Friday, April 28, 2017

Jo'Burg and the Capetonians - Our Gateway to Africa

Continuing with my collection of thoughts at random moments during our stay here in South Africa...

In Transit

We flew from Delhi through Addis Ababa to Johannesburg. In the Addis airport we noticed that there was such a diverse population of people transiting through the airport. In fact, we noticed many Asians in particular. I think we were shocked to see this many on the African continent, especially in Ethiopia. We talked to a couple of Chinese folks in their broken English and learned they were going to Dakar, Senegal for work. Unfortunately, we couldn't communicate any further to understand what kind of work they were doing there. I wonder where all the rest going to or coming from?

Johannesburg, South Africa

We've arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa!!! This is our 4th continent on this 6 month RTW trip.

The suburbs of JoBurg are pretty nice. For the 2 days we were here, it was like a welcome back to the first world. It was almost like I had reverse culture shock for the first time in my life. Even the airport felt so much more modern than the previous few we've flown through.

Our stay in the capital city is pretty short. We are only here for 2 nights (1.5 days). So we've decided to spend our 1 full day here touring around the ever so popular "slums" of Soweto (South Western Townships). The area is well known for raising some very influential people, namely, former South African President and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela and social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu. If you're a fan of political comedy, then you would also know that Trevor Noah (host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central) is also from Soweto. Our one day in Soweto was very informative. We learned about apartheid more than ever before. I feel like it wasn't really taught in school, and we were never really made aware of the severity of the movement. In fact, we met an older woman (maybe in her 50s) from NJ who mentioned that while she was in college she didn't really hear about apartheid and its effects half way around the world. It's certainly not like the present day where news travels so fast and action is taken almost immediately on subjects that rattle the world news by college campuses around the globe. It's amazing how controlled apartheid was and how convincing the minority population of whites were against a group of people native to South Africa with a larger population. Seeing the Nelson Mandela house and the Hector Pieterson museum was eye opening for me. I never knew anything about the apartheid or how severe the uprisings were about Afrikaans being taught in schools. It was really informational.

A stone image of Mandela outside his home in East Orlando, Soweto, Johannesburg

Children of Soweto

Housing in Soweto

A boy and his toy in front of his house.

Laundry day

The stacks of a old energy plant now shut down. The designs symbolize Soweto remain on the iconic towers. These days, the stacks have been repurposed. In the middle, there is a bungee jumping platform. 

Soweto is considered by some to be a slum, but is not nearly as bad as the slums in Mumbai. Many have tv and heat. Some even have running water. Although these people are poor, they still have some comforts that the Indians or people in other 3rd world countries do not. The poor in Mumbai literally had nothing and no space to do anything.

Most South Africans are so friendly. They all say hello or smile, even in the slums, even if they think you are out of place. There is a warm feeling that you get from their genuineness that you don't get in NYC where people are so cold and could care less about who you are or what you're doing in town.

Cape Town

This is the longest we are staying in a single African city. Here in Cape Town we are spending 6 nights.

A woman approached on Camps Bay Beach and asked us where we were from. We told her the United States. She went on to explain to us that she is divorced and is struggling to get a job and make money, and even eat at night. She was asking for a donation to help her out. We declined to provide any assistance, and her parting comment was, "Americans love money more than life itself."

Camps Bay Beach

Table Mountain on the left with the 12 Apostles cascading towards the ocean on the right.

I weighed myself the other day and I was 108kg. That's roughly 238lbs. I'm pretty sure when I left home I was 290lbs. And again I've come to the conclusion that food abroad is much better than food at home. It's more organic and less stripped of nutrients like the food at home is after going through all the processing. Additionally, everywhere else, food is portioned correctly and not "super sized" at all.

In Cape Town, we were happy to have an entire apartment in the center of the city. It's walking distance to pretty much everything. It's the most comfortable we've been since we were in Ho Chi Minh. It's also the first time since Australia that we've been able to go grocery shopping for real, fresh food and cook ourselves a few meals.

On our very first day, we checked-in to our apartment and headed straight for Lion's Head to hike to the top. After nearly 1.5hrs, we made it! We took the route that required us to climb ladders and use staples and chains in the rock face to climb certain parts. It was pretty scary for me, but I still did it. I just moved a lot slower than most people. I even let people pass me. Oh well, I'm still afraid of heights.

