Into the Wind

It’s calmer today. The wind that whipped us up and down the Cape Peninsula yesterday – from Kalk Bay to Boulders Beach, all the way to Cape Point and back to Noordhoek and Cape Town – is just a pleasant breeze now. At times it’s barely noticeable, but the fresh sea air it carries is so clean, so subtly salty, so perfect, I find myself constantly wishing for another gust.

The sun, paying no heed to the weatherman’s forecast of cool temps, is its strong, African self. Its warmth is matched only by its brightness.

It’s a beautiful day in the Mother City.

It’s also overwhelmingly blue. In the mid-afternoon light, I am surrounded on almost all sides by vast blueness: the shimmering, marine blue of the ocean; the shadowy, gray-blue of the mountains beyond; and the sharp, infinite blue of the sky above. Only a scattering of wispy clouds, now tinted pale orange in the west, offers a counter-chromatic.

If Cape Town was a house, I would be out on the front porch. Behind me, Table Mountain serves as a majestic living room wall, a feature in and of itself, upon which no piece of art is worthy to be hung. The family room, at the V&A Waterfront, is like no other: it has a Ferris wheel. Adjacent, the home office has shelves full of skyscrapers. Tucked away quaintly in the back is the wine cellar of Constantia. The curb appeal here is high.

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront

As I sit, sipping a cappuccino, watching dolphins and seals frolic in the bay, I realize, more clearly than ever, that I am ruined for real life. I remember 9-to-5 jobs, draconian vacation policies, gapers’ delays on the Ike, real winters. These memories loom. What happens when they once again become reality?

Better question: How can I shape my new reality? What options will I have? What opportunities will exist? What traditional boundaries will confine me?

I’d like to say that this year (will have) taught me to think differently, to define life unconventionally, to choose my own adventures. But, until the true test comes, I can only aver.

In the meantime, we will enjoy our final weeks in fantasy land, a place not perfect – particularly for those whose eighteen years of political freedom has yet to yield any significant economic freedom – but certainly out of our ordinary. A place where a fresh, fall day feels like a sunny, Chicago summer. A place where I can be a full-time volunteer. A place where Jenny can have straight hair and Indie can live her dog life.

Today, it’s calm. The winds will pick up again soon, though, and carry us in a new direction. We should, I suppose, welcome another gust.

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Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 3: That Time We Crossed into Zimbabwe Illegally

By now you know that when we say things like, “Hey, we’re going to Victoria Falls!” what we really mean is, “Hey, we’re going to jump off a cliff!” or “Hey, we’re going on safari in Botswana!” So, I suppose it’s fair that you read the title of this post through skeptic’s eyes.

But, is it true? Did we actually enter Zimbabwe, home of Bobby Mugabe and 9 bizillion percent inflation, illegally?

Well, yes …

On Sunday morning, our fourth day in Zambia, we woke late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then left the hotel compound en route to the bridge that spans the Zambezi River below the falls – the bridge that spans the divide between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Our initial and, honestly, only goal was to view the falls from a different angle, from more of a distance, from a new perspective, from a place not so wet. We were rewarded.

Victoria Falls from the bridge on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border

Jenny, ever impatient with my photo taking, began to wander further across the bridge, and even managed to skip over its single lane and integrated railroad tracks to chat with the fellas at the bungee jump. You know the one …

Just beyond the tangle of (new, very new) ropes, we saw this:

You are now entering Zimbabwe

We paused. Ahead, just after the bridge ended and the rocky soil began, was an armed soldier standing outside an army green canvas tent.

Intimidating? Deterring? Not for this dynamic duo. We marched on.

Growing up in Illinois near the Mississippi River, I had crossed bridges into neighboring states millions of times. Crossing into Iowa meant dealing with Iowa drivers. Crossing into Missouri meant dealing with … well, Missouri. Could crossing into Zimbabwe be any worse?

Our confident steps disguised our cerebral concerns and before we knew it we were across the bridge, past the armed guard and into Zimbabwe. In a way, it was just like crossing from Fulton, IL to Clinton, IA – except this part of Zimbabwe smelled much better than Clinton.

The road carried on around a curve and up a small incline, where a short queue of tractor-trailers waited to cross the one-lane bridge into Zambia. For smaller cargo, the much more efficient mode of transport seemed to be the humble bicycle.

Bicycle couriers on the road between Zambia and Zimbabwe

Now that we were in Zimbabwe, we thought we would just keep walking to the very colonial Victoria Falls Hotel, which looked to be about another 2 km further along the same road.

… and, no.

