The eastern edge of Victoria Falls. As you move just slightly further up the falls the mist overwhelms you, so this was pretty much all we could see from the Zambian side.

From Johannesburg it was a reasonably quick and easy flight up to Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls. I’d been here back in 2003 and thus knew a little of what to expect but for Mark this was all new. And exciting. Victoria Falls is truly one of the wonders of the world.

Known to locals as Mosi-ao-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”, Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi river at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. (That sentence may have more “z”s than any I’ve ever written….) It is neither the tallest waterfall in the world (Angel Falls in Venezuela) nor the widest (Iguazu Falls, at the border of Argentina and Brazil). By many, however, it is considered the largest waterfall in the world based on the combined width – slightly over a mile wide – and height of 360 feet, creating the largest sheet of falling water. To put it in context, it is just about twice the width and twice the height of Niagara Falls.

This is an aerial photo of the falls during the dry season that I snagged of Wikipedia. It shows why you need to see the falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides. Needless to say, during our May visit there was massively more water flowing, meaning we could only see a tiny portion of the full extent of the falls.

As I discovered, your experience with Victoria Falls will vary considerably based on the time of year you come. The rainy period for the broad plateau of upstream Zambezi River runs from about December through early April; at the end of that period the amount of water running over the falls is massive. I’d last been here well into the dry season; there was still plenty of water flowing, but you could still see the falls reasonably well. This visit in mid-May, though, at the end of the rainy season, was pretty much near the very peak of water flow. As a result the mist that blows up from all that water crashing around was also massive. So much, in fact, that for most of the long width of the falls you really couldn’t see anything; you were standing in what was either a steady, heavy mist or – depending on the air currents and all that – what felt like a torrential downpour.

Not as great a view, then, but still a stunning physical experience, just all that water and mist and power.

That’s me up there in what was effectively a heavy downpour. As you might be able to tell, even though you’re very close to the falls you can’t see anything. You can hear the roar of the falls but you can’t see them.

To see Victoria Falls properly, you need a day on each side of the border. From Zambia you can see maybe a third of the falls while in Zimbabwe you can see the other two-thirds. Given the luxury of time that we have, we scheduled two days in each: one day to arrive, then a full day to hike around the falls. That ended up working great for us; in theory we could have done it in less time but this way we had plenty of time without feeling rushed.

The falls, obviously, are the main attraction but there are plenty of other things to do around Livingstone on the Zambia side and the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We did a sunset cruise up the Zambezi river from Livingstone which was pleasant enough. For the bold there is a bungee jump on the bridge that spans the Zambezi, connecting Zambia & Zimbabwe, but we’re not quite that adventurous anymore. There is, after all, a YouTube video of a woman whose cord broke while bungee jumping there. She survived, but still, you would hesitate a bit before giving that a try. Beyond that you can take helicopter tours, go rafting below the falls, go horseback riding, and lots else. For us, the hikes along both sides of the border and the evening cruise were enough.

Sunset on the Zambezi River

As for food, who knew you could find a really good Indian restaurant in Livingstone? Or an acceptable Thai restaurant in Victoria Falls? That helped. Finding a SIM card in Zambia was a challenge until someone pointed us to a guy sitting on the sidewalk; for a couple bucks, then, we had Internet access.

Two more strange things to note about Zimbabwe. There’s been a lot of political turmoil here of late, with long-time ruler Robert Mugabe having been forced out of office in late 2017. The country seems perfectly safe these days, with national elections scheduled in the next few months. The one implication that we’ve seen from all this is that there is, for all intents and purposes, no cash in the country. Zimbabwe uses the U.S. dollar as its primary currency and there’s … none. This is the only time in many years of travel that we go to an ATM and there’s just nothing. You put in your card and the only option you get is to check your balance. No cash. Fortunately we’ve been carrying U.S. cash since we started this adventure so we have enough but otherwise we’d be up a creek.

