2012 Madagascar/ South Africa
2 nights in Johannesburg, 1 week group tour in Madagascar, 3 nights in Cape Town, and a London layover
Every year, there is one magical day when the small travel company I used for Kenya releases a dozen-or-so trips for the coming year; it is no exaggeration to say that their loyal clients anticipate this day as if it were Christmas morning. As soon as the 2012 trips were released on Oct 1 2011, I lustily pored over each and every description of a feast of tempting destinations. But Madagascar quickly caught my eye because of its uniqueness; I was hooked when I read that we'd be visiting an island scented with vanilla and ylang ylang.

Booking my one week tour in Madagascar was only the start. Since the group travel starts and ends in Johannesburg and I've long wanted to visit South Africa, it was a no-brainer to augment my experience with time in that country. After recently reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography and researching various tourist sites, I decided that it was imperative to arrive in Johannesburg an extra day early in order to see the Apartheid museum which is closed on Mondays. Knowing that my time was still short and feeling a little insecure about safety, I made arrangements to stay at a small guest house near Johannesburg which also boasts rave reviews for their personalized sightseeing tours. Essentially, they'll be taking care of most everything for me from the time I clear customs on my arrival to when I return to the airport for my Madagascar departure.

After my group tour is complete, I will be lingering around Cape Town for a few nights. I booked a tour for one of my days, but after such a regimented week, I'd rather leave my time mostly free to indulge my whims. When I was researching accommodations, I was intrigued by a Bed & Breakfast in the colorful neighborhood of Bo’Kaap. It was actually one of the more affordable options I found and I think it will really suit me. At least 2 other people from my Madagascar tour will also be spending a few days in Cape Town so I may (or may not) end up hanging out with them.

Figuring out my transportation was a little tricky because the flights I would have most preferred by schedule were not the most affordable. In the end, I reluctantly decided to fly out of JFK airport because it's a direct flight; if I'd wanted to fly SAA out of Philadelphia, I would have had to connect in both Dulles and JFK which would have been ridiculous. On the way home, I decided to fly Virgin Atlantic which stops in London; I chose the later connecting flight from London which should allow me the chance to steal a few moments enjoying the city during my layover.

My upcoming African adventure should be very different than anything I've done before. I feel like I know more what to expect, in general, from travel to Africa than I did when I headed to Kenya 2 years ago; it's one thing to read about what Africa is like but I found that it was quite another to actually experience it. I'm sure Madagascar will provide its own challenges, but I look forward to amazing rewards such as seeing plant and animal species that few get to witness in person. I am excited at the prospect of stimulating my senses with a variety of experiences so incredibly different than anything in my suburban US middle class existence. I am also looking forward to sharing my awe and joy with my fellow group members; meeting fascinating people who shared my passion for travel (some of whom I still keep in touch with) was one of the highlights of my Kenya trip.

South Africa will add additional dimensions to my experience, especially because it is important to me to see sites related to Apartheid as I continue my quest to visit the scenes of 20th century man-made horrors. Whenever I have the opportunity to walk in the dark shadows of innocent people who suffered at the hands of hate and/or violence (such as at Nagasaki or Auschwitz), I wonder how I'd have felt if I'd been among them... and feel a humble obligation to honor their spirits by clinging even more strongly to the tenet of loving and respecting one's fellow humans of all cultures and beliefs. When hate begets love, that may be the ultimate triumph over the oppressors and destroyers.

Approaching my journey with just as much anticipation and wonder as I felt on my very first overseas trip 20 years ago, I am pondering questions such as:
  1. How tired will I be after a 15 hour flight followed immediately by a full day of sightseeing?
  2. Are lemurs more law abiding than monkeys?
  3. How will I deal with days without internet access?
  4. Which will win: acrophobia vs the desire to see the view from atop Table Mountain in Cape Town?
  5. Are Crispy M&M's readily available in London?
  6. How much awesome is waiting for me?
Follow along to find out the answers to these questions and more...
A meticulous planner, I felt confident that I had everything in order the day before I was to embark on my 2nd trip to Africa. All I had to do was to stop at a bank on the way to work, take some money from an ATM, and then go inside the bank to convert that money to a crisp $50 bill; we had been told by a previous group that we needed to bring 50's and 100's for Madagascar and I had forgotten to get an extra $50 for tips. After withdrawing the money, I had a sinking feeling as I stood inside the bank. My ATM card was nowhere to be found.

Trying not to panic, I waited nervously in line and then told the teller that I left my card in the ATM machine. She smiled and said I just needed to show them my ID. As an aside, she added, “I assume it was a PNC card.” Why, no, it was not.

All the smiles turned to stone as 3 women told me that there was no way to retrieve my card because any cards issued from other banks are immediately shredded if they are left in the ATM. No amount of pleading about how I needed an ATM card to go abroad could get them to provide any more assistance.

I am usually great about dealing with anything the travel gods throw at me. But after my traumatic ATM problems on my last 2 overseas trips, my spirits were shattered. After a flurry of phone calls with my bank, the only solution I could find would be to drive across the city to borrow my mom's ATM card.

The ironic thing is that after I arrived at my mom's, I got word that it would be possible to retrieve my ATM card; it obviously hadn’t been shredded. Apparently banks all have an agreement not to return cards issued from other banks- I’m still not sure whether the employees I encountered were lying or just ignorant. All I know is that I found out that a coworker knew the manager of this particular bank branch; he called her later in the day and she found my card. But by then it was too late.

This was not the way I wanted to spend my pre-travel day. While my mind told me that everything would be fantastic once I arrived in Africa, part of me just felt like curling up in a ball for 2 weeks snuggling with my Furricanes.

I think I am officially ATM card cursed.
I was in a fog during the early morning ride to the airport- more literally than metaphorically as we could sometimes barely see the cars in front of us on the road. On the bright side, being a day removed from ATM-gate had done much to lift my spirits.

I hadn't seen JFK airport in decades. And I still can’t say I’ve seen it recently because everything was enveloped in fog when I was dropped off.

No matter how much I travel, I am still awed and humbled when en route to a new destination, especially someplace exotic. Even the simple act of checking in for my flight is exciting when that flight is run by South African Airways. My mind boggled at the thought that I could step on a plane in New York and then, 16 hrs or so later, I would walk back down the same aisle and exit into the unknown world of Johannesburg.

I had a case of déjà vu as I searched in vain for a place to get a bagel with lox and cream cheese, and had to settle for a bagel with bacon, egg and cheese. Some of my waiting time was occupied by filling out a survey for the Office of Travel and Tourism industries; it was painless except when asking questions about how much money was spent on various aspects of my trip. 20 minutes or so before we were to board, I stood across from the gate; I knew that I’d have plenty of time to sit in the coming hours.

Once seated on the plane, I couldn't wait for takeoff. Not as much because I was excited but because it was damn hot... And unfortunately, I was on the side of the plane that was in the sun. The pilot said that the ground A/C was broke but they decided it was better to use the aircraft "as is" than to subject everyone to a huge delay. I definitely agreed, but boy was it stifling.

It was a nice surprise that the flight attendants came around with small packets that included things like toothpaste and a face mask. I've never received such things when traveling economy.

I was seated next to a very nice older woman who walked with the assistance of a cane. I never got her full story, but I thought it was wonderful that she was traveling to South Africa for the first time with a group. I hope that when I am her age, I will still be able to indulge in my love for travel.

Did I mention the plane was hot...? I am not a fan of sweating, but it’s especially annoying when one has 16 hours of flight plus a full day of touring before being able to even think of a shower.

Finally the plane pulled away from the gate and was ready to head into the skies leading to Africa. I always get emotional during takeoff because that's when I feel like my adventure is truly real. Gazing at the ground as it drifter further and further away, I said a mental goodbye to the USA. Africa, here I come!

When I’d thought about how I would like to pass some of the time during my flight, I had thought it would be wonderfully voidy to watch the movie Madagascar 3 (since the main focus of the trip was Madagascar). Even though the movie doesn't actually take place in Madagascar, I figured that it would be appropriate viewing because it at least has a lemur as a major character. However, the South African Airways website didn't list it as a selection. I had debated buying /renting the movie on iTunes to watch on my iPad but ultimately decided I could catch it on Virgin Atlantic on the way home.

So imagine my surprise when I turned on the seatback video and saw a listing for Madagascar 3! Finally a good omen! It was such a fun movie to watch, and my eyes may have even been a little misty during the happy ending. Plus, now I have some context for the "Afro circus" ditty that my nieces often randomly sing.

Meanwhile, my mind boggled at the fact that we had not 1, not 2, but *3* choices for dinner! It probably wouldn't surprise anyone who knows me that I chose the pasta entree; it was pretty decent. I wasn't thrilled with the chocolate cake but I appreciated the Andes mint that came with.

After the meal, it was time to take some drowsiness pills and let them do their magic. Before I knew it, 12 hrs left turned into 5 hours left and time for a salami and cheese sandwich. I was awake and attentive to the flight map just long enough to note that "Ouagadougou, Burkina Fasa" is a kickass name for a city.

At 2 hrs before landing, the lights came on and we received a refresher towel. I am pretty sure we also were served a breakfast, but I don't have any notes on the details. I was just about bursting at the seams to see something more than the inside of an airplane.
JFK Airport SAA jet is ready to whisk me to Africa Almost time to board Goodbye, USA! Hello, Johannesburg!
I was surprised that I hadn't received any landing documents to fill out for arrival in South Africa. It turns out that you don't need any. There was absolutely no line for passport control and I think it only took me about 35 minutes from the time I arrived until the time when I collected my luggage and cleared customs. Can't want anything better than that!

As I emerged into the circular central meeting hall of OR Tambo airport, I scanned all the signs people were holding to find the one with my name. Soon enough, a kind looking bearded gentleman introduced himself as Malcolm, one of the owners of the guesthouse where I'd be staying. After he helped me buy a mini SIM card for my iPad, he directed me to an ATM and I was greatly relieved when my mom's card successfully allowed me to retrieve 900 Rand (roughly $100)

Except for brief periods when the time change made me resemble someone with narcolepsy, my eyes were open wide to take in as much as they could of the sights we passed throughout the drive through the city. Malcolm sure knows his history and he filled my head with tons of interesting facts; I doubt I remember even a small fraction of them now but that shouldn't take away from the fact that they fascinated me at the time.

