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Phonology

Like The Lord of the Rings, I foolishly presented you my readers with all these foreign names, but gave you no guide on how to pronounce them until the end. So, a brief guide to Romanian orthography: ş is pronounced SH, ţ as TS, and, like in Italian, "ce" and "ci" indicate a CH sound. So, the moniker of Vlad Ţepeş is "tsepesh", and Ceauşescu's name pronounced "chau-shesku". Î and â represent a sound (/ɨ/) similar (but not identical) to a short I, and ă = represents a schwa (the unstressed vowel in "about").

Orthography

There's a script I would see occasionally, particularly in religious contexts, that had a distinctive appearance; here's an example of it (slightly overdone compared to what I saw in Romania; the letter As I saw there were much easier to read):

[script]

As you can see, it's readily recognised by the form of the letter U. A tour guide of ours told us that, though it looks old, it was actually an invention of the communists. The Net of a Million Lies, however, disagrees and says this was a script used during the transitional period starting in the 1860s when Romania dropped the Cyrillic alphabet and switched to the Latin one; the letter forms were presumably intended to strike a compromise in readability for people familiar with either alphabet.

History of Romania

[Strada Vlad Ţepeş street sign]

I could point you here to a Wikipedia article, but the chances are you'd not read it, because it's too long. So here's a summary by me, written without checking Wikipedia, for the same reason.

In ancient times, Romania was inhabited by the Dacians and Getans, who may or may not have been the same people, and who may or may not have been a sub-people of the Thracians (Thrace being in modern-day Bulgaria). The modern Romanians seem proud of their Dacian heritage; I think it plays a similar role in the national founding myth to "nos ancêtres les Galles" in France.

Eventually, the Romans conquered the Dacians, but only stayed for about one hundred and fifty years before the Visigoths (on their centuries-long tour-of-Europe migration) drove them out. During the barbarian invasions of Roman territory, however, lots more Latin speakers poured for refuge into Transylvania, protected as it is on three sides by the Carpathian Mountains, and that's why Romania has a Romance tongue to this day, whereas Britain, which was Roman for twice as long, does not.

After this, there followed centuries of invasions by various Germanic tribes, then Huns (probably Alans too), Magyars and other peoples as well (can't remember who, probably Pechenegs and the like). The Saxons called the Romanised Dacians by the same word they used for the Romanised inhabitants of the lands they came to elsewhere, which is why "Wallachia" comes from the same root as "Wales", "Wallonia" and the second half of "Cornwall".

When I learn about the history of a country I'm visiting, there's often a single leader who stands out in its history, as presiding over a golden age in its history. In the case of Romania, that's probably Mircea the Elder, prince of Wallachia, grandfather of Vlad III Dracula; but even he was only ruler of part of present-day Romania. Wallachia and Bessarabia only came to be united in the mid nineteenth century, and Transylvania only became part of Romania following the removal of one third of Hungary's territory following the First World War.

Romania's borders were, however, pretty much written on water; they fluctuated back and forth over the years, such that Bessarabia is now part of Moldova and the Ukraine.

I already mentioned the coup led by King Michael I of Romania during the Second World War, which led to the country switching sides to fight the Axis powers, apparently shortening the course of the war by six months. Michael, who was forced by the communists to abdicate in 1947, is the only monarch still alive from the interwar period, and one of only three from during the War.

As for the rest, since I remember watching the fall of Ceauşescu (and indeed his execution) on TV as it happened, I'll count that as current events and not history,* and bring this history to an end here.

* If you think that's an odd view, [livejournal.com profile] papersky counts anything more recent than the fifth century as current events. That was when the Romans left Britain, on a temporary basis, so they said, to defend Rome, and she's still waiting for them to come back.

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Food

In my last blog post on this subject, I was writing about Jewish life in Romania, and finished by talking about the kosher restaurant in Braşov. Romania's not an easy country to keep kosher in if you're on holidays; there aren't many vegetarian restaurants, and most of those there are are raw food places.

This is a phenomenon I'd seen beforehand when researching veggie eateries abroad, but until now ignored in favour of more conventional restaurants. This was a luxury I wasn't able to afford in Romania.

TBH, I don't get the appeal of raw food restaurants, nor how they can succeed in a country where there's insufficient demand for vegetarian food to sustain conventional vegetarian restaurants. Of the three times I had soup in one (in two different restaurants, one of which claimed to serve both raw veggie and vegan food), two times it was served lukewarm (the final time, after I'd given up hoping otherwise, I got nice hot soup)—yet that couldn't have been on the grounds that it was "raw"; you can't prepare soup (apart from the likes of gazpacho) without cooking it, otherwise what you have is vegetables or pulses floating in water.

The main courses available at the place in Braşov we went to were nice enough; that at the place in Bucharest was a bit of an effort to get through. All the raw good places I saw advertised online showed beautiful desserts (chocolate cakes, etc), enough to make one think that raw food wasn't so bad... but when we actually tried them out, none of them lived up to their promise.

*shrug* Well, it's past now; I'm not going back to such a place until the next time I have no choice. :-S

Aside from that, I did get to try a few Romanian specialities (including at the shul meals in Bucharest). Can't remember much about them, but they were nice.

Speaking of which, one thing we were introduced to in Transylvania I haven't until now mentioned is the Kürtőskalács, a "spit bread" according to Wikipedia, which means a hollow cylinder of dough baked with sugar on the outside, to which [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m took a great shine. Wikipedia says they are "specific to Hungarian-speaking regions in Romania, more predominantly the Szekely land". You might recognise the name of the Szekelys, as I did, from Dracula, which brings me nicely onto the subject of:

Vlad Ţepeş

Of course, I couldn't write an account of holidaying in Romania without mentioning its most infamous son (I think in the long run he'll be remembered whilst Ceauşescu gets relegated to a footnote in history).

Vlad III Ţepeş ("the Impaler") was of course brought to international attention by Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula; however, if you read Dracula, you'll get a rather false impression of the man himself. For a start, Dracula was not prince of Transylvania but of Wallachia; but Wallachia is flatland, and rather boring scenery. Stoker wanted mountains and spooky forests for his novel, so he moved the location of Dracula's castle.

Today, Dracula is associated with Bran Castle, a short distance southwest from Braşov, but a long way from either Dracula's principality of Wallachia or from the Borgo Pass, where Stoker sets his novel (it is at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, but the Carpathians form a horseshoe shape, and this is on the other side of the horseshoe).

It turns out that the connection of Bran Castle with Dracula, aside from the fact he might have visited it once, was manufactured in the second half of the last century by the Americans, who noticed that Bran Castle has a circular tower and a square tower, which made it a good match for Castle Dracula in the novel, and therefore a good tourist selling point. We'll just have to ignore the fact that Castle Dracula is described as being at the edge of a long ridge high above the forest, with steep cliffs on three sides, whereas Bran Castle is on a small hill only a few metres above the Transylvanian plain.

Oh well. Well, they know in Romania that Dracula is a good tourist sell nowadays. I suspect that the natives are probably sick of the name, but the shops in Bran and at Bucharest airport are full of Dracula merchandise, with everything from kitsch T-shirts to bottles of Draquila.

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Sibiu

From Braşov, we went on trips into the surrounding countryside, to climb the mountain above the ski resort of Pioana Braşov, and hike on the Babele tableland nearly 2300m above sea level. On one trip we passed through a forest lapping the feet of the Carpathians; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father informed us that in his parents' days this used to be the haunt of highwaymen, who would chop down trees so they crossed the road, then hold up travellers when they found their way blocked and demand money to let them proceed on their way.

Fortunately, no such incident befell us on our excursion to Sibiu, or Hermannstadt, which, as the German name gives away is another of the Siebenbürgen. 2500 Saxons originally came to Hermannstadt, but only 100 survived the Magyar conquest.

Like Braşov, Sibiu has a picturesque old centre, but we were lucky still to be able to visit it today: Ceauşescu planned to raze the lot, and only the fact the revolution happened first saved it.

As a cohen, I can't go into churches where there are people buried; kudos to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents for doing the research first to discover whether this was actually the case before taking me into any. As a result of this research, I learned two interesting things: Firstly, burying people in churches is a western Christian thing; they don't do it in Orthodox churches. (Romania is split between Orthodoxy, Catholicism and (in Saxon areas) Lutheranism.) And secondly, like Britain, Romania passed legislation in the nineteenth century prohibiting burial indoors; however, unlike Britain it seems they actually exhumed all bodies that were already buried in churches. In some cases, the tombstones were left in place in the church floor; in other cases, they were subsequently mounted on the walls. In one case, the bodies were reinterred beneath a flowerbed outside the church. ("So that's why the roses are growing so well," I commented.)

After Sibiu, we had planned to see Sighișoara (Schäßburg), another pretty Saxon town, but [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m preferred to go hiking in the mountains instead. Her parents asked my opinion, but I said this holiday was all about her family, and I was just tagging along, so I would go with whatever she preferred.

Jewish life

As Jews travelling abroad, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I are always on the lookout for sites of Jewish interest and synagogues. Romania was unusual for a communist country in that it let Jews who wanted to emigrate (such as [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents) go, provided they went to Israel. Of course; once they did so, there was nothing keeping them there; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father stuck it out for a few years, her mother headed instead for Germany, where, thanks to her education in Braşov, she already spoke the language.

As a result, the community is considerably shrunken today. We found the shul in Tulcea in the Danube delta; I believe it's still functioning, but we didn't get to meet the community.

In Constanţa the small community was still meeting in the synagogue as recently as 1996 according to Wikipedia, but maintenance was paid for by the state, and after the revolution in 1990, the money dried up, and now the roof has fallen in (and Wikipedia says anything not nailed to the floor has been looted). I went to have a look from the outside; [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m said it was too depressing and chose not to join me.

What was surprising was the number of Israelis we met all over Romania: it's a cheap and not too distant holiday destination for them. Our tour guide in Bucharest told us he frequently has Jewish clients exploring their family roots in Romania. As it happens, the other two people on [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and my tour, a young American couple, turned out also to be Jewish; and went ended up spending a half-hour break at a café entirely schmoozing and playing Jewish geography.

As a result of the small Jewish population but prevalence of Israelis, non-Jewish Romanians seem to have a worse problem than in other countries of keeping the concepts of Jewish and Israeli separate.

In Bucharest, there are several synagogues, but only one still functioning, the cathedral synagogue Templul Coral (the name means "choral", not "coral"). Furthermore, while in the rest of the Jewish world, only progressive denominations call their synagogues temples, because for Orthodoxy and Masorti/Conservative Judaism, the only Temples were the two in Jerusalem, Romania seems to be like Italy in that even Orthodox synagogues are called temples. At least one of the other synagogues has been converted to use as a museum, but we didn't go there.

When we wrote asking about Shabbos meals, the community in Bucharest (which was Ashkenazi but דרפס חסונ in rite) invited us to join us for both Friday night and Shabbos lunch. At the end of the Friday night service, a boy of about twelve called Joseph went up to the bimah to drink the kiddush wine, following which the congregation sang "siman tov umazal tov" to him, so we assumed he was about to be barmitzvahed. It turned out, however, that he had rather just had his bris (circumcision, which is normally done at the age of eight days amongst Jews): ulp! The community made a bit of a fuss over him over the course of Shabbos, and I'm not surprised!

In Braşov there were according to two synagogues according to Wikipedia, one Neolog and one Orthodox. (Neolog is an indigenous Hungarian denomination (Transylvania used to be part of Hungary until the end of the First World War) just to the left of Orthodoxy, but which affiliates with Masorti Olami.) The Orthodox one had closed (we looked for it but couldn't find it) and the Neolog one is now Orthodox in practice. We davened there on Shabbos morning, but they didn't have a Friday night service that week. There's also a kosher restaurant in Braşov, but it's only open on weekdays, and until four o'clock, so we didn't eat there.

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Braşov

After Bucharest, we headed north to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's mother's hometown of Braşov. This is one of the Siebenbürgen (Seven Castles) built by Saxon colonists in Transylvania early last millennium as defence against the Magyars and Tatars.

It's only since I started going out with [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m that I became aware German traders founded colonies right the way across Europe in the Middle Ages, deep into Russia. As well as the Saxons, there was also a later settlement of Swabians in Transylvania. Today as well as the Siebenbürgen, there are a string of villages with traditional Saxon architecture across Transylvania.

Following World War II, in which most of the countries with German colonies had suffered under Nazi invasion and occupation, the Germans were expelled from most of them (into a homeland and culture their ancestors had generally not lived in for centuries—one of the less known stories of the immediately postwar period).

Romania, however, escaped German invasion, and the Germans were allowed to remain. Most fled following the revolution after the fall of communism, though; there (are 1000 according to our tour guide and according to Wikipedia there) were 36,884 in 2011, down from 300,000 before the revolution (and a high of 745k in 1930). Unlike other countries I've visited like the Czech Republic, where German was once the prestige language but since the War, it's been entirely displaced by Czech, in Transylvania they are not only au fait but indeed proud of their German heritage; there were lots of signs and shops referring to Braşov by its German name of Kronstadt (not to be confused with the fortress of the same name off the coast of St Petersburgx).

However, between 1950 and 1960 the city was known as Stalin City. I was astonished to discover the name lasted so long after Krushchev's denouncement of Stalin, but a quick check reveals the name Stalingrad also lasted until then.

The city has a picturesque centre, and a spur of the Carpathian mountains extends into the middle of the city, heavily forested and adorned with a light-up sign reading BRASOV. (We thought the city had delusions of being the new Hollywood, but when we visited a hilltop fortress Râşnov, we found it was similarly adorned.)

In the city centre, we found a café done up as an old pharmacy named Doctor Jekelius, after the chemist who set up Braşov's first pharmacy on the site. Hang on a tic, I thought: Jekelius... I wonder whether Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll (or the real-life Jekyll he was named after) had Romanian roots...

To be still further continued...

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The Black Sea

From the Danube delta we travelled south to Mamaia for a few days on the beach at the Black Sea. In the evenings we would pass a stall selling Turkish icecream, where they were mixing it with a long and stout metal pole and lots of elbow grease; the stuff appeared to have more the consistency of a thick paste than what one expects of icecream. [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m declared she had to try it. Apparently the taste was unexceptional, but it was worth it for the entertainment vale of the way the seller handed it over to us, repeatedly leaving [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m unexpectedly empty-handed whilst the icecream instead hung upside down from the metal pole, or had been deftly transferred in a second cone leaving the one [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m was holding empty.

Mamaia is just north of the city of Constanţa, which is where the Roman poet Ovid was exiled in the first century. (I remember learning in Latin class in school about how he complained about being sent to a half-barbaric place at the edge of the empire, where the natives were so un-Roman as to wear trousers.) Constanţa is proud of the connection with him; there's a statue of him in the big square in the centre of the old town, which is now named Ovid Square, and the town outside Constanţa where Ovid died has been renamed Ovidiu. I myself met an Ovidiu whilst I was there; presumably it's a popular name in the area.

