Myrdalsjökull Glacier

Lost in Iceland: A Day of Ice Trekking in Myrdalsjökull Glacier

Heading northeast on Iceland’s famous Ring Road instantly reminded me why I had always dreamed of visiting….

Ok…I lied.  I was initially going to write my next post about intimate, eccentric Reykjavik, a city of only 120,000 or so hearty souls, yet on a whim I changed my mind.  I took one look at my pictures from my first Icelandic adventure, ice trekking on a real, live glacier, that I felt I couldn’t contain my desire and thrill to write about this adventure first.  So, lovely, playful Reykjavik will have to wait.  Prepare yourself for a real glimpse at why Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, and why the wild, stark dramatic beauty of this amazing country enraptures one’s heart and soul and makes any visitor immediately promise to come back again.  Hold on tight…..and hope you enjoy the ride!

The geography of Iceland is absolutely amazing.  Despite its long history of Vikings and Sagas, it is actually a geographically young country that is still forming.  It contains some of the largest glaciers in the world (glaciers cover about 10.9% of Iceland’s total landmass.  There are over 4,328 square miles of active glaciers).   Three enormous glaciers represent 11% of the entire ice mass:  Vatnajökull, Langjökull and Hofsjökull.  These glaciers are so incredibly huge, that in the winter time Icelanders get out their Land Cruisers and actually drive across them for fun!

Iceland also has over some of the most active, turbulent volcanoes in the world.  There are over 200 post-glacial volcanoes (over 30 of them have erupted since the country was settled in the 9th century AD, per Volcano Discovery (for more information, check out their volcano website.  Recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland have caused airport closings and chaos throughout Europe.  On May 25th, The mighty Grímsvötn volcano erupted and wreaked havoc, just a little over a year after the powerful eruptions of the now world-famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

Besides volcanoes and glaciers, Iceland also prides herself in having the richest source of hot springs and geo-thermal activity in the world.   There are steam holes, geysers, bubbling mud holes and sulphuric precipitation.  Many Icelanders are known to hike to the top of a dormant volcano, swimsuit on and towel in hand, to take a dip in the hot, natural spring pool at the top of the mountain!  There is also the infamous “Blue Lagoon”, probably one of the largest, geothermal pools in the world where Icelanders and tourists alike bathe ensemble, coated in mud masks, drink beer and watch the world go by.

Iceland’s interior is uninhabitable; it is covered with glaciers, mountains and high plateaus which makes the support of any life impossible.  Therefore, all Icelanders live along or within easy reach of the coast.   A long, curvey group of roads circles the island. Although we didn’t make it all the way around, I was amazed and surprised by how much the topography and geography change.  There are endless amounts of things to see and do in Iceland, especially for the adventurous souls, which leads me to the topic of this post:  A Day of Ice Trekking in Myrdalsjökull Glacier.

The Myrdalsjökull Glacier is the fourth largest glacier in Iceland and is located about 96 miles southeast of Reykjavik.  Several adventure outfitters take the curious, adventurous and willing traveler on a full-day trip from Reykjavik which is pricey, but in my opinion, the best way to experience Iceland’s ice in the raw.

Here are some pictures from this epic, adventurous day.  Hope you enjoy!

Setting off early morning with the tour operator who of course drives a Land Cruiser, Iceland’s favorite vehicle! I chose Icelandic Mountain Guides and they were terrific.

En route following the Ring Road northeast towards Skogar, the magical Seljalandfoss waterfall, which can be seen from the highway:

Up close and personal with the Seljalandfoss waterfall, one of Iceland’s many incredible waterfalls:

As you get close, you can hear the water roar as it tumbles down and sprays all those who stand near:

As the drive continues, the scenery never ceases to amaze me.  It is God’s Country, a land so green and so beautiful that it almost hurts your eyes.  You pass through many small towns by the sea, farms loaded with white fluffy sheep, horses and hay, and nothing but green.  It is absolutely spectacular.  The beauty is stark, raw, mystical and unique.  Iceland is like no place I’d ever seen.  It is like no place on earth.

As we approached the glacier, I was curious about when I’d first be able to see it as the size and mass of Iceland’s glaciers is literally incomprehensible.  They are that big.  Unfortunately the weather began to change.  The clouds set in like a giant blanket overhead and rain began to fall lightly across the greening grass.  We arrived at the Myrdalsjökull Glacier shortly after our visit to the waterfall, just as the rain began to change from a drizzle to a downright pour.  Thankfully I was prepared.  I packed all my Gortex watergear which would definitely come in handy as we hiked the massive Myrdalsjökull Glacier.

The tongue of the glacier…there is no way possible to show the enormity of it!

The entrance to no man’s land…..

It goes on forever….

We get on our crampons in the pouring rain and set foot onto the glacier.  I’ve never walked on crampons before and we get a brief instruction on the techniques.  I felt like a penguin, it was hilarious, but once I got used to it, it was actually quite fun and such an amazing way to see the glacier.

Here is a photo from on top of the glacier:  The terminus of the glacier ends in a tiny pool of water and a river.

We see our first 100 foot crevasse.  Wouldn’t want to fall in there!  But the colors of blues are so intensely beautiful….

The clouds and rain set in and then the wind picks up speed and it was FREEZING, WET and MISERABLE!  But we were walking on a glacier so what could one expect?

A larger crevasse….

The stark beauty of the place felt like no place on Earth….

And the ice formations were unbelievable…

The rain still is pouring and I am freezing cold…yet the thrill of walking on ice from before mankind felt surreal.

And the colors of contrast between the dirty, ancient ice juxtaposed against the verdant green fields was spectacular in itself.

After 90 minutes of walking in severe wind and rain, we headed back to the terminus of the glacier and thankfully climbed into the warm, dry bus that will take us back to town.

It was an experience I’ll never forget….to be completely lost in Iceland and wandering….”Is Anybody Out There?” (A popular quote sold on t-shirts, mugs and postcards from Iceland).  After being there, I understood what this quote was all about!

If you go:

I chose Icelandic Mountain Guides who have a ton of cool tours. Check them out here. Be sure to pack waterproof clothing and lots of warm layers! It was freezing cold out there on the ice!

Like it? PIN for later!

The Myrdalsjökull Glacier is the fourth largest glacier in Iceland and is located about 96 miles southeast of Reykjavik. Several adventure outfitters take the curious, adventurous and willing traveler on a full-day trip from Reykjavik which is pricey, but in my opinion, the best way to experience Iceland’s ice in the raw.Experience a day of ice trekking on a sea of ice! 

Iceland TRAVEL BY REGION

Absolut Iceland

I’d always wanted to go to Iceland.  As a travel wonderer at heart, Iceland was one of those mystical places that highly appealed to me.   It seemed to have it all:  Incredible nature, explosive landscape (consisting of some of the largest glaciers in the world and several active volcanoes), a small, easily accessible country, loads of active opportunities and a culturally-rich capital city. Of course I’d heard about its soaring costs (this was before the financial crisis) yet the pros definitely outweighed the cons so in early August 2008 I found myself on a non-stop flight from Minneapolis to Reykjavik along with my father to the land of fire and ice.

Over the last ten years, this once rather isolated island has become one of the hottest travel destinations in the world.  Tiny Iceland, which has a population of a little over 300,000 people and a landmass about the size of Virginia, is geologically a very young country that is still in the process of formation.   Iceland was first settled by the Vikings in the 9th century AD and shortly thereafter, established the first parliament in Pingvellir in 930 AD.   Hundreds of years of dominance and control by other Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden finally gave way to Iceland’s independence in 1918. It is often said that this violent, turbulent past similar to that of Iceland’s mighty, active volcanoes, lead Icelanders to become the highly resilient, individualistic, creative and proud people that they are famous for.   How else would they have survived?

For me, going to Iceland was a real feat.  It had nothing to do with logistics.  Fortunately I had the money, the time and the babysitting (my wonderful Mom) all lined up. Instead, it had to do with the fact that only six months earlier I had broken my left foot and spent five long, agonizing, brutal months in a boot.  For someone like me who is incredibly active (I run year-round rain, snow, sleet or shine; hike; walk; bike; golf; inline skate; and chase after my children non-stop) the news that my foot was broken was like a hammer being slammed into my heart.  I was devastated.

