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Posts Tagged ‘Adventure’

You may have noticed I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not that I’ve been idle. This year I’ve done a lot of traveling, besides to Djibouti in January. During the summer, I traveled as far as upstate New York for a family reunion and spent time with my children and grandchildren in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. Then in October, I realized one of my life-long dreams and went to Greece—Athens, the Parthenon, and beautiful islands in the Aegean Sea.

As if that wasn’t enough, in November I joined my sister Sue in Connecticut for a genealogy expedition. This was the first time since childhood that I ventured to a northern clime during winter. I survived. When my granddaughter was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains in December, I braved snow and ice for this happy occasion.

So I have many adventures to write about, including the rest of my journey to Djibouti. I promise to deliver.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, because I have. I’m polishing a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo a few years ago, while another simmers on the back burner. One of my short stories was published in Bacopa Literary Review this fall. But what I’m excited about today is the novel I just released, Trials by Fire, which is the first volume of a trilogy, The Long Road to Namai.

This story has been down a long road itself. When I was a kid, my sisters and brothers and I would camp out in the backyard on summer nights and tell ghost stories. This was science fiction, not a ghost story, and it was so long ago I don’t remember much about the original version. During college, I developed the story a little more. Through the intervening years, I wrote at least one short story which bears little resemblance to the present incarnation. None of these previous efforts bore fruit.

Then I retired and spent a month writing the first novel length version. I went so far as to self-publish it, but gave away more copies than I sold. A few years later I reread the book and thought, “What a great story, but what lousy writing!” I took it off the market and totally recrafted the whole thing. The story was still good and the writing much better, but it was too long and I couldn’t get the word count down without sacrificing important elements.

I decided to follow the suggestions of friends to divide the story into at least two parts and market it to Young Adult readers. I won’t bore you with all the details involved in getting a book market-ready, but as one person warned me, it takes longer than you think. Finally, here it is.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this novel even if you’re not into science fiction. It’s also a human interest story and unlike anything else you’ve read. During the coming year, I will finish parts two and three and release them for your reading pleasure. Stay tuned.

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Did you know there is a Trump Tower in Djibouti? It’s a well-kept secret, but pictures don’t lie. (Well, sometimes they do, but I don’t know how to photo-shop.) Not only do few people know about this feat of architecture, even fewer have been inside. I’m one of the lucky ones.

West side of the Lighthouse.

It is better known as the Balbala Lighthouse or the Ayabley Lighthouse, named for the colonial fort that once guarded the city. It stands catty-corner across the street from the Project House. The exterior is an invitation to graffiti, and someone spray painted in large letters:

After we finished our first session at the Project House we walked across the street to the lighthouse.

Town of Balbala from the lighthouse.

Three of the bead girls, including “Rose,” went with us.

Sisters and Bead Girls

When I visited Djibouti in 2004, we were not allowed to go inside, but that has changed.

Djibouti City

A family lives in the lighthouse. We asked for permission to go in and they granted it. The tower is in the corner of a gated wall around a dusty courtyard. We had to climb several stone “steps” to get to the gate, not an easy feat for little old ladies wearing long dresses. The man who said we could come in noticed us struggling to scramble up a two-foot high step and brought out a small stool to make it easier. This was one of the many examples of courtesy we were to experience in this Muslim country.

North view

Inside the building is a steep metal staircase/ladder with rickety railings that may have been there since the lighthouse was built 100 years ago. The staircase shook and swayed as though welds and bolts were ready to come apart. It seemed to be held together primarily by a fresh coat of paint. A reasonable person would have declined to set foot on such a structure, but we had already stepped outside our comfort zone many times on this trip. Faced with an adventure of a lifetime, we refused to let caution stop us. Fortunately, the ladder held together and we met with no mishaps.

This looks more solid than it felt.

The bottom story of the tower serves as the family’s kitchen. The floor is hard-packed dirt that seems to slope towards the door. There may have been a reason for that—drainage?—in this land of little rain? The floor may not have been leveled since Djibouti gained its independence from France over forty years ago. What clued me that this was a kitchen was the presence of two refrigerators. There was no stove, only a cooking area on the floor similar to a small fire circle at a campsite. The family did not want us to take pictures of their home, and we respected that, but I was allowed to photograph the staircase.

Northwest view

The windows were covered with boards, perhaps to protect from heat and dust, but there were gaps to let in a little light. Openings in the walls look like slits from which to fire guns. That suggests the lighthouse once served as a fortress.

East view

 

The second floor was bare except for a few pallets and a hammock with mosquito net, obviously the sleeping area. I never encountered any mosquitoes in Djibouti, but I’m told that they can be a problem at times.

Southeast view

In my experience, lighthouses are built near the ocean and I wondered why this one is so far inland. When I stepped out onto the roof, I found out why. The tower is built on the tallest hill in the area and you can see all around the city and countryside for many miles. Its light projects far out to sea.

The Port in the distance.

The lighthouse is, and has been, operational for over 100 years.

The light

The Project House can be seen from the roof, as can volcanoes in the distance.

Project House and gas station, volcano in distance

 

In the corner of the compound opposite from the tower is a covered area. This could have been housing for another family or additional living or work space for the family in the lighthouse. It would have been shady, if not rainproof, but the walls would have blocked any breeze. I didn’t think to ask what it was.

Courtyard

Local author Djibouti Jones wrote an article about her visit to the lighthouse at http://www.ethnotraveler.com/2013/12/light-upon-light/. Please read it. After their visit, she and her friend Sayiid disputed whether there were three floors or four. Sayiid was right. Trust me, there are three: the kitchen floor, the bedroom floor, and the roof. Climbing up in the lighthouse is such a unique experience, it’s easy to see how the imagination could be overwhelmed.

This building next door looks official but doesn’t appear to be in use. The khat stand on the left was probably put out of business by the khat store across the street.