Actually, Ovid's not the only Roman connection that Romania has; when Romania was created as a country in the nineteenth century it took, on account of the Romance language spoken there, the name by which what we now call the Roman Empire was known in antiquity. In central Bucharest there's a reproduction of the famous statue of the Capitoline wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (which Wikipedia tells me was a gift from Italy to Romania a century ago), and I also saw other representations of the statue in Bucharest.

Bucharest

From the Black Sea, we travelled to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's father's old stomping grounds in Bucharest. Bucharest is barely on the radar at all today when one thinks of great European capitals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but apparently there was a time when it was known as the Paris of the east, and there's a lot of grandiose architecture dating from that time there.

Of course, since then it spent a time as the capital of a communist period, which left its own mark on the city. For example, as Bucharest grew (it's much bigger nowadays than it was at the end of the war), the sewerage system was unable to deal with the growth in population, and the river became effectively an open sewer running through the city. The communist authorities didn't have the technology to clean up the water properly before discharging it into the river, so they instead split the river into two layers: the lower layer, hidden from sight, is still little more than a sewer, but sitting on top of that is a nice clean waterway of only a fraction of the depth of the original.

Speaking of communist management, we learned of a couple of mind-boggling incidents during our tour of the city, whilst viewing the outside of the Palace of the People (the second largest administrative building in the world, second only to the Pentagon, commissioned by Ceauşescu but not finished until after his fall—and which Rupert Murdoch tried, unsuccessfully, to buy after the revolution to turn into a casino)... but unfortunately I've forgotten the details. :-(

One was that upon an occasion, perhaps marking some anniversary, a famous American said something about Romania which the communist authorities took great liking to; they printed it on the byline of the most prestigious newspaper in Romania for two weeks... and then they worked out he was being sarcastic; so they managed (under pain of criminal punishment) to recall all issues of the newspaper, nation-wide, that had been issued during that fortnight, to destroy the evidence of their culpability.

(The other story was similar, but I can't remember any of it.)

To be further continued...

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I'm not in the habit of blogging about my holidays, but because I was a little off the beaten track this year, and I want to record my feelings whilst they're still fresh, I am going to make this an exception.

[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m's parents have been wanting to take her to their native Romania for years, and I've been interested in seeing the places they and, in some cases, their ancestors, came from. (I've never yet been to any of the places my ancestors hailed from, though [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and I might before long go for a weekend in Hanover—the only place in western Europe from which I have any ancestry (my father's mother's mother's father)).

Romania seems largely to be at present a holiday destination mostly for its own nationals; I only heard two British voices the whole time I was there (and not that many other English-speaking ones).

The country was, of course, part of the communist bloc until 1990, and only joined the EU relatively recently, and it shows signs of being a little backwards in attitudes and developments compared to other European countries. For example, from time to time when driving between cities, we would pass horses and carts on the road, and one time also a man transporting firewood by bicycle. There's also no motorway, and not even any bypasses, on the road leading north from Bucharest towards Braşov.

(It was also an unusual sight for us, but commonplace in Wallachia, to see large storks' nests perched on top of lamp-posts in the countryside.)

Regarding attitudes, we were slightly shocked to see a heavily pregnant woman smoking, and just about every taxi driver we used spoke on, or consulted the satnav of, his handheld mobile whilst driving; at least one taxi driver also had put the fold-forward rear seat of his car back into place in such a way as to prevent his passengers putting on seatbelts.

We got the impression corruption is endemic in Romania, and the EU struggles to stamp it out.

Politically, we noticed graffitti everywhere reading "Basarabia e România" (Bessarabia is Romania), Bessarabia being a region formerly part of Romania and currently constituting most of Moldavia and a small part of the Ukraine. I have no idea what Bessarabians feel how this; at any rate, I strongly suspect it ain't going to happen.

The Danube Delta

We started off our holiday with a boat trip in the Danube delta. This reminded me very much of the Florida Everglades, which I visited twenty-six years ago... but without the alligators. At places in the delta there are pelican colonies; it was astonishing to see flocks of birds in the sky and then realise they're much larger, and much further off, than one might have thought, and that all the distant dots are pelicans.

Also in the delta were Lipovan villages: the descendants of Russian religious refugees who came to the area in the eighteenth century. <gets distracted reading about Old Believers>

To be continued...
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Whilst wandering the flea-markets of South Africa, all the vendors whose stalls I went past would greet me with "How are you?" I suspect this was intended as phatic, but I didn't know how to respond without being drawn into conversation, and would have to extricate myself from conversation multiple times whilst looking around the market, a rather wearying process. Amongst other quintessentially South African things being sold at such stalls were the most gorgeous beaded animal figurines. I fell in love with them and had to restrain myself from buying more than I could easily then transport home.

South Africa is apparently now the most xenophobic nation in the world, the reason for which is the large number of refugees trying to reach the most prosperous and free country in Africa, including a substantial proportion of the population of Zimbabwe. That's not so surprising, but to my surprise there's also a substantial Nigerian community there.
On my final day in South Africa, I went on a boat trip to Robben Island, the penal colony where Nelson Mandela spent most of his time imprisoned. In the same way that going from Gauteng province to Cape Town revealed centuries of earlier history than I was exposed to in the north, visiting Robben Island did the same again: Although Cape Town was not founded until 1652, there had been an intermittent European presence on Robben Island since the fifteenth century.

In fact, the earliest white, as opposed to European presence in South Africa was over two thousand years earlier. As Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells us, a Egyptian pharaoh once commissioned Phoenician sailors to find out if Africa really could be circumnavigated. They sailed down the Red Sea and Indian Ocean until they were running low on provisions, then landed, planted crops, and waited to harvest them before continuing. After three years of doing the same, they arrived back at the Pillars of Hercules. Herodotus tells us he doesn't believe this story because they reported that as they went around Africa the sun crossed the sky on their right-hand side; for us, of course, knowing what it's actually like in the southern hemisphere, this counts as proof that it really happened.

What bothered me more than the sun crossing the sky in the north was the fact it went in the wrong direction: I would position my chair so it stayed in the sun, then find twenty minutes later I was in the shade, because the sun was not moving what before the invention of clocks was called in English sunwise. Although I was only in South Africa for a fortnight, it took me months to get the confusion out of my system afterwards.

Anyhow, Robben Island. It had been used as a penal colony by the Dutch, then later as a leper colony by the British. There's also the mausoleum (kramat) there of a famous Islamic scholar (Hadje Abdurahman Moturu).

As well as Nelson Mandela, the island served as prison for other famous anti-apartheid campaigners, notably Robert Sobukwe; when he had served his three year sentence (elsewhere) the government deemed him too much of a risk to release and passed a law, which happened with no other protester, to keep him in indefinite detention. He was kept in solitary confinement, in a section apart from the other prisoners, though his wife and family were allowed to visit him (being housed in what had originally been dog kennels).

Mandela and the other prisoners were forced to perform hard labour. We saw the quarry where they worked; a cave in it was used as a latrine, and was where they used to have political meetings: it was the only place where they would not be overheard. Of course, the site of maximum interest, which everyone had to photograph, was Mandela's cell; the lack of interest in all the other cells around reminded me of the crowds around the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, whilst entire reconstructed Assyrian palaces around languished almost unvisited.

