Sunday, April 27, 2008

Summer Grilling

Even though spring seems to refuse to arrive in Minnesota this year, the deck in the backyard is ready for summer. The table and chairs are positioned and the grill is clean and waiting for the first barbeque of the season. All winter, I have been craving a really good steak grilled medium rare, or even a brat or a burger, covered with pickles, ketchup, and yellow mustard. (Sorry, I can’t do Dijon mustard on a burger. It just wouldn’t seem like summer.)

I’ve been reluctant to look at the price of meat in the grocery store given the ever escalating food prices. I had decided, after this never-ending winter, that I was going to enjoy every possible moment of outdoor cooking and dining – and if that meant paying more for steaks and hamburger, so be it. I know it’s not exactly healthy, but I was determined to compensate for my meat consumption with additional bike rides, or walks, or runs. More exercise might balance out a greater intake of red meat, but consuming more meat will do nothing to help the millions of people around the world who are suffering from increasing food costs and shortages.

A recent article in the Washington Post said “the growing food crisis has pushed prices to their highest levels since 1945 and rivals current global financial turmoil as a threat to world stability.” It is estimated that the global food crisis has pushed over 100 million people into greater poverty.

Given that most people in the world struggle to secure a bag of rice or corn, it seems incredibly indulgent for me to be planning outdoor barbeques with juicy steaks. The land that it takes to grow one cow to maturity could generate so much more food if it was used for crops rather than used as a cattle feed lot. And just imagine if that land were used to actually grow healthier foods.

Now, I know myself well enough to not commit to going vegetarian – I simply like meat too much. However, I can dramatically reduce my meat intake, and I can start right now as grilling season is about to get underway. My plan is to only grill red meat every third time I barbeque. So, for every time I throw a steak on the grill, there has to be two times grilling fish, or chicken, or veggies. (Fortunately, I like veggie burgers too, especially if they are smothered with ketchup, yellow mustard and pickles.) A further goal this summer will be to only purchase free range chicken.

I know reducing my meat intake this summer won’t feed a hungry person in Haiti today, but it’s a start. I’ll let you know how it goes over the course of the summer. That is, if summer ever arrives in Minnesota this year!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"It makes me feel good."

I have very few memories of being in first grade except for an overpowering fear and dislike of my first grade teacher. OK, it was more than dislike. My mother still tells a story about my teacher being out on a medical leave during part of that year, and me praying every night during her absence for my teacher to not return to school. OK, I prayed for her to die. Now, before you get too upset about a seven-year-old boy praying for his teacher to die, please know that to the best of my knowledge my first grade teacher is still alive more than four decades later.


I was in the first grade in 1966. Lyndon Johnson was president. The Civil Rights movement was being played out in the streets, and the Vietnam War was beginning to be played out on our TVs. Being played, that is, if the bunny ears were positioned correctly on top of our black and white television so we could make out the images of Huntley and Brinkley in all of the electronic snow; and if we could hear their nightly news report over all of the static. Television reception in rural Minnesota in the mid-1960s was hit and miss. Growing up on a farm at that time, long before the information age, shielded me from the knowledge that we were entering one of the most pessimistic and cynical periods in American history.


As a boy on the farm, my days consisted of feeding the chickens and collecting eggs every morning. If I wasn’t in school, I was probably playing in the grove of trees where branches became horses to ride, and discarded doorknobs became telephones with which to call my older sisters as they played in their imaginary house in the woods.


In the first grade, I had no world view. I hardly had a town view since the nearest town had a population of 1,600 people, and I only went there for school, or to go shopping with my parents on Saturday night when the stores stayed open late, or for a haircut. And as anyone in my family can tell you, I always hated getting my hair cut. So, if I behaved in the barber’s chair, my father would give me ten cents after each haircut and take me to the “dime store” to get a toy. (And yes, you really could buy a toy for ten cents in the 60s.) Long before Christmas arrived each year, I would begin dreaming about what gifts, besides underwear, there might be for me beneath the tree. I don’t ever remember hearing about starving children in far-away places, and even if I had, that certainly wouldn’t have motivated me to eat my peas. I mean, when I was seven-years-old, Minneapolis was as foreign to me as any location in Africa.


