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Where's Grayleen?

Lago Roca, Argentina Offroading in our rental car in Lago Roca, Argentina

The Hague & Amsterdam

by gray · September 8th, 2010 · netherlands

I’ve got to say, we didn’t do a whole lot while we were in the Netherlands.  We were there to visit one of our very best buddies from college, Helen, and meet her (we now know) super-cool boyfriend, Sean.  The weather on each of the five days was simply atrocious with rain, wind, more rain, and more wind – and I had thought we were returning to summertime after our stint in the southern hemisphere!

However, for not doing much at all, we had the very best of times.  We hung out, played scrabble and Wii Tennis, ordered pizza, drank beers, and visited coffee shops daily for internet access (Sean and Helen just moved to The Hague two weeks ago to pursue masters degrees).   It was just what the doctor ordered and truly great times.  We miss them already.

We did find time and sun breaks enough to take in a few attractions like the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the waterfront at the Hague.  At the latter we turned back immediately upon reaching the beach as the crazy gale-force winds were flinging sand in our eyes and mouths, yuk.   We also spent an hour watching a real war crimes trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  Both fascinating and a touch boring, I highly recommend taking a bit in if you’re in the area.

We also learned that something like 25% of the Netherlands is below sea level.  Much of the country used to be below a real sea, the Southern Sea, and they drained it using windmill technology.  Crazy.  More research is required on just how one pulls off something like that.

We took a grand total of one picture in all of the Netherlands.  Can you believe it?  Neither can we!  Without further ado, our photo from Amsteradam:

Hey look, its a canal!

Hey look, it's a canal!

As I write this, we’re sitting in the airport in Madrid waiting to board our flight to Washington, D.C.  We’re pretty excited to be making our way home. See y’all very soon!

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South Africa

by gray · September 5th, 2010 · south africa

In all, we spent two and a half weeks in South Africa and visited three different areas: Cape Town, the wine country (right next to Cape Town), and the Southern coast of Africa towards the Eastern Cape. All three areas were gorgeous – a mix of mountains and ocean.

In Cape Town, we strolled through trendy neighborhoods with cute cafes and restaurants, generally relaxed, did a bit of day hiking, and drove out to Cape Point. The schedule for the safari had been intense and it was nice to just take it easy for a while.

Table Mountain in Cape Town seen from our rooftop deck

Table Mountain at sunrise seen from our rooftop deck (Cape Town)

We first visited the wine country about an hour outside of Cape Town with my parents and loved it so much that, when they left for home, we went back for three more days. Our favorite was the town of Franschhoek (translates to “French Corner” in Afrikaans) which was like a less pretentious and much (much, much!) less expensive version of Napa Valley. We adored the view from the patio of Dieu Donne Vineyards and ended up whiling away three separate evenings there simply watching the sun slowly sink over the mountains.

View from Signal Hill in Cape Town

View from Signal Hill in Cape Town

Our trip out to the Eastern Cape was planned as a mad dash east to the start line of the Otter Trail, a 5-day hike along a rugged coastline, and then a mad dash back to Cape Town for more relaxation. Contrary to our plans, driving rain struck our first night and when we reached a supposedly simple stream crossing the next day we were met with a treacherous river which forced us to turn back. This was actually a blessing in disguise because it gave us more time to explore the area and see the adorable towns of Storm’s River and Swellendam.

Day one of the Otter Trail

Day One of the Otter Trail

Oh, and Aileen got to do the world’s highest bungee jump off of the world’s highest single-span suspension bridge (708ft). (Instead of joining her, I decided to enjoy a large plate of crispy french fries from the comfort and safety of the cafe. Yum!)

We ended up with surprisingly mixed feelings on South Africa. We adored the stunning coastal landscapes and hiking opportunities but disliked the ubiquitous security guards and razor wire. We had categorized the people as generally OK, if slightly on the brusque and unhelpful side, but then ran into the delightful warmth of the small towns along the southern African coast where exuberant smiles were the norm.

With Apartheid ending just 16 years ago (circa O.J. Simpson and Tanya Harding), it’s impressive how far this country has come so quickly: from complete segregation to a society that seems, to us, fairly well adjusted. And, intellectually, we agree – amazing progress. Still, we found it impossible not to have a visceral reaction to the constant reminders of the extreme wealth disparity along racial lines. One example: we were astounded to observe that the black man with the three white South Africans was not their friend, but hired to carry their heavy equipment and cook their food (and, apparently, to be constantly bossed around to fetch things as well). I mean, I understand hiring Sherpas for Everest, but this was a really easy hike, people! Crime is a real problem and the nicer areas of Cape Town seem more like fortresses than they do neighborhoods. There are guards on every block and iron gates, razor wire, and electric fences on every property. If good fences make for good neighbors, then these folks sure do have things figured out.

A small sample of security measures in Cape Town

A small sample of security measures in Cape Town

After much discussion, here’s the official wheresgrayleen one-liner*: “South Africa – it was worth a visit, but mostly because we were nearby, and we sure didn’t fall in love.” How’s that for a tourist slogan? Of course, your experience may vary!

*Caveat: It’s conceivable that our opinion is just a touch colored by the individual who broke the window on our rental van and stole my mom’s camera (with safari pictures), our rain jackets, my favored “speed skater” hoodie, and more. Grrr! Fat lot of good those security guards and cameras did for us. I knew we should have strung razor wire around the van! (We’ll be sure to write a recommendation or disrecommendation of our travel insurance company, World Nomads, based on how the claims process turns out.)

