I Found the Spice of Life on a Farm in Zanzibar

We visited Abdalla Abeid’s Spice Farm on our way from Stone Town to Pwani Mchangani during a trip to Tanzania’s Zanzibar.  The farm was not anything like America’s commercial orchards, where apple trees grow neatly in rows.  It was a miniature forest with mango tree canopies and a little of everything all growing together — a throwback to the time when the Sultan of Oman controlled Zanzibar and the spice and slave trades were economic staples.

Spices have always been a serious business. So serious that Spain, Portugal, England, and Holland all fought for control over the Indonesian Spice Islands for 200 years.  The leaves, fruit, and oils provide the ultimate culinary experience and have healing powers, too.  Spices are what Christopher Columbus was in search of when he landed in the Bahamas.

Confession: If “spice trivia” were a thing, I would have lost miserably.   Our guide explained how each of the farm’s spices and fruits grows, about their local uses, cultivation and preparation for market.   I didn’t recognize the fresh green vanilla bean or the shiny green peppercorns, which only slightly resembled the dried black ones in the market.  I had no idea that fresh nutmeg was shiny, black and covered in red veins.  I was surprised that lemongrass repels mosquitoes.  The local fruit Mbilimbi (cucumber tree), traditionally enjoyed pickled, can also be used to treat venereal disease.  It was a stark reminder of how far removed we are from our food sources and how little I knew about the spices I use.

The tour left me amazed.  Tasting jackfruit right from from the tree was a delicious experience.  We left the farm wearing natural red lipstick made from annatto, adorned with bracelets woven from palm leaves.  Our spice bouquet’s fragrance perfumed our seaside room for days.

If you ever get the chance to visit Zanzibar or any other spice-growing area, find a farm and ask for a tour. You’ll be glad you did.



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A Visit to Your Hometown Might Be Exactly What you Need

When I ask people what they feel when they return to their hometowns, they almost always say, “at peace.”  Folks from small towns talk about a pace that’s slower; having nowhere to be because there’s nothing to do.  It’s as if they’ve been given permission to “sit a spell.”  It’s easy to attribute the peace to the small town’s pace, but actually, something else is at play.

As a kid, I spent almost every summer with my grandparents in Tifton Georgia, then population 14,000.  It was a scene out of Nikki Giovanni’s poem, Knoxville Tennessee, complete with every cliché you ever heard in a country song.  I hated my grandparents’ willow trees for providing an unlimited supply of leg-stinging switches.  I also loved the largest willow — a reliable hide and seek home base that gave us shade, sprinkles of water and plenty of skeletons to play with (left behind by molting beetles).

Summer in Tifton was an unconditional fountain of love.  We were allowed to ride in the cabs of pickup trucks, to pick unwashed plums from the side of the road, and spent  unscheduled hours doing whatever we wanted.  Days were spent with cousins (and play cousins), walking to Mr. Sun’s, the neighbor who sold penny candy, pickled pig feet and huge dill pickles.  At night we stepped on each other’s shadows in the street where the few people who passed always waved.  Listening to grown folks fuss over a game of spades was a Saturday night highlight.

Every now and then we’d go out to “the country” (Ty Ty Georgia then population 620), where my great grandma lived in a single-wide trailer on a long stretch of Georgia clay. Miss Emma raised hogs and grew okra. She warned us about that lived in the blackberry bushes; then let us pick them anyway.  No matter how many switches we were made to retrieve, we felt loved.

All of us kids have become the “grown folks” and we now have kids of our own.  The old folks do more porch-sitting  than card slapping.  And the children should be thankful that thunderstorms have uprooted all of the willow trees.  When we return back home to attend graduations, Thanksgivings and funerals, somehow the good memories crowd out all of the reasons we left in the first place.  What follows is peace.  That peace comes from being around family again — those who know exactly who you are and they love you anyway.

Scenes from Tifton Georgia, USA

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Beyond the Full Moon Party: 8 More Ways to Spend a Night Under the Moon

The moon will enter its lunar phase, aligning directly with earth and the sun 13 times in 2018. A full moon is bold. It takes up space.  It’s feared, revered, and celebrated in ancient and modern society. New Zealand’s Maori people still plant food by the way of the moon, the tides and the elements, using the Maramataka calendar.  On the eve of March 31 (the last Blue Moon until 2020), some traveler in Thailand will be looking for the ultimate full moon party.

