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Threading

image of fence post, drawing by Randall Wood

Threading my steps along

that stone-strewn way I missed

the breathless luminescence of

cactus flower, hovering among

the spines.

Neither did I glance

up from my path in Time

to glimpse the newly

washed faces in radiant grin.

But weaving

through the litter over

scarred earth I thought

as I bent to the ground,

Why do I see only sadness?

-- Esteli, 1998

Mynahs by Morne

Bulbul, Mauritius

We left Mauritius in December of 2010, thinking it was as far as we'd ever traveled, and that we were leaving a piece of paradise, never to return. So I was shocked to find myself there again only eight years later. It's as far as I remember, but when you reach a destination at the end of many, individual jumps, it seems farther. Continue reading "Mynahs by Morne"

The Sands of Hargeisa

Hargeisa, Somalia

It must have been around late 2014 after a full nine years in West Africa: I was deathly bored of the continuous struggle to invest in the governments of poor places while remaining infinitely wary for the fraud and misuse that comes with the pleasure of spending another people's money. I desperately wanted to leave the donor business. "Also," I told Ericka, " if I don't get out of this sector, some day I'm going to find myself on a plane to Somalia or something."

So the irony wasn't lost on me when I boarded a plane for Hargeisa just a few years later. Continue reading "The Sands of Hargeisa"

Addis Ababa

Addis

I'd been predisposed to hate Addis. I knew the hills outside of Addis were green and beautiful, and a friend who had worked there frequently told me Ethiopia itself was wonderously beautiful. "But not Addis," he added. Fair enough, few emerging market capitals are what you would call lovely. But a popular travel writer characterised the place as filthy and rutted and festering, and that's the image I braced myself for as I arrived.

Instead, Addis was pretty interesting. Continue reading "Addis Ababa"

Nairobi

I first visited Nairobi in 2007 with Ericka. Coming off a week-long safari, we needed to find someplace to spend the night before flying onward, and found a mid-range hotel on the edge of town closest to the airport, where we spent an awful, noisy night listening to the adjacent bus terminal and sweating on questionable sheets. Morning came soon enough, and we hoofed it out to Jomo Kenyatta airport and got on with our lives. No metropolitan center can compete with the magic of one's first visit to the Masai Mara or Samburu National Park, but Nairobi was a necessary evil to that trip, not a destination.

Two years later we passed through on the way to the Seychelles, and stayed with friends in an upscale, gated community burgeoning with diplomats and expat aid workers. The houses were lovely, with manicured green gardens sparkling under the tropical sun, and their shaded interiors whispered of hard woods and cool evenings. But the traffic we experienced getting across town to our friends' house! It was shocking.

I found myself in Kenya a third time ... and then again ... Continue reading "Nairobi"

Ssezibwa Falls

Ssezibwa Falls

You could find it halfway between Kampala (the capital and our home), and Jinja, the famed source of the Nile: Ssezibwa Falls, a lovely little waterfall and an easy day-trip out of town. So Christmas morning after the kids had opened presents, we bundled children and dog into the car and sauntered out of town to check it out.

Turning off the highway, we followed a dirt track through fields of sugar cane, down across an irrigation channel, and further down into a little forest, a grove of Eucalyptus and hardwoods, a glade I suppose. And we saw it. What a gorgeous waterfall. The water appeared out of nowhere, rounding a last-minute bend in the river. And then it dropped from about 100 feet, churned in a fast spinning pool, and poured forth in a stream that immediately divided to swallow both sides of a little island. The two streams rejoined a few dozen meters afterwards in a shady, little forested spot, and then disappeared out of sight as it headed down to Lake Victoria.

Continue reading "Ssezibwa Falls"

The Jakarta Train

As you travel through life and across the Earth, some things stick with you, and some things are lost. I lived and worked in Boston for two years and can't remember a single street name. I studied at Cornell for four years and can't remember the names of buildings I visited every day. But I remember this instant vividly, and think about it frequently. It has become a part of me.

