25 November 2011

Thanksgiving Weekend 2011

One of the reasons I love going to the gym pool (apart from the endorphin boost) is the company of people who share my hatred for winter and the holiday season. In the Jacuzzi this morning – Black Friday – my companions grumbled about the pointlessness of Thanksgiving, the insanity of Black Friday, followed by the craziness of the next few weeks leading to Christmas. And like spoiled, entitled kids we whined about the absurdly pitch black darkness descending on us at 5:00 P.M. and the chilly nights, that required us to turn on our central heating. We’d just swum in a deliciously heated pool and were relaxing in the Jacuzzi under a cloudless sky. The air temperature was mild, almost spring-like. Yes, we can swim in an outdoor heated pool everyday, and yes, mild, sunny days are the norm here in the winter. We, Southern Californians, expect this, in the same way people in the tropics expect hot, humid weather.

Our Thanksgiving Day this year was low key in an appealing sort of way. Our friend, Olivia, came over midafternoon. We had martinis and played Scrabble. Later, we went over to our friends, Premi and Sri, for the big meal. I roasted brussels sprouts and butternut squash. Daryl made pumpkin pie. Olivia prepared greens in her Southern (but vegan) way. Premi made soya kebabs in a spicy, tomato sauce. A truly satisfying meal. The wine, a Syrah from Paso Robles was excellent – smooth, full bodied, and slightly fruity. Sri’s mom from India and a few other relatives joined us. After dinner we watched a video of Premi’s and Sri’s wedding, which was very well put together by Sri’s brother in law. It was as good as a nontraditionalist would want of a Thanksgiving. Mellow, pleasant, and a shared gratefulness for caring friends and warmth and shelter.

I can’t believe 2011 is almost over. Wow, sure feels like I’m on a high speed train. A third of the school year over already. This year I’ve had the easiest start to the school year ever. I have an adorable class of eight year olds. On the first day of school I asked them what they knew about me. I expected them to say, “You’re from Africa. You’re a writer.” That sort of thing. But what did they say? “You’re the best teacher. You’re smart. You’re funny.” I looked at them suspiciously, they had only just met me (!),but their faces were dead serious. Flattery was clearly an unknown concept to them. I knew right away I was going to love these kids.

In two weeks we’ll be boarding a plane to South Africa. Christmas holidays in the southern hemisphere is like a concentrated dosage of Prozac. Looking forward to seeing Mum who has had a tough year dealing with health issues. We’ll be landing on her birthday. It’ll be the first time since I left South Africa that I’ll be celebrating my mother’s birthday with her.

Normally I would be dreading the upcoming weeks – colder, shorter days, taking us into the depths of winter. But the anticipation of another tropical Christmas (we’ll be on the coast north of Durban) keeps me on a high.

26 July 2011


I found Berlin, a new European city for me this summer, to be quite fascinating. So new in so many ways, yet you’re immersed in its past as you traverse its streets. I learned that the world’s top architects have been shaping the city in the last 20 years. The result: amazing 21st century buildings all over the city. I was able to get around the city easily because of its fantastic public transportation, especially the S-bhan. I was really impressed by the bicycle lanes – wide, separate from car traffic, and present everywhere. Bicycle hire places were also everywhere. A city designed for the car free! I loved it! 

I haven’t travelled much in Germany. Years ago I had some memorable adventures (aren’t you dying to hear about them?) in Cologne and Munich, leaving me with a positive “I must return here for a good time” impression of the country. But somehow, I never managed to return to Germany until this summer. I went to Berlin to spend time with my Sydney brother and his family. Julia grew up in Germany – the former GDR - and visits her family every summer. Fabian, my nephew, turned 5 the day I arrived in Berlin. So my German visit started with a big birthday celebration!

It was a cloudless hot day on the French Riviera when I boarded the plane for Berlin. I landed in a drenching downpour. Despite the disappointing weather I had a lot of fun at the German style party. My brother, Max, warned me that hardly any of Julia’s relatives spoke English so I might get bored. But I sat next to Julia’s friend, Maraika, and her mom who were both fluent English speakers. They had traveled a lot in the US, and shared entertaining stories with me. Through them I learned more about what it had been like to live in the GDR. They told me about their move to the “west” – West Berlin- and how alienated they had felt. The materialistic west with no strong sense of community had shocked them. They had then moved to Florida where they found the warmth and friendliness more familiar to them. Yes, I do mean that penis shaped state (no offence!) between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Go figure!

Fabian’s party started in the middle of the afternoon. People sat around tables inside the tent. Coffee and cake – many, many types, all homemade and excellent – were served. Most delicious of all were the black cherries that had been purchased from a local farm that morning. These cherries were crisp, sweet, juicy, and hopelessly addictive.

As evening approached Monica, Julia’s mom, and Max opened up the champagne. This led to the next phase of the party. The barbecue was fired up for German wurst and other meats. We were served white asparagus soup to start. I can’t even begin to describe how incredible it was. Everyone was amused when they saw me raving about the soup. They told me they had this dish all the time during asparagus season (May and June). It was early July, pretty much the end of the season, so luck played a role here. To accompany the barbecued meat, there was a variety of salads, grilled vegetables, and an assortment of cheeses. Wow! 
The party went on to about midnight. 

