9 Road Lessons: the Final Report

L1200441On the Serengeti, we saw a guide wearing a T-shirt that said, “Travel without knowledge is like a bird without wings.” Our twist on that truism is that travel without learning is like a race without a finish line.

After leaving home in October, Partout took 15 international flights, 16 intercity rail trips, and countless Metro, bus, tram, taxi, Uber, boat and other rides. Doris’s battered but trusty Fitbit reports we also walked 1,657,675 steps and climbed 2,736 flights of stairs.

Now that we are home again, at last, we have talked a lot about what we learned that will inform and improve our travel in the future. For whatever they are worth and in no particular order, here are our top nine road lessons.


LESSON #1: Travel is easier and more comfortable than ever
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. Airport departures have become shoeless torture, and airplanes have become buses with wings. But on a long trip like this one, flights consumed only a fraction of our time. In so many other ways, travel is easier and more comfortable than it has ever been.

Vetting and booking everything from hotel rooms to tour guides is simpler because of the internet. Public bathrooms, once rare abroad and sometimes icky, are common, clean and free of charge in every country we visited except the Netherlands (where the Dutch tend to charge admission). AirBnB and VRBO apartments expand lodging options. Traveler’s checks have gone the way of the dodo bird, thank heavens, and credit cards are universally accepted for just about everything, everywhere, except in the Netherlands (which is essentially a cash economy for outsiders).

Takeaway: Travel more!  

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Public bathroom in South Africa


LESSON #2: Travel slows down time
Research indicates novelty makes time seem to pass more slowly. In this school of thought, childhood days are very long because everything children do is new and engages their brains while adult days fly because routine and familiarity leave the brain on autopilot.

We think they are onto something. On the road, no two days were identical and most were not even remotely similar. All that exploration and discovery had the odd effect of making each day — sometimes even each hour — seem to unfold in slow motion. At a stage in life when anything that slows down the clock feels like a gift, this was delicious.

Takeaway: See Lesson #1

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He needs to travel more


LESSON #3: English has become the lingua franca, at least in cities
One of the biggest shocks of the trip to us veterans of the language dictionary days was how widely English is spoken and written.

In Lisbon, the Portuguese were essentially bilingual. In Africa, we never encountered anyone who could not speak some English, and most people at all stations of life spoke a lot of it. In the Arab countries, signs were all in English in addition to Arabic, including transport and museum signs. Even in English-averse Paris, locals came up to us on the streets to practice their English. We actually found ourselves longing a little for the good old befuddled days of language charades. Travel outside major cities and in many countries we didn’t visit probably still requires pantomime and pictures, but it was lingua angla everywhere we went.

The one exception to this generality was Spain, where the population remains stubbornly monolingual (much to the disdain of their Portuguese neighbors, btw).

Takeaway: Language is not the barrier (or the excuse for not traveling) it used to be 

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English signs for sale in a Nairobi sign store

 


LESSON #4: Essentials are in the eyes of the beholder
We were able to travel so long and far because of five lovely home exchanges that provided us with comfy home lodging at no cost. When we were not exchanging, we almost always stayed in AirBnB and VRBO apartments, which are roomier and more economical than hotels and allow us to prepare some of our own meals. The down side of long-stay lodgings is that they are not as predictable as either homes or hotels, which resulted in some startling discoveries about what different people view as essential.

Toilet paper, for example. Essential or discretionary? One AirBnB in Spain and another in Cape Town had only a few squares on one roll when we arrived and no backup. Hand and bath soap? Not to be taken for granted. Something to wash dishes with? We began packing our own (right next to soap) because so many places were without them.

On the other hand, we never encountered a single kitchen or hotel room that did not come without tea bags and an electric tea kettle capable of instantly heating water. Maybe no coffee but tea for sure.

Takeaway: Dishwashing aids. Don’t leave home without themL1220256


LESSON #5: Ground transportation can be a budget buster
By the end of the trip, we had spent more money on trains and other ground transportation — Metros, trams, trains, buses, boats, taxis, Ubers, rental cars — than on flying. At some level, that makes sense: We spent more time on the ground than flying. But we are used to thinking of flights as our biggest trip cost.

On a short trip, they surely still are. On a long trip like ours, though, all those ground costs add up in a big but not necessarily predictable way. Muscat, Oman, turned out to be a big city with scant public transit and expensive taxis but great roads and cheap gas; we would have been better off renting a car at the airport and driving ourselves around. Cape Town has cheap and ample public transit/Uber to popular destinations but expensive rental cars and gas; we would have been better off without the car except for a few days to leave town.

Takeaway: Budget more or prepare better for getting around on the ground

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At least we have outgrown using ground transportation for lodging


LESSON #6: The doctor is in and pretty easy/inexpensive to see
Doris saw doctors for three minor issues on the road: a dermatologist in Seville, a travel doctor in Amsterdam and a GP in Cape Town. She also scheduled an appointment with an MD in Nairobi that she had to cancel. In every case, she could get a non-urgent appointment within 48 hours and sometimes the same day she called, all at a fraction of US costs.

