a view into the sordid life i lead

Thursday, March 24, 2005


When you head from Jo'burg to the township of Soweto, the first thing you notice is the nuclear reactor. The twin towers mirror those you see when entering Capetown. The distinct difference is that the ones in Soweto are completely painted over. One of the towers is muralled with a scenes of Soweto's history. The other is an ad for First National Bank.

Erasmus points out that the towers reflect the culture of Soweto, and tells us that the mural was done for free - somebody (presumably FSB) paid for the paint, and local artists pulled together to create the massive work of art. Our first stop is just a little past the main bus stop, which is swarming with the combi-minibuses. It's around 11am, and this is the low time - so all the buses come back to the roost, I guess.

Erasmus pulls over onto a dirt patch, which looks a little like it could be a spot for a vegetable market, or a parking lot. We're to go with a local guide, a resident of Soweto, who will show us around and take us to a couple of the township homes. The three of us (Katerina, Shawn and myself) go off with our new friend, who's wearing a large floppy brilliantly red hat. It's distinct and sticks out, and I'm wondering why someone would wear a hat quite that large, and I notice that he's got a very large goitre on the side of his head. I assume the hat is to hide it somewhat. I want to ask what the affliction is, but decide not to pry.

We walk along a street that's lined with shanties. In comparison with the slums of India these are quite high end. Several have a small garden around them, and a private toilet - another shack with a pit toilet, or a septic tank. Virtually all the homes are composed of a combination of corrugated sheet-metal and assorted wood. They're painted brightly, in hues that almost make the colony attractive, and inviting. I ask our guide where all the corrugated metal comes from, and he points out the logos on a few - they're remnants of billboards, taxi-stand signs, bus shelters, and storage units. Seems like the resources are the same everywhere in the world - the industrial wastes of corporations and governments become the raw material to house the minions. Many of the houses have a fence around them, some with barbed wire. It's interesting that a house in a shanty-town, made of corrugated scrap, held together with tape and twine needs to be protected with barbed wire.

We're told that the community spirit of the township is very strong. We're taken to a shanty that we can go inside - it's occupied by an older, large lady who has 2 young girls with her. The room is no more than 20ft x 15 ft. It's smaller than my living room, but within it is a bed, a stove, a cabinet, and a washing line. There are normally 4 people that live in this space. The sheet metal is held together with strips of plywood and a few 2x4s frame the whole structure out. The's no insulation, and I comment about it. The woman and our guide confirm that the shacks get miserably hot in the summer and miserably cold in the winter. This may sound odd, but the shack still has an air of a home - like it's not a temporary structure that someone will tear down tomorrow. There's a small garden around the house, and there's space for moving around. This may sound shallow, but this is a hell of a lot better than the slums in Madras and Bombay. I remember walking through one of the slums in T-Nagar, in Madras, along the Cuoum river. There's virtually no space between the shacks there, and there's a constant swell of people. Here it seems there's some space to breathe in.

Johannesburg is home to 3.5 million people. The city houses the haves. The have-nots and those who service the haves live in Soweto. There are 5 million people living in Soweto. I ask our guide about the community effort, and whether people try to move away from the township, now that there are fewer restrictions on their travel and where they can live (outside of economically, that is). There are a handful of schools in Soweto, but none convenient for the residents. Children have to be bussed to schools, and the schools are not free. We're told that the annual fee in the local Soweto school is R80/mo. This sounds pretty reasonable to me, and he agrees. Most of the people in the township can afford it. On the question of moving out of the townships, our guide tells us that many of the residents end up living there even when they've made a fair amount of money. They like the fact of the community, and feel far safer. He says people here can be themselves. You can go to your neighbor's place and ask for food, and they'll give it to you. He says in the city, and in apartment buildings you wouldn't want to ask your neighbor because you don't want them to feel that you are too poor to have sugar or corn meal. It's an interesting take on things, and probably true. Here there's no barrier, since everyone knows why you're here.

There are a huddle of portable toilets - about 5 for each cluster of 20 shacks. They're operated by the government, and are cleaned out regularly. Our guide points out that there are a few people that have their own toilets - the septic tank or pit toilet types. He's not sure how those people got them, but it's definitely not the norm. Those that have them also seem to have their shacks on larger lots, and have much larger gardens. I see several cars in the "driveways" of the shanties. This is definitely not on par with the slums of Asia!

