Archive forMisc

Oh hello! Thanksgiving, pressure canning, etc.

Hi! It’s me, Renae! I am still alive, still in California, still vegan, still cooking, still obsessed with wildlife. The only thing that’s really new is the pervasive feeling of being traumatized that I’ve felt since the election. I keep reading about these “fake news articles” that are apparently running rampant on the internet. Apparently it’s mostly a Facebook thing and I use Facebook so infrequently that I actually have no idea how to even SEE news articles in Facebook, but I keep hoping that maybe all news articles about Trump winning the election are fake news. Please tell me that is the case: please, please, please. But enough about that because I just can’t deal with it.

I’ve decided to write a post here today mostly because it’s raining today here in the Bay Area and I’m therefore not out hiking as I usually would be, plus I took a few pictures of my Thanksgiving table. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner here for our friends Brad and April, who moved to the area about the same time we did last year. I made:

seitan “turkey”
mashed potatoes
green bean casserole
macaroni & “cheese”
cranberry relish

Here are some pics:

And Brad brought a really delicious sweet potato pie and brownies for dessert.

The “turkey”, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green bean casserole I pretty much made up as I went along. The cranberry relish was from Brooklyn Supper and was really good. The bread was the poolish-version ciabatta from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The sauce for the mac & cheese was from Avocados and Ales. The “turkey” was pretty similar to the recipe for breasts of unchicken from The Homemade Vegan Pantry (which I love), but I pressure cooked it as a large loaf on Wednesday, then used Miyoko’s recipe for the yuba “skin” and baked it again Thursday afternoon.

The mashed potatoes were really random (well, as random as mashed potatoes can be anyway); Brad asked me if they had red pepper flakes in them, while saying they were really good. One of the random ingredients was a garlic-based spice mix that I bought from Garlic World while stopping in Gilroy one afternoon trying to avoid heavy Highway 1 traffic on the way home from Monterey, and which apparently contained red pepper flakes. And here’s a rough recipe for the green bean casserole for others like me who hate mushrooms:

Green Bean Casserole
2 lbs green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-3″ lengths
1 small onion, diced
2-3 stalks celery, diced
1 cup vegan chicken or veggie broth
3 Tbsp Ultra Gel
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 avocado
3 oz canned fried onions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the green beans. Cook until al dente, then drain and shock in cold water to stop cooking. Saute the onion and celery in some vegan butter or margarine until onions are translucent; set aside. Whisk together the broth, Ultra gel, onion powder, and garlic powder until the broth thickens. Mash up the avocado and add to the broth mixture and mix well. Stir in the green beans, onion/celery mixture, and half of the fried onions. Place in an oven-safe dish, cover, and bake at 375 for half an hour. Uncover and top with remaining fried onions, then continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes. I baked mine, covered, for half an hour, then cooled and put it in the fridge overnight so it only needed 15-20 minutes on Thanksgiving day.

Oh, and the stuffing was really easy:


1/2 loaf sliced whole wheat bread (about 10 slices)
1 large white onion, diced
4-5 stalks celery, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp vegan butter (I used the vegan butter from The Homemade Vegan Pantry) or margarine
1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
2 Tbsp fresh thyme
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 1/2 cup vegan “chicken” broth + 1 tsp poultry seasoning whisked in

Chop the bread slices into cubes and spread out on a sheet pan. Bake in a 240-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 45 minutes or until dried out, stirring occasionally. Melt the butter or margarine over medium heat, then saute the onion, celery, and garlic until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the sage, thyme, and rosemary and cook another minute or so. Stir in the bread cubes, then add as much of the broth as necessary to soak the bread. Place in an oven-safe dish and bake, covered, at 375 degrees for half an hour. Uncover and bake another 20-30 minutes or until slightly crispy on top. Again, I baked mine, covered, for half an hour Wednesday night, then uncovered for half an hour Thursday afternoon.

I was so organized with my cooking and planning that I was able to go for a short hike Wednesday afternoon before it got dark, and on Thursday morning had a couple hours to just read and be by myself without running around like crazy. 🙂 Really all I needed to do Thursday was bake the bread (I had made the poolish the night before), set out all the appetizers, and re-heat everything. I am good at holidays!

I feel like every time I get around to making a new post I have a new culinary gadget to rave about. Last time it was my Instant Pot. This time it’s my pressure canner! A couple months ago I had 60 pounds of tomatoes I needed to can in one weekend, plus 10 pounds of beets, half of which I was planning to pickle. I’ve done 60 pounds of tomatoes in one weekend in a water bath canner before, but for some reason it was feeling really overwhelming that day and I made the somewhat impulsive decision to buy a pressure canner. It was enough of an impulse decision that I didn’t have time to Amazon Prime it, so I had to find one locally. The only Ace Hardware that had it listed in stock was in Oakland, so I drove out there and went looking for it in that store, but was unable to find it. I asked for help and was told they’d have to special order it for me. I was pretty annoyed I had driven out there for no reason AND I REALLY wanted the canner at this point so I sat in my car and tried to think who else might carry it. I thought of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and went to their website on my phone and was delighted to find that there was a BB&B TWO BLOCKS from where I was that had the same canner in stock! So I went over there and looked around for it. I didn’t see it there either and was feeling a little frantic, until I looked way UP and saw it all the way up by the ceiling. So I had to find someone to get a ladder and get it down for me, but I finally got what I wanted!

I don’t know that pressure canning tomatoes really saves time in itself: the processing time is much shorter than a water bath, but once you add in the time spent venting steam before you start, then getting up to pressure, and then coming back down from pressure (which you must do naturally), really you spend the same amount of time working overall. BUT I can fit a whopping 22 pints into my canner! So basically I can do the equivalent 3 loads at one time, which IS a huge timesaver. I’d have bought the pressure canner for that reason only. But what I’m really loving about it is all the stuff I can now can that I never could before: basically, non-pickled vegetables, beans, and soups. The same weekend I had 60 pounds of tomatoes, I also had 10 pounds of beets, which is a surprising amount of beets. I pickled 6 or 7 pounds (I love pickled beets!) and used a water bath to can them, but then I pressure canned the rest. (By the way, I used my Instant Pot to cook the beets before doing either – the beets are what’s in the Instant Pot in the picture above!) So far I’ve used some of the non-pickled beets to make an impromptu borscht.

As I mentioned on Twitter the day I canned the tomatoes and beets, the “problem” with pressure canning is there is all this time waiting for the canner to come up to pressure that ends up being devoted to drinking and taking pictures of cats, who think they are canning helpers.

So anyway, now I’m on a big pressure canning kick with the goal of canning a bunch of things I can later turn into dinner on very short order – such as during the summer when they days are so long I often don’t come home from hiking until 10 p.m. and I’m starving. I’ve been soaking dried beans and pressure canning them, which I love because it’s so much cheaper than buying canned beans AND contains no sodium or other additives. For some reason I find it immensely satisfying. Last weekend I bought 40 more pounds of tomatoes (which were somehow still in season where I live) in order to make tomato soup. I used this recipe from Common Sense Home, which said I’d get 4 pints out of 8 pounds of tomatoes, so I made 5x the recipe, expecting to yield 20 pints. I somehow ended up with 35 pints! I basically have a TON of tomato soup!

But it tastes great and is really versatile: in addition to serving as regular old tomato soup (usually with grilled “cheese”, of course), it makes a good base for a ton of other soups, and regular readers of this blog may remember how much I love soup.

