The final one

Like in all great adventures, time starts off slowly and before you know it, the end is at your door (or tent?) step. For us, our time in the Congo basin had to come to an end.

Our days exploring Lango bai in wet, dry and muddy conditions were followed by a night at another clearing where the beautiful Mboko lodge sits. Surrounded by beautiful and enormous termite mounds, there is a dramatic beauty to be found in this camp in the rainy season. It was here where we were caught in a furious storm while doing one of our hikes and fully understood the meaning or the term RAINforest, and confirmed that truly there are no Bongos in the Congo.

On our last afternoon, we embarked on a boat cruise down the Lekoli River once more. Water systems are fascinating and the amount of life that can be found around them will always leave returning for more. On our last boat cruise we were particularly silly, having summed up the pros and cons of the trip, we had now all decided and re-affirmed we felt happy and honoured to have had the opportunity to explore such a pristine piece of wilderness.

Being the more sensible one at the silly hour, Adam asked us all for a minute of silence down the river, somewhat reluctantly we agreed. When you focus on being silent, nature unravels itself better, allowing you into her secrets.
It was in this 60 seconds of silence that we came across a sight we had all been hoping to encounter: a forest elephant. We had patiently waited for them at the Lango River deck, looked for them on our hikes and walked on their footsteps to no avail. As if by magic, as we came across a corner, there he was. Unaware of our presence until our gasps and camera clicks gave us away. He was deep in the water looking for minerals. When we got a little to close he let us know that was enough and we eventually retreated to give him his privacy. Adam’s request for silence couldn’t have been timed any better.

Giggling away in a fashion you can only do when your heart is full, we gave thanks to the Universe for this gift. This was a much-awaited sight for us; one we had been looking for since the very beginning of our adventure. We had only heard stories of the mythical forest elephants, a creature that for us had proven to be so elusive and mysterious.

Laying eyes on the forest elephant touched Tristan and I, and we couldn’t help but draw comparison from the Savanna elephant we had come to know so well and had spent hours with.

“What struck me the most were their eyes”
“Yes! Did you notice they are of a honey colour?”
“So silent, I never expected to see one in the river like that”
“We got lucky”
“We did at last”

Intoxicated by our encounter, Jeremy proposed we take a chance and departed early on a last boat cruise the following morning. When rationally thinking about the alternative of sleeping in seemed silly not to go on a last expedition even if it meant travelling back wet. Adventure was calling and we had to answer.

My adventure partner

So, early in the morning the river was mesmerising. Maybe because the caffeine hadn’t kicked in, we gently drifted down the river in silence – something that had become unusual for our group.  In this last morning, we saw a side of the forest we hadn’t seen before, a much more awake, active and spirited side of it.

We found a small breeding herd of elephants feeding close to water; they nervously retreated back into the safety of the forest without a sound, in contrast to the noisy birdlife and the moustached monkeys.

We then found two more elephant bulls in the water, enjoying the coolness and calmness of the water. In between these two sightings perhaps we had the most unexpected encounter of them all: a hippo. We had seen no signs of them around and it was surreal to see such a creature in the rainforest. It quickly went under water and navigated past the first elephant we encountered. According to our guide, this was only his second sighting ever of a hippo in the 5 years he had been there.

Our final sighting was perhaps the best. The second elephant bull we encountered was not bothered by our presence. If anything he seemed curious about us and – dare I say – almost playful towards us. While searching for mineral at the bottom of the river, he would casually find the time to flick some water in our direction.

Being late for breakfast and for our flights back, we reluctantly bid our goodbye to the elephants and the forest where it dwelled.

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Writing the series about Odzala has been a bit of a mammoth task (Hallelujah it’s done!). It’s perhaps the longest series of posts I have ever written and I would like to thank everyone who has followed this adventure. It has been challenging to put into words this experience but after reliving these moments again I feel more certain that Odzala – Kokoua National Park needs to be protected, celebrated and visited. Few places in the world, like Odzala and the Congo Basin, need tourism so crucially to carry on existing and preserving all life within it; we will not get tired of promoting this treasure we have found within Central Africa’s rainforest, as it is our duty as naturalists to protect such ancient treasures.

I will be heading again in June 2019 to this magical place and we only have 2 more spots open. To book your spot you can email me on ale@wanderingthru.com or have a look at the itinerary link here

Smells like Christmas

The first Christmas tree ever is said to have been put up in Riga in 1510 by a group of professional merchants. These merchants were known to celebrate twice-yearly holidays, amongst which decorating and then burning down the Christmas tree. Testament to the oldest writing in the subject, in Riga (the capital of Latvia) the city center still marks the place were the first Christmas tree was put up and decorated for this festive season.

Christmas and traditions go hand in hand with Latvians and this is perhaps why at Christmas I feel more Latvian than some other times of the year. Growing up in a mixed household traditions flew all around. We were Latvian, Italian and Venezuelan.