What’s more, the physician she saw were more engaged. In Spain, the dermatologist used state-of-the-art digital cancer screening device Doris had never seen in DC to assess a weird spot on her leg. Not liking what he saw, the doc then personally scraped cells from the lesion and examined them under a microscope in his consulting room. (Has anyone ever seen a microscope in their doctor’s office in the States?) Then he prescribed a cream based on what he saw. Altogether, the visit lasted nearly an hour and cost 100€ (about $118 at the exchange rate then), plus 5€ for the over-the-counter med (which worked). In Cape Town, the MD also spent nearly an hour on a routine prescription renewal appointment — and then took Doris’s vitals and did the necessary blood draw himself. Cost? $78, including the lab work (with results back the next day).

A Dutch travel doctor was in the mix because the travel clinic where Doris went for her yellow fever shot back in Virginia said the same shot would cost less than half at the airport in Amsterdam. This proved to be correct, and the airport clinic was a breeze. Doris also ended up replacing lost prescription sunglasses in the Netherlands. She bought an extra pair while she was at it because two sets cost less than one in the States (and were vastly more fashionable). Hmmm….

Takeaway: Give medical tourism a try?

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This is the whiz-bang technology Doris’s Spanish dermatologist used


LESSON #7: Loss and damage are inevitable 
Despite our most diligent efforts to hang onto and take care of our things on the road, and even though every airline delivered our bags unscathed and on the same flights we flew, we lost things.

  • Prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Doris, before our first landing)
  • Non-prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Louis, Dubai)
  • Umbrellas (1 apiece, three guesses in which country)
  • Electrical adapter (1, Doris, left behind in an airport hotel)
  • Dollars (several thousand, both, see Lesson #8)

Things also broke or just plain wore out along the way. Doris’s iPad keyboard gave up the ghost. Louis’s Leica and Doris’s Fitbit both returned home patched up with adhesive tape because of parts that started falling off from constant use. Louis also essentially wore out his passport by adding so many stamps and visas that he ran out of pages and required an emergency replacement mid-trip. As the sign on a dog beach in Cape Town said, poop happens.

Takeaway: Never travel with anything we really care about except each other

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We weren’t the only things that got tired


LESSON #8: “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into”
We were birds with wings but we were foolish birds nonetheless.

It turns out the tourist visa Americans typically rely on to visit the 26 EU countries in the Schengen zone is good for 90 days in a 180-day period. In other words, without a long-stay visa, the window into Europe has its limits.

Based on our erroneous assumption that all we needed to do was step out and back into the EU to reopen the window (an error we learned through freak luck), we were holding tickets and reservations in the Schengen zone for 117 of our 150 days abroad — 27 days too many to be legal. We could have gotten long-stay visas from the Netherlands because of our family ties through Greg, but the Dutch would not consider our application until after we had been out of the Schengen zone for 90 days and were back home.

This was the only real hiccup in our whole adventure, but it was a humdigger and led to the most stressful and expensive lesson of all.

Takeaway: Do thine visa homework

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The red stamp of our fate


LESSON #9: America casts a very, very long (and darkening?) shadow
We are used to sightings of the golden arches on every street corner and American pop music on every public playlist overseas. What was new on this trip were random people coming up to us to ask, “What’s happening to America?” And then finding out they were more than curious, they were really asking, “What’s going to happen to us?”

Citizens of other countries have always followed developments in the United States much more closely than we follow developments in theirs, but we found them following with worried eyes we have not seen before. All those clichés about America being a model of democracy and a mostly trustworthy world policeman turn out to be grounded in the idea that America really is the land of the enviably free and home of the relatively good.

On this trip, people from school children to grandfolk asked us questions like, “Is Donald Trump really crazy, or does he just act that way?” “Will he start a nuclear war?” “Will your Congress stop him?” “Can anyone stop him?”

The personal sense of insecurity and even peril we encountered is perhaps best summed up in the pensive question the physician Doris saw in Cape Town asked her. Part of the reason her appointment ran nearly an hour was that he spent close to 30 minutes grilling her about US political developments. Before finally turning to the prescription matter at hand, he sighed. “America has always been our beacon,” he said. “If that beacon goes out, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

Takeaway: People ask questions we cannot answer
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Also in the rear-view mirror
We added three new items to our packing lists this trip that we will pack forever after because they proved indispensable.

  • Portable chargers: We had to rely on our mobile phones to hold reservations and boarding passes because we didn’t have access to a printer on the road. This made keeping at least one portable phone alive at all times critical. We could not have done it without our portable chargers. They also assured we didn’t have to stop taking pictures halfway through a day of sightseeing because we had exhausted our phones or were ever without GPS.
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  • Portable coffee-maker: Some countries serve nothing but instant coffee, even in luxury hotels. Ugh. We also encountered a couple AirBnB hosts who did not consider coffee essential and provided no means of making it. Hmph. This nifty device, introduced to us by one of our home exchange partners, and a small cache of ground coffee kept us in bold fresh java all the trip long. (It sits on the rim of the cup. Since everyone seems to think tea is essential, there are always cups.)
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  • Grippy socks: Most of the world lives on tile or wood floors, not on wall-to-wall carpeting. Doris’s grippy socks (Abby’s term for socks with sticky pads on the bottom) made sure her famous feet were happy feet — toasty, clean and not flying out from under her regardless of what was under them.
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Coming Next Season: Westward, Ho

If you have a question you wish we had answered, post it as a comment. If there are enough questions, we will post a PS. Otherwise, safe and happy travels of your own till we meet again.

