Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Final Post

Our final camp in Kenya was at Mhali Mzuri, one of Richard Branson's properties.  And it was awesome!  The staff, the tents, the food, the guide were all awesome!  We thoroughly enjoyed our 4 nights here, full of game drives and family bonding.  The kids have gotten really good at hearts!

Our trip back was kind of a nightmare though.  We left Mhali Mzuri and flew to Nairobi where we spent the night at Hemingway Hotel, which was super nice.  We also ate at a great place for lunch called Tamarind.

The following day we flew from Nairobi back to Accra, where we had to overnight because our Delta flight didn't leave til the following day.  We slept at a hotel called Tang Palace hotel.  Our room smelled awful and I wish I would have had the foresight to ask for a different room but I figured one night no biggie (we had 1 room for the four of us, a suite, w a bed upstairs and 2 beds downstairs).  We had dinner in the hotel that night at this Chinese restaurant.  The food was pretty mediocre except for the pork dish (which I ordered) was downright nasty.  I sent it back but still ate a bite.

At around 2:30am, I woke up with my glands salivating (not in a good way) and tossed and turned for a few minutes until I started gagging from the smell of the room.  I ran to the bathroom and proceeded to empty the contents of my stomach.  After I got to the dry heaving stage, I couldn't stay in the room w that smell so I got dressed, went to the lobby and just laid down on a couch until about 6am when I went back to the room, awoke the family and packed up and went to the airport.  While waiting to board our Delta flight, we got the announcement that boarding would be delayed due to the Delta system outage.  Long story short, we were delayed 4 hrs in Accra (I slept most of the time when I wasn't running to the bathroom).  We finally boarded and I proceeded to sleep 9 of the 11 hours (except for the trips to the airplane bathroom, fun fun).  When we landed in NY it took us about an hr to get thru customs and immigration, get our bags, re check them, then sprint to the gate where we made what we thought was final boarding for our delayed connection (we ended up sitting at the gate for an hour or so waiting for other passengers).  When we finally landed in LAX at 2am, we waited 2 hours for a fucking gate!  Pardon the f bomb but that was totally ridiculous.  We ended up not even waiting for our baggage because we all just wanted to get home, which we did finally at 5:30am.  Door to door, when we left Mhali Mzuri, we got back home 77 hours and 46 minutes later.  Ouch.

Despite the rough journey home,  we all had an amazing trip and will have the memories for a lifetime.  Thank you all for reading. If anyone would like to see photos of the trip, feel free to email me:

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Kenya Camp 2: Ngerende Island Lodge

We landed at Ngerende air strip and as we landed, a herd of Impala ran across the airstrip.  We were literally 3 feet from hitting one.  Scary!
We got our bags unloaded and saw about 5 trucks waiting for pick ups, but none of them were for our lodge.  We ended up waiting about 20 minutes because they thought we were arriving to the camp by car.  Kind of lame but no big deal, right?  So we get to the lodge and are escorted to the reception tent.  We are seated on the deck which overlooks a river with lots of sounds of Hippos barking and snorting.  We wait on the deck for about 5 minutes when I finally get up to ask if we can go to our rooms.  We are told the rooms aren't ready yet but that lunch will be ready soon.  Another 5 minutes of waiting and then we are taken to a cool table on the cliff overlooking the river.  Lunch was great and after lunch they said only one room was ready.  So we all went to the one room, and got changed into our "swimming costumes" to go to the pool for a bit.   
Around 5pm, we asked to go to the nearby Fairmont Lodge so we can have a drink and connect our phones (that's right, no internet at our Lodge).  When we returned to our lodge around 6pm, the other room was finally ready so the kids unpacked and we met at 7:30 for a quick drive to the rivers edge to see the hippos exit the river.  We only saw about 3 or 4 come out because I think they were spooked by us but it was still cool to see.  Then back to the lodge for dinner.  By the way, when we went to the Fairmont, I emailed out travel agent to tell her what was going on at our camp to see if she could get us into Mhali Mzuri a day early.  After dinner, we retreated to our room to play hearts (we've been playing hearts all trip and it's been so fun!  The kids have gotten really good at it!!).  
The next day I woke up at 7:30, 45 minutes AFTER our planned wake up call.  When Jacob the manager showed up at our room, he just smiled and said"we forgot".  Very frustrating, especially when you are paying a small fortune to stay at these places.  Anyway, we left immediately on a 2 hour game drive...we saw a bunch of giraffe's, wildebeests (also called Gnu), impala's, warthogs, etc.  Came back had breakfast, then back to the room to read, relax, play hearts, etc.  We then walked to a local village which we thought was going to be kind of a bust but ended up really cool.  The villagers performed a traditional Masai song and dance for us (which we all participated in), including the part where you jump up as high as you can.  We then toured the village including the chief's home, which is quite small, maybe 200sf and made of mud and elephant dung and sticks.  We went to their daily market where Jenny & Savannah bought some bracelets and Jacob bought the chief's club made of Olive wood and the fires starter wood he used to make fire.  We then toured the school which was a tree surrounded by a wall of sticks and inside was the teacher teaching about 10 children the days of the week (in English).  It was really cool.  They explained how big an emphasis education is today vs 30 yrs ago when the Masai people just herded cattle, hunted and traded.
Anyway, we got back for lunch and after lunch I received a phone call from my rock star travel agent Camille Rowe who said she's arranged for an immediate transfer for us to Mhali Mzuri (MM) and to get packed and GO!  It was totally awkward explaining why we were leaving early (we partially used the excuse that we couldn't be unconnected from WiFi because of Jenny's mom) but our excitement at leaving there and going to MM far outweighed any awkwardness.
So we packed, got in the jeep for the hour drive and went.  On the way we stopped at a rhino sanctuary.  We heard we could touch and pet the rhinos and that it was a cool experience (and it was on the way to MM).  We got there, paid $30,person, and shortly thereafter found out there were a grand total of 2 rhinos in the sanctuary and both were asleep and couldn't be disturbed.  A bit disappointing but the $$ goes to the sanctuary and they are trying to bring in 3 more rhinos in the future.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

To Kenya Camp 1: Lewa Safari Camp

The airport in Accra really sucks.  Once through security/immigration, there are literally NO restaurants.  There are 2 "snack bars" that served meat pie, fish pie and that's it.  We opted for crap from duty free: peanut m&m's, tobblerone, potato chips and water.  We did make it to the "first class" lounge, which was on par with the airport.  They surprisingly had a shower, but no hot water and it was tiny.  Plus, to get a towel, you had to leave your boarding pass with the reception desk which was returned when you returned your wet towel.  
Once we landed in Kenya ( 6 hr red eye), we were transferred to the Wilson Airport, a much smaller version of Long Beach Airport (15 min drive).  We got breakfast, which was actually pretty good and waited for our flight, a 12 seater that landed us an hour later at Lewa.       
We were met at Lewa by Festus, who ended up being our guide.  Festus was the Bestus.  We've kept a list of every animal we saw but he just knew his stuff and took it personally if he didn't find us as many animals as possible.  On our way from the airport to the Lewa Safari Camp, we saw elephants, giraffes, warthogs, rhino's (white), zebras, gazelles, and a few others.  We got to camp a few hours later and were oriented by the managers, Sacha and his wife Tablyn.  Also met their daughter Mela, who is 3 yrs old and adorable.  Nice lunch by the pool, chicken pot pie, marguerite pizza, avocado & tomato salad.  After a siesta, we went on a 4pm game drive that was filled with animal sightings, a flat tire in the bush, a flock of vultures that were feeding on a large antelope and apps and wine atop William Hill, overlooking the whole valley.  awesome day, awesome Fetus.
We awoke at 6:45 the next morning for a 7am breakfast and an all day excursion to the forest.  We say a pair of cheetah's on the way there, along with a bunch of animals (see list).  We stopped at Lewa Conservancy headquarters on the way where we fed a black faced monkey some crackers and he was nice enough to show us his blue balls.  Jacob has since made the blue balls his screen saver on his iPhone.  
After we left the headquarters, we came across 2 black rhinos, a mom and her calf (AR baby rhino's called calves?).  These rhinos are pretty aggressive and as we drove off the road towards them, they charged us!  It was so unexpected and crazy!!  Festus expertly maneuvered the vehicle so we didn't get rammed but it was close and boy can those rhinos move!!  Unfortunately we didn't really get it adequately captured on film but more on this later.  Holy crap, we couldn't stop talking about it and laughing!
 Once we arrived at "the forest", we hiked down to a really cool waterfall, then hiked to a deep pool where we all (yes, even Jenny) jumped off the rocks into the ~50 degree water.  It felt great.  We dried off, hiked a bit more to the source of the falls, then drove to the canopy walk, which was about 50 yards above the ground in the tops of the trees.  It was about 500 meters in length and our lunch was waiting for us at the end.  On the drive back to camp all we talked about and looked for was more black rhinos but we didn't see any.  However, about a mile from camp, Festus abruptly turned off the road into the bush and after about 5 minutes, we stopped under a tree to find the 2 cheetah brothers lounging into the evening.  It's kind of crazy that these guides know where to look.  Kind of reminds me of my deep sea fishing guide in the keys, Joe Petrucco.  Listening to the chatter on the radio about what other guides are saying and making it happen.  Anyway, as we sat there and took pictures of the cheetahs, Savannah decided to make a clicking noise to get the Cheetah's attention.  One of the Cheetahs abruptly sat up and looked directly at us, not 6 feet from the truck.  Fortunately, that was it and Savannah notched another "naughty" in her belt.
The next day we packed for our 9am flight and were on the road at 7 for a mini game drive on the way to the airstrip.  Well, we got our wish.   Festus spotted 2 black rhinos from about 3 miles away and we drove a bit too close (again) and again, got the double charge!  This time Jacob had his camera ready and he got a great little video of it (you can see it on Instagram @wingsforcrossover).  We got to the airport at 9 for our 9:20 flight.  There were already 2 planes on the ground waiting for their passengers.   Our guide went up to the pilots and said "I have 4 people name is Chad". The pilots were looking for a Cooper group so they took off without us.  When we finally figured out the mistake, the plane had to come back and get us, which was about an hour off of our departure time (no biggie) and we were en route to Ngerende Island Lodge.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Jenny's observations day 2 (global mamas day)

7/29 9:16 pm
Today was a fill your heart kind of day.  Although the hour drive to crossover took 2 1/2 hrs due to chads directional overconfidence and the "rough" road we accidentally found ourselves on, our hearts melted as we pulled up to the school.  It was not far from a USC marching band welcome.  We drove up the road at a snails pace engulfed by the 300 crossover students singing, dancing and playing their drums.  As we got out of our truck the  kids literally pinned us against it.  They just wanted to touch us and hold our hand.  They were willing to settle for a finger and when no fingers were left they settled for an elbow.  When we knelt down to give the little ones hugs, they copied us and knelt down too (not understanding the hug gesture).  They were enamored with savannahs long hair and wanted to touch it.  Most all the students have shaved hair.  We wanted to see the school but walking with all of our new best friends attached to us was like an octopus trying to walk out of water.  Jacob was especially slow as he had the most.  Kids are usually drawn to his spirit and these kids caught his vibe in a matter of seconds.  Savannah and I had the little tiny ones attached to us and it really felt like we were getting more out of it than they were.  I can't wait to go back and spend more time with them tomorrow.  Side note: crossover has 100% of its graduating 8th graders go on to get scholarships to high school.  If they don't have the grades by 7th grade they go to a vocational school.  Dave really requires his students to study hard and it was so good to have our kids hear those words. No messin around and definitely no excuses for these former slave orphans.

