African Vacation 2011, Part Seven: The Amazing Race

Even after several days in Cape Town, our vacation wasn’t over. Kris and I could look forward to 36 hours of travel before we were snug in our beds in Portland. Maybe more. And since I had a hare-brained scheme to make the Portland auditions for The Amazing Race on Saturday morning, we were eager not to miss any connections.

Security Theater
We left the hotel for the Cape Town airport at 10am local time — or 1am back home. Our flight to Johannesburg was uneventful, but once there, we had a couple of small adventures.

First, Kris and I got cranky with each other. Really cranky. I know some folks like to pretend they never get cranky with their partners, but Kris and I do sometimes — especially when she’s hungry. And especially while traveling. (We have different travel styles, which creates some conflict.)

Second, security to board the plane back to Dulles was ridiculous. How ridiculous? I took notes.

  1. We had to show our passports to pick up our boarding passes. (This is normal and expected.)
  2. We had to show our boarding passes to pass through the security scanners. (This is normal and expected.)
  3. Before we could enter the boarding gate, we had to submit to a pat-down search, take off our shoes, let our bags be searched, and show our boarding pass. During the pat-down, the security officer didn’t notice (or didn’t care) about my “body bug” that I wear on my arm, which seems to me like it might feel like a concealed explosive device. But he did remark on how much chocolate I was carrying home in my bag.
  4. Immediately upon entering the boarding gate (and just after the pat-down), we had to show our passport and boarding pass (again).
  5. When they actually began loading the plane, we had to show our boarding pass again.
  6. A few feet later — and for no apparent reason — we had to show our boarding pass again to pick up a numbered chit.
  7. Half-way down the ramp, we had to show the numbered chit and the boarding pass.
  8. At the door to the plane, we handed over our numbered chit.
  9. Once aboard the plane, we had to show our boarding pass one final time.

I’ll leave it for you to decide whether this security is worth anyone’s while. But suffice it to say that nobody standing in line thought it mattered. It was a hassle, and yet it seemed ineffectual at the same time.

The Amazing Race
Our flight to Washington D.C. landed on schedule at about 6am Eastern. From there, we caught an 8:34am flight to Denver, and then made a tight connection from Denver to Portland. After 36 hours of travel, we reached Portland just after one in the afternoon.

But the fun wasn’t over yet!

Thanks to some co-ordination from Tiffany, she and Paul helped Kris grab our luggage and head for home. I, on the other hand, met up with my pal Chris Guillebeau, hopped in the Mini, and zoomed to Lake Oswego. We had a date with destiny!

As most of you know, for the past year, Kris and I have been obsessed with The Amazing Race, a television reality/game show in which teams of two race around the world for a one-million-dollar prize. Over the past twelve months, we’ve watched all seventeen seasons. Kris has watched most of them two or three times.

Because of my new-found love for travel, the idea of running The Amazing Race is very appealing. But as much as I’d love to do the race with my wife, it’s probably not a good idea. Remember the start of this post? Remember how I said she and I bicker, especially when traveling? And especially when she hasn’t eaten? Well, we’re both certain that doing The Amazing Race together would be a recipe for disaster.

Instead, I asked Chris Guillebeau if he’d like to do it. He’s — reluctantly, I think — agreed to audition with me.

Note: Chris is a natural fit for this. One of his goals is to visit every country in the world by the time he’s 35. With just two years left, he’s almost there. His experience traveling and my knowledge of the race could make us a formidable team. Plus, it’s be fun to see us billed on the screen: “Chris and J.D., professional bloggers”. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain he has no clue what he’s getting himself in for. He might hate it! (That’s why I have back-up partners in my mind: Michael H. and Andrew C.)

The auditions were scheduled to run from 10am until 2pm. It seemed unlikely that we’d make it in time to be seen, but we figured it was worth a try. And it was. When we arrived at the restaurant where auditions were being held, there was still a long line, and the audition time had been extended until 4pm.

It was bitter cold outside (a shocking change from the warm summer Cape Town days we’d just left), but Tiffany had brought my jacket and gloves to the airport. (Thanks, Tiff!) Chris and I took our place at the end of the line.

Almost immediately, Mr. Unconventional began looking for ways to get us near the front of the line. And he found one. Those who’d been in line longest had been issued tickets. As people gave up and left, one fellow was collecting (or buying) the unused tickets. He then resold the tickets to people further back. Chris found this fellow and brought him to me. I paid $50 to move to the middle of the pack.

And then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In line to audition for The Amazing Race

It was cold. The line moved slowly. We made idle conversation with our neighbors in line. And we waited. Eventually we received some bad news: The process was taking too long and the line was going to be cut here, far far ahead of us, and everyone else should go home.

“We can’t give up now,” Chris said, and others around him agreed. He prodded me to go speak to the fellow who had made the announcement. I did. And then I learned the terrible truth.

You see, The Amazing Race has a normal audition process that goes something like this:

  1. Fill out an application.
  2. Film a two-minute video.
  3. Sign a waiver.
  4. Mail this stuff in.

It’s an open-ended application process, and anyone can apply at any time.

Well, this audition for which we spent hours standing in the bitter cold was nothing more than the normal application process, but handled by the local television affiliate. There was no advantage to applying this way. In fact, if anything, I believe there was a dis-advantage to doing so. When you film yourself, you can try again and again until your audition is just how you want it. There was no chance to do that with the audition at the restaurant. This was just a publicity ploy.


Chris and I packed it up and headed for home. I’m grateful that he took several hours from his busy schedule to stand in line with me, especially since The Amazing Race is not his dream — it’s mine. But we’ll have to send in our application through normal channels. (And if Chris doesn’t really want to do it, I’ll try to recruit one Michael Hampton to join me.)

Final Thoughts
Kris and I loved our African vacation. We’ve been back for a month, and we think (and talk) about it constantly.

When I first started to travel, everyone told me, “Oh, travel is amazing. It changes you.” I thought this was mostly bunk. Our trip to Belize was interesting, and it’s stuck with me, and our trips to Europe have been fun. But change me? Venice didn’t change me. Paris didn’t change me. So, going into this trip, I was skeptical that Africa would change me.

I was wrong. Africa did change me. It opened my eyes and my mind. I now know what people mean when they say that travel can change you. If it was practical, I would pack today and return to southern Africa. I’ve spent many hours over the past month talking with people and reading websites, learning everything I can about volunteer tourism. I’m trying to find organizations that do good without a religious or political agenda.

Though it cost a lot of money, I’m richer for having gone to Africa.

And speaking of richer, here’s a final bit from our trip. We spent several days in Zimbabwe, which is a beautiful country with beautiful people. It’s also a country ravaged by political and economic turmoil. In fact, a few years ago, Zimbabwe was hit by hyper-inflation — the rampant de-valuing of its currency. As a result, the government had to print more and more money in higher and higher denominations.

As we were crossing the border into Zambia, our tour bus was besieged by hawkers. “Please don’t buy from them,” our tour guide told us. “It only makes them bolder.” Our group was fairly good at first, but then one by one, we succumbed. Kris was drawn by a chance to pick up trillions of dollars. Literally:

50 million dollars

50 million dollars

50 trillion dollars

50 trillion dollars

These are scans of Zimbabwean currency issued during the period of hyper-inflation. How much are they worth today? I think Kris paid a buck (maybe two) for each banknote, and even that was probably too much. That’s okay, though, because the memories are priceless.

African Vacation 2011, Part Six: Cape Town

After two weeks exploring Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the northern part of South Africa, we turned our attention to the southern-most tip of the African continent. We flew from Kruger National Park to Cape Town, where we spent our final few days exploring life at the end of the world.

Note: The text and photos are finished for this post, so I’ve published it. I hope to edit a short video, too. When I’m done with that, I’ll add it here, at the front of the article.

Cape Winelands
We started our stay on the cape at The Village at Spier, a pretentious hotel and entertainment complex located on a winery outside Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch is a part of the Cape Winelands, a hilly region in the Western Cape province well-known for its chenin blanc, cabarnet sauvignon, and — my favorite — sauvignon blanc.

On Saturday, we settled at Spier, which has been made to sort of resemble a European village. On a quiet, sunny Sunday morning, we boarded a bus for a tour of the surrounding wine country. We drove into the university town of Stellenbosch, where we took time to walk around and look at shops. The population here seemed mainly Afrikaner, meaning the white descendants of the Dutch, German, and French settlers of the area. (This is as opposed to the predominantly black population in Johannesburg, Kruger, and Cape Town itself.) Much of the signage was in both Enlish and Afrikaans. Many people were dressed in their summer finery — because mid-February in South Africa is the equivalent of mid-August in Oregon — going to church services.


