Tag Archives: Travel

Traveling home: lines, lines, more lines

Along with five very full suitcases and a backpack and a shopping bag and a lot of memories, Thierry wished us well and dropped us off at O.R. Tambo airport.

At the airport, we stopped at the Value Added Tax (VAT) counter to have our luggage inspected.  Luggage inspection is the first of many steps required in order to be reimbursed for the 14% tax we paid on all of the souvenirs that we were bringing home.  We opened up our bags, showed the inspector a few items, and waited for him to stamp all of our receipts.

Next was check-in, which would have gone quite seamlessly had my suitcase not been overweight.  Significantly.  We shuffled items around.  Lauren rolled her eyes at my lack of packing prowess.  I got annoyed.  And, finally, we sent our luggage off into the belly of the plane. 

Four pieces of luggage lighter, Lauren and I made our way through security and into the international terminal.  The international terminal houses the VAT Refund Administrator’s Office, where we were to take our stamped receipts and jump through the next hoop in the tax refund process.  The line was long.  And full of restless, frustrated, time-crunched travelers such as ourselves.  It really wasn’t a pleasant process.  And we didn’t have a ton of time to waste. 

The VAT Refund Administrator’s Office issues refunds in check form.  So, in order for travelers to get cash for their VAT refunds, they stand in our third line of the whole refund process: at the currency exchange office!  Lovely.  We skipped this step and brought the check home with us.  (Which reminds me that I should probably bring that to the bank.)

We found our gate and I headed off in search of some real food to get us through the flight.  I find a café, pick up a couple of premade sandwiches, get in line and…oh.  The credit card system is down and I’m all out of Rand.  Fail.
I return to the gate and Lauren and I settle for the coffee shop that’s just outside of our gate.  The flight has started boarding; we order a couple of smoothies and a muffin and get in line for our second security check.  They search our bags.  We both get patted down.  Lauren has her White-Out confiscated.  We both have our smoothies confiscated.  Supposedly, Delta is the only airline that doesn’t allow passengers to take liquids purchased in the airport onto the plane.  So annoying.

Settling into our seats was almost a relief.  At least we wouldn’t have to stand in any more lines.  …or queues, as they call them in South Africa.  …or torture, as I’d like to call them after weathering line after line after line as we (slowly) made our way through O.R. Tambo.

The feeling of relief was temporary.  How excited can you be about your seat when you’re stuck in it for 16 hours?

Not very.  Not very excited at all.

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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.

Pilanesberg National Park and Sun City

We were up at 6:00 on Friday morning, hurriedly getting dressed and rushing to breakfast before our tour company picked us up at 6:45 am.  …or 7:15 am, as it turned out to be.  (Africa time!)

The tour guide had to pick up a few other groups at other hotels in the area before we were on our way to Pilanesberg National Park.  There were nine of us in the van and all nine of us slept at some point on the two-hour trip to Pilanesberg.   We were all so excited that we couldn’t keep our eyes open!

At one point during our trip, our tour guide mentioned that we would be taking our safari from our tour van.  Should any of us be interested in doing the safari from an open-air vehicle, it would cost an extra 190 Rand.  A little ridiculous, really, considering that we had already paid over 1,200 Rand for the tour.  Oh well. 

Our tour guide clearly wasn’t all that keen on putting us in the open-air vehicle.  But she did eventually hand the seven of us interested in taking the open-air vehicle to a new tour guide; she took the two prissy city girls (who applied makeup on our drive to Pilanesberg) through the park in the tour van.

Moving into the open-air vehicle was definitely the right choice.  The guide was undoubtedly more knowledgeable, we had a much better view of the park as we drove through it and we ended up seeing more animals than the group that stayed in the van.  Three cheers to the Italian who really pushed our tour guide to get us in the open-air vehicle.

The first animals we saw were some of the more common plains animals.  Our tour guide pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the vehicle.  As was common throughout our safari, he would give us a bit of information on the animal that we were seeing and a little bit of time to take pictures before pulling away. 

Within the first 10 minutes of the safari, we round a corner and I see the backside of a giraffe bending her head down.  “Oh, funny,” I think to myself.  “A statue of a giraffe’s backside.” 

No, dummy.  That’s a giraffe.  It was so close and so big that I thought that it couldn’t be real.  It was.  She stood quite still, looking at us as we all stared back at her.  Lauren was busy taking pictures – she brought her zoom lens and took a lot of really amazing shots.

We saw gnu and impalas and wildebeests.  We saw a pretty bird in an electric blue color whose name I cannot recall.  We saw a dead elephant, with his intestines spilling out of his abdomen.  We saw monkeys, a big group of them, running down the side of the road and climbing into trees and generally being the cutest things you’ve ever seen. 

We saw an elephant that wasn’t dead, too.  He was just chilling by a tree, eating, eating, eating.  We were maybe 10 feet from him and he wasn’t interested in us whatsoever.  When our tour guide turned off the vehicle, we sat in the quiet (except for the sound of cameras clicking) and listened to him munch away.  It was amazing.

