Sunday, August 11, 2013

My African Adventure comes to an end: Germany Part II & a Seattle Homecoming

Well, the end of my African Adventure is finally here and I'm still not totally sure how I feel about it but I have a few thoughts.

I have been back in America, in and around my hometown of Seattle, for a full month now. While one month is a short period of time considering I spent the previous 18 months traveling from one end of Africa to the other, the journey in some ways feels like it was a lifetime ago. It is a very strange feeling, because for so long I was eating, sleeping and breathing Africa every day. I couldn't get away from it if I tried and I never wanted to so anyways. I felt fully immersed in the incredible landscapes. I felt comfortable in the crazy cities and simple villages alike. I ate the food, drank the water and rode the buses. I saw life, death and everything in between. Most importantly, I talked and laughed with the people, nearly ever day. I loved it and god damn it, I miss the place. I miss it in ways I never thought I would and I miss it and I miss it in ways I won't even try and explain here because I simply can't.

I think there are a few reasons for this disconnect, why Africa feels so far away right now. The first and most obvious is that well, I'm home. I'm back in the house I grew up in, I see my parents most days, I see my friends, my family and my city. Life in Seattle IS a world away from Africa, it IS a totally different life. The second that I've been busy. I have had countless family and social engagements, I've been up to my cabin in the mountains and my friends place on the islands, I've helped prepare for a friends wedding and taken part in the ceremony, and I've had to take care of a lot of business that comes with returning the western world. I've had to do all of this while readjusting to life back home and it's not always easy. Third, my life in the Pacific North West is great! All you have to do is scroll down the page and you can see that. With such a great life here at home, it's easy to get caught up in it and forget to look back at where I've just come from. Fourth, and most importantly, is that my journey across Africa feels so far away right now because I think I need it to feel that way. I spent 554 days on the road, traveled through 13 different countries and across an entire continent, and a pretty wild one at that. In that time I climbed volcanoes, drank with village headman, got robbed, got sick, saw lions and elephants, ate brains, cycled the Kalahari, saw ancient art, slept in mud huts and mansions, met amazing people and so much more. It was an amazing experience, one I wouldn't trade for anything, but it was not easy. Yes I had fun, but to travel like I did takes an incredible amount of energy, both physically and mentally; you can relax, but may never feel totally rested. You have to be on your game almost all the time, and as you move between regions and countries and cultures, that game is always changing. My time in Africa will forever be a part of me, but now that I'm home, I first need to step back, take a deep breath and let go for a little while.

My time in Germany with Stefan, who I met in Botswana and who drove across Africa in his 1974 VW van, has been a much needed step in that direction of letting go for a bit. He has gone through many of the same feelings I am going through right now, and my time with him and his friends has been a big help in easing the transition. With that said, let me pick up where I left off in the last post, complete my time in Germany and bring my African Adventure to a close, back in my home of Seattle, Washington, USA.

The town of Neckarsulm isn't a big place, but it has a lot going on. After yet another lazy morning, I walked out the door, off to take a tour of the Audi factory in the town that employees nearly 15,000 people and produced 262,965 cars last year, including all of Audi's high performance A8s. Figuring they wouldn't let me on the factory floor tour wearing my flip flops, I begrudgingly put on shoes for the first time since Zambia seven months before and entered the hyper modern building. Inside I was greeted with a huge open area which had service desks, sales people, a restaurant and plenty of space showcasing all of Audi's current model cars. A large group of people were milling around the waiting area, but when one of the guides called out for the English language tour, I found it was only me and one other guy, which was great!

We hopped on a bus and the two hour tour began at the start of the car building process, where huge rolls of sheet metal are stamped into body panels and other parts. From there we moved through nearly the entire process of the car being assembled, watching the incredible dexterity of the welding robots as well as the few steps that are still done by hand. They said the entire process was something like 95% automated, but even with that, the factory still employees the 15,000 people I mentioned above. The tour was very interesting, especially since it was just one other visitor and our guide, and the factory seemed so clean you could eat off the floor. I was surprised however, when I saw a computer still running Windows XP! If it works, don't fix it I guess.

(visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the factory, I found this one using a google image search)

When the tour ended I spent a bit more time looking at cars in the showroom, especially the V10 A8 Spyder (Starting at only $164,700!), then walked across the street to the train station, headed to Stuttgart to visit another German friend, Silke, this time one I'd met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

After an uneventful 50 minute train ride, I arrived in Stuttgart at the main station not really knowing what to expect, but I was surprised at the lack of tall buildings for a city that is the heart of a metropolitan area of over 5 million people.. It was a bit of a dreary gray day (reminded me of home!) and after meeting Silke we climbed to the tower that overlooks the city, then went out to explore. In the background here is the palace which was built in the mid 1700s, destroyed in WWII, rebuilt in 1964 and remains in use today by the ministries of finance and education.

In the same general area around the train station and main mall sits the new library. On the outside it looks like a plain concrete box, on the inside it looks like an iPod, and to be honest I think it's horrible. It has some interesting design elements, and this space in particular looks interesting, but other than that, everything is so plain, so clinical, there are no organic lines and the whole thing just feels soulless to me. I think this hyper-modern architecture is a fad that will pass and when it does people will be kicking themselves for having such bad taste. It is an interesting contrast to the buildings from the 1700 and 1800s that sit all across the country, but to me it just sticks out like a sore thumb. To be fair, I feel the exact same way about the library in Seattle...

The classics, this is more my kind of thing.

