Dr. Joan Steidinger Travels to Nepal

In the Himalayas.

For twenty hours straight, ultramartathoner Dr. Joan Steidinger ran and hiked through Nepali Hymalayas, braving harsh weather, rugged terrain and high altitudes. She was participating in the Action Asia Nepal stage race, and annual 100K event. The experience was rewarding, to say the least, but what really touched the Mill Valley resident and her husband, JP Poulson, was their work with the Freedom Children’s Welfare Center, a small orphanage in Kathmandu. “It was so touching to see how strong these children were, and wonderful to know that we could help make a difference in their lives,” Steidinger explains.

The concept was simple: attend a sport psychology conference in Hawaii then travel to Nepal and run a three day stage race to raise funds for a small Nepali orphanage.  Not being given much information about the race in the Langtang Valley region, the Nepal race was destined to become a major adventure.  The orphanage in Kathmandu was to become a major delight.

Destination

In September of 2010, my husband, JP, and I went trekking in Nepal. While we were there we met Pancha,  who is the chair of the board of directors at the Freedom Children’s Welfare Center, a small orphanage located on the outskirts of Kathmandu. JP and I instantly wanted to do something to help the center, and when  I heard about the Action Asia Nepal stage race, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Cause

The Freedom Children’s Welfare Center houses  26 children between the ages of five and eighteen; many of these older children never get adopted. Visiting the orphanage is both heart rendering and breaking, and many of the childrens’ stories truly touched us. Take Angyil, for example. A friendly and outgoing five year old with short brown hair and a wide smile, his father deserted him and his mother shortly after his birth. For a brief while, he was raised in the loving arms of his petite, brown eyed mother, but she became suddenly ill and passed away when Angyil was only one and a half. Thankfully, Pancha took Angyil in immediately, and he was the child greeting committee when we arrived at the white, three story stucco orphanage.

It felt good to know that we could help raise money for these children through the Action Asia Nepal stage race. Taking place in the high altitude and rugged terrain of the Himalyayas, the event is meant for experienced  ultrarunners and fast hikers. With my solid training schedule of  multiple trail marathons, two 50Ks, and longer runs in between, I felt ready to go.

Highlights

Although difficult, the race was full of rewarding moments. One part of the race, for example, contained three climbs; the first two went from 5,000 to 7500 feet and back down, and the third went from 5,000 to 10,000 feet. They were extremely challenging, but reaching the top of the third climb was so  exhilarating. The view, which allowed us to look at the surrounding verdant forest of the Himalaya, was spectacular.

The day following the race, we went back to  the Freedom Children’s Welfare Center. We were greeted by the caretaker, Kamala, and Angyil and received a tour of the three story facility. We especially enjoyed watching the children play and fly kites on the roof. We also brought several boxes of books and stationary materials, and it was fun to watch the kids dive into the books, each selecting several; Angyil even brought his over to show me. In addition, we presented the orphanage with enough money to fund the educational costs for all 26 kids for a year.

Challenges

Getting over 100 people from all around the world into small mustard yellow, cherry red, and royal blue busses to drive to the location of the race proved to be a challenge in itself. On the drive, we encountered the smallest, most dangerous road we’ve ever been on in a bus, landslides included. The race itself was naturally a challenge, with rocky, unstable terrain, cold temperatures, and twenty hours of running and hiking.

Who Would you Recommend This Experience to?

The Action Asia Nepal stage race is an event for experienced
ultrarunners or fast hikers, so you must be willing to undertake a rigorous training schedule. Even if you’re not up for that, you can still help the Freedom Children’s Welfare Center through donations – they are always in need of school supplies, such as pens, paper, and note pads.

To learn more about Dr. Joan Steidinger, visit her website here.

Sage Tutors and Tam High Students travel to Ecuador

Since 2007, Sage tutors (Mill Valley and Larkspur) have taken several of their students on a summertime volunteer trip to Bahia de Caraquez, a city in Ecuador that was devastated by 1998 mudslides. Working with Planet Drum Foundation to re-vegetate and educate the city, this journey has proved life-changing not only for the impoverished residents of the area but for the Marin County students themselves.

Destination:

Six Sage tutors four Tam High students traveled to the small oceanside town of Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. We stayed there for two weeks before traveling around the country, making stops in Canoa, Mindo, Otavalo, Quito, Tena, and Banos.

Cause:

Since 2007, Sage has developed a partnership with Planet Drum Foundation’s Eco-Ecuador Project in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. After mudslides devastated Bahia during the El Nino storms of 1998, the coastal city committed to ecological sustainability, and Planet Drum has helped in this transition through revegetation, education, and thoughtful development. In our trip to Bahia, Sage volunteers participated in a range of activities: collecting and preparing seeds to be planted, collecting and cutting plastic bottles to make pots for seedlings, mixing compost and soil to nurture the seedlings, planting trees, watering revegetation sites, and using machetes to create trails. We also assisted in bioregionalism classes for local teens.

Highlights:

Although the volunteer work was challenging, it was also very rewarding. We could see the positive impact that Planet Drum was making on the town. After our volunteer work was done, we had some memorable adventures: zip-lining over the rainforest in Mindo, enjoying the beautiful beach in Canoa, rafting down an Amazon river in Tena, visiting (and even crawling behind) a massive waterfall in Banos, and shopping at a massive outdoor market in Otavalo. We also got to see the President of Ecuador when we stumbled upon a political gathering in the capital city, Quito. You can see more about particular highlights on our blog.

Challenges: 

Particularly in Bahia de Caraquez, we experienced living conditions that were much less comfortable than those we were accustomed to at home. In particular, clean water is a scarce resource there, so we had to learn how to live with less. This meant taking the shortest possible showers, using bottled water to brush our teeth, etc. We even ran out of water for several days and had to live without running water. This meant toting jugs of bottled water from a local store and using it very sparingly until our home’s cistern was refilled. In addition to the living conditions, the volunteer work was rigorous. Our adventures with the machetes were somewhat perilous—we even had one girl slice her ankle with the machete and get carried out of the jungle on a homemade stretcher! (She got stitches at the local hospital and was fine, but it was a scary moment.) We really had to come together as a team to ensure that everyone stayed safe.

Getting there:

We had 24 hours of straight travel to reach Bahia de Caraquez. First, we flew from San Francisco to Atlanta, then from Atlanta to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We arrived in Guayaquil around midnight and then waited for several hours in a bus station before boarding an early-morning bus to Bahia. That bus ride lasted for about six hours. It was a long trek. Click here for more info about that.

