Saturday, November 29, 2008

Monkeys and Penguins

We've decided to spend another two months in Cape Town.  Lara is doing some volunteer work with a children's shelter to get an idea of the volunteer sector here and I'm playing around with writing a nove. On Monday we are moving to a new apartment close to the beach in a place called Sea Point. It's about 5 minutes from downtown Cape Town so it'll still be very central.

South African has been great so far but I haven't talked about any of our trips so I thought I'd tell you about two cute animal experiences we had.

A few weeks ago we went to a place called World of Birds which is a big animal rescue place on the Cape Peninsula. Almost all the animals at World of Birds are injured animals which couldn't be re-released, and one thing that makes it really nice is that you can often go right into the cages with them and see the up close. While I loved the owls and parrots and other birds the best experience by far was the monkeys. They have a big forested cage which is full of spider monkeys, and you can go in with them. The monkeys are about the size of a beer b

ottle and are very tame and will crawl all over you. They are also very clever so they stick their hands into your pockets, try to open zippers on backpacks, etc...

Lara is the big one in the middle

We hung around for a while and one of the volunteers showed us that she had some raisins. She gave the raisins to me and the monkeys went wild. I had about 15 of them on me, all of them trying to open my fist with their tiny little paws. It was very, very cute although the monkeys do have a habit of peeing on you from time to time and my shirt smelled a little ripe the next day.

The other really great place we went to was Boulder's Beach, which is one of the few on-shore nesting places for African Penguins. We knew we were in for a treat when we saw a sign that said “look out for Penguins under vehicles.” There were penguins everywhere on the beach although they were molting so they weren't in the water. The molting made them look very cute though because a lot of them had big clumps of fluffy winter feathers mixed with the sleeker summer feathers.

Lara admires a penguin on the beach.

The Penguins were so tame that we could just walk up and grab them if we wanted to, although we didn't because that would be bad form. Actually, penguins also have very big beaks that rip small fishes apart so I imagine they could do some pretty serious damage.

I have to say I do like the more interactive approach where you can get very close to the animals. I can appreciate the logic of zoos where they keep a real gap between the humans and the animals, but in World of Birds it seemed to me that the animals enjoyed having the people around. Birds, especially parrots and other clever social ones, get bored easily and having people close by can be very stimulating if they are tame enough not to be frightened.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

After Apartheid

When people think of South Africa often the first thing that comes to mind is apartheid. South Africa was certainly not unique in having racism as part of government policy. In the 1950s the United States was also deeply segregated, and first nations people in Canada live on reservations. The South African difference was one of scale; whites were outnumbered nearly ten to one.

South Africa remains a very racially divided country. Some of these divisions are voluntary. When we walk through Cape Town we see some restaurants and shops that are full of white people, and some that are full of black people. Bars work much the same way. Sometimes this is price related, but often it is cultural. Blacks do have a different culture and the choice of music and food in an establishment will change who that establishment appeals so. If somebody opened a dance club in Calgary that played Indian Rock videos and served Dahl it would get a very different audience than one that played rap music.

The bigger divisions are economic though. Since the end of Apartheid, the incomes of Indians have risen sharply and are now on par with those of whites. Black incomes however have seen little progress. So while whites can't send their kids to white only schools and live in white neighborhoods, they can certainly send their kids to expensive private schools and live in expensive neighborhoods. While some blacks have moved in they are still a tiny minority.

Initially there was hope that with blacks running the country conditions would improve rapidly. And while some things have gotten better, South Africa certainly hasn't turned into the tolerant multiracial democracy that many people had hoped for. While Nelson Mandela was a wonderful surprise, the current leadership of the ANC have been a profound disappointment. The post Mandela ANC has two main claims to fame: their unwavering support for unsavory dictators like Robert Mugabe who they hold up as a paragon of democracy, and destructive AIDS policies which blamed the disease on a white conspiracy rather than a virus.

What the ANC haven't done is make any progress in tackling the vast underemployment of the black population. Some of the attempts have actually been counter productive. Affirmative action programs have removed many qualified whites from their jobs and replaced them with blacks. Unfortunately, many of the whites were highly-educated and experienced professionals while, to be blunt, many of the replacements aren't. The result has been catastrophic on two levels. First of all huge numbers of educated whites are fleeing the country because they have trouble getting jobs in the current climate. Nearly everyone we talk to has family living overseas. Secondly, lots of jobs are now filled by people who are under-qualified, with enormous consequences to how well things run.

