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Posted: February 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Itinerary | 12 Comments »

A Tad High in Tadlo

Despite what some may infer from this blog title, we have not yet partaken in the special pizzas offered on many a menu in Laos. Usually dubbed “happy pizzas” or “space pizzas”, they are cooked special to order with your herb of choice. Not something that would fly in the states, but apparently legal here. Maybe we’ll give it a shot in Cambodia, another place well known for its pizzas, and chalk it up to another “when in Rome…” moment. But, I digress.

Tadlo is a teeny town in Southern Laos, known by tourists for its waterfalls and as a place where one can trek through the forests atop an elephant. To get to Tadlo, we took an overnight bus from the capital, Vientiane, to the town of Pakse. Having now been on our fair share of overnight buses, our expectations were pretty much set. At best, we figured we were in for individual clean-enough reclining beds and maybe even a stinky but working on-bus toilet. At worst, we geared ourselves up for not-so-clean, semi-reclining chair-beds, middle of the night pit stops, and loud Lao music blaring out of the speakers all night long. Maybe the stars aligned, because the bus gods were kind to us, and our 11-hour trip turned out to be the best overnight bus journey to date. As we entered the upper deck, semi-private double beds awaited us. If you happen to be a solo traveler, this is a potential hazard, but for us, it was perfect. The sleepers were clean, the toilet was only slightly disgusting, but best and most surprising of all (in addition to a peaceful music-less night), we were given dinner, bottled water, then dessert, and packaged towelettes (for freshy!). We were reluctant to get off the bus in the morning.

From Pakse, we ventured out to Tadlo. After hearing animal abuse horror stories, particularly from Thailand, I was wary of hopping on any old elephant. We had heard of elephants at the very least being bribed with food, and at the worst, having hooks through their ears, or being kicked and beaten. My hope for Tadlo was that the elephants were treated respectfully and humanely. We asked a few questions before signing up for the morning walk and it turned out to be a good experience. Jeff and I both rode in a hand-made basket, stuffed with a couple of rice sacks and cushions, atop the elephant. Our non-talkative guide sat on a blanket straddling the elephant’s neck. No sticks, poles, hooks, or even treats. Aside from the occasional verbal command, we only witnessed him using his feet to push on the elephant’s ears in order to guide her. Moon (our elephant) seemed happy enough and got to eat lots and lots of vegetation all along the way as we loped through the jungle, through a village, and even forded a couple of rather strong streams. I got a chance to see our surroundings from a different point of view and it was just pretty darn cool. Blue sky above. Water, ground, people and animals below. And canopy all around. It was nothing like our camel ride in Africa where I was teetering back and forth with each step and holding on for dear life. This was leisurely and peaceful and I enjoyed my high ride. I’m hoping Moon did too. Several times, she raised her trunk very slowly back over her head, as if to say hello or make sure we were still there. I’m no expert in elephant behavior, so I hope that’s what she was communicating, as opposed to “get the heck off my back” or some similar sentiment. After we climbed down, I wanted to give her a pat and hoped to share a moment or something, but she had already started in on a huge bunch of bananas.

Hanging out with Moon

Hanging out with Moon

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The Secret’s Out

To my right, about 30 prosthetic legs hang from fishing line to create a thought provoking piece. The ones hung closer to the floor are rudimentary, made primarily from a wood log or pipe. The materials have been salvaged and painstakingly carved by hands desperate for the body to work again, for the ability to make a living, for a sense of normalcy As the limbs ascend they become more technologically advanced—stronger, lighter, capable of bending at the knee. In contrast, another installation sits in front of me. This one though dominates the room, with hundreds of tennis ball-size pieces looking as if they are falling from ceiling to floor. Each piece however, is a plaster of Paris model of a bombie and these, unlike real ones dropped on Laos, don’t drop, but instead hang inertly suspended, mercifully granting this country reprieve.
I am at COPE National Rehabilitation Center here in Laos. It’s a devastatingly sobering center as one of its aims is to educate others on the enduring consequences of the US’s Secret War on it. For 9 years (1965-1973), the US feared the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia and so in the way that America does, it intervened. And in this case at this time, intervening meant flying hundreds of missions from Thailand and Southern Vietnam, dropping 260 million explosives on a country with a population of fewer than 7 million, equating to 37 explosives per person. It meant flouting the international community by violating the Geneva Convention, it meant lying to Congress and the US public, and it meant utterly destroying a country and people who were not our enemies.
And it meant for me, feeling again what has been becoming a familiar salad of emotions. Anger and sadness, embarrassment and disgust. In Nicaragua I felt this way as I learned the US had ousted the Sandinistas. For what? Ideology? And the feelings have been there in Vietnam learning about Agent Orange and the generational effects of chemical warfare. But if there was any sense of justification, it is to be found in the ugliness that is war. But this? There is no sense of justice in something that has been done in secret. There is only anger. And for a people that have seen 11,000 die from UXOs (Unexploded Ordnances) since the “war” ended, that farming of land comes hand in hand with the fear of digging up bombies, for a country that can’t progress with roads and infrastructure without first flashing back to the US’s past role in hindering the present. Or to learn that the country won’t be cleared of UXOs for many decades…there is only sadness. Embarrassment comes from my growing up in the US and not knowing of our responsibility here…or for John McCain’s singing joke “bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb” playing in my head. Learning that when air missions couldn’t be carried out in Vietnam, they were diverted to secondary targets in Laos mostly to just get rid of bombs rather than take the added risk of landing with them on Navy ships; that disgusted me.
COPE though tries to move the country past these feelings. I learn that the center provides prosthetic legs to victims of bombie explosions as part of a holistic approach to healing in the country. As people with new legs and arms return to their villages one can often see shells of bombs turned into boats or house supports, scrap metal from bombs are recycled into knives, pots, bowls and shelves.
We exit the Center at dusk, quiet settling on both Mari and me. And there, lining the side paths we see more shells of big bombs. Only they’ve been placed on their side, propped up. Inside each of the shells hints of pink push past the tender green leaves as young flowers are for the first time, coming into bloom.

Posted: November 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Vang Vieng

In the middle of Lao rattan woven bungalows pepper both sides of the Mekong river as teetering bridges seemingly made of driftwood crisscross the water. Here, hammocks are a way of life, as sunsets unfold between limestone karsts that nestle the small town in peaceful isolation. This is the Vang Vieng we hoped to experience.
We arrived into town just after sunset and our first sight was a tuk-tuk full of blonde hair, board shorts and bikinis. Mud was smeared across sun-burnt skin as college-age foreigners struck superstar poses as flashes from their digital cameras popped off all around. The scene was repeated as we passed more and more tuk-tuks bringing back drunk hordes from the town activity of tubing. They, barefoot and loaded, then flooded the town restaurants and bars to keep the good times rolling. And rolling…and rolling. After we found a guesthouse we continued to hear those good times throughout the course of the night as the riverside bars lived up to their location and kept the liquids flowing. The morning came with the sounds of a rooster and of a partier that had partied too hard and needed to chuck his/her cookies. Repeatedly.
Ok, Vang Vieng was not what we had thought. We realigned our compass of expectations by moving to a rattan bungalow overlooking the water. Another guest came up to us and told us about the tubing. “It’s too expensive if you rent a tube. Just grab a tuk-tuk to the first bar with us, and when the crowd moves on, float to the second and you can swim to the third and fourth.” And though tubing without a tube was a novel idea, we decided to pass on the invitation. Instead we sought out the other side of Vang Vieng. We hiked a nearby mountain, along the way passing scattered villages and farms. A boy ran up to us, carrying with him two puppies he wanted us to see. We went to a bright blue lagoon and cave. And, we tackled a limestone karst. Mari and I tried rock climbing, going up 24 meters on one of our climbs. It was fun and exhilarating, minus the spider I almost grabbed who was hiding in one of the holds I reached for. Ugh. We stayed in Vang Vieng four nights in all as it proved to us day after day that expectations aren’t always a bad thing or even misplaced. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder (like past the nearest bar).

