Friday, July 13, 2007

Our Time In South Africa

By now, this update may come as old news. We returned from South Africa a week ago, so why haven't I posted updates on our trip sooner? Well, I apologize for the delay and hope that with all we have going on related to the sale of our current home and the extensive search for our next one, that you might understand.

The Journey to Zulu Nyala, South Africa

We departed for South Africa on Tuesday, June 26th. Somehow, Joe and I made it out of the house just ahead of schedule. We got to LAX in record time, with no traffic jams whatsoever to slow us down. While at the airport, we tried to pull the offer together from the couple that had been trying to come to terms with us on the house the night before, but to no avail. We boarded our flight to London Heathrow and the real journey began.

Let me begin by explaining that I am a die-hard window seat person. The only way I know how to explain it is by saying that without sitting next to a window I can look out of, I feel as though I'm locked into a tin can for the duration of the 11 hour flight. For me, that's just too long. I realize many people prefer aisle seats so they can stretch their legs out... good for them. I always have been, and likely always will be, a window seat kind of girl. So, you can imagine my disappointment when stepped aboard our flight to Heathrow and learned that although I had a seat along the side of the plane where a window SHOULD be, there was just NO WINDOW. Who knows why. There just wasn't. Bummer. I will admit though, that other than this disappointment, it was a relatively smooth, incident free flight to London.

We arrived in London the following day and made our way through customs. The layover was 8.5 hours, so we planned to take advantage of that time outside of the airport, visiting with an old family friend, Philip, that I hadn't seen since I was 9 years old! Somehow Joe and I actually met up with Philip immediately upon exiting the airside of security and we began our journey around England. We had the pleasure of enjoying a beer at a very old pub in the English countryside, and then got to enjoy the tail-end of a track meet that Philip's daughter, Alexandra, was competing in. After the meet, we were introduced to the beautiful Alexandra, who is herself, currently 9 years old, and then gave her a ride to her dance lessons. Upon arriving at the dance studio, we got to meet Philips lovely wife, Yelena, and their adorable 6 year old son, Henry. Our meeting was quite brief, and then we were off to grab a quick bite to eat before heading back to Heathrow. We ate at a little cafe inside of a store that was a grocery store, combined with a department store. It was quite interesting. You could do your grocery shopping, clothes shopping, and grab a bit to eat, all in the same store! And no, it wasn't like a Super Walmart. It was different. More JCPenny-esque combined with Safeway. Something like that.

After our lunch, we fought off sleep on the slow drive back to the airport. Turns out, there's a lot of traffic in London too! I felt terrible for Philip because as bad as the traffic was on the drive in, you could see it was much worse leaving the airport! But, Philip returned us to the airport with plenty of time to get back through security and be ready to board the flight to Johannesburg. On this flight, I enjoyed a sit in the MIDDLE of the airplane, with Joe on my right enjoying the freedom of an aisle seat, and some short gentleman on my left that enjoy the aisle, and plenty of legroom for his short legs. Somehow, the seats on this plane were so close together that sitting with my rear pressed against the back of the seat, the seat in front of my still pushed against my knees.

Yep... it was a long flight. Luckily for Joe, he was able to sleep quite a bit on this one, and did not seem to even realize how antsy I was the entire time. Lucky guy! I was especially jealous of his ability to catch sleep on a place considering that we were delayed at Heathrow, on the tarmac, for an hour+ due to a gas spill that had occurred earlier. When we were making our approach to Jo'burg, we received the news from the pilot that their 1st snow in 29 years combined with serious fog and a power outage to their landing equipment was going to keep us from landing right away. In fact, we were informed that we had enough fuel to circle for 20 minutes before we would need to divert. If we had to do that, we would fly another 45 minutes to Bloemfontaine where we would refuel and fly back to Jo'Burg. Ugh.

Luckily, we were able to land just before the time when we would have had to divert, and got to do our best to push and shove off of the plane, collect our bags, and run to the domestic departures terminal to check-in for a flight to Richard's Bay. Not too surprisingly, the delays on both ends of the flight to Jo'Burg caused us to miss the next flight. So, we were able to enjoy an extra 4 hours at Jo'Burg... freezing our booties off. The airport seemed to have no heat, and Joe and I were in shorts, I had flip flops, and it was below freezing outside. Yep, my idea of fun times. Freezing, exhausted, in need of a shower and a bed. Ah, good times!

When our little prop plane finally landed (despite some wicked winds tossing us around in the air), I was thrilled to be nearing the end of the journey. All I wanted was a shower and a LONG night's sleep. We met our driver, Mandla, at the minuscule airport in Richard's Bay, and began the 2 hour drive to the lodge. It was dark when we arrived, so it was hard to get a feel for the surroundings. The staff were kind and welcoming, and told us dinner hadn't been served yet, so we could still eat. So, we took quick showers, grabbed a bite to eat, and hit the hay. Ahhh... sleep at last!

