A Travellerspoint blog

Endings and Beginnings

sunny 23 °C

It has been about seven months since the Baxter’s 2011 World Tour concluded. It has taken us this long to digest our travels and assimilate back into the “real” world – or at least what passes for “real” as we now know that it’s a relative term.

Our return to Canada was rather anti-climactic. We slipped through customs in Toronto without any interest or inquiries about our extended absence. After a few days with our very dear friends in TO (and another rather rambunctious birthday celebration for Warren), we found ourselves stepping out of the airport into that familiar lush, sweet, fresh air that can only be found in one place… Vancouver. After eleven months, we were home.

The shock of being home took a while to overcome. It was strange being indoors after spending the majority of our time outdoors during our year away. It was strange (and uncomfortable) being in cold weather… and wearing shoes and coats and multiple layers of clothing to keep warm. We explored our home city, reacquainting ourselves with the familiar and discovering the changes that had taken place since we left … different restaurants, more parking meters, new stores, more bike lanes, more construction. Gradually the strangeness began to fade…

Reflecting back over our year away, we are actually in awe of the enormity of our own experiences. There is no doubt we’ll be pulling as yet undiscovered memories from our mind’s recesses for the rest of our lives – and we have a lot to pull from:
> Continents visited: 4
> Countries visited: 17
> Number of flights: 34
> Kilometers traveled: 81,000
> Modes of transportation: Airplane, train, bus, car, scooter, motorcycle, tuk-tuk, bicycle, camel, ferry, cruise ship, houseboat, sailboat, water taxi, canoe, shuttle, our own feet...

Some of the things we appreciate most about being home include sleeping in the same bed night after night, a closet full of clothes to choose from (and a washing machine to wash them in!), and a kitchen to cook in. And of course…being back with family and friends (and our cats)!! Some of the things we miss most about travelling include the freedom, lack of schedule and routine, meeting new people every day, bare feet and sandy beaches. And the time to just think…or the time to not think and just…experience.

The question we’ve been asked most often is: “What was your favourite place?” Our answer is always the same: “Everywhere”. Admittedly, there are places where we would go back to again in a heartbeat; places we’d love to go back to but know it’s best to embrace what we had and leave it at that; and places where once was enough. But there is not a single place we would not include if we did it all over again because it was the perfectly beautiful, clumsy, chaotic mix of people and places that made it so magical. And it’s this “magic” that makes the answer to the second most often asked question easy: “Have you changed?”

Yes.

Cliché? Maybe. Accurate? 100%.

In the simplest of terms, we have seen too many people living / loving / dying / worshipping / surviving / thriving / happy / sad / hopeful / lost… to not call into question our own beliefs about “the way things are supposed to be” because supposed to be, like reality, is relative to how each of us individually and uniquely sees, perceives and believes.

For us, this realization has made us very aware of how incredibly lucky we are (as is everyone we know). When we set off to explore the world, we could not begin to imagine how amazing our experience would be, the incredible sights and rich cultures we would discover, the wonderful people we would meet, or how deeply our perceptions of the world would change… or how much gratitude we would feel for our good fortune and the quality of life we enjoy at home. On the world stage, we – along with all our friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances – won the lottery.

Our travels have also made us aware of the multitude of choices we have available to us that so many others – billions – don’t have. We have the opportunity to make choices that can change our lives, change where and how we live, and the kind of work we do or don’t do. Prior to our travels, we didn’t truly appreciate how fortunate we are to be able to make those choices; what a true and somewhat rare privilege it is.

Finally, we experienced the complete and utter joy of those who decided – and had the courage – to pursue their own personal vision of how they want to live their lives and the determination not to succumb to what society dictates it should be.

As we synthesize all of this, we have decided that we’re going to continue to make the most out of our time here on this big blue ball - continue to explore, take some risks, try new things, stretch our wings. And while maybe not as dramatic as last year, or with respect to the lives of many people we met along the way, we’re going to take that next step. In September, we are moving to Toronto. Warren has accepted a new job representing a completely new career path that provided the opportunity for the move. Lee-Ann will spend some time doing the “leg-work” to explore our new city, and then open her arms to what comes next for her – whatever that might be.

We wouldn’t be making this move if it hadn’t been for our trip last year; if we hadn’t allowed ourselves to “just be open” to the possibilities; if we hadn’t bumped in to Nan and Steele from Minneapolis in Hoi An, Viet Nam; if Steele hadn’t passed along a rather dog-eared copy of a particular book – at the very point when we were ready to – meant to - read it…

But we did. And that book along with a zillion other tiny but impactful moments throughout the eleven months changed our lives. We’ll never be the same again. And we’re incredibly happy and grateful for that.

Thank you. To all our friends and family for your love and support last year – thank you. We will always be appreciative for this once-in-a lifetime gift.

Well…maybe not once-in-a-lifetime...

Warren & Lee-Ann,
July, 2012, Vancouver, BC

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Posted by Baxters 18:48 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

From the 'Old World' to the 'New World'...

sunny 28 °C

Twenty-seven hours. That’s a long travel day no matter how you slice it. Fortunately we were flying on another amazing airline (Qatar) with service that includes free bevies and on-demand movies. So, with relatively little suffering, we left the warmth of the emerging summer in Cape Town behind, traveling back to the northern hemisphere and into the late autumn of London.

