Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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I've never been one for clubs, societies, organizations, the like ... they're mostly contrary to my introverted and hermit nature. We didn't know it was going to be called a "club," but for the 16 slots available for kayakers (in 8 tandem kayaks) on an expedition ship of 110 passengers, they call it the "kayaking club." But wait ... where am I? you ask. What am I doing? Last you knew, I was posting from the withering hot climes of southern Africa. What happened?
Well, happily, the universe conspired on my behalf to send me to Antarctica, which completed my lifetime goal of visiting all 7 continents. The goal was born when I was 17. I won't say how many years it's taken to finally realize the goal, because some of you might be good at math. However, that's not a complaint that I *finally* got there, because frankly I never realistically expected that I would, mostly on account of the price tag. But several factors all came together at just the right time, and suddenly Erik and I found ourselves booked into an Antarctic expedition cruise.
In spite of the fact I haven't even finished posting all I want to share from my travels earlier in the year, I'm just so excited to start sharing about Antarctica. It was hands-down, unequivocally the most unique traveling experience I've had. I've done some really cool things to nurture the cultural side of travel (i.e. indulging in my interest in traditional cultures), so this was the coolest thing ever in terms of landscape and outdoor experience. Sublime, dramatic, transcendental, riotously amusing at times ... and a stretch of fabulous weather (which the crew told us was quite special and rare). Our entire 12-day trip enjoyed phenomenal weather in context of where we were. So, the universe came through all the way to the end to make our Antarctic adventure a once-in-a-lifetime, magical adventure.
The most unique and wholly wicked-awesome, spectacular thing we did was sign up (and pay extra) to be able to go kayaking. Although 16 spaces are reserved per expedition, only 13 people were in our club. So it was a nice, small group, with 2 guides in kayaks at all times and one guide in a support zodiac always following us in case there were problems with a kayak, or somebody got too tired, or somebody tipped over. Yes, apparently that is not a remotely uncommon event! I honestly presumed that very rarely happened. But nope ... the guides explained the various ways in which people tip over. The most common seemed to be because they leaned over too far to take a picture of something in/under the water (like an iceberg) or to pick up something they dropped. Fortunately Erik and I are too paranoid of tipping over to do such silly things.
It was a bit of a task to get dressed for kayaking. First of course a couple layers of clothing (thermal underwear and various fleece layers, and socks plus I attached to them some chemical foot warmers each time). Then the full dry-suit with built-in footies (like kid's pajamas) to get velcroed tightly at the ankles and then pull on polypropolene booties over them, squeeze your hands and neck through the rubber gasket-like holes which keep all water out, zip yourself shut across the front, latching the zipper so no water can get in there. Then put your spray skirt on over your shoulders, and then your life vest, and then gloves and hat and sunglasses. And camera in pocket. Whew. Now we are roasting inside our cabin and must go outside on deck quickly! Here are our dry-suits drying out after an outing. We would hang them from the ceiling vent to dry, and I was continually startled when I caught them in the corner of my eye, thinking somebody was standing in our room.
So here are the members of our kayaking club. Pics taken by the guide in the zodiac. That's me and Erik on the far left.
Now, this is not a circumstance in which you can take your nice, fancy, expensive camera and long lens, as it will get wet just from the water dripping off your paddle even if you don't tip over. A couple people had Go-Pros they mounted to their kayak. But I had my well-loved G9 point-and-shoot camera that fit just perfectly into the outer pocket of my life vest. So with the strap around my neck and tucking it into the pocket after each picture snap, I was able to capture some of our time on "film." At the time, I had no idea whatsoever what I was getting because I couldn't see the screen in the light, and I was often snapping quickly at something, not taking any time to check if it was focused or correctly metered. So it was a pleasant surprise to see what turned out. I think, if I may say so myself, that I got some fun ones. Which I will now share with you. If you just want to look at the best pics, scroll down a bit, for I'm writing chronologically.
So ... our first day out. In the South Shetland Islands, north of the Antarctic Peninsula. We launched from the beach of Barrientos Island (other days we got into the kayaks in the water, directly off the zodiac). I was so tickled how the penguins came right up and milled around our kayaks, just going about their business as if the kayaks were just part of the natural landscape around them.
