Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Cleverley's Namibian Holiday

Its been a long time since my last blog! I've been kept pretty busy the last few months but its about time I posted a new entry, especially as last September saw the Cleverley family reunite for a holiday and my mother is not happy that I haven't marked this occasion on my African Adventure!

This was the third time my sister had come to visit but the first time for my mother who I thought would never make it out here due to her fear of flying. But brave the 11 hour flight she did and it was great to see them both exit the arrival gate (Kate unfortunately had to stay at Solitaire and work). Our first stop would be Otjiwarongo where we would stop overnight before heading further North to Etosha. Before we got there however we had our first bit of heart stopping drama......the seat belt my mother was using left a thin line of dust on her shirt. Panic was eventfully averted by the placement of a tea towel around the offending seat belt.....PHEW!

After the three hour drive we arrived at a former regular haunt of mine the Cest Si Bon Hotel where I received some presents from the motherland and enjoyed one of the best meals Namibia can offer; the Cest Si Bon Espatate!  The next morning the adventure really began as we boarded our trusty Toyota Condor and made our way to Etosha National Park.

We spent three days in Etosha, and despite the continued horror of the dirty seat belt, a great time was had. Mum thoroughly enjoyed the luxurious accommodation, saw the Etosha pan and we had great sightings including Rhino, Giraffe, Lions (briefly) and lots of Elephants.

Swakopmund was our next destination where I had rented out a beach side house for three days. Despite being mortified by the estate agents security briefing which included a demonstration of the security alarm swiftly followed by a security car screeching up outside the house  believing we were actually being robbed, Mum eventually settled down and relaxed.
We took things at a more relaxed pace and spent the first two days relaxing at the house and going for walks along the beach front and visiting the tourist shops and craft market. I think its safe to say that haggling is not one of Mum's favorite activities but luckily her son is now a bit of an expert and we managed to get some quality items for reasonable prices.
A definite highlight was our Sealion and dolphin cruise at Walvis Bay, I have done this cruise many times as its one of Kate and I's favourite things to do in Namibia.  Great Sealion sightings are guarantied and this time we had fantastic dolphin sightings.
After Swakop we headed further South to my current home Solitaire Guest Farm where we would spend the rest of the holiday and if I had had a crystal ball we may have spent the entire holiday here as Mum loved the self catering house we rented for the week. As the picture below shows the house is very large and has a deck overlooking the desert providing a stunning view. However, I think the main  reason for Mum's love of the place was that the high vantage point allowed her to spy on everyone on the farm!
Kate and I stayed with mum and sis at the house which made a very nice change from our tent and Kate made use of the kitchen and cooked up some awesome meals. Kate had met my mum briefly before at the airport a couple of years ago but this was the first time we have spent proper time together. And that was the whole point of spending the week here, just to spend time with each other and relax, it was glorious!  Even cheeky dogs got the chance to enjoy a bit of luxury:
Mum and sis of course got to meet the cheetahs and see me in work mode, I think mum now realises why I have stayed in Africa for so long but she still couldn't resist trying to tempt me back to the UK by planting the seed of working at Longleat every so often - "They have cats too you know?" :)
We did have one day out to Sossusvlei of course. I had been looking forward to taking mum to the dunes for a long time because I knew she would thoroughly enjoy the 4x4 only section at speed with techno music blasting out the speakers! The ride reduced our volunteer Lili to tears of laughter and I will forever regret not having someone video it, it would have been a YouTube sensation. I thought the sight of the majestic Dead Vlei would make up for the traumatic experience but mum wasn't overly impressed as she exclaimed "You mean I walked all this way just to see a dead tree?!" Climbing the dunes was definitely not on mum's wish list but my sis and I wasted no time climbing up and running and jumping down the dunes - it simply has to be done.
Time went far to quickly and it was time for mum and sis to head back to the airport. We were all completely rubbish and failed to take a group shot of all of us :(

 I am really proud of my mum for conquering her fear of flying to come out, I know Namibia would never have been on her radar for a holiday destination if not for me being here but bar the horror of the seat belt and the trauma of the 4x4 drive I think she enjoyed herself :)  It was great to spend time with her and my lil sis, I miss them both a lot. It was one of the best holidays I think I will ever have, but I have a suspicion it might not be the last time they visit Namibia.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Matt's American Adventure: The Final Verdict

