Dune 45 and the Dead Vlei…

Life in Luanda has been quite hectic lately, hence the delay since my last blog. Thankfully, the memories of our climb of Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, Namibia are still fresh in my mind. For weeks before our trip, my husband had me climbing stairs and cranking up the incline on the treadmill in preparation for our assault on the mythical dune. I had no idea what to expect, but made sure I could easily climb forty-five flights of stairs, just in case. Something about that number just seemed right.

By the way, forty-five flights is three times from the bottom to the top of our building, in a boiling hot stairwell that smells of oil and garbage. Sound fun? The things I do to for that man.

The morning after our beautiful balloon ride over the dunes, we gathered in the lodge to head to the entrance of Sossusvlei Park. A British couple came along with us, and we bonded instantly. They were quite friendly and appeared to be about our age, which was particularly important to me. You see, I hoped this meant they wouldn’t be running up the dune and leaving us, or rather me, in their dust. I hate being humiliated, especially on vacation.

We made it inside the park just in time to see the sun’s rays spread across the valley. While we were stopped at an overlook, soaking up the magnificent view, cars sped past us in an attempt to be first on the dunes. I’ve long since given up the need to first at anything. We enjoyed the sunrise and then leisurely made our way to the base of Dune 45, so named because it is forty five kilometers from the park entrance. A popular stop for visitors, it is easily accessible while most of the dunes are not. We guessed many of the cars were also headed to other dunes, specifically the one named “Big Daddy”, which is the tallest accessible dune in the park. Again, I’ve long since given up the need to climb the tallest anything. Dune 45 was just fine with me.

Thankfully, it was still fairly cool when we began our ascent, though the sun was coming up fast. The startling red-orange sand was in brilliant contrast to the deep blue, cloudless sky. It was hard to focus on our climb rather than the beautiful surroundings!

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On of the hills to climb on Dune 45. Not the top yet, but getting closer!

Climbing in sand is always a challenge, but especially so when the sand is bone dry and piled hundreds of feet high to a sharp peak. Surprisingly, the best place to walk is right along this peak, placing one’s feet in existing footsteps as this sand is slightly more stable. Oh, the things I have learned on this crazy journey!

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Walking along the spine of Dune 45.

As we climbed, I focused on each of my husband’s footsteps, rather than the steep drop-offs on either side or the long trek ahead. Before I knew it, we came upon our British friends. She had plopped herself down in the middle of the path and refused to take another step. It was not the physical effort that stopped her, but rather her extreme fear of heights. Her husband seemed unsure whether to keep going or stay with his wife. In the end, he came along with us, and she seemed perfectly happy to stay where she was.

Up and up we went. It took some effort, but the view from the top was worth every step!

View from the top of Dune 45.

From the crest of the dune, we could see that it went on for quite a distance. Since we had already done the hard part, we were happy to keep going. Our friend, however, headed back down to his wife. Wise choice, fella! We walked on for awhile longer, but knew our British friends and guide were waiting for us back at the car. Reluctantly, we turned around and headed back down. The day was only going to get hotter after all, and we had more to see.

The climb up had been much easier than I expected, and the trek down was just plain fun! Imagine those moving walkways at the airport – feeling superhuman as you speed past the poor saps walking along the old-fashioned way. This was the same sensation, only with the benefit of gravity. Down we went, faster and faster, finally breaking into a jog. Each step a leap followed by a soft landing in the sand. About halfway down, I stopped to remove my shoes, which were so full of sand there was barely room for my toes. What a wonderful feeling it was, effortlessly running down that bright orange sand, so cool on my feet! Truly, I would have climbed back up just to be able to run down again!

Once we reached the bottom, we saw a group of people dragging thin “sand boards” up the dune with them. I would have loved to see them fly down the dune on those boards, but we needed to press on. Our next stop was the Dead Vlei, or dead lake, an area where hundreds of years ago an ancient river flowed during occasional rains, and camel thorn trees grew as a result.

In Namibia, the terms “river” or “lake”, are used to describe any spot where water has once been or where the aquifer is close enough to the surface to support plant life. There are no true rivers or lakes anywhere in Namibia, except along its borders. There is, however, a vast system of underground rivers which are easily identified by a line of trees or bushes. These aquifers are of little help to the animal life, of course, but for people who are capable of digging a well, it means the ability to live and farm in a mostly uninhabitable country.

In the Dead Vlei, climate change and shifting dunes cut off the water source and the trees died. Their petrified trunks remain, some up to 900 years old. Each tree is a work of art, forever preserved in this dry desert climate.

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The Dead Vlei, Namibia.
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Dead Vlei trees – 900 year old works of art.
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The Dead Vlei and its beautiful ancient trees.
Close up of a camel thorn tree in the Dead Vlei.

After hiking around the Dead Vlei and taking way too many photos of dead trees, the sun was beginning to take its toll. The shade of our car was most welcome, as was taking off our boots and pouring out a pile of sand from each one.

We drove a little further into the park until we found a rare shady spot to have lunch, which our guide had brought along with him. He also offered us hot coffee or tea, which we politely declined. He explained that Namibians (and people from India, apparently) always drink hot beverages when it is even hotter outside. He claimed the hot liquid somehow makes the body feel cooler. The Brits agreed, and sipped on a cup of hot tea, while sweating profusely. What a load of hooey! We stuck to our ice cold sodas instead. Our mothers didn’t raise fools, you know.

After lunch, we headed back to the lodge for a siesta and a dip in our ice-cold plunge pool. By ice-cold, I mean literally as cold as a bucket of ice. How a pool could be so cold in such dreadfully hot weather, I will never understand. I know, I know, evaporative cooling and all that. Still, it was so cold that it was actually painful – but very refreshing, according to my husband. I wasn’t about to get in. I’ve blogged before about my aversion to cold water. But I did dip my feet in – ever so slowly – and that cooled me off quick enough.

The afternoon activity was four-wheeling through the desert valley. This was much more fun that I expected, and the scenery was spectacular. Our guide rode in front to keep the speed demons in check (i.e. my husband), so we had ample opportunity to look around and take in the immense valley from the perspective of the oryx, springboks, and ostriches that live there.

A thunderstorm in the desert.
A beautiful oryx in the Namib desert.

The animals in this area live with little to no water at all, subsisting on whatever small amount is found in the plants and grasses they eat. Truly amazing!

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A panoramic view of the colorful Namib Desert.

Our evening meal was served a short walk away from the lodge, under a small grove of trees. This “Boma” dinner turned out to be the most fun of all of our meals on the trip. Our guide walked us out to the Boma in the pitch dark with the aid of a small flashlight. As we approached, we could hear the staff of about fifteen singing African songs with gusto. They welcomed each of us with a cocktail, and then one lady stood up to welcome us in the local bush language, a mixture of words and clicks. So fascinating to hear!

Here is a link to a You Tube video about this language. The first twenty seconds or so is about our gluteus maximus muscles, but be patient and it will transition to the subject at hand, I promise!

A Boma dinner – singing under the stars…

After more singing and dancing, a buffet dinner was served with plenty of local favorites and game meats on the menu. The oryx and kudu that we tried were tastier than the best Texas beef, and even more tender! Towards the end of the meal, two animals raced through the Boma, one chasing the other. In the dark it was hard to tell what they were, but both were larger than a fox and clearly feline. They turned out to be African Wildcats, which are slightly larger than a domestic cat. Not exactly threatening to humans, but startling nonetheless.

The next morning, it was time to leave Sossusvlei and head to the coastal town of Walvis Bay. This meant another tiny plane and a scenic flight over the desert. We arrived at the dirt airstrip to find that the airport we were due to fly into was fogged in, a common occurrence. Along the Namibian coastline, the cold Benguela current comes very close to shore. Where the cold water meets the hot desert air, thick fog forms and creates havoc for pilots and ship’s captains.

After an hour or so delay, the fog had lifted and we were given the green light to board.

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Something is not right when your car is bigger than your airplane!

This plane was slightly larger than the one which had brought us there, thank goodness! This plane had room for the pilot, our British friends and us. The flight took us over the dunes, with a great view of Dune 45, and then on to a whole lot of nothing. No people, no water, no trees, no shade – just miles and miles of sand and rocks. It was hard not to imagine what would happen if our plane went down. Later we learned that all of us were thinking the same thing, but no one had dared say it out loud! We laughed when our friends said they felt safe because my husband, the great white hunter and fisherman, was along on the trip. Somehow they thought these skills would come in handy, even in an area with no animals to hunt or fish to catch. I suppose to city folk, a guy who has slept outdoors and killed his own dinner must have seemed like Bear Grylls!

A great view of Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, Namibia.
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Sossusvlei – Red sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
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The red dunes gave way to a slightly rockier landscape, but still no water or shade in sight.

After more than an hour of this desolate landscape, we came upon the coastline and saw large groups of seals gathered on the beach. We flew along until the fog ceiling became too low and we were forced above it and inland.

Seal colony on the Namibian coastline, south of Walvis Bay.

This legendary fog and hard-to-see rocks have caused so many shipwrecks along the Namibian shoreline that the area is referred to as the Skeleton Coast, in part a reference to the hundreds of rusting carcasses of large ships found scattered along the beach. Whale and seal bones once littered the shore as well, a result of the whaling industry in the area.

