Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some certain days

I bought this coupon off of Groupon, some spa package with manicure, pedicure, facial, massage... all at seventy percent off. So this week I got ready to be pampered.

Excited to get out of Muizenberg for a bit, I cleaned myself up, showered, even put on some presentable clothes. I figured you have to look semi-decent at a beauty salon.

Got to the train station, waiting for the train, bobbing to some music from my headphones, when something wet hits me.

Pigeon shit. All over my hair, my hoodie and my backpack.

I think this is only the second time in my life that's ever happened to me (the first time I was about six years old and refused to walk outside without an umbrella for the following two weeks).

So I take off my hoodie, wipe off the stuff as much as possible and get on the train. Get off half an hour later, can't find the salon, call them up -- only to realize that Google maps sent me to the completely wrong place.

On the way back to the train station, I'm annoyed and slightly bothered by the smell of excrement coming from my curls and look down at my feet to see why my shoe feels weird: one of my sandals broke, the strap is dangling off my foot.

By the time I finally get to the place I was meant to go to become relaxed and beautiful, I feel disgusting and look like a hobo who just crawled out from under her bridge.

(The whole spa thing ended up being pretty nice though, and I don't *think* they noticed that I smelled like pigeon pooh.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Table mountain in FiveFingers

Our visiting lecturer for Quantum Computing is from Germany. He's also one of the most athletic physicists I've ever seen. And last weekend he put up a sign-up sheet for a "tough hike" up Table Mountain -- of course I signed up.

So did about fifteen of our students, and Saturday morning we set out on our journey, equipped with packed lunches and sturdy boots. Except for me: this was a great opportunity to see what my barefoot-shoes could do, aside from running. Some of the more experienced mountaineers were sceptical. One of the outreach employees, who had brought his two toddlers along and was planning to carry (!!) them up the mountain together with his wife, pointed out my feet to his kids: "Look at her shoes! Doesn't she look like a gorilla?" Yeah, baby.
Baby in carrying crate, on mountain!

Taking a break
The first hour was certainly the toughest, up a steep slope over crude stone steps, without much shade, but with some amazing views of Camps Bay on the western side of the cape. After we had made it up to the first plateau, we took a little break and devoured some bananas, gorilla-style.

Room mate, or monkey?

When the stragglers had joined up and caught their breath, we continued towards the top. On the way we discovered a little cave with a waterfall, an echo valley and several rusty ladders of questionable safety. I took those ladders as an excuse to climb up the rocks next to them, which was remarkably easy with my toe shoes.
Echo valley
Student & waterfall

Inside the cave

Just as we were about to reach "the cave", a dark, dark cavern somewhat off the path, clouds began enveloping us. The followed us into the cave, and all the way up to the top of TM we couldn't see further than about 10m.

Postcard view
We stopped in the little cafe, queued with a million other tourists and warmed up with a cup of coffee -- and just in time when we finished our drinks the clouds vanished in thin air. We got some marvellous views from the table top, and all the way back down.

Me in the postcard
My feet survived just fine in their unusual shoes, though my ankles maybe got a bit more tired than usual. Plus: I turned quite a few heads with my feet, and got to tell a number of them all about barefoot walking!
Far away from everything

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sea Cucumber

In the evening, Emma and I started to consume the liquor I brought back from my recent trip. I was really excited about my recent purchase, the stick blender, so after a few Gin and Tonics we moved on to blended cocktails. The most outstanding of our creations: the Sea Cucumber.

Radiantly green, effervescently refreshing and inarguably healthy (one serving of vegetables per drink), this is the quintessential Muizenberg drink. Invented 3 minutes from the ocean, hence the "sea" moniker; the cucumber should be self-explanatory.

 We imagine that fresh ginger would be a tasty twist on this, as would be the substitution of lime for lemon.


5 cm of cucumber
3 branches of fresh mint
2cl lemon juice
2cl gin
1 Tbs brown sugar (optional)
crushed ice
tonic water

In a blender, puree cucumber, mint, lemon juice, gin and sugar (if using).
Fill a tall cocktail glass halfway with crushed ice.
Pour the green puree over the ice, and fill up with tonic.
Serve topped with a mint leaf.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beet root and hummus, on a sandwich.

It was bound to happen earlier or later -- I'm writing about food.

Last week I purchased the most essential of kitchen implements, a blender. Now I feel like I can actually do some proper cooking, not just cookies and cakes...
The first thing I made was, also very predictable, some sugar bean hummus to go with the sourdough I baked a few days earlier. Next in line was a big pureed squash and sprouted lentil stew. And in the evening Emma and I went nuts with blended drinks.

I used the hummus the following day for some hefty beet root - hummus - sandwiches to take on a hike. Epic picnic food!

Red speckled sugar bean hummus

1 cup dried legumes (I used the most common bean of SA, the red speckled sugar bean)
1 ts baking soda
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 handful parsley
3 Tbs lemon juice
~ 1 ts red pepper flakes
~ 1/2 ts cumin
salt to taste

Soak the beans with the baking soda in cold water overnight, or in boiling hot water for 1-2 hours. Discard the soaking water.

