Yeah. It was kinda like that.

In Kenya, there is a brand of alcohol simply called “Safari.” They make an assortment of products – gin, vodka, whiskey – although I’m fairly certain it’s all the same thing, but with different labels. The taste is interchangeable; that is, each and every one tastes like hand sanitizer. But it’s cheap, and when you’re living on $4-6 a day, you find you can choke down a lot of things you wouldn’t ordinarily: slightly-off milk, rice full of weevils … and when you’re having a social evening with other PCVs, the occasional Purell-flavored vodka tonic. I can only guess that if it were exported to the US, its only legal use would be to strip the varnish off of speedboats.

Suffice to say that, with few notable exceptions, the cocktails I’ve enjoyed over the past two years have generally been of less-than-stellar quality. I went out for drinks only rarely, partly because I was a “site rat” and my companions would have mostly been an especially irritating brand of expat, and part because (as I said before) we were paid peanuts. Nonetheless, for most of my life, I’ve harbored a shameful secret:

I’m a wine snob.

I’m a wine snob who can’t *actually* afford to be a wine snob, but likes the idea anyway.

In college, I discovered that if you aren’t afraid to ask for help at the liquor store, you can drink surprisingly excellent wine for under $15. I kept an absurdly meticulous journal of what I did and didn’t like about particular wines, including occasional commentary about the artwork on the box. (Go ahead! Laugh. Everyone does.) I discovered a secret distaste for punch-like Pinot Noir and an overwhelming fondness for spicy, springy Shiraz. Kenya does a few things excellently, and many things passably well; unfortunately, wine isn’t among either of those. A glass of “house red,” when sipped, tends to conjure images someone furtively smashing out the back window of a church in the middle of the night and making off with their bought-by-the-barrel communion offerings. But my luck turned: after two years in the village, I found myself headed to a part of the world renowned for its Syrah grapes – the Western Cape of South Africa. I was giddy.

Mountains of the Western Cape looming over the vineyards of the Solms-Delta Winery.

At least, I was giddy until I realized that I’d missed my bus by nearly an hour and the certainty of my adventure very much in doubt.

Spoiler alert – all’s well that ends well; but I’m going to start off the meat of this post by giving my very first Double-Plus Good ThisAmerikenyan Life Offishul Endorsement:

When you’re in South Africa, come to Cape Town, and book the Story of of Wine tour with the Wine Desk company. If possible, ask for Fern as your guide.

That’s not a suggestion, it’s a directive.

Fermentation vats at the Tokara Winery.

They couldn’t collect me from my guest house – I was staying way out in the suburbs, so I can’t blame them – so I arrived at our predetermined pick-up point a good half-hour early (I’m like that.) BUT THEN TRAGEDY STRUCK. Owing to a little confusion, a touch of inexplicable duplicity, and a bizarre deluge of misinformation from someone we may suspect have been from a rival touring company (long story, ask me over more wine), at the time of the rendezvous, I was on the other end of the neighborhood, happily) eating a danish and watching seals frolic in the early-morning sun. Fern the tour guide searched for me for almost 20 minutes (!!) before deciding The Tour Must Go On and setting off for the first winery. When I discovered this, I managed to contact the company, which seemed genuinely distraught at my dilemma and offered to do anything to “make this right” (even though they hadn’t done anything to make it wrong to begin with.) I expected an offer of refunding my $20 deposit, but no! The bull goose of the operation himself, a sweet and soft-spoken South African man named Bruce, whose passion for sharing wine country is intense and obvious, picked me up personally (gratis) and raced through traffic to meet the tour van at its first stop. But hey, at least this time we had seatbelts and a vehicle designed to go 100kmph.

As we screeched to a stop amidst a spray of gravel in the parking lot of the first winery, our guide emerged from the wine lodge. “OH MY GOD WE’RE SO GLAD YOU MADE IT WE WERE SO WORRIED WE LOOKED ALL OVER FOR YOU …” she babbled on as she bodily dragged me inside. Before I could mutter greetings, I found myself in a comfy chair by the fireplace, a glass of sparkling Chardonnay in my hand, with four very concerned strangers empathetically coaxing out the story of my morning.

I could tell immediately it was going to be a good day despite all. I’d been fearful that an activity with a yuppie-ish reputation like Wine Tasting (even the great English travel writer Bill Bryson casts aspersions) would result in me being the only person on the tour without blue hair. But alas! Rather than a coach jam-packed with pensioners, I found myself in a very pleasant oversize van with three other tourists in their 20s. The tiny tour group made for a very intimate experience, with conversations instead of microphone lecture (“On your left you will see vines …”).

Traditionally, when you’re tasting a lot of wine, you’re poured a bit – maybe a quarter of a glass – which you swirl, sniff, sip, then spit and cleanse your palette to prepare for the next sample. But all four of us were of the opinion that this was a criminal waste of *excellent* local wines, so even if we’d felt stand-offish or awkward at first, we ended up having a jolly nice time indeed.

Tasting bar at the Fairview Winery. All those framed things on the back wall are awards.

Our guide was relentlessly chatty – but I mean that in the fondest way possible. I’ve met Labrador Retrievers that didn’t love their jobs or lives that much. In addition to being quite well-informed on the topics of wine country and South African history, her enthusiasm for her work infused the tour like floral scents at a mall candle store, and you got the impression she was genuinely happy to have you along. We were all greatly pleased to be there anyway, but even if we hadn’t been, it would have been impossible not to crack a grin and enjoy yourself after marinating in our guide’s glee for a little while.

