Oh the People you’ll meet..


Funny how you randomly meet people, eh? You are sitting quietly – doing nothing much, and then for some reason someone says something – and you end up in a conversation.

I just spent several hours talking about this, that and the other with Tommy – but as usual – I’m ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning.

I’ve just finished spending a week on the lovely island of St. Croix. Many years ago now I lucked into buying a small condo here, which meet my every objective – it was comfortable, not up too many stairs, and it has a simply magnificent view – nothing between me and the ocean but 40’ of sand and 2 palm trees. It’s heaven. But it also got hit by Hurricane Maria – and I felt obligated to go down and check it out personally. To find out what the island is like now – read my earlier blog. But this blog starts upon leaving the island.

Getting to and from the island, which normally at this time of the year is simple, has become a bit of a challenge. While the airport on St. Croix is open, and mostly in good shape, the airports that feed into the island are in worse shape, and that has complicated matters. Plus the recovery process has actually increased the number of folks arriving and departing from the island – there’s a large (over 2000 passenger) cruise ship docked semi-permanently in Fredericksted, there are the countless FEMA, Corp of Engineers, Red Cross and related personal who have come to aid in the recovery – and there are the folks that have simply decided that living without electricity for 6 weeks is enough – and they want off the island.

All this means that flights are packed, and the airline folks are working with limited technology – power is still on and off, and WIFI that is more hopeful then in fact!

But despite the challenges – I arrived at the airport in good time this afternoon, processed thru check-in, the long wait for border patrol, and finally sat down in the waiting area for my flight to finally board. I ate a decent dinner from the cute snack bar (great Jamaican Patties), and boarded the flight. I’d even settled into my seat and said hi to my seat mates. But then nothing happened. No announcements, no nothing. So we all waited, and waited. Suddenly the pilot is addressing us – explaining that a bird hit the plane during the landing – and the plane has to be checked out before it can take off. Nothing major – it will be just a moment.

A few minutes later he’s back – this time explaining that the bird made a direct hit on the nose cone – which is where all the radar is located, and the equipment need to check the plane isn’t on the island. In fact, it’s not even in Miami. It’s in New York, and they must fly it down. And without this specialized equipment to check that the radar is ok – the plane can not fly. We must de-board and wait for further information.

What follows is pretty much what one would expect of about 200 folks with plans and places to go who suddenly discover that their plans are going to have to change – and change fast.

We all de-board, and cluster around the poor gate agents. The three lovely local ladies are fielding questions – to which they effectively have no answers. Should we leave the airport and wait till tomorrow? Will we be rebooked on the plane tomorrow? Will American find places for us to spend the night if we can’t get off the island?

Quick answers – finding places to stay on the island isn’t going to happen. Too many of the hotels are closed – there’s no options. The pilot gets on the microphone and says – the best option is for American to find us another plane and get us off the island. Otherwise, we are stuck here overnight – the part to check the nose cone can’t make it to the island until tomorrow – at best. However, once in Miami – we’ll be able to figure out what to do with you. But I’m done here – it’s in the hands of the airport folks. With that, he leaves. And we are left sitting in the rather basic waiting area of the St. Croix airport, with no idea what is going to happen.

Exactly Where does our now ‘disappeared’ pilot think American is planning on finding a plane?

I’m no fool – I’m on the phone to American – please rebook me – I won’t make my flight to Louisville, KY tonight – make reservations for the first flight out of Miami tomorrow morning please.

Meanwhile, some people start to leave – but then the airport manager grabs the microphone to announce – STOP – don’t leave. American has found a plane in San Juan and it’s on it’s way here. You’ll board at 8:00 PM – and spend the night in Miami. There are hotels there – and American will put you up.

Ok – now we at least know what is going on – so we must sit and wait for the new plane to get here. Thank goodness I already have my flight arranged for tomorrow. I just don’t trust American (or any airline for that matter) to make those arrangements in a timely fashion. Nah – they will wait, and I’ll be stuck with lousy options.

While I’m waiting for the replacement jet to arrive, I call the hotel I’d organized for tonight – only to find out that I’d actually organized it for Monday night. Well, that’s a relief. Guess I knew something would go wrong… (nah – it was a lucky oops – that’s all).

All this organized, there is nothing to do but sit and wait. So I sit. Behind me are two guys talking about the shuttle from their cruise ship. I’m intrigued – and turn to chat.

Tommy – the young man closest to me – is a Stand Up Comedian. (No seriously – check him out at TommyDrake.com – he’s famous!) He works the cruise ship circuit for Carnival – 3 days on one boat, then 2 days on another boat, a few days off – and repeat. His friend runs the Guest Services function – and at first our conversation revolves around issues related to Guest Services.

Some of the issues are exactly the same as what I face – guests who have an issue, say insects or a broken DVD player, and simply don’t tell you. Or worse – only tell you via the guest book – or an on-line review. What gives – let me know what your issue is, and I’ll fix it. Why would it be a good idea to keep this stuff a secret? But then our conversation gets interesting. Like my guests – their guests are on holiday – and sometimes, that’s an invitation to behave badly. Traveling in multi-generation groups is particularly challenging – as we all know, and apparently getting on a cruise ship (or staying in a condo) doesn’t solve them!

On to happier topics, the guys go on to explain how the cruise system works – their boat is based out of San Juan, and they were on the most Southernly part of their trip when the hurricanes ran roughshod over the islands. This caused the ship to divert – landing most of the guests in Miami rather than San Juan. Naturally – some guests were really upset over this unexpected change of plans. Then they took several trips out of ports in Florida before FEMA hired the boat to provide housing for their staff in St. Croix. So now they are semi-permanently docked in Fredericksted, and providing ‘hotel’ rooms for FEMA, Red Cross, Corp of Engineers, etc. They are also providing entertainment – Hence the Comedian. There are over 500 Comedians who work for Carnival – rotating around ships so that the shows stay fresh for the guests.

And there’s a morgue on ship. With 2000 guests, 1000 crew – it’s a small city, and in a small city people die. And statistically because of the age issue (more cruisers are more older), deaths are more likely. Apparently, the per diem on a cruise ship competes with the per diem in a fancy full care facility – and it looks and smells a lot nicer! So there are folks who literally live on board ship. Maybe changing ships occasionally – or visiting family for a week or so – but effectively they are spending their retirement in a full care, luxury environment, with wait staff that know their names, porters who cater for their every needs – and nightly entertainment. Sounds like it might get a bit boring, but I can totally see why this solution would be super appealing.

Several topic shifts later, and we’re talking about being a Stand-up Comedian. Turns out that Tommy was the opening act for some major performers – including Cher. And he’s met Beth Middler among others. Must be an interesting life, eh? He tells me about after hour parties – for Cher they included bowling and going to the movies – but of course you don’t just go to the movies – you rent the entire theatre. I ask about private jets – but Tommy tells me that actually most of their travel – for the 3 years he was with Cher – were by bus. Very very fancy buses with lots of tiny bedrooms for the staff, but buses just the same.

We continue to chat – he talks about how he has to generate new material frequently – and can never be too overtly political today. Best topics are things we can all appreciate – like the issue of families divided along political lines. Some jokes have long lives, other jokes (like ones about the Hurricanes) were ‘old’ within a few weeks. Interesting, and not even close to anything I’ve ever talked about with anyone else. We chat about his ‘blog’, originally started long before the word ‘blog’ came along – it’s really his on-line journal. You can check out here: http://www.tommydrake.com/blog

Our time together has simply flown by – and the gate agents suddenly announce that our airplane as arrived from San Juan and boarding will begin immediately.

I say a fond goodbye to my fellow travellers – it’s been a fascinating 3 hours – but now it’s time to head on to Miami.

Frankly – I can’t wait!

Signing off to head on another adventure – The Soup Lady

Sugar Beach Update – Or After the Hurricane..


Hurricane Irma – followed closely by Hurricane Maria dealt the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico a severe One/Two punch. And the islands are all still reeling from having two – count’m two – Cat 5 Hurricanes come to visit.

I am fortunate enough to own not one, but two lovely condos on the island of St. Croix. It’s one of the 3 sister islands that make up the US Virgin Islands. We’ve been the property of the US since 1917, when concern with our military importance prompted the US to buy us from Denmark.

