Signs all around us – Part 1

No, this isn’t an alien-conspiracy theory post (sorry to disappoint). Signs of all kinds punctuate our lives — they inform us, warn us, teach us, engage us, sometimes bewilder, amuse or anger us. A lot of times people ignore them — something I see almost daily when I’m out driving! But signs tell us so much about the culture and the times. I especially find signs in foreign countries fascinating, and the ‘fire gathering place’ sign from my post two weeks ago reminded me of that as well as inspired today’s post.

I started out taking sign photos on our travels as place markers, really, although to my hubby’s dismay I remember the location of 99% of the photos I’ve taken, as well as details and how to get there. But after a while, some signs began to catch my eye because they were intriguing in their message, or off-the-wall, or so emblematic of a place/time. I have hundreds of photos; this is just a tiny selection.

Signs that make a statement

As our small safari tour was leaving Nairobi to head towards our first game reserve in Kenya, this sign jumped out at me. The university was clearly making a very strong stance about corruption. This trip was a last-minute creation, after the original adventure I’d put together for Egypt had to be cancelled due to the Arab Spring revolution throughout many parts of the Middle East, so I didn’t have time to learn a lot about Kenyan politics before we arrived. I looked the subject up as soon as we got home, and found that corruption had become rife in Kenya, particularly in the government, a sad state of affairs since the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1963.

As you enter Colonial Williamsburg from the Visitor Center, you journey back through time along a walkway paved with stones that highlight what your life would have been like in certain eras. You might have to read this one a couple of times to understand its import. Unfortunately, 156 years later, slavery still exists.

We’ve seen many billboards like this on our road trips through the central-southern part of the U.S. Interestingly, on the opposite side of the highway we’ve also seen big boards advertising a chain of sex-toy shops, so one might wonder about the chicken-and-egg sequence.

Although the Troubles in northern Ireland flared up over two decades ago, they’re still very fresh in the minds of the people, and there are still strong feelings on both sides. Peace is fragile there; when we were there two years ago, Brexit was looming large and threatening to start things all over again. You can take a Black Cab tour with a guide who’s both knowledgeable about what went on and sensitive to the people who still reside in areas like Shankill Road, one of the most violent hotspots at the time. Many walls are painted with either commemorative artwork, or messages like this one that encourage the young adults now to avoid getting caught up in hostilities.

Helpful signs

If you like to drive yourself when travelling, directional signs are a godsend, of course. Here we were entering the Skyline Drive in Virginia from a midpoint — there are a limited number of access points — so this sign helped us determine which direction we needed to go in.

There are several hop-on/hop-off bus routes in Dublin, Ireland, and signs like this are dual-purpose: they help you find your way when you disembark, and they list both the traditional Irish name for a place as well as the English-language version, thus keeping an ancient language alive and vibrant. It’s entertaining to try pronouncing the Irish versions.

You don’t see many of these anymore, a row of clocks telling you what time it is currently in different parts of the world — useful if you’re a business person or want to torture yourself with jet lag by reminding you what time your body might still think it’s in. They were a fixture in black-and-white adventure movies from the 1930s and 1940s. This one was located in our hotel in Lima, Peru.

Iconic signs

Some signs become famous in their own right.

Some are iconic because they represent a location that’s world-famous,

Others capture an entire culture in their visual structure.

These are the entrance gates to Buckingham Palace. There’s no verbal pronouncement of the location, but there doesn’t really need to be, does there? If you’re standing in front of these gates, through which visitors may not pass, you’ll be duly impressed by the lavish stonework of the supporting columns and the magnificence of the crests, indicating that what lies beyond is the preserve of one of the last remaining monarchies in the world, as well as all the history and pageantry associated with it.

Warning signs

Shush!! Evidently impatient truck drivers passing through this crossing between districts in Peru are wont to blow their horns when they get tired and fractious.

The safari lodge we stayed at in Livingstone, Zambia, is located inside Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. If you stay there, you’ll have wild animal encounters every day — zebras wander around the grounds drinking from water drainage troughs along the paths (not that it rains much, but the spray from Victoria Falls shoots high up above the lodge’s roofs and falls as a form of rain), monkeys that will tear apart your room and all your belongings if you make the mistake of leaving a window open, and crocodiles lurking in pools of water. No touching, please. We saw one brainless tourist narrowly avoid getting kicked in the head after he tried to pet a zebra, despite the warning signs.

This may not look like a warning sign, but it is for anyone who’s gone to Africa to bunji-jump in one of the most famous locations in the world. The sign indicates the exact spot on the Victoria Falls Bridge where the Zambian side of the Falls and the Zimbabwe side meet, and this is where the bunji-jump station is located. Why does that matter, you may ask? Because if a jumper has an accident while they’re flinging themselves off this perfectly good bridge, neither country has to claim liability.