As we rounded another gentle curve, we found that our courageous, clandestine crossing was none of the above. What we saw now, some 500 m up the hot, asphalt road, stopped us in our tracks. It was the official border post.

So, while we were technically on Zimbabwean soil, we were not officially in Zimbabwe. No passports had been stamped. No bribes had been taken.

Jenny thought we should create a diversion and run through the boom gate, past the armed guards (it worked at the bridge, right?). Or, maybe we could stow away under the nylon tarps covering cargo on this flatbed…

In the end, we decided against crashing the gates, against hitchhiking. After all, we couldn’t afford to be detained in a Zimbabwean prison all day, we had to get back to the Royal Livingstone for high tea.

As one does.

Fortunately, we had a guide to help us get back into Zambia:

Tiny monkey friend

High tea at the Royal Livingstone was everything you might expect. And, a whole lot less. While the whitewashed buildings and elaborate interior decorating placed you squarely in the charming(?) period of Colonial Africa, the whole experience seemed a bit too contrived (for us) and a bit too rote (for the staff). Awkward.

We didn’t spend much time loitering. We were on to the next event: massages on the banks of the Zambezi River. Nice.

Post-massage, we retired to the bar on the veranda on the river’s edge. After the stress of an unlawful border crossing, a massage and a cocktail seemed appropriate. Besides, what better way to watch the sunset over Victoria Falls?

Post-massage drinks at the Royal Livingstone

Sunset above Victoria Falls

And, there you have it. Our “trip to Victoria Falls” in a somewhat rambling, three-part nutshell. Of course, we omitted a few details, like how much time Jenny spent in the gift shops at the Zambezi Sun, the baby monkey that wanted Jenny as its mom, me getting completely soaked walking the knife bridge, and other stuff. Oh, and we didn’t tell you how much we enjoyed cruising the Zambezi River on the African Princess, but you can find proof of that enjoyment here and even more photos from our adventures here.

Up next: a visit from Jaimie & Zach!

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 2: Cruising the Chobe River with a Boy Named Diane

As if standing on a rock just above Victoria Falls watching the great Zambezi River rush past and disappear over the edge — or jumping backwards off a cliff into a gorge, 177 feet below — wasn’t enough excitement for one weekend, we decided to spend Day 3 in Zambia by going to … Botswana.

Although not part of the original plan, we learned of an opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Chobe National Park, just an hour or so from Victoria Falls. Operating on the We May Never Have This Chance Again principle, we signed up.

Departing at 7:30, our small bus reached the Kazungula border post at 8:30. Along the way, we passed through small settlements with a hodgepodge of buildings: some tin, some stone, some mud and thatch. Pantless children stood behind wooden fences; women washed clothes in colorful plastic buckets; chickens and goats roamed the roadsides.

The Kazungula border crossing is one of the more unique in the world. It’s the only place on the planet where four independent nations meet. Though there is some debate as to where the mid-river borders actually are, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all come together in one quadripoint in Kazungula where the Zambezi River and Chobe River intersect.

Quadripoint at Kazungula between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia

A reasonable person would expect to find a bridge spanning the river, allowing vehicular traffic (and cargo) to cross between countries efficiently. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe is not a reasonable person. Zimbabwe still refuses to agree to any such construction, I suppose partially due to the fact that there is a bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia in nearby Victoria Falls. As a result, semis loaded with goods heading to or from the four states (or other places on the continent, like South Africa and the DRC), must wait their turn to be ferried across the river. One by one.

The queue of trucks on the Zambian side stretched for nearly a mile. Our guide said the drivers may be forced to wait for a week or more before their turn comes. Africa time.

We, however, jumped the queue.

With the blue ink of the EXIT stamps from Zambian immigration drying in our passports, we pushed through the crowd of people clustered inside the tall, metal gates and walked with blinders past the hawkers in their Chipolopolo jerseys. “Remember me. Peter! I am Peter! When you return, remember Peter. Copper bracelets. Big Five carvings. Peter!”

Mercifully, the drone of the speedboat we boarded at the river’s edge soon drowned out the hawkers’ cries, and within 60 seconds we were across to Botswana.

Standing on shore was our ranger and guide for the day, a fit, handsome man named Diane. Though pronounced more like de-YAN-ee, seeing the shiny, gold name badge with “Diane” on his greenish-khaki shirt was, at first, rather strange.

We rode in an open safari vehicle from the river to the border post, where we were quickly processed by Botswana immigration before stepping on a conspicuously dirty sponge mat ostensibly designed to clean our shoes of anything that could transmit foot-and-mouth disease. From the spongy block, we could see another queue of trucks waiting to cross the river.