Posted: November 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

November 7th-16th

• We left Vietnam from Hanoi on November 7th. After waiting 5 hours at the bus station (because of the incorrect advice from our guesthouse) we started our 13 hour ride to the border town Dien Bien Phu. This was to be followed by getting immediately onto a 5:30am bus for 7 hours to the Laos border and then to a transfer town called Muang Khua. At Muang Khua we would walk the 3 kilometers with backpacks to the bus station which, after a 3 hour journey through winding dirt roads, would lead us to our destination of Udomxai. The highlight of the journey was that apparently our dinner was included in the price of our first ticket. So when we stopped at a rest stop we were told to sit with four others, a Vietnamese family. The daughter smiled and scooped rice for me. She then followed that with pantomiming for me to try the dish in front of her by rubbing her stomach. I tried the intestines, she laughed in return. Meanwhile her father and uncle, both in full military uniform, had offered me a shot of rice wine…and then six more. The rest of the ride, well, I don’t remember so well.

• Udomxai was a jumping point to Luang Nam Tha, an NPA (National Protected Area) with supposedly great hiking. We thought we would have the chance to see Black Asiatic Bears, elephants, or ligers. We were disappointed to find out that it was unlikely to see any animals without doing expensive 4+ day hiking trips. We opted instead for our own free 14 kilometer walk through stilted thatched villages to a waterfall. We bolted down to Luang Prabang the next day.

• Luang Prabang is an UNESCO World Heritage City. With its old French architecture, flourishing temples and location between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers it’s easy to lose yourself in its beauty. Unfortunately, as it seems with UNESCO protected cities and the catering towards package tourism it spawns dilutes the city’s charm. In spite of that though, the city still speaks to us and we’ve been finding our way through it to the things we think of as its gems. The nearby Kuangxi waterfalls are beautiful, producing turquoise blue pools that seem almost unnatural. The Hmong night market houses a food alley where a vegetarian buffet goes for about sixty cents. And today, Mari and I volunteered at a local English teaching program called Big Brother Mouse. Mari worked with a 21 year old man who was trying to learn English so that he wouldn’t have to be part of the family business as a farmer. He reminded us how much Luang Prabang, and it’s bubble directed towards wealthy foreigners, is not reflective of the average living conditions in Laos by mentioning in conversation practice that he didn’t know if he liked eating at restaurants, since he had never been to one before. For my couple of hours of volunteering, I was matched up with a young man who took me to an internet café because he wanted me to help him communicate with a doctor he had met here before…through Facebook of all things. We spent the whole time setting up his account, posting a picture to his profile, and sending out his 1 friend request. In the end, he thanked me and asked if I would be his second friend. Something tells me he’s getting the hang of it.

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The Friendly Skies

It’s an odd thing to be on a long overnight flight and enjoy it. It’s even odder still to be looking forward to spending the next nine hours on yet another flight, after a six hour stopover. Believe it or not, that’s how we felt flying with Emirates Airlines. Our first flight left at 6 o’clock in the evening from Cape Town, arriving in Dubai around 5 a.m. the next morning. After boarding and finding our seats, we had more options than we knew what to do with in regards to entertainment. I had grabbed one of the several selections of free newspapers on the way onboard, but this found a new home in the seat pocket in front of me for the entire flight. I immediately dove into the packet of in flight magazines, while Jeff began to navigate through the selection and information on the touch screen in front of him. After skimming through a few articles, I became curious as to what the excitement was about, and found to my delight that each of our individual screens provided us with the opportunity to choose between a selection of hundreds of movies, TV shows, radio stations, video games and (for a fee) had phone and internet capabilities. Better yet, it was all on demand, and passenger controlled. No waiting for the airline to show the predetermined in flight movie, whilst craning your neck to view the nearest screen. It was awesome. While we were busy flipping through the selections with our individual remote controls, flight attendants began passing out steaming hot towels (which is standard depending on which airlines you fly and where), but the second time they passed through the cabin, they were handing out mini overnight toiletry kits complete with toothbrush, tooth paste, socks, and an eye mask. Yay! Free stuff! When meal times came around, we were given menus from which to make our dinner and breakfast selections of what were basically four-course meals (and tasty ones at that). Unlike when we flew Royal Jordanian Airlines, I decided to take advantage this time of the free alcohol and ordered a small bottle of red wine before, and then figured what-the-heck and ordered a second with my dinner. It goes to show how rarely we drink during our travels, because one glass in to my second bottle, I discovered I was drunk. The clue was when I noticed that I was crying during a scene of “Bride Wars” (and then snorted with laughter over my curry dinner during the next scene). I poked Jeff, who was in the middle his dinner and movie choice of Watchmen, and whispered, “I think I’m drunk”. He took one look at me and burst out laughing, almost choking on a piece of cauliflower.

That was when I decided to forego watching a third movie, just enjoy my chocolate truffle cake, and polish it off with my wine, crackers, cheese, and single piece of dark chocolate, and try to sleep it all off. I reclined my chair and was surprised to see that the roof of the cabin had been artificially darkened and there were twinkling stars and constellations overhead. A little too Disneyland-ish for me, but a cute touch. The rest of the flight was quick; breakfast equally impressive. We landed at five in the morning in Dubai and had six hours to kill before our next flight. We spent half of it walking the airport in awe. It felt like being in Vegas, but taken to another level (as if that was even possible). Even though it was just the airport, it had the vibrancy, name-brands, and feel of a place where the world’s wealthiest come to play. And although it was barely six in the morning, it could have been any time of day. Amongst all the fancily attired people (who dresses up to be at an airport anyway?), and their jewelry, watches, sunglasses (again, indoors…at daybreak??), and roll-away luggage, we looked distinctly out of place with our backpacks, wrinkled and slightly dirty clothes, and my static-charged travel hair. Oh well. After attempting to sleep on a bench made of rock overlooking the blue lagoon in the zen garden, we found a more comfortable spot in the reclining chairs nearer to our gate. That’s when we realized we were actually looking forward to getting on the plane. Jeff had already picked out which movies he was to watch ahead of time.

All in all, the flight was just like the first (except no toiletry kits, and no wine for me). Including our first flight, Jeff watched six movies, three episodes of Chuck, and two of My Name Is Earl. I watched a total of four movies and a couple of NCIS episodes. As I enjoyed my lunch (spicy beef strips with ginger and onion sauce over rice, with an appetizer of salmon pate and shrimp, and chocolate brownie with boysenberry and crème fraiche soufflé), propped up with my pillow and covered with a blanket in the climate controlled environment, I wondered just how different it would be once we were on the ground in Indonesia. I had made the executive decision to sleep at the airport upon landing, as opposed to finding a hostel in the middle of the night. The plan was to take the earliest airport bus straight to downtown Jakarta in the morning and find a place to stay. I spent the last hour of the flight enjoying the safety and luxury of the plane and wondering whether or not this was the right play. You just never know.

Posted: August 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Itinerary | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Shark Penguin Shark Oreo

Outside of Hermanus, a whale-watching coastal town that seems equally as comfortable with its high end resort homes as with its resident baboons in the middle of streets, we embarked on an ocean dive of a different sort—cage diving with the Great Whites. Apparently, here the animals are known simply as white sharks. Maybe the sheer number of them here desensitized the area residents into forgetting the power of this predator. I, however, will show my respect for them and continue to mention their greatness.

Anyway, Great Whites here range from 1.5 to 6 meters. Separating us from them are 2 inch steel bars. But despite the stupidity of those numbers, Mari and I were excited but not scared of the trip. We boarded the boat with about 25 other excited people and set off towards Shark Alley. The ocean though, was rough this day and rocked the boat, constant like a heaving breath. About 1/3 of the excited boat stopped smiling pretty quickly with this motion, myself included. Ten minutes into our 4 hour viewing session and the first of us was over the side of the boat, heaving up her complimentary breakfast. More people followed suit. I stared at the horizon hard in an effort not to join them. About 2 hours out at sea, we spotted our first Great White as it swam up to the tuna heads placed as bait beside the boat. People rushed into their wet suits so they could jump into the cage and get a better look. I sat hunched on a bench with my wet suit pants on unable to will the rest of it up. Mari was a trooper, and in between sessions of throwing up she went into the cage and got close and personal with a Great White. It stayed around for another hour or so before we headed back to shore. I turned green, from the seasickness and from envy at those not affected by seasickness. I never was able to get into the cage and left the day disappointed— not with the shark adventure, but with myself.

Maybe it was an effort to redeem myself, but two days later in Cape Town I was at the Two Ocean’s Aquarium, signing up for a Predator Dive. That’s a dive in their 2 million liter tank which includes five ragged tooth sharks, two sea turtles, stingrays (the largest was bigger than a queen-sized bed), and numerous fish.


Three of us were going into the tank. The Dive Master would tell us when to enter into the tank to avoid descending onto one of the sharks. He entered with what looked like half a broom stick and told us it would deter the sharks if they got too close. I looked at the sharks, saw their 2 ½ meters of length, and thought that must be one special stick. But he jumped in the water and we followed. He told us to watch out for the Mussel Crackers and then he descended. Having no idea what a Mussel Cracker was, I watched out for everything as I went to the bottom of the tank. And for the rest of the dive, every time a fish came towards me, my hands instantly withdrew to my armpits. But the dive itself was amazing. I even found some shark teeth during the dive, which the aquarium let me keep as a souvenir.

Before the trip I emailed a South African friend of mine and told her South Africa was one of our destinations. She replied back that the country is beautiful and a ton of fun—just be careful because it can be dangerous. I quickly replied back to her asking what the hell the dangers were. She, um, never did write me back.

But after having driven through it I think I understand her and the country a little better. Adventure. Unique landscapes. Wildlife. Adrenaline and danger. This is South Africa. Nature at both its rawest and at its shiny display best. Car jackings and muggings are as much a possibility as a shark attack or the bungee line breaking. That is to say that all seemed equally unlikely, but nevertheless a possible reality. But there’s also a better respect and maybe even harmony (even the commercialized versions of it) with nature that allow us to fold ourselves into it, even for a short time. And there’s a rush here that you can’t experience anywhere else. And that’s why we came. We wanted extreme experiences in the most fitting of settings.

In between the cage diving and the predator dive we drove to Betty’s Bay. Here exists one of 3 colonies of an endangered species, the African Penguin. We walked close to these beautiful creatures and watched as they waddled in front of us, returning to the water or back into their homes. A mother kept watch of her baby, whose feathers were still like down. About a thousand remained in the colony and allowed us to hang out with them as they went about their day. One was curious of me and let me within a few inches of him before I moved on and let him be. We left there that day feeling fortunate to have visited them, sad for their future, and in love with the most awkward of animals.


We came for the sharks. We came for the lions and for the elephants. It was the 216 meter bungee jump and the opportunity to ride an ostrich that made our palms sweat. But in between all of the quickened heart palpitations South Africa offers something else. Quietly, it is encountering an endangered species and in doing so becoming more invested in it. Or more loudly and resolutely it is Robben Island, where Mandela was locked away during apartheid. It is the education of both nature and in a social experiment which is every bit as interesting as the USA. Eventually reflecting back on South Africa as one of our favorite countries, I have a feeling we’ll remember the moment our feet left the safety of a bridge and what a shark’s teeth look like from a meter away, but it will have been the moments in between those which will have made the impact on us.

Posted: August 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: South Africa | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

South Africa

As far as countries go, South Africa has been a bit of everything…in extremes. Of course there is the country’s fascinating history, of black and white, of pride and shame. And as in other countries, evidence of extravagance and poverty within a stone’s throw away from each other. Tribal villages, beaches, cities, townships, mountains, wilderness, and all the activities and life that go with each, all jumbled together in South Africa. Three weeks is not nearly enough to explore South Africa, but we’ve been getting a feel for what we can. The warnings about corruption and crime are valid in certain areas and dispensed not only from guide books and travel websites, but from locals themselves. Luckily, aside from one very minor ATM incident (from which I emerged unscathed, just a little shaken and a lot more savvy), we have had no trouble, and the South Africans that we have met have been friendly, outgoing, and more than willing to help us find our way. The one thing that has been a bit of a challenge is finding (free) wireless internet, which has hindered our blog upkeep. But the country has kept us busy and there has been no shortage of excitement. Here are a few highlights of our travels through South Africa.

• Two days in Kruger National Park doing our own version of a safari and animal tracking through the park in our little rental car. Spotted just three of the “Big Five”, but saw more than enough wildlife and close encounters to make up for the elusive two. Still hoping to spot a leopard and a black rhino one of these days, but for now we are happy to substitute cheetahs and white rhinos in their place, of which we were lucky enough to see several.
• Driving through South Africa on our own (on the left-hand side), seeing the landscape for ourselves, stopping whenever, wherever and for as long as we please, has been a new and refreshing way of travel for us. South Africa seems as if it was designed for backpackers, and the hostels here have most other countries’ beat. Even the most basic places have kitchens, pools, bars, lounge areas, laundry, etc. Knowing this, we bought some cheap camp gear (a tiny tent and two sleeping bags) which gives us the flexibility to stay almost anywhere for a fraction of the cost of a room or dorm, while still getting to use the amenities. We did end up spending one freezing night in what we thought was a B&B, where we set up camp after arriving close to midnight, only to discover the next morning that it was someone’s backyard! Luckily, they made light of the situation and even invited us in and offered us the use of their shower. (And for anyone traveling through Ladysmith, Boer & Brit closed a year ago and is no longer in operation.)
• Apparently surfing is big in South Africa. After one surf lesson (the cheapest in the universe–$5 for two hours!!), I have caught the bug. Was even able to ride one wave all the way into shore. Santa Cruz, here I come…
• Visiting the Nelson Mandela Museum would be an incredible experience in itself, but visiting the museum on his birthday felt even more meaningful. The man is a hero in every sense of the word, respected the world over and adored by his people. His birthday is celebrated by all in South Africa. When we arrived at the museum, there were balloons and people dancing at the entrance, and everywhere we drove that day, we saw signs saying, “Happy Birthday, Madiba!”, with all the radio stations broadcasting birthday wishes from celebrities and locals alike throughout the day.
• I have fulfilled a life long dream. We stopped off at Lion Park near East London, where we had the chance to play with a 5 month old lion cub-an experience that, if you love animals as much as me, is hard to put into words. I could have stayed forever. They practically had to kick us out of the park.
• Bungee jumping off Bloukrans Bridge–the highest bungee jump in the world….again, there are some moments you can not put into words. When you are standing 216 meters on a bridge looking down into a canyon, the word “scary” does not quite do justice to the experience and thoughts running through my head the moments before taking the plunge. It’s a good thing the fun-loving and well-trained staff push you off, otherwise it might not have happened at all. The most surprising aspect for me was how fun the freefall portion was-after the first split second of mind and leg-numbing fear, it really was a freeing feeling. And for a few seconds I felt like I was flying (versus the stomach flipping falling to my death feeling that I had anticipated).
• The Little Karoo area of the country provided us the opportunity to get up close and personal with its natural inhabitants-ostriches. They may be dumb and curious, but to make up for it, they are fast. Jeff and I each took a bumpy turn riding a speedy ostrich around the farm. If anyone is curious as to how to ride an ostrich, you jump on its back, remove the hood, steer left and right by pushing and pulling its neck in the desired direction as it careens around at breakneck speed (no pun intended) and stop by yanking its head backwards. That’s how you do it if you are an ostrich jockey. For me, I was helped on, told to squeeze my legs around the base of the poor bird’s neck, lean back, and hold on to its wings while two jockeys ran alongside to catch me before falling off. It was hilarious. Ostriches must have strong wings because I was holding on and pulling for dear life (and even ended up with an ostrich feather upon dismounting).