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Since I last visited Lorraine and John in Djibouti in 2004, they had downsized their living space. The boys had gone off to college and now live in the US. Sadie, the only child left at home, attends school at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya and wasn’t home when we visited. Although the family has a three bedroom house, John uses one bedroom as his office, which leaves only one for guests. And there were four of us.

A few blocks away is an apartment leased by a non-governmental organization. The Nordmeyers rent a room there when they need a “guest house.” We decided that Sue and Nita, who were new to Djibouti, would stay at the Nordmeyers, and Jen and I, who had visited before, would sleep at the guest house.

The apartment is on the second floor in a building with three other units. There is an office used by the NGO staff and three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a tiny kitchen. The dining area in the hallway outside the kitchen has a table that seats no more than four people. Lorraine had furnished us with breakfast items, but we ate most meals at her house.

View from the back window of the guest house. Note the contrast between opulence and poverty.

Behind the guest house are empty lots surrounded by walls with gates. There may have been buildings here at one time that have been taken down. Two or three men have shelters in the lots. I don’t know whether they live there by permission or are squatting. One morning I watched a man get up, fold his bedding, and prepare to go to work.

Besides use of the kitchen, we had the master bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom has a double bed and a single. The double is so tall one almost needs a stepstool to climb on it. The single bed is a wooden frame with ropes to support a foam mattress. Jen didn’t want to climb, so she chose the single bed and assured me it was quite comfortable.

The frame of the single bed.

Closeup detail.

The master bathroom has a built-in tub with sides two feet high. Why so high, we never learned. The other bathroom has a shower. Few people in Djibouti, other than VIPs from other countries, have water heaters. The city water doesn’t run all the time. When it does, the household fills a large tank out in the yard. While the water sits in the tank, it warms to the ambient temperature. Since it was winter, the water wasn’t very warm. For this reason, neither of us cared to soak in that deep tub.

The water tank is shaded by bougainvillea to keep the water “cool” in the summer.

To take a shower with cold water is akin to immersing oneself in a Florida spring (72 degrees year round). Either ease into the water and wait for your nerve endings to go numb one by one, or take the plunge and get it over with. I prefer the slow option. Turn the water on, slowly let one part of your body adjust to the temperature, then expose another, until you can stand it well enough to get clean.

The water is also brackish, so everyone buys drinking water. I used tap water to brush my teeth as well as for washing, with no ill effects. But the salt is hard on plumbing. When we first arrived, a dish had been set under the toilet connection to catch water dripping from a small leak. I’d empty the dish when it got full. A few days later, the dish was no longer adequate to hold the leaking water, so I replaced it with a cooking pot and asked John to notify the landlord. Before he replaced the connection, the pot became inadequate and we’d come home to a wet bathroom floor. The floor in the other bathroom was frequently wet as well. At first we didn’t understand why. It turned out to be another leak.

I must mention the toilet. Because of the inadequacy of the plumbing, one did not put toilet paper in the commode. There was a waste basket beside it for the used toilet paper. It was the maid’s responsibility to empty it. I felt sorry for her but was glad I didn’t have to do it.

Air-conditioning was available, for an extra fee, so we didn’t use it. We opened windows for a cross breeze. Since it seldom rains in Djibouti, I didn’t worry about rain coming through the windows, but sometimes we’d come back to find the windows closed and the apartment stuffy.

Only a few times did we have contact with the people who used the office. We were usually out and about during the day when they were there. Although the cleaning girl came in sporadically, I saw her only once. The place didn’t get very dirty. Sometimes she did laundry and dried it on racks in a vacant room. People who came in during the day often left dirty dishes that seldom got washed unless we did them.

The maid came in one morning before we left, with a baguette and an orange soda. She said something about “Coke,” but she knew little more English than we did Somali. Finally, I figured out that she wanted to eat her breakfast before working, which she did. Bread and soda. I hope she had more nourishing meals later in the day.

We had little contact with other inhabitants of the apartment building, other than the watchman. Every gated compound has a watchman who lives on the property in a roofed shelter. His job, besides keeping an eye on things, is to open and close the gates. When residents get ready to leave in their car, he’ll open and close the gate for them. When they drive home, they toot the horn and he’ll open the gate. There is a small gate for pedestrians, which we generally used since Lorraine’s house was within walking distance. A few times the latch got messed up, and the watchman came to our rescue.

“Johnny’s” shoes

Someone who lives in the building has a pair of flip-flops he kept leaving in the hallway or on the stairs, not always in the same place. Jen said her son Johnny leaves his shoes in the middle of the floor, so we began calling them “Johnny’s shoes.” One day, the flip-flops were nowhere to be seen. We wondered what had happened to “Johnny.” To our relief, his flip-flops were back in the hallway the next day.

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It was like a scene out of a movie and had the aura of cloak and dagger. Friday night in the capital city of Djibouti, although it was the Sabbath, the town was lively. Khat dealers, mostly women, sat at their street-side booths, plying their business. Khat is the recreational drug of choice in Djibouti. It’s imported from Ethiopia daily, because it must be fresh. Users, mostly men, chew the leaves for the euphoria it gives them. It’s addictive and, like many addictive drugs, takes a social and financial toll on the family. One would wonder why it was sold so openly—because it’s legal. Not only legal, it’s a lucrative income for those who import and distribute it. The wife of the President of Djibouti is one of the chief importers.

Khat Dealers. These are all men. I didn’t get any pictures of the women.

In 2004, when I visited Djibouti, the airport prominently posted signs saying “No Khat.” While I was waiting for my flight home, a plane landed. I went to the window to see if it was mine. No. It was a cargo plane with a rear-loading ramp. Before it had completely come to a halt, a crowd of people rushed onto the runway toward it. When the back opened and the men began to unload large bales wrapped in burlap, I realized this was the daily khat shipment. (I guess nobody read the signs.)

But we certainly didn’t go downtown for khat. We went to exchange currency.

This was our first day in Djibouti. My sister Lorraine and her husband John had picked us up at the airport and took us to their house, which is just down the street. They served us supper of bean soup and homemade bread. Delicious. Spices are inexpensive in Djibouti and the food is always flavorful. After supper, we unpacked items we’d brought them, things hard to buy in Djibouti, such as vitamins and sewing scissors.

