Posts Tagged With: backpacking

A Masai Village

The camp we stayed in, Kichwa Tembo (Elephant Head) is located on land leased from the Masai. As in the Kruger, we spent an afternoon visiting a Masai village to learn how their people live. We picked a few hitchhikers on our way to the village.


Our guide during this visit was the chief’s son.


We had a welcome song from the village women


and then a welcome dance from the village men. This dance is quite funny for tourist eyes. The young Masai jump up as high as they can while emitting sharp cries.


Whoever jumps the highest earns first pick of the young women. The boys kept up with the Warriors surprisingly well.


When a young couple weds, it is the bride’s responsibility to build their house out of sticks and mud. Houses typically consist of three “rooms”: sitting, bedroom


and a small room to lock the calves in for the night.


The Masai are herders, they drink the milk AND the blood of the cow. They only take a few spoonfuls at a time by inserting a sharp spear into the cow’s carotid artery and then sealing the wound with a paste made of a special herb which grows all around their village. Cows are integral to their lives. So much so that they regularly conduct raids on other villages in order to steal their cows. Of course they are also sometimes the victims of such raids. It was described as great fun though so one has to wonder if the ultimate function of these raids is simply sport.

The village elders are in charge of building the fire, it is a responsibility only they can assume.


The young bride is given fire and she must keep it alive inside her home and never let it die out.

The Masai people are polygamist and also practice genital mutilation: both male and female circumcision. This is usually done during a ceremony once the young man turns 14. Our guide didn’t elaborate on the age a girl has to be to undergo this atrocity.

For a man to become chief, it was customary for him to kill a lion whose mane then becomes the chief’s headgear. This lion was killed by our guide’s father back in 1971.


However, our guide let us know that this custom is no longer followed as the Masai have learned that a live lion is worth much more in tourist money than the mane of a dead one on the chief’s head.

Apparently, polygamy is on the decline as well. Our guide was educated at a western school in the city where he met his wife. When I asked him if he was planning on getting a second wife, he looked horrified. He replied that Kenya has an overpopulation problem and the young people are being educated now to understand that there is no need to have such large families.


The Masai build fences surrounding their villages with sticks and stones to protect themselves from predators. The young men take turns mounting guard during the night in case a lion, leopard, or hyena manages to get in.

One common thing we’ve learned about people in Africa is that they don’t seem too concerned about predators. Elephants though, do scare them.

This village visit was much more enjoyable than the one in South Africa and it all has to do with the children. Masai children were running around and playing during our visit.


The ones who were curious enough about us would come over to say hello but none of them were forced to perform for us. That small thing made all the difference.

We found the Masai people to be extremely gentle and hospitable. They played as big a role as the animals in making us fall in love with the area.

Categories: Africa, Kenya, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

CapeTown and its Townships

We stayed at a lovely Bed & Breakfast called Welgelegen (I’ll bet you can’t pronounce it either) at the foot of Table Mountain. This is the view from our balcony:

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CapeTown has a reputation as a very dangerous city. While we heeded the advice to not walk around downtown at night, it didn’t feel any more dangerous than similar big cities. However, every last house has walls, gates and an electrified fence surrounding it. Signs announcing armed guards for home defense are everywhere.

We began our first full day in CapeTown by visiting the District 6 museum.

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District 6 is an area of CapeTown close to the shipping docks. In the mid-1900s, it was a vibrant, integrated neighborhood with about 60,000 inhabitants. The Group Areas Act was enacted in 1950, and this led to District 6 being designated a “whites only” area in 1966. Residents were ordered to move out and every house was demolished to erect “suitable” houses for the new white residents. The museum houses a collection of old street signs and recreations of what the rooms and small shops used to look like. As an introduction to recent South African history, it is well worth a visit.

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Leftover signs of this segregation are everywhere.

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The boys observed that the people who segregated South Africa in 1950 and made blacks live in slums, carry dompasses and treated them as less than human were the same people who fought against Hitler in the 1940s and decried him doing exactly the same to the Jews.