The next day Max, Julia, Fabian, and I took the train from Julia’s family’s village into Berlin for a three day visit of the city. We stayed at the Scandic Hotel in Potsdamer Platz. This area used to be “no mans land” during the Cold War and was a derelict wasteland at the time. Now it is a ritzy, bustling area with glamorous skyscrapers and shopping centers. 

I began my official sightseeing on Museum Island. The collection of famous museums here and the breathtaking Berlin Dome make you fully aware that you are in the Old World. A sharp contrast to the 21st century Potsdamer Platz where our hotel was. It was a cold, rainy day so taking in the vast collection of antiquities at these museums was quite ideal. At the Pergamon Museum, I found the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate to be every bit as impressive as advertized. (Why are these treasures here rather than in the countries from where they were excavated? Why are the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone in the British Museum?) I saw the stunning Nefertiti’s bust at the Neues Museum, and got my fill of Greek and Roman sculptures at the Altes Museum. By the end of the day I felt completely saturated!

On my second day Max, Julia, Fabian, and I started the day at Hackescher Markt, a charming square with some terrific restaurants. At the 1840 Restaurant we had an absolutely amazing breakfast. We ordered three plates. Each came with a generous assortment of yummy things – bread rolls, fruit, eggs, cheeses, spreads, quark, croissant. We had a long, leisurely breakfast, catching up on family gossip and the stuff going on in our lives. 

After breakfast we went separate ways. I took Bus 200 to the Brandenburg Gate, the most iconic Berlin sight. Yes, it was quite special to see it in real life. I loved the sculpture at the top – a horse drawn chariot pulled by Victory. I then decided to look into a walking tour I’d heard about, which left from the Starbucks (Grrr!) across the square. It was a “free” tour to all the main Berlin sights. “Free” meant that the guide was paid by tips – whatever you thought the tour was worth. Since I hadn’t brought a guide book, I decided to join the tour. The tips based idea turned out to be a great concept. Our guide was most entertaining and informative.  We saw these highlights:

1. From the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the guide pointed out the American Consulate (it was the 4th of July, though nothing seemed to be going on), the Frank Gehry building next to it, and beside it, the Hotel Adlon. 
2. The Holocaust Memorial designed by Peter Eisenmann – 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights in rows. Walking through this felt spooky!
3. The site of Hitler’s bunker, now a nondescript carpark
4. The Disneyfied Checkpoint Charlie
5. Remnants of the wall – nothing special, like an old, old high garden wall. 
6. Gendarmenmarkt – a beautiful square with a pair of identical domed cathedrals (French and German) and the Koncerthaus.
7. Berliner Dom – this renaissance style building, the most prominent in the city, was like a magnet to me. I couldn’t stop staring at it. I kept clicking my camera in an attempt to capture it and embed it in my mind. So hard to believe that it had been completely destroyed and rebuilt as recently 1973.
8. Lastly, the guide pointed to the TV tower, another prominent feature of Berlin’s skyline. He told us some story about it being built by the East Germans to prove their technological prowess. But the shadow of the cross from the Berliner Dom was visible on the building every afternoon which caused some embarrassment to the atheistic East Germans! (I think I have this story right!)

At the end of the day I joined Max and Julia at the hotel. We drank some German red wine, which was surprisingly really good. Julia was tired and didn’t want to go out to dinner. So Max and I went off for a night out. We returned to Hackescher Markt, an area that seemed certain to have a good atmosphere even in the cool drizzle. We sat out on the terrace, shielded from rain by awnings, and enjoyed a pretty decent meal. I’d ordered a leek tart and was surprised to see a pizza like dish appear. It wasn’t bad though. 

As Max and I sipped wine in this beautiful Berlin square, waiting for our tomato soup, I had to smile as I thought about the journey that brought us to this point in our lives. Here we were, so at home in a European city, at a restaurant that we selected based on how pleasurable it would be rather than our budget, and discussing the possibility of me retiring in the South of France. How far we’ve come. Max is living his dream. He has a successful business, a beautiful home, and a loving family. I am so proud of him.  

We had to break through a lot of prison walls to get to where we are in our lives. The prison of poverty. The prison of our poorly educated, conservative community. The prison of Ladysmith, an intellectual wasteland. And of course, the prison of apartheid South Africa. Poor and black (technically Indian) in apartheid South Africa. 

I remember a conversation Max and I once had when we were both dirt poor university students. We were at Durban’s beachfront waiting for the rest of our family who had gone off to see something. The heat beat down on us and on a wild impulse I suggested we get ice creams from the Carvel that happened to be right next to us. Oh god, I recall how sensational the ice-cream was. Then Max said, “Something tells me this was an extravagance.” Too true! Every guilt-ridden lick reminded us of how little money we’d had. But we were earning degrees and someday we would be middle class. I said, “I can’t wait to not have to count pennies.” His response was, “I want to have enough money so that I will never have to look at price tags.” And that summed up the difference between us!

