Adventures Never End- The North Pole

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end, then stop.’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And just when you thought the travel was coming to an end…..

I began my transition out of Wonderland and back to the “Real World” by getting a new place to live that involved me doing the cleaning and cooking myself and getting a job. Not wishing that my new employer get used to me staying put, I announced (on my first day) that I had a two week trip planned and would be gone in just two months time. You see, I was off to the North Pole. Having already visited the Southern Pole and all seven continents, it was only fitting that I create balance.  And so off I went.

My first stop was Paris, you know, to get used to the jet lag. In French, that translates to “drink delicious wine, eat good cheese and pastries and see beautiful art.” After a few days strolling the rues of Paris, I headed up to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, population 3000. Svalbard is an archipelago of Norway and was a new country for me. It was also my first experience with the midnight sun. I arrived at 2:00 AM and it was as bright as it would be at 2:00 PM. This made is much easier to watch for polar bears when walking home from the northernmost pub in the world (proud to say I have now been to both the northernmost and southernmost pubs in the world). We had a few days in town before our ship would dump the previous week’s passengers and excitedly welcome us aboard. Once on the ship, we quickly gathered up the fun crowd, placing ourselves in the Guillemot group and clearly becoming friends for life. We set off that night, although the sky would indicate it might still be day, making it far easier to stay in the Polar Bear Pub until the wee hours.

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After a few hours of sleep, we were rudely awakened by the intercom announcing a school of Fin Whales, dozens of dolphins and a rogue Humpback were feeding and breeching just off the ship. Needless to say, we were late for breakfast!  This day was also the day we established the Guillemots as the single most excited group of people to ever do anything in the Arctic Circle. We began our tradition of meeting in the hallway as soon as the scouts went ashore, dressed and ready to disembark for whatever adventure might await. Upon hearing our names called, we rushed the mudroom, cheered for our name, donned our coats and life jackets and got in line, in under 3 minutes. No one would accuse the Guillemots of not being excited about every moment of this trip.

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First stop was Brepollen, after fog had kept us from our planned stop of Gnalodden. Fine by me as I am a bit of an ice junkie and this place was surrounded by it. We also got our first taste of zodiac engine issues. I was quite happy for the engine to stall as I would have gladly floated in this ice for hours, waiting for a nice glacier calf or a visit from a whale. But alas, the darned crew got it working again and we “reluctantly” boarded the ship for dinner and another night at the Polar Bear Pub and another viewing of the midnight sun. You see, things can’t come to an end if they don’t ever stop.

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Day three on the ship didn’t start off with whales, but it did start with a stop at Kapp Lee where, after the mandatory scouting for polar bears declared the stop safe, we were able to hike around for a bit. Soon, two walruses, one minus one tusk from a likely fight, swam in the water near the abandoned hunting station. Remnants of reindeer gave the place a look not unlike the Wild West.

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The afternoon stop that day was at Negribreen and MORE ICE!!! It holds one of the largest glaciers in Svalbard and the sea around it is filled with ice. It was beyond words- making you feel very, very small amidst the ice. Again, I could have floated here for hours but the sea was angry that day.  While we were cruising in our zodiacs, the swells grew. And grew. And grew. And I loved every minute of it. Boarding the ship was a bit challenging as the boat and zodiacs were often moving at different speeds. You waited for the them to be aligned, grabbed hold of the amazing deck crew’s hands and leapt on the gangway. Not everyone kept hold of their lunch that day and many fish were grateful for the change in cuisine. But, it was back to dinner, the Polar Bear Pub and yes, another midnight sun with the Guillemots.

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Another early start had us arriving in Torellnesset, or the land of the walruses in my memory.  A massive herd of walruses were sunning themselves on the beach while a few swam with us in the zodiacs.  It was yet another view of the varied landscape of the Arctic Circle, every day bringing a new view. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning and the sound of the walrus made it quite surreal. But alas, the crew dragged us kicking and screaming back onto the zodiacs to go eat another meal.

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One of the crew had said that our afternoon stop was his favorite of all of the stops. I have to say he wasn’t lying, although I don’t believe I could pick just one. Maybe one a day, or one in each morning and one in each afternoon. We traveled to Alkerfjellet, the home of the Cliffs of Guillemots. This was our namesake, after all, and they quickly became my favorite bird of all time.  After our now infamous debarkation routine, we sailed in the zodiacs from one end of the cliffs to the other. They started interestingly enough- a few birds sitting on the rocks that jutted out from the cliffs. But with each passing moment, the volume of birds increased exponentially, covering the rocks and filling the sky with black dots. I got lucky escaping anything falling from the sky, but some of my zodiac mates weren’t so fortunate. This is the point that I fell in love with the guillemot. It is about the least graceful bird I have ever seen. It takes flight by kind of leaping off the cliff but the landing is the best part. Just as it is ready to land, it spreads its legs and wings apart, almost like a squirrel leaping, and pretty much crashes into the sea or rock. It is in a perpetual state of chaos and I adored it. As we passed what appeared to be the coolest spot for guillemots to live, things got even better. We spotted an Arctic Fox, who is super cute and was grabbing up fallen eggs and chicks. And then…. a polar bear. This was a young, healthy bear, learning how to survive on his own, hunting for eggs while fending off the plunging attacks of the skuas. We circled as many times as we could, watching this beautiful creature from a surprisingly close, but safe, distance. Then it was back to the boat to eat. And another Guillemot night at the Polar Bear Pub and another midnight sun, keeping the day from actually coming to an end.

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First stop the next day was Phippsoya, one of the Seven Islands. Just as we were prepping the scouts, the Captain spotted a polar bear sleeping in the snow. Drat. No landing for us as this crew seemed to think that walking with a polar bear was a bad idea. I supposed the dead, rotting polar bear carcass on the beach was a sign. So we could only do a zodiac ride this morning. We did manage to see rocks that were millions of years old and a cliff filled with kittiwakes, singing beautiful songs. After lunch, we stopped at Karl XII-oya, where again, polar bears prevented us from a landing. Our plans were to clean up the beach but at least five bears had other ideas for us. Sadly, the beach could have really used a good cleaning as we saw one of the saddest things I have seen in my travels. A young bear had taken a piece of styrofoam that had washed up on his beach and was chewing on it until he was sick. Humans really do suck.

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The next day may have been my favorite. Not only was it the coldest, but it was the iciest. We were at the ice edge and it was amazing. While at breakfast, a polar bear was spotted floating on a floe, truly in its natural environment. He was totally unconcerned by us, as at one point, he laid down to nap until hunting time started again. Speaking of hunting, we all returned to breakfast and dined on our now cold eggs and porridge. It was the best porridge I ever had.

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Continuing to push north, our Captain, nicknamed Captain Push Push was not deterred by the massive ice ahead of us. We pushed and pushed into it, sometimes being forced backwards until we could break it and move forward. An announcement told us that at that moment in time, we were the northernmost people in the world. We were at 82 degrees north and officially ‘off the map.” I paused at my viewing spot at the bow of the boat and turned around. I was the most northern person in the world. Insanity. Of course, we celebrated this victory with the northernmost conga line (a record setting 109 people) and another Guillemot midnight sun.

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The next day was our last day at sea and we arrived at Alkhornet. Here were more birds, an Arctic Fox and most importantly, the Polar Plunge. We had waited all week for this and about 20 of the bravest sailors stripped down to swimsuits and on the count of three went racing into the 4 degree celsius water. If you haven’t ever been in water that cold, your extremities immediately freeze. I couldn’t feel my feet within seconds but did manage to go in as far as my chest before hobbling back to shore. It was surprisingly warm outside once you get out of the water so we hung out for a bit before dressing. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I would just wear shoes because you can’t feel the rocks on which you are stepping.

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The final stop was at Skansbukta, the site of an abandoned gypsum mine and clear evidence we were heading back to civilization. We hiked to the top, admired the landscape but couldn’t wait to board our zodiacs to see the puffins. I had been to several places in the world in search of puffins but had never been successful. Until now. We saw tons, living side by side with guillemots. They were even cuter than expected. We quickly hatched a plan to mutiny and take over the ship but were distracted by dinner.

IMG_2438Sometime after dinner, we arrived back in Svalbard where we had the opportunity to disembark and hang out in town if we wanted. The guillemots didn’t think twice. We were not living our ship. Back to our Polar Bear Pub for a final Guillemot midnight sun and a toast to lifelong friendships.

You see, it can’t reach the end if you choose not to stop.

Until the next adventure.

Memories of a Trip Around the World

And yesterday things went on just as usual.  I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night?  Let me think, I was the same when I got up this morning?  I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.  But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the World am I?  Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

As 2017 draws to a close, I thought I might do a quick recap of some of the statistics and favorite memories of my 15 month journey around the world….twice. I also included some of my favorite photos that I don’t believe made it into the previous blogs.

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Days Traveled: 425

Countries Visited: 48

Flights Taken: 94

Miles Flown: 145,121 (plus 2,953 by train and 3,346 by bus not including tours)

Miles Walked: 1,479 (average 4.4 per day)

Airlines Flown: 34

Different Methods of Travel: 22 (highlights included camels, feluccas and tuk tuks)

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Things I learned on my Journey:

  1. Not all countries have Sour Cream and Onion Pringles but the ones that do have prices that vary from $.50 to $5.00 USD.
  2. Trains are unable to adhere to schedules in any country in the world.
  3. People everywhere lose their collective minds in airports.
  4. Spending too much time overseas makes it difficult to remember how to spell color (colour).
  5. There are days you wake up and genuinely have to think hard about which country you are visiting.
  6. I still pause before getting in a car to think about which side is the driver’s side.
  7. Women are treated less than equally nearly everywhere in the world. Some places are just worse than others.

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And now, some of my favorite memories (in no particular order).

  1. Sitting in Berlin, next to the Brandenburg Gate drinking gluhwein and chatting with strangers.
  2. Listing to Pink Floyd laying in the desert in Morocco.
  3. Hiking to the top of Mt. Sinai to catch the sunrise.
  4. Lying by the pool on top of a hotel in Casablanca listening to the Muslim Call to Prayer (Adhan) from all over the city.
  5. Drinking beer from an upstairs open bar waving and posing for photos in China
  6. Crashing the set and befriending the crew of Robin Hood in Croatia.
  7. Hiking up a mountain to sit on an ancient Incan ruin and chatting about places that move you in Peru.
  8. Racing full speed down the Death Road on a bike in Bolivia.
  9. Every moment on game drives in Africa.
  10. Wine tasting with instant friends in Cape Town.
  11. Every stranger who paused to befriend me, welcome me into their home, share a meal or pose for a photo.
  12. Risking death by making our way to the top of a mountain in Emei Shan, carrying monkey sticks to see the clouds clear around a beautiful gold temple.
  13. Crashing a felucca while floating down the Nile in Egypt.
  14. Having our truck break down in the middle of the Bolivian Salt Flats, “forcing” us to watch the sunset without any other humans within sight.
  15. Ringing a strangers doorbell to have dinner in his home surrounded by his friends and neighbors in Bolivia.
  16. Meeting up with Antarctica friends all over the world.
  17. Riding a hot air balloon at sunrise over migration in Kenya.
  18. Countless other memories which escape me at this moment but will continue to present themselves with time.

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I saw amazing sights, visited all seven continents, saw most of the Wonders of the World and tried some activities I would have not tried at other times in my life. I think most of all though, I am especially grateful for the friends I made all over the world. Each of you is what made my journey truly memorable. I hope to see all I met and all of those I have yet to meet again and again.

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Next stop….the Arctic in summer of 2018 (although there are likely to be several other adventures before then!)
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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Looking Up All the Time- Madagascar

“Where do you come from?” said the Queen. “And where are you going? Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.”

Alice Through the Looking Glass

After surviving the super strenuous and exhausting week in Mozambique, it was off to Madagascar for the Egypt crew- or at least three of us! One night in Johannesburg, forcing me to once again say goodbye to this place I love so much led to an early flight to Antananarivo, a city with a pronunciation that still challenges me. We had hired a guide for our six days and he and our driver met us at the airport. I immediately liked this town- dirt roads, kids playing in the dirt with huge smiles on their faces and adults hanging out together on the sides of the roads. Don’t get me wrong, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries I have visited. But, as I have observed over and over again, the poorer the country, the happier the people. The Malagasy were no exception. Many of the ladies wash their clothes in the river and rather than it be a regretful experience, it appears to be a community gathering. And a happy one at that. I immediately regretted not having a suitcase full of toys to share with the children.

A quick stop at the hotel to drop off bags and run through the itinerary for the week and it was off to stop number one- a crocodile farm, complete with lemurs (didn’t see), turtles (Cecil the 60 year old turtle followed me all over his enclosure after I climbed in to scratch his head), lizards and chameleons, and snakes. If you know me, you know I am genuinely terrified of snakes, like I cease breathing terrified. I informed my guide of this which caused him to chuckle. So I took out my “Grown Up- I An Not Messing Around” face and voice that served me so well years ago when I worked at a day care center and reinforced my statement. I believed he had gotten the picture when our local guide pointed for me to go past several exhibits and wait for the rest of the group. Crisis averted. Zoo type places are quite different in Madagascar- our guide kept hopping over the fence or having us join him over the fence and pick up the animals- something we would see quite often. And, despite us staring into the trees for a bit, the lemurs declined to show their faces. No worries. We would soon be in lemur heaven.

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We got up early the next day to sit in the famous Antananarivo traffic jam, a literal standstill that rivals many I have seen in the rest of the world. As we set in traffic and marveled at the lift happening around us, we learned a bit about the country and its people. 85% of the people are farmers, which is a bit misleading as they farm enough to feed their families and survive, and 5% work in industry. Rice is eaten at all three meals and farmers grow enough to support their own family. All non farmers must purchase imported rice. There are 22 million people, French is the official language and Malagasy is the tribal language, unfortunately a threatened with extinction language.

After a few hours, we were near the eastern coast of Madagascar near the town of Andasibe and headed to Lemur Island at the Vakona Forest Lodge. I had done little research about this trip, so I had no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I was quite surprised when a Verreaux Sifaka lemur jumped on my head. These are the bigger, black and white ones and this one bounced back and forth among the three of us, heading to whoever might be closest to a bite of banana. This lemur was cute, but I was soon to meet up with my new best friend, Frank. Frank is a brown lemur and my favorite of the species. Frank hung out with me for a long time, posing for a lot of bad selfies and generally keeping my neck toasty warm. After a tearful goodbye, we parted ways and hopped in a canoe to see a few more specie, actually a good thing as my neck was getting quite sore from staring up at the trees. Cruising up to a smaller island, we spotted a bunch of Ring Tailed lemurs high in the branches. Our guide told us that, unlike the brown lemurs, we could not pet these guys. Clearly, the lemurs do not share the same obedience as we were covered in lemurs in no time. This species liked to camp out on your head or sit on your shoulders and use your head as a table. In total, we saw five different species of lemur here. Kicking and screaming and convinced to leave only by our growling stomachs, we headed out.

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After sunset, we got to do a night walk through the jungle. This being Madagascar and not the United States, rules and the threat of litigation are far less prominent. So we grabbed our flashlights and hit the woods. We were rewarded with chameleons, lizards, frogs and home sapiens sightings but the highlight was a rarely spotted nocturnal lemur, all seen by once again, staring into the sky.

After surviving a slightly scary hotel which required mosquito nets, sleep sacks and fingers crossed, we hopped back in the car for a drive to Antserabe. We stopped at a reptile farm along the way where I befriended Veronica, my future pet. She was a super soft lizard who looked like she was smiling. When the guides weren’t looking, I may or may not have dropped her in my bag and she is watching me type at this moment. We also stopped for some koba, a Malagasy cake that looks like a giant roll cake. We were told it was a lovely cake make of peanuts, sugar and flour and rolled in banana leaves. I was beyond excited to taste this. After, I was beyond excited to never taste it again. Antserabe is the city of rickshaws and they are plentiful, with guys pulling them in their bare feet across the dirt roads while yelling to you in French. I must have been convincing because after the few exchanges we made, my driver prattled on as if I was quite fluent. Oops.

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Next stop was the town of Morondava, for the Avenue of the Baobabs. This was a long drive, where once again, my music and headphones provided the soundtrack to another journey through a nation. On this drive, I developed a serious distaste for my driver’s passion of honking at everyone and everything and making it his personal mission to force every pedestrian into the bush rather than share the road. My tongue was sore by the end of the drive from all of the biting I had done on it. We arrived at the Avenue in time for sunset over the baobabs. I have seen a lot of sunset over the past year, but this was one of the more spectacular.

Another dinner of either spaghetti or pizza (two of the three main foods in Madagascar with zebu (beef) being the third), a trip to the Kirindy forest (two hours spent staring into the sky looking for lemurs and at baobobs) and a night at the local Malagasy reggae bar rounded out the rest of the adventure and my last activities of this long journey.

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Madagascar is one of the reasons I love Africa. It always comes down to the people. While it is unlikely I will ever return to this place, it made an impact, even if most of it was me, on the ground, looking up.

And now, this journey has come to an end. Back to the States I go.

 

Time Moves More Slowly Here-Mozambique

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slow, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and wonder what was going to happen next.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After being dragged kicking and screaming onto the airplane after refusing to leave South Africa, myself and four of my friends from last year’s Egypt trip took off for Mozambique. While I would gladly have stayed in South Africa forever, the lure of a new country was strong. Additionally, the lure of laying by the pool/beach and reading books for a week was also strong. South Africa was exhausting and I could use a break!

That wish was quickly granted as I spent the entire first day firmly planted on a pool chair, reading 1 1/2 books. I did get to admire the beauty of the Mozambique landscape from my chair, although outside of a walk into the village to acquire cash, I didn’t do much else.

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The second day was filled with much more excitement as I began to discover the odd polarity of this village of Vilankulos. Up early to enjoy some coffee, I casually watched a small tour group walk in to have breakfast. They were led by none other than my guide from South Africa the previous year. Neither of us knew the other was there, yet it seems perfectly natural that we find each other. Of all the restaurants in all of the villages in all of Mozambique, we ended up at the same one at the same time.

Unfortunately, we both had other commitments so our reunion was short lived and I headed off with my friends to sail on a dhow out to a reef and what appeared to be a deserted island for some snorkeling. While the coral was average, there were some fantastic fish and the water, though rough, was quite warm. The beaches were amazing white sand beaches and I entertained myself in the style of an only child, burying myself in the sand. The dhow was a neat little boat, complete with a fire pit for cooking. Our captains and two hands pulled off hot coffee and a complete fish, chicken and vegetable lunch on this tiny boat. And to top it off, they made fresh popcorn for the return home. What struck me most about this trip, though, was how they fished. Two of the crew had lines off the back of the boat for the entire trip. They weren’t fancy poles and they didn’t have nets and bait. They had a bunch of fishing line wrapped around a wood plank. They held the plank and pulled the line by hand when they had a bite. Seemed just as effective as any other method!

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The third day kicked off with some culture. A local guide picked us up in tuk tuks and took us around the village. I knew it would be special when the first stop was the art deco hotel built in 1960. The hotel, while still decorated perfectly, was nearly empty. You could hear the ghosts of the past walking through the hotel and I could only imagine how amazing it must have been in its heyday. We also visited a local’s bar, the fish/vegetable/clothes/shoes market and the new hospital. Our guide, around age 65, had far surpassed the average age of people in Mozambique, which hovers near 45-50. 70% of the population is under the age of 30, AIDS having taken its toll on this nation. They struggle with literacy and poverty yet nearly everyone walks around with a smile on their face and a desire to talk to you. I think my highlight of the afternoon was a stop at the church, where hundreds had gathered to celebrate those that have been married for 20 or more years. There was dancing and singing and unadulterated joy.

That evening, we scheduled a sunset cruise on another dhow. Ever since we arrived, we had been searching for a dugong, a sea creature that resembles a manatee. We were told by all that they were elusive and rarely seen, even by locals. Our good fortune and the polarity of the village gave us another treat. Two large dugongs sailed with us for a bit and treated us to some tail flips. I, of course, had opted to leave my camera behind and have only a fuzzy phone photo of these guys. This group of friends had participated in last year’s crashing of the felucca on the Nile so we found it necessary to recreate the scenario. Celine Dion was called up and I moved to the front of the boat, holding my breath. Success. We stayed afloat. It was only at that moment I realized I was wearing the exact same dress that helped crash the felucca. Another weird moment in Mozambique!

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One more day of poolside reading, beach bars and strolling along the water and it was time for some more excitement.

Off to Madagascar I go.

You Ask Where My Favorite Place Is- Johannesburg and Kruger

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly.  Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

My last visit to South Africa, specifically the exact same trip I was about to take, is what inspired me to take a year off work and travel the world. I am in my last month of travel before I return home and begin searching for a job and return to reality. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to return. After flying from Cape Town, everything else felt like home. We would be staying in all of the same places, with many of the same faces yet the experience would be completely different. This blog will be shockingly short, despite the fact that I could talk about South Africa and the bush forever. I find it so hard to put into words the beauty of this country and its people and animals. This place, of everywhere I have seen, is my absolute must visit place. I would come back every year if I could. And I may.

Our first day was a drive toward Kruger National Park with stops at Blyde River Canyon, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and God’s Window, all proof that this is the most beautiful country in the world. This time I made sure to dip my feet in the water at the potholes for good luck. I happily knitted my way across the country as I stared out at mines, farms, mountains, fields, townships, forests and so much more of the varied countryside. Not knowing when I might return again, I wasn’t going to forget this. We arrived in Kruger, a 7500 sq mile reserve that houses thousands of animals, all living as they should (minus the poachers who shall get what they deserve) and an elephant greeted us next to the Welcome to Kruger billboard- a very positive sign. One of the Big Five spotted already.

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The next day was an all day game drive that did not disappoint. Four of the Big Five were spotted in addition to the hippo which both lived in the watering hole at our hotel and are considered by many to be number six in the most dangerous land animals. I would have to agree. They seem mean as snot. And louder than me. They woke most of us up during the night, apparently having quite the hippo party. The highlight of the afternoon for me was a herd of nearly 200 elephants, hanging out near the river. It was such an impressive sight to see all of them together.

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The following morning began with a bush walk, a first for me and something that will definitely happen again. We headed out with two armed guides and marched off toward a herd of buffalo. Fortunately, they were more scared of us so they bolted rather than charged when we got to close. We didn’t see a ton of animals, but we did learn a lot about the people that once lived there. We also learned some tips about the plants, that is until a herd of zebra came running towards us, turning when they spotted us.

IMG_9927The next two afternoons and two mornings were spent at Karangwe, a private game reserve and filled with highlights. Throughout the course of these two days, we saw all of the Big Five. We saw several leopards, some reclining but one walked across our jeep early in the morning, clearly looking for something. We tracked her for a bit but she was more intent on her search. We save a pride of lion lounging in the sun, bellies full from the wildebeest they had killed the previous day. We then rounded the corner and saw the rest of the pride happily munching on what was left. Once again, I found that nature is not gross when it isn’t accompanied by classical music or Morgan Freeman sharing the details. In search of rhinos, we not only found two, but found two young boys engaged in play, head to head combat. Happily driving down the road, we were quite surprised to see two large rhino bodies in a speedy chase. Aside from the leopards (my absolute favorite animal), my top moment was a walk through the bush in which we encountered three cheetah, lounging the in the sun. As one of the group pointed out, we were standing in the bush, closer to these wild cheetahs than you are to caged cheetahs in the zoo. And we all got along just fine. They watched us warily and us them. Yet perfectly content with each other’s presence. Cooler than words could convey.

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During an afternoon a break, we decided to hang out in the bird hide to watch the hippos and crocs. Slowly people headed back to camp for lunch until only two remained. All of a sudden, there was a big stir in the bush, antelope yelling to each other and a whole bunch of birds flying from the trees. A fish eagle swooped in and landed on a tree near us. Remembering my luck in seeing leopards after a fish eagle sighting the previous year, I commented in jest, “that means we are about to see a leopard.” At that moment, my friend raised her arm and said, “there it is.” Truly a fortuitous moment!  At this point, I was quite dismayed to not see any warthogs. Until, I passed a few in my camp hanging out by the swimming pool. We sang a quick rendition of “When I Was a Young Warthog” and then parted ways. After all, it was time for lunch.
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I came to South Africa saying it was my favorite place on earth. I leave South Africa repeating those words. Africa cannot be described, only felt. And once your feet touch the ground, it becomes a part of you. Many places I visit are one hit wonders. I love visiting but don’t feel a need to see again. That is not nor will ever be South Africa. I will return here again and again. It is the perfect relationship of people, animals and planet.

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And so off to Mozambique I go, knowing full well I will be back here soon.

Return to South Africa- Cape Town

‘I could tell you my adventure- beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly, ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After a brief stint in Paris to ensure their wine and cheese quality was being maintained, I headed back to my favorite country in the world, South Africa. I had been once before and loved it so much, I thought it best to begin my travel finale in the place that inspired it all. So off to Cape Town I went. And to make it even better, I was meeting three others that I met in Egypt for a South Africa/Mozambique/Madagascar extravaganza! More on those coming soon.

I had not been to Cape Town during my first visit and wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was more of why I love South Africa. The people and the land are so amazing. You will struggle to find happier and more friendly people anywhere in the world. If Cape Town was easier to travel to/from, it would definitely be on my list for places I would live. My hotel room featured a gorgeous view of Table Mountain (not that odd since the mountain towers over most of the city!).

On our first full day, we visited Robben Island, thankfully having purchased tickets a few days prior (tip for any future visitors- ALWAYS book in advance). This island off the coast of Cape Town was the main prison for political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela and Msomi Sipho. While you certainly recognize Mandela, Sipho may be unknown to you. In addition to serving many years for his political protest with the ANC, this man served as our guide and storyteller. Unlike Mandela, who was kept in a solitary cell, Sipho served in a larger block and shared stories of how they would use music, dance and plays to keep the protest alive and pass information to others, like stuffing tennis balls with newspaper and tossing it over the fences. I can’t imagine working in the place that once imprisoned you but the need for employment outweighs the struggle for these men. I suppose life is all about being a different person tomorrow than you were yesterday. Any and all afternoon plans were scratched upon return from the island and instead drinks and dinner on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront won that battle.

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Day Two  was the ultimate tourist Hop On/Hop Off bus tour, done mostly for a way to get cheap transportation around the greater Cape Town area. In addition to wind burn on my face, I learned a few interesting facts. Table Mountain is home to 8000 plant species, 69% of which are not found anywhere else. The villages have festivals during the warmer months which are often thematic and award a Beauty Pageant winner titles such as Miss Cherry or Miss Meat during the event. Aspirations- you can be a no one today and Miss Strawberry tomorrow.  The saying “women and children first” came from a shipwreck just off the coast of Cape Town. Who knew? Finally, according to Feng Shui, Cape Town is situated perfectly. Reason 343,283 to move here.

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I am pretty certain that you are not allowed to leave Cape Town without a visit to their famous winery. So, in addition to ensuring I tasted every vineyard’s Pinotage, we spent the day (versus the intended afternoon only) in the Constantia wine region at three of the wineries. We happened upon two guys on the same journey and scooped them into our adventure. One more dinner on the V&A Waterfront and it was off to our hotels. While Cape Town is lovely, it cannot be walked at night alone. I was harshly criticized for offering to get out of the cab a mere 1/2 block from my hotel. I understood, as I had left my Wonder Woman bracelet in the States.

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Day Four began as a lazy day. It was my last day in a solo hotel room and, as I truly treasure that time, I wasn’t wasting it. I type this as I am enjoying the quiet of my shared room while the others have gone off to tour Joburg! After dropping my laundry off with some people and doing my “Hope This All Comes Back to Me” dance, it was off to the District 6 Museum. This is a fantastic museum that honors and remembers the residents of District 6, a township that was literally evacuated and bulldozed after relocating residents to smaller, more distant locations. This museum incorporates the former residents into the exhibits, giving it a very honest feel. The ghosts of apartheid are still very strong in this country and remembrances are everywhere.

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The official tour began on day five and we were off to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the site of over 9000 plants, including a tree whose species predates the dinosaurs. A very eccentric guide shared his love and knowledge with us. While I have always been fascinated with nature, flowers have never really been my thing. Visiting this garden gave me all new appreciation of them- again a different person today than yesterday.

After the gardens, we were off to visit the penguins and have lunch. Lunch was made more interesting by the fact that we were on alert for baboons. More specifically, we were watching for the baboon guards that walk along side these crazy animals protecting both humans and baboons from rather unfortunate events.  A visit to the Cape of Good Hope and the “southernmost point in Western Africa” finished off the day.

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In addition to the four of us from Egypt, we commandeered two others who fit perfectly and headed off to Table Mountain to get some exercise before our mandatory visit to the Stellenbosch wine region. We took the cable car up to the top, but I would absolutely recommend hiking it instead for anyone with even a little physical stamina. So often when you get to the top of a mountain, the view of below is amazing. On Table Mountain, the view off the landscape on top rivals that of the land below. I would have gladly stayed up here hiking all day, but the call of the wineries was strong. We headed down and found the driver that would lead us to this debauchery.

As we drove past townships, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of guilt, knowing how fortunate I was to be doing what I am doing while oppression and poverty are so strong. We visited three/four wineries on this visit but the highlight for me was the quality and powerful rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” performed with commitment by the seven of us (recorded for posterity). It was a perfect end to Cape Town and a perfect beginning with new and old friends for the rest of the trip.IMG_9417

And so off to Johannesburg I go, yet again a changed person.

Cuba

She felt a little nervous about this, ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle.  I wonder what I should be like then?’ And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I have been quite remiss in writing my Cuba blog. In fact, I had not realized it was incomplete until I logged in to begin my Cape Town blog! I hope my memory is strong enough to pull off this post! Much has happened since I left Cuba. The travel restrictions that were loosened have been returned to their previous status, once again making it more challenging for Americans to visit. Please don’t let this hinder your visit. Go through the paperwork and red tape and visit. We must continue to grow relations with this country.

I arrived in Cuba after a really long overnight flight from Rio and the first thing I noticed that Cuba’s airport really needed my help. They have some fantastic opportunities for process improvement.  Of course it didn’t help that everyone traveling there had WAY too much baggage. I checked into my hotel and immediately made my way to the beach where I found so much of what you hear about in Cuba. First, the old cars were everywhere. I am pretty sure I took pictures of 1383 cars this afternoon. It is much like the first penguin you see in Antarctica or the first elephant in South Africa. The first is so novel.  The millionth is nearly as novel. Second, I found the friendly and quite lovely people. I was asked out within 10 minutes and despite only finding about 5 words in common, I managed to escape the date. On a side note, I was quite comforting to see that taxi drivers in Cuba share the international signal of honking at you to see if you want a cab. You know, in the event that you were walking along and forgot you didn’t want to walk and in fact, wanted a ride.

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The second day was the start of my People to People Tour (one of the official ways Americans can travel to Cuba). We first traveled to Revolution Square- the political center of Cuba, where we historically saw photos of Fidel Castro giving his five hour speeches. It was interesting to talk to different Cubans and get their take on these speeches and his leadership. It was as varied as we see in the US these days. We learned a few things about Cuba on this ride. They do not have access to international banks and therefore cannot borrow money for infrastructure improvements. Yet someone, they grow. After over a week in Cuba, I failed to see how their economic model worked. They have 100% literacy and homelessness is illegal. Everyone has jobs. They import most of their food and continue to develop. I can’t make the math work. After Revolution Square, we went to the Fine Arts Museum for some Cuban art. It was a highly entertaining visit as you could see the very direct influence of artists around the world on Cuban Art. A fellow traveler and I had a good time pointing out the Dali, Monet, Max and Picasso influences. Continuing the People to People path, we popped into Old Havana where we went to a lecture by a professor about the growth of Cuban culture through music. It is a beautiful mix of African and European influence.

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Cubans have an interesting way of looking at their past and it varies from person to person. The 1990’s are called the Special Period. This is the time of great poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union when they lost nearly everything. Despite nearly starving, some credit Castro with saving them, while others critique him for his methods. On day three, we headed out to Las Terrazas, a national park and biosphere reserve. The area was reforested after total decimation. Most importantly, we found that Cubans love to drink. At least one drink was served at all three meals and most included Vitamin R (rum). We visited coffee farms, a women’s house turned restaurant complete with chickens under feet and a man who turns recycled paper into art.  That night was a trip to the Havana Club, a dancing and singing show staring musicians trained by the Buena Vista Social Club. This is definitely not my thing and I would have much preferred stabbing bamboo sticks into my eyeballs. I think what bothered me the most was that all of the female dancers had the same shoes. Minus one. Couldn’t let that go.

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The next day in Havana included a trip to Hemingway’s farm and an organic farm. In Cuba, organic is cheaper than non organic. We also got to go cigar shopping today and see how they are rolled. Being unemployed as well as a non smoker, I didn’t come back with a boxful! The best part of today, though, was a vintage car ride through Havana. We rented a bright pink 1957 Ford convertible and breezed around town for a bit, hitting the forest of Havana (who knew?), the necropolis (a massive cemetery) and the Fifth Avenue of Havana (restaurants and really big mansions).

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After all of these days in Havana, we were finally getting out of town for a few. This also meant more time hearing our guide’s perspective on Cuban history and the role the country and Castro have played on the world. At one point, we watched a documentary (used loosely) produced for the Cuban people to honor Fidel Castro. I can’t be certain, but I am pretty sure that they gave Fidel credit for ending apartheid in South Africa.  We also covered a very different view of Bay of Pigs.

First stop on the journey was Cienfuegos, a beautiful coastal town. The highlight for me was the number of Cubans shouting cheers to me as I marched down the street in my Chicago Cubs World Series Champions t-shirt. You could feel the history here, the ghosts of pirates were everywhere. Sadly, we could not stay for some old fashioned piracy and so we moved onward to Trinidad.

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In Trinidad, we stayed at a beach resort that included nightly entertainment, entertaining mostly in how really bad it was. This just made it even more enjoyable. That and the open bar where really grumpy men begrudgingly poured you drinks- quite a departure from the friendliness we had seen everywhere else.

Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial town whose first important economic activity was piracy and smuggling in 1514. Nearly everything in this town is original and beautifully maintained. While in Trinidad, we visited a potter whose family has had their pottery shop for hundreds of years, pulled off an impromptu zip line adventure (for $10!!!) and hit a nightclub built into the side of a cave.

The las day was then spent in Topes de Collates, a beautiful mountain area with coffee farms (farmers have to give 90% of their product to the government) and plenty of places to hike. As homes are only $5000 here, our group strategized buying one and building and adventure resort, complete with rafting, zip lining, hiking, rock climbing, basket weaving (we were a diverse group) and cooking classes. As I spent most of the drive dying to jump out of the jeep and go hiking, I was quite pleased when we stopped to do just that. It was a perfect way to end my stay in Cuba.

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I really enjoyed my time there and highly recommend it to everyone. We don’t know how long we will be able to visit this amazing country so don’t hesitate. I can’t imagine not being able to visit, but don’t wait for the candle to blow out.

Off to South Africa (via Florida, California, Alaska and Paris which don’t earn blog posts).