Friday, May 30, 2014

Cape Town: Getting Home

I had time for a leisurely breakfast at my favorite coffee shop before leaving for the airport.  Cape Town is such a laid-back and friendly city that I felt very much at home there, and was sorry to have to leave. I definitely would like to return. My visit was so short, there were a number of things I didn't have a chance to do, like visit Robben Island, or climb Table Mountain. Still, I'd rather have a short visit than no visit at all. A few observations:
  • Pork Pie hats!  I saw men wearing them everywhere.
  • Walking: Being a pedestrian in Cape Town can be a challenge, especially if you're from a country where people drive on the right.  There aren't any crosswalks, except at lights (which they call robots), and cars don't necessarily stop at red lights at night.  On the other hand, I didn't sense that drivers felt entitled to hit pedestrians, and no prissy insistence that pedestrians stay confined to crosswalks, an attitude I encounter almost every day in the US.  
  • English is only one of eleven official languages in South Africa.  In Cape Town, English is the third-most commonly spoken language, after Xhosa and Afrikaans.  Everyone speaks English, but it's likely not to be the first language of most people you meet and sometimes it can be difficult to understand the accents, especially over the phone, as I learned when I called to book a cab to take me to the airport.  Near the end of the conversation, the man I was speaking to asked a question I couldn't understand.  I asked him to repeat himself and still couldn't understand, so I said "yes" and hung up with the vague, unhappy suspicion that I had unwittingly cancelled the whole transaction.  WHICH I HAD.  (Always call back later to confirm.) I feel like a dolt for not being able to effortlessly switch between languages the way everybody else in the world can.
  • It's late autumn there--and I've heard that winter in Cape Town can be miserable and rainy.  I was lucky and enjoyed gorgeous weather almost every day: sunny, very dry, and windy; the sort of days where you're warm in the sun, but need a sweater if you're in the shade.  If I could re-do this trip, I'd pack a scarf and a wool sweater.
In Johannesburg, or Joburg as they call it, you have to go through passport control to get out of the country and when it was my turn, the agent swiped my passport and then his eyes bugged out of his head and he said, "It can't be!" He swiped it again, pursed his lips for a minute, didn't seem completely satisfied, but ultimately decided that his original assumption that whatever the computer told him about me couldn't be true and he shrugged and returned my passport and I was on my way.  (I guess I will never know what the issue was.)

Tambo airport is pretty hectic--"hectic" is used as a slang term in South Africa, meaning "bad."  It is however, your LAST CHANCE TO BUY AN OSTRICH EGG.   I found my gate and soon realized with dismay that I was surrounded by elderly Americans who had been on safari. How did I know they'd been on safari?  They were wearing khaki vests and pants with more pockets than a porcupine has quills.  They were, of course, very loud and were doing silly things like high-fiving each other after finding a shop that sold bottled water.  One group of them wandered away and left their luggage unattended for a good fifteen minutes.  I KNOW I said earlier that one shouldn't assume that all Americans are big, fat, stupid, and obnoxious, but these people were doing their best to validate all the stereotypes.

Eventually, as if informed by telepathy, people started lining up.  There hadn't been any sort of announcement that our flight would board, but I could see that the line wasn't going to get any shorter so I took my place in it, and soon airport officials began organizing us into two lines, according to sex. ("This line please, beautiful laidees.")  That was pretty ominous and I could see preparations for some heavy-duty security.  (We had already been through the typical airport security screening.)

All of us in the ladies' line were firmly frisked by female security guards and then our carry on bags were searched.  Men were searched by male guards.  Then we stood in a different line, slightly closer to the jetway, and waited until absolutely everybody had been searched. I made conversation with the people in front of me, two men and a ten year old boy, all from Oklahoma. (They were not part of the elderly safari group.) They had taken the boy to Africa for his first big hunting trip and they were worried about how they'd ever get their guns back into the US.  It seems a vital piece of paperwork may have been kept by the S. African government.  The delay caused by the long boarding process meant they would definitely miss their connecting flight to Houston.

Eventually we began to shuffle forward.  About halfway to the plane, we were each given a numbered card, which had to be handed to a security officer at the entrance to the plane--to make sure nobody left the line and didn't board.

