlwind.  November 1st in Poland is Wszystkich Świętych or All Saints Day.  People from all over Poland travel to their home cities to lay flowers (mostly chrysanthemums) and light candles at the graves of their loved ones.  Going to the cemetery after dark is a sight to behold with thousands of glowing candles.

November 11th is Narodowe Święto Niepodległości or National Independence Day. After ceasing to exist for 123 years, it commemorates the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918 from the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. In Warsaw, it is celebrated with an Independence March which I attended with my friend Tamara and over 100,000 of our closest friends.  The march which starts near the Palace of Culture and ends at the National Stadium was a sea of people decked in white and red, carrying the flag, lighting flares, and celebrating their freedom. I also discovered a restaurant that served Chinese food that was as close to anything I had in China.

I need to jump back to 2006 for the next part of the story.  Tom and I were on a cruise that was a full transit of the Panama Canal.  Prior to the cruise, I started chatting on a cruise site with another woman who would be on the same cruise with her husband.  During the cruise, we met up and for the past 15 years, although not seeing each other in person, have kept up correspondence through social media.  I have also “met” some of her family and friends through Facebook.

Well Barb and Danny (from the Panama Cruise), her sister Kay and friends Diana, Dawn, and Randy were coming to Europe for a Viking River Cruise highlighting European Christmas Markets.  The cruise was originating in Amsterdam.  Well, she didn’t need to ask me twice and I flew to Amsterdam to hang out with them for a few days.  After 15 years, we met again and had a blast and I got to meet my Facebook friends live and in person.  What a great way to roll into December.

I can honestly say that December made my year truly complete.  The first weekend, Warsaw lit up in all the seasons finest.  I strolled through Old Town, watched the ice skaters, sipped mulled wine, and then walked the Royal Route past the castle and the Presidential Palace and up Nowy Świat to home.

Remember those friends in Amsterdam?  Well, their cruise ended in Basel Switzerland and then they took the train to Paris for a few days.  Well, they twisted my arm, no really, they did…so I flew to Paris for a whirlwind weekend with them.  Returning from Paris, the spirit of the season really kicked in.

I had long video chats with friends back in the states, my students excitedly shared their Christmas traditions with me and I learned all about Wiglia (Christmas Eve Dinner).  Christmas Eve was spent with Tamara as we wandered Old Town enjoying hot cherry vodka, listening to buskers, and feeling the Christmas Spirit as light snow fell on the city.  After Christmas, Laura, one of my co-workers from Z-Camp came to Warsaw and we spent a mad evening at the bar at the Vodka Museum, Koneser Bar ¾.  I ended the year at the Tapas Bar next to my flat sipping champagne and watching the sky light up with fireworks.

If you stuck with me this far, thank you!  I started this a week ago, finally finished.  You are all an important part of my journey.  It was a year to remember.  Peace…Love…Light and Lots of Laughter in 2022.

Why Poland? There’s More to This Country Than Pierogi!

Why Poland?  There’s More to This Country Than Pierogi!

On November 11, 2021, Poland celebrated 103 years of Independence or Narodowe Święto Niepodległości in Polish. In the late 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided between the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire and Poland ceased to exist for 123 years. Because of the destruction of the neighboring powers at the end of WWI, National Day in Poland is celebrated each year to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918 from the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires.

In recent years, there has been an Independence March through the streets of Warsaw. It begins near the Palace of Culture and ends about 3 km away at the National Stadium. Me being me was naturally curious about this event. Mentioning it to students I was told it was best to stay home. Why I asked. They said sometimes trouble arises from extremist groups and it may not be safe for foreigners. As the day was approaching, my friend Tamara asked if I was going to the March. Now me being fair-haired with blue-green eyes, I kinda sorta blend in with the Polish population, that is until I speak. Tamara being a black woman, not so much. This would be the 4th year Tamara has attended the March. Her experience in past has been nothing but positive, so I decided to take others’ opinions with a grain of salt and meet her and 150,000 of our closest friends to celebrate Poland. What I witnessed was men, women, children, and seniors all decked out in white and red, waving flags and celebrating a country and a heritage they are proud of. I’m sure there were some hooligans around and some extremists with their anti-this and anti-that slogans, but we witnessed nothing but Polish people celebrating their independence.

The next day, I read and heard from others that indeed it was a peaceful celebration with less than 10 people being detained for causing trouble. The whole length of the March people were talking to us (thankfully Tamara knows a bit of Polish) and she was constantly asked to take photos with people. She became an internet sensation (many of my students commented that my friend was all over the internet) and there was even an article written, “Who is the Black Woman at the Independence Day March?”.

Why am I telling you about this? I often get asked, “Why Poland?”. Why have I decided to live in Poland? My original plan was to stay in Asia or more specifically SE Asia, but circumstances brought me here, to Warsaw. I started out talking about Independence Day and the March because it reinforced my views of this country I have come to call home. I also happened to start this blog a couple days after the march. I thought I would probably stay in Poland for a year or a year and a half, thanks to the pandemic I have been in Poland for nearly 2 years with plans to stay longer as I discover more and more reasons to answer, “why Poland?”.

I have probably mentioned that Warsaw is a great city. Poland’s capital is home to about 1.8 million people and 85% of the city was destroyed by the end of WWII. Most of Old Town Warsaw, including the Royal Castle, was destroyed. It was meticulously rebuilt using as many original bricks as possible and studying original architectural plans, photos and postcards. The rubble was even sifted through to gather reusable decorative items which were returned to their original places. Warsaw is home to 41 museums and 71 universities offering 983 study programs. It’s no wonder it attracts a large number of international students. Warsaw ranks in Europe’s top ten greenest and most eco-friendly cities. One of my favorite things about Warsaw is the fabulous public transportation system.

