Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Family's Safari Adventure

What should one expect to happen on a trip to a South African game lodge and safari? I thought I knew, but reality trumped my expectations.

We woke early, dressed and met the Lion’s Roar van at the entrance to our hotel. Immanuel, our driver, answered our questions about Port Elizabeth and the surrounding coastal country as we drove the 50 minutes to Hlosi, SA.

Upon arrival, we were met by Chris, an Afrikaan who was obviously nervous. He kept wringing his hands and had a difficult time meeting our eyes as he introduced himself and the lodge.


Maurice & Chris @ the Lodge

The lodge was beautifully and simply appointed with fine dark-wood furniture, comfortably cushioned chairs with hand-carved frames, and a wood fire burning in a two-sided fireplace. All of the doors and windows were opened to allow a 60* breeze to move throughout the house.

Salani, one of our hostesses invited us outside to the back deck for “high tea.” The sun was just coming up behind the ridge of mountains in the distance, and began to warm sections of the deck. Malik, my younger son and the pickiest eater of the crew, reluctantly tried what appeared to be a palm-sized pancake with cream and jam on top. “Mm,” he proclaimed, and I released the breath I was holding. My younger child hadn’t eaten more than 1 full meal since we’d left the U.S. 3 days before.


Malik Taking Tea in Hlosi, South Africa

“You’re our only guests today, so the lodge is yours to explore and enjoy,” Chris told us as we finished tea. “Anytime you’re ready to go, just let us know.”

Our safari was scheduled to be a mini three-hour driven tour of the South African countryside. Not like the multiple day tours where visitors sleep outdoors in the wilderness and interact with wildlife. So I didn’t expect much more than a guided tour similar to the safari drive at Animal Kingdom at Disney World in Orlando.

Harry, our tour guide, told us to climb up a ramp to step into an open-air hummer. Once my husband, mother, two sons and I were in, Immanuel, our driver from the hotel, decided to join at the last minute. I got the feeling he didn’t usually do this type of thing, but Harry, a pretty cheerful guy, was more than happy to have him along.

Already, the winter morning had warmed to about 65* and I was able to remove my shawl as we drove over a dusty, bumpy dirt road and passed an odd-looking animal Harry called Sneezy. He sneezed at us and we drove away.

For 10 minutes, we drove over hills and around curves before we came to an abrupt stop at the end of the dirt road. We were perched on the edge of the mountain overlooking a huge valley that reminded me of a scene from the movie Avatar. It was breathtaking and all of us were speechless. I tried to take a picture, but the image looked flat and didn’t really capture the depth of the mountains, valley, river and trees spread out before us.


A view of Hlosi, South Africa

After a few minutes of moving around the ridge taking pictures and video, we climbed back into the jeep and Harry bumped us down the side of the mountain. We came to another clearing where huge, sturdy mounds covered the ground as far as we could see. Harry stopped, hopped out and grabbed a chunk of one the mounds.


Harry Shows Termites

“This is a termite mound,” he explained. He described the type of termite found in this region of SA. “They’re a great source of protein,” he said as he picked one out of the chunk of earth and put it in his mouth! Ew. Time out.

“Are any of you interested in trying one?”

Silence. No one moved, we just looked at him like we couldn’t understand his accented English. Even Immanuel sat like a rock in the front passenger seat.

“I’ll try, why not?”

Who said that? Was that my husband? I thought to myself, “I will never kiss him again if he puts that termite in his mouth.” But… ew, I’m gagging… he put it in his mouth and started to… chew.

“Hm, it tastes minty.” Whatever.

But then, here comes my older son with that look on his face. The look that says, ‘if he can do it, so can I.’ Sigh.

“Just bite the head off, Man!” Harry said cheerily.

A bite and a chew later, another termite gone from the face of the earth. “Hm, it does taste minty!” I’m disgusted and ready to go. So we left and moved on.

Out of nowhere, a huge black ostrich jumped into the path and started running in front of us. Next to us, a small family of warthogs scampered into the brush. As we rounded a curve, the brown dirt of the road changed to white and became soft. Harry pointed and we could see the backs of elephants moving through the trees below. The white dirt turned instantly back to brown and rocks were imbedded in it. We bumped up and down along the path until Harry slammed on the brakes.


Male Ostrich Running Down The Street

“Look!” he exclaimed. “A nursery.” Sure enough, an adult giraffe was surrounded by 3 or 4 baby giraffes. Their necks looked short and their heads small compared to the mother giraffe. “This a female giraffe watching several babies. She’s probably not the mother of them all, but it’s her job to watch them for the herd,” Harry explained. He spent another couple of minutes educating us about how they sleep, the difference between the male and female and their eating and mating habits. Cool.


Baby Giraffes Peek Over the Trees

Eventually, Harry decided it was time for us to take a break. He stopped the jeep, pulled out a cloth and spread out wooden dishes and bowls. Out of nowhere he fills them with fresh veggie slices and pieces of dried meat. Amazingly, it didn’t feel strange to be eating eggrolls and samosas a few yards from a herd of zebra drinking from a water hole along the path.


Zebra @ Watering Hole

Althea, Malik & Mom Snacking on Safari

Another hour and several animals later, we witnessed a zebra, an ostrich and a gnu standing together like they were sharing a joke during a coffee break at work. We saw all kinds of unique animals and birds – some I’d seen, but several I’d never even heard of. The 3-hour trip had turned into several hours of excitement and exploration. It was all so interesting, we didn’t realize how much time had gone by until Harry announced our return as the sun started going down behind the mountains. We had to have been out there for about 4 or 5 hours.

I thought the whole thing was over and we’d drive back to the hotel, but we were asked to wash up for dinner. Andrew, our chef, was perturbed that we’d taken so long and allowed his specially-prepared dinner to get cold, so we had to rush the “wash up.”

We were served a four-course meal that included grilled ostrich, roasted stuffed chicken, and an assortment of vegetables prepared in various ways. Our dessert consisted of chocolate mousse and an exquisite date pudding.


Lil Maurice Eating Dinner @ Lodge

OMG! The date pudding was so good. I made Andrew come out from the kitchen to explain how he made it, show me the ingredients from the kitchen and, in the end, put it in a disposable container so I could take it with me. Delectable. Only Malik was displeased, but Andrew made him a last-minute fruit plate with fruits Malik hadn’t eaten before. So everyone was happy in the end.

After dinner, Chris took us to visit the cottages. They were simple but plush. Each cottage had a queen-sized bed with a pillow-top mattress and mosquito net around it. Each bathroom had a brand-new claw-foot tub, glass and marble shower and the floor was made of heated stones. It opened to an enclosed patio with an outdoor shower, Jacuzzi and a stone bench for sunning or air drying after a shower. No televisions, no internet, no telephones. A male ostrich chased a female across the lawn as we stepped onto the back porch and sat in outdoor chairs at one of the cottages. A monkey scampered up a nearby tree and a herd of zebras ran past in the fading light. I wanted to stay, but reluctantly followed Chris back to the main lodge.

Chris. The Afrikaan had originally been nervous and uncomfortable around us. Now he was making jokes, tickling Malik, and telling us about his life. He told us about moving to Port Elizabeth from “Jo’Berg” (which everyone in SA calls Johannesburg) because it was too fast-paced. He shared how much he loved the relaxed and laid-back nature of Hlosi and the surrounding small towns.

We stepped into the lobby as the sun finally disappeared. I asked Immanuel what time the soccer match between Brazil and Portugal started. He glanced at his watch. “Fifteen minutes. If you’re not in a hurry, I’d rather watch it than listen to it on the radio.”

Ten minutes later, Immanuel, Harry, my older son and I were perched around the bar at the back of the lodge watching the plasma perched above the counter. Salani served beers to the men, wine to me and a South African guava juice to Little Maurice (my kids’ new favorite drink). My husband and mother had fallen asleep by the fire in the library. My younger son was outside chasing a monkey and an ostrich.

During half-time, Salani shared her story of moving to Hlosi from Zimbabwe because of social and economic unrest in her native country. She gave us a real-life account of living in a land of fighting and governmental instability. Her mother and brother were still there, but she and her sister had come with thousands of other refugees to South Africa to look for work and a better life. They were both working and sending money and food home to their mother.

I asked Harry if they often had Black Americans visit at the resort as guests. “No, not really. Blacks from America tend to go other places for safaris and tours.”

“What about Blacks from the Caribbean?” I asked.

“Almost never. Their travel agents and tour guides connect to other townships and countries.”

Is this why we were being treated like family instead of visiting guests? Is this why we were still here when our visit was supposed to have ended 6 hours earlier? Is this why I felt like I was visiting my family in South Carolina instead of a game lodge in South Africa?

When we finally got ready to leave, it was like leaving family friends. There were tight hugs, Facebook names and email addresses exchanged, and it took another 30 minutes to actually get out the door and in the van.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go back to the Radisson Blu in town with its American/European amenities and W d├ęcor. I wanted to stay at Lion’s Roar where it felt like home.

ManChild

I was in the last city of our visit to South Africa when I realized it - my first child is now a man. This realization is different for every mother of a son. For some of my girlfriends, it’s a sad time… one of loss. For others, it’s with a sigh of relief. And they can’t wait for his big rusty butt to get out of the house.

For me, it’s a weird, strange feeling. Almost like I don’t know who he is or where he came from. He still has the same round face, the lashed brown eyes, the happy smile, and that charismatic personality that allows him to make friends with anyone anywhere at any time. He still hugs me, and kisses on me, and (tries) to sit on my lap.


Man-Child in 2009

But now, he’s my height and almost my weight. He’s wearing men’s sizes in clothing and shoes. He’s very discerning in what he’ll wear and how he’ll wear it. He walks with that male assuredness that women find attractive – it’s almost a pimp. Barack Obama – style. You know what I’m talking about.

In South Africa, he was protective of his family – grandparents, mother and younger brother. He was very confident as he walked around and directed my mother and me through a large mall when we’d lost our way. He always opened the door for us and stood back to allow us to go before him – looking around as though he would take someone out if they tried to harm us.


My Brother's Keeper - Table Mountain, South Africa

He and I had to share a room for a couple of days during our trip to South Africa. When he was sleeping was the only time I saw my baby boy. My first child. I could see traces of the infant they placed in my arms to suckle for the first time in the hospital. But then, he turned over, grunted, scratched and woke up. The baby was gone and the man was back. I continued to stare at him in… what - Confusion? Wonder? Amazement?

When did it happen? I had definitely seen glimpses of it on occasion. But I hadn’t had a chance to really sit still, be quiet and absorb it until our trip to Africa.

This man-child transition happens at different times for boys. And a lot has to do with the home situation. Single-parent? Older sister? Older Brother? No siblings? Younger sibling? Multiple siblings? A father in the house? A father who cares versus one who doesn’t? A mother that treats her man-child more like a child than the man he eventually becomes? Cherished versus un-cherished?

Age has nothing to do with it. Experiences, circumstances and lifestyle have everything to do with it. Because of this, I won’t even discuss my son’s age in this blog – it has nothing to do with it. All I know is, he’s a man and I’m stepping back to allow it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Unprepared

I’ve blogged quite a bit about my family’s trip to South Africa – what we’ve seen, done, and experienced. But I skipped a very important piece – how personally unprepared for this trip I was.


I think it’s a mistake most wives and mothers make… we take care of everyone else before ourselves. In case of emergency, we hear the attendant on the plane instruct us to cover our face with oxygen first, then attend to our children. But in real life, we would instinctually do whatever it takes to save our babies’ life, even to the loss of our own.


All of this explains how I’m in South Africa in the middle of the winter completely unprepared.


The Background Story

I love to watch sports. More than my husband. He’ll try to watch an NFL or NBA game on television, but inevitably, he falls asleep – every time. I on the other hand, sit in rapt attention to my favorite team’s match against an arch rival. I’m not a big fan of NBA play, but I love NFL football and I am newly addicted to soccer.


I had my son record the world cup matches I was most interested in seeing. And at the end of the day, after everyone was fed, the house cleaned, and all of my responsibilities as a wife, mother and business owner were complete… I’d get comfortable on the sofa with my pillows just so and watch all 95 minutes of whatever match I’d missed during the day.


I would yell and shout at the screen – at missed passes, poor ref calls, and inept blocking by the goalies. The goal scored against USA by England in the first 7 minutes of play at the beginning of the World Cup almost sent me to the hospital.


But what does any of this have to do with the weather, you ask. Everything. When I watched all 95 minutes of those matches, I noticed that all of the spectators were wearing scarves, earmuffs and wool hats. I remember seeing Desmond Tutu in a triple fat goose 3/4 coat with scarf, hat and muffs and thinking, I’ve got to rethink my wardrobe for this trip. So I did. I mentally began preparing my clothing choices. The main problem was that all of my winter clothes were packed into storage bins in the basement. It’s the middle of summer in Atlanta, GA. The weather has been a sunny 85-90*F every day. So I waited to pack.


I tried to discuss our travel itinerary with my husband. “Where exactly are we going? How long will we be there?” Stuff like that. Because in my mind, South Africa is a big country and we were going to be traveling to the far north, east, west and south. The weather could be different in every city. I needed to be prepared – especially for my children.


“It’s winter in Africa, not Chicago,” my husband responded. “It’s going to get to 70* every day. Don’t worry about it.”


And I partially believed him. I packed my children’s suitcases with care. Some short-sleeved shirts and a couple pairs of shorts each. But I filled their suitcases with light-weight long-sleeved shirts, jeans, and thick sweatshirts (just in case what I was seeing on television was more accurate than what my husband was telling me). I also pulled out their fleece jackets that could easily be rolled up and stuffed in a backpack. They were good no matter what the outcome.


I, on the other hand, had a bigger issue. How would I put together winter ensembles without the matching boots? Most of my winter-wear including a matching pair of boots and purse. But I knew we’d be walking a lot and I couldn’t wear my favorite Franco Sarto heeled boots on a safari in South Africa, so I opted for fitness clothing. Stretch pants with light sweaters, and jeans with turtlenecks. All things I could wear with my sneakers.


Problem… the turtlenecks and sweaters I wanted to pack were too thick, and I couldn’t get more than 2 of them in the case along with the rest of my clothing, a pair of shoes and my toiletries. So I trusted my husband and left the bulky sweaters and sweatshirts behind, and opted for thin, long sleeve shirts that I could wear under my fitted vests. Instead of a coat or jacket, I packed 2 wraps – one in beige and one in black. They’d go with everything I’d packed and they kept me warm through most of the Georgia winter, so they’d be perfect for the trip.


First problem: my husband forgot the kids’ jackets on the plane from Atlanta to Johannesburg. So there were no fleece jackets for either of my sons from day one of the trip.


Second problem: it was freezing cold in South Africa – North, South, East and West. It got down to 35-40* every evening around 6:00pm and stayed cold throughout the night until about 11:30am the next morning. So my husband was partially correct – it did get warmer in the middle of the day.


Third problem: we couldn’t get adjusted to the 6 hour time change for about 5 days, so we never woke before 2:00pm. Most of our awake time and activities were during the cold-weather hours.


Fourth problem: the only game we had tickets for was in the warmer city of Port Elizabeth along the southern coast. Great. But when we found out that Ghana was playing the US just 2 hours north of Johannesburg, we traded in our game tickets and boarded a plane for the northern, mountainous city of Johannesburg. We then rented a car and drove 2.5 hours north to Rustenburg. Finally, we sat in an outdoor stadium at 8:30pm to watch the 2-hour match. We then stood for 45 minutes in a queue (outside in a field) to board a shuttle to our car. By 11:30pm, I was frozen stiff in my thin turtleneck, vest and black pashmina wrap.


Now, outside of the point of my being a cold-natured person who is rarely warm enough for comfort; and despite the fact that it was truly quite cold in every city we visited in South Africa; and regardless of the reality that it was windy in and around the mountains and off the ocean (which pretty much covers everywhere we went)… I was also upset because I didn’t look very nice.

In case you don’t know, I’m a relatively natural girl. I don’t wear makeup very often, and when I do it’s only eyeliner and lip gloss. I have long “dred”locs and I simply pull them back into a ponytail or let them hang loose. I don’t really spend much time on my appearance.


However, I do like for my outfits to be complimentary and complementary. That means, my clothes have to fit me well and match. Sneakers with stretch pants is not the latest fad in America or South Africa. In fact, it was African Fashion Week in Johannesburg while we were there. So all of the ladies were wearing skinny-leg jeans or leggings with knee-high or thigh-high flat boots. They had several layers of light-weight long-sleeved shirts and it was covered by short, puffy jackets, scarves and smart hats. Ooohhh, how I longed for my boots in the bin in the basement. And I have short, puffy jackets – at home in the states!


Sigh. I know it’s all vanity, but who wants to be out during fashion week in another country and look like a bumpkin. Just not my style.


To further my anguish, my mother protectively suggested to me before we left to leave my rings at home. So I did. All of them. Diamond, wedding band, silver funky costume rings. Everything.


So… I’m a makeup-less, no jewelry-wearing, sneaker with jeans woman. I look so young, the people in all of the hotels where we stayed kept asking me if Malik (my younger son) was my younger brother. They thought I was traveling with my parents (my husband and my mother who looks young enough to be my sister) and my siblings. Only one man thought my mother was my daughter. Sigh. I just can’t win on this trip!


Last thing – I have no purse. That’s right. My mother scared me so bad, I left all of my purses (big, medium and small) in Atlanta. I didn’t want some petty thief to snatch my Coach shoulder bag. So all I have is a small wallet with a wrist handle made out of pleather with a cracked mirror embedded in the side. To make matters worse, the wrist handle broke during one of our excursions and I had to tuck the wallet in the waist of my stretch pants (no pockets and no purse).


Now, don’t get me wrong. I am having the time of my life. Literally. The things I’m seeing, experiencing and doing are life-altering. I don’t take it lightly that I’m here with my husband, children, mother and father-in-law. This is an opportunity many dream about and may not ever experience in their entire life. I’m cherishing every sunrise over the mountains and sunset into the ocean. I just wish I looked cuter in the photos.