Category Archives: south africa


Periodically, a city will break my heart, like men do. It’s my fault. I tend to fall in love with places in the same passionate and physical way I would for a man, with abandon and with an all or nothing attitude that has characterized many a relationship. I can’t help succumb to the charms of an unexpected corner, a rainy day, a sliver of light that falls just right behind a bell tower, a pristine beach or just a personality that I know from the start is not suited to my needs, but will bring me to my knees anyway.


Easy to fall in love

Each city I have loved has its peculiar smell, just like the pheromones we emit, otherwise known as “that smell at the nape of his neck”. I could be blindfolded and dropped at Heathrow and I would know right away, from the metallic and sooty smell, that I was on London’s doorstep. Exiting Los Angeles, it’s smog and salt that greet you while alighting from the train at Venice’s station it’s algae and mud.

London was my first love, the one I will always remember and the one I thought would last forever. So removed from the deep reds of my childhood, from the fat palazzos I grew up in, so absolutely un-Italian, it stole my heart and I ran away with it, in an exhilarating free fall that landed me in one of the most exciting adventures of my life. What are now the fashionable East End docks, were once derelict ports of entry in disuse, still reeking of wooden ships, sweaty sailors and cheap whisky. I used to love exploring what wasn’t there anymore if not in my imagination, centuries of docking and embarking, the water still crashing against the abandoned embankments, unperturbed.

As grey as they say


Los Angeles is the friend who became a lover, a bit unsure at first if it would work out but willing to give it a go. And it has paid in kind my trust tenfold, slowly yielding to my advances and finally giving in. It’s the one I still live with, the one that has endured the longest against all odds, while Venice is the love that beckons, the one your mother has always warned you against, nothing good will come from it. But dreaming is cheap, if not easy, and fantasizing about “what if” leaves the door open to untold possibilities.


Those famed LA beaches

And then there is Cape Town, like the gorgeous hunk you are lying with and can’t quite believe has bestowed his favours on you. Aware it can’t last, you enjoy his charms for as long as the ride will let you.

A different ocean


As with most of my men, I betrayed them all. A next place, a next love, another broken heart and a few more suitcases each time. But, as with most of my men, I don’t regret a single one.


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Some of us run around all day long, often with a lot of self-importance but little purpose. Some run for their life. Literally.

I wrote before about the South African NGO my best friend works for, Positive Heroes – – whose focus is aimed at removing the stigma of HIV in a country where AIDS is still too often a death sentence, and at helping people understand that, with a proper and constant regimen of medications, it is possible to live a normal life. But two items made me think about it again. First, the news was all over the grim 30th anniversary of the discovery of HIV/AIDS – the spin was on how much has been accomplished and how HIV has moved from being certain death to chronic disease. Well, in this country at least. In the same week, a panel of experts on KCRW were discussing donor fatigue and how Western countries are getting tired of paying for somewhat costly medications to keep people alive in sub Saharan Africa.

But, before even connecting sick people to the pills that are going to save them, the first step is getting them to understand that life with HIV is worth living, that it’s not shameful and I admire those who have come forward, publicly, black and white and who, to publicize and impress upon others what can be achieved, run marathons, helped by Positive Heroes. How many of us still remember when we weren’t sure whether it was ok to kiss, shake hands, share a glass of water with an infected person? In the US, we take for granted that HIV is just another medical condition and using condoms has become a no brainer, part of high school curricula. Not so in countries where literacy is low, where women are often subjugated to the will of men, where clinics in rural areas are few and far between and often cannot afford to carry the drugs, where explaining and hoping that patients will follow a strict regimen of pills taking still hover between a wing and a prayer.

The video here attached moved me because it underlines the divide between rich and poor countries or, in the case of South Africa, a wealthy country, with inequalities that are still overwhelming. There are still places where finding the voice to say “I am HIV positive and I can do this” is still a superhuman effort. How many of us, healthy ones, could even run a marathon?

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A friend of mine who lives in Italy recently sent me the link to a WordPress blog out of Cape Town, South Africa. To check the veracity of the information it contains, I bounced it to my friend Sue who lives in Cape Town and happens to work for an NGO.

