Best Send-Off Imaginable

OLD FRIENDS IN JOHANNESBURG

When I lived in Brighton in the late nineties, I got to be friends with a South African couple, Paul Kapelus and Nicci Kurz. Paul was studying at Sussex and Nicci was working with local government in Brighton. Our friendship developed around shared meals and stimulating conversation about the kind of ideas one thinks about in grad school.

Our time in Brighton drew to a close and we said goodbye in 1999. As a complete (and happy) fluke, I bumped into Paul in the Washington DC metro one night in 2002. We embraced, smoked cigars and wandered the streets of Capitol Hill late at night, talking and catching up. But aside from a quick Skype call in 2014, our contact over the last 16 years has been fleeting.

As Louise and I planned the final, Southern Africa, leg of our journey, we reached out to Paul and Nicci to see if we could visit them in Jozy. We spent the final two days of our trip together and I was reminded of why we had such a great friendship in the first place. Instantly, we were back to the delicious food and great conversations of before.

Nicci teaches art at a nearby boys prep school. Paul is a consultant working in mining communities. Their daughters Maya and Grace are 13 and 11 years old, respectively. Ida and Saga fell in with Grace and spent a lot of time playing marbles. We all took one of their dogs for a walk in a beautiful park in Emmarentia. The girls bounced on the trampoline in the front yard. The art in the house is incredible.

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT

South Africa’s constitution is one of the most progressive anywhere. On Tuesday morning we visited the Constitutional Court; the highest court in the land whose job is to defend the constitution. Paul’s nephew Max is a clerk for one of the Justices. He took us on a fabulous tour.

Max

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The Inside of the building is like an art gallery showcasing South Africa’s greatest artists.

The iconic Mandela image in miniature format

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At the entrance to the courtroom

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The courtroom itself is full of symbolism. The walls are made of bricks reclaimed from the jails. The Justices sit at the same level as court visitors, a reminder that the judges serve the people. The windows at eye level look out at the feet of people walking outside the courtroom, promoting humility. Max gave an incredibly engaging guided visit as well as an overview of recent court cases (including the one that could bring down Jacob Zuma).

STORYTELLING AT THE END

Louise and I had frequently thought of how the final days of our trip would play out. It first came up in November when some friends were closing their own eight-month adventure through Asia. But whenever we thought about the end of our trip, the date seemed so far off and distant as to be unreal. And now all of a sudden it’s upon us (I’m writing this post from Jeddah Airport as we wait to board our final flight to Toronto).

On Tuesday night Nicci and Paul did the most thoughtful thing: they invited their gregarious and generous friends over to Nicci’s art studio for an evening of pizza and storytelling. There were about 25 people, parents and kids, and the four of us showed pictures and told stories of our travels. There were a ton of interest in our trip (all of the parents are about the same age) and questions about where we went, what we saw, whom we met and how we did it. Since we were in an art studio, Paul and Nicci had each of their friends draw a little picture to represent the evening’s conversation. At the end of the evening, we were given the collection of drawings as a little memento of the evening. The notes were so beautiful, so creative.

The evening gave us our first real opportunity to reflect on and talk in depth about our trip with others. The group was very receptive to learning about our experience. It’s a privilege to have 20 strangers interested in learning about our family trip. I felt a warm rush of happiness and thankfulness rise in my chest as I thought about how lucky we were to spend our final evening of the trip with this group.

We’re used to the metaphor of leading busy lives and juggling a lot of balls simultaneously. To continue the metaphor, some of those balls are glass and others are rubber. The glass balls are the ones that we can’t drop: our family, our happiness, our health. The other balls are everything else. They can drop and, since they’re rubber, they bounce back up.

Our trip was about keeping the glass balls in the air.

 

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Eye Candy (Part 3)

Yesterday we arrived in Johannesburg. We’re staying with some old friends from Washington DC – Ananthy Thambinayagam and Dharma Sears – that we haven’t seen in more than a decade. 

Weekend markets in South African urban neighbourhoods are atracting a lot of visitors, and for good reason.  They have delicious food, lots of young families, great people-watching. We visited City Bowl Market in Capetown a couple of times; it reminded us of some of the markets back home in Toronto.

