Ga Duniya

see the world

Our Summer Camping Win

Reasons why Honeyman State Park is an awesome place to camp.

#1. Because sunrise through the trees is pretty spectacular.

#2. Because our camping spot came with a built-in fort!

#3. Because there’s no shortage of sticks and pinecones to add to the toasty campfire.

#4. Because I haven’t seen sand dunes like this since I lived next door to the Sahara. (Although, the sand there wasn’t exactly surrounded by lush forest.)

#5. Because it was perfectly sunny and warm on our full day there. (Okay, I know that’s not actually a feature of the park, but it sure made me have a good feeling about it! I think my family agreed.)

And finally, #6. Because the lake is clean and lovely.




New Orleans Double Vision: Part 3 — Uncle Lionel

On the day that I sat alone, eating my muffaletta, a band was playing in the open-air restaurant. I enjoyed the background music as I watched people on the street in front of me, but I didn’t really gaze at the band much until he appeared.

Uncle Lionel.

I didn’t realize his fame and legend at the time. All I knew was that out of nowhere a skinny old man appeared, dressed rather spiffy in his cream suit and wide-brimmed hat. He was holding a cane, which also doubled as trombone — the sound coming from his own vocal chords as he slid the “instrument” back and forth in front of his mouth. He sang and entertained, looking as comfortable on that stage as anyone I’d seen, all the while appearing as if a strong wind could blow him over.

That was sweet, I thought.

Then came open mic night at La Maison. Musicians had been rotating on and off the stage all evening, taking turns leading the make-shift band, waiting for their opportunity to find a space on the crowded platform. As the emcee announced a new addition to the medley, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry folks, but there’s a change of plans. A legend just walked in the door.” And up came Uncle Lionel, wearing the same dapper dress including the dark shades.

There was an air of awe and respect among the other musicians, while Uncle Lionel sang and commanded the stage as if it were his own home. Which it practically was. We later learned he’s been performing in New Orleans since World War 2. I was glad that Reuben had a chance to see the man I’d told him about, and I was excited to learn that I’d been in the presence of an icon.

But my encounters with Uncle Lionel didn’t stop at two. On our last full day in the city, I was walking through a courtyard near the French Market looking for a place to sit and enjoy my sweet tea. Just before I passed by two old men sitting on a park bench, one of them called out asking what I was drinking. “Sweet tea,” I replied. It was then that I noticed Uncle Lionel was old man #2, just sitting enjoying the air, unmistakably recognizable. “What’s that?” his friend asked me again. “Sweet tea,” I repeated with a smile. “Pee pee?” he retorted, and I wasn’t sure if he was mocking or teasing me. But I didn’t care. I may be a tourist, but I know Uncle Lionel when I see him.

Drought and Despair

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a die-hard advocate for the people of Niger. With one short and unreliable rainy season per year, the Sahara Desert threatening to overtake sparse crops, the highest fertility rate in the world, and often ranking in last place on the world’s development index, Niger needs our help.

I truly believed I’d never find people poorer than those I knew in Niger.

And then I went to Kenya.

Mamaselina, age 30, and her seven children were the first family who showed me that poverty can hit hard in other places too. I remember walking the rocky path to their home and noting that while the landscape looked green, it was a mirage. The bushes and trees weren’t lush, they were either cactus or branches full of thorns. There were no fields, no crops, no water sources.

To get water for her family, once per day Mamaselina walks two hours to the nearest river. She’s able to carry about 20 litres back home, which would be enough for one of us to take a two-minute shower or flush the toilet twice. My upstairs bathtub faucet drips about this much each day.

If her children have enough energy, they might join her in the task, carrying 5 litres each. That barely puts a dent in what they actually need, though. The minimum standards are 25 liters per person per day. As a result, each child is rationed one cup of water to bathe with once per week.

