Plowed streets

I’ve been living in Manhattan for 5.5 years now, but I still haven’t forgotten the difference in the plowed streets of this borough vs. the lack of plowed streets in Queens when I lived there my first four years in New York City. Some days, it felt like we had to dig our way out of the subway stations and on side walks and streets, and it seemed like the neglected land of the entire city. The streets were always quickly plowed on the Upper East Side as well as where we currently live now. From our street to the subway to get to work today, it was perfectly cleared out for me this morning. All the sidewalks were salted, and the snow was cleared away to walk on the streets.

I wonder what it looked like on my old street in Elmhurst this morning.

Prepared food at Whole Foods

It was a snow day today, with winds howling and snow falling endlessly until about 5pm. We both worked from the apartment and took turns having our own space to do our work calls. I was determined to leave the apartment to get some fresh produce. We actually have a pretty well stocked freezer, but I was really eager to get fresh milk, juice, fruit, and vegetables. Frozen produce can only satiate you so much.

Chris was insistent that we not cook anything and get prepared food, so since I was going a few blocks to go to Whole Foods, he suggested I get prepared food from there. I haven’t gotten hot prepared food from Whole Foods since 2008, literally — that’s over nine years ago. I forgot how expensive it all was — $9.99/pound. The food seemed generic and uninspiring, so I decided to give the Indian food a shot — channa masala (chickpea curry), “tandoori” chicken thighs, vegetable “biryani,” and some Sriracha and honey brussel sprouts. The channa masala didn’t taste like curry. The tandoori chicken tasted more Chinese than it did Indian. The vegetable “biryani” was definitely just yellow rice, likely colored by turmeric, with vegetables tossed in. The brussel sprouts tasted like what they should have tasted like, but I would have preferred it if I just roasted my own because these tasted almost boiled… which is by far the absolute worst way to prepare brussel sprouts, and the main reason so many people think they hate brussel sprouts.

I’m never getting prepared food from Whole Foods again. I’m even boycotting their salad bar.

Bomb cyclone

After enjoying 70-87-degree F weather for the last two weeks, we’ve come back to New York today with weather news of a “bomb cyclone” coming to the entire Northeast. I never even knew such a term existed until I read news reports about the winds and snow we’d expect over the next 24 hours. What joy.

The greatest thing about going to the Southern Hemisphere the last six Christmases is having a temporary break from the miserable snowy winters of New York City. Although I willingly live here and truly do love New York, I will never quite embrace the winters here. I dislike the threat of cancelled and delayed flights. I hate the low temperatures and the wind chill. I really cannot stand walking so slowly and carefully to avoid slipping on black ice on the ground; it’s a health hazard. I’ve had colleagues at previous companies break multiple bones from a simple slip. And as I’m getting older, I’m more and more careful about how I walk during these icy periods and never, ever run. Snow is the worst.

Apartheid Museum

January 2nd was like a full day’s history lesson of all the details of Apartheid that I never had in formal schooling. Though the TripAdvisor reviews mostly said you could spend about 2-3 hours in the museum, we spent 3.5 hours in the museum and had to rush through the last part of it because we were due to meet with a guide to take us to Soweto at 12:30pm. If you really wanted to read everything and watch every film and hear every recording, I think you’d probably need at least 4-5.5 hours at this museum.

The museum is a brutally honest depiction of everything that happened in South Africa, from the beginning of the colonization through the fall of Apartheid to the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. While the District 6 museum was a close examination of what happened in that specific area of Cape Town, the Apartheid Museum exposes everything that went wrong throughout the country, even during Mandela’s presidency.

I wandered through the museum reviewing the different parts of the exhibition and wondered why the U.S. has to be in such denial about all the atrocities that we have committed. We still can’t even fully discuss slavery and its impact on African Americans today. The concepts of institutionalized racism and sexism seem to be nonexistent to our country’s right wing base; it is all about how people on the left supposedly view everything through some racial/gender-based “filter,” and we just don’t know how to escape it because we’re constantly and wrongly thinking we’re being oppressed. Even with the Roy Moore scandals, people defended him, saying that women were being paid to lie and accuse him of assault and sexual harassment that never actually happened. President Dipshit basically insinuated that anyone would be better as Alabama senator than any Democrat…. even a sex predator, which isn’t hard to understand given Dipshit is a sex predator himself. We still can’t believe women or people of color today in the U.S. It’s always the white man’s voice that reigns.

Somehow, despite Apartheid having ended just over 20 years ago, I feel more hopeful about South Africa’s progression than I do about the U.S.’s. There’s something about the energy I’ve felt here, the honesty about the past, that makes me hopeful.

Smart teens

When I was in high school and college, I kept track of general domestic politics in the U.S., but I barely paid any attention to anything international unless it was major. I guess I was a product of American exceptionalism and all that crap, which basically made me brainwashed (without my ever fully being aware of it) that the world revolved around the U.S. I’ve definitely been paying attention to more international news in my 20s and now my early 30s, but I know I could do better.

So you can imagine how amazed I was when we met these Dutch girls between the ages of 17-19, and they basically talked about American culture and politics as though they were really smart Americans themselves (I say “smart” because American teenagers as a whole are hardly considered smart from a global perspective). They kept track of our elections, of who was running, even of the controversial Roy Moore vs. Doug Jones Alabama Senate special election. These girls are going to be the next leaders of tomorrow, yet unfortunately, they don’t represent the U.S.; they represent the Netherlands. When I was their age, I probably wasn’t even half as knowledgable about the world as they probably are.

I guess it also helps to have highly educated and successful parents who actively participate in your learning and growth, and also take you on world travels. But I’m sure a lot of their desire to know is based on them as individuals. Still, I was kind of blown away and embarrassed by my own lack of knowledge when I was their age. We all have things to aspire to.

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.