Malawi: Travels with My Aunt* Part One

*Yes, this is sort of an ode to Graham Greene, one of my favorite authors.

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She arrives–I would know those black leggings anywhere!

On February 7, C and I welcomed our first visitor to Malawi, my Aunt CW!  How wonderful to finally share, in person, our home and life in this corner of Africa with a family member.  I felt giddy as I drove to the airport to greet her flight, I even paid extra to access the observation deck at the Lilongwe airport so that I could watch her disembark and enter the terminal.

Arriving from the east coast of the U.S. can take a lot out of a person.  There is the at least 24 hour door-to-door journey and the seven hour time difference.  Just transiting the airport in Addis for any flight can take a lot out of a person.  There was also the visa-on-arrival rigmarole and an unexpected “produce your boarding pass upon disembarking” challenge, but at long last I had my aunt in the car traveling down the M1 toward our home.  There I dropped her off, gave her the grand tour, and left her to rest as I returned to the office for a few hours.  That evening we ordered dinner from a nearby Italian restaurant for carry out (C was feeling a bit under the weather).

My aunt is visiting for one month and although I have planned for some (fabulous!) weekend getaways, she will be spending many days just hanging out at our lovely home while I continue work.  Not just anyone would be able to enjoy this kind of holiday, but my aunt enjoys getting to see our every day lives. Frankly, Lilongwe is not a usual vacation destination — there is very little to hold the interest of an overseas tourist and we live in the leafy suburbs of a city with little viable public transport.  For my aunt, who recently lost her beloved husband of 30 years, a low-key getaway to our home far away from the everyday reminders and tasks, where she can sit in our screened in porch enjoying a cup of coffee while looking out at our yard, lush with the rains and full of birdsong, is just the ticket.  (Or so she says she enjoys seeing us in our natural habitat and lounging on our porch — maybe she is just humoring me?)

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Crazy light at sunset = a storm is coming

For our first weekend we drove the two hours out to Senga Bay to stay the night at the Sunbird Livingstonia, the oldest hotel on Lake Malawi.  Despite it being the “green season” (a lovely tourist-luring way to describe the rainy season), we had a beautiful day for driving, walking along the lakeside beach, dining alfresco, and sitting poolside.  That evening the sunset was something extraordinary — the light through the clouds turned the water and the sand a vivid, diaphanous burnt orange.  Had I been in the desert I would have thought it a precursor to a sand storm, so I knew that our good weather was coming to an end.  That night the skies opened up and it poured all night, knocking out the hotel’s electricity, but that was just icing on the cake as no visit to Malawi is complete without a power outage.

Tongole 2For our second getaway over the three-day President’s Day weekend, we headed east and north to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, a new destination for C and I.  Google maps told me the drive would take approximately four hours — three to Nkhotakota town, then an additional hour to the park entrance and through the park to our lodge.  But Google maps does not account for Malawian roads.  Turning north from Salima the road initially was better, but soon grew worse.  There were many potholes, pedestrians, single lane bridges, and construction work to Nkhotakota town.  Eight kilometers later we turned on to an “earthen” road for another eight kilometers to the entrance were we were met by a safari jeep from the lodge.  Although I drive a SUV, the lodge suggested I arrange transport to and from the park gate to the lodge due to the rainy season effects on the park’s dirt roads.  To drive the 18 kilometers (11 miles) over the rutted, undulating earth took 45 minutes.  So all told from door to door took 5 1/2 hours.

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View of the Bua River from our room

As we transferred to the lodge jeep, our lodge guide gave us two rules for the journey: 1. if we see an elephant, keep quiet and do not jump out of the jeep, and 2. if flies get close to you, swat them away, they may be tsetse flies and their bites are unpleasant.

