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.





White-water rafting on the Mighty Zambezi.

White-water rafting on the Mighty Zambezi.


The last day of my vacation was in Livingstone.  I had already seen the falls the day before and wanted to do something special on my last day.  My first choice was going to be an all-day safari in Chobe, Botswana…but at the last minute, that fell through.  The tour company suggested that for special price, I could do rafting in the morning and a river cruise in the evening.  So, I thought…why not?  I was a good swimmer, I liked the water and I had never been white-water rafting.  I would give it a go!

(Yes, I am aware that I am blogging out of order.  I did lots of interesting and exciting things on my vacation…and will get to them all in due time.  But this is fresh in my mind!  And a good story…)

I was picked up at my hotel at 8:00am and taken to where the rafting “activity” started.  There were 14 of us in the group, some singles, some couples, a few small groups traveling together.  We were fitted for life-jackets and helmets and informed that because of the “high water” we would be starting at Rapids # 14 instead of #1.  The first 13 were just too high right now.  This also meant that instead of walking down a nicely graded flight of stairs, we would be walking down what amounted to a steep, rocky wash down the gorge.

I was wearing flip-flops.  But they were TEVA flip-flops and I had already paid.  (Note:  I had asked what I needed to wear/bring and was not told about any special foot-wear.  Very annoying, especially since I am a stickler for the right shoes!)

Anyway.  I made it down the gorge without falling, twisting my ankle or loosing my shoe.  I did most of it by holding onto the shoulder of one of the guides as we picked our way down.  I was not the only one who had trouble…and we were all sweating buckets by the time we finally got to the put-in.  We could see the rafts all inflated – each raft holds 8 people; plus there was a “safety boat” and two little tiny kayaks (“trick kayaks” they called them) that would accompany us.  In addition, they had guys taking pictures and videos all along the way.  We were given some instructions about what to do if the boat capsized and told not to panic if it happened.


We loaded into our boats and got some instructions on how to paddle.  Basically, forward or back…and sometimes one side would do one and the other side the other.  Also – HARD! That meant paddle faster.  And finally “GET DOWN!”  That meant put your paddle sideways, sit at the bottom of the boat and hang on to the rope.  Our “captain” was named Melvin.  So we were “Team Melvin.”  Go, team.


We all were nervous, but smiling as we departed.

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We paddled as instructed and soon hit the first real rapids.  We shouted and screamed and paddled and “got down” and got through it without incident.  This was fun!

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A few more rapids and we all felt like we were getting the hang of it.  But then…we came to “The Terminator.”  And…well…

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It was absolutely terrifying.  I completely forgot all the stuff about not panicking, and panicked.  I knew the life jacket would hold me up, but my helmet strap felt like it was choking me and the water was swirling around me like a washing machine.  I could hear myself calling for help…and I wasn’t the only one.  Of course, that meant I swallowed water, choked more and panicked more.  I could hear Melvin telling us to grab the ropes on the side of the boat, but I couldn’t get a hold.  Finally, I grabbed onto something…and Melvin pulled me up onto the bottom of the capsized boat, telling me not to panic, it was okay.  In the last picture, you can see him reaching over the side to pull me up.

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The water was still swirling and we still had to right the boat.  I had to get back in the water again and we all had to pull from one side to flip the boat back over.  And we did it!  Only…now I was under the boat.  This time, I did keep my head and managed to swim under and out…but the boat was being swept away from me.  Some people had managed to get back in and some people were still floating around in the rapids.  I was pushed along towards the other boat (which had also capsized) and someone stuck a paddle at me – I grabbed it and got pulled into the boat.  By this time, I was really shaken up and my head was pounding (I think a stray paddle had hit my helmet.)  I knew I wasn’t really hurt…but I was shaking so hard I couldn’t find my balance.

Oh, and my pants were falling off.

Everyone was getting organized back into their boats and I got into mine – but I was obviously not 100%.  People were very kind and a bit concerned and I heard Melvin ask, “Do you want to go in the safety boat?”  At first I thought I would stick it out, but he asked a second time and  I heard my little inner voice say, “Don’t be an idiot.”  (Later a couple of people told me I was white as a sheet.) So my boat took off with one less passenger…


And I went in the safety boat.


