An African Barrel of Monkeys

Fernweh. I discovered a word that aptly describes my state of mind. Roughly translated, this German word means “far-sickness”. As opposed to homesickness, fernweh is an aching for far-flung places and a perpetually, insatiable desire to travel and explore. While the world is on hold, I reflect on the amazing opportunities I’ve had to fulfill my lifelong wanderlust. I delight in sharing stories and photos, as it allows me to re-live those travels.

My first overseas journey was spent in an extraordinary year in Africa in 1983 and 1984, working and traveling in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. An African proverb goes something like this: “One who drinks from African waters will return”, and that I did in 2011, armed with an arsenal of digital camera gear. An absence of nearly 30 years, yet Africa never really left me.

Take a break from some of the shenanigans of humans and meet a few of my favorite animals. Enjoy the ride and some scoop on each one. The following photos I took from Hluhlue Umfolozi Game Reserve, Addo Elephant National Park and several smaller game reserves in South Africa.

GIRAFFE

What do you call a group of giraffes? A tower of course!

Let’s start at the top! I enjoy the quirky terms assigned to groups of animals. A tower of giraffes is quite appropriate as it describes the group while stationary, and when they move, they become a journey of giraffes.

On my first trip in 1983, I hitchhiked with Tom through Southern Africa. In Chobe National Park in Botswana, after three sweltering days sitting under a tree, a Land Cruiser pickup rolled to a stop and the affable driver said, “Hop in the back!” We eagerly chucked our backpacks in and held on to the grab rail. We picked up a few other young “strays” along the way from Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

We lumbered along rutted dirt roads, cheering with delight as we watched journeys of giraffes jauntily loping along, obliviously leaving us in the dust.

• Giraffe moms give birth standing up, quite a feat for our planet’s tallest terrestrial animal

• Their babies can walk within 30 minutes with their new gangly legs

• In Mozambique, overhead power lines have to be at least 39 feet (12 meters) high to permit safe passage of giraffes

• A giraffe’s neck can measure up to 6 feet (2 meters) long, so can their legs

• Their necks contain the same amount of vertebrae as humans (7), however their bones are extremely elongated

• Before mating, the male tastes the urine of the female as he tests her reproductive condition

ZEBRA

Our Land Cruiser driver was from Botswana and had recently completed his studies on wildlife and tourism and he was training to be a safari guide. We were quite pleased to be his first “practice” guests. He happily stopped to point out wildlife that we never would have seen, as he eloquently described their behavior and habitat.

• Zebras can recognize each other by their unique striping patterns

• The plains zebra, the most common and widespread of it’s species, appears on the coat of arms of Botswana

• Their coat will dissipate 70% of heat

• Zebras will migrate up to 1800 miles (2900 kilometers) for food

• If a zebra is attacked, it’s family will come to it’s defense circling the wounded zebra and attempt to drive off predators

• It is thought zebras use their stripes as camouflage when they are together in a big group to confuse predators, perhaps like an optical illusion

• Zebras live in small, stable family units, consisting of one stallion, several mares and their offspring

• The zebra is not a picky herbivore, munching on a variety of grasses, leaves and young trees. As a result they can range more widely than many other species

HYENA

Since hyenas are nocturnal, we were quite lucky to see this beauty in daylight in Hluhlue Umfolozi, where we spent the nights in huts. In Chobe, we slept on the ground with only a thin layer of nylon tent between us and very vocal hyenas, keeping us quite alert!

• Even though hyenas appear to resemble dogs, they have no relation, in fact, they are more genetically related to meerkats and mongoose

• Hyenas have complex communication skills, wailing, howling and the most known – laughter, which can indicate their age and status by the pitch and tone

• Hyenas are extremely intelligent and socially sophisticated

• Female hyenas produce three times more testosterone than males, therefore I females are more muscular, larger and more aggressive than male hyenas

• Hyena societies are matriarchal, even young female cubs rule over the young males

ELEPHANT

Our guide in training in Chobe, Botswana would drop us at a bush camp each night. Extremely basic, with a place to pitch our tents and a central ablution block with running water and toilets, yet to us, a five star resort couldn’t compare to our experience. One night I woke to a slight noise, looked out the mesh tent screen and made out a large gray shape. Suddenly realizing it was an elephant, I tried to whisper to our friend who was sleeping on the ground next to our tent. Turns out he slept right through the excitement of having that giant foot gingerly step precariously close to his face! I was surprised how stealthy their foot steps can be when they want to.

• Elephant herds are matriarchal, led by an older, experienced female. They have one of the world’s most elaborate and advanced social structures

• Elephants can hear one another’s trumpeting calls up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) away

• Elephants are scared of bees

• African elephants have the best sense of smell in the animal kingdom, they can smell water from 2 miles (3.2 kilometers)

• The African elephant is the largest land animal, the largest on record weighed about 24,000 lbs (10,866 kg) with a height of 13 feet (3.96 meters)

• An adult African elephant requires up to 660 lbs (300 kg) of food and 42 gallons of water (160 liters) a day

•An elephant’s pair of tusks may exceed 440 lbs (200 kg) and they never stop growing

• Elephant brains can weigh as much as 11 lbs (5 kg), more than the brain of any other land animal

• The gestation time of an elephant is 2 years

• An elephant’s trunk has more than 40,000 muscles. In comparison, a human only has 639 muscles total

• An elephant’s skin can be up to 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) thick, but is so sensitive, it can feel the smallest insects land. Their skin’s massive wrinkles and cracks store moisture from water and mud baths, to help them stay cool

• African elephants can deposit upwards of 330 lbs (150 kg) of dung and can disperse over 2000 seeds of diverse plants per square 0.6 mile (1 kilometer)

• African people regard the elephant with deep reverence, the Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for elephants translate to “the forceful one” or “the unstoppable one”, Indlovu in Zulu

• Female elephants have the longest reproductive anatomy of any land mammal, her vagina is located 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) into her body

• An elephant calf can weigh up to 200 lbs (91 kg) at birth

• Mouse sperm is larger than elephant sperm

KUDU

• The greater kudu (pictured) and lesser kudu are in the antelope family and have stripes and spots. Male greater kudus have long spiral horns, which can grow as long as 6 feet (1.8 meters) with 2 1/2 graceful twists

• Males occasionally form small bachelor forkls, but usually they are solitary and widely dispersed

• Kudus are highly alert and difficult to approach. When bulls run, they lay their horns back near their shoulders to avoid overhanging branches

• The name kudu is derived from the indigenous Khoikhoi language

• Kudu’s coloration blends with their environment, to help protect them from predators. They are surprisingly quiet as they move through dense bush

• Kudu are known for their jumping skills and can easily clear a tall fence

• Mating season is usually between May and August. Kudus mate only once for 5 to 10 seconds

WARTHOG

• Warthogs are member of the swine family, their relations being pigs, boars and hogs

• The “wart” in their name refers to protrusions on the sides of their face, which are a combination of bone and cartilage, which helps protect them when males tend to fight during mating season

• Warthogs often avail themselves of empty dens excavated by aardvarks. Sows let their piglets into the burrows first, they then back in, using their tusks to guard for any intruders

• Warthogs have been observed allowing banded mongoose and vervet monkeys to groom them, removing insects from their hairless hide. Oxpeckers and other bird species will ride along their backs, feeding on tiny creatures

• They have padding on their knees, allowing them comfort in a kneeling position to graze lower grasses

• Warthogs are very strong and smart. They are a rarity in not being endangered because they are skilled at adaptation. They look for food in the morning and early evening, but if they are being hunted by humans, they switch to foraging at night

• Warthogs have tusks on their upper and lower jaws used to defend and fight against predators

• They can go long periods without water, as much as several months during the dry season

• When a boar wants to attract a sow, he does a rhythmic “chant” of grunting sounds

OSTRICH

• The flightless ostrich is the world’s largest bird

• Ostriches have no teeth, they swallow pebbles to grind their food, they may have 2 lbs (1 kg) of stones in their belly at any one time

• Their eggs are the largest of any bird, however they are the smallest eggs relative to the size of the bird

• The female incubates the eggs by day, as her light color blends with the sand around the nest, the male takes over at night as his black feathers are hidden in the dark from predators

• The ostrich has the largest eye of any land animal

• A kick from an ostrich’s long, powerful legs can be lethal to a potential predator such as a lion

• Unlike all other living birds, the ostrich secretes urine separately from feces

• Also unique in the bird family, the males have a copulatory organ, which is retractable

• A male ostrich (cock) attracts a female (hen) with his array of alternating wing beats. They perform a mating ritual and the cock excitedly flaps his wings again and start poking the ground with his bill. He clears a nest on the ground with his wing flaps, and the hen runs circles around him with lowered wings, he then winds his head down in a spiral motion. The hen drops to the ground and he will mount her for copulation

RHINOCEROS

• Black and white rhinoceroses are both, in fact, gray

• Their horns are made of keratin – the same protein that forms the the basis of a human’s hair and fingernails

• Rhinoceroses eyesight is poor, however their hearing is acute and they have a keen sense of smell

• Rhinoceroses can often be seen having a mud bath, protecting their skin to keep cool and rid themselves of parasites

• Rhinoceroses produce many different sounds indicating anger, alarm and even when they are content

• Rhinoceroses lack teeth at the front of their mouth, they use their lips to pluck grasses

• They can communicate with other rhinoceroses through their poo; when they smell feces and urine, they can know who is in the area

• When a female rhinoceros comes into heat, the smell of her urine changes

• When a bull rhinoceros approaches the cow in heat, he has a stiff legged gait, dragging his back legs behind him

• The female may chase him off or they may gently spar with their horns. The bull prods her abdomen with his horn. The bull repeatedly mounts her for several hours

DUNG BEETLE

Perhaps dung beetles are not the most photographically sought after on safari, however, the more I learned about these little beauties, the more appreciative I am of their recycling abilities.