Final day at Crossover

We were on the road at 7am again this morning, and I was determined to make it to Crossover on my own (and I did).  The day was spent just hanging out, which was really cool.  Jacob and I played soccer w the boys.  Jenny & Savannah hung out w the girls: sitting in a circle being led by Jenny a clap song, they read to them, they walked with them, the entire time engulfed in a sea of kids.  
We walked down the path to the site of the old school, which used to consist of two thatched huts with dirt floors.  Now, it's a building of 4 rooms, each room with 15 of the merry mats we bought a few years ago.  They average about 2 kids/mat which is hard to imagine.  There is also another building of about 3 rooms which is where Dave lives with his family.  Of the 309 kids now at Crossover, only about 80 live there (all boys), the rest live with families or churches in the surrounding town of Djemini.  In exchange for the boarding of Crossover students, Dave gives tuition to some of the kids whose families take in boarders.  We also walked down to the lake, which is just a few minutes down the path.  On the way down, we saw that one of the houses had a "pet" baboon.  Savannah knelt down to snap a picture of it and he jumped on her side.  Crossover had never heard a scream so loud!  It was pretty hilarious.
I also had a long talk with Dave about Dorms.  They obviously could really use dorms so kids don't have to be sent off campus to sleep.  But the reality is, we don't have enough funds to build the dorms and I told Dave this. We have come up with a plan though.  He is going to get an estimate to build a 80 meter by 40 meter building which would be big enough for a girls dorm and a boys dorm.  Based on what Dave says, I think we have enough cash to pay for half of the it.  Our plan is to get an estimate and share it with a church in California that has already done a lot for Crossover.  We would propose to pay half of the cost if the church can raise the funds for the other half.  That's the current rough plan, we will see how it goes.  
Back to the rest of the day, it's hard to put it all into words but not only was it a great experience individually, but to see the people you love have that same experience is just awesome.  Around noon, we had lunch.  It's quite a chore to organize 300+ kids but they have it down to a science.  The lead teacher, a woman named Grace, was like a lion tamer, directing the kids, grouped by grade into the food line.  everyone had a big bowl of rice with chicken and spicy tomato sauce.  It was very tasty...if someone opened a NY food cart serving this, it would rival the Halal Guys franchise. 
We left Crossover bound for the airport around 1:30pm.  The kids all lined up and bid us farewell with another Crossover song and dance, complete with a 3 drum band.  A few of us got teary-eyed as we waved good-bye to our new friends.
The trip to the airport was interesting.  It's about 100 miles from Crossover to the airport in Accra and it took us about 5.5 hours.  The roads and traffic suck (like really, really bad) and you realize that Ghana truly is a third world country.  Most drivers don't pay any attention to driving on the right side of the road vs. the left.  Or to stop signs, or speed limits.  It's shocking there aren't more accidents.  Our driver, John, who is the driver/janitor/generalist at Crossover, drove us back to the airport.  At one point about 4 hours into the drive, he stretched out his arms and I almost puked.  His BBO was off the charts (BBO - Beyond Body Odor).  Fortunately, we only had to withstand another 90 minutes in such close quarters.

A few miscellaneous notes:  In total, we brought 14 computers and 10 tablets (thank you to the Browns, the Trapps, and every donor who has donated as 10 of the laptops were new, purchased by wings for crossover).  With all these computers, Dave is going to dedicate one of the rooms for a computer lab.  He will also make the lab available to the community (for a charge) so that Crossover can generate another income stream, which is important in their quest to become self-sustainable.  

They have the mobile aquaponic system currently in use, which is a huge canvas "pool" with about 2000 tilapia in it.  The water is filtered with the old water being recycled to water and fertilize tomatoes, cabbage, corn, and other vegetables.  Right next to this mobile system, they've built a permanent system made of concrete, which will have 2-3x the capacity of the mobile unit.  They hope to have this permanent system up and running in about 2 weeks.

The Kindergarten block is about 90% complete: it has 2 classrooms, a bathroom, a nap room and an office.  This entire block was donated by the church in California I mentioned earlier, called Crosspoint Church (Huntington Beach).

Other updates:  the 2 cows we bought about a year ago have had 2 calves with a third on the way.  Once the cows reach a certain age, they are sold at auction for about $500.  In a cow's lifetime, they typically have about 5-6 calves before they are sold.
We are now off to Kenya, the part of the trip we are all really looking forward to...Thank you for reading!!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Global Mamas

Today was a pretty powerful day.  It started at 7am as Jenny, Jacob, Savannah & I got into our rental truck for the hour drive to Crossover from our hotel.  It's been 3 years since I've made this trek (and never driven it myself).  So, my overconfidence in my ability to remember the route turned an hour drive into a 2.5 hour drive as we navigated pot-filled "roads" in the Ghanian countryside.  I finally swallowed my pride and called Dave, the head of the school, to come rescue us.  You can't google maps everything, unfortunately, especially when the neighboring town doesn't exist on Google (the name of the town is Djemeni).
As we finally approached Crossover, the road was lined with 300 children singing, dancing and holding signs that said "Welcome Cooper Family" and "We are glad you are here".  As the procession finally widened enough to drive through, we entered the school and parked.  As Jenny, Jacob & Savannah got out of the truck, they were immediately engulfed in a sea of children, all wearing the new Crossover shirts donated by Eddy Chavez.  I'd experienced the same thing three years ago with Jim Conti (in fact, if you roll back on this blog I probably wrote about it), but to see your family experience it too is pretty awesome.  These kids just want to touch you and to be touched, I think it's one of the things they really miss living at a boarding school with no parents around.  Each of us had 5 kids attached to each of our hands, with a random hand or two attaching to our forearms.
After a quick tour of the new school, which looks AWESOME, we had to pile back into the car to caravan with 2 school buses for another 2 hour drive to the Global Mamas facility in Kpong (pronounced Pong).  Global Mamas is an African organization that teaches women a trade (like hand crafting jewelry, clothing, ornaments, etc) so that they can earn a decent wage and cycle themselves out of poverty.  Global Mama's has a few retail outlets and a website.  The 2 school buses transported 100 Crossover girls where we all got a tour of the facility and an introduction by Gladys, the supervisor of the Kpong facility.  I think the girls got a lot out of it, but I think they really liked the field trip part of it.  This was the first field trip anyone at Crossover had ever been on!  Every town we drove through saw 2 bus loads of girls singing and dancing loudly, followed by a pick up truck of 4 gringos.  Must have been amusing just to watch us pass!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Jenny's observations

This one was writer by Jenny, interesting together two perspectives.
7/28 Thursday 12:00 am
I'm awake. Crap.  We slept on the plane a little and tried to stay awake until 6 pm but jet lag has got the best of me and I'm wide awake despite the fact I will not let anyone talk about what time it is at home.
Yesterday went surprisingly smooth.   Delta airlines checked all 13 of our bags through at no charge and managed to get them to Africa through New York without a hitch.  We paid customs $50 and they barely inspected one bag.  Dave from crossover met us with a few of his guys to escort us to the rental car place.  Chad is unbelievably patient as this process takes about 45 minutes to complete.  Driving through the capital city of Accra in our pick up truck we decide to make a "quick" stop to buy some chicken and rice at the market so the kids at crossover can have meat for lunch.  This ends up taking over 2 hours and what we see is hard to comprehend.   The traffic rivals LA at 5:00 on Friday.  But this traffic consists of people selling goods from the baskets on their heads, animals,  bikes, vans packed with an unimaginable amount of passengers and pot holes galore.  Downtown we pass a dump that looks to be about 2 acres. People are on top of the mounds of trash foraging through and the stench is 100 x worse than John, our drivers body odor.  Soon after we pass the beach which is not coveted property like at home. In fact there is a prison right on the beachfront property.  I failed to mention that John is driving extremely slow.  Bikes were passing us.  And even though it seems people drive with their hand permanently on the horn I do believe many of those honks were directed toward us.  We finally pull over at the market.

Chad and Dave go negotiate with the other men for the price of the food and once the deal is struck the women carry the 50 lb bags of rice and pallets of frozen chicken to the truck.  Chad and Dave also discuss the fact that John does not have to drive slow for us, (me and Savannah), in fact we like to go fast.  Hallelujah. We didn't really see any crime or begging, just masses of people either selling their goods (snacks drinks, fruit, toys) or hanging around talking or resting on the side of the road.  So many little kids were strapped to their moms backs.  We saw one park but no one was there.  We did see a few school age kids in uniforms but from what we could tell, most people of all ages go to the marketplace to work.
So we left lax at 7:00 am Tuesday, landed in Accra at 7:00 am Wednesday and arrived at hotel Volta about 3:00 pm. It has been a long day even though we have not accomplished much.  Dave suggested we stay and get settled and go to crossover in the morning.  At first I was disappointed to loose a day with the kids.  But we were walking zombies and I've never been so happy to pass on another hour of travel.  Hotel Volta is near lake Volta and we have a view of the dam from our room.  I would say it's comparable to a best western but with some special touches.  The gym is one machine.  It's in the hallway.  The pool slide is a colorful plastic kiddie slide.  We relaxed by the pool with the only other patron, a millipede.  The gift shop has a book in the window entitled, Jewish wisdom- how to be successful in business.
I'm going to try and get some sleep now so I can be awake tomorrow when we meet the crossover kids.