Thursday, November 25, 2010

Further proof I have the best friend ever

We finished off our South Africa trip with a stop in Oliviershoek, nestled on a pass overlooking the stunning Drakensburg Mountains, and a whole day devoted to souvenir shopping for Helen in Durban and then we were off to London for a few days of real life before our African adventure.

Little did I know that Juan was more sneaky than I could have imagined and a surprise was waiting for me at the airport.  Claiming that his friend, Tom, had generously offered to pick us up at Heathrow (in addition to letting us crash at his place for three days), it didn’t seem strange at all to be hanging out at the airport for a bit.  I vaguely remember him acting a bit preoccupied but I absolutely did not know he was watching for Danielle, whom he’d coordinated a surprise visit with.  Seeing Danielle strolling to the meeting point far surpassed any excitement created a few moments earlier when we saw paparazzi running after a sun-glassed, recently nuptialed Russell Brand…

We spent our first night wandering around London, drinking cider at an English pub followed by wine and room service at our hotel.  Posh hotel, wine and best friend = best battery recharge ever.

We spent the next day replenishing my dirty, stretched out wardrobe.  Oh, how I love H&M.  That evening our plans were ruined by the idiotic woman behind the desk at our hotel who informed Juan upon arrival that no one under the name "Lackey" was staying in the hotel. We waited in the lobby for an hour drinking wine sold in the glass (amazing) before we finally tracked him down at the restaurant.  We later bribed the night receptionist with Toblerone for her name ("Linda") and details (Latvian and not so bright: "Lights on but nobody's home").  Too bad London isn't the sort of place you can get someone fired for ineptitude.

I couldn’t have asked for a better 30th birthday present!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ponies with superpowers

We took a small detour from our South African coastal tour to satisfy Helen’s one advance request:  pony trekking in Lesotho.  Nestled islandlike in the middle of South Africa, Lesotho is a mountainous country with stunning landscapes.  The people are proud despite being poor, which makes sense when you realize that they withstood the Zulu warrior army during the difaqane (forced migration) that displaced numerous other ethnic groups in South Africa.

We got an early start from Aliwal North (where we spent a lovely night at Conville Farm watching the most patient dog ever put up with a puppy hanging all over him), and arrived in Lesotho just after one.  We spent the afternoon looking at crafts in Teyateyaneng, where Helen finally found something worth buying – tapestries woven by hand on huge looms by Basotho women.  Good choice.  Next we were off to the Malealea Lodge for pony trekking.  After driving on heavily-potholed roads that the Hot Dog barely handled, into the middle of nowhere, we did not expect to find an expansive lodge with a fully-stocked bar, hot showers and impeccably clean and well-sized rooms.  Our first night around the fire was dominated by an incredibly drunk professional photographer from Jersey who considered himself an expert in, well, just about everything.  Near the end of the night, said man also threw a beer can across the fire which hit a Dutch girl in the face.  As he stammered that he hadn’t meant to hit her (I still can’t figure out where the can was meant for, though, if not her), her friends didn’t hesitate to say with disgust, “Go get a drink of water” and “It’s time for you to leave.”  Awkward.

Pony trekking the next day was amazing.  We went to a waterfall where a local man was playing a handmade instrument while wearing a fluorescent orange construction outfit (?!) and to see some San rock art (a little faded but still pretty cool).  Most impressive, however, was the sure-footedness of the horses as they climbed up and down pathways covered in rocks.  Luckily we were warned ahead of time that as long as we didn’t look down and panic but trusted our horse, we’d be fine.  Too true.

On our way out of the country we were stopped by the traffic police who pointed at our backpacks in the back seat and said they weren’t allowed.

Juan:  it is clothes.  We must have clothes.

Traffic police: Come with me. [Points to a sticker on the front windshield].  Five passengers only.

Juan: We are only three passengers.

Traffic police: You have bags as passengers.  This is not allowed.  You can only have luggage in the trunk.

Juan (while eyeing the incredibly small Hot Dog): We are sorry.

Traffic police: You may go.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Holy Kudu!

Nestled past the picturesque Garden Route, Addo Reserve is home to one of the biggest herds of captive elephants (about 450).   Having done the drive-through safari at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, I obviously knew what to expect.  You drive in past a security gate, take a break to browse over-priced, gift shop kitsch, grab a bite to eat in the restaurant, and then through another gate onto a paved road surrounded by stubby trees and dry brush.  This time, though, the animals weren’t crowded into a football-stadium-sized field and the tourists weren’t bumper-to-bumper feeding the monkeys Kit-Kats as they clambered onto their hoods.  No, it was eerily quiet at 7am and nary a car to be seen on the winding roads.  We watched patiently, desperately even, for any movement in the distance, a patch of color that didn’t quite fit, hoping not to be the unlucky few that managed to travel so far not to see anything.  A few horned heads ducked, distinguishing them from branches, and then we watched as a herd of kudu retreated from us. 

Right on.  The day continued and we saw ostriches, zebras, mongoose, jackals, elands, buffalo, tortoises, warthogs, lions, and a whole lot of elephants, breaking into the When I Was a Young Warthog when appropriate.  Meanwhile, Tia became progressively more excited each time she could tick another box on her list of animals to see (note: lawyers adore lists).  When we met a South African family with precocious, British-accented children midway through the day that asked us if we’d seen any elephants we secretly rejoiced that we weren’t the suckers that: (a) slept in, (b) showed up at the hottest time of day, and (c) were truly nonplussed that wild animals wouldn’t just wander up to their car and say hi.  Again, note my use of lists (happy wife = happy life).  Don’t feel too bad for the family, though.  We saw them later at the restaurant and they’d seen plenty.  The precocious 13-yr. old girl bragged about how they also saw so many tortoises on the pavement earlier that she could just walk over and pick them up.  Pick them up?  Have you not been reading any of the signs with that £50,000 per year public school education, girl?  Our previous sympathy now gone, we told them about the pride of lions we saw lounging around a watering hole earlier that day.  Eat that, animal-abuser.

Frequent rewards for our vigilance kept us hooked until the park closed at 6:30pm.  Spending yet another day driving around in Hot Dog, however, threatens to make us all fat.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Best. Day. Ever.

Ride an ostrich: Check.

Watch meerkats hug each other: Check.

Witness Juan’s mom embarrass him in front of gritty South Africans: Check.

Our day began at 5:30am in Oudtshoorn when we met up with Devey Glinister for a tour of a local meerkat colony. Helen lost no time at all in announcing loudly to the rest of the group that she was Juan’s “ mommy.” I’ve never seen a stern Rwandan laugh so hard.

As the sun began to heat the meerkat’s sleeping mound, they starting popping out one-by-one to soak up the rays with their impeccable posture. It was a particularly eventful morning too – we were lucky to witness the shaming of the family slut, Molly. After returning from a three-day love romp with a bachelor meerkat, she had to endure being peed on by her younger siblings and triple-teamed in her fights to resume her rank. Seeing meerkats hug each other and then take turns as sentries while the others forage, though, is definitely a top ten wildlife experience!

Next up, the Cango Ostrich Farm. Apart from learning all the facts (their eyes are bigger than their brains), meeting a dwarf ostrich (only one is born every 20 years), and holding a newly-hatched baby, you can hug , kiss, get a neck massage or ride an ostrich. I opted for three of the four (Betsie only kisses boys – a fact for which Juan did not appear particularly grateful as he held the ostrich food pellet between his lips and cowardly covered his eyes). Riding an ostrich wasn’t as easy as it looked on Swiss Family Robinson but certainly just as fun.

Next up on the bucket list: learn to throw knives, read The Brothers Karamazov in the original Russian and study Kung Fu in China with a Shaolin monk…

Monday, November 8, 2010

Outdrunk by a 68-year old lady

Fate is against me.  How is it possible after missing wine tasting in Mendoza, then getting my tolerance back up in Buenos Aires, that the second we step foot in wine country again, I get sick?  Whatever karmic thing I messed up, I’m sorry!  Please Bacchus, forgive me.

I stayed in the car while Juan and Helen visited Stellenzicht where an Afrikaans lady that spoke four languages casually (including (click)-zosa) served them pinotage, a wine varietal unique to South Africa.  Next we were off to Morgonhof and Kanonkop.  We enjoyed the old monastery feel of the former and the Murano glass display and 5-liter wine bottles at the latter.  We finished off at Chamonix Estates with a cellar tour and some wine tasting in an old blacksmiths’ shop.  Dinner at the affiliated restaurant, Mon Plaisir, was divine.  Escargot, duck confit and steamed mussels with a perfectly executed chocolate fondant.  Yum yum.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beware of farm boys...

A short 7-hr. flight from BA on a Malaysia Airlines plane that maneuvered like a skyscraper turned on its side, we arrived in Cape Town and back into the English-speaking world.  My mom (Helen) flew in the same night and we picked her up from the airport in our hot dog Hyundai.  The Conifer Cape B&B we stayed at was owned by former musicians and the place was filled with cool art, Cezanne, Rothko, et al, an old piano, and an outdoor garden.  Tia immediately detoxed from travel in the claw-foot bathtub and, little did we know, ended up using the rest of the hot water for the next 36 hours.  Figures that the first nice place we stay during our trip turns out to be worse than the lead pipe sticking out of concrete in Cartagena that still managed to produce warmth.

In the meantime, my mom began her quest to find the best deal in small African crafts by exploring local trade stores and the stalls at Greenmarket Square.  Much browsing but no buying (after all, what can one do with a giant beaded elephant or wildebeest chair framed with gold-painted wood?).  We took trips to the V&A waterfront and posed in front of the four statues of South African Nobel prize winners.  Table Mountain formed a spectacular backdrop for the city – too bad strong winds meant the cable cars weren’t running.  The three trips we took up to the base of the mountain to be informed of this fact weren’t in vain, however, since one of the store owners told Tia all about South African “farm boys”: muscly charmers who will steal a girl from right under your nose.  Needless to say, I went back to the hotel and quietly excised any barnyard tours from our itinerary. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This is what we do while you're at work (Part II)

For my birthday present last year, Juan promised me tango lessons.  When we insisted to the flamboyant Aussie at Arthur Murray (yes, the same dance company of law school fame) that he teach us something Dancing with the Stars-cool he resolutely pointed to a tiered, poster board of names and told us that when we made it to the gold level in 10 years (ten years!) we would learn stuff like that.  Hmm…overpriced lessons with nothing rock star sexy to show from it?  No, thanks.  We already spent six weeks, and a pretty pound, in London for the privilege of walking, stiff-legged, around a dance room.

Realizing that we’d be spending time in the birthplace of Argentine tango, we figured it’d be worthwhile to wait nearly a year for some authentic lessons.  There are plenty of tourist traps for people with the same idea so, after researching a number of options, we settled on DNI Tango.  It was a quarter of the price and they espoused a system of dance that involved technique, one-on-one dancing with an instructor, and yoga.  All of the instructors are fun, young twenty-somethings that look like Penelope Cruz.  Yes, I kept a close eye on Juan and secretly wanted to be friends with all of them. 

We didn’t learn anything super fancy, but we’ve got the ochos and sacadas down flat.  And perhaps, more importantly, Juan has learned to lead and I have learned to follow.   If only that extended to real life, Juan would be a happy man.