Friday, April 21, 2017

Like the earth itself, Earth Day is older than you may think

Earth Day is upon us once more,  and there are plenty of activities to help mark the occasion, all over the world.
Celebrate Earth Day through stewardship at Burnaby Lake.

I've mentioned in previous posts that I spent my first Earth Day in Belize. There were a lot of firsts, on that trip: first international travel trip outside of Canada and the USA, the first time I ever paddled a sea kayak, my first time in a cave, my first time seeing wild parrots, and a few others.

I'd never even heard of Earth Day before that. It had been around for 21 years at that point but I'd never heard of it.

It's grown even more since then, spreading around the world with events aimed at celebrating it, creating awareness about the earth and conservation, and participating in events that help the earth.

There are numerous national, regional, and local events that take place during the weekend closest to April 22. Ranging from national organizations like the Nature Conservancy,  to smaller local groups like the Burns Bog Society and everything in-between plan events that take place over the weekend.

This year, it falls on a Saturday, and locally in Vancouver, there are several events set for both Saturday and Sunday.

Obviously it's possible to go to every event, but it's certainly doable to go to one event each day.

Highlighted here are a couple of local events taking place in B.C.'s Lower Mainland this weekend.

Earth Day Paddle, Richmond, B.C.

On Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the B.C. chapter of the Nature Conservancy will host its first ever paddling event to mark the day. NCC’s West Coast Stewardship Team invites you to join them for a paddle out to Swishwash Island at the mouth of the Fraser River, for a day of exploring, learning and land stewardship. It's just a fifteen-minute paddle to the island. The will be spent day touring the island by foot and by boat, while tackling stewardship tasks such as cataloging plant species, pulling invasive weeds and cleaning up the shoreline. It may not be too late to get involved, but you'll have to hurry. Pre-registration is preferred to just showing up. Contact info is available through the link above.

Burns Bog Earth Day Pilgrimage

This takes place Sunday afternoon, in the Delta Nature Reserve, B.C. (just outside Vancouver). It's going to involve an easy walk through the wetland, and some music performed by special guests. Performers will sing, drum, and dance as we walk through the reserve. You don't need to register in advance, just show up. Details are available at the society's website and Facebook page.

A nature tour through Burns Bog from two years ago.

Burnaby Lake Association Weedbusters

While not specifically aimed at Earth Day, what better way to celebrate than by helping make a difference with some hands-on stewardship. The BLA will be removing invasive species (non-native plants that have become established and replaced native species) around Burnaby Lake. They'll provide gloves, tools, and snacks. Dress for the weather and be prepared to work off-trail in the woods. It's for all ages, it runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Again, info is available at the link above.

Those are just a few examples of events going on in and around Vancouver for Earth Day 2017. There are many others, including a parade, other stewardship events, and outdoor photography courses/workshops. If you Google "earth day events in Metro Vancouver" you'll get plenty from which to choose.

Just pick one - and enjoy the day.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

World Wetlands Day: time to save a duck, a gator, your drinking water...

Another busy day at Reifel.
"When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum…"
- Henry David Thoreau

Today is World Wetlands Day. (Yeah, it's Groundhog Day too - but he already gets enough publicity.)

In case you're not quite sure what a wetland is, according to the US EPA, it is: "... areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season."

Still not sure about the value of wetlands? Well, they:
  • act as natural sponges
  • filter pollutants, helping provide clean drinking water
  • absorb rainfall, reducing floods and droughts
  • reduce the speed and height of storm surges
  • provide food and habitat for huge variety of birds and wildlife
  • provide a lace for recreation and reflection

I've visited a number of wetlands around North America. Three of my favourites are located in three very different environments.

