Spring Break Travel: Laos

As you already know if you read last week’s entry, Jenia and I spent the majority of our spring break in Thailand.  But there was one day when we went elsewhere: Laos.

Laos is, if you didn’t know, the landlocked country between Thailand and Vietnam.  The capital is called Vientiane (Vee-en-tyan, or perhaps Ven-shun, or some variation, depending on who you speak with), and the prefecture has a population of roughly 780,000 people, or more than a tenth of the country’s population.  The Mekong River separates northeastern Thailand from Laos, and to get to Laos, we had to cross the Friendship Bridge, an unimposing structure which is currently celebrating it’s 20th anniversary.  Previously, people were ferried across the river from the Vientiane area to Nong Khai, Thailand.

We went through Thai immigration, crossed the Friendship Bridge on a large passenger bus which cost 15 baht each, and then purchased visas upon arrival in Laos on the other side.  The Laotian visas set us back $35 each, and we stood around outside while the border guards stamped our passports and such.  Incidentally, when you enter the country, you’re supposed to supply a passport-sized photo, but we didn’t have any, and they simply used the pictures they snapped of us at the immigration counter anyway.  Immigration would take any of three currencies: American dollars, Thai baht, or their own Laotian kip.  As luck would have it, we were low on baht, and I had to use the ATM right nearby and withdraw some kip, since it was the only currency the machine dispensed.  I took out 1,000,000 kip, and parted with 980,000 of it to get our visas.  It was nice to be a millionaire, if only for a few minutes.

I did not realize, which shows my lack of preparation, that Laos was a communist country until we were in the bus, rolling over the Friendship Bridge, and I saw the red, white, and blue Laotian flag alternated with red and yellow hammer and sickle flags.  In fact, as I soon found out, the history of the country is fascinating: it was a major part of French Indochina all the way up until 1954, when it gained more or less complete independence.  During the Vietnam conflict, the North Vietnamese Army invaded and occupied Laotian territory, and there was a major bombing campaign by the United States to try to expel the invaders.  The 1970s were a bracing time of war, and in 1975, the government was overthrown by Pathet Lao, who allied Laos with Vietnam.

Lao Flag

Until I visited the area, I confess that I’d been quite unaware that the Vietnam conflict took place partly on Laotian soil.  To this day, the conflict’s legacy is marked by undetonated explosives, and it’s not unusual to hear a story from an expat about innocent kids playing in a field and getting a limb blown off as they happened upon an unexploded ordnance.

Lao Monk

The first thing I noticed about Laos was that it seemed poorer than Thailand.  And Thailand, to be sure, doesn’t exactly strike me as the most cosmopolitan place in the world.  Laos is a rung or two down the socio-economic ladder from its more popular neighbor.  A short drive, taking perhaps 20 minutes, into the capital city made quite a difference.  Vientiane has an interesting multi-national flavor, but it is obviously dominated by its own culture (which makes it remarkably different from Abu Dhabi, where we live).  There were lots of temples and buddhist monks wearing orange walking on the sidewalk.  There didn’t seem to be a single American chain restaurant in town.  The city itself had a charmingly small feel, although the roads did get crowded sometimes.  I’d have never guessed the population is as high as the statistics say it is (I’ve seen others say the city has about 250,000 residents, but Wikipedia lists it much higher).

Street Scene

We had a friend acting as our guide, and she showed us around various areas, though she was much constrained by the brief tenure of our stay–a mere 26 hours.  We saw a college, where undergraduate students worked in neat-looking 2 storey buildings, a classroom on each floor, which had only benches inside and the wooden shuttered windows were wide-open, since there was no air conditioning.  We drove past a few nice looking, large, new buildings in the city, “The Japanese government paid for that; the Chinese paid for that,” said our friend.  On the curb, tuk-tuk drivers reclined in hammocks rigged up inside their conveyances, snoozing until someone came along in need of a ride. The same proliferation of dangerous-looking, low-hanging telephone wires we saw in Thailand continued in Laos.


In the evening, we went downtown in search of an authentic and delicious meal: we found just what we were after at the Lao Kitchen.  What tasty grub!  We hoofed it a bit afterward, walking the poorly lit downtown streets, and waiting to cross the road at an intersection, we were warned: “Watch out for motorbikes.  They could come from anywhere.  I’m not kidding.”  She was right.  We saw scooters zip onto the sidewalk, motoring along illegally until they found a gap in traffic that allowed them to nip over to the right-lane, where they were supposed to be.

Egg Rolls

We stopped at Patuxai, a monument known alternately as “The Arch De Triomphe” and “The Vertical Runway.”  The story of the monument is as colorful as any: it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s with cement that the USA gave the country to expand an airport.  The arch itself is both picturesque and slightly grotesque; a large gray oriental block rising up 8 stories.



Next, we visited a night market, just in time to have a hurried look at the wares: clothes, both traditional and not, some tourist shtick (some of which is genuinely cool, like the coconut wood kitchenware), and other such.  There, again, Turtle was a focal point.  At one point, the little fellow got tired of being carried in the Boba carrier, so I put him on my shoulders and walked around.  That attracted lots of grins, and I was actually stopped by some friendly folks for the sole purpose of having a group of people take a picture with my little blond son.  It was humorous, and had I not already grown accustomed to this kind of treatment in Thailand, I’d have thought it even more so. The market was soon shutting down around us, so we called it a night.

Night Market

Basket Vendor

Coconut Wood

The next morning we ate at a French bakery, then shopped for souvenirs at a little place across the road.  We spent most of our remaining kip on breakfast, unfortunately having to make an ATM run to get more money to fund our souvenir goodies, since the store’s credit card machine wouldn’t work.  The ladies inside enjoyed Turtle while we shopped; he had a ball pointing and waving for them.  Speaking of kip, if you go, withdraw plenty of money when you use the ATM, because many places don’t accept credit cards.

After that, our schedule dictated that we head for the border.  We walked to the bus station, a fairly grueling little journey because of the heat and humidity.  After a while figuring out what bus went to Nong Khai and when, never mind where the bus departed from, we parted with our friend and ended our time in Laos.


LaundryIn reflecting on visiting Vientiane, it must be said that the area is not spectacular.  The Mekong may offer a good sunset photo somewhere, murky water reflecting the brilliant hues of the sinking sun, but it’s not beautiful in and of itself; Vientiane has a few interesting sights (not all of which we saw; there’s also a Buddha Park, which we skipped, having already gone to one in Nong Khai, and not feeling like walking around in the sweltering afternoon heat), but it’s mostly unremarkable, and while it’s possible to get lots of interesting photographs of people, and perhaps some nice city/town shots, it’s hard to find landscapes that are astounding.  Like Thailand’s northeast, the land is generally flat.  That said, Vientiane is noticeably nicer than what we saw of Nong Khai.  Walking around Vientiane is a different experience from Thailand, and a dramatically different experience from exploring the grand capital cities of the West; it feels humble, it’s a bit hectic, there are street food vendors all around; tuk-tuks on every corner.  It’s a bit grubby; it retains a French influence in the architecture and street names.  Like Thailand, Laos is inexpensive.  We ate at nice places, bearing in mind that it’s important to be choosy, as food poisoning is a real possibility (our host had it 4 times in less than a year), and we found the food affordable.  The markets offer inflated fares to foreigners, but even the higher prices aren’t so bad, and it doesn’t take much effort to bargain and get the prices closer to what a local would pay.  In contrast to nearby northeastern Thailand, Vientiane seems to have a lot of foreign visitors, and it has a more international flair about it.

Were I doing it again, I’d visit Vientiane.  It’s a neat place.  But I’d try to allow enough time to venture to Luang Prabang, which is, judging by photos, an area of magnificent natural beauty.

Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.


A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.

Spring Break Travels: part one.

Spring break. Ah, yes. A chance to visit friends and explore new places. This year, we are hitting Thailand and Laos.

Our trip has, so far, taken us to Bangkok, Udon Thani, Vientiane, and Krabi. We’ve been distinctly underwhelmed by the scenery this far, but we can’t judge the coast yet as we’ve only arrived recently and it’s dark outside.

