Reflections on Friends, Goodbyes and Budapest

Reflections on Friends, Goodbyes and Budapest

This was meant to be a post about ticking country 42 and my experience in Budapest, Hungary.  As I have spent some time over the week since I have been home, home in Warsaw, thinking, it has turned into something more than a review and a number on a list.  I belong to a Facebook Group of females over 50 who travel solo.

About a month ago, I received a private message from Hanlie, from South Africa, a member of the same FB Group.  She was going to be in Warsaw, and asked if I would like to meet up for coffee while she was in town?  Well, this morning, that happened. We had a lovely couple of hours sharing life stories, adventures, travel tips and mishaps, bucket lists, favorite places and experiences, food, you name it we probably covered it.  To steal a message I recently received from Maria (I’ll introduce you to her later), “It was a pleasure to meet another intrepid soul.”

I think people often don’t understand the concept of traveling solo and extended travel/life abroad.  I hear the questions, “Aren’t you lonely”, “Isn’t it dangerous”, and “are you trying to find yourself”, and I’m sure you can add your own questions here.  I have spent the better part of the last 9 years living outside of my home country.  I can honestly say, I don’t think I have ever felt truly lonely.  As a matter of fact, I believe you meet more people and it’s easier to meet people and have random experiences solo versus traveling as a group or couple.

Life on the road is no more dangerous than life in Warren, Ohio and in some cases, it’s probably safer.  Yes, I have had a few of my own “Eat, Pray, Love moments (mostly the eating part), but in reality, it’s just normal life in a different country.  Although, it is true that someone’s ordinary might be your extraordinary.  Maybe the hardest part of not just solo travel, but travel in general, is the realization that people with whom you have formed a bond, you most likely will never see again in your life.

At this point, you are probably asking yourself what this has to do with Budapest.  Trust me, it will all fall into place.  First, we must roll back sometime prior to 2006.  Before I became a Facebook whore, I was an active member of “Cruise Critics”.  A space where people going on cruises could interact with others on their sailing.  October 7 – October 22, 2006, Tom and I were embarking on a cruise out of Los Angeles, through the Panama Canal and ending in Fort Lauderdale.  On the cruise forum, I met Barb and along with her husband Danny, they would be on the same sailing.  We met on board the ship, saw each other throughout the cruise, and parted ways in Fort Lauderdale not knowing if our paths would cross again.  We did, however, become friends on Facebook and kept in contact through random comments and likes on each other’s posts.  She also followed my move to Paris, then China, Bali, and my current home Warsaw, Poland.

When Tom died in early 2020, Barb went through her photos and found pictures of Tom and me from the Panama Cruise and sent them to me.  Over the course of my years abroad, Barb also virtually introduced me to some of her family and friends who also had a love of traveling.  Late in 2021, Barb and crew would be coming to Amsterdam to board a river cruise.  Earlier in the year she planted a small seed in my head suggesting I meet them in Amsterdam, after all, it would be 15 years since I last saw them.

In November 2021, I booked a berth on a canal boat and a plane ticket to Amsterdam.  It was great seeing Barb and Danny again and I got to “really” meet her sister, Kay, and friends, Dawn, Randy, and Diana.  What can I say, we had a blast in Amsterdam, and before we parted ways, me back to Warsaw and them on their river cruise, another seed was planted. Their cruise ended in Basel Switzerland, and they would be going to Paris for several days.  If you know me, the word Paris doesn’t need to be spoken twice before I have a plane ticket booked.  Even if it would be for a mere 48 hours.

A Friday evening in December, at 21:00,  I got off the plane in Paris and went directly to Harry’s New York Bar to meet them.  Back on the plane Sunday and back home to Warsaw.



Relax…Budapest is next.

I think Barb has figured out that it doesn’t take much to convince me to hop on a plane.  The beauty of Europe and living in Poland is I can be in just about any country in Europe in 2.5 hours or less.  She told me the crew was taking a river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam (no, I’m not going to Amsterdam again, I was there 3 times last year).  There would also be 2 others going on the cruise that I didn’t know.  That’s how I met Rosa and her sister Maria who I quoted above. And that my friends, is how I ended up spending Easter in Budapest, Hungary.

All that backstory probably isn’t necessary, but hey, I’m a storyteller and more people from my past will join later in the post.  Chatting today with Hanlie and then parting ways made me think about how many people I have said “goodbye” to.  I don’t really like to say goodbye.  It seems so permanent.  I prefer, see you next time, because as unlikely as it may be, you really don’t know when you may be fortunate to cross paths again.  Barb and Danny are proof of this.

Hungary would be a new country for me, and I knew little about Budapest other than it is the capital city.  I also realized I could not name one other city in Hungary.  Even after googling cities in Hungary, I still didn’t know any.  Surprisingly, the capital has a population of 1.8 million and the next largest city only 200,000.   I did a lot less research than I normally do and decided I would figure it out once I got there.  I rented an Airbnb for 6 days as I planned to work while I was there.  I arrived on Good Friday, a day before the crew.  I knew in advance that almost everything would be closed on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Monday.  What else did I know about Budapest?  Not a whole heck of a lot.

Landing at the airport in Budapest it is quite convenient to take the Airport Express Bus 100E.  I downloaded the Budapest Go app and purchased my ticket in advance.  You pick up the bus right outside the terminal.  The cost of a one-way ticket is 2200 HUF (Hungarian Forint) which is about 5.85 euros or $6.40.

When you board the bus someone will validate your ticket by scanning the QR code on your phone.  The bus drops you at the city center on the Pest side of the Danube at Kalvin, Astoria, or Deak ter bus stops.  Getting off at Astoria put me a 5-minute walk from my Airbnb.  Since I mentioned the bus stops on the Pest side of the Danube, let me explain.  Separated by the Danube, Buda, and Pest form the two halves of the Hungarian Capital.  They have been linked by the Chain Bridge since 1849.  The Buda side is known for its hills offering panoramic views of the city across the river and Pest is entirely flat.  Buda and Pest were once two separate cities and were united in the 1870’s.

After getting settled in my flat, I decided to walk toward the river and see if I could find something to eat.  I also wanted to pick up some snacks and a bottle of wine.  I was happy to discover that there was a Spring/Easter Market around the main square and side streets.  I perused the kiosks and then made my way to the food area.  I indulged myself with a massive lamb shank, cooked red cabbage, and 3 giant pickles.


After eating I figured out where the crew would be staying when they arrived the next day and then walked down to the Danube.  I people-watched for a bit and tram-watched because I love my trams.  I then walked back to my flat and decided I wanted to check out the Ruin Bars I had heard so much about.  Funny how I didn’t know much about Budapest, but I knew about the bar culture.