Luckily, enjoying the moon doesn’t require a flight. There are plenty of ways to take in the moonlight right where you are.

Watch the full moon rise.  Watching the moon rise over Lake Langano is one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen.  Find out what time the moon rises in your town and pick a spot with a view.  Carry along a picnic and you will have created the perfect date night.

This video was originally featured on YouTube by thhedk. You can subscribe to his YouTube channel here.”

Full moon yoga.  In Havre de Grace, Maryland, Full Moon Yoga hosts special evenings in June, July and August, where students practice yoga class on a floating barge overlooking the river reflecting the moon. Set your intentions. Release. Let go.

Kayak under the moon.  If you live near water, find the outfitters that arrange moon-lit tours. For example,  Ayers Creek Adventures in Berlin, Maryland offer guided Eco-Tours led by paddlers with extensive knowledge of the waterways, wildlife, and history of the Maryland Coastal Bays. Full moon kayak tours can be found all over the state of Florida.

Full moon drumming circles.  Each new and full moon, the Florida School of Holistic Living has been known to host a drumming circle to help Orlando, Florida communities connect with the lunar cycles through drumming, dance, chanting, singing, and fellowship.  Drumming circles can be relaxing, spontaneous and can spark your creative side.

This video was originally featured on YouTube by Miami Fever. You can subscribe to his YouTube channel here.”

Full moon hikes. Find out if your local nature center has programs for visitors who want to study the plants and animals under a full moon. In Pennsylvania, the Wissahickon Environmental Center is hosting a moonlight toad walk, which coincides with the American toad’s breeding season.  Washington D.C.’s National Arboretum’s full moon hikes are usually sold out events. Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Maryland, will host a family-friendly night hike and campfire during the rise of the Strawberry Moon in May.

Full moon runs. To celebrate the blue moon (two full moons in one month), the National Aboretum is hosting a blue moon 5K on March 31.  Jersey City, New Jersey has opened a virtual half-marathon challenge urging us to run 13 miles over the course of the 13 full moons.  Complete the challenge before December 31 and receive a finisher’s medal.

Full moon sip and paint.  Take inspiration from the The Working Artist in New Jersey and create your own sip and paint experience.  Invite a local artist to teach or free hand on canvases in your back yard with friends.  Paint a moonscape. Admire your celestial masterpiece. Then head outside to enjoy your wine.

Full moon monument tour.  Washington D.C. History and Culture hosts full moon walking tours of the city’s most famous monuments and memorials.   Hit them all on a long stroll with a group of your fittest friends.  The King, Roosevelt and Lincoln Memorials are iridescent under moonlight.


Try them all and tell us your favorite ways to enjoy a full moon night. And if you have other ideas, let us know so we can update our list and share them with others!

Book Review: Best Tent Camping Maryland

tent campingSlapacking in the Australian Blue Mountains; glamping at Lake Langano, New Years Eve on Japan’s Kaseda Beach.  Some of my best memories involve sitting around a bonfire with friends, eating, sleeping and storytelling under the stars. I want to make more camping memories with my family; but I have no idea how to really camp.  Spending more time around the campfire means learning how to tent camp.

When I set out to learn something new,  I go deep — tinkering somewhere between highly engaged and completely obsessed.  Like my grade-school trip to Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Georgia, I need the children’s first tent camping experience to be everything.  My first obsession was figuring out where to camp.  After hours and hours (and hours) of pouring over the many state park websites, selecting the perfect campsite still felt like playing lottery.

In comes Best Tent Camping Maryland, my trusty companion; my loyal friend.  Evan Balkan’s  guidebook features some of the best campgrounds in Maryland, organized by region. Balkan then rates every park’s beauty, security, peacefulness, cleanliness, and privacy while providing a detailed overview of what makes each park special. He offers up tips on the best sites for those concerned lot-size, scenic views, access to trails, boat rentals/launches, proximity to bathrooms, lifeguards, and RV campers. Detailed maps allow you to quickly compare campsites.

I hoarded the public library’s copy for 3 weeks before finally purchasing my own.  That the 2016 edition is due for an update, didn’t stop me from adding it to my shelves.  Sure, I can find some of this information online. But internet research usually tires me out well before I get anywhere near the answer I need.  Best Tent Camping Maryland is concise, comprehensive and efficient.