I’ll share a handful of pictures, but details will have to follow at a later date. For now suffice it to say that we are enjoying ourselves and are thankful for the chance to see exotic locales.





Money Monday: My Chains Are Gone!

Shon & I have been married for a little over 6 years now.  Today, for the first time in those 6-something years, we are debt free.

We don’t own any property, I don’t have any designer shoes, our phones are not the latest thing on the market, and our baby doesn’t have an iPad, but we don’t owe anybody any money.

And it feels so darn good.



Ten Reasons

Curious why I’d move half way around the world to teach English?  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I scratch my own head and stare at the ceiling as a thought bubble appears over my head (pictured below).  There are, of course, many reasons for making a move like the one my wife and I have undertaken.  Yet, there are always a small number of predominant reasons that people I speak to name.  They’re usually similar to the ones that Jenia and I come up with, some of which have become more evident after moving.  Here are our top ten:

1. Adventure

  • Obviously, adventure is easier to find in a foreign land.  After all, simply being in a foreign country is something new and exciting.

2. Income

  • Working in the Middle East pays well.  I’m not even making what is considered very good money by local standards, but it’s more than I made at home by a long shot.

3. Teaching

  • It is fantastic to be in a classroom, instructing students in something that’s useful and potentially important to their futures.  I’d enjoy being a teacher anywhere.

4. Benefits

  • The benefits of this particular job are good: housing that’s paid for; health insurance that has thus far covered all our needs without complaint; travel allowances for the whole family (a perk hard to find teaching outside the Middle East).

5. Travel

  • The UAE offers a location allowing inexpensive travel to many locations far too exotic to visit from the USA without breaking the bank–Sri Lanka, Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Thailand, etc.

6. Individuality

  • Moving 7,500+ miles from home has a way of teaching a person to be both self-confident and self-reliant.

7. Inter-dependency

  • By the same means, being a long way from family and friends, the traditional support groups that we fall back upon when times are tough, forces my wife and I to become much more fully dependent upon each other.  We’re a more tightly-knit, stronger family unit as a result of our move.

Magically, a thought bubble appears and, fortunately, it is an appropriate thought given that it is the end of the school day.

8. Acculturation

  • There is no experience quite like becoming accustomed to a new and totally different culture from your own.  Acculturation, culture shock, and all of the associated trials can be really positive in terms of growth and maturity.

9. Relationships

  • Developing new relationships with people of many different nationalities and backgrounds is an opportunity that would not be so readily afforded at home.

10. Perspective

  • Traveling gives us a new perspective on our homeland and other places.  It’s fascinating to look at home from a more objective angle than we get if we never leave.  We appreciate both strengths and weaknesses better than before.  What’s more, we can look at foreign lands in new light as we meet people and see places for ourselves.  In some cases, it’s wonderful discovering that our viewpoints aren’t always the best ones.

Middle Times

It’s past mid-term, and in a term with only one day off in 12 weeks, everyone at work is tired.  The students are tired of coming to school, the teachers are tired (especially the ones in the English department, who have to cover for each other when someone is out), and everything seems to be sagging just a bit.

I’ve been sick, which is never fun, and although I did visit a doctor and get the requisite note to be sure I will be paid for the days I took off last week (which then has to be scanned and uploaded onto ADEC’s website for approval by my principal first, and then afterward by someone I’ll never meet in some building I’ve never been to), I’ve spent a fair amount of time working when I probably should have been at home recuperating.

But as I said, we’re in the middle now, and these are the sorts of things a person goes through anywhere.  I am, like most everyone else, ready for a break.  In a month, we’ll get a couple weeks off between terms.  I can’t wait.


When I moved here almost two years ago, I couldn’t help but compare everything to home. I had traveled quite a lot, and spent plenty of time in foreign countries, but I found the UAE a difficult place to live. The bureaucracy was frustrating, and the sheer ineptitude that became obvious in some quarters was aggravating. The driving was terrifying. The heat almost unbearable at times. The job–wow. I found myself very easily caught up in the spiral of frustration and negativity that causes many newcomers to leave the area, walking away from their employment contracts.

