Monday, March 20, 2017

Trip to Kenya and Tanzania

I know that many of you  have all heard about the recent trip to Africa that Lora, Maya, Brian and I took in bits and pieces, and perhaps seen a few of the pictures on FB or in other places but after having been back for over a for a few weeks now, I thought I’d attempt to describe trip as a whole since it does not make total sense out of context.  

The trip began because Maya’s travel conference for ASTA this year was in Nairobi and Lora, Brian (Maya’s fiancĂ©e) and I all decided to take advantage of it.  The plan that we came up with was to visit two places each in Kenya and Tanzania.  As exotic as Africa sounds, there was no way this crew was going to rough it.  In Kenya, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi and the Savona Camp in Masai Mara. In Tanzania, we stayed at the Mbuze Mawe camp in the Serengetti and the Sopa Lodge at the Ngorongoro Crater. While the everyday language of people in Kenya is Swahili, many people (especially those in the service areas that deal with tourists like us) people speak English since Kenya was under British rule for so long, so communication was pretty easy for us there. Tanzania was a bit tougher in terms of language.  Swahili is the main language and even though some people speak English, even for most of those in the tourism industry, it is clearly a foreign language.  In preparing for the trip, we had to think about what money we would use.  I was able to Kenyan shillings through our bank, but the Tanzanian shilling is pretty unstable and not available out side of Tanzania, so we ended up just using Kenyan and American money there.

We left from Newark airport at 6:30 PM on the Feb. 23 and arrived in Nairobi, the next evening at 9:50 PM.  This included about a 4 hour layover in Amsterdam and was actually a longer trip than it appears since there is an 8 hour time difference between NJ and Kenya.  When we arrived at the airport, we ran into our first (and really only unexpected obstacle) of the trip. The driver that was supposed to be there to pick us up at the airport to take us to the hotel never showed up.  After going back and forth with the company who was supposed to have sent him, we ended up taking a cab, but it worked out well.

When Maya originally made inquiries about Nairobi, she got the response that it was just a big, dirty city, but we found out otherwise.  To begin with, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel, the oldest hotel in Nairobi and a throwback to the British Colonial days. It was absolutely beautiful and the staff could not have been better. We’d come in a day early so we had hired a driver to take us around.  His name was Martin and her was terrific. (In fact, all of the drivers/guides we had in Africa were excellent.)  One of the main points that we wanted to hit was the Sheldrake elephant rescue.  A few years back, Maya had given Lora the gift of an elephant adoption. Her elephant, Kamu, had been at this shelter, but had since been moved out.  It was an interesting experience to see how they rescued and cared for the elephants.

