First impressions of South Africa

I wasn’t really sure of what to expect coming to Johannesburg. When I hear of Capetown I remember of stories of how tourist friendly and safe it is. Also about how white it is. Yes – that seems to be okay to say when you’re in South Africa.

Johannesburg is a whole other matter. I think I remember hearing stories about people being held at gunpoint at traffic lights for their car and money and several other devastatingly other traumatic stories. It reminds me of some of the things I heard about Brazil. Fortunately reality doesn’t always play out to these stories but until you find yourself in the situation – it’s really hard to know.

I have to say my experience in Jozi (as they call it) has been rather sheltered. I am staying in a hotel in Rosebank, an obviously affluent part of the city and somewhat protected from probably what the “true” South Africa is like. It’s made even more strange by the fact the hotel I am staying in is physically connected to a shopping centre (mall) which is a completely cut off and definitely unrealistic experience of the city.

Colourful Braamfontein

Our office sits in Braamfontein, a mixed place that during the day is like visiting Hoxton or Dalston during the weekend. Evenings are a whole other matter and is apparently like the rough parts to Dalston. Rejuvenation, hipsters, craft beer, street/weekend markets on one hand and danger, muggings and knife problems on the other. It’s a bit like every big city but probably on the edgier side.

The city is really spread out and the affluent people have their own cars to drive around. There is little public transport and apparently it is quite normal for drink driving (a lot of deaths are caused each year this way). The use of taxis is rather uncommon for the affluent class – as they drive their own cars (sober or not). I have used Uber as a way of getting around and the taxi drivers seem really happy with it after being here for just over a year. It’s definitely easy to use, and has given me a bit more comfort getting into strangers cars that a) I don’t need to give cash, b) there is some electronic trace about where I was/where I am going.

People have been really warm all over and I am definitely adjusting to the local customs. Punctuality isn’t necessarily expected. Despite being neither black nor white, I haven’t had the stares that I might have expected (like the ones I received in India).

Looking back at 2014

I know that I haven’t updated much on this blog, but part of that was because I spent most of 2014 writing on a German blog here where I wrote over 20,000 words in German. Although I could have spent more time writing there, I did spend some effort trying to write decent German instead of just the same German that I was using all the time.

Looking back

In case you didn’t realise, I spent 2014 living in Berlin where I was trying to learn German. Choosing Berlin as a place to learn German may not be the most obvious choice because you can get by far too easily with English but it had a good balance between being a place where I could learn and practice German and being a very interesting city to explore.

My year in numbers

Without counting Berlin, I visited 29 different cities and with a plan to try to travel mostly within Germany, I think I managed that very well although I still managed to visit Spain, Italy, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and England outside of those cities.

I wrote over 20,000 words on my German blog and complete in total 20 weeks of German language lessons in three different German courses. I didn’t keep track of the number of books I read but I would have estimated that I read about 20 different books (in German) and a couple more in English. According to Get Pocket, I saved and read 1.2 million words on saved web page articles which they equate to about 26 books.

In the year, I took just short of 24,000 photos (168GB worth) and watched probably 50 or more DVD films (in German). Being a member of the library in Berlin rocks!

Finally I also published my second book (although it’s been in the works for a couple of years).

A bit more detail

Travel

I tried to see a lot of Germany, particularly the parts which would be hard to see or I wouldn’t fly to from the UK. I was really surprised at how diverse the landscape and how varied the German culture is and I really appreciated the cheap bus lines between cities which meant I only took a few flights back to Berlin. In German I visited the following cities: Trier, Karlsruhe, Baden Baden, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freiburg, Stuttgart, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Görlitz, Weimar, Jena, Dessau, Hamburg, München, Nürnberg, Fürth, Regensburg. You’ll notice that it hits most of the south-west and west cities since I had already been to cities like Köln, Dusseldorf, and Frankfurt on previous places.

I returned to Barcelona (this time in summer instead of winter) and enjoyed the beaches at Sitges. I spent two visits in Budapest (once for a stag do, and the other before a conference), two visits to London and a few quick trips to Tartu, Tallinn, Rome and Prague. I went sailing for the first time in Croatia (via Split).

Work

Although I had a year off work, I still ended up doing a little bit. Obviously the second book I published is work-related but I also gave a few training courses and talks about work related topics, but I was more than happy to do that. I managed to not check my work email so much, leaving on my “I’ll be back in a year” out of office message to respond to most emails. I really appreciate that most people will never ever get an opportunity to do that.

Self-development

My only big goal in 2014 was to learn German. I had done some self-study before then, and I don’t think that my German was so good. Reading and listening skills were reasonably but with little practice, my writing and reading skills were significantly behind. In the middle of this year, I realised the goal to “be fluent in German” was not very specific simply because there is no strict definition of what “fluent” means. I’m happy to report I’m comfortable interacting with German-speaking people on an every day basis and getting bay in strange situations.

I can trade emails very well and can read (some) novels in German without needing a dictionary by my side.

Final thoughts

I was never sure what it would be like at the end of this year. Coming back to work is similar to the same feeling I had at the start of 2014 and what you might experience as if it was the first day at school. The feeling comes with a mixture of anticipation (for something good), fear (for the unknown) and excitement (for something new).

I’m thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I did as I realise many people do not. There were so many moments this year which were so different.

Washington DC

My sister and I have visited New York so many times that we have done all of the normal tourist attractions. As such, she wanted to take a trip somewhere else in the States. We had both done Philly and Boston, so our next trip was to Washington DC. We took buses down as they were significantly cheaper than the train and approximately the same sort of time.

I forgot how clean Washington DC looks in winter. A lot of the streets are really wide and with many of the museums being free, are pretty popular with a lot of people. Christmas time meant holiday time and the some of the museums had some really long queues.

We did what most people on their first visit would do including a tour of Capitol Hill, The Library of Congress and the Air and Space Museum that houses many historical artefacts like the Wright Brother’s first plane, or Amelia Airhart’s plane. I highly recommend taking tours of these places as they give you a better sense of the historical events that each place shows and brings your experience to life.

With many of the museums being free, we did pay to go to the Spy Museum, which houses the biggest collection of spy goods (fun, gadgety devices) and, naturally also has a James Bond exhibit. I recommend going early as when we left, the queue to enter exited the building.

We didn’t have a huge amount of time to really explore the city as we stuck mostly to the tourist trail, but I think there are a couple of other areas to explore and you could easily spend a week there visiting museums and different neighbourhoods. I’d definitely go back to check out 14th street a bit more – it’s where there seems to be a bit more of a nightlife and smaller cafes and stores to visit.

Christmas in New York

Well 2014 is finally upon us, I’m settling into my new flat in Berlin, but wanted to write up about our trip to the states. My sister wanted to visit some relatives in New York and despite being there so many times that all the tourist attractions have been completed (some twice!) we still bit the bullet and went over there.

Manhattan Skyline

Although in our last trip, we had visited Brooklyn, we spent this time walking around it a bit more. Williamsburg in particular has developed the last time we were there, and playing the “spot the hipster” game stopped being fun when our tallies got too high. We hadn’t been down to the Brooklyn Promenade before so we visited it for the awesome view of Manhattan’s skyline from a different perspective.

Citibikes

Like many other cities in the world, New York has also adopted the rent a bike scheme. I didn’t notice many people using them and perhaps that’s because the streets don’t have any dedicated space to them and the streets are busy enough with both tourists and other road traffic.

Art gnomes in the West Village

We scouted out a few art houses around the West Village. I loved how they had a massive place, only showing a few pieces whilst others couldn’t seem to have enough. I’m guessing that one piece purchased by someone would be enough to pay for the exorbitant rents.

Empire State Building

Our last trips had us visiting post Christmas, so this time it was nice to see the Empire State building all lit up with festive colours, instead of the cycling colours they use to herald in the new year. We were lucky that the weather wasn’t too bad – a couple of days after we left New York had that massive snowstorm that cascaded into a backlog of planes around the country.

Cooper the Cat

Finally we spent Christmas with our extended family (aunts, uncles and cousins) with the newest edition being a photogenic house cat going by the name of Cooper. I was surprised at how friendly the cat was to new people, not being particularly alarmist about us and also very interested in the camera.

We certainly ate a lot, shopped a bit and also took a trip out to Washington that I’ll write up as a separate post.

Moving Abroad

It’s almost the end of the year, and now is a good time to reveal some plans I have for next year. I am taking the whole year off from work, and I’ll be moving to Berlin for the year. The timing works out well. With work, I get a sabbatical and we negotiated that I could take the rest of the time off (without pay!) and return to work in 2015.

What would you do with 3 months off?

Many people say travel, but I do a lot of travel already and while there will always be places to travel to that I am yet to go to, I always feel the need to do something productive. Instead, I want to try living in Berlin for a year, where I will be hopefully becoming fluent in German.

I will probably post even less often here, where I will be focusing on practicing my German on my new blog here. You can follow “derkua” here but be warned it will be in German.

Back to Brazil

I spent most of November travelling, both away for holidays with the family in Taiwan, touching down in London before exchanging bags for a two week work trip in Brazil. I spent the two weeks across Recife and Porto Alegre and a bit of time in Sao Paulo transiting as there wasn’t much choice in between.

The connection from London to Recife was particularly long – at least like six or seven hours but work fortunately booked a Suite in an airport hotel where I could at least have a shower, leave my bag and get a bit of sleep if I really wanted to. Spending a few hours in this SleepApart hotel made a huge difference to making the journey not feel so tiring.

Fast Sleep Airport hotel
Picture of the hotel “room”, cosy but had a big impact

I spent lunch in the airport and then checked some of the emails that accumulated over my holiday, before reconnecting to a flight that got me into Recife.

Recife

Work had put me in the corporate apartments located about a half hour walk south of where I stayed last time. The area had more restaurants and was also very close to the beach. I met a colleague at the new office (very nice!) to pick up my keys before we went out for dinner and then headed back.

I was still several timezones ahead (Taiwan time!) so I tended to wake up very early for the next couple of days such as at 4am. Fortunately Recife is of Brazil’s sitting closest to their eastern coast meaning the sun rises really early, and consequently sets very early as well. It wasn’t unusual, that even in this summertime period, the sun would be gone by 5:30pm.

Beachside
The morning stroll by the beach

In the mornings, this meant I went for a bit of a stroll along the esplanade with all the active Brazilians doing their runs, work outs by the beach and general goissiping on the streets. I made sure to have some agua de coco (coconut water) from one of the stands each morning. Only R$3 for a freshly cut, icy cold coconut. Yum!

Coconut by the beach

Aqua de coco R$3

Having been introduced and quite addicted to the Amazonian berry, Açai, I made sure to hunt some down when I could. A colleague mentioned an ice cream store near the apartments served some and I knew some of the beach side huts would serve some too.

Açai

Açai tigale (bowl of açai) served with typically banana and granola

I unfortunately didn’t have any weekened time in Recife as I spent most of Saturday transiting over to Porto Alegre via Sao Paulo because the flight connections aren’t great between the two cities.

Porto Alegre

Work put me in a nice, safe neighbourhood that made it easy to get to work. Unfortunately on weekends, there wasn’t that much open. I did find a pretty cool cafe/restaurant that had its own skatebowl and served some local beers (and açai!)


A “strong” 6.2% local IPA. Tasty!

In my previous observation of Brazil, I noted how there’s not really any typical Brazilian look, and people often come in all sorts of shades. Porto Alegre is a little bit of a different story. Despite historically having one of the biggest slave populations, locals told me that something about the larger German and Italian immigrations into the city changed that to the point where you notice the “whiteness” the city has.

Sidenote: I also felt like I was stared at a lot in both cities as I didn’t notice many East Asian people and I felt like I stood out a bit.

Tourist ticket
Ticket for a tour bus. 25% discount using a hotel voucher

I did have the Sunday for free time, and I used that to recharge my reserves for the week (I find training, and facilitation pretty exhausting!) and managed to see the town. I took a taxi downtown to the tourist office, where the local open-air double-decker bus tours around town.

Tourist bus

The double decker bus

The tour gave me a good feel the city, and I felt was a bit of a safer option that wandering into areas I had no idea if they were close to a favela or not. It’s pretty good value, lasting about an hour and half and with good weather, made a nice trip. Unfortunately for me, the tour recording discussing some of the sites was only in Portugese!

Mate tea cup
Mate tea

I also noticed a much more local tradition of people drinking mate (pronounced ma-tay – like how you’d say satay) tea. I know of this from my time in Berlin where it’s the popular thing to drink with vodka as an alternative to redbull. You acquire a taste for it, as the tea is significantly more bitter than most other drinks. You can also spot people drinking it as you’ll often seen someone carrying around a canniser filled with hot water, and a funny looking clay or metal tea cup and a funny shaped straw.

Mate tea cups for saleMate tea cups at the market

Mate tea is a very social thing. My Brazilian colleague introduced me to it on a long bus journey to one of our away days. A person prepares the mate tea by carefully layering all the tea (it looks like grass) on one half of the cup. The other half is kept open for the straw and top ups of hot water. You drink it, refill the cup with hot water and then pass it on to the next person. On this bus journey, a group of about eight or nine people share the same mate tea cup.

On Sundays, a park quite close to downtown is filled with people socialising and laying about in the sun. They also hold a market, selling locally made crafts and clothes. The park is pretty big, with several locations also hosting live bands playing a mix of music.

Holidaying in Taiwan

Our family seems to be developing a yearly tradition of meeting somewhere in the middle between the UK and Australia to spend time together. This year our destination was Taiwan.