For all the problems though, South Africa would be unrecognizable to somebody who lived here under the apartheid days. Racial mixing is unusual on a close friendship level, but most white people now work with black people, live near at least some black neighbors, and have at least some black children in their schools. There is also a palpable sense that the blacks are in charge and that, for better or for worse, it is them who will determine the fate of South Africa.

Ending Apartheid was the easy step for South Africa compared to what will come ahead. Two hundred years ago power was found only at the point of a spear. Even today tribal hatreds run deep and people here don't see themselves as black or white, they see themselves as Zulu or Xhosa. The problem is that democratic governments cannot function properly in such an environment. As long as people identify more strongly with their tribe than with their neighbors then power in politics lies in appealing to old tribal hatreds. Canadian politics actually suffers a version of this problem; our federal politics is hamstrung by the presence of a separatist party chosen unfailingly by our French-speaking tribe.

For South Africa to flourish people must put aside their tribal hatreds and choose a government based on its ability to rule. Mandela recognized this. Unfortunately the current ANC government has recognized that as long as the tribal divisions exist there will be no threat to them. There are few governments that have the integrity to pursue policies that would result in them eventually losing power. The flame of democracy in South Africa has nearly burned out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Safety in South Africa

Undoubtedly the biggest concern most people have about traveling in South Africa is the security situation. South Africa has one of the highest rape and murder rates in the world, and everyone has heard the stories of daylight car-jacking on the streets of Johannesburg. After the safe and friendly countries of Central Asia, Lara and I were more than a little intimidated at the thoughts of spending every waking moment in fear of our lives.

The reality of course is far different than what you read in the media. In most ways the South African security situation is every bit as bad as it has been made out to be. Even here in Cape Town, arguably one of the safest parts of the whole country, most people live behind electric fences and alarm systems. At night the streets are strangely silent. There are a few streets where there is active night-life; security is provided by dozens of police in reflective yellow jackets. But you go there and back in a taxi, even if you live nearby. Many people won't even drive there because they would have to park in the surrounding neighborhoods and walk back to their cars in the dark.

South Africans we talk to are no more reassuring. We were warned to keep the doors of our car locked, to not go hiking alone, and to stay away from quiet streets, even in daylight. It seems everyone has a story of being robbed at gun-point or carjacked. One woman we talked to had been raped; a masked man grabbed her as she put he keys in the front door of her own house in a good neighborhood.

Yet, although we are constantly aware, these things somehow fade into the background. People still go about their lives. We still go walking downtown in the daytime. We still go to the video store after dinner. We still go hiking in the mountains. We are alert, but we do not live in constant fear.

But that is not to say that there is no impact. It is strangely oppressive to sit in our apartment at night, looking down on the city six stories below and feeling afraid to walk in the streets. After the open friendliness of the people of Central Asia it saddens us to be on constant alert, aware that anyone who comes up to talk to us may be a distraction for a bag snatcher or a pick-pocket. South Africa is a beautiful country that is well worth visiting. Most tourists have little to fear from the security situation; hotels, parks, and other tourist hot spots generally have good security. Yet I don't know that I could live here, imprisoned in my own house by an electric fence, and feeling a small joint of fear every time somebody walks past my car at an intersection.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Used Car Lot

Few things in life cause me more anxiety than buying a used vehicle. I've had several bad experiences. Used vehicles are expensive and unpredictable and I've heard the horror stories about people who drove a vehicle off the lot only to have it fall apart at the next corner. And since I know nothing about cars I'm entirely at the mercy of the dealers. Buying a car in South Africa was the last thing I wanted to do. It was also the first thing we needed to do. South Africa isn't a place that can be visited by bus, and renting a car for six months was not an option.
We started our used car shopping with the name of dealer. It had been given to me by some South Africans I met in a pub and seemed as good a starting point as any. Lara and I hopped in cab to throw ourselves at their mercy.

“My parents in law have a car for sale,” said the cab driver. “It's an Opel Corsa. 100,000KM. If you want I can phone them and we can go to take a look at it. It's only thirty thousand rand ($3000 dollars).”

He made a couple of phone calls and a few minutes later we had stopped at a grocery store to pick up his in-laws..

“Is it far?” I asked nervously, eying the still-ticking meter.

