Saturday, February 27, 2021

Becoming a Happy Camper

How I became a happy camper by visiting a place with dangers lurking in every bush.

Camping, to me, means sleepless nights lying on a shaky cot or a bouncy air mattress, listening to the rustlings in the night.  A flimsy canvas wall is the only thing separating me from the dangers lurking outside – and I am always convinced that there are many of them.  I am not what you’d call a “happy camper.”

I have no joyful childhood memories of cooking hotdogs around the campfire.  Because of my father’s work as a geologist, my family frequently moved around the southwest United States.  We explored the canyons and mesas of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, the towering redwoods and rocky shore of the California coast, the bluebonnet-dotted plains of Texas, and the wide open spaces of Wyoming.  But we did our exploring in the daytime and spent our nighttime hours in the comfort of roadside motels.

A view of Monument Valley, Utah from the safety of a hotel.

When my son was still an infant, my husband and I didn’t yet have the budget for hotels, so we decided to try our first camping vacation.  I was in my twenties and eager for a new experience, so we went to the nearest sporting goods store and picked out everything we would need for a tenting adventure…a little gas stove, tin plates and utensils, sleeping bags, and a nice roomy tent.  The three of us set out in our old car  for a spring trip to Anza Borrego State Park in the desert of southern California.

It did not go well.

With balmy weather and a desert in bloom, the daytime was lovely, walking the park trails and reading the brochure describing the resident plants and animals we spotted.  I managed to scrape up a dinner of beans and franks in our little tin pot and all seemed well as we went to bed.

About midnight, a wild desert wind blew in from over the mountains.  We looked at each other a little nervously as the tent began to tremble, shaking harder with every gust.  Suddenly the tent corners tore from the spikes.  Now nothing except the center pole was holding the tent to the ground.  We bolted from our sleeping bags and spent the next two hours wrestling with the tent, with hubby barking orders - “Grab the corner!  Hold the canvas down.  I’ll hammer the stake back in!”  - and me in tears - “I’m trying!  It’s too heavy!  Oh, my God, the whole tent is going to blow away!”

We finally managed to secure the tent corners, but in the midst of the commotion, baby Brian started to cry and by morning he had a high fever which we recognized as a symptom of his frequent ear infections.    That was enough for me.  On the eight-hour drive home the next day, I swore that my camping days were over.

But the great outdoors beckoned and, thirty years later, we decided it was time to give camping another try.

Rob and I set up camp on the shores of Lake George near Mammoth in the Eastern Sierra mountains of California.  From our campsite, we could look across the lake at the dramatic peak of Crystal Crag.  We hiked for miles and ate a delicious dinner – cooked by a chef in a Mammoth restaurant.  The summer sky was blue and the wind was calm.  Surely I would be able to get a good night’s sleep in this lovely setting.

Lake George and Castle Crag, Mammoth, California

It did not go well.

Those things that go bump in the night were still out there.  Every thump of a branch, every rustle of the leaves, had me convinced the brown bears that prowl this mountain could smell the food we had packed for breakfast and were outside ready to rip through the canvas and devour us in our sleeping bags.  Weren’t rattlesnakes looking for nice warm beds to curl up in and would those damn crickets ever shut up?   And just as I would feel a little wave of sleepiness overtake me, my 50-year-old bladder would give me a wake-up call and I would have to venture out to the camp outhouse, my flashlight sweeping the pathway for the red-eyed ravenous bears.

In the light of morning, I could laugh at my trials, but I once again vowed to stick with a nice cozy bed for future trips, so it was with some trepidation that I learned a few years later that our upcoming trip to Africa was entitled “Serengeti Tented Safari.”

                                          Africa - Masai Mara, Kenya and Serengeti, Tanzania

“What in the world?”  I stared down at the pile of shredded newspaper on the floor of our tent.  Rob and I had just returned from a day of exploring the zoological wonders of Kenya’s Masai Mara to find this mess.  I picked up the largest pile of newspaper and discovered it was the wrapping around a carved wooden giraffe we had bought at the Nairobi Giraffe Center earlier in the trip.  I checked around our tent cabin, but nothing else was out of place.