We saw zebras.  We saw hippos from across a lake.  “They look like two big, shiny rocks,” our tour guide told us.  And that’s exactly what they looked like.  We saw two rhinos from afar.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see any lions or cheetahs, but that’s pretty common.  They don’t guarantee that you’ll see any animals, as the park is enormous and the animals are permitted to roam wherever they please.  The lions were sometimes hard to spot in the grass at the Lion Park, when the vehicle was stopped and someone was pointing them out to us!  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had just driven past a lion or two.  Their camouflage is quite effective! 

All in all, I would consider our safari a successful one.  Driving through the park was a delightful trip in itself and seeing the animals so close was just magical.  I wish that we had the time to do a longer safari – three day game drives at Kruger National Park are quite common – I suppose we’ll just have to come back one day!   

For the second part of our tour, our guide drove us to Sun City.  I had no idea what Sun City was, really, except for a place where we would be able to get lunch.  Sun City, as it turns out, is something like a big Las Vegas hotel that was built in the middle of nowhere.  It has a luxury hotel, a casino, restaurants and entertainment, all African themed.  It was an interesting place and quite the juxtaposition to the quiet nature that we were just driving through.  I still can’t quite comprehend why the tour company pairs Sun City with the safari at Pilanesberg, except that it is somewhere for people to get lunch.  And maybe some people are amused by the vastness of the complex.  I just thought it was sort of lame.  Maybe we should’ve spent less time lunching and more time gambling.

After our two hours at Sun City, we headed back for Johannesburg.  Again, all nine of us slept on the drive home.  Safaris are hard work! 

That night, Lauren and I went to dinner in Melrose Arch.  It being a Friday night, it was absolutely packed.  We couldn’t get seated at a few of the restaurants that we first tried.  One was just booked out with reservations, which I understand, but the other just didn’t have any tables available at the moment.  Instead of taking names, they just turn you away.  It seems strange, but it isn’t the only time that we’ve experienced that since we’ve been here.  I suppose that, with the number of people milling about on Friday night, they knew that any empty table wouldn’t remain empty for long.

It took a few tries to find a restaurant that would seat us, but we didn’t go hungry.  We had our dinner.  We watched Spain beat Chile.  Lauren drank an alcoholic beverage out of a teapot.  And, earlier, we’d seen elephants and giraffes and zebras!  It was a good day.

Germany vs. Ghana

After a Wednesday morning that started like all of our others: breakfast, showers, outfit coordination and email checks, we arranged for the hotel’s shuttle driver, Thierry, to take us to the Apartheid Museum.

Let me pause for a second to tell you about how awesome Thierry is: very awesome.  He takes us to games and picked us up at the airport.  Always cheerful.  Always laughing at Lauren’s jokes.  He’s definitely made our lives here much easier.  And we’ve certainly paid him for that privilege.

So, anyway, Thierry dropped us off at the Apartheid Museum for a few hours. 

Even after visiting the museum, I still find it inconceivable that apartheid fell only 16 years ago.  16 years! 

The museum itself was well done.  It was a little crowded, I thought, but we still took a great deal away from it.  There is so much information – I’m sure that I only soaked up a tiny percentage of what was presented – on both the rise and the fall of the apartheid museum.   I definitely left with a greater understanding of South Africa and its history.  I wouldn’t hesitate to go back if I’m ever in Johannesburg again.   

Thierry picked us up outside of the museum (on African time, of course).  He told us that he was looking for our blonde hair.  That’s all we are here.  Blonde bombshells freak shows. Now I know how Jessica Simpson feels.

We got back to the hotel with less than an hour until we were supposed to leave for the Ghana/Germany match.  It was a quick turnaround.  We changed into our Germany jerseys.  Packed up our tickets and our cameras.  Ran to the restaurant for a quick snack (chicken strips for Lauren and a quesadilla for me), caught just a bit of the two Group C final games (USA/Algeria and England/Slovakia) and got on the shuttle.

Wednesday was day of the final group stage games for Group C and Group D.  When we left for the game, USA was tied with Algeria, 0-0, and it looked like the American team would be going home.  Thierry had the game on the radio in shuttle and we listened nervously as time ticked down.  What a shame.

We were on the highway when the game entered injury time.  We were stuck in traffic, inching along.  The shuttle was just driving past a fan park – where the games were projected onto big screens – when the Americans scored. 

Perfect timing.

For us and for Landon Donovan.

Lauren and I were both a little shocked.  All this time, we had assumed that we would be watching England in the Round of 16.  And now we had a reason to use the temporary tattoos we hadn’t used at the USA/Slovakia game.  Hurray! 

With plenty to be excited about, we entered Soccer City to watch Germany/Ghana.

As has become pattern, the African fans were loud and proud.  There were a lot of German fans in attendance, too.  Unlike the Mexico fans, no Germans tried to tell us that we didn’t look German.  Go figure.  A few tried to speak to us in German, as a matter of fact.  We smiled and nodded and definitely could’ve used Betsy or Meredith’s translation services.

The Germany/Ghana game was a fun one to watch.  Germany’s goalie, Manuel Neuer, plays like a complete madman.  While the score was only 1-0, both teams had a good number of quality scoring chances.  We had category 3 tickets for the game, our lowest price/category tickets, and I swear that they were equal or better to some of the category 2 tickets we had.  Go figure. 

There is no explaining FIFA.

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.)

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.