  1. Nkhotakota is the receiving location of the world’s largest elephant translocation in history.  Decades of poaching reduced the once magnificent park to a shadow of its former self, with its animal populations decimated.  African Parks, a non-profit conservation NGO that takes over the rehabilitation and management of national parks in Africa, took over Nkhotakota in 2015.  As part of the efforts to restock the park, African Parks, over the course of two years, moved 500 elephants from Liwonde and Majete National Parks to Nkhotakota.  African Parks also relocated an additional 2,000 animals, but it was the elephants we really hoped to see — though we know better than to hop out of the safari vehicle and embrace the animals.
  2. Tsetse flies!  What?! My knowledge of tsetse flies is limited to the Atari 2600 Raiders of the Lost Ark video game I had WAY back in the day.  As I recall tsetse flies were bad news in that game – its bite would render Indiana Jones incapacitated with African sleeping sickness.  When I asked our guide however, he noted that the flies have to be infected with the sleeping sickness parasites to transfer the illness and these flies did not have it.  Turns out tsetse flies also really like the color electric blue (the park has set up blue and black tsetse fly traps around the land) and their bites really are quite painful.
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Not your average mac and cheese with chicken

Arriving at Tongole Wilderness Lodge we were greeted with cold washcloths and welcome drinks.  We were escorted to our rooms and then served a delicious lunch of macaroni and cheese and grilled chicken.  As soon as we finished the staff asked when we would like our “tea” — beverages of our choice served with samosas and Victorian sandwiches — normally served at half past three.  We requested tea be served as our sundowner during our trip to the waterfall that afternoon.

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Our African Parks guide surveys the waters

At 4:30 we meet our guide for the waterfall activity.  It had been described as a short 15 minute drive followed by a walk to overlook the falls.  Somehow a boat had not been mentioned in the first discussion of this activity, but at the stop the guides unloaded a boat from top of the jeep.  This seemed, um, unexpected.  We walked down to the river banks as if this was a perfectly fine idea and there we all stood looking at the fast-moving, tea-colored, frothy waters of the Bua River.  Seriously?!  After what seemed like a long several minutes the guides announced the river was not safe to cross.  Whew.  We could hold our heads up high as the intrepid adventurers we were — it was the guides who made the call, we did not chicken out (though we were certainly contemplating it!).  Instead we headed to a flat rock where David Livingstone is rumored to have camped during some surveying in the area.  Though still next to the turbulent waters, we were not in them.

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The exquisitely designed main lodge

Although two activities a day were included in our daily fees, the “green season” meant that our choices were limited.  Canoeing was out with the swollen river.  Game drives were out due to rainy season road closures.  The waterfall visit was clearly out.  Hiking was out because we did not want to hike in the hot and humid air, or maybe at all.  We thus decided that lazing about the lodge and eating yummy meals would be our primary activities.  We were the only people at the lodge, there was no one else to push or prod us into doing anything more.  We were not disappointed.

The lodge design is stunning — unexpected curves and details all around.  Our rooms were eco-simple and elegant.  The views, they too seemed deceptively simple — brown churning river flowing by lush green foliage — but it was nature’s beauty at its best.  We heard the sounds of the rushing water (so calming), the hoots of baboons, the calls, tweets, and trills of birds.  At lunch, while dining alfresco on a lower deck beneath a fruit tree, we watched two African ground squirrels frolic in the branches of another tree.  Later we were visited by a few monkeys.  Butterflies flurried all around.  And, at last, an elephant known as Short Trunk slid into the river waters in front of the lodge.

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Some of the Nkhotakota wildlife

On our second and last evening the winds picked up, thunder grumbled from a few miles away, and lightening lit up the hills in the distance.  Once again we were spared from a full day of mood dampening rain but treated to the beauty of an evening storm.

It rained a good part of the night but we slept well with the sound of the rain and the rushing waters of the river lulling us.  Our greater concern with the rain was its effect on the “earthen” road we would have to traverse in my RAV4 from the park entrance to the main road.  Our transport let us know they would survey the road conditions from the lodge to park entrance and determine whether they would accompany us all the way to the tarmac.  The 18 kilometer trip took an hour this time as even the safari jeep fishtailed and spun its wheels in the mud, so all the way to the tarmac it would be.  That $54 I parted with for the transport from gate to lodge and back is some of the best money I have ever spent.  And though my aunt and I were equally impressed with my control over the RAV4 in similarly slippery conditions, we were grateful to have that chaser jeep with us for that bit, just in cases.