Now that I’ve checked “find a campsite” off my to-do list it’s time to start obsessing over buying our first tent.  Hours and hours (and hours) of fun.

“The Best Tent Camping” is part of a series, which covers several states and regions across the United States.

The Snow Day Rules: Enjoying the Cold Weather When You’re Completely Over it

By late March, most of us are officially over the cold.  We are tired of the weather acting like a tease in a dive bar.  One day she’s warm, inviting and forcing tulips from the ground.  The next day, her cold shoulder breaks hearts without warning nor explanation.  It is a mean thing to do.  Why can’t she be loving all of the time?

On the morning of the spring equinox, the weather reports were calling for heavy snow — much to the delight of the children who now, wouldn’t have to see a classroom for a couple of days.  Despite being annoyed about the pending break in my routine, I knew we probably wouldn’t see snow like this for at least another year. So I decided to make the most of it by following the “snow day rules.” These are rules you should follow when the weather has got you stuck at home.

Rule #1:  Stock up on the essentials. Who needs milk and eggs?  No one. Not only will they spoil if the power goes out, snacks are way more effective at putting you in a good mood when you are tired of the cold weather.

If you have to work from home while everyone else is enjoying a day off, chips and guacamole provide excellent company.  Snacks can be used to bribe fighting, restless kids way better than eggs can.  Unless you plan to paint those eggs or use them in a cookie recipe, don’t bother.

Rule #2:  Give in to the snow.  Don’t let the snow stop you from layering up and getting outside.  The key to not freezing is to start moving and don’t stop.  Dig out your neighbor’s car.  Tie a rope to a clothes basket and drag your kids around.  Play snow frisbee.  Just don’t climb a tree. That’s a terrible idea.  If you don’t have any kids, borrow the neighbors’ . Your neighbor will thank you 10 times, because chances are, they bought milk and eggs instead of snacks. And now they are looking for something to distract their fighting kids. After thawing out, reward yourself by binge watching your favorite series while eating your delicious snacks.

Rule #3:  Plan for spring.  A cold, snowy day is a great time to begin planning for the activities you put aside when the temperature began to drop.  Plant your seeds indoors and watch them sprout under grow lights.  Plan your 10Ks, map your road trips, book your campsites, and get your music concerts lined up.  Start calling your friends and filling in your spring calendar.

The good part about a late season snowfall is that the next 20 degree temperature increase is probably not a tease.  It’s very likely that lady winter has moved on to a different bar. Warmer days will soon be here to stay.


Why Every Woman Should Spend Time Alone in the Woods

I recently took to the woods alone for the first time.  When I started my car preparing to return home the first thing I noticed was that the radio sounded way too loud, even though the volume was normal when I left it.  I turned the knob, shielding my ears from the Cardi B song, when all of a sudden I “got it.”   This is what happens when you spend time alone in the woods.

For the past few weeks I’ve been pouring through Jennifer Pharr Davis’ book, Becoming Odyssa, trying to understand what people get out of thru-hiking 2,180+ miles along the Appalachian Trail.  Davis had a similar experience the first time she went into a super-store in Virginia.  Having seen mostly woods and hostels since leaving Georgia, she was overwhelmed by the “tsunami of scents, sounds, and colors that crashed down. . . ” .

I didn’t need to hike hundreds of miles to feel the effects of unplugging.  Just 2.5 miles on the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail was enough.  The woods were scary at times. Everything was amplified.  I would hear a lumbering black bear but then realize that it was only a squirrel playing in the leaves.  I spotted 15 or so deer prancing single-file towards a pond in the distance.  Despite being camouflaged, they couldn’t hide from a set of eyes that had been focusing on nothing but forest for the past hour.  I even noticed when the stagnant stream that followed the trail on my right began to babble about a quarter mile later.

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It seemed like the forest made everyone friendlier, which in turn made the trail more approachable. The person that diverts his eyes in the grocery store will speak on the trail.  I passed smiling couples walking dogs.  I laughed with a woman prodding a reluctant and stubborn horse to cross a muddy path. “You go on around us” she ushered.  “We’re gonna be here for a while.”

The blue trail markers kept their promise and got me back out safely.  I returned home renewed and energized — like I had been let in on a big secret.   Not only did I find this beautiful space only miles from my home,  but that one peaceful hour put me in the mood to welcome the next 23.

