Monday, November 23, 2015

Phuket, Thailand

Eden near the hotel pool
After getting up at 5am in Marloth Park, driving 4 ½ hours to Johannesburg, taking a 10 ½ hour flight to Singapore, waiting 6 hours in the Singapore Airport (our flight got delayed), taking a 1 ½ hour flight to Phuket and a 30 minute car ride to the hotel we finally arrived at 3pm the following day.  We had traveled for 28 hours and had a small amount of sleep.  Of course the first thing Justin and I wanted to do was lay down and sleep, the first thing the kids wanted to do was go to the pool.  So we went to the pool.  Actually, the pool is pretty great.  They have a kiddy pool with a small but fast slide and a splash zone with lots of water squirting from the ground and other features.  Eden asked to go to the pool every day.  Once we finally got to bed we slept for 15 hours and when Eden did wake up she stated, “I can’t sleep anymore.”  We decided that since we still felt rather jet lagged we would just spend the day at the resort.  Up to this point, we had not stayed at a resort of any kind and Justin and I decided that since our time in Phuket was short, 1 week, we would go ahead and book something fancier.  The resort has a kids club, which Danielle, our little social butterfly, took full advantage of.  She had the schedule in hand and knew exactly what she wanted to participate in.  She got to make all sorts of things including puppets, ice pops, cookies and elephant hats to name a few.  Caleb and Joel played table tennis and lots of water volleyball.  Eden went down the pool slide, a lot. Justin and I partook of some pool side drinks and then we headed to a Dim Sum buffet for dinner.  Now, just to let you know, our kiddos would rather eat Asian food any day than anything else, so we all took full advantage of the buffet and left feeling very stuffed.  At the hotel we met the housekeeping manager, Joelle.  Joel was very excited to meet the female version of his name.  She is from the Netherlands and has been working in Phuket for 1 ½ years.  We got to talking and she offered us some wonderful advice on things to visit and do while on the island.  She is such a nice and charming person, we really had a great time getting to know her. The following day we took Joelle’s advice and picked up some bikes at the cycle center in the resort and biked around the adjoining resort.  We then headed towards a nice lake that has a path all the way around.  The entire time we were here the temperature has been 90 degrees and about 90% humidity, so it is very hot.  The air feels thick, almost like you can grab onto it.  So needless to say, we got rather hot on our bike ride.  I was not exerting much energy, yet I felt like I was melting because I was drenched in sweat.  After our bike ride we headed over to a restaurant for lunch called Bill Bentley’s which was a take on and Irish pub of all things.  I skipped the Irish dishes and ordered a Pad Thai that was amazing.  The shrimp was so succulent and the flavors were extraordinary.  After lunch we headed over to the beach to take a dip in the Andaman Sea.  Well, that had to wait because the waves were rather large and the sea was rough.  Since we were still hot and ready to swim we just headed back to the resort pool.  

Going on a bike ride
At the JW Marriott in Phuket
The following day we headed over to the adjoining resort to watch the turtle feeding.  The area where we are staying, Mai Khao Beach, is one of the last beaches where green sea turtle come to lay their eggs in Phuket.  Once they lay the eggs, the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation retrieves them and hatches them in a protected environment.  Twice a year the turtles are released.  The turtles that we were able to see are 3 of the turtles that, due to disabilities, are not released into the wild.  The first turtle, Tommy, was born without eyes.  JJ has a deformed shelled which does not let him swim correctly and the last turtle, Keiko, has been released 3 times but he keeps coming back.  We had a great time watching the turtles eat.  I thought it was interesting that they feed Tommy seaweed with chopsticks because he has a difficult time finding the food in the water.  They need to keep him in a smaller pool because he is easily confused.  The kids were given special pellets and were able to feed JJ and Keiko.  They all had a kick out of that.  After the turtle feeding we walked over to the beach and each got a 1 hour beach massage.  Now, I had never expected my kids to have a massage at their age but when they are only 400 Thai Baht ($11) for 1 hour, Justin and I thought why not.  They boys went first and Danielle and I went second.  Eden did not get a massage because, as she would put it, all she would do is “screw around.” It was amazing.  I felt so relaxed and mellow.  I thought at this price I may just come back every day!  
Danielle at the turtle center
Joel and Caleb getting a Thai massage
Later that afternoon we headed over to a dinner and Thai cultural show called FantaSea.  Once we arrived Joel saw the sign and said, “Wait a minute is that how you spell fantasy?  Have I been spelling it wrong this whole time?”  I laughed so hard.  “No, dude, you’re spelling it right.”  Walking in, I had this weird Disney moment.  There are parts of it that are very Disney like and then there are parts that are very Thai.  We headed over to the restaurant for dinner and walking in we were blown away by the sheer size of the place.  It could easily seat 2,000 people.  Here we had a Thai buffet and every dish I tried was amazing.  I think the green curry was my favorite, but the beef meatballs in this brown sauce was a very close second.  Joel went back 7 times.  Justin and I felt like Joel carried the team and made sure we got our money’s worth.  After dinner we had a little time to kill before the show so we walked around and went to check out the elephants.  You could take an elephant ride, but while the elephants were not busy they let you pet and take pictures with them.  Of course we went over and petted the elephants.  Then we snapped a few pictures.  One of the handlers tried to get Eden to sit on the elephant’s trunk for a picture but she wanted nothing to do with that.  A very nice man bought some bananas and sugar cane to feed them and gave some to the kids.  So Caleb, Joel, Danielle and Eden got to feed the elephants.  Once the food was gone the man came back with more and again gave it to the kids.  They were delighted to be able to feed them. It was so cool how they eat.  They take the food right from your hand so gently and pop it right into their mouth.  We thanked the man and headed to the show.  I was totally blown away by the man’s generosity.  The show itself was a mixture of cultural music and dance with animals, the main ones being elephants.  There were 15 different elephant on stage and also goats, water buffalo, doves, a horse and some chickens.  It was very interesting and we had a great time, except Eden did not like the pyrotechnics, she did love the fact that they dropped tons of balloons from the ceiling at the end of the show.  Here is a quick side note.  During the show there is absolutely no photos or video to be taken.  To insure this, you are to hand over all cell phones and cameras before entering the theater.  No one seemed to mind.  Justin and I thought that if they tried this in the United States there would be a huge backlash.  By the way, they go through your bags and pat you down to make sure everything is turned over and nothing gets past them.  Weird.  
Phuket FantaSea
Entrance to FantaSea
Palace of the Elephants where the night show is held

Getting close to an elephant
The elephant snatched the food right out of Danielle's hand
Eden enjoyed this rather unique faucet/sink at a FantaSea bathroom
Since we got back after 11pm, we stayed at the resort for the following day.  In the afternoon, Joel and I headed over to a nearby restaurant, Thai Express, for a cooking class.  We had a great time learning how to make papaya salad, spicy shrimp soup, chicken green curry, pad Thai and ruby red dessert.  We got to try everything as we made it and all of it except for the ruby red dessert was delicious.  I am not a pudding person so I didn’t love the texture.  I was amazed at how fast it is to cook.  The prep work is what takes the longest but the actual cooking time is 10 minutes or less per dish.  And everything was so flavorful.  We got to bring home all of the leftovers so the rest of the gang could give it a try.  They were impressed.  I told Justin that once back in the States, Joel and I will be having a dinner party serving these great recipes!  Every good chef needs and even better sous chef.  After dinner we headed over to the ice cream shop, Swensen’s, just down from where we were staying.  I have to say that I have found it rather interesting which America businesses are abroad. Here in Phuket there are tons and tons of 7/11s, KFC,s and Swensen’s ice cream.  I had thought that Swensen’s went bankrupt, but I guess not.  Lucky for Eden she was able to get her strawberry ice cream fix.  
Caroline making Pad Thai
The following day we had hired a van to take us around the island and visit a few paces.  Justin and I had decided that driving ourselves in Phuket was a bad idea since we had heard that sometimes accidents are not accidents at all.  Well, I was glad with our decision because the driving is crazy.  So picture this, three lanes in the same direction, the driver is in the right lane and the road curves to the left, so the driver shoots over to the left most lane.  Who cares if there are cars around, just shoot over.  Then the road curves to the right and we shoot back over to the right most lane.  Back and forth, back and forth.  Your lane goes away, no problem just cut off your neighbor.  I was very glad we did not rent a car.  Although the drive was crazy the scenery is beautiful, rich, green jungle.  Justin and I found that the city itself is cleaner than other places we have visited, Mauritius for one.  People have pride in the land and in what they have and it is very evident.  I love that.  After about an hour we arrived at our first stop, an elephant trek in the jungle.  The boys got on a fourteen year old male elephant named Lucky and the ladies got on a 16 year old female elephant named Sara.  We headed down the slope and when you are on top of an elephant’s back it seems much steeper.  Once down the slope we stopped and the handler took some pictures for us.  Then he told Caleb and Danielle to climb towards the elephants head and sit right behind it.  Danielle had nothing to hold on to, but she did great.  She ended up continuing the rest of the trek there.  After a while Caleb moved back to his seat and Joel took the spot.  All three of the kids were thrilled to have been able to not only ride an elephant but ride right behind the elephant’s head.  Once we got off of our elephants we got to pet a baby elephant.  I absolutely love that the baby had this pokey black hair sticking straight out of his head.  It was so adorable.  Their skin is rough and thick and their trunk seems to be constantly searching for something.  We found out that their trunks are made up of 100,000 muscles! 
Ready to go
View of the coastline from the elephant trekking site
Stopping for a snack
Not to be left out, the lady elephant took her turn for a snack
We continued down the road to visit the “Big Buddha”.  I think that that is a funny name, but that is really what it is called.  It is as it sounds a big, as in huge Buddha at the top of a mountain.  The view point in magnificent and the Buddha itself is pretty incredible.  It is completely covered in small 3in x 3in white marble tiles.  It is built by private donations only.  
Big Buddha
View of the water from Big Buddha site
Once done visiting the area we headed down the mountain to Chalong to have a seafood lunch.  We stopped at a restaurant that was chosen by the driver right on the sea front and thought this is going to be good.  We ordered some prawns and rice to share.  They brought the platter out and we all dug in. The meal was so so at best.  Justin and I were rather disappointed.  We had figured that being right on the waterfront, you would have some fantastic seafood, but I guess location is not everything.  The shrimp had little to no flavor, kind of like the rice.  To make matters worse it was grossly overpriced.  
After lunch we headed north to take a long tail boat to Naka Island.  Joelle had suggested that this would be a great and economical way to visit another island.  She was right.  Our driver was able to negotiate for us and off we went.  A long tail boat is mainly used by the locals to fish and get from place to place.  Riding in the boat was a unique experience in itself.  The scenery along the way was stunning.  In the distance, we could see these other island that are taller as opposed to wider.  They are towering rock formations just sticking out of the water.  Once we arrived on Naka Island we got off the boat and set up on the beach to go swimming.  The water in Phuket is a beautiful green color and very clear, and the sand is, in Caleb’s words, “like your sugar in the raw, mom.”  We all got in the water for a nice swim to cool off.  Unfortunately after 30 minutes the kids started to complain that something was stinging them.  As luck would have it each of the kids got stung by a jelly fish or two. Oww!  So we headed back to our boat a little sooner than expected.  The boat owner took us a different way back to be able to see more and that was greatly appreciated.   The scenery is really beautiful and so peaceful.  It was later in the afternoon and the sun was lower on the horizon and the water was absolutely calm.  There were no other boats in sight.  It felt like the entire bay danced in the sunlight just for us.  We headed back to our place and Justin picked up some green curry for dinner.  We had a pretty awesome day.
Our long tail boat.  Engine sits on top of long propeller shaft to the rear
On the long tail boat to Naka island
Jagged islands in the distance
We had one more full day in Phuket before leaving and we decided to hang by the pool in the morning, eat lunch at Bill Bentley’s again.  Then we did a bike ride.  I had one more beach massage, amazing!  And then met Justin and the kids at the beach.  Caleb and Joel tried the kayaks and Danielle got a boogie board.  We had a great time swimming in the Andaman Sea.  Then all of a sudden the sky got dark and it started to downpour.  We all made a run for it but by the time we got back on the bikes and rode to the resort we were beyond drenched, although we all laughed the whole time.  Luckily, the rain is nice and warm.  Phuket has been a great experience.  They say that it is the land of joy and smiles, and I can say that I really think that it is very true.  Everyone we have met has been so nice and happy.  Phuket is a truly amazing place. 

Joel and Caleb kayaking

Danielle trying out the boogie board

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Africa, Part 3

Elephant walking into the sunset
One of the things I needed to do was to get some laundry done.  Now this is not a very momentous thing, so I usually don’t write about it, but this was a little different.   In Marloth Park they have a drop off laundry service and a self-serve laundromat.  I decided to go to the laundromat.  Once I got there I found the attendant and asked him where to pay.  He looked at me and said, “You do realize this is self-serve?”  Yes I did.  Then he followed me into the laundromat and proceeded to explain, in a rather detailed fashion, exactly how to do laundry.  He had me do it as he explained, put the clothes in the machine, pour in the detergent, chose a setting and turn on the machine, all while telling me, “Good job, well done.”  I was thinking, “Do people use these machines? Does no one do their own laundry?” This was so weird but ok.  Once he left I waited for the cycles to be finished and then threw everything in the dryers.  I needed to ask him to turn on the machines and before he did so he came to check on what I had done.  “Ohhh, you have already placed everything in, that is good, that is good.” I felt like I was getting an A+.  I always did do well in school.  

Pair of Rhinos napping under a tree
The following day we headed back to KNP via Malelane gate.  I had read that this area tended to be rhino and cheetah rich, so we thought that we would give it a try.  We were treated by seeing 2 rhinos lying under a tree sleeping.  They were a little further then most of the animals we had been seeing but I had brought our binoculars and we all took a turn looking at them through the binoculars, even Eden.  After that we couldn’t get the binoculars away from her.  Further along the road we came upon a drier river, it had a few places with water but definitely not flowing.  We stopped on the bridge and saw over 50 elephants, tons of giraffes, lots of kudus and even more impala.  It was a picture in my mind of what I had of Africa, all these animals together.  

Wow, that is a lot of elephants!
Elephants and Giraffes near watering hole
More Elephants
Then in front of our car a rhino started to cross the road and head into the brush.  This was a grand sized rhino.  He was about the width of our minivan and if I had to guess weighed several tons.   It was so impressive to watch him lumber down the road and into the brush.  Then we turned and continued to watch the elephants.  One started to approach our car, since we were above it on the bridge we had a great view of his size and were able to watch him graze.  Joel noticed that another elephant was spraying water on herself to cool down.  We also saw a giraffe take a drink.  We started to drive away, and around the corner, noticed 2 more rhinos lying under a tree 40 ft from the car. Wow, this is truly amazing.  We could not believe the vast number of animals we had seen.  I had not expected to see them so closely either.  

Back on the road we stopped at a different rest stop called Skukuza and I had a fabulous “saucy” burger with a hard cider. YUMMY.  I have to say the food here is terrific and very inexpensive. While waiting for lunch Caleb noticed a very colorful lizard on the tree next to us.  It had vibrant blues, greens and oranges.  It looked like a rainbow. Crazy.  We walked over to the river and spotted 2 large buffalos in the river.  One of them kept rolling around putting its legs in the air to wet its back.  Too funny.  Danielle got a kick out of that.  Back on the road we saw more baboons and sables.  Then we encountered another large herd of elephants with tiny little babies.  I think it is so cool that they keep the littlest ones inside their tight circle to protect it.  We were, although, able to get a nice view of one and snapped some great pictures.  Nearly out of KNP we came upon 3 lions sleeping in the grass.  They are incredibly difficult to see since they match the color of the grass and dirt.  We could see them sleeping and their tails flapping once in a while.  I should mention that Kruger National Park is huge!  It is about 7500 square miles of land area which is about the same size as the state of New Jersey or Massachusetts in the United States.   We are seeing such a small part of it driving along the roads and do indeed feel very lucky to have already seen so many animals.  It was another amazing day.  

Colorful Lizard
Monkey and Baboon
Elephants lining up

That evening our power went out.  Usually, I would have no problem but they are in the midst of a heat wave and the temperature is above 100 degrees.  The house is made of brick with very high ceilings so it stays a little cooler but you still need air conditioning.  And another thing, you can’t open the windows because you don’t want any unwanted visitors.  So that night we were all sweating. The following day we contacted our host and he gave us a number to call.  We found out that a civet, (a weird racoony type animal but bigger) somehow bit the electrical box and blew a fuse. I’m thinking the civet didn’t make it.  We needed to wait for the electric company to replace the fuse.  That happened at 3:30pm.  It was 106 degrees.  All the kids had no shirts on and I even had the girls take a cold shower.  Danielle complained that even though the water was at the coldest setting it was still hot.  I love electricity.  I take it for granted but once you don’t have it, you really miss it fast.  I appreciate the fact that I live in a place with reliable power sources and civets don’t mess that up.  

We ended up going back to KNP 2 more days and again saw all of the animals that we had previously seen.  We also were lucky enough to see a mother warthog with a litter of 6 tiny babies.  They were so adorable.  If you ask Eden what her favorite animal is she will always answer, “The babies.” 

Warthog and her babies
Adding to our list of animals were wildebeest.  They are pretty cool also.  We saw lots of hippos cooling off and finally after lunch we spotted a LEOPARD!  There was a crowd of cars and we stopped across from a car that kept moving back.  Joel spotted it and yelled, “It’s a leopard!”  Justin backed up the van and we all got a good look at it walking 10 ft from the road.  Then the leopard went down into a ravine and we lost sight of him.  Justin decided to go over to this little dirt road off of the one we were on, on the side of the ravine.  He positioned the car right on the edge near a large metal tube which goes under the road for the water to flow through.  We waited a few minutes and sure enough we spotted the leopard at the bottom of the ravine coming towards us.  He climbed to the side of the metal tube and sat there for a few minutes watching all of the cars scrambling for a better view.  We just stayed put since Justin had picked an awesome spot and we had the best front row seat. I had fully expected the leopard to go through the dry tube and leave under the road.  But as luck would have it, the leopard came up out of the ravine.  Since so many cars were off to one side the leopard headed our way and graced us by walking right past the side of our car about 3 ft away.  He paused, looked right at us, as if giving us permission to take some great pictures and then he continued on his way into the thicker brush.  The whole episode lasted about 15 incredible minutes.  We were all thrilled!  Now we had seen all of the Big Five!  No way, we could not believe how incredibly lucky we were.  We again saw this same leopard 2 days later, not far from our original site spot sleeping in a cave in a massive boulder.  

Lots of hippos at Sunset lake
The elusive leopard
The big cat has a long tail

So majestic
We also saw huge giraffes walk out in front of our car to cross the road, lots of zebras, elephants, kudu, impalas, monkeys, baboons, and hippos.  

Giraffe walking by
Giraffes by the Sabie river
Hippos in the water barely poking out their heads
Big baboon perched on a fallen tree
On our last day in the park we started to notice more unusual things.  Danielle noticed a turtle in the river, she exclaimed, “Look a turtle and it’s sitting on a hippo!”  I said, “No that’s just a rock.”  Then lo and behold, the rock lifted its head and sure enough Danielle was right!  The turtle was sitting on a hippo, but the hippo promptly moved and the turtle was rolled off.  We spotted a mother rhino and her 2 young cooling off and drinking in a river.  Justin spotted a leopard tortoise.  This one was probably pretty young still because it was only about 10 inches big.  I have no idea how Justin spotted this guy along the side of the road but he did.  We stopped to look at him and then quickly a crowd gathered trying to figure out what we were looking at, even one of the safari trucks stopped. Was it a lion, may be a leopard.  So I leaned out the window and told them that it was only a leopard tortoise.  They chuckled and drove away.  We thought it was cool because they are actually not spotted frequently.  He has some really neat spots on his shell just like a leopard, hence the name. We also saw some little baby crocodiles in the Sabie River.  I had hoped one might try to eat a fish, but none of them were hungry.  We also got to see our fair share of waterbucks.

A turtle on a rock...
Wait, that's not a rock.  Its a hippo
Leopard Tortoise
Waterbucks by the river

Where we are staying there is a game reserve called Lionspruit.  I had thought that if we came up empty in KNP we could go there as a backup plan.  Since it is literally a 3 minute drive away we ended up going to check it out.  We have learned that some things here are not very straight forward. We drove to the gate and were told that we needed to purchase our ticket at the office on a street that started with an M.  It sounded like Manula but not sure.  I asked if the street was along the road that we were currently on and I was told yes you can’t miss it.  Well, I missed it because there were no roads off of the one we were on.  I turned on the GPS and could not find a Manula road but after some hunting found a Mareola road.  We headed back along the main road to Mareola road and lucky for me Justin is clever and decided to go down the paved road versus the unpaved road.  Finally we ended up at the Marloth Park municipality and bought our ticket.  Then we headed back to Lionspruit.  Once inside most of the roads are one way so we just followed along.  I had expected to see lion after lion, since it is called Lionspruit.  We drove around for about 3 hours and basically only came upon 30 buffalos that we had a game of chicken with.  They were in the road we had no way to turn around and they really wanted to walk down the dirt road.  Eventually, they caved and walked across the road and we were able to drive past.  In reality, they needed to cave because we were stuck.  Once we left Lionspruit, I asked the gate attendant just how many lions they had.  She said 3. Three, no wonder we didn’t see them!  

A herd of Buffalo heading straight for us
We decided to try a nearby restaurant for lunch at the Jabula Lodge.  The girls and I ordered hamburgers and the boys ordered a sampler platter.  In all honesty, the sampler platter which feeds 2-4, could have feed all 6 of us and then some. My burger was amazing, smothered in this really great garlic sauce.  I ended up splitting it with Justin and partaking of the sampler platter, that was filled with an array of grilled meats and sausages.  

On our second to the last day, we were a couple of streets away from our street, when we noticed a couple of trucks, one containing 2 men standing in the back of the bed of the truck, each holding a rifle.  I pulled over to ask what was going on.  One of the rangers told me that they were culling.  At that exact moment a rifle went off and I looked over and saw an impala dead on the ground.  I just started to cry.  We had just spent 2 weeks enjoying these beautiful animals and now they had just killed one right in front of our eyes.  I did NOT need to see that.  

Another thing is that I should try to explain what exactly we are staying in.  They call this type of house a bush hut.  It is constructed of bricks, interior and exterior walls, with a very high, 25 foot, thatched ceiling.  The thatch itself is about 8 inches thick.  We have a watering hole just outside our front door and a small splash pool.  The main road in Marloth Park is paved, but other than one other road Mareola, all the other roads are gravel or dirt.  We are surrounded by brush and although we have a neighbor 100 yards away we cannot see them at all.  This place is very unique for us and we have all enjoyed staying here.  From the house we have seen impalas, kudus, warthogs, banded mongoose, zebras, and bush babies.   

The bush hut where we stayed
Kudus at the watering hole in front of our house
Banded Mongoose
Today I went again to the laundromat and experienced something that was new to me and very disturbing.  I was stuck in a small laundromat with an older woman who was on some kind on rant on how, “since 1994 (the end of apartheid)” everything is horrible.  She just went on for over 30 minutes with her very racist point of view.  I tried desperately to ignore her and finally asked her if she was educated or not and if she had ever left this country.  I said that thankfully not everyone has her opinion and I was very grateful for that.  She just kept on ranting like I had never spoken.  Then she finally left but was replaced by another racist couple who proceeded to berate the laundry attendant, calling him names and telling him he was incompetent. He then got upset with me because apparently I had removed my clothing before my 1 hour expired, causing the confusion.  I felt sorry for him and if I had been able to get a word in I would have apologized to all of them for causing the confusion, even to the racists.  I left and thanked the attendant telling him that I left my extra soap behind since I could not take it with me.  He asked me if I was from Joburg and I said no the United States.  Man did his demeanor change.  He asked me if I like South Africa and I told him I loved it.  He replied with a huge smile on his face, “Thank you.”  Then he apologized for being short with me.  I told him I understood.  Although this place is so stunning, sometimes you are smacked in the face by some of the ugliness that it can hold.  It made me also realize that they have a very long way to go.  Animals kill for necessity, humans can be cruel for no reason whatsoever.  Very sad. 

South Africa itself has been an incredible experience for me personally.  I have always wanted to come here and it has exceeded my expectations more than I could have ever imagined.  I am astounded by its beauty and amazed by its sights.  I have never thought myself to be a huge animal person, but having seen what we have seen and experienced what we have experienced I feel changed in every aspect.  I have always appreciated nature and what it has to offer, but now I feel that I can appreciate it at a very different level, almost as though my eyes are seeing things differently and I can better appreciate its sheer beauty.  

Hedgehog.  Perhaps named Pumba?

Rhinos in the distance going down to the river for a drink

Ostrich in the neighborhood

Group of Elephants
Big White Rhino walking away