Martha in London (2)

November 19, 2011

My school week starts on Monday, so for the next three days, mom had some time on her own while we tried packing everything else in.

While I went to class and a meeting, mom went to the London Zoo.  To my pleasure, she found it somewhat unimpressive.  Ha.  We planned to meet up at Harrod’s after I got out of class.

Harrods

For those not in the know, Harrods is THE department store.  It has over a million square feet of sales floor and 330 show rooms.  It’s commonly understood that you can get ANYTHING there, and if they don’t have it, they will find it.  The restrictions have maybe slightly expanded in the recent past… you can no longer buy a lion in the pet department. (For those who haven’t seen the video, PLEASE watch this, it’s a side note, but if your heart doesn’t warm up… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDZaWgf_bk0&feature=fvst).  Anywho, we met at Harrods for afternoon tea.  We tried crumpets, and decided they are like dense english muffins doused in butter.  Otherwise, we weren’t terribly impressed, so please see me for further guidance on afternoon teas in London if the occasion ever presents itself.  However, I do highly recommend a stroll through the store.  The kitchen department sends my heart a flutter, and if you had any interest in fashion, I’m sure you’d be in heaven.  The store is like a complicated treasure hunt, but they really do have everything I could think of, from original copies of the antique maps you see in lesser stores, to HD televisions that look like mirrors and a food department that is mind blowing.  Lots of fun!  (And I don’t particularly like to shop, so imagine that!)

After Harrods, we hopped on a night tour bus, which hit all of the major sites in London.  (Also highly recommended, at less than half the price of a day trip, but still good for getting an orientation of the city.)

On Tuesday we went out for a full English breakfast, then walked me to the library for some studying before classes while mom wandered around Covent Garden again.

Regency Cafe breakfast

English breakfast with black pudding

English breakfast with chips

 

King's College London

My library

 

Casually reading in Trafalgar Square

Wednesday flew by and we jetted off to Scotland!  To be continued…

Martha in London (1)

November 19, 2011

As will come to no surprise to anyone that’s been within ear shot of my mom in the last 3 months, Martha came to London in October.  =)  She arrived on Friday and we stayed in London through Wednesday.  I had only two guidelines from the guest: no museums and no educational experiences.  The requests were for tea in a castle (cool!), going to the zoo (lame) and going to a movie (lamer). Got it.

On Saturday, we tried my newly patented jet-lag cure: long walk, big meal, alcohol.  We stayed close and went to Hyde Park, which is a whole block from my flat.  We ended up at Kensington Palace. Unfortunately, it’s under construction and most of the place is closed.  This is quite common at the moment as the Olympics are a catalyst for construction and refurbishments.   But they do have some beautiful gardens and an Orangery which serves afternoon tea, coffee and snacks.  We peaked through the holes in the construction long enough for Martha to decide that she wasn’t impressed with the palace.

Kensington Palace Gardens

But I’d had my eye on another spot for afternoon tea, so we headed there instead.

Aerial View of Hyde Park

The park is huge, taking up 625 acres of the city, and technically contains both Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (separated by the big lake in the middle).  Henry VIII set the park aside as a private hunting grounds in 1536, and it was opened to the public by James I in 1637.  In 1733, The Serpentine (the big lake) was created, and now hosts a year-round swimming club, has row boats for rent and runs a solar powered shuttle from one end of the lake to the other. There’s also a cafe, my pick for afternoon tea.

Afternoon Tea #1

So with the long walk out of the way, we moved onto the big dinner and alcohol portion of the evening.  We wandered around the nearest grocery store for a while and came up with an odd array of snacks: Welsh Caerphilly cheese, mushroom pate, parmesan and poppy seed twists, fresh fig and French wine.

Fancy pants dinner

And the plan worked! After a solid night’s sleep, we headed out early(ish) on Sunday to the Portobello Market in Notting Hill, the neighborhood just to the west of my place.  The market is touted as the world’s largest antique market, but also includes food stalls, a market and new goods and runs along Portobello Road for a little over a mile.

Jewelry at Portobello Market

Portobello Road Market

Churros and Chocolate at the Portobello Market

Donut stand

Suitcase drum!

