I didn’t know how to write about this trip. It’s been 5 years since I’ve been on a proper tour and half of those were spent while my life was sideways, treading water in an upside-down world changed forever by a plague and other mishaps. So in trying to compare and contrast my experiences, it dawned on me yet again that places have spirits or souls or essences that invite you in or spit you out, like Rajasthan or Istanbul or Botswana or Sardinia or Belize or Aachen or Marrakech or Amsterdam or wherever you call home…each has left its mark on me in a different way.
In Rwanda, I felt held. I felt fed – with local foods, recent history, a collective passion; with knowledge about conservation and community, with a shared compassion and humanitarian heart, eyes towards the future.
In Kenya, I felt sold-to, as if consumerism and capitalism and commercialism had woven its way into the fibers of existence there. It felt like a place that wanted to be so much of what my country stands for that they have shed their own identity. And while the pockets of the natural world there are being protected and nurtured, the delicate balance between selling eco-tourism as a commodity and believing that conservation is the right thing to do felt like a grand fuzzy line.
That said, I still had two days on my own at the end of the trip. So I spent my last couple of days in Nairobi learning more about how the country came to be, and seeing some of Nairobi’s conservation efforts for the Rothschild’s giraffe.
Stop #1 was the National Museums of Kenya (and snake house). The museum itself was a pictorial and diorama-ish narration of the country’s history from essentially prehistoric man to the present. If nothing else, the snake house was an opportunity to see their deadly (“a bite from this snake is considered a major medical emergency”) reptiles in a controlled environment.
The most disturbingly fascinating part of the museum, though, was the Birds of East Africa gallery. I wandered in, completely unaware, and was presented with what was functionally a life-sized Field Guide to the Birds, but instead of photos, each Kenyan bird was represented as a taxidermied example, meticulously arranged in plexiglass cases, labelled and numbered as in a bird book.
Stop #2 was the Giraffe Centre. What I thought would be a serene giraffe sanctuary turned out to be a breeding center and chatty tourist attraction. You are given a coconut shell full of snack pellets when you enter. Then you walk up to the viewing platform, where you can hand-feed and interact with the giraffes. It is a legitimate reintroduction program, as there are only approx. 1600 Rothschild’s giraffes remaining. They are at the centre to be bred, then released into the wild in protected parks throughout the country.
Looming large (and lovely) in the background was the renowned Giraffe Manor, where for $1000 USD a night (or more) you can stay in an enchanting stone manor that sits within the sanctuary’s grounds, as you commune with the resident long-necks. It was a weird but oddly satisfying visit, giving me hope that perhaps the commercialism of this place would help its natural beauty thrive.
Flying back home, I had a couple of distinct thoughts: I left Kenya with more things bought. I left Rwanda with more experiences sought. Yet it’s the little memories that pop into my mind as I digest my experiences:
The night I stood along the fencing separating the Lake Nakuru lodge from the reserve proper, watching a mass of dark hulking beasts make their way to the watering hole, grumbling and chatting amongst themselves in a low snuffling murmur. It was only once I shined my flashlight on the herd and saw 50 eyes staring back at me in the black night that I realised they were buffalo.
The night I went out to look for rhino in the weird Lake Naivasha camp, instead finding bushbabies skittering about (baby tree, said the night watchman). And maribou storks, dozens of the immense and bizarre creatures, using the half-dead and waterlogged trees as their base camp.
A lunchtime impromptu tour of the bush camp in the Maasai Mara, spotting hippos and monkeys and crocodiles, guided by a kind and eager Maasai warrior.
An exploration of the little paths along the park fence in Akagera National Park, wondering what might be stirring in the long grasses or what critters lurked just beyond the wires. I had a staring contest with a baboon in a nearby tree and spotted a family with the tiniest baboon baby (babette?) I’ve ever seen.
That night the Land Cruiser broke down on a long stretch of road between the Northern Province and Kigali and we were rescued (luggage and all) by a park ranger (and a veritable stranger) on his way back to Kigali.
The bicycles piled high with sugar cane. The lush hillsides. The milky way and the Southern Cross. The shoebills and hornbills and storks and kingfishers…brightly-coloured birds of all shapes and sizes.
A flash of history: We drove back from Giraffe-land past the new president’s house at about the same time the Kenyan supreme court awarded Ruto the win. The street outside his gates was lined with cars and photographers.
And the food…Dinner in the gardens at Hôtel des Mille Collines, staring out over the pool and pondering what Kigali’s people went through during the 90s. A homemade Rwandan lunch in the cook’s own kitchen, probably the best meal I had in the 2 weeks there. Dinner on my last night at an Eritrean restaurant in Nairobi, complete with injera.
I’ll come back to Africa. There’s so much more of this amazingly diverse land to experience. I want to see the Serengeti and Amboselli and Madagascar and Uganda…and return to Rwanda to hike more in the Virungas and return to Botswana and camp for longer, deeper in the Okavango. I want to eat injera in Ethiopia, and I want to see Deadvlei and Sossusvlei in Namibia. There’s probably more, not to mention the East African coast, that I don’t even know I want to see yet!
Travel is a privilege and an education. And for me, it is a prescription for the part of my soul that feels lost and wild and homeless and restless much of the time.
Here I was, on a plane much larger than anticipated, flying over Lake Victoria from Kigali to Nairobi. It was like crossing a small ocean, a giant black hole in the night with a lot of unknowns waiting on the lake’s eastern shores. During the flight, I was piecing together in my brain what I thought I knew about Kenya and its history, but memories of the hordes of elephants I saw in Botswana, and the near-misses of them in Rwanda only gave me elephant dreams commingled with fuzzy expectations for the week ahead.
My thoughts, as I wended my way through immigration, then baggage, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, were that thankfully most airports everywhere function pretty much the same, whether in English or Swahili.
Truth be told, I prepared little for this trip. I signed up a mere 10 days before departure, visions of myriad wildlife and their Great Migration dancing in my head. I hastily arranged yellow fever and typhoid vaccines, solicited favors for airport runs and plant-sitting, packed, then departed, leaving my overwhelming reality behind if only for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t had time to consider the urban spaces dotting the beginning, middle and end of the adventure.
And so, landing in Nairobi was very different than arrival in Kigali. Nairobi is fairly large as cities go, with roughly the population of Sydney; 5x that of Kigali. The slick urban-ness of the place was a little jarring as we navigated through traffic from the airport into the city proper. Gone were the neatly cobbled streets and manicured roundabouts I’d come to adore in Rwanda. This was a City, and all vibes pointed to its wanting to be like New York or LA. Luckily, the first order of business the next morning was to get out and head for the Rift Valley. First stop: Lake Nakuru.
Much of Kenya is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. The dry, dusty and trash-strewn roads we were on are also truck routes, wending their way from the port of Mombasa through the ragged farmlands, to land-locked Rwanda and Uganda. Travelling these roads helped paint a clearer picture of some of the country’s struggles, not least of which is their high unemployment rate. Note: Although we were repeatedly told it is around 40%, which likely takes into consideration their high level of self-employment, and which official numbers don’t incorporate, I can’t find any statistics from the World Bank or elsewhere that puts unemployment there any higher than 5.7%. Even so, Kenya’s economy and livelihood has taken hits from all sides these past few years.
The fact that the water levels in the lakes of the Rift Valley are rising, apparently indifferent to the massive drought in progress, is a peculiar geological and climactic (and human-generated) paradox that we were about to encounter first-hand.
At 5 or 6x smaller than Akagera National Park in Rwanda, Lake Nakuru felt like it was teeming with life from the first moments we arrived. Between the fences surrounding the park (keeping animals in and poachers out) and the rising waters (Lake Nakuru is now 50% bigger than it was 10 years ago), habitat is getting squeezed; and, while excellent for wildlife watching, it could mean disaster for an ecosystem if the waters don’t recede soon. One of Lake Nakuru’s claims to fame is its massive flamingo population. They come to the lake because of its warm water and the algae that creates. The rising waters have decreased their population significantly (it was said that sometimes 1 million of the birds flocked here), but in the past couple of years, they have started to return.
So it was a little surreal, driving just from the park gates to our lodge: Buffalo galore, herds of antelope, zebras, giraffes, rhinos… and this was just on the main road. The lodge, nestled within the bounds of the park, was like an oasis overlooking the savannah, and beyond that, the lake itself, glowing a tad pink from the reflection of flamingos on the still water. I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush even a little bit about the lush grounds where the background music was weaver birds; the watering hole replete with visiting buffalo and zebra herds; the jungle huts from which you could hear the gruff sound of lions calling throughout the night…
On our first official safari drive in Nakuru, we spent an hour and a half watching a leopard monitor, then stalk, an impala, only to give up at the 11th hour. By the end of the 2nd day, the bingo cards were filled with all of the Big Five (so-named originally for the difficulty to kill and the danger they posed to the hunter: Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo), as well as oodles of points for many of the other birds and critters I’d come to see. By the following day, I was itching to stay on there, but the lure of other parks including the Maasai Mara won out in the end. Also, transport.
Out of Africa, but still here.
