Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Things I have Learned from Public Transportation Travel this year....

A few things I have learned this year from taking Public Transportation....
  • If you help a little old Italian lady with her bag on an Italian train, she WILL talk to you for the rest of the 5 hour train ride and you will not be able to study for your exam. BUT she will flatter you by complementing your Italian (even telling you that she thought at first that you were actually Italian...) and she'll tell you fun stories about her life in Liguria and how much Milano sucks. 
  • Sometimes you just have to rely on the kindness of strangers. Getting on a train with your life packed into a giant luggage? This is not physically possible. But someone will help you, usually a man, and he will usually do it without even you having to ask. When I took a train with all my stuff from Bologna to Rome, I showed up at the train station knowing that if no one would help me, I'd never get my stuff on that train.
  • Bring snacks. Always bring snacks. 
  • The snack cart on Italian trains will run you over if you're in the aisle. (And "snack cart pusher" is one of the worst jobs I can imagine doing...)
  • Just because you have an assigned seat on an Italian train, doesn't mean you'll get to sit there. Get over it.
  • Pick and chose when you pay for bus tickets in Bologna. At night and on Sundays, don't bother paying. But on the weekdays on the buses that go to the train station, you better do it. I got checked 3 times in 1 month, and 1 time the ticket checker guy completely took me by surprise by sneaking up behind me dressed as a civilian (luckily I had paid)
  • There are the same weird smelly people on buses in every country. But they can be fun to watch. But don't let them see you're watching them cause it can lead to awkward situations. 
  • White girl on the mini-bus in South Africa? Foreigner Alert! 
  • White girl on the 3rd class train in Cape Town? Again.... Foreigner Alert!

Things I've Learned From International Air Travel This Year

found this fun themed article a few months ago on jezebel.com and I thought I could do my own version of it since hers was kind of lacking in general knowledge and actually just focussing on travel within the U.S.

So here we go, a list of things I've learned during my 10+ international flights in the past year...

  • Ryanair is a bitch. Any airline that requires you to stuff your purse in your carryon should have their ass kicked. The stress that Ryanair baggage limits puts me through makes me question whether or not the cheap airfares are worth the rise in my blood pressure when I have to deal with them. Other budget airlines are similarly a pain, but Ryanair by far takes the cake.
  • Sometimes you get nice check-in people, sometimes you don't. I got an extra 5 kilos of luggage on my flight from Italy to Turkey this summer, but in Cape Town I counted on them treating me similarly and not weighing my carryon and boy was I mistaken. I had to take out my 2 precious bottles of wine I bought while wine tasting in Cape Town and she still gave me shit about how my small laptop backpack couldn't be my 1 "personal item" because it was too full and I already had a rolly suitcase carryon. I'm sorry lady but I've flown on a handful of international flights with my rolly suitcase as my carryon and my small laptop backpack with my purse stuffed inside as my personal item and haven't had 1 problem. Consistency is not a strong point of the check-in process. This is good when you get exceptions, but its a bitch when you don't.
  • Having someone drop you off at the airport, or better yet to come with you inside to check-in, is a luxury not to be taken forgranted. After many a flight where I've had to make my own way to the airport, via expensive taxi with all my shit in tow only to arrive at the airport and have to lug heavy suitcases around to find my gate, I've had the luck of being able to be dropped off/picked up at the airport by friends lately. I mean I can do anything (I am WOMAN hear me roar and all that stuff...), but to have a guy push your luggage to the check-in counter is just so nice every once in a while.
  • I look German enough to get spoken to in German while on Luftansa flights. It's awkward since I know absolutely no German, so my response tends to be a blank stare and then a quiet "um, English please?" And then hostesses on the Turkish Airlines flights get annoyed if you insist on speaking broken Turkish with them if you are not actually fluent in the language. (see my blog post on the airplane linguistic dilemma) But at least people don't assume I'm a loudmouth obnoxious American? Still strange to not be labeled as your own nationality while traveling.
  • It is apparently a common practice in some countries to applaud upon safe landing of an aircraft after a 1 hour flight. I've experienced this in Italy most notably. I don't get it. I mean, is there another option? Are you applauding because you didn't die? The pilot is supposed to land the plane. And he can't hear your applause from the cockpit. 
  • That whole "please wait until we've reached the gate to open overhead compartments" doesn't apply to Turks. Or Italians. Or to Spaniards. As soon as that plane lands, people stand right up and take down their carryons and start pushing to the door while the plane is still taxi-ing its way to a stop. It still makes me laugh. What's your hurry people? And what happens if some luggage falls on your head since the plane is still moving? OR do I just follow too many rules because I'm American...
That's what I have so far. Anybody else have any to add?? 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy [Fake] Thanksgiving!!

