two weeks in the congo

Reflections from my recent trip to the DRC to start a new Lifewater project. 

My time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo reminded me of Benin, of a time in life when I spent my summers in a small village in the bush doing water research and living a rather simple life. The places themselves were quite different, as was my work, and my companions. But, at its core, there was something so oddly and wonderfully familiar, something that made me smile over and over again.

congo flower

congo soccer

Maybe it had something to do with pulling my very rough, very ‘bush’ French out of the drawer it had been stored in. Or maybe it was the sounds of the bush at night that were louder than any sound maker you would put in your room. Or maybe it was food that was new, but the spices familiar. Or maybe it was the people, a character about them that brought to mind old conversations. Or maybe it was the red dirt roads lacking motorized vehicle traffic. Or maybe it was the cloth that was full of colors. Or maybe it was bathing out of a bucket (though, sadly, not under the stars). Whatever it was, it was familiar.

congo sunset

congo fabric

This was a wonderful trip of beginning new and exciting work in a new place that had a little taste of home. Stay tuned in the months to come to hear more about this program. We are designing rain tanks and latrines for primary schools that have neither, and we will have to build a classroom for the rain tanks because the wood and mud rooms with thatch roofs that currently exist will not work. It is so exciting to be working in a new place, one where people are eager to join hands to solve their own problems. A place that is remote enough that you do not see other NGOs. It demands imagination and persistence, and those are available to us. One step at a time, we will work together and change the WASH situation and change the health of the children in this place that is new but feels so familiar to me.

congo school

congo toilet

A little bonus for me: traveling in fun, little planes.

congo plane

fall camping

I love camping. I love the point where you leave cell coverage and electricity behind and are stuck with your friends and the supplies that you remembered to pack. I am thankful for friends to share such times with, and for those who instigated a camping trip to Mineral King, a part of Sequoia National Park, last weekend.

mineral king paths

We left after work and had fun finding messages our friends left for us on the back of the sign-in boards about where to find them. “Pam & Ben: All the good camp sites taken, proceed to Cold Springs.” “ Pam & Ben: We are at at site 25.” A fun treasure hunt in the dark after the drive up the crazy road through Mineral King.

mineral king stream 2

mineral king stream

The nights were cold, the days beautiful. It was a taste of fall with leaves turning yellow and cool, clean, crisp air. It was a taste of life where the drought is not so extreme as we hiked by as stream and up to a waterfall.

mineral king campsite

For Ben and I, it was our first camping trip together. We tested out our new tent and sleeping pads. We shared food by a fire and conversation with friends. Next up is making our own camping box and our own camping ‘normal.’ What fun it is to get to make new traditions and try new things with a loved one. Mineral King might have to become one of those normals in the years to come as there were so many trails we did not get a chance to explore. But then, there is so much of California yet to explore.

mineral king us

ps – Ben’s blog post on this trip can be found HERE.

warm welcomes in south asia

In the last two and a half weeks, I have visited communities in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India. South Asia is a new discovery for me, and it has been rich with flavors, smells, textures, colors, and all-around beauty.

I have been welcomed so warmly in each location, and I wish I could have spent longer to share stories, particularly with the women I met. These warm welcomes have included flowers, drinks, and food. One of the new things for me has been being greeted with flowers – single flowers, small bouquets, garlands, and flower petals (tossed both on and at my head). I love the beauty. In homes, I was regularly greeted with sugary tea made fresh when we showed up at their door, and a few times, with fresh coconut water. At my last stop of the trip, Jyotshna decided to not only make tea, but suddenly sweet dough was being fried up as well for a warm and yummy treat.

It has been fun to be welcomed so openly and with such warmth. It has made me think about how I choose to welcome visitors who show up at my door – both the expected and unexpected. I hope I exhibit some of the warmth that I felt on this trip.

Here is a little photo journey of some of those welcomes.



My first flower garland… in Sri Lanka.



These flowers were on a table, but similar ones were tossed at me as well.




Coconut water: sometimes in the coconut, sometimes poured into a glass.




May the sugary tea commence, sometimes in beautiful tea cups.



Green papaya fresh from the garden, served with salt. (One of many fruits I was served, most were not documented.)


Making fresh fried dough… oh so yummy.



