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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Naikan and Being Thankful

Naikan means “inside looking.” Developed by a Buddhist, it is a Japanese meditative practice of self-reflection and cultivating gratitude.

As a “type-A,” active person, it’s sometimes (okay, often) a challenge for me to carve out time to be still and quiet, which is all the more reason this practice sounds really valuable!  My son is on break next week from preschool. For his sanity and mine, I am committed to taking at least a few minutes a day to do this.

It’s so important to stop and break out of the busyness. I don’t do this enough. Life can pass you right by, getting wrapped up in activities and not fully appreciating the abundance that surrounds us.

My Mama and Aunt came to Africa this month, and it was an amazing visit, filled with wonderful experiences. I’ve just taken time to write in my journal, and read back through (and more fully appreciate) these fantastic memories:

  • a coffee barista’s advice in Kruger Park: “The world is God’s home, so we must travel to visit the rooms of his house.”
  • observing the wonderment of these ladies as they discovered African crafts, food, hand-woven baskets, wildlife, and meals made with flaming fires…
  • their market finds: magnets of Swazi women, banana-leaf art, a beaded change-purse, earrings made from beans, a soapstone carving, silver jewelry woven with giraffe tail hair,  hearing the scratching sound of hands carving wooden giraffes
  • pale blue skies blanketing toasty brown land and golden fields
  • relaxing under the lodge’s thatched roof, the sounds of hippos roaring nearby
  • grilled “braii” meals outdoors and sundowner drinks by an old, enormous Banyan tree
  • eating breakfast on safari in the bush
  • standing by the Indian Ocean
  • celebrating Ramsay’s second birthday
  • native Swazi dance and music
  • early morning mist rising from Kruger Park’s Crocodile River, emanating like steam from a hot cup of tea
  • sitting next to my Mama on Safari, surrounded by graceful giraffes
  • a vibrant, magical rainbow that appeared and lingered in the wetlands, illuminating the water like a glowing oil painting
  • watching my son on my mother’s lap, eating popcorn together

Wishing for you today the ability to leave behind the bustle, find center, and reflect on who you are and what makes you grateful.

“If you are what you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire.”
-Saint Catherine of Sienna

With gratitude,

Tracy

 

 

Your Time Here Has Expired…

gratitude

Frustrated from an afternoon of struggling with back-to-back “terrible two’s” episodes with our toddler, I enlisted the housekeeper’s help and left to get groceries. I didn’t need much at the store, actually. It was more just to get out; a motherhood break to catch my breath and re-gain composure.  (Do other people run errands when they don’t need to)?

Driving down the highway, I glanced left to see what I thought was initially a bundle of clothes, but then did a double-take to see a man face-down, dead on the side of the road. My mouth agape in shock and awe, I could hardly register what I was seeing. Relieved to see a cop behind me (we were the only cars around), I watched him drive right by, not slowing or turning on sirens, or even turning off on the next exit, as if he had seen a dead deer on the road instead.

I re-played this over and over in my mind all day. When I recounted this to a Swazi friend, he simply said,  ” You are in Africa. This is not a humane place,” which did not put my mind at ease. 

On the last morning of that man’s life, I wonder if he did anything out of the ordinary? If he knew somehow that his time would expire that day?  This quick shift of perspective certainly made me stop and realize how much I take for granted, and erased any complaints and negativity in my head.

I retreated into my thoughts for a few days, formulating question after question. If this were my last day, what would I do differently? Am I leaving anything left unsaid or undone that I would regret? Why do I fritter my time away? There is so much I want to accomplish and learn and explore in this life- what am I waiting for? Why do I pick up toys when I could be squeezing that baby more and doing fun things instead?

And, ultimately, why does it take such a rude awakening to refocus on the important things?  Time seemed to stop that day. In a pondering daze, I sought solace in being outdoors. I watched birds perched  gracefully on a thin branch, bobbing in the wind; a metaphor for the delicate balance of life.

When my internal compass gets thrown off, I try to:

Remember to Breathe. Surrender. Let Go.
Find quiet time for creativity to incubate.
Practice Gratitude.
Spend more time connecting with friends and family.
Play music and do some yoga stretches or dance.
Seek out the beauty in the small things.
Be still and listen.
Take a bubble bath.
Bake something to make the house smell good.
Sit outdoors in the sunshine.
Make tea and read something inspirational.
Start an art project.
Focus on the fun, not the fear.

What do you do  when life throws you off-kilter?

Carpe Diem, friends. Go and enjoy THIS AMAZING LIFE.
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

Seeing Beauty and the Beast With Crooked Blue Glasses

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     When I pulled my favorite blue sunglasses out of my purse today, I noticed they looked bent. When I put them on, the frame was crooked.  “What an analogy for life sometimes,” I thought, “seeing things a little blue and off-kilter.” There are simply those days when, even as someone who strives to be positive and look for the silver lining, enough negativity seeps in through struggles of friends and family and shocking world events that it’s hard to look on the bright side.

     Do you find that sometimes more information is not necessarily better? (This is why I stopped watching the daily morning news before arming myself with coffee and a hot shower). Why let stories sensationalized with fear and disaster shape the beginning of a beautiful day? I can read all that later in the day once I’ve found my footing.