I didn’t know too much about the country other than it was an island, it’s well known for its food crazes and that it was of those weird territories of China. Unlike China though, I didn’t need to apply in advance for a visa. Like our trip last year, my sister did a lot of the “tour” planning working out a good balance of time with a tour guide and some free time to wander. I’ll write a bit more about the different destinations in a different post. Here I want to focus on what I discovered about the country.

After our nine day adventure I had a very different view of Taiwan. It seemed to be a lot more in touch with nature than the mainland. While China has had its number of major food scandals this year, and they are infamous for the pollution in their cities to the point where people won’t travel there in certain times of the year because it is so bad, the Taiwanese seem more if touch with where their food comes from.

Organic weeks to be a big movement and a lot of their food seems to focus on locally grown and seasonal produce meaning fresher foods, more flavour and just better quality meals.

Although taipei has some level of smog, the rest of the country appears beautifully maintained and cared for.

Vegetarians will have no problems with eating well in Taiwan. Buddhism seems more prevalent here so vegetarian restaurants are easy to find and there always seem to be at one if not more options at a restaurant. Of course there are also many great food options for omnivores because Taiwan is so well known for it.

Other things we ended up doing include the following list:

Cing Jing Farm

This farm is located high up in the mountains, making it ideal for the sheep who graze freely on the green grassy slopes. Consequentially, it’s worth watching where you step as the footpath is littered with droppings! We walked around the grassy knolls before sitting down to watch a performance from Mongolian horseback riders in a small courtyard.

Paper Factory

I wasn’t expecting this part of tour to be very exciting, but it turned out far against my expectations. The paper factory demonstrated the process of how Taiwanese paper is made (particularly by hand), talking about the different materials and what each one is used for. They even had an interactive part where we had a go at printing on some handmade paper and turning it into a fan.

Of course you can buy all sorts of paper craft to take home, but the most fascinating was the paper designed to be eaten. Crafted out of vegetable fibres, and then seasoned with various coatings such as sesame, chocolate and pepper.

Takoro National Park

We did a lot of driving around the island to get around to different parts, and a large part of this was driving through Takoro National Park. This gave us lots of opportunities for appreciating the natural scenery and many photo opportunities!

Shakadang Trail

We stopped in this particularly scenic location as it was well known as a walking trail, providing many more opportunities to connect with, and appreciate the Taiwanese landscapes.

Wood Cutting Museum

Part of Taiwan’s history includes being occupied by the Japanese. We visited a wood cutting museum that demonstrated how the Japanese set up a village dedicated to wood cutting, including the art craft of wood carving resulting in some amazing creations.

Night markets

With Taiwan being so known for its food, there is nothing more synonymous with the Taiwanese than the night markets. This is often where new foods are trialled, and you’ll often see queues of people patiently waiting for particular food stuffs. Some of the more famous items (some we tried, some we didn’t) included:

  • Oyster omelettes – Made by frying some tiny oysters, covering them with a starchy liquid that turns a bit gelatinous, fried with scrambled egg, often some lettuce and then topped with a salty brown sauce.
  • Pan fried buns – Fluffy white buns, filled with a vegetable and pork mixture and then grilled to have a crispy bottom. Beware the hot liquid that often sits waiting to explode in your mouth!
  • Stinky tofu – Not really much more to say!
  • Fried chicken cutlet – The most famous of these is the Hot Star Fried chicken, that feels like it’s almost half a chicken flattened out, breaded and crisp to perfection and then spiced with lots of pepper and some chilli powder. We had to try this one – perfectly crisp and juicy on the inside.
  • Coffin Bread – A french toast creation, deep fried and then hollowed out and filled with any choice of savoury or sweet fillings. It’s supposed to be very crunchy but I didn’t try this one.
  • Grilled corn – You’ll see lots of white and yellow corn stands around. Often BBQ-ed with some sort of sauce
  • Scallion pancake – Typically a breakfast item, this pancake is flaky, salted, and full of umami.
  • Deep fried bread and egg – Definitely not the sort of food you want to have everyday, but a fascinating process to watch made. The person at the cart typically flattens a ball of white dough, throws the pancake into a deep fryer for it to puff up. They lift it up, crack an egg into the oil before cracking the yolk that then “glues” the egg back to the bread as they put the bread back down. Seems like a pretty popular treat, and is often brushed with some sort of salty, brown paste.
  • Ice cream spring roll – A dessert, where a thin spring roll wrapper is laid out, scraped peanut brittle scattered in the middle before being rolled up with scoops of ice cream and coriander. You’ll be surprised by how well this one works!

Of course there are many other market foods worth exploring and trying. I highly recommend trying the fresh fruit stands as they are all often very flavourful, fresh and super sweet!

Even after a short time, we didn’t get to see all of the island and I’d definitely be keen on heading back again one day soon.