There are those who see parallels between the 1960s and today. While we pump billions of dollars into a war, we cut funding for education, healthcare, social services, and infrastructure. While a select few get ultrarich, many more feel the burden of an economic downturn. While progress may have been made in civil rights, the dream of human rights – around the world and here at home – is far from realized. And the information age, even in small town America, has made it all but impossible to shield children from the issues of the day and the pessimism and cynicism that many people are once again experiencing.


But guess what? The information age isn’t forming young pessimists and cynics. Rather, it’s creating global citizens. At an age when I was dreaming about toys in dime stores and couldn’t point to Minneapolis on a map, some kids today are raising awareness and money for issues like poverty, hunger, and AIDS orphans in far-off places like South Africa.


Billy and Jake Straub are two of those kids.


Billy is eight-years-old and in the second grade. His brother Jake is seven and in first grade. The brothers attend a program at their school with Tony Zappa’s nephews. Tony is the Open Arms board member who spent the past year volunteering in Guguletu, South Africa. Tony’s brother, Jim, visited South Africa and when he returned to the Twin Cities, he talked with students at Billy and Jake’s school about his experiences. Shortly after that, Open Arms sent a request in our weekly e-mail, Free to Dish, asking for donations of children’s underwear and socks to be given to AIDS orphans in Guguletu.


Billy was about to turn eight when the e-mail arrived in his mom’s inbox. The brothers take turns having birthday parties that they invite friends to, so every other year each boy has a big party. Last year, at Jake’s party, Jake requested that his friends bring school supplies for his kindergarten class rather than presents for him. Jake’s teacher was thrilled when Jake showed up with enough markers and glue sticks to make it through the rest of the school year.


This year, it was Billy’s turn to have a birthday party. Remembering the stories he heard at school and hearing his mom talk about the e-mail she received from Open Arms, Billy asked his young guests to give socks and underwear for Open Arms to deliver to AIDS orphans in South African townships. After the party, on a release day from school, Billy and Jake came with their mother to Open Arms and delivered boxes and bags filled with socks and underwear – “Even girl’s underwear!” Jake exclaimed.


When I asked their mom what motivated Billy and Jake to do things like this (and their generous acts are not limited to their school and Open Arms), she was a little embarrassed. Their mom said, “It isn’t as if the boys are making a huge sacrifice to do these things. We are so fortunate to have everything we need.”


That may be, but it would have never crossed my mind when I was seven or eight years old to give up presents so that kids in another part of the world could have socks and underwear – especially underwear. Remember, I hated getting underwear at Christmas!


I can assure Billy and Jake that all of the children who benefited from their efforts in Guguletu were absolutely delighted to receive the presents. For some of these orphans, it was the first time they had ever had underwear.


When Billy and Jake were asked why they are so generous, why they both give up birthday presents, they each said the same thing: “It makes me feel good.”


It should make us all feel good.





Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 7

From Boulders, you will continue along a scenic drive towards Cape Point. In the past I have stopped to watch whales in the water below the road. I've also had to stop my car to allow baboons to cross in front of the car. And this is all before even entering Cape Point National Park.

In the spring, the park is alive with the colors of new growth. Varieties of protea (the King Protea is the national flower of South Africa), in vibrant pink, covers the ground. If driving through the park in the early morning, pay attention to the tortoises crossing the road. Some are old, very large, and impossible to miss, but younger tortoises are smaller and sometimes harder to spot, yet easy to kill with your vehicle.

The park is also home to two poisonous snakes – the puff adder and the spitting black cobra. Fortunately, I have never encountered a snake while hiking in the park, but a cobra did cross our path as we were driving out of the park once. That's as close as I need to get to any snake, especially one so vividly described as the spitting black cobra.

The first stop for travel buses entering Cape Point should also be your first stop – the lighthouse. Park your car and take your time hiking up the hill (less than a 30 minute hike with plenty of stops to enjoy the views) to the highest point where the lighthouse is situated. (For those who can't, or would prefer not to walk, you can pay a small fee to take the funicular most of the way up the mountain.) The panoramic views along the hike, and especially from the lighthouse, make the energy expended well worth it!