St. Croix is, by island standards, a large island. We have a population of around 35,000 – more when it’s winter in the rest of the US, although our weather doesn’t change that much. It’s pretty much 85 degrees year round here – with some rainy months when the cisterns get filled, and some dryer months when we use up the water. Our population is stable, hard working folks who count themselves lucky to live in Paradise. You just ask them and they will tell you – this is heaven, and we know it.

But back to that one-two punch. How did my beloved island fare under what can only be described as disaster conditions. And I’m proud to say – pretty well! I came down to check things out a week ago, and I’ve driven around the island from one end to the other – watching the line crews working hard to get electricity back up. There are still lots of places without power, and lots of places without gas, and lots of places without functioning WIFI or cell service – so things aren’t perfect yet – but the progress is visible.

Our roads – awesome by Montreal standards to begin with – are now in much worse shape in places. The main roads are generally fine, but I found some potholes you really don’t want to hit on some of the ‘back’ roads. Current Island advice – if you haven’t driven that road in daylight – don’t drive it at night. Good advice that.

After Maria left to pick on Puerto Rico, she left behind downed everything. Telephones were broken like match sticks, and even 6 weeks later you can see the remnants of poles that were dragged out of the roadways and left lying as mute witnesses to the devastation. There are transformers sitting next to downed wires – mostly telephone wires now. There are piles of what were once tin roofs neatly gathered at the side of the road. And there are branches.

It’s pretty interesting to see the quantity of dead branches that have been carefully stacked almost everywhere. There are no big trees on our island – but there are lots and lots of bushy trees – and these are the dead branches that had to be cleaned up. Fences were torn apart – right off their posts in some cases, and now they hang as forlorn and ineffectual property protection.

Some buildings fared a whole lot better than others, and I’m quite sure that there will be a lot of conversations among homeowner associations – why did the ocean front section of Colony Cove lose their entire roof, and why did Sugar Beach suffer so little physical damage. Even how Hurricane Shutters were attached seems to have made a significant difference. I had one real estate agent explain that at one nearby property, some hurricane shutters were attached to the outside of balconies, while other shutters were attached to the inside. Outside ones were ripped off – taking pieces of wall with them. Inside ones suffered little to no damage.

With the high winds came a lot of water – and in the early days after the storm there were lots of pictures of flooding. But flooding isn’t the only water problem. At Sugar Beach, the water torrents ran down our driveway and across our beach toward the sea. And they took a lot of our sand with them. There are huge gullies where before there was flat beach. And the tidal surge, which fortunately stopped short of the buildings themselves – also took out a lot of our beach. Palm trees have their roots exposed, and that’s a problem. The trees will die sooner or later – and I’m hoping that someone is working on a plan to get those roots undercover.

In Christiansted – which actually suffered very little damage – the flood waters overwhelmed the drain water system – and even 6 weeks after the disaster, we could still find places where water pipes must have been broken and sewer lids forced off. While we’ve been on the island, I’ve been watching these places – and the crews are going one by one to get them fixed and back in ‘business’. The plan island wide is to be totally up and ready to rock by Christmas – and I have no doubt this is going to happen.

For folks living here – it’s been a time of great challenges. We take having electricity for granted – even when it goes out, we naively assume it will be back shortly. But shortly turned out to be weeks and months here. Some folks have been told that it could even be spring before they are hooked to the grid.

The problems aren’t simple to solve either. Almost every telephone pole on the island was damaged – and they have had to import 42,000 telephone poles by barge from the US Mainland. And there aren’t enough lineman on the island to handle a job of this size – so NY State sent down by barge dozens of their trucks with their crews. We’ve seen them all over the island – gradually rebuilding the infrastructure. And consider the challenge. You must remove the old pole, re-dig the hole for the new pole, put the new pole in place, and then re-attach the electric wires. As far as I can tell – they are not even touching the phone lines. Those cables are still mostly dangling lose, or laying in coiled snakes on the ground.

The lack of ‘land lines’ has created an interesting problem for some of the re-opening businesses. If you accepted credit cards by internet (like K Mart), you are ok. But if you used a land line to do the credit card transaction – you are suddenly a cash only business. And that has put pressure on banks and ATM’s to provide a flow of cash for which they were not prepared. We’ve seen line ups a dozen folks long at some banks, yet the ‘pay’ ATMs are no problem. But we did find ourselves choosing dinner restaurants by their ability to accept credit cards, and one of our favourite grocery stores isn’t getting our business – they are cash only.

There is an entire alphabet soup of aid workers here – FEMA, Corp of Engineers, Red Cross, etc. There are NGO groups as well – including Doctors Without Borders. Last weekend they were giving free insulin shots to those in need, today I ran into a sign-language interpreter who told me how critical his team is to the operation. Because TVs are effectively ‘off’ for many on the island, the only source of information is the radio. And that’s an auditory medium. So if you can’t hear – you have no idea what is going on, where to go for help, or even what kind of help is being provided. And for many of the folks thus impacted – there is a decided fear of IRS. So his first job is to reassure folks that he’s not IRS, and his next job is to find out what kind of help they might require.

When I at the airport, waiting on my out-bound flight, I ran into some of the crew from the huge cruise ship that has been semi-permanently docked at Fredericksted. It’s been ‘booked’ by FEMA to provide housing, and apparently other facilities, not meals and entertainment. They said that they are locked in until February, although they were also sure that the island will be ready to rock by Christmas. Interesting, eh? We covered a lot of other topics as well – you might want to check out my next blog.

But despite the hardships, the lack of electricity, the cost of generators and fuel, there is still a feeling of optimism here. Folks are determined to get back on their feet – and the current word is back to normal for 90% by Christmas. Schools have re-opened, albeit with staggered hours to make it easier for kids to get around, and the curfew has been officially lifted. Tourists are finally returning to the island, boats are taking folks out to SCUBA dive, and fisherman are back to catching Wahoo for dinners at the restaurants. I was very relieved to find that one of my favourite ‘designer’ houses even had a party to celebrate their 20th year in business this weekend.

What does the island need now? Time and Tourists willing to understand that while the beaches are yet to be restored to their former glory – the ocean rolls on relentlessly, the seagulls and pelicans continue to soar and wheel above the waves, the sun sets, the moon rises – and life on this beautiful island goes on.

Please come. We want to see you!

Signing off to go spend some more money on the island – The Soup Lady

Pick Up Partners – or Exactly why am I doing this?


I decided about 18 months ago that I would learn to play Bridge better. I’ve played Bridge on and off (mostly off) for almost 50 years – but actually trying to improve – that never happened.

So 18 months ago I made the conscious decision to focus my energy, such as it is, on bettering my bridge play. Since then I’ve spent about 7 months playing ‘real’ bridge with real partners, and the other 11 months either studying or playing on line – or both. Mostly both I shall admit.

How is it going you ask? Not that well, unfortunately. Bridge is a really really tough game. There are 52 cards in the deck, but there are a zillion (maybe more) combinations and permutations on how those cards can be arranged in the 4 hands. And the trick is to figure out the optimum contract for each set of 4 hands – and then make that contract.

Easier to do if you can see all 4 hands of course. But that’s so not how the game works. Nope – you have to figure out the contract by bidding your hand – and trying to visualize what could be in the other 3 hands from the bidding. Example – the person to your left (LHO – Left hand opponent) bids 1 Spade. Well, he should have 5 spades, and at least 12 points. And so on.

I’m not trying to teach you how to bid, or play in this mutter. I’m just explaining that the game is complicated – and folks spend their entire lives trying to get better at it. It’s like golf. Some days are better than others, the goal is to have more better days than not so good days. But golf is a personal sport – you compete against yourself. In bridge – it takes 4 people, you and your partner – and the two opponents.

And that’s where PUPs – or Pick Up Partners get involved.

I am currently in Charlotte, NC attending their Regional competition. Like most competitions, it’s held in a big hotel, with games in a variety of different rooms, and at different levels of playing skill. To determine playing skill, there’s a thing called Match Points (MP). You get MPs by playing and winning matches of 24 (more or less) boards. In theory, the number of MPs you have earned should be a measure of your playing skill. But I’m reminded of the old joke – I’ve been doing this job for 12 years – 1 year of training, and 11 years of repeating the same thing over and over. In an attempt to make the MP system better at measuring skill, and not just being a reward for attendance, the ACBL (that’s the American Bridge League) created different colours – Black (gotten easily in club games), Red (gotten in Regional or National competitions), Silver (oddly enough – these come from Sectional Tournaments which I’ve yet to figure out how to know which they are) and the highly valued Gold Points.