Flying along with nothing to look at but fog made me more than a little nervous, as our tiny plane was not exactly equipped with the most sophisticated navigational equipment. I hoped our pilot had not skipped the lesson on how to use a compass! Of course, I needn’t have worried. Although disturbingly young, our pilot was quite skilled and familiar with the area. He made a perfect landing at the small Walvis Bay airport, and I finally took a full breath.

We said goodbye to our British friends and collected our rental car, a four-wheel-drive truck. The next challenge facing us was finding our hotel for the night, a remote lighthouse located at the end of a ten mile stretch of deep sand. The directions we had been given were vague at best, but more alarming was the suggestion that we let out two-thirds of the air in our tires to avoid getting stuck!

We would soon learn that it is best to follow such suggestions, as crazy as they may seem…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Full of Hot Air in Namibia…

Growing up in the flatlands of Texas, I had often seen hot-air balloons floating peacefully over the rice fields. In my mind, the flight would begin with a gentle lift-off, as the colorful balloon rose slowly into the air, while the passengers ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the scenery. Well, let’s just say, our experience in Namibia was a little different…

After a light breakfast, our guide Simon drove us to the take-off sight in the pre-dawn light. There was a slight breeze but the sky was clear – perfect flying weather in my estimation. But, Simon said several times that he hoped our flight would not be cancelled. Truly, it was only a little breeze, especially by Texas tornado standards. It would not have ruffled a perfect Texas hairdo, even without the usual gallons of Final Net.  Not that I was perfectly coiffed, mind you. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled down tight on my head to shield against the African sun, sure to emerge with a vengeance.

As we approached the waiting balloons, I could see why we might not make the flight. Two balloons laid on their sides, flames leaping into their bellies, as a crew of eight to ten men struggled to keep the attached baskets in one place. The breeze was picking up and the men seemed  in a hurry to get everyone loaded and off the ground.

One balloon had a much larger basket which held up to sixteen people, while the smaller one held only eight. We were relieved to find we were assigned to the smaller balloon. Spending our dream flight squashed like sardines into a tiny basket was not exactly what either of us had in mind.

The larger balloon, which we later learned was twice the size of ours.
Filling up our balloon. Careful not to singe the ropes, please!
The sun was coming up quickly!
Success for the larger balloon, but ours was still being tossed about by the wind. The people in our basket are the ‘fly-boys’ and the pilot struggling to fill up the balloon.

The larger balloon took off just as I had always pictured. Despite being packed closely together, the passengers all waved happily as they lifted higher and higher into the air.

At last, the crew gave us the signal to board. Our basket was divided into four corner sections, which held two people each, and a middle section for the pilot and his equipment. Hubby and I scrambled into our compartment, and joked that we were definitely in first class and the rest of the basket was coach.  First class or not, we were quickly snapped to attention.

A sudden gust of wind catapulted the balloon forward and threw our basket onto its side. We found our faces within inches of the desert dirt. Our side of the basket was on the bottom, so we were lucky to have grabbed the internal handles, rather than the top of the basket. We would surely have smashed our fingers or worse if we had grabbed the top instead. How many times have you been told to keep your hands and arms inside of a moving vehicle? Always good advice to follow, as our “vehicle” was definitely on the move now.

The wind dragged the balloon sideways, with the basket skidding and bouncing along on the ground. Clearly, this was not the direction any of us wanted to go. Chaos ensued as the pilot struggled to direct the flame into the belly of the rapidly deflating balloon, while doing his best to avoid catching it (or us) on fire. Thankfully, while all of this was going on, we were able to crouch down inside the relative safety of the basket. There was so much noise and jerking about, we had no idea how far we had been dragged – or if we would soon find ourselves turned completely upside down. Our camera equipment and backpacks were an added liability, as we needed both hands to hold on for dear life. In the heat of the moment, I had the foolish thought that they might call a halt to the flight and tell us all to get out. I quickly realized the only way out in that situation was to be thrown out, and that was not something I was keen to experience.

After several minutes of this, our arms and legs aching from trying to stay in one place and not smash our cameras, the bouncing finally stopped and we were told to emerge from our hiding place. I was completely shocked to find we were hundreds of feet in the air! When we finally had lifted off, we lifted off like a shot! The sun was just peeking above the horizon, and we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the desert valley and the red dunes of Sossusvlei in the distance.

One benefit of flying with a buddy balloon, lots of beautiful photos! The red dunes of Sossusvlei are a stunning backdrop as well.

Once we had all calmed down, our pilot informed us we had just experienced what they call a ‘sporty take-off’. Ha! ‘Sporty’ was a funny way of describing being dragged along like a tire tied to the back of a tractor. He seemed to take it in stride, but a fellow passenger who had flown twice previously, said she had never experienced that before. She had experienced a ‘sporty landing’, however, which sounded much worse to me! I tried to put that possibility aside and enjoy the lovely scenery. It was all completely out of my control anyway, so there was no point in worrying about it.

The larger balloon radioed wind information to our pilot throughout the flight, instructing us to go up or down to catch faster or slower layers of wind.
I had worn a jacket thinking we might be chilly as we flew. I didn’t count on our on-board fireplace!
Our pilot, a very capable twelve-year veteran flyer from South Africa. Despite the bumpy start, we were in very good hands.

As we flew along, with only the occasional sound of the flame, the pilot told us all about the desert flora and fauna below us, and we spied a few animals wandering along. The landscape was so colorful, with the morning light casting a golden glow on the valley floor, bordered by the bright orange dunes on both sides. We never flew directly over the dunes, as they would have been unsuitable for a landing sight, and we needed to be able to go down when the wind was right.

The pilot shared a few stories of other places he had flown, and a little about the characteristics of previous groups of passengers. The Germans, he told us, love rough take-offs and landings – even better if some blood is spilled. On our take-off, one lady had required a band-aid, so technically there was blood involved.  Unfortunately for the one German couple on our flight, they came away without a scratch. They still had a good story to tell, but no proof to flash around.

The Japanese, he said, are so busy taking photos of each other and themselves, they probably don’t know they made it off the ground until they look at the pictures later. The French are universally unimpressed and unhappy, no matter how it goes. And the Italians inevitably break into song. He said one group of Italians contained an opera-ready fellow singing Nessun Dorma as they sailed over the desert. Imagine the goosebumps from that! He never said how Americans typically behave, which was probably for the best! Of course, all of these stereotypes were only for humor’s sake, and we all had a good chuckle.

All too soon, it was time to land, and the pilot gave us instructions on positioning ourselves in the event of a sporty landing. Thankfully, the wind had completely died down, and we were able to land so gently that we ended up exactly on top of the trailer behind our vehicle. Talk about a postage-stamp landing!

A picture-perfect landing for the first balloon. The shadow in the upper left is us!

After our lovely landing, we were treated to a delicious breakfast with the red sand dunes as a backdrop.

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We were welcomed with a champagne breakfast in the prettiest of settings.
Our landing spot was on the edge of the dune area. A little teaser for what we would be doing tomorrow.

After our very early morning – and all of the excitement – we spent the afternoon relaxing in our bungalow. Before dinner, we took a short outing to nearby Sesriem Canyon, a surprisingly deep canyon carved by the very infrequent but sometimes heavy rains that occur in the area.

Sesriem Canyon
A rare pool of water, here in this desert nation. Every place that water occasionally flows is called a ‘river’, something we had to get used to as we traveled through the area.

After our tour of the canyon, Simon took us to another sundowner spot and we were treated to a moon rise and sunset from the same viewpoint.

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Day one was done. We felt very lucky to have gotten the balloon ride in, although it had gone way too fast. Tomorrow would bring a trip into those beautiful red dunes, and our attempt to climb Dune 45…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

South to Namibia…

This past week, we travelled south to our neighboring country of Namibia. The first leg of the trip took us to the largest city, Windhoek, where we spent the night at a lovely B&B called the Olive Grove Guest House. The next morning, we caught a hopper flight to the Sussusvlei area of the Namib Desert, which is located about an hour south of the city. When I say a hopper flight, what I really mean is that we flew there in a wind-up toy.

Truly, I have never been in a smaller plane. It was a four seater – including the pilot. Looking back at the photos, I am amazed that I crawled into the back seat and strapped myself in without being sedated first. Take a look at the photo. Would you get into this thing?

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Thankfully, our pilot seemed very competent and professional, and had been flying in the area long enough to know the peculiarities of flying over desert thermals. He was young (no danger of heart attacks) and jovial (no anger management issues) and Scottish (just all around good folks). Once I got over the initial shock of flying in a tin can – and not exactly a shiny new one at that – I relaxed and prepared to enjoy the flight.

We had been given a baggage limit of twenty kilograms per person, and the pilot stuck firm to that number – with good reason. With only three small duffel bags, there was not an inch to spare in the tiny cargo hold!

The third passenger was a lovely lady of about sixty-five who hailed from San Antonio, Texas – of all places. Her retirement gift to herself had been a several months long vacation across Africa. Surprisingly, she had traveled much of it by boarding cargo ships – something we did not even know was possible. Imagine spending weeks on the open ocean with only the ship’s officers and a mostly Filipino crew as your companions. She had nothing but good things to say about her cabins on the various vessels she had boarded, and seemed outgoing  enough to make friends in any situation. I’m sure she saved a few pennies by traveling this way –  and made some amazing memories as well.

By the way, her bag was smaller than either of ours and she had been traveling for three months. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, packing light is something neither of us have mastered!

