The Glenventure

Sometimes you go out for a beer on a Friday night and two days later you are sitting next to a baby piglet drinking tea in the forest.

To back up a bit, my first weekend in South Africa was not nearly so interesting. I had decided to spend a few days at Pete and Liz’s house, up the road from where I would eventually stay when the homeowners returned. I got in touch with my boss and things got (mostly) sorted out at work by the time I went back to the office on Monday. I have not worked a 9 to 5 job in over ten years so sitting at a desk for hours on end definitely took a bit of getting used to. I may have been in South Africa but at the end of the day, every office ends up feeling the same, somehow. Too much air conditioning, bland colours and a noisy coffee pot in the back room.

Everyone was friendly enough, but one gal, Michelle went out of her way to invite me out and then promptly got a stomach illness for the rest of the week. I ended up spending the weekend with Liz, doing some errands and visiting her elderly friend at a care home. All very lovely but not exactly what I had in mind when I got here. I’m also sure you are dying to hear some office stories; learning how to process GPS data and edit text files, but I will skip ahead as this is a travel blog after all. By the next week Michelle had recovered somewhat and invited me out to this great little pub called the Station Masters Arms. The weather was still cold and rainy so the server tucked us into the back near the fireplace. Yes, I was in Africa sitting next to a roaring fireplace- I was weirded out too.

Michelle invited her friends Kira, Ross and Glen and we drained several beers as the weather got steadily worse. Heavy rain became torrential with lighting frequently flashing in the darkness. This, of course lead to even more beers. You can guess where this is going. Michelle still wasn’t feeling great so she went home with Kira and I stayed to hang out a bit longer. This decision led directly to my waking up in a fertilizer factory on Glen’s couch. He lives in a small apartment above the factory and I’m still not quite sure what he does for a living there. Something to do with mixing diatoms?

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Fireside in the chilly South African evening

After a steadying breakfast, Glen asked if I was still keen to go on the outing we had discussed the night before. I had only a hazy idea of what he was talking about but agreed anyway. He dropped me off so I could pack and then showed up with Kira about an hour later. As it turned out, I had agreed to go stay at his sister Marion’s place near Howick (about an hour inland from where we were in Hillcrest) on Saturday night and we would stop at a few cool spots on the way. Glen was to be running a Triathlon nearby on Sunday so he would be staying at the run site and leave us with his sister.

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After a bit of off-roading we stopped at a lovely waterfall for a quick snap and then moved on to a nearby game reserve. There are dozens of small game reserves scattered around KwaZulu-Natal (the province I am in), some public and some private. I would compare them to the provincial parks we have back home, except with zebras and impalas thrown in. When we pulled up to the Tala Game Reserve, Glen warned me not to speak, as South Africans get a cheaper rate than foreigners and my Canadian accent would give up the game rather quickly. He also admitted that this was likely not the nicest game reserve as it was quite small and didn’t have any big cat species. Despite this, we saw a heard of white rhinos almost immediately upon entering the park, with a couple babies in tow. So far so good. My stated goal was to see a giraffe, which both Kira and Glen thought as a rather unremarkable plan since they are usually pretty easy to spot. There were several deer-types like eland and kudu as well as the ubiquitous impala, along with hippos, warthogs, wildebeests, and of course, monkeys. We drove around in Glen’s 4×4 for a few hours, but there was not a single giraffe to be seen. Alas! By this time, Glen had to head to the race start at the Midmar Dam to register for the race. We left Tala giraffe-less and barely made it to the registration desk in time.

From Midmar, we drove down a gravel road and eventually pulled up to Marion’s house. A beautiful, glass-enclosed structure, the building was surrounded by forest and there was even a private waterfall down the hill. Turns out Marion and her boyfriend lived in Middle Earth, complete with miniature ponies in the pasture. There were a couple chalets on the property as well, which is where Kira and I would be staying, free of charge. Glen’s mom was also visiting and as we sat down for some tea, a piglet came squeaking by, smaller than a loaf of bread. Turns out Marion was a PhD in Animal Science (along with being a literal World Champion canoe racer), and had taken in a couple of her neighbor’s piglets to raise. In the middle of baking cupcakes when we arrived, Marion invited Kira and I to help with the decorating after tea. Once supper and cupcakes were done, Glen headed off to his campsite and we made our way to our chalet.

In the morning, Kira and I woke up to a beautiful sunrise with birds chirping and monkeys jumping in the trees nearby. We could see the waterfall in the distance and as we prepared some morning coffee, we watched a couple small lizards drinking out of a puddle on the patio. By the time we roused ourselves for a walk, Glen was already done his race and coming up the driveway. He was (understandably) wiped out and wanted to head home. We said goodbye to Marion and the piglets and started back to Hillcrest. Partway back Glen thought it would be nice to sample some craft beer at a local chef’s school, so we stopped to enjoy a tipple. At that point some other friends of his were grabbing a beer at a nearby hotel bar so we and met everyone there. Amid the wandering peacocks, there was good beer but no food so we went on to a third place for pizza. And just like that I had a social circle bigger than what I have at home. South Africa is actually a pretty cool place.

-A.

Sunny South Africa

Arrival in South Africa was somewhat less than smooth. There were no troubles with customs and no one asked me about my one-way ticket, but the weather was absolute garbage. Jet-lagged, I picked up my rental car (after an hour wait) and programmed my phone’s GPS to navigate to my temporary new home. Darkness set in as I made my way onto the freeway and the rain did it’s best to overtake my windshield wipers. To add an extra level of difficulty, I haven’t driven on the left side of the road in several years. Fun times.

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King Shaka Airport in Durban, South Africa

The 45-minute drive stretched into more than an hour by the time I arrived. At the address I was given, there was a large security gate barring entry. This is a very common thing in South Africa thanks to the high rate of home invasion. Even middle-class homes are built like fortresses with electrified wires and security beams and house alarms. I called the number I had to see if I could get the gate opened. I was to be staying at the home of my co-workers’ parents (Joe and Joan), who were currently away in Australia. Their friends Pete and Liz were to show me around the place and get me familiar with the security system.

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Waiting for my rental car in sunny South Africa

Their SUV pulled up behind me after 20 minutes and they let me into the driveway. With everything disarmed, Liz started explaining the procedures; which doors had to be shut to arm the system and what buttons to push and the code word if the alarm went off accidentally. My eyes must have glazed over because she looked over at me and immediately decided that I would be staying at her house for the night; I was not about to say no. Between the stressful drive and the long day (I had left Cairo at midnight and it was now well past 8 pm). We loaded my luggage into the SUV and drove off into the rain yet again. Luckily their house was not far and when I got inside, I was immediately served some hot soup and given a sweater. Liz set up an electric blanket in the spare room and sent me to bed. The cold front rolling through had dropped the temperature down to maybe 10 degrees Celsius. With no central heating, the blanket and sweater were greatly appreciated as I was very much regretting leaving my coat in Calgary by that point. Sometimes it’s nice to be mothered, even by a complete stranger.

Liz also had a house like Fort Knox- crime is a proper big deal in this country. Shootings, muggings and car jacking are shockingly common. Before I left home, I was warned to never stop for a broken down vehicle as it is often a trap to rob you. Even if there are bodies on the road, they are likely faking to make you stop to help. Canadians take for granted just how damn safe our country is. South Africa has some serious socio-economic reasons for their high crime rate; the divide between rich and poor is pretty drastic and things aren’t improving any time soon, sadly. The way locals deal with it is by installing the elaborate security systems I described above.

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After the rain, on Liz and Pete’s patio

Today, I went to the office I was going to be working at behind yet more gates and bars. A small hitch revealed itself when I arrived, though. The folks there didn’t seem to know I was coming. Hmmm. My grand South African adventure seems to have hit a snag. I will be calling my boss when the time zone allows and hopefully things will be sorted out by Monday. For now, I’m going to see the new Thor movie. Movie theaters have been a standard fallback of mine when things go awry in foreign countries. Nothing like a couple hours of escapism to rest the brain from travel stress. Onward to Ragnarok!

-A.

 

 

Rebellion and Dynasty in Cairo, Egypt

Despite the travel advisory to avoid Egypt, I went to Cairo because who knows what could happen in the future. Think of all the priceless archaeological sites that have been destroyed in Syria in the last 5 years. Not that the Pyramids could be easily destroyed, but you never know.

After a night in the Freedom Hostel, I took a walk down toward the Egyptian Museum, located on the far end of a little place called Tahrir Square. This location might be familiar to anyone who followed the Arab Spring demonstrations in which the people ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Funny story- I asked the young man working at my hostel about the revolution and he merely shrugged his shoulders saying “Eh, he wasn’t so bad.” The hostel clerk would have been in his early teens when the uprising began, so he might have a less nuanced perspective. Even so, it is interesting to think that the dictator may have had a stabilizing influence on the area. I can’t claim to know a significant amount about Egyptian politics but my general assumption would be that dictator = bad, but as a white atheist Canadian, my opinion is less than relevant.

Getting to the museum meant crossing one of the busier main roads around the square. If you watched the video I linked to in my last post, you know that crossing a street in Cairo is no mean feat. The strategy I adopted was to draft off of a local Egyptian, walking parallel to them as they navigated between cars. There is no pedestrian signal or crosswalk- you just start walking into traffic, try to make eye contact with the slower moving vehicles and hope for the best. I thought I was a seasoned traveler, having dealt with the traffic insanity of Mexico City, but Cairo is the boss level of street crossing. I found an old lady in a black hijab to follow, going on the idea that if she survived this long, she must be an expert. She noticed me when we were about half way across and I like to think she nodded slightly before she carried on as if to say “don’t worry, you dumb white girl- I can see you are out of your depth and I will escort you safely”. This was likely my imagination though.

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This kitty can write in Arabic! Hopefully it’s nothing graphic.

After several trips to Latin America, where I was slowly picking up the language (a language that used a familiar alphabet), it was jarring to be suddenly so illiterate. Every sign was in Arabic, its swirling cursive completely impenetrable. The last time I was in a place like that was Poland, and while the Slavic based characters were mostly unfamiliar, at least I had the comfort of the European architecture and history. The only English I saw was on some of the tour operator signs, their shops mostly empty. Ever since a plane full of Russian tourists was blown out of the sky on their way to Sharm Al-Sheikh in 2015, Cairo has become a tourist ghost town. Other than a group of hardy Asians I saw on one of those giant tour buses, there was nary a non-Egyptian in sight (were there too many narys and nons in that sentence? Too bad, I’m doing it!).

To get into the museum, I was required to go through not one but two metal detectors, and there were armed guards all around the interior courtyard. During the revolution there were a few enterprising individuals who tried to loot the treasures within but they were stopped by a human chain blocking their access. Dr. Zahi Hawass, the former Minister of Antiquities has an excellent account of the events at the following link: (http://www.drhawass.com/wp/the-egyptian-museum-and-the-looters-by-zahi-hawass/).

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The fabled Egyptian Museum

The museum itself if is a strange pink colour, constructed of the same granite as the interior of the Great Pyramids themselves, and when you walk inside, you feel like you’ve stepped into the 1800s. There are no interactive displays or digital signage- only glass cases with wooden frames housing some of the world’s most precious antiquities. Starting with the simplicity of the Old Kingdom, you can trace ancient Egyptian history up to and beyond Roman occupation. At the back of the museum is the showpiece: Tutankhamun’s burial treasures and funerary mask. Officially you are not allowed to take photos in that room but… my hand slipped.

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King Tut!

I wandered the museum for a few hours and then spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to find the exit.  It is truly shocking how little was stolen during the Arab Spring. There is a LOT of gold lying around in cabinets secured only with simple padlocks. For an extra fee you can see the actual mummies in a separate area but to me the funerary masks and sarcophagi are the most interesting part. It also seems weird to want to view what are essentially dead bodies, old as they may be. Besides, one must always be aware of the potential for curses! I would also like to note the absence of certain items of world renown, like the Bust of Nefertiti or the Rosetta Stone. Like the Elgin Marbles of Greece I mentioned in my last post, these priceless artifacts are currently in the possession of the British Museum.

When I finally figured out how to leave the building, I headed through the central hallway through a crowd of teenage Egyptian girls wearing a dizzying array of colourful hijabs. One forward young woman asked me for a selfie… I said “Sure why not?” I was suddenly mobbed by the whole group, clamouring for photos with their phones. I was peppered with questions: “Are you a Muslim?, Where are you from? Are you married?“, and so on. I think I shocked a few of them with my answer to the last one; they all giggled. In a minute or two, a black-clad woman, who I can only assume was their chaperone or teacher, came over and broke up the impromptu photo session. She gave me a stern look and shepherded the girls into the next gallery. I honestly have no idea why this happened; whether it was my short, uncovered hair, my pale-ass skin or my vague resemblance to Ginnifer Goodwin, I will never know. Traveling can be weird sometimes.

I was a bit drained after my walk through history and celebrity experience so I found a little expat cafe on my way back to my hostel to have a little meal and a beer. The Cafe Riche feels like it was lifted out of an Indian Jones movie. Considering it was built in 1908, that makes sense. The scene for countless political and intellectual debates over the years, the Cafe was long a hotspot for malcontents and rabble-rousers. There was even an attempted assassination in 1919.  After a slow fall from grace, it regained prominence during the 2011 revolution. Here is a great article chronicling some of Cafe Riche’s history: (http://www.economist.com/node/21541715)

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The faded grandeur of Cafe Riche

As I sipped my Sakara lager, I could hear some familiar accents behind me so I turned around and said hi to the couple. Haleigh and her boyfriend (whose name escapes me right now, I think it’s Italian… Anthony? We’ll go with that) were from Alaska and work in the hospitality industry so they go traveling every year after freeze-up. My kind of people!  We shared a few more Sakaras and marveled at the fact that we were traipsing around coat-less in November.  We agreed to meet the next day to see the Pyramids together. I hate to admit it, but traveling with a man in Egypt is just a lot less stress.

In the morning I met them at their hostel down the road and we walked back to the road in front of the museum in the hope of catching a cab with an English-speaking driver. Originally we were going to take public transit, but after a morning coffee that took a little longer than planned, it was already getting hot. I cannot overstate how surreal it was to be weaving through Cairo’s insane traffic on my way to see the Great Pyramids. As we got closer to the Giza Plateau, I could see the biggest pyramid over the top of the buildings. We pulled up to the gate and Anthony negotiated a deal with the driver to hang out and wait for us for the day so we wouldn’t have to deal with touts at the site.

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Egyptians know their coffee.

Sometimes when you see enough pictures of a landmark or see it in a movie several times, it can be rather anticlimactic when you see the real thing. This was not the case with the Pyramids. They are truly incredible in the truest sense of the word. The fact that they were build FOUR THOUSAND YEARS AGO is rather hard to comprehend. Think of it this way:  The Great Pyramids were as old to Cleopatra as she is to us. When you have someone who was alive during the Roman Empire saying “Damn, that’s old!”, you know you are dealing with a truly ancient piece of architecture. Get off my blog if you even so much as mention Ancient Aliens. That show is terrible and stupid and is making idiots of us all.

Haleigh and I paid extra so we could actually enter the biggest of the Pyramids (constructed for Khufu in the 26th Century BC). A narrow back-breaking tunnel leads to the center of the pyramid where you can see the granite sarcophagus of the aforementioned pharaoh. There are no visible hieroglyphics along the walls, as the pyramid was likely gutted by grave robbers millennia ago. Still, even in the dark, humid and mostly empty space where the grave goods would have been, you get the sense of the weight of history around you. Humans have made some crazy shit.

After exiting the Great Pyramid, we checked out an adjacent building that housed Khufu’s funerary boat and then walked down the plateau to the Sphinx. Unlike the pyramids, the Sphinx did seem a little smaller in person, though still incredible to see. From here we hired some camels to walk us back. We could have done a full tour to the smaller pyramids by camel-back but the desert heat was starting to get the best of us so we made our way back to our taxi driver and rode back to town. Getting him to wait for us turned out to be an excellent idea, as the amount of people trying to sell you things at the plateau can be rather overwhelming. Being able to say that we already had a ride organized removed some of the pressure, though I still could have bought hundreds of chess sets and rolls of papyrus if I was so inclined.

We finished off the day with more beers at the Cafe Riche. The Alaskans had a boat down the Nile to catch and I was flying to Durban at midnight so we traded emails and parted ways. The Cairo airport was just as intense as I anticipated. Three separate metal detectors! I was also not allowed to buy alcohol unless I bought food. The very dry cheese sandwich went into the trash so I could enjoy a very small sub-par bottle of wine. Still worth it though! As I write this, I am in the air-conditioned austerity of the Dubai airport, waiting for my connection to South Africa. I am jet-lagged as hell and Egypt already feels like a world away. Onward and upward, as they say (or Southward, in this case). See you in South Africa!

-A.

 

3 Continents

The first thing I noticed as I was waiting to board my flight from Calgary to London was the fact that I had left my light spring jacket behind and was left with a thin Walmart cardigan. I had ditched my giant down-filled coat with my friend Nicole when she dropped me off at the airport, as it was about the same size as my carry-on and I had suspicions that it would not be necessary in Africa. I decided against purchasing a touristy sweatshirt with ‘Calgary’ or ‘Canada’ emblazoned on the front, because I can’t bear the smugness associated with having my country written on everything I bring overseas. It does not insult me to be occasionally mistaken for an American (the majority of Americans I’ve met are awesome), and while I have great pride in my country, I feel that the flag on the backpack thing is a bit much. That’s just my opinion.

It’s been a while since I’ve been anywhere (at least in the way I like to travel) but as I boarded the plane, I could feel myself relaxing almost instantly. I don’t really get those excitement jitters like I did when I first started traveling. I was in motion, on my way to Somewhere and I just find that extremely satisfying. I am probably one of the few people in the world who actually likes airports- even the annoying bits. Cairo Airport was a particular challenge, but I will get to that later.

I arrived in Gatwick around 10:30 local time and had a six-hour window to make it to the other side of London and catch my flight from Heathrow. It was Remembrance Day (Armistice Day in the UK) and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker as I waited to collect my bags. The airport would be recognizing two minutes of silence at the stroke of 11. I picked up my back and headed up to the main floor and by the time I got to the stairs to the main level, it was time. I stopped awkwardly halfway up the stairs for the moment of silence. I wasn’t sure if it would have been disrespectful to climb the last few steps before stopping so I froze in place. The European couple behind me had no such compunctions and continued up the stairs and out of the building. They were probably from an axis country anyway (kidding!).

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Canada Memorial in London

After catching the train into central London, I stopped briefly at the Canadian War Memorial near Buckingham Palace and left a poppy I had brought with me from Calgary. It wasn’t too cold so my cardigan did the job well enough as I dragged my suitcase to the Green Park Underground station. I  made it to Heathrow in plenty of time and arrived in Athens close to 11pm. Oh hello, Europe! There is a great tram system from the airport that I took to my hostel and after checking in I popped up to the rooftop bar and saw the Parthenon for the first time. The Acropolis overlooking the city really does dominate the landscape and seeing it lit up in the night was breathtaking. I’m not using that word lightly either- when I came up the stairs and saw it, I literally gasped.

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The Parthenon from the Pella Inn

This temple to Athena was built around 440 BCE and lasted over a thousand years (the current structure has been rebuilt from ruins, though some of the pillars remain in their original position; follow the link for more info or go to Wikipedia: https://www.ancient.eu/parthenon/). The construction was celebratory as the Athenians had just been victorious against the invading Persians. If you’ve seen the movie 300 or it’s sequel, you have a (very) vague idea of why that was a big deal. It was mostly blown up during the 1600s by invading Venetians against occupying Turks and much of the significant architecture and sculptures were carted away by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce in the 1800s. Those pieces currently reside in the British Museum under the archaeological regulation of “Finders Keepers”; the Greek government has been trying to get them back for years.  But I digress; my point is that the Parthenon is a Big Deal.

I didn’t see much more of Athens as I only had until 2pm before I had to go back to the airport, but I did manage to find an amazing little restaurant that served Moussaka. It was called “All that Jatz” which maybe makes more sense in Greek:  Κλείσε τραπέζι.  No? Maybe not. In this lively little side alley, there were a bunch of locals smoking and haggling in a nearby market and some just sitting, enjoying the day. It was a perfect bookend to such a short time in the city. I also managed to try some Greek coffee which is a marginally weaker version of Turkish coffee. Still, not sure whether I’m a fan of having to chew my morning cup of joe.

Almost by accident I scheduled my stopovers on the way to South Africa to do a reverse trip through human history. I left the New World to land in the heart of Mother England and the origin of the Industrial Revolution. From there I went to the birthplace of Democracy. Next stop, Cairo, Egypt- a place so ancient that they invented writing on paper. And from there to the land that was literally the cradle of our entire species. Cool, right?

The plane to Cairo was operated by EgyptAir, which had no alcohol on board, but my flight attendant was nice enough to suffer a photo with me even though he didn’t speak English. It’s surprising what you can communicate by pointing. Arriving in Egypt was definitely a culture shock. The intensity with which I was accosted with taxi offers was jarring after the relative calmness of the plane. I knew immediately that I was being ripped off, but with the weakness of the Egyptian Pound and my lack of energy to barter, I took what was offered and paid the equivalent of about $14 to head into the city. The tout led me to a taxi where he then talked to the driver in Arabic for a while trying to explain where I wanted to go. Neither could quite figure it out so I dropped a pin in Google Maps (after having taken the time to download the offline map for Cairo while I was at my last hostel) and handed it to the driver.

The trip to the hostel was definitely an adventure in itself. Search YouTube for Cairo traffic videos to get an idea or click here: https://youtu.be/HZ3wtkTzyYE . Any guidebook or forum you read will tell you not to drive in this city. The traffic is almost like a living organism, or maybe a raging river. Cars flow in and out of lanes with abandon, you share the road with horse carts and motorbikes and rickshaws, lights and signs are just decorative. Through all my travels I have never encountered streets like that. When we arrived at my hostel, I tipped the driver handsomely for my safe delivery (though he did, of course ask for more because this is Egypt, after all). My accommodation was on the fourth floor and I had time to regret my full-size suitcase as I dragged it up several flights of stairs. I had booked a room to myself and did not regret it; for $30 I had a full sized bed and my own bathroom. I sat on the bed and it only just then occurred to me that I was officially in Africa. I haven’t been to a brand new continent since 2011.  AFRICA!  Holy shit. So far I have not needed nor missed having my coat.

Tune in next time for more Egypt and my arrival in South Africa.

-A.