The safety boat was a raft with a wooden seat strapped into it and a huge, strapping Zambian (named Roger!) to stabilize it with two gigantic wooden oars.  At first I was still so shaken that all I wanted to do was sit in the back…but after a little while, Roger gently encouraged me to sit up front and enjoy the ride.  So I did.  The scenery was absolutely breathtaking…the Zambezi is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The gorge is deep with stunning cliffs on either side.


There were a couple more fancy rapids which made me glad I had opted for the “safety boat” but none of the boats capsized again.  When we finally made it to the docking point, everyone cheered.  We divested ourselves of our helmets and life-jackets and headed for the cable car which took us to the top of the gorge again.

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And you know what?  I think I’d do it again.  And try not to panic if the boat capsized…at least, not as much.



Johannesburg….sort of!


I started my long-awaited March break with a plane ride to Johannesburg. I was going to be taking the “premiere class” sleeper train all the way to Cape Town and I figured I’d get there a day early, check into my hotel and then see a bit of Johannesburg. I thought maybe I’d do the open-top city bus tour, stopping off at the Apartheid Museum and perhaps see if there was anything on at the symphony or find a local place where there was live music.

Well. None of that happened, sorry to say. So this post may not be all that interesting…but it will serve to document the first part of my journey and be sort of an introduction to the rest of the trip!

The plane to Jo’burg was small, but comfortable and we were served a light breakfast on board. When we landed, I grabbed my brand new bright purple wheelie bag and went to find the Gautrain, which would take me to Sandton…a suburb of Johannesburg where I had booked my hotel.

About Sandton. Originally, I had booked a hotel right near the train station. I figured that way I could see more of the city, easily catch the hop-on, hop-off bus and be close to where I needed to be for my train trip the next day.

However, more than one person warned me about central Jo’burg in general and the area around the train station in particular. So I listened…and booked a hotel in Sandton, which was suppose to be a “nicer” area. I booked a place right near the shopping district and within walking distance of the Gautrain station. I figured it might be a little more inconvenient, but I wanted to be safe.

Then the hotel I booked emailed me and said that the branch of the hotel I had booked was closing, but they could book me at a sister site, just up the road. So I went with it. In hindsight, this was a mistake and I should have stuck with the place near the train station…especially if I wanted to see any of the city! But…I digress.

The Gautrain (pronounced “howtrain”) is a brand spanking new public transportation system, easily navigated, extremely safe and very reasonably priced. I got my rechargeable ticket, boarded the train and was at the Sandton station within 20 minutes. Then the fun began. My hotel was supposed to provide free pick-up and drop-off to the train station and I had been instructed to call them when I arrived and they would send the shuttle get me.

So I called, but the woman on the other end of the line seemed a bit confused about what I wanted and her accent was very difficult to understand. It sounded like she was telling me to wait at the “tea cup.” At first I thought that perhaps this was the name of a cafe…but finally realized that she was saying “pick up.” I told her that I would wait there and described my purple suitcase and bright white hair.

25 minutes later, I was still waiting and getting a bit annoyed. A woman in a small silver car, who was there to pick up someone else, saw me and asked where I was going. When I told her, she said that she thought it was just up the street. I called the hotel again and the hotel lady seemed just as confused as before…I told her never mind, I would take a cab.

When the silver car woman heard this, she said, “Oh don’t take a cab, they are so expensive, why don’t you let me drop you off?” At this point, the people she was waiting for showed up…an American couple originally from Orlando who had just flown in from Hong Kong. We all piled into the little silver car and Rivita (that was her name) drove me to my hotel, which was NOT “just up the street,” NOT anywhere near the center, but almost 2 miles up the road and near absolutely nothing. Rivita actually called the hotel twice to ask them exactly where they were located…and the lady at the hotel was equally unhelpful both times. We finally found it and I thanked her (and the Orlando couple) profusely.

(I was extremely grateful for this kindness…I promised to “pay it forward.” Who knows how long I would have had to wait for a ride from the hotel!)

