Friday, August 25, 2017

Self Imposed Isolation and Seclusion in a Wee Ville.

You know that phrase, "I'm one of those people who..."?  Well, I am one of those people who always wanted to live on a farm, with no distractions other than dogs, cats, and ducks. To do nothing but read, write, and pet the farm dogs, cats, and ducks. (No success on the ducks yet. And one dog, with the cone of shame, is hard to pet.) I'm one of those people who, at this moment, is actually doing what I've always wanted to do.

I'm in rural France, working on three hundred and fifty pages of stories about living in, sleeping on, and driving around Africa in a 44-year-old Land Rover named Dream.
As I edit "Oh Great, the War is Starting and I'm Naked", or "Stairway to Heaven, Ascent to Rwanda", or "The Rainy Season Red Lagoon Roads of Zambia" I can hardly believe we did these things, or that I would gladly do them again. 

A little over three weeks ago, Scott and I flew from South Africa to Paris. We parted ways at Charles de Gaulle airport because Scott is one of those people who has always wanted to hike the John Muir Trail in California. One of his buddies was lucky enough to get a permit to hike it this summer and invited Scott to blister along.
"But what will you do while I hike the JMT?" asked Scott when I told him of course he should go. 
"Oh, don't worry about me!" I said. "I'm one of those people who can always find something to do."
And it's true. But it's kind of easy when you're one of those people who likes peace and quiet, and books and animals. 

So, I found this place to stay in rural France. It's a renovated 300 year old farmhouse and stables. (I really do like old things.) It sits on the Canal du Midi, which is PERFECT because Scott and I are two of those people who want, some day, to buy a canal boat (picture the Ndoto of canal boats) and cruise this exact canal. I'm doing lots of research. I especially like the old one below that needs work.

The farm is close enough to a small town that I can walk or ride a bike to get groceries. But I have to want it bad, because it's not really that close and there's usually a head wind both ways. For efficiency sake, I had three croissants my first day here, and I only buy what I can carry in a day pack. Baguettes don't weigh much. Avocados and nectarines are HEAVY. I eat simply and I take a lot of walks

It's a working farm, so there's lots of activity, especially now during the vendange, the grape harvest. The grapes are harvested at night when temperatures are right for picking, so there are massive plucking machines, trucks, and flatbeds, which rumble down the narrow road that runs between the original farmhouse and the stables, at all hours of day and night. Oh, and it's hunting season (wild boar, mostly) so there are sudden blasts of gunfire and excited shouting from the fields nearby, also at random hours of day or night. They say, every year some innocent cyclist, or walker, or author on a quest for a croissant, gets accidentally shot by a nearsighted hunter, "Oo la la! Mon dieu! Dommage. Madam, Don't you know carbs are bad for you?"
So I stick to the canal tow path and wear something not bristly so I don't resemble une sanglier.

There are lots of boats cruising up and down the Canal du Midi in August. Big boats, little boats, and boats rented from a company called Le Boat. Everyone seems to be having fun, probably because they don't have to ride their bikes or walk far to get a croissant. They just dock in any little village and voila!, there's baguettes aplenty within a few paces, because, after all, this is France and no one is expected to partake of a meal without bread.

                I try not to get distracted by the farm animals but they are so... distracting! 

There's one other distraction on the farm. The farmer's wife sells their vin out the farmhouse window for less than $5 a bottle. And it is bon.

As you can see, I'm learning some French. The only words and phrases I knew when I arrived were, Je suis fatigue (I am tired, because I learn how to say that in every country I visit), poisson (fish, because my niece Clare learned it in pre-school and taught it to me when she was four and I never forgot it), velo (bike, because that's how I get to croissants), and croissant (croissant). 

So far, I have stayed in a renovated flat in the original farmhouse, and in (because I never say neigh) a renovated stable. I found the farmhouse flat very charming. Mostly because on the day I arrived, I threw open the windows that overlook the canal, and the first thing I saw was an old Land Rover! This was the day after we had put our own beloved Land Rover, Ndoto, in storage in Hoedspruit, South Africa, so I took that as a massive dose of synchronicity and serendipity. The week I stayed there I wrote furiously about My Life with Ndoto (title of Book II by the way).

Then I moved across the lane to the renovated stable. I love the stable. The kitchen and bathroom are downstairs, and the bedroom, writing room, and private patio are upstairs. But, I can't see the farmer's car, the Land Rover, so I have not been as productive. Tomorrow I move back to the flat with the Land Rover view so I've sharpened my pencils, so to speak.

In a week, Scott will join me here, after he finishes the hike and I CANNOT WAIT. Number one, I'm one of those people who miss their husbands. Number two, he can ride a bike faster than I can (to get to croissants). And number three, we have lots more adventuring to do together before we return home in November. 

There's only eight or ten homes in this wee ville. 
I can buy wine and vegetables from the farmer. 
Everyone is tres gentil, very kind. 
I feel at home.

It is such a gift to be here. 

