Monday, November 29, 2010

Random Items from South Africa...

Sorry it's been so long since I have posted a blog but internet access in South Africa has either been painfully slow, expensive or both. We are now in Gaborone, Botswana where it seems to be a little better. Beyond that, there is nothing much to do in this little national capitol, so I'm gonna try to catch you up on our last week or so in South Africa...

Bob Has His Head in SKY.

SKY stands for Soweto Kliptown Youth, and is a foundation for the children of Kliptown, one of the poorest areas in Soweto, a very large town on the outskirts of Jo'Burg. Kliptown is the home to some 50,000 people, in a huge informal settlement that consists of ramshackle homes, porta-potties and shared wells for hundreds. As an orphaned child, Bob grew up on these very streets and wanted to make sure other kids didn't have to go through what he did, so he founded SKY...AT THE AGE OF 16! Today SKY feeds three squares to about 300 kids every single day. Beyond that, the organization has a daycare for working mothers, and is home to more than a dozen children who have nowhere else to go. He has taken some of the poorest children in South Africa to compete in soccer tournaments in Norway, and other points abroad...all for free! Bob is an amazingly inspiring man and I was truly blessed to spend some time with him, just chatting and learning about his philosophies on life. He even abandoned his, relatively, comfortable bedroom so that the kids who live at SKY have a refuge from their shared bedrooms, if they need a little space or added comfort. All of the money for SKY comes from private sources and grants which Bob seeks out. I met this guy and there is nothing shady about him. There is no channeling money for personal gain, or anything. He is just a sincere man with an enormous heart and genuine concern for the Kliptown kids. If you can, consider giving something to SKY and let Bob know what a wonderful thing his organization is doing...

Please Boss...

After Jo'Burg we went to Cape Town for four days. There we explored the city center, checked out a castle established in the late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, visited the opulent waterfront and took a hike to the top of Lion's Head peak. Our visit there was fairly nice but, all in all, I wasn't a big fan of the city...or the country as a whole. While apartheid was abolished two decades ago, it still seems like most of the power, and wealth, is in the hands of the minority: those of European descent. Things have improved greatly, but there is still a mentality that whites are better, smarter and more privileged than those who have lived on this land for millennia. I was often called "boss" by black South Africans asking for a handout, and it made me cringe every time. Perhaps that is merely a term of respect here...but I think it harkens back to the days when former President Nelson Mandela was serving time on Robben Island and black school children were being forced to learn Afrikaans.

It's Freakin' Expensive Here!

For some reason I thought that stuff in Africa would be cheaper...especially places to stay. Well, that's certainly not the case. For the first two nights in Cape Town we shelled out somewhere around $43/night for a double room, or two bunk beds. We were on the rather trendy Long Street, but that is 4 times more than we spent in some touristy areas of Bolivia. Luckily, we did manage to find a place for nearly half the price for our final two days in Cape Town. And, while we had an en suite bathroom at that place the neighborhood was a bit sketchier and we really had to be back by nightfall. One night we ventured out for pizza a few blocks away and by the time we headed back --around 8:30pm-- people were already starting to eye one another with suspicion on the street.

We have also encountered expensive lodging in Kimberley, Mafikeng and now in Botswana. I think the main reason for this is the lack of an established backpacker network. Most of those who travel in Africa have some cash and yearn for luxury accommodations. In fact, I am beginning to think that backpacking in Western Europe would have been cheaper, simply because there is a network of hostels all throughout the continent. When you have a $70/day budget (for two people) and $45 is going towards lodging there isn't much money left for anything else, and that blows!

A little US Cape Town...

The Confederate warship the CSS Alabama spent a short time in Cape Town during the US Civil War. The ship was built, in secret, by some Brits and handed over to Confederate troops. While the ship never docked in a Confederate Southern port, it terrorized Union vessels --primarily merchant ships-- around the world during the Civil War. In all, the ship was responsible for the destruction of 65 Union vessels, never harming crew or passengers of the enemy, but rather detaining them only until they could be dropped with a neutral party. During its South African expeditionary raid the ship stopped in Cape Town for provisions. As a result, the ship is a piece of South African lore, complete with an Afrikaan tune entitled, "Daar Kom die Alibama." The ship was destroyed by the USS Kearsarge, off of France, in 1864.