God, this is getting long, and it's not as funny in writing as it is in my head.  Anyhoo, we landed in Dakar without incident.  This was a refueling non-layover, in which some people get off, but the rest of us stay on the plane, and then new people join the flight.  After the cleaning crew and caterers had been through the cabin, Senegalese security boarded the plane and searched every seat--going through the pockets, feeling under the headrests, etc.  It was 1:00am, our time, so you can imagine the disoriented grumpiness.  Once that was over, there was an announcement:  "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for cooperating with phase one of the security process."  Before you can say OMGWATSPHASETWO,   you're directed to take all your hand luggage out of the overhead and off the floor.  You hold everything in your lap and they come through the cabin and remove everything that isn't claimed.

The most safariest of the safari ladies didn't pay attention to the instructions and security was flapping her packages of freeze-dried antelope, or whatever the hell it was she had in the overhead, shouting, "Ma'am is this yours?"  She seemed barely responsive and her friends had to vouch for her belongings.  (Later, when she got up to go to the bathroom, she paused at my seat, seemingly unable to walk any further, and I realized she must have taken enough benzos to drop an ox.  I seriously thought she was going to puke on me, but she somehow managed to drag herself the rest of the way to the bathroom.)

Anyway, after the rigorous two-phase security process came the ritual baptism with insecticide (I was old hat now) and we were off for Washington.  I slept pretty well on the plane, and since we landed at 6:30 am, there were no lines to get through customs and passport control.  I actually felt well enough to stop at the Wegman's in Gainesville on the way home, and arrived in Charlottesville with a week's worth of groceries.  I'm still curious about the guys from Oklahoma--did they get their guns back?  Did they ever make it to Houston?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cape Town III

My third day in Cape Town, Brigid met me at my house in the morning and we walked to the art school campus and had coffee and muffins together at a cafe.  Then Brigid had to go to class and I was on my own. I didn't want to do anything ambitious and planned to familiarize myself with the geography and to buy gifts for Jon and the kids at home.

I wandered down Long St and spent the morning happily pottering around in antiques shops.  There are tons of antiques in Cape Town!  Nautical stuff and jewelry and an abundance of cut glass liquor decanters.  If I'd known, I'd have brought an empty suitcase and would now be enjoying a home bar like something in a BBC movie.  I bought an old copy (1930's) of Mrs. Beaton's because I love vintage cookbooks, and also a cookbook full of recipes from the Western Cape for Seamus.

One incident that morning:  Many of the shops require that you be buzzed in.  A group of women were very loud about asking to be buzzed into one of the antique shops.  Their accents and behavior were American and I entered the shop with them.  The shopkeeper said something like, "Before I make any assumptions, I'll ask you where you are from."  (Implying that he thought they were Americans, but didn't want to offend them by accusing them of being Americans when they weren't.)  The ladies were Canadian and they seemed quite pleased with themselves for not being Americans.

Can I just say that I'm tired of the stereotype of Americans as the boors of the world?  I know I accused myself in an earlier post of being a big, fat, stupid, electricity-hogging American, and when I tell you about my trip home, you'll see that I had reason to blush for my countrymen,  but the rudest tourist I've ever seen was British, having a big, screaming tantrum in a restaurant in Rome because he didn't want pasta, he wanted fish.  I was a few steps behind the group of Canadians all through the antique shops and I wouldn't say they were rude, but they were definitely obnoxious.  Now, it would be outrageous to suggest that all Canadians are obnoxious, just because these ladies were, so why is it acceptable to do the same to Americans?  (And it is often Americans who indulge in deriding their fellow Americans.)

Long St.

Anyway, after Long St., I walked down to Greenmarket Square, an open-air market.  I've had terrible luck with open air markets in the past.  In Lisbon, we once walked an interminable distance to a flea market that was supposedly a local secret, only to find vendors selling beat up old landlines and scratched CDs.  In Rome, Brigid and I got up early on a Sunday and walked to the much-touted porta portese flea market and found an endless street of stuff that could easily be found in any Wal-mart.

So I had low expectations for Greenmarket Square, but it turned out to be a lot of fun.  The sun was shining, the market was lively, and if the same carvings and objects could be found in any of the African markets in Cape Town, they were interesting and colorful. (One souvenir you see everywhere in Cape Town is the ostrich egg.  Almost every shop has a basket full.  They cost about $8.  I didn't buy one.)