Crepe stand

After the market, we hopped over to Covent Garden for our official fish and chips experience at a “chippie” that’s been open since 1871, when it was the third shop ever in the city.  Then we strolled around Covent Garden, walked to Trafulgar Square and then over the river to the Southbank.  On a split decision, we decided to hit the London Eye at night.  It’s the largest Ferris wheel in Europe, standing at about 450 feet tall. The capsules hold up to 25 people each, and there are 32 capsules total.

London Eye from Waterloo Bridge

London Eye and Big Ben (to my left)

On Sunday we went to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards ceremony.  Again, mom was not impressed with the palace.  It’s only 830,000 square feet of living space with 750 rooms. Psh.  The ‘crowd control’ guards were super nice and quite entertaining, joking with the crowd and giving us clues on when to look out for something, and even bringing over a horse guard for a girl in the crowd to pet.

Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guards

Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guards

Changing of the Guards

After the ceremony (one of those tourist things you HAVE to do, but don’t get much out of, we agreed) we walked to catch a boat tour on the Thames River (which runs through the city from west to east, roughly).

Royal Horse Guards

St. Paul's Cathedral

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben

River Cruise

I ended up giving in on the movie, in fact, it started sounding like a good idea.  So we hit a cinema down the road in Notting Hill.  It was built in 1898 as a theater (like for plays) but turned into a cinema when the West End took over the market for theater. One of the screens is quite grand, with three tiers of seating and old (lumpy) seats.  Definitely a cool venue.

Coronet Cinema

 

On My Way Home

November 16, 2011

After two months, I’ve walked nearly every street in West London on my way home.  I try to pick a different path everyday, but one of my favorite routes takes me past Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, and through St. James, Green and Hyde Parks.

 

Trafalgar Square

 

Royal Horse Guards

 

St. James Park

Buckingham Palace

Hyde Park

 

Welcome back!  Thanks for reading the blog for this round of adventure.

Enlarge the above map for a visual reference of King’s in London!

I’m about to begin a postgraduate program at King’s College London, which was founded by King George IV in 1829 as a response to the brand new London University (now University College London, still our arch rival), or the “godless college in Gower Street”.  London University was founded as a secular institution, supported by Jews, utilitarians and non-Church of England Christians to educate those who couldn’t attend Oxford and Cambridge because they only accepted wealthy Anglicans.  Obviously this secular university was unacceptable, so the King and the Duke of Wellington started King’s as a counter move, accepting only the traditional wealthy, Protestant folks.  After a dual between supporters of the opposing universities (it was a draw), the issue of religion fell largely to the wayside, and during the 19th century, King’s College pushed social issues by opening the university to women and accommodating the working class with evening classes, thus ultimately becoming tainted with the underbelly of society the King & Duke were trying to exclude.

Today, King’s College ranks somewhere between 21st and 77th in a list of the world’s top universities, depending on the source.  The War Studies Department is ranked third in the UK, behind Cambridge and Oxford and is rated third worldwide for the quality of their international research.  My program, International Conflict Studies, is a part of that department and boasts Arch Bishop Desmund Tutu as an alumnus. 

The campus is located at Somerset House, dating to the middle of the 1500s and used for a variety of purposes. The Duke of Somerset started the building in 1939, but was beheaded in 1552 and the building became royal property.  Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn lived there before ascending the the throne. During the 17th century, it was used as a residence of the queens of James I, Charles I and Charles II (his wife Catherine was a Catholic from Portugal and rumors raised that the residence was a popular spot for Catholic conspiracy (double parenthesis fun fact: Britain attained Bombay, India as part of Catherine’s dowry)). The building is located along the Thames, and is about a 2 minute walk to Trafalger Square, 3 minutes to Covent Garden and maybe 10 minutes to Westminster Abbey.

Weekend to Weekend

October 17, 2008

Cricket, soccer and rugby are South Africa’s three biggest sports.  The national soccer team is just mediocre, but there is a bit of soccer craze and excitement because South Africa will be holding the Soccer World Cup in 2010.  Whether this will be good for the country won’t really be understood until after the games and there are too many unknowns to really guess… if all goes well, the games will provide an opportunity for people all over the world to see South Africa as a sunny, lovely tourist destination with world class infrastructure, grand stadiums, friendly locals and top-notch facilities.  The fear is that one major crime, accident or security mishap could take all of that and turn it back into “Africa”, the one that everyone stereotypes and expects.