Next stop on the itinerary was Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake slightly south of Nakuru. Here, we stayed at a weird lodge with only enough electric fencing to keep out the hippos at night. Water buck and other critters seemed to have free reign of the area, so it was an interesting menagerie-cum-waterside camp experience. Here, too, the waters were very high, meaning that what used to be part of the lodge’s grounds was now part of the lake, and one could see the eerie skeletons of former acacia trees 20 or 30 metres off the shore. The kingfishers and other shorebirds were not complaining one bit.
The afternoon’s activity was to visit a place called Crescent Island, a tiny game reserve in the middle of the Lake. The adventure started with a boat ride over to the island, a scavenger hunt for hippos and crocs en route, and then a walking tour on the island in search of the giant African rock python. I say “in search of” because all we found was evidence, in the form of a massive shed snake skin. Turns out that Crescent Island was one of the many locations used for filming Out of Africa. Legend has it that they imported indigenous animals for the shoots and left them there, rehoming the predators so that the wildebeests and zebras and giraffes and impalas could flourish over time. But that was when Crescent Island was more of a peninsula, and the animals could come and go at will. With the rising waters, it had become an island sanctuary of sorts for the grazing animals, but with water levels recently receding, wily hyenas have made their way back to the island. It will be interesting to see what happens to the balance there if predators have access to this convenient buffet once again.
I’ll pause here to regroup, and to make the drive up out of the Rift Valley and on towards the pinnacle of the trip, the Maasai Mara.
There is a law here that says every home must have an outside light. And so, as my travel-and-flight-bedraggled body was transported entre les mille collines from Kigali airport to the hotel at 3:30am, the twinkling lights in the valleys were like fireflies welcoming me to another dimension.
Even at this absurd hour, with a raging migraine, I had enough wits about myself to detect a sort of charm in the air intermingling with the semi-familiar scents of this continent: earth, wood fires, flowers, humans.
Even the driver, who had to wait at the airport for an additional 3+ hours due to the delays upon delays of my flight, met me with a smile, a hakuna matata and a warm welcome to his country, as if he genuinely has a stake in its future and an impact on how things go.
There’s history here, and much of it is not pretty. One cannot visit Rwanda without coming away knowing some new things (and perhaps weighing an equal number of questions) about the depths of human behaviour.
Rwanda’s history is intermingled with Colonialism, racism, classism and political corruption. It’s hard to just dip a toe into the history because there are so many moving parts, and I’m bound to leave out something significant or miss a step. This timeline outlines the events leading up to 1994.
The problem with Colonialism in general, and Rwanda’s case in particular, is that something of an African caste system had been invented through Western, white, stereotypes commingled with political whim and personal favours. So as Belgium helped build their government, they also managed to foment a systematic divide between Hutu and Tutsi (there wasn’t one, until a class structure was manufactured), helping neatly stack some of the kindling for what was to come.
In 1957, a document called the Buhutu Manifesto was published. It essentially outlined the racial divide in Rwanda and called for Hutu liberation.
In 1962, Rwanda gained Independence, installing Hutu leaders who set Tutsi quotas throughout the political, social and educational systems.
In 1990, the 10 Hutu Commandments was published in an anti-Tutsi newspaper called Kangura. This vile document added sparks to the kindling.
Between 1990-1994, Tutsis waged a civil war against the Hutu government. At the same time, Hutus targeted and killed Tutsis but not nearly at the same scale as what was to come. UN Peacekeepers were sent in.
On April 6th, 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated.
On April 7th, 1994, the killings began in earnest. In 100 days, Hutus slaughtered 1 million Tutsis across this country roughly the size of Massachusetts. Friends murdered friends. Neighbours macheted neighbours. Members of the same church killed each other. The stories are horrific. This was not a war; it was a deliberate and unfathomable mission to completely annihilate a portion of the population. By hand.
The first full evening I spent in Kigali, as I was looking at the peaceful swimming pool in my hotel (Hôtel des Mille Collines), it dawned on me that this was the very same pool from which refugees of the mayhem happening outside its walls drank because the Interahamwe militia had shut the hotel’s water supply. I wondered who and how many my room had sheltered. I wondered if I could ever be as strong as those who witnessed and endured the ugliest side of mankind.
So it was fitting that one of the first places on our itinerary was the genocide memorial. It was sobering. 250,000 bodies are interred here, in this beautiful building surrounded by gardens and an amphitheater. What struck me were the stories. As you enter the place, you hear survivors’ accounts and their fears. As you leave, you hear the same individuals talking about how they and their country have grown. They talk about resilience and unity. They talk about forward momentum and forgiveness and not dwelling on the past while building a future that doesn’t let history repeat itself.
As it was before outsiders manufactured a pecking order, there are no tribes here, only humans.
