Category Archives: travel

Giving Thanks

Change is hard for most people, some more than others. As an expat for the last 11 years I have been through my fair share of countries and changes. Recently my belly button contemplations have centred around when the change becomes the norm. When things that used to stand out and confuse, surprise, unsettle or just plain irk you, don’t any more.

When using an everyday greeting or words in another language that used to make your tongue twist in circles or make you cringe a little bit on the inside in case you were saying it wrong comes out feeling perfectly normal – to you and to the people you are using it with.  When you stop getting headaches from concentrating so hard from driving on the wrong side of the road and the turns you make across traffic are reflex rather than strategically planned maneuvers. When someone says ‘Wow, you really walk a lot in this city’ as they duck and weave following you along a crowded footpath that you used to find overwhelming and you forgot you ever did, like you also forgot you never used to press the close lift button in the elevator (recognizable by being the only button you are unable to see the symbols for). When checking the local paper for the upcoming power outages (should they feel the need to list them) is as natural as using terms that drive you crazy but you now feel the need to spread the crazy – see use of ‘just now’*. You get the idea.

To me giving thanks on Thanksgiving was always ‘too American’ to contemplate. I certainly was an interested and engaged participant the past two Thanksgivings we have been lived in the US, watching friends post on all forms of social media what they were thankful for, even those Americans (and Canadians who do it a month earlier) living overseas, but I always thought it was ‘for them’. Now on our third Thanksgiving in country while preparing some tasty traditional side dishes for our own Aussie / Austrian (the one with no kangaroos) Thanksgiving feast later in the day, I popped a cork and posted my own spontaneous thanks. It felt quite normal and probably something I will do from now on, wherever we live as we incorporate it into our multi-cultural lives and rituals. A nod to when the change became the norm.

thanksgiving

When was the last time you realised a change had become the norm?

*just now is one of the most used and most difficult terms to define in South Africa. It means, not immediately, but that could be a time between 5 minutes and 8 hours (or lets face it three weeks) . After the initial shock telling me that the repairman would be there ‘just now’  used to drive me crazy, almost as crazy as it drove my children and family when I used it with them.

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25.3 kgs

‘Your bag is overweight, I’m not going to charge you this time, but be more careful next time. It’s 25.3 kgs’
The Delta check-in lady using a stern tone.

‘Did ya do a lot of shopping while you were home?’
The assistant checker-in person joined in. The strong Aussie accent dressed in a Delta uniform somehow seemed out of place even though we were standing in Sydney airport. How quickly I have come to expect an American accent.

Tears welled up – I had no control over them.

‘No, its my Mum’s stuff, I came back for her funeral.’

Murmured apology from Team Delta, awkward moment, both suddenly looking closely at the computer screen. I felt I had to let them off.

‘Doesn’t everyone about to spend 13 hours in economy on a plane with no spare seats cry?’

Ha ha – good one, they could look up at me again and we finished our transaction in a more relaxed fashion.

Of course I didn’t come home for her funeral. I came home to do the unthinkable, to say goodbye. A carefully timed trip, cancelled once, designed to allow time with my mum but also not leaving my husband and kids alone too long in a new country with no support system in place.
Clinical, horrifying.

The kid’s anxiety of their mother leaving indefinitely, knowing when she came home it meant their beloved Mumma would no longer be in the same world where they could talk to her on the phone and  run past the computer when she was on Skype. Photos and memories would be it. Thankfully we have just had two months with her, the memories are fresh, I can’t think about six months or a year from now when they are not.

My husband had to juggle full time work and full time carer responsibility for an unknown quantity of time. His work requires up to fifty percent of his time traveling, on hold indefinitely.  A perhaps uniquely expat moment bringing the family unit under pressures it had not previously faced, not knowing how we were all going to get through, it seemed impossible.

We’ve made it so far, my husband was given a 7/10 and an 8/10 by the kids for his efforts. The six year old (7/10) booked herself into after school care because apparently I said she could before I left, that gave the nine year old (8/10) peace after the school bus trip home to do his homework and have his one hour screen time before the whirlwind returned.

It wasn’t a funeral, it was a ‘Celebration of Life’.  I wore a bright blue dress, there were pinks and blues and reds everywhere. The ‘Celebration’  was held at Glennifer Brae, a special location, the school my mum attended, taught at, where we lived in the cottage on the grounds when we were very little, later after the school shut and it became a venue for public functions we were married there.  Then the property passed to the Conservatorium of Music (Wollongong) and it was closed to public functions. There were special envoys to council, special permission had to be granted to hold a function there. For mum there was no other option, it was Glennifer Brae or bust. It was one of the last days and her close friend Cookie raced up the stairs to the bedroom to sit by her bed and tell her the good news, she smiled so hard, for an hour at least.

It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun shone, it was predicted to be cloudy and possible showers, someone must have had a word. There was no celebrant, our Mistress of Ceremonies was a close friend of mum’s with a perfect background and experience to set the tone and engage the crowd. There was a choir that sang a four part version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and later the Glennifer Brae (SCEGGS Wollongong) school song along with the impressive number of old girls in attendance. My brother and I got through our words without breaking down, my mum’s sister got through her own toast similarly unscathed. We celebrated her life with French champagne, as she wished it to be.

Two days later I was standing at the Delta counter heading back to Atlanta with a suitcase that was 25.3 kgs, 9kgs heavier than when I arrived. The sum total of ‘things’ I bought back that belonged to Mum is 9kgs.

Two nights later I am still awake at 2am trying to work out what actually happened. Today (since it is 2am) is Thanksgiving, our first in the USA, I am thankful to be home again with my family, but it doesn’t feel enough. I am hoping the haziness will pass with the jetlag. We’ll see.

Cancelled

Six hours before I was scheduled to fly to Australia today I cancelled my flight.

That sounds so simple.

It was a complex decision in what has been a most difficult week. There are people that support this decision and the others. I don’t have the words. I feel numb.

I booked the flight less than 48 hours ago, so sure I was going to take it that I didn’t consider insurance. I spent the last 36 hours in a frenzy of planning and list writing, bill paying, car registration, pantry stocking, Halloween shopping and possible activity planning, given the kids have half days this coming week due to school parent / teacher conferences – and making up the guest room for my Dad and his wife who are due in town tomorrow.

The time difference with Australia is crap at the moment, not that its great normally. 4pm here is 7am Australian Eastern Standard daylight savings time the earliest I can really call and find out what happened overnight. 6am here is 9pm there, almost always too late and definitely too late by 7.24am here when the kids step onto the bus to school.

Last Sunday I got a message, Mum was back in hospital. A girls weekend away at Hyams Beach, half a day in and a 2am trip to Nowra Emergency dodging Kangaroos on the drive into town by four capable ladies (including two nurses), one in tremendous pain from another blocked bowel. I’ve done that drive here with my Mum, not knowing where the hospital was, not fun.

All week I have called at 4pm and then spent the next eight hours speaking, texting and Skyping with various family members and the most important person, the star of the show, my brave and wonderful mother, taking any and all information in and processing, calculating, wondering what to do, when to pull the trigger to fly home.

Every day she sounded stronger, yet the blockage didn’t clear. The palliative care team and my aunt now all set up at another relative’s house, managed the pain (mostly) and adjusted the drugs in such a way as to assist if at all possible to clear the blockage. Don’t know if you’ve ever had a bowel blockage – I haven’t but I’ve witnessed it twice and it looks painful beyond measure and requires large amounts of serious pain relief that don’t always work. To watch someone you love suffer it is difficult beyond belief or description.

On Wednesday Mum told me she didn’t think it was going to clear, this being her third time round the block I rely on her past experience to gauge these things, I told her I would give it 24 more hours, on Thursday I booked my flight, Friday morning I called and she told me a magical thing. The first step in a bowel blockage alleviation, the passing of wind, had happened. Its not often so many people get excited about a fart.

This doesn’t mean the blockage is clearing definitely, it doesn’t mean there is a long term, or even a medium term, Mum sent an email and updated her own blog earlier this week letting  people know that her fight continues but that the bad guys are winning, it does mean there is more short term up for grabs and she will grasp it with both hands.

I will go to Australia to be with my mother, maybe it will be tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe in three weeks time – I will be there when she needs me. Today wasn’t the day. My brother is with her, her sister and brother, her 92 year old father and a daily stream of visitors spending precious minutes with her sitting in the sun on the balcony.

Time is precious, I know that. We were able to have two months of her all to ourselves, not having to share with anyone. I didn’t take enough photos, I didn’t want to break the moments we were sharing. Regrets.

I cancelled my flight, I cancelled death for this week.

Hotlanta eventually…

We made it!

All the way from the African continent to the one in the north of the Americas. (grimly holding onto the A theme)

It wasn’t without its challenges, traveling solo with my two TCK’s,  expert flyers though they are and truly thrilled with Emirates business class (as was their mother) they are still after all – kids. One of whom has anger management issues, our own little World’s Angriest Five Year Old (WAFYO), still learning to read and so has some justifiable issues operating the media equipment in that case, after all each airline has its own system idiosyncrasies and the last time she flew business class was three years ago, she was two and slept the whole time – for which her mother was very grateful.

The other junior traveller was somewhat anxious – not about flying but about the whole moving countries thing.  He was having his whole world tossed in the air to settle again somewhere he had never been, to make new friends he is not yet sure exist and after a detailed study of American television on offer in South Africa is concerned about whether or not he may get a date for the Prom. Did I mention he is nine years old?

The night before we left he had been bought home from a sleepover by his South African bff’s mother after he decided he was too anxious to stay, only to have the babysitter who was minding the other kids while their parents were at a lunchtime braai that was heading to a very late finish, not to hear the door, so a 10pm round trip return to the sleepover. Not my finest parenting moment – although I picked up the call at 10.15pm after all was resolved and well.

So it was with a slight sense of guilt and not at all thinking about the twenty three flying hours ahead that I allowed the kids to purchase some kind of giant chocolate bars at the airport in Durban after it took forty-five minutes to check in while they were playing trolley wars with several other juniors who had come to bid them farewell.

Note to self – don’t do that again.

Another item to note about Mr Nine is his absolute conviction that he doesn’t eat or drink at all while inside a flying device that takes you from one destination to another. This includes water, although after this trip we’re in negotiation for new guidelines on aircraft travel and won’t be boarding again until we have at least a water truce.

Anyway no points for guessing what happened next, apart from WAFYO watching Up six times in the next nine hours. There was also a crying baby in business class and the guy sitting between that and the vomiting nine year old must be wishing he’d missed that particular flight.

There was a vomiting lull in Dubai – as well as three hours to kill in transit so stupidly again I allowed eating and some drinking.  I should have focussed on less eating and more sensible hydration. Call me distracted, exhausted or just trying to get there.

The next leg to New York was fourteen hours. The vomiting started after ten or so and by hour thirteen the poor kid was practically passed out refusing water from his desperate mother.

We limped through the JFK wheelchair line with an almost passed out, definitely dehydrated, paler than paper kid whose father asked as he greeted us ‘Was he just a bit tired?’

Yes sure, they give out wheelchairs to all parents who suggest their kids are a bit tired and wouldn’t like to walk from the plane.

Happily as we were out of the aircraft and away from customs liquids were now an option and fifteen hours later after a few litres of the stuff and a good night’s sleep No 1 son was ready for a day of adventure in Central Park and at the Museum of Natural History – where the first exhibit in the Large African Mammals room was a Tiger, but I am sure there is a perfectly good explanation for that.

Three child tourism oriented days in New York and memories of the horror flight had faded somewhat, the Atlanta hop was only three hours and blissfully vomit free, even if we were in economy.

We landed in ‘Hotlanta’ as they call it on the steamiest weekend of the year so far, the day before the hottest day ever recorded in the history of the city 42 degrees celsius or around 106 degrees in the new terminology we will be learning – it was here that WAFYO picked up the mantle and produced one of the world’s biggest vomits  on the trip from the airport to the apartment in her father’s two week old car.

To use an American expression – Awesome!

Travellers – what type are you?

Airports are brilliant spots for people watching – which lets face it, everyone loves. Well, I love it, and from time to time I have the luxury of undertaking it solo – without having to worry where three other family members are at any given moment, giving me the time to properly evaluate my fellow travellers and their ‘type’.

People watching is also a great sport if you are ever slightly, just a tiny bit judgmental and love to type people who you have never met and are most likely never going to based on what they look like, what they are wearing, carrying, doing or smell like. Obviously the total opposite of what I am like in real life…..

If you are lucky enough to have lived in other countries, or travel quite frequently, it can add an extra layer to the already pre-defined view you may have of a general population of citizens – something I mentioned when I wrote about the Inevitabilities of International Travel – a while ago.

Last week I returned from a relatively self indulgent ten day, three continent tour of birthday parties.  The first was my brother’s 40th held in Sydney – but he (and a surprisingly increasing number of my family on both sides live in the Bris-Vegas, Gold Coast area) so after a weekend in Sydney, I flew up that way to inspect their new abodes. Three days later to return via a 6am flight to the International terminal in Sydney to jet off to HK for a long weekend to celebrate what was labeled the ‘Festival of Lynette’ for another fabulous friend’s 40th. This leg of the trip was justified to the husband by way of – traveling on Frequent Flyer points which were about to expire anyway and going Cathay so a weekend in Hong Kong  just made perfect sense.

Anyway – the point is, with those flights plus my Durban – Joburg legs both ways I took eight flights in ten days and spent a lot of time in airports and on planes conducting the sport of ‘people watching’.

Despite my husband and I having enough combined points for me to have flown business class, I was in economy – which I suppose I should thank him for because it is by far the superior people watching arena.  Those in business class glide from the airline lounges onto the plane (via the short queue) and then disappear into their pods never to be seen again. In the cattle class waiting area and down the back on the plane is where all the action is.

What we all dream about when we get into the plane an empty economy section -but there's always 'the other travellers'

Here are some of my most spotted types on the trip

– the happy traveller, who knew but they really do exist, smiley and courteous at all points

– the grump – usually contented with looking unhappy but can also turn to their neighbour and unload their reason for unhappiness (which may or may not include a life story – but will definitely include commentary about why they didn’t get their preferred seating on the flight)

– the tracksuit wearing traveller

– the couple who are dressed to match (these can overlap with the tracksuit wearers, see above)

– the Family, which of course has extensive sub groups. Can be with one or two parents, the special sub type will depend on number of and age of children and if they have the dad that pops them all in their seats and then glides off to his business class pod never to be seen again until disembarking when he will have been first in the immigration line and gone ahead to ‘collect the baggage’. Special shout out here to the first time travelling family, an easy spot.

– the fashion conscious traveller, the one who boards looking perfect, has a perfect change of clothes for flight and then can somehow layer themselves again at the end of the flight to depart looking a million dollars

– the long distance, many flights, lack of access to shower facilities travellers

– the stressed traveller, always worrying about where their passports are, how do they complete question 4 iv) e on the immigration card, whether they will catch or miss  their connecting flight etc etc etc

– the relaxed traveller (quite an overlap with the happy traveller)

– the full make up traveller – no idea how its done, usually crosses over with the fashion conscious traveller, both types being a total mystery to me

– the person or people you saw at check-in and hoped you weren’t going to be seated near – who are in fact in your row if not immediately beside you

– the tour group traveller (a personal fave) wearing stickers and following flags

– experienced traveller, has made all the necessary pre-flight arrangements, looks quiet and comfortable, always drinking water

– the know-it-all (or the experienced traveller with irritating personality) gleefully sharing extensive knowledge across the tarmac and the plane

– the late arriver – you know the ones that turn up after the announcement ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we are sorry for the delay – we are just waiting for a couple of passengers to arrive’ and then they do.

and last (but by no means least)

– the sleeper! Anywhere, anytime, any seat – eyes shut, dozes off immediately.

Of course there are many many more – what’s your favourite one here or which are the best ones I have missed?

Who finds five star game lodges exhausting?

It brings to mind the old ‘different strokes for different folks’ and ‘Wouldn’t the world be boring if we all liked the same thing?’ comments that you throw out there from time to time to explain people’s differences of opinion and point of view but I do have to share a recent story that still has me shaking my head just a little.

My fabulous friend Gen (aka the OAC) and I had just climbed a big mountain (you may have heard of Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa) and so before she headed back to Hong Kong and big city life I decided to take her someplace where she could see a ‘real life’ giraffe (her African wish) rather than just craning through the plane window asking hopefully ‘ Do you think if I look really hard I can see one from here?’

So as a treat after our grueling climb and seven days with no shower, we booked ourselves into a swanky lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve – all prepared after our flights back from Kili and a night in Joburg, to pick up a car, snack up at Woolies and head off on a girls road trip and luxury weekend.

As we were checking out of our Kili hostel hotel I was checking my email for final confirmations of the coming weekend and received the following message – ‘We apologise but the lodge you have booked has been fire damaged and are unable to accommodate you.’
‘Oh no’ I screamed causing all manner of passers-by to look   ‘Our game lodge has burnt down’ – not exactly what the email said but much better for dramatic effect!
As I returned to read the rest of the email – it did say we had been able to be accommodated elsewhere and our weekend would still be going ahead. Thank goodness for that.

About 36 hours later we were at the fabulous Jacis Tree Lodge, I had never been to our originally booked place but fair to say we were pretty happy with the substitute and had seen a giraffe driving from the gate to the lodge so already mission accomplished!

The ‘conversation encouraging’ area

Its a lovely lodge with all eight rooms on stilts above the ground below giving you the feeling of being in the trees, great staff, great service, great food, so relaxing and tranquil. There were two ladies doing a review to add the lodge to their corporate accommodation, two couples on wedding anniversary trips, two couples from an overseas location and us. Everyone was very friendly, encouraged by the game viewing and table arrangements and the well stocked bar so we ended up chatting with everyone over the course of the weekend.

The two couples from an unnamed overseas country – but lets just say one associated with the term ‘Whinging (something)’ seemed to be having a lovely time and were there for five nights. I wish! When we asked them though how they were enjoying it was when our brow furrowing began.

The ‘rustic’ bathroom – may have been a reference to an outside shower but I was always told that people from that country preferred baths

‘Oh, its so busy and exhausting. I really don’t enjoy it.’ Said one of ‘the wives’, ‘I am just not cut out for rustic. I can’t wait to get to Cape Town to relax and have a proper bathroom.’ For those wondering about the rustic bathroom see photo!?!?

‘Busy and exhausting day’ as follows – 6.30am for coffee and croissants and a three hour game drive where you may run into a pack of wild dogs with puppies, some rhinos, passing elephants and giraffes and then stumbled upon a lioness and her new cubs and back for a full brunch, before either resting or setting selves up in the hide (where there is in fact a four poster bed) to see a herd of around 50 elephants splashing about while waiting for high tea at 3pm and then another game drive repeat similar version of morning – but include sundowners en route. Back for more pre-dinner drinks and then dinner as pre-agreed and consulted by chef – sit around a fire, bed by 10pm.  (None of the game drives are compulsory – in fact both of the wedding anniversary couples missed the morning drives for the optional sleep in)

I’m sorry – I just can’t see exhausting here anywhere. Then again I had just climbed a mountain. What about you?

ps – we had a great time and thought it very relaxing and enjoyable

We decided to push through the ‘exhaustion’ and ignore the ‘rustic’ and enjoy!

Look over here – I’m going to climb a mountain

Because I am so good at updating this blog – I thought I would start another one, you know, for fun!

Have a read, you know you want to – its all about my upcoming big adventure.

More posts here soon – promise.