• Dung beetles are robust little recyclers. These impressive, powerful, hard working insects demonstrate remarkable behaviors as they bring ecological balance to the land by loosening and nourishing the soil, as well as helping to control fly populations

• Tumblebug is one of their nicknames

• Most dung beetles use the excrement of herbivores, which contain partially digested grasses and liquid. They extract the nutritious liquid which is full of microorganisms

• Most dung beetles are strong aviators, with long flight wings folded under hard outer wings. They can travel several miles in search of the perfect poo pile. Their specialized antennae can smell out a whiff of odiferous dung from the air

• Dung beetles can move balls weighing 50 times their own humble weight

• By day, the rollers set off in a straight line, using the sun’s light to stay on a direct heading. By night, they navigate by moonlight or bright stars with their ultra sensitive eyes. They are the only known insect to orient themselves by the glow of the Milky Way, like little nautical land sailors!

• The rollers make dung into round balls, some the size of an orange, used for food storage and breeding. During courtship, the male may offer his girl a large brood ball, if she accepts it, they roll it away together, sometimes she will ride on top. They must hurry before other beetles try to lift it from them. They find soft soil to bury their prize and they mate. The male then leaves to make balls for other females. She stays home and makes a few more brood balls and lays a single egg in each. She then coats and seals the ball with dung, saliva and her own feces and stows them underground. Some mothers stay with the ball, tending to her hatchling grubs and removing their feces, which leads one to wonder: who eats the dung beetle’s dung?

• The tunnelers dig down into a pile and set up their nest. Storing it underground keeps it fresh and away from the competition. One or both parents stay with the larvae until they mature, which could be up to 4 months

• The dwellers make their home on top of the dung. Their larvae slowly grow in dung that is drying out, while the parents harvest the fresh, moist goodies and they raise their hatching grubs in the pile of excrement

WILDEBEEST

• Wildebeest, also knows as gnu, is in the antelope family

• African people hold the wildebeest in high esteem, the Zulu name is nkonkoni, meaning champion or leader

• Annual wildebeest migration is determined by weather conditions. They travel 500 to 1000 miles. Migratory groups consists of 1.5 million wildebeest, accompanied by many thousands of zebras, Thompson’s gazelles and other grazers

• The beginning of mating season, called the rut, is determined by the full moon. Territorial males, however, are constantly prepared to mate. If the cow is harmonious, the bull will repeatedly mate with her about two times per minute

• Females give birth to their calf in the middle of the herd. In a remarkable sisterhood, about 80% of females in the herd give birth within the same two or three weeks

CROCODILE

Flashing back to the 80’s, riding along in a mokoro; a dugout wooden canoe, at dawn, being propelled with a long stick, by a young local man, we enjoy the serenity of floating on the Okavango delta waters, in Botswana. The silence was suddenly interrupted by a large splash in front of our canoe. As we rounded the next bend, on the banks of the river, a massive crocodile launched himself into the water. As my heart resumed beating, I fully expected to find myself in the jaws of this great beast. Our guide mentioned that the crocodile was more startled by us, but I silently begged to differ.

• Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptile and closely related to dinosaurs and birds

• These amphibious reptiles have a complex heart and can change the destination of blood flow, enabling them to stay underwater for long periods

• Crocodiles have a powerful jaw and one of the strongest bite forces in the animal kingdom, yet they cannot chew their food as their jaw doesn’t move sideways. They swallow stones to help crush and digest their food

• Air temperature determines the sex of baby crocodiles. When the female lays her eggs in a nest (as many as 60), if the temperature is cool, most of the newborns will be female, warmer nests will produce mostly males

• Moms can hear their babies inside the eggs before they hatch, she then digs them from the sand and scoops her hatchlings in her large mouth to gingerly transport them to the water

• Crocodiles have 60 to 110 teeth. They can replace each tooth up to 50 times, up to 4,000 teeth in their life

• Crocodiles don’t have sweat glands, to cool off, they keep their mouths wide open, even during sleep when they need to release heat

• Along with some birds and dolphins, crocodiles can sleep with one eye wide open

• When the female accepts the male’s advances, they go through a mating ritual, sometimes for hours, often rubbing each other’s snouts and backs, twisting around, aligning their reproductive parts. Pairs sometimes mate several times over a few days, yet they are not exclusive. A single clutch of eggs often contain genes from several different males

LION

• A lion’s iconic roar can be heard as far away as 5 miles (8 kilometers)

• Female lions do most of the hunting, while the male defends the pride’s territory. Traditionally, he gets to feed first on the fresh kill

• A lion’s pupil is three times as big as a human’s, but they can’t move their eyes side to side very well, so it moves its entire head when it needs to look in a different direction

• Lions have exemplary night vision, at least six times better in the dark than humans. A reflective coating on the back of their eyes helps capture moonlight

• The lion’s tongue is coarse and rough enough to help peel the skin of their prey away from the flesh

• Lion prides are matriarchal, exhibiting communal care for the cubs. Most lionesses in a pride are related and remain in the same pride for life

• A lion may sleep up to 20 hours a day

• Female lions prefer to mate with males that have the longest and darkest mane

• Male lions may mate up to 100 times in two days to ensure that the females of the pride become pregnant. Each mating lasts only a few seconds

AFRICAN BUFFALO

At our bush camp in Chobe, we would meet for breakfast and share coffee and stories around our camp stoves. Two aussies hilariously recounted spending a good part of the night being held hostage in the ablution block by a Cape buffalo or it could have been a hippopotamus. Being a very dark night they didn’t feel the need to properly identify their large captor. The animal wouldn’t budge from the doorway and they weren’t about to try to escape until about 0300 when their new friend finally ambled away.

• African buffalo, also known as Cape buffalo is a large bovine found in sub-Saharan Africa. The horns are their distinguishing feature; a continuous bone shield across their head called a “boss”

• African buffalos are well known as one of Africa’s most dangerous animal, especially to humans. When hunted, buffalo have been reported to circle back on their attackers and ambush them

• Herds of thousands have been known to congregate in the Serengeti during rainy season. They are herbivores and spends much of their day grazing

• Bulls detect when a cow is in heat by smelling her genitals and urine

• A female African buffalo in heat gets the attention of bulls that are attempting to mate her by laying their chins on her rump

• Older dominant males in the hierarchy beat off younger bulls with their greater size and experience

IMPALA

• Impalas require water daily, often they visit watering holes during the heat of day, when it’s likely their predators such as lions will be resting

• When a herd of impalas feel threatened, they leap and scatter in different directions to confound the predator

• Impalas are rarely seen solo, female and their young (called creches) form herds up to 100, while males congregate in herds of about 60

• Similar to other antelopes, impalas have acute senses of hearing, sight and smell. They have glands on their heels that contain scents, when released by a high kick of their hind legs, the herd can communicate to stay together

• Impalas are terrific jumpers, when running from predators they jump over obstacles and can leap more than three times their height

• The sex ratio among impala is weighed in favor of females, with twice as many females calves born each year

CHEETAH

This gorgeous cat was in a wildlife rehabilitation clinic, soon to be released back to its wild environment. I was fortunate to be able to be so close, yet pretty happy there was a fence. I’ve had the good fortune to witness cheetahs and leopards on exhilarating night drives in game parks.

• Much like a boat rudder, cheetahs use their muscular tails to steer and balance the trajectory of their run, which helps them maneuver swiftly as they run at high speeds chasing prey

• Holding the distinction of being the fastest land animal on earth, their impressive top speed can reach 70 mph ( 113 kph) in just a few seconds

• Cheetahs have between 2,000 and 3,000 spots in their short, coarse fur, providing camouflage when stalking prey

• During a chase for prey, a cheetah can take 150 breaths per minute

• Cheetahs are not designed to be fighters, they eat quickly before they give up their catch if approached by more aggressive animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas

• Males are often rebuffed on their first attempts at mating. After time, when the female becomes receptive, she invites copulation by crouching in front of a male, he mounts her from behind as he bites her neck. Mating is not as frequent as in other cats

HIPPOPOTAMUS

Back aboard that mokoro canoe on the Okavango Delta, after we escaped the teeth of the crocodile, we continued to meander the waterways. Perhaps we veered a bit too close to the shoreside tules, and unbeknownst to us, the territory of a very large, and un-neighborly hippopotamus. The tules suddenly parted, and I found myself staring down the throat of his unbelievably large mouth. My breath went away as I tried to remain calm. I glanced back at our stalwart young boat guide as he propelled us at record speed. Whatever the reason that hippo had for not chomping the canoe in half, I am grateful. Hippopotamuses still remain at the top of my favorites, just don’t mess with their land!