“Only 15 km, don't worry. You'll be safe. Foreigners always think we are going to rob them.”
About 25km later we pulled into a small house and Lara did a test drive of the vehicle. It seemed OK but it was small and cheaply made. We decided to continue shopping and the cab driver took us back towards town. We went down Voortrekker road, a busy street studded with used-car dealerships. We had an address mix up and couldn't find the dealership we were heading for so we took a chance and stepped out at a random dealership. We paid the whopping cab fare.
“I've got just the vehicle for you” said the helpful young man. “It's a Toyota Camry. 3.0L motor. Lots of power. Whatever you do, don't buy a vehicle privately. Too many crooks. It could be stolen and you'd never know until you went to sell it. And if you mess up the paperwork you'll have all sorts of problems later.”

We took the Camry for a test drive. “Isn't it supposed to accelerate when I put the pedal to the floor?”, asked Lara.

“We've got a 4 wheel drive station wagon coming in tomorrow. I think that would be perfect for you. Come here early and you can go for a test drive.”

The next day we rented a car so that we could continue our shopping without taxis, and we drove off to the dealership that had been recommended to us. Unfortunately it was more high-end than what we were looking for. We were still debating whether to spend more for a better vehicle and risk losing a lot in the resale, or buying something cheap that might give us all sorts of problems. Unfortunately this dealer was completely outside of our price range, and not to friendly to top it off.

We went back to the first dealership to test drive the station wagon.

“That's it over there. Just sold it. You should have been here earlier. But I've got a Volvo coming in tomorrow. That'll be great for you! It's exactly what you need.”

The next dealership was Xenith motors. It specialized in older vehicles. “We sell to lots of foreigners” the gregarious owner assured us. “We'll even buy it back from you in six months, though of course not for what you paid. We are a business after all. And if anything goes wrong you can always call us. We rely on repeat business. You can trust us.”

We told him about the Volvo.

“Nobody buys Volvos. Impossible to get parts. No wonder they are trying to sell it to you. You want a cheap, common car with a small engine so that it gets good gas mileage. Like this Honda over here.”

“The Honda probably isn't a very good choice” said the next dealer. “If you are going to Namibia the only common vehicles are Volkswagon and Toyota. This Volkswagon over here is very nice and has very low mileage.”

We took it for a test drive and were amazed at how a vehicle with such low mileage could have such worn seats and pedals. The service history was conveniently missing. We continued our search.

“This one has had only a single owner. See the yellow license plates.” It drove great but the price was a little high. Still, if the dealer was willing to stand behind it and buy it back.

“If you give me a month's notice I might be able to find somebody to sell it to when you leave,” said the dealer. “It all depends on the market. I'm not promising anything.”

“It sounds very over-priced.” said the next dealer. “And you said it's green. Nobody buys green vehicles. And it's a big motor so it'll have no resale value. We have some great vehicles here but they might be a bit expensive for you. We can arrange a buyback if you like but the more expensive the vehicle the more you lose on the trade-in.” Their honesty was refreshing and the vehicles were beautiful. Too beautiful for me unfortunately. I couldn't see how these beautiful cars would survive driving through game parks and dirt roads for six months without some serious wear and tear.

Two days passed in a confusion of dealerships and conflicting advice. Just when we thought we had it figured out we'd find yet another option to consider. This one had fuel injection which was good. Or was it bad because it was hard to fix? The one thing almost all the dealers agreed on was that there were a lot of crooks out there who would rip us off. We were shown a number of times how to tell if a vehicle had been in an accident, and how to accurately assess the age.
In the end we went back to the Xenith motors and settled on an old VW for just over $3000.00. Of all the dealers we'd seen they had been the most welcoming and they seemed happy to buy the vehicle back from us when we left. The VW has very high mileage but it drove nicely. The only problem was a worrying pull to the left.

“Don't worry, I'll sort it out before you get it. We do a full service of all our vehicles. I want you to be happy. If anything goes wrong just call me.” We paid the deposit.

“It'll be ready in a few days. We've sold lots of vehicles this week and it takes a while to get them inspected and ready to go out.”

The next few days were agonizing. Had we made the right choice? It was cheap, but the mileage was very high. Maybe we should have bought a newer car, or a smaller one, or a whiter one, or a different model. Every time we passed a car dealer my eyes scanned the prices. Why was that 2001 Toyota so cheap compared to ours? By the time we returned we'd almost talked ourselves into abandoning our deposit and going shopping again.