The flight turned out to be great fun, as we flew very low and close to mountains, all the while skirting the scattered thunderstorms.

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The area was unusually green due to some recent rainfall.
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Nearby thunderstorms mean rainbows, too!

A few little bumps along the way weren’t enough to rattle us, and the beautiful scenery was our own in-flight entertainment. The landing was perfect, and a jeep was waiting when we arrived to take us to our lodge, the Little Kulala.

A short drive across the stunning desert landscape provided our first game sighting, when an ostrich ran across the road right in front of the jeep. That ostrich was speeding along, kicking up dust in the process. I’m not sure our jeep could have out run him!

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Just an ostrich in a big hurry to get somewhere!
Little Kulala Lodge. A lovely setting, friendly staff and wonderful food!
Our private patio with a great view of passing springboks, ostriches, and oryx – and an ice-cold plunge pool!
View from the top of our bungalow, which featured a “star-bed” where one can literally sleep under the stars.
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Now, this is the place to write a blog! No writer’s block here!

They served up a lovely afternoon tea and then we headed out with our guide Simon for a private sundowner. The rain stayed in the distance and provided for another gorgeous rainbow and a beautiful sunset.

Incredibly vivid rainbow, which was visible all the way to the ground. Can you spy the pot ‘o gold?
A Sociable Weaver’s nest. These little birds build very complicated nests that can house eighty or more birds.
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Simon found the perfect spot for us to enjoy our sundowner drinks. Not another sole in sight!
Now that’s a sunset! #nofilter

After a delicious dinner, and a few animal sightings around the lighted watering hole just beyond the open-air dining area, we headed back to the bungalow, intent on sleeping under the stars. We were surprised to find a nearly full moon made for a too-bright setting. It was a bit like sleeping with a flashlight shining in your face, so reluctantly we gave up and headed inside.

Hubby had purchased a special lens to take some star photos, but the bright moon nixed that as well.  Undeterred, we set the alarm for 4:00 am in order to catch a few shots after the moon went down and before the sun came up.

We awoke to find the moon was still up, but managed to get a few shots anyway.

The Southern Cross. Click on the image to enlarge.
Orion as seen just before sunrise.
The Milky Way.

We had a big day ahead of us, so there was no going back to sleep after taking photos. A hot-air ballon ride was planned for sunrise – if the weather cooperated, which it often did not.

But, at 4:30 am, the weather looked promising. The sky was clear, and the wind was calm as well. As we headed to breakfast, we hoped to soon be floating overhead in yet another tiny compartment…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

The Road Warriors of Pungo Andongo…

The Road Warriors of Pungo Andongo could be the name of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Instead, it was just us – four expats in the back of two Land Cruisers, flying down a remote Angolan road, swerving around potholes, and dodging more goats than I have seen in my lifetime. In short, it was just a typical weekend for us, since moving to Luanda.

Our weekend started out innocently enough. At the invitation of our lovely friends, Mr. & Mrs. G, we planned to travel roughly six hours east of Luanda to the province of Malanje, where we would find the breathtaking Kalandula Falls and the Piedras Negras of Pungo Andongo (otherwise known as the Black Rocks). Mr. G’s company requires them to have a second vehicle (with driver and guard) on every out of town trip, so we were lucky enough to be asked along to fill the empty back seat of their second car.

They picked us up bright and early Saturday morning and we began the long trek east. The first hour or so was the usual  obstacle course through Luanda’s ever-present traffic, which rivals that of any city in the world – only with a deadly twist.  Too many cars, not enough roads, few traffic lights, and no crosswalks for pedestrians create a very dangerous situation. It is very common for people to  be hit and killed while attempting to cross the street. Plus, there are no true “lanes” of traffic here. Most drivers take the lane markings and speed limits as merely a suggestion, and generally ignore them.  After all, why limit the road to four cars across, when six or seven can fit? And why slow down for that lady with a basket on her head and a baby on her back? She shouldn’t be there anyway. As a passenger in the back seat, I generally avoid looking out of the front window. My blood pressure is high enough.

Once we made it though the log-jam, our drivers picked up speed, gunning the engine to seventy, eighty or more miles per hour, frequently slamming on the brakes to negotiate tire-puncturing potholes, herds of goats, and people making their daily treks to market or a nearby village. All of these potholes were on a new road, mind you. In recent years, many roads have been built cheaply and quickly by Chinese construction companies operating here. Judging by the size of the potholes we saw, this road will be impassable within a year or two. No matter. Someone undoubtedly made a pretty penny off of the project, so it’s all good.

We all wondered how, with so many goats wandering freely in the roads, we never saw one get hit by a car – accidentally or intentionally. After all, these people have so little and barbecued goat can be very tasty! Why not just run over a goat and get a free meal? The answer to that is simple: the penalty for hitting a goat is roughly fifty dollars – a near fortune – and the offending driver does not even get to keep the goat! The rule is, the driver must put the fifty dollars under the dead goat for the owner to collect. Supposedly, all of the locals know which goats belong to whom, and so there is no confusion.  Gotta love seeing the honor system at work, even in such a difficult environment.

While the road left a lot to be desired, the scenery was spectacular: green, lush fields giving way to densely forested mountains. Along the way, we passed village after village, each one made up of thatched-roof homes built from mud bricks.

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In between the villages were makeshift farmer’s markets, offering  buckets of avocados, tomatoes, onions, sugar cane, and cassava, a starchy vegetable that is an Angolan staple.



After about three hours, we stopped to stretch our legs at a small, but fairly modern town called Cacuso. The manager of the hotel there welcomed us warmly with coffees and juice, and seemed to enjoy using his excellent English.

A hardhat or a helmet?  It’s both!


A local gal selling homemade yogurt.

It was a refreshing and welcome break from the white-knuckle drive, but soon we were on our way. The remaining portion of our drive we travelled on much better roads, mostly built by the Portuguese many years earlier.

As pretty as the scenery was, we were anxious to get to Kalandula Falls, reportedly the second largest by volume in Africa. At long last, we pulled into the falls parking area and were immediately approached by some local lads offering their expertise as guides for the hike down to the river. They were very polite and respectful, so we took one of them up on his offer.

Mrs. G’s Angola guidebook (yes, there is such a thing!) said the trek to the base of the falls would take about twenty minutes to climb down and thirty-five minutes to hike back up. Since it was already after one o’clock, we decided to set up some chairs and eat our lunch before we began. We had always heard that the people outside of Luanda  were very different, and this trip has certainly confirmed that. No one approached us for money or food, and we were able to eat in relative peace. Our “guide” even sat patiently while we finished our lunch.

Once we were done, we put away our food and chairs and walked to the top of the falls, easily identifiable by the spray seen a short distance away . Clearly, we did not need a guide for this part of the walk, but he led us along anyway. We were amazed to see the magnificent expanse of water, no doubt at a higher than normal volume due to recent rain. And we had ordered up the perfect day to see them, too. We even had a rainbow to welcome us!

Spectacular Kalandula Falls!
Looking from Kalandula Falls down along the Lucala River.
Beautiful rainbow over Kalandula Falls.
Our “guide” and guard wait patiently while our hubbies get the perfect shot!

Once Mrs. G and I peeked over the falls and down to the river, it was clear this was no twenty minute walk down, despite what the guidebook said. Slick rocks and muddy paths meant a surefire tumble for a klutz like me. There being no medical care for many hours in any direction, we both decided this was not the place to break an ankle. Instead, we found a shady spot with the falls as our view, put our toes in the water, and let our husbands make the climb down. Both guards were itching to go as well, as neither of them had seen the falls before. One of the guards was wearing dress shoes, so Mrs. G nixed the idea, and the poor guy was relegated to sitting with us women.

After visiting and enjoying the view for a very long time, there was still no sign of our hubbies. I would have been worried except that they were accompanied by a very capable guard – and an expert guide, of course. Finally, they both showed up, drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. It was – as we had suspected – a very difficult climb down. Both of them agreed that it was very pretty at the bottom, but I was happy to have stayed put.

Although the day was not too hot,  the air-conditioning in the car was very welcome, and we settled in for our drive to the town of Malanje, where we would stay for the night. Along the way, we attempted more photos of roadside scenes, but traveling at eighty-plus miles per hour made that a bit tricky. Thankfully, as we pulled into town, we had the chance to snap a few more photos of daily life:

A lady carries sugar cane on her head, while some men attempt to repair an AC unit, balancing precariously on a rickety ladder.


No car seats here! The woman in pink is carrying an infant on her lap. Clearly, the lady on the right does not approve!


A typical scene in this mostly male-centric society. The women work tirelessly selling fruits and veggies, while many of the men relax.

We were relieved to find that our hotel was clean and modern, and that they had a record of our reservation – although there were a few tense moments as they struggled to find it.  It had been a long day and our drivers and guards all had relatives in the area. We rushed off to dinner so they could have some time to visit with their families after we were done.

Dinner at a local cafe was mostly edible, and none of us had any ill-effects during the night, so we counted ourselves lucky. Going to any new restaurant in Angola is a crap shoot (pardon the pun), so our requirements here are much more basic than back in the states. If the food doesn’t make you sick,  the restaurant qualifies as five star!

