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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

La Paz - The Ultimate South American Field Trip

Yes...it's our last stop. 357 days into our adventure...these world travelers are tired. We have seen so much. We booked Bolivia on recommendation of some other savvy explorers we had met along the way. La Paz is spread out before us in a surreal landscape as we venture in from the airport.  Holy Crap. This city is HUGE!  Its' immensity seems like perhaps too much to conquer in the final days of our adventure. How do we see all of THAT while also dealing with the effects of oxygen deprivation?  Perhaps a visit to Wikipedia and Trip Advisor would help us eat this elephant a bite at a time.



Fun facts on La Paz:
  • La Paz is the highest seat of government city in the world
  • El Alto International Airport is the highest international airport in the world (13,325 feet above mean sea level). Passengers may notice the drop in pressure when the aircraft doors are opened.
  • Water boils in La Paz at 88 °C (190 °F)
  • La Paz has the highest certified Olympic stadium. FIFA issued a rule forbidding the organization of official matches in stadiums with an altitude of more than 2,500 metres because players may be at greater health risk due to decreased oxygen pressure, but excluded La Paz's Hernando Siles Stadium from that regulation after intense lobbying by Bolivian authorities
  • The La Paz central bus station was designed by Gustav Eiffel who also built the Eiffel Tower
LaPaz bus station

Inhale.  Well, inhale really deeply because the air is so thin up here!  It is so dramatic that they even have a health rescue station at customs when you come into the airport.  Speaking of customs....we are on our 29th country and somehow we missed the Visa requirement for Bolivia.  Fail, Bangert's! No worries, we aren't getting sent back to Chile...all we need to do is fill out some forms and pay...What? Que? What? Que?  Did we hear that right??... $540US in fees!  Ah caray! (I got this word on my Spanish app...means "Oh WOW!")

The customs agent kindly directs Bill into the airport in search of a bank machine.  Show me the Money, Gringo! (It is all in response to reciprocal fees the US charges Bolivians to get into the States).

After several failed attempt to withdraw cash, a woman explains to Bill in Spanish that many of the machines are out of money and directs him to a good one.  Thank you, travel Angel and High School Spanish!  We believe we are in business and Bill arrives back to customs with his Boliviano Pesos in hand.  Uhhh....not so fast, Gringo....the Bolivian officials need US cash.  Heavy sigh.  More deep breaths trying to avoid the emergency rescue station....Bill heads back into the terminal looking for Cambio. (change/conversion) So after 30-40 minutes of unexpected drama, we are on our way. We have learned that problems happen and they get resolved. Just go with the flow.  And breath...in La Paz....really deep!!

Mario our taxi driver...spoke no English but we learned a lot from him. And his dashboard was really fuzzy.

We grab a taxi and head into La Paz. I cannot even begin to describe the scale of this city and how it blankets the mountains as far as the eye can see.  It was too hard to get pictures from the cab and frankly I was obsessed with absorbing the sites.  Travel fatigue is sucking us all in and the scene before us starts to look like an unconquerable destiny.  Conquistadors we are not, today.

We get to a very nice aparthotel in the central district and spend two days venturing out around the hotel...we visit one of the main squares...get out of breath easily and battle headaches.  Bill and I are a bit baffled and intimidated with how to tackle this beast. I can't convince any of my peeps to mountain bike with me on the El Camino de Muerte (the road of death) so we dig into our beloved TripAdvisor and we find Ben Montevilla of Banjo Tours. We had no idea,...we were heading on the Ultimate South American Field Trip.

Ben specializes in taking people to the "non-tourist" places.  This is RIGHT up our alley and we feel like we aren't going to fail La Paz after all.  We are contacting him late on Thursday and figure we won't get in quickly.  However, he ends up being available Friday afternoon...once again the travel God/Goddess smiles down on us and off we go.  Ben picks us up at 1:30p Friday afternoon.  He does not have his own vehicle...we are going to ride like the locals ride. Yea!!

We had been intrigued by the 1000's of mini-vans that fill the streets stuffed with locals jumping on and off and usually, the fare taker would be leaning out the side door yelling out their destinations. It was too daunting to tackle on our own but with our guide, Ben, we were set. For about .22 cents a person you could get from a point A to a point B.  With Ben picking the vans going in our desired direction, we were set.  What a great start to our experience.
Ben is on the right in glasses. You can see our Canadian companion's head in the right corner.


