Adventures in South Africa

I kind of ended up accidentally in South Africa. After my 30th birthday in Mauritius, country #201, I had only a few one-way options out. London, Dubai, Johannesburg, or one of the Indian Ocean islands I had already been to. It wasn’t nearly time to go home, so South Africa was an obvious choice, even though I’ve already been there twice.

up close and personal with a Kruger elephant

I flew into Johannesburg, where I had a couchsurfing friend I met 6 years ago in Rwanda to stay with. Thru the wonderful world of facebook, I realized two Latvian friends, who I know from Iceland, had also just arrived in Johannesburg. They had rented a bright yellow VW we nicknamed ‘Lil’ Miss Sunshine’ and spontaneously left for Kruger the very next morning. There we spent 2 days on a self-drive safari, saw 4 of the Big 5, and nearly got trampled by an angry elephant bull three times the size of our Lil Miss Sunshine (I don’t think they like yellow).

me and the Latvians at Berlin Falls

On the way, we stopped in Nelspruit, where we couchsurfed with a woman, all her cats and one Jack Russell Terrier I had to share my couch with. Her boyfriend is part of the band Minanzi Mbira, and we watched one of their rehearsals in a storage garage late at night, joining in for the precussion bits with drums, triangles and shakers.

the orphanage

We roadtripped past waterfalls, swimming holes, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and thru the Blyde River Canyon, taking countless selfies from all the panoramic views along the way. Later we went to Durban, visiting the valley of 1000 hills. We visited an orphanage, ate Indian food that tasted even better than food in India, and then went our separate ways, I, to Lesotho.

the chain ladder up to Tugela

Later I roadtripped with my South African host to Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, where we frolicked inbetween and ontop of mountains, with stunning views down to the Irish-green valleys. The chain ladder up to Tugela Falls nearly gave me vertigo, but it was all worth it once we got to the top and went skinny dipping in one of the frigid pools above the falls – the world’s second highest.

On top of Lion’s Head, with Table Mountain in the background

I spent a week in Cape Town, including a day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch. I stayed in SeaPoint, and one of the roomates there had a horse we could giddyup. We spent our days beaching, or hiking at Newlands Forest and Kirstenbosch Garden. There was a swing dance festival kicking off my last night there, and lots of great coffee, wine, and food everyday.

My base for all these adventures was Johannesburg, which I had never really thought of as more than just a base. Its reputation for being a big, sprawling, dangerous city really changed when I got to spend a few weekends tieh locals, exploring the restaurant and nightlife scene. Neighbourgoods Market was a major highlight, a Saturday food and beverage festival where an old fried from UBC randomly sat across the picnic table from me. After giving eachother long, awkward glances (neither of use could remember eachothers names or just where exactly we knew eachother from – or if we were just doppelgangers), I finally asked where he was from, and answered ‘Vancouver’ in a perfect Canadian accent. Then our worlds collided as we remembered all the stories, friends, and parties from Totem, our residence dorm, 10 years ago. Small world, eh?

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What to Know about Traveling in Georgia (and Abkhazia)

When I think of a place called Georgia, usually Georgia state in the US is the first thing I think of. Some haven’t even heard of the country Georgia, and those who have, have vague ideas about where it is. Once you get here, you’ll have no idea where you are after you’ve seen their labyrinth of an alphabet and heard their very unusual, completely unrelated to any other language.

Visit hill-top monasteries, like Jvari overlooking the ancient capital Mtskheta

Visit hill-top monasteries, like Jvari overlooking the ancient capital Mtskheta

Georgia is in the Caucasus mountain range, bordered by Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, touches the Black Sea on the west and Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to the east. Its pretty much exactly in the middle of Europe and Asia, homeless to both but a friendly neighbor to them all. Unlike Armenia, which has closed borders to Turkey and Azerbaijan (you can only get in or out thru Georgia or Iran), Georgia, an extremely homogenous Christian society, maintains business and tourism with the not-so-Christian Iran and Turkey, and even after the sour collapse of the Soviet Union and the disputed territories of South Ossetia (and to a lesser extent Abkhazia*), has a functional relationship with Russia and Russian tourists.

Drive past vineyards to the end of the road at Vardzia Cave Monastery

Drive past vineyards to the end of the road at Vardzia Cave Monastery

It’s a country famous for wine, and they love to make cognac and brandy from their grapes too, or any type of fruit alcohol generically called chacha. They have an entirely different genre of white wine called kvevri wine, an amber coloured wine fermented in clay pots. They have their own type of cuisine, heavy on the meat, cheese and bread, especially when combined all together. BBQ meat and vegetables are served in all Georgian restaurants, and the most common fast food is kebabs or shwarma. Georgian cheese is a big thing too, and some of it was amazing, but the most unique thing I tried was churckhela, nuts covered in some sugary fruity wax that looks like candles made out of anal balls.

Try to be in Tbilisi on Tbilisi Day Festival!

Try to be in Tbilisi on Tbilisi Day Festival!

In the capital city Tbilisi, there are enough stray cats and dogs to make walking on the sidewalk a little dangerous – beware of piles of steamy poop whose smell is impossible to get off the soles of your shoes. If you dare to rent a car and drive in Georgia, the roads are okay and well marked and all that, but drivers are impatient, aggressive, and a little suicidal at times. Being overtaken on the left or right on a blind hill or bendy mountain road doesn’t give you many options to move out of the way, so it wasn’t a surprise to see how many cars are partially crashed, scraped or banged up and not fixed. Police stations line the main highways, atleast one huge station in every village, and the police officers wait on the side of the road with flashing lights in their new Ford cruisers waiting and expecting for something to happen. At least they weren’t checking anyones speed, so I guess they’re waiting for an accident.

Rent a car in Georgia if you like roadtripping and aren't scared to get a little banged up to find places like this

Rent a car in Georgia if you like roadtripping and aren’t scared to get a little banged up to find places like this

The downside is a lot of roadkill. And the roadkill are those same street cats and stray dogs you see in Tbilisi. Its downright depressing to see so many cute and innocent puppies or fluffy kittens lying whole, in a couple pieces, or smashed flat to the concrete. I don’t know if any are ever removed, so they lay there to rest in no peace at all, and don’t seem to warn the other drivers or strays to stay away from each other on the road.

Still Georgians maintain peace with God. There are crosses and churches to be seen in every corner of the country, and just walking past a church is reason to cross oneself and bow from the street. If you want to enter the church, women must be wearing skirts and cover their heads, but only the old ladies and tourists seemed to follow this rule.

the bridge to Abkhazia

the bridge to Abkhazia

*If you want to travel to Abkhazia from Georgia, you must send an electronic tourist visa application to visa@mfaapsny.org (the application form is a short 2 page pdf with basic questions, and can be found on their website www.mfaapsny.org). After 5 working days, they email you a clearance letter which you have to print out and take with you to the border. Physically crossing into Abkhazia is as unfriendly as land borders get – you must walk one kilometer in no mans land over a dilapidated bridge (unless you prefer the horse and carriage option), and enter a barbed wired alley to pass Russian soldiers who check your documents. Once you get thru, you have to travel 2-3 hours (+100km) by bus to the capital city Sukhum and pay for your visa at the Ministry of Foreign affairs (between $5-50USD depending on how many days you’ll stay in Abkhazia) during working business hours. Only after you get the visa in your passport can you return back to Georgia, so be wary of getting stuck in Akhazia if you’re not planning to visit Sukhum!

Hungarian Rhapsody

Coming from Czech and Slovakia, Hungary was a whole new world. The biggest difference was the food, it was finally delicious, mostly because they use loads of fat and paprika in everything. The beer was worse, but the wine better, and the language was a whole new mumble jumble of sounds I couldn’t understand. More people spoke English, probably because of how touristy Budapest is, and that wasn’t a surprise. Budapest is a beautiful city, Buda and Pest separated by the Danube, connected by many beautiful bridges, full of green parks, old castles and towering churches.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest city park

Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest city park

I love visiting churches in Europe, they’re some of the most beautiful examples of architecture over the centuries and the wealth of religion. The procedure of visiting churches is always the same – after you enter, you feel the cool air and still silence of the reverent hall. Then you take a few steps down the center aisle, your boots always clicking a bit too loud, and after you get a load of the religious paintings, gold fixtures and antique wooden furniture, you spin around to stare in awe at the organ, hundreds of tall and shining pipes at the back of the church.

a ruined piano serves as the bar shelves at Szimpla

a ruined piano serves as the bar shelves at Szimpla

Budapest is also known as a party place, the night-life district in the Jewish quarter boasting the 3rd best bar in the world (according to who, I’m not sure, but Lonely planet also loves it). Its a ruin bar, the gutted out frame of a protected building that costs too much money to repair, so some guys buy it for cheap and just turn into a public space of graffiti, broken down electronics and mismatched furniture. Then the crowds come from all over and buy their cheap drinks and delicious food, filling the hollowed out space and abandoned rooms to the brim.

