Archive for May, 2008

I left India’s Andaman Islands last December convinced that I had just experienced the best scuba diving in the world.  At that point, I’d only been certified for a few months, but I’d been diving enough to recognize what was just ok and what was stunning.  Three dives in South Africa’s Sodwana Bay redefined for me just what “stunning” meant.

Our lack of a waterproof camera case means that I don’t have photographic evidence of our time under the sea, but I’ll sum it up like this: it was like swimming in a huge, pristine aquarium.  During our second dive, the water was so clear that our vision was virtually unlimited–that almost never happens.  And so we fell in love with Sodwana Bay’s underwater world.

Sodwana Bay is part of South Africa’s St. Lucia Wetland Park.  As it turns out, St. Lucia has a lot to offer out of the water as well.  A Unesco World Heritage Site, the park protects five different ecosystems, from coral reefs and beaches to lakes, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests.

We spent some time in St. Lucia Estuary exploring a few of the ecosystems.  Drifting down the estuary (an estuary is like a river, only it has brackish, rather than fresh, water), we explored St. Lucia’s wetlands and the crocodile and hippo families they contained.  A note about hippos–did you know that they’re the deadliest animals on earth?!?  60% of all people who are killed by animals are killed by hippos.  And the thing I can’t figure out is this–hippos are vegetarians!  They don’t even eat the humans they crush with their gigantic teeth.  As the woman who ran our B&B in St. Lucia put it, “I guess they’re just really cranky!”
Walking among the sand dunes the next day, we reveled in the fact that we had miles of gorgeous beachfront all to ourselves.  (The beach was so clean and the sand so hard-packed that the clouds were actually reflected on the shoreline–amazing!)  To get to the beach, we had to drive through a wildlife reserve where, once again, we were able to see zebras and warthogs in their natural environment.  Later that day, we stopped in at the Crocodile Center.  We were able to see all kinds of crocs close up, if not exactly in their natural habitats.  We’ve been getting so spoiled by South Africa’s incredible outdoors that it’s going to be really hard for us to leave this amazing place!

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Craft Market in the Ezulwini Valley
If you’re like me, you probably know very little, if anything, about Swaziland.  In fact, the only mention of this small country throughout my travels came from a kayaker we met a few months back in Laos; according to him, Swaziland had some great white water rafting.  Leaving Kruger National Park and heading toward the coast, we decided to take a short 2-day detour through this enigmatic land.
King of Swaziland
Since gaining independence from the British in 1968, this tiny country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique has been ruled by a succession of kings.  Unlike many remaining monarchs in today’s world (like those in England and Thailand), the king of Swaziland is the ruler of the land – an absolute monarch.  The current king, King Mswati III, has 13 wives; his predecessor, King Sobhuza II, had over 120 wives and over 600 children!  The royal family has several palaces around the country.  It’s good to be the king.
Craft Market in the Ezulwini Valley
Other than beautiful landscapes, raging rivers and prolific wildlife, Swaziland’s current – and less praiseworthy – claim to fame is HIV/AIDS. It has the highest HIV infection rate in the world; approximately 39% of Swazis are HIV positive!  39%!  According to a recent survey, 25% of Swaziland’s population is predicted to be DEAD from the disease by 2010, and already over 60,000 children have lost either one or both their parents to AIDS!  It’s impossible to process these numbers.  Luckily, the king and his government seem acutely aware of the massive problem and prevention measures and campaigns are widespread.

With only one full day in the country, we opted to follow the advice of our kayaking friend and hit the river.  Unlike most rafting trips I’ve been on, Shanna and I would be paddling our own raft.  While I’ve done many trips like this before on the Nantahala River in North Carolina, the Usutu River made Nantahala look like the creek in your backyard.  Within a few minutes, we arrived at the first major rapid, inexplicably named Monica Lewinsky.  Monica was fierce and I was quickly evicted from the raft.  Once afloat, we worked on our paddling skills and achieved an expert rhythm.  This didn’t prevent a later rapid from consuming our boat and once again throwing me, this time accompanied by Shanna, into the cold, crocodile-infested river.
Road in Ezulwini Valley
As we were nearing the end of our outing, our guide – who was as concerned about our safety as he was about the NHL playoffs (i.e., not at all) – instructed us to park our rafts on the bank and walk ahead to scout our last rapid.  As we approached the furious rapid, we knew the guide was joking; no sane individual would allow novices to raft this section of the river.  When no punchline was delivered and we began walking back to our rafts, thick fear enveloped us – horrific injury or possible death was only seconds away.  We approached the rapids just as instructed, but we were both immediately launched out of our boat.  The next 10 seconds have been lost from my memory, but I know they involved me losing a paddle and gaining about 10 bruises on my legs as we bounced against rocks as if we were in a pinball machine.  Our only consolation was that the other 4 boats on the river with us succumbed to the river in the same fashion.  We were in Swaziland for less than 48 hours, but the marks it left on us will remain for weeks.

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Officially opened to the public in 1927, South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the oldest and largest game reserve in the world.  Its 6.2 million acres play home to more than 500 species of birds and 147 kinds of mammals, among them 31,000 wildebeests, 23,000 zebras and 7,000 giraffes.  The park also has large numbers of what’s known in game reserves as the “Big Five”: black rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, leopards and lions.
On our trip to Kruger, we saw two of the Big Five, the elephants and the buffalo, but the only cat we saw was one with a capital C–Catherine, one of my best friends from law school.  Cat’s now a student at the South Africa Wildlife College, which is located right outside Kruger’s Orpen Gate.  (Definitely not a bad way to take a break from the law for a little while…)

Cat, Derek and I took a night drive through the park one evening.  After we climbed aboard a huge jeep that was decked out with high-powered spotlights, our guide drove us around the park at a speed slow enough for us to spot animals that are often nowhere to be seen during the daylight hours.  One of our favorite sightings was a baby hyena, who was so deceptively cuddly-looking that I wanted to give him a squeeze.
Derek and I also took a self-guided daytime drive through the park.  Over the course of seven amazing hours (all of which were spent in the safety of the VW Polo–to get out of your car outside of the designated safe areas in Kruger is to risk your life), we saw everything from hippos lazing in the mud to a parade of elephants bound for a watering hole to warthogs who looked almost too ridiculous to be real.
One of my favorite moments, however, came early in our drive.  Maybe 30 feet in the distance, we spotted a pair of giraffes grazing on the treetops.  They were the first giraffes I’d ever seen outside of the confines of the zoo, and I have to say, it was almost a religious experience.  I’m completely amazed that creatures like them and creatures like us can inhabit the same earth.

Our quest for the big cats will continue.  In a way, though, it’s almost a good thing that we haven’t seen them yet.  Three weeks from now, we’re going on a Tanzanian safari with some of our best friends from Nashville, and I’m sure we’ll see lions, leopards and cheetahs aplenty.  For now, though, the anticipation is half the fun.

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Pictures taken along our drive in Blyde River Canyon
Few things say “adventure” like the idea of a road trip.  Grabbing a map and favorite travel companion, hopping into the car and setting off into the Great Unknown for a few days–there’s nothing better.  Except for road tripping not for just a few days, but instead for 31.  That’s better.
First day with our VW Polo
And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  Over the course of the next 35 days, we’ll be driving through South Africa, from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  Along the way, we’ll stop, well, pretty much wherever we want to.  (That’s the beauty of having our own wheels–in this case in the form of a bright blue VW Polo.)
Of course, we’re sure we’ll hit some potholes–both literal and figurative–along the way.  The first is that, here in South Africa, they drive on the left side of the road, and the only cars available for rent are stick shifts.  Those who know me well are aware that I can barely drive an automatic on the right side of the road.  So stay tuned…it may get interesting.  (Or, more likely, Derek will drive the whole way and spare us both the trouble of fearing for our lives.)

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Market Square
Affectionately called Jo’burg or Jozi by its residents, Johannesburg, South Africa is one of the most interesting cities in today’s world.  A huge, sprawling city with over 6 million people, it is the heart and soul of South Africa and a remarkable study in contrasts.  In the suburbs to the north of the city, glitzy shopping malls abut world-class restaurants and million-dollar homes.  Elsewhere in the city, you will find poor townships filled with countless shanty houses built with scrap found on the roadside.
Scenes from Soweto
The city came to being when gold – a LOT of gold – was discovered here in 1886 by a white prospector. The rush was on, and it was massive.  The gold operations were founded by the white settlers in South Africa and hundreds of thousands of black men from all around the country came to Jo’burg seeking employment in the mines.  The tensions between the black majority in South Africa and the white minority started to flare.  Eventually, this tension led to the white minority instituting one of the most infamous and horrific sets of laws in history – apartheid, which means “apartness” in the Africaans language.  Effectively, apartheid stripped virtually all legal rights away from blacks and ensured that whites would be isolated from blacks.  After decades of resistance from thousands of freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, apartheid was finally abolished in 1990 and led to free elections in 1994, whereby Nelson Mandela was elected president.

When we arrived, we didn’t know what to expect.  We’d heard of the infamous crime in Jo’burg with some visitors to South Africa choosing to skip the city altogether in order to play it safe.  As we drove to our bed and breakfast in Sandton (a northern suburb), we felt right at home as we passed chain restaurants and corporate offices.  We knew we were far from home when we arrived at our bed and breakfast and found that it was protected by 10-feet walls, a security gate and a security system that the White House would envy.
Dinner at Moyo Restaurant with Gert and Johandie Wahl
During our first day in the city, we stuck mainly to the northern suburbs, completing a few errands and having dinner with a lovely couple who lived in Knoxville, Tennessee for eight years before moving back home to South Africa.  ((The couple – Gert and Johandie – was introduced to us by our friend, Rebeccah, who used to work with Gert in Knoxville.  Thanks, Rebeccah!!!))  On our second day, we ventured out in our rental car to walk around downtown Jo’burg and visit a local museum.  We were slightly nervous while driving because we had been warned of “smash and grabs,” where criminals will break your car window and grab anything you have in the car.  We locked everything in the trunk as we drove and only received smiles from everyone we encountered.
Scenes from Kliptown, poor district of Soweto
On our final day in the city, we took a tour of Soweto, which stands for South Western Township due to its location a few miles south and west of Jo’burg. Almost as large as Jo’Burg, it was here that the blacks living in white areas of Jo’burg were forced to move when apartheid made it illegal for blacks to live near whites.  This was also the area that became the center of the freedom struggle for blacks.  Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters made their homes here and used the area as a base for waging protests.
Scenes from Kliptown, poor district of Soweto
During our tour, we walked the streets of the township (where we were welcomed by hellos and waves from the friendly residents), attended a vibrant church service and visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial. ((Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old boy, was made famous when a picture was taken of his dead body being carried through the streets of Soweto by another boy after Hector was shot by a policeman during a 1976 gathering where students were protesting a new requirement that school be taught in Africaans – the language of the white people of Africa but barely spoken by most of the black students.  The expressions on the face of the boy carrying Hector and on the face of Hector’s sister running next to him are haunting. This picture was widely circulated throughout the world and helped spark worldwide protests against apartheid.))  The highlight and most difficult part of the tour was our visit to Kliptown, one of the poorest areas of Soweto.  With no electricity, infrequent garbage pick-up and a limited water supply, it’s hard to believe that these living conditions exist just a few miles away from the wealthy suburbs to the north.  Fortunately, some private organizations, including the NBA (evidently, Marcus Camby and Ditembe Mutombo visited a few years ago), have given funding to non-profit organizations working in Kliptown, and certain meals and enrichment programs are provided free-of-charge to the thousands of children living here.  Before we left Kliptown, we went to a community center where we happened upon an impromptu drum and dance performance by some local children – an amazing performance neither of us will ever forget.
Drum and Dance Performance in Kliptown
As we left Soweto and headed back to our comfortable lodging in the northern suburbs populated almost exclusively with whites, it became clear to us that, while apartheid is no longer the law in South Africa, the wounds inflicted by it will remain for years.  Being in Jo’burg when we were – after apartheid but before its nasty traces are fully erased – gave us the sense that we were there in a very historic time.  Generations from now, people will surely remember these years as a time of transition for the city.  We can only hope the scars of its past don’t run too deep.

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Google Video

Ruined Church of Jesus Mission near Encarnacion
Paraguay has one of the most homogeneous populations in South America; nearly all of its citizens today are of mixed Spanish and Guarani Indian descent.  In the mid-1600s, though, the two populations had not yet been combined.  In those days, Spain targeted the Guaranis for a colonial takeover.  Sensing this (as well as an opportunity to spread their faith), the Catholic Order of the Jesuits made a deal with the Spanish crown: if Spain allowed them to oversee a vast region in Paraguay on which the Guaranis lived and agreed not to subject the Guaranis to the hard labor that other conquered tribes faced, the Jesuits would reward the Spanish monarch with generous tributes.
Trinidad Mission outside of Encarnacion
And thus began the construction of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay.  Each one was laid out according to the same model—-a large, open square around which a church, a school, stores and houses for the Guarani people were situated.  The missions operated as their own separate entities, almost completely independent from other parts of South America.  Within them, the Guaranis received education, skills training, religion and subjugation.  They had few rights–indeed, the Jesuits acted a bit like their own colonial power.
View from top of Jesus Mission near Encarnacion
That the missions existed at all is a lesson in the power of persuasion.  Each mission was run by only one or two priests. These individuals were responsible for convincing the Guaranis in their area to abandon their land and their traditional way of life and move onto the missions, where they would be subject to entirely different customs and made to follow foreign rules.  Somehow (and, certainly, the threat from Spain that the Guaranis faced had something to do with it), just two men were able to convince about 5,000 Guaranis to go along with this plan—and that’s only on one mission!  At their peak in the first half of the 18th century, between 100,000 and 300,000 Guaranis lived on about thirty South American missions.  It all came to an end in 1767, though, when the Spanish monarchy (which was ostensibly jealous of the immense success of the thriving missions) tired of the missions’ existence and expelled the Jesuits.  They departed peacefully, leaving the Guaranis to go it on their own.

The missions are in ruins now, but they are slowly being restored.  We visited two, Jesus and Trinidad, both of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.   Although, today, the missions are a shadow of what they once were, we had a great guide at Trinidad, and he helped us to see the rubble for what it used to be: a culturally rich, potentially life-saving protectorate for an indigenous population that may not have survived without it.

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Iguazu Falls--The Devil's Throat
Iguazu Falls, located on the borders of Argentina and Brazil, is considered by many to be the most impressive set of waterfalls in the world.  Meaning “Big Water” in the language of the Guarani people native to this area, Iguazu consists of over 275 falls along 1.67 miles of the Iguazu River, most of which are over 200 feet high.  When Eleanor Roosevelt first viewed the falls, she exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!”

After an hour and a half flight from Buenos Aires, we arrived in the small town of Puerto Iguazu, which is located in Argentina but is only a short walk across a river to Foz de Iguazu in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, two cities renown for some shady smuggling operations.  If you’re in the market for some stolen electronics, illegal drugs or perhaps a mugging, these towns would be a good place to visit.
Iguazu Falls--Lower Circuit
The next morning, we arrived at the Iguaza National Park in Argentina.  The park consists of several walking trails allowing different views of the multiple falls.  Fortunately and randomly, we chose to walk along the Upper Circuit and Lower Circuit trails first, leaving the “Devil’s Throat” for last. ((For future visitors to Iguazu, we HIGHLY recommend saving the Devil’s Throat for last.))
Iguazu Falls--Upper Circuit (note the mist rising from the falls)
The Upper Circuit walks along the top of some of the falls allowing close-up views of the water as it plummets to the bottom.  The Lower Circuit eventually brings you to the river at the bottom of the falls, where you can cross via boat to San Martin Island, a small island surrounded by waterfalls.  After visiting the island, our adventurous spirit took over, and we signed up for a short, 12-minute boat ride that provides up close and personal views of the falls.  The boat literally shuttles you directly UNDER a couple of waterfalls, completely soaking everything and everybody in the boat – luckily, dry bags were provided for our cameras!
Iguazu Falls--Lower Circuit
Wet and cold, we boarded a small train that chugs its way for a couple of miles to the rear of the park.  After a 10-minute walk across a pedestrian bridge over the Iguazu River, we arrived at the Devil’s Throat.  While our visit to Iguazu at that point had been impressive and worth the visit, it had not yet blown us away.  As we neared these last set of falls, our opinion began to change.

The Devil’s Throat, or Garganta del Diablo in Spanish, is a U-shaped cliff that stretches 490 feet wide and 2,300 feet long and marks the border between Argentina and Brazil. ((Many people recommend staying a second day in Iguazu and visiting the Brazilian side of the falls for a different and equally impressive view.  For Americans, you MAY need a Brazilian visa to do this, although some say that you are allowed into Brazil for the day without a visa if you’re just visiting the falls.  We didn’t have a visa (which is currently around $130!) and decided not to test the border crossing.))  As the Iguazu River calmly makes its way to the cliff, it’s hard to believe that such peaceful water will soon turn into the most turbulent and violent falls in the world.  The sound of the falls is deafening, as millions of gallons of water simultaneously explode over the cliff.  Iguazu Falls without the Devil’s Throat is an amazing sight, but these last set of falls make this natural wonder one of the most impressive on the globe.

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Puerto Madero
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: To us, Buenos Aires feels a lot like home.  It’s not just that we rented an apartment, though that has certainly helped.  It’s also that Buenos Aires often seems to us like a combination of some of the best parts of a few of the American cities that we love so much.  One of the only differences between the Soho in Buenos Aires and the one in NYC is that BAers don’t capitalize the H in their version.  But the Argentine neighborhood has the same expensive boutiques and trendy cafes, the same small dogs and the same well-dressed women as its northern cousin.  Like Baltimore, Buenos Aires recently refurbished the area around its harbor, adding lots of loft apartments and upscale restaurants.  Puerto Madero now feels a lot like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  And, like so many American cities, Buenos Aires is dotted with green spaces, public squares and world-class museums, our favorite of which was the MALBA, BA’s modern art museum. 
Gravesites in the Recoleta Cemetary
Buenos Aires also has a flavor all its own.  Locals and tourists alike visit the Museo Eva Peron, a museum created to “spread the life, work and ideology” of Eva Duarte de Peron (known to most as, simply, “Evita”).  Argentina’s most beloved first lady, Evita was only 33 years old when she died of cancer in 1952.  In the Recoleta Cemetery, groups of schoolchildren pause in front of Evita’s grave before continuing on to inspect the luxurious burial sites of the rest of the city’s richest and most powerful.  And, of course, tango is everywhere.  It’s at the Sunday street fair in San Telmo, where dancers perform alongside craft booths and empanada vendors.  It’s danced for tourists at fancy hotels and by locals in late-night clubs. 
on the streets of Palermo
Walking the streets of Buenos Aires, taking in the familiar and the novel, it’s easy to forget about Argentina’s very messy, very recent history.  Some of the most dramatic moments in Argentine history began after military man Juan Domingo Peron, Evita’s husband, won the presidency in 1946 and then again in 1952.  Worshipped by some and loathed by others, he used his power to raise wages and pensions, to improve working conditions and to guarantee job security. He also expanded the country’s bureaucracy and splurged on unsustainable public works projects that squandered Argentina’s post-World War II surpluses.  After being overthrown in 1955, the widower retreated to Spain, where he eventually married an exotic dancer.  Dictators ruled Argentina in the years that followed Juan Peron’s departure, punctuated by periods of civilian rule and a particularly ridiculous time that saw the exotic dancer herself ascend to the presidency.  Not surprisingly, the dancer was ultimately overthrown, after which the military took over and Argentina’s political situation took a turn for the worse. 
Plaza de Mayo - main square in Buenos Aires
In 1976, a three-man junta imposed ferocious military discipline on the country in a “Dirty War” ostensibly undertaken to oust corrupt politicians and to prevent guerilla activity.  Instead, the repression struck mostly the general population, ultimately resulting in the deaths of as many as 30,000 Argentineans.  Most of the victims, who were largely trade-unionists, students and activists, simply “disappeared,” never to be seen again.  The silent marches of some of their mothers in BA’s Plaza de Mayo became a well-known image of Argentine suffering during those times.  (In fact, both Sting and Bono have written songs about the plight of these Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.)
Scenes from the Sunday market in San Telmo
What’s more, in 2002, in the midst of a country-wide economic crisis, the Argentine peso lost almost 75% of its value virtually overnight. All those with money in the bank saw their savings evaporate before their eyes.  The economy sunk into a Great Depression-like stagnation; unemployment and homelessness rose and strikes and picket lines became a popular way for Argentineans to express their frustrations with their government’s shortfalls.

Today, however, Argentina’s economy is on the rise and, from what we could tell, people here in Buenos Aires feel good about their future and proud of their world-class city.  Maybe, once in awhile, they feel like saying to the rest of the world, “Don’t cry for us… We’re Argentina.”  (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)