People linger at the lighthouse watching the waves break far below, or being mesmerized by the geckos sunning themselves on the rocks. Tourists ask you to take their photos. In many ways this feels like, and is, the end of the world.

If time and energy allows, I like to continue hiking with a trip from the lighthouse, down the hill and then across a plateau before descending to the shore and the Cape of Good Hope. This entire hike, again with plenty of stops to observe baboons, or to enjoy the views, takes maybe 75 minutes. You can also venture down a few hundred wooden steps to a beach in a cover. This is not a swimming beach: the cold temperatures of the water, the intimidating waves, and a well-documented under-tow, makes swimming fool-hardy at best, and life-threatening at worst.

I had always fantasized about packing a lunch and having a picnic on the beach until I observed a young couple doing exactly that, but being traumatized by baboons just waiting for an opportunity to crash their party. When the couple made the wrong decision to venture towards the water, momentarily abandoning their meal, it took only seconds for the baboons to converge on the site, grab everything they could, and scamper back into the bush. The couple seemed genuinely surprised by the audacity of the baboons. I was genuinely surprised by the naiveté of the couple.

For the most part, the hike from the lighthouse to the Cape of Good Hope is easy, if you're wearing the correct shoes. Although the final descent is gradual, loose gravel or slippery rocks sometimes makes the last leg of the hike a bit more challenging. All of which can be avoided by simply driving from the lighthouse to the historic marker at Good Hope.

Lately, I have not been to the Cape of Good Hope without seeing ostrich. The snake, gecko, baboon, and tortoise that I have seen on a dozen visits to the park are always interesting – but there is something very special about spotting an ostrich near the ocean. For such an odd-shaped body, there is something very graceful in the movements of the ostrich.

Part of what keeps me coming back to Cape Point are the new things I discover on every trip. The best kept secret of Cape Point is a cottage that can be rented in the part of the park called Olifantsbos. No tour bus ventures to Olifantsbos and very few day-trippers drive down the road. The lack of traffic probably accounts for all the tortoises you encounter on the road here. The few tourists who do go all the way to Olifantsbos still need to leave the park by the end of the day. So, if your are fortunate enough to get a reservation at the cottage, by nightfall you are virtually alone in the park. There is time to explore the beach before the sun sets. On our last overnight at Olifantsbos we found remains of a ship wreck, whale bones bleached in the African sun, and a seal that would quickly make its way to the water if we got too close. With no pollution to block the skies, we could stare into the clear Southern Hemisphere at night, searching for the Southern Cross.

Staying at Olifantsbos at night also has a creepy feeling to it. It's dark and quiet with no people (you hope) around. My cell phone doesn't work in this part of the park. But, if you can stop your mind from running movie clips of every slasher film you saw as a teenager at drive-in movies, you night at Olifantsbos should be nothing short of magical.

Whether you make a day trip to Cape Point or overnight in the park, your return to Cape Town has to take you through Chapman's Peak. Chapman's Peak is considered to be one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world. It was closed for years to repair the road, shore up the mountainside, to reduce rock slides, and install netting to catch falling boulders. It's probably impossible to guarantee someone's safety as they drive along the road with a mountain on one side and a steep drop to the sea on the other, but just like staying at Olifantsbos is worth the creepy feeling that comes when the sun sets, so the beauty of Chapman's Peak is worth the very rare rock slide.

Cape Town Travelogue concludes with the next installment.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 6

Just as I can’t imagine anyone traveling to South Africa and not going to wine country, no trip to the Cape would be complete without visiting Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Point is not, as many believe, the convergence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It is, however, the most southwestern tip of the African continent. Plan for a daylong adventure, because there are not-to-be-missed stops on your way to and back from Cape Point.

Skip breakfast in Cape Town in order to get an early start on the tourists who flock to these attractions. More importantly, this gives you an excuse to stop at the Olympia Cafe right on Main Road in Kalk Bay. This landmark restaurant has a true Bohemian/beach town feel to it. It’s not the cleanest restaurant, as you will notice when you walk through the kitchen and storage areas to get to the restrooms, but who cares? There is art from local artists hanging on the walls and seemingly something delicious always coming out of the ovens at the bakery. Olympia has the best cappuccinos in the Western Cape. They are both delicious and artfully presented. You will be tempted to linger, but don’t do so. There are many more adventures just up the road.