You can see all of our photos from South Africa here.

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Safari in Botswana and Zambia

by aileen · August 23rd, 2010 · botswana, zambia

Wow! Really… wow! If you have a very large hole burned in your pocket or, even better, super-duper generous and awesome in-laws, I have the trip for you! Going on Safari was an delicious mix of living up to sky-high expectations (great time with family, luxurious accommodations, beautiful animals, gorgeous views, hilarious safari outfits, and gluttonous overeating) and surprising me in ways I’d have never guessed (hundreds of exotic animals in every direction like being in a Disney movie, animals literally within arms reach, stunning diversity of the locations we visited, insane overeating, and pretty much non-stop laughs and good times).

Abundant wildlife (Chobe National Park, Botswana)

Abundant wildlife (Chobe National Park, Botswana)

Seeing these animals on safari was nothing like seeing them in the zoo. They have a grace and dignity in the wild that is somehow lost when they are confined. The protectiveness of a herd of elephants of the littlest among them; the unreal slow motion of the giraffe’s gait as it runs across the plains; even the alert and nervous way the impala drink water from the river for fear of crocodiles: they are all graceful and strong and beautiful. So many times, I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty all around me.

Giraffe running with its characteristic slow-motion stride in the evening light. (Chobe National Park, Botswana)

Giraffe running with its characteristic slow-motion stride in the evening light. (Chobe National Park, Botswana)

And it really was all around me. I think when I imagined a safari, I thought we would have to drive for hours just to see a tiny animal way off in the distance. In reality, there were so many animals that at times we had to sit still and wait as impala and elephants and baboons slowly made their way past us on the 4WD roads. Gazing to either side, we could pick out giraffe heads poking out above the sparse trees. Hippos piled up alongside the river. Warthogs dug their snouts into the ground, seemingly oblivious or at least unperturbed by us. Lions lounged on the grass airstrip we used to arrive at one camp, complete with a pair of cuddly cubs. Perhaps because I have heard so much about various endangered species, I somehow pictured these animals being a lot more sparse. In truth, their number is testament to the success of a lot of conservation programs. And their nonchalance is testament to how habituated they are to the khaki-clad safari goers!

A sweet moment between a lioness and her cub (Chiefs Island, Botswana)

A sweet moment between a lioness and her cub (Chief's Island, Botswana)

Of course, we never forgot that these were wild animals and not to be taken lightly. For example, each night we had to be escorted back to our 5-star cabin or perma-tent because the hippos and elephants like to graze on vegetation inside the camps. Turns out they weren’t kidding: one night we had to hide behind a neighboring cabin for five minutes with the camp manager, waiting for an elephant literally standing at our doorstep to stop munching on leaves and hurry up and mosey along. And one of our guides, Sky, told us about his vehicle being chased for miles by an angry female elephant. (Sadly, he believes her baby had been killed by illegal hunters out of a very similar vehicle, and now she becomes furious and crazy at the sight of them.)

Beyond the incredible animals, the safari was a wonderful change in pace from the rest of our travels: it was really special to spend time with the Sandridge family and Baker friends, our accommodations were gorgeous and luxurious, and we didn’t have to plan a thing– thanks Homer! And oh my goodness, the food. We must have gained fifteen pounds between us (or each?) with the copious amounts of delicious food and no exercise. We ate like hobbits: feeding a minimum of six times per day on morning coffee with pastries, a full breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, evening cocktail hour with snacks, and dinner. Because the food was all so good, we never wanted to miss a feeding. We would jokingly call out, “Back to the trough!” Needless to say, it’s now time for more disciplined eating and we have every intention of finding opportunities for some exercise!

Sundowners on the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Pula!

Sundowners on the Okavango Delta, Botswana. "Pula!"

We have more photos than usual to share, so we put together two albums: one album with just our favorites (hard to choose!) and a second bigger album. Enjoy!

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Visiting with Family in Wöllersdorf, Austria

by aileen · August 23rd, 2010 · austria

Both before and after our cycling trip, we visited with family in the small town of Wöllersdorf, Austria, where my mother grew up.  We felt like we had come home.   I always feel so very taken care of when I am with my aunts and uncles and grandmother.  I think a part of me feels like a little girl again when I’m around them, but only in the very best way.  Eating the special meals cooked for us, reporting on how we slept, sipping the tea my aunt brought me in bed when I got a cold almost immediately after arrival: it was such a nice change after being on our own so much.  This was definitely the first time in our trip when we have been greeted and picked up at the airport!

Shenanigans with my grandmother and aunt

Shenanigans with my grandmother and aunt

Special thank yous to Tante (Aunt) Christl and Onkel (Uncle) Michl who put up with our always-last-minute planning and showed us truly incredible hospitality and to Tante Burgi and Onkel Walter for laughter-filled evenings.  You all rock!

More photos from our Austria visit here.

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Featured Photo: Holy Swarm-of-Flies, Batman!

by aileen · July 30th, 2010 · slovakia

Gray looks like a happy camper

Gray looks like a happy camper

We aborted our plans for an all day hike in the Tatras Mountains after reaching the tree line and realizing the swarm of flies had only gotten worse.  It was awful!  And some of them were biting flies.  We pretty much sprinted back down.

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