Ruin Bars popped up in Budapest around 2001.  They are found in once-abandoned, derelict buildings and unused outdoor spaces.  They have been transformed into friendly, chaotic, lively, colorful bars laden with graffiti and eclectic décor.  They are also known for cheap drinks. Little did I know when I booked my flat, I would be around the corner from the most famous of the Ruin Bars, Szimpla Kert.

That was my destination for the evening.  I had heard tales of long lines to enter, but being relatively early as party-going hours go, I walked straight in.  I ordered a glass of wine and walked around just to feel the vibe.  I was a bit tired, so I took some photos, finished my wine, and headed home.  On the way home I passed a small convenient store and grabbed some instant coffee, water, and some snacks.  I was all set for my stay in Budapest.

No rush to wake up, I slept late, made my instant coffee, and then headed out in search of “real” coffee.  I found the Blue Bird Café after googling coffee shops.  Arrived…the line was out the door, so I continued and found a cool little book café.

Inside, bookshelves covered the walls and cozy window seats, and giant pillows filled the space along with café tables.  Finished my coffee, I was getting a bit hungry as it was after twelve noon.  I strolled to the area where the others would be staying.  On the way, I chatted it up with a guy who was with the hop-on hop-off bus.  He directed me to a Mexican restaurant, and I also ended up with a 3-day pass for the hop on buses and river boats.

The Mexican food was so-so. After a bite to eat it started to rain.  Since I had time to kill before the arrival of the others, I decided to take advantage of my hop-on hop-off bus pass.  I was near stop number one and boarded by St. Stephen’s Basilica in which you can find the right hand of St. Stephen himself.  The bus has several different routes and I happened to catch one that completed a loop of the Pest side and then with a bus change I was able to do a loop of the Buda side.  A perfect way to spend time on a rainy afternoon.  After a couple of hours of sightseeing, I got off the bus about where I started.

By now it was getting close to the time for the others to arrive so off I went to find them.  Before I found them, I found another cute little café (it was still drizzling) and had a glass of prosecco to pass the time.  They all arrived exhausted after the trip across the pond, but also hungry.  We decided a few of us would head out to the food kiosks and buy a bunch of food and bring it back to their 4-bedroom flat.  Of course, I suggested some adult beverages as travelers while we walked around deciding on the food…big gulp size Aperol spritz was the beverage of choice.  Oh, and if you know anything about European elevators, they are phone booth size.

Silly as we were, we decided to pack 5 people in the elevator.  It was a fun opening night, and I won’t tell the story of Danny and the broken table…I left them and the broken table early so they could get some sleep; I passed through the Ruin Bars on my way home and then called it a night.

Welcome to Easter Sunday…made my instant coffee and then grabbed a traveler on my way to meet up with the crew in the square outside their flat.  We headed down to the river as we planned to follow the river to the Parliament Building.

Near the parliament is a memorial called Cipők a Duna-parton or Shoes on the Danube Bank.  It is a memorial erected on 16 April 2005.  Conceived by film director Can Togay, he created it on the east bank of the Danube River with sculptor Gyula Pauer to honor the Jews who were massacred by fascist Hungarian militia belonging to the Arrow Cross Party in Budapest during the Second World War.  They were ordered to take off their shoes (shoes were valuable and could be stolen and resold by the militia after the massacre) and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away.  Most of the murders along the edge of the river Danube took place around December 1944 and January 1945, when the members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party police (“Nyilas”) took as many as 20,000 Jews from the newly established Budapest ghetto and executed them along the riverbank. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank…A very powerful scene.

Being after one o’clock everyone was getting a bit hungry.  We decided to take our chances and see if we could eat at The New York Café.  Now Instagram famous it is dubbed as the most beautiful café in the world.  At the turn of the 20th century, the New York Café was the most beautiful and the most beloved coffee house in Budapest.  It was a popular place among writers and editors, in fact, the most influential newspapers were edited there, upstairs in the gallery.  After World War II, the once famous café fell into disrepair, and it served as a sporting goods shop.  Although the café reopened in 1954, under the name of Hungária, it wasn’t until 2006 that the New York Café was restored to its original splendor.  Today, the New York Palace, built in eclectic Italian Renaissance style and opened on October 23, 1894, gives home to the New York Café.  The day before during my hop-on bus trip, we passed the café and even in the rain the line was around the corner, but we said let’s go and try.  We grabbed a taxi. I ordered a vehicle for 6 people, and we all questioned the fact that they were sending a Prius.  When it arrived we all learned there is a Prius+ with 3 rows of seats.  Not pertinent to the story but if you could have seen us (we also had mulled wine while we were at the river) trying to figure out how a Prius could take the 6 of us…it was a laughable, memorable moment.  Arriving at the café, indeed the line was long, but I have a little tip for anyone who may be reading this and planning a trip to Budapest and the New York Café.  Walk to the front of the line, and there is a small sign that says, “fast track”.  It points you into the café and for 5 euros per person added to your bill, you can skip the line and we were seated without a wait.

The first thing we did as we perused the menu was ordered some lovely pink bubbles.  It is indeed a sight to behold…it is worth the 5 euro…food was good…I wouldn’t say it was out of this world, but the atmosphere made it a perfect place for Easter lunch.  By the time we finished a light, leisurely lunch, the others needed to head back to get ready for their 5pm Hungarian Cooking Class which would last about 4 hours.  We made plans to connect after they finished, and I went off walking to explore the neighborhood.

I had walked around for about 15 minutes, and I heard the sounds of Frank Sinatra floating out the door of what looked like a cool place.  It was Doblo Wine Bar.  I peeked in and was drawn inside by the music, the décor, and the thought of some more bubbly.  I ordered a glass of prosecco recommended by the bartender and got lost in the classic American music as I sipped. Next, I continued walking until I ended up back at the main square of the Spring Market and sat at another café since it was nearly 6pm, I ordered a meat and cheese platter, and people watched.  I then decided to go to the river and take an evening river cruise since it would be a few hours until the others finished cooking.  Bad idea!  There was a massive line, the boat that was leaving was full, and everyone would have to wait until the next one 30 minutes later.  Looking at the line, and hearing the people yelling at the poor guy checking tickets, I decided there was no way all those people could even get on the next boat.  I went on my merry way.  Walking along the river I caught a most glorious sunset and then stopped off for a coffee.  The group messaged me as they were finishing up the cooking class and it was decided a trip to the Ruin Bars was in order.

