Friday, February 26, 2010

Africa Chronicles: Moses, Mo and the Stables

Because shopping is difficult to work into our schedule, and we all want useless trinkets, we're always on the lookout for night shopping. And sometimes we find it. There was a 24 hour market in St. Lucia, kind of like a 7-11. Here in Durban we heard of this evening market at a place called The Stables, located on Jacko Jackson road. We decided it was a worth investigating.

On the way we hit up Moses Mabhida stadium again. We'd been inside for the soccer game, but they have a cable car that runs up to the roof of the stadium during the day. For a reasonable price you're able to stand on top of the building, looking out over the city. It was a nice day so we just looked out at Durban for a half hour or so.

The Stables themselves were nothing terribly remarkable. The most interesting element was how random the different booths were. Exotic pets, wedding novelties, second hand clothing, antiques, computer supplies, everything you could possibly fit in a former stable. I spent some time haggling over some knock-off World Cup jerseys, but was unable to barter them down to my prefered cost.

After the market the night was young, and I was tired of my host family's cooking, so we went out to eat. We'd heard rave reviews of Mo's Noodles from the residents at work, so decided to try it out. I mention the name because if you're in Durban, you should go to Mo's Noodles. My pecan chicken with coconut noodles was one of the best things I've eaten in the last month. I've always been a Thai fan so I'm biased, but it was terrific. I'm kind of calamari'd out after all the seafood I've had, but their calamari was probably the best I've ever had. And the only decoration in the restaurant is a Bruce Lee quote on the wall, which is pretty awesome.

Africa Chronicles: The biggest and baddest

We got out of work early on Tuesday, so it was time to cram in one more Durban “must.” We caught a taxi down to the Jumah Musjid Mosque, the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Our taxi driver got us there with the description “the big mosque.” But when he dropped us off all we saw were hardware stores, computer/lingerie stores (these seem to go together in ZA. Convenient?) but no mosques. Eventually we figured out that the stores were completely encompassing the mosque and we found a corridor in.

There were supposedly hourly tours, but when we showed up they looked a bit confused. The made a call about 6 American doctors and within 5 minutes we had a friendly tour guide, named Mahomed. If I were Muslim I'd definitely change my name to King to cut down on the same-name confusion.

Mahomed was perhaps the best and worst tour guide I've had in South Africa. On the negative side, he told us approximately nothing about the mosque. He was incredibly disjointed, jumping from point to point, quizzing us about America, answering questions we didn't ask and not answering questions we did. But he did these things so comically, that it made the experience very entertaining. Some paraphrased commentary from our friendly tour guide:

Muslims should pray to Mecca at these times. I don't always do it.
You're from Florida? Tell me about the Everglades. What do they do in Daytona beach?
Isn't Maine an island? I watched a documentary about it. Yes, it's an island they bought from a lord.
You look like a basketball player.
You look like a boar trekker (me. Not sure what this meant.)
Is this the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere? Maybe. Maybe in 1959 it was.

It's not. It's not nearly the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Oh well. Mahomed wouldn't let us leave until we'd had bisquits and cream soda with him. He assured us that Muslims weren't terrorists and that polygamy helps keep colored people gain an inheritance because men are going to cheat. I'm not sure, his explanations rarely explained things. But he loves Mormons. He kept telling us things that Mormons believed, some of which were true. He gave us tons of pamphlets,
Quarans and generally did his best to convert us. Maybe if your mosque were bigger my friend.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

African Chronicles: A pleasant muddle of a trip

This weekend was our Lesotho trip. Kind of. A major hindrance of our progression was too many cooks in the kitchen. Unlike our previous trip, and most of our activities, all 8 of us went. Which means we had 2 cars, 8 different viewpoints, and little chance of a coordinated effort. Which was quite annoying to members of our group at times, but strangely enough not for me. Though I'm prone to annoyance with people, especially large groups with poor planning, I really had no expectations of this trip so my personal plans couldn't be foiled. It's a good mindset to be in when traveling with 8 people.

On our way out of town we visited the 1,000 Hills region. As far as I can tell, the 1,000 Hills is a concept created to entrap tourists. Certainly, the area is hilly, and some of the views quite pleasing to the eye, but there isn't anything else really tying the region together. There's no rug. I suppose a potential rug (if you're confused this is a Big Lebowski reference) are the Zulu people. The area used to be populated with Zulus, and there are a number of Zulu villages in the area. But they were all “closed” by the time we made it there around 4. Only native villages in South Africa close in the middle of the afternoon.

There are a number of “routes” designed to lead people from place to place in the 1,000 Hills. The places on the routes are primarily markets, bed and breakfasts and artist shops, each of which likely paid some fee to be part of the 1,000 Hill route.

In any case, we picked a route which pointed towards the Drakensberg mountains, our eventual destination. We had a difficult time locating the tourist traps we sought, but did eventually make it to a ceramics shop that made only horses. As I wasn’t in need of a ceramic horse, I wandered around outside looking at the hills. We hit a number of other markets, curio shops etc but nothing terribly noteworthy. But the views were very nice, and the pictures of this portion of the trip will be more interesting than this description. Though that may be the case for all portions of my travels.

Another debate among the 8 of us was where to stay. Bryce and I are well versed in hostels and found one by the mountains which seemed pretty great. Many of the rest of the group had an irrational fear of hostels. Maybe it's not irrational, in that sometimes they are gross and I image there is a statistically greater chance of crime being inflicted upon you than at other sleeping locales. But due to this fear, we ended up renting a cottage, an entirely new experience. The price was quite reasonable since there were 8 of us, otherwise it wouldn't have been feasible. The place was actually extremely large, fairly luxurious, and only slightly infested with ants. The location was out of the way, but the experience was pretty nice. We even had cable tv, with 3 channels. We watched Awake one night, because there were really no other options. It is quite bad in case you're wondering. But I realized that it was the first movie I've watched in the last month, which was odd to think about.

With no definite plans, it’s fairly remarkable that anything happened when we woke up the next morning. But remarkably a consensus was reached that we should go hike to The Amphitheater in Royal Natal park. Evidently this is the most popular hike of that particular park, and The Amphitheater is among the most scenic of the Drakensberg mountains, so we decided to go for it. After an hour or so of driving we came across the hostel we had wanted to stay at, which looked pretty awesome, which promoted some mental I-told-you-sos if not any verbal ones. When we got to the park we had to choose between 2 trails that covered similar area. One was 5 hours and one was 17 hours. I voted for the 5 hour route, as I’m lazy. And I didn’t want to hike narrow African trails in the middle of the night. Luckily the rest of the group agreed.

Hiking is not in my top 10 activities. I suspect it’s not in my top 100, depending how many ways you can describe watching television. But, it is a nice change from time to time. And I much prefer hiking on rocks to hiking on dirt. I’m not sure why, but I do. So while the scenery was indeed very scenic, the first couple hours of hiking wasn’t super-fantastic. We’d hoped to see animals, as generally we’re fans of African animals, but sadly this was not to be. We saw some baboons when we first entered the park, but saw none on the trail. Honestly I didn’t want to run into baboons on the trail as we each had backpacks with foodstuffs and things could’ve gotten dicey. But seeing nothing for the whole trip wasn’t ideal either.

The best part of the hike was the last hour. Part of our group stayed to lunch by a river while the remainder continued on. Our goal was to see the 2nd tallest waterfall in the world, Tugela Falls. The trail switched to rock (hurray!) so I had a much better time. We had to cross back and forth across the river a bunch of times, which I also enjoy. I did manage to get a foot wet and later scrape up my legs, but hopefully the water wasn’t too chock-full of protozoa. Eventually we made it up to the viewing point, and the falls were very nice. They were also still quite far away, as we hadn’t opted for the 17 hour route. But we could see them, and they were tall. The tallest is Angel Falls in Venezuela btw.

We attempted to go to a cave with some cave art afterwards, but it was closed. This became an unfortunate pattern for the rest of the trip. The next day we’d attempt to eat at the Waffle Hut, go to a ceramics shop, see another cave with drawings, and dine at no less than 3 restaurants, all to be turned away. So it goes.

We investigated visiting that mystery of a nation, Lesotho. I can’t really fathom this being true, but evidently there’s only one road into the country. And this road requires a 4x4, which we did not have. There were spots to hike into the country and to ride ponies into the country, but none that really fit with our plans for the weekend. The we nearly paid a guy 500 rand to drive us close to the border and walk us in, but his main sales pitch was that we wouldn’t see any tourists and we could try to buy some liquor off the locals. Since we don’t really care about avoiding tourists, and had all the liquor we required, we opted not to go with this option. So in the end we visited all around Lesotho, just not in Lesotho. I’m slightly disappointed but pretty far from heartbroken.

The rest of the weekend was pretty lazy really. I learned some new rules to Scum, and crushed some fellow travelers at Hearts. We made a pasta dinner. I tried monkey gland sauce and horlicks. We did a little shopping. We saw another waterfall, Howick falls, but were warned that we might get robbed by squatters if we left the main road without 5 men. Who knows if that would’ve happened (we had only 2 men, and one was Bryce), but we didn’t try it out. I had my first pizza in Africa. My companions refused to get the banana bacon pizza, which is a popular combo here. BTW, I invented the banana bacon combo with my Jamaican Bacon Bananas years ago. Eventually we wound our way back through the 1000 Hills and made it into Durban at a fairly reasonable hour.

One more week in Durban.

Monday, February 22, 2010

African Chronicles: Doing Robin Sparkles Proud

The largest mall in Durban is The Gateway. How big is it? I don't have a punchline or number to back that statement up. But bigger than any of the other malls we've been to. And big enough to have the world's tallest rock climbing wall. And since America invented the mall, we felt the need to visit. Strangely enough our trip was the 3 males of the group. The 5 females decided they didn't need to shop. Stereotype shattered.

This will be quite the short post, as the mall was in fact a mall. The climbing wall was very tall, but we didn't have time to scale it. The artificial surfing station was kind of fascinating. They've somehow created some permanent waves for people to surf on. At the mall. Technology!

The rest of the mall consisted of stores. I was on the prowl for my normal curios, as well as a particular ZA Worldcup jersey. I didn't find much of either. My companions fared similarly.

Before leaving I decided to hit up McDonalds, just for America's sake. I'd had a chicken wrap at a Mickey Ds in Capetown, but otherwise haven't had any food from an American establishment since arriving. Since I'd be leaving soon, I suspected this would be my last chance. And since they had 2 menu items unique to ZA, I had to try them. The Chicken Foldover was like a chicken gyro, and was quite tasty, but messy. And the Cornetto McFlurry was delicious, but you have to wonder if it even counts as an innovation. Cornettos are the British equivalent of Drumsticks, so I had an ice cream flavored ice cream. But it was good so I'm not complaining.

Let's Go To The Mall! Today.

