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Entries about family travel

Kenya - The School of the Savannah

Free the Children and Leaders Today – Making a difference

sunny 70 °F

This story really begins last June in Cannes France where I met a young man named Craig Keilburger. Craig is the founder of a nonprofit organization called Free the Children. Craig started Free the Children when he was 12 years old to fight child labor. Free the Children’s scope has since grown to include freeing children from poverty and exploitation as well as empowering young people with the confidence to create positive change in the world. As part of this scope, Free the Children has built 500 schools around the world, with over 65% of the funding coming from children. I was so inspired by what Craig and Free the Children was doing, I wanted to get our kids involved in some way, I just didn’t know how given our already-committed travel schedule. While we were in Tibet, Carol and I discussed taking the kids to Kenya to help build a school. We thought it would be a fantastic experience. We could easily carve out a week as a side trip during our Ghana visit. With that decision, we made arrangements for our family and Anna, Carol’s sister Anna, to spend a week in Kenya.

We landed at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport at 5:30am, blearily making our way through immigration, customs and baggage claim. We were met by two beaming faces from Free the Children. Brooke and Jon were there with bells on, bubbling with much more energy than we had, having slept rather poorly on our flight. We stepped outside and made our way to the van. It was cool. Uh oh. We didn’t dress for cool. I mean, Nairobi is on the equator, isn’t it. It was completely lost on us that Nairobi is at an elevation of 5,500 feet and it doesn’t matter if you’re on the equator. Whoops. Filo, our driver, whisked us to the Karen Blixen Coffee Plantation through the early morning traffic of Nairobi. While I distantly listened to Jon and Brooke talking with everyone in the back seats, I recognized Jon’s voice. I was so tired, I never put it together. Jon had been the person in Toronto that had put our entire trip together. I re-introduced myself with a bit more vigor.

We freshened up in our rooms at the Karen Blixen, and met Jon and Brooke again for a trip to a Giraffe Sanctuary and a bead factory. The Giraffe Sanctuary was really interesting. We were taught about giraffes, where they live, the three sub species that live in Kenya, and we were able to get up close and personal which these pictures show. Yes, their tongues are disgusting, but they actually carry a natural antibiotic, so after licking our faces, we were actually healthier than before (real or imagined). We visited the bead factory that employs mostly single moms and saw them working the process of painting and firing beads. We also went to the Karen Blixen Museum. Karen Blixen wrote the novel “Out of Africa”. We saw her original house, plus many artifacts from the movie with Robert Reford as well. It was Valentine's day which was kind of lost on all of us, until we tried to get a table for dinner. No chance. Anna, Carol, me and the kids ate in the bar amongst the decorations and fawning sweethearts.

The next morning we prepared for a short charter flight headed to Kenya’s Masai Mara, about 200km from Nairobi. This is where Free the Children and its sister organization “Leaders Today” have developed a site for Kenyan volunteers. The “School of the Savannah” not only houses volunteers, it also acts as a leadership development campus of sorts, provides a place to gather and reflect on the day’s activities, and acts as a hub between school building projects. It also provides jobs for local people. With the worldwide news about political unrest and tribal fighting in Kenya, very few people were traveling and we were the only volunteers staying at the facility. At the plane, we were met by some of the leaders of Free the Children, that were having an offsite at the facility. We met Mark, (Craig’s brother), Roxanne, (Marks wife), David Baum, (an organizational consultant), Peter Rihuhu, (who runs Kenyan operations), his wife Michelle who provides medical services to many of the villages, and their baby son Kananja (aka Andrew). We flew out of the charter airport directly over Kibera, where most of the televised violence had taken place. Kibera is the 2nd largest slum in Africa (Soweto is the first) and it is pretty amazing to view from the air. People buy a piece of corrugated metal lean it up against another, and call it home, until they can afford or acquire another piece of metal to make a wall and roof. Once they have a roof and walls, maybe they’ll even fashion a door, and once they have that, they can hang a curtain and perhaps rent the half of their “home”. Almost hard to believe. After we passed over Kibera, we passed over large estates and homes that rival the stateliness of southern plantations and these soon gave way to farms and rolling hills. We approached the great rift valley, and the Mara. We were all surprised by how much agriculture there was. I don’t know what we expected, but farms, for as far as we could see, wasn’t it. The only animals we saw as we landed were Cows.

We were met on the landing strip by a Masai Warrior and guide named Nabaala (the Masai name for Greedy or Hungry). Nabaala wore traditional Masai clothing and carried a Machete and a Konga (a Massai club). It was love at first site for the boys. We were also met by Robin, an American from Chicago who has lived in Kenya for 5 years, and speaks the local languages with ease. We walked to the facility and Nabaala speaking great English described plants to us, using english and latin names as he pointed out the plants. Is this guy for real? The answer is yes, but more on that later. We arrived at the facility and found a very stout electric fence surrounding it. It turns out that there is a salt marsh right next door that elephants really love, and they tended to walk through the center of the camp so the fence made a great defensive line. We thought we’d be in tents and bunks, and were surprised (actually blown away) that the facility had built family housing that was beautiful and comfortable: Two bedroom homes with lofts and two bathrooms that could sleep all 5 of us.