The next day, my third day in the city, we had breakfast at a bakery near the hotel. German bakeries are a feast for the senses. Everything looks homemade, fresh, and irresistible. Breads of different shapes are studded with seeds and grains. Pastries are filled with fresh fruit and creamy things like quark and custard. The variety, catering to every need and taste, is staggering. I had an apple filled pastry which, though tasty, tasted more like a dessert than a breakfast bread. The coffee was strong and good. Julia and Max said they’d go sightseeing with me for the day. First on my list for the day was the ornate Reichstag, the great building where the bundestag meets. We hoped to go up the dome for the famous views, but after standing in a long line for a while we found out that only people who had prebooked a tour online could go in. Darn! Well, at least I got a close up view of the beautiful building. The modern glass dome – designed by Norman Foster – is supposed to be a must-see from the interior.

Next on my list was the “Memory Wall”, aka the East Side Gallery. This is a section of the Berlin Wall with a series of political paintings by famous artists. I enjoyed seeing the paintings and got some good photos. At this point Fabian had done enough sightseeing so we went separate ways for lunch. I had a fine Vietnamese dish at a vegetarian restaurant called Samadhi. This restaurant had a huge variety of Asian food and is a great example of Berlin’s international food scene.
After lunch I strolled along the Unter den Linden – the Champs Elysees of Berlin – and admired the graceful buildings along it.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the pedestrianized lanes of the Nikolaiviertel area, then wandered over to Alexanderplatz, where I had coffee and cake at a really nice bakery. I should say, finding a really nice bakery in Berlin is never a challenge!. The day was sunny and warm and Berlin had a friendly, uplifting ambience. In the evening I went for a beer and light dinner at a restaurant in Potsdamer Platz. It pretended to be a beachside café with beach type chairs set up facing an artificial lake. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it!

My day ended with babysitting Fabian, while his parents went out for a night in the town. I told him stories about the Greek Heroes to put him to sleep. Turned out he had quite an insatiable appetite for stories, leading me to create highly embellished versions of the Labors of Hercules! 

And so by sheer coincidence I began and concluded my Berlin visit with Ancient Greece as the subject!

17 July 2011

Summer Vacation - Part 2

I get enormous pleasure from riding high speed trains in Europe. We took the TGV from Paris to Nice early Saturday morning (at the end of June). I found it so relaxing to sit in comfort and absorb the pretty French countryside. Alighting at the Nice station we were immediately enveloped in Riviera warmth and bright sunshine. (Paris was pleasantly cool.) We picked up our rental car, programmed our GPS and drove along the bass corniche to Antibes, our base for the week.

We know the French Riviera pretty well now. It's become our favorite place for a holiday. The place has all the ingredients for enjoyable days - produce markets, excellent cheeses, wines, warm, sunny days, the inviting Med., cafes, scenic drives, beauty, quaint villages, etc., etc. We were joined by two families: Daryl's sister's family and my sister's family. Because there were so many of us we rented two gites right in the old town of Antibes.

Antibes is such a charming place. I love strolling through the old town. The beaches, the port, and the walk down to Cap d'Antibes are all quite enjoyable.

We cooked lots of delicious food, drank gallons of champagne and wine, pigged out on cheeses, swam in the delightful Med. everyday, and savored the company of our families. On one of the days Daryl and I had a free morning together so we drove into the mountains and explored a few villages. In the stunning, perched village of Gourdon we found the perfect place for lunch. We sat on the terrace, and over warm goat cheese salad and crusty bread, enjoyed jaw dropping views of mountain slopes and valleys.

After a luxurious week of sun, sea, and sand, we all went off to different destinations. Pam and family went to see our cousins in Amsterdam. Daryl went to England to see his brother. And I flew to Berlin to go to Fabian's birthday party.

08 July 2011

Halfway through Europe Holiday

I'm at a bed and breakfast - optimistically called Sunnyside B&B - in Yatton, a village just outside Bristol. It's currently home to close to half the Cooper clan, so we're having a good old time hanging out with rellies. Last night we met Saffs' partner, Gwen, for the first time and over a great dinner prepared by Saffs (quinoa salad and soya patties) we got better acquainted with her. It's been quite a jolt to see the kids towering over us and having adult conversations. How did that happen? Everyone seems to be making smart choices regarding their education and the future, which we found quite reassuring.

It's been an action packed two weeks in Europe. A couple days in Paris, then a week on the Riviera, four days in Berlin, and now in England. Having seen Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS a couple days before arriving in Paris I was all primed for a romantic experience. I was not disappointed. Pam and family met us at our hotel on the first day. We stayed at the Hotel Beaugency near charming Rue Cler and fairly close to the Eiffel Tower. A good choice of hotel, though not terribly central to the main sites.
Taking in Paris with kids presented a different way to enjoy the city. Kimi (aged 7) and Keayen (aged 11) are pretty easy kids to travel with. They'd just had 3 full days of Disneyland and were ready for something different! We strolled along the left bank of the River Seine and got on to the Isle de la Cite where we showed them Notre Dames. They loved looking at the gargoyles. From here we sauntered to the Pompidou Center, took the escalators to the top and enjoyed the views of Paris. We had an excellent pasta and pizza dinner at an Italian restaurant close to the Pompidou Center.

