a view into the sordid life i lead

Monday, February 28, 2005

Yuppie bastard scum

Most major cities around the globe have two worlds - the tourist and the local. There's intersection between the two, but unless you're a local you don't know the cool hangout spots or the places that are just a total ripoff. The Long Street hangouts are a mix of the local and touristy. If you go further up towards Table Mountain (where Long becomes Kloof), there are some places that are away from the madness, and are quite cool. It's a sad realization I've come to that when I say cool, it's read "yuppie". Yuppie bastard scum that I am, we're attracted to the places that the yuppie bastard scums hang out. Teh way to find the underground scene in the US is to find the local alterative paper. In Chicago it's the Chicago Reader. In LA it's the LAWeekly. In Capetown I could not find the altera-rag. We did run into something called Capetown Secrets - a glossy that seemed like it was designed purely by advertisers. Seemed to do the trick, since everything in this paper was yup central :-)

We found out about Asoka, a place Warren had taken us to a couple of days back; and also about a place I kept seeing at Green Point called Buena Vista Social Cafe. Turns out they have live Cuban jazz on Monday nights, so that's where we headed. BVSC is a dinner place that has great mojito's, Cuban cigars, and a pretty laid-back atmosphere. Nice place to chill for a few hours, esp. when there's live music. The band was a black guy on guitar and vocals, a brown guy (Portuguese?) on congas and a white guy on sax. They smoked! The singer was outstanding. I just wish I had gotten their names or something, coz I managed to fuck up recording them! Took my mp3 recorder, and somehow managed to put it on line-in recording (again!) instead of mic-in. I figured I should try a Cuban cigar, given that they're so lauded, and they're illegal in the US. But I'm more of a social smoker and drinker, and without a partner in crime (Jonii wouldn't smoke), it's just not that enjoyable. I guess I could have gone to one of the other tables, struck up a conversation and smoked a cohiba with the boys, but I didn't want to come across as an idiot!

Will the good guy please raise his hand

The old addage "history is written by the victors" is infinitely true in politics. The last 100 years has an addendum to the statement: "history leans towards political correctness". Subash Chandra Bose, Malcolm X, Gorbechev etc., all got the short end of the publicity stick - the other guys got a lot more credit. In my opinion, a similar thing occurred in South Africa - F.W. De Klerk is held in far lower regard than Mandela or Tutu. I'm not sure that this is with reason, since the hurdles that De Klerk had to overcome are far greater. The courage to confront the system that has told you that you are better is often overlooked. The oppressed strives to better himself. But the oppressor is often told that they ARE the best - and confronting the reality that absolutely everything you've been told is a lie requires magnificent resolve and inner strength. Maybe I'm overstating the case, but I think it's a topic to be debated. Anyway, De Klerk and Mandela both have their autobiographies (links below are to amazon):

Robben Island - part 3

Part 2 of the tour, a walk-through of the prison, is always conducted by former political prisoners.

Our guide, Afrika, was interred for 11 years of a 20 years sentence. His sentence ended in 91 when F.W. de Klerk released all of the island's political inmates. Afrika's a soft-spoken guy, and uses the term "Ladies and Gentlemen" a lot. Virtually in every other sentence. It could be a bit irritating to some people, but it's rather telling about his having been a prisoner for so long. He does not have the charisma and stature of Mandela or Desmont Tutu, or any of the famous inmates. I got the impression that Afrika was one of the guys that believed in the work of the ANC, and basically was a grunt. He was not very high up on the heirarchy, but his perspective is all the more interesting for it.

Afrika starts off his tour by herding everyone into a large, dormitory-style cell, which is apparently the first stop for new inmates. There's a washroom with large basins, and long urinal in an attached room, and there are small barred windows along the top. There are a a few bunk beds, and at the end of the room is a large painting of santa claus carrying a bag with large dollar signs. The heirarchy and distribution of gangs in South Africa's prison system (and probably outside) is quite interesting, and you can get more information at: The santa claus was a territorial mark of the 26 gang. There's vehemence and condescension in Afrika's voice when he refers to the gangs, but I did not delve any deeper.

Afrika says that the beds were added in the mid 80's. The inmates were expected to sleep on the concrete floor, and were issued one blanket a piece. As an aside, Afrika mentions that when he got out of prison he was very surprised by the number of ex-inmates that were dying of respiratory illnesses. Basically the cold of the prison got to them.

Afrika had a couple of large placards (3ft x 2ft maybe), one of which was an enlargement of the prison checkin, and the other an enlargement of the ration specification for the inmate. Each inmate was segregated by ethnic background (eg. Hindu), and this defined the rations they would get. The idea behind this was to keep the different groups in conflict with each other. Coloreds and Indians would get more to eat and different rations than blacks. It's a way to demoralize the inmates. All the inmates are made aware what the others are getting and what preferrential treatment is going on. I asked Afrika about what effect this had, and whether there were issues related to this. He said that the strength of the brothers (referring to all the political prisoners, regardless of ethnicity) was so great that he never knew of the segregation tactics to work. It's a pretty big testament to the kind of stock the leaders of the political came from!

Afrika's personal connection to the place comes through on his tour - it's a bit strange to talk to a person about his history in a place like Robben Island as a tourist. I keep thinking that Afrika must think we're all complete idiots to come to this place and treat it like an amusement ride. But he comes across as completely genuine. He told us about solitary confinement; the respect that the political prisoners accorded the leaders (making sure that the hallways were always clean and presentable when the leaders came round); the interaction with the guards; the fact that the individual cells in the political prisoner section do not have toilets, but instead only have buckets that are taken out daily, or sometimes after several days if the prisoner is to be punished; about lack of warm clothing - which eventually led to the death of several prisoners after their release in 91 due to respiratory illnesses; about the lack of protection against the elements when working in the limestone quarries - no moisturizer of any sort, not even vaseline to deal with the skin drying out; the lack of soap, to the point where you can't tell if you're clean or dirty any more after bathing. The stories are not sensational. Afrika does not appear to intend to elicit sympathy, which is more heart-rending than I can possibly describe. His manner is totally matter-of-fact. One of the tourists asked how he maintained his spiritual health (and I think he meant it more as a way to stay sane than as a question of religion). Afrika's answer was that the underground university system that the political prisoners had set up was a great way for them to constantly keep occupied and grow.