Do not, under any circumstances, bypass the penguin colony at Boulders. For a small admission fee you can walk along a boardwalk and observe penguins just feet away from you. There is also a public beach where you can sun and swim (for the same admission price). Historically, the penguins have been referred to as the jackass penguin, but now they are called the South African penguin. You may see penguins on your tour of Robben Island, but you will not get as close to them as you will at Boulders. Of course, there are gifts to purchase at the “all things penguin” shops that surround Boulders.
Next stop...Part 7: Cape Point

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 5

If you don’t drink wine, you might want to start because you do not want to miss a day in wine country. Located just 40 minutes drive from Cape Town, the wine country begins near Stellenbosch and continues through Franschoek. Not surprisingly, this is some of the most beautiful scenery that you will encounter in the Western Cape. I don’t know anything about wines, but I know what I like. My “must visit” list of wine farms includes Ernie Els and Rust en Vrede for reds, and Waterford and Thelema for whites.

Ernie Els, the South African golfer, also has one of most beautiful and perfectly situated wine farms. Sitting on the patio, tasting their offerings, absorbing the sun and the view, is one of the most relaxing ways to pass time in wine country. If you like the wines, be prepared to spend some cash because most of their wines are expensive, especially by South African standards.

Just down the hill from Ernie Els is Rust en Vrede. Although the farm itself is not quite as spectacular as Ernie Els, it still offers astounding views and, for my taste, slightly better reds that are a little less expensive than the farm up the road. A restaurant has recently opened at Rust en Vrede, but I haven’t eaten there so I can make no recommendation yet.

My taste in wines runs much more to reds than whites, so I don’t spend as much time at wine farms specializing in whites. Thelema, however, seems to have consistently good white wines. The farm itself is by no means the most interesting architecturally, nor does it offer great scenic views, but it’s a great destination for a tasting and to purchase a few bottles to enjoy during your time in South Africa. It’s been years since I visited the Waterford farm, but on my recent visit to Cape Town my friend Jane (who knows wine much better than I do) raved about Waterford’s chardonnay.

Any trip along South Africa’s wine route should include a stop in Franschoek. Lately, we’ve been taking guests to La Petite Ferme where the food, wine, and views all come together for a leisurely lunch in the most beautiful part of wine country. If you have the inclination to explore the village of Franschoek after lunch, you should absolutely do it. It’s a charming town with unique shops – though I would never cut a lunch at La Petite Ferme short in order to shop in Franschoek.

Obviously, wine connoisseurs will differ with my recommendations, and you could spend an entire vacation just exploring South Africa’s wine region. However, if you have only one day to spend on the wine route, I think you will be pleased with these suggestions.

Next up...penguins and more in Cape Town Travelogue: Part 6

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 4

Purchasing beaded art at Monkeybiz creates jobs in Cape Town. So does patronizing some of the Mother City’s truly fine restaurants. Hands down my favorite continues to be Bukhara, an Indian restaurant located in the heart of City Bowl (near the shopping destinations of many of the stores just mentioned). I crave their butter chicken when I’m away from South Africa. The lamb rogan josh is nearly as good, and for something a bit less rich, the flavorful chicken tikka melts in your mouth.

Downstairs and around the corner from Bukhara is a newer restaurant called Haiku. There is no exterior signage, but look for the tables on the sidewalk and you will have found it. Haiku is a pan-Asian fusion restaurant with an extensive list of dim sum and entrees with South African mainstays like local fish and ostrich served with lip-smacking sauces. The service can be hit-and-miss, but when the service is good (ask to be seated in Dylanne’s section), it’s really good!

The best ostrich fillet I’ve had is at Five Flies. Located very near Bukhara and Haiku, dining at Five Flies is a tad bit more formal than other places in Cape Town, but the second floor bar is fun and relaxed, and a great destination for an after-dinner drink. The fish, seafood, and sushi at Wakame on Beach Road are stunning – as are the sunsets from the second floor outdoor dining area.

For lunch, drive ten minutes from downtown to the Rhodes Memorial and eat at the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant and Tea Garden. The food is not as good as the other places I have mentioned, but the views of the city and sea are incredible, and a walk around the monument, featuring a bust of Cecil John Rhodes and eight bronze lions is interesting – no matter what you think of this colorful and controversial man.

If you’ve had enough of fish and ostrich and are craving a basic burger or salad, head to Manhattan’s in the gay neighborhood of De Waterkant. (There is a second Manhattan’s on Main Road, but the original one in De Waterkant is much more fun.) Service at Manhattan’s is always friendly and the place has a neighborhood “Cheers” kind of feel to it.

Caveau features as extensive a list of wines by the glass as I’ve seen in Cape Town. The daily specials are reasonably priced and delicious, and the people watching is usually fascinating. Make sure to take a few minutes to explore Heritage Square, where Caveau is located, before or after your glass of wine.

If you simply must have a martini in Cape Town, I have found no place that comes close to the martinis at Beluga, located in the Foundry in Green Point. Beluga has the ambience (and sometimes the attitude) of any trendy eatery in any major city, but the food is always exceptional and the service generally top-notch. And the martini...well, if you can find a better one in Cape Town, let me know.

I have a former favorite restaurant that I have been boycotting for five years and I will continue to do so until they change one of their policies. The Cape Colony, in the historic Mount Nelson Hotel, offers elegant dining in a quasi-colonial setting. I understand the menu has changed in recent years, but I was rarely disappointed in any of their dinner offerings. In fact, it’s one of the few restaurants where I’ve asked to take a menu so I could remember the meals I had eaten there. The Cape Colony is also the only restaurant where I have ever eaten in Cape Town that does not allow diners to take their leftovers with them. In a city with rampant unemployment, hunger, and in some cases malnutrition, I simply can not accept the Cape Colony’s policy of not allowing guests to take doggy-bags to give food to people who are hungry. It’s a waste to throw such food away every day.

Before leaving Cape Town, here are a few other destinations – each of which could take pages to describe – that are worth mentioning.

If flora is your thing (and even if it’s not) a trip to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, especially if you are in Cape Town in the spring or early summer, is a must see. The Western Cape is home to more species of plants than any other country in the world, thus making Kirstenbosch one of the great botanical gardens on the planet.

If your schedule allows for some beach time, check out one of the four beaches in Clifton, or rent a chaise and an umbrella on the sand at Camp’s Bay. All are just a few minutes drive (except in the summer when traffic to the beach area can be at a standstill and parking limited) from downtown Cape Town.

Finally, if you want to take home a musical reminder of South Africa, check out some of Freshly Ground’s CDs. Their music has an African pop flavor that is different than much of the music you might associate with South Africa.

Accomplishing most of these activities will give you a taste of Cape Town and its surrounding neighborhoods. But you also must incorporate day excursions from the Mother City into your itinerary.

Next entry...South Africa’s wine country.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 3

What continues to strike me about Cape Town – even after 14 visits – is the stunning natural beauty. There is the Atlantic Ocean with its working harbor and the mountains – Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, and the 12 Disciples. Even if the weather cooperates and you make it up Table Mountain, a drive to Signal Hill offers spectacular views of the sea, city, and mountains. If you plan it right and bring your beverage of choice, you can enjoy a sundowner while watching the sun set into the sea from Signal Hill.

My favorite destination for an afternoon drink in anticipation of sunset is on the veranda at Harvey’s located in the Winchester Mansions, a lovely hotel on Beach Road in Sea Point. You can enjoy a glass of South African wine, a Castle beer, or my top choice for a sundowner, a gin and tonic, while patiently waiting for the sun to disappear beyond the horizon. The Sea Point Promenade that separates Beach Road from the ocean is ideal for long walks or jogging. A plus to staying in Green Point or Sea Point during your Cape Town holiday is the easy access to the promenade.