Millepetit France

Monday, August 21, 2017

In the Beginning, My Life with Ndoto, Around Africa in a Forty Year Old Land Rover

If You are Willing to Live with Snakes and Hippos, Dreams do Come True

     “Remember,” Scott said seriously, “don’t get too excited about it. The asking price is way too high. Find flaws. Whatever you do, don’t say you love it.”

     “I know, I know. I’ll keep quiet while you do the negotiating,” I promised as we climbed out of Ndoto and greeted the man who had placed the For Sale ad. Then, I set eyes on the tent.

     “Oh my. It’s perfect!” I said aloud. “I love it.”

     Scott rolled his eyes and said through pursed lips, “Geez, Tris.”

     “I heard your old Landy coming up the road,” said the South African with the smug smile of one who owns a Toyota Land Cruiser. Or maybe he was smiling because I’d just clinched the deal for him. “Series III, right? They sure aren’t stealthy.”

     “No. But they’re strong.” I said defensively.

     “Of course they are.”

     As soon as he unzipped the rain fly, I climbed up the ladder and into the tent. I could hardly contain my satisfaction. It was the rooftop tent of my dreams.

     Scott forced a cough in order to muffle the sounds of contentment coming from inside the tent. I hung my head out the opening to watch Scott do what he does best while he circled what might be our bedroom for a year. He turned to the owner of the only second-hand Hannibal rooftop tent for sale in a five hundred kilometer radius and went into bargaining mode.

     “I don’t know if this one will work for us.” Scott said, pulling on his ear lobe. He did another lap. God, the man has patience. I flopped on my back and stretched out in the idyllic little tent. I sighed, imagining our first night sleeping in it.

     “I would have to modify the rack on our Landy to make the tent fit.” Scott continued, trying to talk over my bliss. “Why are you selling?” he added. Hey, yeah, why would someone sell such a perfect tent? I poked my head back out the opening.

     The owner looked at the ground. Then he looked at me and saw that it wouldn’t matter what he said.

     “Well, you see, my wife doesn’t like to have to climb down the ladder at night, you know, when she has to relieve her bladder. She’s afraid of snakes.”

     Wait a minute. Snakes weren’t in my dream. Snakes terrify me almost as much as hippos. After mosquitoes, which cause malaria, hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa.

     “Plus,” the owner added chuckling, “she always thinks there’s a hippo lurking at the bottom of the ladder.”

     I backed out of the tent and climbed down the ladder. I hadn’t thought about the need to pee between sundown and sunrise with hippos and snakes.

     Scott and I walked a short distance away to discuss the realities of sleeping under canvas on the roof of our Land Rover in the wild for a year. I was still sold on the tent-on-the-roof concept and thought our journey would not be complete without it. He wanted to take time to consider other sleeping options. We both agreed that, unlike the previous owners of our Landy, we did not want to sleep inside the car.

     “Setting up a tent on the ground every night will just be a big hassle and take up so much space inside the car,” I said. “I have an idea. We’ll train our bladders. We’ll make a practice of not having any liquid after 6 PM so we won’t have to worry about getting up in the night. How about that?”

     We negotiated a suitable snake and hippo discount with the owner and bought the tent. Our dream, to explore Africa in an old Land Rover with a rooftop tent, was finally coming true.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Take the Bump!

We boarded our flight from San Jose to Johannesburg, via Salt Lake City and Paris, on time, but sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes while mechanics tried to fix the PA system. The safety video was played without sound but I suppose that is against FAA rules because the flight attendants had to do it live, like in the old days. It seemed like this was a first for the young crew because even I can clasp and unclasp a buckle faster than that.

Eventually we pulled away from the gate, without a PA system. This meant that the personal entertainment system wasn't working either so passengers where forced to read for the two hour flight, which seemed a new thing for passengers.

Our scheduled layover in Salt Lake City was short to begin with but now that we had burned 40 minutes sitting on the tarmac in San Jose, by the time we landed in SLC we would have only ten minutes to run to the next terminal, which is not a first for me but which bummed me out because who wants to arrive sweaty in Paris? Not moi.

I asked the flight attendant to request that everyone stay seated so that we with immediate flights to make could exit the plane first and trot instead of gallop to catch our connecting flights. But the PA system still wasn't working so it was hell, I tell you, to get off the plane and commence a sweaty gallop.

We arrived at our gate in the nick of time, the last passengers to board. We made our way to 35F and G to find our seats occupied by two folk who refused to make eye contact.
Just after the flight attendant cheerily suggested that we "...take those two seats at the back, next to the toilets, because this couple is already settled in", the Captain made an announcement basically stating that the flight was full to capacity, that the temperature outside was 96 degrees, that (as we knew) Salt Lake is at high altitude, the usual dynamics of lift, drag, and thrust were not going to get the plane off the ground no way, no how, unless ten people volunteered to get off the plane and take a later flight. When he got to the part about a $1500 credit per passenger we took a last look at the seats by the loo, did an about face (with our carry on luggage) and exited the plane.

The extremely capable mother-daughter team of Susan and Stacie did a fantastic job of re-booking us to Johannesburg with a 12 hour layover in Paris (even better!). Then Stacie printed off reams of hotel and meal vouchers and took our photo in their cockpit mock up nearby.