One of my favourite places to hang out near my Vancouver home is the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary just outside Ladner, B.C. It's part of a coastal wetland jutting onto the ocean in places, and just a half-hour's drive from the Vancouver International Airport. There you'll find yourself in a wetland paradise full of ducks, geese, cranes, and herons - not to mention songbirds like red-winged blackbirds or raptors like bald eagles or marsh hawks (a.k.a. northern harriers).
Black crowned night heron.
 I won't go into too much detail about the sanctuary itself, its history and its functions; that can all be gleaned from the sanctuary website .
I will say that although it is a stopping place for birds migrating north and south in the spring and fall, respectively - an avian "motel" of sorts - it is also a year-round home for many other birds.
Reifel is one of those rare spots you can visit again and again, and never tire of going there. It's a special place where you can get close to nature without having to drive too far from your front step, if you live in the Greater Vancouver area. 
The experiences there are pretty much the same every time, but for me, there's always one gem of an experience I have that's a bit different each time, something that sets that visit apart from others.  
Once I saw a great blue heron fly across a pond and alight on a log right in front of me. It then proceeded to spend several minutes grooming itself while I shot videos and images of the bird.
Another time, I was able to watch and record a pair of sandhill cranes strolling along the edge of the marsh. You won't see these large, rare and beautiful birds every time you go to Reifel, but I have seen them on more than one occasion.
A blue heron grooms at Reifel.
I saw my first  black-crowned night heron there; also, my first northern shoveller, my first bufflehead, my first...well, you get the idea.
It's a great place to take kids, too, and get them to experience and enjoy nature.


Oak Hammock is a prairie wetland located, in southern Manitoba near Winnipeg. I spent a day there several years ago and I was amazed at the variety and diversity of bird life there. Of course, it helped that I was paddling; there’s no better way to see birds – especially wetland species – than from a canoe.
The Coot family.
A total of  296 different bird species have been recorded there. While I certainly did not approach that number, I was not disappointed. Just minutes into our journey, we spotted an American coot with babies. 

During my day's paddle, I spied gulls, terns, blackbirds, and several other species. 
The highlight came as we paddled quietly toward a small island covered with American white pelicans. 
When we came too close for their comfort, it was as if someone pressed a button - they took off en masse, a white cloud of flapping feathers rising up into the sky.

Just north of the Florida panhandle in southern Georgia, in the middle of a wild, wet southern wilderness, sits this gem locals call simply, "The Swamp." 

I once spent three days canoeing and camping in this wonderful reserve with Okefenokee Adventures, the go-to adventure tour operator for the area. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the area.

Like the other two spots described above, it's a great place for birds. While there exploring it, I saw a sandhill crane, several egrets and a green heron.
You'll see plenty of gators in "The Swamp."

Because it's so not as close to an urban centre as the other two, it boasts a far wider variety of wildlife in including deer, black bears and its iconic reptile: the American alligator.

I saw many of them, and a few deer, but no bears.
It's a wonderful place for a naturalist to hang out, and like Oak Hammock, it's only accessible by canoe. 

The point to all this? 

Without wetlands, none of these creatures would have homes. And surely that's reason enough to be concerned and to practice wetland conservation by supporting groups that focus on conserving wetlands, where it's a big national organization like Ducks Unlimited or a smaller local group like the Reifel Sanctuary or the Burns Bog Conservation Society. 

Then go out and enjoy a wetland.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Autumn: how do I love thee...?

... let me count the ways.

I've often mentioned that September and October are my favorite months of the year. Fall is definitely my favourite season. But why is that? 

Fall paddling along the Rideau.

As October comes to a close, here are some of the reasons for loving this season, from an outdoors/travel perspective.

1. I love the fall colours. Granted, we don't get them in B.C. like I did growing up back east in Ontario or going to university in New Brunswick, but we get a bit of colour. 

Of course, if you want to experience those colours, that's a great reason to visit a place like Lanark County, Ontario and enjoy some of the wonderful experiences just waiting for you - and while you're enjoying them, you can take in the fall beauty.

2. Usually until the last week or so, the days are still warm, but not too warm - and the nights are wonderfully cool.

3. It's cool enough to use the fireplaces in any building in which you're ensconced.

4. It's still warm enough to go canoeing or kayaking comfortably. (Mind you, is it ever too cold? I once did a three-day canoe trip in north central Saskatchewan in October, with bits of snow falling the first day!)

Paddling into the fall.

5. While it's still warm, all the bugs are gone, for the most part.

6. Kids are back in school, so it's not as busy at recreational areas like parks, pools, lakes, etc., at least not during the week.

7. There are no goofy holidays that have emotional meanings attached to them (Christmas, Easter), causing family around the country to pressure you to "spend quality time" with them, even if it costs an arm and a leg to fly there.