After lunch we drove out to two schools that Free the Children had built in communities that were a few kilometers away from the facility. As we slowly traversed the well torn and bumpy road, all the locals we passed were waving to us in our trucks. Young children would stream across farms toward the road, not with a hand out, but rather, a huge smile and two arms outstretched, waving and yelling “Jambo!” which means welcome or hello! We pulled into the entrance of the Emorijoi primary school and we were greeted by a throng of sweater clad children lining the fence, singing a greeting song and welcoming us into their school. The music was beautiful and the children’s faces were lit up with excitement. We stepped out of the cars, and the kids flocked to touch us, hold our hands, say their names and ask ours. It was overwhelming and Carol’s eyes were tearing. They kids were so appreciative of our visit and so interested in Parker and Griffin. We met Paul the headmaster, a strong, quiet, and gracious man, who walked us about the school buildings that free the children had built. He also walked us to where the old buildings stood, to show us the improvement, and then showed us a water station where children wash their hands after using one of the new toilets. He was very proud that kids were finally washing their hands after going to the bathroom. Hygienic consciousness is no small accomplishment here. It is a very big deal and can improve community health almost instantly. We talked with Paul about the impact and the growth the school had seen since the new classrooms had been built. A new school is a self fulfilling prophecy of success. More new buildings can decrease class sizes, which interest more parents, which brings in new students, which brings in new teaches, which improves student/teacher ratios, which improves quality of teaching and learning. Paul talked about a future phase which would provide teacher housing on campus, so teachers wouldn’t have to walk or drive from villages far away. It seems only a few weeks earlier during a rain, high water over one road prevented teachers from getting to school. Not at all uncommon. As we walked to the cars, some little kids were playing tag and chase with Griffin and Parker and we all joined in. One child in particular, who looked to be about 4 years old and full of diabolic energy, taunted me by rolling his eyes, swiveling his hips, and with arms outstretched motioning with his fingers to “come get me”. My heart melted a thousand times right there. We played like this for a while, before heading to the school where we would spend our days working.

Enelerai school is a few Kilometers from Emorijoi and services a different community. The kids knew we were coming and welcomed us similarly, following us up the hill to the school as we entered. Bright new classrooms had been built for the elementary school, and the old classrooms still stood. It began to rain and we made our way under shelter in the old classrooms. Kids flooded into the room from behind, beside, and they even seemed to ooze through cracks in the walls, like the water that was pouring outside. We were packed in and they were singing and asked if we would sing. I got volunteered since Carol and kids were too shy, and I completely blanked. The only song I could think of was “On Broadway” from George Benson, thanks to some bad Karaoke memories. I belted it out and surprised the kids… and myself because I actually remembered the words. We then ALL sang songs that Brooke led and that was a blast. The rain stopped. The kids went back to class. We walked into classrooms and each of us introduced ourselves, while some of the kids did the same. Parker noted that the 8th grade class was actually doing 9th grade math from California. 8th Grade is the last year in elementary school before you move on to secondary school and only the best make it to 9th grade. The 8th grade class is small, composed of only the best, most serious and most fortunate students. These students didn’t have to stay home or drop out to help with the farm or the chores. Many do. It takes great parental commitment and a breaking with historical norms to take a child through secondary school. We saw a great deal of that Enelerai. This village dreams of great things and education is the way to get there.

The Building Experience
The differences between old and new classrooms at Enelarai is stark. The older classrooms consist of mud and stick walls, small openings for windows, a tattered tin roof, uneven mud floors, a black board, and desks. It is hard to see the black board or for that matter the students. The new classrooms in sharp contrast have thick cement foundations, brick walls, skylights in the roof for light, and glass windows. They are clean and they stand proud. We were here at Enelerai to help with the secondary school and were in fact going to start digging the foundation of the kitchen the next day. The next day, we began working on digging the footers for the foundation. We spent four days working alongside Kenyan construction workers, some of which live in the area, and some of which come a long way to work on the project (referred to as Fundi’s) . Truth be told, we only put in a half day on each of these four days, and even with that, it was hard work. Picks, Shovels, biceps and backs are the tools of creating footers in rural Africa, not backhoes. Carol and I wanted the boys experience to be one of blisters. That would prove true. Our job was to dig the footers around the perimeter of the kitchen to a depth of about four feet. The first day the ground was very wet and the clay chunks that lay just under the grass stuck in thick chunks to our shovel blades and Picks. This was slow going. We learned from Wilson, a Fundi, who was there with us every day, how best to do this. The clay chunks were so large that Anna started a trend by not even using the shovel and just heaving them out. Over the next three days, the earth dried and we got more productive. We couldn’t help but notice that the ditches seemed deeper than when we left. We were grateful the Fundi’s were helping us make our way through the muck and we were more grateful that they put us with our ineptness as I’m sure we were to a large degree just getting in their way. In any event the kids put in some good hard work and we all got blisters. Working alongside the local men was extraordinary and taught us how to pace ourselves, and also taught us how tough these men are for putting 10 or so hours of grueling physical effort into the same trench each day. We finished our work by creating rebar structures for the cement pour. We cut the rebar with a hack saw, cut wire with a hammer and rocks, and tied the rebar sections together. It seems amazing how things are done here when you consider the expensive power tools that are available in the world. People, not power, nor money are available more broadly here, and that’s what deployed.

