Closing the Circle

It is hard to believe that we just finished packing for the last time on our big adventure; although certainly not our last time. Too many new places on our must visit list. As with all learning, learning about the world through travel has only made us aware of how much more there is to learn.

I can’t yet find words, at least not concise ones, to capture the welter of feelings right now: Excitement to be back home and to see friends and family again. Apprehension about all there is to do. We sold two cars the day we left on the trip; we’ll need to buy one when we get back. There is another feeling like a distant cousin of grief, an apprehension of future loss, that comes from knowing that our family time will be shared out and fractured; that we won’t be waking each day to tackle another foreign travel challenge or see and learn about things that until now we only knew through documentaries or books, or didn’t know at all. The adrenaline rush of a South East Asian street crossing, to be replaced by the normalcy of stop signs and traffic rules that we understand. Even on days when we were not our best, when our amygdalytic guard dogs got right out to the ends of their chains, we were still rolling in ‘hopefully not just once in a lifetime’ experiences. And while there has been homesickness and friends and family have been greatly missed, it will be strange not to be traveling.

The one-liner of the evening came from Oliver, when we were sorting out our snack bag, with its collection of wet wipes, plastic spoons, zip-locks, and mystery crumbs, when a ‘fruitolino’ surfaced. “Oh, boy, I think we’ve had this since Panama, can we have it?” The labelling was from the Helvetic Confederation, meaning that we had not had it since last September, but relatively recently, from early January. So it was fresh. Of course we could have some. It tasted of dates, and was just a little nutty.

Sydney and Beyond

We arrived in Australia after an easy flight from KL — only 6hrs., departing 11:30pm, arriving next morning. Before a friend could pick us up, we encountered our first major sticker shock: $35 for two coffees, three muffins, and a scone. Sure, it was airport coffee kiosk pricing, but after getting lunch for the whole family for less than that in Kuala Lumpur, it was a little unsettling. We are grateful to our friends Denton and Evie, and their two kids, who have shared their house and dinner table with us, and shown us around town. We are really fortunate to have had them as guides and interpreters. Sydney is beautiful and highly liveable, one of those rare spots that combines hills, forest, sea, and all the attractions of a major world city. Oh, and the coldest winter in decades? Still only a light jacket and sunscreen; careful you don’t run into a palm while you’re texting.

We’ve been to Taronga Zoo, Luna Park, The Rocks, Queen Victoria Building, Botanic Gardens, New South Wales Art Museum, and walked around various neighborhoods and several gorgeous beaches. We’ve been to suburban soccer games and a couple of movies, and enjoyed a wide range of food, including a Kangaroo Steak for yours truly.

A different sort of treat was meeting up with David and Stacee, whom we met in Peru. Yes, four hours up the Amazon. We piranha fished together, zip lined through the canopy, and swapped tales of a survival overnight in the jungle. In Sydney, David kindly took a day off to drive us down to Royal National  Park, along the coastal highway, and down to Stanwell Park, where we paid homage to Lawrence Hargreaves an earlier pioneer in human flight. Then we had an awesome Pakistani/Indian meal in New Town and finished off a fine day with some otherworldly gelato at Cow and Moon. Later that weekend, we also got to see a little bit of one of David’s rugby matches at the Leichhardt Oval. After tea (what else?) Corey stayed late at Dick’s pub with David, Stacee and another friend for a televised rugby union match between South Africa and Australia. In some exciting last minute action, the Wallabies won it. I got to learn a lot about the game, with lots of half-time discussion of cricket and — Stacee’s sport — netball, thus soaking up some quintessentially Aussie culture. Okay, I may have also swilled a few pints of Tooheys Old, but I wasn’t driving.

We left Sydney for a five night stay on Lady Elliott Island, which is really an atoll sitting 40mi off the coast, on the southern edges of the Great Barrier Reef. We took our friends’ kids with us, and all had a blast. So on this tiny ‘island’ that you can walk around in 45 minutes, we snorkeled, Jenni and Audrey dove, and we enjoyed informative talks, reef walks and more. It is both whale and manta migration season, so we had lots of amazing experiences. Snorkeling with giant manta rays, 12-15′ across, the most graceful ton of creature you’ll ever see, with whale songs in the background. Some of us almost got into the water quickly enough to swim with a humpback that came within a few yards of our boat, but then disappeared silently into the blue. Beneath the water we saw several kinds of sharks, rays, eels, and more types of fish and coral than we could count. While having breakfast or lunch, or enjoying a sunset, we watched humpbacks rolling and ocassionally breaching, or tail slapping and spouting for about as long as we cared to sit and watch. On our snorkel outings, we saw several whales pass just a few yards away from our boat. Overall, an incredible experience.

We’ve been back in Sydney hammering away at the last few chunks of homeschooling, helping our friends pack up for a big move, and doing some more sight seeing. Today we went to a Koala Park, then drove out to West Head in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park where we spotted several wallabies in the wild! The first one we saw jumped out of the bush just ahead of the car and ran away from us down the road in a high speed blast before slipping under the brush and brambles.

Tomorrow we will see a production of Romeo and Juliet geared for school kids, by the Bell Shakespeare Company in the iconic Sydney Opera House. Then we’ll walk through the city one last time, and head home (to our friend’s house) to pack. This time, as our great voyage comes to a close, the packing is different. But more on that in another post.

Sydney, good on ya!

It’s Not You, Malaysia, It’s Us

We just don’t know how to say it, M. We had planned to spend a month with you. Really, yes. What? Of course! We wouldn’t lie to you, not about that. Those first three days in May were wonderful. Unplanned, spontaneous. Look, Mumbai doesn’t even know any better. We were never there. We had such a good time, didn’t we? Glitzy buildings, ‘Avengers’, six dollar dinners for four. And look, we’re really just trying to enjoy the rest of our time together, here and now.

Thailand? Well that was rather an … excursion … and, no, no, we’re not trying to avoid the subject of Burma. No, we just don’t think it will get us anywhere to make comparisons. What can we say? We won’t treat you like you’re stupid and say Thailand was touristy. What’s the point? You want to hear that Thailand was 43 Celsius and overrun with pale-skinned shabbies draped in yards of too-loose cotton?You want us to say we were kidnapped in Burma for a five dollar ransom? But, but what? We’re not supposed to say anything about the Lanna Thai teak buildings, the golden Buddhas, and the 25 cent plates of Pad Thai? The amazing hospitality and simple friendliness of the Burmese, the stunning stilted villages of Inle? Why don’t we just leave the past in the past, M? We are here after all, and we didn’t go to Australia early, right? We’re even going Down Under a couple of days later than planned, and that’s for your sake, M. Wait – what – Singa – you’re going to bring that up? Oh, come now, M! Staying in Singapore a couple of days longer than planned! That’s really unfair. The SEA Games were on, it was Oliver’s birthday, and we had hot water for the first time in a month! And haven’t we said a hundred times how much we prefer your vibrant KL to Singapore’s planned perfections? Yes, really. We even told our mothers. Oh, absolutely. So can we just try to make the best of the time we have?

The Batu Caves were wonderful yesterday; and we are so thankful for the fireflies and nature reserve you shared with us today. We’re excited to see Merdeka Square, and your National Museum tomorrow. And there is so much more to see in your jungles, coasts, islands, and Borneo wilds. It would be really sweet to spend a lot more time with you, M. I know, it isn’t easy to hear us say that after we tore off to the north. But we came back to you, M. We didn’t dash off to Indonesia or Brunei; we didn’t let China turn our eye. So, M, maybe if we have a trip to Melaka, or a bit of snorkeling, we can take this thing to the next level. Oh, yeah, we mean it. Now there, is that a little smile?

I Get Attacked (by Oliver)

It all started when I was walking in Lakeside, Pokhara, and apparently my shoe laces look just amazing because a dog started biting them. (And let me remind you, I did nothing to the dog.) I don’t know how many eyes were on top of me.  Audrey was blushing. I was laughing (and trying not to show that I was kicking the dog that I named “bite-y”.) My dad was trying to grab his collar and drag him away and my mom was yelling “LET’S DO PIGGYBACK! GET ON MY BACK!”

Once we got him away…. we continued walking along the lake … and then, all the people in front of us opened a line (if that makes any sense).  A toddler came running full on towards me; he latched on to me, hugging like mad. He was cute, but also snotty,  slobbery and dirty,  a very bad combination. I was smiling (but I really wanted him off of me).  Then his mom (or grandma) came, but still he would not let go. And this part that I am about to tell you, I don’t like: his mom (or grandma) whacked him again and again 😦


Poon Hill

Another earthquake has hit Nepal, as you probably know. Certainly we didn’t think another big quake would hit so soon after the April 25 quake. We are doing fine, and only felt tremors during lunch of our first day out trekking. It was scary enough feeling the mild shaking which lasted ten seconds or so. We leapt off the restaurant deck where we were eating onto the seeming safety of the tral. Very saddened for all those who have been hit again or hit anew. We offered our prayers for them atop Poon Hill with sunrise views of the Himalayas.

Be well.

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.