African Chronicles: Goooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllllllllllllll!!!

On Wednesday we went to a soccer/football game/match. For one, it's a ZA thing to do, so we wanted to do it. For another, the game was in the World Cup stadium, so we thought it would be cool to see a match in the stadium, even if it was the MLS teams, not the national teams. The match was AmaZulu versus the Free State Titans, in case you're interested.

But first we decided to carouse down Florida Street. Florida Street (I always feel a little odd when names are so familiar. There is also a Boston and Chicago suburb in Durban) is famous for having a lot of restaurants, night clubs, art galleries and art deco architecture. As we walked along it we discovered that it did in fact have all those things. We even ended up at an art exhibit, complete with free samosas and passionfruit juice. We hopped along the street until it was time for the game to start.

The stadium is quite nice, as far as I can tell. I don't really make a habit of going to sporting events, but it did seem quite nice. The stadium has become a bit of a tourist attraction on its own since it opened a month ago, primarily because you can ride a cable car to the top of the arch the hangs over the stadium. There are actually 9 World Cup stadiums, but this is one of the bigger ones. We've seen 3 so far (also in Capetown and Port Elizabeth) but this is the best one in my completely uneducated opinion.

The game, sadly, was a bit anticlimactic. It was an experience being in the stadium, site of future world competition, but the game was still soccer. And when you don't have a vested interest in the teams, soccer is rather dull. Which is why people spend so much time getting drunk, blowing on their annoying plastic horns and generally being rowdy hooligans. And the hooligans would have been more entertaining, except this was a minor game in a giant stadium, so maybe 1/50 seats were filled. Wall to wall hooligans would be a sight to see, the occasional drunkard blowing a plastic horn is just annoying. But it was one of the view events that we've done with nearly all of our group, so the team building was good. And “our team” won, so that's better than if they hadn't. Narrowly.

African Chronicles: Everything but Shamu

I've tried to avoid the deadly travelogue. You know the type. I did this, then I did this. Then we did this. Then we went home. The type of thing that could be made into a deadly boring slideshow presentation.

So, I'll try not to do that. But at the same time, I'm on vacation, so I'm not going to try very hard.

On Monday we got out of work early, because this program isn't planned very well. Not that I'm complaining, as this gave me nearly a day of sightseeing. South Africa continues to frustrate with it's bizarre workday. When everything closes at 5, and we don't get out of work until 4 or 5, the only days when we can explore are early days like this. So while some people chose to recover from the weekend, I decided to go to Ushaka.

But first I suppose, we decided to go to Wilson's Wharf and the BAT center. I'm not going to discuss Wilson's Wharf because it was pretty boring. If you read a travel book about Durban it will tell you to go to Wilson's Wharf and I'll just tell you right now that you don't need to. The End. But afterward we walked to to the BAT Center which was actually quite nice. We did get kicked out of a yacht club on the way, but we made it there eventually, and it was quite nice.

Tangent: The first time you go abroad, you think to yourself, “Self, I should bring home a bunch of souvenirs. And I should get a bunch of souvenirs for my family and friends. And look! How convenient it is that these quaint one-of-a-kind souvenirs are available on the street corner.” At least I had some experience similar to this when I went to China. But you soon realize that the vast majority of the stuff isn't quaint it's just mass produced. It may very well say Made in China on the bottom. Which is less of a problem when you're in China, but still negates some value. It's more of a problem when it happens in South Africa, on the “hand-made” pot on the street corner. So you realize that a lot of the shops sell the exact same stuff, which at worst means you don't want it, and at best means you can pick it up whenever you want, whenever you haggle the best price.

So South Africa is the same as most anywhere. A lot of the souvenirs (called curios here) are identical, mass produced, and readily available. So we've made a special effort of finding souvenirs that are actually unique, and preferably from a native artist. The BAT Center was a way to do this. It had a bunch of art exhibits, studios and a cafes. They play jazz there, though not on a Monday afternoon when we went. Some people bought some neat stuff, and I just enjoyed the atmosphere.

We chose to go to this area in the afternoon, because it's also the home of many of the cities homeless. We'd been warned that we could be attacked there at night. But, it's become a common theme that all South Africans feel that we're at risk of being attacked at all times, except when tucked safely in our beds. But when possible we heed their advice and this was one such case. The only thing that attacked us was homeless urine odor. And this was our fault since we cut under a railroad track and walked through a latrine-like tunnel. Those of us in flip-flops were not terribly happy with the decision in retrospect.

After a bit of a walk through town we made it to Ushaka. Now, many of you have been to Sea World. I have not. But from the best of my estimation, Ushaka is the ZA equivalent of Sea World. In fact, some of the signs said Sea World, which could indicate that they are owned by Sea World, or at least steal their signs from Sea World. The waterpark portion of the park was closed, because it was Monday, and of course they close half the park because it's Monday. TIA. But the aquarium portion of the park was open.

The aquarium itself was inside a ship, and was actually quite good, as far as I could tell. It was no where near as large as the Baltimore Aquarium, which is pretty well my only reference point, but the atmosphere of being in a “sunken” ship was a nice touch. And they had eels and sharks and rays and cuttlefish and all manner of things that are neat to see, even if they didn't have all that many of them. The ship also had a number of restaurants in it, but we didn't end up using there facilities.