Now I confess to you a secret hope, but not expectation, that I had, which was to see a whale from our kayaks. I thought this would be turbo cool but knew that the odds weren't necessarily in our favor. But I was having a blast anyway as the penguins saw us off and we started around the island in lovely weather, clear blue sky and the slightest of breezes, so it was easy paddling. No more than 15 minutes into the excursion (the goal was to paddle around the island), our guides told us that a crew member on the ship radioed them to say they could see whales right ahead of us.
"What? Whales?" I couldn't believe it. I was thinking to myself, Are you serious? Really? Whales?
Surely I did not hear correctly.
But then I heard the sound of water being expelled from a blowhole, and there they were, a mom and a calf, straight in front of us. We could see the top of their long bodies as they surfaced and arched down into the water with their dorsal fin sticking up in the air so gracefully. Humpback whales. I looked back at Erik in the rear seat (the steering seat) of the kayak and said, "Did you see them? Whales! There are whales ahead! Can you see them?"
Of course he could see them, but I was so incredulous that I had to make sure I wasn't just dreaming, that he could see them, too. Since their bodies are visible above the water for only a few seconds, it's super difficult to get a photo. I managed one, but these two were taken by our guide in the support zodiac. (The red buildings in the background are a research station.) I present these pics basically just to prove that I'm not lying to you!
So, I was happy as a peach, though of course I had no idea what awaited me in the subsequent days. I figured everything from then on was icing on the cake. Here are a couple pics from the other 45 minutes of that outing. Depending on whether or not we also chose to go to land, our kayak adventures typically lasted between one and two hours.
So we landed on Barrientos Island and spent the next hour there with loads of penguins. I'll share those photos in another post. But suffice here to say it was one of the best days ever ... kayaking through the ice with humpback whales in sight and then so much fun with penguins, which I was so excited to see in Antarctica, though I came with no idea how many we'd see or how close! (stay tuned!)
But then the next day dawned on Brown Bluff. A rather mundane name for such a lovely place. But here I suppose you can deduce the origin of the name.
The weather was splendid beyond all reasonable expectations. Clear blue sky and glassy water, so utterly still, allowing beautiful reflections and easy paddling. Even the guides were giddy over how wonderful the conditions were. At Barrientos we were paddling through ice, but now we were paddling among icebergs ... like, true, genuine, big, impressive, beautiful, magical, fantastically-shaped, penguin-populated icebergs. THIS was what I had in my imagination that it would be like kayaking in Antarctica, even though I was completely happy with what we had experienced the day before. Though I had carried this in my visual imagination, that was no preparation for how amazing it was in real life ... which means I also cannot adequately explain to you through my words and pictures. So I kind of think I won't bother trying with words right now, but here are some fun photos that turned out a lot better than I would have guessed while I was blindly snapping them. The first one is our ship anchored.
A seal! He was nice enough to look up as we passed by and give us a nice pose. Or maybe he was just practicing his yoga.
I was never quick enough getting the camera out of my pocket and turned on to catch the penguins that swam alongside or in front of our kayaks. The way that dolphins often swim around boats, penguins look just like miniature dolphins the way they swim in little pods continually jumping out of the water. It was so fun paddling with the penguin pods. But I did capture some pics of them hanging out on icebergs.
There is something particularly captivating to me about lone penguins. Well OK, I'll say that later about penguin pairs, too. And about baby penguins. haha. But I really do love lone penguins in this giant landscape. I always want to caption the photos something like, "OK guys, where'd you go?" or "Very funny, guys, where are you?" Sometimes they look forlorn. Sometimes they look epic, like they are bravely undaunted by the landscape ...
This guy looks lost, and I would like to have seen him get on that iceberg in the first place! Penguins can launch themselves out of the water onto land or ice with surprising velocity and height. Still ... it looks so improbable that fella even got up there. (I say fella but it could be a gal, too ... no way to tell the difference) Can you spot him?
From lone penguin to penguin colony ... these are some of the penguins on Brown Bluff, below. As we were approaching them in the kayaks, we began to hear the din of their continual calling. I tried to record it on the camera but didn't really come out. It was SO loud. And even from the water we could catch the stench associated with penguin colonies, created by the tons of penguin poo. Sometimes there were literally rivers of poo running down the slope, ponds of it in the snow, and when they don't feel like leaving their nest, they just stick their butt in the air and projectile-poop so it lands usually somewhere on the outside of their rock nest and drips down. I adore those penguins, but man, they could use some latrine etiquette.
