Australia Part 1 – Sydney

February 18, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Posted in Australia | Leave a comment

We were nervous due to our pessimistic thoughts that somehow we would not make it successfully to Sydney for Christmas. We loved Africa but we wanted to be somewhere more…familiar for the holidays. We imagined Australia to be more like home…but warm. Afterall, both countries originated from England. Maybe they’ll have plum pudding? Maybe there will be Salvation Army Santas outside department stores. We had missed our flight 7 weeks earlier when trying to get from Madrid to Africa due to our own negligence and flew standby on a flight the next day by the skin of our teeth. After we heard about the hundreds of flight cancellations in Chicago due to snow and ice, we got to the airport 5 hours before the scheduled 6:00pm flight to ensure we would take into consideration any unseen events which, in the end, did not occur.

We arrived safely and on-time aboard our lovely and comfortable Qantas flight. We had our choice of several movies, good food and Wiggles treat bags for the boys which were a big hit and slept most of the 11 hour flight. We love Qantas! Despite not having internet access in Bostwana, we had slipped into an internet cafe and quickly googled a few hotels in the Sydney area. We phoned Radisson and secured a nice room right in the center of things at a reasonable (for the city) price. So we landed, boarded a train for a quick ride into the city, walked a few blocks to our hotel and relaxed. We had made it literally halfway around the world and in a place where we wanted to be for Christmas – this was all we could ask for.

Our nice hotel was located right beside Darling Harbor which is one of the major stomping grounds in Sydney. It was a great place to be. We were so excited and feeling so fortunate to have landed such a great spot with little planning and a lot of luck. We originally hoped for a homey guest house decked out in holly, garland, gingerbread spices wafting throughout and a cozy place to celebrate the holiday. However, our standards have adjusted accordingly and we are relieved to simply have a place to sleep. Christmas would take on a new flavor for us like our lives these days, it would be a bit spontaneous. This is normally NOT our lifestyle – usually we try to plan things out. Now, we are landing in cities without even a guidebook in hand and simply figuring out how to get around by the seat of our pants as well as figure out where to go Christmas shopping with 2 days to spare!

Our arrival started out in a jolly way. Sydney was celebrating the holidays with its annual ‘Carols in the Domain’ concert. The Domain is Sydney’s “Central Park” and everyone gathers on the lawn one evening a few days before Christmas for a televised concert. We squeezed in among the throngs of Aussies and one family was nice to offer a section of their oversized blanket to us. This nice family shared masks, candles and cookies with us too. The mother was still glowing from spotting Russell Crowe earlier in the day. It was great as we listened to Christmas carols, watched Santa make a helicopter landing and got an unexpected visit from the Wiggles. As it got darker we were shocked to see hundreds of seemingly giant bats (aka flying foxes) take to the skies for their evening flight. While everyone else was unfazed, we didn’t know whether to be frightened or in awe. We weren’t sure how to accept bats into our Christmas mood and it emphasized for us that although we expected Sydney to be more familiar, it would still be different.

Although we were only a few hours hence on the global timetable, we were somehow very jet lagged and were sleeping until close to noon (the comfy beds at Radisson may have played a part). We only had a couple of days to hunt down the few and far between toy stores for the boys to make their “wish lists” and find wrapping paper, stockings and a few items to make our humble abode festive. It was odd seeing people Christmas shop with their hair still wet from the morning’s surfing, flip-flops echoing in the Victorian archways and red and green garland on the lamp-posts glistening in the hot, hot sun. Perhaps California is the same way. We thought to create a paper Christmas tree from green wrapping paper. We went back to the hotel and cut it out and stuck it to the wall. Then the boys colored paper ornaments and stuck them on. They were so incredibly proud – more excited than we expected. We played Christmas music on the laptop that we had loaded before we left Marblehead. We couldn’t find Christmas stockings so we bought colorful small gift bags and placed them by our paper mantle and yule-log (we pretended to need a fire in the balmy Sydney weather). A woman on the airplane had reminded the boys to leave a magic key for Santa so he can get in when there is no chimney. So we cut out some magic keys and stuck them on the wall outside of the hotel door. The children were assured that Santa would know where they were in the world and, alas, that theory was proven correct when the boys awoke to a small pile of treasures “beneath” the tree. With our “Do Not Disturb” sign on our door, we remained inside our hotel cocoon and called our family, watched the boys play Lego and watched “The Grinch” which appropriately reminded us that the spirit of Christmas is within the heart and not under the Christmas tree. With their modest gifts, the boys were very grateful and happy to have created their own “home away from home” and we felt that they really understood that concept of Christmas in our hearts, as did we. They also seem to understand that the abstract benefits that we are gleaning from our adventure are a gift that will stay with us and that is what we are thankful for. But you still need a good meal so we ventured out for Christmas dinner and found a restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House. They handed out Santa hats to everyone and there were crayons and champagne to keep everyone happy.

We knew we were staying for the New Year’s Eve celebration so we relaxed for 10 days in Sydney – the longest in any one place. Darling Harbor was full of life and full of kids activities. With Australia being a part of the British Commonwealth, Sydney was the perfect blend of British influence, architecture and finery with Aussie character – rough and relaxed. Think tea at the Ritz and a stroll in Hyde Park with a barefooted cowboy adorned with various tattoos. It is a place where you don’t have to be a patron to use the restrooms, you see more surfboards than dogs, you can shop for groceries barefoot, there is a recycle bin on every corner, no cigarette butts in the gutters, and the most spoken phrase is, “No Worries” (Aussie for “You’re Welcome”). We were happy to stay for a while.

We saw an Ice Man exhibit about an ancient man buried under ice who was found in the Tyrol Mountains a few years back. We took in a movie for the first time in months (The Bee Movie), enjoyed a cruise around the harbor and got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from the “other” side. The city is friendly, easily walkable and very inviting. It`s clean as a whistle and seems to have the latest of all a city could offer – monorails, high-speed ferries, gleaming skyscrapers, fumeless buses, efficient trains, international foods, IMAX theater, museums, botanical gardens – we suppose it is what you would expect from a young country who learned from everyone else’s mistakes.

We headed to famous Bondi Beach to soak up the sun and watch some serious lifeguarding. The seas are rough along the coast and there is dangerous marine life to watch out for. The lifeguards earn their paycheck. They monitor the swimmers via Skidoos, dune buggies, surfboards, motorboat and from the chairs and control tower. Helicopters buzzed by constantly and whistles were blowing reminding swimmers to “Stay between the flags”. We later tuned into a reality show entitled “Bondi Beach” depicting the stressful life of a Bondi lifeguard. Aussies also take the sun very seriously and posterboards and newspaper ads continually remind everyone to reapply their sunscreen as Australia has a skin cancer rate of 1 in 3 – one of the highest in the world.

One of the administrative things we needed to take care of was to secure our visas for India. We could not obtain them before we left home as we did for some other countries because the visas we need for India are only good for six months from the date of issue. So we had to wait until it was closer to our Indian adventure to apply. This meant leaving our passports with the India consulate and, adding Christmas and Boxing Day to the mix, they would not be ready for 7 days which was 5 days later than we planned on being in Sydney. This meant having to venture around Australia without our passports until we returned to Sydney in early February. Yikes. Travelling without passports seemed like travelling without your wallet or your glasses. What if something happens like an accident or a national emergency? Alas, we had no choice and had to leave them if we wanted to go to India.