Silke and I wandered around the heart of the city for a while, looking at the buildings, the parks, coming across an outdoor exhibit of beautiful antique firetrucks (there I go again, only liking the old things!) and catching up on what happened in Africa since we last talked. After doing some grocery shopping, we ended up at the apartment she shares with a number of friends, cooked up a feast, passed around a few bottles of wine and called it a night.

Curious to see more of Stuttgart, the next morning Silke and I hopped a train to her school, The University of Hohenheim, to see the camps and walk the gardens. This particular building uses to be the home of the original land owner and now houses various offices, meeting spaces and more. The inside was amazingly ornate, filled with beautiful trim-work, paintings, chandeliers and statues, after all, it used to be a palace!

Most of the buildings on campus aren't so interesting, so after checking out the cows at the barn, it was on to the schools extensive gardens. The garden is divided into many thematic areas, one of which was trees of the American west. To see huge doug fir trees again, like those I live around and work in back home was a lot of fun and a reminder of what I'd be returning to shortly. There were also parts of the garden devoted to other parts of north America, to the plants utilized in different stages of human development, to of medicinal plants and much more. Although the sky turned gray and a light rain came and went, I had a really wonderful time walking through the gardens of the campus and was thrilled to be somewhere so green again!

With the tour of campus over, we hopped on a bus, transferred to the light rail and headed back towards the center of town. As I expected, the rail transportation systems in the city were excellent, and getting the transportation day pass was a very good deal. Wanting to show me a great view over the city, Silke lead me up a very long series of stairs, through trees and a public park, to a hilltop cafe. Unfortunately when we arrived, the cafe was closed! As I looked out over the city, it seemed to be built of sturdy looking four or five story buildings with red tile roofs, interspersed by a many church steeples and construction poking out. We walked past the vineyards on the hillside, back down a few long series of stairs and into the heart of the city again.

Because I was headed back to Neckarsulm that afternoon time was short. Walking past some beautiful old churches, we found a small cafe where we got a snack and something to drink, then walked through the main mall again towards the train station. Luckily by now the sun had returned and it turned out there was a huge firefighter demonstration going on. You could learn how to use fire extinguishers properly, see what it's like to be in a smoky room, watch fire fighters rappel from cranes and see all the largest trucks and gadgets which was pretty cool! Unfortunately my time in Stuttgart had come to an end, so after saying goodbye to Silke I hopped on the train back to Neckarsulm, to meet up with Stefan, Tim and the rest of the crew, as we were going for a night on the town.

The plan was to take the train from Neckarsulm to Heidelberg, which is known as a bit of a university/party town. We cooked up two pizzas from scratch, grabbed a case of beer and got on the train where we began eating and drinking. In Germany, you are pretty much allowed to drink alcohol anywhere and coming from American this seemed quite novel. Although you can drink anywhere, be it walking down the street, on the public bus, or where ever, attitudes about it are much different and honestly people seem to act a hell of a lot more responsible than they do in America (especially in regards to drinking and driving). I couldn't help but think to myself somewhat jokingly “Americans can't handle this much freedom...” It was especially amusing when we got aboard yet another tram through town; it seemed like half the passengers were drinking a can of beer, holding a pint glass or sipping a bottle of hard cider. The whole atmosphere was positive, people were laughing with friends, talking with strangers and smiling. I'm sure your average weekday isn't like this here, but I've sure never experienced anything like it back in America, ever.

It was midnight before we even started going out to bars. The area we went was a walking area, so it was full of people mingling in the streets and given the young age people are able to start drinking in Germany I have to admit I felt a bit old at times, haha. The first bar was just opposite an old church, and as the night went on we visited two more bars after that, with the last one being inside a stone basement of sorts that was a few hundred years old. I had a good time drinking beer and whatever else was being passed my way and chatting with whoever happened to be sitting next to me. It was nearly 5am when we stepped back onto the street, where we found some food and returned to a friends apartment to sleep on the floor for a few hours. I have to say I never stay out this late at home, but once in a while, it can be a lot of fun.

On the way back to Neckarsulm a few of us took much needed naps, but I put in my headphones and enjoyed the scenery as the train followed the river back to Stefan and Tim's place. The rest of the day was pretty much spent on the couch watching TV or napping, but we made a quick run to the grocery store and continuing the late night theme whipped up a bread, meat, cheese and veggie dinner that we didn't sit down to eat until 11pm. We were all tired but the food was too delicious not to eat, so naturally I stuffed myself with as much as I could handle before finally going to bed. I wish I could eat this well every day!

After a 'traditional breakfast' consisting of bratwurst, soft pretzel and a hefeweizen, Stefan and I made the short drive to the near by salt mine. After paying the 9 Euro entrance fee, we took an elevator something like 200 meters into the ground, and came out into a massive series of tunnels that extend for many kilometers. Unfortunately all the exhibits were in German only, but Stefan gave me the general idea what it was all about. Even so, just walking through the mine was a pretty amazing experience.

The salt mine was founded way back in 1883 and has been operating almost continuously since then. As you walk through the many dimly lit tunnels and massive chambers, you pass through exhibits detailing how salt is used in our every day lives, how the mining has been done and how it is done today, about dinosaur fossils found in the area. The most interesting part of the mines history however is how it was used by the Nazis during WWII as underground factories for the war effort as well as storage for priceless works of art, because the depth of the mine protected them from Allied troops bombing.

Another great thing to see was a pulpit carved into the tunnel where religious services were held. Mining was (and still is) a very dangerous job, so religion played an important role. Below the pulpit was a choir group of old miners singing, which as it echoed through the mine sounded especially beautiful.

