Morning upon return to Djibouti

  

The truly temperate weather as we arrived in Djibouti surprised us. Last time, in April 2014, the weather averaged 90 degrees F and 90% humidity. Today, it’s 82 degrees with 66 percent humidity “making it feel like” 88. Well, comparatively it is wonderful. Paris was cold, and Djibouti is not sweltering hot.
The international military presence at the airport seemed heightened compared to our last visit and taxis now congregate in a parking lot farther away from the actual terminal. Djibouti’s airport is very small, and there are no gates. Speaking of parking lots, the planes pull up from the runway and more or less just park in front of the airport.
We found a taxi without incident and I found it funny how instantly I relaxed as the heat built in the green-and-white cab, only the front window open and the air conditioning running as much as it could. The airport has various roadblocks that need to be circumvented to leave, weaving between them in an S-fashion. 

  
The area near the airport has a lot of what might best be described as European-style summer villas. As you come into town, the feel of the developing world increases. Men digging trenches and constructing buildings with nothing but their own hands and manual tools. Women in colorful robes and head coverings. The blend of European-influenced shops and homes mixed in with the rag-tag stalls and living quarters of the less affluent residents. And flies. Lots of flies. 

  
My traveling companion M had attempted to book a room at our regular hotel, but had been unable to reach them. So, we told the taxi to take us downtown to Hotel Ali Sabieh. When we were here previously, they had started construction on a new building across the street. I don’t think it’s done quite yet, but it is a big building and looks great.

 
The porter recognized us when our cab parked. The desk clerk is the same man it was last time, and I think he’s still wearing the same purple-and-white shirt. Our room features the same Third World rustic comfort as we’ve come to expect: a sink that pours water from the pedestal every time you use it; a toilet where the water needs to be shut off at the valve so it doesn’t overflow; a shower that’s more like standing under a hose; and my personal favorite: the curtained “window” that doesn’t have a window at all, but merely a wall. 
  
The businesses near us seem exactly what they were almost two years ago, including the man on center square who tried to get us to hire him as a tour guide every time we walked by. He managed to catch us today and present his spiel and phone number. 
We headed to the Nougaprix grocery store for water. And we slept and slept and slept. We set the alarm for a 45 minute nap and I believe reset it three times before we very reluctantly rose from our beds.
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Barnegat Adventure

  

My schedule suddenly opened up for a Monday— no plans for child or myself. The weekend had passed normally, which meant some of it was fun and some of it involved pre-puberty meltdowns every five minutes from my tormented eleven year old. My husband had to work, as usual, on Monday and I wanted to do *something* that would keep the child and I occupied. Preferably fun.
So, over my cup of coffee with my husband in the wee hours, I searched the AVA web site from my phone. We’re members of AVA—American Volkssporting Association, a group that sponsors self-guided walking tours of various points of interest— and our closest thing to a local chapter (Liberty Bell Wanderers).

I found walks in communities anywhere from an hour to three hours away, some in the mountains, one in Hershey, another in Lancaster, history-commemorating walks in Philadelphia, and many in New Jersey, including the shore points.

At 7 a.m., I roused the child and told her if she wanted to take a road trip and do a Volkssport Walk she needed to rise and shine. I consider volkssporting educational (reading maps, following directions, filling out paperwork, and learning about new places) and a good source of exercise since I push for the 10K walk whenever possible. Anything to keep the family moving. In my daughter’s mind, volkssporting means an interesting day, usually with a meal in a restaurant, and the chance to buy drinks at convenience stores. 

In other words, a win-win. 

I let her pick the destination. This avoids the pouting that eventually happens if “we always do what Mommy wants to do.” The first part of the equation was to narrow down the distance she wanted to travel. She told me she was willing to drive as far as D.C. That pretty much meant anything I might be willing to drive. I thought she’d want to stay a little close to home. But no. She is an adventurer at heart.

She picked Barnegat Lighthouse on Long Beach Island. The fact that she selected a beach did not surprise me, but it did somewhat surprise me that she picked Barnegat when I had offered shore points much closer to home. She opted for the 135 mile car ride. 

We didn’t set out until 7:50 a.m., and we had to stop for gas so I suppose our true start time was 8:10 a.m. We hit a bit of a travel snarl on 78E, which could be anticipated at such an hour on a Monday. It kept moving and we only “lost” about ten minutes. We hooked up with 287 and headed down to the Garden State Parkway, making our only potty stop at the Cheesequake Travel Plaza. Having never visited before, we didn’t realize there was a commuter lot and ended up parking— no exaggeration, I clocked it on FitBit— a half mile from the building. Honestly, after the first leg of our journey, the walk felt good.

