Tuesday, April 5, 2016


I am recovering from a nightmare that turned into what might be called a transformative experience all within a six hour time frame while I was in Yosemite Valley last weekend participating in a landscape photography workshop.


My five companions were strangers with whom I shared one thing in common:  becoming a better photographer. That is why we signed up for a course in a place that many call one of nature's most beautiful creations.


I went to Yosemite with considerable trepidation, concerned that I would not keep up if I didn't understand new concepts.  Now that I'm getting older,  I often need to hear complex instructions more than once, making me fear I might not measure up.  Who wants to look or feel stupid.  It's easy to compare myself with other people I envy because they are so skilled and talented as photographers. This is not jealousy.  Rather I consider it a type of admiration and a desire for me to grow personally, so that some day I might be able to put my name on the same quality of images they do.    The people I'm talking about are not famous photographers like Sally Mann or Ansel Adams.  They are people like you and me, but they are very good at what they do.   Some friends tell me they like my pictures and encourage me to publish a book, but rather than accepting their comments as compliments, I see them as good friends who just want to be nice.


The instructions for the photography course stressed competence in using one's equipment, which rattled me because I had never used a tripod or a cable release and didn't understand certain terms.  For example, what is a mirror lock-up?    I spent an hour one day practicing to open and close the new tripod,  so that I could do it under two minutes.  No one wants to wait around while I fumble, and I didn't want to embarrass myself.  Don't laugh, but I even struggle to open and close hiking poles, which function similarly to the legs of a tripod.  The first cable release I ordered was overly complicated, so at least I had the sense to exchange it for a simple one, but the second one I ordered never arrived.  UPS said it was lost in the mail. 

The workshop weekend was fast approaching -- too fast, in fact, as the course started a few days after I returned from a ten-day trip with the family.  Despite all my years of frequent travel,  I have never unpacked from one trip while packing for another.  Reader, please understand I am not complaining.  I want to paint a realistic picture of what was going on in my head as I prepared for this adventure that would use a new part of my brain as I learned new skills.  At least that was one of my key objectives.

Day One

After a five-hour drive we arrived in Yosemite late in the afternoon, and began taking pictures at one of the park's many iconic sights called Valley View.  We hoped to catch the last rays of sun shining on the cascading waters of Bridalveil Falls.  Although I tend to shoot mainly in the aperture priority setting, the goals for this afternoon were to shoot only in shutter priority setting, to examine the histogram of each photo, and not to worry if the image was overexposed.  Our instructor, David, moved easily among us, chatting about how to set up, checking our shutter speeds, and showing us how to evaluate histograms.   I took about 45-50 images, but after the sun faded,  we packed up our gear and drove 30 minutes back to our motel, which was located outside of the national park. 


 Day Two  

At 7 a.m. we returned to the valley to capture the early morning light that showcases Yosemite Falls, which was at its peak given this year's excellent snowpack.  I had a little pit in my stomach since the peer review session the night before highlighted something I suspected.   My five newfound friends were much more experienced photographers than I.   Again I compared myself with the others and assumed they knew much more about photography than I did. 

Today we were instructed to shoot in the manual setting, one  which I have avoided because I thought it was too complicated and didn't bother to learn.   After David explained the camera setting, the others began shooting away.  I didn't understand what he meant as some of this was new language for me.   He reviewed the instructions again.  What don't you understand?    I let him know that numbers scare me.  I am a person of words not numbers,  I explained to David, but he ignored my excuses and continued to explain.  "Pam," he said, "slow down.  Follow my directions.   Take one step at a time.  This is what I want you to do."  I took a deep breath and slowed down.  I listened more carefully and followed the steps he explained one by one.  A couple of images later I checked my histograms and thought to myself, wow,  I think I got it.   David reviewed my histograms and said,  "Pam, I think you got it."


Day 3  

Today we would have an early start, which meant no time for  breakfast.  We would leave the motel at 6 a.m. and drive thirty minutes back to the valley and photograph in Cook's Meadow at sunrise.  This would be the same spot where Ansel Adams took one of his most treasured images -- the last remaining elm tree in Yosemite Valley, backlit against the dominance of the majestic rock formation called Half Dome.

The night before I laid out my warmest clothes, so when the alarm went off,  I could dress quickly and be on time.  There might even be extra time to make a cup of coffee in the small drip pot that was in the room. Some of you know that I am always prompt, if not some times early.  I set my phone alarm for 5 a.m., shut off the light, and quickly fell asleep, exhausted from a day filled with new facts and information.  

I was in a deep sleep when I barely heard a light knocking at my door. The second knock woke me up, and the third knock had me jumping out of bed.   I looked at the clock.  It was ten after six!   I had overslept, something I have never done before.  Half asleep, I fumbled with the security lock and opened the door.   "My alarm didn't go off," I shouted to Greg, one of my new friends who came to check on me since I wasn't at the van when we were supposed to leave.  I opened the door a crack and groaned, "Oh, dear,  I overslept.  My alarm never went off."  I was stunned.  "We're leaving now," Greg said. "We will meet you this afternoon when we return to the motel around 2."   What else could I say, but OK, I will see you then, but after closing the door, I stomped around my room like a banshee hen and instead of cluck, cluck, cluck, it was fuck, fuck, fuck."  I could hear the rushing water coming from the Merced River right behind my room, but the tears streaming down my face were silent.  I sat on the bed and looked at my iPhone.  The 5 a.m. alarm was turned on so I don't know why I had a problem.   I brushed my teeth and quickly dressed.  I couldn't worry about the alarm's malfunction.  I needed to figure out my alternatives.  No way would I sit in this drab motel room and wait until my friends returned from Cook's Meadow after they had  fun shooting at sunrise.   My head cleared.   I had a plan.  I would hitchhike to the valley, and if I was unable to find Cook's Meadow,  I would find another place to photograph and meet the group at Yosemite Lodge for lunch.  

Adrenaline surged through my body as I grabbed my jacket, my camera and a hat.  My tripod was still in the van from the day before.  I slammed the room's door behind me and rushed out into the large but silent parking lot, which was filled with cars belonging to guests who were sleeping peacefully in their rooms.   I looked up and down, over and behind, but there was nothing but silence.   There had to be people wanting to get to the valley at dawn, I thought, and suddenly I heard a car's engine start somewhere in the vicinity, but I couldn't see where the noise was coming from.   I had to hurry and find the car so I could talk to the people about getting a ride.  Suddenly I saw headlights coming from a chartreuse-colored van, and I could see the  driver begin to pull away.  I ran as fast as I could toward the slowly moving car, yelling for him to stop and thankfully, he did.  Rolling down his window, a man looked at me curiously, but he gave me a big smile.   I'm sure he heard some panic in my voice. "Are you going to the valley by any chance?" I asked. "Yes, we are," the man said.   "Can I hitch a ride with you?  I'm here taking pictures with a group, and I screwed up.  I overslept."

"We'll make room for you," he said as he rolled up two sleeping bags spread out in the back of the van.   "We are Bill and Arlene, a couple of Aussies, doing a quick American drive by," he told me. "We came for a conference and thought we would rent a well-equipped camper van and see some of your country's beautiful sights."   I climbed into the back of the van and sat on a still-warm mattress, which had been their bed for the night. My legs were outstretched, and I was so rattled, I didn't bother to try and find the seat belt.  Adrenaline continued to pump through my body.  My anxiety level was very high, but I never asked myself this question.  Should I be getting in a car with strangers?  I didn't ask myself because hitchhiking to Yosemite Valley was the only solution to my dilemma.  It was my plan. 

"Do you know where Cook's Meadow is? " I asked Bill.
"No, we arrived late last night," he responded, "so we haven't been to the valley yet."   "If we can't find the meadow," I told them, "you can drop me off at the lodge, and I'll figure out the rest."  I knew there was a good chance I would miss the group, as well as the early morning light. 

The drive seemed to take forever, but once we reached the one-way road I knew we were headed in the right direction.  The Aussies asked me a lot of questions about how to get out of Yosemite and drive to Death Valley, but I was so hyper and too focused to give them an answer that I was sure was right.  "Take a left turn here," I said when I saw the sign for Sentinel Bridge.  David, our instructor,  pointed out Sentinel Bridge the day before and pointed out its proximity to Cook's Meadow.

"There it is. That's the meadow," I shouted when I saw the big black Suburban van we were using parked in a lot across the street.   I also thought I saw a blue down jacket that another photographer had been wearing, but she seemed a long way away.  "I think I see my friends with their tripods.  This is where I want to be dropped off," I said.  I got out of the van, pulled a twenty dollar bill from my pocket and shoved it into Bill's hand as a way to say thank you.  "No, no," he said.  "No way could we take money from you because then we wouldn't see it as our helping out some lady."  I gave him a quick hug and he and Arlene drove away.  

