Travels

20 Things in 2016

The year is 2017. Which means, time for another 20 Things roundup (2015, 2014, 2013

)! So here we are, 20 things that happened in 2016.

  1. Spent several days in New Orleans with my sister, eating delicious food, taking solo trips to parks and ran into several improv goons along the way. Made an appearance at Jazz Fest and saw Elvis Costello and Flo Rida which was the hilarious cherry on top.
  2. Took a life-changing backpacking trip to Africa and spent two weeks traveling with Kgosi.
  3. During said trip, I spent a day backpacking the city of London.
  4. THE CUBS WON THE WORLD SERIES! All the celebrations took place right in my backyard.
  5. Choose Chicago graciously asked me to take over their Instagram account again for the week in a series titled “Taking Over Choose Chicago.”
  6. I read. And read. And read, conquering 20 books. Follow along on GoodReads!
  7. Became an adult who can cook from memory and has a repertoire of recipes ready to go.
  8. Took tango lessons in the park.
  9. Spent time relaxing and enjoying time with family on Washington Island.
  10. This year I got to meet three new incredible nuggets into my life, Layla Violet, Henderson Michael and Gemma August.
  11. Got back in touch with my musical side. It’s a work in progress.
  12. After five incredible roller coaster years together, Shoshanna Left Eye Bluth, my beloved hedgehog, passed away.
  13. My brother and I took this guy to his first concert, which of course was 311.
  14. I fell in love again with alternate transportation. Big Red and I went north to the beach, east to the harbor, west to my brother’s, south to the theater and everywhere in between.
  15. Spent much needed time on the water in my kayak, Boat.
  16. Went to Shreveport, Louisiana and visited Chimp Haven, a sanctuary for more than 200 chimpanzees and was introduced to the local grub.
  17. Learned how to brew beer with DryHop Brewers, downloaded Untappd and tried 134 distinct beers. Oops.
  18. Fostered a puppy who later was adopted and found his forever home. And borrowed Alex’s foster pup for an evening.
  19. Had some career “wins” with moderating a presser for an international conference alongside Jane Goodall (capturing this moment in the process) and announcing a capital campaign, polar bear exhibit and African penguin exhibit.
  20. Had the absolute honor and privilege to be a “bridesman,” yeah, you heard that right, in my two college best friends’ wedding.

Here’s to an even more rewarding 2017. Cheers!

When Hyenas Attack

So far, our African adventures have been pretty mild, so we’re about to kick it up a notch. Who doesn’t love a few near-death experience stories?

For three days, Kgosi/Corey and I we’re taking a 4×4 truck (rented by the company him and some Peace Corps buddies met “on set” with National Geographic Wild, which makes perfect sense…) across Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park ending at the border of Botswana. The truck came packed with essentially everything you could ever need (fridge, drawers, tools, water, etc.) and had a pop-up tent attached to the top for quick and easy set-up, resulting in this:

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Day one we learned some valuable lessons. Namely, that there aren’t any real roads in the parks, mostly sand, dirt or rock piles that resemble pathways, and that these “road” conditions will result in a dozen broken eggs, an explosion of beer and puncturing of juice cartons despite being stored away and strapped down.

We also learn what is like to get stuck in said sand. Turns out it’s not easy to get an ever-sinking truck out of sand and that’s coming from a girl who has survived the polar vortex and digging her car out from an icy blizzard. This thing was not going anywhere despite searching the bush for branches for some traction (which is frowned upon due to the wildlife lurking around) and digging the wheels out with a shovel. Eventually, as we’ve run out of profanity and faith, two trucks drive by and end up helping us. They let some air out of our tires, furiously dig at the sand and casually tell us about their various treks around the world (last time via motorcycle, this time via 4×4 – what a life). We are saved from what would have been a very long night stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere.

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Our heroes.

Driving around we see what seems to be an infinite amount of wildlife including elephants, giraffe, several species of antelope, zebra, cape buffalo, birds, wildebeest and my favorite, a giant eagle owl which looks like it’s wearing eye shadow (full list of creatures spotted, here).  

