Category Archives: Community and Culture

It only takes a spark…

It only takes a spark…

Old First

When I was growing up in Huntington, Long Island, New York, we were members of the Old First Presbyterian Church at 125 Main Street.  The church was (and is) an imposing edifice, a historical building with a long history.

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My father had been a stalwart Presbyterian since the age of 11 and the church was in his blood.  My father was Clerk of Session, my mother sang in the choir, we all went to Sunday School, and when we were in High School, we all were part of TUXIS.

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TUXIS was our church youth group.  The name is less an acronym than a symbol – the “X” in the middle standing for Christ and the letters surrounding it meaning something like “You and I together for Training and Service with Christ as the Center.”  It was old-fashioned even then – but to be honest, I don’t think most of us even thought about what the name meant.  For about 20 years, from the late 1960s and through the 1980s, TUXIS was the place to be on Sunday evenings, from 7:00pm – 9:00pm – no matter what your religion, or even if you had a religion at all.  It was our community.

This past October, Dr. Stan Dransfield, who had been the minister during most of my time at the church, passed away.  One of his sons “discovered” Facebook, found a few former TUXIS members and proposed a reunion.  Being a logistical sort of person, I volunteered to try to organize it.  The response was overwhelming.  And this past summer, about 40 former TUXIS members (and one former youth minister) gathered at the Old First Church to celebrate, to worship, to share community and to remember.

I had not been inside the church since my mother’s funeral in 1996…and then it was just briefly.  So when I walked into the side door by the Parish Hall, the sense of memory was visceral and strong.  The side door where we would wait for my father to talk to “just one more person” during coffee hour.

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The smell of the wood floor of the Parish Hall, and the stage where we would put on our Sunday School plays.  And the huge kitchen with the giant 8-burner stove and hundreds of plates and cups for church suppers.


The photographs of the previous ministers – all lined up along the wall along with the bulletin boards announcing paryer groups and various events.  The old bell that had cracked while ringing one Sunday.

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Behind the stage was the “Cradle Roll” for the babies and underneath the Parish Hall were the old Sunday School rooms and a tunnel that led to the “newer” part of the church – built in 1958.  I have a vague recollection of them putting in the block with the dates when they built that addition.

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The new addition was built with expansion of the Youth Program in mind – there was a full-size basketball court, another kitchen, various classrooms and a “TUXIS” room.

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Up the main stairs, there was the choir room – still looking exactly the same with the robes hanging in their compartments and the shelves of choir music and folders.

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The Sanctuary is the oldest part of the church – and at one time, it was the entire building.  Not much has been altered.  At some point, the seat cushions were added.  A chandelier has been hung from the ceiling and, contrary to the traditional austere Presbyterian decor, a cross was installed over the altar about 10 years ago.  I spent most of my time in the sanctuary in the choir loft, where I sang alto in the church choir.  A beautiful new pipe-organ was installed in 1982 and the choir loft redesigned, just in time for my wedding.  (The wedding was lovely, the marriage rather ill-fated…)
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What was TUXIS and why was it so important?  Well, it was a community.  A community of young people from varying circumstances and belief systems, who were at various places in their spiritual journey.  And it was a safe place to come and feel that you mattered.  We were fortunate to have wonderful youth ministers who built that community, who listened to young people with great consideration and love and who showed us, by word and deed, what it meant to “be the hands and feet” of Christ.  Many pictures were shared of those times.  We had camping and beach trips, trips into New York City, work-sessions, presentations and performances, discussions, singing and dancing, tears and laughter.

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We put on our own “Contemporary Worship Service” once a month, featuring more modern songs and our own singing group called “The Main Street Singers.”  There was even a “Bible-a-thon” to raise money.

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We had three youth ministers during “my” TUXIS time.  Don Dempsey was hired at the beginning of my 9th grade year.  There were so many of us that we had a separate group for the 9th grade called “Niners.”  Don was 24, young, idealistic and rather a hippie.  There were stories about him mowing a peace symbol into the front lawn of his house and an incident where the police were called to the manse, because the neighbors didn’t realize he had moved in yet and thought his gathering of TUXIS young people (complete with candles because the electric had not been turned on yet) was a bunch of hippie-weirdos.  Turns out the stories were true – I got in touch with Don, who is still a Presbyterian minister and he had many memories.  We all loved him, but he was summarily fired after 9 months.  The session then hired Howard Warren.  Howard was “my” TUXIS leader and my brother Doug’s as well.


He was a gentle man, in his mid-thirties, who seemed to know how to handle both the radical young people and the stuffy and staid members of the session.  He had a way of leading us to the “right” decision without us feeling like we were being told what to do.   After Howard left, we had Bill Humphries who came to us right out of seminary, with his very young wife, Cindy.  Bill was youth minister for about 10 years, and was the TUXIS leader for my younger brothers Mike and Tom.


One very important person who could not attend was a woman name Suzie Viemeister, who was like the mother of us all.  She came on every trip, was there every Sunday evening and her home was a place of refuge for a number of young people who had had a falling out with their parents and needed a place to crash.  She is in her 80s now, but still spry and joyful.

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When we all finally showed up at the church, there were many hugs, many remembrances and some tears.  Howard – loved by so many of us – passed away from complications due to AIDS in 2003.  Ironically, he turned out to be far more radical than Don Dempsey ever was.  After he came out of the closet (“exploded out” as some say!) he became an outspoken advocate for inclusion of all in the church.  The Presbytery tried to silence him ; they tried to take away his ministry (my father was furious at this) but Howard persevered and was known as “God’s Glorious Gadfly” for his unrelenting insistence that the Kingdom of Heaven was for everyone.  (Read more about Howard HERE.)

Some of us had gathered for dinner the night before.  Now we shared more food and memories and music and had a communal worship led by Bill Humphries.

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We were then lucky enough to have a brief talk about the history of the church from John Collins, who was a member of TUXIS and is very much involved with the Huntington Historical Society.  And…we got to climb up into the steeple, which, since the installation of the new organ, now involves a trap door over the choir room, a scramble above the ceiling of the sanctuary and then a rickety climb to the top.  It was pretty awesome…I hadn’t been up there since I was a very little girl.

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Everyone who attended the reunion was deeply moved by the gathering.  And I was near tears when I was given a card, signed by everyone, thanking me for organizing the event.  It was a wonderful way to recall a very important part of my life.

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At the end of the worship service, people wanted to sing “Pass It On.”  This is a cheesy song, with a cheesy tune and lyrics that don’t quite scan.  But we all used to sing it with great gusto and I had a guitar and we all sang it again.  I am not ashamed to say that I broke up a little when we got to the last verse.  Thank you, dear Divine Spirit, for the fellowship of TUXIS.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s Love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on.