Djibouti Art

Two of us would be staying in the guest house a few blocks away. We took our luggage there, then set out to find the money changers.

 

Djibouti Street

The last time I was in Djibouti, the money changer was a man with an official-looking kiosk, and we had gone in broad daylight to cash my Travelers Checks.

 

This time we carried cash and by now it was dark. John drove us to a less than prosperous part of town where women sat on street corners with bags of currency. We pulled into a side street. A woman came up to us and dealt with us through the car windows.

She didn’t speak English, so Lorraine, who is fluent in Somali, translated for us. The rate of exchange was $200 for 35,000 Djibouti Francs, and of course she charged a fee. One of my sisters had a $50 bill with a tiny rip in it. The woman refused to exchange it. She said the bank wouldn’t take it. We did change some money with her, then went elsewhere. We parked this time and walked to where a pair of women sat on another street corner. They were more personable but still wouldn’t take the “damaged” bill. Yet some of the bills we received from them had tears in them.

Lorraine told them that we were her sisters. Five sisters? People in Djibouti appreciate large families. They thought so many sisters in one family was wonderful and they wanted to know more about our family. When Lorraine told them how many children Jen and Nita have, they were even more impressed. If it weren’t for the language barrier, our conversation might have extended further into the night.

You’d think it would be risky for a woman to be on the street with so much money without an armed guard, but Lorraine said there’s an unwritten understanding that the money changers are not to be molested.

After we finished changing money, we rode around town to look at some of the sights.

Playground

I don’t have any pictures of the money changers. For one thing, the people of Djibouti are sometimes reluctant to have their pictures taken. For another thing, I was taking pictures with my phone and it doesn’t take good night photos.

Mosque

 

Stay tuned for more adventures. I have lots of beautiful daytime pictures of this amazing country.

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Four sisters traveling to Djibouti—just getting there was an adventure! Sue, Nita, and I and converged on Jen’s house to spend the night. We packed her son Johnny’s car with our seven suitcases and several carry-ons. By some miracle there was still room for us. No, we’re not teenagers who need that much luggage. We were taking things to Lorraine and John that can’t be bought in Djibouti.

Jen’s and Nita’s kids came by to see us off. We were flying Emirates Airlines and had reserved seats together. My nephew Teddy looked at the four of us and said he felt sorry for the flight attendants. Someone else said they’d pray for us, then Teddy said, “I’m going to pray for Africa!”

We went to bed at 9:30, got up at 2:30 am, and Johnny drove us to the Orlando Airport, arriving about 4:30. This was during the government shutdown and TSA staff were working without pay. Still, they were courteous. We went through security without a hitch and the two hour flight to JFK was unremarkable.

Airlines care about physical fitness. You fly into one terminal and have to walk to the opposite end of the airport, hauling luggage, for your connecting flight. On the way, we saw Manhattan from the windows.

Grainy picture, but taken through the window.

Security was tighter at JFK and the staff not as friendly. Since we’d already gone through security, I thought we were good for the entire trip. Not so. Apparently we’d passed through a public area and had to go through again. This time we had to take off our shoes and be x-rayed. I left my laptop in its case, as I had in Orlando, and because of that they searched my stuff, and not just the laptop case. They also searched Nita’s luggage because she had a large tube of toothpaste, which they confiscated. She was mad. She’d bought it just for the trip. (Have little old ladies been blowing up airplanes with laptops and toothpaste?)

While still tied up at security, they announced our plane was being boarded. Sue rushed to the gate, put her hands on her hips, and said, “I’m not leaving without my sisters!” They held the plane for us. (Actually, many passengers were delayed at security.)

After the ticket desk, we followed a long hallway to a boarding bridge. However, the entrance was closed off—that was the bridge for first class. It was an Airbus A380, a double-decker, the world’s largest passenger plane. We had to go downstairs for our bridge.

Our plane, with a boarding bridge.

The plane was too big for one photo.

First class bridge is at left.

I swear, every time I fly, they’ve moved the seats closer together. Once you’re tucked in, you can’t move. Men stick their legs out into the aisle because they won’t fit under the seat in front. To get to the restroom, you have to step over their legs. Whoever advises getting up and walking on long flights has never tried it. Inevitably, when you go toward the back of the plane, someone is trying to walk to the front. In order to pass each other, one of you nearly sits on an aisle passenger’s lap to make room for the other to get by.

On the positive side, everyone was polite, especially considering the crowded conditions and the variety of cultures and nationalities on the plane. Several families had children who did remarkably well on the long flight. I got a good impression of Emirates Airlines. Staff was courteous, and I like their uniforms.

Emirates staff. (From Pinterest.)

In the rear, near the bathrooms, was a flight of stairs winding up to first class. I so wanted to go up and just take a peek, but that was forbidden to us peons. Instead, I put one foot on the bottom step to do leg stretches, easier than walking and probably more beneficial. Here’s a video that shows first class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P9a0KfONrU

Lunch was good. I chose the ethnic option: bean salad, palak paneer (curried spinach and cottage cheese), coriander rice, dal Bukhara (black lentils with tomato sauce), and custard mousse with strawberries for dessert. To my surprise, despite the UAE being a Muslim country, they serve alcohol on their planes.

We had the middle four seats in row 73. No windows, but each seat had a screen with several features. Cameras gave us views ahead, behind, and below the plane, as long as there was visibility. I watched a movie but fell asleep and missed much of it.

The map was also in English, but I like the writing.

I enjoyed the map. About 4 pm EST we were over Ireland, 4:39 Britain, 5:20 Germany, 5:53 Czech Republic, 6:45 Hungary, 7:30 Black Sea, 7:48 Turkey, 8:55 Iraq, 9:50 Kuwait, and 10 pm EST the Arabian Gulf. We arrived in Dubai about 8 am local time (midnight EST).

Dubai as seen thought the plane’s camera.

World’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in the distance.

The Dubai airport is huge and spread out. It seemed bigger than JFK, and they’re still building. A guy with a cart picked us up and took us to Departures. He drove fast, tooting his horn when people didn’t get out of his way. It’s a wonder he didn’t run over someone. We had to go through security again, but it was a piece of cake compared to JFK. Then another long walk took us to a bus to our next terminal. I swear the bus circled the airport more than once. It took so long, fellow riders were worried they’d miss their connecting flight. When we finally got there, we had to go through security, again (4th time!). Then another long walk to our gate.

Dubai is a global crossroad: Arabs, Indians, Sikhs, Africans, and Europeans were waiting for planes. Some Muslim women were fully covered. I was impressed by the tolerance of other cultures people exhibited.

On the plane to Djibouti, Sue struck up a conversation with a blonde, blue-eyed young man from Utah, one of a group of students from NY University who were studying refugee issues. They were headed to a Yemini refugee camp in Djibouti. Here was another culturally mixed group, including a Pakistani girl who spoke perfect English and wore a hajib.

First view of Djibouti. (I don’t know where the water came from.)

We arrived in Djibouti about 3 pm local time (7 am EST). I still wore winter clothes and couldn’t wait to get out of them. Visas cost $150 (cash). The police spoke just enough English to confuse us. We waited in line, then spoke to an officer who took our pictures and directed us across the lobby to another line. The girl behind me was from Beijing. She’d come here to work as an accountant. Finally, another officer took our money, photographed us again, and issued Visas.

Then the baggage claim. A group of guys had all our luggage together and demanded to be paid. A French woman said we shouldn’t pay them up front and suggested we give them 12 Djibouti Francs for the four of us. The bags had to go through security again, and a woman opened and rifled through some of them. What did she think we were smuggling into Djibouti? I bet she just wanted to see our stuff.

Once through Immigration, we paid our porters. One accepted the money, then the others held their hands out. Lorraine to the rescue. She told them in Somali they needed to share the money.

At last, we loaded our luggage on a truck John had borrowed and went to their house where supper was awaited.

Stay tuned.

 

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In January, three of my sisters and I traveled to Djibouti where our sister Lorraine and her husband John live. If you got past the title (What’s a Djibouti?) you know it is a place. The next question, “Where in the world is Djibouti?”

Djibouti is a tiny country of fewer than one million people in the horn of Africa. The horn is that part of East Africa that juts out into the Arabian Sea and looks like a rhinoceros horn. Djibouti is about the size of New Jersey in area and is sandwiched among Eritrea on the north, Ethiopia on the west, and Somalia on the south. To the east is the Gulf of Aden and to the northeast is the Red Sea. Across the Bal el Mandeb (Strait of Aden), Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula, points right at Djibouti.

See the “horn” just south of Djibouti?

Why would anyone go to Djibouti? A good reason is to visit family, if you’re lucky enough to have relatives there. Another reason is that Djibouti is an amazing place. In 2004, I spent three weeks there and fell in love with the country. However, my first impression, coming from a land of green forests, was that Djibouti is drab, ugly. The landscape was predominately brown and black, very little color and almost no vegetation. After all, it’s a desert.

Not a good first impression, it it?

It didn’t take long, however, for the dust to clear from my eyes and I could see the beauty of the desert, the blue seas, the volcanoes, and the breathtaking mountains. I looked forward to another visit.

This is much better..

Back then, Lorraine had three boys in school and a baby daughter, so she didn’t work outside the home. Most days were centered around domestic life, which in Djibouti is an adventure in itself. I accompanied Lorraine to the market and we visited her friends. Somali ladies invited us to a dinner of ethnic food and an Ethiopian friend showed us how she made injera, flatbread baked on a griddle like a pancake. Days that John didn’t have to work, we went sightseeing.

This time, with the boys grown and out of the house and Sadie at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, we got out and mingled more with the populace. I learned to appreciate the people of Djibouti. Getting to know its people is the best way to explore a country. It’s not easy when you don’t understand the language and few people speak English. Fortunately, Lorraine is fluent in several languages, including two of Djibouti’s official languages, French and Somali. (The other two are Afar and Arabian.)

Modern Djibouti

Djibouti is as old as Africa, but in modern terms it’s a very young country, having gained independence in 1977. In the distant past, the area we call Djibouti was part of ancient empires and sultanates. In the 1800’s, Europeans invaded most of the Middle East and Africa and carved out colonies without regard to cultures or tribal territories. I suspect that most of the unrest in this part of the world today could have been avoided if the Europeans had respected these boundaries and not split up ethnic groups into different political entities. But they didn’t ask me.

Djibouti is fortunate to have peace among its peoples. The southern part of the country is mostly Somali and speaks that language. The northern part is Afar, and there are also many Ethiopians who call Djibouti home. Because of the troubles in the surrounding countries, Djibouti is a haven for refugees. The civil war in Yemen has driven thousands to tiny Djibouti. Many of these live in a refugee camp in the northern part of the country, but others have settled in the city.

In a country that is mostly desert, what do people do for a living? Djibouti has a port, which is the major employer. Landlocked Ethiopia depends on this port for most of its imports and exports.

The Port

The next largest source of jobs is the military. Not Djibouti’s, although they have one. France, Italy, China, Japan, and the US all have military bases. I have no pictures of these bases. We were cautioned not to try to photograph them. The Chinese have more than a military presence here. They built a railway from the Djibouti city to Addis Abba, Ethiopia. At their railway station, we asked at the gate if we could take pictures and the guard said no. I don’t understand the reason for this. Do they think that little old ladies from America are in cahoots with terrorists?

We had a little excitement when John took us around town and drove by the American Embassy. Nita took a picture of it. Why not? It’s our embassy. Before we’d circled half the block, we were surrounded by police cars! It was forbidden to photograph the embassy. One officer demanded our cameras and deleted the offending pictures from Nita’s. I hadn’t taken a picture, but I let him see my camera anyway. The last photo I’d taken was of a garbage truck. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on his face.

