31 October 2009

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

Why is it that the US airline industry has led us to believe that cutting costs is essential for the survival of flight when airlines in many other parts of the world still serve meals (even on two hour flights) that they do not charge extra for, do not make you pay to check your bag, and generally have less expensive service from point to point? If I hadn't eaten on the flight from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa, I may have been able to try some of the food that smelled so good (once you waded your way through the cigarette smoke) in the airport there. Oh well.

Mini Harnas Reunion (...LEFTOVERS!!!)

Marina greeted me at the airport with a warm Harnas welcome -- although there were no banners and streamers -- whisked me away to my home for the next few nights with her and Anton. She described their cat on the way there: Devil Cat (a.k.a. Siam). I figured I had seen or known worse, so I was not concerned. When I arrived and met Anton and the alleged Devil Cat, they both gave me a friendly hello and the latter wound herself around my legs in a figure 8 before proceeding to investigate the bags I had put down in my room.

Apartheid Day (described in earlier post) filled the first portion of my stay. Let's not think about how I could justify leaving an area of town with so little only to cook and eat well for the next 28 hours, but the remainder of my stay in Jo'burg following the Apartheid retreat would be all about food and drink.

It was decided that I would make jambalaya for my hosts as a way of expressing gratitude for putting me up for a few nights and taking care of me. Obviously, finding andouille in South Africa is not straightforward, so we prepared improvised jambalaya. Incidentally, in retrospect, I'd like to try it with some smoked chicken breasts I saw at Woolworth's and karvanasi if I have the chance to prepare it again in ZA. It was delicious, if a tad on the bland side for my taste. What is most important is that my hosts appreciated it and enjoyed it, which seemed to be the case. Success!

The primary -- yes, this is true -- reason or excuse for my visit to Johannesburg was to attend the Good Food and Wine Expo I had read about in South African Airways' Sawubona in-flight magazine on the way to Africa at the end of August. Marina and I bonded at Harnas over our mutual "career gap" status, so it is fitting that we attended the expo on Friday morning with the pensioners and the unemployed. Our first wine tasting was probably at 10:15, since we arrived at the expo center ten minutes prior. For me, the rest of the day was spent nibbling and sipping everything from biltong to brandy.

Through fifteen minutes of torrential rain, we went to dinner at Moyo with some friends and relatives of my hosts. I had the most tender ostrich filets in berbere sauce. Although I have no recollection of the exact item, I remember that dessert was mighty good as well. This was a perfect, if foreshadowing, final day in Southern Africa before my departure to the Middle East the following day.

29 October 2009

Apartheid and the Part I Hated

Thursday was a day to ponder the history of Apartheid. In the morning Marina and I went to the Apartheid Museum, where
I think I could have certainly spent another two hours than we did. There is a lot to absorb. Fortunately I would get the chance to spend additional time taking in first-hand accounts and personal experiences at the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto during my afternoon tour through the township. This small but moving museum traces the events leading up to and following the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Before today I didn't realize that the Uprising was a protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of education. Talk about a Language War!

The most awkward and uncomfortable aspect of the township tour was walking into someone's home in the middle of the afternoon with my [very] local guide (not the driver who'd been showing me around Soweto), in a very poor part of the township. I was led into the mini compound/home of a woman who has 11 people living with her in total. Her family (she and three young girls) stay in one tiny shack, while the rest of the people are basically tenants that stay within the confines of her fence line. She was in the middle of cleaning some chicken innards to prepare for dinner. I am not sure what questions I was supposed to have for her, but I was free to ask them. "How many people live here?" That was a good one. "What are you cooking for dinner?" There's another. It is not that I would not have liked to spek with this woman, but the encounter, despite its natural setting, felt completely unnatural, forced, and awkward. Only a few minutes after leaving her place did I have to tell some locals selling curios just by where the car was parked that I was not in the market for ANYTHING I'd have to traipse around the globe with. Great.