Next, we drove to Franschhoek, an even smaller village higher in the wine country. We had a little time to wander around, so Kris and I bought gelato and watched a pair of owls that are long-time residents of a particular tree.

Note: Our group ate a lot of ice cream (and gelato) on this trip. I set the tone from the start. After we landed in Johannesburg and were waiting for transport to our first hotel, I bought a Magnum bar, which I enjoyed very much. From then on, we were all buying ice cream whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was awesome.

After a brief look around Franschhoek (again, much too brief for my liking), we drove to Dieu Donné, a nearby winery, where we tasted a few wines and then ate a fine lunch.

Franschhoek    Dieu Donne

Anita, snapping a photo of three boys outside Dieu Donné Vineyards

Back at the vast Spier complex, Kris and I toured Eagle Encounters, a bird-rescue facility, and Cheetah Encounters, a similar program for big cats. I wasn’t feeling well in the evening, so we skipped the scheduled wine-tasting event to have a quick, quiet dinner in the bar with Coy and Margaret. In the evening, we watched The Social Network on the iPad. We were unimpressed. (What’s the big deal? Why does everyone love this movie? It seems pedestrian, almost pointless.)

Table Mountain
Monday morning, we left Spier and drove into Cape Town. Our bus took us to the base of Table Mountain, where we took the cable car to the top. We only had half an hour to take in the lovely view (again, I felt rushed), of which no photos can do justice.

It’s almost impossible to describe table mountain in a way that conveys its grandeur. Even photos and video don’t really give the whole scope of the thing. But let me try.

Table Mountain makes up the southeast border of Cape Town. It’s a three-kilometer (roughly two-mile) long plateau set a few kilometers back from harbor itself. The mountain is about 1000 meters tall, and is almost perfectly flat. (Well, “perfectly flat” in the grand scheme of things. It’s actually very rough and rock up top, but the overall effect is one of level-ness.) Because of the mountain’s position and its flat top, it’s often covered by “the tablecloth”, a blanket of flowing, white clouds. Again, the effect is amazing, and you really have to see it in person to understand. When the clouds come over the top of the mountain on a south-easterly wind, they cascade down the face of the cliff toward the city. It’s like a waterfall of clouds. It’s awesome.

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront
The clouds spill over the top of Table Mountain

View of Cape Town
Looking down at Cape Town from atop Table Mountain. The tip of my sleeve is
almost exactly touching the point from which I took the top photo. [Photo by Phil.]

Back at the base of the mountain, we made a brief tour of the city, including a stroll through the Company’s Garden, a large park in the middle of Cape Town. We were then subjected to an hour-long shopping stop at a local jewelry manufacturer. (To the credit of Brian, our tour manager, he applied no pressure here.)

After checking into our hotel, Kris and visited the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, which is one of Cape Town’s primary attractions. The V&A Waterfront is a touristy shopping area along the main harbor. It’s filled with shops, restaurants, singing groups, and more.

Cape Point
The next morning, we set out early for an all-day trip from Cape Town south to Cape Point, then back up the east side of the peninsula. Cape Point is the southwestern tip of the African continent (thought its not actually the southern-most point.)

On our journey, we spent an hour at an ostrich farm, where we listened to short lecture about the birds, looked at some baby ostriches, and then fed the animals by hand. Because this was another shopping stop, several people bought ostrich eggs and ostrich-leather purses.

Ostriches are dangerous
Ostriches are dangerous — unless you ply them with food pellets.

Next, we drove to the Cape of Good Hope and to Cape Point (which are about 2.3 kilometers apart and visible from each other), where it’s traditionally said that the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. After a nice lunch, we rode the funicular to the lighthouse at Cape Point, where it seemed like we could look off to the end of the earth.

Cape of Good Hope
Our tour group at the Cape of Good Hope. [Photo by Brian.]

On our drive back to Cape Town, we stopped at Simon’s Town to visit a colony of penguins.

Cape Town
At long last — on the 17th day of our trip — we had a “free day”. We slept late, which felt great. After breakfast, Kris and I set off in search of Church Street, where it was rumored we could find some antique shops. (I’m still not clear on what Kris wanted South African antiques for or how she intended to get them home.)

Our path was re-routed by road construction, so we ended up at St. George’s Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare filled with street vendors. We each bought a used book, then made our way through the Company’s Garden again.

At the top of the Company’s Garden, we stopped to tour the South African Museum — our first museum of the trip. (Contrast this to our visit to Europe last autumn, when it seemed like all we did was tour museums!) Our tour manager Brian had dismissed this as suitable only for schoolchildren, but we thought it was well worth the R15 (~$2) admission. We saw a Darwin exhibit, whale skeletons, prize-winning nature photographs, an enormous interactive model of the earth, and a 1970s-era display of Bushmen life.

After a couple of hours at the museum, we found our way to Church Street, though we decided not to browse the antique shops. Instead, we followed the trail of street vendors down to Greenmarket Square, where I spent nearly R1000 on tobacco! (A small shop had clove cigarettes. These are now illegal to sell in the U.S., but popular when my friends I enjoy the smoking porch. When I can find them in other countries, I buy them.) Kris and I ate lunch at the edge of Greenmarket Square.

In the late afternoon, we lounged by the pool. Jim Booth — who organized this trip for Willamette‘s alumni office — hosted a cocktail party in the evening, at which 13-year-old Ruby debuted her brand-new hair-do.

Ruby's Haircut
Ruby’s new haircut — note how talented she is!

Robben Island and Langa Township
On our final day of the trip, we saw some of the darker sides of Cape Town.

First, we boarded a ferry for the trip to Robben Island (or “seal island”), which lies about seven kilometers west of Cape Town. For 300 years, Robben Island served as a penal colony. Nelson Mandela spent about seventeen years imprisoned here.

Entrance to Robben Island

Because I’d spent much of the trip reading about Mandela, I was looking forward to this visit. I didn’t know much about him when we started, but the more I learned, the more I liked. Mandela is a great man — and yet very human. There’s much to admire in him.

Ultimately, though, I found the tour of Robben Island disappointing. It lacked context. It felt rushed. If I hadn’t been done my own background reading, I don’t think I’d have got much out of this tour. As it is, I got very little. Still, after everyone else had gone, I lingered at Mandela’s cell to pay my respects.

In the afternoon, Kris and I took the optional “cultural tour” of Langa Township. Again, this felt rushed. (Can you see how this is a theme of this trip? I loved everything I saw, and wanted to spend more time at each place.) We rushed through District Six, a former inner-city residential area for blacks and coloreds (remember: “colored” means mixed-race in South Africa), which has a rich cultural history.

District Six
Ron Rhodes, looking at a map of District Six

The District Six Museum features a collection of embroidered recipes

J.D. and Kris play the Marimbas
At the Langa Cultural Center, Kris and I played marimba

But for me, the highlight of this excursion — and perhaps for the entire trip — was our visit to Langa Township. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about townships:

During the Apartheid era, blacks were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. Separate townships were established for each of the three designated non-white race groups (blacks, coloreds, and Indians)…

Townships sometimes have large informal settlements nearby. Despite their origins in apartheid South Africa, today the terms township, location, and informal settlements are not used pejoratively.

Townships are permanent communities. As part of a township, there might be one or more “informal settlements”. You may know of informal settlements by less flattering terms, such as squatter camps or shantytowns.

For our tour of Langa Township, a young woman nicknamed Sugar (who lives in Langa) described how the local people work and live. As in any community, there are different levels of wealth in Langa. Some folks have relatively nice homes, with yards and garages and fences; we were told these belong to people who have university degrees: teachers, nurses, doctors and lawyers. These homes would seem small in the U.S., but are positively luxurious compared to the shacks in the informal settlements just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sugar led us on a short walking tour of some of the government-built housing in Langa. We were able to see two homes. I didn’t see much of the second because I stopped to talk with a girl in the first house (I couldn’t understand her African name, I’m afraid). I started by asking her about her life, but she was actually more curious about me. Where did I come from? Did I like Africa? And so on.

Girl in a Hostel in Langa, Cape Town
I wanted to know more about this girl; she wanted to know more about me.