A few months ago, my half American friend and I came up with the idea that before we leave for travels in November, we should cook a big Thanksgiving dinner. (Yes, we were thinking about Thanksgiving dinner months ago, haha) A few days ago, this dream of a fake Thanksgiving came to be! We spread out cooking over 2 days (pies on the day before, everything else on the day of) and with [surprisingly] good time management, managed to put together an awesome and stress-free Thanksgiving Dinner on our last Wednesday in Cape Town before leaving to wander around the south of Africa. We invited a few friends and my roommates and enjoyed a lot of food that induced food comas just like real Thanksgiving.

The menu

Green Bean Casserole: green beans cooked in mushroom soup with onions

Corn Casserole/Corn Pudding: my favorite, this mix of canned corn and creamed corn with cheese on top turned out soooooooo good!

Mashed Potatoes: they were supposed to be sweet potatoes, but "sweet" potatoes in South Africa are not all that sweet in reality and we didn't have marshmallows (my roommates thought we were kidding about using marshmallows on our potatoes, lol) so we added curry powder instead

Stuffing: when I asked my mom for this recipe, she just gave me a list of ingredients, so I just threw a bunch of stuff together (including SAUSAGE of course) and cooked it around the Turkey and low and behold it came out DELICIOUS

Turkey: just a little Turkey loaf I got at the supermarket

Cranberry sauce: they surprisingly had it here!

Pumpkin pie: from scratch with real pumpkin
Pecan Pie: without corn syrup, but with a LOT of sugar

Happy Fake Thanksgiving!

A Real Cape Town experience: On [accidently] ordering a Giant Gaspy and being Surrounded by Street People

My Icelandic friend that I met in Turkish class in Istanbul arrived today to be my travel buddy for the next two weeks (yes, Icelandic friend….we met in Istanbul…I have an eclectic set of people in my life…haha) and though she got no sleep on her overnight flight from Dubai, we decided the best plan of action was to just go go GO and do a tour of Waterfront and Downtown to see a bit of the city since she will only have 3 days in Cape Town. We had a nice meander down to the fancy and beautiful Waterfront neighborhood stopping along the way at a classy coffee joint I’ve been meaning to try called Origin Coffee where they ask you to pick your own coffee bean (we had Rwandan because I’ve never had coffee from Rwanda before) and they serve you their version of a cappuccino called a Flat White. 

We spent a little bit of time taking in the beauty of Waterfront before taking a minibus back to downtown and wandering over to check out the parliament buildings. 

Before setting out on our walk up Long St. (the main street in town…) we decided to get a snack from a shady little food stand near the train station. The snack we chose was something that neither I, nor my classmate that was spending the afternoon with us had tried: the Gatsby. Various South Africans that live here in Cape Town had told me that I simply MUST try a Gatsby before leaving Cape Town, so I had high hopes for this sandwich. So my Icelandic friend and I ordered a Gatsby made of Boerwores (the South African beef sausage) in a “large” size since we’d all 3 be sharing 1 sandwich. The guy then asked us “how many pieces do you want it cut into?” and we should have realized our mistake there. That would be mistake #1.

A long 15 minute wait later, we receive a GIANT white paper covered roll from the laughing men behind the counter. This was our sandwich. We started laughing uncontrollably. There was no way we could eat this thing! It was only the then that we saw on the menu that there was an option to get a ¼ version. Mistake #2.

So after realizing we can’t eat this ginormous thing walking around, we proceeded to wander around the area for 10 minutes trying to find a place to seat ourselves that wasn’t next to a bunch of homeless beggers, we finally settled on a bench next to the food stand. We began to rip open the white paper and the mess of a sandwich (soaked bread, soggy French fries, pieces of sausage) came pouring out every which way. And as we were trying to figure out how to separate this gastronomic mess into pieces for each of us to attack, we began to attract the attention of a handful of local crazy homeless beggers, a common resident of many a Cape Town street. Before we knew it, as we’re taking messy bites of a less-than-delicious Cape Town street food classic (the Gatsby sandwich I mean), there’s a crazy woman standing next to us staring us down as we look at her. We tell her kindly that we’ll give her leftovers after we’re done and then awkwardly go back to our messy business as she silently continues to stand over our shoulders watching our every move. I really thought she’d stand there staring at us until we finished and gave her the rest of our mess. Finally she gets the idea that we aren’t ready to give her food yet and she wanders away to sit 5 feet from us waving her feet around and rocking back and forth, still staring at us as we eat. Another man sits on a bench nearby and shouts at us “can I have your leftovers??”
We respond yes, after we finish if there is any left, he can have it. He gets all happy and proceeds to laugh and smile and tell us to enjoy every bite. After 15 minutes of trying to somehow get this mess of a lackluster sandwich into our mouths, we all give up and as another woman approaches us asking for a piece, without consulting each other, start giving pieces to various homeless people that have congregated around us as we 3 white girls were trying to eat this very messy food item. After we give away the rest of our 3 pieces, the man at the bench next to us comes over and, since we’re too lazy to try and portion out the remaining half of the sandwich, we just give it to him and tell him “just make sure you share!” to which he says “Yes of course!” takes the sandwich and starts to walk away. [that was Mistake #3…] Another women comes over and starts yelling “NO BUT YOU MUST SHARE YOU MUST SHAREEEEE!!!” at which point we all look at each other and quietly start to walk away very very quickly because we fear we might have started a very nasty fight (think pigeons at a park going after that same little piece of bread you threw out on the pavement for them…)

We walked away laughing and commenting what a ridiculous experience we just lived through and wishing we could have taken pictures with the colorful group of beggers that we’d just given sandwiches to, but since they erupted into conflict over the leftover sandwich, we feared they wouldn’t have obliged us.

And that was my experience with the Gatsby. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Penguins and Whales and Guinea Fowl...OH MY!

What is one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Africa? ANIMALS!! I'm sure I'll have more to say about the "Big 5" (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, and Rhino) along with the other wildlife of South Africa after my trip to Kruger National Park and beyond later this month, but I thought I'd start local.

Over these past few months living in Cape Town, one fun thing I've experienced is all the wildlife that call this interesting environment home. Despite the surprising similarities between this ecosystem and that of California, the array of wildlife is quite different. Though I haven't had the luck (or lack thereof I guess you could say since they're notoriously mean) of running into one of the baboons that roam campus and Table Mountain park, or come across any wild ostriches yet (though I've eaten their meat a few times...), I have been able to experience a few other animal species that call this part of the world home.

A particular bird with fantastic feathers has caught my attention here. The polka dotted blue headed Guinea Fowl has a super obnoxious birdcall and their funny run will have you giggling. The first time I spotted this creature was at the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens under the shadow of the mountains of Table Mountain National Park. My South African friends laughed at me when I was running around trying to take a good picture of them because they are regarded as a silly annoying bird. Since then I've noticed them all over the UCT campus grounds and randomly around the city.

Next up we have the endangered Southern Right Whales that I saw off the coast of the town Hermanus, which is a bit outside of Cape Town and just so happens to be one of the best whale-watching locations in the world. Back in September, during prime whale watching season (due to the fact that the whales come to this spot every year for 2-3 months to mate), a few classmates and I went out to Hermanus for the day to take a whale watching boat tour. For 2 hours we got up close and personal with the whales, at one point even being surrounded by about 20 of the giant creatures. They're curious and playful, coming right up to the boat as it was lurching up and down in the waves. It's awe inspiring to be so close to such huge living things who call the deep mysterious ocean their home. Female Southern Right Whales can be up to 15 m long (49ft) weigh up to 47 tonnes. I've seen Humpback Whales in the waters of Alaska and off the coast of northern California, but being this up close and personal with some of their southern cousins was really quite an experience.

The third animal I've had the pleasure of encountering here in Cape Town is by far my favorite: The African Penguin! Also known as the "jackass" penguin for the donkey-like sound that it makes, they aren't as brightly colored as some of their Arctic relatives and are pretty smelly little guys, but they are just so darn adorable. Just down the coast from the harbor of Simon's Town in the southern peninsula region of Cape Town, there's a beach called Boulders that these cute creatures call home. On a rainy afternoon back in August, a few friends and I went to check them out. We took a walk behind the beach through their nesting area and saw plenty of them waddling around and napping. I just think they are the cutest things and I wish I could stuff one in my suitcase to have as a pet back home. 

And there you go, a little taste of the wildlife of Cape Town. 
I leave you with a whale tale wave...