On my first morning in Paris I loved exploring the neighborhood around our hotel in search of the perfect cafe for coffee and croissant. We had almost instant success since Rue Cler, a narrow, cobbled lane was a two minute walk from us. There's a daily market on this road and the cafes lining the road were all delightful. After a rather satisfying cafe creme and croissant we equipped ourselves with French SIM cards and went off to the Eiffel Tower. It was a thrilling experience for Keayen and Kimi, despite the endless line. Afterwards we had a sumptuous picnic lunch at the nearby park. White nectarines, cherries, baguette, cheeses - hmmm ...

In the afternoon Pam's family dutifully braved the Louvre, hyping up the Mona Lisa to the kids. Daryl and I walked around the left bank and made a few cafe stops. First we stopped for an espresso at a modern 21st century cafe. Everyone around us spoke English. Turned out the owner was a young Australian lad who told us all about how it's so hard to find good coffee in Paris and how he was trying to change this! We nodded and smiled politely.

We all met up again at Place Concorde, metro-ed to the Arc de Triomphe and strolled along the Champs Elysees. Pam and Indrasen enjoyed looking at the shiny, expensive shops. The kids were happy to lick their gelatos while their parents dreamed of the day they could shop on this boulevard!

We ate another fine dinner (Thai) in the Latin Quarter to finish up the day. Daryl and I usually research restaurants when we are traveling. We'e learned not to be random about this. This time, however, we decided to be relaxed about this. So we were pleasantly surprised that both meals, randomly chosen, turned out to be pretty decent.

And that ended our short Paris visit. Daryl will return to this inriguing city for the first 3 months of 2012. I'll join him for a week when I have my spring break.

In my next entry I'll tell you all about our week on the French Riviera.

21 June 2011

Summer; ergo Europe

We leave for Europe tomorrow. Two days in Paris - just enough time to absorb its atmosphere. Then a TGV down to Nice for a week long stay in Antibes by the beach accompanied by an assortment of relatives. Berlin is next to celebrate my nephew’s 5th birthday. England is my last stop. Kenilworth, Bristol, Cambridge, then 9 days in lovely London. Summer vacation, ergo a trip to the Old World! I feel I’m entitled to it after a frantic year of force-feeding nine year olds with knowledge and skills designed to turn to them into proper capitalists. Admittedly my “different” views must hinder their journey, but, I digress. Europe. It’s remarkable that I’m so at home there, despite being monolingual! I’ve come a long, long way.

I remember my first time in Europe, back in the ‘80’s just after graduating from university. I landed in Rome after a ten hour overnight flight from South Africa. I’d never been abroad before. I was only just becoming aware of a world outside my provincial community which existed within a very confined territory (literally and figuratively). I was truly clueless. I was going to be in Italy for a week – en route to the USA – and I had no guide book and no map. Maps? I’d never used one in my life. In fact, maps were totally alien in my community. I did however, have a youth hostel card – something my travel agent equipped me with. So I knew I had to figure out how to get to a youth hostel and somehow I also knew I first had to get to Rome’s central train station.

I was full of apprehension as I made my way out of the airport and into a train that took me to the central train station. Thankfully at the station I spotted a tourist information office. I remember being so surprised at how friendly the TI folks were as they explained the metro stop for the youth hostel. I exchanged traveler’s checks for lira, and bought a metro ticket which turned out to be really expensive because I didn’t wait for my change! The ticket officer counted out the coins first, and before he could hand me my bills I was already on the escalator down to the platform! My first subway train ride – wow, it was fast!

I was so happy and proud of myself when I arrived at the youth hostel. But when they told me that there was no availability at all I was shattered. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t planned on this possibility. I didn’t know what to do. Of course, I was traveling on an extremely limited budget too. I sat on a bench outside the youth hostel and felt sorry for myself. I was thousands of miles away from home for the first time in my life. I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t speak the language of this country. And I felt exhausted too, since I hadn’t had much sleep on my first ever international flight. What was I to do? I was close to tears.

I returned to the central train station and went to the TI office. A very helpful lady asked me what my budget was and then suggested a place which she circled on a city map of Rome. I was both relieved and worried as I left the station. I scrutinized the map wondering how to translate this two dimensional representation of Rome’s streets into a 3D reality. Then a well dressed young man came up to me. “You looking for place to stay?”
“I take you to pension.”
I had nothing to lose so I decided to follow him. Ten minutes later we arrived at a charming old building. We walked up the marble steps and as soon as we entered the building all of my apprehension vanished instantly. A stout middle aged Italian woman with the sweetest, warmest smile extended her hand to me. Coming from apartheid South Africa I wasn’t used to strangers, especially white people, embracing me in such a welcoming way. When I found out that the cost was $15 a night I was overjoyed. Then I discovered the concept of the pension – budget style accommodation. I was shown to my room. There were six single beds. On one of the beds a young woman was sound asleep. I loved the place even more. I had no idea that this type of thing existed – where you basically rented a bed in a room that you shared with other travelers. There was one bathroom shared by 10 people – both men and women. The place was clean and the décor was quaintly old Europe.

