Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wild and free

We were driving in our large and comfortable car, with our boys in the back seat playing games on iPads. At a glance we are just another family like many world over, who live in homes with electricity and running water and take holidays to far flung paces. If you looked more closely however, you would have seen that the boys feet were leathery and dirt stained from a week of running across hills barefoot, with boys whose lives are so different to theirs. The differences lie only in the world of things (we have, they don't) and with children this barrier fell away in the moment it took to throw a ball or start a game of tag.

We spent a week sleeping in a mud hut, sharing our days with backpackers, wanderers and the local Xhosa people whose villages dotted the landscape around us. We had hoped to introduce our boys to an Africa that we both know quite well - one where rural poverty and traditional lifestyles merge with our modern one. It is a world where mud huts have solar panels to charge cell phones, but women and girls still walk long distances carrying water and firewood on their heads. Our boys spent their mornings doing school work and the afternoons quickly became time to play with the local boys who would turn up every day after school, to see what we were up to. The local children spoke only Xhosa and ours spoke only English (save for a few shared words like "soccer") but the language of play is a powerful one that overrides any spoken language. Afternoons would turn  in to hours-long games of tag, where none of them could recall or pronounce each other's names so instead they all called each other "friend". Our boys would disappear from sight, part of a pack that ran past us from time to time in a blur of boy, laughter and bare feet. The local kids had no toys to speak of and so the few things that we had with us, became hotly sought after items of interest. It was humbling to see how well children who are used to have nothing share toys, each took his turn and waited patiently for another. 


Two of the most common fears of middle class, suburban parents is that ones child might be run over by a car or abducted by a stranger. It was strange and amazing to be in a pace where neither posed a problem - there were no cars and to the local kids, there were no strangers in the village of their ancestors. Our boys ran wild and free with them well in to dusk each night. It was a beautiful thing to see the joy in their friendship and the freedom that this place gave to us all. There is a lyrical quality to rural poverty and one can quite easily romanticize a life without cars, lived amongst family, with gardens filled with maize and with chickens wandering in and out of mud hut homes. It is beautiful and peaceful, but the realities are harsh. Each hut has its own vegetable garden, since there is neither a shop, nor money to spend in it. Life is simple but there is no work, which means no money beyond limited government support and income generated by family members working in cities. 

Bulungula Lodge operates off the grid, with a minimal carbon footprint. It sits on an extraordinary piece of pristine and wild coastline in what was once called the Transkei in South Africa. Green hills roll towards the sea along miles and miles of coastline, all of them dotted with huts, livestock and vegetable gardens. We travelled to Bulungula for its remote beauty and immersion in the local community, who recently acquired 100% ownership of the lodge. With its solar power, composting toilets and aquifer fed water supply, we lived off the grid and with minimal impact. Our impact lay in the money we our stay brought to a community with no other source of income. What began 10 years ago as a backpackers lodge has grown in to a program of social upliftment (the Bulungula Incubator), providing work, health services and education for the community around the lodge. As always what we gained was as much or more than we gave and the lessons our boys learned of a common humanity, no matter our skin color or income, are ones that once learned are never lost. We will be back.

When less is more.

We recently stepped out of our normal lives to spend 6 months together as a family, traveling through Southern Africa and spending time visiting family and places dear to us as parents, but that our boys barely knew. 

We left California with 8 suitcases, which carried within them sleeping bags, school  books, art supplies, clothes for 2 seasons as well as cameras and computers and a few essential toys each boy chose to travel with.

We have managed to lose a number of things along the way and buying something generally means something else had to be given away. We left behind in California many of the things we thought we couldn't live without (toys, tv shows, mountain bikes) and have instead filled our time with multi generational meals around tables, hiking up mountains and games involving imagination rather than toys. We brought iPads which have been loaded and reloaded with books as our boys have read their way through long drives and days without tv or digital media.

What have we missed? Not much from the world of things. We have missed friends, our dogs, the comfort of our own beds and adventures up the mountain behind our house.

 The richness of time together and time away from rushing between work and school has filled our days. We have had time for simple pleasures, with many hours spent in the ocean and hiking dusty trails. Our bank accounts may be leaner, but our lives are immeasurably richer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tea & Rusks

This is what breakfast looks like for us right now. We leave our campsite at sunrise in search of wildlife and eventually stop somewhere with a line of sight that will give us advance warning about approaching predators. The breakfast picnic is packed the night before and is both a pretty simple and quintessentially South African way to start the day. A flask of rooibos tea steeps overnight, creating deep umber brew and a flask of hot water sits ready for coffee, hot chocolate and ceylon tea. To accompany all of these choices we have fruit and then rusks - also known as "beskuit". We use the bonnet ("hood" for my American compadres) of the car to pour and serve from and then we eat somewhere close enough to jump back inside if need be. The boys often sit on the roof, for a birds eye view and added safety if surrounded by dense bushveld. Usually breakfast is mellow and we savor the moment to be out of the car and take in our surroundings after a few hours of game driving. As people who currently live far from the land of rusks, each bite is a treat as we sip and dunk our way through our repast.

To give some perspective, rusks are a corner stone of the South African comfort food experience. They are sold everywhere and come in a variety of shapes and forms, but certain things remain consistent: they are a slightly sweetened, soda-style bread, ideally made with buttermilk that once baked is cut in to portions and then dried until crisp. They are something akin to biscotti, but not as sweet and are a whole lot less fancy. 

A rusk has a buttery flavour and is a dry, crumbly thing to eat on its own, but dunked in to a cup of tea (or coffee or hot chocolate) it softens just a little and picks up the hot drink in its nooks and crannies. When one takes a bite it is a mix of buttery dry crispness and liquid all at once. Somewhat like roasting a marshmallow, there is an art to dunking a rusk and with each rusk there is a unique experience of texture and flavour with each person preferring a different length of dunk. There are the soakers, such as my eldest son, who likes to dunk his rusk until it has softened to the point of it possibly falling apart in a soggy mess before it reaches his mouth. I prefer the quick dunk and the flavour of tea and rusk in my mouth together, but separate.

The most classic form of rusk is a buttermilk rusk made with white flour, it is a light and buttery experience as seen in the photo above. The bush-worn hand belongs to my husband with whom I share a his and hers relationship with rusks. He prefers a buttermilk, pure and simple version, while I err towards one made also with bran flakes, some whole wheat flour and possibly nuts of some kind. My mom sent us off in to the bush with a box of her homemade "health rusks" and when those ran out I bought a delicious buttermilk-bran version from a South African food purveyor that we found in Maun, seen below. It is crisp, nutty, buttery and good.

We are on a sell drive safari and do our own catering and therefore have tailored our mornings to whatever it is that makes us happiest. Rusks don't spoil in the heat and stay fresh for a good long while - perfect when shops are a hard day's drive away and fresh baked goods an impossibility in the bush. They are central to our happiness. We were amused to stop alongside a safari company's vehicle the other morning to say hi and see that their morning spread mirrored ours. Tea, coffee and rusks served to people for whom it would have been a novel experience. I love the thought that countless tourists have come to the bush and learned the sweet joy of a rusk dunked in a cup of tea or coffee. Maybe some will remember them with affection and even try their hand at baking some when back home. I bake my own in California and have turned friends and neighbors in to rusk-lovers along the way. 

NOTE: this is not a recipe type of blog but if this posting compelled you to make your own, contact me and I will send you a recipe once back on the grid. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Water in a dry place (2)

Water in a dry place is a recurring theme in my paintings and now too I realize in places that I am compelled to seek out. Whether it is that Africa imprinted itself on me during the first 22 years of my life, with a love of dry, dusty heat and the juxtaposition of rain when it eventually comes. Or is it whether I am simply drawn to the meeting of opposites, I don't know. It is likely a little of each.

Botswana is a country defined by both its lack and abundance of water. Much of the country is sandy and dry, it once having been the bottom of an ancient and massive lake. It sees annual evaporation exceeding annual rainfall in much of the country and the dry season is for much of the year. In the center of this otherwise deeply dry place lies the Okovango delta - a place of lush green growth and abundance of water that fills annually when the river that feeds it floods. We are here right ahead of the rainy season, so it has been dry for a long time and cows are thin and the land is parched as everyone waits for rain and green grass to return. The delta however still has cool deep channels and rivulets running out in to the earth, with thick papyrus and palm forests lining the waterways. 

Flying over the delta yesterday, we looked down over a minaturised world of elephant and hippo seen from above and gathering around rivulets and pools that are the end point of a river's journey. This is the place where the river pools and drains in to the earth, bringing life and abundance, months after the last rains fall. It is an emerald in a yellow-grey landscape, with snaking lines and forms utterly organic yet at the same time abstracted and graphic. It's beauty like a cool glass of water to a partched throat.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Young travelers

We are a family of four, currently spending our waking and sleeping hours in close company with each other as we adventure through African wilderness. Brothers in a back seat and parents up front for what is at times hours and hours of driving on rutted and dusty roads. At night we share tents which are perched on the roof of our vehicle. 

