High Flyers, Radio Riders

The Elephant Back Safari reserve has a grass runway and small 7-seater prop plane. One of our wilderness game guides, Andre, has his pilot’s license. When he suggested that we could take a little aero tour, we didn’t hesitate to say yes. We flew out over the Addo Elephant National Park and eventually reached the sea in about 25 minutes’ time. We communicated via headset radios that transmitted our voices but blocked out the noise of the prop and the sound of the wind whipping around the plane’s body. The time went by so fast as we pointed out animals to each other, joked around with Andre, listened to him speak with the air traffic controllers in Port Elizabeth, and enjoyed the scenery below. Flying there and back, we saw gorgeous mountain vistas, luscious trees, green farmland, and a white sand coastline as well as elephants, zebras, giraffes, cattle, wildebeest and whales.

Andre informed us that the proper way to take off with a small, heavily-loaded airplane in a mountain valley is to head downhill. That way, you’re sure to get up enough speed to take off before you reach the end of the runway. Similarly, the landing is done uphill to help slow down the plane naturally. For a little extra fun during the flight, Andre offered to give us as many roller coaster dives as we could handle. That was a blast for us, but not quite as thrilling for our fellow passengers with more motion sickness sensitivity — sorry, Donna!

Air Safari from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

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Cribs: Addo Edition

Great travel is about fun people, enriching experiences, and beautiful sights. Our amazing safari adventure showed us that it can also be about exquisite accommodations. At Addo we had a private chalet with outdoor jacuzzi, indoor and outdoor showers (heated by a solar-powered geyser), sheets almost as fluffy and highly threaded as the ones Grandma Jo uses, and a fully stocked and complimentary mini bar. Sam especially enjoyed the freeing experience of showering naked in the African wilderness (apologies in advance for the mental imagery).

The reserve is in a mountainous region, and it got quite cold on our first night, but the awesome staff built a toasty fire in our wood-burning stove, served us delicious hot chocolate and turned on our electric blankets for perhaps the coziest night’s sleep we’ve ever had. The monkeys chattered us to sleep right outside our window, and they woke us in the morning by using our canvas roof as a trampoline. The trip was a delightful mix of sustainable luxury and natural materials and surroundings, and we’re still savoring the memories.

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Unforgettable Facts About the Animal Who Never Forgets

During our stay at Addo, we learned so much about elephants as we interacted with them and spoke with our incredible guides. Ellie facts are so crazy cool that they deserve their very own post! Here they are:

  • Elephants require around 16 hours of grazing time a day. Their digestive systems are very inefficient, and only 45% of what they eat actually gets broken down into usable nutrients.
  • A single elephant produces between 100 and 160 kg of dung per day…good news if you’re a dung beetle!
  • Forget the phrase “hung like a horse”; it’s “hung like an elephant” from now on. Male African Elephants must have a penis of at least a meter in length before it’s even possible for them to mate. They reach mating age when they’re about 25 years old, and a single ejaculation emits around 1 liter of sperm. Sorry to be so graphic, but you gotta admit that it’s impressive.
  • Elephants grind their way through six complete sets of teeth in a lifetime, and it’s usually malnutrition/starvation from having ground through their last set of teeth that causes their death in the wild around age 65.
  • A baby elephant weighs, on average, a whopping 120 kilos (264.6 lbs.) the moment it comes into the world. That’s a big baby!
  • Even though an elephant’s skin is tough enough to let them crash through thickets of thorn trees without batting an eye, it’s sensitive enough that they can be annoyed by a tiny little fly.
  • Elephants are very like human beings in terms of family structure and respect for elders. Young elephants are quite impressionable and learn how to be a father/mother and contributing member of the group from their older counterparts.
  • When elephants die, anthropologists and biologists have both studied their elaborate mourning rites. When they come upon a dead elephant, they smell the carcass/bones to figure out whether it is the remains of an elephant from their herd. If they determine that they knew the elephant, they stand for one to two hours in silence around the carcass. They then ritualistically scatter the bones of the dead elephant around the area, tossing them and making noises for another couple of hours, moving on from the area only when the bones are completely strewn about.
  • How very human…right? Or, wrong? We had a discussion with our guides about the concept of anthropomorphism, and we wondered if we were humanizing ellies too much. Neither they nor we think that we are. How can one not see the striking parallels between ourselves and an animal that mourns its dead in that way and raises its young in the way that elephants do? Sadly, in addition to the purposeful sort of culling in bigger parks like Kruger, illegal poaching still exists, and tusks are valuable. In this day and age, killing such an animal–whether for its tusks, for the purposes of reducing the size of a herd, to put its head on a wall, for the thrill of a recreational hunt, or just for spite– is, in our minds, just plain wrong.