Cape point

 

 

 

 

 

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When in Cape Town

Wine farmsWhen Sicily got scratched from the itinerary because of the great visa snafu, we were already in Africa. Advocates for replacing Italy with Cape Town raved, “Cape Town is the Paris of Africa! It will feel just like Europe!”

After three weeks on the Cape, we can say without reservation: Cape Town does not remotely feel like Paris. Or Europe. It feels exactly like . . .

San Diego.

Seriously. From the minute we stepped off the plane, we were boggled by how familiar nearly every scene and setting were: Sea Point? Pacific Beach. Camp’s Bay or Llandudno? La Jolla. The wine country? Temecula. The Republic of Hout Bay? Cardiff by the Sea or Solana Beach before they went mainstream, with whiffs of equine Rancho Santa Fe.

The resemblance — terrain, foliage, architecture, colors, clothing, surfer culture, seals at the beach — is so uncanny, there were moments when we could identify a twin street in San Diego (where Doris lived and regularly drags Louis). This made for a lot of fun matching games.

For all its familiarity, Cape Town managed to stand on its head Doris’s long-standing aversion to visiting Anglophone destinations colonized by Brits because “Why leave home to go somewhere like home?” The city nestles in the shadow of one of earth’s oldest (and arguably most spectacular urban) mountains and grew up as a “refreshment station” on a sea route that changed the world forever. With all that, plus momentous current events, same old-same old, Cape Town is not.

So, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought, political upheaval and California dreamin’. And, just to prove it here, in living Louis color, are a few of our favorite of the “mother city’s” scenes and sights.


Coastlines

Hwy 101 on steroidsCoastlines like the one above exist all over the world but, in Cape Town, they line up one after another, like endless sets of magnificent earthen waves. Above is a distant glimpse of Hout Bay from the drive to Chapman Peak.


Peaks and Ranges

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If the coastlines don’t take your breath away, the Cape Fold mountains do. Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, the Twelve Apostles, Devil’s Peak, Chapman Peak. From dawn until nightfall, they are craggy shapeshifters, constantly changing color, wrapping themselves in clouds, orienting sailors and landlubbers, anchoring towns and seashores.


Robben Island

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By the time the South African government started using it as a maximum-security prison to incarcerate political prisoners, Robben Island, had been a penal colony for more than 400 years. Now the island is a World Heritage site. This is the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, a Spartan reminder that freedom does not necessarily come free.


District Six Museum

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The District Six Museum is a memorial to a neighborhood that was bulldozed to make sure none of the 60,000 black and colored residents who were forcibly removed to enforce apartheid could ever return. A parting resident saved the street signs; the “memory cloth” shares embroidered memories of the people who once lived there.


Bo-Kapp

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Formerly called the Malay Quarter for the slaves housed in it, Bo-Kapp’s colored residents celebrated the end of apartheid by painting their houses in the style of their homelands. Now the rainbow neighborhood is gentrifying, and houses like the ones in the photo sell for over half a million U.S. dollars.


Wines and Wine Farms

Wine Barrels

Vineyards (called “wine farms”) do not get more spectacular than those in and around Cape Town, and Partout has visited more than its fair share. That is Beau Constantia at the top of the blog. Throw in $3-$5 flights of wine from bottles retailing for as much as $50/bottle, and tastings don’t get a lot better either.


Gardens

Image-1-2The Cape Floral Region in South Africa is the smallest of the earth’s six distinct vegetation zones and the only one contained in a single country. The zone contains only 0.5% of Africa’s land but 20% of the continent’s flora. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town is the jewel of the nation’s floral crown.


Long Street

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Reminiscent of San Diego’s Gaslamp District, downtown’s Long Street is where Victorian architecture goes funky and fanciful.


Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCCA)

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Touted as “Africa’s Tate Modern,” Cape Town’s months-old museum of contemporary African art was built into a historic grain silo on the waterfront that, for half a century after its construction in the early 1900s, was the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa.


V&A (Victoria and Alfred, of course) on the Waterfront

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Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is to Cape Town what Seaport Village is to San Diego, just a whole lot bigger.


Harbour Market at Hout Bay

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We aren’t positive, but we think Hout Bay (officially, the Republic of Hout Bay) may be ground zero for Cape Town’s boho counter-culture. Whatever, the music, food and wonderful local goods at its permanent covered market every Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday attract locals and visitors alike. They even mesmerized anti-market Louis. Bonus: it was within walking distance of our AirBnB.


The End of a Continent

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San Diego has Point Loma; Cape Town has the Cape of Good Hope. Contrary to popular belief, the Atlantic does not meet the Indian Ocean here, but the end of the continent takes your breath away all the same.


False Bay Beaches

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Once decking the Victorian-era playground of the white, rich and powerful, the Meizenberg and St. James beach huts of all hues on False Bay are now are used by families of all hues and visited by tourists like this one.


Also in the rear-view mirror:

  • Horses: nickering outside the back door of one guest cottage where we stayed
    Waking up with horses
  • Whales!? As if the trip to Robben Island was not memorable enough, the hour-long ferry ride each way filled with whale (or whale tale) sightings
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  • Sharks: Shark Spotters work to keep surfers and swimmers from becoming shark snacks where the great whites swim
    Shark spotters
  • Penguins: We know, we know! Enough with the flightless tuxedo birds! But they are sooo photogenic….
    Penguins

Coming soon: Road Lessons – the Final Episode

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‘We Have H*O*P*E’

White only
Rain will eventually come to Cape Town. The water crisis will end, bringing with it lasting infrastructure and policy changes, or not, as the winds of politics and economics blow.