Our stay in London could not have been more fantastic. First and foremost, were our stupendous hosts. A university friend of Warren’s (Kelly) is in the middle of a 2 year posting in London, and he and his lovely wife Biz invited us to stay with them in their beautiful flat in Sloan Square (yup – Diana’s old stomping ground with the Sloan Rangers). After hostelling/hoteling our way around the world, to spend a few days with friends and their family (Kelly’s parents were also visiting) was as refreshing as it was grounding. We are immensely grateful to them for opening their home to us. While there, we also went to visit another home. Some years ago, Warren obtained his father’s birth certificate that included the address where he was born in Kings Cross in London. While we found the address, we suspect that the building itself was built post-war. Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience for Warren to walk the neighborhood of his family’s past. Equally rewarding (and emotional) was being invited to the Canadian Ceremony of Remembrance in Green Park next to the Canada Gate. It was a beautifully solemn occasion, standing in the golden fall sunlight with Buckingham Palace in the background, remembering those that sacrificed everything for the freedom that we all too often take for granted.

The beautiful fall weather stayed with us. London was just getting decked out in its Christmas glory and we spent hours wandering the streets, checking out the ridiculously expensive stores on Bond Street, ducking into a pub every now and then (more “now” than “then”), getting the boot from the bar at The Savoy (apparently our 10 month old traveling shoes were a little too “casual” for their liking), hitting the theatre (to see “Wicked” – what a treat!) and of course enjoying some wonderful dinners with our hosts. It wasn’t our first time to London, but sharing it with friends made it a very special visit for us. Thanks Kelly and Biz!!

Although the tour clock was ticking down, we still had time for a couple more adventures. We hopped across the Atlantic to Miami where we parked our butts in South Beach for a day to adjust to the time zone (and warm up after out time in London). Then we rented a car, turned up the Jimmy Buffett music and headed south for the Florida Keys.

Our time in the Keys was a mix of absolute chill on Key Largo – sitting on the edge of Florida Bay under the coconut palms, sipping cold beer, nibbling on conch fritters and watching the gentle ebb and flow of the tide - and…well…quite the opposite on Key West.

In Key West, we spent our time doing the infamous “Duval Crawl”… basically bar-hopping through the many bars and pubs lining Duval Street, hitting many of the institutions made famous by Buffett in his songs and stories (Lee-Ann sat on Clint Eastwood’s bar stool in Captain Tony’s). We even managed to see a couple of museums – the Hemingway House Museum (with its 6 toed cats) and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (complete with a floor dedicated to pirates) – in between conch fritters, Landshark beers and invitations from drag queens to come to their shows. While not quite as “culturally enriching” as many of the places we have visited over the past year, Key West was riotously good fun! In addition, the Keys proved to be a great stepping stone to our next destination… The Bahamas. We figured since we were in the neighbourhood, we should take the opportunity to fulfill another of our dreams – sailing in the Bahamas.

We chartered a sailboat out of Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island, and spent a week sailing the Sea of Abaco, exploring quiet anchorages and visiting the colourful villages on the beautiful islands. Our navigation skills were put to the test as the shoals and sandbars of the shallow waters can ruin your day if you’re not careful (we heard more than one call on the radio of a sailboat run aground), but Poseidon was favouring us and we had no misadventures other than losing a seat cushion in a strong gust of wind. Although the $95 bill for the cushion stung, seeing sailboats up on rocks and powerboats sunk in harbours – remnants of hurricane Irene’s recent visit – reminded us how expensive things can get in the islands. It was a wonderful week of exquisite turquoise seas, steady winds, warm sunshine and beautifully cays. Back onshore, we headed up-island to Treasure Cay to soak up a final dose of Vitamin D before we turn north towards home.

We spent our mornings on Treasure Cay walking the 3-1/2 mile snow white, powder-soft sandy beach, with the rest of the day spent reading, listening to music and hanging at Coco’s on the beach - all the while reflecting our journey over the past year. We also made new friends. The first was a dolphin that came into the marina in front of our room and swam alongside Lee-Ann as she walked down the entire length of the marina boardwalk. The second was the family aboard “Keeper”, a 65’ ketch from Portland, Oregon. A brief hello led to more than one afternoon of Goombay Smashes aboard their boat, sharing stories of adventures past and future ones on the horizon. We came to love the out-islands of the Bahamas for their incredible laid back attitude where no one is any particular hurry to get through the day. From Treasure Cay, we jumped on a 30 minute flight south to Nassau to check out Paradise Island.

Maybe it’s easiest to describe Paradise Island by what it isn’t - the real Bahamas. It is manicured, fabricated, orchestrated….in other words, generally not our kind of place. However, we knew what we were getting into and had decided that a little playtime at the waterparks of Atlantis was worth a quick stopover on the way home. The waterparks/pools at Atlantis are what Disneyland would be if you filled it with water…and added a casino and booze. We had a ton of fun (as we knew we would), remarking on how far we had come from the very first day of our tour, spent exploring the markets of Kowloon across the harbour from Hong Kong.

Tomorrow we’ll be on a plane to Toronto to visit some friends and family for a few days, then onward to Vancouver. We expect to make one more posting sometime after we arrive home, probably after the holidays and have had some time to discuss and digest all that we have experienced over the past year.

It’s been a life altering adventure. We will never look upon the world the same way again. Thank you for joining us via our blog and for all the wonderful comments of support we have received along the way. We wish you all the best and encourage everyone out there to follow your dreams – with some hard work, commitment and a little bit of trust, they just might come true.

