I think the best thing about today was our dinner. We had the gall to sit down for dinner on a Friday at the early bird hour of 9:40pm. The cook arrived about 5 minutes after we sat down. The restaurant was picked by one of our party who had read of it in a guidebook as a restaurant with authentic Basque cuisine. Seemed a necessary outing. Turned out to be a bit of a fiscal indulgence, but I’m sticking with the “necessary” clause in the interest of fiscal justification. The proprietor was great. We were the only people in the joint for the better part of 2 hours. The wine was nice, the appetizers were scrumptious, the main course delicious and the dessert decadent. And the apperatif shot floral and yummy. (and I don’t know how to spell apperatif correctly) The main course was codfish cooked in frothy olive oil. One might swear it was really 8 pounds of butter, but the proprietor insisted it was olive oil. And browned garlic. Mmmm. The dessert was pears soaked in red wine, and I think one must assume some sugar. Fantastic. It was a lovely evening.
But that certainly is not to imply the day was not similarly so. We toured another Gaudi, La Pedrera, first thing in the morning. It was very cool, because as you now know, I love Gaudi! It’s tempting to describe some of his architectural elements and landscapes as Seussian, but that would imply just a little too much random whimsicality. Gaudi is about producing “organic” qualities in his forms, but this often comes very close to Seuss’s fictional forms. Close, but it wouldn’t be accurate to formally make a comparison. At any rate, good fun stuff.
Probably a little too un-PC for today ... a lot of old advertisements and photos line the hallways.
Then we walked about with our friends, went to the Olympic park where the Barcelona summer Olympics were held. This was far more interesting and beautiful than I would have guessed. Then we rode a gondola to the top of a hill where perches a fortress with some incredibly formidable cannons pointing out to sea. The gondola ride was the epitome of loveliness, and afterward we ate an overpriced lunch at a restaurant with a priceless view, overlooking both ocean and city.
K, well off to try to sleep and dream... though for once my vivid dreamscapes may be nothing special compared to the sights I'm seeing here in my waking hours!
Today is the first day of the rest of my life. As citizen of Barcelona. When they try to kick me out of this opulent flat in which I currently reside, I will barricade myself in. Tomorrow I’ll spend the day recruiting minions off the streets of Barcelona to help me defend my stay. In all my travels I have yet to cause an international incident. But one must move forward in their life…. perhaps this will be my 15 minutes of fame.
We flew in on US Airways, and as its name implies, it is a domestic airline…. a bit of a shock for those of us who travel abroad relatively frequently…. no flappy things on the head rest to lean your sleepy head against; no personal TV consoles; and most egregiously, NO FREE DRINKS! For some reason in the middle of the night when everyone was trying to sleep, they decided to fill the big screen at the front of the cabin with some TV show, which though I did not watch I could discern through my eyelids must have been something about the history and utilization of strobe lights. And of course, the obligatory fussy toddler.
Nonetheless, we arrived in Barcelona in good spirits. People ask me all the time as a trip looms near, “Are you excited for your trip?” The answer in all honesty would have to be, “No.” (Sometimes I answer “yes” for convenience, but I’m telling you now that if I say that, I’m lying.) I used to say that I only got excited once I was on the plane that was exiting the U.S. and in the air. But I realized driving in rush hour traffic from the Barcelona airport to our friend’s-friend’s flat in the city, that truly I only actually get excited when I’m in the taxi or bus or train, whatever, from the airport to my first on-land destination.
Taxiing into Barcelona brought back fond memories of riding sportbikes with our friends in Greece as the motorcyclists and mopedists (it’s a word, I’m sure) were lane-splitting all around us. Though here they are a bit more cognizant that speed limits exist. Still, it made me nostalgic for the naughty feeling that riding in Greece gave us Americans zooming between the cars at double their speed, lining up at stoplights in front of the cars like the starting grid for a race until the cars honked to signal the motorcycles to go. It would be so great if we could lane-split in the States.
Well anyway, we’re not in Greece but in beautiful Barcelona. Everyone I talked to who had been here raved about it and I can see why. I can also see that one week will be a paltry amount of time here. Barcelona alumni also went on and on about “Gaudi”…. love Gaudi, love Gaudi, Gaudi, Gaudi. And little ol’ me knew nothing about this Barcelona architect. Boy, do I feel silly. Because now I love Gaudi! Gaudi Gaudi! I’m a fan!