“This is so weird, Rob. The staff must have thought the newspaper was trash, then put it back when they figured out it was our giraffe.  But why would they have left the mess on the floor?”  We walked up the wooded path to the reception building to report the incident.  The receptionist chuckled.  “Hakuna matata.  No worries!  It was not the staff.  The baboons have learned to unzip your tent cover.  They come in looking for food.”

Hmph…it might have been nice for them to have told us this when we checked in, I thought.  I would have been completely freaked out if I’d been awakened by a baboon rifling through my bags in the middle of the night!  We had seen baboons squabbling out in the bush that morning, mouths wide open, huge fangs bared.    

Before this disconcerting incident, our trip had gone well.  In fact, our first stop at the Karen Country Lodge in Nairobi had been downright luxurious – a huge bedroom with a fireplace, comfy couches, and a modern bathroom.

Karen Country Lodge, Nairobi, Kenya

And here in the Masai Mara, our first “tent” experience at Sentrim Mara Lodge was not at all what I thought of as tent camping.  Yes, our room had canvas walls, but it was huge, with a high ceiling attached to a strong wooden frame, and an adjoining stone building containing a dressing room and bathroom with a modern shower.  I could definitely get into this “glamping” – until I learned that baboons knew how to open the zippered exit to our balcony!

Our "tent" at Sentrim Mara Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya

With this new knowledge, my second night was once again filled with my old camping fears.  I was alert for any strange noise – and sure enough, I heard one.  A loud rustling sound kept up for hours just outside the front door.  Too scared to go investigate, I lay awake in the pitch black, imagining huge baboon fangs scraping away at the canvas.  In the morning, I called a passing staff member to report the noise.  He poked a stick into the rafters, then roared with laughter at my startled scream as a large bird flew out of the thatching under the porch roof.   

But by our third night, I was beginning to get into this unique experience.  The safari drive memories were blotting out my silly fears, and I slept like a lion cub, curled up in my mosquito-netted den.

The gorgeous Moivaru Lodge in a jungle setting outside of Arusha, Tanzania had us back in the lap of luxury for one night on our way to Tarangire National Park.  No baboons here – just adorable blue vervet monkeys swinging through the trees outside of the lodge’s restaurant.  The “scariest” creatures on the grounds were the busy army ants that marched across the path leading to our cabin.

Moivaru Lodge, Arusha, Tanzania - Can you spot the line of army ants across the path?

We were back to tented camping at our next stop, the Burunge Tent Camp Lodge.  Once again, one could hardly call this “tent camping,” as we sat on our wooden porch enjoying the view of Lake Burunge and its large flock of pink flamingos.  This tent was also on a high platform, with real beds, bathroom, and shower.   But our tent was the furthest away from the lodge restaurant.  The long path back was poorly lit and lined with thick bushes on both sides.  On our walk back after dinner in the dark, I clutched Rob’s arm tightly, sure that our flashlight would suddenly illuminate the eyes of the predatory beasts waiting in those bushes to devour us.  But once we were inside, it felt as comfortable and safe as any hotel room.  The only sounds here were the sleepy birds twittering in the forest.

Flamingos of Lake Burunge, Tanzania

Our last stop of this trip was Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and our first day was like stepping into a wildlife documentary - lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, warthogs, colorful birds, all within a few meters of our Land Cruiser.

But I knew there was one final  tenting experience awaiting us – and Cosmas, our guide, had warned us this last tent camp would be a more primitive experience.  I fretted internally about this final camp throughout the entire trip, remembering the unpleasant camping experiences from the past.  My nerves were on edge as we approached our camp in the hills overlooking the Serengeti plains.  Tour companies are not allowed to create permanent lodges here. The tents must be moved periodically to protect this important national park’s environment, so it was no surprise to find a campground of ten small canvas tents, stretching out in two lines from the large dining tent.  I was not happy to learn that, once again, our tent was the farthest one from the center.

Naturally, our tent was at the farthest end of this line in our Serengeti Camp.

