Who is Chuck and why does he like to travel?

I was born to be a writer and when I wrote my novel Wild Point Island, Chuck, my orange and white recently rescued feral tabby, got it in his head that he wanted to travel to the island and see the place for himself. Well, of course, Wild Point Island, can only be seen by revenants (you'll have to read the book to find out who they are) and Chuck is no revenant so instead, we concocted a plan to take Chuck with us--my husband and I--when we travel around the world, which we do frequently. Not an easy task. First, we have to deflate the poor kid of all air, stuff him in my carry-on bag, remember to bring my portable pump, and when we arrive, we pump him back up. Ouch. But he's used to it by now and given the choice to either stay home in his comfy cat bed or get deflated, he pulls out his passport, ready to travel, every time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Chuck In Search of Karen Blixen's Grave

Karen Blixen's house at Rungstedlund, outside Copenhagen

How far should a fan go to pay tribute to an author she loves?

According to Chuck, my rascal cat, not far at all.

I had a different idea.

Ever since I’d read Karen Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa and then watched the movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which detailed Karen Blixen’s tumultuous love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton while in Kenya and running a coffee plantation, I’d longed to see her two homes—one in Kenya and the other in her native Denmark.  For me, seeing an author’s home is inspiring. I imagine them in that space writing, creating, and hope that some of their unique talent rubs off on me.

Several years ago I was lucky enough to go on safari in Kenya.  I saw where Karen Blixen lived and worked.  Recently, while traveling around the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, I also had the opportunity of visiting Karen Blixen’s ancestral home—where she was born and raised and where she returned, after her coffee plantation in Africa burned to the ground and she lost her investment.

Kate (me) in Copenhagen train station with Chuck in smart bag

Rungstedlung is approximately 25 minutes by train and a bit more by bus out of Copenhagen.  Her home is now the Karen Blixen Museum, and many of the original rooms are delightfully preserved the way they were when she lived there.

Sign announcing you have reached Karen Blixen's house

So it was exciting to take the trip north of Copenhagen and see her house, and even though it was a half dreary—cloudy, partially rainy day, I didn’t mind. We traipsed through her house and inspected her rooms, visited the part which now housed documents that told the story of her life and then stopped off in the gift shop.

Karen Blixen (not in the flesh) on poster board to greet you!

Chuck, safely squirreled away in my smart bag, bore the entire experience with unlikely quiet reserve.  We were about to leave when I realized that we hadn’t seen Karen Blixen’s gravesite.  Follow the path behind the house, we were told. I couldn’t resist, and Chuck, realizing that the path was likely to be somewhat deserted, knew he’d be let out of the smart bag and allowed to roam around.

Back view of house with pathway leading to grave

We started off down the path, crossed along the back of the house, and quickly, very quickly we entered into a kind of forest, beautiful but very quiet and deserted. With no grave in sight. The guide woman at the desk had clearly said to follow the path.  So we continued to walk.  Hanging from trees were smartly carved cheerfully colored birdhouses, which helped to dispel the gloom.  The drizzle, which had started with our walk, now turned into a downpour.  Chuck sloshed along in front of me.  Still no gravesite.

Path with brightly colored birdhouses

I became suspicious. Why would anyone want to be buried so far away from the house? Had we somehow missed the “clearly marked sign”?   

Then it happened. A black bird appeared in front of us. At first I thought it was an omen. But, no, only trouble because Chuck saw the bird and let loose, his belly dragging behind him as he chased after this poor creature, who for some reason, refused to take flight. Surreal almost. Finally, when it seemed that Chuck was just about to pounce, the bird rose into the air. Chuck, clearly out of breath, didn’t seem too concerned that he’d lost his conquest. And, of course, still no gravesite. We’d been walking up an incline for at least ten minutes.

Marina across the street from where Karen Blixen lives

Chuck gave me one of those looks.  He’d had enough.

I am not one to give up, but Chuck was drenched. The path was turning into mud. And the forest was now the forest primeval.

We turned around and returned to the gift shop.

Yes. Karen Blixen was buried at the top of the hill. Under the giant beech tree. There is a marker.  Perhaps, you did not walk far enough.