After ten minutes by highway in the open vehicle, we reached Chobe Safari Lodge, our departure point for the first activity: a river safari.

It was truly amazing to see the animals from the water, and to see so many species of animals that live on or near the water. It’s a completely different feel from a traditional game drive.

Wire-tailed swallows enjoy a ride on our boat in Chobe National Park

We were pretty lucky that day. The sightings were nice, especially of hippos, crocs and birds.

Pod of hippos in Chobe National Park

Large crocodile and great white egret in Chobe National Park

African darter (with fish) in Chobe National Park

We also spent some quality time with an older bull elephant who had crossed the deep river channel in order to munch on the soft green grasses of Sedudu Island.

Bull elephant in Chobe National Park

If the day had ended here, we would have been extremely satisfied, but we were only halfway through. We still had a game drive after lunch!

After the buffet, a brief chat with a group of retirees from Iowa, and a bit of a torrential rainstorm, we donned ponchos and set out in the open vehicle to tour the land side of Chobe National Park. Within minutes, we saw a large troop of baboons, several hundred impala, some kudu and a marshland antelope called a puku.

Then, we saw the elephants.

Driving on a sandy dirt road parallel to the river, Diane spotted a small family of elephants ahead on the bank, drinking. He guided the truck onto a rutted path, angling towards the shoreline. He cut the engine and we coasted to a stop some 50 feet away from the herd. As soon as they spotted our vehicle, most of the elephants turned and waded into the water; one, a juvenile male, stayed behind and stared at us.

Elephants in Chobe National Park

Eventually, they all crossed over and focused on other things, but not before another of the big creatures trumpeted at us in warning.

We could have spent hours watching them, but it was getting late – time for us to get started on our return journey.

But, wait! What’s this? Another ranger driving an open vehicle flagged us down and told Diane that a leopard had been spotted nearby. Let’s go!

Diane whipped the truck into the bush, executed a killer three-point turn and gunned it in the opposite direction. Our placid game drive was now a Ferrari Safari.

As we raced down the road, the truck’s tires skidded in the soft dirt. We rounded a corner and started scanning the bush and trees for signs of the big cat. Up a small incline we spotted an unusual set of tire tracks. The other vehicle must have stopped here to watch the leopard.

Diane halted abruptly. “There!” Indeed, there it was. High in a tree, roughly 100 feet from the road, was a male leopard.

Male leopard in tree in Chobe National Park

Surveying the scene from high above, the leopard certainly had been watching the herd of impala grazing between the road and the river. They were gradually making their way inland, ever closer to the leopard’s perch. But, for now, he had his sights set squarely on us.

Male leopard watching us from tree in Chobe National Park

Quite an amazing ending to an incredible day – a day when we set foot in two countries, saw two more, and explored the Chobe River with a man named Diane.

Up next, Pt. 3: That time we crossed into Zimbabwe illegally

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 1: The Smoke that Thunders, the Tourist that Plummets

We could have died in any number of ways. We could have slipped into the river and plunged 108 metres to a watery grave. We could have lost control of the rope and plummeted 54 metres to the rocky bottom of the Batoka Gorge. We could have choked on a bream bone.

Honestly, the flight from South Africa to Zambia was probably the safest part of those first two days.

What were we doing, you ask? Visiting the wonder that is Victoria Falls.

Victoria Falls was named for Queen Victoria by the intrepid Scottish missionary, David Livingstone. But, as you might have guessed, the falls already had a name: Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders.”

No wonder. The sound of the Zambezi River cascading over and down the sheer face of the falls, some 1,700 metres (5,600 ft) wide, was indeed thunderous. With the sliding glass door open, we could definitely hear it from our room at the Zambezi Sun, situated just outside the entrance to the falls on the Zambia side.

Our first order of business after checking in was to see the falls, which were literally a minute’s walk from our room. After a quick formality at the gate between the hotel and park, we continued on a paved path through some trees, turned a corner and saw this:

Rainbow over Victoria Falls

(OK, technically we didn’t see the rainbow on the first day, but why waste your time with non-rainbow pics?)

Here, both the thunder and the smoke become obvious. The mist, or spray, from the water crashing into the rocks below the falls rises high above the falls in the form of an ethereal, white cloud. Only, this smoke will drench you, soak you, flood you.