There’s no doubt that everyone has heard terrible stories that make us reluctant to walk alone in the woods. But if you are smart and take the proper precautions (e.g., know your route, leave an itinerary, track your location, and match your trail with your physical abilities), I promise that the benefits will outweigh the fear.  Find a safe trail and walk it alone. Don’t miss out on the secret!



Remembering Minty: Why the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park Will Humble You

I discovered the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park a couple of months after moving back to the U.S. while searching for places to learn about Black history in Maryland.  So when Outdoor Afro Washington D.C. suggested we all take trip east to celebrate the park’s one year anniversary, a family day-trip was born.  The night before, we all watched the documentary Whispers of Angels: A Story of the Underground Railroad to get a give the children a quick lesson on the mid-19th century network of secret routes that aided fleeing American slaves. But the documentary didn’t prepare me for the deep sense of gratitude and pride that would be stirred by visiting this historic site.

Entering Church Creek is like going back in time. Stop signs replace traffic lights.  The speed limit slows to a crawl.  Acres of farmland surrounds you in all directions. Four futuristic-looking clapboard houses stood tall on our right as we pulled into the visitor center parking lot — the center’s southernmost point. After entering, the smiling rangers guided us left.  This began our journey north where we stopped at each of the center’s “stations” to read, watch, and listen to stories about adventure, struggle and freedom.


The Underground Railroad’s most famous “Conductor” stood only 5 feet tall.  She was born “Araminta” (“Minty” for short) which befittingly means “defender” in Greek. One of her jobs as child slave was to hunt muskrats in Maryland’s freezing marshes during winter without shoes. Tubman was a master navigator, having learned to read the sky from the Black boatmen who worked on the shore. Slaves escaped the plantations on foot, by boat, and in false bottom carriages, using information that was discretely exchanged among white abolitionists and free Blacks. The theory that fleeing slaves communicated using information found in quilts (“quilt codes”) was folklore. 

After leaving the visitor center, we drove through the area surrounding Blackwater River, stopping to visit sites along the Underground Railroad Scenic Byway.   The Bucktown Village Store, a couple of miles from Tubman’s birthplace, is where she was hit in the head with a weight by the store owner as a young girl — an injury she considered to be a gift from God.  I was afraid to walk into the old store. 

The owner, an avid storyteller, captured our kids’ attention, showing them an original newspaper featuring the “wanted” ad for Tubman’s capture and explaining how slave tags were used.  Slavery had never been so real to me than it was at that moment.  I wondered what Tubman’s very first escape was like and how she mustered the courage to return back some 100 miles 19 times, risking her life and freedom.

Blackwater River –  Church Creek, Maryland

Standing next to her birthplace marker in Bucktown, I breathe in the fields, the trees, and the cloudy skies.  It was one thing to read about her in books. But to consciously walk the same places she has walked is a privilege afforded to few.  I wondered which way was north and how my ancestors left the known for the cold unknown. How did they survive the mid-Atlantic’s harsh winters? How did they trust the network of strangers?

There, standing in the presence of Tubman’s spirit, I offered a silent prayer.  Because of her and many others, we are able to move comfortably about this town. For us, a weekend in Maryland’s Dorchester County means a different type of adventure.  It means kayaking, fishing and hiking the Chesapeake’s manicured trails; it no longer means, “do or die trying.”  Just like Minty, I plan to return again.

Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge leaving the Eastern Shore

Trekking in Wenchi Crater

This weekend the kids and I headed out to Wenchi Crater, located about 120 miles (3 hours) west of Addis Ababa between Ambo and Wolisso. Hands down, this is the most beautiful place I have seen in Ethiopia so far. The road trip alone is gorgeous — mostly teff fields and mud tukuls surrounded by false banana trees (enset), with a sprinkling of small towns along the way. Between the bumps in the road and the flat tire change, I learned that Ethiopia has the most cattle, donkeys, and horses of any other African country and that its cattle population is only second to China in the world. This is mainly because many people still use livestock to plow fields and to do other farm work.

After spending the night in a lodge in Wolisso and riding an hour on a dusty gravel road, we were rewarded with the scenes of a beautiful lake situated beneath majestic hills, all taken in on horseback. The extinct volcano is situated 3300 meters above sea level; so you can imagine the amazing views. We also saw cowboys as young as 6 or 7 years old, riding horses like experts. The children who weren’t climbing the hills on horseback, waved and smiled at us from the side of the road.

