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Lao: French Colonial Architecture, Mekong & Nam Khan Rivers

November 19, 2010 by  

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I have to admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way.

Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all.

As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia.

Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.

French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses.

Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Cayes, Caves, and Crackers

November 15, 2010 by  

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We weren’t able to leave for Belize as planned via ferry, due to rough seas, so we hung out with a group of fellow stranded travelers, discussed alternate plans, and ended up staying as a small group in the nearby town of Omoa. The five of us took what I felt to be a semi-arduous hike, through ankle-deep mud (in flip-flops no less!) in an attempt to reach a waterfall, which turned out to be more like a small babbling brook. We must have taken a wrong turn, but it was a fantastic hike and we were in good company.

The next morning we got on the ferry and made it to our respective destinations in Belize, where we parted ways (if you guys are reading this, hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip!). We spent one night in Placencia, a small, very quiet, beach town with seemingly not much more to do than snorkel, swim, and lie around. Luckily a couple of local girls befriended us, giving us the local lowdown, and we had a fun evening at happy hour (with free nachos!) at the new Rumfish bar in town. Spent the night at Deb and Dave’s Last Resort, cabin-style lodging, and my first shared bathroom experience. But shared baths are really only such if you actually have to share them, and in our case, it was always open and vacant when needed (yay!).

The next morning we caught a water taxi (getting used to these now) to take us across the lake to catch a chicken bus from the town of Independence to Belize City. Four and a half hours later, of which half the ride was spent sitting three persons to a seat, we arrived in Belize City, taxied to the ferry building and took another ferry to Caye Caulker. Apparently, if you go to Belize you either go to Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye, as they are pretty much set up for tourists. That being said, we did pretty well staying on our limited budget, found a guesthouse cabin for $10 a night per person, complete with private bathroom and porch with hammock. Aside from Jeff experiencing backspasms towards the end of our stay, which rendered him bed-bound, we had a great time. We completed our first scuba dive (technically second, but really the first dive done without the security blanket of our instructors in Roatan, upon whom I had developed an incredible amount of faith in). Needless to say, the dive was spectacular. Within seconds of descending, we saw several nurse sharks swim by, followed later on in the dive by giant green eels (I’m sure there is a more scientific term), lobster, stingrays, and varieties of colorful fish that I have never seen.

We had been planning to go back to Placencia to experience the whale shark migration with our two new friends, however after doing an indepth cost analysis, and with Jeff’s back going out, we had to make the decision to keep heading in our original direction. After another ferry-taxi-bus combo, we made our way to San Ignacio, where we found very spare and semi-clean lodgings at a hostel. By the sheer coincidence that sometimes occurs during travel, we spotted a couple whom we had met as stranded ferry companions back in Honduras. We arranged to take the much talked about ATM tour together the next day. I have to say I was a little wary, given that everyone had said it was “the coolest tour ever” and all the guidebooks herald it as “the one must-do experience in Belize”. All I could hear was a little voice in the back of my head saying “overrated”. Luckily, I was wrong. Splashing, slipping, swimming, crawling, and climbing through ancient caves, seeped in Mayan culture, shadows, shining stalagtites, and rock formations, through clear cool waters was, I cringe to hear myself say it, magical. Totally NOT overrated. Definitely one of those moments I had hoped to have during our travels.

We are currently in Flores, Guatemala, a beautiful island town with views of the water, shops, restaurants, hotels, tour companies, and not much else. It feels almost like a ghost town during the day, as most visitors take day trips out with the various tours to places like Tikal. We did just that a couple of days ago. Instead of going with a tour company, we took the advice of our friends and tried it on our own. We arrived at mid-day, stayed at one of the only three hotels in Tikal, and bought a park ticket that was good for the late afternoon as well as the full next day. Our afternoon at the ruins was awesome. For some reason, we ran into only a handful of people during our entire stroll, sat atop Templo IV as the sun went down (but not set, as that would have cost us 50 more quetzals), gazed in awe at the well preserved ruins in the Gran Plaza at dusk, then raced out of the jungle as night fell.