I've heard repeatedly about the truth and reconciliation process that South Africa went through. It's hard for me to understand. I know all the Gandhian talk about non-violence and love and peace and all that, but when you're subjugated for meaningless reasons, and in obviously brutal ways, it's hard to turn the other cheek. I thought it was all bullshit until I heard Afrika's explanation.

Afrika told us that the political leaders discussed numerous imaginary scenarios for the post-apartheid era. Pretty forward thinking bunch, I think :-) Apparently they started more than 15 years before the actual fall of apartheid - quite optimistic, considering that the ANC and the other political organizations were banned and heavy crackdowns were taking place all the way up to about 1989, and the picture was quite bleak for a very long time. Maybe these guys really believed Ghandi's addage: "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and you win". A key aspect of the discussions was that the ills of apartheid were not solely faced by the non-white population. In spite of the apparent benefits to the white population, the ANC leaders clearly recognized that just as the black population was disadvantaged by the economic exclusions, similarly the white population was culturally disadvantaged by racial segragation. It sounds like a facetious argument, but it's probably one of the most profound ideas in the path to desegregation.

Prisoners at Robben Island were not allowed to possess any kind of writing material or educational material. The only reading material was a bible. So the question comes up as to how the underground university could exist, and how there could be growth and organization in the politics. It turns out that some of the most active and involved members of the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement were white Afrikaaner South Africans. As Afrika tells it, the fatal flaw in the apartheid philosophy was characterizing people solely on the grounds of their ethnic background or skin color. The prison guards, wardens and the entire management system of the South African penal system, specifically the political penal system, were Afrikaners. They had to be members of a group called the Broederbund (the brotherhood). This affiliation theoretically ensured a pre-screening of all applicants. Obviously the system was not fool-proof. The prison wardens, guards and management were instrumental in assisting the ANC - bringing information into the prison, and getting information out. The ANC was led by Mandela while he was in Robben Island, for 27 years. The only way this was possible was for the jailers to conspire with the jailed.

These are all contributing factors to the way South Africa's path, post-apartheid, has come about. Afrika told us that many of the terrorist acts in South Africa - bombings of electrical facilities, carbombs, etc., - were performed by white sympathizers to the ANC cause. The apartheid regime, blindered as it was, was unable to think beyond their strict biases. Whites were not searched, and blacks were. The inability to deal with a system where you're unable to contain revolt to clearly defined groups ultimately is what brought the system to its knees.

Towards the end of the tour Afrika told us he had been told just that morning that this was his last day as tour guide, and he would have to start "scouting for work" starting the next morning. He had been told by the management of Robben Island that his contract had ended, and had not been renewed. Afrika was on a 3 month contract, which is the way the management deals with the tour guides. Jonii and I were flabbergasted. I could not comprehend how the system that came out of Robben Island, and wanted to remember it so that it could not be repeated, could treat a survivor of that system so callously. And riling Jonii up is not a good thing to do :-) We expressed our condolences to Afrika, gave him a decent tip (R20), and thanked him profusely for his excellent presentation of the prison.

As we walked back towards the pier to catch our return ferry, we struck up conversation with one of the other tourists, and comiserated on how silly the Robben Island management was, then veered off into good places to eat and the best vineyards around. Honestly, if you're surprised by all this, you really don't know us well enough yet - food takes priority above all else, dammit! This girl, Michelle Miller, apparently is on chummy terms with Desmond Tutu, and was going to ask him what it was all about.

As we approached the ferry boarding area, I accosted one of the administrators of the Robben Island tours - a pretty young lady. I asked her, quite diplomatically and civilly, about Afrika's plight. She said she was equally aghast about the situation, and launched into a tirade about the stupidity of the management, and the lack of vision, and the lack of respect for this man who had spent so much time for the betterment of the country, and how the beaucrats were treating these prisoners almost as if they were still pariahs. Watching Jonii and this girl, Tenjiwe, who was just as heated up as Jonii, both vehemently denouncing the beaucracy was quite a spectacle! Tenjiwe told us that we could speak to the administrators on the Capetown side, but that we'd probably get some run-around story about the contract, and nothing else. Of course, we're not that easily disuaded. So we told her we would do what we could and jumped on the ferry just as they announced last call.

When we got back to the mainland, we marched off to find any of the managment flunkies. There's a reception area in the basement of the Robben Island tours building. We had worked out our story: we are independent journalists that had just visited Robben Island and had just been told about Afrika; we are inspired to find out what the other side of the story is. Jonii asked the receptionist for any of the directors of the place. She told us that everyone was out to lunch. Keep in mind that it's about 2.30pm now. Interesting how beaucrats are always out to lunch when there are hard questions, isn't it?! After giving us all kinds of excuses, and making us wait about 20 minutes, during which time it became more and more apparent to the receptionist that we were not going to leave silently, teh receptionist managed to get in touch with one of the administrators, who came out of whereever she was hiding.

Let's just call the administrator Shannon. We explained our story, and asked if she could possibly give us the other perspective. Shannon's explanation was that they had used Afrika several times, and that he was very helpful to them, but that the program was set up with some full-time and some part-time ex-prisoners. The part-time'ers were clearly told that they were on a 3 month contract when they started. She also was quite clear to indicate how his situation was just such a shame, and the reason for the termination was that they were switching to their winter schedule soon, and therefore required fewer people and there were fewer tours of the island.

There's a hazard to working in government agencies. You can start with the best of intentions, but after you're exposed to the beaucracy and start getting that sense of power in your head you start looking at everyone as a moocher and low-life. That air of condescension and patronizing oozes out whether you're aware of it or not. I have no idea what Shannon's history was, but that beaucrat vibe started coming through loud and clear with her explanation. The other trait that gets well set in, along with the "eau de beaucrat" stench, is inability to accept responsibility. As soon as Jonii took the lady's name down and we start asking to quote her she backed off and said she would rather not have her name in print, and would rather refer us to the marketing manager, Plesa Murudu, for whom we got email and a phone number.