Within a few hours of being at the pension I met my roommates. They were all in their early twenties. Two women were from Sacramento, California, one was from Australia, and one from Argentina. I was relieved to be in the company of English speakers. They were super-friendly and invited me to do things with them. I was amazed at how savvy these young people were. They all had guide books (Let’s Go Europe) and maps and were very clear about the sites they wanted to see. They also knew how to travel on a budget. For lunch we bought fresh, crusty bread, cheese, and fruit. For dinner we mostly ate take-out pizza which was always yummy. As we traversed the narrow, cobbled streets of Rome I got to know my roommates better and thoroughly enjoyed being with them. The Australian, Mary, was on a one year trip around the world and she and I became quite close in our brief time together. The very first famous monument I visited was the Coloseum. In the ‘80’s it was free to see it and it consisted of just a semi-circular wall. But it looked pretty impressive all the same.
I fell in love with Rome’s beauty and elegance. Ornate old buildings with impressive columns, lively squares, beautiful fountains, and eye-catching sculpture all over the city. I visited the Vatican and saw Michaelangelo’s famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I discovered gelato and capucchino.
It was April and the temperature was perfect – a bit cool, but very comfortable. On my first evening I was surprised that it was still light at 8:00. “They’ve switched to daylight savings time,” I was told. Another brand new concept to me. Wow, the world outside South Africa was so much more sensible!

After three days in Rome all my roommates were moving on to new places. It made me sad to see them packing their bags. The Californians suggested I go with them. “Sorrento is on the Amalfi Coast. Supposed to be beautiful there.” I realized I’d seen the highlights of Rome so why not explore a new place? So I packed my things and joined them on the train journey to Sorrento.

Sorrento’s beauty took me by surprise. The town was very much smaller than Rome, but oh so charming, right beside the magical Mediterranean. We stayed at the youth hostel here. It was dirt cheap - $5.00 a night. We spent an exhilarating evening walking around the narrow, quiet streets and ate dinner at a real restaurant. The next day my friends were taking the train south. They were going to Greece next. They suggested I take a ferry to the Isle of Capri for the day. I was alone again and of course, nervous. But my confidence was building up and I found it quite easy to work out logistics. Before getting on the ferry I bought my lunch (bread roll and mozzarella) from a small, but well stocked store. The ferry was huge – the biggest boat I’d ever been on. It was a smooth, quick ride to the Isle of Capri. I had no real expectations of this island. So imagine my surprise when I got off the ferry! The turquoise of the Mediterranean seemed unreal. And the steep, sheer cliffs of the island took my breath away. A funiculare took me to the top where more jaw dropping beauty greeted me. I remember the first thing I did was to sit at a central café to take in the island’s charm. I ordered an orange juice. It cost $5.00! I nearly died. That was my budget for the day! I got a map from the TI and strolled around the island. About an hour into my walk I ran into Mary. She gave me a big hug. Together we explored the island. At lunch time we went into a park to find a nice place to sit and eat. Two American women – a mother and daughter - struck up a conversation with us along the way. They invited us to join them on their picnic lunch and shared their wine with us. The mother had recenty visited South Africa so we got into an involved conversation about apartheid. Their knowledge and understanding of racism really impressed me. I had such a great time. How was it that people, white people, outside of South Africa were so friendly? To be treated with such respect and as an equal just flummoxed me. After our long lunch I returned to Sorrento by myself and actually spent the evening alone for the first time since arriving in Italy. The next day I returned to Rome by myself, found my pension easily and spent the evening alone, exploring the area and taking in Rome’s vibrancy.
What a week! What an unbelievable, wonderful, unforgettable week!
And now I pack my bags and hope that the next weeks will bring fulfilling memories too.

10 June 2011

Another School Year Ends ...

For some inexplicable reason I feel I need to summarize the school year in a blog in order to bring closure to the year and officially feel like my vacation has started. It's been a week since I said good-bye to my 27 third graders and I have to say I do miss them. They were ... well, a flood of words come to mind: exuberant, robust, enthusiastic, loud, funny, motivated, hardworking, chatty, social. So, you can imagine, my days were quite exhausting. The most remarkable thing about all my students was that they enjoyed working hard. Give them a heavy duty assignment and they embrace it wholeheartedly, working quietly until a quality finished product emerges. But they loved to talk ... loudly ... at every available opportunity ...
On the last day of school I asked my students to write me a letter. I told them to tell me what makes them interesting and unique and why I would want to make them a character in my next novel! Despite their excitement about the year ending they actually put some effort into this assignment. I have to say these kids were all a pretty interesting bunch. Many of them mentioned their love for writing creative stories!

Overall, it was not my easiest year of teaching. The first half of the year was especially challenging with a myriad of behavior issues and ascertaining academic capabilities. But after January, once I figured out some techniques and bonded with the kids, things got easier. This class of kids worked really well together and it was almost as if we were a huge family. They were all loving, caring, and respectful.
But, again, they were extremely chatty, making my job a difficult one.

The administrative pressures this year were very subdued, thankfully. It was quite a relief that the standardized tests weren't an obsession as they'd been in previous years. Have to say, not much has changed regarding No Child Left Behind. What's the deal on that?

