Sunday, October 22, 2017

Honeymoon Day 17: Seeing my 90-year old Grandmother in South Africa

1/15/2017
Honeymoon Day 17: Seeing my 90-year old Grandmother in South Africa

An early 4:30am wakeup (oof!) to get to the Praslin airport and a hearty "Orevwar" to the magnificent and magical Seychelles. We had an early flight out of Praslin to Mahe, to make the 1-per-day Mahe to Johannesburg, South Africa flight. Though early, we were extremely lucky that planes were even leaving Praslin. Our Taxi driver said that planes couldn't land yesterday or the day before because of all of the rain and storms -- one plane went from Mahe to Praslin yesterday and couldn't land in Praslin so had to go back to Mahe... and then circled for an HOUR (this is a 10-15min flight) to find a safe and appropriate moment to land back at its origin. Whew. So that would have been nuts. Our crazy honeymoon trip is planned with very minuscule room for error, so we were incredibly lucky on this timing.

On the way to the airport some crazy tourist driver was tailgating the taxi driver, racing to get back to the airport I think. They kept tailgating till our driver pulled over and then the tourist immediately sped off in front of us on the dark and windy early-morning damp roads. His car then slipped or screeched due to the damp roads and he hit a curb! Jeez! That was crazy. Our driver slowed and could tell the driver was OK (he didn't hit a tree or anything, just rammed into a curb) -- and then called his buddy who owned the car rental company to tell him about it. That was insane.

Anyway! After that excitement we got to the airport fine, with our nice packed breakfast from the hotel. The airport was entirely closed on arrival but soon opened up and we sat in the nice Air Conditioned waiting area.

Everyone (us included), just waking up. Waiting benches to check in outdoors!
Packed breakfast provided by our epic hotel! Yes that is a passionfruit to-go!
Little gecko in the bathroom
Jewelry shop
Coffee shop
The Praslin waiting area was cute, just two shops -- a souvenir/coffee shop and a jewelry shop. It was so early and they were just opening up. The Coffee Shop guy made a coffee and walked it over to the Jewelry shop girl! Very fun and fitting hospitality for the small island of Praslin.

Off to Mahe!
We headed to our plane and it was again a De Havilland plane labelled "Made in Canada"! Nice. The ride to Mahe was much smoother this time than the way to Praslin. We are so lucky we didn'y try to leave over the past 2 days! It was super smooth and we arrived and then checked into the Mahe International Terminal.

Open cockpit again, you can see the pilots driving the plane!
Orevwar Praslin!

Back in Mahe
"Baggage Claim" -- a metal window where the walk the bags over from the plane and push them through!

The International Terminal departures section was quite a bit bigger than the arrivals we got into last week from Paris. It was also gloriously Air Conditioned which made for a nice relaxing couple hours as we waited for our plane to South Africa. We headed to Duty Free to use up our remaining Rupees and Euros... Takamaka Rum!!!!!!! We went nuts and got a few bottles, some small ones for gifts, and a regular sized one to take home and share with friends. I also got the Takamaka 8 year "St. Andre" aged rum to share with my buddy Frank at some point. We hung out in the store for a bit and got a few nice gifts and some SeyTe tea as well. We were tired from the early morning wakeup but quite relieved at the relative simplicity of this travel day compared to what we could have dealt with had we left a day or two earlier. And now... off to South Africa! What a trip!


An Amarula Elephant greeting us on arrival!
Arriving in SA was straightforward and customs was fast. Again, with quick turnarounds and tight schedules on this trip, we were pretty organized when it came to having a plan about transportation. We had arranged in advance to stay near the relatively-new "Gautrain" train system, something SA was still building during my previous trip there in 2008 and was completed for the World Cup Soccer match in 2010. It had tons of security, was super organized, and quite pricey as far as things tend to go in South Africa (something like $15 USD one-way). We headed through the terminal towards the Gautrain and then as we were getting closer saw that the next train left in 6 min... go go go!!! We swiftly bought our tickets and got onto the train just in time. I chatted with some fellow on the train who was also just coming back from a glorious trip to a fancy island -- he was coming back from Réunion Island. I told him about our plan for Kruger Park and where we were staying, "Oh, those private resorts are great!" he said as he was pretty familiar with the area up north. We are definitely in for a treat on this trip... Michal is even MORE excited for this part of the honeymoon. :)