When I walked into the hotel, there were drop cloths and ladders everywhere. They were doing a major renovation in the lobby. The place smelled of fresh paint and wallpaper paste. Luckily, my room was ready, even though I was early. I dropped my bags and went to the restaurant (a quasi-Italian joint called “PapaChino’s”) for some lunch; I was starved. I had a passably good lamb pita and a killer mojito.

I still had the idea of maybe going into the city and getting the tour bus….but by then it was 2:00pm. By the time I got there, it would be closer to 3:00pm and bus only ran until 5:00. Besides, I was kinda tired and this was my vacation.

So I took a 3-hour nap instead.

When I got up, I realized that sight-seeing in Jo’burg probably was not going to happen this trip. So I spent the evening curled up in a chair overlooking the garden and pool, reading and having a glass of wine. The next morning, I was pleasantly surprised when the (included) breakfast buffet was one of the best I have ever seen and the coffee was freshly brewed. Getting a ride back to the train station proved to be much easier than I had anticipated.

And now….I am sitting in the premiere class lounge, enjoying complimentary tea and biscuits with the other passengers, while we wait to board our train to 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…







Courtesy, customs and kindness


Zambians are noted for their friendliness and courtesy.  There are certain customs that need to be learned when speaking with the locals if one wants to avoid appearing rude or boorish.

When starting a conversation, no matter how urgent the matter, it is expected that you will first greet the person and ask after their health and family.  For instance, when speaking to the maintenance man, you would first say, “Hello, Mtwalo!  How are you today?  Is your sore throat better?  And how is your wife feeling?”  Then, after he had exchanged similar pleasantries with you, you could say, “My hot water pipe burst and my bathroom is flooded.  Do you think you could come take a look at it?”

This holds true even in emails.  You never just dive right into the conversation, but start off with “Hello!  I hope you are well today!”

There are also certain phrases and colloquialisms to be learned here.  You don’t “arrange” for things – you “organise” them.  When I need a ride to the bus station, I ask the person in charge if she will “organise it” for me.  When I was on a game drive and said that I would love to see a black mamba snake, my guide said he would “Organise a snake for me.”

“Only” is used as a modifier. When asking the price for goods or services (a taxi ride, a car repair, a box of mangos) the price is given followed by “only.”
“How much are you asking for half dozen avocados?”  “50 kwacha only, madam.”
I am not sure if this is meant to show how cheap something is (as in “ONLY 50 kwacha”) or to reassure you that there will be no hidden fees involved (as in 50 kwacha, including tax and delivery)

Then there is the phrase “just now” as in “I am leaving for the store just now.”  This does not mean, as one would assume, that leaving for the store is happening as we speak.  It means “I may be leaving for the store within an hour or so” or even “I am thinking about leaving for the store at some point today.”  If you want to be immediate, you would say “now now.”   Time tends to be a bit more relaxed in Zambia anyway.

Last weekend, I unexpectedly bumped into someone who had been very kind to me in a time of great stress.  You may remember my driving mishap, only three days after I bought my car.   I had turned the wrong way onto to a divided highway and hit another car head-on.  Luckily, both of us braked and no one was injured.  However, I was frightened and a bit dazed and the Zambian man whose car I had damaged was ranting and raving and carrying on about how I was going to buy his car right this minute and he would make sure of it. I was standing there by my wrecked car, with tears running down my face.  There I was, a white woman – an obvious foreigner in a strange African country being sworn at by a very angry man while a small and curious crowd gathered.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, another Zambian man stopped his car and got out.  He came up to me and gently took me by the arm and led me a little bit away from the scene and over to the side of the road.  “Now, madam,” he said to me.  “First of all, are you all right?”  When I nodded yes, he continued, “Well, now that’s good.  You are not hurt, that is the most important thing.”  He glanced over to where the other man was still fuming.  “Do not speak to him.  The police will be here soon to take a report.  Do you have anyone you can call?”  I nodded again and got out my phone to call the head of security at the school.  My rescuer smiled encouragingly.  “It was an accident.  No one has been hurt.  It will all be sorted out.”