On top of Lion's Head with a view of Table Mountain and the city bowl that is Cape Town.

During our first couple of days here we rented a car and did some self touring as per usual. We made it all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope on Cape Point, something that I never thought we'd get to do in our lives. It was extremely windy down there. In fact, we had to rearrange our schedule, and that's the only reason we were here on this day. Originally, we were supposed to be on a shark cage diving tour out at sea. Unfortunately, because the winds were so forceful the dive had to be rescheduled.

Cape Point lighthouse

Baboons. They jumped on the hood of my car and wouldn't move. Baboons. 

We also paid a visit Boulder Beach to see the African penguin colonies and Muizenberg Beach to see the colorful beach changing houses. On one day, we did what normally we wouldn't do; we hopped on a city bus tour and took the entire loop around the city.

Changing houses at the beach in Muizenberg

African penguins

We also made our way up to Table Mountain via cable car. The cable car up to Table Mountain is the first we've ever rode that had a rotating floor that allowed all the passengers an opportunity to have a 360 degree view on the way up and on the way down. So as the cable car is climbing, it's also rotating. Scary a bit, no? What if the fall just falls out? I've never seen that before, and quite honestly, don't understand how that was possible. And when I don't understand things, I usually am more afraid of them.

Cable car to the top of Table Mountain. 


Proof that the top of Table Mountain is flat.

Posing on the edge. 

Does that look like Antarctica on the horizon?

The top to Table Mountain was incredibly quiet. If not for the bustle of the many tourists, you could probably hear a pin drop. All you had to do was find a corner of the table top to yourself and the light gentle whisper of the breeze was all you could hear. Of course the views were spectacular. You could see anything from up there. The shores of Clifton Beach and Camps Bay Beach, the V&A waterfront, the eastern industrial areas, south to the Cape, the lighthouse at the Cape. I felt like visibility was so good that you could even see Antarctica if you really tried. I really thought I could see it but maybe it was just the clouds on the horizon playing tricks on me.

Cape Town, the city, is strikingly similar to any Australian city. In my opinion, it's particularly close in nature to Melbourne. It's got the diversity of people; it has the rich culture and history; Cape Town has excellent food options in every direction; the city is broken up to pockets and little neighborhoods of different feeling and character all in a compact area. And I suppose like every other city, Capetonians have a great pride in their city. Everything in Cape Town and the peninsula is easily accessible. You can drive practically anywhere and within the city limits are buses that frequent the streets with touch on, touch off technology. What Cape Town has that Melbourne doesn't have is the landscape. I really enjoy the topography here better. You can hike the trails after work or escape to a vineyard for lunch or hop on the bus to the beach within minutes. It's all within reach.

Bo Kaap

The Malay Quarter, known by some as “Bo-Kaap” and built largely by and for the artisans of Cape Town between 1790 and 1825, was subsequently occupied by people of the Muslim faith. These included political exiles from Java and Ceylon, who moved into the area around 1820. Liberated slaves moved into the area after 1834 and with them Malay people who had been living in the town. Over the years the area has come to be identified as the heart of the cultural life of the Malay people. Major influences of their life in the Cape have been their religion, the culture of their forebears, visits to Mecca and the Dutch and English colonists.

Side note: 
So our shark cage diving trip was rescheduled from Sunday to Wednesday. But today (Tuesday), we were informed that there weren't any shark sightings in the bay today so they are cancelling our trip all together. Also because of the high winds for the previous 2 days they didn't have any trips out to the bay either. The previous Friday was the last sighting of any sharks in the bay. Since we are leaving for Namibia on Thursday, we won't have time to reschedule again. It's unfortunate and upsetting but I suppose it gives us another reason to come back to Cape Town.

1972 - Denmark to the Philippines

It is typical of me to reach out to my uncle, a former ship captain, when Carolyn and I reach a significant maritime location. The Cape of Good Hope is one of those places, so naturally I had to ask if he had been here before. My uncle confirmed that he had in fact been to South Africa, Cape Town in particular in 1972. His employer in the Philippines had purchased a second hand vessel in Denmark, and his task was to pick up the ship and deliver it back to the Philippines. He recalled that it was a 3000 gross ton cargo ship. Normally, since the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, ships sailing East would cut through the canal to save time. Instead, as a result of a local war between the Egyptians and Israelis by which the Egyptians closed the canal (5 June 1967 to 10 June 1975), his crew had to veer South and round the Cape of Good Hope. They actually made a short stop in Cape Town for bunker (fuel) and provisions.