My five friends were a good distance from the van, so I ran fast toward them shouting,  "Hey guys, it's me.  I'm here.  Don't leave.  Please wait."  I was breathless by the time I reached them, and they were shocked and amazed to see me. David handed me the van keys so I could run back and retrieve my tripod.   "We only have ten more minutes of decent light," David said, "so please hurry, but avoid running on the boardwalk because you might cause some vibration for others taking photos.  I ran as fast as I could back to the car and grabbed my tripod from the trunk.  Then I ran back again, opening up my tripod as I moved.   How amazing.  Just a week before I was in my living room learning to open and close the tripod legs under two minutes, and now I was running as fast as I could back to the group and opening the tripod legs at the same time.  Luckily I didn't trip and fall.  I found a spot, set up my tripod and turned the knob to secure my camera on the tripod's head.  I saw the reflection of Yosemite Falls in a small pool of water surrounded by the meadow grass, and the beauty overwhelmed me.  I fought back tears as I turned on my camera.  David's advice from the previous day repeated itself in my head.  Slow down, take one step at a time, focus, and press the shutter release.   Six or seven images later, the other photographers were closing up their tripods.  The light was changing fast.  We had to move on.  I tried to speak to everyone in a calm voice.  I didn't want anyone to guess that my emotions were in overdrive. 


Like photographers do, we followed the light and eventually found another area in which to shoot.   I still couldn't believe that my hitchhiking plan worked, and I was here now with the others taking images of Yosemite Falls reflected in the water, as well as images of  the slowly dying lone elm tree backlit against the granite face of Half Dome.

After a late breakfast at the lodge, we had time to browse in the Ansel Adams Gallery next door.  I wanted to ask about a signed Ansel Adams photograph I bought in this same gallery for $10 in 1967 because over the years I have wondered whether the signature meant the photograph was an original.  I talked with a young man who asked me questions about my photograph.  His questions morphed into a nice conversation about the beauty and solitude of Ansel's images, and that's when I started to cry.  It wasn't an out and out bawl.  Tears simply welled up in my eyes and slid down my cheeks.  I'm not sure what the clerk thought when I quickly wiped the tears away, but I know he saw them.  He probably could also hear some emotion in my voice as I spoke.  He might have thought I was some crazy lady reliving her life in the sixties.  Then I saw a series of small books on a table nearby and picked up one called The Four Agreements.  As I leafed through the self-help book, one of the four agreements jumped out at me.  It said Do not make assumptions.  Continuing further,  I read that making assumptions is believing they are true.  In other words we often don't perceive things the way they really are.  We imagine what other people think, and we make up stories about ourselves and quickly jump to conclusions.  David's words echoed in my head.  Pam, slow down and focus.  You will get this.  We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, and judge the way we judge.  This is why we sometimes fear that others will judge us and blame us as we often do to ourselves.  I bought The Four Agreements book, as a gift, knowing I will order another copy for myself because each of the Four Agreements were pertinent to how I want to live my life.

After the drive back to the motel following lunch, I went to my room and called Bruce.  I told him about what had happened that morning, how horrible I felt, how devastated I was to possibly miss out, and how I blamed myself for being so stupid not to set a second alarm, although that is something I actually never do.  I always rely on my phone.   Then I started to cry.  These were not simply a few tears.  I really began to bawl.  There was silence on the other end.  I blabbered something about how stunned I was at my perseverance to get to Cook's Meadow on my own.  Through the tears, I tried to explain the anxiety I was feeling but at the same time I asked Bruce what was it about this experience that made me so emotional.  I just didn't understand.  Honestly, it took at least several minutes for the bawling to stop.  All this time Bruce remained silent on the phone "Do you know why I'm crying so hard?" I asked.  "What's going on?"  Why am I so emotional?  

"Yes, I know, Bruce said softly.  "I know because I understand you.
What you were feeling this morning was panic and humiliation.  Panic that you would miss out on something really really special, and humiliation because you thought others would judge you.  But you overcame the panic and focused on how you were going to resolve the problem.  You used resources you didn't know you had, and even though you were taking somewhat of a chance by getting into a vehicle with strangers, your resolve to get to Yosemite any way you could pushed you into another zone.  In the beginning it was fear but in the end it was determination, and I have seen you do this before.  This is one of the reasons I love you."  "Oh, my God,  you do understand me," I sobbed.  You truly do.  There was enormous power in Bruce's words.  He truly did understand me.  But why do I do this?  Why do I compare myself with others?  Are these fears based on faulty assumptions I make about myself.  There is no need to judge myself based on the abilities of others.  Can I possibly transform my mind and understand that in reality I am fundamentally equal to others?  Although I pose this as a question, I must accept this as the truth.

It took a combination of fear, determination, and a plan, plus a few sentences from a self-help book to bring me to this realization.  But the real essence of this growing experience was the insights of my incredible husband who truly does understand me, and his ability to synthesize and summarize my babbling words, which set me on a course of continuing to try and understand myself. 