We made it to four wineries in all, including one that offered an excellent variety of different kinds of olive oil (we mutually agreed each was excellent, though rather indistinguishable, despite variations in description and price), one where we were given a dark chocolate pairing with the Shiraz, and one where each wine was followed up by a field trip to the cheese bar to gorge ourselves on over a half-dozen types offered for sampling. (Verdict: Everything pairs nicely with everything else. Nothing offered was anything short of delicious. I apologize if that isn’t the keen, discerning reportage you’ve come to expect from me over the years I’ve kept this blog.) I did my best to keep notes, but over the course of the day, they slowly evolved for “2009 Sauvignon Blanc, greenish-gold-sunlight color, olfactory leader of apples and vanilla, hints of pine? on the back of the tongue” to “Red, 2011/2???, goat on the bottle, VERY TASTY.”

Combination wineyard/olive tree orchard at the Tokara Winery.

Namesake for the “Goats Do Roam” series of wines at the Fairview Winery. (Oenological pun very much intended.)

As we piled into the van for return trips to our respective guest houses, the guide pulled me aside to apologize once more for my rough morning – even though she bore literally zero responsibility for the mix-up. She re-iterated that she was glad I’d finally made it and presented me with a bottle of sparkling Shiraz, the signature wine of one of the vineyards we’d visited and one of my favorite wines from the day. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, and really above and beyond the call of tour-giving duty.

To re-iterate in brief my directive to follow in my footsteps: the Stellenbosch wine country is stunningly beautiful on its own, and even if you don’t drink, if you like cheese or chocolate or olives or nature or views or driving places that are pretty or seeing goats climb towers you’ve GOT to put this one on your bucket list. While you’re here, you can go with any number of companies, that are probably fine and all, or you can go with a company that goes out of its way to make your time with them joyful. The staff is dedicated and enthusiastic, the sites they visit are excellent and diverse, the value for the money is so good that I question how comfortable their profit margin must be (transport + guidance + lunch + four wine tastings [20+ wines] + olive oil tasting [7-8 oils] + cheese tasting [a dozen cheeses] + chocolate = <$70USD), and they will do anything to right a wrong, even if it's a wrong they had no part in creating.

I ended the day overstuffed, tipsy, and radiant with the joy that comes form a day overdosing on amazing comestibles and jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery. I suspect this may not be my last trip to South African wine country.


When in doubt, just make NEW friends. (I’m the one on the left, in the hat.)

I travel alone a lot. I also catch fair amount of flack about it. People have been subtly (or not so subtly) insinuating I’m naive, or reckless, or otherwise youthfully unhinged since I declared my intention to go to Rwanda alone when I was in East Africa the first time around, back in 2007; some friends ended up wanting to come with, so it was a non-issue, but I’d already decided I wasn’t fearful of the prospect. Since then, I’ve been to a number of countries without pre-ordained companions, some of which gave my family and friends a collective heart attack to hear about (Damascus is lovely, I tell you, heartbreaking current events aside). At present, as you well know, I’m planning on passing through perhaps a dozen countries as I slowly wind my way back to America. In several, I have friends or friends-of-friends expecting me. I arrived in Ethiopia with two of my closest friends from Peace Corps, and we had a grand old time I wouldn’t trade for the world. But in a few other places … well. I’ll probably be going solo.

I’m not going to post my exact itinerary, guest house location, and room number on my blog; I’m taking smart precautions, honed from lived experience, travel guides, and general common sense. But being a moderately pretty 24-year-old blonde chick stomping alone through Africa MAY sound like the start of a “Law and Order: Hague Edition” episode, and yet … it’s less intimidating than you might expect. Certainly less intimidating than you’d believe if you formed your reactions based on the looks I get from people in airports, or friends who haven’t spent extensive time overseas.

You see, the world tends to be unfair towards women – I’ll whole-heartedly agree with you there – but its danger overall is overstated. The media is giddy to build for us a world wherein to leave your house is to put yourself at 50/50 odds from being bludgeoned with a hammer, or abducted by bandits, or shot by marauding separatists, even in the US. When we allow ourselves to develop our intuition and permit ourselves to gauge risk based on situational street smarts rather than what Fox News tells us, we realize that simple precautions will go a long way in most places. Sometimes it works out ok, and sometimes it doesn’t – a degree of risk is inherent in everything we do. But should that prevent us from accomplishing things that are meaningful to us? Or should we wait for ideal conditions in all things?

I have traveled with large groups, small groups, and as one-half of a pair. I would be hard-pressed to rank one above the rest. Each has its definite pros and cons. Sometimes, there’s nothing more fulfilling than to turn to someone and, while pointing, say “Look! This is a thing! A thing that is cool! Let us acknowledge it mutually and share in the experience of seeing this cool thing!” Conversely, with large groups, you can often turn an otherwise costly trip into a more economically agreeable one, splitting cabs and hotel rooms among more folk than is (probably) advisable. It has its charms, to be certain.

I could go on. I certainly don’t dislike traveling with other people. I am not some reclusive misanthrope, staring daggers at people who want to share my bus seat, waving a stick at children while hollering, “GET OFFA MY LAWN!” (At least, not after I’ve had my second cup of morning coffee.) Few and far between are the traveling companions I haven’t *completely adored.* I’ve been innumerable places where someone else added so much to the experience, I live eternally in their debt and wouldn’t trade the experience for all the tea in a hipster commune. (It can also provide some measure of logistical support and security that may not be strictly necessary but IS awfully encouraging.) Nonetheless, I don’t I see bunching up and moving in herds as a traveler’s imperative. I can handle most things by myself, thank you very much. As can you, in all likelihood, if you give yourself the chance.

When did our culture, particularly my generation, decide doing *anything* alone is inherently shameful or frightening? We are a nation of secret introverts, more connected in superficial ways than ever before, and probably less happy for it. At the end of all things, what are we so afraid of?