• The closest relative of the hippopotamus are cetaceans such as whales and dolphins!

• The Tswana name for hippopotamus is kubu, meaning “rebelliousness”, they are regarded as a symbol of uncontrollability and unruliness

• Hippopotamuses have a built in set of “goggles”, a clear membrane that helps protect their eyes

• If threatened, the hippopotamus can be extremely aggressive. They are known to be one of the most dangerous African animals to humans

• Hippopotamuses can eat more than 80 lbs (40 kg) of vegetation in one night

• They live in bloats of around 10 to 20 females and one male, each bloat being territorial

• The herd bull hippopotamus marks his territory by splattering dung onto rocks and bushes

• Hippopotamuses maneuver quite gracefully underwater

• The dominant male mates with the female hippopotamus totally submerged.

• Hippopotamuses are the only African land mammal that mate in the water

• Hippopotamus calves are frisky, indulging in play fights and pushing contests

• If the water is too deep a baby hippopotamus can use it’s mom as a raft

MONKEY

Last but certainly not least, who doesn’t love a barrel of monkeys! Flashing back to Chobe National Park, Botswana, under that tree, waiting for a ride, one day we made peanut butter sandwiches. We learned very quickly as we watched our loaf of bread disappear in a flash of fur and cackling, and as we watched the vervet monkey climb high in the tree, his little accomplice bandit squealed with delight at lifting our peanut butter from under our not so watchful eyes. Despite our hunger we couldn’t help but crack up at our foolishness and wished our clever new friends a bon apetit!

• Pictured is the vervet monkey, common to East Africa. Males are slightly larger than females and easily recognized by a turquoise scrotum and red penis

• Grooming is an important part of their day; removing parasites, dirt and other materials from each other

• Vervets spend most of their time in trees, they are highly adaptable and do well in various terrains

• Vervets use a variety of calls and they teach the “language” to their young from an early age

• Vervet monkeys have a social hierarchy system which determines feeding, mating, fighting and friendships

• Baby vervet monkeys are cherished in their society. Infants are of great interest to other young monkeys in the troop. Young females are delighted to groom or hold a new baby

• Being omnivores, vervet monkeys enjoy fruits, leaves and flowers, as well as bird eggs and they snack on insects and bugs. They have been proven to not turn down a freshly made peanut butter sandwich

I hope you have enjoyed the ride, fellow animal lovers. Nearly all the gorgeous animals pictured are under threat daily from loss of habitat, climate crisis and horrendous poachers that mutilate and destroy these magnificent creatures.

Africa changed my perception of the world to a degree that would change me forever. The more I continuously learn, I am always drawn closer to nature and wildlife on land and sea, and strive to find ways to help protect wildlife and their natural environment.

Many wonderful organizations help protect and conserve wildlife, the following links are some that I proudly donate to: African Wildlife Foundation (awf.org), World Wildlife Fund (wwf.org), Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (seashepherd.org) Simply buying and wearing t-shirts and hats from these organizations helps spread the word, a small way to collectively make a big difference.

Special thanks go to Steve and Valda Bromfield and their young daughters, Taryn and Lindsey who showed us the animals they grew up with in Hluhlue Umfolozi and Stephanie and Terry Gersbank for sharing their special slice of Africa with John and me in 2011.

Thank you to the interweb! Informational credits: awf.org, wwf.org, ourplnt.com, africantravelcanvas.com, softschools.com, google.com, wikipedia.com, facts.net, onekindplanet.org, factslides.com, lionworldtravel.com, funfacts.com, factretriever.com, jabulanisafari.com, andbeyond.com, nathab.com, rhulani.com, monkeyworlds.com, africafreak.com, 4elephants.org, kids.sandiegozoo.com, livescience.com, nationalgeographic.com, africa-wildlife-detective.com, brittanica.com, fascinatingafrica,com, smithsonianmag.com, facts.net, mentalfloss.com, factanimal.com, oceana.org

All photos by the author: Lynn Swycaffer Ringseis

Welcome to “Whale Vomit Island”

It’s not officially called Whale Vomit Island, yet it is the literal translation of Ambergris Caye, which has long intrigued me, not only because of its unusual name, but it’s proximity to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system on our watery planet. I’m amused to find the meaning of ambergris is a solid, waxy mass of an unpleasant smelling substance emanating from the occasional sperm whale with intestinal issues, and depending on which scientific account you read, ambergris is either disgorged from the whale’s mouth or out the other end. So this piece of land could very well be “Whale Poop Island”. Either way, the Belize Board of Tourism probably hadn’t set up shop during the naming process.

Taking flight, a spotted eagle ray gracefully glides at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Even weirder, when one stumbles upon a chunk of said whale barf, a rarity indeed, it fetches huge sums by perfume makers. Ambergris is highly sought after as a fixative to help perfumy scents last longer. Hmmmm, “Darling, what are you wearing, it smells divine?” “Oh, a little Chanel with a splash of cetacean upchuck.”

Water taxi is my favorite form of transport on Ambergris Caye

You could practically hand the passengers a beer as they taxi for takeoff. Carlo and Ernie’s Runway Bar is aptly named. It took my pals and I a lot of Belikins to get just the right photo of this busy little airstrip

I do love a place where the premier mode of transportation is water taxi or golf cart. Being a boater, I far prefer buzzing over the water while watching frisky dolphins and rays, yet the laidback charm of land is the lack of actual vehicles, only a handful of cars and trucks are interspersed with a plethora of gas powered carts. The pace of traffic is governed by the speed of oh, about 15 miles per hour.

Maria is quick with a smile, fresh fruit deliciousness and hugs me like a long lost niece

Exploring north of bustling little San Pedro, the only town on Ambergris Caye, the intrepid traveler can scoot along on hardpacked sand roads with plenty of bumps, ravines and holes to make you hold on to your rum drinks. One afternoon as I happily bounced along in my rental cart, I slowed down to avoid what I though was a large piece of black PVC pipe, until it started slithering! Research tells me this was a large tree boa, and yes there are constrictors too.

The “highway” to Tranquility Bay requires vigilant navigation to avoid crabs, iguanas and the occasional tree boa

Tranquility Bay lies twelve miles north of town and indeed tranquil. The ribbons of turquoise waters dance enticingly as the reef lies close to land up here, enticing snorkelers and divers. In 1996 the reef was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Belizeans work hard to protect their eco-system from illegal fishers and other damage. Scuba divers and snorkelers are required to go with professional guides and learn about protocol of touching nothing and leaving behind only bubbles.

Where else would a boatload of seemingly sane snorkelers eagerly don masks and slide from a boat into the water after the Captain shouts “Sharks!” Fanatically enamored with sharks, I plop in to find myself eye to eye with several nurse sharks who couldn’t be less interested in me as they scramble to feed on fish that one of the dive operators is chumming. We are on Hol Chan Marine Reserve, off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. Not quite sure how I feel about the shark’s policy of “Will work for fish”, they have been programmed for years prior, as local fishermen would stop here to clean their catch and discard what they didn’t want. At least there are no more fishermen, and I am happy to pay a Marine Reserve fee to the folks on a floating marine station who monitor 24/7 for illegal activities.

Hello my beautiful friend! My nurse shark companion at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Members of the Belize chapter of Oceana (oceana.org), WWF (worldwildlife.org) and concerned Belizeans fought hard to convince government leaders to prevent impending oil exploration near the treasured reef. In 2017 Belize became the first country in the world to implement an indefinite moratorium on all oil exploration activities in their territorial waters. Good on you Belize!

The lackadaisical pace of traffic in San Pedro

The creatures of the sea would applaud you if they could, as they number approximately 1,400 different species thriving in the reef system. Belize is a small country with a big heart. There is so much nature to explore here, along with ancient Mayan civilizations, jungle jaguar reserves, cave explorations and the multitude of offshore islands, some untouched by humans and wonderfully remote.

Welcoming the first sunrise of the year, Feliz Año Nuevo 2020

If the thought of swimming next to a shark scares you, it’s a far scarier scenario to imagine sharks, whales and dolphins becoming deaf and stunned from seismic blasting from ships searching for oil. Just imagine the amount of ambergris a terrified sperm whale would hurl after being blasted in his pristine environment. Thank you Belize for caring, for fighting for the sea. I will happily return and recommend your natural treasures.

This story could not be complete without a Dive Bar, quite literally. The friendly bartenders tell me the owner is from Denver which explains the ski paraphernalia, including chair lifts adorned with dive tanks with drink holders under a huge palapa hanging over the sea with a bit of Rocky Mountain high meets Belize chill out

Guy and Sandra getting a lift

A Tale of Two Brothers, the Ocean and My Battle Against Sadness

I have lived with sadness for far too long. I refuse to let sadness be my constant companion, yet sadness sneaks in when I least expect it. I want to break up with sad. I want to kick sad to the curb, stomp on sad and throw sad over a cliff.

Only I can make that decision. My choice. Sola.