We were working on Sunday morning when we heard some African music from beyond a tree line. I could swear it was live. And we argued about Radio vs: Live. During a quick break we peaked between the trees to see a church service taking place inside a small and austere building. A quasi-tuned synthesizer and drum machine belted out music that went on for what seemed like hours. Folks inside could be seen dancing and heard singing. What did we do? We danced our way back to the digging site, playing with a little girl who lived nearby as she danced as well. I wish I could describe the dance. It was beautiful, rhythmic, proud, and distinctly Kenyan. I’ve seen this dance before, but never in states.

We had a morning and an evening with Nabaala, the Masai Warrior who patiently spent time with us educating us about the Masai. One morning he took us to an open field to teach us some of the Masai’s weapons. He taught us how to throw a club called a konga and how to shoot his bow and arrow. It was amazing to watch the command that Nabaala had over these tools. Nabaala could hit a bird in flight with his Konga, and easily hit an animal in the eye with his bow from over 100 meters. The bow and the conga were wooden and handmade. We all took turns trying them both with differing degrees of success. Nabaala was a great teacher, praising every attempt with “Wow!” that was great! The kids are hooked. In the evening, we sat around a table on a hillside sipping tea as the sun went down, as Nabaala told us about the process to become a Masai Warrior in the first person. Now, I know I’m going to get some of this wrong, but it’s largely right. (Chime in Nabaala if I got something wrong). He was named when he was 5 years old, not when he was born, based on his characteristics or nature. At 12, he was circumcised quite publicly and if he flinched during the operation, he was basically cast out of his village as a “flincher” shamed by his entire family. Nabaala is not a flincher. Nabaala was prepared for his circumcision by burning, cutting, etc… to get him ready for the pain. After a successful circumcision, Nabaala entered a hut for 6 months to heal his wounds. He couldn’t bathe nor cut his hair. At the end of that healing period, he bathed, cut his hair, and then went to a camp where he ate meat, trained on his weapons, and saw his body change to prepare for the ultimate ritual: kill a lion. Masai men must kill a male lion and come back with it’s mane as a headdress to become a warrior. Nabaala described his time in cave on the Mara where he prepared for his lion kill. He described how he killed the lion and lost two friends in the process. He described how urgently he needed to kill the lion, because he had an exam to ensure he get into secondary school, and he couldn’t afford to miss it. Nabaala did actually kill a lion and make it back in time for his exam. Nabaala went on to attend a 4 year university in Nairobi to study botany, biology and the environment, and he now enriches people’s lives by keeping the Masai culture alive and educating us on all that surrounds us on the Mara. This is a truly amazing guy who lives every day like it is his last.

The Village Walk
We spent an afternoon on a community walk near Enelerai where we were able to visit with some of the local people in their homes. We were taken by the pride the village women had in showing us their homes and walking us through the neighborhood. The proudly showed us their school and the new water collection system, and a few different homes where we met some wonderful people. The homes were round, one or two room bungalows, and the cooking was done inside over an open fire, in some homes in the same room as the bed. Smoke fills the hut and everything smells of it. Most young children have runny noses because of all the smoke, that and a relatively low functioning immune system. If you imagine a young child clinging to his mom while she is cooking , it all makes sense. The houses were clean and well cared for. We were educated on how daily tasks are done and who is responsible for what. It seems that the women do all the work. I know that’s a bit blunt, but it’s true. They fetch the water. They fetch the firewood. They cook the dinner. They keep the house. They manage the kids. These women are studs. The men take the herds in and out every day. That’s it. You do find men like those working along side us at the school, but apparently this isn’t the norm. We had a chance to fetch water, just like an 8 year old girl would do in her village. We all tried it. Imagine carrying a 50lb container of water on your heard for two kilometers. Now imagine doing that twice or three times a day. You do this just so you can cook, or wash, or drink. And this water comes from the Mara river, which is not a clean river. We all took turns carrying the water on our heads with a rope strap. It was very hard and completely impossible to imagine an 8 year old girl doing this two times a day, school or not.