 

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Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 2

The continuation of the story of our first R&R from Malawi to the U.S. and Jamaica.

On the morning of our second full day in Jamaica, we had no plans.  Having no plans kinda makes me crazy.  But we were at an all-inclusive in Montego Bay, so it was not hard to find something as the resort had a list of the many, many activities they had going on.  We had breakfast, then took a walk around the property.  I found an intense pool aerobics class and C played in the water just behind me.  We has some of the all-inclusive “free” ice cream, and part Native-American C enjoyed more pool time while fair and freckle-skinned me hid under a towel watching.  We had lunch.  Then we prepared for our PM activity – horseback riding into the sunset of the last day of 2018.  Is that awesome or what?

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C rides confidently through the surf

Once again it was a group tour with a third heading out on ATVs, a third went with dune buggies, and the rest of us had signed up for horseback riding — an hour on a trail through historic farm land, complete with a 17th century windmill, ending in a short trot through the surf.  This would be followed by a ten minute horseback ocean jaunt.

C loves horses.  I try to get organize a horse experience for her whenever I can.  She always insists that she is old enough to handle her own horse and is annoyed over an over when someone holds the reins or rides alongside or even with her.  Boy was she stoked to not only have a horse all her own.  This would not pass muster in the U.S. at all, and I would be a liar if I said watching her did not raise all kinds of nervous butterflies in my stomach, but we did have several experienced guides who rode up and down the line checking on us all and the whole “ride” was more a horse walk, and C was the picture of pride, sitting tall on her horse.

It was a lovely ride along shaded trails and across grassy fields lit golden by the setting sun.  We arrived back at the mounting station and then switched horses for the ocean ride.  It turned out to be a full on ocean plunge.  The horses were quickly up to the base of their necks in the water, fighting the waves, which were on the rough side with the strong, steady wind.  I was immersed past my waist, practically floating over the saddle.  It was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying at the same time.  C was ahead laughing with delight.  I was so grateful when we turned around and headed out; C started to cry because it was over already and she wanted to go again.  The guide offered to take her out again.  And out they went.  C said it was the “best day ever!”

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Happy 2019!

That night we attended the huge New Year’s Eve buffet dinner.  There were mounds of food on dozens of tables decorated with half a dozen ice sculptures and an entertainment revue.  Being NYE the music was louder and went longer than the other days, our room reverberated with the noise.  Still C fell asleep long before midnight; I heard the count down, then nothing more til morning.

I woke to an overcast, yet sunny morning, a rainbow across the sky.  It was so perfect.

That and the next day were spent doing very, very little.  Sleeping in, pool time, mini golf, watching movies, eating ice cream, doing water aerobics.  Then on our next to last day we had a full day adventure — another group tour, this time to Mystic Mountain for the sky lift, which takes visitors 700 feet above the forest floor, then a Jamaican bobsled ride, and finally a zipline course.  C, not quite 7 years old, did it ALL, even as some adults were not so keen and even backed out.

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C zips through the Jamaican rainforest

Following Mystic Mountain the tour group shifted to Dunn’s River Falls, another of the “top” tourist sites in Jamaica, or so every Internet search told me.  If you take everyone on a cruise ship to only a few places, then naturally they become the top spots…  Not to say that Mystic Mountain was not fun or Dunn’s River Falls was not both beautiful and cool (both meetings of the word), but I was regretting not renting a car.  I had mentioned it to one tourist info woman and she tsk tsk’d, reminding me that “we drive on the other side of the road.”  It was with great glee that I explained I live in a country in Africa where I drive on the same side.  Still, I had not rented a car and by this point was losing interest in handing over my credit card for much more.

So we had to do the giant tour bus tango.  You know, where, no matter what, you seem to be the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off.  Where the tour bus drives 30 minutes of an hour drive and then stops for a “break,” which is really a completely unnecessary shopping stop.  And you get herded off the bus, have to “gather around” for instructions, are only two people but have to wait for ten families of 5 people to get their wrist bands first, and the “free” lunch included in the tour is nothing to write home about it…  Oh, the joy….

We opted not to climb the falls.  I had read online that it was not such a good thing for younger children, and also that tour guides force their groups not only to buy unnecessary pool shoes but also link hands like kindergardeners, making a daisy chain up the falls.  Also, not necessary.  We did look at the falls.  C splashed around in a shallow pool.  Then we went to the splashpad and ate popsicles, blissfully away from the maddening constraints of the tour group.  At least for an hour.

It will likely come as little surprise that we opted to do nothing on our final day.  We were tour bus’d out! We needed a lazy day before another all day travel day.

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Transformed into Mulan!

Back to Jacksonville for another overnight near the airport, then, in a rented car, we drove to Lake Buena Vista, the home of Disney.  Oh the joys of driving on a fully sealed, pothole-free, multi-lane highway with clear lanes and actual shoulders!  We stopped at a gas station to stock up on U.S.-car-trip staples like string cheese and potato chips and gum.  Thank you America!  We arrived around noon to check in to our hotel then head over to Disney Springs where we had a lunch reservation at the Rainforest Cafe followed by C’s appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for her princess make-over.

The next day we began our Disney park experience.  This was our 10th visit to a Disney park and our 3rd visit to Disney World.  I have seen a few articles on taking your child traveling but NOT to Disney.  I absolutely understand giving a child the gift of travel, but I believe mixing in a bit of Disney (or more than a bit in our case) not only does not hurt, but can also richly reward a family.

We had tickets for an early morning experience at Hollywood Studios, it seemed the only way to guarantee we could experience all the new Toy Story Land had to offer.  We had a chance to ride all three of the new rides several times before the park opened to everyone and the lines grew rapidly.  And there we were at 9 AM having already done all we had wanted to at Hollywood Studios.  So I upgraded to a park hopper pass and we headed over to the Magic Kingdom.  By the time we were done for the day – with C still going strong running to the car in the parking lot – I had 27,000 steps on my pedometer!

On Tuesday, after a painful vacation club presentation (never again I always tell myself – when will I ever learn??),  we drove about 45 minutes to Winter Haven, FL to visit Legoland.  C loved it because she could ride every single ride (and we did) and there were no crowds.  On several rides we rode it multiple times in a row, on two of them the ride operators did not even make us disembark and run around, we just stayed in our seats for another go.  My limit though was three times in a row.

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We had been dreaming of Disney sweets

Wednesday was Epcot; our first time to that park.  Crowds were relatively light and we were able to ride all but two of the rides.  More importantly though we lunched with princesses at the Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall and caught up with a few others — C’s photos with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Jasmine meant we had completed the goal of meeting all the Disney princesses.

By Thursday we were about theme-parked out, but I had bought a four day Disney ticket and we had two more days left.  We dragged ourselves to Animal Kingdom on a suddenly chilly day, and then back to the Magic Kingdom on the final day.  Lesson learned: three days at Disney might be our limit and/or build in some rest days!

Before heading back to Jacksonville for yet another night we stopped for another bit of fun Americana style.  When in Jamaica lazing about our room on one of our no tour days the movie Happy Gilmore came on.  In it, there is a scene where the mentor of Adam Sandler’s character Happy takes him to a fancy mini golf course to refine his short game.  C could not believe such a crazy mini golf place could be real and not just a movie set.  So I vowed to take her to one.  Congo River golf, complete with a realistic plane crashed into a waterfall, fit the bill.

We made it back to Jacksonville in time to meet my aunt for a late lunch – Mexican of course!  No telling when we could have it again.  The following day we flew to Dulles Airport to spend the evening before our flight back to Lilongwe.  My family lives right near the airport, one of my sisters works there, so we all met at my other sister’s place for a few hours.  We had a few less hours than originally planned as a snow storm had delayed flights — but for C the snow was the cherry on top of seeing her cousins and was the grand finale to our pretty perfect trip.