Our “beds” were cots, and the windows were zippered flaps.  There was a canvas wall inside separating the sleeping area from a real toilet on a wooden platform, and another canvas chamber with a make-shift shower.  When we wanted a shower, we notified a staff member who would fill the 4-liter bucket outside with hot water.   We pulled a handle inside the tent to release the water, and soon discovered that it lasted long enough to get an adequate shower.

The shower bucket supplied enough hot water for two quick showers.

“Please do not leave your tents at night,” warned Cosmas at our dinner meeting.  “The animals roam right through the camp after dark.  You will find a whistle on the table in your tent.  If you blow it, a staff member will come to your aid.”   We campers stared back at him, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.  “Don’t worry,” he laughed.  “The only animals who might come in your tent are the mice.  Just be sure you don’t have any food in your tent and you’ll be fine.”

After dinner, Rob and I walked down the dark path to our tent, once again swinging our lanterns back and forth to warn off any lurking beasts.  But here’s the thing.  Africa was working its magic on this reluctant camper.  I climbed into my shaky cot, snuggled under the thick blanket, and thought back on the wonders of the day.  A tree with seven lions napping on its branches.  A mother cheetah teaching her cub how to hunt.  Elephant families parading across our path.  A pair of secretary birds building a nest in a tree.  Huge herds of impala and Thompson’s gazelles.  Monkeys that hopped on our vehicle hoping for a hand-out.  

Smiling at the images dancing in my head, I drifted off to sleep, listening with delight to the sound of a lion huffing in the distance.  I had, at last, become a happy camper.

For more about our visit to the Serengeti and photos of the wonderful wildlife, click here:  Day 1 on the Serengeti

Monday, February 22, 2021

French Waiters Are Rude? - A Myth Buster


A Tale of Two French Waiters

There are a lot of stereotypes about foreign lands and people.  One of them that many of you may have heard is that French waiters are rude.  Our trip to Paris and the Loire Valley gave my husband Rob and me a chance to bust that myth.

Waiter #1 – Paris

“Happy Birthday!”   The young waiter greeted us enthusiastically and escorted us to our table.

I grinned at Rob.  It was our second night in Paris – and neither of us was having a birthday.  I had searched the internet for an authentic Parisian bistro, someplace frequented by the locals in the Marais District of Paris, and had settled on Le Bistrot des Comperes, just a short walk from our hotel.  We had asked our concierge to make the reservations and to tell the restaurant that it was our tenth anniversary, but I had forgotten that “happy birthday” in French is bon anniversaire.

I explained to the young man in my very limited French that tonight was “l’anniversaire de notre marriage.”   He apologized and we all laughed.  Somehow that laughter dissolved the formal barrier between our waiter and ourselves and after guiding us through the unfamiliar French menu and turning in our orders, he returned to the table to visit with us.  It helped that we had arrived at the unfashionably early hour of 6:30 p.m., at least an hour before the French dinner crowd, so there were not yet any other customers in the restaurant needing his attention.  

A restaurant in Paris is likely to be empty at 6:30 in the evening.

Our waiter introduced himself as Kevin.  “Kevin?” I asked.  “I didn’t know Kevin was a French name.”

“Mais oui!  It is one of the hundred most popular names in France!”

Not only was his name unexpected, but Kevin had the face of an American college kid, with curly auburn hair, a big smile, and an open manner.  His clothing, however, was definitely continental…skinny blue jeans with a wide red belt, a tight red t-shirt, a gold chain around his neck.

Kevin on the right with his Bristro des Comperes co-workers

We spent the entire evening chatting like old friends.  Kevin was amazed by our stories of Lily, our talkative parrot, so naturally we pulled out our tablet to show him photos.  He answered our many questions about getting around in Paris.  Finally, he had to turn his attention to arriving customers, but made a point of coming over to say good-bye when it was time for us to leave.

The next afternoon, Rob and I joined our Rick Steves Tours group and Rolinka, our tour guide, led us through the Marais streets to our first group dinner.  What a great surprise to find that we were headed to the very same little bistro!  Kevin greeted our group, then he spotted Rob and me in the crowd.  His face lit up and he greeted me with a hug and a kiss on each cheek while the other members of our tour group looked on in wonder.  How lovely to feel like a local Parisian!