Please open this pictures below in a new tab to see it at larger size (hopefully you're looking at a big monitor!) so you can hopefully discern what is going on. All the little white dots on the land are penguins ... you can see a line of them on the right leading up to the top of the knoll, and that the ridge on the left is topped and lined with them. At first I thought they were rocks in the landscape or spotty patches of snow but they're penguins who, with their little feet, waddle all the way up there, up the steep, rocky slope to build their nests. And they have to commute every day down to the ocean for food. Can you imagine?
Typically the highest house on a ridge is the most prestigious one, but I think the penguins have it backward ... the ones up there have to work so much harder!! Why are they there? We were told that wherever the nests are, is where the snow typically melts first. So these prominent knolls and ridges must be the first to shed snow in the spring. But if you know about the emperor penguins who trek for something like 50 miles across the ice and snow to nest, you know that penguins have a hell of a work ethic. In the pic below you can see them all commuting in the same direction along the shoreline. As Erik said, it was like rush-hour traffic, everyone heading to the same place (presumably for food, though penguin behavior can be inscrutable sometimes).
A lot of the time we would be paddling through little chunks of ice. I think Erik made the perfect analogy, that it was like paddling through a frozen margarita or a slushie.
We were given the option to take the kayaks to land and visit the penguins on Brown Bluff. As much as I love the penguins, it was just too damn cool paddling through the ice and icebergs. We unanimously voted to stay in the water for the duration of the expedition time. (that's me and Erik on the right in the second pic, taken by the guide in the support zodiac)
This night at happy hour, which we always observed in the bar (they served little appetizers and sweets at 4:00 pm there each day), we were talking with the bartender, Sixto, with whom we would become special friends ... often it would be just the three of us chatting at the bar (and Erik spent even more time than I did with him). We were amped up with excitement over our kayaking adventure and telling Sixto how it was just the coolest day ever -- we were a little beside ourselves at how neat the experience was for us, explaining that it would go down in our travel records, which are fairly extensive, as one of the very best days.
He said, "Oh just wait. It gets better."
"What? That's impossible. No way!"
"Just wait, my friends. You'll see."
Erik and I both were openly and genuinely skeptical. But Sixto turned out to be a wise man, indeed.
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Once again, there isn't much rhyme or reason to this collection of photos ... the only theme behind it is "Shara's favorites" taken while filming "The African Witchfinder" -- the same theme as Part 1. Faces that I love ... they're cute or beautiful or interesting, etc., or portray either a slice of typical life, or sometimes a unique or rare moment. How about we start with "cute."
This little sweetie is the daughter of one of Ndjinaa's caretakers. Just a little bundle of sunshine -- maybe the yellow dress adds to the "sun" impression, but she was joyful and quickly became a little ham once Susanne took off her hat and gave it to her to wear and pose in. I posted the pic of her in the hat on Facebook and one of the comments was that she surely thought she looked beautiful, wearing the foreigner's hat. That makes her darling pose all the more precious when you think about her feeling that way.
Susanne's hat was pretty popular in the village, and circulated around a few kids before she got it back. This is Ndjinaa's grandson, Tjihenguva, wearing it now. (he happens to be watching the stick fight involving Berrie in this photo)
I guess I find the young girls more captivating to photograph than the boys because of their hairstyles, which I am very fond of -- the two braids down the front of their face. I wonder if that hairdo would look good on me?? Hmmmm. Of course I don't have any red mud around here to pack them with. But here are a few captures I like of the boys. The first one is Tjihenguva again. He's the only person I ever saw with that particular hairstyle of two braids hanging down the back of his head. Most of the traditional Himba boys and men wear the one big braid, as the boy in front in the second pic.
I like this capture below for a couple reasons -- one is the pensive pose and expression of the boy sitting in the doorway, the other is the glimpse into the hut behind him of people just "being people," so to speak, doing their own thing and not conscious of cameras.
I have fewer pictures of men largely because there are not usually as many of them hanging around the kraal, which is where we conducted interviews and where photographers who bargain with the chief to photograph them do so (like my guide did two years earlier). But I found a few sitting outside this day. I wandered around more on my own while the film crew was doing things like setting up the interview spots (arranging chairs under trees), talking with Berrie and our translator, Juanine.
