Saturday, 28 July 2007

And that, folks, is a wrap

Just shy of a year now and it's time at last to head home, having put 80,000-plus kilometres under our belts - thanks to 15 flights, 20 buses, 10 cars, 26 boats, seven horses, one submarine, one truck, three trains, two subways, three trams ... and seven countries.

If (or when, as some optimistically insist) I get my book published, I’ll check back in and bring you up to date. Until then, thanks so much for logging on to – the positive vibes have helped keep me going, for sure.

It’s been a massively good time, punctuated by just enough mini-disasters to keep us giggling years from now. On that note, I count myself lucky that the only all-out screaming match I had with my husband had to do with a parenting decision about a certain boat on a certain beach on a certain island in Malaysia – where a certain precious lifejacket-less daughter was allowed to go out frolicking in the sea with a MALE STRANGER who drove the boat for a dodgy parasailing outfit. It all turned out fine, but still. You can guess who let her go and who wasn’t there at the time to veto the decision.

I’m under no illusion that the kids will remember everything or even anything specifically about our year away but I’m counting on the subconscious to inspire them later in life. Specifically, what they saw of genuine poverty – by walking the streets of a certain town in Lesotho, say, or by giving some of their own money to a twisted dwarf beggar in Malaysia – will hopefully have provided the building blocks for empathy, as my earlier travels have done for me.

What I really hoped to do was to teach them that there’s a whole world out there beyond their small-town safety net, and I know I succeeded in that. With everything they’ve experienced and seen with their own eyes, I’ll never regret taking them out of school and enrolling them in the school of real life.

There were plenty of doubting Thomases, particularly when it came time for us to take them to Africa. In fact well-meaning folks could hardly believe we would dare take our girls there at all. To them, I would still say that going after what we want doesn’t make us bad or selfish parents. It actually makes us happier people, and therefore better parents. And as far as Africa itself is concerned, Angelina Jolie isn’t the only western mom to fall in love, completely and utterly, with the place.

What I take away from it all is the conviction that we’ve done the right thing, had an absolute ball, spent a wee bit too much of our nest egg and will return home in a few days’ time a closer family than ever.

Hopefully I’ll catch you all at the book launch in Toronto one day. Wishful thinking, indeed, but what the hell....

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Travellin' sea urchins

Snorkelling in the South China Sea, anyone? I never would have thought it could rival Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for colour and sheer gorgeousness, but it does. In fact, it was the best underwater experience I've ever had. And while I’d like to say we stayed in these glorious chalets on stilts (top pic) I can't fib because for a cool grand a night, it somehow didn’t fit the budget.

Market day

We are all amateurs when it comes to sampling Asian food but the girls, much braver than I, have found a thing or two at this market that's to their liking. Doog thinks I am a total peasant but I fear if I venture back into the local stuff I will be puking yet again from the back of a ferry. Pathetic, yes. Safe? You bet.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Island girls

Hours spent lapping up the sun and sea is doing wonders for the mind and body: think jet skis and paddle boats and sand and surf and pools and room service and Scrabble on lounge chairs and that’s us for the past eight nights. Heaven!!!!!!!!!!
Our room on this Langkawi Island resort in northern Malaysia is so darn nice the girls don’t always want to leave ... but when they’re not playing Singapore Airlines flight attendants in their new duds or tempting our resident monkey down from his perch, they’re down here at the beach.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Lapping it up in the Jewel of the Orient

Skanky squat toilets one day, lap of luxury the next!
We have been upgraded, inexplicably to Penang’s glorious Eastern & Oriental Hotel - once the elegant colonial watering hole of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling and the like. Preserving the glory of a bygone era, this place offers unimaginable luxury, impeccably mannered butlers and basically anything you could want. I wish my beloved late grandmother Gigi could see us now. She absolutely belongs here, and she so would have loved it.
PS Did I say I was ready for this holiday to end, what the puking and all? I take it back.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Poor me, no?

At the risk of sounding all poor-me and everything, I can't help but be a little fixated on this nightmare Kuala Lumpur-to-Penang train thing (even though it looks not half bad in this picture) because not only did all four of us puke within 24 hours of leaving this train, but I had to puke over the back deck of an overcrowded ferry, surrounded by dozens of burkha-clad Saudi women peeking out at me in amusement from behind their jet-black veils. (There’s not much I hate more than puking but I must really add public puking to my litany of things to strenuously avoid.)

Holiday, holiday, are you almost over?!!

Saturday, 21 July 2007

I'm too old for this shit

Whose dumb idea was this train anyway? OK, mine, mine, mine. Next time I should listen to those in the know...
We are en route from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, known as the Jewel of the Orient, but believe me, this ain’t no luxurious Orient Express judging by the smell of the shitty hole-in-the-bottom-of-the-train toilet just a few feet from where the girls are standing. And yeah, it may look like they're are having fun but I AM NOT!! Because travelling long distances by train in the third world? It’s all coming back to me now! The endless bag carrying in the absence of trollies (and we have about a dozen bags to lug back to Canada), the to-ing and fro-ing, the waiting and the sweating, the standing in line, the Asian squat toilet where instead of a flush there is a nasty HOSE which you must try to use while also trying not to lurch your way INTO the toilet on a moving train. This is hard to do when you are plugging your nose with one hand and trying not to actually TOUCH the hose with our other.

And yeah, having our own little sleeper car seems fun and adventurous but in reality it’s a stinking, clanging, crashing, screeching, overnight stop-and-go nightmare from which I may never recover. Plus the smell of hundreds of people's poop is all mixed in with the gross herb-smelling cigarettes that everyone smokes.

Is it possible that the holiday that never ends is trying to tell me something?

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Paranoia at the customs desk

OK, do I look like the type to smuggle a condom full of smack and a coupla firearms up my butt into this country? DAMN!! Welcome to Singapore, my ass! Oh sure, everyone’s playing all nicey-nicey but how does one not get riled by all these “death for drug traffickers” signs when maybe, just maybe, some asshole dealer in Jo’burg sized me up as his ideal middle-aged absentminded drug mule and the unhappy result of all that is it’s gonna be me and a couple dozen me-so-horny ladies in a single-cell nightmare until I die of lethal injection a few months from now. Midnight Express anyone? OMG!

Clearly I am unmellowed by age and experience in these matters and I still approach customs agents in a cold sweat, praying I won’t look guilty for crimes I haven’t even committed. I think it stems back to that time I got hauled into isolation at an Israeli airport for a whole bunch of weird questions ... but that was then, and this is now, and Molly wants to know: “Mom, if they catch me picking my nose, will they shoot me?”

Sunrise safari and one long, last look

So here it is, our final few hours in rural South Africa, and by every measure this trip has been absolutely brilliant. Whether it takes a few years or a few decades to return here, the memories will most certainly sustain us while we try to process all that we've seen and learned, to unravel the different points of view, to keep the politics straight, to make sense of the contradictions and to recount the sheer volume of experiences we’ve had.

Along the way I’ve been reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which has helped make sense of it all, and to see all this through his eyes and understand things from the perspective of the most widely admired politician of our time has made the land and the people here come alive.

The best part, though, has been the family togetherness and the confidence our girls have gained with every step. We might not know for years how South Africa affects how they see the world but already it has affected their play. Now when they’re playing “vets”, for example, one of their teddies has AIDS - and he needs a whole lot of TLC.

One thing I know for sure now is that families like ours can indeed travel safely and happily in South Africa and have an amazing time, as long as they find the right balance – because there’s no point coming here if you’re going to be paranoid about crime but on the other hand, if you’re not going to take a few basic precautions, you’ll almost certainly be robbed blind or much, much worse.

There’s never been another family trip like it, and although Malaysia can’t help but be a bit anti-climactic, I still say bring it on!

Monday, 16 July 2007

Sundown, moonrise from the back of a Land Rover

Molly gets the binoculars out for our last sunset safari in South Africa, this one at a private game reserve in Madikwe, in the Limpopo province, where the lovely, intelligent, knowledgeable and enthusiastic David guided us for hours and treated us to a couple of cold ones out on the veld.
Did I mention I'm going to miss this?!!!

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Images of Africa

Immersing ourselves in African culture has proved a total eye-opener for all of us; Annie and Molly had a go at carrying water on their heads, Doog and I tried our hand at dancing with this amazingly cool and smiley guy (fortunately no one captured us on film), the beaded lady shook and shimmied, the housewife made Zulu beer and these gorgeous kids (top two pics) sold their wares ... we’ll need to buy another suitcase to fit in all the trinkets and gifties.

Friday, 13 July 2007

That's what I call a nasty way to go

These photos are so incredible, I really wish I could take credit ... but of course I can't. They were taken by a friendly South African named Ivan Emslie whom we met on one of our safaris and who kindly agreed to show me his many photographic treasures.

Sad lives, happy faces

Stunningly beautiful in parts, Lesotho is also one of the very poorest countries in the world and has what is said to be the world’s worst HIV/AIDS infection rates, all of which means there’s not all that much to smile about. Still, as this young Lesotho fellow showed us, a brilliant smile is enough to warm even the most bone-chilling of days.
(The blanketed man followed us around constantly but he was less a menace than a sad, albeit smiley, figure.)

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Thank you, mother Mary

There’s no point going to Africa without teaching our girls how people actually live, so today’s lesson in life was huge, thanks to Mary who graciously received the gifts we gave her children and who generously posed for these pictures at her home in one of Lesotho's desperately poor townships.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Black, strong, proud ... and female

Rarely in our lives do we get the chance to meet a person whose wisdom, grace and intelligence are so profound that our thought patterns are literally changed forever. This lovely, proud Zulu woman – Christian mother of six, speaker of six languages, manager of a community-owned Zulu lodge - was just such a person for me.

After weeks of engaging in political conversations with white South Africans and having little more than the most surface encounters with blacks, I finally have a bit of a grasp on what it’s like to be black and female in post-apartheid South Africa - and how women here can look to the future with hope and optimism despite the massive social and economic problems this country faces.

Nomusa and I chatted for hours about everything from Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton to AIDS, apartheid, crime, poverty, children, travel and what it’s like to be a successful female in a completely male-dominated African culture.

I asked her what she thought of those ageing Afrikaaners who clearly wish apartheid was still alive and well, and in particular about a 60-ish white woman who’d recently said to me: “Why would I watch South African soccer? There are no white players. The rugby is for us; the blacks can have their soccer.”

Nomusa’s wise reply? “I don’t have resentment. We are moving forward. The white people who want to move forward with us can come along. Those who don’t, well that’s their problem.”

Intelligent words, indeed, and I’m grateful for the hours we spent talking around the fire under a starry KwaZulu Natal sky. Hers is a perspective I will cherish and whose proud history I respect. (Annie and Molly also fell for her big time.)

The world game

Never am I more proud of my very cool husband than when he does the unexpected and goes where no one else dares, like on these two occasions when he simply walked into the middle of a soccer game between local kids and joined in, thrilling them with his big smile and big heart.

The kids in the top picture, who belong to the local witch doctor, play with neither shoes nor a real ball; their “ball” is a wad of plastic bags wrapped up in sticky tape. The other kids, whom we visited in Lesotho (a separate mountain kingdom contained within the borders of South Africa) were probably good enough to play on representative teams, if only the talent scouts would come this far into the townships to give them a chance.

Both groups of kids received gifts from our girls – new balls, chocolate, crayons and colouring books – and it was a lesson of the highest order for Annie and Molly, who may not remember these encounters specifically, but will hopefully go forward in life with what it takes to understand those who are disadvantaged, to feel empathy for them and to bring themselves to do something about that disadvantage.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Zulu wisdom rocks

A recent visit to the local sangoma, or witch doctor, in Zululand was eye-opening in the extreme. Apparently Doog won't die of a heart attack, despite his ever-expanding waistline; Molly and Annie will marry non-New Zealanders; and yes, my book will be published but, in the witch doctor's male-centric world, "ONLY IF A MAN DOES IT FOR ME!"
Sucks to be female, don't it?

These kids, by the way, are among his brood of 17 from his two wives. When we came upon them, they were playing soccer with a "ball" made of plastic bags and wrapped up in sticky tape. Doog gave them new tennis balls and the girls handed out chockies and we were friends for life. Totally cool.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Don't say it's over

South Africa is full of vistas like these and I am already getting a lump in my throat just thinking that it will all be over soon. Yikes! Reality check awaits...

Woman's work

No sooner did we pull over to quietly get a pic of the local ladies carrying bundles of dried grass on their heads than this gorgeous woman dropped her bundle (literally), ran to the car and pointed to her tummy, yelling “HUNG! HUNG!” (Meaning, gimme some cash, I’m hungry.)

We obliged, and although I didn't get the shot I wanted, I think this one’s pretty cool. Then again, it's hard to go wrong when the subject matter is so gorgeous.

Backpacker bliss

Another night, another backpackers’ lodge ... this one a cottage to ourselves overlooking the Indian Ocean.
P.S. It's definitely worth the drive to Chintsa.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Durban dee-light

This is Durban, and these are our girls goofing off in the Indian Ocean. If I die tomorrow, I can rest easy knowing that this year has been full of moments like these. The gods are truly smilin’ on us...

Once a Kiwi, always a Kiwi? Depends when you ask

Our Doogie – born in New Zealand, made in Australia, ageing gracefully in Canada – may have lived away from NZ for more than two decades and will still tell most people he is Australian, but on this day he was most definitely a Kiwi as his beloved rugby team (the All Blacks) thrashed the Springboks in front of 54,000 ferociously pissed-off South African fans in Durban.

The buzz was incredible (my God, that Maori war dance is to die for) and the girls and I got fully carried away with the excitement of it all. Not quite as primitive as Doog and his screaming/swearing, mind you, but carried away just the same. (When the final siren blew, Doog boo-hoo’d like a frickin’ baby. God defend New Zealand, indeed.)

Herd mentality

Just after I took the top pic, this cheeky baby elephant walked up to Molly’s window, waved his trunk around a few times and batted some seriously long eyelashes in our direction.

Next came the big fellow, who had clearly had a run-in with a poacher, and then the whole herd passed by en route to one of several watering holes in Addo Elephant National Park. It was a magnificent spectacle and I feel certain it’ll be among the girls’ most enduring memories of this entire year-long adventure.

Smells like Kurt's still alive ...

Exposing our kids to different types of people is pretty much always going to be a good thing, so staying at backpacker hostels makes a whole lot of sense ... and not just because it’s cheap.

On this particular night we were at a backpackers’ overlooking the Indian Ocean in a town called Wilderness - honest, that’s its name - with a surfer-dude host called Toby (pictured) who is the nicest possible guy and who bears more than a passing resemblance to the late, great Kurt Cobain. My Molly is an insatiable flirt with fellows like these, by the way, and since cute kids are pretty scarce on the travellers’ circuit, Doog and I got to lounge around the bonfire with a bunch of 20-something Afrikaaners, talk politics and drink far too much while she and her sister charmed the hell out of the locals.

A brilliant night indeed.