Monday, February 11, 2008

Big White

In case anyone is still reading this blog, here are some pictures of my (Shawn) trip to Big White Mountain Resort (just outside of Kelowna, British Columbia).  I spent 4 weeks snowboarding there.  Bliss...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Italy and Croatia

Hello everyone,
After 5 months of being on the move, we were tired of being vagabonds so we set off looking for a place to stay put for a while.  We have spent the better part of the last three months in Trieste, a small port city on the Adriatic in the north-east corner of Italy.  Trieste has shifted between Italian, Slavic, and Austro-Hungarian rule over the centuries, so it presents an interesting mix of cuisine, architecture, culture, and language. 

We rented a room in an apartment right in the center of Trieste.  Here's exactly where we lived. 

We have two great housemates: Arianna, and Francesco.  Also pictured are Sylvia our landlord, and her boyfriend Pier-Paolo.

A typical day in Trieste for us has been:

-         Elisabeth goes for a morning swim in the sea and on the way home hits the panificio for fresh bread, the salumeria for meat and cheese, and the market for fruits and vegetables. 

-         We take the bus to the cliffs outside of Trieste, and rock climb for a few hours.  It’s not quite as good as South Africa or Thailand, but still pretty decent.  Elisabeth pauses halfway up the wall and picks wild sage to make the Tuscan dish white beans and sage.

-         Elisabeth continues her gastronomic explorations in the kitchen to make dinner.  We drink an excellent super-cheap Italian wine (like $4 cheap).

-         After dinner, we walk to Zampolli or Chocolat, the two best gelaterias in Trieste to enjoy a gelato with throngs of Triestinos.  On a hot summer night, they are more popular than the bars.  Gelato is followed by a long walk to digest and induce sleep.

-         If there’s something going on in the piazza, we head there.  We’ve seen some amazing free concerts:  the San Francisco jazz duo Tuck and Patty, the Al Foster Quintet (he’s a famous jazz drummer), the British folk band The Fairport Convention, and a great Afro-Cuban big-band called Mercadonegro.  We also saw the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, put on by a theater company from New York.

It’s a tough life!

Other scenes from Trieste:

We’ve taken a few side trips as well:

Not really a side trip but our first destination in Italy.  We met up with Elisabeth’s father and niece, Jasmine, who were backpacking around Italy. Although unbelievably clogged with tourists, it was still quite nice.  For four days, we indulged in the many cultural and culinary delights on offer.  One day, we rented a car and drove through the Chianti region, visiting the Brolio Castle.  We picnicked on a hillside with wine, marinated sundried tomatoes, grilled vegetables, olives, fresh bread, local pecorino cheese and bresaola (a cured beef). After a wonderful time together, Jasmine and Aldo headed home to Montreal. Thanks to Jazz for letting me post some of her pictures.

Istria, Croatia

The peninsula east of Trieste is Istria; the region where Elisabeth’s father’s family is from.  We visited upon arrival in June and then returned for the fruits in September.  Elisabeth is mad for figs and grapes and they grow abundantly in every garden.  We spent time with family, at the beach and did some sightseeing.  Elisabeth’s cousins Marina and Mario took us to some of the costal towns where the Venetian influence is most evident.  We also visited the city of Rijeka where her cousin Sandra lives.  Everyone speaks Croatian, Italian and varying levels of English.

Elisabeth’s uncle Aldo makes 1000 liters of wine and grappa (a distilled spirit made from grapes) every year.  Some is sold, some is given to friends, and some is used to ambush unsuspecting Canadians.

Vienna, Austria

We took the train to Vienna and spent five days there to celebrate Elisabeth’s birthday, and our anniversary.  We went to several museums and galleries, saw a Mozart concert in a tiny recital hall where the man himself used to perform, had a slice of famous Sacher Torte from the Hotel Sacher (but Elisabeth’s mom makes a better one), and saw the new Harry Potter movie (brilliant).

Sadly, we have already left our Italian life in Trieste.  We’ve decided to visit the beautiful South of Ontario!  Yes, we have come home for a little while so that Elisabeth can complete her graduate school applications, and Shawn can start looking for a job.  We plan to travel again later in the year. 