Ananthy and Dharma took us to Maboneng Precinct today to visit the Sunday Arts on Main Market. Very funky and diverse, it is a similar community event to neighborgoods. Maboneng used to be run-down and is now undergoing something of a revitalization; Arts on Main is clearly part of that renewal.  Here is how Lonely Planet describes it:

The Inner City itself, once a no-go zone, is becoming a tourist gem, with plenty of pleasant surprises. Oh, and there’s Maboneng. On the eastern fringes of the Inner City, this hipster-friendly urban neighbourhood is considered as one of the most successful urban-renewal projects in the world – it’s sure to seduce you.

There is also a lot of beautiful street art and graffiti. Here are some shots.

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In the middle of it all were some kids performing on a corner. Three guitars, one of them connected to an amp and speaker.  Check it out.

  
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Truth.

We like drinking good coffee and there are exceptional coffee joints in Cape Town. In fact, the best coffee shop in the world (and the coolest) is located around the corner from our apartment. It’s called Truth

We’re starting to think about our eventual integration back into Toronto, reflecting on our trip and planning our future. There’s no better place to do this than at Truth. The cafe’s unique decor is steampunk. The coffee is superior. The staff is super friendly.

  
  

REFLECTIONS

Our trip has been about realizing dreams. We dreamed about exploring the world as a family and we dreamed about reclaiming our time so that we could use it to learn and grow together. Our blog has documented a lot of the day to day, the ups and downs, the places we’ve seen, the people we’ve been lucky enough to meet. The biggest highlight has been seeing the girls’ growth and development over the last six months. We’ve also learned a lot along the way about how to structure the trip and that structuring has been very important.  We have a lot of time. How we allocate and use that time hugely influences how much we enjoy the trip. This is how we allocate our time – in a day we typically do three things: we read, we play, we explore. 

EXPLORE

We’ve been to some unbelievable places:  Halong Bay, Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang, Central Hanoi, Old Fort Kochi. Many of these are beautiful UNESCO Heritage sites. We’ve also spent extended periods of time staying in apartments in big cities: Da Nang, Ernakulam, Kampot, Jaipur, Cape Town. The latter experiences have afforded us a glimpse into what living is like in communities very different from our own. We’ve gotten to know vendors at the market. We’ve befriended local families. We became friends with the creative class of Ernakulum. We feel greatly enriched by this experience. 

PLAY

As we’re traveling with kids, we quickly learned that regular playtime is very important. Kids notice everything around them. For example, we passed some elephants on the street in Kerala that Louise and I barely noticed (we had gotten so used to seeing them around). The girls, however, not only saw the elephants, they also saw the texture of the animals’ skin, the seats that the elephant handlers used, the painting on the pachyderms. The girls took in everything about the animals, just as they take in everything about everything else they see. All of their observations can lead to a sensory saturation; the girls reach a point where they simply don’t want to look anymore at temples, animals, other beautiful sights. That’s when regular play comes in: we visit a park, throw a frisbee, read a book or colour. Regular, fun downtime (a lot of it) is necessary for traveling with kids. It sounds like a truism (and it is), but it’s a truism that is easy to lose sight of when everything around us is different and exciting and worth visiting. Often it’s been better to visit a playground or stay in and colour, rather than go out and visit more new sights.

Da Nang

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Ernakulam  
 Jaipur 
 Cape Town 

READ

If we accomplish anything from this trip, we’d like our family to have an awareness of how big and varied and diverse the world is. Over the last six months the girls have seen and thought about issues like poverty, pollution, inequality and politics. We’ve had many conversations based on their real time observations; conversations that we’ve only been able to have because we’ve had the luxury of being able to make time for them. The girls understand these issues and have formed their own opinions about them. 

We also have a commitment to teach the Toronto District School Board’s grade three curriculum. We brought workbooks with us that cover the Ontario grade three math curriculum. We’ve had terrific support from the girls’ teachers to support the girls’ participation in class projects. The teachers have made some great online learning resources available to us. We’ve had French conversationalists support the girls in Da Nang and Cape Town. In Jaipur, the girls had a math tutor. The girls read voraciously and for that, the Toronto Public Library has been indispensable. All of these pieces, taken together, have taken care of grade three. This reading, or learning component of our travels has enhanced our overall experience by balancing out the exploration and play components.

