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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cape Town 9.1

  • Langa Township
  • Bo-Kaap
  • Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden

We were in deep sleep, lost in a sea of soft blankets and pillows, until we heard a gentle knock on the door.  "No, thank you." H said in his sleepy voice.   "Is it the wake-up call?" I asked with my eyes closed.

We booked the Siviwe Langa Township tour for this morning at 9 AM.  I specifically booked the sunday tour because I wanted to see the church service.  Last night, we requested a wake-up call for 7:30 AM, and I asked H to set up the alarm on his phone before we went to bed.

"No, it was the housekeeper." H told me.  "You sure it's not the wake-up call?" I had a bad feeling. "What time is it?"  I opened my eyes.  The curtain was thick, and the room was dark. H got out of the bed and went to the door to see if anyone was standing outside.   The housekeeper left us alone.  "What time is it?" I asked again, searching for my eyeglasses.

"9:35 AM!" H said.
"Sh*t! F*CK!! F****CK!!! We missed our tour!" I jumped out of the bed, my heart sunk. "Are you sure it's 9:35? I didn't hear the morning call or the alarm!" I said, now fully in panic mood. "Great! that's the one thing I really wanted to see in Cape Town." My head was spinning, thinking of a back-up plan.

Turned out, the hotel did not make the wake-up call, and H failed to set up the alarm on his phone correctly.  I was annoyed and disappointed.

I asked H to call Siviwe to apologize for missing our tour and discuss the alternatives.  I figured, the best case scenario we would either join the tour an hour and half late or take the 12 o'clock tour and missed the church service.

Siviwe was beyond nice and more than accommodating.  We told him that the earliest we could get to the meeting point was 10:30AM.  He told us that it was not a problem and another tour guid, Nathi, would be at the meeting point waiting for us.

I was so happy that our morning was saved.  We quickly got ready and rushed to our meeting point at 10:30.  Nathi was already at the meeting point waiting for us.  He got into our car and took us to the Langa Township visitor center. We parked our car on the street, and spent the next 4 hours with Nathi in Langa Township.

Langa was the oldest Township in Cape Town, built in 1927, after the 1923 Urban Area Acts were introduced in South Africa.  It was designated for the black Africans with majority residents from the Xhosa tribe. For people who are not familiar with the term "Townships" in South Africa, they are residential developments established for non-white race groups (blacks, coloured, and Indidans) living near or working in white-only communities until the Apartheid (racial segregation system) ended in 1994.  

Nathi first took us to a Church before service.  The choir was singing gospel music on stage, families and friends greeted one another, everyone was smiling and singing along.  A young father was carrying his adorable wide-eyes toddler daughter in his arms the whole time as his daughter sucked her thumb looking out to the crowd curiously. The energy of the room was full of love and joy. 

Our tour guide, Nathi, is in his mid-twenties who grew up and still lives in Langa.  H teased him if he was the mayor of the township since he seemed to know everyone passing by. Nathi told us that community was a very important part of township culture.  He was genuinely passionate about his community, and happy to share his knowledge with us. 

We passed by schools and shops, visited some people's houses, spoke to locals, and saw the different socio-economic areas. The children were so open and friendly.  Random kids just ran towards us with the brightest eyes and biggest smiles to give us hugs! (What?? Did their parents tell them not to approach the strangers??)   

We saw a few long lines of people in front of stores, and Nathi explained to us that this is the first of the month. People had gotten paid and were lining up to buy electricity. Nathi further explained that people would buy electricity in units.  They then receive codes to input into their electricity boxes in their houses. 

Nati told us that many people choose to stay in the Township for the community and culture even when they can afford to move out.  During the tour, we saw quite a few Mercedes driving by.  On one end of the spectrum, there were upscale neigherbhood where houses were as nice as any middle-class single houses you can find in the U.S.  On the other end, we also visited hostels where 3 families cramped into a small dorm room with twin bunk beds, shared bathroom, kitchen, and zero privacy.  The alternatives would be shacks built with corrugated iron, where the summer is brutally hot, winter chilling cold, and water dripping through the roof when it rains.  

At one point during our walk, a young boy ran towards us and aimed his fake gun at us shooting. Nathi quickly lectured the young boy and spanked the young boy's behind.  I thought to myself, "Wow, there is no way this could happen in the U.S. to discipline other people's children." Nathi told us that in the Township, everyone has the responsibility to teach children if they misbehave.  

We told Nathi to that we would like to have lunch at one of the local places.  Nathi took us to a hole in the wall that was owned by a woman, as many un-registered small businesses were in Langa. We had stew chicken with beans, beets, mashed potatoes, and pickled vegetables.  The place is not for the faint of hearts. We shared the only table with another customer in this tiny eatery and were handed utensils soaked in water from a plastic container. In the middle of the meal, Nathi handed the lady his soiled cloth napkins, The lady quickly washed it in the sink, twisted it dry, and handed back to Nathi. The meat was quite tough. I would not go as far as describing it being delicious, but it was an authentic home cooked meal.  The dish cost us $2, and we did not get sick. What more could we ask for?

We continued our tour and Nathi shared more stories about the townships and villages after lunch.  At one point, we asked Nathi how long these tours last.  Nathi shredded his shoulder and said nonchalantly that it normally ends in 2 hours, which was already running one hour overtime.  Nathi was not in any rush, and told us that we were on "South African Time". Before we concluded the tour, Nathi took us to the "Happy Feet Youth Project" he was personally involved in.  He gathered some children to dance for us.  Other children congregated and sat next to us to watch the performance.   To be honest, I was not entirely comfortable, fearing that we were exploiting the children although I am sure this was never Nathi's intension at all.   

We quickly stopped by the visitor's center before picking up our car.  One of the vendor selling local arts & souvenirs gave us the hard sell, telling us the beaded animals he was selling were hand made by the orphans. I did not think so, these beaded animals were sold everywhere in South Africa. Although we did not buy anything from this man, H was gilt tripped into "donating" 50 Rand to this man for the needed orphans.  

We finally said good-bye to Nathi a little after 2:30 PM.   Nathi did not charge us any extra even though this turned out to be a 4 hour private tour.  Thank God for the South African Time! I wok up in the morning thinking the day was ruinned, and the time we spent with Nathi in Langa turned out to be one of my favorite moments in Cape Town.  

The way I plan trips has slowly changed over the past few years.  I no longer have the patience nor time to do in depth research on hotels, restaurants, and sights.  I also know that there are things I am simply not interested in, no matter how famous they are, such as fortresses or prisons; and I am willing to pass up these sights even if they are the "must-sees".  As the result of my more "laid-back" approach, our itinerary left plenty of room for flexibility and at times, errors.

The only thing I planned for today was the Langa Township.  After the tour, we had to figure out what to do next.  It definitely gave us a lot more freedom by renting a car in Cape Town and we decided to check out Bo-Kaap, which was about 15 minutes away by car.

Bo-Kaap, formerly known as Cape Malay Quarter, used to be home of slave descendants from south east Asia and other African countries. The whole neighborhood felt a little deserted. I did not feel comfortable to explore the area by foot even though we did see a few tourists walking around.  In the end, we did a quick drive through and stopped for some pictures.

The next stop was Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden.  We arrived at the botanic garden a little after 4 PM. The garden was supposed to open until 7 PM from September on, but the staff at the ticket booth told us that it remains the winter schedule and would close at 6PM.  Well, as Nathi said, we were on "South African Time". 

I am not an expert on botanic gardens. The times that I visited one could be counted with both hands, but Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden is absolutely amazing.  The garden is on the base of the Table Mountain with a stunning setting and housed only the indigenous flora of South Africa.  It is part of the Cape Floral Region, UNESCO World Heritage site.  Many of the plants are not found anywhere else in the world.  Even though I am far from having a green thumb, I wish I could have brought some of those exotic flower seeds back home! H and I loved our time in the garden and two hours were just barely enough. 

We went back to the hotel after the botanic garden closed.  As soon as we walked into our room, there was a bottle of wine, desserts, and a letter from the manager on the table.  The manager apologized for missing our wake-up call this morning.  This was a nice gesture and considering how the day turned out, all was forgotten! 

It was our sixth wedding anniversary on September 1.  Before the trip, I tried to make a dinner reservation at the famous The Test Kitchen.  Unfortunately, like many restaurants in Cape Town, the Test Kitchen was closed on Sunday and Monday.  We took the concierge's suggestion, and took a taxi to the nearby Gold Restaurant. Okay, for all the food snobs readers, you can stop reading right here.  Gold restaurant is touristy.  In fact, I doubt any of the customers were locals.  The restaurant serves a set menu serving Cape Malay cuisine with nightly live African dance/drum performances. 

We went to the restaurant knowing that it was for tourists, and we didn't mind that it was touristy.  The food was delicious, the service was great, the performances were entertaining, and what can I say, we WERE tourists after all.  

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cape Town 8.30 - 8.31

South Africa

When H and I were planning our wedding in 2007, I wanted a Safari honeymoon. H was not ready for Africa, so we ended up going to the French Polynesian Islands instead.  It was the perfect honeymoon and I would not change it for anything, but I never took the safari off my travel list.

Six years later, the time has finally come. We are on board for not only our first safari, but also the first trip to the African continent.  As much as I would like to see myself as adventurous, I must say that Africa seemed intimidating.

Since we know very little about Africa, any safari destination would work for us. I was greedy at first, and wanted to visit Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia all at once. However, after the shocking realization of how expensive the itinerary would be, we quickly settled for South Africa only.  The country is stable, relatively safe, the capital city of Cape Town would serve as the gentle introduction to our first African experience. Kruger region is ideal for a safari at this time of the year.

We booked our trip at the beginning of this year, and counted months and days for my romanticized African expedition to finally come.

8.30 - 8.31

South African Airway(SAA) provides daily direct flights between New York (JFK) and Johannesburg (JNB).  The flight is 15 hours long. There are several flights a day between Johannesburg and  Cape Town (CPT), which is another 2 hours long. It was our first time traveling via SAA, the food was good, there was plenty of water provided and many movies to choose from. It is worth mentioning that quite a few movies had Chinese captions.  Who knew! I assume SAA must have a lot of Chinese customers.  We are used to the long haul flights  from our trips back to Asia.  The flight seemed shorter this time somehow.  Upon landing in Johannesburg, our pilot announced that this was his last flight before retirement.  As a tradition, our plane was sprayed down by two airport fire trucks in honor of the pilot's successful career (As the pilot said, equal numbers of take-offs & landings). The cabin erupted into loud claps and cheers.  It was a really neat experience. 

Johannesburg is a huge airport and we only had less than 90 minutes to go through the customs, claim the luggage, and check-in for our domestic flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
While we were running across the airport trying to board, two guys looked like they were the airport staff guided us to the customs.  The first guy guided us to the customs designated for airline crew.  The second guy then showed us the right customs that was 500 feet away.  He showed H a 100 euro bill and told him to pay tips.  Really? 100 euro for 2 minutes' walk? We didn't think so.  H handed him 2 dollars and he walked away.  However, this seemed to be quite common in JNB.  A lovely couple we met during this trip shared a similar story and paid us$20.  
By the time we got our rental car at Cape town International airport, it was around 2PM on Saturday 8/31.  H was anxious about driving on the right side of the road for the first time so we rented a GPS to help us navigate.  H quickly adopted to driving on the left side. Not having too much traffic on the road most of the time definitely helped.
We arrived in Cape Town at the end of the winter.  The air was cool and crisp.  The temperature during our stay was between 56 – 68 F (15-20C) during the day and cooled down to around 45F (9C) at night. Table Mountain was the dramatic backdrop on the N2 Highway when driving into the city.  As we drove through one of the townships by the highway, there were people running across the highway to the other side of the township! This was definitely something we have not seen before in other countries that we visited!

The drive to our hotel took about 20 minutes.  For the first three nights, we stayed at the Westin Hotel by the convention center near the V & A Waterfront. It’s becoming our preference these days as we are expanding our travel map to countries that may seem intimidating at first.  We would book the international chain hotels first to gain our footing and get comfortable with the surroundings.  I was hoping to check out neighbourgoods market  since it only opened on Saturday. but it was too late by the time we checked into the hotel. After a quick shower, we took our car out and drove to the nearby V & A Waterfront.
V & A Waterfront is like South Street Seaport in New York or Quincy Market in Boston, It’s touristy and commercial.  It is the most visited attraction in Cape Town. We first headed into the shopping mall searching for food.  Willoughby & Co has pretty good reviews.  It is a seafood restaurant and the sushi is strongly recommended.  Unfortunately, we were rather disappointed. The sushi was mediocre at best.   
We spent the afternoon taking a stroll on the waterfront, passing through the upscale shops, and browsing isles of groceries in the supermarket.  There were people from all walks of life and all races.  The shopping mall had quite a few interesting home good stores with names I never heard of in New York.  I kept searching for clues that I was in South Africa and the only thing that gave it away was the accent when people talked. We were back at the hotel by 7 PM, and spent a couple of hours at the hotel's swimming pool, jacuzzi, and sauna on the top floor taking in the view of the city.  After a 17 hours flight and more than 35 hours from when we last slept in a bed, it was time to call it a night. 

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