The story that is much older in South Africa and will not blow away any time soon is race and regime.

Statistically, South Africa is considered one of the most economically unequal nations on earth: 10% of the people (nearly all whites, who make up about 10% of the population overall) own 90% of the wealth; 90% of the people (virtually all black or otherwise non-white) own the remaining 10%. Other measures of wealth are similarly skewed.

To us, viewing through the inherent myopia of tourism, inequality along racial lines is, well, pretty black and white. In the upscale restaurants where we eat and the wineries we visit, virtually every customer is white and every server is non-white. Same in museums and most stores and anywhere else that requires discretionary income to enjoy. White patrons, black and other non-white staff; white shift bosses, black workers.
l1210828.jpgAnd then there are the townships, the shack-filled slums that sprawl for miles like the one depicted in the piece of local art above. In much the same spirit that America’s all-white leaders established Indian reservations in the 19th century, South Africa’s all-white leaders in the early 20th century passed laws banning non-whites from living anywhere near them and created “locations” where blacks and coloreds were forcibly moved.

Today, nearly 4 of every 5 South Africans still live in a township. Apartheid (which essentially formalized racial segregation that started much earlier) has ended. Separation and inequality live on.

In the face of this disparity and all the social, public and other ills it brings, Jacob Zuma, the nation’s immediate past president, spent eight years enriching himself and his friends and impoverishing the nation. The direct cost of his years in power is estimated at $83 billion (including a soaring national debt). The moral price of an accused rapist as president, incalculable.

By the time we arrived in Cape Town, South Africa had had enough. Two days after we landed, Zuma resigned under pressure from his own party and in the face of what struck us as universal loathing. Amid a public sigh of relief that was almost audible even to our visiting ears, he was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa, his former deputy (vice) president.

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Does the prominent unicorn in the picture imply that reform under Ramaphosa will prove magical? Or imaginary?

Like Nelson Mandela and every South African president since the collapse of apartheid and first democratic elections in 1994, Ramaphosa is a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. He was Nelson’s choice to succeed him but was defeated in his one run for the office, in 1997.

As welcome as he seems, both Ramaphosa and the ANC appear weakened by the eight years of Zuma’s leadership. After all, if the party or the previous vice president really cared about honesty, decency, and the welfare of the nation, a lot of people seem to be asking, wouldn’t they have done something anything about Zuma before now? (Imagine the attitude toward Mike Pence and the GOP after seven more years of closing ranks around Donald Trump whatever investigation, revelation or smarm comes, and you get a sense of the public mood.)

Arriving at such a moment as unreformed newsies, we have been questioning everyone we meet – white and non-white; South African and immigrant; wait staff, museum docents, parking guards, taxi drivers and retail clerks; young and old – how they feel about the change.

Would they describe themselves as “hopeful,” we ask? Or “optimistic”?


Confession: As a teenager when it became South Africa’s official racial policy, Doris struggled to understand apartheid. In east Texas, where her family made regular visits to her father’s hometown, blacks (called “colored” then) were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, water fountains, fast-food order windows or other facilities as whites. Everywhere, Doris saw signs essentially identical to the one at the top of the blog — a relic of apartheid South Africa — minus the Africaaner.

In those days, American blacks rode in the last cars of American trains, sat at the backs of American buses and were widely banned from the schools, hotels, restaurants and other public places whites used. Apartheid seemed to Doris’s teenaged, Beatles-addled brain to be simply the extreme of the racial segregation America itself practiced. Doris eventually sorted the distinctions out, and Brown vs Board of Education Topeka and the Civil Rights Act eventually voided the official bans (like South Africa abolished apartheid). But the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court opened 2018 with three cases on its docket around states redrawing their voter district lines to disenfranchise black voters is just one indication racial equality remains unrealized in America, too. (On the pop culture front, there was the best-picture-nominated horror film Get Out.)

The persistence of issues like these often leaves Doris feeling somewhere between cynical and hopeless about race in America. (Having grown up a Catholic Francophone in a predominantly Protestant Anglophone country where discrimination was rooted more in culture than in race, Quebecois Louis is less discouraged.) If our dozens of conversations in Cape Town are any indication (and we realize they may not be), South Africans are far less jaded.

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Words from a letter written home in the 1980s by a political prisoner at Robben Island


We asked our guide around Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned along with Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists. And Ruth, a septugenarian grandmother whose family was forcibly removed and scattered along with 60,000 neighbors from Cape Town’s District Six. She now tells its stories to District Six Museum tourists.
SuitcaseWe asked Zimbabwian Uber drivers, Xhosan waiters, Africaaners whose people have been here for centuries and Brits whose families have been here nearly as long or for a handful of years. We grilled Alex, the young South African tour guide who led us through Bo-Kapp, the former slave quarter now a trendy hotbed of gentrification, and quizzed Faaera, the grandmother of seven who cooked us a Cape Malaysian meal in her home there.

After a while, we must have looked like human antennae because we could walk into an establishment and literally have someone on the staff start telling us their story and views before we even asked them.

Privately, we wondered what has kept the country from imploding or exploding from impatience and sheer desperation before now. We saw protestors like the ones in the photo below on the streets downtown. There were deadly riots in one township while we were here. A demonstration was announced for Sunday at the harbor immediately below our AirBnB cottage in Hout Bay. When we went for a walk there anyway, a concerned local actually stopped her car, backed up 50 feet to where she had passed us and urged us to leave the area for the day for our own safety. (We kept walking, and the demo turned out to be small and peaceful.)
L1210842If we are reading the local news accurately, the drumbeat for radical measures is, in fact, growing. “The time for reconciliation is over,” the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary socialist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party exhorted South Africa’s Parliament last week. “Now is the time for justice.” Less than four years old, the EFF already holds 6% of the seats in Parliament.

Yet, what we heard on the streets was …

  • Yes, we still have a long way to go,
  • No, racial inequality did not end with apartheid,
  • Yes, it could take generations to get there,
  • No, we are not optimistic, but …

“We have H*O*P*E” in the words of a guard at the Bo-Kapp Museum, spelling it out. “No matter what, we have democracy. Democracy gives us hope for optimism.”

Nelson Mandela famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Whatever inequality remains, apartheid died and democracy was born. This experience of the improbable possible seems to continue breeding hope in South Africans.

We hope with them, for their sake and for ours, too.

Robben guide

The same spirit that makes a former political prison an enduring symbol of freedom and dignity seems to find hope despite inequality

 


In the rear-view mirror:
Alarm and warnings around Cape Town’s water shortage continue to mount in the absence of rain. Just a few since our blog on the crisis:
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  • AirBnB sent an email “to help our community to act responsibly during this drought.” It instructs guests to “follow the direction of local officials” (in bold face) and “make every effort to use water sparingly.”
  • The Washington Post reported on how the Cape Town water shortage is highlighting inequality between the rich and the poor: Divided by Drought.
  • Brookings Institute reported that drought conditions like Cape Town is facing are coming to be seen as the “new normal”: “Day Zero on the Back of Draught in South Africa: Lessons for the Future.”

COMING SOON: When in Cape Town (or, yes, Virginia, there is more to Cape Town than drought and politics)

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Little is black and white except photography. These images hang in Cape Town’s dazzling new Zeitz MOCCA Museum.

 

 

 

 

Cape Town: Where Water Is Gold

IMG_4857We’ve been hearing that “water is the new oil” for at least a decade, but the people of Cape Town, South Africa — where we are wrapping up our five months partout — are living the reality, and we are living it with them.

Primarily as a result of a three-year drought, this city of nearly 4 million is in danger of running out of water. “Day Zero” is what they call the date when the taps will be turned off to all but hospitals, schools and a few other vital users, and residents will start getting their water one bucketful at a time from 200 distribution points around the city.

When we decided to make Cape Town our EU visa reprieve, Day Zero was set for April. Because of effective water conservation by residents, water diversion by inland farmers and (some say) immediate intervention by the nation’s new president, the suspension of piped water currently is projected for July.

In the meantime, residents are under orders to use no more than 13.2 gallons per person per day (about six toilet flushes or less) or face fines. It is unclear to us how people monitor their usage or how the limit is enforced.
50-liters1.jpgOur first AirBnB host told us that, when the magnitude of the shortage became apparent, AirBnB operators proposed en masse to stop taking reservations. “No, no!” was the official response. “Let them come.” Whether this was for PR or economic reasons is also unclear, but come the visitors still do.

In Cape Town International Airport, drought and conservation messages are now just about the first messages passengers see after landing. Hand sanitizer dispensers have mostly replaced running water in the airport restrooms, as if to underscore the point.
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What does an epic water conservation campaign look like in a modern, international city?

  • Massive public relations everywhere – flyers, signs, billboards, digital message boards. Overhead, on sign posts, on the backs of bathroom doors. Some clever, some plain.
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  • Reduced water pressure everywhere
  • Universal on-off showering and a push to get people to give up showering at all one day a week
    No shower
  • No water at all or on-off spray from some public bathrooms
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  • Biodegradable paper products replacing dishes in restaurants
    Pizza resto
  • Buckets in every shower stall (including luxury hotels) to catch shower run-off and instructions on how to flush the toilet with what you catch
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  • Unflushed public toilets per instructions that cut across the grain of what we’ve always been taught
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  • Private water tanks parked where cars once stood so people can collect and store more grey water than a bucket will hold by doing things like draining used water from their washing machines
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  • Dead grass, empty fountains, closed swimming pools, unwashed cars
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  • Warnings that hotel bookings may be canceled without warning.
    Booking noticeAnd on and on. A $50 million pop-up desalinization plant is on its way from Dubai. Some beauty salons are beginning to require customers to bring their own water for shampoos. Necessity breeds an infinite number of inventions.


    Doris is a native Californian so this is not her first water crisis. As a beginning news reporter, the biggest story she reported was California’s water shortage of 1976-77.

    Covering the city of Fullerton in Orange County, she remembers writing stories about where residents could pick up free building bricks to reduce the water volume in their toilet tanks and extolling the merits of flow restrictors for kitchen water faucets. She distinctly remembers city leaders publicly urging, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

    Measures like these worked. Southern California cut its water use by 15% almost overnight. More significantly, water-use products and practices changed forever. By 1980, toilets that used the usual 5-8 gallons per flush were gone from the market, replaced by ever more-efficient “low-flow” models. Public water system price tiering making water more expensive the more you used became commonplace. Grey-water reclamation projects sprouted like weeds in public lawns, golf-courses and other thirsty patches of earth. Water conservation became at least a consideration.

