In college it was fun to pull pranks on each other – stretch plastic wrap across a toilet beneath the seat, Scotch-guard a towel so it repels water rather than absorb it, or, my personal favorite, put chicken bouillon in the shower head so the unsuspecting bather thinks someone is making chicken soup, and so does everyone who comes in contact with them for the rest of the day. Pranks are fun, but we are supposed to out-grow them.
I don’t know who invented the duvet, but I’m going to blame it on the French; both because of how it sounds versus how it is spelled and because it is easy to blame things on the French. In my mind, two French college grads were reminiscing about their college days when one of them said, “I have a great idea. Let’s sew bedsheets to quilts. We can sell them to hotels as a cheap alternative to buying both sheets and quilts and pull off the ultimate prank at the same time.” They did, and it worked. All hotels seem to use this bedding alternative, so these French guys are rich. At the same time, folks around the world are losing sleep from being too hot under a quilt and a sheet or are cold because the alternative is nothing at all. All the bed clothes or no bed clothes – you choose your fate.
The Israeli’s take the prank a little further. They start with an uncharacteristically chaste setup of separate beds for couples. A few hotels give the illusion of togetherness, by pushing the beds (mostly) together and stretching a giant bottom sheet across them, and, of course, a single duvet covers the whole arrangement. Reality hits home when I am foolish enough to approach the center line in “no-man’s land.” As I scooch amorously out of my territory I disappear into the crevasse between the beds and realize I have been caught in an Israeli bed moat. I climb out of the moat on my own side since I do not know what other booby-traps may await me. Concluding that sleep is my safest option I attempt to cover my body with the demonic duvet. It doesn’t even make it to my armpits; I pull harder; nothing happens. I think somebody short-sheeted my bed. No, this is more diabolical – the duvet is short. I kick at the bottom of the bed until the accursed covering is fully untucked. Feeling triumphant, I pull the duvet up to my pits and see my feet pop out of the bottom. It’s okay – I’m too impressed by the Jewish upgrade of the French prank to be angry.
After a layover in Moscow we hop onto another, smaller, Aeroflot jet to complete the last 4 hours to Tel Aviv. Two things were notable on this leg of the journey. The first was a mom and daughter with whom we shared a row. The flight attendant presented this young family with a package of goodies designed for juvenile passengers. The daughter was symbiotic with a handheld entertainment device and could not be bothered with the mundanity of airline trinkets. The mother, however, lit up like a Christmas tree at the sight of the package. With great delight she dug through the package and vainly attempted to impress it’s worth onto her daughter. Her sheer joy at receiving this unexpected bounty warmed the cockles of my heart, which is good, because I don’t like cold cockles.
The next notable event happened just minutes later. I am sure it happened on the previous flight, but I did not have a screen in front of me on that part of the journey. I was sitting innocently in my seat solving a sudoku puzzle as a I awaited take off when my screen came to life with the Aeroflot logo. The scene switched to a tall blond strolling in slow motion to some unseen destination of great importance as the wind blows her hair. It appears she is heading out for a night on the town as she is wearing 4-inch pumps. At this point her feet are joined by several identical legs in equally absurd footwear. The camera pulls back to reveal a phalanx of women that we are supposed to believe are a flight crew from Aeroflot. (I noticed that our flight crew all wore very practical flats to avoid breaking an ankle while serving you a thimble of room-temperature water.) This was the intro to the safety instructions. I did not watch the video to the end, but I never watch all the safety instructions. I refuse to believe that a plane will crash if my tray table is not latched or my seat is not in the full, upright position. I also don’t think if the engines drop off the plane and we plummet 50,000 feet into the Northern Sea that the first thing on my mind will be “how do I blow into this tube protruding from the rubber sport coat I’m wearing.” More likely, the first thing that goes through my mind will be my knees. The majority of the safety instructions are for people who have no business traveling unsupervised. If you are foolish enough to leave your chaperone at home when you can’t find your way out of a hallway where eight doorways have just opened and have flashing signs to tell you to exit, then Darwin says you should remain in your seat with your seatbelt securely fastened so you can improve the gene pool by removing yourself.
I sit on my 14th floor balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as I contemplate my last 24 hours. As I write this, friends back in Delaware are bidding on property to relocate our church – they have the stress I have the balmy breeze of Israel.
