Returning Home

Returning home pulls strongly on my heart strings. Hugging Mama, breathing in her perfume and the familiar powdery scent of her makeup. Her lilting voice, bright blue eyes, and favorite pink lipstick. I love being in her house, which stirs up nostalgia; the feathery-soft, weathered jade green sofa, the French twin beds from my childhood room, family portraits proudly keeping watch on the walls. How the sunlight falls into the dining room, highlighting the grain patterns on the wooden table, gleaming brightly as it reflects off of the silver bowl filled with red apples.

Portrait of MaryDana Knight (Mama)

There is comfort in knowing these spaces intimately, remembering the nooks where the dust hides, dents my toes recognize on the hardwood floors and which photos are attached to the fridge with yellowing tape because their magnets fell off long ago. I swelled with happiness, watching Mama read, bake, and play hide-and-seek with my little boy Ramsay, who tells me that he loves how Gran “always looks a little fancy!”

I happily embrace in bear hugs with childhood friends, family, and treasured college roommates. Sharing meals in the south are a feast, an elevated experience. My belly stays so full, I feel like I’ve been dining for days on a cruise ship. During communal lunches at our cousins’ house, we take leftovers out of the refrigerator and make sandwiches, share watermelon and pull up more chairs around the the kitchen island as neighbors and friends drop by. Dinner tables are elegantly set with candelabras, crystal, fine china and linens. There are prayers and toasts and clinking of glasses. Candles burn lower with flickering light as stories unfold and laughter tumbles out with ease.     

Having coffee with Mama one morning, she brought out a cardboard box of memories. We perused family photographs from her childhood in the 1930’s: weddings, parties, prom photos. I take in the era’s details: big bows in girls’ hair, strands of pearls, lace collars, tweed coats, gloves, and fur stoles. Mama’s high school photo. Her as a little girl in Cuba at the Morro Castle.  She opens a 1944 newspaper to the front page. Fine print in the corner reads “Price-Four Cents.” The bold headline: “Allies Repel Savage Germany Attacks near Rome.” What Mama remembers most, with the innocence of a child at the onset of the war, is that her favorite radio program did not come on. 

Grandmother Mary VanBuren

In a black and white image, my grandmother looks festive on the SS Constitution ocean liner in the 1950’s. Next, we find a May 1965 Italian poster advertising “La Boheme, Citta di Marsala” with Mama’s name listed next to “Mimi” the lead soprano. At the bottom of  the box is a faded,curling photo on which”1913″ is handwritten on the back. My great-grandfather waves to us from the back seat of a Cadillac with a running board. Such rich history, so many stories. I even discovered that Mama played tennis with John Wayne’s wife and Daddy had drinks with him during their stay in Columbus, Georgia for the filming of The Green Berets in 1968. Who knew?!

There were so many moments and scenes where I reminded myself to really be present, especially while cherishing the souls, sights, and freedoms we miss so dearly in Cairo.   

  • American flags flying proudly under clear blue skies.
  • Beautiful green fields, manicured farm land and dense pine tree forests.
  • The slowness of summer, long shadows and a sun that doesn’t set until long after cocktail hour.
  • Close to midnight while quiet in bed, hearing the soulful sounds of distant freight trains.
  • The unmistakable sweet southern scent of gardenias and magnolias.
  • Squawking mocking birds, striking blue jays and popping red cardinals.
  • Plump squirrels landing heavily on branches that bow below their weight.
  • Statuesque antebellum houses, brick roads, and historic cottages.
  • Inviting porches and beautiful gardens with topiaries and statues.
  • Catching rain drops, the joy of puddles and calm of watching water trickle down windows.
  • Children blowing bubbles, spinning and falling onto the soft grass with squeals of delight.
  • The wonder and enthusiasm of sparklers and fireworks.
  • Building Legos, sidewalk chalk art, finger painting and rinsing off with the garden hose.
  • A joyful cycle of walking in bare feet, swimming pool play with friends, holding baby kittens, petting dogs, Slip n’ slide fun and soccer with cousins.
  • Real belly laughs and shouts of fun discovery as the boys run with nets to catch glowing fireflies.
  • Ice cream cones, playgrounds, music-making and make-believe.
  • Evening walks around the neighborhood, sitting on benches and having heart-to-hearts.
  • “Why do we go around the outside of the restaurant and not go in?” asks our 5 year old, who has never before experienced a drive-through, and refers to Wendy’s as “Lucy’s” for the rest of the trip.
  • BBQ, BLT’s and pimento cheese sandwiches.
  • While devouring the delicious buttery, sharp cheddar taste of Mama’s cheese straws, I savor the little sesame seeds sticking to my lips.
  • Enjoying delicious, grilled steaks for lunch at the Big Eddy Club, an experience translated by Ramsay in his imagination as “eating camel at the Spaghetti Club.”
  • Lingering by the Chattahoochee River, watching the sun set over the water and wishing I could stop time for just a little while.

I’m always delightfully surprised to make discoveries in a city I know so well: markets with live music and art, coffee shops, ambient restaurants and bakeries that have popped up while I’ve been gone. Modern playgrounds featuring water fountains, bongo drums and enormous chimes. Making new friends with a kindred spirit in yoga.

Getting ready to leave town, the hardship of goodbyes stirs up a mix of emotions; sadness and gladness. Many of Mama’s friends, whom I’ve known my whole life, are getting older. Will they be there the next time I come home?  I will miss family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, funerals, and celebrating those important life moments with people dear to me. Pushing these thoughts away, I breathe deeply and fight the tears. Putting on my sunglasses as armor, I say silent prayers at Publix grocery store while buying snacks for the trip back.  On the return flight to Cairo, I recall memories of a peaceful afternoon outdoors with friends. Although the heat was thick and muggy, the deck umbrella provided welcome shade as we sipped our wine. The cicadas’ loud, alternating crescendos echoed in the gorgeous quiet as small scurrying animals rustled through fallen leaves. I stared into the depths of the trees, mesmerized by the forest’s varied shades of green. Beautiful light streamed through the canopy.

Ramsay taps my arm on the plane to show me clouds and says “Mama, you seem hippo-tized.” I smile at him.  A surge of emotions pulls on my heart strings, missing home already, but grateful for such wonderful memories.

Peace and Light,

Tracy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing a Bridge

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Crossing a bridge, I decide to sit.

Breeze blowing, shadows dancing. Brittle leaves scratching the wood. A trickle of water tumbles down through rocks and into the creek. Sunlight filters through the leaves.  Locusts hum, unaware that summer is done. Bird songs welcome Fall. Reflections of branches quiver on the water’s surface. I am grateful for the stillness.

 

Bones, Branches, and a Lemur

Winter in the southern hemisphere gets down to the brass tacks of nature. The cold in Swaziland isn’t too harsh, but dry fields burn bright orange as wild fires blaze, scorching the earth to regenerate the soil.  Leaves are brittle and dry. Roads are dusty. Winds howl through the naked trees.

The heater in our old Landy works pretty well. It was not love at first sight, driving this old beast, but she has become a symbol of road trips and African adventure for our family. We recently journeyed to Ndlovu camp in Hlane Royal National Park. It has no electricity in its thatched huts called rondavels.  When you check in to get your key (that has no door number, just the name “Big Hut,” ) you see bones and skulls displayed of hippos, crocodiles, deer, and lions.

As we settled in, the late afternoon sun waIMG_0682s setting behind brambles, the light resembling stained glass. Encroaching darkness cast elephant-sized shadows all around, diminishing the details of our ambient room. A woman came by to light our kerosene lamps.Nightjars called, and a bright white crescent appeared with a billion sparkling stars. A bare tree, starkly silhouetted against the moon-lit  sky, had branches dotted with so many stars that they looked like snow flakes.

IMG_0759In the absence of electricity was a gorgeous quiet; no usual house hums of fridge or gadgets. It was so silent, in fact, that I heard a faint ringing in my ears.

I piled on the blankets and read a book by flashlight.