I used a Victorio strainer to strain the tomato soup and ended up with a large amount of a really dry tomato peel/tomato seeds/celery/onion/parsley pulp/waste, so I spread it out on my dehydrator’s shelves (I used 8 of the 9 shelves) and dehydrated the “waste” overnight. When it was totally dry, I ground it up in batches in a coffee/spice grinder, and I ended up with a whole quart of what I called “tomato soup powder”, which will be excellent to add to soups, etc. (I had previously made a pure tomato powder doing the same thing with the peels and cores from tomatoes I had canned.)

Since I knew it was going to be rainy all day today, I had decided to dedicate today to making Vegan Dad’s pressure canner chili, although I ended up with 9 1/2 quarts instead of the perfect canner load of 7 quarts that Vegan Dad promised (probably because I was overly generous when measuring pretty much everything). (Because you can do two layers of pint jars in my canner, but only one layer of quarts, the maximum number of pint jars I can can at one time is 22, but only 7 quart jars.) No problem: while canning the first 7 quarts, I soaked some of the tons of dried beans I have waiting to can, and I’ll be doing a second canner load of the remaining chili, plus a bunch of jars of beans.

That’s most of the food news here, I suppose. In non-food news, the wildlife rehab gigs I have going on here are going really, really great. One of the two wildlife hospitals I volunteer at has actually hired me as a paid staff member! It’s just an occasional substitute animal caretaker position, so I’m not raking in big bucks or anything, but I was extremely flattered to be asked to do it and I’m extremely excited about the educational opportunities it affords. And I was just made a shift leader at the other hospital, which doesn’t involve a paycheck but will hopefully give me the opportunity to work even more closely with the technicians there and learn even more. I’m also working with many of the education animals at the smaller hospital, particularly with the raptors. This is one of my favorite pictures from 2016, not because I look good (I wish I knew how to use Photoshop and could Photoshop my hair into not looking stupid), but because my buddy Elvis, the peregrine, is in it. Mark, who took the photo at our fundraiser event, says you can tell from the picture how much Elvis loves me. I don’t know if “love” is the right word to describe Elvis’s feelings for me, but I hand-feed Elvis on a regular basis and we do have a special bond, one that I had to build with him. And let me tell you, it is REALLY cool to bond with a raptor, especially a more “difficult” species like most of the falcons. AND LOOK HOW HANDSOME ELVIS IS!!

I think I’m all typed out! If you want to know more regularly than once very six months if I’m alive and well, you can visit my photo blog, which I update daily.

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Yes, I’m finally making time for my Zanzibar post! So when we left off on this African adventure, we were in the Serengeti, having the best time of our lives. Sadly we couldn’t stay there forever and the time too soon came for us to continue our journey. We boarded a tiny plane and flew three hours through a terrible storm that made a few passengers rather nervous (I thought it was kind of fun, although after nearly banging my head on the roof I did eventually concede it might be smart to put my seat belt on). Finally we landed on the drenched island of Zanzibar.

Our tiny, wet plane:

After waiting a long time for the rain to let up enough they could unload the plane of our luggage, it finally arrived (most of it sopping wet anyway) in the waiting area of the airport and we were met by our driver, who rowed drove us to our B&B in Stone Town. After unpacking and drying off a bit, the boys and I took a walk down to a bar on the water and had a drink while watching the sunset.

The next morning we did a walking tour of Stone Town, which I highly recommend if you visit as you’ll learn about the history and start to learn to navigate around. Our guide showed us Jaws Corner, where the town’s men drink coffee and sit around talking. It was named Jaws Corner after the film Jaws was shown on a TV in the square once.

We also toured the slave dungeon – Stone Town was the main slave port for all of the Eastern slave trade – which was extremely depressing.

There is a memorial outside as well.

We also walked through the colorful fish market (where not just fish but vegetables and spices and some crafts are sold).

One of the most charming things about Stone Town to me was the number of cats running around. Because it is a predominately Muslim area and many Muslims do not have dogs, many people have cats. Smucky had to admonish me for trying to touch them all because he said they could have diseases, and some of them did seem as if they could use a good bath, but I do love following cats around on vacation and playing cat paparazzi.

Another beautiful African sunset.

After a couple of days in Stone Town we embarked on the last leg of our trip, to a beach resort. On the way, we stopped for a spice tour – Zanzibar being renowned for its spices. The spice tour was interesting and I also recommend it as well. Here are our guides, cutting up something for us to taste or smell:

They made us wear silly hats they had made for us.

Finally we arrived at Unguja Lodge, where our room was amazing but missing a few walls! These were taken from the loft:

Even the toilet was missing a wall! (The shower, in another room, was also open and overlooked the ocean.)

You may be wondering, “Renae, if there were walls missing from your lodge, how did you keep the monkeys from coming in and stealing your stuff?” Good question. The bedroom (and bedroom only) was lockable and monkey-proof (provided you actually shut and lock the door), so basically you keep everything in there. Mark and I didn’t have any monkey visitors that I know of, but Smucky and Olivia did! Coming back from an ocean swim one day I passed Smucky and Olivia who informed me there was a swarm of monkeys ravishing their loft after making off with Olivia’s soap. “YOU’RE SO LUCKY!” I screeched, “Give me your keys!” And off I went to confront the monkeys, who absolutely did not care one iota about my presence. They continued to swing from the rafters and tumble around the bed and generally be deviously adorable like I wasn’t even there.

Here is our lodge from the outside. As you can see, as open as it is, you can’t really see inside, and no one can really get to them anyway: the perimeter of the property is guarded and the area in front of the beachfront lodges is really only accessible to the resident of that lodge.

Mark and I liked to sit on that bench above every night before going to bed and just listen to the waves, and every morning just after waking to watch the local women and children collecting shellfish while the sun rose.

Obviously we didn’t eat any of the sea creatures but Mark did befriend a sea urchin.

The lodge offered scuba diving tours. Smucky got certified before the trip but I didn’t, so I took a quick lesson in the pool and was approved to do a sort of tethered dive (a guide held my wrist the whole time). Scuba diving was actually a little scarier than I thought it was going to be. I had absolutely no qualms about jumping out of plane when I went skydiving – I jumped with no hesitation or fear at all; I simply found it not even remotely scary – but I unexpectedly freaked out a bit when we were in the pool practicing diving with the oxygen tank. I didn’t let on that I was freaking out because I like to play it cool, but when I went under the first few times I confess that I very suddenly realized HOW MUCH I LOVE AIR. SWEET, GLORIOUS AIR. But I passed the test and we were soon on a boat. After a 5-minute boat ride we arrived near a coral reef and pretty soon I was told to put my tank and mask on, place my hands around my head, and fall backwards off the boat into the water. One thing I’ll say for myself is that although unlike skydiving I was a bit nervous, but I also didn’t hesitate. My mother likes to say that I am a risk-taker. (I don’t think this is actually one of my mother’s favorite qualities about me, however…) The cool thing about being nervous about scuba diving is you are supposed to take nice, slow, long breaths, which coincidentally is very calming. So I just concentrated on breathing, which totally made me look like I was an ace scuba diver but also kept me from panicking about the fact that I was 11 meters below the AIR, WONDERFUL AIR.

I had earlier in the year purchased an underwater point-and-shoot camera specifically for going diving in Zanzibar, so taking pictures also helped keep me calm.

And yes, by the end of the dive, I was comfortable enough that I was disappointed when the guides told us we had to resurface. My certification is good for a year – it’s unlikely I’ll find myself with the opportunity to do so before then, but if I do, I will dive again.

Smark, on the other hand, wasn’t into the scuba thing, although he had a GREAT time snorkeling. I literally had to drag him out of the ocean while he was snorkeling – once to get him to eat lunch and once to save him from some sea urchins that were not nearly as friendly as the one above.