The first man has a cap for his one big braid, which many men have, although more commonly it fits only onto the braided part, as in the second photo. If you look closely at these two men (especially the second), you can also just make out another signature trait of the Himba, which is the removal of several bottom front teeth. This is a sign of beauty for them. Which is funny to me because in America if a person is missing their front teeth, we tend to find it rather unattractive (perhaps because here it typically indicates poor health or hygiene). Yet there, they go through excruciating pain to knock out their permanent teeth for the sake of beauty. The third man has his own unique hairstyle and quite the winning smile.
I like this capture of a Kavango man in the Caprivi Strip sitting on the bench outside a compound, though you might agree with me that the traditional Himba are more compelling to photograph with their interesting hairstyles, their copious jewelry and ancient wardrobe of loincloths and cowhides.
Although I think the Himba are so photogenic -- exquisite and exotic, gorgeous and unique -- one thing about them is a much smaller ranger of color than the rest of the Namibian people. Perhaps just because they have so much more bare skin, all the same color, and black or red mud-packed hair, and their cowhide skirts are brown, too. But even their loincloths seldom have the bright color of fabrics worn by other Namibians. Maybe they're just plain dirty, haha, I don't know. Without washing machines, you know. But it's always so cheery to see a refreshing patch of color.
This lady is cheerfully clothed, but I'll be honest, she kinda freaks me out. Just a little. With what I presume is one missing eye, the other one seems particularly penetrating. And the smile with a missing tooth which looks very different between the left and right side. But she is an important lady in the area, she oversees a lot of local tribal court cases ... which, incidentally, are usually negotiated and sentenced underneath a mopani tree -- that being true of all village matters in this region. She and the man above in the blue shirt were both sitting outside her compound waiting for rides (and we ended up being the people to give her a lift). While Berrie was talking with her and some other people, a pickup truck came driving up and stopped where we were all gathered. I looked in the back of the truck and there was a whole skinned goat in there, head and everything. A tad creepy.
The primary splash of color among the Himba is their jewelry, which I quite admire. Even though the copper is not colorful, I really like the stacks of copper rings the women wear on their arms and ankles. They're so shiny! haha. Because bright colors are few and far between, all it takes is one bracelet or one bead to really pop out.
Switching gears over to the little Himba tykes in the kraal of Chief Kapika, this kid cracks me up with his gestures and expressions. He looks like such a little man -- so serious, pondering life's deepest questions (or maybe he's just mesmerized by the shiny copper), and looking like an accomplished orator, preparing his lectures or impassioned speeches.
Talking with the Himba adults sometimes is a little intimidating because it's hard to tell if they're paying any attention to you. When you ask a question, they have a way of listening and pondering with their eyes closed that worries you into thinking they've fallen asleep or into private reverie. Then suddenly they answer, but you often feel neglected. It makes them more opaque than the average person ... because it's very hard to discern what's going on behind those closed eyes and placid face ... I don't know if they are transparent to one another and just not to me (or any of us Westerners), or if even between themselves they are a mystery.
In contrast, this dear woman in the Kavango region, near the Caprivi Strip, wore her heart on her sleeve. Read a little more about her unfortunate circumstance in "The Peace in Human Touch." How is this not one of the best smiles on the whole planet?
She and her granddaughter listening to Berrie talk, scolding the granddaughter for accusing her grandmother of witchcraft.
Oh, but I got detracted from the kids! Well let's end part 2 of this Faces of Namibia series with a couple of my super favorite kid pics. (I foresee one more installment to this, but probably not until 2017) I posted a similar profile of the bottom girl in the last post, this one's a tad different and a tad more preferred. One thing I'm very curious of, and should I have the privilege of visiting the Himba again, I want to feel the weight of their necklaces. They look burdensomely (sure, it's a word) heavy. But I don't know what they're made out of; it could be light material? Or not? I suppose the almighty Google could tell me, but why ruin the hope that I'll feel it myself someday to figure it out? :)
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Above, the film crew of "The African Witchfinder" and I are reflected in the eyes of a toddler in the Kavango.
