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Magical Taj Mahal

India – symbolic of an onslaught on all the known senses.

 Chennai and Delhi (new and old) whirred past in three days of snail traffic. The remaining rules of the streets were dictated by the size of vehicle and by sudden urges of any holy cow. Intersections became battlefields where raucous onlookers would surround the warring parties.

Within this human-transport-device-cow milling mass I observed a sequence of events that piqued my curiosity. On the outskirts of a warzone, frowned faces collected what seemed like money, from eager bystanders. This was accompanied by shrill voices in surreal surround sound. Impatient drivers blasted away on an array of hooters; cows howled for their offspring; agitated vendors shoved for another sale while a wrestling match developed between two drivers or a driver and a pedestrian or maybe even two friends. The squabbling went on for ages as the current we were stuck in stuttered past and beyond before I could witness who the victor was.

Intersections and loaded buses

Intersections and loaded buses

Our taxi-guide nodded in a peculiar way (like those dogs in the back windows of cars) in appreciation of my enquiry. He turned down the volume of booming sixties music to reply: “They are betting on the outcome. Like gambling, you know? It’s tradition and some extra income, and all. Everyone does it – all the time”. His explanation confirmed the regularity and ordinariness of the intersection-wars. All the while his earnest eye-darting to the rearview mirror was accompanied by the constant head-bopping.

Streets, roads and all spaces...shopping

Streets, roads and all spaces…shopping

 

In between intersections our line of outdated cars and basket-bikes moved slowly enough for me to study the pedestrians. The sidewalks became streams of human ants busying to and fro in bright garb, stopping briefly for exchanges of dirty money wrapped in kerchiefs for the on-the-go street curry. Whiffs of danya, cloves, turmeric and saffron (the black market type) blended with fumes of progress. The smell of poverty clung to the air that carried incense and curry. My lungs and nose revolted against the unfamiliar mix. Fortunately an innate tolerance and sense of adventure helped my senses (and me) to rapidly adjust.

I was looking forward to visiting the marble white Taj Mahal. Away from the screaming colors of the ubiquitous saris and smells of spice infused air; to a place of meditation and soul restoring. Head-bopping-guide-driver confirmed that this was a quiet place of worship and peace. “Built in the 15th century, dedicated to the third wife of a shah, yes”, he said. “She was a Persian princess who died in childbirth of her 14th child”, he added in his matter of (everyday) fact way. The rest of his story droned on while a vivid, but sad picture of a modern day Princess of the people occupied my mind.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana 

 

On a tour that touched the world, but a lone figure on a bench, Diana perched in typical stance with the mausoleum as backdrop in this over publicized photo. I wondered if she found magic there? I wondered if the staged emptiness of the gardens around the Taj Mahal echoed her emotions? I wondered if the pool reflection of a clear sky mirrored the blue of her eyes? I wondered if she understood a love capable of devoting a temple as the one behind her?

We arrived at Agra, miraculously still in one, albeit, dusty piece. The road was not that long. It was just that slow. Yielding respectfully when Brahman crossed the road (the cattle, not the caste). Dodging dangling passengers from groaning buses, from and to unpronounceable places. Waiting patiently for traffic jams that uncoiled in unimaginable masses of more noise, creatures and gestures.

Holy and happy

Holy and happy

 

Back in the air-conditioned hotel the concierge dutifully spelled out the plans for the next morning. Stabbing with his pen at the travelling brochure he deflated our enthusiasm with: “It is a religious holiday tomorrow”. Before the consequence of this announcement could make sense he trundled out the words I dreaded to hear: “There will be plenty devotees from the countryside. Everybody in India must visit Taj Mahal at least once. Very pleasant. You will see. Please be on time.” Our exchanged glances were censored before they could be translated.

The next morning, buses deposited us amongst more people and food. Tickets and body searchers helped to slow the procession towards the shrine down to a crawl, (so much for being on time). When we finally got into the gardens and saw the monument for the first time for real, the glamour was dulled by flashes from millions of cameras and the equally dazzling smiles of zealous posers. Even so, my sixth sense intuited the subtle undercurrent of magic.

 

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

 

We followed the human serpent. We rolled across the garden paths, coiled up the stairs and watched its other end emerge on the opposite side. Like the omega – in shape and in continuance. We glided over the cool marble and slid down into the shadowy recesses of the tomb. We were carried forward on a stream of chanters and I found myself slipping into the lull of mass hypnosis.

It was due to this altered state of mind (I told myself afterwards) that people appeared friendlier. We were stopped for photographs and autographs(?!). One photo on the stairs leading into the subterranean chamber, ‘with my daughter and wife, please’. A picture to be posed for in front of the small cemetery gate, ‘for our hanty and huncle who are too old to travel, thank you’. One more with a little girl all pink and shy, for her birthday.

 

For my wife, please

For my wife, please

 

One for the family

One for the family with the birthday girl

 

There was magic in the people. Their unsophisticated warmth melted away the exasperation that usually accompanies hordes. Back in the blazing sun their energy mingled with the festivities under the trees and shaded spaces. The inevitable Indian picnic on holidays featured even on holy ground.

Marble base for a picnic

Marble base for a picnic and some prayers

 

Slowly we made our way towards the exit. There we would find a picture-perfect-position our guide promised. Perfect to capture the gold of the setting sun reflected on the marble. Over the heads of the millions, I smiled. “No problem for you”, he cajoled my husband Rob. “You are big and tall, you can see over everybody. The people from the country has never seen a big man like you, that is why they want to take photos back to their villages, to show the others”. Sense surfaced. We smiled, now knowingly, as our sweet talking guide arranged us on the Di-chair, the famous bench that portrayed the sad solitude of Princess Diana.

Flattery will get one anywhere...

Flattery will get one anywhere…

 

After a digital plethora of poses I was asked to remain seated on the bankie. “A request from the people”, our guide tried to comfort me. Flattery proved to take him everywhere and I waved jokingly at the gathering crowd. I smiled at a worried Rob and allowed Mr Smooth to be director of my final pose. “Please hang your head sideways and smile through your hair. They think you are Diana reincarnated.” His eyes rolled towards the crowd.