Waiter #2 – Azay-le-Rideau

One of my favorite chateaux of the Loire Valley - Chateau Azay-le-Rideau

Balzac Street

Our tall, reserved, silver-haired waiter at a little café at the end Balzac Street stood patiently looking down at me as I tried to explain the modifications that Rob wanted made to his lunch.  We had been in France for a full week and my French skills had been improving, but today I could not seem to remember the simplest little request.

My fumbling was made worse by the fact that our waiter in this little village of Azay-le-Rideau spoke no English at all.  I was sure that his neutral expression masked his disdain for this ignorant tourist.  My husband wasn’t helping either, as he kept remembering new requests.

Il voudrait une omelette,” I said.  “He would like an omelet.”

“Did you tell him with tomatoes, but no ham?”  asked Rob.

Avec les tomates, mais pas de …  (I quickly glanced at the word for ham on the menu)… jambon,” I amended.

The waiter silently made notes on his pad.

“And no cheese,” added Rob.

Aussi, pas de…”  Oops, what was cheese in French?  All I could remember was queso, cheese in Spanish.  How could I forget cheese?  It is practically the national food of France!

I looked up sheepishly.  “Pardonez moi.  Je parle francais trés mal.”  Pardon me, I speak French very badly.

Our dignified waiter looked down at me, his eyes crinkling with the slightest smile.

Moi, aussi,” he responded - Me, too.



Saturday, February 6, 2021

Oradour-sur-Glane – A WWII Tragedy


Oradour-sur-Glane – Souviens toi                                                                                                                            Haute Vienne region of France, 400 km. (250 miles) south of Paris                                                                                        Sometimes travel takes the traveler to dark side of history.

Rob and I had never heard of the little village of Oradour-sur-Glane until we visited the site during our tour from Paris to the south of France.  By the time we left that afternoon, the tragic WWII story of the town and the massacre of its people were seared indelibly into our memory.

We began our visit in the Centre de la Memoire, the museum just outside the village.  The museum is built mostly underground, and the low outer walls are cut through with angular red structures echoing the broken red walls we would find in the town.  Inside the museum, massive cement and silver metal walls were filled floor to ceiling with photographs of the people of the town going about their daily activities, the rise of the Nazi party, the village after its destruction, and finally a long wall filled with the faces of the people who died there.   

Centre de la Memoire

From the testimony of the few survivors of the massacre and other war records, historians have been able to document the events of that day.  It was June, 1944.  World War II in Europe was nearing an end.  The June 6th D-Day invasion of Normandy had just occurred, and the Nazi soldiers in central France began their 645 km (400-mile) march north to help defend the coast. Along the way, they were frequently engaged in skirmishes with members of the French resistance.  During one of these, the resistance succeeded in capturing Helmut Kämpfe, a high-ranking Nazi commander.  Adolf Diekmann, commander of the Nazi troops in nearby Limoges, received a message that Kämpfe was being held in the town of Oradour-sur-Glane.  Tragically for the villagers of Oradour, the message was incorrect.  Some historians have speculated that Kämpfe was instead captured in the town of Oradour-sur-Vayres, about 15 miles away, but on June 10, Diekmann’s battalion invaded the wrong village, seeking revenge for Kämpfe’s capture.

After watching a short film about the incident, Rob and I walked up the path and into a small maze of streets lined with roofless and crumbling red brick and grey stone buildings, blackened with soot, which have been preserved as evidence to the events of that day.  We started in the Champ de Foire, the town marketplace, where all villagers, including 193 children, and a group of six who had the misfortune to be bicycling through Oradour that morning, had been ordered to report, “to have their papers checked.”   A few suspicious souls hid in their homes and escaped into nearby woods, but witnesses indicated later that most were not concerned, just surprised by the sudden arrival of the Nazi soldiers. 

Once assembled, the citizens were accused of hiding weapons and told they would be held while soldiers searched their houses. Men were separated into six groups and herded into barns and garages around town. Women and children were taken into the church.

Rob and I stood in the square and imagined it filled with the bewildered villagers, from a one-week-old baby to people in their nineties, chattering with their neighbors about the sudden disruption to their mid-day meal and unaware of what the day would bring.

