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Archive for the ‘Travel Diary of a (w)African’ Category

A Moroccan Taxi, Marrakech

You’d be surprised at how few people want to visit Morocco. Terrifying tales of abduction and a new life as a sex slave to European men abound; personally I blame it on Liam Neeson and the movie Taken. So when my best friend had to attend a psychology conference in Marakesh, I decided that this was my opportunity! I arrived at 8pm at night and was enveloped in hot air which steamed up my glasses. The sun remained resolutely in the sky and seemed to have no intention of going away as I was collected by Kirsten. We hopped into our taxi, allowing the sights and sounds of Morocco to flow in through the window, as we roared our way into the city centre.

When I booked all of our accommodation, I opted for accommodation in the medina,  the old part of town. Our taxi dropped us off at the gates and I followed Kirsten, by foot, into the rabbit warren of dirty streets and humanity to reach our first home of the trip: Riad Al Nour. My first impressions of Marrakech left me feeling somewhat despondent: the place was a tip. Alleyways were strewn with rubbish and stinking refuse, leaking water pipes created muddy pools of water and feral cats rooted around in search of food. I travelled a number of third world countries, and love the general mayhem that goes hand-in-hand with this type of travel, but my heart sank.  Two days before, Kirsten had arrived alone, and had been dropped off at the gates of the medina, left to find her own way to the riad. Looking every inch the tourist, with her huge black roller bag and little square of paper containing the address, she was of course approached by a strange man, who promised to show her the way. Her options were simple: stand there for all eternity, or put her trust in humanity, and in the fact that at 6ft she could head-butt her navigator, and run. Luckily I had her as my guide, and as was to be the trend for the entire trip, once the great door to the riad was opened, we were greeted by the Morocco I had been dreaming of. A courtyard of fairy tale proportions: mosaiced floor tiles in blues, reds, yellows and greens, wrought iron tables and chairs, lemon trees and a bubbling water fountain. Our room was on the top floor and opened up onto a rooftop courtyard. I stood, peering over the wall at the city of Marrakech, which stretched out all around me: at last! That night, we managed to secure a bottle of (warm) rose wine, and sat chatting for hours under the Moroccan sky: the medina humming around us, as we planned our trip into the High Atlas Mountains the next day.

Vomit-inducing roads of the High Atlas, Morocco

My face was truly as green as the khaki mountains, which whizzed past us, as I lay face down on the back seat of an old school Mercedes Benz, the taxi of choice in this part of the world. Our driver rocketed up and down the spiralling roadways with the same confidence and fearlessness I have only experienced in countries like Mauritius and Zanzibar, where the concept of law is relative. We were there just for the day but it definitely gives one reason to come back to Morocco and explore further; the mountains were spectacular. We made a stop at the Ait Ben Haddou Kazbah; an old fortified city on a hill, made of mud and daub with giant marabou storks nesting in the turrets. At the top we looked out over the valley, and I felt like I had been transported back 2000 years, and at any moment baby Moses was going to float by, in a basket, on the river winding past the Kazbah.

An afternoon snooze, Marrakech, Morocco

After four days in Marrakech playing at being proper tourists: getting fleeced by our guide’s family and friends in their curio shops, and people watching in Jamal ef Na square, we headed for our next destination: the coastal town of Essouira. A beautiful town: white washed walls, a maze of cobble stone streets, and, like everywhere in Africa, the smells and sounds of the market. Our host, Stu, met us off the bus and as he bobbed and weaved through the crowd, he chattered with excitement about the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival, Morocco’s biggest annual music festival, which was to take place that very weekend. Our accommodation, Hotel Remmy, was found at the very end of a long, winding, low ceilinged street system, but once we entered the riad, we were happy. Light, airy and clean, it was the perfect little hideaway in a town which suddenly found itself overwhelmed with double its usual inhabitants.

We ventured out onto the streets, and were swept up in a river of castanets, drums and swirling hat tassels. Hypntoic chanting and swaying bodies led us down narrow passageways where news teams and camera flashes caught all the action, until finally, we were disgorged onto the promenade overlooking the sea. While watching boys play soccer on the sand, we picked up two Rastafarians who “came to our rescue”, as we were being mildly harrassed by some men. Our two “friends” stuck with us for most of the first night of the festival and while they might not drink in Morocco, they sure do smoke a lot of weed. Late that night we found ourselves dancing under a sickle moon, the sand crunching beneath our feet, to the sounds of electronic-style Berber music. Each stage had a different musical genre so we criss-crossed the town to experience them all; at one we swayed in trance-like motion, like Masaai warriors; at another Arrested Development belted out modern tunes. I haven’t really mentioned it yet, but as a single woman, you will be bothered in Morocco. Late one night we got a little lost and wandered down a particularly dark and sinister looking street. As we walked past a shop, a young man peeled himself off the door jamb and proceeded to tail us, emiting a constant stream of chatter. Finally, I’d had enough. I whipped around to face him, and I swear at that precise moment, my body was taken over by the spirit of my sister, a particularly lady-like and graceful individual, and I imperiously intoned (index finger raised in front of his face), “ We are not here to pick up men! We are here to listen to music!”. And off we went, leaving him motionless and slack-jawed in our wake.

Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival

After spending three days in Essaouira, we caught a bus back to Marrakech, and then a train on to Fez. It was a 7 hour trip but the train was clean and the scenery spectacular. We opted for first class tickets, which meant we shared a compartment with four other travellers. On the last leg of the trip we were joined by a young man from Fez, an ambassador and official guide of the city, who shared with us interesting information, and tips, on how to handle the city. Unfortunately he was not able to take us around Fez, but made a few calls, and arranged that a fellow guide and friend would look after us. We met him off the train, and he delivered us right to the door of Riad Bouljoud, where we are staying for three nights. He had tried to convince us that this was no place for two single ladies, and promptly got into a heated argument with our hosts because, if it were not for him, we would still be wandering the badly lit passageways between buildings which resembled a construction site. We left them roaring at each other in French and made our way to our room.

Our hosts, Christophe and Vincent, two delightful Frenchmen, owned the stunning riad. A skinny building of three floors, each room had large wooden shutters, which opened up to overlook the courtyard. The riad walls were intricately carved white plasterwork and the floor was covered in beautiful mosaic tiles. Everything about the open and free-flowing environment said space and light. I was in love. This feeling of love and light however, ended at approximately the same time as the computer-game like sounds of caged birds, emitted at irritating regularity, and echoing off the walls, in the wee hours of the morning.

Fez was the loveliest city we explored. The old medina was like a movie set and we wandered the tiny alleyways with our guide, visiting the mosque (which, as women, we were not allowed to enter), touching the intricately mosaic’d walls, and browsing in the many co-operatives, which the government apparently ensures have regulated pricing so that tourists do not get ripped off. Which, of course, we did, and we bought a carpet! It was sold to us at a “generous” price, because I apparently have a trustworthy face, and we could even resell it at the ICC in Durban (names and numbers provided – boy are these guys sneaky!) for four times the price we bought it for. So Carol, if you happen to read this – we have a beautiful, antique, Moroccan carpet and we’re selling it, at a “Special price, for a special lady.”

Cute little cafe in Fez

Our last night was spent on the open roof of our riad, drinking wine and listening to the interesting story of how Christophe and Vincent came to live in Fez, and how, ironically, they had found a little freedom here, when they hadn’t in France.

Our last day and night in Morocco was spent in Casablanca. I chose Hotel Central based on the imagery presented on the web: clean and sophisticated. Ah, the Internet, web of lies! Our taxi driver was horrified when we gave him the address, but his English was not very good, so the only word we could make out, regularly, was: hashish. There had been no mention of harbour docks on the website, and yet, that’s where we were: the docks. Our hotel was in fact a hostel of the worst kind: full of backpackers. Their saving grace was the most delicious breakfast of our entire stay; a pity we only got to try it out once. We got over our fear and ventured out onto the streets, looking for somewhere to eat dinner. A tall, beefy man, with a fake American accent, at a roadside café table, gave us directions to the best prawn dinner around. And that is how we ended off our trip to Morocco: seated in a horrible kitsch restaurant of white and gold décor, consuming vast quantities of prawns scattered all over a paper tablecloth. Delicious!

Top Tips:

  1. Take a plug for the basin. If you want to wash any of your clothes in the basin, then you will require a plug. Because, for some strange reason, basins in hotel come sans plus. Potentially this is a hotel trick to get you to use their cleaning service; an added expense to your trip. We did ask for a bucket once but this did not turn out well at all.
  2. Take ear plugs for your ears. Morocco is probably one of the loudest countries I have ever visited; a constant stream of sound assualts your ears at all hours of the day. In Marrakech the clanging and screeching of a wedding Mariarchi band had me standing bolt upright in my bed at 2am. In Fez, it was the constant tweeting and chattering of caged birds, and the hawking and coughing of our neighbour across the courtyard, which had me sleepless and grumpy. In Essouira, it was of course the four giant music stages situated at each end of the small coastal city which had me swaying trancelike to Berber music all night long.
  3. Dress like a local. You don’t need to dress in a burka but you do need to cover it up. For us that meant long skirts or floaty pants, tops that covered arms up to the elbow and absolutely no cleavage on display. Our hosts told us about the many women who complain about the “dirty, leery Arabs” who show no respect for Western women, yet they insist on wearing tiny, transparent white shorts with visible g-string,  and skinny strapped tops overflowing with sweaty, pale skin. Even I’d be staring at that sight!
  4. Eat like a local. By the time I left Morocco I was three kilos lighter and still have a complete aversion to the tagine. If I never see a cup of steaming mint tea again, it will be too soon. Tourists are treated like culinary idiots. If you insist on eating at the restuarants which surround Jamal ef Na square, you will be served the saddest array of Moroccan food on offer. Ask your host at the Riad for real Moroccan restuaruants that they dine out at. Our best meals were on referral and while we paid a little extra, it was definitely worth it.
  5. Take public transport. Clean, punctual and in working order. You might actually die on the way to your destination, due to the sheer lack of fear shown by your driver, but you will at least have left on time.