American Embassy in Djibouti.

We didn’t take this picture. I found it on the internet. Go Figure!

Djibouti has another, very ancient industry, probably the only natural resource—salt. Lac Assal, the salt lake, is some 500 feet below sea level, the lowest point in Africa. The lake was formed by volcanic eruptions which cut off its outlet to the sea. The salinity is ten times that of the ocean and the salt is up to 200 feet deep. For centuries, the Afar people have mined this salt and exported it by caravans.

In 2004, when we visited Lac Assal, we innocently began to harvest salt. Several Afar men approached us. We didn’t speak Afar, but they spoke enough French for Lorraine to figure out why they were upset. They had the concession on the salt and wanted us to pay for what we were taking. Their price was negligible, so to keep the peace, we paid. Today, the Chinese have an arrangement with the Djibouti government to mine and export salt. For my part, I’d rather see the profit go to the Afars.

Chinese salt works

I’ve been amazed at the number of people who live in the desert. In the middle of nowhere, you’ll come across a herd of goats, and camels have free range. What do these animals eat? Thorn trees and other desert flora. Little else grows here.

Camel eating leaves of a thorn tree,

Stay tuned. In the following weeks, I’ll chronicle our adventures and misadventures in this fascinating country.

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Sometime in our lives, we have an experience that words are inadequate to describe. I had one on 8/21/17, the day of the Total Eclipse. It was my first. I’d missed every other solar eclipse in my life by being in the wrong place or because of cloudy weather. I wasn’t going to miss this one. But summers are so busy. I traveled through eight states in three weeks. Serendipitously, a library in West Virginia had free eclipse glasses. I picked up a pair.

On my way home, I checked for available campsites at my favorite state park in South Carolina. They were booked. I returned to Florida a week before the eclipse, having made no plans, and my van needed TLC before it could make another trip. Despair was not an option.

 

Not my van, but definitely my sentiment.

 

Fate began to smile. My mechanic made the critical repairs in a timely fashion. When I told him where I was going, he said, “You must really like to drive.”

“No. I just like to go places.”

South Carolina campgrounds were full, but what about Georgia? Only about 100 miles from Orangeburg, Magnolia Springs State Park still had vacancies! Instead of a grueling six hour drive to Orangeburg, I faced a four hour trip to Magnolia Springs, followed by only two hours the next day. I made reservations.

Sunday afternoon, I headed north. With no rangers on duty when I arrived, I chose a campsite and enjoyed my evening at the park. Bright and early Monday morning, I reported to the park office, but the staff wasn’t ready to do business yet. I told them I was going to South Carolina to watch the eclipse. “You registered online?” they said. “Then just go! You can do the paperwork when you come back.”

I drove through fog, optimistic the sky would clear. There was little traffic on US 301 although the interstates were jammed. I arrived in Orangeburg at 9:45 and found a shady parking spot at Edisto Memorial Gardens. With hours to spare, I walked around the Rose Garden and decided this was where I wanted to watch the eclipse. Workers were busy mowing and weeding. I thought, what a great job they had—being paid to experience the eclipse!

When I returned to the parking lot, it was full. I’d been wise to get an early start. Half the cars, it seemed, had Florida tags. I strolled through the Sensory Garden and rang the farm bell. Then I went down to the Azalea Garden, where other folks awaited the big event. From time to time, I heard the farm bell ring. Despite growing numbers, the atmosphere was peaceful, friendly, upbeat.

I asked those I encountered, “Where are you from?” Many were from Florida. A mother and daughter from Orlando had driven all night and slept at a rest stop in their Mini Cooper. A couple of ladies came up from Georgia. One couple was from Denver but had been vacationing at Hilton Head. Family members wore matching eclipse shirts. Some had brought their dogs. All races were represented, and many nationalities. I heard accents I could only dimly place, and one group spoke German.

Every so often, I put on my eclipse glasses and looked at the sun. It looked like an orange cookie. The sky cleared and clouded again. Some expressed concern that we wouldn’t be able to see anything (Oh you of little faith!) but others were, like me, optimistic that the weather would be kind.

I walked through a sunny area where families had set up canopies. As I approached a scattering of trees, someone called my name! Who here would know me? It was fellow writer Jessica Elkins and her husband. They’d stayed in a motel in Statesboro, Georgia and were enjoying a little picnic of fruit and cheese and crackers. I joined them.

About 1:30, people wearing eclipse glasses stood pointing at the sky. The sun looked like someone had taken a bite out of the orange cookie. Over the next several minutes, the bite grew larger. Then a cloud occluded the sun and we couldn’t see anything. The cloud gave us some relief from the heat, but many were anxious we’d miss the eclipse. I kept saying, “The cloud will move on and then the sky will clear.”

Eventually, that cloud moved, but another took its place! Blue sky lay all around, but that cloud seemed happy to stay put.

The weather was kind. After a very long 20 minutes, the cloud went away and the crowd went, “Ahhh!” The sun now looked like a crescent moon. The light around us was subdued, as though clouds still shaded the Earth. The crescent grew slimmer. Around 2:20, I took leave of my friends.

On the way to the Rose Garden, I passed a group of Seminole Indians who were drumming and chanting. The light continued to dim. I sat down on the ground in the middle of the Rose Garden.

Dusk is falling.

By 2:35, the sun was only a thin sliver and the air was noticeably cooler. Dusk had fallen. Then it grew dark. The crowd cheered. We clapped with excitement. We laughed with delight. The drummers increased the volume of their chant. I took off my eclipse glasses.

In the sky was a silver white ring—the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!

Streetlights came on. At 2:45, a band of sunlight appeared on the north side of the garden. The crowd went, “Ohhh!” I glanced up to see a tiny jewel of sunlight on the edge of the silver ring. It was time to put the eclipse glasses back on.

Pictures don’t do it justice. (Photo by Jake McElveen.)

