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Monday, June 14, 2010

Hawaii has landed in South Africa!

Day 5-12 Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

For the most part, my flight was better than I could have expected. Though after passing business class to find my economy seat, I was asking myself why I didn't pay the extra $3,000 to sit in business class as I tour around the world?? These seats in business class were the ones where you basically have your own bed! *sad face* I did manage to sleep the first 8 hours or so straight and then spent the remaining 4 or so trying to watch movies.

I arrived in Johannesburg again early and I must admit, I got a bit emotional and teary eyed. Not only could I believe that I was here attending the 2010 World Cup but this was the trip that took 7 years to realize. In 2003, after fleeing Beijing from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which they still never found out how it was caused or how it was to be cured), I wasn't sure what I was going to do with 'the rest of my life'. I was the one who always had a plan! I ended up deciding to travel and had a ticket to fly to Johannesburg to meet up with my friend Stephanie in Namibia where she was living at the time. It was to be my first time to the African continent and I was excited! Steph's other friends were coming in as well so an entire itinerary had been planned for the 5 weeks I intended to stay.

For those who are familiar with the story, know that I never made that trip because moments before heading to London Heathrow, I received an email from my sister informing me that my father had suffered a severe stroke. Being thousands of miles away and cut off from instant communication (this was a world prior to status updates though I really don't think my sister would have udated her status anyway), I was distraught. I quickly made arrangements to turn around, frantic and emotionally unstable, phoned Steph to let her know I wasn't coming and what seemed almost instantaneous upon touching ground, I was suddenly at the helm of our 57 year old family business and at 24, needed to learn how to run the business and learn how to do it quickly.

The 7 years that went by, I like to think that I accomplished a lot and transformed our little best kept secret into a household name, and by the time I left, was even able to make a national debut. It was definitely rewarding but the toll that it took on my personal life and my life in general was tremendous. Although I wouldn't change any of it, this trip to South Africa really symbolizes a lot for me. Now I'm getting emotional again...To finally be here and knowing that it took 7 years to happen, I was not only grateful for finally making it out here but I was now a different person here to see Africa. I like to think everything happens for a reason. I am still not sure what the reason was for not being able to come until now but I am grateful.

I was here to attend the first FIFA World Cup to be held on the African continent! Many have asked if I'm that much of a soccer fan to come all this way. Yes, I played AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) a couple of years and really enjoyed the sport but was never as good as any of my friends. But I enjoyed it and it is probably the only sport (maybe besides track and field) that I can watch, understand and appreciate. I also volunteered at the Japan/Korea World Cup when I lived in Japan in 2002. I remember having a ton of fun and just enjoying the excitement and the feeling of unity among the people. Also, since I never made it here in 2003, I planned my trip around the World Cup because I figured there would be increased security and with all the other travelers who would make it out here to support the game, it would be much easier to befriend other travelers.

So I was finally here. And perhaps part of the 7 year wait has to do with the fact that I have spent the first few days here with an amazing family that I would not have met had I not been involved in the family business. The owner of Mitch's (whom I met through an old family friend, Gary) got me in touch with his sister who along with her family have been incredibly generous and kind to me. Dianne (Mitch's sister), picked me up from the airport (more than an hour away from her home!) to get me. Learning that one of the things I wanted to do was to see wild animals, she took me for a ride around the town and the first animal I get to see here in Mtunzini is a zebra! OH MY GOD! To be able to see these exotic creatures in the wild is just...I have no words to describe my amazement when I first saw them in the wild! It kinda felt like that scene in Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay when Doogie Howser, MD sees the unicorns! No, I was totally sober but it felt like that! Surreal and magical.

Mtuzini where I would spend the next few days is about an hour north of Durban, one of the larger cities in South Africa. Located on the Eastern part of the country, the area is lined with beautiful beaches. Dare I say, almost as beautiful as the beaches in Hawaii? The sand is white and the water clean, the only difference here is that the beach goes on and on. In Hawaii, because we are on an island, the shoreline bends and turns and does not continue on as far as the eye can see. But here in South Africa, the beach just continues. It's also a far walk to get to the beach. According to Dianne, you used to be able to drive onto the beach but recently they have banned cars onto the beach; after walking the distance, it is really unfortunate and probably prevents people from bringing their families to spend the day at the beach. It's just too far to bring your coolers and beach gear all that way. So even though I was halfway around the world away from home, it was comforting to see the ocean.