My Uncle's trip would last 45 days from Denmark to the Philippines, and it would have been a week shorter had the Suez been open. He recalled the segregation between blacks and whites (known commonly as apartheid). I asked him if he had any issues while he was in town but he said they did not have any problems because they were not considered black (his crew was mostly Filipino and other Asian). On the double decker city buses he explained that they had a choice to sit either on top or on the bottom, but they were encouraged to sit on the same deck as other white passengers. The same was true at the post office where they would sit waiting to be attended to. He and some of his crew sat on the colored benches waiting their turn but some locals pointed them to the benches for the whites. I asked him why they weren't discriminated against like other Malay people in South Africa, but he wasn't sure. I would have thought having the Asian, more specifically the Indonesian / Malaysian, skin complexion and build would have surely caused some kind of issue but thankfully it did not. My uncle, a ship captain, had witnessed apartheid first hand. Though a short story, I still found it amazing that someone I know has a first hand account and experienced the apartheid. We have other friends whom we have questions for now knowing what we do. Hopefully they'll have some more experiences to share with us.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Beauty of Bhutan Begins with Buddhism

Getting to Bhutan is no simple directive. Visitors only have the option of flying in from Bangkok or Delhi, or if you're really adventurous, you can drive from India. We opted to fly in from Bangkok, allowing us to spend a single night in Thailand on this trip. At the check-in counter at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I've never seen so many TVs being checked in as baggage at an airport counter. Apparently TVs in Thailand are half the cost of TVs purchased in Bhutan because the country does not produce these types of goods. As a result, many people bring in electronics from Bangkok. One piece can be transported tax free per person. If we had known, we'd have brought a TV too.

Pilots flying into Paro are pretty skillful with all the banks and turns just before touching down on the runway. There are only 8 pilots in the world that are qualified to land or take off from this International airport. It is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. It reminds me of the waterway in Argentina heading into and out of Ushuaia where a specific pilot is required to captain the ship and navigate through the narrow channels. If a pilot is unavailable, then ships must wait for one to become available before proceeding. It's a highly specialized and skilled job to have. Talk about job security.

We learned from a close family friend (who we call "Auntie" as a sign of respect), who is a tour operator and whose son is a newly minted pilot looking for employment in Bhutan, that pilots compete to fly for either the flagship carrier (DrukAir) or Bhutan Airlines to put the qualification on their resume. It's a gleaming indication of the caliber of pilot you are. In fact the airlines have a hard time deciding whether or not to hire nationals because hiring foreign pilots is more lucrative for them. What does that mean? It means that foreign pilots are willing to pay the airlines for employment (to get it on their resume), whereas the nationals must be paid be either the government or the private company. It's an amazing job to have apparently if you're a pilot.

Besides Auntie and Uncle, two other people really made this visit a majestic experience. Tshewang (whose name in Dzongkha means "blessed life") was our guide whom Auntie set us up with, and Tshering (whose name means "long life") our driver, who so happens to be an ex-monk.

Day 1 in Bhutan was just pure nature and peace. It's exactly what I imagined it to be. We had the good fortune to be here in time to attend the Paro festival where Guru Rinpoche is celebrated. He is credited with having brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet. The celebration was filled with mask dances and people offering their praise and requesting forgiveness for their sins. Prayers all around. The setting of this beautiful festival was on the mountainside where a glance in any direction gave you a wonderful view of the town of Paro.

No photos are allowed of the king so that his image will not be redistributed around the world or sold for profit. We learned this the hard way when we tried to snap some photos of His Majesty while attending the Paro Festival. He visited on the last day for the annual unveiling of the Thongdrel (seen above).

On the last day of the Paro Tshechu, everyone celebrates this embroidery of Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that by witnessing this Thongdrel it will cleanse the viewer of sin (so that they can go on sinning again, haha, j/k). The Thongdrel is more than one hundred years old.