Gold points are the toughest to get – and to earn the title of ‘Life Master’ – you need 50 of them. So it’s not unusual to meet folks with plenty of Black – but not enough Gold to get that title. In any case – you get the idea. There are MP (a measure) and coloured MP (another measure).

Back to my efforts – in 18 months, I’ve earned about 40 Match Points, 5 of them Gold and 2 of them Silver, – which isn’t amazing, but it is pretty decent. There are folks here with thousands of Match Points – yesterday I played (and we lost badly) with a gal with over 2000 match points. We should have done a lot better – I’m not sure what went so wrong, but there it is.

On Monday I played with a fellow with around 300 Match Points – and we placed first Overall in the Gold Rush Pairs. Some days I’m a hero, some days I should haven’t have picked up the cards.

So – partnership game – you can’t play without a partner. And I have yet to find a regular steady partner. I’ve been very lucky about Picking up Partners (PUPs) in the various cities I’ve been to, some of whom will play with me again – some of whom never want to sit across from me again – ever. (I had one PUP announce that to me about 3/4 of the way thru a game. Not one of my better days.)

So where do you Pick Up Partners? Most bigger games (like this one), have what is called a Partnership desk. Folks who aren’t fortunate enough to bring their own partner, put up a yellow card describing how many points they have, when they are available to play during the competition, and what biding conventions they use. I think there is a critical bit of info missing off the standard partnership cards. I’d really like to know how long you’ve been playing. My favourite partners generally haven’t been playing for years – they are still in the ‘learning’ mode – and know the newer conventions, and some of the newer ideas of partnership.

But it is what it is. You post your name, then other folks stand in front of the board – reading each and every card, searching for someone who sounds like they might be a good partner. It is a bit like the worst meat market ever. Think e-harmony with a scoring system. Or your first dance at Junior High – all the guys on one side contemplating all the girls on the other. If you have to post your name – you open yourself up to rejection – in a big way. And while some folks (like my 2000 point partner from yesterday) have been playing long enough to know that number of MPs is just one way of judging folks, other folks take actual point count seriously. And I have to agree. I don’t want to partner with someone with 20 MPs earned over 10 years. They probably aren’t very solid players. And in return, someone with over 1000 MPs might not want to partner me. If I’ve only been playing seriously for 18 months, I probably make plenty of beginner errors.

Which is true.

I make a lot of mistakes. I bid wrong – showing more points than I have, or too few. I pass when I should bid, and I bid when I should pass. And worse – I forget things – not usually what my partner bid – that’s often an error by folks who are more ‘beginner’ than I am, but I will lose track of the count of one of the suits, I might forget that a spot card in dummy is good and leave it stranded, or I might opt not to take a finesse when the odds are in favour of the finesse actually working. I have gotten better at making safety plays to make sure that the contract makes – but under the pressure of the match, sometimes I will forget that I made that play…

As I said, it’s complicated.

But fun.

In the past 18 months I’ve thrown myself on the PUPs board in 4 different Regional and National Competitions. I’m not sure that makes me a veteran, but it does give me some experience. And I’ve had some success – friends I played with in Toronto in April who were totally keen to play with me again in August. And I actually had a lady ask me to join her (as her bridge partner!) on a bridge cruise in February. So here’s my advice to folks who need PUPs.

1) Be nice to the folks running the partnership desk. They do an amazing job – there are hundreds of folks looking for partners, and their goal is to try to make as many of them happy with the match-up as they possibly can. It’s a completely thankless job and one that requires the patience of Job and the social skills of a match maker. Be nice to them. Thank them. They are your buddies in this game of finding a PUP – let them know you appreciate them.

2) It is easier to find a PUP later in the competition. I’m not sure why this is – but it’s true. I guess maybe things happen. I found my 2000 point partner because her regular partner suddenly had to leave – an emergency back home. On Monday – the partnership board was almost empty. Today (Friday), the board is almost full. But some of the cards, despite the best efforts of the folks running the desk, get left long after the player has found a match. I know – totally frustrating. But still – finding a PUP on day one of the competition is a huge challenge. Finding one later on is a bit easier. Maybe.

3) Keep a record of your agreements. Folks will say on Monday – let’s play Friday evening. Ok – that’s a date. But there are 3 games a day, and there are 7 (or more days). In my case – I needed PUPs for 16 games. And I blew it big time. Agreed to play on a team in the morning of day 3 – only to discover I’d also agreed to play in a single match in the same time slot with another person. Not a good way to make friends – trust me! I know I’m repeating myself – but on Monday at noon I needed to find partners for 16 games. I didn’t have a partner for all 16 games until Thursday at noon. At least my dance card is full now. That’s a huge relief.

4) Get your partner’s contact information. And keep notes. There is absolutely nothing worse than deciding after a game or so that you are not a match made in heaven, and forgetting that a day later. Or worse – a month later. Or in my case – a year later. Notes are critical. Email addresses matter to! You never know when you are going to be doing PUPs somewhere else and these folks will re-appear. It’s a universe after all – only so many folks in it!

5) Go over the convention card early – and try to keep to the simplest possible set of agreements. I played with 7 partners – not one of whom used the same conventions. I tried to make notes of who played how – but my little brain got completely bolloxed up by partner #5. No wonder my ability to play got worse during the week – I simply couldn’t remember if the person sitting opposite me played a specific convention – or not!

6) Be nice. Be very nice. People play a lot better if you compliment them then if you critique them. Trust me. And body language matters. If I messed up the last hand – don’t hold a grudge on the next hand – I won’t play better if you are sitting across from me with a scowl on your face. And no matter how badly I do – please don’t tell our competitors. One of my partners – after I’d played the hand, won and gotten a top score – announced – well she tried her best to lose.

7) And for goodness sake – don’t try to improve your partners play during the match. Waste of time. You’ll get them focused on the last hand – not the hand we are playing now – and it’s likely to be completely different. This advice is even more important if you are playing social bridge with your spouse. You’ll have a much better game if you just live with the mistake and solider on!

8) Always assume your partner is an expert – that they are bidding their hand correctly. And don’t try to ‘save’ them. Man – I wish I’d remembered that advice a few times when I tried to ‘save’ only to make matters much, much worse.

9) Partnership Mantras – My partner knows what they are doing – if it’s a mis-fit – Pass. My partner has a reason for doing what they did – try to imagine things from their point of view – what must they be looking at to make that bid, or not to bid. My partner knows what they are doing. They know what their hand is like – I don’t.

10) Thank your partner. Thank them when they put down their dummy, thank them when you finish playing, thank them for giving you an opportunity to play with them. They didn’t have to say yes. And they did.

Signing off to go play more bridge…

The Soup Lady

Sunrise at Shamwari Game Reserve


We wake at dawn. Seriously – game drives always start at sunrise – and I’m not surprised that this is true even here. So Dawn it is folks. They make it as relaxing as possible of course – this is a luxury version of a safari. So we wake, enjoy coffee and a biscotti while we admire the fog draped tree that stands between us and the game park. Quite lovely.

Freddie is there to welcome us. He’s been up since 4:30 – and I know he left the lodge last night after 9:00. He works seriously long days.

The safari vehicle has been given a wash and a re-load with 2nd breakfast goodies. We are promised a proper breakfast when we return – but for now it’s off into the reserve.

I don’t think I’d thought about the differences between a National Park, a Game Reserve, and the wide open, unfenced reaches of say Rwanda or Botswana. But they are vastly different. Partly it’s about the fences. The Shamwari game reserve is completely, 100% fenced. And the fences are checked every day for signs of tampering. There’s a path that runs along side the fence, we’ve taking that track several times- and it’s easy to see that no one is going in or out easily. Electrified, turned over to prevent burrowing, and then rocks placed every few inches for additional protection. No wonder the Shamwari has a reputation for being anti-poaching. And it’s hard to see the fence. In all my photos – it only appears once. The landscaping is such as to create vast vistas – with the fence carefully placed to avoid ruining the view.

In contrast, the wide open spaces of other game viewing locations means that the wildlife is less safe. We saw animals that were clearly having issues getting enough food in both Botswana and Kenya. But that wasn’t the case here. All the animals – prey and predators alike – looked healthy and well fed. Sleek coats, shiny horns, and lots of little ones spoke towards the feeling that life is good. Well, unless you get eaten I suppose.