After a restless night, due to the Malarone we were taking to prevent Malaria, we awoke to part two of our trip: a visit to the Piedras Negras du Pungo Andongo, a very unusual geologic formation of enormous conglomerate boulders. The Black Rocks protrude from the lush, green valley as if frozen in time. Not surprisingly, there are many ancient legends as to how they came to be.

Piedras Negras as seen from the distance.

We parked our cars and hiked up to a small observation point on top of one of the larger boulders. What a view!

Piedras Negras


Piedras Negras with a view of a reservoir formed by the Capanda Dam on the Kwanza river.

We were chased back to our cars by a thunderstorm, but managed to get a few photos before we decided that being on top of a bald rock was not the best place to be. The hike back down was a bit slippery, but the rain cleared in time for a quick lunch before our drive back to Luanda.

There were two or three small dwellings near the picnic area, and nine local children had some small orange fruits for sale to visitors. Another group of tourists bought the lot before we had a chance to get some, but we did manage to interact with the kids by way of sharing our lunch and offering them some treats. Again, they were very polite and respectful, with the older children guiding their younger siblings to the front to get the treats first. So nice to see!




We had passed around individual packets of Oreo cookies, and were amused to see them eat the cream from the middle and leave the outside cookies neatly stacked on the table. It is doubtful that they had ever tasted Oreos before, as they are rarely available, even in Luanda. Clearly, their tastes run to more natural items. The fruit and veggies were eaten in a flash!

The drive back was the fastest and most terrifying of the trip, as the drivers attempted to make it back to city roads before dark. Granted, there are just as many potholes in the city, and they can do just as much damage to a vehicle. However, the roads we were traveling on had the added danger of large trucks avoiding similar potholes, but on the opposite side of the road. This was a game of “chicken” that we all wanted to avoid, especially in the dark. Many of the trucks carry containers which are not tied to the trailer in any way. We saw many such containers, both with and without their trailers, laying along the side of the road. One can only guess that the truck driver misjudged a particularly deep pothole and wound up missing his cargo – or worse.


I never thought I would be relieved to be in the crawl of Luanda traffic again, but I truly was. We didn’t quite make it back before dark, but we did make it home in one piece – thanks to our driver, Mario Andretti. We came away from our trip with many new memories and a better understanding of this beautiful country.  Although most of it is still scarred from decades of war and poverty, there are so many natural wonders here. We feel very blessed to have the opportunity to explore Angola, especially when accompanied by such special friends – and a driver with quick reflexes…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Here fishy, fishy…

One thing I have never been a big fan of is fishing. It’s just not my thing. It requires patience and a very dull sense of smell, neither of which I possess. However, when faced with very limited choices for weekend activities, fishing is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as my daddy used to say.

As mentioned in previous blogs, one of the perks of our posting here in Luanda is the use of the company boats for whale watching in the winter and fishing in the summer. We went on several amazing whale watching trips right after we arrived last September, but now those fabulously rotund mammals have left our local waters and so fishing is our only choice.  I really enjoy riding in the boat, especially on a nice day, so when we were invited on two recent trips, I happily went along.

Our first trip was at the invitation of a couple whom I will call Mr. & Mrs. G. They work for another company, and we met through mutual friends shortly after we moved here. Mr. & Mrs. G are the best kind of expats: gracious, friendly, and always up for an adventure. On the morning of our fishing trip, we planned to meet Mr. & Mrs. G at the Marina, located a few short miles away. We allowed ten minutes to get there, but had not counted on the infamous Luanda traffic. Eight o’clock on a Saturday morning should have been smooth sailing, right? Wrong. We have since learned that for every event in this city, streets are simply closed and no detours are provided. I can only assume people are expected to sit in their cars and just wait until the event is over!

On this particular morning, there was a very small “fun run” which had brought the traffic to a complete standstill. After back-tracking and trying several different routes, we still ended up sitting in dead-stopped traffic, only marginally closer to our destination. Frustrated and late, we briefly considered walking the remaining two blocks to the marina, but thought better of it when our driver said it was not a safe area. A quick glance out of the car window confirmed his assessment.

Finally, after more than forty-five minutes, the event ended and the traffic started to move. We arrived at the marina to find Mr. & Mrs. G waiting patiently. Another lovely couple had also joined them, and we boarded the boat with high hopes and visions of fish on the grill that night.  It was a lovely day: slightly overcast, cool and only enough breeze to make it comfortable. We cruised around for several hours, in search of fish.

I was perfectly happy just riding along, visiting with the ladies and munching on the yummy snacks Mrs. G had brought along. But, clearly the boys were getting restless. For some reason, the group had decided that I needed to reel in the first fish – if one ever decided to take the hook, of course.  I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, so I made myself ready by strapping on the fighting belt and preparing myself for the epic battle.

At last, a dorado (or mahi-mahi) went for the bait and I grabbed the fishing rod. Wow! I had no idea how weak I was! Clearly, I need to start lifting weights. If my difficulty in reeling him in was any indication, he was sure to be a whopper. Or she – who can tell? Sadly,  he was no whopper, but he was a respectable size – at least big enough to keep. And best of all, I didn’t lose him.

A tasty dorado. Mr. G is having fun getting some underwater footage with his GoPro, too.

There. Job done. Now, back to solving the world’s problems with the ladies.

Over the course of the next hour or so, a few more fish were caught by the guys on board. I’m not sure how the other two gals got out of fishing, but no matter. My catch meant that hubby and I ended up with some tasty fresh fish for dinner, and even some to share with our driver. All-in-all it was a fantastic day.

My dorado. He looks a bit beat-up, but he sure tasted good!
My dorado. He looks a bit beat-up, but he sure tasted good!

Our second fishing trip was at the invitation of Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous, another one of our favorite couples here. These two intrepid travelers are just back from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Honestly, when I think of all they do, I feel like a slug. They are just the motivation I need to spend some extra time in the gym and take the stairs up to my tenth floor flat.

Well, maybe not every time…

The weather for this second trip was also very nice, a bit more overcast but nicely cool as a result. We met up with Mr. & Mrs. A in the parking lot of the marina. There was no traffic on this morning, thank goodness.

Jesus, the driver for Mr. & Mrs. A, reminded them that his wife trades kisses for fishes, and he was counting on them to help a fella out. As far as we knew our driver was only looking forward to a tasty meal, should he be getting some fish from us!

We headed out on our company boat, just the four of us. About an hour into the trip, we spotted some dolphins in the distance. As we drew nearer, it was clear that this was no ordinary pod. This group was made up of hundreds of dolphins, speeding along, jumping and playing. The captain maneuvered our boat right in the middle of the pod and matched our speed to the dolphins. Mrs. Adventurous and I climbed onto the front of the boat to get a better view of this amazing sight.





Honestly, I could have ridden alongside them for hours, it was so fun to watch them leap and slap the surface with their bellies as they landed. As we leaned over the bow, we could see them cruising along under the water within a foot of the hull, enjoying this game of chase. Many of the dolphins had pink bellies, which I later read is the result of very warm conditions, or even a general state of excitement. They certainly looked excited to me, leaping and launching themselves out of the water with a frenzy! We sailed along as part of the group for about twenty minutes, until the captain decided it was time to get back to the pursuit of fish we could actually catch. And so, we left our friends behind and turned the boat in search of some delicious dorado.

We cruised around looking for the “weed line”, where an inflowing river runs into the predominant ocean current. Weeds – or trash, in Luanda’s case – collect in this confluence. In fact, in Luanda, so much trash collects that the weed line is very easy to spot, even from quite far away. Large wooden pallets, buckets, plastic bags, and flip-flops of every size and color bobbed along in the water. I have seen many  barefooted people around here, and now I know where all of their shoes are! Theoretically, the weed line attracts bait fish, and they in turn attract bigger fish. This theory did not work for us, however, as we dragged our lines through that muck for hours and never had a single bite. We did hook a cute hot-pink bra though! And it looked to be about my size. Too bad it fell off the hook.

As entertaining as it was to see what ended up floating miles offshore, after several hours we decided we’d had enough and headed back to the marina. On the way, we spotted several small fishing boats and moved closer to see what they were catching. The fishing gods were with those fellas, as we watched them toss fish after fish into their small boats. They had set out long stringers which were now loaded with Carapau, an oily fish similar to a mackerel.


Our captain was very happy to learn that the fishermen would sell nine of these fish for only two-thousand kwanzas, the equivalent of about twenty dollars. He seemed puzzled that we were not interested in buying some as well.

I’ll admit, I considered it – but only for a moment.

Making a decent meal is a challenge for me on my best day, and using gourmet ingredients. Surely, anything I had made with those oily fish would have wound up in the trash bin.

Though we didn’t wind up with any fish – and Jesus would not be getting any kisses – we will always remember the thrill of riding along with those dolphins.  Maybe after these two experiences, I need to reevaluate my distaste for fishing. Of course, I know not every trip will be as fun as these two were. But as they say, a bad day fishing is better than a good day at the office…or in my case, a good day hunting and gathering through the mean streets of Luanda.

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Fabric is just Crack by the yard…

Somebody stop me! I can’t stop buying these beautiful African fabrics. They are as addictive as any controlled substance. Granted, there is not much to do here – and no clothes shopping at all – so I have to fill my days somehow. Until recently, I merely bought fabric and never actually did anything with it.  I was simply stocking my shelves and waiting for inspiration to strike.  In the past couple of weeks however, my huge stack of fabrics has become completely inadequate, as ideas for projects are flowing like the Kwanza River.  Pillows, casserole caddies, book bags for kids at the orphanage, quilts, tablecloths…oh, and did I mention pillows? These bright, vibrant patterns are so much fun to mix, they beg to be cut into pieces and sewn together.