A photo of a Red Cross visit showed half of the prisoners performing hard labour―breaking rocks into small pieces―while the other half made baskets, thus giving the impression there was an alternative to hard labour. In fact, the basket-making had been put on entirely for the Red Cross (a scenario uncomfortably reminiscent of what happened when the Red Cross visited Therisienstadt); as soon as they had gone, the basket-makers were sent back to hard labour.
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During my time in Cape Town I went on a tour of the Cape Peninsula. Something I didn't know at all until I started researching South Africa is that the world is divided into five floral kingdoms, each featuring a different collection of plants making up its ecology. Most of these floral kingdoms span continents, but there's one that's entirely located in the southern tip of South Africa, separated by mountain ranges from the rest of Africa. It's called fynbos in Afrikaans, and the thing which really leaps out about fynbos vegetation when you look at it is the absence of grasses: A field of fynbos is densely-packed shrubs from one end to the other; there's nothing small and low-growing like grass to break it up like we're used to.

The most famous fynbos plant is the protea, which is the national flower of South Africa. Unfortunately, it was autumn when I went, and all the proteas had finished flowering months ago. Indeed, though the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens came highly recommended to me, by the time of year I got there there were no flowers to be seen at all, and they were really slightly boring except to the hardcore botanist.

However, when I was showing [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m my photos, she spotted that a flower I'd photographed growing halfway up Table Mountain was in fact a protea. I have no idea why this protea was still flowering so long after the others.

Anyhow, back to the cape peninsula. We started down the west (atlantic) coast; at Llandudno, the guide told me I was the only non-Welsh person he'd had to correct him on the pronunciation. I suspect people like [livejournal.com profile] papersky would be driven nuts living somewhere with a Welsh name pronounced as if it were English.

On the east (False Bay) coast, we stopped at Boulders, where there is a penguin colony. These are African penguins, a different species from those of South America and Antarctica. They used to be called jackass penguins, because of the braying noise they make, but as the guide said, today it's politically incorrect to call even a penguin a jackass. (Actually, it's because a South American penguin brays like a donkey too.)

Other interesting fauna en route were baboons. I did not see any baboons, but I did see a baboon spotter, who is paid to sit by the side of the road in a hi-vis jacket with a paint gun. Left to their own devices, baboons will snatch handbags from tourists and run away to completely inaccessible places before discarding it on discovering it's got no food in it (and tough on you if your passport and wallet are inside). Paint guns dissuade them nicely: any baboon who gets covered in paint drops to the bottom of the social order, and alpha males are not prepared to risk it.

Also whilst on fauna, the Cape of Good Hope is one of the very few places where you can see ostriches by the seaside. Ostriches do not naturally come from anywhere by the ocean, but they have been introduced here and are flourishing.

The Cape of Good Hope supposedly divides the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Actually, this is oversimplistic; the oceans merge over the distance of a hundred miles or so. Nevertheless, it is true that on the west side of the peninsula the water is very cold, being brought by the Benguela current up from the southernmost waters of the Atlantic Ocean, whereas on the east side it's warmer, being brought from the east by the Agulhas current in the Indian Ocean. However, the fact the east side is also in the shallow False Bay may have something to do with it. (And if you're wondering, it's called False Bay because sailors sailing west would mistake it for Table Bay which they hadn't reached yet.)

The peninsula is double-pronged; the Cape is on the western prong and ever so slightly further south (but not actually the southernmost point in Africa, much the same way Gibraltar is not actually the southernmost point in Spain). The eastern prong is Cape Point, at the highest point on which is a lighthouse. Unfortunately, for *mumble*ty-*mumble* days each year, the lighthouse is enshrouded in cloud; tragically, it took a shipwreck in which people lost their lives before the government consented to build another lighthouse further down.

View piccy )


Cape Point viewed from near the upper lighthouse
Picture taken from here

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The Jewish Museum in Cape Town told the story of the Jews in South Africa. 80% of them came from Lithuania, including some far-flung branches of my own family. During the middle of the twentieth century, the apartheid government used the pretense of slum clearance to tear down a mixed-race neighbourhood in Cape Town called District Six. This has gone down as an infamous event in the history of apartheid, but because many of those living alongside the blacks were Jewish―the area was one of poor immigrants, much like the east end of London (or the west end of Newcastle)―this event also left its mark on the Jewish community.

Without wanting to ask intrusive questions, I was intrigued to learn about the attitude of the Jews in South Africa. In Johannesburg, the owner of the kosher B&B where I was staying had a black domestic to help run the place. He said he now probably knew more about kashrus (Jewish dietary law) than he did! The Masorti shul I attended had several black members; much to my amusement, I discovered the whites, pretty much to a man, greeted one with "Gut Shabbos" (in Yiddish) and the blacks with "Shabbat shalom" (in Hebrew).

However, both the synagogues I attended were marked by an almost complete absence of young people; this, I adduced, was because most of them now live within a couple of miles of me. (After the rise in crime levels following the end of apartheid, much of the young South African Jewish community left, and many of those seem to have settled in the Jewish parts of London.)

In the Jewish Museum I learned that half of all the whites who stood trial alongside Nelson Mandela (and others) in the treason trial of the 1950s were Jewish, and all of the whites who stood trial alongside him in the Rivonia trial of the 1960s were Jewish. As a result of this, the nationalists started questioning the loyalty of the Jewish community to the country, and, I'm ashamed to say, the Board of Deputies of South African Jews responded by publically distancing itself from anti-apartheid activity, a move reminiscent of the Board of Deputies of British Jews telling people to stay at home during the fascist march through the east end of London in 1936 (which, of course, a large number of young Jews ignored, leading to the Battle of Cable Street). Not until the 1980s did the (South African) Board of Deputies finally come out against apartheid.

At least some dismissive attitude towards the blacks remains to some extent, I do not know how much, amongst the Jewish community today: on telling somebody I was working with the SABC, they replied, "No one watches the SABC." On questioning, I discovered this was because only 20% of its programming was in English. I can't remember now whether I pointed out that since only 20% of the nation's population was white, this seemed to me like a reasonable level of English-language programming, now English and Afrikaans are no longer being forced on the rest of the population. (On a map I saw online, Johannesburg was the only place in the country where English was a majority language, but everyone I encountered everywhere was able to speak it as a second or third language.) At any rate, for this person the 80% who spoke other languages, who might find programmes for them on the SABC evidently did not count as "anyone".
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Previously when I was blogging about South Africa, I got as far as my safari because I had told Jacques the park ranger at Madikwe I would be recommending him by name; then other things came along and I forgot about it.

A while ago I started writing South Africa blog posts again, but managed to lose them. (I've a nasty suspicion I wrote them on my work machine then blatted over them unzipping my home filespace.) I had the following posts written, but it's taken me a while to come back and fill the gap.

Arriving in Cape Town, I found myself in a city with a much older European history than Johannesburg. Cape down goes back to the mid seventeenth century, when it was founded as a refreshment stop on the journey to the Far East for the Dutch East India Company; and the Company Gardens go back to only a few years after the foundation. Originally vegetable gardens, they are now a nice little park in the centre of town, complete with a statue of Cecil Rhodes pointing north with the caption "Your hinterland is there."

In the early years, all European settlement was restricted to within the walls of the Cape Fort, which was then on the coast but due to land reclamation now some way inland. On the hour when I was there soldiers marched out in historical uniforms (their leader flourishing a sword) to ring the bell to announce ten o'clock. The soldiers were all coloured nowadays; somehow I doubt that's representative of the period their costumes indicate... but OTOH denying coloured or black soldiers this role today would be indefensible racial discrimination, of course.