8. Although it's warm, it's probably cool enough to justify "adding a nip" of something to your coffee or hot chocolate to give it extra warmth.

Trumpeter swans winging their way south.
9. It's an amazing time of the year for watching migrations of wild birds. Some spectacular displays of birds like snow geese are there for the watching.

The best place to see these flights of fowl is at a nearby bird sanctuary, like George C. Reifel in Ladner, B.C. or Cape Tourmente, near Quebec City. 

Check your area, you're sure to find not too far away.

10. Did I mention the colours?

What are some of your favourite reasons to love travel and the outdoors in the fall?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

National wildlife refuges offer cool travel experiences

Egrets are just one of the bird species found in Merritt Island.
One of the main reasons I travel is to see wildlife close up, to see wild animals in their native habitat.

I've been more than fortunate in my lifetime, that I've seen so many different wild animals in so many different countries: lions and gorillas in Africa, crocodiles and capybaras in South America, orangutans and gibbons in Borneo, to name but a few.

While there are still several on my list of "want-to's" (kangaroos and koalas in Oz, komodos in Indonesia to name but a few), I certainly feel extremely grateful that I've seen what I have.

Some of my best experiences have come right here in North America. And that's what the focus of this piece will be: wildlife at home. More specifically, wildlife found in the National Wildlife Refuges of the U.S., because it is National Wildlife Refuge Week.

NWR's are not the same as national parks, although some exist as part of a national park. In the U.S., National Parks are located in unique natural places and developed to serve a large number of visitors. Facilities for cars and walking are given priority.  

National wildlife refuges, on the other hand, come in all sizes, from tiny to enormous. On average there are more than 10 refuges per state (with 560 nationally). Their primary function is to help conserve wildlife, fish and plant resources and their habitats.

When I started looking at the number of parks I've visited in the U.S., compared with wildlife refuges, I was surprised. I've been to five NWR's but only a pair of NP's - and in one of those parks, I spent much of my time in the NWR.

Anyway, here, without further ado, are some thumbnail sketches of the refuges I've visited.

Merritt Island NWR. Located near Titusville, Florida, this place is a bird-watcher's paradise. I spotted my first roseate spoonbills here. It was also here I saw some of my first wild American alligators. Along with the wildlife there, the refuge is very unique, in that it sits in the shadow of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Florida Panther NWR. Just a short drive from Naples, Florida, this spot is set aside to try to conserve the highly-endangered Florida panther (the animal, not the NHL team!). The Florida panther is an endangered subspecies of Puma concolor, and is the only breeding population east of the Mississippi River. While hiking through the refuge, I didn't spy any panthers, just some deer and woodpeckers.
A woodpecker in the Key Deer NWR.

National Key Deer NWR. Located in the lower Florida Keys, it consists of about 9,200 acres of land comprised of pine rockland forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands, salt marsh wetlands, and mangrove forests. It's home to the tiny Key deer - the only place in the world they're found. Didn't see any during my tramp around the Jack C. Watson wildlife trail, but again saw a red-bellied woodpecker. 

Ten Thousand Islands NWR. Situated in Everglades National Park, this area is not typically what you might envision when someone says "everglades." 

It sits right on the Gulf of Mexico, and the islands are mainly mangrove islands. While paddling on a four day day kayak trip there, I managed to see dolphins, turtles, manatees, raccoons, and numerous types of birds, including a cardinal, two ospreys, herons, and several egrets.

Okefenokee NWR. Just north of the Florida panhandle in southern Georgia, I spent three days canoeing and camping in this wonderful reserve with Okefenokee Adventures, the go-to adventure tour operator for the area. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the area.

Alligators: one of the apex predators in the Okefenokee.

We saw several alligators, some deer, a few snakes, and numerous birds - including a sandhill crane, green heron and some egrets. A wonderful place for a naturalist to hang out, it's only accessible by canoe.

These are just a few of the NWR's around the USA, so if you get a chance this week, check out one of the refuges in your neck of the woods. Some refuges offer activities to mark the week, or you can just go on your own and enjoy nature. Because as Henry David Thoreau remarked, "We need the tonic of wildness..."