Back to dawn at the reserve. Freddie is determined to show us the Rinos and the Water Buffalo, so that’s his focus this morning. But our first stop are Giraffes. There are at least 2 baby Giraffes, adorable in their long legged awkwardness. Giraffes have their young standing up – so it’s a big drop down for the infants. And the first thing they must do is get up to nurse. So really awkward long legs are a must. These babies are young – maybe 2 weeks at most – and spend their time and energy running around madly from adult to adult. Occasionally they might stop to try a nibble off a fresh twig, but since they are basically nursing, it’s run madly – nurse – run madly!

It’s obvious that the parents aren’t particularly worried, and our vehicle is such a normal part of life, we are totally ignored. If they happen to get really close (and they do), the photo opps are amazing.

Next a few long views of the Park as Freddie decides where we should go next – and then a run up a hill past the “Born Free” Foundation buildings. This huge collection of buildings houses predators, mostly lions, that have been rescued and can no longer be trusted in a park. You can hear them roaring good morning from quite a distance. And this is such a normal part of life that the herd animals graze right up to their fence lines. No fear here!

Not so among the warthogs that are literally everywhere in the Park. We have seen dozens of them – surprised at least two out of their burrows – and watched their young at play. Since I’m a particular fan of Warthogs – I’m quite happy to see so many, so happy.

Our game drive ends on a ridge admiring the sunrise, the views, and enjoying a 2nd cup of coffee. Life in the Luxury lane.

We return to the Lodge for third Breakfast, and are offered an afternoon game walk at 12:30 if that’s of interest. I’m the only one who takes Freddie up on the offer. I’m keen for any exercise – normally I get a lot of walking in, but that hasn’t been the case here, and I miss it.

I meet up with Freddie outside of the lodge, and after getting equipped (he has a stick and a radio – that’s nice), we amble off into the ‘open’ park land outside of the lodge. There are no predators in this section of the park – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful. Warthogs can break legs if they run at you, and there are snakes. Even the cute antelopes and Zebras aren’t to be messed with. I’m reminded of these challenges twice. Once verbally by Freddie, and once when I spot a safari vehicle ahead of us. When I ask Freddie why is the vehicle there – he tells me it’s for my protection. They are pre-spotting our ‘walk’.

Oh dear – I have managed to create a job for 3 rangers in my desire to just take a short (hour and a half) walk. Guilty, Guilty, Guilty. Freddie re-assures me. For him this is a nice break. We get to walk thru the reserve, spot animal scat and foot prints, and generally take the slow route.

I can’t say anything exciting happened – but that wasn’t really the point anyway. It was a lovely walk. I’m glad I went.

I return to the Lodge for lunch – and a new problem. All the guests at the resort (except us) are from South Africa – and the Springbox’s are taking on the New Zealand All Blacks late this afternoon. One of our fellow guests is actually a former member of the Springbox’s – and he is truly huge. Big, Tall, in excellent physical condition. Wouldn’t want to run into him anywhere. Anyway – the issue – the afternoon game drive will return AFTER the start of the game. And while Victor and I can’t really relate to the problem (can’t one just record it?), apparently missing the start is a disaster. And the team has been doing badly of late, so how they perform today will make or break it as to their remaining part of whatever competition this is. (I’m guessing Rugby World Cup).

There is a lot of discussion – and eventually the decision is made to turn on the game, which would effectively ‘record’ the start – and rewind when we get back from the drive.

The folks in our vehicle are keen to see the match, but not crazy. The folks in the other vehicle are totally determined to see the start as close to the time of the real start as is possible. I’m glad I’m not in that vehicle, but I say nothing. Not our country, not our sport!

Decision made, we head out for the afternoon drive. On the hit list are Black Rino (we’ve seen white Rinos, including a baby, but Black Rino’s have not made an appearance as yet) and of course Elephants, Lions, leopards, and Cheetahs. Freddie finds us several Black Rino’s, and we spot a clearly nursing lioness on the hunt. She has targeted some warthogs playing nearby and surprises everyone by disappearing into the brush – and then making her dash for dinner from the other direction. She missed – I’m not sure if our vehicles alerted the Warthogs to their danger, or if she just didn’t have the timing quite right. Too bad. Freddie tells us that she will continue to hunt until she finds dinner – clearly she’s feeding her cubs as well as herself, but we can’t wait around. We have that game to watch.

We return towards the Lodge, and spot some really wonderful photo opps with Black Rinos. Since we’re not in a hurry – the other vehicle has long since gone back – Freddie stops and lets us do our best with the Rino. That works great until the Rino flares his ears to let Freddie know that his patience has just about run out. Freddie announces that we are done here – it would be dangerous to try the Rino’s short fuse any longer – so home we go.

The game is in full progress. And low and behold – the South African Springbox’s are in the lead! Not by much, but still. We gather around and enjoy being with folks who know and love a game – and try their patience by asking dumb questions. I start by asking how do you score points? And then wonder if only the guy in yellow shoes can kick the ball. Our fellow guests think my lack of knowledge is kinda cute – in a dumb blonde way. And while the ‘professionals’ don’t even bother to answer – the Lawyer takes a stab at explaining some of the more basic aspects of Rugby. It is a brutal game – many of the players have ear protectors (apparently getting an ear ripped off isn’t unusual), missing teeth is the norm, and broken collar bones are considered a calculated risk. Players get tossed into the air to catch kicks – and there is something called a Scrum that defies description.

The All Blacks have been dominating the league – beating the pants off every other team by huge margins. I’m not sure I heard correctly, but apparently last year they beat the Springboxs by over 100 points. They are powerful. And ugly. Most of them have no front teeth, and apparently start the game by doing a dance that involves significant amounts of growling.

On the other hand, the South African team can be described as cute. There is a red-head (apparently a star, star player) who is completely adorable, and gets a lot of screen (and scream) time. I cheer along with the rest as the score see-saws back and forth. Finally one of the South African’s is given a Red Card – and escorted off the field. That leaves the Springboxs down one in numbers – and signals the end of the game. The All Blacks have won, by only a point – but still. Our fellow guests are not exactly disappointed – losing by one point is a miracle against the All Blacks – but hopes had run very high for a while. It did look like we might win.

Game over, it’s dinner and bed time. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day. Another ‘up at dawn’ safari, and then we must start the long long long journey back to Montreal.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Knysna is perfect! (What a relief!)


We wake in Mossel Bay to a perfect day. Cool and crisp, the sun is shining, the sky is blue – and the ocean is blue. And completely empty of whales.

This is getting a bit tough to take. Where are those whales? Folks who live and work around this area are constantly talking about seeing the whales – so the lack of whale is getting me a bit down. But I shall soldier on – the ocean has plenty of fish, and whales. Some are bound to turn up, Right?

We opt for the grocery store breakfast – bread and a bit of coffee. I’m not willing to pay $20 each for a buffet breakfast of more food than I could possibly eat. Makes no sense to me.

After our quick, and not very satisfying breakfast, we head over to the Dias Museum. It’s right next to the hotel – and houses something very special. A touch over 500 years ago, Bartolomeu Dias and 32 crew members sailed a Caravel from Lisbon to Africa on a voyage of discovery. 6 months after leaving Europe, while searching for fresh water, he made land literally 100 feet from where I slept last night. 500 years later, it was decided to build an exact replica of his ship, and sail it with a crew of 17 from Lisbon to Mossel Bay. After the 3 month voyage, the ship was towed by hand power up from the beach and into the museum. Once safely inside, the rear wall of the museum was constructed.

On the outside, the boat is an exact copy, right to the steering mechanism (no wheel – they used a rod tiller). And by today’s standards – it is small. In fact it is so small that it is hard to imagine 17 people working and sleeping and eating on board – let alone the original crew of 33! Inside some modifications had to be made – partly to make her sea-worthy by today’s standards – and partly to make her livable by today’s standards! They added a kitchen, 3 toilets, and bunk bed! The original crew slept on the decks, cooked on the decks, and well – I guess – did you know what on the decks. The cargo hold was filled with ballast to keep the boat steady in the water.

Definitely worth seeing! I was so impressed by the tiny size, and extremely durable construction. Naturally, when they made land, they did it in period clothing – so they have samples of that in the museum as well.

The rest of the Dias Museum complex is kinda silly – a shell museum, the original watering hole, and the Post Tree. Apparently, again 500 years ago, someone hung a message on the tree, and another captain from another boat months later retrieved the message. Hence the name, and the proper post box underneath for visitors to continue the tradition.