We then walked, speaking rarely, through the town’s ruined streets, stopping here and there to view remnants of daily life: a scorched car, the bent and rusted frame of a bicycle still propped against a wall, an iron bed frame standing in a bedroom that no longer existed, a sewing machine behind a stone bearing photos of the family who had once used it.  

The original plaques on some of the walls still advertise former businesses – “Dentiste,Mme. Reignier,” “Garage, H. Desourteax,”  “Forgeron, J.B. Beaulieu.”

Newer signs indicated the locations of other atrocities of that day.  Rob and I gripped each other’s hand tightly as we stopped in front of one of the barns where some of the men had been held.   Upon a signal from their commanders, the soldiers first shot the men in the legs so they could not escape, then doused them in fuel and lit the barns on fire.    A sign on the wall said, “Here - A Place of Torture.  A group of men was massacred and burned by the Nazis."  

At the lower end of the village stands the stone church where the women and children were taken.  At 4:00 in the afternoon, soldiers set off an explosion in the doorway of the church that filled the room with a black smoke and sent the women and children into a panic.  They were mercilessly shot as they tried to escape through the tiny windows behind the altar.  In front of that bullet-scarred altar rests one of the most horrible reminders of that dreadful day – the skeletal remains of a baby carriage.  Rob gasped quietly, saying, “I just can’t comprehend the inhumanity of the soldiers.  How can anyone disconnect their feelings when murdering a small child?”

Following the murder of the town's residents, the soldiers set fires to destroy both the buildings and the bodies of their victims. 

As we continued through the streets, the gloomy grey skies contributed to our overwhelming sadness. When we reached the cemetery on the little hill at the top of the town, where many of the gravestones contain photographs of both adults and tiny children, we could no longer contain our tears. 

                              Rob stands over the crypt containing the bones of the many victims who were so badly burned that they could not be identified.  

Six hundred forty-two people were slaughtered that day. Twenty-six survived: nineteen who had slipped away when the soldiers arrived, six men who crawled through rabbit hutches at the back of a barn, and one woman, Madame Maguerite Rouffanche, who was shot five time as she jumped from the narrow window behind the altar of the church but managed to crawl into a garden to hide.

Following the war, French President Charles de Gaulle decreed that France would maintain the village just as the Nazis left it, as a testament to the atrocities of war and as a memorial to the “Martyrs of Oradour.”

The tour bus ride to our next destination was silent, each of us wrapped in our own pensive reflections about the day.

As we rode, I wondered why the tragedy in Oradour-sur-Glane is unfamiliar to so many of us outside of France. Perhaps because it was a small incident compared to the death of millions. Perhaps because it involved no major battles or well-known historical figures. For me, that makes it even more appalling…a peaceful village doing its best to maintain normal life amid the chaos of war, decimated in the space of a few hours.

When I told the story of this tragic village, a friend commented, “We go on vacation to relax and have a good time. We don’t go on trips to be sad. Why should we visit depressing places like this?”

Why, indeed? The large sign at the entrance to the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane says “Souviens-toi. Remember.” This echoes another saying associated with the Holocaust, “Forgive, but never forget.” But the reality is, we do forget. Perhaps some knowledge is so unspeakable, we choose to put it into a hidden compartment of our minds to preserve our own sanity. It’s easy to do; it is normal, even healthy. By that evening, our tour group was laughing again under the sunset’s glow on the yellow stone buildings of Sarlat.

But truly meaningful travel – travel that encompasses the full spectrum of history and human experience – is more than an excuse to see famous sights, to enjoy new foods, to “relax and have a good time.”  The privilege of travel brings with it a special responsibility. When our travels take us to the sites of the darker events of the past, we can return home with the stories that help the world remember.

For an excellent history of the events of the day, see:  History of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944


Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Hippo Pool of the Serengeti

In the center of the vast Serengeti National Park, where the Seronera and Orangi Rivers meet and spread into a low lying trough, sits one of the Serengeti’s most astonishing sights – the Hippo Pool. We smelled the pool before we saw it. A pungent, muddy, manure-y stench filled the air over the small dirt parking lot above the riverbanks. Wrinkling our noses and grimacing, we emerged from our dusty Land Cruisers and hurried to the ledge overlooking the pool. 