And it was.  And though I thanked him at the time, and he even gave me his card, I misplaced it and never got to really tell him how much his kind gesture meant to me.  And then, as I was coming out of Game (a Walmart for Zambians) last weekend, I heard “Hey, I know you!” and saw him gesturing at me.  “I remember you,” he said.  “You were in an accident up on Independence Avenue.” And he smiled that very nice smile.  I admit that I got a little teary as I told him that I had thought about him so many times and wanted to thank him for coming to my rescue.  “It was nothing at all,” he responded, as I gave him a huge hug.  He asked if I had gotten it all sorted out finally, and I told him I had and he walked away with a wave and another smile.  “It was nothing,” he said again.

But it was something.  It was kindness;  kindness to a total stranger with nothing expected in return.

And that chance meeting reminded me once again of an incident that I wish I could forget.  A time when I was not kind.  A time when it would have cost me nothing to show kindness and…I didn’t.

It was a few years ago and I had gone into Boston to meet up with some friends and see a show.  I remember that I was tired and a bit cranky after a full day of work and had gone into a local burger place for a bite to eat.  All I wanted was to sit undisturbed for a little while.  I had my food and a cup of coffee and had just sat down when I looked up to see a woman standing right in front of my table.  She had long, unkempt hair and was wearing a nondescript cloth coat and what seemed to be slippers on her feet.  She looked at me and said, “Hello, how are you this afternoon?”  I assumed she was homeless and begging and I was annoyed at being disturbed inside a restaurant when all I wanted to do was be left in peace.  So I said, “I don’t think you’re allowed to beg in here.”  The woman blinked and then said, with some emphasis, “Well, I am not begging.  I am selling.”  It was then that I noticed that she was holding some beaded necklaces in one hand.  Maybe she had made them.  But all I could think about was my desire to just be left in piece, so I responded, quite sharply, “Well, I don’t think you’re allowed to sell in here, either.”

She blinked again, obviously startled and hurt. As she backed away from me she said, “That is so mean…  Why don’t you…you….go and take a nap, you witch.”  And she left the store.

And left me alone.  And left me feeling horribly, horribly ashamed at what I had done.

How much would it have cost me to speak kindly to her?  To answer her timid “How are you?” with a polite “Fine, thanks.”  To look at her necklaces before declining?  Maybe to even buy a necklace, for God’s sake.  To treat her like a human being who needed help, instead of like an intrusion into my oh-so-important life.  To just show some common courtesy. 

I can never take that lack of kindness back.  I can never find that woman and apologize.  I can never make it right.  I think unkindness to a stranger is even worse than being unkind to someone you know.  You know you will see a friend or a relative again; you’ll have a chance to say you’re sorry, to explain how you were having a bad day, to admit you were being an ass.  To ask forgiveness.

But you don’t get a second chance to be kind to a stranger.

Somehow, I think that’s an important thing to remember.





The American Commissary


Because I work at the American International School (which is part of the Embassy) I am entitled to sign up at the commissary.  I could have done this months ago (and I should have!) but this weekend, I finally decided to go and get my paperwork in.  It’s not enough to simply be American to join the commissary. You need to be a card-carrying American School teacher (and a U.S. citizen) or a direct or indirect U.S. government employee.  And they are very strict about it…if you are found buying stuff for non-members, they can kick you out of the super-sekrit club!

Getting to the Commissary is like going on a spy mission.  You have to know where it is.  It’s on a residential street, there is no sign outside the gate and it looks like somebody’s house from the outside!  You almost think you might have to know a password and secret handshake!

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The commissary is a terrific resource for Americans here.  They get four shipments a year of all of your favorite American foods/brands that you can’t get anywhere else.  You can even request certain items, or put in for a full case which gives you a discount.  (For instance, you can buy 6 bags of Starbucks coffee beans and get 10% off the price!) Although I have been pretty satisfied with what I am able to buy at the local shops, it was a real pleasure to see some “stuff” that you just can’t find here! The prices at the commissary are very reasonable and in a few cases items are cheaper than they would be at the local grocery stores.  Of course, other things are more expensive but not outlandishly so.  And it is all “duty-free” – one of the reasons they are so strict about who gets to shop here!