Ben walked us by some of the major local sites like San Francisco square and the government buildings.  He even showed us a building marked with bullet holes from a civil war that took place less than 10 years ago in 2003.  They now proudly have their first Indigenous (Native Indian) President and things seem to have settled down.
Parliament Building







Government Building with bullet holes from 2003
La Paz street view

Indigenous woman...love the local clothing!


Indigenous women enjoying an ice cream on the square

OK...we've seen some of the normal tourist things...great warm up, now off for the real adventure. We hop in another van snuggled in with the locals and head off to see the largest coca leaf warehouse in Bolivia. Literally. The heart and soul of the Bolivian coca distribution network. Can you say Scarface?   It is the second largest provider of coca behind Peru. Welcome to our field trip, children...do you want to see where cocaine comes from? "Say hello to my little friend."  It offered us great opportunities for discussion. That's what parents should do, right?

Coca is utilized for many products within Bolivia, however, our local fixer, Ben, shared that 40% of it ends up with the drug trade. The other 60% goes into medicinal products. He strolls into the warehouse with his Gringos in tow. I am expecting armed Latinos to rush us and start an immediate strip search.  Instead we see rooms full of huge bags of coca leaves with the coca farmers and their children hanging out.  I got one picture before I felt it was prudent to ask if it was OK to take them....answer...from Ben our guide....not such a good idea. So here is my one and only pic of the warehouse. It is just one room and certainly wasn't the best as far as quantity of coca leaves:
Each village/area had a room..this was sparse in quantity compared to others.
Notice the TV for when hanging out with the kids and your fellow farmers. 

It is fascinating to see the work of these farmers and to watch the women sorting through the leaves by size and quality.  I spy a child laying on a large sack of leaves taking a nap.  Ben, our guide not our son, negotiates with a woman to buy a small sack of coca leaves. She offers to sell him the whole 50lb bag (see pic above...one of those sacks) and he moves on to another woman who is willing to sell him a small amount.   Our son, Ben, has been really struggling with altitude sickness and we are hoping to make some coca tea to help him.  

We venture out of the warehouse and pass many of the locals selling produce along the street and come upon the guy selling coca products. Coca is used for all types of medicinal purposes - headaches, hemorrhoids, stomach aches, ED (I think anyone who watches commercials at a football game knows what ED is).  We buy some coca tea and coca candy from him and some of the ash the locals use to put between the leaves when chewing them from a woman close by. The ash is from a particular tree that they have been using for this purpose for over 1000 years.

The Bolivian woman selling the ash you use when chewing coca leaves
The fruits of our shopping at the Coca Market.  A bag of coca leaves, coca caramels, coca tea and the ash for chewing.

Ben shares with us how the warehouse works and shows us where the trucks come to pick up the coca before traveling to towns and villages all over the country where they will go into production.  The government actually regulates the warehouse in an effort to have some control over the distribution of coca leaves. Wow. Interesting experience to share with your 12 year old twins.

After the coca warehouse it is off to an exclusive view. The taxis and vans do not go up this route so Ben has his father, Javier, pick us up in his taxi.  We all pile in and begin the climb up the mountain.  This road is so steep! Javier approaches most of it slowly and in first gear. We see many of the indigenous children out playing next to their houses that cling to the bedrock. Ben shares that when the rains come, these homes are often destroyed.  The higher up you live, the poorer you are.  Just the opposite of how we live in the States...where the views bring the premium prices and prestige.

Irregardless of the social implications, the views were unbelievable.  To see how they have built up this town high into the mountains is a site to behold. It looks surreal.

Probably one of our last family picks on our RTW adventure.

Look at the sky scrapers in the bottom left to get perspective. Crazy!

Homes barely clinging to the mountain side.

You would think with the cross and the view the tourists would be here. Very profound space.

So we keep breathing deep.  Son, Ben, is hanging in there with his altitude sickness.  We all head back into Javier's taxi for the continued ascent to the city known as El Alto.  They might as well call it "Planet El Alto" or maybe even "Middle Earth". This place is like nothing we have ever seen.  It is a fully Indigenous town at the top of the mountain covering a large flat area.  They are all dressed in their traditional Indigenous wear with their wide skirts, braids and bowler hats.  Many of them live here yet many others come in on treacherous bus rides from the jungle to bring their goods to market.

Walking through the market


Love the skirts and bowler hats
The loads the women carry on their backs are daunting.



Meandering through the markets we receive some scrutiny from the locals as this is not a place that tourists visit.  Ben introduces us to two new fruits one of which is called "Tuna". It is spikey and fleshy and has seeds similar to a pomegranate.  The other looks like an angular banana and is a favorite of mine...it has a taste like a pear/banana combination.  It has seeds in it that you actually don't eat. They are large and purple and brown in color.    The market is fascinating to experience and we are thrilled with our day.

Who knew Ben had another surprise up his sleeve. The next stop in our stroll is to the Mercado de Brujas.  The Market of Witches. We are learning that the Indigenous are very superstitious and work hard to please Pachamama (Mother Earth) as well as to bring good fortune to their lives while warding off evil.  The stalls of the witches market are filled with a variety of candles, incense, llama fetuses (yes - lots of them) and an assortment of other "goodies" to influence the spirit in their lives.

Llama fetuses - to be burned in a fire and then buried on site before building a home.  

An assortment of candles, incense, candies and other notions to honor Pachamama at the Witches Market.
This is very interesting to absorb. Our guide's intimate knowledge of the customs really brings this to life for us.  The offerings to Pachamama are created for various events in life. Birth, death, marriage, building a home, etc.  I end up buying one for "Trabajo".....work.  I will bring this home to our fire pit in the states and offer it up to Pachamama in prayer for good jobs to come our way in support of our family.
The offering is full of candy, wax pieces, salt and one nut you are supposed to crack before burning.

You arrange the pieces on top of a fire on a slab of round cardboard in a pleasing circle. Got it!


Next stop, the Shaman area which looks a bit like what I would dub: Shaman Row.  The road is bordered by two rows of buildings housing small sheds where each Shaman sets up shop. There appear to be over 100 of them in business which is a tribute to their importance in the Indigenous culture. Our guide Ben worked very hard to find the "right" shaman. One of his favorites was occupied so he continued until he felt we had the "right" one.
Shaman Row. Notice the small fire pits for offerings to Pachamama/God.

Ben Montevilla looking for the "right" Shaman.


Shaman Marketing - Amauta was engaged when we went by her place.

Ben asks us if we would like our coca leaves read. SURE!  How many people do we know will ever have their coca leaves read by an Indigenous Shaman in the mountains of Bolivia?  Our Shaman was in room 101...good number, right? He is quite a nice gentleman.  Bill and the kids and I step into his small quarters to experience what the Shaman has to say.  The walls are a soft green adorned with pictures of Jesus and Mary. He takes a handful of coca leaves and has each of us blow on his hands. He then slowly lets them fall to his table.


All in all things are looking good for the Bangert's.  We have had some good luck he says. Well, no disrespect, Mr. Shaman but the fact we have traveled the world together for a year took a bit of suerte. (luck)  Just saying.  He also read in the leaves to give me direction on which job of the two I have under consideration I would be best suited for. We will see if I agree after formal interviews in a few weeks. ;-)  We also asked him if the kids' current school was the best choice for them and he advised that the leaves said otherwise. Perhaps Walnut Hills is in their future?? Again...we will see how that shakes out when we get home.  Ben would be mortified to leave Madeira. All in all it was a fabulous adventure.

Lo and behold after our reading, he asked us if we would like to see the secret in his back room.  Well, SURE, why not...he seemed like a nice enough guy and we didn't suspect we were going to be fed to the natives.  We stepped into a very small back room that had a simple mattress and a door in the back.  Our guide reaches out and opens the door and we are blown away with a collective GASP!  The back door drops right off the mountain in a view that looks like something you would find in a Tim Burton movie.


Holy Pachamama!!
 It was amazing to say the least.  With the rainy season upon them, I will pray that our dear Shaman stays rooted to the side of the mountain.  Wow...what a wonderful, out of the ordinary day.

The buses lined up for the trip back to the jungle.
Off we go towards the vans that will take us back to town. We pass the buses lined up to take the farmers back to their villages...on the road down the treacherous back side of the mountain to the jungle.  We will hop in our van with half a dozen Pacenas and pay our twenty two cents each to return to the city of La Paz.

Unexpectedly on our drive down the hill, much to my delight, we are passing the local cemetery.  I get the added thrill of  seeing the style of the local cemetery.....without having the kids roll their eyes at me. Muh-hahahah. Bonus!

We breath deeply with a sigh of satisfaction, La Paz all around us...knowing we have just had the Ultimate South American Field Trip.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Buenos Aires-More than just the "Paris" of South America

It was late in 2004 and early in 2005 that Annie and I first thought of living somewhere other than the United States.  Nothing against the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have just had a serious case of wanderlust for quite some time.  Our kids were just about to turn five, and we'd been living in Madeira for almost five years, so we hadn't met many other Madeira parents as is the case when your kids get involved in school and sports once they hit six or seven.  I did some research on the best places for ex-pats and at the top of the list:  Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It took us about eight years to get there but we finally did.