We had to gear up as the New Year approached. We had scoped out the city and identified the best spot for viewing the fireworks display. Fireworks is an understatement in Sydney as it was to be a dazzling spectacle so we were willing to do whatever it took to see it loud and clear. First, it involved paying a premium for our hotel room for the 2 nights closest to New Year`s. Ouch. Next, it involved getting to the city park early enough to grab a spot. So we grocery shopped (with shoes on) for the day’s picnic essentials and stuffed them in our packs along with essential toys and reading material and a sheet from the hotel’s unmonitored linen closet and headed toward the park at 7:00am. We arrived at the park’s entrance gate and they told us that the gates would not open until 10:00am! We queued up with the 200 other people crazy enough to wait (who were all, by the way, between the ages of 17 and 28 – our little family made up the oldest and the youngest in the crowd). The sun was beating down on us even at that early time of day so we pinned our sheet to the railings and created a little tent, munched on muffins and played with our newly acquired army men and tanks. The crowd hit a beachball around and if you failed to keep the beachball off the ground you were berated by the crowd so we all had to pay attention which kept the boys entertained for a while. We hadn’t done this since college (sans the army men). Finally the gates opened at 10:00 and Peter ran ahead to secure a spot. He nailed a spot at the furtherest tip jutting out into the harbor with an unobstructed view of EVERYTHING – harbor bridge, opera house, skyline – perfect. We continued our vigil for another 14 hours in the hot sun for a total of 16.5 hours. Our children were unbelievably patient – they always rise to the occasion but this was a new threshold. They played army, ate ice cream, read books, and waited and waited. These are the same children who on the one hand can race uncontrollably through a department store like a couple of Tasmanian Devils and on the other hand, wait in harsh conditions for an event they don’t even fully understand the importance of or appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of. The killer for us was that all this waiting was for a mere twelve minute show at midnight. Back in college at least Bruce Springsteen put on a two hour show!

During the day they had aerial shows, fire boat geysers and the harbor filled up with all sorts of marine vessels. The Sydney Harbor bridge was outfitted with an illuminated hourglass that dropped giant grains of sand every five minutes to help us countdown (and remind us how slow time was going). There was a 9:00pm family fireworks show that was fantastic. Then an electric boat parade followed where tallships were outlined with illuminated garland and sailed in procession around the harbor. Finally, midnight arrived. The harbor exploded and was lit up from the light of six separate barges shooting off identical fireworks from various locations a mile long. The harbor bridge exploded upward as it had been planted with loads of fireworks which turned the infamous roof-lines of the Sydney Opera House shades of red, green and blue. Our little hotel sheet had been encroached a bit by an international melting pot of people just like us who were there to see the spectacular show. One desperate woman who barely spoke english had asked if she could leave her children on our blanket with us so they could see the show (we declined). Everyone else just sat tamely, politely and enthusiastically and we all watched together as a cohesive group of spectators. There was no chaos, no unruly behavior, no pushing – it was New Year’s Eve Aussie-style, no worries.

After a bit of recouping and resuming our “sleep till noon” routine, we rented a car and headed out of Sydney for our adventure along the east coast of Australia.

(click picture for slideshow)

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ZimBotsNam

February 2, 2008 at 6:10 am | Posted in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Zimbabwe – Botswana – Namibia………December 13 – December 22

Zimbabwe

We had driven 3600 miles across South Africa from Johannesburg on the mid-eastern side to Cape Town on the southwestern side and were due to return our car to Johannesburg but we didn’t want to make the trek across the country so we purchased a flight back to Johannesburg. A good investment. We made it to Johannesburg by 11:00 am and caught our 1:00 pm flight to Victoria Falls, affectionately referred to as Vic Falls. It was a clear flight until we were hovering over Victoria Falls and the pilot announced that the ground controls were not working to support an instrumentation landing with no visibility so unless he could actually see the runway, we would have to return to Johannesburg. We all crossed our fingers but there was no break in the clouds so we headed back. British Air was generous enough to put us up in a nice hotel and buy us dinner for the inconvenience which they were not obligated to do since it was a weather-related issue but, then again, they could have landed if the instrumentation had been working – that’s Africa. We headed back the next day with hopes of being booked on another flight. We learned we had been placed on a South African Airlines flight but had to wait on standby until the flight was closed. We could only get on if someone had cancelled and this was not expected. Once the flight closed, we and some other passengers hovered over the poor clerk all clambering to get a seat. It was very tense and while all the passengers remained friendly, it was cut-throat. We were nearly ok until a family of 5 with small children showed up and took what seemed to be the last of the remaining seats. Miraculously, she told us we could go as there were still 4 seats left but we had to run as the flight was to take off in 15 minutes. We still had to get through security and customs which we knew the exact layout of because we had done the circuit the day before. We asked forgiveness and cut in front of all of the other passengers waiting in the security line and quickly removed our laptop, tossed our packs, threw jewelry, cellphones, cameras and wallets into the buckets and then put ourselves back together. The kids were experts with the security routine by now. It helped that some of these smaller places do not make you take out your liquids or remove your shoes. We asked forgiveness again as we cut to the front of the customs line and people seemed to be supportive of us (small kids always help) and then we sprinted to the gate with people pointing and laughing at the scene as we were carrying backpacks, bags of snacks, gifts, and other straggling items. We made it to the gate where they kindly announced that the gate was closed and that no more passengers can enter. Despite our pleading, they sent us to the transfer desk where, finally, we were successfully placed on the next flight out with a secure reservation which was to depart 1 hour later which we could get on without having to go through security and customs again. This time we successfully landed in tiny Victoria Falls. We stood on line for at least 45 minutes in the tiny ballroom-sized airport and paid our visa fees in American cash to enter Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, you must pay in either South African rand or American dollars. They won’t allow Americans to use Zimbabwe dollars or South African rand in an effort to obtain as many American dollars as they can as they are worth more to the government. It seemed like a racket – we never heard of a place that dictated what currency you can use based upon your nationality. Our hotel cost us more because we had to pay in American dollars. Zimbabwe was a very strange place to be. The government is starving its people yet Victoria Falls, one of their main sources of revenue, appeared to be a facade untainted by the reality of the rest of the country. There were signs of desperation throughout. For example, there needed to be tourism police stationed around town to avert the desperate locals from hounding the tourists into buying their crafts. We needed to be escorted to our hotel for “protection” because it is out of desperation that folks lurking in the bushes may demand your wallet, or your shoes or the shirt off your back. We had many offers for our shoes in exchange for a soapstone carving.