There was a short line when we arrived at Szimpla Kert but it moved quickly and soon we were inside ordering cocktails.  After a bit of picture-taking, a gin & tonic, a long island iced tea, a bit of dancing, and lots of laughing we decided to call it a night.  The line to get in had easily tripled as were leaving. What happens at the Ruin Bars stays at the Ruin Bars and I’ll just leave it at that.  A good time was had by all even when you end up in a wee street ruckus.

I knew there was no reason to rush on Monday morning as the others needed to check out of their AirBnb by noon and could move into their rooms on the riverboat around 3pm. So I slept late and then headed their way around 11 am.  The weather had been cool and rainy since I arrived, but this day looked promising.  I remembered a little coffee shop/bar in the square outside their flat, so I made my way and sat and enjoyed a cappuccino while I people watched.  I decided not to go up to the flat because somehow with 8 people packing luggage and moving around I figured I would just be in the way.  Herding kittens comes to mind. Soon I saw them come out and we got a table in the sun at Marty’s, a nice restaurant in the square.

After a leisurely lunch, it was time to get taxis to take them to the boat.  I should probably mention here that the waiter twisted our arms, really, and talked us into sampling some traditional Hungarian Pálinka.  Pálinka is a traditional fruit spirit (or fruit brandy) with origins in the Carpathian Mountains, more exactly known under several names, and invented in the Middle Ages.  Protected as a geographical indication of the European Union, only fruit spirits mashed, distilled, matured, and bottled in Hungary and similar apricot spirits from four provinces of Austria can be called “pálinka.”

Since the boat was docking there overnight, I went along to see if I could go onboard and check it out.  It was the first time I had been on a Viking River Boat…very impressive.  I hung out for a while before heading out.  They had a night tour of Budapest scheduled through the cruise line and I was going to see if I could get on the evening hop-on river cruise.  Plans were to go to the Central Market the next morning.  I was successful in getting on the river cruise that was just before sunset, so it was beautiful to watch the city light up.  Picked up a pizza on my way home and had a quiet evening in my flat.

Grabbed a tram and headed to the market around 9am Tuesday morning and met up with the others.  I bought some spicy Hungarian paprika and a Budapest t-shirt that caught my because it had a tram on it.  After the market, we started walking toward St. Stephen’s Basilica.

We had to pass the Dohány Street Synagogue also called the Great Synagogue.  It was at the end of my street but unfortunately, I never made it inside.  It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world.  The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style.  The synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party on 3 February 1939.  Used as a base for German Radio and as a stable during World War II, the building suffered some severe damage from aerial raids during the Nazi Occupation but especially during the Siege of Budapest.  During the Communist era, the damaged structure became again a prayer house for the much-diminished Jewish community.  Its restoration and renovation started in 1991, financed by the state and by private donations, and was completed in 1998.

On the way to the Basilica, we stopped at a small bistro for some lunch.  The waitress to me the goulash was almost as good as her grandma’s, hence I had my first bowl of real Hungarian goulash.  It was delicious and filling, although Hungarian goulash does not have pasta like I was used to in the States.  On to St. Stephen’s where we would part ways and exchange our, “until next times” because with this group it’s not goodbye.  They were setting sail later that evening and I was having dinner with friends I hadn’t yet met.

As I said earlier in this post, which has been turned into a small novel, I would be bringing up others from my past along with a new cast of characters, Rosa and Maria being just two of those.  Not long after I posted on Facebook that I would be going to Budapest (no comments Mark, I know your opinion of Facebook), I received a message from a woman I had met at a wine tasting in my hometown.  Pamela was in Warren temporarily as CFO (I hope that’s right) of our local hospital.  Other than a few times at wine tastings, we didn’t see each other around town, and she eventually moved back to Arkansas when her time at the hospital ended.  When I moved to Paris, she came and spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s along with her friend Patty.  See what I mean by saying see you next time and not goodbye.  So, back to Budapest.  Pam messaged me that her husband’s brother and his wife lived in Budapest.  She even set up a group chat so we could exchange plans.  Being a holiday weekend, Matt and Erzsi were mostly busy with family plans, but graciously made time to take me to dinner on Tuesday evening and then an evening tour of the city.  We had a lovely evening at Rosenstein.   Rosenstein is a well-known restaurant in Budapest serving traditional Hungarian and Hungarian-Jewish dishes.  Tibor Rosenstein, currently eighty, started this family-run operation which is located a bit outside the city center and is currently helmed by his son Róbert.

What a lovely evening.  I had an amazing wild garlic soup and veal paprika with spaetzle along with red wine.  The best part of the evening is passing time chatting with people you just met, yet it feels like you have known them forever.  I know I overuse this quote by William Butler Yeats, but it is so true…”There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”  After dinner, we took a ride to the Buda side and up the hill to the Citadella which is the fortification located upon the top of Gellért Hill and offers amazing views of the city.  It was glorious at night.  Afterward, they dropped me at my flat and I turned in because I had early classes to teach in the morning before I checked out.

Over the weekend, I also received a message from another friend in Warren, Marty.  His cousin also lives in Budapest.  Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t match up because of conflicts for both of us.  Naturally, I said, “Well, maybe next time.”  There just may be a next time, Budapest is a one-hour flight from Warsaw, and I didn’t get to explore the Buda side of the city and I completely forgot about something my friend in Warsaw, Pawel, told me.  Did you know?

The Budapest Metro is the world’s oldest electrified underground railway system, and the second oldest underground railway system with multiple stations, after the originally steam-powered London Underground.  Budapest’s iconic Line 1 was completed in 1896.  I am so fascinated by trams, I completely forgot that he told me to ride the metro.  Even worse, he told me more than once.  I did, however, photograph a couple metro station entrances for whatever reason.

It was a fabulous six days in a beautiful city with amazing architecture and history. I met up with old friends and made new ones.  I am reminded of a quote from Brooke Hampton that my friend Andree sent me, “I am pieces of all the places I have been, and the people I have loved.  I’ve been stitched together by song lyrics, book quotes, adventure, late-night conversations, moonlight, and the smell of coffee.”

Life is good and I am blessed…thanks Pamela I took that from you.  Peace out!

Tanzania Part 3 ~ Bright English Medium School, A Serengeti Safari and Kilimanjaro

Tanzania Part 3 ~ Bright English Medium School, A Serengeti Safari and Kilimanjaro

When I ended my last post, I said my goodbyes at the Maasai Giraffe Eco Lodge.  James and Timan were taking me by tuk-tuk to catch the bus to Wasso Tanzania.  It is the same bus that I had started my journey a mere 4 days earlier.  You remember, the crowded, hot, dusty Loliondo Coach packed to the gills with people, supplies, luggage, and even a live chicken.  The coach makes a daily 8–10-hour trip from Arusha to Loliondo.  I would be getting off in Wasso to go to Bright English Medium School where I had volunteered for a WorkAway.