We had planned to enter the park again at six a.m., but a debilitating case of traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning prevented that from happening. Instead, after some time spent on and above the toilet, I attempted to shuffle my way out of the room and through the park (I should also mention that I had somehow managed to strain a leg muscle the day before), armed with a roll of toilet paper. We saw some cool wildlife, but I was feeling too crappy to learn their names. As expected, I did not enjoy much of the day. We took off soon after, somehow managing to survive the one and a half hour ride back to Flores, where I now appear on my way to recovery while Jeff gets his turn to experience the full wrath of Montezuma’s revenge.  This has been only to the benefit of our budget, as we have subsisted on Gatorade and crackers for the last two days.

Baboons, Flamingos, Buffalo & Zebra in Kenya

November 13, 2010 by  

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When we arrived in Nairobi, we ventured into a local restaurant (with butcher shop attached), picked out a little over a kilo of goat’s meat hanging in the window and asked for it to be prepared as Nyama Choma (roasted goat). About an hour and a half later, our waiter brought to the table a pitcher of hot water, and a wash bowl with soap and we dutifully washed our hands. After that he brought a large wooden cutting board out with our Nyama Choma laid out on top of it. And that’s it. No knives or forks. No napkins. No plates. So we “when in Rome”-’d it and dug in. I was chewing on a rib when I looked at Mari and saw her tearing the meat off a bone with her teeth.

The piles of bones on the table were growing in front of us both. I heard her growl, but she denies it now. The meal was fun and made me feel like if you’re going to eat meat—this is how it should always be done. It only lacked the stuffy air of western “sophistication…” and maybe a side of spinach. After the meal, Mari asked me whether we were supposed to get vegetables or a staple dish, to which I replied that maybe this is how they do it in Kenya. My heart hurt a little bit, but my stomach seemed happy.

We spent the following days visiting Kenya’s game parks. We were greeted about 3 minutes into our first game drive by a zebra in the distance. I shouted to the driver to stop, as if I had been the first to discover the animal. We took some crappy photos of it in the distance, wanting to make sure we had proof of our first sighting, especially in case it was our last. But as we drove on we passed another zebra, and another, and another. We passed Thompson gazelles, warthogs and Impalas by the dozen. There were buffalo, monkeys and baboons eating, drinking and for the most part, ignoring us as we gawked at them.

Lake Nakuru continued the animal voyeurism. As we drove towards the water it unfolded as a bed of blue and pink from the thousands of flamingoes that stand there. They fly in long lines, accentuating their profiles. The sheer number of the birds made it a unique spectacle. We eventually tore ourselves away from the flamingoes to go up to Baboon Cliff. I almost asked our driver if we would see any of the animals the cliff was named after when my question was answered.

About 25 baboons greeted us in our car running away from people and towards others. I heard a growl and turned to see an adult baboon grabbing a schoolboy’s shirt. The boy escaped as an aggressive man nearby threw a rock at the aggressive baboon to teach him a lesson. The baboons eventually blocked our return to the car as three were sitting on it. Mari tried to show dominance and banged on the roof of the car and told them to get off. The adult male baboon charged Mari and growled something to the effect of “dominance, schmominance.” Mari retreated.

The Masai Mara offered us almost completely different animals to wander across, as well as the main reason we came to Kenya. There were elephant herds, cheetahs, lions, ostriches, hippos and giraffes. And of course there were the wildebeests. The wildebeest migration is referred to as the largest animal migration and their abundance was evident everywhere. At times hills looked as brown from the wildebeests as they were green from the grass. At other times the wildebeests appeared British in heritage as they lined up in long queues, patient and orderly, following each other across the landscape. We drove past them by the thousands.

After the game drives we spent a final day back in Nairobi. We were on our way to dinner, when a cop pulled us over. The driver, Mari and I hurriedly put on our seatbelts. The cop asked us all a couple of questions, but in the end it was evident he wanted only one thing. We paid him a thousand shillings as a bribe and he left us to be on our way. We were saddened by the blatant corruption, but our driver told us not to worry about it. He said he was glad we saw it and simply stated, “This is Kenya.”