A Big Hole, Thousands of Lives Lost & One Mammoth Diamond Empire.

From Cape Town we took a bus to Kimberley, where we were dropped off (around 1am) in the tourist center parking lot, along with a handful of other travelers. Luckily, we had made prior arrangements with a guest house/hostel in town and the proprietor said we could give him a ring when we got in, and he'd come swoop us up. Unfortunately, the phone only accepted pre-paid cards, but a very nice man allowed us to use his celly. Our driver was there a few minutes later and we were off to la la land.

The impetus for our visit to Kimberley was to visit the, aptly named, Big Hole. The Big Hole is proported to be the largest hole, excavated by hand, in the world (although there is some controversy surrounding this as a historian, a few years back, made a claim that the title really belongs to another open pit diamond mine in South Africa. But, I digress...). Even more importantly this is the spot where Cecil Rhodes created the De Beers company, named after the family farm on which a diamond was found...leading to the coming frenzy which brought some 50,000 hopefuls to Kimberley.

Initially, the Big Hole was a number of separate claims, with each being pain-stakingly dug by individual people, and their help. But, through time this changed and two men competed for control of the entire mining of whom was Cecil Rhodes. Eventually, he bought out Barney Barnato and De Beers was started. Today the company only controls 40% of the diamond industry, although it used to have its paws on more than 90%. The diamond trade is a business which I am not too fond of, and this visit only solidified that. The rush for the diamonds at the Big Hole resulted in the loss of countless lives (estimated at between 20,000-30,000) all for a poultry 3 tons of diamonds. Is it really worth it?

(There is actually a rich diamond field in Arkansas but, because conditions for miners are so poor, it will never become a commercial operation. That being said, you can take your family there and go dig for your own treasure, for only a few bucks. Hillary Clinton's 4 carat rock on her wedding band came from that very field.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Portrait of Long Street, Cape Town

Sitting on the balcony of our lodging for the night in Cape Town, South Africa, I take some time to just watch the world go by...

The entire evening, football fans are walking up and down the street, donning the yellow and gold of team South Africa. Many faces are painted, the revelers hooting and hollering, while many others are blowing the God-forsaken vuvuzela, a plastic horn which gained international notoriety during the 2010 World Cup. Around 8pm the thickness of football fans on the sidewalk increases, and their joy seems to indicate that their team was triumphant. (It wasn't until the next morning that I learned the team, in fact, the USA of all teams, just down the street at Cape Town Stadium, during the Nelson Mandela challenge.)

The most flamboyant of all fans is a rather skinny black man, draped in all sorts of yellow and gold, along with the colorful South African national flag. On top of his head he his wearing, or rather carrying, a headdress which towers more than two meters above his dome. It has six vuvuzelas protruding from all sides and additionally consists of a hodgepodge of housewares, including boxes, bags, garland and anything else that is colorful, eye-catching, and blows in the wind. Truly, a spectacular homage to Bafana Bafana (a Zulu term which means, "Our boys," and is the local nickname for the national team).

While the football fans leave the pubs, and nearby stadium, two scantily clad women in high heels take up posts on the street corners. They don't appear to be prostitutes...but aren't far of either. They are both handing out fliers, but only to men. And, not only are they hitting up pedestrians, but also bouncing out into traffic as well, high heels clicking on the pavement along the way, in order to solicit their (stripping/exotic dancing) services to guys in their cars, waiting for the light to turn green.

As I watch the world go by, I take note of the roof of the Grand Daddy Hotel, just across the street from me. Atop the third floor of this rather chic Cape Town hotel sits seven vintage Airstream trailers, imported form the United States. The shiny, aerodynamic mobile homes now sit there for the African traveler who wishes to, as their website puts it, "pimp their park life and flash their trailer trash." (At nearly $180/night that is one experience I didn't need to experience.)

A Cape Coloured woman, who is clearly down on her luck, walks up and down the sidewalk, with a lime green backpack on, asking passers-by for change. She is met with a chorus of shaking heads. She persists with a cabbie, and he finally obliges her with a few pence. (Cape Coloured is a commonly used term here on the cape and refers to people of either mixed ancestry, or those of Malay descent brought to this part of the world, by the Dutch East India Trading Company, for slave labor.)