I think it’s important for the developed world to understand what happened in Rwanda, and to remember that this happened in very modern times, 50 years after the Holocaust, under the watch of Western nations who failed at their primary task of ensuring peace. It’s also important to see how this tiny country picked itself up and focused on bringing wrongdoers to justice and healing itself.
Kigali, now, is a vibrant, clean spotless, energetic city, bubbling with infrastructure projects and plastered with billboards inviting ecotourism. The government is running water lines to remote villages, installing streetlights on all the major roads, promoting education (Rwanda has 72% literacy rate, which is outstanding for a developing nation), vaccination efforts (the nurse at the travel clinic I visited before my trip said they had an 80% COVID vaccination rate!) and wildlife conservation.
Rwanda is called the land of mille collines, a thousand hills. The green of the trees contrasts against the rich terracotta soil; the hillsides are terraced with banana palms and lush fields; the Virunga mountains, dormant volcanoes that loom large in the mist, mark the edges of the land like a dam holding back the wilderness like a verdant sea that wants to spill out.
As we reached the Northern Province, home to Volcanoes National Park and the Virunga Mountains, it felt a little Jurassic Park-ish, and I could see Dian Fossey’s enchantment with the place. It feels as though you’ve landed in a sort of wild and magical spot. Some of the best ways to describe Rwanda, especially the mountains, are sensual: It sounds like birdsong emerging from a deep silence. It smells like jasmine and campfires and petrichor. It tastes like an autumn garden, rooty vegetables and earthy spices. It feels like a tapestry of bark and bamboo and mountain mist. The many shades of green and earth and clay could fill a box of crayons.
In this semi-enchanted state, we headed out early in the morning to see the nature. Trek #1 was to find golden monkeys. With fewer than 3,000 remaining in the wild, golden monkeys are as protected as the mountain gorillas. So with armed rangers leading our expedition (to ward off buffaloes, we were told), we took off to see the little rascals. It wasn’t much of a trek, if I’m honest, because the rangers found the troop of monkeys at the edge of the forest moments before they (the monkeys) decided to raid the bordering field of unharvested potatoes. So instead of a game of hide and seek in the trees, we were treated to a view of the monkeys’ ingenuity and harvesting prowess. 10 points for use of tools and those opposable thumbs. If only humans looked at each other the way these golden monkeys look at their harvest! 😍
That night was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The new headquarters of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda opened earlier this year, courtesy of a grant from Ellen DeGeneres (apparently a birthday present from Portia!). The evening culminated with a talk by one of the organization’s scientists and a representative from the institute. It was a wonderful couple of hours of Q&A with cocktails and snacks, talking about gorilla conservation efforts, whetting our appetite for the gorilla trek we were to do the next morning.
Protection of the gorillas is a high priority for the Rwandan government, so they partner closely with environmental groups like the Gorilla Fund to manage the health of the ecosystem and the safety of the animals themselves from poaching and human-animal contact. First, we were required to take a COVID PCR test prior to going to Volcanoes National Park, as mountain gorillas share 98% of human DNA and even one COVID infection could easily spread and wipe out an entire family.
There are 20 mountain gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park, and 12 of which are habituated enough to humans that the government permits just one hour of human contact per family per day. Therefore, to secure a permit and a time slot with the gorillas requires a steep permit fee, a bit of luck, and some negotiating amongst the guides. Mountain gorillas are always on the move, so the rangers set out early in the morning to find the various gorilla families, for both tourism and conservation efforts. They report back to the guides so the daily schedules can be fixed. Seems like a complicated process but it works! We were assigned to the Sabyinyo family, a large group with 2 silverbacks (huge adult males) and a mixture of black backs (teenage males), adult and juvenile females and babies and a moderate-level hike to reach them. Except for one gnarly section of trail, where our group’s porters had to help us maneuver down a treacherous and muddy slope, we had a fairly easy time getting to the spot in the crater where our gorilla family was lounging for the day.
Who knew that seeing mountain gorillas at such close range would feel like being a voyeur at someone else’s party? Guhonda, the huge silverback, the gentle and diplomatic father. We spent an hour watching him guard the lair as the other silverback plus their assorted wives, sisters, mistresses and children ate and frolicked in the jungle underbrush.
Every year, Rwanda celebrates Kwita Izina, the annual naming ceremony for the past year’s new baby gorillas. It is a grand event and I’m just sad we were about 5 days too early to witness it live, as celebrities from all over the world are invited to name baby gorillas. The new entrant from the Sabyinyo group is a male called Impanda, meaning Trumpet. According to the Rwanda Development Fund, the name was chosen to serve as a call to action for us all to play our part in protecting and restoring biodiversity.
We rounded out the Rwanda part of the trip with a visit to Akagera National Park. Shortly after entering the park, we stopped to observe a massive owl in a mossy tree. Later, I would find out that it is a Verreaux’s eagle owl, the largest owl in Africa. At the time, it felt like that one bird held the park’s secrets, perhaps all the secrets.
After the genocide, nearly all of Rwanda’s wildlife was decimated. So the government, in an effort to rebuild both a natural habitat for Rwanda’s indigenous wildlife and create a destination for tourism, partnered with the NGO African Parks to breathe life back into this swath of land and repopulate flora and fauna. It currently boasts a population of both black and white rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, buffaloes and assorted gazelles and the like. Their K9 squad, foot patrols and radio tracking help keep poaching at bay and helps them create a safe space for these endangered animals. Hearing the rangers talk about protecting the park and its growth from essentially nothing, it wasn’t hard to see the passion for reinvention and forward momentum shining in their eyes as well.
I didn’t at all know what to expect when I landed in Kigali, but left feeling both heavier and lighter, and with a pang of sadness at the airport, a hope that I’d come back someday: to see more of the forests in the Northern Territory, to witness an expansion of Akagera and see a larger habitat for their blossoming wildlife populations, to see chimpanzees in Nuyngwe National Park, to see more of the sparkling lights in the valleys and smell the jasmine in the jungle-y air.
These are a few books I’ve read about Rwanda and its history, that I’d highly recommend:
Note to self: don’t go to Mid-coast Maine during 4th of July week unless armed with a bucket of money, a mask, a self-driving car and a high tolerance for touristic behaviour. If you do, take it all in stride in service to the Quest.
The Quest: I’ve always been a dabbler in myth; a sort-of romantic about knights and castles and stones and the sea…and every Quest needs a grail of some sort. So the Holy Grail of this expedition was the Atlantic Puffin. A bowling pin of an endangered waterbird that spends its time (precariously) in the cooler seas. Puffins fly back, in the summer months, to the islands from which they fledged to socialize and mate and breed new pufflings (YES, that’s what they are called!). I had never seen a puffin (or a puffling) in the (feathery) flesh, and the days I took off this week were well-earned, so I took advantage of the holiday and the season, consulted the birding bibles, and loosely stitched together a plan.
I’ve been a hermit these past few months, with work eating up my waking hours, and stress about the current climate consuming the remaining twilight before crashing after such long days… Then came the COVID. And while my case was relatively mild (it only kicked my butt for a week, but even 2 weeks recovered I’m still feeling lethargic!), I can’t imagine what it would or could have been without my being vaccinated. I’m grateful for modern medicine. Shameless plug: get vaccinated already please!
Medieval knights and castles or non, I set out to Mid-Coast Maine to see if I could at least find some puffins.
Maine. First stop on the micro-adventure was a visit with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. When miles and life and a pandemic all conspire to get in the way of an otherwise great friendship, it’s nice to know that there are certain humans on this planet with whom you can just pick up again as if all the intervening circumstance didn’t matter. It was one of the most pleasant afternoons I’d had in ages.💖
By the time I arrived at the little hotel I’d booked, I realised my plan to ride my bike along the seacoast the next day wasn’t in the cards. The windy, narrow, hilly roads were made only slightly more treacherous by the smattering of tourists driving too haphazardly, alternately too fast and too erratically, for me to feel safe on my bike on these streets. Time to consider a Plan B. Plan C, actually, since the following morning’s weather looked unfavorable, and I had already moved the puffin expedition out a day.
But first, the fireworks. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it doesn’t quite feel like the year to be celebrating this country’s independence. But as a tourist in a sea of red (white and blue), it felt like there were two options: watch the spectacle or go to bed. It was 4th of July after all, and the fireworks would go on regardless of whether I felt like celebrating. I used it as an opportunity to play with light.
The next morning’s Plan turned out to be quite lovely actually: I went down to Ocean Point, apparently the east-most point in these already quite eastern parts, and I recharged amongst the rocks as I gazed out at the Ram Island lighthouse and watched boats (and a small pod of porpoises) navigate the harbour. The hazy summer air commingling with the ocean breeze and its seaweed-y bouquet helped clear out some of the chatter in my brain as I meditated to the sounds of the waves on the rocks and the ospreys calling from the little island just offshore.
What this Quest lacked in knights and castles was recompensated in seabirds and rocky outcroppings. Fingers crossed that the Holy Grail of Puffinage would come through.
It was something of a lazy day after the rock-hopping. I napped during the rain showers in the afternoon. I started reading a new novel. I walked amongst the tourists in town and indulged: saltwater taffy and a lobster roll (when in Rome…); and readied myself for the puffin adventure the next morn!