The travel was good. The cast of characters for this 10-day-drama are Yvonne and Pam Bradley (of the Pennsylvania and New York Bradley’s), Judi (my wife) and me. Yvonne Judi and I met at our house to be chauffeured to JFK by my brother-in-law and sister-in-law Kevin and Bobbi (I’ll let you figure out which is which. They play supporting roles here, but they are critical to the plot if we hope to get home when we return.
We flew out of JFK on Aeroflot (Russian Airlines). The cost is about half of the other options, but the real appeal is the name…it’s just fun to say. Go ahead and say it a few times while I wait. You know you want to. Now wasn’t that fun. We happened onto this fantastic deal because of Pam the penny pincher. She is an expert and finding bargains. She pulled a quarter out of her purse and I am certain I saw a tear in Washington’s eye she had such a grip. Knowing her skills she probably got 30¢ back in change from whatever she bought.
The airplane was only half full…thank you Corona (the virus not the beer). Yet, with all those empty seats, Judi and I got wedged in next to a man occupying a seat and a half (not counting his copious collection of travel essentials). After being crushed into me for takeoff, Judi bailed on me looking for more spacious pastures. To fill the void created by my wife’s departure I inherited a new best friend. He immediately expanded his one and a half seat territory to a luxurious 2 seats with more room for road warrior gear (pillows, face masks, eye covers, blankets, magazines and the like).
When the nesting was completed, he decided it would be nice if the two of us chatted until we got to Moscow. He never put it in those words, he just ignored any effort on my part to read, watch a movie, or sleep. He soldiered on with a steady patter on every topic from politics, to religion, to living at home with your mother when you’re in your forties. He is a Russian Jew from New Jersey with many strongly held and loudly expressed ideas. In the brief nine-hour jaunt to Moscow we solved welfare and healthcare in the US, resolved the Jewish occupation in Palestine, fixed labor laws, affirmative action, and devised the most efficient methods for controlling the Corona Virus. Of course, when I say “we” I am giving myself far too much credit since I don’t know the answers to any of these dilemmas and my role was mostly as a non-speaking reservoir into which the wisdom of the ages could be dumped. I must confess on more than one occasion when the monologue rose to an evangelical fervor, I would stoke the flames of omniscience with the poker of sarcasm, obstinance, or befuddlement which never failed to yield the version of diatribe that made the miles fly by.
We visited the zoo in Bujumbura. They call it a living museum (Museé Vivant). It is not for the faint of heart. The conditions for the animals are deplorable. We will not dwell on this so you are not depressed by my blog. While very small, this is the most memorable zoo I have ever been seen. This was my third visit to this zoo and there have been a number of changes since I was last here.
Suddenly, safety is a concern. On previous trips we could walk up to a cage and reach through to touch the creature inside. Previously I would pet a leopard, scratch a monkey under the chin, and play with full grown chimpanzees (think planet of the apes to picture these big guys). Apparently, the chimp I used to play with bit someone’s fingers off so secondary fences were installed to keep us a little further back.
To compensate for the downgrade from a petting zoo to a watching zoo they added a little drama. At the leopard cage the zoo keeper threw a guinea pig on top of the cage, twelve or more feet in the air. The leopard sprang to the top, reached through the grate, and had the pig in his claws in less than a second. A spectacular display of athleticism. What followed was one of the most gruesome and fascinating displays of wildlife I have ever experienced. Apparently leopards like to play with their food. I won’t give you the details, but you will never see this aspect of animal life on Animal Planet. A A highlight of the visit was the addition of a baby chimpanzee. For 5000 Burundi francs (about $1.50), you can hold the chimp (apparently he has not yet developed a taste for human fingers. One of our team was holding the chimp when he decided he had enough, pushed away and jumped down. The zoo workers started to frantically grab at him as he scampered through the legs of the group. When he came near me I held out my arms and he launched himself into them and held on for dear life. Is it wrong that at that moment I really missed my grandkids? The chimp nestled in like I was his savior. Now I want a pet chimp for home.