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Anyone who is looking to go off the beaten path. Planet Drum had a number of young volunteers from around the world, and all seemed to be energetic, adventurous, and unafraid to get their hands dirty!

13-year-old Chloe Bohannon Travels to Guatemala

Bohannon family with their Guatemalan family

Last November, 13-year-old Chloe Bohannon of Tiburon and her family traveled to Guatemala for a life-changing experience. Working with From Houses to Homes, a Guatemala- based non-profit, the Bohannon family built a solid home for a family in the town of Antigua. “On my last day building the house in November, I asked the 12 year old boy, Luis, what was the best part about his new home. He responded “ To know people think and care about us,” Chloe said. Although she is back at home and in her regular school routine, Chloe still thinks about what she calls her  “special Guatemalan family.”  She explains, “sleeping in their new home, they have the security of a locking door, the safety of a solid roof over the heads, and the assurance that there are four Americans in San Francisco that will always be their friends.”

Destination:

We were headed to Antigua, a beautiful colonial town nestled in a valley 45 minutes outside of Guatemala City, in the colorful country of Guatemala. The cobble-stoned town has wonderful architecture, artwork made by local craftsmen, fun restaurants, and lovely hotels with garden courtyards. This town offers many opportunities for travelers including volunteering in schools, taking language classes, or even building homes.

Cause:

When I first went to Guatemala with my mother I was twelve years old. Although I had been to a third world country before I was still nervous about what our adventure had in store. We were taking a two week language immersion course which included living with a local host family and taking one-on-one Spanish lessons. Through the talk of other travelers we learned about an inspiring non-profit called From Houses to Homes (FHTH). FHTH is an organization that builds homes for the poorest families in Guatemala. There are over a million corn stock homes in Guatemala, and FHTH is making an effort to change these numbers. So, the following Thanksgiving, I returned to Antigua with my mother, father, and brother to build a home. Over the course of five days, we built a house from start to finish. Working seven hours a day, we constructed a 13’x19’ cinderblock home with a locking door, cement floor and window. Alongside the receiving family, our team of seven volunteers lifted brick by brick until we painted the last stroke of paint. It was hard work, but, as FHTH says, “it is the hardest work you will love.”  At the end of the week we completed the 381st home built by the organization.

Highlights:

One of the highlights of my trip to Guatemala was building the house with the receiving family. Over time, we created such a bond.  Luis, the father of the family, was quite shy, but Else, the mother, smiled as we built her home.  She showed me how to weave with her loom and I also watched her do her chores such as washing laundry by hand and preparing meals over a tiny fire.  The couple’s three sons- Luis, 12, Yonny, 10 and Ezrus, 2- were constant entertainment. Even for my brother and father (who don’t speak much Spanish) it was great.  Whether we were playing soccer or just chatting, there was never a dull moment.

Another highlight was the Key Ceremony. At the end of the five days, when the house was finished, the volunteers passed over the keys to the receiving family. It was such an emotional moment. The receiving family was crying, the volunteers were crying – all tears of gratitude. The ceremony was a the perfect way to close an amazing week of volunteer work.

Challenges:

Traveling to Guatemala involves basic challenges similar to any third world country.  Before we left the States, my parents read up on travel safety in Guatemala on the US Department of Security website. As expected, we had to be careful around food and water (FHTH provided plenty of bottled water) and  when we were walking in Antigua we had to be careful with our bags. Also, it is generally recommended not to walk around late at night, so we were very cautious.

Getting there:

The flight to Guatemala from San Francisco was easy.  We flew to Los Angeles and took a six hour all-nighter on Delta, departing  at 10:45 pm and landing in Guatemala City at 5:30 am.  After clearing customs, FHTH greeted us to take us to Antigua. By 9am we were having a beautiful breakfast at Cafe Condessa in the town center of Antigua!  It was incredible that a relatively short plane ride could take us to such a foreign land!

Who would you recommend this experience to?

I would recommend this adventure to families in the Bay Area who are interested in traveling to a third world country in a meaningful way.  Anyone can stay in a hotel, walk the streets and buy the local crafts, but taking a trip that makes a difference to other people is a very special experience.  This was also a memorable bonding time with my family.  We were all working together in a way that is different than how we usually spend time together at home.

* Now, Chloe is focusing her efforts towards raising money to build homes in Guatemala. Check out her website, guatemalanexpressions.com, to view her incredible photography and see how you can help.

Dr. Elson Haas Travels to Ghana

Dr. Haas

Last summer, Dr. Elson Haas, author of dozens of books in the field of health and the founder and director of Preventive Medical Center of Marin, spent five weeks working with his 26-year old son Orion helping people in the villages of Ghana. Orion works with Global Brigades Africa, an NGO (non-government organization) supported by volunteers who provide medical brigades, clean water programs and micro-finance support to communities in Honduras and Ghana. “On average our medical brigade team saw 250 to 300 people daily, many in family groups with several children, being supported by a local school teacher and translator and two students,” says Haas. “It was a truly great and deeply meaningful experience for me to be able to bring my decades of work in integrative health care to people who are in such great need.”


Destination

I was part of Global Brigades Africa’s medical team as their “international doctor.” Along with two local Ghanaian physicians, and two sets of 20 medical students from England we provided the inaugural medical brigades, each of which took eight days, to two communities, Srafa Aboano and Ekumfi Ekotsi in the Central Region near Cape Coast, Ghana.

Cause

On average our medical brigade team saw 250-300 people daily, many in family groups with several children, being supported by  a local school teacher/translator and two students. Both clinics were held in schoolhouses which we made work for a triage room where temperatures and blood pressures were taken and health histories were recorded. My two fellow doctors and I met with patients in an adjoining room, and there was an  education tent nearby where people could receive public health support.  We also had a  pharmacy on-site so people could pick up antibiotics and other supplies and receive  information about how to take  any medicines that were prescribed. We treated many people for parasites and malaria, some high blood pressure and the very common “waist pain” which we call “low back pain” here.

After the four days of clinics, we had a “Public Health Day” that included education about water purification, which is my son’s focus with his work in both Honduras and Ghana, Malaria prevention, and physical therapy instruction about proper lifting plus stretching for low back pains. To me, this was a really important day with the idea that prevention (my career focus) and learning how to care for our body are the keys to really helping people, be it here or in Africa.

Highlights

Being able to bring my decades of experience in integrative healthcare to people who are in such great need was a truly great and deeply meaningful experience for me. In fact, this experience was so life-changing that, in some ways, it felt like a new life here in Ghana.

The people of Ghana made this trip quite special. Although they have very little in many ways compared to Westerners, their spirits were strong and their joy of life was active. They love to dance and play music, which they on our opening/welcoming ceremony day and our final day of farewell and public health education day. This area of Ghana is also very beautiful- it was  quite green and lush with the tropics. Our summer is their winter and the “rainy” season, where there is an abundance of fresh pineapple, mango and bananas. They also grow a lot of corn (it’s kind of chewy) that they use for many of their local dishes. What was also special for me is that I was able to work with my son and my daughter, Ishara, and her boyfriend Max, who came over for the final three weeks on my journey.

Challenges

The biggest challenge was to meet and treat people so quickly and the translation to communicate clearly (most Ghanaians speak Fante or Twi), yet it seemed to work quite smoothly overall.

Getting There

I arranged to join my son and Global Brigades for their first two medical brigades in Cape Coast area of Ghana in Western Africa. Although there are many long routes, I prefer the simplest when possible, so I chose to fly United from SF to DC and then nonstop into Accra, Ghana, on an overnight flight, arriving in mid afternoon on Father¹s Day to see my #1 son, Orion, and his cohorts for dinner and a good night sleep near the Atlantic Ocean.

Who Would You Recommend This Experience to?

Helping people in need in other parts of our wonderful world can be very rewarding, and especially to use my life-long skills as a physician for hundreds of people in Ghana and teaching the 40 plus medical students from England who joined the brigades is an experience that I will never forget and one which I will repeat in upcoming years. It¹s a fun, inspiring and gratifying way to see other parts of the world and to meet people from other cultures and get to more them much more than being a simple tourist.

Sherry Paul Travels to Africa

Elephants in KenyaDestination

I love my volunteer work with the Wildlife Conservation Network (WNC).  I am lucky to get to take passionate, committed lovers of wildlife to conservation projects all over the world.  One of the key promises WNC makes to its supporters is to provide them with frequent, quality opportunities to engage with the conservationists “upfront and personal.”  We do this both here at our headquarters in the Bay Area when we invite the conservationists to visit and we also sponsor one or two trips per year to take our supporters to visit the conservationistsʼ projects overseas.

Recently, I went on my second trip with WNC. This year we traveled to four countries in Africa:  Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique.  In three of the countries we stayed with the conservationists who head up the Wildlife Conservation Network projects.  The WCN partners we visited were:

– Uganda:  Dr. Gladys-Kalema Zikusoka who works with the endangered mountain gorillas
– Kenya:  Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamiltion, the worldʼs leading expert in elephant conservation and Belinda Low who works with the endangered Grevyʼs zebra.
– Mozambique:  Dr. Colleen Begg, who works to save lions in Niassa National Park

Cause

Wildlife Conservation Network, headquartered here in the Bay Area, is dedicated to finding and supporting “wildlife conservation entrepreneurs.”  WCN seeks out innovative and community-based conservationists around the world and provides them with the capital and tools they need to carry out their work.

When a person becomes a WCN partner, they must do a few things, including  working with an endangered species, employing only indigenous people, living in the host country year-round, and establishing educational and community programs around wildlife and environmental conservation.  On this trip, I acted as a tour guide for WCN partners. The purpose of trips like the one that I lead is to allow WCN partners to see what moved them the most. For some people it is the children of the local communities, for others the endangered species, for some it is rebuilding villages… it varies from person to person. Then, once back in the states, they can fundraise to help the cause.

Highlights

The overall highlight of the trip was being able to spend time with the scientists who are saving these magnificent species. It was also wonderful to be able to spend time with the local people and the children in schools.

Uganda: We spent three days tracking gorillas in mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at 7,500 feet.  I have never been more exhausted, sweaty, filthy, or muddy in my life, but I had also never been happier. To come up upon a 400 pound silverback silently staring at you is humbling, awe-inspiring and breathtaking.  Iʼm a photographer and it was a constant battle whether to capture the moment with my camera or just sit and stare in awe.

In between our treks with Gladys, a doctor in Uganda who works to help gorillas, we were invited to visit a local community meeting.  Gladys heads up the group called Conservation Through Public Health whose mission is to conserve gorillas by ensuring the health of the local people.

We attended a meeting of about 75 villagers who are working to find ways to improve the cleanliness of the local water distribution systems in order to prevent sickness.  When we arrived to the little hut in the forest where the meeting was held, the meeting organizers had brought in “special guest” cushioned wicker chairs for us (as opposed to the wood chairs and benches they used for themselves) and put a little tray of cold bottles of Coca Cola next to our chairs.  Never let it be said that there is no hospitality in the primitive African rain forest.  We were so impressed by the villagersʼ dedication, commitment and professionalism toward improving their communities.  They all do this on a volunteer basis and speak with pride and conviction about their successes and challenges.

On our last day in Uganda we had a chance to visit the schools in Buhoma, the area where we stayed. Each time we entered a classroom, from kindergarten to high school, the children would immediately stand and begin singing a welcome song to us.  These children live in some of the most impoverished conditions in the world. Their schoolrooms consist of a dirt floor, one chalkboard, and, if they are lucky, a little table that acts as a desk.  Still, they sang to us with joy and were as polite and gracious as any children Iʼve ever met.

Rwanda:  Our funny and spirited guide, Francois, is highly in demand in this part of Rwanda as he was Dian Fosseyʼs lead tracker and right-hand man.  Of course, no one is allowed to touch the gorillas, but on our trek in Rwanda one of the baby gorillas actually came up to our most senior member (a delightful 70 year-old woman) and touched her leg.  She told me afterwards this was the highlight not only of her trip, but of her life (well, maybe except for the birth of her children and grandchildren).

Other highlights in Rwanda included meeting with Dr. Eugene Rutagarama, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, meeting Berra Kabarungi, Director of Women for Women International in Rwanda, and attending a ceremony with President Paul Kagame actor Don Cheadle from “Hotel Rwanda.”