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Posted by Baxters Wednesday 7 December 2011 19:22 Archived in Bahamas Tagged london bahamas florida_keys Comments (0)

From Jozi to Cape Town

South Africa

semi-overcast 20 °C

Departing from a third world airport is always an experience; semi-organized chaos where signs are wrong or missing, schedules are mere suggestions, immigration officials expect you to know their procedures (how could we not – it all makes so much sense…) and seemingly random people wander in and out of restricted areas. All you can do is surrender yourself to the madness and trust it will all work out… which it did, with us successfully making our way from Zanzibar to Johannesburg, South Africa.

Our hostel in Johannesburg, or Jozi as it’s referred to by locals, was wonderful! It had all the creature comforts of a tiny resort…neatly encased in 10 foot concrete walls topped with an electric fence and CCTV cameras. The stories about crime in Jozi are true – you just don’t go out and wander around. Even the locals, when they leave their fortified homes, tend to limit leisure activities to well secured restaurants and shopping malls. So… in effect we became sort of prisoners, albeit the white-collar CEO kind of prisoners, forced to sip cocktails by the pool in the sunshine as we recovered from the previous travel day and laid out our plans for South Africa.

The next day we jumped the Baz Bus, an open-ticket shuttle of sorts that mainly runs along the coastal edge of SA. We spent 10 hours on the bus - a long day but one filled with stunning scenery that included enormous mesas thrust up out of the landscape, rolling golden fields and forested hillsides. We passed a number of townships that brought into stark focus the poverty that continues to undermine much of what South Africa has achieved over the past 20 years, and is the fuel for the crime that is of epidemic proportions in some cities. Approaching our first destination, the rolling landscape became noticeably lusher, more tropical and more suburban. If we hadn’t known better (and if not for the palm trees), we would have sworn we were on the I-5, driving past Queen Anne on the approach to downtown Seattle. However, once downtown, any similarities to Seattle vanished - we had arrived in Durban.

Durban has that somewhat worn, tired look of all tropical cities, a result of its gorgeous location on the edge of the Indian Ocean, lined as far as the eye can see by golden sand and crashing waves. Surfing is big here – as it is all along the coast. So are the sharks – the entire bay is encased by a shark net that is inspected on a weekly basis. Durban also has a significant crime element that limits the aimless wandering down backstreets and alleys that we love to do. However, there are some areas that are considered safe to go without a guide (essentially a guard) and we made the most of it, exploring the beach promenade along the edge of the city, enjoying cappuccinos as the surfers ripped it up just off shore. We also visited uShaka Marine World that happened to be located just a few minutes’ walk from our hostel. uShaka hosts the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere. While we thought we might blow off an hour or two, we ended up staying for hours - sometimes sitting at a single massive tank and watching for ½ hour or more (especially the Leatherback Turtles). The displays are fantastic as is the setting. The entire aquarium has been designed – inside and out – as if you are wandering through a shipwrecked1920’s cargo vessel. A little Disney for sure, but so well done and so much fun, we would recommend to anyone.

A mere 90 minutes down the coast, urban life was left far behind as we arrived at our hostel in Umzumbe, where we were welcomed by 5 dogs (including two puppies – Lee-Ann was thrilled), 5 parrots (now Warren was thrilled), 4 budgies and 2 cats. We spent a couple of days here beachcombing, walking for hours in both directions along the endless sandy beach and passing a grand total of just one other person, a local Xhosa gentleman collecting shellfish along the shore. Evenings were spent in the Jungle Bar, next to (and under) our ensuite tree house, where we shared a Potjie dinner with some visiting South Africans while the Vervet monkeys swung through the trees overhead (we were warned to keep our windows closed or risk having our belongings pilfered by these charming bandits).

We carried on south from Umzumbe to our next stop at Coffee Bay, so named because it is said that many, many moons ago a ship carrying a load of coffee beans was lost offshore, with the beans washing up on the beach and giving root to a number of now long vanished coffee trees. Fact or fiction, the name stuck.

Coffee Bay is on the “Wild Coast” in the Transkei, the most rural of South Africa’s coastal regions and one of the poorest areas in South Africa. The Transkei’s current social-economic fabric is due in part to a 10 year period (‘84 – ‘94) when the Transkei was “set aside” as an independent republic, demonstrating the past government’s “commitment” to recognizing and supporting the indigenous population. The unfortunate reality is that it was used as a vehicle to relocate many of the Xhosa who were defined as being “not of economic use”. Driving through the region, the Transkei is noticeably light on trees compared to other areas. The land has been given over to small herds of sheep, goat and cattle working the overgrazed pastures. The landscape is littered with small square homes and rondavels, most without electricity or running water. As in Tanzania, we saw many people of all ages carrying large pails of the day’s water back from a small river or local well.