The ride from the airport took me past Alexandra, the very location of the book I was reading ("Kaffir Boy") and I immediately felt a connection to history. Soon thereafter, we rode through the posh area of Sandton. I was a little disappointed that we didn't stop to see the large Nelson Mandela statue there but still too wide eyed to mention it.

Malcolm asked if I wanted to stop at the Rosebank craft market which is only open on Sundays and I decided to check it out. However, it was so early in my trip and I felt a little weird shopping with someone else tagging along, so I didn't actually buy anything. But it was nice to get up and walk for a little bit.

We drove through a number of places such as Hillbrow and Riverlee before making our next stop at Constitution Hill. The constitutional court was an impressive building with a lot of lovely artistic touches. I found it fascinating to see all the civil rights that are included in the South African constitution including equal rights for gays and lesbians. And it was awe inspiring to walk outside around the locations where political prisoners had been detained during the height of apartheid.

At various points in the day, we saw so many things. 2 of the highlights were driving over the Nelson Mandela Bridge and also seeing the office where Mandela had practiced law. I'd read Mandela's autobiography in preparation for my trip, and it made the law office visit all the more meaningful.

Of course the main focus of my day was the Apartheid museum. I would never have guessed that this museum was located on the grounds of a casino, adjacent to an amusement park. Apparently, when South Africa legalized casinos, they had to submit a plan to help the community in order to be approved. Gold Reef City Casino decided to build the Apatheid museum.

When we arrived, Malcolm gave me the option of eating alone or having him join me for lunch at the Truth Cafe. I opted for the company. (Although I chose to wander around the actual museum on my own) The pasta I ordered was delicious, and I found it interesting that there was a painting of Barack Obama among the wall decorations.

To quickly bring the visitor into the Apartheid world, the museum has 2 entrances: one marked "whites only" and the other marked "non whites only". Each guest is randomly assigned to one of the 2 entrances.

I started out with the Nelson Mandela exhibit which made me admire him even more. In the modern world, it is rare to find someone who truly leads his people like he has done. It is in large part due to Mandela’s leadership that Apatheid ended without a bloody civil war.

The main exhibition hall has so much information that it is nearly impossible to take it all in. I started out by trying to read every word on sign but eventually just read the large print. I also made sure to see the 2 short films that were part of the exhibit. I’m not sure if I learned anything completely new (although I definitely saw details which were new to me), but it was definitely meaningful to see the story brought to life right where it actually happened.

A couple hours after I started, I finally stumbled out of the exhibition area and headed the gift shop. Then I elected to see some more of the city, including the soccer stadium, before finally heading out to the farm where the guesthouse is located. It started to rain during the drive, but that meant that the most awesome rainbow greeted me upon my arrival. As I gazed out of my cozy room at the rainbow, any worries I might have had about my trip disappeared.

I felt even better after being greeted by Malcolm's daughter, Linda, who told me that the only rule was to make myself at home. I cannot say enough good things about the guesthouse where I stayed. The rural location was obviously much more beautiful and relaxing than staying anywhere in the city. The guesthouse itself was lovely, with lots of amazing little artistic touches. There were even dogs to make it feel homey. But the very best part of the guesthouse was the family who runs it (Malcolm, his wife Janet and one of their daughters, Linda)- they couldn't do enough for me and yet it never felt like they were being subservient.

After my exploits with the monkey who stole my memory card 2 years earlier, I was very amused that I was to be staying in the “monkey” room. Fortunately they only primate I countered was a beaded key chain.

After taking some time to refresh and unpack, I headed downstairs to get ready for dinner and made a new friend with Buster the dog. Linda prepared an excellent homemade dinner which included homemade bread, steak, potatoes with cheese and spinach, and salad. There were 2 dessert options: a delicious South African pie made with milk, and a frozen lemon chiffon that was rather tart but yummy. I had been nervous about dinner because I am such a picky eater, but there was no need to worry- everything was absolutely wonderful! Plus it was so much nicer eating with great company than it would have been to eat alone in a sterile hotel. I really felt like I was eating with old friends, which is a testament to the hospitality I received. I could not have been happier with my choice of Johannesburg accommodations.
Constitutional Court facade Constitutional Court Constitutional Court Constitutional Hill Building where Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo practiced law Truth Cafe at the Apartheid Museum Apartheid Museum entrance View from Guesthouse room Guesthouse room
I awoke refreshed and enjoyed a nice breakfast at my guesthouse. On the drive out, I was able to see some of the baby lambs that had recently been born- they were so adorable!

For my 2nd day, I was touring with Malcolm’s wife, Janet, and the plan was to see some of Pretoria and then head to Soweto. Our first stop was the Voortrekker Monument, which was a monument to Pioneer Afrikaner women. Janet did an excellent job of explaining all the murals inside. Because the power was out in the area, I got my workout in climbing the spiral stairs to the observatory level. Climbing up wasn’t so bad, but I had to take it slowly going down.

After I got back to the bottom, I realized that there was something wrong with my general purpose camera lens (17-55mm); I couldn’t get it to zoom back out. I figured that I had 2 choices: 1) Use my handhold camera for general shots or 2) Bite the bullet and spend some $$$ on another lens if I could find one. Since it was just the start of my trip and I really wanted some great photos of Madagascar, option 2 was preferable. I wasn’t too upset- more philosophical; I figured that this was precisely the type of emergency for which I could use my rarely touched savings account. Janet agreed to help me try to find a place to buy a new lens.

Meanwhile, we visited nearby Fort Schanskop and I learned about British concentration camps. We drove around Pretoria and stopped at the Union Buildings. They are in the process of changing street names in Pretoria- the signs show both the old name and the new name with the former crossed out; it’s obviously confusing for people. Though it was all interesting, my heart really wasn’t truly in it because of my concern about my camera lens.

Janet had contacted the family back home and gotten some tips on locations of camera lens shops. We went on a bit of a wild goose chase as the locations she found had ended up being out of date. In the end, she called a shop in Sandton and found a compatible Canon lens- I looked up reviews online and it seemed to be a good lens albeit even heavier than my old one and pricier. But if nothing else, stopping there would allow me to see the big Nelson Mandela statue that I’d missed the previous day, so I was all for it! As luck would have it, we found another store there that had a compatible lens which was lighter and a tad less expensive. Sold!

I felt much happier with a new camera lens in hand and was ready for a late lunch. Since I just wanted something quick so as to avoid further delays, Janet decided to stop at Woolworths- which was much more like the one in Australia than the chain that used to exist in the USA. I grabbed some sushi and a coke zero.

Feeling much better, I headed to Soweto. When I was in high school, I implored my mom to see the musical Sarafina on Broadway; we were the only Caucasian family on the bus from her office. At the time, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I’d set foot in the place where it took place. During my time in Soweto, I was filled with goosebumps thinking of how I was walking in the footsteps of history.

Our first stop was the Hector Pieterson memorial, dedicated to a child who lost his life in the 1976 uprising. We saw the houses of Nelson Mandela (now a museum) and Desmund Tutu which are both on the same street; we also saw the well fortified house of Winnie Mandela and other notable sights.

The most moving stop was Regina Mundi church, where I was treated to a tour by a guide with a true passion for retelling (and perhaps embellishing) the drama of its history and its role in anti-apartheid activism. I found it particularly interesting when he explained the symbolism in a painting entitled The Black Madonna of Soweto. It felt really special to be able to connect, if just briefly, with someone who was actually involved in the history of Soweto. He was very proud of the fact that the church had been visited by Michelle Obama as well as Bill and Hilary Clinton; there was even a local connection for me- the church had 2 small Liberty Bell replicas that had been donated by Philadelphia’s mayor Michael Nutter.

Our final stop was Walter Sisulu Square, where we entered a brick cone shaped building that housed a disc which expounded on the 10 pillars of the freedom charter:
The People Shall Govern!
All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!
The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth!
The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!
All Shall be Equal Before the Law!
All Shall Enjoy Human Rights!
There Shall be Work and Security!
The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!
There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!
There Shall be Peace and Friendship!

Back at the guesthouse, I was treated to another amazing dinner cooked by Linda. I was hesitant to try the mushroom soup since I am not typically enamored with mushrooms but I was persuaded by Malcolm’s praise and it was quite good! The main course consisted of a South African type of sausage and beef lasagna. Terrific! But dessert was the piece de resistance… because I’d mentioned in passing earlier that I have a weakness for chocolate, Linda made a chocolate cake! I was truly moved that they made such an effort to make me happy (I was the only guest there both nights). There was also a light, whipped berry dessert which was also terrific.

After dinner, they gave me a guestbook to sign, and I reflected carefully to try to convey how much I appreciated their hospitality. I’ve stayed at numerous accommodations during my traveling life- everything from dirt cheap hostels to super swanky hotels. But I’ve never stayed anywhere that felt more like home- well, “home” as an ideal since mine is never as clean (nor does it produce such wonderful delights from the kitchen). Truly a gem of a place to stay!
Baby Lamb Voortrekker Monument Voortrekker Monument lookout Pretoria Street Sign Loreto Cathedral Nelson Mandela Square Hector Pieterson Memorial, Soweto Tour guide in front of Madonna of Soweto painting, Regina Mundi Church 10 pillars of the Freedom Charter My wonderful hosts: Janet, Linda and Malcolm
It was a bittersweet morning because I was sad to say goodbye to my guesthouse, but I was also tremendously excited to venture onward to Madagascar. After breakfast, Janet drove me to the airport and Linda decided to come along for the ride. We had an interesting discussion on topics ranging from US politics, the problems with education in South Africa, and Broadway. They also reminisced about some of their past guests; I asked if they ever had any bad guests, and they said they hadn’t. When I arrived at the airport, my hosts hugged me goodbye.