In the meantime, I can exult in my beautiful images of Yosemite Valley, no doubt enhanced by my newly-gained facility of shooting in manual. 



NB:  If you are interested in learning more about David's workshops and the programs he offers, please write me at bikerchickgonecrazy@gmail.com.    The two workshops I attended were excellent, and I highly recommend him.

Monday, February 8, 2016

SALLY (1934-2016)

I just received word that an important person in my life and someone I called my friend passed away last month.  Sally died when she was 81.   

I remember where we were when she told me she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.  We were riding the Stevens Creek loop on our bicycles, which meant a long climb and a steep descent into the village of Saratoga, where we always took a break at a cafe where people hung out with their dogs.  Besides loving to bike, Sally adored her animals, so this particular cafe had more appeal than just loading up on caffeine and enjoying conversation.   

When she told me, we had passed the reservoir and were riding single file on a narrow bumpy road, and as usual, I was behind her, bringing up the rear.   People who ride in the back intentionally are called the sweep, but I didn't deserve that esteemed title.  I rode back there because I was slow.   Sally turned her head and yelled something back at me, but the wind made it difficult to hear, so I didn't catch it all.  I heard her say I haven't told many people yet, but then her words were garbled until I heard her say Parkinson's.  Hearing that word stunned me.  I didn't know whether I should ask her to tell me again or ask her to get off her bike so I could hug her.   

"Let's stop," I said, but she didn't hear me so we kept on riding until we came to the bathrooms at the bottom of the first steep climb.  We leaned our bikes against the fence, and that's when she said  "I've talked with Bob,  and told him I want to go to Oregon when it's time to die.  I don't want to be hooked up to a machine."   Just a few years before, the State of Oregon had passed the Death with Dignity legislation that allowed terminally ill patients to end their life voluntarily.   When I heard these words, I looked at her more closely than I had looked at her before.  She didn't seem any different, she didn't shake, nor did she look sick.  The symptoms of Parkinson's were not obvious.  How could she be sick?  She rides strong, I thought.  I don't remember what else I said, if anything.  I'd like to think it was something comforting like  I hope you don't go to Oregon for a long time.  She swung her right leg over the bike seat, clipped the cleats of her shoes into the pedals, and started to climb the hill before us.  We never talked about her Parkinson's again.  I wasn't ready to face her mortality and talking about it might have made me face mine.  

I met Sally on a club ride around 1994, shortly after I bought a bike.  She and her biking girlfriends were older than I, but they didn't take themselves too seriously, and as a new rider I felt more relaxed riding with them than with an established bike club where testosterone could be called an infectious disease.  When riders talk about bike clubs, they often assess whether it's easy or difficult to fit in, but for me it wasn't so much about fitting in.   I suffered from lack of confidence.  I had anxieties about keeping up.  And most of the time I didn't, and no one likes being dropped on a club ride.

After riding with Sally off and on for about year, I thought I might do a bike tour in New Zealand.  Sally pushed me to give the tour company my credit card and sign on the dotted line.  She urged me to rent a lighter bike so that when I came home, I'd be ready to trade in my heavy hybrid for a lighter road bike. The best advice she gave was to take my own pedals and my own bike seat.  As it turned out, the shop in Christchurch only had mountain bikes for rent, and although the rental bike was even heavier than the one I had at home, it didn't matter because Sally made sure I understood that bicycle touring was also about having fun.   

As a role model, Sally energized me, and helped me to believe that some day I would ride as fast as she did.  She inspired other people too.  Many of us, especially women, who rode bikes looked up to her as someone we wanted to be when we grew up -- even though we were all grown ups at the time.  Until I met Sally, I never knew a  woman who had ridden her bike across the country.  Across the entire United States, I would tell people.   And I'm not sure, but I think she did that ride self-supported, meaning she carried all of her clothes and other gear in panniers that were attached to her bicycle.  She often clocked 10,000 miles a year on her bike.  You could do it too, she would say to me, but you need to buy a lighter bike and spend more hours in the saddle.   She loved to challenge us physically.  When I met her in the early 90s and didn't know what more hours in the saddle really meant, she was the strongest woman cyclist I knew.  She even passed my then-husband going up a steep hill, and for days after, he talked about how Sally passed him.  Her legs moved like pistons.  Although she was a good climber, her nemesis was Quinn Hill, but she made it to the top.   Not too many people can do that.   She stood in her saddle and her weight shifted side to side as she cranked up that hill with fast riders, but she never complained when she rode with me as I climbed slowly in my granny gear, promising her that some day I would buy a lighter bike.   And although I eventually bought a carbon-fiber bike,  I never came close to riding like Sally.