“We'll take it for a test-drive before we pay the rest,” I reassured Lara. “If we aren't happy we'll just walk away. It's only a couple of hundred dollars.”

We did the registry paperwork in the morning and then waited in a shopping mall for most of the day while they finished the car. In South Africa all cars need a road-worthy inspection when they are sold. When we arrived back at the shop at 5 PM our car was still in pieces. They'd been having troubles with the brakes. It has passed inspection, we were told, but Michael felt the brakes weren't good enough and he wanted us to be happy.

“What about the pull to the left?”

“Don't worry about it”, he said. “I know these cars. It's just the tires. It's good now. You'll see.”
Finally the brakes were done but the shop was closing and we took it for a hurried test drive. “It seems good” said Lara worriedly. We paid the rest of the money and they closed the shop.
We drove off in our new car. We turned left onto Voortrekker road and drove three blocks to the freeway entrance. We turned right onto the freeway and accelerated.

Whump, whump, whump. WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP.

“What the hell is that?” said Lara.

The car was pulling badly to the left and the front end was making a sickening noise. We pulled over, but nothing was obviously wrong.

“We can't drive it like this.”

“We can't leave it here either.”

We drove slowly and made it home. If we only turned left it felt almost normal.

I didn't sleep much that night. All the horror stories about used cars floated in my head. We had only Michael's verbal assurance that we could trust him. Surely we had just been suckered. What better way to get rid of wreck then sell it to some stupid foreigners who couldn't tell the engine from the transmission.

It was a nerve-wracking weekend but fortunately the weather was nice and we were able to climb Table Mountain to take our minds of the car.

On Monday morning we hopped back into the car. It wouldn't start.

“Oh, wait a second.” said Lara. “It has a manual choke.”

She coaxed it to life and got it out onto the freeway. We drove noisily towards the dealership when the engine coughed and died. Lara pulled it over the the side of the road. The needle was on empty. In all the excitement we'd forgotten to fill up the gas. Lara went off for gas. I waited.
By the time we got to the dealership our nerves were shot. I bent down to look at the wheel one more time before we went in and my fingers instinctively probed the lug nuts. The nut turned in my hand. So did the other ones. The wheel was loose. They had forgotten to tighten the nuts after doing all the brake work.

Michael came out. “I wish you'd called me.” he said when he saw the problem. “This has happened before. One time the wheel came right off. Passed the guy on the highway. I keep telling the mechanic to double check but its hopeless.”

“It doesn't start very well either”, said Lara, still shaken.. She demonstrated.

“Oh, that's the choke. You only pull it half way out. If you pull it all the way out it floods the engine.” He demonstrated. It started flawlessly.

Our fears evaporated like the clouds pouring off Table Mountain behind us. Michael took us on a long test drive. “It's nice to be out of the shop for a while”, he said. “Our baby keeps us up all night. We get so little sleep.” The car still pulled a bit so he took us to an alignment place and negotiated a cheap price on a wheel alignment.

“It's a used car,” he said. “It's unpredictable. I can't see the future and I don't know what will go wrong, but if people are nice to me I'll try and help them out as much as I can. Just don't yell at me. If you have any more problems, just call me. Now follow me and I'll show you a place where you can get some great sausages for cheap.”

Used cars, like people, are unpredictable. We won't know until the end of our trip if we got lucky with our vehicle. We do know that we were fortunate with our choice of dealer. That's a big comfort.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama: The World Cheers

On Wednesday night Lara and I got up at 3:00 AM South Africa time to watch history being made. From the country where Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president less than 20 years ago we got to see the United States experience its own Mandela moment. I could not have imagined what a big deal it was to see him win the presidency. It was electrifying.

It is hard for most North Americans to understand just how much impact this election will have on the rest of the world. In Central Asia we saw the enthusiasm the Muslim world has for Obama. In the 'stans there is a nearly universal belief that the war in Iraq is a war against Islam. I don't think any but the most naive Muslims believe that Obama will end the war overnight. But because of his color, and his background, they do believe that he will understand them better. And perhaps he will. After six months of travelling in the Muslim world we have an appreciation and understanding of Islam that we could never have gotten in North America. Obama's background gives us every reason to hope that he will have a wider world view than is typical of his countrymen.