The possibilities and projects are endless, but buying fabrics here is like a scavenger hunt. Of course, there are always the ladies on the street, with fabric stacked high on their heads, but much of this fabric can be low on the quality scale. Benfica, the large craft area I mentioned in a previous blog, is also an option. But, it is a long drive and filled with overzealous merchants who follow expats like me around until they wear us down. I tend to buy fabric I don’t even like, just to make these guys go away.

Undoubtedly, the mecca for fabric shoppers here is a place south of town call Sao Paolo, which I have been to only once. It was over a year ago, and we were here on our look-see visit.  As a wide-eyed visitor, one of the long-time expat ladies took it upon herself to show me the ropes. I will call her Mrs. Lisbon. A native of Portugal and expert on life in Luanda, she was the ideal guide for a nervous newbie like me.

One morning, Mrs. Lisbon offered to show me some fabric shops and asked if my driver could transport us.  As she and another expat lady crawled into my car, Mrs. Lisbon spoke quickly in Portuguese to my driver, a very meek fellow who had been assigned to me for the week. I had no idea what she was asking him, but he clearly wanted no part of it.  After a few minutes of this back and forth, he finally gave in and agreed to drive us to Sao Paolo, a place I learned later is in the “red zone” for our drivers. Crowded, dangerous and prone to raids by the police, it is strictly off-limits. In fact, Mrs. Lisbon’s own driver would not take her. As powerful as her charms were, I guess he valued his job a bit too much. Of course at the time, I knew nothing about the dangers of the place, and was simply along for the ride.  Ignorance is bliss, and I was happy as a clam.

As we approached the long, pot-holed dirt road in Sao Paolo lined with shops, my driver was clearly nervous. I assumed his white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel was because he was having a hard time finding a place to park.  Later, I learned that cars are often vandalized in Sao Paolo, even with the owners very close by. I’m sure he was sweating the possibility of explaining a damaged vehicle to our company, especially if it had occurred in an area he was supposed to avoid.

After about ten minutes, he finally found a place to park, and declared that he was staying with the car, which was clearly more important to him than we were. As we got out of the car, Mrs. Lisbon directed me to stay very close to her and tuck my purse under my arm. This made me a little nervous, but I mustered my courage and kept a death grip on my bag.  As we walked quickly along, we peered into one small doorway after another, each one revealing poorly lit rooms with colorful fabric stacked floor to ceiling. Mrs. Lisbon was looking for a particular shop that she knew carried the very best fabrics and selection.

Once she located the shop, we walked in and up some very steep stairs, revealing a maze-like set up. Thousands of yards of fabric loomed from all sides and immediately overwhelmed me. There were just too many choices!  The stacks were vaguely divided into makeshift booths and each booth’s owner stood ready to negotiate over their colorful wares. No prices were posted, but Mrs. Lisbon informed me that each bunch of about six yards of fabric cost between ten to twelve dollars. Cheap as chips – literally, since chips (or crisps, as the British say) are about ten dollars a bag here!

Choices had to be made quickly, as the ladies began to open up and display yard after yard, all the while giving me their best sales pitch. Within moments, dozens of patterns and colors were laid out before me. All I could do was close my eyes and point. In no more than fifteen minutes, I had purchased as much as I could cram into an already full suitcase. Much to my husband’s dismay, I dragged that fabric back to London with me, where it sat in a corner for a full year. When we moved here to Luanda the following September, that same fabric made the four-thousand mile trip back here, and is finally being put to good use.

After we moved here, I heard one Sao Paolo horror story after another, although my trip had come off without a hitch. Apparently, pickpockets frequent the area and make no attempt to hide what they are doing. One lady I spoke to was robbed twice on the same trip! The occasional police who patrol the area only bring chaos when they arrive. You see, technically it is illegal to sell items on the street, even though there are people throughout the city selling everything from fabrics to food to toilet seats. Occasionally, the police will raid areas like Sao Paolo. Coming in like gangbusters, they hurl the ladies’ wares into the muddy street, or smash produce with a billy club. I have never heard an explanation as to what prompts these raids, but I have no desire to see one firsthand.

Today, I asked my driver where to find nice fabrics here in town. He took me to a lovely shop filled with artwork, carvings, decorative items and a very small section of about fifteen different patterns.  I paid the equivalent of sixty dollars for a six yard piece – roughly six times what I paid at Sao Paolo! Did I overpay? I’m not so sure. There weren’t many patterns, so the choices were easy. The place was air-conditioned, my purse was safe on my shoulder, and there was no danger of being caught in a police raid. I think sixty dollars was a true bargain, here in the world’s most expensive city.

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Living in a Minefield…

Going to the grocery store should not be a hazardous activity, but here in Luanda, there are pitfalls and stumbling blocks everywhere you go.  Just today, as I was walking out of the grocery store, to my left stood a soldier with a machine gun. To my right, several men walked quickly towards me, sizing me up and shouting in Portuguese. I assumed from their demeanor that they were asking for money, which quickened my steps. Just as I approached the passenger side of my vehicle, with my driver inside and engine running, I narrowly missed falling into a three-foot-wide, six-foot-deep, open manhole. This could have been the end of me. Going to a hospital here is as dangerous as any accident.

No, Luanda is not a safe place for a klutz like me. I fall down – a lot. A bad ankle is the usual excuse for these spills, but mostly I am just too distracted by what is around me to watch where I put my feet. My favorite story about this legendary klutziness recalls my first date with the cutie-pie who would later become my husband. He is one of the most graceful and athletic people I know, by the way.

It was a date to go water-skiing. Don’t get ahead of me, now. The two of us had been set up on this date by another couple. The girl was a friend of mine from grad school, and her boyfriend was one of my hubby’s co-workers. Everything was going along perfectly until the two guys tried to launch the boat from a very steep boat ramp, something both of them had done many times before.  Suddenly, the boat launched itself off of the trailer and began to float away. While all of this was going on, I was walking towards the water, enthralled with all of the commotion, and of course my hot date.

The next thing I know, I am flat on my back laying in dead shrimp. While I had been gawking at my hubby, I had stepped right off of a four-foot embankment, and landed right in the middle of two young boys who were fishing with the stinky shrimp I had just squashed. Not one to admit pain, I jumped right up and declared, “I’m Oookayyy!”, doing my best arms-in-the-air, Olympic dismount gesture. How embarrassing! Here I was wearing my brand-new bikini, preparing to dazzle this handsome guy with my skiing prowess, and I fall down like a bumbling idiot. One thing is for sure, I made an impression that stuck.  We did wind up getting married, after all. Years later, my husband told me that his first thought was, “She’s clumsy, but she’s tough!”.

All of this is to say that I am ill-equipped for life in such a hazard-filled place.  There are no clean, even sidewalks here. There are holes and rocks and mud puddles. The mud puddles especially need to be avoided.  You don’t want to know what is most-likely floating in them. I’ve found the best shoes to wear here are FitFlops, those very unattractive rubber platform sandals that allow for walking slightly above the muck and can be hosed off and disinfected later. In addition to concentrating on all of the hazards on the ground, one must also watch out for hazards coming from all sides: crazy drivers that have no intention of stopping, potential muggers and the occasional stray dog. Sometimes, it is just too much for my ADD mind to handle!

In all seriousness, while I speak of Luanda as an urban minefield, there are many real, actual minefields still remaining in this country, mostly in outlying communities. In fact, Angola is still one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world.  Following the end of the decades-long civil war, many land mines have been removed, but an estimated ten million still remain. Let that number sink in a moment. Ten million land mines. Imagine the damage they can do. And they are not designed to kill. They are designed to maim.  Many, many people are seen with missing limbs, even in Luanda.  It is a terrible tragedy that is entirely man-made.

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a non-governmental British and American organization that leads a de-mining effort in Moxico, eastern Angola. Understandably, the process is long and dangerous. Money is short for training and equipping these brave workers. They are making progress, but it will be many years before their work is done in Moxico alone. Of course, donations are sorely needed so they can continue their work and rid these communities of mines. Here is some more information about MAG:


Other international organizations, such as HALO Trust, work in different parts of the country. Princess Diana was famously photographed walking through a land mine area while here on a visit with HALO Trust.  Fortunately, Prince Harry has continued Diana’s work through his visits to Angola. Here is their website as well:


Of course, a klutz like me would be more of a danger than a help in clearing land mines. There is not enough protective gear around that would make me safe in such a situation. But, I can certainly contribute monetarily and plan to do so.  In the meantime, I will be stepping very carefully as I travel around the city of Luanda. As interesting as it could be, I don’t really want to write a blog about an Angolan emergency room, thank you very much.

Now, back to that water-skiing trip.  I am happy to report that I did dazzle my date, and the other couple too, with my skiing prowess. In fact, with each fall – and there were many – those comedians on the boat yelled out, “That’s a 9.5!” or “That’s a 10!”  Yes, I did fall spectacularly, but I also got back onto those darn skis until my date, with his infinite patience, had finally taught me how to slalom ski.  And I didn’t even lose my brand-new bikini top in the process.

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

The Southern Cross…

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way. – Crosby, Stills and Nash.