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Taba, Mukwa, and Duma: Ellies Extraordinaire

Since South Africa is at least 20 hours of flight/travel time from the U.S., we decided that we had better live it up a little while there, so we splurged on a 4-day safari that started with a couple nights at the Addo Elephant Back Safari Lodge in Addo Elephant National Park. The Elephant Back Safari organization got its start by rescuing a trio of male elephants from a culling of the herds that was done in the mid-nineties in nearby Kruger National Park. Their names are Taba (Zulu for happy), Mukwa (he was named after local forest vegetation), and Duma (named after the thunderous sound he makes when he walks). Elephants have massively inefficient digestive systems, so they can really wreak havoc on an ecosystem if there are too many of them in an area. In the 90’s many adult elephants were killed in an effort to control the population within the Kruger. Thankfully, good people stepped in and rescued a number of the elephants because research since has shown that killing adult elephants can inflict severe psychological trauma on the babies and young that are left behind. Elephant over-population is still a problem in Kruger, but hopefully more reserves like the one we visited will be set up in the coming years to help with the problem. As one of our guides at the park, Walter, observed “Translocation of elephants to areas like this is the best option. This way, everybody wins. More land is preserved and protected; the elephants get a new lease on life; the people of South Africa get employment, which we need very badly; and you all get to have fun experiences and come to visit.” Well said, Walter.

Seeing these magnificent creatures up close and personal was awe-inspiring. Following them through the bush, feeling their tough, prehistoric skin, watching the myriad ways they use their super strong and impressively dextrous trunks–we are in awe of them. We spent most of the time with very sore cheeks because we were smiling so much at everything they did.

At Addo, the elephants are given 16 hours a day to roam the bush and forage for food. They spend about a half hour once to twice a day carrying visitors on their backs, and when there are no visitors, they have short training sessions instead. Their human handlers (all from Zimbabwe) follow along in the bush and observe them all day. They don’t interfere with their natural behaviors, rather, it’s their job to just let them do their elephant thing–eating thorn trees and vegetation, bathing in the mud, etc. Still, the bond between human and ellie is strong enough that if an ellie has gets sick or is in a bad mood, the handler watching over him is usually upset, too. Taba, Mukwa, and Duma are semi-tame–they do allow humans to ride on their backs, but they expect payment (food) in return. We rode on Taba two at a time with a guide, and of course we were happy to oblige with a full payment of food soon after! We also spent time on bush walks and safari rides through the park. We had so many great photos from our stay that we created a slideshow because we couldn’t choose between them.

Ellies from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

In the evening, the elephants head back to a big barn, where they open the doors themselves and head inside for a quiet night’s rest. It is the policy at the reserve not to force them into the barn, and when we were there the gentle giants were quite excited to head to bed.

Goodnight Elephants from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

If we ever go back to South Africa, we will return to this lodge. These beautiful animals are an absolute joy to spend time with, and the staff of the lodge is first-rate. Not only do they truly care for the ellies, they also practice sustainability measures, from using solar-powered hot water geysers in rooms to reusing everything they can and recycling what they can’t. The whole operation is a fantastic example of an alternative (and much kinder) way to handle the elephant overpopulation problems in South Africa and elsewhere!

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Think Twice

After our hiking Table Mountain, we decided to visit the Greenpoint Market, a local goods market available only on Sundays. While there, we spoke with several stall owners, met some really fun folks, and even bought a very cool oil painting on canvas that we can roll up in our suitcase to easily transport home. But the highlight of our visit was coming across this beautiful soul singing her heart out in the middle of the marketplace. We never even got her name–somehow it didn’t seem appropriate to interrupt her or ask any questions. She just kept singing song after song with barely a pause between them. She had one local fan, the man standing next to her and clapping loyally. This man, who was obviously a little crazy and also had fallen on hard times, asked her for a “loan” from her “bank” (her tiny tin of small coins) to buy himself some cigarettes. She kindly obliged with a simple nod of the head, and he took about half of what she had.