I started this blog on August 12, 2018, as I wanted an outlet to share stories and inspiration. August 12 holds significance. The day 29 years ago my love Tom died from a cruel act of violence that was so devastating, I never knew how to recover from such a sudden and catastrophic loss. Then Tom’s older brother John and I started to create a life together. We made the decision to live an extraordinary, adventurous, nautical, seafaring life together in honor of one man who was so full of adventures and left us way too soon.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe…Lynn and Tom, living on the edge, as usual!

This story is about the love of and for two brothers, if you care to join me, grab a chilly rum drink, dig your toes in the sand and ride along.

In the early 1980’s I left my little hometown of Ramona, California and flew to Africa, having previously flown only once before, from San Diego to LAX. Let the adventures begin! I lived on a farm in Zimbabwe with an amazing family, then procured work in Durban, South Africa where I met Tom, his eyes bluer than any ocean and his stories of hitchhiking from Europe down the east coast of Africa captivated me. We would share the wildest of times; sleeping under the stars in a remote game park listening to hyenas celebrate a fresh kill, dodging a territorial hippopotamus from a dugout canoe it Botswana, riding in the back of a Land Cruiser pickup with other backpackers on dirt roads trying to keep up with loping giraffes.

Okavango Delta, Botswana, crocodiles and hippopotami just around the bend!

A fellow hitchhiker invited Tom and me to crew on a 31 foot Gibsea sailboat from his home in Marseille and cross the Atlantic to Martinique. This had to be the best hitchhiking opportunity of all time!

Months later after a stint working in Munich, we took him up on it, with barely any knowledge of sailing and with non-English speaking French crew mates, we learned to navigate by the stars and became at one with the sea.

Hitchhiking across the Atlantic

The humble 33′ Gibsea “Maidi” got us from Marseille to Martinique with only the sun and stars to guide us, long before GPS

The outback of Thailand

Fifty cents a night gets you a thatch hut, mattress and mosquito netting, what more could one ask for!

Our world wanderings continued; camping on the beach under palm trees in the French West Indies, living in a thatch hut on a Thailand beach for the equivalent of 50 cents a night, exploring jungles in Malaysia, searching out remote villages in Mexico…

Then the unimaginable; Tom went on his journey in 1990. Hello sadness.

John lost his younger brother/best friend and I lost my young love and all the stories of shared adventures went with him. That is when John and I decided to rise above sadness as we started our nautical path on John’s Catalina 30′ sailboat in Cabo San Lucas.

Mexico does interesting things to folks who listen to their hearts. We started as the best of friends, but then a little tequila, soft starry nights at anchor, warm tropical waters to float in…well, there you have it, why not, let’s go live this life to the fullest!

After several seasons exploring the Mexican coastlines, from our mutual love of the sea and sailing, we got hired as Captain and 1st Mate/Chef in the Caribbean crewed charter yacht industry. Hard to believe we actually got paid to do what we loved! Making friends with an international array of fun loving charter crews and some very special guests, it was an incredible time in our lives.

Captain John and 1st Mate/Chef Lynn

Captain John, just another day at the “office”

Teaching guests to sail, showing off the underwater world of coral reefs and precious marine life, leading guests on panoramic hiking trails, quenching thirst at beachfront watering holes, dancing to Calypso music barefoot in the sand, cooking scrumptious meals and lying on the trampolines under a blanket of stars sharing salty sea stories and laughter. Yes, an idyllic life indeed. We worked for the Moorings for several years, then bought our own sweet catamaran, a Lagoon 41′ in France, christened her “Moonshine” then sailed her to the Caribbean. My second Atlantic crossing, this time on our own boat.

Sadness was tucked away. I allowed sadness to rear itself once a year, on August 12. My day to mourn, yet amazing and joyful memories of Tom would prevail, as always.

Captain John acquired dementia around 2013. We lived and worked together gracefully, joyfully, every day, all day. I first noticed the changes on our second “Moonshine”, a Leopard 43′ catamaran. This was to be our long term live-aboard vessel, as we wound down our charter business. Little by little he stopped or was unable to complete the routine and normal tasks of boat operations and maintenance. A huge mystery to me, something had gone terribly wrong! Our idyllic lifestyle was under attack, his beautifully intelligent and skillful mind was being compromised.

One of the cruelest diseases I could have never imagined, a brilliant mind slowly gets destroyed, the loved one forced to make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated one. I couldn’t ask him what I should do, I was so alone.

I was forced to sell our boat, our pride and joy, our life together. I was too stubborn to ask for help. No, I chose to sail this voyage singlehanded, and it nearly cost me my very soul. As only one who has traveled the path of caring for a spouse or partner with dementia can know, the disease takes prisoners besides the one who has fallen prey to it. Like second hand smoke or shrapnel, dementia ricocheted to my brain. On one hand, I was forced to become twice as smart, thinking for two and taking over all the responsibilities and tasks once shared by two. There are always bright notes, I enjoyed learning more about the mechanical and engineering projects on our boat. The down side was pure depression. Sinking to the depths of the deepest sea, my heart was so sad, I was so utterly helpless. I couldn’t stop his brain from disappearing, all I could do was provide a warm and loving environment.

When I finally asked for help, Fiji answered. The whole country is filled with love. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there was no way I could have placed Captain John in a Memory Care Facility, I had to gather up all my resourcefulness and think way outside the box of institutionalization or rather “lock down”. As fate so often determines our lives, I was blessed to find two of the most caring, fun loving, laughter filled ladies who were lifelong friends and they immediately fell in love with Captain John’s spirit and gave him the best care in a house filled with love. Captain John adapted naturally on the beautiful island of Viti Levu, Fiji, where warm, gentle seas lap up onshore near the house we rented. Mela and Maraia created a loving environment with friends and family popping in, bringing joy and comfort to Captain John. He especially connected with the little ones who found a kindred spirit in John’s mischievous eyes and kind heart.

Maraia (aka O’Neill) and Mela, sandwiching Captain John, two of the most loving and caring ladies on earth!

While my broken spirit tried to mend itself, I knew I had done the best I could in the worst of circumstances.

Then that fateful day arrives again, August 12. The day we lost Tom, 29 years prior, August 12, Captain John went on his journey. I do not believe that is a coincidence, I believe or want to believe that Tom called his brother to join him.

An accumulation of intense, gut-wrenching sadness came to the surface again, almost destroying me, almost slipping back under the sea. A metaphorical life preserver was tossed to me by my pod of incredible people who wanted me to survive. For them I am forever grateful. I will continue that extraordinary, adventurous nautical lifestyle in honor of those beloved brothers; Tom and John. In honor of me too, and the people I surround myself with who have shined their positive energy on me like a beacon.

I say adios to sad. I’m breaking up with sad. “Dear sad, it’s not you, it’s me. Actually it is you sad, you suck!” If only it were that easy. Grief comes in waves, sometimes uncontrollable, however, like squalls at sea, it always passes. I will try to turn thoughts of sadness into wild and crazy adventures. I choose to travel, to experience different cultures, to share happiness, to help lift people’s spirits, as that in turn helps me. I want to continue to share stories of travel and encourage others to follow their passions, and grab all the joy you can!

My love is the ocean, come voyage with me and help nourish and protect the sea as she is what keeps us all alive.

Fair winds and following seas Captain John

Wild and Wet Waikiki

In honor of National Dive Bar Day (yes, there is such a thing!) sponsored by Seagrams 7, who proudly support the National Trust for Historic Preservation, valiantly helping to preserve dive bars, we take a pub crawl in Waikiki, on the not quite so beaten paths.

Frivolity; it’s a good word. Perhaps not practiced enough on a daily basis. As you may have read in these pages, I’m a big fan of character bars. What frivolous fun to plop oneself in a funky watering hole that has a story. Some look like an old movie set, some have the requisite peanut shells crunching under your feet, some have a rather distinct aroma of stale beer and spilt whiskey, but the common bond is the characters they attract.

Mahalo (thank you) Waikiki for retaining a handful of these gems. Allow me to take you to a few of my favorites.

Arnold’s: Keep a sharp lookout for the entrance which looks like an alley, but saunter in and settle at a bar stool and within minutes you are a local. As unpretentious as they come, tucked away from the tourist throngs, Arnold’s could be a neighborhood pub in any American town, but the tiki paraphernalia reminds us that we’re just a short walk to a stunning tropical sunset on the Pacific, if we choose to tear ourselves away from the fun ambiance here.

Lava Tube: I happened upon this gem on Kuhio Avenue. I was delighted to see the garish neon sign that lured me to the door. I entered solo and felt instantly welcome. I started chatting with a couple who are stationed here and Lava Tube has become their local place of choice to blow off steam! My new friends said the Mai Tais were the best here, however I stuck with a Kona Brewing lager and enjoyed surveying my new surroundings, complete with tiki carvings. So happy I got sucked into the “tube”‘

Cuckoo Coconuts: Occupying an outdoor space shaded by what appears to be giant, colorful cocktail umbrellas, Coconuts instantly feels fun enough to want to spend an entire afternoon and evening, listening to live music and dancing with strangers. Some patrons look like they may have never left. The bartender looks astonishingly identical to my friend Kirk, which makes me feel even more at home. My friend and I laugh, dance and celebrate the fact we don’t have a car, walking to earn beer calories. Cuckoo Coconuts serves Piña Coladas in pineapples and rum drinks in, well, of course coconuts! This family friendly atmosphere in a completely outdoor environment, with no walls, doors or ceiling has refreshing low food and beverage prices. A huge variety of Aloha wear makes shopping fun while taking a break from yummy cocktails.