     Especially, lately, as we connect with neighbors and colleagues, and learn more about the community around us, we are discovering a very dark side of Africa. She is the dichotomy of Beauty and the Beast. In particular, Swaziland is a beautiful country, but its citizens are not empowered. Kids have to bribe corrupt employers with their only savings to get a job. Women have little voice. There are very real accounts of car accidents from treacherous roads, deaths from malaria, abject poverty, unnecessary loss of life due to lack of training and equipment at local clinics, child victimization and horrifying witch-doctor, black magic rituals involving cannibalism in the forest. Stories so incomprehensibly awful that it sounds like savagery from the Middle Ages or something out of Joseph Conrad’s  novel, Heart of Darkness (basis for the film “Apocalypse Now”).

      Is this possibly happening, really happening in villages just kilometers from our house? In 2014? It will scare the hell out of you, and make you feel frustrated with third-world solutions; defeated that so much is broken, you don’t know where to start.

     Deeply disturbing “muti” killings are frequently reported here; a kind of ritualistic religion, where body parts are harvested to gain power, wisdom, and good luck. This especially happens before elections. (If this sounds like I am making this up, there are plenty of newspaper articles to read, such as this one): http://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/news/swazi-albinos-fear-muti-killings-before-elections-1.1521290#.U1tVQcfYUwg

     This is when trying to understand cultural differences is vital in order to feel sane. Priests visit schools to exorcise demons of possessed children with “many heads.” Natives with AIDS are told to bring a chicken to the village doctor, who slits the chicken’s throat and waves it in circles above their head to heal them. And they believe in it. Believe it works. Or they think sleeping with a virgin gets rid of HIV, even in the face of so much good education from NGO’s and AID organizations here.  Thank goodness for the doctors, missionaries, leaders, and volunteers who are driven and determined to help. They must have to constantly keep perspective, focusing on saving lives when they can, and making a difference for the greater good of humanity where they can. I applaud them.

     I wonder how they don’t throw their hands up in despair and give up, but then I see a joyful child who has nothing, waving and smiling with light and innocence that melts your heart. And the genuine peacefulness and friendliness of the Swazi people, the potential of this country, and its gorgeous, breathtaking views. At the end of the day,  there is more good than evil that surrounds us, more hope than defeat. More beauty than beast.

Keep perspective out there,

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

To Market, To Market…And Stay on the Left!

Sawubona (hello in SiSwati)

After feeling cabin fever at home for weeks in Mbabane without a car while awaiting paperwork to buy one, we finally tracked down a rental car company, so I’ve been exploring!  Sitting on the right, driving on the left, and shifting gears with my left hand has proven to be an exercise in concentration. Add in the free-roaming cows and pedestrians who loiter in the middle of the roads and highways, and you have a driving challenge, I tell you!

There are so many wonderful markets, from vegetable stalls to arts and crafts, hand-woven baskets, and blown glass. Here are a few recent finds:

Elephant painting by local artist, Pia Smith.

IMG_1410 The Swazi Candle Factory is well known in South Africa for their intricate designs. The tables outside of the shop were full of beautiful hand-made carvings and batiks

The path to Yebo Art Gallery, a new favorite creative spot to visit:

A peacock showing off near Ngwenya Glass, Swaziland’s premiere glass-blowing boutique

Local table decor to spruce up our very beige dining room (flowers are from our yard): IMG_2834The stone carving below is by an artist named Moses, who explained how the “Big Five” are emerging out of a tree.  The baskets were made by a woman named Patricia, who has a fierce love of America and our President, (whose portrait was worn proudly on her skirt, perhaps not in the most reverent place).

and lastly, a home-cooked meal made with all locally-sourced ingredients. The avocados here are especially abundant and delicious.

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Until next time, enjoy the ride, no matter the mode of transportation…

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Sala kahle,

    Starry

Take Me To the Kingdom!

“Ramsay, are you ready to go overseas?” my husband asks our 14 month old over speakerphone.

“We got an assignment?” (I practically scream this question with excitement into the phone).

“Where?! Where are we going?”

“Swaziland!”

(In case you need to look up the geography, as I did, here is a screen shot from Google Maps):

Swaziland, Google Maps, 2013-08-06 at 8.50.16 PMWe move this October, to the Kingdom of Swaziland; a monarchy in a country the size of New Jersey.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom, but I have so much to learn about this African Kingdom.  Right now, this place sounds to me like something out of the Chronicles of Narnia, an exciting adventure!  I love the idea that Ramsay will know safari animals in their natural habitat. And to think he will be close to four years old when we leave Africa. And some of his first words will be in the language of Swati!

I can’t wait to blog from our new home, to capture impressions and share photos and see how our new country shapes us. Parts of it will be hard on the heart, too: Swaziland has one of the highest rates of HIV, which has left too many children orphaned, and there is much suffering from disease, hunger, and poverty. Peace Corps, USAID, Heart for Africa, and many charitable groups are active. We will learn how to get involved, too, in our new community.

I’ve heard the skies in Africa are amazing, and the stars shine as brightly as you’ve ever seen them.

I bought a Lonely Planet guide on South Africa yesterday. It seems like a tiny start, but one must start somewhere. There is much research, daydreaming, and planning to be done. And, oh, the emotions of leaving family and friends. It’s all exciting, overwhelming, and coming very, very quickly! Two more months!

Has anyone out there reading this been to Swaziland? Please share!

til next time,

Starry