Daylight returned. People stirred, their eyes lit with wonder, exclaiming, “Wow.” “Cool.” “Incredible.” As I made my way back to my friends, I encountered a phenomenon that wasn’t visible on the lawn of the Rose Garden. The asphalt was covered with little crescents of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees, as though the image of the crescent sun had been shattered into a thousand pieces and  projected onto the ground. A stander-by said they’d been present before the totality, facing in a different direction.

A Thousand Crescent Suns

There were no strangers. Everyone was overcome with awe. One said, “There are no words to describe it.” Another, “Words are inadequate.” A lady said she now understood why people get addicted to solar eclipses and will go anywhere in the world to see them. I’d heard that the experience was a life-changing event. It’s true.

Jessica began to talk about the next one, in 2024, and said she intended to watch it. Yes, I thought, me, too. The wonderment buoyed me all the way back to my campsite. That night, all I could think about was that beautiful silver ring that was the sun. It still remains in my mind’s eye.

The next total eclipse in Florida is August 12, 2045. I’ll be…how old by then? In the meantime, there are others in parts of the world I have yet to visit. On April 8, 2024, less than seven years from now, a total eclipse will begin in Mexico, cross Texas and Arkansas (where I have family), the Midwest, and into western New York and New England.

Arkansas, 4-8-24, here I come!

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Every day during hurricane season, I pull up the National Hurricane Center website to see what’s brewing. Irma began as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa. When she was christened on August 30th, I was preoccupied with my daughter Carrie who was in the hospital. Overnight, Irma grew to hurricane strength. When Carrie was discharged, I expected life to return to normal. It did, for a few days. While Irma snaked across the Atlantic Ocean, I went to church on Sunday and ate a hamburger to celebrate Labor Day.

Tuesday, as Irma approached the Leeward Islands as a Category 5 storm, I was packing for an out of town meeting. I’d planned to meet my friend Jackie after lunch and head south. Jackie called. In a voice tight with anxiety, she said she was having second thoughts. A friend in Titusville called to say she’d been told to evacuate with her invalid husband. But Irma’s a week away, I said. We’ll be home before then. Jackie said if they’re starting to evacuate the coast and South Florida, we’d run into heavy traffic and gas shortages. Besides, she had a bad gut feeling. I’ve learned to heed gut feelings, so I stopped arguing. We decided not to go. Later, the meeting was cancelled anyway.

I unpacked my suitcase. Living inland in a sturdy house, I had no need to evacuate, but I checked my supplies and made a list of things I needed. Irma was projected to hit Florida. Dwelling in the woods, I could face a week without electricity.

On Wednesday, Irma threatened Puerto Rico with 185 mph winds. I went to Publix for a few items. People were snatching up bottled water and emptying the shelves of staples and snacks. Why? Didn’t they have containers they could fill with tap water? Was there something magic about bottled water? And didn’t they have food in their pantries? I had come mainly for perishables. At gas stations, cars were lined out into the streets. I found one with no lines, but they were out of gas. No problem, I had a quarter of a tank.

Thursday, Irma attacked the Bahamas, 500 miles away. Schools were closed. Football games, church services, and meetings were cancelled. I busied myself picking up my yard, securing things that Irma could fling through my unshuttered windows. I moved plants to places I hoped they’d be safe and brought the most fragile ones inside.

Irma skirted Hispaniola and cast her roving eye on Florida, as yet undecided where to strike. The projected path was up the east coast, possibly off into the ocean. Good, I thought. At 11 pm, she jogged westward, threatening to come up through the peninsula—directly toward me!

Somewhere under here lies the late great state of Florida.

During 2004, when Florida was hit by four hurricanes, I made a “safe room” in the closet under the stairs. When Hurricane Frances lumbered through, we hunkered there for two days until she moseyed on. Since then, that space had deteriorated into a jumbled, dusty collection of everything I didn’t want to throw away or stash in the attic. Anticipating a need for a safe room again, I cleaned it out. It took me two days.

On Friday, Irma weakened to a Category 4 and began to maul Cuba. I managed to find a gas station still in business. My sister in the panhandle called to see how I was doing. She was worried about us in the path of the storm, but she sounded like she was about to fall apart herself. She’d already called our sisters who live south of me and was amazed at how calm we all sounded. Well, yes, we’d weathered hurricanes before. (https://marieqrogers.com/2014/09/29/hurricane-dora/) We know how to survive. So had she—Ivan in 2004 and she didn’t want to go through that again!

Saturday, Irma spent a second day scouring Cuba as a Category 3 and her little dance with Florida shifted to the Gulf coast. I remained calm. Yes. Calm. I took a break from closet cleaning to relax and crotchet. I was so calm that I picked up the wrong size hook and had to rip out what I’d done and start over. Anticipating a need for comfort food, I decided to make brownies and a healthy alternative, banana cranberry bread. I was so calm, I peeled the bananas, put the skins in the bowl, and caught myself about to throw the bananas into the compost! Yeah, I was so calm, I forgot to add cranberries.

Sunday at 5 am as Irma hit Key West, pumped back up to Category 4, I woke to heavy rain. What? The center of Irma was 400 miles away! Around 10 am, a strong windstorm blew branches from trees and my lights blinked off for a few seconds. By now ankle deep water flowed through my yard. No problem. I live in pine flatwoods. That’s why I built the house well off the ground. But my driveway would soon be impassibly muddy and some roads were already closed due to flooding. Between squalls I drove into town to fetch Carrie and her husband and bring them to my house. Afterward, I parked in my neighbor’s field where it was high and dry and away from trees.

This is after the water went down.

Irma was 300 miles away, battering South Florida as a Category 3, when my electricity went out at five pm. No problem. I have a gas stove and a supply of water. Whenever I empty a bleach bottle, I fill it with water in case of a power outage. The trace of chlorine keeps the water fresh. My store of “hurricane water” has come in handy. One Thanksgiving, with a houseful of guests, my pump inexplicable stopped working. No problem. I took out some hurricane water and heated it on the stove so I could wash dishes.

