Saturday, August 24, 2013

A World Safari: 2003-2013

Stonehenge 2003
Stonehenge 2013 (plus a little baby you can't see yet!

 This July marked ten years since Scott and I met for the first time in 2003 at Stonehenge!

Interestingly, we happened to be in London just about a week after our ten-year "meet-inversary" and so we decided to take a trip back to Stonehenge to relive our first time meeting each other. Back in 2003, we were both 18 and had just gotten off an Atlanta-London flight to start a month-long European humanities tour for high school students, as part of a college credit program run by Florida State University.
Arno River, Florence, 2013
Arno River, Florence, 2003

As you can imagine, hormones were raging as a bus full of jet-lagged high school students sized each other up and got ready to explore Europe together (under heavy chaperoning and strict rules on when and where we could go, mind you).

Our first stop was Stonehenge - we went there directly from the airport - and this was also the first chance we all had to get a good look at each other in broad daylight. I guess Scott and his friends immediately zeroed in on my friend and me (forget a bunch of rocks!), because we hadn't been off the bus for more than 15 minutes before he and his friends approached us and one of the guys asked us if we wanted a "bite of my muffin." (We said no in an appropriately standoffish high school girl way). Well, after that great pick-up line, one thing led to another and 10 years later, here we are back at Stonehenge, married and expecting our first child!
Colloseum, Rome, 2003
Trevi Fountain, Rome, 2003

We don't have many pictures of us together from that trip, but by the time our trek through Europe ended in Florence and Rome, we had gotten to be good friends. You can see from our huge grins and the way Scott is encroaching on my personal space in the 2003 pictures that by that point in our trip we had spent some more time together... and photo ops were an excuse to get close!

Colloseum, Rome, 2013
Trevi Fountain, Rome, 2013
Scott and I visited Florence and Rome for the second time together in January of this year, and again it was sweet thinking that we had been in those same spots 10 years ago, right at the beginning of our dating years. We started "officially dating" just a few months after the end of our high school humanities tour, when we were both freshmen at FSU.

And the rest really is history... we have been traveling the world together ever since!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Spa Day at Etali Safari Lodge, Madikwe

Watering hole
Last weekend I took yet another trip down to Madikwe to check out a new lodge I hadn't visited yet - Etalit Safari Lodge. This time I traveled down with some friends in town rather than my usual husbandly companion. We didn't stay overnight, but had heard good things about the spa at Etali and so decided to treat ourselves to a Ladies' Spa Day south of the border.

The pool
The day started with drinks out the on terrace overlooking the lodge's watering hole. We sipped our drinks and watched zebra and impala gather around the watering hole for their midday refreshments... quite a lovely way to spend one's time. A tasty buffet lunch was served outdoors and we all helped ourselves to (very unladylike) portions of beef stew, baked chicken, bean salad, and bread with malva pudding and custard for dessert.

Spa treatments came after lunch, and this is where the day turned a little weird. There were five of us in our group, and we each had booked manicures (45 minutes each) and full body massages (one hour each). However, the lodge only had two spa staff working that day, which meant that they saw us two at a time and the rest of us had to hang around for four extra hours to receive our own spa treatments. That meant six hours total to do five pedicures and five massages! Because time was running short - Gabs is about a two hour drive from Madikwe and this was a Sunday afternoon - we decided to cut down on our original plans and just do either a pedicure or a massage each. I chose the massage, which was great and very relaxing, but I was disappointed that the lodge hadn't properly scheduled our spa treatments to allow us enough time to do what we wanted. That was poor planning on their part.... they should have started some of us before lunch.

The scene of the crime - day visitors out staying their welcome!
At the end of the day, we had a nice visit to Etali... after all, who wouldn't love lunching outdoors with a view of the animals and a massage afterwards?! However, the day could have been a lot better. We felt discriminated against as "day visitors" - sure, we weren't spending the night, but we were spending $100 each for the day and could have been a potential source of referrals and extra business for the lodge. They didn't see it that way, and chose to treat us more as cheapo bums who couldn't afford to stay there for the night. The clincher came late in the afternoon, when were sitting by the pool waiting for our last friend to finish her spa treatment. We practically kicked out of the pool area and told we needed to leave the lodge and now.... ostensibly because of Madikwe's rule that day visitors leave the park before dark, but I suspect also because we were taking up valuable pool space which could be better used by the lodge's more valued overnight guests.

My final review? A great day, but compared to the level of service I've found at Madikwe's other lodges, especially Mosetlha and Motswiri, Etali was nothing special. Save your money, or spend it somewhere else.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

UK Day Trip vs. Chinese Day Trip

As part of our R&R trip this summer, we spent about a week in London, including a day trip to Stonehenge and Salisbury. Coming from three years abroad in less developed countries - two years in China and a year in Botswana - we marveled at the streamlined efficiency and ease of living that is everywhere in the UK. The trip to Stonehenge and Salisbury was no exception - hop on the Tube to Paddington Station, purchase a ticket for one of the regular trains from London to Salisbury, ride an hour in an assigned seat on a lovely, quiet, and clean train, and there you are in Salisbury! Want to go to Stonehenge? A nice gentleman from a legitimate tour company walks the train offering a convenient bus package to Stonehenge. Yes, you can pay by credit card right there on the train, and the tour to Stonehenge leaves every thirty minutes from several strategically located bus stops throughout Salisbury. There are also cabs in an orderly queue outside the train station should you choose a more private mode of transportation. It's as simple as that!

It was interesting to imagine undertaking a day trip of the same distance in China and speculating about what the differences in experience would be. In fact, there was no need to speculate because we had taken multiple trips like this while living in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province as English teachers and then in Shanghai after that. No matter how many times you've experienced the Chinese Day Trip, each time you manage to convince yourself that this time, this time will be different. After all, you tell yourself, it's only a quick trip. I speak Chinese. I know Chinese people. I've done this before. How hard could the trip be, right? Wrong! So, so wrong.

Picture this:

You wait in a throng of people to board the (also clean, efficient, and modern) Chinese Metro (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) to the Huoche Zhan (train station). The train is jam-packed with boisterous travelers and you have to use the pointy part of your elbow to carve a hole in the human wall that greets you when the train doors open. Fortunately, you are at least eight inches taller than everyone else on the train, so you secure a firm grasp on the greasy metal bar running along the ceiling to help keep your armpit from colliding with the head tops of a cluster of people standing crushed against you.

Finally, you reach the train station and again strategically use your elbows to penetrate the solid mass of humanity standing between you and the doors. Once inside the train station you squint your eyes to decipher the blur of Chinese characters in front of you and finally locate the ticket booth. You join a seething, unruly line and after forming a human blockade with your husband to prevent cutters-in-line from succeeding in getting in front of you (with mixed success) you finally reach the ticket counter, manage to communicate to an awe-stricken ticket agent what you want in Chinese (you can speak Chinese?!), and obtain what you think are two tickets to your destination. Already mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted, you stumble aboard the train and find your seats, hoping to collapse and spend the ride recouping before you are once again expelled into the pulsing throng of people that is China.

But, you can't relax yet! You find that a young couple have settled themselves into your seats and are happily talking loudly, listening to Chinese pop music on their cell phones, and eating oranges and throwing the orange peels on the floor of the train. You check your ticket - excuse me, we're assigned to these seats, you explain in Chinese. The couple laughs and wave their hands ambiguously. Oh, you can sit anywhere! They smile and pop more orange slices into their mouths. You look around the train and realize that all of the other seats are full. No, we want to sit here because these are our seats. You smile back but the smile is strained; more of a grimace really. Your cheeks begin to flush as you realize that you are steeling yourself for a confrontation. In Chinese. Fortunately, the couple look intimidated by your size (again, you and your husband are at least eight inches taller than they are and your couple has about 100 extra pounds on their couple). They mutter (stupid foreigners, they don't understand Chinese culture) and roll their eyes as they get up and let you sit in your assigned seat.

You sink - nay, collapse! - into the seat, which is slightly sticky and smells like citrus - and close your eyes. Peace at last.... until 30 seconds later when a Chinese kung fu movie comes at full blast on the TV monitor directly above your head. You sigh, turn up your iPod to block out the noise, and realize that you haven't even left the train station yet. And the day wears on....

One thing (there are many) that I have taken away from my time living in China is a true appreciation for experiences like our trip to Salisbury and Stonehenge, where everything was just as easy and smooth as we thought it would be from the beginning - just there and back with no unanticipated challenges along the way.  Despite what you may think from this blog entry, I enjoyed living in China and I do find myself missing the vibrancy and excitement (and exhaustion!) of every day life there. While something as simple as a metro or train ride can turn into an unexpectedly frustrating experience, there is certainly never a dull moment in China, that's for sure! It's been a year since we left China but it is still a refreshing treat to go somewhere like London and not have to worry about using your elbows to board the train, confronting an orange-eating couple who are sitting in your seats, or communicating in a foreign language which no one quite believes you can really speak.

These are the small things that we miss when we are abroad!