I got the sense that we were just getting brushed off, but decided to give Shannon our contact information, as Asian Social Network journalists, just in case that made any impact. Beaucrats always leave a bad taste in my mouth - they lose their humanity as soon as they get their jobs. We got the sense that South Africa had moved quite strongly to meet the rest of the third world. Kick out the colonists, and take back the reins of beaucracy!!

We received the following email about a week after we returned to Chicago:

Subject: Thanks
From: Afrika masoeng
Date: Tue, 8 Mar 2005 02:17:56 -0800 (PST)

iam very glad to have this opportunity to dot down these few words to you, the support you gave me on the 28 of febuary this year , they have taken me back for another three months. after this i have to squat for employment,let say that i will always hold you at the highest esteem. my intention is to open a company of my of own. thank vey much.

Robben Island - part 2

The tour at RI comes in two parts - the first is an hour (or slightly less) drive in a large bus around the different parts of the island with a tour guide explaining what everything is. The second is a tour through the inside of the facilities - i.e., a walk through the cellblocks. The former is mostly informational, and there are a couple of gut-wrenching moments when you're told what the working conditions were, and what kind of treatment some of the inmates received.

The touristy high point is the limestone quarry where the political prisoners worked year-round.

Limestone is pretty white, and the African sun is not something to be trifled with. Basically it's blinding to work without eye-protection, and brutalizes the body due to heat and drying. It's also the point where apparently a lot of the political education took place. There's a small cave that the prisoners would rest in - toilet, lunch, etc. - and this became "Robben Island University", where the prisoners surreptitiously educated each other. There's a pilo of rocks at the entrance to the quarry. During a reunion that Mandela and a bunch of other ex-political-prisoners had on the Island, they all visited the quarry. After a few minutes Mandela split from the crowd picked up a rock from the grounds and placed it at the mouth of the quarry. Touched by the act, all the other prisoners also did the same, and that's how the pile has come to be. The tour-guides like to point all this out, and it's where the kleenex needs to be passed out, and the violins need to kick in. Yeah I'm a cynic, but hey I welled up too!

Every so often you hit a tour-guide that you feel is just outstanding and you want to go hug them. This guy was not it! Outside of his tear-jerker moments (which I think are probably common to all the guys that work on RI), he was about as obnoxious as you could get. Cocky, arrogant, and borderline rude. Best of all, at the end of the trip he suggested that we could tip him if we felt like it. A lot of the bus handed him R10 notes (about $1.75). I, being the one to hold by principles, did not. Showed him!

Robben Island - part 1

Probably the most famous landmarks of apatheid era South Africa are Robben Island and Soweto, for mostly the same reason: Nelson Mandela. Actually, that's not completely true, since Soweto's notoriety is probably more due to Steve Biko than Mandela. Robben Island lies off the coast of Capetown - a remarkable similarity to San Francisco and Alcatraz. The difference between Alcatraz and Robben Island is, of course, the fact that the latter was a central spot for political prisoners in addition to hardened criminals.

I could probably debate the merits and demerits of making a place that was a prison into a tourist destination, but for now we just go with the flow.

The ticket counter for the Robben Island ferry is located in a very touristy building on the Capetown waterfront. The cluster of buildings in this area are obviously geared towards the upper crusties, and the tourists since the place is basically a mall - shops for all kinds of tchochkies. Right next to the ticket window is a lady selling prints of art that Mandela made while imprisoned on the island. I'm not sure why it is I'm surprised when I see this kind of marketing going on, but I've got to grow a thicker skin i think!

Walking the gangplank, sorry pier, to the ferry there's a little setup where a guy's taking photographs of people as they board the boat. It's not something I paid attention to until after the trip, so I'll just leave it at that for now :-) The ride from Capetown to Robben Island is 30 minutes, and, as with any good tourist ride, it's got a video, a sales pitch, and snacks. I had decided to record the trip on my mp3 recorder, but I somehow managed to fuck that up and had the recorder set to line-in instead of mic-in. So I managed to record about 3 hours of nothing. We could wax philosophical on that, but basically it pisses me off i was that stupid!

The ride to Robben Island is a great way to see capetown - there's no other way to see the city with the panorama of table mountain as its backdrop. Puts pretty much any other mountain-nestled town to shame i think :-)

Sunday, February 27, 2005

shopping spree

sunday feb 27 we spent at green point market. this is a large outdoor market near the stadium in capetown, in an area called, amazingly, green point. basically this is the african flea market - seems like people from all over africa come here to hawk their wares, mostly to tourists but also to locals. so there stuff ranging from carved giraffes to tennis shoes and underwear. we decided on the seemingly smart strategy of scouting the entire stretch, getting a rough idea of prices for the things we wanted to buy, then go figure out what we were willing to pay for it over a cup of coffee, then come back and haggle. the other side of this equation is that this gives the people in the stalls an opportunity to scope us out, figure out what we'd be willing to spend, and milk us for all we were worth. reasonably fair game, i'd say :-)

it's hard to say who wins in the haggling wars, but as long as both parties leave feeling that they suckered the other one it's a good day. i think we accomplished that. we thought we got great deals (but found out a few days later that it's about average), and the hawkers probably thought they fleeced us (and we thought we got away pretty well).

green point market occurs only on sundays. but during the week, a similar outdoor market exists at green market square. we figured teh once-a-week gig would yield a better opportunity for price negotiation. probably not really tho' :-) plus we could have saved ourselves from some serious african heat had we just done the daily markets! ah well, things you find out after the fact!

i have to say that the markets have some great art and crafts. i just wish i had a bunch more cash and a way to have all the stuff shipped home, instead of having to carry it all in hand. as it is we had 4 bottles of wine we had to deal with, and adding a bevy of masks, paintings, and assorted african kitsch would only add to my being the packmule. not that i'm complaining, but sometimes it's nice to travel light.

we spent the better part of the afternoon at green point market, and then passed out from the exhaustion of heatstroke and hardcore haggling.


