Archive for July, 2008

Views of the town of Split, Croatia
Realizing that you’re in the midst of one of the best experiences of your life always feels pretty strange.  Although such a sensation is usually reserved for big, life-changing events–your wedding day, the birth of your child, etc.–I found it a little while ago aboard a yacht named Jolly.
Scenes from our tour of Diocletian's Palace, completed around 300 A.D.
Yup, I was on a yacht.  Here’s how it happened: Todd, Heather, Derek and I arrived in Split, Croatia and, after an amazing couple of hours spent exploring Diocletian’s Palace–which was built in 305 A.D. (!?!) by a Roman emperor who planned to use it as his retirement home–we found ourselves in need of a plan for the next few days.  Todd mentioned that he’d read that it was possible to charter a yacht for a few days and island-hop among Croatia’s gems in the Adriatic Sea.  Although each of us was certain that such a luxury was far beyond our budgetary reach, we set off to check it out anyway.  The day was sunny and hot, and the pull of the marina, with its turquoise water and its rows of sparkling boats, was irresistible.
The Jolly
Upon our arrival at the marina, we confirmed our earlier expectations that–no kidding–renting a yacht was expensive.  We set to work applying negotiating skills that would make our respective law schools proud, and we met with some success (mainly because it was a truly last-minute rental).  We researched all kinds of options.  We hemmed and hawed.  We vacillated.  And then we saw the Jolly.

We fell immediately in love.  A 47-footer she was, and only a couple of years old.  She offered all kinds of space in which to lounge and–we were all certain–to have the best time of our lives.  We couldn’t help ourselves; we hired a skipper named Damir and signed on the dotted line.
Scenes from our short stop on HvarAnd so there I was, book in hand, lying on the front of a yacht in the Adriatic.  When we got hot, we dropped anchor and swam in the sun-drenched sea.  Later, we docked at a small island named Vis and made our way, per Damir’s advice, to a small, family-run vineyard in the middle of the island.  We feasted on fresh fish and lamb and returned to the Jolly to be lulled to sleep by gentle waves.

The next morning, I went for a run (my favorite way to explore a new place) and realized that the town in which we’d docked, which was also called Vis, was even more idyllic than I’d previously imagined.  Inspired, I set off, camera in hand, to capture some of what I’d seen.  I happened upon a produce stand where fresh figs were sold (delicious! and impossible to find at home…) and returned to the boat to eat them alongside some incredible cheese that Derek had procured.  Soon thereafter, we set sail for another part of Vis, a small town called Komiza.  The whole thing felt like a scene from a movie.  It also felt like utopia.
Scenes from the town of Vis
From there, things went slightly downhill, primarily due to Damir’s abject laziness and to some rather uncooperative weather.  Seemingly deaf to our repeated requests to please use the sails (first of all, because we were on a sailboat and wanted to experience it in its full glory and, second, because gas is even more expensive in Europe than it is at home) and to drop anchor at some of the delightful-looking coves that we were whizzing past, he motored from one port to another without so much as a moment’s pause.  On our third day aboard the Jolly, he told us that it was too windy to move the boat at all.  What could we do?  We gave up our dreams of spending the evening in Hvar (a nearby island that is famous for its nightlife) and instead rented scooters and explored Vis.  Exhibiting brattiness befitting someone aboard a yacht, I whined to Derek that, “it’s not called island-hopping if we stay on the same island the whole time.”  It wasn’t my proudest moment.

As it turns out, we were able to spent a little time on Hvar on our fourth and final day at sea.  We wandered its cobblestone streets for a couple of hours and paused for a snack in a sidewalk cafe.  By the time we docked back in Split, we were sun-burned, exhausted and happy.

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Google Video

For a country that has only been around since 1993, the Czech Republic has a fascinating history, and one that’s full of interesting phrases…
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When Czechoslovakia turned Communist in 1948, scores of non-believers were violently oppressed and imprisoned.  Twenty years later, during a 1968 movement known as the Prague Spring, it adopted a milder version of communism, which it described as “socialism with a human face.”  Unhappy with this development, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia later that year, and the communist reins tightened, only to be dissolved entirely when democracy came to the country in 1989 after a non-violent uprising known as the Velvet Revolution.  Four years later, in 1993, Czechoslovakia split in two; one part became Slovakia, the other the Czech Republic.  For its part, the Czech Republic has managed to attract hordes of tourists from all over the world, and we can see why.
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Our first stop in the Czech Republic was Karlovy Vary, a town famous both for its spas (the sulphurous springs that run beneath the city are said to have healing powers) and for its annual film festival.  We never made it to the spas, but we did arrive in Karlovy Vary just in time to check out the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.  We’d read that we didn’t need to purchase tickets to the various movies showing at the festival in advance but, instead, could procure them upon our arrival.  We’d read wrong.
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We got to the box office in time to find out that every movie being shown that day (i.e., our only day in town) was completely sold out.  If we were to make it into any movie that day, explained the ticket guy, we’d have to camp out in front of the theater at least an hour before showtime and hope for the best.  So that’s what we did, joining the throngs of other would-be movie-goers who also had neglected to purchase tickets in advance.  We waited in line for three movies and made it into only one, and that was by the skin of our teeth.  The movie we did see was called Man on Wire (see trailer HERE), about a French tight-rope walker who, among other things, snuck into the World Trade Center in 1974, strung a rope between the twin towers and then walked between them, high above Manhattan, for 45 minutes.  It was so good that it made the wait entirely worthwhile.
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Leaving Karlovy Vary, we made our way to Prague.  We’d heard great things about the city, and it appeared that millions of other travelers had, too–the city was jam-packed with tourists.  (How odd it feels to be someplace during the high season; that’s (intentionally) pretty rare for us.)  Happily, a few of those tourists were dear friends of ours from Nashville, Howard and Elizabeth Lamar and Heather and Todd Rolapp.  We had only one night with the Lamars, but the Rolapps would be with us for the next week or so.
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Together, we wandered through Prague’s old town square.  The square is dominated by a clock tower from which, every hour on the hour, a parade of apostle figurines and a bell-ringing skeleton emerge, much to the delight of the hordes of onlookers.  We also met up with an opera-singer-turned-tour-guide named Josef.  Josef led us through Prague’s streets and shared with us stories of life under communism.  (“People had to wait in line for hours to buy meat,” he said.)  He told us of the glorious days when democracy finally came to his country: “Thousands of people took to the streets, shaking their keys; it was their way of ‘ringing the bell’ on communism.”
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Derek and I also wandered over the Charles Bridge (a must-do in Prague) and made our way up to the Prague Castle.  The biggest castle complex in the world, it is the seat of Czech power, playing home to both the president’s office and the ancient Bohemian crown jewels.  (A side note: The ancient land of Bohemia makes up the western two-thirds of today’s Czech Republic.  The term “bohemian” comes from the French, who thought that Roma gypsies, who actually have origins in India, came from Bohemia.  Today, the label “bohemian” is often applied to anyone living an unconventional lifestyle.)  While at the castle, we watched the changing of the guard, meandered through the astounding St. Vitus Cathedral, with its spectacular stained-glass windows, and explored the Old Royal Palace, which was full of elegantly vaulted ceilings and offered incredible views over Prague.  All too soon, it was time to say farewell to the Lamars and to Prague and to climb back into the Peugeot for the 12-hour drive to Split, Croatia.

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After fueling up our car (See Note re: Gas Prices below), we crossed the border out of Luxembourg and into Germany.  While many visitors to Germany focus on the larger cities, mainly Munich and Berlin, we decided to spend our few days in the country in the smaller villages and cities in the southern region of the country.  We followed small country roads in the southwestern part of Germany that passed through villages that seemed to have changed very little over the past hundred years, with names that didn’t make our guidebook or our map.

We then drove down the Rhine Route, a small road heavily promoted by the German tourist board that follows the Rhine river south for a couple of hours. While the drive brought up fond memories of a Rhine river cruise I did during a mad-dash tour of Europe in 1993, the scenery was somewhat disappointing because the river was full of tourist boats and the supposedly quaint towns along the way were far from quaint, with the streets full of gift shops selling “authentic” German wares lovingly made in China.
View of Heidelberg from Castle of Heidelberg
Heidelberg was our next stop, though, and it turned out to be gorgeous.  Home to the oldest (founded in 1387) and arguably the best university in Germany, this vibrant town is full of ancient churches and is watched over by a large castle.  When Mark Twain took his family on a trip to Europe in 1878, his first stop was in Heidelberg, where he intended to stay for just a day or two.  Instead, the allure of the city (which some attribute to the name Heidelberg, which means “Huckleberry Mountain”) kept him here for three months.  We can see why.
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Our next stop was Nuremberg, known now as the city that hosted the Nuremberg Trials for Nazi war criminals after World War II.  The city was chosen as a host because it was the centerpiece of Nazi activity.  Hitler built huge Nazi Party rally grounds here, and hundreds of thousands of Germans gathered upon them to see the Fuhrer and to be indoctrinated with Nazi-inspired hate.  A fascinating museum, outlining Nazi history and the building of the rally grounds, was well worth our stop and provided us with a greater understanding of the atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s that led to one of the most tragic times in history.

We spent our last couple of days in Germany in the heart of Bavaria, a large region in southeastern Germany that is famed for its forests and mountains.  We based ourselves in Regensberg, another university town we’d never heard of.  It turned out to be a gorgeous, cafe-filled city that was as vibrant as any we’ve seen anywhere.  It seemed that every resident of this ancient city (which is well over 2,000 years old) lived life outside, walking the streets and lounging in the outdoor cafes.
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From Regensberg, we took day trips to a few small villages near the Danube River, two of which (Kreistadt and Eichstatt) were having their local summer festivals on the day we visited.  These festivals, put on solely for the local community and devoid of the truckloads of tourists that you’ll see at larger festivals such as Octoberfest in Munich, were full of families enjoying the summer weather, the German music, the delicious sausages and the German obsession – beer.   I took the opportunity to play chess against a hot-shot teenager who thought he was so impressive that he had set up a few tables and was playing 5 games of chess simultaneously.  He crushed me in about 2 minutes.
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Part of the Kriestadt festival included a sort of variety show wherein local dance classes performed that year’s routine and a folk-singing group did some sort of square dance.  We’d seen the same kind of stuff at home, but imagine our surprise when a bit of home came to us.  All of the sudden, a group of high school kids from Edmon, Oklahoma (presumably students from a German class on their summer trip abroad) took to the stage and lackadaisically began doing the Macarena and an equally horrifying dance number to a medley of last year’s hip-hop favorites.  (Surely they were forced by their German teacher to embarrass themselves in this way.)  I think we’ll stop laughing about these poor kids in the next decade or so.

GAS PRICES:  If you think it’s bad in America right now with gas selling for over $4 a gallon, try driving in Europe!  We’ve been paying between $7.40 and $8.30 a gallon since we’ve been here.  Filling up the tank is simply painful.  Gas has historically been much higher in Europe in America.  Accordingly, most Europeans drive very small, gas-efficient cars – seeing an SUV or truck in Europe is a rare occurrence.  It will be interesting to see what America’s cars look like 10 years from now.

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Most of my family on my mother’s side lives in a tiny Minnesotan farming town called Cottonwood (pop. 1,146).  My great-grandmother settled near Cottonwood after she emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in the early 1900s.  She came over on her own; her parents and almost all of her ten siblings stayed behind in the tiny Dutch farming town of Ulestraten (pop. 2,660).

I’ve always had a vague idea that we still had some family in the Netherlands, ((I’ve recently learned the difference between Holland and the Netherlands.  Although most people in the U.S. use the two interchangeably, they’re actually not the same thing.  Holland is the name of two provinces (North Holland and South Holland) located in the western part of the Netherlands.  The Netherlands itself is a nation that includes not only the two Hollands, but ten other provinces as well.)) but I never knew anything about them.  As it turns out, two of my great-grandmother’s nieces still live near Ulestraten, in a similarly diminutive town called Obbicht.  Lies and Inna Gelissen are now in their 80s.  Having never married, the two sisters have lived together for most of their lives.  When they found out that their (very distant) relations were going to be in their country, they welcomed us into their home with open arms.
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Shane (my brother who met up with us for a few days), Derek and I arrived on Lies and Inna’s doorstep having no idea what to expect.  Within an hour, we were stuffing ourselves full of lasagna and some German concoction called Tutti-Frutti, learning about what life was like when the Nazis occupied the area during WWII and being challenged to do shots of an unnamed, but highly toxic, foreign brew.  In a word, it was awesome.
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After spending a night in their immaculate home, which is full of mementos from their travels around the world (such a nice change from all of the generic-feeling hotels), the five of us piled into our Peugeot and set off in search of Shane’s and my roots.  We stopped into the church where my great-grandmother was baptized.  On our way out, we ran into a woman and a baby who, as Lies and Inna explained, were related to us.  Distant relations, sure, but meeting them made the world feel very small.  Later on, we visited the cemetery where my great-great-grandparents are buried.  Although both of them died long before I was born, I felt incredibly connected to them as I stood there in the sun at the foot of their carefully tended graves.  I guess family ties are strong enough to survive separation by both generations and an ocean.

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After an 8-hour flight out of Africa (which seemed to last about 30 minutes with the aid of Ambien, a fantastic sleeping pill that is a godsend for long flights), we landed in a very different world – Europe. With only 10 weeks left on our trip, we quickly caught a train from the Amsterdam airport to Lille, France, where we were to pick up the brand-new Peugeot car that we had leased for the remainder of our trip. After loading up the family truckster, we hit the road (without a map), only to get lost twice in the first 30 minutes. Our first stop was Brussels, where we picked up Shane, Shanna’s brother, who was coincidentally in Europe for a few days to present a paper he had co-authored. A few minutes later, we were in a traffic jam on our way to Bruges, Belgium.
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After hearing my friend Scott Wells state on several occasions that Bruges is his favorite city on the planet, I had high hopes for this small, medieval town. Having eluded attacks during World Wars I and II, Bruges is regarded as possibly the best-preserved city in Europe, so well maintained that you could easily convince yourself that you’re in the European section of a Disney theme park. The ancient streets are lined with ornate buildings that have housed countless families and businesses over the last thousand years and now serve as homes to quaint hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. While our allotted time here was short, we quickly voted Bruges as our favorite small European city we’d ever visited. Scott, I guess you finally got something right…
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After departing Bruges the next day, we stopped in historic Ghent for lunch, drove through the diamond powerhouse of Antwerp and were quickly in the neighboring country of the Netherlands (aka Holland). What we saw of the rural part of the Netherlands was exactly like I had imagined: a land flat as a pancake, full of windmills, small canals, wildflowers and bicycles.

After spending an amazing day in the Netherlands (Shanna will tell you more in our next post), we looked at a map and decided to drive to Luxembourg, mainly because we knew nothing about this tiny country. After saying goodbye to Shane and departing the Netherlands, we crossed back into Belgium for a couple of hours and got lost on the small, hilly backroads leading south toward Luxembourg, allowing us to visit small, gorgeous towns completely off the tourist track.
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We also saw dozens of friterias, small buildings on the side of the roads completely devoted to french fries (was this a dream?). Although still full from lunch, we eventually gave in and stopped at the last friteria before Luxembourg – one of the best decisions we’ve made on our trip. The fries were unlike anything we’ve ever tasted, with the perfect thickness, crispness and saltiness. Unlike at home, where the only viable condiment option is ketchup, the Belgium friterias provide 10-20 sauce options, including mayonnaise (don’t turn your nose up until you’ve tried it!) and “American” sauce – a delicious blend of ketchup, mayo and cajun spices that reminded me of my famous “pink sauce,” which I serve with shrimp and crawfish (of course, my sauce has a few other ingredients not available for public distribution).
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Feeling bloated, we crossed the border into Luxembourg, a sparsely populated country (400,000 residents) the size of Rhode Island. As our guidebook only had about 3 pages devoted to Luxembourg, we were unsure of our final destination for the evening. When we read about a small village named Vianden famous for its majestic castle and the fact that it was once home to Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables), we rolled the dice and pointed the Peugeot in Vianden’s direction. Vianden turned out to be the quintessential medieval village, dominated by the gorgeously restored 1,000 year-old castle that overlooked the town, which was built to house the peasants that moved here to be near the protection of the castle’s ramparts.
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The next day, we drove through much of Luxembourg, passing its many castles and roaming the streets of the modern and refined Luxembourg City. One of our highlights was a visit to an American cemetary just outside Luxembourg City where over 5,000 American soldiers, include General George S. Patton, were buried after losing their lives fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. We could not help being deeply affected by the gravesights of so many heroic Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and to ensure the freedom of millions of Europeans.

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Google Video

Zanzibar
When I was in college at the University of Michigan, my favorite Ann Arbor restaurant was a place called Zanzibar.  My favorite thing about Zanzibar was this dessert they served; a lime tart with slices of fresh mango on top, it was basically dessert utopia.  I hadn’t had that dessert since I graduated from college eight years ago.  And then, a week or so ago, I found it again, this time in a place that itself felt a lot like utopia–Zanzibar, Tanzania. 
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The non-restaurant version of Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania.  Although it’s technically part of Tanzania, Zanzibar feels like an entirely different country.  Unlike its mainland neighbor, Zanzibar is a conservative, Sunni Muslim society.  Burqa-clad women share the streets here with barefoot children and laid-back fruit vendors.  Many people in Zanzibar make their living from the sea; some gather seaweed to use as fertilizer, others catch fish to sell to the post-safari, beach-combing tourists who visit the island each year. 
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Mike, Mindy, Derek and I were some of those tourists.  We spent a delightful four days relaxing by the pool of our very tropical-feeling resort (complete with its wonderful desserts) and scuba-diving in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.  Then we headed to Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a warren of winding lanes and beautiful mosques.  (On a random note, it’s also famous as the birthplace of the late Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen!)  After spending a day exploring the history-packed town, it was time to say goodbye, both to the Sontags and to Africa.  We were on our way to Europe!

We don’t have much left to say about our incredible Tanzanian safari, but a few of our pictures were just too good to keep to ourselves. Without further adieu…


THE FOLLOWING IS A GUEST BLOG BY MIKE AND MINDY SONTAG, TWO OF OUR CLOSE FRIENDS FROM NASHVILLE WHO MET US IN TANZANIA FOR A SAFARI: 

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To some, the success of a game-viewing safari is measured by whether the safari-goers spotted all of the “Big Nine”: the lion, the leopard, the cheetah, the cape buffalo, the elephant, the black rhinoceros, the hippo, the zebra and the giraffe.  As we made our way to the Ngorongoro Crater we had managed only six, lacking the cheetah, the black rhino and the leopard.  If we were to achieve this feat, we would have only our days in the crater and the Serengeti to do so.
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The Ngorongoro Crater is the most spectacular part of an area referred to as the “Crater Highlands,” which consists of a series of volcanic mountains and collapsed volcanoes, or calderas.  The crater itself is a massive expanse of land that, at roughly fifteen miles wide, is one of the largest calderas in the world.  It is an incredible sight; its steep walls create incredible blue-green vistas at every turn.  The crater is also known for its massive collection of animals, with lions, cape buffaloes, wildebeest, zebras, elephants, and many, many other species roaming freely within its walls. 
 
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On our first morning in the crater, we all met at 6:30 am (yes, Shanna included) to get to the park before the masses had started their trek in the same direction.  We were immediately greeted by the first of four separate spottings of lions, each providing its own spectacular opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their own environment.  Our first viewing included two lionesses with six young cubs in tow taking full direction from their mothers.  We then followed one of the lionesses as she began a hunt.  We watched the zebras and wildebeests nearby snap to full alert when they sensed her presence.  At one point, the lioness passed literally within a foot of our car, causing Derek to retreat with his camera from the window to the safety of the interior of the car (once again caught in stunning fashion on video by Shanna).  While the viewing was awesome, we still had yet to see the remaining three members of the “Big Nine.”

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As we continued our quest, we spotted two black rhinoceroses and a baby rhino in the distance, several hundred yards from our location, followed soon thereafter by a sighting of a cheetah, also in the distance.  The next day, as we were making our way around the crater, we spotted another large male rhinoceros and noticed it moving toward the Lerai Forest, the place where most of the roughly 24 rhinos in the park call home.  We positioned our car between the rhino and the forest and waited as the black beast made its way toward us.  After stopping to determine his path, he passed between two vehicles and within 15 yards of our car.  What a truly magnificent creature–one that seems more prehistoric in its stature than most.  With just the Serengeti left to visit on our safari, we had only the leopard left on our Big Nine list.

The Serengeti National Park, an immense space of over 9,173 square kilometers, is best known as the location for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebras from their “winter home” in the southern portion of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to their northern digs in the Masai Mara (a large reserve park just over the border in Kenya).  While the migration typically takes place in late May and June, the dry season came early this year and we missed seeing it, which led to a fairly disappointing first day in the Serengeti. 
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One would think that, after 12 days spent wandering from park to park, seeing God only knows how many animals of every type and taking literally thousands of pictures, we would be completely burnt out and ready for a new location, away from the dust, the heat and the land rover.  You would be entirely correct.  Nonetheless, as we sat around the campfire on our final evening in the bush, a most unlikely plan was hatched for our final day of viewing, especially for those who know just how much Shanna enjoys her sleep: a pre-dawn trek into the Serengeti in search of the leopard, the only remaining of the “Big Nine” that had, as of yet, escaped our now keenly trained eyes for animal viewing. 
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It was clear that each of us, especially those of us with the competitive juices of lawyers, wanted to achieve this seldomly met goal.  As it turned out, we were rewarded in spades with what was a perfect morning of game viewing–one where we would spot eight of the “Big Nine,” lacking only a further sighting of the black rhino, which doesn’t even inhabit the Serengeti.  Shortly after leaving the bush camp, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise in the Serengeti.  We then spotted two jackals in the midst of a fight.  Soon after Mindy snapped a requested picture of the battling pair, we all spotted a cat leaping from the shelter of taller grass, roughly 100 yards to our rear.  With lightning quickness, the cat–which our guide confirmed in excited tones to be a leopard–rushed from the field on our left to the field on our right.  We had seen all of the Big Nine, along with many, many others.