Jane Pyecha Runs One of the Best Schools in Addis Ababa. Now She’s Teaching Others How it’s Done.

The morning rush hour in Addis Ababa is beyond alive.  People are lined up for blocks to catch the city bus to work.  Drivers wheeling overcrowded “blue donkey” taxis hustle to move people from the hubs of Kazanches and Mexico Square.  Shopkeepers are preparing to sell everything from bananas and pineapple to injera and freshly butchered beef.  Shoe shines, fresh fried donuts and fresh brewed coffee. It’s all for sell.

In the midst of the movement of rush hour, Head to Toe Early Learning Center and Kindergarten sits on a quiet street in the heart of Addis Ababa, just past the busy Meganegna roundabout.  The beautifully manicured garden that surrounds the school is a unique and rare greenspace among the schools in Addis Ababa. It is here that Head to Toe provides a play-based curriculum for children ages 0-7 — something that didn’t exist before Jane Pyecha opened the school in 2009.




Pyecha, an experienced international educator, moved from the Middle East to Addis Ababa to teach preschool in an international school.  After getting married and having her first child, the North Carolina native decided to lay down permanent roots in Ethiopia.

“Many years ago, when I was looking for a preschool for my own child, many of the schools were doing things that were not age appropriate, such as handwriting worksheets” says Pyecha.  “It appeared that most preschools were in the business of ‘babysitting’ and not making much effort to interact constructively with the children.”  Knowing that ages 0-5 are when a child’s brain develops the most, she set out to develop a play-based in-home preschool that would allow her to spend time with her new son at the same time serving the needs of two other families.



Eight years later, a manicured play yard equipped with seesaws, balance bikes, swings, and shade sails surround the school building.  But it’s not just the beautiful play yard that makes this school different from the others. Three things are at the core of its uniqueness:  Well-trained teachers; evidence-based teaching strategies; and an inclusive learning environment.

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Well-Trained Teachers

Jane Pyecha has been teaching for 24 years and is a specialist in teacher training and curricula development. She hires Ethiopian and foreign teachers not based on their credentials, but based on their love for children and willingness to learn.  “I hire teachers that have strong English skills and have teaching in their heart,” says Pyecha. On top of this, her teachers receive ongoing professional development and weekly 1:1 coaching to learn new approaches as the needs of the students evolve.  Giving the teachers the opportunities to advance their skills keeps the teaching fresh and has led to very low teacher turnover.

teacher and parents

Evidence-Based Teaching Strategies, Play-Based Learning

There is no shortage of research on the importance of play in developing the minds of children ages 0-5.  Head to Toe integrates the HighScope curriculum with directed, and self-directed group-style play. In the morning, you’ll find toddlers in circle time before choosing their first learning “stations.”  At one station they learn cooperation by using magnetic blocks to build towers together; at the costume station they express creativity as they pretend to be doctors.  Cooking play-doh burgers on a pretend grill teaches children self-confidence and responsibility.



Pyecha admits that her play-based approaches weren’t always welcome in the schools in Lebanon and Abu Dhabi, where highly structured “skill and drill” methods were preferred over “exploring and investigating.”   But even there, she sold a few administrators on the play-based approach.  “We are an active learning program,” says Pyecha.  “Instead of doing worksheets, here children remember their letters by drawing them in the sand box. We focus on play-based learning because through play is how kids learn best.  We want to make sure our kids have lots of different kinds of stimulation.”   The children are constantly learning and they don’t even realize it.



In the afternoon, the kids are hard at work on a collaborative art piece.  The teacher guides them in the creation of “deep art” that is worked on over several weeks, and where all of the ideas for how to construct a piece come from the children themselves.  Creating the art over an extended period of time develops the child’s imagination, helps them to focus, and uses their analysis skills. No two pieces are alike.

collaborative artwork 2

Each year the children’s artwork is auctioned off in a swank fundraising event for a local charity.  Parents dress up in bow ties and drink champagne and buy art that is truly deserving of a place in one’s home.



Family Support – Nannies & Children with Special Needs

Head to Toe offers two programs that foster inclusiveness in the community.  The “Nanny and Me” program, is open to children ages 6 months to 2 years.  Nannies are invited to bring infants to do activities, sing-alongs, and story-time up to five mornings a week.  Nannies can then use the techniques the learn at home with the children.

outdoor circle time

A second program provides scholarships and a family support group for children with special needs.  Children who would normally spend their entire lives hidden from society because of the stigma can enroll in Head to Toe’s full-day program — the only of its kind in the city.   “We realized how little there was available to them,” Pyecha says.  “They don’t get to see extended family.  The kids truly don’t leave the house.  I will never turn a child down if it’s at all possible.”