Several of the shanties are marked with a barcode. I assume this is a remnant of the scavenging, but then realize that coincidentally all the barcode stickers are all above the doorways. Our guide tells us that the longer term residents are on a waiting list for RDP housing - the Rehabilitation and Development Project. These shack-owners will get new digs. I ask if there's corruption in the barcode tagging - I suspect it would be quite easy to counterfeit them, or run a whole black-market operation of controlling the shacks while still getting the RDP houses. He claims that does not happen, and that everyone's honest about it. I find it hard to believe, but don't press the issue.

There's no electricity in this part of Soweto, but this is the lowest rung of the township ladder. Capetown's shantytowns all have powerlines, but that's not the case here. Our guide is unable to shed any light on this question, but says the govenment has a plan to start providing electricity to the area. When we walk back to the parking lot, where Erasmus is awaiting us, we're accosted by a few hawkers. They've got stoneware statuettes, and assorted stuff for sale. They claim it's all made in Soweto, and that any purchase we make funds the efforts of local craft workers. I'm not so sure about this, since the stuff they're selling looks exactly like the stuff I've seen at the main markets in Capetown. But who knows, maybe there really is a craft school that teaches them the same stuff. I decide not to buy anything, and the hawker thanks me anyway, and wishes me well.

We head further into Soweto, but we're now seeing the stratification in the township. Soweto is a sprawl. No building stands higher than 2 stories, except for the hospital, which is the largest hospital in Africa, and has a large cluster of at least 6-storey high buildings. As you look out across the township, it's apparent that it's not just a slum. There are the corrugated shanties, brick structures, concrete buildings, and full-on, middle-class homes. All of the black population lived here under apartheid. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Steve Biko all had residences here, but they had actual houses, with yards and cement fences.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Muti Museum

Pretoria Backpackers has a "township tour", which includes some of the famous landmarks in Jo'burg. Kolbe dropped me off in the morning, after we had some discussions about whether De Klerk got too little credit and Mandela too much for the dismantling of the Apartheid system. Kolbe, obviously, felt that De Klerk is not credit enough. I'm not sure if his opinion is colored with his Afrikaner background or not, and I decided that getting into an in-depth debate on the topic might get us thrown out of their place on the last day there!

Erasmus was our tour guide for the trip. I figured that several people would be interested in the tour, but there were only 3 of us - Sean, a kid from Canada who was currently working for an NGO in Uganda, and Katherine, a German student who was doing some non-profit work with an institution in Jo'burg while she had a 6 month hiatus from her university. Erasmus tells us his mother is an artist traveling around Europe. He tells us that she has a gallery in Pretoria, but he does not remember the name of it. Erasmus has the radio tuned to some really cheesy pop station - John Cougar Mellencamp, Cindy Lauper, A-Ha come blasting out. At first I think it's for our benefit, but he's singing along happily, and I start worrying. There are some very good kwaito and afropop stations in Pretoria. But Jacaranda FM, this cheesy US-pop station is what the locals listen to. It's the same thing the world over - American music is what's cool.

We pick Katerina up at a McDonald's in JoBurg where a bunch of white guys are asking for money for some charity at a large intersection. There's no apparent reason for giving them money - there's no clear charity sign or any indication of where the money will go. Erasmus says it's a con that goes on all the time - people set up shop pretending to be collecting money for some good cause even tho' there's no indication of what the cause is.

We drive around Joburg a bit, then hit a street filled with Indian merchants. Erasmus pulls up outside a chemist shop on a narrow street close to downtown Joburg.

The sign says Naidoo Medicals. There are two storefronts, both with Naidoo on the banner, right next to each other. One is a regular chemist, like you'd see in India, dispensing bandaids, listerine, and the usual assorted drugs. The other's sign says "Museum of Man and Science, The King of Muti, Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies". It has animal hides, incense, drums, antlers and assorted bark and twigs all over. Basically like a traditional ayurvedic herbs store in any city in India, except for the animal parts. Go here for a description and history of the Muti Museum (pics also).