 

Princess for that one posed moment

Princess for that one posed moment

 

My moment of magic (although in post analytical reality just a creation of Mr Suave), reduced the gold on the marble to a faint memory.

A split second of undeserved recognition and a shared sense of fun completed my Taj Mahal Magic.

 

 

 

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It was long ago. Michele was blonde and I was mouse.

She still is blonde, but I am now silver. Her blondeness taught me then about social-cultural tolerance. Our South Africanness highlighted the worldwide ignorance regarding Africa and color, which I now appreciate in golden memories.

 

Umbria is a province in the middle of Italy, off the trodden track. But it was the unknown on the brochure that caught our attention and lured us into our first hike in Europe.

Footloose and carefree, it promised.

 

The train weaved down the peninsula from Florence towards the Appenine Mountains where Calvin, our English-speaking guide, met us at Foligno station. On the verandah of Beneditti he explained the unfamiliar term of slackpacking; apologized for the outdated war maps and exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost en route. No, there were no others on this excursion; we were too early for the European hiking season. Michele and I were the group.

 

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

 

Early the next morning a taxi waited to take us to Pettino. Calvin waved us a last “Read the instructions carefully”. We thanked the driver in the one-horse village, more a sheep-still-asleep one, shaded by oak forests. At the dusty crossroads, we consulted the copied notes: From Pettino find the way to Spina Vecchia. We took the only road in the opposite direction to the disappearing taxi. There was a reassuring rusted signpost with a barely visible cursive S.Vech.

 

The motionless air carried no sounds. The world slumbered. We breathed the musky truffle air from the oak forest till we met the sun where it peeped over open wheat fields. Speckles of red poppies in the gold and indigo patches on the cross-valley hills pulled our focus away from the maps. There was an indescribable sense of place. It was as if we were the only wanderers (which we seemed to be), ever to walk this piece of earth.

 

It took a while before the euphoria was replaced by a tinge of concern. We could not find the rusted wire gate or for that matter the old well with a hole in the bucket (dear Liza?). Instead there were fields with sheep, an old man herding them and a sleepy hollow to our left. Somewhere in our entranced state, I skipped a line on the instructions. We needed a phone to contact Calvin.

 

The herder followed us after his unsuccessful attempt to understand our map or us – instead he muttered something about ‘senoritas’ and ‘vino rosso or vino blanco’. At breakfast? I then realized the power of blonde; our illiterate countryside farmer had never seen a bunny like Michele, ever. The awe in his eyes was indescribable and his immediate infatuation overpowered all his logic. I giggled; Michele cringed.

 

A young mother was hanging nappies on a line as we approached her. She dried her hands on an apron and smiled at our expanded group. Mama Maria from Fonni came to our rescue. She understood sign language for telephone. ‘You want shortest route to Cerreto?’ The old Roman road was visible at the tip of her finger; at the bottom of the valley, a direct but challenging descent. This was fortunate, as it proved too difficult for our aged pursuer after he insisted on ‘showing us the way’.

Stone walls and rivers

Stone walls and rivers

 

 

Encouraged by Michele’s endless enthusiasm, I ignored the dull ache in my toes as we followed the off-the-map cobbled path. I let out a loud sigh when the village appeared further down the valley. Elated spirits soon succumbed to pain when we realized that the Panorama Hotel was exactly that. Panoramic. Our destined accommodation was perched on the top of the highest hill of the town. We were entering Cerreto at river level.

 

“You can take your boots off at the first pub we find, and we can have an ice cold beer. We deserve it,” said Michelle. After a day lost in the rural mountains I was too tired to argue, let alone debate the point that neither of us drank beer. The pub sign was visible even before we had a view of the street. Guessing by the blare from that direction, there was obviously a national soccer match on the go. The noise contradicted the emptiness of the main street winding up the hill.

 

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

 

Approaching the door for the promised resurrection, we both immediately understood the futility of the reward as all the men from the village were gathered around the TV. Our attempted casual, but quick stroll past the only pub didn’t go unnoticed. Judging by their exclamations, the few bystanders on the periphery of the soccer flock had just scored winning goals. The all-male crowd turned in unison towards the cause of the jubilations. My scowl was not noticed as the mass gawked at my fair friend, who suddenly had more haste in completing the final stretch.

 

The Hotel Panorama staff were relieved to welcome us; but were concerned about our late arrival and worried about the boots over my shoulder. The only way I could get up the last part of the hill was barefoot. After the abandoned beer stop, my blisters protested beyond reason. Yet strangely, the cobbles were kinder to my feet than the hard-toe hiking boots. And blonde ruled over blue – Michele’s bobbing ponytail accelerating the escape, but at the cost of my loosening toenails.

 

Slackpacking had benefits. Our real luggage was waiting in our rooms while our daypacks now soaked with the day’s fun (and sometimes run) lay in the sun. Then a hot healing shower, feet nursed, attired afresh and the best Italian cuisine – a trusted remedy for any traveler – followed by a soft sleep on crisp linen. The following day we were scheduled to enjoy a non-hiking day in Norcia, a neighboring small town. Blissful browsing and resting sore limbs and battle worn feet, this was the pattern of our trip for the next week. Early start and early arrival, browse around the town and a rest day before beginning again.

 

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

 

Crossing the Appenines of unknown Umbria in a group of two proved to be one of my most memorable travels. Often we walked through medieval town squares where we soon learned to cover our stringy topped shoulders and hiking-shorts knees during this passage; where elders (always men) judged us with watery glares.

 

We learned that siesta was a given along the Mediterranean so there were no open shops or shopkeepers to be seen during midday. That made us grateful for the ‘Mama’ at every overnight stop. She (all of them) packed a part-of-the-package picnic consisting of fresh bread, cheese, chorizo and a bottle of water and a touch of health (fruit) and the inevitable left over wine, (previous dinner’s unfinished extra large carafe of house wine). As we travelled we chose our lunch spots by view and proximity to destination. Where we would relax, secure in the knowledge that our next haven waited around the corner.