Close to midnight, there was rustling in the living room. I walked toward the noise with a lamp and saw a wild cat staring at me with big ears, a long, ringed tail, and spots. This was no kitty cat. I sort of scream-whispered, “Brad, wake up! There is a wild cat in here with spots!”…(One of those sentences in life you think you’ll never say) . “What IS IT?” Will it bite the baby?!“ is all I could squeak out.

After some harried discussion, we decided there was a lemur in our rondavel. (Techinically, this animal is called a genet, as we later learned). As my husband says, he “thought when we closed the door to our hut, we were keeping the wildlife out.”

In the end, our furry visitor was harmless and crept his way back out into the night through a hole in our thatched roof.  And the rondavel was peaceful once again.

Be Illumined this month, and may nothing dim your light,

Tracy

 

Orange You Glad?

IMG_4917Hello!

With the change of seasons in the southern hemisphere, we are transitioning from Winter into Spring.  Some sparse green grass blades are pushing up through the soil, leaves are budding on trees, and color is seeping slowly back into a rather brown and beige-hued world we’ve known during the dry season. The temperatures are warming, and the ritual commences of taking coffee and binoculars outside in the early morning to watch the returning birds.

In Mbabane, August also brings gorgeous plump and heavy oranges in droves. One of my favorite colors, and fruits, is orange. This time of year, oranges are piled high in the backs of trucks and fill market stalls. I’ve been scooping up loads of them to bring home for eating and squeezing into juice. Our little boy knows how to peel them, and he likes taking a deep breath of the fragrant orange peel and says, “nice!”

I love the scent of oranges, too.

And today, I ate a tea cake made with real orange juice that was delicious, and the creativity in the cooking was my muse to start a new art project.

Do you have a creative muse or a morning ritual?

Wishing you days full of color and light.

Cheers,

Tracy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Africa Burning and Nature Treasure Hunts

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Mbabane Mountain Fires at Night

The arrival of winter in Swaziland has brought dry, strong winds, brown mountainsides, and the beginning of “burning,” a winter tradition of setting fire to the fields, leaves, and brush to promote regrowth, get rid of trash, and decrease crime. (It gets dark early this season, and people walking get mugged (or worse) from criminals hiding in tall grasses, so I’m told). They even burn right along side the highway, flames licking the sides of the road,  billowing smoke thick like fog.

It’s an eerie, but beautiful sight to see hills glowing orange at night, red-orange sparks flying up into the sky.  But the smoke…. oh, the smoke. It fills our house, our nose, burns our throat and eyes. If someone will teach me a real rain dance, I will happily partake. Dust and soot is on everything, and ashes blow in clumps up to doors and window screens.

Fires get out of control quickly with the whipping breeze. Amazingly, the fire trucks have no water, but rather, firefighters use what look like rubber rakes to stomp out the flames. It’s actually quite effective, but some houses in town have been burned to the ground, an understood risk this time of year.

It has become a hobby for our toddler to look for fires and point them out, and he likes to say, “look! fire! ‘moke!”  On the bright side, there is gorgeous sun that brings warm days. When the smoke subsides, we venture out to finger paint or treasure hunt in nature for shapes, patterns, colors, bugs, baby tomatoes, and camouflaged animals. And to find our shadows and wave hello.

Here’s to finding inspiration where you can, and less fires for all of us,

Tracy

The (other) Mosquito Coast and Crocodile Bridge

Historically, people think of Nicaragua and Honduras as the mosquito coast, but Africa has its share of mosquitoes and malaria zones; Maputo and Komatipoort being two of those. Below are the initial impressions of these vastly different cities.

We crossed the border from quiet Swaziland into Mozambique, and the sidewalks were bustling with people and activity.  Wood-framed stalls were stacked side by side like a crooked house of cards.  Inside: mufflers, clothes, fruit, bags of cashew nuts (yum), tires, lumber, and bric-a-brac galore.