Harbor Pub: Down but not dirty. I was greeted at the door by staff and bar patrons with “Come in and hang out!” When traveling solo, I find that dive bars are extremely welcoming. As soon as I choose a barstool, I can have the most interesting conversations. Harbor pub is nestled under the fancy pants Chart House, and looks a bit cast away, yet step aboard and it’s a vessel of enchanting artifacts. As a sailor, I’m content to have a view of all manner of craft just a monkey’s fist toss from the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. Most tourists wouldn’t dare enter this seedy waterfront joint, and that’s exactly why I fear not!

La Mariana Sailing Club: Step way back in time, imagine what Hawaii was like before becoming the 50th state. La Mariana began its colorful journey in 1957 and has the feel of a museum dedicated to Hawaiiana. Annette La Mariana Nahinu, the founder, collected memorabilia from many of the famous tiki bars that have since been sadly replaced by unimaginative, modernistic mundaneness. Approaching La Mariana’s entrance makes me smile and appreciate one woman’s vision and steadfast perseverance in keeping old traditions alive. A tsunami, threats of eviction and ever encroaching industrialization have not deterred this resilient establishment from serving up Mai Tais and joy. Smell the salty air and gaze at the sailboats gracing the docks at La Mariana Sailing Club’s marina and enjoy true aloha spirit and charm.

Wherever you roam in the world, you are sure to find a fun dive bar, where even the most hardened of misfits fit in, so gather up your courage, take a deep breath and plunge in to a divey speakeasy, hole in the wall, honky tonk, roadhouse, biker bar, brewpub, watering hole, saloon, tavern, tiki bar or ramshackle waterfront sailor’s pub, and leave seriousness at the door and allow frivolity to reign. Cheers!

Kissed by a Starfish

Gail let out a little yelp as we stand ankle deep in crystal clear South Pacific water on Drawaqa Island. We look down and a frisky sand colored starfish has scooted over her right foot and tickled her. Kathy and I also get kissed by these fast moving little beauties. We are equally greeted with hugs and kisses by the incredibly friendly Fijian people.

How did I manage to convince my amigos to hop aboard a friendly Fiji Airways airbus 330, where the beautiful flower bedecked flight staff greeted us with “Bula! Welcome home”, as they showed visions of tropical waters on our individual screens?

Our pod was born for tropical adventures! The 10 hours and change from LAX to Nadi (pronounced nandi) flew by like a soft breeze. Arriving at 0500, we proceed to nearby Port Denarau and hop aboard the Yasawa Flyer-boat ride!

A breakfast of Fiji Gold shakes off any semblance of flight grogginess as we proceed on our literal three hour cruise, stopping at one idyllic little isle after another, as travelers hop on or off in this magical chain of the Yasawa Islands.

My hometown and lifelong pals Kathy and Gail have ventured to the British Virgin Islands for many years to sail aboard Moonshine, our sweet charter catamaran, and helped to celebrate the end of each season in May, and what a great final “charter”! Handpicked for their frivolity, go with the flow attitude and blending in with any local environment, these two define the gift of friendship.

This May, Fiji beckoned and we answered her call, along with the welcome addition of Kirk, Kathy’s husband, who previously earned most excellent crew status on a bareboat voyage in Belize.

Kirk, Gail, Kathy and Lynn

Our lunchtime arrival to Barefoot Manta proved good timing, as one can only use beer as food for so long. A bevy of the multi-talented staff serenades us upon our beach landing with guitars, ukuleles and a sweet welcome song. We then dive into a buffet of fresh, local deliciousness.

There will be no napping on our watch! Us ocean loving creatures grab our snorkels, slip in from Sunrise Beach and we’re instantly in awe of the pristine reef and all the sea life here. The soft, silky warm sea allows us to stay underwater for as long as we have the energy to do so. This is why I’ve returned for my third time! Snorkeling, zen like, forced to breathe deeply, trying to memorize patterns and colors that defy reality, wanting to shout out about a cool coral or unusual fish, yet satisfied with capturing the moments in a brain photo, and sharing stories of them on land over a beverage.

Barefoot Manta doesn’t just throw out the term eco-Resort loosely, they live and breathe eco! Rob, the resident Marine Biologist is fueled with passion, gives fascinating talks and leads snorkel and dive tours, as well as educating about and preserving the protected marine habitat around these islands.

Our family bure (bungalow) couldn’t be more perfect for our well acquainted clan. Intimate yet spacious, funky yet functional. A large canvas tent with plenty of beds, an awesome outdoor shower and a coconut’s throw to the beach, we’ve truly arrived in Paradise. Set up hammock-check. Install portable clothesline-check. Send Kirk to procure cold beverages from the bar-check. Toes in the sand, gentle surf lapping the shore, a delightful relaxation enters our souls…we all nod in agreement as we survey our surroundings…why would we ever want to leave!

We float out into the warm sea with beverages in hand to celebrate the sun as she softly sinks into the horizon. We slowly tread water to equalize the intake of calories-beer aerobics! The only thing enticing us to depart such delightful bathtub-like conditions is hunger. We quickly rinse in the outdoor shower, throw on sarongs and stroll to he communal feeding grounds, in good company with travelers from many spots on the globe.

We’ve been assigned the nearest table to the beach bar, hmmmm, we’ve garnered a reputation already and it’s only day one! A spectacular variety of food greats us. We placed our diner order during lunch so the fantastic chefs can cater to most any dietary requirements and preferences. Kudos to this small island kitchen for bringing out lusciously presented works of galley art. Satisfied beyond words, our content quartet ambles home and sleep comes so easily in our new abode that feels so familiar so quickly.

0445 arrives and Gail, Kirk and I slip out the door to join the sunrise hike. Kathy, perhaps the wisest of us all, pretends to sleep, knowing once we leave, she’ll have the place to herself, preferring a solo beach walk to reflect and recharge from a hectic North American paced lifestyle.

Meanwhile our pace is equally hectic, trying to follow the staff member who leads the way with one flashlight. Having done this on a previous trip, I brought my headlamp and try to help shine on slippery rocks as we ascend the trail in pitch darkness. My light catches the bright red oozing on Kirk’s shin, he shrugs off his accidental tripping off our cabin’s deck and says if he’s not bleeding, it’s an unusual day. A few smartphones flicker and two young gals are chattering about the good fortune of finally acquiring enough precious bars of reception. Our smirking guide points out the island’s cell tower under which we are standing. This opens up the floodgate of phone usage, as one makes business calls rather loudly as the rest of us gaze out to Sea appreciating the serene environment as the eastern sky gets a hint of light.

It’s kind of amusing to start a hike with total strangers in darkness and the sunlight starts revealing who our new companions are as their personalities emerge. The girl who can’t keep off her phone turns out to be a very witty and savvy realtor named Cherry who explains that she has a “neurotic client” demanding of her vacation time. Her travel partner is Lisa, a jovial attorney, well versed in DUI cases, hopeful to never need her services, we still exchange contact info as these gals are just plain fun!

Upon arrival, we were briefed as to the drumbeats signaling manta rays in the channel. We sit down to breakfast and after only a few bites of buffet style goodness, there go the drums! We drop our forks and sprint to our bure. Gail and I are into our bathing suits faster than a triathlete, with snorkels in hand we hot foot it to the boat. Thinking Kirk and Kathy are immediately behind us, we jump onboard as the boat fills with manta lovers. Where are they! The boat driver heads to the channel and they crew dive in, searching for the lone manta they spotted earlier. No such luck and we return to meet the other half of our crew waiting on the beach. Our escapades are always filled with humor as Kirk explains how he sprinted halfway across the island to get to the boat, but it was the complete opposite way! We collapse in hysterics and have a morning beer, yes, we are on vacation.

We satisfy our oceanic cravings in a flat calm sea and snorkel around the point from Sunrise beach to Manta beach. Time is on our side as we drift with the gentle current and explore nooks and crannies in the ever fascinating underwater garden that grows the most beautiful bouquets of color.

Having diagnosed myself with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), I peruse the Daily activities on the “Bulatin” board. Today’s offerings include a village visit. We respectfully dress for the occasion, covering errant knees and shoulders. A short boat ride to Naviti Island and we offload onto a breathtakingly serene palm lined beach. We alight next to the brightly painted school boat. Kirk re-thinks his day job and sets his sights on becoming school boat Captain.

Our guide points out solar panels and rainwater catchment tanks, however no electricity exists in this most peaceful of settings, which otherwise would be a perfect place to spend a few days or months, if indeed there was a way to keep beer cold.

Fruitful and medicinal plants abound and we learn so much from a life lived from the land and sea. Modern world diseases and stress are unheard of here. Communal living, where taking care of each other is prioritized above all else, sending subliminal message for outsiders to ponder. What is important in our worlds? What do we need vs what do we want?