As soon as we dropped off our bags, we made a beeline for the falls which were conveniently located steps from the hotel. The sun was shining bright and it was hot. The falls were spectacular to say the least and we walked along a paved walkway within a mini rainforest that took us along them. While the sun shone over the falls, buckets, we mean buckets, of rain fell over us as we tried to take pictures of the falls. It was unbelievable. We walked along further and folks who were returning from their walk were dry. It literally only rained a few hundred feet around us and nowhere else. We laughed at how fascinating it was and were rewarded for our efforts with a splendid rainbow that festooned the sky above the falls. We dried off during the rest of our walk. The falls gave us mixed emotions – they did not seem as big as the pictures and it may be because you view them from the top as opposed to the bottom where they would potentially have more impact. However, we were lucky to view them during the wet season when they are the most powerful.

The next day we had to figure out how we were going to get to Botswana. We were winging it more and more as our adventure went on (not to mention that guidebooks cost a small fortune due to a very high tax on all books in South Africa- without a guidebook, it is hard to plan ahead and we didn’t have one for Botswana). The town of Victoria Falls was smaller and less modern than we expected as we were hoping to consult with an experienced travel agent upon our arrival. Our hotel only booked day trips so we wandered into town looking for an agent. Two tourism police escorted us down a path where there was supposedly an agent. They started to lead us up an unlit stairway to the top floor of a strip mall when we said, “No way.” It all looked a bit unsafe. Just then, Fletcher, the travel agent, came walking up to us. We felt a bit better and we all went to his office upstairs, along with the tourism police. Hmmm. Fletcher’s office consisted of a desk, a computer, a small rack of outdated brochures, and four chairs – two for us and two for the tourism police (the boys played with their cars on the floor). We told him we wanted to book a place in Chobe. He was very nice and professional and suggested Chobe Safari Lodge which we had in mind anyway. He made a few phone calls and got us a room plus he would transport us in one of his vans. We gave him a small deposit and we saw pictures of the vans and they looked new and we had a confirmation number for Chobe so all seemed legit, plus with the tourism police there we figured Fletcher wasn’t going to take advantage of us. He was to pick us up the next morning.