What a wonderous time is spring,
When all the trees are budding
The birds begin to sing, the flowers start their blooming;
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it.
You want to sing, it’s fresh like spring,
You want to pass it on.

I wish for you my friend
This happiness that I’ve found;
You can depend on Him
It matters not where you’re bound,
I’ll shout it from the mountain top!
I want my world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on.

One short day in the Emerald City…I mean, Paris!

One short day in the Emerald City…I mean, Paris!

When I was in London last month, I decided to take a day trip to Paris.  Why?  Because I could!  There is something very cool about boarding a train in London and coming out in the heart of Paris just a little more than two hours later.  And, if you book far enough ahead of time, the fares for the Eurostar high-speed rail are pretty inexpensive.  I took the earliest train from London St. Pancras, which leaves at 7:00am.

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I got to the station in plenty of time to grab a coffee and a croissant.  I meant to exchange some money for Euros, but I didn’t have time…I figured I’d do that when I got to Gare du Nord.  The train was comfortable and I napped most of the way.  When we arrived in Paris, I immediately went to the nearest Bureau du  Change and inserted my debit card into the machine – as I have done many, many times before in many, many places.  Only this time, the machine gave me this message:

“Transaction défendue. Carte retenue.”

Which means “Transaction denied.  Card retained.”

I stood staring stupidly at the machine for at least a minute.  Then I went over to one of the women behind the change booth.  “Your machine kept my card,” I told her.  “Cards are a 12% commission,” she replied.  I tried again.  “The machine didn’t give me my card back!”  She looked at me with a bored expression. “That’s not our machine,” she said.

I went back to the machine and looked at it again.  My card had not magically reappeared.  I went to the second booth and changed the measly £30 (pounds) I had into €30 (Euros) which theoretically should have been about €37, but there apparently was a 10% commission on cash.  Whatever.  I tried one more time to find out what to do about the card-consuming machine.  This time, I was told, “There’s a number on the machine you can call.”

Figuring that trying to get someone out there to open up the machine and return my card would likely eat into most of my day, I decided to forget it.  I now had a bit of cash, I had other credit cards and most places took credit anyway.  I walked out into the bright Paris sunshine and started to walk towards Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sienne.

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I have a love-hate relationship with Paris.  It is not a very friendly city.  People are brusque and sometimes downright rude. The streets can be crowded and confusing.  But – you are never more than 500 meters from a metro station…and wherever you walk, you see gorgeous architecture, fountains and statues.

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It was a hot and sunny day and I stopped frequently to sit, take pictures and just soak in the busy-ness of Paris.  Finally I reached Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Entrance to the cathedral is free, but the line snaked all the way around the block…and I have been inside before.  I love the square, though and the magnificent statues around the arches of the doors.

I found a little cafe a couple of blocks away and had a lunch of home-made pâté, crusty bread, poached salmon with potatoes and red wine.  I mentioned my problems with the cash machine to the waiter and he told me he thought all the machines at Gare de Nord were faulty.  Luckily, this place took American Express.

I then continued my walk along the Sienne.  There are beautiful bridges and a walkway right down by the river.  One of them is the famous “Pont des Arts” where it has become a tradition for lovers to “lock up” their love by putting a padlock on the bridge and then throwing the key into the river.   IN recent years, this has become a problem, as there are now so many locks on the bridge that there is danger of collapse and rust from the locks is leaching into the Sienne.  Apparently, a portion of the railing actually did collapse this past June and was replaced by plywood.  There has been talk of trying to ban the practice of placing locks, but to my eyes, this has not had much effect.

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I continued walking until I came to the Tuileries Garden.  This used to be part of the Tuileries Palace, which was destroyed during the French Revolution.  The Gardens are now open to the public, with many beautiful fountains, statues and plantings.  It is a popular place to walk, sit, read, get a bite to eat and just hang out.

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I found a public toilet at the end of the garden.  Unlike London, which prides itself on its many available, clean and free public toilets, Paris’ facilities will cost you 2 euros.  $2.65.  To have a pee.  I was outraged.  However, I didn’t think anyone would take kindly to my using a bush in the public garden…so I coughed up my €2.

By this time, I could clearly see “la tour Eiffel” in the distance.


I continued out of the Tuileries and along Avenue des Champs-Elysées…that very famous street with the Arc de Triomphe at the end.


There was a lovely side section along the Champs-Elysees called “Allée Marcel Proust” with some benches, green grass and a couple of statues dedicated to the writer.  I got myself a fruit drink from a vendor, spread my scarf out in the shade and lay down.

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When I woke up, it was a bit cooler.  I continued to walk, past the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and across the Sienne again.  I made my way down to the pedestrian walkway right on the river and stopped at a cafe for a cappuccino and some people-watching.  I was right by the Pont Alexandre – such a beautiful bridge.

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By now it was getting to be late afternoon.  I decided to re-cross the Sienne one last time and find myself a new place for dinner.  I had dearly wanted cassoulet, but it was really too hot for it, so I opted for some delicious French onion soup and a huge salad Niçoise (tomatoes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, Niçoise olives, and anchovies with a vinaigrette dressing.)  Accompanied by crusty bread and wine, of course!

I took the Metro back to Gare de Nord, went through passport control and found my seat in a half-empty train.  I dozed most of the way back to London and thought what a great thing it had been – to go to Paris for the day.





On my way back to Zambia after my summer holidays, I decided to spend a week in London, seeing some old friends.  Because of the way airline tickets are priced, I needed a one-way ticket from Boston to London and because one-way tickets can be ridiculously expensive, I decided to fly with Icelandic Air, who has (by far) the most reasonably priced airfare to London.  The caveat: you make a stop in Iceland.  The cool part: you can stop over in Iceland for as long as 7 days without paying any more for the plane ticket.  So – I decided to do just that and spend a full day and night in the “Land of Fire and Ice.”

The plane landed at midnight and the sun was just sinking below the horizon.


There was a bus to take people to their various hotels and hostels…everyone got on together and then we were taken to the city center, where we boarded smaller buses to take us to our respective lodgings.  My bus driver welcomed me to “the best county in the world!”  By the time I got to my hostel, it was 2:00am (Iceland time) but the place was warm and welcoming and the desk clerk was happy to give me my room key and show me where everything was located. 

I stayed at a hostel called “Hlemmur Square” which was a very comfortable “upscale” hostel with a full kitchen on each floor, very comfortable beds, a full bar and an optional breakfast in the morning.  Oh, and free wifi – always a good thing.  I found my room and found a free (bottom) bunk and got myself sorted.  Each bed had lockable drawers underneath, a reading light and a plug for charging phone, iPad, etc.  Very nice.  When I woke up, the sun was high in the sky and this was the view from the room windows.