The place is too hard to describe - just go to the link above. The Naidoo's are of Indian descent. I walk up to the counter to ask the manager about the place and notice that there's a picture of Kali, the Indian goddess, and a little puja setup with Ganesh and a couple of other Hindu gods, with a ghee lamp. I talk to the lady who runs the shop (presumably Mrs. Naidoo) and it turns out they are Tamil! I wanted to get a full discussion going with her, but it turns out that the rest of the gang on my tour is really not that interested, and are ready to move on! The Muti Museum is a regular stop on pretty much every Joburg tour. It's not a high point, but it gives you a very interesting perspective on integration into a community, and what's really going on in South Africa.

I ask Erasmus about whether people consider it to be a novelty or they actually believe in "muti" and use it regularly. He believes in it and thinks it has a lot of value, but I can't really get much more of an in-depth answer from him. Seems like he's just running his tourist spiel! It turns out that the idea of using traditional/herbal medical treatments is very deeply rooted in (black) South African culture. It's just not very apparent when you're traveling around the country because it seems like people try to distance themselves from it, for the same reasons as in India and elsewhere - it's thought to be quackery by the west.

There's a dark side to "muti" also - human sacrifice. There were a bunch of murders in the UK a few years back (2002, I think) that were reported to be linked to "muti" rituals. It's something I need to look more deeply into.

It's weird to me that the most important herbal mendicant in the largest town in South Africa is a Tamil Indian!

Friday, March 04, 2005

One last attempt at Table Mountain

Wednesday, being the last day that we were in Capetown, we decided had to be Table Mountain day. But first we headed out to The Real Cheese, a little shop out in the Capetown suburb of Mowbray (considered a sketchy neighborhood by some, but these people obviously have never been to a really "sketchy" neighborhood). This was the place that the Savoy Cabbage got their cheese from. We tasted and bought a bunch of stuff - pretty much all of it from the same local dairy (Cremalat) because it tasted the best. The best stuff we tried was a creamy, fresh feta. It was like a combination of goat cheese and feta (turned out to be goat feta), with the consistency of a goat cheese - spreadable. The stuff was so good we decided to get a couple of blocks of it!

After wandering about this "sketchy" neighborhood a bit and finding it had nothing to offer other than a couple of neighborhoody cafes, we headed back to the city to prepare for our trek up table mountain.

Lunch, nap, and tea interjected, and we headed up with Warren, our poor guide. Warren's self-styled monicker should have warned us about what was in store for us. THis was the first day in a week that there was no cloud cover over the mountain. We drove up around 4pm to the entrace to the cable car. There was a fair amount of wind, but nothing that we thought would be stopping anyone from going up. When we got up to the counter to get tickets for hte cable car, we found a sign that said "Service suspended due to high winds". So there it was - our last chance to get up table mountain obstructed by high winds. The lady at the counter was indignant when we showed our disappointment. She basically told us that the lift was operating until about an hour ago, so why the hell did we wait until then?! I told her we wanted to come up for the sunset, which didn't seem to make any impression on her.

Jonii decided that the trip had to end on a good note and that we had to go to a very good restaurant. We had read that the best Indian restaurant in South Africa was Bukhara, in Capetown. My choice was anything but Indian, given that there's rarely good Indian anyplace, and we've had to endure some god-awful Indian places (eg. Jaipur in Capetown, which just sucks). Those who know Jonii will not be surprised that her desire won out!

We drove out to Noordhoek, a beautiful beach about 30 miles south of Capetown, to hang and meditate.

THe beach is really nice - white sand, quite remote. I was surprised that there was nobody on the beach until we got to it and parked our car. The gale-force winds would make any attempts to hang out on the beach miserable. The waves coming onto shore were practically vertical - the wind was pushing back that hard. THere's no way I could take pictures of it since the sand was blowing so hard, but there were waves that had reverse pipelines - moving forward, but the crest actually falling back!

I had to try out the Atlantic ocean - I had not been in the ocean even once since arriving in South Africa! Warren's coaxing me to get into the ocean gave me some pause - he's got a wicked side which I've learned to become aware of. The Atlantic ocean around Capetown is great for about 6 seconds. After that hypothermia sets in. I can't imagine swimming without a full body wetsuit. The water is just insanely cold - about the same as northern California!