While we passed through a couple of very active towns in the Transkei, there was a conspicuous absence of villages, market centers or any sign of industry outside of these towns. We’re sure that there must have been some industry somewhere within the hundreds of square miles of rural living we passed through, but we saw no evidence. This may in part explain the unemployment situation in Transkei. While South Africa as a whole struggles with an unofficial unemployment rate of 40% (the official number is 21% as the government, like most countries, excludes the “chronically” unemployed from its figures), Transkei unemployment is upwards of 60%. Tourism does play a small part in helping the economy and, while staying at Coffee Bay, we chose a hostel that not only employed 40 locals but was 30% owned by the community. While chowing down on a steak “braai” (bbq) with our fellow travelers, we enjoyed some traditional dance, drumming and singing performed by girls from one of the local schools that the hostel supports. Even so, in the small bay where the hostel was located, reached by one of only two paved roads to the coast, it was painfully apparent that there were many – too many – in the community with absolutely nothing to do. But these struggles did not stop them from making us feel welcome. As we explored the riverbank and climbed among the goats and donkeys to the top of the knoll above the scattering of humble homes, everyone we encountered greeted us with warm smiles and hellos.

From Coffee Bay, we travelled through the remainder of Transkei, crossing the old “national” border with South Africa – the Kei River – and noting the immediate reappearance of dense, lush vegetation, and made our way to Chintsa. One morning, we were driven out into the country side and dropped off with a fellow traveller from Brazil, our guide and his little dog, Rory. Our 12km hike back to the hostel led us through the small Xhosa village of Bola, along a ridge overlooking a deep unspoilt river valley, through a coastal forest and down onto the sand dunes, where we stepped out onto what was probably the largest beach we have ever seen (and we have seen a lot of beaches!). Along the way, we were instructed to keep an eye out for the Black Adder, a short, blackish brown snake that likes to lay out on trails (including, as we later learned, at our hostel) and will generally not flee from humans. It is the fastest striking snake in the world (it can bite a balloon twice before the balloon pops). The good news is that while extremely painful, its bite is not lethal…that is, provided you receive medical attention within 24 hours. Needless to say, we let our guide (and admittedly Rory) go first. We also spent a dreamlike morning canoeing inland up a beautiful winding river where many of the overhanging trees were decorated by the skillfully constructed nests of the Weaver bird; a wonderful way to slow things down if only for a few hours and really take in the natural beauty of South Africa.

We carried on heading south through the Eastern Cape, stopping for a couple of nights in Jeffreys Bay – the surf capital of South Africa. While we didn’t hit the surf ourselves (spoiled after months in the ridiculously warm waters in Southeast Asia, we found the water too cold), we walked the beach from our surf-centric hostel to Supertubes to watch the action. Supertubes is known as one of the top 3 surf breaks in the world - word has it that when conditions align, you can ride it for a mile. The beach was also a beachcomber’s delight, with millions of seashells of all shapes, sizes and colours strewn along the shore. J-Bay is a small, quiet surf town with a small Main Street strip lined with Billabong, Ripcurl and Quiksilver surf shops. We enjoyed the short 10 minute walk from our hostel located in a nice ocean-side residential neighbourhood to browse through the stores and have some lunch in town (Mexican food!). In many ways, it had a Southern California feel too it, similar to places like Pismo Beach. We were probably influenced somewhat by the bartender at our hostel, a young guy from San Diego who landed in J-Bay for a week to surf and never left. His philosophy was simple: “As long as I have some kind of roof over my head, food in my belly and a chance to surf, I’m loving life”. Despite all of this, there were again constant reminders that the lifestyle in South Africa is a little different from home… coded entries and electric fencing around the hostel; taxis only at night as it was not safe to walk – even just 10 minutes into town; when heading to the beach in front of our hostel, warned “never-ever walk south, only north”… Once again we felt great appreciation for the freedom and safety that we enjoy and often take for granted at home.

Our next stop was Knysna, a small town located on a beautiful, protected lagoon. It was refreshing to learn that we could wander freely around town, both day and night! Although Knysna has the typical poverty induced segregation we had unfortunately seen consistently along our route (a sprawling tin and clapboard black township on the outskirts, giving way to lovely homes in the white suburbs near the water), the town didn’t suffer from the same safety concerns as the others, clearly evidenced by the lack of walls and electrified fences around the homes. Even the owner of our hostel wasn’t sure why this is the case but felt that the physical environment – the rolling hills and the rugged headlands surrounding the still waters of the lagoon - had a kind of calming effect over the entire population (with the township having the most spectacular views in the area). We took advantage of the freedom, wandering throughout the town, hitting the area around the bus depot (guaranteed to always be full of characters, commerce and a bit of craziness). We also used our nighttime freedom to hit some restaurants and indulge in some terrific South African cuisine (Bobotie – a savoury SA meatloaf) and the fabulous, cheap South African wines. We took a short trip out to “The Heads” – the two soaring cliffs at the narrow mouth of the treacherous channel which leads from the ocean into the lagoon. In the last 120 years, 43 known shipwrecks have occurred in this channel. Although large vessels no longer enter the lagoon through the channel (with the exception of the Navy during the July oyster festival), large sharks do (including Great White, Tiger and Ragged-Tooth sharks). Again, we decided it was too cold to go swimming. Did we mention the sharks?