Head to Toe’s offering of a basic right to play is consistent with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that nations should provide opportunities for children to participate fully in cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity.   The parent support group shares resources, challenges, and successes. It also provides emotional support to the parents of children with special needs, which doesn’t really exist elsewhere.



A special education consultant has trained all of the teachers on strategies for interacting with children with special needs.  “The staff have really become passionate about this group of children,” says Pyecha.  “It’s hard for people to hear that their child has special needs. Sometimes when you’re the first person to say it they don’t want to accept it and you don’t see those people again. But other times they are grateful for the help, ” she adds. These children are able to come out and play, interact, and be a part of society.

little builders

Teaching Others How it is Done

Early childhood education in Addis Ababa continues to evolve.  And as more expats and the Ethiopian diaspora are returning to Addis seek quality preschool education, most of the newly established schools are now play-based.  To help develop these new schools, Pyecha provides individual and group consulting, and facilitates workshops and training for teachers, caregivers and parents on a variety of education topics that have been fundamental to Head to Toe’s success.   She hopes to one day bring this kind of experience to vulnerable children such as refugees.


Pyecha advises anyone who wants to establish a school targeting a truly international population to understand the inherent challenge of working with many different cultures and social contexts.  “You have to learn where the parents are coming from and what their experiences have been.  If your approach is very different from what they know and expect, there will be some inherent barriers that have to be overcome.”

She also emphasizes the importance of her husband and business partner Teddy’s patience and savvy.  As a native Ethiopian, his help was essential for navigating the culture and bureaucracy of establishing and maintaining a business there.

teddy and gigi

Pyecha is happy to have changed the face of early childhood education in Addis Ababa. Head to Toe also fulfilled her goal of providing high quality preschool education for her own two children.  She hopes that the evolution will continue well into the future.

jane and gigiJane Pyecha, International Education Specialist and Consultant, has been a leader and advocate in education, sharing her technical expertise with colleagues and administrators for 20+ years (15 internationally).  Using her skills in assessment and adaptability she gears her teaching to each student’s learning capabilities to help them reach their individual levels of success.  Contact Jane Pyecha on LinkedIn to learn more about her consulting services or about Head to Toe Early Learning Center and Kindergarten in Addis Ababa.


Playing it Safe: 8 Basic Things All Smart Travelers Do

We all expect good things to happen when we travel for vacation or business. We will close the deal. We will sleep in. We will drink unlimited adult beverages.  But sometimes bad things happen. I have the stories to prove it.

My colleague was swindled out of nearly $100 after accepting an invitation for coffee at a stranger’s house in Accra.  A friend’s cell phone was stolen mid-trip while souvenir shopping in an open air market in Addis Ababa.  I have been grounded in Frankfurt because of weather (somewhat predictable), Hong Kong because my connecting flight did not arrive (not so predictable), and in Nairobi because because the plane was held for the Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya who was running extremely late (a gypsy fortuneteller couldn’t predict this).

Smart travelers know how to minimize risks.  As for the inevitable unpredictable situations that come with the traveling territory, add these habits to your list of rituals for a better travel experience.

Book the most direct route you can afford.  When choosing between a flight with several connections and a couple of hundred dollars, limit your connections if you can afford it.  A missed connection could have you re-booking every subsequent flight which can trim days from your trip and cause you to forfeit non-refundable hotel nights or excursions.  If you don’t have time to waste, always book the shortest route.  Fewer connections mean fewer opportunities for something to go wrong.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Before boarding, have some local currency in hand.  There is a camp of people who won’t bother using local currency at all. For instance, in certain Caribbean countries, U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Some choose to get cash from the local ATM or a currency exchange service after reaching their destination.  While quick cash is easy in most major cities, whether or not you have the luxury of waiting depends on where you are going.  All destinations are not credit and debit card-friendly.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Smart travelers arrive in country with at least enough local currency to get to their hotel and to have a meal or two without having to tap the ATM. Ideally,  carry enough to last until the next business day.  Having some local currency will buy you some time to get to a bank in case you have trouble with the ATM when you arrive or the currency exchange services are closed.  If you are not able to exchange cash ahead of time, suck it up and pay the higher fees to exchange money or use the ATM at the airport. Bottom line. Don’t leave the airport without it.

Be prepared for medical expenses.  I’ve used hospitals or clinics in 5 different countries for everything from tooth aches to food poisoning and they all wanted to know before any treatment was provided, how I was planning to pay.  In one country, I was even asked to go pay in advance for the treatment while my husband waited with our toddler who was struggling to dislodge a marble from his throat.  Cash only. No exceptions.

ambulance architecture building businessPhoto by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you have an accident or illness while traveling, be prepared to pay for your healthcare up front.  Even if you have purchased traveler’s insurance, the facility might not accept it.  This doesn’t mean you should forego the insurance. If you have insurance (highly recommended), you can file a claim to the insurance company for reimbursement.

