11–17 of 17 entries from the month of: January 2011

Jungle Garden

January 10th


NO clue


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Africa, Journal, Travel
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Books of the New Year

January 8th


Ya-Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells: I’ve had this book for years, tucked on a bookshelf with its $.25 yard sale sticker in place. I enjoyed Wells’ infamous “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” novel to the point of long referring to my girlfriends as the Yas. We’ve been the Yas since 2000 and we will remain forever more.

The sequel couldn’t ever live up to the first. I’ll never forget our happiness crowding into the now defunct Tempe theater to see our book – a book that for once encapsulated the joys and sorrows of having girlfriends who are your blood, your breath – on the big screen. We invited our mothers and smushed together with giant boxes of popcorn and vats of Diet Coke. These women on screen were our southern counterparts.

I can tell you where I was when I read Wells’ primary novel the first time and the second. While “In Bloom” doesn’t come as close to my heart, it is still fun. It had the ability to make my eyes brim and my heart ache to have my legs intertwined with those girls I love the most.

Caro puts another log on the fireplace. “Tell me more, Vivi,” she says.

Vivi looks at her friend, and thinks, ‘Those three words are as good as the words I love you.’

I come from a garden of gabbers. We love to tell our stories. To have the entire group’s rapt attention typically means something has gone so very right or so very wrong. Regardless, you tingle. The attention fuels the details of your stories. Your arms dance in front of you, expressing their own version of the story. Your head shakes just so. Your brow either eventually arcs with a wide relief of joy, or the down crest wallop of sorrow. With my Yas, I tell the last few lines of my stories embraced, smelling their sweet hair on my shoulders, feeling their hands on my back, knowing their love is within me.*

Three out of five bananas, absoloodle.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is an epic novel I will think of a decade from now, still considering the characters and wondering what they would be doing today. At more than 600 pages, this is not a novel for the less than motivated. The story is that of twin brothers born in an Ethiopian hospital under less than desirable genetic circumstances. Their mother is a nun. Their father is an esteemed surgeon at the hospital.

The story speaks of their childhood – one tormented by politics and circumstance. There is so much to say about this great book, but so little I want to reveal; it is a tale you must experience for yourself. There are few stories I’ve read that have touched me so profoundly. I dreamed of these characters for days after finishing the book, hoping for a continuation.

“Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

This is one of those books that you happen upon every ten years – a book that will change the way you look at life and give you more satisfaction for the existence you have.

Five out of five bananas, absoloodle.

Clementine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain is a memoir of a Francophile family who during World War II must flee their lovely French home for a new post in Boston. With a twist of fortune, they are able to bring their esteemed French help – a woman named Clementine – with them. Her adventures in both French and American markets and cooking is a fun read, although a bit heavy in recipes that I couldn’t ever follow.

I’m pathetically American. I’m not a fan of snails or cream. While I enjoy the occasional leek, I crave a casserole of homemade macaroni and cheese, a plate of stewed green chile with homemade tortillas, and my father’s barbequed chicken.

This book is a fun memoir of an exceptionally well-heeled American family’s exploits in French living and cooking upon return to the homeland. I appreciated Clementine’s spunk, but the tone, theme and contents were a bit too pretentious for this All-American girl.

Two out of five bananas, absoloodle.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony is a must-read for anyone who loves Africa. I borrowed this book, among others, from Matty’s family bookcase on the tea estate in Malawi. It is the true story of Anthony, and his French wife Francoise on their game estate in South Africa. Thula Thula unexpectedly becomes home to a family of misbehaving elephants.

The next 400 pages are a sweet story of how one man with incredible patience, a diligent staff and a loving girlfriend, transform the veldt to yet again include a family of Africa’s largest mammals.

I’ll be sending this book out to several friends when I return to the States. It is such a delightful tale.