Separatists, bandits, and hammer-wielding maniacs, perhaps. Or perhaps just what we’ll find if we’re left alone with our thoughts for too long, without our nearest and dearest – or failing that, any of our 359 (on average) Facebook friends – to interrupt us. You never know what’s lurking in the back of your mind.

“But don’t you get lonely?”

No. Yes. Both of those things, and neither – and is being lonely always such a terrible thing? It’s not bad, it’s different. The difference between cooking a gourmet meal at home or going to a restaurant with a raucous group of friends, or the difference between a jolly midnight film screening and watching a Netflix in bed on a rainy day. Each experience is valuable in its own way, and enjoyable, but for distinctive reasons. Neither can be held as inherently “better” or “worse” than the other; it all depends on expectation and attitude.

And when the genuine isolation of overseas travel begins to creep to an uncomfortable level, it helps to remember that the world is perhaps now a smaller place than it ever has been, with connections more easily formed, and shared experience more easily discovered. What I have found is this: there are “bad” people in the world – you don’t need me to tell you that – whose intent is solely to harm you, or profit from you at your expense. Far more numerous are indifferent people, who in my humble view are all the more frightening for their ambivalence, and for whom the maintenance or degradation of your general well-being is of less consequence than the soda options on their next flight.

But most important, and equal in number perhaps to those who are “bad,” are people who are good, and kind, and genuinely want to help. People who think little of pausing in their own hectic routines to sketch a map for you, or direct you through a particularly labyrinthine airport. People who will end conversations by tearing a page out of a book with a phone number or an e-mail address on it: This is my sister-in-law, she lives in Dubai, she’d be happy to recommend places comfortable for lady-travlelers. This is the phone number for Steve, he runs a trekking outfit in Victoria but his wife and kids live in Harare, if you run into any trouble there are no kinder people in the world to ask for help; best mate I ever had. Don’t misread me: anyone who knows me can tell you I view most people with a healthy degree of suspicion until proven otherwise, and I’d not recommend trusting all comers willy-nilly. But the kindness of strangers isn’t always to be rebuffed. Travelers form their own networks; in this sense, even when traveling solo, are we ever really alone?

I could delve into that question on a deeper, more existential level, but I have a lingering brunch and a fond companion (in the form of a local newspaper) waiting for me. If you need me, I’ll be over here lustily stuffing my face with mandaazi and not caring who, if anyone, is watching. You’re welcome to join me, if you wish. Or don’t. Take the table next to mine.

You may find you like it.

“The Falls, outstanding – scenes so lovely, they must have been gazed upon by angels in flight.”

– from the diary of David Livingstone


The first billboard you see when you leave the airport in Lusaka had a panoramic view of Victoria Falls and some asinine tagline like, “Welcome to Zambia – the land of thundering smoke.” I commented idly on this to my taxi driver, and he nodded. “Yes yes, Mosi-Oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ in my father’s language, the Tonga language.”

I thought about this for a moment, then told him the story of Uluru, Australia’s most famous inland landmark. Long considered a sacred site by the indigenous Aborigine people, it was “discovered” (or “first spotted by a white dude”) in 1873 by British surveyor William Gosse. This memorable monolith outside of Alice Springs was dubbed “Ayer’s Rock” (in honor of the Secretary Chief of Australia, Henry Ayers) for over a century. In 1993, the Australian government decided that after centuries of systematically crushing the Aborigines under their collective boot heel, the least they could do would be to return this site to indigenous stewardship. It still draws tens of thousands of people every year, but is now known by its more respectful Aboriginal name: Uluru.

The driver made all the polite response sounds one makes when listening to a boring story by someone you’re being paid to be helpful towards. I then asked him: what did he think of the potential for doing the same for Victoria Falls?

At this, he rolled his eyes and made the sort of “thk-thk”-ing noise I’ve come to associate with village Mamas judging the length of my dress. “A thing is a thing and a name is a name,” he said cryptically, “Isn’t it?”

I asked him to clarify.

“People are always meddling with things that have no need or cause to be meddled. Changing the name will not undo the colonial period in our history. It WILL undo the recognition tourists have for one of the World’s Greatest Wonders. Don’t you see?” His explanation continued, pointing to the most pragmatic of reasons for letting it stay as-is:


More than a century of free advertising – Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the crown jewel of the African jungle! – has worked its magic. Why gamble with the almighty tourist dollar?

Which, having seen the number of people drawn in for booze cruises and bungee jumping and sunrise hikes and ultra-light plane flights and full moon lunar rainbow galas and hang glider adventures and cross-border viewing safaris and zip-lining and observation-deck photographing and white-water rafting and inflatable kayaking and plunge-taking and Falls-swimming and horseback riding and everything else, I am quick to agree … that dollar is nothing to sneer but.

He makes a salient and thoughtful point.

But regardless of the name, regardless of EVERYTHING … Victoria Falls (or Mosi-oa-Tunya) is every bit as magnificent as you’ve heard.

Perhaps even more so.

Whatever they call it, it will always take your breath away.

Our chariot awaits …

Me, in the helicopter swooping over the falls

In Lonely Planet’s ponderous guide to Africa, which gamely attempts to summarize travel over an entire continent in about 1,000 pages, it lists one of the main attractions in Burundi as “being the only tourist in Burundi.” It isn’t difficult to see why: not unlike Rwanda, Burundi has a history of conflict and slaughter that belies its peaceful, idyllic green landscape. In 1993, it received a giant “X” through it on virtually all overland tourism mental maps, a position it has not really recovered from today. Given its ongoing stability issues and noteworthy dearth (as far as I can tell) of the kind of charismatic megavertebrates that continue to be a golden cash cow for regional neighbors Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC, I’m not sure it’s going to become a tourist haven in the immediate future.