Trucks were filled with green bananas, and women balanced buckets of grapes on their head, scissors dangling on a string to cut off the plump clusters. Tractors wobbled slowly down the road, passed by fast-whizzing cars that do not stop at “robots” (stop lights) or stop signs. The polarity of rich and poor in the capital city of Maputo is glaring.  Beautiful, old-world hotels dot blocks of buildings that are dilapidated and beyond repair.

Maputo is a town heavily influenced by its Portuguese origins, but is a buzzing meld of cultures. Our summer visit there was a heady mix of sublime Caipirinhas (a drink of sugar cane, lime, and rum), hot sun, anti-malaria medicine, and delicious food. It also has its share of crime. We parked on the street to board a ferry to nearby Catembe Island, and gone only an hour, we returned to a stolen review mirror.

A few hours by car in a different direction, the terrain completely changes, along with the ambiance. In the peaceful, tiny town of Komatipoort, we spent the night on the other side of Crocodile River from Kruger National Park.  Rarely am I wide awake and giddy at 5:45am, but crossing Crocodile Bridge to begin a day of safari, I was overwhelmed with anticipation.

I had never seen an elephant in the wild until that day, and it really is something to behold. Elephants are not just intelligent, but expressive and emotional. They mourn and bury members of their beloved herd, and they celebrate the birth of a baby elephant with joy.

It was an amazing day of collecting bits of knowledge about animals and the bush, and witnessing nature at its finest. The light changed frequently and was beautiful to watch, moving from bright and sunny to foreboding clouds that cast long, dark shadows, then the golden light of late afternoon appeared, illuminating the trees and grasses. Favorite images:

Sometimes the best part is back at the lodge, at the end of a full day, listening to dinner conversation. And as a response to the question, “What’s all the fuss about? It’s an elephant,” I would quote something a great friend sent: “Don’t forget to stop and be grateful for the ordinary.”  I guess locals forget that seeing wildlife like this is not an ordinary experience for most. For some (like me), this is the stuff of Hemingway novels. I suppose for others, it’s just another crocodile story… ”

IMG_4411Enjoy the journey,

Starry

The Nectar and Nuances

One of the best things about the African continent is the opportunity to drink in interesting details all around you, all of the time.  I’m not much of an insect person (mostly try to encourage them to stay outdoors), but pretty patterns on a moth’s wings caught my attention this week:IMG_4133other observations that held me captive:

A baby sleeping peacefully on top of tomatoes under a fruit stall umbrella

Mist that swiftly blankets the mountainside with a ghostly white veil

The distinct flavor of Southern African “red bush”  Rooibos tea

The expression “I am long in the tooth”  (relating to age and wisdom)

Afternoon soft, yellow light that falls below the cloud line, back-lighting the trees

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Local children staring right at me, not breaking eye contact, and without expression; just looking

And children at the library, touching my hair and saying “so soft, so soft”

On the side of the road in the pouring rain, vendors patiently waiting to sell mobile phone minutes under a thin, unhelpful yellow umbrella

(Also on the side of the road: livestock, men grilling corn, and children running with long sticks pressed inside of tires, racing and laughing as they rolled them down the road)

Iridescent purple hummingbirds drinking nectar from luminous and large, orange blossoms

And when I asked my husband one evening why he wasn’t reading the book he’d brought outdoors, he said, ” I feel like I’d be missing out, not staring at the horizon.”

Sala kahle (be well),

Starry

Marvelous Moments

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Reading through my journal, 2014 has already brought so many wonderful new experiences.  Our time living abroad feels like life is on fast-forward,  so we really try to be present and feel thankful for these kinds of moments:

