Saturday, September 29, 2007

TIA (This Is Africa)

Sometimes you get a chance to run around with loaded guns and shoot at things.

At the time, this may seem like a crazy idea, but you should do it anyway. It is fun.

Sorry - no full story tonight - too tired.

Pics instead.

Friday, September 28, 2007

More interesting things I have eaten so far….

Mopani worms. They actually look more like caterpillars, and they’re not bad, just chewy.

Tripe – aka Serobe. Take a cow, cut it’s intestines out. Wash, boil, spice, cut, and serve. No matter what you do, it will still taste like crap. Thankfully, having tried it once, I now never have to try it again.

Pap. Think grits. It’s boiled corn meal, and is served with just about everything you’d normally get potatoes with. Pretty darn good rolled into balls and fried.

One interesting thing I will not eat:

Walkie Talkies

Take some chicken feet (the “walkie”) and chicken beaks (the “talkie”), deep fry them, then see who will eat them.

Not me.

Walkie Talkies

Thursday, September 27, 2007

And the next flight back to Toronto is when exactly?

No no no no no - this will not do.

I was not informed that when the rains start, which they did today, giant enormous spiders with big hairy legs would come crawling out of nowhere and cover everything.

I only have two phobias - sharks, and spiders.
I have tried to be brave about the sharks.

But this is not cool.

Any spider big enough to need its own passport is seriously a problem.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Selachophobia mostly conquered*

OK – I try to keep these posts funny – but sometimes when cool stuff happens, funny or not, I gotta report.

Went to Mozambique over the weekend to take my open-water qualifying dives to complete the SCUBA course I started a couple of weeks ago.

At 2am Friday morning, Chris, my divemaster, picked me up in his bakkie, along with his sister, her guy, and friend Karen. Driving through the night, we arrived at a jammed border crossing at about 11:30am, and were finally at Ponta d’Ouro, Mozambique around 1pm.

Apparently, taking credit cards to Mozambique is pointless, and there are no ATM’s, and crossing the border costs 172 of your last 300 rand. No big deal. Who needs to eat lunch when you’re wearing a bikini for 4 days straight?

First thing to note upon entry to Mozambique is the kids running along the road yelling for you to throw sweets from the car. Most of them are little kids, but every once in a while you get some 14 year old whose voice has just changed grunting “Sweets.” Classic.

Friday night – chaos. A simple trip to the beach had resulted in my only bathing suit malfunctioning. (Read: the little plastic D-ring that joins the front and back halves of the bottom snapped as I was sitting on the beach. Slightly awkward situation. More awkward had I not noticed it before I stood up). Table-mates consulted at dinner. Puzzled looks ensue until offending bikini bottoms brought from tent to provide visual.

Now - you know that coloured nylon ribbon you put on birthday presents, and then you take the scissors and scrape it so it curls real pretty? Well, they use different colours of that stuff to tie on your scuba equipment so it doesn’t get confused with another diving school when you stay at one of these dive camps. My group was using blue.

Homemaker tip: aforementioned nylon ribbon can ALSO be used as emergency bathing suit repair, should you be staying in a one-horse town that doesn’t take credit cards, and therefore does not have emergency bathing suit purchase options. Be sure to tie the right knot to avoid surprises post-wetsuit removal. Quick-witted divemasters are also an asset when they point out that instead of blue ribbon, you should use pink, because it matches your suit better. Clever people, these divers.

Happy to report that nylon ribbon held up the entire weekend. Take that, Project Runway.

Saturday morning – my first open-water dive.

Pretty much fully panicked and kicking myself that I hadn’t re-read any of the course material, I listened carefully as Chris recited the skills we’d be reviewing in the ocean. Now was probably not the time to back out, but frankly, this whole breathing underwater thing, in the ocean, with sharks, was seeming like poor planning.

Some minor issues on the surface trying to convince brain that sinking 16m down was a good idea. OK, actually, full on panic, complete with coughing, sputtering, and inhaling of sea-water. Thank goodness no-one was left on the surface to see that little episode. Which also was disconcerting, because that meant I was alone floating in the sea. Luckily at that point, divemaster came back, grabbed my hand, and dragged me down.