A man with a bright orange vest scrambles up and down the road, directing motorists as they park along the street. With a combination of whistles and hand gestures the man, working solely on tips, prevents the motorist from hitting the car behind them, or from scraping his fancy rims on the concrete curb. As you handle your business, whether it be for work or pleasure, he'll also keep an eye on your ride. (But be sure to tip, lest you get jacked.) Music begins pumping out of a nearby dance club.

A black public safety officer wearing a neon green vest, armed with only a radio and baton, pushing a rickety mountain bike, calls a young man over to him for an unknown offense. The man, amongst a gaggle of other pedestrians, realizes he is being summoned and only continues walking, now a little faster, away from the cop. The cop motions again, this time raising his voice, only just slightly. The man keeps walking, and begins to jog as the cop starts trying to negotiate the crowds with bike in hand. As the violator rounds the next corner the officer gives up and radios in a description of the offender. A car horn honks.

As night begins to blanket the cape On Broadway Theatre lets out from a showing of, "Cracks in the City," the comical performance of a multi-cultural female foursome. The crowd is well-dressed and mainly white. They scurry along quickly to their waiting chariots so that they might drive off to the comfort of their secure suburban flats or houses with 8 foot concrete walls and electrified fences. All the while bass thumps from passing cars and an errant vuvuzela sounds from the mouth of a tipsy football fan down the street.

A white plain-clothes officer patrols Long Street in an unmarked white pickup with matching topper. On two occasions he stops parked (black) taxi drivers, blocking them in and lighting up the surrounding buildings with blue from his hidden emergency lights. The officer gets out. He is wearing jeans, a navy polo and has a revolver on his hip. He photographs one of the taxis, most certainly for operating without the proper license, and orders the driver to get lost and not to return. The second cab driver is legit and is released a short time after his paperwork is scrutinized.

Around 10pm a small sidewalk cafe next to the theatre closes down for the evening. The balding and middle-aged (white) proprietor shuffles onto the sidewalk and stacks the white plastic chairs before hauling them in, followed by a couple of tables. The lights click off a the door locks.

An angry black transvestite, wearing a shoulder-length blond wig, black heeled boots, a tight short black skirt and grey top, clomps across the street, with little regard for the cars zipping along the road. She is upset and begins yelling at someone (whom I cannot see because they are below me) in an indigenous tongue, likely Xhosa or Zulu (although difficult to say, as there are 11 different official languages in South Africa). After she says her piece she walks away briskly, from the direction she came, only to return and yell just a little more. Again, she leaves.

A car with a noisy exhaust passes by.

Long Street.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My South America Excellent Eleven...

...because a Top 10 is so cliche.

11. Spying penguins, from a rocky boat. Islas Ballestas. Paracas, Peru. There aren't a lot of places in the world where you can see penguins waddling along in their natural habitat. Luckily for me, I was able to go on a (relatively inexpensive) tour where our very skilled boat driver took us extremely close to the rocky outcroppings, in very rough waters, which the Humboldt penguins call home.

10. Strolling through the Witch's Market. La Paz, Bolivia. This is, without a doubt, the only place I have been where you can pick up a llama fetus, talisman, and an aphrodisiac on the street. The dried fetuses were the most bizarre sight amongst the goods for sale, and are buried by the poor when a new home is constructed.

9. Bodega Wine Sipping. Cafayate, Argentina. I have never been a big fan of wine, nor do I know much on the subject. In Cafayate, as a result of perfect conditions, the myriad bodegas and vineyards make the divine drink difficult to avoid. Over the period of a few days we visited four vineyards, giving me an appreciation for the work that goes into producing the stuff. And, the free samples were a nice bonus too!

8. Overnight family stay on the tranquil Taquile Island. Lake, Titicaca, Peru. Truly, this entire tour was really quite pleasant, and a bargain at that. The unique, man-made, Uros islands were fascinating, as were the cultural & societal norms on Amantani (island). But, sharing a home with a humble family on the incredibly quiet Taquile island was the frosting on the proverbial cake. Beyond their graciousness and the town dance (in which we participated), it was quite relaxing to hear sheep out the window, rather than incessant horn honking.