    However, Cape Town illustrates that even systemic changes like these may not be enough for a growing world population with limited water supplies. Cape Town’s reservoirs were full just three years ago. Water consumption has remained flat despite population growth. Drought came, Day Zero now looms.

    Do Doris and Louis feel guilty for being among Cape Town’s water consumers, even temporarily? Louis says Doris always feels guilty about everything, but neither of us is losing sleep over this one. If we were not occupying the AirBnBs we do, someone else would be, and they might not be as water-conscious as we are.

    Far more critically, if visitors stay away from Cape Town, the possibility of Day Zero will be immediately outstripped by the certainty that tens of thousands of working poor in the Cape’s service industries will lose their jobs and be unable to support themselves and their families. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots would gape even wider.

    Given the impossible math of growing world populations, shrinking water supplies and a warming earth, this won’t be the last Day Zero on the calendar. The new water habits we are picking up in Cape Town may be the most lasting souvenirs of our visit. We can hope they help forestall a Day Zero wherever else we go.


In the rear-view mirror:

  • Vineyards (“wine farms” in these parts) with jaw-dropping backdrops
    Vineyards
  • Beach towns with jaw-dropping backdrops
    Backdrops
  • Tidal pools created by shags of ancient rock
    Tide pools
  • Penguins! Cute couples mated for life
    penguins.jpg

Coming Soon: Regime Change Tourism
Louis photo

 

Meanwhile, Back at the Visa Mess…

ZimbabweAt 9:45 am on Monday morning, February 12, we were supposed to be organizing ourselves for a red-eye flight from Nairobi to Sicily, visions of Mount Etna, pasta and big red wines dancing in our heads.

Instead, we were skidding to a stop on the tarmac at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, thanks to the one-sided visa policies of the European Union.

Yes, despite our friend Glen’s most earnest US Embassy-sourced entreaties to the Dutch in Nairobi, son Greg’s impassioned pleadings with immigration officials in the Netherlands and our own hail-Mary pleas in person to officials at the Italian embassy in Kenya, there was no way around the EU visa restrictions. We could spend a maximum of six days before April 15 in any of the 26 EU countries or risk deportation, even long-term restrictions on entering the EU. Six days instead of 33.

With these, we could not fly our tickets to Sicily. Or spend two more weeks with the kids in Groningen, as planned. Our options were to go back to DC via the Netherlands immediately or to knock around … somewhere outside the EU until we had only six days left before our scheduled departure home in mid-March.

Fly back to DC in February?!?

Hahaha. Make that one option: Knock around for 27 days outside the EU. And, yes, there are far worse fates. But where to knock?


Doris posted inquiries like this on the Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forums.
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We sent a half-dozen well-traveled friends urgent emails asking for suggestions and grilled all the guests at a wine tasting Glen conveniently (and deliciously) was hosting when when we walked into his house in Nairobi after our six-flight day from Tanzania. Everywhere we went – on the road, in restaurants, on flights – we debriefed travelers and ex-pats about the possibilities. Doris traded sleep for Googling itineraries, replacement flights, lodgings. Sri Lanka, India, Turkey, a return to the Emirates – no stone was left unturned in our search for knock-about destinations that met our standards for ease and conditions of travel and cost.

For a few ambitious, well-rested days, we had a plan that involved flying from Nairobi to Lalibela, Ethiopia, touring the astonishing stone churches there, taking in a few additional Ethiopian wonders and then flying to Luxor, Aswan and Cairo to introduce Doris to Egypt.

Then we remembered the reason we planned to end our great adventure in Sicily in the first place was that we figured we would be ready to coast after four months of travel. That we would be tired of dust and chaotic third-world airports. Heck, that we would be tired of all the packing and unpacking it takes to move around and see multiple countries. We had anticipated this correctly. We were feeling a bit like these trudging penguins on the Cape of Good Hope. Hoping for the best but kind of trudgy.
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So we opted for … Cape Town, South Africa. “The Cape.” The Europe of Africa (sometimes the Paris of Africa), as the Africa hands kept promising us. The cosmopolitan city huddled under an ancient monolith at the toe of a hemisphere. A region of interesting history, spectacular scenery and great wine. Sicily but with better weather and penguins.

Also, a city so direly short of water after a historic drought that residents are on water rationing. A place where an apocalyptic event called “Day Zero” has been scheduled when the water taps will be turned off altogether, and people will get water only by the allotted bucketful. A country in the midst of political crisis with the president being threatened with the equivalent of impeachment if he didn’t resign within two days after we arrived. He did, but political drama continues.

What could be more enticing?

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In Cape Town, Louis can swim these salt-water pools daily guilt- and cost-free. (Fresh-water pools are widely closed because of water restrictions.)

For a mere $250 (the least of our airline penalties for changing scheduled flights we could no longer take), we flew south instead of north, via Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, instead of Rome, Italy. We were, finally, resigned to our visa fate but also curious to see what our bonus destination would hold and (old newsies that we are) excited to be flying into the middle of not one but two front-page stories.
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In the rear-view mirror :

  • Feeding giraffes: No trip to Nairobi could be complete without a trip to the giraffe center (and the elephant orphanage and a few other beasty attractions).
    Giraffes
  • Living like an ambassador: The only home the US Embassy had in its pool for Glen when he was posted to Nairobi was once occupied by an ambassador. Being house guests has never been so luxurious. Thank you, Glen!
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  • Glimpsing colonial Africa: We spent our last afternoon in Kenya visiting the Kiambethu tea plantation, where a third-generation British tea grower greets guests in the home her grandfather built 100 years ago and talks (and serves) tea.
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  • “I had a farm in Africa”: The visit and tour of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s home in the area of Nairobi now simply called “Karen” was sublime for a traveler who started reading the great storyteller at least 30 years ago. Even the man keeping the woman company thought it was pretty cool.

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    The typewriter, classic memoir and home of Karen Blixen 

Coming Soon: Cape Town: The Future of Urban Water?

Cape Hope

Hope for rain is the most precious commodity in Cape Town today. Never before has “water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink” seemed so apt

 

Tanzania from the Air

Top of blogOur bush flights within Tanzania had their quirky aspects before our last day in the country. And then things got interesting.

Early on safari, we had learned the proud history of our bush airline and its “extensive fleet of nine airplanes” from the reverse side of their boarding passes. IMG_4818Less quaintly, our Air Excel e-tickets had come with a disclaimer that read “All times are estimates and depend on the final route on the actual day.”

We figured this was just the usual fine print but, no, the night before our scheduled 10 am departure, the amazing Laura from Amazing Tanzania urgently texted that our direct flight to Arusha had been moved up an hour to 9 am. She promised we would still arrive in plenty of time for our 12:45 flight to Nairobi, which seemed a little curious since we were leaving for it an hour earlier than previously scheduled, but we were too busy savoring our last evening to be curious.

On the dirt landing strip at Ndutu the next morning, there was a brief moment of passenger panic when there were not enough seats on our single-engine Cessna 208B for the eight of us waiting to leave, but that sorted itself out when six people inside the plane realized they had reached their final destination.

After they scrambled off, the rest of us climbed aboard, buckled in, and all that was left was for the pilot to finish loading the baggage, closing the doors and making all the other preparations a one-man crew has to make for take-off.

Joining us at last, he gave a warm “Karibu!” (“Welcome!”) and announced we would be flying to Kilomanjaro International Airport via Seronera, two airports whose Swahili names we didn’t catch and Arusha.

Right. Our scheduled non-stop to Arusha was now a five-stop flight – and that was all before our commercial flight to Nairobi. Yes, indeed: “All times are estimates and depend on the final route on the actual day.”

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It’s easy to see how passengers might not know where they are landing at this airport


But the hours that followed were magical, one of those random gifts the travel gods occasionally deal out to lucky travelers. From no higher than 10,000 feet and sometimes as low as 1,000, we reveled in a birds-eye view of the plains we had been driving for a week.

Ngorngoro had awed us by land. Now we soared over the rim as if in an IMAX movie.

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The scratch marks in the slope are the roads that had carried us to the crater floor

Colors and swirls in the crater’s salt lick that were indetectable from the ground revealed themselves.
Air - EDITED Salt lickWe understood better why the dirt road to Ndutu is so scenic: It hems the edge of the volcanic ruin like an unspooling golden thread.
Air - crater road.jpgLeaving the Serengeti behind, the transition from the wild to cultivation was clear-cut.
Air - farmland.jpgFinally, Arusha – a small town of 2 million residents – hove into view, ajumble with tin roofs and city streets while Mount Kilamanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, loomed in the background, wreathed in clouds like a victorious Greek athlete.
Air - EDITED Kili


Some of our flights were full as we hopscotched across the savanna, swapping experiences with other passengers. The family of four from Bozeman was in complete agreement that the Serengeti landscape felt just like the high plains of Montana. The CBS reporter and her Yelp lobbyist fiancé (who live near Fourth and Massachusetts in DC!) were great for 45 minutes of news talk. In the end, on our cross-town jump over Arusha, we had the entire airplane to ourselves but for the pilot.

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As close as we will ever get to owning our own wings

Climbing down the stairway to the tarmac at Kili airport for our return to jet propulsion en route to Nairobi, we felt like kids on Christmas morning.

One-hour hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti? $540 per person.

Five-stop flight to Arusha via four dirt landing strips? Priceless.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • Deep blue highways: Dusty, wet or hard-pack, the roads of the Serengeti are highways to Eden.
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  • The romance of mosquito nets : Honestly, what says “Africa” like sleeping within curtains like these?
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  • Massai: Except for matters that have been downright outlawed (female circumcision, hunting endangered game), the Massai largely maintain their traditional herding lifestyle.
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Coming Soon: Prepare to Land in Zimbabwe

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One last view of the Serengeti from the ground

 

 

 

 

Eden Revisited

Crater
Roaming the southern Serengeti for a week, groping for words to even faintly capture what we saw, your Partout duo kept defaulting to movies.

Jurassic Park (Louis), Land Before Time (Doris), that famous scene in Never Cry Wolf where Charles Martin Smith as the government researcher joins a stampede of caribou.

What left us all but speechless was both the landscape itself and the profusion and diversity of life on it. More than the magnificence of the alpha male lion, the immensity of the bull elephant or the elegance of the grazing giraffe, there was simply a dizzying abundance of life and close-ups of the circles of life we had not expected.

