Monday, December 31, 2012

Water, water everywhere . . .

Market Day, Arusha
We're not in Tanzania anymore. I don't see people riding bicycles overloaded with produce or goods to sell at the market, young men pushing carts, or small boys driving a herd of goats alongside the road. I don't see women of all ages carrying heavy buckets of water home. I took this quick shot of the market in Arusha out the window of our jeep as we were being whisked through town to a national park. We didn't see much of everyday life on this trip.

Tanzania is decidedly a rural country:  90% of its people (2) live in rural areas and make their living from the earth, compared to 20% in the United States (1). Everywhere around Arusha, the Serengheti, and the Ngorongoro, people lived close to the land, tilling dry fields, and hoping for rain. A rainy season, we are told, that is getting shorter.

Maasai village near the Serengheti
So I've been thinking about global warming and wondering about its impact on Tanzania and its rural peoples.

The first article I found from the World Wildlife Federation itemized the dramatic shrinkage of glaciers (down 55% between 1952-2000), the loss of glacier and cloud forest melt to already short water supplies in the area around Mount Kilimanjaro, home to some one million people. Global warming in the Indian Ocean has flooded some traditional fishing communities and led to something called coral bleaching -- which directly affected tourism, again the loss counted in millions of dollars. Scientists say in the next hundred years, Zanzibar Island, a major tourist attraction with a rich history, may well be inundated by rising seas.

Over the last decade, I have seen glaciers shrink in Montana's Glacier National Park, where once 125 glaciers graced the mountains. My first reaction is how sad to lose such beautiful natural sites that we all enjoy. I don't immediately think of the impact on animals and the surrounding ecosystems as habitat changes. We've seen thousands of acres of forest destroyed by pine beetles in the US and Canada, directly attributable to drier land (4).

We take almost as a truism that third world countries have a lower standard of living, but everywhere we were welcomed with smiles. More statistics: The rate of crime in the United States is 715 incidents per 100,000. In Tanzania, the crime rate is 116 per 100,000. If a child begins school, he or she can expect to finish 15.2 years in the US; in Tanzania, 5 years. If we compare adult education, adults in the United States on average have completed 12 years of school. Adults in Tanzania, 2.7 years (1).

According to Tanzania's Minister of Energy, some 6.6% of those 90% living in rural areas have access to electricity, compared to about 20% of Tanzanians who live in major cities (2). We did not eat ice cream in Tanzania. I had never thought of ice cream as a first world treat before. The children at the school we visited did not exactly know what ice cream was.

Tanzanians everywhere talked about global warming, each not sure what to do. We can appreciate our time there, experiencing the amazing national parks with their diversity of wildlife, the stretch of human history from the earliest days, and its iconic landscape. I come away from this once-in-a-lifetime visit to Tanzania well aware of the differences in our quality of life. Money alone will not help, though our tour company, Overseas Adventure Travel, funds projects through a foundation in every country it tours. I think Tanzania is vulnerable in ways we cannot imagine.

(1) Statistics: NationMaster
(2) All Africa Reports
(3) WWF (World Wildlife Fund)
(4) Glacier National Park, Retreat of Glaciers

Friday, December 21, 2012

Maasai Women . . .

Our small group gathered in a large round Maasai hut to talk directly with three elders and a translator, all men, to ask them any question about their way of life. I wanted to learn what folktales or stories they told their children. My question was ignored. I wanted to learn more about the wonderful women who had welcomed us with song.

What we learned about that morning was the nearly unmentionable rite of passage that traditional people still practice. Both boys and girls go through circumcision, though for girls, this is called clitoridectomy or excision. The 'surgery' is very painful, and the government is trying to end this ritual. But because this practice is part of bedrock belief, people still at puberty undergo the rite.

In fact, we saw young boys -- who, if they show pain, shame their families -- with faces painted in elaborate white masks who had completed this ceremony. The boys approached our jeeps. Ombeni, our guide, told us not to take photos or give money because it meant the boys learned early to be dependent. One person took a beautiful portrait of these young boys, but I think I understand why Ombeni was angry, for the picture makes these boys into objects, a thing of beauty barely understood, out of a process that is difficult for the West to accept.

