A Travellerspoint blog

May 2007

Welcome to South Africa

Let me show you to your jail cell.

It was late. I had been travelling for 26 straight hours on three hours sleep. I had just flown into Cape Town from Qatar which was disconcerting enough -- it's a very strange feeling to be on the ground in a place you know you couldn't find on a map. All I could think about was my first hot shower in 4 months. So when I arrived in South Africa a month ago to find myself surrounded by belligerant customs officials threatening to throw me in jail and deport my sorry self straight back to India I was not in the mood for politeness. I won't lie, as I wearily pondered my lack of options with the 700 pages of Long Walk to Freedom weighing heavily in my sack, I briefly romanticized the idea of spending my first night in S.A. in prison. Something inside me wanted to raise my right fist toward the sky and shout "iAfrika I'm with you Nelson". As I thought about this picture and cursed the s.a. establishment for always trying to keep the black man down, I soon remembered three important facts: first - a night in the Cape Town International Airport Holding Cell isn't exactly Robbin Island; second - I am in fact not an oppressed black man so much as I'm pastey and priveleged and will never understand the struggle; and finally that prison fantasies tend to be of the type that almost always dissapoint.
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So, quelling my inner protester, I put on my best takepityonmei'mjustapoortiredgirltravellingthishardhardworldonherown face and managed to convince my personal security guard to beg the slowest airline ticket counter lady in the world to reopen her stall so that I could purchase something other than a 7000 rand one way ticket to Amsterdam and get myself the hell out of the airport. Several hours and a fallen dream of being a South African freedom fighter later, I snuggled into a nice warm bed with my own bathroom with actual running water nearby and an English speaking family and dogs and a cat and television and the huge vacancy of being in a place without constant noise, sights, and sounds impaling me from every angle (oh, India, I miss you). And so, the moral of this story is as you can plainly see is: don't come to south africa without a ticket out of here. Even a seasoned briber like myself couldn't finagle so much as a secret handshake of understanding from these grouchy customs guys.

In any event, since that first night however things have been remarkably easy here in South Africa. In the wake of India, Africa has felt remarkably empty and peaceful, abeit equally as bemusing and complex. In my first three days in this country (a country whose white african population constitutes a mere 10-15% of the total), the only dark skinned people I saw were the ones taking out the trash and cleaning our toilets. I have to admit my inital thought here was "this is the 'new south africa' "? But while my first impression was definitely a cynical one, as the days and weeks have gone on I've begun to see more and more of the many layers of this country. There have been moments when I've paused to look around me and have been completely in awe of the beauty and complexity of the culture where in a room of 20 people there could easily be 20 different skin tones and 20 different languages. Race relations are a definite focal point and I'm nowhere near getting a grasp on all of the currents and friction involved but I am uplifted by the country's apparent willingness to face their issues head on. It seems everyone, in all race groups and social classes, are thinking about and talking about ways to make their country a better place. There are public service campaigns toting South Africa as the land of possibility and honestly, I sort of feel it.

So, after several weeks here, travelling around, learning, reading, talking to people, my hope for the 'new' South Africa is significantly lifted - so much so that I'm taking up residency; I've accepted a job in educational development that will keep me in S.A. indefinitely so new ideas and experiences are sure to unfold. Certainly the added bonus that South Africa might be the single most beautiful place on the planet doesn't hurt ...

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Posted by Ivory 10:46 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Seven Wonders of the World...

Vote. It's your civic duty.

I always thought the "7 Wonders of the World" were set in stone. Not really a matter for debate. Either you made the list or you didn't.

Apparently...I was wrong. (I say that sentence rarely, so enjoy it while you can.)

Go here: http://www.new7wonders.com/index.php?id=351&L=0

The history seems a bit complicated. The wonders of the ancient world was a list of what was deemed the seven great structures of classical antiquity. Apparently based on guidebooks from Greek tourists of the age, only one still stands, the Pyramids at Giza. Though you can see the site of the Colossus of Rhodes or the Temple of Artemis (and your bribers have, at that) that's apparently the only real show in town.

A few thousand years later, someone with a sense of humor decided to create a list for the wonders of the Middle Ages. Many amazing sites are included on that list, though the list isn't so much seven wonders as eleven...either there was significant disagreement, or counting was not a prized skill in medieval times.

Somewhere in the 20th century, we lost control of the list. There became a list for the seven natural wonders, for the seven modern wonders (the CNN tower? seriously?) and the seven tourist wonders. Clearly, the wheels had come off the wagon, and it was time to narrow. To focus. To examine the great sites of the world and show some taste in the matter. Can't just hand these things out like candy, or UNESCO World Heritage Site ratings.