7. Hiking to hidden waterfalls along the Rio Colorado. Cafayate, Argentina. We almost didn't make it to this hidden gem, as I was too cheap to shell out some $5 to have a local kid guide us. Luckily, some young girls saw me leading us up the wrong riverbank and corrected our course. After a two-hour walk we arrived at the third, and most spectacular, waterfall. The water was extremely frigid, but we had brought our suits and were obligated to utilize them. After another small group left we were the only people at this great little spot, making us feel like the only people in the world. (Sadly, the walk back out, plus 5 more kilometers back to town, wasn't romantic, so much as backbreaking.)

6. Sandboarding & riding a dune-buggy in the desert. Huacachina, Peru. This place is truly a little oasis, and a great getaway from the main tourist track in Peru. Surrounded by a lake, this seemingly sleepy village is perfect for a postcard, as seen from a distance. Get a little closer and it becomes clear that this is a haven for adrenaline junkies and young backpackers looking to let loose. Although we didn't exactly fit the profile it was nice for a couple of days. And the highlight was doing 60 mph up and down sand dunes, only to be let out of the buggy and given a board to ride down on.

5. Climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu with the sun rise. Machu Picchu, Peru. Getting up at 4:30am isn't usually very rewarding. But when the payout is a picture-perfect day on a peak nearly 1,200 feet above the ancient site of Machu Picchu it's more than worthwhile. Getting up to the top is about a two-hour hike, at a very reasonable pace. It's pretty steep at times, but certainly possible for anyone in decent shape. Only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu everyday, so get there early and get your admission ticket stamped. The only drawback is that it's packed at the top!

4. Following the Che Guevara trail. La Higuera & Vallegrande, Bolivia. I learned a lot about the iconic revolutionary hero as we followed the last days before his execution, arriving at the spot his lifeless body was photographed by the world press exactly 43 years, to the day, after the historic execution. He was certainly an amazing man, who held noble ideals and gave himself to causes he believed in worldwide. His greatest flaw led to his untimely demise: an unwillingness to negotiate via any means other than force.

3. Gazing down the Devil's Throat. Iguazu Falls, Argentina. With 275 individual falls, Iguazu is truly a spectacle to behold. From the Argentine side there are a number of breathtaking vistas from which to admire the rushing water, with some catwalks close enough for a good soaking. But, the highlight of Iguazu is certainly La Garganta Del Diablo, better known as the Devil's Throat. You are perched right above the gigantic U-shaped waterfall, rife with rainbows and fluttering birds, which make their nest behind the mighty falls.

2. Partying til the break of dawn with a fellow Northsider (and her studly Argentine man). Buenos Aires, Argentina. They say that Porteños party like nobody else, and Chelsea and Ale certainly showed us that was the case. After a dinner, sometime around 10pm, we started off with a couple of libations at their pad, only to head out to the FIRST party just after midnight. We hit the club as the clock neared 3am! And when we finally emerged from the subterranean disco the sun had already made her appearance...for the following day!

1. Kickin' it with capuchins @ Inti Wara Yassi. Villa Tunari, Bolivia. If you are a frequent reader of my blog you may find this a bit contradictory to statements I made in the blog about this experience. True: it was grueling work with long days and no time off. True: the dormitory conditions are slightly better than horrendous. That being said, it's hard to fathom something more rewarding on this journey, thus far. I was privileged to have the honor of working with capuchins in their natural habitat. While the alpha male would, occasionally, challenge me by jumping on my back or showing his very sharp teeth, some of the others would groom me, or even nap in my lap. It is certainly not for the faint of heart, but is an incredible experience and one I will never forget.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Two Weeks in the Paris of South America...

Well, we´re wrapping up our time in Argentina...not to mention South America. Although we have both had a wonderful time on this continent, I think we are also both ready to move on to something new. (Truth be told, I´m getting a little homesick too. Having been away from the people and things I love for months is extremely challenging and would be downright unbearable without Heidi.) On Thursday morning we´ll arrive in Johannesburg for another round of culture shock, and a trek that should take us, overland, from South Africa to Nairobi in about 10 weeks.

Since arriving in Buenos Aires we have been the guests of Chelsea and Ale, and they have been more than accommodating to our every need. (For those of you who don´t know, Chelsea is a friend from back home who moved down here about a year ago after falling for her very dreamy Porteño, Alejandro. He and I first met nearly two years ago when he came up to Minnesota to stay with Chelsea for six months.)


One of the things that stands out most about Argentine culture, especially in the glamorous metropolis of BA, is the cuisine. The majority of Porteños take their dining experiences very seriously, and as such the majority of restaurants have white linen table service with bow-tie clad waiters. Even at your typical pzza and pasta joint the experience is much more than just one for the taste buds. Unfortunately, the added quality of service, and attention to detail with the meals, adds to the final price. Dining out here is nearly as expensive as it is in the U.S., although you will get more bang for your buck down here...most of the time.

Since arriving we have feasted on baked Keppe at a Middle-Eastern restaurant, had McDonald´s delivered, licked our fingers after devouring pizza with palm hearts, and eaten some fabulous steak that our host prepared for us. Beyond that, we have sampled more amazing flavours of ice cream, from artisanal heladerias (ice cream shoppes), than I care to mention in this blog. The food has been outstanding, and much better than anything we experienced in either Peru or Bolivia. Like I said, there is a price to pay for the higher quality...and that affects the bottom line (not to mention my attitude since I can be a little Scrooge-like while we are on such a tight budget.)

The Cafe

We also ate a very hearty, and tasty lunch, at a cafe run by Ale and his sister, Anahi. The two of them just took over the joint about six months ago but seem to be doing well for themselves. It´s in a business district and serves up coffee, medialunas, and some lunchtime fare to busy executives from early morning to early evening during the week. The food was good and the atmosphere is clean and modern. My only suggestion would be to raise the prices, as some of the stuff is priced considerably lower than it is at neighboring eateries.

A Piece of America

On our first full day here we took a trip to the US embassy, in order to have pages added to our passports. (Although we both have a number open right now, the State Department advises travellers to African nations to have lots of open spaces for visas. Some tourists have been denied entry to a country for not having THREE clean pages!) While the process was rather quick it was pretty disappointing to learn that the fee is $82/pp, as opposed to the price from just a few months ago, when it was Free-99. But, what´s a guy to do? Although sitting in the embassy was a rather unimpressive experience, it was unique to have a man with clear English help us, and to see all the red, white and blue throughout the place. I rejoiced in sitting in a little piece of America, lamenting only that it lacked the Mountain Dew and overweight majority that I have come to miss back home.


As for being tourists, we have done plenty of that too. We got a tour of the House of Congress which, while impressive from the outside, is totally worth skipping. From there we walked down the main drag to the Pink House, the South American version of our White House. The feminine-hued building was the site of national mourning only days earlier, as former president and sitting first-husband, Nestor Kircher passed away the day we arrived in Capital Federal. In San Telmo we window shopped among numerous antiques, and peeped out a Russian Orthodox church, built with materials shipped over from the Motherland. We were amongst a handful of tourists at the tomb of Evita Peron at the famous, and beautiful, Recoleta Cemetery. The four of us strolled amongst the waterways, skyscrapers and fancy restaurants of Puerto Madero, sipping on overpriced drinks as the sun set behind us. And we, quite literally, smelled the roses on a stroll through El Rosedal not to be confused with the mall in the St. Paul suburb.

The Countryside

We also got out of town on two occasions. First, Heidi and I took a two-hour bus ride out to San Antonio de Areco, a quite little town about 70 miles outside of the city. There we checked out a traditional gaucho estancia and marvelled at the spectacular works of the multitude of silversmiths throughout the peaceful village. The weather was perfect and it was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, if only for an afternoon. (Sadly, we timed our visit poorly, missing the Fiesta de la Tradicion by only a day. There we would have seen gaucho demonstrations and people all geared up in the traditional clothes of yesteryear.)

The following day all four of us, and Ale´s bud Christian, took a train out to Tigre, a town that many Porteños visit for weekend getaways. The place is along the river and many residents live in neighborhoods along a series of waterways throughout the delta region. We spent that afternoon just strolling about and checking out the things for sale at the rather large weekend market. Unfortunately, the wares available were more geared towards the BA resident looking to add some pizzaz to their home decor, rather than the gringo tourist looking for a cool bracelet.