The comparison game is a part of moving abroad for the first time, and I don’t think it can be helped. But keeping in mind that all the frustrating and aggravating things are actually part of the reason you move, that is, to experience a new place, pitfalls and all, improves your mindset some.

And it also helps to remember that life at home is filled with trials and tribulations, too. They’re familiar ones, but not necessarily less irritating.

If you’re an expat reading this blog, what kinds of frustrations do you face, or did you face when you first relocated? I would like to see a list of things–balanced by a list of similar ordeals back home.

I’ll start: I still find the sluggish pace that many citizens here stroll when they’re in the mall or other places an annoyance. They’re usually in gaggles, and I have to slow down, wait or say “excuse me,” or try to dodge the obstacles wasting and intruding into my spare time.

To balance that, the numbers of inconsiderately loud mall rat teenagers in the USA is plenty irksome. They intrude into my consciousness and bother me in a whole different way, their petty conversations, punctuated by an excess of “like” and “whatever” and “oh my god,” my personal least favorite Americanism, and etcetera lowering my IQ with every passing second, making my eyes cross and compelling me to duck into whatever unappealing but quiet shop lies nearest.

I can learn a lesson from the slow-moving locals in the malls here. Take it easy. Enjoy the moment. Relax a little. But it’s true that I can shop more speedily at home.

Your turn. What is a peeve you face or faced, and what is something comparable from home? It can be big or small.

Last week Jenia wrote a post querying readers, seeking comments. There were a fair few responses. I need your help to make this post worthwhile, too. Let the comments roll.

In Case You’re Wondering: on Mommyhood, Blogging, and Motivation

I don’t remember the last time I wrote for this blog. Yes, part of it is simply being tired and busy: now that Little Turtle is on the constant move, the 3 combined hours of his naps are often the only time to get things done – or to get some rest. Mommyhood can be a bit exhausting, and it so happens that other things take prevalence over blogging. Or so I thought.

Then I realized that even though the number of my posts on my personal Russian-language blog (you’ll find the link on About page if you’re interested) has dropped considerably, I still keep writing for it. The reason is simple: I have a real audience there. Some 300 people follow my blog, and it’s  uncommon to write a post and receive no feedback. People comment and then come back to respond to your response to their comment. Every once in awhile, I find a private message from another blogger asking if everything’s alright, since they haven’t heard from me in a couple of weeks. We’ve met several of my blog friends in person (in Atlanta, Charlotte, Tallahassee, and Haague,) and are hoping to meet more. Gosh, the only 2 Christmas cards we received this year are from my blog buddies!

And then there’s this blog. Nearly 2,000 followers & hardly any comments. I get these notifications on my phone: “so-and-so started following your blog” or “so-and-so liked your post,” and I wonder, “Who are these people? What made them press the button?”

Obviously, this is not a for-profit blog or a popularity contest. Still, it’s not a diary either and it would be great to hear from our readers a bit more often. A smiley face is better than nothing.

Shon is pushing me to write more, saying that as a bilingual mother of an infant living in her 3rd country, traveling rather extensively, and pursuing photography after having had to quit interpreting, I have something to say to the world. My argument is: does the world actually care? My motivation to write evaporates when I think of the lack of communication with our supposed readers.

Who are you? Do you actually read us? Do you find this blog interesting/helpful/relatable? What would you like to see us write about? What do you want to see more of? In other words, do you care?

P.S. It is surprising when every now and then we meet someone in Al Ain, and they tell us they read our blog before coming here. It’s always so good to hear!

Winter Living

Last night I finally gave in.  I put a blanket on the bed.  Hitherto we’ve been comfortable enough with simply a top sheet and a bedspread.  But winter has settled in, and it’s in the 50′s Fahrenheit at night now.  Brrrr.

Yet, it’s not exactly chilly during the day.  Today I wore jeans and a long sleeve shirt, and then found myself too warm when I was outside in the sun for a little while.  I had to roll my sleeves up.

However, it’s been cloudy on and off over the last week, and there’s been a bit of drizzle now and then.  That means it’s been pretty nice and cool in general.