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As we’re driving, we come across some cape buffalo and continue winding down the path until we realize we are surrounded by a giant herd. Not our first run-in and still not a welcome encounter. We realize there are a few females with young and one is really giving us the stink-eye. After some careful maneuvering we eventually made it out unscathed, the second escape of the day.

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Notice the angry buffalo on the left. 

Sunset is quickly approaching and we have to be in camp at Third Bridge before dark. After a long day, we build a fire which is quite difficult to do without the giant logs that us Midwesterners are used to. After some work, we build a fire, cut up all of our vegetables, cook up some meat and make a mean stir fry. By the time we’ve pitched the tent and cooked dinner, it’s pitch black.

Luckily, we had the foresight to bring headlamps. So, we’re sitting at the fire with full bellies and tired bodies when all of a sudden we hear a branch snap close by.

Me: “Holy [expletive]. That’s big.”

[Both of us look around with our red headlamps and see these HUGE beady red eyes staring back at us from across the fire. We quickly turn our headlamps to “spotlight” mode.]

Corey (in a harsh whisper): “THAT’S AN [EXPLETIVE] HYENA”

Me: “I KNOW it’s an [expletive] hyena.”

There we sit with zero protection mere yards away from a giant spotted hyena. Not a welcoming creature to see even in the middle of the day. This thing is HUGE. Ugly. Hunch-backed. And is coming closer and closer with every step – it’s now just across the fire pit.

Corey: Get outta here! Get! Go!

Me: That’s not working.

Corey: I KNOW IT’S NOT WORKING.

[Awkwardly sit in silence and wait for imminent death.]

Corey (starts clapping his hands): GET! GO! GET!

Apparently clapping works wonders in the bush. The hyena scampers off into the darkness and Corey and I both exclaim “That’s it!” We throw everything remotely flammable on the fire, making it as large as possible to thwart off any more creatures. We’re banging pots and pans with our heads on swivels, making sure we aren’t being stalked as we shove all of our belongings in the truck. Climbing up the ladder, we finally zip ourselves into the tent on the roof. We have outwitted death once again!

Not too long later, the hyena comes back with backup and we spend the night listening to hyenas laugh which is a menacing sound, especially when right outside your tent.

That night is filled with “Did you hear that?” “What’s that?” “Are you awake?” between the two of us. We hear baboons and monkeys roaming, hyenas laughing and lions roaring along with some other unidentifiable sounds. By 6 a.m. we’re packed up and hitting the road to go find a leopard. Spoiler alert: We will never find one.

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Some highlights from the other two days we didn’t die on our self-drive safari:

  • Two sets of two male lions.
  • World’s best indoor/outdoor shower (Khwai Guest House was my favorite accommodation the whole trip. Beautiful surroundings, incredibly kind and knowledgeable staff, life-changing showers, etc.)
  • Unsuccessfully searched for bushman cave paintings.
  • Huge hippo pool with 50+ hippos.
  • Large group of elephants in a watering hole interacting with a severely injured cape buffalo.
  • Almost having our car flip on the “road” to the exit of Chobe National Park.
  • Going airborne in our truck thanks to some unexpected bumps.
  • A terribly bumpy four hours of going 50-60 mph over the most terrible sand pits in order not to sink and get stuck and losing a side mirror from a rogue branch in the process.

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Amazingly, we survived that portion of the trip and ended at Senyati Safari Camp on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe where we met up with a Peace Corps volunteer, Caitlin, and her parents. Next up, Victoria Falls!

Some photo highlights:
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Source: my own & YouTube. 

Mammals, Reptiles & Birds, Oh My!

In the two weeks I spent in Africa, I saw thousands of animals and attempted to keep track of all the various species. Unsurprisingly, most animals we saw were antelope but the most species of animal we saw were birds. And, I’ve got to say, I am not a bird fan. Or, I should say, was not a bird fan. This trip completely changed my mindset on birds. Once scary flying dinosaur relatives that poop on you on purpose were now beautiful bee-eaters, nest builders and ecosystem controllers. Cheers to you, birds.