 

Other travel stories:

A Mental Mini-break (Botswana)

Hong Kong

Bound for Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)

Jesus was not born here (Zimbabwe)

 

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“Jesus was not born here but sometimes he comes in through the little holes in the walls and sits on that chair” – Sandile Dikeni (Shack Chic)

The Elder

An old man sits in a shaft of light at the front of the small mud hut; his brown hands clasp the spine of his battered bible, motes of dust gently orbit his head and the butter-yellow sunlight sets his hair aflame. This one-roomed, thatched mud hut is a church located in rural Nyathi, situated roughly an hour outside of Bulawayo. The old man is the church elder. The road to this village shows the many years of Mugabe’s rule: Dumi, a local urban pastor, laughingly refers to it as the Christian road because it requires a certain degree of sharing. All that remains of the road is a car width of pockmarked tarmac flanked on both sides by stony brown soil. Two cars race towards each other down the central median, and at what seems like the very last second, veer off on to opposite sides to let each other pass. Cyclists, chickens and pedestrians scatter to the left and right, skidding over the gravel and into the grassy verge, in a last ditch effort to avoid an untimely demise.

To church

We are here to visit this small church, its elders and congregants. They do not often have visitors and we are welcomed with clapping hands and toothy smiles, and are then led down a path between straggly mielie plants to the tiny church. We all stoop to enter and are asked to sit on what turns out to be pews made out of mud packed around a wooden frame. The rich, red soil is sturdy and I am surprised that it carries the weight of three or more people. At the  corner-edge of the pew I sit on, I notice a thin column of grainy sand standing about 15cm high, a nest of ants has fashioned this delicate tower, and it has somehow survived the many bodies which have sat here.  The walls of the church are pitted and the backsides of noisy yellow bees waggle in and out of the holes. The room is scented with the smoke of a thousand fires, which has seeped into the mud on the walls, and soaked the clothes of the worshipers.

I can’t stop looking at the old man – his skin is lined and leathery, and whiskers grow out of his nose and ears. Both his hair and the stubble on his chin have grown grey. For all the years I have worked in rural areas, this is the first time I have seen such an old man. I am used to seeing young boys, teenagers and the occasional middle aged man. Even though apartheid in South Africa is long over, its legacy remains: men move to the cities to find work and seldom return, so the rural areas are populated by women and children. As each of us visitors stand to introduce ourselves, a small girl wanders over, and settles herself comfortably across the old man’s knees. I don’t know if this is her grandfather or simply a male relative she feels at home with. I feel quite overwhelmed as I watch her; there are few children in rural South Africa, and indeed many parts of South Africa, who will have this experience, as men are no longer central to family life.

As the small band of Christians begin to sing, the sun filters in through the small square windows at the front of the room, while the open doorway behind me reveals full purple clouds hanging over the mielie field and huts. It is 11am and the sky darkens as the thunder rolls and lightning streaks the sky. Fat drops hit the earth releasing fragrances long stored in the soft, loose soil. It has not rained for months and they say our visit has broken the long dry spell. I love the fact that I am sitting in a far away place; the roar of the city forgotten, its sounds replaced by the tinkling of cow bells and the wind sifting through the mielies.

The Rain is Coming

Why are we here? We haven’t brought anything with us; in fact, it is our hosts who offer us delicious platefuls of pumpkin, mielies and squash, leaving the taste of honey and wood smoke on our tongues. So what is the point? As I listen to both Kent and Wessel, two team members, share and encourage this small church, I realise that sometimes it is simply being with people that is important. We travelled 1850km to sit and talk and share a meal together; most of us virtual strangers but linked by faith. Did we have to travel to Zimbabwe to do this? Could we not be doing it in some of our rural areas in South Africa? Yes, we could. But I know that our visit was important for these Zimbabweans; people in flux, people who are assured of very little in this life.  We know of their plight, we know of their fears and they know that we care.

The days that follow are filled with various activities, and the meeting of people from all walks of Zimbabwean life. I spend a morning at a local orphanage which is home to a number of small, beautiful children; some were abandoned at birth – unclaimed by relatives after their mothers died giving birth, some were dumped in bushes or isolated places – left to die, one is paralysed from the waist down – involved in a hit-and-run and then given over to the State when the father was unable to care for her. The American’s travelling with us are here to tell the kids about Jesus and to tell them they have a great destiny. Sally asks them questions to gauge their knowledge and they answer with ease, even when I am stumped, and my lack of biblical knowledge becomes apparent to me. These kids are bright, they are funny and they love to dance – I don’t doubt they have a great destiny. In the hands of Jenni and the mothers of the orphanage, I can see that these kids are loved, and because of this they are gentle with each other. At lunchtime the older kids help the younger kids to sandwiches and juice, only helping themselves, once the small children are seated and fed.

Andre playing with one of the boys

That afternoon I find myself in an unfinished brick building in a suburb reminiscent of a South African township. We have been invited to attend a women’s meeting where we will share a few words with the ladies present. One of the many things I love about Africa are the voices of women in song – loud and clear they seem to carry all the sadness, love, jubilation and hope of Africa as a whole. I stand amidst a sea of singing women and my skin prickles and my eyes water. These women are so firm in their faith, so convinced of God’s love and as I watch them I get the same feeling that came over me in the tiny mud hut of a church in Nyathi – Jesus is here, perhaps sitting on a chair or leaning in the doorway. He’s not loud, he’s not the centre of attention – he’s just here.

The boys

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Thomas Baines Print

Bulwayo. As the name of this Zimbabwean city gently floats from my lips, my mind conjures up images of colonial style maps decorated with roaring waterfalls and teeming herds of buffalo. Heavily laden sausage and flame trees awash with blood orange blossoms stand beside acacias, their pods clattering in the wind, releasing a familiar scent into the air. I’m in a foreign land, one not dissimilar to the one I have come from, and as the sceptics would like us to believe, one which South Africa could closely resemble in a few years time. I have joined a group from Glenridge, a local Durban church, travelling to Zimbabwe to spend time with various churches and people living in the city of Bulawayo.

Our journey begins in the manner of most long trips; a 3am start which finds friends and strangers stumbling around a car park, steaming mugs of coffee in hand, as bags are packed into trailers and seats selected with care. Is it wise to sit behind a 5 year old who is clearly used to being awake this early? No doubt, I will find out the answer in time. Our drive is long and we wind our way up past Johannesburg and into parts of South Africa I have only ever heard of. We live in a beautiful country; the trip between Louis Trichard and Musina is breathtaking; rocky outcrops rise up alongside us and faces materialise out of the stone. The quirky baobab tree is as prolific to this area as the palm tree is to Durban; tall, skinny, leafy ones; short, fat, squat ones; and enormous ones, trunks wider than our van, limbs reaching up into the sky and providing shelter from the midday sun. The sky is as wide and as blue as an ocean, clouds foamy and white.

After a sleepless night shared with a millipede at a wonderful little bush lodge, we arrive at the Beit Bridge border post at around 8.30am. We pass easily through the South African border, and drive over to the Zimbabwe side, a no man’s land of desolation. Our van is immediately surrounded by men trying to ‘assist’ us with the immigration process, but we are with old hands and are quickly whisked inside and find ourselves at the front of an empty queue. It begins to fill up quickly though, and we have to watch out for random individuals who simply walk past all those waiting, and squash themselves in between you and the person in front of you. It is hilarious watching the South Africans, eternal abiders of queue etiquette, who fall into two camps: those that falter when it comes to confronting the offender, and those that protest passive aggresively. The first group simply look nonchalant and unphased by the interloper’s actions, while the second group attempt to reclaim their space in front of the offender.

Outside a group has gathered around a large van which is overloaded to the hilt with all manner of paraphernalia; the trailer is being unpacked by the border police and each item is painstakingly being pulled out. As we watch this scene unfold a red bakkie races past and we all admire the furniture on the back. Suddenly it screeches to a halt as Rob, one of our team members, flies through the air and onto the tarmac, his head cracking the floor. We all stand stunned for a moment and then a flurry of activity ensues – the bystanders watching the van being unloaded simply turn around and become spectators to a new human drama. The driver tears out of the car to check on Rob and reveals that he had been looking “over there” – and vaguely points in the direction of the immigration office. Thankfully Rob is not badly hurt, although shaken, and we manage to load everyone into the vehicles and head off into Zimbabwe.

The landscape is not unlike South Africa so I do not get a sense of being in another country until we come to our first road block. The road block appears to be a standard Zimbabwean operating procedure and it becomes abundantly clear that being a police officer is the number one form of employment in this country. Everyone is professionally dressed and quite assured of their knowledge of their country’s laws, even when blatantly incorrect. In the space of 20km we have been stopped roughly 10 times, often a small discussion will be held outside of the van by our driver (and team leader), Clint, and the officer on the rules of the road and the status of our “tourist” vehicle. Seemingly a permit is required, although this was denied at the border. Clint has been gifted with a golden tongue and twinkling eyes, so we are more often than not on our way, the officer left standing bribe-less, but smiling.