Our disgust at the smell was quickly displaced by our wonder at the sight below us. 

The pool was filled with dozens of huge dark-grey bodies crowded together. The hippos filled the pool from bank to bank, resting their huge pink snouts on neighbors’ backs, and snorting wet, burbling grunts. Their tiny ears wiggled, bringing back childhood memories of the animatronic hippos on the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland. 

A group of hippos can be called a pod, a herd, a dale…or my favorite – a bloat of hippos.

Although most of the hippos were resting quietly in the mid-day warmth, the water bubbled constantly with muddy, stinky spurts of water splashing over their massive bodies. I thought at first the hippos themselves were flipping water with their tiny tails to keep their backs cool, but no, the water was churned up by the river carp who were feeding on the hippo dung that filled the brown pool, causing the waterspouts. I gave silent thanks that I was not born a hippo…or a carp! 

The water bubbled constantly - churned up by feeding carp.

Around a slight bend in the river was a second smaller pool, a tad bluer due to a better flow of water and fewer hippos. Our guide, Cosmas, rustled the bushes above the pool and the sleeping hippos immediately came to life, snorting loud huffs and glaring up at us. Cosmas explained that hippos marked their territory by crashing noisily through the bushes, so the hippos below were alert to a new intruder. 

A hippo keeps a wary eye on the human intruders.

Since he had been awakened so rudely, one of the big males decided he might as well take advantage of the opportunity for a little afternoon delight. He heaved his massive body up onto the back of his sleeping neighbor, lazily thrusting his pelvis against hers while she struggled to keep her nostrils above the water. As I took a video of the scene, I couldn’t help but giggle at the thought that I was making a “hippo porn movie.” 

Hippo Romance

A nearby crocodile resting on the riverbank slithered into the water to get away from the waves created by the amorous hippos. 

The hippos congregate together partly as protection against the ever-present crocodiles.

It was hard to equate these lazy and adorable giants with danger, but hippos actually kill more humans than any other African animal – about 300 deaths annually! Very territorial, they will charge an intruder with little provocation, and we tiny humans don’t stand much chance against a two-and-a-half ton body trampling over us. I took seriously the signs posted along the fence post warning, “Do not go beyond this point.” 

We saw many animals in our travels through Kenya and Tanzania who were more graceful and beautiful, but no other animal encounter on our trip was as unique – and amusing – as the sight of the Hippo Pool. 

 NOTE: You can find my complete journal account of our safari in the Serengeti at Travels With Robby.

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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Quetzal Quest

 Monteverde Cloud Forest, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The Resplendant Quetzal - photo from Wiki Commons

I was seeking the elusive Resplendent Quetzal, a bird so rare and exquisite, the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica worshipped it as God of the Air. Today, the Quetzal is one of the most coveted feathers in the bird-watcher’s cap.  This lovely bird lives in the Central American cloud forests, tropical rainforests so high in the mountains, they are perpetually shrouded in mist.

“Cloud Forest.” The very name conjures up wonder and mystery. What a fitting home for this celestial little creature. I had come to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in the highlands of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I had come to Monteverde with a tour group of noisy sightseers.

I usually enjoy the company of fellow travelers, but today I glared at them resentfully. Didn’t they understand I was on a mission? How were we supposed to find this shy little bird when our group members chattered louder than the howler monkeys who also inhabit the Costa Rican jungles?

Gaston, our tour leader, led us to a viewing platform hung with nectar-filled red globes which were bombarded by dozens of bright hummingbirds. The jewel-like qualities of these tiny birds were reflected in their names – the Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, the Green Violet Ear, the Green-Crowned Brilliant, and the Violet Saberwing. The hummingbirds were delightful, but viewing them at the feeders was cheating.  I am a Birder! We don’t need no stinkin’ feeders! We find birds in their natural habitat!

A Purple-Throated Mountain Gem argues with a wasp over right to the nectar.