Yesterday after dropping our luggage off at the flat and reuniting with my friend from last year’s South Africa Earthwatch trip and meeting his wife, Erik and I just roamed the streets randomly. Since the guidebook I ordered off Amazon 3 weeks ago never did arrive, we struck out in complete ignorance, though our friends accompanied us for awhile with some tips. Then we parted ways for the rest of the afternoon. We passed several Gaudi buildings. Hope to tour the insides later in the week. Today we went to Gaudi’s piece de resistance, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, and Guell Park. The cathedral is an epic of architectural vision and ingenuity. Not at all like your typical European cathedral, it is shaped with Gaudi’s signature organic forms, and Christian iconography is minimal. It is all about soft lines, shapes and color. It seems obvious that Dali’s artistic visions must have a deep-seated inspiration from Gaudi architectural forms. (Hope to go to Dali museum outside Barcelona later in the week.) Here are some photos from the Sagrada Familia.
While our friends attended a soccer game last night, Erik and I took a much needed nap and waited to greet another arriving guest. So we are a party of 5 for a few days. Got a late night dinner (normal dinner time around here) around 11:30pm at a spot just behind our flat, came back and had beer and port at the flat. Wandered off to bed about 2:30am and got up at 9:30 this morning. (yawn….) Spring weather is lovely. Here are a couple photos from the market. Tons of peppers and tons of candy.
OK. Time for happy hour. Some random street scenes.
Durban, South Africa
So we’ve gone from sea level, snorkeling at Kosi Bay, to nearly 10,000 feet high in the Lesotho mountains. From 90 degrees F in Kruger to 30 degrees at Sani Pass. Hot dry wind to cold blowing snow. Land as flat as a pancake to magnificent cliffs of dragon’s teeth in the Drakensburg mountain range. I guess most areas this large will have a wide diversity of landscapes. But having packed all that into 3 weeks makes the country seem a bit more epic. Then of course the extremes in wealth and poverty. We haven’t really seen much in the way of blatant opulence, but definitely decidedly upscale places, which have more impact when juxtaposed with the shanty towns and rural rondevals.
So we woke up at the top of Sani Pass to cloudy but clearing skies. It hadn’t snowed very much more overnight from what had accumulated when we went to bed. The folks from yesterday had found a ride down. By the time we finished breakfast, the clouds had broken enough to allow us to see down the pass we would be descending, and the snow on the road was melting fast. The proprietor told us about a snowstorm that happened in 2002, when about 30 tourists at the pub/B&B got suddenly and unexpectedly snowed in. The proprietor, meanwhile, was snowed out as he’d gone down the pass to run errands. The tourists were trapped at the B&B for a month! 30 days and nobody could get up or down the pass. Finally, they rescued the trapped people with a helicopter. The only thing the people could find with which to mark out a “pad” for the helicopter to see where to land was a bottle of ketchup. Imagine getting trapped like that!
Well, not us. We were able to leave as planned. We left Lesotho through the tiny border post atop the pass and then, it’s a bit odd, but the South Africa border post is all the way at the bottom of the pass. It’s a no man’s land for about 30 minutes of driving. I really adore these tiny border crossings, as both ends of Lesotho and leaving Swaziland. So refreshing when you consider what you have to go through to get into my country ... I love my good ol' USA, but damn, it sure is a hassle to get back in.
The views from the pass were spectacular. They lived up to the reputation the guidebooks gave them. Not much traffic on the pass because you must have a 4x4 vehicle. Most people park their 2wd cars at the bottom of the pass and take a 4x4 shuttle jeep/land-cruiser-type thing up. Apparently, the South Africans all want to come up when there is snow on the pass because it doesn’t really snow in South Africa. Indeed, we passed about 10 land-cruiser shuttles coming up the pass while we went down. One time, a woman in the car going up, who had her window rolled down, said to us, “The snow is melting on your car!” This must be quite a novelty to have snow on your car that is subsequently melting. The road was gloriously twisty and steep. But I think we would not have lived had we tried it yesterday.