Our trip to Rwanda culminated in a visit to the Genocide Memorial.  It is a small museum set amongst gardens and a mass grave for 250,000 of those who were murdered. During the genocide the  Hutu extremists dug mass graves to hide their vile killings.  Afterwards 250,000 bodies of the more than 800,000 who were murdered were exhumed and transferred to the mass grave at the memorial. Inside, the museum recounts the history and horrors of the long-standing conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.  The last room is dedicated to the children who were murdered, showing a larger-than-life picture of the child and a descriptive panel such as this one:

Name: Francine Ingabire, Age: 12, Favourite Sport: Swimming, Favourite Food: Eggs and chips, Best friend: elder sister Claudette, Last words: “Save me mumma.” Cause of Death: Hacked by machete

It is not possible to exit the museum dry-eyed.

Kenya: Before flying to Samburu to meet with Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, we stopped for a tour of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, later run by his widow, Daphne. The elephant orphanage in Nairobi takes in baby orphan elephants from all over Kenya and raises them together until they are old enough to survive on their own. We watched the baby elephants feeding from bottles, playing
with each other, and goofing around like normal kids.

When we first landed in Samburu we met Bernard and Alfred who had brought us a delicious picnic lunch to enjoy before we embarked on our safari. As we drove to our lodge for the next five days, we were escorted by elephants, lions, giraffes, wild dogs, baboons, Grevyʼs zebra and camels.

Soon we arrived at Elephant Watch, where Oria borrowed a little tv so her warriors employees could watch the opening game of the World Cup between South Africa and Mexico. We were invited to gather around the tv with her staff and partake in the festivities. Of course everyone was rooting for South Africa, except one of our donors, the very same 70 year-old woman who had been touched by the gorilla. She had been born and raised in Mexico. Some of our happiest and most touching moments of the trip were sitting there with the Samburu tribesmen in the middle of nowhere, worlds apart in life experiences, yet coming together for a few hours to share in the spirit of the moment.

Our final stop was Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. After a 15 year Civil War which ended in 1992, Mozambique is rebuilding itself and in the northern area of Niassa the wildlife populations are now flourishing. Niassa isnʼt for the first-time safari-goer, however.  Unlike Tanzania or Kenya, where you step in your LandRover and within a few minutes you are amidst abundant wildlife, here you actually do go on safari, the Swahili word meaning “journey.” Although the park supports elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, sable, eland and zebra, getting to them and finding them in this lush and overgrown wilderness area is somewhat more problematic than driving up to them at the Ngorongo Crater in Tanzania. The upside is that once you spot something, you can be guaranteed that you will be the only vehicle for miles around.
After two nights at Lugenda and our first leopard spotting, we headed to the even more remote camp of Keith and Colleen Begg, WCNʼs newest partners. The only way to get to their camp is by canoe along the Lugenda River. We arrived two hours later and were immediately taken to visit the local school where the children ran out to greet us and sing to us. Another hour drive took us to the Beggʼs camp where they live with their two young children, Ellie, age four and Finn, 18 months. Their “home” is a tent pitched on top of their LandRover to protect them from the lions, which they study as part of the Niassa Lion Project.

This was our first night camping in tents as there are no lodges nearby. I was a bit concerned for my donors as this was not their typical “level” of  accommodation. But after sitting around the campfire on the banks of the river enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal, listening to Keithʼs and Colleenʼs stories
about living in the bush, showering under the stars, and sleeping in the pristine air, we all agreed the next morning this was best experience of the whole trip and we only wished we could stay longer.

Challenges

Anyone who has been to Africa knows that it is not the easiest place to travel. And while the WCN trips tend to be more “upscale,” we still spend most of our time in the bush with the conservationists. So, that means rugged roads, hours sitting and waiting to find wildlife or wait for them to “do something,” basic food, hot and/or humid weather (depending on the season), and, particularly in Uganda and Rwanda, exhausting hiking and uneven terrain. Not to mention having to let go of any shred of pride when the guides have to push you up the mountain by your derriere.

Getting There

Four days before we left, British Airways went on strike so instead of flying London to Entebbe, we ended up flying Emirates: San Francisco to Dubai and Dubai to Entebbe. Although it took an extra several hours, it was well worth it. We spent the night in Dubai and had a chance to explore this fascinating city, not to mention getting a good nightʼs rest paid for by the airline.

While many of our flights were charter flights, the main stumbling block will come when you have to transfer through Nairobi. Both of our major delays occurred there. But, you soon come to learn that in Africa you just “make a plan” and go with the flow. This is not a trip for the impatient.

Who would you recommend this experience to?

You do not need to be a WCN supporter to go on one of its trips. They are for anyone who considers himself or herself to be a global citizen and cares about indigenous people and their environment. If you have a passion for adventure, a love of wildlife and compassion for other cultures, these trips are for you.

The next WCN trip will be an exclusive trail riding expedition to the remote Bale Mountains in Ethiopia with WCN partner Dr. Claudio Sillero, the worldʼs leading expert on Ethiopian wolves. The trip begins November 16, 2011.

For questions regarding Wildlife Conservation Networkʼs Donor Travel Program, contact Sherry Paul at sherry@wildnet.org

Wedding With a Purpose

While Christopher and Darcy Barrow usually head to Hawaii for their tropical fix, last year, when they were seeking a wedding spot, a Marin IJ article about the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on the Caribbean island of Nevis caught their eye. “The island is a pain to get to—ask any of our guests, who still love to tease us that they had to go to the other end of the world to our wedding,” Darcy recounts. But, she says, it was totally worth it (the ice-cold towel and rum punch on arrival helped). Besides the natural beauty of the island, the couple was impressed with the hotel kitchen’s use of local foods and products, including island-made rum. The resort earned a Green Globe Benchmarked Certificate for its reef implementation program and environmentally friendly operating practices, and a palm tree is planted for every wedding on the property. But it was their unconventional first event that excited the couple most. In lieu of a welcome reception, their 20 guests attended a crab race, which benefits local schools. “We helped raise about $400,” Darcy says. “We’re just happy to have been able to come and go without as much ‘debris’ as one might normally see with bigger-production weddings, and we felt good about the hotel’s dedication to supporting the local island economy.”

Why did you choose Nisbet Plantation Beach Club?

Christopher and I have been together 10 years and usually vacation once a year in Hawaii.  We’ve always had our heart set on getting married on the sand in Maui.  However, once we set about actually planning that sort of wedding we quickly realized the limitations: certain hours, certain beaches, no chairs, no alcoholic beverages, lots of strangers on the beach, etc… Maui was looking much more complicated than the simple “barefoot-in-the-sand” vision we’d always had.