There was no line to check in at Air Madagascar and I had no problem getting a window seat; there was also no line at security. So I quickly was on my way down an escalator to wait for my group at the gate area which seemed like it could have used some additional seating. As I waited, I read some of my book on my iPad.

Soon enough I spotted my roommate Holly- as soon as she caught sight of me, she excitedly came over to give me a big hug. When you travel with this group, they will assign you a roommate to save costs. Since Holly and I live near each other, after emailing we’d decided to meet up this summer at Philadelphia’s Art Museum; as soon as we met, we had no doubts that we’d get along fabulously.

The rest of my time at the airport was a blur of introductions as I met most of the rest of our 18 person group. The group was originally supposed to be 19, but one woman unfortunately never made it out of JFK due to some kind of issue with her passport. When I spotted my tour group leader, I joined others in showering him money to distribute for tips; I refrained from mentioning that said $50 bill had cost me an ATM card.

Finally, our flight was called which meant we boarded a shuttle bus to the plane. It seemed to take forever and a day for the bus to actually start moving, but that gave me a chance to have a nice conversation with someone from the group; I talked about some of the things I’ve done with my nieces and she talked about places she’d taken her nephew.

On the plane, I was seated with a couple people from our group which was conducive to conversation. And it was helpful to collaborate on filling out our landing forms. I even got a couple tips of things to do in Cape Town. Before the plane took off, flight attendants came down the aisles and sprayed the overhead bins with insecticide which seemed curious to us all.

Flying Air Madagascar is an experience; I challenge anyone reading this to find any airline that doesn’t look good in comparison to Air Mada. When I opened my tray table, “dirty” is the kindest word I can use to describe its condition. I was glad that I didn’t really want to recline my seat because I wouldn’t have been able to do so since the button was missing. The air temperature seemed to drift randomly and brought to mind a horrid English translation of a German musical lyric: “I’m freezing, I’m burning, don’t put me on a shelf”. When I entered the restroom toward the end of the trip, someone warned me that it smelled- although while this was true, I’d still rank it as a Kenya C+ toilet on the scale we’d developed 2 years ago. ;) (there’s more to say about Air Mada in future entries…)

When we were finally flying over Madagascar, I greedily looked out the window. I’m not sure what I wanted or expected to see, but it felt pretty freaking cool to know that I was looking out at Madagascar.

After we landed in the capitol city of Antananarivo (commonly known as “Tana”), we had to submit forms we’d filled out on the airplane and then get in line for a free visa. They actually wrote some stuff in our passport; it was kinda neat looking. Then I saw my first lemur- well, ok, it was only a cardboard cutout over the baggage carousel. But it still counts! ;)

After collecting my luggage, I found the local guides greeting our group. I surveyed several possible places to exchange money and settled on Bank of Africa, which seemed to have a slightly better rate than the counter most people were using. I gave them my $250 and they handed me a huge wad of money... And another wad... And yet another wad. We were all hysterical at the huge wads of Madagascar cash that we now possessed! (and despite all my meticulous work at getting $50’s and $100’s, I didn’t see anything to suggest that $20’s wouldn’t have worked just as well)

Once everyone had worked out their details, we split into 2 small buses and then stopped at a supermarket to get snacks to provide sustenance during the long (roughly 4 hr) drive to our hotel. I ended up with some Madagascar chocolate, cheese curls, and a bottle of Evian water. Good stuff! I’m glad we had a chance to stop; not always having such opportunities had been one of my issues with my Kenya trip.

For as long as it stayed light out, I couldn’t take my eyes off the landscape as it unfolded around me: I wanted to see every distant hill speckled with houses, every flat rice field, every pile of bricks. I’d read about zebu, the Madagascar cattle, and now I could see them walking right beside my bus. And all over there were people: many carrying large loads on their heads, others with babies on their backs, one even walking a herd of geese. There were organized markets and makeshift stands; poverty was evident. Everything was completely new to me- you could never mistake Madagascar for anywhere in the US. And yet… in some ways, people still seem to be much the same everywhere, just trying to make it through the day and do the best for themselves and their families.

Meanwhile, the local tour guide instructed us in a few words in the Malagasy language, and talked a little about local customs. One of the most interesting customs is that people will periodically exhume their dead ancestors and have a big party for them. This stems from the fact that the Malagasy people traditionally see the afterlife as far more important than the current life; I’ve also read that people will spend more on a tomb for an ancestor than on their actual home.

As the sun set and we rode on curvier and curvier roads, I started feeling quite motion sick. It was bad enough that I was questioning whether this had been the right trip for me to sign up for, and wishing that I was back home with the Furricanes. When we stopped at the side of the road halfway through for people to have a chance to relieve themselves or at least stretch their legs, I stayed seated. I didn’t want to make a fuss and be “that group member” who everyone always had to accommodate. But when people asked me how I was doing, I had to be honest. And somehow I ended up switching to the very front seat of the other, larger mini bus because people thought I might do better there.

I think it may have helped a little, but I was really glad when eventually the road started to straighten out. As much as possible, I tried to sleep through my queasiness. I might also mention that there were often huge potholes- more like craters- in the roads and our drivers were rockstars at navigating around them. Finally, we saw signs for our hotel. Yes! And then we stopped for a second because the magic eyes of one of our guides spotted an elephant ear chameleon despite the dark- we were all excited to see our first real taste of Malagasy wildlife.

Finally we arrived at our lodge- even in the dark, it was gorgeous! The tour agency had described the hotel as “glamping” so we didn’t expect much, and it definitely shattered expectations. After locating our cabins, we met for a late dinner (iirc at our own expense). After my ordeal, I was glad to see my faithful standby comfort meal on the menu- Spaghetti Bolognese. I had modest expectations but wow, it was really prepared nicely! Everyone loved their food.

Despite the long ride, everyone was in good spirits and looking forward to really starting our adventure the next morning. I had a good feeling that it would be an awesome week with a fun and friendly group of people.
Boarding our first Air Madagascar flight Coming in for a landing Baggage Claim Driving Around Tana Driving Around Tana Driving Around Tana Driving Around Tana Driving Around Tana Elephant Ear Chameleon
Today was all about the reaping the rewards of having been patient through the long and twisty roads to Vakona Lodge the previous day.

I had little idea of the magic that awaited me when I saw one of the arms of my sunglasses on the floor shortly after I woke up at 6am. Items broken on this trip so far: camera lens, sunglasses, alarm clock (the latter was probably just a dead battery). Not really a good omen, especially since my eyes are sensitive to the sun and since it wasn’t like I could just run out to the local department store to buy a new pair; this was Madagascar not Madrid.

I took the scenic walk to breakfast, enjoying snapping some shots of the hotel grounds which were even lovelier during the day than they’d been during our evening arrival. It was really a fabulous place to stay. Breakfast had a selection of dry foods, and they would also make eggs on demand.

I wasn’t the only one bursting with excitement at our first activity- a morning hike through the Andasibe Special Reserve to spot lemurs! We divided ourselves up into 2 groups: a slow group and a fast group. I decided the slow group might be better suited for me to linger and take photos. As we started hiking, the guides were pointing out the flora and such. But I had no patience for that- I wanted to see some lemurs! After walking for awhile, a guide pointed and said that there was one up in the trees. At times like these, I often feel blind and repeatedly have to ask for help to figure out where to look. Finally I exclaimed, with all the joy in my heart, “I see it!!!!” And that promptly elicited looks of horror and admonitions to hush from the other tourists who were gathered around the tree. You’re supposed to be quiet on nature walks, you see. I knew this of course, but sometimes my passion just gets away from me.

During our walk, we saw 3 types of lemurs, mostly high in trees: Indri (the largest species of lemur), Red and White, and Brown. Our local guide Rodger was amazing at spotting them and figuring out the best angle for photos. He also took photos for some people with their cameras, but- for better or worse- I like to take my own photos. The end of the hike was on flat ground and seemed to take forever, probably because there wasn’t anything new to see. All of us in the “slow” group were amused that we finished before the “fast” group.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to take a few minutes to walk through a Malagasy village. I think this may have been an impromptu stop, and I enjoyed it because I always find it interesting to see where people actually live. Seeing kids smiling is also something that transcends language and culture.

After relaxing for a bit in the hotel, I joined everyone for lunch where I ordered potatoes with cheese, spaghetti with tuna, and chocolate pancake (aka crepe smothered in chocolate). Like the previous night, everything was delicious!

Our first order of business after lunch was supposed to be a visit to Lemur Island, but it seemed to be crowded so we switched things up and headed to a Crocodile Farm. It was a very mild, relaxing walk- except for the fact that there were 2 swinging rickety bridges we had to cross. I thought I’d be more nervous walking on them, but they were actually a lot of fun. In addition to crocodiles, we also saw caged Fosa, which are cat-like predatory mammals indigenous to Madagascar. And finally we had the opportunity to pose with a snake around our necks. Many wanted no parts of the snake, but I am always up for a good photo op so I was posing like I was adorned with a feather boa, much to the amusement of my group (some of whom later said I was crazy…). And then I did it a 2nd time because I wasn’t happy with the first set of pictures; if I am going to touch a snake, then it had better yield some awesome photographic evidence!

From the moment I first saw Lemur Island, I knew it would be one of the most voidy travel experiences of my life. I had been told that you needed to take a canoe to the island so naturally I was prepared to spend some time aboard a canoe. But then I saw that we only had to cross a body of water that was only about 3-4 times the canoe’s length; you could almost push the canoe and launch it safely to its destination! The water was apparently there just to keep the lemurs from escaping. So we boarded canoes and laughed about the long, arduous ride. ;)

Once we stepped onto the island, it was apparent that we’d be able to see lemurs from much closer than on our earlier hike. We started out by holding food to attract them, but lemurs have minds of their own... Ultimately, it was mass chaos and giggles galore as lemurs jumped from person to person and we struggled to exchange cameras and take pictures of each other. Any time I felt a lemur suddenly perch on my shoulder, I couldn’t help shrieking with joy; from the sounds of it, others reacted similarly. It was also much fun watching the lemurs interact with the rest of the group- especially when they did something interesting like lick someone’s neck. Lemur Island may contain more laughs per square minute than anywhere I’ve been in a long time.