28 October 2009

Travel, Food, [New] Friends, [Country] Life

In theory, one is supposed to arrive at the Intercape bus stand thirty minutes before the bus leaves Stellenbosch en route to Knysna (pronounced /naizn@/). I arrived just after 6 a.m. "Bus stand" is an exaggeration. David stand, yes. Bus stand, no. Near the university there is a foot bridge overhead that serves as the landmark on the Intercape reservation confirmation page. Other than that, it is just a place on a street in Stellenbosch that has no indication that the Intercape bus (or any other one for that matter) stops there except for 1) the off-street section of the road that looks like it's about the size of a bus and 2) the fact that the stoned guy at Stumble Inn told me that's where it stops.

About eight hours on a moderately comfortable bus and a few refreshment stops, I arrived at the Knysna Quays where I was greeted by Julia, an acquaintance of a friend of a friend who graciously agreed to host me, sight unseen but with a few e-mails exchanged, for a week (or as long as I wanted) in Knysna. I don't think I could have asked for a cooler host. Before I even left Seattle, Julia had gotten in touch with Dell & Sanchia, the mother-daughter proprietors of Firefly, a restaurant that is featured in the November issue of Country & Life magazine, about the possibility of my getting together with them for a culinary exchange of sorts. While they may have been open to the idea, it didn't materialize over the time I was in Knysna. Nevertheless, I did have a beautiful dinner there with Julia my second night in town, which started with a star anis caipirinha (foreshadowing the Brazilian leg of my travels in 2010) and ending with a do-it-yourself spiced hot chocolate (harkening back to my days of DIY chocolat chaud in Brussels at Fin du Siècle).

How I worked up an appetite that day was by calling Stefan, of Hippo Dive Campus, and embarking upon the beginning of my Open Water PADI certification all afternoon. The scuba course took place over the next couple of days in the bay/lagoon. I'm now certified and ready to do a bit more advanced diving when opportunity next arises. Sorry, there are no pictures of me in a wetsuit decked out in a snazzy BCD with big ol' yellow cylinder on my back.

Since we're on the subject of animals, I should mention Julia's three dachshunds. This one is Tanouk, engaged in a stand off with one of those vicious stripèd animals who was hiding behind a planter on the balcony.

Before stepping foot in Knysna, I realized or decided that it was going to be a place where I could consider consumables and generally relax -- on land or up to about 60 ft under water. Besides going to firefly, while visiting this town I had some tasty SA oysters, went to the farmers market, had incredibly inexpensive and delicious SA wine, cooked and ate with julia, and learned a few Xhosa words and a couple of dishes like umngqusho & umxube (each with different clicks: ‘q' & ‘x') with Thami. Beyond eating and drinking, spending a week here gave me a bit of time to enjoy the company of my host[ess], who I clearly hope will one day allow me to return the favor in my home...wherever and whenever I have one again...

Deep in the Heart of the Winelands: CouchSurfing Without the Couch

Paid more for the taxi ride from the lodge in Cape Town to the train station (R20) than the train ("first class") from Cape Town to Stellenbosch (R12). I love public transportation. [White] locals I spoke with over the next two days seemed impressed by my ability and willingness to take the train. Odd, seemed fine to me. Maybe they should try it.

Upon arriving in Stellenbosch Sunday morning, I was immediately struck by the scent of jasmine and maybe honeysuckle in the air as I walked to the place I was staying. In case you're wondering, the name of said establishment is the Stumble Inn. Catchy name and a decent (and CHEAP) enough place to stay, but I wouldn't call it home for an extended visit to the Winelands. After depositing my affairs, I quickly went out for a stroll around town. Stellenbosch is a beautiful small town with white buildings and oak lined streets, lots of small shops and cafes, and a generally good vibe. In addition, I went to a place for lunch that had a good wine selection as well as wireless internet access! (of course for a fee)

I had connected with a few local CouchSurfers before arriving and, although none of them could host me, we made plans to get together while I was visiting. Sunday night I went over to the flat of some super nice students, Carel & Ericka, for tasty tasty TASTY hamburgers. I brought with me a bottle of Ethnopio, a SA red blend that turned out to be quite pleasant to drink with Ericka's burgers. This was my second CS experience since arriving in Africa, and we're two for two to date.

