Do You Plan Your Wanderings?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Happy Wanderer.”

I’m a planner. I admit it. But whether or not my children believe me, I wasn’t always one. When I traveled to Ensenada, I let my friend plan our weekend. When I traveled to San Felipe, I went with the flow. On my trip to Australia, we were free and spontaneous. We chose where to stay and for how long, money and a flight home our only boundaries. Even my first trip to Paris and Zurich were simple – I stayed with friends, brought guide books, and decided each day where I would be a tourist.

But then I had children. And the world became more crowded. I discovered that summer camps would fill up before spring. With a child with food allergies, spontaneity was difficult and wrought with disappointment and a hungry child. Slowly, I learned to plan. And now, I always plan.

My hesitation and anxiety about traveling to South Africa was lessened by learning more about the country, where we could and would go. Planning has allowed me to avoid long lines and eat gluten free at Disney, visit our sponsored child in Lesotho, camp at Pawtuckaway State Park every summer for years, be led by a tour guide through Gettysburg National Park, and visit the Senate on a trip to Washington.

But I still love spontaneity. And while doing a little research before traveling to a new place helps me to find the special and unique, or avoid those well traveled and touristy, destinations, spontaneity allows us to change course. To listen to recommendations from other travelers or discover new places ourselves.

Without spontaneity, I wouldn’t have attended a hearing for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, watched the surfers in Half Moon Bay, or listened to the Wave Organ in San Francisco. I wouldn’t have spent the night in a treehouse, picked strawberries in Pescadero, gone hiking with the Hobart Bushwalking Club, or danced Nia in Santa Barbara. Without spontaneity, I wouldn’t have met Terry from England who later invited me to her wedding in Athens. I wouldn’t have stayed with the dairy farmer in Auckland or gone hot air ballooning outside of Alice Springs.

The travel world is so different than it was – the internet provides information and access to so many places, and apps like Yelp can allow a little bit of spontaneity with less risk of disappointment. You can read about where to go and what to see on blogs and share your experiences on social media.

But there’s nothing quite as freeing as just setting out, doing what you feel like doing at the moment, eating when you’re hungry, and being ready to just let things happen.

24 Hours in Paris!

When our kids were 10 and 12, we decided to give them a whirlwind glimpse of Paris.Paris

After 10 days in Great Britain, we arrived at London’s St. Pancras International Station ready to board the early morning Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel to Paris, France. Although the “Chunnel” is only 31.4 miles (235 of those miles are under water), the entire distance from London to Paris is 307 miles and takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

We arrived at Paris’ Gare du Nord, hopped on the Metro, and got off at St. Michel-Notre Dame. Though the weather was hot (about 85 degrees), we walked slowly from Notre Dame Cathedral to the top of the Eiffel Tower, exploring the Left Bank along the way.

Eiffel Tower

We were lucky – our lodging that night was at a friend’s apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a western suburb of Paris. We sat outside on our friend’s balcony drinking champagne and speaking English interspersed with French.

The next morning, a short Metro ride brought us to the Avenue des Champs Élysées and a 2-mile walk to Le Musée de Louvre.

Louis Vuitton

After a quick tour past the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, we left Paris for our train back to London.

Mona Lisa

If you had only 24 hours in Paris, what would you do?

Trip taken: July 2008.

When Plumbing Doesn’t Exist

There were moments on our South African trip when plumbing didn’t exist. We spent hours with Africans learning about their culture; we visited their huts and walked through the villages, never seeing a toilet, never seeing anyone squat. We were told later that most huts have a bucket behind the door.

The outdoors became our bathroom when we hiked in the mountains and stopped for a drink on a guided game drive. When we spent the night in a treehouse out in the middle of the bush, we learned to be resourceful and to improvise.

Whether it was on a hike in the mountains, in a hotel room where only a shower curtain separated the toilet from the rest of the room or on a guided game drive in lion country, just a few feet and a small bush from the Land Rover, we learned to announce our intentions whenever we had to go to ensure privacy as well as safety.

Snacks in South Africa

At home, we limit the sugared and processed food in our house. Soft drinks only appear at parties, potato chips are never bought and cookies are usually home made. But on vacation, we relax a little, especially when traveling in a unique place. Don’t you think eating the local food is part of the cultural experience, even if it’s not necessarily good for you?

I used to think the U.S. had all the choices, but in South Africa, my kids were overwhelmed and excited by the variety of potato chip flavors they’d never heard of or sampled before. The few times we stopped at a petrol station looking for a snack, they searched for the new and different. There were Korma Curry potato chips, Caribbean Onion and Balsamic Vinegar, Thai Sweet Chili, Beef and Biltong flavored potato chips and even Sweet Chili flavored Doritos. We each chose a bag and shared tastes, some preferring the more spicy chips, others the sweet.

Although pineapple Fanta was the kids’ favorite choice to wash down the salty chips, they also enjoyed orange and grape Fanta as well as Grapetisers and Appletisers, just juice and carbonation, no added sugar.

And of course we had to try the biltong. Similar to beef jerky, biltong is strips of meat that have been marinated or seasoned and then cured and dried. It is sold in small packages in grocery stores and convenience stores or you can buy it shredded at the mall or at the butchery where it is sold by weight. You can eat beef or kudu, ostrich or springbok, eland or gemsbok. The thickness and flavor of the biltong varies, depending on the meat, the cut and its preparation.

We tried biltong a few times. In Lady Grey, we bought beef biltong from a butchery, where the butcher filled a small brown paper bag with shredded pieces cut from a big slab of beef hanging from the ceiling. We bought packaged kudu and springbok biltong in Kruger National Park. I winced as I tried it, thinking of the kudu we’d just seen running by the side of the road.

If you can’t make it to South Africa and really want to try out biltong, try making it yourself (there are plenty of recipes online) or check out the website Based in North Carolina, this company imports a few South African items for sale in the U.S. including biltong and Appletisers.

Fanta photo by Tommy Taft.

Playing Chicken on South African Roads

“Yap youeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” My husband yelled as we crested the top of the hill, perching over a steep decline. Down and down we drove, leveling only for a few seconds before climbing back up again. The roads were like roller coasters, rolling up and down, steep and narrow, with views far and near. We could see far and watch as impatient drivers moved into the oncoming lane, counting on speed and skill and luck to carry them beyond the slower car and safely back into the left lane only just in time.

We were driving in South Africa on the wrong side of the road (as far as we Americans were concerned) from the Wild Coast to Lesotho.

“Yap youeeeeeeee,” he yelled, as our speed increased to pass the slow moving truck, passing to the right, moving into the opposite lane, moving fast and faster, our speed well exceeding the speed limit until we slid in front of the truck just as that car coming toward us was getting near.

We played chicken more than once, so many times that it became blasé to the driver, my husband. Sometimes I shut my eyes, intimidated by the signs, “High Accident Zone,” intimidated by the website I’d stumbled across which detailed the roads with the highest fatalities (this was one of them). Or I’d look beyond the pavement, at the termite mounds, the grasses, the clothes lines adding color to the earthen shacks and huts around them, and hope for the best.

For road safety advice for foreigners driving in South Africa, check out the website:

The South African Balancing Act

Have you ever tried to carry anything on your head? Maybe a book to practice your good posture? What about a bunch of sticks or a 10-liter bucket of water? How about a large bag of maize?

In South Africa we saw women everywhere carrying everything and anything on their heads. Most of the time their hands were free and often babies were on their backs. According to one young woman, the girls begin learning the technique when they are 8-years old. My daughter was 13, and I was a few years older when we tried.

On the “Women’s Power Tour” in Bulungula on the Wild Coast of South Africa, our guide, Mtomboxolo, took us to the village spring. She gave us each a small container (margarine size) and told us to fill it up with water, cover it with a lid, then put it on our heads before carrying it up the hill on a rooted dirt path. Tentatively, I put the tub on my head and walked up the hill, both hands by my sides. A few minutes later we arrived at the hut, our water intact. Proud of myself, I turned to see Mtomboxolo carrying a much larger container on her head.

Now it was time to gather wood. We walked to a wooded area with small trees and shrubs and gathered dead branches. Mtomboxolo gave us fabric to tie up our bundle, then, to my surprise, told us to carry the bundles on our heads as well. I retied mine, placed it on my head and balanced the lopsided bundle back up the hill.

Around a fire that night, we spoke to an orthopedist who volunteers in the village. She told us that many women come to her with back pain yet even after telling them to stop using only their heads, she will see them later that day, balancing heavy loads, their arms and hands empty and free.

Playing Marbles on the Wild Coast

We played marbles, my daughter, a young African boy, and I, one sunny morning on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

I meandered along the fine sandy beach, the morning sun’s warmth increasing, the wind less than the day before. My daughter walked near me, searching for shells or some creatures of the sea.

Around the curve of the coast, a little boy appeared near us, his black eyes big and friendly. Picking up a round seed, the size of a marble, he flicked the seed with his thumb, shooting it far along the wet sand. My daughter followed, taking her turn and learning quickly. He saw me watching and gave me a seed and motioned for me to play, too. Using a stick to create a line in the sand or his hands to dig a shallow hole, he showed us what to do, flicking the seed as if it were a marble. Shooting and flicking and sometimes tossing the marble, we followed his lead, doing what he showed us with no words.

He told us his name was Paul and that he was 6 years old. He counted to 100 in English and drew the alphabet in the sand, reciting each letter as he wrote with a stick for a pencil. He wore a torn Michigan sweatshirt and sweatpants and bare feet and when he tried on my daughter’s sunglasses, he posed in a typical “cool” manner, leaning back, his arms crossed until we laughed.

Around the corner from where we played, several women appeared, with tall buckets on their heads. Wearing long skirts and shirts, their heads covered in fabric, they walked with their hands free, nodding as they passed, continuing on beyond the river mouth to the colorful thatched roof huts on the hills.

When it was time for us to go, we said good bye to Paul and left him playing on the beach, marble in hand.

Eating Gluten Free in South Africa

When my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease, I couldn’t imagine traveling in a country where I didn’t speak the language. How and what would she eat? Eleven years later, we were ready to give it a try, and though we don’t speak Xhosa or Sesotho or Afrikaans, our 4-week trip to South Africa and Lesotho was almost entirely gluten free.

Before we left:

  • We ordered a gluten-free meal for the plane but brought along snacks just in case.
  • I researched the type of food we were likely to encounter and learned that in the villages, maize (corn) is a staple (called pap).
  • I googled “gluten free in South Africa” and discovered that gluten-free products do exist in health food stores and in major supermarkets (Pick n Pay, Clicks, Woolworths) in the big cities.
  • We packed dried food meals that only require boiling water to cook (check out Trader Joe’s for a few gluten-free options). We also packed gluten-free oatmeal and lots of gluten-free bars (Think Thin and Lara bars).
  • We chose to “self cater” many nights which was a less expensive option than eating every meal out and gave us the opportunity to cook for ourselves.
  • When booking a bed and breakfast, I always asked what type of breakfast was included and told them that one of us ate gluten free.

What we discovered:

  • On the plane (we flew Lufthansa and South African Air), the specially ordered gluten-free main meal was always gluten free (e.g., salmon, rice and veggies with rice cake and fresh fruit or omelet with potatoes and fresh fruit). But the snacks were not (ham sandwiches on a roll with a granola bar or oatmeal cookies).
  • Just like in the U.S., each supermarket varies in the products it carries. We found gluten-free bread and crackers at Woolworths and gluten-free pasta at Pick n Pay. We found gluten-free bread and cookies at a small health food store in Cape Town’s Sea Point, gluten-free granola in the town of Ladybrand and even gluten-free rusks at a Pick n Pay just outside of Kruger National Park. Some supermarkets, especially Woolworths, carry ready-to-eat food which worked well for a spontaneous picnic lunch (cheese, fruit, veggies, hummus). Many brands carry gluten-free labels, and all ingredients were listed.
  • Having bars and dried gluten-free food gave us peace of mind and when dinner at the lodge was not gluten free, no worries, we just boiled up some water and cooked some freeze dried Indian food in minutes. GF cookies were handy as a substitute for the many wheat-based desserts (e.g., cake with custard sauce, milk tart, or apple crumble) we were served.
  • Breakfasts were easy. We ate several English breakfasts, complete with eggs cooked to order, stewed tomato, bacon and fruit. Just say no to the toast or pancakes on the side (and be sure to check for cross contamination).

When we didn’t speak the language, there was always some one who did. Since English was not the first language of our translators, we had to put some faith and trust in them. In the villages, the people cooked simply from whole foods so we rarely had to worry about hidden ingredients (e.g., barley malt). When we told them no flour and no bread crumbs, the first response was always, “Shame!” but they listened and told us when a meal was not gluten free. Though we carried paper bags with us and Pepto Bismo and Tums, there was never a need. In 4 weeks of traveling throughout South Africa, my daughter never got sick and never went hungry.

Reading Before You Go

While the kids read about South Africa, the adults read as well, choosing other books to add insight to the country and to our trip.

A few years ago, I read three books about South Africa, recommended by a friend after she had lived in the country for 7 years. I read about Apartheid in Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and post-Apartheid in Disgrace by J.M. Coetze. In When the Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head, I read about tribal traditions and modern day conflicts. In these three books, I first gained an insight into some of the struggles and conflicts of the country of South Africa.

Before we left the U.S., I read about the Dutch first arriving on the African continent in The Covenant by James Michener, I learned about pass laws and police raids during Apartheid in excerpts from the autobiography Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane and in the children’s book, Journey to Jo’Burg by Beverly Naidoo, banned in South Africa during Apartheid. I learned about women slaves and prisoners on Robbens Island in the 1800s while reading Unconfessed by Yvette Christianese.

As we explored Cape Town, I read about Apartheid and townships from the point of view of a white woman in The Age of Iron, another book by Coetze, while my husband read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. As we traveled to Lesotho, I learned about life for women in Lesotho while reading Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya’s autobiography, Singing Away the Hunger. As we explored Kruger National Park, I learned about running a game lodge and an elephant sanctuary while reading The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony.

Each book gave me an insight into a different aspect of the country, its history, and its people. For more and different book ideas, check out your library, look in travel guides and do a few internet searches. Have fun reading!

Teens, Books, and South Africa

While planning our trip to South Africa, worlds and miles away from our lives in New England, I looked for ways to interest my teenagers in the trip. Although my kids (ages 13 and 15) like to travel, I have learned that if they read a book or watch a movie about the place we’re visiting, they are more invested in the trip.

So before we left on our adventure, I did some research and spent some time at the library. My kids each read a few of the books before we left, we bought a few books for the trip, and while we were there, we learned of a few more.

Ranging in ability, maturity, and intensity, some books appealed more to my daughter and others to my son. Neither of my kids read all the books but read the ones which interested them, including a few when we returned home. Following are a few of their favorites:

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba: an inspiring true story about a 14-year old boy who builds a windmill in rural Malawi, a country in southernAfrica. My son read this book in school and referred to it often during the trip.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony:  Both kids loved this funny and exciting true story about poachers, elephants, and life on a South African game reserve.

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin: my son enjoyed this true story about Apartheid, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and the changing of South Africa.

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood by Robyn Scott: my daughter liked this true story about a young girl growing up in rural Botswana during the 1980s and 1990s.

Waiting for the Rain: A Novel of South Africa by Sheila Gordon: a story of two boys, one white and one black, growing up on a South African farm during Apartheid. My daughter and I enjoyed reading this book together, before and after the trip.