Bujumbura is the economic capital of Burundi. Until January of this year it was also the political capital, but that has been moved to Gitega. Bujumbura is the most urban city in the country. It was hotter and more humid than I have ever experienced. I didn’t want to stick my head in an oven, I wanted to crawl into one. An oven is hot, but it’s a dry heat. I lived in Arizona for a while, and used to play softball in 105°. No problem. When I got thirsty in Bujumbura I took a deep breath and sucked the water out of the air. When I drank from a bottle the water oozed out my pores as fast as I could drink it in. When I woke up in the middle of the night I thought I wet the bed. Instead, every molecule of moisture in my body drained into the bed while I slept.
It is a strange experience to exit a plane into an Equatorial country and feel the temperature drop. We were all grateful to have arrived safely and to have completed the longest leg of our journey. We had a few hours to kill before our next flight so I stretched out on the floor and slept for a long time…about 45 minutes. I’m not sure if the nap helped or hurt, but I didn’t doze again before we arrived in Bujumbura. Even though the plane had air conditioning.
Traveling to Burundi was fairly uneventful…if you don’t count the lack of air conditioning in the plane. I don’t want to over-state the conditions on the plane, but if there was an oven near by I would have put my head in it for a breath of fresh air. I had a small concern that the plane had crashed and I was now in hell just hallucinating the plane. The heat combined with my lack of a shower had me feeling like a link of sausage left in the sun for a week ready to burst through the casing. I imagine that is how I smelled as well. As a bonus, the heat prevented sleep. I was able to get a good thirty minutes, broken into several smaller chunks, of sleep.
May 30th, 2:30 am. I have almost everything ready for departure to Africa, but I’m exhausted and I need to get some sleep. 3:30 am. The alarm on my phone is making an unholy racket as it terminates my one-hour nap. I wake up Judi and announce it is time for us to get ready to meet the rest of the teem at 4:30 4:25 am. My phone wakes me up again with Vickie asking if we are up yet. An inauspicious start to our trip. We skip our showers as we head out for 24 hours of travel.
(This post will make more sense if you read it’s predecessor, “Getting to Wednesdays Hike.”)
Having established Judi was right about the trail’s beginning, we discuss the profundity of her rightness and my wrongness excessively, in my opinion. We decide it is time to hike. I must pause at this point to explain some of Judi’s research, upon which we based our preparation. Judi reads reviews by previous travelers and gains valuable insight to keep us out of trouble. Notable on this trail are two important “facts.” First: the trail is extremely steep and strenuous requiring you to scramble over rocks. Second: the trail is “more slippery than ice” because of the mud, wetness, and rain-forest foliage. These are serious consideration for two middle-aged hikers. OK. We would have to live to well over a hundred to be middle-aged, but it could happen.
In light of our knowledge, (of the treacherousness of the trail, not of the whole “Judi knows best” thing), we gear up for the assault. Gearing up includes a rain coat for each of us (worn, not carried), hats, hiking shoes, vinyl ziplock pouches for our phones (one each), snacks, my 40-ounce water bottle, a camera with three lenses (who knows what you will see), binoculars, two pocket knives (necessary gear for any environment). My backpack is stuffed with much of the above-mentioned gear and a number of other essentials (e.g., pens, paper, cleaning supplies for eye glasses and camera lenses, first aid kit, etc.). Feeling satisfied that we are equipped for any eventuality we may encounter, I hoist the 85-pound pack of essentials onto my back and realize my raincoat will no longer fit. The pack comes off, the coat goes on, the pack goes back on, and we are ready.
I am shocked to discover the path is paved, strangely, but paved. The path is approximately 18-inches wide and is loaded with little pebbles sticking up and an occasional large stone surfacing, creating great traction in any weather, except icy weather. The reviewer above stating the trail is more slippery than ice must live in a warm climate where they never needed to walk on ice.
Two people walking abreast on 18 inches of stone pavement while carrying a weeks supply on their back must have excellent balance to stay on the path, which, of course, we do. However, the path is also shared with all the people who parked their cars the first time they were told and are now on their way back down. They are clearly unprepared for the hike, (no doubt they did not check the reviews of previous hikers), as most have nothing more than the clothes they are wearing. A few have umbrellas. Ha! Everyone knows that umbrellas don’t belong on a hike. I see only one other backpack, if it can be called that; a prissy little thing probably sold next to the man-purses. If a hurricane hits now I will be the king of the mountain.