We arrived on Long Beach Island about 10:30ish. We drove down the island for what felt like forever. Passing beach upon beach was like a tour in itself, like an endless array of possibilities. My daughter turned out to be an excellent navigator. 

We arrived at Kubel’s Restaurant at 11:07 a.m. The restaurant had the official walk box. It didn’t open until noon, but we didn’t exactly know that. We couldn’t find any info on the door or online so we decided to walk out to the lighthouse because the official walk had to pass the lighthouse. 

It was at this point that I realized I didn’t have my ATM card. This shouldn’t have been a shock as I never carry my ATM card. But usually I am with my husband who has his ATM card. And we were in a tourist area, heavily cash-based. I had something like $29 in toll money left and an additional $9 in our walking binder. I knew, if we climbed the lighthouse, I wanted to reward my daughter with the $15 t-shirt that required cash. 

After a quick tour of the area around the lighthouse onto the jetty and back. We happened upon a man fishing at the exact moment he caught a fish. We watched him unhook the fish and toss it back because it was too small. (We also saw a man with a prosthetic leg.)

  
This allowed us to see how much admission to the lighthouse would be. We stopped at the visitor’s center to use the bathroom and meandered back to Kubel’s as we were starved and thirsty.

We arrived at 12:01, got the walk box and a table and had the most amazing mac and cheese ever, baked lobster mac and cheese.

  
 It featured those thick spiral noodles with gooey cheese and a crisp top, with some grated cheese on that, and the innards had peas, cherry tomatoes and get this— diced tiny green beans. Delightful. Truly.

  
We decided to do the 10K. Our adventure took us to see the boats at the High Bar Harbor yacht club. 

   
 We deviated from the path to enjoy a 1/2 mile walk along the tip of the Atlantic Ocean, then back to the main drag. 

  
At some point we stopped at White’s Market for cold drinks. I even let the child have a black cherry Stewarts. The lady in the market gave us a paper with favorite things to do on it, and I have to say, the list tempts me to return. It’s an awesome list.

  
We also stopped at the post office to mail our start cards to the Princeton Area Walkers. 

  
We finished the day with a climb to the top of the lighthouse. 

  
After walking about 8 miles before the 217 step staircase, I have to admit my thighs protested heavily at the bottom. Might be the first time I ever had thigh cramps. They still ache a bit today.

   
 The day was fabulous and I didn’t even get that much sunburn.

  

Rainy First of May in Moscow

So, M was quite distraught last night that Red Square was closed in preparation for First of May today. We woke late. I rose at 8 and studied Russian until 9 when M roused. We headed to the hotel breakfast, which was a strange assortment of items. You could see the hotel’s efforts to serve multi-national fare. We are staying at Hotel Peter I.

I had Russian pancakes, meatballs, yogurt, pastry, cranberry mors, and the best coffee I’ve had in days. Three cups. Water is scarce, which is a tad annoying. Small markets are closed for the holiday, also annoying but bearable. We purchased water at an upscale grocery store in the fancy mall.

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We came back to the room so M could shower. The weather is low 40s, breezy and sporadically raining. M googled the status of Red Square and discovered the worker’s rights parade was going on right now. We hustled a bit and arrived in time to see the end: people dispersing, flags, flowers, red first of May t-shirts (I want one) and the military band playing. (See my Instagram account if you want video: angelackerman.)

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I loved watching these women dismantle their signs.
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We had an amazing time looking at the military folk wandering around and old Soviet pins. We meandered the city, covering five miles. There were many, many people out. I saw blocks upon blocks of portable toilets.
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There’s some beautifully wrapped chocolate, but I’m told it’s not tasty so I took a photo:
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Now we’re relaxing and drying off from the rain, so let me leave you with a shot of Moscow on the river.

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An Ackerman Funeral

We buried my grandfather today. He would have celebrated his 91st birthday on May 24.

  
His death reminded me of many things, in part because he hadn’t spoken to me in 25 years.

I did something stupid when I was a girl, or I should say I said something disrespectful and he never forgave me. And it worked out okay, because I had my reasons for saying what I did. When I was in college, I approached him about the possibility of being civil to each other for my father’s sake but he rebuked my efforts. He flat out ignored everything I said.

I will not say he was a bad man. He was a decorated World War II veteran. He was a dedicated father to an adopted daughter with intellectual disabilities.