As we stood on our balcony in Cape Town, my husband pointed out the Southern Cross in the dark African sky.  A wave of emotion took me by surprise as I gazed at those four stars.  Maybe it was because – as the song goes – it was my first time to see this constellation, which is not visible from most of the northern hemisphere. Or perhaps it was because it brought back fond memories of listening to the song, one of my favorites, from so many years ago.  Mostly, I think it was because I have been struggling and searching for a reason as to why we are now living in Africa, a place I never thought I would visit, let alone move to.  After living here for six months, I am still in a state of disbelief.

Of course, the obvious reason we are here is for my husband’s job.  But, the bigger question for me is: why was this opportunity placed in our path? For those of you who have read my blogs thus far, it may appear that we moved here only to go on vacation. Some of you have said you don’t think my husband works at all! While it is true that we have seen some beautiful places, day to day living in Luanda is anything but beautiful. Moving here to go on great vacations is really doing things the hard way. You don’t buy a cow to get a glass of milk. And Luanda is a real pain-in-the-ass cow.  This is considered a “hardship” location for many reasons: it’s dirty, dangerous, smelly, ridiculously expensive and the work is difficult and frustrating.  We would have to be daft to move here just to go on exotic vacations.

Of course, there is the monetary aspect of an Angolan posting.  We are provided a nice “uplift” for living here. But for me, that is not enough to move to a place like this, thousands of miles from family, friends, and all that is familiar.  Money is nice, don’t get me wrong, but money is cold comfort when you can’t walk two blocks for fear of being mugged, or spend days with a belly ache because you trusted food you shouldn’t have. So, if it was not for the vacations and not for the money, why did we move here?

I believe that God – and not my husband’s company – put us here for a reason.  Now, my ego is not so inflated as to believe that I am here to change the world. I’m not a change-the-world kind of gal.  I’m quiet and fairly shy and more than a little lazy.  God has his work cut out for Him just getting me out of bed in the morning and out the door. But, I do believe He had a reason for putting us here.  That reason, although still cloudy, is beginning to take shape.

Strangely, I turn to Hollywood to make my point, by way of the movie Yes Man, with Jim Carrey.  For those of you who have not seen it, Jim Carrey’s character learns through a series of crazy events, that when we say “yes” to opportunities – especially if they exist far outside of our warm and fuzzy comfort zone – the result is something amazing and completely unexpected.  Although the movie never references anything other than a cosmic, karma-esque reason for this, the point is clear: it’s not life that gets us, it’s our reaction to it.

Back in Texas, we attended a church for many years that we really enjoyed.  Through that church and also through our neighborhood, I had participated in a number of bible studies through the years, but I had never taken part in a study by Beth Moore.  I had heard much about the energetic Mrs. Moore, and had always wanted to do one of her studies, but had never accepted any of the opportunities that presented themselves – and there were many.  I was saying “No” and not saying “Yes”. If you have never heard of Beth, take a moment to look her up on YouTube.  That tiny Texas dynamo could motivate anyone.  Less than a week after moving here, one of the lovely angels who lives in my building invited me to come to her bible study class.  Imagine my surprise to learn they were doing a Beth Moore study!

Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Full of piss and vinegar (as my dad used to say), Beth seemed to cut straight through all of the religious fog to reveal an undeniable point: all of us are put here to serve God’s purposes. If we will only be still for a moment, open our hearts and listen, He will reveal what that is for us. It may have taken a move to Africa for me to finally join a fellow Texan’s bible study, but now I see it.  Yes is good.  Yes leads to good things happening in your life.

While it is great that I have benefitted spiritually by this move, surely that is not the only reason I am here.  God calls us to help others, and there is so much need here – really so much that it can be overwhelming. What can one person do? Take a first step and then see where it leads, that is all any of us can do. Through the lovely ladies I met in my bible study, I decided to help teach English at a local orphanage.  This activity takes me far outside of my comfort zone, so saying “yes” to this was a little tougher than it was to the bible study. You see, I’ve got a very soft heart and it gets broken easily. I’ve done loads of volunteer work over the years, but have generally avoided dealing directly with kids in difficult situations. I just can’t take it. An orphanage here is a surefire heart-breaker.  The depth of poverty in Angola is something most people in the western world will never see.  I will be shedding tears – buckets of them – at the plight of these kids. But there is a reason I was given this opportunity and so I said “yes”.  Maybe one of these kids will be helped in some small way by my participation.  If so, then it will be worth every tear.

My purpose in writing this blog is not to toot my own horn. Considering the amount of need here, teaching a class is a tiny drop in the bucket. My purpose is just to encourage others to say yes the next time an opportunity knocks on the door.  Especially if the first instinct is to say no.  Just trust that by embracing the opportunities that appear, good things will be the result, even though they may not be visible directly.

The lovely angel who invited me to her bible study left Luanda several months ago.  Her husband had been suffering from a nasty cough for almost a year, and during a trip home to the U.S., doctors discovered that it was cancer. They have remained in the U.S. until his treatment is complete. Ever cheerful, they inspire others merely by being examples of the willing servants God wants us to be. Even while dealing with a very sick husband, she had made the effort to reach out to me, a newcomer, and had a huge impact on my life as a result. She doesn’t know what she set in motion with the simple act of inviting me to her bible study, just as I may never know how my actions will impact others after I leave.  In the meantime, I will do my best to make those interactions positive, and then trust God to create the good that comes next.

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Wine a little, you’ll feel better…

Although our Shark Cage Diving experience was exciting, it was not exactly a romantic start to our South African vacation.  Luckily, my sweet hubby had planned a picture perfect part two: several days in the Franschhoek wine region, a foodie haven with spectacular scenery and world-class wines.  The drive from Cape Town was only a little over an hour, but it was filled with lovely views of vineyards and beautiful mountains.

We arrived at our hotel, Mont Rochelle, which Sir Richard Branson had recently acquired and completely refurbished.  Cool grays, bright pops of color, and modern lines dominate the decor. Everything seems very well thought out, as many of the newer “design hotels” are, but Sir Richard also threw in some whimsical pieces: chairs covered in artificial grass and strange yellow bowls that resembled large empty tennis balls.  The two resident cats also lend a homey touch.

Here are a few shots of the hotel and grounds:

Lovely views all around.  This was where we ate breakfast each morning.
Lovely views all around. This was where we ate breakfast each morning.
Grass chairs? But, of course!
Grass chairs? But, of course!


The wonderful restaurant, still a bit undiscovered...
The wonderful restaurant, still a bit undiscovered…
Not a bad view to wake up to!
Not a bad view to wake up to!

Our first night, we enjoyed the restaurant at the hotel and settled into the relaxing atmosphere.  The next morning, we had a full day wine tour planned of the Franschhoek/Stellenbosh Wine Regions, or at least a very small portion of it.  This wine area is enormous, with close to 300 wineries.  There was no way we could see them all and live to tell about it!

We learned the hard way on previous trips to Napa that trying to tackle more than three or four wineries in a day just makes you silly drunk and unable to taste much of anything.  Not starting out with a long list of must-see wineries made it much easier, as the pressure was off to rush about from place to place.  We left the choices up to our driver, and he picked three very nice spots based on our favorite types of wine.

Our first stop was Ernie Els winery, a gorgeous spot high on the side of a hill, with an amazing view and excellent red wines.  It also has the bonus of a trophy room featuring great photos of Ernie throughout his illustrious golfing career. We could have sat there all day, taking in the view, but we had given our driver permission to push us along when needed.  Here are a few photos of Ernie’s place:

What a view!
What a view!
Of course there was a putting green!
Of course there was a putting green!
Ernie makes some fabulous reds...
Ernie makes some fabulous reds…

Next, we visited Neethlingshof, to sample their excellent pinotage, a uniquely South African blend of hermitage and pinot noir grapes. We stopped for lunch at the lovely Bread & Wine restaurant at Moreson Winery, and nibbled on their recommended charcuterie platter.

2015-02-11 13.45.40

Our last stop for the day was at La Motte, and then we were done.  Even with pouring out much of what we were served, we had had enough wine for the day.  Slow and steady wins the race, and we had several more days of this ahead of us.

The next day we began with a lovely drive just outside of Franschhoek, where we discovered near wilderness.  This seems to be the main difference between this wine region and others we have visited.  Its vastness and relative sparse crowds give the impression that you have the place to yourself.  So relaxing.

Looking down at Franschhoek from the pass.
Looking down at Franschhoek from the pass.
Wide open spaces just outside of town.
Wide open spaces just outside of town.

After our short drive, we headed towards Stellenbosch to see a couple of places we had missed.

Visiting Haute Caubriere, were we tasted an un-oaked Pinot Noir, a lovely mix between a white and a red wine.  Not a rose, but something entirely new.
Visiting Haute Caubriere, were we tasted an un-oaked Pinot Noir, a lovely mix between a white and a red wine. Not a rose, but something entirely new.
Visiting Delaire Graff, a very posh hotel and winery with a spectacular view.

Dinner that night was a Le Bon Vivant, a small french restaurant in town. Franschhoek (which is dutch for “French corner”) was settled by French huguenots in the 1600’s.  Their influence is still strongly felt in many ways, not least of which is the predominance of excellent French restaurants in the area.

The next day we hopped aboard the “Wine Tram”, a slightly hokey, but fun way to see more great wineries without having to drive under the influence.  We enjoyed the experience and were able to try even more wine, even though we were both reaching our limits.