After Sally mentioned her illness, we biked off and on for a couple of years, but as her disease took hold, she didn't ride as much, and because she wasn't biking with her girlfriends, neither was I.    At the same time I met a couple of other women who loved to bike and were about my speed.   Over time I heard from people who knew Sally well that she still rode her bike, but to be safe she and her husband rode the Baylands trail or around the neighborhood to avoid the hazards of traffic.   We didn't see each other after that, but I would hear about her decline from friends who were close to her. 

Now that she's gone I am sorry I didn't stay in touch,  that I didn't make an effort to visit her.   Someone told me that she'd had some type of procedure that enabled her to type and use email, so I emailed her once, but she never wrote back.   When I saw her friends, I would ask how she was doing, but their news was never encouraging.

Sally leaves a legacy within the biking community.  Her many friends will always remember  her encouraging words and what an inspiration she was.  Sally, we miss you.  Wherever you are, may the wind always be at your back and your sweet dog, Ginny, close by your side.

(Taken at a party for my biking friends to meet Lisa who was our guide on the New Zealand trip)


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

TIMELESS SUDAN: The Last Chapter

In a previous chapter about Sudan, I wrote about finding the nomads in the desert, but there wasn't just one nomadic encampment, there were two, and the second family greeted us just like the other -- first with suspicion and then eventually with smiles, probably because they were told in pigeon Arabic by our guide, Laura, that we had come with gifts.  Then there were the nomads on camels who had traveled with their herds from afar to reach the communal well and stock up on water to quench their animals and themselves.   

Picture this.  We are driving in the desert without anything significant to look at except blowing sand when we come upon what looks like a scene straight out of The Bible.  There were men wearing turbans and long white robes, stained ruddy from the red wet clay, working hard to fetch water from the well.  We also saw women and young girls working too, typical of gender assignments in Africa. 

This is how they got their water.

A large bag made of animal skin and attached to a rope was lowered hundreds of feet down into the well until it reached the water table. The other end of the rope was stretched over a pulley at the top of the well and attached to a team of two donkeys.  When the bag was full of water, the handlers steered the donkeys quite a distance away from the well, pulling the heavy bag to the surface for the men to grab and distribute the water in various vessels for both animals and humans. 

Although our visit was relatively short, the nomads must have been there all day.  They looked tired.  While some men worked, others rested, a few smoked cigarettes and most seemed to enjoy our visit.  Some even posed for pictures.  Young girls driving the donkeys yelled in high-pitched voices and used a switch on their behinds to get the beasts of burden moving.  There were camels, goats, sheep and, of course the donkeys.  



Fortunately we came upon two wells in one day, a good distance apart.  The setting was much the same at each, but photography at one was hampered by the fact that in almost every scene someone from our group stood in the way, trying to capture an image of the same thing.

The last few days in Sudan flew by.  Before we knew it we were shaking the fine sand out of our smelly shoes and getting ready to head back home.  Most people in our group had god-awful connections that had us waiting for hours in remote places to change planes in the middle of the night.  I will never forget the vivid sights we saw in those last days in Sudan because they were unique and exotic in today's modern world.  

If you would like to see my five minute slide show (with music), click on this link.  TIMELESS SUDAN

Thursday, December 10, 2015


It's About The People

Within days of arriving in Sudan we knew we were among some of the world's most gracious people.  It started with the immigration officer who welcomed us, helped speed up the arduous process of obtaining a visa, and exchanged currency for us discreetly at a black market rate.  The warmth continued when we were enthusiastically greeted by Ibrahim, who represented our tour operator, Italian Tourism Company, and then at our hotel, where everyone made sure we were happy and content.  



While touring the city, I don't remember an instance when someone didn't smile at me first or smile at me after I smiled at him or her.  People riding buses waved at us.  Some gave us a thumbs up sign.  Kids on the street turned to look, waving and shouting something to us that sounded friendly, even though we had no idea what they said.  At the same time, our guide, Laura, cautioned us never to take photos of the police, military or government buildings, or even bridges, which could lead to trouble.  But, to our surprise, a man wearing a police uniform asked if we would take his picture with him standing next to one of us.  We were in a courtyard of a restaurant where we had just finished lunch, so the man may have taken liberties with us in that location where he wouldn't be seen.  Given Laura's warning, he never would have been so friendly to us on the street.  White faces like ours were a novelty and attracted attention. 