Ok, you may wonder how does one go about breaking their foot?  Well, this is a rather embarrassing story so I’ll try to make it short but sweet (but knowing me, that is impossible).  I was walking hand in hand with my three-year-old son across the street to the pharmacy, both of us sicker than a dog, and saw a puddle. Instinctively, I took my right arm and flung his thirty-plus-pound body over the puddle.  I obviously didn’t know my own strength and his body flew across mine, tripping me, and knocking us both down smack into the pavement….W-H-A-M.  As we fell, my left foot slammed into the edge of the sidewalk at full speed and for an instant I could not even move.  We were both crying and in the middle of a busy intersection.  Not one person stopped to help!  I couldn’t believe it!  We live in Minnesota for God’s sake,land of the infamous Minnesota Nice.

After a minute or two of being motionless on the ground, comforting my bawling son, I was finally able to stand up.  Something didn’t feel right.  My left foot killed.  I got up hesitantly, limped slowly into the pharmacy, got the cold medicine I needed and drove home.

Feeling utterly miserable with a terrible cold, I ignored the pain of my foot.  It was throbbing(yet so was my head) so I put a huge pack of frozen blueberries on it.  I peeled down my sock and examined my foot carefully.  It was in a rainbow of different shades of black, blue and yellow.  My first reaction was “Yuck”!  It looked like something on a dead person’s body.  It didn’t look good yet I was too sick to care.

I spent the next two days in bed with a terrible chest cold, still icing my foot and trying not to walk on it much.  Every time I stood up, I felt a piercing pain and it throbbed constantly.  Silly me,though, did not go to the doctor.  I had never broken a single bone in my body thus I thought it was just a bad bruise or strain.

A week later, after fully recovering from my cold I decided it was time to get back into my regular workout routine.  It was February and cold as hell but that didn’t matter.  I run year round and in fact, actually prefer running in the cold, dry air.  It calms my body and soul and is pretty much the only way I can survive the long, cold winters of Minnesota.

I got on my running shoes, bundled up in hat and gloves and set off for the lake.  To ease into it, I decided to try walking first.  I walked the first couple of blocks and it still ached. But I didn’t quit.  I had to workout.  I’m a diehard, exercise freak and running especially is a requirement for my mental health.  I need the release that running provides me.  I have too much energy and too much tension.

Despite the excruciating pain in my foot, I would not quit.   I continued to walk in the bitter cold and gray skies until about twenty minutes later I had to turn around.  The pain was worse and becoming intense.  Something was not right.  I limped the next mile home, iced my foot some more yet still did not go to the doctor (yep I know stubborn and stupid).

Finally, over two weeks after the sidewalk tripping incident, I finally decided to load my two kids into the car and head over to the doctor.   The doctor, who also happens to focus on sports medicine and injuries, ran an x-ray of my foot and came in with the grim news.  I had a four inch fracture running across one of the major bones on left edge of my foot.  He couldn’t even believe I made it so far without coming to the doctor and confirmed that I must really be able to withstand pain.  Yeah, right!  He didn’t know about my almost immediate epidural at the very onset of labor with my two children.

I was quickly “booted up” in a knee-length black boot, given a pair of crutches and the contact information for a foot specialist where I would get further x-rays and consultation. What? I thought in fear.  How on earth was I going to drive home in a stick-shift car, wearing a boot and using crutches with two young kids, one of them only a little over a year old and hardly walking!

I saw the specialist the next day and the news was bad.  My foot was indeed broken and I would have to be on crutches for a minimum of two weeks and another six weeks in a boot.  I was heartbroken and stressed out as my daughter Sophia still slept in a crib and needed assistance with everything,and my son Max was an active, high-energy three-year-old who was always on the go.  There was no way I could care for the children on my own while my husband was at work so in came my in-laws, who drove the fifteen hours straight from Virginia to help me manage.

After six weeks in a boot, I returned to the foot specialist hopeful that this would be the end, however, secretly I knew my foot stillthrobbed and ached and that it probably was not healed.  This song and dance continued for another four long, brutal months, as spring slowly moved into the long-awaited Minnesota summer and I was becoming more and more desperate and depressed.  Every time I went back to the doctor and she brought in the x-ray, I knew the bad news…it had not quite healed.  I was always filled with tears.  What was supposed to take six weeks to heal ended up taking me five months, through the heart and soul of summer with two young kids running up and down the sidewalk and me, slowly gimping after them suited up in a knee-length boot.  I could hardly go to the park, could not go to the beach or pool and was getting more and more depressed about the situation because outdoor activity is my lifeblood.  After a long, cold winter I had missed almost the entire summer being confined to a boot and could not enjoy running, walking, biking, skating, swimming or any of those other joys of a Minnesota summer.

As the heat of summer intensified and the Iceland trip approached, I began to worry that I would not be able to go.  I had earlier gone on a trip to Virginia to visit my in-laws and could hardly walk the length of the airport.  If I was instructed to only walk a couple of blocks at a time, how on earth would I be able to travel to Iceland and hike for days on end?

I got fitted to another boot, an air-boot, that was lighter weight and not so hot.  That helped the situation a little.  Then, a few weeks later, I got a “sandal” cast which allowed me to actually go in the water at the pool.  About two weeks before I was to leave for Iceland, I finally received the much-anticipated news that finally, after five long months, the break had healed and I was a free woman!

The first week of August, I was off to Iceland hoping I’d be in good enough shape to do some of the dreamy hiking and exploration.   Miraculously, I proved that I did not lose as much stamina as I had anticipated.  I only lost a little bit of my soul.  Fortunately this would soon be restored once I landed in Iceland and was surrounded by immense nature and beauty, and a love of life once again as I could move freely about, on my own two feet.  What a blessing it is to walk and be free! J

Stay tuned….next post will be on culturally divine Reykjavik.

Iceland TRAVEL BY REGION

A couple days in Jo’burg

Jo’burg as she is lovingly called by locals (also Jozi, Egoli or Gauteng (the two latter terms both meaning “place of gold”) has a turbulent past which greatly mirrors the struggle and eventual overcoming of the long history of apartheid.  Although the history of modern Johannesburg is roughly only a little over 100 years old, the surrounding area of Jo’burg has a much longer past.  Often known as the “cradle of civilization”, the valley outside of Johannesburg has become a World Heritage Site and is an important paleontological site due to the discovery in 1947 of “Mrs. Ples”, the first known adult cranium of an “ape man” dating back 2.5 million years ago.

The area today which is known as Johannesburg or Jo’burg was an un-established nomadic land for thousands and thousands of years.  It could have perhaps remained that way if it was not for the discovery of gold by George Harrison, an Australian prospector, who happened to stumble upon one of the richest gold mines in the world back in 1886.  Within three short years, the land that would become Johannesburg was built on with rapid, quick-fire speed and greed by other local entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes, a rich owner of nearby diamond mines who provided the cash and the power to take full advantage of the gold rush.

In order to mine the gold as fast as possible, cheap, slave labor was needed in a hurry so poor blacks from throughout South Africa came to the once deserted bushveld plains and went to work under brutal labor conditions.

Within three years, the previously low inhabited area which would become Johannesburg sprang up as the third largest city in all of South Africa, and it didn’t take much longer for Jo’burg to become one of the largest cities south of Cairo.

The years that followed were loaded with strife and conflict.  There was too much fortune at stake.  The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901 lead to South Africa being under British control and rule.  As the population of Johannesburg expanded, the British colonial rule decided to begin forcibly relocating the black population from the central city to the rift-raft outskirts of town.  This began the long, tragic movement towards apartheid in which blacks and whites were kept completely separate (see earlier post titled “The Rainbow Nation” for more information on the period of apartheid in South Africa).

Obviously the effects of apartheid eventually lead to a series of revolts and protests as the city’s black population (which were and still remain by far the majority) began demanding their rights and an end to this madness, tyranny and deprivation.  The “Rand Revolt” of 1922 lead to over 200 deaths, and protests and strikes remained common.

More problems arose as more blacks were brought into the city center during the time leading up to and after the Second World War.  Although black movements began to rise and form at this time, they were shortly squashed by the powerful government who wanted to repress them.  Hence began the policy of apartheid and the gradual relocation of blacks from Jo’burg to townships on the outskirts of the city.

The turning point in South Africa’s long history of apartheid and discrimination occurred on June 16, 1976 when South African police open fired on a student protest in the black township of Soweto (a name derived from South West Townships).  This created a series of violent protests throughout South Africa in the 1980s, which lead to the eventual dismantling of apartheid (in early 1990) and the first ever democratic elections in 1994.  Finally, the brutal system of segregation and deprivation was destroyed and blacks and white could begin living together peacefully and humanely.

Over time, blacks have begun moving back into previously white-only districts and some of the townships have been vacated.  However, one of the largest black townships, Soweto, remains a vibrant place of black history and life today and has a population of over 1,000 residents.