  • sampling new  Swazi and South African dishes: impala, pap, warthog, and ox tail
  • the moving, resonant, and harmonic voices of just six people attending an evening church service; their sound burst through the silence with gorgeous, powerful, a cappella song that filled the room
  • A hippo and crocodile cruise in St. Lucia’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and sleeping under mosquito netting in a cabin that feels like you’re in the jungle
  • the concept of the lodge “honesty bar, ” where you drink what you like in an outside lounge area, write it down, and get charged when you check out
  • playing with our toddler in tidal pools formed by the  Indian Ocean, watching the joy of his daily discoveries, wonderment of life, and reminders to all of us to be child-like and PLAY
  • fragrant Victoria St. Market in Durban; a maze of beaded sandals, wooden carvings clothing, jewelry, painted ostrich eggs, and woven baskets
  • being treated like family at a coffee roaster in a litchi orchard in Salt Rock, South Africa, where they are “mad for a gorgeous cuppa”
  • the adrenaline rush and phenomenal views from a first micro flight over Ballito
  • Driving on highway R541 called “The Genesis Route,” tied to the origins of our planet and the idea that all humans share an African heritage. 3.5 billion-year-old rocks in Makhonjwa mountain range are amongst the most ancient in the world. (let that sink in for a second. Wow, right)?
  • Discovering Vetiver grass roots, which smell divine, and loving the beautiful nests into which the roots are woven
  • Visiting Jane Goodall’s Chimp Eden, a bit disappointed not to have time for a tour, but then heading back to the car and spotting a group of  giraffes (called a “tower,” which seems aptly named, as they do tower, and grandly so).  Just free roaming, wild and out in the open.  Stunning.

2014 Word: Safari

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Celestial Gift, New Year’s Day

Is it too late to say Happy New Year in February? The first part of the year has flown by. Our family closes 2013 in a new country, having celebrated our first Christmas with a few tears of homesickness, but mostly joy and gratitude for our new lifestyle, friends, and adventures.

It’s summer here in sub-saharan Africa, as polar storms cover the U.S. with heavy snowfall. My mind recognizes the heat, but my body wants to go into winter hibernation. I feel fortunate, however, to have hot sun after a long rainy season, where villagers rarely had dry clothing, and heavy rainfall washed away the leaves, stones, and dirt used to fill potholes the size of bathtubs.

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The rains brought gorgeous, dense and verdant foliage, and in our “surprise” garden, (not knowing what former tenants planted), new flora and fauna bloom and delight us. And, recently, a migration of hundreds of white butterflies fluttered through the tree canopies in our back yard, tumbling in erratic flight patterns like white rose petals falling from the sky. I see movement in the bushes, too, sometimes…is that scampering shadow a mongoose or a huge monitor lizard? Africa constantly feeds our imaginations and keeps us guessing.

Like New Year’s, my birthday is always a time to stop and reflect about the past year, and what’s to come. I received a philosophical birthday wish last week from Dalton, who fills our car at the Engen Petrol station. He jubilantly wished me many more years ahead, and told me to remember, ” Life First.  Problems Later!”  I couldn’t agree more, Dalton. Thanks!

In little nooks and crannies of time since New Year’s, I’ve made it a priority to start going through a slowly accumulated pile of excerpts highlighted in books, articles torn out of magazines, and lists of podcasts, website references, and blogs to peruse. A few messages keep recurring:

  • re-educate yourself to listen and trust the inner-truths
  • follow your intuition, and if it’s really your intuition talking, (your idea or activity) it will lead to a feeling of greater aliveness and power
  • choose how you want your day to unfold, and where you put your energy (not on negativity and all things soul-draining)

I’d love to get up every day and set positive intentions. I suppose it’s like exercise: you just have to get into the habit. Are there days where your head hits the pillow and you wonder where the day went, and how you never found time to X-Y-Z?

Several blogs I enjoy have mentioned choosing a “word for the year.”  What is the word I want to represent 2014? Several words and phrases resonate: authentic. centered. letting go. permission to create. But I think my word for the year will be Safari, as it has connotations of exploring, forging new paths, and discovery.  Which word, image, or quote would you choose for your year?

A quote that speaks to me:

What in your life is calling you?
When all the noise is silenced,
the meetings adjourned,
the lists laid aside,
and the wild iris blooms by itself
in the dark forest,
what still pulls on your soul?

In the silence between your heartbeats
hides a summons.
Do you hear it?
Name it, if you must,
or leave it forever nameless,
but why pretend it is not there?
Source: “The Box”, Terma Collective

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Wishing you an amazing soul safari in 2014.

Cheers,

Starry