Some of Nature’s Top Predators: Lions & Mosquitos

November 13, 2010 by  

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They’re bodies are sleek, evolved to carry out quick stealth-like attacks in near silence on slacking prey. They kill thousands annually and their appetite for blood is unparalleled. And upon our arrival into Chiang Mai, we chanced upon seeing these top predators in action…unfortunately. Actually, we saw at least 64 of these guys in action, as that’s how many mosquitoes we killed in our room in a day. Turning on the fan caused 5 of them to scramble in all directions.

Walking by the bed, 3 fly out from under it, 2 more make their appearance known from on top the blanket. Trying to lock in on one to smash it, meant ignoring others flying by your face in the commotion. They were everywhere, and if we stayed still, they attacked our exposed legs and arms unmercifully.
And let me say, I HATE mosquitoes. HATE them. The shrill buzz of its wings always finds me just as I’m about to nod off. And their bites on me don’t just result in a little red dot and a slight itch. When mosquitoes bite me, it’s like a mosquito clown is blowing balloon animals with my epidermis. My skin reacts into massive red irregular shaped patches with legs and tails shooting off them. I really can’t stress how much I HATE them. This also means then, that I take a real pleasure in killing them. Each clapping of my hands that ends with a little needle-nosed insect falling out of the sky brings me a smile.

The day after the day that became known as the “Massacre of 64,” I went out and bought a mosquito zapper. I’ve been looking forward to this for months, but have held off for not wanting to actually carry it around. It’s a tennis racket shaped instrument that has a small electrical current running through the “face” of the racket. See a mosquito, show it your backhand (remembering to follow through with your body) and zap! Mesquite BBQ mosquito. The prey has become the predator.

The same day I bought the zapper we went to see another of the world’s top predators. This one however is warm, cuddly and a welcome sight (under the right circumstances). We visited a place called Tiger Kingdom and spent about half an hour inside the enclosures with the equivalent of toddler and adult tigers. Mari entered and was in heaven. I was somewhere in the SF Zoo around Christmas time. But my fears subsided and we were able to sit and touch the tigers if they were lying down. When they were up and walking around us, we happily stepped back and observed. Being this close to these animals was a real highlight for us.
And it was a highlight that almost didn’t happen. We originally planned to volunteer in Kanchaniburi, Thailand for a month working with tigers at a place called Tiger Temple. We were both really amped to work with animals that had been illegally poached and couldn’t be returned to the wild. However, our research into the program brought up some concerns about the animal’s treatment (even in a country where animal conservation has a different meaning from our own) and we had decided we couldn’t support it.

And Tiger Kingdom isn’t perfect either. Assuming “perfect” is only the wild in protected areas, free from illegal logging, human interaction and hunting, this is far from perfect. The tigers are in enclosures and are fed chicken daily. They interact with humans daily, from birth. They will never be returned to the wild. But, that’s not the goal of the kingdom either. It’s a breeding program, keeping a species from extinction from a world that is far from perfect.

And in a country without government commitment around conservation, this agency has naturally turned to tourism dollars to fill a void. And they do seem to treat the animals well, especially by South East Asian standards. They are cared for by handlers who have known them since birth. They look healthy and happy. And even if we’ll continue to hope for an ideal world, and hope that one day there will be large scale sanctuaries set up for these majestic animals, in the present we’ll happily settle for a step in its direction.

Mt. Emei: When Macaques Attack…

November 10, 2010 by  

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When we decided to climb Mt. Emei was when my aversion to stairs really solidified, but already I digress. After walking up and down thousands of steps for about 15 kilometers, we reached the Qingyin Pavilion, a few kilometers after which is the Ecological Monkey Zone. There were hordes of tourist groups that day, so I was hoping to see a monkey or two. As we approached the entrance to the zone, vendors were selling bags of monkey food to those who wished to feed the monkeys. We decided not to engage in the feeding of wild animals and walked on.

A sign posted near the entrance stated all the dos and don’ts involved in dealing with the monkeys, and there was a nicely written statement about how the locals and macaques have lived harmoniously together for years. Several meters past the sign, I spotted my first lone Macaque monkey walking across a hanging bridge. A few seconds later, a groundskeeper hit the monkey with a large stick of bamboo. “That man just HIT a monkey!” I exploded in astonishment and anger, as the monkey cowered and ran up into a tree.