Have been there – seen the Museum, we motor on past beaches, houses, townships and informal settlements (their name for clusters of corrugated metal shacks that house folks not really ‘legal’ in South Africa. Our next stop is Knysna (don’t pronounce the K), and we are even going to stay 2 nights.

I’m really looking forward to this – my poor body isn’t built for one night stands – I need to get used to a bed before I can get a good night’s rest.

The drive into Knysna is actually ok – the town had a huge fire in June, so we were a bit worried – but apparently the damage was done to areas around the town, not the actually town. We stop into a hotel to ask directions – and are told that the Conrad Pezula is on the Eastern Headland.

Means nothing to me of course – but I follow the directions and find my self leaving Knysna and heading along the Knysna Lagoon towards the ocean. It turns out that Knysna occupies the far side of a lagoon – part of which is deep enough for proper boats, and the entrance to the lagoon is protected by two Headlands – East and West. These huge out-croppings of rock kept the harbour safe – but they are perilously close to each other. And directly facing South. The British navy named it one of the 3 most dangerous harbours in the world.

And justifiably it turns out. The waves outside the harbour mouth are huge – and if you attempt to enter as the tide is going in – you will be rushed in like no tomorrow. And if you are fool enough to try to bring in a sail boat when the tide is going out. Well – you aren’t going to make it.

In the days before motor – this must have be a entrance to challenge the brave and foolish. Even with the help of a motor – it’s not easy to navigate – you must still time your run in with the tides and waves.

Needless to say – all this nature makes for a spectacular setting for the Conrad Pezula. It’s perched high up on the Head – and the views to both the South and North are stunning. The hotel isn’t slum housing either. We drive up to the huge Portico entrance and are greeted by 3 bellman. One to take the luggage, One to take the car away (the only option is valet parking), and one to escort us in to registration. We are welcomed, offered our choice of refreshments – and assigned our room.

To get to our room, we must ride in a golf cart down and around to our 4-plex – 2 suites up, 2 suites down. Our suite is on the upper right, and features an entrance hall, a bar set-up with coffee machine, tea, etc, and then our room itself with it’s fireplace, sofa, bed and glass window wall open to the stunning view. And then of course there’s the bathroom – walk in glass shower, a toilet room, a double soaking tub, and two sinks. It’s a wow. I’m particularly impressed with the walk in closet (oh, I do like a walk in closet) – all wood, all black, and the doors are barn door style opening. Very very nice.

We love our lunch overlooking the pool, and opt to spend the afternoon relaxing in our room. We have dinner reservations at JJ’s Grill back in Knysna, so eventually we have to climb back up to the main lodge (we could have called for a golf cart – but that seemed overkill – it was only one stair case). Dinner is interesting – with a menu that features things like Ostrich, Kudu, and Crocodile. Victor opts for the Crocodile – looks a bit like chicken – I enjoy a nicely cooked T-Bone steak. The trim is different from what we do in Canada – more fat is left on during the cooking – resulting in a richer mouth feel, if also producing a lot of ‘steak’ you can’t eat.

Back to our palace with a view for bed – but first – can you please lite the fireplace? Of course – we’ll be right there. And they do! It’s lovely going to bed to a roaring fire. We will sleep well.

Signing off for yet another day – The Soup Lady

Day 2 in SA Wine Country – Only 1 Winery – Thank Goodness


We wake to our alarm, and go down stairs for breakfast. While not quite as wonderful as the breakfast at the Cape Heritage, it’s a delightful spread of various cheeses, cereals, fresh fruit (I love fruit), 4 different kinds of breads, and hot items such as scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes. I order a Latte (wonderful), and even score a newspaper to read. Nice start to the day.

We head out to Spier, one of the massively huge wineries in the area. Spier offers family friendly entertainment along with the wine tasting – there is a ‘Bird of Prey’ exhibit, a large area for picnics, and even Segway Tours of the vineyard. But we are here for the tasting. We are seated at a table, and asked which of the options on offer we would prefer – the standard tasting, the chocolate and wine tasting, or the prestige tasting. Victor reminds them that we’d pre-ordered our selections – and this upgrades us to the ‘knows something about wine’ category. A shift in staff happens – and our new ‘server’ is far more knowledgable about what Spier has to offer. It turns out that she started in the Cellars 3 years ago and has been steadily promoted to a role as one of the ‘top’ tasters.

She certainly knows her wines – and gives us an excellent taste tour though what the vineyard has to offer. The challenge comes when we try to buy some of the wines. They can’t figure out how to ship to the US. Seriously? You are one of the largest producers in the area, and you have no US distribution? How odd is that.

Well – never mind – your competitors have it figured out – we’ll buy wine from them.

After the tasting, we head over to the ‘Slow Market’. I’d seen the signs – it’s held at a winery near by on Saturday from 10-3 – and I think it sounds interesting. And I was right. Unlike the market we went to a few nights ago – this market is huge. There are vendors both inside and outside, and they are selling ready to eat food, soaps, African handicrafts, their personal art (paintings mostly, but there are a pair of brothers doing wire bead work that I love), flowers, vegetables, hand painted this and that – basically it’s a giant assortment of vendors, all selling things that they made.

We love it. We wander thru the entire market, checking prices and admiring this, that and the other before we decide on a freshly made waffle for lunch, along with strawberries picked that day by a local farmer. I surrender to the need to buy something by picking out beaded flowers made by the two brothers mentioned above, and Victor buys some wooden bowls to give as gifts.

After lunch, we head back into Stellenbosch to check out an antique store we spotted (it’s closed by the time we get there), and to visit two of the non-wine related highlights of Stellenbosch, the Village Museum and the Botanical Gardens.

At the Village Museum, the movie isn’t working, but the visits to the 4 older homes (one from 1750’s, two dating from around 1812, and the last from 1850. All 4 homes have interpreters dressed appropriately who give you the standard intro when you walk in. If you ask them questions, they actually know quite a bit about the homes, but the onus is on the visitor to be inquisitive.

We are particularly impressed with the knowledge of the gal in the first 1812 house, and actually leave her a bit extra as a tip.

The Botanical Gardens is a relatively compact area in town that has been a public garden for over 200 years. It is tied to the University – and there are students doing homework or just lounging on most of the larger green portions. The gardens has 4 large greenhouses, a giant Fern garden, a rose garden, several pond areas, and lots of paths winding here and there. It’s quite a lovely spot to spend some time. We are particularly intrigued by a large flowering plant that apparently grows in the shade. But of course – we can’t bring anything home with us like that – we must admire but not buy!

Eventually we head back to our hotel, change for dinner and again wander the streets searching for just the right spot to have dinner. We opt for a hotel restaurant that has set up tables on the sidewalk, making for a lovely outdoor eating area. I love my braised pork belly – a nice change from Lamb chops.

After dinner, it’s back to the Oude Werf for bed.

Tomorrow is another day, another winery… Signing off – The Soup Lady

4 Wineries in one day is too much of a good thing..


It’s not that I object to visiting Wineries – I’ve been to dozens. It’s just doing 4 in one day really wipes you out. Even if you only sip small amounts of the wine – and carefully spit as much as possible, the mental effort is telling.

So I was a bit concerned that today we were doing 4 wineries – and that we had to get from the lovely Tuscan Villa Guest House in Fishhoek to the first winery in Stellenbosch by 10:00 AM. But we gave it our best. Things went great at the start – we drove past the beach towns on the Indian Ocean side of False Bay, and up to the major road that cuts Eastward along the water. Everything would have been fine – except that the major highway was closed to Eastward traffic. No worries – we’ll just follow the detour.

Except the detour takes us right though the center of the Khayelitsha Township.

Ok – I’m not worried. We just won’t stop.

Of course that’s easier said then done. Folks treat the road running thru the township as a walking path – so they cross anywhere they like, and cars have to stop or run over them. But because we’re travelling slowly – I get a chance to see what early morning at the edges of the Township look like, and it’s interesting. The dozens and dozens of guys who run the grills are setting up for the day. They drag 1/2 steel drums that sit on wooden legs out to the side of the road and fill them with either charcoal or wood. Then a grate sits on top and they grill their meat – from the looks I got – it’s mostly chicken, with some other cuts. And it honestly smells wonderful. I’m curious as to the prices – or for that matter – why they do this. We decide that it’s hot and stuffy inside the tiny houses – and cooking out on the street makes cooking a social adventure – plus keeps the house cooler. And if you can manage to sell some – even better.

The key point here is that the number of folks doing this is staggering. I spotted probably several hundred in just our short drive on just that one road. And I’m guessing there are hundreds more doing the same on all the other roads thru the township.

I also learned a new term – there are townships – legal areas for folks to live, provided with what we might think of as the minimum infrastructure needed – roads, basic sewer, running water (although it might be a single faucet for several homes to share), and electricity. Again – several homes might be sharing a single electric ‘box’, mainly because one ‘plot’ might be shared by 4 different family homes. But still – infrastructure exists. Then there are the informal homelands. These are not provided with any infrastructure by the government – no water, no sewer, no electricity, no garbage removal. At best, there might be port-a-potties. The problem – they are as ‘permanent’ as the townships. Luckily, we are driving thru a legal township, so there is infrastructure including stop signs and cross walks.

We eventually clear the township without any problems (it huge, remember), other then getting a bit hungry, and continue to head North East. Our goal is the wine making area of Stellenbosch.

There are literally dozens and dozens of wineries in this single area, by one account over 150 of them – and the hill sides are covered with grape vines, both bush type and trellised. Squeezed among the vines are the manor houses and wine making facilities. The ones called Estates use only the grapes grown in their own vineyards to make their wines. The other wineries will buy grapes from smaller producers, refining them on site to make their wine.

The 4 wineries we visit are Beyerskloof, Kanu, Mulderbosch, and Overgaauw. The first was probably the best of the bunch – not only was the wine great, but we could easily get it shipped to our address in the states. Winner! Kanu was utterly forgettable – not great wine, not a wonderful manor house – absolutely nothing to recommend it. We hit Mulderbosch in time for lunch – and ordered a pizza for me and a charcuterie plate for Victor – they served us enough food for 4 people, we couldn’t finish even half of either portion. This has been an ongoing issue here in South Africa – frequently the portions are completely unexpected – and we end up with way too much leftovers. The wine tasting itself was ok – but not great. Last, and probably the nicest in terms of personal service was Overgaauw. The gal that gave us the tasting was the sister of the current owner – who is the fourth generation of his family to run the winery. Her wedding pictures were featured in several places around the tasting room. We absolutely loved both the wines and the history of the winery. And we actually walked out with a bottle of their port. Oh, was it yummy.

Wine tastings done, we drive on to our hotel in Stellenbosch. And what a charming village it is. Part University Town, part tourist Mecca for wine tasting, it’s lively, open, and easy to wander. Our hotel, the Olde Werf (Old farm yard) was a recent complete renovation – the entrance way was an older manor house, but once past that you are in a completely modern facility – including heavy glass panels in the floors allowing light to filter down from the sky lights to all the walk ways. The Glassed in Elevator shaft is also a statement piece, as is the area around the infinity style swimming pool. In our room, the bathroom is part of the bedroom – so much so that one wall of the glassed in shower forms a part of the wall of the bedroom. Not great for privacy while showering, but we’re all friends.

Huge floor to ceiling double sided mirrors formed dividing walls between the sink and the bed area. With a floor to ceiling curtain pulled to one side, but available to close off the bathroom.

If I’ve done a bad job of describing the room – it’s because it’s rather hard to describe – but very ‘designer’. The bad news – the walls are incredibly thin. We can hear the folks on either side of us, not distinctly, but clear enough to be annoying. Hopefully they will quiet down after dinner.

It was suggested by the gal at Overgaauw that for dinner we try the ‘Wine House’ – which turns out to be spelled Wijnhaus. It offers wines by the sample size (for about 50 cents a glass), by the glass (for maybe $5), and by the bottle (for around $20). Wine here in SA is inexpensive, readily available, and delicious. It is also abundant. Folks start drinking wine at noon – and we are not sure when (or if) they ever stop. For dinner we order what we think are reasonable options, but both main courses turn out to be huge. Victor’s Chicken Schnitzel consists of two huge pieces – and my 4 Lamp chops are ample for me – Victor is on his own to finish – and he can’t. But it was delicious.

We meander down the busy street – filled with cafes bustling with students enjoying the warm evening, and head back to our hotel. Once there, we say hi to the doorman, parking valet, and security guard – all standing at the front door. We also greet the two night clerks at the front desk before climbing the stairs to our room. I also spot at least one other employee at the bar serving late night drinks and coffee. Staff levels in SA are very high by North American Standards – which is a good thing I guess – given the level of unemployment.

The best news – our neighbours are also exhausted – so all is quiet.

Signing off in hopes of a good nights rest – The Soup Lady

Exploring Cape Town with Maurice Podbrey


We have long been supporters of Centaur Theatre in Montreal, and in fact this trip is based on an ‘Auction’ item that was part of their 2016 fund raising campaign. Completely independent of that – my husband has long maintained a casual friendship based on the occasional donation with Maurice Podbrey – the founder and original Artistic Director of Centaur Theatre.

So – it seemed natural to let him know that we were coming to his hometown of Cape Town – and I guess it seemed natural to him to give us a tour of his ‘city’.

Today and tomorrow are planned to be spent with Maurice – but before we can meet up with him, we must change hotels.

I was unimpressed from the start with the Southern Sun – and after taking advantage of the two nights that were part of our Auction package, I suggested that we change locations. Our new ‘home’ is the Cape Heritage Hotel. And a lovely place it is! Where the Southern Sun Cullinan was cold, expensive, and decidedly too large for my taste, the Cape Heritage is warm and friendly – and breakfast is included. It’s a bit further from the Water Front – but in a much nicer area of town. There are shops around – which means there are people around – and it feels a lot more cozy.

The Hotel itself is small – but glorious. Hard wood floors, high high ceilings, African inspired art and furniture, lovely rooms for relaxing that are not so massive as to make one feel lost. Our room is lovely. A huge king sized bed, a full sized desk, a small fridge (I’m beginning to see a pattern – we’ve had a fridge in every room so far), and the bathroom is huge. At least as large as the one we had in Pretoria at the Opikopi – but without that insanely large walk-in closet. The decor in the bedroom is African Oriental – so red and black colours, wall hanging that vaguely imply ‘Orient’, and occasional touches that scream orient like boxes of soap crystals and a painting of a modern geisha. On the main floor of the hotel are a collection of common rooms and open spaces – two ‘lounges’, plus an enclosed courtyard with a coffee shop and bar. Called ‘The Vine’, it celebrates a grape vine planted here in 1771 – and still producing wine grapes every year. Since it is early spring here – the vine is just beginning to put out leaves – but it is massive.

On to our tour. Maurice picks us up in his ‘little buggy’, an older car that while small – completely works in this very crowded city. Our destination is ‘Fish on the Rocks’ – a Fish and Chips establishment in Hout Bay. To get there we climb out of Cape Town, over the saddle between Table Mountain and Signal Mountain, and on thru a decidedly touristy beach area towards Hout Bay. The ‘Fish on the Rocks’ lives up to its reputation – the fish and chips are lovely. Two portions is more than enough for the three of us – and there are even left overs. The highlight of my visit here is not the food – it’s the seals that are swimming and playing in the Kelp forest right below the shack that houses the restaurant. They are having such a wonderful time – floating on their backs, sunning themselves, and occasionally ducking down into the water to munch a fish (or two).

After lunch – we head on towards Noordheok thru Chapman’s Pass. This is a scenic and rather dramatic road carved into the mountains that form the backbone of this part of South Africa towards the Cape of Good Hope. I’m very glad that Maurice is driving to be honest – and rather happy that for this part of the trip we are on the inner lane! The road drops off precipitously into the rocks and water below, with little in the way of guard rails or American security features. Don’t lose control – it would not be a happy ending.

But the views are stunning – a huge and very empty beach stretches for at least several kilometres after the crest of the pass, and there are frequent pull-offs where you can enjoy a picnic lunch, or just admire the view. At one there are folks whale spotting – and we can just see the fins of at least 2 whales fishing casually in the waters far below us.

Maurice explains that this is the ‘cold’ water side of the point. On the Indian Ocean side, the water is warmer. So the fish life is different. We’re heading towards the ‘warm’ side later in this trip to see the whales. And I think the Penguins also live on the warmer side. On the ‘cold’ side is Cape Town – and trust me – it’s cold. Colder than I expected in any case. I feel a bit like my dad did on a trip to Montreal – I’m wearing everything I own – all at the same time!

Anyway – our destination is a coffee shop. Maurice loves his coffee – and this is one of his favourites. So we stop in Noordhoek, get our coffee – and head back to Cape Town.