And he and I were once very close. We chewed a lot of Juicy Fruit together and listened to Jim Reeves cassettes. We watched the Dukes of Hazzard.

I gave my dad a pack of Juicy Fruit to slip in my grandfather’s pocket. My aunt did it. Dad couldn’t. I couldn’t. My dad asked my husband to be a pall bearer. These are all small gestures meant to heal larger rifts.

My dad told me I didn’t have to come, especially since we hadn’t talked, and the cemetary was an hour and a half away from the funeral home.

But I had never seen my grandmother’s grave. And my dad needed me. He needed all of his family.

  
You see, I know that people aren’t perfect. And I also know that my father is who he is because of his parents. Regardless of my relationship issues with my grandfather, I owe him for the gift he gave me — the wonderful man who raised me. 

And our feud is now over. Forever. And I can begin a new chapter of my life. 

My aunt, the one with disabilities, never attended a funeral before today. Not when her mom died in 1976. Not when her brother died in 2005. She chose to go to this one. 

I took a photo of her placing her rose on the casket.

  
I placed the last flower. Seemed appropriate.

Day Trip to Hershey

I woke up yesterday frustrated by the freshly fallen snow that had ruined my plans to get out the bikes— daughter has a new bike, a grown-up bike, that she received for Christmas from her grandparents— and go for a long, first-ride-of-spring trip down the rail-to-trail path. 

I didn’t have to work, and that only happens rarely on the weekends, so I wanted to do something with my family. My daughter suggested watching a movie. I wanted something better than sitting on the couch. 

So, at noon yesterday, we hopped in the car and headed to Hershey. I last visited Hershey circa 1991. While I can technically say “I’ve been to Hershey before,” it has changed. It’s crazy amazing now. I think I stumbled upon the right age to take a child, since my daughter is ten-and-a-half and a full-fledged preteen know-it-all. Hershey reverted her to a spastic young ‘un full of wide-eyed awe. 

I had done a quick web search from my phone as we were walking to the car. I knew there were multiple attractions of multiple prices ranging from free to $14.95 per person. I also knew Hersheypark was not yet open for the season. Roller coasters would have to wait for another day (and a bigger budget). It’s a nice 90 minute drive from our home to Hershey. I also viewed this as a way to practice spontaneity. 

I’m very fortunate in a way. My mother is very frugal, knows how to budget, pays off her credit cards every month, and hides a little bit of cash somewhere for a rainy day. My father has a somewhat looser attitude towards money. He spends more generously than my mother, buys a lot of motorcycles and never balances his checkbook. I ended up a healthy blend of the two. I budget. I pay my credit cards every month. I also tend to spend when the occasion calls for it. Like on a good suit. Or, in this case, a family day trip.

We didn’t arrive at Hershey Chocolate World until 2 p.m. They close at 6 p.m. This meant we couldn’t do everything. (And honestly this kept the expense down AND the level of saying “no.”) We worked with the staff member at the ticket desk and booked the Trolley Works tour of Hershey ($14.95/adult; $10.95 child) and the Create-Your-Own-Chocolate-Bar ($14.95/person). 

To be honest, I insisted we do the Create-Your-Own-Chocolate-Bar. My husband and daughter seemed to pick the trolley. The other options were cheaper, the 4D mystery show and the Chocolate Tasting. My daughter originally suggested that, but the staff member pointed out that it was primarily a lecture with a lot of samples of dark chocolate from around the world. I was drooling, but chocolate school did not appeal to her. The staff member was very adapt at timing things so we could move from place to place without rushing but didn’t have too much free time.

I reminded my daughter that this is why she needed to be thankful that she didn’t have siblings because at these prices with more than one child I couldn’t afford to leave the house. 

  

I insisted we do the Chocolate Tour first. The Chocolate Tour is free, and though I don’t remember singing cows, it is the only part of Hershey Chocolate World that I remember existing from my other visit. The ride itself is like a Tilt-A-Whirl used as a transport device (without the spinning) that explains how Hershey makes chocolate. I thought my preteen would fine this lame. She adored it. We had to ride it twice. (I did make her wait until the end of the day for the second go.)

The trolley tour was an hour and fifteen minutes. I think the child lost interest after about 45. The history is extremely well done and the tour guides appropriately funny. Every time I started to get bored, they passed out chocolate samples. You eat a lot of free chocolate at Hershey.