On the university campus where we visited, many students, mainly young women, approached us and asked in  English What brings you to Khartoum? They were as eager to take photos of us with their mobile phones as we were of them.  One student, in particular, stood out.  Khalid finished graduate school where he majored in human rights.  While his dream was to work in the United States, he was happy to have a job as a teaching assistant at the law school.  We saw more female students than male, and were surprised to learn that women have a better chance of landing a job than a man.  Our positive reactions were quickly diminished when we learned that the reason was because beauty ranks higher than brains.  


In Khartoum's busy market one man vigorously shook my hand and welcomed me to his country.  "Sudan loves America, and we are very close," he said with conviction.   I thanked him for his kind words, and then as we walked away, I said to Bruce, "That man has no idea what he's talking about.  Obviously he doesn't know the U.S. has sanctions against his country, and our State Department discourages citizens from traveling to Sudan."


The Nubian people in the northern deserts were friendly too, more reserved perhaps, but still smiling and happy to share a little of themselves with us, even though only a few of them spoke English.   The staff at the guesthouse worked hard to please us, but this high level of hospitality was not just about doing their job.   This is who these people are.  


When we returned home, some of our friends asked two simple questions:  Were you scared traveling in Sudan?  How did you get those people to pose for your photos?  Some of our friends have called us crazy, but then they are the same ones who have called us crazy before.

I must repeat what I wrote in previous posts.   We always felt safe in the areas of Sudan where we traveled.  We did not go to South Sudan, Darfur or the Blue Nile States.  Had we included those uncertain areas on our itinerary, then the moniker of crazy would definitely be justified.


As some of you know, taking portraits of people appeals to me  more than shooting landscapes, although in the northern desert there was ample opportunity to do both.   I always tried to ask permission as gracefully as possible, using sign and body language, if I didn't think they understood me.  I often showed people the pictures I had taken the day before.  Some times when I received a positive nod, the person felt the need to pose, and when they did, they often took on a serious face.  Others didn't have the time or the interest to pose, and that's when I either took a lousy photo or I was just plain lucky.  Other photographers in our group pointed out how best to capture the light and stressed the importance of the subject's background.  As I have learned from experienced photographers on past trips, every photo we take should be considered a practice. 


Our guide Laura had a bag of tricks up her sleeve and knew the way to take us to places that were off limits to visitors, like excavated tombs.  She also got us invited to local people's homes for lunch or chai tea, and although some of her magic came from sweet talk and cigarettes, most of it came from the strong and caring relationships she built with the Sudanese people over time.  Clearly Laura was adored, but as she wrote me after reading my blog post Chapter One,  She was never a queen in her past life.  A princess maybe, or a nomad.



"When we travel in the desert today," Laura would say, "we cannot be certain to find where the nomads are, but if we are lucky, I want you to do what I say. Stay in your cars until I say it's okay, and then come out one or two at a time and do not start taking pictures right away.  Give the people time to check you out."  We nodded in agreement, taking her warning to heart because we knew that our brief time with the nomads would be precious encounters that we would long remember, and the last thing we wanted to do was scare them away.   

After a couple of hours of traveling off road in sand and stopping only long enough to find a small dune or a bush behind which to pee, we came upon our first glimpse of a nomadic family out there in the middle of nowhere.   All four of our vehicles stopped a few hundred feet from the two or three huts built of sticks.  Laura got out first and approached a man who walked towards her to see who we were and what we wanted.   This was the time for Laura to use her sweet talk and magic.  We saw the man light up the cigarette that Laura offered and soon they began to talk.  None of us could hear the conversation, nor would we have been able to understand Arabic, but this is what we thought she was saying.   

HelloI am traveling here in your beautiful desert with some people who live a long ways away.  They would like to meet you and shake your hand.  They have gifts for you and your family.  And, by the way, they have cameras and would like to take your picture.  


A minutes later Laura signaled for a few of us to come and the rest of us to follow slowly.   Behind the man but staying close to their huts, the women and a few children watched what was going on with curiosity, but soon they walked forward to see us too.   We spoke to them sotta voce, using the few Arabic greetings we knew.  "Salamalikium," we said.   Laura spoke a few more Arabic words to the man and they both laughed, and then he said something to the women.  And they laughed too.  We were all smiling and laughing.  This was good. 


What happened next was heartwarming.  An older women took the hand of a younger woman in our group and lead her over to her stick hut to show her where she lived.  We all followed like little sheep.  