table mountain can be climbed in about 5 hours, or you can be hoisted up in a cable car, in about 30 minutes. the day we arrived in capetown (thursday). fairly regularly there's a cloud bank that drops over the table, and it looks like a wave crashing over a reef in slow motion. the locals call it the table-cloth. sunday was the first day that table mountain was totally clear, and the weather was great. i wanted to head up the mountain, but jonii decided she was more up for wine. we were both exhausted, so getting drunk seemed better than sweating up a storm climbing the mountain :-)

frank the maitre d' from savoy cabbage had recommended 8 vineyards that we should go to, and of them listed 4 as not to miss. we figured we'd just go hit those 4, since coffee, moving and general lolly gaggling had now brought us to 11:30am. the first place we tried to find was frank's highest rated - waterford. we got lost at a different vineyard (blaauwklippen), decided to drink their wine anyway (it sucked), then drove through dirt roads for 10 minutes to arrive at the waterford estate. we were met at the gate by a guy handing out some kind of invitation. turns out that the day we picked to arrive was the one day of the year that the waterford is closed for harvesting! some luck. but the invite we got was for a free wine and chocolate tasting. some start to our wine excursion: sucky wine and closed gates!

headed on to the delheim, which is a rambling estate with a very tuscan feel to it, and had lunch there. did not do the wine tasting because they charged for it, and we felt they should have given us a freebie since we paid for lunch, dammit! nice place, mediocre food.

we then hit warwick, which was really good and we picked up a couple of bottles; and jordan, which was just about closing but we managed to get the last couple of glasses of some damn good mixed stuff called chameleon and plunked down the card for a couple more bottles. last stop was spier. this place is more like an amusement park than a vineyard. they've got a massive buffet, a shopping arcade, pony rides, and cheetah petting. yup, cheetah petting. i convinced jonii to go do it coz how often do you get to pet a cheetah. they're pretty tame - they just hang about and don't really care that you're around them. we were told that if you run into a cheetah in the wild (which i'm sure you will) they'll just hiss at you, and run off. they're not really designed to attack larger animals, so you're pretty safe. didn't try the wine - there was a line and it felt totally like a tourist trap.

full day of wino-ing, and we returned to our plush pad at the foot of table mountain to take a siesta and await warren - who we felt needed more attention from us, whether he wanted it or not!

warren showed up with bibi, a friend of his from johannesburg, and we drove 3 blocks to Chef Pon's Thai Cuisine. teh similarity to LA, in that people drive even 3 blocks should be noted here. we wound up at asoka, son of dharma, a cool place with excellent drinks after dinner to decide on the plan of attack for the rest of the night. since it was saturday, we decided we needed to go check out the capetown nightlife. bibi wanted to go to a new place called opium.

opium is a large place mostly populated with white people, and some brown - maybe indian or arab. the dj sucked. jonii decided to accost one of the black bouncers and tell him that the dj couldn't hold a beat, and the bouncer said there's a reason why there were no black people in the place :-) he suggested a place called g-spot, which was in some convoluted place that he had to draw up a map to. about 15 minutes after he gave us directions, he came up to jonii and basically said that we probably shouldn't go there without someone that knew the place, and he offerred to go with us on thursday, his night off. seems like it was a polite way to say a group of white people with one brown person trying to get into the place might cause a bit of a ruckus! unfortunately warren was pooped, and we decided to go along with him and call it a night.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

savoy cabbage

the lonely planet is probably the greatest travel guide ever written. not sure if i've stated that previously, but it can't be overstated. in the capetown places to eat section of our "southen africa" edition of the lonely planet, the highest recommended place is the "savoy cabbage". the planet claimed it was probably teh best restaurant in capetown, and that it was pricey but worth it. it also intimated that the place was veggie friendly. recall that we are self-proclaimed gastro-snobs. so we decided to try the place out.

LSB is at the intersection of long and pepper streets. savoy cabbage is at the intersection of buitengracht (pronounced wheat-en-grach, according to warren), and hout street. speaking of warren, he was otherwise tied up having forgotten that it was his sister's birthday, and he had to rush off to buy her a present and be present at the b'day party. hout is about 7 blocks north-east of LSB, so we decided to walk it, after dressing up in our finest backpacker regalia - basically a shirt with a collar and dark pants instead of shorts! we found hout street to be pretty deserted, and found the savoy cabbage to be boarded up. or at least it looked that way. we saw a room that had people in it, but it had bars on all the windows and doors and there was no visible way into the place. no welcome sign, no open door, no doorman. just as we were about to give up on the place, a guy in some sort of security uniform jumped out of the dark (recall the parking attendants from a previous post), and told us that the barred up wall was in fact the entrance and that we should just wait a minute and that they would buzz us in. ok, strange, but maybe this was a pretty sketchy neighborhood - given that it was deserted and all!

the savoy cabbage was outstanding food. basically a menu with only a dozen items, including one veg appetizer, one veg soup, one veg salad and one veg entree - we tried them all: tomato tarte, original gazpacho, arugula salad and azuki beans and basmati rice. the maitre d', frank (note how we're now on first name basis with this dude) was very accommodating about our vegetarian-ness. best of all, our new pal frank was happy to give us tips on which the best vineyards were that we should go get sloshed at. cool beans :-)

recall that i had mentioned the loudness of mama africa and long street at night. that was thursday, i.e., before the weekend hit. we returned to the LSB around 11:30pm, now friday night, to find that the decibel level of the clubs around were the same as a stereo cranked inside the room. couldn't close the windows because there's no fan in the room. so we tried to deal as well as we could. around 4am the street and club sounds subsided, but then people started hanging out on the balcony, chatting and smoking. basically a pretty shitty night altogether! all sounds pretty whiney, in retrospect, since we should have been partying with the gangs outside. we probably would have had we had enough sleep the previous few nights, but i guess we're just becoming old farts :-)

we decided the next morning (saturday) that we would definitely have to move to a less lively habitat. thankfully ollie the punk was not at reception (we were praying that we did not have to try to explain the situation to him) and there was a far more civilized individual, whom we could understand, manning the desk. we explained the circumstances, got clearance to leave, and told the guy, tom the surfer, that we couldn't understand much of what ollie the punk said. tom the surfer said that after working with ollie the punk for 3 years he still couldn't understand what he said!