Slight correction: Burundi DOES have at least ONE primate – a chimpanzee named Tina who lives in the capital’s Musee Vivant, a “showcase” for Burundi’s natural treasures. Her enclosure is not much larger than the average college dorm room, and home to one rope, one leaf-bare tree, and an overturned basin. You can see her crouching at the top of the tree, purposefully not engaging with anyone or anything. I am told she looooooooves beer and cigarettes (perhaps with the insinuation that I could treat her, following a small fee?) and basically everything about the situation makes me understand why animal rights activists are keen to enter zoos with a pair of bolt cutters and a sense of grim determination. Skip this, the World’s Most Depressing Zoo, unless your next planned task is to flip over cars and start fires to let off a little steam. Sorry; end rant.

What you have is the Burundi of Today (at least, as I experienced it): many excellent roads, NGO vehicles and offices beyond counting, high-priced everything (I am told this is par for the course when the UN rolls into town), and a great number of people who will quirk their eyebrows in a sort of “Oh really? You don’t say?” manner when you inform them that yes, you actually ARE here to take in the sights. There’s no UNICEF expense account or Doctors Without Borders driver at your disposal. You’re just a tourist in a place that gets too few.

Which is a shame, really, because there ARE things to see and do. And eat. Definitely eat. Unlike inland Kenya, which tragically inherited Britain’s culinary traditions (a friend once referred to it as “The Heart of Blandness”), Bujumbura is steeped in French gastronomical excellence. I was able to practice both my crepe-snarfing and being-on-the-receiving-end-of-an-exasperated-stare-because-I-don’t-speak-French skills, which I am sure will come in handy when I wind up my world tour in Paris at the end of August.

That’s right: I still don’t speak French. Or rather, I speak as much French as I speak German; which is to say, I have duly memorized Joel Grey’s memorable introductory number to the excellent musical, “Cabaret.” I specify “still” because I found myself participating in a truly time-honored linguistic experimentation every traveler is familiar with: when presented with my Francophonic failures, taxi drivers and self-appointed tour guides would stare deeply in my eyes and repeat themselves – louder, slower, and with greater enunciation. As though I were a dysfunctional voice-activated BlueTooth headset, and over-emphasized repetition could set me right. Despite their genuinely heroic efforts, I continue to have very basic conversational vocabularies in merely five languages.

I don’t want to sound as though I’m complaining. I am no such cultural imperialist as to believe the world and its people must bend to MY will, and anticipate my arrival by learning fluent American English. But I will say that part of The Adjustment is the realization that you have gone from having at least one, sometimes two or more, common languages at your disposal to having none (and not turning this into a cognitive self-reflection of Failing At Travel.) It is disheartening at the best of times, for someone who – at least in my native language – considers herself to be reasonably articulate and with strong communication skills to end up gesticulating and sketching pictures to be understood.

And it is no one’s fault but my own, of course. I am ever mindful of that.

Sigh. Moving on.

Perhaps the most historically interesting thing in Bujumbura is the Livingstone-Stanley monument. As we all know, David Livingstone was a celebrated explorer in the late 19th century. Abolitionist, scientist, explorer, martyr. What’s not to love? (Oh, right. His role in initiating that whole “Scramble for Africa” colonization thing. **sad trombone**.) However, he possessed the tragic downfall of being male, and therefore incapable of asking directions; after a lengthy period of time with no updates, he was presumed lost in the 1870s and search parties were sent to find word. It was his reunion with H.M. Stanley that led to one of the most acontextual quotememes in Western history, the oft used: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Ten kilometers south of town, and well off the beaten path, a simple stone has been erected to commemorate this event, of One Mzungu And Another Mzungu Meeting Up. Forgive my slightly glib description; on the surface, it seems like something not all that interesting, especially once you recall that Livingstone didn’t discover anything, necessarily, he was just the first non-African to penetrate the depths of a continent that had been hosting other humans, and human-ish creatures before them, for hundreds of thousands of years. Although on further inspection … perhaps it is a little miraculous, isn’t it? For two people to be able to find each other in a continent so vast and varied?

Livingstone’s monument, in Mugere, just outside of Bujumbura.

As with so many things in history before YouTube, we will never be entirely sure if this is the actual spot where the meeting took place. A village in Tanzania makes the same claim. I found myself mulling over this fact as I leaned against the rock and stared out into the deltas and side-streams of Lake Tanganyika. You know how loathe I am to use the sentence “Africa is _____” because there are so few correct options for fill-in-the-blank-ing there. But I think we can all agree on this: Africa is enormous. Endlessly diverse. Seductive, even? Full of nifty stuff, definitely, both old and modern. Perpetually beckoning the bold and brash; it has suffered at the hands of a lot of things, but will never suffer for lack of potential adventures.

Especially if you don’t speak French.

Following in the footsteps of great Scotsmen. Sort of.

Snapshot from Livingstone’s Hill/Mugere. I wonder if Livingstone and Stanley had this same view?

In Kenya, Peace Corps volunteers are banned under all circumstances from using pikipikis, or motorbike taxis, as a means of personal transportation. A few weeks in the public health sector and you quickly understand why: many hospitals have whole wings devoted to drivers and passengers maimed in the near-daily crashes that occur in even the most rural of villages. Cheap motorcycles assembled from bubblegum and popsicle sticks + 70% of drivers’ licenses being fake + terrible roads = carnage of Grand Theft Auto proportions.