When it’s a clear day, which is still most of them, the sky is actually blue and the visibility is better than it is in spring, summer, and fall.  That makes it an excellent time of year to head to the dunes for photos, and Jenia’s had a number of shoots in the desert recently.

One day we made it to the city for a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and were rewarded with nice, comfortable weather that was also good for pictures.  Most of the time skies are quite gray, which always makes for disappointing images.  Now, however, the heavens are pretty, and it’s a nice contrast against the white domes and minarets.

Right now the air is clean and, in Al Ain, crisp.  The humidity that hangs heavily in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is still present, but the temperatures are low enough that it’s no bother.

This is definitely the best time of the year in the UAE.

Christmas Break, Part II: Exploring South Africa

As you know, we’ve been enjoying a special Christmas break–one spent with friends in South Africa.  I sometimes shake my head in wonder–how did I get to South Africa?

As a child, I remember hearing about apartheid and seeing news about Nelson Mandela on TV. Then, as a college student, I remember that the place was the murder capital of the world, and carjackings were happening constantly. The news even featured a segment on a flamethrower that could be mounted underneath your car to prevent carjackers from stealing your ride.

As a result, heading there was the farthest thing from my mind.

But things change. And whats more, bad news is mostly what makes it onto TV. Quick: name a good event that’s happened in a foreign country lately. What comes to mind? What about a bad event? Anything scary? Something horrendous? I can think of a couple of those much more easily than I can something cheerful. That goes for places on the traveler’s radar, too, like European Union countries. What did I really know about South Africa at all? Not a lot. I’ve seen a couple of movies about Nelson Mandela, but what did Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (which chronicled Nelson Mandela’s attempt at using the world of sports to help unite his countrymen) really teach me about the place? Again, not a great deal.

My lack of knowledge about SA started to change as Jenia and I made friends with a pair of South African couples. They’re charming, funny, and engaging. And I can certainly say they’re more than generous, too, especially considering all the effort they put into helping us have a great holiday over the last couple of weeks. But I risk getting off-track–what did I start to learn about South Africa? I learned our friends had a strong devotion to their country, and a fierce desire to return to it. They talked about the beautiful scenery and the wonderful wildlife. One teared up when talking about the ailing former President, Nelson Mandela, asking that we pray for the country. And it made me wonder, is it still dangerous? Our friends seemed to kind of skirt that question: “We live in a security complex, so you’ll be fine,” they said. “There’s no reason to ever see that side of South Africa,” they told us. “Just don’t stop on the side of the road,” said one. “I’ve got good insurance on the car, so if anything happens, don’t worry.” The other friend added, “Ya, don’t stop unless parts are falling off.” Pause: “And then don’t stop.”

Kirstenbosch, "Africa's most beautiful gardens," if you believe the hype.  I think I do.

Kirstenbosch, “Africa’s most beautiful gardens,” if you believe the hype. I think I do.

In essence there’s the short answer: SA can still be dangerous, it’s true.  The long answer is this: learn what areas to avoid going through at night, find out when and where it’s a bad idea to stop beside the road or at a filling station, and in general avoid presenting an easy target for thieves, and you’ll be fine.  This makes it like any other city in the world.  Also, the relatively small city of Cape Town is safer than Johannesburg.  Since Cape Town and the Western Cape province is where we spent our time, that’s all I can really write about.  I never felt threatened at all, and I’d highly recommend visiting the area if you ever get the chance–it’s truly a beautiful place, with stunning vistas at every turn.

Our friends were instrumental in getting us to visit the country.  To begin with, they gave us a reason to go visit. Then the helped us figure out what kinds of things we should do with our time there.  They even recommended what airline to fly (for us, taking the South African Airlines flights that are operated by Emirates is the best option).

So this is how we got to South Africa.  Other than being pretty, you say, what’s the place like?