We then made a quick stop at the Boo Kaap neighborhood which is predominantly a Muslim area.

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It is one of the prettiest areas of South Africa where residents paint their houses in different bright colors creating a very happy look. Most of these houses have been passed down thru generations of the same family although foreign investors have begun to take notice and thus change slowly creeps in.

We hired a tour to take us into one of the “townships” (slums) surrounding CapeTown.

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It was a complicated, lively place and not as depressing as one would expect. We were there early on a Saturday morning and the streets were filled with little kids running around and playing.

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Townships were created after the Group Areas Act which stated that every person had to live in areas specifically designated for their race. Identity cards were given to people which spelled out which race they belonged to. In case of doubt, officials would conduct the “pencil test” which consisted of placing a pencil in the person’s hair. If it stuck, the person was “black”; if it didn’t, the person was labeled “colored”. Blacks were at the bottom of the list and even their passes reflected this. Theirs were called the “dompass”, or rather dumb pass because only dumb people carried it; they like to say. In reality, everyone was required to carry their ID, every race had restrictions on which areas they could be in and at what times.

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If a black person was caught in a restricted area without their dompass, he could be jailed for up to 6 weeks! When a black person moved into a Township, he had to register with the Township council, his dompass was updated with his address and place of work. This of course meant that even the jobs they could take were limited as they needed to be close enough to make it back before curfew.

Townships grew as such places tend to and became their own small city within a city. They consist of several types of housing, some are brick and cement apartments,

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others are old shipping containers

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and yet others are nothing more than discarded boxes, bits of wood, and aluminum cobbled together.

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Where the government stepped in to build housing, it provided the residents with communal laundry

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and bathroom areas.

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Four bathrooms for over 200 people though….

Shipping containers are bought solely by its inhabitant and more often than not, house two families per one container. They are cold in winter, hot in summer and of course have no washing facilities.

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I asked our guide who controlled the place the shipping containers were set upon. He said no one, they simply squat. We got the feeling that he wasn’t being completely honest though. The Township seemed very organized, two out of every three “residences” had a satellite dish and people greeted him with respect. If I had to guess, I’d say there is a head running things here and our guide was high on the pecking order.

We were allowed to enter several residences to see how people lived.

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Although interesting, we felt like intruders. We were intruders but at the same time, these people open up their houses to tourists as a source of income. As we walked around, it became clearer and clearer that people here are used to these “tours”. We caught several children performing “play” specifically for us; as soon as we were gone they would stop playing.

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We noticed some adults see us coming, go inside and suddenly a child would be thrust outside with a ball. At some point, a group of very young kids surrounded Fernando, hugging him and tugging at his hand.

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It was very cute…until we noticed another little kid searching thru his pockets while he was distracted. The kid couldn’t have been more than 5. Is it his fault if this is all that he’s learned? At what age should he know the difference between right and wrong and will he if this is his livelihood? Unanswerable questions. It left a sour feeling for us.

At the edge of the township are nice comfortable houses. Our guide explained that these houses belong to people from the township who have “made it”, they’ve become lawyers or businessmen, and they could afford to move to a nice area but want to stay close to their roots. I asked if these people might be targets for robbery but our guide assured us that everyone in the township looks up to them and respects them. We couldn’t help noticing that their houses have walls and fences though.

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According to our guide, higher education is not free but when I asked how these people had managed to get such an education without money, he simply ignored me. This was the norm with him, I got the feeling that he didn’t consider women should be asking questions and when he later began making jokes about first wives and second wives, I gave up, hung back and simply listened. We later found out he has at least 8 children and several wives himself.

As difficult as it may be for us to believe, none of the people we saw in the township gave us the feeling of despair. Adults were busy helping at a make shift church, or selling their wares.

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These are called “smileys” and go for about 5 Rand a piece. That’s less than 50 US cents for a whole lot of tacos!