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I had pre-paid for a “Hop-On, Hop-Off” bus tour around the city and also a late-afternoon/evening tour of the “golden circle” which had some incredible sites and views.  It was raining on and off as I walked down towards the town center.  The hostel was in a great location, on a street with shops and cafes and many of the streets were designated for pedestrians. 

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The street that my hostel was on was called Laugavegur, which means “wash road.”  It used to lead to the hot springs in Laugardalur, where women in the olden days took their laundry for washing.  It is the primary commercial artery of downtown Reykjavik and one of the oldest shopping streets. There is a modern statue at the foot of the street, depicting a woman laboring up the hill with buckets of water.  Apparently, this statue was removed at one point, because the city thought it was “too modern.”  But it was later returned.  I liked it a lot.

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Laugardalur is also the location of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  That’s right.  It’s a museum devoted to penises.

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It is not quite as risque as it sounds…it has 280 examples and samples of penises from many species land and sea animals, including (they say) Icelandic elves and trolls.  It apparently has a couple of human specimens as well.  You can read more about the museum HERE.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to go in…but I did take a few pictures from the street.

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It was a bit colder than I had expected…and I was chilled from being in the rain.  I had always wanted one of those cool Icelandic sweaters.  So – I did my part to stimulate the Icelandic economy.


I probably could have skipped the “Hop-On, Hop-Off” bus tour.  The city is quite small and I had slept in, so didn’t really have time to do any of the “hopping on and off” that I would have liked.  However, it gave me a good sense of the city of Reykjavik, a little history and some interesting buildings, statues and other historical bits and bobs. 

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I had a quick bite to eat at a cafe and then it was time for my “Golden Circle Tour.”  This was a small van, with a driver who was also our guide.  First stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the great Atlantic rift is slowly pulling Iceland apart – and it is clearly visible.  Every year, Iceland expands by 1 centimeter in either direction.  “Soon,” our guide joked, “We will become a major world power.”  It was pretty amazing to see the rift and imagine the land moving, slowly but inexorably.

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Thingvellir National Park is also the site of Iceland’s first Parliment in the year 930.  There are still ceremonial events held here.  It became a National Park in 1928 and there are numerous hiking trails and camp sites.  The rift has formed the largest natural lake in Iceland.  Many of the rifts are very deep and have incredibly clear water, making them popular with SCUBA divers.  The width of the little gift shop is supposed to show how far the plats have moved apart in the last 1,000 years.

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The next stop was Gullfoss Waterfall (meaning “Golden Falls.”)  This was stunningly beautiful, with an interesting history. .

During the first half of the 20th century,  there was much speculation about using Gullfoss to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented indirectly by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors’ attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland. Even after it was sold, there were plans to utilize Hvítá, which would have changed the waterfall forever. This was not done, and now the waterfall is protected.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson was determined to preserve the waterfall’s condition and even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall. A stone memorial to Sigriður, located above the falls, depicts her (rather severe) profile and the story is that she actually saved the waterfall…although this may not be entirely true.  There are paths built so you can walk along the top of the falls and steps to climb lower down.  By this time, the sun was trying to appear and it was really a spectacular sight.

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Finally, we arrived at the Great Geysir (pronouced “geezer.”)  This was the first geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. The name Geysir itself is derived from the Icelandic word “geysa” which means “to gush”, the verb from Old Norse.  There were actually several geysers, some more “regular” than others.  Most of them had names. You could smell the sulphur and feel the heat from the steam rising out of the ground.  We were warned not to get to close to the active ones. There were several pools of hot water that were almost unbelievably blue.  It was pretty cool.

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We were able to have a bite to eat at the cafe there and then it was time to head back.  The sky was still very light and the scenery was stunning.  We passed several herds of Icelandic “ponies” (although they call them “horses” – there is no word for “pony” in Icelandic.)  These are sturdy little creatures who can be trained not only to walk, trot and canter/gallop, but also to do an ambling gait called a “tölt” and a fast paced called a “flugskeið” or “flying gait.”  Up until relatively recently, there were no roads outside the city and these horses were the primary means of transportation.  They come in many colors and in the winter, they grow long, wooly coats. They still play a large part in Icelandic life.   (These pictures are from the internet…I was not able to get close enough to take any good pictures of the horses!)

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I was sorry to leave Iceland after such a short visit.  I plan to return when I can have a more leisurely trip (and visit the Penis Museum…)

And then, I was off to London!

Dar and Durban

Dar and Durban

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Zambia for almost a year.  Tonight I fly back to NYC for 4 weeks of vacation…and then I’ll return at the end of July via Iceland and London!


At the end of April, we took a small group of middle school students to Dar es Salaam for a choir festival.  They were very excited about the trip, as none of them had ever been on a plane without their parents before!

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This was the first real “East African Middle School Choir Fest” and they had imported a conductor and music educator from the University of Florida.  She was terrific and really knew how to work with the kids to build their confidence and get them sounding good.  Six different schools were represented. There were also workshops in drumming, dance and art.

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At the concert, each school performed separately before the large choir took the stage.  My 5 kids did a great job!  We sang a Russian folk song called “The Little Birch Tree” and the other teacher who came with us accompanied us on the flute.

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I found Dar es Salaam to be almost intolerably hot and humid.   However, on the last day, we went to Boyongo Island – a national park.  The water was crystal clear and it was beautiful.

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At the end of May, we had a long weekend and I took a short jaunt to Durban, a city of the coast in South Africa.  Unlike the hustle and bustle of Cape Town and Jo’burg, Durban is a bit more provincial and laid-back.  The airport reminded me of St. Pancreas Station in London and there was even a hotel with the London “Underground” symbol over the door.  The weather was absolutely perfect and I walked for several miles along the beach, where there are restaurants and shops and plenty of interesting people (and monkeys!) to watch!  Durban is also home to several huge sports arenas.

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I took an bus tour on the “Ricksha Bus.”  Unlike the larger bus tours, this one had a live tour guide who carefully explained all the sites and buildings we were passing.  More than once, she mentioned that such-and-such a building was “very, very old” which usually meant it was built in about 1910 or so.  It was funny that “very old” was only a hundred years.  Durban is still has specific areas divided by class, religion and race, although there does not seem to be a great deal of tension.

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Our bus guide!  She was lovely.



We stopped at a beautiful viewpoint above the city.  There was a wedding party up there, taking pictures.