The tour ends in a huge domed room cut out of the stone and salt, containing two large relief carvings. Although it wasn't quite as dramatic as the work I'd just seen in Ancient Egypt, it was still pretty cool to see!

I have to say, for being a fairly small place, the town of Neckarsulm and the surrounding area sure has a lot of interesting things going on. After finishing the tour of the salt mine, Stefan and I met up with his brother to visit the Deutsches Zweirad- und NSU-Museum (Two-Wheeler and NSU Museum), a motorcycle museum with a collection of over 300 motorcycles. The earliest motorcycles made by NSU were simply their bicycles with small engines attached, and it was fascinating to see how over the period of a few decades those transformed into the modern motorcycles we have today.

The museum goes through the history of NSU, which began in Neckarsulm back in 1880 building knitting machines, then bicycles, motorcycles and cars, until it eventually evolved into Audi, whose factory I visited at the beginning of this post. Not only showing bikes and cars made by NSU, the museum details the development of motorcycles from their first stages to their current state, with everything from off road bikes, to racing bikes and even one of the Captain America bikes from the movie Easy Rider. It was pretty amazing to see the development of motorcycles though, from the 1800s when the were made with wood frames, to bikes that were front wheel drive or had a wicker chair as a side car, people really did try every crazy idea possible!

I've been saying it for a long time now, but I really want to get a motorcycle... The rest of the day was pretty low key, visiting Stefan's parents Norbert and Elisabet in the afternoon, and a cooking up some fantastic burgers on the grill for dinner that evening.

The next afternoon Stefan's father Norbert offered to take me for a ride in the sidecar of his Moto Guzzi, a 1000cc from 1974 and naturally I said yes! I'd never been in a side car before and while it was strange at first, all there was to do was sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Nice day for a cruise eh? For some reason I was totally unable to sleep the night before and was pretty tired. Because the sidecar was quite large and comfortable, and there was just something calming about being out in the sun cruising, with the rumble of that big engine next to me, that I ended up actually falling asleep on the ride. Apparently Stefan used to do this as well so I hope his dad is used to it!

When we stopped and I woke up, I found Norbert had taken me to the Hohenloher Freilandmuseum, an open air museum consisting of more than 50 different buildings from the region of Germany, dating back as far as 500 years. I'd been keeping an eye out at the different styles of architecture and construction methods all across Africa so although this was something completely different, it was very interesting to me.

You can walk through nearly every building in the museum ranging from homes to grain mills, churches and train stations; getting a glimpse of how life was in the region during the past few hundred years. Nearly every building on the grounds was brought in pieces from other parts of the region, then rebuild and restored to it's original state. I especially liked the kitchens and the various stoves.

The most interesting building to me however was this barn. The whole structure was built without nails, the only thing holding it together is wooden pegs, notches in the wood and some very clever construction.

Having explored the museum pretty thoroughly, we hoped back on (and in) the bike, heading back towards home. This time I managed to stay awake to enjoy the whole ride, and before Norbert dropped me back at Stefan and Tim's, we went up into the vineyards for a view over the whole town.

The next day was one of almost pure laziness. I slept in, ate too much food, and sat outside enjoying the summer air and writing the previous blog post.... or maybe it was the one before that, but anyways! In the evening Stefan and I headed out to see his friend Charlie. Charlie is one of the girls who was volunteering at an orphanage in Choma, Zambia, and the reason Stefan and I stopped in that town to visit. That visit ended up being more than a month, providing for some pretty amazing experiences in the process, so it was fun to see here again. Funny, out of all the people from all over the world I met while traveling, I end up seeing three Germans again at their homes before returning to mine!

I woke up, and July third was finally upon me, the day I'd walk onto a plane and finally return home to America. I said goodbye to Stefan and Tim, who were wonderful hosts the entire time, threw my bags in the back of a car and set off to finally end my African Adventure.

Although I was originally going to take a series of two or three trains to get to the airport I was incredibly lucky that Stefan's friend Jörg offered to give me a ride. Although I landed at the Stuttgart airport which is the nearest to Neckarsulm, my flight out was at the Frankfurt airport because it was something like $150 cheaper. Yes I'd made it across Africa, but to be honest I was extremely glad that someone was able to give me a ride for this final stretch. It meant I didn't have to think about it, I didn't have to worry, I could just sit down, have a conversation and arrive at the airport without having to worry about making some stupid mistake that would make me miss my flight. Thanks so much Jörg!

I mentioned this earlier, but I'll say it again: my time in Germany was not only wonderful on it's own, it was exactly what I needed after such a grueling trip across Africa and before returning to America. The entire time, Stefan and Tim took great care of me, ensuring I had plenty of great food, great beer and great company. As much as I loved Africa, I was burned out, I was worn down and I felt practically brain dead. All I wanted was to have some good solid time to relax, reflect a bit, not have to worry and not have to make any decisions! My time in Germany gave me exactly that, and it provided a great middle ground between Africa and America. I was still 'traveling' and it was still different and interesting, but it was like home in so many ways that it just felt easy and comfortable. I think it was a critical time for me and a valuable lesson on what kind of transition period I need after such a journey. Had I gone straight from Cairo to Seattle, I know for a fact it would have been extremely hard for me to deal with such an extreme change and I think it would have negatively and unfairly tainted my homecoming.