These instructions at the remote archeological site of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes are also clear as a bell, even without words.

I think it’s fair to call this TV screen a warning sign. We’d just found out the day before that a Category 3 hurricane, which had appeared out of nowhere, was heading directly for our vicinity. It had pounced on Florida as Category 5, but had thankfully downgraded by the time it reached us. All we could do was keep an eye on the news, download the Red Cross alert app onto my phone, rearrange our touring plans, and hunker down in our hotel room with some dinner in the fridge and battery-operated candles on the dresser.

That morning, after a hurried trip to see the Yorktown Battlefield, we did spot some helpful signs like this one, should the need arise:

Not-so-helpful signs

Some signs do try, but they’re just not much in the way of real assistance.

This wall sign at one of the convents in Peru may have meant something to the residents, but for tourists, trying to figure out where we were in the maze of winding streets and rooms in the little city-within-a-city in Arequipa was not aided by looking at this.

When signs don’t exist

There are times when the absence of a sign imparts a lot of information…

In the display window of this store in Lima, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

The lack of a sign may also be either a deficiency on the part of the powers-that-be, or the lack of an infrastructure through which to sue if you’re injured. Here our group is scrambling down one of the most terrifying staircases (I call it that loosely) we’ve ever descended, at Machu Picchu in Peru. There was no railing to prevent us from falling several thousand feet down into the Urubamba river gorge on the right of the stairs, and only a sheer rock face on our left to use for some dubious comfort as we felt our way down the worn rocks stuck into the ground. We dared not take more than one step at a time. I wanted to kiss the ground when we got to the bottom.

What was really aggravating was watching the locals scamper down as if it was nothing.

Come back next week for more on the subject of the wild and crazy world of signage. All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

Blog coming tomorrow!

As I was sorting through my photos to pull material for this post about all the signs that teach us, direct us, amuse, send a message, keep us safe, and all the myriad uses for this informational medium, I realized that the task was so much larger than I’d anticipated. Please join me tomorrow, April 30 2021, for a fascinating look at all the ways in which signs connect with us in our lives!

Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.

Celebrating World Earth Day – beautiful Samburu in Kenya

The more my hubby and I travel around our planet, the more special we realize that it is. We’ve also seen what’s been lost already — creatures already extinct, more headed there now, and entire habitats destroyed by humans. If humans aren’t careful, within our lifetime there may be no more lions, no more elephants, no more orangutans, no more polar bears.

And the loss of each species degrades the entire ecosystem, until a point where it may threaten all life on earth — even ours.

Many people around the world are working very hard to keep that from happening; you can read about some of them on the Earthday.org website.

And to show you how special our global ecosystem is, I want to share with you one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. It’s not on the standard safari-tourist track, which is both a shame and a blessing. This is a longer read, with lots of photos; I hope you enjoy it.

Located more or less smack-dab in the centre of the country on the fringe of northern Kenya, Samburu is about a 7-hour drive north from Nairobi, along paved highways that pass through numerous small towns holding fascinating slices of Kenyan life.

Our safari vehicle was essentially a van with big slider windows, as well as a pop-up top; this had to remain closed while we were on the main roads. However, as soon as we turned off onto the reserve property, our guide opened the top up to allow us amazing views as we rode through the ruddy landscape.

Our lodging for two nights on this mobile safari was the Samburu Sopa Lodge, and although it’s only a mid-range lodge, it remains one of my favourite places in all of Africa.

The lodge is fairly remote, surrounded by miles of wilderness in all directions. Thatch-roofed buildings blend into the landscape, and have a casual feel, as if you’re staying at your own second home. The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with full bathrooms and electricity for part of the day (typical for remote lodges like this), which means you can use some small grooming appliances and charge up your camera batteries when needed.

The rooms each have their own walled patio looking out onto the surrounding bush — lovely places to sit in the morning or at dusk…

…and often a great place to watch wildlife meander past. Our room was visited every morning by a very inquisitive Yellow-billed Hornbill, which would perch in a nearby tree and squawk loudly.

The main areas of the lodge were atmospheric and authentic without being pretentious. The photo below shows the walkway from the lobby to the dining room.

The dining room was one of my favourite places to spend time, overlooking the wide acacia-studded savannah. We’d often see animals grazing in the distance while we were eating a meal — Baboons, Dik-dik and more.

Game drives start early in the morning, just as the sun is making its way over the horizon.

Samburu is located in the drier northern part of Kenya, so there were many standard African species of animal as well as some specially adapted for arid conditions. We were there in the dry season (late February), which was actually a fantastic time to go. Most people go in our summer to see the Great Migration, whereas we practically had the reserves to ourselves, and the dried-out landscape allowed us to have wonderful views of the animals. It was easy to see this tiny Dik-dik, one of the smallest types of antelope, in the shade of a thorny bush.

