Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative photo blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and reaches a broader audience than in print. The down side: unlike a formal book or essay, I'm just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are often "letters to home" style accounts of what I did. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each Archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. 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 decided to check out the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech based only on the fact that I love cemeteries and tomb stuff and a recommendation from another FB friend. But I really had no idea what they were, so I was stunned to find something so grand and lavish beside the crowded cobblestone alleyways of the medina.
On the way in, we read some information panels on the walls along the tunnel that led into the necropolis about how the tombs were discovered in 1917 and restoration work began, etc. This didn't really help me imagine any better what we might see, and it certainly did not prepare me for the soaring ceilings and incredible craftsmanship ... how could something so spectacular be lost in this crowded ancient city such that it was then "discovered?" I mean, usually underground chambers and buried treasure are "discovered," or buildings that lie deep deep in a jungle or mountains.
Evidence suggests that the area might have been used as a burial ground from as far back as the 1300s. But the large mausoleums were built in the late 1500s by sultans of the Saadian dynasty (also spelled Saadien). The founder of the Saadi dynasty rests in one which was built by one of his sons (a subsequent sultan). Then progressively more elaborate mausoleums were added, the last and most magnificent one was built by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur who died and was buried there in 1603. As I have not been a student of Moroccan history, the name did not mean much to me, but apparently he was the most renowned ruler of the Saadian dynasty and gained control of the desert caravans which supplied Europeans with sugar at exorbitant prices -- funding his ability to make opulent tombs and palaces -- as well as other high-demand commodities like gold, slaves, ivory, and ostrich feathers.
So this is Ahmad al-Mansur's tomb in the middle, in the room called the Chamber of Twelve Columns.
The elaborate cedar wood ceilings of the chambers were high achievements of Moroccan and Saadian art. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes between the materials all carved with similar intricacy -- carved stucco is perhaps the most prominent material, but also parts of the Chamber of Twelve Columns have marble carved with the same detail. Add in the meticulous use of colored tiles, and the artistry and craftsmanship represented is truly overwhelming.
In the whole of the burial complex, which is relatively small (just a few mausoleum buildings and small courtyards), there are about 160 people buried, I think a large number having some relationship to this al-Mansur ... wives, sons, advisers and trusted officials. Naturally, there are plenty of kitty caretakers roaming the courtyards keeping watch over the graves.
By the year 1672, the Saadi dynasty was over and a dude named Moulay Ismail came to power in Morocco and went about constructing his own legacy, in the pursuit of which he had the Saadian Badi Palace destroyed, but fortunately he seemed to have scruples about demolishing a place of burial. So instead, he simply sealed all the entrances, walling it off, which ultimately achieved the same aim -- out of sight, out of mind, the neglected tombs were largely destroyed by the indifferent forces of weather and time. And so the beauty of the detailed wood and stucco work started to slip from memory until it was completely forgotten, even though the necropolis is adjacent to the Kasbah Mosque, one of the main attractions in the city. Of course we could not visit inside the mosque as we are not Muslim.
Then in 1917 a plane was flying over the city taking aerial photography and saw this space from above. Imagine, you'd be like, "Holy cow! What is this?" I can imagine a bit of explorer adrenaline rush. This is a picture of what the place looked like when they first started restoration work in 1917. We watched a video of the restoration process, which is impressively painstaking and completed with admirable patience.
I could just stare at the details for ages, imagining the time, effort and skill it took, mesmerized by the patterns. This is the Chamber of Lalla Mas'uda, the oldest mausoleum in the necropolis, built over the tomb of the founder of the Saadian dynasty and includes now the tombs of the son of the founder who commissioned it and the mother of Ahmed al-Mansur.
I wanted to share the really impressive stuff first, but the day we saw the tombs began with a jaunt through the Jardin Majorelle. It's a short walk outside of the medina. It's a small botanical garden but full of color and variety and water features. It was put together over several decades by French painter, Jacques Majorelle. He referred to the garden as “vast splendours whose harmony I have orchestrated… This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.” He acquired the land and built the gardens for his own pleasure, but the upkeep was costly and so he opened it to the public in 1947 as a way to pay for the maintenance through entrance fees.
At its "height," I believe it was about 10 acres. But after suffering some accidents and a divorce, he was forced to subdivide it on several occasions, and eventually sell what remained to pay for medical expenses. He died in France in 1962 after he was taken there for medical treatment, sadly separated from his beloved garden. His passion, essentially abandoned after his death, fell into disrepair.
Then, much like the happy fate of the Saadian Tombs, the garden was "discovered" by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Bergé. Enchanted with it, they bought the garden in 1980 and saved it from being razed and the land used for a hotel complex. The new owners undertook the restoration of the garden, respecting the vision of Jacques Majorelle.