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I stayed in a lovely B & B in a room with its own private garden terrace and a huge soaking tub!  Then I took the sleeper train back to Jo’burg…enjoying the slow pace of the train and the scenery.  I booked two beds, so I had my own compartment.  It is an extremely cheap way to travel and you can see so much of the countryside and meet interesting people.  At about 6:00am, I was awakened by someone walking down the corridor calling “Coffee, coffee, coffee!  Morning coffee!”  I slid open my compartment door and there was a staff person with a tray of cups; I gave her 7 rand (about 65 cents) and was given a hot cup of coffee with milk and sugar already added.  I sipped it while I watched the sun come up through my window and the train rumbled along towards Jo’Burg.

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It was a very relaxing break…I may have to return!

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The shiny city of Dubai

The shiny city of Dubai

Every four or five years, certain educators who don’t have enough to do and want to feel important get together to “revise” either the curriculum, the standards or the basic methods of how to teach. Last week, I was sent to Dubai to attend an educational training centred around the newest iteration of the “Middle Years Program” which is being adopted by many international schools.  I had only been to Dubai on lay-overs when changing planes, so I was excited to be able to see a bit more of the city.

I had been booked into a hotel called “Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate” a 5-star hotel a bit outside the city.


Since I am usually a traveler on a budget who stays in hostels where you have to make your own bed, bring your own towels and share a bathroom down the hall, this was quite a treat.  As the cab drove up to the entrance, one person leaped to open the car door for me and another took my bag to bring it up to my room.  The hotel had a huge lobby and atrium  decorated with Arabic themes and lighting.  There were a number of restaurants, a couple of fountains, a roof-top pool, plenty of places to sit and a fairly extensive coffee bar.  Oh, and several life-size statues of camels.

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When I got up to my room, I found that the large flat-screen TV was on with a message, which welcomed me by name to the hotel and to Dubai and informed me that if I needed anything – anything at all – I had only to ask.  The room was spacious and cool and the bathroom had both a waterfall shower and a large tub, plenty of towels of all sizes, slippers and a bathrobe.  In addition,  there was a bidet and also a sprayer attached to the toilet so you could be sure that your bottom bits were sparkling clean.  (Every toilet in Dubai had these sprayer-attachments, including the ones in the malls and the airport.  Apparently, the people of the UAE  like be sure that they have very clean tushies.)

I had taken an overnight flight, so I availed myself of the shower and then a substantial nap.  When I arose, I was ready to try to see a little bit of the city.  I had a lovely latte in the coffee bar downstairs and then grabbed a taxi to the nearest stop on the “Big Bus” tour.  This cost about twice the amount of any other “Big Bus” tour I have taken – Dubai is a very expensive city!

The tour had a choice of 10 languages.


Dubai is both the name of the Emirate (there are seven Emirates in the UAE) and the name of the city.  It is not the capital of the United Arab Emirates (the capital is Abu Dhabi) but it is the largest in population and has become somewhat of a world hub of commerce and culture. Although the economy was originally built on the oil industry, the emirate’s main revenues now come from tourism, aviation and real estate.  It is likely the most “westernised” city in the UAE.

The skyline of Dubai is known for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, in particular the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. There are also man-made islands and some of the largest shopping malls in the region and the world.

It is a very shiny city, with lots of glass and steel.  I also noticed that the architecture includes curves and angles not common to western cities.

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The metro system is fairly new (and also quite shiny.)  It was easy to navigate, cheap (less than $2.00 from one end to the other) and spotlessly clean.  The tracks and stations were purpose-built and are fully automatic.  It was first opened in 2009 and has been extended since that time. The stations are pod-like and looked to me like some kind of fantastic beetle, although I have since discovered that the shiny exterior was meant to evoke the ancient trade of pearl-diving, which sustained Dubai before the discovery of oil.  There is a very interesting article on the design and construction of the metro system HERE. 


One of the stops on the Big Bus was an indoor “souk” or market.  Usually these are outside, or a group of individual stores, but this one was self-contained.  What struck me was how incredibly colourful it was.  I didn’t buy anything…but I sure enjoyed looking.

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We went out onto the island of Palm Jumeirah.  This is a fully man-made island in the shape of a date palm tree.  Here is what it looks like from the air:


There is a tunnel from the top of the “palm tree” to the arches that serve as a break from the sea.  There are highly-desirable villas and apartments on the “palm fronds” and a ridiculously expensive hotel  called “The Atlantis”  on the curved breaks.  The entire island was built using sand sprayed up from the ocean floor and with ecological sustainability in mind.  It was pretty fantastic, actually.

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There was construction of a planned extension to the metro going on.


Dubai is known for its malls.  A mall is a mall is a mall, but being Dubai, these malls were a bit…well…shinier.  The one near my hotel had a theme.  The Ibn Battuta Mall was across from my hotel.  Ibn Battuta was a 14th-century Moroccan explorer and scholar known for his extensive travels.  Over a period of thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of the known Islamic world as well as many non-Muslim lands.

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The mall is “themed” according to the countries he visited and there was an interesting exhibit in the very centre, describing many of the inventions and discoveries made in the Arab world during this time.  It struck me that although I consider myself well-educated and certainly well-read, I had never before heard of this great adventurer and explorer.


It was a bit incongruous to see so many western-based stores smack up against Arabic culture, dress and decor.  There was a huge 14-screen movie complex right in the middle of the mall…surrounded by an ancient sailing ship and a guy on a life-size elephant.  And behind the elephant, there was a Cinnabon.  The food court had American chain restaurants as well as more traditional fare, and there were people in all kinds of dress – from traditional Arabic robes and full burka to women in shorts and halter-tops (although these are supposedly discouraged.)  I watched one traditionally-dressed father sit exhausted at a table covered with McDonald’s wrappers while his two little girls shrieked and played with balloons until his burka-wearing wife returned with a huge shopping bag and berated him for allowing the girls to run wild.

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Although Dubai is less restrictive about dress than some other Arabic cities, you still see plenty of women dressed in full hijab, some with just a head-covering and some with the veil that hides the entire face except for the eyes.  Westerners who visit Dubai do not wear the head coverings, but my colleagues who worked at schools in some other places in the UAE like  Ajman and Sharjah told me that almost everyone wears an abaya there – you feel out of place without one.  “Abaya” means “cloak” and is a garment you wear over your regular clothes.  These can be quite fashionable. Here’s one designed by Louis Vuitton!
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To be honest, I can see the attraction of covering up.  You never have to worry about a bad hair day, or about someone leering at you, or feeling too “fat.”  You don’t have to worry about how you sit, how you walk or if you’ve got your make-up on.  And in the bright, hot sun, it make sense to cover your head – I had a light-weight scarf that I used when walking.