Cover beans with fresh water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer until they're done (quite soft, about 1 hour for regular beans).

Strain beans and collect the water.
Blend beans and garlic! If you're using a standing blender be careful not to overheat the motor. If the paste is too thick, add some of the bean water.

Chop parsley, and stir parsley, lemon juice and spices into your bean paste. Add salt and more spices/LJ to taste.

Oven roasted beets

beet roots
tin foil

Cut off parts of the beets that don't look like you want to eat them (roots, stems). The leaves make a tasty addition to soups or salads.

Wash beets.  With a kitchen knife, make little incisions in their skin.

Sit each beet root on a piece of foil, sprinkle it with rosemary and wrap it up tightly.

Roast in the oven for 15-30 min. at 180C. Check for doneness by sticking a knife into the beet and seeing whether the center is soft.

That's what they look like coming out!
Make a lot of these, store them in the fridge and eat them as snacks, chop them into salads or slice them onto sandwiches.

Beetroot - Hummus - Sandwiches

sourdough bread
roasted beets
kim chi or sauerkraut (optional)

Spread hummus on two bread slices. Slice up a beet root and some cucumber, stack both onto the bottom bread. Lay some spinach on top, top with some fermented veg and the second slice of bread.

Too photogenic to pass up a second pic.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

North America!

The other day I went to America. It was really nice!

Why? For one, I went to this workshop on tensor networks, which is ostensibly going to be my PhD topic. It was great to be back at Perimeter, with its unlimited free coffee in beautiful new buildings with couches and blackboards everywhere. It was also great to be surrounded by physicists again for a little while. I know I complain a lot about physicists talking only about physics, but doing a bit of shop talk can be good if you haven't done it in a few months.

It was even greater to have a bit of my independence back.
Not being able to walk outside by night, or really go anywhere by myself makes me feel claustrophobic at times in South Africa. I once described myself as "the cat that walked by itself", from Rudyard Kipling's short story of the same name. The last few weeks at AIMS I was a little less than happy, and thought I was homesick. Very unlike Kipling's cat.
But I realize now that I'm just sick and tired of having to coordinate every movement, every day trip and nightly walk on the beach with some safety-buddy.
In Canada, one night when I couldn't fall asleep, I left the house to go for a moonlit walk around the block. All by myself. That was amazing.

And then, aside from minor western amenities like tempeh and unsweetened soymilk in every supermarket, I enjoyed hanging out with old friends from MIT and PI. Another thing I learned is that while I need my space, some people can't be forgotten so easily. So if you have to go from South Africa to Waterloo and New York City to see them again, it's worth every minute spent on the plane.

The tempeh might actually be worth it, too. And the Ethiopian food in Kitchener (bit of a detour, that one).

Saturday, October 15, 2011


One of Muizenberg's saving graces is the Blue Bird Garage, a weekly food/goods market a short walk from our house. Among the regular food stands is one owned by an Egyptian gentleman and his South African wife, serving Egyptian soul food and delicious date candies. Emma and I thought it would be a great idea to take our Egyptian students there some time, so we did.

Egyptians operating the pipe
They ended up complaining a lot about the food, apparently it was more Syrian and not really Egyptian at all. But they still made friends with the guy, and one of them succeeded at getting him to light up the shisha that is part of the decoration at the stand.

Mostafa, who mostly stands out by his tendency to sleep through class, turns out to be a very amiable character and settled down for over an hour in the smoking room of the market. The Egyptian girls, who didn't smoke themselves, documented everything very excitedly with their little cameras.

Socializing with our students

 Us two Europeans enjoyed a glass of wine with our shisha, and were instructed by our students as well as the master himself (or "maalem" in arabic), who took a few breaks to to have a smoke with us.

The grand master

Upon leaving I struck a deal with maalem's wife to buy one of the smaller shishas they brought back from Egypt. The next week I returned, was greeted with much hello by the Egyptians -- my students had come back to repeat the whole ritual -- and left with my own proper mini-shisha. Maalem also gave me a free pack of chocolate-mint tobacco on top and instructed me exactly what kind of coal to get.

Home sweet home

Emma and I are as of recently proud owners of a kitchen table (it's more of a garden table, but that's a minor detail), and thus were able to have our little smoking session along with a glass of gin and tonic in the relative comfort of our own home.
Emma with Shisha

Sunday, October 9, 2011

You live, you learn

The weather is getting nicer here, and I decided it was time to try for a run on the beach. Took my phone with me so I could keep time and know to turn around after 20 minutes or so.

I had a lovely little run, went to parts of the beach that have way fewer people on them than Surfers' Corner, admired the landscape for a bit and reversed direction. Just as I was entering slightly more populated territory again I stopped to practice some handstands, cartwheels and other Capoeira shenanigans -- sand is much more forgiving than concrete. Put my shirt on the ground, weighed it down with my phone, and started trying some tricks amongst avid walkers and dog owners.