as good coffee-addicts we headed to vida e caffe, then on to the Ashanti Lodge. ranks ashanti as the number 1 hostel in africa. the LSB is ranked #2. when we initially booked, jonii figured the diff betw. #1 and #2 must be minimal. wrong! the ashanti is located in a residential neighborhood about 7 blocks away from the bustle of long street and kloof street. basically an easy walk or a cheap cab ride. but the surroundings are great. there's a clear view of table mountain, there's no need to pay for parking, the rooms are way bigger, and best of all it's closer to vida e caffe. note how our life now revolves around the coffee! the only downside is the price is almost double (R350 at ashanti vs. R200 at LSB). thankfully they accept mastercard, so we plunked down the plastic and moved ourselves into the new pad.


most places in the capetown (and the eastern cape province) area have afrikaans names. kirstenbosch is the botanical garden. stellenbosch is the wine country. kaapstaad is what every other road sign calls capetown. fucked up thing is that there does not appear to be great consistency between the use of english and afrikaans names for places or streets, so you'll see a street sign that says something in afrikaans which is the same as an english name you're expecting, and of course it's totally confusing while driving around. fortunately it's not easy to get too lost, since the road signs are pretty obvious.

saturday, feb 26 we headed to kirstenbosch botanical gardens, which is about 30 km outside of capetown central. it's probably the nicest botanical garden i've ever seen - apparently the curator was trained and worked at kew gardens in london. if you're into botanical gardens, this one kinda takes the cake. it's set with a backdrop of table mountain. apparently the land was owned by cecil rhodes, and he donated the entire estate to the botanical garden on his death. it's really ridiculous just how extensive the holdings of rhodes were - i'd say it rivaled alexander the great and caesar. arguably even more, since rhodes never had to have his own army or to govern anyone. he was richer that bill gates is today, and controlled more without having to pay for armies and generals. hella bastard!

what started off as a possibly 2 hour jaunt in the botanical garden turned into a whole day affair. teh place goes on forever, and we got into a discussion with one of the resident botanists about aromatic herbs and stuff. at several locations in kirstenbosch we were overpowered by the aroma of curry. not curry leaves, or curry plants, but curry, as in what comes with curry chips. it's a very distinct smell. we first figured somebody was having a picnic. but we kept running into this smell in different locations. we also got corrobaration that we were not imagining things due to rampant hunger from a trio of irish tourists - who know their curry! so we spent about 30 minutes sniffing bark and leaves and flowers and rubbing things. we got nowhere, although we found that there's a lot of skunk-weed in the garden. turns out that the botanist we accosted had been questioned about the curry thing before, but had no idea what people were talking about. unfortunately we could not take him to the points where we found the smell since they were all on the other end of kirstenbosch. but he was gracious enough to tell us about fynbos (i.e., fine bush), which is a plant exclusively endemic to south africa's cape biome. cool stuff. we also sniffed and tasted a few more aromatic herbs, just for grins!

kirstenbosch has a sculpture garden, which, amazingly, was occupied with a set of pieces that we had seen before. insane, but true. all the sculpture is from a place in zimbabwe called chipunga. the very same exhibit was at the evanston botanical garden about 2 years ago, when my parents were here. the term "small world" does not begin to describe how weird this is!

capetown seems to have some horrendous traffic jams. the exhaust fumes smell terrible (almost as bad as india), probably due to the availability of leaded fuel, and the expressways are only 3 lanes. it's almost as bad as chicago. but the scenery is a lot better, and kinda makes up for sitting around idling your engine! fortunately for us, we were constantly headed in the opposite direction to the herd.

alien plants

south africa has a very interesting history of vegetation. obviously the country has its own indigenous vegetation. but when the white people decided to take things over the decided to do it completely - including the local flora. but as with the attempts to take over the people, the introduction of foreign flora has had less than stellar results.

when the vineyards came into effect, some bright individual decided that they might as well try to grow their own oak and build their own casks. sounds intelligent enough. the one downside to experimenting with trees in a foreign area is that you can't really do a small test plot to see how things come about. oak takes about a dozen years to mature, and i guess there was a bit of impatience with the wine people (strange considering the growing time to get a good vineyard going!). so there were whole orchards of oak trees planted in anticipation of a booming cask and wine industry. problem is that there's lots of water and lots of sun in the stellenbosch, and virtually no seasons. the oak trees grew too fast, and the wood was too porous. the casks built of the local oak just ended up draining out the wine straight through the wood! so now there are plenty of oak trees, and just nothing to be done with them. at a couple of the vineyards, the outdoor seating can be a bit dangerous since a gust of wind brings down a hailstorm of acorns.

the face of table mountain is another location where imported australian hakea trees have run rampant. beauty of these things (along with the european pine trees found all over) is that they're impervious to burning. burning actually helps to spread the seeds of pine and hakea! the problem with these plants is that they're used to getting very little water. the cape area is like heaven to them, and they suck every ounce of moisture available to them, to the detriment of the local flora. classic case of human intervention run amock.

the real problem is that these are just 2 of the several dozen instances of foreign plants that are causing all kinds of havoc on the local biosystem. and the only way to get rid of the alien plants is to hack them down (since burning doesn't work), so a *lot* of manual labor.

Friday, February 25, 2005

elephants?! what elephants!!!

more beetle avoidance, peering thru thick foliage, and ultimately little success by way of large beasts in addo. we did catch a hyena as it crossed the road right behind us, a carcass picked clean, a caracal (which looks similar to a lynx) and a rotting dead rhino (or elephant - distance was too far to tell and our noses are not yet specialized to the scent).

the short discussion might give the impression that addo is mostly a yawn. most definitely not so. its just very hard to provide a view into the place without pics. so this will all get updated with pics when we get back. interestingly, addo turned out to lean more towards death and decay for us - the hyena, carcass, etc. there were plenty of warthog and ostrich, but we did not see any carcasses in kruger in 5 days!