Had some First Worlders gotten their hands on this phenomenal piece of real estate, we’d be sipping $14 Piña Coladas, barely hearing the waves over amplified music…ah, but I digress, we are not in high-rise resort world, we are thankfully in an under-developed slice of nature, used sparingly, resourcefully and spiritually. On second thought, we’ll happily settle for a thatch hut and sip on an un-chilled Fiji Gold.

The school and church are simply yet substantially built, with a few tourist dollars earned from the sale of locally produced handicrafts and jewelry helping to fund some amenities such as flooring. Friendly greetings abound as kids and dogs chase each other playfully in a scene so enviable in it’s peacefulness.

Everyone is welcome in Naviti Island village church, photo credit: Gail

Back at Barefoot Manta, our bure feels quite luxurious with electricity and hot water. We vow to simplify our lives. But wait, what time is it! No one has a watch, but the inevitable smartphone seems to accompany at least one of us for photo documentation. It’s time for the Sunset Booze Cruise! This event has our names all over it. We wisely let the young backpackers board first so we can strategically sit at the stern, closest to the cooler. Yup, older, wiser and awfully fun! We slowly motor offshore and come across a rust bucket of a mini cruise ship. So tempted to moon then, but we won’t add insult to their sad faces as they look down from their worn railing at our little boat of joy. Dance party, divers overboard, cold drinks a-flowing. We’re so happy we’re us! Until suddenly, our love boat arcs back to the beach and the sun has just barely been swallowed by the sea. Hmmmmm. We later find out one of the backpacker gals was feeling queasy and needed land. It sure wasn’t due to seasickness on the flatter than pancake conditions, oh those youth and their inexperience at perfecting the fine art of responsible adult beverage consumption.

Bula! Photo credit: Cherry

Upon seating at our dinner table, a woman who looks to be of similar age, compliments us on our snorkeling prowess. Wow, we didn’t see that coming. She mentions that she and her husband snorkeled for about 20 minutes and got tired. She was astonished to see us emerge from a whole different beach much later, and the fact we weren’t even wearing fins was of super human qualities in her view. Well, Aquaman we are not, but as lovers of the ocean, it is indeed a monumental task to exit onto dry land.

We had many laughs about our fan club of one, and her adoration was exemplified after we circumnavigated Drawaqa in kayaks and also paddled to our neighbor island, Nanuya Balavu to enjoy beverages at Mantaray Island Resort. At dinner, she refers to us as the Bad Ass Crew and we cheerfully accept the compliment. Strolling back to our quarters we stargaze and are shined upon by the Southern Cross as we softly sing the anthem of long distance sailors.

After a leisurely breakfast (the mantas are shy again) we venture underwater and Gail lets out another yelp. She manages to sputter the word shark through her snorkel tube. I immediately swim towards her, so excited to say hello to one of my shark friends. Ah but the Blacktip Reef Shark was off to bluer pastures already and I mentioned to Gail what a fortunate sighting she had. She wasn’t immediately convinced, but got her heart rate back to normal and continued forth. It didn’t even occur to me to see if Kirk’s bloody shin has dried up. Awhile later from the beach by our bure, Gail spotted a baby Blacktip lazily meandering in the shallows. She is now officially known as “Shark Girl”. As timing would have it, Rob is giving his shark talk which we eagerly attend. The fascination of sharks comes with education; the more we know, the less we fear, and the more we appreciate the importance of everything in the sea. We also swim along for Rob’s underwater lecture as he points out coral planting projects, the protection of giant clams and interesting creatures only visible to a well trained eye, so familiar in his natural habitat.

Rob goes back to work, we continue our watery explorations. A huge school of Golden Trevally encircles us, oblivious to our humanoid gawking. Each of us finds our own aquatic rhythm, whether floating perfectly still while observing the antics of a Leaping Blenny or trying to keep up with a pod of iridescent squid, who always outrun us with their cephalopod jet propulsion, savoring our ocean time immensely. We all pop our heads up upon hearing a sputtering engine start, just in time to wave a farewell to Cherry and Lisa, as they board the float plane, looking none too happy to be departing.

Kirk claims a hammock and us girls habitually return to our sunset “bathtub” to float and tell stories. A few tourists are on the beach taking photos of the sunset, we are quite aways offshore and our mischievous selves can’t help it if our bathing suit tops happen to be liberated, giggling like the schoolgirls we once were together.

Warm islands, warm friendships, it’s all we need for now.

Cool Gear I Like to Travel With

What seems like a millennium ago, a young backpacker from Ramona found herself hitchhiking the wilds of Southern Africa. Her backpack carried few items, yet each was integral and multipurpose or it simply didn’t get to join the party. Flash forward to modern gear, and oh how things have lightened up! This same wandering gal tends to have wheels on her luggage now and immensely appreciates clever, lightweight designs and multitasking items. I love to share fun finds, carry on!

A well traveled pair of port and starboard Osprey bags, known to have been stuffed to maximum capacity and still squeezed into overhead bins, as carry on is the way to go whenever possible. My constant companion, the green Osprey Ozone High Road LT wheeled carry on, never weighs me down and her not so little sister, the maroon daypack is an Osprey Ozone 35 with lots of top-secret hidden zippers and compartments to keep goods super organized.

Sea to Summit, an Australian company, makes a lot of very cool and savvy travel gear. I’m rarely without this extremely convenient daypack, it squishes into its own little bag for easy stowing in a pocket or larger bag, however I seem to constantly use it unsquished on the road, boat or to the local market.

This trusty Hydro Flask has been filled with delightful brews from the equatorial region to near the arctic circle, keeping java toasty warm or cervesa muy frio for hours with its incredible insulating abilities, and earth loving consumer’s don’t waste single use cups. This model is 16 oz but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Just be aware of the o-rings, they are known to escape captivity during washing.

Those clever Sea to Summit Aussies have made collapsible bowls which are great for restaurant take aways. At 22 and 38 oz they prove easy to pack. The word spork just makes me smile. This stout little gem is made in Sweden and it’s called Light My Fire. There’s even a little serrated edge on the fork for knife mode.

The tenacious Nalgene water bottle holds 500 ml and has prevented engorging the landfill many times over.

This diminutive Chico Bag has unstuffed itself into a workhorse at carrying groceries and everything else imaginable.

REI makes this Travel Duffel that stuffs itself into a little zipper compartment and even has backpack straps and is a proven sturdy extra bag.

Outdoor shower. Just those two words conjure up a scene of emerging from a tropical sea after a good long snorkel, and the luxury of a fresh, warm water rinse can be had just about anywhere there’s a tree branch. Sea to Summit’s 10 liter pocket shower can resourcefully multitask as a waterproof dry bag.

Not desiring to linger so much in public ablution rooms, this Sea to Summit multi-compartment toiletries bag is an organized person’s gift! Having learned long ago to make sure the handy hook finds a home nowhere near the toilet, one can safely remove their toothbrush without the dreaded plop sound.

Flip flops or Slippahs as they are affectionately referred to in many island nations are near and dear to my feet. My favorites are by Teva and called Mush, super lightweight, I can stealthily slip past a sleeping dog or sprint to the nearest barstool when the happy hour conch shell blows.

Last but far from least, Sea to Summit knocks it out of the park with packable hammocks and a multitude of accessories. Mine is a 10 x 6.2 foot double Pro Hammock, although I can’t claim “Pro” status as I’ve ungracefully launched myself out a few times, fortunately on soft beach sand, much to the amusement of giggling onlookers. Glad to be of service in the joviality department, as laughing at myself is a fine sport indeed.

Español en Ecuador

The full moon shimmered through my balcony, gently waking me as she beckoned me. I stepped outside to greet the Southern Cross and Venus, my dear companions. This month’s full moon coincided with the vernal equinox, only too happy to celebrate spring, even in the equatorial region where it’s pleasant year round.

The moon shifted colors from tangerine to coral as she lured me to the sea. Only dogs and drunks are on the beach at this hour. I watched her slowly plunge into the sea and bid her adios.

The hauntingly beautiful sound of a Latina singer echoed through the streets, filling the dawn air. I was drawn to the voice and witnessed the tail end of an all night quinceñera fiesta. Folks slowly dance as the sky turns light. The fifteen year old young lady of honor is nowhere to be seen, however her parents, aunts, uncles and amigos are still going strong.

Their choice of beautiful Latin music restores my faith in Montañita’s musical tastes. This pueblo loves to party, as I discovered during fin de semana (the weekend). The most popular Ecuadorian discoteca is just a few streets down from my habitación (hotel room). I’ve nicknamed it Disco del Diablo, as on weekends, the unimaginative, repetitive, mind numbing beat reverberates through the village until “quiet hour” at four in the morning! However that doesn’t stop any local fiestas from going all night, they just play more enchanting musica. Fortunately my hotel is far enough up the hill to filter most of el ruido (noise).

Having long had the desire to plop myself in a village that speaks only Spanish, I researched language schools to help enhance my skills and advance from my mediocre “taxicab Spanish”.