A wonderful little feast at my last visit for this trip in Assam, India.





redeeming missiles

redeem: compensate for the faults or bad aspects of something (The New Oxford American Dictionary)

missile plantar

I do not know where bullets end and missiles begin, but as I crossed the compound, it seemed to me that what I was seeing would fall into the (small?) missile category. Except that instead of looking threatening and telling stories of trauma, this missile was disguised as a planter. The end of the missile was cut off and plants tumbled out of its top. It was beautiful. Had I not known where I was, I probably never would have taken a second look as it was beside a tree in a large courtyard, and I never would have realized what I was seeing. But I did, and it made me smile to see how this home in northern Sri Lanka had redeemed this weapon of war. Intentional or not, a symbol of war became a symbol of beauty, violence replaced with peace. A stunning act, a beautiful moment.

I am so thankful when I notice  ‘little’ things when I am traveling.

a lake gateway in uganda

This weekend as I curled up at home, I kept thinking about my trip to Uganda earlier this year. A good friend and I visited Lake Bunyonyi just north of the border with Rwanda. A mountain lake, the evenings were cool and we huddled under our blankets, but the days were warm. At an ecolodge on a small island, we had some of the joys of camping without any of the stress. Home was a straw geodome with an open front looking onto the lake. Our balcony made for a perfect view of the night sky so clear that the Milky Way was like a cloud across the sky. The outdoor shower had a picture perfect view. Taking the local dugout canoes on the lake was an exercise of patience and laughter as we discovered our abilities in western canoes and kayaks did not apply here. And the food was good, simple, and cheap. What more could you ask for on a weekend getaway? Here are some photos and at the end some ‘how to’ details for those of you enticed to make a trip of your own!

Taking a pause from paddling… also a pause from going in circles.

Sunset over the lake.

The outdoor shower with a view of the lake. I love showering outdoors, so this was pure happy.

Looking into the geodome from the balcony. Those are just regular old candles on the table. Above the bed in the middle there is a little skylight.

This is the view from the bed towards the balcony… where we played many games of cards, sunned ourselves, red books, and watched the stars at night.

The night sky. Do you see the Milky Way. This is what happens when there is no light pollution and no moon.

How to: 

  • Visit the Byoona Amagara and make a reservation using their email addresses. When I went, it was about $17 per person.
  • Take a bus from Kampala or Kigali to Kabale. From Kapmala you can take the Post Bus or Jaguar. Best to get tickets ahead of time to make sure you have a seat. There are cheaper options, but the mini-bus routes will take much more time and you will be much less comfortable – I suggest paying the price (less than $20). Kabale is about 6 hrs from Kampala and about 1 hr from the Rwanda border.
  • From Kabale, find a taxi to take you out to Lake Bunyonyi and to the dock for Byoona Amagara. From there you can either get the powered boat (a few dollars and about 15 minutes) or take a canoe (free and about an hour).
  • All electricity on the island is powered by solar power, so it is likely that you will not have much power if it has been cloudy/rainy, so be prepared with a flashlight (although they do provide candles). Also, the water is heated by solar, but if it has not warmed up, the staff will heat water for a bucket bath if you want.
  • This is an ideal location to relax, read, do some canoeing, play games, and watch the stars. If you want to do lots of hiking, this is probably not for you. If you need to rest and recharge, this is your spot.

This has been one of my favorite trips in the region – I hope you love it too!

a weekend in lalibela: churches carved into hills

Lalibela has been on my ‘to visit’ place for years – ever since I first learned about it.  Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia that is the location of 11 “rock-hewn” churches. I think it is difficult to grasp what rock-hewn really means: they are carved from / into the hillside. I have been to Petra many times, where the facades of burial rooms were carved – the grand images you see are the carved fronts of the sandstone hills. The Lalibela churches are not just facades but, for most of them, their full structure is carved out of the stone. The most grand churches look as if they were built of small stones put together – the hill has been chiseled far away from the church structure and there are wonderful pillars inside and out. You can read more about the history of the churches at the UNESCO World Heritage Site or Wikipedia. Here is a brief photo journal.

Some of the churches are still connected to their hillside – you can see the hillside above the church.

And in others, you can see the hill connected at the back of the church.

Several of the churches are completely freestanding – everything, pillars included, has been carved from the same stone. (This church has started to fall apart so is protected by a roof above what is visible in this photo and some of the pillars have had to be replaced with bricks, which you can see in this photo.)

This was my favorite church: completely freestanding with just one entrance to the hole in the hill that contains the church (black part on right of photo).

This is a side view of the same church. Isn’t that awesome?!

But not all of the churches were quite as grand. However, just take a moment and think about how much rock had to be chiseled away to make this simple church. And that chiseling was done through volcanic rock, not sandstone.

Then there is the church that might have been the palace of King Lalibela. I took this photo from the other side of what I would call a moat. To me, this looks like a castle, although the inside has been modified to be a church. What do you think?

In order to go inside any of the churches, you had to take off your shoes. At one church, you exit from a different place than you enter. The watchman was kind and moved our shoes to where we would exit.

At some churches old, magnificent wood doors remained.

The interior of some churches were plain, but others were wonderfully carved. In this church, the beveled wall goes around the entire inside wall.

This is the interior of the cross church, which appropriate has crosses on the ceilings of each part of the church.


This was probably the most impressive interior because it looked so much like a basilica – a center with two aisles, all lined with columns. Grand. But pause for a second and notice the floor: it is as bumpy and uneven as it looks under the carpets. Apparently the precision of the workmen extended to the walls and ceilings was not necessary where mere man would walk.

In a couple churches, there were paintings on the walls or on canvases. Here, you can see some of the old paintings on the ceiling and a newer canvas painting popped up on the floor. The styles are Ethiopian and all tell Bible stories and the stories of martyrs in distinctly Ethiopian colors and styles.

I was shown this book, 600 years old, when I hiked to another church about 4 miles away. In most countries, this would be behind glass or taken out of storage only for special visitors. I am thankful for the honor of seeing this book and several others. Again, notice the style of the painting.

Here we take a step outside to something I normally think of as belonging inside a church: the baptismal. Each baptismal is carved into the stone outside the church – many of them meters deep. Although I cannot imagine getting into this water. I love the contrasting colors it creates.

While there is so much more to be seen, you need to go in person to explore these churches. It will be well worth the time. Today, I leave you with a Lalibela sunset.



a week in italy: rome & assisi

After my Greek island vacation, I continued to Italy. While the whole reason for being in Italy was a conference in Assisi, I was able to squeeze two (very) full days in Rome in before the conference. My normal strategy when I have a short trip in a walkable location is to walk… and walk… and walk. I stop inside at a few places I either planned on or stumble upon, but mostly I walk. I find it is the perfect way to get to know a city and I normally leave content – feeling as if I have had a taste of the place and made the most of my time. This is a short photo journal.

I love the fountains of Rome. The combination of art and water is marvelous. The use of Egyptian hieroglyphs always seems oddly out of place to me. (Just as Roman roads and columns seem odd when next to the ancient ruins in the Middle East. History is beautiful and I love when places tell their stories of how interconnected the world really is.)

Another fountain. Because I love them.

This statue is from the Castel Sant’Angelo. This statue of Saint Michael was carved by Rafaello and was originally found on top of the castle. It now sits in a courtyard, but still has a majestic stance. I feel in love with the tarnished bronze wings which brought stunning texture to the statues as well as a sense of passing time.

One of the things I had intended to do was to be at the Colosseum for the “magic light” time of day just before sunset when the colors are rich and fully saturated, the sky its deepest blues. I toured the colosseum, then the Palatine Hill, and came back to wait. It was perfect and brought a magnificence that was absent during the bright daylight hours. While part of me wanted to stay as night fell, I decided it was time to continue on. I ended my evening with an hour of fantastic people watching at the Trevi Fountain while having beer and pizza.

Should you make a trip to Rome, I highly suggest you check out the Roma Pass which will give you free entrance to two sites, reduced entrance to others, fast-tracked lines at the Colosseum, and serves as a metro & bus pass. Just be sure to reserve it about a week before you travel.

Then I was off to Assisi for a conference on love and forgiveness with the Fetzer Institute.  Over the four days of the conference I was inspired and challenged, and I remain thankful for the people I met and the friendships developed. Above is the Basilica of St. Francis.