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Favourite travel flicks (that don't involve Christmas)

If you have an urge to travel, but for whatever reason, you can't the next best option may be to watch a movie about travel. Or at least one that will take you on a journey of some kind.

Last December, I penned a post about some of my favourite Christmas movies, and they all involved some element of travel.

I've shared some of my favourite travel books in the past; now here are some of my favourite "travel" movies. They're not travelogues or documentaries about travel; they're fictional action movies that involve a fairly prominent degree of travel.

You may notice none of them involve paddling trips or anything to do with parrots; that's because I plan to blog about those more specific types of travel experiences in the movies in some future posts.

So they are - some of my favourite travel movies.

Any Indiana Jones movie. These movies may have inspired many to launch a career in archaeology (although if they did not heed Indy's words, "We do not follow maps to buried treasure - and 'X' never, ever marks the spot," they might be disappointed). Not many movie series involve more travel than this franchise. Indy's in South America, Nepal, Egypt, China, India, Italy, Austria, Germany, and even the fictional country of the Republic of Hatay (filmed in Jordan). Plus they always feature those cool "map route" video views.

Across the Pacific

You really can't beat the series for travel.

Any James Bond movie. Right on the heels of the Indy Jones flicks (some would say just ahead of) are the adventures of British spy 007.

That's a long list of places 007 has visited...
There's no doubt he gets around...the first Bond movie I ever watched featured him in China and Japan (You Only Live Twice).

The next time I saw him, he was in Venice (like Indy in that city, he's in the company of a ravishing blonde), then Brazil - then outer space! He's also been to India, Thailand, Cuba, the USA, Korea, Iceland, Montenegro, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

He's travelled by air, by boat, by space ship, by car (with that famous Aston Martin) and by train. He really gets around, that James...

Murder on the Orient Express. One of Bond's best-known scenes is the fight with SPECTRE assassin Red Grant while on the Orient Express in From Russia with Love. It's much more violent than the murder committed in the 1974 movie based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel, but like FRWL, it starts out in Turkey and heads east toward Paris. It's not only a great whodunit, it involves travel on one of history's most luxurious trains.

High Road to China. A 1983 adventure flick set in the 1920s, starring Tom Selleck - the man who almost became Indy Jones ahead of Harrison Ford (think about that). But his contract with the Magnum P.I. television series would not allow it.

Selleck plays a pilot hired to fly from Istanbul (how do all these movies seem to start in Istanbul?) to China to find her missing father. It's a real fun flick to watch.

King Solomon's Mines. Based on the book by H. Rider Haggard, there are several versions of this movie, but my favourite is the 1950 release starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. Again, the main female lead hires the main male lead to help her find a missing person, this time a husband and along the way through unexplored Africa of the 19th century, they find the famous diamond mines.

There's no word on whether Kerr's character arrives in Kenya via Turkey. But you never know...

Watch out for the rhinos!

Alaska. Starring a young Thora Birch and Dirk Benedict (Faceman from "The A Team" television series), this is a family adventure movie about two kids looking for their bush pilot father who's crashed somewhere in the remote Alaskan wilderness. They kayak and hike their way through the wilds to find him, stopping an evil poacher (played, appropriately, by Charlton Heston) and saving a polar bear cub along the way.

How the West was Won. Based on the Louis L'Amour novel of the same time, this star-studded flick - featuring the likes of James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Karl Malden, and George Peppard to name but a few - chronicles the spread of American settlers from the eastern seaboard westward across the plains to the mountains on the Pacific coast. They travel by canal ferry, canoe, river raft, wagon train, paddlewheeler, horseback, and locomotive across the land and across the screen.

To the Ends of the Earth. A film noir movie from 1948, it follows the travels of US narcotics agent Michael Barrows (played by Dick Powell) from San Francisco to Shanghai, from Shanghai to Egypt, from Egypt to the Caribbean as he tracks a gang of murderous drug lords. Really well done, and it has a very surprising twist at the end. (He never makes it to Turkey, though!)