Once at the bottom, everything was cool again. Actually – it was frickin awesome. We did a couple of skills, then got to enjoy the rest of the dive.

Dives two and three proceeded similarly, minus the panic-attacks, with a few more skills being tested each time.

Dive four is the final qualifying dive. You need to navigate with a compass, and hover. No big deal – at this point, I wasn’t worried at all. Plus, I’d just practiced navigating in the parking lot. Easy.

As we climbed into the back of the bakkie to get taken to the launch, we heard from another group coming back in that a whale shark had been spotted in the bay. We made for the water, encountering a massive jam in the parking lot on the way, delaying us. Lindsey was beside herself – she’s been diving for years, and has never got the chance to swim with a whale shark. Finally hustling into the boat, we headed out. Skipper Wayne and divemaster Chris kept watch for the shark. Only a few minutes out, they spotted it.

“Masks and flippers on. Weight belts on” yelled Wayne. I quickly consulted someone as to why we would willingly throw ourselves into the ocean wearing weightbelts, but not air tanks. Apparently our wetsuits are too buoyant to allow us to free dive without weights. Not entirely sure that freediving near a shark was my first choice, I followed suit and put on my weight belt.

“OK – everybody in the water. Stay away from its tail, and don’t touch it” yelled Wayne.

And for some reason, I jumped.

For the first few seconds, all I saw was dark green water as I swam in the general direction of the shark.

Then, all at once, a huge shadow was in front of me. A whale shark, swimming serenely, yet surprisingly quickly. I gulped, then started swimming as fast as I could to keep up. Now thankful for the weight belt, I dove down to swim beside it. This thing was huge.

A word on whale sharks: this one was small at 6-8m, with most of the bigger ones getting up to the 20m mark. They don’t eat people, only plankton, and they are the biggest known fish in the sea.

I couldn’t really keep up to it as it swam, and had to back off as the tail came swinging lazily at me. As it changed direction, I took a chance and swam in an arc to the left. Not too long after, it came round, heading straight at me. And then it glided by, swimming past us again, and out of range.

Huge grins on everyone’s’ faces as we clambered out of the water.

At this point, my brain kicked in, after shutting itself down in preparation for sure death, and I reviewed the fact that I’d just jumped into the water after a shark.

No issues on the 4th dive – navigation skills checked out, and we cruised the reef, spotting an octopus, sea turtle, and a bunch of other fish that some people were pretty excited about. Frankly, I’m still on the “hey – I can breath underwater” stage of diving. I’m sure once I know what the fish are, I’ll get excited about them too. Either that, or like antelope-y things, I'll never care that much about some of those fish.

The dive over, we headed onto the boat to return to shore.

Not quite.

A couple of humpback whales had been spotted a few hundred meters more offshore, and Wayne was going to find them for us. In the distance, we could see a mother and calf breaching and playing in the surf. As we got closer, they turned and headed in our direction. We watched for a while, then decided to head home. The whales had other ideas, and scared the crap out of Wayne coming up literally feet from the boat.

Whale-watching now officially over, we turned the boat and headed for shore.

Not so fast.

Now, because it was one of those days, a group of dolphins swam by.

Everyone looked at eachother.

“OK folks, masks and fins on. Stay in a group, and in you go” Wayne commanded, as we leapt into the water for the third time this dive.

He took the boat in a wide circle around us, and the dolphins played in its wake, zooming through our group, under and around us, squeaking as they went.

Once they’d had enough, we clambered into the boat, now wondering if there was anything left to show up.

I briefly considered retiring from diving so I could quit while I was ahead.

Pretty sweet way to spend a weekend.

Now I gotta look into an underwater camera.

*Note: Actual conquering of selachophobia not entirely proven yet. The true test will be when I encounter some of the ones that could actually eat me, like great whites. Getting thumped with a giant whale shark tail could be bad, but not as bad as getting your arms ripped off. Great whites tend to do the latter.

No, they're not my pictures - but they're pretty cool shots of divers and whale sharks.

woord of the Day **

**(you must be over 18 to read this post)

Doos. [DOO-uss]


Here’s how to use it in a sentence:

When sitting around the fire in Mozambique (more on that later), talking to Lindsey (caterer extraordinaire – Food for Friends, Pretoria), if she asks what Afrikaans words you know, and you say “”Dankie", which means thankyou. Oh, and also “doos””, and her face kind of chokes a little, and she asks “and what does that mean”, if your answer is “box” you will soon learn a little lesson in Afrikaans. In fact, it does mean box, but is also a euphemism for a little something else that we may also use the euphemism “box” for in English.

When you speak further with Lindsey and her partner, Elvin (that is definitely spelled wrong, sorry), you find out that it’s a brilliant word to yell in traffic when someone cuts you off. Kind of like another word that is also a word for box, but is much less polite, and very satisfying to yell when you’re dealing with a doos on the road.

Alternatively, according to Elvin, even better than to call someone a doos, is to call them half-a-doos, because: at least you can use a doos, but a half-doos is good for absolutely nothing.

"Where did I learn such an obscure word in the first place?", you might wonder. Blame the client. We were literally sitting in a meeting talking packaging, when he broke out the Afrikaans word for box. Everyone giggled, but I assumed that was because he’s from America, so throwing out Afrikaans words is unexpected and funny. Not so much.

Luckily, Joburg has lots of badass traffic where I can try out my new word.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Big game hunter

Last Sunday, after scuba lessons, I decided that another trip to any mall would cause brain hemorrhaging, and irreversible mental trauma. Instead, I drove to the Pilanesberg – a game reserve that is about 2 hours from Joburg.

OK – well 2 hours if you know where you’re going and have a map. 3 hours if you are making shit up as you go along, and trying to follow the directions in the Footprint guide to South Africa, which insanely tells you to go via Pretoria, instead of up that road near Fourways Mall, which must be easier and faster.

Nevertheless, I was determined to do something out of the city, so I went.

I was interested to note that upon arrival, they do give you a nice cartoon map of the reserve, but they do not offer any suggestions as to how much you should roll your windows down, if at all, when confronted with a pride of hungry lions. Nor do they suggest what to do if charged by a pissy bull elephant, how to shake monkeys off your antenna, or how to get un-impaled from a rhino that has charged you.

I’m a sensible person though – so I came up with a plan for each of those scenarios. You never know.

I am most proud of my plan for taking photos. I tend to get a wee bit caught up while taking photos. So caught up that the idea that I may be figuring out the f-stops of a picture of a pretty little antelope, while a lion is coming up behind me, is not remotely hard to imagine. I decided that if the antelope was on my right, I would do up the passenger side window (remember what side of the road I’m on), and if the antelope was on my left, I would do up my own window. Sheer genius, really. Years of university education, finally put to good use.

How much fun was it when I spotted my first zebra? Truthfully – on the grand scale of things, zebras are cool, but I’ve seen lots of them. They are not the most exciting animal you could ever see in your life. But, because I was driving, and in full control of where I went, it seemed very exciting that I, advertising girl from Toronto, had found a zebra all by myself. Similar shrieks of glee were to be heard as I then found warthogs, elephants having a bath, monkeys, rhinos, and wildebeesties.

I did have to reconsider my actions and admonish myself a bit when I started saying “hello warthog”, “hi monkey-guys” etc. with every new discovery. There are limits to how silly you are allowed to behave, even when you’re on your own. However, I won’t apologize for telling an antelope-thingy* how pretty it was, but that I wished a lion would come along and eat it. That’s just good journalism.

Highlight of the trip was the discovery of a viewing blind set up for observation of a watering hole. (Even more of a highlight would have been if a lion actually killed something while I was watching.) As it was, a couple of wildebeest came down, had a drink, then ran off. But still.

Actually, come to think of it, even more of a highlight would have been if a lion came into the UNGUARDED OPEN-TO-THE-WILDERNESS parking lot where you park your car, and head into a flimsily-fenced in area to reach the blind. The coolness of that possibility did not occur to me, since I was busy shitting my pants, trying to walk confidently to the little gate, and head to the blind without being eaten. I did consider waiting in the car for a few minutes and hoping for some fat, tasty-looking German tourists to come along. That way, the lion would be sure to pick them over me, and I would come out with some great shots. No such luck.

Travel tip: despite the fact that staying at the watering hole until sunset is a very tempting idea – considering lions tend to hunt more wildebeest and German tourists at night – it does make it difficult to get back through the park in time to exit before they lock the gate at 6:30pm. Especially when the speed limit is 40km/hr. Best not to attempt that, as it’s really stupid. It also makes driving back to Jo-burg along un-lit highways that cattle like to stroll on, just a wee bit dangerous.

*Anyone checking out my photos on Flickr will notice that I actually have no idea what any of the antelope things are called. It is discriminatory of me, but things that look mostly like deer, ain’t that interesting. Unless they have big horns, of course, like Kudu’s. Kudu’s are cool. And tasty. Gazelle-y things or antelope-y things are very nice, but more interesting if they are a lion’s lunch.

Smells like Disneyworld

Last Saturday I visited Montecasino. I’ve been driving by this place for weeks now, which has been designed to look like part of a Venetian village. No kidding. I almost caused an accident when I tried to take a picture from my moving car, as I merged onto the on-ramp. But it was a really good angle, and I’m working very hard to bring you the best reporting I can.

I decided after my scuba lesson last Saturday that I would take my laptop, take a look around Montecasino, and then find a nice coffee shop and do some work. Sometimes the thought of spending another minute in my apartment makes me want to commit a hate crime, or something, so I figured a change of scenery would be in order.

Things started a little bit badly when I was accosted by a combination parking-bully/carwash bully. I endured several pointed insults as to the cleanliness of my car, while I patiently explained that I LIKE my car dirty, and that no, I would not be purchasing a carwash while I was in the mall.

That taken care of, I made my way into the mall, and was amused by the following sign (look carefully. Bottom row):

Things were looking up.

Let me tell you. I have been to Disneyworld, I have been to Madame Tussaud’s, I have been to the floating islands in Peru. I know cheese. This place had clearly paid close attention to the cheese-masters. I stepped from the heat and dust of Joburg into a full simulation evening in an Italian village. Complete with sunset, fountains, plastic pigeons and about 300 slot machines. When they say Monte-CASINO, they mean casino.

Gagging slightly, I made my way around the village muttering under my breath “holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap. This is unbelievably wrong.”

My trigger finger twitched as I struggled internally with the two sides of an argument in my head. “I really really need a picture of this ridiculous place. How else can I prove how ridiculous it is?” “But then you will look like a tourist that is impressed. That waiter over there is watching you – he will think you are a dumb tourist.” “But I REALLY need to document this insanity.” “Fine, have it your way. But you look like an ass.”

And so, because pictures are worth far more than words in this case, I bring you evidence of Montecasino.

Please note: Anyone planning on visiting: I will not take you anywhere near this place. I would rather return to the home affairs visa office wearing sign saying “rob me, I’m lost, frightened, and very rich.”

Why yes, in fact, those ARE fake pigeons. At Montecasino, they spare no expense.

And yes, it was a bright sunny, hot Joburg day....outside. Inside: a cool evening in Italy. By a fountain. Near a slot machine. With fake pigeons.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A trip downtown

Friday morning I woke up early, and jumped in the car to head down to the Home Affairs office to extend my visa.
Visitors from Canada do not need a visa for visits of up to 90 days, however, since I’m here until Christmas, I need an extension.
I had called the office the day before to make sure I was headed to the right place.
I checked my maps and made sure I was very clear about where to exit the highway, which streets were one-way streets, and roughly how I would find the right place.
My plan was to head downtown, find safe parking, get the visa extended, and be back in the office for 9am.
It was a good plan. Sadly, things did not work out that way. Likely because driving to downtown Joburg ain’t a really good idea. Ever.
I did manage to get right downtown on the M1, but missed my exit.
Here’s another quirky thing about South Africa. The street you are looking for may be called Rivonia Road. On all the maps, it’s called Rivonia. On the highway signs, it’s called Rivonia. But just as you get to what you think is the exit, it’s called Rivoniaweg. And in the split seconds you have to react to the tiny off-shoot, it’s hard to decide if Rivonia, and Rivoniaweg are the same thing.
I have since learned to ignore whatever suffix they add to the word. Rivonia = Rivoniaweg = Rivonialaan = Rivoniawhatever.
In this case, I was looking for Smit. The sign said Smitwesslkjsljd, or something equally ominous.
Being completely terrified of taking the wrong exit and ending up in Hillbrow (think Compton, Regent Park, Jane and Finch), I did not take Smit-whatsit.
After that, the M1 South goes over a big bridge, and you are screwed for a very long time, until you have a choice – get off on the Soweto exit and try to find a place to turn around, or get off on the Randburg exit and try to find a place to turn around. No contest. I’m definitely not going to Soweto on my own, having just narrowly avoided Hillbrow. I don’t know what the deal is with Randburg, but I do know it’s not Soweto.
So I figure out a series of highway interchanges and a couple of illegal right turns, make my way back to Smit, and end up on what I believe is the correct street for the office: Harrison.
I notice very quickly that I am the only white person driving around down here. I decide this is something to be concerned about.
I put on my best “Hell yes, I drive down here all the time, what’s it to you?” face.
I hide the map book under the seat.
I circle the block looking for “safe parking” – i.e. gates and guards and razor wire. Hmmmmm – not so much. There are a lot of very helpful looking parking bullies running around – but they keep pointing at spots on the street. I decide that there is probably no faster way to be robbed and murdered then to park my car on the street, have it stolen, and try to find a taxi. If you’ve been paying attention you know the following: there are no taxis; do not park your car on the street. I can only assume the last points – robbed and murdered – would be what happens to you if you do park your car on the street, then try to find a taxi.
I notice that out my right hand side is the office I need to go to. I can’t actually see a door. In fact, the place looks pretty run down. I have a bad feeling the door is actually in the small alley beside the office.
This is not turning out as I had hoped.
I circle the block one more time, hoping to have safe parking jump out at me.
I have almost made up in my mind that even if I do find safe parking, there is no way in hell I am actually getting out of the car, getting my purse, and walking into the alley to find the office.
I see a very nicely-dressed young man cross the street, and proceed to try all the doors on cars parked along the curb. (I am desperate to take a picture, but decide that a shiny camera is like a big “Come rob me” beacon.)
OK, that’s it – I’m out of here. Let them deport me, I am not getting my visa renewed here.
And then I make a slight error in judgement. Reasoning that if I just head west, I’m bound to hit a street to take me back to the highway, I pass under an overpass, and down a street that does not look like it goes anywhere I want to go.
This is very very very bad.
“This is not a good street” I say. “This is very very very bad.”
Wasting no time, I do the only thing I can – I make a u-turn. Now – this isn’t quite like I’m driving up the wrong street, I’ll make a nice neat u-turn at that stop light up there. This is more like – I’m driving on the Gardiner Expressway, and I’m not happy with where I’m going, so I’m just going to spin into oncoming traffic, hope they stop, and carry on my merry way.
Which I do, all the while wearing my “Hell yes I can make a u-turn here, what are you going to do about it” face.
I think it was the sheer audacity of the move that actually caused traffic to stop. Whatever it was, I got the hell out of there, found a street heading north, and somehow found the M1 north.
I was at my desk by 9am. I still have to figure out how to get the visa extended.

Friday, September 7, 2007

слово of the Day


As in "where the hell have you been - it's the Rugby World Cup, and we must now all head to pubs and get drunk and sing rugby songs."

I have just joined an office rugby world cup pool.

I picked the All Blacks vs. France for the final. I really know nothing about rugby, except for the following:
  • they're called "tries" not touch downs.
  • you can drop the ball as many times as you like, and somehow that's fine, you can pick it up again and keep running.
  • there are things called scrums which look pretty agressive, and you're not supposed to touch the ball in there. C'mon - as if there's not some kicking and pushing in there. Please. I watch hockey. I know you're not 'supposed' to kick the puck, trip a guy, or run the goalie. I presume the same amount of following the rules happens in rugby.
  • some of the guys wear these funny little leather hats, which make them look a little like Corky from Life Goes On. (I'm just saying.) I take it they're to protect their ears from vicious Tyson-like attacks when they're in the aforementioned scrum.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Palabra of the day

Traffic light. As in, "Turn right at the next robot."

Why is it called a robot? The story I heard is that traffic lights are considered a new technological thing here, and therefore, people refer to them as robots. Sounds like crap to me. This country has computers and mobile phones and even snazzy iPods, yet the traffic light is the big shiny new technology? Don't think so - sounds a bit insulting.

Anyhow - it's very common to get directions here guiding you robot by robot.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The fun never ends

This is my first mobile post - I hope it works. Normally I would fire up my computer and add a post the old-fashioed way. The way my grandfather, and his grandfather before him did. However - tonight I am facing yet another unique challenge on this trip - no power.
My situation is especially unique since - while it is fairly common to have power outages in this area - mine is the only apartment affected. In fact, it was out earlier today too, and I'd been informed that the problem was fixed.
I've just walked in the door - and nope - problem not fixed. Power still out.
I'm pretty happy that I bought a bunch of emergency candles a little while back.

What I'm not really happy about is that I've just called the owner who has rudely stated that I "must have done something wrong."
What that something is she cannot quite say. I suppose that her degree in electrical engineering does not cover "stupid foreigners who try to switch the lights on." What on earth could I have been thinking?
So I'm sitting here in the dark, watching my blackberry run out of juice, thinking how ironic it is that the exact same thing was happening exactly one month ago today as I sat trapped in my apartment with no adaptors, and no one to call.
And then, as now - the issue is not something inherent to Africa or its relatively young infrastructure. Nope - pure and simple - it's human error - or more to the point, indecency.
Happy month-a-versary.

Word of the Day*

As part of my never-ending quest to bring you new and inciteful information, I formally introduce: Word of the Day.

Today’s word is “Howzit”.
Pronounced, well, like it looks really. Emphasis on the first syllable. HOWZ-it.
General greeting.
So instead of “Hey, how’s it going?” you would say “Howzit?”
It may derive from the informal Afrikaans greeting "Hoe's dit?" (lit. "How's it?").

There – now you can feel smart for the rest of the day, knowing you’ve learned something new.

*There is absolutely no guarantee that there will actually be one word every day. There will most likely be one word every day for about 6 days, then one every 2 or 3 days, then I may forget to add any new words at all until October, when I will make a lame excuse as to why, and then shower you with 7 new words. Anyone who has an issue with that is welcome to send me a new word for inclusion on the blog. It can be any word. Actually – best words of the week all win prizes. I smell a new contest.......

Sunday, September 2, 2007

There is no theory of evolution, just a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live.

Honestly: Catwoman, Kickboxer (starring Jean-Claude VanDamme), Afro Café (in Zulu, or something) or, wait for it…Walker Texas Ranger.
This is my TV viewing choice this evening. Quite a decision dilemma.
I wonder what their criteria is for program selection? Either they’re operating on a tiny budget that only allows them to buy used DVDs, which they then air. Or, the guy picking this stuff is so deprived of regular social contact, shunned by all who know him for his just plain lameness, that he’s lost any sense of reality.
(Oh my god – does Chuck Norris perform the title theme in this? Wow – remind me to go buy the soundtrack.)
This is horrendous.
Walker’s fiancée is a hostage. If Nortez, Ortega’s brother, is not found and handed over to Ortega in 24 hours, she gets it. But will Ortega keep his word and release her? Will he?
(When does the karate start?)
Dammit – Nortez has been handed over, but like the evil scum that he is, Ortega is reneging. They had a deal, you bastard. They had a deal.
Methinks Chuck is going to start kicking some Mexican ass.

OK – screw the contest, I’m now starting a telethon. It’s called “Save Helen’s Sanity – Give Her a couple of bucks to get cable.”
I think Bob Geldoff is organizing a concert. I know for sure Bono’s coming. He just SMS’d me.

Oh wait – things are looking up. Dallas is on at 10:30. Sweet