We went to a couple shows while we were there. The seal show was quite good, as seals are pretty entertaining animals. I kind of feel like just watching seals is a show in and of itself, but these ones clapped and danced and did all manner of things they didn't do when I saw them on Seal Island. The dolphins did a similar song and dance in their show, which was both impressive and painful. Impressive because they're clever things, and painful because the narration of the show was horrid. We skipped the penguin show in favor of watching some of the carnivorous fish get fed. The park also included a mall, so as Americans we felt it was our obligation to scope out the mall. It was full of curios, which I didn't buy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Love Sucks Seven

Despite being only 28 days long, February has a number of my favorite holidays. We'd discussed Groundhog's Day briefly, but honestly we didn't do much for it. I missed Mardi Gras entirely. And being away from my disgruntled masses, I wasn't able to do much for Love Sucks Seven either.

We started our Valentine's Day by going on a tour of a local township. A township, at least to South African's, refers to an area where blacks were moved to during apartheid. A cheery way to start the day. “Here's about the most physical manifestation of racism that we can come up with. Plus, here are some orphans with AIDS. Plus we're going to make you learn Zulu this morning.” It was actually a good tour, though I think the guide's speech was pretty fraught with inaccuracies. They were primarily amusing inaccuracies and certainly not anything that changed the significance of the sites we visited.

After we hit up a craft market, which has nothing to do with Valentine's Day. It just happened on Valentine's Day.

After that we went up to the SunCoast Casino. The only real significance of this relating to Love Sucks Day is that it was packed full of couples. Interestingly, there were a ton of Indians. Although there have been a fair number of Indians all over Durban, they suddenly jumped from 30% to 80%. Do Indians have a gambling problem? I'll leave you to decide. One thing not in doubt though is that there were a ton of uber-beautiful Indian girls there. I suddenly developed Curry Fever. I blame that on Valentine's Day. And on the beautiful Indian girls.

We didn't end up doing that much in the casino. The blackjack tables were pretty full and that is about all I like doing at casinos. But we went up to the casino much more to eat than gamble and had a fantastic linner at a place called Havanas. It was a seriously great meal. It certainly would've been more romantic had it been with a smitten young lady rather than Bryce and Jenny (who has a boyfriend back in Maine), but the non-Valentine nature of our Valentine's dinner didn't diminish the quality. I got to add ostrich to my Animals I've Eaten List (I'd added warthog the day before) had some great lamb and pina colada cheesecake.

So, I'm sad that I didn't get to add another year to my Love Sucks record. But on the plus side, if I actually have a girlfriend next February I won't have the moral dilemma of whether to go out with her or throw Love Sucks 8. It will be whether to take her out or throw Re-Love Sucks 1.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

African Chronicles: St. Lucia Bound

Originally when we were planning this trip, and I use the term planning quite loosely, I had planned on flying to Zambia before coming down to South Africa. This was primarily because I hear Victoria Falls is awesome. But it was also because I wasn't really sure if South Africa had enough activities to keep us occupied for the whole trip. Turns out, it does. So much so that we had a bit of a hard time deciding what to do on our weekend. But we eventually decided that St. Lucia would be our first foray into a weekend excursion.

St. Lucia is known primarily for it's hippopotami, and since the hippo is in the Chris Five, I figured it was a good use of a weekend.

Sidenote: The Big Five. The Big Five are five animals found in Africa, that are big, and there are five of them. It seems like a very random grouping of animals, but evidently they're the biggest game animals, ie, people hunt them. But even that doesn't make a ton of sense to me. They are: lions, leopards, water buffalo, rhinos and elephants. Why not cheetahs? Why not hippos? Why not any number of other animals? There's an Ugly Five, which I don't have in front of me but I think it includes hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs and something else I presume. Unless it's a misnomer. ANYWAY, I like hippos. I'm pretty sure they're in my top five, which would likely be rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes and dassie.

We rented a car, which was much more cost efficient with 5 of us instead of just Bryce and me. The three hour trip passed quickly and we found ourselves on a boat in the St. Lucia estuary a few minutes after arriving in town. The tour was a lot of fun. There were quite a few exclamations of “I'm on a boat!” and references to the trip being a booze cruise, though I don't think anyone in our group took advantage of the bar on the ship. It was even hotter than Durban, if that's possible, but a pleasant breeze made the trip up and down the estuary quite palatable. We saw a boatload of hippos. Our previous exposure had been a hippo or two, hiding ponds. This river had dozens and dozens of them. Most didn't depart from their pretty dull hippo existence, which consists of bobbing in and out of the water. But we got some yawns, some frolicking, even a few acrobatics. It was a quality adventure. We only saw a couple crocs, but that's about all you can expect from them. They're not very social.

Afterwards we were quite hungry so, hit “the strip.” Our guide books had warned us that St. Lucia had a pretty horrible food scene. The place we picked evidently had some supply problems, since every other thing we ordered wasn't currently available. But my calamari steak was pretty adequate. Plus our restaurant had bats, which is always a plus, unless you're directly under them. The main problem with our service was very slow, meaning a lot of our afternoon was eaten up while we were eating. We filled out the day with some shopping, hanging out at the hostel, watching the rugby game and of course hippo hunting. We were told by many sources that hippos stroll through town at night. We suspected that we could be on a snipe hunt, but figured it would be worth it to see one marching down the street. Sadly, we weren't able to locate any. We did find some pretty nice beaches, but crabs and jellyfish were the closest we got to hippos. Which isn't very close.