In 2008, Bergé donated the garden to a Parisian foundation after the death of Yves. At two and a half acres now, new plant species have been added since 1999, increasing the total number from 135 to 300, and a team of 20 gardeners works to maintain the garden, its ponds and fountains.
The proprietor of our guest house suggested we couldn't walk to all the primary tourist sights, most of which ring or are inside the medina, as they are too far apart and we should take a guided taxi tour. As guided tours are just not our thing, we ignored the advice, but if you're trying to see the city in one day, she absolutely has a point, but if you have a few days (as we did) to delve into the city, I think you will find your feet can cover a lot of ground, particularly if you have Google Maps to help you navigate expediently. We didn't hit everything I've seen on "best of" and "top 10 lists" for the city, but the tombs and the garden were two things that I set out with intent to see; we did them both in one morning and I recommend them to other visitors!
My time in Armila was made possible by the La Wayaka Current residency program.
During our stay in Armila, we took an overnight trip to Anachakuna, another Guna village on the mainland. They are on the cusp of welcoming tourism to the village, but as of now, do not have experience in visitor accommodations. So we stayed in the very large house of the village headman. The house has a huge kitchen and a chef who cooked us a most excellent dinner. It was nice of them to accommodate us, and for me, I managed OK in this house because of my pretty extensive experience staying in remote, and shall we say "rustic," places. But probably the average tourist won't be thrilled with the crude plumbing (single outhouse toilet that didn't actually flush), unlaundered bedding and such. In relation to the non-flushing toilet, we asked our host where the toilet paper was for the loo. This caught him off guard, apparently not something they normally use. He quickly summoned a young man and sent him off with some money to go buy some for us. This made me laugh.
The lack of a shower, though, gave us the opportunity to see and experience how the locals bathe -- in the river (really more of a stream). Basically, you want to be the guy the furthest upstream above everybody else, haha, so you don't get their soap or dirty water. I actually appreciated this opportunity.
Just like Armila, Anachakuna is laid out against the ocean so that the villagers have the ocean bounty in front of them and the jungle bounty behind them.
It is a very neat and tidy village, and planned out along a grid. So whereas Armila is kind of a random meandering of paths, Anachakuna has straight paths like a modern town would. In the background of the photo above, you see a round thatched roof right next to the water. This is a village bar. Whereas Armila decided to limit alcohol sales in its village to only the weekends, Anachakuna decided to allow sales every day, but only between 9:00 p.m. and I think it was midnight, or maybe 11:00 p.m. And unlike Armila that had a couple places that sold only one brand of beer and that's it for alcohol selection, this bar had many kinds of beer including my favorite. (um ... leaving space here for when I remember what it was called, haha.) In fact I bought a few extra and took them with me back to Armila. It looked like it could be a lively place, with a big open floor which could be used for dancing or whatever.
Here are a few photos from the "streets" of Anachakuna. Although it has a very different feel from Armila, it still has the same Guna style ... if that makes sense. I think you can even discern that from comparing photographs of the two villages. But here is Anachakuna:
And of course I had to take a picture of the kitten! But it was a funny exchange asking the family to whom it belonged if I could take its picture. Cat in Kuna language is "misi." So when I held up my phone camera and asked to take a picture, I wanted to make sure they understood I wanted it of the cat, not of them. So I kept saying, "misi?" "Misi?" It took them awhile to understand my request, and when they did, they had a hearty laugh. What weirdo wants a picture of a kitten?
And on the other end of the cute scale, is this crazy huge bug hanging out in the dining area of our accommodations.
One of the best things I witnessed in this whole trip was a little scene in the dining/common area of the headman's house, where we were staying. I think it's just because it was so removed from my world and at first appeared so random. We were sitting quietly at a table, I think probably drinking some water or something, and across the room several Guna women were gathered around the headman. He had what appeared to be a ledger in his hands and they were all calmly discussing something in the Kuna language. The women in their beautiful molas and legs and arms full of winis up to their knees and elbows, some of them wearing headscarves. I was thinking what a pleasant scene it was to witness, something nobody back home of my acquaintances could imagine, when suddenly -- and I mean very suddenly, at the drop of a hat -- the women all jumped up out of their seats and sprinted out of the house, clearly very excited about something. It left us all a little stunned. Whatever could have happened?
They returned awhile later and we learned that the politician who had won the recent election in their district came to the village by boat to say hello and thank his constituents. I've never seen people more involved in politics than the Guna. They take their elections very seriously and apparently are ecstatic when their man wins. I've also never seen a group of people vacate their seats with such alacrity. Truly impressive.
