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Prague

I have one eye nervously on the road from the front seat of our van. The driver is showing me a map of the best bike route between Prague and Vienna as we wind down a two-lane switchback between the airport and the city. "Four Hundred kilometers minimum by bicycle", he said. Thomas - our driver - is a cyclist. He has already shown me a photo of his bike, a 40-year old Czech-made hand-built white Festka, "A beauty," I croon. "A classic ride." As he shows me the tiny map on his phone, he looks concerned - and a little impressed. Like we jet-lagged middle-aged women sitting in his van with two boxed bikes propped awkwardly in the cargo may not really know what we are getting into. But, he has already plotted the best route and is determined to advise us before we leave the van. If we ladies of questionable-looking athletic ability are really going to ride, he is taking it on himself to make sure we take the best route. Bless him. Because actually he's right, we only nominally know what we are getting ourselves into. We have a flight into Prague, a hotel in Prague for four nights with time built in to figure out the details of how we will get to Vienna in time for our flight back on the 28th. We have found some incredible websites and resources on a Prague to Vienna bike Greenway trail system that looks terrific. Downloaded the Lonely Planet to help find hotels and with logistics. But that's it. And that is just the way we like it. So our time in Prague has been part tourist and part bike travel planning and part jet-lag recovery. Tonight we are meeting the Vice President of the Greenways organization at a local bike shop

Kalahari Transformed

Small trees and grasses and shrubs emerge from reddish-yellow sand for as far as you can see.  Occasionally we saw a Kudu, a red Hartebeest and other creatures as they crossed the road and ran into the bush.  We are in the fabled Kalahari Desert in Western Botswana.  Home to the infamously fierce black-maned lions of the Kalahari.  The huge expanse of dessert that encompasses most of Botswana, and it is mostly empty to our eyes with the exception of occasional livestock grazing free-range and one straight-line road heading East across the southern continent.  To me it looks beautiful as a large expanse, but monotonous as the miles roll on and on.We have just left Windhoek, Namibia on our two week camping safari.  We are in a comfortable vehicle with two other guests - a fun couple from Australia - and our Namibian guide Marcus and the camp assistant/cook Joseph.  Our first day was a long drive, and we rolled into our campsite a couple of hours before dark, set up tents, and settled in for a tasty supper.This camp is actually a game hunting camp that is owned by a South African and where people pay to come and hunt - ostrich, Kudu, springbok, etc.  We have passed many similar game farms on our drive - there are clearly a lot of people willing to pay well to hunt these animals to support all of these hunting venues.  This farm is managed by a local San headman, one of the well-documented Bushmen we have all seen so frequently featured on National Geographic.  He comes to our campfire to tells us stories of his people the night we arrive (see the post "A Bushman's Tale: The Lion and the Jackal".) He came back at 7 AM to take us on a

The Bushman’s Tale: The Lion and the Jackal

We are in the Kalahari Dessert camping under an incredible star-clogged sky.  Our guest silently walks into camp.  His name is not even writable in English, and is pronounced with a Click from the tongue popping from the roof of the mouth.He is tall and thin, with long bare legs sticking out from a western oversized fleece shirt.  He wears a little flashlight shaped like a large plastic sunflower around his neck.  His hair and small beard are greying, but his copper skin shows few lines and is pulled tight over high prominent cheekbones and hollowed cheeks.  He speaks quietly, exudes dignity, and smiles with his eyes.He is one of the San people, the Narrow San, specifically.  Known broadly as the Bushmen of  the Kalahari dessert who are scattered in small, tight communities here in southern Africa.  He is here tonight to tell us stories of his people. He explains that stories are to teach children the broader truths in the world, and to teach them awareness and caution.  And he tells us three stories from his people as we sit around the campfire on this beautiful night.  And he doesn't just tell the story.  The telling is full of gestures and sounds.   Expressions and inflections.  When a lion hunted through the woods our storyteller moved his arms in graceful rhythmical strides and made the Shhss Shhss Shhss sounds of a big cat moving powerfully.  When the ostrich laid her eggs he tilted his head back and closed his eyes and squatted down with an arched back and trilled coooo coooo coooo - the sound that ostriches make when they lay eggs.  And when the elephant drank his long arm became the trunk that reached forward and down to the pool of water you could suddenly imagine at his feet,