We got up at 5 for a early safari the next day. This makes my thirdish safari, which is probably all I need. It just feels like that's what you do when you go to Africa. You safari. Plus I had a bunch of friends going which makes it more fun. This particular safari was Imfolozi/Hluhluwe and is known for its rhinos. In fact, they claim that all white rhinos in Africa originate from this park. The animal density of the park was pretty poor (ie we drove around looking for animals a lot of the time instead of actually seeing them) but we had some great animal contacts. We pissed off a big male elephant that chased us away, which was awesome. We caught our first glimpse of a hyena, water buffalo and chameleon. We caught another number of deer variations, some of which were relatively impressive, for deer. So I felt a little bad for the newbies who had this as their first and possibly only safari, but it was a good one for me.

I wasn't super excited about the safari, but was excited to go to the Crocodile Center. This little corner of St. Lucia is more zoo than safari, but it had hundreds of crocodiles so I didn't care. I was especially excited because our trip coincided with the weekly feeding. Watching a crocodile chow down on a dead chicken isn't as cool as seeing one attack an impala, but it was still sweet. Even better was watching the adolescent crocs go crazy over their weekly meat. Most any activity involving crocodilians is going to be a winner in my book, but this one was especially good.

We had some time to kill, so decided to go to Cape Vidal. Honestly, I know nothing about Cape Vidal other than it's considered some of the best snorkeling in the world. It's also inside a national park which covers five ecosystems (coastal forest, marshlands, dunes etc etc) so it seemed like a good place to explore for hippos and leopards. So we ventured on our first self safari.

Our self safari was a novel experience for a number of reasons. Driving up to wild animals in a giant safari truck is significantly different than doing so in a Mazda 6. Not having a guide obviously leaves you with minimal guidance. And perhaps the biggest factor in making this memorable was the time limit. We discovered that the park closed in two hours, and if we weren't out by 7 PM we'd owe the park 350 rand. So we started the countdown and headed into the park.

We never made it to Cape Vidal. Well, we did, but we had no time to get out and explore the cape. This was partially because we'd stopped at Lake St. Lucia and the beach at Mission Rocks. Both of these spots were awesome and would've warranted a trip on their own. But instead we hit the spots, declared five minute deadlines and did some double-time exploring. Maybe triple-time. But even more problematic than these detours (which were totally worth it) was the animals. We kept coming up on new animals. Pygmy deer and giant beetles and monkeys playing on the road. Herds of kudu (a particularly impressive variety of deer) feeding along the road. Water buffalo up close and personal on the road. We managed to get a yelp out of one of our safarians as a water buffalo (renowned for being aggressive) made some “Bring It!” sounds at us. Even better was when we came up on a rhino and got just a couple feet away. Another yelp from our backseat yelper.

With all of our awesome animal contacts we get way behind schedule and had to hurry back to the gate. With drum music pounding away on our radio, with the sun going down, hitting the speed limit and avoiding those pesky pygmy deer it was an intense trip. And although I had to adjust our car's clock so we made it back by 7, we “made it.” It wasn't jumping from the highest bungee jump in the world, but it was intense.

After some dinner (the highlight for me was when they told us after drinking a pitcher of their water that they really wouldn't recommend drinking their water as it was no longer potable) we hit the road back to Durban. This trip was notable for some giant lightening storms, a brief but entertaining game of Car Catchphrase (patent pending) and eventually becoming stranded at the airport. We returned our rental car only to find that there were no taxis at the airport. NO TAXIS AT AN AIRPORT. South Africa, you need to get on the ball here. We asked the airport security about this and one of the rent-a-cops offered to take half of us home in his car, “if you'd like to provide me with some money for my trouble.” It was amazingly creepy, and awesome. Awesome because we did have the numbers for a number of taxi companies and didn't need to rely on him possibly killing us, or at the very least ripping us off. A different set of airport security later come by to accuse us of loitering, but luckily our taxi arrived at the same time. So although it was late, we made it home from our first major Durban excursion safe and sound. Next week: Lesotho.

A Spot of Cricket

For the first couple days I tried to get the 8 members of our AIDS curing crew to get together to discuss our extracurricular activities for the next couple weeks. Eventually I gave up on such foolish notions as a coordination of information and interest and the value of team work. Instead, I'm just going to do the things I want to do.

One thing I wanted to do was go to a Cricket game. I'm sure this is surprising to many of you, as I have long expressed a total disinterest in sports. However, there are several important loopholes that this fell into. First, I like unpopular things, and cricket is certainly not popular in America (though quite popular in ZA.) Second, I'm all about celebrating things to the greatest extent that they can be celebrated, and a trip to South Africa should include such ZA sports standards as cricket, soccer and rugby. And third, the less I know about a sport, the more I like it; and I know nothing about cricket. When I watch football I get bored because I know what's going on, more or less. When I get to figure out the rules during the game, it makes it much better.

So, I organized a trip to see the Nashua Dolphins take on the Titan Eagles. It did in fact take the entire 3 hour game for us to figure out what was going on, so that was ideal timing. I won't explain the rules to you because if you're really interested you can wikipedia it. But generally speaking it's kind of like a baseball game and croquet match had a baby.

We had some sports food, some familiar, some unfamiliar. We enjoyed the game, didn't enjoy the halftime rock band, and greatly enjoyed the cricket hotties. Every time someone got a wicket or out they'd pump the typical stadium-anthem type music (though one song was the Glee version of Golddigger, which was a little odd) these dancers would pop up in the corner of the stadium and start doing a heavily choreographed dance number. Imagine if the Pussycat Dolls were at a baseball game with you. Doesn't that make it more enjoyable?

Anyway, it was really our first foray into exploring the Durban nightlife, and I considered it quite a success.

Africa Chronicles: This is from a week ago

Well, the vacation had to end some time. The time was Sunday, when we had our orientation.

Our group: 1 resident, 4 med students, 3 PA students.
Our task: Learn stuff. Most especially HIV/AIDS stuff.
Our location: Various hospitals, clinics, hospice centers and orphanages in Durban.

The PA students have actually been in Capetown for the last month doing another similar elective, so are well acquainted with the South African way of doing things. We've taken to quoting the movie Blood Diamond. Whenever something goes amiss or a plan doesn't seem to make any sense to us, we simply say TIA. This Is Africa. There's not really any point in getting upset or frustrated, you just roll with it.

So today, when we found ourselves receiving a lecture on condom usage in Zulu, we just said TIA. When we arrived at our assigned physician, see one patient and then break for 30 minutes for tea, TIA.

But despite some poor timing and very unclear objectives, I'd consider today a success. We saw several patients with TB (we wore masks, but I'm content to contract tuberculosis if I successful avoid HIV) including a tubercular meningitis case. We saw lots of patients with HIV, but most of their treatment wasn't terribly noteworthy.

Sorry, this is a bit haphazard, but that's just the way it's going to be today. TIA.

We are now staying with our host family. It's a single mother and her 3 daughters, and we live in what is more or less a suburb of Durban. It's a little inconvenient for getting the most out of the downtown scene, but there's a much better chance of us avoiding a stabbing, so it's a good tradeoff. Our only guarantee was running water, which we do indeed have. We also have electricity, and even cable, so it's not exactly roughing it. Though the tv is nearly always on the Style Channel, so that's roughing it a bit. The biggest burden is a lack of air conditioning. Which makes for some sticky evenings and restless nights. I'm a horrible temperature estimator, but I'd say it's been in the mid 90s for much of the time here.

We have our own room, so again, not exactly roughing it. The room is entirely orange which is a little disconcerting. With all the heat and the orange I feel like I'm living in a curry box.

No curry to eat yet, apart from searching it out myself in a bunny chow. We've yet to have any meals from our host family that are strange or noteworthy, but I'll definitely note them if they arise. They do make too much food for us, so my hopes of returning to America thin and tan will only be half fulfilled. In fact twice in the last 2 days people have made us meals after we'd directly told them that we weren't hungry. You know those starving kids in Africa that your parents reprimand you about? I'm not one of them.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

African Chronicles: Durbanian

I took a number of important steps towards becoming a South African today. Don't worry, I fully intend to hold dual citizenship.

First, I ate the unofficial dish of Durban. It's kind of silly when one of the common things that all the guidebooks tell you to do in Durban is eat a particular food. But they all do, and it's called Bunny-chow. For some reason (the internet probably knows, but sadly the internet and I aren't on speaking terms at the moment) the residents of Durban prefer to eat their curry in bread bowls instead of with rice. FYI, many of the residents of Durban are Indian, something that I didn't really realize until recently. But they are, and for whatever reason when they moved here from India they swapped their rice for bread. You can order a ¼ loaf, up to a whole loaf, with whatever type of curry you want inside. And you're not allowed to use any silverware to eat it. And it's pretty good, if you like curry, which luckily I do. The guy at the table next to us thought that we hadn't ordered a bunny and offered to buy one for us to make sure we were getting the Durban experience. So they're quite proud of these things.

Another important step in my dual citizenship was to ride in a minibus. Every country has it's own version of the cheap and dangerous transport around town, and this is South Africa's. These vans run around town filled with a dozen people or so, and if there is any space available a worker will hang his head out the window and shout at people on street corners until he finds someone to make the minibus completely full. Evidently they account for 80% of the accidents on SA streets, and the record number of occupants is 39 (schoolchildren.) We'd avoided them up until this point primarily because we couldn't figure out which ones would get us to our desired destination, as they have some kind of route system, we think. But with all the buses closed (in SA everything closes even earlier on Saturday than during the week) we had to choose between a 150 rand taxi and a 7 rand minibus. We opted on the minibus and surprisingly it got us exactly where we needed to go, quite speedily. And we didn't hit anything. And there were not 39 schoolchildren mucking up the place.

You may have gathered that we are now in Durban, our home for the next 3 weeks. The most significant thing about Durban thus far is that it is very hot. Apart from a rather significant sunburn the first couple of days, the sun and heat hasn't bothered us much traveling along the coast. But eventually my skin stopped pealing and I no longer looked like a leper, and the sun hadn't held us up too much. But Durban is in a tropical zone, and you can feel it. Especially while walking around town all day. We told our host family that we'd been trekking around all day, and one of the daughters said “Only boys would do that.” So we may need to switch to some Durban behavior to deal with the Durban weather.


My South African phone gets unlimited incoming calls, so feel free to call me from 8 am-5 pm. 073 857 1978. I won't recognize your voice, so don't bother playing that game.

African Chronicles: Elephantman

The Baz Bus (and I have no idea what Baz means or stands for) drives from Capetown to Port Elizabeth every day, and another from PE to Durban, with buses running the other way as well. We'd initially planned on using the bus, but as previously discussed, had complications. But we finally got onto it on Wednesday and made the trip from Plett to PE. It was painful. Primarily because they played Bride Wars. But we made it through.

Hippo Backpackers was out home in PE, though we arrived late and left early both nights we stayed there. But our hostess was much nicer than her Plett counterpart, who threw away our muffins and tried to overcharge us. I may never forgive her for throwing away my muffins.

We had a special deal where we got to stay the night for free if we went on safari the next day, so we did so. I have no idea if there were better safaris or better deals or whatnot, because we were tired of scrutinizing such things. But I'm quite happy with the safari we had.

We drove up to Addo/Schotia and met our group. We had a lively Welsh couple, a stoic Danish couple, a young Londoner lass and a Brazilian journalist in our group. I think part of the backpacker lifestyle is buddying up with your fellows and making single serving friends, which I pretty much haven't been doing at all. It's my laziness you see. Why go through all the effort of making friends, when they'll be in another town the next day? But I decided that for today at least I'd make an exception and be friendly. It helped that the Londoner and Brazilian were cute and friendly.

The tour was actually 4 tours in one. First, an elephant tour. Therein we found elephants. Probably about 60 or so. There are 450 in the park, which seems like far more elephants than anyone could ever need. Even Hannibal. And the elephants were relatively fun. They're quite used to vehicles, so will come right up to the vehicle. But evidently they're addicted to oranges, so thankfully I didn't have any citrus on me. There were big elephants, baby elephants, medium elephants and warthogs, which aren't elephants at all. But actually are pretty fun to watch. Our driver was a bit obsessed with tortoises, and kept stopping to point them out. It was especially cruel when he pointed out “On your left is a leopard . . . tortoise.”

Our next tour was in Schotia, which is a private game reserve. Some would argue that the private reserve isn't the real experience, but I've never really known a government program to be superior to a capitalist one, so had no problem with it. Our tour guide wasn't terribly talkative and contradicted what we'd heard from other guides, so who knows who is right. The landscape wasn't as interesting as our previous reserve experience, but there were a ton of animals that popped up. Hippos, rhinos, lions, giraffes, mongeese, monkeys, all manner of deer (or antelope and springbuck and red hearts and whatever other names they want to give all these deerish animals.)

The lions in particular were quite impressive. I did think it amusing how easily impressed we all were. The lion got up! It's walking towards another lion! It's breathing! Yes, they looked cool, but they didn't actually do anything while we watched. Evidently they are voracious hunters, actually killing more on the reserve than they do in the wild. But that's at night, and only when you turn your back. Still, in was windy and the big male's manes flowing in the wind was pretty picturesque.

A benefit of the tour system was that we were able to return to areas we had already seen. The hippos were hiding underwater on our first trip, so we came back a couple hours later and now they were up out of the water. Lions in the bushes? The drivers will radio each other when someone stops by and they're finally out doing exciting things like liking their paws. It made for a lot of good picture opportunities.

That is, if I had a camera. The elephants did some kind of hex on my camera, so as soon as we left the elephant reserve my camera stopped working. They didn't want me to waste my time on lesser creatures. But it was kind of nice not having to deal with my camera. I got to just play with my binoculars and count rhino eyelashes. Hopefully Bryce and our Brazilian friend took enough good pictures to adequately prove that I was a foot from a rhino.

We had some rather good meals, as well as stopping for tea time. It felt quite sophisticated stopping our safari for tea, despite the fact that I could only drink orange juice.

We concluded the night with a night drive. We didn't see much other than wildebeest (the squirrel of Africa.) but the experience of zipping around in the dark with floodlights was fun.

Today is the longhaul from Port Elizabeth to Durban. Thus far it hasn't been much fun. The Baz Bus is supposed to be a party bus, but really it's just a means to an end. We did see some nice countryside, called Sanskei or something of the like. Maybe I'll talk more about it later if I figure out why it's significant. But for now it's just nice scenery as I listen to Toto, watch Always Sunny and read Slaughterhouse 5.


My South African phone gets unlimited incoming calls, so feel free to call me from 8 am-5 pm. 073 857 1978. I won't recognize your voice, so don't bother playing that game.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

African Chronicles: Escape Velocity

We finally made it out of Hermanus. Well, we'd really been out of Hermanus for 48 hours by the time you heard about it, but I blame that on the time zones.

Our bus tickets were nonrefundable (score!) so we were stuck renting a car on top of buying bus tickets. The car experience was pretty uneventful, which I find is the best way for driving to be. For the first couple hours I had to remind Bryce (the designated driver) LEFT whenever we made a turn so we'd remain on the right (left) side of the road. But eventually he overcame the difficulties of driving on the left, with a stick shift, in unknown territory, with no air conditioning and questionable roads.

We drove from Hermanus to Wilderness. The naming of towns here is very interesting. There's a combination of English, Dutch/Afrikaans and native African names. Meaning we never known how to pronounce anything. But we're pretty sure Wilderness is pronounced wilderness. We'd meant to spend a day here, but due to the Hermanus debacle, we abbreviated our stay to a couple hours. We'd heard rave reviews of the Kingfisher trail, so drove to the head and embarked on the trail. After paying 80 rand. It kind of galls me to have to pay to hike, but that's how they do it in SA. I thought about sneaking through the woods to either side of the path, but I'm a little hesitant to do anything that could drop me in a SA jail or hospital, as either could be riddled with the AIDS and tuberculosis we came here to treat.

The trail was pretty good. Somewhat amusingly, they've installed all kinds of boardwalks and stairs, so our extreme Wilderness hiking in Africa experience was some of the easier hiking I've done. But there was a nice waterfall at the end, that may or may not have been man-made to justify the 80 rand price tag. No wild animals on the path, apart from caterpillars. But we told ourselves the caterpillars were the deadly variety, so that made it a bit more intense.