Around the World in 80 Days. I've seen two versions of this movie based on the book by Jules Verne and enjoyed them both immensely, one with David Niven starring as Phileas Fogg, the other with Pierce Brosnan playing the main character. They travel around the world from London and back, by balloon, steamer, and rail, racing against the clock to win a bet. Great fun.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The original Hemingway story takes place only in Africa, but in the movie with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, and Ava Gardner, it has the main character - writer Harry Street - also showing up in Spain and Italy as part of the back story, told through the device of flashback. Good stuff, a pretty decent adaptation of the short story.

Ava Gardner is one of the lovely ladies in this film.

So...those are some of my favourite travel movies - what are yours?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

There are souvenirs - and there are SOUVENIRS

Memories are made of this...
Everyone likes to take home reminders, mementos of their travels abroad. For years, souvenirs have
been part of the travel experience. Aside from photos, they provide the best physical reminders of journeys.

Like everything else in life, this has its good points and bad points.

The best mementos often consist of something you cannot get at home, something produced by a local craftsman, something unique and special that calls back a specific memory of a trip.

The worst consist of the kitschy plastic mass-produced commercial souvenirs purchased often in airport gift shops, often before boarding a plane to leave and return home.

In no way is this meant to criticize anyone who purchases the latter on a trip. Hell, I have more than a few souvenir ball caps and beer mugs myself, from many of the places I've visited.

But I also have plenty of authentic pieces of art, crafts, and other reminders of my journeys. And while I enjoy sporting a cap that proclaims, "I've gone kayaking in the Cayman Islands," most of my favourite souvenirs are these hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind pieces of work.

Of course, those do the most good for local people, particularly in Third World Countries, and that's the best reason for spending at least a good portion of your souvenir budget on those types of souvenirs.

Lately, I've been favouring experiences over objects, trying to keep the clutter in my house down. However, I still will purchase special gifts from time to time when I travel abroad.

Here are some of my favourite items from past trips, in no particular order (I'm limiting each destination to just one souvenir - otherwise I could take up the entire list with objects from Africa.)

1. Wooden drum from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It's pictured above with a table from Malawi and a wine goblet from Tanzania. This was a really tough call, we traded for/purchased so many cool items in Africa, all created by individual artisans. They're scattered throughout our living room. As I mentioned in a post last month, half the fun - and all the memories! - of these souvenirs resulted from the bartering process.
Nothing like a good sacrifice to spruce up the kitchen!

2. Mayan wall carving. Obtained this one at a market in the city of San Ignacio, Belize, located right next to the Guatemalan border. I think it was actually someone from Guatemala selling it, but it looked really cool, and always serves as a reminder of my very first international trip, and a week spent in the Maya Mountains.

3.  Woven bag. This one was purchased partly out of necessity.

It's colourful and handy - I picked it up in a market in Ollantaytambo, Peru. And thanks to the work of my guide Liliana Bayona, who rapidly talked the seller down in Spanish during some rapid bargaining, I paid much less for it than they wanted me to, initially.

(Sadly, there's no picture of this - the mice got to it during an infestation a few years ago.)

Iban hornbill bowl.
4. Hornbill bowl. I picked up this carving at an Iban village in Malaysian Borneo. Because in a blog entitled "Parrots, Paddling and Ponderings," you have to expect I would include at least one bird item in my list, don't you? I was lucky to get the only one, as some of the rest of my group also liked it.

5. Huaorani blowgun. This is an actual blowgun used by this tribe in the Amazon rain forests of Ecuador (which offers much more than just the Galapagos, I might add).

We paddled with some of them in kayaks down the Rio Shiripuno for five days, spending one day in their village. Great experience.

The Huaorani blowgun: don't leave the village without it.
What are some of your favourite travel souvenirs?

While you're pondering that, you can listen to "Souvenirs" by John Prine.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Learning what it is I do - in Swahili

People in Africa really are as curious about us as we are, them.
Travelling in Africa taught me many things, and sometimes the lessons had to be repeated more than once for me to learn them.

The people there seem to have a real curiosity about others, a real desire to interact and learn about people from other places. 

I saw this on several occasions during a month-and-a-half, seven-country overland tour through East and Central Africa, but the most shining example I saw of this took place on the road in Tanzania between the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park.