As we blog and post photos and videos, we try so hard to capture the essence of our experiences. It’s not just to share them with our friends and family–it’s also so that we can remember them. This is one of those times when nothing we say can capture the feeling, the moment, the meaningfulness of the experience we had just being near this woman as she shared her songs with us. Her voice on tape is gorgeous, but still it does not do her justice. Her sweet song, her graceful movements, the timbre of her voice, her kindness. She is exquisite. We never want to forget her, so here she is for you to remember, too:

Think Twice from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

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Dancing on the Table

The port in Capetown is one of the most beautiful that we’ve ever seen. We cruised into the harbor just before sunrise and got to watch the sun come up over the water and shine its splendid rainbow of colors onto the waking city with its picturesque backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head.

That was all the encouragement we needed to grab our hiking boots and small party of friends (Adam, Courtney and Holly) and make for the beautiful backdrop we saw from the ship. Table Mountain offers a gruelingly steep 1.5 hour climb up through a narrow, rocky gorge, but the spectacular view once you make it to the top is oh-so-worth the effort.

In high school and college, the two of us would go to hear a favorite band, Dog Talk, play at the Rathskellar Biergarten in downtown Indy. We learned there that if you get up on the table, you gotta dance! Holly was smart enough to bring along her iPod, so we had tunes. Adam brought along his flip camera, so we had a means of capturing the moment. A fun and friendly German student studying abroad in Capetown for a semester named Niels came along with enthusiasm for our table dancing mania, so we had company. Niels even helped us convince a few Aussie passersby to join up…and on the table, we danced.

Dancing on the Table from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

Spontaneous moments of goofiness and fun with strangers are definitely one of the highlights of a trip around the world. Here’s to you, Niels!

We closed out the day with a visit to the Green Dolphin club to hear a sweet little South African jazz trio groove through the night. You can’t visit South Africa and not go hear some jazz. These guys were tight, and the martinis were smooth-‘n-tasty. Great views, great company, great music, great first day in South Africa!

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I Am Because We Are

As many of you already know, an honored and revered shipmate on our voyage around the world with Semester at Sea is none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Even a five second interaction with this man is enough to brighten your week. We and our shipmates have enjoyed a wonderful amount of extra time with him over the past week as we prepare for our visit to South Africa, his homeland. Over the past few days, we have had the honor of listening to him talk candidly about South Africa, his personal experiences living under and working against apartheid, his membership in The Elders, and how he and Leah came on this voyage because they love to see students change and grow. He even sang the National Anthem of South Africa with the shipboard choir! Just like the country it honors, the anthem is multi-lingual, with the first stanza being in isiXhosa and isiZulu, the second in Sesotho, the third in Afrikaans, followed by a final stanza in English. It’s beautiful!

National Anthem of South Africa from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

The Archbishop’s perfect comedic timing is legendary, and he also has the single most infectious laugh we’ve ever heard. His most common themes seem to be the interconnectedness of humankind — the African concept of Ubuntu, which means “I am because we are” — and the joyful and energizing spirit of young people. Every time he gives a talk it’s brimming with wisdom, humor and profundity. What kinds of things does he talk to us about? Below please find a couple of little nuggets from yesterday’s lecture in Global Studies class:

  • “If you remember nothing else I say, remember this. Don’t let people impose stereotypes on you or other people. And don’t lose your passion to fight against them when they do.”
  • “There is no such thing as benign racism. There is no such thing as benign sexism. There is no such thing as benign homophobia! Anything that makes a human child of God no longer feel like a child of God is nothing short of diabolical.”
  • “In the eighties, I wanted to meet with your president, Ronald Reagan. He was not so eager to see me. [giggle, giggle] So, I got a Nobel Peace Prize. Do you know? It is amazing the doors a Nobel Peace Prize can open! [hearty laugh]”
  • When asked for his best piece of advice for young people today, he replied “Don’t be…don’t let your idealism be crushed by the cynicism of us oldies.”

There are many reasons to love him, but one of our favorite things about Arch (he prefers to be called either Arch or Father) is the way he exits a room. He never ever walks out, but always dances…and can he ever bust a move!