The Wine Tram.  All aboard!  Toot! Toot!
The Wine Tram. All aboard! Toot! Toot!

Since this was our final night, we had saved the best restaurant for last.  La Petite Ferme is a very popular spot, but usually only open for lunch.  But on Friday nights it is open for dinner and live music is played on the lawn overlooking the vineyard.  We had called several weeks before the trip and made a reservation for 7:00 pm.  We arrive on time only to have a very surly hostess inform us that we did not have a reservation, but she did find our name on a waiting list. The place was completely booked, especially the outside tables overlooking the jazz band.  What to do? I’ve found the best tactic is to smile sweetly and stand your ground until someone finds a solution.  We were not leaving, so they needed to figure out where to put us.

The surly hostess placed us at a table in the back near the kitchen.  It was’t exactly what we had in mind, but at least we would be able to have a nice meal.  Then, our darling waitress saved the day.  She sat up a table outside in what is normally the bar area.  It had a perfect view of the band and vineyards and we felt very special.  See, there are angels among us.

We had the best spot in the house.
We had the best spot in the house.
An excellent band played all kinds of music and we even had a chance to dance under the stars.
An excellent band played all kinds of music. After the sun went down, we danced under the stars.

It was a wonderful week in South Africa and we cannot wait to return.  Having only scratched the surface of what this beautiful country has to offer, we look forward to finding new treasures on our next trip.  As long as my husband doesn’t announce a lifelong desire to go bungee jumping or hang-gliding, our future trips are sure to be romantic from start to finish!

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Oh, When the Shark Bites…

Sharks have never been my favorite sea life, even though I am a scuba diver from way back.  I won’t say how far back, but my original certification documents were lost in a fire at the PADI office sometime in the 1980’s. They were kept on microfilm, you see. All of this is to illustrate that I am generally very comfortable in and under the water. My selective fear of sharks is a result of my very first open-water dive in Cozumel, Mexico, so may moons ago. There I was, a newbie diver, trying to juggle fifty-plus pounds of bulky equipment and perform a perfect “giant-stride” entry off of the boat. Yeah, right. Grace was not my strong suit then, and it still isn’t. Instead, I splashed into the water with all of the finesse of a watermelon falling from a two story building. Mask askew and completely disoriented, I took a moment to get myself organized. When the bubbles cleared and I took my first breath of cold, compressed air, the first thing I saw were two shadowy figures about 50 feet away. Yes, they were sharks, and I was certain I was going to die.

Obviously, that did not happen. Duh.

Instead, the two sharks simply turned and swam away, and I was left with a permanent fear of those sleek, gray killing machines.  Well, maybe that is a little overdramatic, but I really, really don’t like sharks.  Apparently, I need to speak up more forcefully about my deepest fears, because what did my husband sign us up for on a romantic trip to Cape Town, South Africa?  Yes, Shark Cage Diving.  Just take me out back and shoot me.

But I’m a big girl and no hissy fits ensued.  However, I did start praying for bad weather, a broken down boat, a sudden onset of fever – anything to avoid getting into the freezing cold South African water where you are guaranteed there will be sharks. Keep in mind, these are not little sissy sharks, we would be in the water with Great Whites.  They make movies about such beasts.  Oh, and by the way, I really, really don’t like cold water either.

The day came for our trip and we arrived in Cape Town to beautiful weather.  Darn it.  We were scheduled to go diving early the next morning. My husband in his wisdom had planned it early in the trip, bless him, so we could get it over with and then enjoy our vacation. Upon arrival to our hotel, the concierge told us our dive had been cancelled due to a very windy forecast for the next day. Oh, joy! I tried hard not to break out in a happy dance. Then she said they had rescheduled it for the following day, which was forecasted to be perfect weather. Crap.  Now I had another twenty-four hours to fret.

We spent our now free day enjoying the beauty of Cape Town, including a tram ride up to the top of Table Mountain.  It really is a lovely city, very clean and modern – and cheap. Cape Town has very reasonable prices for hotels, restaurants and shopping, especially when compared to Luanda or most major European cities. Here are a few photos of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area and Table Mountain:

Beautiful Table Mountain with a view of our hotel, the Cape Grace.
Lovely view from our room at the Cape Grace. My yacht is the big, white one – in my next life…
The tram to the top of Table Mountain.  The floor rotates so everyone has a great view on the way up!
The tram to the top of Table Mountain. The floor rotates so everyone has a great view on the way up!
The view from the top!
The view from the top!
There is a trail to the top for those people with excessive amounts of time and energy.
There is a trail to the top for those people with excessive amounts of time and energy.
One of a very interesting group of characters.
My hubby, the King of the Hill.
My hubby, the King of the Hill.

The next morning, my prayers went unanswered as we awoke to a clear, calm day. Hubby made it clear that Shark Cage Diving had always been very high on his bucket list, so I finally decided to fake a smile and go along.  This act was not entirely altruistic, I must admit. I’m still hoping for diamonds as a reward.

We were picked up at our hotel along with a group of four quite rotund British tourists, two women and two men.  I don’t say this to be in any way derogatory, but I was certain that the tour company would not have wet suits large enough to fit either of the men.  Already waiting in the van, was a very quiet Indian couple, who had planned this excursion for the wife’s birthday.  She seemed particularly excited and he, well, looked about as excited as I was. It was a two hour drive to where the boat would be picking us up in Gansbaai.  Along the way, we learned that only one of the British men was planning to dive.  The rest of the group was only along to take pictures. I breathed a sigh of relief to know that we would not be crammed into a cage with them, lovely and friendly as they were.

When we arrived at the pick up spot, it became clear that the number of people on the boat was going to far exceed the people in our little van.  No less that forty people were gathering to board.  They served us a small breakfast, and showed a short introductory film about the dive.  Then, they sized us up individually for our wet suits, masks and booties.  While we were waiting our turn for sizing, I overheard our Indian friend ask one of the workers if they had any motion sickness medicine, which of course they did not. Uh-oh, with my luck, he will definitely be in the cage with us.

After everyone had been sized, they led us to the boat and we headed out to a pre-chosen spot to begin the dive.  The shark cage was already in the water and chum (that disgusting mix of fish parts, etc.) had already been churned around in the water prior to our arrival. Here are a few shots of the location and cage:

Our boat for our three-hour tour.  Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, the tale of a fateful trip...
Our boat for our three-hour tour. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, the tale of a fateful trip…
Attaching the cage to the boat.
Attaching the cage to the boat.

Who’s first, we all wondered.  The crew began calling out names, handing out our wet suits and putting us into groups.  Luckily, we were not in the first batch.  I needed to see if they survived before I stuck my tootsies into that water.  As the first group entered the cage, the crew tossed a batch of dead fish tied to the end of a rope into the water.  They also had a wooden form that supposedly looked like a small seal, at least to a shark.  Within minutes, the first sharks arrived as the crew taunted them with the fish-on-a-rope.  As the sharks got close to the fish, the crew yanked it away, in an effort to draw the sharks closer to the cage.

Here fishy-fishy…
A game of "catch the fish" between the crew and the sharks...
A game of “catch the fish” between the crew and the sharks…
Almost got it!

Each time, as the shark got close to the cage, the crew yelled “Down, left!” or “Down, right!” so the people in the cage could go underwater to see the sharks up close.  This was all very exciting to watch from above, as we could see what was coming and doubted the people in the cage had any idea.

Finally, it was our turn to enter the cage.  We wriggled into our wet-suits and took the plunge.  The water, although quite cold, actually felt refreshing after the effort of cramming my sweaty body into a too-tight suit.  As predicted, immediately to my left was my green-around-the-gills Indian friend and his wife, grinning with glee.

Taking our turn as lunch in a cage…

The first shark approached and we dove under the water to see the impending jaws of death.  Instead, we saw this:

The only thing visible in the murky water were the small bait fish attracted by the chum in the water.

Again and again, we held our breath and dove down, trying in vain to capture a photo of a full set of teeth.  This was the best photo we got:

If you squint and look closely, you can make out the shape of the back end of a shark.  Not exactly a National Geographic worthy photo, but proof nonetheless..
If you squint and look closely, you can make out the shape of the back end of a shark. Not exactly a National Geographic worthy photo, but proof nonetheless..

The entire twenty or thirty minutes we were in the cage, our Indian friend shivered so violently that it was actually shaking the cage, all the while saying, “C-c-cold, I’m so c-c-cold.”  Poor guy, I don’t think he got much out of the experience.  His wife was freezing as well.  She asked to be let out of the cage early when it became clear that the best views were above the water anyway.

When our time was up, we all climbed out of the cage and the next group climbed in behind us.  Immediately after they closed the cage, a huge and very fast shark managed to grab the fish-on-a-rope. A vicious tug-of-war ensued, as the shark thrashed and spun about, slamming into the cage.

This group got a little more excitement than we did, which was A-OK with me!
This group got a little more excitement than we did, which was A-OK with me!

There were several more groups to follow.  At one point, I looked down to see our very large British friend taking his turn in the cage. Unfortunately for his fellow cage-members, he was doing his own version of chumming the water. Enough said about that, but I was hugely thankful that I was not in there with him.

