Wednesday, March 24, 2010

World Cup 2010 - South Africa

A big question mark hangs over the 2010 World Cup - one of the most-watched sporting events on the planet. That is, will South Africa be ready for this massive, month-long celebration of one of the world's most popular sports?

South African officials say emphatically that the answer is "Yes!" and bristle at any suggestion otherwise.

My family - wife, 13-year-old daughter and I - are planning a trip to South Africa in June and July, where we will attend soccer matches in Cape Town and Durban, and enjoy the wildlife at Kruger National Park and other locations around the country.

Most of the South Africans we have dealt with have been helpful, friendly and efficient. But our experience with the national train service, Shosholoza Meyl, which translates to "a pleasant experience," has left me wondering what's in store after we arrive in Johannesburg.

Although we've been working on our bookings for accommodations, transport, match tickets, etc. for nearly a year, we were told by the train's reservation agents that bookings for the overnight tourist-class sleeper train had to be made no more than 90 days in advance. No information about any schedule or route changes was put on the train's Web site, or disseminated through its representatives.

Now that we are only 78 days from the start of the World Cup, on June 11, the train service has announced major changes to its routes, schedules and prices. It's as if the train's management just realized the World Cup is coming to South Africa!

One change is that all tourist-class service from Johannesburg to Cape Town - one of the most popular and needed routes - has been eliminated during the World Cup period.

So, instead of settling back to a relaxing train ride and watching the countryside roll by after flying nearly 16 hours from Atlanta to JoBurg, we'll be hopping on a two-hour flight to Cape Town. Not the way we wanted to start our trip.

My family and I can only hope that important infrastructure, from roads and stadiums to security and health facilities, will be better managed than the national train system, which to an outsider seems fraught with disorganization and unresponsive to visitors' basic transportation needs.

In other words, we are hoping South Africa is ready for its big moment on the world stage.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

About Wild Monkeys

First off, let me say I would never wish any harm to befall a monkey. They're really adorable and fascinating to watch, and monkeys provided me with the title for both my book and this blog.

That said, monkeys can't be trusted. When they're unhappy, they get cranky, and a cranky monkey is nothing to trifle with. If you don't give them what they want, they might try to steal it by stealth or force.

All of our wild monkey encounters have taken place in India and Thailand. Huge numbers of monkey families can be found at many popular tourist sites. My daughter Salome's most harrowing monkey moment occurred in Pushkar, India, on the rooftop of our hotel, where we ate breakfast each morning during our stay in that lovely city. We were feeding a group of monkeys toast and jam, and watching delightedly as they carefully licked off the jam before popping the toast into their mouths.

Then we ran out of toast. The ungrateful little buggers ran up to us, baring their teeth and hissing, forcing poor Salome to scream and hide behind a chair. (She was 9 at the time.) Fortunately, the hotel cook climbed the stairs up to the roof and shooed the monkeys away.

In Thailand, a couple of hours north of Bangkok, we visited the monkey temples in the town of Lopburi. Dozens of the pesky primates can be found at the two sites across the street from each other, and visitors can buy lotus flowers and seeds to feed them. But it's not only food they're after - Ava and I wrestled with monkeys that tried to steal my sunglasses and one of her earrings. I watched one aggressive male wait patiently as a man walked toward him carrying his lunch in a Styrofoam container. Just as the man reached his perch, the monkey lunged and screeched and nearly made off with the package.

The title of this blog, and my forthcoming book about our family's world travels, was inspired by a sign on the door of a ladies' room halfway between Delhi and Agra, India. We had stopped for breakfast on our way to visit the Taj Mahal, and the monkeys gathered around our bus, begging for food and intimidating the passengers.

So, the next time you run across a bunch of wild monkeys, enjoy their company, but beware - they just might try to run off with your lunch, or your valuables!