After another oh-so-long canoe ride back across the lake, we headed back to the hotel to place orders for dinner after stopping briefly to take an official group photo. We had enough free time that I could relax in the room for a bit. After resting a tad, I chatted with others in the hotel lobby while uploading photos to Facebook so that everyone back home could share my happy lemur time. (our hotel only had internet in the lobby, not the rooms; this was a common theme for the trip and I was just grateful to be connected at all)

Our final organized activity for the day was a night hike along the hotel grounds. I’ve always been a city girl so I don’t get much chance to walk around nature in the quiet of night, and I always enjoy those opportunities. We didn’t get to see very much- a distant lemur and some chameleons- but I still enjoyed it. Some were spooked by an amazing spider web in our path; it didn’t bother me that much and I tried to tell someone to think of it like a Halloween decoration, but that didn’t help her.

After the hike, we sat down for the dinner we’d pre-ordered. My meal and my roommate’s seemed to take forever to come out; we think it’s because she also ordered a soup and ordering an appetizer seemed to throw the kitchen off. But once I got my fish and rice pilaf, I thought it was delicious!

After dinner, we settled our bill, packed and showered. It was a busy day but everyone agreed that it was full of awesome. In fact, it was probably one of the best all around travel days I’ve experienced- so many interesting things to see, plus it was getting to be apparent that this was a great group with whom to enjoy these unique experiences.
Andasibe Special Reserve hike: Indri lemur Local Village Crocodile Farm Crossing a rickety bridge Modeling the snake like it's a feather boa The long crossing to Lemur Island Lemur Island Lemur Island Lemur Island: Lemur and baby
It was another early morning as I got up before 6am and headed to breakfast, sad to say goodbye to our fabulous hotel. Before we left on the road back to Tana, I made sure to take one of the motion sickness pills that I’d bought in Australia. I was hoping to be less miserable than I’d been on the ride to Andisabe.

After driving for about an hour, we stopped because our guide wanted to show us how hospitable the Malagasy people are. He asked the people, who were total strangers, whether we could see their house. Some cynics may say this had to be staged, but the behavior is typical of what I’ve read in books.

When I say that I am making lunch, I often mean that I am popping something in the microwave for a few minutes. But when the Malagasy say they are making lunch, it could mean that it’s 8am and they are pounding rice. That’s what one young woman was doing when we arrived; one of our group joined in as well.

Entering a Malagasy house can give you more perspective on how good our quality of life is even with a huge recession. You won’t see a giant wide screen TV, or a computer or fancy knick knacks- just the essentials for living life plus a few small plush toys. And yet the people seem happy enough, at least on the surface. They were certainly more generous and open with their time than anyone would be in the US if you knocked on their door unannounced. I guess it’s easier to be content with what you have if your life isn’t oversaturated with enticements to spend money on things you don’t really need.

About an hour later, we made a quick stop to take some photos of a random rice field. I enjoyed taking that moment to appreciate the inherent beauty of the country and to shoot a few photos. We also made a restroom stop along the road a little later- guys went one way, girls went another. I stayed in the bus. I believe someone said they had a close call with people walking on the side of the road but, like I said, I stayed in the bus so I have no first hand knowledge of such things.

Our main stop of the morning was Friends of Father Pedro” community of “Akamasoa”, where an Argentinean priest has built a community to help the poorest people of Madagascar. As we exited the buses, we were engulfed in a sea of adorable tiny pink clad children who couldn’t have been happier to wave at us and shake our hands. From there, we went in a room to learn more about the place and about Father Pedro; we were all impressed by photos of him with the pope. We then met Father Pedro himself- which, as others pointed out, made us all within only 1 degree of separation to the Pope.

We then went around observing a few classrooms that were packed full of little kids. In each room, the children would regale us with singing which was completely adorable. After walking around the rest of the compound, we were able to make donations if we wanted to.

Some of the people on my trip listed the visit with Father Pedro as one of their highlights. I wish it had been so for me, but in truth it paled behind the experiences I had 2 years ago in Kenya orphanages where I’d had more of a chance to interact with both the children and the local administrators. It was nonetheless an interesting place to visit. Father Pedro is an amazing and inspirational man, and that he has done some wonderful work.

As we were driving, I fell asleep quite a bit; I think it was one of the side effects of my anti motion sickness medicine. But fortunately I felt better overall than on my first day in Madagascar.

We finally made it to a restaurant for a late lunch. For our meal, we had a choice of appetizers of Tomato and Mozzarella or Fried Zebu Salad. Exactly 1 person chose the Fried Zebu Salad. I don’t really eat raw tomatoes, but I am always all about cheese so I just ate the mozzarella with the pesto sauce. For the main course, I had an absolutely delicious plate of fish and then I finished off with a cream puff type of dessert. I’m really amazed at how uniformly wonderful our food was during the entire trip- and I’m a picky eater.

Our afternoon stop brought us to Lemur Park where we could see… wait for it… more lemurs! We were able to get close to them (although not as close as the crazy fun lemur island). The absolute highlight was when we were able to see 2 tiny week old baby lemurs when their mother walked away from them. There are no words to describe the cuteness of that sight- and thankfully I took eleventy billion photos so I was able to get a few that turned out well.

We had an hour’s long and boring drive through Tana’s streets until we were finally able to get to our hotel. Because our original hotel was overbooked with day guests, we were at the Ibis. I thought this might mean a chance for in room wifi but I was mistaken. The instructions by the phone didn’t work and I was never able to get an explanation from the front desk.

There wasn’t really anywhere in the area that looked welcoming for dinner- and more importantly would feel safe after dark- so everyone pretty much ended up at the Ibis restaurant. We originally wanted to sit with some other people, but they said we should just do our own thing; I guess it was because it would have been crazy if everyone ultimately sat at one huge table. So 3 of us sat together and had a really nice meal. I had a chicken dish that came with spaghetti which was quite good. I ordered the crème brulee for dessert- and holy dessert gods, they brought out this huge plate that was way bigger than I’d expected! Of course I ate the whole thing. Yum.
Preparing the rice Random Malagasy Home Stop Random Rice Field Denice and kids Father Pedro's Akamasoa Community Father Pedro's Akamasoa Community Father Pedro's Akamasoa Community Lemur Park- baby lemurs! Lemur Park
We had a very early flight up north to the island of Nosy Be so we were up by 4am and there was no time for breakfast. Departing our hotel so early allowed us to avoid the traffic congestion we’d experienced the previous day; however, there were a surprising number of people out and about for such an absurdly early time. When we arrived at the airport, I noted that we could see a great view of a sunrise over a satellite dish.

Our second experience with Air Madagascar began with a long, tedious line to check in and some confusion about which counters we could use. We joked that the reason we had to show them a print out of our e-tickets was because they didn’t have a computer to check for the passenger list.

Madagascar flight security is not what I am used to in a post-9/11 world… or even what existed in the US before 9/11. Our hand baggage wasn’t x-rayed. We walked through a metal detector but I’m not quite sure why they bothered: one of the group members said that she saw a guy who set off the metal detector, so he took off his belt. He still set it off so he took off something else. When he set it off the 3rd time? They just waved him through. At least I figured that Air Mada would be the last airline on the radar of terrorists.

As we boarded the plane, our group was abuzz with chatter: Apparently, one of our group members, Cyndi, did not make it onto the flight. She’d been the last to check in and every time she got to the front of a checkin line, the agent disappeared and she had to get into another line. Finally they told her that the flight was oversold and she didn’t have a seat. In my experience, most airlines would ask for volunteers to be bumped when a flight is overbooked, and would give consideration to keeping a large group together. However, Air Mada absolutely refused to ask for volunteers and clearly didn’t care about leaving a single group member behind. I believe that every member of our group empathized with Cyndi’s situation and felt bad that she wouldn’t be able to join us until the next day.

After our flight took off, I was looking forward to some juice and hopefully a snack since we hadn’t had time for breakfast. Oh, Air Madagascar, how you mocked me by not having a single flavor of juice available on a 6:30am flight! In addition to coffee and tea (neither of which appeal to me), they had water, coke, and a carbonated orange beverage (which may also have had grapefruit). They offered some pastries, but I decided that being hungry was a better option than trying them. Sigh. Air Mada redefines everything you may know about air travel, and somehow for the worse; this is quite the achievement.

Fortunately, it was a short flight. When we landed in Nosy Be, our local guide greeted us with lovely floral leis. Having seen photos of the previous group, I’d made sure to wear a colorful floral shirt that would be nicely complemented when accessorized with a lei. After the lax security on the flight, I was quite surprised that they were actually checking luggage tickets when we exited the airport. Somehow I’d lost mine, but I showed them that the name on my passport matched the luggage tag and they let me through.

Another day in Madagascar means another opportunity to see lemurs. Once in Nosy Be, we headed directly to Lemuria Land. One of the first things we saw there were some of the most scenic restrooms I’ve ever experienced- there was no wall across from the toilet; instead, there was a view of a lovely landscape.

Meanwhile, it was HOT- much warmer than in Tana. It was also quite sunny and just about everyone had left their sunscreen in their packed luggage. At least I had my hat with me. After not having any breakfast, I felt like I stepped into heaven when we were led to a room with a spread of juices and fruits. Finally, I could have the fruit juice I’d been craving! I probably wouldn’t have cared if it was the worst juice ever, but I’m pleased to report that the mango juice was spectacular, and the guava juice was also terrifically refreshing.

Our first stop was a perfume distillery, where the guide told us how they made Ylang Ylang into perfumes. He also passed around a yellow Ylang Ylang flower for us to smell. Then we walked around to see wildlife such as crocodiles, giant tortoises, warthogs, chameleons and, of course, lemurs! Some of the lemurs were in cages- they said this was temporary until the newer lemurs got used to their environment. I also got to pose with another snake. I’d thought my snake posing earlier had been a once in a lifetime opportunity, but clearly that was wrong. Unfortunately, due to the heat and the lack of a proper breakfast, I was really dragging by the end of our 90 minutes+ at Lemuria Land.