Suddenly it didn’t matter anymore.  Instead I’d walked the path I imagined she’d walked a hundred times.  And that was enough for me.



Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chuck Kidnaps Baby Monkey at Oltukai Lodge

In the heart of Africa, in Kenya, it is best not to mess with the monkeys.

Let me explain.

We (Bob, Chuck and I) were lucky enough to be staying at the very exotic Oltukai Lodge in Kenya at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro when we were on safari. Yes, that Mt. Kilimanjaro, the mountain that Hemingway wrote about, the highest peak in Kenya, the snow-covered peak that’s often covered by clouds until the mid-part of the day. From our cabin you could see the mountain if you were willing to walk a bit toward Amboseli National Park where the wild animals roam free. It is quite something to look out into the distance and know that the mountain you are seeing is Kilimanjaro.  At that moment you know you are in a very special place.  

Oltukai Lodge in Kenya

Snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro

And we were.  

The other clue was that the lodge we were staying out resembled the lodge we’d stayed at in Disney World in Florida when we’d booked a week at Animal Kingdom.  I suspected that someone from the Disney Franchise had come to Oltukai Lodge--which is the real deal--mosied around, taken some photos and made some notes, ie. this is what a real safari lodge looks like and then raced back to Florida and designed the lodge at Animal Kingdom.  

Interior view of the lodge

At Oltukai, you have the Lodge and the grounds, but outside the fence is Amboseli National Park much like Animal Kingdom which features the lodge and grounds and then a savannah where animals roam and are fed for the entertainment of the guests.  

the savannah of Amboseli National Park - elephants

One detail is missing, however, in Animal Kingdom--the free roaming monkeys that pepper the grounds at Oltukai Lodge.  It is one thing to be in a safari vehicle, barrelling along a dirt road on the savannah in a preserve and see elephants, giraffes, zebras, hyenas, cheetahs, lions, wildebeests, cape buffalos, and over 400 species of birds.  It is quite another to be on the grounds of the lodge and bump into a monkey.

Amboseli National Park has over 400 species of bird

Monkeys roam free on the grounds of the lodge

That’s what happened to Chuck. It was mid-morning, after breakfast.  Mt. Kilimanjaro was still covered in clouds.  Chuck was lounging on a chair on the front porch of our cabin, relaxing, when a baby monkey skeddadled around the corner into view and stopped and stared at Chuck. 
Chuck lifted his head and stared back but didn’t move.

Our cabin with front porch while staying at the Lodge

The baby monkey, cute as can be, moved closer, clearly curious.  Perhaps, baby monkey had never seen a cat before.  Chuck, also curious, had never seen a monkey before.  

The baby monkey moved even closer and now just a few feet separated them, but neither seemed threatened by the other.  I was intrigued now. What would happen when were so close their noses touched?

It happened within seconds. The baby monkey reached out to touch Chuck’s whiskers.  Chuck sniffed the baby monkey, then turned sideways as the baby latched onto Chuck’s belly. Chuck began to waddle away, toward the porch just as another monkey appeared . . . and it didn’t take a genius to figure out who it was -- Mama Monkey. 

Within seconds she sized up the situation and came to the obvious wrong conclusion because she let out a squeal that sounded like she was being murdered and charged toward Chuck. 

Kidnapping! Rescue!

I was frozen to the spot, mesmerized. If Mama thought Chuck was kidnapping her baby . . .

Chuck glanced over and before he could do anything, that cute baby monkey jumped down and ran toward Mama. 

Mama stopped and scooped up baby. Immediately she calmed down. 

Baby monkey safe within Mama Monkey's arms

No more drama.  Chuck came back up on the porch and laid down.  “You are one lucky cat, Chuck,” I whispered, keeping one eye on Mama and one eye on the baby.  Wowee!


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Chuck Has Run-In with Babysitter Hyena

My trip to Kenya, Africa, is a perfect example of Chuck in action because leave it to Chuck to always want to do or see the opposite of what I wanted to do or see.

For example, I had my list prepared of all the animals I wanted to take photos of--the big five--as they are known by the hunters of long ago: the buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant, lion, and leopard.  Not to mention, of course, the giraffe and even the hippopotamus.  Nowhere on that list do you see the hyena. In fact, I would have gone in the other direction to avoid seeing the hyena.

Dirty and filthy animals, I thought.  Scraggly scavengers. 

 But no, Chuck wanted to see hyenas. 

Why, he wouldn’t say, but Chuck has a drawer in my house, where he stores pictures of all his secret desires, and sure enough he has a giant glossy of a hyena. 


And so it happened one day while we were riding along the dusty road in a preserve near Oltukai Lodge at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro that our driver, Stephen, knowing that Chuck was “into” hyenas, and being a “cat person” himself, pulled over to the side of the road and pointed. 

 “And there you have your first glimpse of a hyena,” Stephen said.

 Well, Chuck, who was catnapping in the safari vehicle, literally jumped up and stuck his cat nose out the open window to have a look.  Immediately his tail wagged back and forth.

Ugh, I thought to myself as I gazed at what looked like a spotted wrangled mass of beaten flesh lounging on the ground. “That is the ugliest animal I have ever seen.”

Chuck pretended to ignore my ill placed comments, but I was obviously ruining his moment.

“Now look to your right.” Stephen pointed to a gigantic boulder and there in the overly large crevice, two faces peeked out.  And they weren’t ugly at all.

 “Baby hyenas,” Stephen said, in explanation.  “In their lair.”

 Well,  that’s all Chuck needed to hear.  In one flying leap, he jumped out of the safari vehicle, intent on getting closer to those baby hyenas.

“Chuck, get back here. Are you crazy?” I screamed. “Those hyenas are wild animals.”

But Chuck didn’t listen.  At first he only seemed to want to watch them as they moved about, exploring. 

Then he seemed to prance faster toward the hyena lair, anxious for some kind of cat/hyena encounter. 

And then the unthinkable happened.

The ugly hyena, the one who appeared to be lounging over to the left, sprung into action. 

“Uh, oh,” Stephen said. “Not good. She’s the babysitter.  Her job is to protect the baby hyenas.  She sees Chuck as a threat.”

And sure enough, the babysitter’s beady eyes focused on Chuck, and she dropped into stalking position as she slowly moved forward. 

There was going to be a encounter all right, but it wasn’t going to be between Chuck and the kids. Oh, no.  And my poor Chuck didn’t stand a chance. After all, hyenas tangle with lions in their bid for food.

 “Chuck, to your left.  Look to your left.”

 Well, he must have heard the plea in my voice.  At the exact moment that the babysitter hyena broke into a run toward Chuck, my clever cat jumped sideways about four feet, then somehow propelled himself backwards, and scampered back to the safari vehicle. 

“Jump up, Chuck.  You can do it.  You can do it.”

The entire vehicle began to cheer behind me.
And either the motivational cheer or the hot breath of the babysitter hyena on Chuck’s neck inspired him, but Chuck leapt up into my arms, rattled, but safe and sound. 

“Whatever possessed you?” I asked him later when we were back in the cabin.  “You could have been their dinner tonight.”

Chuck blinked and didn’t say a word, but I noticed that he still had the glossy photo of the hyena, and I figured that even though he’d looked death squarely in the eye, he’d done what he’d had to do, what any cat would do-- to follow his dream and he wasn’t about to let any babysitter hyena stand in his way. 


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Chuck Has Scare by Baby Hippo at Mt. Kenya Animal Orphanage

We arrived at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club expecting to be pampered.  Chuck came for another reason entirely. He was not put off by the "falling into the pool" episode.  For full details, see blog post entitled: Chuck is Outsmarted by Bird at Mt. Kenya Safari Club. 

He’d heard about the orphanage, run by a foundation set up by the lovely Stefanie Powers, who’d had nine year relationship with William Holden, who’d founded the Mt. Kenya Safari Club. This orphanage was still in operation on the premises. It’s main mission was to rescue and treat injured animals from the wild and then return them back to their homes on the plains. How cool is that!

So, the trick was to sneak Chuck into the orphanage and let him walk around and see the animals without being seen himself. Not easy since although the orphanage was teeming with all sorts of animals roaming around, none of them were cats. House cats, I mean.

Luckily, security was not that tight at the orphanage.  We bought a ticket - a kind of donation to the project - and we wandered onto the grounds, casual like.  So getting in was easy.  Staying in with Chuck was the challenge, and once we got inside the orphanage, we definitely wanted to stay in! 

I can imagine what you’re thinking--animal orphanage.  The only frame of reference I had before I arrived were human orphanages--old smelly buildings as I imagined them to be from watching vintage black and white movies--but this orphanage was mostly an outside facility on lovely grounds with the animals allowed to roam free. As we meandered from one area of the orphanage to the other, we met the different animals who were recuperating here--in their natural habitat.  

It was too much for Chuck.  He did not appreciate being stuffed into my shoulder bag. He wanted out, but I thought allowing a house cat to wander free in an orphanage with wild animals recuperating was too dangerous. 

The day we were there wasn’t very crowded with people, but I couldn’t trust that Chuck wouldn’t wander off somewhere and have a close encounter with the wrong kind of wild animal -- a giant tortoise OR baby buffalo OR leopard OR . . .

Of course, that was exactly what happened. This fabulous orphanage is all about providing a natural habitat for the animal it is rehabilitating. 

Take, for instance, a baby hippo . . .

A baby hippo needs water.  The rivers, lakes and swamps in Kenya are filled with hippos.  You can see their heads pop up and down as you wander along almost any river in Kenya. But when you walk along that river, you are accompanied by a soldier who has a gun.  Hippos attack and kill more unarmed “pedestrians” than any other animal in Africa and are considered the most aggressive animal in Africa. You’ve heard the story--by the time you realize the hippo is emerging from the water to come and greet you, it’s already too late.  Hippos can outrun humans on land, moving at approximately nineteen miles per hour. 

We wandered down the lovely embankment to see the “baby,” lulled, perhaps, by the word “baby.” But, when adult hippos weigh on average between 3 to 4,000 pounds and the heaviest hippo was recorded at 9,000 pounds, we were in desperate need of some perspective. 

I’d heard that hippos were endangered.  They were regularly hunted for their meat and their canine ivory teeth. When left alone, they had the potential for living good long lives.  In fact, the oldest hippo in captivity had lived to the ripe old age of 61 in Germany. The average lifespan was between 40 -50 years old.

Chuck wanted to meet the baby hippo.  I quickly scanned the water in front of me, knowing some of these facts about hippos--I’m not a complete fool--but there was nothing.  Some grasses.  Some mud.  A stream in front of us.  No hippo.  But I should have scooped Chuck up and called an end to the expedition. Sometimes it’s best to follow your extincts.
I didn’t do that.  I continued to meander with Chuck along the bank. Still no hippo.

We went a bit further, and I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe they’d taken him/her (the baby hippo) to the doctor. Maybe there was no baby hippo.  Maybe he’d gone on vacation?

But he was there all right. Out of nowhere he popped up in front of us. Popped right out of the water, like a jack in the box. 

I jumped back away from the water.  Chuck stood here, paralyzed it seemed to me. He stared at that hippo. Sure, technically we were looking at a hippo baby, but that baby was a big baby. What I would call a giant baby.  

Very slowly, I crouched down and reached out.  My intention was to put my hand on Chuck who was in front of me on the ground and pull him toward me.  Pick Chuck up and then move backwards.  Kind of “moonwalk” backwards.

But it all happened at once. The hippo moved toward us.  Then, unexpectedly, he opened his mouth. YIKES.

“The bigger to eat you with, my dear,” the big bad wolf says to Little Red Riding Hood, intending to eat her, of course. 

That line ran through my mind at the exact moment that Chuck meowed IN FEAR because that line was probably running through his mind, too. 
Now, Chuck’s a chunker but no match for the baby hippo. Chuck would be a small appetizer. 

I’m not so sure if Chuck jumped into my arms or I lifted him up, but I swirled around and scampered up the embankment as fast as humanly possible away from the baby hippo.

And I never looked back.

One of the lovely attendants who wander around the grounds and help guide you and answer questions, shot me a big smile, then looked concerned when she read the PANICKED expression on my face and called out, “Is everything all right?”