Engare Sero Bus Stop

We arrived at the bus stop in Engare Sero, James had to get back to the lodge, but Timan stayed with me until the bus arrived.  Lidia from Bright School had pre-arranged my bus ticket and got me a seat in the first row next to the window and across the aisle from the bus driver.  Next to me was one young lady and sitting on bags of rice in the aisle was one gentleman and then the bus driver.

In My Seat
My backpack on the ledge


I’m not sure what was behind the driver, but it resembled a wood or coal-burning stove.  Luckily this was a longer-than-normal stop and most everyone got off the bus to grab a bite to eat so I was able to make my way to my seat easily.  Timan gave my suitcase to the driver to put somewhere, and I put my backpack on the front window ledge next to several loaves of bread and various other paraphernalia.   I took a minute to take in my surroundings and knew I was in for an interesting journey.

After 5 hot, dusty, bumpy hours on the bus, I arrived in Wasso. It wasn’t the most comfortable trip, but it was better than the ride to the Giraffe Lodge, mainly because of my seat position.  Also, looking out the window and seeing random giraffes and dazzles of zebras along the way somehow made it almost dreamlike.  I messaged the school inquiring if I should get off the bus in this small village called Wasso.  Lidia said, “no, stay on and let me talk to the driver.”

Back on the road and about 15 minutes later, the bus pulled to the side, dropped me off, found my suitcase, and I arrived at my home for the next couple of weeks.  When I said dusty, check out the photo of my suitcase when they took it off the bus and then after the ladies who cook and clean at the school washed it for me.










There were no children at the school as they would be arriving over the weekend to start the new semester.  Approximately 200 children live at the school and about 300 attend.  I was greeted by 6 other volunteers, representing Italy, France, Germany, and Austria, and shown to my room which I would be sharing with Sara from Italy.  There is no running water at the school.  This meant we would be taking bucket showers and using pails of water to flush the toilets.  The location of the school which is between Wasso and Loliondo, Tanzania sits about 2° south of the equator and at an altitude of approximately 2000 meters (6560 ft) above sea level.  Why is this important?

For my bucket showers
My bed

It is important because I arrived with flip flops and one pair of closed-toe Keen sandals, no socks, 1 hoodie from Zenira Camp and I think 1 long-sleeve shirt along with several t-shirts and some linen pants.  2° south of the equator in my mind meant hot.  What I didn’t take into consideration was the altitude.  The days were warm but breezy and once the sun went down it got downright chilly, even dipping into the mid-’40s (Fahrenheit) at night.  This might be a good place to add that along with no running water, there was no heating and cooling system…and electricity could be sketchy along with cellular service.  Before you ask, yes I was aware of the living conditions and somehow that actually enhanced the experience.

Stew with eggplant, carrots and potatoes

The other volunteers were busy doing things around the school, but I was given a hearty meal of chapati, potatoes, and a type of stew.  After which the ladies who work there insisted I empty my suitcase so they could clean it along with any clothes I wanted to be washed.  Everything is washed by hand even though they have a washing machine.  They have no running water to hook it up and are hoping that will change in the near future.  Next, a young girl showed up with a bucket of hot water so I could “shower” after my dusty journey.  Around the dinner table that evening I had the chance to meet all the volunteers and they filled me in on what was happening and what to expect the next day.

One of the buildings of the school

I woke up on the last day of August 2022, to a cool, breezy, partly cloudy day.  We would spend the day preparing the classrooms and dormitories for the return of the children.

My world map task

My task for the day was to paint a world map on the wall of one of the classrooms.  Others were painting desks and chairs, measuring windows for replacement glass, and organizing the dormitories.  Part of the arrangement with WorkAway is that in exchange for room and board, you volunteer 3-4 hours per day during the weekdays.  Many WorkAways provide room and board at no cost to the volunteers.  At BEMS, we were asked to contribute the equivalent of $5.00, or about 12,000 Tanzanian shillings per day.  All of this was funneled back into the school and also helps cover the cost of food for the volunteers.  To put that into perspective, the school spends approximately 280,000 shillings per day to feed about 300 children, staff, and volunteers.  This is the equivalent of $120.00.

The kitchen for the school. They feed 300+ from here

Whereas the children ate basically the same thing every day (porridge in the morning and rice and beans for lunch and dinner), the volunteers often got fresh fruit (oranges, bananas, watermelons, and avocados), spaghetti, rice, potatoes, and sometimes stew, and always chapati.  It didn’t change much over the 2 weeks I spent there. Even contributing my $5 per day, I sometimes felt guilty about the food we received compared to the staff and children.

Sometime over the course of the day, I was approached by Lidia and asked if I was interested in going on a safari to the Serengeti the next day.  Since the children wouldn’t be arriving until the weekend, it would be the perfect opportunity.  The owners of the school, Baraka and Juliana Eliud also have a safari business,

Not only does BEMS sit 2°south of the equator, but it is 120 km (75 miles) from Serengeti National Park.  I mentioned in an earlier post one of my reasons for choosing Bright English Medium School for my WorkAway was its location in regard to the Serengeti.  Baraka offers this opportunity to volunteers at a rate much lower than you would expect to pay as a “regular” tourist.  Again, after his expenses, (gas, etc.) all the money is put back into the school.  On top of the fee we paid to Astro Safari, we also paid an entrance fee at the park, and we divided the cost of entrance for Baraka and his assistant (less than ours as they are residents) between the 4 of us that went. I know many people go on weeklong safaris, but our one day was more than I ever imagined.

Our day started at 05:00.  Even though it is only 120 km to Klein’s Gate, where we would start our safari, it was about a two-hour journey over dirt roads and paths.  It is an exit or entry point near the northeastern border of Serengeti National Park. Completely remote, it is utilized by those going to or coming from the Loliondo game-controlled area, a rural Maasai territory — with lake Natron on the eastern end.  The gate and the route are seldom used due to it being remote and the Loliondo route being uncharted territory.  Still, part of the area is a wildebeest migration route.

We witnessed a glorious sunrise and before we even made it to the official entrance to the park, we had wildebeest cross right in front of us.  It was still part of the great migration season and seeing herds, properly known as a confusion, of wildebeest, was a remarkable sight.