The start of summer vacation .... hmmmm ... I'm thrilled. Hope to get back to my writing. But, the big, big event is our trip to Europe. On June 22 we fly into Paris, spend a couple nights there, and then take the TGV to the Cote d'Azure for our "holiday". We've rented two gites because we'll be joined by a whole lot of relatives. We'll be based in Antibes, just meters from the Med. How about that? After the Riviera I'll go to Berlin to be with Max, Julia, and Fabian. We'll be having a big party for Fabian, who turns 5 this year. From Berlin I'll fly into London, where I'll be for two leisurely weeks. Lots to look forward to ...

02 April 2011

Capturing South Africa

The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane last week was the warm temperature. It felt sensational and I smiled as I yanked off my coat and fleece. At the doors of the airport building were about a half dozen uniformed men and women ready with wheelchairs. These folks were pure African – Zulus. Yes, I had arrived on the great continent! The Johannesburg airport looks like all the modern, gleaming airports you see around the world (except in the US!). A large picture of a smiling, healthy Nelson Mandela against a map of South Africa welcomes you. Immigration and customs went quickly, efficiently and within an hour of the plane landing I was already in the arrivals hall where Pam, Keayen, and Kimi were waiting for me.

We hit the busy, crazy highway and I was once again immersed in the country of my birth. The Rivonia Road exit caught my eye and I was reminded of the freedom fighters. It was at a house in Rivonia that Nelson Mandela met with the banned ANC and Communist Party folks to plot their overthrow of the apartheid government. This is where they were betrayed and arrested, resulting in the famous Rivonia Trial which led to Mandela’s lifelong sentence.

As soon as we arrived in Pam’s suburb of Honeydew I was greeted by a flock of hadeda birds (ibis) – crying out like cackling witches – beating their large, brown wings as they swooped across the sky. Surprisingly ugly cries from birds that are actually quite pretty. Yes, the sight and sound of these birds are an integral part of South Africa’s fabric.

Driving to my sister’s gated community, we past trees whose branches were bent with the weight of the ball like nests of weaver birds – small, yellow birds that flit in and around their nests.

At the grocery store – PicknPay – a food lover’s paradise – it was so obvious I was in South Africa when I heard the mingling of South African English – delightful to my ears now – “yaw” (their version of yeah) – and Zulu with distinct tongue clicks, and Afrikaans. One thing that caught my eye was that all the kids – mostly white, middle class – were barefoot.

Johannesburg is pretty lacking in scenic beauty. It’s flat, flat, flat everywhere. The city lies on a plateau, as does most of the country, but it is at quite a high altitude. The air here is really dry. Electric storms in the summer are frequent. On my first afternoon there was some serious lightning and thunder. Folks here are used to it. All homes have lightning rods on the roofs.

After two wonderful days in Johannesburg, we drove to Mum’s place in Ladysmith, 250 miles away. Most of the drive took us through flat countryside, which was quite colorful from endless fields of pink and white cosmos. We used to call these Easter flowers when I was little, because they always appeared in March and disappeared before the end of April. About eighty miles before Ladysmith the western Drakensberg emerges from the flatness and creates quite a dramatic scene. This final stretch is quite beautiful.

Ladysmith. My home town. Did I really grow up here? The biggest change I noticed was an enormous sculpture of African style black elongated pots arranged in a pyramid at the entrance. It was quite eye catching and beautiful. Otherwise, the town remains sleepy and lagging behind the rest of the world by a few decades.

From Ladysmith all my family and I went down to the coast. We spent a few delightful days in Umhlanga, a beach resort in Durban. The balmy, humid days and fresh sea air was quite uplifting. Every morning we got up to see the sun rise over the Indian Ocean and jogged barefoot on the beach. Quite the perfect start to the day. Spent lots of time with my mum and had a relaxing time.

One striking thing during my brief visit was that the conversations weren’t fixated on violent crime as it had been in the last two decades. Even in the Mail and Guardian, the top newspaper of the country, crime coverage was surprisingly small. Most of the paper seemed to be about government mismanagement, the Libyan situation and South Africa’s ambivalence regarding its UN Security Council vote to authorize a no fly zone, and Japan’s nuclear energy plants.

Middle class South Africans have decided that in order to have “normal” lives they have to live in gated communities where they can feel free to leave their doors open and have their kids ride bikes in the neighborhood. My sister’s gated community is enormous. It has a golf course, a few lakes, parks, tennis courts, and a club house with terrific restaurant. Many of the residents drive around the place in their own golf carts.

During my entire time here the country was fixated on cricket. The International Cricket games were on and South Africa was hotly favored to win. Unfortunately, they got knocked out early in the tournament. My mum enjoyed the semi finals between India and Pakistan, which was a real nail-biter. India won and my mum was overjoyed. Right now everyone is watching the final between India and Sri Lanka. People here want to know if Americans would be following the final. When I told them Americans know nothing about cricket they were shocked. “But this means they are so isolated from the world!”

And so my visit comes to an end!

08 January 2011

Costa Rica Trip

We escaped to the tropics over Christmas again this year! This time we decided to venture into Latin America. Costa Rica, it turns out, is Latin America "lite"! Yes, it's in Central America, and yes, they speak Spanish, and yes, it's a third world country. But that might be the extent of its Latin Americanness.
We had a very enjoyable two weeks as we sampled the country's main attractions.