Still, as I stomped along on foot or waited for matatus, I’d occasionally gaze with envy at the women perched delicately sidesaddle behind the drivers of these bi-wheeled death machines. That doesn’t look so hard, I found myself thinking. If they can text, or hold conversations, or eat comically large pieces of fruit while jostling down dirt roads, I could probably do so with ease, right?

I found myself reflecting with some irony on these thoughts as I clung desperately to the shoulders of a madman motorcylist hell-bent on overtaking/cutting off a gravel truck on a blind curve at nearly 80kph, dividing brainspace between that memory and shrieking “WE’RE GOING TO DIIIIIIEEEE!!!” (either outloud or just in my head, I can’t honestly tell you) a mere week after completing the Peace Corps for good …

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Last night, I had a rather excellent dinner with a very dear friend who works for Global Health Corps. He, too, is reaching the end of his contract, and was keen on asking how the exit/post-experience acculturation process is going. I will tell you what I told him: well enough. A bit weird, but peachy. I guess? I’m not a mopey ball of memories, sifting through village photographs while “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan plays on an endless loop. But it’s definitely an adjustment, even here within the relatively familiar confines of East Africa, in stepping out of the role of policy-shackled government employee in a small village to generic private citizen in a large city. I still find myself shouting at taxi drivers in angry Swahili rather than __[insert whatever language is ACTUALLY spoken where they are here]__. I pick at my food with my hands and eat like I’m secretly worried the waitress is going to unexpectedly snatch my dish away. I wake up certain I’m late for a meeting, or dream that I never finished my paperwork and am still somehow on the hook.

I am thrilled for my ongoing traveltastic adventures, and happy also because they allow me to ease out of PCV mode and back into my “real” life beyond the prying eyes of expectant friends and family members.

It is for this reason that I bring up the motorbikes: they’re by far the easiest way to get around Kigali, Rwanda’s hilly capital, and have the bonus prize of (generally) being piloted by competent drivers who are required by law to carry a spare helmet for their passenger. (A few rides on one and you begin to realize that the helmet, rather than actually being a life-saving measure, would seem only to be a means of briefly preserving consciousness as all your organs are crushed into a fine pate beneath the aforementioned gravel truck.) Nonetheless, the first time I swing a leg over the seat, I am quick to glance over my shoulder before we lurch away from the curb, somehow convinced that one of our programming directors is going to spring from his hiding place beneath a bush with a cry of, “haHA! GOT YOU NOW, HUMPHREYS! GIVE ME BACK THAT RPCV LAPEL PIN!”

I say again: it’s … an adjustment. Finding my way in “The New Normal,” and wondering all the while how the next two years can compare to the last two years.

Everything familiar absent, everything presumed simple turning out not to be so.

And yet.

Rwanda has some of the best roads in East Africa … those motorbikes go really, really fast.

Things that were unnerving at first, take on a heady rush of unknown exhilaration.

My life is pretty awesome.

I’m going to be just fine.

Behind me: 790 days, five conferences, six schools, scores of new friends, hundreds upon hundreds of students – the youngest 7, the oldest in his 80s. Humiliation and laughter, not always together, but ultimately in equal measure. A little heartbreak, a lot of love, and a thousand thousand thousand memories. Before me: fourteen countries, over ten thousand miles of travel, an intricate web of contacts and must-sees. A new hometown. A looming pile of applications. An impossibly beautiful future. Adventures. Time. Black asphalt, cool air, and an infinite emerald horizon.

I lean forward, pressing into the solid expanse of the driver’s shoulders.

He guns the engine and we fly.

I’m ready to start.

The heavy scent of incense, the swish of gauzy white gowns, jaw-droppingly beautiful natural features serving to frame manmade structures (such as the monolithic stone churches) that strain credulity. Ethiopia is a land with history rich enough to rival Rome or Damascus, which now seeks to come into its own as the “political capital of Africa.” With all that, narrowing it down to my favorite handful of sites is terribly tricky. Had I the time and money, I’d stay here a month, exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the ancient walled city of Gonder, the hyena conservation center/ill-thought-out petting zoo of Harar … but alas, I’m not, and I can’t. I stuck to Addis and Axum. From those two, I recommend:

1) Axum day tour – When you are told that more than 90% of the potential archaeological treasure holds of Axum remain unexcavated, lacking even the most cursory of once-overs with picks and shovels, you’re left with the same general sense as when you hear that more than 90% of the world’s Girl Scout cookies are not personally consumed by you: a vague melancholy of “What if…?” quickly overridden by pleasure and wonder at the extraordinary offerings there already are. Because, seriously, guys. There is so much stuff. If you have any interest – any WHATSOEVER – in history, commerce, archaeology, geology, stoneworking, hagiography, or just really cool old stuff, you will be instantly enamored.

Any time history is involved, there are no firm answers. Take, for example, the Queen of Sheba, the legend of which is one of Axum’s most beloved jewels of legend: she was born here, or wasn’t and is actually from Yemen. She was a Jewish princess, or worshipped the sun as part of a Pagan religion that was subsumed by the curious yet beautiful Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the fourth century C.E. under King Ezana. She built a palace, had a bathing pool, grew wheat, brushed her hair with obsidian combs, or perhaps was a common regional myth like King Prester John, or was later used to bolster monarchical claims in the 10th century C.E. No one can really say with absolute certainty; if you ever attempt to make a factual proclamation, there will be eleven people standing in the doorway, jumping up and down in a fit of rage, waving their OWN scholarly work above their heads, and shouting at you something along the lines of, “NO NO NO NO NO! YOU’RE WRONG! NOW JUST STAND THERE IN YOUR WRONGNESS AND BE WRONG!!”