 

Idyllic, almost sacred days

Idyllic, almost sacred days

 

We crossed rivers (mostly Rio Nera), passed trout farms and bathed in drinking troughs. We sang, we danced and we explored. Chained and locked chapel doors did not stop us from taking pictures through broken windows so that we could see what it was they were hiding. The painted ceilings were intact, but the frescoes on the walls were disintegrating. Pictures of a harsh religion were recognizable, depicting punishment in paradoxical subtle colors.

 

Stone Arches

Stone Arches

 

Idyllic days followed nights of culinary wonder; consisting of herb and spice infusions with strange names, smells and tastes. Between towns we had the valleys and mountains to ourselves; infrequently a pair of cyclists would pass us. Unused railway tunnels became changing rooms and Roman aqueducts lined the horizon. Olive groves replaced fields of gold and we strolled through vineyards into rural villages with terracotta-lined balconies. The signposts and the maps started synchronizing and the days had their own rhythm. Our bodies followed.

 

 

It was during one of our peaceful lunches next to a district road that we discovered the general ignorance about South Africa. We heard the music before we saw the line of dust from the approaching truck packed with produce for the market. We watched the young farmers with amusement as they sped past and suddenly changed their minds. There was a whirlwind of confused dust particles as they reversed to stop at our picnic spot. Surprised at their forwardness we made ready to leave.

 

Their friendly open faces permitted for broken conversation loosely translated as: “Where are you from?” “We are from South Africa – Afrique du Sud? Mandela? Bafana Bafana?” Ah, the last reference hit the jackpot. They beamed with recognition. Then frowned with confusion. Impossible sounds the same in almost any language. Michele was the chosen. The older of the two prodded her arm with his earthy forefinger: “No noir? Blanco??” Well, those were the only words we could make out from the duet of objections. We were leaving; not prepared to have a political discussion and explain our heritage in two word sentences. Once safely surrounded by vines, we turned around to see we were being forgiven through a million kisses blown to heaven.

 

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

 

Our hiking trip ended and all too soon we were heading to Venice for a refined send off. Betwixt trains and platforms my occupation was watching people go by (sounds like a song?). Michele, in colorful contrast to most of the Mamas on the platform, unawares drew many admiring glances. The blondeness of our trip culminated in the blatant stare of a seemingly distinguished gentleman.

 

Obviously, I decided, he was on a boring business trip and he was looking for distraction – my mother superior alter ego echoed. But not with my friend – my protective loyalty gauge kicked in. Maybe all three emotions overlaid themselves across my expression or my stance, because the gentleman suddenly engaged in my glare. As he hastened towards me I prepared my reprimand – you cannot undress a woman in public, not even only with your eyes…

 

“Senora” – he bowed. I melted slightly. “I am obliged to apologize for my seemingly upsetting behavior.” I approved with a nod. “In my culture it is the finest compliment to savor the appearance of an elegant woman, especially in public. We are a passionate people and we love beauty.” How could I argue with a plea as fervent and honest as that? “I salute you and your friend. You have graced this dreary platform with your presence and….. ” I failed to register the rest of the sentence as he kissed my hand in farewell. I saw Michele gulp and giggle as she observed us from a bookstall.

 

Finally seated on the train to Venice, she would not believe me that I had been protecting her. I surrendered to the teasing. Soon she would forget about it when the Guggenheim and other museums filled her artistic senses.

 

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

32. Galapagos- Santa Fe Bay 2

 

 

Galápagos and Archipelago – unpronounceable at first (as I am another-mother-tonguer); two weird words supposed to name something. Together they meant a place I was going to go to – apart they confused me. The isles formed a map-able chain in the Pacific Ocean and they left an unforgettable spot in my travel memory.

That I even toyed with the idea not to include a visit to the Archipelago of the Galápagos while visiting friends in Ecuador in retrospect was madness. But, as I am only human, there was the usual doubt when I said goodbye to the familiar faces at the airport. Was it a good idea to go the remote unknown alone? My friends were continuing their tour in and around Quito (they’d already been to Galápagos) to make it easier for them to collect me on my return from the mysterious islands.

The flight to the main island was about an hour and half. The small-plane-sounds made casual conversation with the friendly-flushed-round-faced nun next to me uncomfortable and most of the niceties got lost in translation. I resorted to exploring.

Being seated by the window, geographic surveying was the logical first area of exploration,. The volcanic bubbles that made up the Archipelago, looked unwelcoming from the sky. Their aridity could not possibly be life sustaining – my thoughts contradicting the booklet I found in the seat pocket of the light airplane. According to Darwin the older the island – volcanic erupted rock, the more sophisticated the life forms and the better the chances of survival. And if one was stuck (like the Darwin Finches), they adapted or died. Darwin found proof for Evolution on these islands by comparing the beaks of dreary finches. The sizes and shapes of their beaks changed between the different islands, perfectly adapting to feed on different sizes of seed. The older islands are further from the volcanic activity and are covered with weird and fascinating fauna and flora – with tortoises and lizards the best known.

 

21. Galapagos-Plazas - Land iguana

Galapagos Plazas – dragon on watch

 

92. Galapagos - Santa Cruz - Darwin Station - lone George whispering sweet nothings

Santa Cruz – Darwin Station – lone George making a pass

 

51. Galapagos- Espanola- Punta Suarez sea iguana

Espanola- Punta Suarez Sea Iguana or Mermaid?

 

 

 

 

Inflight information was soon exhausted and scanning the vast water became monotonous. Thinking seemed better than snoozing and as the religious group seated around and next to me prompted spiritual searching, the evergreen debate of Darwinism versus Creationism topped my list.

So, the spiritual question that superseded the geography – what logic of evolution moved a group of Catholic Nuns to visit? My fellow traveller met my inquisitive glance with another angelic smile as if to say – “all life is beautiful and sacred, and I can read your mind, therefore my contentment.” Religion, conviction and judgment had no place here. Beauty, weird or wonderful was for all. I guiltily turned to the window again to look down on the approaching island. The biggest one and the only one with development, I read, only way to enter and exit the islands, here via sea and air. Named – Isabela – meaning ‘Devoted to God’. Ok…. I beamed an enlightened grin back at Sister Superior next to me.