Greenmarket Square

After a stop at my little house for a potty break, I took a walk through Bo-Kaap, the neighborhood I stayed in and then walked to De Waterkant, which is adjacent to Bo-Kaap.  In De Waterkant, I wandered through a number of upscale shops and more antique shops as well.  When I caught myself nearly buying a burlap clothespins bag labeled PEGS, I had to take a moment and get a grip.  This was at a store called Nap, which would be HUGELY popular in the US.  Then I found SPAR, a fancy grocery store.  (Like a small-scale Wegmans.)  I love exploring grocery stores in foreign countries! They had a busy deli, but I didn't see a seating area.  I'm guessing the people who were buying lunch there were carrying it back to their offices.  Eventually I ate a late lunch at the Cafe Manhattan on Waterkant St.

Corner of Wale & Rose St, about 1 block from my house

A street in Bo-Kaap, with Table Mountain in the distance


Brigid and I met for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant.  We ordered a tapas combo and it comes on a giant pancake made from rice flour.  There is no cutlery, but you get a basket of rice pancake, which you use to scoop up your food.  (They come to your table and pour warm water over your hands before serving.)  We finished with Ethiopian coffee, which is served with popcorn.
Ethiopian coffee


Cape Town IV: UCT and the Rhodes Memorial

My third day in Cape Town (a Tuesday), I took the Jammie shuttle to the upper campus at the University of Cape Town, where Brigid met me.  It was a lovely walk to meet the Jammie, with Table Mountain looming over the city, making ordinary city streets look extraordinary.

On the walk from my house to the art school campus

Pretty sure that's what they call "The Lion's Rump"

There's a trail from campus to the Rhodes Memorial, a grandiose structure perched high on a hill.  I'm not so sure how I feel about Rhodes as a person, but there is certainly a grand view from his memorial.






Nearby is a tea garden, where we ate lunch at an outdoor table with a view down to the eastern side of Cape Town.
Thatch-roofed restaurant

The view from our table

Brigid had to get to class, so I wandered around for a while.  The University of Cape Town was founded in 1829 and is the second-oldest University on the African continent.  Surely it has the most majestic setting of any university in the world.

Jameson Hall



A long view of the Upper Campus

The buildings are covered with Virginia Creeper

I walked down to the middle campus, where there is a sculpture garden, and pleasing modern architecture.
Middle Campus




After class, we walked into Rondebosch and since I was on an architectural mission, we took a little tour of the Baxter Theater.

Baxter Theater


It was the night for Brigid's yoga class and she invited me to go along, so we walked to the Hare Krishna Institute near her house.  It was a great class--a little challenging, but not impossible, and exactly what I needed after spending eighteen hours in a plane.  After yoga, you go down to the dining room and they give you a vegan dinner, which was delicious.  It's a drop-in, pay-as-you go situation and the cost for yoga class and dinner was something like five or six dollars per person.  I really enjoyed the yoga class and participating in a non-tourist activity.

Cape Town V: Simons Town

Tuesday evening, we learned that the next day was election day, and so, a public holiday and there would be no school.  (According to Brigid,  this is the first election in South Africa in which people who were born after Apartheid ended were old enough to vote.) We tried to book a guided hike up Table Mountain, but because of the short notice, we were unable to.  (It is not recommended to hike Table Mountain on your own.)  We decided to take the train to Simons Town instead.

Simons Town is the headquarters of the South African navy.  It sits on False Bay (the Indian Ocean side of the Cape Peninsula) about a one-hour train journey from Cape Town.  All the guide books say that this is one of the great train journeys of the world, because of how close the train goes to the sea.

Before I left for Cape Town, I did some research into public transportation.  Invariably, you come across forums in which someone has asked, "Is it safe to ride the train in Cape Town?"  The first response will be something like, "No! It is not safe to take the trains in Cape Town."  The second responder will call the first responder an idiot and say that it is perfectly safe to take the trains in Cape Town.  Then will come more measured responses, "Yes, the trains are safe, but...."  Some sites advised buying a first class ticket, and all of them cautioned that you should never sit in an empty car.

