Even with all the cancelled voyages and Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was able to get to the Baltics ie., Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania. As it turns out there were only three of us on the trip as one person had just cancelled at the last minute due to her dog being sick…I guess. So to begin there were just three of us and then down to two as my “leftover”s husband had to head to Germany for a board meeting he had double-booked.

So, basically it was a private trip…provided by MIR, a company specializing in Eastern Europe and Russsia. Why go at this time? It had been booked before all the shit hit the fan and me, a bit of a risk taker maybe, decided I needed to get outahere. I was glad I did.

I had just been to Cuba, so to get to the Baltics without too much trouble, I left from Miami and headed to Lisbon for a week or so because…it was there and I have some warmer clothes stored. Lisbon to Helsinki for a few days before I was meeting with our “huge” group. A bit colder than Cuba (or Lisbon) so lots of layers.

I had some trouble finding a restaurant in Helsinki on Easter Sunday. Finally found a restaurant serving various dishes which looked like a poor man’s buffet. However I saw they had pasta and ordered arrabiata. And a Caesar salad. Did not expect much but was surprised. Definitely arrabiata like a like it. Spicy as it should be. The Caesar was huge and included a shitload of shrimp. Weird. The portions were huge and I couldn’t finish them. Packaged the Caesar to take home on the ferry. Hope I remember it from the fridge downstairs. (Of course I didn’t)

I did a walking tour with a young Finnish woman (Larisa Doty) who introduced me to the food…mainly fish and sweets…the architecture, the coffee shops, the markets and who was a delight. By the way she introduced me to the caviar shop at the market..beluga for 350 euros for 50grams ($382 for 1 3/4 oz). Decided to skip it this time…you know, just wouldn’t keep.

I also managed to get to a few churches, particularly the Rock Church (very cool), the sea fortress Suomenlinna (definitely worth seeing) which was a defense for the city. People actually live on the 14 islands that make up the fortress. Had a great Irish Coffee out there. The young woman who made the coffee said it was the first one she had made. Delish.

Back in the city I went to the Natural History Museum which was very well laid out and, of course, enjoyed the geology exhibit…esp.the stromatolites. There’s also a really interesting collection of European art in the old Sinebrychoff (try to pronounce that) mansion that had a very interesting temporary exhibit of art by Jarmo Makilae

Rock Church build directly into solid rock and designed by two brothers in 1969 after a competition.

All in all a good visit to Helsinki. Heading off to Tallinn on the ferry to meet up with my “group.” The Viking run ferry was quite nice. Some hilarious entertainment with old guys playing old American favorites. It seemed a world away crossing the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn in Estonia.

The war is waging in Ukraine and here I sit doom scrolling and listening to old time music (Blue Moon, etc) on the Viking Express. Very surreal. Oh, yes and Chardonnay. Why don’t I get up and dance for Ukraine? I’m here tapping my feet and imagining taking the dance floor and dedicating it to Ukraine.

Warships? Three in a row. Sure look like it. Patrolling the Gulf of Finland.

I found out later they were from several EU countries.

Meeting up with our Lithuanian group leader Erika.Poulden@gmail.com for the Baltics tour. I recommend her if you’re going there. First Stop Tallinn…we stayed in a lovely Hotel…Hotel Telegraaf…where they’ve thought of everything. Even the notepad is on a block so that you don’t damage the desk. Pull out shelves for two computers.
They have tea…with creamer available.
A tub!!!
Very quiet, great lobby. Will have dinner here today.
Of course, there’s a spa as in every hotel in the Baltics. Reservations only and it’s usually just a Sauna and showers…self serve. A plug in the safe for your computer. A pillow menu
A service shelf inside the room for laundry, room service, shoe shine. Just press the button and it will inform the service dept.

Of the Baltic countries I have to say Estonia was my favorite.

The Ukraine war was highlighted everywhere from art exhibits to posters to conversation. Ukraine flags everywhere in support.

On to Baltic State #2 – Latvia and its capital Riga

A totem park outside Riga
Damn Cold…yes, I’m sleeping
Even Colder in Klapeida – a “resorty” area in the summer
The only restaurant in town…a short stop in Kaunas

And now to our final Baltic country – Lithuania and its capital Vilnius

Archeological site in Zemaitija National Park
Very strange Cold War Museum in Z…Park
A “happening” in the town square – Vilnius – everybody Dance!
Outside of Vilnius – a favorite for locals in the summer
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What can I say about Cuba? I think the only way one can visit (as an American) is to join a ”cultural” tour. Applying to a university trip is the way to go. One really doesn’t have to be an alumni but can pay to join temporarily. On the trip I took, out of eleven people, only four were actually alumni of that University (UCB). The company is AHI who runs many trips around the world for universities and other groups.