When planning our South American portion of our trip, Buenos Aires was pretty much the only definite destination we had on that continent.  The most common description of Buenos Aires is that it's the Paris of South America.  We definitely felt some of that almost immediately upon our arrival.

It didn't take us long to see evidence of the European influence in the architecture of Buenos Aires.  We were staying in the fairly well-known area of Recoleta, which supposedly has the best example of French architecture of any area of the city.
Buenos Aires street near our apartment
Buenos Aires is a large cosmopolitan city, with a strong European vibe thanks to the many wide boulevards and plazas shaded by sycamore trees and palm trees.  It's a great look that I highly recommend for more cities.  Like Cincinnati for example.  Let's take advantage of this opportunity and plant some palm trees around the Banks.  It would be like we were somewhere else, and isn't that what we all really want in Cincinnati?

Buenos Aires is a very walkable city, and we did plenty of that during our week there.  The weather was spectacular, with low humidity and comfortable temperatures as spring started to be nudged aside by summer.  It gave Annie the chance to take some beautiful photos.
Springtime in Buenos Aires
The beauty of Buenos Aires was in full bloom as we strolled along Avenida Presidente Figueroa Alcorta, close to where it intersects with Brigadier General Juan Facundo Quiroga.  You see a lot of streets in South America named after political figures, including their entire names, as well as military heroes, using their entire names as well.  There are also a lot of streets named after significant dates in South American history.  We saw that trend first in Cuenca Ecuador as we frequently walked down Avenida 3 de Noviembre, and it continued in Buenos Aires as we took a taxi along Avenida 9 de Julio.  

7/9 Avenue as it might be called in the States, is a magnificent, sprawling boulevard that is home to a giant obelisk in the heart of town.  The comparisons that have been made to the Champs Elysees in Paris are valid, as both are the carotid artery of the cities they call home.  I couldn't take a photo to do justice to the splendor of the avenue, so I borrowed one from the internet.  Thanks World Wide Web!  And of course, Al Gore!
Avenida 9 De Julio at dusk
It's really something to see, especially at night, which we did once by taxi.  As much as Buenos Aires definitely has a European feel at times, Annie and I both thought it also felt a lot like New York City.  The area where we stayed, Recoleta, definitely felt like one of the great residential areas of Manhattan, like those around Soho or Midtown.  Cafes and shops crowd the shady sidewalks, as pedestrians stroll by and occasionally duck into one of the establishments, freeing up much-needed space on the pavement for other peatones

Just to the right of the obelisk in the photo above are some pedestrian walkways, which are a pleasure to take in.  The Argentinians are well-known for their ravenous love of meat, and it was hard to walk very far without seeing a parilla. 
Parillas are basically steakhouses which served up all kinds of grilled meat, including lamb, pork and chicken.

One of the many Parrillas in Buenos Aires
The walkway definitely echoed some of the places we had visited earlier on the trip, especially some cities in Europe.  The atmosphere was very enjoyable and part of it was not feeling like outsiders, as we had in Cuenca, where it was clear that you were either a local or a Gringo. 
Strolling down Calle Lavalle
One of the major attractions that was within walking distance of our cozy apartment was the Recoleta Cemetery.  It covers 14 acres, with almost 4700 graves (all above ground), 94 of which are notable enough to be protected by the government.  Annie's a bit whacky for cemeteries and we've seen our share in the course of the past 11 months.  This one, however, was probably the most impressive we've visited.

The place is fascinating and overwhelming at the same time.  Row after row of crypts stretch out, seemingly without end, each carrying the story of the person or persons interred there.
Crypts at Recoleta Cemetery
It's extremely tempting to stop and study each of the thousands of monuments, many of which have elaborate carvings on them. Of course, if you actually did that, you would probably be there long enough to qualify for your own eye-catching crypt.
Too many to take in!
The most notable person interred there is the former Argentinian First Lady, Eva Peron, or Evita as she is known and celebrated among the locals.  It took us a while to find her gravesite, as there are no signs pointing it out.  A quick question of a security guard at the cemetery didn't provide much help, but we found some other people from the US who pointed us in the right direction.
The resting place of Evita
As graves of famous people go, it's a pretty humble presentation.  I personally had to fight back the urge to break out some mad dance moves and sing "Material Girl" or "Get Into the Groove" in honor of Madonna who of course starred in Evita and apparently did a pretty good job in the title role.  But we have always had a policy of not ticking off the dead, because that's one group you don't want angry at you.

