Epiphany!?!

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Epiphany/epiphany

/ɪˈpɪf(ə)ni,ɛˈpɪf(ə)ni/noun

  1. the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12); also known as Twelfth Night
  2. a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization; state Doris and Louis pursue partout

The Big-E Epiphany

Epiphany came less than a week into our plunge into South America. Both of them, actually – the big-E religious one and a little-e revelatory one.

About the big-E, Catholic festival days are many and major in Colombia so, naturally, Epiphany is an official state holiday, as quiet and closed as Christmas in the States. The Monday it was observed this year found us in Medellin, where even the street hawkers mostly stayed home, leaving the streets eerily quiet and the carts of geegaws bundled up in alleys.

closed cartsOddly in evidence, however, were (and are) Christmas decorations. Locals told us Epiphany would be the end of them because it religiously and officially marks the conclusion of the Christmas season. The Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and other seasonal flourishes we were seeing in January would be gone, we were told.

Well, ho ho ho to that. On a mall crawl a full week later, animated magi in a bigger-than-life creche were still going strong, and the halls all around Medellin were still pretty much still decked. Feliz Navidad is definitely not just for December in these parts.


The Little-e Epiphany.

Then the little-e epiphany.

We arrived in South America at Cartagena, reputedly the most beautiful colonial city of the Caribbean.

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Walking the streets with Louis snapping the palaces, plazas and balconies, we kept finding ourselves wondering (with apologies to Monty Python) … aside from the Spanish Inquisition, extermination of innumerable advanced and primitive societies, plunder of the continent’s mineral wealth, importation of countless slaves from Africa, transmission of killer diseases and introduction of corruption-driven governance that continues to plague Latin America to this day, what was Spain good for in the New World? (Trivia tidbit of the day: the locals don’t call the Spanish “colonists”; they call them “invaders.”)

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The Spanish Inquisition (with devices like this was one in Cartagena’s Palace of Inquisition) was one of Spain’s few exports to South America.  

The same can be said to varying degrees about every colonial power, of course, but the British colonials did at least install infrastructure, justice and educational systems, values of free religion and speech and a few other positive legacies while plundering their colonies and introducing killer diseases. Monty Python has covered the Romans.

But the Spanish in the New World? Universal language and future tourist attractions? Central  plazas and gilded church altars? Please, use the comment function at the end of the blog to raise your hand if you have more informed answers.

Just this weekend, we spent much of the afternoon in Medellin’s somber House of Memories, an interactive memorial to victims of Colombia’s violence. Thanks to the Narcos of Netflix and the FARQ, it’s tempting to think of Colombian blood-letting as a recent phenomenon, but how short-sighted that would be. Pretty much from the Spanish arrival in the New World, human butchery was a way of life. Viewed through a longer historic lens, maybe it is not a stretch to view narco mass murderer Pablo Escobar as simply the 20th-century’s answer to the conquistadors.

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A mother is reunited with her disappeared son in this photograph in the House of Memories in Medellin

We travel for a lot of reasons, epiphanies and other discoveries among them. Through mid-March, we await them in South America.

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Sunlight spilling into Medellin before sunset, lighting the city a bit like an epiphany


From the Partout Travel Toolbox

Folks seemed to find our blog about logistical lessons from the road so useful that we will feature a few of our additional go-to tactics in Partout until we run out of them or you cry uncle. We start with why we rarely use online booking engines for air and car reservations

Aggregators are the operators that search online travel agencies and publish the findings in one place (Kayak, Hipmunk, Skyscanner, etc.). Booking engines are outfits that book travel for you (Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, etc.). Doris is Partout’s travel agent, and she uses aggregators obsessively to explore routes and fares (Skyscanner being her favorite). Booking engines are another matter.

Booking engines often offer fewer options and less flexible bookings than the end providers (i.e., the airline or rental company itself). Need to change the day you are picking up your rental car? Fuhgeddaboutit. Something goes wrong with your flight or car? Learn real fast you are not the airline or rental company’s customer; you are Expedia or Travelocity’s customer, and that is not a good thing. Frommer’s ratings of the most popular aggregators and booking engines are illuminating.

Top tip: If you find a fare on an aggregator that you like, go directly to the website of the airline or rental company, not to the booking engine linked from the aggregator.

Coming Soon: Medellin – Are We Safe?

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Making a List, Checking It Twice

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No, we are not talking about getting a leg up on next Christmas. We are preparing to hit the road, again.

Yes, Partout is back. We take off New Year’s Day on the first of 16 flights that will criss-cross urban and other jungles of South America for more than two months before whisking us to Mexico City, depositing us at a wedding in Baja California, carrying us to the US border at Tijuana afterward and, finally, winging us back to DC. Among other things, a journey like this involves a lot of list-making and box-checking.

Doris is relieved to finally, belatedly, be checking off her list this long-promised reply to the practical questions you sent in 2018 about how we manage to live so long on the road, both logistically and personally (i.e., without killing one another).

We leave the personal challenges for another blog because, right now, we are deep in the logistical ones. In case your new year also involves packed bags and long itineraries, here are a few essentials and insights we picked up along the way in 2018.


BANKING

We start with banking because no money = no travel.

Online banking is now so complete and slick that we have been able (so far) to manage all our finances from abroad without a hiccup. That includes completing income and property tax payments, paying off credit cards and speeding tickets (speeder to remain unidentified), making year-end charitable contributions and shifting money between accounts to make sure cash is available for our ATM withdrawals.

The one iron-clad rule we have embraced for our online banking is that we absolutely never ever EVER go online to any financial account on a public network, including those in hotels, where wifi is typically either not protected or is on a shared network with other guests. Avoiding insecurity is pretty easy for us because we mostly stay in homes or AirBnBs with secure wifi, but there are times when we need to bank or buy something, and we are on the go. What then?