We continued our roadtrip through Nysna. Nysna is famous for having the most endangered seahorse in the world. I know, I bet you wish you had the most endangered seahorse in the world in your backyard. It's a nice little bay community, and like the San Fransisco bay community is famous for being gay friendly. Which is convenient, since I think many of the people who see the 2 attractive white men strolling through their town think we're gay. We went to the oldest building in town, which is now a pub, and had a pleasant dinner. We ordered kind of gay things (vegetarian ravioli, lamb stew, crème broulee and bread pudding/berry compote) and generally had a gay old time.

We continued on to Plettenburg, or as we called in Trendelenburg. It's a med school “joke.” Plettenburg is famous for nothing in particular, but it has lots of stuff around it, so we're staying for a couple days. We decided to stay at a ritzy hostel (who knew such things existed?) which has been a very different experience. It's really more of a bed and breakfast type place, so much lighter on the partying and heavier on the relaxing.

We set out the next day to return our little Kia, but decided to keep her for one more day. First things first, we headed to the Tsitsikamma Falls Adventure. They have a number of places in the area where they've set up dozens of zip lines and you can zip from point to point. We decided to try this one which took place over a river, which I'm sure has a name but I'm going to call Darkwater. The trees in the area darken the water like tea, making it all very dark. The zip lines were fun, and very Batman. If I have learned nothing from Venture Brothers (very possible) it's that you can use Batman as an adjective. We'd zip from side to side, with some guidance from our guides as to when we should brake, lift our legs, and generally not kill ourselves.

Nearby was the tallest bungee jump in the world, so we knew we had to stop by. At least I knew I had to stop by, Bryce knew he had to jump. In my wise old age I've learned not to pay 830 rand for something I don't particularly want to do, so I had a good time watching people jump. I think it helped when they were drunk, and there was a conveniently situated bar by the bridge where you could watch people both on the balcony and on their big screen. Bryce didn't have the benefit of being drunk, but he can tell you about the experience himself.

Since the day was young (or at least not over) we found a game reserve that still had an opening. We made it just in time to hop on their last tour of the day, which I figured was a good time to spot some wild creatures. Who wants to be out and about in the middle of the day? Not me. And especially not me if I were a rhino. So we hopped on the ridiculously tall truck and started around the reserve. We saw a bunch of deer/antelope/gazelle of various types and sizes (they're not really my bag.) The park had 4 lions, of which we saw 3. Unfortunately they'd been fed recently (one of their 3 meals per week) so weren't in the mood to chase, pounce, eviscerate or maim. Just sleep. We also saw some Nile crocodiles, zebras, wildebeast, ostrich and giraffe. And of course a hip-hop-apotamous and rhymenosaurus. I'm not sure if any other explanation is required; they were there, I was there, I took pictures that will appear later. Nothing attacked us. But it was nice and the lodge was cool and we made it back without malaria. That was one of the park's major advertisements. “Malaria free!” That doesn't count for much in the US, but it's a nice perk here.

After a very full day we made it back to Plette, as the locals call it. The town is a pretty sleepy place, owing to the sleepy old people that vacation here. So the nightlife is pretty minimal, excluding watching Jeopardy.

Happy Groundhog's Day! You'll notice, eventually, that I wore my groundhog t-shirt to celebrate. Evidently it's also the day they released Nelson Mandela from jail. But we tried to explain to some locals why Groundhog's Day is a more important holiday, but I don't think we convinced them. But since I was away from Phil, I tried to make up for it by seeing the lions, hippos and rhinos.

Today (the day that I'm typing this) has been very lazy. We made our way down to the beach so we could go sea kayaking and dolphin hunting (with a camera, not a dolphin gun) but it's too windy to kayak. Or at least so says our guide. The weather continually ruins our nautical plans. So Bryce went to hike Robbenburg peninsula, and I went exploring in “town.” The fact that I'm typing out blog entries does indicate how well that has gone. But tonight we'll hop on the bus for Port Elizabeth, and tomorrow we'll be at Addo Elephant Reserve, which has an excellent reputation. For having elephants, amongst other things.

Random South African trivia of the day:
-It's illegal to swim with dolphins.
 People hitchhike in crowds. It seems counterproductive to me.
 You hit your hazard lights when passing on the freeway.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Stranded in Hermanus

I'm stuck in a resort town. Of course I realize that there are many worse places to be stranded. A ghost town. A haunted ghost town. Columbus. But stranded is never fun, regardless of the location.

Friday night we decided we'd take the bus from Hermanus to Durban, so that meant we had to stay until Sunday. That was fine. It was a resort town. We'd been vacationing pretty hard, so we'd slow it down a bit. This morning we were ready to board the bus when we discovered the hostel hadn't called the bus to tell it to stop, as they'd said they would. Aggravating. And the bus was full for Monday. More aggravating. And the bus company wouldn't refund our money. Further aggravation.

It takes a certain kind of person to live the backpacker lifestyle. You have to accept that in return for freedom and low prices, you get a great deal of uncertainty. That uncertainty would be easier to take if we were taking a year or two off to travel (I don't really understand how these people do it) but when that uncertainty steals away 2 out of 12 days, it stings a bit.

Tomorrow we'll rent a car (none were available today) and continue on our way. Next stop: Wilderness. When we get stranded at Hermanus I'm a little apprehensive with how we'll do in Wilderness, but that's part of the adventure I suppose. Today we'll just have to deal with the hardships of hiking the peaks, strolling the beach and mingling with other uncertain travelers.