Near to Klein’s Gate, we spotted a lion (bull) and two lionesses lolling in the grass.  We stopped for several minutes just to gaze and then continued on to enter the park.  Inside Klein’s Gate, we parked our safari vehicle, paid our fees, and then at a picnic table enjoyed coffee and chapati prepared for us by the school.  When we finished Baraka had spoken to the park ranger and we decided to go back to where we saw the lions.  Inside the park, you are not permitted to exit the paths designated for vehicles, but the lions were outside the boundaries of the park and Baraka was going to go off-road and see if we could get close to them.


Well, they were still there when we got back, and as promised Baraka got us practically within petting distance.  We were within about five meters of the beautiful creatures.  They completely ignored us, and we got amazing photos but spent most of the time staring in awe.  Finally, we decided, we need to move on as we hadn’t even entered the Serengeti.  Little did we know what the day had in store for us.

The Serengeti ecosystem is a geographical region in Africa, spanning northern Tanzania.  The protected area within the region includes approximately 30,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi) of land, including the Serengeti National Park and several game reserves. The Serengeti hosts the second largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, which helps secure it as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and as one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world.  The Serengeti is also renowned for its large lion population and is one of the best places to observe the prides in their natural environment.

Over the course of the day, we saw many simbas (simba is Swahili for lion) including a pride of about 15 and a mother with 2 young cubs frolicking in the grass.  Later on in the day, we had a lioness walk alongside our vehicle for quite a ways. So close I could have reached out and touched her.  Leaving the park, the lions we saw first thing in the morning were still there.  Then several minutes down the road, we spotted another lioness who appeared to be hunting.

It seemed like zebras were everywhere.  I couldn’t stop watching them and photographing them.  Luckily our driver had no problem pulling over and letting us just gaze. Also, our guide took some of my photos/videos so I could just watch. It is utterly amazing seeing them wander the savannah of the Serengeti.  There were even some that wandered around the fields by the school.

In the vast plains of Serengeti National Park, the annual migration of two million wildebeests plus hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras is one of the most impressive nature spectacles in the world. The biological diversity of the park is very high with at least four globally threatened or endangered animal species: black rhinoceros, elephant, wild dog, and cheetah.

You can’t even imagine the number of wildebeest.  To see them run across a field is a sight to behold.   The 800-kilometer trek of the immense wildebeest herd is the largest mammal migration on earth. It is of the most sought-after experiences for wildlife and nature enthusiasts, the Great Migration is the ever-moving circular migration of over a million animals across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.  The ecosystem supports two million wildebeests, 900,000 Thomson’s gazelles, and 300,000 zebras as the dominant herds.

We didn’t see that many giraffes up close and personal. But when you are very near you can’t help but be astounded by their size.  Vulnerable due to an observed population decline of 36–40% over three generations (30 years, 1985–2015). The factors causing this decline (direct killing and habitat loss) have not ceased throughout the species’ range. The best available estimates indicate a total population in 1985 of 151,702–163,452 giraffes (106,191–114,416 mature individuals) and in 2015 a total population of 97,562 giraffes (68,293 mature individuals).  These elegant animals need around 30 to 60 kilograms of vegetables or leaves a day. Since they are quite choosy about their diet, they spend up to 14 hours a day eating. They have plenty of time because giraffes sleep just one hour a day!

We had several up-close encounters with the world’s largest land animal. Although our first sighting was a lone elephant in the distance on a hill. Even from a distance, it looked massive.  Our second encounter was when one crossed the road directly in front of our vehicle. All I could do was watch.  Which is why I only have a photo of the elephant’s butt. Then we got to be up close with several frolicking with a couple of young elephants too.

Elephant populations in Serengeti National Park have increased from 6,000 in 2014 to more than 7,000 in 2020, according to the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI).  African savanna elephants are the largest species of elephant and the biggest terrestrial animal on Earth. They are easily distinguished by their very large ears—which allow them to radiate excess heat—and front legs which are noticeably longer than the hind legs. It’s the world’s largest land animal, and seeing one in its natural habitat is simply thrilling.

The buffalo is considered one of the “big five” in the Serengeti. The term “Big Five” originally referred to the difficulty in hunting the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and African buffalo. These five large African mammal species were known to be dangerous and it was considered a feat by trophy hunters to bring them home.  The Buffalo is among the most dangerous species of animals in Africa, with only a few predators, like lions.  It is believed, that there are over 30,000 Buffalo in the Serengeti.

We came across several pools of hippos.  The Hippopotamus is a two-ton, amphibious tank of Africa and the third-largest land mammal on Earth (elephants first, rhinos second).  These rotund, water-loving behemoths can grow the length of an adult giraffe and can weigh over twice the size of an average sedan. Often found lounging in mud baths of their own refuse, hippos are not to be messed with.  The hippopotamus is a name of Greek derivation suggesting them as a “water horse,” but hippos are far from equestrian. In fact, they might just be the strangest and most dangerous animal you will witness on safari, half-submerged sixteen hours a day along rivers in their groups, or “bloats,” of 10-20 hippos.

We spent 10 hours exploring the park.  Although we didn’t see all of “the big five”, it was an awe-inspiring experience with the landscape being as captivating as the wildlife.  The landscape of the Serengeti is mostly savannah.  The savannah consists of grasslands, plains, kopjes, marshes, and woodlands.  I was surprised by the diversity of the landscape which seemed to change every 20 minutes.  Seeing the iconic umbrella acacia on the open savannah was beyond description.  The day exceeded all expectations.  Making our way out of the park at the end of the day, watching the sunset, and noticing giraffes behind the trees with the 3 lions still lounging underneath will be forever etched in my mind.  Arriving back at the school I had trouble settling down for the night as I replayed the day before falling into an African dream.

Slept in a bit on Friday as there were no kids at the school yet.  Sipping my coffee, still thinking about my safari it was soon time to continue work on the classrooms and dormitories.  Soon Lidia came around and asked if anyone wanted to go to the Maasai Market.  I jumped on the opportunity.

It is a weekly market where Maasai people from villages all over the area including Kenya gather to buy and sell goods and cattle. Currently, about 80% of the students at the school are Maasai.  The Maasai are semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasai are cattle and goat herders, and their economy is almost exclusively based on their animal stock, from which they take most of their food: meat, milk, and even blood, as certain sacred rituals involve the drinking of cow blood. Moreover, the huts of the Maasai are built from dried cattle dung.  Despite the growth of modern civilization, the Maasai have largely managed to maintain their traditional ways, although this becomes more challenging each year. The ability to graze their cattle over large territories, for example, has diminished considerably in recent years, due to increased urbanization and the declaration of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti game reserves, which were all formerly Maasai grazing land.