After the township tour, we headed to the Waterfront where we were lucky to catch the ferry to Robben Island, the offshore prison where Nelson Mandela was held for over a quarter of a century. It’s a beautiful place but it wasn’t so for the prisoners held here. Arriving on the island, we boarded a bus where a guide told us about the people who still live here, some of them former prisoners and some of them former guards. These people have committed to keeping the memory of what happened here alive and thus have made peace with each other. Children have been born here and now the problem is getting these kids to school on the mainland when the weather unpredictably closes down navigation almost every other day.

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We visited the limestone quarry where the prisoners, including Mandela, were forced to work.

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We were then dropped off at the prison where a former prisoner took over our tour. This man was held in Robben Island for 13 years (out of a 15 year sentence) for sabotage, he was 26 when he arrived after participating in a student protest. He told us of groups of students as young as 16 who were held here for decades. He showed us the cell where Mandela was held.

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At the end of the tour, someone praised him for having been able to forgive his captors. He tried to explain that it wasn’t about forgiveness. He said that he and all other prisoners had been spoken for during the negotiations. He said that when people speak for you, they speak as they wish. The message was clear to most of us but this tourist insisted in her praise of his forgiveness. Another tourist, this time a South African woman got clearly annoyed and explained that many people feel that Mandela had sold them out but since he was the one to speak for all of them, he spoke what he wanted.

I later found myself walking behind her and took the opportunity to ask her about this. She explained to us that there is a new political party which has been vocal about denouncing Mandela as a sell-out. They complain about the living conditions of 60% of the population, mostly blacks, who still live in townships, with no services and sub-par education. This political party says that not enough blood was shed during the negotiations, meaning the white rulers were allowed to simply go about their business while the blacks are left to deal with their terrible poverty. They are correct of course but as she explained, what more could Mandela have done? The simple fact that these people now have the right to form a political party and speak out means that Mandela made good and shedding blood benefits no one, or at least that’s how she feels. She found this political party to be worrisome as it is mostly conformed of young unemployed men. Young unemployed men sitting around discussing violent change would be worrisome to anyone, I think.

On the ferry back, the boys and I had a discussion about this. They agreed that justice had not been done and thought it unconscionable that the white rulers had been allowed to go without trials for what they did to the blacks. I am not that sure of what is right anymore. Living in the USA, the pursuit of justice is ingrained in the population to a degree that it is not even questioned. I wondered what is too high a price to pay for justice. Take Mexico for instance. We had a bloody revolution to change the government in which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans died. That’s a whole lot of orphan children and childless mothers. 130 years later, more than half the population still lives below the poverty line without access to services or education. South Africa managed to get to the same place in two decades without major bloodshed. Justice it is not but better, maybe.

To end our day, we visited the Grand Parade, where Mandela made his famous speech upon his liberation. The edges of it have now been taken over by homeless people.

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South Africa, and CapeTown, may have a whole lot of problems but it seems to us onlookers, that it is a young-in-spirit place full of energy and hope for the future.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Africa, South Africa, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Lovely Amsterdam

Our next stop on our way to Africa was the lovely city of Amsterdam.

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Amsterdam is such a special place; it has the charm and easy feeling of a small town and the chaos and energy of a big metropolis. No wonder it’s one of my favorites.

I’m not going to bore you with a description of everything we did because finding a list of things to do in Amsterdam on the internet would be simpler. Of the famous sites, the absolute must-dos on our list are:

The Rijskmuseum with the famous “Night Watch”.

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This museum is stocked full of wonderful art and one could easily spend an entire day here and still have more for a second

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and even a third visit. Don’t spend your entire day here though as there is too much to do in this city.

For the Van Gogh Museum,

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you can either stand in line for two hours or buy your tickets online. Beware though, the only website which gets you instant admission to the museum is their official one. Otherwise, you’ll still have to stand in line for about an hour to exchange the vouchers you got for their official tickets.

Visiting the Ann Frank Museum

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which you enter thru the door hidden behind the bookcase as she did, is a sobering experience.

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Again, buy your tickets online (up to a month in advance) unless you like standing in line.