Below is a full list of species (and some extras) spotted over the two weeks and some highlights of my favorites:

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Birds: 

  • Pied kingfisher
  • African fish eagle
  • African jacana
  • Squacco heron
  • Little egret
  • Cattle egret
  • Grey heron
  • Goliath heron
  • Purple heron
  • Hadeda ibis (and nest)
  • Open-billed stork
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • African pygmy goose
  • Pin-tailed whydah
  • Blacksmith lapwing
  • White-browed robin chat
  • Red-billed quelea
  • White-breasted reed cormorant
  • African sacred ibis
  • Reed cormorant
  • Yellow-billed kite
  • Hamerkop (and nest)
  • Green-backed heron
  • Cape starling
  • Fire finch
  • African grey hornbill
  • Spurwing goose
  • Lilac-breasted roller (bottom left)
  • Swamp boubou
  • Meyer parrot
  • Oxpecker
  • Grey go-away-bird
  • Namaqua dove
  • Musket weaver
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Arrow-marked babbler
  • Southern-pied babbler
  • Malachite kingfisher (bottom right)
  • Ground hornbill
  • African red-eyed bulbul
  • African wood hoopoe
  • Kurrichane thrush
  • Giant kingfisher
  • White-crested helmet shrike
  • White-tailed shrike
  • Ostrich
  • Guinea fowl
  • Little bee eater
  • Marabou stork (a truly hideous species, top left)
  • Red-billed franklin
  • Yellow hornbill
  • Red hornbill
  • Blue waxbill
  • Crimson-breasted shrike
  • Swallow-tailed bee eater
  • African darter
  • Southern carmine bee eater (top right)
  • White-backed vulture
  • Giant eagle owl
  • Western great egret
  • Bat hawk
  • White-quilled bustard
  • Southern white-crowned shrike
  • Greater blue-eared starlingmammal-collage

Mammals:

  • Elephant
  • Hippopotamus
  • Burchell’s zebra
  • African lion (black mane, top right)
  • Kudu (left image)
  • Red lechwe
  • Warthog
  • Cape buffalo
  • Tsessebe
  • Impala
  • Giraffe
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Spotted hyena (bottom right)
  • Slender mongoose
  • Vervet monkey (middle right) 
  • Bush squirrel
  • Steenbok
  • Waterbuck
  • Chacma baboon
  • Roan antelope
  • Banded mongoose
  • Duiker
  • Cattle
  • Donkey
  • Dogs
  • Cats

Reptiles:

  • Crocodile
  • Leopard gecko
  • Water snake
  • Unidentified gecko

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Tracks, scat, skeletons and more: 

  • Hyena tracks
  • Lion (with cubs) tracks (and scat)
  • Porcupine tracks
  • Ostrich tracks
  • Aardvark tracks and scat
  • Wildebeest tracks and scat
  • Serval tracks
  • Buffalo tracks and scat
  • Hippo tracks and scat
  • Wild dog tracks
  • Giraffe tracks and scat
  • Baboon skull (top right)
  • Kudu horns
  • Red lechwe skull (bottom right)
  • Elephant skeletons (top left)
  • Tortoise shell (bottom right)
  • Kudu skull

Source: Birds (here, here, here and here); Mammals (here, herehere and here

); miscellaneous (my own). 