The other seemingly random sight, and very unexpected and anachronistic in this traditional village of wooden canoes and bamboo, thatch-roofed huts, are these rusting remains of machinery. In the 1940s there was a large banana business based here, even with a train running through the jungle, to service this banana trade. We visited a place upriver from Armila where there used to be a large cement office building beside the railroad tracks. The jungle has digested pretty much every trace of the building, and it was rather shocking to learn it had been there.
Then we took a jaunt to some Edenic hideaways ... beautiful sand beaches, clear blue water, lots of shells to collect. A cold drink made it perfect as we just sat in the water like castaways. (and notice my wini on my wrist!)
Interesting interior of a seashell:
That beach above was an island, whereas this beach was further down the mainland from Armila. The sky was stormy and eventually it rained on us. In weather as warm as it was, being rained on in the water was perfectly delightful. This beach had some interesting tidal plants and driftwood.
We traveled (by boat) down the coast from Armila to a small tourist town, La Miel, pretty much on the border with Colombia. An unexpected sight was a large boxy building that was a duty-free shop. It sold a lot of beach-oriented items, clothes, lotions, toys, etc. and of interest to some of our crew: wine! I personally didn't buy some, but others generously shared their loot with me back at our hut in Armila. This was also our first contact with other beers besides the one in Armila. So, I pretty much had to try them all. Cold drink in hot weather, perfect ocean temperature and gently undulating water to float on your back in ... really hard to beat. Even motivated me to a few selfies.
So we climbed up a huge number of stairs to the border at the top of a hill and back down the hill into the Colombian tourist town of Sapzurro.
On the coast of a lovely bay, there were many bars and stores and hostels. A far different atmosphere from the Guna Yala villages just a short distance away on the other side of the hill. The very best thing I purchased in this town was a super cold bottle of water. Super cold is not something you get in Armila. It was absolutely delightfully divine.
And so this wraps up the summary of my time in my 3-week artist residency in Armila. See the archive to learn all about Armila. I enjoyed these daytrips to see more of what surrounds Armila, and it helps confirm the reality of this slice of the planet, its serene beauty and bounty blessings in ocean and jungle: a special place indeed.
My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
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Witnessing the leatherback turtles dig their nests and lay their eggs was a far more profound experience than I ever would have guessed. Especially touching them as their ancient bodies move to perpetuate their species. A species which sadly, like so many other majestic creatures on earth, is endangered. Their numbers are a fraction of what they once were a few decades ago.
They're called leatherback because unlike other sea turtles who have a shell over the soft part of their body, their covering is a hard rubbery material with ridges along it. It's by far the largest turtle -- they can reach a weight of 1,200 pounds and a length, from extended flippers front to back, of nine feet.
Nacho said it was okay to gently touch the turtles while they were digging. The turtle did not feel like what I expected ... with its slick rubbery back, and hard rubbery flippers giving way to extraordinarily soft skin at the top of their flippers where they connect to the head and back -- essentially the leg joints. The hard rubbery "shell" and skin fuse together seamlessly, it’s not like, say, a crab with a discreetly different fleshy body and hard shell that can be separated from it. They’re fused together, I found it fascinating to feel this fusion. But I think that super soft skin was the most unexpected. In the photo below, it's the really wrinkled parts of the skin.
The sound of their breathing was like nothing I've ever heard, almost like a fake animal sound they come up with in the movies for dinosaurs or alien creatures. It's almost unearthly, but in fact it's because it’s SO earthly, so ancient, that it's so emotionally powerful. They tended to drool, opening their beaked mouths each time they exhaled that ancient breath. A primeval giant eye looked out in a strange, struggling impassivity, the eyelid closing over it occasionally, which closes side-to-side like draperies. Great gooey globs rolled down their face from their eyes. Their tears were like little globes -- little bubbles and little worlds reflecting the sky and water. Popular legend says they cry because they are sad to leave their babies behind on land.
Although it's delightfully poetic, the turtles aren’t actually sad, they're not crying. Their bodies are simply shedding excess salt ... because sea turtles live in salty ocean water their entire lives, therefore drinking salt water, they have evolved a salt gland, which empties into the sea turtle's eyes and is excreted in these goopy tears. They have the added benefit of protecting the nesting mother's eyes from sand on the beach, and keeping her eyes moist during her time on land.
The back flippers are the ones that dig the nesting hole, which can be remarkably deep. They swivel from side to side, as if from a central hinge in the middle. I kept my hand on one for a long time while it was digging one night, feeling the movement of her body, rocking back and forth, so powerful, so driven by instinct and intuition.
