South Africa – first impressions (February 2015; by Jenni)

Our arrival in South Africa marked the first time we had to fill out an Ebola screening form before entering a country. They also did a thermal body scan of every person entering the country to check for Ebola; I am assuming it was really checking for fever and anyone with a fever would then undergo further screening.

So far, South Africa is more like the US than any other country we have visited. The drive from Johannesburg to Pretoria seemed a lot like driving anywhere-USA (except that you drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s side is opposite of what we are used to). Housing is also very similar to what we are used to.

The day after we arrived, we visited a lion park near Pretoria. Now, this part is definitely different! The animals in this park are born in captivity and they have an active breeding program to supply zoos all over the world with lions. They roam free in very large areas and are given fresh meat to eat. To see them, we went in a big safari truck. Basically, we were in a cage.

DSCN3531Before the drive started, we got to visit and play with some lion cubs. Again, these lions will never be in the wild, so they are allowed human contact until they are six months old, and become too dangerous. The four of us got to play with four cubs. Three of the cubs were white. I was petting one of them while it was drinking from a pond; then Oliver came over to pet it with me. Suddenly, one of the others jumped on Oliver’s back to play with him. When Oliver stood up, the cub was on its hind legs and was as tall as Oliver. Oliver got a big paw print on the back of his shirt.

We also saw and learned about zebras (including one nursing a baby), two types of antelope (with lots of babies), ostriches, wildebeest, cheetahs, a wild dog, hyenas, meerkats, and a pregnant giraffe. While we were on the game drive, the truck stopped next to some lions. This beautiful young white male came and sat right next to IMG_2783where I was seated on the truck. I was struck by his gorgeous blue eyes, and couldn’t help staring at them. Bad idea. He leaped up to attack me! In an instant, his front paws were on the metal cage right where my head was on the other side! It was amazing! Audrey was right behind me, and we were both pretty shaken up. We were very glad for the protection of the cage.

Because we were on an evening drive, we got to see a pride of lions being fed. The rangers had chained two of the legs of a large animal (probably a horse) to a tree stump. While we were there, they opened a gate for the small pride (a male, six females, and three cubs) to come to this area to eat. It was an incredible thing to see. Five of the lionesses went for one leg, and one went for a leg of her own. Then, the lion showed up and the lone lioness made way for him to enjoy a whole leg for himself while all nine of the others shared one together. One of the little cubs made the mistake of trying to join the lion. The lion snarled and grabbed the cub in his mouth and tossed him aside. At first, the little cub appeared to be dead. His mom pulled him away and tried to revive him. After a couple of minutes, he stood up and his mom stood over him protecting him. The little cub wasn’t bleeding and just seemed to be stunned. The rangers were getting their vet involved to be on the safe side.

What a day!DSCN3750

Two Africas

We are currently spending some time visiting the Centre ValBio near Ranomafana National Park (slow it down and repeat, then you’ll get it: Ra-no-ma-fa-na; see?). It is impressive for both the scientific work done here as well as conservation and community support. Before this, we stayed on the SW coast in Mangily, where Jenni and Audrey got PADI certified for open water dives. Oliver and I had planned to surf, using skills we picked up in Muizenberg, ZA, but the surfing turned out to be on the reef break nearly a kilometer out. No place for beginners. To get down to Mangily, we took a drive that was 500 km in seven days, due partly to stops to see sights but largely due to road conditions on the “National Road” or N7. We’ve seen lemurs, chameleons and baobabs, bazillions of freaky bugs, birds, frogs and snakes and plan to see more. Also, traveling across Mada, unavoidably, we’ve encountered extreme poverty. Really incredible, ‘are there really people living like this’ kind of poverty. We knew Mada was poor, but had not realized it is one of the poorest countries on earth not embroiled in civil conflict. The people are hospitable, friendly and quick to smile. But it is a world apart where many people toil with manual tools to eke out a bare subsistence.

Strangely, cell phones have penetrated where no phone or power lines run, and where a water well is an unusual sight. It is unclear what impact they will have on mores, customs, or the economy. So far, the Orange and Telma signs everywhere leave the picturesque tranquilly regnant. Everywhere there are beautiful views: women carrying impossible loads on their heads, adolescents driving their zébu in the road, endless rice paddies, dusty and dingy Catholic churches put up in the time of French rule, stick and mud huts, and a roadside rum operation that skates by its legally dubious status for want of an energetic enforcement of law. The camera loves Mada. And yet, one cannot help wonder what life is like for those inside the frame of this picturesque wonderland.

Before Mada, we were in South Africa for a month, including a safari in Kruger, a week around Pretoria, and two weeks in the Cape Town area, all of which was splendid, albeit with the historical scars there to be seen if you cared to look. Cape Town was especially nice with its position between mountain and sea, and a robust selection of culture and recreation, from surfing to concerts in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In Kruger, we met a couple from Cape Town who invited us to join them and some friends for a braai. Once we had made our way to Cape Town, we joined Lyn and Alan for dinner, which was a delightful evening and a highlight of our trip. We were jealous they had spotted a leopard; they envied our lion encounter, but we all relished the good fortune we had to see many extraordinary animals in their natural habitat.

Interestingly, while we were in Cape Town, a minor crisis erupted when a minority party (EFF, Economic Freedom Fighters) interrupted President Zuma’s State of the Union speech, and ended up having all its members forcibly ejected by police. This, after already opening the session with a discovery of jamming devices in place to block all kinds of info in or out of the Parliament. So for the next two weeks and more, we heard recriminations, new daily disclosures about who ordered what, whether the Prime Minister or President knew, and so on. South Africans we talked to were mortified, and worried about how all this would seem to the outside world. We assured them that Americans were by and large mainly interested in domestic affairs. Woven through all the press fall-out were accusations that the ANC was reverting to apartheid style rule (think about that charge for a moment!), seeking a one party state, and about to destroy the ‘rainbow government’. The country is full of hope, and justifiably proud of overcoming apartheid and transitioning peacefully to a new Constitution. At the same time, as we learned, the language of political controversy is loaded with the most extreme images and emotions. There seems to be a real concern that  what was achieved in 1989-1995 will all fall apart. Earlier, about a week before all this, Prime Minister Mbete had referred to the EFF leaders as ‘cockroaches’ which was apparently a term of choice for the victims in Rwanda during the genocide. So the use of that term also brought intense debate with calls for the PM to step down from her post. She issued a full apology, but stayed in office. The people were neither satisfied nor stupefied.

The Kruger (February 2015, by Jenni)

I don’t even know where to begin!!

Oliver ready to photograph the wildlife!
Oliver ready to photograph the wildlife!

Our very good friend, Kim, joined us in South Africa just before we left for Kruger National Park. The Park is one of Africa’s largest game parks. It is one of the few game parks on the continent that allows “self-drives” in the park. We saw our first elephant just before we arrived at Kruger’s Numbi gate. After signing in at the gate, we took a scenic drive to our rest camp. We stopped at a water hole and saw many hippos there. We had signed up for a night safari drive. As we were unloading the car and taking things into the cabin we had rented, Kim hit her head on the metal support for the air-conditioning unit outside. I took one look at it and knew she needed stitches. We called the reception area for assistance. They came and didn’t even know how to open the first aid kit. Since Kim and I are both nurses, they let us have our way with the kit. There really wasn’t anything of use in it. So, they called the park doctor and arranged for her to meet us at the clinic (an hour and a half drive from our camp). In Kruger, all camp gates are closed and locked at 6:30 pm and no one is allowed to drive in the park (except rangers). They arranged for an “escort” to drive Kim and me to the clinic while Corey and the kids went on the night safari. Well, it turned out that Kim and I saw more animals on our drive to and from the clinic than they did on their safari. We saw hyenas, owls, a rabbit, and a leopard (Kim saw a rhino) while Corey and the kids saw zebra, owls, and water buffalo. Kim ended up with 5 stitches!

That's Audrey with a giraffe standing behind her.
That’s Audrey with a giraffe standing behind her.

The next day, just driving on our own, we saw rhinos, giraffes, elephants, antelope, zebras, baboons, monkeys, blue wildebeests, water buffalo, and all kinds of birds. Oh, and we saw babies of almost every species I have mentioned. We saw a baby rhino, baby elephants, baby giraffes, baby zebras, and baby baboons. On our sunset safari, we saw all of those again, and 2 lions, 2 honey badgers and a civet!

Our 2nd day in South Africa (February 2015, by Jenni)

DSCN3772On our 2nd day in South Africa, we visited “The Cradle of Humankind.” We arrived later in the day than we were hoping, so we had to choose between seeing the museum and fossils or going deep into the Sterkfontein Caves where the oldest hominid fossils have been discovered. We chose the caves. Mrs. Ples (short for Plesianthropus transvaalensis) was discovered there and is dated back 2.05 million years. Little Foot was also discovered there and is dated back 3.3 million years. He remains under excavation and has been categorized as quite unique. It is thought he may be a direct ancestor of humans. Interestingly, while we were there, we had to wear hardhats. Oliver is just about fed up with people mistaking him as a girl; but he doesn’t want to cut his hair. While wearing the hardhat, everyone knew he was a boy. So, I am thinking about getting him a baseball cap or something to help take away interest in his hair.

We got to visit The Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Center (a.k.a., the De Wildt Cheetah Research Center). What an incredible experience we had! All of the cheetahs there are rescued. Some are then kept for the De Wildt breeding program. Whenever possible, they reintroduce cheetahs into the wild. We got to see a few cheetahs run at top speed. We also had the opportunity to get up close and personal with one and to see others feed.DSCN3951

The center is also home to other rescued endangered animals. We saw beautiful blue cranes, white storks, and three different gorgeous vulture species. While there, we got to see the most dangerous mammal on earth — the honey badger. Oliver taught us about honey badgers last year when studying the world’s deadliest animals (that is when we also learned about the wandering spider, which we got to see in the Amazon). The center has an active breeding program for endangered wild dogs. We went in an open vehicle through a big wild dog enclosure and got to see how wild dogs hunt together as they circled and yipped at our truck, basically hunting us.

The center has a fundraising program that includes “adopting” an animal. Looks like we are destined to become the proud adoptive family of a cheetah and a blue crane!

Gandhi Square in Johannesburg
Gandhi Square in Johannesburg

When we went to the Apartheid Museum in JoBurg it was closed because there was no power. Thing is, they have these rolling power outages all over the country as a means to save power. There is too much demand and not enough supply. So, when we arrived at the museum, there was no power. We ended up hopping on the “Hop on, Hop off” tour of Johannesburg and got a good overview of the city. When we arrived back at the museum, there was power and we were able to see most of it. It is a magnificent museum. It very nicely gives the history of South Africa and apartheid. I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize that Ghandi had spent so much of his life in South Africa. It was there that he began developing his philosophy of active, but peaceful, resistance to political injustice before moving back to India and making such great changes there.

Europe Without the Crowds: December / January (by Jenni)

Our arrival to Europe was remarkable for a couple of reasons. First of all, we were met in Paris by Valerie’s sister and brother-in-law. It was very nice to have someone meet us at one of our arrivals. Secondly, the weather was like a slap in the face. We had definitely left the tropics! Our suntans were covered with hats, scarves, mitts, jackets, and snow-pants.

We spent a few very cold days exploring ruins and museums. We were fortunate enough to get to see a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at Sainte Chapelle. Sainte Chapelle is renowned for its floor-to-ceiling blue stained-glass. We also went up the Eiffel Tower and spent most of a day at the Musée d’Orsay. One can’t help being moved when standing in a single room surrounded by works of art by Rodin, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Renoir, and Monet. Visiting Notre Dame is also very moving, but in a different way. While there, Audrey and Oliver began thinking about an 8 year old friend of ours who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. They lit a candle and we all prayed for him.


We took a train from Paris up to a little town in the Swiss Alps to spend the holidays. We had shipped our snow-shoes and winter gear ahead of us. But, when we arrived, we found spring-like weather and ended up taking several hikes wearing short sleeves. From our base in the mountains, we took several short trips in the region. The Olympic Headquarters are located very close to where we were staying. We spent an afternoon at the Olympic Museum and learned about the meaning of “time” while also learning about the history of the Olympics in ancient Greece, and the Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who brought the games back in the early 1900’s.

Yes, the fireplace — one of many in the castle — is big enough to walk into. Audrey making candles at Château de Chillon.

In Switzerland, we also visited Roman ruins including Lousonna, the Roman city center of modern Lausanne, and, of course, castles. In December, we visited a castle called Chateaux Chillon while they were having a medieval festival. The castle was full of life with people dressed in medieval attire playing period instruments and dancing. They were teaching board-games and making crafts the way it was done 600 years ago. Audrey and Oliver made candles by tying a string onto a stick and dipping it repeatedly in a vat of beeswax held over a fire. After their candles were thicker than their thumbs and cooled a bit, they trimmed them using a sharpened stone, rolled them out with a piece of wood, then twisted them into a decorative shapes.

