Getting High in Cape Town

No, not that kind of high..although we did get approached several times walking out of the backpackers (hostel) by dudes offering “good marijuana – you will like it very much!” I guess they have figured out a good place to target their sales pitch.

Actually, I just wanted to share some of the beautiful views we had being up high, you know, on hills, in Cape Town. Cape Town has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world: gorgeous beaches with towering, craggy peaks rising out of the shoreline.

We had a picnic on Signal Hill at sunset, and we enjoyed it so much, we did it again.

View of Cape Town from our picnic spot on Signal Hill
Cape Town, especially Table Mountain, gets enveloped by the "Table Cloth" - a wave of mist that comes and blankets the city.
Table Mountain, right before sunset "set" in
Sunset on Signal Hill

After 2 picnics on Signal Hill, we set our sights on getting even higher.  It took us until our last day in Africa, but we managed to reach the summit of Table Mountain on our final morning.  Anna wasn’t feeling well, so she rode the cable car each way before rushing off for Robben Island.  I was feeling good (and cheap – $14 each way for the cable car!) so I decided I could hike the 3 miles up.

And after an hour, I was really regretting that decision.  On the one hand, the view was stunning and I could stop every 5 or 10 minutes and just stare out over the majesty of Table Bay, catching my breath and reveling in the beauty of nature.  On the other hand, I felt like I was going to vomit every few steps and had to stop and catch my breath.  It was hard to enjoy the view because the footing is steep and extremely rocky – most of the time I was staring at the ground, trying not to tumble down Table Mountain.

But it was worth it.  It took me 1 hour 40 minutes and the sense of accomplishment at the top was worth the agony on the way up.  I’ve been feeling out of shape in Africa – we don’t walk much because so much of Africa has to be seen by car.  Either there’s crime or lions threatening you if you walk.  The climb up the mountain had my heart pumping and sweat pouring – in a good way.  That said, I gladly paid the $14 and rode the cable car down, for the experience, of course.

The best way to get high in Cape Town!
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Robben Island

On our last day in Cape Town, I had a whirlwind of a day ending with a visit to Robben Island before rushing to the airport. Robben Island was an infamous prison for political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma (current South African President), during Apartheid. It is very popular and it is essential to reserve a spot in advance for a scheduled tour (the only way you can visit). Continue reading “Robben Island”

Diving…with Great White Sharks!

Let me start by assuring you that I’m fine.  I still have all 10 fingers and all 10 toes.

 

Shark jumping, not jumping the shark

 

Now that our parents (and Aunt Kita) can stop hyperventilating, I can tell you about the craziest-sounding thing I’ve done so far.  After a full day of shark diving, I’d say it’s not as crazy, in reality, as jumping off the gorge swing…or taking the overnight train in Egypt.  But it was still pretty unbelievable. Continue reading “Diving…with Great White Sharks!”

Cape Town’s Best Restaurant by guest blogger Anita Powell

While this is undoubtedly the pinnacle (to date) of Anita’s writing career, you may have read her work in some less reputable places like the Austin American Statesman, the Stars and Stripes or various world newspapers as a correspondent for the Associated Press.  She lives in Jo’burg, editing for the AP and is married to my friend Johnson.  He’s in Austin, finishing his Phd (finally – we started college together…12 years ago) but Anita made the trip out to Cape Town for a long weekend with us.  Anna enjoyed having a wine-drinking partner, I enjoyed having a competent navigator (in the form of the GPS Anita brought with her) and we all had a great time.

CAPE TOWN’S BEST RESTAURANT

I went to Cape Town with an assignment from my mother-in-law: to take Tommy and Anna out for a nice meal.

An easy assignment, really, as Cape Town is reputed to have the best restaurants on the continent. Unfortunately, many of them also come with a free side of pretension. I turn up my nose at you, Belthazar, with your one-letter-off misspelling and your refusal to let nice people sit on your patio on a quiet afternoon and sample one of the 250 wines by the glass of which you are so proud. Nobu,  I’m sure you are fantastic, but I’ll go to the original, thanks. And Rueben, I’m sure you’re lovely too, but worth driving over a mountain? Not so sure.

Nothing but the best would do. Which is how we found ourselves in a long, dark corridor – sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and a cheap fish-and-chip shop – with our fate in the hands of a small, imperious Japanese woman.

I am of course talking about Minato, a tiny, ornery restaurant that has a cult following for having Cape Town’s best sushi. But that is certainly nowhere reflected in the décor. The atmosphere in the 35-seat restaurant is inversely proportional to the food. I could say the setting has character but that would be generous. The décor is best described as “basement karaoke bar.” It’s dark where you don’t want it to be (hello, bathrooms) and too bright everywhere else (you could perform surgery in the dining room).

And there are rules. Oh, there are rules. The walls are plastered with hand-written signs informing you of the rigid code that governs the restaurant.

First rule: You do not talk about Minato.

(Kidding.)

But seriously: They do not take debit cards. They do not serve dessert, so don’t think of asking. You must reserve or you will not get a seat (the sign rather cruelly adds, “Ha ha ha.”) They will not take your order piecemeal –you are firmly instructed to order all at once, and then “RELAX.” Relax, dammit!

Posing Japanese
(In your head, make this ha-ha-ha laughter sound maniacal)

I think Tommy and Anna were a bit alarmed when the waitress marched over, slammed down a plate of wasabi and demanded our entire order. Probably the last time Tommy made that face was when his calculus teacher announced a pop quiz.

But we got through it, and were richly rewarded. The house “special fried roll” consists of a slab of tuna, a slab of salmon and a hunk of avocado, bound by seaweed (no rice) and tempura-fried. Words cannot convey how delicious that is. Another favourite of mine is the “special crying inside out roll,” distinguished by its bright green rice (mixed with wasabi). Tommy also ordered and was rewarded with the Mexican roll, which was not really Mexican but delicious. I had the fantastic San Diego roll, which featured tempura avocado. And Anna chose the classic tuna and ginger roll, which was delicious in its simplicity.

There’s really not much more to say. We demolished it and loved it. Minato: go.

I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so!

On the rare occasions that I come across a copy of the New Yorker, I invariably think to myself, “this magazine would be so much better with recipes.” The same could be said about this blog post. I am not Frank Bruni, so let me throw a bit of Mark Bittman at you to atone for that.

Here is a simple recipe for tempura. Easy, cheap, and a great option when you have extra vegetables around and you don’t know what to do with them. I’ll also include a recipe for a dipping sauce.

I know it sounds involved but almost all of these ingredients are each less than $1, or easy to find or borrow. Also, it feeds a crowd …

INGREDIENTS:

Tempura batter:

100g cornstarch (about 8 tablespoons?)

50g flour (about 4 tablespoons)

One egg

150ml ice water (less than a cup, or five shots, if you want to be exact)

Salt

Cheap cooking oil – canola or sunflower

Dipping sauce:

Few drops sesame oil if you have it

2T soy sauce

2T sweet soy sauce (called kecap manis) I guess you could substitute with a bit of honey or molasses?

2T sushi vinegar

Big pinch of Japanese sansho pepper mix, if you have it.

2T chopped spring onion

OR make katsu sauce  by mixing ketchup, worchestershire sauce and soy sauce in descending quantities. I guess you could also find a pre-made sauce of some kind: sweet Thai chilli sauce would be good.

Delicious things to fry:

Potatoes or sweet potatoes, sliced into discs

Carrot sticks

Broccoli florets

Whole mushrooms

Asparagus spears

Whole baby onions

Tofu, cubed

Avocado, cut into spears. Ideally should be not quite ripe.

Baby cabbage, cut into wedges

Brussels sprouts, cut in half

Baby corn

Fresh jalapenos? That might be delicious. Cut in half lengthwise and de-seed.

PROCEDURE:

Don’t let that long list scare you. This is really easy.

Mix up one of the sauces and prep the vegetables.

First fill a deep saucepan or wok with about an inch of oil and put over heat. It should take about 5-10 minutes to heat up.

Cover a plate with a paper towel and set next to the frying pan. Find tongs or a slotted spoon.

In a bowl, mix the batter loosely and roughly. You actually want lumpy batter, and it’s fine to have ice cubes in the batter at first. The batter should be a bit runny.