When we arrived at our hotel, only some rooms were ready. Since I wasn’t feeling too well, I was really hoping mine would be one but alas it was not. The resort looked spectacular and I was eager to explore the grounds and take photos. But I couldn’t figure out where to head for lunch, and felt really exhasperated because I was feeling overcome by the sun and heat; there was definitely a heat rash on my hands. I headed back to the main area to sit down for a bit; I think some others from the group sat with me until I felt better but I can’t remember for sure. I hate feeling weak, but it was always great to feel like people in our group truly cared for each other.

Lunch was awesome and definitely revived both my body and spirit. I decided to order one of the daily specials, pasta with smoked fish, which turned out to be an amazing combo of 2 of my favorite foods! The chocolate ice cream I had for dessert was much richer than your typical Baskin Robbins chocolate.

Our room was ready after lunch. Like the rest of the hotel, it was fabulous! Very bright, and with out own private veranda looking out toward the ocean. But there was one problem… no hot water! I told some people including the local guide and was assured it would be taken care of.

The rest of the afternoon was a very welcome break from the hectic pace of the previous few days. Some people went swimming, but I just wanted to walk around enjoying the fabulous scenery, including a lovely private beach. Naturally, I took plenty of photos. I also managed to fit in a small nap, waking up just in time to catch an amazing sunset in paradise.

Due to the continued lack of hot water, I only took a very quick shower before heading off to dinner which consisted of a seafood buffet. As usual, everything was terrific. I ended up sitting next to people I hadn’t talked to much which was nice; on group trips I tend not to have a clique and prefer to float around meeting as many people as possible. One of our group members bought champagne for the table because she wanted to celebrate that one of her condos closed back home. I don’t usually drink but I enjoyed sampling some bubbly.

We all missed Cyndi and were disappointed to learn that her flight the next morning had already been delayed 2 hours. Only Air Madagascar decides on random flight delays a day in advance; I joked that their schedule was merely a suggestion.
Lemuria Land: Perfume Distillery Lemuria Land: Chameleon Lemuria Land: Lemur Lemuria Land: Lemur Lemuria Land Lemuria Land: Snake Hotel Hotel room Hotel beach Hotel beach Sunset at hotel
I awoke to the sounds of my roommate expressing her displeasure to the front desk that our room still did not have hot water. Normally I’m annoyed at being awakened by unnecessary noise, but this was definitely an issue worth fighting for. When she’d originally complained to the front desk the previous day, they said they’d send some up; we were puzzled at the response until someone came up with a hair dryer. Clearly something had gotten lost in the translation although she needed a hair dryer anyway so it hadn’t been a total loss. But the situation had gone on way too long to be amusing, especially since ours was the only room without hot water. (almost everyone in our group had hot water from the start; the other room or 2 with problems had already been rectified)

Today we were going island hopping to 2 other islands by Nosy Be. To that end, we took a bus to a pier where we boarded a small boat that fit half our group. At first I thought that might be the boat we were using to get to the islands, but I soon realized that we were just transferring to a much nicer boat that could fit all of us. Laying lazily down in the back of the boat with a colorful orange and white curtain protecting me from the sun as we floated through azure waters, one thought crossed my mind: “This is the life!”

After about 45 minutes or so, we approached our first stop, Nosy Komba, which looked to be a gem of a little island paradise. To get to shore, we had to transfer to a small boat that only held about 6 people. Once we got close to the beach, we had to get out of the boat and wade the rest of the way through the crystal clear water; there was no such thing as a marina in such a small undeveloped island. This was a tiny bit of a shock to my system because as much as I love beaches and water, I prefer to admire their beauty from a bit of a distance; I am not typically a huge fan of actually walking in the sand. But I just made the best of it and, once on shore, changed into my flip flops.

Nosy Komba is called the island of lemurs, so I expected to see.. lemurs! The first one we saw couldn’t even be bothered to pose; he wasn’t enticed by anything the guide tried to do to get him to come closer. As we walked around through a village and saw such things as chameleons and tortoises, I was getting disappointed. But finally we came to a section with lemurs that would jump on our shoulders! It wasn’t nearly as crazy as lemur island a few days earlier, but, I still felt like giggling whenever one would jump on my shoulder. Others were getting sick of lemurs by this time, but I still couldn’t get enough of them!

After being shuttled back to our boat, a seafood buffet was set up onboard as we set off for our second island. Unfortunately, I started to feel a little seasick so nothing looked very appetizing to me; instead, I took advantage of my position laying in the back of the boat to take a well appreciated nap. I’m told that the lunch was delicious, and I wish I’d been able to try it.

Our second stop was Nosy Tanikely, where once again we transferred to a small boat to be shuttled to shore. Here we had a chance to swim and relax on a small, tranquil beach. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a huge fan of getting close to sand so the fact that we each only were given one small beach towel was not very conducive to my relaxation. I don’t think I sat down during the whole 3.5 hrs or so that we were there.

However, I did go into the ocean, where I witnessed one member of our group getting over her fear of going underwater. We were all provided with snorkel equipment to borrow but I was really shy about joining the others because I can freak out while getting accustomed to breathing through my mouth with the snorkel gear. After some people returned, one of the guys was nice enough to go back out with me- and he was very patient through my nerves. I tried to take some photos but, like an idiot, I had the camera on the wrong setting (“low light” instead of “underwater”) so they didn’t come out very well. Of course, it wasn’t like this was the Great Barrier Reef or anything. Plus, we missed the most exciting sea creatures like turtles (which bummed out the guy I was with even more than me since he missed them twice). But, really, I was just happy that I got out there and did it.

Soon after I was done snorkeling, the group was abuzz with the fact that Cyndi, who’d been bumped from the previous day’s flight, was making her triumphant return via a speedboat. A bunch of us went down the beach to greet her; I felt it incumbent upon me to take official “welcome back” photographs. I’ll always remember Cyndi’s amazingly positive spirit as she told us tales of how she had the “true Madagascar experience” back in Tana on her own- especially the part where she worried a bunch of people by going off somewhere on her own. Since Cyndi wanted to snorkel, another one of the guys went out with her for his second time.

After I had a chance to photographically explore some more of the beach, it was time to start heading back to our hotel. Our journey home had some unexpected excitement when our drivers noticed a boat whose sails were broken and took it upon themselves to tow that boat back safely to the shore. If it hadn’t been for us, we don’t know how they would have made it. After all of that, I don’t even think they gave us a thank you!

Once we arrived back at the hotel, it was time for the crucial test: did we finally have hot water? If we didn’t, we had many offers to borrow showers from other rooms- but that would be a bit of a pain. I turned on the faucet and waited… and HALLELUJAH, there was hot water! After sweating and then swimming in the salt water, it felt wonderful to take a nice long hot shower for the first time in way too long.

Dinner was once again a delicious buffet, this time with a Madagascar theme. The highlight was celebrating Denice’s birthday. A bunch of us had arranged for cake for her (not really my idea, though I supported it) and we were so pleased at how much it meant to her and how much she enjoyed it. At least for that one week in time, our little group was becoming a family in the best sense of the word.
Our boat Relaxing on the boat Nosy Komba Village Lovely beach setting Lemur Nosy Tanikely Cyndi's triumphant return Nosy Tanikely Nosy Tanikely Rescuing the boat
Today was essentially a free day; everyone had the opportunity to sign up for excursions that suited their interests. Some people spent the morning diving while others went off for another full beach day. I hadn’t signed up for any morning activities because I craved a little down time by myself. I didn’t set my alarm; given the context of this trip, waking at 8 constituted a luxurious “sleeping in.” I was pleased to see that Denice was still at breakfast so I joined her; I was equally pleased that I found crepes at the buffet.

I enjoyed a lazy morning full of taking photos of the beach at low tide. Eventually, I settled down by the pool with my iPad, which enabled me to catch up on taking notes and reading my book, as well as connecting to friends back home. I enjoyed the lovely view of the ocean and felt a gentle appreciation of being surrounded by so much beauty. Others may have had more exciting mornings, but mine was just as wonderful to me in its own quiet way.

After a while, I ran into my roommate Holly who raved about her morning going horseback riding through the village and along the beach. It seemed like everyone was thrilled with the activities they’d chosen- I heard of no bad choices or regrets.

I joined Holly for another delicious lunch. She generously let me sample her fish carpaccio appetizer which totally rocked. For my main course, I decided to have a Croque Madame sandwich which I usually can only find in France. It seemed to take forever and a day to get my dessert, Crepes with Honey, but otherwise it was all terrific.

During the afternoon, Holly joined me for a private tour of the lakes and Mont Passot. This was really special to me because it seemed like Holly and I always ended up on separate buses or separate groups- this was the one real chance we had to share some time together. There was some confusion over where we were supposed to meet our guide, but fortunately we found him.

Our driver was very friendly, and I really enjoyed having a nice leisurely ride to sample some different scenic areas around the island of Nosy Be. At one of the lakes, Holly bought something from a young woman who was very amused that I took a photo of her carrying a large pail on her head; it never ceases to amaze me how the Malagasy can balance anything on their heads though I can understand why they must think it’s funny that foreigners make a big deal over something so second nature to them.

The highlight was of course Mont Passot, the highest point on Nosy Be. It struck me that if we’d been in the US, it would have been surrounded with guard rails galore and artificial steps; it was refreshing to be somewhere that was still much more natural. However, it would have been nice if it had been commercialized just enough to have a stand selling bottled water in addition to the various craft stands. The views of the island were awesome; I’d heard they were even more spectacular at sunset but neither of us really wanted to wait around that long.

I was a little nervous walking down the steep path back to the vehicle so the guide and Holly helped me. But then I saw a teeny tiny kitten and all fear was lost as I was overcome by cuteness. I’ve always loved taking photos of cats in foreign countries and I’m definitely a sucker for kittens.

We gave our driver one heck of a good tip- he was great and I still had tons of Malagasy money left. Back at the hotel, I did some more shopping at the gift shop and took a shower. I appreciated the fact that we still had hot water!