“There is nothing more energizing than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter. In the outback, life is lived in the instant. The land thrums with exuberance when everything is green and lush and is stoically resilient when it isn’t. In the bush, simple acts give intense atavistic pleasures, such as sliding a sprig of grass into a tiny slot of a scorpion hole and feeling a tug that pound for pound would rival a game fish. Even today that triggers of my born-free adolescence as vividly as a lovelorn youth recalling his first heart-thudding kiss.”

“Such is Africa, the flawed, beautiful, magnificent, beguiling, mystical, unique, life-changing continent … seductive in its charm and charisma, its ancient wisdom so often stained by unfathomable spasms of blood.”

Four out of five bananas, absoloodle.


*I might be a bit homesick.

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Monkey Scout

January 7th


Green moss everywhere



I spent the morning hiking in the Mulanje Mountain Reserve – a UNESCO heritage site. The mountain range is stunning. Waterfalls pour off the peaks, plummeting into pools and running in gushing rivulets down the mountainside. Clouds crown the peaks, breaking only on occasion for a view of the verdant top.

From the trail, with a chorus of tree frogs singing, we spot samango monkeys above in the treetops. Actually, far before we spotted them, they’d seen the dogs we are hiking with. As they jump from tree to tree, they stay so high in the canopy you have to squint to see leaves moving to catch a glimpse of their tiny dark bodies.

It is their cries we can hear below, and the corresponding hungry howl of the dogs at our feet. In truth, the dogs cannot decide if they want to pounce into the jungle with bravado for the chase and a chance at an exotic snack, or head back to the car with their courage tucked with their tail between their legs.

As we hike, I listen to the Monkey Scout. In the US, he would have been an Eagle Scout, but as an African – this man is well versed in all things jungle.


“This plant has barbs. Be careful. This plant looks edible, but the flower will kill you. See that bird? That’s a hornbill. Big cry, small bird. See this tree? This tree is a hardwood. The poachers would have a hard time finding a saw strong enough to remove this beast. Bloody poachers… Wait! Listen? Hear those monkeys? Those monkeys have mustaches. If we stand here very still and can keep the dogs close, we’ll be able to see their long wiry mustaches.”

We climbed and climbed. At one point, I threw my hands above my head, stretched my spine and felt my heart thumping as my lungs sucked in as much of humid air as they could. With mushrooms and moss under my feet, I crunched down the path, wary of the dark trail ahead. The canopy – a twisting combination of vine, eucalyptus (gum) trees, African hardwoods and brush – is so dense in places, it closes out the tropical sun above. In my mind, I know there aren’t gorillas/lion/boogeymen in this part of the world. In my imagination, I’m on a remote, slippery lime green cloudy forest trail, in the middle of nowhere, listening to animals in the jungle. Anything is possible.

My heart races.

We reached a small hydroelectric dam built to provide energy to the estate. The water is crystal clear runoff from the rainfall above. A pounding stream feeds the damn. We’ve been able to hear this water bubbling along for more than a mile. We slide into the water holding our breath. Matt, without any fear, swims up one side and down the other, climbing on the dam wall and diving into the darkest part of the pool. I join him after a lot of coaxing, name-calling, and promises that there is no way possible that a croc could be on the bottom waiting for just such an American treat. Soon enough, I’m also standing on the dam wall, shaking from the cold water and dripping wet, jumping blindly into the same dark pool screaming “cowabunga!”

Cowabunga, indeed.

Locally sourced umbrella

Jungle badge — earned.


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View from the Veranda

January 6th

View from the the estate

A few other favorite photos from the last week:

Lake Malawi

Happy place

Waterfalls, Mulanje Mountain UNESCO Site

Tea leaves

From field to factory to fiber -- tea ready for auction

Tasting area

Fishing on Lake Malawi :: Catching rays :: the tea estate and Mulanje Mountain Reserve :: tea leaves — you only take the top few :: tea in process, ready for auction :: tasting station.


