Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reflections on our trip to South Africa

 Our Trip to South Africa:
Last year, my wife and I attended an end of year fundraiser for the Catholic School that our niece attends in Temecula, California. And as fundraisers go, they had both silent and active auctions. Many of the items up for bid were the usual fare; golf outings, weekends at the beach or the local mountains, season seats at the Catholic School’s theater (where they have impressive performances) and other items that were given by local residents and businesses. However, one item caught our attention: An all expense week at a game Reserve in South Africa. We have never been to Africa, and thought this would be a great “bucket list” item to do, so we placed our bid, and we had counter bids, we countered those bids until we were the last couple standing. The group that provided the trip mentioned that they could do one more trip for the same price, so my brother in law said he would take it.

Now this trip was one week, expenses paid, at Zulu Nyala game Reserve in northeast South Africa. We would, however, have to pay for our airfare to and from Africa (almost as much as we spent for the week). My brother-in-law, who is probably the most traveled in our family, mentioned that it seems silly to travel 2 days to and 2 days back just to spend 6 days at one place, so he suggested we add to our excursion and expand both the time we are in Africa and the places we see. To this, we agreed. We added a trip to another reserve and to Victoria Falls, in neighboring Zimbabwe. As I write this, we are all in a plane heading to Johannesburg from our connecting flight in Frankfurt, Germany.

Our flight from Los Angeles started out as a normal day at LAX, my wife and I arrived a few hours before boarding and got our boarding passes and passed through TSA rather quickly (a total of about 40 minutes from the time we got in line to get our boarding passes to the time we actually passed through security clearance. My brother-in-law was not so lucky. They arrived after we did, and during their check in, the attendant seems a bit nervous, and gave them their boarding passes, but failed to give them their baggage claim tickets (a fact that my brother-in-law just now realized on our flight from Germany!). TSA decided to do a “random” check on not one, not two, but all three of his family (they brought along their daughter for the adventure). They were subjected to a full revision of their clothes, their bodies, they were interrogated beyond one would consider “normal”. Remember that I said he is the most traveled of our family? Well, a few years ago, they were in India and purchased a root, like a ginger root, or what call in Mexico “uña de gato” that is used in herbal/homemade remedies and they were told, by the person selling it that it was OK to take back to the US. It was not OK to bring back to the US, and it was confiscated by customs agents. So now, we don’t know if the US Government has listed them as potential smugglers, or other Travelers to “watch”. All I know is that when they do a random check, they usually pick one person out of a line (usually a 5 year old child who doesn’t know what’s going on and gets frightened because he’s traveling with grandma and is suddenly taken away from her), they normally don’t take an entire family out of line.

The flight from LAX left at 7:30 pm., and I basically did what I normally do on a weekday evening, watch a couple of movies, eat a dinner of pasta that I end up dropping on my white shirt, and falling asleep past midnight (this is nothing like what I do on a weekday evening, I’m usually in bed by 10). We arrive at Frankfurt at 3 in the afternoon) local time) the next day, 6 in the morning on the West Coast. Our flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg will take about the same time as our flight from LAX to Frankfurt did, but they are in the same time zone, so we won’t be affected as much from Jet Lag, just affected from trying to sleep in crowded conditions in an airplane (although our flight from Frankfurt is not even half full, Martha and I have a row of four seats to ourselves). It is time to relax and try to get some sleep, it looks to be a full day tomorrow. Arrive at Johannesburg at 6, connect with the smaller “puddle jumper” airlines (think WINGS from T.V.) and to our primary destination at Zulu Nyala, where we hope to see the big 5 and not get eaten by any of them.

I have done my share of traveling in my lifetime. I have traveled more than I ever thought I would as a kid growing up in a middle class family in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I love to travel and see new places, experience new foods, cultures, languages and people, and I usually fly really well. When I say that I fly well,  I mean that it doesn’t bother me to be in a pressurized cylinder at 40,000 feet going at speeds up to 600 mph. I learned to fly airplanes when I was in college,  not the jets mind you, but small single engine planes… the concept is the same. So when I board a jet,  I usually get comfortable I my seat and if the flight is three hours or less,  I am asleep by the time the plane reaches altitude to the time it touches down at our destination. On longer flights, like the one I am on now, the process is a little different. There’s food involved, and I never sleep through a meal (my growing belt line will tell you that), there is also usually a movie or two (on our flight from LA to Frankfurt, Lufthansa had personal monitors at every seat and a large variety of entertainment available) so there is more to distract oneself on longer flights, but I still manage to get a few hours of sleep. Tonight’s flight to Johannesburg is different; I have struggled to fall asleep and I don’t know why. There is another two hours a left in this flight and sleep has avoided me. It seems that I’m the only one awake, well, me and a three year old child who is playing on an iPad with her father. So here I sit, typing away my thoughts while listening to Third Day, Don Francisco, Tigres del Norte and other artists on my Playlist.

On this particular flight, however, I have done something I have never done before: I have crossed into the Southern Hemisphere of our planet. I have been in the eastern and of course I live in the western hemisphere, but I have never been South of the Equator. God has been good to us in giving us the ability and opportunity to travel, and I hope to be able to share his love wherever I find myself, this of course, is our mission as followers of Jesus Christ. As Catholic clergy, we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which are the prayers of the Church for the world. As a Deacon, I pray the morning and evening prayers out of all the Hours we pray as a church; Invitatory, Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midmorning Prayers, Afternoon Prayers, Midafternoon Prayers, Evening Prayer and Night Prayers. We Catholics pray. A lot. Most of us now, rely on our phones or tablets in order to pray the hours (like they say, there’s an app for that) and the app I use is Divine Office (there are many others available), but the problem with relying on you phone or tablet when you’re traveling is the lack of Internet connection to be able to download the prayers.  Divine Office will download three days at a time if you set it up in the settings (I have) but I didn’t have Internet connection in my flights and it didn’t download the next three days while we were in Frankfurt, so here I sit without my Office to pray: Lesson learned: take your book with you when you travel. Another lesson learned: check your phone,  I had today and tomorrow’s Hours on my phone.

We arrived at our destination about 5 in the afternoon, got checked in and was able to shower and shave (that felt really good). We are sitting outside the office, since this is where the Internet connection is, listening to the water running in the fountain. We have already seen crocodiles and bats, and hope to see many more animals tomorrow on our guided outing starting at 6 in the morning.  

This morning found us taking a two hours game drive. We saw a lot, I mean A LOT of warthogs,  wildebeests and impalas, and even a few elephants, a number of giraffes and one cheetah. The cheetah was very accommodating for us in that she turned her head this way and that, got up moved around so we could get different angles of shots, even climbed up into a tree to make some more interesting shots. At the end of the drive,  we had breakfast and I was reviewing my camera and surprised myself that I took over 200 pictures, not all will make it onto the album, but a few might get enlarged and framed. The pace of life here is slow, it should be, since we are in the back country of South Africa. There are a number of workers toiling away in the main reception office, looks like they are perhaps remodeling for some type of curio shop. The Zulu people here are known for their bead workings, our guide told us that the wood carvers are farther North. He also explained that they are in the worst drought to hit SA in more than 35 years. One would not know it by the amount of green that is still here. When drought hits in Southern California, everything turns brown, but then again, everything is brown in SoCal during the summer months. Here in SA it is winter, but they get their rains in their summer months. The weather is cooler than I expected, we may go into town to buy a jacket since we only brought light sweaters. The daytime temps are very pleasing, I am writing this in the shade of some trees in the outdoor garden area, there is a slight breeze and the sound of the running water in the fountain would almost be enough to lull one to sleep if it weren’t for the constant pounding of hammers on concrete in the office they are working on.

In Africa, there are what is called the big five; these are the animals which hunters have said are the most difficult to hunt on foot and are the most dangerous, calling them the big five has nothing to do with their size. They are, in no order of importance, the lion, leopard, elephant, water buffalo and rhino. I asked our guide, why is it that the water buffalo are considered in the big five? I mean, to me, they look like domesticated cows with horns, Texas Longhorns look more ferocious than a water buffalo. But our guides response was that the water buffalo are the most difficult to hunt down, and they would kill you without giving it a second thought (to which my mind went into overdrive thinking, do any animals give a second thought to anything they do?) I also learned that the warthog is one of the most respected animals in the Savanah, even the lions give way to them. Seeing them more closely, and not relying on Disney for my image, the warthog reminds me of an Arkansas Razorback. We have seen three of the big five, tomorrow we look for the lion  and leopard to complete our search.

Today’s drive paid off. It was windy and cold, and the guides said we shouldn’t get our hopes up to seeing much of anything, yet we felt confident. Our hope was rewarded when we were able to see two lioness and her cubs. The lions had just finished eating a portion of a Nyala (close to an Impala) so the two were not so interested in us as they were interested in laying down to rest. Our guide got us thisclose to the lioness and cubs that I was a bit worried, along with the rest of the group as to how close we were. Honestly, had those cats decided we were a threat, we would have been on the lunch menu.

We came back to our game Lodge, and our guide, Mark, suggested that we meet at 3 this afternoon to see whether or not we will go out on an afternoon drive. When it is this windy and cold and starting to rain, the animals seek shelter and are not out in the open. To be honest,  I would appreciate an afternoon off in order to renew and refresh, collect my thoughts and to put my thoughts down on the tablet.

Sunday came, and we had a trip to St. Lucia scheduled. The estuary at St. Lucia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that it is protected by international rules because of its unique contribution to world culture and or significance to the environment. The riverboat captain told me that St. Lucia has been without water for a year and a half. Water is pumped in from a neighboring village and if the politics go against them, they are cut off. South Africa is going through a drought of 7 years. Being from Southern California, I understand drought. It was in the estuary where we got some of our most impressive pictures to date. I was able to catch a male Hippo in full yawn, head completely out of the water, mouth wide open, teeth showing, the whole nine yards. It is the shot of the vacation, so far. We returned in the afternoon, and being Sunday, we had wanted to go to Mass, but there is no Catholic Church in the area. There is a retreat house in St. Lucia, but we could not find it, so after dinner, we had a Liturgy of the Word (this is completely licit when you make a concerted effort or have a true desire to go to Mass, but for circumstances not under your control, you cannot go). We read the Mass readings for the day, reflected a bit on them within our small group, prayed intercessory prayer, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and left with the sign of peace and the dismissal.

Monday found us deciding not to go on the morning game drive. Martha slept in and I did some more photo editing on my tablet. (it was more of deleting double and triple pics and some blurry ones that were of animals moving too fast for the camera to catch with the settings I had on my camera). After lunch, we set out again with our guide and we’re not expecting to see anything new, or gnu if you’re in SA, but we found a group of baboons in a clearing. Now a group of baboons are called a Congress of baboons (draw your own conclusions). They were not very accommodating with the cameras because they started to move off as soon as we showed up. So on our last day in Zulu Nyala, we saw another first, baboons; and not one politician among them.

Tuesday is the start of our second leg of our trip. We left Zulu Nyala early in the morning to travel back to Johannesburg and transfer to a flight that will take us to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, another country, another stamp in our passport. We have a helicopter sightseeing ride scheduled and an elephant encounter. I do not know how our accommodations will be, but I think we are going back in time a bit with this trip. We shall see.

We landed in Zimbabwe about 1 in the afternoon, and after passing through immigration, our driver met us to take us to the resort. A resort is not what I would call this place. Let me set the scene: we drive down what our driver, Richman, says is the main road in Victoria Falls and turn off onto a dirt road. OK, so far, par for the course, we have been on dirt roads all week, no big deal, but the vegetation is different here, the climate too, is warmer, even if it is only an hour or so North from Johannesburg by jet. So we are driving down this dirt road, with a lot of dry plants and trees and a lot of dirt (it is winter here and not the rainy season so one would expect it to be somewhat dry). Then we get to the gate of the compound and drive through to the drop off for the guests. There is so much green around that I think I feel through the looking glass and now I am in the Wonderland. What a stark difference to what is on the outside of this place. We register and are shown around a bit, when we get to the bar/dinning room, I am literally taken aback. I cannot believe my eyes. This resort/paradise sits right at the edge of the Zambezi River Gorge, downstream from Victoria Falls, 600 feet above the river. The views are something to behold. The owners, Chris and Debbie, treat you like their own family, letting you know that you are at home. You feel at ease immediately when you hear how all the staff address you, talk with you and treat you. We rested for the rest of the day, walked around the compound a bit to get the feel of it and to take in the beautiful sights of the Gorge.

The next morning, we left early to go on an elephant adventure, an hour ride on the backs on these magnificent animals that God in his wisdom had created. Afterward, we headed toward the helipad to take a 15 minute flight over Victoria Falls. To see the Falls from the air is truly a sight to behold. To see this might river flowing and just drop off into a Gorge and then continue flowing down the gorge is a marvel. It is like someone cut into the earth and made a irrigation ditch for the water to flow through. I have been to Niagara Falls, and while impressive, they don’t stand up to the majesty of these falls.

We were heading out to the city to do some sightseeing and I happen to be wearing a shirt from the Bishop’s Golf Classic that is held each year for the support of our Seminary and Catholic Schools, when the woman at the reception desk asked if I was Catholic? I told her yes and she replied that she too is Catholic. I found out our driver, her son, is also Catholic, so we asked about how the Church is here in Zimbabwe. He took us to the church where he was baptized, St. Kizito, a martyr of the African Church (at least that is what I suspect since he is depicted as being engulfed in flames). So after some “shopping”, we went on a riverboat cruise on the Zambezi. The Zambezi is the natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the river was hosting a number of craft of all sizes and designs (one even looked like someone had stolen one of the riverboats from the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland). This was a Sundowner cruise and the name did not disappoint, we were not only treated to sightings of hippos, crocodiles and elephants (again), but we had the most splendid sunset on the river, hues of gold and blues, of the sun shining off the water in a band of gold reflected from the sun. So ended our short trip to Victoria Falls. We returned to the lodge, ate dinner, had conversation with some of the other guests and then to bed. In the morning, we had a visit to a local village, their school and their people.
The children in the school were very nice, asking questions about our country and we in turn, asked about Zimbabwe. We showed them pictures of our home when it had snowed. To someone who has never experienced snow, it is difficult to conceptualize. The children learn religion in their school. They learn their African religion, they learn Christianity (there is a Catholic Church across the street from the school, however the teacher who was showing us around is Pentecostal), they learn Judaism, Islam and Hindu. The posters on the wall are of the ten commandments and of Jesus and his Apostles, so there is no question of which religion they are teaching the most. This is a village school, supported by the government.

I remember when I was in elementary school, we had religion classes, but they were off campus and after school by the time I was in High School, there was a definable line between state and religion. We had a prayer group that met at lunchtime and although it was led by the students, we had a custodian join us from time to time….until the Administration said he could no longer do so because it had the appearance of him leading it (which was not the case).

The villagers are, what we around call, the poorest of the poor, yet they live a happy life. They have a community water well and they do get some aid from USAID which is in the form of seed and corn. They survive, content to live off the land and the providence of God. It causes me to meditate on who is truly happy? It also causes me to realize that the poorest in our country have more than these will ever realize in their lifetime.

So what makes us happy?  Where do we find contentment in our lives? Is it from the newest iPhone or biggest computer or TV? Is it from having enough money in the bank? Or is the source of our contentment from something more basic, something more human? A mother’s touch, a father’s love for his family that he shows by providing for them, being there for them, by loving his children’s mother by supporting her in all she does. We are way too materialistic in this country, our god is stamped with the motto “In God we Trust” when in reality it is only in what that paper can buy us is really what we trust in.

Today, our quest to see and photograph the Big Five in Africa has come to an end. On this afternoons drive,  we finally saw our Leopard! A beautiful beast, well camouflaged in the bush,  but once we got our Land Cruiser in position, we had a good three to five minutes of viewing this magnificent animal that God had created in his wisdom. It is very odd in the bush that wild animals will continue to do their thing, what ever they are doing at the time, eating or sleeping or even doing the procreation thing, and not give the group viewing them not 10 feet away, a second thought. We were literally 5 feet away from a lioness and her 7 month old Cubs and they couldn’t care less about us, as long as we stayed seated and didn’t make any quick moves or loud noises. This was a completely foreign thing to me, being so close to wild animals and them hardly recognizing our existence.

Our experience here started by us staying in a very nice hotel, then we went to a game Reserve Lodge which was part of the same ownership as the hotel and it was somewhat of a hotel also, the rooms were connected to each other. Then we went to Victoria Falls where our accommodations were individual lodges, one room suites with a thatched roof and a private bath on a smaller property with more privacy (I’m not sure we were downgrading) and our final accommodations were at a private reserve on a larger game conservancy coalition. These were tents. Now when I say tents, I don’t mean Boy Scout pup tents, these were large tents on permanent foundations that had their own thatched roof and private bathroom, well semi private because the shower was actually outdoors! (and I’m still not convinced we were downgrading!) Every place we went had its own charm, it’s own positive points, it’s own distinct flavor. The closer I came to the basics of living, no TV, no radio, basic bed and daily food, the more serene my spirit became. I continued, of course, with my daily prayers (thankfully we had Internet in all the places so I could keep my Liturgy of the Hours app updated).

So I am finishing this before breakfast on the last day of our stay in South Africa. We have had a full adventure in our daily game drives in the bush, in our visits to Victoria Falls, Kruger National Park and St. Lucia, but we also have had a very restful time. I am feeling the need, and desire to head home, like Rafiki said in The Lion King when he learned that Simba was still alive and that Simba needed to return to his home and take his rightful place, “It is time.”