At the airport I checked in, got my tickets and spent the last few euros I had on breakfast and chocolate in the duty free store. This was it, I was going home. I sat in the airport for a few hours, partly due to arriving early and partly due to a delayed flight, with a surprisingly blank mind. When the gate finally opened however and the word 'Seattle' showed up on the screen, I put on some hometown hip-hop (Blue Scholars) on my MP3 player and that's when it finally hit me. I could feel my whole body tense up, I began to get hot and felt a tear start to well up in my eyes, especially while listening to MC Geologic rapping on the song 'The Ave” which is all about a journey through Seattle on one of the metro buses.

Eventually the plane arrived and I sat down for a direct flight home, all the way from Frankfurt, Germany to Seattle, Washington, USA. Much to my disappointment I had an isle seat instead of the window seat I thought I'd reserved, which meant I had to lean over my seatmate (who was pretty cool about it) whenever I wanted to look out the window, but oh well. My favorite part about flying into Seattle is seeing the mountains and in that respect I was certainly not disappointed. The skies were clear blue, the ground was lush green and the peaks were bright white. Perfect.

Touchdown, back in the United States of America. Other than waiting in a fairly long line, customs and immigration were a breeze, simply scanning my passport, making a little small talk and walking through to get my bags, then out on to the street to get picked up by my parents.

One of the first culture shock moments I had upon my arrival was simply people speaking English, English everywhere! I'd grown so accustomed to being in countries where they are speaking Bemba, or Swahili, or French, or Amharic, or Arabic, or German or whatever that to be back in America and hear people speaking English everywhere around me was not only very strange, it was incredibly distracting. Where before I couldn't understand what people were saying around me, suddenly I could hear and understand every conversation and it felt like my attention was being pulled in 50 different directions at once and it started to stress me out a bit.

Both my parents, my mother Chris and my father Don, came to pick me up at the airport and take me home. We shared a few hugs, then I climbed in the car to head north on I5, into downtown Seattle. I love the part in I5 were you turn a corner and suddenly the city, the port and Elliot Bay are straight ahead of you, letting you know for sure just where you are. For me, it let me know I was home.

I had a few placed I wanted to stop at before going on to my parents house in north Seattle, a few of my favorite things in the city. The first was to go to Dicks Drive-In, a classic burger joint that has been in Seattle since 1954. There I got a cheese burger, fries and chocolate milk shake, then we drove up the hill of Queen Anne to the vest view in Seattle, Kerry Park. This is the same place I went after my return from my Asia trip, and two times makes it a tradition, right? The view of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, Elliot Bay, the Port and Mt Rainier behind it all is simply stunning, and a good reminder that although I was leaving behind something wonderful in Africa, what I was coming back to is in my opinion, one of the best places on earth.

The next item on my return tour of home was to drive through the Ballard neighborhood to a tiny beach near Golden Gardens. It's a place I spent a lot of time at back in high school and have visited ever since. Not content to just look, I stripped my clothes off, jumped into Puget Sound, swam out to the old pilings a ways off shore, climbed up and dove off. Our water is cold but man it felt good!

After my swim, my parents and I finally returned to the house where I grew up in (and where I'm staying at the moment) to unload my bags, shower, say hi to my two cats Jack and Sven and notice all the little things that are different about the house and yard since I've been gone.

The garden was looking great, but I didn't have much time to relax, because my mom had organized a family picnic at yet another of my favorite places (and favorite views!) in Seattle, Gas Works Park.

I may have been tired and jet lagged, but the opportunity to get to see pretty much all of my family at once, just hours after landing seemed like an idea I shouldn't pass up. I am very lucky that just about my whole family, from grandparents to aunts and uncles all live here in Seattle, instead of being spread across the country like so many families.

I forget how it even happened right now, but after the picnic with my family I managed to meet up with Brendan, one of my good friends I've known since middle school, in the Fremont neighborhood while he was setting up for an art show. We got some delicious food from a taco-truck which in true Seattle style is located next to a marijuana-pipe shop, haha. From there we went on to visit yet more friends, getting to see Dan, Eliot, Emily and Angie as well as drinking my first Rainier Beer in a year and a half, the cheep beer of choice among us!

All things considered, I couldn't have asked for a better first day back home. The weather was perfect, I ate my favorite Seattle food, went swimming in our wonderful water, visited some of my favorite parks saw most of my family and a handful of my good friends. Doesn't get much better than that.

When I found out that my good friends Nick and Ellen were getting married on July 27th that was the impetus to finally bring me home. I knew I wanted to help them out with the wedding, as it was taking place on the island property where my friends are starting a farm, so I knew there would be a lot of work to be done, so I figured the best thing I could do was come home at the beginning of July. This also happens to be the time of my favorite holiday, Independence Day, which is on the 4th of July. Not only could I make it home for that, but the holiday would be a great way to see pretty much all the rest of my friends at once, only one day after returning home.

I took the bus from my parents place in Mapleleaf to the Eastlake neighborhood, and it couldn't have been more different from the buses in Africa. Where were the screaming kids? The puking old ladies? The goats and chickens? Not only was it huge, quiet, clean and new, it was almost empty. After being in Africa where there are always people crammed everywhere, it actually felt really lonely and extremely uncomfortable to me. Walking the last few blocks to Brendan's place, I grabbed a case of Rainier and walked through the door.

I was the first person to arrive, but shortly afterwords more friends began arriving and by the early evening nearly all my friends were around and I got to see everyone for the first time in a year and a half. As always with our group, the food was excellent and here we have Sam and Brendan in red, white and blue (and Noel on the right), showing off some delicious BBQ skewers.