My camera was broken on that day, so please enjoy this random image of the stelae fields that I found on Google.

What we DO know, more or less, is this: there are over 220 ancient pillars, or stelae, some of which are over 100 feet tall, erected without any modern machinery. Axum was a center of trade and commerce, with every new grave seeming to be full of amphorae/coinage/etc from Turkey, Greece, and beyond. 226 kings held coronations here, countless foreign dignitaries sheltered or given rest, and the area has been home to Jewish settlers, Christians, and Muslims for more than a millennium and a half. It possesses the only known translation (a Rosetta Stone of sorts) between Greek, Ge’ez, and Sabean, the last of which hasn’t been spoken in over two millennia. The Templars were here, seeking the Grail, and also apparently were graffiti-loving jerks because they carved their insignia into virtually every surface they could reach. There are many who believe the mythical Ark of the Covenant resides in a church here, although it can only be viewed by one sacred monk, elected by his hermetic peers.

Ark of the Covenant: respectful artist’s rendering.

My only quibble is that while the town appears to be gearing up for tourism prime time, with its shiny new airport, plentiful clean hotels, and UNESCO heritage registrations, it clearly is not quite there yet. There is virtually no signage at any of the historical sites; a guide book would help, but without an actual guide (there are plenty to hire, of course) I can only imagine you’d be left with a vague sense of the grandeur absent the incredible historical context – the latter of which was my favorite part. The few places I DID see signs, they were generally in Amharic. This is an excellent language, and worth preserving, of course. But to attract the kind of international appeal this place to richly deserves, I imagine English, French, and/or Chinese wouldn’t go amiss.

My assumption is that everyone just hires registered guides, which is fine. They can be had from $10-75, depending on what you’re interested in (accompany you to every site? Provide transport? Lunch? Hotel pick-up? Private service? Inclusion of the innumerable “site fees”?) Still, never being entirely sure what you’re looking at or walking towards can create some awkward moments, such as when my guide had to near-bodily yank me away from the gateway to the Monastery of the Covenant. Women, being the inherent lusty temptresses we are, are not only banned from the church, sanctum, and monastic out buildings, but from the entire compound itself. (We are reduced to standing on a stool and peeking over a stone wall to see anything.) I didn’t know that last bit, and narrowly avoided an International Awkwardness Incident on par with the time I tried to read a map upside-down and very nearly blundered into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem before the nice men in army fatigues carrying very large guns caught up with me.

Anyway, it’s an easy, beautiful flight of about an hour out of Addis. Do it. DOOOO IIIIIIT. You won’t regret it.

2) Ethiopian National Museum – Ok, so, the Smithsonian it ain’t. Often dusty and curiously organized, with cursory or non-existent exhibit explanations, you end up oo-ing and aaah-ing at throne rooms and paintings without quite understanding fully why the thing you’re staring at is meaningful. (Read up on Ethiopian history first, if you want to get the most out of it.) But the exhibit on human evolution in Africa, culminating with an up-close-and-personal encounter with world-famous human ancestor and anthropological treasure Lucy is worth the price of admission on its own. I totally geeked out, as you can see below. Also fantastic, and a little better planned/explained in several languages, is the Ethnographic Museum on the campus of Addis Ababa University.

The poster at the beginning of the exhibit reads, “Hi, I’m Lucy!” I thought it would be rude not to introduce myself in return. NB: I feel the need to point out that my hair isn’t oily, it’s wet – this was a very rainy day. I’m an RPCV now. I bathe like a normal person again. Usually.

Introduction to the small but worthwhile Lucy Room.

Probably the biggest celebrity I’ve met since that one time I shook hands with US President Barack Obama, then found myself unable to speak to him in a coherent sentence.

There is also a rather nifty prehistoric Ethiopian wildlife exhibit, complete with preserved skeletons and re-creations in the form of enormous oil paintings. I don’t remember what this is precisely – either some sort of antelope, or a monstrous hellspawn only recently banished to the remotest caves of the Simien Mountains – but its be-horned skull and impenetrable gaze will haunt my nightmares forever.

For the less scientifically inclined, the museum held plenty of other attractions, such as staring thoughtfully at paintings in an appropriately solemn and intellectual manner.

If you’re not yet museum-ed out and/or your interests trend towards the slightly macabre, the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial and Museum also offers an incredibly moving account of the “Red Terror” period of political violence in Ethiopia in the late 1970s, during which up to 500,000 Ethiopians – including over 1,000 children under the age of 13 – were slaughtered under Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

On a more serious note, the Red Terror Memorial Museum is a sleek and sombre place – perhaps the best museum in Addis, aesthetically speaking, but it DOES take being in a certain mood to attend.

Hall of Martyrs: the names and photographs of only a few of the youth murdered under the Derg. In addition to the usual tyrannical violence of forced public confessions, torture, nighttime disapperances, and extra-judicial killings, Derg killings were often characterized by a rather unique requirement: the family was generally unable to claim the body of their executed loved one until they’d paid the government back for the bullets.

This is the only photograph from this section I’ll post, but the exhibit bears mentioning. I have been in many massacre memorials, from Yad Vashem in Israel to the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda, but this is the only one I’ve seen with an *indoor mass grave,* complete with remains, transplanted into the heart of the city to give families a place to lay wreathes and sign mourning books. I say again: this is a place you need a little mental preparation to attend, but it’s worthwhile.