This was the first time in our 9+ months of travelling where we stayed consistently in hostels. With names like “Buccaneers Backpackers” and “Island Vibe”, each containing a funky tiki or surf shack bar, we knew the hostels would be fun places to stay. We certainly enjoyed our evenings spent with other travellers from all over the world, sharing communal dinners and showing the young ‘uns a thing or two about having a good time. However, we also discovered that the hostels here in South Africa are a bit like isolated hives, separate and apart from the “real” communities in which they are located. It made us really appreciate that throughout our travels, the bulk of our accommodations had been located away from the typical tourist areas, allowing us unlimited opportunities to immerse ourselves into local life. That being said, our journey from Jozi to Durban and along the eastern coast was nothing short of remarkable. We bid farewell to this part of the country as we jump back on the Baz Bus and make the 8 hour journey overland to the west coast where we hope to idle away a few days sampling some more delicious wines, watching for whales and getting up-close and personal with Jaws.
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Well, we had fully intended to post the first part of this blog several days ago. However, as we were reminded many times with regard to internet connectivity (and bus schedules and ATMs and restaurants hours…) “it may be South Africa, but it’s still Africa”.

Our first destination after leaving the Eastern Cape was Hermanus, a quaint seaside town geared towards the whale watching crowd. No need for heading off shore to view the whales that come here to calve each (SA) spring; the Southern Right and Humpback whales play and lounge in the waters just 50 meters offshore. We enjoyed a sunny day strolling along the 7km seaside trail, stopping often along the way to watch two pairs of Southern Right Whales in the waters below. Whale-watching, however, was not our primary purpose for visiting Hermanus. It was the nearby town of Gansbaai – the shark cage diving mecca of South Africa – which drew us. We were determined to get in the water and see these ominous creatures face to face. And see them we did!! Upwards of 8 Great Whites showed up to “visit” our shark boat anchored in “shark alley” off of the seal feeding grounds of Dyer Island. It was quite the experience to have a 3.5 meter Great White Shark swim past our shark cage, black eye staring at us while its fin scraped along the bars. On his second dive, Warren even had one stick its snout through the cage, then bash it into the boat as it turned and slammed its body against the cage. We lucked out as the weather had been quite cold and windy prior to our arrival, and we had a bright sunny day on the water, although the swells were 8-10 feet and turned a few of the passengers green. After our invigorating and successful day with the sharks, we returned to the hostel for a very lively braai with a bunch of locals.

Whales and sharks under our belts, we set off for Stellenbosch – the capital of the wine region of South Africa. It was time for some serious wine tasting. We spent a couple of days discovering new and wonderful wines, both in town (we found a great wine bar where we spent the better part of the afternoon playing chalkboard Pictionary) and on a tour of several wineries throughout the region. Wine tasting in SA is a more…generous experience than in North America. For less than $4, 5–6 very generous tastings are served. After our fourth winery (or wine farms as they’re called here), we were very glad we were on a tour that would deliver us back to our hostel door.

After a couple of days of indulging in some delightful wines, we jumped on the train in Stellenbosch for a short one hour journey to “The Mother City” - Cape Town. The oldest city in southern African, Cape Town is regularly heralded as one of the world’s most beautiful. Coming from Vancouver, we found that to be a pretty bold statement. Our first morning’s glimpse of Table Mountain against the bluest of skies went a long way to convincing us the claim wasn’t an exaggeration. Due to CT’s unpredictable weather, we had been told several times to take advantage of the first nice day to ascend Table Mountain as the clouds often cover it, creating a “tablecloth” that obscures the fabulous views. Needless to say, we struck out our first morning and climbed the Plattklip Gorge trail to the summit where the views far exceeded the effort. For our fellow Vancouverites, the Table Mountain climb is much like the Grouse Grind (minus the trees). After months of travel, we were pleased that we were able to make it to the top well under the estimated time. The next few days were spent exploring the different neighbourhoods of Cape Town – from the trend-setting Camps Bay (complete with a lunch of fresh mussels and white wine while watching the Atlantic breakers crash on the gorgeous white sand beach) to the Disneyfied marina of the Victoria & Albert Waterfront (cold beers with a mix of locals and tourists at Mitchell’s Brewery) to the gritty bar and hostel lined Long Street of City Bowl (similar to Vancouver’s Granville Street with a bit more of an edge). While CT is known to have the highest rate of muggings in SA – and mostly tourists at that - we felt quite comfortable wandering the streets, taking in the sights and sounds of the small but vibrant city situated so perfectly between the ocean and mountain.

We spent our last day in SA touring the Cape Peninsula including a stop to visit the penguins at Boulders Beach and a 14km bike ride to the very south western tip of Africa – the Cape of Good Hope. The landscape of the Cape itself is stark, but simultaneously rich with some 8200 species of vegetation, 69% of which are unique to this region. Aside from the raw physical beauty, there is an undeniable sense of history, knowing that the ships that rounded the Cape in centuries past altered the course of world history. Our trip back to CT took us up to a viewpoint where we could gaze back over the Cape Flats. This area says so much about not only Cape Town, but South Africa as a whole. Originally “settled” in the 60s when some 60,000 residents of CT’s District Six were relocated and their homes bulldozed to make way for a whites only city, the Flats is now home to 2.5 million people. As our guide stated, the Flats demonstrates the fundamental struggle of SA – the immense contradiction between the few “haves” and the many “have nots”. Lamborghinis zip past kids who walk 10km to school because there is no transportation; private estates are literally across the road from tin-roofed townships without plumbing; wine filled business lunches take place while unemployed labourers sit across the street hoping for some temporary work… While apartheid officially ended 2 decades ago, there is still a long way to go to undo the damage and bring a sense of equality to the millions still struggling. But the overwhelming belief is that SA will get there. In the words of one local author, “frustration is outweighed by hope”. We share that hope as our adventures here, and the people we have met, will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Thank you for the memories South Africa. Time to move on as our World Tour clock is ticking down to the final hours. We’re off to London for a few days before we make our way back across the Atlantic. But not home...not quite yet. Seems we are in need of some parrotheads and pirates first…

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Posted by Baxters Wednesday 9 November 2011 23:53 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Lions, Leopards and Elephants – Oh My!!