CHALLENGES

Our travels haven’t been without their difficulties. We talked about the obvious ones in an earlier post: Shigella, drunk taxi drivers, Shingles. A more interesting challenge of this trip, however, has been learning how to manage all the time that we reclaimed. Now that we have all this time, how do we use it? To be sure, we read, play and explore, but we also have “open time” and there are moments when boredom sets in. To manage boredom, we made it clear that each of us is responsible for her or his own contentedness. We each need to find the things that engross us. The girls latched onto this and have really creative ideas for how to spend their time – of course they do, they’re 8 year-old kids. Saga and Ida’s creative ideas for how to spend their open time have been exciting to witness.

YES

We wanted, from the very beginning, for this journey to be an adventure. That’s why we bought one-way tickets to Cambodia with nothing planned beyond a two month reservation of a house along the Kampot River. After all, if we had planned everything before we left, we wouldn’t be on an adventure. We adopted a practice of, as much as possible, just saying “yes” to new opportunities as they presented themselves. In Jaipur, a friend invited us to feed a sacred cow. Of course we said yes! The practice of saying yes as much as possible has enriched the spontaneous, unplanned aspect of our travels.  

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

When we return to Toronto, we want to retain some of the time and flexibility that we’ve reclaimed on this journey. Entrepreneurship is one great way of doing this. We’ll set up an importing enterprise when we get back. We decided to do this early on in our travels and have devoted part of the trip to developing different aspects of the business. This has been fun, exciting and engrossing. It will be the subject of another blog post. Stay tuned.

Department of Bicycles 

BIKES

Imagine this: separated bike lanes with dedicated traffic signals; probably more espresso cafés than the market can bear; a city-sponsored 100km bike ride on 6 March; modern bike parking; nude cyclists. No, not Toronto. Cape Town, South Africa.  

According to its website, the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is a “peaceful, imaginative and fun protest against oil dependency and car culture. A celebration of the bicycle and also a celebration of the power and individuality of the human body. A symbol of the vulnerability of the cyclist in traffic. The world’s biggest naked protest: 50+ cities and thousands of riders participate worldwide.” 

Public nudity is illegal in South Africa and the the Cape Town leg of the WNBR took place today with a full police escort. The riders set out from the waterfront, rolled through the city and returned safely to the waterfront. As advertised, it was peaceful, imaginative, fun and safe. Although the ride is more about cyclists’ vulnerability than it is about nudity, the nudity was probably good for capturing the public’s imagination.

Here they come:

 

There they go:

  

Bikes are an important feature of our day to day. Louise and the girls are Danes, which might help explain the affinity. Bikes are important aspects of Asian and, as we’ve seen, African culture.

We had our own bike fleet in Kampot that got us to and from town as well through flooded areas.

Our bike fleet.

  

 

At first the girls rode on their own bikes. Here they are in Kampot, just after the flood.

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Eventually they started sitting on the back of my and Louise’s bike. This was our ride in Luang Prabang. Note the padded passenger seat.

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Coffee and bicycles go well together. This was in Siem Reap.

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While technically not bike riding, it’s still relevant: In India, the girls took up unicycle riding. Here’s Saga on the balcony and then on the roof.
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The girls are growing. I look at the picture we took before heading to the airport to leave Toronto and I hardly recognize them. They’ll need new wheels when we get home. To stay within our space constraints, we settled on redeemable bike vouchers as Christmas gifts: 

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TRANSITIONS

We have five weeks left in our journey. It’s good that we’re here because Cape Town living, more than anywhere else we’ve been on this trip, most closely resembles Toronto living. In addition to the cycling infrastructure we find potable tapwater; wide sidewalks; drivers that (mostly) obey traffic signals; fruit and veg that we can eat without peeling. Culturally, Cape Town is closer too. We went to a farmers’ market yesterday evening (the City Bowl Market on Hope Street). It could have been a smaller version of the Brickworks, just with more meat, wine and beer.We’re starting to talk as a family about our return to Toronto: Our neighbours, the girls’ friends, school, evening walks together on the sidewalks with our dog. As part of the transition, the girls picked up a new wardrobe yesterday at H&M (they’ve outgrown the clothes they brought with them). This is an important conversation to have; we know there will be an adjustment to make as we reintegrate to home life. 