The following day, Saturday, the family - Kevin, Dianne, Jade (12) - took me on a trip to a private game reserve. I couldn't believe that it was just a day ago that I landed and that I was already going out to see animals in the wild! We were meeting up with Dianne's uncle and aunt who were letting us spend the night with them. A beautiful family cottage, it was amazing that I was able to experience all of this! What was especially nice was that I was doing it in the company of others. Since I normally travel solo, it gets quite lonely and boring (and expensive) to do activities alone. I was grateful that I was invited to do all of this with Dianne and her family.

We were out there to do one thing: see the Big Five - Buffalo, Rhinoceros, Leopard, Elephant and Lion. Uncle Pete who has been visiting the reserve for close to 20 years was an expert navigating the land. No street signs and sometimes barely any paths, Uncle Pete knew exactly where to go and how to go there. Using walkie talkies, information on sightings were being shared over the radio waves. Upon arriving at the reserve around 4PM we drove around in the jeep for only a couple of hours but got to see so many animals, many indigenous to Africa that I was not familiar with their names. Among the ones that I do know, we got to see the White Rhinos, Giraffe, Zebra, Hippos and the Cheetah. It was amazing how close we were able to get to many of these animals.

That night I started to feel weak and lightheaded. Oh no, I can't be getting sick?! I wasn't sure what it was but it couldn't be happening. My first night, I had managed to stay up until 8:30PM but could not stay up any longer. I didn't want to be a party pooper again, but I wasn't feeling well. I decided to take some Airborne and try to sleep it off. I had to skip dinner that night and retired at 7:30PM.

I slept nicely and woke up the next day feeling much better. I think all the traveling must have caught up to me and I just needed to rest and adjust to my new surroundings. Although I wasn't feeling 100%, I needed to try to make the most of it. How often is it that you find yourself in Africa viewing wild animals?! I didn't want to waste the opportunity. That day, we only had a couple of hours because Dianne and arranged for us to take a boat Tour in St. Lucia to see Hippopotamus and Crocodiles. In the two hours, we managed to catch a sight of a lioness though it was up atop a rock cliff (a lot like the iconic scene from Lion King), a pride of elephants AND tigers!

Tigers are not indigenous to Africa but supposedly someone had rescued tigers from a zoo in Angola and brought them to the reserve in order to care for them as he tried to find them new homes. I think there were about 9 tigers there contained behind bars. Why couldn't the tigers be let out you ask? I was told that because they are not from the area, surely they would cause damage to the natural habitat and most likely destroy the food chain. So, they were kept in a cage and regularly fed. I got brave enough to get out of the jeep and take a photo with my camera pushed between the wired fence. While trying to adjust my lens, I saw one of the tigers peacefully sitting about 15 feet away from me on the other side of the fence get up in a split second and give me a big roar in my face! Thank God for the fence or lunch would have been served! I can laugh about it now but it was terrifying! And everything happened so quickly that I did not have time to react until after the fact!

After leaving, we headed out to St. Lucia for lunch at a Portuguese restaurant. We ordered two platters piled with roasted chicken, mussel, prawn, calamari, beef skewers, grilled vegetables all seasoned with garlic and lime and served with peri peri a hot mayonnaise (I think?) based sauce mixed with chilis and other spices. It was the first time for me to try Portuguese food and it was quite nice. It's funny because we have such a large Portuguese population in Hawaii because of our plantation history but we don't have a single Portuguese restaurant. The most we have are what we call portuguese sausage (the breakfast meat of choice even at McDonald's!) and malasada a fluffy round donut (but without a hole) rolled in sugar, best served hot. A hearty lunch, we made our way out to the boat ride.

A nice two hour boat ride along the river, we saw so many Hippos! I learned that the Hippo is the animal that is actually responsible for the most human deaths in Africa! Who would have thought? My guess would have been the lion. I also learned that the Hippo sits in the water with its tummy to the bottom and sits there while the sun is out because their skin is very sensitive. I would have also thought after years of existence, they would have developed some tolerance to the sun. On the boat ride we also spotted a few crocodiles but not as many as I would have expected.

The following day, Dianne took me to Shakaland (SAR285, USD$37) located about 45 minutes away. Shakaland is recognized for having been the set to the movie Shaka Zulu. I vaguely remember the movie when I was in elementary school and remember being shocked that they showed bare breasts on TV but couldn't remember the details of the movie. Although it is a fabulous attraction, sadly it was just Dianne and I that day so we had the whole park to ourselves. There I learned that Shaka Zulu, very similiar to King Kamehameha the Great, was a great warrior and eventually conquered neighboring areas and created a Zulu kingdom eventually ousting the British (although this is not what happened for Hawaii). The park which is also connected to the Protea Hotel (higher end hotel chain) introduces the Zulu culture such as alcohol making, medicinal practices, clothing and dance. We also got to learn the diske dance which is the 'official dance' of the World Cup taught to students across the country. The 3 hour tour ended with a fabulous lunch, my first time to have local food. It reminded me a lot like the Hawaiian food that we serve: beef stew, sweet potato and a mixture of chili, onions and tomatoes almost exactly like lomi salmon, less the salmon. There was also a chicken and potato dish that seemed to have a hint of vinegar, reminded me a lot of the Filipino chicken adobo. The food although foreign seemed very familiar and I really enjoyed the lunch here!