Maurice invites us to his home in Cape Town after the ‘long’ drive – and we accept. He lives in a 2 bedroom apartment that he rents from an older gentleman in England. Since Maurice is 83, and the gentleman in question is in his 90’s – one must wonder how long this arrangement can continue – but never mind – we are invited in and it’s quite fun.

Maurice is working on a new project – a one hour version of his life story. And since Maurice has been famous forever, at least in Montreal terms, getting his life story down to an hour isn’t going to be easy. He is or was friends with Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Peter Sellers among others. As Artistic Director of Centaur he ‘discovered’ and remains friends with David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi, and Rich Salutin. He regales us with short tales from his life – stories his father told him, stories he has told others, and summarizes a bit of his life. His wife is still living and working in Montreal – so they get together as chance and travel permits. His kids and grand-kids call him on the phone frequently – and this is probably one his greatest thrills. He quips that he must be lonely – he hasn’t stopped talking since we arrived! I disagree – he is simply a marvellous story teller – and we are an appreciative audience.

He demonstrates with a pencil how life evolves. He starts by balancing the pencil on his finger, this is middle age. 1/2 your life behind you, 1/2 ahead – balanced between the past and the future. As you age further, the pencil slips downward – more past, less future. But then you have grand-kids – and the pencil flips. Now the future extends ahead of you forever.

Beautiful.

We chat, eat a bit of fruit, and eventually decide to do a Greek dinner. Some wine – not so much song, and then Maurice takes us back to our lodging.

Tomorrow he has promised to take us to his newest love – a sports club he supports in one of the Black townships that surround Cape Town. He has described Cape Town to us as the most segregated city in South Africa, perhaps in the world. The whites live in very specific sections, often with a view of the water, and incredibly high real estate values, the ‘colored’ folks live in bands of housing that surround the white enclaves, and the ‘Black’s’ live in bands that surround the ‘colored’ bands. The bands are kept intact by several forces – the price of real estate, the value of being ‘in’ your community, and the discomfort of being ‘out’ of your community. I suspect that unspoken forces also have an impact – I’m thinking of condo and community associations that must approve new owners (and thus can control who buys in). Clybourne Park, recently performed at Centaur Theatre, referenced this issue. It’s not a new problem – but here in Cape Town, I’m guessing that this kind of pressure is real.

So – tomorrow should be an interesting day – Today was definitely a winner.

Signing off in anticipation of more to come – The Soup Lady

Cape Town – The Waterfront, District 6 Museum – and a horrid hotel


So – we arrived by rail into Cape Town – and like the luxury excursion it was meant to be – the trip ends just as well as it began – porters take our luggage from the cabin to the debarkation point where all the shuttles are gathered to take guests here, there and everywhere. Rohan Vos, our host and the owner of Rovos Rail is in Cape Town to bid us farewell – and makes an effort to shake everyone’s hand. His personal commitment to this grand adventure is intense. Yes – for him this is personal.

As pre-organized, we are met by a gentleman from the Southern Sun hotel chain. He helps us into the car – and drives us quickly back to the hotel, announcing that he’s in a rush because he has another appointment.

The Southern Sun – Cullinan and the Southern Sun – Waterfront are actually back-to-back hotels on one large piece of land – not quite at the Waterfront – although the name does imply a rather different location. To get to the waterfront is probably a 10 minute walk – max, but we are told that this area is not safe to walk around – even during the day. A scam currently in vogue is to approach tourists and inform them that there is a fee for walking on the sidewalk. Nice welcome, eh?

Sufficiently cowed, we foolishly opt to eat dinner at the restaurant in the hotel. Be forewarned – it’s a buffet – and the food is mediocre at best. There is plenty of it, and a nice selection of cheeses, but after the careful plating and elaborate fare on Rovos Rail – this is a let-down. It’s a bit like going from one of the nicest boats on a fancy cruise line to one of the cheapest. They got the memo, and think they can ‘do’ the same – but they miss the point.

Our room is fine – a smallish bathroom where they have crammed in a bathtub and a shower – with notes everywhere telling of the water crisis in Cape Town. So please – keep showers short, don’t run the sink, and for goodness sake, don’t take a bath.

Oh well – we weren’t planning on it.

After our oh-so-forgettable dinner, we are off to bed. Tomorrow we will try to explore Cape Town.

Breakfast is another buffet offering – but this time I ask if there is any other option. Given that you can’t ‘walk’ the streets – the pleasant gal suggests that we try the cafe, located a floor below the restaurant. They are happy to serve us just a latte and a cup of coffee – and two poached eggs and toast. Total cost – $10. Not a cheap breakfast, but better than the sky high prices of the Buffet.

To get to the waterfront, where our cruise to Robben Island starts, we must take the hotel shuttle – and that leaves every hour at 5 minutes past the hour. Ok – we will wait. Eventually the shuttle leaves, and because we don’t explain that our purpose is to take the trip to Robben Island, he takes us to the far end of the Water front. We hustle as fast as we can towards the meeting point – but arrive 10 minutes too late. We understand from the information gal that it will be ok for us to wait till the 12:30 trip, advice that turns out to be totally wrong. We have missed our trip, that money is spent – and the next opening for ticket sales is on Friday – by which date we will be long gone from Cape Town. I’ll admit now that I’m not happy about missing the tour, I’d organized it months ago, it was one of my ‘must do’ adventures. But I can’t really blame anyone. We could have moved a bit faster in the morning and caught the earlier shuttle – we could have asked to be let off nearer the meeting point – could-da, should-da. But these didn’t happen.

Oh well – such is travel – if nothing goes wrong, it’s not much of an adventure.

Faced with lots of time on the water front, our next choice is the new Modern Art Museum. But today entrance is free in celebration of Heritage Day and the grand opening of the museum. The line up stretches around a city block. This kind of thing is not appealing, I’m sorry.

So our third choice is the Chavonnes Battery Museum – which turns out to be a good option. The museum is very small – and devoted to the history of this tiny section of Cape Town, but on the main floor there is an exhibit of Prize Winning underwater Photographs. And they are stunningly beautiful. Really the highlight of the museum space.

After the museum, we go looking for fish and chips – but our first choice is sold out. Heritage Day has proved unusually popular! Our second choice is near where we will catch a taxi to the District 6 museum, an exhibit that I’m quite keen to see. So we eat there (it’s ok – not outstanding), and we grab a taxi. Hint on taxi’s in Cape Town – insist that they use the meter. They are very keen to quote you a price – much higher than the meter would be – but so reasonable by our standards that it’s hard to resist. We are quoted 90 Rand by one guy – and the actual metered cost was under 60 Rand. Lesson learned. Meters on please.

The District 6 Museum is a one room affair with lots of reading material. The point of the museum is to celebrate and explain the happenings in 1970-1976 when this part of Cape Town, a thriving if poor ‘multi-racial, multi-cultural’ area was deemed by the then government to be ‘white’. All the current inhabitants were told to move – and ‘relocated’ to appropriate settlements much much further from the center of the city – and their jobs! And the relocation locations were different depending on your status – so folks of Chinese background where forced to locate to one place, blacks to a different area, Indian’s (from India) to yet another. This despite having been long term neighbours and despite having owned their homes for up to 100 years!

It is very hard to defend a seemingly arbitrary decision like this – particularly since most of District 6 is still undeveloped land today. As folks were ‘moved’ out, their homes were bulldozed to prevent other folks from moving in, and while a large portion of the newly ‘flattened’ space was used to build the (at that time) white only Technikon College, the rest was left uninhabited. There is an on-going attempt to make restitution – but to prove that your family actually owned land in District 6 requires photographic evidence. And folks are not able, or in fact willing to move back. They have new homes, new communities, and District 6 is barren.

After our tour, we decide to try for the Castle of New Hope – a fort located close by the museum. But it is closed at 4:00 PM – so we decide to walk back to our hotel. Mistake. Should have taken the taxi. Our walk is short – maybe 15 minutes, but we are approached by young men several times, and while I don’t know what they wanted – we weren’t willing to slow down and find out – the result is a very uncomfortable feeling.

Back at the hotel, Victor decides to go back to our room and work on his computer – I’m itching to go back to the water front – and so I catch a taxi in that direction. He doesn’t even have a meter – so I overpay a bit – but I’m glad not to be walking alone. Once on the water front, I check out the line for the new museum – and it’s gone! Perfect – just what I wanted to do.