Two events on the late November calendar would have us feeling a little homesick during our stay in Buenos Aires.  The Thursday we were there happened to be Thanksgiving.  A little research online showed a couple of places that served a traditional turkey dinner targeting ex-pats on Thanksgiving.  One was a pub within walking distance of our apartment that had gotten good reviews for its Turkey Day offerings over the past three or four years.  Another was a restaurant named Kansas that had three locations in Buenos Aires, all requiring a taxi cab ride, so I dialed up the pub first.

The woman who answered the phone at the pub didn't speak any English, and my Spanish was so pathetic she quickly handed the phone over to the owner.  He was a very friendly man from the States who explained that we were welcome to come by, but he was done with the Thanksgiving Dinner plan.  He said that inflation had gotten so out of hand that it just didn't make any financial sense to take a big loss, so after four years, he was keeping the turkey and gravy in the fridge and putting the green bean casserole away for good.

That pretty much made the decision for our plans for the day.  I called the closest of the three Kansas locations and asked if they were doing a Thanksgiving dinner, and the woman speaking in Spanish, assured me they were.  She also assured me that yes, they would be showing futbol Americano.

A cab ride of about 20 minutes had us in front of the Kansas restaurant, which was a sprawling, North American-looking establishment.  It was almost three pm local time, but we were able to be seated right away in one of the last remaining booths.  The only problem was that it was immediately clear we weren't going to be seeing any futbol Americano because there was only one TV in the place, and it was at the bar on the other side of the restaurant and it was showing futbol sud americano.  Goofy kickball!  Use your thumbs, pick it up already!
Thanksgiving menu at Kansas
The restaurant did live up to one of the two promises made to me on the phone as they were, indeed, serving up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.  It was a little pricey and we could see from other diners' tables that the portions were pretty big, so among us only Annie ordered the turkey.  (The price you see at the bottom of the menu in the picture above is in Argentinian Pesos, not US Dollars, so it was about $25 US.)


Turkey dinner in Buenos Aires
I had a decent steak, Ben ordered the ribs and Marley of course had a plate of pasta.  It wasn't quite the experience we were looking for, but we still enjoyed it as a family.  And that's what Thanksgiving is all about, right?  We managed to do an on-camera Facebook chat later that day with Annie's family gathered for the holiday, so that helped douse some of the homesickness we felt.

Two days later, we searched out another ex-pat spot in Buenos Aires, a "resto-bar" called Shoeless Joe's Alamo.  It was one of two places in BA that advertised showing NFL football on Sundays, so we figured it was a pretty good bet they would be showing a fairly important NCAA college football game on a Saturday afternoon.  Not just any game mind you, but The Game.

I was raised a Buckeyes football fan by my parents, neither of whom went to Ohio State but lived in Ohio most of their lives.  My dad was a big Reds, Bengals and Buckeyes fan like I have become, and my mom liked the fact that Dad and I shared our love of sports together. ("Hey.....Dad....ya wanna have a catch?") When Dad and I  watched our favorite teams on TV togerther, Mom would usually be somewhere close by watching passively. Even with all those hours of televised sports, the only time I ever saw her get upset was when something bad happened to the Buckeyes football team.  A good example is when they lost to Jim Plunkett and Stanford in the Rose Bowl in 1971, costing them a chance at the national title.  Seeing my mom upset about the Buckeyes losing, after not having much emotion in reaction to the Bengals playoff loss to the Colts just a week earlier and the Reds loss to the Orioles in the World Series a couple of months before that had a big impact on me.  It embedded in me the distinct impression that would stay with me for the rest of my life:  According to my mom, there's Buckeyes football and there's EVERYTHING ELSE.

Allow me to digress for just one more paragraph, I promise!  Imagine how great that was for me as a 9-year old boy, my first year seriously following sports about 12 months after we had moved to Cincinnati from Youngstown.  My baseball team makes it to the World Series, my pro football team wins its' final seven games to make the playoffs in only their third year in existence, (at the time, the fastest any expansion team had made the post-season), and my college football team goes undefeated in the regular season and plays for the National Title.  What a horrid sports childhood I would have had if we hadn't moved from Youngstown, as I would have been rooting for the Indians (one of the worst teams in baseball in the 70s while the Reds had the best record in all of baseball for that decade) and the Browns.  Ugh.  At least we still would have had the Buckeyes.  O-H!!