On the following day, Dianne had to go to work and so I spent a good portion of the day at the local cafe, Fat Cat, catching up on my writing. I'm so grateful to Dianne for taking so much time off of work to host me and take me around. Good thing she's on the boss' good side, I guess it helps to be married to him! Regardless, it was more than I could ask have her take so much time off to take me around and show me a good deal of the area and local culture.

Their older daughter Kelly, studying in Cape Town, was starting her winter break so she was coming home. We ended up driving out to Durban to pick her up and spend my remaining two days in Durban. I thought Dianne's home was beautiful but their second home in Durban is equally amazing! Although it's a lot smaller than their home, it was a newly designed, modern home with nice wood floors, a beautiful master bedroom and bath and a kitchen that looked like it came out of a model home. I couldn't believe that someone could have the option to live in two beautiful homes; if I owned both, I would not know where to stay! I'd probably feel like a child of divorced parents, splitting my time between two and not being able to favor one over the other.

A day before the start of the World Cup, there was excitement and anticipation in the air in Durban. The time that we spent there was so much fun! It was me, Dianne, Kelly and Jade; a getaway with just us girls! We had great meals and even caught a movie - Killers. Although I had only met the family less than a week before, they all made me feel part of the family. Suffering from middle child syndrome, it was nice to feel like the oldest child and connected with the family. Dianne is also the 'cool mom' the mom that everyone knows they can openly talk to. She's the mom that actually gave permission to Matthew (oldest son) to have a house party while we were away at the game reserve, true story. How cool is that? I remember always having to sneak and do these things when parents had no clue. On my last full day in Durban, Dianne also took me to uShaka a marine park located right next to the beach. We also got to have lunch in an old ship where one wall of the restaurant was an aquarium full of big and small fish! The lunch here was also delicious! Great presentation and flavor. I was tempted to try the ostrich carpaccio but the salmon risotto cakes were calling my name. Later that night we stayed in and watched a total of 3 movies!

On my final morning with the girls, we enjoyed a nice breakfast in their outdoor patio. It was a good thing that she filled me up because I would be going on a 11 hour bus ride to Bloemfontein to catch my World Cup game. Speaking of, I think I can thank Dianne for fattening me up. A recurring theme in my blog is how I'm supposed to lose weight while traveling (as I normally do) but how this 2010 trip has only seemed to plump me up. Dianne has attributed to this and made sure I was well fed throughout! Dinner was never complete until dessert. Which reminds me, the first night she baked a dessert that was so good! If I wasn't already so full for dinner, I would have had more but by then my pants were already unbuttoned and I couldn't take any more.

Thank you Dianne, Kevin, Matthew, Kelly and Jade and grandma Karlyn and Matthew's friend Damien (who also lived there the entire time I was there) for making my trip so memorable! Thank you also for the extra pounds! I hope it will be the only pounds I will gain here in South Africa! True South African hospitality! May all those who come for the World Cup be able to experience even half the kindness that I received!


  1. Thanks for bringing Africa to me, Regina! I can feel your excitement - I am happy that you were able to realize this dream, and as you said, there is a reason for it happening now and not before.

    I keep thinking of J. Conrad's, Heart of Darkness...

    Hey - I am not at all familiar with the various cultures, histories, languages, and whatnot of Africa so I am not able to pull much from my schemata to make meaningful connections. But, reading your blog is helping me learn more!

    Wait - One of my favorite characters is Precious Ramotswe from No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I have almost all of Alexander McCall Smith's books from the series even though it takes place in Botswana and not S. Africa. I love Precious!

    I didn't know you wanted to save wild animals!

  2. aww! I love reading about your time in Natal. I miss it there! But I wish I knew you were going to Durban b/c I have some dear friends - 2 in particular, George & Anna Murray, from Kloof. Those were my stomping grounds! I don't know where Mtuzini is, though. I lived in Pietermaritzburg (an hour north of Durban, but inland)...sounds like Mtuzini is along the coast. Is it near Richard's Bay? Anyway, sounds like you had fun at the reserve! And you got to see cats! That's cool. The reserve I went to was Hluhluwe - a non-cat reserve! No hippos or crocs either! You went to a good one!