A Green Crowned Brilliant

A Violet Saberwing


At the edge of the forest, we split into two groups. I looked with a touch of pity on “Wimpy Group” who wished only to take a little stroll along a path in the woods and then hang out in, of all places, the gift shop. My group was made up of the hardy, the serious, the intrepid explorers ready to brave the mud, the drizzle, the bugs and snakes, to delve deep into the secrets of the jungle.

Two naturalists would direct our quest. Andreas was a charmer – tall, dark, and handsome.  José, a small man in an Indiana Jones hat, stood silently to the side, peering through his scope. They led us up a muddy path to an overlook above the aguatillo – the wild avocado trees that are the Quetzal’s favorite food.

Andreas shares his knowledge of the birds of the Cloud Forest.

We scanned the thick woods, searching for the flash of iridescent green or blue, the flaming red chest, the long streaming tail feathers and cute Mohawk topknot that characterize the Quetzal.  Andreas filled our anxious minutes with stories of the cloud forest and of the other creatures who lived there. But I wasn’t here for stories. I was here to see the bird.

Rob searches for the Quetzal

José was of the same mind. Five of us left the larger group and followed him. A narrow, winding path, overhung with vines and wild orchids, took us deeper into the dark forest, down to the aguatillo grove where we hoped to spot our species.

Occasionally, he would stop and point. “Look, there is a Speckle-Cheeked Tanager! Quick, there, that one is a Three-Striped Warbler.”

Was he kidding?  How could he possibly determine the species from those brief glimpses of nondescript, little brown birds?  Was it cheating, I wondered, to include birds I didn’t identify myself on my own very short Life List?

Just as I was beginning to think the day would be just one long walk in the woods, José suddenly stopped us with a finger to his lips. He aimed his scope at a tree, far off in the forest.

Was this our Quetzal?  My heart quickened as I stepped up to peer through the scope. Through the lens, I could clearly see – no, not the Quetzal – but the head of a baby hummingbird, a Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, peeping out from his nest. It was not the bird I had set out to see, but this tiny creature was a still a miraculous sight that almost made up for the failure of our quest.

Hummingbird Nest

After more than two Quetzal-less hours of tramping through the jungle, we returned, tired, wet, and disheveled, to our waiting vans. “Wimpy Group” was already seated, dry and chipper, bags of souvenirs on their laps. I plopped down next to one of the women and sighed.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Didn’t you enjoy your hike?”

“Sure. The forest was beautiful, but I was disappointed not to find a Quetzal.”

“Oh, you wanted to see a Quetzal?”  She whipped her camera out of her purse.  “Well, take a look, dear.  Here’s a photo of the one we just saw … right behind the gift shop.”


This story was first published on Dave Fox’s website, Globejotting: A Home for Global Storytelling

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Playing for Pints


Inishmore, the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, Ireland 

The path to Dun Aengus, Inishmore

“Don’t worry. We’re playin’ fer pints.”  The three Irish college boys smiled up at us from the card game they had invited us to join.

“Pints?  But I don’t drink,” Rob responded.  Not an unreasonable response considering that we were on the Emerald Isle, the home of Guinness Ale.

“No, no,” protested Patrick.  “Pints!”

“Pints of what?” repeated my confused husband.

A cartoon light bulb above my head suddenly lit up.  “Rob, they’re playing for points!

Rob and I were on the ferry returning to our B & B in Galway after a day spent exploring Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands that float off the western coast of Ireland.  Our day had started early with a ride through the green countryside on a double-decker bus to the ferry stop in Rossaveel.  We boarded the morning ferry to Inishmore under grey and gloomy skies, but as we approached the little village of Kilronan, the sun broke through and it appeared we were in for a great day.

The little town of Kilronan

We immediately rented bicycles from Aran Bike Hire on the pier and set out to explore Inishmore.  

Our destination was Dun Aengus, a Bronze Age stone fortress at the far end of the island.  We had the choice of the high road through the center of the island or the low road along the shore.  My athletic husband chose the high road.  Rob zipped effortlessly up the hill while I pedaled furiously and fruitlessly behind him.  I was about to give up and walk my bike the rest of the way up when I finally remembered that bikes have gears.  I had been trying to pedal uphill in high gear!  Sheepishly, I shifted down to first gear and caught up with Rob, waiting patiently at the top of the hill.

