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 »

SCUBA and Tree Houses

Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus—I’ve known what the acronym has stood for since I was 7. Alex Keaton, in an episode of Family Ties, taught his sister Mallory what it meant, thus teaching me. What I didn’t know though is how much I would love it. Everything about it; what I see, how I move, where I go. But within that experience, there’s one moment that does it for me. It’s the difference of maybe 3 inches, constituting the space from my mouth to my eyes.
It’s that space that we’re taught to fiercely protect as our life functions of breathing and receiving nourishment, as well as 3 of our senses all center from our mouth, nose and eyes. So we’re taught at a very young age, either by loved ones or nature, that you can’t breathe under water. We’re conditioned, rightfully, to hold our breath. Down we go. Ready? 1, 2, 3! You don’t want to feel that burning in your lungs. Yes, it triggered the coughing. Yes, it will stop after a short time.
The eyes as well–It hurts. It stings. Better to close them so the shampoo/chlorine/saltwater doesn’t get in them. Isn’t that better?
So when you first get into the ocean, head bobbing above the surface, and the dive master gives the ok to descend, he’s really asking you to trust; trust a piece of Plexiglas, trust a silicone seal, trust a tank of condensed air and trust the tube to deliver that air to you. And I do. So I breathe as my mouth is underwater. And I keep breathing as my nose drops down. And I keep my eyes open as I fully submerge, allowing me to see the other divers all dropping the 60 ft. to the reef at different rates, giving the impression of soda pop bubbles in reverse. It’s completely liberating—seeing what I shouldn’t be able to, breathing when it shouldn’t be possible. The rest of the dive is just icing.

On Tree Houses
I checked another of life’s to-dos off my list this past week after staying in a tree house. There was just enough room in it for the twin size mattress, our upright backpacks, and Mari and myself to stand. We rigged our flashlight on a karabiner for a DIY chandelier. But despite its unvarnished nature, the experience was fantastic. It was living a Disney movie (at least when I liked Disney). Swiss Family Robinson had nothing on us, as Mari freshetted off the side in the middle of the night. In truth, it was more Peter Pan than Swiss Family Robinson, as it felt like a chance at childhood again—an opportunity to remember back to wanting to be an astronaut, or imagining having superpowers. It was a glimpse where 22 ft. in the air, lofted in a tree, we refused to grow up—at least for 5 days.

Posted: March 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Belize, Guatemala | Tags: , , | 5 Comments »

Trials and Triumph in SCUBA certification

The last three days have been something else. We arrived in the West End of Roatan Island, and settled into our comfy new digs which are clean and cute and absolutely lovely here at The Mariposa (not to be confused with La Mariposa, our past digs-something about that word, “butterfly” in Spanish, has become a running theme so far on this trip, but I digress). We spent the afternoon, walking around this beachfront town with the surf a few meters to our right and the shops and restaurants to our left, and watched the sunset from the docks.

Monday morning we wake up early and head down the beach strip to Coconut Tree Divers to begin our first day of SCUBA lessons with our very cute and very charming instructor Adam. He has our group of four (me, Jeff, and two other guys) watch some videos and go over some basics, and for a brief moment I have a thought that this is going to be a piece of cake. Sometimes I can be so wrong. After an hour or so of videos and knowledge reviews, we get suited up to prepare for our Confined Dive. However, as we are on a tiny island and there are no swimming pools (that I know of) we head straight into the ocean for this “confined dive”. Maybe this was the start of the nerves, I don’t know. Anyway, I get through all of the basic skills, with lots of instruction and minimal anxiety. However, breathing underwater just feels weird. I can hear the hiss of the regulator and feel the oxygen coming in and see the bubbles coming out, but none of this is natural to me. From the surface we practice our descent and our instructor takes us down to a sand patch to practice some new skills. I just keep reminding myself that we are only submerged under 10 feet of water. Everything is marginally fine until it comes time to flood and clear our mask after which we are to completely remove our mask and put it back on. I watch as Adam demonstrates, and then as each student performs both skills. Then it’s my turn. Let me just say, I have no fear of water or getting my face wet or anything like that. There is just something about having to purposely fill your mask with water, not to mention take the whole thing off, and then clear it by breathing out your nose, all while continuously mouth-breathing through a regulator with your eyes closed that is a little too much multi-tasking for me…and fine, just plain scary. Somehow I get through the flood and clear decently enough, but run into a mess of trouble when I have to remove the mask. At one point, as I begin flailing about, snorting, and hyperventilating, I give the sign for “Go UP”. But instead, I feel a firm tug down! Since I apparently have no choice, I somehow regain control of my breathing and get it together. By the time I cautiously take a slow breath and peek my eyes open, Adam is in my face giving me the “OK” sign. After we surface, he says he was tempted to let me ascend, as I was clearly having some issues, but knew that if he did, I would likely never get back in the water again, and I have to say he was right.

Day Two starts with me significantly more anxious than the day before, due to the mask incident and my newfound irrational fear of taking it off. However, I am determined to get past it and move on….until during our morning videos, our instructor announces that we will be demonstrating the same skill and then some under 30 feet of water. Noooooooo! I think about it all morning, all through lunch, and during the boat ride out, during which I purge the contents of my stomach overboard three times. I don’t usually get seasick, so I’m attributing that whole embarrassing event to nerves. Anyway, while everyone else in the class is performing each task with little to no trouble, I have now clearly become the weakest link. I have a difficult time controlling my buoyancy, either floating upwards into the blue yonder or hitting rock bottom, and Rinaldo (dive master in training) at this point has pretty much become my personal safety assistant, pulling me down, finding my lost fin, putting on and removing my weights, and giving me all kinds of underwater reminder signals. Mask flooding time approaches, and again I have what I feel to be a near drowing panic-filled experience. Adam later tells me that this time he really was going to let me up when I started choking and sputtering, but by some force of nature I was able to regain control. We had time to swim around the reef and check out some cool stuff, but I was too wound up and frustrated with myself to fully enjoy it.

Day Three – It’s our final day!! Swim test, float test, written test. I was dead last by a mile with the swim, but no problem. Then we learn the last few skills that lie ahead. This includes mask removal. Of course. My heart sinks. On our lunch break, I go out to about 2 feet of water and practice and practice until I think I’ve got it. After lunch we get on the boat to take us out to the dive site. We practice putting our gear on in the water (little tricky), switching between our regulators and our snorkel (more tricky), free diving with our snorkels, and then swimming to the surface on one continuous exhalation. I run into some trouble with this one. During my first ascent, I run out of air about two-thirds of the way up. We break the surface and I decide to try my luck. “Did I do it?” I ask. Adam gives me a weird look and says, “No. Let’s try again”. After my third try, I do it. I perform my mask removal with high anxiety but no trouble. Yay!!! I can see Adam beaming at me around his regulator as he gives me underwater applause and a high 10. We have time to swim around the reef and it is nothing short of awesome. I feel myself finally start to relax and take it all in. When it’s time to go back up, I realize that I don’t want to. I think I’m going to love scuba diving. Finally.

Posted: February 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Honduras, Itinerary | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments »