Friday, April 30, 2010

An Epilogue: South Africa Revisited

After spending only a few minutes in South Africa, a few things become apparent very quickly. The first thing you notice is how absolutely stunning the country is. I hope that in reading our recent Kruger and Cape Peninsula posts we made it evident that South Africa must be one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. However, the next immediate thing you are likely to notice is that there is still something not quite right with the place, and we wanted to take a moment to address this so that there are no misconceptions about what to expect.

First of all, very clearly, South Africa holds a tremendous amount of promise for the future and it has come a very long way in the years since the fall of Apartheid. On the other hand, the country has a massive amount of work to complete before coming close to achieving this promise. From what I could see, three overarching challenges face country; crime, race relations, and demographic pressures. A pervasive problem of violent crime, gang warfare and rape, continued racial segregation and inequality, catastrophic levels of unemployment and the AIDS epidemic threaten the fabric of what had been fought for so hard over the last half century. This is why we are devoting a post to the topic; because we believe too much in the potential of this country to not discuss the issues that could hold it back. Beyond all the other experiences we had here, I am convinced mostly of one thing for certain; that South Africa could be a political and economic model for all of Africa. Over the last twenty years or so there has been talk of initially Zimbabwe, then for a while Kenya, achieving this status, but in recent history each of these have succumbed to and regressed as a result of the same pressures which South Africa faces today.

From my perspective, each of these challenges is rooted in years of racial segregation, an engineered and institutionalized policy of forced poverty and exclusion from the formal economy; the aftermath of which is only truly realized now as the country attempts to join the modern and developed world. Therefore this is what must be addressed foremost before focusing on the specific details of crime rates and other statistical indicators which are only symptoms of a much larger problem.

Driving out of the airport in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, you will undoubtedly notice the massive “townships”, or slums, that dot the landscape. What is most disturbing about these settlements when compared against their counterparts in Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai is that they are not “informal”, that is they are not initiated as a result of housing scarcity and affordability. These are the areas that were reserved for “non-whites” during the Apartheid years and if you were “coloured” (i.e. mixed race) or “black African” you were forced to relocate from “white” areas and reside. According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, South Africa ranked second in assault and murder per capita and first in rape per capita. Further to these numbers, in 2008 alone, Cape Town had a murder rate of approximately 62 per 100,000 people. This ranks among the top 5 highest homicide cities in the world. Much of this violence occurs in the townships and there is speculation that the actual numbers are much higher due to the difficulty in tracking reliable numbers in these settlements. According to the study conducted by Foreign Policy magazine in 2009, “The city's homicides usually take place in suburban townships rather than in the more upscale urban areas where tourists visit." With an unemployment rate of 43 percent, it is not surprising that other crimes such as burglary, car jackings, and muggings are frequent and often aimed at tourists in the nicer parts of town.

In regards to the crime and its impact on your travel experience, do not let it overshadow your trip. It would be easy to allow paranoia to get in the way, but if you use common sense and maintain a good situational awareness, the odds are that you are likely going to be fine. The trouble begins when you let your guard down and wander about without a solid plan. My suggestion is that, in the evenings, use a pre-arranged taxi. Or if you are just going nearby, go from point A to point B. Try not to roam and just be aware of what is going on around you.

When I speak to my South African (“saffa”) friends here in the UK, they are pretty transparent about the fact that in South Africa the reality and threat of crime is something you just coexist with. Any visitor to Cape Town would notice the beautiful estates behind barbed wire and electric fencing, as well as the private armed security kiosks scattered throughout the town. Furthermore, if you bothered with watching local television, you would likely be enthralled by the hour long infomercials selling life insurance, home insurance and car insurance.

In my mind, this paranoia is yet another byproduct of the overall problem. To be entirely honest, as beautiful as Cape Town is, it is still highly segregated and that left a negative impression on us. This segregation is apparent in the restaurants, cafes, shops, and pubs. It is noticeable in delineation between who has which jobs. Although segregation and exclusion is no longer official policy and the African National Congress (“ANC”) is now in power, it is going to take years, if not decades, to re-integrate the majority “black African” population which makes up approximately 80 percent of South Africa. Although only 9 percent of the total population, the “white” South Africans still appear to be very much in control of the formal economy.

The main purpose in highlighting this is not to berate the nation for facing challenges that so many others face, but rather to encourage with potential visitors the idea that things must continue to improve along the right path before its full potential can be truly realized. It would be misleading to look at the beautiful photos from our trip and ignore the fact that there is another South Africa not captured there. In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup it will be interesting to see how the nation copes with these challenges. With the recent murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, the racist leader of the white supremacist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (“AWB”) and the subsequent racial tensions caused by rhetoric on both sides, along with the continued high rates of crime and poverty, South Africa certainly has a lot of work to do before hosting one of the largest international events on the world stage. The most important legacy however is what happens after the games are hosted on African soil for the first time. How South Africa manages these challenges beyond the games could be a blueprint, as well as an inspiration, for other African nations down the road. With the world’s most progressive constitution, the indicators are positive that South Africa will realize these dreams, but only time will tell.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Brighton Redux

We've been having amazing spring weather the past two weekends! Londoners have come out of their winter hibernation, shedding layers, sporting new macintosh jackets (no, not the computers, but the classic trench coat), debuting spring dresses, and my favourite, wearing Californian-style flip flops! Every patch of green space and parks across London were occupied by sun-deprived and pasty (if not slightly lobster red Londoners), soaking up the sunshine whilst enjoying the quintessential English summertime drink -- Pimms. We've been taking advantage of the beautiful blue skies and the longer days, that is when we're not stuck behind our desk!

Two weekends ago, on our first weekend back from South Africa, we joined five friends up in Hampstead for a lovely picnic. The spread of picnic food was great: pasta salad, nicoise salad, pesto chicken wrap, hummous, bulgar wheat salad, and of course guacamole and tortilla crisps. Great fun! We also had an impromptu boozy picnic the following day in Clapham Common with some of Keenan's friends. It was great catching up everyone as well as meeting new friends and finally seeing sun in London!

Ice Cream in Brighton:

This past weekend, Keenan was originally scheduled to go up to St. Andrews, Scotland with his Dad. With the hubs out of town all weekend, I organized a girls-weekends, starting with dinner on Friday, followed by a day trip to Brighton on the English south coast. However, thanks to the volcanic ash cloud, which left thousands of people stranded around the world, his Dad decided to postpone his trip until October, so needless to say, Keenan's weekend plans foiled. But he couldn't really complain with the beautiful weather and 23C temperature!

So last Saturday, my friend from Oxford came down, and the three of us - one beach-loving Portuguese and two sun-loving Californians - took the train down to Brighton for a day of lounging by the sea. It was the perfect day to spend on the English seaside – gentle breeze, 22C/72F, and clear skies. About one year ago, Keenan made the same trip to Brighton with his guy friends so I won't get into details about this English seaside town. It's fairly compact, so before you hit the pebble beaches of Brighton and the Brighton Pier (it really is tacky), be sure to visit the Royal Pavilion and meander through the Lanes.

Our day in Brighton consisted of three things: lots of eating (beachfront picnic, ice cream, and Jamie Oliver), sunbathing (in our bikinis if you can believe it!), and laughing (and some ethnographic observation of British drinking culture) with awesome friends…what better way to spend a sun-filled Saturday!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cape Peninsula & Robben Island

We spent the rest of Saturday afternoon driving along the Cape Peninsula starting from Constantia through Muizenberg (where we spent the day just a few days before) and ending in Camps Bay via Chapman's Peak for our final sunset over South Africa. It was a spectacular drive…the vast landscape, viewpoints, ocean, mountains, and scenery are breathtaking. We also had fun watching the baboons along the way – they are actually quite aggressive so beware! We're not suppose to feed them, but I couldn't help but to give them a few stale oat biscuits we left in the car.

At Cape Point, we trekked up to the lighthouse, enjoyed the amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean, and listened to the ocean crashing on the cragged cliffs turning waves into meringue-like clouds. I almost had vertigo peering down the cliff – whew, but what a view! We bought binoculars (bought them off my avid bird-watcher colleague) with us for some (unsuccessful) whale-watching.

Cape Point is not the official point in which the Indian Ocean clashes with the Atlantic Ocean; it's actually Cape Agulhas, some few hours east of Cape Town towards Port Elizabeth. However, the meeting point does fluctuate depending on the season. Whereas Cape Agulhas is the southern most point on the African continent, Cape of Good Hope is the southwestern most point. We also saw a few ostriches – there is a huge ostrich farm nearby the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

We drove back via Chapman's Peak on a narrow and curvy road to Houts Bay -- the drive was beautiful. We stopped to have an early-ish dinner at Fish on the Rocks, a very locals' type place serving up fresh fish and chip. The area is a bit dodgy at night as this humble restaurant is sandwiched between warehouses on Houts Bay and loads of stray cats. Probably best to come during lunch on a sunny day. Keenan loved it here - he devoured his fish down to the bone!

Brilliant Driving Tour -- From Chapman's Peak to Houts Bay to Camps Bay:

We made it to Camps Bay in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset – our last sunset and "Africa" by Toto, came on the radio as I parked the car.

A glorious sunset upon the African sky:

We spent our very last day in Cape Town before our 6:30 PM flight back to London at Robben Island, followed by lunch at Giovanni's at Sea Point. The weather couldn't be more perfect for an excursion out to South Africa's most famous prison. It is perhaps the most appropriate way to end our trip, a dose of South African history from colonialism to apartheid. Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 sentence here doing hard labour. The Robben Island tour leaves from V&A Waterfront and takes about 3.5 hours, including 30 minute ferry ride each way (have your camera ready and grab a seat on the deck), a bus tour around the island, and a prison tour (your tour guide on this leg is a former political prisoner). It's really interesting...I highly recommend visiting Robben Island, and do book your tickets online to avoid disappointment.

V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain:

Nelson Mandela's Prison Cell:

On Robben Island looking towards Cape Town:

From South Africa with Love,
Lily & Keenan
April 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Exploring the Winelands & Constantia

People say that Cape Town is a lot like San Francisco, but I would argue that Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula including the Winelands is like a mini-California neatly compacted within an hour's drive. Camps Bay is like Malibu; Robben Island is to Alcatraz; Greenpoint Stadium is to ATT Park; V&A Waterfront is like a massive Fisherman's Wharf; False Bay is like Pismo Bay; Chapman's Peak Highways uncannily reminds me of the Pacific Coast Highway; Franschhoek and Stellenbosch can rival Napa/Sonoma; Cape Peninsula is like Point Reyes (sans the baboons); Table Mountain National park is like Yosemite; and of course, the lovely sunny weather.

As we drove through the gentle rolling hills and picturesque wine farms in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, for the first time in a very long time, I actually felt as if I was back in California…except it was of course, raining (go figure!). But, upon hearing how excited the vintners were to welcome rain for the first time in months, we didn't feel so bad if it means a better stock of South African wines in the coming year, although I have to say, I will always be partial to the big, bold Californian Cabernet Sauvignon.

I love wine tasting. On a beautiful day, Keenan and I would take advantage of the fact that Napa was right in our backyard whilst living in Berkeley. It's hard to believe that it has been nearly a year since I've gone wine tasting in Napa/Sonoma, the last time being a fabulous day out with my wonderful girlfriends (I miss you ladies!) sipping wine and laughing over dinner at Boon Fly CafĂ©. Awww…nostalgia.

We decided to bypass Stellenbosch altogether (it's big and busy) and headed straight to Franschhoek, the "French Corner." As the name implies, Franschhoek has a strong French influence due to the settlement of the first French Huguenot in 1688, who later planted vineyards in this region. Then came the birth of many renowned wine farms in Franschhoek, of which many were named after the settler's home region in France. Franschheok is far more charming than neighbouring Stellenbosch, and is somewhat like Yountville with all the amazing restaurants packed along the main road. Its culinary reputation has given Franschhoek the title of the 'foodie capital' of South Africa.


Here are the wine farms we visited for either tasting or photo-opp:

Le Motte – a gorgeous estate with long oak tables for tasting. We did a full tasting here for 20Rand.

Moreson – standing room only with an energetic host and an excellent restaurant Bread & Wine, sister restaurant of Le Quartier Francais (one of top 50 restaurants). They waived the 15Rand tasting fee since we stayed for lunch, which was fantastic…creamy risotto and seared tuna over polenta with a glass of pinotage (20Rand, or just £1.81 per glass).

Glenwood – recommended by the manager at Bread & Wine. Great little wine farm reachable via a dirt road. It's small, but produces some great wines. We met an American couple from DC as well as an older British couple who of course purchased two cases (24 bottles) of their Sauvignon Blanc. Tasting fee: 20Rand

Chamonix – only because My Wine was closed (it's a one woman operation and she only does tasting between 10-12), but left because the staff was unresponsive, plus there was a crying baby.

Stony Brook – a small family-run vineyard sitting on 14 hectares of land. We were the only people in the tasting room, and felt a bit rush as the host was eager to close up for the day – it was close to 4 by then. Tasting fee: 20Rand

Boekenhoutskloof – the modern tasting room reminded me of Paraduxx on the Silverado Trail. Our last tasting for the day and it was complimentary. Besides the excellent wine, we also had fun playing with owner's Great Dane.

Haute Cabriere – was unfortunately closed for a private event. It's an interesting as the cellar is carved into the mountain. And has its only helipad. The view of Franschhoek from this estate is gorgeous.

After a full day of wine tasting, we had a memorable 3-hour dinner at Le Bon Vivant. South Africa in general is very affordable and overall the wines and restaurants are all good value for money. With a favourable exchange rate, we opted for the five course tasting menu with wine pairing. It was amazing with emphasis on fresh seafood and beautifully presented.

First Course:

Second Course:

Third Course:

Fourth Course:

Fifth Course:

As if Franschhoek wasn't enough, the next morning we explored the wine region in the exclusive suburb of Constantia, just on the foothill of Constantia Mountain (25 minute drive from City Bowl) for more wine tasting in Cape Town's oldest wine region. Most people would relish the opportunity to sleep in on a Saturday morning, but not us -- we arrived to Groot Constantia precisely at 9:30am, and it was delightfully sunny!

We had a full morning of tasting before making our way south on a driving tour of the Cape Peninsula. By 1:00PM, we visited three wine farms, in order:

Groot Constantia: Beautiful property with stunning historic Cape Dutch architecture. It's huge and has the capacity to accommodate bus tours, but to avoid the crowd, come early.

Buitenverwachting: Lovely setting, friendly hosts, and some interesting wines. They even have a horse stable on the estate.

Klein Constantia: I think I was too distracted by their adorable dog to taste their fine wines, furthermore it was my turn to drive. We had to get to Cape Point!

Life is too short to drink bad wine…happy wine tasting!

More on Cape Point and Robben Island in the next post!