Brendan's place was the ideal spot to be for the celebration, because it has a huge rooftop deck that looks over downtown Seattle, Lake Union where the fireworks are shot from and a number of great neighborhoods. After the fireworks were over, a projector and screen were setup on the roof to watch the totally cheesy Will Smith movie Independence Day, then I slept on a camping pad on Brendan’s floor, still couchsurfing back home it seems. I'm back in America alright, and it feels great!

The next two days were pretty uneventful, but provided some much needed rest and alone time. I mostly hung out in the room in my parents place, cleaning and organizing my gear from the trip, using the internet and sorting photos. When washing my backpack it was so dirty from a year and a half on the road that I think I turned the water in the tub almost black 6 times before the thing finally came out clean!

After my little rest and sorting period, it was time to get back out to my friends and my city. I hopped on my bicycle and headed towards Washington Park Arboretum where I'd meet up with Dan and other friends to go kayaking. I had a blast riding through the streets of Seattle again on my bike, although because the last bike I rode was my silly one-speed that I rode through Botswana and Zambia on, a few times I actually reached to ring a non-existent bell or tried to use non-existent pedal brakes, haha.

Between the University of Washington and the Arboretum, just next to the 520 floating bridge is an area popular with boaters, where it's easy to forget you are in a city. On sunny days the area is full of canoes and kayaks, as well as people on the walking trails across Foster and Marsh Islands.

We spent the afternoon lazily paddling through the channels and reeds, watching people and wildlife alike as we floated along under the sun.

The area is also home to a number of 'ramps to nowhere' which are popular spots to jump and dive off of on sunny days like this. Although we didn't go to the tallest one (38 feet) we passed by one of the popular smaller spots for a quick dive into the inviting water, and some students who were relaxing gave me a necklace made of waterlilies. That evening Dan and I stopped by another Seattle institution, Gordito's Mexican food, home of the 'newborn baby size' Burrito Grande. They say it's made big so you have something to save for later, but I wasn't about to back down from a challenge and although it wasn't easy, I managed to eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Besides Independence Day, another thing that happens in early July is my birthday on the 8th. I don't ever make a big deal about it, but my parents wanted to take me out to dinner, so we walked to a local bar and grill up the street. One of the things I missed most in Africa in terms of food and drink was good quality beer, something the Seattle area is well known for. Along with a pulled pork sandwich, I had an African Amber by Mack & Jack Brewery, a small independent brewery from the area who coincidentally has a number of African themed beers. Yum. That evening I went to my buddy Sazzy's place, the guy who invited me to a wedding in India years back and who in many ways can be credited with setting me on my life of travel. We hung around his place with his new dog Polli and a few other friends, and big surprise, I ended up sleeping on his couch as well!

My great aunt Wilma lives in what we Seattleites call 'the east side', meaning the other side of Lake Washington, a 22 mile long lake that makes up the eastern border of the city and gives us fresh water access on the east side and salt water on the west side. This is the same body of water I was kayaking and swimming in earlier in this post, but on this day my mother proposed we canoe across the lake for a visit. The weather was great, we could see snow capped mountains in the distance and the paddle took just under an hour to go maybe two miles to the other side from where we put in. On the other side we pulled the canoe out of the lake onto my aunt's yard, walked up the lawn and had a nice visit, with her telling some stories from her round-the-world boat trip she took on a freight-liner back in the 1950s, what a great adventure! While there I tried to start up my 1970 VW Baja bug I'd been storing in her garage, and although the battery still had a strong charge, the engine wasn't able to start which was a bummer. I still need to trouble shoot that one, because it's my only car!

As I've already mentioned a few times, I came home for the wedding of two of my good friends, Nick and Ellen (two farthest to the right, sorry for the bad photo!). After running some errands around town I headed to Nicks parents house, a place I've spent a lot of time at since way back in elementary school. I got to say hi to Jean and Colin, Nicks parents, his brother Chris and enjoy a great meal on their backyard deck.

It wasn't only a social visit however, we had wedding planning to do! Brendan, Chris and I were going to be the grooms party in the wedding, so we had to discuss and try on outfits. I brought over a selection of my nice clothes, outfits I haven't seen in ages, and with Ellen's blessing, came up with an outfit that would work for the wedding (I also had a tie and shoes by the way). I may have spent the last year and a half wandering Africa in dirty clothes and flip flops, but I can clean up when I need to do it!

After spending the next morning with Nick buying a 26 horsepower riding mower for the property on the island, I loaded up a car with my tree climbing gear and headed towards West Seattle to visit my aunt and uncles place and do some tree pruning work. This was only the third or fourth time I'd driven a car in about a year, but it's not something you forget. What I was unsure about however was the roads. This section of road, called The Viaduct, has been under construction and plans to replace it for years. Parts were being torn down when I left Seattle so I wasn't sure if it still existed when I headed for it, but luckily it was still standing. Although the road is a major eye-sore and safety hazard, it's also my favorite road in the city. The water, the ferries, the new Wheel (that wasn't there when I left!), the baseball and football stadiums, the port and Mt Rainier all make for one hell of a view, one I'll miss when the road is finally torn down and replaced with a tunnel.

My aunt and uncle have a great house with some wonderful views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains to the west, however they also have a lot of big trees just like much of Seattle. I was there to climb and prune the 100+ foot tall tree and remove some lower branches to help maintain the view. Before I started traveling, I worked climbing and pruning trees on and off for about four years so hanging on ropes with a one hand chainsaw is nothing unusual for me!