  

The trolley tour chocolate samples started with Lancaster Caramels, what Milton Hershey made before chocolate, moved to Hershey Kisses, then flavored Hershey Kisses, then Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. When we disembarked, we received a full-sized Hershey Bar.

 

But, from a child’s perspective, I imagine the Create-Your-Own-Chocolate-Bar topped everything. They coded your name into your ticket, gave you a paper apron and hat, and sent you to some touch screens to select your options. First the chocolate innards: milk, white or dark chocolate. Then, up to three add-ins: crisped rice, toffee, pretzels, cookies, chocolate chips or butterscotch chips. Finally, whether or not you wanted sprinkles on top. From there, you went into the mini-factory. 

  

You scanned your ticket and pushed a button and your bar was placed on the production line. A screen displayed your name every time your bar reached that part of the process and you watched your bar receive its guts, its chocolate coating, everything. Eventually, it slid into a chute where a machine inserted it into a box and laser-printed your name on the side of the box. 

  

While it cooled and hardened, you designed the package. It was printed and a staff member boxed your bar in a Hershey tin and used your package as the outer sleeve. 

  

We ate a portion of our bars for breakfast today. We hope to make a summer trip to Hershey. 

Finding my rhythm in Djibouti

Yesterday we traveled to Yemen, courtesy of Arabian Voyages Travel. We arrived in the middle of the night Thursday (seeing a variety of shops still open as we breezed through town) and left 24 hours later. I had no idea what to expect of Sana’a. I have never really studied Arab culture except in the context of French colonialism.
We were sponsored for travel by our agency, and we acquired our visas with no difficulty or delay. When we got into the taxi with our guide, he handed us each a bottle of cold water. At that moment, despite the proximity of the American drones and the warnings you hear about traveling in a conservative Muslim country, I felt immediately at ease. I also realized, after several days now in a land where heat is stifling and water limited, that if you offer me a cold bottle of water I will trust you implicitly. More on that later. Now back to Djibouti.

This morning, we went to bed at 2:30 a.m. (midnight flight) after a disappointing attempt to FaceTime with the family. I had hoped to use the hotel internet to contact them, but when planning to get the family together at a certain time, my American sensibilities did not factor that the outside area where M smokes as I play with wi-fi doubles as a bed for one person and the other place where internet is available, the lobby, also serves as a sleeping space for the person working the desk. The man outside slept on two tables pushed together with a flattened cardboard box as a mattress.

So, M and I woke about 8 a.m. to find the hotel out of coffee and croissant. We sat there with our Lipton tea and bread and the server went to the store for croissant. We then headed to Bunna House for coffee. We had heard yesterday from a cab driver that everyone knows the two white people who’ve been tooling around town. The coffee house (bunna is a green coffee that they roast, as the young woman at the Ethiopian restaurant showed us) was full of a wide range of people. At this point the staff knows us and smiles as we head in every day at some point.

Next came the ATM machine. I had been having issues getting money. It declined my requests. So a local explained to us that you have to use Fast Cash. You cannot enter your own amounts. Today, I used the Djiboutian Franc fast cash button. AND IT WORKED! I felt like I had played in Atlantic city and won (even though I completely understand it was my money the machine spit out).

We did some shopping. That in itself is an experience. For clothing, there is a pile of inventory on the table. If you don’t see what you want, the shopkeeper pulls out this giant plastic bag and starts piling his additional inventory on top of the table. If you still don’t see what you want, you tell him and he will go look for it.

I also needed stamps. The tourist office instructed us to visit the tabac. Weaving our way into a crowded group of coffee drinkers, we came to a high wooden counter where an old African woman, shriveled with gold teeth, sat at a desk with her cash box making change as quickly as her long, bent hands could do it. When we asked for stamps, once the crowd thinned, she crossed to the counter. Opening a big drawer, she rummaged within and pulled out a small plastic bag with Djiboutian francs and two stamps. She carefully unknotted the plastic. She pulled out the stamps, which had been stored decorative side in. She warned us that these were not for letters, only postcards. We paid 100 francs each for the two stamps, face value 70.

Stamps found, we went for juice at Cafeteria Sana’a. We also do this every day. Ginger is my favorite, but since our arrival the first day, there has been no ginger. It’s also a place where they have grown to know us. The juice— I got cantaloupe again— comes in a frosted mug and hits the spot when the humidity has all but melted you into a puddle.

M and I don’t design many plans for our travel, but we always develop certain routines. There’s something about a daily trip to the juice bar or an evening stop for coffee that allows me to watch the city and find a place for myself in its rhythm.

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