Every time we meet Warren there's a different girl around. Tonight we met Sheryl, who lives in Petaluma, but is South African. She's very interesting - a life that I'd love to write more about, but probably shouldn't.
Sheryl's been in the US since she was 17 or 18 I think. SHe got married to a guy, had 2 daughters, divorced the guy, and has been traveling around the US for the last 18 years to keep close to her kids (they have joint custody). She's the most positive person I've met so far - at least given the hardships she's gone through in the US. Anyway, Jonii and I take a strong liking to her, and she decides to join us at Bukhara.

Bukhara is good. Not on par with the best Indian in Chicago (Raj Darbar), but definitely good. I learn at Bukhara that naan has eggs in it, from Sheryl. This is a point of some debate, since I hold strong that naan absolutely does not have any egg in it, having worked at India Cafe all those years ago. But the waiter asked the chef, and told us that they use egg whites in the preparation of their naan. I was ready to write this off a a quirk of South African Indian restaurants, but subsequently have found that most Indian restaurants use egg whites in preparing their naan. Learn something new every day, I guess! Bukhara is a loud place, with huge tables and heavy chairs. Interestingly, they don't give you napkins - they give you a full on bib, printed with their logo. It's the strangest thing I've ever seen in a restaurant! I'm not sure if I dislike the novelty of it, but it's a little odd to go to a restaurant and have a bib on, you know?!

After dinner we head to Asoka, Son of Dharma, our old haunt for drinks. I would highly recommend this place to anyone that visits capetown. Come to think of it, I need to create a list of food and drink places that are an absolute must to visit on a trip to Capetown!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Wine and Chocolate Experience

Our attempts to get to table mountain were thwarted by the constant table cloth ever since Saturday. But we had a free invite to The Chocolate and Wine Experience (note that it's not just a tasting) out at the Waterford vineyards. We tried to get Warren to go, but he doesn't drink, so we decided not to drag him along kicking and screaming.

The Waterford is a beautiful estate. Check it out at It's a taste of tuscany in the western cape.

I'm of two minds about the entire idea of recreating a place with no integration of the local culture. None of the vineyards that we've been to have anything that's distinctly South African. They've all tried to recreate a European aesthetic, probably because they're all white European descendants, with arguable success. Even the most successful recreations (for example the Waterford), however, have a not-quite-there air about them. They're a stage set for the affluent to forget about the reality of Africa that lies within 5 miles of the entrance. It's a common thread in all 3rd world contries tho', not just those that have such a strong European connection. (But then again, is there any place in the 3rd world that did not have a European overlord?). The rich want to escape the local culture to build fabulous facsimiles of foreign, romantic locales. I'm overstating the case here a bit, since the Waterford really is amazingly beautiful with its terracotta roofs, stucco walls, and massive courtyard which is where the wine-tasting takes place, surrounded by vineyards, mountains and oak trees (yup, more oak trees!).

It could be argued that the entire wine country experience in the Stellenbosch is a show. However, some of the vineyards make the stage less tacky than others. Dellheim and Blaauwklippen are total tourist traps that have "Tacky" stencilled on their nameplates. You stand in line for the tastings, and feel like a high-school kid drinking surreptitiously because you look old enough. Jordan, Warwick and Waterford are class acts, where you are served at a table, and a pretty young waitress explains the libations and encourages you to keep drinking! Seems like it should be a well known secret: make the guest feel welcome and they'll head off hauling a case of wine; treat them like crap and they'll avoid you. This basic theory seems to be missing in many of the vineyards, and it's damn unfortunate. I'm completely making this up, but it's possible that the fact that I'm Indian may have contributed to the bad service at some of these places - I've heard both before and after our trip that inter-racial couples are still a bit of a weirdness in some places in SA.

The Waterford is less than 10 years old, but the setting gives it the air of an old Italian villa which has been tended for a hundred years.
The tasting at the Waterford is definitely a gimmick, but as good as a gimmick gets! The tasting starts off with white wine - which we're not that crazy about, but tolerate since it's free! These guys make great wine. Even the whites make an impression on us - they're really that good. The focal-point of the Waterford visit is, of course, the chocolate and wine, which is a pairing of specialty Waterford chocolates paired with Waterford red and dessert wines. The idea is similar to cheese pairings - the different chocolates complement specific flavors in the wine, thus heightening the experience of the wine. I'm cynical.