Our eleven folks were a very strange and interesting mix. Two cis men traveling together…one of whose wife had recently passed away. They ended up drinking A LOT and looked a little under the weather at the morning lectures. There were also two cis women traveling together who were old-time friends and one of which was definitely a leader/mother…rounding us all up and making sure we knew when and where to be. Another couple, much more put-together than the rest of us ragtag folks. Two sisters who seemed very quiet and took quite good care of each other. Than there was another single woman from California and the two of us…sisters-in-law. All different backgrounds and interesting.

Our guide was excellent and passionate even though buying into Putin’s denazification propaganda. Cuba has officially “sided” with Putin on Ukraine. Along with North Korea, Venezuela, Belarus, etc.

Cuba is pretty cheap and going with the university group gave us some perks: visit to a contemporary dance group, an arts school, afro-cuban performance and excellent lectures on the social issues, the economic picture, how the embargo has affected them and the politics and opening up a little to private business. 

And of course, getting to drive in an old American car. Parts are now 3D printed as they are no longer officially made. Castro and Che Guevara posters are everywhere. My dodge driver said that Raoul is still running the show even thought he is no longer president. My driver’s view was that he did not expect things to get much better in the short term.  There is hope that Biden will be able to loosen the embargo.

All in all, a good trip. Buildings are in disrepair and people appear to be quite poor and a bit desperate. Unfortunately the pandemic did not help. This tour was canceled initially but rescheduled. Tourism has bumped up a bit and the hope is that it will continue.

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My expectations for Crete were not great and I was certainly under the misunderstanding of the size and geography of the island. It is quite mountainous and brings to mind the Sierra Nevadas’.

Taken from the refuge on our last hike (mile high)

It could have been a lovely culinary and hiking ten days. After all it was announced as Great Hikes and Cuisine of Crete. However, the storm of the decade descended for four days and we were holed up in a tiny little village on the side of a mountain. We managed to get in 1/2 day of hiking before the deluge hit. Thunder, lightning, pitchfork rain…

The guides (of which there were four family members) did everything possible to entertain us. We had singing and dancing men, bread making, estufago (stew as far as I could tell) making, cheese making and of course raki (the national drink and basically 40-50% alcohol). Everything but hiking. It was a bit like being one of the bored kids on a family holiday!

So, it really doesn’t look that bad, does it? Of course, it was a unique adventure and we did do lots of other things such as visiting the stables (too rainy to ride) and drinking raki there. Having lunch at a snail farm and drinking raki (which was a blessing after eating the damn snails).

These folks run the farm together and actually live there full time. Just snails!
They figured out how to raise these guys by trial and error. It’s taken about five years to get it right. I hope the little guys appreciate it.

My favorite part is coming now: visiting Knossos (home of the Minoans and Europe’s oldest city) settled originally in 7000 BCE and home of Ariadne and the mythological labyrinth where Theseus fought the terrible Minotaur); and Phaestos, a Bronze Age archaeological site 3000 BCE. We were having better weather now…lucky me.

Knossos

Phaestos

And finally, the lovely town of Chania where we ended our trip. Finally some great weather and beautiful sunsets. This is where I would head if I go back. And I don’t think you need to schedule a group trip. It would be easy enough to rent a car and travel around. Next time!

And now to leave you with the dancing men!

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Yes, it is a challenge traveling in The Time of Covid but it really is a necessity. This time to Lisbon-Crete-Lisbon. From Lisbon initially and then heading to Athens and then Crete where I met up with a small group of peeps for a culinary/cultural trip consisting of some really nice hikes…well more on that later. Here’s some pics from my arrival in Lisbon to my arrival in Athens and a trip to the Acropolis and museum.

The Oceanarium in Lisbon is fantastico

And now for some Greek pics:

Stay tuned for more from Crete

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Featuring Marty & Jason

From San Francisco to Frankfurt to Windhoek only takes 30 hours or so (including the 10 hour layover in the deserted Frankfurt airport). However it was worth it!

This was a Wilderness Travel journey with just me and Marty, where we met for the first time in the airport at Frankfurt. Little did we know how our adventure would play out. The purported reason for the trip was in support of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. You can get more detail in my previous posts as to how this worked out.

Jason (a native Namibian) was our wonderful guide through this wonder land. Not to be missed.

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From Windhoek, Namibia to Frankfurt: OMG, what a pain in the ass. How many security checks must we go through. Poor Marty couldn’t carry her bag on as it weighed too much. I tried to put it on my ticket but they said I was allowed two carry-ons but they couldn’t be more than 8 pounds each. Her one bag weighed 15 pounds. But they just couldn’t add I guess.