Carry along additional security.  Three simple things will keep you safer while traveling:  a door wedge, a decoy purse or wallet, and a flashlight.  If your hotel room door does not have an extra latch to prevent people from coming in, a rubber wedge placed under your door will buy you some time in the case of an intrusion.  A decoy purse or wallet holding nothing of value or a little cash, will give persistent thieves something to steal.  Conceal your real money and phone in a belt under your clothes.  A flashlight is helpful in developing countries prone to power outages.  One that telescopes or has a long handle can double as a baton.  These items don’t weigh much and will all fit in a carry-on bag.

Avoid using the room safe.  Using the hotel room safe is a better option than carrying all of your valuables with you or trying to hide them in your luggage in your room.  But there are times when the hotel’s safe is unsafe.  They are easy to break into, can be carried off, and the staff have a master code that can override your own code.  When in doubt, ask the hotel staff to put your items in their office’s safe.  Make sure you get a receipt for the items you leave in their care.

Pack useful carry-on bags.  Carry-on luggage should only contain items you can’t afford to loose, fragile items, and things that will keep you comfortable for at least a day.

woman walking on pathway while strolling luggage
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

If your checked luggage does not arrive when you do, you will be glad that you have these things:

  • Items you don’t want to loose – Passport, money, phone/electronic devices and chargers, keys, important documents, itinerary copies, emergency contacts
  • A complete change of clothes, including outwear appropriate for the weather
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Medications
  • Personal hygiene items
  • A flashlight
  • Travel pillow/ blanket
  • High protein snacks
  • Empty water bottle
  • Travel adapter for electronics
  • A good book

If it is not on this list, it belongs in a checked bag.

Allow enough time between layovers.  Booking a flight with a short layover is tempting because they are usually cheaper.  And who doesn’t like short layovers?  Meet Kim. Kim got a good deal on a flight from Los Angeles to Miami with a 50 minute layover in Atlanta.  Although her flight arrived to Atlanta on time, the airplane taxied for 30 minutes before letting passengers off. It took her another 20 minutes of sprinting to get to the connection terminal, arriving winded and too late.  Forced to depart the next day,  Kim had missed her sister’s engagement brunch, which she had been looking forward to for months.

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Don’t be like Kim.  Unless you are really familiar with your layover airport and are sure you can make a short connection, avoid layovers that are less than an hour on domestic flights and fewer than 2 hours when flying internationally.  Any shorter than this is a risk. Long security lines, distance between terminals (especially if reaching your connection requires a shuttle ride), or your own flight being delayed can cause you to miss your connection.

Leave an itinerary with someone. Let someone know where you are going, when you will get there, and where you plan to sleep.  American travelers can take it a step further and register their trip with the Embassy or Consulate in the country they are traveling to through STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) run by the Department of State.   STEP helps you receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, helps the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency (natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency) and STEP helps family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.


No one plans to be stuck in the airport, have their wallet stolen or fall down the stairs while on vacation. But taking a few simple steps will help you handle unexpected situations in stride.


Hike Like a Girl 2018 | Scenes from Patapsco Valley State Park, Maryland

Patapsco Valley State Park in May is a treat for the eyes and ears.   These photos of my May 5th, Hike Like a Girl adventure feature the park’s McKeldin area, a popular place for nature lovers, bikers, hikers, horseback riders, and picnickers to spend a little time.


The Trailhead

Marked with white, the Switchback trail is about 4 miles and is the longest trail in the McKeldin area of the park.  The loop took me around 1.5 hours to hike.


The lime green leaves of spring are just starting to dominate the landscape.


Veering off of the main trail onto the footpath will allow you to avoid the bikers.


A sample of the variety in the park’s foliage.


About 3/4 miles in, the rocky path and landscape flattens.


I was surprised to find this lily of the valley patch.




The  Patapsco River, which flows through 16,000 acres in Frederick and Carroll counties, calls  me to “sit a spell.” With 3 more miles to go, I whisper, “next time.”


About 2 miles in, the Switchback Trail takes hikers from the river bank, up into the hills, displaying a bird’s eye view of the water down below.


This fallen tree is so big that it straddles both banks of the creek.

I eavesdropped on this feathered couple’s conversation. Soon after, they began fighting.



A little over 3 miles in and the only way left to go is up. The trail’s end was waiting for me about 15 minutes on the other side.


If You Don’t Carry a Tiny Notebook When You Travel, Get One

In a world with no shortage of Instagram-worthy photos of people jumping off of cliffs or riding elephants on holiday, putting memories into writing seems far less exciting.  Catchy photos get more “likes” than essays, which tend to be overlooked by everyone other than our mothers.  However, if your goal is to truly document your reactions, feelings, and thoughts about a new place, nothing beats putting pen to paper.