In addition to the Sheldrake, we visited the Train Museum, the National Museum of Kenya (which was a historical and cultural museum), a marketplace and Uhuru Park, which celebrated the birth of Kenya as a nation. Martin also took us off the beaten track a bit to show us the residential areas where the Kenyan people themselves lived.  The driving in Kenya was among the craziest that I have even seen. As Martin said, red lights mean nothing and if you decided to stop at one, you are likely to be rear-ended. It was kind of a free for all, but, unlike Philly, there was not a lot of horn-honking or shouting. The conference itself was fraught with technical difficulties, but that did not dampen our spirits.
            To get to our next location we had to take off from the small Wilson airport in Nairobi.  The waiting room was probably about the size of the floor area in our house.  In fact, when they called us out on the tarmac to get on the flight, there were 10 people.  The pilot discovered that two more people were going to be coming on board, so they sent us all back in to wait so that they could lessen the amount of fuel they were carrying and redistribute some of the luggage weight on the plane.  Unfortunately, because it was flying at such a low level, Maya and I both got motion sickness.
As our plane descended, we saw zebras by the side of the air strip. When our plane landed, we were met there by our driver and guide, Edward (who was terrific) who had a an open air all-terrain vehicle to take us to the next camp.  Edward met us with a lunch (though Maya was not feeling much like eating at that point). 
The area that we had landed is called the Masai Mara.  It is a huge game park in Kenya.  The land had all belonged to the Masai people (who were semi-nomadic) at one point in time, and hence, the name.  Edward drove us to the place we were going to stay, the Sarova Mara Camp.  On the way there, we immediately knew that we were in the heart of Africa. We saw zebra, water buck, impalas, wildebeest and even Masai herding their cattle on our journey to the lodge.  The day was warm and the sun shining, even Edward told us that we had exceptionally good luck in the amount of animals that we were seeing.
Although the Sarova Mara is called a camp and we slept in “tents,” they were tents with all the features of a hotel room.  There was a dining hall with buffet style dining containing some of the best food we have ever eaten, dishes coming from all over the world.  In fact, the camp kept an organic garden where it raised and experimented with new vegetables.  We met the head gardener there, James, who wanted me to try spider plant.  A green-leafed plant that he was trying to get onto the kitchen buffet. He asked if I wanted to try it for dinner – and I did – so he had it cooked up for me specially. 
Before I left, he gave me seeds from some of his medicinal herbs.
            The morning of the next day, we got rose when it was still dark and drove out to where we were going have a sunrise hot air balloon ride. The basket for the balloons were larger than the one I had been in with my son Pat the previous year.  They were divided into four sections, each holding two people and one additional crew member.  Lora, who hates heights, braved the trip and actually began enjoying it after the first ten minutes or so.  The balloon took us up over the Mara where we saw elephants, lions, wildebeests, zebras, warthogs, and a variety of antelope.  At one point, the captain lowered the balloon so we came right down to the top  tree where a lion family was resting. The balloon landed in an area that was set up for us to have a picnic lunch.  A baboon was sitting watching us, waiting for the scraps when we left.  A herd of zebras was also near us.
            That afternoon and most of the next day were spent on safari. During that time we saw the animals I have mentioned above as well as hyenas, jackals, hippopotamuses, mongooses, elands, dik diks, vultures, ostriches, hartebeest and cape buffalo. One special treat was the spotting of African hunting dogs, which are extremely rare and which are driver himself had not seen in several years.  I neglected to mention that all of the roads were dirt, most of them a red clay and our driver, Edward, frequently just cut paths across the terrain.  It rained almost every day. The most dramatic was the first night that we were there.  We were quite a ways from the camp when the sky darkened and it began to rain.  As it got dark and lighting was flashing, Edward, rolled down the sides of the car. Because of flooding roads the previous day, the roads were covered with water in some places and deeply rutted in others, so that the swerving and bouncing was literally like something out of an action move.  Edward was not allowed to turn on his lights because it would cause some of the animals to freeze and get hit by the vehicles, so when the lightning flashed we see zebra or Thompson’s gazelles crossing the roads right  in front of us. At several points we found ourselves in the midst of a herd of Masai cattle who had been herded (illegally) into the park to graze at night.  When the ride ended all of us applauded.  It was definitely exciting – the best piece of driving I have ever seen.
            On the second day there, between safari outings, we visited a Masai Cultural Village.  In a sense, it was a tourist trap, but in another sense, it was the real deal. The Masai traditionally follow the growth of the grasses with their cattle. They make temporary houses out of mud and cattle dung that are arranged inside of a circle surrounded by a fence made of brush. Though I say that they take advantage of tourists, I mean they charge you for everything they show you – though we were the only ones there, so it was a personal tour including dancing, going into their houses, a small market where they sell souvenirs, traditional fire starting, and the bleeding of the cattle where they use the blood for food. They are incredibly poor, their houses like smoky caves, so we did not mind having to give up the money.
            After three days at Masai Mara, we left for our next destination. Edward drove us to the landing strip that we had first come in on and the plane took us out.  We landed at the Migori airport (smaller even than Wilson) where a driver and guide picked us up and drove us the rest of the way to the Tanzanian border.  There they helped us to get our visas for Tanzania and get through the border, and then we drove over the border to Tanzania and headed for the Tarime air strip.  The air strip is just what it sounds like a field where planes landed the only structure on the field was a restroom.
            The next plane was even smaller. We were the second of two stops and by the time we arrived in the Serengetti, we were the only three people on the plane.  When we landed at the air strip in the Serengeti, we were met by our Tanzanian driver/guide, Basili who picked us up in his jeep.  He was young, gregarious and – as we found out – extremely knowledgeable. Unfortunately, for Basili, he faced the double issue of our being exhausted from the extensive travel and our having seen a huge variety of animals on the Masai Mara, so we were a bit hard to impress. Two animals that Edward had been unable to find were the leopards and rhinos.  On the way to our lodging at Mbuzi Mawe Camp, Basili was able to spot two leopards in trees – though from our vantage point, they were basically shadows.
            The Mbuzi Mawe camp was located in the northeast part of the Serengeti. Basili explained to us that one of the reasons we were not seeing the big herds of animals that people coming to the Serengetti expected to see is that the migration took a huge circular path through Kenya and Tanzania, and that currently all of the herds were down in the southern part of Serengeti.  The Mbuzi Mawe camp was perched high atop an outcropping of rocks with a view of the valley below. As with the Sarova camp, our tents were tents in name only. There were, however, some differences. The first was that if we were to go outside of our tents in the dark, we had to call for someone from the staff to guide us because the ground was open to all of the animals. In fact, the second evening that we were there, Maya and Brian were guided back to their tent, only to see two cape buffalo and a water buck next to it.  The place also had small rock hyraxes running all over, they are small guinea pig size animals that, incredibly, are related to elephants.  Water was shut off periodically as well, as Brian found out once when he was showering with his hair full of shampoo.  Here the food was served in courses, where you picked the selection that you wanted from each course. Because this was Tanzania, communication was a bit more difficult.
            We were only at Mbuzi Mawe for one full day. In the morning Basili picked us up early. We saw a stream full of hippos and witnessed some of the social interaction among them. We saw crocodiles as well. Basili was very knowledge about the birds in the area, so in addition to the ostriches, we saw other large birds like secretary birds, Kori bustards, and a number of eagles and vultures as well as a lot of the colorful ones that lived in the thorn acacia trees that the giraffes ate.  In the Serengeti, we had to stick to the main (dirt) roads so could not always get as close as we wanted, but the streams that went through gave us a chance to see more animals that hung around the water. That afternoon it poured.  We barely made it back to camp before the storms became almost violent.
            The next morning it was time to head off to our final lodging destination at the Nogorongoro Crater with plans to stop along the way at Olduvai Gorge. Basili suggested that we take a detour via a more southerly route to see if we could see animals in the great migration.  And indeed we did.  At one point, as far as you could see wildebeests and zebra stretched from one horizon to the other.  Usually, the wildebeest charged across the road in front of us but on one occasion, one was blocking the road.  The reason was that she was protecting a young calf, which Basili said could only have been a few minutes old and was still trying to learn to stay on its legs.  We ate lunch at a place designated “Lion Rock” because it was the spot where producers of the lion king had drawn their inspiration from for the rock in the movie.
            One of the most remarkable things on our way to Oldevai Gorge once we left the Serengeti was the incredible changes in landscape, they range from deserty scrub land to lusher areas covered with trees.  In the dry areas we saw many Masai herders, but here they were herding sheep and goats.  Oldevai Gorge, of course, is the area where Louis and Mary Leaky discovered some of the first remains of our human-like ancestors (notably Zinjanthropus and Homo Habilis).  We through the museum there and heard a short talk, but simply standing staring out over the Great Rift Valley where all excavations had been done was really memorable.
            Our final lodging was at the Sopa Lodge on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. It was without question a luxury resort, created in a very throwback African inspired style. The crater itself is a caldera, an extinct volcano that provides an environment for almost all of the African animals that we had previously seen, but these animals did not migrate. On our only full day there, we drove down into the crater. The crater was rimmed and overhung with clouds. It had a misty, other worldly appearance.  We saw a lake full of flamingos and – at long last – the endangered black rhinoceros which survives in few other places in the world.  We saw many of the animals we had seen before, but a few new ones like a black-eared fox.  Basili also pointed out some of the wild plants that the people living in the area used for food.  He helped me collect seeds for some wild spinach.