Less known but well worth a visit is the Verzetsmuseum, The Dutch Resistance Museum. This museum chronicles what life was like before, during and after the occupation for regular Dutch citizens and poses the question of what would you have done in their place.

This seems eerily similar to what Trump is proposing for Muslims now:

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Let’s learn from the past lest we repeat it.

Of special note is their junior section. Although one would be tempted to bypass it thinking it was meant for children due its interactivity, take a long look. It follows the lives of four dutch children, one Jewish, one the son of a resistance fighter, one the daughter of a Nazi, another the child of parents just trying to survive the war. It is an incredible experience to follow these kids thoughts, actions and the events in their lives during this tumultuous time. It ends with a video feed of each of them as adults telling us what they think now of what happened then.

An lastly, for us, was a brand new museum unique in the world: Micropia.

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It is an entire museum dedicated to microbes! As you enter, you can see a newly redesigned Tree of Life including all the microbe species known at the moment.

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It’s mind-boggling to think that most of the life on the planet is microscopic. In the small circle of light (bottom right) is every animal you know and can see with your naked eye, including us. Everything else is invisible to us without fancy equipment. And to think that we are all connected and we all came from the same origins. We came here because Fernando forced us to, we were so tired and ready to sit down for coffee and people watching but he insisted and when a son asks to go to a museum, you don’t say no. We are very glad we came. The museum is entirely interactive and you can see algae, bacteria, viruses, glow fish, you name it. They have a body scanner which tells you how many bacteria you’re carrying with you. Microscopes to watch as tiny cells go about their lives. Rotting food and petri dishes with a variety of everyday items to scare you with.

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In the back you can even glimpse, thru enormous windows, the scientists as they work on their experiments. Absolutely five stars worth.

Other activities in Amsterdam include a Canal Boat Ride

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where you can look at the old houses as well as some lovely boat houses.

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In the city where everyone, absolutely everyone, rides a bike

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you can also rent bikes. The boys did for a couple of hours and came back to the hotel happy but stressed to the max.

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It really is surprising that we didn’t witness any accidents. Traffic is chaos with cars, motorbikes and bicycles all going past and thru each other at the same time they try to evade the clueless tourists who tend to stand in the middle of the bike paths because they look so much like sidewalks. Signs such as this

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are quite understandable, but the reality is that everyone is super nice and laid back and you hear less honking here than back home.

An easy day trip from Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans.

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Tours are sold everywhere but there really is no need to get a tour when buses run every 15 minutes from the Central Train Station

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and you can buy your ticket straight from the driver. Several windmills are open for touring but we chose De Kat, as it is the only one that allows you to go up the stairs and walk on the outside of it. This is a working mill, they grind chalk stones into powder which they then mix with different dyes to create paint.

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There are different shops which recreate what Dutch life used to be like. Here you can watch a demonstration of how those wooden clogs are made, and buy some as well of course;

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or cheese, chocolate, oil. You can even bring a picnic and spend the day petting sheep and avoiding being bitten by the swans.

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It’s a picturesque day trip.

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An honorable mention goes to the Amsterdam Dungeon which is a new show, part history lesson, part haunted house which relates the sordid past Amsterdam had in the 16oos when trade ships would trick people into signing up for “service” and sailing to the Dutch African colonies aboard the VOC ships. I wouldn’t want to give it away but definitely recommend it. Get your tickets online and take advantage of the savings.

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On our last day in Amsterdam we were met by Anita, Fernando’s friend from high school, and one of her lovely daughters, Sophie, at Voldenpark, Amsterdam’s central park. What a shock to meet again now with kids the age they were when they met so many years ago.

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Amsterdam is just as beautiful, welcoming and full of life as I remembered. We can’t wait to come back!

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Categories: Europe, Netherlands, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Chasing Waterfalls 

Our third day in Iceland was spent on a very ambitious quest to drive the south coast all the way to Vagnsstadir. It took us the entire day, mostly because it’s impossible to resist stopping for pictures every km or so. Although it must be noted that this is no easy thing as Icelandic roads have no shoulders and every small exit isn’t paved but rather covered in pebbles. We got stuck once but with the three boys pushing we made a quick getaway.

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We found the roads here to be in good condition which is surprising given the weather. Icelanders are not fast drivers but there are so few of them on the road that most bridges consist of only one lane, forcing cars to take turns crossing them. Not a problem at all. Sheep are everywhere literally, on the road and on top of the mountains, as are horses. Icelandic horses are the only ones which can do the “fifth gait”. They say it developed because of the rocky terrain and it almost looks as if the horses are tippy-toeing. Lots of people keep the Icelandic horses as pets and are very proud of their lineage. No “foreign” horses are allowed on the island. The rule is so strict that if ever one of these horses left Iceland, it would never be allowed back again. We found them to be curious and gentle animals and stopped more than once to pet them.

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Our first “official” stop was at Seljalandfoss.

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This waterfall drops about 40 meters but what’s a number? What you need to know about it is that it is gorgeous and rightly deserves its spot in Iceland’s top tourist attractions. If you follow the path, you’ll be able to walk behind it.

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We were here early, before the tour buses, and had a beautiful time enjoying the peace before the hordes of tourists got there.

Our next stop was Skogafoss which  drops 60 meters and is 25 meters wide.

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In case it’s not obvious, the water is freezing cold. We tried getting all the way to the edge of it but even the mist emanating from it leaves one’s teeth chattering. A strenuous hike

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takes you to the top of the falls from where experienced hikers, and a few dummies, begin the trek into Thorsmork (Thor’s woods). Undoubtedly inspired by the sheep, the boys decided to follow their own path to the top of an outcropping.

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It was about an hour before they agreed to climb down.

Following the road east, we found ourselves at Reynisdrangar.

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Here, basalt rocks lie strewn about as kids’ Legos. The wind was howling and a light rain falling but the view was such that we wouldn’t be deterred.

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We continued on to Reynisfjara, the famous black beach.

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The sand here is as tick as play sand and would invite one to play if it weren’t for how cold it is. Puffins nest on the roof of the cave.

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On sunny days, they spend most of the time out at sea so there was a silver lining to those stormy clouds as we were able to spot a few. Once again, the boys decided to climb the mountain

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and got so high

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that the tourists stopped to take pictures of them.

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I’m coming to terms with the fact that I gave birth to mountain goats and not children but ask them to hike a path with you and suddenly they’re too tired…

We were all tired, cold and wet now. The guys all fell asleep while I drove us to our destination, with so many stops on the way that the boys threatened to confiscate the camera if I stopped again. It’s just impossible not to though when beauties like this one are lying just by the side of the road.

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But the best was yet to come.

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Hakuna Matata

Hakuna Matata, according to Wikipedia, does not literally mean “No worries” but rather ‘there isn’t here’ (hakuna) ‘problems’ (matata). I don’t even know what having no problems would feel like. It’s been almost two years since I’ve updated this blog. Life took a turn for the bad and then the worse and then the even worse. So I’ve been absent. Life got better and then bad again and I’ve learned not to wonder about what might be lurking around the bend anymore. As I said back in 2014, the time to do anything is now. So we travel, taking our many matata’s with us. Who knows, we might end up misplacing them in some remote site and coming home sans.

Where are we headed? So very glad you asked.

AFRICA!! (see what I did there?)  By way of Iceland!

I would agree that our itinerary is a bit nuts but isn’t there where bliss lives? As always, looking for cheaper travel is ingrained in who I am. It usually leads me into trouble, yes, but it also leads to adventure. When I began looking into flights to Africa, it turned out that flying to The Netherlands and then on to South Africa was the cheapest way to get there. Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities so having a little visit sounded good. Then it turned out that flying to Amsterdam can be done with a same-cost stopover in Iceland. Iceland has never been high on my list (warm blood and all that) but a free stopover? Yes, thank you.

Come along with us as we visit parts of the world we never even dreamed about.

Whether Hakuna, or Wengi Kuna, Matata:   Keep Exploring!

Categories: Africa, Asia, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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