So Kate and I made it back to Namibia without any further problems and upon arriving back in Windhoek we were straight back to work as we had to pick up two volunteers who were joining us at Solitaire. Before I go any further Kate and I have to say a huge thanks to our student interns Jim and Leonie who did a fantastic job looking after the project whilst we were away; especially after talking to them and hearing about some of the difficulties they had to deal with. They’re awesome.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been very busy but it has been great to see the cats again and we’ve had a lot of fun with our volunteers who made getting back into the swing of things much easier. I have had a bit of time to reflect on my American Adventure and the following will be my humble impressions of the US of A, which just may well turn out to be the definitive description of American culture on the web!

Cultural Differences:
The first thing you notice is that everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, and it is wrong for this very simple principle I will now explain. Think of 100m runners lining up on the track, where do people line up from, the left or the right?
When you place down your favourite David Hasselhoff DVDS on a table from what direction do you place them in order of preference.....left to right of course! It just makes logical sense. When Americans enter onto a multi lane road they go against this basic psychological norm and have the overtaking, fast lanes on the left.  Also scientific studies back me up. Research in 1969 by J.J. Leeming showed countries driving on the left have a lower collision rate than countries driving on the right. It just doesn’t make sense America and I think you will all agree I have ended this debate once and for all!

I also noticed that even in fancy hotels there is a preference for a bath tub and shower combo, I never once encountered a bathroom with a separate shower unit, I’m not entirely sure I am in favour of this; I like a nice roomy shower and standing in a tub with a curtain drawn across feels a little claustrophobic. However, the space saving benefit is obvious, so I’ll let this one slide. Another curious bathroom related preference I noticed is that the water in the toilet bowl was more often than not at a very high level. Maybe this is because anything that goes in their has enough room for a proper swim and therefore reduces the chance of a blockage?  I am curious to be informed by some of my American friends as to why this is.
One big difference in culture we are not used to, especially here in Namibia is efficient customer service! The first time I placed my empty glass back down on the table in a restaurant and had it immediately refilled was a complete shock to the system, but a nice one! Now the impression most people have of American servers and store workers with the constant huge smile and ‘have a nice day’ mantra is not entirely accurate as not everyone seemed ecstatic to see me, especially some of the employees of Target we saw very early in the morning one day, but that actually helped reassure me that Americans are in fact normal people. Of course the big exception to the rule whilst out dining was the Church Brew Works, but for all of my other dining experiences the service was friendly, fast and efficient, the Namibian workforce could really learn a few lessons here, because in some instances the very notion that you want to order food comes as a big surprise to the server.

Americans are VERY patriotic. The star spangled banner is pretty much everywhere, from small ones stuck in gardens, medium sized ones hanging from people’s houses to gigantic ones that appear as you enter a different state. Quite often on TV and radio I would hear the phrase: ‘greatest nation on earth’. Now in my opinion being proud of your country is a great thing, I actually found myself wishing the UK would feel more able to display the flag rather than fall behind our national fear of ‘offending’ someone. However, NO country can claim to be ‘the greatest’ and I do wish Americans would stop saying it; as I say by all means feel proud of your country but I find it a little over the top to preach superiority over other countries. Having said that, the states did give the world, David Hasselhoff, Larry David, Bruce Campbell and Jack Bauer......
The Media:
Living in the middle of no where for four years you kind of forget just how ‘in your face’ western culture can be. I was shocked at the amount of adverts there are during a half hour TV show; I found it almost unwatchable. The commercial radio stations are much the same and it seemed no matter what time of day we headed out in the car we were guarantied to hear the same songs; as a consequence a song called “You don't know you’re Beautiful”  became the soundtrack for my holiday.......I of course now know this song to be by One Direction, a UK band made up of some of the lamest specimens of manhood I have ever seen.....damn my weakness for cheesy pop music!!!  The local TV adverts I found amusing with almost all of them being presented by the business owners themselves, especially injury lawyers and car salesmen - some clearly more suited for TV presenting then others. One of my best all American experiences was watching the Jerry Springer Show whilst eating left over wings, the worst was watching Fox News one evening; I am deliberately avoiding the subject of politics but wow, not even the UK's Daily Mail can compete with the biased, agenda driven trash I saw on this supposed ‘NEWS‘ program.  