All in all, it was a fun and very interesting day and not as scary as I expected.  Despite all of my fretting about sharks and cold water, the scariest thing about the whole experience was knowing that if I ever were fool enough to go swimming in that freezing water again, there would be no way to see a shark coming. That and the prospect of the crew pouring chum directly onto the people in the cage, which does happen occasionally, I’m told.

When we got back to shore, they previewed a short video that one of the crew had made during our trip.  I had not noticed him filming, the sneaky guy.  Of course, we bought a copy so we can relive our day, especially if we ever need a reminder NOT to go swimming while in South Africa.

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Starting over…

After a two month hiatus, I am finally back to blogging.  My time in Houston was the usual “running behind the train” kind of craziness, with little time for writing.  I don’t know whether this trip home was particularly busy, or maybe I have lost all time-management skills, but I found myself in a constant panic to get everything done. Multiple doctor and dentist visits, car repairs, flying and driving to visit family and friends, shopping, and visiting the hairdresser have been part of every home visit since becoming an expat in 2011.  Why visit the hairdresser, you may wonder?  It took me over two years to work up the nerve to have my hair cut while living in London, which is arguably one of the most fashionable places on earth.  Allowing an Angolan hairdresser to chop away at my tresses will not happen anytime soon!

This being my first trip home since moving to Luanda, I also added buy supplies for any possible unforeseen situation to my to-do list. You think I am kidding? I collected a vast array of items over the course of two months, and then on my very last day in Houston, I went to no less than seven stores.  On that day alone, I filled up an extra suitcase – probably as my driver was on his way to take me to the airport. The idea that I would have to live for four months without taco seasoning or A1 Steak Sauce was just too horrible to bear.  And forget about living without my favorite shampoo.  That thought actually kept me awake at night!  So I crammed a small grocery and beauty supply store into four very heavy bags.  Truth be told, I am not alone in this compulsion.  Every expat gal I know does the same thing, and most of us arrive back on foreign soil to find plenty of taco seasoning – and at least four bottles of A1 Steak Sauce – hiding in the back of the cupboard.  Just par for the course, I’m afraid.

My solo trip back to Luanda required two overnight flights and an eight hour layover in London.  I’m proud to say, I put that eight hours to good use, visiting the shower and spa facilities in the lounge, taking a nice little nap, and grazing my way through the airport.  Not a bad day, really.  On both flights, I watched every movie I had not already seen and managed to get a few hours of sleep.  Once I finally arrived in Luanda, at 4:30 am, I learned the hard way that luggage trolleys are a hot commodity in the baggage claim area.  After securing a spot in the queue, I waited patiently for more carts to be brought in.  Apparently, the line was only for beginners.  As a few carts were brought in, people rushed from everywhere to snatch them up.  Tossing my southern manners aside, I joined in the melee and wrestled a cart away from a weaker fellow passenger.  Don’t judge.  Okay, so she was old – but my bags were much heavier.  Here in Africa, it’s survival of the fittest, you know.

Once outside of baggage claim, my sweet husband’s smiling face was a very welcome sight in the even-more-chaotic scene. Hordes of jet-lagged people searched frantically for their drivers, while struggling to maneuver their luggage carts through the crowd.  I followed glassy-eyed as Hubby took charge, found our driver, and lead me to the car. On the way to our apartment in the early morning light, I was overcome with the sense that I was completely starting over.  The hard-won experience and confidence that I had acquired during my previous time here had all but evaporated.  I felt like a fresh-off-the-farm newbie once again.  This is not an easy place to live, and it takes more than a little hutzpah to survive and thrive here.  I am happy to say that, despite four days of jet lag and general disorientation, I am finally back in my groove. Hunting/gathering, disinfecting veggies, cooking – these skills are all slowly coming back to me.  I cooked exactly two meals during my two months in Houston, and one of them was Christmas dinner, so I am a little out of practice.  The search continues for very basic recipes that a kindergartner could make.  If you have any that might fit the bill, please send them along!

The day after I arrived was a clear, warm Sunday morning, and we were awoken by glorious worship music coming from the Marginal.  An enormous crowd had gathered under a large white tent.  They spent the next several hours listening to a succession of preachers and singing praises to our Lord.  Even from a distance, we could see they were dressed in their Sunday finest, dancing happily and enjoying the lovely day. What a nice welcome back!

Celebrating the founding of the city of Luanda and the swearing in of a new archbishop, Dom Filomeno Vieira Dias.
Celebrating the founding of the city of Luanda and the swearing in of a new archbishop, Dom Filomeno Vieira Dias.

Yes, I was happy to see that the constant stream of entertainment coming from the Marginal had not changed.  But other things will be changing around here, thanks to the free-falling price of oil.  For one thing, there will be fewer expat ladies for me to pal around with.  In a normal oil market, there would be new people moving in as others move away, but not with the industry struggling as it is.  Lower gas prices are a positive switch for most people, but here in the oil patch, they only mean one thing – downsizing. Many of the friends we made are headed home, and I am deeply saddened to see them go.

We’ve been on this Oil Boom & Bust roller coaster for more than 25 years, so we know the drill – pardon the pun.  Things will turn around.  They always do.  Until then, we will dig in and focus on the positive.  Case in point: my visa requires me to leave the country every thirty days, and that means we will have several trips to exotic African locales coming up.  I wouldn’t want to find myself on the wrong side of the law, after all!  Stay tuned to see where we go on our first “forced” vacation…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Back to the Land of Big Hair & Boxed Wine…

Yup.  I’m back in Texas for a visit and it has not changed a bit – Thank the Lord!  Standing in line at the grocery store behind two middle-aged women dripping in diamonds, leather, and hairspray, my heart swelled with pride. I am home. After seeing these two, I was overcome with the desire to rush home, tease up my hair and put on more mascara – and my cowboy boots, of course.  Texas to the bone, they looked like models in a Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo catalog – albeit one for the more “mature” and plus-sized Texas gals.  Wide leather belts encrusted with chunky turquoise and rhinestones wrapped around their overflowing bellies and the latest Lucchese boots were worn proudly on their feet – and it is nowhere near rodeo season!  Both sported bleached-blond hair, piled up high and sprayed into submission, and more makeup than I had worn in the past two months – all at once.  Pushing two carts filled to the top with boxed wine and Sara Lee coffee cakes, I overheard them coo to the check out clerk, while addressing him as ‘darlin’ and ‘sugar’, that all of these goodies were for their office Thanskgiving party. I have no idea what kind of business they were in, but I would have given my eye teeth to go to that party!

There was a time when I would have rolled my eyes at such a display of ostentatiousness, but no more.  After traveling the world, I have come to appreciate how unique and wonderful Texas is, and view this ‘Texas-ness’ as legitimate culture, not merely an oddity of geography.  I’ve found It is even harder to shake the pull of Texas than it is to get rid of my accent, try as I have to do both.

Yes, Texas is a very special place. What we lack in refinement, we more than make up for in live-out-loud enthusiasm and genuine friendliness.  I dare anyone to move here and keep to themselves.  Within an hour of your arrival, someone will show up on your doorstep with a pound cake and a long list of questions.  The typical Texas woman will know your life story in about ten minutes.  In contrast, after living on London for three years, I could not pick my neighbors out of a line-up!  We lived in two different apartments during our time there, both were five story buildings with three or four apartments per floor.  In both cases, I actually laid eyes on only one of my neighbors, and only one time in each building.  The apartments were occupied, as evidenced by the trash in the hallway and noise from within each flat, but the only time I saw an actual human being was when I was moving out.  The British are the most polite people you will ever meet, and funny as hell, but not the ‘let’s have lunch’ kind of friendly that you find in Texas.  The friends I made in London were overwhelmingly American and predominantly Texan – and what a fun group of ladies they were!  We met every Wednesday for “Wine Time” at a different pub each week.  Our hen party could be heard long before we were seen, and so we naturally cleared more than one pub with our cackling – but that is a another blog…

Being back in Texas for the holidays means taking in all of those things that make this place so unique: small town antique stores and barbecue joints, holiday markets filled with more rhinestone-covered clothing than should be legal, and country music on nearly every radio channel.  Heck, stopping at Buc-ees on a road trip through the Texas Hill Country is something everyone should experience at least once in their life.  Sure, there are wonderful road-side convenience stops in many places.  The UK has huge, clean, service stops along the highways, complete with mini versions of my favorites, like Starbucks and Marks & Spencer.  But only at Buc-ees can you pull up to no less than forty gas pumps and even more toilet stalls – plus they have Beaver Nuggets!  And Buc-ees has an entire department-store-sized section of merchandise featuring that crazy little beaver on their logo saying things like:

“Eat here, get gas.”

“My overbite is sexy”

And my personal favorite, “Restrooms you gotta pee to believe.”

There is just something about the wide open spaces here in Texas that makes me smile, and every place takes credit cards – a huge plus after my all-cash dealings in Luanda.  Unfortunately, the convenience of ready credit and merchandise-a-plenty, means I’ve been shopping like it’s 1999.  So sorry, hubby!  Can’t help muh-self…

Of course, more than anything being back in Texas means the chance to reconnect with treasured family and friends.  Our Thanksgiving pies will taste extra sweet this year, after being so far away.  We may have traveled the world, but Texas has always been in our hearts.  So let’s break open an extra-special box of wine while we give thanks for our many blessings, and fry up our Texas-sized turkeys to golden deliciousness!

Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all!!

© 2014 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

An American Expat's Adventures in Africa

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