SA has very little by way of a national transit system. the road system is as good as the US tho'. and the major expressways (motorways here) are tolled. most of the tolls are on the order of $5 - $10. so a total of about $50 in tolls thus far. insanely high when u consider that the average person here makes quite a bit less than that per day (most of the country lives on about $6-10/day). the average person (meaning the black south african) travels by way of hitch-hiking. distances are monumental. imagine that 60% of the US had no car, and that the infrastructure was exactly the same. and that u had to travel the 20-30 miles that most people commute in the US. thats the story here. combine taxis are the partial solution. these are minibuses (think old vw minibus size, or maruti minivan, ofr those familiar with that), which can be flagged down pretty much anywhere. they drive around and pick people up and drive (presumably) regular routes. schedule is pretty random tho since they travel where they can get cash. its about as little as can exist, but this is the only solution to the needs. jonii's take on it tis that these people won freedom from apartheid, but have still been kept out of progress due to the ifeasibility of travelling anywhere easily. and i tend to agree.

the drive from addo along the coast is called the garden route, and is famous. we appear to have hit it during a dry spell, sicne it was not clear to us what was so "garden" about it. lots of pine plantations and some amazing coastline, however. the water is really blue. and the rock formations look like petrified wood. its very prehistoric feeling, and really beautiful. the run along the garden route ends at capetown. but about half way between tsitsikama (on the eastern edge of the route) and capetown (on the western end), is a place called agulhas point, which is the southernmost tip of africa - where the indian ocean and the atlantic meet. we drove down there - an hour detour from the expressway - through farmland that looks like montana. hilly, dry, shrubland, with pockets of eucalyptus trees. and more ostrich farms. its a verey scenic drive especially with the brilliant blue skies that feel like they were painted on, and perfect clouds that make u feel like the intro to the simpson's.

need to step back for a sec here. addo is all dusry dirt roads. and our car - a white nissan almera - proved we had been there. the entire car, inside and out, was covered in fine red dust. filthy enough for us to scream. so the first stop when we arrived at l'agulhas was the car wash. agulhas is a tiny town, perhaps of about 500. 90% of the houses are mansions, and unoccupied, as is the case with much of the large houseso on the garden route. these are the vacation homes of people in joburg and capetown and durban. sort of like fairfield :)

once cleansed of our safari park past, we headed on to the southern end of africa. the view here is indescribable. the beaches are white sand. the water is glorious blue and green. the sky is brilliant. its all over the top! best of all theres almost nobody there! a perfect place to just chill. the only downside is the constant 20 mile/hr wind. no kidding. its REALLY windy here. could actually drive you batty with the vata derangement. but hey it's only virually paradise ;)

headed on to capetown after another lunch of chakalaka, bread and mango pickle. washed down with the obligatory litchi juice, which we have been consuming in vast quantities.

driving towards capetown is amazing. shanty town after shanty town. they're ramshackle corrugated metal shacks, with electricity. each group of 6-10 shacks is connected to a power pole - with wire running like an umbrella skeleton. and they stretch for about 50 km from capetown. getting closer to capetown, the most obvious sight is the twin towers of the nuclear reactor, which freaked jonii out, and which i thought was pretty cool :)

and as soon as u pass them u understand thwy people rave about capetown so much. table mountain fills the view, and the clouds over it start rolling in late in the afternoon. we were hitting 4pm, and the clouds look like a giant pipeline wave cresting over the mountain top. this was finally a spectacular sight - like nothing i've seen before, and probably unlike anything i'm going to encounter again! we've got pics so i'll leave my thousand words unwritten, and u can just wait for the pics.

capetown is a loose mix of san fransisco (the haight-ashbury district) and new orleans. u feel that as soon as u dirve into the downtown area, which resembles canal street in nawlins. the long street backpackers is on long street, which is the largest thoroughfare (like bourbon in nawlins). and it's right in the thick of things. the loudest clubs, restaurants, bars, etc, etc. excellent location to see the town. its a total bakcpakcer joint - unwashed masses abound. long street backpackers is where u want to be if ur idea of visiting capetown consists of hanging with other poor backpacking tourists, and dont want to sleep :) more on that later.

beetle squashing

rsa has the strangest road signs i've ever seen anywhere in the world. on the road to addo national park we saw a couple of hippo crossing alerts, and several "It is prohibited to feed the baboons. Fine R800" signs. apparently the baboons are not so well liked! and in addo we ran into dung beetle crossing signs. plus "Please do not drive over the dung beetles", and "Dung Beetles have right of way" signs. so we
took a lot of care not to drive over any dung beetles, which are pretty large and obvious, so easy to keep away from, as we drove into addo game park. but about 5 minutes in we turned a corner, and the road was literally littered with the buggers. its hard not to squash bugs when they're swarming on the road. i diligently tried to avoid as many as possible, much to jonii's dismay since i was swerving all over the place trying to do my ecologically sound duties. but after a few minutes of that i just gave up. btw, dung beeltes make a solid crunch and a squish when driven over. they also make round balls out of all available dung - but rhino and elephant appear to be the preference. can't say for sure why, but flavor must have something to do with it. aside from sheer volume, that is.

we drove an hour around addo ELEPHANT park without sighting a single frickin elephant. we saw more elephants in the first 10 minutes at kruger than we did here. but granted, this was still the first hour in addo. maybe better luck tomorrow. addo's vegetation is totally diff from kruger - way thicker and lower bush. so we really had to keep the eyes peeled. its actually easy at kruger to see impala and the large antelope. at addo i'm sure its very easy to see nothing at all - animals seem to appear and disappear constantly. we saw a few kudu that were right by the road. as we approached them they sauntered off, but we could not see even a piece of them at the point where they entered the foliage - the camouflage and density are really that

lodging at addo was pretty nice - a forest tent, with a nice bed, and the aforementioned overlook into the park. we were hoping that the appropriate (i.e. lions, elephants, rhinos) would conveniently approach our balcony so that we did not have to do any long driving in the park. so we made a tasty dinner or mealie meal, chakalaka, and mango atchar, and sat down in anticipation of the evening show. we had
some litchi juice for good measure, since u always want to wash down a "big 5" sighting with a tropical beverage.