On the other hand, you can never miss the raucous Olive Baboons, quarreling and romping as if they own the place.

Secretary birds are common in eastern and southern Africa, with their spiky headdress picking up the morning light.

There is a lot of bird life in Samburu, including some species we hadn’t seen before, making it a bird-spotter’s paradise for creatures like these spectacular Vulturine Guinea-fowl…

and the sleek Eastern chanting-goshawk.

The East African Oryx, or Beisa Oryx, is well-suited to the dry landscape, able to retain water by raising its body temperature to avoid perspiring.

Two unusual species that are found here and hardly anywhere else are the gorgeous Reticulated Giraffe — the photo below shows one grazing just yards from another group’s safari vehicle —

— and Grevy’s Zebra, which lives in only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, and can survive up to five days without water. It is strikingly beautiful, with narrowly-spaced stripes that cover its face and extend all the way down to its hooves. (The standard zebra that you’ll see in most photos is Burchell’s Zebra.)

One of the most unusual antelopes we’ve ever seen lives in Samburu as well — the Gerenuk, also known as the ‘giraffe-gazelle’. It not only has a much longer neck than most antelopes, but can also stand up on its hind legs, stretching its body into the higher portions of trees to graze where other antelopes can’t.

Elephants in Samburu have the same grey hides they do elsewhere, but bathing in the reddish dust has given them their ruddy hue.

Even the termite mounds are red-tinted, making them look like strange alien growths against the dry grey shrubs.

Just as in other parts of Africa, roads through the reserve are minimal and make for quite an interesting ride as you bounce and sometimes tilt sideways along the way. Roads back home in North America aren’t nearly as much fun!

Of course the big cats make a home in Samburu. Leopards are here, although we didn’t spot any, but we did see this cheetah family out on the prowl…

,,, and these lion cubs chowing down on their evening meal in the shade with their mother.

Lions are stunningly beautiful out in the wild. Because of habitat loss and diseases caught from being forced to turn to livestock for food, they are rapidly reaching endangered status. It would be heart-breaking indeed to lose these magnificent creatures.

Samburu Reserve runs along the banks of the winding Ewaso Ng’iro river, which was almost completely dried up during our visit. Nevertheless, it had a lush, primordial beauty, fringed by riverine forests sprinkled with multi-branched doum palms (seen in the photo below). This is what I have always imagined the Garden of Eden looked like.

In fact, as we stood on the red sands of Samburu, I had the most remarkable feeling: as if we’d stepped far, far back in time to when the world was created. There was no sound except the breeze rustling through the trees and the animals walking through the bush. The land seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, beyond the blue hills and devoid of any other humans or the stamp of civilization. The land felt ancient and untouched.

The Samburu people, who are believed to have migrated from the areas around the Nile, have a village near the river, and we had the opportunity to visit it.

They still live in a very traditional way, in huts constructed of tree branches and other found materials. They keep the lions out at night by closing the gap in a thick perimeter fence made of thorn branches.

As a semi-nomadic people, they hunt but also keep cattle, let out for the day to graze.

Women wash their clothing at the river, even during dry season.

Children do chores and play, as all children do…

… while the adults put on their colourful robes and performed traditional dances for us. They make beautiful beaded jewellery; I bought a necklace from the woman who made it.

We also saw a demonstration of how to make fire in the old way.

The provision of a school by the government has curtailed their nomadic existence, and we also saw the odd cell phone around the village.

A word of warning should you ever go to Samburu and make a point of visiting the village: take lots of water and cover up well. We spent two hours in the hot sun, and as fascinating as it was, by the time we returned to the lodge I had some heat exhaustion, relieved by beverages and a long dip in the cool on-site swimming pool.

Sunsets in Samburu were glorious as our guide brought us back to the lodge; in Kenya, as in many African countries, night drives are forbidden because the spotlights used disturb the animals.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Samburu — you probably saw it somewhere in the news media in 2002 — was the wild lioness who, instead of killing and eating a vulnerable baby oryx, decided to adopt it. You can read more about it on the African Wildlife Foundation website.

No one knows why the lioness decided to adopt the little antelope, whose mother was still alive and would stop by to feed her baby — perhaps it’s just the magic of Samburu.

As always, all photos are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved.

Less heel-dragging, more doing the right thing

St. Catharines, Ontario 7 Day Weather Forecast – The Weather Network

Yesterday, April 7th, was World Health Day, and I think we can all agree that this initiative has never been more topical. More than a year after the first Covid cases were recognized, the world is still struggling to turn the tide.