We were crossing the bridge as I continued on about this act of animal cruelty, when a mother macaque with baby attached jumped down and grabbed Jeff’s water bottle out of his backpack holder in one swift move. She then promptly bit open the bottle and enjoyed the beverage, sharing some with her baby, and dripping some down on us from her spot on the branch above. I looked around and saw macaques of all sizes all over the place-on the bridge, the railings, sitting on rocks, in the foliage. I also noticed that the groundskeepers who seemed to be everywhere, all had long sticks and slingshots. It was at this point I began to think that these macaques were too crafty for their own good.

At the same moment, I spotted a very large male macaque walking calmly through the crowd of people. For some reason, he ignored all the people and their tangle of legs, bags, cameras, and monkey food and weaved his way straight towards me. As he came closer with no signs of slowing, I thought it best to show no fear.

This was a wild animal after all-maybe a show of dominance would prove to him that I was not afraid and he would go away. Really dumb. I should have learned my lesson from the incident with the baboon on the car in Kenya, but apparently I have a thick skull. So, I yelled something, swung out my leg and kicked at him. Note that I did not actually kick him, just at him. Either way, he did not like this one bit, which I realized as soon as he bared his teeth and growled.

The rest happened so fast, it’s all a blur. The next thing I knew he had leapt from the ground and was flying through the air. He jumped on me, the force of which knocked me over. Luckily, there was a large boulder to the side which I was able to grab on to as I screamed my lungs out. Jeff tells me that he was yelling by this point too and that he was preparing himself to fight the monkey, but at the same moment as all the tourists turned to see the commotion, the nearest groundskeeper appeared with her stick and chased the male off. Whew. I had escaped with barely a few scratches.

Looking all innocent

Looking all innocent

After that, it is safe to say that I did not enjoy the rest of the hike through the Ecological Monkey Zone. I tried to remain near any groundskeeper at all times, with their sticks and slingshots. And despite my indignation several minutes earlier, any time a macaque came too close (which was often), I found myself whispering to myself, “Get it! Hit it…hit it!!!!” which sadly they often did. Some of the ladies appeared to take a perverse pleasure in chasing the monkeys with their sticks, and playing games of monkey slingshot. Even though I was still a bit shaky from the incident, it made me really sad to see that several of the monkeys were a bit bloodied. I would like to think it was all nature, part of living in the wild, maybe a rivalry between packs, but I also think I know better.

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

10 Travel Lessons Learned

November 9, 2010 by  

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Six months. Time and travel have a way of combining to create what feels like a time warp. Think about when you go on vacation. You are so concerned with making the most of what limited time you managed to get off of work, while simultaneously dreading the return that the trip is usually over before you know it and you wonder how time could have moved so fast. I’m sure this is how I will feel the last few weeks before our return home (in another six, or so, months).

For now though, looking back at the last six months fills me with a mixture of gratitude and amazement bordering on disbelief that this is my life. I may not know what is happening at home in terms of national and local news, what happened to the island’s inhabitants in the current season of Lost, or who won the NBA finals, but there is also so much more I do know. One of my goals of travel was to learn-about the world and people and perceptions and myself. I will spare all a complete list, but here are a few random travel lessons I’ve picked up in the first six months of our journey around the world.

Travel Lesson #1: There is no substitute for common sense, gut feelings, and being appropriately cautious and wary. There is a fine line between being overly cautious and appropriately so, which I am learning to navigate.

Travel Lesson #2 (Lesson one aside): Remembering the selfless generosity and acts of kindness that we have been shown in all countries by friends and strangers alike. This fact is to be recalled during all the other times I start to lose faith in humanity.

Travel Lesson #3: While we may have most of the best and the brightest (people, schools, gadgets, infrastructure, etc.), the United States is not either of these adjectives. We are simply an infant country, albeit one with power and riches, that has, is, and will make mistakes that will need fixing. What happens in the US truly affects every country in the world and their opinions of us as Americans vary from one end of the spectrum to the other. In some countries, learning I was American has garnered marriage proposals (two, to be exact), while in another country caused a police officer to refuse to help us with the simple task of directions.