We were told that the men take care of the cattle and think, and that the women do everything else. So, the women of our group were invited to help 'refresh' the walls of one of the Maasai round houses with a mixture of dirt and dung. We dove in, appreciating this 'hands on' opportunity, again welcomed into a community of women whose cultural identity we did not understand.

When I came home, I looked up Maasai folktales to see if this would add to my understanding of the division between genders. I found the Maasai believe that in the beginning, the women and the men were once equal, but they lived separately. The men raised cattle. The women raised antelopes and gazelles; zebras and elephants were their helpers. Occasionally, two would meet deep in the forest to mate. Boy children would go with the men at puberty; girl children would stay with their mothers.

But there was trouble in this paradise for the women were never satisfied, not even with their magical animal helpers -- their herds ran away, and the elephants and the zebras deserted them. The women were unable to survive, so they went to live with the men. In so doing, they gave up their independence. Forever.

I will remember these strong women, their voices welcoming us to their homes, their children close by, their impromptu dancing and market. I wonder how their culture, essentially a village culture, will be changed by the rush to modernity. What will be lost? What will be gained?


To read more about Maasai culture, go to this very helpful site on Every Culture.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Decoding Cultural Masks . . .

While in Arusha, Tanzania, we visited the Cultural Heritage Centre, a compound of shops and a large gallery of African art. Our driver said only an hour; we squeezed in another 45 minutes. I could have stayed the rest of the afternoon.

African Female Portrait Mask, Provenance unknown
The architecture of the gallery was circular, open, with excellent light.We saw literally hundreds of traditional African art objects -- sculptures, textiles, carvings, masks, chief's chairs, and modern paintings. I was reminded how Picasso's art changed irrevocably after he saw African art for the first time at a friend's house in Paris, about 1907. The result? Cubism and the beginning of abstract art.

But now that I'm home, reviewing my pictures, I realize layers of controversy and a lack of real information hinder my understanding of these works. As this was a gallery, not every work identified the maker, the tribe, or when or where the work was made. Are the art works authentic or manufactured for the tourist trade? Were they imported from India or other countries and made to specification? The desire to preserve traditional beliefs is juxtaposed against the commercial appeal of these works. Traditionally, fathers taught sons how to make the masks, passing along sacred and secret information. Once the masks are taken outside of their tribal context, how do we understand what these masks mean?

Beaded Mask, Provenance unknown
We admire a beautiful African mask. But to someone within the tribal culture, this mask is more important for what it symbolizes -- the mask can represent nature spirits, be a change agent, a bridge to the spirit world, or worn for a ritual, itself a rite of passage. Once the person puts on the mask, he (for typically men wear these masks) is transformed.

In the mask of the woman above, the high forehead may stand for intelligence, the closed eyes for patience and humility (desired traits in females), the beading and scarification could emphasized culturally defined beauty, and the cowry shells, royalty.

I'm guessing the beaded mask may be some kind of nature god for sea creatures swim around the green face heavily decorated with cowry shells. But I don't trust my interpretations for I was never the young child standing in the marketplace (as shown in the video below), watching an ancestral hyena come to life and dance.

In this 15-minute video on YouTube, Christopher Roy discusses some of the contexts of the mask in "African Art: The Masks of the Gnoumou Family in Boni Perform, 2007." His video is set in Burkina Faso, West Africa.






Monday, December 10, 2012

Keratu and the Brickmakers . . .


On nearly the last day in Tanzania, we visited a brick-making business in the Iraqw community of Keratu. We were told these Cushitic people came from Ethiopia in the 14th Century, but academics debate exactly how long these people have been in Sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps as long as from 2,000 BC. I did find that the Cushitic language is part of a family of languages spoken in the Horn of Africa, Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt. So these people have deep roots in eastern Africa.

Our host Saita led us on a tour through the large open-air factory, held by some 70 families.

The brickmakers demonstrated how to pound the red clay soil into a powder that was then mixed with water, fired in large kilns, and sold at roughly 7 bricks for $1.00. These bricks can only be made during the dry season, for dry weather is needed to cure the bricks.

The young men worked hard with few tools; they were strong and very thin. Yet they greeted us with big smiles.

Our host invited us to his home, a short walk from the factory where we met his wife and children, were dressed in kangas, and treated to a lunch of rice and beans called macondi. This is the closest recipe I can find that matches this delicious beans and rice dish we shared, though this version is called Wali Maharage. If you are feeling adventurous, here are some additional recipes (and a little history) from Tanzania.

Saita made a speech, saying he could only share his home and his music with us. He brought out what I later learned was a lute, a two-stringed gourd with a kind of drum pulled over the top. The family then sang and danced for us; the music was lively, punctuated by calls, clicks, and whistles. We were thrilled to join the fun, for music is central to the Iraqw community.

video


My only regret is that I was not able to take as careful notes as I would have liked to remember this very full day. But I can say Naas, which means, "Thank you!" The music remains!

Saita plays his two-stringed gourd

Read more about the Iraqw people of Tanzania here! Many issues remain controversial for these traditional rural people struggling to retain their culture while adapting to modernism.




Sunday, December 09, 2012

Maasai Women welcome us . . .

Maasai Women welcome song

One of the most moving experiences of the trip to Tanzania was our welcome to a Maasai village. Apparently, someone had forgotten to tell someone that we were coming, so when we did arrive, the Maasai men, wrapped in red robes, took us to their corral to admire the cattle. We then returned to the village to find the women streaming out of their houses into a formal line, to sing this welcome song.

video



I never learned the words, but I was overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance of this welcome, this music which so warmly invited us to share a bit of the Maasai culture.

Together, we women brought straw for thatching the roof of this round Maasai home. Rain intervened, so we were put to work, hands on, for plastering the walls with a mix of dirt and cow dung.

Later we sat inside the headman's house for some discussion of serious matters, as three elders attempted to explain the complexity of their culture and their resistance to change. The afternoon ended with more songs, dancing, and an impromptu market of elaborate beadwork. I've carried these memories home, having found much more to research, yet grateful for these experiences.


Saturday, December 08, 2012

In search of the rare, the elusive . . . Red Colobus Monkey


Before joining up with our safari, we stopped in old Stone Town for four days, got to sleep under mosquito netting, and saw the Red Colobus Monkey. 

Pretty cute, huh? This little red monkey is an endangered species found only in Zanzibar, in the Jozoni Forest, about a half hour's ride down from Stone Town. 

There, we saw families of these monkeys just ambling from tree to tree as we walked below them along the ground. The monkeys stopped to check us out, pausing long enough for heartfelt glances. Then they scampered down on the forest floor, across a field, and up palm trees. Typically these little monkeys live to about age 20 and in social groups of about 30. The group we saw had about 8 monkeys, including babies.

Apparently the Swahili name for the Red Colobus is "poison monkey." Partly because of their 'bad smell,' people believe the monkeys kill the trees they eat, and they're never kept as pets.

Don't you wonder what they're thinking?




If you'd like to jump over to my writing blog, there's an African poem there . . .

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Jambo from Stone Town . . .

Beach near Old Town, Stone Town, Zanzibar
We began our sojourn to Africa with a four-day stay in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Somewhat jetlagged, the first words we heard on landing in Stone Town, Zanzibar, were "Jambo!" (hello), and "Jambo, Bwana," (hello, mister). We were blown away by outright, warm friendliness from everyone we met. We heard this tune everywhere --  "Jambo, Bwana," echoing down the streets, sung passionately by a young man climbing a coconut tree on a spice farm, and sung again most hauntingly by a woman at dusk, as we watched the sun fall into the sea. 

Written back in the 1980s by a group called Them Mushrooms, the song has become an anthem for Tanzania and Kenya. Here it is, in all its You-Tube glory:



We have our own "jambo" stories now.

I've always loved languages and thought perhaps Swahili might have feminine and masculine endings, for example, "Jambo" for males and "Jamba" for females. Everytime I asked if this were true, the folks around me burst into laughter. I learned later than "jamba" means fart.

So there we are, camping out in tents on the Serengheti. A young man comes around at 5:30 am with hot water, softly calling, "Jambo. Good morning." Allen reared up in his cot still asleep and called back quite clearly, "Jamba!"

Camping out like that meant we heard animals at night, sometimes the low cough of a lion or a mysterious large animal pawing the grasses outside the tent. So one morning, I won't say who was responsible, but a 'jamba' popped out into the morning. In the next tent, one of our friends said, "Did you hear that lion?"

Tune in tomorrow for more about Stone Town and the rare, nearly extinct Red Colobus Monkey.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Leopards and Cheetahs don't share . . .


She was sleepy. She was grouchy. She had supper stashed in her tree.

Our jeep had just stopped. Ombeni explained that the leopard, like the cheetah, didn't like to share her food. In fact, a leopard commonly drags her kill (this time, a Thomson's gazelle), into a tree to hide it from other predators. She can run as fast as 40 mph to catch her prey. Apparently, it's quite difficult to see leopards in the wild as we did on our first day in the Serengeti, for these animals are silent and nocturnal, and they hunt by stealth. No wonder she was grouchy. We interrupted her nap.

Later, we spotted two cheetahs resting in the grasslands near a herd of wildabeest, just enjoying the sun. Notice her uptipped ears. She doesn't miss much as she lolls lazily on the ground. Those black tear marks on her face actually help her see long distances (just as footballers put black marks under their eyes to avoid sun glare).

The cheetah uses speed to bring down her prey and can reach 70-75 mph during her short chase. Smaller than the leopard, the cheetah may not keep her catch as more aggressive lions and hyenas will chase her away. The cheetah doesn't share willingly.

Poor baby.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

About the ostrich . . .

Female Ostrich
We saw a bit more of a love story than we anticipated as we crossed the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater.

A small herd of ostriches crossed the road in front of our jeeps, but two females appeared to be fighting over a very cute male in full mating regalia.

But first, notice her fluffed out plumage and her thick, very strong legs. These birds can weigh between 150 to 300 pounds and can run up to 40 mph. Normally, they won't attack humans; they're vegetarian. But just one of her kicks could disembowel or kill someone who cornered her.

Male Ostrich
Wikipedia notes that normally ostriches live alone or in pairs, but during mating season, these large birds tend to gather into groups of 5 to 50, typically with other animals that graze, especially zebras. I still cannot quite get over seeing these graceful yet clumsy birds casually strolling among a herd of zebras.

The male's brilliant pink neck and legs contrast sharply with his dark feathers. When he is ready to mate, he performs a sort of a dance with his large wings to attract a female.

Later in the day, we saw such a dance on the far crest of a hill. He danced and drew closer. She hesitated, finally bowing her head in submission. Though the actual mating took just a minute, we felt we were seeing something very private, but we can't anthropomorphize nature. For afterwards, he shook himself (as did she), and they each casually wandered off in different directions.

Before Africa, I would have connected ostriches to the very large ostrich egg and that old story that ostriches bury their heads in sand. They do eat sand and/or gravel to help them digest, and they do lie down on the ground to hide from predators, stretching their necks and heads flat on the ground. From a distance, all we might see is a funny hill that blends into the tall grassses.

They cannot fly, but I would hate to discover an ostrich nest and then see the mother bearing down on me at 40 mph, flapping its wings. Best to leave that adventure for someone else. Leave the nest be.



To the Victor . . .

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Ah, the sensitive and lovely warthog . . .

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
As we entered the very large Ngorongoro Crater, we were treated to another amazing diversity of animals. Roughly 25,000 animals live in this natural conservation area, untroubled by day visitors -- or by the lions who rested in the long grasses on this hot afternoon. As we descended to the base of this volcanic crater, we had a sense of awe for we had just learned this area has been home to some form of humans for the last three million years. 

The warthog in all its beauty!
Who could not find a warthog lovely for its almost anachronistic face alone? That formidable looking warthog, really a wild pig, delights in feeding on the grasslands of the Ngorongoro, also snacking on fungus, insects, eggs, or any carrion that's laying about. Its tusks can give predators a nasty twist; its ears flicker constantly, as does its little fly-whip tail.