After a little while a group of five or six boys, maybe 12 years old, appeared on my part of the beach and came up to me. "What are you doing?" -- "Can you do this?" -- "Can you keep your legs in the air for a long time?". At first I was a bit skeptical, but then I started chatting to them and showing them how to do a bridge. "Can you do that for a long time?" -- "Let's see how long you can do it for!"

I'd just managed to drop into a bridge from standing and graciously resolved to humor them. "Five, six, seven..." I saw them upside down, scurrying around me like kids do, running to the nearby dunes. "Twelve, thirteen, fourteen..." At about 18, the one counting out ran off as well.

By the time I'd fully disentangled myself, they were all well out of reach. Still running and looking over their shoulders to see if I was going to come for them. I realized what had happened, spun around, found my shirt still there (thank God!), but no phone. For a split second I was contemplating starting a chase, but it really wasn't worth it for the cheapest phone the local supermarket has to offer. Instead I began trotting back into the sunset over Muizenberg, chuckling at my own idiocy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The other side

Ever since getting to South Africa I've been trying not to get run over. It's difficult! You see, they drive on the wrong side of the road here. When I want to cross the street, I look left - bad news, car coming from the right!

Yesterday, I wanted to buy a bike,  so I decided to borrow my friend Chris's car and drive up to Cape Town. After lunch, he handed me the keys and said "Let's take it for a spin around the block". I hadn't driven in over a month anyways, and only properly mastered a stick shift this past summer, so having the gear shift on my left hand side sent me into a state of befuddlement and confusion. Nonetheless I managed to pull the car out of the parking lot - thankfully the gears are arranged in the same way (reverse is to the top right, and 5th gear is to the top right), and so are the pedals.

Still I managed to stall the engine about five times while trying to start the car at one of those horrible uphill traffic lights that I've come to hate with a vengeance ever since I left the land of liberty and automatic cars. After 3 periods of red Chris realized that I'd had the car in 3rd gear the whole time, and after shifting down everything suddenly worked... Not very encouraging for my trip into the city!

Enter the stage: my Scottish roommate. I informed her that we were driving into town, and that she had to sit in the passenger seat to make sure I didn't hit anything on the left side, and to yell at me if I should drift into the wrong lane. And with almost superhuman calm she navigated me to a shopping center, then to some suburb of Cape Town, and finally back to AIMS. A few times she did have to yell, mostly on right turns when I was about to pull into a lane of oncoming traffic. And once or twice I could hear her inhaling sharply when I was getting a bit too close to the cars parked on the side of the road...

On our way back, we got lost because the navi device ran out of battery, and found ourselves on some small road in the middle of nowhere - luckily we were able to use Table Mountain as a landmark to regain orientation. We even caught a beautiful view of the sun setting over it!

And in the end I dropped the car unscathed at our apartment building, and one of our workmates cooked us a traditional fermented maize meal dish from Ghana called Banku. It was really good, slightly sourdough-like in taste, and reminded me that I should start up some fermentation in Muizenberg.

(I didn't buy the bike in the end. It was too big for me. Maybe this increases my chances of surviving my year of left-hand traffic.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Grinding teeth

The other day, as people were filing out of the day's Mathematical Problem Solving session, Aurélie from Congo came to me with a crumpled up tissue in her stretched-out hand. She didn't seem happy, and it quickly became clear why: the tissue contained a sizable chip of one of her molars.

The Ghanaian tutor seemed completely undisturbed, while us two Europeans immediately got very agitated. "Did you do that in class?!" -- "Oui oui, just now." "What happened?" -- "Ah, I bit my tooth and it split". "Does it hurt??" -- "Mmm", nod. "You have to go see a dentist!"

I've never seen anything like that happen; where I'm from our teeth are usually so well-preserved that in our early twenties they don't just split in our mouths. But what happened then is even more unbelievable for someone from a country with public health care.

I managed to overcome the Ghanaian inertia and sent her off with another French speaker in one of AIMS' cars. Our secretary called up the dentist asking if the girl could come by that day with her split tooth, and whether this particular dentist would accept her insurance. "Sure, but she might have to wait for a while." When they got there though, Aurélie was told she had to pay for her treatment up front. Then she'd have to get reimbursed by the medical aid. Our students haven't gotten paid yet, and even when they do they only receive the equivalent of about EUR100, so paying for whatever it takes to fix a falling-apart tooth was not an option. And no, they couldn't just write her a bill.
So they went on to the next dentist, another 20 minutes driving. By the time they got there they were informed that "the Doctor has gone home, there are no more appointments today." And came back with Aurélie, member of a proper South African medical and dental plan, still in pain, with the crumbles of her tooth in hand.