When I headed to dinner, the members of my group greeted me with the happiest Air Madagascar announcement ever: our flight back to Tana was going to be delayed several hours the next day which would allow everyone time to spend another morning at our lovely resort. I’m sure everyone shed a single tear at the thought of missing a tour of ruins in the city amid the excitement of figuring out what we could do with the extra time in our island paradise.

Some of the guys asked if I wanted to join them swimming with the whale sharks. This was extremely tempting, if only because I have a long standing joke with my nieces about “swimming with the sharks”. However, I am not the strongest snorkeler so I had some trepidation about ruining everyone else’s time. Once I found out that I wouldn’t be holding anyone else up if I was too slow or if I panicked, I was in. Thank you, Air Madagascar- apparently, sometimes your ineptness reaps unexpected benefits!

Dinner was once again delicious, and I was excited that it ended with chocolate mousse. I couldn’t believe that we only had 1 more full day left together as a group- Madagascar seemed like an amazing blur and it didn’t seem possible that we’d already been there for a week.
Hotel beach Sitting by the pool Lake tour With Holly on the lake tour Lake tour Mont Passot Mont Passot Mont Passot child Mont Passot chicken and kitten
Getting up early to swim with the whale sharks definitely beats getting up early to take an Air Mada flight. Since I wouldn’t have much time back at the hotel after our swim, I made sure to be packed as much as possible.

After eating some breakfast, five of us walked through the low tide at our hotel’s beach to climb onboard a small boat. We rode around for quite a bit while our drivers tried to spot whale sharks. I enjoyed being out in the ocean with some fun people, and I think we all agreed that it would still have been a nice morning regardless of whether we found any sharks.

Finally, our driver spotted one and told us to jump off the sides of the boat into the water. I figured I’d sit the first one out so I could see how it went. I was grateful to have a great view of a whale shark that swam just below our boat. Of course, my 4 companions were beyond thrilled to have swum near it.

The second time we spotted a shark, I got my foot in the water. Progress! The third time, I was going to try to get into the water a little belatedly but I thought the guy said no. Finally, for the fourth whale shark, I just did it- slipped off the boat into the water and bam- I was right near one awesome specimen of a whale shark! I swam in its trail briefly until I felt a little short of breath. But I’d done it. I swam with a whale shark- and it was awesome! My smile was wide as I got high 5’s all around from my wonderfully supportive fellow group members.

Still a bit delirious from excitement, I skipped the fifth jump which turned out to be the last one due to our time constraints. Still, I felt like a winner because I had met my challenge of trying something new.

Once back at the hotel, it was a mad dash to power shower and then finish packing. Luckily I’m a no fuss kind of gal, so I had no problem making it on time to catch the bus for a long, twisty drive to the airport. Before we left, it was announced that Cyndi was the winner of our not-very-competitive contest for the best traveler due to her amazing attitude after missing the flight to Nosy Be. She’d been given a full body massage and we were all thrilled for her.

Due to our previous airport problems, we tried to do a group check in. It wasn’t exactly a real group check in since we each had to go to the counter individually, but it got the job done. Then we all headed to a snack place across the way for conversation and sustenance.

The plane was open seating and I slept during most of the ride. Apparently I was fortunate because I missed the Zebu stuffed bread; someone told me that even the smell of it had been gross.

At the airport we met our local guide who told us that because we’d had to miss the tour of the ruins, our dinner would now be included. Wait- so I got to swim with the whale sharks and have a free dinner instead of some ruins…? The day was just getting better and better!

The local guide said we could either stop at a craft market or go directly to the hotel. Our bus was unanimous in wanting to go to the hotel. Then he suggested that maybe 1 bus could go to the craft market and the other bus could go to the hotel. I could have told him that we’d all prefer heading straight to the hotel, but he eventually found this out for himself.

At first I thought our hotel was lovely- it was situated on gorgeous grounds and our bungalow had 2 stories! But then I felt a constant sense that the room was musty and I never felt particularly clean there (despite being far from a clean freak). Also, if I was sitting down on the downstairs bed and Holly was moving things around upstairs, some debris would fall on me. After I told her this and she dropped something on the floor, I was really annoyed and we got in our first little argument.

I think the emotion of the looming good byes to the group was getting to me, so I decided to go off by myself to the main lobby building to do my online checkin for my Cape Town flight and to read some more of my book. As others came down, I joined the laughs watching a bunch of them attempt to play some pool. But I mostly hung off on my own; everyone in the group meant a lot to me and sometimes I’m afraid to show people that I care because I fear that the feeling won’t be reciprocated. Originally, I’d been disappointed not to be on the first of 2 groups to Madagascar 3 weeks earlier, but I would not have traded this amazing group for anything in the world!

Eventually, Holly and I made up. Thank goodness; I wouldn’t have wanted one silly blip to have ruined a really nice trip together. We had enough in common that we always had plenty to talk about, but we were also different enough that we could complement each other. I particularly loved that Holly would get up very early because it meant that she’d be ready and could wake me up when I needed to get ready. She also had a very good heart which I kept telling her made her beautiful inside and out.

The highlight of dinner was the coining of the most amusing phrase “Smooth as a Lemur’s butt” You see, one of the guys had been raving about how soft the towels at this hotel were compared to the previous one. He said that he wanted to invent a fabric softener to sell in Madagascar and that he was going to call it “Smooth as a Lemur’s butt”. Maybe you had to be there, but we were all in fits of giggles. And that was even before the ginger rum was served!

Dinner itself consisted of a tomato appetizer, zebu entrée, and a fruit dessert. There were no choices, just a set menu. It wasn’t my favorite meal, but it was good. I was still feeling rather bittersweet that our little family was about to disband. Sure there was talk about keeping in touch, but I know from past trips that the reality is that we’d all go back to our crazy lives and mostly drift apart. Facebook can be awesome as a passive tool to stay in touch with people, but most of this group didn’t seem to be active on Facebook.

In the hotel room, Holly and I watched coverage of Hurricane Sandy back home. I was glad to be missing the storm, but also worried for my friends, family, and cats back home. Holly had even more to be concerned about since she was due to leave Johannesburg for NY’s JFK airport the next evening. It seemed unreal that we were enjoying lovely Madagascar weather while menacing storms were starting to swirl back home.
In the boat to find whale sharks Hotel Hotel grounds Our hotel room Downstairs bed Playing pool
Holly’s affinity for getting up early saved us from the fact that we never got our scheduled wake up call. We also never received the breakfast we’d pre-ordered at dinner, but I was told that we didn’t miss much. As I walked from our far out cabin to the main building, it really sunk in that the group portion of our trip was ending.

At Tana airport, I was one of the first to complete our pseudo group check in process. When I was done, I searched for some nourishment. The first place I found didn’t accept Madagascar money but Holly bought me a Gatorade. Then I found another store where I was able to convert some of my leftover Madagascar cash to a Coke Zero and chocolate. (using leftover local cash for chocolate is one of my favorite travel traditions)

Although everyone in our group was assigned seats close together on the plane, it was empty enough that we could spread out. I was prepared to refuse another dose of Air Madagascar horror food, but apparently they made a mistake and upgraded us the Deluxe Breakfast option. The eggs were mediocre but completely edible (which in itself made them Air Mada A++ food), and there was also a croissant, bread, and fruit. To me, the piece de resistance was some Baby Bel cheese. They even had orange juice available! (but I already had my beverages)

Johannesburg airport’s baggage claim, which not long ago had been my gateway to unknown adventures, was now the scene of goodbyes and hugs. Since Robert, Mary and I were all traveling onward to Cape Town, we walked together to find the transfer desk. Their flight was an hour before mine and I tried to join them, but was not able to switch my flight. So we made plans to meet up at Robert’s hotel to do something for dinner, since that seemed like the most central location.

I spent my transfer time exploring the airport shops; I tried to use the wifi but it never worked for me. Still, since I was back in South Africa, I could connect to the Internet via the SIM card I’d bought for my iPad.

After a week of flying on various Air Madagascar jets, my South African Airways plane seemed so shiny and new in comparison. It was a short flight, and I was excited to be able to explore someplace new. I’d asked my B&B to set up a taxi so I searched all over for someone carrying a sign with my name. Finally, further back from most, I saw a sign that had the name of the B&B and “Faith”. No last name- like Madonna; I kind of liked that.

When I reached the B&B, there was someone outside painting. He let me in and helped me with my luggage. And then I waited for someone to do something, like greet me and give me a room key. I figured they had to know when I was coming because they’d arranged the taxi. Meanwhile, I looked around the small room that passed as a lobby and even went up the stairs to see if there was anyone there. Nope, just bedrooms. OK, then. Finally, I noticed a phone with instructions on how to call the host.

Full of apologies, my friendly host came over to get me settled. The first thing he did was give me a map- great! But before I could even ask where to find Robert’s hotel, my host was marking off all the places that might be of interest and giving me more information than I could come close to processing. Eventually, he led me to the cerise bedroom that I’d reserved, and filled my head with even more information that I couldn’t remember such as how to use the safe.

After I had a chance to breathe and spend a few moments to myself, I decided to walk to Robert’s hotel rather than take a cab. I enjoyed walking through the brightly colorful Bo Kaap region where my B&B was located and knew I’d want to take more photos during my stay. I got a bit confused as to where the hotel was, and I ended up entering through the garage. Instead of directing me to the front entrance, the lady made me sign in. She even made me leave a phone number. I never ended up signing out, so for all they know, maybe I’m still there.

I was the first to arrive so I made myself comfortable in the lobby and went online using my iPad. Soon afterwards, Mary arrived. She got a drink and so they brought over some honey mustard pretzels which I greedily munched on. Robert was the last to come down, despite the fact that he’s a guy and had the least distance to travel. So never let it be said that women are the ones who take the longest!

It was a majorly cool hotel and Robert showed us his room. This is probably my first travel album ever where I have photos of a hotel room that I didn’t stay in! I loved the fact that the elevators were themed like shark tanks; my nieces would have gotten a real kick out of that.