On Monday I again demonstrated my enterprising nature in sorting out a train to Paarl (R8.50). Paarl had been on my itinerary since the moment I found out the Taalmuseum or Afrikaans Language Museum was there. After a fairly lengthy delay getting to Paarl, I meandered through a city where I sensed people actually live and work to find the museum. The woman who greeted me at the museum is a cultural historian who went out of her way to give me much more information than I would have expected to get on a one-to-one basis. It was an incredibly informative visit that I'm very happy I made time for. Disappointingly, I didn't get to the taal monument, however, since I needed to catch a train back to Stellenbosch.

The train back to Stellenbosch arrived just in time for me to be picked up by another CSer, Leendert, who had invited me to go with him, his sister, and a friend to JC le Roux for champagne (sparkling wine & méthode cap classique) tasting. Again, another wholly positive CS experience! It was a pleasure to meet Leendert, Rosanne, and Jackie; and the champange & nougat pairing we had was a real treat.

By coincidence, I had been on Facebook a couple of nights prior at the same time as an IU friend. He mentioned that he had a good friend in Stellenbosch who he subsequently got me in touch with. Said Stellenbosch friend and I arranged to have dinner Monday night. Following a brief period of recuperating following the champagne tasting, I was ready for dinner with Dawie and François. Although not connections through CS, I'll lump them into the category of fantastic quasi-strangers who I met via some online social networking medium and walked away hoping to see again someday.

I Paid HOW MUCH to be Seasick for This Long?"

Saturday morning I was fetched birght and early (5:30am), after hanging out until 1:30 at two bars in De Waterkant with a nice couple I met, to trek off 2+ hours to Gansbaai for cage diving with great white sharks. To make a long story short (I know, that's not the purpose of a blog, is it?), I was sick for about three of the 4.5 hours we were out on the water, got in a cage, saw a couple of sharks, cruised back to shore, drove back to Cape Town.

Where's the magic, you ask? Well, I will say this, the swells on the ocean were kind of magical. I do not recall ever having been on a boat or ship where the waves seemed to be as high as the vessel itself. The sea was also magical in that it had such a dramatic effect on about half the people on board. There were two guys who, after getting sick over the side of the boat, were lying on the bow for the remaining 3 hours or so. I got sick just before donning my wetsuit and getting in the cage. Once I was in the water, I felt about 95% better; but damn was it cold!

To sum up, the Hawaii shark cage dive experience was MUCH better, even though that wasn't with great whites. That I would do again just like it was the first time. South African shark cage diving I would do again IF
  1. it were paid for by someone else,
  2. I were on a smaller boat with fewer people, or
  3. it were part of a scientific endeavor of some sort.
What comes on TV a little while after I get back to the lodge in the evening? You guessed it: nothing other than the 1975 classic Jaws.

Malay I Have Some More, Asseblief?!

On my ride into the city from the Cape Town airport on Monday night, I had a feeling that my driver was a Cape Malay man. His wife (I assumed she was his wife but could have been wrong) was sitting in the front passenger's seat -- which, incidentally, is where much of the world's front driver's seat would be found -- during our 20+ minute ride. I happened to mention that I was interested in learning about local cuisines on my travels and how Cape Malay cuisine was on my radar. The driver, Manie, effectively said "look no further" and remarked that his wife, now patting the person in the passenger's seat on the shoulder, was the best Cape Malay cook around. I asked if they might be able to find a convenient for us to get together again during the week I expected to be in Cape Town. How could I pass up this opportunity?

I was picked up from De Waterkant Lodge on Friday morning by their son at 11 to go help Aziza prepare lunch. The men were to go to mosque at 1 and would come home afterwards and eat. Aziza was a gracious teacher and host. We drank rooibos tea as she talked to me about what we would be preparing: Mutton Curry (which could have been mutton bredie if we hadn't put the spices in), chicken breyani (cf biryani), onion & tomato sambal, and roti.

Around 1:30-2:00 a few people started filtering in through the front door, including Manie, Aziza & Manie's son, a nephew, and a neighbor. Introductions were made and food was put out on the table. We dined and chatted for about an hour. Meanwhile, Aziza had put some of the rootie, breyani, and curry in containers for me to take back to the lodge with me. Yes! Leftovers!

The meal I shared with these gentlemen, not to mention the delightful lady who tought me how to make it, was not only delicious but rounded off with good conversation minimally in Afrikaans but mostly in English since these were among some of the most considerate Afrikaans speakers I had met to date, conscientiously switching to English because the stranger who had made them lunch didn't understand their language. I must have said to Aziza twice that the time I was spending with her and her family that day in their home was perhaps the best time I had had in Cape Town. This was a sincere statement and holds true still.

23 October 2009

Cape Town and Continued Hebraica

To best continue the theme of Jewish and/or Israeli connections that have now entered into this voyage by way of having met four Israelis while on the project at Victoria Falls (and if I had stayed another day I would have met a fifth -- the marketing people in Israel for that project must be really top drawer -- I went to the South African Jewish Museum & Holocaust Centre, conveniently situated as one of the stops for the hop-on-hop-off double-decker city tour bus that goes around Cape Town. I ended up spending about two hours there. Interesting, small museum and friendly people working there. I then got back on the bus up to the Table Mountain funicular base station and hung out at TM for a while since it was a clear, beautiful day with blue skies and few, if any, clouds. The next stop I was aiming for was Camps Bay beach, across from the Bay Hotel. There I disembarked again and hung out in the sun on the sand for a while and then did the same at Clifton [3rd] Beach. I decided to keep walking up the coast to the next stop, rather than backtrack. It was a lovely sunset and the views were gorgeous. I hopped back on the city-tour bus at Sea Point so that I might get to the V&A Waterfront area before dark, as people say one shouldn't really walk around after dark. I saw in Lonely Planet that there was a Turkish restaurant in the same neighborhood where my home for the week was, so I went to check it out. At Anatoli I had way more food than was necessary, and the two glasses of SA wine I had helped send me right into an alco-food coma.

After some non-touristic a.m. shenanigans (i.e. a long Skype conversation) were over, I headed out to stroll around the V&A Waterfront for a while. I had read in one of the in-flight magazines along the way about a Belgian restaurant at the Waterfront, so guess where I had lunch. The nostalgia for my time during the great Belgian Boondoggle and the trek through Flanders and Above was too great, so I heeded the call of Den Anker.

My sister-in-law Susan suggested the trip to and tour of Robben Island to see the former maximum security prison where Nelson Mandela (Mandiba) was held, along with countless other political prisoners during the old regime's control of South Africa. It was very moving to have Muthe (/mute/) a former political prisoner as a guide for the second half of the visit, speaking from personal experience about how people came to be there, what people endured there, etc. Since we were slated to be on the 6pm (last) ferry of the day to return to the Waterfront, people started getting antsy while Muthe was talking. Some even walked out. Why, you may ask? The final element of the tour is a stop in front of the cell where Mr. Mandela stayed while at Robben Island. The feeling I had once we were shortly thereafter ushered to where the cell was was very similar to the feeling I have had at The Louvre, observing the crowd gathered in front of the (tiny) Mona Lisa.

On Thursday I decided to go on an organized tour of the Cape Peninsula with African Eagle, starting on the Atlantic Coast, going south around the cape and up the False Bay Coast. As luck would have it, there was an American Jewish (one of whom was an Egyptian immigrant to the U.S.) as well as an Israeli woman on the tour. Almost needless to say, I was engaged in conversation with them at times chatting was appropriate or called for. I came to find out the the American woman's baklava is the best anywhere. Unfortunately, she did not have a sample with her for me to assess the validity of her claim. On our way back to Cape Town, we first stopped along the coast near Simonstown, where I saw some free range (aka wild) jackass penguins. No, the penguins are not called jackass penguins because they make particularly smart assy comments or annoy people excessively, Mike. Although I didn't hear them do it, they apparently make a sound similar to a jackass (donkey). We then stopped at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in or near Constantia, which was the first wine growing area in the Cape. The KBG are beautiful and definitely worth a visit. I would love to see a concert or other performance in the amphitheater there on a nice evening, maybe with a bottle of wine from right down the road!

18 October 2009

The Falls of Victoria

After a three-day trip to Sossusvlei from Windhoek, following an emotional departure from Harnas -- as is generally the case at the end of one’s last week -- I flew to Johannesburg then on to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe the next day. Incidentally, I had a splendid night’s sleep at the Country Hideaway Guest House near the Joburg airport and would recommend a stay with Colin and Diane if you need a place to stay for a night or two.

My arrival in Victoria Falls was nothing like I might have expected based on media and commentary from people before I left. Maybe I was sheltered, maybe not from the moment I arrived, maybe not. Having spent two weeks in Vic Falls and the surrounding area, interacting with locals on a daily basis, I would encourage people to go to Zimbabwe, especially the Victoria Falls area. As a general rule, people were very friendly, warm, and hospitable. They are of course eager to have people visit -- in part to help their incredibly depressed economy, in part to share stories with. From a very early point during my stay there, I recognized that my time in Zimbabwe would be as much about the people I encountered as the lions, if not more so. This recognition or decision was brought to my attention a couple of times during my stay, once by new friend Adi (whom I’ll be visiting in Tel Aviv soon), once by Mike (from Afar).

Speaking of people, I should point out that the African Impact volunteer program at Vic Falls was not without it’s challenges for me. It seemed from shortly after I arrived that volunteers and what’s expected of them were so incredibly different from how things were at Harnas. Whereas we worked very hard at Harnas every day, it seemed that the situation of the Vic Falls volunteer program was more one of an eco-holiday where volunteers could take off a morning or a full day or several days to engage in some adrenaline sport or go on safari or do whatever they might like to do. The only work involved was either cutting up meat every other day or so for cub feeding, occasionally sweeping a lion enclosure area to keep it tidy and presentable, and going on walks with or without clients. I heard just before I left that this was going to change. Still waiting for reports from the trenches. The very nice aspect of the AI/ALERT (African Lion & Environmental Research Trust) project is both the conservationist focus and the ecological research that makes up a significant portion of the program. At Vic Falls, the resident ecologist is Zibusiso Ncube (yes, for the uninformed ‘c’ represents a dental click in his last name). Zie quickly became a friend of mine who I already miss and hope to see again some day. -- Anyone know of projects in the US that would sponsor a skilled wildlife ecologist to come for a while? -- Curiously, although I was learning more from him and the guides and lion handlers and scouts and coordinators and other staff there, I was called "Professor" during my stint at the Masuwe project site. Conversations I had with the staff remain the more memorable and meaningful component of my time there. Surely, had I not spent three weeks at Harnas working and playing closely with lion cubs, cheetahs, vervets, baboons, turkeys, mice, snakes, vultures, and the like, my impressions about my Zim experience would be different. As it is, I’m very glad things worked out like they did and that I did both.

Two highlights for me were

  1. getting a tiny bit of exposure to Shona and Ndebele (which I did more than Shona). If I could have stayed in Zim for a couple of months, I would certainly have been able to have brief yet non-trivial conversations with people about daily goings on. Oh well.... next time (?)

  2. working a bit on some of the more scientific aspects of the rehabilitation & release program: spoor measurement, behavior monitoring, etc.
Some notes on daily transportation:

  • picking up and dropping people off on the side of the road who are presumably waiting for or coming from some other transportation rocks.

  • Hopping on the back of the open air, no seatbelt truck with bench seats 5 ft in the air, rolling over gravel bumpy roads, etc. also rocks.

And some notes on food at the Zim project:

  • spaghetti bolognese

  • crocodile roll and "large" portion of chips (i.e., fries)

  • fried bream (tilapia), fries, salad

  • beef or lamb curry w/ rice, steamed cauliflower & broccoli

  • chicken fricasse

  • tasty tasty crisps (i.e., chips)

  • pap & chundu sauce

  • greens

  • Gift Mathe’s most famous braai on the night game drive!

On the whole, food at the project in Zimbabwe was superb.
On the whole, my time at the AI/ALERT project was superb.

Swimming in the Zambezi river and only sort of caring about a crocodile who happened to be lying on the beach about six or seven meters away was just crazy.

