How to Answer the Question, ‘Did You Go Anywhere This Summer’ Without Being Awkward

I’ve discovered a new, annoying habit. Actually, I’ve caught both myself and my travel-partner-for-life, XFE doing it a lot over the past few weeks.

We’ll be talking to friends or neighbors or coworkers or the pet sitter or (in my case) the eye doctor. We’ll be chatting, catching up on our lives and the latest news when the conversation will inevitably turn to this question: “So, did you guys go anywhere this summer?”

I’ve actually never read this book, so I don’t even know if this is pertinent.

And the way we hem and haw and get all awkward over our answer is just so weird. We’ll look at each other and start mumbling about, “Yeah, we took a quick, last-minute trip but it was just to Mexico. Just for a week. Just a fly-and-flop at an all-inclusive resort. Really, it was no big deal. Nothing glamorous at all. What about you?”

It turns out, we are vacation apologists.

There are a couple of reasons this might be/is the case. For one thing, we tend to take really big trips to some far flung places. Like, safaris in Africa, driving tours through Sri Lanka, living it up in luxury in the Maldives, roughing it on a dive boat in the Barrier Reef, eating tours and temple hopping through Singapore, Cambodia and Hong Kong. So any vacation that’s less than a week or is in a location that takes less than two days to get to makes us feel like we’re letting our expectant audience down.

(OK, now I just feel like I’m bragging about all the great vacations we take. Which I am, because, hi, hello, Maldives? But I don’t mean to brag. I’m really, really grateful. I pinch myself all the time. Really, I have bruises from all the pinching. I can’t believe I get to go to any of these places. So then there’s that: I feel a lot of shame that I’m so fortunate. Thus, awkward apologies.)

Tough but fair.

Plus—to further belabor the bragging theme—we actually have a big trip coming up: three weeks in New Zealand. Which we are really, really excited about and has been our primary trip-planning focus for the last few months.

Then there’s the fact that we pretty much planned to not go anywhere this summer since we knew work would be so busy and we would be spending so much money on New Zealand. In fact, just this past spring, we had turned down an offer to go on a group vacation to the very same part of Mexico that we ended up running off to for six days in July. And the group trip was actually right around the same time (literally, we were only like two days off from passing each other at the Cancun airport).

Whatever it was, we have consistently minimized our Mexican vacation, both before we went and after we got back (Heck, I only posted one photo on Instagram). And we shouldn’t minimize it.

And, the one photo I posted: grilled fish.

We shouldn’t downplay our Mexican vacation for a lot of reasons but first and foremost is because we are just so privileged. Some people spend all year saving up the time and money to go to a beautiful, all-inclusive resort in Mexico. They are genuinely excited about their vacation and they should be.

Going on vacation is (obviously) a luxury that a lot of people—people who really, really work hard and deserve a break–just don’t get. We are both so damn lucky to have the means and ability to just go on vacation whenever and wherever we want. Yes, XFE has worked very hard at both his real job and his other job – racking up and managing all those hotel points and airline miles. No doubt. But again, we’re incredibly privileged. Just for the fact that we can carve out the time and make arrangements to cover our medium-sized obligations while we’re gone.

Secondly, our trip (which, by the way, was to Secrets Maroma Beach in the Riviera Cancun) was really, really nice. The resort was an adults-only, all-inclusive with all the amenities—great service, gorgeous grounds, delicious food, impressive entertainment and a variety of activities for those who wanted to partake.

Just look at this place. Beautiful.

We booked a swim-up room and that’s pretty much where we spent most of our six days. It was definitely low-key (we didn’t go on any excursions, but there are a lot of things to see and do in that region of Mexico) which was exactly what we were looking for.

Where I spent most of my time, reading three books.

To be honest, the trip planning for New Zealand has been a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of moving parts and logistics and decisions to be made, but with Mexico, we didn’t have to make any decisions. Plus, unlike New Zealand, Mexico was a short direct flight from D.C. We left in the morning and were drinking our first pina coladas by that afternoon.

So let me shout it from the rooftops: We got to go to Mexico this summer. And it was great. I got a few mosquito bites but I didn’t get sunburned. We met tons of nice people who worked very hard to make sure we had a good time, all the time. We ate the most amazing fresh, grilled fish for lunch every day (which I shared surreptitiously with some of the very friendly stray cats you’re not supposed to feed and which the staff pretended not to notice that I was, in fact, feeding). And the pina coladas were always delicious and refreshing. Everyone should absolutely go, if they can. Even vacation apologists.

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Hotel Crashing: Mara Bushtops, Kenya

When we went to Bushtops Serengeti a couple of years back, we knew that if we ever got the chance to go to Tanzania again, we’d definitely stay there again and for a much longer amount of time. And, we did. For this trip, we stayed at Bushtops Serengeti for seven nights (Oct. 31-Nov. 8), which was a lot but also, totally amazing.