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Never thought I’d be so happy to see Campbell’s soup…or decent paper towels!  (The paper towels here are more like thin toilet paper.)

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And honest-to-god laundry detergent and household cleaners!


They also rent DVDs – TV shows and movies.  $2.50 a day, but if you rent on a Friday, you can keep it all weekend!


They have a great selection of liquors and beers…however, teachers are not allowed to purchase these!  Apparently, these are considered “luxury” items and everyone knows teachers don’t need any luxury!  (I tried to tell the guy who runs the commissary that booze is a necessity for teachers…he laughed, but wasn’t moved.)  So all I was able to do was look with great longing.

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I left with about $70 worth of items…and plans to make a tuna-fish casserole.
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(On the way home, I was waylaid at the stop light and ended up buying 5 beautifully ripe avocados and some grapes the size of golfballs…)


I am glad I finally joined the commissary – my only regret is that now I am likely to spend more money on things I didn’t even realize I was missing!

South Luangwa in the Green Season



January through mid-April is the rainy season in Zambia and many of the lodges and camps close because of flooding or impassable roads.  However, there are some that stay open and to lure guests, they often have special deals during what they have taken to calling it “The Green Season” or even “The Emerald Season.”  I decided to take a weekend trip up to Mfuwe, which is a little village right outside of South Luangwa National Park with several all-season camps right outside the park.

I had treated myself to a pair of kick-ass binoculars and was excited to be able to try them out.  Unfortunately, my trusty Canon “Power Shot” camera, which has served me so reliably for a couple of years, went missing between Lusaka and Mfuwe.  (I had it stored in the front pocket of my backpack, which I had to check due to the plane being so teeny.  Perhaps someone gave in to temptation…alas.)  So, all these pictures were actually taken with the camera on my iPhone. While they are not of the best quality, they do give you an idea of how up close and personal we were able to get to the animals.

At any rate…our plane was a 12-seater prop plane which flew low enough so that I got a magnificent view of the valley and the escarpment and the river as we were coming into South Luangwa.  At first there were roads here and there and then…then there was nothing to indicate any civilisation at all.  Every once in a while, I could see a small cluster of huts…but no road or any discernible way to get there!  And GREEN!  Every thing was bursting with green…bright, emerald green.

Our pilot was a young woman named Kate, who said she’d been flying in Zambia for about three years.  She was excellent, and it was fun being able to see all the controls and buttons.

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Mfuwe is actually an “International Airport” because it gets flights from Malawi.  It is a tiny place, but has a decent tarmac runway and a terminal with a shop and some sculptures made by local artists.  And a customs counter, for international travellers…

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The driver from my camp was waiting for me when I arrived.  His name was James and he was also to be my guide on the game drives.  We drove through the “village” of Mfuwe, which is actually just a strip of road with some stores and markets on either side.

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By the time we got onto the dirt road to the camp, it was fairly dark…and one of the first animals we saw was a young hippo, trotting through the bush with what looked like flowers on his back! It looked like something out of a Disney cartoon.  James said that it was a plant called Chinese cabbage.  It floats in the water and sometimes sits on the smooth, flat back of the hippo.  We joked that since it was Valentine’s Day, this hippo was delivering flowers to his sweetheart.

(I didn’t get a picture, but it looked something like this…)

When we got to the camp, I found that I had been upgraded to a large chalet, right on the river.  (There were so few people in camp that they decided to put us all together.)  I was very pleased…it almost made up for having my camera nicked.


A late dinner and a glass of wine and I was ready for bed…the morning game drive was at 6:00am!

South Luangwa is a huge park! The southernmost of three national parks in the valley of the Luangwa River, it  is a world-renowned wildlife haven. It supports large populations of Thornicroft’s Giraffe, and herds of elephant and buffalo while the Luangwa River supports abundant crocodiles and hippopotamuses.  Founded as a game reserve in 1938, it became a national park in 1972 and now covers 9,050 km!

When we arrived at the gate, we were greeted by a bevy of baboons.  These are yellow baboons; smaller than the ones I saw down in Livingstone.  They were quite active and there was lots of flirting and grooming going on – we saw one female busily grooming a male while he sat in splendour and closed his eyes in ecstasy.  It was obvious that he would “get a little something” (as James said) later on that morning.