After the white wines (a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, the best of which was the Chenin Blanc), a large wooden block, about the size of a large cigar box was put down in front of us, with a thumb-tacked vellum parchment. The parchment was a wine flight printout - 3 wines paired with 3 chocolates. The Kevin Arnold Shiraz paired with rock-salt dark chocolate, the Waterford Cabernet Sauvignon paired with masala chai milk chocolate and the Waterford Heatherleigh, a dessert wine, paired with a raisin/current white choc. The setting is damn beautiful. Even my cynical yuppie mind is thinking "man this is going to taste good!".

When we went on our jaunts of the different vineyards on Saturday, we mentioned to a few of the waitstaff that we had tried to get to the Waterford and got this wine and choc tasting coupon. Pretty much everyone we told this to was envious. Now we know why. The idea of choc and wine may sound odd and bourgeous and overly decadent, but it works! It's damn nice to sit at the foothills of a mountain, surrounded by vineyards and fake Tuscany and fountains, and sip wine and nibble on fine chocolate. Obviously, we ended up bringing back a few bottles - the stuff really is that good! Definitely an Experince, rather than a Tasting.

If you're interested in the Waterford, or visiting them, their info is on their website.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

best coffee in capetown

capetown is the film capital of south africa. in that respect there are parts of capetown that have an uncanny resemblance to santa monica. the place most so is probably vida e caffe, on kloof street and rheede street. it's full of the bronzed and the beautiful - eye candy galore. the place has the best coffee around. plus they've got great portuguese bread and pastries. excellent place to start off the morning :-) and it became a regular hangout for us: the bronzed and beautiful!

to give you an image, it's like sitting at diedrich's on montana and 11th in santa monica. the dress code is about the same. the attitude is about the same. there are young, beautiful people hanging about in the middle of a work day. the coffee is FAR better. i've got to figure out how it is that a whole segment of the population can afford to drink coffee at these expensive hang-out places when they should be working!

parking in capetown is a very interesting experience. when we got into the LSB, we asked ollie the punk what the parking situ was. he said it's free from 5pm, but that we needed to go negotiate the price for the day. also, we needed to tip the parking attendants at night so the car did not get jacked. obviously we did not know what the heck any of that meant. the night before, when we walked out of the LSB and get a couple of things out of our rentacar, a guy accosted us saying "i'll take care of your car, and you just need to take care of me a bit". what that meant was not clear, but i had R7 in my pocket (about $1.25), which i gave to him. i think the standard overnight tip is about R10 (about $1.75), which we found out after the fact.

the night shift ends at 8am, and a different guy shows up that you need to negotiate parking fees with. a guy with a reflective bib (like the highway construction workers in the US) came up to us when we went over to the car in the morning, and basically told us that he would give us a good deal on several days' parking. since we had no gauge of what that meant, we negotiated a R60 (about $10) fee for 5 days. seemed fair to not have your car broken into. if indeed your car *does* get broken into. we figured what the hell - cheaper and easier than driving around trying to find a spot.

we heard later from one of the residents at the LSB that they had seen a car getting its windows smashed on a less traversed street a couple of nights earlier. i doubt that long street has such issues, since there are constantly people around.

carjackings are the most notorious crime in south africa. most occur in johannesburg. and the carjackings are not petty crimes - it's apparently one of the major organized crime problems in the country. jo'burg has a very vioulent history of hijackings, as pretty much every travel guide will tell you. the issue has diminished greatly in the last few years, thanks to tough policing. and the problem appears to be most in jo'burg.

no matter where you try to park in capetown (and presumably any large town in south africa), there's a guy that jumps out of the shadows and directs you into the spot, and says he'll watch your car. these guys are pretty much anywhere there's a commercial area. the going rate seems to be about R2 per hour. this is so that your car does not get jacked. i wonder if your car would get jacked if you did not pay :) there were a couple of times when i did not have enough change, and the parking guy just looked surly, but didn't really do anything about it. there was one time when the parking guy said that he expected R10 as i was walking away from the car, and i gave him R4 when i returned, and we discussed things for a while, and he walked off. seems altogether random!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Cabbage part 2

We wanted to take Warren out to dinner since it was so hard to get him to do anything, and we figured he might be slightly depressed due to not having his old MIU buds. So we made a booking at our favorite place in the city - the Savoy Cabbage.