Tanzania

How many people have an African safari on their bucket list? We certainly did. As young children, we were influenced and inspired by movies like “Born Free”, TV shows like “Daktari” and stories like “The Jungle Book”. We put a safari on our wish list for our journey this year, but recognized that it might be a challenge. Many people spend two to three years researching and planning to go on a safari, booking far in advance. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands?) of safari and tour operators in Africa. During our travels, we have typically spent 3-4 days (maybe…) doing some online research and organizing our travel plans before heading to a new country. In this case, we decided to rely on recommendations from a few friends and fellow travelers and roll the dice… We booked a 7-day safari in Tanzania and hoped that, if nothing else, we would see a lion or two in the wild.

Our 30 hour journey took us from Rome to Cairo to Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro to Arusha. We were thrilled that we, along with our luggage, made all of our rather short connections and arrived together as scheduled. From this point on, we were in the hands of our tour operator. The particular safari that we selected would take us through four different parks in northern Tanzania – Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area and Lake Manyara National Park. We were joined by a mother and daughter from the UK - passionate animal lovers who, between the two of them, had been on three previous safaris in Africa.

Our guide, Julius, was brilliant at taking us away from the other safari vehicles and spotting birds and animals that we often had trouble seeing, even after he pointed them out to us. Luckily for us, often the animals were crossing the road in front of us or standing close by as if posing for the countless photos we endeavoured to take. By the end of the first day alone, we had seen countless impalas, gazelles, warthogs, giraffes, mongoose, elands, ostriches, hundreds of zebras and wildebeests, dozens of elephants, and… 12 lions!! Overjoyed and overwhelmed by the animals, their proximity, and the beautiful landscapes, we left the park and carried on to our lodge, where we would spend the night in a tent. Walking into the reception area, we were knocked over by the stunning view – the property was located on a bluff overlooking a huge flat valley with a river winding through the middle. From the lodge (and from our tent) we overlooked the vast expanse and could watch (without needing binoculars) elephants, giraffes, zebras, impalas, warthogs, etc. grazing below. Our tent was a large, permanent walk-in with a lovely ensuite bathroom and a small covered deck with chairs. We enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner, observing the animals in the valley below and, after the sun set, watched the stars twinkling in the immense sky above. During the night, Warren heard a rather strange noise just outside our tent and looked up through the mesh to see a giraffe stroll by not more than 10 feet away!

During the days that followed, we explored the parks and were privileged to observe so many animals in their natural habitat. Within three days, we had seen the “big five” (defined as the five most dangerous animals to hunt: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros) as well as the ``big five ugly`` (the five ugliest creatures as defined by the local guides: warthog, hippo, maribu stork, ostrich and hyena). We were fortunate enough to have many opportunities to spend some up close and personal moments observing the animals, especially the elephants. However, in addition to all of these amazing observations, there were a few exceptionally memorable experiences.

- We had a picnic lunch in our jeep, next to male lion and his lioness, dozing at the edge of a stream. While we were sitting there, out of nowhere a hippo sauntered across the road across from us.
- We came across a leopard in a tree with a fresh kill (a gazelle) in the fork of the tree next to him. While we were parked taking photos, the gazelle fell from the tree. As we watched, the leopard leaped down after it. Too tired to drag it back up the tree, the leopard began to feed as vultures began to circle. Not too far away, we had observed some hyenas and knew it was only a matter of time until they too would approach. We observed as the leopard was torn between dealing with the gazelle, and fending off the vultures. Drama in the Serengeti!!!
- We spotted a lioness with a gazelle carcass in her jaws, striding through the grass beside the road. After crossing the road, we saw two female lions in the distance rise and begin to approach. The lioness with the gazelle clearly indicated they were not welcome, however, a few minutes later four young cubs came bounding through the grass towards the adults. We were witness to some very affectionate nuzzling between the lionesses and the cubs. Then, much to our delight, the cubs set out towards our jeep, playing follow the leader until they were not more than 20 feet away.
- Heading out early one morning on our way to the Serengeti, we rounded a corner not far from our lodge and met a rather large bull elephant coming the other way on the very narrow road. We crept forward as the bull came towards us, as far to the side as possible. At the last moment, Julius hit the gas and shot us past with a reminder that the animals in and around the parks are quite used to safari jeeps but they are also completely unpredictable and dangerous.

However, it wasn’t just the animals that kept us mesmerised. The landscape was achingly beautiful. Immense vistas stretching forever under an infinite sky, casting a light that made us feel we were somehow inside a delicately painted watercolour. When you touched the land, you could literally feel the energy contained within. Perhaps we picked up some of the residual life force of our distant cousins at Oldupai Gorge, where their 2 million year old skeletal remains and 3.6 million year old footprints have been found.