Our time at Zulu Nyala

We began the morning early, with a movie in bed (at about 5:00 am... couldn't sleep any later), got dressed, packed our day bags, had breakfast, then met up with our Guide/Ranger for the week. His name was James Jambulani (sp?) Tembe. We were the first to be picked up and he quickly explained a little of what to expect for the week. We were provided with a list of activities, reserves we could go to, etc. and their prices. Gulp... we had more stuff to pay for?! We knew our trip was supposed to include 2 game drives per day... what we hadn't realized was those were only on the reserve called Zulu Nyala, and to go to other reserves, you had to pay for it. Bummer.

We rode over in the front bench seat in the bed of James' Zulu Nyala HiLux Toyota pickup truck. It was a chilly drive and we quickly realized that we would likely not being seeing any of the 70 degree days we'd been told to expect. We had come during a cold spell. When we got to the Game Lodge, we met John and Denise, who would be in our group for the week. They are a lovely couple that we got along quite well with. We enjoyed their company, and we certainly couldn't have asked for a better guide.

We spent that morning on a game drive, and had an up close encounter with a male White Rhino. In the afternoon we were joined by a family of 5... and a hunting family at that. Not really the kind of people I would chose to go on a photo safari with. Every time we'd see an animal, the father (I'll leave out names), would have to "glass" them. Ugh. He was a big, burly guy that walked around all week with binoculars strapped to his chest and talking about the racks and tusks on all the animals. For dinner, there was usually an opportunity to eat the meat of the animals we'd seen that day... things like Warthog (Intibani in Zulu), Ostrich, Wildebeest, and so on. My thought was that we were here to enjoy and revel in their beauty... not see how they tasted. But hey, that's just me.

On the next day we got to go to Tembe Elephant Park in Tembe. This is about 2 hours from Zulu Nyala, so on the drive we asked James all about Zulu culture, his family, etc. Since James is from Tembe, we were also being given the opportunity to meet his family. We met his wife, Sebongele (sp? See-bon-gee-lay), his two sons, Qinisani (tongue cluck-in-e-saan-eh) & Philigathle (sp? Phil-e-gath-le). We also met his sister, her two daughters, and last but not least, his parents Baba Tembe and Mama Tembe. It was an amazing experience I won't even try to describe. They were a lovely family and we were soooo fortunate to have the chance to meet them.

While at Tembe Elephant Park we enjoyed some time in a Hide, watching a waterhole that was the play and training area of about 15 bull elephants at the time. They fought with each other... as training, the splashed and sprayed with the water, scratched on trees, and so on. It was breathtaking. Sitting in a hide probably 100 feet from the water hole and watching all of this was spectacular. After our time in the hide, we drove around the reserve, and even experienced being charged, or mock charged, by a bull elephant in musk! That means he was ready to mate and was not in the mood for distractions! It was thrilling, and terrifying, to be in a little Condor (name of the small SUV we were riding in) when this enormous bull elephant came running at us!

The following day we had the privilege of enjoying a Zulu cultural village. We learned that for each wife, a man has to pay 11 cows. Even our guide, James, had to do this. Although, in current times, they don't always use real, live cows, sometimes the bride's family would prefer to just have the money, or give the husband a list of items they want him to buy with the money equivalent to the worth of 11 cows. We learned about the dress of the woman, about medicine men, about living arrangements, etc. It was fascinating.

We also really enjoyed the trip we took to a rural village. The village of Nompondo has some amazing people in it. They have a 70%+ unemployment rate, a higher than the national average HIV/AIDS rate of over 32% documented HIV/AIDS sufferers, and a 99.9% pass rate on their national exams. Incredible people. We met a 76 year old woman who is taking care of her son's children. He was killed in a car accident on the drive home from Jo'Burg. When his wife learned of his death, she died of a heart attack. Now, the woman is caring for 6 children on her own with no aide. It's heartbreaking. She can barely stand, and yet she has to take care of these young children with whatever money she can get.

A Quick Lesson in Zulu

Sowubona -- Hello!

Ujanni -- How are you?

Niya pila -- I'm well.

Niya Pila Nami (or Nami Nia Pila) -- I am well too.

Sala kahle -- Stay Well

Hamba kahle -- Go Well

Yebo -- Yes

Siyabonga -- Thank you

Forgive my spelling. I learned it orally, and didn't learn the spelling for most of the words. I wrote them somewhat phonetically though, so hopefully that will help you all learn! Oh, and I think I got the Go Well/Stay Well part with the right words, but if not, please let me know! I can't remember for sure already!

The Trip Home

Our journey home was relatively uneventful. We had delays due to baggage system breakdowns and not being able to get them to the plane at both Jo'Burg and Heathrow. When we got to LAX, we were disappointed to find that, after waiting for over an hour at the baggage carousel, that one of our bags hadn't made it. We filed a lost bag report and left the airport. Traffic on the drive home wasn't too bad, and we arrived a mere 46 hours after beginning the journey home. We took showers, had a quick dinner, caught up with mom, and went to bed. It's always so good to be home again after an exhausting adventure!