So we drove on to Royal Natal nat’l park. The roads we took there were quite remote, no traffic, few houses, as it is an area where a few people own large ranches/farms. Our “luck” held and while driving one of these dirt roads, we heard a loud “psshhhht” and our rear tire instantly deflated. The car jack that came with the rental truck was not very well built and while jacking up the car, it broke. A couple cars passed us driven by black people with no acknowledgement of our obvious situation. The first car driven by a white person stopped and offered to help. The next car with a white person stopped and asked if we needed more help. Not sure if there is anything to be made of this or not. One thing I kept thinking about in this region of large land-holdings by whites is the situation in Zimbabwe. I think I if were a white ranch owner here I would be a bit nervous wondering if the same thing could happen in South Africa….
Anyway, a man and his daughter stopped to help us; they used their own jack equipment, and somewhat similar to the German guy in Balule, just pretty much took over and changed the tire himself. We offered beers from our cooler, as that’s the only thing we ever have to offer in friendship and thanks, but it was early in the day, not exactly happy hour. So he declined with the phrase we’ve come to hear so often here when people help us, “It’s a pleasure.” And he drove off. We were unable to see the things I had hoped/planned to see today, but it’s OK. We had a beautiful drive anyway. The Drakensburg range is stunning. We stopped at a B&B that was mentioned in our guidebook as having internet access. Since I had some blog posts I wanted to make, as the internet situation has been so dismal here, we shacked up there at “The Tower of Pizza.” Naturally, we had pizza for dinner. You might not think it from the B&B name, but they had lovely little rondevals to stay in. So basically, camping post-El Diablo was a bust. Cost us more money to stay in accommodations, but hey, c’est la vie. We would have been quite miserable in the truck.
So that brings us to our last day!! Oh dear. Travel time always runs too short by a horrifically long shot. We went for a hike in Royal Natal park. It was great to stretch our legs a bit. It was a beautiful hike. The tops of the mountain spires were covered by low clouds, so we could only guess at their heights. We followed a river valley and eventually walked right along the river, which was as crystal clear as anything could be. The trail wasn’t a loop, so we had to retrace our steps out, but it might as well have been a loop, for the outbound trail seemed quite different; the sun had come out and the clouds lifted from a lot of the mountain tops. We were quite surprised to see just exactly how tall the sheer cliffs were. Really spectacular. Couldn’t ask for a better day to end the trip on.
Now we’re in Durban, checked into our B&B and only now finally trying the South African liquor, amarula. The retired folks on the train told us we must try it, so at last we have. Tasty. Maybe duty free will have some…. :-)
In our frequent encounters with hospitable folks, we were given the phrase, “it’s the African experience.” By now I presume this means something along the lines that things break down frequently, don’t go quite right, but others will help you out and you’ll be alright in the end.
Posting now from an internet cafe in Durban while Erik unloads the truck. Then we plan to seek out some more bunny chow – the signature Indian dish of South Africa. Apparently, the largest concentration of Indians outside India reside here in Durban. Or so they tell us. But then they've told me so many things ... this is the last hill; their parents are dead and they’d like to go to school; there are no lions in the park.
Trains and cities and mild luxury are all nice, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it. But now we’re back in my element. The true epicenter of my happiness: traveling the remote back roads with unknown adventures ahead, where other tourists are few and far between (and seldom from the U.S.).
I sit now writing of our last 2 days inside our private rondeval at the top of Sani Pass just inside the southern border of Lesotho. And, admittedly, the accommodation is awesome and pretty swanky. Also it’s the only thing around. And it has the claim to the highest pub in Africa. (yeah, yeah, a tourist trap phrase if you ever heard one; still, it’s fun) I have my feet next to the propane heater, and outside our cozy rondeval blows a full-on snowstorm. Snow coming down and down, the locals says they don’t know if it will stop by tomorrow. They are happy for the moisture. At this altitude it comes largely in the form of snow. So once again we have towed in the weather like a trailer on our truck.