We learned so much from our hosts. Auntie is the mother of a dear friend of ours from home. Auntie and her husband are so well informed with answers to all our questions and have enough facts to fill a Jeopardy board.

Some interesting facts:
  • Bhutan has a population of less than 1 million people. 
  • Bhutan is about the size of Switzerland.
  • Gross National Happiness is real, and it is measured every so often by various metrics. 
  • Paro is a small town that houses the only international airport in the country. It is true countryside.
  • The military is composed of less than 10,000 people. 
  • There are more monks than military personnel.
  • Bhutan is a large producer of hydro electricity and a major exporter to India, the largest consumer. 
  • Marijuana is a real weed that grows wild in the months of June / July. It is illegal to consume.
  • No areas are off limits for tourism in Bhutan.
  • Fishing is by permit only and for personal consumption.
  • Hunting is absolutely prohibited.
  • Meats are all imported from India, merely a 6 hour drive away from the border.
  • Jesuits began the education system with the one condition that no one can be converted to Christianity. This is the reason that English is the medium of education. 
  • All windows for all buildings must keep the traditional design.
  • 60-70% of forests must be preserved by law. This probably helps with its carbon negative footprint.
  • Bhutan is bordered by India and China, however it is a closed border with China. It makes India a very important trading partner.
  • 4 seasons of weather but all are mild, none are extreme or harsh.
  • 80% of the country is connected with electricity. The remaining 20% are very remote villages, but soon those will also be wired.
  • In-home internet connection is not common. People access through their mobile phones mostly. Internet cafes are available. Businesses mostly have internet access.

Every tourist in Bhutan is a philanthropist. The cost of healthcare and education of the Bhutanese is practically subsidized by the tourism industry which the government strictly monitors to keep high value tourist coming and limit the low value (backpacker / professional tourist). So the Bhutanese do not pay for these things.

We visited the school of arts and crafts in Thimphu. The 13 traditional arts are taught. Many children take these courses that will give them skills to last a lifetime. Best of all, this education is free. I asked about modern art, but this school does not teach it. There are other private institutions that you can pay for to gain further insight.

When I asked Tshewang what he thought of the dynamic between science and religion (specifically Buddhism), he said, "Science is just a way of life. Buddhism is beyond the way of life, it is control of the mind." Fairly profound statement I think. What do you think?

Further into our conversation, he said something else that struck me as well. "Sufferings are self inflicted. No one else is the cause."

On the way to Thimphu the king and his entourage passed us on the road. Sometime down the road we encountered the caravan stopped on the roadside. We learned that a lay person was appealing to the king directly on some important matter. This person must have thought out his appeal and timed his approach of the royal car accurately. All he had to do was bow in the middle of the road and the king is obligated to stop and hear his plea. Normally, a layman would have to go through the Royal Court of Justice and if necessary, an appeal at the Supreme Court.

On the way to Punakha, just after the Douchla Pass, we encountered the Queen Mother and Queen on the road passing us in the direction of Thimphu.

The king of Bhutan and the late King of Thailand were very close. When the King of Thailand passed away, the King of Bhutan immediately rushed to Thailand to pay his respects to someone considered a teacher, friend, and mentor.

The king, the spiritual head, and the parliament are all equal in importance. The king does not really participate in how the government rules. Instead, as a figurehead, he works more with the community and the improvement of society. Only to that extent will he involve himself in government affairs.

Hydroelectric power is heavily used. They are now also experimenting with wind power. We have seen a couple of windmills in operation. I'm sure they will find it to be a good source as well as it gets fairly windy here in the mountains.

The power of the phallus. Wards off evil spirits. Hung on the corner of the roofs of houses or on the door or painted on the walls.

We drove over 3 hours to the village of Gasa to soak in a natural hot spring. We were surrounded by locals, who I'm sure were curious about us. Only one woman cared to ask us, and her English was flawless. Turns out she is from Thimphu and her husband was a former DrunkAir pilot. The 3+ hr journey home was over the same gravel roadway that was so bad we could not exceed 15kmph for nearly the entire drive. Once we got back into the village area, we were fortunate enough to pass an archery ground. Although people still play with the traditional bow and arrow, these friendly matches were using compound bows. The target is situated 150 meters away and seems so far. I don't think I'd be able to hit the target, let alone see the center of it.