Cape Town is dominated, of course, by Table Mountain. When I went to Gibraltar, I wrote:
it would appear that gibraltar is frequently cloudy even when the surrounding areas of spain are sunny. I thought this must be because the rock forces the air flowing over it to rise and cool, making the water vapour condense out into clouds; but I am told by a Spaniard that the real reason Gibraltar is frequently cloudy is actually because it's British.
Table Mountain suffers similar cloud on the top; endearingly, the locals call it the Tablecloth.

I'd intended to get the cable car to the top of it, but the first time I turned up, on my city tour, the clouds were barely higher than the lower cable car station, and the second time the cable car was shut due to high winds; so I decided to walk. I took a taxi to the foot of the Platteklip Gorge trail, at the level of the lower cable car station (halfway up the mountain); as I approached the trail, a man ran out from a hut checking I had enough water (which I didn't really; he said I could refill my bottle from the waterfall), and, reassuring me there were people ahead of and behind me. He gave me a pamphlet, which said you should only climb in parties of at least four. I thought this was that so that if you ran into trouble―say one person got vertigo or had a medical emergency―one person could stay with them whilst the others went for help. Actually, it turns out the reason was to deter potential muggers. Anyhow, I fell in with an old but very fit Czech couple, and climbed the rest of the way with them, and was glad in the end I'd gone up the mountain the hard way.

When I'd got to the top and had a wander around, taking photos and reading the placards, I found the cable car had opened, and took it down, knowing my dicky knee would not appreciate the descent. I suspect most people who take the cable car one way only take it up and then walk down; those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn I was once again the contrarian!
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On Sunday last week, Sam Borin and I cycled coast to coast to raise money for charity. Despite scrutinising maps beforehand, we ended up partially working out a route on the fly:

Read report and view piccies )

[Jane at Tynemouth]

It had taken me eleven hours since we left Boustead Hill on the Solway Firth, and I had cycled 92½ miles (making it the longest ride I've ever done by 17½ miles), including about twelve miles just to get to the starting line. My total mileage in the Monday to Sunday week (not the way I normally measure it, which uses Shabbos as the divider) was 145 miles.

In total it took thirteen hours from when Sam and I left the house to catch the train to Carlisle, and as you can see from the photos below I was beginning to run out of daylight by the end. And more importantly, perhaps, I had raised £1067 (or £1275 including Gift Aid) for three worthy charities. (Indeed, I still have a couple of promised donations to come in, so the final total will be a bit higher.)

I'd described this as being the longest and hardest cycle I'd ever done; surprisingly, it was the first of these but not the latter. In the run-up to my ride I'd been drinking protein shakes immediately after cycling home from work (to take advantage of the "protein window" that closes about three quarters of an hour after exercise). At the time I hadn't felt these were doing me any good, but, maybe due to these, maybe due to the energy bars I took with me on the ride, I didn't "hit the wall" as I had done on my Berwick to Newcastle ride. Although going uphill became difficult after I'd reached Prudhoe, there was no point at which I had to stop and collapse and hope my energy came back after.

Moreover, probably as a result of the protein shake (my last) I had immediately after completing the ride, it didn't take me as long to recover from the ride as it had after my Berwick ride. Monday I needed to recover (but in any case, wouldn't have been cycling as I was returning to London); Tuesday I didn't cycle to work, because I was fasting (it was Tisha BeAv), but I was able to do the three mile round trip to shul, including climbing three hills, that evening; and on Wednesday I was back cycling to work (though the ascent of Hampstead hill did seem harder than normal).

One last thing that needs saying is the need to pay credit to Sam, who, after my waterbottles fell out of my saddle bag ten miles in (my saddlebag doesn't close properly, and needed to be mounted at a funny angle to fit on my father's bike without hitting the wheel or the brakes), gallantly offered to take my stuff in his pannier, so I didn't have to do the whole ride sweating into a bag on my back, which would have been horrible. When I said that this would increase the weight he would have to carry, he pointed out that he was thirteen years younger than me, and fitter, and if it slowed him down, then it was fair as we'd end up going at roughly the same pace (though in actuality, he still ended up leading me most of the way). Sam, you're a star, and thank you very much for doing this.

Which only leaves now the question of how I can top this? Edinburgh to Newcastle perhaps? Well, not until next summer, at any rate, and I'm not going to even think about it in the meantime!

[FWIW, there are higher resolution versions of all the photos viewable on Facebook.]

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Safari essentially consists of driving around the bush looking to see what we could find (and occasionally being radioed by other cars telling us where animals could be found). During my time at Madikwe, I saw, and got photographs of, elephant and zebra (both on my route into the reserve, before I even started my safari proper), impala, kudu, yellow-billed and grey-billed hornbills, warthog, leopard*, lions, springbok, spotted thickknee, blue wildebeest (aka brindled gnu), jackal (which are surprisingly cute), kori bustard, giraffe, red-billed oxpecker (a bird which sits on giraffes and other large animals and eats their ectoparasites), ostrich, goshawk, shrike, chameleon, babboons, European roller, grey go-away bird and white-chested snake eagle, plus a few birds I didn't catch the name of. I also saw, but was not able to get a photograph of, an owl, mongoose, rhino and vervet monkey. Slightly to my disappointment, I did not get to see hyaena, and the only buffalo I saw had died a week ago and largely been eaten by leopard.

* At a great distance; I needed to borrow binoculars to see it properly. It was sitting on rocks on the side of a hill overlooking the plain, which offered it the twin advantages of a nice warm place to sit in the late afternoon as the rocks had been heated by the sun, and a good view out over the plain in search of dinner. (Later, I encountered other animals lying on the airstrip at night, also because it was nice and warm.)

† But I wasn't too bothered, as I'd already had a close encounter with what turned out to be one of a handful of wild leopard left in Israel in 1992.

Most animals ignored the humans―sometimes too much: When I left, there were zebras on the airstrip. The pilot of my microlight taxied down the runway to drive them off, but by the time he'd got to the bottom, they'd wandered back on. "It's going to be one of those days," he said. When sitting in an open jeep mere yards away from a couple of lions, I'd have been worried had I not I recalled Sir David Attenborough, in The Life of Mammals about ten years ago, saying, in similar circumstances (but at night), "No one knows why lions do not simply go into jeeps and take the occupants out, but they never do."

The exception to this general complacency was the elephants. The elephants in this reserve were Zimbabwean; faced with constant pressure from poachers, they had been translocated in a massive operation to Madikwe about twenty years ago. That's a long time, but an elephant never forgets, and these ones were still aggressive towards humans. In my first encounter with one, the elephant tried to get too close to my jeep. "Uh-uh," Jacques said in no uncertain terms, waggling his finger, and the elephant backed off.

Two days later, however, when he did the same to the elephant cow whose older calf had just run towards us waggling his ears, the elephant did not back off, even when he revved the engine. You have to be stern with elephants, Jacques later said. Back down once and they'll trample all over you in future (figuratively speaking). But he judged having a jeep full of tourists was not the right time for a confrontation, so he began to reverse down the twisty-turny path through the bush we had come along.

The elephant responded by speeding up. Jacques began to reverse faster, and it rapidly became a race for us to accelerate backwards faster than the elephant could speed up―not an insignificant task when you have to look backward to navigate the bends of the track whilst simultaneously keeping an eye on the elephant in front. But Jacques never lost his cool, not even when getting blood drawn after being whipped by the thorn bushes on the side, and losing his cap. I have one photo of the elephant before all this started; once we started reversing, I put my camera down and concentrated on holding on with both hands―I didn't want to risk being thrown out of the jeep immediately before the elephant reached it!