Another thing we know is that one/two/three-wheelers will continue to play a big role in our lives.  

Robben Island Dispatch

Robben Island is located about seven km off the coast of Cape Town. It is flat and only a few metres above sea level. The island served as a leper colony in the 19th century and was later used as a maximum security prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals from 1961 until 1991. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars. To date, three of the former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

We’re now in Cape Town. We arrived two days ago after a 28-hour journey from Bombay. We’re in a two bedroom flat in the city centre, about two blocks away from Parliament. Our visit coincides with that of a friend, Anton Simanowitz, who’s here with his wife, kids, brother and parents. We spent a memorable day together yesterday and visited Robben Island. 

 

The view of Cape Town from the direction of the island is breathtaking.  

   

We took a bus from the ferry docks to the prison, stopping along the way to learn about the history of the island and its residents. 

This was on the side of our bus:

  
We were then given a tour of the maximum security wing where Mandela was imprisoned. Derek Basson (below), a former political prisoner in the 1980s, explained how the prison worked.

  

 

The courtyard outside Mandela’s cell:

  

Mandela’s cell:

  

It was a really powerful experience for all of us. The prison, the racist policies, the leper colony’s graveyard, the quarry where political prisoners laboured.

We caught the last return ferry to the city and on the way whales swam alongside our boat, as if escorting us part of the way back.

We’re starting to settle in here and are finding our way around. We’ll be in Cape Town for almost three weeks and look forward to learning more about the city and writing about our experiences.

Farewell India (and Moustache Report)

We’re about to leave India after staying here for two and a half months. We’ve visited the south and the north. We’ve caught up with old friends and made new ones. It’s been a terrific stay.

Here are some final shots from our time here. 

TRAINS

There’s something iconic about the Indian railway. Yesterday, we rode a train for thirteen hours from Goa to Bombay. The girls made it cozy in the upper berths with their books and tablets. Eventually they set up a circus routine, using the chains attached to the berths as ropes and the bedsheets as slings. Here’s a look at their setup.

  
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Time flew by on the journey. The views of the Indian countryside were spectacular. The food was tasty. Upon arriving in Bombay it was a quick five minute taxi ride to our hotel.

CRICKET

In sheer numbers, India is the most cricket-obsessed country in the world. Here’s a match playing out on a pitch in the middle of town. The bowler has just released the ball.

 

A few blocks away, another cricket match playing out in the middle of traffic.

  

Batsman hits ball. Fielder handles the play across four lanes of traffic. Not out.

VIEWS

A few weeks ago when we left Jaipur, we stopped in Abhaneri to see the Chand Baori stepwell. Chand Baori was built between 800 and 900 AD and consists of 3,500 narrow steps over 13 stories. It extends approximately 30 m (100 ft); the air at the bottom is 5-6 degrees cooler than at the surface. The well was used as a gathering place for locals during periods of intense heat.

 

One side of the well has a pavilion and resting room for the royals.  
 

After Chand Baori we visited the Taj Mahal. Saga describes it as “the most romantic non-fiction love story in the world.” It was built by Shah Jahan as a tribute to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 22 years for 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants to build it. It’s astounding.

  
  

Less well known is the local playground with the best view in the world. 

  

MOUSTACHES

Here are the results from the Moustache post.

Most popular moustaches are Moustache 1 (5 votes), Moustache 4 (4 votes) and Moustaches 5 and 10 with 2 votes each. The names included: Herr Professor, Smeat (small and neat), Indian Sam Elliot, Sniffer Swiffer… They’re all great. Thanks for voting! 

FAREWELL INDIA, HELLO SOUTH AFRICA

The Indian leg of this trip has been unbelievably good to us. We feel incredibly lucky for the people we’ve met and the opportunities we’ve had. Tonight we fly to Cape Town. We’ll spend three weeks in South Africa and three more in Botswana.

Saga’s Post: Highlights from our time in Goa

We’ve been in Goa for about 5 days and it’s been really fun. We have a really nice host and she used to be a famous Indian model (she’s also very pretty)! Yesterday at night we were having a fun time doing badminton and doing some hoollahooping (the hoolahoop was suuuper big)! As you see on the title this blog is about highlights in Goa. So let’s get started!