For those who say, "We'd love to travel the way you do but, you know, we have a kid." A smart family of 6 also took the bump. They put $9000 of flight credit in their pockets and are flying to Paris tomorrow. Their infant baby girl gave me the biggest smile when I leaned over her stroller and said, "Hey baby! Is this your first bump? And you're not even one year old yet!

The best part is that our new seat assignments to Paris aren't anywhere near smelly toilets. Stacie gave us First Class seats, 1B and C, and that's a first for us.

The take away? Be flexible. Travel light. Carry on only. Go with the flow. Smile.

All I can add is OO LA LA. Viva la Delta!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Horrible Day and Acts of Loving Kindness

One year ago today...

We set up in site number 6 at Limpopo River Camp, the same site we camped at 10 months earlier. As before, we had the entire place to ourselves. Scott slung the hammock and settled in with Tony Park’s latest novel. I prepared a cold pasta lunch and bathed under the open-air shower. 
As I showered I watched the Limpopo River move slowly and thickly passed Scott in the hammock. I spotted a small pod of hippos to the left, and a solitary Kingfisher gliding just inches above the water. I thought of Eve Jackson’s words of wisdom.  I may never have this view again, so I lingered, trying to etch every frame to my memory.
After toweling off and dressing, I began to prepare the Landy for storage. “Why are you doing that now?” Scott asked somewhat irritably from the hammock. We still had several weeks together before I left Africa, and Scott would be with Ndoto for another month after. 
“Dunno. Just feel like it.” 
 As I went through every inch of the Landy—the library, the pantry, our clothes bins, the secret places, and the super secret places that we keep spare cash, credit cards and passports—I began collecting all the important documents, portable hard drives, laptops, wallets… all the valuable stuff, and I put it all in one sack and place it inside my clothes bin. Scott, absorbed in Tony’s book, didn’t notice my somewhat irrational behavior. He wouldn’t have understood. I didn’t understand. But, like an expectant mother who compulsively nests, or like a Boy Scout who wants to be prepared, I couldn’t stop myself. 
Later, when the sun dipped low in the sky, I made burritos and served them on candlelit table, with goblets of wine and a vase of wild flowers. It had been a perfect day in the African Bush. Standing back, I took in the entire scene—the Limpopo, Ndoto, Scott, and the campfire. “I’m going to miss this.” I announced.
“What? Cooking over a propane stove?” Scott asked with a contented smile.
“No. Well, yes. I mean, I’m going to miss this lifestyle. This Africa. This time in our lives.” We went to bed feeling peaceful.

In the middle of the night we heard splashing and trumpeting. We looked through the tent screen to see a herd of elephants frolicking in the river. We unzipped the fly and hung our heads and arms out in the moonlit African night to soak up and enjoy one of the most beautiful bush scenes imaginable. Babies and juveniles ran back and forth in the water playing, dunking, and charging while adults stood and drank before doing the same. Such joy!
“Why do the most perfect things always happen just as I am about to leave the Africa?” I whispered.
“Of course they do. You should stay,” said Scott quietly before rolling over and falling asleep. But as was the case most nights lately, sleep didn’t come easily to me.  
In just two weeks, I would be returning home while Scott stayed on in South Africa for a month to do a wildlife course. I lay awake, realizing that soon we would be apart for an entire month. As part of “our story” it didn’t feel right. For 40 years we have done most every adventurous thing together. We sailed our 40’ catamaran named Different Drummer across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. We trekked in the Himalayas. We transited Africa from Casablanca to Cape Town by public transportation. We rafted the Grand Canyon and walked the Camino de Santiago.  That we would now be apart felt like a disturbance in the Force. I knew that if I had said out loud, “I want you to come home with me,” he would have. But as much as I wanted him at my side, I also wanted him to fulfill his dreams. Still I was losing sleep over it.
At dawn I crept down the ladder and put the pot on for coffee. While I waited for the kettle to come to a boil, I walked slowly around camp identifying the spoor of animals that had walked through—hyena, genet, and civet. I love mornings anywhere in the world. I like the peace and promise of a new day. But mornings in Africa are the best. At home in California we read the paper over coffee every morning. It's a ritual. In Africa the ritual is slightly different. We read the "bush news" with our coffee. We examine the spoor that surrounds Ndoto and tell each other the story of what visited in the night. We recover the trail camera that has been tied to a nearby tree for the night and thrill in the images of elephants and hyena, porcupine and civet that walked just feet from the base of our tent ladder. Sometimes, there are copious amounts of fresh elephant dung and spoor of all sorts around camp in the morning, which makes the sometimes 200-foot walk to the toilets an eyes-wide, butt-clenching, quick march experience. It’s exhilarating. We are alone with pure nature. It is why we come to Africa. 
That morning, as so often happens when I am in Africa, feelings of gratitude and contentment washed over me. I am exactly where I want to be doing exactly what I want to do with the only person I can imagine wanting to do it with.
I chose some logs and started a small fire to take the chill off the morning. I sat with my feet up on the concrete fire ring feeling tranquil and content. After half an hour, I heard Scott, still cozy in bed, stretch and yawn. When he joined me at the fire pit he opened his iPad and read an email from Anthony (Ant), a pilot in South Africa, introducing himself. The email went on to say, ..." so if Scott wants to see the plane, he should come tomorrow to have a look." Ant was temporarily storing a plane in his hangar for a conservation team in Tanzania that would be using it for anti-poaching surveillance. Scott had some interest in volunteering his services as a pilot, but wanted to see the plane before committing.
“That’s great!” I said before taking a sip of coffee. “Timing is everything. If we weren’t able to see the plane tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to see it unless we went all the way back to Tanzania. Not sure Ndoto is up for that. Now you can see if it is the type of plane you feel comfortable flying before committing to conservation flying. And the town of Louis Trichardt is on our way to Kruger where we planned on going anyway.” 
I sat in silence enjoying the dawn chorus of birds announcing their territories. Warm rays of a rising sun beam worked like a spotlight on a kingfisher, that hovered and dove into the river. “Hey! He got a fish!”
“I’ve been thinking,” Scott started. “You might need help driving to Susanville to pick up Pika." Pika is our cat who was being lovingly cared for by my best friend Bonnie while we were away. Scott continued, "It’s a 7 hour drive and you’ll be jet lagged.” He paused and stared for a moment into the fire. “It feels like there is too much going on. I think I should go home when you do.”
I felt a great weight lift from my shoulders. “Oh Scott. Just to hear you say that makes me happy. You must have been feeling the same as me about being apart. It just doesn’t seem right, does it?” It was my turn to stare into the fire. “But let’s talk about it after we see the plane in Louis Trichardt. I’m just happy that we are both unhappy about you staying while I go.” I looked up and saw that he understood what I meant. 
The following morning, after we crossed the border into South Africa and drove to Louis Trichardt, I was far from happy and content. I was anxious. Ant wouldn’t be available to show the plane until 5PM, the exact time in Africa at that time of year when day turns to night. We try not to drive anywhere at night in Africa. Visibility isn’t great, so chances of hitting a pothole, or worse, an animal or child are big concerns. And, having a mechanical breakdown in the dark is so much more anxiety producing than when it happens in the full light of day.
We arrived in Louis Trichardt and drove straight to the campground in town only to find that it was closed. “Let’s just lift the boom and camp here anyway,” I said. “We won’t get back from the hangar until well after dark and I don’t want to drive aimlessly around looking for another place to camp. We can stay here and leave for Kruger at first light, okay? Let’s check it out.” I started to get out of the car to lift the boom when the camp attendant showed up. He explained that the grounds were closed because of an international bike race happening the next day and that camping there would not be possible, which made no sense to us at all. “There is a hotel just across the street. Perhaps you can stay there.” Scott walked over and inquired at the hotel. Not only were they fully booked, they assured Scott that every hotel room in town, and in all the surrounding towns, were taken by the more than 15,000 bicycle racers in town. We were due at the hangar in 30 minutes and my unease was mounting by the second. Not knowing where we would stay that night we drove out to see the plane.
Ant had told us that the hangar was difficult to find and he wasn’t kidding. After following our GPS to a dead end, getting briefly stuck in a quagmire of deep mud, and being told by a pedestrian whom we asked for directions, “Oh my, you are lost,” we finally arrived at the airfield past our appointed time, and well past dark. On the way, I announced to Scott, “After you look at the plane I am going to ask Anthony if we can pitch up in, or outside, his hangar. The airfield security guard can let us out in the morning. Then we’ll be off to Kruger by the crack of dawn.” Scott, intent on missing a pothole, but not missing a turn, said nothing.
When we arrived late at the hangar Ant was understandably perturbed at our tardiness. But he is South African so his manners were impeccable. He welcomed us and opened the hangar door. Off to the right sat the small anti-poaching plane, a Sky Jeep. But dominating the space was a Polish Wilga, which to my eye, is the most romantic looking bush plan ever made.
“That’s a Wilga! Where did you get it? How long have you had her?” Scott exuded enthusiasm, admiration, and envy all at once as he circled the plane. He impulsively reached out to stroke the fuselage.
As with anyone who is met with an appreciative audience, Ant happily talked about his Wilga. How a lady pilot had flown it there from Poland, how much he loved to fly her, and how much his wife did not enjoying flying in her. 
Scott and Ant eventually made their way over to the Sky Jeep, the reason why we were there. The plane looked in fine shape, ready to help save rhino and elephants from being poached in Tanzania. As they plane talked, Ant and Scott lost track of time, but I didn’t. It was getting darker by the minute.
“Ant," I interrupted, "it has been so kind of you to take the time to show Scott the Sky Jeep. I have one more favor to ask. All the accommodation in town is booked, and the campsite is closed because of the bike race. May we pitch up outside your hangar for the night? We would leave for Kruger first thing in the morning.”
“No. You are staying at my house,” he said without hesitation.
I was floored. “But why,” I asked? “You just met us.”
“Because you are. Now get in your Landy and follow me.”
We did as we were told. We followed Ant through the township surrounding the airfield and up into the suburbs in the hills above the city. It was the first of many times over the next 16 hours that I was to ask, “why?” 
Seven enthusiastic dogs of varying sizes and three cats, along with Ant’s wife Norma, greeted us in the small foyer. He must have phoned her on the way.
“You are welcome," she said indicating a room to her left. "This will be your accommodation for the night. You must be desperate for showers. Take your time then meet us in the lounge for drinks. And of course, you will join us for dinner.”
“But why?” I asked peering into a beautifully appointed bedroom with en suite off the entryway. “You don’t even know us.”
“Nonsense. Freshen up and we’ll see you soon for drinks, all right?”
“All right!” After bush camping for three nights no one needed showers more than we.
Soon we were gathered in the lounge with Norma, Ant, their son and his new bride, and a 9 months pregnant Veterinarian staying in a guest house on the property. All the dogs and one cat crowded in on sofas and laps around us. I loved everything about this house and these people. It had an air of You Can’t Take it with You the 1938 movie with Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart. It was a house filled with love and acceptance and stick togetherness.
Over drinks we found we had friends and acquaintances in common. We were enthralled by Ant and Norma’s stories of Zimbabwe and of how they met. It was as if we had known each other for decades rather than for a few minutes. None of the talk was small. They told us about their children and about how they had never had a honeymoon.  We talked about our families, about how lucky we were to have so many wonderful nieces and nephews since we were unlucky to have kids of our own. I told them about Clare and Colin, the youngest of the batch from my siblings and how we were the ones who got to teach them to ski, to backpack, and how to poo in the woods. I talked about how homesick I was and how anxious I was to see them. Recently, I told them, I had received a note from Colin saying he couldn’t wait until I got home.  I smiled remembering how much fun we had with Clare and Colin growing up and I talked about what wonderful people they had had become, Clare a comedian and writer in New York and Colin studying to be a firefighter. Times spent with my nieces and nephews, especially Clare and Colin, are some of the happiest of my life.
“Scott and I travel a lot. We’ve been away from home longer than this before, but this time, it feels I’ve been away forever. I feel such a strong tug for home. Being here with your family, all the laughter, the warm fire, reminds me again of what I am missing. I’m really looking forward to being home in a few weeks.” While we talked, Ant’s son Benjie worked the grill and before long we were gathered around a table in the kitchen enjoying meats, and salads, and wine aplenty. No one grills like a South African male. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
It was getting late. Ant had an early morning meeting and we wanted to be off to Kruger Park at sun up. “Of course, you will have breakfast with us before you all leave,” Norma said.
“But why? Really you mustn’t go to the trouble.”
“Nonsense. Ant must eat and run early too so it is no trouble at all,” Norma said. I was falling in love with this family.
Scott and I retired to our quarters for the night feeling cared for and loved.
“Why?” I asked as we climbed into bed. “Why are they so kind? We are total strangers. Or were. I can’t believe the stuff we talked about. Personal stuff you usually save for the fifth date, you know?”
“They are just good people Tris. We would have done the same if we encountered a stinky couple without accommodation for the night.” He leaned over and kissed me. “Sleep tight.”
But I didn’t sleep tight. I tossed and turned. Even though we were safe and sound for the night, the anxiety I had felt since yesterday when I was going through the Land Rover had not left me. I was up and ready to go by 6AM. 
We ate with Ant and Norma, promised to stay in touch, and drove off down the hill. As we rounded the first bend I took out my phone to check for messages. What I saw made my heart skip a beat. There were messages from my niece Clare and from my brother Sean. I read the messages to Scott. They just said URENT. “Pull over, Scott.” I said.  Scott parked off the road and grabbed his iPad saying, “I’ll connect with Skype so you can talk to Sean and Clare.”
I tried calling Sean but my call went to message. I called Clare and that call went to message too. Thinking the worst, I began doing an online search for the closest airport. We had never been to Louie Trichardt before so for all we knew we would need to drive all the way to Johannesburg to catch a flight. Then my phone rang.