She got an appointment for the next morning, when she could go back in and get the tooth -- extracted. Age twenty-something, one down, thirty-one to go.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

African dance party

One of the Egyptians decided there would be a dance party. Girls only, 16:00 on a Sunday afternoon. She was very insistent that the female tutors attend as well. Come the end of lunch today I wasn't really feeling in the mood for a very sober dance party in the ladies' wing, but it ended up being nothing short of epic.

When Scottish Emma and I showed up in Doaa's room, she -- a very rotund Arab -- had already gathered some followers, all of whom had dispensed with their headscarves and long dresses for the event. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts and cheering on the host doing some very impressive belly dance moves. She was ridiculously good, moving graciously and decisively despite the considerable mass she was moving around.

One by one Malagasy, Ugandans, Zambians and Basotho arrived, and the Egyptians, showing off their beautiful long hair, made us all dance. Even me. Cheering and clapping, tying scarves around everyone's hips and waving colorful headbands in sync (I assume there is usually some sort of proper dance accessory that is used for this, but alas, you make do with what you have).

No photos of the female dancers - instead, two of my fellow
tutors demonstrating Congolese dancing in the office.
The Moroccans joined in the belly dancing. The Nigerian rocked out, stepping and clapping and swinging her elbows. The Mosotho was stomping and swinging her hips. The Zambian, super shy sweet little girl, gave a show of textbook crazy African dancing, shaking booty and doing something with her knees that seemed to come straight from the 70s -- we all looked like frogs when we tried to imitate her. The Malagasy did a cute couple dance, standing behind each other, both facing the same direction,  holding hands and shuffling forward to traditional music. The Congolese taught us something that seemed very close to an African version of Macarena.

One of the Moroccans ran off to have a bath in the ocean, at about 12 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately there are no pictures, because my Muslim students absolutely refused to have any taken -- it was lovely to see their hair open though. And 1.5 hours of vigorous dancing it a) superseded all my expectations and b) made my workout for the day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Settling in

After 3 weeks in Muizenberg, I'm starting to feel like I'm getting the hang of the town, finding out about things to do and places to go. Funny, the first few days I felt like I'd been dumped in the middle of nowhere, isolated from civilization, and that's sort of true -- but there are redeeming factors.

One of the first things I picked up was going to the catholic church choir in St. James. One of my students located it. It's rather small, and full of old people, and requires going to catholic church. They even have a special mass before practice on Sunday!
But: the choir leader is part of a proper large choir in Cape Town, and took me along this Monday. They're doing Brahms' Requiem, and I was impressed with both the size (roundabout 120 singers) and the quality of the choir (everyone was sightreading, and really well at that; their German pronunciation was impeccable). People sing everywhere, in South Africa too! It's unclear that they have room for another alto, so I'll see if I keep going.

The next thing I tried to find was a judo club. On the internet -- which isn't really a thing in South Africa; coverage is very, very limited -- I found the phone number of a Judo club supposedly located right in Muizenberg, and rejoiced. Unfortunately it turns out that they moved 15km away, so out of range for me. But eventually I found a dance studio in town, where they have capoeira twice a week! I decided to check them out, the teacher lives above the studio and seems really nice. The first capoeira class is happening tonight; I'm really looking forward to it.

On the social front, we discovered the Blue Bird Garage, a local food market that happens weekly, in an old garage just about 3 minutes on foot from our house. Since we only got paid last week, it was the first time I had non-AIMS food in weeks, and it was lovely. I ate falafel, tom yum soup and samosas, and drank a lot of delicious South African wine. The crowd is full of locals, and it's one of the few places I've seen blacks and whites mixing and mingling -- although it's of course yuppie and, consequently, predominantly white. People are also very friendly and amenable to a little chat, a rare thing here.
A sort of sister-business to the market is the vegan cafe in town, whose existence I am quite excited about: they have pastel painted walls, wooden chairs and tables, lovely coffee, and home-made veganaise.

Then, one big thing to do in Muizenberg: surfing! They say this is the best learners' beach in all of the Western Cape: the bay protects in from rough weather, and the shore is very flat, so you can have long gently waves, or something like that. Clearly this is an opportunity not to be passed up, and Emma and I ventured to the surf school on Sunday afternoon. We were put into wet suits, handed surf boards and tried for about an hour to walk out into the waves, lie down on the board and get up on it. It's not easy. I sort of managed to get up a few times. Emma managed, after 20 minutes, to get the board between herself and the incoming waves, almost got hit in the face and snapped her thumb so bad that she's unable to use her hand for now. It's a lovely Scottish blue.
We are, however, not discouraged, and I'll be going back for more later this week... Practice, practice, practice.

Finally, we went to visit the penguin colony in Simon's Town, further down the cape. It was amazing: little penguins everywhere! They have a "penguin protection fence", but some of the nosy creatures obviously didn't mind at all, circumvented the fence and were poking their beaks out from under the boardwalk we were standing on -- they were incredibly cute. Sadly I don't think they'd make very good pets: they also smell very bad.