This was the view as I walked around Assisi for four days. Stunning images of the countryside. I hope to return in the future and explore more of this countryside as I am sure it would make for a marvelous and relaxing vacation. After this I left Europe and returned to Africa. Next up will be travels and life in Africa, which seems to be a worlds away from these images and memories.

hydra: how to

Just in case the last post made you want to vacation on a Greek island or you are hunting all over the internet for information on Hydra, here is a ‘how to’ plan your Hydra (or Greek island) vacation with some extra tips & hints.

  • Go to your local library and pick up the Lonely Planet for Greece or Greek Island or Rick Steves’ for Greece (or order from Amazon with these links). Read about all of the different islands, hunting for one that suits your vacation desires. We landed on Hydra because it sounded a bit different & we liked the idea of no cars for a week. Each island has its own draw.
  • Start looking for places to stay. We really wanted a house or flat so that we could have our own space, cook, and just generally relax for the week. Here are some sites that we used for our research as well as where we stayed:
  • Book your flights & ferry. The larger islands have several ferry options. Hydra has only one, Hellenic Seaways. You can book tickets about a month in advance and need to have reservations as they are often full (Euro 25.50 one way to Hydra). If you are flying in, be warned that you need to pick up your ferry ticket at least 1 hour before the ferry leaves. For airport to port, you can take the bus (Euro 5, direct bus that takes about 1 hr 20 min), the metro (Euro 8, requires a metro change, not sure on timing) or a taxi (clearly more expensive…). Just look for the signs at the airport.

  • Hydra specific tips:
    • Early September is a great time to go: past the worst heat, past peak tourist season, but still warm and wonderful with lots of fruits and vegetables in season.
    • There is no fresh water source on the island. All fresh water is boated in, and all water out of the taps is slightly brackish, so is not for drinking. For drinking water, buy bottled water at any store, which is inexpensive.
    • There is one grocery that will carry groceries to your place with a donkey for free, but you have to put in the order the day ahead. (Please note, you can at any time pay to have a donkey carry your groceries, luggage, or other earthly treasures.) Plan your water and beverages as much as possible, plus other essentials to make use of that trip! We made arrangements the first evening, got things the next day, and then picked other stuff up along the way.
    • There are no sand beaches on Hydra – just pebble beaches and swimming rocks. The swimming rocks are great, the water crystal clear. Just don’t go dreaming of sand beaches.

    • There is a house museum, Koundouriotus Museum, on the island, and it is worth the time and money (Euro 4). It was fun to see a house from when Hydra was at its high point as well as the clothes. The Naval museum was ok, but not something I would highly recommend.

    • There is great hiking to be done around the island. The best map available is a topo map. While helpful, it is still a bad map so go out with an adventurous spirit and plenty of water as you will not just stumble across fresh water sources on this island (see bullet point one). Also, although you will pass many churches, most will not be open – but worth knocking on all of them. At one place a nun opened the compound to us, then shared some grapes literally cut from the vine above her door with us.

    • One restaurant worth checking out is the “Sunset Restaurant”. It is located on the west side of the harbor, around the bend a ways. Clearly a stunning view (rated by ABC as the 2nd best restaurant with a view). Yummy.

    • If you love Baklava, look at the window cases of the restaurants lining the port. One displays various desserts, including baklava. Do you see those almonds? Yeah. 2 pieces shared amongst the 5 of us gave us each such a divine sugar high we were back the next night.

If you go – have a great time and let me know about your trip!


hydra: a greek island vacation

It was an outstanding vacation. Eight uninterupted days on Hydra – a Greek island with no cars (but plenty of donkeys) with some of my awesome family. I am not sure when I last took a true break – so long and far from communication that I could truly unplug and forget about life off the island. We slept late, ate great food, swam in crystal clear water, hiked hills, saw monasteries, ‘discovered’ hidden beaches, read books, and played games. In a later post, I will share a few ‘how to’ tips in case you decide this island is for you. For now, a photo journal. If you want more great photos of the city (and a humorous account of the low water pressure, check out Lauren’s blog).

First, meet my fellow vacation peeps: Lar, Matt, Mom & Dad. Awesome company. And that is part of the city / port of Hydra.

Let’s start with the town. Exactly what I imagined a Greek island town to look like: whitewashed walls everywhere, blue shutters, red tile roofs, winding paths, and bougainvillea (vine with magenta flowers in this photo).

A restaurant in waiting. Not even trying to be picture perfect.

I wonder when this lantern was last used.

The city of Hydra from above. You are either walking up or down in the town (and around the island). Other islands can be seen in the distance.

On our walks, we came across other ports – the ports of the local fishermen. I love how old boats tell stories with their worn wood and peeling paint.

My hiking companions. Hot and sweaty, but loving the adventure (and dreaming of the swim to come).

One day we hiked over the island and back down to this hidden beach, which we had entirely to ourselves.

Another day the whole crew hiked to the top of the island (just more than 500 meters) to catch the view for miles around.

This was the view from the top. It felt like we were on top of the world.

On our hikes we saw ancient, gnarled olive trees.

And we saw desert flowers in bloom.

And we visited old churches with beautiful ceilings.

And we met donkeys, the island’s transport system.

I promise we did more than hike – we also cooled off in the crystal clear waters surrounding the island.

There was incredible food – here a massive piece of baklava. 2 pieces shared amongst 5 and we were all in sugar comas. Not pictured were the fresh peaches, figs, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers and other fresh fruit that was simply divine. Or the food we made or the food we ate out. So good. And the feta. Yummmy.

I mentioned that we ‘made’ food. We love to cook and this was our view every night: sunset followed by the city lights from our house on a hill. Would you go out ever night if you could have this?

Today I leave you with this photo – of an alternative boat dock. Just one of so many hidden gems on Hydra.



i climbed ben nevis

Not too many weeks ago, I climbed (hiked) Ben Nevis, the highest point in the UK (though lower in elevation than my home in Kigali). Today it has been cold and rainy, which somehow seems an appropriate time to write about the climb. This was a big climb for me – my longest ever. You go from sea level to 4,400 feet and back in about 9.5 miles. For all the other outdoor things I love, you might wonder why this is the longest hike (in terms of elevation change) I have done. I have bad knees, and honestly did not know how they would do, but figured it was worth finding out.

I tried to put everything in my favor including buying walk poles. In America, it seems walking pools are for the old or the trendy. In Scotland, however, they were a normal part of hiking attire and at least one third of the hikers (of all shapes and sizes and ages) had them. Given that Scotland is a land of walking, hiking, and climbing, I decided to learn from their wisdom. I am thankful that I did learn and plan on taking the sideways glances of Americans with a smile on my face every time I use them in the future. They are grand.

Back to the mountain. Actually, first to the glen. Our first day at Fort William, we decided to hike Glen Nevis, the valley below Ben Nevis. I didn’t think about the kilometers to miles conversion much, and we ended up doing a 12 mile walk. I can fairly confidently say that Matt & Lauren (brother & sister-in-law) would have been thrilled to turn back early and cut the walk in half (or less). But, they humored me as I urged them on, and we stopped for many pictures along the way.

The next day was Ben Nevis. We were prepared with food, drinks, all appropriate layers and a compass in case the top became totally clouded in. The nice guy at the shop described it as a “long, hard plod.” But it was already sunny (miracle) and the weather forecast was good (another miracle). And so we began the plod up the mountain. At this point, I was reminded that my legs are used to walking flat ground for miles at end, but going up is not their favorite. Matt, who bikes all the hills of Edinburgh, smiled and urged me on. Ever the brother, he loved the role reversal.

Matt and I did make it to the top where we the clouds again cleared and granted us some amazing views. I need to mention here that Lauren, though not feeling great, made it half way up the mountain. This, from a woman who bought her first pair of hiking shoes less than two years ago. Check out her comments about the mountain here. And that is how I climbed a mountain, saw some grand views, and fell in love with walking poles.

easter at lake kivu & genocide memorial week

Sometimes watching four episodes of The West Wing (tea cup in hand) is what it takes to free the mind and want to communicate with the world. This is just one of the many indicators that I am indeed an introvert. The much more fun thing is why an afternoon like that was needed – all the time spent with family and friends (whom I really love) in the past weeks at absolutely beautiful locations. And since Easter was just last week, I want to tell you about the Easter travels to Lake Kivu.

I have often said that nothing is simple in Africa, and this past week is a reminder of how true a statement that is. At last minute my parents ended up in Rwanda for Easter (just another story for my crazy family). This means that they were also here for Genocide Memorial Week. Part of their time was spent in Gisenyi, a town on Lake Kivu next to the DRC border. Here are some tidbits of what we did and what we learned.

Gisenyi, Lake Kivu & Paradis Malahide

I remember reading about Lake Kivu in some of my Environmental text books because it has methane and carbon dioxide gas at its bottom. It is a mountain lake that sits at around 4,800 feet and is 1,500 feet deep in parts and, in theory, could flip and kill those around the lake. There are only two other lakes with gases trapped at depth – both in Cameroon. Maybe this makes you bored or scared – it made me smile.

For my first trip to Lake Kivu, I went to Gisenyi. Really, I went to a hotel just outside of Gisenyi called Paradis Malahide because our little group never found a reason to leave the hotel. Paradis Malahide seems like it is plopped in amongst a wandering village, with a bit of beach and hillside carved out just for guests. It was a perfect escape – for us, an Easter escape. If you go, bring a swim suit, books, games, an appetite for some yummy fish in the evenings, and be prepared to enjoy the bonfire each evening at the restaurant. What I learned: Paradis Malahide is a perfect place for a quiet weekend, a place to be rejuvenated with relaxation. But, if you want to be active, probably not perfect. I shall definitely be back in the months to come!


The beach at Paradis Malahide, our rooms in the back.

Carcassonne, a favorite board game.

Bonfire fun – don’t forget to import your marshmellows.

Genocide Memorial Week

Each year Rwanda takes a week to remember the genocide of 1994. The government chooses a theme for the week, everything shuts down the first and last day of the week, and most afternoons as well. To some degree, this continues for 100 days – the length of the genocide. This is my second time to be here for this week, and the country takes on a somber, even depressed, mood. As an outsider, there is little to do but respect that which is everywhere you turn and pray that those mourning would find comfort and healing. If you visit during this time (or any other time) this what I have learned: If you want to know stories, read books because retelling is reliving, and who are we to ask such a thing? If you have advive for someone who lived through the genocide or has family here, keep it to yourself – this place and history is more complex and greater than we can understand. If you want to learn – listen, observe, and respect. Like all rules, sometimes these should be broken. But, they are a good starting point.

And now it is time for this introvert to turn from The West Wing to the book that is filling spare moments with smiles: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


sunset at the tea factory

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago when I was at the Sorwathe Tea Factory for the night. It was absolutely stunning and wonderfully peaceful. Before long, I will share a bit more about the bed & breakfast, the view, and the good work that Sorwathe does. For now, I am sitting in the airport getting ready to head to another country filled with beautiful hills – Scotland – so it shall have to wait. Get ready for pictures of old buildings, good food, and beautiful countryside to be taken with my camera that is waiting there for me. Sigh. Vacation will be wonderful. So thankful my brother and sister-in-law moved to Edinburgh!

italian in nairobi

In the midst of turning towards fun, I want to share some of the places that have become old friends as well as the new discoveries made here and on my travels. And so today, I introduce you to my blog category called ‘places’ and Osteria, an Italian restaurant in Nairobi.


A friend and I arrived at Osteria for Saturday lunch, and it could not have been more perfect. The tables outside made it seem we were in a courtyard, possibly a thousand miles away. Bruschetta, mozzarella, basil, mushrooms, pasta, and wine. I am convinced that the lack of good cheese in Kigali has not completely lowered my standards and that it was indeed good food. I would go on and on about each dish we had if I did not think you would immediately begin to think of ways to ship me cheese. But, just one comment: capris salad – fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil leaves, balsamic vinegar. Perfection. Add to that smiling staff that were there when needed, but melted away and were happy to let us talk for hours, stretching the meal long so that our tummies could find space for a few bites more.


Yes, Osteria has officially been added to my list of places to frequent when I am in Nairobi. In case you need a bit more convincing, they have an ice cream shop as well that looked like it was filled with homemade gelato. The family sitting outside looked like they were in a small piece of heaven. Unfortunately we were too stuffed for even a small scoop, so should you stop by, please let me know how it is.