I’d also write about the safari I went on with Adi in Chobe National Park, but my eyes were closed for much of the time so that I can go back to Botswana with Shawna et al. one day.

05 October 2009

Namibian Greeting, Sossusvlei Style

... and goodbye to Namibia
... for now ...

The Lost Weeks

It all started Monday morning when the winds at Harnas were stronger and coming from a different direction. Things seemed different overall. My morning activity consisted of “farm work” (removing parts of a baboon enclosure for reuse in a new wild dog enclosure) with three other volunteers and a San Bushman named Whisky. While taking down a 55-gallon oil drum from the back of the trailer, Whisky pointed behind me to Zebe, a full-grown zebra that -- I’ve
come to find out since the incident -- has bitten a bushman or two, kicked a volunteer or two, and is generally a problematic animal. Before I could put the oil drum back on the trailer or even drop it, the zebra reached over the short wire fence and bit into my lower back.

The pain was intense. I screamed probably unlike I’ve ever screamed before since the pain was unlike any I’ve felt before. I could see my escape route, but I needed him to let go in order for me to get to it: under the trailer was where I was going. For about 30 seconds this zebra was biting and sucking. Because of his position I couldn’t hit him, but a couple of the bushmen ran over and tried to get him off of me. I had fallen to the ground, closer to my escape route but was still attached to the animal. Finally, the hold was gone, and I pulled myself through the dirt under the trailer to the other side, where Jule, Mette, and Katrin were in various stages of shock but ready to attend to me.

Marnus eventually rode up on a quad bike, but I couldn’t be taken back on the ATV. The pick-up truck was on its way to get the Brothers or the Babies and accompanying volunteers when it was diverted to come get me to go back to the farm. En route, the truck rolled with Rebecca and Megan inside. Someone else was now on his way on a tractor with a trailer to bring us back to the farm. Finally the tractor comes lumbering along. We made our way along bumpy sandy paths in the trailer, with me laying my head on Katrin’s lap trying not to think about what my back might look like and certainly trying to keep my mind off the pain. I’m fairly certain the bruises I had for a while on my left hip were a result of bumping along in the trailer. Oh well.

At this point, Marnus had already said he’d never seen anything like the wound on my back. He fortunately also added that the zebra did not puncture my skin. Nevertheless, the next several people also said they’d never seen anything like this before. Right. It’s a good thing I a) couldn’t see what my back looked like and b) was too busy not focusing on the pain to really think about what that meant: “ I’ve never seen ANYTHING like that before!” It would seem that my skin had been balled up and twisted. There was a lot of discoloration and swelling. I have yet to see pictures that were taken right after.

This is the point where my nurse shift happened. I went to lie down on a mattress and had my nurse Barbara looking after me. Cheri, I believe, went to get my backpack or just my iPod shuffle (i.e., "mix tape") that had been given to me as a gift before leaving on this adventure. That’s really all I wanted then. Barbara tried in vain to not make me laugh while pointing out wildlife in a book but kept me company. An hour or so later, Becca, Megan, and I were transported to Gobabis to see a doctor.

Without dragging this tale on any longer, I ended up getting a type of second-skin bandage called Tegaderm (by 3M) which I change every few days. Everything seems to be healing, although I have no idea what the end result of that healing process will look like.

The majority of the week following that saw me helping out with various IT issues and projects in the office rather than spending much time doing farm work or walking lions or cheetahs, etc. Although it was nice to feel like I was contributing on some level to the programs at Harnas in the first days of recuperation, it was certainly frustrating to be in a building in front of a computer rather than out in the bushveld with the animals.

... I'll close the blog chapter on Harnas by simply saying that, despite the above incident and the ramifications I'm still very aware of, I wrapped up my stay with such positive feelings about this place, in particular for a caracal named Tammy and a 1/2 African wildcat named Malcolm who curled up next to my head in my sleeping bag one night. Those two kitties were the last animals I said goodbye to the day I left Harnas. If only I could have taken both of them with me as I traveled on. I think cutting up bits of meat for them everyday could get expensive though.