We watched as this particular warthog engineered his own comfort (see video below) by using those nasty tusks to carve a mud hole just a little larger. 

video

Unpreturbed by nearby "safari jeeps," he settled down, perhaps bothered by that very same complaint of the omnivorous spotted hyena! Actually, I learned from Wikipedia that the warthog's thin skin (who knew?), makes him very sensitive to changes in temperature. That mud bath cools him down.



At rest in self-made mud bath!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Those dirty dogs . . .

Spotted Brown Hyena
Of all the animals I thought I feared encountering, the hyena came in first. Remember all those movies where hyenas yipped at night, hunted in packs, and charged helpless explorers, their toothsome, gaping grins predicting a ferocious appetite for human flesh.

In Tanzania, more comforting local folklore suggests that witches ride the spotted hyenas at night; if a child is born while a hyena cries, that child will grow to be a thief; or, if a bit of hyena dung is wrapped in an infant's clothing, that toddler will walk faster (Wikipedia). But the truth remains: the hyena is a wily scavenger, versatile, and definitely not a picky eater. In the summer, if bush fires are common and prey difficult to find, and if people sleep outside, the spotted hyena may just snack on an unlucky human.

We spotted several hyenas in the Serengeti and Norongoro Crater, an idyllic gigantic crater so large, the animals here do not have to migrate. The rains come and grasses are plentiful.

A spotted brown hyena's fearsome grin
But those hyenas still have voracious appetites. They eat anything, and they eat all of anything, using their teeth to crush and eat even the bones. Those slivered up bones move through the stomach, the upper intestine, and the lower intestine, to give the hyena a modern complaint -- hemorrhoids.


We saw hyenas with their butts plopped in mud to ease the pain. It's rather difficult to fear an animal who suffers from hemorrhoids!

Warthogs also enjoy a mudbath now and then. That's the topic for tomorrow's post.


Solace at last!



















Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Zebras are smarter . . .


Zebras on the Serengeti
We were lucky to be in the Serengeti just as November's short rains began for they mark the start of the Great Migration, when thousands and thousands of wildabeest and zebras head out to greener grasses. Note in the picture above that these look like brown zebras; apparently those stripes turn black as the zebra hits maturity.

I came to appreciate the mostly tranquil co-existence of an amazing diversity of life in the Serengeti. To my relief, we missed the gory crossing over the Grumeti River in April and May, where crocodiles leisurely sample from the massive herds of zebra and wildabeest. This 40 second video shows a small section of the migration in November (the noise you'll hear is the herd and comments from my fellow travellers):

video

Ombeni, our guide, told us that the wildabeest, grass-eating herd animals, have a limited sense of direction, and so rely on the zebras to guide them. We were amazed to see zebras acting just like herd dogs, keeping those thousands of wildabeest on track with nudges and snorts.

Read more about the Great Migration at the very informative site by Paul Gross (helpful map) or Wildwatch

Tomorrow's topic:  What do mudbaths have to do with hyenas and warthogs?

Monday, November 26, 2012

I saw a lion in a tree . . .

Today's entry will be short as I have the grandmother of all colds (pounding sinus headache, no stamina). But we were rather fortunate to see these lionesses simply perched up in a tree, taking an afternoon siesta.
Lions resting in tree, TarangireNational Park, Tanzania

You can see in this next picture how the lioness's tummy just hangs over the branch. That means no body has to worry about the lions hunting just yet. Apparently, the lions take life easy about 20 hours a day, but once the sun goes down, they become active. If a lion is hungry, males and females can hunt at any time, but the most common time to hunt is at dawn. We heard their coughs/calls (marking their territory?) in the early morning when we slept in our very comfortable tent city at Lake Burunge.

The lions we saw were in social groups, from 3 to 5 to a pride, mixed male and female, or loners (which our guides called losers), typically males who were not part of a family pride. In east Africa, according to Wikipedia, just in the last 20 years, the lion population has been cut in half by expanding human population. In Tanzania, the only sure survival of a lion is within one of the national parks which make up 30% of the country.