After they drop in the fertilized eggs with the babies growing inside, I was told they deposit four or five other ones on top that can serve as food for the babies as they hatch. Just as mothers usually come ashore at night to bury their children, the kids pop to the surface at night to race down into the ocean as fast as they can before an array of predators can snatch them. I was told that if the first turtle pokes his head out of the sand and sees that it's daylight, he hunkers back down in the sand, signaling to his siblings that they must wait for awhile yet.
After they lay their eggs and cover them back up, the mother turtles spin a 360 in the sand (a slow spin, of course) before heading back down into the ocean. Nacho said they make this jumble of tracks to confuse predators. One time, we watched one turn her finishing circle and then start her way to the sea, but she kept pulling herself sideways along the beach (parallel to the ocean) and we kept moving back to make room for her and she kept coming toward us instead of toward the sea. It was totally like she was chasing us ... a surreal slow-speed chase.
After they’re born, for the female turtles who successfully mature (a tiny fraction of the hatchlings), they can circumnavigate the globe before returning to their birthing ground to lay the next generation. One leatherback turtle was tagged and tracked by satellite for 647 days before the signal was lost. In that time, she covered 12,774 miles swimming through the ocean! Leatherbacks have been sighted as far north as Alaska and the North Sea and as far south as Chile and New Zealand, but the females come to the warm tropical waters to beach and lay their eggs. The males never leave the ocean in their whole life.
Well, I could go on about their anatomy and biology, but those are the things I found most fascinating. This turtle's face had something wrong with it, but I didn't know what -- a disease or an injury? I asked a nice man at Conserve Turtles about it and he said the damaged areas are scar tissue, and likely they are the result of the turtle being attacked by a shark. He said that's not uncommon. Yikes! Poor thing. One of her nostrils is closed over in scar tissue. But clearly she's still healthy enough to breed and reproduce. Sweet trooper!
One of the most magical nights, which started at a campfire on the beach and ended with singing in the rain, was watching a leatherback just down the beach from our fire lay her eggs, cover them up and go back into the ocean. That's the one I held my hand on for a long time, feeling her work and breathe. The scene was this: standing under the stars and a half moon; the moon reflecting on the wet sand each time the waves recede from the shore, and on the water each time they come in -- the beach curves like a C, the moonlight reflection was a straight line across it -- the sound of waves continually pounding the shore, coming in one after another, while she lumbers toward the water, slips in under the waves and disappears.
So ... moving along. Armila applied to UNESCO for World Heritage status for its importance as a leatherback nesting site. We were told it would be granted in December of 2019. The villagers have recognized the importance and the sacredness of the turtles for as long as they have lived there. In their folklore, there was a human couple in a small community on a beautiful beach, and one day the woman said she wanted to go swimming. So the man waited for her below a palm tree and he fell asleep. When he woke up, she was not around any more. He looked for her on the beach, in her house, or maybe she was in a secret place, he tried to find a secret place. By night time, he was really worried. Then he slept and had a dream. He saw her in the dream and she said to him, “Please don’t follow me, I’m living in the sea. The turtles came for me, and I’m living with them in the ocean." The Guna people therefore think that turtles are sisters of humans. Unlike a lot of cultures, Guna don’t eat turtles or turtle eggs, even though they could have a feast on them if they wanted. But they feel the sea turtles are some part of us who separated from us and went to live in the sea.
Armila recently began having a festival each year to celebrate the leatherback turtle and to impress upon the school children the importance of conserving their habitat and protecting them.
It was a sweet festival but so small, I hope they figure out how to attract more visitors from the surrounding villages for the important cause. Mostly it was just the villagers, but there were some Colombian artisans (and I bought something from each of them, haha) and some journalists. Maybe the journalists can give it more exposure. It was two days. One of them was a Saturday, so Chris and I tried to buy some beer from the oldest man but he wouldn't sell it, even though we kept saying, "Sabado!" Turns out the village made a rule this year of no alcohol at the festival after last year people got really drunk and out of hand.
The first festival morning, we in the residency were asked to dress in the traditional clothes, the village women donated molas and skirts for us to wear. Then we took part in the parade that started at one of the schools, where the children lined up in their classes, with little banners to carry in front of their class.
The parade was led by teenagers playing traditional instruments and dancing a traditional dance. See footage of the parade HERE.
It ended at another school where the village volleyball court is. (Volleyball is extremely popular.) The dancing continued for awhile, then Nacho and the school principle gave some speeches.
Each of the classes had made a mural about turtles (tortuga in Spanish) and Yoon, Chris and I were tasked with being the judges.
We each selected one to be our personal winner. Yoon selected the one made with bottle caps, below, clearly having an affinity for this project after she and Chung (working together as "Chulma") made a flag out of bottle caps collected from the beach trash, and also a stop-motion film. It's super cool, watch it (about 30 seconds) HERE.
