Saturday, August 31, 2013

Africa Lite?

People often ask me about the favorite place that I've been. It's a tough question to answer. I've enjoyed nearly all of our trips, and usually end up liking the places we visit, though for varying reasons. Even many places that have bad reputations for being dirty, chaotic, or crime-ridden have redeeming qualities that overshadow the less savory aspects - otherwise, why would I be going there in the first place? Meanwhile, the downsides aren't always visible to those just traveling through. That's how I assumed South Africa would be. I knew about the crime, the poverty, the racial tension. Given South Africa's popularity as a tourist destination, and its reputation among veteran travelers as "Africa Lite," I assumed the negatives were overstated and would not be apparent to casual tourists like Dawn and I.

I was wrong, very wrong. South Africa wears its ills openly for all to see. Newsstands and cafe TVs blare tales of horrific murders and brutal gang warfare. Gas station attendants tote Uzi submachine guns. Everyone you meet dispenses security advice with their pleasantries. City streets are deserted at night even in fashionable districts. Every city, every town, every cute little forest village has a shadow settlement immediately adjacent, acres of cobbled together shacks devoid of running water or sewers and penned in by tall fences, containing the black workers who serve the nearby white-owned businesses and villas. A surprising number of whites still treat the black majority with open contempt. Many blacks reciprocate in kind. At times it seems far from Mandela's Rainbow Nation, and more like apartheid never ended. I guess in a way it never totally did; the political repression is gone, but much of the infrastructure of apartheid remains, maintaining the old economic order that was the entire point of the whole sorry mess to begin with.

None of this is to say that we didn't like South Africa. To the contrary - we loved it! Our trip there (and Botswana and Zimbabwe) was one of the most ambitious, adventurous, and fun trips of our lives. The fact that we enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly despite ever-present evidence of the country's troubles is greater evidence of its many charms. It's gorgeous from end to end. There's far more to do and see than one can fit into a mere month or two. Good, cheap food and wine abounds. Rugged adventure beckons over every dirt-tracked foothill. Every South African we met, of every race, was friendly and gracious to us, especially once they discovered we were foreigners. Although the crime climate is an unavoidable fact of life and precautions must be taken, I never felt personally threatened. I suspect I was in more danger driving our rented Chevy Cruze like a Porsche around the coast's incredibly scenic, curvy roads.

We started our trip by flying KLM from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, having failed to reach Atlanta for a WidgetCo connection to South Africa. The next day we flew to Cape Town on a South African Airways A340 (seems like overkill, but it was full; this is one of the 10 most heavily traveled air routes in the world). After two days of exploring Cape Town, sailing its harbour, and venturing out to  Robben Island, we picked up the rental car and spent the day driving and hiking the Cape. We slept in quaint, oak-lined Stellenbosch that night, and the following night as well, taking an all day winery tour of the surrounding countryside in the meantime. From there we set out eastward along the Indian Ocean coastline, pausing to whale-watch in Hermanus the first day before stopping for the night in beautiful, rugged Wilderness.

 The next short day we traversed the famous Garden Route to surfer mecca Jeffreys Bay. Along the way we stopped at a small monkey sanctuary and the attached Birds of Eden aviary, the largest of its kind in the world. It was quite good, especially for bird-loving Dawn, so we lingered for several hours, and ran out of time to stop at Tsitsikamma National Park. No matter; we backtracked the 60 miles from J-Bay the next day to hike the beautiful Storm River's Mouth. It was July 20, our tenth anniversary. We had a fantastic anniversary dinner that night at Kitchen Windows. Cost of all-out splurging meal, good bottle of pinotage and tip included? $35. South Africa might not be Thailand cheap, but one can live very well for not a lot of money, as long as they don't earn their meager rand in South Africa.

The next morning we were up very early for the long drive to Bulungula Lodge. My good friend Sylvia had stayed there a few years ago while doing a medical internship in Port Elizabeth, and recommended it. Bulungula is located on the so-called Wild Coast, which is actually quite populated, but is two and a half very bumpy hours from the nearest paved highway. The lodge is next to a traditional Xhosa village that occupies a lovely spot on a peninsula defined by the sea and two river mouths. The area is fairly impoverished - 98% of the local families live on less than $160/mo - but the poverty is much less striking than other areas as people live in scattered, sturdy thatched rondavels rather than crowded shantytowns. Employment, however, is scarce if one doesn't farm (cows and sheep, mostly). Many men move away from their families to seek work. The Lodge was established with the idea that tourists could provide employment to local entrepreneurs. We went horseback riding, canoeing up a local river, on a village tour, and hiked to a nearby crepe restaurant started by two young girls. It was a really nice, relaxing time.

After three nights at Bulungula, it was time for one more long drive in the Chevy, this time to Durban. We blew a tire on the rutted, rocky drive out to the highway, but made it the rest of the way on the spare. We pulled into Durban at 4:30pm, dropped off the Chevy at the local Avis branch, and took a taxi to the train station for our overnight train to Johannesburg. Eleven days in, we were about to begin the next stage of our adventure.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Summer Away

A week ago, an anonymous commenter to my previous post asked if I am still blogging. I can see why he asked the question - I haven't posted in two months, and I did recently start writing for a major aviation magazine (as well as several smaller publications). But no, I fully intend to keep blogging as well. I just simply was not around much this summer. At the moment, I'm enjoying a nice quiet Saturday at home. By my count, it's the fourth full day I've spent in Minnesota since mid-June, and maybe the tenth since the beginning of May. It's been the busiest summer of my life, and Dawn and I have been having some grand adventures.

In early May, Dawn graduated with her master's degree in education, ending the travel moratorium she had imposed on herself for 18 months while she read textbooks, completed assignments, and wrote papers on top of an already full teaching schedule. A few days after the ceremony, we flew out to North Carolina, where I had purchased her a Yamaha FZ6R motorcycle, and me a Honda CBR-600F4i. Inspired by my success buying and selling the DRZ400 for my Baja trip, I found the bikes cheap on Raleigh and Charlotte craigslists, with the plan of selling them once our east coast riding is complete. We started off with four fantastic days of riding some of North Carolina and Tennessee's most scenic, most challenging roads, like Moonshiner 28, the Cherohala Skyway, the Tail of the Dragon, and the southernmost section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A few weeks later I came back out with my dad, who rode Dawn's bike (his first experience on a sport bike; he loved it) and covered much of the same territory. This was my fourth time on many of these roads, having crossed them twice during my round-the-country ride in 2010. And then in June, Dawn and I rode the rest of the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park with our friends Brad & Amber, who rode Brad's most recent ebay purchase, a Suzuki VStrom. Dawn and I stashed our bikes near Washington's Dulles airport, where they're still sitting until I get the time to go out and sell them; Brad sold his bike the very same day, a half hour before his flight departed, in true Brad fashion.

The next week, we flew to Ireland for ten days. Dawn's extended family, who has Irish roots, was there on a big trip. There were 24 in all, including her mom and dad, aunts and uncles, and several cousins. They reserved blocks of hotel rooms and were traveling around by coach bus, which sounded pretty hellish to me, but Dawn wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity to travel with her parents, so we hit upon a compromise. We rented our own car and stayed in B&Bs on an itinerary that paralleled the big group's route, allowing us to occasionally meet up with them for activities, dinners, and pints at the local pubs. It worked splendidly. Ireland was as beautiful as ever, the people still wonderfully friendly, the roads dangerously fun, the music excellent, the beer tasty, and even the weather was shockingly cooperative. It would have been a good trip without the family there, but their presence made it a really memorable one. Despite my expectations, everyone was still on speaking terms by trip's end, and while I've always got along great with Dawn's family, I got to know several of them much better. Getting home was a bit of a pain; we ended up going through London to catch a five hour delayed flight, then spent an entire day picking our way home from New York.

And then, in July and August, the main event: the most ambitious trip we've ever taken and probably the last big one in a while, a four week journey through South Africa, Botswana, & Zimbabwe. I'll actually be writing a few separate photo-posts on this one. The short version is: we nonrevved to Johannesburg through Amsterdam, bought tickets to Cape Town, rented a car for 9 days up the coast to Durban, took the train back to Joburg, rented a fully tricked out Land Rover for 16 days spent on self-drive safaris through Kruger National Park and Botswana's Moremi Game Reserve & Chobe National Park, crossed over to Victoria Falls, and returned through Zimbabwe in the wake of their recent contested election. It was the trip of a lifetime, at least until the next trip of a lifetime.

How did I get all this time off? Surprisingly, only one week of vacation was involved, in late July. Otherwise I just bid very efficient pairings all bunched up in early June, early July, and late August. This wouldn't be possible if not for my current high seniority level. The reason I say it will be our last big trip in a while is due to some news I got while on the trip: WidgetCo has announced they will begin their long-awaited pilot hiring in November, NewCo flows will start in December or January, and I can expect to be in class in January or February. Nothing's set in stone, obviously, so I'm trying not to count any pre-hatched chickens...but regardless, it's very welcome news, even if my new-found juniority will inhibit big trips for a while.

Here's some other cool news: I wrote another article for Flying Magazine, included in the September issue, on newsstands now. It's titled "Life & Death Flying the Owens Valley," and long-time blog readers will recognize it as an expanded retelling of an old post on here, "Life and Death on Amflight 132." The opportunity to write a second article was due to the overwhelming positive feedback from my first article, and I suspect I have a few of you to thank for that - so thanks! You'll see more of my writing in Flying in a few months, more on that later.

So now - it's time to pay the piper with a busy work schedule for the rest of August, to mention nothing of playing catchup with friends & family and enjoying what little remains of our short Minnesota summer. But regardless, I plan to get busy writing for the blog again. There are some neat stories & photos to share from the Africa trip, and a few things I'd like to say about the Asiana & UPS crashes, an interesting encounter I had at work, and continued regional airline industry craziness. Stay tuned, as they say....