Anyway, back to the monkeys. Basically monkeys are hilarious, and super smart. While eating breakfast one morning we watched one wait until none of the lodge employees were looking, then scamper into and across the room, jump up on the buffet table, lift the supposedly-monkey-hindering lid off a plate of pastries, snatch a roll, politely replace the lid just as he found it, and nonchalantly walk back out the way he came. Unguja Lodge is totally awesome and I highly recommend it, but if you are afraid of or don’t like monkeys you may want to consider staying elsewhere…although I think monkeys are a fun fact of life on Zanzibar beaches everywhere. This is a red colobus monkey in a tree next to the lodge pool.

And this is a monkey just lounging about the place, not caring that I was a few feet from him taking his picture.

And then too soon, we had to leave Zanzibar and Africa. When we planned the trip, I thought that after traveling for nearly three weeks, we would both be very ready to get back home, however, although I missed the cats, neither Mark (who doesn’t like traveling quite as much as I do) nor I wanted to go home. If someone had offered to let us stay another two weeks, another month, we would have accepted immediately. We both LOVED Africa, much more than we thought we would. Here is the plane we boarded in Zanzibar that took us on a 20-minute flight to Dar es Salaam (a city which I think I’ll sum up by saying IF YOU THINK TRAFFIC IN LA OR DC IS BAD, TRY DAR. Dear LORD is the traffic bad there), from where we caught our flight back to Amsterdam and finally home. A rainbow appeared to try to cheer me up, but I really was very sad to leave.

So that was Africa. It is a goal of both Mark and I to get back there as soon as possible; Mark to teach children and me to help cheetahs and lions. In the meantime, however, it looks like Mark and I have other big things to plan and think about: in the next couple of weeks Mark will be moving to San Francisco to start a new job that he’s very excited about. I will join him later in the year, after most of baby wildlife season. So I will be alone quite frequently until then. Will I therefore have more time to update the blog, or will I find myself cooking less often if it’s just me? Only time can tell, I suppose. I will, though, be back soon with a final post on Africa in which I hope to cover how I survived there as a vegan (spoiler: it wasn’t hard), what I packed, including camera gear, and travel tips. And, uh, if anyone has helpful tips about cross-country moves and/or recommendations for Bay Area neighborhoods, bring them on!

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Happy new year!

Happy new year! I already did a recap on how 2014 was a great year for me; I’m kind of using the excuse of wishing all of you a happy new year to tell you about a great book I’m reading. You may recall that I mentioned recently that I’m applying for the Virginia Master Naturalist program in the spring and I asked if anyone had any book recommendations (by the way, thank you to Carolyn for suggesting field guides – something I need to get much better about doing). Well, I was nosing around Amazon looking for something “naturalisty” to put on my Kindle and I came across The Forest Unseen by David Haskell and it’s GREAT! Dr. Haskell is a biology professor in Tennessee who visited a small section (about a meter in diameter) of a nearby forest nearly every day for a year and recorded his observations about the life there, providing the reader with a bit of science behind it. I’m only 59% of the way through it but it just resonates with me. It’s one of the few times I’ve read a non-fiction book and thought the author would “get” me. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve read a lot of fantastic non-fiction books, it’s just that the view Dr. Haskell has of the world, and our role in it, although far more scientific than mine for sure as he’s far more educated than me, feels very much like my own. His writing style is a beautiful blend of poetry, science, and just a touch of whimsy. (“Whales move their tails up and down, rather than side to side, revealing their terrestrial ancestry. Mermaids, it seems, do the same.”) One morning I sat down to read while eating breakfast and in my half-awake state didn’t quite remember what I’d been reading, but I knew it was science-related and was for a moment confused to leap into a paragraph about the holy grail, until I read a sentence further and it all made sense:

The knight’s mythical quest led them to the blood from Christ’s wounds, collected in the grail by Joseph of Arimathea. The ticks are less selective about the theological pedigree of the blood they seek, and their quest ends with molting or sex.

Although he can get into minute details about specific organisms, he always explains its relationship to everything around it, as well as its relationship to the past. I particularly understood his passage about the golf balls, when two of them appear in his “mandala” one day and he wants at first to remove them because they are unnatural. But then he remembers that humans are animals and part of nature too, which is something I think a lot about. Is it really unnatural for us to produce golf balls? I mean, something in our nature drove us to do it! Which doesn’t also mean that I (or Dr Haskell) think that we SHOULD scatter golf balls throughout our forests; on the contrary, I think it’s an unconscionable thing to do, but I think it’s important that we stop thinking there is some big divide between the natural world and us. In fact, if we stopped thinking like that and starting feeling more at one with nature I think we’d all be less apt to destroy it.

I’ve just gotten to the day he visits the mandala following a hospital visit brought on by his reaction to finding a nearby stream raped of all its salamanders by fisher “poachers” stealing them to use as bait. Even I’ve never ended up in the hospital in similar situations (although if I really do make it back to Africa and fight poachers there I suspect there’s a good chance I’ll end up in the hospital due to a gunshot wound), but I totally understand the outrage he felt. And then he manages to describe how even in the hospital he could see the flow of nature all around him and goes on to talk about the plant origins of most of our medicines.

Anyway, it’s a great book, I very much recommend it, and if you read it I think you’ll get a feel for how I think about the world (albeit my thinking about the world being much less knowledgeable than Dr. Haskell’s!). I’d say it was exactly the kind of book I was looking for to get me into “Master Naturalist” mode, but honestly I had no idea a book so perfect for that would even exist! I mean, I also bought a biology text book, but though The Forest Unseen may contain fewer pages, fewer facts, and fewer diagrams, it has a message that I really want to receive. 🙂

In other Master Naturalist news, I was training a new volunteer at the Raptor Conservancy on Sunday and she mentioned that the way that she got involved with RCV was she had gone through the Master Naturalist program with another one of our volunteers a couple of years ago, so that was a funny coincidence. What’s more, I asked her what she had done for the volunteer component for the program and she said she had majored in environmental science and had thus done water monitoring for her volunteer work. I had always assumed I’d just use my wildlife rehab hours as my volunteer hours (and possibly pick up some volunteer work with bats as part of it), but since by day I’m a contractor for the EPA’s Office of Water, I’m kind of thinking maybe I should get into the same monitoring program she did. I did feel like my application for the Naturalist program was EXTREMELY wildlife-oriented, when of course there is so much more to it than wildlife – I could stand to be a lot more well-rounded, which is actually a big part of why I wanted to DO the program in the first place. And when people ask me what I do for a living I’m always, “I’m an EPA contractor for the Office of Water, but I do database stuff, not cool stuff out in the field.” I do really like my job, but I feel like it would be even more meaningful if I were also doing cool stuff out in the field. See, I feel like everything’s connected, just like Dr. Haskell explains over and over again.

So, yeah, new year’s. I can only hope that 2015 is as good to me as 2014 was. That’s asking quite a lot, considering there is little chance I’ll make it back to Africa so soon. And after all of the material things I accumulated in 2014 (all except the car were “for Africa”), I feel like I need to focus quite a bit on frugality in the upcoming year. But if I get to spend as much time outside next year as I did this year, and if I can devote even more time to learning new things and coming to an even deeper appreciation of the world around me and figure out exactly how I can best contribute to conservation of nature and wildlife, then 2015 will be a good year too. It’s starting off on the right note: we’ll be traveling to both Charleston and San Francisco in January, which I’m looking forward to.

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions because I think you can and should resolve to improve yourself any day of the year, but this year I made a resolution to drink more cocktails. That’s a good resolution, right? Although I’m a big fan of beer and wine, and I drink at least glass of wine a day, I very rarely drink hard liquor. In fact, the only times I ever drink hard liquor are with my father on holidays when he makes the two of us Manhattans, a tradition he picked up from his parents. But he makes it with a mix, which I think is silly, so this year I decided I was going to perfect a REAL Manhattan and to that end spent hours on the internet researching and bought a bunch of ingredients. I’m even planning to make – and can – my own maraschino cherries come cherry season! I also informed my father that we will be conducting ongoing taste tests throughout the year. In the name of science! We had the first taste test on Christmas when we pitted his whiskey and mix versus his whiskey and my bitters and vermouth. And the “real ingredients” won! I was biased, of course, but Dad was not. Mark participated but as expected had no opinion and after swallowing his Manhattans returned to his Bud Lite. The following photo was the one I used for my Photo365 portrait of the day and depicts the three of us just before tasting the “ingredients” Manhattan:

So that was fun and I look forward to more taste test trials with Dad in the future, although speaking of my dad, I would also like to make a small tribute to his and my mom’s dog. Their dog, Shannon, was a few weeks shy of 18 years old and was limping on Christmas. They were hoping he had just landed on it wrong and it did seem to get a little better the next day, but he quickly went downhill after that. Following a visit to the emergency vet, they think he may have developed a brain tumor, and a day later they made the painful decision to let him go before he suffered too much. I think by reading this blog, even just a post or two, you understand how much I love animals. Imagine all of the love you’d heard me express for animals, add it all up, and probably add some more in, and you might begin to understand how much Mom and Dad loved Shannon. So while I’m down here marveling over how great things are, my parents are suffering and that makes me very sad. My parents aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, but I assure you that the love and respect I have for animals comes 100% from them. We always had cats and dogs growing up and my brother and I were pretty much expected to consider them siblings. (Well, I’m not sure my father considered any of our cats to be our siblings, as he’s a dog person, not a cat person, but still…) My parents’ love of their pets shaped who I am today and I know how devastated they are. So here’s to Shannon, who led a full and happy life:

In more light-hearted news, Josiane said she’d like to see more of the self-portraits I’m doing for my Photo365 project. On the days I go for hikes – and so far the weather has been mild, allowing me to do so frequently – it’s easy: I jump in front of the tripod while taking a landscape shot. On days I can’t get out to hike (curse these short winter days), it’s harder to think of ideas. I’ve taken an awful lot of pictures of myself standing in front of my bookshelf. But some days I try to incorporate a theme that explains what I did that day. We had a Dogue Hollow Wildlife Sanctuary board meeting on Sunday afternoon so for that day’s photo I decided to demonstrate what it’s like working with raccoons, so here you go:

And with that it’s time for me to go find a cocktail and ring this new year in….

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I don’t usually get all reflecty at the end of the year, but 2014 has been more of a year than most, I guess. It reminded me in a way of 2004, a year in which I received a second degree, got engaged, moved to a new state, got a new job (which I still have!), traveled internationally for the first time, and got married. Those last four things were in the same month! Likewise, 2014 saw me doing a lot of different things and fulfilling dreams.

The year began inauspiciously enough: shortly after we returned from Christmas spent in Charleston, SC with Mark’s family, Mark’s uncle was diagnosed with colon cancer. This has been the worst thing about 2014 and in fact whenever I think about how great 2014 was to me, I think about how hard it’s been for Mark’s aunt and uncle and the rest of their family. And in Virginia, the beginning of 2014 was so cold they had to invent new words to describe it, like polar vortex. I shoveled so much snow I felt like an honorary Canadian, although unlike some parts of Canada, the temperatures of the Mid-Atlantic fluctuate enough that even a foot or two of snow usually melts within a few days, so although I occasionally drove Mark’s Jeep instead of my snow-hating Miata, I did keep from going cabin-crazy and I never once missed any of my weekend volunteer work.

Right around the beginning of the year my volunteer work officially expanded to include raptors as well as raccoons. In addition to cleaning cages and exercising and feeding the raptors on a weekly basis, I help out with the programs to which we take our education birds on weekday evenings. I attended WAY more Cub Scout meetings in 2014 than I EVER thought I would!

The frigid bite of winter was offset a bit when I made the down payment for our trip to Tanzania in February. From that moment forward, I had warm, sunny Africa on my mind a good 70% of the time. I spent HOURS preparing. I pre-ordered a special lens for the trip and when it finally arrived, took every chance I could to practice with it on the wildlife I could find around here. Probably the highlight was the magical day I found these foxes play-fighting:

In February, I took my car – a 1995 Miata with 150k miles – into the shop for repeated alignments when it began pulling to the right and wouldn’t stop despite their efforts to diagnose the problem. My mechanic lent me his personal car – a 2004 Miata turbo with racing upgrades – one of the days he had my car as he was determined to solve the problem even though it doesn’t actually prevent it from being safely driven, and long story short, Mark bought the 2004 for me a couple of days later! As I was (and still am) extremely attached to my ’95, I never expected to get a “new” car, and especially not two weeks after buying a trip to Africa! And after years of poking fun at people like my brother, father, Fortinbras, and Mark for owning more than one car, I now own two cars. (I joke a lot about the luxury of having two Miatas – seriously, it IS rather convenient at times! – and the combined blue book value of the two cars is probably a third or less of the cost of most of the cars in my neighborhood, but I feel REALLY spoiled.) AND ONE IS A RACE CAR.

Spring finally arrived and was so welcome I spent every possible moment outdoors. I bolted out of the office every afternoon and headed immediately for a park. I luxuriated in fields of bluebells! I discovered tons of parks I had never had the chance to visit or never even knew about. I realized that as built-up as Northern Virginia is, we have an amazing combination of regional, state, and national parks and trails that kept me busy exploring night after night.

Spring never actually ended…the hot and humid summers this area is notorious for never arrived this year. Instead we pretty much had spring from April to September. I may not have loved it as much if we still had a pool, but as far as my nightly hikes were concerned, summer ’14 was AMAZING. It was like my reward for suffering through the brutal winter. I was in seventh heaven: every single afternoon saw me headed to a different park, hiking for miles and taking pictures, driving home with the top down as the sun set. We didn’t even go on a proper summer vacation and yet it was the happiest summer I’ve had for a while.

Mark and I discovered a mutual love of kayaking early on in the season and every weekend after I’d finished up with the raptors or raccoons, we’d rent a couple of kayaks and paddle for a few hours. Spending time on the water in that way only deepened my appreciation for the area we live in. I loved spending time IN the Potomac in addition to gazing down UPON it. Mark and I plan to buy our own kayaks for next season. Meanwhile, we introduced my brother to kayaking and he’d come down every few weekends throughout the summer to accompany us. I took Fortinbras kayaking for his birthday. We dragged Smucky out with us during his annual summer visit:

I started running, which is TOTALLY weird. I HATE running. Really hate it. But in an effort to get treadmill workouts over with faster, I started running for part of them. Eventually I gained enough confidence to do easy trail runs, which of course I prefer to being inside and as I mentioned, this summer was AWESOME for running outside, even if I couldn’t quite believe I was willing to risk people SEEING me attempt to run. I ran my first 5k this fall – by which I mean I ran 5k without stopping to walk any of it – and that feat was actually part of a 5-mile total run (it was not a race event; just me on the treadmill) I did in an hour. Honestly, out of all the stuff that happened in 2014, the fact that I RAN is to me by far the oddest. I’m not sure I’d have believed you if you had told me on January 1, 2014 that I’d be (mostly) running 4 to 5 miles at a time.

Possibly related, I lost weight. I don’t own a scale so I don’t know how much or what I started out at – I was never overweight but definitely weighed more than I did in college – but several people have TOLD me I’ve lost weight so I guess I must have. Well, that and the fact that I had to buy new pants, some of which are size 2 and still require a belt. 🙂

I switched from Linux to Mac which is another thing I’d have told you on 1/1/14 that I would NEVER do. It wasn’t due to frustration with Linux (which has gotten MUCH easier to use for personal computing over the years) but because I wanted to try Adobe Lightroom (so I guess it WAS therefore frustration that Lightroom hasn’t been ported to Linux), and also because I wanted the smallest, lightest, but still usable – including with Lightroom – laptop I could get to take to Africa and I just couldn’t find something that beat the 13″ Macbook Air or its outstanding battery life. As it turns out, I LOVE the Air. I thought I’d use it only for travel but as it turns out I haven’t even opened my Ubuntu Thinkpad or my work laptop since I got the Mac. I also LOVE Lightroom, although I remain deathly afraid of Photoshop. I’m slowly trying to improve my photo processing skills, which is an ongoing battle.

Then I WENT TO AFRICA, which was my favorite thing I’ve ever done, but my thoughts about that are too much for this post, so see the several previous and upcoming posts about that. I’ll just say it was phenomenally awesome. While there Mark and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary, which means we’ve been married for a DECADE, which is CRAZY.

I came home from Africa and found that winter had pretty much begun again in Virginia and I felt a little like the glory of the year was ending. The days are far too short – and often too cold and/or wet – for me to go to parks after work. And I had difficulty accepting the fact that when I DID make it to a park there weren’t any lions there. So I started a Photo365 project to try to inspire me to enjoy photography other than wildllife photography on the days I can’t get to any wildlife. I broadened the project theme to any portraiture (instead of my original theme of just self-portraits) to give me a break from taking pictures of myself if I happen to find a willing victim model some days, but 95% of the time it’s still going to be pictures of me, which is a bit hard to swallow because I almost universally look terrible in photographs. I didn’t have high expectations for my commitment to this project because I thought it was going to be pretty difficult to think of 365 ways of hiding behind a cat for a photograph ;). But then Mother Nature graced me with two consecutive weekends of very nice hiking weather and I managed to go for a hike every day of the last two weekends, which provided me the opportunity to take a few self-portraits outside, where I’m happiest, though there are no cats to hide my face behind. (Why, oh, why are there no lions in Virginia parks??) And I learned that I CAN actually take a picture of myself that I don’t hate, and I don’t even have to turn my back to the camera (although I liked this one and used it as this Saturday’s photo):

In fact, this weekend I ended up with way more photos than I needed for the project and I don’t really know what to DO with them. I don’t actually have a USE for a bunch of photos of myself. I guess if Mark and I ever get a divorce, I’ve got an arsenal of photos I can put on dating sites that might not make people gag, haha. The one above and the one below were taken Saturday in my favorite-place-that’s-not-Africa: Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which probably explains my easy smile.

Sunday I went to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR, which is just across the bay from and part of the same complex as Occoquan Bay. I don’t got there nearly as often because there just aren’t the same opportunities for wildlife viewing (although there are a LOT of migrating tundra swans there right now), but I’m so glad I went on Sunday afternoon because the lighting in the forest was GORGEOUS. This was the photo I selected for the project for that day:

… but I took several others that I don’t hate.

So I’m actually rather surprised by the “success” of this Photo365 project as I’ve gotten more comfortable in front of the camera – I read some articles on how to pose for portraits so I don’t always look like I have a double chin – and I’m being forced to get better at photo editing. Now that I’ve gotten a bunch of pictures of “Renae in nature”, I’m going to have to start coming up with more creative ideas for the daily pics, which is really hard because although I’m a LITTLE more at ease in front of the camera, I’ve learned that I look positively DREADFUL if I don’t smile in photos. Basically I can deal with the results if I’m flashing the camera my winning smile (haha), but other than that, I’m at a loss.

But enough about me. Those pictures of me don’t make me want to puke, which is nice, but look how BEAUTIFUL my walk was Sunday:

I feel like I’ve just spent a bunch of time gloating about how great my life is, and in a way I guess I have. But know how grateful I am for that, and how much I treasure and appreciate it. And to be fair, maybe some or even a lot of it is just having the right attitude. Maybe I could have found 14 paragraphs of negative things to say about the last year…though for this year in particular that probably would be hard – I WENT TO AFRICA! – but I’ve learned over the years how to concentrate on the good and the beautiful and not dwell on the bad and the ugly. I do feel like a particularly lucky person, though. A lot of this year has been characterized by my wishes coming true – some of them for material things (lenses! laptops! cars!) and some of them for more esoteric things. As a small example, last weekend I went to Prince William Forest Park and I saw but could not photograph a pileated woodpecker before he flew off into the deep forest. I only have one very blurry photo of a pileated woodpecker taken a couple of years ago. I mentioned to my father that I missed getting a picture of that bird and how BADLY I wanted to take one. Then this weekend at Occoquan, what does the universe deliver to me?

And did the universe stop there? No, the universe thought I might also like to see a fox since it can’t give me lions right now.

These were taken with a 50mm lens, which I mention to tell you how close he was to me. If you aren’t into photography, that means he was very close to me. 🙂

And maybe this post has been an explanation of why I so rarely updated this blog this year and when I do I usually don’t have recipes. GEEZ, I’m busy. Busy, but grateful. Happy holidays and a very happy new year to all of you.

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If I had to pick a favorite place in Tanzania, I’d say I didn’t want to, because the entire trip was so, so, so great. But if I absolutely, positively HAD to pick a favorite place, I’m going to have to say it was the Serengeti. The Serengeti was a bit of a surprise for me because its elevation is higher than I realized and it’s therefore not as oppressively hot as I thought it was going to be, and it was much greener than I thought it would be at the end of the dry season. Basically the Serengeti was even more awesome than I thought it was going to be. So was the place we stayed, but more on that in a moment. The Serengeti is also full of (big) cats so I have a ton of cat pictures! Okay, the Serengeti is pretty much the greatest place on this planet and I’d be perfectly happy to go spend the rest of my life there.

To get from the crater to the Serengeti, we had to hop on a tiny (you had to crawl to your seat) little plane and fly for about 45 minutes. The pilot purposely flew over the Great Migration (of zebras and wildebeests) before we landed and tipped the plane so we could see it:

We were met by our guide, Jairo, at the airport and he immediately whisked us off on a safari. But before I get to safari pictures, let me talk about where we stayed. Our itinerary said we’d be staying in a mobile tented camp, one that moves every couple of months to follow the migration. I’m sure that would have been cool and Mark was looking forward to “roughing it” in an even more rustic tent than the one we stayed in in Tarangire, but for some reason our itinerary was wrong and we were deposited at Lamai Serengeti, which is the GREATEST PLACE EVER. This was by far the best place I have stayed while traveling. The only bad thing I can think to say about it is that our 10th wedding anniversary (which we celebrated there) may have ALMOST been even more crazy-awesome than our actual wedding, and our wedding – which was held in a Scottish castle – was pretty damn amazing.

I guess the only other “bad” thing was the walk to our room was kind of long and steep:

But that’s only “bad” until you finally get to the room …

… and you realize you have complete and utter solitude. And then you walk in and see this:

This is about 2/3s of the bathroom. Yes the entire wall is a window and no, privacy was not a concern. No one can really access the area on that side of the building.

And then you walk out on the balcony and peer in:

And in the morning, the rising sun awakes you, filling your entire room from the wall of window, and you crawl out from between the mosquito netting and you retrieve the hot tea or coffee that’s been delivered to your door before you awoke, and you walk out on the balcony and watch the sun continue to rise. And you never want to leave, ever.

So yeah, I don’t know how or why we ended up there (Lamai is part of the same company as the nomad place I thought we were staying in, so it’s not THAT mysterious) but it was so very fortuitous. And the FOOD! Was so good! But I’m going to do a whole post on the whole food/vegan thing, so I’ll rhapsodize there soon.

At Lamai, we would wake up just in time to watch the sun rise, then immediately hustle off to safari. Unlike the other places we stayed where we had breakfast at the lodge before heading out, our guide packed a breakfast for us and we ate it out on the plains after driving for a while – Jairo would set up a table and put out a whole spread. It was really nice. Then we’d drive around some more then head back to Lamai for lunch. After lunch and maybe a quick swim in the pool, we’d do an afternoon drive until the sun set. Then it was time for drinks and dinner. Basically I have just described what I consider to be an absolutely perfect day, and we had three of them. 🙂

This is a picture of Lamai taken just after sunset as we were on our way back for dinner one night. I think the room that is closest in the foreground is Smucky and Olivia’s and ours is off-camera to the right. To the left in the mid-ground is the common area where meals were served.

To me the Serengeti looked like another planet. Another, really awesome planet. There were a lot of boulders in the areas we spent the most time (although the Serengeti is very vast and looks quite different in other areas), it’s just unlike any landscape we have at home:

Animals we saw included giraffes:



Rock agama:

Cape buffalo:





LIONS LIONS LIONS!! I have so many incredible lion pictures from the Serengeti I’m finding it really hard to restrain myself and not post all of them!!

Olivia needs to Photoshop the twigs out of this one for me (Photoshop is TOO HARD!) because they are very distracting but he’s SO CUTE I can’t delete the picture!

Oh my gosh I have so many! I can’t stop posting them! Just one more!

But wait, lions aren’t the only cat! Oh, no! Could there possibly be a better way to start your day than to engage in a staring contest with a LEOPARD???

She’s chasing an impala in this photo, hoping for breakfast:

Here is a different leopard in a tree!

I love you, leopard.

But what OTHER kinds of cats live in the Serengeti? CHEETAHS!!

Baby cheetah:

This was a funny incident from our final safari. We found this cheetah lounging about looking beautiful:

Then her cub saw some gazelles off in the distance and goaded her into chasing after them:

So she obligingly headed off in their direction, but then she hit a nice patch of dirt and just flopped down mid-stride and rolled around like a total goofball! IT WAS THE CUTEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN, EVER!

As you can tell, the cats were once again my absolute favorite and we saw a ton of them and I was pretty much the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, but what a lot of people go to the Serengeti hoping to see is the Great Migration. We were fortunate to witness a “crossing” – herds of wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River. Not everyone gets to see such an event – the manager at Lamai told me she’s lived there for 5 years and has still not managed to see one – so when Jairo spotted some wildebeests looking like they might take the plunge, from a good mile away at least (safari guides have AMAZING eyesight), he ROCKETED over to the river so we wouldn’t miss it.

What a spectacle! Why is it kind of a rare opportunity? Because even if you do manage to time your drive so that you encounter a herd at the right time, there’s no guarantee they’ll be brave enough to follow through. We later saw a “near-crossing” when a bunch of zebras tried to push each other into the water, but no one was brave enough to go first and they eventually retreated. It’s very dangerous for them to cross and many of them don’t make it. They either drown or are devoured by:

And yes, we saw a few crocs staring down the brave animals we saw crossing. I was very worried for them but all the animals I saw crossed successfully.

I’d better wrap it up here as that has been a LOT of pictures. Okay, ONE MORE, here is the last wildlife photo I had the opportunity to take on safari. It was just about time for that lazy guy to wake up and go hunting!

Next: exotic, spicy ZANZIBAR!

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Ngorongoro Crater

After our very first day of safari, in Tarangire National Park, I thought to myself that if that had been the ONLY day I had been able to spend in Africa, it would have been worth all the expense, all the planning, all the flying, all the everything. It was THAT incredible. And then the second day was even better. And THEN we went to Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater was created 2 to 3 million years ago when a volcano collapsed, forming the largest intact caldera on the planet. “Ngorongoro” is pronounced just as it’s spelled and according to our guide was named after the sound the bells around the necks of the Maasai’s cattle made as they walked down the crater walls. Driving from Tarangire, we stopped at a village for a cultural visit (where Mark decided he was moving to Africa to teach children) and some banana beer and banana wine, and then at an art shop, and finally at the crater rim.

I had never taken a panorama photo before but you really kind of have to; the crater is simply immense. This is 3 or 4 photos stitched together and if you click on it, you can see the bigger, better version.

One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the entire world lives in this crater.

After spending a lot of time taking in the impressive view from the crater rim, we made our way to the lodge. There were random marabou storks roaming around the courtyard at all times at the lodge. Those things are HUGE. And kind of weird! “Yeah, I’m just walking to dinner and there’s a marabou stork 10 feet away; that’s totally normal.”

The next morning we descended to the crater floor. The drive down was beautiful – fog completely envelopes the crater.

Lots of ungulates in the crater. This is a Thompson’s gazelle, which you can identify by the black stripe on his side.

These are grand gazelles:

We saw two wildebeests fighting – very close to our car.

It’s probably an easy life for vultures in the crater!

I told you I loved it when ostriches cross roads; they seem to do it often:

Cape buffalo, with a bird flying by:


Hippos lounging:

Hippos sleeping in water with bird friends:

Another crazy African bird, the bustard:

But what was my favorite animal of the crater, you ask??? Need you really ask?

The lion population of the crater is actually pretty inbred because their numbers are dwindling, so I’m kind of concerned for their future. We saw some lionesses eating a gazelle or some other kill, then they collected their cubs, who were situated away from the kill, and led them to a stream.

They had to cross the road we were parked on to get to the stream; this they did RIGHT in front of us.

The cubs didn’t want to get their paws wet….sooooooo adorable!

After drinking for a bit, they crossed the road again to get back to their original spot. If I had thought it wise, I could have reached out of the car and scooped this cub up AND BELIEVE ME I THOUGHT ABOUT DOING IT.


But I would have had to contend with a very angry mother.

And finally, the only thing we DIDN’T get a good opportunity to see on safari was a rhino. Sadly this is the only rhino we saw and he was VERY far away, so far away he’s little more than a rhino-shaped blob in this photo, and this was taken with a 600mm lens on a crop sensor camera. In a way, I guess it’s kind of poignant because it’s very likely that these animals will be extinct in our lifetime. One day soon all we may have of rhinos will be hazy memories. I wish I could express to you how much I hate poachers. It physically hurts me to have so much hatred inside me, but poaching is nothing short of pure evil.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note; it would be inappropriate because except for the times when I was contemplating my intense hatred of poachers, I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this entire trip. So let’s end with more lion cubs, which are the cutest things on the planet and therefore the exact opposite of poachers.

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Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

I’ve been asked quite a few times why I wanted to go to Africa. I thought it was self-evident but I have since learned that not EVERYONE wants to go to Africa. I actually thought that was a universal desire. Why did I want to go to Africa? It’s very simple: wildlife. I should probably rename this blog “I love wildlife” since I’ve posted more about wildlife this year than I have food. Although – no, BECAUSE – I love wildlife, I do not like zoos. I can’t stand to see animals in cages; it seriously upsets me. I don’t like and don’t support zoos. But I also love wildlife photography. What’s a girl to do? The answer is obvious: go to the place with the highest concentration of wildlife, which pretty much seems to be Tanzania. So the answer is I went to Africa to take pictures of animals that were not in zoos.

Our entire trip was planned by a small business safari company – I’ll do a post with all the details about planning the trip because I found blog posts invaluable myself – and together we decided that we’d visit Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti, doing private safaris through each. Everything was planned for me, so all I had to do was book our international airfare.

We arrived at Mount Kilimanjaro airport from Amsterdam well after dark. Shortly after we cleared Customs, Smucky and his girlfriend Olivia – whom Mark and I had not yet met – arrived on their long, long flight from Australia. We made fast friends with Olivia and the four of us hopped into our guide, Muba’s, Land Cruiser. I was beside myself with excitement at being in Africa for the first time, and a little annoyed that it was dark out so I could see very little as we traveled down a very straight, very flat, very dusty road through the dark. Eventually Muba turned off the open road onto a narrow, rutted, dirt road through heavy vegetation. We had reached AruMeru River Lodge and on the driveway we saw our first glimpse of African wildlife, a tiny ungulate traipsing in front of the car. We shrieked in delight and asked Muba what it was: it was a dik dik, the world’s smallest antelope!

Because dik-diks were the first African wildlife I saw, they have a special place in my heart. Which doesn’t preclude me from sharing this undignified picture of one peeing:

After downing a beer at the bar, we crashed for the night. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep because I was so excited, but after chasing dik-diks around and staring at the southern constellations for a while, I fell fast asleep. Muba met us bright and early the next morning to drive us to Tarangire National Park for our first safari.

Tarangire is well known for having a large number of elephants:

Look how close we were to the elephants!


See a jackal:

And giraffes!

I really do love all animals, even those that most people find ugly or gross (yes, I like opossums and snakes!), but I must confess I am a BIT partial. I can’t help it, I’m a cat person through and through. The big cats were totally my favorite animals. I think I nearly fainted from excitement the first time we saw a lion.

Come on, how can you NOT admire this animal?

I embarked on this trip knowing the big cats would be my favorite. My undying love of them was confirmed when we’d see a lion and I’d be taking a million pictures of it and then someone would say, “look, there’s an elephant!” or “look, there’s a giraffe!” or “look, there’s something-that’s-not-a-lion!” and I would say, “Who cares??? THERE’S A LION!” I couldn’t take my eyes off them. But no surprise there. What did take me by surprise, though, was how INCREDIBLY CUTE baby baboons are! I don’t know if I’d call an adult baboon exactly “cute”, but the babies were adorable! I LOVED watching them!

Ostriches have long amused me. They are just very silly animals, right? You know how this ostrich feels about me calling it silly?

What amuses me MOST is when ostriches walk across roads. I have no idea why that hilariates* me.

* I know “hilariates” is not a word, but I saw it in an Amazon review once and have adopted it because it hilariates me.

It must have been ostrich mating season because we witnessed two mating dances, only one of which was successful:

Zebras are another crazy animal! By the end of the trip I was pronouncing “zebra” like an Australian (short “e” instead of the American long “e”). At first we were all ooohing and aaahing over every zeh-bra we saw, but it didn’t take long for us to become so accustomed to seeing them we would pass them by and say, “oh, zehbras, whatever”. I never thought the day would come when I would be 15 feet from a zebra and be blasé about it. (Note: I never became blasé about lions!! Also, I saw some lions eating an unfortunate zehbra, which I wasn’t too blasé about.)

It’s become clear to me that I’d better break this post up even further into three parts, one for each park we visited. I originally titled it “Tanzanian National Parks” but I’ve changed it to “Tarangire National Park” and I’ll be back soon with “Ngorongoro Crater” and “Serengeti” posts! Then Zanzibar. And also a post on planning a trip like this, camera gear I used, and yes, what I ate (being vegan was absolutely no problem!).

For those that can’t wait for the next post or that want to see even MORE pictures, you are welcome to see all of my pictures here:

I’m not sure I’ll have time to post again before Thursday, so to my American friends, I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving! We are expecting snow here in Northern Virginia tomorrow – safe travels to all, especially those also affected by winter weather.

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Going to Africa ruined my life. Mark’s too.

I’ve discussed my journey towards learning to love Virginia here in the past. We came here pretty much for the jobs and in fact for a while I lamented the fact that I liked my job so much that it made it difficult for me to consider leaving Virginia, which it took me a long time to warm up to. But eventually our fabulous regional, state, and national parks and wildlife refuges and abundant wildlife – including my foray into wildlife rehab – won me over and I found that I was able to set aside some of my hatred of the traffic, McMansions, terrible drivers, and annoying people to make room for love of our natural resources. I’ve felt an increasing sense of inner peace in the last few years, a true happiness in life. Little did I realize how tenuous that transformation was, because going to Africa ruined it.

We went to Shenandoah National Park yesterday. There were no lions, elephants, giraffes, or zebras. It was depressing. It didn’t help that it was FREEZING and gray and we missed pretty much all of autumn while we were gone, but even if it had been the most splendid day imaginable, it wouldn’t have been the Serengeti. There’d still have been no lions. At one point on safari I realized that once I got home, my beloved wildlife refuge, where I revel in seeing a bald eagle or a glimpse of a fox, was going to seem extremely small and unexciting. How am I going to recapture the joy I’ve always felt there when I’ve been ten feet away from AN ENTIRE LION PRIDE?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that going to Africa changed their life. In a way, it didn’t really change mine because before I even left I told my travel agent that after this trip I wanted to return and work with cheetahs, because he’s involved in cheetah conservation and said he’d help me do so. And sure enough, I’ve returned from our trip and I want to return to work with cheetahs, so am I a different person?

Yes and no. I’m even more interested in doing hands-on work in wildlife conservation than I was before, but that’s a path I was going headlong down anyway. I realized that I think I could kill a poacher and feel no remorse, which is an uncomfortable position for a pacifist, but I really, really, really, really hate poachers. (And many of them have no more compunction about murdering humans than they do wildlife.) I think what’s changed in me is Africa has become real, and with that, the possibility of doing something different with my life – at least for a while – is staring at me. Africa never seemed real before. I’d watch the occasional nature documentary, and I look at a lot of wildlife photography, much of it taken in Africa, but it always seemed very far away and very, very different than my life. And it is both of those things, but it’s also suddenly become accessible because I’ve BEEN there and I can so easily imagine myself going back. Fairfax, Virginia suddenly seems so small to me. Too small. And so full of people who care only about themselves.

Although I rather anticipated all of this and as I said, I fully expected to want to return to Africa after our first trip to work with wildlife, our trip had an even more profound effect on Mark. Whereas I’ve been positively giddy about the trip for the better part of a year, Mark didn’t allow himself to get as worked up in anticipation as I did. I spent months preparing for, reading about, and basically obsessing over the trip, but although he’s the one that had been saving up for the trip for a couple of years as a surprise for me, it wasn’t until we GOT to Africa that he seemed super-excited about it. But he loved it. Really loved it. Much more than he has ever loved anywhere we’ve gone. And what he loved the most was a bit surprising to me because Mark is NOT a people-person by any stretch of the imagination, but what Mark loves about Africa are the people. We went on a cultural visit to the village of Mto wa Mbu near the Ngorongoro crater rim, where children ran up to us. Most of them wanted their picture taken, which they then wanted to see on the camera’s LED:

But even if you didn’t have a camera, which Mark did not, they just grabbed your hand and walked with you. Mark was overwhelmed by the inherent trust they had. In fact, Mark was so moved by it that he wants to return to that village or another and teach children. Which wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting from him, although in a way it makes sense because he really is good with children and he’s quite awesome at teaching chess to children here at home.

It wasn’t just the children Mark liked; he was shocked by the friendliness of everyone. Everyone you meet in Tanzania offers a friendly “Jambo!” (“hello”) and “Karibu!” (“welcome”); it’s totally unlike Washington DC. They are a very welcoming folk! People stop to help you in Tanzania just because they want to help; no ulterior motives. I’ve experienced that occasionally here at home, but it’s always been such a rare and beautiful thing because it’s so unusual. But it’s just how people are in Tanzania. Mark once asked a man in Stone Town why he was helping him and what he wanted in return and the man looked at him like he was crazy for thinking he’d want something in return for his help.

So that’s that: Mark and I both plan to return to Africa for some sort of extended stay, Mark to teach children and me to do wildlife conservation. I’m not sure when this will happen, but Mark’s teaching himself Swahili and I’m contacting various people about cheetahs.

I’ll talk a little more specifically about our trip, including some thoughts on being vegan in Tanzania, but it will probably take me a couple of posts. We did national park safaris for the first week and then spent a week in Zanzibar, so I’ll likely break it up into at least two posts.

Sunset in Tarangire National Park:

I’m often annoyed at home that buildings are obscuring my view of the sunset. This was definitely NOT a problem I encountered in Tanzania. And African sunrises and sunsets are just amazing. So amazing that even Mark, no more a morning person than he is a people person, was happy to wake up to watch the sun rise every morning.

Sunset over the Rift Valley:

Next up: my love affair with African wildlife.

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A trip to Amsterdam!

You thought I was going to say “A trip to Africa” didn’t you?? Well, the Africa post is a-comin’, but it just so happens that the best flight to Tanzania originated in Amsterdam and we have friends that live in Amsterdam, so I decided we would grace said friends with a few days’ visit before heading on to Africa. This broke the 17-hour total flight time in half AND gave us an opportunity to spend Mark’s birthday with one of his oldest friends. Win-win!

Brad and April are the ultimate hosts. Everyone should be so fortunate to have such gracious friends, especially ones that live in Europe! To keep this somewhat food-related I’ll say that being vegan is absolutely no problem in Amsterdam, although it’s made even easier by friends that make you vegan pancakes and waffles every morning and vegan dinners most nights. (Yeah, sometimes I make myself sick thinking how lucky I am.) I was very lazy and let Brad cook for us most of the time, barely lifting a finger to help, but one meal I’ll share with you was lunch at Terra Zen Centre, which Brad discovered on his phone and led us to. Their website says they are open noon to 10 p.m. every day, which may be true, however, when we arrived around 3 p.m. or so, the door was locked and there was a sign up saying “please call”. Now, I’m one of those people who wonders “who uses their phone to make calls???” (a sentiment my father finds difficult to grasp) and in ordinary circumstances I’d probably have just walked off to find some other place to eat; in a metropolis like Amsterdam, finding vegan food is easy enough you don’t have to rely on the whims of all-vegan restaurants. And in fact as a visitor to the country, I didn’t even have a MEANS to call them, so if we hadn’t been with a local who had a phone with service, we’d have had no choice but to forgo Terra Zen Centre. But Brad was feeling intrepid and he dialed the number. After many rings, someone finally answered and said he’d be there in 5 minutes.

Five minutes later the chef arrived on a bicycle (because it’s Amsterdam), unlocked the door, and ushered us in. The dining room was unassuming: a couple of tables with a bench, mismatched chairs, and old tablecloths. The only written menus featured various types of pot. But the chef reappeared and told us what our food options were that day, which I don’t really remember the names of but basically we were able to choose what sort of carb we wanted: brown rice, noodles, or roti, as well as the protein: tofu, tempeh, or beans (we each got a different one), and he’d be serving us a perfectly balanced meal around that. I took a couple of bites before I remembered to take a photo, but here’s what mine looked like – I got the tempeh, which was delicious:

It may not look terribly pretty but it was totally scrumptious! We all loved it, including Brad, who is an omnivore, and who plans to return to Terra Zen Centre even when we vegans aren’t around. It was yummy and filling, but also felt very healthy. So if you find yourself in Amsterdam, I highly recommend this place, although if you are a tourist and you don’t have phone service there, you may want to find some way to call them before you head over there to verify their hours that day.

You may think I wouldn’t encounter too much wildlife in a city, and although it wasn’t like being on safari (safari fun coming soon!), I DID actually encounter some fun wildlife. First of all, there are a ton of grey herons just roaming around the city. I took this picture at a market:

And this one:

I thought it was strange at first to walk right up to so many herons in the middle of a city, but it makes sense considering Amsterdam is full of water. ALSO strange were the flashes of bright green and squawking I saw and heard in a tree as Mark, Brad, and I walked in the rain with all our luggage at 9 a.m. in the dark before the sun rose the morning we arrived (if it makes an appearance at all, I don’t think the sun rises until about noon in Amsterdam in the winter). I was curious, but it was raining, our luggage was heavy, it was early, we were tired, and basically I made a mental note to ask Brad about it later. Then I forgot until we were walking through a park and Mark saw a flash of bright green and asked, “what’s that green bird?”, and I chimed in, “yeah, what’s up with the neon birds??” and Brad said something non-committal about parrots. So I did a little internetting when we got back to his place and I learned that there is a colony of wild rose-ringed parakeets living in Amsterdam, descendents of pets that were released in 1975. They’ve somehow thrived and as they don’t pose a threat to the native species, the locals like having them around. They certainly surprise the tourists though!

Anyway, obviously I was then on a mission to find and photograph these parakeets! Dutiful Brad did some research and decided the best place to go looking for them was Flevopark, so off we went, in the rain of course, because that’s how Amsterdam works.

I liked Flevopark.

And yes, we found the parakeets!

No tourist to Amsterdam can post a series of photos without a windmill, right? This is actually Brouwerij, a brewery, where we had a pint.

And how about a bunch more photos of Amsterdam being very Amsterdam (i.e. rainy, canal-y, and full of bikes)?

It pretty much rained the entire time we were in Amsterdam, as it does.

But I did see at least one glimpse of the sun:

And despite flying on a tiny plane through a rather bad storm over the Indian Ocean to get to Zanzibar, we saw plenty of sun in TANZANIA, coming up next!

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Raptor Conservancy of Virginia fundraising

Hello; long time no blog. I know, I’m a terrible person. I’m actually preparing a post about our trip to Africa (spoiler: it was the greatest trip in the history of all trips), but in the meantime I feel obliged to pass along some information about a Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (where I volunteer) fundraiser that’s going on right now because we need money! Buy a spiffy RCV T-shirt with a picture of a great horned owl on it and support Virginia wildlife!

There is not much overlap between raptors in Virginia and Tanzania – they don’t even have hawks in Tanzania; instead they have a lot of eagles – but since I just got back from Tanzania a few days ago and it’s all I can think about, here are some Tanzanian raptors to enjoy in this post, with way more Tanzanian wildlife (and yes, food) coming up:

Brown snake eagle

Juvenile Verreaux’s eagle

Martial eagle

I need to figure out what this one is!

Black kite. There were swarms of these at Ngorongoro crater and our guide warned not to leave the vehicle unattended or they would swoop in and steal things. As we ate lunch in the car, we watched a lady eating outside right in front of our car. A kite saw her sandwich and looked hungrily at it. She hastily hid the sandwich behind her back. Think about that: she hid her sandwich BEHIND HER BACK from a BIRD. That was flying over her head. That could see the tempting sandwich just as easily BEHIND her as he could IN FRONT of her. And who did in fact snatch that sandwich right out of her hands, causing her to bleed. Which she kind of had coming….

That wasn’t the only blatant act of food theft we witnessed by wildlife, but the other involved a very devious monkey stealing food that WAS hidden better than that. 🙂

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