as would be expected, we saw nothing. but we did hear a lot of hyena howling, and a bunch of warthogs rooting about. there are plenty of warthogs in addo. also ostriches. we think they should change the name of the park to add warthog park to be perfectly accurate. its all false advertising as far as i can see it.

next day an early start (6am) through seriously red dusty roads to see what nature would bring.

abundant rhino dung

something i forgot to mention in the last post is that we found out about a hour outside pretoria that our fiat palio had no a/c! we just had not noticed since it was cold enough at night. blazing african summer sun was a whole other story!!! so we called the alamo peeps and told them to meet us on an exit near one of the major towns on the n1 hiway. and they complied! we were damn surprised! more of a surprise was that they showed up with an upgrade - a ford ikon. movin up in life or so we thought at the time. a couple of hrs on the trip and we find the floor mats soaking wet - and i mean puddle time. the a/c was leaking water into the car like mad! ah well, at least we were not baking!!!

also, to give u an idea of where things lie in the kruger park area, check out

there's a weird currency and status system that comes into play in national/safari parks. your place in the heirarchy of things is based on the sightings that u've been blessed with. cheetah or lespard sightings make you god. impala sightings usually get u spat at. u can chat people up and ask for location tips with the info u have to barter with. if u have an elephant herd sighting, u can trade that for a rhino or giraffe+zebra. a big cat sighting is very sought out, and basically u offer it in charity if u feel like being nice to the requestor - coz what could they possibly have to give u of equal value?! turns out people come to kruger and go 2 weeks seeing only antelope, which would be sufficient to cause me to tie raw chunks of meat to the back of the car and attract the predators out!

anyway, our run from punda maria (north most camp) to letaba allowed for a couple of different paths. we took the long path along the rsa - mozambique border. dirt roads for 3 hrs, doing 30-40kph at most. the speed limit is 40kph, but u'd have to have a serious 4x4 to be able to do any higher. on one of the roads, we came across a group of 4 elephants crossing the road - tuskers, and a baby. after waiting about 20 secs and taking pics to the point of drainig the battery, we headed on. and just as i passed the point where the eli's had crossed the road, a huge head burst thru the foliage right at my window, maybe 15 ft away - the rest of the herd was still on the other side. totally shocked me, but fortunately i kept my steely wits about me, and headed on calmly for a few more feet. soiled underwear stories can be caught up on later! there were prolly another 10 elli's or so left that crossed after our close encounter. cound have gone really badly since there were a bunch of babies and the matriarchs get very defensive! but the worst of it was the lack of an extra battery readily available - i was the idiot that left the extra bat. in the trunk!

the rest of the run was not so eventful, but saw plenty of giraffe, zebra, kudu, impala. also saw lots n lots of rhino dung on the mozambique/rsa border side. but no rhino :(

more to follow - headed to dinner now

sometimes not so much

the last 2 days at kruger yielded very little by way of new animals. we saw some hippo in the water with elephants, but it was quite distant and we only got good looks with the binocs. i would have had to have a 600mm or greater lens to capture anything, but we got some photos which probably look like crap! i'll just skip making up descriptions of the close encounters we might have had with a cheetah or anything :) one thing in kruger is that distances can be deceptive. the park is only about 200 miles long altogether, but speed limits must be adhered to on acct of the road conditions. they're designed for @ most 50kph. the last day in kruger we had to head from satara to orpen, a pretty short run of about 45 mins. however we decided to take the long route to see the lower end of the park which we completely missed. this was a 3 hr run each way, but aside from the speed limits u forget that u'r constantly peering into the thick foliage to spot the elusive cats. we ended up running quite late. there's a pretty strict policy of being in camp by 6:30pm, and we were about 150km away at 4pm! so we threw caution to the wind (we would be breaking some rule or the other anyway), and decided that 90-100kph was permissible as long as we were in camp by 6:30! obviously we did not see anything, and very fortunately we did not hit anything! but the bad side is that the elephant population is contantly moving in kruger, and with our luck, we ended up being stopped by a very irate elephant at around 6:00 pm about 30 minutes from where we needed to be. given that this is as good an excuse as u can get in a safari park, we decided to wait the elly out, and arrived at camp about 15 minutes late. i guess the elephant stopping thing happens quite often coz they bought our story with a 'oh that guy - he does that all the time'!

the dirve from kruger south through blyde river canyon and the drakensburg is supposed to be "spectacular". pretty much the entire mountain range of the freestate province (which encompases the drakensburg) is pine lumber forests. the upper end (the blyde river area) is very beautiful and scenic. but not much more so than the upper colorado drives through the mountains. the drakensburg is pretty nice. the drive from kruger to the drakensburg point that we were to be at was initially calculated at 10 hrs (about 100km). so departure at 8am should have gotten us to the next rest stop at 6pm. somehow something was missed and the drive was actually closer to 15 hrs, doing 120-160kph most of the way. go figure. best of all we got hit by a MASSIVE rain and lightning storm at about 8pm, for about an hr and a half!! anyway we arrived at a cloudy, wet, and quite cold amphitheatre bakpackers around 10pm to locked gates, completely exhausted. we were just about ready to ram the gate open after 5 minutes of waiting and making noise when the security guy arrvied. amphitheater is 18km from its nearest neighbor, and 25km from the nearest village of a few hundred; so options seemed pretty bleak! but things worked out - they let us in and we got a very nice rest!

hung out at the drakensburg for an extra day since we were told it was nicer to stay there than what we had planned. we were suppposed to go to lesotho, which is a kingdom up on the krakensburg plateau, but weather conditions prevented the trip - flooded rivers and broken wipers on the jeep we were supposed to do the tour in. opted instead to go on a 22 km hike to a spectacular gorge and amphitheater view. the drakensburg is shaped like an amphitheater, and the views are supposed to be very nice. jonii dropped out of the hike after 90 minutes, based on the steepness of the climb and the thickness of the foliage and the muddiness of the trail. i, fuelled by the famous raman testosterone trudged on, boulder hopped, crossed 2 rivers (removed shoes, rolled up pants and actually crossed a fairly strong current), all to find remarkably tame and uninspiring views. people in the freestate have a very loose definition of spectacular it seems! it was worth maybe 2 hrs, but most definitely not the 6+ that it took on muddy, hard trails! hate to admit it but jonii was way right not to go on this one!!!

drive from amphitheater to addo national park was around 1000km - this time calculated and recalculated several times for accuracy. left at 6am, after a brief delay to pick up our laundry which the backpackers place had fucked up somehow - long story which i'll recount in great detail later! the scenery from the drakensburg around lesotho, and down the N11 is akin to the drive from colorado, down thru new mexico, to kansas, and then to nebraska, and back to new mexico. we drove through serious cowboy country, fruit orchards, ostirch farms - and fantastically blue skies with cool clouds. sounds gay, i know, but it really was amazing! arrived at addo elephant park in very good time - by 4pm. checked into our nice tent which had a balcony that looked right into the park, and decided to go for a run into the park to see if we could catch anything during the remaining hour before the gates closed.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

workin backwards in short

i'll skip the excrutiating details for now and give alla u the quick rundown, since i'm sure at least some are wondering if the lions got to us, or whether we ended up missing our flight and stayed in chitown but were too embarassed to write about it!

got the flight to madrid. iberia's great if u have no expectations (and i mean NO expectations). spent the day in madrid, walked about. city is nice and the people were friendly, but its not a place i would recommend a lot. i think spain must have better places to visit! but the tm center people were damn nice and let us hang about for 2 hrs to meditate and recuperate. plus one of them pointed us in the direction of a veggie place that we decided to skip out on since they had no wine - yup we're lushes and have our priorities right!!!

departure from madrid was a bit of a mess. we arrived at the airport to find our 12:05am (ie midnight) flight delayed. undefined delay. 3 hrs later it was still delayed and no iberia people were in the airport. after much muckraking at the business class lounge, we finally managed to get them to give us a room. i'll get into the details later, but suffice to say that iberia's customer service skills are sorely lacking! 12 hrs delay and we got bakc to the airport - to find no info on our flight! fortunately the flight showed up only about 30 minutes late and we were on our way.

arrived at joburg @ 11.30pm. ran off to the alamo counter to get our car since alamo's offices reputedly closed at midnight. not true - they're a 24 hr operation. managed to fit into our fiat palio which is a bit smaller than a geo metro, but more fun to drice. very go-kart-ish! headed out to pretoria, to the tm center, with explicit instructions to meet the tm center people on the rd just outside pretoria city limits so that we did not get lost. there's a large fountain at the city limit which is where we were to meet. it's unmissable. we missed it and found the tm center without too much difficulty, but nobody home! after discussions for 30 minutes about whether i should go back and find the fountain while jonii sat at the house, we decided to split. i headed out and found the very obviously unmissable fountain which i have no idea how we skipped on the inbound! drove around the fountain a few times, to the consternation of a tow truck guy sitting on the side of the road. since i saw nobody else, i figured the tm-ers had headed back home, which they had!

headed out at 11:30 am the next morn to get to kruger. managed to pick up provisions (sandwich material, water, etc.), a bit of cash, and very narrowly avoided creating a massive pileup since it took a bit to get adjested to driving on the "wrong" side of the road - got yelled at and chased by an irate afrikaaner guy whom i pretended to ignore as he hurled slurs and wanted to "get out the car and sort it out!". managed to depart pretoria alive, and the (usually) 7 hr trip was made in 6 hrs doing 140kph on 100-120kph roads. erally beautiful and scenic places that we got pics of, but could not stop due to lack of time :( got to first camp after seeing zebra and kudu and impala and lots of elephant dung on the road. but we only just made it! camp was beyond wildest expectations - a truly safari experience. i suspect this is how the brits traveled the world. army type tent (very large) with very nice wood furnishings and built in shower and toilet, plus cooking facilities. we got pics. this was valentines day (14th), so we decided to do dinner in the restaurant instead of cooking. not bad considering it was a bit difficult to explain we were veg!

next day started 7am and headed to camp2 - letaba. saw giraffe and a lioness walking on the road in front of us. quite thrilling! nobody else on the road, just us and the lioness walking along! got pretty close and took lots of pics. headed on to meet giraffes and elephants. huge tusker blocked the road and gave us a bit of a scare - flapping ears and making noise. most upsettingly he started to have a hardon for our car - not a fig of speech, literally! we backed up a bit, allowed him to cool down, and resumed our run. giraffes are damn strange and very cool to just come up on to. kruger is weird in that they allow u to do your own thing - dirve around on your own, and basically hunt down the wildlife, so to speak. its sort of like driving in a state park in the US, but with the bonus of seeing cool animals around the next bend in the road. keeping eyes constantly peeled and focused is essential. very different from the guided safaris u see on tv!

more to follow tonight - gotta go see botanical garden now!

Finally connected!

many apologies but when runningn thrrough the bush with lions and
hyenas at the back its hard to stop to update the blog. also the
giraffes are just so damn self-involved and never free up a computer!

Friday, February 11, 2005

on the road agin' ... doh!

as usual, we forgot something. but let's start with the fact that the awareness of the forgetting did not arrive until we were well out into the suburbs and the car was already parked at my work! and we forgot the most important thing of all - the pointit book, which, unfotunately i can't find a link for (i'll upload pics when i return), and the garbage. not that we needed to take the latter with us or anything, tho' i'm sure that thought crossed your seedy minds. but the point-it book is indispensible! especially with our excellent spanish skills!

anyway, we're back home after having checked in all our luggage, and decided we may as well take a shower while we're at it - it's been 8 hours since we awoke, and the rankness is setting in.

btw, i gotta say thank goodness for the tm movement - we think we've got friends in madrid and pretoria - at the tm centers. we'll update with word on how exactly those individuals turn out. jonii talked spanish with the guy (luis) in madrid, and he thought she knew what she was saying. so he started speaking spanish as tho' to a native and jonii was rifling through the spanish phrase-book as fast as she

anyway things are set, and we're headed back to the airport! and this time we're really leaving!!