Eventually, the elephant stopped and we reached the point where we had turned off onto that path. "Can we not do that again?" whimpered a woman in the back. Jacques said he'd have to go back the next day to teach the elephant a lesson, to reassert his authority... and to retrieve his cap. And then the elephant started coming towards us again.

This time, at least, we were facing forwards, and on a straight road. The elephant, meanwhile, was still in the bush, so you'd have thought would have been disadvantaged. Not a bit of it―if trees or bushes were in the way, she just charged straight through them. Over the following day, I learned to recognise the damage―broken branches and the like―that signified an elephant had been this way beforehand. It took a surprising amount of time, but we did finally manage to leave the elephant behind.

Later, Jacques told us that a couple of tourists had been killed in the Kruger National Park when an elephant turned their car over. But, he said, that was because you could take private cars into the Kruger. We were in no such danger here, because a jeep is too heavy for an elephant to overturn.

The next day, we went back to retrieve Jacques' cap. When we'd last seen it, it had been lying on the ground. After a bit of searching back and forth, we finally found it hanging up on a thorn bush. It seemed the elephants had picked it up and been playing with it!

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After Johannesburg, I went on safari. When I first talked about going on holiday in South Africa, people recommended me to go to the Kruger National Park, but I didn't want to go to a malarial area. True, one can take prophylactic tablets, but that would interfere with my ability to give blood thereafter for a period, and in any case the advice to keep indoors at dawn and dusk, and sleep under mosquito netting, freaked me out. So, instead, I went to a game reserve called Madikwe on the Botswanan border.

(Indeed, it's only about twenty miles from the Botswanan capital, Gaborone, and at one point on safari, my mobile 'phone actually thought I was in Botswana, and sent me a text saying "You have travelled to a country where you will not be able to make calls from your mobile. You will still be able to receive calls (149ppm) and send texts (40p)"―which made even the roaming charges in South Africa seem reasonable.)

Lying alongside the border, Madikwe suffers the same problem as the Kruger, which is of people trying to infiltrate the border―South Africa, as the richest country in the region, is very attractive to refugees―and, after cutting through two chain-link fences (one of which was the reserve boundary) thinking they'd made it, and ploughing onwards, only to realise a mile or two later that they're inside a game reserve and surrounded by wild lions.

I can thoroughly recommend Madikwe to anyone who's contemplating going on safari in South Africa. All of the big five game animals are represented there. (They're called the big five not because they're the most impressive, but because they were the hardest to shoot, back in the day... which "day", to my astonishment, was still going on twenty years ago. But they didn't entirely coincide with the animals I was most interested in seeing, so I'll not bother listing them here.) The big difference from the Kruger National Park, however, is that in Madikwe they take measures to keep the animals from being overwhelmed by the tourists. In the Kruger, apparently, it's not unusual to see a lion being surrounded by ten jeeps. In Madikwe the cars radio between each other, and keep the number of jeeps down to just three at any time, or even just two for the more shy animals such as leopard.

I will also make a strong recommendation for the park ranger I had there, Jacques Neizel, who worked at Madikwe Safari Lodge (one of several different lodges in the reserve). An ex-army man, he is passionate about wildlife and how best to engage with it, not to mention capable of reversing at speed down a twisty unpaved path whilst being charged by an angry elephant (I'll come to that later).

[personal profile] snjstar's parents recommended me a different lodge in the park, where, they said, you could get the genuine bush experience: There is no running water, and you have to fetch it each day, and your accommodation is not much better than camping. That was a bit too basic for me, but unfortunately there was nothing in between that and the rather expensive luxurious, particularly if you're staying as a singleton. So, my accommodation cost me an arm and a leg, but I got a little cottage all to myself, including outdoor (as well as indoor) shower and outdoor plunge pool. The meals were similarly luxurious, the other guests all considerably older than me except for one woman who was there with her fifteen-year-older husband, and I felt rather out of my social league.

However, I was not allowed on my own at night: between dusk and dawn, I had to be accompanied between my room and the eating area, presumably because of the danger of snakes or scorpions on the path.

The safari day started with a wake-up call at 5:30am, followed by breakfast at 6. By 6:30 we'd be ready to leave for our first drive of the day, which would return mid-morning, thus avoiding the heat of the day. At 3:30 tea was served, followed by the afternoon safari starting at 4. We'd continue driving outwards until sunset, then return at night, with the ranger illuminating the way with a big lamp and the Milky Way and Large Magellanic Cloud in their glory overhead. (There was no light pollution at all, which was slightly surprising with a city the size of Edinburgh just twenty miles away; but evidently Gaborone is not well lit.)

A couple of hours after departing on the morning safari, and around sunset, our ranger would stop the jeep and serve us drinks, for which he'd get out table and tablecloth, and put out dishes of nibbles to boot. It was then that I was introduced to the pleasure of a shot of Amarula in my coffee. Amarula is a cream liqueur made from the marula fruit. The bottle says, "Africa's majestic elephants walk for miles to feast on the sun-ripened marula fruit which is indigenous to the region's vast subsequatorial plains." However, I can safely state that when I got charged by that elephant, it wasn't because I had a bottle of Amarula in my hand!

(I bought a bottle to come back with me; after I got back home, I was a little disappointed, on trying it out neat (rather than in coffee) to discover it tasted indistinguishable from Bailey's. It does have the advantage, though, of having no whiskey in it therefore being kosher for Pesach. :o))

I've split the post here, as it's a rather long one, and will post the second half tomorrow...

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Johannesburg started life a century ago after gold was discovered there. Today, around the city you can see slag heaps from the mining, like this:

View piccy )

What's not obvious from this photo is that the soil in Johannesburg is actually red. The yellow colour of the slag heap actually derives from gold. A century ago it was unprofitable to extract the gold that's present in low concentrations in such slag heaps; today, with the benefit of newer technology, the mining companies are returning to them to get the gold out.

As it attracted workers from around the country, you can hear all eleven of South Africa's languages spoken in Johannesburg. I was intrigued in particular to hear the distinctive click sounds of the Khoi-San languages, and of Xhosa and Zulu, which borrowed the sounds from them: Indeed the first letter of "Xhosa" is a click. (I can't pronounce the name very well; I can't get from making a click with my tongue to the more normal sounds of the rest of the word without a gap whilst I rearrange my mouthparts, something native speakers manage to do without.)

When I went on safari in the northwest, however (see my next post), the difference in demographics became readily apparent: all the native people there were Tswana, the people who gave their name to the neighbouring country of Botswana. (There were also a number of Afrikaners there.)

And when I went to Cape Town it was also immediately apparent things were different there: In the north—constituting the former Boer republics—with perhaps one exception all the black people spoke with accents reflecting native languages, and all the white people with Afrikaner accents. However, when I exited from Cape Town airport (at the heart of the former British Cape Colony), I was met by a driver of Indian ancestry, who spoke with an Afrikaner accent.

It turns out, as I learned from the museum in the Slave House in Cape Town, that there used to be a slave trade between South Africa and the east, quite distinct from the slave trade between west Africa and the Americas that is better known in the UK (and US). (It was the abolition of slavery by the British and the, as they saw it, inadequate recompense of the slaveholders by the government, that led to the Boers leaving the Cape Colony on the Great Trek in the 1830s.)