Dip your vegetables in the batter to coat, and drop into the oil. Let it fry for about 2 minutes, or until the item floats. Remove with tongs/slotted spoon and put on top of the paper-towel plate.

Repeat until you have a plate of crunchy deliciousness.

Mmmmmm

Anna Rides the Ostrich

One of the towns along Route 62 (the longest wine route in the world) is Ooudtshorn.  We didn’t intend to stay in Ooudtshorn or have it be anything more than a marker of distance between wineries, but some bad weather on the way to Knysna, a beach town we were heading toward, made us turn and sometimes, that’s how you find the coolest stuff.  Continue reading “Anna Rides the Ostrich”

Wine, Wine and More Wine

I love the wine country! I love to visit wineries, enjoy the scenery (always beautiful at wineries), and taste the wine. I like the silly explanations they give you to appreciate the wine – this wine has hints of green peppers and cassis (mind you, those things are not good together…).

We spent our first day in the South African wine country, around Stellenbosch, and it was all I had hoped and more. The scenery is absolutely amazing. As you drive, each curve in the road reveals dramatic rocky mountains, surrounded by acres and acres of green vineyards. Since it is summer here, the grapes are almost fully ripened. Harvest is starting at some wineries now, and will continue for another six weeks or so, depending on the winemaker’s decision and the vineyard location.

We headed out without a plan, so we just stopped at signs for wineries along the road. There are literally hundreds. I wish I had researched them and carefully selected the ones I want to visit, but traveling as much as we do, and with internet as limited as it is here, it’s really hard to do that. And I didn’t. I don’t know if we visited the best ones, whatever that means, but I had a wonderful time, and Tommy was a patient driver.

Our first winery was clearly a larger operation, fully organized for tourists – Spier. It is somewhere that South Africans frown upon for its commercialism and polish. However, it was a nice introduction, and the advantage to commercialism and polish is well, polish. Also, I really liked their Shiraz. And, entrepreneur-mind that I have, I don’t hold it against a business if I can tell they are making money. I just respect them for it. Anyway, enough soap box, more wine. For the tasting, we were seated in a lovely garden with vines growing overhead. The wine is so affordable here, with most bottles being less than $10, and the “higher end” are around $20 – $30. However, we inquired about shipping to the US, and no go. The customs charges on each bottle are $30 – on a $5 bottle! Ridiculous.

Tasting the Shiraz at Spier...happy Anna!

We hopped back in the car and continued down the road about five minutes. The second winery, Delaire, offered a stunning view and a luxurious atmosphere. Walking into the wine tasting area / restaurant was like entering a 5-star hotel. They seat you at a private table overlooking the vineyards and the mountains. A waiter serves you, and ours offered additional nice scenery, in my opinion, along with a cute South African accent. Tommy was less convinced. The wine here was delicious, but the views were the real star of the experience. Enjoying the view and the delicious wine was one of those moments to remember in life – you know the one – where you take a moment from the barrage of thoughts roaming your head, propelling you on to the next thing, planning your next move, and just look. For me, this was a great moment to just be alive, and to appreciate the amazing natural beauty of the world and the bounty of the earth.

Here's the view we enjoyed while tasting. Not bad.

Of course, being me – always on the go, with a brain in constant forward motion and a bias toward doing, I wanted to continue to have that feeling, so I wanted to do more of what allowed me to stop and be truly present – visit wineries. I misconstrued the feeling as one related to winery visiting, when now, upon reflection, I realize that I can create moments of appreciation intentionally, almost anywhere. It’s not the scenery that counts – it’s the awareness. One of the blessings of traveling for so long is the myriad opportunities to get to know myself better in different circumstances, and to find the circumstances that allow me to be my best version.

Other than the generic, and true, answer that I love to travel, a significant motivation for me to leave my normal life for a year was the chance to become more myself. It is almost like taking home a new piece of art and displaying it against different backdrops to evaluate where it fits – where do I fit? As I see myself against different backdrops, and experience ridiculous inconveniences, remove my normal supports and brainless habits, I can see myself more clearly. The moments of being are, for me, the biggest gift of our trip so far. Finding time to be, to be open to the full experience and emotions of life, is a challenge for me at home. Building my skill at being present is something I’ve been working on while we travel.

We continued on, and stopped at a boutique winery owned by a young South African entrepreneur. He had been a sports agent, then had two daughters and didn’t want to raise them in big city, hustle bustle Jo’berg. So he bought a winery and started making wine instead, or something like that. Certainly not a path available to most people, but also a path not taken by many people who could. In a way, I can relate to him – he chose to do something unusual with his opportunity, to make the most of it as he understood it for himself. One series of his wines raise money for an orphanage here, and others have his daughter’s hand-prints engraved on the label, or his wife’s kiss mark.

We visited another winery after that, with a big beautiful garden to enjoy during the tasting. It was just the icing on the cake of a very “Anna” day. I am so lucky to have a sweet partner willing to share in my joy at visiting wineries and drive me around so I can do it safely. He always wants to read the tasting sheet, with the notes about the wine – and pick out the most ridiculous of the descriptions….toasty cedar? new leather? He recommends which wines I should select for tastig based on the level of ridiculous in the description. When they come, even though he doesn’t drink wine, he “noses” them, then usually makes a disgusted face and hands it over. Somehow, it’s rather endearing.

And thank goodness Tommy is patient because we kept visiting more and more wineries. I think we made it to around 20 all told, but not all in one day. I also did some port tasting – including pink port, which they suggest you serve over crushed ice as an apertif. It actually wasn’t bad.

Trying to decide which to try...so many options!

After a few days of visiting wineries on my own, I finally had a friend to taste with – our friend Anita from Jo’burg. She was a great tasting buddy, recommending some of her favorite wineries and providing a knowledgeable discussion partner for me. Much more fun that way! I want to try to paint a picture of the last winery I visited, with Anita.

We arrived about 15 minutes before closing on a Sunday at one last winery. We know nothing about it; we just stopped because we saw the sign on the road and decided to check it out. The grounds were beautiful, lush, a bit disorganized. We walked into this charming room that looks as if it has not been disturbed, or even dusted, since about 1713. The winery was founded in the late 1600s, so this is possible. The tasting room has a somehow charming Mrs. Haversham feel to it – cobwebs, paintings, a piano…and of course, many bottles of wine.

Behind the counter are two people working, a harried and grumpy waitress, and a 22 year old man who fancies himself quite the smart wine-tasting hipster. He has an air of thinking he is slightly too cool for all of this, and yet, he’s so young, it’s comical. The waitress is constantly erupting in strings of expletives and disgust over the fact that she cannot close her register correctly. She interrupts Mr. Cool, who is giving us an elaborate wine schpeel with the seriousness of a professor, to insist he probably screwed up the money collection, only after a brief discussion, some eye rolling from both, to determine they will just lie to close the till correctly. The owners children wander in, slipping ice down the back of a third, laid back worker we’ve hardly even noticed. He yelps, and runs after the child, while Mr. Cool gives us another eye roll and threatens to kill them all. Anita (our friend), all calm and collected, manages to continue a dialogue with Mr. Cool about which wineries are worth visiting, and which are not. Somehow, after all the polish and flash of some of the wineries, the humanity of this place left me with a warm memory.

Of course, now I’m fantasizing about having my own winery when I get back – then this could be a business trip, and I could live amongst this beauty every day. Would I survive as a farmer?

Sometimes the drive is a big part of the destination, especially when it looks like this.

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Farewell Namibia

I miss you already, and I haven’t even been gone 24 hours. Before we got to Namibia, everyone we talked to said – “oh, you’ll love Namibia!” But it was never entirely clear to me WHY we would love it, just that everyone was confident we would. Now I understand. Namibia is not a country where one attraction draws you to visit, but instead a country where the overall experience is lovely. Just lovely.

We arrived in Windhoek (pronounced Vindhok), and I thought to myself, “Isn’t this a nice city? So clean, with attractive restaurants and easy to navigate on foot.” We didn’t spend much time there, however, and didn’t even get to visit the famous restaurant, Joe’s, specializing in meat.

Continue reading “Farewell Namibia”