When we arrived on December 16, the entire country was mourning the loss of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who passed away on the 5th.  His funeral had already taken place, but there was a second memorial service being broadcast as we were finding our way out of the airport.  During the first week of our trip, were touched to see “Memorial Stations” set up throughout the city in various locations, including the airport, where people could come–and they queued right up to do this–to pour out their sympathies, grief, and condolences, perhaps leaving cards or flowers.  It was very clear Mandela was adored by all.  “He just had that power,” said my friend’s dad.  “He made you feel important.”  Mandela dominated many of the conversations I had with older people, and even people my own age, for a significant portion of our trip.

Jenia's buddy from Boulders Beach.

Jenia’s buddy from Boulders Beach.

Mentioning the former president inevitably brings up discussion of the current state of politics.  The place has a very forward-thinking constitution, which they sometimes find difficult to implement.  The dominant ANC party has become corrupted, and even the president himself corrupt.  Most notably, he misused a ton of public funds on his own luxurious compound.  “The law allows him to make security improvements and have them paid for,” my friend said.  “But he called his swimming pool a ‘fire pool,’ like it was a reservoir they could use to put out fires.”  Yet folks are hopeful that the government will change and get back on the track it was on when Mandela and his immediate successor were in office.  But I’m not a politician or a political blogger, so I’ll leave my observations on the topic at this: the place is a country that is developing, and it has got a few hurdles to overcome, mostly, it seems, in the political arena, so that development can really take place.  I seriously hope that this happens sooner rather than later, because it’s a place that deserves to shine.

And what are the people like?  Warm.  Welcoming, friendly.  Cheerful and upbeat.  Everyone speaks English, and it’s a nice, mellifluously accented sort.  They also speak Afrikaans, which is a very pleasant sounding blending of Dutch and English.  We picked up a handful of words and phrases like “Lakker,” “Lakker slap,” and “More more [pronounced more-uh],” meaning “sweet” or “nice,” “sleep well,” and “‘morning.”  They tend to drink a bit, perhaps owing to the fact that there are tons of vineyards in the area, and they absolutely love to barbecue out on the weekends, or, it seems, anytime there’s a good excuse.  This is called “braai,” and it’s usually a wood fire built in a brazier of one sort or another.  We even had fire bread one night (the last bit of baking done over the coals).  They know how to relax, but they’re also hard workers and they’re often health-oriented and outdoorsy.

Jenia feeding an elephant at the Kysna Elephant Park.

Jenia feeding an elephant at the Kysna Elephant Park.

Now about those vistas–there are too many lovely sights to recount.  Table Mountain towers over Cape Town, which more or less surrounds it.  Hiking trails await; I experienced only one, a steep one descending Table Mountain.  On the way down I had to pause and touch the rocks every now and then and say to myself, “I’m in Africa.  These are African rocks.  I’m amazed to be here.”  My calves were screaming at me for a couple days after that hike–and I thought myself in reasonably good shape before that!  Beaches and bays with near-white sand and icy cold water await sunbathers and hearty swimmers, too; rocks rise out of the water and mountains peer down into it.  Skies are perfect blue.  Beautiful.  

The flora is greatly varied and changes greatly as one drives north or west from the city.  In Cape Town, things start out pretty green.  Before long, you’re in Stellanbosch, the winelands, surrounded by vineyards on terraced hillsides with dramatic peaks soaring above.  I loved watching the clouds pouring over the tops of the mountains, the mists rolling slowly.  If you take N1 going northeast, you’ll experience the Garden Route, where the land flattens into softly undulating fields, and this time of year at least, the fields are golden and low-cut.  We went as far up the east coast as Knysna, where there are pine forests and thick, hilly bushland, and on the west coast as far as Veldriff, where the landscape is sandy and bushes grow low to the ground.  

Shon holding an Owl and sporting facepaint.

Shon holding an Owl and sporting facepaint.

As for memorable stories, we’ve got a few.  For example, we got hands-on time with a cheetah, some birds of prey, a porcupine, and elephants–although I will go ahead and admit that those animals were all quite tame.

Maybe in our next post, we’ll share some particular stories.  For now, though, I fear I’ve dragged this one on for too long, trying to squeeze 17 days into one entry.  Until next time.

Fishermen on the beach at Southern Cross.

Fishermen on the beach at Southern Cross.