Here in Ontario we’ve all been put back under a stay-at-home law as the province grapples with the biggest wave of infections so far. I think I can speak for all of us who’ve been diligently following the rules in saying that we’re getting pretty frustrated. So it’s time to face facts, even if we may not like them:

A) Vaccines prevent disease and save lives. You have only to look at the freedom we have now from diseases that once decimated the population — smallpox, diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis — to understand the truth of this.

B) Preventative measures — wearing mask, washing hands and keeping our distance — prevent infection and save lives. If you or anyone you know ever had surgery, you can be grateful that the OR doctors and nurses followed this practice.

Granted, our governments have not done the best job with this situation, but as citizens we also have to do our part, or this pandemic will just drag on and on and on, as it has already.

Yesterday, I went for a drive to take advantage of the last free day we’ll have for the next four weeks. A lot of other people had the same idea, and I was happy to see everyone following the rules!

First I visited my favourite garden centre to pick up some planters of flowers; if my hubby and I are going to be sitting around the house, at least we can look at something cheerful. The centre was full of plants that needed a good home.

Although I don’t plant geraniums, this lovely Martha Washington was a temptation.

After some exploration of side roads I haven’t taken before, I found myself back at my favourite relaxation spot, our local botanical garden, to see what changes have taken place in the past couple of weeks.

Masses of daffodils have been spreading all over the place…

,,, and the trees all have leaves bursting out.

I spotted a Downy Woodpecker searching for lunch on one of the trees…

… and a pretty Mourning Cloak butterfly that was kind enough to perch on a plant label long enough for me to get a photo.

Large clumps of Glory of the Snow had also popped out all over.

My hubby and I will continue to make the best of things, and to everyone getting frustrated, please stay strong and take care. If you develop symptoms, stay home and avoid spreading. And don’t believe what you read on social media; all medications have a risk of an adverse reaction, but those are rare. As I mentioned in a previous post, my hubby and I have had numerous vaccinations against all the diseases in less-fortunate countries that we no longer have to worry about in North America, and those vaccines have allowed us to travel safely all over the world without becoming ill. If you’re interested, read this excellent and very blunt article about vaccines vs. the fear-mongerers, and do the right thing, for the good of your own health, your family’s, and all the rest of the people you know.

A book question for my readers

Hiking through the Hooker Valley in New Zealand

I don’t know about you, but the world is making me crazy. Not literally – not yet at least lol – but in a manner of speaking. Here in Ontario we’re entering our third lockdown, amid ongoing reports of people partying, breaking all the rules and creating superspreader events.

The longer people flout the need to wear masks and avoid gatherings, the longer this pandemic is going to drag on, and on. Surely as a global village we can unify and do something for the greater good?!

In the meantime, while I’m mostly stuck in my home again, I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is the April version of National Novel Writing Month.

I’ve had several ideas for a non-fiction book in my head for a while, and this month seems like the perfect time to get one of them rolling. What I need, though, is your help in deciding which book to write.

Here are the three possible topics. I’ve had requests over the years for all three, and I would love to hear from you which one you’d be most interested in reading.

  1. Travel memoir with photos – My hubby and I have been chased by a hippo in Botswana, ridden a runaway camel across the dunes in Egypt, walked with lions, helped schoolchildren practice their English in Hong Kong, and explored remote temples around the world. We’ve been to six of the eight continents and had numerous adventures – a lot of which were unplanned, including five hurricanes, a bush fire, an earthquake, a tornado, bombings and much more. Along the way, we’ve learned so much about the world, and about ourselves, and met so many wonderful people who’ve reaffirmed our belief in the essential humanity of the amazing planet we all call home.
  2. Stepping outside your comfort zone into a larger life – There’s a saying that the world begins outside your comfort zone, and it’s one of the truest things I’ve heard. Comfort zones are reassuring places to spend time in, but they’re also traps that keep you from growing. Growth = confidence + resilience + agility in challenging times, and we have no better illustration of the need for those qualities than right now. Learn how to break the chains you’ve wrapped around yourself that keep you from making the most of your life.
  3. Using your bucket list as a chart of stepping stones to the life you’d like to lead – Bucket lists are fun things to dream up, but they can also be incredibly useful. In fact, they can change your life. For example, one of my biggest items many years ago was to overcome my fear of public speaking. Originally it was just so I could stop freezing up in meetings, but the journey took me so much farther than that and has opened more doors than I would ever have thought possible. Imagine what you could dare to dream – and then go on to accomplish!

With enough input from you, I can get a sense of which book I should tackle first. I’ll announce the chosen topic in next week’s blog!

All photos on this site are by me unless otherwise specified and may not be used without my express permission.