Friday, May 31, 2013

Opinionated Me

I love to share my opinions, especially about travel experiences. So imagine my joy when I got an e-mail from TripAdvisor thanking me for being a contributor to their site and promising me a tote bag to express their gratitude!  

You can check out my reviews on TripAdvisor here, and find all sorts of great insights from other travelers.  (Where else can you find where fellow Americans got food poisoning on their last vacation?)  Good stuff.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wednesday Wonder

Today I'm reliving this peaceful moment on a restaurant patio in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Totsiens, Africa

Please don't interpret my long-delayed wrap-up of the Africa trip as a lack of interest on my part.  I think of this trip daily, follow the politics and culture of South Africa and Namibia closely, and have developed a somewhat disturbing quest for restaurants that offer ostrich steak.  The trip changed my life and I am grateful for those who read along with the adventures of last summer - so before I start to share tales from the trips I'm dreaming of for the coming summer/fall, I hope you'll join me as I recapture the last days of my time in Namibia.

As I started to share in the last blog post, Swakopmund is a beach town in which I'd like to frequently spend long weekends.  (If only it didn't involve an entire long weekend just to get there and back.)  Someday I'll return to read a book while I sit on that blue bench looking over the ocean, but on this trip I just had time to snap a photo of it as we drove by.

Our itinerary did allow time for a full-day tour of the Namibian sand dunes, a fact that I'd celebrated for weeks before the trip.  These dunes frequently make it to lists of places to see before you die and, while I don't plan to kick the bucket anytime soon, it can't hurt to start early on this kind of thing.  And while I will freely admit that I would have foregone the hours-long tour of dune wildlife and ecosystems for just ONE adrenaline-charged trip down the nearby Dune 7, I'm grateful for the sights I saw without sandboard in hand.

Our guide was undeniably a desert creature, blurring the line between animal and man but serving as a living encyclopedia of knowledge about life on and under these constantly-altering dunes.  The fact that he also impersonated all the racist, sexist views that have caused problems in Namibian history served as a sobering and stressful crash course in how far this region still has to go to avoid the downfalls of its past. 

There's no way to describe the Namibian dunes with either words or pictures.  It's countless layers of beauty in colors for which there are no names.  Rainbowed sands shift colors, textures, patterns with the slightest breeze and  iron-lined peaks give way to textured curves that look softer than velvet.  It's surrounded by a silence that is somehow loud, echoing with winds swirling over, through and around anything in its path.

Putting a thumbprint in the ridged peak of the dunes felt significant, a permanent change to a totally impermanent landscape.  And if a thumbprint was enjoyable, the satisfaction of making it to the top of a dune in a take-your-breath-away dash against a steep cliff of sandy resistance to collapse on the peak was one of the most exhilarating accomplishments of my life.

Lots of photographs and a few quiet moments later, we began our drive back across Namibia for one last night in Africa.

 We stopped to admire a Namibian golf course, an oasis in the middle of the desert.  There were too many  shades of greens to even name, and wildlife took more advantage of the lush grasses than golfers did.  Springbok roamed lazily across the fairways, oblivious to my travel companions' groans of regret that they couldn't enjoy the course with a round of golf.

The drive back to Windhoek seemed much longer than the excitement-driven trek across the country the first time.  Accompanied by a musical track of Inexplicably Popular American Music that was the beloved choice of our driver, Ulf, we gazed out the window searching for wildlife.  Apart from the moments in which we succumbed to the irresistible urge to perform our own "Call Me Maybe" unfilmed music video, we each spent most of the drive quietly reflecting on the trip that was too quickly coming to a close.  As if to remind me of how close I was to Arizona life in this far-off continent, we were enveloped in a thick dust storm as the sun set.  It was just as scary as it is when driving on highways at home, and I was grateful for Ulf's patient competence at the wheel - especially since I refused to die while listening to Ke$ha on the radio.

Another quiet Namibian night dissolved into one more morning, this time rushed by the fact that we'd be heading to the airport right after our breakfast with a fascinating group from research think tanks and media watch groups.  It was one of my favorite gatherings of the entire trip, and I wish I'd had more time with this friend - he was unique for many reasons, most notably (to me) because he went to court to fight for his decision to take his wife's last name as his own in a bold tribute to female equality that clashed with the African paternalism I frequently saw on display.

My trip to Africa was an unexpected but entirely wonderful opportunity.  I'll be eternally loyal to the American Council of Young Political Leaders, whose phone call in June enabled me to jump on a plane just a few months later to a continent I'd dreamed of visiting for as long as I can remember.  Their mission is noble and the effects of their efforts will always be too great to even be measured.  In a world where political and cultural differences seem to continue to divide us more than unite us, ACYPL is educating leaders who can change the dialogue and create cooperation that is based on relationships and shared experiences.  I am very, very proud to have somehow earned the opportunity to join such an amazing organization, and hope to give back to their cause every chance I get.

The experience I had in Africa was, as you can tell, very different than that of most travelers.  I never got to see a wildlife park but I met with political leaders who will undoubtedly make a difference in their nations and I learned first-hand the challenges they face as they lead a complicated history to a peaceful future.  I glimpsed the most human suffering I've ever seen and met those who have dedicated their lives to ending the suffering as soon as possible.  I gazed into the eyes of college students furious with my nation's role in global developments and accepted the thanks of others who focused instead on what they knew America had done right.  I spent time with Americans who have devoted their entire lives to representing our country in foreign lands, and I was with them when some of their colleagues were killed in the attack on Benghazi.  I enjoyed meetings that were short and friendships that still continue, and I hope I shared ideas and views that will help build a bridge between African and American futures.

On a more shallow note, I really miss African food.  We splurged when possible and I was grateful to travel with people who were not shy about their pursuit of meals that reflected the highlights of the continent.  I still daydream of alligator shish kebobs, fresh-from-the-water oysters, ostrich steak and even those greasy "pork knuckle" plates of meat. 

The best end I've found to any journey is the friendly, accented goodbye from South African Airlines.  I heard it many times on our hops across southern Africa, and it encapsulates both the bittersweet end of wandering and the friendly promise of future adventures. Totsiens, Africa.