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


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