The weekend arrived and students began to trickle in.  And we kept busy playing with the children and continuing work around the school.  One of the current projects going on at the school is building a new toilet and shower room for the boys’ dormitory. I had a chance to chat with the young man who is making the concrete blocks one at a time. He told me if needed he could produce up to 300 blocks per day. He has been doing this type of work for 4 years. The blocks he was working on were for the sewage/septic tank.  Maybe because my brother deals a lot with the concrete industry, I was fascinated by the making of the blocks which take about a week to dry.  The weekend flew by in a flurry of activity and on Sunday night the children had a small worship service in the dormitory.  Monday brought even more children to the school and I was spending my days in the preschool classroom teaching the littlest one’s songs and dances.

Soon the “Hello Friends” song I taught them was heard all over the school grounds.  Another favorite was “Baby Shark”….not mine…theirs. Somehow the week disappeared.  I want to point out that there are no televisions at the school, and children don’t have cell phones or tablets.  Free time is spent jumping rope, kicking a mostly flat soccer ball around the school grounds, and just having fun.  My days were filled with smiles and laughter.  I had my laptop with me and downloaded several movies.

The next time you think you need a larger television screen, think about these kids (at one point about 60), crammed around my little computer screen watching “Lion King”.  I eventually went into the small village and bought a small Bluetooth speaker so they could at least hear the sound a bit better. At the close of every school day, while some were waiting on the school bus, it was the same plea….Can we watch “King Lion”?  Yes, they got it backward but every day my answer was, “of course, we can watch it”. Being in a remote area the evenings gave us epic sunsets and chilly nights.

How did the weekend get here?  I had Saturday morning classes with the littles.  The weekends were also cleaning up time.  All the kids who lived at the school, washed their clothes (by hand), and hung them on lines or on bushes to dry.  While the clothes were drying, they polished their shoes and played some soccer in between.  I took a couple of nice walks on the roads around the school and bumped into some Maasai men tending their herds.  I noticed the ground was full of crystal-like rocks, so I picked up a few to bring back with me.

The children put on a worship service Sunday morning complete with empty water bottles on overturned buckets for drums.  The singing, dancing, and drumming were as good as any church service I attended.

The next thing I knew, my time at the school was over.  If there is one thing I have learned during my travels, it is that goodbyes are never easy.  It was time to make my rounds and say not only goodbye but thank you to the beautiful people who had become part of my life, my journey, and my memories these last two weeks. It has been an unforgettable experience.  The happiness and love I felt there was almost indescribable, but I think you can see it in everyone’s eyes and smiles and you will understand.

My wonderful host and owners of the school presented me with a lovely letter and certificate but also a Maasai shuka which I will treasure.  I was blessed with one last beautiful sunset. I had to be up the next morning at 5am to catch my bus for the 9-hour journey to Arusha followed by an hour taxi ride to my hotel in Kilimanjaro. I won’t be sad because it’s over, but happy because it happened. So, lala salama, and on to the next chapter.

Somehow, after everything I experienced the last few weeks, not only at BEMS but also at the Giraffe Lodge, made the long, hot, dusty, crowded, often uncomfortable bus ride was not too bad.  I arrived in Arusha around 2:30 in the afternoon.  Max, my driver,  picked me up at the bus station in Arusha and it was a bit over an hour’s drive to my adorable guest house, Le Parlour which is near Kilimanjaro. I was greeted by Mama Angela, the proprietor who showed me around and made sure I had hot water for a much-needed shower.  My first “real” shower in almost 3 weeks. It was heavenly.  She then asked if I would like an early dinner so I could have a relaxing evening. She told me to be at the little red bungalow at 18:00. I was served way too much food…chicken, pasta, greens, veggies, and of course chapati. I told her I liked spicy food so she made sure her homemade chili sauce was there for me. I also met her daughter Eileen, who made all my arrangements to get from Arusha (Max had my name on a placard and whisked me away) to their guest house. I am sipping a G&T and can hear someone strumming a guitar outside. I think it will be an early night with my Kindle. No plans for tomorrow so I will just see what it brings.

After a wonderful sleep, it is my last full day in Tanzania.  Eileen and Mama Angela prepared a beautiful breakfast. Chapati with avocado and scrambled eggs with homemade chili sauce, coffee, and freshly squeezed juice. My plan was to just relax and then take a walk.  Which is exactly what I did.  I will settle for seeing Kilimanjaro from the distance.

I spent the last of my Tanzanian shilling in the gift shop at the airport and then found out I could have a cheeseburger and a glass of South African Chenin Blanc….life is indeed good.  Taking off for Ethiopia, our pilot made sure to give both sides of the plane an up-close view of Kilimanjaro.  It was an amazing time in Tanzania, but I was ready to get back home to Warsaw.


It really was a lifetime experience and thanks to each and every one of you that followed. Again…count your blessings! Then remember these kids, remember how happy they seemed. I rarely saw them without smiles, they were happy with their meals and thankful for the time the volunteers spend with them. Maybe it is really them that are blessed.  Peace my friends.

“Once you carry your own water, you will learn the value of every drop.”

Year in Review 2022 ~ Life is Short…I Want to Live it Well!

Year in Review 2022 ~ Life is Short…I Want to Live it Well!

A mere 4 days until 2023.  As usual, I am staring at a blank page pondering my prose.  Not to mention, I have part 3 of my Tanzania story still unfinished.  I have a very quiet week, but somehow, the more time I have the less I accomplish.  I guess I work best under pressure.

For the last few years, I have written my year-in-review blog and put together a slide show set to music.  This year I ran across a song by Switchfoot which I had never heard, but it has quickly become my mantra.  Here are a few lines to see where my head is:  “Life is short; I wanna live it well.  One life, one story to tell.  Life is short; I wanna live it well.”  As the year 2022 got closer, the phrase “life is short” entered my mind at least weekly, if not daily.  2022 was going to be a tough one for me.  In August 2022, I would turn 60.  I’m sure you are all saying things like it’s just a number, you don’t seem like you are 60 (trust me my body feels it some days), and all those other things you say when someone mentions “an age”.  Why was 60 going to be a rough time for me?

22 years ago, at the age of 60, my mom died after a long, hard battle with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis.  She fought a good battle, but DAMN, she was only 60, that’s the number I will reach this year.  It’s tough wrapping my head around that.  I am now the same age my mom was when she died an ugly death.  So yeah, “life is short, and I definitely want to live it well.”