We spent a day in the Phobjika Valley. We visited a very nice temple and followed that with a 4km nature trek down to the valley floor. The area is so scenic and peaceful. The horses, cows, and sheep all roam freely. The valley floor is mostly marsh land making walking across it difficult but also making it lush for the grazing animals. Apparently there are many other animals that call this area home, including fox, leopards, and various birds.

In the Phobjika Valley the electrical wires are hidden to preserve the natural habitat and roosting grounds of the black neck cranes who live here during the harsh Tibetan winters where they come from. These birds are considered birds of heaven and specifically protected here.

We did 2 more treks through the Himalayan mountain range. The first was to visit a monastery atop the Chumpu trail. We rose to an altitude of 3400 meters over the course of nearly 4 hours. We followed the newly installed electrical lines which follow the old trail way. These lines power the monastery solely. However, the power still fails at times, as it did while we were In the temple. The monastery and the pools and waterfalls behind the monastery are said to be sacred. Supposedly, the second Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, bathed in these pools and spent some time meditating in this area. For sure, the scenery is apt for meditation. This was a trek less traveled. We were the only people on the trail. So as you can imagine, the solitude can be eerie but at the same time calming. Most people opt for the more famous of the treks to the Tiger's Nest. The real attraction here though is amazing. There is an image, a statue, of the female Buddha that seems as if it is floating in the air. It is enclosed in a glass case but the bottom portion is accessible by a small door. Once this door is opened, you can see where all the donations have been deposited and amongst the paper money, you can see the feet of the female Buddha. The keeper of the temple uses some of these bills to pass under the feet of the image proving that the statue is In fact floating. It is said that it is not suspended by any wires or string but that cannot be seen as the Buddha is clothed and many decorations adorn the figure. You almost have to just believe in the story and take the proof given by the passing of the paper money below its feet. How was it possible?

On our way down, we encountered a blockage in the trail route. A tree has fallen on the power lines and started a fire. This was the reason for the power outage while we were up top. It was necessary for us to find al alternative route through the bush to circumvent the downed tree and fire. That was an adventure in itself. Our guide and driver ensured to call the Bhutan Power Corp and the fire department to inform them of the situation and try to prevent the fire from spreading and to shut off the power on the lines. Our total round trip on the trek took up much of the day and made us pretty tired. But we can say that we trekked through the Himalayas for the second time in our lives now. This trek prepared us for the next day's trek to Tiger's Nest.

The more touristic of the treks in Paro is to Tiger's Nest. It is believed that Guru Rimpoche meditated here for 3 months and arrived on the back of a flying tiger, hence the name Tiger's Nest. The trail is more developed with a clearer path to the top. There are even horses available for you to ride to the halfway point if you so choose. We decided to just walk it, keeping with our trekking nature. Along the way, we had marvelous views of the Paro Valley and the Tiger's Nest itself. Perched on the cliffside, the Nest is an amazing structure. It almost seems to be etched into the stone wall. It's walls fit almost perfectly in place. The zig zag of the path leading up to the temples are steep and follow the topography of the mountain side, sometimes descending before ascending to the next level. The hike itself is not as difficult as the climb to Chumpu but the reward at the end is certainly more satisfying. There are so many little temple rooms in the Tiger's Nest as well as meditation caves where numerous spiritual masters have spent their time. You can almost kind of feel something in the air of this place.

Bhutan is not a country to just tick off your bucket list. Bhutan is not a country where you will see impressive sights. Bhutan is not a country that will impress you at first glance.

The beauty in Bhutan lies in the people you meet. And you must talk to them to get anything out of your trip. The beauty in Bhutan is hearing what these people have to say from deep down in their hearts, from their religious beliefs and how they incorporate it into their daily lives, and watching them succeed and prosper in everything they do because of how they believe. The beauty in Bhutan is in the landscapes designed by following the ways of the Buddha. The beauty in Bhutan roams with the animals that freely live without fear of capture or execution. The beauty in Bhutan is the natural state of a kingdom ruled without prejudice but with care for the people, their education, and their well-being. The beauty in Bhutan is in the temples, stupas, and pagodas that house the essence of their religion, the peoples' beliefs, the mantras, the sayings, the memories, and the hope of a better life for this and the next.