What I liked the most was that we spent most of our time out in the wilderness, hiking through forests, and taking in the natural beauty and wildlife of the country. We saw three toed and two toed sloths just about everyday. We also saw toucans quite frequently. Costa Rica is famous for its birds and though neither Daryl nor I are birdwatchers, we really enjoyed seeing many colorful, beautiful birds everywhere. I loved seeing the many different types of hummingbirds. We were also extremely fortunate to see the Monteverde quetzal, found only in the Monteverde cloud forests.

When we planned the trip we wanted to be sure to sample the major offerings of the country. The three musts we were told were: active volcanoes, cloud forests, and rain forests. Of course, we had to check out the capital, San Jose, too, and we definitely wanted to enjoy a few days at some nice beach. So we acquired a guide book - THE ROUGH GUIDE TO COSTA RICA - and came up with the following itinerary: a night in San Jose, two nights in La Fortuna from where we could get to Volcan Arenal, three nights in Santa Elena, the base for the famous cloud forest of Monteverde, five nights in Manuel Antonio which promised both a rain forest and great beaches, and a final couple nights in San Jose for a visit to another famous volcano, Volcan Poas. To get around we decided rather than rent a car, we would take the Gray Lines, a private shuttle company, which picked you up from your hotel and dropped you off at your next hotel.

This plan worked really well and the trip was overall, rather successful. One thing I would do differently is skip Manuel Antonio and go further south to the Osa peninsula where the Corcovado Reserve is.

We flew first class to Costa Rica due to some weird circumstances. The airline we had originally been booked on - Mexicana - went bankrupt in the summer. When we looked into airfares after that we found that for only a little extra money we could get better flights, flying first class!!!

We arrived in the evening and spent the first night in the town of Alajuela which is close to the airport. The warm temperature was immediately noticeable. Our hotel, Mi Tierra, was a bit more modest than I hoped for, but it was spotless and had a pretty garden with tropical vegetation, and an inviting pool. After checking in we went into the little town in search of food, seeking out the suggestions in our guidebook. Well, we soon found out that street names didn't exist and even with a map, places were hard to find. We did eventually find a Mexican place called Jalapenos. Tasteful decor and friendly waiters made us feel like our vacation had really begun. We had tostadas and enchiladas which came with lots of vegetables, roasted, flavorful, and satisfying. The local beer - Imperial - went nicely with this. Daryl said it was the best Mexican food he had ever eaten.

The next morning, after a breakfast of tropical fruit, scrambled eggs, and toast, we explored Alajuela. In the daylight it looked a lot more cheerful, despite the shabby buildings and narrow streets. Daryl suggested we go to the zoo for an introduction to Costa Rican wildlife. We took a city bus - old and clunky - and it turned out to be quite uncomplicated to get to the zoo. We had a lovely time gawking at parrots and monkeys and various cats. The highlight was seeing iguanas of various colors and features, parading around the entire zoo. Daryl had never seen an iguana before so it was a thrill for him.

For lunch we had heavenly papayas, bananas, and pineapple purchased from street vendors back in town. We spent the afternoon exploring the capital San Jose. Our hotel, the Fleur de Lys, was gorgeous. It was very central and such an elegant, classy place. San Jose was crowded and walking through the pedestrianized Avenue Central and Avenue 4 felt like being part of a herd. Because it was a week before Christmas, there was quite a festive atmosphere in the city. At various squares there was live music. San Jose is a very understated capital city. It's best feature is the presence of quite a few landscaped parks in the city center. It doesn't have grand buildings and great museums like most capitals. The only remarkable building - the Teatro National - happened to be closed for the holiday season. I believe the interior looks like a Parisian opera house.

I had been hoping we'd find a classy restaurant with fine food for the evening, but we had no such luck. The only eating places we could see in the downtown area were fast food American chains. We stumbled upon a vegetarian place called Vishnu, where we dined on veggie burgers.
The next morning we had a typical Costa Rican breakfast at our hotel. Fresh, tropical fruit, eggs, fried plantains, queso fresco (cheese), and gallepinto (rice and beans). By 8:00 in the morning we were on the road to La Fortuna, the base for the volcano called Arenal. The ride was quite pleasant and it was interesting to see the mostly uninhabited Costa Rican countryside. It's so green and the land rises and falls constantly.