Anyway, moving on, let’s step together back into the sunlight; I’ll now bring you my third Ethiopia recommendation …

3) DRINK. ALL. THE COFFEE. – Legend has it that the first coffee plants were discovered and domesticated here in Ethiopia. (For a charming pictoral history, I direct you to The Oatmeal.) There is some scholarly debate on this topic; then again, isn’t there always? Regardless of whether or not Ethiopia invented coffee, it certainly perfected it. They’ve also adopted a rather charming “café culture”: you can’t swing a bag of gravel without shattering the window of some tiny but delicious coffee place. My traveling companions and I stopped as often as we dared before our eyeballs started independently vibrating, and we still covered probably 0.0001% of all the places in Addis alone.

My choice recommendation is a place called Tomoca, which is near the Piazza district. This is not a Starbucks, where you put your feet up, plug in your laptop, and spend 11 hours downloading pirated copies of Japanese game shows while sipping your Venti triple-shot half-caff soy no whip extra sprinkles chicken fat ripple spice chai dirty latte. The clientele is composed of almost exclusively locals, who lean against the elevated countertops (there are no chairs or tables) while they chug their daily brew and possibly skim the headlines of a shared newspaper. Your options are simple: Hard pastry? Y/N. Coffee? Black/with milk (“machiatto”). It’s all served in clear plastic vessels not much larger than a shot glass. Add sugar if you like, but know that the quality of the coffee is so exquisite, it doesn’t NEED to be drowned in Amaretto Vanilla Swirl syrup to be heavenly.

Best coffee in Addis

They roast their own beans here daily.

Measuring my life out in coffee spoons …

I couldn’t mention anything remotely gastronomical without saying that Ethiopian food, in general, is also to die for. Pictured above is
kitfo, or minced beef – traditionally served raw, drenched in super spicy ghee [clarified butter], and on sour flatbread called injira. A side of cottage-cheese-like curd stuff helps balance the heat. It is amazingly delicious.

Feeling enchanted? Or not quite yet? Suggested reading: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, by Nega Mezlekia, for an autobiographical account of living during the upheaval of the end of Haile Selassie and the reign of the Derg. The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, by Gus Caseley-Hayford, who enthusiastically seeks out the more mystical aspects of Ethiopia’s history. Those are certainly not the be-all-end-all of Ethiopia-related literature, but it ought to be enough to pique your interest.

Tomorrow, onward to Kigali, and a reunion with a dear friend.

Counterclockwise: Malarone, a daily suppressant of the plasmodium (malaria-causing parasites) hiding in my liver. Bilhicide, a five-enormous-tablets-at-once drug to kill any bilharzia (egg-laying snails) that may be lurking in my spinal column – which is almost as unpleasant for me as for the snails, if the volunteer legends are true. Ciproflaxin, for bacterial guests making themselves overwelcome. Penaquinine, a potent anti-malarial to be taken once I’m out of malaria zones for good to slaughter those that escaped the Malarone. Albendazole, to shut down the ongoing intestinal worm party in my gut. Guess Peace Corps isn’t really over, regardless of what my paperwork says, until I flush my village out of my system for good. All balanced on the brim of my Peace Corps 50th Anniversary cap, with my official RPCV:Kenya service pin in the center.

So yeah. That happened.

I’m not a Peace Corps volunteer anymore, but a “Returned” Peace Corps volunteer (RPCV.) I join an alumnae network over 200,000 strong, including such great folks as , Pulitzer prize-winning journalists Josh Friedman and Leon Dash, Newbery Award-winning author Mildred Taylor, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Lucasfilms president Gordon Radley, NBC host Chris Matthews, and former US Senator Chris Dodd.

I put “Returned” in big useless “scare quotes” because of course, I am technically no such thing – I am still traveling. I have a dozen or so countries standing between me and home (wherever “home” is) and intend to blog about it as often as I can. If you’ve been enjoying my writing so far – and there are a lot of you out there, I am perpetually humbled and flattered to say – please do stick around until the ride comes to a full stop in September. The content will probably be less about personal experiences of PC and deep cultural issues (although those are just there in the archive for you!) but more travelogue, picture-heavy, disaster-narrowly-averted-but-adventure-victoriously-achieved type stuff. (Did I mention my autobiography will probably be called, “‘It’s Ok, We Don’t Need The Guide’ and Other Great Ideas?”) Shark diving, lion stalking, geothermal lagoons, and a midnight train from Istanbul await me over the next 40-odd days.

I couldn’t be more excited.

My first post as an RPCV. I love this song.

I’m retracing my steps; my village, to Gede, to Mombasa, to Loitokitok, to Nairobi, and from there to Jomo Kenyatta, pass through customs, mount the steps of an airplane … a video cassette playing in reverse. (Remember those? Video cassettes? Be kind, please rewind? No?)

The gate to my host family’s little compound, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanaro.

Mama’s sitting room

Lunch: a stew of
matoke (local plantains) and tomatoes, with half an avocado as garnish. All picked fresh that morning from the shamba [farm/plot].

I spent the weekend with my host family, who greeted me with laughter and bone-crushing hugs and inside jokes and TWO (!!!!) huge chickens slaughtered in my honor. My first evening, I was sitting on my host mother’s eye-bleedingly busy couch – a narrow cushioned bench with a coverlet of burnished gold, patterned in blue roses and red fruit, that manages to be stately rather than tacky in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp – when I discovered I couldn’t breathe. The air was stuck in my lungs. My chest was an immovable mass. All I could do was stare mindlessly ahead and robotically pat the cat sharpening itself on my doughy lap. One thought: the end.

I’ve written about the curious cognitive-emotional experience of returning to the Dusty Training Town of olde, as well as the general fog of ennui that has shrouded my general packing and departure process as it begins to sink in that “Oh, right, this adventure is ending.” But it never felt 110% real. It felt odd, certainly, and a little sad, but I never expected to completely connect my preparations with the fact that I’m about to be gone, probably forever (for some peoples), until I landed in Addis on Friday night.