You can follow the promenade nearly all the way to the V&A Waterfront. (That’s the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, not Victoria and Albert as you might assume.) You have to go to the Waterfront to take the ferry from the Mandela Gateway to Robben Island. If you don’t like large retail developments, you might be tempted to skip the V&A, but resist the temptation and spend at least a few hours at the Waterfront. Even if shopping isn’t your thing, there is always entertainment happening somewhere at the V&A – singers, dancers, fire-eaters – you name it. Most days you can see seals in the harbor. The statues of South Africa four Nobel Peace Prize winners (Albert Lutuli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. De Klerk, and Nelson Mandela) remind you, even in a shopping center, of South Africa’s history.

The Waterfront is home to numerous restaurants, but the best one is also the one that you might be the least likely to try. Willoughby’s is well known for their fish and is a frequent haunt of locals. Being situated in the middle of the mall with shoppers walking past on all sides can be off-putting to some, but the food will win you over. The calamari is excellent and the picked fish superb. Willoughby’s also tops the list for best sushi in Cape Town.

Although the V&A is well worth a few hours of your time, it is not the place to buy African souvenirs. Instead, go to the Pan African Market on Long Street in City Bowl. The Pan African Market is home to dozens of merchants selling their African wares in stalls on several floors of this old Victorian building. Although most of the products are not made in South Africa, this is the location for masks, clothing, artwork, trinkets, music, ostrich eggs, and much more. Just down the street from Pan African is the open-aired Greenmarket Square where similar curios are available. Whether you are shopping indoors at the Pan African or outdoors at Greenmarket, you should negotiate the price of your purchases. If you aren’t a shopper, but find yourself in Long Street with people who are enthusiastic shoppers, perhaps you would enjoy a cup of coffee at Tribe or tapas and a drink at Fork. Both cafes are located near the Pan African Market on Long Street.

If craft markets aren’t your thing but you still want to shop for some genuinely African products, here are some suggestions for a higher end shopping experience.

The Carrol Boyes store, located in the Waterfront, offers functional metalwork art for the home and office. Boyes’ signature pieces are her cutlery and dining accessories, but she offers an extensive line of other products as well, including clocks, vases, and smaller home furnishings. Carrol Boyes also has shops in New York City and Paris.

Africa Nova in De Waterkant Village features a higher-end product line with many original items, from paintings to beaded animals to ceramics, all made by local artists. Tribal Trends on Long Street has a greater line of products on its two floors, including larger, more dramatic pieces of African arts and crafts. Two blocks away, on Burg Street, is African Image. African Image carries less expensive, though just as interesting products, as these other shops.

For a truly unique retail adventure in Cape Town, head to the Monkeybiz store on Rose Street in Bo-Kaap. Even in a neighborhood of brightly painted homes, the yellow Monkeybiz building with red monkey faces stenciled on the exterior will stand out.

Monkeybiz is a non-profit organization that is reviving the art of beading in South Africa. Township women and men are given beads and asked to produce works of art. The result is whimsical animals and stunning dolls, all made with colorful glass beads. The products themselves are spectacular, but you get so much more than just a work of art when you buy Monkeybiz products. Each purchase helps to create jobs in the townships – jobs that allow people to provide food for their families, pay school fees for their children, and contribute to burial savings plans to ensure that families aren’t bankrupted, primarily from deaths due to HIV/AIDS.

Purchasing beaded art at Monkeybiz creates jobs in Cape Town. So does patronizing some of the Mother City’s truly fine restaurants. Next up in Cape Town Travelogue: Part 4…favorite restaurants.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 2

Remember, you are at the Cape of Storms. Being in Cape Town when a south-easter blows in can result in much more than your hair being mussed. It can impact your itinerary while in Cape Town.

At the top of any list of tourist activities in Cape Town – including mine – would be a trip up Table Mountain via the aerial cableway, and a visit to Robben Island, a 30-minute ferry ride from the Waterfront. And, here is what many travel guides don’t tell you: bad weather could prevent you from seeing two of Cape Town’s most popular destinations.

