Tuesday 25 August 2009

Where we've been in Thailand

A whole new continent then. We got into Bangkok, Thailand on Friday 10th July 2009. We are currently in Chiang Rai, just about to head into Laos.

Here's where we've been, click on the markers to read about the places.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Music we've collected on the trip

Not a huge list, but it's good!

1. 17GB of music by the Congolese legend, Franco. My favourite is "Mario".

2. And the new Franco...
Zimbabwean Alick Macheso "Greatest Hits Live in Jo'burg" - this is absolute gold, what a band, such fun music.

3. A CD of Islamic prayer music to a solid conga beat, collected at the Maulid festival on Lamu, Kenya. Samples!

4. Some South African Kwaito and house on the "Tales of Tsotsi Beat" compilation

Last lot of photos from South Africa

Going to Blyde River Canyon, SA

Train from Jo'burg to Cape Town

Cape Town again

Cape Town aquarium


Staying in Soweto

Books we've been reading

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
After Tears by Niq Mhlongo
Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Wynder

Maybe more of a detailed critique later, but for now let's just say that English Passengers and the Poisonwood Bible are HIGHLY recommended.

Last bits in Africa – Cape Town, Garden Route, Eastern Cape, Jo'burg

The 5 days in Cape Town had been superb, from our visits to the Aquarium (sharks!) and Cape Peninsular (penguins!) to my solo, techno-fuelled walks in and around Long Street, City Bowl, Gardens, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Bo-Kaap, Green Point, Sea Point and Waterfront (made while Tania went through millions of pictures back in the room). Super-friendly customer service, terrific bars, food and sights, but we were slightly concerned that we were spending so much money compared to what we had been doing in Africa “proper”. Oh well, not long to go before cheapy cheap Asia, we thought...

From Cape Town we got a train to somewhat moneyed Stellenbosch for some wine, cheese and very pleasant views on one of the cheap day tours. (This would have been Mon 29 June.) From there we decided to hire a car and see how far we could get along the coastal Garden Route and into the Eastern Cape. After shopping around quite a bit (it would have been easier in Cape Town, doh) we found a steal - 800 Rand for a whole week! The car wasn't exactly new, in fact it was a 1990 Opal Rekord - one of those many vehicles I had never even known existed - but it worked and for 60 quid we thought we would give it a go. We only had 5 days before we had to be back in Cape Town for Trevor Jackson DJ-ing at The Assembly, the reason we had pushed our flight out of Africa back for the third time. We had originally planned to be out at the end of April, but ... things happened, you know? Beaches and sun happened, and Likoma Island and diving happened and well, we had overshot our original estimate by a whole two and a half months.

We stopped in Swellendam for a night, did a 3.5 hr hike the next morning in some lovely sunshine, then drove on to Mossel Bay where we stayed in the Santos Express converted train on the beach. The next day we made it to Tsitsikamma in the Eastern Cape, where they do “zip-line” canopy tours and happen to have the highest bungy in the world. The canopy tour was good fun, and more than a little scary. I had been all gung ho for it beforehand and Tania had been very sceptical (thinking it was part of my ongoing scheme to do away with her, making it look like an accident) but in the actual event I got increasingly petrified, whilst Tania was a beaming Lara Croft and had no problem at all with being suspended at 30m. Little trooper that she is...

At this juncture (best to say that in a female American voice, as if you were the voice of an advanced space computer), I should mention one of the most evil barmen I have ever come across. At Tsitsikamma Backpackers an insane fellow called Ray did things to his customers that were at best ill-advised, at worst illegal. He produced cocktails such as the "Kudu", named after a large antelope and spoken about in tones of solemn, mysterious awe. It tasted much like an alcoholic After Eight mint and there was an awful lot of it. There was also "Hiroshima", which involves four distinct containers and must be consumed in a very specific order. And that chilli-spiced local moonshine I was given as punishment, when I voiced my opinions on the evil genius’ work - not fair! Lovely bloke, though. Ray and Cindy - Tania and I wish you the very best in your new life together and thanks for taking such good care of us over two days.

We went from being 100% committed to doing the monster bungy at 10pm - having watched the day’s heroes’ videos, heard how you can’t even see the bottom of the gorge (some 220m below) and discussed the merits of going backwards - to feeling decidedly queasy in the morning and deciding on a nice cooked breakfast before we did anything. It was real windy that day too, so we … we totally pussied out and went to the nice safe National Park instead. Tsitsikamma is a great place to visit. The little town’s people are very friendly, the countryside wild and there are some cool things to do. Also the owner of the canopy tour company and the backpackers seems to be really actually committed to helping the local black community develop skills and improve its situation; as well as fight ever-present problems such as HIV.

So after spending a day longer than we planned in Tsitsikamma, due to Ray’s concoctions, we had to get back to Cape Town in one day. We took Route 62 on the way back, which is inland from the coastal N2 and less travelled, but beautiful with the hill’s covered in fynbos. Driving in SA is pretty special btw - you have never seen and felt such SPACE as this. We got back about 7pm and totally found our way to our chosen backpackers, thanks to the natural navigational aids that Cape Town so kindly provides. I felt unjustifiably proud of having driven in South Africa, as is my wont, and we delivered the vehicle back safely. Then we were ready to hit the club.

Good old Trev didn’t fail to deliver. After an admittedly shaky first mix, he aggressively dropped a million retro house and minimal afro-tinged bombs. It were right nice and kept us going till 3 in the morning which was very much a record in Africa where 8 o’clock bed had not been unusual and 1am had been the absolute limit. It’s the heat, you see. In the club we were amazed to bump into a couple of young professional Capetonians, Mike and Candice, that we had met in Tofo, Mozambique. Having swapped numbers, we hooked up in the afternoon of the next day and they very kindly put us up for a couple of nights. They live in a really cool flat in Vredehoek, which they rent extremely reasonably, and the experience taught us a bit about the level of quality of life thing over there, which is pretty desirable. It was a lovely finish to Cape Town and we got to see some places we might otherwise have missed, like little coastal town Fish Hoek (for Sunday lunch), near Muizenberg where Mike had done some surfing just before. The Cape Town area has a lot of really pretty out-of-the-way spots (in fact it doesn’t feel at all like a big city most of the time) and some very nice, open-minded people. And we had a perfect day to go up Table Mountain on the cable car, really clear and absolutely stunning – damn, we wished we had done the 3 day hike from Cape Point to there. Then an old friend of Tania’s from Fuji noticed a post on Facebook that led her to see the Cape Town photos on the blog and come back with a quick “Dude – are you in Cape Town? I live in Cape Town!!!”. This led to a lovely final evening with yet another Candice and her fella Matt, some great food and wine at another ridiculously good value property near Fish Hoek.

Finally it was time to organise the flight back to Jo’burg (£60 – internal flights are pretty cheap in SA, due to the relatively recent emergence of budget airlines there), stay a night in Soweto township (we drank in a shebeen and met some very friendly people), see the Apartheid Museum (a LOT of very interesting and thought-provoking information and more than once tear-jerking for both of us) and have a final dinner in Melville before getting on a luxurious plane to Bangkok, via Singapore. We’d been through some lifestyle changes in 5 and a half months in Africa, having gotten kinda basic in the middle and being brought back to European values somewhat by Southern Mozambique and SA. How different was this next phase going to be???

Customer Service in South Africa

Frankly, I have never known anything like it, not anywhere, not ever. Special mentions go to: Jackie at Xai-Xai in Johannesburg whose Flaming Senoritas we were powerless to refuse; Mike at Arnold’s in Cape Town who was happy to recommend us places to stay, give us directions and even call them on our behalf to check for availability. He would chat to us in quiet spells, rush off to do something important, and return to pick up the conversation from the exact point in the sentence he’d left it at. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the waitress who served us at Bukhara, one of Cape Town’s Indian restaurants, but she was just lovely (and once you've eaten ostrich tikka, all other meat falls into the shade). Sharon, our waitress at Mama Africa, was great fun and even let me fold napkins (the next morning, we found we had her mobile number somehow). And, of course, Rayno at Tsitsikamma, as Alex has already mentioned. A unique ‘completely f*** you up’ style of customer service, and it was funny watching him trying to operate the calculator to total up the bill the next morning. Mind you, I couldn’t even say calculator.

The funny thing is, some local South Africans we met told us they always complain about customer service. Which, I guess, just goes to show.

Cape Town

The backpacker we’d picked to stay in for our first night was A Sunflower Spot at Green Point, as near as dammit to the stadium being built for World Cup 2010. Nice clean rooms and a hot shower that would have been lovely even if we hadn’t been in such desperate need. After a good night’s sleep, we headed off to find breakfast and take care of a little essential traveller admin (assure parents still alive and well, Facebook, checking how much money we have left, asking the bank to please release our debit cards again) and found ourselves walking along Main Road which, without wanting to be mean, is about as inspiring as it sounds. “Wow, it’s like West Ealing,” we said. Looking left, however, we saw the side streets disappearing up steep slopes. To the right, we could make out giant waves breaking on the shore. Not exactly like West Ealing, then.

The name Table Mountain gave me cause to believe there would be one giant mountain that resembled a table overlooking the city. As we walked towards the centre, seeing huge rock formations peeking over the tops of the tower blocks, it was immediately apparent that we were not talking about one mountain. They were everywhere.

It didn’t take long to see why everyone insisted we come here, nor why friends from South Africa have been so excited about telling us where to go and what to do. Cape Town seems to sum up in one city everything that South Africa has to offer: natural beauty, mountains, ocean (two, actually), great food, delicious wine and customer service. OMG, the customer service.

Train from Johannesburg to Cape Town

The point of taking the Schoscholoza-Meyl train to Cape Town was to see the great wide-open spaces of the Karoo. A 26-hour journey, it would take us through its heart so, even though we didn’t have time to stop, at least we’d get to see it. As it turned out, I was asleep within 30 minutes of the train pulling out of the station. Which is Jackie’s fault.

Trains have to be the best way to travel. Comfortable, traffic free, environmentally friendly, and the only form of vehicular transport that lets you go for a walk. I do love roads, with their pure lines and perfect curves, but roads seem to accumulate the clutter of life – shops, more roads, people, cars – that train tracks don’t. A train scythes through naked country and makes you feel like you’re right in it, even if only for a moment.

When the train porter came round to all the cabins bringing our bedclothes for the night – two pillows, two sheets and three blankets, including a lovely big furry one - we thought they were overdoing it a bit. They were not. Winter in South Africa is bloody cold, and we were right in it, travelling through one of the coldest regions. Three blankets were nowhere near enough. It was only the next day, whilst twiddling absent-mindedly with a mysterious knob that said “ON / OFF” that we discovered our cabin’s heater.

As we thawed out, the rising sun was casting long shadows behind imposing mountains over a beautifully bleak landscape. Clear, blue sky. We were cross-country. And it was time for breakfast. I don’t really remember when the landscape changed. There’s a chance I was asleep. But quite suddenly, it seemed, we were clearly in wine country. You never seem to be far from a mountain range in South Africa. But now, instead of seeing them in the distance, they were all around us, interspersed, in a show of agricultural landscape gardening, by vineyards and fields alight with greens, reds and golds glowing under the setting sun.

It was night by the time the train pulled into Cape Town station. We knew Table Mountain was there, but we couldn’t see it. We would have to wait.