See you soon!

Ciao, Shawn e Elisabetta

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

South Africa

Hello everyone,

Executive Summary:
- Rented a car and drove around the country
- Johannesburg for 10 days
- Kruger National Park: Saw elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and more.
- Hiking in the Drakensberg mountains, and saw the Drakensberg Boys Choir.
- Few days on the coast (cold and wet)
- Few more days in the mountains (cold and snowy)
- Wine tasting and climbing in the south west of the country
- Now in Cape Town
- Flying to Italy tomorrow.
We don’t offer much excuse for the five weeks it has been since our last update.  Only to say that we’ve been enjoying South Africa thoroughly, and Internet access prices have been extremely high in most places (and good wine extremely cheap, so fiscal responsibility drove us to drink). 

In an effort to tackle as much of the country as possible, we decided to rent a car.  Spanning mountains, forest, plains and coast, South Africa’s geographic diversity reminded us a bit of home.  Can you believe we have driven more than 5000km in 31 days?

South Africa is a complicated country, having emerged from white supremacist rule only 13 years ago.  Immediately following Apartheid, South Africa’s newly unified society was incredibly stratified, with 2 million whites holding economic power and education, while the 42 million black and coloured (meaning South Asian and mixed people) people had little of either.  South Africa’s challenges to overcome these inequities are enormous.  To compound matters, old prejudices on both sides die hard.  Depending on who you talk to, things are either going well, terribly or somewhere in between. 

Here are some of our observations:  Crime is extremely high (even modest homes have walls topped with razor wire and electric fencing).  Unemployment is high.  Generally speaking, whites are wealthy, and blacks are poor (though there is a emergent black middle class).  AIDS is ravaging the country, and those afflicted are disproportionately black (a problem exacerbated by ignorant, apathetic, and ineffectual public health policy).  Very strong affirmative action policies are causing consternation amongst whites who, race politics aside, are critical to the economy. 

We flew into Jo’burg and spent the first couple of days getting our bearings.  Getting around the city is problematic.  Using public transport is not safe, hailing a cab is impossible, and there are many areas through which it is unsafe to walk.  Luckily, we met a wonderful lady named Paula who runs Paula’s Tours and Transfers.  Not only was she an incredible guide to Jo’burg, but she took a liking to us and kindly rented us her guestroom at a fraction of what we were paying at a B&B.  Paula and her partner Chantelle were wonderful hosts, and we felt very much at home. 

A weekend Braai is quintessential South Africa.  Lots of barbequed meat is served with vegetables, potatoes, rolls, and of course wine. Pictured below is Michael, Chantelle’s brother showing off his expertise.


“Biltong” is similar to jerky – dehydrated meat.  The early Boer settlers developed the
preservation method to sustain them during the long treks inland.  It has since become something of a South
African staple snack.  South African's eat a lot of meat in general.  We were able to buy ostrich, kudu, and springbok from ordinary gorcery stores. 

We visited Soweto, (the name Soweto is a contraction of “South West Township”), a huge township outside of Jo’burg.  Townships were areas that the Apartheid government designated as living areas for blacks.  Millions of people were forcibly relocated to townships all over the country.  Soweto today continues to be the home to many.  Conditions range from comfortable, middle income homes to slums.  It was actually quite a pleasant place.  Unexpectedly, we felt safer in Soweto than in many areas of Jo’burg.  Pictured is a memorial square for the anti-Apartheid movement that the government inexplicably built at a cost of millions of rand.  Ironically, just across the train tracks behind these boys is a slum.

The Constitutional Court which deals in interpretation and application of South Africa's constitution.

One Sunday, Paula and Chantelle took us for a drive during which we visited a decommissioned gold mine outside of Jo’burg.  Left of Shawn is Paula and the mine guide.  Next to Elisabeth is Dan, an American lawyer who was clerking for a judge at the Constitutional Court.  He was renting Paula and Chantelle’s cottage.

Kruger National Park
The national park system is South Africa is excellent, and Kruger National Park is certainly its crown jewel.  The park is huge - approximately the size of Israel, and covers a diverse range of ecosystems.  And of course, there is wildlife in abundance.  The camps within the park are quite sophisticated offering everything from campsites or safari tents with beds to fully equipped cottages with their own kitchens.  Of course even if you only opt for a safari tent, you still have a fridge in your tent, the use of the shared kitchen facilities and some of the nicest campground bathrooms I have ever seen.  During the day, we would drive for hours, looking for animals (we drove about 650km in the park).  You are only allowed to exit your vehicle at camps and protected rest areas, so it is all very safe.  The animals are remarkably unperturbed by the presence of cars, perhaps regarding them as funny looking, not particularly tasty, but generally harmless.  We were lucky enough to have close encounters with all of the “Big 5” (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo) as well as a host of other animals.

We saw lots of elephants, including a large herd that crossed the road in front of us.

A mother rhino and her baby.  These animals are incomprehensibly huge.

Leopard dragging a freshly killed impala.

Waterbuck are easily identifiable by the evolutionarily improbable target on their rears.

These piggies were fast - they were running at about 35km/h.

This large bird was stalking a baby impala (in the grass on the right) that had somehow become seperated from his herd.

After leaving Kruger, we spent a day at Blyde Canyon, the 3rd largest canyon in the world.  This is a picture of a rock formation called the Potholes that were carved by a small branch of the Blyde river.

Leaving Blyde Canyon, we drove toward the central mountains of South Africa, to a range known as the Drakensburg.  The Drakensburg is nestled against the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, a sovereign nation completely surrounded by South Africa.  The hiking was incredibly beautiful.  This area is also home to a private boys school at which the world renown Drakensburg Boys Choir is based.  We attended their weekly public concert, which was pretty amazing.  Their repertoire spanned western choral music, Afrikaans traditional, black African traditional, gospel, and a stunning a cappella rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Wild Coast:

We spent a couple of days on the Indian ocean coast, an area known as the “Wild Coast”.  It’s famous for surfing.  Unfortunately, due to an unseasonable cold snap, the weather was terrible so we soon left.

From the coast, we headed back in to the mountains to a town called Hogsback.  Hogsback is beautiful and lush, and where J.R.R Tolkien supposedly found his inspiration for the Shire, home of the Hobbits.  The same cold snap that chased us from the coast brought a modest snowfall to Hogsback.  This brief flirtation with winter, though lovely, was something we were not really clothed for.  So apart from a short walk, we largely spent our couple of days there huddled by the fire with a bottle of port.

From Hogsback we drove south west, into the Karoo, a scrub landscape of smaller mountains.  Graff-Reinet is a typical small Afrikaans frontier town.  A small, sleepy place, we stayed one night and moved on.  The Valley of Desolation is in a national park near the town.

Montagu is another small town in the Karoo, but held our interest for two reasons:  it is the beginning of South Africa’s wine region, and is also home to some of the country’s best rock climbing.  We rented a little cottage for 5 nights, and spent our days hopping from winery to winery doing tastings, and climbing.

Lunchtime, after a tough morning climb.

Stellenbosch is the heart of wine country, and also home to South Africa’s most prestigious university.  More winery visits…  It’s unfortunate that more South African wine does not make it to Canada.  It is really exceptional, and extremely well priced.  We’ve been rather indulgent, discovering new wines and producers everyday.  We typically spend no more than $5 on a bottle.  Apart from the endless Shiraz that the country is known for, they also produce excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Pinotage (a domestically created varietal derived from Pinot Noir) among others.  There's also a lot of port production.  And lots of whites as well of course.

Tastings at a producer called Stellenrust.

Stellenrust also operates a dairy farm.  Strangely enough, the original bull from which these cows are descended was imported from Brampton, Ontario.  They named a line of their wine after the town.  Yes, apparently there were once farms in Brampton.

There's a penguin colony on the coast near Stellenbosch.  Very cute.

Cape Town:
Cape Town has been cold and rainy, and as this is the last leg of our stay in South Africa, we’ve been taking it easy.  It's a beautiful city.

Next Stop:
We had been planning on going to West Africa next, but in a sudden reversal of plans, we’ve decided to go to Italy.  We have no rational explanation.  Flying out of Cape Town tomorrow morning...

Hope you're all doing well.
Love Elisabeth and Shawn