I chose Ohana Language School and knew it was a good choice upon greeting my maestro (teacher) Miguel. His sonréir (smile) is as big as his corazon (heart) and remarkably, I understood most of his Spanish right away. He’s been a professional Spanish instructor for nearly a dozen years and his enthusiasm and energy are compelling. There were no other students during my time there, so I had the good fortune to have private lessons.

Miguel has grown up in Montañita, this former quiet fishing village turned surfer/backpacker town. Not only is he an excellent teacher, he also has the best restaurant recommendations for the types of food I prefer. He is the youngest of six sisters and one brother and it seems the whole village greets him with abrazos (hugs) and besos (kisses) as we meander the streets, all the while speaking nothing but Spanish. Miguel becomes like a hermano menor (younger brother) to me, adding to his pod of big sisters.

I look forward to school each morning as Miguel makes learning fun and varied, we start off with casual conversation, then work on verb conjugations. Just that word sounds complicated, but Miguel has a knack for keeping things challenging yet entertaining. If he senses my brain is on overdrive, he’ll grab his phone and play a fun and upbeat Latin song. This talented young man also teaches salsa dancing on the weekends. The actual classroom is outdoors, a huge selling point for me. A wooden table, some chairs and a dry erase board, all under a shady tree with a view of the ocean.

Often after class, we wander down to the village for almuerza (lunch), speaking solamente Español of course. Dining in a Peruvian restaurant run by a Venezuelan family in Ecuador where no one speaks English seems perfectly normal to me, as I adapt quickly. After class I get to do homework and love it. If only school from my youth had been this creative and such an enjoyable learning experience.

One day Miguel had a lot of online classes in the morning so he suggested to start class in the afternoon. Por supuesto! (of course). I enjoyed an early morning beach walk and as I wandered the quiet streets, the aromas wafting from La Panadería were beyond tempting. They were not quite open, so I politely waited outside the open door, a man greeted me with a warm welcome and an even warmer pan chocolat. We chatted as I dripped gooey chocolate deliciousness on my chin like a niña as we both laughed. I asked his name, he replied, “Cristiano, y como se llama señorita?” I’ve learned in Latin countries that Lynn doesn’t really translate, so I use my español name, “Me llamo Linda”. “Ah, muy Bonita” he exclaims. As nice as it is to be referred to as young and pretty at 6:00 am by a man who can bake, I believe he was just explaining that Linda means pretty.

Afternoon classes were productive until we both decided we couldn’t miss puesta del sol (sunset). We moved class to a beachfront restaurant, over a glass of vino during happy hour, I am really liking this school!

On weekends I loved exploring. I took a bus to the nearby town of Ayampe. Traveling sola chica, I tend to put on my self assured, bad ass persona. My body language says, “Don’t mess with me.” The down side of this portrayal is I don’t make any friends because I appear so unapproachable!

Ayampe is the perfect antidote for boisterous, energetic Montañita. A laid back vibe envelopes this little outpost. A serene beach walk ends at La Tortuga for lunch. It seems each beach village offers Spanish classes, surf school and yoga lessons. I sit upstairs overlooking the calm sea and enjoy doing my homework, taking breaks to chat with friendly locals. Muy tranquilo.

Armed with a day full of serenity, I’m ready to join in the amped up fun of Montañita. I discover a small retreat down the beach called La Gondola, offering healthy fruit smoothies and açaí bowls, a perfect spot to enjoy sunset.

On the final day of escuela, Miguel takes me on a field trip to Parque Nacional Machalilla. A guide shows us the beauty of the protected habitat on forest trails. We arrive in the small village of Agua Blanca, passing by a sulfur lagoon where folks are slathering black mud head to toe, as the slimy contents are said to be therapeutic.

Agua Blanca lays host to one of the oldest archeological sites in South America, with preserved remains of the ancient civilizations, the Monteño.

Meanwhile, a couple of hammocks called our names. A perfectly relaxing place for verb practice. Some young local girls were curious about our hammock school. While Miguel was taking a siesta, one of the girls picked up his index cards. She spoke no English but was delighted to quiz me on the Spanish words and I prompted her to repeat the English translations, which she excelled at, with lots of giggles in between. Perhaps a future teacher in the making!

I left Ecuador with a greater appreciation of Español and graduated up to “limo Spanish”, thanks in large part to Miguel, who I can recommend to anyone wanting to learn in person or online: miguelitoyagual@gmail.com

Just mention his new hermana sent you.

Viajar es vivir (to travel is to live)

Iceland: I Do NOT Want to Eat a Whale Taco, Thank You

I’m drawn to Iceland’s extreme raw nature and the unpredictability of not only the ever changing weather but the knowledge that a volcanic eruption could occur at any given moment.

Crawling through an ice cave inside a glacier on an active volcano feels slightly less risky than being hurtled down a dark, unplowed, curvy motorway, passing large trucks during a sideways snowstorm! Our intrepid and humorous guide seems perfectly comfortable maneuvering the Land Rover with one hand on the wheel, one on his coffee cup and his head turned to my traveling companion in the back seat who kept asking questions, amused at my uneasiness, yet somehow I knew the trip would soon get remarkably better, once the effects of the delicious craft brewed Icelandic beers I couldn’t resist sampling the night before wore off.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Raki, a mountain search and rescue guide, was at the helm of this beefed up Land Rover Defender with massive tires. After visiting two spectacular waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, we got to put this rig to its full potential. We stopped in the charming town of Vik for refreshments. Many travelers arrive in Vik by motorcoach and then transfer to large vans with about 20 passengers each to start their off-road expeditions. We chose superjeep.is from Reykjavík, and enjoyed our intimate group of six.

The town of Vik

One of Raki’s pals, a van driver, jokes that Raki is going to get stuck in his “little” vehicle. Raki knows to smile silently, sure enough, after expertly maneuvering through rough terrain and freshly fallen snow, we see his pal’s van at an awkward angle, being pulled out! We scoot past with nary a smirk, heading towards the otherworldly Myrdalsjokull glacier, and arrive at our destination; the glacier cave inside Katla volcano that is itching to erupt, hopefully not today.

Oops!

We’re handed helmets and crampons as we trudge through crunchy snow. Raki enters the cave first to check the conditions. Given the all clear, we make our way up steep, snowy carved out steps.

Entering the frozen cavern, we silently observe the natural surroundings in awe. Brilliant blue colors shine through 800 years of compressed ice.

Flecks of black ask have been trapped in layers of ice, a good reminder that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active spots on earth, as she straddles two tectonic plates over a belly of fire.

We have plenty of time to explore, take photos or just marvel at nature’s powers at work. Future visitors will see a different view, as glacier caves melt, freeze, crack, disappear and reform. I treasure this unique setting.

We exited the cave to fresh scenery. The snow stopped and the mist lifted to reveal stunning views of stark contrast, with the wild North Atlantic Ocean, a dark strip of clouds, pure, white snow and blue glaciers.

Back at Vik, it’s a lovely day at the beach. Reynisfjara beach is black lava and we gaze at the basalt sea stacks called Reynisdrangar, as impressive as their name. I later discover that this beach is on some of the top ten beaches of the world lists.

On the drive home we could see Eyjafjallajökull, notoriously famous for its volcanic eruption in 2010, causing airliners from Europe to be grounded for days, as jet engines are not fond of abrasive, fine, glass-rich ash. The explosive power of vaporized, melted glacial water, created spumes of ash into the jet stream 22,000 feet high.

Raki’s sense of humor was appreciated as we passed a particularly intense geothermal area, the sulphur smell crept into the closed windows, he said if anyone needed to pass gas, no one would notice.

Resourceful Icelanders have long been harnessing the gifts of their land, using renewable and sustainable geothermal energy to heat their water and houses, provide energy, grow vegetables in hot houses and thoroughly enjoy a multitude of natural hot springs. Iceland’s tap water is some of the purest in the world, coming from springs naturally filtered through lava. Which also makes for some awesome beers!

Earning beer calories is always a goal, just walking the streets of Reykjavík can be a challenge. Performing “ice-ometrics” while trying to remain upright on icy sidewalks is a humorous endeavor. In between skidding along like a three year old beginning ice skater, I stop and laugh out loud at what appears on the sidewalk: what is more slippery than a banana peel? A frozen banana peel!

Watching people’s reactions as they gaze into the display window of this small, quirky museum is almost as entertaining as the contents inside. Some rush past red-faced, young boys snicker, but many walk in bursting with curiosity, myself being in the latter group, always curious. Quite a good location, given the long winter nights to study such things. No, not the Aurora Borealis, it’s the Icelandic Phallological Museum, aka the Penis Museum. Reykjavík lays claim to the only one of its kind in the world.

The founder was a history teacher and his son has taken over as curator, displaying over 200 penises and penile parts of nearly all the sea and land mammals that can be found in Iceland. Quite surprisingly, there is a display of a human’s penis from a 92 year old who was happy to have his privates in public after his passing.

After exiting the Penis Museum, we turn up a street to see the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church rising up in all its glory. I can’t help but associate it’s shape with that of an aroused sperm whale!