Walking along these paths the lack of cash didn’t seem so terrible

And then there is the issue of overland transfers. From Victoria Falls we’re headed southeast to Matobo National Park, about 300 miles southeast. There is only one flight a week and not at all at a good time for us so we figured we could hire a driver. The prices our lodge in Matobo were quoting while we were doing the planning were seriously excessive so we figured we would arrange something when we arrived in Zimbabwe. The first travel company we went to made a few calls and then quoted us $3,000 USD. For a 300-mile drive! Another place quoted $900. A guy recommended by our hotel started at $500 before reaching his lowest price of $400. We finally got someone to drive us for $350 but even that doesn’t make sense. Zimbabwe is the poorest country we have ever been in. Unemployment is high, gas prices are normal, and people are desperate for cash. The inability to find a reasonable price for a car and driver is baffling.

The view from the far western section of the falls in Zimbabwe. Again, as on the Zambian side, once you moved just a little further down the path you lost sight of the falls entirely as you were buried in the mist.

Devil’s Cataract in Zimbabwe

Our hotel in Zambia provided us with rain ponchos which were pretty useful. That’s Mark with the stunning falls behind him. Really, they’re right there.

Just a bit upstream from the falls in Zambia

You could see rainbows everywhere

Everywhere

The rainbows practically surrounded you

That’s the bridge that connects Zambia to Zimbabwe (and the bridge from which those more adventurous than us would bungee jump). I love the way it looks as though the rainbow is part of the infrastructure.

On the Zambian side you could hike down to the water’s edge below the falls. The bridge was part of Cecil Rhodes’ dream of an overland train route from Cairo to Cape Town. He wanted it placed just there so travelers could see the falls and even feel the mist.

One of the stranger signs we’ve seen. It’s in English but we still have no idea what it meant.

A comfy little resting spot at the very edge of the Zimbabwean tour

Cruising upstream on the Zambezi

Relaxing on the cruise

One of the crew members

A big old crocodile sunning himself on the shore

And finally, our lunch stop in Zimbabwe. A pretty nice view of the river, with that Zambian peninsula jutting out and the bridge in the background.

The highlight of our stay in Johannesburg was our little 10-room lodge in the Rosebank neighborhood, Ten Bompas. Fireplace, separate living room, free wine and even liquor in the room, lovely pool and outdoor area, great food. That’s enough to make me want to go back even if the rest of the city is boring.

From New York it was the commute from hell to Johannesburg, South Africa. The route consisted of a 10-hour overnight flight to São Paulo, Brazil, an eight-hour layover, and then an eight-hour overnight flight to Jo-burg, as it is known. Yeah, two nights in a row without a bed, followed by some serious jet-lag. Oh, and I managed to catch a cold in the process (probably related to the lack of sleep) so our short stay here was less than ideal.

It’s worth saying that we love South Africa, but we explored it pretty well back in 2000 and I did a couple work trips to Cape Town in 2003 and 2004. So instead of revisiting places we like, especially Cape Town, we planned just a short stop in Jo-burg before moving off to new adventures into deeper Africa.

Neither of us have spent any measurable time in Jo-burg, apparently for good cause. As much as we love the rest of South Africa I’ve never heard anyone say a good word about the tourism experience here. It’s allegedly a good place to live if you need to do business in South Africa and don’t mind living in a secure, gated community in constant fear of crime but for a tourist there’s not much.

The view from lunch on arrival at Ten Bompas. That little couch at the end of the pool with the red pillows was my home the two afternoons we spent there. Heavenly.

One amusing thing to note about Jo-burg: it’s fall here, and it even feels a bit autumnal. What’s cool is that just two months ago we were experiencing winter in Duluth. Then we had spring in Nashville & Atlanta, followed by summer in Miami Beach and Key West. Back to spring in Boston and New York, and now fall in South Africa. We’ve managed all four seasons in just two months!

We did one half-day excursion, hiring a driver/guide to take us to Soweto, the famous black township near Johannesburg that was the scene of student anti-apartheid uprisings in the 1970s. We were surprised by how relatively middle class it seemed, at least the part our guide took us through. In contrast he’d also driven us through downtown Jo-burg which really seems like a deserted, crime- and drug-infested hell hole. Mark asked our driver – a black native South African – if he would be comfortable walking in downtown; he quickly said no.

