27 November 2007

Muizenberg Musings!

Over the last couple of weeks we have tried to have a good balance of work, sightseeing, and socializing. So much has happened I hardly know where to begin, so maybe I’ll select highlights. First, I should mention, the weather has been a major letdown. Lots of rain, high winds, cool temperatures, and then we get a few days of gorgeous warm sunshine in between, thank heavens! The locals have been whining about this being August weather in November. On warm, sunny days this place is paradise.

Highlight #1: Breakfast at Olympia Café in Kalk Bay. The last two weekends we had perfect summer weather (preceded by rainstorms, cold and wind!). Getting to charming Kalk Bay involves a scenic walk, either along Boyes Drive or along the coastal path. So we walk out there on Saturday mornings for cappuccino and croissant. Great views of the harbor, very atmospheric and friendly.

#2: Walking from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town. A four mile stretch of a combination of beach, coastal path, and main road brought us to Simon’s Town via Fish Hoek. ST is a naval base, has a lovely harbor, numerous specialty stores, great restaurants and cafes. We enjoyed a buffet lunch at ‘The Meeting Place’, which had a terrific assortment of Mediterranean dishes.

#3: Buying fresh fungi porcini at a specialty deli in Simon’s Town and making a delicious pasta dish back home.

#4: Having a dinner party with new friends. Meena (South African Indian), Emanuele (Italian) and their two delightful kids, Gianamar and Shanti, had been living in Cambridge, England until a year ago when they decided to try living in Cape Town. David brought along another friend, Bradley, and their two five year old sons. So we had quite a chatty, interesting group for a braai dinner last Saturday.

#5: Hiking up Muizenberg mountain. David, Bradley, their sons, Daryl and myself carried a picnic lunch and hiked up this mountain last Sunday morning. The trail was well defined with steps carved into the rocks in many places, making for a pretty easy walk. Bradley and Daryl found they had a common interest in evolutionary biology and discussed books they’d read. The conversation led to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which they both enthused about.

The mountain slope was an absolute symphony of color. I could not believe the amazing variety of beautiful wildflowers. In fact the flowers were so pretty it was hard to think of them as wild. Some looked like snowdrops, but they were lavender in color. Others looked like daisies. Proteas in bloom were everywhere. There were also vast areas of purple watsonia and pelargonium (looks like geranium). Fynbos, which is its own plant kingdom, was the primary vegetation. But milkwood trees, mimetes trees with red flowers, and ericas were quite abundant as well. I learned that there is a type of Erica which is unique to this mountain – found here and nowhere else!

#6: Exploring Cape Town city center. We took the train into the city and wandered its streets. We loved browsing at market stalls at Grand Parade, where Daryl tried to find a Mandela type shirt. We walked past many historic buildings and into the Company Gardens. This is a huge, green space with numerous trees and gardens and is of historical significance. During the days of Dutch East India rule this is where produce was grown for the sailors. We went into the National Gallery and saw a Marlene Dumas exhibition. This South African born artist, whose work is quite daring – genitals among portraits depicting universal faces – lives in Holland. We then made our way to Long Street, one of the more interesting downtown streets with its many cafes, bookstores, backpacker’s lodges, etc. We stumbled on a veg café where the food we ordered – rissoto and Durban curry – took a half an hour to prepare. Superb! While waiting a random person came over to our sidewalk table and asked if he could interview us. He wanted to hear what we had to say about the media’s influence on our thinking!!!!! We also found ourselves in the middle of the making of an Adidas commercial and had to sign waiver forms! After lunch we went to the African Market on Long Street which sells crafts from all over the continent. It was Saturday and shops were beginning to close so we got on the train back home. The sky had been blue all day and then on the train we could see a layer of cloud beginning to drape over Table Mountain. We were fascinated at how quickly the clouds moved and began to spill over the slopes like a sheet of water.

#7: Dinner with Margaret and Peter Dugmore. This couple manages The Haven, the house we’re renting, which belongs to their Jo’burg daughter. Margaret and Peter are incredibly warm and friendly. They served a spread of fantastic artisanal cheeses, crusty bread, marinated veggies, bruschetta topped with white asparagus and other yummy stuff. We drank lots of great Cape wine and talked about traveling around Southern Africa. They raved about Namibia and the West Cape coast. We’ll have to be more adventurous about traveling in Southern Africa next time we’re here.

#8: Having Sunday lunch with our friend Rosie at her breathtaking place in an area called Marina Da Gama here in Muizenberg. Her house is right beside the vlei. The vlei out here is this enormous body of water which looks like a lake and is fed by the sea. Lots of wildlife, including numerous types of birds can be seen here. Rosie has a kayak and a boat and from her back garden can get right into the water. From her living room she has awesome views of the vlei and the mountains. Rosie made us a feast – eggplant parmesan, avocado salad with cress and rocket, and roasted tomatoes and bell peppers.