We were lucky to have tea with three of the women with whom we walked the village earlier that day. We sat around a table and spoke frankly of the way things were long ago, and the way they are now. We spoke about men and their roles and women and their roles. We spoke of wife beatings which are common, about wives having wives if they are unable to have children, about men having multiple wives which is also quite common, and about the very little that men actually do on a daily basis. It is hard to grock why this is a male dominated society, given that women do all the work. Female circumcision is still practiced, (illegal but practiced), men beat their wives, take loans and then disappear, etc… Carol told them that I actually do the laundry and they giggled, seeming a little uncomfortable with the concept, while still wanting the village men to do more. One of the women there manufactured and sold charcoal, (which is an insanely tough and labor intensive job) to bring in the family’s money, and she still held down all the other responsibilities in her household. She was 60. With all of the responsibility and pain these women shoulder, they still find the time to organize as a group to work on projects with the intent of moving their community forward. These women, and women like them, are the strongest force of change for rural Kenya. We include Robin among them.

The closing “ceremony”
Our last day at the Enelerai school ended in a thank you ceremony in which we were thanked by teachers, parents and students alike for coming to their village and their school, and for contributing what we had in our short stay, and for spending time with them. We each spoke in front of the students and parents, and thanked them in turn for educating us and welcoming us into their community. We had learned so much and were so grateful for all they had given us: warmth, welcome, kindness, laughter, and an overwhelming sense that at its core, humanity is good regardless of circumstance. We finished the day playing a game of soccer with some of the students and it was astonishing to see them run across a field full of rocks in their bare feet, showing off skills. We wished that we had been here much longer and had accomplished much more. We hope to come back to this wonderful place and help in any way we can.

We came to Kenya and the School of the Savannah to show our children firsthand what can happen when a small group of likeminded people are inspired to do something for others. We came to show them that a small act can blossom past impossibilities into something that can affect millions of lives. We came to show them that inspiration and perspiration when combined could achieve the impossible, and we hoped that we would find people that exemplified all of that. We did.

Robin: Thank you for educating and inspiring us with your story and for helping these people so passionately. We honestly don’t believe that people would be waving feverishly at every car as it drives by if it wasn’t for the genuine care you have shown to these people and the frank and open dialog that you have had with them that has made so much of this possible.

Jon and Brooke: Thanks for helping us understand things on our own when you thought we should and explaining things when you thought we needed it. Also, thanks for being our friends and cohorts. Your sense of humor and skills as facilitators helped us enjoy our trip more than we ever could have on our own. We are still laughing at the answer to Parker’s question: “Hey Brooke, If we combined the USA with Canada, what do you think we should call it?” Your immediate dead pan response: “Canada.” Brilliant. Jon, we’re now hooked on Arrested Development. Thanks. You were both awesome and insightful from pick up to drop off and felt like part of the family. You know where we live. :-)

Nabaala: Thanks for everything. Parker wants only to be a Masai warrior now. Do you have room in your next camp? :-)

Roxanne, Michelle, Mark, Peter, and David: We consider ourselves very lucky to have had a couple of nights with you over the dinner table. You are all living proof of what my sister Lori believed, and what Margaret Mead said was 100% right: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Thanks for everything.

Posted by Blakei 09:10 Archived in Kenya Tagged family_travel Comments (6)

Accra, Ghana

We’re not in Kansas anymore…

semi-overcast 88 °F

The plane arrived in Ghana and we were greeted by a blanket of heat as we descended the stairs to a waiting bus on the tarmac. The heat was less stifling than we expected, thanks to a seasonal phenomena known as the Harmattan, a dry and dusty West African trade wind that blows from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea. It carriers sand and dust that blocks out the sun like a fog. Even with that, it was over 90°, and humid. We grabbed our bags, made our way through customs and to the curb, where our official greeter, “Uncle Freddy” stood by with Dennis, his driver and trusty sidekick. We are here visiting Fred and Anna Adams, Carol’s sister and her husband. Fred works for Chevron in Accra, has been here for two years, and is working on bringing fuels and natural gas to Ghana from Nigeria. Fred and Anna live in the Accra suburb of East Legon in a great house that easily manages all of us, Fred, Anna and the folks that work for them – which is very typical for an expat. In fact, employing local Ghanaians is required by the government for expats.