At any rate, there were two sites to visit in Soweto (short for SouthWestern Townships), a big Apartheid Museum and a much smaller museum consisting of a house that Nelson Mandela lived in for some time and that his wife Winnie kept during his decades in prison. The Apartheid Museum was well done and really interesting. There was a special, temporary exhibit on the life of Nelson Mandela where I spent most of our two-and-a-half hour stop, while Mark focused on the permanent apartheid section. Both were comprehensive, interesting, informative … everything you would want in a history museum. In fact, given that I did one section while Mark did another we could have spent a few more hours there if we’d had the stamina.

Mark standing at the entrance to the Mandela family’s home in Soweto. It was tiny but remained a focal point for the resistance.

The Mandela House, focused on a tiny house in Soweto where Mandela moved in 1946, was a much quicker visit. A local guide there was supposed to show us around but, to put it mildly, she was a terrible guide. Just a monotone “In 1952 blah blah blah. In 1961 blah blah blah.” Everything we hate about most guides except this one was just remarkably bad. After a few minutes I asked if we could just walk around ourselves and read the descriptions on display and that worked at least a little better.

Otherwise there is not much to say about a short stay in Jo-burg. Nice hotels are in secure upscale white neighborhoods. White people live in gated white communities and go to upscale restaurants where everyone else is white and being served by black staff. You don’t walk anywhere, lest you become a crime victim. I’m sure this is an improvement over apartheid but it is still more than a little discouraging. On the other hand on our second night we went to a nice, upscale restaurant where the clientele was almost entirely black and the servers were mixed, perhaps even mostly white. Something to be encouraged by.

From here we hop a quick flight up to Livingstone, Zambia, to view Victoria Falls. That should put us in an African state of mind!

When they say Nelson Mandela was a larger-than-life figure, they aren’t kidding!

One of the riot control vehicles used against students in the 1970s. They weren’t messing around.

Today’s students come to these sites on guided tours. When I saw those purple school uniforms I thought I should have gone there!

On a hill overlooking Johannesburg. Nothing that interesting about the picture, but that pretty much captures my thoughts on Johannesburg itself.

The highlight of our stay, though, was Ten Bompas. Beautiful little hotel with great food, including these two main course dishes from lunch.

Mary Beth has become a very special friend. She was a close friend of Mark’s in college but I’ve only gotten to know her well in the last couple of years. On top of this visit through Central Park she & Sven had us out to dinner at their house in the ‘burbs twice. That alone is a good reason to move to New York!

Two weeks in New York City – it sounds like a dream come true. And that’s pretty much what it was; we loved our time there. Great food, great friends, great neighborhoods, great parks, great weather (some of the time), and, as befits Manhattan, great Perfect Manhattans.

All of which is a good thing, as we’re pretty serious now about buying a place there later in the year. We’re pretty much booked solid until early September – 10 or 11 weeks in Africa and then six weeks in Europe – but after that it feels increasingly likely that we will go back to New York and start looking seriously for a place to buy.

Why New York? This shot of Central Park on a perfect spring morning is one good answer.

First we had to get to New York from Boston, so naturally we bought tickets on Acela, the “high-speed” train up the northeast corridor. There was part of the trip that impressed me: the train left exactly on time and was pretty comfortable. I had been expecting the worst, so that was a good sign. The crazy thing about it, though, is that while the train is capable of going up to maybe 180 miles per hour, it only hits that speed briefly. And as you start to get near New York it just crawls, for something like an hour or so. This is the best we can do in the U.S. for high-speed rail and in that sense it’s pathetic.

These two-plus months we’ve spent in the States have made it clear to both of us that we’re ready to be closer to family and friends and ready to slow down the travel. We’ve both noticed over the last year or so that some of the magic has gone out of traveling; that we’re just not as excited about the next new adventure, that we’re more likely to be lazy in a new place than to go out and explore. And if you’re going to have a home in the U.S., wouldn’t it just have to be in Manhattan? After you’ve seen the world, anywhere else just feels a bit boring.

Thus we spent a big chunk of our two weeks working with a real estate agent to figure out what we like, what we need, what we can afford, and – crucially – what neighborhood or neighborhoods we want to live in. Going into this exercise I had assumed that we were wide open in terms of location, anything from Tribeca or even Battery Park in the south to the Upper West Side or Upper East Side in the North. After doing some serious explorations we came to realize that Tribeca is just too far south and the Upper East & West Sides, even Midtown, are just too far north. Now we’re much more focused on Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and the Flatiron district. Downtown, but not way downtown. That’s important to figure out.

That’s me with Mara, our real estate agent, in the master bathroom of one unit we looked at. You can see from the raincoats that the spring weather in New York isn’t always perfect.

I should note that working with a real estate agent in New York is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. First of all, your tour is a walking tour. None of this driving around from property to property; the agent identifies eight or nine properties in one area and you hoof from one to the next. Given New York traffic, of course, that makes perfect sense; there’s no way you could reasonably drive around and it would be utterly impossible to park if you did. And on top of that, the agents know everything about the neighborhood, the history, the building, and even some of the other owners. Our agent was recommended by a friend in Miami Beach who is also a real estate agent and, it turns out, Mara knows pretty much everything you could ever know about real estate in these neighborhoods. We would mention some property that we’d seen online and she would immediately explain why that one wouldn’t work for us. And now that she’s got us figured out she will spend her summer finding our dream home while we’re traipsing around Africa and Europe. Not a bad deal!

Besides house hunting, it goes without saying that there’s a lot to do in New York. First of all we walked. And walked and walked and walked. And walked. My Apple Watch tracks steps you take and translates that into distance; over the 14 days we were there I walked just over 170 miles, so well over 12 miles a day. Much of the purpose for that walking was to figure out the city, where the neighborhoods and “feel” of the city change, and all that. But then there was also long walks along the Hudson River parkway, walks up into and through Central Parks, walks to dinner, walks over both the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. So yeah, walking and walking and walking.

Walking in New York in May means lots and lots of blooms. The weather can be cold and dreary but when the sun comes out and the blossoms open up it can be glorious.

Then there’s the whole business of finding the right hotel. Mark does a lot of research on this stuff and given the insane prices of New York hotels we chose the Algonquin, a classic old Manhattan landmark up near the theater district that was less crazy expensive than others. There were only a few problems with it. The location was wrong for us, as we increasingly realized we didn’t want to be that far north. On top of that the hotel was pretty run down, very much tattered around the edges. The windows in our room were simply the dirtiest windows I’ve ever seen in my life. One of the two elevators was shut down for repairs the entire time we were there, meaning that everyone – staff included – was limited to a single elevator; waiting times were sometimes significant. And that was before Mark got up early on our fourth morning to go down for coffee and discovered that the remaining elevator was out of order, too. So there we are on the 12th floor – the top floor – with no working elevator whatsoever.

Actually, it was a blessing; there was no way the hotel management could deny our request to cancel the remainder of our reservation and move to a new hotel. This time we moved way downtown to Public, a new and very buzzy hotel developed by Ian Schrager in the Lower East Side, right near Soho. Much nicer but not really worth the money we were paying and this time too far south. In this case we only reserved four nights and then decided to move up to the W Hotel at Union Square, and that turned out to be perfect. Nice hotel and great location; I really loved being right next to Union Square, so it was just what we needed. And as a bonus on our last day there, just before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Africa, there was a big union rally at Union Square. And as we walked past it I looked up and realized that just then the speaker was no less than Gov. Cuomo. I’m not his biggest fan but I kind of worshipped his father, so it was still pretty cool.

Wayne Brady, the star of Kinky Boots, after finishing his last performance. And we were right in the front row to drink it all in.

And there are shows to go to. On our first night in the city we had dinner with our old graduate school classmate Ajay and his family. Ajay is a native New Yorker and knows pretty much everything that’s going on; he suggested we go to Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. But, he noted, we had to go soon because after a couple years the lead, Wayne Brady, was ending his run. We got tickets for two nights later and there we were in the front row for his very last performance. It was a great performance and you could easily see why it would win a Tony. A week later, this time at the suggestion of Mary Beth, we got tickets to The Play that Goes Wrong. This was a crazy slapstick comedy that normally wouldn’t be the right cup of tea for either of us but it was genuinely a riot. As Mark put it, the sillier it got the funnier it was. After those two experiences our thought was that once we move here (if we move here…) we’re going to see a lot of plays.

Mary Beth and Sven invited us to a dinner party for 12 out in New Rochelle. Sven in particular is a genuinely accomplished chef and the meal was incredible. Here he is building the salad course plate by plate, literally one piece of lettuce at a time. Wow.

And on top of all that lots and lots of friends. Dinner parties out in New Rochelle with our friends Mary Beth and Sven, with whom we’ve spent time in Italy. Lunch and dinner and walks with Ajay and Ann and little Lucia. Dinner in Brooklyn with Monica and Esha, two former VAN staffers both of whom now work for a nonprofit that was holding an all-staff meeting there. Another dinner in Brooklyn with an old friend from my tax policy days. After dinner drinks with our friend Dan, also in town for work. Dinner and drinks with Les, an old friend of Mark’s from college. Even a quick photo op with a friend/former staffer who I just ran into in Central Park, the first time in five-plus years on the road when we’ve just run into someone unexpectedly. When we first started talking about getting a permanent home again I suggested that we move to someplace where we have family or friends: DC, Boston, Minnesota, Michigan. Maybe even San Francisco. Mark explained that if we have a place in New York people would come to us and this two-week social whirlwind suggests maybe he’s right.

Apropos of nothing in particular, you always need a cat picture, right? She was the house cat at the Algonquin Hotel, our first stay, and the only redeeming quality of the hotel.

Two strange observations about New York City. First, while it’s known as “the city that doesn’t sleep,” we were more likely to think of it as the city that doesn’t get up. For most of our stay breakfast wasn’t included with our room so we’d go out hunting for breakfast. Not crazy early but like 8:00 AM or a little later. We’d seen one restaurant at night that advertised breakfast so we went there only to discover they don’t open until 9:00. For breakfast! Another restaurant was supposed to open at 8:00 but when we got there at 8:05 they explained they wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes “or so.” Crazy.

And then there’s this thing where at least some of the hotels seem to be making their lobbies into hangout lounges for college-age kids and their laptops. We saw it first at the Ace Hotel where we had lunch; the lobby was just packed with kids, coffee, and laptops. Later, when we checked into Public for four nights the lobby was again a lively, buzzing place. I can’t believe that many 20-somethings were shelling out that kind of money for a hotel. But I suppose from the hotel’s perspective if you take what is usually a big empty space and fill it with life – and sell some coffee on the side – that’s not a bad thing.

So now we’re done with the States for a few months at least. First Africa, then Europe. I think it will feel good to go somewhere exotic again. And if Africa isn’t exotic, nothing is.

Time with friends: out to dinner with Ajay & Lucia on our first night in New York

Later in the week we walked across the Williamsburg Bridge with Ajay, mostly just because walking in New York is so cool

Dinner in Brooklyn one night with Esha, who had a great run working at NGP VAN until just recently she took a new position

We didn’t get all four of us in one picture, but Monica – another former staffer – was there for dinner too. Neither Esha nor Monica live in New York – they were in town for a work meeting – but as Mark assures me, if you live in New York you’ll see your old friends because everyone comes through at one point or another.

Speaking of old friends, I was walking through Central Park and heard someone call my name. At first I almost didn’t recognize Benjy; when we hired him some years ago he was too young to drink legally and now he’s all grown up with a beard and everything. And yes, after five years on the road this was the first time outside of Boston that we just randomly ran into someone from our old life!

One night we learned that our friend Dan was in town for work, so we met him at the Blue Bar for a late after-dinner drink. Can’t for the life of me figure out why it was called the Blue Bar.

But no, this wasn’t called the Red Bar. That’s another old college friend, Les, who has lived here for nearly 30 years. It would be great to live near him, too.

One last fun friend to visit. Jennifer is another NGP VAN staff, a woman I hired more than 10 years ago. These days she lives on Long Island and works remotely, so she came into town on Saturday for brunch with us.

Looking for property was our top priority so when we just happened on this building it got our hearts racing. A boarded up building suggest someone is going to renovate it, we thought. That’s our perfect scenario where we can get in at the start, as we did in Cambridge, and design our own space. I suspect there aren’t a lot of people who would walk past this and say “My dream house!”, but that’s what we’re looking for. Sadly, Mara said that it’s highly likely a developer has air rights for this and the neighboring building (also boarded up); they’re likely planning to tear it down and put up a big glass building in its place.

We also toured a couple of those big towers that are still under construction. Again, the opportunity to design our own space in something like this is pretty appealing, too.

This was one of our favorites, a good-sized unit in a classic old department store building. If we were ready to pull the trigger (we’re not) it would have been really tempting to put an offer on this one, the top floor on the right, including that turret as a great sitting room.

One more of our favorites. This was a nice unit on 5th Avenue down in the Flatiron district. High ceilings, tall windows, on a corner so lots of windows. And if that wasn’t enough, immediately above a Banana Republic!

Yet another unit we looked at had this great view of a very French building right across the street. This would be the view from the bathtub!

There are lots of townhouses available and while we’re not likely to want one – we’re not crazy about that kind of vertical living – we toured this one. Someone already has all the plans to turn this into something fabulous, including making this into a roof deck. That’s Mara, our real estate agent, poking her head up into the space.

Admiring the classic architecture is always a highlight of New York. Here we, have the Flatiron Building, One World Trade Center (sometimes known as Freedom Tower), and the Empire State Building.

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Among other works, we’ve enjoyed, even been amazed by, his Turning Torso in Malmö and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.

Hudson Yards isn’t yet a New York landmark, but it will be. It’s a massive development $20 billion project at the end of the High Line (our favorite elevated park outside of Paris) that will add 16 skyscrapers and nearly 13 million square feet of office, retail, and residential space to the city. Wow.

Speaking of landmarks, here we are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge for dinner over there with our friend Jean

Then I turned around and Mark took this shot with the downtown skyline behind me

Speaking of the High Line, we walked on it a couple of times during our stay. This is the very beginning, approaching the Standard hotel. While the building is really not aging well, the High Line certainly is. The trees and plantings and flowers and all are so much bigger and more lush than they were when we first saw it maybe eight years ago.

Another shot on the High Line, here with Hudson Yards looming

One more shot from the High Line. This is a new residential project by Zaha Hadid, a Iraqi-British architect who died two years ago. The building is cool, but a number of the units just open up right next to the High Line. Not a place for someone who likes a little bit of privacy.

Along with the High Line and Central Park I’ve come to love a great bicycle and pedestrian parkway along the Hudson River. It runs from Battery Park at the very southern tip of Manhattan a long way up the west side of the island. Here I am on a gorgeous spring afternoon lying on Pier 45, and old work space they’ve turned into a thriving park.

Mark showing off some of the cherry blossoms bursting out

I was dressed perhaps somewhat more appropriately to show off another cherry tree

Here Mark is sitting at Piccolo Cucina, a Soho restaurant that TripAdvisor made sound good. Instead it was great – a perfect afternoon when we got there at exactly the right second to get one of only two outdoor tables. And half the people around us were speaking Italian, making it feel pretty authentic. On top of all that I just loved the view of those very New York buildings behind him.

A week after the big dinner party Sven & Mary Beth invited us out for a quiet family dinner of lamb burgers. Always the chef, Sven insists on grinding leg of lamb himself since nothing else would do, of course.

Mary Beth came into the city one afternoon just to play with us

One walk took me through Chinatown. The whole street scene and all that really felt like I was in China.

Chinatown has almost completely swallowed up Little Italy (the Italians moved to the suburbs). Perhaps you have to have spent time around all the spitting in China to appreciate this sign on Columbus Park.