My grandparents escaped the USSR after the Second World War and returned to Latvia only in the beginning of the 1990s. Since Latvia’s liberation and proclamation as a sovereign nation, I’ve had many family members that have returned to a land they were once forced to flee.

In moving to Venezuela, a country across the world from everything they knew, my grandparents adjusted in a way that has forever marked my own life: to be grateful and to embrace the cultures of the country you live in, even it’s a different one, no matter how much you miss your own. During Christmas this is when I realised this the most.

Christmas is perhaps the time of the year were perhaps the Latvian side was the more prominent one. Lead by my grandmother and then by my mother and my aunt (only because they became too bossy) and eventually by me (I am my mother’s daughter after all), the beginning of the month of December always signalled a time that smelled like pine trees, tasted like pirags and was embraced by family.

As soon as the school holidays started an endless affair of baking began at Omi’s house. She had the biggest kitchen that would fit all grandchildren and children. When we were little we were allowed to participate only in doing the fun bits, playing with the dough, pouring the flour, using the pastry brush for the egg wash before being pushed to “go outside and play” – no doubt more to the adults benefit than our own.

Growing up I remember Pumperniks were always the first set of cookies we tackled. To this day, these are the best raw cookie dough there has ever been made on the face of the planet – so much that my mom had to bat us off the dough to be able to prepare it. I remember how successful and modern we felt when we convinced Omi to change the raisins for chocolate chip in our pumperniks. We could never completely eliminate the raisin option, but chocolate chips are to this day a win.

After the pumperniks we always made the Mandeļu radziņi– forever my least favourite ones. An almond base cookie dusted in icing sugar. My mom’s forever favourite that we are never allowed to take off the menu.

If two cookie recipes weren’t enough, we also made an endless supply of the ones that became my favourites: the piparkukas. The “pepper” cookies were always a favourite of mine after discussing with my aunt one day how such a strange recipe we so many different ingredients came to be: 

“We always used to joke that perhaps during the war someone stumbled in the pantry and knocked everything down; because you wouldn’t through anything away someone started mixing things until something edible came out”

The piparkukas always took the longest to cook as Latvian quantities are always meant for a feast of giants. We would decorate the first hundred (like gingerbread cookies) but give up with the ensuing 300. When the food crisis hit Venezuela, this was one of the recipes that became optional, as we couldn’t always find all the ingredients.

Mandeļu radziņi

Pirags were without the doubt the highlight of the Christmas preparations. On the pirag baking day everyone would come around during lunchtime in fear of everyone else finishing them all before having a chance to eat at least 10. Pirags are little breads that are filled with a mixture of smoked ham and bacon and they are everyone’s favourites. Tico and Vilis caribbea-nized them by instituting the tradition of having them with “guasacaca” (the Venezuela guacamole). There were no complaints on the Latvian side as avocado is one of the best things Venezuela offered.

After pirags came the longest and most daunting task of them all: making hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan traditional Christmas dish. True to the Venezuelan culture, the hallaca is a mix of many different things. The hallaca includes elements of the European culture (such as raisins and olives) indigenous ingredients (such as the corn meal colored with annatto seeds), and African ingredients (the smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping and cooking). The broth of the hallaca was the first step of the process, one that I always stayed clear of as a bad broth could ruin the quality of the hallaca. The making of the hallaca on the other hand was a process that saw us lose a number of shirts and pants; the annatto used to color the white cornflour is powerful enough to ruin any cleaning will. As I got older the hallacas became a tradition of us women of the family. It was a nightmare to cook as it was long, but no self-respecting Venezuelan household would serve anything else to guests during a december dinner party or have anything else for Christmas dinner. I first learned how to squash the dough on the plantain leaf, add the broth, “forget” the raising when no one was watching, and add an extra piece of ham. I felt I had been accepted into the next level of womanhood when I was allowed to started wrapping my own hallacas in the plantains leaves and then tying them with the string before boiling them.

It was always a long affair that lasted a good full day, we always made arepas while enjoying some good eggnog “Ponche Crema” which became my favourite Christmas drink (because in Venezuela we make proper rum).

Venezuelan Hallacas made by Arepa & Co in the UK

Christmas in Venezuela always felt like a rush of baking, cooking and celebrating the so called “Christmas spirit” during the month of December. There was a chill in the air (Pacheco) that lingered on the houses every night, that made Caracas an even more pleasant city to be in, even as the city itself emptied out leaving only a few of us behind.

To this day I only truly feel like Christmas when the smells of that Astral kitchen come to me. I may live far away, my family scattered across the globe, but they taught me that the traditions you are brought up with will always live in your heart and it’s up to us to keep them alive. Because of this every year I try to bake a little bit more of what feels like home.