All in all, it looks like this might be an alright place to live for the year. And that's probably true of most places. Maybe this is my lesson to get out of living first in Waterloo and then here: even if somewhere looks like it lacks everything you want in a home town, over time you find your niche.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


1.) In the ocean. My colleague and roommate Emma and went running along the shore almost every day in the past two weeks. (Trying to stay in shape despite the not-so-healthy food at AIMS, this is the best thing we've come up with so far.) She's been spotting whales all over the place, and telling me about it excitedly every time. I haven't. I think they hide from me. But yesterday, finally, I got lucky: We were jogging along together when we noticed a lot of people pointing out into the ocean. And lo, there was a whale there! Really close, maybe 50 meters out from the furthest out rocks. We stopped to watch it, and noticed that there were two of them, a big one and a very small one. Now whales are actually very difficult to observe, because only small parts of them stick out of the water at any given time, and they look mostly like very flat, smooth black humps in the sea -- but we think it was a mother with her baby, possibly even giving birth right there. 

As if that wasn't enough, we managed to spot another two or three whales at other points in the bay. And just as we were about to head back home we saw a seal flitting through the water just about 10m away from us. All that was missing for real excitement was a shark...

2.) In my office. I've actually started work now, including grading. The other night I brought some graded  problem sets over to the other tutors' office and was just about to put them in the box when I was greeted by an old friend: A cockroach, wiggling its legs and feelers at me merrily from inbetween the assignments. I let him (or her?) be, I'm getting used to them.

But then, this morning, I'd been awake for at most half an hour, I got to the office and produced my travel mug from my bag in preparation for my morning coffee. I open the lid, and who's there, already wide awake? A cockroach! They're invading my private space now. So this one went down the drain, followed by a lot of very hot water which I used to clean out the mug -- enough is enough.

3.) At work. We went on a few trips this past week. Much like 8th grade class trips, remember those?

Taking 50 students for a hike is a lot like herding a flock of reluctant cattle, even though they're mostly older than me.

Yesterday the group went to visit Stellenbosch University, one of the universities they are registered at as students, and the same thing happened again. Us tutors were set up in different strategic locations inside the building and near the bus, with checklists for the students and phones in our hands, trying to get everyone there on time. I can now empathize with my own teachers from way back -- strange feeling!

On Saturday, we decided to walk up Muizenberg Peak, just about five minutes from the institute, scheduled departure: 9am. I showed up at 8 and waited, with a cup of coffee, for everyone else. The French-African students started appearing at breakfast around 8:50. 5 minutes later, a bunch of still fasting members of the Arab league. Some of the signed-up students had to be retrieved from their rooms, bathrooms, the table tennis table and other places around the building. A pattering pulsating crowd slowly formed in the lobby, and about half an hour after our declared departure we set off for the mountain.

Lots of photos

Lots of stops
It was supposed to take about an hour to climb the mountain. But we didn't quite anticipate some of the drag forces on our trek: first, our students love to take pictures. About every 10 seconds someone stopped to snap a photo, or pose for one. Then, some of them are not in very good shape -- one of them asked me "So this trip, is it for going for a walk, or for exercise, or for taking pictures?" The fasting faction grew weaker as the sun grew hotter, and some of them were threatening to collapse about halfway up. Two of us tutors went in the front, two in the back, trying to keep the forty-some students together, but to no avail -- only about three quarters actually made it to the top, and did so one by one, spread out over a surprisingly long period of time. The last people made it up around 2 hours after our departure.
Muizenberg from above

But so what, it was beautiful anyways. At one point you could hear the gurgling of a little mountain stream mixing with the distant sound of the waves; fantastic.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Train ride

Between Cape Town and False Bay (the bay Muizenberg and AIMS are located in) there runs a famously scenic railroad. Aside from being pretty at least on parts of the line, it is also our only means of public transportation out here, to move along the shore or into the city. This week I took the train for the first time, with two of my co-tutors: Emma from Scotland and Gordon from Ghana. At the train station, you have to buy a ticket, and decide between first or third class. Back in Germany, pretty much no one rides first class on trains, except for old and rich people; Everyone rides second, there is no third. Gordon picked up third class tickets for us, and it quickly became obvious that the situation is quite different here: black and colored South Africans travel third class, presumably the whites all got into the first class parts of the train -- Emma and I were the only white people on the train as far as I could see. What I started to realize last weekend and what has become more and more salient throughout this week is that Apartheid was abolished what seems like a long time ago, but its aftermath is far from over.

The first thing we noticed upon mounting the train, aside from our own exceptional whiteness, was a sign for "D.r. Sam, same day Penis enlargements: get Ur lost lover back" posted above several of the doors of the compartment, with a Cape Town phone number. The trains here -- at least in 3rd -- are the type with long benches running along the side of the interior, with lots of standing room inbetween; when we got on all seats were already taken but there was still plenty of space. While we were still joking about Doc Sam, a man's voice started sounding from a speaker in the overhead baggage holder. For a second I thought it was some official announcement, but no: from that speaker a cable ran to a dolly, belonging to a big guys standing just a few feet from us with something like a netbook in one hand, and a microphone in the other. "I will be riding to Cape Town, and if you are riding with me today, you will hear God's word." And he started preaching, at a volume that was just a bit too much for my ears.