Breaking All The Rules

After our mokoro trip through the Delta, it was time to hit the road to D’Kar, a san village about 3 hours away from Maun. The original game plan was going to be to take the bus. However, this isn’t a Megabus from Chicago to Madison, these are generally 15-30 seat vans packed to the brim with people who have an affinity for closing the windows instead of opening them. So while I was hesitant to try hitch-hiking for the first time in the smack dab middle of Africa, it was a better option than having my insides showing themselves on a stranger’s lap (have I mentioned my knack for motion sickness?). Once Corey learned about this fun affliction, we headed to the hitchhiking outpost and Corey stuck his arm out and flapped his hand up and down (no hitchhiking thumbs here!).

img_9929 After about 20 minutes of flailing, Corey nabbed us a car. Nearly 10 minutes in we hear this POP! which I know can’t be good. And, to make matters worse, it happened while we were trying to pass someone. We pull over and quickly learn we are down to 3 tires and we are getting nowhere fast. Luckily, the pickup truck we were attempting to pass pulled over. Within 30 seconds our bags were in the back of the pickup and we were back on the road but only going about halfway to where we needed to be.

After an uneventful (but very windy) hour and a half, we ended in Corey’s village of Sehithwa but only to stop at the hitchhiking post to get another ride. While there, the women at the post told us about their children and asked if we could take them back to America. We politely declined, but Corey informed me this is very common and he gets asked to take children home with him all the time in order to give them a life of more opportunity. He also gets heavily propositioned by the women there in hopes that he will propose and take them back to the states.

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Mid-conversation a Choppies (grocery store chain) semi-truck pulls over and offers us a ride for $3 – for the both of us together. We hop on in and spend the next hour or two conversing about bride price,

President Obama, life in Africa and working in the states. I would later learn that hitchhiking is okay by Peace Corps standards – with the exception of pickup and semi trucks. After a long, sweaty day we hop out and hike the rest of the way to Sarah’s, a Peace Corps volunteer we’ll be spending the next few days with.

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Corey and Sarah tell me all about D’Kar which draws many parallels to how the Native Americans were/are treated in America. The village of D’Kar is home to a nomadic people with shelters made essentially of sticks and straw with very few possessions to their name as traditionally, they would move from place to place (hence, nomadic). However, the government stepped in, minimized the land available to the san people and began providing a monthly stipend for the land seizure. This causes many problems as severe weather wreaks havoc on the village forcing the people to rebuild from scratch or when the villagers only speak their native tongue and cannot gain employment due to the language barrier (although, for the first time this language has been written down thanks to a 30-year initiative called the Naro Language Project) or due to the depression and lack of access, citizens use their monthly stipends on libations at the local watering hole.

The village as come a very long way and creates beautiful works of art for revenue through the Kuru Art Project which celebrates the people’s history and the gorgeous museum highlighting traditions and also shining light on their burdensome past, but the village still has a long way to go.

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We spend two nights at Dqae Qae San Lodge (there the proceeds go back to the local village) and one night at Sarah’s. Our days are filled with exploring the village of D’Kar and the city of Ghanzi, visiting all the local resorts on an impromptu “lodge crawl,” eating all of the game meat (kudu and eland for starters), inventing drinking games (“Bottle Craps” has now been trademarked) and soaking up each other’s company.

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Together we road trip back to Maun in Sarah’s boyfriend Dale’s rental car and spend the night at backpackers because in the morning, Corey and I head out for our 3-day self-drive safari.

Source: my own (top to bottom: Corey hitchhiking, our sweet ride, Kuru Art Project, culture/history museum, Dqae Qae San Lodge)

Run for Your Lives

As I alluded to briefly before, the first three days of our African journey were going to be spent on a mokoro (traditional canoe) trip through the Okavango Delta. We spent my first night in Maun, Botswana at The Old Bridge Backpackers (ate and drank to our heart’s content), then kicked the morning off with a magical outdoor shower (the first of many) and met up with our bush guide.

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The best and most hilarious part about Africa is that whatever you expect you can almost guarantee it will be the exact opposite. For example…

Expectation: A driver is going to pick us up and bring us to the mokoro site. We’ll canoe a far distance and over the next 3 days camp and canoe our way back.