When not driving, the children stay close to us and more extremely so after dusk, due to the presence of predators. Our days are physical and at the mercy of the elements, rutted roads and whatever the elephants, giraffe and lion are doing. We are up before dawn in search of nocturnal predators before the heat of the day sends us to shelter in whatever shade we can muster. At night elephant trumpet ferociously and the deep rumble of lion calls keep us awake. The kids have learned to eat foreign food and sleep in beds not their own. Early wake up calls are tough on our 11 year old whom we  rouse from deep sleep each morning. For a modern parent used to tending to the details of my children's comfort, it is quite liberating to see them happy to sleep draped over a camera bag in the back seat, whilst bouncing along rutted tracks, with mid afternoon heat acting like a soporific.

Kids are wonderfully resilient if given the chance, it's funny how giving them that chance is such a big deal.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

magnificence fear awe & beauty

We have landed in Maun, a true safari town and supply post placed in the heart of Botswana's National Parks. We arrived dust covered and filthy, looking forward to showers, beds and something cold to drink. We have been here before and the route we just took was a mirror of our previous trip two years ago. It has been surprising to find ourselves recognizing  bends on a dusty road or the face of a man who sold us firewood, when those details were ones we thought we had forgotten. There was a moment when I wondered why we would come back to a place that we had travelled to so recently, when there is so much in the world that I still want to see. Now that we are on the other side of an intense experience, I have no doubts as to why we are here. We have driven vast distances, worked hard and been uncomfortably hot and dirty; yet what this effort gave us access too, is worth every ache and exhausted sleep. We have witnessed within feet of us, extraordinary interactions between species and also within family groupings of animals. We were in a place that is a long drive from which ever direction you approach it from and that remoteness brings with it the reward of vast areas of wilderness with little evidence of humankind's impact. No lights, no trash, no asphalt covering the earth. Just fires burning in the vast dark of the African night, there to cook on, provide light and keep predators at bay. A pretty pure form of simple.

During game drives, we encountered herds of Wildebeest racing across the veld, spotted light footed jackal in the first rays of sunshine and seemed to come across a giraffe behind every shrub. So many of the animals that we observed had their young with them and our presence without fail saw adults moving to place their bodies between us and their babies. The care and tenderness of parent towards child seemed no different whether a human or animal. Is it purely survival of the species that leads them to protect their young or is there tenderness there too? Hard to know, but it feels like there is. 

We watched in awe as elephant almost ran to water holes on sweltering days, their delight clearly evident as they wallowed, splashed, drank or simply stood, taking in the pleasure of water on days of blazing heat. Babies were always flanked by adults and younger elephant rollicked while elders took a more dignified approach to the celebration of muddy water going on around them. In a memorable moment, we watched a massive bull elephant leave a waterhole in order to escort an uncertain youngster to it, when his access to the water had been cut off by vehicles which had pulled up more intent on their photo opportunity than allowing what was happening to take place. The bull was forced to walk within feet of us in order to "fetch" the youngster and made his displeasure clear. He walked with the slow power that these massive creatures do, stopping along the way to give us a long, hard look, putting us in our place. Our windows were down and we didn't move a finger or take a photo as he stood feet away, with us at this mercy and in his sights. Like him, we were trapped by the other vehicles and could do nothing but sit quietly and hope no one around us angered him. He eventually moved on and we breathed again. 

We were continually struck by the difference between the herbivores and the predators who hunt them. They are two such different kinds of creatures - herbivores gently grazing all day with an almost meditative grace and predators whose hunting creates a maelstrom of activity and their lazing under the shade of a thorn tree, is accompanied by the knowledge that simply standing up will create a stir. (A stir amongst the hunted, but also amongst all of us hoping to get a glimpse of their tawny fur!)

Lion are always high on everyone's safari bucket list and our early mornings were often rewarded with lion sightings. One lioness gave herself away by the twitch of a dark-tipped ear above golden grass as we drove passed her. We stopped and watched as she lay in the morning light, us wondering if her breakfast might walk passed. We held our breath as a lone giraffe grazed her way over to the lioness's hiding place. The lioness crouched, her body tight and muscles bulging as she sized the situation up, ready to launch an attack. She held her position, but eventually must have thought better of the potential injury that trying to take down a giraffe on her own could mean. She eventually lay back down and waited for something else to come by and the giraffe grazed on, oblivious to the drama that she had played a part in. 