During her two-hour trek back home, Mamaselina will collect firewood–adding it to her 44 pound burden of water–in hopes that she can sell it for a few shillings at a nearby market. This is her only source of income to buy food. On the day we visited, only the two smallest children had eaten a bit of porridge. No one else in the family had eaten since they boiled some maize the day before.

I looked around the compound as we spoke with Mamaselina. Besides the mud hut, there was almost nothing to indicate that people lived there. No granary, very few dishes or utensils, barely any possessions even inside of the hut. I could see why she wasn’t worried about locking up her home during her daily trek for water. What could anyone steal?

The destitution was obvious in Mamaselina’s answers to our questions as well:

We asked if she knew why little Julia (left) was often sick, with a swollen belly and dull, yellow eyes. “Who knows?” she replied.

Do her children ask her to give them food when they are hungry? “No, they are used to being hungry.”

I was shocked at her fatalistic sentiments when we asked if she felt the baby she was nursing was receiving enough milk. “I believe the little milk the child is getting is enough and she will be used to this life.”

At 7-months old, how sad that a baby should already be resigned to a life of hunger.

Does she have hope? “I just believe that God will help me. There is nothing I can do.”

I wanted to argue. But what could she do?

In that thorny, hot, remote, dry landscape, Mamaselina needs resources. So what can we do? Pray. Donate. Help.

We emptied our water bottles into the family’s plastic jugs, hoping that would at least help a little. And we returned home to tell the story.

I often think of Julia, and her younger sister Chathrine. During our visit someone had placed a handful of thick-skinned fruits into an empty bowl and handed it to them. I’d already noticed how the toddlers simply sat in the shade, too tired and hungry to be playful. But it was equally disturbing to watch them with the bowl of fruit. Suffering from chronic hunger, you’d think they would have dug in and devoured it as quickly as they could. I know my two-year old would do that if she had a bowl of candy. But Julia and Chathrine mostly just held the fruits protectively, and picked at one. The toddler impulse had been replaced by the wisdom to ration the food and make it last.

The Trials of a Carnivore

April 2nd, 2011 was a very long day.

It began the night before, actually, at the guest house in Lokori, Kenya, when our hard-working, ever-accommodating staff moved my bed (with mosquito net, of course) outside in hopes that I could catch a cool, yet non-existent breeze.

Yes, I spent 2+ years sleeping outdoors in Africa, but that was nearly 10 years ago. The noises and heat and dust and fear of sleeping through my alarm made me restless. I almost welcomed the 4:30am wake-up call, until I remembered that this is the bathroom I’d be freshening up in before our 4-hour trip up north to Lodwar to catch a plane to Nairobi.

Allow me a brief moment to explain the challenges of using such a bathroom. . . First, you have to find a place to put your toiletries, so that they aren’t on the floor (for obvious reasons), but also so that no huge bugs crawl on them. Having a small bag of toiletries with a handle to hang it from a bathroom door handle is a must. Then, due to the absence of a toilet seat, and a general lack of sanitation, you must hover above the toilet to do your business. While using the facilities, try not to look around too much or you’re sure to notice cockroaches, spiders, and sometimes even frogs closed inside the room with you. Best just to ignore the fact they might be there. When you’re finished, heed the warning scrawled above the toilet — “Pliz no enough water for flush use a basin.” Now there is a good purpose for the drippy shower right next to you, as it has supplied a bucket full of water for you to pour into the toilet bowl and avoid any embarrassment about what you’ve left behind.

Back to our journey. The team convened at the land cruiser, in the dark, at 4:45am. It was then that we realized our flight was actually leaving two hours later than we thought. Maybe one of us should have checked the tickets last night. Oh well, we decided, at least we’d be traveling in the cool of the day. This was the first time that I was able to sleep in the vehicle, since Kenya has some of the bumpiest gravel roads I’d ever bounced over.

A couple of hours into our journey we stopped at a transit town (basically, one road with some shacks and people scattered about) for a breakfast of bland fried cakes and warm coke. I passed, and opted for my granola bar instead.