Gautrain!
The Gautrain was quick and on-time, and we arrived at Sandton Station near our hotel in 20 min or so. Of course, then we proceeded to get completely lost on the way to the hotel. We asked someone in the bus station how to get to the hotel (It is around the corner from the Gautrain station... should be a 5 min walk!). The attendant asked us "Are you OK to walk?" as if we were the first people to ever ask how to walk there (we only had 1 bag of luggage each!) We learned why as it was reasonably warm outside and we proceeded to get super lost on the way there. We went outside and wandered for much too long, and then asked some fellows at a hotel we ran into on the way how to get there. They pointed us back into the Mandela Square area, and then we headed into the indoor-mall. We asked a bunch of people in the mall where our giant well-known hotel was, and NO ONE knew where it was!! Haha that was an epic comedy of errors. The mall was literally ATTACHED to our hotel (InterContential Sandton Towers -- it's a business hotel attached to Nelson Mandela Square), but no one seemed to have ever heard of it. Haha, that was insane. I referenced one of my Dad's famous jokes, "Don't ask me, I just work here!" After much exploration in the mall, we found the walkway to get to the Conference Center/Hotel and checked in. Hooray!

Upon checkin we heard those magic words, "You've been Upgraded" (sweet!)... "to our Executive Level"... sweeeet. They gave us a nice juice at the front desk but then we continued up to some high floor checkin area and we got an upgraded juice at our 2nd checkin.... Appletiser and Grapetiser!!!!! These are my favourite sparkling apple and grape juices from South Africa and I was keen to make sure Michal got to try them... and we got them FREE at CHECKIN. YES!!!!!!! So this was crazy royal treatment and we headed to our room which was super high up in this giant tower. We arrived to find fruit and wine in our room on arrival. Truly a red-carpet welcome! I was concerned about getting some food in me as I needed to start my Malaria pills asap since we were headed up to Kruger Park the next day... but first, gotta go meet my camera dude!

Whoooa we are high up!
An amazing view of Johannesburg... this room was crazy


Totally insane upgraded room, this was amazing
I had arranged in advance to rent an SLR camera from a rental agency in Sandton that was just around the corner from our hotel. The dude showed up exactly on time and I headed downstairs to pick up all of the equipment. The plan was to leave the large bags here in the hotel the next day and take just a short-term bag with us on Safari, along with the heavy camera equipment. I rented from the stellar company A Lens For Hire (http://www.alensforhire.co.za/) and Peter treated me super well there. He helped advise on what types of lenses I might use and provided everything in pristine condition, 2 batteries, chargers, lenses, lens hoods, strap, camera case, camera lens cases... the whole thing. All I needed to bring and leave with was a 64Gb CF card :) Since we were on our honeymoon he extended an awesome deal and gave me a great discount on renting multiple lenses.

Here's the "kit" I decided on for the safari was this, after much research:
  • Canon 5D Mark III body, battery, charger, etc
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Super epic stuff! My buddy Dave at work has the Mark 3 and so he let me borrow it in advance of heading to South Africa so I could familiarize a bit with the complicated focus modes and autofocus methods (which are kinda crazy complex). So all of this was perfect and we were ready to try to get some great animal photos on Safari!

And now it was time to eat something and take our malaria pills... how about... High Tea?! This epic "Executive Floor" had it's own included lounge area and a super sweet waiter too. The High Tea was available for many hours per day "as you like" and was super convenient as we needed some food swiftly to take our pills. The dude was super nice and there was a free cocktail hour thing later. We were going to be meeting up with James and Dané later and I was hoping they could get a chance to check this out too. I asked him "Would it be OK if we bring some family to the canape and cocktails later?" They weren't staying at the hotel and so I wasn't sure what the hotel's policy would be for guests. His response was hilariously unexpected. He said, starting off very seriously.... "You know... we don't have Apartheid anymore in South Africa..." and then his face turned to a huge jolly smile, "There's no discrimination! All are welcome!!" What an unexpected response and such a funny fellow, he continued to joke and make us feel very comfortable and brought us some awesome high tea food and teas. Malaria pills: check!