            Our final day was a long one.  We drove for several hours through the various towns and villages of Tanzania to the city of Arusha. There we caught a plane that flew us to Dar Es Salaam. We had an eight hour wait at the Dar Es Salaam airport, which we had to exit because of changing to an international flight, and were not allowed back in the airport until three hours before the flight which took place at midnight. We bought a pack of cards and hung out in the only available venue – a Burger King type restaurant called Tasty Life. We bought a pack of cards and played cards to pass the time. Once we were able to board our flight, it was another four hour stop in Amsterdam, and then home.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Twenty Years

On February 23, Dad will have been dead for twenty years. Twenty years.
Before 9/11.
Before the genocide in the Middle East.
Long before the current Islamophobia.
At the brink of a new century when the future still looked wide-open, it may have been a good time to die.
But it was also before he saw his grandchildren married.
It was before his great-grandchildren ever got the chance to know him.
It was before m first book was published, the first edition of my journal appeared and many of the events that constitute a large part of my identity today had even taken place.
It was another world.

On the very few times occasions Dad’s sons and daughters have had the chance to get together, our memories of him are all from  different vantage points. Rather like looking at a cubist painting, we all see different sides.  We all draw different portraits with the materials we have.  I can remember him in his Navy uniform, khaki for everyday and dress blues for special occasion. Ed can recall times when Dad took him fishing – something I never experienced.  We all have our pieces of the mosaic.

I’d like to hear from all of you who knew him.  Is there a memory that you have of him that you think the rest of us might not have?  Is there some particular recollection that is special to you for some reason.  If we can put some of the pieces together, perhaps we can get a better picture of him, even if it does look a bit Picasso-ish. I’m just going to record a fragment of a memory I have that I don’t think the rest of you do. So I will start off. If you can leave yours in the comments section, I think all of us will find them interesting.

My earliest memory of doing anything with Dad was when we lived in El Sobrante.  I was four years old.  At the time, we had a dog named Toughy – a mongrel, I think. It was not a big dog, but it was aggressive.  It pulled at the clothes on the line when Mom hung them up and chased me around our yard.  I was terrified of it.  Dad was a generally kind person, but he had no room for complainers – whether about there own situation or other people. (One of his favorite expressions was, if you don’t have something good to say about somebody, don’t say anything.)  I reacted like a typical four year old.  Eventually my whining got the best of him, so he told me to get in the car and he took the dog with us.  El Sobrante was in a rural area and we drove down a road along a field until Dad stopped the car and opened the door.  The last I ever saw of Toughy was when he disappeared into the tall grass.

There is one more bit to my memory of Dad and living in El Sobrante, but it is even more fragmentary, so I’ll stop now.

Add yours.

Monday, December 19, 2016

For the Babies

Since mid-November it has been pretty difficult to feel optimistic about the immediate future of the country, something exacerbated by the realization that the electoral college will be voting to day, making real what seemed a bad dream.
Not withstanding that,  there is something that still gives me a great deal of optimism - our children.  Counting extended family, we have been able to welcome in five new members this year and watched a couple more grow into their first year:  Daisie, Ari, Cooper, June, Mila, Gabriel and Caroline. 

They literally come from the corners of the country Seattle, Buffalo, Tennessee, California, Illinois.  Facebook certainly has it downsides, but being able to look at their faces coming from all of these different directions and seeing the joy that they have brought into so many lives gives me hope that when they adults, they’ll be able to break down barriers and see themselves not as fans of particular football team, cheerleaders for  a certain state or inhabitants of a particular country but as members of the world.  I’d love to think that by the time they are grown Daisie, June or Caroline could actually be elected president of the United States, that gender, race, ethnicity, class and religious belief will no longer be barriers to equality, neither legally nor in our minds.  Of course, John Lennon thought the same thing back when he wrote “Imagine” 45 years ago, but having been brought up in the 60’s I still have some residual idealism left in me.  We all hope that our children will be better people than we are, or perhaps more accurately, take what is best from us.  I have to laugh every time I read the first few lines of Phillip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse:”

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they have
And add some extra, just for you.

It’s basically true.   Still, as we are about to head into another year, I am hoping that “the angels of our better nature” can still prevail.  It may not be through us, but through our children.  We are so lucky to have these seven fledglings to our family with us as we turn the last page of this year’s calendar and head into the future.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Elvera - at the Milennium

A few minutes ago, I was looking in my computer down the corridors of old files I had forgotten about and came upon a poem about Mom apparently written on the eve of Pat's wedding, that I'd abandoned and forgotten about.  It is not a great poem, but something about it rang true.  I'm just posting it on an impulse.

Elvera - at the Milenium

At fourteen she was lent out to an uncle to pay a debt
Scrubbing floors, cooking, ironing clothes.
At sixteen after the flood and the failed farm
She was made to quit school to support her family
Her dreams of being a teacher washed away
Like everything else the flood had taken
And in its wake came seven children and ill health
Months waiting for her husband’s ship to come home…

The night before her grandson’s wedding we play dominoes
Son, granddaughters, daughter-in- law, friends
Their fingers soft with wealth, no match
For her stubborn persistance.
She laughs at a bad hand,
Saying no one should win every game.
But waits until we gain our confidence
Then coming from behind, plays the winning score.

No one beats her.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Halloween Costume Match

Just for fun, can you match each grandchild from the Northen clan with their costume.

Amelia                                   Ninja
Jack                                      Ladybug
Andrew                                  Peter Pan
Liam                                      Cheetah
Maggie                                  Chupacabra
Owen                                     Michael Phelps
Daisie                                    Dinosaur

Additional question – Can you figure out the missing grandchild (hint – it isn’t Grace).

 * * *

Look at the picture below for the answers.

In case you could not tell, from the picture, here are the answers.

 Daisie (ladybug), Owen (dinosaur), Maggie (cheetah), Liam (Michael Phelps), Andrew (ninja), Jack (chupacabra), Amelia (Peter Pan).  Missing: Connor.   

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Even Harder Family History Quiz

1. The first few generations of Northens in this country were planters. What did they raise?
(a) tobacco, (b)rice, (c)cotton, (d)indigo            

2. Which of these was not a war that members of the Northen family in Virginia fought in?
(a) Revolutionary War, (b) War of 1812, (c) Civil War, (d) World War I

3.  Our ancestor Edmund Northen was noted for taking people to court and being taken to court in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. How did he pay his court fines?
(a) in shillings, (b) in dollars, (c0) in Virginia currency, (d) in tobacco

4. Mattie’s family, the Lewis family, came to this country in the 1650’s. To which famous Lewis in our family related?
(a) Sinclair Lewis, (b) Lewis Carrol, (c) Merriweather Lewis, (d) John L. Lewis

5. Ed Wilkins parents are unknown, but his wife Katie came from an extensive family.  What was Katie’s last  name?
(a)Sitzman, (b) Ryman, (c) Zell, (d) Bossley

6. Everyone knows that Elvera Northen had a sister who was a nun – Sr. Karen. What was Sr. Karen’s real name?
(a) Mary, (b) Elaine, (c) Laverna, (d) Alice

7. The language that the Ryman family spoke when they came to the United States from Switzerland was______?
(a) English, (b) Italian, (c) German, (d) Swiss

8. The Ryman family originally came over from Switzerland and ended up in South Dakota, but where did they live first?
(a) Massachusetts, (b) Missouri, (c) Minnesota, (d) New York

9.  The Sitzman family came over from Germany and ended up in Iowa,  but what state did they live in first?
(a) Pennsylvania, (b) Wisconsin, (c) Virginia, (d)Texas

10. Members of the Northen family were involved in what historical body?
(a) First Continental Congress, (b) Sons of Liberty, (c) House of Burgesses, (d) NAACP

Answers are below.

This was a tough one. If you got five or more right congratulate yourself.

1. a
2. d
3. d
4. c
5. a
6. d
7.  c
8.  d
9.  b

10. c

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Family History Quiz 2 - Slightly Harder

I was delighted that so many of you who took the “The Easiest Family History Quiz Ever” got a perfect score.  (Though as Maura pointed out, given available information, question #7 could have had several correct answers.)  In view of the fact that so many of you did so well, here is one that is a big more challenging – but not ridiculously so. 

1. James Northen’s father  was M. C. Northen. What did the M.C. stand for?
(a) Michael Connor, (b) Marcellus Crocker, (c) Martin Chuzzlewick, (d) Melchior Christian.

2. Elvera Northen’s father Victor Wilkins had an unusual middle name.  What was it?
(a) Valentine,  (b) Hannibal, (c) Johann, (d) Cleveland.

3. Victor Wilkins’ father, Ed Wilkins, ran a store in Kingsley, Iowa.  What did he sell?
(a) insurance,  (b)  home goods,     (c) real estate,      (d) farm implements

4. James Northen’s mother Mattie died when he was eleven years old.  How did she die?
(a) heart attach,  (b) trampled by a horse,  (c) in childbirth,  (d) drowning

5. Mattie Northen’s last name before marriage was (a) Wilkins,  (b) Lewis, (c) Cook, (d) Northern

6.From the time that the first man in the Northen family came to Virginia in 1636, most of the men in the Northen family have made their living by ________________.
(a) fishing and crabbing, (b) raising chickens, (c) tobacco farming,  (d) selling moonshine

7.  The Wilkins family moved from South Dakota to California during which historical event?
(a) Civil War reconstruction, (b) World War I, (c) the great depression,  (d) World War II

8.  Elvera Northen had a sister, Elaine, two years older than her, who died at age 16.  What was the cause of her death?
(a) diabetes,  (b) typhoid fever,  (c) polio,  (d) food poisoning

9.  When Elvera Northen’s great grandfather Melchior Ryman arrived in the United States from Switzerland, he Americanized his first name.  What did he call himself?
(a) Melvin,  (b) Marcellus,  (c) Michael, (d) Mathew

10.  Believe it or not, one of Elvera Northen’s grandchildren was named after her and has Elvera for a middle name.  Who is it?
(a) Brandi, (b) Lindsey, (c) Maya, (d) Molly

Answers are below.  A score of 7 or higher means you have a pretty good handle on Northen family history.



1. b
2. a
3. d
4. d
5. b
6. c
7. c
8. a
9. c
10. d