Then the tourism police led us to an open market. We spent an unanticipated several hours there where a small group of locals set their wares out on blankets in a dusty lot with each blanket containing at least 500 individual items and there were probably 50 stalls. Most of the items on all of the blankets were the same – soapstone carvings. We were the only 4 tourists visiting at that moment and we were safely accosted while we shopped. At one point, we showed interest in purchasing some now defunct Zimbabwe paper currency. Immediately about 20 men had formed a human hut around us so that the boys, who were sitting on the ground at our feet, couldn’t see the sky. The paper currency came out of their pockets and pouches like disposable tissues and were offered to us in clumps for prices anywhere from 75 cents to $2. The paper currency was beautiful before the devaluation- each piece a different color engraved in painstaking detail with elephants, buffalo, lions, and rhinoceros. They were worthless except as souvenirs reminiscent of an earlier Zimbabwe. Everyone was very friendly despite their disregard for our personal space. They were very kind to the children showing off the many crafts. After purchasing currency, coins, wire spiders, bracelets, soapstone carvings and grass figurines, we felt we had contributed amply to the cause. Conversely, our hotel/resort was supposedly a tribute to the ethnic culture right down to the minutest detail but instead it was an overdone monstrosity amid the have-nots. We felt uncomfortable in the cavernous place as no one was in the casino and no one was walking the outdoor corridors. Where was everyone? It was like a movie set! We went to a restaurant on the premises and ordered pizza but they were out of pizza. Then we ordered hamburgers but they were out of buns. Then we ordered chicken but they were out of chicken. Zimbabwe’s situation was starting to show through in lovely Victoria Falls.

Despite the fact that the hotel was out of place in this deprived country, there were some interesting parts about it. Our room overlooked the bush so there were baboons swinging from the trees nearby. Our sliding glass door had a notice on it to remind us to close and lock it as the baboons are smart enough to switch the latch up if unlocked. Lurking underneath the trees on the other side of the electric fence were the locals hoping for a transaction from anyone sitting on their veranda. Imagine trying to pass money between the rails of an electric fence – we don’t know how much business they were expecting. Outside our room was a family of about a dozen mongoose living in a burrow beneath the walkway. They scurried by us during their evening forage for food. A giant crab larger than your spread hand stood guard in front of the utility closet in the corridor. Not sure where he came from as we were nowhere near the ocean. Are there land crabs? Our favorite was a moth that nature had camouflaged as a stick. We stared at this “stick” seemingly clinging to the wall unsure if was a creature or not until we were able to detect tiny legs. The boys were especially fascinated as we waited for long stretches to see if it would move. Oliver kept an eye out for dung beetles who had unfortunately rolled onto their backs and were rendered helpless like a turtle and he dutifully set them straight. We remember taking walks with Oliver when he was three and the walks would take forever because he would stop and transport every creature in the path to the grassy sidelines.

The hotel was decorating for Christmas with a tree and gifts in the lobby. Christmas seemed very strange in this part of the world. Evergreen Christmas trees in the bush? Red and silver wrapping paper? Christmas specials at the 10 little stores in town? It seemed out of place. We watched as locals lined up at the bank to make withdrawals of their near worthless currency. When they would emerge from the bank with wads and wads of money, we initially thought that they were withdrawing their entire savings. However, wads and wads simply translated to just a few bucks. The government wouldn’t let folks withdraw more than a certain amount at a time. Meanwhile, the boys swam in the terrific swimming pool while we had poolside drinks. Two drinks totalled $7,500,000 Zimbabwe dollars! It was even difficult for Peter to calculate the conversions and, to complicate things, there were at least three different conversion rates – the official, the market and the street. You never knew which one to use. One of the tricks that the locals play is to sway you to buy something and when you give them currency that`s more than the price of the goods, they claim to not have any change. Then they try to convince you to buy more such as 6 bottles of water instead of 4. This happened to us a few times but we never backed down which forced the seller to hunt around to all of his buddies looking for change. The boys were understanding either through osmosis or from our explanations how everyone wants you to buy their stuff and they try lots of different schemes to get you to buy as much as they can. Marketing 101. One scheme often used is that the sellers will put things in the boys hands for them to touch, play with and, hopefully, beg us to buy them. We had never encountered this in America but it was common on our trip. Helium balloons, stuffed toys, handmade cars, games, and souvenirs. The boys were so shocked in Egypt when a man offered each boy a free bronze pyramid and each adult a free turban. The man insisted it was because we were Americans and he loved America. We offered a few dollars but he flatly refused to accept it. We said, “Thank you” and started to walk away. Uh Oh. We apparently didn’t know how to play the game because now he pursued us asking for various amounts of money. We did not want to buy these things so we took them out of the boys hands and gave them back. He refused to take them back and asked for money. Because he would not leave us alone, we resorted to threatening to call the police. The boys found this most exciting. The man retreated with his pack of cheap souvenirs awaiting his next prey. Oliver wanted to hear the story over and over again and wanted to understand why this man would pretend to give us gifts but then demand money. Advanced Marketing. From then on, without our saying so, Oliver would never let a seller put anything in his or Henry’s hand as he wanted to foil the marketers before they foiled him.