So I explore the brand new Zeite MOCAA museum. This is a modern art museum that has been open for just 3 days – and has been built in restored grain silos. It is a stunner. The architecture alone is worth the visit. The museum occupies 6 floors – with an additional 6 floors of what I believe to be condos soaring above. They have skillfully opened spaces in the silos, sometimes keeping the distinctive silo appearance, other times losing it completely to the space for art. It is glorious. And mobbed. I run into two young SA ladies in one of the rooms – filled with bricks hanging from the ceiling, forming a barrier to progress but providing multiple photo ops – and they ask me to take their pictures. We chat a bit – one is a model/Actress (her words), and is quite stunningly beautiful. Her friend is no slouch in the looks department either.

We wiz thru the exhibits – it’s very close to closing time – and end up missing the last 2 floors – simply no time left. But as is normal with Modern art museums – some things you get, some you wonder why they are considered art. One section of rooms were cow skins that had been formed into bodies of women in a variety of poses. The skins aren’t complete – so you must imagine the parts of the women you don’t see – but the effect is quite brilliant. I also loved a series of black on black photographs of young black women. Not so obvious to me were an area of candles – some lit, other not, and a series of hair styles on oval picture frames. But modern art is always a bit challenging.

After the museum, I wandered a bit of the water front – it’s busy and bustling, there are friendly faces everywhere – and it’s the first time in our trip that I have been able to walk and feel comfortable. I go into the Victoria and Alfred (Not Albert – this is about her son, not her husband) Mall – and am immediately impressed. It’s huge, filled with nooks and crannies that provide an interesting walking experience – and the stores are incredible. There are the traditional over-the-top international shops – Gucci, Hugo Boss, and the like, there are multiple Diamond merchants, and there are some not so familiar names – like Woolworth, There are a total of 450 different outlets scattered over 300 acres. There is a food court, multiple restaurants – including Willoughby & Co where I had a lovely sushi dinner, and a variety of ‘African’ art shops – from the insanely expensive to the relatively bargain variety. I had a lovely time wandering the space – enjoying the freedom of being able to just walk!

The Water Front area is a working marina and port – albeit for small boats – the larger boats go elsewhere. And this of course adds to the ‘reality’ of the place. Bridges open and close as boats go in and out, and there is a section where the Hairy Seals that love these cold waters hang out to sun bathe.

Bottom line – I loved it!

Eventually, I head back to where the shuttle will pick me up to go back the oh so short distance to the Southern Sun Cullinan, and head home.

This day has ended much better than it began – I have high hopes for tomorrow.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Rovos Rail – Part Two – Da Aar to Cape Town


I’m in the afternoon of day two on this luxury train trip from Pretoria to Cape Town. The comfort and extra touches on offer are simply stunning, and are worth a quick description.

In our large private stateroom with it’s Queen Bed, Desk, two arm chairs, and full bathroom are complete amenity kits, including a free laundry service – and a free pressing service. I make use of both – the pressing service to ready my gowns for the formal dinners on Friday and Saturday night, and the laundry service because it’s been a few days, and laundry does mount up! On the desk is a gift box of various cookies to enjoy in case you run out of food – and a full bar menu. Just let your personal suite server know your needs – and she will stock the handy fridge to your requirements. No charge of course. Like a great wedding – it’s as much wine and alcohol (and food) as you want.

When we return from dinner on the first night, our bed has been made up, including warm cozy duvets (it gets really cold at night in the African plains), toffees to enjoy, and a note telling us about tomorrows weather – which is more of the same – warm and sunny.

When we return from dinner the 2nd night – we are stunned by how they have made the bed! We had told the booking agent that it is our 47th Wedding Anniversary (children please note – 3 years to 50… have you started planning?). And they have surprised us with a bottle of bubbly, two champagne glasses, a gift box of a honey/salt Carmel spread (sweet on sweet – so popular here), and a personalized note congratulating us. But it’s the heart of rose petals that is truly over the top.

Well – we shall just have to celebrate I guess!

The sky visible from our bed is filled with lovely stars – and we fall asleep watching the African flat lands and the glorious sky drift by.

This morning, our 3rd day on the train, the weather has decidedly changed. It’s cold. Really, really cold. I’m regretting my packing choices, would it have been so hard to pack at least one pair of warmer socks?

Having not figured out how to turn our AC from cool to heat, we bundle up and go into the lounge, where it is decidedly warmer. I’m offered a cup of hot water, and a latte with breakfast, both of which are very welcome.

Enjoying South Africa, at least from the train, is a question of where you look. From where I sit in the oh-so-comfy lounge car there is a view to the right and the left.

If I look left, I see young men sitting looking forlorn on the train tracks, and behind them a line of what can best be described as ‘better’ government housing. As we arrived in the station of Matjiesfontein, we passed groups of tiny corrugated shacks, then things improved to the left – going from corrugated metal to cement homes. Clearly not middle class – although given the reality of South Africa – these could easily be middle class for black Africans. Certainly there is smattering of Satelite dishes, and even the occasional car.

If I look to the right, there are three musicians serenading anyone who walks by, mostly Beatle songs – and then the most adorable Victorian village you’ve ever seen. It is quite lovely – and in stark contrast to the relatively depressing view to the left. How unNorth American. According to the guide book – the village is the work of just one man – Jimmy Logan. He and his wife arrived here in 1890 with little more than a vision, and from that built almost everything we see to the right.

In conversation with other guests on our train, we learn that one of the major issues in South Africa is the stark lack of social programs. There is no unemployment insurance, no social welfare, few government sponsored options for helping the poor out of their predicament. And this is clear to even the most casual tourist. If you are born on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks – your parents are likely lacking in education, your grand-parents likely had no better choices, and you have few if any options. And life is boring. We’ve seen flocks of kids who gather whenever the train slows down to come and check us out – we are easily the highlight of their day.

But enough of my muttering on these issues. Apparently if you are willing to work very hard – and have just a bit of good luck, you can break at least part of the endless cycle. The staff on the train is an interesting mixture of whites and black – although the blacks tend to be wait staff and housekeeping, the white members of the staff are the sommelier, train manager and his assistant and the gals running the sales shop and offering customer service. My husband observes that perhaps they don’t see the clear division of tasks that we do – and perhaps he’s right. On the other hand – the driver of our train was a very very nice Black woman. So some things must be looking up.

On the nature side – I spent a great part of yesterday on the Observation Deck, keeping my eyes peeled for animal sightings. I was rewarded with glimpses of an Ostrich, lots of Springbok and the like, plus two red deer that were as surprised as I was when the train roared past. I also spotted huge solar farms, and a series of massive wind generators on the ridge line of the hills. Better homes, when we pass them, often sport Solar Hot Water systems – which makes a great deal of sense in this environment.

Only one scary moment – we were stopped in De Aar, waiting for folks to check the train I would guess when a young man attempted to claim onto the Observation Deck. He had been asking my husband for food – and apparently took his attention to mean he had permission to climb aboard. The train security folks responded quickly – and he ran back into the housing near the train yard – but afterwards we were reminded that as hard as it seems, generosity here isn’t as clear cut as back home. You are better to support the NGO systems that work to keep the poor fed and housed, then to reward begging. Tough on our North American sensitivities.

We have met some very nice folks from Holland – and share lunch and travel adventures with them. They have been to more places then we have – which is saying a lot, although their visits were often shorter. That’s the advantage of travelling for pleasure rather than business – you can choose how long to stay! And then this afternoon we spent time again on the Observation Deck. Company was rather lively, with one younger retiree from South Africa holding court with his varied experiences around Africa. He did point out the differences between ‘townships’, which are places where Blacks choose to live and have government services – like electricity and running water, and squatter camps – where Blacks live without any government services – no toilets, no electricity, no garbage removal. Once identified the differences are actually quite visible, although we’re not talking small places in either case. I’m guessing at least a thousand homes, in each of the few squatter camps we passed. Curiously, the townships were walled in, the squatter camps had no walls, and could expand in all directions as needed. From both types of ‘homesteads’, dozens and dozens kids gaily waved as we rode past.

Our train has finally cleared the mountain tunnels and dropped at least 1000 vertical meters towards Cape Town, and the surroundings have gone from the African plain to the food basket. Green fields, vineyards, green houses, a private zoo, townships, squatter camps, and more upscale housing and factories provide visual distraction as we make our way towards Table Mountain and Cape Town.

Our plan for the next few days is to visit Cape Town and then continue our tour along South Africa’s Garden Route. Penguins, Whales and Wine Tasting – here we come!

Signing off – The Soup Lady