Looking down from near the top. The views over the water and towards the mountains were great, but I had work to do. I spent the next four hours or so in the tree, pruning the whole thing top to bottom and reminding myself just how out of shape I am!

Swinging around and having some fun just before finishing up in the tree. Once I'd put my gear away and showered Karen and John cooked me a delicious dinner, I had one of Johns delicious home brewed beers and called it a day, tired and looking forward to bed.

In addition to trying to catch up on rest, continue to organize my things and everything else that comes with returning from a long journey, the next day I went to Steve and Kathrine’s house, another aunt and uncle of mine, to show photos from my trip to Mt Everest base camp and compare them to my uncles photos from 30+ years before, which was pretty fun and the day after that I was helping my dad pour concrete for a new fence at my parents house.

By this point I'd managed to see nearly all of my friends and family except for a few and near the top of the list was my triplet brother and sister. My brother Brian lives in California and my sister Robin lives in Montana, but luckily they were both available to come and visit Seattle, but first I had to drive to the airport and pick up Brian. Being another day of perfect Seattle summer weather, Mt Rainier was out and made for some fantastic viewing as I headed south on I5 towards the airport. I'll never tire of looking at this mountain.

After picking up Brian at the airport, we then picked up Robin at the train station downtown. It was great to see them again and although it's not very often we are able to be at the same place together, when we are it's just like old times.

With most of the family together (only missing our older sister Holly, who was busy up in Alaska) we headed out I90 east to Snoqualmie Pass to spend the next two nights up at our family cabin. This is a cabin we built when I was only three or four years old, and has been a major part of our childhood growing up. We grew up skiing into the cabin in the winter time, sharing it with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousins, parents and siblings and it is something that was probably one of the best parts of my childhood. To have a chance to come up here with my parents, brother and sister shortly after returning home was great.

Once we had brought everything into the cabin and had lunch on the deck, we set out for a walk around the area, ending with a stroll down Gold Creek where we all walked through the water, looked for cool stones and simply enjoyed the beautiful scenery.

Family dinner, featuring mostly vegetables from my parents garden.

After dinner and as the sun was going down, we went for another walk, this time around the lake. As we walked, we picked berries, listened to birds and reminisced about the many years we have been coming to this exact same spot.

After the classic cabin breakfast of huckleberry pancakes the next morning, we set out on a day hike up the valley. It was another perfect day and the wildflowers were excellent as usual for this time of year.

Catching a small snake on the way up.

We walked on along the bottom of the valley up Gold Creek for a little more than an hour before we came to this spot in the trail, an open area and the site of a massive avalanche a few years back. The slide started high on the right slope in this photo. It was so powerful it raced down one side, across the valley floor and up the other side, taking huge numbers of trees with it and laying them out like pick-up-sticks. Talk about the awesome power of nature. With views of snow patches on the peaks ahead of us, we kept walking, talking and enjoying how spoiled we are with natural beauty in this part of the world.

After another hour and a half and two creek crossings we were near our goal, a waterfall which sits a short distance off the trail. It is not marked in any way and very few people know it is there, but it's a spot I've been to with my family on hikes a few other times and a great spot to sit and relax. When we thought we were in the right spot (because even we couldn't remember exactly how to best get there) the five of us climbed down a steep stream bed to the bottom of the valley, realized we had come to the right place and walked upstream towards the waterfall.

Pretty nice, huh? It was around four miles to this spot, and after a few hours of walking through forests, crossing streams and heading gradually uphill it was time to sit down, eat lunch and go for a swim.

On the way back the moon came up above the ridge-line, adding to the already spectacular scenery. After our return to the cabin we cooked up dinner, our parents headed home and the three of us just hung out together, reading, talking and generally acting a lot less mature than our age would suggest, haha.

The next day was much of the same, with a lazy morning, then an afternoon spent going for another walk to the pond, where we talked about what what was new in our lives, our ideas for the fotgure and to simply throw and skip stones in the water. Good old fashioned fun.

On the way back to Seattle, we stopped at my aunt Wilma's house again and both of our grandmothers came to join for a small family dinner before returning to our parents place and went to sleep in the rooms we grew up in.

My siblings were leaving shortly after, but there was still time for another family walk and this time we choose to wander the downtown area, a place I actually spend very little time in. We parked the car in Belltown and headed towards the Olympic Sculpture Park. The park, an extension of the Seattle Art Museum, is home to some great pieces of art and being right on the water also provides for some great views of the water, the Olympic Mountains and the setting sun. It was still just the early afternoon however, so we walked on through the Seattle waterfront.

Next on our list was one of the cities number one tourist spots, Pike Place Market. The market has been operating since 1907, is Americans oldest continuously operating public farmers market and home to countless unique shops, high quality seafood, produce and local crafts. As a native Seattleite it's a bit touristy for my tastes and I rarely visit, but I have to say I do enjoy it every time I do make it to the market and have some time to explore. It's no local African market, but it will have to do!

Our walk around downtown finally came to an end at the Seattle Center and Seattle's most iconic building, the Space Needle. Built for the 1962 Worlds Fair, the Seattle Center has been a hub of community, art, music and food ever since. I have so many great memories of this place, especially of the annual Bumbershoot Music & Arts festival, that walking it's expansive grounds always puts a smile on my face. I may be a world traveler, I may spend the next few years, or even the next few decades exploring our endlessly fascinating world, but Seattle is the city I will always love and will always return to. I had a wonderful adventure traveling across Africa, but now that I'm back in Seattle, I'm back home.

