Learning more

This year has gone by so fast that I barely know what happened. It seemed like just yesterday I was leaving a shitty job with terrible people and terrible technology and going to a company with real technology and real people who actually seem to be good and genuine. I can barely remember the winter of early this year, when I can probably count on my hands how many times I wore my snow boots (that’s very little – what a mild winter it was!).

Here we are, on day two of our safari to end 2017. Each day we get older, time passes by even faster. It’s like we just arrived in South Africa, yet in two days, we will be ending our 12-day trip to this incredible country.

Coming here has only magnified how little I know about the African continent in general. It’s always been the part of the world I’ve lacked the most knowledge on, both from a news and a geography perspective. But now, I want to learn more and see more. I’d love to see the rest of Africa and see the differences across all its countries, as well as its similarities. I’d like to learn what everyday life is like for people who live here who are rich and poor. I’ve seen a fair bit of Europe and Asia, yet Africa has always seemed so distant and far removed from me. Maybe that will be how I will start 2018, seeking to learn more about this beautiful part of the world that so many don’t even care to think about or visit, but really should know about to appreciate more about the world.

It’s so easy to live a sheltered life, stuck in our day to day, wherever we are in the world, whether we work on a game reserve outside of Kruger in South Africa or in a dense office building in midtown Manhattan. We lose so much perspective if we don’t stop to think about other parts of the world and visit them, and see how others live. I hope I don’t ever become one of those disillusioned people who stops caring about what’s outside her bubble. There’s so much to do, see, and change in the world. We can’t become complacent and indifferent.



Inane Asian “medicine”

We departed Cape Town today to head west to Hoedspruit, where we would be driven about 45 minutes to reach our private game reserve just outside of Kruger National Park. We’d finally be in the genuine African bush. I wasn’t sure what to expect other than hot weather and frequent animal spottings.

The animal sightings started much earlier than I thought, as the van that took us to the reserve passed by so many animals that I lost count. We saw countless impala, kudu, giraffes, wart hogs, and others. Our driver was even kind enough to stop a few times to allow us to take photos and videos of these beautiful creatures. Even though our driver was obviously driving our vehicle, because he was born in Port Elizabeth and relocated a lot across South Africa as a child, he was familiar with all these animals to the point that he could pass them in a fast moving vehicle and still correctly identify which animal they were. When we first arrived, I didn’t really know anything about the different antelope, or what differentiated a white rhino from a black rhino (white rhinos are not actually white, contrary to their name).

When we arrived at our lodge, we were treated like royalty, with refreshing lemongrass-scented towels to refresh with and some fruity non-alcoholic cocktails, plus a delicious lunch that included what the bartender said was called “fruity brown rice” – mixed with fresh cut up fruit, various nuts, and a nutty brown rice. Our evening safari began shortly after that, where for the first time I got quite close to a white rhino. We observed him for quite some time on our open safari vehicle, and I watched him intently as he grazed on the grass he stood on. I kind of felt the way I did about the elephants when we were in Knysna; the rhino, also a deadly creature, seemed so innocent and cute. Its life purposes are so pure and simple: eat, sleep, and avoid getting killed. Our amazing and extremely knowledgeable safari guide reminded us that rhino poaching continues to be a massive issue in South Africa, and rhinoceros are officially an endangered species, all because of man’s obsession with owning and using rhino horns. The poaching is so bad that they have a 24-hour patrol for poaching in the area. And unfortunately, the primary demand for these horns for all types of medicinal purposes is coming from China and Vietnam…. That’s just great – where my heritage is from. The Chinese and Vietnamese have all these ridiculous beliefs that rhino horn medicine will help cure ailments from everyday sicknesses and aches to even cancer. And because such wealth exists in those countries, that demand keeps driving the killing of these creatures even though it’s illegal.

I have no idea what data exists, if any, to prove that rhino horns do anything to help human health. Where did the sheer idea even come from, anyway? It makes me feel even more distant from my mother and father cultures, and infuriated that they can be so damn deluded and stupid.

District 6

When evaluated across the world, the United States often ranks dismally low compared to its western developed world counterparts when it comes to education, based on math, science, and reading tests. My memory might not be fully clear of what I learned while in school, but I can guarantee that any history book I ever read and was assigned from K-12 never covered apartheid in South Africa to the depth that it really deserved. Considering slavery in the U.S. was never covered to the extent that I’d learned about it in historical fiction I’ve read and museums I’ve visited as an adult, that probably wouldn’t seem surprising to most.