We headed back to Capetown, took a nap (now a regular siesta/pranza-type thing),hooked up with Warren in Kemps Bay, which is just over the lower ridge of table mountain. The pic below gives you an idea of what this area looks like.

We met Warren's stepbrother Rupert and ex-girlfriend Sarah (probably the wrong name, but I just can't remember right now), after getting lost in Kemps bay and walking into the wrong restaurants a few times. Kemps bay is more Florida than California. Basically Capetown neighborhoods seem to vacillate between somewhere on the Florida/Mediterranean coast and California coast. The views are beautiful no matter where you are tho'!

After a couple of drinks, hanging about and berating Warren, we headed back to Hout and Buitengracht for, we hoped, a meal that would blow these guys away.

I've come to realize that the universe is not always on my side. I've got a tendency to hype stuff up because I'm very excited by my first experience with finding something new. Turns out not everybody shares in the enthusiasm, but also that the 2nd try often doesn't come up to par. As is probably obvious by now, the Savoy Cabbage did not meet the high expectations that we had set for it given the first encounter we had.

The chef had been gracious enough to create a different vegetarian entree for us - cabbage rolls. They were better than they sound, but not as good as we expected. Basically the high point in the evening was the wine and the fact that we could all just hang out. Warren's take on the tomato tart that we had initially thought was magnificent was that it looked like a cartoon. Also, the adzuki bean dish that we were initially so taken in by had fallen from its pedestal - the beans were hard, and the flavor was lacking. The game dish that Rupert ordered was also not all that, so all in all it was a wash. Maybe it was a bad night, so I'd still recommend the place for those visiting Capetown.

We headed to the Buena Vista Social Cafe after dinner, mainly because Rupert smokes and I could have a cigar smoking buddy. Rupert was nice enough to buy me a Cuban cigar (a Cifuentes V). I'm not a cigar smoker, so I have no idea what all the buzz about Cubans is - at least this one was not all that pleasant. Rupert's cherry flavord drum cigarettes was a better smoke than the cigar. But the mojito was still good!

party central

long street backpackers is a very cool looking place from the outside - balcony overlooking long street, with a great african bar/restaurant/live-music venue right across the street. plus there's a great mural on the front face, and walking in it feels pretty cool - open courtyard, multiple levels of rooms, etc.

we checked in after finding out that we had arrived in the nick of time for parking - after 5pm on friday parking is free. sort of. more on that in a bit. the reception at long-street backpackers (LSB from here on) doubles as the bar. and the receptionist we were greeted by was a south african punk. no visible punk markings or anything outside of a couple of tattoos and doc martens, but total punk look. and i mean dockworker punk, not trafalgar square pink hair punk. we couldn't understand more than 20% of what this guy, ollie, said. after attempting to convey messages, we finally understood that we were to give him a 30 rand room key deposit, and moved into the only double room with built-in bath/toilet on the premises. conveniently it had one window which opened onto the balcony. the balcony overlooked the street, directly across from all the loud bars.

we decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood and also call warren mac carthy, long-lost miu'er from the good-ole-days. the real hustle and bustle of long street extends about 10 blocks. lots of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc. obviously, given our gastronomical snobbishness, we found the best coffee place and some very good restaurants within the first few minutes :-)

warren looks about the same as he ever did. it's a strange thing with ex-miu-ers. seems like the passage of time is very fluid - seeing each other after 12 years felt like no more than a couple of weeks. we had dinner at a caribbean place called mojito's, just down the street (excellent food) and just wandered about aimlessly talking.

returning to the LSB, we were given the full experience of the long-street scene. people start filtering into the clubs at around 10pm, and the partying starts around midnight. most clubs seem to go through to 6am. mama africa, the place directly across from the LSB has a live african band playing until about 2am or thereabouts. we got to hear them quite clearly from our room off the balcony :-) i guess the general feeling is that you'll sleep when you get home! the music was very good, but it can still be a bit trying after exhaustingly long drives. i would have loved to go out and join the partying, but there's only so much you can do in a day!