When the winds are strong and the waves high, boat traffic to Robben Island is suspended. It could be stopped for an hour or it could be halted for days. When the weather calms and the ferries resume, there is a backload of ticket holders eager to make the pilgrimage. Similarly, when the winds are bad on Table Mountain, or the clouds come in (known locally as the table cloth being on the Mountain) the cableway will be closed. Don’t assume that the weather necessarily affects both attractions at the same time. Table Mountain may be open and Robben Island closed or vice versa.

I always encourage visitors to do Table Mountain on their very fist day in the Mother City. If the weather cooperates and the mountain is open, it is a relaxing outdoor activity that doesn’t tax the brain, but rather provides fresh air and exercise after some very long flights.

A tour of Robben Island, home to the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, is critical to forming the most basic understanding of apartheid and recent South African history. The 3-1/2 hour trip allows for one hour of travel to and from the island, and a 2-1/2 hour tour of the island itself and the prison where Mandela was incarcerated. It’s likely that your guide may have been a political prisoner on Robben Island. If so, you will have especially poignant insights into the prison. If you suffer from jetlag, I would not recommend that you do Robben Island on your first day in Cape Town. There is a tremendous amount of information you will want to retain so you don’t want to be nodding off on the bus tour of the island. Plan this trip for day two or three on your itinerary. That way, should inclimate weather prevent you from getting there on your first try, you will still have other opportunities during your stay.

On a par with Robben Island, in terms of understanding apartheid and putting South Africa’s politics into some kind of broader context, is a visit to the District Six Museum. District Six was a diverse neighborhood where blacks, coloureds, whites, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived in harmony with one another. The passage of legislation, like the Group Areas Act in the 1950s, allowed the white minority government to claim the property in District Six and forcibly remove residents to townships segregated by skin colors. Approximately 60,000 people were relocated and their houses and businesses razed. More than four decades later, the land has not been redeveloped.

Today, the District Six Museum is housed in a former church in the neighborhood. Much like Robben Island where a former prisoner serves as your guide, a former resident of District Six will greet you at the museum and will talk about their life in the community before they were removed. All the guides have compelling stories. Noor Ebrahim is the guide I have had on most visits to the museum. He is always willing to sign a copy of his book, Noor’s Story: My Life in District Six, which is available at the museum gift shop. The District Six Museum is small so even if you have only one hour, don’t miss this.

One final note on museums: most visitors to Cape Town don’t take time to see the Cape Town Holocaust Centre – the only center of its kind on the African continent. Ninety minutes will give you time to walk through the exhibit. You will leave, not only with a greater understanding of the Holocaust, but with additional insights into racism and anti-Semitism in South Africa.

For shopping tips...check out Part 3 of Cape Town Travelogue.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cape Town Travelogue: Part 1

            Tell a person from East Africa or West Africa, or even other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, that you are going to South Africa and they will inform you, usually in short order, that South Africa is not like the rest of Africa. Having traveled to a few other countries on the African continent I find myself saying the same thing to first time visitors to South Africa. And, within the country affectionately referred to as the “Rainbow Nation” itself, Cape Town is like no other city in South Africa. Actually, Cape Town is like no other city in the world.

            Minnesotans visiting South Africa are best served by flying from Minneapolis to Amsterdam (eight hours) and then from Amsterdam to Cape Town (12 hours). Yes, it’s a long flight, but with personal entertainment systems featuring films, games, television programs, and music at each seat, and a can’t-put-down book tucked into your carry-on bag, you will be surprised how smoothly you can journey halfway around the world.

            Most tourists quickly walk through customs and baggage claim at the Cape Town International Airport. It takes a bit longer these days to maneuver to ground transport or the rental car agencies. The airport, like much of Cape Town, is preparing for the World Cup in 2010. Construction cranes in the city are as common as the street peddlers hawking newspapers and magazines at traffic signals.

            Cape Town is a hot international destination and, given its relatively stable government and economy (at least by African standards), should remain so for the foreseeable future. Barring a major catastrophe, the World Cup could firmly establish Cape Town as one of the destinations for travelers seeking natural beauty, magnificent food and wine, a diverse nightlife, and a complex, yet fascinating, post-apartheid history – the final chapters of which are still to be written.