As the path descended further down and ever closer to the falls, the mist changed from a light spritzing to a torrential rain. We were fresh off the plane, unprepared, unprotected. Still, we stood and marveled. I tried to take pictures. The ones from a later visit turned out better:

Victoria Falls

DOUBLE RAINBOW across the sky over Victoria Falls

For those who have visited Niagara Falls, it may be apparent from these photos that the tourist experience at Victoria Falls is quite different. Absent are the seemingly incongruous things like giant slabs of concrete at viewing areas, glass and steel buildings in the background, laser light shows, etc. For the most part, the only real attraction at Victoria Falls is the falls itself. As it should be.

The other thing that is conspicuously absent, from the vantage point of visitors from an overly litigious country, is safety apparatus. Sure, there are a few wooden barriers at the main viewing area, and the railings on the Knife-Edge Bridge are high enough, but walk the path in the opposite direction, further up the river, and find yourself on a rock outcrop that juts into the raging rapids just a few metres from the lip of the falls. This is Africa. Proceed at your own risk.

There's nothing at the water's edge to stop you from chasing that rainbow...

A few steps further and the paved path gives way to dirt. Here, the river is a bit calmer, though still flowing at a steady clip, and more accessible. We stuck our toes in.

Getting our feet wet in the Zambezi River

It’s a good thing we didn’t slip and fall in. We wouldn’t have lived to experience our next death-defying adventure: abseiling!

Backwards into the Batoka

Abseiling, as you may know, is a fancy German word for rappelling. Rappelling is a fancy French word for jumping off a cliff backwards while holding a rope behind your butt.

Sounds like our kinda deal.

A stout, semi-bearded, fully friendly chap named Mathias fetched us from the hotel on our second morning in a white pickup truck that had been converted into an open game drive vehicle. Jenny and I climbed up onto the bench seats, still wet from the rains that had just subsided, and braced ourselves as Mathias drove us down 4 km of cratered, muddy, puddle-pocked roads, past a power plant and the workers in standard-issue blue jumpsuits who would surely be among the last to see us alive. We wondered, aloud, “Why do we always end up in choose to go to places like this?”

On arrival at “the place,” we jumped down from the truck and saw several men waiting for us, including one with a cheap video camera, which was recording us as we walked towards the large, stone-and-thatched-roof hut where we would be briefed about the safety measures entailed in our leap into the void. Apparently, our walk from truck to hut would be the opening scene on the film. You know, the film they will make for us – and sell to us on DVD – after we successfully fall to our non-deaths. No thanks.

After we signed our lives away (seriously, the form mandated that we would not hold these people liable for injury or death, even if they were proven to be negligent), we met two new guys: our instructor and belayer. Since we were both familiar with the gear from a short rock-climbing course we took in Chicago, our instruction session was brief.

Speaking of brief, we had forgotten how the climbing harness fits so snugly around certain pelvic areas, to the point where a high degree of male accentuation occurs. Once strapped in, I tried to avoid eye contact with the young Swedish couple that had signed up for abseiling through their tour operator, but decided at the last minute to forego the thrill. Don’t mind me…

Other than the potentially risqué attire, abseiling follows most normal rules of etiquette. As in, women and children first. Or, the one shooting video on his iPhone goes second.

Jenny was ready to go. She stood on the platform, 54 metres (177 ft) above the floor of this section of the Batoka Gorge, checked her ropes and carabiners, and began to lower herself, backwards, down to the rocky cliff face. With the instructor’s encouragement, she pushed off the wall and glided down the rope.

I was next. I clipped in. I leaned back. I started walking down the slatted metal ramp. I slipped, my shoes slick with mud. I tightened my grip, took a breath. I lowered myself until my feet were on the rock wall. I let go, just a little. I abseiled.

We could have died in any number of ways. And that’s what turned a trip to a waterfall into the adventure of a lifetime.

Up next, Part 2: Hunting for hippos on the Chobe River with a boy named Diane.

You Got Questions, We Got Answers

Inquiring minds want to know. In our last post, we asked you to ask us…anything. A few of you did, thank you, and we have some answers.

See below for our responses to questions ranging from what it’s like at our jobs to gender differences to fruits, trees, haircuts, politics, what we will miss the most and more. Hope you enjoy!

What does business attire look like in the downtown area? What are the gender differences in clothing?

Ryan: Honestly, we’re rarely in the Central Business District (CBD), so I can’t answer this question specifically. But, if we’re talking business attire at the university, I’d say it’s more relaxed, but that’s true of most academic environments, I think. Except at the stuffier business schools…

As for gender differences, it seems that, as usual, women dress much better than men. Even the students follow suit: the female students are most often in cute little dresses, or at least well put together; the guys are sportier and wear more denim. And the white guys wear waaaaay shorter shorts. That whole “rugby thing.”