When I mention I've spent the last year and a half in Africa, there are two questions I am asked over and over again: what was your favorite country, and what did you learn? Although I understand why people ask these questions, I don't particularly like either one because the answer is too complex to give a simple answer people are usually hoping to hear.

Each of the countries I visited, from South Africa to Zambia, Burundi to Egypt is extremely different. Not only that, but I was doing such different things in most of the countries it is simply impossible to directly compare one to another. When I was in Mozambique for example, I was driving through the country with a looming hurricane and dealing with serious group problems with the people I was traveling with. When I was in Botswana I lived with an English guy I met through Couchsurfing for more than a month then rode a bicycle across the country. The second time in South Africa, I was on a farm for more than a month. I spent three months in Zambia but only three weeks in Rwanda. I guess it's like asking a parent who their favorite child is, an impossible and unfair question, but then again most people probably have a secret answer to that they don't like to admit. If I was forced to answer the question, I'd still qualify it with the statement that although I can't say definitively it's the best country, I probably had the best experience Tanzania. The biggest reason I say that is due to the diversity of the country and of the experiences I had there over roughly three months. For me Tanzania began with a half day safari, which was my first African safari experience, then on to scuba diving and partying on the beaches of Zanzibar, into the lush green Usambara Mountains, and then the big Serengeti/Ngorongoro Crater safari before flying out of Dar es Salaam back to South Africa. The second time I was in Tanzania I was on the complete opposite side of the country as I traveled up Lake Tanganyika by boat and without a doubt my ill-fated canoe trip was one of the most memorable and incredible parts of the journey. I would never argue it's the 'best' country I explored, but it sure was a fantastic and diverse experience.

The question of what I've learned is harder still. I think my major realizations about the incredible complexity, diversity and beauty of our world, as well as my love and desire to explore it is one that came for me during my 6-month Asia trip before I ever came to Africa, but my time in Africa has taught me more than I could have ever imagined.

When I set off for this journey, I'm not exaggerating when I say I knew almost nothing about the continent, it's history and it's people. I had some vague notions of what to expect in my head and some turned out to be true and others were miles off. I had to learn those things on-the-fly as I went, and every time I'd find myself in a wooden shack drinking by lamp light with some local man I'd just met my vision of Africa grew ever more complex. People told me stories of escaping genocide, struggling as a woman in an extremely male dominated culture, getting educations in the west or simply who their favorite American rapper was. It all painted a picture of a place so different from my own life that I was endlessly fascinated by it all and didn't want it to end. Although our daily lives are often vastly different, I suppose I could say I really did learn that at the end of the day we are no different. I've always had this idea in my head, and I got a taste of it during my Asia trip, but in Africa I spent so much more time with local people that it all became clear. We all have the same motivations, the same basic needs, desires and dreams. We are all just people, whether we live in a high rise in Manhattan or a mud hut in Zambia. And to be honest, I saw a lot more people smiling who lived in those mud huts than I have seen walking the streets of Manhattan.

Speaking of mud huts, although that kind of life became very normalized to me as I traveled through it so frequently, at the end of the day the lack of development in Africa is truly stunning. Huge advances are being made and will continue to happen in the future, and the way many African nations have transformed in the past ten, twenty and thirty years is incredible; but the fact remains even today huge numbers of people are scraping by, living as purely subsistence farmers. In places people are still nomadic, fish using dugout canoes or live in homes made of mud and grass. It's no exaggeration to say that from our western point of view these people are hundreds, or even thousands of years behind the curve. Although I have the feeling some of these areas will never 'fully' develop into what we would consider 'modern' living, I'm also not convinced that's a bad thing. Basic needs such as peace, healthcare, education and agriculture must be met, but I don't believe the western lifestyle is a sustainable one that deserves to be exported to the rest of the world. Not only that, but if it is, I don't think people will necessarily be any happier as the result of it.

I spent a massive amount of time with aid and development workers all across Africa and learned a great deal from those experiences. I met South African engineers building schools and power stations, American s teaching how to stop the spread of AIDS, Italians building wells, Koreans teaching physics, Germans in orphanages, Brits running hospitals and more. In every country I went through, these people generously took me into their homes (thanks Couchsurfing!) and provided me with a fascinating and unique perspective on the countries where they lived and worked. Without a doubt, they were the most valuable resource I had to tap into through my journey. Although some may have come with dreams of changing the world, it never takes long to develop a healthy (or sometimes unhealthy) cynicism about development work in Africa. I've discussed this countless times in previous posts so I won't go into all of it here, but there are a great deal of ignorant westerners blathering on about 'helping Africa,' visiting to 'volunteer', starting NGOs or simply coming to proselytize their religion without having any understanding of the reality on the ground. I'm going to stop myself before I go off the rails ranting, and I absolutely believe there is a place for foreign NGOs in Africa (Peace Corps being one of the better ones in my opinion), but a great deal of what is out there does little more than create dependencies, damage local business, disrupt cultural norms and avoid dealing with the real issues while giving people an excuse to pat themselves on the back. The result of all this is a great deal of these NGOs create more harm than good and it drives me absolutely crazy. The biggest problem in Africa and the thing that holds some of these countries back the most is the lack of good political leadership. This is a problem that can only be solved from within and until that is adequately addressed, everything else is a band aid at best.

Africa, and remember that 'Africa' is a continent, made of 55 independent countries, has an image problem. In the west it seems to be primarily thought of as a place of war, disease, poverty and hunger. To be fair, at various times and in various places, this has all been true and remains true today. Niger is fighting with Islamic extremest. The Democratic Republic of Congo is controlled by an ever shifting group of local warlords. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Botswana has AIDS rates that are absolutely horrific. South Africa has strong racial tensions. Zimbabwe is still run by a violent dictator. Ecological destruction and political corruption are problems continent wide. Without a doubt the challenges in this part of the world are tremendous and these people have endured more than their share of suffering. Despite this, I remain an optimist. I saw a great deal of hope in nations growing economies, which when utilized properly have dramatically improved peoples access to healthcare and education. I saw hope in gender roles changing and women beginning to take their rightful place as equals. I saw hope in infrastructure building such as roads, electricity and telecommunications. I saw hope in people working to take steps to protect the environment, thinking not only of themselves but of future generations. Far more important than anything I saw however was what African people themselves told me, especially the young people. They were hopeful, they were getting educated, they were looking at the mistakes of the past and they were determined to do better. It won't be easy, especially in such young and underdeveloped nations, but the thing I kept seeing again and again was the vast potential Africa represents and the young peoples desire to make the best of it.

Setting out for this trip I had only a vague idea of what I was getting myself into; because after all I was never originally planning on coming to Africa. It was only a chance meeting with a South African guy named Chris in the Philippines, a week of travel through that country together, then a message on Facebook nearly a year later from him asking 'if I wanted to drive up Africa.' that brought me to the continent. I said yes, bought a one-way plane ticket to Cape Town, South Africa and it turned out to be without a doubt one of the best decisions I've ever made. Along the way I've seen, done, learned and met more people than I thought possible, and I've done my best to share those experiences with you all here on my blog. It's been imperfect and unprofessional I fully admit, but it's been a reflection of myself and of my journey. I love the idea of creating a record of a time and a place that is undergoing such rapid change, and I love the idea of sharing that with other people, to teach as I am learning.

I had a few simple goals for this trip, nothing formal but a few thoughts of what I wanted to get out of the journey. At the top of that list was to simply have an adventure and without a doubt I've accomplished that one! The places I went, my methods of transportation and the people I met all facilitated that goal and while my search for adventure presented me with plenty of challenges along the way, if it were easy I don't think I'd have had nearly as much fun. Next, I wanted to gain some understanding about an extremely interesting part of the world and the best way to do this was to simply talk to people, locals and foreigners alike. I'm still no expert, and really it's one of those things where 'the more you know, the more you realize you don't know', but I'm a long ways ahead of where I was when I started and well, the world is a complex place and to pretend otherwise would be foolish. Finally, I wanted to live and travel with complete freedom. Traveling with Chris and Weon at the beginning of the trip is what brought me to Africa and I'm glad for the introduction, but the rest of the time I was pretty much traveling solo because of the freedom it offered and loved every minute of it. I could make my own schedule, my own decision and my own mistakes. I wasn't beholden to anyone in terms of what I had to do or when I had to do it. If I wanted I could stay somewhere for months, if not, I could pick up my things and go. It's a freedom that I've maintained on my return and will hang onto as long as possible, and man it feels good! This is just a small number of the goals I've managed to accomplish on this trip, some conscious goals and some not. Not everything went to plan, and I was particularly disappointed by not being able to get into Sudan, but a few issues like that are inevitable. There is still a great deal of Africa I have not seen; after all, I only traveled through 13 of 55 countries. I know I'll be back, both to new places and to old haunts to see what has changed. I don't know when that will be, or what form such a journey will take, but I can guarantee I'll be back in Africa some day and am looking forward to it already.

All things considered, my African Adventure was without a doubt an unqualified success.

As always, the question is 'So what's next?' I'll tell you the plan, which like all my plans is subject to change, haha. Right now, some of my good friends are starting an organic farm on a small island in the San Juan's, near the border with Canada. It's an island of only two hundred people, one small general store, a two room school house and little else. I am currently getting organized so I can move up to the island, help develop the properties and see where that takes me. Right now I'll be living in a simple tent, but my dream (and this is a little ways off) is to build a tree-house to live in, a place I can come back to when I'm not traveling the world. As I think I've expressed pretty clearly above, I love the Pacific Northwest, and I plan to stick around for at least a year. I want to ensure that although I have spent two of the last two and a half years traveling the world, that I remain connected to my friends, my family and my home. When the time is right, or I find the right opportunity, I'll take off to continue my journeys around the world. Right now what I am dreaming about is to kayak down the west coast of America from the island where I'm living, all the way to the Baja peninsula in Mexico. From there, I want to spend a few months on the beach, surfing and learning Spanish, because I know Spanish fluency will be a critical skill for the travel I want to do in Central and South America where I expect my next big journey will take place. I frequently find myself looking at world maps and getting lost in ideas of what to do, where to go next, where I've been and more importantly where I have not been. As I said earlier, the world is an amazing and endlessly fascinating place, it would be a shame not to get out and explore it as best as I can.

(Although this journey has now come to a close, in case anyone is wondering I will continue to post on my blog, although with less frequency as I could use a break right now! The next post will probably be of the island where I'm moving to and the wedding of my friends that just took place there. Without a doubt I'll have some mini adventures as well from time to time and I may post some trips from the past, as I've got 10 years worth of photos saved up!)

Thanks for reading and remember: Say yes to new opportunities; when you travel with a smile on your face, an open schedule and an open mind, anything is possible. Safe travels everyone!