During our travels there, the main highway through the country was a dirt road; the only paved roads we encountered during our entire journey from one end of the country to the other was in the larger cities. We spent many of our nights bush-camping, either on the side of a rural road or in a schoolyard (with permission). 

Roadside or schoolyard, it made no difference. The minute we pulled up and began setting up camp for the night, local people would appear, almost as if they’d been invisible and decided at that point to show themselves to us.

Most of the time, the people would just would watch and smile. Occasionally they would whisper to each other, laughing quietly from time to time. I can only imagine what they were thinking about these strange visitors from another place who obviously were very well off – but who chose to cook on open fires and sleep on the ground in pup tents.

Every now and then, one or two would reach out to us – or sometimes we’d reach out to them – and a connection would be made. 

In most of these attempts at connection, we often found their English to be limited - but it was still usually better than our “phrasebook Swahili.” If I wanted to say anything other than a hello, ask for beer or thank someone, I had to look it up.

As it turned out, I found out how to say something in Swahili I never expected to learn – but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

We always had plenty of interaction whenever we stopped to look at souvenirs produced by local craftsmen, and it was always lively, interesting, and entertaining - especially when clothes like hats, sneakers, and colorful T-shirts entered into the mix and became more valuable than currency, which they often did.

It is the nature of merchants to be gregarious, particularly in the bartering culture we encountered so many times during our travels through Africa. They truly enjoyed the interaction, the give-and-take, as much as making an actual sale. It was a social event. And I’m sure they often felt they got the better deal – just like we did.

On one particular day, we were driving along the road after leaving the Crater and saw several road-side stands that offered African carvings, shields and spears, drums, masks – everything that said “Africa.” The lorry we travelled in pulled over and out we poured, 20 of us from North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, ready to do business in the African bush.

The craftsmen had some wonderful merchandise, and the biggest difficulty was not finding something we liked, but rather limiting ourselves to a reasonable amount of goods. After all, we did have to transport this back to North America at the end of our trip. We already had accumulated quite a collection during our travels through Central Africa and Tanzania, so we had to try to exercise a bit of restraint.

No restraint? you end up with lots of Africa art in your home.

Myself, and my long-time travelling companion the Divine Ms. K, I found ourselves caught up in several negotiations for several different pieces. She is just as good a negotiator as I am, and once she set her eyes on a pair of Masai figures carved out of ebony wood, she was not leaving until she had them

But she had no intention of overpaying, either.

Once the man she was negotiating with realized this, once he figured out this might take a while, he motioned to someone, and a short, hand-carved wooden stool appeared by Ann’s side. He set it down, smiled broadly and said to her, “Here, this is for you – please, sit,” as he patted the well-worn top of the stool.

Sit she did, and then the bartering got really serious.

It was at that point that Russell, our tour leader, came over and said, “Some of the others want to go back down the road a couple of miles to another group of souvenir stands we passed. But it looks like you’re going to be a while.”

I looked at the negotiation, grinned and said, “Looks that way.”

“Do you feel comfortable being left here on your own for a while so we can backtrack down the road to the other stands? We won’t be more than 30 minutes, then we’ll pick you up on the way back to continue on our way to Tarangire.”

To be honest, I didn’t feel that comfortable. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, although there looked to be a few buildings across and down the road a bit, within walking distance. But Ann was having a great time and I didn’t want to be a spoilsport; however, I couldn’t keep the group there, either.

So I nodded, and said “Sure. See you in a bit.”

I had to fight down a bit of nervousness as I watched the lorry pull away, leaving the two of us alone at a roadside craft stand in the middle of the bush in Tanzania.

I overcame some of my nervousness by turning to watch the negotiations for the figures. It had continued unabated during my chat with Russell, and it had drawn quite a crowd by this point. Everyone was enjoying this entertaining new spectator sport: “Memsahib Ann” vs. “Trader Kwanza” in a five-round, no-holds barred, bartering spectacular.

(My occupation was showing. Again, more on that in a bit.)

“Someone should sell tickets for this,” I thought to myself.

Eventually they reached an agreement, both smiling, both figuring they had got the best of the other – but not by too much. Helpers moved to wrap and package the figures she’d purchased along with the items I’d already acquired in the “preliminary bartering bout.” They thanked us, as other merchants tried to persuade us to look at their wares. However, at this point, we were done. Besides, we only had so many arms to carry all this stuff.