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January 5th

Bookcase at Cape MacLear


Book label

Whenever I travel, I love to browse — snoop, really — bookshelves. You can tell so much but what people have read, what’s bookmarked, underlined, well-worn and what has obviously been abandoned mid-chapter. At the lake cottage, I found a tiny bookshelf with books left behind by previous visitors.

I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was to find the 1950s library rules glued to the inside cover of one novel, but I am. Worthy of sharing, but still very sad nonetheless. There are epic novels to be written about the “boys” and “natives” who were denied the pleasure of reading. Even more depressing, while the colonizers have long since been run out, there are few public libraries today in Malawi. The state of public education is so poor, most folk are illiterate.

The good news is, I’ve made several delightful new friends who are working in Malawi and Tanzania for international NGOs on a variety of projects, including literacy. So, let’s hope the label alone is a relic in this southern African nation. May the joy of libraries one day return to beautiful Malawi.

(Really, how can a country progress without access to quality education and books?)


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Cape MacLear

January 4th

Cape MacLear


Morning tea

The view

Cashew Fruit

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Malawi 2011

January 3rd

The cottage

Lake Malawi

I opened my eyes to the New Year on African soil; never has a year of my life begun with such potential, hope and happiness. There is something wild, simple, beautiful  about this continent that I love unconditionally. The flights from Phoenix to Heathrow to Johannesburg to Blantyre were uneventful and easy; I slept, watched far too many movies, read 300 pages of a novel and dreamed of what the next three weeks of holiday could include.

I was greeted at the airport by Jimmy – a family friend. In one swoop, my handful of luggage and my exhausted frame were bundled into a truck, headed three hours north to Lake Malawi. My holiday coincided with their family holiday; I would join a gaggle at the cottage at Cape MacLear – one of the southern-most points on the lake.

Soon after arriving, I was hustled into a speed boat with Matty, his brother Shaun and a handful of their expat friends. We grazed across the lake with such speed, music blaring, green Carlsburg beer bottles tossed back with the sun setting. The tropical weather made my skin shine, my hair thick and my shoulders relax. It was the temperature and weather of perfect. Mary Poppins perfect. Not too warm. Not too cool. Simply right. Watching the first sun set of the new year, surrounded by old friend and new, on one of Africa’s largest lakes was true bliss. I said no fewer than a dozen times, “I cannot believe how lucky I am. This is my life!”

Village kids

The cottage sleeps ten and sits a hundred feet from the beach. I was given a tour of the beach by Jimmy.

“Look at those stars, Kelli. Tell me you have stars like this in America.”

“They are hidden, but they are there.”

“They are?”
“I’ve never seen the Milky Way in Mesa, but I’m sure they are there.”

“I like your optimism.”

Long after he’d retreated to the dinner table, I remained with my neck craned, mouth wide open with awe, staring at the heavens. The planets, an off red. The sky, as black as the shade is made. The twinkle of millions of stars – spread out like diamonds thrown upon black velvet, shimmering on the opaque lake below. Truly glorious!

My room included a tidy bed with a white mosquito net, a large picture window with a view and a lake breeze that lulled me into a deep sleep after a festive African braai – steak, sausage, ribs, salad. I awoke 12 hours later miraculously with no jet lag; the same group of friends were on the patio where I’d left them after the braai, sitting in the shade of the giant cashew tree now enjoying a traditional English breakfast – eggs sunny side up, toast, sausage and grilled tomato. It hit the spot and certainly beats the lonely bagel with peanut butter I’m used to eating before hustling off to work.


One of a dozen fish he caught

Today, we spent hours on the lake snorkeling, fishing, reading, lounging and day-dreaming. Matty was the master of the fishing pole; his brother and friends were embarrassed by the mass of fish he caught. I summoned ever bit of courage I had to snorkel; there are crocodiles in this water, although more than likely not in our part of the lake. Still, my heart raced as I swam along in the deep water, bright blue and yellow fish swimming along with my bubbles. They call Lake Malawi the calendar lake; it is 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.

I am in love with Malawi and this holiday could not have come soon enough.


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