Yesterday we came into Lesotho later than we planned because of the previous day being botched by the train delay. We had to curtail our itinerary slightly, but it’s been a fantastic 2 days. We crossed over at a tiny border post on a dirt road that wasn’t even signed from any highway or town; we found it eventually, after a couple wrong turns, by coordinating a map with some help from a Tom-Tom GPS unit that came with the truck. We didn’t leave SA and then enter Lesotho through 2 stations, just one lady took care of everything (in theory…. I guess we’ll see when we try to leave; I worry slightly considering our experience in Mozambique ...). After we got inside Lesotho and programmed into the GPS the next town on the map we intended to pass through, and then started driving, it kept telling us, “turn around as soon as possible.” Almost immediately upon entering Lesotho, everything changed – from the topography to the housing to the people. In the photo below we're coming up to the hard-to-find, only mentioned in half the maps/guidebooks, border crossing of Monontsha.
The landscape is completely spectacular. We wind our way up and down along endless curves and hairpins on narrow dirt roads through valleys and to mountain tops almost 10,000 feet high, many sheer cliffs surround us at any given time. Layers and layers of canyons and gullies, somewhat like a mini Grand Canyon. The first part after crossing the border, the mountain sides were all green with new spring grass. As we progressed further south, the green faded into rocky colors of red and gold.
The people live in very neatly-kept rondevals (round stone building with pointed thatch roofs). Though the people are unquestionably poor, they obviously take some civic pride in their homes and landscape; there is no litter lying about, the yards are neat, the houses well-kept and not run-down. Though many in South Africa live in the exact same type of home, they are very often in shambles and belie a certain squalor. Not so here. Second photo, see how dwarfed they are in the mountainous landscape.
The people are largely shepherds with sheep and cows and also farm terraced tracks of land along the hillsides. Horses are the main type of transport beyond walking, and donkeys are the beasts of burden. We got out of our truck once because we were driving with our windows rolled down and kept hearing noises outside. It turned out to be the tinkling of the cow and sheep bells, amplified by the valley. It was a mild cacophony. The little donkey alone on this huge hillside, below, I thought was so cute.
We very rarely saw any pack animals in South Africa and no one riding horses. This is a horse-oriented culture, and in fact the biggest tourist “attraction” besides hiking in this country is pony trekking. The indigenous form of dress involves heavy blankets wrapped around one’s body. We can see why…. it’s just plain nippy up here. It’s nice that the majority of people walk around with this style of dress rather than Westernized jackets and such.
Most people along the roadside wave at us. The adults are just friendly; the kids, unfortunately, have come to believe that white people are candy fairies and yell out at us with hands open, “Sweets! Sweets!” I dunno, I guess it’s better than saying, “money money!” Though the gesture is still annoying. Once, I got out of the car to take a photo of the scenery and didn’t notice a kid sitting there on a rock. He got up and asked me to take his picture, so I did and then showed it to him. Then he asked me for money; I said “no.” So he started telling me this story that his parents had died and he wanted to be able to go to school but he couldn’t afford it because he had no parents. He was telling me this while wearing a school uniform.
We stopped at this friendly looking store ... clearly is has a friendly indoor atmosphere if you notice the sign above the door asking patrons to disarm themselves before entering ... because we were enticed by the prospect of scones, as advertised on the big blue sign. I stayed in the car while Erik went inside to make the purchase; he came back rather dejected with a loaf of white bread. That was the "scone."
Passing through one village, a man with a police officer’s hat stepped into the road and vigorously flagged us down to stop. In South Africa, we likely wouldn’t have stopped, as car jacking and hijacking is too common and we have been warned repeatedly not to do so. There was no police car or anything, and no uniform but the hat. But we stopped. He wanted a ride to the next town. We decided to oblige; it’s Lesotho, not South Africa. He was terribly amused by the Tom-Tom GPS unit. He giggled incessantly over it. We dropped him off at his desired destination. Who knows if he was really a police officer, maybe he just found an officer’s hat somewhere, though we asked him several questions about his job which he seemed to answer legitimately enough.
The only vehicle ever to pass us was a police vehicle ... they are yellow vans. But it was a bit comical, as it was a slow-speed overtake, and because of the roads snaking so circuitously across the mountainsides skirting canyons and ravines, we could chart the progress of the van ahead of us for a long time -- illustrating the fact that it take 5 miles of driving or maybe more to travel one mile that the crow flies. I love this photo for showing the scale of the landscape ... can you pick out the tiny yellow van?