TOP TIP: If we must bank or buy from a hotel, we ask if they have one “good old-fashioned computer with a wired-in internet connection.” We asked that question in an uber-hip Amsterdam hotel in the fall, and the answer was, “That’s not old-fashioned at all!” before leading us to a whole bank of terminals. (Maybe it takes a hipster to know how uncool it is to be hacked?) Granted, nothing is totally hack-proof today, but wired connections remain far safer than wireless ones. When we use one, we make sure to close all browsers and destroy any other bread crumbs when we exit. When we can’t find one, and the only alternative is an insecure connection, we don’t bank or buy.

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It’s a little unnerving heading to a country where our pockets will be stuffed with denominations in the thousands (that 50,000 bill is worth about $15). At least they put women on their currency, albeit just for small change (61 US cents)


PHONES

We admit it: We are unalterably tethered.

On our travels, we use our mobile phones to navigate in unfamiliar locations; stay in touch with each other when we split up; reach drivers, guides and other key people and keep in touch with family and friends far away. Our mobile phones are also a mobile Fort Knox. Because we usually are not in a position to print things like hotel confirmations, they are the carry-alls for our reservations, confirmations, contacts, even copies of our passports and driver’s licenses.

Just as critically, as more banks and other institutions go to two-factor identification that involves a texted code, our phones are indispensable for banking and other online activities. We could buy and install SIM cards in every country, but they come with new phone numbers, and that means texts won’t reach us.

T-Mobile offers unlimited data and texting in nearly every country we visit so we both have gone all T-Mobile, all the time. The virtually endless data has the added attraction of allowing us to use our phones as hot spots for our other devices when no wifi is available.

To keep all those toys energized for these communications, we now carry not one, not two but three backup chargers. Indispensable. We also carry a retired iPhone 4 in case we lose or damage one of our primary phones. If we absolutely have to use a SIM card in order to stay live, we insert in the old phone, which is good enough for travel basics and way easier than abandoning our home phone numbers while the SIM is in.

TOP TIP: On out 2018 trip, T-Mobile’s unlimited data was 2G glacial (grooooan). Though adequate for necessities like pulling up a boarding pass in an airport, 2G was too feeble for “luxuries” such as navigating in foreign cities or Yelping. Our solution was to upgrade to T-Mobile’s One Plus. For an extra $10/phone/month, we now get at least 3G service in 144 countries, plus access to wifi on airlines that connect to the Internet via Gotoflight and a few other shiny bennies. We suspect there will still be countries where we need to buy a SIM card to get adequate data on our phones, but the T-Mobile package has come through so far.

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Using T-Mobile as our carrier has proven way easier than going through SIM card installations like this one in Tanzania, which T-Mobile did not serve last year (but does now).


ACCOUNT MANAGEMENT

At the outset of the 2018 adventure (in 2017), we began tracking all our bank and credit card transactions and our spending trends with Mint.com, a free product from Intuit. That’s why we can tell you (should your life be so dull you want to know) exactly what it cost to eat and drink for five months abroad. By city. Or day/week/month. Or all of the above. All without ever opening an Excel spreadsheet. Doris spent maybe an hour a week updating Mint; the rest was performed by Intuit.

A bonus advantage of Mint on the road is that we could see in one view exactly what was going on in all our related bank and credit card accounts, without ever opening any virtual doors into the bank and credit card accounts themselves. Mint also emails alerts about things like bank fees and other unusual activity. In these days of hacking and identify theft, that felt like a priceless early-warning system. All free.

We have now set other globetrotting friends on the Mint trail, and they are having the same experience. Highly recommended.

TOP TIP: Some accounts, especially government accounts like Social Security and Medicare, cannot be accessed from abroad. We downloaded a free virtual private network (VPN) so we can conceal our location when we need to do things like read a Medicare notice. We use TunnelBear, which has the bonus of being very cute as well as efficient. There are others. The free allotment is not adequate to do something like play music from Pandora or stream a movie, but it is plenty for account management as long as we remember to turn it off when we are done.

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Besides the practical aspects of Mint tracking, it is an obsessive’s dream.


PHOTOS

Oh, boy. This is a tale until itself.

In 2018, Louis took most of his photos mostly using his Leica D-Lux (Typ 109), supplemented by his iPhone 7. Doris took photos exclusively with her iPhone 6S, which was good enough to occasionally produce a shot that made the cut into the blog.

The iPhone photos were automatically uploaded to the Apple cloud, of course, and thus saved. Whenever time and internet permitted, Louis transferred the Leica photos into his MacBook (yes, we carried his computer everywhere), where they were also saved to the cloud. Bye-bye worries about losing those priceless visuals but at the price of a certain degree of hassle. We both put collages together using the free Moldov app on our phones or tablets.

We take off in 2019 with a new approach to photos. Frustrated by his limited zoom capabilities, Louis last summer purchased a Sony RX10 ii. Without adding a great deal of bulk or weight, the Sony preserves the wide-angle perspective he liked about the Leica but adds an additional 130 mm of zoom to the Leica’s 70 mm. The Sony can also send photos directly to his phone, tablet or laptop, eliminating the camera-to-laptop step.

Stay tuned to Partout for the results.

TOP TIP: We use screen captures to save anything we could conceivably need along the way as photographs rather than as URLs or emails. That confirmation email from AirBnB? Click. It goes into pictures. Because pictures are available even when internet is unavailable, this assures we have access to all our essentials on all our synched devices even if our phones happen to go missing or dead.

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The intrepid photographer in position for a great Partout shot in Granada, Spain.


CREDIT CARDS

Have you ever noticed that, in those travel or money stories about the best credit card for travel, Chase Sapphire Reserve always comes at or near #1? That’s because it really is the tops.

We won’t bore you with the details, just say we would not leave home without ours (technically, his and hers). We have trip cancellation/interruption coverage built into every ticket we buy with the card, substantial evacuation/repatriation benefits, access to private Priority Pass airport lounges (a $500 benefit all by itself), 24/7 concierge service and a bunch more, including retail perks. We can use the points we accrue for travel or transfer them to Chase’s travel partners.

The Sapphire looks expensive ($450/year), but Chase rebates the first $300 in travel expenses every year, making it a $150 card, net. Even at that price, we make money on it with the very first trip every year because we typically do not have to buy travel insurance. And all those benefits are after the windfall of sign-up points that we converted to free international travel.

However we accrue points, when we use them for award tickets, we nearly always fly United these days. Besides having a robust network of routes, United’s one-way economy award tickets require only 30,000 miles, with many (e.g., within South America or Asia) going for 15,000 miles or less. Flying a US carrier also allows us to use our TSA Pre-Check to skip long security lines; foreign carriers are not part of the TSA system.

TOP TIP: We both maintain free credit card accounts exclusively for automated payments — Uber, Lyft, Parkmobile, Apple store, amazon Prime renewals and a bazillion more. Unlike our Sapphire cards, we never leave home with them. This guarantees that, should our primary cards be compromised on the road, we will not have to go through the hoops of changing every auto payment we have set up.

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The Priority Pass benefit of our Sapphire cards swept us past the sweating hordes at immigration when we landed in Zanzibar and showered us with treats. Love those perks!


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We have personally seen too many medical emergencies requiring hospitalization or evacuation during travel to leave the country without travel insurance. We know folks who do, and all we can say is … stay well.

For domestic trips and international trips under 60 days, we rely almost entirely on the benefits of our Sapphire cards and the smallish medical benefits of our Medicare and supplementary insurance ($2,500 each). These and Sapphire’s benefits become null on trips of more than 60 days. For those travels, we buy supplementary medical insurance from insurers like Allianz, Berkshire Hathaway and others. The price range for comparable benefits can be astonishing: from $200 to $10,000 for similar packages. To date, we have yet to pay over $200 for both of us for the duration of any trip, regardless how long, but it takes shopping to get the best fit and deal.

TOP TIP: Sort through travel insurance options on an insurance search engine like insuremytrip.com or squaremouth.com to find one that fits.
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Coming Soon: On the Road Again

In the Meantime: HAPPY NEW YEAR with a reprise from the Champs Elysees, where the old one began just about exactly 365 days ago.

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9 Road Lessons: the Final Report

L1200441On the Serengeti, we saw a guide wearing a T-shirt that said, “Travel without knowledge is like a bird without wings.” Our twist on that truism is that travel without learning is like a race without a finish line.

After leaving home in October, Partout took 15 international flights, 16 intercity rail trips, and countless Metro, bus, tram, taxi, Uber, boat and other rides. Doris’s battered but trusty Fitbit reports we also walked 1,657,675 steps and climbed 2,736 flights of stairs.

Now that we are home again, at last, we have talked a lot about what we learned that will inform and improve our travel in the future. For whatever they are worth and in no particular order, here are our top nine road lessons.


LESSON #1: Travel is easier and more comfortable than ever
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. Airport departures have become shoeless torture, and airplanes have become buses with wings. But on a long trip like this one, flights consumed only a fraction of our time. In so many other ways, travel is easier and more comfortable than it has ever been.

Vetting and booking everything from hotel rooms to tour guides is simpler because of the internet. Public bathrooms, once rare abroad and sometimes icky, are common, clean and free of charge in every country we visited except the Netherlands (where the Dutch tend to charge admission). AirBnB and VRBO apartments expand lodging options. Traveler’s checks have gone the way of the dodo bird, thank heavens, and credit cards are universally accepted for just about everything, everywhere, except in the Netherlands (which is essentially a cash economy for outsiders).

Takeaway: Travel more!  

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Public bathroom in South Africa


LESSON #2: Travel slows down time
Research indicates novelty makes time seem to pass more slowly. In this school of thought, childhood days are very long because everything children do is new and engages their brains while adult days fly because routine and familiarity leave the brain on autopilot.

We think they are onto something. On the road, no two days were identical and most were not even remotely similar. All that exploration and discovery had the odd effect of making each day — sometimes even each hour — seem to unfold in slow motion. At a stage in life when anything that slows down the clock feels like a gift, this was delicious.

Takeaway: See Lesson #1

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He needs to travel more


LESSON #3: English has become the lingua franca, at least in cities
One of the biggest shocks of the trip to us veterans of the language dictionary days was how widely English is spoken and written.

In Lisbon, the Portuguese were essentially bilingual. In Africa, we never encountered anyone who could not speak some English, and most people at all stations of life spoke a lot of it. In the Arab countries, signs were all in English in addition to Arabic, including transport and museum signs. Even in English-averse Paris, locals came up to us on the streets to practice their English. We actually found ourselves longing a little for the good old befuddled days of language charades. Travel outside major cities and in many countries we didn’t visit probably still requires pantomime and pictures, but it was lingua angla everywhere we went.

The one exception to this generality was Spain, where the population remains stubbornly monolingual (much to the disdain of their Portuguese neighbors, btw).

Takeaway: Language is not the barrier (or the excuse for not traveling) it used to be 

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English signs for sale in a Nairobi sign store

 


LESSON #4: Essentials are in the eyes of the beholder
We were able to travel so long and far because of five lovely home exchanges that provided us with comfy home lodging at no cost. When we were not exchanging, we almost always stayed in AirBnB and VRBO apartments, which are roomier and more economical than hotels and allow us to prepare some of our own meals. The down side of long-stay lodgings is that they are not as predictable as either homes or hotels, which resulted in some startling discoveries about what different people view as essential.

Toilet paper, for example. Essential or discretionary? One AirBnB in Spain and another in Cape Town had only a few squares on one roll when we arrived and no backup. Hand and bath soap? Not to be taken for granted. Something to wash dishes with? We began packing our own (right next to soap) because so many places were without them.

On the other hand, we never encountered a single kitchen or hotel room that did not come without tea bags and an electric tea kettle capable of instantly heating water. Maybe no coffee but tea for sure.

Takeaway: Dishwashing aids. Don’t leave home without themL1220256


LESSON #5: Ground transportation can be a budget buster
By the end of the trip, we had spent more money on trains and other ground transportation — Metros, trams, trains, buses, boats, taxis, Ubers, rental cars — than on flying. At some level, that makes sense: We spent more time on the ground than flying. But we are used to thinking of flights as our biggest trip cost.

On a short trip, they surely still are. On a long trip like ours, though, all those ground costs add up in a big but not necessarily predictable way. Muscat, Oman, turned out to be a big city with scant public transit and expensive taxis but great roads and cheap gas; we would have been better off renting a car at the airport and driving ourselves around. Cape Town has cheap and ample public transit/Uber to popular destinations but expensive rental cars and gas; we would have been better off without the car except for a few days to leave town.

Takeaway: Budget more or prepare better for getting around on the ground

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At least we have outgrown using ground transportation for lodging


LESSON #6: The doctor is in and pretty easy/inexpensive to see
Doris saw doctors for three minor issues on the road: a dermatologist in Seville, a travel doctor in Amsterdam and a GP in Cape Town. She also scheduled an appointment with an MD in Nairobi that she had to cancel. In every case, she could get a non-urgent appointment within 48 hours and sometimes the same day she called, all at a fraction of US costs.

What’s more, the physician she saw were more engaged. In Spain, the dermatologist used state-of-the-art digital cancer screening device Doris had never seen in DC to assess a weird spot on her leg. Not liking what he saw, the doc then personally scraped cells from the lesion and examined them under a microscope in his consulting room. (Has anyone ever seen a microscope in their doctor’s office in the States?) Then he prescribed a cream based on what he saw. Altogether, the visit lasted nearly an hour and cost 100€ (about $118 at the exchange rate then), plus 5€ for the over-the-counter med (which worked). In Cape Town, the MD also spent nearly an hour on a routine prescription renewal appointment — and then took Doris’s vitals and did the necessary blood draw himself. Cost? $78, including the lab work (with results back the next day).

A Dutch travel doctor was in the mix because the travel clinic where Doris went for her yellow fever shot back in Virginia said the same shot would cost less than half at the airport in Amsterdam. This proved to be correct, and the airport clinic was a breeze. Doris also ended up replacing lost prescription sunglasses in the Netherlands. She bought an extra pair while she was at it because two sets cost less than one in the States (and were vastly more fashionable). Hmmm….

Takeaway: Give medical tourism a try?

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This is the whiz-bang technology Doris’s Spanish dermatologist used


LESSON #7: Loss and damage are inevitable 
Despite our most diligent efforts to hang onto and take care of our things on the road, and even though every airline delivered our bags unscathed and on the same flights we flew, we lost things.

  • Prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Doris, before our first landing)
  • Non-prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Louis, Dubai)
  • Umbrellas (1 apiece, three guesses in which country)
  • Electrical adapter (1, Doris, left behind in an airport hotel)
  • Dollars (several thousand, both, see Lesson #8)

Things also broke or just plain wore out along the way. Doris’s iPad keyboard gave up the ghost. Louis’s Leica and Doris’s Fitbit both returned home patched up with adhesive tape because of parts that started falling off from constant use. Louis also essentially wore out his passport by adding so many stamps and visas that he ran out of pages and required an emergency replacement mid-trip. As the sign on a dog beach in Cape Town said, poop happens.

Takeaway: Never travel with anything we really care about except each other

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We weren’t the only things that got tired


LESSON #8: “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into”
We were birds with wings but we were foolish birds nonetheless.

It turns out the tourist visa Americans typically rely on to visit the 26 EU countries in the Schengen zone is good for 90 days in a 180-day period. In other words, without a long-stay visa, the window into Europe has its limits.

Based on our erroneous assumption that all we needed to do was step out and back into the EU to reopen the window (an error we learned through freak luck), we were holding tickets and reservations in the Schengen zone for 117 of our 150 days abroad — 27 days too many to be legal. We could have gotten long-stay visas from the Netherlands because of our family ties through Greg, but the Dutch would not consider our application until after we had been out of the Schengen zone for 90 days and were back home.

This was the only real hiccup in our whole adventure, but it was a humdigger and led to the most stressful and expensive lesson of all.

Takeaway: Do thine visa homework

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The red stamp of our fate


LESSON #9: America casts a very, very long (and darkening?) shadow
We are used to sightings of the golden arches on every street corner and American pop music on every public playlist overseas. What was new on this trip were random people coming up to us to ask, “What’s happening to America?” And then finding out they were more than curious, they were really asking, “What’s going to happen to us?”

Citizens of other countries have always followed developments in the United States much more closely than we follow developments in theirs, but we found them following with worried eyes we have not seen before. All those clichés about America being a model of democracy and a mostly trustworthy world policeman turn out to be grounded in the idea that America really is the land of the enviably free and home of the relatively good.

On this trip, people from school children to grandfolk asked us questions like, “Is Donald Trump really crazy, or does he just act that way?” “Will he start a nuclear war?” “Will your Congress stop him?” “Can anyone stop him?”

The personal sense of insecurity and even peril we encountered is perhaps best summed up in the pensive question the physician Doris saw in Cape Town asked her. Part of the reason her appointment ran nearly an hour was that he spent close to 30 minutes grilling her about US political developments. Before finally turning to the prescription matter at hand, he sighed. “America has always been our beacon,” he said. “If that beacon goes out, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

Takeaway: People ask questions we cannot answer
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Also in the rear-view mirror
We added three new items to our packing lists this trip that we will pack forever after because they proved indispensable.

  • Portable chargers: We had to rely on our mobile phones to hold reservations and boarding passes because we didn’t have access to a printer on the road. This made keeping at least one portable phone alive at all times critical. We could not have done it without our portable chargers. They also assured we didn’t have to stop taking pictures halfway through a day of sightseeing because we had exhausted our phones or were ever without GPS.
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  • Portable coffee-maker: Some countries serve nothing but instant coffee, even in luxury hotels. Ugh. We also encountered a couple AirBnB hosts who did not consider coffee essential and provided no means of making it. Hmph. This nifty device, introduced to us by one of our home exchange partners, and a small cache of ground coffee kept us in bold fresh java all the trip long. (It sits on the rim of the cup. Since everyone seems to think tea is essential, there are always cups.)
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  • Grippy socks: Most of the world lives on tile or wood floors, not on wall-to-wall carpeting. Doris’s grippy socks (Abby’s term for socks with sticky pads on the bottom) made sure her famous feet were happy feet — toasty, clean and not flying out from under her regardless of what was under them.
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Coming Next Season: Westward, Ho

If you have a question you wish we had answered, post it as a comment. If there are enough questions, we will post a PS. Otherwise, safe and happy travels of your own till we meet again.

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When in Cape Town

Wine farmsWhen Sicily got scratched from the itinerary because of the great visa snafu, we were already in Africa. Advocates for replacing Italy with Cape Town raved, “Cape Town is the Paris of Africa! It will feel just like Europe!”

After three weeks on the Cape, we can say without reservation: Cape Town does not remotely feel like Paris. Or Europe. It feels exactly like . . .

San Diego.

Seriously. From the minute we stepped off the plane, we were boggled by how familiar nearly every scene and setting were: Sea Point? Pacific Beach. Camp’s Bay or Llandudno? La Jolla. The wine country? Temecula. The Republic of Hout Bay? Cardiff by the Sea or Solana Beach before they went mainstream, with whiffs of equine Rancho Santa Fe.

The resemblance — terrain, foliage, architecture, colors, clothing, surfer culture, seals at the beach — is so uncanny, there were moments when we could identify a twin street in San Diego (where Doris lived and regularly drags Louis). This made for a lot of fun matching games.

For all its familiarity, Cape Town managed to stand on its head Doris’s long-standing aversion to visiting Anglophone destinations colonized by Brits because “Why leave home to go somewhere like home?” The city nestles in the shadow of one of earth’s oldest (and arguably most spectacular urban) mountains and grew up as a “refreshment station” on a sea route that changed the world forever. With all that, plus momentous current events, same old-same old, Cape Town is not.

So, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought, political upheaval and California dreamin’. And, just to prove it here, in living Louis color, are a few of our favorite of the “mother city’s” scenes and sights.


Coastlines

Hwy 101 on steroidsCoastlines like the one above exist all over the world but, in Cape Town, they line up one after another, like endless sets of magnificent earthen waves. Above is a distant glimpse of Hout Bay from the drive to Chapman Peak.


Peaks and Ranges

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If the coastlines don’t take your breath away, the Cape Fold mountains do. Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, the Twelve Apostles, Devil’s Peak, Chapman Peak. From dawn until nightfall, they are craggy shapeshifters, constantly changing color, wrapping themselves in clouds, orienting sailors and landlubbers, anchoring towns and seashores.


Robben Island

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By the time the South African government started using it as a maximum-security prison to incarcerate political prisoners, Robben Island, had been a penal colony for more than 400 years. Now the island is a World Heritage site. This is the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, a Spartan reminder that freedom does not necessarily come free.


District Six Museum

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The District Six Museum is a memorial to a neighborhood that was bulldozed to make sure none of the 60,000 black and colored residents who were forcibly removed to enforce apartheid could ever return. A parting resident saved the street signs; the “memory cloth” shares embroidered memories of the people who once lived there.


Bo-Kapp

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Formerly called the Malay Quarter for the slaves housed in it, Bo-Kapp’s colored residents celebrated the end of apartheid by painting their houses in the style of their homelands. Now the rainbow neighborhood is gentrifying, and houses like the ones in the photo sell for over half a million U.S. dollars.


Wines and Wine Farms

Wine Barrels

Vineyards (called “wine farms”) do not get more spectacular than those in and around Cape Town, and Partout has visited more than its fair share. That is Beau Constantia at the top of the blog. Throw in $3-$5 flights of wine from bottles retailing for as much as $50/bottle, and tastings don’t get a lot better either.


Gardens

Image-1-2The Cape Floral Region in South Africa is the smallest of the earth’s six distinct vegetation zones and the only one contained in a single country. The zone contains only 0.5% of Africa’s land but 20% of the continent’s flora. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town is the jewel of the nation’s floral crown.


Long Street

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Reminiscent of San Diego’s Gaslamp District, downtown’s Long Street is where Victorian architecture goes funky and fanciful.


Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCCA)

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Touted as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” Cape Town’s months-old museum of contemporary African art was built into a historic grain silo on the waterfront that, for half a century after its construction in the early 1900s, was the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa.


V&A (Victoria and Alfred, of course) on the Waterfront

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Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is to Cape Town what Seaport Village is to San Diego, just a whole lot bigger.


Harbour Market at Hout Bay

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We aren’t positive, but we think Hout Bay (officially, the Republic of Hout Bay) may be ground zero for Cape Town’s boho counter-culture. Whatever, the music, food and wonderful local goods at its permanent covered market every Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday attract locals and visitors alike. They even mesmerized anti-market Louis. Bonus: it was within walking distance of our AirBnB.


The End of a Continent

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San Diego has Point Loma; Cape Town has the Cape of Good Hope. Contrary to popular belief, the Atlantic does not meet the Indian Ocean here, but the end of the continent takes your breath away all the same.


False Bay Beaches

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Once decking the Victorian-era playground of the white, rich and powerful, the Meizenberg and St. James beach huts of all hues on False Bay are now are used by families of all hues and visited by tourists like this one.


Also in the rear-view mirror:

  • Horses: nickering outside the back door of one guest cottage where we stayed
    Waking up with horses
  • Whales!? As if the trip to Robben Island was not memorable enough, the hour-long ferry ride each way filled with whale (or whale tale) sightings
    RVM - whales
  • Sharks: Shark Spotters work to keep surfers and swimmers from becoming shark snacks where the great whites swim
    Shark spotters
  • Penguins: We know, we know! Enough with the flightless tuxedo birds! But they are sooo photogenic….
    Penguins

Coming soon: Road Lessons – the Final Episode

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‘We Have H*O*P*E’

White only
Rain will eventually come to Cape Town. The water crisis will end, bringing with it lasting infrastructure and policy changes, or not, as the winds of politics and economics blow.

The story that is much older in South Africa and will not blow away any time soon is race and regime.

Statistically, South Africa is considered one of the most economically unequal nations on earth: 10% of the people (nearly all whites, who make up about 10% of the population overall) own 90% of the wealth; 90% of the people (virtually all black or otherwise non-white) own the remaining 10%. Other measures of wealth are similarly skewed.

To us, viewing through the inherent myopia of tourism, inequality along racial lines is, well, pretty black and white. In the upscale restaurants where we eat and the wineries we visit, virtually every customer is white and every server is non-white. Same in museums and most stores and anywhere else that requires discretionary income to enjoy. White patrons, black and other non-white staff; white shift bosses, black workers.
l1210828.jpgAnd then there are the townships, the shack-filled slums that sprawl for miles like the one depicted in the piece of local art above. In much the same spirit that America’s all-white leaders established Indian reservations in the 19th century, South Africa’s all-white leaders in the early 20th century passed laws banning non-whites from living anywhere near them and created “locations” where blacks and coloreds were forcibly moved.

Today, nearly 4 of every 5 South Africans still live in a township. Apartheid (which essentially formalized racial segregation that started much earlier) has ended. Separation and inequality live on.

In the face of this disparity and all the social, public and other ills it brings, Jacob Zuma, the nation’s immediate past president, spent eight years enriching himself and his friends and impoverishing the nation. The direct cost of his years in power is estimated at $83 billion (including a soaring national debt). The moral price of an accused rapist as president, incalculable.

By the time we arrived in Cape Town, South Africa had had enough. Two days after we landed, Zuma resigned under pressure from his own party and in the face of what struck us as universal loathing. Amid a public sigh of relief that was almost audible even to our visiting ears, he was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa, his former deputy (vice) president.

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Does the prominent unicorn in the picture imply that reform under Ramaphosa will prove magical? Or imaginary?

Like Nelson Mandela and every South African president since the collapse of apartheid and first democratic elections in 1994, Ramaphosa is a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. He was Nelson’s choice to succeed him but was defeated in his one run for the office, in 1997.

As welcome as he seems, both Ramaphosa and the ANC appear weakened by the eight years of Zuma’s leadership. After all, if the party or the previous vice president really cared about honesty, decency, and the welfare of the nation, a lot of people seem to be asking, wouldn’t they have done something anything about Zuma before now? (Imagine the attitude toward Mike Pence and the GOP after seven more years of closing ranks around Donald Trump whatever investigation, revelation or smarm comes, and you get a sense of the public mood.)

Arriving at such a moment as unreformed newsies, we have been questioning everyone we meet – white and non-white; South African and immigrant; wait staff, museum docents, parking guards, taxi drivers and retail clerks; young and old – how they feel about the change.

Would they describe themselves as “hopeful,” we ask? Or “optimistic”?


Confession: As a teenager when it became South Africa’s official racial policy, Doris struggled to understand apartheid. In east Texas, where her family made regular visits to her father’s hometown, blacks (called “colored” then) were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, water fountains, fast-food order windows or other facilities as whites. Everywhere, Doris saw signs essentially identical to the one at the top of the blog — a relic of apartheid South Africa — minus the Africaaner.

In those days, American blacks rode in the last cars of American trains, sat at the backs of American buses and were widely banned from the schools, hotels, restaurants and other public places whites used. Apartheid seemed to Doris’s teenaged, Beatles-addled brain to be simply the extreme of the racial segregation America itself practiced. Doris eventually sorted the distinctions out, and Brown vs Board of Education Topeka and the Civil Rights Act eventually voided the official bans (like South Africa abolished apartheid). But the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court opened 2018 with three cases on its docket around states redrawing their voter district lines to disenfranchise black voters is just one indication racial equality remains unrealized in America, too. (On the pop culture front, there was the best-picture-nominated horror film Get Out.)

The persistence of issues like these often leaves Doris feeling somewhere between cynical and hopeless about race in America. (Having grown up a Catholic Francophone in a predominantly Protestant Anglophone country where discrimination was rooted more in culture than in race, Quebecois Louis is less discouraged.) If our dozens of conversations in Cape Town are any indication (and we realize they may not be), South Africans are far less jaded.

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Words from a letter written home in the 1980s by a political prisoner at Robben Island


We asked our guide around Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned along with Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists. And Ruth, a septugenarian grandmother whose family was forcibly removed and scattered along with 60,000 neighbors from Cape Town’s District Six. She now tells its stories to District Six Museum tourists.
SuitcaseWe asked Zimbabwian Uber drivers, Xhosan waiters, Africaaners whose people have been here for centuries and Brits whose families have been here nearly as long or for a handful of years. We grilled Alex, the young South African tour guide who led us through Bo-Kapp, the former slave quarter now a trendy hotbed of gentrification, and quizzed Faaera, the grandmother of seven who cooked us a Cape Malaysian meal in her home there.

After a while, we must have looked like human antennae because we could walk into an establishment and literally have someone on the staff start telling us their story and views before we even asked them.

Privately, we wondered what has kept the country from imploding or exploding from impatience and sheer desperation before now. We saw protestors like the ones in the photo below on the streets downtown. There were deadly riots in one township while we were here. A demonstration was announced for Sunday at the harbor immediately below our AirBnB cottage in Hout Bay. When we went for a walk there anyway, a concerned local actually stopped her car, backed up 50 feet to where she had passed us and urged us to leave the area for the day for our own safety. (We kept walking, and the demo turned out to be small and peaceful.)
L1210842If we are reading the local news accurately, the drumbeat for radical measures is, in fact, growing. “The time for reconciliation is over,” the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary socialist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party exhorted South Africa’s Parliament last week. “Now is the time for justice.” Less than four years old, the EFF already holds 6% of the seats in Parliament.

Yet, what we heard on the streets was …

  • Yes, we still have a long way to go,
  • No, racial inequality did not end with apartheid,
  • Yes, it could take generations to get there,
  • No, we are not optimistic, but …

“We have H*O*P*E” in the words of a guard at the Bo-Kapp Museum, spelling it out. “No matter what, we have democracy. Democracy gives us hope for optimism.”

Nelson Mandela famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Whatever inequality remains, apartheid died and democracy was born. This experience of the improbable possible seems to continue breeding hope in South Africans.

We hope with them, for their sake and for ours, too.

Robben guide

The same spirit that makes a former political prison an enduring symbol of freedom and dignity seems to find hope despite inequality

 


In the rear-view mirror:
Alarm and warnings around Cape Town’s water shortage continue to mount in the absence of rain. Just a few since our blog on the crisis:
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  • AirBnB sent an email “to help our community to act responsibly during this drought.” It instructs guests to “follow the direction of local officials” (in bold face) and “make every effort to use water sparingly.”
  • The Washington Post reported on how the Cape Town water shortage is highlighting inequality between the rich and the poor: Divided by Drought.
  • Brookings Institute reported that drought conditions like Cape Town is facing are coming to be seen as the “new normal”: “Day Zero on the Back of Draught in South Africa: Lessons for the Future.”

COMING SOON: When in Cape Town (or, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought and politics)

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Little is black and white except photography. These images hang in Cape Town’s dazzling new Zeitz MOCCA Museum.

 

 

 

 

Cape Town: Where Water Is Gold

IMG_4857We’ve been hearing that “water is the new oil” for at least a decade, but the people of Cape Town, South Africa — where we are wrapping up our five months partout — are living the reality, and we are living it with them.

Primarily as a result of a three-year drought, this city of nearly 4 million is in danger of running out of water. “Day Zero” is what they call the date when the taps will be turned off to all but hospitals, schools and a few other vital users, and residents will start getting their water one bucketful at a time from 200 distribution points around the city.

When we decided to make Cape Town our EU visa reprieve, Day Zero was set for April. Because of effective water conservation by residents, water diversion by inland farmers and (some say) immediate intervention by the nation’s new president, the suspension of piped water currently is projected for July.

In the meantime, residents are under orders to use no more than 13.2 gallons per person per day (about six toilet flushes or less) or face fines. It is unclear to us how people monitor their usage or how the limit is enforced.
50-liters1.jpgOur first AirBnB host told us that, when the magnitude of the shortage became apparent, AirBnB operators proposed en masse to stop taking reservations. “No, no!” was the official response. “Let them come.” Whether this was for PR or economic reasons is also unclear, but come the visitors still do.

In Cape Town International Airport, drought and conservation messages are now just about the first messages passengers see after landing. Hand sanitizer dispensers have mostly replaced running water in the airport restrooms, as if to underscore the point.
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What does an epic water conservation campaign look like in a modern, international city?

  • Massive public relations everywhere – flyers, signs, billboards, digital message boards. Overhead, on sign posts, on the backs of bathroom doors. Some clever, some plain.
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  • Reduced water pressure everywhere
  • Universal on-off showering and a push to get people to give up showering at all one day a week
    No shower
  • No water at all or on-off spray from some public bathrooms
    Jordan winery
  • Biodegradable paper products replacing dishes in restaurants
    Pizza resto
  • Buckets in every shower stall (including luxury hotels) to catch shower run-off and instructions on how to flush the toilet with what you catch
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  • Unflushed public toilets per instructions that cut across the grain of what we’ve always been taught
    Don't flush clip
  • Private water tanks parked where cars once stood so people can collect and store more grey water than a bucket will hold by doing things like draining used water from their washing machines
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  • Dead grass, empty fountains, closed swimming pools, unwashed cars
    Airport - car rentsls
  • Warnings that hotel bookings may be canceled without warning.
    Booking noticeAnd on and on. A $50 million pop-up desalinization plant is on its way from Dubai. Some beauty salons are beginning to require customers to bring their own water for shampoos. Necessity breeds an infinite number of inventions.


    Doris is a native Californian so this is not her first water crisis. As a beginning news reporter, the biggest story she reported was California’s water shortage of 1976-77.

    Covering the city of Fullerton in Orange County, she remembers writing stories about where residents could pick up free building bricks to reduce the water volume in their toilet tanks and extolling the merits of flow restrictors for kitchen water faucets. She distinctly remembers city leaders publicly urging, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

    Measures like these worked. Southern California cut its water use by 15% almost overnight. More significantly, water-use products and practices changed forever. By 1980, toilets that used the usual 5-8 gallons per flush were gone from the market, replaced by ever more-efficient “low-flow” models. Public water system price tiering making water more expensive the more you used became commonplace. Grey-water reclamation projects sprouted like weeds in public lawns, golf-courses and other thirsty patches of earth. Water conservation became at least a consideration.

    However, Cape Town illustrates that even systemic changes like these may not be enough for a growing world population with limited water supplies. Cape Town’s reservoirs were full just three years ago. Water consumption has remained flat despite population growth. Drought came, Day Zero now looms.

    Do Doris and Louis feel guilty for being among Cape Town’s water consumers, even temporarily? Louis says Doris always feels guilty about everything, but neither of us is losing sleep over this one. If we were not occupying the AirBnBs we do, someone else would be, and they might not be as water-conscious as we are.

    Far more critically, if visitors stay away from Cape Town, the possibility of Day Zero will be immediately outstripped by the certainty that tens of thousands of working poor in the Cape’s service industries will lose their jobs and be unable to support themselves and their families. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots would gape even wider.

    Given the impossible math of growing world populations, shrinking water supplies and a warming earth, this won’t be the last Day Zero on the calendar. The new water habits we are picking up in Cape Town may be the most lasting souvenirs of our visit. We can hope they help forestall a Day Zero wherever else we go.


In the rear-view mirror:

  • Vineyards (“wine farms” in these parts) with jaw-dropping backdrops
    Vineyards
  • Beach towns with jaw-dropping backdrops
    Backdrops
  • Tidal pools created by shags of ancient rock
    Tide pools
  • Penguins! Cute couples mated for life
    penguins.jpg

Coming Soon: Regime Change Tourism
Louis photo

 

Meanwhile, Back at the Visa Mess…

ZimbabweAt 9:45 am on Monday morning, February 12, we were supposed to be organizing ourselves for a red-eye flight from Nairobi to Sicily, visions of Mount Etna, pasta and big red wines dancing in our heads.

Instead, we were skidding to a stop on the tarmac at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, thanks to the one-sided visa policies of the European Union.

Yes, despite our friend Glen’s most earnest US Embassy-sourced entreaties to the Dutch in Nairobi, son Greg’s impassioned pleadings with immigration officials in the Netherlands and our own hail-Mary pleas in person to officials at the Italian embassy in Kenya, there was no way around the EU visa restrictions. We could spend a maximum of six days before April 15 in any of the 26 EU countries or risk deportation, even long-term restrictions on entering the EU. Six days instead of 33.

With these, we could not fly our tickets to Sicily. Or spend two more weeks with the kids in Groningen, as planned. Our options were to go back to DC via the Netherlands immediately or to knock around … somewhere outside the EU until we had only six days left before our scheduled departure home in mid-March.

Fly back to DC in February?!?

Hahaha. Make that one option: Knock around for 27 days outside the EU. And, yes, there are far worse fates. But where to knock?


Doris posted inquiries like this on the Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forums.
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We sent a half-dozen well-traveled friends urgent emails asking for suggestions and grilled all the guests at a wine tasting Glen conveniently (and deliciously) was hosting when when we walked into his house in Nairobi after our six-flight day from Tanzania. Everywhere we went – on the road, in restaurants, on flights – we debriefed travelers and ex-pats about the possibilities. Doris traded sleep for Googling itineraries, replacement flights, lodgings. Sri Lanka, India, Turkey, a return to the Emirates – no stone was left unturned in our search for knock-about destinations that met our standards for ease and conditions of travel and cost.

For a few ambitious, well-rested days, we had a plan that involved flying from Nairobi to Lalibela, Ethiopia, touring the astonishing stone churches there, taking in a few additional Ethiopian wonders and then flying to Luxor, Aswan and Cairo to introduce Doris to Egypt.

Then we remembered the reason we planned to end our great adventure in Sicily in the first place was that we figured we would be ready to coast after four months of travel. That we would be tired of dust and chaotic third-world airports. Heck, that we would be tired of all the packing and unpacking it takes to move around and see multiple countries. We had anticipated this correctly. We were feeling a bit like these trudging penguins on the Cape of Good Hope. Hoping for the best but kind of trudgy.
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So we opted for … Cape Town, South Africa. “The Cape.” The Europe of Africa (sometimes the Paris of Africa), as the Africa hands kept promising us. The cosmopolitan city huddled under an ancient monolith at the toe of a hemisphere. A region of interesting history, spectacular scenery and great wine. Sicily but with better weather and penguins.

Also, a city so direly short of water after a historic drought that residents are on water rationing. A place where an apocalyptic event called “Day Zero” has been scheduled when the water taps will be turned off altogether, and people will get water only by the allotted bucketful. A country in the midst of political crisis with the president being threatened with the equivalent of impeachment if he didn’t resign within two days after we arrived. He did, but political drama continues.

What could be more enticing?

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In Cape Town, Louis can swim these salt-water pools daily guilt- and cost-free. (Fresh-water pools are widely closed because of water restrictions.)

For a mere $250 (the least of our airline penalties for changing scheduled flights we could no longer take), we flew south instead of north, via Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, instead of Rome, Italy. We were, finally, resigned to our visa fate but also curious to see what our bonus destination would hold and (old newsies that we are) excited to be flying into the middle of not one but two front-page stories.
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In the rear-view mirror :

  • Feeding giraffes: No trip to Nairobi could be complete without a trip to the giraffe center (and the elephant orphanage and a few other beasty attractions).
    Giraffes
  • Living like an ambassador: The only home the US Embassy had in its pool for Glen when he was posted to Nairobi was once occupied by an ambassador. Being house guests has never been so luxurious. Thank you, Glen!
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  • Glimpsing colonial Africa: We spent our last afternoon in Kenya visiting the Kiambethu tea plantation, where a third-generation British tea grower greets guests in the home her grandfather built 100 years ago and talks (and serves) tea.
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  • “I had a farm in Africa”: The visit and tour of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s home in the area of Nairobi now simply called “Karen” was sublime for a traveler who started reading the great storyteller at least 30 years ago. Even the man keeping the woman company thought it was pretty cool.

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    The typewriter, classic memoir and home of Karen Blixen 

Coming Soon: Cape Town: The Future of Urban Water?

Cape Hope

Hope for rain is the most precious commodity in Cape Town today. Never before has “water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink” seemed so apt