Wind and rain continued all night. Every so often I’d hear a thud—something small hitting the roof or something large falling in the yard. I braced for the worst, prepared to retreat to my safe room. Around 2 am Monday, Irma reached Tampa as a Category 1 and churned up the Gulf coast. The bully that had wrought death and destruction on every island in her path found the Florida mainland a tougher victim. Irma weakened. By 8 am, she lost hurricane force and was downgraded to a tropical storm. Sometime during the morning, her center passed less than 20 miles away, her winds lashing the trees but not as violently as Frances 13 years ago. Her momentum carried her into Georgia, then Alabama where she petered out before midnight. What an anticlimax—I didn’t even need my safe room.

During a lull, I went out to check for damage. I still had a roof. Three young trees leaned over, ready to fall, and a large branch had been torn off a mature tree, but none threatened the house. The ground was blanketed with branches and shredded leaves. That afternoon, my neighbor drove up in his tractor. He said my driveway had been washed out where it crosses the creek, but he and another neighbor had repaired it. Adversity can bring out the best in people.

I have a deck under here somewhere.

Tuesday dawned bright and clear. I don’t know where the butterflies had sheltered, but now they flitted from flower to flower and danced in the sunshine.

Zebra Longwing
Florida’s state butterfly

I took Carrie and Al home. Their house was also intact, the inevitable branches littering the yard. I listened to the news. Floods, downed trees, roads closed, bridges washed out. An estimated 15 million without power. That’s ¾ of the state’s residents. It might be weeks before all would be restored. No problem. I have hurricane lamps.

Then—miracle of miracles—a few minutes before 7 pm the electricity came back on!

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The mountains beckoned. I had to get high. My daughter in Virginia lives on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The trip there usually takes me two days, but I had to get away from the low country’s heat and humidity and mosquitoes, so instead of my usual route I took US 441, which tracks further to the west. I spent the night in a national forest campground and the next day I was in the mountains. I consulted my roadmaps and my GPS for a good route to my daughter’s and could have driven there in one day, but I couldn’t resist. When the highway intersected with the Blue Ridge Parkway, my heart soared and I turned right and drove all day.

(Disclaimer: You who are familiar with the Rocky Mountains and other lofty ranges may wonder why I find the Appalachians so spectacular. They may appear modest by comparison, but these are old mountains with ancient stories you can feel in your bones.)

This part of the Parkway snakes through the Smokey Mountains, with more ups and downs, twists and turns, than any other part of the road. Heading north, I found the afternoon sun on my right. What? Wasn’t it supposed to be in the west? That was the west! At the moment, the winding road had me going south. The speed limit is 45 mph, but a flatlander like me isn’t going to take hairpin curves at that speed. Fortunately, there are scenic overlooks every quarter mile, it seems, so I could pull off to let more mountain-savvy drivers get by.

Whenever traveling, I try to stop every hour or so to stretch my legs. I reached Waterrock Knob Visitor Center late that afternoon. A good place to stop, I thought, where I could get a new map and inquire about camping. But once I stepped out of my van, I was assaulted by a magnificent view, wildflowers, and mile-high air. On my way to the Visitor’s Center, I was waylaid by a trail. Why not? I’d been driving too long. A long walk would do me good.

 

The sign at the beginning showed options: a two mile trail and a shorter one, only a half mile. The sign didn’t mention that it was half a mile straight up.

I took the asphalt-paved path. Before I reached the first bench, I was out of breath and had to rest. I forced myself to breathe deeply, filling my lungs with the rarified air, and once my heart stopped pounding, I pressed on. The paved path gave way to stone steps which twisted up the side of the mountain. Some had been placed there by mankind, but most appeared to have been graciously set forth by the mountain itself, inviting me to a higher realm.

I made use of every bench beside the path and finally came to a round lookout area enclosed by a low stone wall just the right height for sitting. Had I reached my destination?

A group of young women came down the path. Foolishly, I asked them how far it was to the top. “Oh, it’s a ways, not really that far. It seems farther than it is. We had to stop and rest a lot.” Did I look doubtful? “But it’s really worth it. You’ll be glad you went up.”

I thanked them. They were sweating and out of breath, but they had me—I couldn’t lose face. One was a heavy girl. If she could make this climb, so could I. Struggling to my feet, I resumed my ascent.

Beauty surrounded me—mountains, trees, wildflowers, rocks. I took pictures. Some of the wildflowers were familiar, a few I could guess at, and many I couldn’t identify as they were not found in Florida. The rhododendrons were in bloom. Their southern relatives, my wild azaleas, had blossomed in March. Was the season so late at these heights?

I met two more groups coming down the trail. Each time I asked how much further to the top. The second was a trio who answered as vaguely as the girls had. “Are you just going to the top or are you making the loop?” No! Not the two mile loop! “Oh, it’s a ways, but not too far.”

The third was a fit-looking middle aged couple with backpacks and gear. “You’re just going to the top? You’re almost there. When you get to a wooden bench, take the path to the right and you’ll come to a big rock.” At least they told the truth.

I reached the bench too eager to sit down. The short path to the rock yielded its promised view of more and more mountains. Way down below, in the parking lot, was my van. Yup—a half mile straight up. But the air! I don’t know when I’ve breathed sweeter air. My lungs had blown out all of Florida’s humidity and discovered Oxygen on Steroids.

As I took pictures, the mist rolled up and thunder growled in the distance. Time to go down. I took my time. As I descended, I found more spectacular things to photograph. How did I miss them before? Once I reached the parking lot, my fatigue was gone. I felt good, ready to drive on.

 

But the mountains weren’t done with me. More overlooks, wildflowers, and the approaching sunset. I was higher than the clouds which crept among peaks and valleys below. Finally, I came to Highest Elevation on the Parkway, at 6053 feet, more than a mile high.

A silver car had kept pace with me, stopping to photograph wildflowers, pulling into or out of overlooks as I entered or left. They caught up with me here and the lady said, “We’ve been following you.”