On arrival in Bulwayo we head to our host family’s home and are directed to the house they are in the process of building. It is set in what must have once been an affluent suburb; the houses are huge with overgrown gardens and unkempt verges – clearly municipal services have not been in operation for some time. There is something quite lovely about the haphazard roads and creeping foliage; it is as if nature is trying to reclaim its space. We make our way up a steep drive way and are greeted by Adrian, Ingrid and Bruce; the men are covered in dust and we realise they have been working furiously to finish the house for our arrival. And it is beautiful. Built out of the stone found on the land, it is a two story home, with many rooms waiting to be filled by both stranger and friend. They have built this home specifically to accommodate people from all over the world who come to Zimbabwe on mission trips. Outside are another two rooms; in one a large rounded rock formation merges with the bathroom, and the other has a wooden deck with a spectacular view of the leafy green belt that houses this suburb. I’m absolutely amazed by the generosity of this family. Even though they have built this house with the intention of housing guests, it is also to be their family home. It is not yet completely finished but they have given it over to us – and I’m sure by the time we leave it’ll be a little weathered and worn.

View at the Houghtons place

A large table made of heavy Rhodesian teak dominates the main eating space and the kitchen and living room all merge into each other, allowing for free flow of people and conversation. A wooden patio hosts another large table and people begin to secure positions as the biltong, nuts and snacks appear. This is a far cry from mission trips of yonder and I can’t help but feel thankful that I am not standing over a fire tending my billy can of beans. It’s an interesting mix of people from different churches, ages and backgrounds and three Americans who have joined our team.

I’m not really sure what to expect on this trip. I’ve been in a strange state of mind these last few weeks and this has led me to get into a van, with mostly unknown people, armed only with the knowledge that I was heading to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

(to be continued: part 2 – Jesus was not born here)

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You are driving down a dusty brown road and the wind blowing through the open window of the Jeep is whipping your hair wildly about your face. The surface is rutted and you bump along, feeling yourself rise slightly off the seat whenever your drive over a particularly sizeable hump in the road. This road is wide open and empty; you are the only traveller, casually heading towards your destination. There is no need to hurry; you have all the time in the world. You are in Africa now and all sense of urgency has left you. You are on holiday.

You see the big baobab tree coming up on the right hand side of the road; just as the old man had said it would be. You cannot quite fathom its strange root like branches reaching upwards toward the sky; surely it is the wrong way up? Its girth is so wide it would take 5 of you to circle it; arms stretched wide, fingers straining to reach the other side. You pull off the main road and head down a narrow path which opens up to reveal a rustic hotel which boasts a sun bleached thatch roof and a broadly smiling doorman.

“Dumela”, the man shouts above the din of you vehicle, “welcome to Botswana and the mighty Chobe River”. You grin in his direction, excited by the sight which you know awaits you; the mighty Chobe, source of life. You jump out of the Jeep, grab your backpack and head through the hotel. In the courtyard you are greeted by another colossal baobab and all around its trunk play families of mongooses; they roll and dance like kittens, each vying for attention under the baking African sun. You head down a small concrete path, following the sound of rushing water to the boat that awaits you.

When you reach the wooden jetty two men are readying the boat for departure. The water is dazzling as the sun shimmers across the ripples and you are momentarily blinded. It is so wide and so deep and the jetty moves beneath you as the strength of the current causes swells which roll past, smacking gently off the side of the boat. One of the men reaches out his hand for you to grab as you make your way from the jetty into the boat. You take a seat near the front because you are about to witness a show like no other you have ever seen. You are on the Chobe River and its energy is beginning to infuse you with excitement and delight. You are handed an ice cold Kili beer and you sit back as the boat leaves the jetty and enters the flowing streams of water.

 

Before your eyes the sheer expanse of the Chobe River unfolds; it dwarfs the boats which float off in the distance and makes the usually gargantuan hippo seem miniscule. You can hear the snorting of the hippo pods, as they loll against each other and shoot intimidating glares at the boats which venture too close. You could sit for hours watching them play; sinking into the murky depths and rising a few feet away with jaws open wide and little ears shaking water droplets. But on you float, and with each passing metre you become aware of great, glossy black birds with their wings outstretched, drying in the sun. They are cormorants; prehistoric looking creatures which dive deep for fish. They perch on branches like statues, their only movement their feathers which ruffle against the wind as they dry.

You become aware of a strange sound; a grinding? You are floating towards a reed bed and you suddenly realise that you are in fact not metres away from a large bull elephant. He has been camouflaged by the tall green reeds which he is eating a path through. Just the top of his head and his tusks can be seen but his munching rings clear across the water. This enormous pachyderm has swum out from the rivers edge to find the most tender and sweetest stalks and will remain here until he has had his fill and the light has begun to fade from the day. You move on and leave him in peace.

It is not just the river itself which is teeming with life; both the river’s edge and the sky are filled with various forms of activity. As the boat drifts towards the shore you make out a monitor lizard sunning itself on a piece of driftwood. Next to it a small crocodile lies with its mouth wide open; both lizard and crocodile studiously ignores the other. Their interest is purely in absorbing the heat of the day which will warm their bodies into the night. Above you the powerful fish eagle glides, its call has become your sound track to Africa. Its life mate is settled on the branch of a marula tree, eating the soft fruits; a starter before the dinner of fish her mate will bring. Smaller birds move through the air in great flocks, dipping low above the water and then soaring as one back over the reed beds. The calls of numerous birds fill the air and resonate across the water.

There’s a scent in the air; it’s unfamiliar to you because your nostrils still store the odours of the city. This is the scent of freedom, the scent of adventure flowing off of the river and across the lands. It swirls around the boat and soaks your clothes and your hair; it’ll follow you home. As you now motor back up the river you’ll take that scent with you and commit it to memory, to take out every now and again, to remind yourself of this time and this place and how right it felt. The Chobe is now part of you; it has become a place of rest, to be revisited in times of anxiety and worry. To be relived every so often, even if only in memory.

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My best friend Kirsten and I made a pact four years ago that we’d do our best to go somewhere exciting every year: together we’ve done Zanzibar, America and Morocco; separately India, Ireland, and Hong Kong. One of the best things we’ve done while travelling (or before really) is to find out about the place we’re going from other travellers. We’ve talked with friends, visited blogs, and relied upon reviews on Trip Advisor. And we’ve been given some fantastic tips and met some amazing people. So this section is about the countries I’ve visited, the wonderful guides we’ve met (and the not so wonderful), the places we’ve stayed and the general happenings of holiday life. I hope it inspires you to travel to places you might not have considered but also gives you helpful tips which have certainly enhanced our travels.

 

An African in Asia – Hong Kong (2010):

Beautiful blooms

My twin sister Niamh moved to Hong Kong in October 2010. She’s engaged to an Englishman (Dom) and they decided to make the move from the West to the East for various reasons, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to travel there while free lodging was on offer and while our mutual friend Kirsten (another one) was visiting as well.

Hong Kong was simply not what I expected. And I say that with some hesitation because I’m not exactly sure what I expected. On the one hand I visualised a sleek, sophisticated, technology driven city but on the other hand, I had expected … well, the East: exotic, crowded, dirty, fish heads and chocolate covered insect cuisine. What I got was a wonderful combination of the two!

Niamh and Dom live in an area called Mid-levels: basically an area built on a ridiculously steep incline. You really would never have to do bum exercises again in your life if you just walked down and then climbed up that hill every day for the duration of your stay. On the plus side there is an escalator that runs up the hill – before 10am it goes down (taking everyone to work), and then it runs up the hill for the rest of the day. Very handy – especially after a glass or two of wine. Mid-levels has more restaurants and drinking holes than your could possibly visit if you lived there for 10 years – every conceivable cuisine is available. Sick of Asian food – trot yourself down to the local English Pub, or Australian Bar, French Bistro, or American Diner, …it’s all on offer.

Below are a few descriptions of life in Hong Kong and what you might expect.

 

Your Asian Name:

Much like many indigenous cultures, names are incredibly important to the Asians. So while you might arrive bearing a Western Name (or Irish in this case), you will most likely be given an Asian name. My sister’s name, Niamh, means Queen of the Fairy’s in Gaelic. In Cantonese each portion of your name is given a meaning due to the fact that the same sound can actually have numerous meanings. A South African example of this would be the name Busisiwe which is shortened to Busi.  Say it the wrong way, Buzi, and you’re calling the girl a goat, rather than the intentioned meaning: blessed one.

So the sound Niamh apparently has two interpretations in Cantonese: the first is a husband pincher and the second is pretty – but not like gorgeous, rather like a dumb blonde is pretty. Nice! On that note if you are called Alice, then change your name before you head to Morocco – Alice is the name for a donkey!

 

Transport:

I was blown away by how cheap and efficient the transport is in Hong Kong. Compared to London which is super expensive, Hong Kong was a dream. The Star Ferry, which takes you across to Kowloon is only R2. Taxi’s which are plentiful are also relatively cheap – I don’t think we spent more than R30 travelling around town. The most we spent was on 40 minute trip which cost us around R110. Cheap man! It’ll cost you R400 to get from Glenwood to the new airport in Durban! I kid you not!!!

And on that note – the airport (in Hong Kong) is AMAZING! You arrive, make your way through customs and then get on a train which takes you directly into Hong Kong city at R100 a ticket. It’s clean, fast and is the perfect, stress free introduction to a foreign world!

 

These feet were made for walking:

Kirst outside Gao’s (prior to the torture session)

Everyone knows that Asia is king at looking after your tired and aching body. So off we went to Gao’s Foot Massage Co in Peel Street, at the recommendation of my travel partner Kirsten. She’d been told about it by another friend who’d travelled to Hong Kong and swears by the place. So Dom, Niamh, Kirst and I entered this gorgeous little place and were seated in nice big comfy arm chairs and handed cups of steaming rose tea (with little rose buds floating in it). That’s about where the calmness and relaxation ended. I will admit that I have the pain threshold of a gnat but seriously – I have never had my feet and legs kneaded so vigorously in my life. I actually came out with bruises (and perfectly smooth feet so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much). I did have a good laugh though when Kirsten, who can withstand pain that not even an American spy could endure in a torture session, decided to return for a back massage. She came home with the most insanely bruised back I’ve ever seen. It looked like the masseuse did a tango on her back in stilettos! We did find out later that this was not the place which had been recommended but rather another Gao’s – see it’s not in the name but in the pronunciation!

There are plenty of salons dotted all over the city so you are never far from resting your weary feet and being spoilt for an hour or two.

 

Eating Out:

There is no need to panic at the thought of eating out in Hong Kong – you will find something to suit you and your budget. We had some lovely experiences as well as some fairly mediocre ones, so it’s always good to go with a few recommendations:

Soho Street Fair and Wine Walk

Street party

This just happened to be on at the time we arrived and it was so fantastic to experience. Mid levels basically became one big street party with all the restaurants opening up and many offering wine tasting with snack menus to go with it. You bought a book of six tickets which entitled you to six glasses of wine at the various restaurants. Small craft stalls were selling their wares and people milled about drinking wine, eating food and generally creating a jovial atmosphere. If you are in Hong Kong in November – definitely see if this is happening again.

The Brunch Club on Peel Street

A gorgeous little place which is hugely popular with the ex-pats mainly due to the copious amounts of international fashion and gossip magazines which are available to you for the duration of your stay. This place is purely organic so it sometimes takes awhile for your food to arrive. They make killer fresh fruit smoothies and their breakfast & brunch menu is filled with lovely offerings – eggs Benedict, French toast with bananas and honey, and so much more. It’s also situated near to Caine Road (one of the main roads) near the top so it’s a bit more out of the way of the chaos of town.

Brunch club

Spiaggios in Stanley

We took a bus out to Stanley, a seaside town which hosts a market which is quite popular with the tourists. They sell every conceivable nic-nac you can think of. After wandering around and picking up a few things we headed off to find some lunch and came across Spaggios, which overlooks the bay. The fish and chips were amazing as was the scallop salad. Food is not exactly cheap in Hong Kong, nor is alcohol but this delicious meal was worth the moola.

Too delish

Just order it!

Le Blanc French Private Kitchen –

Deliceuse! As the French would say. What a fantastic little place. Apparently it first stared out as a private kitchen which is a popular concept in Hong Kong. Basically people start small restaurants out of their own kitchens and you hire it out for the evening with friends. We stepped out of the elevator into a wonderland of fairy lights and soft fabrics which separated each table into a private box. We were welcomed in by a fantastic host who really went all out the entire evening ensuring we were happy. The evening is based on a menu where all three courses must be ordered from. There are so many beautiful dishes to choose from and it was definitely the food highlight of the trip.

Minimum charge of $290 per meal per person. You can bring your own booze.

83 Wanchai Road , 6th Floor

Le Blanc with the girls

               Chinese and Thai Restaurant on the Shek-O road

After a day at Ocean Park we headed off to a restaurant my sister had heard about from some ex-pats. We didn’t know the name but we did know it was on the Shek-O road. We also didn’t realise how far away it was but it was definitely worth the trip! It’s in a very non-descript, run down looking town and the décor is certainly nothing to get excited about. But the food! The menu must have had 200 dishes in it, each with a photo to help you work out what it was you were ordering (very, very handy when no English is used is the description). We gorged ourselves on scallops with black bean sauce, a massive bbq’d fish, garlic asparagus, pad thai and loads of Singha beer – fantastic!!

The Stoep South African Restaurant  in Lan Tau Chenuycha

If you are desperate for some home fare then you could make your way down to the Stoep – a South African restaurant. However, I have to say that it’s not worth it for the food but they’re right on a lovely beach so that’s pretty cool. Get yourself a cocktail, put your toes in the sand and listen to the waves.

The Stoep

 

 

Shopping & Markets:

One of the many reasons people go to Hong Kong is to shop. I cannot lie – the idea did fill me with some excitement! If you enter a train station, bus station, air port, office building, or tourist attraction of any sort in Hong Kong – you will find shopping mecca. It’s almost vulgar in its obviousness, however, you came to shop – and so you will! Not being hugely into shopping myself, I thought I’d just fill you in on a few of the markets we visited (and didn’t).

Stanley Market

Stanley market is found in one of the coastal towns near the City. You jump on a bus and take a hair raising, vomit inducing trip over the top of a mountain or two until finally you see the sea. What a relief. It’s quite an informal set up – very much like a market you might find in the centre of Durban so don’t expect air conditioning and tiled floors. There are two linen shops which sell fantastic sheets, table cloths and linens off sorts for a great price. Cheap dress shops, touristy curios and pretty much anything that is made in the East. It’s worth a look around if you’re into that sort of thing. Afterwards, you should head down to the bay area and eat at one of the restaurants which dot the edge.