Eventually we hit a paved road and major (by Lesotho standards) town and stopped to get gas and buy beer. The people at the tavern seemed quite impressed that white people came into their store. They asked where we were from and when we said “United States,” they didn’t seem to understand, so we said, “America.” “Oh, America!” they all chorused. “Obama!” One guy asked how many times we’ve met Obama since he became president.
Darkness descended while driving through the splendid scenery. When I told Erik that my “aim” for this country was simply to drive around through the interior, Erik said “it certainly feels like we’re in the interior of something.” It is remote, rugged, sparsely populated, and beautiful. But once it was dark, the road was extremely hard to follow. The pavement was very black and there are no painted lines and it continuously twists and turns. There are reflector tabs on each edge of the road. On the rare straight-away, the orange reflectors on left and red reflectors on right outlining a black path in the black night made it look like we were on a runway at night at an airport. One of the couples we met on the train said the straightest patch of road in all of Lesotho was driving across the bridge at the Katse dam. I believe he’s right. It’s quite cold and though we did buy a few things to be able to subsist in the new truck, we ended up driving into the night to the only accommodation anywhere in the area, near the Katse dam. They charge an arm and leg, but at least we could eat cheap with the food we’d bought at the grocery store in the morning and put in our cooler. The guidebook said this place was like a hospital, and it totally is with the rooms lined up down cement hallways. We would have been miserably cold inside the car.
I was excited to wake up the next morning to see just exactly where we were, what our surroundings were, as it was so mysterious driving in, nothing but curve after curve and blackness... pretty much no electricity anywhere. We could have woken up on desert island for all I knew. When I looked out the hotel window, we were about 15 feet from a cliff at the bottom of which lay the reservoir backed up behind the Katse dam. Quite striking. One luxury about the hospital hotel was the hot buffet breakfast.
So we set off again, taking the smallest road the map showed which would still lead us to today’s destination. The dirt road was nearly deserted all day as we drove around. Once, we did get into a bit of traffic congestion when we encountered 2 cars in a row traveling the other direction. The Tom-Tom GPS went cuckoo and took a decided dislike of us, vowing our demise by continually trying to send us up cow trails and down cliffs, fording rivers, and breaking into peoples’ yards. How on earth they programmed in their road data, I don’t know. The directions were so ludicrous it wasn’t even like we got lost, it was utterly evident we weren’t supposed to go where it said to.
More breathtaking scenery filled our day. Great slices of life, passing women washing clothes in the river and men plowing fields with oxen and a single blade plow. I would very much like to learn this African skill of carrying every manner of thing on top of my head.
I love so many of the business names painted on the sides of buildings. Such as "public phone" (below), "beauty salon" (on the sides of the dumpiest cement cells), "car wash" in the middle of nowhere in a place where no individual owns a car (again, below). Will try to get one of a beauty salon if I see another one; I saw several in the Kosi Bay area; it's just funny because of the squalor of a building purporting to make one beautiful.
I have to admit, I was very curious about the doctor's office. It looks so improbably from the outside that the inside would be very conducive to having surgery performed. I imagine I may be too judgmental about the outside of the building, but that's precisely why I would have loved to see the inside of this surgery center.
Then about mid-afternoon it started raining and not too much time had passed before it turned into snow. And not too long after that, the snow began sticking to the road. We had been following the tracks of a car who had gone before us through the snow. We reached a summit of sorts and those tracks circled round the way they came and disappeared. We forged on and very soon wondered whether the owner of the other tracks knew something we didn’t. We spent several hairy hairpins biting our nails in low-4 first gear trying not to slide off the road. Finally the road straightened and flattened out a bit. We continued, figuring we were nearing our destination – the pub/chalet at the top of Sani Pass – enough we could abandon the car and walk if necessary. We came across a man in the road flagging us down with immense pleas for us to stop. We obliged; he wanted a ride to another town across the border in South Africa. We told him we could take him to the pass. He was very grateful. We fed him bread and bananas and cookies and beer which again he was very grateful for. When we arrived at the border post, where our accommodation is, we realized he didn’t understand what we had told him about only going that far. It took awhile to explain but he finally got it. I’m sure he was dejected, but we sent him on his snowy way with a bag full of more food (he never asked for anything, but he looked so cold and miserable when we picked him up and all this food was literally sitting on the seat beside him… it seemed cruel not to offer)
And so we turned into our place at the highest pub in Africa and now I sit in our hut next to the propane heater sipping wine from a shot glass while the snows falls and falls, piling ever-dubiously higher. We have one spare day tomorrow… if we get stranded here tomorrow it’s OK, except we’ll have run out of Rand to pay for another night’s room. But the next day we must be able to get down if we want to be able to make our flight home. There are some other young people here who stayed last night, went hiking today and got caught in the snowstorm. Their 2WD car is at the bottom of the pass on the South African side and the locals who said they’d give them a ride there this afternoon left to go down before the snowstorm. They are worried they’re stranded for the night. Tomorrow, if we are able to leave, we’ll offer them a ride. But the prospect is looking bleak. We asked the proprietor if it could be a problem getting down the pass if it keeps snowing. He said, “yah, it could be a problem.” Worse coming up, apparently, and we’ll be going down; but still, the few hairpins we took downhill today were nerve-racking and at this rate, there is going to be significant accumulation of snow tomorrow. What an adventure.