So all those memories and electrical impulses are surging through and around my brain as we walk toward El Alamo.  As we get there, we see three or four guys standing outside smoking cigarettes, the majority of which are wearing that awful maize and blue color combination.  They seemed harmless enough, so I approached them and said, pointing toward their shirts and nodding toward the bar "Is everyone inside wearing this, or will I find some Scarlet and Gray in there?"  They laughed and a guy just emerging from El Alamo was wearing the OSU colors and said, "There's plenty more of this inside!"
Wolverine fans at El Alamo

It was pretty much a fifty/fifty split between UM and OSU fans inside and there was some good-natured ribbing going on as the game went back and forth.  The Game came down to the fourth quarter and the Bucks made enough key plays to hold on for a glorious 26-21 victory, completing a perfect 12-0 season, much to the delight of the Buckeye contingent at El Alamo.

12-0!
You can argue until you're maize and blue in the face that the perfect season is diminished by the Buckeyes probationary status, but Urban Meyer and his players couldn't control any of that.  All they could do was line up and play every team on the schedule, which they did finishing each game with a win.  To complete a perfect season with a win over Michigan made it all the more special, and for my family of Buckeye fans, including my wife-an OSU grad, it was a result that would ensure that we would always remember El Alamo.  And Buenos Aires.

  

Saturday, December 8, 2012

South Africa

Here's another disturbing example (at least to me and some members of my family) of how my brain works.  Before taking this trip, when I thought of South Africa, I either thought of Gary Player and Ernie Els (two world-famous golfers who are natives of SA) or a scene from Lethal Weapon 2.  In the scene Joe Pesci is with Danny Glover at the South African Consulate in Los Angeles and the worker there is stunned that Glover would want to go to South Africa because of his race.  It's a pretty funny clip

A lot has changed about South Africa since Lethal Weapon 2 was released.  For one thing, there have been two more Lethal Weapon films, each more hideous than the one before.  More importantly, Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa from 1994-1999.  Don't know if you've noticed this, but he's, like they say in the Lethal Weapon 2 clip, "blek."  


In planning the trip, South Africa was high on our list of destinations mostly because of friends we knew who had either visited there or lived there.  It's not an easy place to get to, but we felt pretty confident it would be worth the effort.  And it definitely took some effort to get there.

With our 90 days in the Schengen Agreement burned through, it was time to get out of Europe.   We left Munich at about 4:30pm local time and arrived in Doha, Qatar at around 11:15pm.  We spent the night in the airport, not sleeping much, doing what we could to find power outlets to get some juice in our devices.  It was very interesting to watch the ebbs and flows of the airport during the overnight hours, as flights came and went from and to all around the world at all different times of the morning.

Our departure from Doha was at 7:15am, with a direct flight to Cape Town that arrived at 5:40pm.  It added up to around 25 hours of travel, our longest travel segment of the trip (so far).  It wasn't quite as much of an ordeal as I expected for whatever reason.  We did get to see the sun come up in Qatar, which was a first for us.
People we talked to about South Africa raved about its natural beauty and we saw evidence of that before we even set foot on the soil of that country.  As our plane approached the airport at Cape Town, the coastline spread out below us in all its' beauty.
We got to experience even more of that beauty first hand with the waterfront condo that I found online at a good price that I managed to negotiate even lower for our stay there.  It was in an area called Mouille Point, and was almost literally in the shadow of the stadium where the World Cup games were played in Cape Town in 2010. If you listened closely and the wind was coming from just the right direction, you could almost hear the echoes of the vuvuzelas, those horns that were blown constantly during the competition.  In case you forgot what they sounded like there is a website that plays the vuvuzela, 24/7-365:  http://www.vuvuzela.fm/  You're welcome!
The weather wasn't perfect while we were in Cape Town, but it was good enough for us to get to explore some of what was quite possibly the most beautiful urban setting we had seen on the trip.  There were vuvuzelas for sale on the streets of Cape Town, along with all kinds of other trinkets and souvenirs and clothing and hats, etc., etc.
We've tried to avoid doing "touristy" things along the way, but one of the activities that brands you as a tourist has turned out to be a great way to see an area that you are unfamiliar with, especially if you don't have a car:  the double decker open-top bus.  
We first heard of the bus tours which operate in several major cities when we were staying just outside Paris.  That's when we really started to plan the South African part of the trip and a friend of ours who is from SA recommended taking the tour as a great way to see the city in a short amount of time for not a lot of money.  We took her advice and did the bus tours in both Dublin and Edinburgh, and really enjoyed it. 

That enjoyment continued in Cape Town, and it really was a fantastic way to see the city.  You can get on the bus at any of its' many stops and get back off again anywhere you want.  And it's really a great ride in Cape Town, especially if you listen to the recorded commentary that describes the different parts of town the bus goes through and some of the sights along the way.
The water front area of Cape Town became one of our favorite spots.  With Table Mountain in the background, the water shimmered with the reflection of buildings and ships and boats and a gigantic red Lego figure.

One of the stops that the bus took was to the top of Table Mountain, where you could pay a fee and ride a cable car up to the top of the mountain for an even better view.  We were running out of time to catch the last bus of the day, so we skipped the cable car ride and settled for a beautiful view of the bay.


What a spectacular view it was! Those views continued as we took the bus south from Table Mountain towards Camps Bay and Bantry Bay.  The road hugs the twisting shoreline around some secluded coves that are home to pristine beaches.  Seeing the ocean, beaches and mountains as part of a singular landscape was stunning.
The bus route went right by the apartment we rented, and even though there wasn't an assigned stop there the driver was kind enough to pull over and let us out, avoiding a pretty long walk from the closest stop. 

We took that long walk into town the next good weather day to take the ferry to Robben Island.  Despite it's beautiful setting, Robben Island has been a place where unwanted members of society have been sent for about 400 years.  Home to political prisoners and even lepers over the years, Robben Island is best known for being where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.  A ferry runs a few times a day, taking passengers over to see where the prisoners called home.

The island is about four miles off the mainland and was also used as a military fortification during World War II when the locals became concerned about the Japanese invading.  Tour buses take people to a few stops on the island, and the most compelling one is the prison where Mandela was held.
Mandela's cell is closed off and preserved as it was when he was there.  Most of the guides are former prisoners who tell some pretty chilling tales of what life was like, especially while Mandela was there.

It's fascinating to get a first-hand look at the place where the future President of South Africa was held, and released just 22 years ago.
One thing I liked about the guide who led our group through the facility was that he seemed to have no bitterness about the half-dozen our so years he was held there as a political prisoner, and it was obvious he had great pride to have shared time there with Mandela.  And we were fulfilled to have been able to see a powerful part of South African history in person.




 
After five days, it was time to leave Cape Town and head east, along what's called the Garden Route.  The route through the southern part of South Africa is filled with even more beauty.  After seeing so much amazing scenery around Cape Town, you kind of figure that the beauty bucket would be empty.  Not quite.  We rented a car in CT and hit the N2, with the town of Mossel Bay being our destination for a couple of nights.  As we headed east, we were bombarded with non stop mountain views to our left.  This went on literally for hours, and as we got close to Mossel Bay, the scenery got even more beautiful as the view from the road would occasionally include the ocean to our right.

The place we booked in Mossel Bay was the lower portion of a house that had a great view over the bay and nature provided us a welcoming gift of a gorgeous sunset our first night there.  
The owners were a very interesting couple.  He was from Switzerland and she was a Brit and they had been living in South Africa for several years, having moved to Mossel Bay from Durban.  They were still searching for just the right spot and were thinking of South America and gave us some interesting reading materials, including several copies of International Living magazine.  Those articles got our  brains spinning about living somewhere else for a while.

The location of Mossel Bay made it perfect for a day trip to see an ostrich farm and a nearby animal sanctuary.  Both were near the town of Oudtshoorn, so we got in our rental car for the 90-minute drive to see some more wildlife.  Unfortunately, for us and more so for the birds, some sort of bird flu had the ostrich farms shut down.  But that didn't stop us from getting a close-up look at those amazing creatures.  We pulled off at the entrance to one of the farms, where some of the large, prehistoric looking birds were gathered.
They seemed to like the attention, and were not shy about us approaching them.  Up close, the birds are absolute freaks of nature.  These huge bodies on spindly legs with those long necks that don't look like they should be able to support their heads.  When they open their wings, you can see how the feathers are connected and it looks skeletal.  Very weird.  And while we were disappointed the ostrich farms were not open, it was great just to have the chance to see them separated only by the wires of a fence.
Fortunately, the ostrich farm wasn't our only desired destination of the day.  Not too  far away was the Cango Wildlife Ranch, offering a "hands-on" experience to check out some wildlife.  You never know about the quality of these places and how the animals are being taken care of, but we had a good feeling from the moment we pulled into the parking lot.

The wildlife ranch is sort of a glorified zoo, with the main attractions being large cats.  The cats had the appropriate large spaces to in which to move around, and seemed pretty happy with their surroundings.
There was an option, for a price of course, to have an intimate encounter with lemurs.  Ben and Annie were the most into it, so to economize as much as possible, we paid for just those two to have a personal tour with the lemurs.

That proved to be some of the best money we spent on the trip, if for no other reason than the pictures we got of Ben with the lemurs.  He's something of an animal whisperer and animals totally take to him.   He's got such a great heart that one time on vacation when he was about seven we were out to eat, and he ordered just plain fish and wanted to make sure it didn't have any spicy seasonings on it.  Turns out he wanted to take some from the restaurant to give to some stray cats he had seen as we walked to dinner from our rental condo.  Apparently word has spread since then among the animal kingdom, because animals of all varieties just seem to love him, including lemurs.
And the feeling is definitely mutual.

Annie got into the act as well, showing off her own animal magnetism.

If nothing else, our visit made me appreciate the animators of movies like Madagascar, who really capture the essence of animals such as the lemur and the meerkat.

 
On our way out of Mossel Bay we took the advice of the owners of the place where we were staying and went across the bay to try to spot some whales.  It didn't take long at all to see the graceful beasts swimming a few hundred yards off the coast.  We tried to take some pictures but we don't have a telephoto lens on our camera and they didn't come out, so we'll just have to rely on our photographic memories to recall the majesty of the half-dozen or so whales we saw that day.

Our final stop on the Garden Route was for a few days in a seaside area known as Nature's Valley.  We had to be in Port Elizabeth in four days for our flight to Johannesburg and the start of our three-day safari in Kruger National Park.  Nature's Valley was comprised of a few hundred vacation homes spread out among about a half dozen streets that ran parallel to a really pretty beach. 
We jumped on a good weather day and had a great time hanging in the sand and creating our own little village.  

Our house was fairly typical of many of the homes in Nature's Valley.  It was on a decent-sized lot and we loved the a-frame construction and the big glass sliding doors that opened up to a nice deck.  


There was only one restaurant in Nature's Valley and we ate there pretty much everyday, making friends with one of the servers there.  He had dreams of going to the States, joining a friend in Texas for a while working as a welder and saving up some money, hoping to return to South Africa with a bunch of money a few years later.  We wished him well on that.

Nature beckoned again as it does so often in South Africa, and just a short drive away was Monkeyland and Birds of Eden.  The two adjoining nature parks had a decent package deal and exposed us to even more wildlife.   As fellow primates, we decided to save the monkeys for last and began with the birds.  

Birds of Eden is described as the world's largest free-flight aviary, covering more than five and a half acres, with more than 3,500 specimens of almost 300 species.  They are enclosed in a massive netting system that rises about 150 feet into the sky, giving the birds plenty of space to fly around.  We walked along the more than mile and a half of boardwalks, and were amazed at all the different types of birds we saw.  I can't possibly describe everything we saw as well as pictures can, so enjoy!


We had a blast at Birds of Eden, but you know what's even more fun than birds?  Monkeys!!  Monkeyland was just a short walk away from the bird sanctuary, and Lots and lots of monkeys called Monkeyland home, and it was just a short walk from one place to the other.


To get into the primate world of Monkeyland, it's necessary to go through a double gate, to keep the monkeys from getting out.  Most of the monkeys at Monkeyland come from zoos that have gotten overcrowded or from people who thought it would be a great idea to have a monkey as a pet.  And it does sound like a great idea, until they start flinging poo at you at the dinner table or demonstrating inappropriate and distracting behavior while you're trying to watch America's Got Talent, which I'm guessing is a pretty popular show in the world of monkeys.

The monkeys at Monkeyland have free reign of the place and seem pretty content.  They were clearly accustomed to human visitors and it was great to have them scamper about on the ground and in the trees coming very close to us several times.

They're fed a diet of fruit and hover around the feeding stations, especially when tour groups come through.  It was fun to watch them eat the orange slices, some of them carefully studying them before deciding which one to devour.
One of our favorites was a Lar Gibbon, who unlike most of the other monkeys, hung out by himself most of the time.  He made a few brief appearances on the periphery of the other monkey activities.

The closest and most frequent encounters we had came with the lemurs.  They darted in and out of the trees and along the paths that we walked along, some of them carrying adorable little lemur babies.

There were monkeys beside us, around us and above us, and we enjoyed it as much as we could considering the 15 or so members of the group we were with.  We did have a very good guide who did a great job of patiently answering questions and explaining the different species of monkeys we were seeing.

We had a great time seeing all the different kinds of monkeys prowling around Monkeyland, and they seemed to enjoy our visit just about as much.  That taste of wildlife was just an appetizer for the seven-course meal of wildlife awaiting us at our next stop.