Loosing a Loved One When You’re Abroad

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

~Khalil Gibran

When you live far away from home, it’s natural to miss family. Every missed cook-out, graduation, and card party creates just a little twinge of home-sickness that I try to mask with my own play dates and soirees. But I never imagined what it would feel like to lose someone while living in another country.

My mother’s sister passed just three days ago at the young age of 50. Her smile and outrageous laugh always lit up the room. Being all the way in Ethiopia, I had to deal with her passing without the physical support of my mother, cousins, aunts, etc. The first night was rough. No amount of wine, television, or internet could take my mind off of the fact that my aunt is no longer here and I will not be celebrating her life at her funeral. I’m also sad I am not there to support my family while replaying the stories about all the good times. It was so rough that I considered skipping my pre-planned trip to Awash National Park to be alone at home.

Grieving alone, however, is not entirely bad. It forced me to sit with that pain and to try to work through the source of that bucket of tears. I realized that taking the trip is exactly what I needed to do. Had I stayed inside, I might have missed that beautiful rainbow that appeared over the savannah just two days after her passing.

Being in nature reminded me of my connection to every termite hill, animal, field of volcanic pumice, waterfall, and dry river bed –all which has always existed– just in another form.  I was reminded that we must all return back to the Earth. I thank my husband for capturing these moments on camera. So I have dedicated this video to my aunt, who I know, does not want me to spend another minute crying.


What I Love About Gondar

A couple of weeks ago we spent 5 days exploring the towns of Bahir Dar, Gondar, and Lalibela located in Northern Ethiopia. Having checked several sights off my to-do list so far, it seems that each new place I visit is that much better than the last place. These three towns, however, are so unique in their own right, that it’s really comparing apples to oranges to even try. So instead, I’ll just try to explain to you the best things I enjoyed about these places.

Five Things I Love About Gondar

Restaurant and Bar Signage. Although most restaurants and bars in town had formal signage, there were many mom and pops that notified the public that injera and tej awaits, simply by hanging a mug from a long pole on the side of the road (a bar) or by hanging a nicely decorated plate at the restaurant’s entrance.



Lottery Tickets. The kids in Addis have tried to sell us a lot of stuff – sunglasses, sun visors for the car, CDs, airtime for the cell phone.  But no one has ever tried to sell us lottery tickets. So when four boys came up to us in the roadside cafe offering a chance to win 20,000 birr for just 2 birr, we had to buy some. We spent 6 birr, won 4 birr, bought more lottery tickets, and lost the 4 birr we won. Lesson learned.  Loosing on a scratch off sucks the same wherever you play.

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Coffee & Donuts. On our 3-hour drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar we stopped in a local coffee shop where the coffee is prepared slowly by roasting fresh beans in the style of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. We learned that the reason they call it a ceremony is because coffee prepared from fresh coffee beans takes at least an hour and a half to prepare. Just as we pulled off, having finished our cups of sugar with a little bit of coffee, we spotted a donut shop a few doors down. Of course, passing by the donut guy without stopping was not an option.  Now, why the coffee shop doesn’t just merge with the donut shop to make Habesha Dunkin Donuts, we will never know. Clearly our eyes were bigger than our stomachs that day. We bought 6 donuts straight out of the oil.  I’m sure that 2 are still hanging out in our suitcase.

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The Castles & Fasilides’ Bath. The main attraction in Gondar are the ruins of the six historical royal castles leftover from the days that Gondar was the Imperial capital of Ethiopia.Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilides around 1635, fell to the hands of Sudanese invaders and then the Italians (for only 5 years) in 1936. As a result, much of the complex remains in ruins, awaiting a proper restoration.  As we made our way through the castles (belonging to 6 kings and 1 queen), former libraries, stables, lion quarters, and banquet halls, the kids explored every hole and secret passageway left standing. After leaving the castles we were whisked away to Fasilides’ Bath, which is  home to an annual ceremony where it is filled witih water about 1.5 meters, blessed and then opened for bathing during Timkat.









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Our Tour Guide Long Lost Cousin.  Our tour guide in Gondar has a degree in history and spoke perfect English. He explained the monuments and historical sites with enough detail to pique our interests, but not so much as to put us to sleep.  But the real reason I loved him is that his uncanny resemblance to my husband had me thinking that we must be related way down the line. And with this, you can understand just why we love this country.