At the next stop, the first candy vendor got on our train. These guys carry big bags of sweets and savory snacks, sometimes baskets as well, and go through the trains selling the miniature-sized lollies and packs of chips for a few Rand. Some of them are more vocal, some of them just quietly and slowly walk by and wait for you to call on them. We had a new one on our train about every 2nd stop, and I'm not sure how they make a living, since I only saw about 3 transactions happen on my roundtrip. But they must, I suppose.
More people started getting on as well, and things got a little more crowded; The preacher got louder. He alternated between a motley mixture of Christian-type music, and rather incoherent babbling about God and the Devil. He addressed the passengers as "my sick neighbor" in every sentence, and while I appreciate the fervor of the faithful in Africa I had to wonder if that was the usual address down here. Everytime our friend turned up his volume, he had to turn over the speaker to get to the controls at the back, and point right it at the poor guy sitting underneath -- completely unapologetically. That one put up with it a couple of times, then moved through the now considerable crowd to the other end of the train.

As we were being informed that "every tattoo on my body is a covenant with the Devil", beads of sweat now forming on the foreheads of many, some young colored guy standing near me found a pretty effective way to get some ventilation: he just held open the doors of the train as it was driving from station to station. It scared me a bit at first, but then I appreciated the breeze. After about 40 minutes, the sermon now much too loud for us to communicate verbally, we arrived at Claremont, our destination, and Gordon motioned for us to get off the train. We squeezed past people and heaps of chips and candy and jumped off, me holding my ears and quietly cursing the bearer of the good news.

Our return trip was a bit quieter, but the crowd on the train still depressed me quite a bit, and got me thinking. People's faces are empty, often sad (one of my students from Morocco asked me the other day: "Why do the people look so unhappy here?"). Presumably we were riding with the near-bottom of society in our area, those unable to even afford a car -- everyone here has cars. At least in my imagination their lives were reduced to mere survival, without any of the free time, glitter and dedication to enjoyment that characterize my own. These train-riding South Africans seemed more wretched than any Canadian I've seen. I bet some of that impression can be blamed on my state of culture shock, and feeling out of place to begin with. But the idea of living day in, day out just trying to make a living scares me nonetheless.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

One week into classes, and... cockroaches!

They live in my house. On Tuesday night I had the first encounter; I was peacefully sitting in my room writing as I saw a bug-like thing scurrying over the floor. I grabbed a cup that I had at hand and put it over the thing -- not very big, maybe a centimeter long, and looking rather ordinary. Then I went into the kitchen to boil some water, and saw another very similar bug. Trapped that one under a cup as well.

The next day I got home, and was greeted by two tiny and two larger copies of my bug in the bathroom. When I went into the kitchen, one of them was wandering around on the ground.

On Thursday, my roommate Emma reported drowning about four of them during her evening shower. One of them was waving at me with his little quivering feelers from the top of the fridge, and about two or three more from the kitchen floor. I didn't really dare even step into the bathroom before turning on the light for fear of stepping onto one with my naked feet. By now the little guys were pretty sizable as well, and quite clearly -- cockroaches. Lovely.

I take it there isn't much you can do about them, and they're not really dangerous... but when I got a chance to flee Muizenberg and stay at a friend's house in Stellenbosch on Friday, I was sure as hell pleased to get away from my six-legged cohabitants for a night.
(The first one I trapped in my room is still alive. I think I'm getting kind of used to him. I might adopt him as a pet.)

Aside from that distinctively new experience, I survived the first week of AIMS! My students are learning English -- it seems the Sudanese are struggling a bit, maybe also due to their Ramadan fasting this month. The Congolese prefer speaking French, and so communication with them is sometimes difficult as well.
Everyone is also getting familiar with computers. AIMS runs on Ubuntu, and all the software is free -- I'm quite excited about this, because it means I'll learn some of that myself. But first, these African students need to learn how to type (I put up little color-coded keyboard printouts on every screen in the computer room), and, within three days of starting to type, to write LaTeX.

More exciting for me: I got to take photographs of all my students for us to properly learn their names. AIMS doesn't currently own a camera, so I whipped out my little Canon and offered to help. We managed to find what I suppose is an old stage lighting spot and a tripod somewhere at the institute, and I set up a little studio in the main lounge. Everyone's complaints about how terrible last year's pictures were motivated me to try and do a good job, despite the limitations of my equipment -- and I think it worked, at least I got them all to smile!
In fact, some administrator was so pleased with it that they asked me to take pictures of all the staff as well, and I spent my Friday morning taking more portraits. For the first time ever I did all the settings on my camera manually, to get consistent colors and exposure for all the pictures, and I had a lot of fun with it. Although some of the kitchen staff was rather reluctant to have their pictures taken, as you can see here with Lennox, the chef:

And some people's vanity surfaced in quite surprising ways, like my co-tutor 's, who insisted that I take his photograph about 20 times total.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

First impressions, in chronological order.