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The park was overflowing with new life.  Baby elephants tottered after their mothers, who often had an older calf as well.  We also saw a number of solo young male elephants, looking a bit bewildered.  When male elephants get to be about 15 years old or so, their mothers and aunts kick them out of the group, to prevent them from mating with their sisters and cousins.  We saw this happening – a large female with a calf by her side was pushing a young male with her head and tusks – forcing him away from the family.  This male was the same one we had seen a bit earlier, chasing a herd of impala and trumpeting loudly as he did.  Why? For fun!  Pure adolescent mischief.

Single males often form their own “bachelor groups” after a while.  Elephants are very social animals.  They are also extremely protective of their young and the only animals we viewed that did not take kindly to being gawked at by humans.  The mother would take her trunk and gently coax the baby away from the road…sometimes, looking anxiously back at us to be sure we were not following.

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We also saw numerous giraffes.  As giraffes age, their spots get darker, so you can often guess their age by their colour.  Giraffes tend to be solitary animals, although they do graze in groups.  A group is called a “herd” although there is a phrase “a tower of giraffes.”  At one point, we came upon a group standing in the road, nibbling on the trees.  They were quite reluctant to leave and blocked our way for quite a while.

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Birds were in abundance.  We saw several crested cranes; beautiful birds with a crown of feathers on their heads.  We were extremely lucky to see two of the birds in a mating dance – the male bobbing and weaving and puffing out his feather and the female gracefully circling around him.  My binoculars gave me a terrific close-up view of the romance-in-progress.


Other birds included a marshall eagle, kingfisher, saddle-bill stork, a knob-billed duck and a bittern.  The knob-billed duck is a funny-looking creature; his bill looks as though someone stuck it on sideways.  It has a small knobby protrusion that gets bigger during mating season.  Apparently, girl ducks like guys with big bills! (Not my picture…but this is what it looked like!)

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There are several types of “weaver” birds who make intricate nests out of grass and hay.  The nests hang from the very edge of the branches. They look like they should slip off, but they don’t.


Then, we were treated to an incredible view of a leopard.  Probably a female, she was resting under a copse of trees, waiting for nightfall when she could get her dinner – there were many impala grazing on the field in front of her. She didn’t seem to mind us at all; just sat there looking like a big pussycat, blinking and occasionally licking a paw.


An enormous hippo crossed our path, making his way towards the river.  You wouldn’t think hippos could trot, but they can really move!  This big boy was not happy we were following him, but finally he stopped and turned his head so we could get a picture before he dived into the river with a huge splash!

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There are many buffalo in the park.  These are not the docile, cattle-like creatures we have in states.  These are ornery and mean.  We saw a trio of old bachelors living out their days in relative solitude.  Apparently, when buffalo get old, they get tired of the mating game and sometimes simply choose to “batch it” with a couple of other like-minded senior-citizens.  They turn and stare directly at you, and as James said, “They always look, but they never smile…”


There is a huge baobab tree in the park that is over 2500 years old!  It has weathered storms, drought, floods and elephant damage and is home to many birds and a big next of bees. I loved this tree!

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There were some other trees that looked almost ghost-like.  Apparently, these trees were dead…but even after death, stayed standing for up to 30 years before finally coming down.

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I was hoping to see a hyena and we saw plenty of clear, recent tracks…but no hyena appeared.  We also came across the jawbone of a young elephant.

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Here is a hippo, eating his way through a pond full of Chinese cabbage. You could hear him chomping his way across the pond.

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And here I am, with my guide, James.



It was a great weekend!

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ISSEA Band Festival in Zimbabwe!


“ISSEA” stands for “International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa” and they are responsible for coordinating and organising events for the various International Schools.  Previously, all the events were sporting activities – soccer, basketball, volleyball and etc…but this year, for the first time, there was a “cultural” event.  A concert band festival.