But it’s disgusting when you think about it. We claim to be the best, most prosperous country in the world, but we as a whole know so little about the world outside of our country borders… and for some of us, outside even our own neighborhoods and cities. When visiting the District 6 Museum in Cape Town today, I was staring at everything I’d been ignorant to for pretty much my whole life until this day, and I truly felt heartbroken.

District Six was a municipal district in Cape Town in the 1860s. It was originally a very diverse, mixed group of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers, and immigrants, and because of its proximity to the city and the port, it was a vibrant, lively place to be. But as the 1900s approached, the whites came in and started forcibly removing them, racial group by racial group, out of the area. Of course, the black South Africans were removed first, to be displaced to random outlying areas far from the city, making it harder for them to get to the city and work. Under the Group Areas Act of 1950, it was declared a white area, and trucks would transport people with their bare belongings to the outer areas, the houses they once called home being bulldozed right in front of their eyes.

The museum shares the intimate details of these displaced people, all because of the color of their skin. The museum guides are almost all former District 6 residents who have harrowing memories of the genuine living hell they experienced. Systems of institutionalized racism have persisted across the world, but to think that you would forcibly remove and throw people out of their homes to demolish them in front of their eyes is brutal and inhumane to another level. The land they once owned, they no longer owned; the rights they once had they no longer have merely because of their race…. because someone decided that one “color” of person was better or more valued than another color. Some of the people who were forced out of District Six had spent almost their whole lives saving money to buy those homes that were then demolished within seconds. The area was a literal, physical broken dream, shattered by racism and nothing else.

When we’ve visited places like this, I realize that this is part of why I love to travel, and why it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would travel on leisure to any place and not want to understand its people better. Part of being a part of the modern world is having access to air travel, to the internet, and wanting to be a more open, inclusive planet that permits you to see things you would in a previous time not have been able to see as easily. You can’t really be inclusive unless you seek to understand other people, their perspectives and experiences, and the places they call home. I used to think that people who are “well traveled” must be more knowledgable about the world because they travel, they see people that they normally do not get to interact with, and they’ve just seen more, but that’s clearly not true. Many people blindly go from one site to another just to see it, take their selfie, and leave; others will go to resorts and stay within the confines of their laps of luxury away from home, with no regard for the local communities that exist outside those tall walls that barely earn $5 USD/day.

Apartheid is such a huge part of South African history, one that still has endless residual effects on its communities today. Almost all our servers in restaurants and Uber drivers were black. The majority of the management we saw in hotels, restaurants, and businesses were white. And when I looked up the median income for a black South African vs. a white South African, as of 2012 when the data was last collected, a black South African makes only one-third of what the median white South African makes. And today, while browsing in a rooibos tea shop along Long Street, I actually witnessed a white manager condescending to her two black workers with words and a tone that probably would have been appropriate during apartheid or pre-Civil War in the U.S. She spoke to them as though they barely understood English, asking them multiple times, “Do you understand?” and had a tone a parent might have while disciplining his children. Her gaze on her workers was icy, yet when she realized I was looking at her, she immediately switched on a smile and a fake-friendly gaze and asked me if I needed help.

There was no way in hell I was giving any money to that witch. I said I was fine, and immediately walked out.

Racism exists because of a need of power, a need to be above others for an easy, visible reason. As human beings, we’re probably programmed to be judgmental, and racism is the easiest method to form a judgment about another person. But we often hear idiots in society say things like, “I’m not homophobic. My best friend is gay,” or, “I’m not racist; I have a black/Chinese friend.” That’s exceptionalism; everyone else of that race is bad except for my friend; my friend is different from them. Growing up in San Francisco public schools, I was taught this extremely early, and it shocked me so much to move to the East Coast to actually hear people say things like this all the time and not realize why it was wrong. If we made a concerted effort to speak to more people who look different from us, are from different places than us, who grew up in different socioeconomic settings, then we realize that they are all just like us; they want to live productive, healthy, happy lives, do good work, and provide for their families. That’s really it. If that is not a commonality we can understand, then there’s nothing else to understand, and we’re all doomed.

I am a “coloured” person walking all over South Africa, yet all I’ve been greeted with is friendliness and warmth. I feel more hopeful about the future today than I did before I left the U.S. to come here during this trip.

Gentle giants

Today, we took a quick day trip to George by plane from Cape Town, rented a car, and drove along the famous Garden Route of South Africa. We didn’t really plan much, but we ended up packing the day pretty quickly with some stunning stops at beaches, ocean heads, and the very special Knysna Elephant Park, which is an elephant sanctuary that takes in orphaned and abused elephants. They were the first facility in South Africa to care for orphaned elephants and continue to employ a research unit dedicated to increasing the welfare of captive elephants in the country.

I’ve always loved animals since I was young, but I never really thought much of elephants. I knew they were large, supposed “gentle giants.” I knew that they were getting wrongly killed in great numbers across Africa for their smooth ivory tusks. I also was aware that there was controversy over elephants in countries like Thailand, and so I was never intrigued by the idea of riding on an elephant. But I never really thought they were beautiful creatures until I got up closer to several of them today. Part of our visit included feeding and petting elephants in the park, and so I got to feed an elephant a bucket of assorted vegetables and pet them. For the first time, I discovered what it was like to feel an elephant trunk enclose my hand to grab food (warm, rough, wrinkly, pebbly, and a bit damp). And as I pet Shungu, the ten-year-old teen male elephant we were assigned to, I immediately developed an affection for him. I stroked the side of his body — much softer and smoother than I imagined, and very unlike the feeling of the inside of the elephant trunk. The texture of his ears was buttery and leathery, and quite dry. I noticed his teeny little eyes (elephants have poor eyesight, which they make up for with their powerful hearing, hence their extremely large ears) and the long and unruly eyelashes that framed them. I felt his ivory tusk — cool and completely smooth. As we pet him, one of the assistants, stood by, and to be silly as elephants can be, Shungu ripped out some grass from the ground and sprayed it all over him. The assistant smiled and laughed. “He’s just playing,” he told us. “They love to play with us.” The relationship that the park workers have with these sweet, gentle creatures was so heart-warming.

I realized the meaning of the “gentle giants” label for elephants today. They can certainly be violent and deadly, but almost only when they are provoked. They are all domesticated at this sanctuary, so they understand and respond to instructions from the park workers. And as I continued to admire Shungu and his sweet face, I felt viscerally angry about all the terrible men hunting elephants solely for their tusks — these sweet, gentle creatures who mean no harm to the world are getting killed just for their ivory? It’s a lost life for a well-meaning animal that just wants to eat 18 hours a day and throw mud over his body to keep cool. Elephants’ only genuine predator is man, and man so far has been only pure evil to them… just to have and sell ivory that will merely sit on a shelf or in a cabinet. The desire for “things” has never seemed more stupid or senseless to me.

Indian runner ducks

One of Chris’s absolute favorite wine regions of the world is South Africa. Maybe it’s because the region has a similar climate as that of Margaret River, one of his other favorites in Australia, but the wine is delicious here and relatively inexpensive. We booked probably the cheapest wine/food tour we’ve ever done with a small company here that seeks to help visitors understand wine better by visiting smaller, more local producers.

The first wine farm we visited was Vergenoegd Wine Estate, which is in the Stellenbosch region just outside of the city of Cape Town. They are famous for their biodiversity certification they’ve received, which is all due to the fact that they use over a thousand Indian runner ducks to feed on the pests, such as insects and snails, that grow on the grape vines. A few times a day, they unleash these herds of ducks into the vineyards during what they call a “duck parade,” where the workers all usher them from the pond and farm area out to the vineyards. In the middle of our tasting, we were interrupted by the duck parade call, and we all went out to gather to see the ducks being herded. It was the cutest spectacle — these skinny, tall-necked ducks quacking and waddling their way from the water along the grass, then along the paved walkways into the vineyards. I’d never seen anything like that before, and certainly never imagined this being a use case for ducks — organically pest-controlling a vineyard! The sheer number of ducks was incredible. You could also see the different duck personalities coming out because some refused to be herded, and instead established a “rebel” pack right under a tree for shade. Some of the workers saw them and started picking them up to go instead.

The techniques used around the world to be more sustainable and better to the planet never seize to amaze me. In this case, I just never thought that it would provide me this much entertainment.

African penguins

We left the city today and drove down to the Cape Peninsula to visit Boulders Beach’s African penguin colony and Cape Point. The last time I had been this close to penguins was in December 2012, when Chris took me to Phillip Island to see the fairy penguins flock from the ocean to the land. Fairy penguins are much smaller than African penguins; African penguins can grow to be about 2-2.5 feet tall, whereas fairy penguins average about a foot.

We encountered a bit of a sand and wind storm when we got to Boulders Beach, as sand was flying literally everywhere. But that did not deter the penguins, who all sat around the beach, some hiding between rocks, and others digging holes for their burrows. Some of the penguins even were attempting to mate, but unfortunately as is the case with African penguins, female penguins need to “accept” the male penguin to then begin the process; there’s no rape here. That led to some awkward penguin watching.

It’s also moulting season for the penguins, so many of them had unruly, fluffed up feathers and looked like they needed a bit of a haircut and smoothing out to do. I’ve always loved birds, and I especially love penguins because of how they waddle and flap their wings. They’re such beautiful creatures, and it’s amazing to me how Phillip Island and Boulders Beach makes it so easy for human beings to enjoy seeing these animals in their natural habitat. I felt so lucky to be able to see them today with my own eyes.


Christmas day on Table Mountain

It’s Christmas day here in Cape Town, and it’s the first non-Melbourne Christmas that Chris and I have had in our time together. It’s also his 36th birthday today. We’re certainly aging slowly but surely.

We spent the morning on video chat with his family in London and Melbourne, then spent the afternoon going up Table Mountain. From almost wherever you are in the city of Cape Town, you can see Table Mountain; it’s quite a sight to see, and has an incredible view of the city from the top. When we reached the summit and stared down at the city flanked by water, I realized how similar Cape Town felt to Rio when we went up Sugar Loaf Mountain there. These two cities have mountains and water surrounding their cities. It’s no wonder we both enjoyed these places so much.

There were informational signs throughout the top of the summit, and one of them included a quite from Nelson Mandela on the beauty and hope that Table Mountain brings to Cape Town. And as I thought about this, I looked out into the water at Robben Island, where he once was imprisoned for 18 years, and thought how ridiculous it would be for a human being to be imprisoned that long and still make it out alive, being both optimistic and hopeful. He saw Table Mountain from Robben Island as his “beacon of hope,” that one day, he’d be back on the mainland and making change happen for humankind.

The human psyche is quite powerful; it is often one’s disposition rather than life circumstances that determine how happy or hopeful one is. The fact that Nelson Mandela was able to get through his horrific imprisonment, as well as all these other former political prisoners of Robben Island, are a testament to that statement. Seeing the natural beauty of Table Mountain and using that as his reason for hope for the future is inspiring, and after having visited it today, I can definitely understand why. Although he was imprisoned, he probably felt lucky to be able to see this mountain every day. When I think of the oppression he faced, it always makes me sad to think of how miserable and negative people like my mom or my cousin are, and how they always think their circumstances are so much worse than others when in fact, they are so much better off than most people. They cannot realize that it’s their own minds that are preventing them from being happy, not to mention the poor choices they themselves have chosen to make. On days like Christmas when most people are celebrating or happy about life, they dwell on how terrible the world is. Their dispositions need a change, but unfortunately never will.

Parks at Robben Island

Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, is primarily known as the island prison where Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, was imprisoned for 18 out of his 27 years behind bars. For most people at least remotely interested in history, when visiting Cape Town, this is one of the sites on their list, and we made sure to book this tour as early in our stay as possible to make sure there were no issues with weather, as bad winds can cause the boats to stop going to the island and all tours of the day to be cancelled.

Although I knew that former prisoners were the primary walking guides for the tours, it didn’t hit me exactly how powerful it would be until Parks, our guide, revealed that he was a former political prisoner at Robben Island for seven years in the 1980s. Their cells had glass-less windows, which meant that any time of the year, especially during winter, they were fully exposed to the elements (today, they have enclosed them in glass). They were not allowed to wear proper shoes or socks; all manual labor was done without proper footwear, even in the winter time. For the slightest infractions, they were beaten repeatedly until they were bruised and bloody. They were not allowed to speak to each other. Their meals were small, especially if they were black, and if black, their only “lunch” was puzamandla – a white liquid made from a mysterious white powder that was mixed with water. They were told this was a protein drink; in fact, it was actually a drink to make them infertile because the prison wanted all black prisoners to leave and be unable to ever bear children. They had a different menu for “coloureds/Asiatics” vs. “Bantus” – blacks.

I asked Parks why he decided to come back to work and share the story of his time at Robben Island. In my own mind, I cannot even fathom going through a fraction of what he’d been through, but if I had, the last thing I’d want to do was to go back to that putrid place of imprisonment and relive those terrors every single day as my line of work. He said he originally went to college and hoped to do something else for a living, but it was hard to find work, and when they asked him to come back and share his stories to visitors, he agreed. It was painful at first as we’d imagine, he said, but he realized how important it was for people to know what really happened there. It’s part of his country’s history. And he’s learned to forgive the prison guards who beat him and tried to make him infertile; he actually gets along with them now as they all work side by side in the prison, now not as a place of imprisonment, but as a World Heritage Site to educate the world. He calls some of them his friends today.

It’s difficult to understand the amount of forgiveness in his heart to get to the point of actually considering these people his friends. But to that, I deeply admire and respect him and all the other prisoners who have chosen willingly to come back and work to share their stories. It’s always deeper and more meaningful when the stories of our past are shared not in textbooks, but in real life circumstances that we can relate to. And this is one of them. The entire experience is so humbling because I don’t think I could ever be that lenient in the same circumstances.

Game animals

In the U.S., we are way too used to the consumption of domesticated animals. People complain when their lamb tastes too “gamey,” they get upset when they find out how their chickens and cows are slaughtered, but still continue eating the meat, and the elitist liberals try to avoid grain-fed cows and chickens… until they realize that the USDA has little to no forced regulation over how strict “grain-fed” vs. “grass-fed” is.

So it’s funny coming to a country like South Africa where game meat is the meat that people eat and wondering how the average American deals with it. People here are used to the “gamey” taste of animals… because guess what, that’s how animals are supposed to taste in the wild. They’re not supposed to be corn-fed, they’re not supposed to be injected with growth hormones and antibiotics, and they’re certainly not supposed to be stuck in cages with only inches of “personal” space for themselves to wander around.

Tonight, we shared a springbok shank and marveled over how tender and juicy it was… it fell off the phone and was clearly game meat; there was no hiding it. Other meats we hope to try include ostrich, snoek (game fish), impala, kudu, and blesbok.


Being a life partner to Chris also means learning about his heritage… or at least, the culinary heritage that comes with being Indian with parents who have roots in India and who have also lived in Malaysia and Australia. To me, the easiest way to learn and get acquainted with a culture with which you are not familiar is to eat their food and learn about its nuances; so much about one’s culture, religion, and tall tale stories can be found from the different types of food that is part of a people.

I’m not one of those traditional wives who thinks that just because my husband is of a certain background that I absolutely need to cook the food he grew up eating; in fact, I resent that type of expectation. I only know and cook Indian food because I really love the process, and I love how many of these dishes came to be. A lot of it is laborious and requires a slightly insane number of spices, but now I have a varied enough spice collection where when I want to make something Indian, all I really need to do is buy some form of protein and some extra onions or tomatoes from the market.

Hoppers, or appam, is one of those dishes that Chris loves that I have also come to love since his mom first introduced it to me in 2012. It’s traditionally a breakfast food in southern India, and it’s made from fermented rice and freshly grated coconut, and then cooked in a rounded pancake-like pan. It’s then served with different chutneys and a curry stew of some sort. We went to a place called Hoppers today for lunch with Chris’s cousin, who also loves eating appam. Appams are called “hoppers” in Sri Lanka, and when we were eating there, I loved every single thing that came to the table. So that made me realize how ignorant I was about Sri Lankan cuisine, so I started researching that.

Sri Lankan cuisine has a lot in common with southern India, or the area where coconut-based curries and dosas/appams come from. Their curries are heavy on the coconut, but supposedly their usage of spice is supposed to be more pronounced. Cinnamon (real cinnamon, not the cassia that stands in as “cinnamon” in the U.S.) is featured heavily and curries, and caramelized onion chutney is frequently found on Sri Lankan dinner tables. Curry and pandan leaves are used; I was used to using curry leaves, but the pandan leaf usage is definitely different than what I have heard of in Indian cuisine.

And to get me even more excited, I just found out that a decent Sri Lankan population lives in Staten Island, which also means that I can find more Sri Lankan restaurants there than anywhere else in New York City. I’m definitely planning to go out there once the weather gets warmer and have Chris come with me.