I'd traveled to Indonesia alone, and had landed only hours ago, toting nothing but a huge, wheeled trunk carrying my belongings, and a camper's backpack with the rest. I spoke good Bahasa Indonesia but was a fish out of water otherwise: disoriented, traveling for the first time ever, and in a country so non-Western as to be totally confusing in ways you'd never experience on your first excursion to a place like Spain. I'd gotten myself from the airport to the train station only to be told I couldn't travel with the trunk, which was too heavy and would block the aisle.1 They gave me the address of a freight forwarder, and suggested I take the Jakarta inner city rail across town to get there. OK ... Continue reading "The Jakarta Train"

Bongoyo Island

Off the famed Swahili coast are a number of sand-swept islands and islets that provide the gorgeous, natural backdrop for so many adoring "Swahili Style" coffee table books. You'd know Swahili style if you saw it: rough-hewn furniture from dark woods like Moringa and ebony, a touch of safari in the canvas accoutrements, bits of colored glass, and a color scheme composed of whites, turqouise, and dark, wooden colors. And if you're spending your days at the business end of a computer in a modern, American office, the Swahili coast really is a change in lifestyle that can repair a bruised soul.

If you've been living in Africa for a decade though, Swahili style starts to seem a little put on, a little "created" a little "invented for the tourists". Continue reading "Bongoyo Island"

Kabale

Kabale fields

A few places remain on earth where the beauty of nature rises to catch the casual eye, but avoids the gaze of the rampaging tourist keen on seeing "the sights" Kabale is such a place, and I count myself as fortunate for having had the rare and surprising opportunity to spend some time there in 2015.

Eight hours west of Kampala, nestled just over the line from Rwanda, and not all that far from the famed Rwenzori mountains that draw the masses in search of gorillas, Kabale is a quiet, farming town nestled at the southern tip of a valley carved millenia ago by glaciers. Unless you had reason to stop there, you'd almost certainly whiz right by, on your way to a border crossing, or a trekking adventure with reclusive animals. And you'd miss something lovely.

The land's natural fertility and the rich peat soils give up vegetables of all sorts here, from Irish potatoes to cabbage and carrots, and the morning sun chases the mist off the chilly fields before the equatorial heat seeps in. But the temperature remains chilly here, especially at night: you're well over a thousand meters up here, nestled in the thin branches of pines and surrounded by bird song.

These days I visit lovely little, quiet corners of the earth, and imagine what a lovely site it would be for a Peace Corps volunteer, arriving with two duffles full of books, and a pouch containing pen and ink: watch the smoke curl from the wood stoves, watch the stars wheel over the horizon, sit back and marvel at the wonder in God's limitless universe.

The Selokang of Yogyakarta

Our daily routine was lovely, and changed little over the year: the classes we taught started in mid- and late-afternoon, and therefore sometime after a casual morning of reading, preparing lessons, or running errands and exploring, it was time to make the commute to school.

That meant saddling up our bikes and riding the sandy, back roads from Pogung Baru on the outer limits of "urban" Yogyakarta down through the villages and rice paddies of Central Java to school. It was one hell of a ride, and before long we knew the longest route possible that permitted us to avoid the hectic and slightly dangerous traffic of Jalan Kaliurang. When we rejoined the highway and turned our bikes eastward towards central Yoyyakarta, it was when we'd reached the Selokang.

No other feature on our route was as much a topic of conversation.

Continue reading "The Selokang of Yogyakarta"

Fires

Rodeo Grande

It made perfect sense on paper, when you looked at a map: why return to Condega from Rodeo Grande through Somotillo, Chinandega, Leon, San Isidro, and Esteli, when there was so clearly a road that led from just north of Rodeo Grande to San Juan de Limay and then to Esteli? Another option, a road to Somoto (also close by) remained still unrealized. "We'll decide later," we thought, about what we'd do. The long way back home is certainly better known, more secure, perhaps easier. But to complete the circle?

The bus passes at 5:10 AM, we were told, and the point where I'd catch it lie a decent two hours' walk north of here, or perhaps more. M had walked it once before, or rather, had traversed it on horseback when it was nothing more than a trocha (footpath). Just a few weeks ago however they'd formed it into a real road with bulldozers and heavy equipment. Should be easy to follow, perhaps even an adventure. A slow tranquil day passed as we made our decision. M cut up pineapple and mangoes and I made pancakes we ate with syrup and strawberry jam. Green tea with sugar sip by sip. Lounging in the hammock in the doorway chatting about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Lounging in the tijera in her bedroom looking at pictures. The heat, the darkness of that back room, children's voices everywhere, her hound dog Maggie reclined at my feet. 'I can't believe how much she loves you,' says M.