In the meantime, the best national sport is rugby.  We went to watch a Western Province game in Cape Town.  I don’t totally understand the game, but what I deduced and learned from the locals sitting behind us, it’s a combination of American football and soccer… the soccer part for the lack of pads and kicking and the football for the brutality and the passing.

The food was interesting. They had the standard pop and french fries, but they also sold biltong (SA specialty, meat jerky) and donuts in the stands…. most excitingly hot chocolate.  The drink is not the exciting part, it’s how it is sold.  Out of a backpack!  Super neat, we were fascinated.

Western Province won the game 30 – 18.

Later that week, Desmond Tutu came to Stellenbosch as part of a lecture series on campus.  It was pretty neat to see him in real life.  He’s actually pretty small and very frail looking, and a few times during his speech he got a bit off track or seemed to lose his words, but he was still pretty clever and occasionally funny.  The following Friday, we went to Cape Town for an early morning mass.

Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.  He was the first black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and served from 1986-1996.  He gained international attention as an outspoken opponent of apartheid, and chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  We watched quite a bit of footage from the TRC in one of my classes, and you can tell that he is sincerely and deeply affected by each of the testimonies, and openly wept on more than one occasion.  He’s retired, but he’s still very active publicly and speaks out against current government corruption and issues such as black poverty and the failure of the post-apartheid government to make any real strides in alleviating the problem.  Nelson Mandela adequately described him as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humor, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless”.  It really was an amazing opportunity to meet one of those major world figures, a world leader and inspiration to many individuals, communities and philosophies.

On Saturday, we ventured with AIFS to the Hermanus Whale Festival.  Hermanus is touted as the “Best Whale Watching Spot in the World”, and the festival is held on a weekend when the most whales are in the harbor for mating season.  On Saturday, there were a reported 8 couples in the relatively small harbor.  I didn’t get great pictures… whales jump and roll really quickly… but I saw tons of activity.  The pictures won’t be very exciting, it’s just a black spot in the water- I’m not quick enough.  The festival food was also pretty interesting, and there were tents and tents full of crafts and vendors.  I bought a sweater made out of bamboo and found some fun, noisy toys for the kids. (Love you, Casey… ha!)

After checking out all of the stands, we had a really amazing lunch at a restaurant that gets most of their ingredients from local farms.  It was super delicious, maybe the best I’ve had in South Africa.  And they had a little gift shop, and I found some of the coolest gifts thus far.  On the drive home, my van took a little detour into another small town for a bathroom and a snack, and they had this huge bookstore.  I didn’t have nearly enough time to look through all of it, but the same driver might take us back!

It’s been a lengthy absence, yes… but I’ve actually had school work. I don’t expect anyone to understand, seeing as my very own mother would rather have me writing a blog than my essays. =)  In the awesome news: I’ve finished my papers!  5/5 finished!  Now I am studying for two exams, one tomorrow and one Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, we drove from Jeffrey’s Bay to Addo National Park.  It’s a 360,000 hectare park and is one of the densest populations of elephants in the world.  It was really nice and we were lucky to see tons of elephants and lots of babies!

That evening we drove to Buffalo Bay where we stayed in a hostel on the Indian Ocean.


That evening, we had a surprise at the backpackers.  A band from the local township, Judah Square, played in the living room.  They actually stayed for about four hours, I heard them repeating some song when I went to bed.

The next day, we went to Judah Square.  It is the largest Rastafarian community in South Africa.  Rastafarianism is a religion based on Christianity, but they believe that Haile Selassie, the emporer of Ethiopia from 1930-1974 is the messiah.  Thought to be a direct decendant of King Solomon, he ruled an independent Ethiopia while the rest of Africa was being colonized.  Interestingly, Rastafarianism was exported to Jamaca, where the largest number of believers live.  Rastafarianism isn’t very popular in Ethiopia or in Africa in general, but there are small pockets of followers.  Judah Square operates within a larger township and has its own culture and community.  They run a community garden and lead tours like ours as a way to spread awareness and earn an income. 

Our guide was actually kind of terrible.  He was difficult to understand and didn’t make a whole ton of sense.  He did have epic dreads, though, or one epic dread.  Pretty crazy.

First we went to their little chaple, then visited their preschool, which seemed of very high quality for a township, kudos.  After, we walked through a little nature reserve the community started and found government grants to help maintain.  They also have a community garden where they grow vegetables.  Believe it or not, I find a problem with that.   When we were walking, I was right behind the guide along with my program director, Mike.  I thought I heard the guide say something like:  “We grow vegetables here to prevent HIV.”  Through my naivete, I understood that as “We’re giving people something else to do, something else to work for, a greater community, ect.”  Nope.  Literally.  African potatoes, beetroots and garlic prevent HIV.  The former minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, made a fool of herself and will be forever remembered as “Dr. Beetroot” because she promoted eating more vegetables to combat HIV.  Now, good nutrition is excellent and helpful when you are taking retro-virals for HIV, and a healthy immune system HAS been shown to prevent HIV infection, however, she did not present the information in a clear and understandable way.  In addition, she really fell short in creating and implementing an HIV/AIDS program in South Africa, and for a few years she was of the same opinion of former President Mbeki, who wasn’t quite convinced that HIV causes AIDS.  Thus, she did an absolutely terrible job of addressing the HIV/AIDS problem in a country with the highest HIV/AIDS density in the world.  Her poor explaination of the vegetable comment led many South Africans to truly believe that eating potatoes and garlic would PREVENT HIV, therefore excusing them from using protection.  It’s a pity, and it has really hurt the effort to prevent the spread of HIV.  It was very interesting to see the consequences of Tshabalala-Msimang’s policies in the real world.  She has since recinded her statements and the Department of Health officially adopted the stance that HIV causes AIDS, but the damage is done.

After the tour, we had a few hours to walk around Knysna.  I actually found my most favorite gifts there, but I can’t describe them here, I don’t want to give anything away.  =)  We went back to Buffalo Bay in the early evening and then out to dinner on the waterfront.  They had a store called Jessica’s but it was closed.  It looked like they sold craft stuff and random clothing.

The next morning we got up early and headed back to Stellenbosch.  It was lovely to be back and have a warm shower (the accomodations all had ice cold showers… not worth it!).

Back to studying!  I have a few more trips to update on and will do so next week when I have written my exams (you write exams here, not take them!):  Hermanus Whale Festival, Desmond Tutu, Parliament, wine tours and Franshoek!

Installment two from the Garden Route!

On Wednesday morning we had breakfast at Ingwe and then a small group headed into Tsitsikamma Forest for a canopy tour of the indigenous forest. The company is called, unsurprisingly, Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours.  They are a leader in eco tourism and put a strong focus on developing the community in which they operate.  (Making them a “Fair Trade in Tourism” member.) Most of their employees are local, and more than 50% are women, up to the top tiers of management.  They organize a variety of activities other than the canopy tours, and host team building activities for local youth.

To be honest, it wasn’t THAT great.  It was cool and the long zip-lines were really fun, but the forest was pretty standard.  The age of the trees is impressive, and the rarity of many of the species, but… meh.  I was actually most fascinated by the fact that the platforms and zip lines are designed not to hurt the trees.  There are no nails, screws, ect.  Everything is designed around tension.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of what I’m trying to describe.

The next stop was much more exciting!  We drove to Bloukrans Bridge, the site of the “World’s Highest Bungy Bridge”!

We bought our tickets, got into our harnesses, and spent a lot of time waiting.  I was really, really excited.  Almost everyone was nervous and a little hesitant, but I could not wait to get out there.  The bridge had a little restaurant right on the edge of the cliff, set up with a big screen TV hooked up to the cameras on the bridge so you could watch everyone jump.  That was certainly entertaining.

Finally, the group that was on the bridge finished up and my group got to go.  You got to the center of the bridge by way of a catwalk type of bridge, an activity you can pay for separately if that’s all the excitement you’re into. 

