In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa


We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia


Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island


Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas


Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive


Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan


India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Life North of the Red Line

Between Tsumeb, where we spent the night after our last day in Etosha, and Rundu, which is near the beginning of the Caprivi Strip, the tiny northeastern part of Namibia that squeezes in between Angola and Botswana, we crossed the Red Line. This line, marked by a veterinary control fence, prevents the north-south crossing of animals, or the passing of animals from the northern communal subsistence lands to the commercial cattle farms of the south. The goal of this fence is to protect the southern animals, which are sold for meat both inside and outside of Namibia, from instances of foot-and-mouth and other diseases.

For us, the fence wasn’t so interesting in regards to its role in keeping cattle disease-free, as much as it amazed us how different life was on the two different sides of the fence. South of the fence Namibia was either wide-open spaces that seemed to be occupied by absolutely no one or small cities that were generally of a fairly modern (and sometimes quite German) design with supermarkets, banks, clothing shops, and Western-style housing (or shanties).

North of the border, Namibia suddenly and very dramatically became Africa as most of us non-Africans probably picture it. We entered a world where life centered around the village, and where villages consisted of rondavels constructed of mud and clay with thatched roofs and small enclosures for animals. The villages were surrounded by stick fences. A communal water spicket was usually also available, and women and children walking from the faucet to their homes with large containers of water balanced on their heads was a common sight.

Animals–goats, donkeys, and huge cows with prominent horns, roamed freely, grazing on the side of the road, or standing stubbornly in the road daring you to approach. Occasionally a small boy with a stick walked alongside them, doing his best to herd them.

In between villages, maize, sorghum, and other crops grew. On occasion, you’d catch a glimpse of women grinding up the maize into meal, using stone pots and a stick.

We were a novelty it seemed. Though we were driving on a paved national highway, every single person we passed stopped and stared at us. All the children would wave frantically and burst into huge smiles when we waved back. Some tried to race our car; others yelled at us to look at the snake they had caught. Though life was certainly not easy, there was obviously much joy.

Outside some of the villages, crafts had been set out, apparently to sale to the few tourists like us who passed by. There were enourmous clay pots and giant masks, wooden airplanes and helicoptors, and carved animal figurines. Wanting a closer look, we stopped at one of the larger stands, which seemd to be manned by absolutely no one. The village was perfectly quiet. But as we all know, appearances can be deceiving, and as soon as we pulled over and got out, seemingly the entire village emerged to stare at us. We moved through the goods, checking out the various items for sale, and greeting the people, most of whom just continued to stare. Jeff, finding a cheetah he just had to have, began to bargain with the guy selling it, and I moved off to say hello to some children who had gathered in a group to gawk.

As soon as I spoke to one girl, all the others moved in, and I was soon surrounded by kids. They told me their names and ages, where they went to school and what grade they were in. We talked about football and netball, and they stared, stared, stared at me.

Finally, they asked me a question: How old are you? This apparently interested the parents too, who were gathered in a cluster a bit further away, as they yelled to their children to find out what my answer had been. I could only wonder what they thought. At 28, I was certainly older than many of them, yet I did not have any of the things that they, at my age, would have: a hut (or house) of my own, children, the weariness of having to physically work hard every day. My life was pretty much as incomprehensible to them as theirs was to me. But we shared a smile, some laughs, and I think, a wonder at the beautiful strangeness of this thing we call life.

We Saw Cheetahs! (And More Lions Too)

When we entered Etosha, there were two big cats we’d yet to see: cheetahs and leopards. Both are notoriously hard to spot. In fact, one guide at Etosha said that in eight years he had yet to see a cheetah. And leopards, while the most numerous cat in Africa, are hard to find because they are primarily nocturnal and spend their days in the top of trees. Well, remember how I said we were lucky? We were at Etosha. On our second morning, we went out in search of cats and spotted three cheetahs prowling across a field. We followed them a bit and saw them scratch up a tree before heading off where no road ran.

Then on our third and final morning, we were out and about, this time in search of leopards specifically, when we spotted two more cheetahs. We watched them prowl a field, and then we watched a bit incredulously as they were actually scared off by a herd of oryx.

Unfortunately, we never did find that leopard, but we did end up spotting four more lions in addition to the one we saw at the watering hole.

Giraffe Porn

If you look closely, you’ll understand the title. We witnessed a whole lot of foreplay going on between these two giraffes. It amounted to rubbing necks, ramming heads into butts, and walking in a lot of circles. As far as the actual action goes, well, we didn’t see anything. A few times it seemed as if they were trying but couldn’t quite figure it out. And as the sun was setting, we couldn’t wait around forever but had to race on to camp to make it before the gates closed. Maybe in the end that’s all they were waiting for…a little privacy.

Etosha’s Watering Holes

Etosha is Namibia’s premier game park. Stretching along the edge of the enormous Etosha pan, a salt flat that occasionally fills with water after the rains, Etosha is spectacularly beautiful, with views seeming to stretch forever across broad plains. Morning and evening light are spectacular (though not long lasting because in open space like that the sun is up quickly and down just as fast). But the real highlight of Etosha is its camps. No, the sites aren’t as nice as those at Kruger (though plenty fine), and the amenities aren’t nearly as extensive as those at South African parks (though prices are certainly higher), but it’s all made up for by the watering holes situated at each camp.

The campsite watering holes are situated on the edge of the camps and are partially ringed by seating areas, from where campsite visitors can safely view the wildlife that gathers there. And with Etosha not having too many watering holes, those that do exist are usually pretty frequented. Best of all, however, is the fact that the waterholes are floodlit at night, meaning that campers get the rare opportunity to view nocturnal wildlife and their activities.

We had our greatest success on our first night at the watering hole at Okaukuejo, which we also found to be the nicest site. (When we get rich, we’re definitely going back and splurging on one of the chalets with private balconies overlooking the watering hole!). Settling in at the hole after dinner, we first spotted two rhinos hanging out on the edge of the light. We also saw a number of jackals, running all around the hole and yapping like crazy, as well as many owls and other large birds.

But the coolest sighting was that of a lioness hanging out at the hole and going down for a drink every now and then.

At one point, while she was resting under a bush, a lone zebra ventured down to the hole.

This peaked the lioness’s interest and she began to stalk toward the vulnerable zebra. But before she could get close enough to launch an attack, the zebra caught wind of her and quickly scuttled off, the lioness not following. It was pretty exciting to witness even though there wasn’t a kill.

Not too long after that the lioness retreated from the hole. It seems she went just out of sight, to an area where the rest of her pride was located as we could for the rest of the night hear them roaring, usually in response to the annoying barking of the jackals. We checked back a few more times hoping they would come out from their hiding spots to visit the hole again, but our luck wasn’t ever again as great as it was at first. But really, we can’t complain. I’d say that all in all we’re pretty darn lucky.

A Tale of Two Vendors

As Namibia is a country full of indescribable landscapes, it would be pointless to try to describe them. So we have lots of wonderful pictures of what we experienced, but the internet tubes in this part of Africa are not wide enough to fit them through. So for now, you’ll have to live with a few story posts and we’ll put some pictures up when we’re able.

We were walking down a street toward our hotel in Swakopmund when we passed two men leaning against a building. One of them sprang out to greet us and announced he was Victor, chatting us up with the usual “where are you from?” and “what is your name?” that usually gets us thinking “what do you want?” The scent of alcohol we caught as he approached us didn’t help our confidence at all that this was going to be a productive interaction. He proceeded to pull out of his jacket pocket a few carved palm nut keychains, the kind we’d seen in every curio shop in the country for 20-40 Namibian dollars ($2-4). Now these weren’t particularly inspiring carvings, but they were fine, and Victor discussed at length with us the carving process and how it takes him three days of work for each one. A large part of his sales pitch was how indestructible they were, as he kept violently banging them on the pavement. To his credit, they didn’t not break or even scratch. He kept handing me keychains until I had three, at which point I, mildly amused, asked how much he would want for one. He replied, “no, you take all three.” Not knowing what I would do with three carved palm nut keychains, let alone one, I insisted. But the price negotiation phase was arduous. First, he asked how old I was. At my response, he said, “ok, I am your elder, I am 39.” To us Westerners, this may seem insignificant, but in Africa a younger person is expected to respect the elder, and this was his not very subtle way of making that point. He leaned down and began to write in the sand, another technique of African negotiation. He started with a three, and I thought he would ask for his age in dollars ($4), which I probably would’ve done for the sheer story of it all. And then he added a zero, and I thought, 30 dollars, ok, even better. And then he proceeded to add a final zero and look up at me with a smile on his face. At which point I laughed. I don’t think it was the most “respectful” response I could’ve had, but I think it was the most appropriate. To my “no” he replied, “at least give me 100.” Laughing again, I proceeded to try to hand back his keychains but he backed off. Out of options, I placed them on the pavement and walked off. Victor got a little greedy.

Later on that same day, we walked down to the impromptu street market near to the beach. There were vendors there for Africa (a phrase South Africans use to mean there’s a lot of something) and we perused the many wood carvings, stones and paintings on display. We inquired about prices from a few and were shocked – people were asking 500 dollars ($50) for the same masks we saw in South Africa for 50 rand ($5) or less. Seems a lot of them had a little Victor in them. Discouraged, we went to leave when we passed by a vendor who opened up with “I saw you guys heading down the other side and was waiting for you to turn back.” Sure, a cheesy opener, but at least different than the “please support me, buy something” we’ve gotten accustomed to hearing, so we took a peek. He had a wide selection of colorful wood block like oil prints, some on white paper, some on a dirty brown fibrous paper we could place, so we asked. It so happens it was elephant dung paper. He talked at length about how he does the carvings and the prints how he was from Zimbabwe but learned this technique in Botswana. He talked about how he offered to teach art classes in the local schools but only the poorest school was interested (fortunately, some art supplies had been donated). As Swakopmund is a very “resorty” feeling town with few blacks in the center, we talked at length about the townships and darker side of the city and region. All the while, we sifted through his pictures trying to decide which we liked, and as often happens, finding it impossible to make an actual decision. After a while of this, he said “you are married right, I will give you one as a gift.” Now whether this was good salesmanship or a genuine offer may be debated, but it was quite nice of him, and we soon settled on getting three prints, negotiating a discount but refusing the free one. And we both walked away from the transaction happy.