Shoeless In South Africa

Here at ROI, we love doing awesome stuff inside and outside the office— living life to its fullest. Our rock star Production Director, Tina Ashkouri, her son, Justin, and husband, Mike, celebrated New Year’s in South Africa. We sat down with Tina to learn more about her adventure!

On your trip to South Africa, where did you go? What did you do?

We flew in to Johannesburg, but we actually visited Pretoria. We were there for eight days and seven nights, total. It’s a very long flight, but it’s worth it once you get there. This time we happened to fly through Dubai, so that was a new and interesting city to transition through. Not that we saw the city, but just even seeing the airport was interesting and good for Justin culturally to see. Something different than Atlanta, which is where we normally fly through.

What would be the highlight of the trip, for you. If there was one moment you could freeze in time, what would it be?

We’ve been fortunate enough to visit South Africa before— this was our third trip. There is a tremendous amount to do there.  For me the highlight is always seeing the animals. Seeing them in the wild. Seeing them uninhibited by man. We’re all there photographing them, so I suppose in some sense we’re impeding, but to see any living creature — especially those you would see at a zoo — like a rhino, an elephant, giraffe… to see them walking across the African savannah, is incredible. There’s nothing that tops that for me.

Second to that would be the people of South Africa. The Africans and the Afrikaners… apartheid was a huge issue there for years and years, so it’s still very much a fresh thing for them, but the people there are just really warm and friendly.

Animals were your highlight— did you have a crazy animal experience?

One really cool thing that we saw was six white rhinos — and these are massive rhinos — all within ten feet of each other at this one nature reserve. You can’t even capture that in a picture.  You can, but it’s not the same as sitting there and watching them just eating grass and hanging out. They don’t have full horns because they are removed so they aren’t killed by poachers but they are still magnificent.  Some places, like Kruger National Park and Pilanesberg National Park, don’t remove the horns, and we did see a mama and baby at Pilanesberg and the mother had her full horn. They’re quite spectacular.

On a previous trip we did have a young bull elephant try to let us know he wasn’t happy that we were near him, and that was pretty crazy. That’s probably the craziest experience that we’ve had on our trips there. He was trumpeting at us and getting on his back legs, and our driver revved his engine to make him aware that we are louder and bigger, but yea he wasn’t happy with us.

If that was the craziest, what was the weirdest thing you saw, or experienced?

This isn’t what you’re expecting, but it was really weird to me.  They have really huge shopping malls there. We went there a couple times, for example to see a movie. It’s very common for little kids to run around without shoes on. Like not just on a playground, or at the pool… but at a shopping mall. They’re just walking around without shoes. And these aren’t poor kids that can’t afford shoes. To me it was just odd, but culturally that’s how they do it. It’s not uncommon... it’s like being at Tyson’s Corner and the kids are running around without shoes on.

Sticking with cultural differences, what were some others that you noticed?

What stays with me more, and impacts me on a deeper lever when I’m there, is you always see a lot of people begging for money.  You have people on street corners, and it’s not different necessarily from something you might see in D.C., but it’s not unusual for someone to try and help you back your car out of a parking lot, or help you park, or watch over your car, or let you know where there is a space. Some will even wash your car right in your parking space! And at pretty much every turn and at every light, there are people begging for money or food.  So my heart is always with those that are less fortunate, and certainly with the homeless, especially in this area. This always strikes me when I’m in South Africa. Also seeing the shanty-towns is eye opening. Seeing homes that people build out of whatever they can get their hands on is very sad.

Were there any traditions or insights that you brought back with you from your trip?

We did more local outings this time around. We went on a big hike one day. We did a cool horseback safari— things that were all just a couple hours away from Pretoria. On a previous trip we were fortunate enough to go to Kruger National Park. They had cultural dancing there at the lodge we stayed at for two of the nights we were there. That was cool to see, because these are people that actually are from the local tribes that come to work at the lodges. That was really fun to watch, and they actually got Justin and Mike up and got them dancing a bit.

Coolest food you ate.

I had one of the best steaks out of my entire life while we were there. South Africa is a very meat-happy country… they love meat. We also had some really good South African wine. They’re known for good wines.

Is there any art, design or advertising that stuck out to you? Drew your attention?

Some of the wording they use is different. Kind of like if you’re in England and they say lift instead of elevator. There — and this catches my eye in more of a funny way — if they want to tell you that something is available to lease, they say, “to let”. But every time I see it, visually I think, “toilet”. So that’s humorous to me.

They do have some billboards over there, but it’s not as dense as over here. In some places over here, that’s all you see— one after another, after another.

Their money is really cool (it’s called Rand). It’s got Mandela on one side and different animals on the other, depending on the denomination.

Laugh out loud moment.

We were watching a peaceful group of impala, and one of them was looking at us and checking us out. All of a sudden he squatted down, and started taking a crap. I would’ve put that a little more nicely of course, but it’s funny, because animals are like, “whatever— this is what we do”.

Movie you watched on your flight.

You mean, movies— plural? It’s a long flight. I watched Annabelle, The Calling, A Walk Among The Tombstones, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (never getting those two hours back).

Creature comfort you missed the most while away.

My pillow. The pillows we had were fine, but they’re not MY pillow.

How I/my family surprised myself/ourselves on this trip.

We did an extremely strenuous hike. I almost cried three different times, while trying to complete this hike up a mountain. I’m not this super-active person, but I’m relatively in shape, and Justin and I go hiking quite a bit. The trail was Shelter Rock on the Magaliesberg Mountains. It was amazingly beautiful and I’m so glad we did it, but it almost killed me. You’re already above sea level where we were, so you’re going up to this higher altitude— it was really hard to breath once you got moving and going up the mountain. And it’s hot. It was summer there. We’ve done hikes here like Old Rag —which is a pretty tough hike — and it was nothing compared to this one. So when we got to the top, and we got to stop and spend some time just taking it all in, it ended up being worth every minute of what I went through.

What would you do again, or like to do that you missed? What would you recommend to someone traveling to for the first time?

There are so many things to do and see, and if you like doing outdoor activities and you like animals then South Africa is it. You could spend two to three weeks there and not even come close to experiencing everything there is to do there.

What I would highly recommend to someone visiting for the first time is Kruger National Park. Hire a safari company to take you out. The thing I’ve found with the guides is that they can communicate with each other, so that if someone sees a pack of lions or sees something really cool, they tell each other. The last time we went, the guides moved us really quickly over to where there were two male lions, which was really cool. When you drive yourself around without a guide you still see a lot of great things, but you don’t have that extra advantage of getting the inside scoop. Plus the guides know the area.

It is a beautiful country. The weather, generally speaking is pretty temperate, and it’s a comfortable climate. It does get hot in the summer, and they do have their rainy season. You wouldn’t want to go during that time because they have these massive thunderstorms like I’ve never seen before, and I grew up in Texas but these storms are incredible. Last time we were there, hail was coming down almost the size of golf balls.

I also recommend Cape Town. We’ll actually be going there next time we go to visit. It’s where Mandela was imprisoned for many years, and there are wild penguins there and so many other great things.

Isn’t it too hot for penguins in Africa?

Not for these — nope. They live on the beaches there. It’s pretty crazy. Oh, and they’re called the jackass penguin.

They also have cage-diving with great white sharks, which we will also be doing. It will be intense, but, you’re in a cage… obviously.  So I’m excited about it.