“Auntie Teresa,” said Clare tightly.
"Clare, what's wrong? What has happened?"
“Auntie Teresa," she repeated. "Colin died.”
“WHAT?!” Colin was my brother Sean’s only child. I screamed. I wailed. Our anguished sobs carried across oceans and continents. I kept screaming, "No, no, no, no…”
“It can’t be. Oh my God. Sean and Ann. How will they survive?" I thought of Colin's beloved girlfriend Selina and felt overwhelming sadness for what might have been. Between our sobs, Clare just kept repeating over and over “I know. I know.” I could hear the pain in her voice. Both only children and a year apart in age, Clare and Colin grew up like siblings. Scott told me later that he had never seen anyone tremble as I was trembling. “How?” I wailed into the phone.
“No one knows yet. But Uncle Sean was the one who found him.”
“Oh my God,” I cried. “Clare, I’m coming home. Now. I’m coming Clare.”
I reached for Scott then looked past him to see Norma pulled alongside in her car, concern and confusion written on her face.
“I heard such screaming so I came to see who it was. But, it’s you. What has happened?”
I was still shaking. Scott was speechless and as white as a sheet. Finally, I managed to expel answers. “It’s my nephew. The one I told you about. Colin.”
She understood. For the third time since I met her just 12 hours earlier, Norma took charge and told us what to do. “Go back to the house. Park your Landy in the driveway. I will see to it that you get to an airport. You mustn’t worry about anything.” She repeated everything three times.
Back at Ant and Norma’s house Scott climbed up on the roof of the Landy and retrieved our backpacks out of the small storage bin. He tossed them down and I began throwing things inside. We didn’t speak. We just did. And I didn’t have to think. All I had to do was pick up the sack I had filled the day before with all our important stuff and put it in the backpack. I remember thinking; this is why I did this. Norma stood by saying, “Don’t worry about forgetting something. You don’t need it.” Then, “ Now, you mustn’t worry about your Landy. Just park it over there and don’t think about it. Go in the house. Scott, you can use my computer to book a flight. You must both drink the tea I give you. There is not a bit of color in either of your faces.”
We followed her inside like Zombies. I reached the bathroom just in time, as my guts and bowels gave way.
Norma gave us hot sweet tea. And pink grapefruit juice, also thick with sugar. I later learned these are good for shock. She stood by and let me talk about Colin, what an amazing young man he had become, what a wonderful girlfriend he had. About what a wonderful father he would have been.
“Why?” I sobbed. Then, “And why are you doing all this for us?”
“This is what we do. You would do the same for me.”
Within 15 minutes of hearing the news, we were on our way to an airport 100 kilometers away in Polokwane. There, we boarded a ten-seater bound for Johannesburg. All I remember of the flight was Scott repeatedly leaning across the aisle and squeezing my leg.
In the car on the way to the Polokwane airport Scott booked the last two seats on a flight to Abu Dabai. Or maybe it was Dubai.
On the departure board in Johannesburg I had noticed that there was a flight leaving for Dubai in ten minutes. I begged the powers that be to hold the plane for us but they said it was impossible. So we had to wait several hours for our connecting flight. At the gate Scott explained to the ground staff that we were returning home due to a tragic loss of a family member and they found a way to have us sit together. Thank God. I don’t remember a thing from that 10-hour flight. We landed in Abu Dabai and waited again for a connection. It’s a blur. The 17-hours of flights to San Francisco, I don’t remember being on a plane. Then it was an hour by car to San Jose.
The 40-hours from the time I got the news until I was in my brother’s arms was a new kind of agony I never want to relive. I only remember two things from it—feeling like my body was turning inside out, and Scott's hand squeezing my leg.
I knew then the answer to the question I kept repeating to Ant and Norma, Why?
If it hadn’t been for our chance meeting and how they insisted we stay with them and enfolded us into their family, I don’t know what would have happened. Norma knew just what to do to keep us from driving away distraught and without a plan. She took charge because she knew we couldn't think clearly. She ordered us back to the house and treated us for shock. She offered phone and computer so Scott could try to book flights. She repeated everything three times because she knew we couldn't comprehend words.
I no longer believe in coincidences. I believe in serendipity and love. Something told me to prepare for a disaster the day before. Then there was the bike race and lack of hotel rooms, the Sky Jeep in Ant’s hangar, and Ant’s love of Land Rovers. Ant insisting we stay at his house. Norma’s warmth, the dogs, the cats, the love, all of it was set in place for us so that we could survive in order to help others survive.
Once home, we stayed in our niece’s cottage until our tenants moved out. She again fed us fresh baked bread, calm love, and compassion. My best friend drove 7 hours to deliver our cat Pika to us, “Because,” she said,  “you will need her.” And we did. Our tenants moved out two weeks after we arrived which was a good thing because the memorial for my nephew Colin was three days later at our home. I don't know how we did it. Yes, I do. People exactly like Ant and Norma stepped up without question. They arranged the best caterer in Silicon Valley on short notice. A friend of my sister-in-law flew across the country and arranged all the flowers. The day of the event, neighbors appeared in the morning to set up all the chairs and tables, donated wine, and enveloped us in regular doses of hugs. There were over 400 people in attendance. Speeches were so heartfelt, those present, even those who had never met Colin, said that the day “transformed” them. When hearing that he had died instantly, of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart, many people uttered sadly, “Of course he did” because no one had a bigger heart than Colin.
Just two weeks before he passed, Colin had completed his training along with extensive physical tests and interviews to become a firefighter, his dream career. He was still awaiting the news if he would be offered a position when he passed away. We found out the night before the memorial that he had achieved his goal. A fire Captain read the acceptance letter and presented Colin's helmet, jacket, and badge to My brother and his wife at the memorial. It was the most proud and the most sad I have ever seen my brother. Throughout the service Scott squeezed my leg.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Picking up the Thread of a Safari Jema – Fifty Days at Sea

Picking up the Thread
Safari Jema – Fifty Days at Sea

“What’s the most stern sail on the boat?”
“You mean the sail located most aft?” I asked.
“Not exactly. Stern as in meanest, most cruel. Or to put it another way, the sail most liked by many Brits?”
I thought a minute. There are sixteen sails on the ship, five square sails and a number of jibs plus some fisherman. They all seemed very friendly to me... and not at all kinky.
“I give up. What is the meanest or most British sail on the ship?”
“The Spanker!” said my witty sailor, my Mr Sky, Yachty Scotty.

It’s Day 31 of 50 continuous days under sail. We are aboard the Star Flyer, a four-masted, 366-foot long, barquentine clipper ship. In two days, we'll enter the Straits of Gibraltar and transition from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This morning after a lengthy emergency drill for crew only where water tight doors slammed shut automatically and violently, the captain called all the passengers to the Tropical Bar. Not to offer a sacrificial drink to Poseidon, but to explain why we would enter the Gibraltar Strait one day early. Fifty knot winds (damn strong winds) were expected in the channel between Africa and Europe so the captain ordered the crew, "Batten down the hatches and full speed ahead!" in hopes we will avoid the brunt of the ferocious gusts that swoop down from the Pillars of Hercules. This is A-OK with us because now we will cross through the strait around 4 P.M. instead of 4 A.M. so we will get a glimpse of our beloved Africa in daylight.
The first two weeks of this Sea Safari were aboard a different sailboat, the Windjammer Mandalay, a 160-foot, three-mast, bare bones beauty of a ship built in 1929 by EF Hutton as a gift to his wife. Many moons later, it is a rustic 58 passenger barefoot vessel sailing the waters of the Caribbean.
There were only 26 passengers aboard (half full) so there was plenty of room to move about, which came in handy after Swizzle Time, a spirited happy hour consisting of all the rum punch sundowners we could drink.

The passenger mix was a convivial crowd of mostly Americans (many of which came from California) and a surprising number of pilots. All but two passengers were repeat customers. Most were serial sailors loyal to Windjammer and the barefoot boat concept. Some took their first Windjammer cruise back in the 60’s or 70’s. We heard wild tales about the “good old days” when cruises were often singles only, and clothing was sometimes optional.
The first day aboard, Scott and I searched for a spot out of the sun to read and settled on well-worn blue mats on top of the wheelhouse. It only took a few minutes before one of the old-timers let us know, with a large degree of hope and enthusiasm, that the deck we were occupying was reserved for nude bathing.  We didn’t yet know our fellow passengers as well as we would come to know them but as we surveyed our shipmates from atop the wheelhouse we guessed that no one would be taking their clothes off any time soon and, save a few moonings directed towards monstrous 4000 passenger cruise ships that occasionally ruined our view, no one ever got completely naked.
Her loyal fans dearly love the Mandalay but she rarely operates at full capacity. The web site leaves much to be desired and advertising is next to nil. Without capital to fuel investment, she’s like the Velveteen Rabbit; dearly cherished, but much worn around the edges. Our first impulse upon boarding was to start a crowd-fund campaign to help replace the loose teak decking, the faded oft-repaired sails, and the torn carpeting below decks.
Why would we pay good money to go on such a ship? We too sailed the Windjammer in “the good old days”. In 1979 we took a week long trip aboard the Yankee Trader and had fond memories of riding the bowsprit, lounging in the nets, and dancing on deck after Swizzle Time. Back then, before air conditioning, most people slept on deck and only retreated to humid cramped cabins with the nightly 3 A.M. rain shower. These days, cabins are spacious and air-conditioned.
Our shipmates were some of the most interesting, fun people we have met anywhere on land or sea. The food was basic but tasty, the owner/captain capable and the crew energetic and delightful.
Every morning before dawn, after the anchor was raised, we helped hoist sails to the tune of Amazing Grace. We never missed a sunrise. The entire experience was incredibly moving, calming, and healing. I wished my entire family, especially Sean and Ann and Selina, were here with me.

            Soon there was an easy rhythm to the days. We sailed through lunch then anchored in a sheltered bay of one or another beautiful island for snorkeling, swimming, or hiking. There was usually a beach bar and palm trees to sit at or under. Throughout the day, many catamarans and yachts also came to anchor. Before long, tenders full of boaters headed ashore for dinner and dancing in the sand.