Hungary is also famous for its baths. Its second only to Iceland for geothermal pools, but with bigger numbers, the baths in Hungary become a public bathing ground for entire towns. I went to Szechenyi bath, a spa with more than 15 pools and hottubs, at least 8 saunas and steam rooms, and at night time the place becomes a pool-party disco club. We lazed in the various temperatures of water, the coldest dip being 16`C and the hottest around 40. I shed a kilo of skin and sweat, but felt like a new born baby afterwards.

a rainbow peeks thru the storm

a rainbow peeks thru the storm

Another ecstatic moment was wine tasting in a crazy lightning and thunder storm – the rain poured down on us in buckets at the Jásdi wine cellar, and we drank wine for nearly 2 hours for something like 6 euros. There were another things that made the trip epic, but it was these kind of simple moments that I was most enthusiastic about. We watched the storm near us over Lake Balaton, and both the lake and sky turned dark grey, but a few sea snakes and ducks swam past us just jovially enough to remind us that the storm would pass and everything would be ok, as did the rainbows that broke all over the horizon a few hours later.

French Gastronomy and Bocuse in Lyon

Lyon is an amazing city for gastronomy, with more than 20 Michelin stars given to its local restaurants. Food experts and lovers alike have even come up with a special term to refer to a traditional Lyonnais restaurant, a ´bouchon.´ I ate at Leon de Lyon, but not being a fan of pork, mustard or foie gras, it was hard to choose a traditional plate. My favourite restaurant was Au 14 Fevrier, a Valentine´s day themed restaurant where even the bread and butter are heart shaped.

the French are really good at making cute little coffees

Lyon native Paul Bocuse first became a legend in France with his innovatie nouvelle cuisine, changing traditional French cuisine into something fresher and healthier. He is one of the most awarded and famous chefs in the world, and the Culinary Institute of America named him the Chef of the century. His namesake restaurant, Paul Bocuse, has fully booked reservations each night months in advance. There you can try his famous truffle soup, probably the tastiest but most expensive soup you could ever try. He also established the Paul Bocuse Institute, a prestigious culinary school where 10 other cooperative universities around the world send their most promising chefs to study.

Siggi, 2013 Icelandic candidate, and Þráinn, his coach and 2011 candidate

The Bocuse d’Or is a culinary competition, kind of like the Chef Olympics, held every other year in Lyon since 1987. It gets more and more popular each year, and the competition itself has grown to include chefs from every continent. There is a regional Bocuse comptetition held every opposite year to decide who the qualifying chefs will be (from Europe, Asia, and the Americas)  to compete for the Bocuse d’Or, and specially invited countries participate too (like Australia and Morocco).

sporting a chef hat at Sirha

The competition happens concurrently with the Sirha exhibition, a rendez-vous of all things restaurant related. Local chocolatiers and champagne makers offered free samples at their booths, and patisseries and cheese makers from all over Europe come too. We sampled our way through all the most delicious booths while 24 countries competed for the Bocuse d´or, until finally 2 days later, France was declared the winner.

For the first time ever, Japan won a medal with 3rd place. Iceland placed 8th, which is an incredible feat if you consider the fact that from a country with a population of only 320,000, we have the 8th best chef in the world. In 2011, my friend Þráinn from Iceland placed 7th, so we´re pretty consistent.

Argentina's Wonderful Cliche's

Iguazu FallsI traveled to Buenos Aires as my gateway to get to Antarctica, but thought I’d take the time to spend 2 weeks there roaming around. I of course took the opportunity to tango dance, making it out to a few ‘milongas’ and ‘practica’s’ to dance with the most stereotyped Argentinian men ever – serious faced in full suits, slicked back, long-ish hair, with shiny black dance shoes beautifully leading around women in dainty, stilleto shoes in this aggressive but very seductive dance in the most professional way you can.