Left Cape Town under another blanket of gray cloud and threat of rain. The first few hours out of Cape Town on the train were beautiful with dramatic scenery of steep stark mountains rising straight up from fertile valleys of bright green vineyards and golden wheat fields. The occasional shanty town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, appeared. Once I saw several ostriches running across the fields.
After traveling through the longest mountain tunnel in southern Africa, a 13-minute ride, we emerged into a completely different ecosystem of scrubby proto-desert. Very dry, mostly flat land. At one point a high mountain range rose up far in the distance. But mostly sparse desert land. The train itself is lovely. We have our own private compartment. All meals plus high tea are included in the train fare. Nice food so far. I feel a bit chilly, so I’m sitting in my compartment typing with the thick robe they provided (there are showers available) on as a coat.
The scenery isn’t so interesting at the moment. Erik’s reading Bryce Courtney’s “Tandia,” a sequel to “The Power of One,” which we found in a used bookstore in Joburg. We both got so much out of The Power of One, not just as a great novel, but many informative things about South Africa…. we are often pointing out “oh, just like in Power of One.” Highly recommended book. The boarding school social system described is apparently still in place; when NCM told about his school days, I would have had no idea what he was talking about if I hadn’t read the book.
And you won’t believe this, but our fellow South African train passengers are very friendly. Who could have guessed? (p.s. if you have just joined us, we have been overwhelmed by South African kindness so far) Probably the majority of passengers are retired folks in the wealthier tier. At lunch, an older couple sitting across from us invited us to sit at their table in the dining car, since the views at that time were better on their side. (With that exception, the views have mostly been best from the side that we look out of in our private compartment.) Had nice interesting conversation and they told us many informative things about the country. At high tea, a group of 4 retired folks (2 couples) invited us to sit at their table, just because it seemed to them it would be more comfortable than the bar stools we had started to sit at. Again, brilliant folks who have given us some valuable advice for our upcoming travels through Lesotho and led us through nostalgic ruminations of days past on the premier trains as both regular passengers and the men rode the trains when they were in the military service. One of the men was particularly upset to hear of our truck rental woes and took down the name of the company to give to his friend at the equivalent of the SA BBB.
Watched the stars shining bright in the deep darkness of the interior of the country outside the window. Orion is on his side here, it’s strange to see him, either sleepy or slain. Then in the middle of the night the train came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere, and stayed that way for many hours. Another train had broken the power lines and we had to wait for a diesel engine to come fetch us and tow us onward. We are now at least 6 hours behind schedule. This will have implications for our continuing itinerary.
And here's another shocker in light our experiences to date with the vehicular gods who for some reason loathe us: when we got to the Joburg airport to pick up our new rental truck from a different company, the battery was dead as a doornail. So another hour’s delay as we had to insist on getting a different vehicle despite them jumping the car and claiming it was good to go. So our plans for the day were shot. But we decided to drive as far south as we could before stopping for the night. Found a room in a family hostel – was essentially a garden shed turned into a bedroom. I actually thought it was pretty cute. And we brought with us the rain. Apparently the first rain they’ve had since April (similar to Pretoria). So we seem to be very good luck for the folks here, towing the rain on our bumper.