That was the last of my holy encounter. Babelistic chaos around the luggage collection area churned me away from the nuns and deposited me amongst a sock-and-sandal crowd. A severe and guttural language dispersed all serenity. Clipped words lashed in loud banter amongst the excited group from Holland. My presence went unnoticed. The maelstrom whirled in a general direction towards the port.

Island guides surrendered to the scramble and obviously knew the wave of tourists could go no further than the water’s edge. Here they would then collect their flocks to direct them to the allocated boats from where all visitations of the islands took place under strict supervision. Was my trip going to be subdued and holy or competitive in a loud way?

 

44. Galapagos- Espanola - Gardner Beach - snorkel and smooch

Sealion Den

 

 

Signs with codes linked to boat names were bannered above the guides’ heads for all to see. I located my code on a crumpled plane ticket in my pocket. I was with The Guatuanamerra. It was to be my home for the next 6 days and 5 nights, its guide surrounded by the jolly Dutch. Once we were together on the deck I was noticed – the only single female traveler. Fortunately I knew that everything was pre-arranged with the travel agent. A single accommodation was secured with a supplement paid.

 

As our guide, with his charming local accent, readied himself and us for the rules-and-regulation session I used the time to slip to the bathroom downstairs before the usual rush. On returning to the deck there was a stiff atmosphere and groups separated with a hushed anticipation. The guide walked over to me and asked in an unusual sympathetic tone after my name and booking arrangements. “No problem”, I had the paperwork ready and produced it with confidence. “Um, did you not get the latest correspondence from the booking company?”

 

There was to be a change in schedules and an amalgamation of groups as the chartered boats were half full. The travel company thought it best to combine half loads – economically more viable of course – my notification of these arrangements disappeared in the weeks traveling Ecuador prior to Galápagos. So did my single supplement along with the request for private accommodation. A bigger noise of displeasure arose amongst my Dutch fellow females. The loud objections made me feel uncomfortable and I felt myself leaning to the opposite scale of moan, to quietly accept and let it be. The confusion of the fusion of ferries and foreigners – it sounded like a song along with the wailing women. But in the end there was too much of a flabbergasted fuss, which I could not participate in.

 

70. Galapagos- Floreana- Punta Cormorant stingray spotting

House Mates

 

 

I took the modification of arrangements with relaxed contentment (thanks to my blessed nun experience). Our guide flashed his relief in a Colgate Commercial way. I won a best friend for the duration of the trip. It was a simple matter of teaming up with one of the three gentlemen that then faced me. See? Easy. Just choose a roomie on the one side and ignore the judging couple-crowd from the other side.

I looked at my new best friend, I could not choose, my eyes shouted at him. For three very different reasons – one was from France and oozed the part, the other was from Germany and sounded the part, and the third was from Jerusalem and looked the part. How could I just pick one without deserving the Dutch Judgment? Best-friend-guide fiddled with the last 2 cabin keys, avoiding eye contact. A single sentence from me stilled the keys and jolted his attention “No, YOU choose,” and turned my back on the three. I was prepared to share my cabin with what fate handed me – but still I crossed my fingers for France. I got Jesus.

 

74. Galapagos- Floreana- unlikely roomies

Omer and Self

 

 

It was better than sharing with any girl. There was space in the cupboard and enough time in front of the mirror and no clashing wafts of perfume. The cabin was designed for three people, the bathroom for half. There was a double bed all for me. Omer got the bunk. The boy asked permission before using the room, at any time of day. He sneaked to his space after dinner and left me with the Germans and the French for a nightcap on the deck. By the time I went to bed, he was fast asleep (or pretended to be) with earphones in and cabin neat, to withdraw like a mouse the next morning again.

Getting TO the Galápagos was a singular experience. Being IN the Galápagos turned out more thrilling than anticipated, as was being part of evolution. It demands a million words … at least now I know more about two words: Archipelago means a large body of water with many islands and Galápagos is Spanish for ‘tortoises’.

 

55. Galapagos- Espanola- Stairway to heaven via Punta Suarez

Watch your step, while being watched

 

 

 

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Submissive discussions on rich rugs

Iran

I don’t loose stuff. I cannot delete pictures – I hoard them.

For me to write about my past travels, I need memory recall with the help of photographs. My best searching skills could not produce my treasures of Iran. It was lost, but how? It prompted an immediate written piece, before losing all.

Five years ago, a rushed and hushed trip to Mashad left me more confused than informed. Over time, my questions about the visit have died a natural death. But recently answers have suddenly started to appear – news headlines are tweeting it out – it’s in the papers –  while rumors turn into gruesome terrorist reality.

IRAN

 The trip to Mashad (the second biggest pilgrim city after Mecca) was by invitation to a conference and opening of a modern world-class medical facility to be attended by world leaders in specialty fields. Because of my husband’s involvement, visas were obtained faster than usual and on the final leg to Mashad we had an in-flight protocol lecture; during which I seemed to miss a vital cue. On landing we were to be collected by unmarked vehicles on the runway. But as I stepped out onto the platform, I was shoved back into the plane.

I could not understand the angry shouts and gestures and my eyes fixed on my husband’s back, disappearing down the stairs, with the rest of the male passengers. In the process of halting me at the door of the plane, the rest of the exiting plane was congested. The air-hostess quickly came to my rescue. She wound my pashmina around my head. “Keep your head covered for the remainder of your stay,” she whispered urgently and then pushed me onto the stair’s platform again. This time the armed guard of Islam nodded approvingly and I was allowed to join the rest of the travelers at the bottom of the stairs.

 We were presented to a customs officer in a building, quite separate from the airport terminal. The inside of which had seen better days – there were reflections and scraps everywhere of a time ruled by money and power. Formalities took their usual time and then we were escorted to an anonymous, but once luxurious hotel. We were constantly assured everything was organized and we needn’t worry.

‘Not to worry’ was exactly my intention, but to achieve this I had to inform home we were fine. Even though international roaming is a permanent fixture in our family, and the internet relatively accessible in modern accommodation, all my attempts in the hotel failed. The staff was helpful, but blamed it on my equipment. ‘Most welcome to use office facilities/business center’: same outcome.

