Venice! (Still not in a travel van)

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From the Bridge of Sighs

In December 2015 I heard about a wonderful, nine-day writing workshop in Italy, taught by one of my favorite authors, the prolific and ever-entertaining Rhys Bowen. Rhys writes three mystery series, and she would be the author in residence at a charming hotel in Tuscany, Castellina in Chianti, to be precise. A small number of students meant lots of personalized attention from Rhys, and all meals were to be provided for the nine days.

I’ve written several books and booklets, many magazine and newsletter articles, and lots of blog entries. And I’ve edited whole books, including some mysteries. But I’ve never written fiction, let alone a mystery, and I’ve always wanted to. So I took the plunge, and made the commitment.

Steve had work plans already for that time period, so I decided to make another leap into the unknown while I was at it: solo travel in Europe, a longtime goal. I’m 64 years old, and in pretty good physical shape; when would be a better time to travel on my own than now? We don’t know, do we, when our health will change? After a session with a travel agent, I chose to add additional travel plans before and after the workshop schedule.

My daughter Holly and I have long wanted to go to Italy together, and she asked to take some vacation time for the few days ahead of the workshop so she could join me. We chose to go to Venice, which would be an easy travel distance to Florence, which is where I would meet the workshop organizers.

Since I would be in Europe for three weeks, and since I would be traveling mostly by train, it was important to pack very carefully. I’d need a light suitcase I could put in an overhead compartment by myself. And I would need a tote that could hold my computer, plus my cross-body shoulder bag, so I could avoid checking luggage on the way there and back. I found a small, lightweight suitcase with the right compartments, but decided to make a tote that had what I needed. Once I curated the wardrobe carefully, making sure everything fit, I felt more confident about the solo aspect of the trip.

On the advice of my travel agent, Vicky Mary of Victoria Travel here in Cincinnati, Holly and I stayed on Lido, an island across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco. The hotel was very nice, but not as pricey as it would have been in Venice itself. Lido is very walkable, with lush gardens everywhere, and our hotel was just a couple of blocks from where the vaporetto docked (and about four blocks from the Adriatic). We could not easily go back to the room with this arrangement, but in this case it didn’t matter. We had tours scheduled, and we just kept ourselves busy every day until it was time to go back for dinner on Lido. The sunsets were worth the trip, too. We wouldn’t have seen this view from Venice!

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Sunset from Lido

Our first tour took us through the church of San Marco and the nearby Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace. We had a very good guide who spoke good English, and our group was fairly large. We each had a “whisper” with headphones, though, so everyone could hear her commentary. The tour was a good way to get ourselves going on our first day; we had to meet the guide early in the morning, and then we walked for several hours. It rained in the morning, but we were inside for most of that time so it didn’t matter.

The church and palace are both incredibly ornate and showy. We started out taking photos of everything, but after room upon room of incredibly beautiful paintings and gilt, it became almost overwhelming. We crossed the Bridge of Sighs both ways; it has two levels where prisoners were shunted from one building to the other over a canal.

The next day we had a different walking tour, a “Secret Venice” tour. Our guide was livelier, the group was smaller, and we saw the alleys of Venice. We learned about daily life, and saw the shops where the gondolas and the parts that go into them are made today. The guide, who grew up in Venice, told us that modern gondoliers no longer inherit their boats or their trade, nor do they sing as they once did (although some sing because they enjoy it). Today, guides must go to school—to learn all about boats and boating, culture, history, and at least two languages in addition to Italian. In order to become a gondolier they have to pass a test, and then must obey many rules about dress and comportment. So far in Venice there is only one female gondolier.

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We enjoyed walking around this lovely city on our own, too, finding our way down little passages, crossing bridges to discover hidden gardens, tiny courtyards, fruit and fish markets, and fountains with drinking water for the taking.

Our favorite discovery was the spritz, a potent orange drink made from prosecco, Aperol, and soda water. It’s a traditional afternoon sip, usually served with something to nibble on, since it has such a high alcohol content. Tourists and locals alike can be seen sitting in outdoor cafes having this delicious cocktail.One of our waiters also gave us a recipe for his restaurant’s amazing tiramisu. I look forward to trying it out, because the recipe I’ve used before never worked out right.

Venice was packed with people in places, but it’s possible to find quiet walkways along canals or in sheltered campos. A campo was once a field, where they grew grass for the horses. There is precious little grass, or any other vegetation, in Venice today, since many of the campos were covered over in cobbles, long ago.

One modern-day phenomenon struck me about Venice. It is a city with no cars, or any vehicles other than handcarts. Ambulances and police boats travel solely by water. There are lots of different kinds of boats, though: the vaporetto, which serves the same function as a bus anywhere else; water taxis; gondolas, of course; and private boats. The gondolas have the right of way. Tourists with selfie sticks are everywhere, including on the water taxis in the Canal. I asked our gondolier how many tens of thousands of cell phones end up in the lagoon, and he said, “Many, many.” I can believe it.