Then they took her fingernail scissors. She also had to get her ticket rewritten for some god-awful reason. She wasn’t the only one.

We went through a passport check, a covid check, another check, a security check, an immigration check, and then at the gate another hand carry check.

At least the flight was on time…so far. However this was after they canceled the flight we were supposed to be on yesterday. And then the connecting flight was just left as is, so that I would arrive 3 hours after the connecting flight took off. We had to take it on ourselves to rebook our connections and that was not too easy. I tried United and they said I had to call Lufthansa. They weren’t able to transfer me to an agent. After a frustrating afternoon I finally was able to chat with an agent who rebooked on the next available flight which was…yes, you guessed it…a day later. So Transit Hotel here I come.

Lufthansa is a mess! And what’s the deal with code share and partners?…yes, I’m talking about you United. In name only…just a marketing tool. One carrier is not talking to the other. Bad marks all around. Just breathe…

I will be home in about 30 hours. You’ve really got to want to travel these days. The travel arrangements can leave a nasty finale to a lovely and enlightening adventure.

And then there was the debacle with the Covid test coming home. The Lab folks came to our guest house which was fine. Results in 6 hours. So far, so good. Six hours later the test came through and guess what? Positive!!!!

Panic! Our calm host Colin at the guest house got on the phone and called for them to return and do a quick test as it just seemed impossible that we would be positive. They returned and said they would not charge us again if we tested negative. I was not holding out much hope as both of us had tested positive. We tried to enjoy dinner and we’re trying to figure out where we could have picked it up…and who to blame. Where would we stay for quarantine, etc.

At 9:30pm, 10 hours before our flight the results came through. Negative! Relief 😮‍💨. So up this morning at 3:30 for a 4:30 pick up and this @&$#%! flight. So, traveler be warned. Retest if it seems wrong…don’t give up!

Anyway sitting here listening to the warnings to keep distance from fellow passengers and to wear a mask at all times. The guy opposite me is coughing but at least there’s no one sitting next to me. He’s got some kind of letter from his doctor saying he needn’t wear a mask. Well, the German pilot was having none of it and asked him in a very loud voice so all the passengers could hear if he was going to comply. Meekly, the guy said yes and I only saw him slip it off a few times. Bad boy.

OK now we are delayed because a container was damaged and they had to offload it and I guess load another one. Not sure…maybe my luggage is in it. 😑

And now we are waiting for another plane to arrive before we can leave. They only allow one plane on the tarmac at a time here in Windhoek. Get it together folks!!

OMG. Now the boarding stairs won’t move and they are working on it. Whaaaat? The pilot said at least we had a view of the other plane arriving. He must be going nuts.

Is Namibia a 3rd world country? Or as Mr. Orange put it…a shithole country?

Now it seems the hydraulics in the stairs won’t move. The power evidently isn’t working. And now they’ve called (or just woken up) the Lufthansa engineer who may or may not be on his way. Can’t move the plane!! It’s now going on 1 hour.

OK. Now the stairs are moved. Let’s see what else happens. Finally only an hour late, we’re on our way. The plane is quite empty. No wonder they canceled the previous flight as Marty and I were probably the only ones on it. Shame, Lufthansa.

It’s an adventure!

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We’ve been on safari for two weeks in Namibia and having a grand old time. We’re back in Windhoek and had our Covid tests in the morning and went downtown for some shopping and museum visits. Back to the guest house to sit around and wait for our early morning flight to home.

Bam! Test results were returned and guess what…positive for Covid. Hoping this was a false positive we’re opting for the quick test which, of course, will cost about $200. My hopes are fading a bit as both me and my traveling partner tested positive. If it was a false positive it seems one of us would be OK.

So planning for Plan B which would be getting to Germany without a test and just the vaccine card (vaccinated back in February) to at least get to Germany and then if they make us quarantine we would have to stay in Germany for 10+days before heading for home.

But now I’m thinking about it, maybe it’s better to isolate here in Windhoek. Decisions, decisions. I guess I need to wait for the quick test.

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At soussavlei

Amazing dunes. I mean these are really dunes! The largest and oldest in the world. Really hard to contemplate or describe. The largest national park in the world. Couldn’t quite make it climbing Big Daddy but Marty and Jason went ahead. I walked around thinking I might meet them at Dead Vlei but even that seemed a bit much. Just couldn’t make it over that last ridge.

So, walked around and took in the visual feast. It’s so quiet and peaceful. Not a sound.

Had a sleepless night which probably didn’t help my stamina. But sleeping out under the stars was beautiful. I’m reading The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa and marveling at the manner in which he captures the duality of personality. I find myself shaking my head yes at his apt descriptions and revelations.