The movie Invictus -- about Nelson Mandela and, of all things, Rugby -- moved me deeply on the plane. South African airport sniffer dogs are trained for fruit, and found two apples in my guitar case.

The townships are everywhere, and look miserable. Much more so when you're really there than when you see them on TV.

There is only instant coffee. The two tea options are black and rooibos.
Vegan food may damn well be impossible at AIMS. Scotsmen have a very different idea of "healthy food" from mine.

One student won't shake my hand, because I am a woman. The bathrooms in our apartment are gender segregated.

There is no internet at my house. There is only one single socket in my room. I can't walk the 5 minutes between my work and my home by myself after dark.

There are sharks in the ocean. The beach is ridiculously beautiful.

Racial separation/segregation/discrimination makes me unhappy. So does the fact that I'm suddenly aware of being white.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Three German cities

Three cities in three weeks, without even traveling very far -- I got to really appreciate the density of my home country recently.

The first weekend after my return from Canada brought my physicist friend from MIT up to Essen, and we visited Cologne on his first day at my house. He arrived from Munich at 7am, we ate breakfast with my parents, and then caught a train to the big city. Cologne is the posh part of our parts, but still not posh on the grand scale of things: Most of the buildings are grey, recently built. Like much of the region, the city was bombed out during the second world war. Still, there is a feeling of air and openness surrounding the Rhein, and the inner city is lively and picturesque. Although my Colonians aren't the most hospitable of creatures. On the subway I got yelled at quite rudely by an old fat lady with a local accent upon resting my feet on the seat in front of me. Then, she turned to her companion and complained loudly -- in German -- about "those foreigners"; evidently she'd heard me speaking English with my friend.
The best part of that city though is indubitably its grand cathedral. For a few Euros you can climb the gothic towers over 600 or so steps, and get a beautiful view both of the structure itself and of the surroundings. We got caught in a major downpour just as we were approaching the Dom, and -- quite luckily in my opinion -- had the chance to ascend all the way up through curtains of rain, something I'd never done before. Meanwhile my fellow countrymen on the streets were looking very disgruntled, seeking shelter from the water; we Germans are quite humorless concerning our weather.

A day later, I followed my college friend down to Munich. Much prettier, much more antique looking. Also, much more full of tourists. The Bavarians here are lovely, open, friendly people. My main reason for visiting however was not Munich, but the Max Planck Institute just north of it, in Garching. The place is dominated by the technical university and the various branches of the MPI located there, grey, surrounding a commuter parking lot. The cafeteria food turns out to be awful, vegan is an unknown concept. The physicists seem friendly enough.
The remainder of my day I spent wandering around Munich, taking pictures of Municians in their natural habitat, and finally having a few beers and a little picnic with my friend in the English Garden. (That park, by the way, is the world's largest inner-city green patch, larger than Central Park in NYC.)

The week after, I found out that another Cambridge friend of mine, artist by profession, was in Berlin. And one of the few high school friends I am still in touch with lives there now. The decision to just go to that loveliest place in the world on a whim was easy. (My high school friend then turned out to be sick, and unable to meet with me, what a shame.) I figured the cheapest and most convenient way to go was by ride share -- how wrong I was!

The ride share to Berlin gave me the wrong meeting time on the phone. On Tuesday morning, on the train to the meeting point in Wuppertal, I got a call from him, yelling at me for not letting him know I was late. Then he said he had to confer with another co-traveller to see if we could leave later. Then he didn't pick up his phone at the number I had for him. Then when I got to Wuppertal, he was nowhere to be found. I sent a few irate text messages, decided I was a rich bourgeois, and got on an ICE train to the capital.
On the way back on Wednesday, I decided not to make the same mistake; an hour before the agreed upon departure at 15:00 I texted my ride share to confirm. In response, I got the message "leaving from the main station at 16:30" -- much too late to get home from the drop off by public transport. Calling the guy didn't work, either. Who knew if they were even actually going to leave at four thirty! So, again, I opted for a 100 Euro train ticket, bringing the total cost of my trip to about thrice what it was supposed to be.

Berlin though was amazing as always, and more surreal than usual. I stayed in a soviet prefab flat right in Alexanderplatz. At night, sitting on a stoop with the Cambridge artist and two computer-filmographers, drinking beer out of bottles, I learned about the Great Northern Pacific Garbage Patch. For about 10 minutes I was sure they were messing around with me, until I finally accepted that there is something of the size of a continent forming out of plastic trash in the northern Pacific. Just as I was getting over this absurd fact, a fox showed up, scurried across the street a few times, and disappeared under a car. "Yeah, that little guy lives around here, we've seen him before" -- this may have been the first time I've ever seen a live fox. And that in the middle of Berlin.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How I'm going to South Africa after all (hopefully)

I was supposed to take a plane to Cape Town today. At least that was the plan until about two weeks ago, when I got back to Germany and realized that, despite the laid-back attitude of my future employers, getting a study permit to go down there would take at least all the time I had.