Tourist Tax (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)

"I haven't seen toyi-toyi since the demonstrations," a talkative South African who is joined us today said as we walked past a group of Zimbabwe musicians and dancers making music and singing in full costume in the parking lot of the national park. Of course I ask - What is toyi-toyi.  And the answer is surprising to me.  It's a dance that came from Zimbabwe but was coopted by South Africans during the demonstrations against Apartheid to intimidate the troops with all the foot stomping and chanting. And this is how Mom and I started our visit to one of the seven natural wonders of the world ... Victoria Falls.  Or, as the locals call it, Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means the smoke that thunders - and this is a much better name for it. I was hesitant to come here at all.  I've travelled enough to know that places like this that attract mobs of tourists are inevitably painfully touristy.  There is too much money coming in from international visitors to a country that desperately needs it, and where the people desperately need it - to expect to pass through easily and peacefully. My Mom and I came anyway, calling it the equivalent of paying a bucket list tourist tax ... we get to see the largest falls in the world but the touristy hounding and herding is the price to be paid. Not that people were unpleasant - everyone was exceedingly polite.  Everyone introduced themselves and gave us their name.  Even the people trying to sell us the worthless Zimbabwean former currency with notes worth over Five Billion with the enticement "You can be a billionaire!" were polite.  The old currency was abandoned by Zimbabwe in 2008 when they adopted the US dollar. The man who asked whether he could meet us outside the hotel to

Amazing Animals – Photos from Chobe National Park, Botswana

The monkey made a break towards the open porch screen door.  A spit second later I see him running out and screeching, double-fisted with loot.  Another successful raiding mission accomplished at Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane, Botswana.  Other monkeys took their share of the prize with squawking and hitting in a family battle.  And after the spoils were consumed and paraded around for the rest of the monkeys to admire ...  the next raid began, despite the efforts of the employee armed with the slingshot whose job is monkey deterrence.   The monkeys clearly are winning the scavenge war. Note to self ... we will be keeping the screen door closed to our room.  And no drying the laundry on the porch either as I prefer not to see a monkey trying on my undies.And with that, i knew we had arrived in the Africa of the movies and the storybooks.  We are in Kasane, a small town in northern Botswana that is primarily a gateway town for the Chobe National Park - one of the best wildlife parks in Africa known for being the home of over 80,000 really big African elephants, a large lion population and a huge diversity of other wildlife.Not that the wildlife knows where the park boundaries lie.  Besides keeping company with monkeys, warthogs and mongoose, a four foot long monitor lizard freely roams the grounds.  And the caution signs near the water warn of crocodiles and hippos - and they mean it.  Awesome.One of Mom's bucket list priorities was to visit Victoria Falls.  So we flew in to that airport in Zimbabwe, got a double entry visa, and promptly went to Botswana to spend a three days at Chobe National Park.   But we'll be back to Vic Falls before we leave.  In the interest

South Africa – short stories and photos

We leave the Cape of South Africa tomorrow morning for Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park, Botswana. The cape area of South Africa was different than I thought it would be.  And different from most of Africa. It was geographically stunning.  Sophisticated with its food and wine and art.  And racially diverse, while still feeling very separated rather than integrated.  It could have been parts of Europe or Australia or other places that feel very familiar. But we were treated universally kindly by everyone.  And had a very positive experience. I do think that many people in South Africa seem very concerned about what the world thinks of their country - and them - with all the turmoil that still leads the news over two decades after it has shifted to the New South Africa from the old.  While I heard everyone express some frustration with what was happening in the country, it's clear this is a country in the midst of an enormous metamorphosis. And from the perspective of an outsider they seem to be moving forward. I'm sharing some photos I liked with short descriptions.  This is a fascinating place - and a unique place in the world.*********************************************************************************Jeffrey's Bay:  A world class surfing site, today the beach was home to surf lessons to very enthusiastic boys rather than the 20 foot high tubes it's known for in the winter.The Protea Plant grows wild over the sides of mountains in the drier mountains of this country.  There were many dead plants and blooms due to the drought this year, but some blooms still emerged ... a florist's haven.HIV/AIDs impacts 15-20% of residents in South Africa - especially those in the black townships.  This display in the Knyssa township library reminds people of the health necessities - and the humanity - behind HIV/AIDs.