Jo’burg today is a cosmopolitan city yet voluntary segregation remains strong.  The white population has mostly retreated to the rich suburbs living in gated, secured communities while the center of town is predominantly black and exceedingly dangerous.  (We were not allowed to visit the city center without a black guide and decided not to visit since there really was nothing worthwhile to see).  Crime is rampant and people unfortunately live in a culture of fear.  Hopefully as the economic and educational opportunities improve among poor blacks, the crime will decrease.

Overall, I found it a sad testament of the negative, long-lasting effects of apartheid and a system of hate. I didn’t much care for my visit to Jo’burg because I felt like staying in the rich, gated suburbs was not really being there.  It was a tragic representation of the ill-effects of segregation and the resulting immense poverty and crime of the city.

Anyway, since most tourists will be obligated to spend at least a day or so in Jo’burg via transit, here are some photos and information on the sites we felt were worth visiting.

This is all we saw of downtown Johannesburg. It is not a safe place to visit unaccompanied. What a pity!

We stayed in the Northern Suburbs in Sandton, a wealthy enclave of gated houses, buildings, offices and shopping malls.  Unfortunately the general decay and violence of the city center has lead to a mass exodus of mostly weathy whites and businesses to leave Jo’Burg and move out to the safer yet boring suburbs.  Here is a photo our hotel area:

Photo of the barbed wire gates surrounding our hotel and literally every single home in sight.  What a crime to have to live in this kind of fear and isolation!

One of the many large, luxury malls called Sandton Square, located under the luxurious Michelangelo Hotel:

Our hotel, located nearby the Sandton Mall, the only option for dining and nightlife and a short walk away:

Inside the Sandton mall where everything is clean, expensive and white.  They are gearing up for the Christmas season hence all the decorations.

The mall even displays art!

The outdoor courtyard of the enclosed mall contains loads of fancy restaurants and even live music.  Here is the place we ate dinner at.  Nothing too exciting but it was decent.

Next morning, we had a hired guide and drove out to visit Soweto, South Africa’s Original Township.  Immediately the fancy cars, luxurious hotels and homes disappeared and we were for once the minority.

Here we are passing some slums en route to Soweto.  This is how most people live.

Inside Soweto on our tour of some of the nicer neighborhoods.  Soweto was built on farmland located 11 miles southwest of Johanneburg to house the blacks working in the gold mines in Jo’burg. The conditions were deplorable as it often took the workers over three hours to get to work each day.  In those days, there was no running water, no electricity, no shops and no roads.  The living situation became unbearable in 1933 when the government declared the “Slums Clearance Act” and forcibly moved blacks off their land, out of the city center and into the townships.

Although parts of Soweto are nice today, there still remains a high level of violence and poverty in this area.  It is definitely a worthwhile place to visit as there is an excellent Apartheid museum and the history of the place surrounds you.

Here is a photo of one of the most famous victims of the 1976 Soweto march Hector Pieterson.  The photo is at the entrance of the Museum dedicated to the history and struggle of Apartheid in Soweto.  The pain is ever so present and captured in their eyes.

Stay tuned….This is my last post on South Africa.  It was wonderful to write and remember such a fantastic, culturally stimulating trip!  My next posts will be on another gem….Iceland!  Stay posted!

South Africa TRAVEL BY REGION

Into the Wild: My First Safari Part III

The second night at Tanda Tula we were in for quite a surprise and adventure.  Clinton, our fun-loving ranger told us that we were going to go on a night safari.  First, we were to meet the happy-go-lucky always smiling bartender “Smiling” in the bar at promptly six o’clock where we were to pick out our preferred drink for cocktail hour in the midst of the wild.  Yes, you heard it right.  We were going to have happy hour right out in the middle of the game reserve!

Next, we followed Clinton obediently to the bar, picked out our drinks which were loaded into an ice-cold cooler and placed aboard the land cruiser.  Then we were off into the night filled with half-excitement half-fear.

As the sun was beginning to set:

It was time to pull over for cocktails and h’ors-d’oeuvres right smack in the middle of the game reserve.  Here is a photo of Clinton, our ranger, and our tracker setting up shop:

There were plenty of cold beverages.  We were even asked before setting out what we would prefer to drink and Smiling, our bartender, loaded up the cooler with the drink of our choice.  For me, it was my beloved South African Sav Blanc, definitely one of my favorites:

For my dad, he preferred an ice-cold beer as it was a hot and sticky day still.  My Dad and I enjoying our drinks in a land full of wonder:

After a nice buzz, the real adventure starts….our night tracking of the two dominant male lions in the reserve.  Here we caught up with them and followed them around, silently watching their every move and prowl:

Here we are playing follow the leader:

We followed the lions around for an hour, watching them pace and guard their environment.  It was a pretty amazing experience!

The next night, we were in for an even bigger surprise.  Around dinner time, we were all told to meet at the reception area and then instructed to board the land cruisers.  Where were we going?  I wondered.  They didn’t ask for a drink preference this time so it wasn’t for happy hour nor did they mention that we were going on a night safari.  Instead, it was total silence and suspense.

We drove into the thick of the game reserve, in pitch black darkness.  Everything was still in the park. There were no animals.  No noises.  Just the sound of the land cruiser leading us somewhere into the dark night.

Then, we saw it.  A light.  What was it?  As we came closer, we realized the light was coming from a circle enclosure of torches.   The flames of the fires spiralled peacefully in the light wind.  We got off the land cruiser, followed Clinton and were cheerfully greeted by the entire staff at Tanda Tula with a welcoming drink and an enormous bonfire.  Then we saw it….the huge, long table for twenty placed strategically in the middle of the circle, next to the fire where we were going to have a feast of a lifetime smack in the middle of the game reserve!  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  What a spectacular surprise!  We drank, dined and drank some more for over two hours, never once (well ok, maybe a few times) feeling the least bit concerned we would be attacked by wild animals or hungry lions who wanted to join the feast.  There were armed guards at each corner of the makeshift camp, armed with tranquilizers just in case any animals decided to crash our party.

It was a night I’ll never forget.  It was an unbelievable experience!  I woke up the next day with a headache so big I thought I’d been run over by a herd of elephants but it was worth every minute of the misery for a night of eating and drinking under the stars and into the wild!

Stay tuned….My last post on South Africa will include a two-day visit to Jo’berg where we visited Soweto and saw a completely different side and perspective on South Africa.  One of clear and total segregation. 

Adventure Travel South Africa TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

Into the Wild: My First Safari Part II

I awoke the next morning to the 5 AM call of the wild.  The sun was barely up yet the jungle outside my tent was fully awake and alive.  The monkeys were in their full glory, active as a toddler at a playground.  I was exhausted but excited about the day that awaited.  It was day one of my first safari and I could hardly wait.

There was a slight tap on my door and I opened it to find Smiling, smiling as usual and holding a tray with a beautiful light breakfast of morning tea, fresh scones and fruit.  I opted to eat on the verandah but of course I was forewarned not to leave my food for even a second.  The swarms of monkeys playing jubilantly in the trees above would devour it all in a heartbeat.

By 6 am, our group of six met at the main lodge and we boarded the open air land rover.  We had our ranger Clinton, a native African tracker and a driver on board as well.  I could hardly contain my excitement and anticipation at finally after all these years actually going on a real live safari.  I had to pinch myself to make sure it was really real.

One of the lovely things about opting for a private reserve is the transportation.  In public game reserves such as Kruger National Park, you must follow and stay on the roads in your car.  However, at a private game reserve you roam in an open-air, uncovered land cruiser and can go where ever you want, without having to stick to the roads!   Here we are, setting off on our first safari drive with the animal tracker at the front and the ranger (with loaded gun just in case) on the right side, driving the vehicle.

Excitement and anticipation awaits us (and a little bit of nervousness as we are fully exposed!).  Not long after setting out, we are rewarded with the spotting of our first animal, a lovely giraffe grazing off the treetops:

Next came the gazelles (I was desperately hoping we wouldn’t see our first kill.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I could handle it even though it’s nature.  I’m a true softie at heart and also do not like the sight of blood):

Shortly after we encountered our first elephant.  Little did we know, an entire herd of 20-30 elephants were right around the corner waiting:

I was surprised how incredibly close we were able to get to the animals.  It was quite a thrill and also a little intimidating to be sitting right next to an enormous elephant with no protection.  According to our ranger, we were to remain motionless in the open-top rover.  If we remained still, the animals would view us as a large mass and would not charge us or be afraid.  In the event something went array, the ranger always carried a loaded gun with tranquilizers.  However, the animals although wild were used to having tourists come and basically ignored us.

Here is another view of the mighty elephant.

I could not get enough pictures of the elephants.  I was completely enthralled by their majestic beauty and peacefulness.

A lone elephant who at first was uninterested….

Yet then his or her curiosity got the best and we got up close and personal with this mighty creature:

As we rounded the corner, we were surrounded by a herd of 20-30 elephants, big and small.  I fell in love with the mama and her baby:

Can I take you home?

Now I know why they called him Dumbo:

As we rounded the corner and ventured further into the park, we came across a herd of zebras:

We spent some time chasing the elusive leopard and finally found him up in his favorite spot, a tree.  Unfortunately once we approached he was gone before I was able to snap a photo.

Then in the heart of the game reserve, we found the Lion King and the pride.  By that point, I was getting used to being in an open-air vehicle but I was glad that the ranger was ready in case of any attack!

Here he is, the King of the Jungle (note how close the other rover is):

Here is a better shot (he is hanging out right next to the rustic, small airstrip for those adventurous souls who prefer to land right inside the reserve):

The Lion King:

Isn’t he cuddly and cute?

He has such a beautiful mane!

The female of the pride…she looks so sweet….but:

She can definitely bite!

The pride:

The pride with the male:

One of the kids playing around with big,old dad:

Look who decided to show up…a hyena….very mean and dangerous.  We were hoping there would not be a fight…

After all the excitement, we decided to get out in the middle of the game reserve and WALK BACK to our lodging….

(Notice how Clinton, our ranger, had an armed gun just in case we were attacked by a herd of elephants or worse yet, a lion).

My heart was beating like an African drum and I definitely didn’t want to be at the end of the line and first on the lunch list.  I was thankful yet slightly disappointed we did not encounter any wild animals on our hour walk back!  Phew!!!

Stay tuned…next post will include our surprise night safari tracking the two dominant male lions, an outdoor feast in the middle of the park and cocktails au naturale!

Adventure Travel South Africa TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

Into the Wild: My First Safari Part I

Our package deal from South African Airlines included a three-day stay and safari at the Tanda Tula Private Game Reserve located in the northeast section of South Africa adjacent to the world-famous Kruger National Park.  Tanda Tula was one of the first luxury private reserve camps established in the area and prides itself in giving the visitor beautifully appointed African safari styled “tents” in a gorgeous reserve with no boundaries and no fences.

During our three-day stay at Tanda Tula, we would be going on an early morning safari ride, a late afternoon one and a surprise evening safari where we would be tracking the two dominant male lions in the reserve.  We were also surprised with a candlelight dinner IN THE WILD….yes that is right.  We ate an enormous feast right smack in the middle of the game reserve, while the rangers stood by on the watch.

We took the morning flight out of Cape Town non-stop to Hoedspruit, one of three airports located near the Kruger National Park.  Here are some photos of my first day into the wild.

Boarding the plane to Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport:

View from the plane of the Southern Cape:

Small, clean airport in Hoedspruit, one of three airports in the vicinity of Kruger National Park:

After collecting our luggage, we were met by our driver from Tanda Tula Private Game Reserve in the Timbavati Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park.   Our two-hour van ride was like nothing I’d ever experienced (at this point, I had not been to India or Nepal thus passing through the African villages felt like being on a movie set).  There was village after village located right next to the roadway filled with Africans in traditional dress and women walking along the side of the street carrying their goods on their heads and children wrapped around them in brightly colored fabrics.   Men and children were loaded into the backs of trucks and there was no sign of anything remotely modern.  I desperately wanted to take some photos along the way but held back thinking that not the proper thing to do.  Our van was the nicest vehicle for miles so getting out of the car to snap some photos would be extremely rude!

As we approached the numerous private game reserves, the roads became more modern and the villages disappeared.  Here is a view not far from the entrance of Tanda Tula Game Reserve:

Arrival at Tanda Tula Game Reserve.  Tanda Tula which means “to love the quiet”:

Checking out the surroundings….there are NO FENCES!  Yes that is correct.  One of the beauties of visiting a private reserve is that you are literally in the wild.  The entire base “camp” is without fences or boundaries meaning the animals are free to roam wherever they please.  You must take extreme caution, especially at night.  No one is allowed out of their tent once darkness hits as elephants, lions and leopards have been known to invade the campsite.  There is always a ranger on alert just in case a herd of 20-30 elephants decides to trample through your camp!

Here is a picture of the most annoying, yet charming friend….the neighboring monkeys that live in the trees surrounding the “tents”.  You better watch your breakfast when eating on the outdoor verrandah….or it will be gone!

Ok….drum roll please….here is a picture of our “tents”.  Yep, these are our luxurious tents.  There are eight in total and apparently they run for about $1000 a night if you were to show up and rent one.  Our incredibly, amazing package deal from South African Airlines (remember $1800 for our Atlanta-Jo’berg flight, two other internal flights and lodging in three places including here!) must have really been getting a steal on this part of the deal.  When we arrived at Tanda Tula and checked in, my dad mentioned that I was his daughter, not his wife (they had us originally in one “tent” and it only has one bed, not two like we requested), their simple response was “no worries” you can stay in the tent next door at no charge.  Can you believe it?  I got a $1000/night tent for free!  Wow!!!!!

The inside view.  Note the minimalistic structure.  It is sturdy yet not too enclosed so there is no avoiding the sounds of the wild.  My first night sleeping alone was a little scary as I would jump at every noise and it took me awhile to finally fall asleep to the bizarre, dramatic sounds of the wild.

Plus your own private bath tub and bathroom which includes an OUTDOOR shower, right in the thick of things.  It felt a little strange actually taking a shower that first night as dusk settled in and the animals began to make noise.  Plus there were more bugs than I’d ever seen but this was so cool!

Tanda Tula has beautiful, lush grounds and even a pool in case you are interested in taking a dip (it gets quite hot there in the afternoon).

Every meal is prepared from scratch and contains a delightful selection of South Africa’s finest.  Our meals were eaten on the large, open-air dining hall which afforded views of the game reserve and if lucky, a curious giraffe or two.

Here is a photo of our first dinner, a delicious, spoiling buffet:

Me and the friendly bartender, known as “smiling” because he ALWAYS smiles!

View from the open-air verandah into THE WILD…..

I wondered what on earth was out there?  Would it come near the camp or even scarier, my tent while I am alone, tucked away under the luxurious white covers?  Those thoughts swirled around my head as I turned off the lights, closed my eyes and listened to the call of the wild.  Nature at it’s finest.

Stay tuned….next post will be of my first 5 am safari!  (And yes….I saw lots and lots of wild animals!)

Adventure Travel South Africa TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

The Southern Cape: A Wine Lovers Paradise

With an ideal, temperate, Mediterranean climate full of sunshine, adequate rain and fertile, unspoiled land, the Southern tip of South Africa has a long 300-year-old tradition and history of creating fabulous wines.   Just like the immense diversity of South Africa’s people, the Rainbow Nation also produces some of the most exciting, diverse wines in the world.  The Southern Cape in particular is one of the great wine capitals of the world, home to over 800 wineries not a far drive away from Cape Town.

There are 13 designated wine routes comprising the Winelands area of South Africa (the most popular include Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek, and Somerset West).  A true wine lover could spend weeks exloring the many beautiful estates and vine-covered rolling hills.  Unfortunately, I only had one afternoon.   But a few hours in South Africa’s wineland convinced me that the wines are delicious, the scenary is magnificent and I would love to come back!

Here are some photos of my afternoon exploring the wineyards of the Southern Cape.  Hope it makes you thirsty for more! 🙂

Drive from Cape Town to nearby Wine Country.  Stellenbosch is only a mere 46k/29 miles away!

Stop for a liquid lunch in lovely, charming Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch is primarily a university town with a relaxed, carefree attitude and tons of fantastic outdoor cafes.  The primary beauty of Stellenbosch is its vast display of Colonial Dutch architecture; arguably some of the oldest in South Africa.  Stellenbosch was founded in 1679 by Governor Simon van der Stel who founded one of the best vineyards in the Cape, Groot Constantia and also planted hundreds of  oak trees making the city informally known as the “city of oaks”.

Gorgeous Dutch Colonial architecture:

Sensational purple flowered jacaranda trees in full bloom:

Checking out the options for lunch.  Way too many delightful ones to choose from!

Me, enjoying a fabulous lunch of course with an excellent bottle of local Sav Blanc—what could be better than this?

Drive to Seidelberg Wine Estate:

The wine line-up at Seidelberg Wine Estate

The gorgeous grounds of the Seidelberg Vineyard….I could live here!

The lush vineyards coating the hillside….I could smell the fragrant wines inside my head.