I learned so much from this three-hour tour that I can’t possibly share it all here. Besides, you’re probably bored after reading this far. Instead, I’ve compiled this 9-minute video that features Sugar and Sophia (our guides) talking about the daily lives of township residents, especially from a financial perspective. I’ve done my best to annotate things to head off confusion.

This video is the cornerstone of this entire post.

I wish more of our trip could have been focused on meeting the people. While others appreciated the birds and the animals and the spectacular scenery, I got so much out of our brief interactions with actual South Africans and Zimbabweans.

Note: I found two great write-ups of Langa Township tours. One wonders if these tours treat the poor like zoo animals, but notes township residents don’t seem to mind. (This is what our guides told us, too — the residents like us to see how they live.) The other is from an up-close-and-personal walking tour, the kind I wish I’d taken.

Farewell to Africa
Back at the hotel, we were treated to a chaotic (read: African) farewell dinner. The food and wine were served in fits and starts, with some tables (or people) being served their main course while others had to wait for their appetizer. But it was all good. We enjoyed each other’s company, and reminisced about the trip.

On the morning of Day 19, we boarded a plane for Johannesburg to begin our 36-hour trip home.

A typical breakfast
My typical breakfast: baked beans, beef mince, a sweet roll, and fruit. I loved it!

I don’t think Kris and I really knew what to expect before our trip to southern Africa, but we both loved it. Kris had been wary, I think, worried about violence and crime. But we both came to love the land, the animals, and — especially — the people. I’m glad we did this. In fact, I’d encourage more people to consider southern Africa when they plan vacations. Sure, it’s a bit more expensive and requires a bit more time, but the rewards are worth it. Who cares about a Mexican resort when you can come home with memories of elephants and hippos and bush dinners — and of Langa Township…

African Vacation 2011, Part Five: Kruger National Park

The middle of our trip to Africa was spent looking at wildlife. We moved from Zimbabwe to Kruger National Park in South Africa, where we enjoyed two full days driving the preserve, spotting a huge variety of birds and animals.

Kruger GateHumans have been roaming the area around Kruger National Park for about 250,000 years, and it has long been teeming with game. It currently forms the largest portion of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a vast “peace park” that will soon cover nearly 100,000 square kilometers (36,000 square miles). As a transfrontier park, it spreads into more than one country: it reaches into Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

With so much space, there’s plenty of room for the animals to roam free. All the same, there are only small numbers of certain critters. While there are over 130,000 impala in Kruger, for example, there are just 300 black rhino and 350 wild dogs. (Every guide said the same thing: “I can’t guarantee you’ll see any animals today. [beat] Except impala. I guarantee you’ll see impala.”) The next-most populous animal in the park is the blue wildebeest (or gnu); there are 31,000 of them in Kruger. There are 23,000 zebra, 12,000 elephants, 7000 giraffes, 2000 lions, and 2000 hyena (but we didn’t see a single one).

Because the park is so huge, we only saw a small piece of it. On both Thursday and Friday, we spent six to eight hours in safari vehicles, driving through the southern reaches near Skukuza Gate. We entered through Paul Kruger Gate, and roamed the hard and soft roads nearby, searching for game.

We saw all of the Big Five — leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, and buffalo — though some were easier to spot than others. The two leopards we saw, for instance, were both back from the road. One was in a tree, which gave us a better view, but he was still tough to photograph.

This video will give you a ten-minute tour of the park. I took over an hour of footage and have trimmed it to this. Because the animals were sometimes far away, and because we were in a moving vehicle, and because it was sometimes raining, the video isn’t always as steady or as clear as I’d like. But I still hope it’s fun.

A ten-minute video of highlights from Kruger.

I also got some good photos. For instance, here are three photos that show what it’s like to ride in a safari vehicle, looking at animals. The vehicles have high sides, but still offer plenty of space for a passenger to take photos. If it gets too rainy, the sides can be rolled down so people stay dry. (We had a couple of misty periods during which we covered ourselves with blankets.)

Safari Vehicle
Life in a safari vehicle — to the animals we look like one big, lumbering beast.

Close Encounter with a Lion at Kruger National Park
Close encounter with a lion.

Wild Dogs at Kruger National Park
There are only 350 wild dogs in the park; we saw six. They seemed curious about us.

Our guide in Chobe told us that when we’re in a safari vehicle, we seem like one big beast to the wild animals. But if we were to climb out, we’d suddenly become prey. We stayed inside.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the game drives (by the way, “game drives” and “safaris” are apparently the same thing), but I enjoyed them. If anything, they went too quickly. I would have liked to spend a week driving slowly through the park. I never tired of looking at the animals. Mostly they just did boring stuff. But so what? Their boring stuff was still new to me. And sometimes we got to see neat things, like a month-old baby elephant. Who knew baby elephants could be so cute?

Baby Elephant
I’m not usually a fan of baby animals (except kittens), but even I loved the baby elephants.

Here are a handful of other animal photos from our trip (click on each to view a larger image at Flickr).

  • First, the elegant, stately giraffe, which was probably my favorite animal of the trip. I loved them.
  • Next, the zebra, in all its psychedelic glory. Apparently, people have tried to domesticate them, but they’re just not good workers. Note that one of the beasts has a huge hunk out of his right foreleg.
  • And here’s a baboon, who knows that sometimes you just have to let it all hang out.
  • Finally, here’s a photo of a vervet monkey on the porch of our hotel. There were many monkeys around the lodge, and when Kris opened the patio door, they came running to see her. They were hoping for food. This little guy was hoping most of all.

I have many other animal photos, and am happy to bore you with them when I see you in person.

Giraffe at Kruger National Park Zebra

Chacma Baboon Monkey on Our Porch at Protea Hotel Kruger Gate

As I may have mentioned, Kris was enamored with all of the birds we saw in southern Africa. She made friends with Jim and Linda, a couple from Salem, who are avid birders. Together, the three of them cataloged their sitings. Here are two of the common birds we saw at Kruger:

European Roller Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill
The European Roller (as ubiquitous as our Scrub Jay) and the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

At first, we were delighted to see the very beautiful European Roller. Eventually we realized they’re also very common. “There’s a roller on every tree,” became Kris’s motto, because it truly seemed like there were. But that’s okay. There’s a blue jay on every tree here in Oregon, and I still like them.

One of my favorite things about Africa was the sky. Parts of the U.S. are known for having a “big sky”, but I’ve never really understood what that meant. Now I know. Namibia had a huge sky. And the skies around Kruger were gorgeous, too.

Impala at Kruger National Park Kruger National Park African Sky
Three views of the African sky — one with impala.

On our first evening at Kruger, we spent a couple of hours getting to know Alissa and Ruby, the mother and daughter from Jacksonville, Oregon. Alissa is an attorney and about our age. Ruby is thirteen, and probably the most talented person I will ever meet. (Well, according to Ruby, anyhow.) She’s also besotted by Justin Bieber.

On the second evening, the group was entertained by a group of young singers from the local area. The Tipfuxeni Youth Project sang traditional songs, and then asked some members of the audience to dance. I knew early on that I’d be dragged onto the dancefloor. I was the closest to the group, and the young woman on the end kept eying me. Anita got some snaps of my smooth moves:

Dancing the Night Away
I was as graceful as a rhino. [Photo by Anita.]

Our safari days were awesome. It’d be great to come back to Kruger in the future to drive through in our own vehicle. I’d love to spend a week watching the animals, lingering for an hour to watch a giraffe eat instead of hurrying on to the next photo op.

After three days in the park, we boarded a plane to Cape Town.

African Vacation 2011, Part Four: Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls posterNote: If you read my personal finance blog, you will already have read bits and pieces of today’s recap.

After a day in Johannesburg and a couple of days at Chobe National Park (plus several days of travel), we packed up and moved east out of Botswana to Zimbabwe. Our next stop was Victoria Falls, a magnificent natural wonder along the Zambezi River, which separates Zimbabwe from Zambia.

Francis, our local guide, gave us more background information on our two-hour bus ride. (And Brian, the tour manager, added bits and pieces, too.) See the sidebar for some background on marriage customs in the area, for instance.

The Bride Price

On the bus ride from Botswana to Zimbabwe, Francis, our local guide, talked about marriage customs in his tribe. Just two generations ago, it was common for men to have several wives. This still happens, but less often, especially in the city. Still, some of the old ways continue. When a man is ready for marriage, for example, he pays a bride price to the father of the woman he intends to marry. This is paid in cattle. (Francis actually called this a dowry, but that’s technically not correct.)

When Francis was married, he paid nine cows plus $700 for his wife. Our bus driver Ernest paid seven cows for his wife.

If a young man can’t pay the bride price, he pays in installments. If the man is unable to pay the full bride price by the time his own daughters get married, he has to use half of their bride wealth to repay the outstanding debt. And if the debt doesn’t get repaid in his lifetime, the responsibility falls to the man’s oldest son. In this way, it’s possible for complex chains of bride debt to exist.

Francis feels lucky — he has three daughters, which means he will eventually be a wealthy man. (In theory.) One day, he’ll have a lot of cattle.

“What do you do with the cattle?” one member of our group asked. “Are they for meat? Do you use them for milk?”

“In our African culture,” Francis said, “your cows are your bank. You can’t eat your bank. You have to save them.”

“What about people who live in the city?” another member of our group asked. “Where do they keep their cattle?”

Brian, the tour manager, explained that in places where it’s impossible to keep actual cattle (such as Johannesburg), the bride price has become abstracted. Some pay it in gold coins called Kruggerands. Others buy “bonds” (Brian’s word, not mine) that represent the cows. Brian says he’s been in homes where the certificates representing the cows are framed and displayed on the wall, like a stock certificate.

We arrived at the gorgeous Victoria Falls Hotel just after noon and checked into our room. This is without a doubt the most beautiful hotel we’ve ever stayed in. The halls are wide, the ceilings tall, and everything is impeccable. The grounds are well-manicured, and the staff exceedingly helpful. Plus, the hotel has a “James Bond pool” (the sort of pool you might expect to see 007 swimming in). Kris and I were in awe. We also felt guilty.

The Victoria Falls Hotel

We spent three nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the average room costs $618 per night. I’m not sure what our actual cost was — it was probably much less — because we booked the entire trip as a package through a tour company. If we’d paid full price, though, we might have expected to pay $1854 for our time in Victoria Falls.

According to our local guide, minimum wage in Victoria Falls is currently $250 a month. And right now, nobody can afford to pay that, so workers are only being given a living allowance — enough to buy bare necessities.

Morning at the Victoria Falls Hotel

So, three nights in this posh hotel cost the same as seven months of local wages. Worse, most Zimbabweans don’t even have a job. Unemployment in the country runs at nearly 80%. 80%!! One in five people has a regular job. Perhaps you can see why, despite our guides’ gratitude, I often felt ashamed to be there.

Victoria Falls

After a short respite, the group gathered to see the falls themselves. Victoria Falls was originally called Mosi-au-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”. They’re over a mile wide and 100 meters tall (to mix my measurement systems). By volume, Victoria falls is the largest waterfall in the world. And it is awesome.

Victoria Falls
Almost enough to make me a religious man. (Almost.)

It’s impossible to convey the experience in words and photos. We were there at the end of the rainy season, so the water was rushing at full force. As it falls, it creates a great mist (the “smoke”) which is very much like rainfall. On the Zimbabwe side, you have a grand view of the falls. You can walk along the Zambezi Gorge, taking in each cascade, listening to the sound — and getting drenched. (Fortunately, it was warm — probably 30 or 35 degrees centigrade — so the mist felt awesome.)

We were all like little kids, smiling and laughing at the overwhelming might and beauty of the falls.

Victoria Falls
It’s actually a bright, sunny day — this is just mist from the falls!

In the evening, we attended a cocktail party and then ate a light dinner before retiring early to watch Downton Abbey in bed.

Note: I confess that I took both my iPad and my laptop on this trip. We used both. Before we left, I added the latest episodes of Glee, 30 Rock, and The Biggest Loser to the iPad, and then downloaded the much-hyped Downton Abbey. I liked the latter quite a bit (and think Lisa and Craig might like it, too). Kris thought it was okay, but wasn’t as impressed as I was.

On Valentine’s Day, my favorite day of the trip, our group experienced three cultural outings. First, however, I swam and Kris wrote postcards. How romantic!

Valentine's Day in Vic Falls

The Open Market

In the late morning, we joined our group for a visit to the Victoria Falls open market, where local residents sell hand-made jewelry, rugs, statues, and knick-knacks. Before we entered the market, Brian gave us a piece of advice: “Think of this as a cultural experience, not a shopping opportunity,” he said. “And don’t just give these folks money. They don’t want your handouts. They want to earn a living.” He told us to use this as a chance to test our bargaining skills.

I heeded Brian’s advice, and did my best to learn more about the vendors I spoke with. When we got off the bus, we were greeted by Joseph, who took us to his stall. He asked if we liked anything we saw. Kris like a pair of earrings. Joseph said they cast $15. “But that’s just my starting price,” he said. “Now you make an offer. But Kris didn’t really want to haggle, so she gave him $13.

Negotiating for Earrings at the Victoria Falls Open Market
Joseph and Kris, haggling over earrings.

Meanwhile, I started talking with Joshua, who had some nice stuff, including a $35 hippo and a $45 cat carved from serpentine. I haggled with Joshua a bit, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to buy a bunch of Stuff. I told him I’d come back because Kris wanted to go visit Florence, the wife of the vendor she’d just dealt with.

Florence showed us several tablecloths, and Kris picked one that she liked. Florence wanted $40 for it, and Kris offered $20. In the end, they agreed to a price of $30.

On the walk back to Joshua, I was hijacked by Moreblessing, who asked me to visit his stall — “Just to look, not to buy.” He and I squatted together to look at his wares (which were much the same as Joshua’s). He had some nice leopardstone stuff, but it was all to expensive. Eventually, I talked him down to $12 on a hippo.

Here, I made Kris cranky. She thinks I was rude to do what I did next (and after talking with my friend Steve after returning home, maybe Kris is right — it wouldn’t be the first time). I left Moreblessing and went back to Joshua. I told Joshua that Moreblessing would sell me a hippo for $12 and asked him to do the same. He did so. Kris came up and asked me to buy a $7 frog, too.

Then I went back to negotiate with Moreblessing, but he was less friendly now, and less inclined to reduce his prices. He still wanted $35 for a leopard carved out of leopardstone, and he wouldn’t come down. In the end, I paid $27 for the cat, a small piece of carved wood shaped like Africa (sort of), and a worthless old Zimbabwean coin he had lying around.

Note: Zimbabwe suffered extreme inflation throughout the last 30 years, and lapsed into hyperinflation during the past decade. How hyper was the hyperinflation? During 2007, the inflation rate was 66,212%. During 2008, it was 231,150,888%. During our short time in Zambia, Kris paid $1 each to buy some old Zimbabwean notes. Their values? 50 trillion dollars and 30 billion dollars. (Or something like that.) Now they’re worth nothing. In April 2009, Zimbabwe abandoned its currency for the U.S. dollar.

Not everyone liked the market. Some folks were uncomfortable haggling. Sharon, for example, doesn’t like to barter, so she’d pick items and have her husband John do it for her. Others, however, loved it.

Alissa (the only other woman our age) and her 13-year-old daughter Ruby seemed born to haggle. When the bus returned to the hotel, Alissa stayed behind to do more negotiating. And Ruby didn’t spend a nickel. She traded away the clothes she was wearing, including her Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelet. “It was yellow,” she said. “Everybody wanted it.”

On the way back to the hotel, one of our guides (Francis? Ernest, the bus driver?) made a poignant comment: “It’s nice when people from the U.S. come over and find out we’re not savages, not awful people. Some Americans are scared to come here, but they see we are all very nice people.”

He’s right. Kris and I loved Zimbabwe. The people were friendly and interesting, and we never felt unsafe.

Chinotimba Government School

The Government School

During the afternoon of our cultural day, we visited the Chinotimba Government School, where about 25 children sang and danced for us. When they finished, we had a chance to chat with them. (English is the primary language in the countries we visited, another remnant of the colonial past.) One boy was fascinated by my camera, so I let him borrow it; he ran around the room, snapping photos of all his friends.

Students at the Chinotimba Primary School
Photo taken by a boy at Chinotimba Primary School.

Before we left the school, we had a chance to donate school supplies. Kris had brought some pens, pencils, small notebooks, and inflatable globes. I was unprepared. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the visit. I pulled aside Francis, our local guide (who had attended this school when he was a boy and now has a daughter who’s a student here), and showed him the books I was carrying in my bag. “Could the school use these at all?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“Even these?” I asked, holding up four digest-sized comic books I’d brought to read on the plane.

Francis laughed. “Yes,” he said. “They’ll love them. The kids know who Superman is.” So, there’s a grade school in Zimbabwe that has some comic books from my collection now. The school principal, who collected the money and supplies our group donated, seemed touched and grateful.

Quiz at the Chinotimba Primary School

Back on the bus, many tour members talked about how sad it was that these kids had so little. Brian tried to squash this sentiment.

“Look at the children,” he said. “Are these kids unhappy? I’ll wager that you’ll see the children are happy. They’re happier than any of the children in South Africa. Why? Because everyone is equal. They all have the same Stuff. It’s not one kid has an iPod and another one doesn’t. They’ve got nothing, and we know that. But they’ve all got nothing. They’re all the same.”

Brian wasn’t arguing that it’s good for these people to live in poverty. He was trying to make it clear that it’s possible to be happy even without a lot of Stuff, and that if you give something to one person and not another, you sow the seeds of envy.

Note: Parents pay $25 per term to send a child to the Chinotimba Primary School. There are more expensive schools available, but only government officials can afford them. So, if you want your kids to be educated — and most Zimbabweans do — you spend $75 a year (or $100 — I’m not sure how many terms there are) to send each of them to school. Now, go back and re-read the calculus of our hotel again. For the cost of two nights in that place, I could probably fund a child’s entire grade-school education.

Victoria Falls food market
A food market in Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls children
“Take my snap! Take my snap!”

Dinner at Home

In the evening, we made a quick trip to a nearby food market, where we spent a few minutes wandering the stalls, looking at the items for sale. (I found two women who were selling used boxes! I asked to snap their photo so I could share it with the guys at Custom Box Service.

Women selling boxes in Victoria Falls

After this brief detour, we split into small groups. Each group went to the home of a local resident, where we were served a typical Zimbabwean meal. (Actually, it was a little atypical: We were given the equivalent of both lunch and dinner. Plus, our meal contained more meat than the families usually eat.)

Kris and I dined with Blessed and her family, which owns two homes on adjoining properties. “We are a family of sixteen,” Blessed told us, “and we are still expanding.” She says that “uncles, aunties, misses, cousins” live in these two houses.

Blessed served us hominy in peanut butter, pumpkin leaves in peanut sauce, and sadza with chicken stew. Sadza is a cornmeal pap; it’s Zimbabwe’s staple food. In fact, Blessed’s family eats so much sadza that they buy a 50kg (~110 pound) bag of cornmeal every month. (I think the “mielie pap” we saw in Botswana and South Africa is the same as sadza, but I can’t swear to it.) Fish is expensive, so it isn’t eaten often, and meat seems to be used as a flavoring agent, not a main ingredient.

Note: We also got to try Mopane worms. These worms — which look like large caterpillars — live in the mopane tree, and are very plentiful. Because of this, they’re a common source of protein in Botswana and Zimbabwe. I’m not sure how they’re usually prepared, but for us, they were fried crispy. Some of our group wouldn’t try them, but they were actually pretty good. You know that crisp charred layer that forms on the outside of a brisket when you grill it? The part you always eat before anyone else can? Well, that’s what the worms were like.

As we ate, we talked with Blessed and her two helpers, which included a friend and a cousin. Blessed told us that her family is actually fairly well off compared to many in the area. Doreen, who is eighteen, is nearly finished with high school. She just got her exam results. Because she did well, she’ll soon be going to university, and then (she hopes) to medical school. So, in contrast to a lot of what we’d seen on this cultural day, this family seemed to be on a path toward relative prosperity.

Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve
This board tracks the animals that have been spotted on the reserve.

The Interactive Safari

As if that weren’t enough, the next day, we headed out for more fun in Victoria Falls. We drove to the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, where we spent about an hour tracking down a pair of black rhinos.

Because the Chinese still value rhino horns as an aphrodisiac, poaching is a problem. People are willing to risk their lives to kill a rhino for its horn because they can get so much money. In fact, the five rhinos that live on this reserve have recently been the target of poachers, who planned to kill them with an AK-47. The poachers were cornered by lions, though, and ran away — all except one, who got trapped in a tree. When he was caught, he confessed. Had the poachers actually succeeded, they could have (by law) been shot on sight.

Later, we spent about half an hour riding on the back of an elephant, and then maybe an hour petting young lions. We’d been a little worried that this optional excursion wouldn’t be worth it, but it was actually a lot of fun to have personal time with the animals.

Riding an Elephant
Carole and Francis (our local guide) on an elephant

Riding an Elephant at Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve
Basically, if you feed an elephant, it will do anything you want.

Petting the Lions at Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve
I want one.

In the early afternoon, I spent a couple of hours swimming and lounging by the pool — without sunscreen. As those who follow me on Facebook know, I got a bad sunburn, which made life miserable for the next few days. (My sunburn wasn’t as bad as Ruby’s though. Ruby, who is in seventh grade, got scorched. She had the biggest sunburn blisters I’ve ever seen. Poor kid.)

Swimming at the Victoria Falls Hotel
Swimming in the James Bond pool. A few more hours of this, and I was fried.

Note: One drawback to traveling in groups is that there never seems to be time to exercise. We’re always doing something. (I suppose I could get up earlier, but I need my sleep, too!) So, whenever we stayed at a place with a pool on this trip, I tried to swim. I’m not a great swimmer, but it doesn’t matter. Swimming is exercise, even if you look like a drowning walrus. (Plus, I figured out how to do some improvised “body presses” out of the deep end of the pool. Kris mocked me for them — “you look like you’re showing off” — but they paid off. When I returned from Africa, my upper body strength was close to what it had been when we’d left. Yay!)

In the evening, we did two activities I didn’t really enjoy.

  • First, we did the David Livingstone “booze cruise”, which was a leisurely boat trip on the Zambezi including a lecture about the explorer David Livingstone. The lecture was good, but I didn’t like anything else about the trip.
  • Next, we had a “bush dinner”. A local catering company prepared a buffet meal that we enjoyed under a big tent erected next to the Zambezi. Again, I didn’t care for this event.

Some folks loved the booze cruiser and the bush dinner, but hated the previous day’s cultural outings. I was just the opposite. One highlight of the evening, however, was some energetic dancing with Kris, who was invited to join in a traditional song and dance. You can find her smooth moves near the end of this ten-minute video of highlights from our Victoria Falls stay:

The Foofie Slide

On our final morning, before departing for Kruger National Park, Kris and I recruited Peter to join us on a zipline across the Zambezi Gorge. Originally, I was going to bungie jump from the bridge into Zambia. But I was too chicken. A zipline, I can handle. We got up early, ate breakfast, and then the three of us took the short ride to the zipline station.

Peter preparing for the zipline
Peter was a good sport and learned to fly.

I’m a little unclear as to what it was we actually did. From what I understand, an actual zipline is taut, and sends a person from one point to another. Ours didn’t do that. Ours sagged in the middle, and we never reached the other side. After our initial descent, we sort of swung to and fro (like a pendulum) until a staff member came to retrieve us.

Ziplining into the Zambezi Gorge
My eyes aren’t closed — I’m looking straight ahead but NOT down.

When he came for me, I asked if this were actually a zipline. “Not really,” he said. “It’s more like a foofie slide, but with a zipline setup.” That made things clear as mud. And searching the internet before writing about this, I learned that “foofie slide” is just a South African term for zipline.

Whatever the case, we did it, and it was fun. The first eight seconds scared the hell out of me, but after that, it was all good. Again, check the video above for footage of Peter and Kris plunging into the gorge.

And come back in a day or two for a photo safari through South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

African Vacation 2011, Part Three: Chobe National Park

After less than 48 hours in Johannesburg, we packed our bags for another flight — this time to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where the airport is even smaller than the one in Belize (though not nearly as quaint).

The Victoria Falls airport
The Victoria Falls airport — all of it

“Welcome to real Africa,” said Francis, our local guide, as our bus started the two-hour drive to Chobe National Park, and we knew what he meant. Johannesburg had felt like any large Western city. Sure, it had its own flavor, as all cities do, but it would have felt perfectly at home somewhere in the United States or Europe.

But Zimbabwe was hot, humid, and dense with forest. The soil had a rich, red color. (Francis told us the soil didn’t hold moisture.) And, as Brian (the tour manager) had during our tour of Johannesburg, Francis thanked us for coming. He seemed grateful.

“We make our livings through tourism,” he said. “Tourism is our main industry.”

Note: For more on this subject, check out yesterday’s post at Get Rich Slowly, in which I talk about the financial and economic aspects of our trip. It’s not nearly as dull as it sounds.

Vervet MonkeyOn our drive from Victoria Falls to Chobe, we watched for wild animals. We saw lots of elephant dung, but no elephants. We did, however, see giraffes. And at the border crossing, I had a close encounter with a vervet monkey.

Between Zimbabwe and Botswana, we had to pile out of our bus, walk through a disinfectant (to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease), then re-board a different bus. While we were doing this, I snapped photos of the monkeys, one of which tried to steal the bag containing my shoes!

After a quick trip to our rooms at the Chobe Safari Lodge, we boarded open-sided safari vehicles for a drive through nearby Chobe National Park. The trip started sedately, with warthog sightings and a variety of birds. But things picked up as we saw hippos and crocodiles and elephants. The elephants and the baboons were the highlights of the drive. Our first safari was lovely: lovely weather, lovely golden late-afternoon light, and lovely company.

On Safari at Chobe
Ron and Suzanne, on safari in Chobe

Baboon Great White Egret Old Patriarch

Back at the lodge, Kris and I fell asleep quickly.

In the morning, Kris felt sick again. She’d been sick in Johannesburg, fine the next day, and now was hit once more with nausea. As a result, she opted out of our morning trip to Namibia, staying at the lodge to do some birdwatching. (Several of our companions made jokes about her “morning sickness”.)

I joined about a dozen others from our group for a short boat-ride down the slow-moving Chobe River to the Botswanan border post (where there’s an anti-HIV poster extolling the virtues of masturbation). Then we made our way to Impalila Island, where we made our way through immigration.

Impalila Island

Impalila Island lies at the very tip of Namibia, at the end of the Caprivi Strip, which is a narrow strip of land that runs between Botswana on the south and Angola and Zambia to the north. (Think of the narrow strip that juts out from Oklahoma.)

After the formalities, Richard, our local guide, led us about a mile inland on dirt roads to a Namibian village. Richard told us there are 47 such villages on the island, and they have a very traditional culture. There are few vehicles — we saw just one truck — but I saw several folks using cell phones. (Though no obvious source for power to charge them.) The village we visited has been hosting visitors since 1993; the people are ambivalent to tourists.

Note: Richard told us that it’s 300km to the nearest Namibian town, though he didn’t saw what the town was or how people got there. People do go to Kasane, the nearby town in Botswana, though he said it used to be easier to do. (He didn’t elaborate on this. Since he was a little surly, I didn’t pursue the topic.)

In a lot of ways, what we saw of Impalila Island reminded me of rural Canby when I was a boy. There was a lot of rubbish strewn about, the homes and roads were rough but functional, and the people (especially the kids) seemed free and aloof, with a nonchalant, indolent air.

I was especially happy to see two young boys hacking at a root with a small machete (about the size of a butcher knife). These kids were maybe six years old, and were chopping the root to get at the sweet stuff inside, which they’d chew. This reminded me how we used to play with knifes (and broken bottles, etc.) when we were children, something you’d never see parents allow nowadays.

Namibian Children
Two boys playing with a machete/knife in a Namibian village

On our return trip to the lodge, I was first back to the boat at the Botswana border post. This gave me time to sit and watch as 12-20 locals tried to cram into a water taxi. They were taking their time, joking and smiling. Many were missing teeth. Some carried large bundles: clothes, dried fish, and so on. One woman had a huge basket that she carried on her head — it contained the stuff she’d just bought in town (Kasane).

As we cruised up river, I admired the wide, blue Namibian sky. It was gorgeous.

Namibian Skies Summer Squall on the Chobe River African Sunset
Africa’s ever-changing sky — just a few hours apart in Namibia

Note: I was intrigued by the terrain of the area. To the south of the Chobe River, on the Botswanan side, the land was hilly and covered with vegetation right up to the bank of the river. The river itself had marshy spots and many islands. Then, in Namibia to the north, the land was perfectly flat and covered with tall grass, much like the American prairie. It was obvious why this spot was used to divide the two countries: They looked like two different countries!

In the afternoon, the entire group gathered for a game-viewing cruise. Though she still felt sick, Kris came along. Good thing, too, because she saw a lot of birds. (With our companions Jim and Linda, Kris watched for birds during the entire vacation.) We spent two hours cruising up the Chobe River, the first hour of which was made more exciting by a heavy downpour. After we reached the same point we’d seen elephants the night before, we headed downstream to the lodge. On our cruise, we saw elephants, crocs, many hippos, and lots of birds.

Our Tour Group
Our tour group, watching from the boat

Hippos in Chobe National Park
Hungry, hungry hippos

In the morning, we ate breakfast with 89-year-old Doug Gordenier, who came to Africa without his wife. They’ve been married for many years, and have traveled together for a long time. They started young and made it a priority, even when they had children. Now Doug’s wife is unable to travel. This was his first trip without her, and it made him sad.

A ten-minute video showing highlights of our stay at Chobe.

After breakfast, Kris and I walked to the far lookout, at the border between the lodge and the national park. We spent some time watching birds, particularly a weaver (who was tearing apart one nest to build another) and a malachite kingfisher.

Just before noon, we boarded the bus for the drive to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

African Vacation 2011, Part Two: Johannesburg

After three weeks in Africa, Kris and I have returned for the cozy confines of Rosings Park. There was one less cat to greet us this time — which makes me very sad — but it’s good to be home just the same.

We had a great time on our trip, and I took many photos and filmed several hours of video. Rather than regale you with a day-by-day account (and as I have with vacations past), I’m going to get smart and lump major destinations together. So, in the coming days, you’ll get to read about:

  • Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Chobe National Park in Botswana
  • Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
  • Kruger National Park in South Africa
  • Cape Town, South Africa

It’ll take me some time to piece together each travelogue, but I hope to keep them just a couple of days apart. I’ll post-date them, as you can see. This entry is dated February 10th, even though it’s being published on the 28th.

Enough with the preliminaries! Let’s enter Africa.

Note: This is actually the second part of this vacation journal. The first part detailed what I packed for Africa.

Johannesburg, South Africa

Before we’d even left the U.S., I made my first mistake. I decided that I wanted to buy some South African rand so that I’d have a little spending money. At Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., I paid $310 (and a $9.95 commission) to purchase R1800, for an exchange rate of about R5.63 per dollar. At OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, other members of our group were buying getting R7.10 to the dollar (with a R49.95 commission). My $310 would have bought me R2151 in Johannesburg, which is the equivalent of R6.94 per dollar.

“That’s how it always is,” said Sammie, one of our companions. “You always get a better deal at the destination airport. And you always get a better deal at the airport instead of a bank.” I’m not sure this is 100% true, but it was certainly true in this case. Lesson learned.

Our flight from D.C. to Johannesburg was long — 17 hours long, including a re-fueling stop in Dakar, Senegal. I slept very little (because it’s almost impossible for me to sleep on planes). So, after taking the 18:30 bus to the hotel, Kris and I immediately crashed, sleeping from 20:00 to 01:00. We both woke for a couple of hours (and watched Downton Abbey on the iPad) before falling back to sleep at 03:00.

In the morning, we ate a quick buffet breakfast — the first of many buffet meals — before boarding the bus for a tour of the Johannesburg area.

Note: Our bus was apparently the Kaizer Chiefs team bus. (The Kaizer Chiefs are a powerful soccer team based in Soweto, a Johannesburg township.) As a result, everywhere we drove, people (especially young men) smiled and flashed us the “v for victory” sign. Well, except for the folks who support the Orlando Pirates, another Soweto-based team.
Go, Kaizer Chiefs!
The typical reaction when young men saw our Kaizer Chiefs bus.

Our three-week tour was led by Brian, a native South African. He provided a lot of background and “color” to the trip, which made things more interesting.

For example, he started by talking about race. Following nearly 50 years of apartheid, race is an unavoidable issue in South Africa. The logic behind apartheid was “separate development”: Blacks and Whites lived in different worlds. (Colored people — meaning those of mixed races or from other countries, such as India — inhabited a middle ground.)

Soweto Schoolgirls
In South Africa (and Zimbabwe), all schoolchildren wear uniforms.

But Brian says that race is less of an issue than it was in the past. South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation, and the people take pride in their multi-racial culture. (On the trip, I did a lot of reading about Nelson Mandela, who actively promoted racial harmony, even though he had valid reasons to hate the Whites.) Because there are diverse races and political opinions, people have learned to get along. Brian says that people who disagree politically can still be good friends.

Note: South Africa has eleven official languages, though nearly everyone speaks English (and all of the signs are in English). Because there are so many languages, everyone speaks with a different accent. Dutch descendants, like our guide Brian, speak with something very much like an Australian accent.

Pretoria, South Africa

As Brian gave us background on South Africa, the bus wound its way north to Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital. (South Africa has three capital cities. Cape Town is the legislative capital, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.)

We stopped briefly at Church Square before driving up the hillside to the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government (and nominally the home of the country’s President). Kris and I spent our time wandering the lovely gardens, looking at the birds and flowers, and enjoying the summer sun. The sweet scent of one flower (we couldn’t figure out which) reminded me vaguely of the orange blossoms in Belize.

Orlando Towers in Soweto
Orlando Towers in Soweto. As seen on The Amazing Race!

Soweto, South Africa

After Pretoria, we drove to Soweto, where we picked up S’nothilie, our local guide. We drove through East Orlando, then stopped in West Orlando for lunch at Sakhumzi, where we enjoyed an African buffet and blueberry ice cream. Well, I enjoyed the lunch. Kris was sick. She’d picked up a bug somewhere along the way, and couldn’t keep food down. She was miserable on this day (and then again two days later).

After lunch, we visited the Nelson Mandela House, which is just across the street from the restaurant.

Nelson Mandela quote
From outside the Nelson Mandela House

Next, we drove a short distance to the Hector Pieterson Museum. Hector Pieterson was thirteen years old when he was shot and killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising against the apartheid government. An iconic photo of Hector being carried by another boy sparked worldwide protest. This museum was fascinating, but we had very little time to visit it. (Note this complaint. It’s one I’ll have again and again. We saw a lot of stuff on this trip, but we were never allowed to linger at any one place, which sucked.)

Soweto was interesting. It started as a township for Blacks drawn to Johannesburg to work on the gold mines. (Soweto is an abbreviation for South Western Townships.) Black and White were kept separate, even before the official policy of apartheid. Though the area’s origins are poor, and many poor people still live there, especially in the “informal settlements” (which most people know as shantytowns or squatter camps). Now, though, there are homes with Mercedes and Lexus cars in the drives. Brian told us that Soweto has more millionaires than any other South African city.

As a result, driving through the townships — both in Johannesburg and later in Cape Town — was an adventure in contrasts. The rich and the poor live side by side.

Shantytown in Soweto
A typical shantytown in Soweto. Click to enlarge image.

In the afternoon, we returned to the hotel. I swam while Kris rested. In the evening, we had a big welcome dinner, where we sat next to Jerry and Suzanne. Jerry is a former airline pilot, and Suzanne is a former flight attendant. During the late 1990s, they lived for three years in London, followed by a year in Paris. They loved it. The four of us talked about books, photography, travel, and more.

Note: On our tour of Italy, many of our companions were older (meaning retired). We were the youngest. On our river cruise in France, all of the people were older. We were the youngest. And on this tour of Africa, again our companions were older. We weren’t the youngest — Ruby is thirteen years old — but we were nearly so.

A short (2:07) video of our first day in Africa. As the trip progressed, I took more (and better) video.

After a long first day in Africa, Kris and I hit the sack, ready to rise early to board a plane to Zimbabwe.

Note: One commenter on my last post complained that I was using the term Africa to refer just to one country (or a handful of countries). “It’s downright weird and part of the legacy of racism and America’s views about Africa,” she wrote. I disagreed in a reply to that comment, and after spending three weeks in Africa, I disagree even more. The people in Africa — in all five countries we visited — also use the general “Africa” all the time, even when they mean just one or two countries. “Welcome to Africa”, “In our African culture…”, “In Africa, we…” and so on.

Laundry in our hotel room
Because we pack light, Kris and I do laundry in our hotel room

African Vacation 2011, Part One: Packing for Africa

Hello, friends! We’re not in Africa yet, but we soon will be. We flew to Washington, D.C., on Monday morning, and here we sit with a 24-hour layover before the flight to Johannesburg.

Last night, we joined Todd Landis (an old college classmate who now lives in D.C.) for dinner at Georgia Brown’s, which bills itself as “authentic, Southern low-country cuisine”. Having just eaten fried chicken at Portland’s Screen Door the night before, I had to compare the dishes. You know what? Portland’s fried chicken kicks ass on D.C.’s fried chicken. It’s true! But it was great to spend a couple of hours getting re-acquainted with Todd.

Note: To meet up with Todd, we took the free shuttle from the hotel back to the airport, then caught an express bus from the airport to Rosslyn Metro station and rode the Orange Line Metro a few stops east to get off near the White House. The public transportation was painless but slow; the roundtrip including dinner took us almost 6 hours!

We slept in this morning. Neither of us has been sleeping well, so it felt good to get nine hours under our belts. I had intended to exercise in the hotel’s gym, but I spent just five minutes doing some pull-ups, thrusters, and inclined push-ups. I spent most of my morning editing a video about what I packed for the trip.

Packing Light
As Kris and I travel more, we’re learning the wisdom of traveling light. Since our 2007 trip to England and Ireland, we’ve lived by the “carry-on only” rule. We never check bags.

Note: Okay, sometimes we check bags if the airline says overhead bins are full, but we never plan to check bags.

Each trip, we pack a little lighter. This time, for example, I only brought a couple of books. It may seem silly to bring any books at all, but you have to understand that I used to bring a small library. Now I’m just bringing what I think I’ll actually read. That’s progress. (Not enough progress, if you ask Kris!)

Our trip to Italy and France last fall taught me another handy trick for packing light: When possible, wear wool clothing. Wool doesn’t retain odors. You can wear a wool shirt for days on end and it won’t stink. It’s awesome. So, this trip, I have six wool undershirts. (That’s probably two too many, to be honest.)

Anyhow, here’s the video I put together documenting my packing list for Africa:

Some things to note:

  • As I mentioned, I pack wool clothing whenever possible. This includes wool undershirts and wool socks. If I had a sweater, it would be wool, too. I prefer Merino wool for its flexibility. (That is, it’s not too hot.) Though some folks prefer Smartwool, I’m a fan of Icebreaker. Much of the wool in this video was bought at an Icebreaker warehouse sale. (Meaning the shirts were $10 each instead of $60.)
  • I’m taking three Filson bags. Filson gear is expensive, but it’s durable and well-designed.
  • The Rick Steves travel pack is awesome. It’s been discontinued, unfortunately, because it was very reasonably priced. (It’s the Veloce travel bag, if you’re interested, and you can get it in colors other than orange.) Kris and I both have one of these packs, and find them versatile and convenient. They’re full of pockets and compartments, which makes it easy to organize your stuff. We use them primarily for actual travel: These bags live at our feet on the plane, and are on our backs in the airports.
  • I take way too many gadgets. I need to break the habit. For example, I even added my laptop for this trip, so that I could blog about Africa as we go. We’ll see if this is a mistake.

When I get back from Africa, I’ll go through my packing list (and re-watch this video) to see which items did and did not get used. I did this after Europe, too, which is why I’m not taking the voice recorder. (I’m glad I had it in Belize, but really, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

Conscious Spending
If you watch the video, you’ll see that I’m packing things like a pair of $60 compression socks and five pairs of $20 travel underwear. Plus, my carry-on bag cost a small fortune.

Some of my gear is expensive; I’m okay with that. After several big trips, Kris and I are learning that we’re willing to pay for gear that matches our travel style. $20 travel underwear that dries quickly after being washed in the sink is awesome. My collapsible chopsticks may seem frivolous, but I find them handy.

A cheap bag that makes life difficult is no bargain, but an expensive bag that makes travel a pleasure is worth every penny. (I consider this an example of conscious spending — we’ve tried several bags each now, and have rejected some cheap gear that got in our way.)

Now, though, it’s time to close up shop and head to the airport. Our flight to Johannesburg awaits!

Toto – Africa

I’ve had a rough 48 hours. Toto’s death has affected me more than you can probably guess. I knew it would. That cat was like a piece of me, and I feel her absence acutely. It hurts.

“It always amazes me how emotional you are,” Kris told me last night at dinner. “You’re so much more sentimental than I am about this stuff.”

“I know,” I said. “I can’t help it.”

I’ve always had a lot of empathy for those around me, whether human or animal, but especially for those who are close to me. In many ways, Toto was the creature I’ve been closest to in my entire life. Her death hurts me more than Paul’s did, and even more than my father’s.

On Friday, Jen (a trainer at my gym) wished me bon voyage by sending me a link to a music video: Africa by the group Toto.

“I felt so bad,” Jen said at the gym yesterday morning, after she learned I’d just had Toto put down. “I didn’t know your cat’s name was Toto, and there I sent you the video to that song.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I liked it.”

And I did. It’s a strange, strange coincidence, but now that song will forever remind me of this weekend. It forms a bridge between the bad — saying good-bye to Toto — and the good — my first trip to Africa. With its melancholy melody, it fits my mood perfectly.

I’ll do what I can to update this blog from the road, but no guarantees.

Toto Gates: 01 May 1994 – 05 February 2011

On 01 May 1994, Colors — the Custom Box Service shop cat — gave birth to a litter of kittens. I found them tucked in a corner of the paint room when they were just a few hours old. Because Colors seemed to consider me her “boyfriend”, she allowed me to touch the tiny, fragile babies.

Toto and her cat family
Toto is the little black ball in the bottom of this photo

Over the next few weeks, the kittens grew into explosive bundles of fur. One of the kittens, the black one, we named Shredder because he was always attacking things and trying to tear them apart.

About this time, Kris and I bought our first house. We made an offer, had it accepted, and prepared to close on 23 June 1994. On June 21st, on a whim, I brought the entire litter of kittens to spend the night in our apartment. Kris’ cat, Tintin, was taken aback by the little balls of fur; the kittens just ran and played. Well, except for Shredder. Shredder was more fascinated by the baked potato Kris was eating for dinner. When Kris’ back was turned, Shredder grabbed the peel and tried to run off with it.

“I want to keep one of the kittens,” I told Kris. “I want to keep Shredder.”

Toto was originally named Shredder
For a long time, Toto lived up to her original name, Shredder

Kris was reluctant, but agreed. So, when we moved into our new home a couple of days later, Shredder came to live with us. And about this time, we figured out Shredder was a she. She and Tintin spent the entire first day hiding in the back of the cupboard under the bathroom sink.

We decided we didn’t like the name Shredder, but couldn’t come up with anything better. It was Kris’ sister, Tiffany, who hit upon the name Toto, and it stuck.

Toto in the Grass

For the next seven years, the four of us — Tintin, Toto, Kris, and J.D. — lived happily in the Canby house. Tintin and Toto got along great. They never really snuggled, as some cats will, but they hung out together, and they played together. Toto loved curling up in a bowl on the kitchen table. She also loved Outside. She was a fearsome hunter, often bringing in birds for us to see.

Toto has a goldfinch; Satchel is jealous
Toto used to be hell on goldfinches

Once, while we were watching the Summer Olympics (in 1996?), Toto brought a live bird into the living room and released it. It scared the hell out of me. I was eating a bowl of brothy soup, which I promptly spilled all over my lap. The poor, bloody bird kept trying to fly up through the ceiling. It left a series of red marks on the paint before we were able to capture and release it. Toto was very, very proud.

Though she was fond of birds, Toto loved nothing more than a delicious complex carbohydrate. Especially if she could share it with Kris. She was always begging for baked potatoes, bagels with cream cheese, and — her favorite — corn on the cob. She also loved tuna fish. She and Kris were a dangerous pair. Kris would often leave half-full glasses of water sitting around; Toto would tip them over and drink the spill. (This continued Toto’s entire life.) If you’ve ever wondered why our dining-room table looks so distressed, it’s because of Kris and Toto and their glasses of water.

Toto Wants Pizza
Toto on Christmas Eve 2010, begging for Aunt Steph’s pizza

Toto was scared of few things in life. She was the Boss. But she had an irrational fear of bananas. No joke. If you held a banana to her, she would cower from it and hiss. I have no idea why.

In 2001, Toto’s best friend died. Tintin faded from diabetes and had to be put down in the fall. Toto never understood this, and she seemed to lose a part of herself once Tintin was gone. Though we acquired new cats — Satchel, Simon, Nemo, and Max — she never befriended them. (She hated Satchel and Nemo, had an uneasy truce with Simon, and tolerated Max, that lovable lug.) She always seemed to pine for Tintin.

Tintin was a beautiful cat
I don’t have a photo of Toto and Tintin handy, so here’s a photo of Tintin alone

When we moved to our new house in 2004, Toto didn’t adjust well. Whereas she used to love Outside, she now spent most of her time indoors. After just a few weeks here, we went on a cruise to Alaska with Kris’ parents. My cousin Nick acted as housesitter and cat caretaker. While we were gone, Toto had a veterinary crisis. She suffered from heat stroke, or something like it, and almost died.

After that, she was never quite the same. She had always been a bit of a grouch, but now her attitude was that of a constant crank. She growled and hissed and wasn’t very social. But I loved her anyhow.

Toto, enjoying the sun
Toto, enjoying the sun

In fact, I loved Toto more than I’ve ever loved an animal. I knew her from the day she was born. She and I had a sort of bond that I haven’t even experienced with another human, not even Kris. We seemed to understand each other. For much of the past seventeen years, she was my constant companion. When I was working from home, she was always by my side. When I ate dinner, she sat next to me, waiting for her turn at the plate. She may not have been friendly to others — especially Aunt Pam — but she loved me, and I loved her.

Toto and Max, helping me write about money

Last summer, Toto started showing signs that she was getting old. She had trouble getting around. She couldn’t jump as well as she used to. She started missing the litterbox — she couldn’t squat when she peed. So, we banished her Outside. She complained at first, but gradually learned to love it. In fact, it was like she had forgotten about Outside when we moved, but was now remembering all of its many charms.

Toto, racing across the lawn
Toto used to be an active cat

When the cold set in, she was less content to be Outside, though. But we couldn’t have her inside all the time, because she was peeing outside the litterbox. We compromised. She could be inside while we were home, but had to stay Outside when we were away (or asleep). We rigged up a box with a heating pad, which she seemed to like, though she preferred to sit on Kris’ computer…

Toto would often sit on Kris’ keyboard

What Toto loved, though, was the wicker basket that Kris gave her. We put a heating pad on the bottom of that, too, and set it on the kitchen floor. That’s where Toto lived from the time we returned from France in late October until just this morning.

Toto on the porch with her raccoon friends

Last night, I notice that Toto was lethargic. Also, she wouldn’t purr, even when I petted her in the sure-fire spots (like her chest — she loved to have her chest stroked). She didn’t want to lay down. She simply sat upright in her basket, staring ahead. She looked like she felt sick. Though I’d spent months trying to deny the inevitable, even I had to admit: Her time had come.

Toto on the Porch
Toto, remembering she loves Outside

This morning, I let Toto in from the front porch. She meowed and begged for food, just like always. I gave her some fresh water, some dry food, and her favorite flavor of wet food (Ocean Whitefish and Tuna). I sat at the dining-room table to do some work while she ate. When she finished, she hopped up on a chair, and then onto the table. But she grunted and growled as she did so. It hurt her. She came up to me by the computer and rubbed her head against me. I petted her, and she purred. But only for a little bit. Then she just sat there, letting me rub her, but not purring. Then she hopped down and curled up in her basket.

Toto's Final Night
Toto’s final night

It hurt me more than I can express, but I unplugged the heating pad and curled the cord next to her, picked up the basket, and carried it to the car. I drove her to the vet. Toto didn’t put up her usual fuss, though at one point she looked at the car ceiling and let out a yowl. At 9:10am, I sat with her and cried (oh, how I cried) as the vet put her to sleep.

And then I came home and buried my baby girl.

My favorite photo of Toto
Toto Gates, 01 May 1994 – 05 February 2011

Footnote: As choked up as I am by this, here’s a hilarious postscript. Just 30 minutes after they’d put her to sleep, the automated update system from the vet sent me a reminder to schedule Toto’s “senior comprehensive wellness exam”.