If you take the time to click on the link at the bottom you will read in detail what happens to gay women in a society still steeped in tribalism and who strongly denies homosexuality. Women are raped in an effort to change their sexual identity. Sue widens the subject to encompass all women who, being victims of poverty, ignorance and few prospects, struggle to maintain their dignity, let alone their identity.

When I come across stories like these I am reminded of how fortunate I have been. Yes, I, and women like me, probably encountered sexual discrimination along the way but, in many instances, we had the instruments to recognize it and fight it where necessary. Fifteen years in the rock ‘n roll industry at a time when women were few and far between, exposed me not only to sexual discrimination but to sex in all its forms – narrated, joked about, offered and if, for a time, the openness men displayed on the subject in my presence made me feel like I was part of the boys’ club, I  have since come to recognize how demeaning it all was.

The following are some comments Sue offered on the subject of what black South African women face on a daily basis. At the bottom is the link if you would like to know more about a subject that seems so far-fetched while sitting here in LA. And to read more about South Africa, you can check out her blog


“There was a survey carried out here amongst young black men living in townships (a specific demographic). The men reported that 25 percent of them had raped a woman at some time. The overall feeling being “when a woman says no she really means yes”. As an addendum – of 1000 women surveyed in the same survey – 1 in 3 of them reported having been raped. The townships have a huge problem with gangs – and there’s this practice called ‘jackrolling’ which is basically gang rapes after you have had a couple of drinks.

And then, of course, our President was accused of having sex with a HIV positive family friend who was staying with his daughter in their home. And he took a long shower afterwards to ensure he washed the virus off. She lost her case …. surprise!

Black women have few rights because of male supremacy in the tribal set-up. Women’s rights in Africa are seldom enforced. Religious and Tribal customs further reduce their power, as does poverty, the practice of having children with each man you have a relationship with, little enforcement of child support, male physical and economic strength etc. Homosexuality is seen as an abomination – regardless of what sex you are. The men are beaten and for lesbians – the corrective rape issue is a real problem.

Think about the challenges you and I have experienced as women in the world, and still experience because of male attitudes. Now multiply that by an infinite number – and you get the good picture on where African women really stand with regard to equality and protection. One of the greatest unspoken myths of our ‘civilization’: women are equal to men.

Young women are the fastest growing group within the HIV/Aids area. They have no power to force men to wear condoms. Them wearing “femidoms” (female condoms) is a laugh. The barrier cream is not yet approved or on the market. And saying no is impossible. In addition, men often have multiple partners – so one man can infect many more women than the other way around. (A man I know, who holds a very senior position in a huge corporation told me the other day that some of his friends, when they want to test for HIV – send their girlfriends to be tested. If she is positive – he kicks her out and finds a new girl.)

Economic empowerment is the only way that change is going to happen.

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I was doing so very well. After a day spent revelling in the natural beauty of this impossible to replicate city, we went out for fancy cocktails at the fancy downtown hotel “15 on Orange” (it has been fashionable for a while now to name hotels simply with their address coordinates). I then cooked mushroom risotto for everyone and happily settled on the couch to watch “Satisfaction”, an Australian tv show about highly paid escorts that I could have only discovered through Sue, the tv fiend. After 3 episodes I am hooked and very happy to report it can be rented on Netflix for any of you who might be interested in trashy, girly tv.

This morning was fine too. Looking forward to a last jaunt through Cavendish where, in an inspired feat of architectural planning, the best coffee shop in the mall is adjacent to the bookstore – they actually share an entrance next to the magazine bay. You see where I am going with this – one shamelessly borrows magazines and settles on the battered leather couch sipping good coffee and taking in all the gossip, fashion and design trends without shedding a dime on the actual glossies.

But once at the airport, my feelings started going downhill as I was leaving my best friend behind, putting a couple of continents and oceans between us. In the last 25 years, we have shared the ups and downs of our lives and she is my family. I know Ottie and I could live here, in her proximity, and be quite at home. The act of leaving is always so fraught with the realizations of everything that could be but will not.

