Category Archives: Vacation

South Africa, January 2016

Well, it’s been a bit over a year since my trip to South Africa, and I still haven’t written about it.  It’s time, isn’t it?

Back in fall of 2015, at our mutual birthday party, my sister brought up that she was going to South Africa and was looking for a companion.  Turns out that her South African boyfriend Francois had run out of a US work visa and was back home, and she was planning on visiting him and his family in January 2016.  They said she could bring a guest, and I lucked out, because her best friend couldn’t go.  I was next in line!

I put the whole trip on my credit card, having just been to Greece a few months before.  But nearly $2000 in debt later, I still consider it the best trip of my life!

She got there a few days before I did.  I wanted to give her and Francois some privacy (in his parents’ house…) and also, honestly, I was scared about flying with my only sibling, for my parents’ sake.  I got a flight on Lufthansa, which is the best airline I’ve ever taken.  They gave me so much wine I couldn’t have stood if I wanted to, and when I woke up, I was in Munich with a long layover!  I immediately took the train out to Marienplatz.

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New Town Hall

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Streets of Marienplatz, Munich

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From my research, it sounded like Marienplatz was pretty hipster, or kind of the Logan Square of Munich, so that’s where I went because I figured it’d feel like home.  I got a sandwich and fries and a beer at a local pub.  Then I got back on the eternal flight.

From the airport in Johannesburg, I immediately pulled out onto the freeway in a rental car, from the right side of the car but on the left side of the four-lane freeway.  It was the most terrifying drive of my life.  I’m not sure how I made it to Francois’ family’s house in Eloff, but after many a pot-hole-ridden dirt road, I saw my sister again.  We had a nice evening in Francois’ sister’s hot tub, and we spent the night there.

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Driving on the wrong side

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South African countryside

The next morning I had a long drive out to Hazyview, outside Kruger National Park.  I was staying at a hostel in Hazyview and then going on a safari in the park the next day.  It was a four-hour drive (again, on the left) over winding roads through the mountains of South Africa.  I was cruising and playing glam rock on my phone and enjoying the scenery.  Eventually I got to the town of Nelspruit as it was getting dark, and my phone had just died, so I decided to pull over and look for the charger.

And it was gone.  I was in a grocery store parking lot, digging under the seats anxiously, as people started to move closer and closer, circling my car.  I was an easy target.  I couldn’t stay there, so I kept driving as best I could based on the map I’d printed out.  It took me into the woods, and I ended up in a vacant lot.  By this point it was pitch black, and I was certain I was going to die.  I was about to get murdered in the woods of the South African countryside.  I drove in aimless circles through the woods, crying like a maniac, trying to come up with any idea to save myself.

Then I remembered: I drove past a tiny hospital in Nelspruit.  If I could remember how to get back there, that was my best option for a safe place to find the charger and charge my phone.

Even luckier, though, was that along the way I saw a light in the distance and found a restaurant.  The parking lot was lit up brightly, so I felt safe enough to get out of my car and keep digging for the charger.  And I found it!  But this was Francois’ South African charger, and it turned out it wasn’t very compatible with my American phone.  It zapped about 1% battery life into my phone, and then it wouldn’t charge anymore.  That 1% had to get me directions to my hostel in a hurry.

By some miracle I got there.  The room was full of bugs and geckos, and I was afraid to even pull the sheets down on the bed because I was sure there were snakes in it.  But I got drunk at the hostel bar and got a few hours of sleep before my safari.

The safari was excellent.  I booked a group safari because it was more affordable, but it turned out nobody else was scheduled for that day with my chosen tour company, so it was just me in a giant Jeep with a very sweet and incredibly well-informed guide.  Of the Big Five, I saw all but a leopard, as they’re notoriously elusive.  But elephants, lions, zebras, buffalo, hippos, giraffes, various monkeys, warthogs, rhinos, and more all made an appearance!  Kruger National Park was gorgeous and I hope to go back there someday.

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On a safari

That night after the safari, my mom did the sweetest thing.  Because I’d texted her the day before about all the bugs and geckos at the hostel, she booked me a swanky hotel room nearby.  My parents don’t have tons of money, but for a splurge of $100 USD, she was able to get me a really nice, fancy room.  I was so grateful!  The hotel was surrounded by streams, and signs warned of alligators and hippos coming onto the property.  I had a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant ($20 USD for a three-course meal and a bottle of wine), and a hippo emerged in the yard!

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I got back to Francois’ family’s house outside Johannesburg the next evening, and the following morning, we got a flight on Mango Airlines to Durban.

Let’s talk for a minute about domestic travel in South Africa.  You don’t have to take off your shoes.  You can bring liquids of any kind and size.  You can fly without your fucking passport if you have a photo of it on your phone.  So yeah.  This is in stark contrast from the time I flew from Greece to Canada to the US, and had to go through an extra security checkpoint in Canada just because I was flying to the States.  Okay.

From Durban, Francois took us to his family friend’s cute little hut near the beach in Hibberdene.

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Passed out on the way to Hibberdene

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We spent the next four days swimming in the ocean, feeding the ducks and other birds, eating veggie pot pies, and drinking from the time we woke up until we went to bed.  I wish I could provide more info than that, but we stayed consistently drunk and in the sun.  It was one of the best times in my life.

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Beach community

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Bridge to the ocean

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My bedroom in the loft of the round hut

On our last day, Francois took us back to Durban, where we went to the combination aquarium/water park, Ushaka Marine World.  It was my first time at a water park in years, and on top of that, you could drink!  We spent the day shotgunning beers between water slides, and then we toured the aquarium.

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We finished off with dinner and drinks on the pier, and the next morning we flew back to Johannesburg.  Then it was back to the US for Laura and me.

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This time we flew together, and again, I was scared for my parents because no one should ever have their only children on the same flight together.  Then again, maybe most people aren’t as terrified of flying as I am.  I have to say, it was nice to have a travel companion for the 21-hour flight.

Needless to say I drank a lot, and Laura imbibed quite a bit herself.  We had a short layover in Frankfurt, where I accidentally left the book Colin had bought me for Christmas.  If anyone has a copy of The Plague, I need to read the last couple depressing chapters.

All in all, my trip to South Africa was amazing.  It was all fun, but my time in Hibberdene by the beach was best of all.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Endless thanks to Francois and his family for their hospitality and welcoming.  I hope to visit again someday.

Next up: Amsterdam and Berlin with my work-friend Julia!

My solo trip to Greece

For my first international travel experience, I went all in, taking a solo trip to Greece.  I flew into Athens, where I spent my limited time at the Acropolis and wandering the touristy markets of Monastiraki Square.  

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Selfie in front of the Parthenon

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Monastiraki

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Lunch at a cafe

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The streets of Athens

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At my AirBNB in Athens

From Athens, I took a five-hour train ride from Larissa station up to Kalabaka.  I stayed in the small town of Kastraki (so small, they don’t even have addresses there!), for the purpose of visiting the monasteries of Meteora.

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Monasteries of Meteora

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Outside the hostel in Kastraki

The train back was terrible, as I had to stand the whole time in a small hallway without air conditioning.  But eventually I got back to Athens, where I spent the night in a hostel and got up early to sail out to Santorini.

 

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Waiting for the ferry in Piraeus

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6-hour ferry ride

I got a high-speed ferry from Piraeus Port to Fira.  The ride wasn’t bad, although I’m glad I had prescription-grade motion sickness patches.  It was nighttime when I got to Fira, so I splurged on a shuttle to take me to my hostel.  

In the morning I made my first venture to the caldera, and it was stunning.  It looked exactly like I’d seen in so many photos.  Most of it is private property, so I couldn’t wander around much of it, but I did wind through the streets and alleys in the city center, taking in the views and spending a lot of money on souvenirs.

 

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At the caldera in Fira

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Restaurants and souvenir shops

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The next day I went to Perivolos Beach, a black sand beach with a string of bars serving up delicious cocktails.  

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That evening I took a bus ride to Oia, the most picturesque town on Santorini.  There, I sat on a stone wall among countless other visitors, watching the sun glint off the  white houses as it set.  It was the most beautiful manmade sight I’ve ever seen.

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Picturesque Oia

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Greece was an amazing experience, but I was also glad to go home.  I never got lonely, but I felt a lot of stress trying to commute and stay on schedule in a country where many people don’t speak English.  It was well worth the effort and the money, though.  The world is huge, and there are so many spectacular things to see and do!

I wasn’t expecting to travel internationally in 2016, but my sister is talking about going to Johannesburg, South Africa, so I might try to join her.  If not, I hope to visit New Orleans next year!

First time traveling

I’m going to Greece soon.  Very soon.  I’m going alone.  I’ve never traveled alone, or overseas, but I’m taking off for a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, for ten days, by myself, because I’m crazy.  And because I need to see more of the world, with or without companions.

Last winter I wanted to visit my sister while she was in London, but I couldn’t because I had an adult dependent.  I promised myself that I’d leave the country in 2015, one way or another.  Plans of traveling to Spain with my friend didn’t materialize, so I chose Greece on a whim.  I can’t really afford it, but I’ve at least booked the flights and B&Bs already, so I’ll figure out how to make the rest work.

I’ve done a lot of research in preparation, but I’m trying not to commit myself to too many plans.  I know when I’ll be staying in Athens, Meteora, and Santorini, but I’m not locked into any activities.  I’ll be sure to explore the ruins of the Acropolis, scour the shops of the Plaka, hike around the clifftop monasteries of Meteora, and watch the sunset over Oia.  But, I’ll also have time to wander fields and side streets, write in open-air coffee shops, and drink at local dive bars.  I’m especially curious about the local rebetika music scene.

Sex tourism is a thing, according to my travel research.  Not necessarily in Greece, specifically, but people travel the world with the intent to have sex with as many foreigners as possible, usually prostitutes.  It really is a shame that privileged people exploit poor sex workers in third world countries for their own amusement.  Obviously that’s not okay.  I could see sex tourism with locals as an interesting hobby though, in situations where money isn’t exchanged and power dynamics are removed.  The fact that I enjoy variety is no secret, and maybe if I were wealthier, more adventurous, and not dating someone I don’t want to give HIV to, I would consider a world sex tour a valuable cultural experience.  Honestly, having sex with new people teaches you a lot about yourself.  Why not combine that with solo travel?

I want to blog while I’m in Greece, but there are so many travel blogs out there, and I’m so inexperienced.  I don’t have any tips or advice.  I’m not even all that confident I won’t get kidnapped. People are telling me to join all sorts of group tours and activities, but really, what I want is to sit on an oceanfront terrace sipping tea or a cocktail and tapping away at my keyboard. I just need to know what to say.

Road Trip from Chicago to Long Beach

In March, I moved from Chicago to Long Beach.  My boyfriend Keith and I drove out here with our pet duck.  Here are some photos from our favorite stops on the road trip.

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In Adair, Iowa, in front of the smily face water tower.  There’s not much else to see in Iowa, but I remembered this from trips to Colorado as a kid.

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Sunset Crater Volcano.

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Navajo National Monument.

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A closer view of the ruins inside the cave.

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Traditional Najavo frybread.

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Navajo Nation.

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A Navajo trading post.

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Being goofy at Four Corners.

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Wakoki ruins, which you’re allowed to explore!

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Waputki ruins.

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The Grand Canyon.

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A wild horse in Grand Canyon National Park.

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The London Bridge, rebuilt in Lake Havasu City.

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And we made it all the way there!

Climbing Eagle Cliff Mountain

When I was growing up, my family had three alternating vacation spots, one of which was Rocky Mountain National Park, in Estes Park, Colorado.  Each trip, we stayed at Machin’s Cottages in the Pines, a comfy little resort at the bottom of Eagle Cliff Mountain.  Not being an athletic family, we didn’t do intense mountain climbing, but Eagle Cliff was perfect because it was a beginner’s mountain with a great view of the surrounding, snow-capped peaks and cozy valleys.

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(Random photos I stole from Google.)

My family hasn’t been there in more than ten years, since my grandparents died and the rest of us went there to spread their ashes.  Amazingly, while Keith and I were in Denver visiting his newlywed friends, we also had the opportunity to drive out there for a few hours on our last day of the trip.  Since we had such little time, I had to choose one favorite activity to do, to showcase my childhood fun.  Of course, I decided that we would climb Eagle Cliff.

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(Okay, these are my photos now.)

There’s no parking lot for climbers, so we drove up the little resort road, anxious to discover if Machin’s was still in business.  The road winds through the trees up the base of the mountain, and I beamed when we rounded a corner and saw the cluster of brown cottages with green roofs.  It was still there.

We parked and walked into the office, where Lee Machin himself was still working behind the counter.  We talked to him a bit, and he remembered my grandparents fondly.

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A dirt path leads for a short way before veering back down, at which point we had to pick our spot to hop off the path and start climbing.  The mountain is small, but for a beginner such as myself, it’s a major challenge.  I went from sedentary to mountain climber right then and there.  The ascent is quite steep, and the thin air makes it especially hard to breathe.  There were a handful of moments when I seriously considered stopping, turning around and heading back down.  But I remembered that I had climbed that mountain many times before, even as a little kid, so it had to still be possible for me.  I was motivated, and I needed every last bit of that motivation to make it up there.  The high altitude gave me aches in my head and face, my lungs were sore, and my legs were tired.

But somehow, I made it to the top, where I obviously needed to pose for some cheesy zen photos.

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Heading back down, we got caught in a downpour.  As it is, going down is tricky enough because the gravel is slippery, and the rain increased that.  It was cold now, too, having gotten cooler when the clouds came over, and our clothes were quickly soaked.  Surefooted Keith jogged his way down, while I cautiously stumbled along, trailing far behind him.

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From there, once we reached the bottom and were completely drenched and shivering, we went into downtown Estes Park and visited my family’s favorite shop, Laura’s Fudge Shop.  I bought some candy and mailed it home to them.

Then we headed back to our friends’ house, they dropped us off at the airport, and we were back in Long Beach before bedtime.