No Google, no G-mail, no Facebook, no SMS. My enquiries once again elicited friendly, courteous shoulder shrugging, and left me wondering: in what kind of advanced medical infrastructure was there no connection with the outside world, even for someone as little as me?

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Pashmina Dinner – blouse will be headgear soon.

As requested by the hostess on landing, my head stayed covered for the rest of our stay, regardless of the desert conditions, never below 30 degrees centigrade. In dealing with this head-wrapping adventure; my blouses replaced the thermal pashmina. A fascinating alternative to normal coping with ‘bad-hair-days’; not that I think the ladies in these countries have any idea what bad hair means.

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Water replaced Walker, covered head made me blend in…

Regardless the restrictions on headgear (according to Western standards) the fashion was quite modern. Jeans were worn by the younger generation, but with a dress-like long top that covered shoulders and hips.

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Modern jeans and designer sunglasses – protected by proper length dresses and covered hair…

We were only three ‘spouses’ that dared to explore outside the confines of the guarded hotel; and then only with the obligatory guide and driver as well as an armed guard, permanently seated in the back. Now I realize there was high risk of abduction of Westerners by the militia and terrorist groups from Afghanistan just on the other side of the mountain. Our exploration party consisted of a Swiss wife, her son, and me with an entourage of ‘obligatories’. We soon became aware there was no free browsing – neither cyber nor sidewalks . Certain areas were restricted; others were ignored. We were never left out of sight.

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Touristy in the streets, but under strict guard of guide, driver and official guar

Nonetheless, we were still exposed to a new culture: new food, different smells, unusual music and many colors. I am disappointed that I cannot ‘show and tell’ and share these moments. Did my photographs mysteriously disappear due to another high-tech intervention?

The usual efficiency during these international gatherings was blighted by a uniform vagueness about specifics. Nobody knew the exact venue or time of organized post-meeting functions and evening outing details were only confirmed once en route. The foyer was a buzz of confusion every night as the delegates milled around until they were summoned for ‘immediate departure’. Eventually the rumor this was done purposely surfaced, as a ‘surprise element for the visitors’. That it was done on purpose and as a calculated move to increase the security of the group came to light with information via World news now. It had nothing to do with the ‘surprise element in the entertainment’ of delegates.

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A surprise Tea in a cellar, somewhere below streetlevel.

The reasons for the communications ‘breakdown’ finally became clear five days later on the flight back, when we heard about the protests around allegations of irregularities regarding the newly elected president Ahmadinejad. To maintain order amongst the masses, the government had controlled the ethers and there was a total block on all cellphone and Internet communications across the entire Iran for a period of 2 weeks. There was also reporting on abduction of foreigners and attacks on international meetings by militias and terrorist groups from across the borders.

So that was our mysterious trip. I would love to go back to experience Iran in a less oblivious and personally ignorant state – to really see behind the scenes, now that I know some of the reasons. And to replace my trophies of moments – photographs. To recall and relay the splendid marble monuments to a fierce god – mosques in gold and incense; to display the luxury woven into an ancient craft that shines with passion – silk and wool carpets; to tell about an advanced civilization crippled by religious wars.

(ps – grateful for fellow traveller’s shared photos via email)

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Thanks to the Turins for photos. And adventure with me

 

“Sometimes you never value the moment until it becomes a memory”

Dr Seuss

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Art in Summer Kitchen lounge area

 Most people like to be surrounded by beauty. A recent week of decadence and opulence had an intensity that made me reflect on the philosophies of one of the world’s renowned writers on beauty, Umberto Eco. I realized although I am not artistic, I can find creativity in any given moment – in the macabre, the musical, the scenic or the sensual. This confuses and leaves me incapable of describing beauty. Especially true for the week I spent with enigmatic hosts, Louis and Hardy, in their Chateaux in Boussac, Avergno. No words can precisely portray the grace and ease with which they enveloped us in splendor. Glide with me, without a French protocol, through the Beauty of La Creuzette.

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La Creuzette in Spring

 

The Chateau

Slow-moving gates closed between us and our road trip from ‘arrivals’ in Paris. I was mellow from a coffee-croissant stop and Rosé infused lunch at L’Escale and a surprisingly complete three-course meal at a truck stop with a Michelin influence. Half hidden behind trees and dense garden, the stately country home (a place of holiday for some Countess, as Louis would tell us over many a glass of wine or Champagne) appeared – straight out of a fairy tale. ‘Asembenewend’! – I thought, but never verbalized as this Afrikaans word was only adopted later – courtesy of Louis – during the course of our stay.

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Tulips and Clogs – Marcelle Wanders’ reversed fairytale

First impressions count. The garden created a sense of space. Our driver, Hardy, knew this as he slowed down coming into the entrance and let the luxurious country atmosphere envelope us before unpacking and freshening up.

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Permanent guest on the landing – Louis Vuiton

The romance of an era gone-by was evident in the decor of the bedrooms; all en suite with bubble curtains (luscious overlong drapes), lace and crystal chandeliers. Old French linen ensured candy floss dreams. Miniature Perrier water quenched our, more often than not, post-red-wine midnight thirsts. All 4 guest bedrooms were on the first level. Owners and hosts, Louis and Hardy, had their quarters on the second floor and their office space and luggage storage in the loft.

Down the passage across shiny parquet floors, beneath chandeliers, past a Louis Vuitton exhibit atop an antique boudoir wardrobe, down oak stairs hugged by art from the tapestry industry (Carton), bypassing the music and coffee rooms and into the formal dining room – one sentence to describe what felt like a trip around the world. A trip where beauty dripped from crystal and elegance clung to ornate frames.

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Crystals and Candles

The dining table was set to perfection for the first night’s formal dinner. After that we enjoyed our breakfasts there; with easy access to the country kitchen where coffee was ever ready. The ground-floor was the entrance to the house, with an unusually densely packed library, a music room with piano, a cognac and cigar room and a dining room next to the kitchen.