In Africa the effect of his win has probably been even greater. Among white and black South Africans alike we found almost universal enthusiasm for Obama. In Kenya, birthplace of Obama's father, they have declared a national holiday to celebrate his election. In one stroke the American dream has been awoken again. Minorities the world over can look the America and see a land where somebody's abilities can transcend their skin color. America is once again the land where anything is possible. A billion disenfranchized people woke up yesterday with the knowledge that they live in a world where there is a hope for a better future for their children.

Pages of ink have been spilled describing the challenges that lie ahead and I won't go into them again. As the world has become more connected our problems have become more global. The housing crisis in America is putting blacks on the street in South Africa. A terrorist network in Afghanistan kills people in New York. The trees we cut down in Brazil will create a desert in China. The decisions we make in the next ten years will determine the future of our species.

The world needs a strong leader to pull us all together to fight these problems.

In Obama, for one magic moment, we have somebody who has that potential. Obama's miracle is that he represents the hopes and dreams not just of American's, but of everyone. To moderate Muslims he is somebody who will understand them. To the oppressed he represents hope. To the young he has brought an enthusiam for politics that we last saw in the 1960s.

The expectations are so high that Obama cannot possibly meet them all. Many of the things people believe Obama to be are contradictory. Yet two years ago, nobody would have thought it was possible for an unknown black senator from Illinois to defeat both the Clintons and the Republicans to become president of the United States. There is no doubt that Obama is a remarkable man. If he governs with the same intelligence and imagination that he has run his campaign we have every reason to be optimistic.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Arriving in South Africa

We've been in South Africa a little over a week now. It's been pretty hectic so far. Lara got a bad stomach bug in Asia and by the time we arrived in Cape Town she was ready for the hospital. After a few days of travel and little sleep it wasn't the best way to arrive, especially since we didn't have any place to stay and we had heard all the safety warnings about not wandering around at night.

Luckily there was a tourist information center in the airport and I booked a reasonably priced hotel from them. Then we took a cab straight to a emergency where the nice English-speaking doctors took Lara away from me for a couple of days. It was actually the first time we've really been apart in many months, which would have been nice under other circumstances. I spent my first few nights in South Africa in a colorful, run-down hotel called the Kimberly all by myself, wishing that Lara could be there to enjoy the old tin ceilings and colorful pub downstairs. Lara spent it wondering if she could make the bathroom in time with an IV strapped to her arm.

Lara got a bunch of anti-biotics and tests but nothing conclusive came up so after two nights the hospital let her go. She spent a few more days in bed at the hotel. I spent some of the time hunting for a place to say since we wanted to rent an apartment for a while. After seeing some pretty nice little places that weren't quite right I was lucky enough to meet some people in the hotel pub and we lucked in a wonderful high-end apartment right in the downtown for about US$700 per month. Apparently it rents for many times more but somebody cancelled at the last minute and as they had paid a deposit that already covered much of the rent the manager was happy to rent it to us for a bit of a discount. It has two bedrooms, a full kitchen, laundry facilities, two baths, satellite TV, and a fantastic view of Table Mountain from the sixth floor balcony. It's within walking distance of everything. It was wonderful to rest after all the travelling. The first few days Lara was still not feeling well and we just rented lots of videos.

Now we are looking for a car. South Africa doesn't have good public transport, and renting for six months is a little pricey. Unfortunately buying hasn't been as easy as we'd like. We've found all the things we want, but not in one package.

Buying a used-car is classic trade-off. If we buy a $1000.00 vehicle we can pretty much walk away from it at the end of the trip and still be happy. Unfortunately we might spend most of our time repairing some old piece of junk. At the other end of the scale we can spend $10,000 on something in good shape, but we are unlikely to be able to get our money back out, and even if we did we might have to spend quite a bit of time selling it. Not the type of thing we want to cram into a vacation.

We've found some used car dealers who will contract to buy back a vehicle from us for about $1000.00 less than we pay for it. Unfortunately they don't carry the vehicles we want. We are looking for a Toyota or VW because we want to go to Namibia and those cars have the widest availability of parts. We found a great VW at another dealer, but it is a little pricey and he doesn't seem very interested in helping us out if we want to sell it back to him.

Cape Town is great city though, and we are really enjoying spending some time here with a flat to go back to. Lara will be hunting for some volunteer work, and I have some things I'd like to try too. If we can find a posting in Cape Town we will probably spend 3 months or so here. Otherwise we'll move wherever the work is. Either way, the adventure will continue.