I was wrong. I walked into my host family’s cold, quiet compound, took my usual seat in the cooking hut, gazed at my host mama through a haze of woodsmoke, and boom. Hit me like a brick to the face: it’s over.

It’s over, and is irreplicable, irreplaceable.

It gets quite cold up in the hills, so it pays to have a designated lap-warming device, even for someone (like me) who doesn’t like cats.

Mama making tea

Meat is considered a luxury here, so the fact that we had it TWICE in as many days made me feel really special and appreciated.

Consider this the “before” picture, if you will.

The ferocious family guard dogs, which spend three days courageously defending the village from the fringe tassels of my
kikoi wrap.

Moo time two – we have twice as many cows as we did the last time I was in Loitokitok

The family
choo [pit latrine] – ok, there are plenty of things I definitely WON’T miss.

Instead of slapping a knife in my hand and pointing me at a pile of tomatoes as she would have two years ago, my host mama shooed me out with strict instructions to rest until dinner. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at the wall, reconstructing what it had been: my map there, a decorative leso gifted to me before I left here, my three pairs of shoes lined up at the bottom, next to my jerry cans of drinking water and a stack of Swahili language manuals. But it’s not my room now, and my stuff is gone. A goat bleated outside my window, two generations removed from the ones I once feared I had accidentally poisoned by leaving my laundry water uncovered while I went to the choo. My phone buzzed until it fell off the stool by the bed; not my best friend texting me to meet in a cornfield equidistant from our houses so we could get samosas during a weekend break from training, but instead an office staffer reminding me he hasn’t seen my draft Description of Completed Service yet. My host sister called out to me in Kiswahili, and I answer without thinking, instead of tripping over the words and obsessing over grammar.

It’s over, and I’ve come so, so far in ways uncountable.

Helluva ride, you know?

Mt. Kibo, peeking through the trees

Mt. Kilimanjaro, as viewed from my host family’s corn field.

My host sister Periwan and I

My host mama and I

Mombasa skyline at dusk. Left: a glittering new skyscraper. Right: A comparatively old minaret from one of Mombasa’s many centers of worship.

The Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Understandably so – in the past year, it has been the site of several acts of terrorism linked to al-Shabab, and the US Embassy recently issued a evacuation order for all non-essential personnel (including American tourists). At this time, our handful of volunteers living in Mombasa and its suburbs have been withdrawn, and travel to Mombasa is limited to necessary pass-through transit or medical emergencies.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this breaks my heart.

I understand their reasoning, but I am loathe for “Mombasa” to enter the general American (non-traveler) lexicon inextricably linked to “violence” or “terrorists.”

The intricately carved arching doorways are a staple of antique Muslim building facades up and down Africa’s East Coast.

Don’t misread me: Mombasa, like virtually any large city in the developing world, is not a town to be taken lightly. It struggles with poverty and sanitation issues, some crime (more in terms of systemic corruption than petty violence, but the latter is there, too), and all the chaos that generally accompanies a city being a major world trading port. However. I realize this may be a tall order, but if you can look past the major dangers like grenade attacks and minor inconveniences like traffic jams and a constant olfactory undertone of hot garbage (don’t worry, you get used to it quickly), you will find something incredibly beautiful.

This is a city that has kept its dignity through numerous periods of domestic and foreign rule, to this day possessing a (controversially) independent spirit. Though a majority Muslim city, it is home to numerous cultures and ethnicities living and working together. Mosques and Hindu temples share narrow streets, each lending its own decorative flair to the city. You can be in an electronic megamart one minute, step outside, walk a few meters, and dive into a spice market centuries old. Top 40 Hits blast from innumerable matatus, competing for space in the soundscape with dozens of mosques echoing out the call to prayer, which serves as punctuation for life’s daily rhythms.

A cart selling
madafu, or unripened coconut.

Step 1: Lop the top of the coconut off with a machete. Step 2: Insert straw. Step 3: Enjoy a naturally refreshing and nutritious treat that was cool here literally DECADES before it became a trendy hipster drink in the US.

Graffiti from the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), an illegal political organization that seeks to address longstanding financial and social grievances against the centralized government by advocating total secession and self rule. Their rallying cry, “Pwani Si Kenya” (“Coast is not Kenya”), can be found painted on an ever-increasing number of government buildings.

A Somali shopkeeper sits amongst her wares – dresses, headscarves, and fabrics in every imaginable hue – in the Old Town section of Mombasa.

Forget the hyper-stylized curio boutiques and “Masaai Markets” of the well-trod tourist paths. You will find no better shopping anywhere than in the shaded, narrow (and inexplicably, perpetually wet) labyrinth of alleys and stalls in deepest heart of the Old City. Then all of a sudden, you emerge into blinding sunlight, and find yourself facing Fort Jesus.

Interior: Fort Jesus

Paintings lined up along an elevated walkway in Fort Jesus.

Gateway to the indoor vegetable/spice market between Biashara Street and Old Town.

Inside the vegetable/spice market.

A shopkeeper explains the uses of different spices, from saffron and nutmeg to tamarind and crushed baobob seeds.

Damascus Shwarma – or “Shwarma Truck” to PCVs – is where the magic happens. “Magic” is not an exaggeration. Ask anyone.

Shwarma dinner: before.

Shwarma dinner: after.

I am sad that on my farewell tour of Kenya, making my way to Nairobi, I had through Mombasa, hurriedly, with my head down; a single night followed by an early-morning departure. I will be back. I don’t know when, but I am drawn to this place. Asante sana Mombasa, Mombasa moyangu.

Street stall vendors closing up shop in the early evening.

Kenyan Flag

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly