Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The un-update

Another six months have passed and I really don't have much to report.  Same old, same old.  My mom moved this past week.  We still have the cabin where they lived, but it's going on the market, and now she's in the Chicago burbs.  A real city with neighbors, doctors, curbside trash pick-up, everything.  And significantly warmer than the North Woods, even in the winter.

My husband and I went on vacation in October as usual, but we were delayed several days by the typhoon, since we were connecting through Tokyo.

Our itinerary:
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
car to Siem Reap, Cambodia,
plane to Luang Prabang, Laos,
plane to Danang, Vietnam
car to Hoi An, Vietnam
car to Hue,  Vietnam (via Danang)
plane to Hanoi,
car to Halong Bay,
boat around Halong Bay,
car back to Hanoi,
then a plane to Tokyo for a day, then back home.

It was a great trip. 

Our favorite culinary discovery was Vietnamese coffee (which I think is strong coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk, but what you don't know can't hurt you!).  We also got hooked on pho, which we did not eat with any regularity before this trip. 

My weird sight-seeing highlight was seeing Ho Chi Minh's body in Hanoi.  That marks the third embalmed dictator I've seen -- Lenin and Mao were first. 

In terms of cities, we liked Siem Reap and Luang Prabang the most.  But I also loved chilling on a boat for a while in Halong Bay, where we got to meet our favorite new friends of the trip. 

Weather was good but soooooooo humid.  Highs were only in the low 90s for the first week or two, but the humidity was about 8,355,619%.  I carried a little day pack with me most days (real camera, guide book, phone charger, etc.) and I usually felt like my back was entirely drenched within 15 minutes of leaving the hotel, often within about 3 minutes. 

Most active city for us was Siem Reap.  I only went running once there (see below re injuries), but we found a bicycle tour company that hooked us up with bikes, helmets, and a guide (who also took great pictures).  And we were pretty much addicted.  We rode for a vast majority of the day for at least three straight days.  And then, going down a really big hill or mountain, in a tight switchback near the top, I took a header.  I have no idea what happened.  I was trying to shift and since my thumb wasn't strong enough, I had reached my right hand across to shift.  I was also trying to turn very sharply, and to brake very hard.  I flipped over the top of the handlebars and came down hard on my right shoulder.  Big bruise on my right quad too, and a scrape on my chin, but overall, I was pretty much fine.  It looked really bad, but I was barely moving at the time, so I didn't slide or anything.  So embarrassing though.  A bunch of men were sitting under a tarp near where it happened, and I heard them all yell as I was falling, and they ran over.  My husband was behind me, so he also saw the whole thing unfold.

Honorable mention for injuries:  twisted ankle in Siem Reap while walking on a totally unremarkable surface, and a thumb bruise when I stuck it into a moving fan in Siem Reap (I totally now appreciate how we have such big guards on most fans in the US, that's almost impossible to do, or at least it takes effort).  In this case, I had hung a workout shirt over it to dry, and went to pull it off, and my thumb went into the spinning fan blades.  But it didn't even draw blood.  So really escaped intact! 

I also managed to run almost everywhere else I think.  HCMC, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Hoi An (a run to the beach!), Hue, and Halong Bay.  We also biked in Luanag Prabang and Hoi An, but it wasn't the same as Siem Reap.  I intended to run in Hanoi, but we spent so much time lolly-gagging in other cities that we didn't have as long in Hanoi as I'd have liked.  There was an awesome little lake right by our hotel that I could have run around, and a much bigger lake not too far away, but I had a huge list of sight-seeing priorities (tops being Ho Chi Minh's body and "the Hanoi Hilton" (Maison Centrale, the prison where McCain was held as a POW).  So no running in Hanoi.  If we have a chance, we'd gladly go back there, so maybe next time. 

I almost overpacked by one dress (worn once mid-trip), as well as a long sleeved shirt and a light jacket, but I wore the long sleeves and jacket in Tokyo, so it was a win in the end.  I seriously overpacked hair products (conditioner (since not all hotels have it) and hair spray).  I wore my hair in a pony for about 2/3 of the days.  It was just too hot to have it on my neck.  Ugh!  I also overpacked jewelry, too many pairs of earrings and I didn't wear most of them.  BUT I underpacked blue earrings, which I wanted to wear on several days.  I also would have liked a bit more in terms of biking and running clothes, and more socks.  But overall, even with my new tiny tiny rollerboard, I got 3 weeks into it and my backpack, and didn't have to worry about checking luggage. 

Anyway, those are my basic trip notes.  I should post with pics at some point. 

Since vacation, I've been hammered at work.  My favorite co-worker of all time quit in mid-Sept, so I was balancing her caseload with my own for a few weeks before vacation, and theoretically balancing them during vacation (not!).  But a couple weeks ago, I got to transition about 50% of her cases that I took to someone else, and I got to cherry-pick the ones I kept, so pretty much only the easy ones.  But I've been travelling a lot since I've been home.  I barely know which end is up.  Philly, Baltimore (and then a weekend in DC for fun with a law school friend), and I'm currently at an airport in Indy.  I think all I have left this year now is two more Philly trips and one Baton Rouge or New Orleans trip, plus of course personal trips to San Antonio for the marathon and "home" for Christmas.  Hard to believe 2020 is on the horizon! 

Monday, June 3, 2019

No, no, no

I am kind of over this grief thing.  It's been 14 months, I've proved that I can survive and get through life without my step-dad.  My whole family has proven it.  The world is still spinning.  We've cried, we've laughed, and we've cried a lot more.  But we've gotten up each morning, worked out, worked, and gone to bed.  We are managing. 

Since we've proven that we can do it, can we please just go back to normal?

I hate that this is the new reality.  I just want it to be back to the old way.  When I didn't have to worry about my mom.  When I could just call him and ask a question.  When I'd be home and they'd be cooking in the kitchen together.  When we could sit for hours talking about the world over bottles of wine after dinner.  When I'd get a random email from him.  When he was my after-church buddy while we're waiting for my mom to talk to every damn person there and we just want to leave and get donuts.  When I didn't have this weird hole.  When I didn't identify myself as some partial-orphan. 

I'm over it.  Rewind. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Travel plans

So two posts in 2019.  Look at me go.

We want to go back to Africa.  ASAP.  So we decided to sit down and make a list of where else we want to go.  And then we can just alternate Italy and Southern Africa every other year. 

THE LIST (as of May 2019)

Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos -- planned for later this year
Fiji, Australia, New Zealand -- current plan for 2020
Israel, Jordan (assuming safe), Italy, London -- plan for 2021

Then we need to stick the schedule of going to Italy about every other year (although we can certainly add on something relatively nearby), but where else do we want to go?

The musts:

Bhutan.  Big time.  Could be added to a trip back to Nepal or other parts of China.  (2022?)
Egypt.  If/when it seems safe.  Could go from Italy (2023)? 
RTW trip -- to Japan and/or Korea, to Kazakstan, to Europe (2023?)
Peru (2026?)
Philippines.  Could also be added to a new-to-us China trip. (2028?)
Cuba (2021?)
Rwanda.  We'd probably add this to a repeat of the places we loved most on this last trip (Zambia, Botswana, Namibia) (2024?)

The ones I would like to add, if time and funds permit:   

Japan and/or Korea (whichever one we didn't do on the RTW drip)
Romania and Bulgaria (with Italy)
Ethiopia and Eritrea (probably with Italy)
Ireland (with Italy)
Portugal (with Italy)
Norway (with Italy?)
Ukraine (with Italy?)
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (with Italy?)
Ecuador, Galapagos Islands
Cyprus (with Italy)
Slovakia (and my husband has never been to Czech Rep, Hungary or Poland, all of which he'd probably like and I'd be happy to go back to and could easily be added to this)
Burma (would be added to a trip back to Nepal probably)
Sri Lanka
Maldives -- although I have a sneaking suspicion this will never happen.  Hard to get to, not high enough of a priority. 

The repeat countries:
Would like to return to Nepal.
Would like to return to China but go new places (particularly Guilin), but also go back to Shanghai.
In Italy, have never been to Trieste, Sardenga, or Perugia.  Husband also wants to go to Ostia, Torina, Luca, Val d'Aosta. 

I love dreaming of trips...

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Out of Africa

Long time, no post.  I couldn't remember my password, and the last year has been rough.  But we're getting through it.  Life is ticking along, fairly unremarkable.  My mom is doing okay, but definitely still lonely and sad.  The good news is, I think she's going to move.  Where?  TBD.  We figured it would be to where one of us kids lives, but she's also considering the Chicagoland area (which is where my baby brothers went to high school) since she has friends there and it would be easy flights to see any of us.

Anyway, I had to write out all the details of our Africa trip for a dear friend who is contemplating planning his own trip, and I figured I'd share it here.  Obviously, this would be a much better post if I were sharing pictures.  Maybe I'll get motivated and do that at some point.

In case anyone else is planning non-tour trip around Southern Africa, here's what we did.  I will say at the outset that it was our most expensive trip ever.  In Europe, there are hotels for $30 per night, and hotels for $500 per night (and of course often many options well above that).  And in most places, there are plenty of options in between at pretty much any given price point.  It's like that in Cape Town, but in some of the places we spent time which were much more rural, there are pretty much three options -- about $20 per night, about $400 per night, or about $1200 per night.  Ugh.  So while in Europe with hotels we maybe average $120 per night, in Africa (aside from the big cities), we were averaging over $400 per night. 

So here goes, rough notes on how we did our first joint Africa trip.  Oh yes, we are 100% going back.  First place other than Italy that we are constantly talking about trying to figure out how soon we can get back there (Nepal was briefly in that category, we'd like to return there too, but wow, Africa did it for us). 

Countries:  Qatar (long layover), South Africa, Eswatini, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia.  Info, prices was for what we did in October 2018.  In terms of seeing animals, I would probably drop Eswatini and Mozambique and spend more time in Botswana and Namibia. 

We flew on Qatar Airways, DFW to Doha, Doha to Cape Town.  Flights for both of us, with trip insurance, was $3515. 

We had a layover of maybe 7 hours in Doha?  We got a driver through the Qatar Airways site (Discover Qatar); he picked us up at the airport, we did a driving tour of the city with him and then he dropped us off to walk around the main medina on our own where we had dinner.  He picked us up and then dropped us back at the airport, and back onto the plane.  No idea on the price (it was my birthday present). 

Landed in Cape Town on a Sunday late morning and our hotel had a driver that picked us up.  We actually stayed in something that was more like an apartment or VRBO.  Here’s the link:  https://www.dewaterkantcottages.com/home/index.asp (although we booked it through hotels.com).  We liked the neighborhood where it was a lot, very walkable, lots of cute restaurants, a yoga studio, easy access to the waterfront, which was a nice place to run.   

In Cape Town, I did a running tour (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g312659-d3948524-Reviews-Run_Cape_Town-Cape_Town_Central_Western_Cape.html).  On the running tour, we ran Lion’s Head (around it, not up it).  No idea on the price on that either, it was also my birthday present.  Also in Cape Town, we walked around a bunch of the neighborhoods (Bo Kaap, downtown, the waterfront, etc.).  We went up Table Mountain.  It was gorgeous at the bottom, but cloudy and cold at the top.  We walked around a little and got in line to ride back down, but then the clouds miraculously cleared so we got out of line and took a bunch of spectacular pictures.  We also went to the District Six Museum, learned a lot about apartheid and Cape Town.  The thing I most wish we’d done in the Cape Town area was Robben Island.  Unfortunately, you need to book tickets more than a week in advance.  Oops.  Live and learn.  We’ll see it next trip. 

We were able to walk from our apartment to a rental car place (might have been Enterprise, it was definitely a US company).  We rented a car and drove down to Cape of Good Hope/Cape Point.  We did some walking/hiking and it was so beautiful.  Then we went to the area around Boulders Penguin Colony.  The guy who was my running guide (Leo) had told me we should skip Boulders and instead go to Shark Warriors and take a tour with them (https://www.sharkwarrior.com/adventure-centre/).  We did the Penguin Walking Tour and it was great.  We learned a lot about the Cape penguins, how they track them, protection efforts, etc.  

We also got a driver for one day to go to Stellenbosch to go to a few of the wineries.  Driver was Yousef Khan, comment if anyone needs his number.  He was really nice, it was interesting to hear his experience as a South African with parents who came from India.  Lots of people in Africa use Whatsapp to communicate, which is free.  Stellenbosh is very different from most of the rest of the country in terms of how it feels.  It was pretty, looks a lot like other wine country (California, Toscana, Argentina, etc.).  Wine tasting is wine tasting, so of course this was a great day. 