This South Africa market is a bit more upscale than the ones we found in Tanzania.

Now – where was that lorry?

Two or three young men of high school age had been watching the proceedings and enjoying the show. They saw that we looked a bit lost at this point, a bit uncertain about what to do next, since there weren’t any bus stops or roadside pullouts where we could sit and wait for the group’s return.
“We would very much like to buy you a Coke,” one of them said in Swahili-accented English. “We can go into that place over there,” he pointed across the road to one of the buildings. “You can sit and wait for your friends and have something cold to drink.”

Of course, ever the paranoiac, my internal alarm bells went off immediately. I was hesitant, a bit leery of accepting the invitation. Could this be one of those cases where we became a news story about two overly trusting white tourists being mugged in Africa?

I tried to hedge my bet, saying, “Well, I don’t know if we have time, the lorry might be back any minute…I don’t want them to drive by without stopping, they might forget about us if we’re not there by the road…”

Ann, of course, had no such qualms.

“We’ll be fine, they won’t leave without us,” she chimed in, still flush and elated from her trading frenzy. “We can probably see the road from the confectionary and run out if it looks like they’re passing us by.”

“Well, I don’t know…”

But as the conversation continued, we continued to drift down the road and then across it, with our new companions. I didn’t want to insult them if they were genuine, but I didn’t want to put us at risk, either – or tip my hand that I thought they were up to something, if they were.

“C’mon, I’m thirsty, I could use a Coke,” she said.

So off we went. Myself, a bit reluctantly.

“Well, at least I don’t have all my camera gear with me,” I thought. “That makes me a less desirable target.”

It turned out my fears were completely unfounded. Like the vast majority of people we met in small communities along the way all through Tanzania and Malawi, they just wanted to be friendly, to share their culture, and learn about us and ours.

They insisted on paying for the Cokes, refused to take anything from us.

It did come with a price, though.


They peppered us with questions.

“Where are you from, the United States?”

“No, we’re from Canada, it’s above the U.S. if you look on a map or globe of the world.”

“Where do you live in Canada?”

“We’re from British Columbia.”

“Is that near Colorado?”

And on the conversations went as we sipped our drinks. Suddenly, it wasn’t so important for the lorry to return so quickly.

The most curious and talkative one of the group, the one who offered to buy us drinks originally, asked me what I did for a living. At the time I was a sports writer, and I explained to him what it was that my job involved.

“Would you like to know how to say that in Swahili?” he said.

Of course I did.

He said it, once, then twice, as I tried to repeat it. We all laughed at that. He then wrote it out for me: “Michezo mwandishi.”

Better check that phrase book, again...
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t find that in any phrase book.

We chatted a bit more, then before we knew it, the lorry had come back and was slowing down just past the souvenir stands where they’d left us to look for bargains elsewhere.

It turned out, we got the best bargain of all, and it wasn’t something you could wrap up in paper and ship home.

We said good-bye to our new friends and climbed aboard to head off down the road to more adventures.

Aside from learning how to say my occupation in Swahili, I took much away from that encounter.

All throughout our journey, we met people who had a hunger for knowledge – knowledge about the world outside of their own, a thirst for learning about other people, a craving to connect. That was never more evident than that particular meeting, where a young man - whose family probably made less in a year than I did in a month - insisted he treat me, a visitor, to a cold drink in the local confectionary.

And despite having so little material wealth, they all seemed to be so happy and so friendly and so eager to connect.

That human connection is so vital to our well-being - whether it’s connecting with someone in Africa, or just making a connection with your neighbor down the street.

It also taught me that the secret to happiness is not how much you have or how much you can buy or barter for, but how you relate to others, the richness that comes from sharing…sharing a Coke, sharing a joke, sharing language, sharing experiences.

At times throughout the years since, I’ve struggled to remember that, to maintain it. Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail. But when I’m in one of those downer funks, sometimes it helps me to think back to those young men in Africa, and how happy they were just to buy a treat for a visitor that they knew they would probably never see again.
Sometimes that helps lift me out of it. And I think how no price could ever really be put on that invaluable Coke I sipped in rural Africa so many years ago.