"If this is Part 1, how many parts will there be?" you wonder. But I don't know the answer to that! There are a lot of people shots from this trip that I'm quite fond of that don't really have a home in any of the articles about witchcraft, and so like the Roadside Views post, I'm just collecting a bunch into a "Faces of Namibia" series in order to share them. (some have been featured as a Friday Photo) However, I haven't found any real themes to select them by. So if you are looking for some reason why these particular photos are together in this particular post, there is none. The theme of this photo essay (and subsequent parts) is simply, "Shara's favorites." As I'm leaving soon for Antarctica, it may be some time before the other parts appear here, but they will come!
So where to begin? Or rather, who to begin with? Well, for absolutely no particular reason, we'll start here, in the Kunene region of Kaokoland, Namibia. A Himba girl and two of her boy mates. The girls traditionally wear two braids that hang down the front of their face. This girl was always chewing on a string whenever I saw her. I eventually realized that she has it tied to her necklace, so it is always available!
She seemed a very kind soul. I saw her always playing with young children and toddlers or else leading around a blind man with a stick. In the relatively slow-paced life of the traditional Himba, people have the time to look after one another. I love the picture below of the three of them. To me, it looks like they're about to start out on a grand adventure, three companions.
The blind man wasn't ostracized in any way for his incapacity. There were always children playing around him, sitting in his lap and leading him so he could be where other people were gathered. I think he has a stunning, wonderful face. He must still be able to see basic shapes and figures through his cataracts, for he knew I was there and taking his picture.
Here's a closer look at the traditional hairstyle of adolescent Himba girls with two profiles.
And eventually they will wear a head full of red mud-packed braids when they are young women, displayed for us here by Princess Kaviruru bent over working on her mother's hair.
And then when the girls are married, they will design their own head piece such as this one below, sported by a young woman just recently married. (In the photo above, Uvuzerwa, the princess's mother, has her headpiece pushed back so her daughter can work on her hair line.) I think this must surely be something that girls dream about their whole lives, sketching the stiff cowhide head pieces in their mind, similar to American girls dreaming about their wedding dress, envisioning what it will look like.
Of course, children are always the most fun to watch and train a camera on. One thing I've come to realize about myself, through this trip especially, is that I'm not really a portrait photographer. Maybe you could even say I'm not really a photographer, but a documenter. My photos aren't necessarily hang-on-the-wall pictures, but simply slices of the life and scenery I see around me. When I take a picture, I'm not thinking about how it will look as a final product, I'm thinking how sharing it will inform somebody else or entertain them, give them a glimpse into the world that I see. For that reason, I seldom corral people in front my lens, I seldom ask them to look at me and smile. Occasionally, sure, but mostly I sit with my finger on the shutter button and wait to see who or what comes to me. I let people make their own expressions and gestures, arrange themselves if they're in a group. Sometimes I sit as if I were part of the landscape, like just another tree, so that people forget about me, forget I'm there and do their own thing.
These two toddlers in particular amused me endlessly. They were pals. Of course the traditional Himba here in Kaokoland have no iPads, iPods or iPhones, no talking toys with battery-powered flashing lights and bells, no stuffed animals or Barbie dolls, yet they are never bored. They have fingers and toes, sticks and stones, and the entire natural world around them. And of course, the number one favorite toy across the globe for both people and cats ... cardboard boxes!!
Here's a more colorful gang of kids from the Caprivi Strip region, near Divundu. The first day I met them, they weren't entirely sure what to do in front of a camera lens. Unlike the traditional Himba in the Kaokoland area who are used to tourists passing through and taking their photos, these kids were just kids in a courtyard of some people we were interviewing for "The African Witchfinder." They certainly had never had white people peering at them through a camera lens. They caught on quickly what to do ... smile! It's pretty cute that the kid on the far left of both pics is wearing the same shirt each day, but the second day, he's wearing it turned inside out and backward.
Some more shy kids, perfectly adorable in their shyness.
This duo is a mix. The girl in blue almost pretty sure that she wants to smile, while her pink mate has all the charm of a natural model.
I'm madly fond of this little girl in her sweet red dress -- her coy smile and kind of peculiar hairstyle ... not sure if it's simply unkempt or if there is some design behind it.
Not shy or coy, I can't put my finger on it, but somehow just a wee bit wary ... like perhaps he's not quite sure whether or not something's is going to jump out of the camera.
This kid's got my number. And everyone else's! "Yo, come back for more photos soon!" haha. So I guess I will end as randomly as I began. I think this makes a good batch of faces for Part 1. :)