#9: Concert at Kirstenbosh. This should actually be #1, except that I have been making a chronological list. We heard the great Vusi Mahlasela live at Kirstenbosh Gardens on Sunday evening. He kicked off the summer concert series which will go on until April. I have been to many outdoor concerts in various parts of the world and in my opinion these gardens have been the absolute best setting. The weather fully co-operated. So, at 5:30 when the concert started, the temperature was perfect, the sky a nice blue with the massive mountains standing like sentinels in the background. The place was crowded with smiling people drinking wine and munching picnic goodies. Vusi, with his stirring voice, was an absolute delight to listen to.

15 November 2007

Path To My African Eyes

Ever since PATH TO MY AFRICAN EYES arrived at bookstores this October, I’ve been walking on air. I want to say a big THANK YOU to the team at Just Us Books for making this possible. I’m especially grateful to my editor, Katura Hudson, for all the time she has put into the book. Her insights and valuable comments have been incredibly helpful. I also would like to thank my dear writing buddy, Lou Lynda Richards for her invaluable feedback. Another special friend, Fran Lantz, would be so proud if she were here. I will always hear her advising me on plot development. Last, but not least, thanks goes to my husband, Daryl Cooper, for making me do it!

I wrote PATH TO MY AFRICAN EYES to celebrate and share some of the beauty to be found at the bottom of the African continent, land of my birth. I invite you to open the book and meet the fascinating Thandi Sobukwe. She’ll take you into her teen life and tell you all about that exciting, difficult, wonderful, lonely, unforgettable time when she left Cape Town, South Africa with her family for a new home in California.

12 November 2007

Everyday is Different

Everyday in the Cape holds new experiences. The people around here are so warm and welcoming with big, open hearts. On Thursday Margaret (the person from whom we are renting our digs) took me into Kayelitsha, one of Cape Town’s black townships. Her sister makes crafts for a craft store in the township that’s run by an NGO. We drove along the very scenic coastal road and I was surprised when we entered the township via a wide multilaned, well maintained road. The area we drove through had nice houses, many of which were council homes built to replace informal shacks. There were lots of shacks between built up neighborhoods, but you can see that they are on a decline. The craftshop had a terrific selection of African themed clothes, artwork, kitchen stuff, and jewelry made mostly by people who are HIV+. After this little township tour, Margaret and I met up with her sister, Anne for coffee at a seaside café in Muizenberg. These two sisters grew up in Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia. We talked about Alexander Fuller’s books. Turns out Anne’s husband had taught her, and Anne had known her too because she had also taught at the same school. We all agreed that Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight was excellent. Margaret and Anne felt Fuller did a great job of capturing the period and place. As for Scribble the Cat, Margaret and I expressed disappointment, but Anne seemed to have enjoyed it. Anne sympathized with the author’s need to connect with someone who had experienced and understood the African bush. I personally thought the guy in the book was a bit too weird, especially his religious zeal. I really enjoyed chatting with Margaret and Anne.
Last Friday evening was Diwali and we were invited to spend the evening with David’s friends. Actually the ‘Auntie’ (German) and ‘Uncle’ (Indian) had been friends of his parents when they all lived in Lesotho when David was a boy. Auntie and Uncle have been in Cape Town (Claremont) for six years now and they’ve ‘adopted’ all these young families who have immigrated here from various parts of the world. So for Diwali these young families were at their place to celebrate. Auntie and Uncle served a nice variety of delicious Indian savories and sweets, and all over the house there were clay lamps so it was all quite atmospheric. With such a global group – Taiwanese, Brazilian, English, American, Italian – you realize what a cosmopolitan city Cape Town is.
On Saturday Rosie, a friend of our London friend, Laura Epstein, came round to see us. Rosie, a doctor at a hospital in Kayelitsha, has lived in Cape Town for about five years now. She’s a gutsy woman intent on spending her life doing good for the world, but at the same time she knows how to enjoy the finer things in life too. She took us to Hout Bay, on the other side of the peninsula from where we are. We went for a long walk on the beach there, and then we went for a drive along Chapman’s Peak Drive. This amazing road is carved along a mountain slope and provides superb views of the coast below. Very reminiscent of Highway 1 near Big Sur in California.
On Sunday we woke up to blue skies and spring weather. Quite a change from the yucky cool, rainy days we’ve been having. Spring here has been a bit of a bust, kinda like England’s summer. The warm weather brought everyone out to the beaches and walking trails. Daryl and I walked along a road called Boyes Drive which goes south toward the bottom of the peninsula. It’s a road that follows the coast, but is high up and so the views are quite breathtaking. Along this road are some seriously grand houses, many of them equipped with small funiculars to take you from the road down to the house. The road took us to the fishing harbor of Kalk Bay, a very lively little place. Fisherman go out with their small boats and bring back bounty from the sea which they sell right off their boats. From the pier at Kalk Bay we could see a whale and a seal. We had a delicious lunch at the extremely popular Olympia Café. I had a pasta dish with fresh funghi porcini, baby tomatoes, and basil. Scrumdidliumptious! Daryl had tomato soup which he claims is the best one he’s had after his that he makes from homegrown tomatoes. On our walk back along Boyes Drive we spoke to the guy at the Shark Spotters. He told us there was a shark sighting (Great Whites in case you didn’t know) earlier and they had to blow the siren and get people out of the water. He also pointed to a whale that was directly across from us. The water was a clear turquoise and very calm. It’s so beautiful here you could forget that you aren’t on vacation.