An aside about why we need to protect the puffins and terns and other arctic waterbirds in this part of the world (they are still prolific, apparently, in Iceland, Newfoundland and the UK, and they are even a delicacy in Iceland. Tastes like chicken?). It turns out that fashionistas in the late 1800s needed feathers for hats. In fact, the Victorian-era fancy ladies wore WHOLE STUFFED BIRDS (I sh*t you not!) on their hats, fast-forwarding the decline of these species. By the early 1900s, the entire colony of puffins and terns were all but wiped out in New England. Thanks to some of the fancy ladies, Audubon was started as a grass roots effort, and the anti-bird-hat contingent was born, aka, what the crap were we thinking?
Waiting in line to board the boat, I was hoping for less Disney and more nature, so I channelled my intention on a preponderance of Puffins rather than the annoying boatmates. The fancy ladies from Florida, arguing with the boat lady about why their short shorts and tank tops would be just fine on the open ocean and why she was crazy to suggest they bring along sweatshirts. The guy in the Yankees shirt and thick Long Island accent challenging anyone who would listen about baseball (apparently a Yankees/Red Sox series was in progress). The couple with the Giant Barking Poodle (On an Audubon boat? Really?) I wended my way to the bow: fewer seats, I thought. Fewer annoyances.
I grew up around boats and the sea and I’ve been on quite a few whale watches, so I had come prepared: sweatshirt and windbreaker, towels, binoculars, and, of course, cameras. It was a relatively calm and warm enough morning as we left the harbour. I was cautiously optimistic, but certainly aware that there was a chance we wouldn’t see any puffins. But it felt like a promising day, and I even caught a glimpse of a minke or pilot whale as we got farther into the sea on our way out to the destination.
The fortress, if you will, protecting the Holy Grail: Eastern Egg Rock. This little island sits about 6 miles east of Pemaquid Point and is home to roughly 150 nesting pairs of puffins, as well as a host of other seabirds like terns and gulls. It was about an hour from our departure point in Boothbay Harbor. The “Hilton” on the island is a research station, where teams of hardy scientists spend the summer studying the puffins and their offspring.
So as we approach, our tour guide (Audubon Lady) starts spotting birds: Puffin, 3 o’clock. Tern, 9 o’clock. Puffins flying, 11 o’clock. Puffins diving, 10 o’clock. And so on… Much to my delight, it was quite the puffin-palooza out there. A plethora of puffins. A preponderance even. And like that we spent roughly 30 minutes circling the little island, getting a glimpse of terns (arctic and otherwise), gulls (laughing and not so much), and of course our fill of the enchanting little stars of the day.
In our glee, what we passengers conveniently overlooked was the shift in the wind and the less-than-swell swells that we now had to motor back through to reach the dock. So, just as the captain announced, “the winds have shifted slightly and you may experience some light spray…” we did, and spent the next 40 minutes battening down hatches and bracing for the swells and spray (read: deluges), soaking deck and passengers indiscriminately. The sweatshirt and windbreaker came in very handy. The towels, not so much.
Cameras safely stowed inside, I remembered what my dad taught me about rough seas: breathe fresh air, watch the horizon, and for fucks sake hang onto something! I was wet enough that the saltwater shower didn’t matter by a certain point, so I enjoyed the sunshine, counseled a very green-looking teenager to get as much fresh air into her lungs as possible, and enjoyed the ride. It wasn’t that bumpy after all.
Being on the ocean always brings back warm memories, and this one, paired with the prolific puffin party, did not disappoint. The seas calmed as we were embraced by the harbor, and the warm sun dried salt crystals over my legs and face.
I’d drive home from this adventure salty but satiated; pleasantly puffinated if you will.
This entry comes at the end of a larger story, the middle bits of which I’m still not entirely sure how to convey. I’ve just finished a long stretch in Europe, totalling roughly 3 months away from home which was both an experiment in working remotely and an escape from home to learn more about the meaning of the concept of “home”. The working part was bookended by holiday weeks (for which I am very grateful); the days off helped me explore, recharge, reconnect (with humans), disconnect (from the blaring news cycles), re-evaluate (humans and news and all manner of things), and mostly begin to contemplate what comes next (the answer to which is still a mystery).
But I digress. That is a much bigger nut to crack and, consequently, summarily summarise.
I wanted to end my days in Europe on a sunny note, with toes in warm Mediterranean sand, appendages dangling in bright blue water. Due to circumstances beyond my control, plans for a Mediterranean escape didn’t unfold the way I had anticipated, so I aimed for a semi-familiar place with new and unexplored adventures to be had…
This trip kicked off much the same as my other trips to Istanbul: a ride from the airport, a crowded highway, a wending through shop-choked streets, and a first glimpse of the Galata Tower, the iconic sight that brings me back, as I cross a modern bridge over the Golden Horn, to one of my favourite views in this old-meets-new city. I’ll sit and watch this old landmark in the days to come, listening to the ferry horns and the corn- and mackerel- and mussel-hawkers at the waterfront that make up the soundtrack to this bustling section of Istanbul.