Its funny, I love living here in the Namib Desert in the middle of nowhere, the scenery I work in every day is breathtaking but I can not deny my roots and I can’t help but enjoy the commercial trappings of a western lifestyle. I loved being able to go to a proper cinema, get my Macbook fixed easily and browse around stores like Target, Giant Eagle and Costco.  Ideas of maybe one day even living in the states were also encouraged by finding Marmite on the shelves of Giant Eagle, all I need now is to find a reliable source of crumpets and I will feel right at home!

As you may recall from my first American Adventure blog I had an interesting time entering the country due to the extensive security checks. During my time in the states I had conversations with foreigners and Americans alike who spoke of their dislike of what they see as ‘over the top’ methods. However, for me, whilst driving past the Pentagon in Washington DC I found myself trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been there then on 9/11 when an airplane was purposely crashed into it.......fact is I found it almost impossible to imagine, but yet that is exactly what happened. Viewing the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum I again had a reflective moment about that day 10 years ago and had the thought that maybe the amount of time that has passed and the constant repeating of those images has numbed those of us outside of America to the pure shocking nature of that day and how easily those hijackers were able to achieve it. So considering that, if I have to be taken aside and frisked in a room listening to Enrique Inglesias then so be it.

The People:
Its really hard to define a whole nation of people, especially for a country as big and diverse as the states and national stereotypes are not always accurate.....except when it come to the french of course, they actually do wear stripy jumpers, eat baguettes, say ‘ooh la la’ and have a national compulsion to block things with modes of transportation.

All I can say is that for the most part the American people I encountered were extremely nice and great company. Kate’s family and friends were fantastic from day one, welcoming me with open arms and boxes of Twinkies. As I mentioned earlier the servers in all the restaurants were awesome and I have to say a special mention to the staff from Delta Airways at Atlanta who were extremely sympathetic and helpful when dealing with the situation we found ourselves in due to Kate’s illegal passport. There are of course the exceptions; I am of course referring to the Church Brew Works bar tender, the shameless user of the Atlanta airport toilet, the twittering idiots at the Blue Man Group and the assholes who robbed our friend Ashley’s home just days after we had seen her. I am sure if I were to have stayed a bit longer I would have encountered some more rudeness but for now the people of Pittsburgh, Washington and Atlanta get a thumbs up!

The Food:
I believe I covered this subject in quite a bit of detail already, you could say this was the part I was most excited about and on the whole I was not disappointed. The sheer variety on offer is staggering with almost every street lined with whatever cuisine takes your fancy.  Most of the food is reasonably priced and portions generous....it is really easy to see why America has an obesity problem! So here it is, the final rundown of my American Cuisine Odyssey:
So, there we have it, that was my USA experience and I wish we could have stayed much longer. I want to again say a big thank you to all of Kate's family and friends who helped make it such a fantastic vacation. Final score for my American Adventure - Two Thumbs Up! :)

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Matt's American Adventure: The Dream Continues!

So when we flew out of Pittsburgh two days ago I thought my Adventure had come to an end, but I was wrong! As regular followers of my blog will know more often than not I never have a straight forward journey from A to B and on this occasion my bad luck must have rubbed of onto Kate as she was told she would not be allowed on the plane from Atlanta to Johannesburg as her there was no blank 'visa' page in her passport to allow entry into South Africa. I will spare you the details of what followed but as you can imagine the rest of that evening was extremely stressful!! To solve the situation Kate would have to go the Passport Agency in Atlanta first thing in the morning and hope that pages could be inserted into her passport in time for us to catch the flight to J'burg that evening.  By the time we made it to hotel it was late, but we were able to get hold of our friend Ashley and arranged to meet up with her in the morning. 

So after no where near enough sleep we made our way to the Passport Agency and Kate was given the good news that her passport would be ready to collect at 2.00pm - A HUGE relief!! The rest of the day then turned out to be fantastic as we met Ashely and as promised we got to go to Georgia Aquarium including seeing some of the behind the scenes areas. Both Kate and I were blown away by the Aquarium, it is extremely well designed with the highlight being the largest tank in the world containing Manta Rays and Whale Sharks.........stunning! Big thanks to Ashley for showing us around.
After the Aquarium Kate successfully picked up her passport and I then I got the chance to continue my American Cuisine Odyssey and went to the Hard Rock Cafe where we met Ashley's boyfriend Austin. I had a pulled pork sandwich - Thumbs Up! 