The cellar below the living areas housed a gym, a small conference room where creative writing workshops are held and a dogs’ bedroom. All spaces in this home were decorated with attention to detail. The dogs had portraits of themselves above their baskets-beds. Their meals were served in elevated bowls, presumably to preserve an air of elegance. And of course, they had a royal aloofness to suit; they skillfully avoided mingling with us paupers.

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Bolshois’ heated cellar quarters

The rest of our lunches and our dinners were hosted in the restored stables now the Summer Kitchen. The loft in this outbuilding was Louis’ studio, stacked with all things arty and beautiful. This was the space occupied by the three artists in our group, while the rest of us were whisked away on explorations of Beauty.

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Regal distance kept

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Summer Kitchen and Studio

The ground level of the stables was designed as a warm dining cum lounge area adjacent to the fully equipped kitchen and eating area. Pantries with countless shapes and sizes and colors of cutlery, crockery and platters were next to the “Madame et Monsieur Toilette’.  I enquired about the one separate storeroom for the props – “The props?” “Yes, every night the dinner table will be set with a different theme.”  Voila!

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Dinner tables – Dramatic black and white

Rooier is Mooier

Dinner in Red “hoe rooier, hoe mooier”

Silver nights

Dinner in style – silver and lilac irises

 

The Meals

Dinner the first night was Louis’s treat, before his focus was transferred to techniques and wizardry in the art studio. We dined that night on salmon, wild asparagus with duck and a spoonful of poppy jelly. There was a cheese Caprice de Dieu that had everyone cooing and dessert with edible foil, rose ice cream and sandwiches of ginger and chocolate mousse. I tried to recall more detail of the dinner, but my head got stuck on the idea of actually eating the flimsy silver paper.

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Shiny dessert

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Christoff, Louis, wild asparagus and salmon

During the course of our stay and especially with dinner, we were told of and shown some French traditions and protocol. One equation became a ritual :

Apperatif + Digestif  = a Definitif . The following pointers surfaced through my Beauty-infused memories. Total recall was compromised by the above mentioned equation.

*All dinners started with champagne and ended with cognac. Regardless of time of day, most meals started with good champagne. And a suitable wine of perfect ‘color’ accompanied each dish.

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Choices of ‘colors’ after champagne

*And please leave your bread to the left of your plate, on the table. The hostess will be honored in knowing you trust her cleanliness.

*Oh, and No Thank You flowers or wine to the host. It is considered very inconsiderate to the host’s ability to choose wine or their decorating skills.

*Rather give good chocolates.

* An invitation to dinner doesn’t come without a price. You have to sing for your supper. Be sure to be well informed and to be able to entertain other guests.

*When this sought after invite befalls you – if the invitation is over a weekend. Wear a jacket and tie.

*Cheese is never optional. After a number of courses, a cheese platter does the rounds just before dessert.

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Cheese board before dessert

*A separate delicate cheese knife dedicated to each flavor, (never contaminate tastes by using the same knife for two different cheeses).

*You are damned if you steal the heart of the cheese; rather cut it in such a way everyone can enjoy the full flavor of the body of the cheese.

*Make sure a helping of cheese satisfies your Moreish nature as seconds are heavily frowned upon. This could leave a hostess panic stricken about her portion planning abilities.

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Hardy with coarse salt dough steam pot

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Louis and Hardy in action – Summer Kitchen

For the rest of our stay, dinner was prepared by Hardy (top chef, Michelin graded – by me) and eaten around a decadently decorated table. The colors of the different dishes to follow could only partly be captured by my photographs. The flavors cannot be imagined, they have to be experienced. My brain stalled when new detail was introduced and kept hanging like a stubborn computer with each new ingredient or each new exotic dish. I was grateful for the helping hands of Jana and Zahn, two gorgeous girls from South Africa.

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Jahna, Zahn, Hardy and cauliflower soup

To whet your appetite here is an abbreviated list of dishes we ate:  cauliflower soup garnished with a Tete de Noine cheese rose; salmon steamed in salt bread; float custard with sugar fluff; duck breast marinated in finely grated ginger, thyme, cherry syrup and lemon, juice; pan fried gnocchi with pesto; white asparagus covered in Hollandaise sauce; puff pastry turkey;  artichoke bathed in a vinaigrette that contains black mustard;  the inner of fillet; upside down apple pie;  foie gras cappuccino topped with tonka bean shrapnel; slow cooked lamb shank in glüwein; blueberry soufflé; a perfect rack of lamb; wasabi mashed potatoes with deep fried capers in phyllo; and much, much more.

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Lunch

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…and more lunch

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Dinner – rack of lamb

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Artichoke and black mustard vinaigrette

Breakfasts were traditional croissants, chocolate or butter, aromatic coffee or tea of choice, fresh fruit, yoghurt and an interesting mix of muesli, hams and the délicieux cheeses. This concludes the beauty of smell and taste.

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Breakfast Beauty

 

The Excursions

I feel unable to properly explain the good memories and interesting experiences of my week in the Creuz which means the hollow. Although I was surrounded by so much beauty and fine culture every minute of each day, interestingly, it was in certain unexpected moments that I found real art.

Names and places and dishes became a merry-go-round in my head – I will have to make a study of my newly acquired Festive France, a beautiful book all about La Creuzette and her enigmatic masters, to be more informative and ingredientative; but now some moments during our countryside trips.

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Peephole in the country

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People in the Country

Our first stop was in Aubusson.Here the famous tapestries were woven from the back or wrong side. The weaver did this from a mirror image of the original artwork, using a handheld mirror to check on fine detail like pale faces of royalty. Different periods could be distinguished by the permanence of certain colors, like red.

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Blues of pre-18th century and colours of today

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Beauty in a dying art

There were 3 artists involved in the tapestry industry – the original painting; the cartonnier who painted a mirror image of the original to the right size; and the weaver who reproduced the picture in silk and wool. Other important contributors to the industry were the repairers, needlers and washers. Hardy’s passion for weaving was evident in his knowledge of the art form. It was sad to learn that it is a dying industry.