My birthday fell on the day we were at St Barts, a territory of France. St Barts is different than her nearest Caribbean neighbors. The vibe, with its main street of beautiful shops for beautiful people such as Prada and Tiffany’s, felt more French Riviera than Caribbean. To say that the yachts in harbor or anchored out were luxurious would be an understatement. On some of the larger yachts, the stern came equipped with enormous cargo doors for the tender that would be parked inside the yacht.
After 14 days aboard the Windjammer we arrived at St. Maarten. We did a heap of laundry and ate barbecue ribs at a beach bar. Then Scott had his hair cut at a small shop on a neighborhood street. This is always a great thing to do anywhere in the world because no one can inform you about the local sites like a barber. While Scott waited his turn, we watched a small boy getting tortured with his first hair cut. He squirmed and winced and worried until his father handed him a large roll of packing tape that the boy gripped tightly in both hands without moving a muscle for the duration of his cut. The TV was on so the barber and his regulars Monday Morning Quarterbacked the news of the day—standard barbershop talk the world over.
We met my niece Teresa (Treese to me) who, to our utter delight, decided to join us on the next legs of our sailing journey, a 20-day Atlantic Ocean crossing and a 14-day sail around the Med on a completely different type of sailing passenger vessel, the Star Flyer. With her bright new sails, polished brass, and warm teak decks she was a cut above the Mandalay in features and fixtures but could not hold a candle to the Mandalay’s special charms. I can’t say the Clipper ship was "better" than the Windjammer, just different.  We don't help raise any of the sails (most are raised mechanically anyway) on the Star flyer, but we are allowed to climb the mast to the crow’s nest—a horribly exciting activity I will never forget. Before I took hold of the first rung I asked a crew member, “Has anyone ever spewed while doing this?” She laughed and said "no" but I really don’t believe that to be true because I was one exhale away from letting my breakfast of hard boiled egg and toast rain down on the bystanders who watched with their eyes wide and mouths open from the deck below. There were so many butterflies in my stomach and so much adrenaline coursing through my body, that it took all I had to make my legs and arms move up the rope ladder, especially when a sudden gust of wind caused me to freeze and hang on for dear life halfway up the mast. I nearly backed down but a now or never feeling suddenly washed over me and my knees were able to work again. The view from the crow’s nest was worth the spent feeling I had for the rest of the day.

Treese also climbed the mast, eagerly and seemingly without fear. I am so proud of her. Born when I was ten, she was the first baby I ever took care of and we grew up together.
The three of us also climbed over the gunwale and onto the net that hangs from the bowsprit. The job of the netting is to keep crew that change the jib sails from falling into the ocean. So relaxing, I could have fallen asleep out there.

Some on board feel there is “…nothing to do, nowhere to go”. Ocean crossings aren’t for everyone. They are made for introverts. Readers. Writers. Nappers. Lovers of peace and quiet. Lovers.
I am made for an ocean journey. I treasure silence. But I also love meeting new and interesting people. If I want to converse, there are 68 other passengers from 13 nations, plus as many crew from as many nations, around for chatting. So far each person has a great story to tell. If I sit on one of the couches in the Piano Bar I can be guaranteed of an engaging conversation with a shipmate. But I can also go to the library and browse the books and read or do a crossword puzzle. I have time to do the things I love. What a gift! And we’ve made some truly good friends. Marcie and Keith from Santa Cruz and Phil, Tom and John from Kentucky (known on board as the Bourbon Boys) will be life-long friends I’m sure, and that is a gift as well.

Treese brought back issues of the Sunday NY Times crosswords for us to conquer together, a ritual that we do most Sundays when at home. (Treese owns a house a few blocks from ours and usually strolls over most Sundays with a batch of home made bread or jam.) She, Scott and I usually participate in the daily trivia on board ship. It’s fun and “interactive” because the winning passengers make up the questions for the next quiz. With our collective knowledge of literature, geography, and science we have won a few rounds so have had to prepare questions for the next quiz. Team 21, a wonderfully nerdy and enthusiastic group of German men, usually won.

Other than the daily trivia, Treese and I play Bananagrams or do crosswords or read so there is a misconception on board that we, team TNT, (Teresa and Teresa) are somewhat brainy. Team 21, the German engineers on board (Nerd Alert, Nerd Alert!) like us lots and are always impressed when we answer their random or obscure questions, (What is the altitude of low earth orbit?)  My niece is very smart. And Scott remembers everything he ever read and is of course my favorite nerd. As I told Mom, I married Mr. Right. Mr. Always Right.

Even without Swizzle Time, it’s difficult at times to stay upright while crossing the Atlantic Ocean at the wrong time of the year. We are a little boat in a big ocean. Trying to sail against the trade winds is no easy task. The swells can be huge. Rocking and rolling is the norm. Mealtimes are a challenge. There have been a few nights when plates, glassware, chairs and people have gone flying. One man’s head broke a chair leg as he flew off his seat when the boat suddenly lurched violently. Other than bruising, he was not hurt. Speaking of bruising, Belinda, the masseuse on board, told me I win the prize for most bruises. “You have them everywhere!” Those who know me know that doorjambs and table edges like to bash into my hips and shoulders. And knees and arms and….
We did have one port of call during the crossing, on Day 14, at Ponta Delgada in the Azores where I managed to collect a few more bruises while walking with sea legs on land. We swayed while sitting or standing still, a very weird sensation. But it felt so good to walk and walk and walk. The weather was perfect, we had a great picnic in a pristine park, and we even found a cat to pet.
So while some aboard are climbing the walls with boredom and eager to disembark for good, we are happy as can be. Almost. If there were a cat or dog on board (or bunny, or duck, or otter, or child...) it would be perfect.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Safari Jema in Audio Book Format!

Exciting news! Safari Jema is now an audio book!
Narrated by the talented Jennifer Groberg, Safari Jema is available on iTunes, and on Amazon!

I hope you enjoy the listen!

-Teresa O'Kane