We arrived at La Fortuna at around midday. Our hotel, Monte Real, was delightful, with sliding doors leading to a terrace from where we had a view of the volcano. You quickly learn that the volcano is almost always covered in cloud and more than half the tourists that come here, leave without seeing the volcano. We learned that there are lava flows periodically and at night when this happens Volcan Arenal is quite spectacular. The volcano was dormant while we were there, but on a late afternoon tour to a viewpoint we were able to see the entire volcano quite clearly. So we were happy.
La Fortuna is also famous for its thermal springs. On our second day we arranged with a tour company to visit the La Fortuna Waterfalls, followed by a hike through a forest which had a trail that consisted of eighteen hanging bridges, and then ending the day at Baldi Hot Springs resort.
The tour company (Red Lava), unfortunately, didn't deliver has promised! We were told we would have our own private guide with a four wheel drive that entire day. That's what we paid for and that's what we signed up for! They took us to the waterfalls and then left, telling us they'd return two hours later. We hiked down a scenic, steep trail to the waterfalls, which were quite lovely. Then we discovered that there were pools nearby and people were splashing about in them. We hadn't carried our swimsuits, so to our great disappointment couldn't jump into the tantalizing water.
Another driver turned up at the time promised and took us to the Hanging Bridges. He was actually quite knowledgeable and the hike with him was pretty informative. He then dropped us off at a hot springs resort - but not the one we had signed up for (Baldi). We were persuaded to go to this smaller place, Laureles, (saving Red Lava money, of course) which was actually not bad at all. We had excellent views of the volcano from the various pools. If I hadn't felt cheated I would have been fine with the place. Anyway, the driver dropped us off, arranging a pick-up time with us.
We had a great time soaking in the hot water and then intermittently cooling off in a swimming pool. After a fun, fun time, and me constantly reminding myself to get over the fact that we should have been at Baldi, we dried up, got into our regular clothes and went to wait for our driver. Half an hour later we were still waiting! You can imagine our state of mind. It was pitch dark and we were hungry too. We walked over to the gates and explained our problem to the guards in pathetic Spanish. The guards were super helpful, called up the tour company, and about fifteen minutes later we were rescued! Phew!

As if we weren't depressed enough about the tour company's flakiness, the dinner options back in town were pretty dismal. By now we realized that Costa Rica's culinary scene is rather underdeveloped. Rice, bland beans, and fried plantains are staples for every meal and this is always an option. But we wanted something different. We settled for an Italian restaurant that carried a few vegetarian pasta options. Daryl's pasta primevera was worse than he was expecting and my pizza had a thick, doughy crust and too much tasteless cheese!

The next morning we took a jeep, then a boat, and then a jeep again to Monteverde across Lake Arenal. Our base was Santa Elena, a bustling little town. We stayed at Hotel Don Taco where we had a cabin with huge windows providing views of the Gulf of Nicoya. This part of the trip was the most memorable. First, there were the cloud forests. Hiking through the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves was utterly magical. You are enshrouded in mist, and completely surrounded by nature. Because of a steady drizzle we had to wear rain ponchos. You hear a constant splattering sound. The trees appear to be weeping. There is such an amazing amount of green. The tree trunks have thick carpets of moss over them and the branches above are covered with enormous epiphytes. Strangler vines dangle like ropes all over the place. You hear bird sounds and of course, we saw a fair variety of birds. Best of all, we actually saw a quetzal!
Another memorable aspect of this place - Monteverde (Santa Elena) was that it was cold! At night the wind howled so fiercely it kept us awake. It was hard to believe we were in the tropics as we zipped up our coats and dug our hands deep into our pockets! The continental divide goes through the Monteverde forest, causing the howling winds!
A final, but important note: Santa Elena had a few really good restaurants. Our favorite was The Treehouse. This restaurant has three walls, with one side open to the outside.  The floor is a raised platform built around a large tree. The effect is gorgeous. The menu was great too  with many cutting edge veggie options. We had an amazing fondue on our first evening there. The cheese sauce was full of flavor and they gave us a whole lot of fresh veggies for dipping.
Monteverde is also a famous coffee producing region. We saw coffee plants for the first time here and went on a tour to a local coffee farm to learn how coffee is grown! Costa Rica coffee is delicious and smooth, a bit like Kona coffee, only stronger.
I learned a few depressing facts about coffee. The growers make about $1.00 per pound of coffee. They ship their dried coffee beans to coffee companies around the world where they are freshly roasted and sold to retailers. Think about what you pay for a pound of fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee. The grower, who is responsible for paying the pickers a living wage, only get a $1.00. Who gets most of the money that you pay for your coffee?

On Christmas morning we left chilly Monteverde for Manuel Antonio. Boy, were we ready for warmth and beaches! We decided to make our dinner and enjoy a lazy afternoon/evening by the pool. I have to say, our Christmas day turned out to be blissful. Our apartment was elegant and luxurious. The pool and pool area were just perfect for relaxing. There was forest all around the building and when we sat out in our apartment terrace we felt like we were in a rainforest. Birds and monkeys (mainly capuchins) were frequent visitors, evidently loving the dense tropical vegetation. We swam in the pool, drank beer, read our books, and cooked a simple, but tasty meal, featuring plantains, rice,  and lentils. Daryl made a dessert with bananas, roasted, sliced almonds, dark, melted chocolate, and ice-cream. OMG! It was heavenly.

We spent five glorious days in Manuel Antonio. We were a mile from the nearest beach and a half hour walk to the park. I have to say this park is completely overrated. The forest, after Monteverde, is pretty ordinary. But the beaches within the park are lovely. The Manuel Antonio Beach is especially nice because it is calmer and better for swimming. The water temperature is unbelievably warm. The beaches outside the park are quite unremarkable. Even though the place didn't meet with my expectations we still had a great time.

We spent our last two nights in Alajuela. On our last day we went on an organized tour to see another active volcano and the La Paz waterfalls. Volcan Poas has a lake at its crater. Again we were lucky to be able to see the crater. What an amazing sight with vapors curling up into sky and the sulphur deposits around the rim.
The La Paz Waterfalls were the most thunderous falls I have ever seen. There's a series of four waterfalls, each more powerful, than the previous. What a finale!!
And that was it!!