Never mind that half the schools involved don’t even HAVE bands, or that it would have been MUCH easier to start with choir or even drama.  The committee that met last year decided that starting with band would be much more spectacular and draw more of a crowd.  So, all the member schools had to scramble around to find “band members.”  Even if they didn’t have a band.

We had exactly two kids in the high school who could play an instrument and were willing to put in the practice time necessary.  Here they are!

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They joined with 70+ kids from seven different schools and more than 50 different countries to create the first-ever ISSEA Band.  And to be fair, the end result really was spectacular.

The kids were all housed with host families…and the accompanying teachers were put up at a very nice place call the Bronte Garden Hotel.  I was impressed.  The rooms were comfortable and spacious and the grounds were lovely, with a wonderful collection of Shona sculpture throughout.  Zimbabwe is known for its fine stone and many local artists create works made from it.

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There was also a restaurant and bar with excellent food and great service and a lovely pool.  It was really nice to meet up with other band/music teachers.  Next year, there will also be a drama and art festival and some of those teachers were also there to help plan the 2015 events.

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The first day, we all gathered at the Harare International School’s performing arts centre.  We got the kids situated  and (sort of) tuned and launched into the first piece.

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It was dreadful.  We wondered what we had done…had we expected too much?  Should we cut some of the selections?  Shorten some of the pieces? However, by the end of the day –  after sectionals and some rigorous rehearsal…the cacophony had started to sound like a band.  We were very fortunate in having section leaders who knew their instrument and also knew how to teach it.

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The next day, kids could take workshops from some local musicians.  They included mbira (also called kalimba – a “thumb piano”) marimba,  jazz improv and drumming.

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There were also some impromptu performances by the locals.


There were seven selections for the concert and each music teacher had the opportunity to conduct one of them.  Here I am, rehearsing “Invocation and African Dance.”  I had a great time – I haven’t conducted a band since I left ACS in England!

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By the time Saturday night rolled around, the band was ready!  Everyone wore their ISSEA Band t-shirts (complete with the  host school “Warthog” mascot on the front playing a variety of instruments) and the superintendent made a lovely speech.  Our concert was very well-received and everyone had good reason to be proud.

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There was supposed to be a live feed of the concert, but as is typical for Africa, the internet connect went out.  At some point, the entire concert is supposed to be uploaded to Facebook and when they finally work out the glitches, I will share it.  However, a video will not convey the fun, excitement and sense of accomplishment that was palpable in the room.

Meanwhile, here is a slide show put together by the media team!

There will be another Band Festival next year (probably in Johannesburg) and we are also adding Choir.  It should be a blast!

Bits and pieces…


Here I am, back in Zambia and although it is still warm and the sun still appears daily, it is definitely the rainy season.  Clouds cover the sky at various  (and odd) intervals – sometimes half the sky is black and stormy while the other half is blue and sunny.  And the rains come quickly and seemingly without warning.  Torrential rain with huge drops and wind.  Everything is damp and soggy…but the grass and trees are turning bright green and soon the birds and flowers will emerge.  I hope to take a weekend trip to one of the parks in February.  The rates during what they have started to call “The Emerald Season” are decidedly cheaper (albeit soggier) and there are various “specials” for residents.

When I was “home” over the holiday, I had my camera with me, but could not download the pictures until I got back to my computer.  So, in an attempt to “catch up” here are some random pictures and stories from my US holiday.

Here is a shot of me and the couple I met during the concert at Lincoln Center.  They were nice enough to take me (and treat me) to dinner after the concert at a little French restaurant. I had Malbec wine for the first time and and now a fan!


Here are a couple more shots of our B & B in St Augustine…

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And a shot of the city…


My beautiful daughter in the back garden at the B & B


This is the lobby of the Lightner Museum, which used to be one of the largest hotels in the world.  Imagine how elegant it was!



As I mentioned in a previous post, the museum has a large collection of mechanical instruments and we got to see a demonstration. It was fascinating.

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Of course, there was the fun of eating lunch “at the bottom of the pool” – but we also saw what used to be the sauna, shower nooks and a plunge pool.  The showers and the pool are now part of the museum (although the depression in the floor where the pool was is obvious…right where those stairs go down) but they have left one section of the sauna as it was.