Mid afternoon, and putting the pictures away, nap for a half hour or so. Then, waking up, the decision must be made: Do we leave then, spend the night in San Francisco del Norte (San Pancho) and catch the bus directly? Or, do we putz around the house all evening, then leave at 3AM to catch the bus, walking all night and hopefully under moonlight? Well, it was obvious: we leave tonight. Continue reading "Fires"

By Tramp Freighter Across the Lower Sundas

August, 1993:For weeks I'd traveled eastward across Java, Bali, and the Lesser Sunda Islands. But it was time to head back to Java to begin work and an adventure of a different sort. Evaluating my choices from rural, remote Larantuka, Flores, my options were stark: the next Pelni ship wouldn't reach Surabaya until far too late, and getting there sooner meant retracing my steps across dozens of long bus rides. Wandering around the port town I made a friend in a young Flores teenager interested in practicing his English with me, and as I described to him in Bahasa my predicament, he proposed what was soon to become one of my best adventures ever, unsurpassed on three continents. "Because we are friends," he explained, "and I want you to be alright."

Down in Larantuka's busy port, a tramp steamer bound westward through the Flores Sea for Surabaya was planning to slip its mooring later that night. Gusty, his older brother, and I located the captain and struck a deal. The K.M. Nagimulia – about a hundred and twenty feet along the water line and looking well-loved but well-worn – was off with a load of copra, plus a few bits of miscellany like a beat-up old car. Another bit of miscellany was me: a young adventurer bearing nothing but a sun-bleached backpack, a journal and pen, and a paperback or two. Money exchanged hands, muffled conversations settled the terms and conditions, one of which was clearly the fact that my presence on board would go unreported, and I'd stay out of sight when necessary. Later, when a customs inspector saw me, I noticed more money exchanging hands. We departed on the eighth of August, not long after sunset, to cries of "bebas mereka!" ("we're free of them!") and before long the harbor had slipped below the horizon and we were headed westward in unruffled seas. Continue reading "By Tramp Freighter Across the Lower Sundas"

Santa Cruz and the Bolivian Lowlands

From Bolivia’s Altiplano down to Santa Cruz, aircraft require hardly any fuel whatsoever, as the course is a nearly free-fall trajectory down 2000 meters to Bolivia’s lush, green plains. They were gorgeous, but man is it another world. We arrived nearly a midnight to a town swamped with development conventions only to find the hotel had lost our reservations. Our guide had to scramble to find us a room elsewhere, and I personally wound up in a palatial, presidential suite in a place across town. The room reminded me of my house in Managua.

I attended a few round tables that didn’t excite me, and where the Bolivians didn’t seem to understand the nature of what we were doing. “Bolivians are tired of being asked about their development needs,” explained our counterpart back in La Paz a bit later: we’ve been doing it for so long, with so many partners, so many different ways. What never changes is after the round table is over, there is no action. I was overwhelmed with the sense of La Paz being perceived as practically an foreign, oppressor government. And my Bolivian friends wasted no time in talking to me about La Paz in a way that made clear the contradictions ran deep and were deeply personal. Continue reading "Santa Cruz and the Bolivian Lowlands"

The Hike from Candi Sukuh

Sheathed in forest on the middle slopes of Java’s Mount Lawu was a 15th century Hindu temple by the name of Candi Sukuh. Carrying only the backpack that had taken me across the Pacific and down half the length of Indonesia’s most densely populated island, I eschewed a 1000 Rupiah motocycle ride and began the long hike to the top. Bad Idea: it was exhausting, and even my “perfect travel bag” remained too over-packed: I was still learning how best to travel. But, it was also a Good Idea: I evaded the rest of the travelers and spent the walk amongst friendly Javanese. This is why we leave home, after all. I helped one old woman carry her things from the pasar (market), and some young women sitting coyly at roadside on a low wall of volcanic rock taught me the Javanese “sukueng siang” greeting, a near equivalent to the Bahasa I’d studied. I'd only been in Java a few days, but upon departing Yogyakarta in the direction of Surakarta, the adventures were already piling up. Continue reading "The Hike from Candi Sukuh"