I chose the one below as my winner. I liked the message ("the ocean is our future") because it encompassed the broader issue around the tortuga's survival, and I thought it was very artistic, too -- I liked the bright colors, and you can't really tell in the pic, but the animals are all 3-D.
The next morning was designed for children's activities, and it was seriously one of cutest things I've been a part of. Some of the artists (the *real* artists) helped kids with painting projects. This is a mural that Chris painted that included scenes of the village and portraits of all the residency participants. The kids had a fun time going up and recognizing each of us and pointing each of us out.
On the other side of the canvas was this turtle design that happened to match the blue and white paint of the school. Chris Holley is a talented painter and an elegant dancer specializing in tango!
Then some of the artists had gathered materials from the forest to make turtle costumes for the kids. This was totally awesome and the kids were way into it.
This sweet girl was having a hard time keeping her costume on and was too shy to ask someone for help, but I could tell she really wanted to be a turtle, so I knelt down to her and attached her leaf "shell" and wooden flippers.
Then they all marched down to the beach with their costumes on.
There they broke into several groups and had a sand "castle" building contest, but they were to build a sand turtle instead.
The most hilarious part was the bubble blowing. Other artists -- you notice everyone else did all the work, I just took pictures! -- made buckets of bubble water with dish soap and fashioned bubble wands out of sticks and pipe cleaners. I would never have thought of this, the other people were so creative! Clearly the kids had never done this before, it took a little practice before they got the hang of it.
Some blew the bubbles, some chased them!
This kid was completely enraptured with the bubbles. The adults also played other games with them and he was just as enthralled at everything going on.
I tried for ages to get a focused pic of the little kid popping up in back, almost like a little photobomber. He was so cute but always, always moving. Before the end of the day, though, I finally captured his wonder-filled eyes in a brief moment of stillness.
This was the only day in the whole residency time that I could freely take photos of the people with abandon. Journalists were there doing it, too, it was expected. So no awkward asking if it's OK, or waiting for the Monster Hour to begin. (as explained in The Village post) It was definitely my favorite period of time, getting to use my 70-200mm lens for what it was intended rather than for insects, as I had been trying to capture from four feet away in the jungle! So here are some shots that I like of the children playing that morning on the beach.
These two kids, I presume they are brother and sister but I don't know that, completely captured my heart ... walking hand-in-hand, the boy always looking out for the girl and hugging her, playing with her. She clearly felt safe and loved.
While we're on the beach, these pics are from another day, but I had fun with these kids. There is this black clay-like substance on the ground under the water right where the ocean and river outlet meet. The kids dive down and grab handfuls and smear it all over themselves, and of course I tried it, too, with them, making designs on my legs. Interestingly, I did not wash the mud off for many hours, not until evening, and even though the muddy substance was washed off, the dark colored design actually stayed on my legs for another day before fading away!
And as a little coda, sort of in the vein of festivals ... another celebration we took part in was Nachito's birthday. Our host and cultural liaison, Nacho, is nicknamed Nacho for his real name Ignacio. So going off of his nickname, his grandson is nicknamed Nachito (although in my mind I kind of picture it as Nacheetoh, haha). Nachito was two years old when we arrived, and he turned three at his big birthday party. He added so much entertainment to our time eating meals at Nacho's house, where he lived.
He was absolutely adorable but prone to temper tantrums, and since I wasn't his mom or step-sister who usually had to deal with him, his tantrums were adorable, too. One afternoon he wanted desperately to go with his dad as his dad went off to do some work somewhere. Dad had already walked away, but Nachito kept running down the yard trying to catch up, his step-sister had to drag him back to the house over and over and finally locked him in the bathroom (the outer-most room of the house). But that ratcheted the meltdown to Level 10. Finally his grandpa was able to calm him down.
Another night he did not want to take a shower before bed and was throwing a tantrum over it. Cried and screamed and fussed, and finally his mom strong-armed him into the bathroom and into the shower. Things quieted down in there for a few minutes and then he came out naked and squeaky clean, still dripping with water. Good job, Nachtio, you're nice and clean! Then he promptly laid down in the dirt and rolled around. So ... he was an adorable little mud sausage.
All was good at the party until his mom tried to coax him to blow out the candle on his cake and he was apparently scared to, was on the verge of a meltdown, then another girl came to the rescue and blew it out.
My brother said my nephew changed like a light bulb on his second birthday into the infamous "terrible twos." Nachito changed like a light bulb out of the terrible twos on his third birthday. All of a sudden the next day, he was interested in coloring books and pretending he was learning like he was in school with his step-sister. I never saw him cry again.