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C loves Disney


A note on the shutdown:  This is not a political post; this is not that kind of blog.  But as a State Department employee in a designated “non-excepted” position, the shutdown, which started at some point as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, meant I was among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay.  It was a strange time — hearing some officials characterize the furlough as a “vacation,” which is patently incorrect, yet here I was on an actual vacation, an R&R earned for serving overseas in a location that has “distinct and significant difficulties.”  As the shutdown wore on, I did feel increasingly uncomfortable.  In the past I was “excepted” and worked through the shutdown.  One of my sisters, who works for the Transportation Security Administration, continued to report to work as scheduled, without promise of a paycheck.  I had colleagues at State both at work and at home.  I earned my R&R and my daughter and I deserved to enjoy it to the fullest, but it was not completely without guilt.  I returned to Malawi with the shutdown still in effect and remained at home furloughed another week.  Although the shutdown focused on Washington, D.C., the majority of federal government workers serve outside the capital, and there are tens of thousands of us working overseas.  We have families, pets, responsibilities, go to the office to do our jobs, and for the most part live normal lives, just like other Americans.

 

 

Rest & Relaxation: Americana, Jamaica, & Disney Magic Part 1

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Sunrise at Jax Beach our first morning

Finally, our first rest and relaxation (R&R) vacation was upon us.  It seemed very long in coming after a whole lotta planning and a seemingly endless busy season at work.

It had been over a year since we had been to the United States.  Initially I had planned to return in July as I had a three-day capstone course topping off a year-long, mostly distance learning, interactive leadership course.  I had hoped to take another week plus and bring C so she might spend the week I was in training with her dad, and then we would have another week together seeing friends and family, maybe going somewhere new.  But a complicated transfer season at a small post, the timing of my training and proposed leave, and a few other factors resulted in my not returning to Washington last summer.  This denied time away from the U.S. and my uncle’s congestive heart failure diagnosis led me to plan for a winter R&R stateside.

As the R&R shaped up in early August, I became especially determined for it to include all things: some time with family, including C spending time with her father, some time reconnecting with the little bits of Americana we missed, and some mother-daughter fun somewhere new, somewhere often described as “paradise.”

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C looks out to sea at Jax Beach

Unfortunately my uncle D declined rapidly and passed away in mid-September.  In this lifestyle we often miss rites of passage from weddings to funerals, to births and graduations.  This reality hit particularly hard this time; he had played a prominent role not only in my life but in my daughter’s.   For this often solo traveler, I realized I had visited my aunt C and uncle D in Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, and Germany; they had visited us in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico (where few people would despite the proximity), and we had traveled together to the Bahamas, France, Luxembourg, and South Dakota.   We would not get a final visit.

After a long trip that involved stops in Addis Ababa, Dublin, and Washington, D.C., we landed in Jacksonville, FL.  My aunt picked us up.  We headed to her condo first to relax and get cleaned up (we had just spent 30 hours traveling) but soon headed to the beach to watch the rise of a very full moon, eat Mexican food, and check out the Jax Beach Deck the Chairs holiday light display.  It was all very special.  Normal if we lived in America perhaps, but special because we do not.

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Family bonding over fantastic puzzles

The following morning we woke up early so we could also welcome the sunrise at the same beach.  However, a cold snap had descended on Florida, temperatures were in the 40s.  I had packed a few cold weather clothes for C, but had none for me.  So we bundled up in spare items my aunt had; I put on my Uncle D’s sweat pants and sweat shirt.  As we stood on the beach watching the sun break over the ocean’s horizon, I felt like my Uncle was with us.

Then we took C to the airport to meet her stepmom TG, who was flying in from KY to bring C back to her father’s place for Christmas.  Yes, indeed.  My not-quite-7 year old daughter would be flying for the first time without me.  This is a pretty big deal, right?  Early on when I made this plan with C’s father, I had felt a wee bit nervous, but once the day arrived, I was okay.  And C was super excited to fly with TG and see her dad.

And I got five days with my aunt, just she and I.  We went to the movies.  I am sure I mentioned before that there are no theaters in Malawi.  But we went to see Mary Queen of Scots, i.e. not an animated children’s movie.  We hung out at Target, ate out at Mexican and other restaurants or just had chips and guac at home, and built puzzles.  We laughed at our ridiculous struggles with my aunt’s cable and when the young 20-something at the movie theater charged me the retiree price.  Then C returned from KY and we celebrated my aunt’s birthday with lunch at one of her favorite places.

My aunt drove us to our hotel next to the Jacksonville airport where we would stay one night before heading out early for the next phase of our trip.

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There was no direct way to get from Jacksonville to Montego Bay, so once again we spent much of the day traveling.  Generally I am okay with it because even the journey can be relaxing and fun, and it is a means to an end.  And I booked the flights after all.  But as I was quite eager to get to Jamaica — it is someplace I have wanted to visit for awhile — even with the upgrade to business on our first leg could not make that trip go fast enough.

We landed at 4 and checked into our resort, only 15 minutes from the airport, by sunset.  Our room had a beautiful view out toward the main pool and the ocean beyond.  The warm Caribbean breeze felt wonderful.  The all-inclusive hotel had pre-booked us for one of the reservation only restaurants for the dinner.  We enjoyed our meal and then headed back to the room.  Then the entertainment began, so loud it sounded as if the band was at the foot of our bed.  The front desk told me it would last until 10 pm, but we were so tired we fell asleep anyway.

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Stately and ghostly Rose Hall

On our first full day I was eager to get started.  We arranged a taxi to Rose Hall, a late 18th century plantation house.  The Georgian style mansion commands a lovely view towards the sea, but also is representative of the sometimes dark history of plantation life in early colonial Jamaica.  It is most famous for being haunted by Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall,” who murdered slaves and husbands indiscriminately.  I love me some historic houses and tours of them — I have taken C on plenty of them (from the historic Adams House in Deadwood, SC to the Mary Todd Lincoln house in Lexington, KY) so she knows the drill and tolerates them.  She seemed rather excited to see a haunted house, especially as it was during the day.

The only scary thing that came out of that trip was the price the taxi driver demanded upon return to the hotel although he had failed to show up at the appointed time.  It turned out the hotel info desk had incorrectly informed me of the fare; taxis really do charge an arm and a leg from tourist hotels.

My mood had soured as a result but a good lunch renewed my spirits and we set off on an afternoon tour on the Martha Brae river.  Floating down the river on a bamboo raft is one of the top attractions for Jamaica.  All started out okay.  We were picked up from the hotel about 1:30.  As luck would have it, we were the first guests to be picked up.  We then drove to two other hotels to pick up a family of nine, then a family of 11, after which we drove the 30 minutes to the rafting village.  And there we stood around for at least another 30 minutes, ostensibly to pick up our “welcome drink” included in the rafting trip, but it seemed designed for alcoholic visitors to booze up.  Finally, someone brought life jackets and led us down to the rafts.  C and I were in the middle of the pack — the family of nine before us, the family of 11 somewhere behind.

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The Martha Brae

As we floated down the river, I figured we would go at a leisurely pace given our older Rastafarian captain, but soon enough we were passing everyone else.  Our guy might have seemed slightly out of it, but he was slow and steady, while the other guests, mostly liquored up folks making a mess out of poling on their own (but having a blast doing so), and the romantic couples, were especially in no hurry.  We blow past them all.  While C thought this was super awesome, I realized the faster we reached the end, the longer we waited.  And sure enough, we waited about 15 minutes before the nine-person family rolled in.  And then we waited, and waited, and waited.  Only 45 minutes later the rafts of the other family finally arrived.  There had apparently some kind of payment issue, but I was still annoyed we waited an extra HOUR.  I was reminded why group tours can be a huge pain in the a$$.

We arrived back tired, had a quick dinner, and hit the hay, lulled to sleep by the rambunctious stylings of the entertainer of the evening.