Then one Sunday morning I opened the Marin IJ and read a feature travel article about this tiny little island called Nevis located somewhere in the Caribbean.  The article claimed the island was way off the beaten path and was reminiscent of a simpler time.  No high rise buildings, no casinos, no “tourist traps”…just lush tropics, coconuts, and friendly people. I quickly logged on to tripadvisor.com and found Nisbet Plantation Beach Club easily ranked as number one hotel (Four Seasons Nevis was closed from hurricane damage at the time). I was thrilled to find everything Christopher and I had ever wanted in a wedding was right there at Nisbet Plantation: we could get married right on the beach any way we liked, they would handle all the details, including providing a local pastor and photographer, decorating the reception and ceremony with flowers from the hotel’s gardens, they would even provide a tropical cake and help coordinate our guest travel.

The more I read about the island the more excited we got.   We realized from the reviews that Nisbet was not an ultra-fancy or opulent Caribbean hotel, but rather a boutique hotel that consistently earns all sorts of travel distinctions and awards.  It’s also full of romantic history since the late 1700’s.  Leonora, the wedding planner, is fantastic.  She helped with everything from setting our reception menu (I had my heart set on serving as much locally sourced food as possible: conch soup and local spiny lobster in a coconut thermidore were amazing!) to helping Christopher and me source locals baked goods (sugar rum cake) and island-made CSR rum bottles for the our guest gifts.

The island is a pain to get to – ask any of our guests who still love to tease us that we went to the other end of the world to get married!  Red-eye SFO to MIA, then MIA to St Kitts.  Then a cab to the docks, a ferry ride across the channel to Nevis, then another cab to the resort – in all about a 15 or 16 hour travel day.  But Nisbet serves you an ice cold towel and rum punch the moment you set foot in the resort so that helps!

But it was worth it.   Everything was perfect.  We were able to drink champagne and local rum punch and serve a fresh seafood dinner under a full moon right on the sand – then dance the night away on the beach to the tunes of a live steel pan band.  Plus the boys got to golf with the monekys on the trip and the girls got a great tan.  Couldn’t have asked for anything more!

At what point did you realize you could give back to the community during your wedding?

We read about the crab races and the benefit for the local island schools on a blog after we’d selected Nisbet.  The races are held once a week at Nisbet during the manager’s weekly rum party.  I was so excited our guests would be able to participate in such a fun and unique benefit!  Unfortunately, when we arrived we learned that the races were being held the day before our guests arrived, so initially we thought only Christopher and I would get to participapte.

However, once Patterson Fleming (Dining Room Maitre’D who runs the races) heard that a group of 20 or so was arriving the next day he immediately offered to hold a special race just for us!  We had already planned to host a welcome cocktail party as all our (jetlagged) guests arrived that evening, so it was perfect.  Plus, Christopher and I were old pros by then – our crab betting skills had been finely honed and we were ready to bet!

How much went to the local island elementary school?

We didn’t count, but we were a group of about 20 and the event lasts through 5 races.  The minimum bet was just $1 or $2, but many of our guests were throwing down $10 and $20 bets (although no matter how high your bet the maximum you can win is $2 each race, so I think the rum punches helped!) and other hotel guests got to participate.  I would guess we helped raise about $300 or $400.  Patterson was great: you can tell he is passionate about helping the island’s children.  The proceeds from the weekly crab races go to filling library shelves with children’s books and providing computers (no particular school – they donate throughout the island). According to the hotel, today the children are reading at a level two grades higher than they were in 1999 when the program started.

Do you plan to go back to Nevis anytime soon?

As soon as possible!!  But three days after we got back from our honeymoon on St Lucia we started our own boutique company, Foundation Rentals and Relocation, specializing in high-end rental homes and corporate relocation here in Marin. Starting a company as newlyweds has been exciting and the company is doing great, but I don’t know when Christopher and I will be able to squeeze in time off any time soon!  But Nisbet helps insure we will come back with one final detail: our own coconut palm tree.  The morning after our wedding we got to select the site and help plant a baby coconut palm with a plaque commemorating our wedding date.  It’s pretty neat to think of our little palm tree growing in our honor so many miles and miles away!  It may be 10 years before we can return, but that little island with its gorgeous scenery, gentle breezes and friendly people stole our hearts and we’ll definitely be back!

How can Marin Magazine readers help Nevis schools?

Basic school supplies like colorful construction paper, glue sticks, crayons, flash cards, playdough, new books and puzzles are always welcome. The science lab needs everything from filter paper and rain gauges to anatomy models and science video cassettes. For more significant donations and equipment needs, please contact the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club at 869.469.9325, or drop any supplies off at our office in Kentfield and Christopher and I will take care of shipping everything to Nevis. Our business,  Foundation Rentals and Relocation, is located at 925 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Kentfield, CA 94904.

A Year of Adventure for the Wright-Williams Family

In 2006, the Wright-Williams family sold their house and took off for an adventure. “I loved our home and was very attached to it, but once it sold, it gave us so much freedom,” remembers Diana. They had ten weeks to plan the trip, pack up, pull kids out of school, get vaccinated and move things into storage. With two duffel bags in tow, they left with their two children (ages 8 and 4) and started in China and traveled though Tibet, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and finally rested for three months in New Zealand before coming home one year later. During that time, they taught English to students in Vietnam, raised $20,000 for heart surgery for children in Vietnam, volunteered with monks in Laos, and bought school supplies and clothing to villages, schools and orphanages in Laos. “Volunteering turned out to be easier in concept than in reality in many cases,” says Diana, “but in the end it was transformative for each of us as individuals, as well as for our family and hopefully, we left the places we visited better off than when we arrived. And perhaps best of all, the children quickly learned about simplicity and I hope they learned that each of us can do something, even if it is just a little thing, that can help make someone else’s day a bit better.”

Destination

Our journey began in China, where we went to visit my younger daughter’s foster parents. They raised her for a year before we met her and became an adoptive family in 2003, when she was 15 months old.  From there, we traveled to Tibet and Nepal. In Tibet, it was virtually impossible to volunteer, at least in a public way. There is so much need, but with children, it would have been too difficult and risky to become involved with an underground effort. We visited friends in Nepal, but chose not to stay due to the civil unrest. In Vietnam, we found what we were looking for and stayed for three months helping with “Heartbeat Vietnam”

Cause

Of the year that we were abroad, we spent three months with  “Heartbeat Vietnam” in Saigon, traveling to the Mekong Delta and meeting the children who had severe heart defects and didn’t have access to medical care, nor the funds to pay for a surgery. The surgery to repair a heart defect in Saigon averages about $2,000 USD. If the average subsistence farmer is earning a $1/day, then you can see how impossible that would be. Children would just turn blue and eventually die without help. We were able to raise $20,000 from friends and family to get 10 children to the hospital, and continue to support the program with an annual sale of Asian textiles and scarves. We also taught English in two countries – to children Hanoi and to monks in Laos. Through the scarf sales, we have also been able to send support to an orphanage in Laos.