WAY Off the Beaten Path

Mom navigated, I drove.  The GPS had totally lost it ... trying to send us back down towards the main roads, in the wrong direction, and "TomTom" was turned off in favor of directions from the website.Directions:  Travel 18.8 km on the gravel road.  At the Y junction follow the main road left.  (The directions fail to mention the "4x4s only beyond this point" big red sign, though we noticed it as we bumped along in our little chevy sedan.)Drive for 6 km.  Turn right on the small gravel road.  You still have 5 km to go.  (This small gravel road started with a big sand pit, which I revved up and skidded through, and small meant one car wide.)At the next junction, turn right if you have a 4x4, left if you don't.  Drive past several buildings and through two gates. (This turned out to be farm from some hardy family managing to grow something in this arid area.  We never found the junction with the alternate road, but given we had to drive the car through a small stream I think it's conceivable we might have picked the wrong way).And finally we bumped in to Blue Hill Escape, a nature preserve and research center run by  friends of my mother who she met while volunteering on an Earthwatch Macaw research project in Peru.  Driving down another bumpy roadish path and through another small stream and we arrived at our cottage.  No electricity.  Wood burning stove for heat.  It was cold.  I was cranky and tired from driving all day. I was eyeing the sky which was threatening rain and planning our escape route - wondering how we were getting this little chevy back through two streams if it actually rained. I had an image of myself covered in mud

Emzini

Children singing at pre-school The woman in the chair is still in her pajamas.  She looked nervous when Mom pulled out her camera and asked to take a photo.  The hairdresser is curling her short, straightened hair under in tight curls. But the handful of candy and friendly banter from Ella, who runs Emzini Tours in Knyssa, makes this intrusion OK.  And more specifically, Ella, the charismatic black woman who lives here and who started this company with a white woman from Zimbabwe, makes this OK. And it probably also helps that much of the money from these trips into the township funds the charity work that Ella and Emzini undertake in this community.  And I suspect many people in the community know that, too. And so we spent a fascinating morning visiting a township that is very similar to many around South Africa ... and where so many black South Africans call home.  From afar, these communities look like a hodgepodge of shacks and small wood and block homes clustered up hillsides with splashes of color from laundry or paint.  They look run-down, and shambly and maybe unclean.  These are places we did not feel particularly welcome without an invitation. But with Ella as our invitation in, we were fortunate to be welcomed into this township graciously. What could have easily been a voyeuristic tour - and township "tours" are offered everywhere-instead was a warm and insightful visit. Mandela cement house with older wooden house ... And an amazing view The townships, she explained, were formalized after 1994 when Mandela took office and apartheid ended.  The government committed to build everyone a house.  The "Mandela Houses" are simple construction from cement blocks - one or two bedroom, indoor plumbing.  Some have additions.  Many replace the old wooden houses that pre-date them.  Some families keep their wooden house

What’s for Dinner? Exotic Eats in South Africa

Bless her heart.  My Mom loves dessert.The end of every dinner is the inevitable question.  "If I order something for dessert, would you have some?"  Why Yes ... Yes I will.  And I love to share it with her.  So off we go - to early dinner or late lunch - and we can always count on a little sweet to end the meal.Ostrich, anyone?And tonight, after driving to the start of the Garden Route in the tiny beachfront town of Wilderness, and tucking into a fabulous dinner and dessert, I've decided I might never leave here.  View from our guest house in Wilderness Because why would I?  With the beach out my window.  And delicious food and wine a couple of blocks away.  And national parks' worth of hiking and activities out the door, it really seems pointless to go anywhere else.We just made arrangements to stay here an extra day.  I'm pretty sure tonight's oysters and sparkling wine tipped the balance on that decision.After the first few days in South Africa with no appetite - it's hard for the stomach to know when it's time to eat on the opposite side of the world - I'm happy to report that the belly is back into to full-on food appreciation mode.We are now having a good breakfast every morning at the hotel, and then a nice meal out somewhere late afternoon or early evening.  We keep fruit and cheese and other noshes for in between.  And WOW.  Is the food here top quality.  Lots of fresh, organic, locally sourced.  Creative.  Inventive.  Just plain good.  Not to mention the wine.  And, honestly, we do not get the good stuff from South Africa exported back to the states.  In fact we were told that the stuff we get as exports is a

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