I’m here this time for a significant amount of time: I have 10 days to more calmly explore Istanbul’s nooks and crannies, and I’ve booked a room in a cave house in Cappadocia, that rocky, other-worldly place I’ve long longed to explore.
The Adhan, the call to prayer, sounds just before dawn and at 4 other times during the day, adding a musical backdrop that is at times soothing or jarring, depending on one’s proximity to a mosque; the Imam’s voice projects across the bustling cobbled streets and resounds in the alleyways, bumping into the other nearby calls. The chant is my wake-up call, as this soundscape adds to the ways the city mesmerises me every time I’m here: it is a mystical mélange of old and new, of East and West, of saffron and silk, of wood (and tobacco) smoke, magic lamps and flying carpets…
I spend a couple of days in the city, exploring old haunts: the Mısır Çarşısı, the Eminönü neighbourhood, the cobbled, graffiti-flecked, narrow streets around the Galata tower, and of course the bustle around the waterfront. I also have time to wander into and around things I’ve missed the other times I’ve been here: an evocative staircase built in the mid 1800s called the Camondo Stairs; the Süleymaniye Mosque, perched atop one of the seven hills of Istanbul, its minarets overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, facing South-ish towards the Asia Minor portion of Turkey (and, farther-flung, Mecca), street food! Lunch one day was a balik ekmek from the food vendors on the waterfront (and a side of pickled cabbage and pickles, swimming in a beet-y pickle juice that is meant as a drink), and I managed to survive the gauntlet of the spice market without buying all of it.
As if my castle fetish wasn’t entirely satisfied in Germany, I set out on my second day to visit the Yedikule Castle and its seven dungeons. It turns out, however, that the government’s efforts to paint a pretty face on a country that is facing some dark socio-economic times have launched so many restoration projects that nearly every city wall and ancient mosque and historical building is surrounded by scaffolding and/or is closed to visitors due to renovations. I’ll reserve my political tirades for dinner over raki and just say that my exploration of old stone walls, turrets and dungeons will need to wait for another day.
The saving grace of the afternoon was a wander around the outskirts of the castle into a (very small) town square, where the local fruit seller invited me into his garden that abutted the old castle wall. Here, I was able to see some of the old stonework up close, and from him bought some of the most delectable fresh figs I’ve ever had. I ended up sharing part of my taxi ride back to the hotel with a young local Architect woman who offered to show me some of the city when I returned to Istanbul. I love seeing places through the eyes of locals, and I was excited to get her perspective on not only the city’s buildings but the political situation from someone of her generation. Google Translate for the win!
After a lovely Turkish breakfast, I embarked on the next phase of the adventure: the moon. Or something…
If Dr. Seuss hooked up with Dr. Ruth and Rumi and Akbar the Great, and they were asked to design something to rival Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon (but make it pigeon-friendly and not worry so much about how weird it gets), we’d end up with something akin to the rock formations in the Cappadocia region.
From the 6th Century BC, people populated the region encompassing what is now Göerme, Çavuşin, Ügrüp, Üchisar, Üzengi, Gomeda, and their surrounds. They built cave homes and underground cities and pigeon houses and churches and monasteries in the fairy chimneys and limestone formations created by the volcanoes and wind and water that sculpted the landscape here millions of years ago. I can’t do justice to a retelling of the long history, but this is a semi-concise recap of the main events, from ancient Hittites to Persian satraps and Zoroastrian cults to ancient Christians and Byzantines and, later, Turkish clans. The area is as rich in history as it is in natural wonder!
I did the requisite balloon ride over the fairy chimneys, as one does here. And as I tried not to be sucked in by the Insta-Selfieism of it all, I watched the sun rise over Love Valley and was dumbstruck by the colours and the clear air and most of all the topography, which may be, quite literally, a geologist’s wet dream.
Land of the giant penis rocks
After the balloon ride, I wanted to see Love Valley from the valley floor. From above it was spectacular, but I wanted to feel the scale of the place. If I tried to explain the rock formations, I’d say it’s like Stonehenge or Easter Island, but instead of manmade stone carvings, the result of the lava and erosion and water somehow resulted in 50-metre-tall penises, lined up in a row, dotted throughout a carved-out limestone valley. Even I would think I was making it up if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. It really looks surreal. So I hiked around the rim, cheered on some of the racers in the Salomon Ultra Trail Race that was taking place that day, and dropped into the valley to gawk as I walked through this other-planetary place.
Facing one’s fears in Rose Valley
Someone decided fifteen hundred years ago that they would build a church in a giant rock, in the middle of a lot of other giant rocks, in the middle of nowhere! I had hiked from somewhere at the edge of Sword Valley into Red Valley and then Rose Valley, looking for this church carved into a fairy chimney amongst thousands of other fairy chimneys and found, after a meandering semi-trek, the Ayvali Kilise.
Here, the hike took a turn…
The trails were vaguely marked but fairly obvious. And I had a map and knew the general direction towards which I needed to head. Feeling semi-confident, I followed the trail and the map and the GPS arrow. Then, the problem: although the map’s dotted line pointed me along a trail in the correct direction, what the dotted line did notdo, was stop when it was time. But the trail did, and quite abruptly at that. At a cliff (with a gorgeous view, but that didn’t help much when I realised I needed to go down the same way I had gone up…)
So in an attempt to double-back and get back to the main trail, I encountered the most frightening 2 metres I’ve ever hiked: a narrow, eroded limestone arch bridge I needed to cross in order to make it out of there. It had a 10-metre drop on one side and a limestone cliff on the other, so my margin of error was approximately 30cm (or one foot, literally). I held my breath (also quite literally), stepped gingerly, and did not look anywhere but where I needed to go in order to live. As my foot cleared the last of the harrowing sandy and loose stone, I breathed, walked two steps, and saw the sign with the ⚠ and some equally nebulous arrows.
Because Turkey: a toothless farmer appeared moments later, proffered lunch (I graciously declined), tea (ditto), and directions (accepted, gladly). In hindsight, lunch and tea in his tractor cart might have made for an interesting twist to the story.
The rest of the hike from Rose Valley to Çavuşin was wonderfully uneventful, if you don’t count the vistas and the kind locals offering grapes from the vine and the street pups and the looming stone castle that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a small, dusty bazaar (and bizarre) street… I slept well that night in my cave room.
Step away from the tour bus
On offer here are tours: Red, Blue, Silver, Green, Gold… each offering a glimpse of the sights, and an Exit Through the Gift Shop approach to seeing a place. Since I had the luxury of several days in Cappadocia and I generally try to avoid crowds and tourist traps, I declined the canned tours and worked out a series of hikes and an itinerary of “must-see” places with the gracious and story-full owner of the cave hotel where I was staying. He grew up here, so was thrilled to craft a list of places for me to see. The first day, we headed out after breakfast and took a cursory look out over Pigeon Valley, where he gave me the scoop on the pigeon houses that dot the fairy chimneys throughout Cappadocia. Pigeons are held in high regard in Turkey, and throughout history have been used here as a means of communication (carrier pigeons) and as a source of fertilizer (poop). I’d also suspect, as today, there was a status element to one’s pigeon collection. To think that these pigeon coops were carved so skillfully into the rock centuries ago only adds wonder to the scene.
From Pigeon Valley we drove to the underground city of Kaymakli, inhabited in the 6th century (and beyond) to protect the villagers from invaders. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch at a local street market and picnicked by the side of the road, just next to centuries-old stone carvings. The warmth of the Turkish spirit really shined as bright as the brilliant day: my host and his stories of the area, and a neighbour to the place we were lunching who invited us into his home, gave us apples and quince from his trees, and offered tea. It was a recurring theme: chestnuts or walnuts or apples or tea or grapes, offered by complete strangers in warm greeting, looking for nothing but a smile in return. In retrospect, I realise that the people who wanted to sell me something offered much less of this gracious hospitality.
The highlight of the outing came late in the day… we ventured on to Soğanlı, another magical village with cave houses, a 6th century church, and a sort-of ghost town: the rock houses are now all abandoned because the government moved the residents to alternate housing (almost ironically) due to rockslides.
Between the apple tea and the warmth of the day (the sunshine and the big hearts I encountered), I left with the feeling I need to come back here to explore the secrets this place holds.
Wrapping up the trip with some raki.
I’ve mixed up my itinerary in this retelling, but suffice to say it was a fairy chimney-full adventure, making me again grateful for the opportunity to experience such a remote-feeling but altogether available spot, replete with history and fresh air and warm smiles and gracious hearts.
I extended my stay in Cappadocia for 2 days because I felt I couldn’t leave quite yet, but still managed to reconnect with the new Architect friend for a walk around the Fener neighbourhood and a dinner which included probably too much raki in relation to the hour of my trip to the airport the next morning.
The time flew, and I left Turkey feeling lighter but also like I’ve got unfinished business in the heart of the country…like I have more adventuring to do and so much more to learn about a place so steeped, like its tea, in history and culture.
Once again, I’m leaving a place feeling as though I’m leaving a part of me there and bringing a part of there back to be with me while I’m gone…
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”