We left Cape Town (4 nights there I think?), flew to Johannesburg (flight was $210 total for both of us), picked up a rental car (we rented through Drive South Africa since we were returning in another country, although the side of the care said it was through Britz (www.britz.co.za)), made a supply stop at a grocery store, and headed out of town immediately.  Rental car was $1320, I think there were cheaper options, but since we were returning in another country, it was pretty much our only choice.  The vehicle was great, and they made sure we had everything we needed for each country where we were driving (like in Mozambique you have to have two glow triangles and a safety vest, etc.).  They also did a big session on how to change a tire and stuff, but we never had any issues with the car.  We drove to our game lodge in the Kruger area.  The drive was highway, good roads, pretty views.  I think it was about 5 hours? 

In the Kruger area, we stayed at Elephant Game Lodge (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g312616-d12829406-Reviews-Elephant_Game_Lodge-Hoedspruit_Limpopo_Province.html) (https://www.safarinow.com/go/elephant-lodge-balule-private-reserve/) booked on hotels.com again, it was $1300 for four nights).  We loved it.  Run by two Italians, breakfast and dinner included, and they arrange activities as requested.  They also basically cook to order, so it was easy to be a vegetarian who doesn’t love tomatoes and can’t eat nuts.  The one thing we wished we’d known was the price of wine – we knew it wasn’t included and probably would have drank more if we’d known how cheap it was…   (Ha, because they asked us for feedback, we also indicated facial tissue would be nice to have in the rooms instead of just the common area, we were really at a loss for anything to suggest.)  We did an open air drive around the private reserve where the game lodge is one day, we did full day game drives in Kruger (and we saw the big 5 twice!, thanks to our awesome guide Bogani), we did a boat ride and night game drive (didn’t see much on the night game drive, but as with all safaris, it’s not a zoo, it’s total luck of the draw), and I want to say we did a day or two just hanging around the lodge.  We also just went driving the picturesque route on our own one day (stopped at the Three Rondavels, a waterfall, etc.).  The game lodge only has about 5 rooms I think and a great couple who lives there as permanent caretakers (the Italians live in the nearby city, Hoedspruitt, when there aren’t any guests).  We were the only guests when we were there, so it was fun to have them eat with us every night.   

From the Elephant Game Lodge, we drove to Phophonyane Falls Eco Lodge (https://phophonyanelodge.squarespace.com/)  in eswatini (the country formerly known as Swaziland).  This was Aimee's (https://amazinginmotion.blog/) recommendation and it was a total win.  Border crossing (which we did at Barberton) was easy.  Roads were pretty bad after we crossed the border for maybe the last hour or so of the drive.  The lodge was near Piggs Peak and that’s a kind of remote part of the country and really the only bad roads we encountered the whole trip.  We did a lot of relaxing at Phophonyane.  I went on a pretty run.  We hiked to the nearby waterfall.  One day we drove into the capital (Mbabane, the M is silent) to look around and have lunch.  

From there, we drove to Maputo in Mozambique.  We liked the city a lot.  Stayed at the Southern Sun Hotel, which is right on the water ($475 for two nights).  The hotel is pretty big and didn’t have much character, but from our room, you could look right out at the water and open the back door to walk out.  The nice thing about the big hotel was there was plenty of English-speaking staff.  We didn’t really have any language trouble there though with drivers, restaurants, etc.  The city was not as walkable as we would like, but we didn’t have trouble getting around (we didn’t drive much there, just didn’t want to deal with navigating, parking, etc.).  Just did the typical stuff, looking at churches, exploring the fort there, wandering around.  We dropped off our car before leaving Maputo. 

From Maputo, we flew to Inhambane, it was a small plane and we actually had a stop in Vilankulos, but we stayed on the plane (so we actually flew pretty far north from Maputo, and then came back halfway south to go to Inhambane, but that’s just the flight route, so nonstop from Inhambane back to Maputo).  Inhambane was our splurge of the trip.  We stayed at a place called the Massinga Beach Lodge (booked it on hotels.com, it was $840 for the two nights (likely depends on the time of year)).  Aimee's choice again, and wow, she knows how to pick hotels!!!  I don’t remember if it included dinners and drinks, but we loved it there.  We didn’t do anything except hang out at the little dive pool and walk on the beach and hang out at the pool along the beach.  We stayed in our own little villa and slept with the wall to the ocean open (no predator cats there, they don’t live in the salty air).  They picked us up and dropped us off at the hotel.  The owner was from South African and so nice.  I feel bad not writing more about it, but it was low key and amazing. 