If South Africa is plagued with unrest, unemployment, inequality and abject poverty, there is still a sense that things could be possible here. Maybe because it’s a new democracy which embraced capitalism fully only less than two decades ago. As a dinner companion pointed out a few days ago “the whites are not in power anymore, it’s a completely black government that is still fumbling about. Whites are here because they need our expertise and by the grace of this government but things could always change”. Not everybody shares this doom and gloom – countless foreign capitals and resources are still tied here, democracy might be in its infancy but it is strong and it’s not so much a racial struggle that is taking place but an economic one. Poverty vs those who have, whether black or white. This ferment is attractive to an outsider because it smells of transformations.

The sun is now setting behind the large airport windows. It will be a long night and an even longer day tomorrow, in the company of books and strangers. In a couple of days my life will go back to its normalcy, as normal as any life can be. I am hoping I will be able to hold on to the courage and the sense of purpose travelling always instill.

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When people gather together in South Africa, the defining meal is a braai – essentially a barbecue.  Meat is at the forefront of most meals although, despite having seen thousands of ostriches, I haven’t noticed much ostrich meat, either in supermarkets or on restaurant menus.

Many chefs, especially from Britain and Australia, have moved here where, once the gruelling visa applications have been satisfied, it is much easier and much cheaper to open a restaurant. All this talent is reflected in menus everywhere which bear a definite resemblance to those of contemporary restaurants in the US. Many star chefs make an appearance such as Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa, mainly for the delight of the international crowd.

I had many lovely meals and the common denominator among all the establishments around Cape Town and the surrounding areas we visited is the cleanliness of design. Whether having breakfast in a cafe or dinner at a nice restaurant, the decor is invariably flawless, simple and inviting with many of the indigenous raw material present. There is not a room where I haven’t felt at ease and I wished many a restaurateur from our shores would take these cues – pleasantly uncluttered spaces and  acceptable noise levels.  Bright colours mix with wood and bamboo, decorative African elements paired with clean lines reminiscent of contemporary London. It’s been a delight for the eyes and the senses.

Carbs Heaven

In a couple of restaurants, the kitchens clearly where trying too hard and ended up with messy dishes that felt like a hybrid between some experimental uninspired chef and second-rate food magazines. But, mostly, it has been good. No, great. Like the open face chicken sandwich, with the chicken strips perfectly pan-fried and dusted with paprika, the mushrooms sweated with herbs to bring out the flavour and a sturdy rye bread to sustain the greens. The tuna salad at a chain of upscale bakeries was simply adorned with olive tapenade and shone in the homemade, slightly sweet dressing.  The butterfish eaten at a pub in Nature’s Valley was so spectacularly tender, with a crunchy crust that it didn’t matter the vegetables were boringly steamed.

The snack of choice is biltong, strips of dried beef sold everywhere in small packs, that can be hard and leathery or slightly moist on the inside, depending on the area where it’s made. What will definitely be in my suitcase are the rolls of pressed dried fruit that unfurl, all sticky in your hands, and make for the best plane snack ever. And if I lick my fingers, I can skip the trip down the aisle to wash my hands in the crammed toilets..

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The chickens won’t stop chit chatting with, telling each other stories. The rooster sings his song incessantly, regardless of what time of day it is. These are happy chickens – they know nothing of coops where birds are stacked in cages, on top of each other, five tall. They go around all day pecking in this huge garden, among fruit trees, fiery lavender and rosemary bushes and vegetable patches. The aroma is intoxicating, from lavender and from trees I don’t know, whose smell is akin to honey. We are staying at an old Dutch farm-house, prettily restored and now rented to tourists. It’s tucked away near the school, a bit far from the main road, where other pretty Dutch farm houses can be seen. Not that anything is too far away from anything else in Prince Albert. Or Prins Albert, that Saxon Coburg offspring from whom this town takes its name. Originally it must have been a Dutch farming outpost in the Karoo Desert. It’s now been gentrified, some folks are retiring here, some farming is still done but it’s still far away from most conveniences of the modern world. A long car drive is required for groceries, hardware or whatever other necessities of daily life. On the other hand, at the antique store everything is priced for tourists, with not a bargain to be had.

Forget me Not Farmhouse

The Karoo is a vast desert, similar to the Californian one, just much bigger, its mountains higher, its earth redder. It’s our last stop on our road trip along the Garden Route and by now we are so unwound and unmotivated that, after exploring the town (which took the whole of 20 minutes) we spend the rest of the day in our farmhouse garden, with the chickens, the cats and the dogs. They all seem to get along famously well.

But the sleepiness and the tidiness of this tiny little place is deceptive. What the tourist doesn’t see, nor is he particularly encouraged to see, is the North End at the very edge of town – where the extremely impoverished blacks and coloreds live (“coloreds” here is the official term to describe citizens of mixed race). There is no possibility for a black middle class here, just menial jobs and probably not too many. The town is making some effort at integration although I didn’t see any dark faces strolling along the main street – just a couple of kids on the way to a softball game and an old, drunk woman. As in the old days, alcoholism is still a problem, thanks to the homemade brews that are made in the townships.

And as in most places, the unlikeliest people can be found to bridge a cultural or social gap. Or just to wake people up to a different reality. Look at me, I am different and I am here and what are you going to do about it? That is what Hennie Boshoff metaphorically screamed at us when he introduced himself. Villa Kruger is described by the pamphlet as an art house and sculpture garden and it offers tours twice a month, at sunset. Smart move because, being situated slightly higher than the center of town, right where North End begins, it affords a spectacular view of the desert and when the fading sun hits the slopes, it’s a riot of colours. Meanwhile, if taking the tour, you will be standing in a cacti and succulents garden, surrounded by sculptures that Hanni, an art dealer and artist himself, brought back from his previous lives around the world.

One of Rossetta's scultpures

With each tour, Hennie recounts a personal exploration of his life as a poor Afrikaner child in Durban, a child who made art and who escaped the regime at his first opportunity. I suspect the story being told is for the benefit of the listener but for Hennie’s as well, a man who might have found his place in this town and extravagant house, with Rosetta as a companion and a couple of dogs, but a man with demons still trying to find answers. He came back to South Africa and, with Rossetta, he makes art with a Zulu group and has created a counterpoint to the nature hikes and the fake antiques with his provocative art choices. It was only the three of us that night and what started with some apprehension on our part upon meeting our hosts, turned into 90 minutes that could have stretched into dinner and, who knows, if we all lived here even a friendship. The man with demon who prodded me to move to Venice, his enigmatic and pale friend and the three of us. A desert rose?


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Would it be possible to be here, in absolute solitude and be able to write a book? Could this solitude, this silence really do the trick? It was so quiet last night to be slightly eerie, a little bit intimidating. Monkeys and baboons had gone to sleep in the tree tops, the scorpion on the doorstep finally retreated to its apartments and the parrots stopped singing. I kept waking up every two hours, spooked by the silence.

If I open the door, though, the roar of the ocean comes growling in. This morning we embarked on a long hike to Hog’s head. Looking up from the desolate beach, a large rock juts out, with a round, flat nose, indentations marking the eyes and the ears – it does look like a pig. We miss the turn and end up all the way at the top of the mountain, commanding a 360 degrees view of the valley, the mountains, the beaches, the lagoon and the river. I realize that the cluster of houses where we are staying is much smaller than I thought from the ground. On the way back we take a trail in the forest, around the lagoon – again, no sounds but for the lapping of the water, our shoes on the cover of dead, crackling leaves. Branches intertwined above us, some dangling at eye level – the path is clear but, with not one of us blessed with a strong sense of direction, we are not quite sure where we are and we plow on, silent and a bit tired. I start thinking of the French woman kidnapped by guerrillas in Colombia and forced to long marches in the jungle for the seven years she was in captivity, moving from camp to camp. She must have gotten incredibly fit.

A river runs through it

The mind plays funny tricks in this silence. Disconnected from the outside world – nothing to let me know what is going on out there, a sense of peace first falls upon me. A welcome feeling of distance and carelessness. As I keep on walking, the chatter kept at bay by contentment bursts in announced as a stream of thoughts encompassing all that I left behind, all my insecurities and worries and  still lingering decisions. Shouldn’t I just enjoy this paradise at this very moment? I walk on, under the sun smiling through the treetops. As in meditation, eventually the thoughts fall away, leaving the door open to let nature’s sounds come in once again.

So, is it really necessary to seek this seclusion in order to write a book? Of course not, but it’s a nice starting point from which to observe one’s mind, unhindered by obligations and the pull to stay connected. When our mind hits the wall, it’s easier to find the door through to the other side.

If I look up at the night sky, the backdrop is the fiercest black against which the stars seem even brighter and the Milky Way is clearer, luminous. And so is the Southern Cross, beckoning and shining like a lantern showing the way to anyone caring to find it.

At the very top

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If I wanted to escape for a while and lay low confident I would not be found, Tsitsikama State Park might be one of my first choices –  a gigantic natural park by the ocean with some houses and cabins nested within its rain forest. The sky is grey, menacing rain, nobody is around and you half expect elves to pop out of the thick vegetation.

Nobody but me..

A long walk on a deserted and pristine beach yielded gigantic jelly fish stranded on the sand, looking like lost space ships, pink shells and  a sense of emptiness and solitude I hadn’t experienced in a while. It’s good to feel small and alone sometimes, to be completely disconnected from the outside world. No tv, radio, internet or newspapers. Well, my cell phone works but I don’t have the heart to switch it on. It looks so incongruous here, among the wild plants and the baboons lurking everywhere, looking for food.

I examined one today from the car window – he was sitting lazily on the side of the road, grooming himself while his friend was carting a bag of chips behind some trees to enjoy lunch. The monkey looked up at me, with an air of disinterest, and I saw a human consciousness in his gaze. Not the same consciousness that Ottie has – in his gaze I see affection, devotion, curiosity for the world around him. The baboon had the gaze of a disinterested stranger I might lock eyes with at the bus stop – it was quite disconcerting to see such human light in his eyes.

Sitting at the table of our simple cabin where we are heating the beds with hot water bottles and stacking blankets on the beds in an effort to survive the cold night, I hear no sounds whatsoever coming from the outside. Not a soul, besides the two people who are with me, has any idea of where I am nor can I be contacted and it feels absolutely wonderful. I finally got to the place where I can put on hold work problems, heartaches, worries, thoughts of the future. Shouldn’t we be able to do this at home, in our rooms, by shutting out the noise and the intrusion and huddle with our families or whatever anchors us? Somehow, technology has made it impossible. All these fictitious problems we invent for ourselves, all the pressing matters we feel the need to respond to immediately  because we can.

In the thick of it

One of our car tires exploded today on the way here – we were in Plattensberg, stocking up on food before going into the wilderness. We stopped and two guys ran over, offering help. “Two ladies cannot change a tire, it’s not a job for women” and they got down to work, no questions asked, hoping they would be somehow rewarded. Had I been in the States, I would have probably taken objection at the remark (sort of true in my case) and promptly called AAA instead of letting a complete stranger help me out. One of our saviours  was wearing the yellow vest of the improvised parking attendants who sprout at every corner whenever you park your car – the other was just hanging around. It was his shoes that caught my attention, as he was lying on the ground lifting our vehicle. His trainers were so full of holes I actually wondered why he was bothering to wear them at all. Somehow I couldn’t walk away from those shoes, every single detail of them still in my eyes – the bright red and black socks underneath to make the shoes look more legitimate. He was smiling, happy to help,  courteous and knew what he was doing because “I help the taxi drivers all the time” and in 10 minutes he was out of our life, waving furiously at us, grinning from ear to ear. It didn’t feel so bad after all to have lost a tire in return for feeding someone who might not have otherwise eaten.


Filed under Garden Route, south africa


The only way I have to describe Knysna is to imagine the Alps suddenly deposited on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Not as high as the Alps, these densely forested mountains run along an immense lagoon fed by the Ocean. Pines and poplars crowd the slopes like sentinels self arranged in endless rows. The sight is as beautiful as it is unexpected.

Rocky CoastWe are now on the Garden Route after having traversed mountains passes and miles of flat, agricultural land. Rather than people, it was sheep, cows and ostriches we encountered. I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting ostrich meat just yet (am not too sure I will get around to it) but I am told it is similar to beef, just a bit more gamey. Beautiful ostrich purses in pastel colours can be found everywhere but after seeing so many of the thin legged birds I am not so sure I could sport one on my arm (the purse, not the bird…).

A walk into the thick forest once again reminds me how far I am – if pines and poplars are familiar, ironwood and stinky wood not so much (the stinky wood tree apparently emanates a foul odour when cut). I tried hard to spot wild elephants between the thick branches but none was kind enough to come have breakfast in my vicinity. As the sun was setting, though, egrets were walking so lightly on the lagoon they looked  as if they were treading water.

Elephants' walk - with no elephants

Despite the crystalline blue sky, it is still winter and there is something a bit forlorn and melancholic about visiting a seaside resort in winter. The ocean looks angry, slamming its waves against the rock, reminding us of the power we sometimes forget when placidly dipping in Summer. I like being here now, with no crowds, just the locals and the wealthy retirees who bought homes in this paradise. Inside the lagoon there are a few islands where beautiful waterfront homes have been built – manicured gardens, shuttered windows, no children at play, it’s idyllic and, like many times before during my travels, I find myself scouring real estate placards and ads for the perfect home of a hypothetical future. At the equivalent of $200,000 for a 3 bedroom, it’s no wonder that some Europeans and wealthy South Africans purchase  second homes  here.

View from our flat

Last week, I had never heard of Knysna, it wasn’t even a name on a map or in a guide-book (all the travel arrangements were left to Sue, the only person on earth I could ever trust with such a task). And now, it’s the center of my universe, if only for a couple of days. It’s this full immersion that travel mentally and emotionally requires I am so attached to. The focus of my day is finding the perfect bakery, how to get from A to B and what the weather will be like. If only…

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Let’s put it this way – we haven’t seen a traffic light since leaving Cape Town. Our exploration of the Western Cape couldn’t start under better auspices: despite the forecast of rain, the sun was still shining. My first trip to South Africa included a visit to Franschoek, the chic wine valley that reminded me of Napa. The  Over Berg (Over the Mountain) area, on the other hand, is sparsely populated, the wineries are small, with marketing ideas still  in their infancy. Day trippers and mass tourism hasn’t made its way here yet – there are no faux antique stores or ice cream parlors or four course restaurants. This is Afrikaans back country. The few towns we encounter consist of a main street, a few stores and Dutch looking houses in neat rows. Most people only speak Afrikaans, I am sure they understand English but they can’t be bothered or else are embarrassed by their poor command of it.

We arrive by climbing the range behind Cape Town – the valleys at the base of the mountains are wide and in a myriad shades of greens. Sheep seem to have the run of the place with the occasional cow and ostrich. The first settlers must have been dismayed upon finding range after range of mountains in their long trek to what is now Zimbabwe and I wonder if the beauty of the land carried them through the hardships.

The bread maker

The food is homey and typical of Afrikaans communities – at the first place we stop, a cook is busy making brick shaped loaves of bread in an ancient oven. The dessert they serve on this Sunday is an unpronounceable concoction that is explained to me as a layer of cake, a layer of apricot jam topped with egg whites (am assuming meringue). On the shelves are jars of curried peaches, plums in wine, preserved grapes. I am intrigued by it all but we settle for lunch at a small winery instead where the menu is a bit more sophisticated. On the way we explore the homestead of an old lady who is renowned for her simple and delicious food – she greets us on the porch, trapped in a red corduroy one-piece dating back to 1940 no doubt. She seems baffled by our idea of wanting to eat and it is apparent we should have called ahead and warned her. Nonetheless she volunteers some sort of meatloaf with a three bean salad. When my friend Sue, in an effort not to offend her by saying we were not really after meatloaf, explains we are vegetarians, the old nana encourages us to visit the next place over where they serve fish and duck. I suppose vegetarianism is not common around here.

View from my window

Only the persistence and the ingenuity of my friend could have landed us at Mardouw. There is absolutely no way anyone could happen upon this lovely retreat at the foothills of the Langerberg Mountains, it is so tucked away. We are the only guests staying here and, in this off-season, the rooms can be had for $60 apiece, which includes breakfast. Just before sunset we walk towards the mountains, startling a trio of sprinboks (they look like small and very fast deer) that saunters across our path. The sounds and chirps of unfamiliar birds waft around us. The sun is setting behind a stream of spring clouds, in this African sky that is bigger, wider and lower than any other sky I have ever seen. I believe it’s an optical illusion but anybody who has been to Africa has the same awe-inspiring experience.

I feel so far away. Even from myself. Will resume posting as soon as I have internet again in a couple of days

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