The gift of information that we gave about a lion we had spotted, was rewarded by information given in return a few hours later. A guide whom we had tipped off, tipped us off in return about a pride of lion a short detour off of our route to Maun. We had a long drive ahead of us that day but took his advice and were rewarded immensely with a pride 10 lion sitting in the shade at the edge of a water hole, waiting and watching for what might arrive to drink on a hot day. We watched them sizing up elephant - a smaller group with babies piqued their interest and one young male took the chance to prowl closer to the water, following an elephant as it walked down. He was young and foolhardy and so backed off when he realized that no one else had joined him. That elephant group moved on quite quickly, possibly aware that the lion were there. Shortly afterwards a massive herd slowly moved in, threading past our vehicle as they emerged out of the bush around us. We watched as they walked within feet of the lion, very often unaware of them - the first of the group walked so silently that we watched as he and the lion all jumped in fright as he passed them, all of them noticing each other in the same moment. Dust, nerves, adrenalin all lifted and then settled again. More and more elephant came down, either walking on the far side of our car - herding their babies away from the lion, using us as cover, or walking between us and the lion - who were at the most lying 20 feet away from us, putting us all in close proximity with each other. It was awe inspiring to be in the thick of this tinderbox, wondering if it all might explode. Ultimately the herd was too big and the lion backed down, letting the elephant revel in the waterhole undisturbed. We stayed until the latest we could and eventually had to leave, knowing the distance that we had to drive and the heat which was building and with two boys who had already been in the back seat for 5 hours at that point and were getting wriggly. 

We pointed our Landcruiser south and headed for Maun, away from the magic of the bush but with hours of dusty and rutted roads to get through before we were there. We had time to decompress and digest the world we had immersed ourselves on a road that made us appreciate were we had been even more.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A place of magic and giants.

Two years ago we embarked on an epic adventure with our young boys through the country of Botswana. We wanted Africa become a part of our American born sons, we wanted to see wild Lion while there still are some to see and we wanted to drop off the grid for a while. We did all of the above and more, but as we headed home, we knew that we were not yet done and needed to return.

Crossing the border into Botswana a few days ago, the kids whooped with delight - vast landscapes, the warmth of the Setswana people, living simply out of our vehicle and the thrill of adventure all lay ahead of us. As always we had made careful plans but always with room for a meander or two. Our first nights were spent somewhere new to us, but one we already hope to return to - the Goo-Moremi Gorge in the Tswapong Hills. Our campsite was pristine and perfectly simple, with a solar heated shower - a luxury we didn't take for granted, knowing what lay ahead of us. A huge tree stood at the center of our site, it's branches a canopy over us.

The Tswapong Hills are spiritually significant to the local community and have been so more as long as people have lived here due to springs that provide year round streams, waterfalls and deep, dark pools. The hills are also one of the few breeding site of the endangered Cape Vulture. A walk up the in to gorge was one of cool, green contrast to the otherwise dusty sun baked surroundings. A black and white patterned Monitor Lizard slipped away across a stream shortly after we spotted him and we watched Cape Vultutes circling high above us, before swooping through the gorge, close enough for us to see them clearly without binoculars. There was no one other than us and our guide. He moved with the languid pace of someone who knows to slow down on a hot day, pointing out trees, leaves and birds, with references to conservation, traditional medicine and magic all woven together.

Our next stop was a place that two years ago had left us needing to know better. Lekhubu Island once looked out over a vast lake, now it is perched above a vast salt pan. It is a place of magic, with a long history of inhabitatian and ritual. It is still used by local communities for supplication to rain gods and then there are the travelers like ourselves in constant pilgrimage to this vastly beautiful place. It is an outcropping of rocks in a salt pan, covered with ancient Baobab trees, cairns, stone walls and otherartifacts of ancient inhabitatian. The road there was long and hard-driving on a day of shimmering heat. We finally found ourselves driving across a dreamscape of salt pan, with Kubu Island rising above it in the far distance. We got there in time to make a cup of tea in the shade of the Baobab at the center of our campsite before walking out on to the pan to watch the sun set and dusk's gentle light envelope us. As the sun dropped low, the day's brutal heat lifted and the kids ran as far and fast as they could in every direction, while land and sky turned in to mirrors of each other. 

We took a family selfie to capture the exuberance that this beautiful and hard to get to place had rendered in us. Then we walked back to camp where another one of Africa's mighty giants was sheltering us for the night.