Fittingly, it was during the turtle festival weekend that this nesting shark survivor came ashore. I don't know if the kids always take this much interest in the turtles, as they are commonplace to them; my guess is they gathered around because we did.
I like this shot because it looks like the turtle is flying.
Click HERE to see a video of this turtle digging.
This was the single time when I was trying to take a photo withOUT kids, and so of course they all wanted to photobomb! Even loyal Buddy came with us to watch the turtle.
Perhaps taking their cues from our excitement, the kids escorted the leatherback mother back into the ocean and cheered her on, just as I was doing. You get a good sense of scale here, how mammoth this amazing creature is next to a line of kids. I thought it was a really neat moment as the indigenous children ushered the ancient turtle back to her home -- not a scene I am likely to see again.
At this point in my traveling "career," I've spent time, not just tourist time but real time, with a number of rural, traditional and indigenous cultures and tribes around the world, and I have so many thoughts about the similarities and differences and what makes for those, ideas about why there are parallels and why there are intersections. The degree of the Guna's traditional resistance to outsiders is unique to my experience. Only a couple decades ago the Guna were considering isolating themselves completely -- no foreigners in and no Guna out. Although they are a part of Panama, they are their own sovereign entity and could enforce this segregation. They eventually decided that was too drastic, but they have kept the rest of the world at the far end of a long stick until only very recently. Now it seems clear to all of us in the residency that they’ve opened themselves up too much to foreigners … this revelation cementing after a big group of tourists landed on the beach one night and stumbled around the village for an hour the next day before leaving. The whole village had a completely different vibe.
Because of the recent increase in interaction with outsiders, Armila's cultural integrity is already starting to degrade. Some of the villagers see this and are saddened, some see it and are indifferent, some don't see it. I could see a few of the older children already becoming jaded and disrespectful, losing their personal integrity, as well -- instead of friendly and welcoming, they were yelling at the foreigners and mocking them. It's a tough situation because tourism is such an easy way for the villages to generate revenue, one can hardly blame them. But the upshot is that the villagers come to see visitors not as people, but merely as dollar signs, and this is when cultural dialogue and interpersonal communication breaks down, people separate into camps of "us" and "them," the village people and the foreign money.
I look at the spirit animal of the Guna of Armila -- the leatherback turtle -- and can't help but see it as an analogy: their efforts to keep outsiders at bay until now is like a turtle shell over their land, their indigenous identity and history. Their strong culture protected their weaknesses and vulnerabilities under its shell. As the sea turtle becomes threatened and endangered, so does the Guna culture. I'm blessed and grateful to have witnessed it, and I want to share what I saw with others, but I'd feel a secret happiness if I, and all foreigners, were never allowed back.
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Well, dear readers, we have arrived at my last post from East Africa. I am sad to have this series come to an end, as I've so enjoyed going back through all my photos to select some to share with you. Safari is just such a special thing! So I'll wrap up our two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania with a collection of other animals and landscapes from Ndutu and the Masai Mara. So far, I've shown you only the cheetahs and lions from these two parks. So with whom shall I begin this last post?
Well ... how about with the other big cat! The mighty and often elusive leopard. I was absolutely thrilled with our leopard sightings! Our first leopard was the tree climber in Tarangire. And all of our other sightings came from the Masai Mara in Kenya.
As always, our wonderful drivers got us in prime position when the leopards were moving. Look at those long, luscious whiskers!
Leopards seem to me the most wild, the most intense, of the big cat predators. My first encounter with a leopardess was in Botswana, and it was downright sublime. Although they are gorgeous to see in motion, I think it's when they're silently hidden that they seem the most dangerous and thrilling ... for they are power, but power at rest, and this is in a way more fearful, more tense than power in motion.
So how did we get to and from the Mara? In a tiny little airplane! It was a short ride from the Tanzania border into the Mara, and about 45 minutes from there back to Nairobi to fly home.
Giraffes beside the air strip.
While we were in the Mara, we stayed at Elly's delightful bush camp, Kaboso. Here is where we got our full audio experience with the leopards! A pair was mating in the woods right where our tents were. This big cat courtship is apparently a little less amicable than the typical human one. Maybe the guy should have brought the girl some red roses and chocolates or something. We couldn't see them in the dark, but the noises they were making were so loud, it sounded as if they were close enough to touch if I unzipped the tent. The first night I didn't know what it was. I only knew that it wasn't a lion or a zebra or a hyena, or a dog, cheetah or hippo ... those noises I know. And I knew I did not want to step outside to see, haha. Growling, snarling, crazy vicious sounding noises from those love birds!
They were so low-key and chill during the day.
Here's one crossing a river with hippos in the background.
And hippos soaking in a leafy pond.