Lounge Area
"High Tea Menu"!!


Quite a spread!
We had a quick shower and got ready to head to see Granny. This would be the first time Michal was going to meet my Grandmother and one of the key reasons for choosing to come to South Africa on the honeymoon so we were hopeful and nervous that the visit would work out smoothly. Thankfully, my awesome cousin James and his lovely wife Dané arrived and had expertly organized everything. I had only "met" Dané via Facebook thusfar as well so it was great to meet in-person as well: a super sweet and awesome newly-wed couple!

James drove us to Granny Leah's new place where she had moved to since my last visit in 2008. She had recently turned 90, on October 31st the year prior (2016). It was so, so, so lovely to see her. We arrived, parked and walked in to find her up and quite alert. She was at first a bit quiet, but was just "taking it all in", and was so happy to see me. My parents had been priming her about this visit during many Facetime calls every other week in advance for a few months, so as to prepare and remind her that our visit was happening. What an awesome opportunity for Michal to meet her. It was a very nice visit.










We chatted for a little bit and Granny had a bit of food that the nurses had left for her to have. We chatted and soon set up a Skype with Mom and Dad, and then with Norm and Glenn and baby Kayleigh. Granny's face lit up when she saw the baby!

This was a really meaningful visit, and we had such a nice chat. I showed her our wedding program that I had brought along with us, and read her some portions of it, including the dedication we made to her (that she was unable to travel to the USA for the wedding but that she was in our thoughts during our special day). I brought it up close so she could see the style of the writing and how the program was laid out. A few months before, James had played our wedding ceremony video for her on his iPad (I had uploaded it to YouTube as soon as we got it from the videographer, so that he could more easily access it in South Africa) -- so she was familiar with our ceremony and the event. My parents had also told her lots about our wedding over many Facetime and Skype chats.

James was such a mensch and so supportive. It was a tough visit for us to make but a really nice benefit (and one of the main reasons for) choosing South Africa as one of the stops on our trip. Her room location itself was much nicer, brighter, and cleaner than her old spot where I visited in 2008. Of course then she had her own unit and kitchen (and cat!) and could still do a lot of her own cooking which she enjoyed, but given that she needed significant more help now she was clearly in good hands. The staff was lovely. This place was bright and had lots more windows than her previous place.

Michal had a chance to chat with Granny as well and for Granny to get to know her a little. Granny said to my parents afterwards how sweet Michal is and how she is a "perfect match" for me. :) The end of the visit was of course very hard. I knew my visit was representing my Dad here in South Africa and in a way I was also acting as stand-in for him on this "goodbye" visit. We had such a nice chat and she was so happy to see us, and yet also I knew leaving was going to be hard. I sat down with her quietly at the end of the visit, held her hand, and wished her well, wished her relaxation and happiness, and how lucky I felt that Michal had this chance to meet her and that she could meet Michal. We had a few last hugs, kind words, and a little wave as I left, turning the corner and walking down the hallway with tears streaming down my face.

(Note upon typing up this blog post on 10/22/2017): My special Granny Sarah Leah Bates (z”l) passed away only a few months after this January 15th visit. We didn't know at the time how much longer we would have to speak with her after this visit, and were hoping desperately that she would be well enough for this visit. My parents said that her energy and attitude were the best they had been in about 6 months at the time of our visit. Both while during the visit, and also in hindsight, we feel extremely lucky that we had this chance.

As if reading my mind, James had a plan for after the visit. He took us to a South African grocery store to look around and buy awesome sweets and snacks. Literally the most perfect thing we could do after such an emotional and tough visit. Such a well organized visit and I'm super grateful for James's foresight.

At the grocery store we got some Biltong (the legendary South African dried beef jerky), of course. We tried some weird "Cream Soda milk", some chocolates, and more Appletisers of course! We got some nice treats to try then and there (good comfort) and then headed back to the hotel to drop off the huge camera and go to the canape hour before heading to dinner in Nelson Mandela Square.