A bench with a view (and incredible wine):

For more information on South Africa’s wine country, here is a great site: Vineyard Varieties, which gives the historical background of the wines of the Southern Cape:  http://www.vineyardvarieties.com/vineyard-variety-wines/history-of-south-african-wine/

Stay tuned….next stop is at the heart of South Africa’s Big Game…my first visit to a game reserve and a safari of a lifetime!

Note about photos in this post:  All these pictures from my South Africa trip are over 7 years old.  It is amazing to see the difference that seven years can make in technology!  Most of these pictures are from my first digital camera.  If you compare these photos with the quality of my more recent ones from my trips to Nepal and Morocco, the difference is astounding!  Thank goodness for modern technology!  I’ve also had to scan a few of the photos in as I took them with my other camera at the time.  This explains the grainy quality.  I felt it was more important to “show” all of South Africa even if some of the pictures weren’t the best quality.   Hope you enjoy!

South Africa TRAVEL BY REGION

Exploring the Cape

Part of the reason why South Africa is such a magical place is because she is blessed with an immensely varied terrain which provides a vast array of flora and fauna.  When most people think of South Africa, they immediately dream of her Big Game Parks and are perhaps unaware that South Africa is also has one of the most varied botanic kingdoms in the world (over 9,000 different species on its fertile, mountainous slopes).

South Africa’s rugged coastline features gorgeous white sandy beaches, rolling hills covered in vineyards, craggy green mountains (such as Cape Town’s famous natural landmark, Table Mountain), lush, tropical botanical gardens and of course, the world famous savanna land where the lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, and more roam.

The southern tip of South Africa is an adventure-lovers paradise offering hiking, biking, golfing, paragliding, surfing and beach sports abound not to mention world class dining, shopping, entertainment and culture.   Cape Town is often considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world and when I first saw this spectacular city, her aura, beauty, excitement and adventure captivated my heart and soul.

Some of the outdoor highlights of our second day in Cape Town included a hike at Table Mountain, a visit to the spectacular Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and an afternoon spent in Clifton Beach.

Riding the Gondola up to Table Mountain (often covered in a gorgeous “tablecloth” of clouds):

It’s a long way down:

Views of Cape Town fron the top of Table Mountain:

Next stop:  A Visit to lovely Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, arguably one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, containing 8,000 of South Africa’s 22,000 plant species!

South Africa’s Grand Protea, my favorite flower of all….normally the size of an adult hand!

Another favorite of mine, The Bird of Paradise….

Lush, tropical greenery!

Located only about 15-20 minutes away from the center of Cape Town,is the local white sand beaches.  We decided to walk there and here are the photos along the way to Clifton Beach.

Leaving our hotel, we followed the sidewalks around the jagged coast.  Here is a gorgeous pool right against a delightful ocean backdrop…

The wild, rocky coastline:

Our destination awaits…

Entering Clifton Beach…notice this is where the ultra wealthy live….

Some lucky person’s house….

Main drag along Clifton beach:

Some cabbies from the Rainbow Nation happy to have their photo taken:

In search of an outdoor cafe or restaurant for a wine-indulging lunch facing the beach:

View of the beach town where everyone comes to hang out and have fun:

The gorgous Clifton Beach:

Next stop….South Africa’s Wine Country…..stay tuned!!!!

Getting to know South Africa better:  Some noteworthy facts about South Africa (Statistics found from www.statssa.gov.za)

Population (2010): 49.99 million. Composition–black 79.4%; white 9.2%;

colored 8.7%; Asian (Indian) 2.7%. (2010 Mid-Year Population Estimate Report at
http://www.statssa.gov.za)

Annual population growth rate (2009): 1.2%.

Languages: Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho,
Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga (all official languages).

Religions: Predominantly Christian; traditional African, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish..

Health: Infant mortality rate (2010)–47 per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy–55.2 yrs. women; 53.3 yrs. men. (Health data from 2010 Mid-Year Population Estimate Report: http://www.statssa.gov.za)

Economy

GDP (2009): $287 billion.

Real GDP growth rate: (2008) 3.7%; (2009) -1.8%; (5-year average) 3.7%.

GDP per capita (2009): $5,787.

Unemployment (first quarter 2010): 25.2%.

South Africa TRAVEL BY REGION

The Rainbow Nation

The dismantling and end of apartheid in 1994 marked a dramatic step forward towards hope and reconciliation for the world’s pariah, the amazingly diverse South Africa.  Over 300 years of white dominance and racial discrimination had lasting, heartbreaking effects on the “rainbow nation” an incredibly diverse melting pot with over 11 national languages.  

The promise and hope of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president who was inaugurated on May 10, 1994, thrust South Africa to finally come to terms with its brutal past of discrimination, hatred and injustice that occurred under the many long years of apartheid (which literally means “separateness”). 

The apartheid system was widespread and touched every spectrum of the population based on skin color.  Whites were the privileged class who retained control and power of the government, the land and the nation’s wealth.  Blacks were at the lowest spectrum of the group and basically had no rights, no land and lived in poverty, desolation and constant fear.  A new class of people originated during this time called the “coloured” peoples.  These were people of mixed descent who were all grouped together as one race called the “coloured” and had to pretty much give up their “blackness” altogether resulting in destruction of families, livelihood and spirit.   Under apartheid, mixed race marriages were banned; and education, job opportunity, housing and living areas were all determined based on color leading to severe oppression, poverty and destruction of an entire race of people.

The dismantling of apartheid occurred in the early 1990s, when a new leader F.W. de Klerk took over power, unbanned the ANC and ended the 27-year-long imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the infamous leader of the ANC.  Over the next four years through difficult negotiations, the first democratic elections were held and the New South Africa was born when Nelson Mandela, age 76, was able to cast his first ballot ever. 

Shortly after coming into power, Mandela launched the Truth and Reconciliations Commission to investigate the human rights abuses which occurred under the years of apartheid.  Although forgiveness was difficult to achieve, the country was somehow able to peacefully move forward to a new future of hope and freedom.  Long deprived and oppressed South Africans were slowly able to reclaim a sense of dignity and pride yet of course without problems.  Severe poverty exists throughout much of South Africa as there remains a large imbalance of wealth based on color, and the AIDS pandemic has struck the country like lightening.  Positive things are in the works as well, though.  Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has gained one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, has become a leading player throughout Africa, and has won the status of one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, which has brought in much-needed capital to the country.

It was a decade after the end of apartheid, right in the midst of all this change, that I saw the ad in Conde Nast Traveler sponsored by South African Airlines and the government of South Africa, featuring an enormous gray elephant across the page with the words “Visit South Africa”.  The deal sounded too good to be true.  For US$1800, you received a coach fare ticket non-stop from Atlanta to Johannesburg, and then on to Cape Town for three days, a private safari near Kruger National Park for the next three days, and finally two days in Johannesburg—-including lodging and all flights!  We called South African Airways and it was indeed true. The government was trying to get more tourists into South Africa to help the economy and lucky us got to take advantage of this incredible deal.

We left on the eighteen hour flight from Atlanta with one short stop in Cape Verde, a small island off the western coast of Africa, in order to refuel.  It was the longest flight of my life and our lucky streak continued with a near empty 747. My dad and I both got an entire row of seats across so were both able to lie down flat and sleep!  (An unheard of rarity in today’s over-crowded, full flights).

We landed in Jo’berg and had a couple hour layover until our next flight to Cape Town.  It was late November back at home in Minnesota meaning cold, brown and ugly.  Cape Town, being on the opposite side of the equator, was in the midst of spring.  As we landed, lush green landscape surrounded me and awoken my senses.  The rebirth of spring and of myself had finally begun!

Here are few of my favorite photos from our first day in Cape Town, a magical, richly diverse town that offers endless amounts of fun and adventure.

The rugged, beautiful landscape:

View from the hotel…the beach isn’t far:

The gorgeous rugged beach:

The trendy, hip Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and marina:

Loaded with restaurants and yachts galore:

Me outside a restaurant featuring the “biggest wine bar in the world”…look at this extensive list!

The colorful streets portray Cape Town’s multitude of culture:

A veritable melting pot:

Dinner in Cape Town offers an amazing array of international delights given the immense variety of cultures. We chose a fantastic Indian restaurant for our first night in the Cape and enjoyed the savory, spicy flavors of curries, samosas along with a bottle of delicious South African pinotage. I went to bed feeling excited about the day ahead. On the agenda included a hike around Table Mountain and a visit to the famous Cape Town beach at the end of town. I couldn’t wait to learn more about this fascinating place!