We explored the whole region a great deal. We learned about Swiss chocolate at the Maison Cailler, the chocolate factory. While the best cocoa is grown in South America, Switzerland is where milk chocolate was invented and perfected in the 19h century. We learned about cheese at the Gruyère cheese factory, Maison Gruyère, where we saw the cheese making process from start to finish. We also learned about the martyrdom of Saint Maurice while visiting the abbey where the longest continuous prayer (over 300 years) occurred.

After a side trip to Morocco, we took a train from Switzerland to Rome, Italy. We walked the city and visited ancient ruins. Audrey and Oliver had just finished re-reading The Hunger Games and it was really cool to see statues and paintings of the Romans and Greeks some of the characters were named after. We ended up using The Hunger Games to help teach about ancient Rome, its gladiatorial excesses, and the persecution of Christians.

Speaking of gladiatorial contests, the Museo Stadio di Domiziano, which is in the excavated site of Domitian’s stadium below the Piazzo Navona was full of displays about gladiators and their many character-based costumes.
Medusa turning to stone, Bernini outdoing himself.

My cousin, David, has lived just outside of Rome for over 20 years. His band, Yampapaya Tribe, is multi-cultural with a distinct upbeat African sound. During lunch in a cozy, traditional, Italian restaurant, David and his girlfriend, Francesca, performed an acoustic set of songs for us. It was a magical afternoon never to be forgotten and the perfect way to end our time in Europe.

Gecko To You, Gecko To Me

If you lived in North America in the last few years, you may have become familiar with a cute little mascot for an insurance company, a bright green gecko. Or maybe you know somebody who once had one as a pet.

But would you want one in your hotel room?

You might, if you were in Madagascar on the Indian Ocean coast where “oh, there are no mosquitos” means “there are no mosquitos right now, in the strong breeze, in the cool part of the day, that you vaza can actually see.” In fact, you would probably want six or even ten or a dozen geckos inside your room if you knew them as I know them. 

This little guy, for example, looks like the typical gecko next door, even a little shy. But he is personally responsible for the verified deaths of at least 15 mosquitos, during pre-bed toothbrush time alone, in the last few days. Tonight, he seems to think the bedside table area needs shoring up. And I’m delighted to have him doin’ his thing in Mangily.

The hunting technique is unabashed, and relies on lizard speed and insect stupidity. The gecko simply walks quickly to within range, pauses, and then lunges, snapping his prey up in his jaws faster than it can say “I smell blood.” And he seems to be grinning all the while. 

Behind the paintings on our walls, behind the bathroom mirror, over our bed, under the kids’ suitcases, in the shower, we have a whole pile of geckos. And we love them. I’s like the VIP suite! We’re so enamored of them it has reached the point that we’ve divided the animal kingdom into mosquito killers and non-mosquito killers. Oliver said today that it would be fine to feed a clam to the local kittens (if we found one in the tidal pools) since “they don’t really have anything to do with destroying mosquitos.” Worthless little clams, be gone!

My little bedside assassin, however, has a long way to go to reach the killing records or the size of the big papa gecko the kids have dubbed “Godzilla.” He’s nearly 10″ long, fatter than a Churchill, and has beautiful multi-colored spots. You never know how it will turn out when, against your usual practice, you take your kids to a PG-13 movie just before leaving to tour the world. It turns out 8 months later with you having a bug killing gecko in your room named Godzilla and your kids waking up the whole village chanting, in celebration of an early morning beetle death, “Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go-go-Godzilla! Oh, no! They say he’s got to go! Go-go-Godzilla!”

And speaking of freaky moments of musicality. Audrey and I took a ride to Tulear with our friendly SCUBA instructor who helped us get some essentials like bug spray and sunscreen while she restocked the restaurant she runs next to her dive shop. When we met back with our driver, it was in a restaurant / bar called “La Boeuf” (‘Beef’) run by a French expat, full of curios hanging from the ceilings, a huge plywood Chicago Bulls logo hanging out front, and Shania Twain videos blaring away inside. In this world, all things are possible, except getting bug spray in Mangily.