Black is the common colour for hijab amongst Arab women (although the Hindu women wear brighter colours) and I saw an advertisement posted in the ladies room for a product designed to “Keep your blacks really black!”  Some women also decorate their “blacks” with sparkly sequins and glittery stones. I also saw a young woman in the bathroom sitting on the counter, her head scarf pushed off, talking on her iPhone and smoking a cigarette!


The Dubai Mall was about three times as large as the Ibn Battuta.  This place had a merry-go-round and full-sized dinosaur skeleton in it.  Also an aquarium.  A full-sized aquarium.  In the mall.


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There were some fantastical glass statues and sculptures as well as decorative windows and passageways.

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The Big Bus took us down into the older part of the city, with smaller stores and residential areas.  There is a creek which flows through Dubai and is the life-blood of the city.  You could take a water-taxi (an “abra”) across to the other side.  Boats and barges were lined up with their wares stacked on the shore.  Traffic signs were in English and Arabic (as almost everything is in Dubai) and although Arabic is the “official” language, most people also have at least some English.  In listening to conversations and announcements on the trains, I realised how many English words come from the Arabic language.  Some common ones: algebra, cotton, zero, spinach, sofa, orange, mummy, lemon, giraffe, candy, artichoke and alcohol…and many, many others.

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Although the air is dry in Dubai, the mid-day temperatures can get very hot.  These are air-conditioned bus stops!



I spent the next two and a half days at the Greenfield  Community School, learning the intricacies of the “new and improved” MYP, hearing buzzwords like “up-skill,” “synergistic,” “dynamic” and “standardised assessment” and trying to bite my tongue.  I did not always succeed.  However, the host school was very welcoming and the catering company had pretty good food.  And, as always, it was good to hob-nob with my fellow wizards…

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I found the people of Dubai invariably friendly, helpful and welcoming.  I did not feel out of place as a “westerner” and enjoyed exploring the incredible architecture and browsing in the malls.  I would like to return when I am not tied to a conference and spend some time down by the creek, shopping in the souks and taking an little cruise along the water.  As it was, I enjoyed sitting in the outdoor lounge on my last evening, having the “special drink of the day” and an assortments of tapas and feeling the desert breeze on my face.

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The Harare International Festival of the Arts

The Harare International Festival of the Arts


The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is one of Africa’s largest international arts festivals. Established in 1999,  the festival takes place each year in late April or early May in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The week long festival encompasses five principal disciplines: theatre, music, dance, fine art, and poetry.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend for 4 full days.

Zimbabwe is a country in deep trouble.  It declared independence in 1980 and Robert Mugabe, seen at the time as a hero by many people, was elected Prime Minister.  For the first decade of his administration, it seemed as though Zimbabwe would emerge as a modern power, with decent health care and education for all citizens,  integration and cooperation between people of various races and a thriving economy.  However, after about a decade, Mugabe seemed to lose his grip on reality.  He blamed his countries woes on vague “conspiracies” and “sabotage” and made some extremely questionable decisions.  He has been “elected” seven times, although the last few elections were challenged.


Zimbabwe has gradually deteriorated into a country with an 80% unemployment rate, no health care, no education and no industry.  They experienced “hyper-inflation” and in 2008, the government started printing bills in denominations up to 100 billion dollars.  Shortly afterwards the economy completely crashed and now Zimbabwe has no currency at all – they use American dollars and also accept Botswanian Pula, South African Rand or Euros.


The city is crumbling – sidewalks falling apart, trash strewn everywhere, shops boarded up and people trying to sell trinkets or cheap food on the street, or begging outright.

In the middle of all this is HIFA…an incredibly organised, internationally diverse, wildly successful festival.  And so…maybe there is hope for Zimbabwe after all…because the HIFA was amazing.  Six days of music, dance, drama, poetry and artists literally from all over the world.  Everyone working at the Festival was friendly, welcoming and helpful.  There were shuttles organised to take you to different venues and they ran on time and on a schedule.  The acts were all great – hugely diverse in scope and style.  Performers of all ages, colours, nationalities and everything else.

So, let me tell you about what I saw!  (And this is only a small sample of what was going on!)

Zimboita was a quartet of musicians blending Zimbabwean and Italian music.  They were terrific and got everyone on their feet and dancing.

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There was an Indian Dance Troupe…they advertised themselves with a picture of someone breathing fire and holding a snake.  However, apparently the theatre nixed the fire and customs nixed the snake.  So they did many dances which involved balancing many bowls and other objects on the head.  It was kind of cool…especially when in the middle of one dance, one of the musicians ran out into the centre, blew this huge horn and then ran off again!

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There was a magic show called “My Father’s Hat,” which was wrapped in a one-man play about the magician, his son and his father.  The performer gave me a ride back to the Main Gate afterwards and told me that the story was 99% true…that his father had been an expert magician and had actually died while doing his act!

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There were some fantastic classical performances held in a wonderful old church with exceptional acoustics.  I heard world-famous opera stars in recital, three of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites, a choral/orchestral work called “Stabat Mater” and an incredible solo pianist who juxtaposed some of Bach’s preludes and fugues with more modern pieces…and somehow made it all fit together.

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On the main stage, there was a bona-fide Celtic band that got everyone singing and dancing.  The only thing missing was a keg of Guinness.

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I saw a couple of very interesting dramatic productions…one was about a suicide attempt gone wrong and was set in a decrepit public toilet.   It was called “The Gods You Built” and revolved around the loss (and invention) of belief systems. Another one combined acting with dance – which I wasn’t sure would work, but it did.  It was called “Brothers in Blood ” and was about the strained and often paranoid relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians after apartheid.   Both plays reminded me of some of the stuff I saw at the Edinborough Fringe Festival – a little edgy, a little risky and a little thought-provoking…just like theatre is meant to be. (Pictures from HIFA website)

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And then there was the craft market. I wanted a truck to take home some of the gorgeous stone statues.

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They were also selling marimbas of all sizes and other instruments.



The whole craft market was alive with colour and bustling with activity.

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Many items were made from “recycled” materials.  You could get necklaces and keychains made from the now-useless money.  And this hat is made from….video tape!


And I loved these toys…hand-carved.  Notice how the lion is going to bite the man in the butt…but never quite catches up!

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I saw a Chinese dance troupe from Nanjing made of up children aged 8 – 12…they were called The Little Red Flower Art Troupe.  They were very good but a little creepy in their perfection.


Also several singers…one jazzy, one more folky.


I have to say that the most impressive act I saw was a solo guitarist.  Originally from Persia, by way of Russia, Germany, the USA and finally Canada he made the guitar sound like everything from a freight train to an orchestra.  A very talented young man.


A colleague of mine had also come to HIFA and she introduced me to Paul and Rex, a fantastic couple who currently live in Lusaka, but have a home in Scotland, where they were married a few years ago.  They talked about their home country, Nigeria, and spoke with some sadness about how neither of them would (or could) ever return.  We had a wonderful dinner with them the first night and then kept bumping into them at various events!

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On the last day, I spent a few hours just sitting in the main courtyard, listening to the music and watching the people around me.  It was an incredible 4 days and I am looking forward to next year.


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The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

When I was in Cape Town a few weeks ago, I stayed in an area of the city called the “Bo Kaap” which means “Upper Cape.” The area is noted for its colourful houses, cobbled streets and interesting history.  It is located basically on the side of  Signal Hill, which means there are steep climbs and lots of terraced houses.

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The area is also sometimes known (somewhat erroneously) as “The Malaysian Quarter” as this is the place where the former slaves (some from Malaysia, but many from elsewhere) settled after slavery was abolished.  Because they were required to wear and live drab circumstances when enslaved, after they gained their freedom, they made sure  their houses and clothing were brightly coloured.

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The Bo Kaap is the centre of Cape Town’s Muslim community, with no less than nine mosques in this one small area (less than 6,000 people.)  Some of the mosques were tiny, but there were two or three with the capacity to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers.  Although there are (I think) 5 daily “calls” only the ones at dawn, noon and sundown seemed to be broadcast.  My B & B was at the top of the Bo Kaap so I heard the calls loud and clear.  The prayers are done live – first there would be one, breaking the silence – an ancient, eerie kind of music, sung with great passion and vigour.  And then, as that one died out, another mosque would broadcast their call – with the singer doing his best to show at least as much “prayerfulness” as the first.  And then, a couple of mornings, I heard a third singer get into the act.

Since, theoretically, all the calls should be happening simultaneously, I could only assume that some kind of friendly competition was going on.  Sort of an “anything you can pray, I can pray louder” type of thing.

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The people of the Bo Kaap were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  It is not (yet) a big tourist area…and although there is some worry about gentrification, the area still retains much of its 19th century charm.  I was very happy to have stayed there – as the proprietor of my B & B said when I commented on how lovely the area was, “It’s a special place, isn’t it?”

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This is the hill I had to walk up to get to the B & B.  It was even steeper than it looks.



But THIS is the view I had from the terrace:

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On the far edge of the Bo Kaap, about halfway up Signal Hill, you can find the “Noon Gun.”  This is a very old tradition in Cape Town – they shoot a cannon off precisely at noon every day but Sunday.  They’ve been doing this since 1806.  It is somewhat of a tourist attraction. I walked around the side of the hill and up a path and some  stairs to where the armoury was.  The stairs were very much dis-used, apparently most people come up the road.  But I managed to find my way.  There were many old cannons and cannon-related items up there and the view was terrific.

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A sign informed me that this was to be the 65346th firing.  Other signs warned people to “cover their ears” and stay well
away from the firing zone.

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At about 11:30, they began to prepare to shoot the cannon.  A few people drove up in cars and there was a small tour bus.  An officer came out and gave us a bit of background history.  These are the oldest cannons still being fired in existence.  The timing is done with absolute precision – through an electrical charge that is connected to a facility in Greenwich, England!  And though they only shoot one cannon, there is a “back-up cannon” loaded that can be set off manually, in case the first cannon doesn’t work.  He raised a flag and showed us how he put the charge into the cannon.  It is a bag filled with gunpowder, tamped down into the barrel of the cannon with a wooden plunger that looked as though it may well have been in use in 1806!

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When the cannon went off, it was deafening…and pretty cool.  No doubt that everyone in Cape Town knew that it was noon!

I had planned to have lunch at this cafe called “The Noon Gun Cafe” at the bottom of the hill, but found that it had been closed for the past 8 months!  I passed another little restaurant on the way down and found it booked to capacity with a tour bus!  So, I made my way down the Bo Kaap and ended up having a wonderful lunch in a little corner Indian cafe…excellent lamb Biryani and naan.  Then I climbed back up to my B & B for a swim and a nap!

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A Zambian Opera…

A Zambian Opera…

Last night, I had the privilege of attending one of only three performances of “Damyna, Damyna” an original Zambian opera composed by long-time Zambian resident Peter Langmead, with an all-Zambian cast.  It may very well be the first opera ever performed in Zambia.
(All photos copyright Langmead & Baker 2014)


Opera has long been considered (by many) to be the pinnacle of musical performance.  When you do an opera, you’ve hit the height of cultural success .  And Lusaka’s emerging Zambian middle-class wants culture.  A performance of “The Magic Flute” or “La Boheme” might have sufficed – but Mr. Langmead wanted this opera to speak to contemporary Zambians, with contemporary music.  So the music was decidedly “modern” and the story explored the conflicts between life in a rural village and the attractions and challenges of living in the city.  And being a real, bona-fide opera, the story also had romance, intrigue, a big secret, mistaken identity, betrayal, jealousy, drunkenness, sexual innuendo, emotional distress and finally, resolution.

The opera was staged in the Lusaka Playhouse, a small theater that has seen better days, but has surprisingly good acoustics and sight-lines.  Incredibly, an long-forgotten orchestra pit was discovered under the stage, found to be still usable and opened up for this performance!

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The cast was made up of local singers and instrumentalists, a local church choir for the chorus, a dance troupe called “Team Jiva” and  several guest artists from the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Academy in Germany and was  conducted by renowned conductor Theo Bross.  It was very clear that none of the performers had ever attempted anything like this before.  Their excitement and nervousness were both evident.  The rehearsals had been going on for several months

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The story starts with the village waking up and the chorus singing about Damyna; how she was rescued from being sold to a moneylender by her aunt and raised as a sister to Por Phiri, who believes her to be his real sister.

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Damyna and Por Phiri appear and it becomes clear that they are in love with each other, but because they believe themselves to be true brother and sister, they cannot marry.  They sing about how they are “best friends.”


Por Phiri’s mother sings about why she has kept up this deception – in order to keep peace in the family and avoid difficulty.


Two farming consultants from the city arrive in the village, in a fancy car.  The villagers see them coming and sing about why these rich people might be coming to their poor village.  “Perhaps they will build us a school!”  “Definitely NOT!”  “Perhaps they will build us a swimming pool!  It would be cool to have a pool!”  Everyone is very interested in the city people and their fancy clothes…and it is clear that the woman (a white European) is attracted to Por Phiri and the man (an African) very much enamored of Damyna.  (Note how the woman is dressed in order to appear “white and European.”)  The dancers in the background dance to show how the African consultant and Damyna are falling for each other.  However, Damyna is obviously a bit jealous of Por’s attraction to the European woman, singing about how that woman has “small breasts, not as big as mine!”

