Friday, August 17, 2007

New York City

As I am wont to do, I sneezed from the bright sunlight when I went out to do some shopping this morning. Someone walking by on the sidewalk said,"Bless you." New York City!


After a 3 day journey, we're safely home.

Monday, August 13, 2007

we miss/we will miss

After 3 months abroad, we have mixed feelings about leaving South Africa. We've seen so many breathtaking parts of the country and met so many inspiring people. It might be hard to imagine this, but, we've reached vacation saturation. We're ready to return to our normal lives, be reachable, get back into routines and work towards our various goals.

We're looking forward to:
Having friends again
Continuity in our daily lives
Driving on the right side of the road
Toilets with water in them
Some different clothes
Comfort foods: bagels, takeout coffee, sandwiches, hamburgers
Cooking for ourselves
Indoor heat
Our bed

We will miss:
The very warm and engaging people
The mellow pace of life
The cost of living
The lack of automobile traffic
Reading Afrikaans translations(so similar to English, and yet so silly)
Foods: boerivors, fresh fruit, rusks, biltong, warm milk with coffee, nougat, cheap wine
The lack of fast food

We hope to keep with us:
Lessons in hospitality
Perspective on Africa's social issues
The pace of life
Wine knowledge
Ability to spend a lot of time together and still enjoy each other's company(most of the time)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Taking Table Mountain by Storm

Well, today is our last day in Cape Town and South Africa. While we're both ready to get home (and wish we didn't have two more nights away, one on the plane and one in London), we have really been charmed by Cape Town and its environs.

Our favorite, and I wouldn't have expected this, was wine country. We went up to Stellenbosch for just one night, but got very lucky with the weather. Stellenbosch has 180 wineries and is only a 45 minute drive from the very center of Cape Town. What an amenity for people who live here! Our cozy little boutique hotel in town ran us a princely $90, breakfast included. The wine tastings were really fun, and Meghan and I found that we like the relaxed pace of sitting over a quarter glass of wine, picking it apart, figuring out the flavors and characteristics and just talking. We bought a wine-tasting guide and marveled over the vocabulary that the industry has chosen for itself (quaffable pencil shavings!). We started at Boschendal, famed more for its scenery than its wine. We had a pleasant tasting with local cheeses, then had lunch at the cafe. I had a bobotie that was really top notch. Mostly, we just soaked in the natural beauty of a glorious day in beautiful country. Saw a malachite sunbird, managed to identify the chirping crowd that followed us around as swee waxbills (!). Just slowed way, way down. And it's not like we were super-stressed to begin with.

Then, we tried and failed to go to tastings at a couple of other vineyards like Tokai and Thelema, but they were closed as last Thursday was a public holiday. Women's Day as it turned out. We ended up making it to Rustenberg at closing time, but they let us in after some deliberation. The hospitality, wine, and setting were all top notch. Their Brampton cabernet sauvignon is probably one of the best deals around.

We had dinner in Stellenbosch at a place called Fishmonger, which came highly recommended and didn't disappoint. Really great food and service. I'm not ready to take back my slandering of South African restaurants from a few posts ago, but this was a very good experience. The seafood here is really fantastic and reasonably priced. With one exception: prawns. South Africans seem enthralled with prawns, the bigger the better, but compared to the quality of the calamari or fish down here, the prawns/shrimp seem overpriced and are often overcooked. The problem, I think, is that South Africans can't afford their own prawns and lobsters. We have frozen South African lobster tail freely available in the States, and I've heard that a lot of the best seafood goes straight to Japan, so globalization has forced your average South African to compete with everyone from a Minnesota family to a Tokyo businessman for the bounty of their own seas. I've always thought of shrimp and lobster as overrated anyway. At Fishmonger, my favorite dish was the squid heads sauteed in butter. Delish.

At the end of a trip this long, your reserves of wonderment are pretty low. We had an idyllic couple of days in wine country, and if we were still harried New Yorkers as we'll soon be again, we would've tried to extend our time there at all costs. But we're tired of travel and just want to be in one place for a while, have what we do one day impact upon the next day, be with our friends, be in our own space.

Yesterday, we climbed Table Mountain, an unremitting slog of 700 meters to the top, and a cable car down. It was beautiful, though. The cableway had been closed due to wind for a few weeks and so the top was a madhouse, but we're glad to have done it.

Overall, Cape Town has been a real eye-opener for us. It's far more integrated, far more safe, and at least as beautiful as any other place we've been in South Africa. We're very grateful to our friend Elaine for the use of her apartment in Sea Point, a part of town where you can relax and walk around and just generally feel human for a bit. We're a bit bummed that our trip to Robben Island got cancelled due to high seas, but we've seen enough to keep us dreaming about South Africa for a long, long time... and we have to save something for next time, don't we.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

5 hour drive, 3 hour boat ride, 30 second shark sighting

Several people, when we mentioned Cape Town, had excitedly queried whether or not we planned to go shark diving. Apparently, the coast of South Africa is the only place in the world where you can reliably see Great White Sharks year round, and particularly during the SAfrican winter. As they are nomadic beasts, it is impossible to keep them alive in captivity and hard to predict where you might find them in the ocean, unless of course you have an island of Cape Fur Seals who go swimming/fishing every morning. Yum! As I have an irrational fear of sharks, that I was hopeful to overcome, and am willing to try anything once, I was game.
The process of shark diving is simple enough. You pay admission to one of 10 boats in Gamsbaai and catch a ride out to shark territory. They suit you up with a full wet suit, dump some bait into the water, and wait for a sharks. Then you climb into a cage, submerged in the water, and watch the shark swim by, if you're lucky, at very close range.

Day of dive: We woke at 6am to tackle the 2.5 hour drive to Gamsbaii for the boat's departure time of 9am. When we arrived we met other tourists who had spent their lifetimes obsessed with great white sharks and we were reassured that this was the place and the company to be diving with. It was a gorgeous day, blue skies, temperature in the 60's, and the water looked calm, almost flat. Twelve tourists and our 3 guides piled into a boat and headed out to sea. As the boat pulled away from the dock and started to go over the 15 ft lumpy swells that were not visible from shore, all I could think to myself was "don't puke, it will be over soon enough." And the 3 hour struggle to maintain my breakfast and my dignity began. Arriving at "shark territory"(which is anywhere in this bay with more than 8 feet of water), we suited up, dumped our chum, tethered the tuna head, and waited. We learned from the guides that there's quite a bit to learn about tides, currents, boat shadow, chum, etc to increase your chance of attracting a great white, yet these sharks are incredible hunters. Our skipper's knowledge might have increased our chances of seeing a shark by only 10%. The sightings are merely a matter of luck. Also, the mature, and therefore massive sharks, don't bother scavenging for someone else's leftovers, so we should only expect the younger, smaller sharks.
After 30 minutes a great white arrived. It was awesome. About 10 feet long, grayish, scars on its face, and graceful. I was the first one into the cage and I was terrified. I could see my legs dangling below me, little fish all around, and I knew there was a shark circling. I also realized that despite the shock of the f-f-f-freezing water, the cold water and company of fish were far preferable to the above-board stomach turning, rocking of the boat. Rich got in the cage moments later and we caught sight of this shark twice as it powerfully glided by. After about 30 minutes in the water I realized that I could no longer feel my extremities and would have to resume the above-board discomfort.
The highlight of the day came when a shark, unnoticed by any of us, emerged from the depths, broke the surface of the water and displayed 12 feet of silvery grey muscle. This shark was 10 feet from all of us, it tore the tuna head and the rope from the boat with a thrash, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. That was the one moment that we'd all spent so much time, effort, and discomfort to see.
Shortly thereafter we headed for shore and embarked on our soggy journey back to Cape Town. I walked away from this experience intending to leave any future shark chasing to Natural Geographic, planning to watch it in high-def from the comfort of my sofa.