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Shades and Bobbins – shapeliers craft

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Carton restoration

The next excursion took us into the magical world of patisseries. Chef Phillipe indulged us in a morning of wizardry with chocolate and butter croissants, fresh fruit tart and nougat glasse – frozen nougat desert.  All of which are now MY secret recipes.

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Filippe and Fruit

 

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Colour and Chocolate

On the list of places to visit was a medieval garden that used to be a nunnery where a single monk looked after the gardens.  An architect and his girlfriend took these on as a project and wrote a thesis on it.  This entitled them to make it a government-funded project. Somewhere along the line I lost the names and connections when suddenly I heard that the Bekkers from SA were involved. Patrice, the present gardener of this nunnery, came to SA to assist in the development of the well-known Babylonstoren.

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Manicured Jardin du Priere dOrsan

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Find your way to the shade of the flat apple tree…

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Measuring the carrots grown in upright containers

Would a visit to France be complete without a Michelin Restaurant experience? This sought after Nobel Prize of cheffing is apparently a trigger for many suicides amongst rated chefs that get demoted. Lunch was in Bourges (pronounced ‘booorsh’) at Le Circle where Hardy was involved in the design of the kitchen.

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On the way to check the kitchen in Le Circle

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Michelin Restaurant in Bourge

 The aperitif – in the cellar while selecting the perfect wine – was the house cocktail made of Campari, champagne, red fruit purée and a dash of hibiscus syrup.  While sipping the appealing drink I was shown the world’s oldest, best-known and rarest dessert wine – ‘Chateau d’Alquem’.  The suggested menu was gourmandized and we concluded with the slightly improbable consensus that Hardy’s dishes matched or exceeded the ones on show.

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Triple volume Bourge cathedral

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A 10th century Castle in Berry – to die for ….  really

A walk to the Bourge Cathedral (a higher domed Notre Dame) didn’t burn any of the calories and we hoped a stroll around a tenth century castle in Berry would do the trick. The poor owner of this castle was falsely prosecuted and executed, as it was not done to live in a place more beautiful than the king did. It was so medieval; it reminded me of the Game of Thrones.  While on the theme of gargoyles and dragons, we visited Boussac’s original castle, a paradise for any collector or hoarder. There were collections of anything and everything.

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Floors and natural light in Boussac Castle

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Tapestry lightened fireplace

 

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Porcelain Fruit Collection

 

The Limousine and Charolaise countryside expeditions were concluded with a visit to a restored garden-crazy village on the banks of a river. The gardens were festive with spring and as to be expected, all activities in and around the village involved gardening, plants, trees, flowers, pots, exhibitions and courses.

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Flaura Crazy French

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Spring in Limousine Country

 

 

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Water features and Swamp Cypress roots

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Harmony of matching colours

 Having consumed all this beauty, we rushed to join the official cocktail party and exhibition of our artist friends. Proudly showing off their daily efforts, they pranced around the studio awaiting our appreciative ummms and ahhhs. Impressed and inspired we exchanged wishes of good fortune over the now comforting presence of champagne. Félicitations!

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Masters of their art – Louis and Leonie

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The studio. The colours. The music. The books

 

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Champagne in the studio

 

Merci pour la Beauté!

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Asparagus – Market

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Fruit and Flowers – Market

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Foie-lings

 

Nepal’s Selfless Souls

Nepal’s Selfless Souls –  The Sherpas

 

Instagram @ NatGeo

Instagram @ NatGeo

Mt Everest’s recent (April 2014) single worst accident due to a deadly avalanche brought back vivid memories of a trip I did to the Himalayas less than a decade ago.  Our group consisted of 6 hikers, 1 guide and 3 Sherpas. Although we  backpacked to base camp (not Everest, but Annapurna which is not as high, but technically more challenging), we hardly carried any real weight, thanks to the Sherpas.

Annapurna Base Camp

Annapurna Base Camp

Krishna (our guide) was responsible for our safety and therefore carried only his own stuff to be able to help us struggling westerners. In a kind but firm manner, typical of his people, he managed us with strict instructions regarding safety and altitude. Unfortunately the 1.5kg bottle of scotch had to wait for the way back from base camp. Maybe that contributed to the speedy descent – 8 days up, 5 days down. “Alcohol and altitude too much of a dangerous combination”.

A down was always to be followed by an up

A down was always to be followed by an up

Each Sherpa carried two backpacks plus his own for the two weeks we spent on the trail. Each bag weighed ±15 kg, but still seemed not to cause them even the smallest of difficulty. I ascribed this to a tenacity visible in the faces of the children in the villages we passed on the way.

Children in the fields

Children in the fields

They completed every day’s grueling distance in record time and were always in good spirits to get to the next Teahouse before the constant stream of other tired hikers arrived. Without exception they would be waiting for us, keen for our approval of the secured places they had to wrestle for. ‘Places’ in the Himalayas meant a bed, a bucket of hot water (equivalent of R50 per bucket) and a cooked meal.

Teahouse before base camp Annapurna, Fishmountain

Teahouse before base camp Annapurna, Fishmountain

The highlight of the day was dinner. People from all walks of life gathered around a communal table, and shared experiences while the Teahouse family prepared a feast. The welcome smells from the kitchen mixed with bodily odours, smoke and wet clothes blended into an unusual smog quite unlike anything from home.  Soaked hiking boots and frozen toes sought resting spots on the fringes of the fire pit. This was under the table and was kept going for as long as our aching bodies and exhausted spirits could maintain conversation. I learned that this was also the sleeping area for the sherpas – warm and protected.

Chicken run

Chicken run

The Sherpa’s tasks were many. The most familiar and demanding of which was the preparation of the track for climbers to summit. The other tasks were easily overlooked as they were mostly supportive and not glamorous. Sometimes the only evacuation method was in the usual woven basket on their backs. In case of an emergency they would alternate the load between three of them, stopping only briefly for that exchange.

Live chickens, tins of cold drinks, bottled water - in the baskets

Live chickens, tins of cold drinks, bottled water – in the baskets

The constant influx of hikers and climbers needed sustenance and the only way water, cold drinks, snacks and dinner could get to the remote areas of the Teahouses, was in the way it’s been done through the ages , in a woven basket on the back of a Sherpa. The waste of tin and plastic containers of these supplies went down the mountain the same way.