Not knowing very much about the area, the 3 of us went out in search of a suitable dinner option. We were amused to pass establishments with names such as “Cat and Moose” (iirc a hostel) and “Slug and Cabbage” We checked out a couple places and ended up sitting at the counter of a funky, happening place with live music called “Mamma Africa” whose menu offered such delicacies as “Mamma’s Juicy Thighs”.

The counter was decorated like a snake, which after this trip made me feel right at home. If that wasn’t enough, there was a fire extinguisher right next to me- I have mad fire extinguisher skillz as I demonstrated back in February when I defied a 911 operator and probably saved my apartment. So it was like the seat was made for me.

For some reason, I decided to have a glass of wine, which wasn’t very good. It took forever to get our meals- at least those were better. I had Zimbabwe style chicken with peanuts and spinach; I also sampled Mary’s warthog because how many times do you get a chance to taste Pumbaa? ;)

During the meal, I saw on Facebook that some of our fellow travelers were stranded in Jo’Burg due to NYC airports being closed after Superstorm Sandy. I also found out that my paycheck would be late due to losing power at our office. My decision to add a few days in Cape Town was proving to be quite wise.

It was a little loud during dinner with the live music, though not quite so loud as to be annoying to me. It was really a neat place to eat and probably the best option we came across. Afterwards, we headed back to the lobby of Robert’s hotel which was definitely more suited for conversation. Eventually, Mary and I shared a cab back to our respective hotels. Mary was planning to journey on to wine country the following day, but Robert and I made some tentative plans to get together.
Bag claim in Joahnnesburg My B&B B&B lobby area My B&B My room My B&B- looking out Fire and Ice hotel bar Live entertainment at Mama Africa dinner Nifty chandelier at Mama Africa Mary and her bottle of beer
The first thing I do if I wake up and have internet access is to check my iPad for email. Usually, if it’s really early, I’ll just go back to sleep. I’m not even sure I had my glasses on yet when I came across an email that I read over and over. My relief at knowing that everyone back home had survived Sandy with only minor incidents had apparently been pre-mature; according to an email from a mutual friend, my friend Stephen had fallen off the roof of his house on Sunday when he’d been trying to get ready for the storm and had shattered his leg.

Stephen means a lot to me- despite not being someone I could legitimately consider a close friend by most definitions, he’s been a huge part of my life. If nothing else, he helped inspire me to believe that I really could do something with my interest in website design and programming. I guess he’s been a bit of an angel to me, so it definitely made me upset to think that somewhere very far away, he was hurting.

Eventually, as the email sunk in, I made my way into the breakfast room where they had homemade bread, cereal, and eggs that were cooked to order. As I was eating, the host came and told me I got a phone call but he told them to call back in 5 minutes. The downside to a B&B is no direct phone line to my room. I knew it was Robert that called, and I was really disappointed especially since the phone did not ring again any time soon.

When I went back to my room, I felt like everything exploded in my head all at once: the end of the tour, Stephen being hurt, even missing Robert’s call. For whatever reason, I could. not. stop. crying. Finally, I started reading some of my book and that lulled me into complacency. But whenever I tried to put it down, the tears would return in full force. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my Cape Town day in a bedroom, but I also wasn’t quite capable of going out. Not just yet. Or maybe something was telling me to stay put just a bit longer.

Somewhere in all of this, I sent Stephen an email and attached my famously cute photo of Baby Lemurs because I hoped it would help him crack a smile. It made me feel better to send him some good wishes. Of course, not better enough to make me smile.

Sometime around noon, Robert called back and this time the B&B host came to my door with the cell phone. Robert told me that he’d climbed Table Mountain and that I had to come and see the view. The previous evening, he said he’d take the cable car up with me after he did his climb since I was nervous about it, but I didn’t 100% trust that he’d actually remember… cause I’m cynical that way. Good thing I’d still been in my room.

Fortunately, the phone call did the trick and I was able to get ready and take a cab to Table Mountain without shedding any additional tears. When I arrived, there was a huge line to get tickets to the Cable Car. It was the first clear day in awhile so there were a lot of people who wanted to see one of the city’s top attractions. When I didn’t see Robert, I decided to stake out a place in line; to my relief, he soon joined me. (again, I’m cynical about people actually meeting me when they say they will)

To say that I was nervous getting onto the cable car would be a gross understatement. However, I also don’t like people I know to think I’m weak so I sucked it up as much as possible. Oh I’m sure he could tell by how tightly my eyes were clenched that I was terrified- but I was going to deal with it myself or die trying cause I am woman hear me roar. Or something. Outwardly, I also maintained that I was going to be brave for my friend Stephen. (not that me taking a cable car up a mountain could do a thing to heal his leg; but he’d always helped me to believe in myself and I felt like I would somehow be honoring him by facing my fear, albeit with eyes closed)

So I made it up Table Mountain- mission accomplished! The view was indeed incredible and dramatic, especially on such a clear day. I was slightly leery of getting too close to the edge and thought some people were crazy when they were posing standing on rocks.

After walking around a bit and admiring the beauty, we decided to stop to get something to eat. It was a madhouse! I felt too claustrophobic to get any actual food so I snagged a shortbread in addition to a water and a soda (I was so thirsty!), and then got a table. Robert met me at the table shortly; he'd braved the crowds and bought actual food, some of which he shared with me.

There was a long line for the cable car down the mountain- and it was extremely windy. They weren’t letting any new people up because of the wind. I was proud of myself that I was able to keep my eyes open on the entire descent. It was really awesome looking down on Cape Town as some children sang what I assumed was the South African national anthem. As we got close to the bottom, the operator said that it was going to be a bumpy landing and to hold on; I was actually disappointed when we arrived at the station without any bumps at all.

Robert wanted to go back to his hotel and rest (since he’d climbed the mountain, he had every right to feel exhausted!) I decided to get off there to explore some of Cape Town- it didn’t make sense for me to take the cab further to my hotel. We made plans to meet up for dinner- he would take a cab to my B&B and then I’d join him.

During my explorations, I found a pedestrian shopping street and some gardens. Gradually, I started to feel like I was getting to know my way around the city. On my way back through the Bo Kaap neighborhood to my hotel, I saw a bunch of tourists taking photos of the bright, colorful buildings.

I had a little time to relax, and then I had to get ready for dinner. As I walked out of my building to the main building of the B&B, I saw a black cat. Since it was Halloween, I thought that might be a good omen.

As I stood on the porch in front of the B&B, I was hugely entertained by The Worst Attempt At Parallel Parking EVER. And I say this as someone who has no talent for parallel parking. It took about 5 tries for a little red Volkswagen to pull into a space. It wasn’t even that particularly tight of a space. Finally, it parked- but not before bumping into the white van in front of it ever so lightly. The punchline is that not 5 minutes after the red VW was parked, the white van pulled out. I guess timing is everything.

Soon Robert’s taxi arrived and I jumped in so we could head to the V&A waterfront. We looked at a lot of menus to try to figure out where to eat. I’m a picky eater, but I can be happy eating just about anywhere; I’m more about the company than the food. We found one place that looked promising but they were all booked.

Robert eventually decided that we should go back and eat at a sushi bar we'd passed; I think I must have mentioned my love of sushi at some point. In honor of Halloween, Robert had brought along a pair of Groucho Marx glasses so I took a photo of him wearing them and eating sushi. Then I insisted on trying them on myself. Those pictures still make me laugh and remind me of what a fun dinner we had.

For dessert, he ordered the Tiramisu and I ordered the Crème Brulee. (oh so classy desserts to complement sushi, I know… but good dessert goes with anything!) I was terribly disappointed when they were out of Crème Brulee but I ordered some kind of chocolate lava cake which turned out to be amazing. Though I admit it was a tad unsettling to be staring at an octopus leg behind the sushi counter as I ate my chocolate delight.

When they brought the check, I decided to put the entire bill on my credit card and Robert paid me in cash for his portion; since I didn’t have a working ATM card of my own, this would let me have enough cash for the rest of my time in South Africa. When the waiter brought back the card, he naturally handed it to Robert cause he’s the guy, which led to some giggles as he passed it back to me.

After we were done, it was still early so we ended up hanging out at Robert's hotel lobby and talking a little more. The wine there was much better than what I'd had with dinner the previous night. It was a nice, relaxed time chatting and getting to know each other better. When it got late, I took a cab back to my B&B, but not before giving Robert a big goodbye hug since he'd be leaving for the US the next day; he's a super nice guy and I ended up really enjoying sharing the day with him. Especially because I don't know if I would have gone through with taking the cable car to Table Mountain if he hadn't gone with me, and I know I would have regretted it if I hadn't.
Table Mountain cable car I made it to the top of Table Mountain! View from Table Mountain including Robben Island View from Table Mountain View from Table Mountain St George's Street Mall The Company’s Garden The Company’s Garden South African National Gallery Halloween black cat Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Sushi bar where we ate dinner Sushi Royal platter- yum!
I awoke just before my alarm was set to go off at 7:30, excited about my full day tour to Cape Point. I headed to the breakfast in a much better mood than the previous day.

As I waited for the tour van, I received the message that it was going to be about 15 minutes late. But soon enough, I was greeted by my extroverted and jovial guide, Rob; his personality and humor were definitely highlights of the tour. I was the last picked up, and introduced myself to the others: a honeymoon couple from Singapore, another honeymoon couple from England and a single woman from England.

Our first stop was the impressive Rhodes Memorial on the edge of Cape Town. After a scenic drive overlooking beaches and bays, we had some free time to walk around Simons Town, a small waterfront village. In addition to taking photos, I wandered into some small shops. I was delighted to find a beautiful pair of pink/purple earrings in one of them since I’d yet to purchase any South African earrings. The lady who sold them to me was extremely friendly, which made me even happier about my purchase.

One of the things I’d looked most forward to about this tour was the promise of seeing penguins. Well, we got to see plenty of African Jackass Penguins when we stopped at Boulders Beach. I never really thought of penguins in the context of a beach, but there they were- tons and tons of little penguins. My inner animal lover was definitely full of squee.