We couldn't buy any sort of ticket at all, since the ticket booth was closed, but we chose a car with other people in it and all was well.  There were some very rowdy young men who held the train doors open and leaned out as it went, but they were more a danger to themselves than to anyone else on the train.  A lot of passengers were carrying their surf boards.

After a few stops, a woman got on the train and sat across from us and began to talk---was this the train to Kalk Bay, she was afraid of trains, she came from a place where there were no trains.  She proceeded to tell us about all her past misadventures with public transportation, which were many and usually ended in having to be rescued by her father.  I admit, I was a little irritated.  I wanted to look out the window and not talk.

Then a crowd of police officers entered our car and stood menacingly over mine and Brigid's seats.  What if they asked us for our tickets?  The booth was closed in Rondebosch?  A likely story!  Suddenly, the talkative lady became like a best friend and we hung on her every word, hoping that this would somehow divert the policemen's attention from us.  I was also absurdly worried that our new friend would be disappointed in us for riding the train without a ticket.

The police left our car without speaking to us, and the talkative lady got off the train (she was a really, really nice lady and I felt ashamed of myself for being irritated).  I took about 5,000 pictures from the train, which goes very close to the water.









When we got to Simons Town, they asked us to show our tickets, but when we explained about the ticket booth being closed, the lady just shrugged as if she'd known it all along and they asked us to by tickets there.  Two round-trip, first class tickets were 42 rand (about $4.20).

 Unfortunately the Simons Town museum was closed for election day.   I wanted to see the exhibit about  Just Nuisance, a great dane who was an official member of the navy and who achieved the rank of able seaman.  Simons Town is very pretty and we explored the shops and at lunch at a restaurant on the water, and took a scenic walk up a steep hill overlooking the harbor. 

Simons Town


Residential street in Simons Town

Once we got home, we had dinner at Brigid's friend's flat--she cooked a delicious dinner and we had a lovely evening together.  Out on Brigid's friend's balcony, I looked at the sky and was startled to realize that all the stars where different.  Of course I knew that the constellations are different in the southern hemisphere, but even knowing that, it was still a shock to see the unfamiliar stars.

Cape Town: Museums and Galleries

My last full day in Cape Town, Brigid had a busy class schedule, so I decided to see some museums in town.  I headed first to the Bo-Kaap museum, around the corner from my house.  I really liked the neighborhood I stayed in, with its brightly colored houses, the call to prayer every morning, and the noon gun booming out from Signal Hill every day.

Bo-Kaap





Bo-Kaap is also known as the Malay Quarter.  It's located just on the edge of the city center, and many of the houses date to the 1830s, although I believe the area was first settled in the 1700's, and the Bo-Kaap museum itself was once a residence and dates to the 1760's.  Slaves were brought to the Cape by the Dutch in the 1600's and 1700's, of whom some came from Malaysia, hence the "Malay Quarter."  The streets are narrow and cobblestoned, there are numerous mosques, and the houses are painted with saturated colors.  There's also a cookbook highlighting recipes from the area (Bo-Kaap Kitchen) and now I am kicking myself for not buying it when I was there.  It looks like they sell it at Woolworth's, one of the main grocery stores in Cape Town.  Maybe I can ask Brigid to bring me back a copy.

The Bo-Kaap museum exhibited the history of the neighborhood and described the affects of racial segregation and apartheid.  There were also some lovely artifacts, such as this mother of pearl plate.



The Castle of Good Hope was built by the Dutch as a defensive fort, in 1666.  It's a massive, pentagon-shaped, stone structure on Strand St--the main road into town if you're coming from the airport--so you can't miss it.  I almost didn't bother to visit the castle.  I grew up near another 1600's fort (Fort Niagara, built by the French in 1679) and we would swim and picnic there practically every weekend of my childhood.  I figured if you've seen one 1600's fort, you've seen them all, and that's almost true.



Actually,  I'm glad I went to the Castle, because it has some fantastic exhibits, such as the William Fehr Collection--exquisite furniture, art, and domestic objects from the period which furnish the residential part of the castle.  There is also an installation of photographs by Per-Anders Pettersson, a Swedish photographer who has lived in South Africa for twenty years.  Pettersson himself was there, willing to answer questions, but I was too shy to approach him.  I do feel privileged to have been able to see it.