The topi is an antelope species I had not seen before. I like the black markings inside their ears, almost makes their ears look like leaves.
Funny thing about topis is how they sleep. They literally just let their head drop forward and rest their nose on the ground. You can see one in the background here. Foreground is a kori bustard in mating mode. I've seen these birds many times in southern Africa, but never with its neck puffed out like this. At first I wasn't sure it was the same bird.
More of the secretary bird, which we also saw in the Ngorongoro Crater ... their funny little stilted legs beneath their rounded body, it's almost like they're wearing a little summer dress. Kind of a feminine looking bird, don't you think? Especially in the second pic.
A species of heron.
A stork. I've said it before, I'll say it again, Africa will turn you into a birder. At least while you're in Africa! Everywhere you look is another stunning bird.
We found this hyena munching on a gazelle horn like a dog would a bone. Hyenas just crunch up and eat bones like kibble, it's unusual to see them gnawing on horns.
One thing I regrettably did not get a photo of that I thought was so hilarious, was the hyenas lying in the mud pools in the tire tracks across the Mara plains. It was raining quite a bit and some of the track ruts had filled up quite deep with water. So we're driving along and see just a hyena head sticking up out of the middle of the road. A tad surreal! They took their time to stand up, coated in mud, and lope away from their day spa to the side of the road so we could pass. We saw this numerous times, hyena heads in the middle of the tracks, then up they pop like a jack-in-the-box. Here's one who's running away from his mud bath.
So here's a good safari pic of me ... lovely lioness on the mound in the background. Who could not be pleased as pie being there with these gorgeous animals!
We had such a delightful time at Elly's camp, it was just me and my mom there. The staff was so friendly and attentive. The bed was super comfortable, we breakfasted and lunched outside in a private natural courtyard made by the trees, with a view directly out to the savanna, where giraffes and elephants and antelopes walk by. When we left, Elly had mom and me each plant an African green heart tree sapling in the grove; he has all of his guests do this. We had many, many laughs with him and his staff, but I won't spoil the surprises you may get if you stay there. And if you do go, take me along!!
When we were there, it was still a mobile camp that was erected seasonally. Elly just got certification to be a permanent camp, and so the floors are now hard wood instead of tent canvas. To be honest, I liked the canvas, it was more of a camping feel. But the permanent floors are surely an upgrade for most guests.
Although meals outside at the camp were marvelous, our last morning in the Mara, and indeed on safari, we left camp super early and Elly said we'd be taking a box breakfast with us (which we often did). About breakfast time, we're driving along, looking for a place to picnic and we came up to this lone tree where I could see a fancy table all set up and a guy with a huge propane tank cooking breakfast. I thought to myself, "Geeze, those people must be on the ultra-luxury safari, lugging a propane tank around with them to cook. Seems a little overboard." Then Elly turned the vehicle to park behind theirs. I thought he must be friends with the guide or something and was going to have a word with him, as the guides often chat with one another. It took me a minute to catch on that the cook was OUR cook from camp and the other men were the staff from OUR camp, and that WE were the recipients of the hoity-toity breakfast! haha. Omelettes, pancakes, bacon, fruit, juice, all under a blue savanna sky. It was divine.
To me, the most awesome thing about Kaboso camp was its seclusion in the middle of the bush and the fact we had it all to ourselves, so it trumped all the other places in that regard. But everywhere we stayed was really nice. One of the best things about the bush camps is the happy-hour fire pits, with drinks always included in the price of the stay. Received a lovely sunset at Lamala in Ndutu.
The most posh place we stayed was at Ndutu, Lake Masek Tented Lodge. We had our own tent with a sitting room, 3-bed bedroom, spacious outdoor shower with plumbing (not a bucket shower), electrical outlets, and a lovely deck to eat on. There's also a nice little gift shop of Masai crafts, I bought a few souvenirs there.
Kubukubu camp in the Serengeti we stayed at only one night as we trekked from Ndutu to the border to fly to the Mara. But the balcony had a lovely view over the plains.
We didn't see as much wildlife in this area but the landscape in both the Tanzania Serengeti and the Mara was stunning, especially as storm clouds rolled in and out each day. It's starting to rain on the cheetah.
A picnic lunch.
A storm moves in. And then Hamisi is driving through buckets of rain!
This is a little bit of a random round-up, photos that didn't fit into the themed posts from Ndutu and the Mara. So let's randomly go back to Ndutu for a few more shots.
On the drive between Ngorongoro Crater and Ndutu, which seemed to me pretty much randomly overland, but clearly the guides knew where they were going, we ran across a bunch of Eurasian rollers, so very pretty.
As we drove, I called it the wildebeest horizon. Just a solid line of them on the horizon. Here we got closer, and a lone hyena thought he'd try chasing one down.