Still it was marvelous to see the lion taking its ease up in a tree. Tune in tomorrow to see what zebras and wildabeest have in common.



Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lions and Tigers and . . .

We've all been to the zoo. Seen the lions and tigers pace back and forth, occasionally fixing their eyes on a small child. In our two week safari to the Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater, we saw lions and cheetahs and jaguars differently. Co-existing mostly peacefully in the wild, sweeping plains and grasslands, the lions near other animals -- zebras, impalas, Cape buffalo, wildabeests, and giraffes.

Up at 4:30 am for the morning game drive, we rode 4 to 6 in a jeep. We called these open air jeeps "meals on wheels" after we came around a bumpy dirt road in the Serengeti to find this lioness waiting for us. She looked us over and casually sauntered back into the waist high grasses, invisible within moments.

Curiously, all the animals seem to cohabit quite contentedly -- until the lion starts hunting. Then the herd animals get antsy, alert. They call to each other in reassuring snorts and whistles.

At a small waterhole, we spotted first a cub, then another, and another frolicking along a river bank. Their mother slept nearby, then awoke and cuffed the cubs until they followed her back into the tall grasses.

video

Tune in tomorrow for an answer to the question:  Do lions sleep in trees?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Baobab Tree




Baobab Tree, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

As we drove through the Tarangire National Park, we were spellbound by this amazing tree, the Baobab tree, also called the upside-down tree and sometimes, as you will see, the elephant tree.

These big trees dominated the landscape wherever they appeared, stretching sometimes as high as 80 feet. We learned they can live thousands of years. Just the diameter (that's across the tree, not around) can be as large as 50 feet.

This massive tree, crowned with green during the rainy season, is dubbed the "upside down tree" for during the dry season, its limbs look like giant roots. One folk tale tells that during the days of creation, the baobab tree begged to be the prettiest, largest, most fruitful tree of all the other trees. Annoyed, God threw the tree down from heaven and it landed upside down. Some believe that the "roots" of the tree link it still to the heavens and that the tree has special powers.

We came upon an elephant eating the heart of a baobab tree, for its soft wood tastes like sugar cane. This elephant paid us no attention but kept tearing and pulling the bark away, grunting softly. I was surprised to see the landscape is littered with downed trees, for elephants pull great limbs down to eat their leaves, leaving a path of destruction as they pass through the grasslands. Here is the video I took of that elephant in Tarangire.

video


Note: The comments you hear are of our guides talking to each other. "Sowa, sowa?" means "Are you ready to go?" in Swahili.

A Maasai told us that if you touch the Baobab tree (also called an elephant tree), you can make a wish. Once you touch the tree, one day you will return to Tanzania. We did not touch the Baobab.

NOTE: Children might enjoy The Tree of Life: The World of the African Baobab by Barbara Bash (excellent watercolor illustrations), while you can read more in the online book The Baobabs (540 pages) by Gerald E. Wickens and Pat Lowe.

Friday, November 23, 2012


We are home, still reeling from that long journey home, 46 hours in transit from Arusha in Tanzania to Spokane, a journey of some 9,000 miles -- perhaps as the crow flies.

Arusha is just about 10 hours ahead, so when it's morning here, it's evening there. My body can't quite make up its mind: Is it morning or night? Rachel says that when you make a long journey, your soul must catch up. But of all we experienced over the last three and a half weeks, so much learned and yet to learn, I hope to share some pictures and impressions here.

Africa is much more diverse than I expected; yet poverty remains an issue. People are rightfully concerned about potable water, education, and jobs. But we also saw optimism everywhere in the welcoming smiles of the people we met.

We saw a very brief slice of everyday life in Africa; our wonderful tour through OAT Overseas Adventure Travel led by the witty and knowledgeable Ombeni, did take us to home visits, a Masai family, and a school, but the main focus was experiencing the national parks. 30% of Tanzania is set aside for natural preserves or parks.

The thrill of seeing these wild animals in their natural setting is unforgettable. I have heard the cough of lions hunting at night, seen a leopard with its prey dragged up into a tree for safekeeping, watched ostriches mate, and danced with Masai women. We learned to watch the skies for rain, for this was the short-rain season, that time when the trees and grasses shimmer green on the plains and the wildebeest and zebras begin their Great Migration.