Below, one of the paintings in the William Fehr Collection of Cape Town, seen from Table Bay.  (Image found here.)


Pictured below is a bit of wit carved into the doorway of the officers' prison.
Miss Reece's Hotel Lodging for Single Gentle Men

I took the guided tour, which does not take you through the exhibits, and then spent quite a long time in the castle's three museums.

Wandering around the Castle

This beauty was roaming free throughout the castle grounds

Eventually, I ended up on the roof of the castle's outer wall, which I had all to myself and where I could sit down and rest my back on the sun-warmed stone and study my map and guidebooks.

The upper walls of the fort

Cape Town, with Signal Hill in the background

Table Mountain, obscured by clouds


I was pick pocketed after leaving the Castle because I'd put my camera into the pocket of my hoodie, which I knew was stupid.  The moment it happened, I knew and I turned around and saw a man hurrying away.  Reacting purely out of instinct, I caught up to him and said, "Excuse me, you took my camera."  For a moment, he looked surprised, then sheepish.  He said, "Eish," a South African slang term*, which expresses an inability to explain something, and he handed it back to me, and I said "thank you."  A nearby street vendor was amused and laughed.  It felt more like a game than a crime, but I still felt a bit rattled and walked home because I wanted to be off the street for a while.

Later, I stopped at an Italian restaurant for a late lunch because I wondered what in the world South African pizza would taste like.  (Quite good.)  A note about the food: Every meal I ate in Cape Town was delicious.  As far as restaurants go, Cape Town reminds me of the United States because you will find ethnic restaurants from all over the world.  I even saw a Mexican restaurant.  

While I waited for the pizza to be prepared, I watched a small flatbed truck, already loaded with a pile of logs, attempt to tow an old BMW, with what appeared to be a frayed bathrobe belt.  The truck started driving, the bathrobe belt stretched and stretched, and incredibly, the BMW moved.  At which point the truck stopped for a red light, and the BMW, now moving on momentum, nearly crashed into it.  

In the evening, I met Brigid at the Hidding Campus, where UCT's art school is located and she took me to the Dawn of Apartheid exhibit. Margaret Bourke-White visited South Africa in 1949, and in this exhibit, her photographs from that trip were displayed along side photographs from the American South and the dust bowl; a moving display.

It happened to be First Thursday, which is just like First Friday here, in which all the galleries are open to the public and serve wine.  We met one of Brigid's friends and set off on a tour of Cape Town's galleries. This was tons of fun, though it was raining and we got utterly soaked.  We went to several galleries.  I think my favorite piece was a video installation--a sped-up film of Cape Town's minibus cab terminal.  We were mesmerized by it for quite a while.  (Mini bus cabs are a Cape Town institution.  They're minivans and function like a bus/taxi hybrid.  One guy drives, and another hangs his head out the window yelling at people to encourage them to board.  They're notorious for maniacal driving and packing as many people as possible into the vans.)  I liked seeing the local, homegrown art.  Not that I'm qualified to be a judge of these things, but Cape Town seems to have a lively arts scene--tons of people came out in the pouring rain to tour the galleries--and it is the World Design Capital for 2014.

We ended the evening with dinner at a restaurant on Long St.  I had an ostrich burger and it was fantastic.  This might have been my favorite meal of the trip.  Ostrich does not taste like chicken--or duck, as I was expecting.  The meat is rich and tender and crumbly.  It went marvelously with the beet pickle which was served with it.

Thus ended my last full day in Cape Town. Brigid had an early class the next morning so we said a sad goodbye in the cab. :( 

*You might enjoy this guide to South African slang. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cape Town II: Cape of Good Hope

I was wide awake at 4:00 am on my first full day in Cape Town.  I walked around the house in the dark and found what I hoped would turn out to be a circuit breaker box. (It was.)  There was nothing to do but go back to bed and wait for morning, and at 6:00 am, there was a loud, melodious call which I realized was the call to prayer, as the neighborhood I stayed in is mostly Muslim.  This was my wake up call every morning, and it was lovely.

Brigid and I had planned to meet at my house, and I was very concerned she wouldn't be able to find me and it seemed like a miracle when promptly at 9:00, there was a knock at the door and there she was, standing on the stoop.  It was a very joyful reunion.  We went to Haas, the coffee shop at the end of my street, and had a fantastic breakfast, and my first cup of coffee in two days.

UCT's main campus is in Rondebosch, where Brigid lives, and only about five miles from where I was staying.  Before I knew much about Cape Town, I thought maybe I would rent a bicycle to get to Brigid's neighborhood (LOL, no) but since the art school's campus is in the city, and not far from where I was staying, Brigid could get close to my neighborhood on the "Jammie shuttle" which is the university transport. (I could have also taken the train, but at first, I had no idea where the Rondebosch station was in relation to Brigid's house.)

We walked to the Michaelis art school campus and Brigid showed me around and then we walked through the Company's Garden, (We were so busy talking, I didn't take any pictures, but it's beautiful) toward the bus station.  I had booked us on a tour to a penguin colony and the Cape of Good Hope and we had to meet the tour bus at the waterfront, which technically, I think we could have walked to, but it seemed like there were a lot of very busy streets and highways to cross, so we took the city bus and had time to explore a bit of the waterfront before joining the tour.

Victoria and Albert Waterfront

On a clear day, you'd see Table Mountain through the frame


A group of four Europeans who now work in Johannesburg were on the tour with us, and we all rode down in a minivan.  Our guide was very funny and also gave us the history of the Cape Town neighborhoods we drove through on our way to the Cape.  

First, some geography.  Until Brigid moved there, I never looked carefully at a map of South Africa, and assumed that Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope were both located on that little bump at the far south.  Actually, that bump is Cape Agulhas.  Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope are on that little peninsula that sticks out of the southwest corner of the country.


This is the Cape Peninsula.  Cape Town is at the north end and the Cape of Good Hope is at the southern end.

We drove down the Atlantic side of the peninsula and then switched to the False Bay side, over a steep and scary mountain road, our guide cheerfully telling us stories of cars that were crushed in rock slides during rain storms.  (It was raining.)  Our guide explained that Cape Agulhas is technically where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, but the Cape of Good Hope is where the Indian Ocean current meets the Atlantic Ocean current.

We stopped at this lookout for photos.  According to our guide, Oprah Winfrey unsuccessfully tried to buy that mountain that juts into the bay.  "She did good things for our people, but we will not sell her our country," our guide said.

Overlooking Sentinel Mountain


Our first real stop was the penguin colony at Simons Town.  It was so exciting to see real penguins in the wild! They have a hilariously purposeful walk. 

Do you see my penguin friend in the bush?




Our next stop was the Cape of Good Hope, which has always been near the top of my list of places I'd like to see.



From the Cape of Good Hope, we drove to the Cape Point lighthouse, where a baboon was hanging around in the parking lot.  The baboon made our guide nervous and he warned us to be sure we had no food on us before we exited the van.  "He will take your food, and he will not say please."  He told us later about how the baboons will break into houses and raid the fridge, and mug people who are walking from car to house with their groceries.  Can you imagine being mugged by a baboon?

No big deal, just a baboon in the parking lot.

We rode a funicular up to the lighthouse, where it was incredibly windy--so windy I thought we might actually blow off the platform at the base of the lighthouse. Pictured below it what I think is the Cape of Good Hope, as seen from the Cape Point lighthouse.


Sign Post at the Cape Point lighthouse


We piled back in the van for the drive back to Cape Town, our guide pulling over twice to point out a group of ostriches, and some Bontebok, an antelope native to the Cape.

Back at the waterfront in Cape Town, it was nearly dark and we waited for ages in the freezing wind for a bus back downtown.  (I checked the weather forecast before arriving and it predicted high temps in the 70's and lows in the 50's so I packed only a light cardigan and a cotton hoodie.  I didn't factor in the wind chill, which is considerable in Cape Town.  At that bus stop, my wool winter coat would have been entirely appropriate.)  

Back in town, we got off the bus on Long St, which has many restaurants.  It was quite dark, and since it was a Sunday, there weren't many people around.  It felt a bit unsafe, to be honest, but there was nothing to be done but walk with confidence and plunge into the first open restaurant we found, a Kurdish place, where we shared some pumpkin hummus and I had an excellent lamb curry.  We got a cab home and made plans to meet again in the morning.