Botswana/Namibia.

We arrived in Kasane, Botswana at the Chobe Safari Lodge which overlooks the Chobe River. The river is a main drinking spot for the local animal and bird populations. We were pleasantly surprised that for not a lot of money, we secured a nice place with two bedrooms, overlooking the river with ethereal mosquito netting draped across our bed. The boys were once again excited to have bunk beds. The entire place was covered in thatched roofs and was authentic African. We immediately signed up for the game drive that evening and 2 more after that. We also went on a water safari. We spent four nights at Chobe. The staff was very friendly. The sumptuous buffet was something to look forward to each night. This is where the boys tried impala, warthog, kudu, springbok, ostrich, crocodile and guinea fowl. Nothing tasted too strange and it was fun to try it. Henry usually had seconds and particularly liked the impala. Peter was always on the lookout for Malva Pudding – an African dessert closely resembling his favorite dessert, Sticky Toffee Pudding. We saw many animals and birds. Botswana was proud of the fact that there are no fences surrounding their wildlife parks so the animals can truly roam wherever they want to. The lilac-breasted roller is the country’s national bird and it is beautiful with 7 brilliant colors covering its feathers. We saw a lot of animals but it was now wet season which meant that the animals did not frequent the river as often because they could get water inland. We saw vultures, lions, crocodiles, hippos, impala, kudu, eagles and the endangered puku. We were warned not to go to the banks of the river where the crocodiles could be lurking nor should we roam the premises at night in case a hippo decided to walk the grounds to snack on grass. The boys never left our sight with all of these foreign dangers in the wings. Chobe is known for its hippo populations and we kept hoping to see one with their mouth wide open as we had only seen them being shy and mostly submerged up until now. A wide open mouth is not a yawn but a sign of aggression – hippos are very territorial and defensive.

Next day, we were excited to learn that one of Chobe’s offerings is a daytrip to a Namibian village. Our guide took us in his boat. We first had to stop at the tiny border crossing to get our passports checked and then to Namibia which was right down the river. We walked the muddy track with our guide who hailed from one of the villages. On the way, he pointed out certain bushes and trees that were used for medicinal purposes. He took a few leaves from one and put them in his mouth and chewed on them the same way you would stick a piece of gum in your mouth. We got to the village and a handful of children scurried ahead so they could be first in line for the candy our guide had brought along to hand out. What was very noticeable was the huge baobab tree – one that Mom was especially keen on seeing. Our guide advised us that this specimen was thought to be 200,000 years old. The seed pods on it are so large and elongated that the Namibians make flipflops out of them since the seed pod is shaped like one’s foot. When you split open the pod, you end up with a perfectly formed pair. Our boys passed out the candy which helped solidify in their minds that this was a big treat for these children. We walked around the village which consisted of about 10 mud and stick dwellings and a chicken coop built on stilts to keep predators away. Nature served as their outhouses. Some ladies were weaving baskets or studying the Bible while the children helped their mothers sweep and the boys rolled giant spare tires across the dirt courtyard. Most of the men were on an island fishing until the waters recede again. We were told that a nearby resort bought their land from this village and as an act of good faith, the resort installed a couple of wells in the village so the children wouldn’t have to go collect water from the river anymore because 3 children had been killed by crocodiles while doing so. As though life wasn’t hard enough. We bought several baskets and took a last look at the giant baobab tree and the people who lived within its shade.

Our last night at Chobe was highlighted with an unforgettable sunset that changed the celestial skies into a different palette every 5 minutes. We were entertained by a local group of Namibian men and women singing and dancing to traditional songs while wearing traditional fashion. They wore woven anklets and bracelets with seed pods dangling from each one and the seedpods would shake like mini rattles and when they stomped their feet in unison, it made an exciting impact. The night creatures provided the background music and it was bittersweet for us as we prepared for our next adventure.

(click photo for slideshow)

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