The contrast in this East Legon neighborhood is something that you wouldn’t see in a developed nation, but is quite typical in Africa. Next to this great house that we are staying in is a tin shack with a family living in it full time. Chickens roam the yard and each morning the family bathes themselves in the yard. Children will be raised to adulthood in this house, and those children could become Doctors or Lawyers. People emerge from these tiny tin shacks dressed, pressed, and starched to the nines, ready to go to work. A similar home is just across the street. This is just the way it is here, and it can be seen all over Accra. It’s not considered strange. It just is. Another thing that “just is” are construction projects that seem to never end. Beautiful homes rise in the neighborhood and then seem to stop making progress. They’ll make progress eventually, just not now. Skeletons of incomplete homes and buildings punctuate the landscape and this isn’t considered at all bizarre. It just is. Another thing that “just is” is fluctuating water and power supply. The power goes out regularly and every large home has a generator to maintain power. The power doesn’t just stop. The lights start to dim, and then eventually the power goes completely. The same thing happens with water. It just runs out and comes back at another time. Folks don’t fret about it. They just make sure their schedule accommodates this kind of thing, and they don’t get upset when it happens. It is expected. It just is.

Another thing that is expected is traffic. There are 2.2 million people in Accra and the roads and infrastructure struggle to accommodate them. Streets are paved, then not. Streets appear to be “through”, and then just stop. Lanes are simply suggestions which are largely ignored by the locals, and traffic lights sit lifelessly, without power, encouraging intersection anarchy. With all that traffic, the stop and go, the near misses, and the stifling heat, people wave to each other calmly as they let drivers squeeze ahead of them into the lane, then patiently waiting for the next five feet of movement. Whether in a car, a cab or a tro-tro (a large shared taxi van) they just patiently wait. You won’t find road rage in Ghana. It takes a long time to go anywhere, or do anything, and people expect it. Man, could LA use a dose of that or what? Something that complicates the traffic situation is the lack of super markets or super stores that might have everything you need. There are no home depots, kmarts, best buys, etc.. If you want to get some nails, you might have to go to the other side of town, which could take more than an hour. We’ve been part of this routine now for over a week. This isn’t a convenient life. Again, in sharp contrast, and Accra is a contrast Anna can walk across the street and buy soap, eggs, salt, and other staples, just by walking to the neighbor's little "shed of commerce" across the street.

Something that the Expats apparently don’t like, but we love are the “hawkers” on the street corners. Every busy intersection is abuzz with vendors walking and running between lanes of cars with goods for sale. Apples, water bags, toilet paper, mops, ice cube trays, chocolates, magazines, snacks, or whatever you can carry on your head. The hawkers negotiate deals with the folks in the cars, send in the goods and then continue to barter for a mutually agreeable price. The hawkers then chase after the cars to either get the cash or get the goods back if a satisfactory price can’t be negotiated. This works pretty efficiently. We picked up three ice cube trays and two power outlet converters just yesterday.

The People
A Ghanaian cab driver in New York once told us that we would see the “sweet face of humanity” in Ghana, and he went on to tell us “A little food, a little music, and a little soccer” is all that Ghanaians need. He wasn’t exactly right, but on the whole, the people of Ghana are wonderful. The people are fun, passionate, hard working, and they love life. They love life just like it is here. They don’t wish for a life that we might have in the states because you can get to your store faster, or have 200 kinds of cheese side by side in the grocery store. They appear to like it just the way it is. Esther and Dennis who run the house for Anna and Freddy are great examples of local Ghanaians. They are quick to smile and love to hear us “try” and use the local language called Twi (pronounced Trwee). Of course they both speak excellent English as well, but they speak Ghanaian around each other and we love to try. Esther’s daughter Gifty (a great name!) and her brother Kwamei are at the house quite often and we’ve been playing cards with them, doing homework with them, listening to music, talking soccer, and just hanging out.

The Africa Cup of Nations
We were very lucky to have our visit coincide with the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. This tournament takes place once every two years, and pits the best teams in Africa against each other. This is Africa’s world cup. This year the tournament was in Ghana, and the semi finals and the finals were being played in Accra. Soccer was everywhere. Anna went on a scalper search for some tickets and at the last minute, we were all able to get tickets to the Ghana vs: Cameroon semi final game. The scalper’s prices were dropping as the game approached and we lucked out. The streets on the way to the semi final were beyond jammed. Hawkers ran between cars selling Ghanaian fan gear; shirts, flags, horns, silly hats, whistles, scarves... The Ghanaian team is called the “Black Stars” and this night, Accra was going Black Star crazy. As we approached the stadium, we had to get out of the car and walk. Traffic just stopped and we were passed by masses of Ghanaians walking the streets, either going to the game or crowding around televisions that glowed in shops fronts. The air was damp and hot, and thick with the smells of smoke and meat cooking over open fires in the parking lot. Dusk was settling in. African rhythms boomed from drums while bands and DJs played fantastic Ghanaian and Cameroonian music. Huge crowds danced and fires burned while the music played. We separated into twos and made way to our entry gates. Parker and I had seats together and we smashed ourselves into the queue to get in. The game was starting and we were still in line. We pushed forward and I swept a pickpockets hand away from my pockets, we saw a south African bloke throw a man to the ground to protect his friends backpack. We were told it might be rough. It was. We made our way to the seats while the game was in full swing, and the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear your own voice. At half time, it was still zero-zero, and they fans were jubilant. About 25 minutes into the second half, Cameroon scored, the collective Ghanaian crowd audibly exhaled, followed by an uneasy silence. The rest of the game was painful to watch as Cameroon dived all over the pitch , feigning injuries. On the way to meet the others, the streets were calm but crowded, and resignation could be read on the face of the locals. Esther was very upset and was holding back tears. She was a good proxy for all Ghanaians. The excitement waned a bit in the city after that evening, but it was still “the cup” and the city was still excited. Freddy and I went to a sports bar for the final, and saw a group of young men from Cameroon jump from the crowd and begin playing with the band in the post game. Cameroon lost to Egypt, but the Cameroonians were partying as if they won, and hearing their rhythms and the ease at which they maneuvered through complex polyrhythmic chanting and drumming absolutely blew my mind.