Bus # 6 from Hong Kong City bus terminus ($7.90)

Shenzhen

I arrived in Hong Kong with the words Shenzhen on my lips. It’s all I’d heard about since my sister arrived in Hong Kong. Knock off clothing, bags, belts and shoes for dirt cheap. So it was with great excitement that we headed off to this shopping mecca. Sadly we’d fail to gather crucial information and due to the fact that South African’s must have a visa to enter main land China (but weirdly not Hong Kong), we turned away and headed home. So ensure you know what the deal is before you leave South Africa because apparently the rules change…often…and without warning. So for more information on what I missed out on but what you can still enjoy – click here.

 

               Shopping Centres…..

Are EVERYWHERE! You cannot escape them. They are beautiful, air conditioned and great to look around. So if you are trying to escape the heat and humidity – locate one and spend a few hours in it browsing around.

 

Touristy things to do:

Star Ferry

To orientate yourself and see Hong Kong from a different perspective, catching a ferry and taking a trip around the harbour is a must. For an hour or so you trawl the waters, watching Hong Kong float by. By day or by night you get a wonderful view: Hong Kong lights up at night with amazing light shows so you can watch it from the boat or from one of the restaurants at the top of the highest skyscrapers.

Beautiful lights to enjoy at night from a ferry or from a sky high bar

We went up to watch the light show from the Peking One building. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but it’s the one right at the top and we had probably one of the best snacks there. They have this amazing mushroom and truffle pizza which was outstanding and I had the most delicious raspberry Mojito. Definitely worth a visit.

Horse racing

Wednesday night is horse racing night and at only $10 it is one cheap way to get out there and watch Hong Kongs finest prance about – and I don’t mean the horses! The ex-pats are out in all the Shenzhen finery and if you’re single and looking for a mate, this is your gateway to coupledom.  Just catch up bus or taxi to Causeway Bay and as you come out of the station you an either walk (I recommend it as it’s literally 5 minutes away) or you can join the endless cue to people waiting to get a taxi. We had a particularly loony driver who drove the 2m gap left by the car in front of us and then slammed on brakes in order to avoid hitting that car – this was done repeatedly until Niamh gave him a talking to.

Night racing

Peak Train and Sky Terrace – $56

This is  very touristy thing to do but it must be done as you do get to see Hong Kong from a very loft vantage point and it really is rather pretty. Pick a day which is not in the least bit hazy or smoggy as you’ll see bugger all after getting all the way to the top. You jump on a vincula which takes you all the way to the top at a 45 degree angle and then walk straight into a shopping centre – again…weird but they’ve got you cornered! Kirst and I didn’t really get a great view due to the smog but we took a fantastic walk around the mountain which was lovely. They have designated walking paths and it was great to get away from the crowds and spend some time watching the huge kites circle the peaks and call out to each other.

It was pretty smoggy up there so the view wasn’t great

              Ocean Park

After our failed Shenzhen attempt we decided we needed something to cheer us up so we made our way to Hong Kong’s famous Ocean Park. Nothing like a few death defying, hair raising, scream creating rides to get you over your grump! Ocean Park is built on a hill and you take escalators up to various levels where you jump off to visit attractions. To get down the mountain you can either take the escalators or you can catch a sky car which gives you the most beautiful views of the shoreline and parts of Hong Kong.

It really was great fun and we had a cool day just chilling out and watching Hong Kong(ians) take photos of themselves standing next to random objects with the obligatory peace sign being pulled.

Bus $10 from Hong Kong City and $250 entrance fee.

The Big Buddha

To be honest, this didn’t really float my boat but it is an attraction worth seeing. You need to get a ferry to Lantau Island so grab one at the Star Ferry terminal. He really is rather large! You climb a vast amount of stairs and as you huff and puff your way up them, a spritely octogenarian sprints past you in order to pay her respects at the top. When you buy your ticket, go for the option of paying a tiny bit extra for the free ice-cream and water. You’ll need it – trust me!

In case you didn’t see the 34m statue – follow this sign

The pretty ladies surrounding Buddha

Last tips:

The Hong Kong dollar is equivalent to the South African Rand so it’s easy to work out what you’re spending. As I mentioned before, food and booze is not cheap but if you are brave I would recommend eating in local joints as you’ll pay far less and the food really is good. Booze is insanely expensive – you won’t pay less that R60 a glass of wine (and generally it’s around R90 a glass). Cocktails average R90.

I’ve really just given you my experience of Hong Kong and I can assure you we didn’t do half of what we could have.  My sister recommends a day trip on a junk boat, you can go hiking around Hong Kong and there are islands dotted around which are worth a visit.

Probably the best part of being in Hong Kong was spending time with Niamh and Kirsten – two people I don’t get to see enough of. So my final suggestion is to travel with a friend and explore, explore, explore!!!

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