“Perfect,” I shouted, perhaps a bit too loudly.

“Is that a cat?” I heard her ask, her voice wallowing in the air, in the distance now, as I kept on heading for the exit.

Excuse me. I’m not usually a rude person, but in this particular instance, I didn’t bother to reply. 



Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chuck is Outsmarted by Bird at Mt. Kenya Safari Club

View of the lovely grounds of the Mt. Kenya Safari Club

When we first mentioned to friends that we were bound for a safari in Africa, our “friends” rolled their eyes, warned us to beware of kidnappings in Nairobi, and admonished us to expect a rough and tumble experience in this “third world country”. 

We knew as we traveled around Kenya in search of the "Big Five", that there would be limited electricity, accommodations in camps rather than 5 star hotels, and travel along pitted dirt roads rather than the paved roads we were used to here in the states. 

Our friends were not misinformed. 

Sometimes at night we needed to use flashlights to signal that we needed the professional to lead us to the main area from our tent because to walk alone was too dangerous.  

The rivers were filled with hippos.  The plains were filled with lions and hyenas. On the trails we often stumbled upon a water buffalo or a leopard hidden in a tree with a kill, who could jump down on top of you if he thought for a second you were interested in his dinner. 

Safari, in modern times, means you’re armed with a camera, not a gun.  In Kenya, hunting big game animals is forbidden by law.  Thank God.  

But being on safari is breathtaking! We heard the roar of a lion as the pack moved past our safari vehicle.  I stood less than twenty feet away at dusk as a family of giraffes munched on the leaves of a nearby tree. As we sat and ate our picnic lunch one afternoon, a monkey came from out of nowhere and stole my apple which was perched on the log beside me.

We were in the wild.

The single exception was the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, the 100 acre ranch, founded by actor William Holden in 1959 at the foot of Mt. Kenya.  Mr. Holden, known as the too good-looking actor, won an Academy award for Best Actor for his role in Stalag 17. He also starred in a slew of other films including Sunset Boulevard and Picnic and was the biggest box office draw of the 1950‘s in Hollywood. But besides being a Hollywood film star, he became a conservationist and animal activist long before it was trendy to do so.

The front entrance

The Safari Club became the destination for the Hollywood jet set.  In the very atypical lobby--here in Kenya, so much of the Safari Club is outdoors--there are photos lining the walls with all the "A" list actors who came to Kenya and stayed at the club.

Just a sampling of some of the photos of the rich and famous who came to the Safari Club

Today it is a popular resort for visitors who come to Kenya and who are interested in going on safari, horseback riding, or mountain climbing, but who also want some pampering along the way.  

That’s what appealed to us--the pampering.  The grounds are exquisite with a lovely view of Mt. Kenya, of course.  There is a in-ground swimming pool, gourmet restaurant, flat-screen TV, full-service bar--all the modern amenities that are at times difficult to procur in so exotic a location.

Lovely view of Mt. Kenya in the distance

The exquisite lobby of the Club

Our room was luxurious and over-sized. 

Our room on the premises

Upon arriving, we unpacked and went on a tour of the place, heading eventually toward the main part of the Club, looking for a short cut from our room, following the paths that led past the pool.  How fortunate.  I am a pool person from way back.  Chuck is not.  In fact, he hates water in large quantities.  He scurried past, very quickly, not anticipating that the area around the pool was very wet and slippery. 

But he was nowhere near the edge for that fact to have any impact.  It was only if he moved closer to the edge.  And why would he? What would entice a cat closer to the edge of a pool?

The infamous pool where Chuck scampered over the edge
It happened so quickly I had no time to react. A bird flew by, swooping down over Chuck’s head, literally enticing him to follow, to follow, right into the water.  The bird flew over the water, but Chuck’s eyes weren't on the water. He made a mad dash for the bird and went right over the edge.

I’d never seen anything like it!

Chuck's no light weight and half the pool water was displaced by his weight. He “doggie paddled” immediately to the side. I helped him out and he did his shake thing, but he was still dripping wet. 

We returned to the room and regrouped. 

My analysis: Chuck was no smarter than a typical Kenyan bird. The poor kid never liked birds anyway.