On the fourth day, I was pretty much over any lingering jet lag, and it was time to meet up with the workshop group in Florence. I said goodbye to my daughter, who was flying home to the States, and I boarded the vaporetto from Lido one last time to catch a train to Firenze.

Next: Florence, Tuscany, Chianti, Siena, and back to Florence

June 28, 2016. Uncategorized. 1 comment.

The Tarangire

On our way to the Tarangire National Park we first stopped at a carving shop down the mountain from Gibb’s Farm. Several men were sitting outside the shop, carving freehand from pieces of ebony and rosewood. Terry bought some bigger pieces, but I had to limit myself to a small but elegant little carving of an embracing couple, a little bowl, a hippo for my grandson, and a necklace. Kim found one, as well.

There were relatively few places to buy souvenirs on this trip. On our way out of Arusha, on the third day, we could have stopped to look at tanzanite, but I wasn’t feeling well that day. I was the only one in the car who was interested, and I didn’t care that particular moment whether I shopped or not, so we passed it up. We did, however, stop at a boma, or Maasai village, where we inspected one of their huts, and were treated to a dance performance. Kim and I were also pressed into participating in the dance, but Terry and Steve are forbidden from ever sharing photos or video of the experience. At the end of the dance we were invited to inspect a vast variety of beaded jewelry and other items for sale. I thought they were grossly overpriced, myself.

Tarangire is a spectacular park, home to hundreds of elephants, as well as other wildlife, concentrated because of the availability of water. On our one full day at the park we saw close to 300 elephants, between the ones we saw in the forest and the vast herds in the marshes. We also saw a lazy pride of young lions, snoozing in the shade of a sausage tree. They were completely unconcerned about us, despite our Land Rover driving all the way around the tree, in the same shade.

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Lions under the sausage tree

On our first night at our new camp we were treated to a traditional camp dinner, with amazing food, under the stars. The owner of Flash Safari Tours, Magda Vrijs, joined us and several other groups traveling with her guides.

Our camp was so interesting. There were about a dozen cabins, all different, and all given Maasai names. Ours was Olmeut, which means “giraffe” in Maasai, as opposed to the Swahili name for giraffe, which is twiga. The beds were carved, as were our chairs, the mirror frame, and the enormous bathtub, which was in the shape of a pelican. Steve and I were sitting on the porch between our shower and dinner, and suddenly a dik-dik and then a warthog thundered past. We were sure something bigger would follow in hot pursuit, but nothing ever appeared.

In the 12 days we traveled around Tanzania we saw nearly 240 different species of birds, and several dozen species of animals. Zepha, our guide, was exceptionally good at spotting birds and animals, and he had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the natural history of his native country.

The day we saw these elephants, though, was one of my favorite days of the entire trip. We watched them for hours, and we got very near to several different groups during that day. In fact, the dust from one elephant taking a dust bath actually blew into my eyes, we were so close. We were fascinated as they lumbered into the mud, then the water up to the tops of their heads, then out into the dust. The termite mounds we saw everywhere were almost all shiny from elephants using them as scratching posts, to get that itch, just there, the one you can’t reach.

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The last day of our trip was a travel day, with a long drive back to Arusha. We stopped at a restaurant for a cold drink, and later met Magda and her partner at a traditional Tanzanian barbecue restaurant for a late lunch. We sat outside and watched local families, some celebrating weddings or other events, and we relaxed on our last day in Africa. After our server helped each of us wash with warm water and towels, we ate with our hands from platters of barbecued meats (including chicken and goat, all delicious), and fried potatoes. The local beer might be great, but I wanted something different, and Magda suggested a Tangawizi, a locally made ginger beer. A new favorite!

What a trip. We thoroughly enjoyed everything, except maybe the tsetse flies. We even got used to the dust. It took days to stop seeing the golden plains in my dreams, and I was sad to see them fade away.

Steve & Karen at Lamai

Asante sana, Tanzania! We will never forget our visit with you and your many treasures.

June 28, 2016. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

From the Serengeti to Masai Mara

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Masai Mara plain

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Masai Mara plain

Words fail me when I try to describe the scene we found in this part of the country. This is not a well-traveled road; most people traveling to the northern area of Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve, as we were, fly from Central Serengeti, bypassing the long, uncomfortable drive. But they miss this particular area, which has a wide diversity of wildlife. The wet areas draw masses of herds of elephants, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, and other species, each clustered together by type. It was truly breathtaking, and my pitiful photos do not do it justice.

It isn’t all that far from our last camp to the Masai Mara, only about a three-hour drive. But that is straight through, don’t-stop-to-look-at-the-wildlife kind of driving. Which we didn’t do once, not even when our guide, Zepha, insisted we needed to. Steve and Terry wanted to stop frequently to take photos, and really, who could blame them? The scenery and the close access to the animals was so compelling.

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Masai Mara plain

Our next destination, for the next two nights, was a permanent tented camp called Nomad Lamai. The northern part of the Serengeti is characterized by mounds of large round rocks, known as kopjes (pronounced “koppy”, meaning “little head”). Lamai is built into one of the larger kopjes, facing the Mara Valley, on the other side of which Kenya can be seen in the distance. The tents have three permanent walls, and the fourth wall, which overlooks the valley below, is made of tent screening. If you click on the link in this paragraph and look at the photos on their site, the room pictured is the one we had. It was fabulous, and well worth the drive there. I only wish we could have stayed there longer.

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The kopje where Nomad Lamai is built. Impossible to see from here.

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Leaving our beautiful permanent tent.

We dined under the stars, on a deck high above the valley, after our traditional “sundowner” drinks with other visitors from all over the world. After dinner we were escorted to our tents, up and down rocks and on steep steps, by Maasai armed with machetes.

That night we were awakened sometime after 3 or 4 AM by the very close sounds of lions grunting (they grunt more than they roar). Steve wanted to go out onto the balcony to see what was going on, but I convinced him to stay inside the tent. Luckily, he did. The next morning at breakfast we asked about the lions, and it turned out that five or six of them killed a hyena, less than 30 yards from our tent.

Our biggest reasons for driving almost as far north as we could get in Tanzania were twofold: to see the vast herds of wildebeest and zebra along the Mara River, and to find the elusive and rapidly vanishing rhinoceros. We succeeded in both goals.

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Female rhino and her earless calf

Zepha, as I’ve said before, is a phenomenal guide, and he has a sixth sense about animals and their behavior. He knew there was a female rhino with a calf, and he very patiently set about looking for her. We not only found her, but also, by being extremely quiet, got very close to them, well within photo range. The calf, because of a deformity due to the miniscule gene pool, had no ears. Kim and I were moved to tears at the sight of them, knowing that the calf might very well not survive to adulthood, and that the days of both of them were numbered. We’d already seen the border guards, who were trying to put a stop to the senseless poaching that was decimating the species, but they were fighting an uphill battle every day, and losing the war.

We also crossed the Mara River, watching herds of zebra and wildebeest thundering across, then panicking, turning direction, and running back at top speed. Which is why the crocodiles hang out there. They watch for skinny legs flailing above them, snap, and drag the hapless quadruped down into the water to drown. They wait for a few days until the body is good and ripe, and finally eat it then. The stench at the river was unbelievable. The vultures benefit from all this bounty, too; they clean up what the crocs leave.

A word about Lamai, in particular, but the lodges in general: at the time we were there I was experiencing a gluten sensitivity that gave me severe heartburn if I ate bread. Once Zepha realized this he let each of the camp chefs know, and from then on I had a special meal prepared for me at every destination. Not only that, but the gluten-free breads, especially at Lamai, were fabulous. I was so impressed. Tanzanians know how to be hospitable, and they are excellent cooks.

Also, I was always impressed that, in this extremely dusty country, we had snow-white linens in every camp, freshly laundered and pressed. I don’t know how they manage this feat, especially in a country with so little water.

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On our way to Ngorongoro Crater

Our next stop was Gibb’s Farm, a coffee plantation and hotel high on a hill near Ngorongoro Park. To get there by dinnertime we had to drive pretty much straight through all day long. However, the scenery on the way was again worth the drive.

Gibb’s Farm is a beautiful place, nearly paradise after being in tented camps, since we four had our own building, known as Deutsch House. There was a lovely shared living room with fireplace (which we asked to have lit one evening), with bedroom suites, complete with private outdoor showers, on either side. But the staff was not nearly as friendly as at other places we’d been, which was disappointing. It was also the place where we saw the most other Americans, possibly because of the lack of tents, and also the proximity to more popular areas of the Tanzanian tourist destinations, like Ngorongoro.

Steve and I were delighted to take a walk through Gibb’s gardens with Zepha, who pointed out many bird species to us, including some of the many species of sunbird, which are somewhat like our hummingbirds. Zepha says he is a farmer at heart, and finding that I enjoy growing my own food, we had a lovely time exploring the kitchen gardens there, too. In addition to growing their own coffee beans, Gibb’s also grows bananas, as well as most of the ingredients of their daily meals. The entire place is really a garden, and very lovely.

They also roast their own coffee beans, a demonstration of which I watched one morning. The process is labor-intensive when done this way, but I can attest to the mellowness of the roast. Most of the coffee we had in Tanzania was delicious, some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.

Ngorongoro Crater is vast, and filled with its own ecosystem of wildlife. Most of the animals in this area do not migrate elsewhere, since the crater is so deep. Small villages lie outside the rim, with lots of farming areas, making for a huge contrast on one side of the rim and the other.

Next: Our last stop, the Tarangire

June 24, 2016. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.