Time for some serious research, finding a brew pub. Always drawn to water, Reykjavík’s charming Old Harbour beckons. Bryggian Brugghús Bistro and Brewery catches our eyes, the atmosphere is instantly warm and welcoming. Fridrik, the affable bartender, served us information as well as delicious house made craft beer. Fridrik placed a small mason jar in front of us, explaining that in the past, fish was preserved by fermentation, sometimes using human urine. He invited us to try a sample of fermented shark cubes. Politely declining and explaining a preference for plant based meals, Fridrik laughed and said hardly anyone eats like that anymore, especially the younger generation.

When your Icelandic bartender offers shots of “Black Death”, I wisely stick to craft beer

Which brings up the astonishing subject of whale meat being offered on menus of some restaurants, as well as puffin meat, when rarely do locals consume it. During the hugely popular whale watching season, misguided tourists get off the boats after photographing and being awed by viewing these magnificent creatures, only to order a whale steak for lunch, mistakenly thinking this is a traditional Icelandic dish. Sometimes whale is not labeled and unsuspecting diners think they are eating fish and chips when in fact it is whale meat.

Love this hearty sailor, voyaging in February

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a moratorium on killing whales, to worldwide approval, so whale populations could recover. That moratorium is still in effect today, yet three countries blatantly defy that ruling; Japan, Norway and Iceland. Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture placed self imposed quotas “allowing” the illegal slaughter of fin and minke whales. Sea Shepherd, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), international Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Icelandic Association of Whalewatchers, along with other conservationists and the majority of Icelanders and passionate marine mammal lovers worldwide, vehemently oppose this barbaric practice.

The biggest offender, Icelandic whaling company Hvalur hf, not only slaughtered endangered and pregnant fin and minke whales, they killed an extremely rare blue whale hybrid last season, causing condemnation over this illegal and inhumane practice of harpooning the animals as they die a slow and painful death. The whale meat is shipped to Japan and to local Icelandic restaurants for tourist’s consumption.

What can we do? Go on whale watching excursions, photograph and enjoy nature and wildlife. If you don’t care to put a whale in your mouth, research whale friendly restaurants and support Icelanders who oppose slaughtering whales.

With enough opposition and informed choices, perhaps whaling will end for good!

For more information: seashepherd.org, us.whales.org, iwc.int, ifaw.is, icewhale.is

Scottsdale, a Cowgirl Feels at Home


The daughter of a rancher has never owned a pair of cowgirl boots. Well, things are about to change. What better place for a western wear shopping expedition than the bustling pueblo of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Sauntering into Saba’s, family owned since 1927, I’m cheerily greeted by Candy, who is helping a gentleman from New York who has just arrived, he’s been informed by his friends that they are taking him to a cowboy party and boots are mandatory.

He looked a bit timid and slightly foolish as a “dimestore cowboy” until effervescent Candy put him at ease. She explained how she retired from a corporate career and recently discovered her true calling; matching boots to personalities, regardless of background, profession and even if you’ve never met a horse!

This country girl preferred her little bicycle to being hoisted atop a smelly beast who had a penchant for flinging little girls off into a field of stickers. But age and time do funny things, and it’s about time I embrace my small town, country roots. By the third pair of boots, Candy nailed it. The minute I pulled on the Caribbean teal blue accentuated beauties, I knew they would transform me to bad-assery. Yep, no one is going to mess with this chica, however the point being; embracing the real you; whether it be sequined stilettos or flip flops, if clothes and shoes can make a girl feel strong, empowered and confident, then grab a pair and rock them! I did manage to depart Saba’s with only one pair, unlike the man from New York who got his inner cowboy on and walked away with two pairs.

Switching to hiking boots, I hit the trails. Starting at McDowell Mountain Regional Park which has 50 miles of trails for feet, mountain bikes and horses, I randomly stumble onto none other than Bootlegger trail! Hardly another human was to be seen on this early morning ramble, just a roadrunner flashing by and a few jackrabbits to keep me company.

Wide expanses of open desert has a similar feeling to being at sea, plenty of breathing room. Working up a thirst is easy in these parts and there is no shortage of watering holes. I’m drawn to the funky vibe of Cave Creek. I spot biker bars, cowboy bars and even one that has live bull riding on weekends, how does one choose? I can’t pass up the Horny Toad.

Cave Creek’s oldest watering hole

I introduce myself to the bartendress Katrina and explain my self-appointed mission: to document character bars worldwide! Katrina pleasantly chatted and told stories, along with a regular patron who enjoyed telling how Dick Van Dyke used to live nearby and the Horny Toad was one of his favorite hangouts.

Katrina the bartendress was a source of amusement, as well as the sign behind her “Alcohol: Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad”

Established in 1976, the Horny Toad holds the honor of being the oldest drinking establishment in Cave Creek. I enjoyed wandering in this tiny desert outpost that loves unique gathering spots, and many bars still have original hitching posts for patrons arriving on their favorite steed.

A handful of saguaro with five fingers

Locals helped guide me to interesting explorations in and around the Scottsdale area. Cosanti, a gallery and foundry, is known for bronze and ceramic wind bells. Digging a little deeper, one can discover the vision of Cosanti’s creator, the late Paolo Soleri, an Italian born architect and philosopher, who created an urban laboratory in the high desert called Arcosanti, an environmentally accountable prototype of a town in harmony with nature.

Upon entering the Musical Instrument Museum, enchanting piano music draws me in. I look to see who is producing this haunting piece and witness a boy who can’t be more than 8, playing with determination and pure passion! Many talented guests come to play the public piano in this acoustically perfect location. A new exhibit features the birth of electric amplification for guitars. Keith Richard’s quote above one of his guitars on display: “Where would I be without it? Playing awfully quietly for a start.”

An acre’s worth of lovingly restored vintage firefighting apparatus is proudly displayed in the Hall of Flame, America’s largest firefighting museum. Kids get to scramble up on a designated firetruck, and the rest of us learn from many exhibits, including the wildland gallery, near and dear to those living in the western U.S., featuring the history of techniques by ground and aerial firefighters. The National Firefighting Hall of Heroes exhibit is a quiet venue to pay respects to those lost in the line of duty and honor acts of bravery.

Thousands of U.S. and International patches make their way to the Hall of Flame

The nimble Beachcraft Baron Leadplane scouts the drop for the DC-7 tanker (courtesy Hall of Flame wildland firefighting exhibit)

Near the Hall of Flame I came across the Desert Botanical Gardens which bloom with color all seasons and a delightful stroll uncovers raw beauty of desert cacti and wildflowers with emphasis on the Sonoran desert. Serene, contemplative and educational, the Desert Botanical Gardens compels one to walk slowly, stop often and drink in the quiet beauty and wonders of the desert.

An interesting observation by a Pacific Islander woman was to compare this unusual cactus to patterns in a coral reef (the four photos above taken at Desert Botanical Garden)

The search continues for wide open spaces and the natural world that never ceases to capture me, whether on land or sea.

A Victorian Gem in British Columbia

Jennie Butchart had a vision. Faced with a former limestone quarry as her backyard, in 1904 she started a transformation with a few sweet pea seeds and one rose bush.

“This sailor always gravitates to the sea, I discover it’s possible to arrive at Butchart Gardens by boat”

Today, over a million visitors a year enjoy the tranquility and beauty of Jennie’s work. A Canadian National Historic Site, Butchart Gardens is open year round, much to my enjoyment.

“It takes a few layers for an outing in Canada”

The unusually temperate day of my visit was very quiet, only a handful of visitors relished the zen of the sunken gardens, the culture of the Japanese and Italian gardens and the unexpected pleasures around each bend in what seemed like our own secret garden.

As a spontaneous traveler, I revel in unexpected destinations and make the most of any season and climate.

Jennie would have been a great sailor, no fear of riding in her bosun’s chair

This pop up trip finds me in vibrant yet quaint Victoria, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, dressed for the occasion in layers.

The Empress, Victoria’s grande dame, built in 1904-1908, in the elegant chateau style of Canada’s railway hotels

Nothing gets you in the spirit of winter like a big gulp of crisp Pacific Northwest air.

Perfectly placed marina for hearty northwest sailors, but I didn’t expect to see a hearty palm tree!

The benefits of off-season travel also included a quiet day at the Royal BC Museum and an incredible IMAX film “Oceans: Our Blue Planet” narrated by Kate Winslet.

Iconic Totem poles in Royal BC Museum

Traditional high tea at the famed grande dame, the Empress Hotel is a must by many visitors, but this girl opted instead to sample pale and amber ales with the working class at some of the UK style pubs. Sliding up to a barstool next to locals is a great source of knowledge and amusement.

Year round white lights adorn the British Columbia Parliament building, with a splash of seasonal color

Who has the right of way, a flying boat or a floating boat?

Crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the 341 foot MV Coho, vehicle and passenger ferry, was a pleasant way to travel with surprisingly calm seas each way, it provided hardly a challenge to keep my Canadian draft ale from spilling while exploring the ship. Boat travel is always my preferable mode of transport, and the return journey on this vintage vessel, which made her first passage in 1959, provided stunning views of Washington State’s snow capped peaks of the Olympic Mountain Range shadowing over Port Angeles.

A Well clad passenger enjoys the Olympic views

Victoria, what a lovely gem, I hope we meet again.