Dinner train

We’re back Zambia again, where we’ve checked in again at the homey ZigZag lodge on the edge of Livingstone.

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Right across the street from the lodge compound we can see these beautifully restored passenger train cars.


This is the Royal Livingstone Express dinner train, one of the luxury treats we (OK, Kim) planned for us along the way.


Just in case we need to prove it someday.

Transfer from your hotel is included in the ticket price. It seemed like a practical idea when we were in Egypt but back then we didn’t know it would be right across the road.

Once the van got us all the way across the street, the porter ushered us onto the train and welcomed us with drinks in the lounge car.img_9726Appetizers were served as we got underway, and then we had a couple of hours to refill our glasses and enjoy the scenery.

Our porter and a passenger enjoy the view from the observation car

Our porter and a passenger enjoy the view from the observation car

The train moves very slowly – this excursion is all about the journey. It took almost two hours to travel the 10 kilometers along Cecil Rhodes’s “Cape to Cairo” mainline to Victoria Falls Bridge, where we stopped just short of the border sign in the middle.


The train stayed on the bridge for about 20 minutes so we could take pictures of the falls, the train, and each other.

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There was ample opportunity to buy souvenirs from the very persistent Zimbabwean vendors.

As the sun set we got back on the train and proceeded to the dining car.

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And two hours later we were back at the ZigZag, a bit overstuffed and happy with our new herd of aluminum-can zebras.





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Victoria Falls

On our last day in Zimbabwe Andreas and I took a walk through town to Victoria Falls National Park, a protected area that runs along the cliffs opposite Zambia. They have put in a wide paved sidewalk just in from the edge so you can walk the length of the falls.


This time of year the river is low (making visits to the Devil’s Pool possible) but there was still plenty of water in the falls across the way. The heavy mist rising up from the canyon felt good in the tropical heat. The local name for the falls, in the Lozi language, is Mose-Oa-Tunya, which means The Smoke that Thunders.

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Hey… what’s that I see through the mist?


The Devil’s Pool


Those people are INSANE! Get away from the edge, you idiots!!


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We’re in Zimbabwe now. A new day, a new adventure.

My travel confidence had been shaky since the sudden onset of previously undetected cataractaphobia (I just made that up) a couple of days ago. What better way to recover my inner Livingstone than a morning mini-safari followed by canoeing on the Zambezi River?

As we drove through the park I kept thinking about the river. How far away were we going to be from the waterfall, anyway? But I allowed myself to be distracted by critters.

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We ended our park tour with a picnic breakfast on the riverbank, then got everything set up for canoeing.

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Before going out on the water, our guide sat us down for a safety lesson. He went over some stuff about paddling and parts of the canoe and whatnot. Then he told us about  the crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Although crocodiles at this time of the year are mostly sleeping on the bottom of the river, he told us that we’d better not dangle a hand or foot in the water, and that if we capsized, to get out of the water asap with a minimum of splashing.

But the animals you really have to watch out for are the hippos. Hippos kill more people than any other mammal in Africa. There are loads of hippos in the Zambezi river, and they are aggressive and very territorial.

Our guide told us what to do if we see a hippo (stay away). Then he told us what to do if a hippo grunts or bellows (paddle away fast) or if it charges (paddle away REALLY fast). Also what to do if a hippo bites the canoe (stay put). Or if a hippo comes up under the canoe and flips it (swim away fast to shore while hoping someone in another canoe saves you with their paddle).

The other three in our party were pretty freaked out about the crocs and hippos. Not me. Instead, I’m the one asking, “how far away did you say the falls were?” (seven kilometers).

It was an exhilarating trip down the river. Hippos were lurking everywhere, their little eyes and ears just visible above the waterline, or gathered in pods with humped backs looking remarkably like rocks.


See the hiding hippo?

I am pleased to report that we went over a few tiny rapids, but no waterfalls.

We did do a fair amount of fast paddling away from hippos, and once we got roared at as we ran the gauntlet single file between two pods. At that point I think at least one member of the party was expecting the guide to pull out a pistol like on the Adventureland jungle cruise ride, but fortunately that only happens in Disneyland.

And at one point Andreas saw a crocodile glide into the water from a rock right next to us. His shout made Kim think the hippos were upon us (or under us), and there was quite a bit of excitement there for a couple of minutes. I didn’t get any action shots – here are a few pictures from calmer moments.

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As we enjoyed our celebratory beers and lunch by the river, something dawned on me that the astute reader probably already figured out. The falls go over the cliff on the Zambian side. We were downriver in Zimbabwe, and the falls were behind us in the other direction. Duh.