This task apparently fell to a Swiss organization called the New Open World Cooperation. In 2001 they started combing the world and in 2006, they released a list of 21 finalist.

Your bribers have been to a number of them including:
-The Acropolis
Seven years ago. Spent most of the time laughing at people taking digital shots and home movies of the urn collection in the neighboring museum.
-The Alhambra
Twice now. Never fails to take your breath away.
-Ankor Watt
Ali could tell you about that. But she's apparently on strike. Does it count as a strike if you never blogged in the first place?
-The Colosseum
7 years ago again. The entire time I was whining to Alison that I had to go back to the hotel to wait for a phone call from my boyfriend. We called it the summer of Juliet. Yes. I too, was once lame.
-The Eiffel Tower
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-The Great Wall
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Did I mention it was, in fact, great?
-Haiga Sophia
Eh. Nice. Big. Sturdy. Old.
-Kiyomizu Temple
Hard to distinguish among the 8,396 temples we saw in Kyoto.
-Manchu Pichu
Sarah's department.
-Petra
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-Pyramids of Giza
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-The Statue of Liberty
Seriously?
-Stonehenge
Some stones. Nicely arranged, grant you.
-Taj Mahal
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Looking at the list...at the incredible disparity between these things, after all, how can you compare the Pyramids with the Eiffel Tower? How bogus is it that something like The Statue of Liberty even made it to the final round? What on earth is the criteria?

I looked into this. Apparently, age has nothing to do with it, as it covers the entire span of human history. Instead they are judging based on structure quality, geographic dimension, artistic/cultural value, recognition and diversity...whatever the last two mean.

But really...it should be so much more than that. Alison made a great point - it shouldn't just be an impressive architectural structure. It should have some aspect of mystery or, dare I say, wonder. It should take your breath away. You should feel all at once amazed at what man can do and mystified by how on earth it was achieved. And no amount of explaining can fix that.

And so, without further ado, we present you with another list. It's not a perfect list. Some of these things are not even structures, but experiences. Nonetheless, offer it we do. Your favorite bribers now humbly submit for your approval...

Better than a large statue in a moderately dirty harbor...Marvels of the world that will knock you on your ass:

1. A balloon ride over Cappadocia, Turkey
Magical. Can't describe. Just look...
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2. Abu Simbel, Egypt
It's not just that the statues of Ramses II that guard this temple are austere and massive and many stories high, because they are. It's realizing that 40 years ago, an international team took 4 years to disassemble the entire structure and put it back together in a different and higher location, to save it from submersion from the rising water of the Nile due to the construction of a dam. Plus no one is allowed to take pictures inside, so you can actually see the carvings and paintings without being blinded by the constant flash of cameras. (The digital camera was a horrible invention, giving people with no talent or interest the ability to take hundreds of low quality pictures of a subject, without actually looking at the subject except through a camera lens, and then allowing them to bore friends, relatives, neighbors etc with said photos of something they visited but didn't actually experience).

3. A bus ride through India
Hard to do it justice. But ride through any random town or city in India. And the visual stimulation is so overwhelming- the colors and images that flash by you, not to mention the smells and sounds. Sensory overload is an understatement. And you're just filled with amazement at the delicate order that rules the seeming chaos. And moderately impressed that this society has not collapsed at this point...
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4. Walking the Brooklyn Bridge, NY, USA
Eternal optimism of the human spirit. Don't even get me started.

5. Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic
At midnight. When the statues are dark but the castle is still lit up. It feels haunted...and you feel a creeping paranoia that a KGB spy in a trench coat will pop out and begin torturing you...

6. The marketplace in Marakesh, Morocco
At dusk it starts to come alive. Food is being cooked and touts try to hustle you into a table. There are snake charmers sprinkled throughout and little groups of musicians playing or puppet shows, theater troops and magicians. Smoke starts to billow everywhere and it could be 300 years ago, but for the other tourist milling around with their digital camera. That's pretty much when the charm starts to wear off.

7. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India
Maybe its the sacred pool that surrounds it. Or the cool of marble under your freshly washed feet. (There is something about being in a temple or mosque, where they require your shoes to be removed. Padding around, somehow...it makes you more aware of everything.) Maybe its the removal of the holy book on its long golden bed, supported by 15 Sheiks, all staggering under the weight. Hard to say. But maybe my favorite sight in India. And that's saying a lot.
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So, go to the website. You only have 60 days left before they close the books. Look at the 21 choices. Choose wisely. Although you are entitled to your own opinion, if you vote for the Statue of Liberty over something like Ankor Wat or the statues at Easter Island, hang your head in shame. This accolade will bring much needed tourism to each country that gets this listing. So Cambodia and Mali are more greatly in need of those tourist dollars than New York...stepping down from soap box now. Apologies.

But also, make your own damn list. What have you done? What have you seen that gave you chills, made you breath deeply at a sight or experience? What has filled you with wonder? Despite feeling a bit like Hard Harry in asking this, your bribers welcome your contributions to this list of wonder filled experiences.

We're waiting. And we're not known for our patience.

Posted by lbassi 14:25 Archived in Serbia Comments (3)

Good Riddance, Bulgaria.

We've Come Undone...

If anyone invites you on a trip to Bulgaria, say no. Say no and run away fast. You'd probably have a better time biting your own hand off for a week.

Before you all label me irrational and judgmental (which let's be honest, you already have) allow me to relate some circumstances. Just a sad tale of two sisters with a dream. A dream of seeing the world. Of heading out with nothing but the clothes on our backs, 30 pounds of crap and this dream. Of being bathed in the warm embrace of the world and her children. Of being wrapped in the bosom of mother earth. I quote Henry Mancini- "Two drifters off to see the world/ there's such a lot of world to see..."

Are you getting all this?

Your two hopeful dreams crossed the border into Bulgaria one chilly spring night. And got eaten for dinner.

Alison, face aglow with displeasure:
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Alright, not eaten for dinner. Having been to India, my standards for getting my ass handed to me by a particular nation are a bit left of center. But I will tell you, after a week of giving it the old college, try, we crossed into Serbia this morning, raised our fists to Bulgaria, cursed the land, their people and stomped on our Bulgaria Lonely Planet pages.

And what happened in this short week that poisoned us to this seemingly harmless place?

Well for starters...

Cyrillic is not the easiest language out there. We can't read a damn word of it and there's no English to be had. So we landed ourselves back in the world of intensive pantomime, stick figure drawings and Alison's bootleg Czech. None of which was appreciated. An entire nation without a sense of humor...

Now, if it were this alone, I would forgive. Been in many a place where I can't speak/read/write the language and I certainly don't expect everyone to learn English for my convenience. Or laugh with me as I try to learn their mother tongue. But...

We were also forced to bribe some jackass tram inspectors. Now being a briber, you'd think there'd be no objection. We like bribes. We understand bribes. We expected to pay them. But not to a ticket inspector with a mullet who looked at our perfectly legal and stamped tickets and decided to worm some money out of foreigners anyway. He insisted that we stamped them on the "wrong side" hauled us off the train, surrounded us with two of his buddies all of whom were yelling "money! pay! police! jail! passport!" at us. There were also several strange handcuff motions that could be interpreted as either "your American ass will be smarting in jail if you don't pay our $15 fine" or "I'm crazy about S and M, how about you?"

That's pretty much where the wheels came off the wagon. My sister, having spent a year in India and therefore determined to be nobody's fool, started screaming back at them about corruption and in clear, concise, if vehement English, declared them all to be bad people. Dreaming of an overnight in a Bulgarian jail did not sit well with me, however, and I hissed at her to pay the money, much to her chagrin.

In the end, we paid, made a series of rude gestures and left. We choose to think of this as a bribe instead of plain extortion and targeting of foreigners. It's how we sleep at night. Again, not the Maoist rebels, but what can you do.

Finally...and perhaps finally, as this part is rather catty and I'm secretly hoping you get bored and move onto youtube before you realize just how shallow and obnoxious we really are...there's Bulgarian fashion.

Imagine Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman. Pre-classy makeover. Now join it with what was in style just before the Berlin Wall fell.

That's pretty much what we're looking at.

Hair is crimped. (Do they still sell crimpers?)
Boots of red pleather or sparkling gold.
Men wearing vests...with nothing underneath.

It's pretty shocking. Two pictures to illustrate:

Display window in fancy Bulgarian department store:
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Two young, attractive women walking down the street:
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That's right. One is a lime green jumpsuit. The other is wearing capris, navy blue tights and black strappy shoes.

Couple this with some terrible maps, a ridiculous dearth of internet, consistently mediocre meals and the rain...can you blame us?

Okay. After 8 months in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, I'm not the easiest to impress anymore. And given this fact, I will admit it's quite pretty here. Nice mountains. Very green. I quote the great Wesley- "Not saying I'd like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely."
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Another interesting and positive fact about Bulgaria: allies with Germany during WWII in hope of annexing Macedonia. However, when the Nazi's informed the Bulgarian King and Orthodox Church leadership about the Final Solution and asked for full cooperation, Bulgaria said "Ne," saving up to 50,000 lives. Impressive, no? Well done, Bulgaria.

See? Spirit of generosity. Being a big person. Staying positive, looking for the good.

(But good riddance, I say.)

p.s. Serbia is 4 lovers.
No. Really.

Posted by lbassi 05:31 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (3)

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