a week in Oman

Today marks the first whole week we’ve been in Muscat, Oman. The flights from Amsterdam – Abu Dhabi – Muscat were easy peasy though Rob’s beard caused some issues and required extra security checks (sigh).

Within 24 hours of arrival in the country, our shipment arrived and a crew of hot and sweaty men emptied the container, delivered everything to our 3rd floor apartment, and unpacked hundreds of boxes (did we really have that much stuff?!) Within a week, we had everything put away in it’s new home (where did I put the coffee again?!?!) and are just trying to figure out where to place all of our artwork.

This week has been a whirlwind of businessy stuff. Rob completed medical checks, received his resident card, and participated in a boat load of orientation work. The kids and I continued to get things settled and made friends with the neighbor kids (who just moved here from China). At night, we explored the city’s vast malls as we stocked our fridge and pantry with necessities.

Each adventure out of the house has been an exercise in patience. Our waze GPS has been helpful but when she urges us to turn right, we’re not sure which right she’s referring to as intersections include a menagerie of right turns, most of which lead you on to some expressway or on to the wrong side of a concrete divide. We’ve definitely spent more time going in the wrong direction than in the right one!

New staff orientation visits have included drinks (read: beer!) at the American Club, a traditionally lavish meal at Kargeen, and our Australian buddy, Peter, inviting us to visit the fish souk early Saturday morning.

The fish souk near the port in Mutrah (about 15 minutes from our house) is a real working market. Though smaller than I had imagined, it gave me a real insight in to the size of Muscat (small) and the Omani people (friendly!). The vast amount of fish (tuna, squid, shrimp, shark, lobster, mackerels, and sardines) was impressive, but the genuineness of the place was unmatched. We tromped through salt water strewn floors and negotiated our purchase with Omani men perched on small benches (the occasional cat eating a small fish at their feet). For 1+ kg of tuna and 1 kg of shrimp, we walked out having spent just under $20 with the idea of dinner quickly taking form in our mind.

Just a few kilometers down the road, we were enjoying fabulous views of beaches, forts, and mountains all while trying to add as many locations to our GPS as places we have to get back to!

Can’t wait to see what fun week #2 brings!

africa 2.0 ends

After 7 years of living on the beautiful African continent our 2nd stint (a.k.a: Africa 2.0) came to an end in June. As a way of reflecting on the past 3 years of life in South Africa, Rob and I sat on the couch in my classroom (on the last day of school in June) and wrote down the top 10 things we WILL and WON’T miss about SA (the pictures are just some of our favorites from this beautiful place we called “home.”)
In no particular order, here are the reasons you should visit South Africa:

1. Great friends. The people are beautiful and they’ll get in your heart… forever.
2. Weather. Hot or cold, there is always a blue sky.
3. Travel and safari. There is so much to see in this vast country. And it’s ALL accessible.
4. Cheap. The rand isn’t doing so hot right now, so it’s incredibly cheap for expats. Your money goes A LONG way here!
5. Alcohol. It’s good. It’s cheap. It’s delicious. Why wouldn’t you have bubbles on a Tuesday night?
6. Dog friendly. People love our crazy medicated dog just as much as we do.
7. Our house and pool. If you visited us… you know what I’m talking about!
8. AISJ. The campus is stunning. The grounds are colorful. And the facilities are top-notch!
9. Convenience. If you can avoid going to a government office, then it’s one of the easiest places we’ve lived.
10. Life is easy. Everything is easy to come by—great doctors; fabulous food; flat roads; and a language we ALL know!

This list was MUCH harder to come by…

The things we WON’T miss about South Africa:
1. Traffic. Taxis. Crap drivers!
2. Load-shedding.
3. Being SO far away from our family and friends! It is a LONG way to get out Africa when you are living in the south.
4. Broken robots (aka traffic lights…which lead back to issue #1)
5. Tipping to park… everywhere!
6. Early, EARLY mornings.
7. Purposeless PGCT.
8. “Now, now” and “Just now.” After 3 years, we still don’t understand the difference.
9. Living far away from the kids’ friends. We were isolated from the student community a bit and that was a challenge.
10. Chaos of our lives. Big city = Busy lives!

awe at victoria falls

Oops… this has been sitting in my draft folder since we went to Zimbabwe in April. I guess the end of the school year chaos caught up to me more than I thought it had. Here’s some words about our awe-inspiring trip to Victoria Falls.

It’s not often that I’m without words. I usually have something to say about everything. But our journey to Victoria Town in Zimbabwe has taken my breath away.

The weekend was rather unexpected. Though I’ve wanted to visit Victoria Falls since I first arrived in Africa in 1999, it has always seemed “too far away” or “too expensive.” But when Rob got a complimentary flight (thanks to a complaint about some bad service on a British Airways flight), how could we not take the opportunity to see one of the World’s Natural Wonders?

We arrived in Victoria Town, Zimbabwe, on a warm Saturday afternoon just after a short 90-minute flight from Johannesburg. The arrival hall and excruciatingly long customs line reminded me that Africa has many faces and we were staring down an old decrepit one. Meeting up with our driver, who guided us past traditional dancers in loin clothes made from springbok skins, we (Rob and I) were aware that we were definitely back in Africa again!

 We arrived and enjoyed a few minutes of rest and relaxation at at The Kingdom Resort before piling back in an air-conditioned bus on our way to the jetty for a cruise down the Zambezi river (thanks for the recommendation Bronny!). At our personal table for four, we enjoyed a water safari while throwing back Zambezi beers on the Zambezi river–now that’s a first! Though the beer was crap, the views were magnificent. It was a bird watching paradise with crocs and hippos on or near the banks. But the highlight of this ride was the moment we caught an elephant washing itself in the river. Staring at this majestic creature as it appeared in the distance silhouetted against a setting sun, we knew this was going to be an amazing journey.

The next morning it was time to see what we’d came for–Victoria Falls! A quick 10-minute walk from our hotel, took us on another mini-safari as we walked past hippo and elephant dung, baboons, warthogs, and the wild Zimbabwean drivers.

Victoria Falls was said to be “discovered” in 1855 by the Scottish explorer, David Livingstone (though thousands of Zimbabwean natives would have already been aware of the falls’ existence, I’m sure). Livingstone named the falls in honor of Queen Victoria. The falls relish in the fact that they are twice the height of Niagara Falls. Because of it’s wide sheer drop (and the crashing sounds that erupt from it) the falls’ indigenous name translates to the “cloud that thunders.” It erupts from the peaceful river and spews a cloud of water into the air at such fervor that as it returns to the Earth it has created a mini-rainforest ecosystem.

While enjoying a peaceful walk through the national park, we participated in our own mini safari with baboons, birds, and some sort of Springbok-type animals. After viewing the falls from every vantage point, we decided to walk to the Lookout Cafe to enjoy a drink while looking out at the gorge and weaving waterways that carry the now peaceful water away from the falls. Grubbing on nuts and colorful cocktails (virgin for the wee ones), we reminisced about the experience we had and watched some adventurers wing, fly, and bungee across the gorge. It was then that Rob, our expert in frugality, surprised us with his most shocking idea yet, “Let’s book a helicopter ride over the falls and see them from above.” And so we did.

After lunch, we got picked up and whisked away to The Flight of Angels where we were videotaped listening to security briefings, being weighed-in, and bubbling with excitement before we enjoyed the fly over.

Once the helicopter landed, we were just like the characters in the movies–all bent down, blocking our heads from the powerful blades above. We loaded up on the helicopter and enjoyed the most unbelievably euphoric 8-minutes of our life. The helicopter lead us in a figure-8 pattern so each person could view the falls without obstruction. It was an awe-inspiring excursion.

After the ride, everything seemed a bit of a downer. The afternoon spent in the pool was only made more pleasurable by chats about the amazing birds-eye view we had just enjoyed.

At night, we walked through downtown Victoria Falls City on a quest for items that would suffice for a casual in-room dinner. We ended up at a local supermarket as the only Mzungus (white people) inside. People stopped to stare at us as we gawked at the prices and quality of the food. When we paid for a few sodas and crackers with our unbelievably overused US dollars, we were given the third degree about our time and experience in Zimbabwe. We walked out of the store reflecting on how lovely the Zimbabweans were–so reminiscent of our time in Kenya.

This is not a trip soon forgotten.

the karoo and the beach

“Tricia is coming! Tricia is coming!” Those were the words echoing through the house the week before Spring Break started for us. Not only was Tricia coming, but my friend and colleague, Bronny, had arranged for a trip out of the city–hoorah! With a night arrival, Tricia got here just in time to repack so we could head out to the airport to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Having read about the Owl House in a travel magazine, Bronny convinced me that this was a not-to-be-missed location, but with 5 of us, there wasn’t space in the small town (read: village) of Nieu Bethesda for us to stay. So after a three hour drive inland past views that made us question whether or not we were in Arizona, we weary travellers arrived at Ganora Guest Farm.

This gorgeous sheep farm lies on the bottom of the Sneeuberg foothills where the owners have lived and sheered for the last 15 years. On the site, Hester has educated her children and sold real estate in Nieu Bethesda while her husband Jan ran the farm and fulfilled his paleontologist cravings by walking the riverbeds of his property. Jan took us on a tour of his small museum where the kids held skulls that pre-date dinosaurs by 50 million years. The skeletons of this area belong to a mammal-like creature called the Gorgonopsia. When we weren’t oogling at the 7,000+ year old bushmen cave paintings or playing with the resident water mongoose, we were dining on amazing farm-to-table delights or lying on the grass and gazing at the constellations.

From Ganora Guest Farm, it was a quick jaunt to the “town” of Nieu Bethesda where we explored the Owl House, the home and art garden of the mentally afflicted, Helen Martins. Though she only lived until 1976, the amazing concrete, metal, and recycled glass creations in the garden were so cutting-edge and ahead of their time. Walking amongst the art gives one a sense of hope and excitement, while the inside of her house felt eerily hopeless despite the colorful crushed glass walls and painted glass.

The village of Nieu Bethesda was incredibly charming and abounding with artists known around South Africa and beyond. After shopping at Annette’s The Cow Jumped Over the Moon shop, we heard that The Brewery and Two Goats Deli was owned and operated by her brother. So we headed over there enjoyed delicious hand-crafted brews with homemade beer breads and goat’s cheese. The kids loved The Brewery because the seats were made out of old tires and the hammock was a double-wide bed hanging from the trees which entertained them for hours. From the archaeologist dig at the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre to the pottery creations of  Charmaine Haines–Nieu Bethesda was a total African experience!

After our time in the Karoo, we drove another couple of hours to Port Alfred, a small town in the Eastern Cape. This being the regular vacation destination of my South African colleague, Jackie, we were sent with a list of a dozen places to go, people to see, and locations to dine at. The town is steeped in British colonialism with a contemporary mix of Xhosa artists. The area is home to the oldest pub in South Africa (the Pig and Whistle) and a dozen beautiful craft and artisan shops. The oddest peculiarity of the region is the Big Pineapple of Bathurst. The Big Pineapple honors the first crop that was successfully grown in the region–the pineapple. It was also home to the International Pineapple Symposium in 2005–who knew such a thing existed?!?!

The highlight of the kids’ journey was the downtime spent at the coast in Hangklip-Kleinmond. From our stay at the Purfikt House, the kids were able to play in the cold ocean waters, explore the beach’s tidepools, (attempt) to sand board down the dunes, and dip their feet in the (slightly warmer) East and West River that lie parallel to one another just a stone’s through from the house.

All in all, we had a great excursion and we look forward to continuing our exploration of the outskirts of South Africa!

travelling tales

After 18 months of living in South Africa we hadn’t travelled around much. Though we’ve explored the city’s great restaurants, bars, and shops, we’d never explored the highlights outside of the city–safari, wineries, coastal regions, etc.

So… when Bomma said she was coming to visit us, we decided to get the heck out of town and explore the gorgeous Cape.
As school got out for the holiday, we raced to drop the dog off at the kennel, and zoomed to the airport. Arriving at 5 Camp Street late at night didn’t give us a true picture of all the beauty that lay beyond. In the shadows of Table Mountain, we enjoyed Cape Town, a city quite reminiscent of San Francisco. Small winding streets weave in to one another as we explored the glorious ocean, tourist highlights, delicious restaurants, and amazing wine (my favorite being No. 8). We enjoyed it all! From the penguins at Boulder Beach to the Cape of Good Hope, from the brightly colored houses of the Muslim Quarter to the ocean views at the V&A Waterfront–it was all amazing! We’ve got a list of “must-sees” for next time (to the top of Table Mountain, swimming with sharks, and whale watching).

In December, our dear friends, the Carpenters, came to South Africa to visit us. We had a great time catching up over delicious meals (they live in Moscow and can sometimes struggle to have exciting cuisine) and fabulous wine! The highlight of our time together was our trip to Djuma Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. A 6-hour drive from Johannesburg, Djuma is an oasis with its own watering hole. Vastly different than Kenyan safaris, Djuma’s landscape is hot and thick. Spotting wildlife can be tricky, but we didn’t seem to have too many challenges.  We saw 3 of the big 5 in one beautiful photo (elephant, buffalo, and rhino) and came upon a pride of lions at night on our first game drive.

On our first morning game drive, we spent time following a female leopard in hopes that she would lead us to her baby (nobody had yet seen the baby she was pregnant with just weeks before). Though we didn’t meet her baby, we got pretty up close and personal with her (see the video below).

Though the lions, zebra, elephants, and dung beetles were all amazing in their own right, our collective highlight had to be the 100+ vultures eating a dead buffalo. Having never seen the way vultures interact with one another made this experience so truly brilliant. But animals aside, our time celebrating Christmas with the Carpenters made us feel not so alone. It may not have been a “white” Christmas–but it was pretty damn amazing!

brilliant Borneo

We are very lucky. We know that.

To live our crazy, whirlwind-of-a-lifestyle, though, we give up a lot–the joys and challenges of living near family and friends, the familiarity of “home”, the safety and ease of completing paperwork and having appointments in our “home” languages, and missing nearly every special event. In exchange for all of those comforts we have experiences that can sometimes seem unreal–someone to do the laundry and dust the house, amazing educational opportunities for our wee ones, crazy cultural adventures (like going to a restaurant, being presented with an beautiful menu, spending time selecting a meal only to learn that despite the copious menu options, only 1 food item is available), and amazing adventures.

So…after accepting new jobs at the Bangkok Job Fair and signing on the dotted line with the American International School of Johannesburg, Rob and I began one of our recurring discussions. It can best be entitled, “What We Will Miss: A Look Back at Our Amazing Home.” Glowing with joy from our recent job procurement, Rob and I sat at a local restaurant near the Shangri-La and started “the discussion”. What will we regret not doing when we leave Southeast Asia? What quest will we have remorse about if we did not do it?

During “the discussion” we were able to check great things off our list: We vacationed at the beach in Lombok and Bali, embraced a different culture (and animals) while in Thailand, and visited our “international family” in Australia and Japan. What must we do?

And then, the answer came to us like a bolt from above–we must visit Indonesia’s last remaining rainforest. Yup, this is the same rainforest that Anouk studied in kindergarten (the education which has resulted in 3 years of us not buying beef). This is the same rainforest that Xavier became so enthralled with in grade 3 when he learned about the decimation of the orangutan population because of deforestation (thanks to all of our teak wood furniture needs) and the world’s love of fried everything which has dramatically reduced the palm tree population which makes palm oil (a.k.a. vegetable oil). For these three reasons, our Brilliant Borneo trip was born.

A short 50 minutes from Surabaya is the province of Kalimantan (also known as Borneo). It is the worlds 3rd largest island, shared by three different countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. We lingered on the Indonesian side by visiting Tanjung Puting National Park. After a night in the tiny city of Pangkalan Bun we were picked up by our guide, Iim. Within minutes we boarded our klotok (an Indonesian houseboat) with Iim, a captain, cook, and steward. Our klotok was basic and perfect. The upper deck was ours–set up with a dining table and deck chairs plus two mattresses and pillows (for those necessary afternoon naps). At night, the deck was converted to our sleeping quarters by adding additional mattresses and mosquito nets.

Our journey along the Sekonyer river was a spiritual one. It felt as if we were traveling back in time. Between the neon green colors and the sounds of squawking monkeys and chirping birds I can never explain how vivid and alive the world was around us. And the sounds got even wilder as the sun set on the horizon and the moon took its place. The intensity of cicadas, monkey calls, crickets, and things we cannot explain were hard to block out once bedtime arrived.

And though I could ramble on about this experience for pages… I leave the rest of the story to Xavier and Anouk who were affected, quite deeply, by this amazing experience.

written by Xavier:

Suddenly, a gibbon with gold fur swung from tree to tree. It robbed the orangutan’s bananas while a wild [bearded] pig charged out of the bushes towards the orangutan baby. Running away from the wild pig, the baby tripped over tree roots, did a somersault, landed on its feet, and kept running to its mother. The mother was startled and climbed up into a tree with her baby. Then, she took a tree branch and tried to whack the pig with it. The pig just went under the orangutan and continued eating the banana peels totally unaffected by the branch.

written by Anouk:

I woke up in the morning on day 2 with the lovely sunrise beyond me. It was amazing! The birds were squawking, the monkeys were howling, and the cicadas finally stopped “eeeeeing.” But all of the animals were strangely hidden. All the monkeys: gibbons, orangutans, macaques, proboscis, lagurs, and other animals were hidden deep in the dark, wet forest. Later that morning, we were amazed to see a small brown squirrel climbing up a tall narrow tree.

There are eighty-five days left until we end this chapter in our lives. I wonder what adventures are in store.