From Inhambane, we flew back to Johannesburg (via Maputo connection) (flights cost $425 for the two of us).  If we had more time, we would have driven and just returned the car there.  In Johannesburg, we stayed at the Radisson Blu Gautrain in Sandton.  The location was great, but we did not like the hotel (there’s another Radisson less than a block away, it might have been better).  Food at the restaurant was not great (we landed late and just didn’t want to go out), there was only one towel, you couldn’t turn off the bathroom light, and a bunch of other things we just didn’t enjoy.  We got picked up the next morning by a driver that Yousef from Cape Town had recommended.  Our driver in Jozi was Sipho Gate, and he was nice and knowledgeable (again, let me know if you need his number).  He took us to Mandela’s Jozi house, and then to Soweto, where we went around the township.  We saw Tutu’s house, learned a lot there.  Also went to the Apartheid Museum, and then to the building called the Top of Africa (the tallest building in Africa, only about 50 floors up and the windows were not super-clean, but it was still a fun short stop).  If we’d had another day, we wanted to go out to the Cradle of Humanity, but we didn’t have time.  We weren’t wild about the city of Johannesburg.  It was crowded and our hotel told us not to go walking for dinner even though it was just about 2 blocks away – I think if we’d been comfortable exploring the city on foot, we would have enjoyed it more.  But it was only two nights ($250 total), and we had really wanted to go to Soweto and to the Apartheid Museum, and both of those stops were definitely worth it.

From Jozi, we flew to Livingstone Zambia (flights were $350 for the two of us).  We stayed at the Avani Game Lodge, which was very nice ($1300 for four nights, and I don’t think this included anything other than breakfast, but I’m not sure).  Driver from hotel picked us and many others up in a minibus; Avani is a big hotel is on the same property as a ritzier lodge (the Royal Livingstone, they’re jointly owned, we stayed at the cheaper one, but easy to run or walk to the Royal Livingstone for drinks on their veranda with views of the top of the falls, etc., although some of the activities left from Avani).  There were tons of organized activities to choose from (Bushtracks Africa is the company that does the activities, transport shuttles, etc.).  We got the Kaza visa, which allows unlimited border crossings between Zambia and Zimbabwe (about $50, got it at the airport), and allows day trips into Botswana.  I was able to run in the area because there aren’t any big cats, but there ARE elephants!  We ate at the hotel for dinner a couple times, but eventually branched out and just took a cab into town for some dinners.  The activities were pricey, I think we spent about $1200 on activities through the hotel…  oops.  But we loved the stuff we did.  We rented bikes one day and rode into Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe (we brought our own biking shorts and gloves, they had helmets, we just wore tennis shoes).  We did a fair amount of hiking, walking around the area (including crossing the border on foot a couple times, very easy).  We got to swim in Devil’s Pool, which is on the edge of Victoria Falls.  All the people we met in Livingstone (whether at the hotel or in town) were great.  Everyone speaks English, and most people were so open to talking to us, answering all our questions about their lives, thoughts, etc.  We kind of talk about moving to Zambia now. 

From Avani, we went to Botswana and started with safari in Chobe.  Tons of elephants, better view of lions, so many animals.  But wow, the elephants were what stuck out.  We were close to them, there were so many, and wow, they were beautiful.  We also did some time on the water, got very close to hippos, etc.  Spectacular.  And from Botswana, we went to Namibia.  Also great, and somewhere we did not have enough time.  Need to update this with the details, but right now, I'm not even finding our hotel info...  I wrote the above within a couple months of getting back, but I kind of dropped off figuring I'd update it later.  Either way, suffice it to say, we have so much more to explore in both of these countries. 

Trip back was umm, long.  I think it was about 36 hours (could have been 39, I actually don’t remember) from the time we got into the shuttle to go to the airport until the time we unlocked our front door.  Packing list included safari hat, bug spray, binoculars, and then pretty much the usual.  Between credit cards and ATM visits, we spent about $4500.  That does not count about $550 that we spent on shots/meds (hepatitis, typhoid (I was current, husband needed), tetanus, and malaria (I took the pills, husband opted out).  Not sure any of the shots/meds were necessary but it was what we chose.  So yes, trip was very pricey, but since we booked some of our hotels in advance, we were able to spread out the costs over about four months (we bought plane tickets in early June I think, and then it was just periodic hotel choices until we flew out at the end of September).