  1.  Parasailing: Parasailing was very very very fun (I would recomend doing it in India because it’s soooo cheap!)! There are 2 ways of doing (I think, or maybe it depends on the beach your on), first is you just stay up in the air and the second way is you can dip your feet in the water and then rise again and then it continues.
  2. The German bakery: We’ve probably been there 3 times in 4 days! Why? Because they have the best almonds cookies (my favourite!) and the best apple crumble (even I like it! I don’t usually like apple crumble.) We’re likely to visit it again today. That’s because we have a long train ride ahead of us. We leave tomorrow at 8 am and stay on the same train for 12 hours!
  3. Our host: Our host’s name is Shonali (she’s the one who used to be the model). She’s very sporty and loves cooking (perfect for us!)! Yesterday when she was cooking savery muffins I got to be the D.J and introduced some of my favourite music! My favourite band these days is First Aid Kit. The band is made up of two sisters from Sweden but you wooden guess becaus they speak perfect  English!
  4. Monopoly: You adults out there most likely know monopoly and maybe some of you kids. My mom (or was it my dad?) told me that they are changing the monopoly game so that in India for instance the money’s in rupees and the streets are Indian! Well, they have already changed the money (the bord that we play with has British streets but the money is in rupees! Cool, right?). It’s soooo fun!

Holy Cows, Holy Men, Horoscopes

THE COW 

Considered sacred by Hindus, she is everywhere in India, ambling through snarling traffic, oblivious to the vehicles rushing by and at the same time tolerated by all drivers. The western state of Rajasthan has a cow minister (not a cow that’s a minister but a person that’s a minister of cows. You know what I mean). There are campaigns demanding that the cow replace the tiger as the national animal.

She can live up to 25 years and she can be aged by the number of rings on her horns (if she has horns). She has four stomachs. All seeing, she has almost 360 degree panoramic vision. All smelling, her keen nose can detect odors up to 5 miles away.

She is beautiful. The historian Mukul Kesavan writes of the cow:”Its large eyes, its calm, its matte skin tinted in a muted palette that runs from off-white to grey through beige and brown, its painterly silhouette with its signature hump, make it the most evolved of animals.”

THE HOROSCOPES

For Hindus (and many others) the planetary positions in the zodiac at the time of birth are believed to have a strong influence on a person’s life. The Hindu horoscope is called the Janampatri and is created using complex mathematical calculations derived from the exact date, time and place of an individual’s birth. A Hindu priest, or pandit, typically develops and interprets a janampatri.

Some lovely friends of ours (a mother-daughter team) have recently had a number of health setbacks. The mother consulted her pandit. He studied both of their janampatris to find an explanation for their health issues and propose a way to resolve them. According to the pandit, the health issues are related to multiple causes including the orientation of the bed in a bedroom; the location of the stove in the kitchen; and something to do with serpents. To resolve the issue(s), our friends were encouraged to donate roughly 40kg of grain to a temple. The stove and bed are re-oriented. The daughter is required to offer food, every day over the course of several months, to a cow.

One evening we joined the feeding mission. Equipped with chapatis and grains, we went to find a local bovine in a lot near our place. Here she is.
  
 

THE MEN

A few days later, we went to see the pandit to have Ida and Saga’s horoscopes made. We provided the girls’ names, dates and times of birth, and birth location. The next day we returned to have the horoscopes read.

The pandit:

  

His colleagues:

    
   
 The girls were born four minutes apart. There is a shift in the planetary positions in the zodiac every five minutes. We learned that because the girls’ births fell within this period of planetary stasis, their horoscopes do not differ significantly. 

The Janampatri is a 20-page document, in English, with planetary details and birth charts. Divisional charts tell us about strength, spiritual growth, wealth, destiny, spouse, knowledge and more. Several pages are devoted to Vimshottari and are followed by useful information- lucky colour, lucky number, inauspicious month and dates. 

As the pandit interpreted the documents, he read that Ida and Saga will lead good lives with professional, personal and inter-personal success. There could be minor health issues (e.g. weak left eye requiring spectacles). Marriage could happen in their mid-twenties. He also said he saw a future for them that involves travel. In the very near term, that’s bang on! As for the rest of the predictions, only time will tell.