06 November 2007

Fairest Cape

Greetings Faithful Blogreaders

Yes, I know - too long since I’ve blogged. You log on to this website everyday looking forward to my witty/funny/clever renditions of my travels only to be disappointed .... Fear not. I'm back!
It’s been a crazy few weeks as we ended our Oxford stay and began our Cape Town stint. For the next 5 weeks we’ll be staying in the oh so charming seaside village of Muizenberg which is 25 km from the Cape Town city center. Our digs – “The Haven” – is fab. Spacious, full of character (built in the early 20th century), with shabby chic décor. We are right at the foot of a dramatic mountain so views are great. The beach – white, sandy, and wide - is a 5 minute walk. Muizenberg has an alternative lifestyle feel to it kinda like a mini version of Santa Cruz in California. This is a very popular surfspot with gentle waves for the amateur. Near us are numerous cafes, organic food stores, dance and yoga studios, and trendy restaurants. It’s undeniably a beach resort, but on a small, laidback scale. No big hotels and tacky touristy shops. I guess you come here to charge up your batteries - sun, beach, fresh air, good food, great wine from the region, and peace.

I’m enjoying being thrown back into spring just as winter arrives in the northern hemisphere. Long days, warm and sunny, and the promise of summer. We are signed up for a weekly organic produce pick up and I got to pick up the first box on Friday morning. What fun it was to find all these spring veggies – asparagus, baby squashes, beans, peas, lettuces. We got a bunch of bananas which were just picked, but needed a couple days to ripen. In the US and UK the bananas are utterly tasteless, so what a treat to have sweet, flavorful ones. On the weekend a vendor came down the road selling avocadoes and papayas. We are eating very well here.

We arrived right in the middle of a math conference. So on our first evening we attended the banquet dinner held at the Kirstenbosch Gardens, famous for its enormous collection of indigenous vegetation in a breathtaking setting. Getting there was an experience in itself. David ( our host and topologist at UCT) and his wife, Juliet don’t have a car and use public transportation to get around. There is a great train connection from Muizenberg to various places, but of course, in SA middle class folks drive everywhere. Given the incidence of crime here I found it a bit nervewracking to get on the train to the university. It was close to 5:00 so the train was very crowded. It was quite funny to see how noisy and full of life the train riders here are compared to London where everyone on the tube trains are quiet, serious, with their faces buried in the papers.

The dinner at Kirstenbosch was quite an amazing event. First there was music outdoors – a violinist and guitarist played popular classical music pieces. We had drinks and met people out in the gardens with the imposing Table Mountain forming the backdrop. A most elegant dinner was served at the restaurant. The meal was accompanied by wine from the Nederberg estate. It was really interesting to talk to SA mathematicians and learn about the local concerns. There seems to be a lot of discussion of math at the pre-university level. It sounded like in the past not everyone took math all though high school. Now a change is being made so that university bound students would be served a rigorous curriculum while the other kids will take maths literacy, but every single student will have to take one or the other. The problems faced by incoming university students seem numerous and complex, while educators try to figure out how to fix a situation created by four hundred years of colonialism then apartheid.

Daryl gave his talk on Friday, his first at a South African university. Since not many people would understand his field he was a bit unsure how it would go, but according to David people enjoyed it.

We go for beach walks everyday and often see wildlife. On our first day we ate delicious roti wraps on the beach and saw a whale putting on a performance. There is a scenic coastal walk along a rocky stretch called St. James’s Walkway. The first time we walked along this stretch we saw a school of dolphins and on the walk back we saw a pair of seals.

This is quite the perfect spot to do a final stretch of intensive work before we take our vacation in December.