What about the rest of Poland? Poland boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites with the Historic Center of Krakow being the first recognized in 1978 and in 2021 the Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians were added to the list.

Built during the 13th century and measured by land area, Poland is home to the largest castle in the world, the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork. 90% of Poland’s population has completed at least secondary education. In 1901, two Poles, Jan Szczepanik and Kazimierz Żegleń gave the world the bulletproof vest. In 1923, Warsaw-born Leo Gersenzang who in his 20’s emigrated to Chicago, invented cotton buds first calling them Baby Gays and later changing the name to Q-Tips. In 1887, a Pole of Jewish origin, Ludwik Zamenhof, is credited with the invention of the world’s most artificially created language, Esperanto.

Alicja Englard was born in 1923 in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland. During the war and occupation she studied philosophy in Warsaw. Surviving WWII using fake Aryan documents, she finished her doctorate in Basel Switzerland. Her dissertation on the lives of many dictators and despots like Hitler, Mao and Stalin came to the conclusion that every dictator was in fact a child victim of violence in the past. Her views on the ill effects of child beating were met with great speculation in Europe, which was more than accustomed to corporal forms of punishment. Because of her perseverance, Alicja Englard laid the foundations for what would later become law prohibiting violence against children or Children’s Rights.

Poland has a horrific history, some of which I have written about. Poland also has beautiful traditions, especially this time of year, the magical season of Christmas. As you may have figured out, I am finishing this blog over a month after I started and it is now Christmastime. In the spirit of the season, my English lessons leading up to Christmas, I asked students to share memories of their past celebrations.

I heard stories of live carp in the bathtub, fish scales placed in wallets, “less pierogi, less stress”, families playing board games, watching Kevin in “Home Alone” and even a grandma browsing the “Kama Sutra” someone had purchased for their recently married brother. Hearing these stories made me want to learn and understand the specialness of Christmas Eve and wiglia in Poland.

Unlike in the United States, most Polish Christmas celebrations, including the exchange of gifts, take place on Christmas Eve. The celebration begins with Wiglia or Christmas Eve dinner. Wiglia begins when the first star appears in the sky which is to remind everyone of the Star of Bethlehem. I was also told stories that the children were sent to the windows or outdoors to watch for the twinkle of the first star. It was then that Santa would sneak gifts under the tree.

Once the first star has been seen, the family gathers around the table. There is an extra place-setting at the table for the unexpected guest, to celebrate hospitality. Tradition has a small handful of hay placed under the tablecloth to symbolize Jesus’ birth in a manger. The feast then begins with grace and the breaking of the opłatek which is a Christmas wafer.

Nothing will be eaten until all guests have broken the opłatek and exchanged wishes for prosperity and good health in the coming year. Traditionally the wiglia consists of 12 dishes, 12 being a symbol of wealth and also representing the twelve Apostles. During the meal, all guests should have a taste of all 12 dishes to ensure good luck in the 12 months of the coming year. This is where I would have a problem. Nearly all the dishes contain either mushrooms or fish (remember the carp in the tub?) and I am not a fan of either. So, I guess I would only have about 2 months of luck. The Christmas Eve dinner is also void of meat.

The meal usually starts with barszcz which is a beetroot soup with tiny dumplings stuffed with dried porcini called uszka meaning “little ears”. Other traditional Christmas Eve soups you might find are soft-water fish soup (for example, carp), white borscht, vegetarian Christmas Eve sour rye soup or old fashioned sweet almond soup. Other dishes include carp prepared in various styles, herring and of course pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms to name a few.

I also learned about a dish called kutia which is a mixture of cooked wheatgrains (wheatberry), cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine, and various nuts and seeds. This dish got mixed reviews from my students and seems to differ by region.

No wiglia would be complete without piernik or old fashioned gingerbread. Dating back as far as the 17th century, records of gingerbread can be found in the ancient city of Toruń, birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus. You might also be served poppyseed cake called makówki and finish the meal by sipping compote. Compote is made from cooked dried and smoked fruits – typically plums, apples, pears, raisins and apricots. It is supposed to help speed up digestion. The rest of the evening may be spent sharing songs and stories around the table until it is time for Pasterka or midnight mass.

That is a brief explanation of a typical Christmas Eve here in Poland. Although I didn’t experience wiglia, (I’m not complaining as I mentioned I don’t do mushrooms or fish) I did experience a lovely Christmas Eve. I met up with my friend Tamara (from the Independence March). We started in Old Town Market Square grabbed a hot cup of grzane wino or mulled wine and watched the city light up. We strolled through Old Town looking at the lights, listening to a saxophone player under the grand tree in front of the Royal Castle. We stopped for a cup of hot cherry vodka (that stuff is delicious) to continue our walk past the Presidential Palace and then up Nowy Świat (New World Street). Basically we walked what is known as the Royal Route. Warsaw was magical on Christmas Eve with lightly falling snow, sparkling lights everywhere and the spirit of the season was felt in everyone we passed.

We finished the evening at a 24 hour diner, one of the only places open on the eve of Christ’s birth.

 

 

Unlike Polish tradition of a meatless meal, we chowed down on giant burgers, French fries and red wine. Pretty perfect in my American in Poland eyes.

So back to my original musing…..Why Poland? When I moved here in February 2020, I would have said, “I don’t know, its Europe…I can run off to Paris for a weekend…I like Europe… I had a job offer.” 22 months later, I say, Poland is a beautiful and amazing country and I am trying to immerse myself in its culture. I like it here, I feel at home….why Poland? Why not Poland?

“To move, to breath, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote, To travel is to live.”

Hans Christian Anderson