Highlights

Being with my children as they discovered their own compassion and ability to make a difference in a life of another child was incredible. It can get cold in Laos, and many children don’t go to school in the winter because they don’t have warm clothes or shoes to walk the long way to get there. So, we collected clothes, and with a local teacher who could tell us who the neediest children were, we were able to clothe a few dozen kids in a small village in Northern Laos.  One girl, who walked the farthest to school, had feet that were bigger than the shoes we had brought with us. My daughter looked at her for a moment, then bent down, took her sneakers off her feet and gave them to the girl. I like to think that those shoes are still somewhere in that village keeping a child’s feet warm.

Challenges

I would say there were three major challenges.

1.  The health of my family was an everyday challenge. NuNu was four and Isobel was eight when we began our trip.  I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been for the altitude sickness in Tibet. For the first few days Bob was violently ill, NuNu was throwing up, Isobel couldn’t walk, as her legs were too weak from lack of oxygen, and I had a massive headache. Malaria was also a consideration, and while I came prepared with Malarone, we never did end up using it. As soon as we landed in a new country I would ask the ex-pats about the malaria situation – after weighing the risk vs. the toxicity of the medication, we just took the usual precautions for preventing mosquito bites.

2. Finding places to volunteer. Since we didn’t work though an organized volunteer program, it was critical to find people whom we could get to know and trust. We learned that money can get into the wrong hands and well-intentioned travelers and tourists can think they are doing a good thing, when in fact they can inadvertently create a lot of damage. Ex-pats were the best source of good information about who to trust and who to stay away from. Again, there were places we visited where the need was possibly the greatest, but our hands were tied, as in Myanmar.

3. No doubt, we became closer as a family. However, being together 24/7 for weeks at a time will either bring you much closer to your spouse or land you in divorce court. I happy to report that Bob and I are still married and are better off for having spent that year together.

Getting There

We traveled by train, plane, automobile, tuk tuk, motorbike, boat, canoe, bicycle and by foot- and that was half the fun. Because it wasn’t planned out ahead of time, we had the luxury of creating the travel plans as we went. With the exception of getting stuck enroute in the old, bug infested airport in Bangkok for 48 hours, winging it worked pretty well.

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Any family with children who wants to have an adventure.  Giving ourselves a year allowed a tremendous amount of freedom, but certainly, a version of this trip could be done in less time.

Lisa Rueff and crew help orphanages in Haiti

A terrible earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, and by May,  Lisa Rueff of Sausalito traveled to this suffering country to provide aid for earthquake victims. She fell in love with the Haitian people and their strength and courage, and felt compelled to visit again. This October, Lisa organized a Yoga and Volunteer Retreat to Haiti. She and 14 Marinites traveled to Haiti where they had a rewarding experience helping orphans and others who were displaced by the earthquake.

Destination

I was headed off to Haiti. In May, I had traveled there to work with the Global volunteer Network in tented cities and orphanages, and in October I decided to go back. I organized a Yoga & Volunteer Retreat to Haiti, which offered my yoga students an opportunity to return with me and experience first-hand the strength, resilience, gratitude, faith and love inherent in the Haitians. I, along with 14 Marin County residents, ventured to Jacmel, a beautiful, tropical seaside town 45 miles south of Port-Au-Prince, once famous for its historic building and artisans, yet heavily hit by the earthquake.

Cause

Before my team departed for Haiti, we held two well-attended fundraisers for the orphanages that we were going to visit. Just five days before we left, my ground contact coordinator in Haiti, who works for a nonprofit international development organization called ACDI/VOCA, asked if we could possibly bring some tools to Haiti.  His organization was just at the onset of a training program for 40 Haitian men and women, ages 18-25, who were displaced from Port-au-Prince during the earthquake. They had each lost their homes and families, and they had no work. An American volunteer construction engineer had just arrived in Jacmel to begin the training to teach them construction skills to introduce seismic retrofits and more earthquake resistant structures/supports.  Unfortunately, the tools they needed for the program were not available. Knowing how valuable this program would be for rebuilding Haiti and creating ongoing employment and aid for the Haitians, we agreed to find as many of these tools as we could in the final few days. My husband, Philip Schneider, spearheaded collecting the tools.  He had to find over 40 tools for 40 Haitian people, including specialized chisels, saws, hammers, and metric tape measures. In the next few days, Philip scrambled to over ten hardware stores to gather the requested materials. Through his determination, we brought over 750 pounds of tools to the Haitians.  Each of the volunteers brought two over-sized suitcases: one filled with the tools, the other filled with items such as clothing, books, crayons, and diapers, which were on the orphanages’ “wish lists.”

We  volunteered with two different orphanages. The Faith and Love Orphanage, run by Marlaine and Daniel Alix, houses 84 children. This orphanage is meticulously run, and all of the kids take care of each other. The older children take care of the younger ones, and the children play beautifully together. Before leaving for Haiti, I spoke with Marlaine at the orphanage, who let me know she was building a dental clinic on her property to make up for the absence of dental care in their area.  My group sent ahead money for supplies to break ground. When we arrived, Marlaine proudly showed us the supplies we helped to purchase. We could not wait to get to work!
Half the members of my team grabbed shovels, and immediately pitched in.  Another part of my group chose to paint the orphanage. The walls of the orphanage were filthy, and in need of quite a few layers of paint.  Our money also went to buying paint, brushes and rollers for the orphanage interior. A few members of my team opted to simply play with the youngest orphans who could not yet attend school. Together they enjoyed arts and crafts activities that we brought over from the states. From anywhere we worked on the orphanage grounds, you could hear the kids having so much fun playing with our team members. Volunteering at Faith and Love was the perfect place to spend the morning. Every hour, the teams rotated duties. Each person spent ample time playing with the kids, painting, or doing construction work with the dental clinic.  We were all elated at the progress we had already made with the different projects.

We also worked with Jacques Africot, who runs an orphanage for 11 children, called Better Future International, whose mission is to create a better future for orphaned and abandoned children with nutritious food, healthcare, education and supportive services in a family environment. They operate a successful orphan home, dedicated to improving the lives of orphaned children by providing the security of a family structure, the opportunity that comes with proper education, and the physical benefits of proper nutrition and medical care. They intend to give each orphan support until graduation with a baccalaureate degree.  They do not place children for adoption, but rather seek to help them live successfully in their native country and culture. We were invited to take part in the after-school program the founder, Jacques, had recently implemented at a local community center. The kids all seemed very happy at their home. Their model of “Raising Global Citizens” seeks to make a difference in both the short-term needs of children and the long-term improvement of disadvantaged communities by raising children as responsible citizens.  He brings the 11 kids from the orphanage together with about 15 more local kids Monday through Friday, from 3pm-5pm. The kids get together for after school tutoring, computer classes, English classes, fun games and activities from 3pm-4pm, and from 4pm-5pm they enjoy a delicious and healthy meal together.
During the afternoons we also worked with Bonite Affriany, a 72-year-old Haitian woman who is the equivalent of a Haitian Mother Theresa. She is so full of love, strength, energy and helps everyone in her community.  She currently feeds over 275 children everyday, at one time, with a nutritious and filling meal. She provides for these 275 children in her community to attend schools, and conducts an adult education program to teach mathematics and reading/writing in Creole and French. The program currently has 11 qualified teachers and three classes with 42 adult students. She began a micro-loan program that lends adults money to purchase groceries and to resell them, enabling them to provide for themselves. She provides clothing for the children and adults in her community, as well as in the neighboring tented cities. On the compound, she has built a church that is divinely spiritual, and offers bible study as well as voice lessons to the children. Bonite works tirelessly to help meet the needs of the people of Jacmel.

Highlights

Every moment of the day was a highlight!  Our time spent in Haiti was so memorable, uplifting and meaningful.

When we first arrived, we were invited to attend the church service at the Faith and Love Orphanage. The kids were so welcoming, and they greeted us with the biggest smiles. Led entirely by the kids, the orphanage church service was filled with the most beautiful sounds. Three of the older girls, in their teens, conducted most of the service with confidence, poise, grace and beauty.  It sounded like angels descending from heaven, their voices harmonizing together so sweetly. Towards the end of the service four young girls, aged about eight to ten years old, shyly got up and sang with the most precious and sweet voices. It was so soulful and spiritual. All of the children in the orphanage sang from their plastic seats, clapped, swayed and got into the music. They loved it. During the service, the founder of the orphanage, Marlaine, spoke for just a few minutes. She personally introduced me to the kids and explained to them I had been to the orphanage before and was so touched by the children that I brought a team back with me. With Marlaine’s encouragement, I then introduced my team to the children. Immediately after the service ended the children hugged, kissed and embraced all of the volunteers, and thanked us for being there. The 84 kids were each so full of love and appreciation, and they made us feel so welcome and delighted to be there. We toured their facility, each child holding our hands and leading us around. The kids all sleep in bunk beds, with their belongings neatly organized. They all seem very healthy, nourished, well-adjusted, and happy. Knowing we were going to be spending the majority of our time helping this particular orphanage felt so special.
Teaching the kids yoga at the different orphanages was a true highlight. Once I laid down the mats and put them in a circle, the kids were so excited, and we had so much fun! I led them through very playful and interactive yoga sessions. We emulated all the animals, with sounds and movements. The children were crawling around on all fours like cats, hopping around like frogs, swaying like elephants with big long trunks,  and slithering around like snakes. We held hands and practiced yoga poses together. Fearless, and full of fun, the kids tried and enjoyed everything! My favorite part of the yoga practice was on the first afternoon, when we sat together in a circle at the end of the practice, with our knees all touching.  I invited the kids to close their eyes and make a big wish, and as the director of the orphanage translated, the kids all closed their eyes and with deep concentration and earnest faces, they made their individual wish.  We then had the kids write out their wish on a colorful flag, and we hung the flags as a string of prayer flags. The kids were so animated and proud of what they wrote down.
Another highlight was feeding the 275 children with Bonite. Spending time with this inspirational woman, who works around the clock and helps so many people, is a sight to behold.  Many of the kids she feeds are  from the nearby tent city that I had volunteered with in May.  When I first entered Bonite’s property,  I was surrounded and hugged by kids who remembered my name from five months prior. With smiling eyes and broken English, they kept thanking me for returning. The Haitian people are full of appreciation, faith, joy, strength and resilience. They may not have much, but they value and appreciate everything they have.  Initially, I went to Haiti to “help” out the Haitian people. Little did I know that by bearing witness to their hardships, and seeing their profound gratitude and open hearts, they cracked my heart open to loving and caring, allowing me to rediscover what is truly important; helping one another, being of service, and giving more than you can take.

Challenges

The greatest challenge was leaving Haiti, a country I had fallen in love with. The children at the orphanages were so full of love, fun and playfulness. The adults that we worked with, including Bonite Affriany, Jacques Africot, and Marlaine Alix, were so inspiring that one could not help but want to stay and continue the good work. We felt that in the short amount of time we were there, we had accomplished so much. The entire group wanted to stay and  continue with the efforts.

Unlike many other travel destinations, safety was a concern, primarily after dark. Perhaps erring on the side of caution, I requested that none of our volunteers leave our hotel after sunset. There were no complaints as I had booked accommodations at two very beautiful and comfortable hotels with delicious restaurants directly on the water.  Both hotels had lovely, enclosed seaside courtyards, spacious enough to practice yoga together as a group. That being said, we felt very safe during the daytime in Haiti and members in our group ventured out alone during the day and never felt at risk.

Getting There

We flew from San Francisco to Miami and, after a short layover, on to Port-au-Prince. Our total air travel time was about seven hours.  Once we arrived in Port-au-Prince and negotiated our way through traffic, we traveled just under three hours through breathtaking countryside, with steep mountainous roads, to get to the seaside town of Jacmel.

Who Would you Recommend this Experience to?

I would recommend this trip to anybody interested in being of service and making a difference. On my team, I had a young woman in her early 20’s, and a woman over the age of 70.  Everyone had exceptional experiences, and expressed the desire to return.  I recommend this to anyone who enjoys playing with kids, meeting extraordinary people, and bearing witness to how people can make the most of a challenging situation. Every evening I led a yoga session as an opportunity to relax, rejuvenate and nurture yourself after a day of intense volunteer work.  Knowing the healing, calming and transformative powers of yoga, this gift was offered to both my team as well as to the Haitian people.  I will be leading yoga and volunteer trips to Haiti and other destinations in the future. For more information about joining upcoming trips, click here.

Julie Kaye Travels to China

It is safe to say that Greenbrae resident Julie Kaye  loves animals. After working as an unpaid employee at Marin Humane Society for 21 years, she decided to lend her dedication to another organization, Animals Asia. Animals Asia has spent the last 12 years helping Moon Bears, and Julie knew that this organization was the right fit for her. Recently, Julie jetted off to China to learn more about this organization, and to see the bears for herself.

Destination

When I decided to join Animals Asia, I met with their US director Alice Ng to discuss what I could do to help the organization. Although Animals Asia has offices around the world, the bears are located in China and Vietnam. We decided that I would benefit from traveling to Chengdu, China to see the bears for myself.

Cause

Animals Asia’s flagship campaign is the Moon Bear Rescue, aimed at bringing the barbaric practice of bear farming and the bile trade to an end. They have
signed agreements with both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to rescue
700 bears from the torture of bile farms, and bring them to the sanctuaries
to live out their lives in peace and safety. The campaign also involves
reducing the demand of bile consumed in Asia through promoting effective and
cruelty-free alternatives. My role in Animal Asia is fundraising, which is something that I love to do and should greatly benefit the organization.

Highlights

I believed that the cats at MHS had my whole heart. Little did I know that
there was room for the bears. Visiting them in China was amazing… I
was completely taken with their charming personalities. So many of them
behaved like toddlers…the way they play on the swings, splashing in the
ponds, bugging the other bears when they wanted on the swing. When they
were in their beds at night, one of them was laying on her back playing with a
piece of straw…it was adorable.

The second highlight was the clinic. One of their three vets is from Marin, Monica Bando. I worked in the Marin Humane Society Clinic for five years, where the average surgery was done on an eight pound cat. At Animals Asia we did surgery on a 300 pound bear! The logistics of just getting the bear on the surgery table was mind-boggling.  I spent one whole morning watching Monica give a bear  a health check and then remove her gall bladder. I even got to trim her nails…think paws the size of a whole kitten. It was thrilling just being that close to one of these charming bears. The surgery went on for hours but we kept checking back.

Challenges

The biggest challenge was dealing with all of the abuse that the bears were subjected to when they were on the farms, before they were saved by Animals Asia. It is heartbreaking to think of a bear, or anything, caged for over 30 years in an area so tight that they can’t even turn around, being jabbed in the chest daily by a farmer searching for its gall bladder, and suffering from lack of food and water. Even the though of it is horrible.

Getting There

Luckily, getting to Chengdu, China is not too difficult… It just takes a long time. I flew to Hong Kong and then caught a 2 1/2 hour flight from there to
Chengdu.

Who Would You Recommend This Experience To?

This is a fabulous experience for anyone who loves animals. To see them playing, sleeping in their beds, splashing around in the water, or even just laying in the sunshine… it just does something to your heart.

Barry Hoffner – Caravan to Class

Sausalito resident Barry Hoffner was so inspired by his trip to Timbuktu, in the West African nation Mali, that he decided to celebrate his 50th birthday by launching a project, Caravan to Class. He hopes to rebuild the educational infrastructure of Tedeini, a village that he visited. Caravan to Class was formed in January, 2010, and after a couple of months of selecting an NGO (non-Governmental Organization), doing a study on the needs of the village, and putting together a budget, Barry is now in fund-raising mode. He hopes to be able to begin construction/renovation on the school by early Fall, and is looking forward to bringing his family to Mali once construction has begun.

Destination

I simply had a long-time dream of getting to the famed “middle of nowhere” Timbuktu. I was told that if I was going to Timbuktu I should not miss the amazing music event, “Festival au Desert”, in the Southern Sahara Desert, outside of Timbuktu, Mali. So, I used the festival as a reason to fulfill my one of my “bucket-list” objectives.

Cause

While at the festival, I decided to take a guided camel trip to a village not far from where I was camping. My host, the son of the head of the village, told me the interesting story of his people, the Tuareg, and their transition from a nomadic lifestyle to moving to the village of Tedeini. The Tuareg migrated from the Atlas Mountains in the 6th and 11th centuries to escape the Muslim invasions from the north. Today the Tuareg population numbers roughly 5 million centered around the countries that ring the Sahara Desert, mainly AlgeriaLibyaMali and Niger. Due to desertification of former Saharan oasis and national boundary issues, many Tuareg have settled in villages and have given up their nomadic lifestyle, creating the need for permanent schools. I saw that the education of the children was suffering. Many of them were not in school, there was no longer a functioning well at  the school, the teachers were uncertified, and the mud-brick buildings had deteriorated over the years.

Mali ranks in the bottom five countries on the UN Human Development Index and dead last in literacy at 26%. In the villages of the Southern Sahara desert, literacy are even lower, particularly for girls.

Upon returning from my trip to Mali, I launched Caravan to Class to rebuild the school for my friends in Tedeini.

Highlights

Mali is a beautiful place. I loved the diverse mud-brick architecture of the Mosques, the stars at night in the Sahara desert, the mysticism of the animist Dogon people, and most of all the amazing graciousness of the Tuareg, a nomadic people of the Sahara.

I was personally fascinated with how engaging the Tuareg men, women, and children were drinking the ubiquitous cups of sweet/bitten tea, learning how to navigate by the star constellations, and the social customs of their culture.

Challenges

Although my trip was great, it was not without its challenges. In Mali, time is simply not important; there is plenty of it. Every car ride  encountered multiple delays – flat tire, hit goat, over-heated radiator… However, you need to adjust and get used to that or you will simply not enjoy  traveling in Africa.

Getting There

We departed from San Francisco on Air France, headed for Paris. We then went on to Bamako, Mali. It took 4 ½ days from Mali’s capital to reach Timbuktu, including 3 days/nights on a “pinasse” (Malian river boat) on the Niger, Africa’s third longest river. The “pinasse” trip itself was a great adventure, traveling past hundreds of small villages along the banks of the Niger, including the village where Ali Farka Toure, Mali’s most famous musician, lived (and is laid to rest).

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Anyone seeking a real/diverse African (non-animal) adventure. East Africa is great for those who love safaris and wildlife, but West Africa is perfect for anyone interested in the diverse and engaging African cultures.