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Crazy Day at Giraffe Conservation Foundation – July 12

Aren’t they beautiful

Well we left at 9am and had a hilarious demonstration and trial of catching and tagging a giraffe. Julian was quite funny as the giraffe and eluded most of the catchers several times.

Then we headed off up river in search of several giraffes who needed their tags replaced. We managed the first tagging before lunch.

Taking her temperature
This is how it mostly goes after she’s tagged

There were a number of veterinary students along to assist from the University of Namibia. Mainly men but two women as well. After lunch we found way upriver the second giraffe that needed her tag replaced. They shoot the dart in the fore quarters. The pretty good looking doc from South Africa was a keen shot. No misses. As soon as the dart gets placed, a team heads off with a rope to try to get in front of her (they are just tagging females now) and slow her down. At times they need to do a cross over with the rope but sometimes she just stumbles and the rope restrains her and sort of controls her fall…maybe. An antidote is immediately administered so that she is not drugged for long. Then a blindfold is pulled over her face and a couple of people sit on her neck so that she can’t get the momentum to stand up. They take her temperature, check her eyes and then drill through her ossicone to place the tag. (Supposedly doesn’t hurt.). They are also trying a tail tag on some of them to experiment as to the effectiveness of each location. She generally kicks her legs out when the drilling starts…I think from the noise as opposed to any pain…I hope. Once all the various measurements are taken, the folks sitting on her neck get up one at time and she whips her head around and stands up…or so it should go.

Tinkerbell was the second tagging of the day and a little woozy after her darting. Evidently her leg fell asleep and it took her a while to get her balance.

However on the 3rd giraffe of the day, Haraka, things did not work out so well. She was darted OK and then ran towards a gully and when the morphine started working she ran down into the gully and because she was sedated, fell head first down the shallow gully that was filled with rocks. I saw the fall and it did not look good. The vet, administered the antidote in just a few minutes and her vital signs were taken. However, when the peeps got up from her neck she tried to stand and just couldn’t. She rested and tried again and rested and tried again but there was something obviously wrong with her legs. Everyone gathered around and removed the rocks around her in the hopes that this would work but she kept trying and trying to stand. It was horrible to see her so distraught.

Not looking great for Haraka

Finally Julian asked everyone to leave and just the vet and a few people stayed to monitor her.

Later, Julian came and had dinner with us at our camp and delivered the bad news. She had broken her leg. They had to put her down. A horrible end to a terrific and fruitful day. Such a beautiful and gentle creature that we’ve had to interfere with because of the encroachment and hubris of man. Goodby Haraka.

It does make one question conservation and its purpose. In one sense I feel some responsibility. Was our presence a catalyst for them to try to tag a third giraffe for the day? I mean it would be a record and the first two were exciting. Was everyone a bit full of themselves with two successful taggings? Is it absolutely necessary to track giraffe for our own research and benefit?

The giraffe is both gangly and graceful and strange. It’s not like a typical four legged animal that is lower to the ground and balanced equally on four legs. Just not sure about the need of tagging in this interfering way. I decided I didn’t want to go out the next day when they would try to tag two more giraffe. However, when they came back at noon being unsuccessful at finding Vera, I joined them for the afternoon. They were after re-tagging Elizabeth. We were perched on a small hill and could look down and see Elizabeth eluding the prowling truck back and forth as they tried to find a good place to tag her. I was cheering her on…and she did manage to escape into the bush. Relief!

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Our first day on the road and our first “camp” site. I’m gazing out on this beautiful landscape of golden grass fading to rock outcrops and further in the distance, shadowed purple hills. There is not a sound in the world.

On our way here, we stopped at a roadside picnic area for a fabulous lunch put together by Colin from Dalton House where we stayed last night. By “we” I mean Marty and me. Marty is from Kentucky and is delightful. It’s her first time in Africa and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Today on the road from Windhoek, we saw aurochs, springbok, spring something, jackals, zebra, ground squirrels, slender mongoose and knock-knock beetles…not to mention a large number of birds: weaver, goshawk, babbler, doves, guinea hens, and the ubiquitous pigeon.

We ended up here with our guide Jason from Wilderness Travel. I did try to stump him on all he knows about birds, rocks, and plants. I found some type of weed on the side of the road that he couldn’t name. However, he did have an excellent excuse…it’s been ten years of drought for Namibia and this last year they finally got a substantial amount of rain…thus new plants had sprouted up.

We are settled in here for two nights then on the road again. The cabins are creative and lovely and have all amenities you would need. Great food and people. It turns out that Jason’s father designed and had built Camp Sousa.

Sleeping on the deck under the stars tonight…hot water bottle and all.

It was a bit of a pain getting here but now that we’re settled in, the pain was definitely worth it. What beautiful sunsets and no lights to dim the stars. Venus and Mars are hanging around now.

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