Dancing Exit from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

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Father’s Home Link

I realized that I forgot to post the link to the Father’s Home Care Ministries organization we visited in Ghana in the Bright Future for Ghana post. I’ve updated the post with the link, but for those of you who only read the blog via RSS subscription, here it is: http://www.fathershome.org/

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Heartfelt Goodbye

As the ship pulled away from Ghana the group of street vendors whose booths were set up right next to the ship, many of whom were drum-makers, ran and grabbed a bunch of drums and kettle bells and Ghana flags and started an impromptu drum and dance send-off on the edge of the port terminal. They were really hoopin’ and hollerin’. One young man screamed “I love you!!!!” at the top of his lungs to all of the students and staff gathering on the back decks to wave goodbye. Another screamed “I’ve got a feelin’…that tonight’s gonna be a good good night!!” A couple of students started a group chant of the Twi word for thank you: “Me-da-ssi! Me-da-ssi! Me-da-ssi!” That sent our vendor friends over the top, and they sprinted up and down the length of the pier whooping and pounding the drums in fits of joy. And that sent us over the top! We couldn’t conceive of a more heartfelt and fun-filled way to pull out, and we’ll all be thinking of and missing Ghana as we sail on to our next port of call…South Africa.

And here’s one more short clip to show what it looks like driving around Ghana between Takoradi and Elmina:

Streets of Ghana from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

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A Bright Future for Ghana

For our last day in Ghana we visited Father’s Home Care Ministries. It was founded 10 years ago by a Ghanaian man named Frances who felt God was calling him to become a father. At first he wasn’t sure what that call to fatherhood really meant, but after a couple years of prayerful consideration he came to the conclusion that instead of becoming a biological father he should instead become a father to the destitute and homeless children living in the streets all over the country. Ghanaian culture is extremely family- and community-oriented, and that usually provides a means of support, life, happiness and self-confidence even in the midst of extreme poverty. Life circumstances, however, occasionally create situations where children have nothing and no one…that’s where the Father’s Home comes in. There are currently 29 kids living in the home, and 12 more for whom the staff has been able to track down and find relatives or community members willing to take them in and provide a home and family. The organization is still funding and supporting the education of those 12 who don’t live onsite. They have purchased a parcel of land and are building new housing and school facilities that will be even more family-focused (apartment-style buildings so that families of 5-6 kids will live with mother and father couples as a unit). They give the kids homes until they graduate from high school, help them find technical training and/or further tertiary education, and send them out into the community with a passion and vision to better the nation and the world. The work they are already doing is changing lives, and their vision for the future of the program is inspired. If you want to support an NGO in Africa where you know that money will be spent wisely and invested in the education and support for a self-sustained way of life, consider this one.

We spent the whole day just talking with the staff — their job titles are “mothers and fathers” — and playing and interacting with the kids. None of us left without feeling hope for the future of Ghana, the future of Africa, and the future of the world. The children and students at Father’s Home are awesome. The older ones gave dance and drum lessons and talked to us about what it feels like to go from being a kid alone on the streets and alone in the world to the pride and fun of having 29 siblings and 8 parents. We got thumped in a pickup game of football. (That’s a much more sensible name than soccer, don’t you think?) Samuel, a kindred spirit in Biblical namehood, must have faked Sam out and kicked it right past him a hundred times. We seriously didn’t know feet could move that fast!

Drumming Lessons – Father’s Home Care Ministries from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

Cellular technology is pretty advanced in Takoradi, and Tigo and Vodaphone advertisements are everywhere. Many Ghanaians use cell phones, but we never saw anyone in Takoradi or the Cape Coast area using an iPhone. The children we met were really excited to experiment with ours. Apparently, the iPhone really is a pretty intuitive device. After a few initial crazy/blurry pics with fingers covering the camera, the kids at the children’s home got the hang of it all on their own. They recorded the following video of a spontaneous dance session…pretty nice camera work (not to mention the dancing)!

Dancing – Father’s Home Care Ministries from Sam and Shannon Bloomquist on Vimeo.

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librarian, writer/editor, floundering guitarist, breakfast addict

mobile software developer, dog owner, hiker, adventure racer, enemy of bureaucracy
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