Golfing in Ghana
Fred and I played a round of golf at the only “grass” course in Accra. I use the term grass rather loosely, because there wasn’t much of it. The greens were like rough, the sand traps were more mud than sand, and the fairways played like a hazard. Shacks lined some holes on the course, while shared TVs glowed with the Ghana cup consolation game, which would eventually establish Ghana as the third place team. Our caddies were awesome, and they steered Fred and I around the course, avoiding army ants and termite mounds. I lost only one ball thanks to a stellar forecaddie. It was unbelievably hot and humid and you could hear Ghana scoring as neighborhoods broke out in shouts at each Ghanaian goal.

The Market Places
Cynthia is one of Anna and Freddy’s gate guards (yes the house has barbed wire and a manned gate), and she has a special talent. She is an incredible seamstress. Anna asked if she would make some clothes for us and she gladly said “Yes!” She asked to see a pair of my pants, and said she could make a new pair just like it. We just had to go shop for fabric. So Esther Dennis, Anna, Carol and I made our way to the market. This is the Ghanaian peoples market where you can buy fabrics in one shop, buttons in another shop, thread in yet another shop, Ghanaian hip hop in another and so on. This market reminded us a bit of the Barkhor in Tibet. Crowded and tight streets, lined with small shops, snaked their way through alleys and walk ways. A few large streets crisscross the market slowly transporting goods in open lorries. We cruised the markets and had an awesome time. The people welcomed us into their shops and dickered with us on prices. Negotiating the deals was half the fun. The other half was walking the market to the shouts of “Abrone!” (meaning foreigner), and shaking hands with Ghanaian shop owners and their friends. People in these markets loved to see us, and you could tell by reactions that it was very novel and unique to have white people in this market. We keep remembering our NYC cab driver telling us “You will see the sweet face of humanity” … indeed I think we did

Posted by Blakei 09:20 Archived in Ghana Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Emirates Airlines and Dubai

Man – that was a long flight

sunny 90 °F

Well, if you have to take a long flight, Emirates is the Airline to take. This, by any measure was a long flight and thus warrants its own blog entry. The service was great, the food was fantastic, the kids were treated like special little citizens, and the seats were very comfortable. We flew business class because we knew it was going to be brutal. We flew 3 hours to Sydney, 14 hours to Dubai, and then 9 hours to Accra, Ghana. The flights, including layovers, wore on for 30 hours gate-to-gate. Dubai was our introduction into the region. The airport was immense and people from all over Africa, the Middle East, and Europe lay strewn across the floor of the terminal, sleeping with their heads against the walls. With thousands of others, we pushed carts of carry-on luggage through the terminal through the masses avoiding those sleeping on the floor.

We arrived at sunrise and the city loomed large, or maybe I should say stretched tall, rising out of a hanging dust cloud. Parker was in heaven, and had been chattering about the Dubai skyscrapers since the beginning of the trip. What we saw from the sky and the airport was pretty shocking and certainly isn’t replicated anywhere else in the world. One building actually stands double the height of the empire state building and we could see this from the airport terminal. Other clusters of immense buildings rise all over the city in what I’m sure is anything but a random pattern. As we left the city and the airspace, it seemed really odd to see all of this incredible building, and then seeing how quickly and abruptly it stops - running into vast stretches of sand. On one side of town, the view conjured up visions of Vegas, and the other side, Miami. Both on steroids.dubaiblog01.jpg

Posted by Blakei 05:31 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Dunedin and Christchurch

Finishing off the South Island

We scheduled two days in Dunedin because it is the only real coastal town on the south island we would visit on the trip. Dunedin is known for two things world wide. The first is the incredible surf they get. They get swells from arctic storms that are gigantic, powerful and cold. The second is the steepest street in the world. It rises at a 35 degree angle. There are a lot of charming things about Dunedin, and it IS the oldest most historic city from a European perspective in New Zealand, but after falling in love with Queenstown, it’s hard to admit that we really just wanted to be back Queenstown.

It rained during our visit and it was a little chilly, but we still got in a couple of nice dinners, a good surf session, visited the steepest street in the world and we visited a gorgeous place called “Natures Wonders”.
Natures Wonders is a converted farm that now is a very nice a wildlife sanctuary – though sheep still roam. This isn’t like Deer Park Heights. It’s a gorgeous place that acts as a preserve, (not a petting zoo) for the endangered yellow eyed penguin, and a breeding and birthing ground for fur seals. We saw a few slow-moving Yellow eyed penguins, a few blue penguins, as well as hundreds of baby fur seals that had just been born. Heaven for Griffin, though I thought we were going to crash on the way to the place as the lanes were at times one lane wide. We were driven around in 8 wheel vehicles (like the old Banana Split mobiles) to access the rugged and untouched coast line. The boys loved that.

Parker and I walked up Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world according to the Guinness boo of world records, and it was incredibly steep. Unfortunately, somehow I nuked all of the pictures of our hike, so you’ll just have to gander at this stock photo to tell.

The surf was powerful even though it wasn’t all that big, and it was teaming with life. There were so many jelly fish in the water it felt like soup when we were paddling, our hands pulling through hundreds of tiny purple jellies. With the wet suits, we didn’t care too much about the cold or the sea life. Neither of us got stung once.

Dunedin had a very nice skate park which we had planned to abuse, but after about 15 minutes of skating, the rain came and thus came an end to the skate session. Instead, we toured the local “Speights” brewery, which had become my favorite beer in New Zealand, and as cheesy as the tour was, the boys enjoyed it, tending bar and pouring a couple of pints for the first time. A bizarre dichotomy in New Zealand: A parent can hand a 12 year old a beer and they can drink it legally, but that same parent can’t bring that 12 year old to an R rated movie, under any circumstance (e.g. American Gangster).

We stayed in Christchurch for two days just to get ready for Africa. The drive to Christchurch from Dunedin was unremarkable, and the roads were straight. The land was actually flat for a change – and represented the only coastal plain on the east coast of the island. It felt a bit like the plain between the Ventura river and the Conejo Grade, with a lot less activity. We picked up a couple that was hitchhiking and looked like they were in need of some help. It turns out they were touring the coast in their sail boat, and their engine block cracked. They were now waiting for the repairs which could take the better part of a week or more. Now they just needed a lift to get to the nearest town, which was about 45 kilometers to restock some provisions. We dropped them off and continued north on our flat straight and uneventful road.

When we arrived in Christchurch, we returned the camper and were reunited with our bags and our gear that we had shipped to Christchurch. We washed laundry, and picked up any provisions we needed for our flight out. We also skated a nice skate park, dined at a couple of nice eateries, and strolled the city a bit on foot and on the bus system). One restaurant in particular deserves mention. It was called the Mexican Café, and the Mexican food was better than we get at home in San Luis Obispo, and the tequila selection was one of the best we had ever seen. If you’re in Christchurch, don’t miss it. Christchurch was a bit of an anticlimactic end to our New Zealand itinerary, but frankly, we were ready for the next adventure to start. On Monday we drove to the New Zealand airport with plenty of time to spare and readied ourselves for the longest airline trip we’ve ever taken.

Posted by Blakei 03:03 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)


Our favorite city in New Zealand

sunny 74 °F

It’s unanimous. Queenstown is our favorite city in New Zealand and one of the top places we’ve visited on the trip. We were supposed to make our way down to the Milford sound and Teanau, but we decided to stay extra days in Queenstown instead. It’s just that nice. This place is cool, young, adventurous, active, diverse, international, and it is the adrenaline capital of the world.

We drove for about 6 hours from the glacier in perfect weather and arrived in Queenstown in the afternoon. Even the drive to Queenstown was nothing short of spectacular, with gorgeous views around what seemed like every corner. We even had some straight roads for a change that bore through valleys of vineyards and fruit trees, where gentlemen vintners were applying their new retirement trade. Given the beauty of the area, the nearby ski fields, the abundance of all things adventure and outdoor, the reasonable real estate prices, as well as a great airport serving the area with 737s and A320s from Qantas and Air New Zealand, it isn’t a surprise that folks are retiring here. We took some shots from the road on our way to Queenstown that speak volumes to the beauty of the area – and this was before we ever made it town.

When we arrived, we found the little city bustling with activity and our holiday park just a short walk from downtown, and an even shorter walk from the gondola that lifts you to the peak overlooking Queenstown. As we walked into town, paragliders carrying pilot and passenger floated through the sky, having just launched from the top of the gondola. They were landing right next to our holiday park in the elementary school play yard. As you walked downtown, you realize just how young the town is. There are twenty something’s everywhere patrolling the streets and they come from all over the world. Europeans, Australians, Africans, Israelis, Chinese and Japanese can be heard on the streets and in the shops, though all seem to speak English as well. We saw very few young Americans, which bothered us, and we quietly wished more young Americans would leave the US for some cultural immersion in a place like this. The Americans we did see were overweight, retired and in their 60s, and proudly wearing “we’re American” on their sleeves. This also bothered us, and we wondered how a cruise ship could have floated to this land locked city.

Adventure tour operators filled store fronts all over town and it seemed that virtually anything you wanted to try out was available; horseback riding, paragliding, hang gliding, parachuting, mountain biking, motorcycling, luging, jet boat riding, river sledging, white water rafting, bungy jumping, sky swinging, water skiing, and I probably left out more than I just mentioned. The beauty, along with the adventure tours is what brings all these young people to town.

The Luge:
The first “adventure thing we did was “luging”. Truth be told, it wasn’t all that adventurous, but it was fun nonetheless. We took the gondola to the top of the mountain and took a chair lift further up from there, where we all jumped into wheeled carts that rocket down a cement “luge track”. They had a “scenic track” and a “fast track”, the prior being a little dangerous due to all of the slow pokes taking in the scenery, while we just wanted to race. Old folks, young kids and everything in between were shooting down the tracks and only a few times did any of us almost go over the side.

Ride of the Rings:
Queenstown is Lord of the Rings Country. The mountains, valleys, hillsides and forests, that surround Queenstown are the backdrop for many of the movies’ scenes. There are many location tours, most by car, some by plane and a few by horseback. We thought it most appropriate to take the tour on horseback, since that is how the actors travelled on screen, so we chose a tour called “Ride of the Rings” which departed from the tiny and quaint town of Glenorchy and trekked through forest and hills and valleys. Some of the horses were actually from the movie. Our guide was a guy named “Soap” and he knew more about the Lord of the Rings than anyone we have met, as well as being one of the few folks who can lay claim to actually being in the movie. He was an uruk-hai. He showed us sites on the way to the ride, on the way home from the ride, though a nice young woman named Ellie actually took us on the trek while Soap arranged all of our horses for us and made sure Ellie had all she needed. Soap was absolutely awesome with the kids and we invited him over for a drink after the tour. The tour was cool, and the kids could actually spot scenes from the movie before they were pointed out. “Here is where so and so was shot”, and “That is where the pippin hid from the Uruk-hai”, and “The Orks ran down that hill!”, and the guide would say “Yes that’s right kids, now shut up and let me point that stuff out” :-). The horses were easy to ride, excepting Carol’s that had a bit of a mean streak, and kept nipping at the other horses as he jockeyed for the front position.

Deer Park Heights
Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Waikatipu, the largest lake in New Zealand. It’s a glacier fed lake, filled by cascading glacial rivers throughout the region. On the other side of the river is an area known as “Deer Park Heights”. Soap asked us if we would like to take a trip to Deer Park Heights and he picked us up and gave is a personal tour of the area. Deer Park Heights is a privately owned farm of sorts that is now sort of a gigantic petting zoo. Deer, Alpacas, Pigs, Buffalo, Yaks, Elk, etc roam the hills free as you drive through the park on dirt paths. As you enter, you pour yourself a big can of deer pellets – which all the animals love. Shake the can, and herds of whatever is nearby start running toward you. It’s a little unnerving, but it was really cool having Alpacas, Miniature horses, and deer eating out of our hands. Some animals even stuck their heads in the cars to get a little pellet action
The other thing Deer Park heights has are numerous sites from Lord of the Rings including the cliff from which Aragorn fell, after being attacked by a warg. We took all of these sites in, including a couple of sets from the upcoming Wolverine, movie. Deer Park Heights also has the best sunset views of Queenstown you will ever see. We took many photos as the sun dove, trying to capture the light over Lake Waikatipu. At one point while we were snapping away, a group of male deer approached and I lightly walked toward them to get a picture from a distance that is almost too close to believe.

We saved the adrenaline rush for the last day in Queenstown. When we jumped off the tower in Auckland, it was actually in preparation for a bungy jump in Queenstown. Once again, we all did it. It was actually quite fun and while it was a little scary, it wasn’t as visually terrifying as the jump in Auckland. The boys and I jumped off something called the ledge Bungy at the top of the Gondola in Queenstown, which is only 47 meters of Bungy, but it feels like every bit of the 400 meters you are above the town. Carol bungy’d off of the Kawarau bridge with the intent of getting dunked in the water at the bottom, but as luck would have it, her bungy cord didn’t make it all the way to the water. All of us let out a hoot or a scream as we plunged. She actually did say Kowabunga when she jumped. It's on the video. The boys did us one better by dropping from the sky on something called a sky swing, which they both maintain was much more scary than the bungy jump. After watching them drop about 80 feet or so before the rope actually starts to swing, and after hearing their screams, I believe ‘em.

Posted by Blakei 08:04 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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