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And I got some shots of the inside of the little chapel at the mission, where we heard such lovely music.

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For New Year’s I took a trip out to Rochester, NY to visit my oldest and dearest friend and her family.  Rochester, the seat of Monroe County, is a city with a varied and interesting history and is constantly reinventing itself.  It has been known as both “The Flour City” and “The Flower City” and is  home to some of the world’s greatest pipe organs, as well as the Eastman School of Music.  In 1947, abolitionist newspaper “The North Star” was founded by Frederick Douglass in Rochester and the city was also home to Susan B. Anthony, crusader of women’s rights. Rochester has also been home to many industries, including Kodak and Bausch & Lomb.

We visited the Edgarton Model Railroad Club, which was open for the holidays.  It was started as a club for wayward boys – to keep them off the streets.  Now it is run by a group of die-hard rail-road enthusiasts and is a testament to their devotion.

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The trains are housed in the basement of the Edgarton Community Center, a beautiful old brick building with wonderful original woodwork. which also contains the historic “Stardust Ballroom”

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There was a meeting going on in the ballroom itself, but this is a photo from another website.  Gorgeous, isn’t it?



The building behind the Community Center is the High School…and apparently started as a Women’s Prison!  The irony!  Here are my friends Nancy and Tess, posing in front of it!

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One of Rochester’s biggest industries today is the Genesse Beer & Ale Company.  They have recently refurbished an old building as a brew house and restaurant.  It sits right on the banks of the mighty Genesee River, near the Upper Falls.  It was a cold, cold day…we were glad to be inside, sampling beer.

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I was happy to ring in 2014 with my friends…in their warm and cosy house all decorated for the season!

The end of the holiday saw me back down in NYC.  I brought my two grand-daughters with me.  We ate giant burgers, saw “Waiting for Godot,” took a tour of Lincoln Center, did a bit of shopping and visited MOMA.  And tried to stay warm!

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It was a wonderful holiday in every way!  And now…back to warmer weather!





The oldest city in the USA!




My daughter and I decided to spend the weekend before Christmas in Saint Augustine, about a two-hour drive from her apartment in Orlando. Saint Augustine, founded in 1565, is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the continental United States. It was owned by Spain for over 200 years and then the British. It has seen missions, battles, slave traders, mariners, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs and now, tourists. There is plenty of fascinating history behind the storefront facades and brick-covered streets.



Many of the period houses have been lovingly restored and turned into elegant B & Bs. Ours was called “The Peace & Plenty Inn.” Like all the houses on the street, it was brightly decorated for the season!



Our room had a gorgeous antique four-poster bed, a private entrance through the back-garden and a jacuzzi tub!



The house was beautiful, with crown moldings, lots of dark woodwork, a fireplace in the living room. And every night, they had sherry and port wine and an assortment of gourmet cakes laid out.






That first night, we walked around the city, which was brightly lit up with lights. The tour trolleys were lit up as well, and would pass us full of people singing carols and in general good spirits.



Saint Augustine has many interesting and unusual shops…including a store called “The Ancient Olive” which sold infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars…and had a tasting bar, where you could sample all the different flavored, along with some nibbles on the side.


The city was once home to the Flagler Hotel, which had what was then the world’s largest indoor pool. The pool has been drained, and now you can have a delicious lunch in what used to be the deep end! Very cool!




The rest of the the hotel is turned into a museum, which houses an eclectic collection of items from the past few centuries…and most interesting to me, an entire room full of mechanical musical instruments. Huge music boxes, which played music from giant metal discs, a antique Wurlitzer, an automatic organ suitable for use in homes (and sold by Sears!) and a giant German-made contraption which could sound like a full orchestra! We were lucky enough to get there just as the demonstration was starting!





There are many antique and curio shops, some which sell treasures and some which sell items of a more…dubious nature.


On Saturday evening, we walked along the water past the fort to the mission, which was having a special Christmas program of 16th century Spanish music, drama, food and traditions. The whole place was lit up by candlelight and the little chapel where they sang the old Spanish carols was all aglow.



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It was a wonderful weekend…and now, I am ready for Christmas!