Tiny Notebooks and Solo Travel

The tiny notebook is the perfect travel companion.  It is inconspicuous, lightweight, and most importantly, private.  In it I have recorded “politically incorrect” observations without worrying about being criticized by internet trolls. If I find out later that my observations are naive or altogether wrong, I can edit my thoughts and not worry about them being repeated.

Why Not Just Take a Picture?

While traveling in China, my tiny notebook is where I recorded the meals that I ate, the names of unfamiliar foods, and how I really felt about people jockeying to take pictures with “a real live Black person.”  Day by day I’ve jotted down seemingly insignificant details — the names of streets crossed, how much a taxi cost, how long it took to walk the entire Forbidden City, which pool was my favorite at the hot springs spa, who I wish was sitting next to me as I watched that beautiful sunset. Today those notes trigger my memories in a way that the photos simply can’t.

Scrap-booking for the Rest of Us

Pairing a tiny notebook with glue or tape makes it easy to scrap-book on the go.  Open mine from 2002 and you’ll find a ticket stub from Rent, my first Broadway play.  It holds phone numbers of people I’ve met, reflections on my first time crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, notes about what adventure I wanted to experience next.

Tiny Notebooks and New Ideas

Travel inspires creativity.  And it is nearly impossible for a photograph to document the new ideas that surface when experiencing a place for the first time. Jotting those ideas down in a tiny notebook is your insurance.  As long as you don’t lose it, you can always go back and re visit everything you thought you forgot — that great business idea, the name of a local artist that your bartender recommended, tips for future travelers, or maybe even why you will never step foot in that place again.

If you don’t carry a tiny notebook when you travel, get one. Twenty years from now, you’ll be glad that you did.

One Trip To India Turned Me Into a Street Photographer

Inspired by the colorful people of India, guest writer Jenna Hurley shares how she discovered the joy of street photography.  Her candid photos of everyday life in Delhi, Varanasi,  Agra, Ranthambore, and Jaipu show us that India’s beauty is more than just its architecture.  

Travel made me a photographer. When I first started traveling consistently (mostly in Europe), my shots focused almost entirely on buildings. I wasn’t intentionally ignoring human subjects, per se.  European buildings are usually the grand feature in the landscape.  They make for easy targets – light, shadow, strong angles and contrast, intricate details. . . all easy shutterbug fodder.

As time’s gone on, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many more esoteric destinations – Libya, Thailand, Kenya – but, save for one phenomenal safari, my photography formula has stayed pretty consistent. Focus on the inanimate. Line up the shot. Maybe tilt the angle a little for perspective. In short, I’ve taken the easy way out.

But India changed all that. In India, I found a destination that made me forget my monument orientation.

It’s not that India lacks for grand monuments (I mean, the Taj Mahal, right?). But on the whole, India is still poor and developing. There apparently isn’t much room in the national budget for monument restoration when 70% of the rural population still doesn’t have routine access to basic sanitary facilities. Northern India is also a relatively dry and dusty place; it would be a study in shades of beige were it not for its people.

Whether it is a product of innate Indian spirit or just a necessary way to distinguish themselves from their surroundings, Indians seem to live in a gorgeous array of bright, audacious colors. Indian women were doing pattern mixing and clashing way before Western high fashion deemed it cool.

While Indian men are on the whole less predictably colorful, even they were interesting subjects.


One of the pictures I most regretted not being prepared for was a rail thin Indian man, leathered by the sun, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and draped in typical white rural garb, leaning back against his empty pack animal-driven cart, sporting a screaming neon green turban. I’m sure I looked the fool — a white girl clumsily trying to snap pictures of entire families packed onto a single motorcycle (while pretending to be discrete); but I could not help myself. How can you not want a picture of a woman draped in a beautiful sari, perched on the back of a motorcycle, holding honest-to-God clay pots (plural!), the kind you might otherwise see in a museum exhibit? I mean, how do you even ride a motorcycle in a sari?!

Whether sweeping the sidewalk with a traditional straw broom or hawking vegetables in a street market;  observing a religious ceremony or conducting the backbreaking business of bailing hay by hand — it seemed like all of the texture of life.  All those intricate details — the tiling and gargoyles and old wooden doors — was most on display among India’s people.  And I wanted pictures of all of them.

Even though I often found the best fodder while we were en route from one point to another, and I’m still trying to figure out settings and optimum apertures with a camera I often fear is smarter than I am, I’d like to think a few of them came out pretty well.


1_jennaJenna Hurley is a would-be nomad currently living in Kuwait with her husband, son, and two cats. She aims to start a blog at whatever glorious moment her son decides to start predictably sleeping through the night.


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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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.