So much Biltong!
The canape hour was great and our fun server was there again and happy to see us. He brought us some wine and some snacks to keep us going before dinner. That was fun to be able to have James and Dané there with us to enjoy it too.

We headed down after that through the maze of the mall that we had somewhat traversed earlier that morning, to go to a restaurant called The Butcher Shop that Joreg, the General Manager of the Raffles Praslin, had recommended. He used to work at this same hotel we were staying at, the InterContinental Sandton Towers and was there for many years! So when we told him we were off to JoBurg after Seychelles, he immediately recommended The Butcher Shop and said we had to go there. It was a solid recommendation as the meat in South Africa is still second-to-none with just about the entire rest of the world! I asked our server for a recommendation and he suggested the Sirloin on the bone. It had an amazing flavour, and was very soft and delicious.

Making sure to tick all of the necessary boxes for a new visitor to South Africa, we got some Boerewors (the best South African sausage) for an appetizer! The sauces were also fascinating and very different than anything I had tried before on previous visits. "Peri Peri" was a hot sauce, kindof like a BBQ sauce (and the name was familiar from the advertising for Nandos in London). We also tried the Black/Green Pepper sauce, which was very good and is more of a "standard" South African sauce type. We also tried a sauce called "Monkey Gland" which is a very unappetizing name for a very delicious sauce! It is a combination of Mrs. Ball's Chutney, Worcester Sauce, and a few other ingredients. It was tangy, sweet, and so good. A perfect combination with these incredible steaks. As per James's recommendation, we also got out steaks "basted" which I think means they added some more sauce to it as it was cooking.

Boerewors for an appetizer!

Sirloin on the bone with black pepper sauce

Michal got a "lady's cut" of the Filet Mignon with the crazy "Monkey Gland" sauce and a baked potato
Verrrry exciting
We had an awesome dinner together and had a super interesting chat about South Africa vs. the United States. I always truly enjoy those types of conversations with folks who have grown up in another country, as you get a totally different perspective on things you think are normal. We covered some pretty intense topics: healthcare, social issues... it's always so interesting to have these kinds of conversations with people who had a totally different history to you. This was all amazing and a great end to a pretty bustling day.

Malva Pudding
We finished off with a Malva Pudding (just to try it!) and said farewell to this nice couple before heading back to our room to get packed to head back to the airport the next morning. I called Mom and Dad to chat more about the visit with Granny while Michal napped. And then we packed up our "safari bags", ready for the upcoming adventure the next morning. Our plan in South Africa was mostly to spend time in the Kruger National Park, but since I have family in Johannesburg, we slotted in some well-orchestrated plans to see folks on either side of the Kruger trip. Since Kruger is very far from Johannesburg (some 6-8 hrs of driving or so), we decided to stay in JoBurg for 1 night on either side of the safari trip, and would leave the large majority of our clothing at the hotel the next morning... then head to Kruger for 4 nights... and then come back to the same hotel to stay for 1 more night before heading on to the final country of our honeymoon. This "buffering" was a great plan and made for a much more relaxed plan -- though as you can see we still crammed in 1000 awesome visits and adventures in this short time.

The staff at the hotel outdid themselves again, as we returned to find rose petals "Enjoy!" and some snacks and wine waiting for us, as well as a familiar chocolate on our pillow (memories of Switzerland!) to help encourage us to efficiently pack our safari "go bag" and all the camera stuff. Onwards!



Some fruit, chocolates, carrot cake, plus dried fruit and dried mango! And of course, some Biltong!



Lindt Chocolate!
Sufficient snacks for the trip -- Appletiser, my favourite (and my Mom's childhood favourite) chocolate bar Cadbury's "Top Deck", some fruit sticks, and BBQ snacks, some Maynards gummies that I'd already opened at this point, a recommendation from James: Lunch Bar and Chocolate Log, and a South African Kit Kat, as well as the must-haves: Dried Mango, 2 packs of Biltong, and some Droëwors (kindof like a cross between Biltong and Boerewors)

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