Reality: We met a driver, then another car of people showed up, then another car of people, then the groceries didn’t fit so another car showed up. That car takes us and remembers we need beer so we stop at several bars along the way, find beer, ice and fat cakes (close to a doughnut), meet at a speed boat with more people we weren’t expecting. They load the boat up with all of our stuff and all of the people. We boat for about 45 minutes on a mini-boat safari and end up at a mokoro village. Eat lunch under a giant tree and learn that we have a chef traveling with us. Not what we expected when we asked for meals to be included, but a nice surprise. Mokoros show up – we think we’re getting one boat for us and our stuff. Nope, four boats. I repeat, four boats take us to the campsite with most of the humans and all of the things including tents, tables, coolers, hand washing stations, pots, pans, etc. We spend 2 nights at the same campsite and canoe and hike everywhere.

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Our guides and travel agents (a.k.a. locals who arranged our trip) were absolutely fantastic and fun to be around. Even the unenthusiastic one learned to deal with us and decipher our sarcasm. It is customary in Tswana culture for Motswana/Batswana (person/people from Botswana) to have a Setswana (language of Botswana) and English name. Therefore, “Jillian” wasn’t cutting it. Our guides lovingly named me “Naledi” (nah-lay-dee) which means “star.” I joked it’s because I am as white as a star, their laughter told me I was spot on.

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The three days we’re in the Delta are three days of Onks (our guide), Kgosi (Corey) and Naledi (that’s me!) on bush walks (hiking by foot) and canoeing. Onks is rip-roaring ready to go but Kgosi (meaning, “chief”) and I have a few questions mostly – are there rules? Things we should/shouldn’t do? No-nonsense Onks shares the following rules:

  1. Walk in a single file line.
  2. Be quite.
  3. Don’t run. And if I say run, run for your lives.
  4. Later, in the canoe, Onks will tell us “I thought of another rule. If a hippo flips our boat, stay underwater as long as possible and swim as far as you can. Once you come up, no good (to which we learned upon expanding, means you will die like the villager the week before).”  

So! Armed with those helpful rules… we went on several bush walks (2-4 hours each) and saw herds of elephant mere yards away, impala, kudu, hippo, zebra, wildebeest, dozens of birds and more. We also had a near-death experience (the first of many) which involved a stand-off with a group of cape buffalo (one of the most dangerous animals in the bush alongside elephants, hippos, crocodiles and lions). Eventually, because we were downwind and unarmed (which I did not realize until this point…), the cape buffalo scurried off into the distance, but not before making it vocally known we were not welcome.

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At night, we slept in a tent and fell asleep to the sounds of the fire dying down, hippos snorting and elephants crunching through the grass – a welcome change from the sirens and horns heard in Chicago.

After our mokoro trip, we had the same hilariously large group of people bring us back to Maun where we began our trek to Ghanzi and the san village of D’Kar.

Frequently Asked Questions:

    1. Where did you go to the bathroom? A hole in the ground, surrounded by a tent-like structure for privacy.
    2. Where did you shower? I didn’t… (there was an option but Corey learned the hard way it was not efficient). I did, however, scrub myself down in a swimming hole in the Delta on the last day.
    3. How was the food? DELICIOUS. Our chef, Beauty, was the best. Our secondary guide, Dreamer, caught fresh tilapia which Beauty fried and it was the absolute best.
    4. How was the heat? Not terrible! I do not bode well in the heat but with a water (x infinity), a good amount of sunscreen, an SPF shirt, hat and roomy shorts and without humidity, I fared pretty well.
    5. Did you ever get sick? Not a once, thankfully.

Some highlights, in photo form:

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Burchelle’s zebras at sunset.

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A selfie with Onks. Turns out, he’s not a fan of selfies. 

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Fish eagle setting off to hunt. 

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The view from the mokoro.

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Tick “photo with wild elephants” off the bucket list. 

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Fresh caught, fire-fried Delta tilapia. Mm, mm. 
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Elephant skeleton (has been there five years).

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Sunset at the hippo pool (ripples to the right are all hippo heads).

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Sharing the waterways with a herd of more than a dozen elephants. 

Source: my own.

 

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