I of course had to try mate, the strong, bitter tea that all Argentinians seem to drink but no tourist can actually buy anywhere without buying all their own ingredients and making it themselves. Figuring out how to cure the mate cup and make a perfect drink was no easy task either, but one friendly waiter at a hotel we stayed at finally helped us make our first cup.

My spanish is far from good, but my comprehension is alright and my travel companion’s speaking skills were great, so between the two of us, we got by ok but still had trouble with the ‘sh’ sound that Argentinians prnounce double ll’s (as in llamada or llave) instead of the traditional ‘y’ sound used in other spanish-speaking countries. ‘Calle’ (road) became ‘cashe’ and ‘llama’ (name) became ‘shama’ and adopting their italian intonation in certain words and phrases was tricky too.  However, different from the French, it was refreshing to know that they would always stick to their rapid spanish speaking and allow us to struggle through what we were trying to understand or say in broken spanish without switching to english the moment they knew we were english speakers. Some of them would be perfect english speakers too, but still patiently allow the conversation to continue in spanish unless we finally surrendered to english.

The wine was bountiful and cheap, great bottles of Cab. Sauv from mendoza for under $2US a bottle. Even their liquor was cheap, at $3 a bottle of vodka or whiskey, but their whiskey somehow tasted like bad tequila – a sacrifice I guess I was willing to make to support a steady drinking habit while on vacation. Best of all was the many types of domestic beers – Pilsen, Salta, Isenbeck – all availbe in lager, ale or dark/stout, for about $1 – $3 a litre. The street food paired perfectly, and we managed to find the best empanada shop in Buenos Aires in a small hole-in-the-wall place a few blocks from one of the couchsurfers we stayed with.

We went to Tigre, a delta town north-east of Buenos Aires, but were much more impressed by the rivers and waterfalls of Iguazu. We spent a day at the falls, accompanied by hundreds of butterflies all colors of the rainbow, and later at our lavish hotel realized we could kayak to Brazil by paddling accross a calm, 200m part of the river. We were met by a lone brazilian, on weekend retreat to his small shack built on the river bank. After realizing the river was at a high point, swollen high by the rainy season, and that anacondas would easily reach us, we quickly paddled back to be met by a security guard from the hotel frantically calling us back to the Argentinian shore. Too bad we don’t have a stamp in our passports to prove it (or any photos for that matter), but kayaking to brazil was definitely a highlight, and perhaps well worth the risk of being eaten by anacondas…

Sonoma & Napa Valley Wine Tasting

the oldest wooden structure situated at Green Strings farm, with a healthy field of grape vines growing behind

the oldest wooden structure situated at Green Strings farm, with a healthy field of grape vines growing behind

Many know the Northern California region is quite famous for its wineries, so going wine tasting in the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions seemed like a necessary trip to take while living in California. It’s only about an hour’s drive north from San Fransisco, and I’ve been told there are about 400 wineries in the entire region, ranging from small, 10 acre family run farms, to hundred-acre, major distributing wineries like Sebastiani.

A friend visiting from out of town and myself spent a couple days in the area, starting at Green Strings Farm, an all-organic, sustainable, grape and produce growing farm near Petaluma. It was the most beautiful, idyllic, relaxing country landscape, nestled near the Sonoma hills, with some of the best tasting food I have had in a long time.

The following day we weaved our way through a few Sonoma Valley vineyards, visiting some of the oldest wineries in the USA including Bartholomew Park Winery, Gundlach Bundschu, and Buena Vista winery. They all cost between $5 – $10 for a tasting flight, specializing mostly in red wines except for a few chardonnays, gewurztraminers and white rosés.

We carried over to the Napa Valley, driving north along the Silverado trail, famous for its back to back wineries. We visited some modest wineries, like Judd’s Hill that specilizes in private sales, and built up to the more extravegant, $15 – $25 per tasting flight wineries like Darioush, Black Stallion and Signorello.

In addition to the amazing wines, wonderful weather, and scenic roadtrip, wine tasting Sonoma and Napa Valley served as the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Bay area, so I would suggest to anyone planning a visit to San Fransisco, you should include a little wine tasting time in your itinerary.