The rest of the ride was easy as we journeyed along the top of the ridge, the narrow island spread out below us – a barren, wind-swept land of limestone and miles of the hand-stacked rock walls that are so common throughout Ireland.  Early settlers of the mid-17th century created a thin layer of topsoil with mixtures of sand and seaweed, which provided the means for growing potatoes and other vegetables, but on this June day, the soil also provided a home for thousands of wildflowers in pink, purple, yellow, and white, blooming on every hill.

The brooding black rock walls of Dun Aengus dominated the hilltop at the end of our ride.  We parked our bikes and hiked up a steep path through the rocky fields to the fortress.  The weather had been fine as we began our ride, but as we approached the fort, the skies greyed and the wind began to howl around us on the stony hill, creating a sense of being swept right back into the Bronze Age.

Dun Aengus  (Dún Aonghasa)

The fortress itself, while large and imposing, is now just several rings of tall, thick walls surrounded by a defensive system known as cheval de frise – sharp stones placed into the ground in an upright position.  More impressive even than the building is the setting.  Dun Aengus is perched so close to the edge of the 300 foot cliffs that some of it has now fallen away into the sea far below.  The wind was gusting so hard that we had trouble keeping our footing and both went down on our bellies to peer over the edge to the sea.

After some time exploring the fort, Rob pointed to the dark black rainclouds that were moving in fast, so we hurried back down the long, rocky path to our bikes.  

Just as we reached the bikes, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down.  Rob pedaled quickly ahead of me and missed the turn to the “low road,” the road back to Kilronan along the shore.  I didn’t feel up to tackling the big hill in the rain, so I turned toward the sea and pedaled along the empty roads with the wind and rain in my face, and the stormy waters of the sea battering the shore below me. The wet fields were marked by a checkerboard of low stone walls and fragments of ancient stone buildings dotted the landscape.  I felt exhilarated, surrounded by the spirits of ancient Ireland wailing in the wind.

Reunited again!

Returning to the modern world in Kilronan, I found Rob waiting for me outside a little café where I joined him, soaking wet, for a good hot cup of tea.  Still chilled to the bone, we thought this would be a good time to visit the Aran Sweater Market  where we watched a video about spinning and weaving in Ireland and I purchased one of the famous water-resistant woolen cable-knit fishermen’s sweaters.  All too soon, it was time to return to the mainland.

Aboard the ferry, three Irish college students – Patrick, Daniel, and Thomas – sat next to us playing cards.  They asked Rob if he knew how to play poker and invited him to join their game.  They were quite impressed that Rob could shuffle cards “like the dealers in Las Vegas!”  The game was “just for fun,” so Rob started the betting at one million Euros.  The boys gave him a startled look, then burst into laughter.   David joined into the spirit of the game.  “I’ll see your million and raise you another half!”

After a few rounds of poker, with a few million hypothetical Euros trading hands, Patrick offered to teach Rob the national card game of Ireland, “25” – the game that would be played for pints.  The hilarity continued after Rob’s initial confusion.  25, or Maw, as the ancient game was called, seems simple enough.  But the rules are ridiculously illogical.  The 5, for example, is the highest card in the trump suit.  As play progressed, the boys kept throwing out new rules.

“Oh, forgot to tell you that the Ace of Hearts is the third highest card no matter what the trump suit is!”

“Oh, forgot to tell you that the highest cards are best in the red suits, but the lowest cards are the best in the black suits!”

After about five or six repeats of “we forgot to tell you,” Rob threw up his hands in despair.  But all was not lost.  We may not have learned how to play 25, but we did learn that the club suit in Ireland is called – what else? – shamrocks!   

By the time we got back to the mainland, we were all good friends, and the boys offered to drive us back to Galway.  We chatted easily the entire way, answering their many questions about American politics, the death penalty, health care.  The boys were better informed about American issues and politics than many Americans.

This was one of those travel days that live forever in memory, made especially unforgettable by our encounter with the charming lads.  Travel is a richer and more meaningful experience when one takes advantage of opportunities to meet and interact with local people.    It’s worth more than a million pints!

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