Without further ado…here’s my story which starts where last year finished.  You are an important part of my journey and I hope you found Peace, Love, Light, and Lots of Laughter in 2022.  And mom, this year was for you.  Especially my time with those kids at Bright English Medium School in Loliondo Tanzania.  When my brother looked at my photos and heard my stories, what he said to me was the greatest compliment anyone could give.  He said, “you are our mother’s daughter for sure”.  I could feel her emotions and her presence.  I have one life and hopefully, my life is my story.

January kicked off with friends next door at the Tapas Bar, some fireworks, and bubbles.  Next, it was Tamara’s birthday and we met for dinner at a great restaurant, Warszawa Wschodnia, in the Praga District of Warsaw.  It had a very cool whale tail piano.  January 6th, Epiphany, or a day my mom called “Little Christmas”.  Epiphany is also called Feast of Epiphany and Three Kings Day.  It marks the day when the three wise men or kings went to visit baby Jesus.  In Warsaw, there is a large parade of kings.

It is a reenactment of the nativity and the three kings on camels ride from Old Town to Plac Marszalka Jozefa Pilsudkiego.  Thousands of people follow the parade with the kings.  It was quite a sight to behold as I walked the route with the throngs.  January was quickly turning to February.

February found me starting my own company in Poland called Language Nomad and I could freelance as an English teacher.  In Poland, we celebrate Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday (not Tuesday).  It is the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday.  It is also playfully known as “pączki day”.  This is because across Poland more than 100 million pączki (traditional donuts filled with rose or plum jam) are consumed.  I decided I needed to get my pączki from one of the most famous bakeries in Warsaw.  I knew people wait in line to get these delectable treats, but little did I know I would wait in line for nearly 3 hours.  Wednesday morning, I set off for the bakery.  When I got off the tram, I saw a line around the corner of a building and knew I was at the right place.  What I didn’t know was that there were 3 “corners” to go around.

After 30 minutes, I was happy to make the first turn, happy until I made the turn and saw that I had a ways to go.  I decided I had already invested this much time; I may as well stick it out.  On a side note, it was also drizzling rain but warmish. When I finally got in sight of the door, and thankfully there had been a coffee shop along the way so I had a double espresso, I discovered why the line moved so slowly.  First, the shop was so small only 2 people could enter at a time.  Second, there was a limit to how many of the 3.50-zloty (about 80 cents) pączki you could buy.  I figured it would be a limit of a dozen, but NOOOOO.

Everyone could purchase 40, you read that right, FORTY!!!  It seemed everyone was buying the limit.  Well, after nearly 3 hours wait, I wasn’t about to buy 1 pączek (the singular of pączki) and leave, so I took a dozen.  Was it worth the wait?  Put it this way, I probably wouldn’t wait 3 hours again, they were delicious, and it is all about the experience, but now I can say, “been there, done that”.

Tłusty Czwartek also coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the start of the current war.  The influx of refugees into Poland started almost immediately.  The last weekend in February I attended a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy protesting the war and Putin.  I went with my flatmate, Zaka, and it is an experience I won’t forget.  Across Poland, people were coming together to help the 100’s thousands of mostly women and children crossing into Poland.  By the beginning of March, Poland had already accepted 500,000 refugees.  At its height, this number would rise to over 3 million with the population in Warsaw increasing by 17%.  The month of March was an emotional roller coaster.  My eyes were opened to things I never thought about.  Things I can’t imagine ever going through myself.  I met people who had no idea what their future would look like.  I witnessed humanity and compassion that I thought didn’t exist anymore.

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.  One 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, and we are looking for accommodation and further transport for them.  Please help.”  I had been going to the train station to volunteer whenever I could, but when I saw Pawel’s post almost simultaneously I received a message from a travel friend asking if they could send money to me and I could make sure it was put to good use.  Soon, without even asking, other friends were contacting me with the same question.  I was also 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.  They published an article, “Drive to Save Lives”.   Within a few days, I received over $13,000 in contributions to Pawel’s efforts.  This money was not only used to transport refugees, but it helped purchase ambulances that were sent to Ukraine, and food for the shelters.

March quickly turned into April, and I was fortunate to meet up with a friend from my hometown who was in Warsaw with the International Red Cross helping with the war effort.  We only had time for lunch and a short visit, but it’s always great to see someone from “home”.   Also in April, I was contacted by a good friend who told me he had given my phone number to a woman from his church.  Soon I was contacted by a member of her family explaining that they had a grandson who had escaped from Kharkiv Ukraine with his mother and grandmother.  Lana and her son had both been wounded by bullets and shrapnel with Lana requiring surgery when she arrived in Warsaw.

They were trying to get to the United States.  I visited them several times while they were waiting on a visa appointment for the grandmother.  The stories they told me were unbelievable.  I’m happy to report that after 4 months, all documents were in order, and they were able to make it to the United States near the end of June.

April brought me the sad news of the death of one of my young students at Yayasan Widya Guna school for special needs in Bali.  I had an opportunity to go with Pawel to see the ambulances which had been purchased and were ready to head to Ukraine along with medical supplies, body bags, and food staples.  Even seeing what all Pawel was still doing, deep down, it was feeling like the war was becoming just a normal part of daily life. Myself, I was headed to Paris for a two-week holiday with my friend Cathy.   Sadly, the war would be all but forgotten as I enjoyed the sights and sounds of Paris and beyond.  I took her to all my favorite places in Montmartre and a few others around the city.  We even discovered a few new places and traveled to Moulin, France, and St. Genevieve des Bois to visit sights associated with Rudolf Nureyev.  We even managed a day trip to Amsterdam.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting up with Lenore.  I met Lenore online through a fellow Kiwanian in Warren Ohio, Leonard, who was in Paris during WWII and shared my love of the city.  I had only met Lenore through Facebook, but her Panther Organization was in Paris to visit WWII sights and travel to Normandy.  After many years of Facebook exchanges, and the death of Leonard, we were finally going to meet face-to-face along with Cathy and members of her group.  What an evening that was on the steps of Sacre Coeur.   As we watched the sun go down, listened to buskers, laughed, cried, and sipped Calvados, Leonard’s words of wisdom were in the back of my mind, “beware of the Calvados”.  Truer words were never spoken.  I will leave it at that.  The two-week holiday flew by, and I think I have another Paris convert, right, Cathy?