 

Annapurna Base Camp

Annapurna Base Camp

On our trek, even though we each carried a pack with only the essentials for the day, we still struggled against the altitude and the slow torture successive steps became. I swallowed the pain; climbed the ups and stumbled the downs. I inhaled the poverty with every gasp of oxygen through rural settlements. I tried to follow the rhythm of my heart drumming in my ears while I gazed at the icy stillness. I touched the ragged prayer flags and allowed their faded colour messages to stir my soul. There will be brighter and more flags now, but with an intense sense of loss and a sad awareness of mortality.

 

Dhan’yavãda.

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Part 2 – The Off Road Trip

Solitaire was our last encounter with civilization until we entered Walvisbay five days later. Earlier than usual we ticked the checklist: Soft (VERY soft) tires, test radios, extra fuel and water. After a brief breakfast meeting, we fell into convoy. The line of Toyotas followed the guide (ALWAYS in his tracks) and retained their sequence for every specific day. The two Johnnies heeded the back, one with the car under his right arm and steering wheel steadfast in the left while the other Johnny displayed a permanent grin/grimace (pain or pleasure?)

A lot of two-way radio exchange happened during the first part of the trip. It consisted mostly of essential guiding and information, intercepted by sporadic teachings and reprimanding when the bantering interfered. Later, the tiny stresses accompanied by a bit of anxiousness could be detected in the voices. I was convinced mostly in mine because I didn’t know what to expect. The unknown and the surprise factor gnawed at my fragile nerve endings, depleting energy and inducing exhaustion resulting at early nights and earlier mornings.

7. Nambia

Fairy circles and soft rolling hills Naukluft Reserve

It was the beginning of several days of changing faces, breathtaking in its otherworldly appearance – the facets of the Namib; strangely beautiful; weirdly intriguing. From gentle sandy-soft rolling ‘hills’ with fairy circles to unforgiving hard gravel tracks consisting of bladed volcanic rock. From promising clouds over a Saagberg to the Mordor-like kloof of black volcanic folds on the banks of the Kuiseb river.  Crossing wide dune streets and passing by buried towns. Traversing dry riverbeds and slipping down the steep faces of the walking dunes. Playing in giant toktokkie holes and chasing egotistical triumphs up slippery slopes, testing the skills of man combined with the power of machine.

9. Namibia

Slipping down a mild face close to Olifantsbad camp

Only in retrospect can I appreciate the skillful conditioning tactics our guide slipped into the everyday increasing challenges of these dune expeditions. Initially crawling up sandy steps, bumping and sliding down grassy-patched hills where carcasses of burned out cars make for good stories – grass got stuck under the cars and between the radiator and the grill, which combusted in the heat of day aggravated by over use of horse power – quite the fear factor to gain obedience. Later more challenging ups and downs requiring intimate knowledge and interaction with one’s vehicle, until by the end of the trip – total surrender. That place where the thrill of the roaring approach of soft dune to tumble over and down a 130 m slip face, creating a roar of a different kind, became the highlight of the day.

Soon the 4 x 4 driving settled into a rhythm of checking and changing and a different world of communication. ‘Check’ the traction control before starting. ‘Change’ to ‘low range’ before venturing down a slip face. Essentials like reading the dunes and following the tracks became habit.  Two-way radios brought along new vocabulary:

-‘gooi! – gooi! – gooi!’ indicated an anxious motivation for more speed

-‘wag’ or ‘stadig nou’ meant as a warning of slow approach and even danger

‘kan maar kom’ spelt the subtle difference between disaster and exhilarating achievement.

– ‘affie‘ became a form of endearment for a sharp descent.

– Anything longer than ten meters and steeper than 36 degrees is called a ‘slip face ‘.

 The ‘steeriness’ (eerie stillness/still eeriness) of my first ‘slip face’ surpassed the sweatiness of my missed heartbeats the moment I jack-knifed into the downward dog position. That moment when all I could see was blue sky, and all I could feel was the tipping of my car’s nose, over an edge of unknown proportions. Freezing, but freefalling, metaphorically in time and space. Suspended between two worlds – sky and sand. Hanging. Then gliding. Slowly pushing the sand avalanche ahead of me, pushing, guiding, trying to control and listening to the roaring of trillions of air beaten sandgrain drums. An unbearable lightness of being.

My initiate flawed maneuver got me stranded on my tummy (actually the car’s) and spinning with all fours in the air. Sand plumes and grainy showers everywhere. Solidly stuck on the top of a dune and sliding towards a toktokkie hole on my left side. It took some coaching over the radio, the presence of the Johnnies and an escape along a contour line. Quick and painless was the rescue, but everlasting was the glow of achievement.

 

4. Namibia

Spinning on all fours, safe with ‘man-hands’

Amazing how loo stops evolved too, from squatting behind a vehicle to using the side of the car between two open doors as a comfy resting seat. Cat-like shoves of sand covered the evidence quickly and the scrap of paper joined the packet of other rubbish to be disposed of when convenient. ‘What you take into the desert comes out with you’ – one of the rules of the trip. Adaptation is essential for survival.

This, I learned, was a symbiotic relationship that slowly developed over the course of the trip, unbearable at first and unnoticed at the end. That layer on my head, the crackling between my teeth, an itch in my nose and a grinding between my sleeping bag and foam mattress – the omnipresent sand.

8. Namibia

The Edward Bohlen wreck – 1km from the ocean.

Closer to the ocean the ‘new’ dunes appeared in a more slippery fashion due to the softer sand, but our cautious confident expertise showed in the short span of time we could complete the day. The Bay of Conception and Sandwhich bay were the areas where we crossed the long dunes and wide streets. We walked on ancient petrified desert floors and scratched patterns in jasper red sand with our toes. We peeped through remains of ghost mining towns and crossed rusted railway tracks, we played with figure eights on sweeping holes and strolled around a wrecked ship and then we headed towards civilization – Walvisbay.

We came to learn, we conquered, we played, we lived.