We’d given ourselves a generous window of time to catch the flight, plus the extra two hours of miscalculation, so we had a lot of time to kill in Lodwar. Unfortunately, there was nothing at all to do. So we sat at a hotel bar, where no other people were present, and it was about an hour before a lone waiter offered us some warm juice. Mine became fly-infested so I tossed it and ate some trail mix instead.

Eventually it was time to go to the airport. All airport designers please take note: The following is not a confidence-boosting sight to see on the runway when you are an arriving passenger.

We were the first ones there, so we took seats on half-plank wooden benches underneath a small shade hangar. That was the airport, so to speak. Three workers hand-inspected our luggage and issued us our very official-looking boarding passes.

And then we waited some more. The plane was delayed, of course. Something had happened during a stop in Kainuk. I had some more trail mix. An hour past our scheduled departure time, we finally heard the sound of the plane’s engine. By then there were all sorts of official cars parked along the runway, waiting for the Japanese ambassador. Once his entourage had left, we were able to board. And once our plane took off, I was happy to order a coke — the first truly cold beverage I’d had in nearly a week.

It was striking to look down at the landscape below us — the earth appeared cracked, which it was, but these cracks were actually dried up riverbeds. The drought in the Horn of Africa is real.

I felt guilty for having my cold coke and wishing I could have a real meal. So many on the ground were going without. Such is the emotional dilemma of an American aid worker.

We were more than ready to return to Nairobi for an afternoon of being clean and relaxed. We dreamed of the hotel pool. But the flight attendant disrupted our dreams to announce that we were beginning our descent to Kitale. Wait, what? My hand-written ticket says nothing about a stop. Ugh. Well, what can I do? As they say in Niger, sai hankuri — have patience.

We waited on the plane for the new passengers to arrive, but then were asked to descend. The plane had a flat tire that needed to be repaired. I suppose that’s no surprise given that the runway is gravel and in the middle of the African bush. But, wow — really, a flat tire?

Back on board I drank another coke and continued my dreams about Nairobi. We’d be there soon, and I’d finally have a meal. After all, I’d already been awake 12 hours and had only eaten trail mix and a granola bar. More guilt.

“We are now beginning our descent to Eldoret.” What?!?!? Where the heck is that? It’s not Nairobi! Ugh! We had to leave the plane again, since this time we were refueling. (Was there really not enough to make it to Nairobi? Really really?) I left my bags on board and waited in the relatively nice terminal this time, instead of standing in the dirt along the landing strip.

When we were invited back on board, suddenly a security officer was there to check our tickets, even though there were no other planes or passengers. Here comes the part I love about Africa — being able to talk your way through anything. I stood in line and when it was my turn to show my ticket I explained that I’d left it on board the plane. I smiled, looked apologetic and was very respectful. He let me by without a question.

Finally, Nairobi. The team agreed that we would take 30 minutes to check in to our rooms and shower. Then we were headed to the most touristy of all Kenyan restaurants: Carnivore.

I will say that returning from nearly a week of working 16-hour days in hot and rustic rural Kenya, and having endured a day that began at 4:30am without any real meals is perhaps the perfect scenario for an introduction to Carnivore. If nothing else, after all we’d seen in the past week, we knew we wouldn’t take it for granted.

The restaurant is an all-you-can-eat meat barbecue. I hear they used to have exotic animals like zebra and warthog on the menu, but environmentalists have rightly limited the variety these days. Still, there are a few things you can’t get back home.

How it works is that servers come around to your table with huge sword/skewers stuck through a huge slab of meat. They tell you what it is, and carve a chunk right on to your plate. Some of the options were tame — chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb. Others were unique — ostrich, crocodile. And, even though I’m not picky, there were two that I just couldn’t stomach — camel and ox balls. Camel just seems too much like horse. And ox balls, well… it’s kind of self-explanatory.

Abby was the bravest of us all, and had the biggest Carnivore adventure. First, while a server was slicing a piece of turkey onto her plate, the skewer slipped and the entire turkey carcass fell in Abby’s lap. All hot and greasy. Pretty sure that would have earned her a free meal in the States.

When the ox ball server came around, Abby was the only one of us who opted in. So of course we had to tease her — her being the young, single girl eating balls, after all. But we had a question — the menu shows ostrich meatballs, so were we sure that these were really ox balls or were they maybe the less gross ox meatballs? We had to find out.

Another waiter came by and instead of requesting a piece of meat, Abby requested clarification. “Um, can you tell me what kind of meat this is?” she asked, pointing to the half-eaten ox balls on her plate.

“Those are ox balls,” he replied. And then he leaned in closer to Abby, cupped his hand at his chest and bounced it as he further explained, “You know, the male part.”

And that was the highlight of our very long day.

New Orleans Double Vision: Part 2 — There’s No Place Like Maison

Everyone’s heard of Bourbon Street. The beads, the balconies, the booze, the boobs — the street is a world all its own. So of course that was the first place Reuben and I headed after settling into our room at a nearby bed-and-breakfast. We hit the street at 10:30pm, and it was pretty tame. By 2am, I could barely absorb all the craziness I’d seen, heard, and smelled that night. It was an experience worthy of a post all its own.

But not this one. This post is about a lesser-known street, but one that is much more our style–Frenchman Street–and the fabulous time we spent there at a club called “Maison.”

Now, for someone who knows me well, it would come as no surprise that I would be drawn to a venue with a French name and located literally on French(man) street, but it was actually Reuben who was first compelled to explore the place. He’d heard it has more live jazz and blues than the dance-party infused Bourbon Street, and that it’s the place where the locals go for music. He heard right.

Frenchman Street was also not far from where we were staying, so we walked there on our second night in New Orleans. We passed by a club or two requiring a cover charge, which we were perplexed by since we’d already learned enough about the city to know that there is abundant and incredible music for free all around. So it wasn’t long before we entered the cover-free Maison.

That first night at the club, we discovered the Young Fellaz Brass Band. Their name is a pretty good description — they’re a group of young guys who (with the exception of the drummer) skip the vocals and focus entirely on their brass. Calling them talented wouldn’t do them justice — they are explosive! I wondered how their lungs could produce such a booming sound without bursting. And in the case of the trumpeter in the photo up top, I wondered the same about his cheeks.

But while it was a near-deafening sound, it was also a harmonious and rhythmic one. The kind of sound that makes it impossible to remain in your seat, and once you stand you can’t help but clap and wave your arms and dance.

We stayed there for hours and the musicians never seemed to tire. Neither did we tire of hearing their tunes.

We returned to the Maison once more during our trip, this time happening upon open mic night. Now, I’ve been to open mic nights where we live, and it’s nice to hear some live music from various artists. But you can’t even compare it to what we found in New Orleans. It should really be called open mics, plural, because instead of taking turns the musicians simply joined whoever was already onstage, flowing seamlessly into their songs and styles.

It was one of the best bands I’d ever heard–that open mic night–and the emcee told us these guys didn’t even know each other and had never played together before. I was astounded that strangers could make such mesmerizing sounds together.

Here’s a preview: Part 3 of this series will tell the tale of “Mr. New Orleans,” who briefly kidnapped the stage at open mic night. But, for now, here’s my double vision experience #2. 

On Tuesday I had an afternoon to myself and took a stroll around the French Quarter. I was drawn to the beat of energetic music I could hear nearby in front of the cathedral. As I approached I found the cheeks that still hadn’t burst, and the tuba that proved the invigorating band from Maison was giving me a street performance. I sat longer than any of the other tourists on the steps in front of the church, listening to the Young Fellaz blast their songs in the open air. I ate some pralines and drank some sweet iced tea, then I took a lot of pictures. It was a good day.

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