Jenny: I like how work attire for women is more flowing and cool, i.e., appropriate for 80-degree weather, yet still dressy here. There is a bit of a girliness here to women’s styles that I’m not completely down with though—lots of lace, ruffles, and floral fabric. Sometimes I think women seem as though they’re headed to a garden party rather than the office.

What was your experience from a working perspective?

Ryan: Well, though I do spend the majority of my “work” time in the offices of the Centre for Human Rights, I’m really a volunteer, so I don’t know if I can truly capture a “working perspective.” However, I will say that in many ways I find the work culture here more relaxed than in the States. That’s not to say that nothing gets done; it does. The Centre has been a well-respected academic institution and international NGO for 25 years…they’re doing something right. In fact, you should go ahead and Like our Facebook page.

I suppose the biggest difference I’ve noticed in my small work world is that there seem to be fewer meetings here. Or, at least fewer scheduled meetings. There are ad hoc get-togethers, but not the kind of regular, block-your-calendar team or staff meetings to which I’m accustomed. It could just be a difference in how this place is run, though.

Jenny: As far as office climate, people don’t hesitate to make time to be social here. Right away, people made the effort to get to know me, and that felt great. Teatime is a must, both mid-morning and mid-afternoon. My Type-A personality has a hard time with this, but I think I’m getting better at putting the work aside for a few minutes per day. Ryan would say this experience will serve me well back in the States.

How do men treat Jenny?

Ryan: Pass. No, wait! … Sorry, definitely pass.

Jenny: On runs, they are noticeably silent when Indie is with me. (She’s a commanding force!) But when I’m running sans dog, there are more whistles and puzzling comments—more like what sometimes happens in the States.

Describe in great detail all of the trees that you have seen.

Jenny: That’s a tall order. The flora here is a passion of mine. See Ryan’s previous post about the purple jacaranda trees for which Pretoria is famous. I also love the fever trees with their lime green trunks and round, yellow flowers, and the leopard trees with their namesake bark, acacia-like green leaves which turn red in Spring, and spiky yellow flowers.

Babobabs

But maybe my favorite is that decidedly African tree—the baobab. They can live up to 3,000 years (this is true!), and can grow large enough for 40 people to sit beneath one. They look like they’re upside down (their shape looks like their roots are in the air). The story goes that some African tribes believed that, at the beginning of time, the baobabs were upright, and too proud, and that they lorded over the lesser trees. This angered the gods who uprooted them and thrust them back into the ground, but this time with their roots upwards. Now evil spirits haunt the sweet, white baobab flowers, and it’s said that anyone who picks their flowers will be killed by a lion.

Ryan: I don’t see trees; I see forests.

Do you both wear shoes less?

Jenny: Actually, more in the house: Our floors are usually dirty from having the windows open 24/7. But funny you should ask—the Afrikaner children (even some college students) don’t wear shoes, even at the mall, the grocery store, and to class. “No shoes, No service” is not a credo here.

Ryan: Hmmmm…no. About the same. I suppose if I wasn’t going to “work” most days, I would wear shoes less. The weather, since September, has certainly been accommodating enough.

What habits have changed in your daily hygiene?

Jenny: I wash my hair less often.

Ryan: Nothing major. I smell Jenny’s hair less often.

What is Indie afraid of that is strange?

Ryan: Well, she continues to be afraid of thunderstorms, aluminum foil, trash bags, etc., which some may consider strange. The thunderstorms here, by the way, are at a professional level. Chicago thunderstorms are bush league, in comparison. The lightning strikes and thunderclaps are so sharp, so piercing, so percussive that we humans are often jolted.

Jenny: Can I talk about what she’s NOT afraid of? I’m delighted that she’s assertive enough to go after mongooses, cats that wander into the yard, and giant birds with long beaks called hadedas (that are not well-loved here). She’s come into her own in Africa!

Indie is NOT afraid to lie in the bushes outside our flat

What fruit have you had too much of?

Ryan: Ah, this is the beauty and (mild) frustration of SA: It’s difficult to find a fruit when it is not in season. We once asked for limes at a very nice produce shop and they looked at us like we were aliens. “We will have limes in three months, when it is time for limes.” Roger that.

Right now, the mangos, nectarines and Cape peaches are impossibly delicious.

Jenny: Again I want to answer a different question; sorry. I’ve had too many Greek salads. They’re on every (and I mean every; this is not an overstatement) menu.

Ryan: If feta cheese was a fruit, it would always be in season.

What will you miss the most once you return?

Ryan: Everything. The people. The lifestyle. The proximity to outdoorsy activities. The proximity to awesome animals. The weather. The excitement that comes with a young democracy that seems very close to either getting its shit together or falling off a steep cliff.

Jenny: Stella Nkomo, the wonderful woman I work with. Mangoes every night after dinner. 80 degrees every day. Eating dinner outside. The stars in the southern hemisphere. Biking with zebras. Toads hopping around on my kitchen floor. Never having to make my own bed, change the sheets, iron, or do the breakfast dishes. Buildings with hallways that are open to the outside. Our housekeeper cleverly and subtly putting us in our place.

What was the most striking generalization that you had about SA before you left that has changed?

Ryan: We won’t have to sleep in a tree house? There are no lions in the streets?

I suppose that since we had been here before as tourists, we had something of an idea of what we were getting into. Still, I suppose I thought it would be “harder” to live here. I didn’t think we would have as many creature comforts or opportunities to explore as we have had. I think I was naïve, in a sense.

Jenny: That most white people here were in favor of Apartheid.

Do you stay out of politics in conversation?

Ryan: Ha! No. Jenny probably wishes that I would. Early on, I would introduce the topic just because I was still trying to figure out the players and the histories and the positions, etc. Now, it’s interesting to hear where people fall on the spectrum, what they would change, who they support, whether they harken for the “old days” and what what what, as they say here.

Of course, you often can’t talk politics without talking race. That’s where things can get fascinating. What words do people use? Syntax says a lot, even when people are trying to talk politely or in what they think is a PC style.

I like, for example, when a white South African begins a conversation with a statement about his/her own status as an African, someone whose ancestors came to the continent multiple generations ago, then later refers to black people as “Africans.” Wait…just a second ago, weren’t you all Africans?

On the flip side, many black South Africans seem to be holding on to old stereotypes about whites. See how that white person is dressed? He doesn’t like blacks. White people don’t know how to do things. Good times.

Back to politics…I’d say we have enjoyed many good conversations about the state of affairs here, from discussions about the ANC, President Zuma, Julius Malema, opposition parties, elections, service delivery, etc. And, as you may imagine, having an American president by the name of Barack Obama has prompted a number of exchanges, as well. He would certainly win reelection here.

Jenny: No. See Ryan’s comments. He takes the lead on this.

Were the things that you were fearful of, now just common daily occurrences?

Jenny: Driving stick-shift in a right-drive car. Negotiating prices. Getting people to understand my American English. Walking somewhere.

Ryan: Yeah, driving. Sure, I had driven on the left side of the road in a right-drive car before, including on the narrow, windy “roads” in Ireland and Wales, but Pretoria is a the poster child for suburban sprawl. I’m from Grid-System Chicago, dammit! Don’t give me curlicue streets whose names change from robot to robot!

I was also nervous about Jenny traveling to campus alone everyday. Crime is a big concern here, especially gender-based violence. Fortunately, we live on the education campus and there is a shuttle that runs frequently to the main campus. Even if I wasn’t also working on the main campus, I would feel secure knowing that Jenny had safe transport.

Barbershop experiences?

Jenny: It’s crazy fun. You have the run-of-the-mill gay men, and the young women who can give you tips on everything fashionable. But here you also get all the free lattes, bottled water, and wine you can drink. And they are quite entertained by our accents and try to imitate them. My stylist works hard to try to teach me Afrikaans, and writes on her mirror with a marker so I can see the words spelled out. It makes for a fun afternoon. I try to go as often as I can.

Ryan: That’s what she said. No, really, she said that. And, I agree.

Does the cape really look like CA? If so, in what way?

Ryan: Um, yes? I can’t claim to have a lot of exposure to the California landscape (I think I’ve been to LA once, San Diego once and the Bay Area twice), so I can’t say for sure. But, the juxtaposition of green, rocky mountains/cliffs and blue, shimmering ocean waters seem quite similar. Some call Cape Town “Africa’s San Francisco” because of shared qualities like fog, relative tolerance, scenery and the island prisons off their coasts.

Cape or Cali?

Do Ryan’s jokes work in SA?

Ryan: Do they work anywhere?

Jenny: Big no.

Are there stray cats, I only recall you mentioning dogs.

Jenny: We have one in particular who likes to come into the yard to taunt Indie. She’s a dirty, matted white Persian who we’ve nicknamed Nasty Tinkerbell. She boldly drinks from Indie’s outside water bowl when the sliding glass door is closed.

Ryan:

What does an average bookstore look like?

Ryan: A lot like US bookstores, except more expensive. Trade paperbacks are easily a time-and-a-half more than US prices. I think we paid almost twice as much as we should have for a Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia, for example.

The bookstore-with-attached-coffee-shop model is popular, especially in malls. The biggest chain (I think) is Exclusive Books, and they sometimes have a Seattle Coffee Company next door. The biggest differences are that the stores here often will have a significant Afrikaans section (not sure about other official languages) and an insignificant periodicals section. I take that back…the section is big, the selection is not.

What about an art museum, art scene?

Ryan: Yes, there are a couple on campus, but I can’t say that we’ve done a lot of exploring. We have been to some live stage performances in Joburg, at the Market Theatre, and plan to see a production of Phantom of the Opera in the coming weeks.

What Can We Tell You?

As Jenny noted in her last, great post, a lot of people are reminding us in ways subtle and not so much that our time in South Africa is more than half over. Sadly, we are keenly aware of this fact.

Now that we are in our eighth full month of life in SA, we find that not only is it difficult to imagine the day that we will have to leave, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot the unique things that happen each day the way we could when we first arrived. Someone with no shoes in the grocery store? Yeah, that happens every day. Another zebra? Yaaaaawn… Weird kid dancing for spare change at the robot? Must be Tuesday.

So, maybe it’s a good idea at this point to let YOU ask the questions. What do you want to know? What can we tell you about our daily lives, or about our experiences here?

We know, just by looking at the site statistics, that the blog has had nearly 12,000 visits thus far, and that people who come to us are searching for things like:

  • “angry birds”
  • “buy a donkey afrikaans”
  • “men in panties” (still a popular one)
  • “giraffe looking back”
  • “rhino pimple”
  • injera trees” (if only injera grew on trees)
  • victor matfield‘s waist measurements” (I think all of these searches were performed by Jenny)
  • “photos of contemporary landscapes and outdoor bbq areas”
  • “living room, indoor, human, flowers”
  • “photo victor matfield topless” (again, Jenny)
  • “doing gender being a gender” (wouldn’t you like to be a gender, too?)
  • “how to cook goat head south african way”

While some of these searches yielded the results people were looking for, most of them probably did not. So, send us your questions through our contact page and we will do our best to answer them. We’ll even make the questions anonymous, so feel free to ask away!

We’ll post the whole Q&A as soon as we have some good questions and answers.

The Drive to Durban

On January 20, Jenny posted the following to Facebook:

To which her sister, Jaimie, promptly replied, “Driving to the Indian Ocean. As one does.”

Thanks for always keeping us grounded, Foof.

Yes, I suppose that some six months in to our stay in South Africa, we may have started to take things for granted. Like the ability to drive from Pretoria to Durban, on the Indian Ocean, for the weekend.

The drive itself, which certainly didn’t need help from a guy called “Vanilla” to be vibrant (though it would have been nice to have our ragtop down so our hair could blow), was about eight hours, all in. However, since we couldn’t escape Pretoria until late on Friday afternoon, we decided to split the trip in half and stop over for the night in a town called Harrismith. Speaking of vanilla…

There’s not much to report from our short visit to Harrismith, save for one memorable exchange. Upon arrival at the guesthouse, the name of which we will not disclose here, we asked our host, an Afrikaner man not named Willem, for a restaurant recommendation.

“Ach, man,” he began. “Well, we mostly eat boer-kos, so we like La Moree. They have a nice fillet.”

“Yeah?” we asked, feigning interest in large slabs of beef.

“Ach, not to be racist or anything,” he continued, as if he was among friends who would understand that it is not only perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with “not to be racist or anything” but also illustrative of how tolerant you can be nowadays, “but there are no black people there. So, it’s quiet.”

“Oh…OK,” we lilted, swallowing hard. “Thanks…”

We were so shocked that neither of us thought to ask for a second choice, a more integrated, post-1994 option. Worse, we took his advice! We were tired. And hungry. And, apparently, racist. But, one cannot ask for absolution on an empty stomach. Just ask the diners at Cracker Barrel.

ANYWAY…

Early the next morning, after a lovely breakfast at the guesthouse, we set out for Durban. The stretch of the N3 between Harrismith and Ladysmith (yes, that Ladysmith) was breathtaking. The hills, the valleys, the mountains, the clouds, the cows, the sunlight, the shadows, the green, the greener…the Drakensberg. Gorgeous.

In just a few short hours, we were on the outskirts of Durban, 614 kilometers from and about 5,000 feet lower in elevation than Pretoria. From Durban, our destination at the luxurious Zimbali Lodge, was about another hour’s drive. We checked in quickly, changed clothes and jumped back in the car to return to Durban Harbour – we had a date with the Allen Gardiner.

The Allen Gardiner in Durban Harbour

The Allen Gardiner is a historic, wooden vessel built in 1942 in Miami for the South African Air Force. During World War II, it was used as a rescue boat to save lives when German U-boats attacked ships off the coast of South Africa. During our visit, it was used for a champagne cruise.

For about two hours, we skimmed the harbour and munched hors d’oeuvres. We sidled up to massive container ships from China, the Marshall Islands, Panama and Denmark. One monster even had the capacity to transport 4,000 automobiles in its yellow belly.

Back on land and fully appetized, we decided to cast a net in the direction of dinner. Seafood, of course. Someplace we hoped would be decidedly not “quiet.”

We chose New Café Fish, in part because it looked like an upside-down ship, but mostly because the guidebook recommended it.

At an outdoor bar above the marina, facing the Durban skyline…

The skyline at Durban Harbour

…we ordered drinks and a dozen wild, fresh, local oysters. That were as big as our heads.

It's a good thing we didn't have to pay by weight...

Seated, salted and sated, we enjoyed the city view, the sea air and the southern sky before driving the winding beach road back towards Ballito, in the dark, dark, dark.

Early the next morning, we went hunting for duiker. The Zimbali Lodge is on a small game reserve, meaning that both the game and the reserve are relatively small. Among the smallest of South Africa’s many antelope is the elusive blue duiker, one of Jenny’s favorites. So, we went out on foot to try to find one.

Sadly, we did not spot any duiker…at least not any live duiker. While wandering along a trail somewhere beyond the edge of the map provided by the concierge, we came across an intact skeleton of a small antelope, probably a duiker, and probably just a few days dead. It was picked clean, for the most part, save for some furry flesh around the ankles. Shame.

We did have a closer encounter with a living, breathing nyala. That was fun. But the real payoff of the hike was the detour to see this:

Indian Ocean surf laps the beach at Zimbali

With a healthy respect for riptides and sharks, we did not swim in this part of the Indian Ocean. We did, however, get our feet wet.

After breakfast, we went down to the pool and ordered cocktails. “As one does.”

While our cocktails were actually served in a different pool, this one is prettier

Fast-forward to Monday, past a day of lounging and night of prawn curry at a quirky little place called Impulse by the Sea. Find yourself in downtown Durban, looking for street signs with names like Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Bertha Mkhize, street signs that in some cases have been spray painted over with black lines in protest of the massive and controversial renaming project underway in the city. Look for the Victoria Street Market.

Got it?

Yep, but this is a one-way, how do we get back…?

Turn down that street.

This one? With all the minibus taxis and cardboard boxes everywhere?

Yeah, just try it.

OK.

Somehow, the Rio landed.

Victoria Street Market is…

Wait…Victoria Street Market is not a big truck or a series of tubes. It is electronics, spices, cell phone cases, t-shirts, arts, crafts, artycrafts, saris, vegetables, baskets, tourist traps, and other stuff. We didn’t last long.

It’s not that we gave up, it’s that the thing Jenny was most hoping to find wasn’t there. It was out on the streets. It was fabric.

Durban is well known in SA for producing (or at least selling) fantastic fabrics. Silks, cottons, jerseys, sequins, you name it. As we weaved our way from store to store, through sidewalks crowded with vendors, newsstands, piles of clothes, sleeping beggars, and fellow browsers, the sounds and smells of the Durban CBD carried us forth.

If you can’t tell from my extremely bouncy iPhone video, you should know this:

Durban:India::Chicago:Poland

That’s right. Just as Chicago has the largest population of Poles outside of Warsaw, Durban has the largest population of Indians outside of Delhi. Outside all of India, in fact. Of roughly 3.5 million Durbanites, 27% are of Indian descent. That’s about 945,000 people.

Durban’s high concentration of Indians gives the city an interesting vibe. There are obvious examples, like the number of curry shops, but it’s more than that. The added diversity (more than just black & white) was refreshing. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but perhaps the best way to say it is that Durban feels more relaxed somehow. Whether that’s due to physical (coastal location) or social (historic migrations) geography is unclear. Both/and, probably.

We often had to remind ourselves that we were still in South Africa.

For that, we had the drive home. Seven-plus hours through KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, a slice of Mpumalanga and back into Gauteng.

Back to work.

Back to reality.

Back to vanilla?

No…not at all.