Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Sand dune

My little family is on the verge of great changes, enduring the waiting period before another adventure, a life in New York City. This July we've been enjoying the bounty of summer fruits and vegetables, but without a real kitchen to call my own (all of our belongings are in storage before we get to New York) food blogging is regrettably on hold. While waiting out the transition, I'm taking stock of a few legendary trips we've taken. It's always good to stop and pause before taking another leap.

Tracks in sand

The Skeleton Coast lies on the Northwest corner of Namibia, Africa and gets only about 100 visitors a year. A few years ago, we were among those few and we knew that it was the trip of a lifetime. We embarked on a fly-in safari from the capital, Windhoek on a 2 passenger plane and landed on a strip of sand where we were met by a 4x4 that took us to our first camp.

Tent at Camp, Skeleton Coast

Landscape, Skeleton Coast

There was something powerful about being in such a remote place surrounded by natural beauty unlike any we had ever seen. Virtually alone, with just a few guides and two other couples, we all set out each morning to experience this rugged and breathtaking land. The Skeleton Coast is a 500 km stretch along the coastline of Namibia, which got its name from the scores of shipwrecks that took place there. Whale bones and wood from the wrecks are still part of the scenery on the shores. These bones and debris are actually protected as part of the National Park, and interestingly enough, Namibia was the first country to write Nature Conservation into their constitution.

Bottle, Skeleton Coast

Whale skeleton

Salt Brine, Skeleton Coast

My mind goes back to Namibia when we're driving the super highways around the DC metropolitan area, past strip malls and giant suburban sprawl. It's almost unfathomable that two such shockingly different places can exist on the same planet. Namibia's mega dunes, salt-brines and grand mountains are vast and practically untouched by man. The sands are gem-laced and life is everywhere, from the tiniest lichen to the huge seal colonies, endless varieties of birds, reptiles, and the elegant oryx thumping across the plains.


Bushman's bottom


We visited a small community of Himba, an ethnic group of 20,000-50,000 nomadic and pastoral people living in Northern Namibia. I think of the Himba women often. These families in their simplicity and togetherness are a true community in every sense of the word, one that I do not belong to, nor could I seek to recreate in this modern world of mine. But I look to their example in keeping Roman close to me just as they raise their children. I feel lucky to have witnessed even a brief moment of their lives for their impact on me was profound.

Himba baby

Himba people

Our last night back at Camp before leaving the Coast, we were treated to a Namibian style "braai" (grill) complete with local meats, the spring bok and oryx, as well as bread baked on the grill. We sat down to eat feeling wistful as the staff spoke the names of the foods in each of their African languages. The clicks and singsong quality of their voices rose up into the black sky that hung low like an onyx curtain, thick with stars. We ate the meal humbled by all that we had seen, savoring the flavors of the braai and trying to imprint those memories deep into our minds so that wherever we go, we carry them still.



Kelby's lizard

The Himba people are featured in this documentary.
Our trip was planned through the ecotourism company Wilderness Safaris.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Floating back to Laos

In between worlds, having left Italy more than a month ago, I'm having to adjust to life back in the US. Our household effects are still in transit from Italy to the United States, and we are still in transition. We have everything we could ever need at our fingertips, but it all feels impersonal, white, lifeless.

Not that I'm particularly missing Rome's chaos, pollution, sirens day and night, shoddy sidewalks, but I'm still stumbling to take in my surroundings. Clean, quiet, easy Arlington, just across the river from downtown Washington DC, feels sterile and "vanilla" to me.

In these temporary surroundings of mine, my mind is flipping through the archives of the past six years. We've moved countries 4 times now and traveled to a total of 17 countries in that same time frame. I spend my afternoons while Roman is napping looking at old photographs of the times when we were living at double intensity.

In 2008 we were in South East Asia and spent a few enchanting days in Luang Prabang, Laos. Time has erased some of the details of our trip but the overall emotions of visiting this place still remain.

Temple, Luang prabang, Laos

Banks of the Mekong, Laos

There was a food market every morning outside our tiny hotel. The vendors started setting up before sunrise. Those early morning noises were delicate, like small birds chirping. Their movements gentle, with little feet shuffling. They kept their voices so low that in my half-asleep state they appeared to be elves, not people.

At night, townspeople sold their crafts under vibrant canopies. Handsewn books, pillowcases, tapestries, rugs, all colorful and made with pride. No one called out garishly to us to entice us to buy. Rather, if we made eye contact, they would bow and politely utter "sabaidee" hello.

Night market, Luang prabang, Laos

People were visibly very happy, although it was plain to see they had little material goods. They had each other's company, they had their work, and they delighted in sharing their hometown with foreigners. Their smiles were contagious, their kindness palpable. It's a memory I reach for now, surrounded by big chain stores filled with employees trained to smile.

3 generations, Laos

Back here in the land of plenty, I'm pouring over the photographs of things that don't come encased in plastic and cardboard. Goods without price tags, marketing, or gimmicks. Staples of life, bought fresh, net-caught, dried in the sun, colored, spun and woven by hand.

Market shot, Laos

Fishing Nets, Laos

Drying cakes, Laos

Handmade silk tapestries, Laos

As with any place we've visited, there were unforgettable meals, including this one, where we grilled our meat and made a luscious soup in the same contraption, placed in the center of our table over hot coals. We were given a slab of fat that sat on top of the grill to impart its flavor and moisture into the grilling meat, then dripping down into the broth in the moat where we placed the noodles and the greens to cook quickly.

Dinner, Laos

Looking back on our visit to Laos years later, I'm still charmed by the quiet mystery of the place. We watched the monks collecting alms at daybreak, stumbled upon their orange robes drying on the line behind a temple, we were moved by the temples ever-reaching up to the sky, and wondered at a religion that we knew little about, but that didn't matter.

Cave with Buddhas, Laos

A few travel tips:
We stayed here at the Ramayana Boutique Hotel.
We loved this restaurant. The kai phen, freshly made jerky wrapped in dried, marinated river reeds was unforgettable.
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