South Africa TRAVEL BY REGION

Out of the Baby Blues…and into Africa

 

As a child, I had always dreamed of Africa.  It was a place of imagination.  A place of wonder.  A place full of wild animals and people who lived in huts.  I place that a young, dreamer of a child like myself always wanted to explore.   Africa to me conjured up images of elephants, giraffes, lions, and zebras roaming freely among nature at its purest; a place that I held fiercely in my young mind for many years to come.

One year after the birth of my first child, Max, my father and I had the chance to finally fulfill my childhood dream.  We went to Africa.   Physically getting to Africa was a piece of cake.  All I had to do was board a plane.  Mentally getting to Africa was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.  I had to overcome over three months of severe Postpartum Depression, and pull myself out of the darkness and up onto the road to recovery.  To this day, that was the most difficult, life-changing experience I’ve ever had to survive and at the thick of it, survival didn’t seem possible. 

It had all secretly started months before the birth of my son yet blindingly, I was unaware of the symptoms.   Pregnancy was supposed to be a time of great joy and happiness.  You are surrounded by attention from family, friends and strangers.  You are often complimented on how “cute” you look and how “happy” you must be to be expecting.  Yet, I didn’t always feel that way.  I missed the old me, the active adventurer who loves to run, bike, golf, hike,ski and do anything outdoors.  I found my changing body to be difficult.  I suffered serious morning sickness for sixteen long weeks, crazy moodiness and hormones, and then had difficulty sleeping.  By the second trimester, however things were finally perking up.  I was feeling better, stopped eating saltines in the middle of the night, and was finally walking around the lake again and playing golf.  My rollercoaster hormones subsided and I finally felt “happy” again and excited about the new bundle of joy growing inside of me. 

I rolled along for the next few months until complications struck and I wound up in the hospital with pre-term labor at 34 weeks. Scared and sick, the anxiety of pregnancy crept in and I was confined to weeks of bedrest, isolation, boredom and fear.  I was absolutely miserable.  Being confined and all alone in my house for a month straight was not good on my body and soul, especially given my physically and socially active spirit.  It was hell.  But what came after the birth was even worse than I had ever imagined.  A day or two after the birth of my son Max, something was not right.  Instead of joy and happiness at the birth of my first child, I felt anxiety, fear and dread.  These feelings combined with a huge drop in hormones and lack of sleep worked in a vicious circle perpetuating the problems and making me completely unable to eat or sleep or literally do anything.  Completely and utterly taken off guard, postpartum depression had hit me like a brick.  It was the most horrifying experience and state of being I’ve ever had in my life and unfortunately it took weeks to finally get the right kind of help and get my life back under control.  It took a ton of support, love and care by my husband, my family (especially my mother and mother-in-law who spent weeks with me) and doctors, to pull me out of the darkness and debilitating anxiety and fear that I was in.  At my worst point, I was sleeping only an hour a night, had lost all 35 pounds gained during my pregnancy in a month and couldn’t even hold my baby.  I was beyond afraid and shrouded in darkness.  I didn’t know how on earth I’d ever manage to survive let alone care for a brand new infant.  About six weeks into it, I finally found the right professional help and slowly was able to pull myself up to the surface over time.   Although each day was a struggle, I finally could see a light at the end of the tunnel and knew that I’d get through this horrible thing, I would survive.  Everything would be ok.  It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t a failure. It was just something that had happened.  I felt relieved in finally realizing that soon I’d be able to resume nurturing and loving my child.

Six months had passed and I was truly on the road to recovery.  My son Max was finally sleeping through the night and no longer colicky (he used to cry for hours on end as a baby which fed into my anxiety, depression and sleeplessness).  I was running again, sleeping again, and rediscovering myself. I was feeling good and so relieved to be myself again, not this miserable, crying, depressed new mother. I found a new support group of new moms, a babysitter and was able to get my life back to normal.  It was around this time that the idea brewed about taking a special trip with my dad. 

My father and I had done a lot of special trips together, one-on-one, throughout the years.  We went to Ireland to visit my uncle, Peru to climb Machu Pichu, Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef and the French and Italian Alps to go skiing.  I had thought that our traveling days would be numbered once I had a baby, however, I remembered a promise my mother had made me after I got married.  Like her parents did for her, she promised to babysit my children one week a year as long as she was able.   Thus, here I found myself a year after the birth of my first child, doing something that was completely unimaginable just a few months before:  Boarding an 18-hour plane ride to South Africa.

I left right after my son turned one and took his first steps.  Leaving him, after all that we had been through together was extremely difficult.  I had nightmares for weeks before I left and had this insane fear that I wouldn’t come back.  Going half way around the world didn’t feel right.  How on earth could I leave my son?  Conflict and anxiety arose once again, but thankfully my mother and husband were able to talk me through it.  I knew deep down inside that getting away would be the best thing I could do even though it didn’t seem right to leave my son. 

The day of my departure was very hard.  I cried and cried as I loaded my bags into the cab and saw my tiny yet somehow bigger son blowing kisses at me through the window. But once I made it to the airport, met my dad in Atlanta and had a cold glass of white wine, I was fine.  In fact, I was more than fine.  I was me, that crazy, wanderlust, adventurous woman who couldn’t wait to fulfill a lifelong dream….a trip to South Africa! 

Stay posted…..there will be more stories to come about my first adventure sans enfant to South Africa!

CULTURE South Africa TRAVEL BY REGION

Paris unplugged

It has been eighteen years since I lived in Paris.  Eighteen entire years.  For me, Paris was a turning point in my life.  I was young, free, educated and ready to explore the world.  In 1993, shortly after the new year my mom and I boarded a plane from Minneapolis to Paris where I would be living for the next six months on a study abroad program through the University of Wisconsin. I t was a dream of mine for years and at twenty-one I was finally following my dreams.

I first set eyes on Paris at the young, ripe, adolescent age of thirteen.  My mother and father, both avid travelers (see my first post ever titled “The wood-paneled station wagon“) had always wanted to take us children to Europe.  Throughout our childhood, we had always heard stories about it.  My father had visited several European cities while he was in the navy, stemming his life-long passion for the continent.  My parents had eloped in Switzerland at the tender age of 23 and 25 and spent three months backpacking all over Europe on less than $2 a day.  For my sister and me, Europe represented a place of legend, offering mystique, wonder and fascination in our young, romantic, girly minds.  We had dreamed of going there as we lived through my parents’ multitude of stories.

Then one day in 1984 it actually happened and it was all the result of spending three, long, miserable days being “bumped” in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.  You see, back in the 80s airlines always used to overbook their flights, especially during the holidays.  It just so happened that my grandparents lived in Harlingen, a southern Texan town near the Mexican border.  Every single Christmas (until I was 15 years old), my entire family went to Harlingen for a week. Usually we drove, jam-packed, a family of five along with our Irish Setter in tow, we crammed into our wood-paneled diesel station wagon and drove the long three days from Minnesota to southern Texas, fighting all the way.  It was pure hell.  Nothing was ever fun about those drives. We were constantly fighting, never really sleeping, and miserably bored for most the ride. This was before DVD players, before computers or any kind of real electronic or portable games.  So we had to pass the time fighting, driving my parents mad or playing “I spy”.  Plus we usually drove in late December meaning the weather and road conditions were questionable and sometimes darn right dangerous.  After almost killing the entire family spinning out on an icy overpass at 2 am, my mom and dad decided to pay the bucks and fly for the next Christmas.

That Christmas flight ended up being my lucky pass to Paris.  The flights were outrageously overbooked.  Desperate, American Airlines was offering over $300 travel voucher per ticket.  For a family of five, this meant a lot of dough.  Thus to our chagrin, my mom and dad continually jumped at the chance to “bump” us to the next flight over and over again until we ended up spending three full days in the Dallas airport!  I believe this was even worse than the car ride given our grumpy, awful, outrageous behavior.  Yet, we made enough money in travel vouchers to send the entire family to Europe the following summer!  Thus in the end, despite the misery, boredom and never-ending fighting, three days in the airport was nothing compared to a trip to Europe!

The following June, we packed our bags and were off to my first trip overseas.  I remember it clearly.  I had permed, dyed blond hair, a full set of braces and was still somewhere between a girl and a woman.  I was at that terrible age where my mother once informed me that she “didn’t know me anymore”.  Puberty was hell yet at least I was on my way to Europe.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Paris.  The beauty, the romance, the aura enraptured my teenage heart and soul like nothing I’d ever felt. It was love at first sight and I knew that I’d be back. I made a promise to myself right then and there, standing looking at the Eiffel Tour, that I would someday study abroad here.  And, that, eight years later, I did.  I spent my junior spring semester abroad studying at the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and then stayed on as a fille au pair (nanny) for a French family in rural France.  My semester abroad was one of the best experiences of my life.  I loved Paris with all my heart.  It was a young, dreamy girl’s dream.  It was incredibly beautiful, hip, romantic, charming, mystifying, big and international.  I could walk for hours never once getting bored and always finding something fascinating to look at.  I could spend an entire day sitting in one of the many perfectly manicured parks watching the endless display of PDA (aka love).  I could spend even more time eating at one of the delicious patisseries, boulangeries or multitude of French or ethnic restaurants.  Or I could just sit there at an outdoor cafe in the heart of Paris on a sunny day watching the world go by.  My six months in Paris felt like living in a dream, especially for an overly romantic, coming of age, young woman.