Arriving back in Warsaw in mid-May, spring was in the air.  The month ended with a whirlwind of activity, meeting with friends, wrapping up the school semester, and getting plans settled to head to Bulgaria in June.  I saw Lana, Anton, and Lidia one more time to say goodbye and wish them well as they started a new life in the USA.  The highlight of my year took place one weekend before I headed to Bulgaria, I have no photos because I just enjoyed the company of my brother and sister-in-law who came to Warsaw to visit me.  I was thrilled to show them the city I currently call home.  We walked all over, ate good food, shared some wine, took in a Chopin concert in Lazienki Park, and just savored our time together.  On June 22,

I boarded a plane to Burgas, Bulgaria on the Black Sea to spend the next 8 weeks working at Zenira Language Camp in Kiten.  Life at camp never stops, it’s exhausting, exhilarating, and sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding.  You make it to the end of the first 2-week session, take a breath and the next thing you know, it’s mid-August and you are saying your goodbyes.  Somewhere during the period of June – August, I planned for my next big adventure. I also quietly celebrated that number…six-zero.

“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 didn’t want to return directly to Warsaw as the new semester 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.  During my research, I remembered I had joined an online community a few years ago called WorkAway.  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 the next thing I knew; I pulled the trigger on a one-way plane ticket to Arusha from Sofia Bulgaria.  But, before I headed to Sofia, I took a train from Burgas to Veliko Tarnova to visit friends who had come to the USA as high school students nearly 20 years ago.  After a couple days of visiting with them, I boarded another train to Sofia and my African adventure was about to begin.

Sofia to Doha Qatar and then an overnight flight to Zanzibar Island Tanzania…landing on Zanzibar Island would give me a new stamp in my passport and tick country number 41.  I had a 5-hour layover on Zanzibar before flying to Arusha on the mainland.  After breakfast and my first taste of chapati,  I found a driver and for a fee, he took me on an island tour.  Made it back and boarded my prop plane for the mainland. I landed in Arusha and went to get my luggage and that’s when I discovered it didn’t make it.  That’s a whole other story and you can read about it here.  You can also read about my crazy bus ride to Massai Eco Giraffe Lodge where I would be spending 3 nights.  The bus ride even had a live chicken.  It was 4.5 hours across hot dusty terrain with no real roads and then we were stopped at the border to the National Park area, and I was asked to get off the bus like I said another story and you can read about it at the link.  I will say, I was in awe looking out the window and seeing massive baobabs and giraffes and zebras wandering freely.

Luggage-less, I made it to the Giraffe Lodge, my home for the next 4 days.  The lodge is an oasis in the middle of nowhere. It was heavenly.  You pay an activity fee to the lodge which then provides you with a Maasai guide who takes you on a trek and introduces you to the Maasai culture.  My guide was Timan and you can read about my adventures with him, here.  At least I can say my life is never boring.

My luggage did arrive and before I knew it, it was time for another crazy bus ride to Wasso/Loliondo Tanzania for my WorkAway at Bright English Medium School.  BEMS is in a remote area of Northern Tanzania, in the heart of Maasai country and on the edge of the Serengeti.  Two days after my arrival at the school, our host arranged to take us on a safari in the Serengeti.

There were six other volunteers when I arrived and 4 of us chose to go on the safari.  It was a dream come true.  We paid a small fee in comparison to other safaris and the money would be put right back into the school. The children many of whom live at the school hadn’t returned for the new semester when I arrived.  With a WorkAway, you volunteer a few hours a day in return for room and board.  Before the children arrived, we spent our time painting classrooms.

After they arrived, I spent my time in the kindergarten classroom teaching English.  The school had no running water, which meant we took bucket showers and flushed toilets with buckets of water.  Electricity was sometimes spotty so having a power bank and charging all devices whenever possible was a must. The nearest village was a 30–40-minute walk.  Luckily I was able to catch a ride if I needed anything from the shops.  I am still writing my blog about my experience there, but I will say it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.  I was sad to see my time there come to an end, but I needed to get back to Warsaw to prepare for the new school year.  I said my goodbyes the night before as I had to be by the side of the road at 05:30 for the bus to pick me up for a 9+ hour ride back to Arusha.  Once in Arusha, I had arranged for a car to take me to my homestay in Kilimanjaro.  I spent 2 relaxing days before catching a flight to Addis Ababa Ethiopia, to Stockholm Sweden, and home sweet home to Warsaw.

Back in Warsaw in mid-September, I took some time to relax, regroup and reflect on my whirlwind summer.  At the beginning of October, I was with my Nepalese friends as they celebrated Dashain, a Hindu holiday that symbolizes the victory of good over evil.  The school semester started up and the rest of the month was quiet.

November 1st in Poland is All Saints Day, and it is celebrated by going to the cemetery and placing mums and lighting candles at the graves of loved ones.  It is a very important holiday, and the cemeteries are a sight to behold.  November 11th is Polish Independence Day and along with Tamara, I attended the Independence Day March. The rest of the month was quiet which was just letting me breath before my crazy December started.

December kicked off with me showing the cousin of one of my friends around Warsaw.  She was in town to give a seminar and in a couple short days we had a Lebanese dinner, drinks at the Panorama Bar overlooking the city, walked all over Old Town, watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, took in the Christmas lights on the evening of the official lighting and walked the royal route.  Being from the south of the USA, the snowy, cold weather in Warsaw called for extra coffee stops.

I said goodbye to Patty and on December 5th boarded a flight to Amsterdam to meet a friend from Florida.  Maribeth and I spent the day and evening wandering the streets, taking a canal cruise, and walking the Red-Light District.  The next morning we boarded a flight to Krakow.  Staying in Old Town, we wandered the Christmas Market and ate dinner al fresco.  The next day we took a tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau before catching the late train back to Warsaw.

The next few snowy days were spent going all over Warsaw and then taking a weekend day trip to Gdansk for the Christmas Market and a boat ride to Westerplatte, the location of the first battle between Polish and German troops and the start of WWII.  We ended her visit with a trip to the Garden of Light at Wilianow Palace.

Maribeth left on the 13th and on the 15th I boarded a plane to meet my friend Guy, who I worked with for 2 summers at Zenira Camp, in Paris.  We spent 4 days walking 8-10 miles per day all over the city.  We had mad fun at an Ice Bar and even found two ladies that I first met back in 2013.  I’m not sure how I fall more in love with Paris with each visit.  Back to Warsaw in time for Christmas.  I made a turkey and celebrated with friends.

Here it is the eve of the new year…2023!  I am about to open a bottle of prosecco and share a toast with my flatmate Zaka and his friend Tarlan.  Then we are off to a birthday/New Year party, and we will hit the streets with fireworks and sparklers for midnight.  Na zdrowie!  Thank you all for having a part in my journey.  The messages, cards, and video chats are meaningful, and I cherish every interaction.  Life is short….Live it well!

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.


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  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!