A couple more zebra shots from Ndutu. Are baby zebras not ultra adorable? I relayed a bit of a sad tale of one in my Tuesday Tale, "Little Lost Zebra."
OK, I already showed you a ton of pics of these itty bitty lion cubs in Ndutu, but here are a few more. It was just one of the funnest things ever, watching these kiddos. It's a tongue greeting in the first pic!
It's a touristy thing to do, but I recommend it as a way to get a crash course on the Masai culture who lives in most of these safari areas. You see them everywhere herding their cows, wearing their brightly colored fabrics and oodles of beaded jewelry. But how do they live? What are their camps like? There are many villages who will welcome tourists and tell them these things. Yes, it costs money and you'll be encouraged to also buy some of their souvenir products, but the money helps them live in their villages with a dignified traditional life in a country where poverty is endemic and many live in cities in deplorable conditions. I bought a couple bracelets and I learned a lot. In spite of them hosting who-knows-how-many tourists regularly, these people were warm and friendly to us.
Mom thought about staying and going native. But in the end, I persuaded her to continue on safari with me. (Good thing, or she wouldn't have seen the baby cheetah!)
While the adults were singing a welcome song for us, this tiny dancer was getting her groove on. The Masai singing is fascinating. We got a lot of it at Kaboso camp. They don't use any instruments at all, only their voices. But when they sing as a group, some people make deep noises that sound like a bass instrument, and the harmony is so rich, it sounds like there is more than just human voices involved. I found it mesmerizing.
Natural earlobe earrings!
Perhaps the most interesting thing to me was to see inside one of the huts made of sticks and thatch. From the outside, I imagined it was just a one-room hut ... this is how the Himba huts were in Namibia, just one big open space. But no, they are divided into several sections. It's basically just a mini-house with a very low ceiling. An entry space, a cooking and eating space, and bedroom spaces.
The Masai are the consummate herdsmen: their diet comes nearly solely from the cow -- they drink the milk and the blood, and eat the meat. You may have seen on TV shows, like National Geographic, how they prick the cow's neck in just the right spot and collect some of the blood. Children begin the life of a shepherd, watching cows all by themselves, from the age of eight. Unlike the nomads we stayed with in Iran who bring their sheep back to their camp each night, if a Masai has journeyed too far from home to get back, or is on his way to market, he just lays down and sleeps wherever he is with his cows. These days, a family will usually select one child from their brood to send to school to get an education and the rest will be herders and live in the traditional village. So the man who showed us around the village was the only one who spoke English, and his family had chosen him to be the student.
Goodbye to our friend and excellent Tanzania driver, Hamisi.
The last thing we did before flying home was visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. This had been on my list of places to see for a long time. So I was thrilled to finally make it. This is a fantastic organization rescuing orphaned elephants out in the field and rehabilitating them for release back into the wild. Elly used to be one of the keepers here and had some fun tales to tell of his time as an elephant caretaker. Tourists can come in for just a few hours out of the day to watch when the keepers feed the babies their milk bottles in the morning. Then the elephants are taken back out of the tourist eye into large fenced-in areas. They are separated into two different groups by age, the really young ones and the older ones. Elly also "adopted" an elephant each for me and my mom ... it's really fun, you get updates each month from the keepers' dairies and get to hear about what your elephant is doing. Mine is an ornery little trouble-maker with lots of personality who is fiercely protective of one of the younger elephants in the group. "Adoption" is of course just a pledge of monetary support, and I will certainly keep up a yearly contribution. More elephants than ever are in need of this orphanage.
And there it is, below: our vessel of good times and unforgettable moments. I want to say one last word about Endless Safaris ... I've mentioned over and over in my East Africa posts how good the guides/drivers were, and everything about the trip as a client was impeccable by my standards. But what I appreciate equally is that this is not a company based overseas with offices in some other country. This is Elly's gig, he grew up poor and worked his way up to an education, to being accepted as a volunteer at the Sheldrick Orphanage, to guiding, to finally starting his own business. He helps a lot of his guides not only by simply hiring them as independent contractors, but by helping them buy their own vehicles that they can use to guide for anybody ... so investing in people, not just paying wages. Now he arranges tours for clients in several other African countries, as well as Kenya and Tanzania. There are a million guides out there, it seems, and I was overwhelmed trying to decide on which one to entrust this experience with ... and I couldn't be more happy with my decision.
OK dear readers, hope you've enjoyed your time with me on virtual safari! For some reason, I'm hearing the Loony Tunes song that comes at the end of the cartoons ... "and that's all, folks!" But hopefully it's not really "all," hopefully one day I'll be back on the savanna.