One thing which was noticeable as I flew from Gauteng (the capital region containing Johannesburg and Pretoria) to Madikwe was the degree to which vegetation grew down below in straight lines. It turns out that much of what I had taken as completely wild veld was old abandoned farmland.


In other countries, as one is walking around a flea market, the sellers will generally wait for you to approach them before speaking. In South Africa it's different; every time you approach a stall, its owner will greet you with "How are you?" And being polite, I always replied, and often ended up getting drawn into conversation. It was a bit wearying when there were lots of stalls, and you had no intention of buying anything from most of them, but I have no idea what the correct protocol for handling the situation actually was.

One thing that all these stalls sold in copious quantities was beadwork figurines like these ones. I immediately fell in love with them, and had to restrain myself from buying more of them than I could carry home (given that I was flying hand-luggage only once I had got rid of my laptop). I thought if I got lots, I'd end up regretting it afterwards, but I now wish I'd got a few more. In the end I got a giraffe, which I gave (not without a bit of difficulty—think Bilbo and the One Ring) to [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m and a chameleon which is now climbing on the wall of my living room. (I did look for rabbits for her, but there were none—and indeed, rabbits are not found in this part of the world, though there are hares, I think.)

Soweto trip report

Monday, June 24th, 2013 12:35 pm
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[As I said beforehand, there are none of my photos here, but I've put in links to photos elsewhere on the Web.]

I'd always thought Soweto was an African name, but it turns out it's short for "SOuthWEst TOwnships"; the name was the winner of a competition for the name in 1963.

I went to Soweto not really knowing what to expect. Twenty years ago, I would have imagined, the place would probably have shown deep poverty, but Berlin today does not much resemble the Berlin of twenty years ago, so Soweto should probably have moved on to. The difference is probably one of money; there's nothing like the glittering reconstructed Alexanderplatz in Soweto. Instead, the poor areas of Soweto and elsewhere remain, but the government has done its best to make them more habitable, with the limited amount of money it has had at its disposal for ameliorating the housing of the 80% of its population which didn't get much in the way of resources until twenty years ago.

For example, the "hostel" (terraced housing) in Diepkloof in Soweto was built without any form of plumbing whatsoever, but there is now an outside water fountain every 100m, and outside chemical toilets every few houses—no worse than poor areas in the north of England less than a century ago! Likewise, on the way to the airport in Cape Town I passed a shanty town (Langa, Google Maps informs me it's called) where the houses were all tin shacks, but it was all evidently very well lit at night. The lighting presumably was put in post-apartheid, and the wires connecting the lights are all at streetlight level rather than buried in the ground: it doesn't look the nicest, but it probably saved a lot of money installing it that way. (See the picture here.)

That said, not all of Soweto is poor. Some of it is very affluent. I went to an area called Diepkloof where one side of the kloof (valley) had nice middle-class houses, complete with statuary in the front gardens in some houses, yet facing the hostel referred to above across the kloof.

It's impossible to talk about Soweto without understanding the background of the 1976 Soweto uprising, when children took to the streets to protest the government's new law that all teaching had to take place in English and Afrikaans, despite these being the languages of only 20% of the populace. The impression I get is that most of the protestors were peaceful, but when some of the older teenagers started throwing stones at police, they retaliated with live fire and chased the protestors through Soweto to the Regina Mundi church, where the police followed them in, still firing. You can still see the bullet holes on the outside of the church today.

On the way, the thirteen-year-old schoolboy Hector Pieterson was caught in the crossfire and died; another student was famously photographed carrying his body. (Identified through the photograph, he himself was harrassed by the police, and fled South Africa through a succession of countries to Nigeria, where all communication from him ceased two years later—another victim, directly or indirectly, of the apartheid regime.) There is a memorial on the street now at the point where Pieterson was shot, and a museum elsewhere in Soweto, in his name, to the uprising.

It took the government almost two years to quell the protests following the uprising (and any success they had was short-lived, as protests arose again (and were put down with appalling levels of violence) throughout the 1980s).

Moving on, my tour of Soweto now took me to Nelson Mandela's house, the small bungalow where he lived until he was imprisoned, which is now a museum. After Mandela's release, he returned to live there for eleven days, which was all he could take of the constant media presence, before he moved to his wife's house. (And then he discovered that in his twenty-seven year absence Winnie Mandela had acquired a boyfriend, and moved back out of hers.)

Finally, no blog post about Soweto would be complete without a photograph of Orlando Towers, the disused power station cooling towers which have now been turned into a bungee-jumping site, and one of the largest and most colourful murals you're likely to come across anywhere.

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In lieu of photos of Pretoria, I recommend reading my blog post on the subject then the Wikipedia article on the Voortrekker Monument. The monument is constructed so that on the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, a shaft of sunlight shines in through the roof and down three floors onto the cenotaph at the bottom. It's like a real-life version of the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What the former post does not mention, and latter article only briefly alludes to is that the Cenotaph Hall of the monument contains a huge long tapestry depicting the life of the Boers, treaty with Dingane and his ultimate massacre of them. It's like a modern-day Bayeux Tapestry. There's also a 3D model of a Boer woman in front of a tree and wagon, entirely made out of marzipan!
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Johannesburg is very leafy; there's trees everywhere, and large tranches of non-built up land (making the city larger than London, apparently). I liked it when I was there, but I think I like Cape Town more. There's nothing like having a mountain next to the city centre to liven a city up—and for this reason (if little else) the city reminded me of Edinburgh. Indeed, in the same way that Arthur's Seat is supposed to look like a recumbent lion, there's a couple of hills in Cape Town called Signal Hill (the lion's body) and Lion's Head. The difference is that they're not connected: you need to be viewing from the right angle to get them to join up! (I don't know whether it's coincidence that there's an Arthur's Road in Sea Point, and an off-licence on it called Arthur's Seat...)

Whilst I was in Johannesburg, I hired a car and drove to the Sterkfontein Caves, which are in an area called the Cradle of Mankind, where a large number of important hominid fossils have been found. There was actually little to see in the caves; even the skeleton being excavated at the present (which may turn out to be significant—we can't tell until it's fully excavated) was inaccessible behind a locked gate with barbed wire on top to deter fossil thieves. Actually, I had rather suspected as much. But I was pleased to have been able to be there, anyway. There were a lot of fossil remains in the museum, but no indication of which were real and which replicas. I know at least one was real, which had little numbers written on it—I doubt they'd have done that for a replica—and two were fake—both replicas of the Taung child skull, the original of which I'd heard the guide say was in the Civic Museum in Pretoria—but have no idea how the rest divided between them.

I also learned a cool new interesting fact, which is that Paranthropus bosei (which I first learned about in the mid-eighties from Richard Leakey's book The Making of Mankind, which is what put me onto palaeoanthropology in the first place) had a crest along the top of its skull for its huge jaw muscles to attach onto.

Right, that's the end of my pre-composed trip reports: I'd forgotten I'd got rid of my laptop after my first three days there—sent it back to work so I didn't have to shlep it around the country. Let's see if I can motivate myself to put a little time into composing further reports.
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[Based on an email sent on 8 April:]

I'm writing this offline sitting outside the SABC on my first day in Johannesburg, waiting for my work-provided driver, Gift (his car has stripes like a zebra) to come and pick me up to take me to the Apartheid Museum (if he can get there with sufficient time before it shuts!). He says he'll be twenty minutes, so I thought I'd make use of the time to write a brief report, given that this evening I'm going to want an early night.

The reason I want an early night? I sleep on my front. I can manage brief daytime naps on my back or my side, but not for a portracted period of time—and I spent last night in an aeroplane seat that didn't tilt back an appreciable amount, certainly not enough to allow me to sleep on my front.