After six months in Paris and three months in the countryside, it was time to head back.  I wasn’t ready to leave Paris but I missed my family terribly as these were the days before internet and calling home was expensive.  I finished my last year of school at UW-Madison and then returned to France once again for a three-month internship in Marseille.  Marseille (or as we used to call it “merde-seille”) wasn’t anything like Paris.  In fact, it was dirty not so pretty and a wee bit dangerous.  But it was still France.

I was able to make it back to Paris a few more times in my twenties but then times began to change.  I got married, had two children and for my future travels chose to explore other parts of the world.  It wasn’t until my recent trip to Morocco that I actually got to see Paris again (see post “I’ll Always Have Paris”).  I had a six hour layover at Charles de Gualle airport and on a whim, decided to take the RER train to the city for a cup of coffee and some memories, then headed back, somewhat satisfied.

While in Morocco, I couldn’t stop thinking about Paris. That was when I decided to look into changing my return flight.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could have one more day in Paris? I pondered, dreamily.

On one of my last day in Morocco, a fellow CCS volunteer and I spent a crazy afternoon trying to find the Air France office in the middle of a protest. The roads were blocked; the police were out with their machine guns; and there was a bit of uneasiness in the air.  Yet I wasn’t afraid.  Everything was so peaceful and so organized.  It was nothing at all like the media lead you to believe.  Plus I was a woman on a mission.

After fifteen minutes of walking circles and trying to remain as anonymous as possible, we finally found the Air France office.  Against the backdrop of chanting and protests (peaceful mind you) I asked in French what the charges would be to change my flight to the earlier time. “$250” she said.  Without hesitation, I changed my ticket.  Not because I wanted to leave Morocco.  I loved my stay in Rabat.  It was because of that little girl excitement beating loudly in my heart that told me I had to do it.  I had to spend just one more day, albeit short, in my beloved Paris.

The night before my departure, I tried to go to bed early so I wouldn’t feel tired the next day but I found sleep impossible.  Thoughts raced through my head like the night before Christmas.  What would I do first? Where did I have to go? What sites did I want to see? Where would I want to eat? What shops could I possibly squeeze in?  I found myself restless, tossing and turning all night long in my twin-sized bunk.

I woke up at 5 am to the now normal Call to Prayer, not able to sleep any longer.  I knew that I had to wake up shortly to get ready to catch my 7:45 am flight to Paris.  Plus I was beyond excited for my day.

The flight was non-eventful.  I tried to sleep but I had a screaming, kicking baby behind my seat and an unhappy, rude mother who yelled at me for declining my seat.  Thus I ended up chatting with the Moroccan man next to me who was very kind and loved the fact that I spoke rusty French.

We landed around 10:30 am and by the time I gathered my luggage, went through customs and walked out the airport doors it was already noon.  Without thought, I grabbed a cab and gave him the address of my hotel.  Immediately, I realized I had done something terribly wrong.  The cab driver, an immigrant from some other French-speaking African country began to berate me to the point of humiliation.  I was no longer in Morocco that was for sure!  He yelled and complained that he had waited three hours in line and then wound up with a short fare. My hotel was only three miles from the airport and I should have taken the courtesy bus, he claimed, fuming.  My mistake.  I apologized and gave him a measly tip yet inside I was glad I didn’t take the slow-boat to China courtesy bus.  It was already one o’clock and I was famished.

I checked into my hotel, nothing special, yet convenient since I was flying home the next morning.  I asked if there was a place in the hotel or nearby to grab some lunch and then I was sent on a wild goose chase ending up with only an apple and a yogurt from the only open place in the Roissy village.  By this time, it was approaching two o’clock and I wasn’t anywhere near Paris.  The RER ride is at least 45 minutes long to the center of town.

I waited for the black courtesy bus and waited and waited.  Thank goodness I didn’t take it from the airport (despite having an angry cab driver, it would have just wasted more time).  I finally got my ticket to Paris for about $10, sat down in the un-airconditioned train, sweltering (yes it was 80 in Paris!) and beyond hungry.  Once again, I met some friends along the way.  My henna attracted the attention of a group of young Moroccans who talked to me happily the entire ride to Paris telling me that yes they do date and no, there parents far away don’t know. Ha Ha.

By 3:30 PM, I was finally there!  It wasn’t the “whole day in Paris” that I had planned on.  But I was going to make the best of it!  I walked and walked throughout herds of people.  I couldn’t understand why there were so many people there.  It was absolutely nuts.  Nothing like I remembered it eighteen years ago.  It was gorgeous, hot and sunny.  Plus it was Saturday and finally, it was Easter weekend (Yes that was really the reason.  Easter is one of the biggest holidays in Europe and prime time to take a holiday). Thus Paris was packed.

I desperately looked for an empty table at one of the hundreds of outdoor cafes in St. Germain and finally, like a vulture preying on some road kill, found a couple vacating a table and I snatched it.  Here is a picture of me, finally eating my lunch (a mouthwatering tartine au fromage) and having a much deserved half carafe of white wine, freely and openly (we’re no longer in Morocco baby):

There I was, drinking wine and watching the world go by in one of the greatest, most beautiful cities in the world. I could have stayed here all day!

You would think being alone in a huge city like Paris would be intimidating for a foreigner but not for me.  I found traveling solo to be invigorating.  In fact, it actually opened a lot of doors for me, especially because I speak French.  The people I talked to and the conversations I had during my time alone in both Morocco and Paris were amazing.  I found that being alone and just talking to the locals is when you learn the most about others and even yourself.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, window-shopping and rediscovering Paris.  Yes, it was outrageously crowded, and it truly bothered me.  Yet, it was still the same old, wonderfully amazing Paris.  A city I once loved and will always adore.

At one point during the day, the skies above suddenly rumbled and let down layers of thick, heavy rain in the midst of a blue sky. I t was wild!  Of course I didn’t have an umbrella.  The sky was perfectly clear when I left the hotel hours before.  Yet I didn’t care.  Paris in the rain is still unbelievable.

Before I knew it, it was getting late.  I had walked for hours and was exhausted.  Plus I didn’t want to deal with taking the RER back too late by myself.  Conflict arose.  Should I eat dinner down here or at the measly, airport hotel?  That hotel was so boring.  Paris is so exciting!  But I was so incredibly tired.  Wouldn’t it be great to just kick back, go online, and have some wine before bed.  Just relax.  Yeah, right.  This is the thirdeyemom, someone who can never relax. Plus, when on earth would I ever be back in Paris? The decision was made.  I would eat downtown.  Now I just had to find the nearest metro station.  Ok, without a map that took me another hour and once again it was getting late and I was t-i-r-e-d!

I changed my mind and decided to go back to the hotel.  I bought my $10 RER ticket, boarded the train and was ready to chill out for the long ride when all the sudden a zillion young twentysomethings boarded the already packed train.  What on earth was going on? I wondered, feeling my anxiety rise (I don’t like being crammed like a sardine in a hot, stuffy train!  Never did, never will).  I asked wearily to the young man next to me.  It was the big match de foot…the soccer game!  After two stops of pouring down sweat and nearly passing out, I desperately crammed my way through the mass and jumped off the train, forfeiting my $10 ticket back.

I jumped off the train and checked my surroundings.  Hmmm…where was the nearest place I could go?  It couldn’t be anywhere, of course.  It had to be awesome, somewhere special, and somewhere that had memories.  I looked at the large map pasted on the dingy, dirty subway walls.  A-ha! Montmartre!  It was only a few blocks away.  So, not thinking about the tourist hell I’d experienced all day long I headed out the door and towards the Sacre Coeur and “quaint” Montmartre.  Instantly, I knew I’d made a big mistake.  There were hordes and I mean hordes of people taking up the entire width of the street.  What was I thinking?