After a drive that took us past scenic cliffs and baboons, we arrived at Cape Point. I ended up wandering and climbing with the other single woman on the bus. When we got to the top, I felt positively battered by the wind! It was even more brutal than at Table Mountain. But it felt amazing to be there; all the sights around Cape Town were truly breathtaking. On our way back to the bus, we stopped for lunch; I got a personal pizza.

Driving toward the Cape of Good Hope, we stopped to observe some ostriches in the wild. Then we got out to take turns getting our photos taken by the famous sign that pronounces the most south-western point of the African continent. We had to wait for a large group to get finished taking their own photos; unfortunately, they didn’t clear out very quickly so you can see them behind me in my photo.

Our guide stopped at a craft stand at the side of the road to get bracelets to give the newlyweds for good luck. It was a sweet touch, though I thought that those of us who were single might perhaps have been in more need of some luck.

On the way back to Cape Town, we stopped at a few scenic overlooks to admire the beauty and take photos. This includes areas such as Misty Cliffs, Kommetjie, and Chapmans Peak. The whole time, our guide Rob kept the mood light and fun. It was one of the better day tours I’ve taken overall- I loved the sights, and I never felt rushed. Just a really good time that is probably best described by photos not words.

By the time I returned to my B&B at around 6:20pm, I was completely exhausted; I didn’t even have the energy to search for dinner. I talked with the B&B host in the common breakfast area, posted some pictures, and went online. And oh yeah, I packed; it was my last night in Africa. I’d had a wonderful time, but felt ready to start heading back home to my furricanes.
Rhodes Memorial Simon's Town Boulders Beach En route to Cape Point Cape Point Cape of Good Hope Kommetjie Chapman's Peak
I woke up early, but didn’t feel much like getting out of bed. I didn’t feel quite well but still wanted to make the most of my day. After breakfast, I finished packing (regrettably, I later realized I’d left my last Madagascar chocolate bar) and walked around the small, hilly steets B&B’s neighborhood of Bo Kaap, taking my fill of photos of the brightly colored architecture. As I admired my surroundings, I started to tear up thinking of how awesome the entire trip had been; truly, something special even for me.

I continued walking in the direction of the Jewish Museum, and the heat was already starting to get to me. I knew that I’d soon be complaining about the cooler fall temperatures once I got back home, but for now, I was getting sick of feeling the sun beating down on me.

There was a lot of security outside the Jewish Museum; I think I even had to show my passport. I’m not a religious person, but I am proud my Jewish heritage and culture so I was curious to see a Jewish museum in Africa. It was actually quite nice, and included a Holocaust museum which was highlighted by video testimonials of survivors who’d emigrated to South Africa. An unexpected exhibit focused on Japanese miniatures; they were from the collection of one of the benefactors. The people working there were particularly nice, starting with the woman who sold me a ticket who insisted on taking my photo in the entrance area.

I ended up stopping for lunch at the café, which was slightly ironic since I don’t eat kosher food at home. The spinach and feta lasagna was terrific, although it was way too much for me to finish. I enjoyed browsing at the gift shop because I was able to find some things that I knew my more observant family members would love. (and they did!)

After walking around some more, I decided that I couldn’t deal with the heat any longer and went back to the B&B to relax before my evening flight. I was thrilled when I checked my email and found a message from my friend Stephen, whose tumble off the roof had made me so upset a couple days earlier. I felt so much better hearing from him and knowing that he was in good spirits. I amused myself by writing profound stuff to him- something about comparing conquering my fear of the cable car to Table Mountain to his recovery; I was even more amused when he replied.

There was a spare shower room at the B&B that I was able to use to refresh before heading to the airport for my 10:40pm flight. They’d arranged a cab for me, and the driver was quite friendly. It seems like virtually everyone I came across in South Africa were delightful, and very welcoming to foreigners.

The line to check in at the airport was really slow; as I waited, they tried to upsell me to a seat with extra leg room. I’m 5’2; I really don’t think that’s a valuable expense. The guy at the X-Ray machine was taking forever to arrange everyone’s belongings while a lady was trying to rush everyone through.

Once past security, I browsed the shops and decided to get something to eat. I ordered a Margarita pizza which was so huge that I could barely eat half of it, as well as a chocolate fudge cookie milkshake. I decided that the world would be a better place if all airports offered the opportunity to purchase milk shakes.

It was my first time flying Virgin Atlantic, and it seemed like a nice enough airline- obviously anything would compare favorably to Air Madagascar. I particularly liked the purple silverware and glasses. I’m all about anything purple.

After we reached a safe altitude, I decided to listen to my cast recording of the musical “Jane Eyre”. As I heard the lyric “It’s 12 o’clock in the pitch black night/ I can’t contain my wanderlust/ I seek a new adventure/ I search the skies because I must”, I glanced at the clock on my iPad. It really was 12 midnight; I can’t even express how perfectly I felt that the lyric captured the moment.
Bo Kaap area mosque Bo Kaap area Bo Kaap area Jewish Museum Jewish Museum Chocolate Fudge Cookie Milkshake at the airport
I was thrilled that my window seat treated me to a wonderful view of London as we approached Heathrow airport. It’s always so exciting for me to catch a great bird’s eye view of the iconic sights of a city I’m visiting. I’d gotten some sleep on the plane and had also watched the 2 episodes I’d missed of the TV show Once Upon a Time.

On the plane, I filled out my landing card to say that my length of stay would be 9 hours and I didn’t list a contact address. I zipped right through customs with just a reminder to be back in plenty of time for my evening flight. No worries, there! My first stop was to drop off my backpack at left luggage; much easier to walk around London with my large purple tote bag unencumbered by the weight of my larger camera/ netbook/ etc.

I bought a one day travelcard because it was cheap enough, and then headed merrily onto the Tube. It had been too long since I’d last visited London in 2008! I discovered that there was free wifi at some Tube stops; but the connection would disappear once the train started moving so I’d have to be careful not to be in the middle of trying to post anything. I was also pleased to see signs announcing the Book of Mormon, one of my favorite Broadway musicals which would soon be coming to London.

I got off the Tube at Covent Garden and walked around the shops, admiring all the Christmas decorations. I made my customary stop at Lush cosmetics, although I didn’t actually buy anything; my first visit to a Lush store had been in Hungary in 2004 and I always like to visit one when I travel. I also quickly discovered a store with Crispy M&M’s that I could bring home to a friend.

I then walked to Leicester Square, stopping at a store that I knew sold foreign candy and soda. I cheered when I saw a can of Diet Cherry Dr Pepper, my favorite soda and worst vice. Even though I’d soon be able to get my fill of it once I arrived home, I couldn’t resist buying one. I then headed to M&M’s world for a quick break.

By the time that restaurants opened for lunch, I was starving! I headed to Wagamama, which is one of my favorites. I ordered a fruit juice (I believe it was the apple/orange/passion fruit combo) and teriyaki salmon ramen. Both were absolutely delicious and well worth a trip into London.

After lunch, I wandered around for about an hour and a half until I got sick of the crowds. I stopped by the theatre shop Dress Circle and was disappointed that they didn’t have much of a selection of anything interesting. I then headed through Oxford Circus to Regent Street, where there was some kind of motor show.

I was very early getting back to the airport, so I relaxed, drank my soda, and charged my iPad before retrieving my backpack. I then leisurely made my way past security and to the gate.

I’d initially secretly hoped that my flight home would be overbooked due to everyone who’d been stuck because of Super Storm Sandy when NY airports had been closed for a few days. But as I sat on the plane and saw more flight attendants than passengers in front of me, it became clear that outcome hadn’t been anywhere in the range of possible. Officially, there were 90 passengers and 14 crew members aboard; it looks like the aircraft has the capacity to hold 316 passengers. It was like a ghost plane.

As we got ready for take off, I glanced out the window and I saw something that looked like fireworks in the distance. I thought I must have been imagining it, but I kept seeing them even as we were taking off. I’d always been a little curious to see fireworks from the vantage point of an airplane. I wasn’t sure why they were occurring, but sometimes you don’t need a reason. Sometimes it’s better to just believe it’s a magical exclamation mark at the end of an amazing experience.
Approaching Heathrow On the Tube, heading into London Covent Garden Wagamama Regent Street Virgin Atlantic Terminal at Heathrow
From the rainbow that greeted me at my Johannesburg guesthouse to the fireworks I saw from my airplane window as I left London, there was something very special and wonderful about my journey to Madagascar.

My memory of this trip is like a kaleidoscope of diverse experiences that I will never forget- from stepping through history in Soweto… to seeing more lemurs than I’d ever imagined… to overcoming my fear of the cable car to Table Mountain. Every day treated me to more amazing discoveries and I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had to take them all in.

The guesthouse where I stayed in Johannesburg could not have been more perfect! So lovely and serene, with a host family who went above and beyond the call of duty to make me feel like one of them. When I’d watched news reports about Apatheid in the 80’s, I never imagined I’d ever actually visit the sights on my TV and I’m glad that this trip gave me the opportunity to learn more about Apartheid- both from my pre-trip reading as well as from being able to witness sites like the Apatheid museum.

My tour through Madagascar was wonderful, and I especially appreciated the wonderful group of people I was able to share it with. I can chuckle now about my issues with Air Madagascar as I look longingly for zebu when I scan restaurant menus. I had so many unbelievable experiences, particularly since I am such a city girl at home. And I even got to swim with a whale shark; how many people can say that?

Staying a few extra days to hang out in Cape Town proved to be an excellent choice, especially in light of the fact that airports back home were still closed due to Superstorm Sandy. My B&B was wonderful, although it did have its limitations when trying to connect with other people in town. The Cape Town area was breathtaking, and I am grateful to have had a friend to encourage me to get to the top of Table Mountain despite my phobia of cable cars.

Spending a few hours walking around London was a nice way to break up 2 long haul flights, although it did leave me hungry for more; I’m sure I’ll get back eventually.

All in all, I feel lucky to have spent 2 wonderful weeks at places that, as a kid, I’d never imagined would be in reach. There was a whole lot of awesome packed into those 2 weeks, lots of memories for me to treasure forever.