I will try to post an entry a day about some aspect of this amazing trip. For now, I begin with a video of these graceful giraffes on the Serengheti Plains.



Saturday, October 27, 2012

October 27: Getting Ready to Leave

Sunhead of 1617, Amsterdam
Tomorrow morning, we awaken at 3:30 am (if we sleep at all). Our plane leaves for Amsterdam at 5:50 am. We'll most likely stagger back on land at 8:30 am to this lovely historic bed and breakfast, the Sunhead, built in 1617 and facing the canal.

Like any intrepid travellers, we have no real plans for the four days in Amsterdam -- other than the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank Museum. And recovering from jet lag before flying south to Tanzania. I'm hoping for coffee.

We are travelling lighter than ever before and for a shorter time, just three and a half weeks. But this marks the first trip outside the US in two years, just before our passports expire. I should be home packing, but I'm listening with half-an-ear to four-month-old Leda and wondering when she will wake up from her nap.

I am not ready to think about Africa. Instead I'm dreaming of Van Gogh, Anne Frank, and walking along the canals of Amsterdam. Drinking hot coffee with pastries. I'll do my best to keep you posted, for this trip will be memorable.


Friday, June 08, 2012

June 8, 2012 . . .


This morning at 3:50 am, the world changed for me. Rachel’s labor began yesterday with steady contractions. Rachel and Nick stayed home until those contractions were about four minutes apart. Nick kept us informed with text updates; they were at the hospital by midnight. We followed and spent the next four hours sitting in the hall outside their room, while inside Rachel labored, Nick assisted, and the doula encouraged. Nurses came and went. We overheard snatches of conversation. Allen read. I sewed. Labor began in earnest. We heard one nurse say, “Don’t push. I’d really like you to wait for Dr. Grimm,” and we knew Leda Rose was on her way.

I would rather Rachel have a visit from a stork or find this dearly wished for baby under a cabbage leaf. I heard her groan and yes, curse, without being able to comfort her. Allen and I held hands. And then we heard that unforgettable sound – Leda Rose’s first cry, robust, demanding, definitely herself. Our little granddaughter was here.  After a while, we heard Nick say, “She looks like my father.” Since Oral is tall, gangly, and with the most amazing pointy head, we were not reassured. Then Rachel cried out with a hint of amazement, “She’s doing it!” (We guessed she was breastfeeding.)

After a time, we entered the sanctum and saw our little grand-daughter for the very first time, so tiny, rosy pink, nestled lovingly in my daughter’s arms, Nick’s face filled with joy. Seven pounds 11 ounces. One perfect ear peeking out from a jaunty yellow hat. Happily grubbing away at both hands stuffed in her little mouth. At that moment, the world truly changed for me. I am already thankful for every moment I will share with this new little person, Leda Rose.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

My daughter's child . . .

There's something mysterious, fearful, and lovely about a new baby in the nine months before he or she is born. The reality is that my dear daughter's tummy has grown over the last eight months. Now there's just about four weeks left, and yesterday, in the waxing of the full moon, her doula painted that tummy with henna in a very old ritual of blessing this new life.

I've seen henna body paintings before -- at hippie fairs, in a Turkish bath, but I'd never thought about how old the tradition is (since the late Bronze age! -- or how classic the design that Rachel selected.

Rachel, the Lotus, and the little one
The image itself of a lotus flower seems to suggest the purity and beauty of the new life that will emerge. In Egyptian culture, the blue lotus in ancient art suggests the power of rebirth. In Buddhist culture, the lotus symbolizes purity, and just as the lotus flower itself rises from the water each morning, the reaching up of spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, the gods sit upon an opened lotus, source of all good things that somehow come unspoiled from the murk below. Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions also use henna to mark protective symbols on hands and feet for transformative events, most popularly weddings.

A beautiful art form, intimate and spiritual, welcomes this new life.

Just for fun, read more about henna at Wiki or about Lotus Flower meanings.