            Seasons in South Africa are the opposite of seasons in the U.S. Minnesotans are guaranteed a respite from winter if you travel to Cape Town between November and April, with January and February generally being the hottest months. In mid-summer, it’s not unusual for temperatures to climb above 90 degrees in Cape Town and even higher in wine country. On those days, even locals will complain by saying, “It’s Africa hot.”

Don’t think that just because we are hearty Minnesotans that winter in Cape Town (July and August) will feel balmy to us. It can be cold. I mean sweater, coats, caps, and gloves cold. The cold is exacerbated by the fact that since the winter is so short, most homes have no central heating. I happened to live in Cape Town one winter. During the day I would work at an unheated community center in the townships. At night, I would hurry back to Cape Town where I would take a hot shower, put on warm clothes, and huddle next to a space heater for the remainder of the evening. I warned my partner, who was visiting me that winter, about the cold. Being a true northerner, however, he assumed that Cape Town could never be bone-chillingly cold, and he arrived with shorts and t-shirts packed in his luggage. When he awoke on his first morning in Cape Town to snow on Table Mountain (a once in a decade occurrence) we made a beeline to the V&A Waterfront for him to buy warm clothes.

South African travel books tend to get the checklist of “must see” and “must do” sites and activities correct. There are a few insights into the Mother City (the title bestowed on Cape Town as the first colonialized city in the country), however, that publications like the Lonely Planet and Frommer’s sometimes miss.

            For those insights...check out the next installment of Cape Town Travelogue.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Rolling Black-Outs

            Before traveling to South Africa on this most recent trip I had read about the electricity shortage that is affecting the country. To compensate for the shortage, the government has implemented a plan for rolling black-outs when entire areas will be without power for a few hours at a time. The other day, Sea Point, the neighborhood in Cape Town where I stay, was without electricity. The power cut didn’t interfere with my activities that day as I was in the townships.

            Really, the only inconvenience I have experienced during these black-outs is when the traffic signals (or robots as they are called in South Africa) have been out. In some ways, drivers are more cautious and courteous when the signals aren’t working then when they are operational. For the most part, everyone takes their turn stopping and going rather than speeding through yellow or red signals.

            When Sea Point was in a rolling black out, I was in the township of Khayelitsha meeting with Eunice Mlotywa. Eunice is one of the ambassadors for Monkeybiz, the non-profit organization that uses beads to create beautiful works of art for its customers and jobs for people in the townships. Eunice is an accomplished beader who oversees other beaders in Khayelitsha. She also represents Monkeybiz around the world, and Open Arms brought Eunice to the Twin Cities to be with us for our World AIDS Day beaded art sale last December. Having never visited Eunice in her home before, I promised to do so on this trip.

            In addition to the beading that Eunice and the others do for Monkeybiz, Eunice started a woman’s empowerment project called Iliwa Laphakade (Xhosa for “eternal pillar). Iliwa Laphakade is a sewing project that employs township women who mostly make track suits and uniforms for school children. A number of women were busy at their sewing machines when we arrived at Eunice’s home. Eunice was showing us the projects that were being worked on when suddenly every sewing machine in the room went silent. Eunice smiled and threw her hands up in the air. The rolling black-out had hit Khayelitsha. Which meant that work for these women had ended for the day and, of course, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

            When I read about the electricity shortage in South Africa, I wondered about the competency of the government that had allowed this situation to develop. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur in this country if the U.S. experienced intentional, massive electrical shortages on a consistent basis?

            I also thought about the macro economic ramifications that the shortages are creating in South Africa. Certainly, this is bad for business in general and very bad for tourism which is a major economic driver in cities like Cape Town. I mean, how long will tourists put up with no air conditioning, television, or dining out? I didn’t think, however, about the micro economic implications that something like rolling black-outs cause for people like Eunice’s sewers until I experienced a black-out in Khayelitsha, and I saw the women get up from their sewing machines and leave their work.

            Back in my hotel that night, with electricity restored, I watched BBC News in my air conditioned room. Just like Sea Point, electricity was back in Khayelitsha, but the women who sew at Iliwa Laphakade will never recoup the money they failed to earn that day. And, the rolling black-outs will continue into the future causing frustration at robots, discomfort for tourists, and lost wages for poor people.