That's when Laura gave us the word that taking photographs would be o.k.  They seemed to enjoy having us visit.  No one minded the camera, and a few even posed. When they saw themselves on the camera screen, it wasn't clear whether they had ever seen their faces before.  One woman pointed to the little girl and said something which we took to mean, That's you, because the little girl smiled. That's when I realized that small hand mirrors would have made great gifts.  I also wished I had a Polaroid camera.  People in our group pulled out the gifts they'd brought from home: tee shirts,  blouses, and scarves, which we hoped the women would like, but we felt bad when we realized we didn't bring a gift for the man, who honestly didn't seem to mind.   I also had a handful of perfume samples that a Nordstrom's saleswoman gave to me before I left.  These perfumes had a short life as they were just smears on a card hidden under a tab, which, when pulled, would expose the sweet smelling perfume.  In an effort to explain to the women what this was and how to access the perfume smear, I held the card in my left hand, and pretended to tug on the tab with my right, as I said the words, Pull the tab, pull the tab.   I also demonstrated with my hands.  Pull the tab, touch the card,  dab the sweet-smelling perfume behind your ears.  The only sounds they could hear were my words pull the tab.  Of course they had no idea what I was trying to say or explain, but they had fun laughing and mimicking my words saying  pooldatub, pooldatub.  Fortunately, I had previously explained to our driver how the perfume card worked and the need to pull the tab, so I asked him to explain what the women had to do to access the perfume.   He said some words in Arabic and then he showed them, as I did, to pull the tab.  They giggled, saying pooldatub and then laughed harder.  This, of course, had me laughing too, but I was so grateful that they finally got what I meant when I said pooldatub.   

PULLDATUB   (She's holding the white perfume card in her hand)

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Why Africa?  Why Sudan?  When someone asks me these questions, I often respond with the same answer.  I want to rub shoulders with people who live in a land and a culture that is 360 degrees different from the land and the culture I live in.  I want some adventure.  I want to learn about life.  And when you travel in Africa, that is what happens.   This was definitely the case in Sudan -- one of the most ethnically, geographically and culturally diverse countries in Africa and yet, so misunderstood.


If you Google the State Department's web posting for "Travel in Sudan" a warning pops up on your screen advising you against visiting there.  It reads:  "It's difficult and expensive to get a visa, and it's extremely dangerous and highly discouraged."   The website continues to explain the decades of civil war, and how in 2011 the country was divided into two countries,  Sudan and South Sudan.  However, the description ends with this statement:  "If you do manage to get in and you stick to the safe areas, you will probably have a memorable experience.  The Sudanese people are very hospitable, and you can visit some awesome places without ever seeing another tourist."  Yes, the State Department actually used the word awesome.  While we knew all the negatives in advance, we felt safe because we would be traveling in North Sudan and not in regions like Darfur and the Blue Nile States.  We were also going with a reputable tour operator, who came highly recommended.  Knowing that we would be sharing the experience with nine other adventurous friends, we decided to go, applied for and received the visa, and in November, 2015, we embarked on another one of those trips of a lifetime, of which there have been many, especially in Africa.


The first three days we explored the busy capital of Khartoum, where we watched a Sufi Dervish ritual, and then drove a long distance north in four 4-wheel drive vehicles into the Nubian and Bayuda Deserts.  This remote area is sparsely populated with small villages,  nomadic encampments sprinkled throughout, and stunning archeology sites of the ancient Nubian and Meroe civilizations.   In the north along the Nile, the economy is driven by agriculture, not tourism, but traveling with an Italian tour company that has established itself as the main operator for Sudan, we were very comfortable in accommodations they built, especially for their clients, near archeology sites that go back thousands of years.  And for frosting on our cake, we had beautiful Laura, a very experienced guide, who many of our fellow travelers knew because she guided them before in West Africa.   In fact, Laura suggested Sudan to our friends as an opportunity to experience another unique African country with tribal influences that blended with antiquities from ancient civilizations. 

Khartoum is like many African cities.  Big, dirty, crowded, smoggy, and with traffic gridlock equal to what we had seen in Cairo.  Horse and donkey-pulled carts heavily loaded with merchandise from China, noisy tuk-tuks, small beat-up sedans, and big trucks compete for the privilege of traveling from one side of the city to the other.  People plan their day by how long it takes to get to their destination, a symptom of overcrowding, which is quite common even here in Silicon Valley.  The difference, of course, is that I'm not sharing roads filled with potholes,  slow-moving donkeys or smelly tuk-tuks spewing exhaust.  I'm on a fast-moving freeway and changing lanes with Teslas and Mercedes.  



Once we left Khartoum and drove north on a smooth paved road, we felt like we were in another world -- a world of camels, donkeys, spiky acacia trees, basalt rock formations, and sand.  Lots of sand.   Fine sand that you can sift through your fingers.  Course sand that takes the polish off salon-style painted toenails.  And blowing sand that makes everything you eat taste gritty.  But it's the color of sand -- the reds, the yellows, the oranges and various shades of brown -- that really affects your senses.  And then add tufts of light green tumbleweed and dark green acacia, and you have dramatic scenery that is candy to the eye.  On long drives, I would set my camera on sports mode and, through the window of our moving SUV, take image after image of stunning desert landscapes.   Of course, many of these photos ended up in my computer's trash basket, but here are some I thought worth saving.





We spent four nights in attractive accommodations, called a guest house, that the Italian tour company built, and while the rooms were not fancy, they were efficiently designed, spacious and very comfortable.   We appreciated the luxury of air conditioning in this harsh environment.  While nights in the desert were pretty chilly, a bright blue cloudless sky with a blazing sun caused daytime temperatures to quickly soar into the high 90s.  By ten o'clock we were sweating.  And with the scarcity of trees, the shade, for the most part, came from the brims of our hats and the sun glasses protecting our eyes.  The hot air was dry, so it felt like a true 90, and not a humid false temperature of 110. Despite the heat, we wore long pants and either long sleeves or at least sleeves of a length that covered our shoulders.  As foreign visitors to a conservative land, we wanted to respect their customs regarding dress. 


From the guesthouse (near the town of Karima) we were just steps away from Jebel Barkal, the huge red sandstone mountain, considered very holy since ancient times.  An impressive archeology site sits just below it.  We watched the dig conducted by an Italian archeology professor from the University of Venice.  He and his expert team of researchers, with the assistance of local workers, delicately scraped away sand and rock to expose more of what was the royal necropolis of the ancient city of Napata, the Nubian capital from 800 to 400 B.C.  While the professor generously shared information about this dig, funded partly by Qatar, we watched the local laborers haul bucket after bucket of fine red sand, a back-breaking chore which seemed endless and also low paying ($5/day).  


In a previous life, our guide Laura must have lived like a desert queen, studying hieroglyphics and traveling with pharaohs and kings up and down the Nile.  At least this is what we thought after spending ten days under her tutelage.  She was a wealth of knowledge, in fact, a walking encyclopedia, especially about the 25th Dynasty (760-656 BC) of Ancient Egypt (now northern Sudan).    Only someone who had lived during these ancient times would  know and reveal such stories in vivid detail.  She talked with passion about the Nubians, one of Africa's earliest civilizations going back 3000 years BC.  She directed her fluorescent light on the dark walls, so we could see the beautifully restored images deep inside two unlighted tombs, as she related legends about each of the ancient paintings.   Every day we visited another site, and we marveled, not only about the facts, but about how one person could know all that information and only occasionally refer to her written notes.  




"At sunset we will climb Jebel Barkal," Laura announced boldly one afternoon.  "And after we reach the top and admire the view, we will descend by running down the large sand dune, the one you can see on the south wall."   With raised eyebrows, we looked at each other to see who would be the first to ask, are you serious?  But no one did.  We figured if Laura could do it, then we could do it too. That was before we learned that Laura had been climbing the holy rock for years.   





As we started to climb, Bruce and I took up the rear.  This gave us the opportunity to take photos of others up ahead, and a good excuse to move slowly.  We also didn't want to hold anyone back.  Climbing seemed easy at first since we were on a switchback path, but as we moved higher, the path disappeared, and all of a sudden we were slipping in loose sand and grabbing on to any rock we could find that would hold us, as the rocks were now further apart and sand filled the space in the middle.  Fortunately, Laura, who was close by,  gave us a couple of one-hand tugs, and when we finally made it to the top and walked over to the edge, we were speechless.  Wow, what a view! 


Standing on the rocky edge and looking straight down scared us, since Bruce and I are a little timid about heights.  "Time to move," Laura announced, noting the setting sun, and reminding us we still had to make the steep sand dune descent.  She urged us to protect our cameras when coming down.   Already stored in a plastic bag, I tucked my camera snugly in my waist pack, removed my red gym shoes, tied them together by their lacings, and slung them around my neck.  I walked to the edge of the sand dune and looked all the way down.  I saw Laura already at the bottom motioning for me to come.  It looked scary.  One step and my feet quickly sunk in the soft, deep sand, but I was able to walk.   It looked so steep I was sure I might topple over.  With her hands on her hips, Laura stood at the bottom of the dune and yelled, "Run, run, run."  "I'm afraid I will fall," I yelled back at her.  "Just run, you won't fall, it's fun," she continued to holler.  Just before starting to run, I turned around and looked up at my traveling buddy Phil.  He aimed his long camera lens at me and that's when he took this picture.


The adventure continues............