Nothing to be worried about here. I’m happy to report, I’ve got my intrepid explorer groove back.


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The Devil’s Pool

Hoo boy. This was a thing. A very scary thing. The scariest thing ever, as far as I am concerned.

I don’t frighten very easily. Or at least, I sometimes find that the things that scare other people don’t scare me at all.

For example standing on the edge of a boiling lava pit. Not scary.


Erta Ale Volcano, Ethiopia, April 2014

Feeding wild hyenas. Not scary.


Harar, Ethiopia, April 2015

Riding in a little outboard panga on the open sea. Not scary (Alekka disagrees).


Corn Islands, Nicaragua, July 2014

Hanging with the gorillas. Not scary.


Virunga, Rwanda, April 2015

Handling cobras. A bit sad actually, when I realized this one had probably been defanged. But snakes, not scary.


Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt, January 2016

But then there was the Devil’s Pool. SCARY!


Devil’s Pool, Livingstone, Zambia, December 2016. If you think I am relaxed and happy here, you are wrong. I am terrified.

Our Devil’s Pool excursion, like many of the activities on this trip, was planned by Kim back in September. Of course she asked me before she added us to the reservation. Sure, I said, after she described it to me. A natural rock pool at the top of Victoria Falls! Sounds cool! We’re in!

After it was booked, Kim kept saying that the Devil’s Pool was a thing she wanted to do but was really nervous about. Actually she might have used some stronger language. She mentioned it again at the airport, and on the ride to Livingstone, Zambia. On the way to the hotel where we were meeting our group to go to Livingstone Island, she said it again. And every time, I replied with something on the order of “don’t worry, what could go wrong?” Inside my head, I was thinking, “not scary.”

Well. Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

It started off just fine.

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It was all good up to this point. But then we had to swim across the river. The people in the next picture had just come back from the pool and were putting their shoes on. The pool is not right where they are. It’s way over near the bushes. You have to swim at an angle across this section of the river and access the pool from another rocky island. To the left, just out of the frame, is Victoria Falls. So basically, if you don’t swim hard enough, this is where you go over. I would have taken a better picture if I’d realized right then how significant this is. I didn’t figure it out until I was halfway across.


The pool is just past this section


Well obviously I did it, and I survived. And I even went into the pool after I got across the river, as you can see from the earlier photo of the four of us in the water with our guide, and also from this somewhat more vertigo-inducing piece of evidence.


That’s the freakin EDGE OF THE WATERFALL

The pool has a natural ledge right at the edge, and it is deep enough that you can stand up. But the river current is pushing you quite hard toward the precipice so it is not exactly a relaxing soak.

Here’s a video that one of the guides took with my phone after we got out. He was standing on a rock just to the left of the pool. My palms get sweaty watching it.

So of course after we got out of the pool we had to swim back to Livingstone Island. It wasn’t quite as bad going back. At least I could remind myself that I would never have to do it again. Also there was a nice breakfast waiting for us.



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Z tour with Mr. and Mrs. P

This evening we embarked on a long-awaited winter holiday with our friends Kim & Andre P.  We’ve got all kinds of great stuff planned for the next three weeks. Truthfully, most of it was planned by Kim. In our family, I am the one who finds the cheap flights and picks out the hotels and Airbnbs, but beyond that Andreas and I are more the turn-up-and-see-what-happens types. Kim, on the other hand, has years of experience organizing Model UN and Week Without Walls trips for students, and it shows. This will be a slightly different travel experience for us but I must say I am looking forward to our itinerary.

Zambia is our first stop. After a few days in Livingstone we’ll cross the river into Zimbabwe where we’ll stay for a couple of nights, then back to Zambia for a couple more. Then we fly to Zanzibar (our third Z destination) to celebrate Christmas at the beach. Then we split up for a few days, during which Andreas and I will visit a smaller, mostly uninhabited island while Kim and Andre continue to enjoy Zanzibar. Then we meet up again for a couple of days in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s only real town. On New Year’s Eve we all fly to Dar es Salaam in mainland Tanzania. After ringing in 2017 Andreas and I will fly to Israel for the final week of the holiday while Kim and Andre relax and visit some national parks near Kilimanjaro.

And… heeeeere we go!

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Should I stay or should I go?

The recruiting train for international teachers is proceeding full steam ahead. At this time of year, educators looking for new horizons are researching schools, sending out resumes, and interviewing via Skype.  Administrators are seeking out the best candidates to fill the vacancies the departing teachers will leave behind.


Teachers at our school got an email a couple of weeks ago from the director reminding us of the December 1 deadline for our “letter of intent.” This is where we tell him what our plans are for next year: staying here or moving on.

The time between now and that deadline can be awkward. There are teachers who are leaving who don’t want colleagues or administrators to know quite yet. Some want to keep their options open as long as possible – they would like to go but only if they can find a better job. Or they are worried that colleagues or admin will treat them differently if they know they are jumping ship. Then there are people who are staying and who are dying to know who isn’t, maybe because they are coveting their assignment or apartment. Or, truth be told, because they don’t want to invest more friendship energy on someone who is on their way out.

I read a great blog post last year by an expat in China named Jerry Jones.   I’ve seen it shared many times since then amongst international teachers. You can read it yourself (definitely recommended for expats), but the gist of it is that international work is a constantly revolving door.  And while it’s hard to say goodbye, the newbies, stayers, and goers all have the opportunity to make powerful personal and professional connections.

graphic: Jerry Jones, "The transition that never ends," thecultureblend.com

graphic: Jerry Jones, thecultureblend.com

We’ve made up our minds.



Posted in Cairo, Egypt, Expat experience | 2 Comments

Whale watching

Whales? In the desert?


Many millions of years ago, when this part of the world was partly underwater, some land animals were making the transition to becoming sea mammals. Early whales died and sank to the bottom of the ocean, where their bodies were preserved in the sediment. The sea dried up and left the animals buried deep underground. Over the millennia erosion eventually uncovered their bones.


Scientists first found sea creature skeletons here in 1902. Wadi al-Hitan, Valley of the Whales, is so remote that they didn’t get around to excavating until the 1980s. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and on Friday I went to see it.

It’s a two-hour drive from where I live in Giza to the oasis town of Fayoum. Then it’s another hour on a slow gravel track through the desert to Wadi Al-Hitan. Our driver Mahmoud took it slow and steady in his 5-passenger sedan.

We thought we were almost there when we saw this sign, but we still had another 40 km to go.

We thought we were almost there when we saw this sign, but we still had another 40 km to go.


Interesting terrain.

When we finally arrived, we found a modern visitor center with a museum, cafe, police station, and even proper toilets (I never thought I’d be the kind of traveler that got excited about flush toilets. It was a pleasant surprise, but only if I don’t think about how far the water has to be carried out here to make them work).



Some of the best-preserved skeletons have been moved into the museum. This is a basilosaurus.

Wadi al-Hitan is important because some of the species found here were at an early stage of changing from land-based to sea creatures, still with hind legs and feet. These discoveries gave solid evidence to the theory of how marine mammals evolved.


Wikipedia shows an artist’s rendition of a basilosaurus. Can’t really see those back legs, though.

Scientists are still finding interesting things in the valley.

When we were done with the museum my friends and I spent a couple of hours on the park’s well-marked paths. There are labels, shelters, and informational signs to help guide visitors. Rather surprisingly, Valley of the Whales only attracts about 1,000 tourists each year.

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Black sheep

So, I haven’t really wanted to mention this. It’s unfortunate and a little embarrassing. But lately there have been some news articles drawing attention to the topic so I might as well face facts.

You know that wonderful little island in Scotland that I keep going back to in the summertime? The one my great-great-grandfather Murdo MacIver and all his ancestors before him so far as the records go came from? Well, it seems that Donald Trump’s ancestors are from there too. His mother Mary Ann MacLeod left the Isle of Lewis in 1929 as a teenager to seek her fortune in America (she found it).


Donald Trump in front of the ancestral cottage. Photo: AP

I suppose it shouldn’t bother me, but it does, for a couple of reasons. One is that I have a selfish desire to keep my favorite places to myself and I worry that too many curious people will go there and change them. I’m sure you must be thinking, then why do I write about them in my blog? Best answer: because I am my own worst enemy, that’s why. But in any case I shudder at the thought of a plaque marking Mrs. Trump’s birth cottage, or Donald-Trump-in-a-kilt keychains on sale at the visitor center. I don’t actually think that would happen, but plenty of things have occurred recently that I never would have thought possible before this election.

The second troublesome aspect of this thing is Trump’s twisting of his mother’s immigration story. Who knows, maybe it was her version, but with all the resources at his disposal you would think Trump must have discovered the truth of it. For years, in interviews and biographies, he said that his mother met his father while she was on holiday in America. In reality, as first reported earlier this year by the Scottish newspaper The National, Mary Anne MacLeod came from a poor, Gaelic-speaking fishing family (one that could probably never have afforded a vacation at all, let alone one to America); she arrived in the US by herself, aged 17, with $50 in her pocketbook. On her papers she gave her occupation as domestic servant, and stated her intention of becoming a permanent resident. There’s nothing wrong with this –  and it’s a pretty standard Scottish migrant story – but given his attitude toward poor, undereducated, non-English speaking arrivals, it’s kind of obvious why the candidate tells a different version. And I don’t like that. The Daily Mail is an awful rag of a paper, but here’s their exposé. A U.S. blogger expanded on the story a few days later, and the New Yorker news desk reported on it in June.

The Donald is not exactly a favorite on the island, either. His lavish lifestyle clashes with the quiet, hardworking, religious ethos of the outer Hebrides. And his relatives don’t enjoy being asked about their American cousin. From the rash of recent articles I get the impression that a lot of curious journalistic people have been nosing around Lewis lately in search of Trump backstory. I do wish he’d hurry up and lose this election so they can go home. Nothing to see here, folks.

I’ve got some MacLeods from Lewis in my family but not in my direct line. Trump’s other family names from Lewis are Smith and MacQueen; other than MacIver, mine are MacKenzie and Grant. So I can say with some confidence that we’re not related, at least not in recorded history. What a relief.

Check out the Guardian‘s grimly amusing account of Trump’s visit to Lewis in 2008. This new article from PRI last week shows that he hasn’t done much since then to endear himself to the islanders.


I’ve never seen an actual black sheep on Lewis, just these black-faced ones


But there is something about the hair here that reminds me of the most infamous Lewisian.

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Maramureș is a densely forested county in the north of Romania that makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a Grimm’s fairy tale.


Something I especially loved about the area was its wooden churches. We drove from one little village to another in search of these beautiful buildings. Constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries, they are richly decorated with painted bible stories and handmade textiles. Most of them are still in use.

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Maramureș is also known for its large carved wooden gates.  You see these in front of houses and public buildings. Some are old, but the tradition continues and there are new ones being constructed as well.

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We stayed in a pensiunea in the tiny village of Breb. Pensiuni are small inns, often in family homes. This one was on a farm. Breakfast is included, and at ours you could also buy lunch or dinner. There were no restaurants in the village – good thing, because otherwise we might not have found out what a great cook our hostess was.

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A local specialty is the homemade sour cherry brandy called visinata. People offer little glasses of it to you in the afternoon if you come to visit, or serve it after dinner. Sometimes it comes in a bottle with a wooden ladder inside, sort of like a ship in a bottle.

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Here are a few pictures of Breb.

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We drove up to Săpânța near the Ukrainian border to visit the “Merry Cemetery.”

The carved wooden grave markers here commemorate the parish’s dead with a personalized picture and a rhyming poem. At first they were the work of one man, who later trained a second man to succeed him in the tradition. In the pensiunea in Breb there was a book that showed some of the rhyming epitaphs translated into English. Not all the poems were complimentary, sometimes highlighting the person’s foibles or quirks.

Each marker features a picture of the person who died – sometimes engaged in an occupation,

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sometimes showing something about his or her character or circumstances,

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or sometimes depicting an unusual death.

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Here are some more photos I took walking and driving around Maramureș.

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We took a day trip by train to Aveiro, about 40 miles south of Porto. It’s an old town by the sea with lots of street art, cool buildings, and great food.

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Aveiro is known for a few specific things. Four that I know of.

  1. Azulejo. The town has beautiful examples of these colorful Portuguese tiles. Some are plain, some are in geometric designs, some are pictorial. They are everywhere on old, new, and renovated buildings.

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2.  Art Nouveau architecture. They are mostly just facades, but impressive enough to land the town on The Guardian‘s list of 10 best European art nouveau cities and a listing with The Réseau Art Nouveau Network.

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3.  Canals. Aveiro is called (by some, especially its own Chamber of Commerce) the Venice of Portugal. It’s nothing to rival Italy but the canals are a fun addition to the landscape and you can take a ride on a “gondola” if you want. The canals and flat-bottomed boats were originally used to collect and transport seaweed and to ship azulejo; now they are for tourists.

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4.  Ovos moles. “Soft eggs” are a small sweet pastry that is unique to Aveiro. They have a wafer-thin shell shaped in a mold to resemble either a barrel or a shellfish that is filled with a mixture of egg yolk and sugar. They were invented by local nuns who used egg whites to make starch for ironing vestments and to clarify the wine, and needed something to do with all those leftover egg yolks.

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