Some people actually thought this was worse than the jumping itself.  Strangely, heights don’t scare me much at all and I enjoyed the walk.   The view  was absolutely beautiful.  The river runs between two huge cliffs and empties into a picturesque Indian Ocean. 

When we got to the bridge, they announced that I got to go first.  I was SO excited.  I’d wanted to go first, but in a group of 30, who would have thought?  Well, my excitement only lasted about 5 minutes, because some guy walked up to me and told me I’d be going sixth.  BOO!
This is pretty much how it went:

I LOVED it.  I wished after I was finished that I had purchased two jumps.  I loved the feeling of the freefall and when you were hanging at the bottom waiting to be brought back up, it was just complete and total silence, you were completely alone, hanging in the middle of the world.

For those afriad of heights, who wants the job of the guy who goes down to get the jumpers back up?  There are two of them, and they alternative turns, but I asked on the way up and he said they work normal days, so 9 hours shifts with time for lunch.  I can’t imagine hanging underneath a bridge, 216 meters (about 718 feet) above the ground… all day.

That night, we drove to Jeffrey’s Bay, the surf capital of South Africa.  We stayed in a hostel called Island Vibe, which was like a little world unto itself.

It was right on the beach and treated visitors to beautiful views of sunrises and sunsets.

On Tuesday I started off with a sandboarding “lesson”.  In reality, the guy told us what to do and then went and played by himself.  It was tons of fun though!  Think snow boarding, but with sand.

I wasn’t AS bad as I thought I’d be, considering it was my first try… but I did fall a lot.

I’d like to try it again, and it definitely gave me the confidence to try skiing or snowboarding.  It was tons of fun and the beach near the dunes was perfect!


The rest of the day was spent at the beach!  We got up really early the next morning and left for the long drive to Addo National Park… which means lots of elephants in the next addition!

Last Saturday began the Garden Route tour with AIFS.

We left at 5:30 AM and drove to our first stop in Oudtshoorn.  I started out at the Cango Ostrich Farm.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the concept or the tour.  We got some information about ostrich farming, basically that it was very lucrative in the early 1900s because feathers were in style in Europe.  But WWI pretty much stopped that trade and ostrich farmers went out of business or diversified.  Today, they make about 40% from feathers and leather and 60% from the meat.  Mostly, they breed ostriches and then take the eggs, incubate, and give chicks who make it to foster parents.

By taking the eggs, a mating pair will produce more eggs each season.

After the info, a couple members of our group rode an ostrich.  It didn’t even resemble something fun, ha.  They had to put a bag over their heads to catch them (because they’re so dumb that if they can’t see you they don’t know you’re there, apparently) and they did not seem happy with the process.  A couple of us were actually a little concerned that many aspects of the tour bordered on animal abuse.

After the ostriches, we went to Cango Caves.  I did the “adventure tour” but it wasn’t even half as cool as the caving in Budapest last summer.  The caves themselves were more active, though. 

Beautiful, eh?  The second picture looks like it’s under the sea, I think.  Very cool.  These caves started forming 20 million years ago but the stalactites and stalagmites were made 3 million years ago when the water in the caves drained.  Bushmen lived in the front of the caves 80,000 years ago but never traveled inside, due to “superstitions”, according to our guide. In this case I think superstitions is a misnomer- I’d call it “a desire to survive”. The caves were completely and totally dark, wet and cold, and impassable due to huge boulders and strange, dripping arrow shapes hanging from the ceiling. I don’t really blame them for staying in the warm, dry, well lit part. The inner caves were discovered in the 1780s by Dutch colonists.

That night we went to our first accommodation, Ingwe Forest Adventures in The Crags.

They do team building things with young people on a regular basis.  I really liked their philosophy and the way they run their camp.  They cut down the invasive tree species and used that wood to build the cabins.  He later noted that the camp was built in an American summer camp style.  That explained why my first thought was, “Girl Scout Camp!!!”.  They also collect rainwater to run the kitchen.  Although not an official national park, they have a couple hundred acres of fenced in indigenous forest with some wildlife, including wild boars, springbok and leopards.

The following morning I had planned on going whale watching, but it’s been storming a lot recently so they didn’t go out.  Instead I stayed at Ingwe and read for a little while.  It was so peaceful, I sat on the porch watching these beautiful bright orange bugs “play”, breated fresh air, and kept hearing horses neigh (there were horses in the next lot over).  After lunch we headed into Plettenburg.  We wanted to do a bit of shopping but we forgot it was Sunday, so instead we had some ice cream (which is not very good here, by the way…) and walked down to the beach.

(My new friend Sam.)

After the beach, we went to Monkeyland.

It’s a primate sanctuary aimed at rehabilitating monkeys, apes and lemurs that spent part of life as a pet, caged as a performance animal, or in an irresponsible zoo.  It’s free roaming, and all of the species live together fairly peacefully.  When a new monkey is introduced, it stays in a cage for a little while to adapt and then is let free.  Only a super tiny species, the Cottontop Tamarin, stay in cages because birds of prey could pick them off.  The look like gremlins, super creepy, but this one has two little babies.

We saw tons of Ringtailed Lemurs (don’t you want to get the belly?!  Except for the one on the right since there’s a baby there.)

And Black and White Ruffed Lemurs

The monkeys we saw most often were squirrel monkeys…

(This one is named Mrs. Bean.)

… and brown capuchins…

Because they are easy to train and are commonly the monkeys used in street performances.  Many come in severely malnourished because people feed them the wrong types of foods.  People abandon pet monkeys because they become too much of a hassle.  They’re also really smart, so you teach them to bring you a beer and open it for you and you think it’s adorable.  But then you come home and the contents of your fridge are scattered all over the house and it’s not so cute anymore.

There are also lots of tortoises, most with broken shells or missing limbs.

After Monkeyland was Tenikwa.  Sounds ambiguous, yes… but it is a wildcat sanctuary.

In case that doesn’t make it clear…

CHEETAHS LIVE THERE!

Among other cute wild kitties.

They had some servals, endangered because people hunt them for sport and native people want them for medicinal purposes.  I think they look like bunny-cats, which is super cute.

There were also two breeds of little cats that are the most immediate relatives of domesticated house cats.

The black footed cat is very shy and nocturnal.  They are extremely endangered due to habitat loss and secondary poisoning from jackals and small rodents they hunt.  The farmers poison the animals who eat their crops or animals, then the kitties hunt the poisoned animals.  They just looked like a regular house kitty.

The other isan African Wild Cat, which was also like a house cat.  It has pretty great camouflage and just reminded me of Cali Bean.

My favorite new kitty was the caracal.  They’re actually doing pretty well in the wild.  Their main problem is habitat loss, which leads them to hunt livestock and therefore farmers to hunt them.

That’s obviously not my picture but look at that pretty face!

Ginja, a caracal teenager.

We went to see the cheetahs next, but it was close to sundown and they were in play mode.  So… I didn’t get the pet them.  I almost cried, I really did, I had to walk away. Their names are Chester and Zimbali.

Chester

Zimbali

The good news is, there were two cheetah cubs, Zulu and Duma

Zulu

Duma

Thus, my life is now complete.

After Tenikwa we went to dinner at a really fancy pizza place and acted like proper adults.

=)

So that’s the first two days, I’ll continue writing shortly.

Couch Surfing in Cape Town

September 3, 2008

First, in exciting news: broccoli is now in season!

Second, something I forgot to write about: International Food Night hosted by ISOS (International Student Organization at Stellenbosch) a few Thursdays ago.  Mentionable because there were so many countries represented, from Nigeria to Israel to Mexico.  One of my friends slaved away and made 200 pierogies.  I was looking forward to helping but all of my “You’re sick? That’s too bad… I feel great!” comments caught up with me and I didn’t want to contaminate the process.

Tickets were R7 and profits went to the Kayamandi after school program.  Quite a nice event.  I balked at the idea of participating, even though I immensely enjoying trying to cook new cuisines, because we only have a mini-stove with two uncontrollable burners and a few small pots and pans.  I have no idea how those who did participate pulled it off, but I was thoroughly impressed.

Last but not least: my weekend in Cape Town!  I found this guy, Derek, a few weeks ago.  I decided I needed to stay with him because he directs documentaries (quite a few and they’re nothing to scoff at) and I had to go in the off chance he would say, “I really need a camera operator for this next film” and I could help to get a friend a gig.  He only accepted one Couch Surfer at a time so I was going to stay alone.  That was an okay idea because there were a couple of other CSers I was in contact with who would have showed me around.  But at the last minute, he told me I should bring a friend (his new girlfriend was coming to town for the weekend).  Sam, another AIFS student, fearlessly joined me.  People always think I’m insane when I explain Couch Surfing, or rather, they think it’s a great idea and think it is interesting, but wouldn’t do it themselves.  Sam is firmly converted.

For those who are not familiar, Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is a website with profiles of people all over the world (all over- including Antarctica) who offer their couches, guest bedrooms or floors to travelers.  Those who cannot offer accommodation sometimes offer their services as a tour guide or dinner date.  You request to stay with someone, and if they are available and it works for both parties, you meet up and stay for free.  Usually the guest either buys or cooks a dinner, or pays for some gas, but the idea is for it to be as cheap as possible.  Those who host are usually also hosted, so it is fairly even in the end, and the philosophies of those on the site allow for the exchange without a huge concern for money or gaining anything material.  Learning about other people, places and ideas is enough of a payment, a mini-cultural exchange, if you will.

Alexis and I used the site last summer for the first time in Budapest and Vienna and had two amazing experiences and one very interesting stay, both completely worth it.  Staying with someone who knows and loves the city adds an entirely different dimension.  The visit feels less like tourism and more like visiting a friend and exploring a new city.  Unfortunately, not many people travel to Columbus, so we only hosted two people last year, an annoying German girl and a fascinating Frenchman.  =)

So!  Sam and I took the train on Friday.  South Africans are pretty curious to see young white kids riding the train (South African students have cars…) but it’s only R24 for a round trip (less than $4), takes little over an hour, and drops you off right in the middle of Cape Town.  We were warned about safety, but frankly, it is absolutely no more dangerous than riding any metro system in Europe, so long as you are alert and have at least a bit of common sense.  In fact, I would guess that there is less crime on the train people ride to work than the one tourists frequent in Paris.  What kind of thief chooses to ride a train full of equally disadvantaged people when Stellenbosch, full of loaded white tourists, is less than five minutes away?  And like I said… $3.  They could pick-pocket all of my cash and I’d still save money over renting a car!

It rained all weekend.  Really rained.  I believe Saturday night was the worst storm Cape Town has seen in a few years, or so says the news.  On Friday we went with Derek to the Three Continents Film Festival, where we were guests at a super fancy reception.  Afterward, Sam and I met with another Couch Surfer met to listen to some live bands at a place called The Assembly.  It had AMAZING bathrooms.  By far the best I’ve seen in a bar, and really cool sinks…

The music was amazing, somewhat surprisingly (the radio here is REALLY bad, South African pop is just awful so my expectations were low).  And Corver, the CSer, and his girlfriend Jana, were really super people.  They were both incredibly friendly and relaxed.  We talked about politics and racism and South African society v. American society.  Those topics usually result in a somewhat strained, nervous environment, but with them it was just informative and interesting, I felt like we learned quite a bit about each other.  His view of Americans was actually very positive, he admires the way all of the Americans who visit are informed and passionate about both domestic and international affairs.  He thinks many young South Africans essentially bury their heads in the sand because of history and tension, so there is a general hush of debate.  I can definitely see that being true.

On Saturday Sam and I went to the South African National Museum and the Slave Lodge Museum.

It was pretty nasty out so we went to see a movie (Jewish Film Fest was showing Me Without You.  I’d never seen it but I guess it’s a few years old) then to dinner (Chinese!) and then back and to bed early.  The plan was to get up on Sunday and go to the market, but it stormed all night so the markets were canceled.  We went to breakfast and then we caught the early train back to Stellenbosch.  A successful weekend overall!

Next week is the Garden Route Tour.  We leave at 5:30 AM on Saturday morning… ah!  But I can’t wait, I think it’s going to be tons of fun.