They, too were from Florida. Although heading north on the Parkway, they were returning home from Ohio. The gentleman had never experienced the Parkway, so they’d taken a detour. Kindred spirits, we chatted. I took pictures of them with the magnificent view in the background and they returned the courtesy. “See you at the next overlook,” they said as we parted, but we didn’t connect again.

I camped at Mt. Pisgah and the next day exited the Parkway at Fancy Gap, ready to see my grandchildren, taking the exhilaration of the mile high drive with me.

(See: marieqrogers.com/2017/02/28/the-jewel-of-fancy-gap)

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In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I turn onto Rt. 52 North. After crossing the state line into Virginia, the terrain changes from hilly to mountainous and the road snakes almost straight up. I grip the steering wheel and press the gas pedal to the floor, urging my van to keep climbing. Good thing there’s a passing lane so the locals don’t get too impatient with flatlanders like me.

The road almost levels out and I breathe a sigh of relief. A sign says Fancy Gap and a stone arch carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highway. I love the Parkway, but grandchildren wait on the other side of the Blue Ridge, so I’ll stay on 52 to Hillsville, after which I’ll take a series of mountain roads to the New River Valley.

Fancy Gap is a quiet village, if you stay away from the Interstate that roars through, and the countryside is a vista of rolling hills and farmland. Between Fancy Gap and Hillsville, as I round a curve, I’m treated to a vision that could have dropped out of a fairy tale. On a hill with a magnificent view of surrounding farmland and mountains, sits the Sidna Allen House, an exquisite Queen Anne home built over 100 years ago.

sidna-allen-house

The first time I saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. What was this jewel of Victorian architecture, with gingerbread trim and stained glass windows, doing here in Appalachia? The second time, I stopped to take pictures and read the large billboard advertising tours. There was no one at the place, so I jotted down the phone number on the sign. But when I called the number, it no longer worked. I pass through here a couple times a year on my way to and from my daughter’s, generally stopping to admire and take pictures, but I always respected the No Trespassing signs and enjoyed the house from the roadside.

I didn’t give up my desire for a tour. I learned the house had changed hands from the family that owned it to, thankfully, the Carroll County Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one was giving tours. But I remained intrigued.

I searched the internet and found a colorful history. Sidna Allen was a prosperous merchant in Fancy Gap. He built the house in 1911 for his wife Betty and their daughters. Sidna spared no expense. He used the best materials and finest workmanship and the house was a showcase in its day. But now it sat empty. Year after year as I drove by, I watched paint peel and the place look more and more neglected. I hoped the interior was holding up better than the façade. Pictures on the internet showed an artfully appointed residence, shining woodwork, beautiful wallpaper. How I longed to see inside.

The history of the Allen family and Fancy Gap is a tale worthy of the Wild West. Many of Sidna’s brothers and nephews were criminals and bullies, but they were either too slick to get caught or in cahoots with the law. Brother Floyd actually served as a deputy. The house of cards eventually collapsed, however. When two nephews were arrested for assault, Floyd waylaid the deputies who were transporting them and freed the boys. He was subsequently charged with battering the lawmen, but he vowed he’d never spend a day in jail.

The trial took place March 12th and 13th, 1912. Despite death threats, the judge refused to prohibit firearms in the courtroom. Even the defendant was packing. When the verdict came down—Guilty!—Floyd Allen stood up and declared, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot. Over fifty bullets were later collected and the courthouse stairs still has two holes from Floyd’s last shots. When the smoke cleared, the judge, prosecutor, sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead, and many, including Floyd Allen, were wounded. The incident went down in history as the “Hillsville Courthouse Massacre” and through the years books and songs and a play have been written about it. Floyd and his son Claud died in the electric chair and other family members went to prison, including Sidna Allen.

Sidna’s involvement in the shoot-out has been debated for 100 years. If not one of the shooters, he was guilty by association. His family lived in their beautiful home only a year. Floyd spent his last free night in the house. This was probably Sidna’s last night there as well. The tragedy changed everything. The family of one of the victims sued and the property was part of the settlement.

On August 22, having spent my summer traveling and visiting grandchildren, I set out for Florida. I gassed up in Hillsville and headed toward Fancy Gap. Driving by the Sidna Allen House, I noticed something new: people and activity. A man sat on the front porch. I pulled off the road and asked if I could look inside.

“Just be careful crossing the road,” he said.

As I climbed the steps to the porch, I heard a noise and looked up. A small drone was flying overhead. How odd.

The man turned out to be Ed Stanley, President of the Carroll County Historical Society. He said I could come in and look around, but they were getting ready to do some filming. A documentary. They were trying to raise money to restore the house. A handsome woman in period costume came to the door and invited me in—Betty Allen herself! She said she had a few minutes to spare and took me on the grand tour. At long last! I felt like a kid at Disneyland.

img_0398

Not a large residence, it was a palace in its day. Miss Betty is very proud of “her” house and knowledgeable of its construction and what it will take to restore. Despite the tattered wall paper, cracked and peeling paint, and plaster separating from its lathes, the quality remains evident. Floors are oak and white maple. Mantles are cherry and tile. Windows and doors are situated to catch cross breezes in summer. Miss Betty proudly pointed out these and many other features.

She has immersed herself in her character and agreed the story would make a good movie or miniseries. I think part of what makes the tale so fascinating is the characters. Despite being scoundrels, the Allens were smart and resourceful. Sidna was a skilled craftsman. In prison and after, he made beautiful pieces of inlaid furniture.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren't able to grow old in their home.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren’t able to grow old in their home.

I got to meet Sidna briefly and he and Betty allowed me to take their picture in the parlor. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take more pictures, though, as the film crew was soon ready and I’d promised to be out of their way before they started.

Now the house is being restored. They are still trying to raise money for this expensive project. I can’t wait to see the finished product. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/SidnaAllenHomeFoundation/ This video shows the house’s interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUTz8WGpbw The Ballad of Sidna Allen may not be quite accurate, but it’s charming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uCwBJNCwPo  I look forward to seeing the documentary.

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