Travel Lesson #4: I don’t have to love it, but I CAN live with only what I can carry on my back. Read: It is possible, although maybe not attractive, to go without make-up and hair product, wearing the same clothes for days.
Travel Lesson #4.1: Do not pack an ounce more than you can comfortably carry.

Travel Lesson #5: When bargaining, show no weakness (although a little humor can go a long way). Also, do not attempt to have a side conversation in another language that you are not yet fluent in, especially since everyone else speaks more languages than your average American.

Travel Lesson #6: Carry toilet paper and small change at all times-both worth their weight in gold. Keep ziplock bags and duct-tape handy-ziplocks for storage of liquids and leftovers; duct tape for fixing pretty much everything.

Travel Lesson #7: Climate change is real. There is no doubt about it. It is sad and scary to know that many of the places we’ve seen will be diminished or non-existent in the not too distant future. The fact that people can either turn a blind eye, or worse, claim it’s not happening is unbelievable.

Travel Lesson #8: While it is not necessary nor practical to eat as I do back home, I get irritated if I don’t eat for a long period of time. Snacks and the occasional ice cream have prevented many an outburst.

Travel Lesson #9: Always ask and be sure of the price before agreeing to anything (cab rides, rooms, entrance fees, food, etc) and always appear sure of yourself even if you have no clue where you are.

Travel Lesson #10: Despite the whole purpose of getting away, having frequent internet access is a must, not only in terms of planning and uploading photos, but for keeping in touch and staying connected. Honestly, I do miss home-some days more or less than others, but what keeps me going on the tougher days are updates from friends and family.

Cambodia Eats

November 9, 2010 by  

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Again, as with so many elements of this trip, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to the cuisine of Cambodia. I thought about it. No signature dish or flavor came to mind. Time to test the waters!

So far, it’s been a mixed bag. As you know, we tend to frequent the street stalls and local street vendors, where menus are unheard of and the food is (almost) always more than worth the cents spent. In other words, street food has been good to us. So we expected more of the same in Cambodia.

Maybe we’re not hitting up the right stalls. Nothing’s been horrible, but there’s nothing to write home about either. Lots of instant noodles with various toppings, rice porridge, and bland soups, and the ever present fried rice or noodles. However, we have slowly discovered that some of the restaurant prices are only slightly higher than the streets’. Once this discovery was made, we’ve taken to hunting down cheap restaurants with good food and have had some great success. Where Khmer street food may have fallen a bit flat on our palates, Khmer restaurant food has been outstanding.

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

The best curry to date (albeit a Thai style curry), has been had in Sihanoukville. Best fruit salad? Phnom Penh. A garlic pepper chicken that was so good, we went back and ordered it for lunch the next day. A couple nights Jeff even treated himself to barbecued barracuda (with salad and baked potato) for $3….which he thoroughly enjoyed, even if he didn’t enjoy my sneaky fork tactics.

And if anybody is wondering about the “happy pizzas”…ours was a better than average pizza, but we have decided that a more appropriate title would be “relax-y pizza”, since shortly after polishing it off, I fell asleep in the middle of a conversation discussing how relaxed we were feeling. This, thankfully back at our guest house, not in the restaurant!

Neither of us has encountered the highly anticipated tarantula, scorpion, or other such fried nasty on a stick, and other than for a photo op, I’m not really looking forward to that moment. In the meantime, I’ll be happily digging into what may be my next new favorite Khmer dish.

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Happy Jeff with a “happy pizza”

Note:  Shortly after writing this blog, we have had great luck with street food again in Siem Reap.

Hermanus: Shark Penguin Shark Oreo

November 8, 2010 by  

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Outside of Hermanus, a whale-watching coastal town that seems equally as comfortable with its high end resort homes as with its resident baboons in the middle of streets, we embarked on an ocean dive of a different sort—cage diving with the Great Whites. Apparently, here the animals are known simply as white sharks. Maybe the sheer number of them here desensitized the area residents into forgetting the power of this predator. I, however, will show my respect for them and continue to mention their greatness.

Anyway, Great Whites here range from 1.5 to 6 meters. Separating us from them are 2 inch steel bars. But despite the stupidity of those numbers, Mari and I were excited but not scared of the trip. We boarded the boat with about 25 other excited people and set off towards Shark Alley.

The ocean though, was rough this day and rocked the boat, constant like a heaving breath. About 1/3 of the excited boat stopped smiling pretty quickly with this motion, myself included. Ten minutes into our 4 hour viewing session and the first of us was over the side of the boat, heaving up her complimentary breakfast. More people followed suit. I stared at the horizon hard in an effort not to join them. About 2 hours out at sea, we spotted our first Great White as it swam up to the tuna heads placed as bait beside the boat.

People rushed into their wet suits so they could jump into the cage and get a better look. I sat hunched on a bench with my wet suit pants on unable to will the rest of it up. Mari was a trooper, and in between sessions of throwing up she went into the cage and got close and personal with a Great White. It stayed around for another hour or so before we headed back to shore. I turned green, from the seasickness and from envy at those not affected by seasickness. I never was able to get into the cage and left the day disappointed— not with the shark adventure, but with myself.

Maybe it was an effort to redeem myself, but two days later in Cape Town I was at the Two Ocean’s Aquarium, signing up for a Predator Dive. That’s a dive in their 2 million liter tank which includes five ragged tooth sharks, two sea turtles, stingrays (the largest was bigger than a queen-sized bed), and numerous fish.


Three of us were going into the tank. The Dive Master would tell us when to enter into the tank to avoid descending onto one of the sharks. He entered with what looked like half a broom stick and told us it would deter the sharks if they got too close. I looked at the sharks, saw their 2 ½ meters of length, and thought that must be one special stick. But he jumped in the water and we followed.

He told us to watch out for the Mussel Crackers and then he descended. Having no idea what a Mussel Cracker was, I watched out for everything as I went to the bottom of the tank. And for the rest of the dive, every time a fish came towards me, my hands instantly withdrew to my armpits. But the dive itself was amazing. I even found some shark teeth during the dive, which the aquarium let me keep as a souvenir.

Before the trip I emailed a South African friend of mine and told her South Africa was one of our destinations. She replied back that the country is beautiful and a ton of fun—just be careful because it can be dangerous. I quickly replied back to her asking what the hell the dangers were. She, um, never did write me back.

But after having driven through it I think I understand her and the country a little better. Adventure. Unique landscapes. Wildlife. Adrenaline and danger. This is South Africa. Nature at both its rawest and at its shiny display best. Car jackings and muggings are as much a possibility as a shark attack or the bungee line breaking. That is to say that all seemed equally unlikely, but nevertheless a possible reality. But there’s also a better respect and maybe even harmony (even the commercialized versions of it) with nature that allow us to fold ourselves into it, even for a short time. And there’s a rush here that you can’t experience anywhere else. And that’s why we came. We wanted extreme experiences in the most fitting of settings.

In between the cage diving and the predator dive we drove to Betty’s Bay. Here exists one of 3 colonies of an endangered species, the African Penguin. We walked close to these beautiful creatures and watched as they waddled in front of us, returning to the water or back into their homes.

A mother kept watch of her baby, whose feathers were still like down. About a thousand remained in the colony and allowed us to hang out with them as they went about their day. One was curious of me and let me within a few inches of him before I moved on and let him be. We left there that day feeling fortunate to have visited them, sad for their future, and in love with the most awkward of animals.

We came for the sharks. We came for the lions and for the elephants. It was the 216 meter bungee jump and the opportunity to ride an ostrich that made our palms sweat. But in between all of the quickened heart palpitations South Africa offers something else. Quietly, it is encountering an endangered species and in doing so becoming more invested in it. Or more loudly and resolutely it is Robben Island, where Mandela was locked away during apartheid. It is the education of both nature and in a social experiment which is every bit as interesting as the USA. Eventually reflecting back on South Africa as one of our favorite countries, I have a feeling we’ll remember the moment our feet left the safety of a bridge and what a shark’s teeth look like from a meter away, but it will have been the moments in between those which will have made the impact on us.

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