Equally amazing are the people that inhabit the region today. We saw countless Masi, brightly covered in their traditional blankets, tending their cattle and goats, including small boys as young as 6-7 years, in the middle of nowhere on their own with their own little herds. Small villages and individual rondavels were scattered throughout (with the exception of the National Parks), encircled with brush and thorns to keep the predators away from their livestock (and family). We saw one poor calf, high up in a tree, the victim of a leopard. With conservation an important part of the overall region’s future, the Masi are no longer permitted to hunt a predator that takes one of their herd. Instead, they are compensated so they can replace their loss. Pressures continue to mount as population growth envelopes more and more land around the Parks and Conservation areas, but there are dedicated efforts by many to ensure a balance is struck enabling people and the wild animals of the region to cohabitate.

While we never felt unsafe, we were constantly reminded just how dangerous the animals can be, such as being told in no uncertain terms not to leave our tent after dark (the afore mentioned giraffe and countless growls, howls and other noises certainly solidified that rule for us). Even outside the parks, where we could walk to our hut in the dark, there were guards posted with shotguns. However, we learned the most significant danger at one particular lodge was to the water tanks. As our lodge was right on the very edge of the conservation area, the elephants would sometimes come to drink out of the water tanks. If they couldn’t reach the water in the tanks with their trunks, they would simply push the tanks over, dumping thousands of gallons of water. We slept soundly knowing our hut was on the opposite side of the compound from the tanks.

By the end of the week, we had seen so many animals and so much beautiful countryside. Our hope when we set out was to see two or three lions; our final tally was an incredible 34! We felt we had seen and experienced all that we could have hoped for and were happy to check safari off of our bucket list.

After a week of stalking animals, we were ready for a rest. So after an overnight stop in Dar es Salaam (where we were also warned not to go outside after dark due to predators of the human kind) we jumped on a ferry and set off to Zanzibar.

We headed to the east coast to a small, delightedly dishevelled hideaway on the edge of the Indian Ocean. It was perfect! Although the rain that we had managed to avoid for the past eight months finally caught up with us, we found some breaks in the weather that allowed us to walk the sugar-white beach, hang with the locals at one of the nearby beach bars and swim in the luxuriously warm water. We also spent countless hours at our little ocean side lounge playing Bao, a local game played in East Africa for hundreds of years. Known as a game that “takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master”, we quickly found ourselves having developed just enough skills to defend but not enough to win, which meant many games being called a draw after several hours. However, when there was a winner, it was usually Lee-Ann (with Warren blaming the ice cold Serengeti beer as his downfall).

After a lazy week on the beach, we returned to Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar, where we wandered through the narrow, twisting streets (past the ubiquitous souvenir stalls), taking in the legendary, ornately carved doors in the old town, smelling the piquant scent of spices and listening to the familiar sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to their prayers. It was comforting to once again hear the now very familiar sound and see the minarets of the many mosques in town outlined against the bright blue sky. In this small town, notoriously famous for once being the center of the slave trade on the east coast of Africa, the multicultural blend of the many “dhow nations” – countries that ring the Indian Ocean – can be seen and heard. A heady mix that combined for us to be alternately welcomed, ignored, scowled at and invited into shops “just for looking”. The beauty of Stone Town is that although there is a touristy core, within that core and in particular just outside of it, raw daily life transpires right on the narrow streets, allowing a glimpse of how life is lived by the locals. We marvelled at how so many people from so many racial, cultural and religious backgrounds live together successfully in this tight labyrinth they call home; one of countless memories that we will hold onto when we return home. However, home is not on the agenda just yet as our time in Africa is not over. Setting our sights on the tip of the great continent, we are on our way to South Africa. Next stop – Johannesburg!

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Posted by Baxters 03:37 Comments (0)

La Dolce Vita

Italy

sunny 30 °C

Since we had visited Cairo, Istanbul and Athens, it seemed obvious that we should include Rome as well to complete our exploration of the cities often referred to as the cradle of western civilization. However, despite its vast riches of culture, history, architecture and art, our true purpose for visiting Italy was… well… its food. We left Greece behind to undertake a culinary tour of Campania, Tuscany and Lazio.

We began our epicurean adventures in Naples. On our first day, we literally only made it 2 minutes away from our hotel before stopping for our first gelato. As we wandered the winding streets of the city, dodging scooters and tiny Fiats, we stopped often for an espresso or to sit in a piazza for a glass of wine and watch… life – kids playing football on the cobblestone streets, mamas yelling at their children, young and old whizzing by on Vespas, waiters carrying trays of espresso to their waiting customers down the street… Here, in the birthplace of pizza, we experienced an epiphany… an authentic margherita pizza - never had pizza tasted so exquisite! We managed to explore a few of the historic sites – ancient castles along the waterfront as well as high on a hillside above the city, which provided a stunning panoramic view of the city and Mount Vesuvius looming to the south. Our sampling included the most delectable mozzarella di bufalo, linguine alla vongole, limoncello and the most divine cappuccinos. Despite hailing from the Pacific Northwest, we have never been Starbucks fans and, after experiencing the best of the best in Napoli, we’ll never be tempted by Starbucks.

From Naples we headed to Pompei, taking a day off from our quest for food to experience a little history. Skirting our way around and through massive tour groups (literally herds of 30-50 people in a group!), we spent the afternoon exploring the remains of a city of 20,000 which was instantly obliterated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. What remains of the city shows what a rich, developed culture existed 2000 years ago. While North America and Australia had yet to even be discovered by Europeans, this thriving city flourished with art, restaurants, theatres and even sidewalk-lined roads. Our imaginations ran wild as we strolled the streets of the ancient city, stepping across the elevated “crosswalks”, and making up stories of daily life in Pompei. We spent the evening – which happened to be Saturday night – in modern-day Pompei, beginning with a glass of wine at outside a small bar on the corner of the main piazza to watch the passeggiata – teenagers, couples, elderly adults, families with small children… everyone was out enjoying the balmy Saturday night in the square.