Sadly, we have slowed down a bit over the past few days, as Heidi has been battling an upper respiratory illness. My self-diagnosis is a non-contagious strain of bronchitis brought on by the city´s pollution and abundance of cigaretter smokers. (She seems to be improving but we plan to get a professional´s opinion if she has not improved by tomorrow. We actually went to the hospital today, but only the ER was open due to a municipal holiday. A doctor there said only people needing immediate medical attention should wait.)


The day we went to the embassy I also withdrew 800 pesos, equivalent to about $200. Chelsea was nervous about me carrying around that kind of cash, stating that our next stop was in a bit of a sketchy neighborhood. I told her I´d take some of the loot out of my wallet before that and place it somewhere else...just in case. Well, as we waited in the embassy I took out the majority of the cash and put it in a zippered pocket close to my chest. I also put my credit card there, but put it back in my wallet a short time later, after convincing myself it was much ado about nothing. Of course I didn´t feel that way after three punks on the subway relieved my of the wallet and its contents.

The subway was pretty busy, and bodies were definitely touching as the train sped from station to station. Two stops before our final destination three kids got on the train, clapping and singing as they embarked and shuffled right over to me. Suddenly they stopped with all of the noise. A minute later we got off and I, being the paranoid type, checked the pants pocket which held my wallet and Heidi and my passports. It had been secured with a zipper and velcro flap. The zipper was open...and the wallet gone! As we reviewed the situation Chelsea said she heard one of the kids say, "It´s mine," no doubt talking about my cheddar. Although I was pretty pissed about the situation, I was glad that they left the passports and that Chelsea advised me to move the majority of my money elsewhere. All told, the kids got the equivalent of about $25. I called my bank and canceled the credit card as soon as we got back to Chelsea and Ale´s crib. (I have a different bank card, for just such a situation, so we still have access to cash. What sucks is that the card that got stolen charged no ATM fees and actually REFUNDED thoses from other banks. So, now I have to pay about $10 in service fees for every withdrawal, as opposed to $0 with my stolen Charles Schwab card.)


For most Argentines, dinner is between 9pm and midnight. As such, they get a later start on the evening than I am accustomed to. As a result of the later start, they also have a much later finish, as Heidi and I experienced the night we went out with Ale, Chelsea and (their friend) Becky for some Halloween parties on the Saturday before the 31st.

I think we ended up leaving for the first party around midnight. It was heavily attended by expats, and they were in full swing by the time we arrvied. We hung out there for about two hours, mainly sticking to ourselves, drinking beer, dancing and eating cookies before heading to the club...a little after 2am! After paying our entry fees we slowly made our way through the throngs of revellers down to the dance floor. At that point we were two floors underground, among thousands of drunk and sweaty Argetines, and all I could think is that we would certainly die in the event of a fire. (Tragically, nearly 200 people died, and hundreds more were hurt in a club fire here in BA less than six years ago, causing the auhorities to crack down --at least a little-- on dangerous clubs.)

After grabbing our drinks we moved up one floor, as the dance level was so packed it was nearly impossible to move, let alone get your groove on. On the upper floor we had some wiggle room and just kind of chilled out, dancing the night away. When we finally emerged from the joint we were greeted by daylight. It was very surreal walking the streets of Buenos Aires at 7am on a Sunday morning exhausted and in costume.


We also attended a couple of Avant-garde performances while in BA. The first was a tribal dance show, which a friend of theirs was performing in. Honsetly, the show was not very good at all, and I dozed off a couple of times. It seemed to be a group of women, who enjoy being looked at, putting together rather boring dance routines and performing them to tribally-influenced club music, all the while wearing somewhat scandalous clothing.

The second show was much better. Bruta Fuerza is a traveling show which is sort of an extra-sensory acid trip. The entire audience is stuffed into a relatively small room and the show begins with a man on a stage in the center of the crowd. As the show progresses different stages open up in other areas of the room, forching the audience to move. Water is sprayed down on the spectators and some performers even come within inches of the crowd, via a see-through stage that drops from the ceiling above. It´s unlike anything I have ever seen, although a bit like Cirque Du Soleil. It was certainly entertaining and worth the price of addmission, although I much prefer the 60 peso ($15) price to the $80/ticket being charged in NYC right now.