It's nice and warm and sunny here, about 23°. Unfortunately, it's forecast to cloud over and drop to 17° after Wednesday afternoon—i.e. it'll only stay nice whilst I'm cooped up indoors [in a windowless office, to booy] working. Still, maybe it'll turn nice again afterward. [Turns out the north of the country has a dry-winter wet-summer climate, the south of the country the other way around. Since I was there at the turning of the seasons, I got rained upon, but also had good weather in both places.] I've brought my star chart with me, and am looking forward to seeing the night sights of the southern hemisphere—the Milky Way at its most impressive, the Magellanic Clouds, the "Coalsack", Alpha Centauri (the nearest bright star to Earth). I'd hoped to get good viewing when I'm on my safari, away from the city, but I might try my luck within the hotel here in case the next couple of nights are the last clear skies I get. [The skies of the southern hemisphere turned out to be a little disappointing to the naked eye, though I did get to see everything listed above apart from the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. I did try doing some star photography with my camera, but, without a tripod, I couldn't really point the camera steadily at interesting bits of sky for long enough exposures—though I was surprised to discover sixty seconds was enough to result in colourful star trails, due to the rotation of the Earth.]

I did, in the end, just about manage to make it to the Apartheid Museum, but wasn't able to see the lot: Gift didn't get my text until half an hour after I sent it; and when I called him up after fifteen minutes, he was twenty minutes' drive away. I should have cancelled and called a taxi, but someone had told me the museum only takes twenty minutes to see. [I spent an hour there, and saw half of the museum. I asked a later tour guide where else I should go in Johannesburg, and he said whatever I wanted to learn more about, I could learn more about at the Apartheid Museum, so I went back, where, I reported on the twelfth, I] spent a further three hours there. I was not surprised to see a panel in the display about my distant relative Benjamin Pogrund, but I was flabbergasted to see a photograph of Jesmond Blumenfeld, a man I've met. (He's the father of Rebecca Blumenfeld, whom I was friends with at Marom, and who is now in New York training to be a cantor.) I'd got no idea he was involved in the struggle against apartheid. The photo was of the last meeting of the Liberal Party before it was banned.

One thing I've realised was missing from my Pretoria tour yesterday was a look at the outside of the grand old building that started life as a shul but by the 1950s was the location of the courthouse where Mandela had his first trial. Ah well; it was only a half-day tour; there wasn't time for everything.
lethargic_man: (Default)
I've been meaning to write South Africa trip reports since I came back. I now recognise that I'm simply not going to put the time into this, so I'm going to start off by posting as much as I wrote, and then simply paste in the text of emails I sent [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m since I came back.

I'm also uncertain what to do about my photographs. [livejournal.com profile] bluepork asked me why I didn't just put them up on a photo sharing website. I replied:
Well, firstly because I've always been a bit paranoid about putting content up on services whose terms and conditions include some degree
of surrendering control (i.e. that they can reuse them without your permission). Possibly Google+ doesn't do that; Facebook certainly did when I checked it out some years ago, which is why if you look closely at my original Facebook profile photo, you'll see I've put a digital watermark on it, and I went off Flickr when it got taken over by Yahoo!* and the T&Cs changed to Yahoo!'s exploitative ones.

* The ISP named after a pejorative word for "human being" used by horses in Gulliver's Travels.

Secondly, because that would mean typing up long captions, as the photos require decent explanations: It took a couple of hours to go through my photos with [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m, and when my mother agreed to give me half an hour of her time, I don't think she was upset that she only got quarter of the way through.

And finally, because I've got 1.5Gb 808Mb of photos from South Africa, and I've got better things to do with my bandwidth than devote all day to uploading holiday photos.
Since then I began to think that maybe I was being excessively paranoid—nobody's going to be interested in pirating my holiday photos—and then Flickr made some changes which got everyone railing against it, and firmed up my determination not to use it. So, unless anyone makes a better suggestion, these trip reports will start off text-only, or using such images as I can already find on t'Internet.

Anyhow, South Africa. Quite a country of contrasts. On the one hand there's such poverty (the unemployment rate is around one in four) that you find people standing in the middle of road junctions begging from passing cars and trying not to get run over; on the other, I initially stayed (whilst my work was paying for my accommodation) in a four-star hotel in Johannesburg with its own golf course. Such places would exist anywhere, I suppose, but here road access to the entire area is controlled, behind booms raised manually by security staff. And every middle class home was surrounded by a tall fence or wire with, more often than not, several lines of electrified wire on top of it. (I knew to expect this from South Africa expats I've known in London.)

At the SABC, where I was working, every laptop had to get signed into and out of the building, with its make and serial number being noted: Apparently two laptops had been stolen from within the office of the department where I was working. (They also had fingerprint recognition to open the doors, something which, though not new, impressed me as I hadn't seen it before.)

I was quite worried about the security situation there, until I talked to [personal profile] snjstar's parents a few days before I went, who were over here (in Blighty) for a visit. They said the degree of danger had been hyped up by the British media, and that I would be safe walking around the place by daylight. I said I hadn't got the impression the country was safe from expats I've known here. They replied that they were trying to justify why they've left the country. Thinking about descriptions of life in Manchester from Mancunian Jews living in London versus those who had remained in Manchester, I could believe that. And in reality, I was neither mugged nor car-jacked when I was there. (Though the advice to climb Table Mountain in groups of at least four was, it seems, more to deter muggings than in case one person ran into danger on the ascent.)

In general, my perception of the country is that it's a mess, but it's less of a mess than it's been beforehand, and at least now it's a free and democratic mess.
If I continue to post trip reports of this sort of length, would once a day be too often for people to be bothered to read them?
lethargic_man: (Default)
Last weekend, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m took me to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where I was able to follow up my visit to the Babylon exhibition at the British Museum with [livejournal.com profile] green_knight by seeing the actual fabled http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishtar_Gate of ancient Babylon. (<fx: [livejournal.com profile] green_knight goes green(er) with envy>).

The museum featured a large amount of artefacts from the ancient world, but with a surprisingly small number of explanatory labels. Actually, that's not entirely true: There was a lot of explanatory text on the artefacts; unfortunately it was all in Akkadian. I'm beginning to think I ought to teach myself cuneiform in the same way as I taught myself the Arabian alphabet, to look for Hebrew cognates (quite a few of which I was able to spot in transliterated names). Unfortunately, that wouldn't be as easy: cuneiform (a) is a syllabary, not an alphabet (b) is ideally suited for Sumerian and poorly suited for Semitic languages (the relationship is similar to how Mycenaean Greek really had to be shoehorned to be fitted into Linear B), (c) changed over time; and (d) once I'd learned it, I couldn't reinforce it by reading labels on supermarket produce or on mosques temples, the same way I could with Arabic.

Anyhow, in the absence of explanatory captions, I came up with some of my own to compensate:

Ashurbanipal about to take a photo (the camera he was holding was stolen in antiquity by tomb robbers) )No goddess is complete without her handbag )Afterwards, we demonstrated that anything Jesus could do we can do better by walking quarter of a mile along the top of a channel (or possibly canal—the difference doesn't seem to exist in German) of the river:Walking on water )

[livejournal.com profile] aviva_m also took me to an exhibition on kashrus at the Jewish Museum; I now have a plastic smart spoon (like a smart card, but spoon-shaped) sitting on my desk bearing tokens I picked up around the exhibition, which I can exchange at the museum website for recipes. :o)

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