Our next destination was Sorrento, which would be our base of exploration of the Amalfi coast. This peninsula is dotted with tiny villages which cling to the cliffs like barnacles to the hull of a ship. We spent time leisurely exploring Sorrento, climbing up and down the steep streets to the waterfront and observing the novelty of the Mediterranean seaside. After months spent enjoying wide, sweeping golden and white sand beaches sparsely dotted with people, we were intrigued (and somewhat amused) by the Italians’ determination to enjoy the sun. Tiny little patches of grey sand or pebble beaches and platforms built over the water were tightly packed with lounges and sun umbrellas and filled with sunbathers. We took day-trips to the town of Amalfi, traveling through Positano on the way, and a ferry to Capri – playground of the rich and famous. Each was unique and beautiful, with gorgeous views over the azure waters. We spent most of our time wandering away from the tourist centres, taking in the scenery, enjoying the scent of sun-warmed pine needles and wild herbs, and… eating and drinking, of course! Antipasto and wine, gelato and sfogliatelle, gnocchi alla sorrentina …

Leaving the sparkling coast behind, we caught the train and headed north to Siena. Tuscany, of course, is renowned world-wide for its fabulous cuisine. Siena is an amazingly preserved medieval city and, situated in the heart of Tuscany, seemed an ideal (although randomly selected) destination. We found a B&B in a lovingly restored 800-year old building just steps away from the Piazza del Campo in the centre of the medieval town. The Piazza del Campo is the site of the famous Palio – an annual horse race which has been run in the Campo for centuries. Entire books could be (actually, have been) written on the event and its history… suffice it to say that it defines the city and draws as much excitement as the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. We had missed the event (races are held in July and August), but much evidence remained – both authentic décor and tourist souvenirs. But we had not come for the Palio… we came for the food. We spent our days, as usual, wandering the streets, sitting in piazzas and people watching, drinking wine and cappuccinos. We did spend one morning touring the Duomo (the massive cathedral of Siena), its crypts and museum, and climbed the tower to enjoy a panoramic view of the city and countryside beyond. Our evenings we spent enjoying the wonderful Tuscan cuisine and one night, in particular, we had an amazing dining experience that we will likely never forget. We went to a small trattoria about which we had read good reviews, and we were totally overwhelmed. The service was excellent – attentive and friendly without being intrusive or pretentious. We were offered a complimentary amuse buche (fresh pea soup) while we considered the menu. We opted for classic Tuscan dishes, including the bistecca di fiorentina. The massive steak was presented for approval prior to grilling, then carved and served tableside. We were given complimentary glasses of prosecco while our wine was allowed to breath (a wonderful 2004 Brunello di Multipulciano). We were offered a complimentary cheese plate to finish our wine with as we considered the dessert menu and, finally, after tiramisu, espresso and grappa, we were presented with a complimentary bottle of wine to take home!! Wow! It was the Tuscan dinner of our dreams!

No trip to Tuscany would be complete without visiting the countryside and wine tasting. So, we booked a small group tour during which we drove through the Chianti region while enjoying the stunning views of rolling hills of olive groves, vineyards and oak forests studded with fields of sunflowers, old stone farmhouses and medieval castles. We visited two tiny villages and two wineries where, in addition to sampling fabulous Chianti wines, we were able to taste their amazing olive oils and locally produced products such as pecorino cheese, salame di cinta senese and prosciutto. It was a great taste of Tuscany… just enough to make us want to come back another time and experience more.

From Siena, we boarded a train once again and set off for Rome. Ahhhh – bella Roma! It truly is a beautiful city, filled with history, art, amazing architecture, vibrant street life, café and restaurant lined piazzas, fashion, cuisine… all that define "la dolce vita". We attempted to balance our culinary indulgences with some historic exploration and a LOT of walking. To say we covered all of central Rome by foot would not be an exaggeration. At the end of each day, we were tired and foot-sore, but bursting with wonder at the amazing sites and foods we had taken in. We explored the ancient ruins of the Forum and the Coliseum, and the magnificent splendor of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica; we window shopped along the boutique lined streets near the Spanish Steps; we wandered the tiny streets, seeking out hidden piazzas, in Trastevere; and, at a small trattoria a short walk from our hotel we savoured the best pasta we had tasted yet – pappardelle all’arrabbiata and pici cacio e pepe – along with a delicious starter of mozzarella and anchovy stuffed zucchini blossoms.

Rome is a very romantic city, and for us, it was more about just being there… soaking it in, feeling the energy, enjoying the food and wine, observing the fashions and gaining a sense of how the local Italians (sorry – Romans!) live on a day to day basis. We were pleased we had allowed ourselves enough time to take it all in and enjoy the experience without feeling a need to rush from once historic site to another. But once again, it was time to move on. As we keep saying, the world is a very big place and a year is not very much time to try to see it.

So we're switching gears from stylish sophistication to nature’s wonders… we’re heading to Tanzania to fulfill Lee-Ann’s lifelong dream of going on safari. Ciao!

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Posted by Baxters Friday 30 September 2011 15:56 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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