I hope you've enjoyed the quick summary of our trip. It was an incredible experience, and yet again as I left Africa I felt as though I left a piece of my heart behind. Joe told me he now understood what I'd meant when I said this and felt the same way. We should be traveling back to find our children in Zambia in a few months time, and the anticipation can be tough to deal with. Watching our plane fly back and forth over Zambia on the trips to and from South Africa was painful. Knowing our children were possibly already down there, 40,000 feet below us, waiting, was almost too much to bear. Stay strong little ones, we're coming!

Monday, July 09, 2007

USCIS update

Thank goodness for distractions, right? We've had so many different things going on lately (selling the house, searching for a new one, adoption related matters, trip to South Africa, etc.) we've barely had time to sit back and breathe, let alone get impatient about anything.

Well, I emailed Los Angeles USCIS today to check on the status of our I-600A application. I'd been told I could check the status online, but my receipt didn't have the proper number code on it and I wasn't able to. So, I emailed the Orphan Petition Unit to ask for the correct number and an update. To my big surprise, I actually received a response within an hour! And, better yet, the response told me that our application had been approved and our I-171H was being sent to us tomorrow! Holy smokes, that was fast! Just over two weeks from application to approval! Way to go LA USCIS! I'd tried to prepare myself for it taking anywhere between 1-5 months!

Of course, this also comes as a bit of sad news in a way. Now that our I-171H is ready to be mailed to us, we are able to travel... except that bit about at least one of us needing to be 25 before we go. So, that means at this point we will just be waiting to go. I do have to do a homestudy update (very short, updating the HS to state we're adopting from Zambia and not Ethiopia), and if/when we move do our address updates and homestudy update. I'm holding off on having our homestudy updated to be Zambia specific until the move happens so we can hit two birds with one stone. ;-) Smart thinking, I know!

On the move front, we put in our first offer yesterday morning on a very nice house. We were worried it wouldn't be worth the effort since the sellers don't seem to be ready to accept the condition of the housing market and were priced quite high. Nevertheless, we gave it a shot. The response we got was that our offer didn't deserve a response. Yikes! Their realtor also proceeded to lecture and insult us in every way possible. Kind of makes me want to tell her what kind of person she is, but instead, I guess I'll just have to enjoy it when we find a much better house at a good price and they can't get that one sold cause they won't pull their heads out of you-know-where and get their price to be market sensitive!

Enough for now! I'm off to see some more properties and then have a LONG overdue visit with a Semester At Sea friend I haven't seen since I walked off the ship for the last time in December of 2003!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Back from South Africa

Ok, it's 7:00 AM and I've been awake for about an hour. I just can't quite get my clock readjusted to California time and I keep waking up for the day between 4:00 and 6:00 AM. We arrived home on Thursday evening at about 6:00 PM. We had been awake for over 48 hours by the time we got to sleep Thursday night. It's a long haul getting to South Africa, and it's made much worse if you can't get to sleep on an airplane... which is my problem. However, I wouldn't trade the experience for the world since it also helped show us what we may want to do differently when we fly to Zambia in a couple of months!

So, I kind of left everyone hanging when we headed out for South Africa. I mentioned in my final post that we were going to be receiving another offer on Monday night, and didn't know how it would pan out. Well, the long and short of it is that the offer was super low, we countered with our BOTTOM line offer, told their realtor we didn't have time to play games and they had to come up to our number or look for another house. Well, they still played the game of countering, coming up another $10,000. On Tuesday, while we were at LAX, our realtor was calling us and trying to get the deal to work out. They'd come to within $10,000 of our number through multiple counters and now it looked like the deal was going to work. Talk about frustrating. We're through security at the airport, less than an hour before leaving for Africa, and now our realtor wants us to find a fax machine in case we could get the numbers to work. Well, I was determined to make it work if I could, so I begged in the VIP airline lounges until I found one that would let me accept and send a fax. Then I waited some more. Kamran (our realtor) called us moments before we needed to board the plane. He said he still had a lot of number crunching to do, and had to talk to their realtor, so he couldn't fax anything yet. THEN, he asked if we could get in touch with him upon our arrival in South Africa. Are you kidding me?! Ugh.

Well, after 2.5 days of flying and a wonderful visit with an old friend during our 8 hour layover in London, we were at our Game Lodge on Zulu Nyala and ready to crash. After a quick dinner and showers, we did just that. We were out within seconds of hitting the pillows. The next morning, however, my curiosity about the deal began to get the better of me. I eventually called my mom from our room at the Lodge (without a calling card... yikes!) to see what had conspired. She let me know they'd made the numbers work, and the first time buyers that had made the offer were too concerned to leave the deal out there hanging until we returned. So, if we wanted to get the house under contract, we had to get some papers faxed to us, signed, and faxed back. Grr. What a pain. It doesn't help having a 9 hour time difference to complicate office hours of our realtor and the lodge office staff.

So, we were able to get the papers faxed and signed, and spent the remainder of our trip trying to forget about the whole thing. We were in AFRICA, who wants to worry about a house back home?! We had a magnificent time, but that's a story for the next post! Right now, it's time for breakfast!