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The village witch doctor, not knowing that Damyna and Por are not really siblings, decides to help things along.  He conjures some spirits, casts a magic spell and when everyone wakes, it seems his charms have worked and love has bloomed.

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The second act opens at a cafe in town.  The chorus sings “Here we are in town” as the proprietors of the cafe declare how excellent their establishment is.

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The two couples are getting to know each other, but it is clear that Por and Damyna still have feelings for each other.  The witch doctor, realizing his mistake, tries to set things right, but is foiled by Damyna’s aunt’s estranged husband showing up and declaring himself to be the father of both Por and Damyna, as he boasts of having sex with both women.  The men in the chorus sing about how they wish they could have as much sex as this guy while the women sing their disgust with his boastful drunkenness.


But the aunt has the last word, when she calls her husband a pathetic excuse for a man and tells him that he is NOT the father of Por Phiri after all.  The witch doctor undoes his spell.


Damyna and Por are not brother and sister after all and are free to marry.


I loved this opera.  I loved it because of the love and effort that went into making it.  I loved it because of the ownership of the performers and the obvious delight each of them showed in performing.  I loved it because it was done in an old, inadequate theater by nervous and excited Zambians, so proud to be performing an opera – an opera! – for fellow Zambians, many who had dressed to the nines to come to the performance.  (I saw at least one mink stole, lots of jewelry and high-heels…and suits on the men.)

And I loved the obvious joy and unaffected enthusiasm on the part of the performers.  After the last chord had been sung and the orchestra played the last cadence, the entire cast burst into wild whoops of joy and ran off the stage, pumping their fists in the air.  Not very “professional?”  Maybe.  But you know what?  They’d just performed an OPERA.  A real OPERA.  In  Zambia.  About Zambians.

(I was reminded more than once of Scott Joplin and his only known opera called “Treemonisha.”  Scott Joplin, best known for his ragtime music, was America’s first published black composer.  He wanted ragtime to be taken seriously, not just thought of as “coon music” or “jive music” and so he wrote an opera using a wide range of musical styles, including ragtime and he spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get the opera published and performed.  Like “Damyna, Damyna,” the plot also dealt with superstition, romance, adopted children, betrayal and the conflict between old and new.  The opera had one concert “read-through” in 1915 and then was lost until 1970, when it was rediscovered (thanks, in part, to the movie “The Sting” which used many of Joplin’s works.)  It received its world premiere in 1972, in Atlanta and now is considered an historically significant musical work, with performances all over the world.  It would be wonderful to see “Opera Z” tackle this work for their next performance.)

After the performance, I met Peter Langmead, the composer, and told him how much I had enjoyed the performance.  I think it was a great occasion.  My hat is off to the singers, the orchestra, the dancers and everyone who helped make the show happen.







Jo’burg to Cape Town via the Premiere Classe Train

Jo’burg to Cape Town via the Premiere Classe Train

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I love train travel.  It seems to me a much more civilised mode of transportation than a plane, where you are jammed into a seat with no legroom and no way to move around, stretch, chat, grab a bite to eat and maybe meet your fellow passengers.

There is a wonderful website called “The Man in Seat 61” which details how to travel all over the world without ever setting foot in an airplane.   It is a terrific resource for anyone who likes train travel…I used it when I traveled from Amsterdam to London.  (Passenger train ride, over-night ferry to another waiting train and right into St Pancreas Station!)  It also describes how to take “great train journeys world wide” including the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Orient Express and the “Blue Train” from Jo’burg to Cape Town, which is the journey I took.

Well, I didn’t take the actual “Blue Train” (it costs almost $1,000 one way!) but I took that same journey – same scenery, same size train cars, same full-meal service – but less than a quarter of the price.  There is also an even cheaper option, called the “Tourist Class” train.  However, I decided to treat myself a little and go with the “Premier Classe.”   I was not disappointed.

For overnight train travel, the important thing to remember is that the journey is the thing…as much as the “getting there.”  The Premier Classe train is like a little hotel on wheels, with all expenses paid.  No traffic, no hassles, plenty of room to stretch your legs, a fully-stocked bar car, delicious meals and big windows in the lounge to look at the scenery.

We started out in the Premiere Classe Lounge, with complementary coffee and tea and a light lunch.  I got there early and was welcomed warmly, my bag tagged and my boarding pass issued.  It was fun talking with the other passengers as they arrived.  There were people from all over the world and some locals who had lived in Jo’burg or Cape Town all their lives and simply decided to take a train ride.

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The porters took our bags and delivered them to our private “rooms” on the train and then we were allowed to board.  The train was bright purple on the outside…which pleased me.



All Premier Classe passengers get a private sleeper. Solo travellers get a “coupé” with one lower berth and couples get a compartment with two lower berths. Each compartment has a washbasin, towels, soap, shampoo, shower gel, mineral water and slippers!  There was a toilet at the end of each car and a shower just along the corridor.  The windows opened for plenty of fresh air.  I found my compartment, with my bag placed neatly inside.




We were all invited to the dining car for complimentary champagne and an assortment of snacks.

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As we were all chatting, we suddenly realised that the train had started to move.  We were pulling out of Jo’burg, passing some of the other (less classy) trains and leaving the city behind.

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There was a full kitchen in between the dining car and my car, and the chefs were already working to prepare dinner.  After about an hour, formal “tea” was served, with delicious chocolate cake.



The city scenes gave way to shanty-towns, fields and farms.

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I was asked if I would mind having dinner at the “second seating” and of course that was fine.  I made my way to the lounge for a glass of wine and discovered that I had to purchase it by the bottle.  Somehow, I made do.  (There was an excellent wine list – South Africa is known for its fine wine!)


I chatted with the other passengers who were also “second seating” and watched the sun set.


Finally we were called to dinner – a five-course gourmet meal.

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There was some kind of butternut soup, a fish course, a salad, roasted vegetables, steak and tira misu for dessert…which I usually don’t like, but this was delicious.  And then they came around with a cheese tray.  By the time I was finished, it was close to 10:00pm and I was ready for bed. When I got back to my compartment, it had all been made up into a lovely bed, with a comfy duvet and fluffy pillows.  You can see the little sink in the corner, with the night-table folded up.



I washed up and hit the hay, the train rumbling through the night.  I had no trouble falling asleep, but I did have a funny moment when I woke in the middle of the night.  I wanted to go use the toilet and went to open the door; but it wouldn’t open!  It seemed like it was locked!  I jiggled the handle and pushed harder, but it was stuck tight!  Maybe they locked us in our compartments at night?  Maybe there was a call button or something!  How could I get out of this room?

Of course, when I woke up all the way, I realised that the door was meant to SLIDE open…as I had slid it closed to go to bed.

In the morning, the sun streamed through the window and the scenery had changed.  Now there were mountains in the distance.

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I went to get coffee in the dining car and here experienced my only disappointment with the trip.

Instant coffee.  

Alas.  I made do with tea, and resolved to write the owner of the train and suggest that he serve bona-fide brew.  (I did write him and got a very nice response back!)

Breakfast was eggs, bacon, sausage, beans toast, juice and grilled tomatoes.  A proper “English breakfast” in other words.

Now we began to see some of the vineyards of the area and smaller towns on the outskirts.

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At lunch, I was seated with another solo passenger, and we split a bottle of very nice white wine.  He was an older gentleman who had lived in South Africa all his life and it was very interesting to talk to him about the changes over the past 30 years.

Finally, we began to see the outskirts of Cape Town.  We passed several little buildings that looked like tiny forts – I was told that they had been built by the British, to protect their lands.



And then we could see Table Mountain and Lion’s Head – Cape Town’s famous mountains…all covered in clouds.

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It was wonderful hearing the train slow down and finally stop…after 27 hours.  The porters came and got our bags and brought them into the lounge area at the station.  One of the staff at the station called me a taxi and I was whisked to my B & B up on the side of “Signal Hill” t0 start my adventure in Cape Town.





A weekend in Choma

A weekend in Choma

Choma is a small, friendly town located about 4 hours south of Lusaka, on the main bus line to Livingstone.  I thought it would make a fun weekend excursion and I was not disappointed.   This is still the rainy season and most places are under-occupied and have special rates for residents.  I did a bit of googling and discovered the Masuku Lodge, about 20 km off the main road.  It is located inside the Nkanga River Conservation Areas and is one of the area’s top places for bird-watching.  Over 400 species of bird have been sighted here, including Chaplin’s barbet, Zambia’s only endemic bird.

I got to Lusaka’s main bus station in plenty of time to get my ticket.  Unlike the first time, when I was there as a new traveler in Zambia, I had a better idea of what to expect and felt more comfortable looking around.  There is a central, covered area which functions as a market.  The various bus lines have their ticket booths around the edges.  Buying a bus ticket can be an adventure in and of itself.  On some of the bigger bus lines (like Mazhandu, the one I used) you can call ahead one day before to reserve a ticket.  But on most of the buses, you need to show up in person on the day.   (Buying a ticket online is unheard of here.  Most people who take the bus don’t have regular access to a computer.)

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What is curious is how ticket sales are handled.  As I walked around the market, representatives from the different bus lines would approach me.  (Note that “madam” is pronounced here with the accent on the second syllable.  “meh-DAM.”)”Madam!  Madam!  You would like a ticket to Kpari Mposhi?”  “Madam, where are you going?  We have bus to Livingstone!”   “Madam, you would like to go to Ndola today?  Very nice bus!”

It was as if they assumed that I had packed my bag and gone to the bus station on a whim with no plan and no idea of where I wanted to go!  The place was bustling with chaotic activity.  In addition to the market stalls, there were folks walking around holding merchandise for sale – watches, stockings, hats, clothespins, snacks, radios…almost anything you could think of.  Some were more aggressive than others – I watched as the clothespin seller shoved his wares literally under the nose of several seated women who were dozing off as they waited for their bus.  Most simply shook their heads at him, but one woman glared at him until he backed away.

(This picture shows the stairs used to attached over-size luggage to the top of a bus…not all have compartments underneath!)
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Finally, our bus arrived, everyone found their (assigned) seat and we drove off.  There was the inevitable gospel music playing and this time we had a real live preacher on board, who read scripture and walked up and down the aisle talking and praying for the first 30 minutes of the journey.  I was very glad for my Bose noise-canceling headphones!


The bus ride took about 5 hours, with a couple of stops and a bathroom/food break.  When I alighted in Choma, Dorie from Mazuku Lodge was waiting for me.  She was a small, bubbly woman with great stories to tell, having lived in Zambia her entire life.  We drove down a well-graded dirt road, and then a less-well-graded one and then one that looked almost like a foot path.  We passed through several gates and then suddenly, there was the lodge, warm and bright against the night-time rain.  Dorie’s partner Rory came out to meet us with an umbrella and handed me a glass of wine as we entered the living room.  I felt very welcomed.

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The lodge and surrounding areas had been carved out of the bush.  There are six little chalets, roundavels with ensuite baths and a large main building which a beautiful dining room and large living area, complete with a fireplace and WiFi and even a TV with plenty of DVDs, should you want them.  Each chalet has a porch and there was a big garden area for sitting outside the main house.  The hot water for the chalets is heated by a large brick stove with pipes to the rooms. The lodge looks over the lake formed by the Ross Hot Springs Dam on the Nkanga River and there are birds of all kinds to be seen and heard.

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I was served a delicious dinner with a first course of butternut squash soup and then roast chicken, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, carrots and string beans, and home-baked bread.  Dessert was fresh carrot cake with warm custard.  Rory (who is the birder of the couple) was able to give me some ideas of where to walk and what I might see.  He was leaving the next morning to do a month-long training and exam course for the guides that are so incredibly informative in the national parks.  I was the only guest at the lodge for the weekend and it was a perfect retreat.

There were miles of dirt road trails to explore.  Because of the tall grass, not much game was evident (or should I say, visible!  It is possible I walked with feet of a zebra or impala and just didn’t see it!) but I saw plenty of fresh footprints. The countryside was green and fresh and the bird song was everywhere.  It was lovely to just be able to walk for miles in the Zambian air.

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I saw some interesting insects…some kind of worms, a pill bug, some army ants (marching in formation) and also many beautiful wildflowers.

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For some of my walks, I was accompanied by Jackal and Heidi, Dorie’s two affable black labs.

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When I wasn’t walking, I spent my time sitting in the garden, reading or just – well – sitting! 

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All too soon, it was Sunday afternoon – time to head back to Choma and get my bus back home.  The Choma “bus station” is next to a fast-food place and awash with street vendors.  I think at least five different people asked me if I wanted to buy bananas.  I declined – politely – each time.

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I plan to return to Masuku Lodge next August, during the dry season when game is more visible and also to take part in one of Rory’s “Bird Safaris.”  But I loved spending time there during the quiet season.  A wonderful, peaceful weekend…