We saw johnnies of giraffes (always all females except for one lucky male).
Johnny giraffes Wildebeest on the move
Leaping wildeDazzles of zebra (who go wherever the wildebeest go for safety in numbers)
Zebra herdStampedes of eland
ElandSometimes, in a single scene, we watched hyena slink, jackals trot, Cape buffalo lumber, ostrich peck. We observed lionesses observe hyena in the distance (pondering whether to go rid themselves of predatory competition), while the hyenas scanned the plain for their next meal or menace.
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Hyenas at denMeanwhile, always, above the plain, vultures observed the dying and dead, waiting for their turn.
Vultures in tree


An estimated two million wildebeest occupy the southern end of the Serengeti plain during the migration of December to March to give birth, nurse their young and, perchance, to die. One million zebra and assorted hundreds of thousands of other grazing animals join them. Locals and guides refer to the mass of animals simply as “the migration.”

“Let’s drive into the migration this morning to see what we see,” our guide would say.

What we would see was animals as far as the eye could reach.

Herd 5
Ridge lines that looked from a distance like forests until they started undulating. Columns of trudging ungulates that stretched to the vanishing point. These were scenes from paradisal Eden or maybe from the American West before the white man.

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From the distance, these could have been bison on America’s high plains.

But this was no romantic Jean Jacques Rousseau painting, no lion lying down with the lamb. For we urbanites atop a food chain that consists primarily of Costco, Trader Joe’s and Safeway, this was a dramatic and sometimes bloody demonstration of the interdependency of countless species that survive by feeding upon one another in a complex hierarchical scheme that starts between species and continues within families of single species.

At the zebra kill where we watched the alpha male gorge, one of the lionesses who brought home the meal (it’s nearly always the ladies who bring home the bacon) had the temerity to try to sneak a nibble. The lion roared and lunged at her, all teeth and claws, prompting her to instantly roll onto her back with her soft, vulnerable belly exposed in a show of abject subservience.

Lion kill

Almost as dramatic as the sight of feeding predators is the sound of bones being crunched and flesh torn and the occasional growls and howls of competitors at the lunch table

Only after the male sauntered away with sagging belly did she and a fellow female dare take their share of what they had brought home.

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Notice how little meat the male left for the females.

When animals have fed recently and well, their stomachs clearly bulge and sometimes nearly touch the ground.

Full cheetah

We often felt this full leaving the dining room following our four-course lunches and dinners on the savanna.


Female wildebeest have a remarkable survival knack that allows them to extend their pregnancies up to two weeks if the conditions for birthing – rains not fallen, grass too sparse – are not quite right. (Giraffe can do the same for up to a month or more.) On Wednesday of our week on the plain, we had driven miles through the migration with nary a calf to be seen. Cows everywhere were swollen with full-term young, but no newborns. That night, there were rains. The day after was overcast and cooler.

On Friday morning before dawn, we set out on a childbirth search. Not far into the drive, we spotted two vultures and a crane in a three-way tug of war over something that flashed bright in the early morning sunlight. They withdrew when we drove up, leaving behind the bright red placenta they had been fighting over. The calving had begun.

PlacentaSoon, we were spotting golden flashes in the herd – the light, camouflage coats of infant wildebeest. First a single one here and there, then two or three among the long dark legs of moving adults. Birthing seemed to be contagious. Once one or two mothers in a herd of cows gave birth, others followed suit.
Doris cropYoung are born feet first and start walking immediately. We didn’t luck into a live birth but saw several minutes-old babies slick from the womb staggering after mothers who still trailed umbilical cords or afterbirth from their birth canals. There is no hanging around the maternity ward on the savanna; birthing mothers and their babies are both highly vulnerable, and many don’t make it.

At the scene of one childbirth fatality, the hind legs of the calf protruded from the dead mother’s carcass. Vultures thrust their heads up the birth canal to feed on the unborn young. Among vultures as among lions, there was a pecking order. That’s a dominant male below spreading his wings as he flew in and moved to the front of the ranks.

Doris cropBreaking rank provokes aggression against interlopers (as below). Meanwhile, predators unequipped to compete with the vultures wait their turn at the edge of the scrum, pulling rank within their own species. The stork at the upper right inflated his red air sac to signal superiority to the stork  on the left.
Vultures feeding 2Cats cull the herds, large scavengers feed on the leavings of the cats and other big predators, small scavengers feed on leftovers from larger ones, insects pick the bones clean, birds and bats gorge on the insects. Nothing goes to waste – not a placenta, not a carcass, not a morsel of edible meat. When these are all consumed, hyenas eat the bones. Then porcupines and hedgehogs eat the hyena dung, white and rich in calcium.

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Eventually, all that’s left is the skull or maybe a rib cage, testimony not only to death on the plain but to life.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • Beautiful faces in all the right places: Louis took all these shots without a long-range telephoto lens.
    Image-1
  • Too many lions to count: By Day Four, Louis told our guide, “Can we skip lions today? They mostly just sleep anyway.”
    So many lions
  • Leopard on the run: Leopards are solitary and skittish. Note the silhouette of the one that headed down to tree trunk as we drove up.
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  • Sunrise: Setting out by dawn was a daily source of great viewing, cool temperatures and beautiful sunrises.
    sunrise1.jpg
  • Binocular bipeds: Another common species on safari
    Hunters

Coming Soon: Tanzania from the air
Herd 2