Because we pity the poor unprepared souls, we step off the path to let them pass. Stepping off the path involves finding a safe place in the mud to carefully place your foot so you don’t fall (the stuff is slicker than ice). Once they have passed us we step back onto the trail. This procedure is repeated every 18 steps. It was wise of us to drive around awhile before the hike so we weren’t going the same direction as all those tourists. We encounter very few moving in our direction. There is one European family going our way. The mom is wearing sandals, the dad has on boat shoes, and they blow by us like we are in a school zone and they are on the Auto Bahn. Yes, we had to step off in the mud for them as well.
It’s not long before Judi is bright red and in danger of collapsing a lung. The reviewer claiming the path is very steep did not lie. We press on…she’s insured. I see Judi take her jacket off and tie it around her waist. I say nothing. I understand why; it’s not just a rain forest, it’s tropical. My raincoat reminds me of the plastic suits I used to wear to lose weight for wrestling. An eighth of a mile into the trip I am certain I’ve lost two pounds of water weight. Judi sees me sweating and suggests I take mine off and tie it around my waist. No way! The whole coat-around-the-waist thing has to be the dumbest fashion idea ever. No, I’ll just keep my jacket and 85-pound pack on as we hike through the tropics – now that is the cool look. A few hundred more feet of elevation and Judi is distressed at my imitation of a raison. She insists I take off my jacket, so I do (remembering the parking situation). I complain I have no place to store my jacket so she tells me to tie it around my waist. Do you ever stop to consider the silly things we do to keep a spouse happy? I tie it around my waist. Looking like a couple of dweeb tourists we press on. In less than five minutes my thighs and knees are under attack by a knotted jacker. It doesn’t want to be around my waist any more than I want it there. I’m staggering, Judi is laughing and we both agree that possessing a butt, complete with hips would help me greatly. However, that is the one thing I did not put into the backpack.
Being seasoned hikers, who conquered the wet and muddy nature preserve for 45 minutes, we decide it is time to tackle the rain forest in El Yunque National Park. This is the only tropical rain forest on United States soil. Emphasis on the soil. (I know! I can hear some of you complaining, “Alaska has a rain forest,” but it’s not exactly tropical up there, so my statement is correct.) We are prepared with rain jackets and sturdy boots – nothing can stop us now. Judi thoroughly researched the terrain and hiking maps so we are prepared for anything.
First problem: of the six main hiking trails, five are closed due to hurricane damage. I can’t complain. I’m inconvenienced by not being able to hike a promising trail, while those living here had their houses ripped to shreds and had no electricity for many months. The only trail open, Mt. Britton, is the last one up the mountain before the road is washed away.
Our drive up is delightful as Judi dons her ranger hat and points out all the trails we cannot hike as well as the names of the waterfalls. We climb a little tower to “oooh” and “aaah” at the views and take some pictures that no one wants to see…ever. We lament leaving the binoculars in the car because they would make the shore 15 miles away look only 7 miles away. I guess we’ll have to settle for the 200-yard view we get on our back porch.
A lengthy discussion ensues on the merits of braving an outhouse versus living in bladder pain. The outhouse wins, but it is not a problem for me. I wisely peed at the last scenic overlook, a proud moment that Judi captured on film. The resultant picture will not be posted here.
Second problem: the road narrows significantly as we continue upward. We start seeing signs that say “One-lane road next 500 feet.” We can only see 40 feet before the next hair-pin turn! How is this supposed to work? When one of the only signs in English informs you that you may die in the next 30 seconds, it puts you on edge. This is my current excuse for what happens next.
Third problem: the idiot driver (i.e., me). We find the signs for the hike, but can’t find the trailhead. We ask a few people, but no one knows the location. Cars are parked on both sides of the road, which is easy because the road is so narrow. Judi, who has spent hours pouring over maps, reviews, articles and websites suggests we park on the side of the road and walk till we find the start. I, having researched nothing, but have a gut feeling, proclaim, “there must be a parking lot up here somewhere – I’ll keep driving.” I know you can see the problem here, or should I say problems? 1. I am acting out of ignorance. Admittedly not a first for me, but never a good idea. 2. I don’t want to pull over because I don’t want to walk too far before I hike up the side of a mountain. 3. I’m not listening to my wife. Thirty-seven years; you would think I’ve learned by now. Clearly, I haven’t. There is no parking lot. I drive all the way around the loop to find us back at the beginning. The car crackles with tension and I pull into the first spot she suggests. The trail head to Mt. Britton is right there.