Mountains and baboons and penguins, oh my!

This past weekend was full to the brim with new sights!  On Friday, I hiked Stellenbosch Mountain with a few friends and a new South African acquaintance.

The trail was pretty mild and it ended up being more of a relaxing walk than a hike, but it was a great view of Stellenbosch and the surrounding wineries and farm land.  Also, if you look closely, you can see a faint rainbow!  Rainbows are everywhere here, you see them on a regular basis and sometimes it looks like you really could go to the end of it quite easily!

After our walk we went home and made ourselves pretty and then went out to a very nice restaurant in town, then had coffee and dessert at a little place that opened up just a few weeks ago.  Lovely evening!

Sunday was the AIFS trip to the Cape of Good Hope and Boulders Beach.  On the way, we drove past False Bay.  It is so named because early sailors often confused False Bay and Cape Point, where they could stop to replenish supplies.

The Cape of Good Hope is part of the Table Mountain National Park.  It contains Cape Point, Dias Beach, Cape of Good Hope and a bunch of other bays, points and beaches.  Also, and unexpectedly, the area is home to eland (a type of antelope), dassie, lizards and baboons! Whales, sharks, dolphins and seals are sometimes  spotted off the coast, but it’s not prime time for viewing just yet.  A group of us decided to hike along the western side of the park and it was a great decision.

Dias Beach was really beautiful.  It was very small, but completely surrounded by massive cliffs.  It’s the kind of place “private beach” brings to mind if you have a lofty imagination.

We continued on up and down a small mountain to reach the actual Cape of Good Hope, the most south-westerly point of the African continent.

We only had about 20 minutes to make it back to the vans, so we had to run up the mountain and around the trail, which was a little less than fun.  But!  There were lizards everywhere for the duration of the hike, and on the way back we saw eland and dassies.

Dassies, also known as rock hyrax, are believed to be the closest relatives of elephants, believe it or not!  They look like groundhogs, kind of.  Also, when we were hiking in Cederburg one of the South African guys pointed out this substance that looked like tar and smelled disgusting.  Well!  All of the dassies use the same place as a litter box, apparently, over long periods of time.

Gross, yes, but I give you these facts for a reason (and I guess I’ll have to post the picture now, too!).  It’s called hyraceum and after allowing it to harden and “purify” over hundreds of years into a kind of rock, it is “harvested” and used in traditional perfums and as medicine to treat epilepsy.   Usually, it’s served in a tea.  Delicious, no?!

More exciting than poop tea, though! Were the baboons!  We were on our way back to the vans when we heard this really strange noise and out pops a baboon family onto the trail!  We were told at the beginning that they’re actually pretty dangerous and will approach people for food if they see something in your hand.  Apparently one of our drivers saw a baboon jump out of the bushes and actually steal candy from a baby last year.  We sort of shuffled into the bushes and let the family, three adults and one baby, pass by.  They weren’t too interested in us, thankfully.  It was really cool, though!  I could have reached out and snatched the baby with zero effort.

After the Cape of Good Hope we went into Simon’s Town and had lunch.  Then it was penguin time!

Boulders Beach has a huge colony of African Penguins, also known as Jackass Penguins because the noises they make sound like a donkey (really- it’s a terrifying noise coming from a little penguin).   They have few land predators and are therefore rather calm in the presence of people.  They are colored as a form of camouflage, of course.  When they’re swimming, predators looking up see the white, which is harder to identify, and birds from the sky see the black, more difficult to spot in the ocean.

At this time of year, they have “babies” but they were actually more like pubescent teenagers, in my opinion.  They were in the process of shedding their gray baby feathers, so they were all splotchy and awkward.  I like to think that these two are bestest friends…

Apparently they were still learning how to hunt, though, because I saw one parent feeding a baby (it’s the eat then puke method employed by many birds, that noise was pretty alarming as well!).  As many are aware, penguins are monogamous and mate for life, so I saw lots of happy little penguin families!

On our way home we stopped at a winery that was more like a wine resort and then I came back and slept really well!  Next weekend promises more amazing days!  Can’t wait!  This whole “going to class” thing really gets in the way. =)