*In response to some comments regarding this video, the screaming/crying/laughing heard is not me.  While I may have let a minor scream or two escape, what you hear on the audio is the girl sitting next to Jeff and the camera.
• Shark feeding while scuba diving is next on the adventure agenda, as we make our way towards Cape Town. We will do the very best we can to stay safe and check out the city for ourselves before flying out to Indonesia at the end of the month.

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This is Kenya

From Egypt we were scheduled to take a 3:20am flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The flight however was delayed till about 5:30am, which made Mari and me miss our connecting flight, stranding us in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a day. But we ate well and slept in a decent hotel courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines as we geared up for Kenya.
We arrived in Nairobi at noon, but our Kenyan experience really didn’t feel like it began till that night’s dinner. We ventured into a local restaurant (with butcher shop attached), picked out a little over a kilo of goat’s meat hanging in the window and asked for it to be prepared as Nyama Choma (roasted goat). About an hour and a half later, our waiter brought to the table a pitcher of hot water, and a wash bowl with soap and we dutifully washed our hands. After that he brought a large wooden cutting board out with our Nyama Choma laid out on top of it. And that’s it. No knives or forks. No napkins. No plates. So we “when in Rome”-‘d it and dug in. I was chewing on a rib when I looked at Mari and saw her tearing the meat off a bone with her teeth. The piles of bones on the table were growing in front of us both. I heard her growl, but she denies it now. The meal was fun and made me feel like if you’re going to eat meat—this is how it should always be done. It only lacked the stuffy air of western “sophistication…” and maybe a side of spinach. After the meal, Mari asked me whether we were supposed to get vegetables or a staple dish, to which I replied that maybe this is how they do it in Kenya. My heart hurt a little bit, but my stomach seemed happy.
We spent the following days visiting Kenya’s game parks. We were greeted about 3 minutes into our first game drive by a zebra in the distance. I shouted to the driver to stop, as if I had been the first to discover the animal. We took some crappy photos of it in the distance, wanting to make sure we had proof of our first sighting, especially in case it was our last. But as we drove on we passed another zebra, and another, and another. We passed Thompson gazelles, warthogs and Impalas by the dozen. There were buffalo, monkeys and baboons eating, drinking and for the most part, ignoring us as we gawked at them.
Lake Nakuru continued the animal voyeurism. As we drove towards the water it unfolded as a bed of blue and pink from the thousands of flamingoes that stand there. They fly in long lines, accentuating their profiles. The sheer number of the birds made it a unique spectacle. We eventually tore ourselves away from the flamingoes to go up to Baboon Cliff. I almost asked our driver if we would see any of the animals the cliff was named after when my question was answered. About 25 baboons greeted us in our car running away from people and towards others. I heard a growl and turned to see an adult baboon grabbing a schoolboy’s shirt. The boy escaped as an aggressive man nearby threw a rock at the aggressive baboon to teach him a lesson. The baboons eventually blocked our return to the car as three were sitting on it. Mari tried to show dominance and banged on the roof of the car and told them to get off. The adult male baboon charged Mari and growled something to the effect of “dominance, schmominance.” Mari retreated.
The Masai Mara offered us almost completely different animals to wander across, as well as the main reason we came to Kenya. There were elephant herds, cheetahs, lions, ostriches, hippos and giraffes. And of course there were the wildebeests. The wildebeest migration is referred to as the largest animal migration and their abundance was evident everywhere. At times hills looked as brown from the wildebeests as they were green from the grass. At other times the wildebeests appeared British in heritage as they lined up in long queues, patient and orderly, following each other across the landscape. We drove past them by the thousands. I remarked to Mari, “Wow, this is Kenya.”
After the game drives we spent a final day back in Nairobi. We were on our way to dinner, when a cop pulled us over. The driver, Mari and I hurriedly put on our seatbelts. The cop asked us all a couple of questions, but in the end it was evident he wanted only one thing. We paid him a thousand shillings as a bribe and he left us to be on our way. We were saddened by the blatant corruption, but our driver told us not to worry about it. He said he was glad we saw it and simply stated, “This is Kenya.”

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Kenya | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »