Category Archives: The Sisterhood of the Traveling…Sisters

The Great Columbus Road Trip of 2012

In mid-September, we packed up my car and headed south into The Worst State Ever to see the U.S. Men’s National Team take on Jamaica in a World Cup qualifying match.Image

Yes, we like soccer so much that we will travel into Ohio to see a game. (Just kidding, Ohio.) (Sort of.)

I purchased our tickets a few months out. No tricks to it: I just bought them via Ticketmaster the minute that they went on sale. Our tickets were at the top of the 100 level at midfield: nothing to complain about.

I used one of my absolute favorite methods of booking a hotel: Priceline! I thoroughly enjoy the thrill of bidding on a hotel room, getting a ridiculously reasonable rate and being surprised by what hotel we end up at. It’s a fun game. You should try it.

The drive from Detroit to Columbus is a mere four hours and one stop at Tim Horton’s. It is rather painless as far as road trips go. Especially when you get someone else to drive. Which I did. (Special shout out to Lauren for taking the wheel.)

We left just before 10:00 am and arrived at 2:00 pm. After checking in to our hotel and grabbing lunch and drinks, we outfitted ourselves in egregious amounts of red, white and blue.

ImageI haven’t mentioned that Team Fantastic (that’s me and Lauren) added a third member for the Great Columbus Road Trip of 2012. Our friend Randy joined us for 28 hours of glory and I don’t think that I’m exaggerating when I say that the trip changed his life. We do that to people.

The atmosphere at Columbus Crew stadium was electric, amazing, astounding, awesome. Whatever your choice of adjective, that’s what it was. We stood the whole match. WE STOOD THE WHOLE MATCH. The crowd was manically behind the home team, which was a change from the USMNT games that we’ve seen in Chicago (very pro-Poland) and in Detroit (which was supporting the Americans but largely indifferent — no passion).

The match was, without question, the best match that we’ve seen on American soil. Not only did we see a win for the Americans, but we saw crazy awesome fan support.Image

As much as it pains my maize and blue heart to admit it: Columbus brought it. Columbus Crew stadium was filled with enthusiastic, passionate fans. It was incredible. The other USMNT games we’ve seen in the United States haven’t come close to comparing to the atmosphere that was in Crew Stadium.

U.S. Soccer would be insane not to stage more USMNT games in Columbus.

And after our phenomenal road trip, we would be crazy not to attend.

The final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is a double round-robin competition known as the Hexagonal. The Hex. Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Jamaica and the United States qualified.

The USMNT will host five home games during the last round of World Cup qualifiers:

  • 3/22/13 vs Costa Rica
  • 6/11/13 vs Panama
  • 6/18/13 vs Honduras
  • 9/10/13 vs Mexico
  • 10/11/13 vs Jamaica

Here’s the thing about USMNT games: they could be held virtually anywhere. Unlike some countries where their national teams play home games at at set stadium, the U.S. Men’s National Team can basically play anywhere in the country. And there are all sorts of factors that come into play when determining where they’ll get the best home field advantage: the stadium, the fan base, the playing field, the likelihood that 20,000 Mexican fans will travel there and essentially squash home field advantage, etc.

Columbus will more than likely host a match. That match will more than likely be against Mexico; the USMNT has pulled off a handful of really big wins over Mexico at Crew Stadium.

Which means that we will likely be spending Tuesday, 9/10/2013 in Columbus, Ohio.

It could be worse.

Other than the Columbus part.

(The Columbus part gives me hives. But there is no denying that it’s a great place to watch American futbol.)

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Last day in Jozi

Sadly, our trip to Johannesburg wrapped up on Monday.  When we were planning our trip, two weeks seemed like such a luxuriously long time to spend on vacation!  But, I swear, we blinked and it was time to go home. 

After we returned to the hotel following the Argentina/Mexico match on Sunday night, we finished a good portion of our packing.  I had a lot more to pack than Lauren, who had been rather disciplined about packing away her souvenirs and dirty clothes over the course of our stay, instead of waiting until the last day. 

I’ve learned my lesson.

Following breakfast and showers and the last of our packing, Lauren and I caught a cab into Rosebank for one final shopping expedition.  There were a few special items left on our list that we wanted to pick up and we wanted to squeeze in one last meal before we left South Africa.

The shopping trip, I am pleased to report, went swimmingly.  We knocked everything off of our list in record time and even found a few spare minutes to browse the mall.  …and buy a few other things that weren’t on our list as a result. 

To be fair, even though it wasn’t on the list, I totally needed the official World Cup album.  And now my life is complete. 

The most interesting part of our shopping trip came when we visited the biltong store.  Biltong is, essentially, South Africa’s version of beef jerky.  People go wild for it.  Everyone told us about how good it was, how much better it tasted than American beef jerky.  So, of course we had to try it.  I had actually bought a bag at Soccer City when we were there for the Germany/Ghana match and, well, I wasn’t crazy about it.  And Lauren was even less crazy about it. 

But would Dad like it?  Yes.  And that is how we ended up at the biltong store: in our quest to buy our dad a uniquely South African gift.

The biltong store was set up a little bit like a bulk food store.  Bins of biltong of all different varieties: ostrich biltong, springbok biltong, beef biltong.  All shredded up and ready for the taking (once you put on the proper rubber gloves, of course).  So we grab a few handfuls of biltong and shove it into a bag. 

And then I get the great idea of buying one of the ginormous slabs of beef that is just hanging off of a shelf like it’s a pair of socks.  Why not?  Anything in the name of an authentic South African delicacy for our daddy! 

We have our slab of beef shredded and then the staff vacuum sealed up all of the biltong so that we could bring it into the country.  All right in the middle of a shopping mall.  Completely natural!  We were getting so good at being South African.  It was a shame that we had to leave.

We had seafood for our final meal in South Africa at a restaurant called Ocean Basket.  Ocean Basket has all of these platter meals on the menu, which consist of several types of seafood in enormous quantities.  We split the Princess Platter, which had princess prawns, fish, some salty fried cheese concoction, calamari, fries, …and maybe something else?

When we ordered the meal, we asked the waiter if it would be enough for us to share.  “Oh, it depends, he said.  Did you eat breakfast?” 

Yes, we had breakfast.  And, no, neither of us could have even made a dent in a Princess Platter even if we hadn’t.

Something crazy happened, you guys.  We couldn’t eat it all.  Me and Lauren!  I am not even kidding.  The world may stop spinning.

So, with very full bellies and an armful of shopping bags, we took our final cab ride back to our hotel.  We squeezed our goodies into our suitcases, turned on the Netherlands/Slovakia Round of 16 match and waited for our beloved shuttle driver, Thierry, to take us to the airport. 

And then Lauren fell asleep on our bed, which I unsuccessfully tried to prevent her from doing.  We were about to embark on 22 hours of travel and that’s a really good place to catch up on your sleep, right?!

Of course, she slept way better on the plane than I did. 

That’s what I get for interfering with someone’s nap.

Johannesburg and Soweto

So, 7:15 am.  It came very early.

Sunday was our last chance to squeeze in a tour of Soweto.  Going on just a few hours of sleep was far from ideal, but the only other option was to skip the tour entirely.  Please!  There would be ample time to catch up on sleep during the 16 hour plane ride home. 

Our tour was a combined tour of Johannesburg and Soweto.  We were the last pickup of the six in our tour group; as soon as we got in the van, the tour guide began his spiel. 

The guide was quite knowledgeable and he had obviously given this tour dozens upon dozens of times before.  Had I not been able to see that his eyes were on the road as we proceeded through Johannesburg and into Soweto, I would have thought that he was reading off of a script.  Needless to say, it was a bit robotic, but undoubtedly informative.

The best part about the tour guide’s speech was that he regularly referred to us as “good people.”  It was so unnatural that it was humorous.  “And next, good people, we will be driving through the most dangerous part of Johannesburg, Hillbrow.”  “We are now turning onto Vilakazi Street, good people, the only street to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize recipients.”

The tour started with the drive through Johannesburg.  Despite having been there for nearly two weeks, we actually hasn’t spent much time within the city limits of Johannesburg other than when we were attending matches.  The tour of Johannesburg was brief but it was certainly worth it: we saw where Nelson Mandela currently lives, we visited Constitution Hill, we drove through Hillbrow, which our driver described as once being “South Africa’s Hollywood” but is now one of the most dangerous areas of Johannesburg.  We saw St. John’s College, the most prestigious boys’ school in South Africa.  We saw abandoned buildings and stunning statues. 

Following the Johannesburg tour, we made the short drive into Soweto.  Soweto’s origin was as a black township during the apartheid era.  It’s a fascinating place.  It wasn’t about going to see the slums, or to gawk at those who were less fortunate.  It was about the history of the place, about the role that it played in the struggle against the Apartheid movement and about how it fits into modern-day South Africa.

Following a short drive through some of the more prosperous areas of Soweto, our driver took us to an area where we could exit the van and see Soweto up close.  We walked down a dirt path past a handful of tiny, tin houses, accompanied by a Soweto resident who is a volunteer tour guide. 

He took us to a house where the young mother of four welcomed us inside.  She showed us the three rooms of her house: two bedrooms that barely fit the beds that they contained, and her kitchen, as narrow as a hallway.  The tour guide coaxed the answers to a few questions from her.  We watched her children dart in and out of the door.  It was humbling, really, to see how she lived and how unabashedly she showed it to us.  I suppose that it could have been just for the Rand that we all gave her when we left but, whatever the reason, she opened up her home to a half-dozen tourists. 

I had brought along a bag of Tootsie Roll Pops.  When we left the house, I worked up the nerve to ask the tour guide if it would be okay to hand them out to the children.  With his blessing, I broke open the bag and handed them to the children who were in the woman’s yard.  Word, of course, spread quickly.  I was looking at an awful lot of eager faces and outstretched hands; the bag was empty before long. 

The Soweto guide escorted us out of the neighborhood and back to our van.  After a pit-stop at a KFC so a few on the tour could go to the bathroom (a break that featured our tour guide accidentally driving our van over a substantial concrete barrier), we headed further into Soweto.  We saw where Desmond Tutu lives when he is in the area, we saw where Nelson Mandela lived prior to his imprisonment (and for a mere 11 days after his imprisonment).  Finally, we wrapped up our tour at the Hector Pieterson Museum.  Pieterson was the first student to be killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising against Apartheid and the museum was built in the honor of him and the others who were killed during that time.  It was a small museum (we were allotted just 30 minutes to browse), but I found it was a neat, comprehensive way to wrap up the tour.

Sleep deprived and all, it was an enlightening and interesting way to spend our morning.  And we even got back to the hotel with time for a nap before our last match of the tournament: Argentina/Mexico.

Mexico vs. Uruguay

We had an early start on Tuesday.  Attending our first match in Rustenburg required a morning of travel.  Rustenburg is approximately two hours away from Johannesburg and, before we left, I purchased tickets on FIFA’s city-to-city fan busses.  Because she’s really awesome (or maybe because she feels guilty about the whole hotel-burning-down ordeal) Jackie volunteered to take us to the bus station.  Our bus was scheduled to leave just after 10:00 am; she dropped us off around 9:30 am.

If I’m being honest, I’m still not exactly sure how we managed to get on a bus and get to Rustenburg.  It was that disorganized.  Give your ticket to that woman over there.  See that man standing by the wall?  Get a wristband from him.  Stand around.  Wait.  Wait.  Wait.  Wait.

It was well past 11:00 when the bus finally showed up.

We joke about Africa time, but it is definitely a reality of life here.  Things aren’t to the minute and people don’t live and die by the clock. 

But the bus eventually showed up and we squeezed in with a bunch of passionate Mexican fans, along with the odd Uruguay fan scattered here and there.

The night before, we’d been warned about the trip to Rustenburg.  Expect slow and expect long, we were told.  And, by all means, when your bus stops at the gas station before you get to the stadium?  Get out!  Get out.  Get food.  Get drinks.  Because it is your last chance.

At a gas station.

The problem with Rustenburg is that there are only two ways to get to town and both of them are simple two lane highways.  It made for a very long trip.  What takes two hours in optimal driving conditions took almost four.  We arrived at 3:35 pm for the 4:00 pm match. 

Mexico largely dominated the match but lost, 1-0.  Mexico’s fans seemed to be the majority in the crowd and they were a little intense.  After halftime, we were walking up to our seats and one Mexico fan looks at us and exclaims “you’re not Mexican!” 

No kidding, bro. 

After the game, we went straight back to the bus.  It was a little after 6:00 pm, which was somewhat alarming because our bus driver definitely told us, upon arrival, that the bus was leaving at 7:30 pm.  But Rustenburg’s stadium is in the absolute middle of nowhere.  There isn’t any single place to go for a drink or shop for souvenirs or otherwise kill time.  (Unless you wanted to invite yourself over to a family’s tiny tin home, I suppose.  And that would be rude.)

So we sat on the bus.  Waited.  Waited.  Waited.  Waited.  AGAIN.  Finally, the bus was full and all of the sad Mexicans (and the occasional elated Uruguayan) were accounted for.  Except two.

We would leave, the bus driver said, if the two missing passengers hadn’t returned by 8:30 pm.     

They showed up.  All of the Mexicans sang a song to the latecomers as they climbed onto the bus, teasing them for being late.  I just wanted to cry tears of joy. 

We slept, fitfully and uncomfortably, for most of the ride back.  The driver didn’t have the air conditioning on, so the bus was stuffy in addition to being cramped and so, so slow.  The infamous single road leading out of Rustenburg was backed up most of the way.  It was not a pleasant trip. 

But it got us where we needed to go.  And it got us back.  We arrived in Sandton just after 10:30 pm and we rushed over to Nelson Mandela Square to find a restaurant that was still serving dinner.  Not surprisingly, our outlook on the day was a bit rosier after we had had a meal.

We survived the trip to Rustenburg!

And we’re going back on Saturday.

A feathered hat and the paparazzi

Monday was a rest day.  No games, no tours, no commitments until our 8:30 pm dinner reservations. 

We started our day at approximately the same time that we start every day here, 9:30 am.  Breakfast is served until 10:00 am, so we’ve set our internal clocks to get us up just in time.  We haven’t missed a breakfast yet.  And good thing.  I hear it’s the most important meal of the day!

Following our breakfast and our morning email check, we sat with our friend James in the hotel lobby for a while.  Though he is from Liverpool, James was travelling with the group of New Yorkers (who had since gone home) and we had spent quite a bit of time with him.  He was with us on our first trip to Ellis Park, for the USA/Slovenia match, and he had gone to the Brazil/Ivory Coast match the night before, too.

James mentioned that he was going to the mall and to lunch with Jackie (the proprietor of our original accommodations and the woman kind enough to take us to the Lion Park) later in the morning.  We decided to tag along.  We ended up back at the African craft market.  Where we bought a few things (of course) and subsequently banned ourselves from returning to because we find it far too easy to burn through cash there.

(I should mention that we’ve since made plans to return this Monday because self control + Lauren + Alyson = does not compute.)

We had a nice, quick lunch and headed back to the hotel to see James off.  Before he left, he delivered several flags to our room: United States, Spain and Argentina.  He had no use for them at home; we promised to wave them wildly at every opportunity. 

The rest of our afternoon passed quietly.  Lauren did homework and took a nap.  I blogged and checked my work email. 

We headed to Melrose Arch for dinner at a restaurant called Moyo.  We had actually tried to have dinner there on Saturday, but couldn’t get reservations.  Moyo is an authentic African restaurant that came highly recommended by Jackie. 

Lauren suggested that Moyo may be the Frankenmuth of South Africa.  The staff wears traditional African outfits, which is probably embarrassing yet mitigated by the amount of business that they see.  We were seated in the basement section of the restaurant, which was absolutely enormous and completely packed.  The basement is decorated to look like a cave.  A cave with flatscreen televisions broadcasting the Spain game. 

We had drinks.  We had dinner.  We watched the Spain game.  We had our faces painted – which is apparently an African thing (or just a clever trick to charm the tourists).  We talked a Frenchman named Francois into taking our picture.  We soaked up the atmosphere.  It was really fun.

And about to get better.

Just as we were finishing up our meal, the Spain game finished.  To celebrate, the restaurant played the World Cup’s anthem “Waka Waka” (performed by our hero, Shakira) over the loudspeakers.  The wait staff gathered on the floor and started to dance.

“Go dance with them,” I told Lauren.  We’d been dancing to that song for nearly a week.  And it isn’t like talking Lauren into doing something like that is even remotely difficult.

So Lauren gets up with the wait staff and she starts dancing.  Before long, she’s wearing a hat made of feathers.  And drawing quite the crowd. 

Before I could really comprehend what was happening, Lauren and I were standing at our table and posing for photos with a large group of men.  Who formed a line.  To get their pictures taken.  With us.

There was also a large group of others surrounding us, taking pictures.  (Thankfully, I took a good number of photos of the paparazzi.  So funny.  Can’t wait to share them.) 

Here’s something we’ve learned since coming to Africa: girls with blonde hair and blue eyes are a bit of a rarity.      

Especially to a group of men from Saudi Arabia, which is where the majority of our fan club hailed from.

It was one of those situations that you could only ever get into with Lauren.  You all know exactly what I’m talking about.  Just so unusual that you can’t really believe that you’re there and so funny that you’ll be rehashing it for years to come. 

The night was magic.  Pure magic.  (Plus a bangin’ Shakria jam and one feathered hat.)

Lauren got bit by a lion

We didn’t have tickets for any Saturday matches, so we went on a glorious adventure to the Lion Park!  The Lion Park is located about an hour outside of Johannesburg.  It would have been a costly taxi ride and costlier to have a tour guide take us, but the woman who owned our original hotel was sweet enough to take us to the Lion Park for the afternoon.  She definitely didn’t have to give up so much of her day in order to shuttle us to an attraction that she’s been to a number of times.  It was incredibly kind of her to do that for us. 

The Lion Park has two main attractions: the game drive and touch-a-cub.  We went on the game drive first.  We were driven through the Lion Park’s ground by a very knowledgeable guide named Emma (her family breeds lions for a living.  Seriously!).  We started off driving through an area where we saw zebras, black wildebeests and springbok and all sorts of animals indigenous to Africa’s planes. 

From there, we drove through the park’s four prides of lions.  Each pride of lions is in its own area of the park and the vehicles just drive through the area: no fences, no moats, absolutely nothing between your cars and the lions.  Apparently lions are creatures of habit and they’re used to the cars driving through their fenced-in areas, just as long as the cars stay on the road.

We were fascinated that the Lion Park allows self-guided tours.  Essentially, people can pay a fee and drive their own cars through the Lion Park.  (You’ll be happy to know that soft-top vehicles are not allowed.)  As a result of this option, we were witness to a lot of stupid behavior.  Such as the man who got out of his car inside of one of the lion prides.  Or the man who drove his car off of the road and at a group of lounging lions.  “This is what it is good that a lion kills someone every once and a while,” our tour guide exclaimed.   “That way, people are reminded that lions are very dangerous creatures.”  Well, then!         

Our guide drove us through the back area of the park, where those who are taking the self-guided tour are not allowed.  It was there where we saw other groups of lions, including their most beautiful lion, who is a bit of a film star.  The park rents him out for movies, television and commercials.  He’s the lion in the Pepsi commercials!

We also got to see our guide’s lion, who she calls Legs.  Emma has been working at the Lion Park without pay for a year.  As a result, they’re letting her take a lion home with her.  I’m not even kidding.  Apparently that’s a pretty good deal; we were told that a lion costs 150,000 Rand.  Emma is going to take Legs back to her family’s lion breeding operation in a few weeks, once she has the proper import and export paperwork.  In her car, I might add.  Just in a crate inside of her car.  No lie!

After our tour of the lion park was complete, we headed over to the touch-a-cub area.  In groups of eight visitors at a time, you’re allowed into a pen with three or four lion cubs.  You’re allowed to pet them and pose for pictures.  The cubs are generally quite playful and good-natured about the whole thing, although we saw them get naughty and swipe a man’s hat or grab a water bottle and crunch on the plastic. 

Lauren made a friend of one of the lion cubs.  He liked her so much that he didn’t want her to leave!  That’s the only reason I can think of that he would grab a mouthful of her shirt (with a bit of skin, too) and refuse to let go!

The park employee told Lauren to swat the lion on the nose.  She wasn’t so excited about the prospects of hitting a lion.  Eventually, he set her free.   I might have spotting the young lion weeping as we walked away.  I think that he wanted to come back to Michigan with us.

We were so fortunate that the owner of our original hotel, Jackie, offered to take us to the Lion Park.  Tourist attraction or not, it did not disappoint.  I mean, come on, we got to pet a lion cub.  That’s pretty much the coolest thing ever.

A shorter flight would have been nice

Well, boys and girls, we’re here and one game in to our eight-game odyssey.

Weather in Atlanta on Wednesday was our downfall. Our arrival from Detroit was late – the plane had to circle for a bit because the airport (which supposedly had closed for a short bit earlier in the day due to crap weather) was backed up. By the time we got off of the plane, we had 40 minutes until our next flight was supposed to take off. And it was running on time.

We hauled ass to the international terminal, thrust our passports at the ticketing agents at the gate and – miracle of all miracles – had time to stop for Qudoba.

The flight was about as good as an 18 hour flight could possibly be. We slept. (Lauren slept more thanks to her friend Ambien.) We watched movies on the seat-back televisions. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to finish a Sudoku puzzle. We ate unsatisfying meals, including some funky concoction called a “posh wrap.” And we checked the flight progress on the seat-back televisions. Frequently. Too frequently.

Time passed really, really slowly. At one point during the flight, I found myself naïve and blissfully optimistic. The flight attendants were bringing around breakfast and, for whatever reason, I equated breakfast with a fast-approaching arrival. Wrong! We still had eight hours go to.

Fabulous.

A few movies and an attempt at finishing Eat, Pray, Love (take it from me: doesn’t live up to the hype) later, we really arrived.

And the fun was just beginning! First, we ran to the Vodaphone store to pick up an inexpensive cell phone to use during the duration of our trip. Next, it was off to ticketing kiosks.

I think I’ve mentioned FIFA’s ticket policy before. Basically, tickets aren’t shipped to the purchaser. They must be picked up in South Africa. They set up kiosks at the airport (as well as a few other places around Johannesburg) and, actually, it was quite simple. All we did was swipe the credit card that we had purchased the tickets with and – viola! – they printed immediately. Very fancy. Isn’t technology great? (Almost as great as having our tickets mailed to us would have been.)

We got to our hotel with no issues. Three cheers for that. Our room is teeny tiny – especially with our five (5!) suitcases stuffed inside, but it is working out really well. Significantly better than the charred remains of the room at our old hotel would’ve worked for us.

After settling in, we jumped into a taxi in search of one thing: food. No, that isn’t true. We were searching for two things: food and the South Africa/Uruguay game. We succeeded in finding both. We watched the second half of the match (which, sadly, South Africa lost) and filled our shriveled bellies (it had been, like, 60 whole minutes before we last ate. And if you don’t understand that, you’re probably not a Hansche girl.).

At the conclusion of the match, we headed back to the hotel and fell into bed. It was only 6:00 pm at home – midnight in South Africa – but our bodies had no idea what was going on. So, we slept. Let me tell you, kids, it was some good sleep. Good, comfortable, not-in-an-airplane-seat sleep. The sleep of champions!

Which is exactly the kind of sleep that we needed. Because today we saw Argentina play South Korea and, let me tell you, Argentina looks like a squad of champions.