The first thing I did, after one night in my parental home, was order a police certificate at city hall. I spent the next day running from doctor to doctor to get someone to x-ray my chest, certify that I didn't have TB, and sign off on a form saying I was in good health. They took my blood and my urine, and despite considerable practice it took me three trips to the bathroom to produce the latter.
Then, fill in a bunch of forms, and express-mail everything to the consulate -- all because I hadn't thought to do these things earlier. And because I couldn't really send my passport anywhere before I needed it to get on a plane home.

So at first I was hopeful, and figured maybe everything would work out. Then, a lady from the consulate, let's call her Ms T, called my home.
- "What will you be doing in South Africa?"
- "I'll be teaching, and I'll be a student at --- University."
She doesn't know that I'll mostly be teaching, and a student only for administrative purposes; but that's not her concern:
- "Your letter from --- says you will be doing research. But you filled in the wrong form, you applied for a study permit."
- "All graduate students do research, it's part of the program."
- "I need a letter to say that you're a student, if you do research, you need a work visa; this letter is contradictory. I can't work like this."

That was the short version. The actual conversation had a lot more of me going "students do research", and her going "will you be a researcher or a student?", and several insults to my cognitive abilities.

What ensued was about a week of emails going back and forth between me and the institute I will be working at, and between me and the consulate. The university for some reason did not just write me a new letter. They kept instructing me to tell the embassy things, while the embassy kept asking other things. People were changing their minds about what kind of permit I even needed. People were telling me I would have to wait 10 to 15 days to get anything. People kept telling me to fill in different forms.

Eventually on Thursday (three days before my putative flight), Ms T said: "To settle this for once and for all, I need another letter from ---", and they finally sent me another letter. An exact copy of the one I originally sent in with my application, with a different date. And the next morning T called me to tell me, much friendlier than she had ever been before, that my study permit had been issued and would go out that afternoon.

Of course it was too late to make it for my flight today, and so I'll be getting another week of vacation at home. But holy shit was this an experience in ridiculous bureaucracy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sometimes I love my country

I went for a run in the woods yesterday. Nature where I'm from is actually quite pretty - no Canada or Finland, but there's green. So I was running along, looking like I knew what I was doing, when this middle aged couple crossed my path. She stopped me and went "What's the best way to get up to the Bismarck tower from here?" That tower is one of the more common tourist destinations in our remote corner of the region, for the few tourists that ever make it here. So I explained, and then continued on my way.

Half an hour, a steep mountain climb, a rain shower and several muddy puddles later, I was in the middle of an avalanche-like descent on an overgrown rocky footpath. Suddenly I noticed what looked like a woman with her pants down by her ankles further down the hill, with someone else looking on from the bottom of the path. I was like "wooow, there is a naked woman there, I wonder what these guys are doing, maybe I better bolt into the forest...", but it was a bit too late for veering from my trajectory. So I approached, and ran by the nude lady, realizing it was the tourist on her afternoon walk that I had met earlier, taking a leak on what she thought was safe territory. Her husband was waiting for her on the road. I yelled "Hello again" and zipped by, chuckling a bit to myself.

But the best part was that, rather than being embarrassed, the two cheerfully said hi, and somehow managed to stop me and engage me in a conversation about my toe shoes. As we were talking, she pulled up her pants and bundled up again for the way home. Somehow I can't imagine anything like that happening in most other places I've ever lived.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Can't carry it with you if you want to survive

Last weekend, I was leaving once again.
This time, I left the continent that had been my home for just about five years. Probably the biggest goodbye I've had in a while. And somehow this time, although I usually hate packing more than anything, I managed to really get into that aspect of my departure.

Four days I spent moving things around the apartment, making piles of clothing and buckets of stuff in this corner and that, sorting and re-sorting. Then, I embraced the leaving behind. I vigorously thrust piles of paper into the recycling bin, and danced by the dumpster out back. Every time I decided not to take something with me, I could feel a bit of my old shell shedding, and new young pink skin emerging. Finally, my whole life fit into two duffle bags and a backpack. Fuck, it felt great!

Meanwhile, my Canadian blood brother sent me a song with the lines
"Leave all your love and your longing behind,
can't carry it with you if you want to survive."
The soundtrack to my last week in his country.

It was, I hate to admit, a bit painful too: Moving further away from Boston, my home of many years. And parting with the people that made Waterloo seem like a place I could actually live in. But nothing beats the feeling of being on the road, moving, by yourself and onto a new place -- I had almost forgotten.