Since we were in the area(ish), we decided to check another country off our list and spent four nights at Mara Bushtops in Kenya.

We went on a “Behind the Scenes,” back of camp tour at Bushtops Mara and saw this hilarious sign hanging in the staff camp area. Hilarious because guess which tent we were staying in?

Now, even though both places are owned by the same camp operators and the two countries share a border, it’s not that easy to go from Tanzania to Kenya (or vice versa). The lovely folks at Bushtops helped us organize the transfer. Here’s the abbreviated version of that adventure: We took a very short flight from the Kogatende airstrip to Tarime near the Kenya border. Then we got in a van that drove us through Isebania, a small town straddling the border, where you get out on the Tanzania side and go through customs, drive across, then get out again on the Kenya side to go through customs. Then another very short flight from Migori airstrip to Siana Springs and Bushtops.

After a slight hiccup over whether in fact we actually needed a yellow fever card coming from Tanzania or the U.S. (both are non-yellow fever country) into Kenya (short answer: you don’t. Longer answer: But the customs officials will definitely try to shake you down for a nice little “fee” if you don’t have one), we were soon ensconced in our super-deluxe and way-too-roomy-for-two people tent, the Leopard Tent at Mara Bushtops.

The walk up to the deck of the Leopard Tent. Spa is just a short walk off to the left and the dining lodge is to the right.

The Leopard Tend has a large living room separating two large bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

The living room and front entrance. To the left of the entrance is a bar area with a mini fridge and snacks.

It also has a huge wooden deck running along the back of it, with a dining table, built in sofa seating and a Jacuzzi tub.

Two master suites to choose from at the Leopard Tent.

The Leopard Tent is meant to accommodate a family, which it would do really well. As it was, we hardly ever went into the second bedroom or bathroom at all.

While we pretty much had Mara Bushtops to ourselves the first couple of days, a very large group of Chinese tourists were coming in on our last night and had rented out all of the other 11 tents (I guess there were no families to accommodate), so we were put in the Leopard Family Tent for our stay. Which was great, because the Leopard Tent is kinda off away from all the other tents (it’s located on the side of camp closest to the spa tents and is separated from the other tents by the main lodge/dining room/restaurant area – here’s a site plan if you really want to get into it). So even though the Chinese tourist group came in pretty hot and loud that last night, we hardly noticed.

In addition, our family tent had its own fire pit, so on our last night, we avoided the newly crowded dining room and asked to have dinner in our room. And we asked for our own campfire. Which came with its own Masai warrior/fire tender. Who I don’t seem to have a photo of. Grr.

Warrior-less campfire pit at the Leopard Tent.

As with our previous experience at Bushtops Serengeti, we use the term “tent” in the loosest sense of the word at Bushtops. These were some deluxe, luxurious digs. We had a butler (Frederick at Mara, Mustafa at Serengeti) who brought us rose wine, gin and tonics and homemade potato chips. They were also our morning alarms, bringing us coffee with Amarula (sort of like African Bailey’s) and shortbread cookies every morning at 5 am before our 5:30 game drives. They also made sure our laundry was done and returned every day and just generally took care of all our needs while we were in camp (and not out on a drive).

Best samosas in all of Africa.

We seriously, seriously loved Mara Bushtops. What set this camp apart, even from our beloved Bushtops Serengeti, is a couple of things. For one thing, Mara Bushtops is located on a conservancy of 15,000 acres bordering the Masai Mara National Park. Bushtops has a multi-year leasing agreement with the Masai Mara tribe and is the only lodge within the conservancy. So, along the edges of the conservancy, you can see a few Masai communities and the cows and goats they tend. Plus, since its on a private conservancy, you can do nighttime game drives, something that’s not allowed in the National Park (or in the Serengeti National Park, for that matter).

We saw these three teeny tiny baby bat eared foxes (and their mom) during our evening game drive at Mara Bushtops.

Second, the spa. The spa was amazing, both in terms of the quality of the services provided and in terms of all the setting and treatment rooms. We just got massages (twice) but they had other cool, state of the art treatment rooms including hydratherapy and sauna. Plus the pool area with all its fountains and different pool options including the main pool, which has fiber optic “nightsky” lighting on the bottom of it, was just breathtaking. As a spa junkie, I gotta say this one was right up there with any I’ve been to.

Entrance to the spa.

The other thing that set Mara Bushtops apart is the fact that they have a salt lick a couple of hundred feet away from the main dining deck, where all the animals come throughout the day to get some nutrients. Rather than chasing animals all over the Masai Mara, you can sit at a table and watch them all come to you. It’s a destination all on its own.

Finally, I mean, have we forgotten about Harry? Because I sure haven’t. A lodge with a friendly, resident giraffe? Sign me up again and again.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops
My best bud, Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops.

Twiga Everywhere: How We Met All of the Giraffes in Kenya and Tanzania

*Twiga is Swahili for giraffe.

The lovely and long-lashed Sir Harry was not the only giraffe we saw during our 18-day trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Not by a long shot.

We saw. So. Many. Giraffes.

All the giraffes in the Mara

Usually on safari, we see a couple of giraffes a day, if we’re lucky. They’re not as ubiquitous as say, impala or even zebras. But they’re not as scarce as let’s say a rhino (seen it – white and black) or a honey badger (seen it) or a pangolin (still have not seen it, alas).

So giraffes are certainly around and since they are my favorite (after the pangolin), I’m always excited to see them, even if they aren’t particularly elusive or rare.

The grin of a girl excited to see giraffes.

But this trip? This trip we saw all the giraffes. Like, all of them. We did a roll call and I’m pretty sure we saw every last one that could be found in the Serengeti or Masai Mara. And then some more in Nairobi, just for good measure.

We saw so many giraffes we actually learned what groups of giraffes are called: a tower is a group of giraffes standing still and a journey is a group that is on the move.

This guy is neither a tower or a journey. He’s just a giraffe.

For example, we saw a journey of about 50 giraffes on our way back to Bushtops Serengeti one evening. We had just pulled around the corner and there they were, slowly walking and grazing, completely surrounding us on both sides of the road while the sun set in the distance. We sat gobsmacked and tried to count how many there were, while they just chewed and strolled.

We also saw a tower of about 30-40 giraffes on our last game drive on the private reserve surrounding Mara Bushtops.

This group was taking a breather near a watering hole, so we got to see them bending down to take a drink from the water, which, if you’ve never seen a giraffe drink water, let me tell you: it is a nerve-wracking feat of engineering by nature. Because they are so tall and their necks are so long, giraffes have to gingerly splay their legs and carefully dip their heads down to get a drink of water. But they can’t stay in this position too long because all the blood would rush away from their hearts and to their heads. It’s an extremely delicate maneuver and the whole time they look like they’re going to tip over. Or, as this Inside Science article puts it, “defying gravity.”

Luckily, they get most of their water intake from vegetation and only need to drink water every couple of days.

During this watering hole giraffe extravaganza, we also saw some behavior that we mistook for affection but turns out to be aggressive – two giraffes rubbing their necks together. This is known as “necking” and what we saw was actually a pretty mild form of it. When it escalates, necking can include the giraffes swinging their head at each others’ necks, like fists.

Then, there was the morning we rolled up on a tiny, newly born baby giraffe that was basically born minutes before we found it in a field in the Masai Mara National Park. It was all wobbly and wet and still leaning against its mom, trying to figure out the whole nursing thing.

Before our Harry experience, this was by far my favorite moment of the whole trip. It was so beautiful and moving and fraught with worry about unseen dangers and whether the baby would survive.

Good luck, little fella.

Finally, many people know about the Instagram-famous, Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. Giraffe Manor is a gorgeous old house that has been turned into a stunning hotel where guests (rooms are steep — around $620 per person per night) can feed pellets to the dozen or so resident Rothschild giraffes, right on the grounds, through open windows in the breakfast room or out on the lawn during afternoon tea (at 5 pm). Non-guests can also come (and pay) for the high tea experience (I think it’s $50-$75 per person).

But what most people don’t know is that adjacent to Giraffe Manor is the Giraffe Center, an education and conservation site where you get to feed the exact same Rothschild giraffes for like $10 bucks. It’s open from 9 am to 5 pm and it does get pretty crowded. But the giraffes are super friendly and will do just about anything for those damn pellets, including give you a kiss.

Clearly not afraid of a little giraffe slobber.

It’s a wonderful place, even if it’s bit of a stretch to call it an education center, but the docents on the grounds handing out pellets are very nice and informative. They do, however, limit you to just a couple of handfuls of pellets, so be judicious with your pellets. I was pretty excited and gave all of mine too quickly, but one girl was nice enough to give me an extra handful as long as I promised it would be the last.

All in all, I thought we’d be there an hour, but turned out, 30 minutes was enough time to run out of pellets and get your full pet giraffe fantasies fulfilled. Plus, I had already met and hung out with Harry at Mara Bushtops and he didn’t even require any pellet payoffs. My giraffe expectations were pretty high by the time we got to the Giraffe Center.

How to Have an Amazing Birthday

My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.

  1.  Be born. Done, easy, check.
  2. (OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
  3. Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
  4. Show up and go along.
  5. Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).

birthday champagn

So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.

But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.

The only people I know of from Sri Lanka are M.I.A. (“Paper Planes,” y’all. That song is my jam.) and Pettifleur on “Real Housewives of Melbourne.” And as far as I can tell, both of those ladies are crazy hotheads who bring all the drama.

I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.

So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.

Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.

Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.

So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.

Sri Lanka temple
Nope, I do not think it’s possible to have too many unflattering pictures of yourself goofing off outside a temple in Sri Lanka.