In the end you might say it was worth missing the flight! We eventually had to say our goodbyes and make are way back to the airport and thankfully we had no more problems. Even the 15 hour flight was much more comfortable this time as I drank a lot more water and took some sleeping pills. Kate and I are currently at a Guest House just outside Johannesburg airport and we fly back to Namibia tomorrow afternoon...hopefully :)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Matt's American Adventure: End of the Dream

I am writing this blog on the actual day we fly back to Namibia, the last three weeks have flown by and I have had a fantastic time. When I get back to Solitaire I will write the final chapter of the American Adventure...The Verdict! But before we leave I'll quickly sum up our last couple of days; I will start by giving my verdict on the second item I wrote on my 'To Eat' list; the Baby Ruth! As you may have picked up throughout the American Adventure blogs I have watched a lot of American  TV and movies over the years, but one movie has a special place which I have watched over a hundred times, The Goonies! In this classic you of course will remember the character Sloth being a big fan of Baby Ruths and was pivotal in the magical scene where Chunk and Sloth began their friendship. A Baby Ruth is basically peanuts and nougat covered in chocolate, and tastes pretty good, we have things similar to it in the UK so I cant say it blew my mind but it thoroughly deserves a Thumbs Up.
I'll also quickly give a shout out to Arnold Palmer and his Ice Tea and Lemonade mix, it has been sweltering here and I have found his drink damn refreshing - Thumbs Up! 
I enjoyed a Baby Ruth during a drive in movie, another first for me on my American Adventure. The Twin Hi-Way Drive In is one of only two theaters of its kind still in Pittsburgh and watching The Avengers (for the second time I might add because its flipping awesome) out in the open was a really cool experience.
Kate and I also went to Kennywood Amusement Park and before Kate's sensitive stomach and my monster headache kicked in we had fun riding some great roller coasters, the Skyrocket and Phantom's Revenge were the definite highlights. We also had a great lunch, Potato Patch Fries and a Corn Dog! 
For Rob's birthday we went to another of Kate's favorite restaurants, Soba. I was told this would be a definite Two Thumbs Up, but after the Vinnie's Pizza incident I would need to judge for myself. As it was Rob's birthday and close to mine we had signed up for a special deal and got our entrees for free, so I decided to go all out and had baby octopus for starters, the filet mignon for main and then my first American banana split for dessert........this time they were right, delicious Two Thumb Up!
After dinner we went up to Mount Washington which provides the best view of the city of Pittsburgh, it was really spectacular and a great way to end my unofficial birthday.
This weekend has been Memorial Day weekend and because this has been the first time Kate has been home in two and a half years the Echements held a family reunion picnic where I got to meet a lot more cousins, uncles and old family friends. As per usual the food provided by Phyllis was sensational especially the pulled pork. For dessert Bev provided more of her home baked brownies and cupcakes, and let me tell you Bev's cupcakes are out of this world- Four Thumbs Up!
For my actual birthday Kate and I had a low key morning doing a bit of shopping, before picking up Kate's Grandmother Ruth and going to Jim and Phyllis' for dinner. As I was the birthday boy I was able to choose what the meal would be and seeing as I had yet to mark it of my list I decided upon Sloppy Joes! The Sloppy Joe is a fairly simple idea that for some reason hasn't caught on in the UK but its exactly my type of food, nice and messy - Thumbs Up! As a special birthday treat for me and Rob Phyllis had made two pies, one Coconut cream, the other Lemon meringue. Rather than score the pies I'll simply say this, the best food I have eaten during this Adventure has been prepared by Phyllis, the lemon pork we had on mothers day being my particular favourite -  Phyllis = Four Thumbs Up!
Well there we have it, it is time to head back to the Namib Desert. It really has gone fast and Kate and I wish we had one more week. I have had an amazing time and I want to say a huge thank you to Jim, Phyllis, Rob, Bev and Ruth for welcoming me into their homes and looking after me so well. One things for sure when I get back I will have to start up my exercise routine again big time as I have not eaten so much and so well for a long time and I have gone up two notches on my belt!

As mentioned early I will be writing a final chapter when I get back, until then cheerio USA!  

Monday, 28 May 2012

Matt's American Adventure: Washington DC

Keen to not let my only experience of America be Pittsburgh and Ohio the Echement and Pecori clan planned a four day trip to the Capital, which I had been really looking forward to ever since we arrived. 

Myself, Kate, Phylis, Jim Rob and Bev hit the road last Monday and began the 5 hour drive, on route we stopped of at a Gas station called Sheets, which just happens to be one my favourite places to eat as their made to order sandwiches are fantastic. Sheets also offer cheap drink refills and after seeing Jim with a Sheets 'Fizzonator' I  had to get one of my own, its awesome! Sheetz = Two Thumbs Up!
That afternoon we stopped at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center where some amazing aircraft are on show plus the Space Shuttle Discovery. It was fantastic to get up close to real pieces of history including the Enola Gay and artifacts from the Apollo missions. Also Bev and I were the only ones brave enough to have some fun in a couple of flight simulators :) It was a great start to our trip despite the fact that they had an Air-France Concorde on display!
 That night we had dinner at the Bangkok Bistro where I had my first proper Curry for a long long time, delicious, Two Thumbs Up!

The following day we went on a guided bike tour of the city which was really good fun and a perfect way to see all the monuments, the White House and other places of interest (thankfully the rain that threatened didn't come). Our guide was excellent and even the Americans in our group learned something new. I highly recommend you do the same if you get the chance. 
After the bike tour we had lunch and I got the chance to tick another essential item off my 'to eat' list, the Philly Cheese Steak. It went down very easy, although the one Kate made for me back in Africa was better, Thumbs Up!
We were left with just enough time to check out one of the many Smithsonian museums,  now one thing I should mention here is that ALL of the Smithsonian zoos and museums are FREE, and that I think is pretty amazing. We decided on the National Museum of American History, I was keen to go here as I was informed they had Seinfeld's puffy shirt on display and Kate wanted to see an original Kermet puppet. But as the Cleverley luck would have it the Puffy Shirt was no longer on display. Kate was able to meet Kermet though.
Just before dinner we popped into the National Archives and saw the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence before heading over to the Cocina Mexicana restaurant the Oyamel; tacos, meatballs, tuna, quesadillas, guacamole, enchiladas all phenomenally good, Two Thumbs Up!

The next morning was a visit to the Smithsonian National Zoo, where we able to meet up with a good friend and former CCF intern Ryan who now works for the Smithsonian and is based at the zoo. We could only talk for a few minutes but we made plans to meet up later for drinks. Another friend from our CCF times Dorothy was also able to meet up and we had a great time catching up whilst looking at the Pandas, Big Cats and Elephants.
For dinner we went to a Sushi Restaurant called Sei - the Wasabi guacamole was a revelation and the 'Fish and Chips' inspired sushi rolls delicious, again I can only award Two Thumbs Up! Kate and I then left to meet up with Ryan and we were introduced to a great hole in the wall type bar in a less touristy part of town and enjoyed a drink up on the roof top.

Our final morning was spent at the Newseum, a museum about the history of news reporting. The Newseum is one of Washington's newest and not under the Smithsonian umbrella and therefore is one you have to pay for. It was highly recommended to us by our bike tour guide and I'm glad he did because it was extremely interesting and very well designed. An unforgettable part is the 9/11 exhibition complete with the antenna that was on top of the South Tower. Its hard to believe it has been 10 years since that day and reliving what happened was heartbreaking but learning about the history of that now famous footage was very interesting. 
Other sections that were highlights were an FBI exhibit and a Berlin Wall exhibit complete with the largest sections of the wall outside of Berlin (disappointingly there was no mention of the Hoff and his role in bringing in it down!).  One very cool feature of the museum was a floor that has all the front pages from newspapers that day from all over the world, including Namibia!  I also got to meet up and have some coffee with another CCF friend Liz. I have to say the the server at the coffee shop was quite taken with my accent and I think would have accepted if I had proposed!
After lunch it was sadly time to hit the road, we had seen a lot but there was so much more I would have liked to have seen. I was hugely impressed with Washington DC, there is so much to do and the food was sensational! I definitely hope to go back.