Disappointed, I decided to at least walk up the hill to Montmartre just to see if it was indeed packed. I  walked up the steep steps to the whitewashed Sacre Coeur and knew that eating in the beloved square of trendy Montmartre was out of the question.  I couldn’t even more through the layers and layers of tourists thus immediately turned around and headed back.  Thankfully the visit wasn’t at all moot, as I was able to catch my favorite Parisien landmark on film, the beloved Tour Eiffel in the distance.

It was nearing eight o’clock and I really needed to find a place to eat, even if it wasn’t the best.  I walked down the windy streets of Montmartre, trying to get off the beaten path and find a less crowded street.  Then, alas….I saw one empty table outside at a cafe and grabbed it. I ordered up a typical French meal with a prix fixe (set price) of aperitif of kir royale, followed by a delicious salad, salmon and a dish of “deadly for the figure” profiteroles.  I sat back, relaxed and truly enjoyed the last hour of being in Paris. Ahhh…..Paris.

Happy, I headed back to the metro and had to once again spend $10 on a ticket back to the airport (since I had earlier forfeited mine).  About thirty minutes into the ride, I realized I had to go to the bathroom….a terrible thing in Paris because there are literally NO public bathrooms, anywhere.  I sat and sat on the slow boat to China, once again, because after eight pm apparently there are no direct trains to the airport.  There are only the ones that stop at each and every metro stop.  An hour later, I was at the airport and desperately looking for a bathroom.  There was none. Ok, I could keep holding it, I thought.  Then, I waited for that black courtesy bus, still holding it.  I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Until finally twenty minutes later it came and I was nearing tears.  I boarded the bus which stopped at every single hotel and didn’t arrive back to my hotel until thirty-five minutes later.  By this time, I was ready to explode.  I ran to my room and finally relieved myself.  It was 10:30 PM.  It has taken over two hours to get from downtown Paris to my hotel.  I was spent.  All I wanted to do was go to bed which I did after packing up my bags, sending off a quick email to my family and thanking the Air France ticket agent for changing my ticket.  Was it worth the $250 and all the craziness and adventure of the day to be in Paris once again.   All in all….YES!  Paris, je t’aime toujours.

France Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Morocco Today: A Land of Complexity and Contradiction


A Moroccan stop sign

An afternoon tour through the ancient Roman ruins (AD 40) and Merenid necropolis of Chellah (built in the 14th century by the Merenid sultan Abou al-Hassan) reminded me just how much history and change has passed through Morocco.

Here are some photos of the ancient city of Sala Colonia and Chella:

The overgrown ancient city is filled with towers and crumbling defensive walls that once protected the powerful Merenid sultan:

Per Lonely Planet Morocco (9th edition), “Making out the structures takes a bit of imagination, but the mystery is part of the magic of this place”.

Now the towers and trees are home to the hordes of migrating storks which are in the process of mating in the spring (I was wondering what that loud, obnoxious sound was! Apparently they clack their bills in order to attract a mate). That was almost as impressive a sight as the ruins!:

Note in this picture there are three levels of nests!

Up close and personal with a stork:

Here is a photo of the remains of a beautiful Islamic complex (note the colors are green and white, the sacred colors of Islam):

The gorgeous, lush Moroccan countryside and farmland offers the visitor a glimpse of what the countryside is like:

————————————————————

Today Morocco remains a country full of complexity and contradictions. It’s rich cultural heritage starting with the Amazigh (Morocco’s “free people” or natives also known as the Berbers) then subsequent invasions by the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish and the French (Morocco gained independence only in 1956) have made it the complex, mystical place that it is today.

As a bridge between both the Western and Arab worlds, Morocco is loaded with complexity and contradictions. While it is an Islamic kingdom with over 99% of the population being Muslim, Morocco is widely regarded as one of the most modern, liberal-thinking Islamic countries in the Arab and North African world. Traditions remain sacred in Morocco yet some are changing, especially with the younger generation. Veils can be seen worn by young and old women side-by-side other women wearing their hair down freely and uncovered. Praying is done five times a day, yet if it is missed, that is accepted as long as it is made up over the course of the day. Restaurants, cafes and discos are opening among the main city centers while the majestic medinas and world-famous souqs remain the main shopping area of town.

As many people would like to believe, camels cannot be seen walking down the street (like in India!) but are seen in the sahara desert. And, believe it or not, goats can be seen in the trees (in Agadir, goats climb the trees to eat the Argan nuts which is passed through the goats feces and made into the world famous Argan oil. This is a fact!).

Thus times are changing for Morocco as it advances towards modernization and globalization. Yet with these unprecedented changes, tensions arise in a deeply traditional and highly religious society. Morocco has not been untouched by the recent wave of revolutions touching it’s Middle Eastern and North African neighbors. Although King Mohammed VI has implemented some dramatic changes in Morocco (most notably in regards to social, economic, and political laws), Morocco is still a constitutional democracy in which power filters down from the throne. In 2007, only one out of three Moroccans bothered to vote thus there is some discontent and disillusionment with the government despite the King’s high level of respect and regard among his people. Protests and strikes are a daily occurrence in Morocco. I witnessed them every single day during my stay. Yet, the main difference is that the protests and demonstrations are peaceful. They are well-organized, with hand-out flyers, brightly colored t-shirts, sectioned off streets and an ample supply of police. This is the Morocco that may very well be able to make headways and change for the people and their future. It will be very interesting to see how everything plays out in Morocco. Only time will tell what path it will follow.

Like many nations around the world, Morocco has been significantly effected by the global recession and its economy is slowly picking up. Tourism plays a huge role in Morocco’s economy and Morocco was fortunate to pick up the tourists from its neighbors such as Tunisia and Egypt after the uprisings in each country. However, the recent bombing on April 28th of a trendy cafe in the tourist haven Marrakech which killed 15 people, will most likely have negative repercussions on Morocco’s tourism industry. Terrorism has not really been as huge of an issue in Morocco as it has in other Arab and African countries. There have been two terrorist attacks both in Casablanca since 9/11 (one in 2003 which targeted hotels and restaurants that killed 45 people, and another one in 2007 which occurred outside the U.S. Consulate General and the private American Language Center). Other than that, Morocco has remained relatively safe and even with the recent attacks, I still feel that Morocco is very safe, perhaps even safer than my own country.

Of course there are still concerns that the safety of Morocco may change and become unstable. One issue involves Morocco’s growing population of youth. In a country of 34 million people, 30% of the population is under 15. That could lead to an increase in problems with unemployment (Morocco already has a high level of unemployment, especially among the youth and newly college-degreed), strains on the educational system, and the desire for young, technologically-savvy (yes, they all have access to the internet and satellite TV) to start demanding more freedoms and more opportunities in which the government is not providing. Morocco is plagued by massive social injustices and a large gap continues to grow between the rich and the bare-bones poor. If the King can implement changes soon then perhaps this young, volatile population will be satisfied. If not, well then we know what could happen down the road.

Now that I’ve been back at home in the States for a little over a week, I’ve had some time to reflect on Morocco. I must say that I was completely surprised and taken aback by what a wonderful, amazing country Morocco is and what warm, generous, kind-hearted people the Moroccans are. I was welcomed with open-arms and accepted into their culture and world. Throughout my stay, I always felt safe and never once felt threatened. I realized that part of this feeling of security has to do with the Moroccan culture and spirituality. The Islam religion places God at the top of their lives and everything falls down after that. Violence is rare. Stealing not as common. And, capitalism is not important which was a refreshing concept given how materialistic and consumeristic American society and culture has become.

By going in to Morocco with the “third eye” approach, I was able to experience all the wonders and joys of a phenomenal culture and religion. I am truly thankful that on our first day at CCS Home Base in Rabat, Mohammed, the Country Director, told us some words of wisdom. He said, “the experience in Morocco should teach us how different we are yet to remember that nothing is right or wrong. Just different”. Thus in order to have a successful volunteer experience in Morocco, you have to remember to keep an open-mind and heart. This will help you learn about Morocco and share our culture with them.

Mohammed is 100% correct. My stay in Morocco further confirmed my view that there are a lot of misperceptions about the Islamic religion and that part of the world. Not all Muslims are a bunch of terrorists! In fact, only a very small few are terrorists and if these people are terrorists, are they truly Muslims? Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Prophet Mohammed does not condone violence. Killing another human being is against the Qur’an. Thus terrorists (many, by the way, are illiterate and cannot even read the actual Qur’an) are not even following the Muslim religion.

I think as Americans we have to rethink our viewpoints and perceptions on the Islamic world and take it for all the wonderful things it has to offer. It is only by traveling and learning about the world, we can make ourselves better as well. I feel extremely blessed to have been one of the 800 people who have volunteered with CCS Morocco since it’s opening in 2007. Now my hope is that someday I’ll be able to go back…

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad