Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Down With The 'Rhea, Oh De-Ah!

So here we are in Hanoi, final destination and final frontier. I’m down with a case of the stomach woes so I’ve taken the day off and holed myself up in the favored IHP spot, Joma CafĂ© – an expat-run coffee shop furnished with a clean bathroom within easy access.

Apart from running a riot in my belly, Vietnam has treated us well. We have class in the Ho Chi Minh museum under the tutelage of a coordinator who has her s**t totally together. I have a wonderful, loving host family that gets incredible pleasure from seeing me and Andrew feasting on the spread every night. Also, the dong goes far, allowing us to live in a lap of luxury.

After having been the road for over six months, you’d expect me to suffering from at least some homesickness. Though I haven’t suffered from any heart-stopping yearning to be back at Williams or the U.S., I have found myself giving into the homegrown pleasures like eating a smoked salmon sandwich for lunch or going to see the new Harry Potter movie at the one English-language movie theater in all of Hanoi yesterday afternoon. I love being in Hanoi and I feel like I could be on the road forever, but I think it’ll be nice to settle down again with creature comforts like my own room, a closet to hang my clothes in, regularity to where and when I’m eating …

Last weekend, a group of us went to Halong Bay, one the most incredible natural wonders I have ever seen. Over 2000 limestone kersts rise from the water to make a haunting archipelago of islands, perfect for cruising along with friends for an entire weekend. We rocked the deck of the boat with karaoke and wine, the setting incredible, the company fabulous. That was an experience that will be etched into my mind forever.

Only two and a half more weeks to go. How’s that for a scary thought?

(Images courtesy of the magnificent Andrea Roman-Alfaro!)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Happy Happy Happy in Hanoi

Caught in a shroud of smog and incense, Cape Town is now set a distant time and place. With Vespas zooming by within a hair’s distance of my body and heaps of noodles being dished up at every corner, South Africa couldn’t seem any further away. And for the first time on this trip, I feel homesick – not for Kuwait, not really for India, not even for Williams, but for the glorious city of Cape Town. Hiking up Table Mountain might be strenuous and exhausting, but once you’re at the top, it’s nirvana: mountains and oceans come together in to find a city that is truly eternal.

The last week in South Africa was our one vacation over the course of the semester. I spent it in style, first heading to the glorious winelands followed by four days at a beachside apartment in the surfer’s village of Muizenberg. Camped out in the stunning university town of Stellenbosch, the wine country’s unofficial capital, I spent the first half of our holiday reveling in one long Bacchanal. From winery to winery, restaurant to amazing restaurant, I lived in a hedonist’s paradise. With friends in tow, we went to Paarl to muck around at the Taal monument, to Franschhoek to dine in delight and around Stellenbosch to discover its tranquil splendor. Pierre, an eighteen year-old French exchange student who was living with my first home stay family through his yearlong English program, had come to join us. With his boyish good looks and instant charm, he was an immediate hit with everyone – break just would not have been the same without this amiable Frenchman’s presence and his connoisseurship of wine and good food. I miss him and his lost puppy dog ways dearly already.

We spent the second half of the week lazing around an apartment and bumming around the beach. I got to do what I’ve always wanted to do in life: wake up early to get bread fresh out of the oven at the local bakery, pick up coffee and do yoga all before everyone else in the house had woken up. Over those four days, I cooked up a storm. Best creations? Maybe it was my Thai Ramen with chicken, shitake, baby corn and snow peas? Or possibly even some French Toast with melted Brie and blueberry coulis? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

Four our last night in Cape Town, we went out with a bang. After having spent the day visiting with the penguins at Boulders Beach and then eating with the baboons at Cape Point, a bunch of us went to the Capetonian outpost of Nobu for a final celebratory dinner. Sitting on the eastbound flight the following morning, mere hours after saying goodbye to my Bo-Kaap host family, to Pierre and to Table Mountain, it was hard not to let my excitement get muddled up with the feeling that I had left something behind.

But Vietnam doesn’t allow for any sappy Eeyore-like pondering. Hanoi is has been amazing so far. As I sit under a fan, getting ready for bed in a mosquito net, I feel like I’m as close to be being back in India as I can get without actually being there. We spent the first few days in the Ancient Quarter of Hanoi where the hustle and bustle of nonstop activity had our senses abuzz. The best thing about Vietnam? The food, duh. Pho everywhere; noodles for every meal. Delicious Vietnamese coffee’s milky sweetness. It’s nothing short of amazing satisfaction.

Now if only I could be assured that I won’t get hit by a speeding motorcycle…

Monday, November 1, 2010

In Love With The Mother City: My Oedipal Complex

Looking out over the sweeping view of the city that the summit of Lion’s Head affords, I know that my eyes are drinking in every thing that is right with Cape Town. There’s the hipsterish Neighbourgoods Market held at Old Biscuit Mill in up-and-coming Woodstock every Saturday – it’s otherwise known as my idea of heaven. There are the soft, sandy beaches of Camps Bay hugged by the Twelve Apostles. There’s the verdant expanses of the Kirstenbosch Gardens displaying all the glorious flora the Western Cape has to offer. There’s the Company’s Garden to wile away the hours following the ducklings as they waddle across monuments and marigolds. There are countless great eats in breezy, open cafes and chichi froufrou restaurants. And then there’s Table Mountain: the one Godly presence that follows you everywhere in this breathtaking city.

Yes, I guess I’m in love. There are few other cities in the world that have so undoubtedly swept me off my feet. But of course, IHP doesn’t have you just frolick through a city for pure pleasure. They let you know what the problems are and they make you live it.

Despite Cape Town’s seductive beauty, it remains incredibly dangerous. Vestiges of apartheid keep people in desperate poverty and that has led to some of the highest crime rates in the world. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of uncomfortable run-ins to suggest that this is true (nothing awful, don’t worry – but some of us have come super-close to finding ourselves in trouble). One of the most pressing issues today is the stigma that is attached to the townships – areas designated for the blacks and coloreds* of South Africa to live under the apartheid government. In true IHP fashion, they have us living in a township for the second half of our Cape Town stay. I’m currently staying in Langa, the oldest township in Cape Town.

How can you blame the international community for misrepresenting life in the townships when South Africans themselves are so sheltered from the reality? After having only spent a few days here, you realize that ‘township’ is no synonym for ‘slum’. Yes, townships are prone to accruing informal settlements. But I am not staying in a shack. In fact, I live in a stunning three-bedroom one-storey house in which my host mother has fitted a surround-sound home entertainment system and a Jacuzzi tub. In no way is this the expected norm, but quality of life in the township can often rival that of inner-city dwellers. Unfortunately, it is these people who don’t come to the outskirts of town to see what life here is really like.

South Africa remains a very unequal society. But there are some obvious marks of a silver lining. South Africans, regardless of whether they are white, black, colored or Indian, can now all occupy the same public spaces – something that was unimaginable only sixteen years ago. Sitting at a bar on Long Street or at a bench on the V&A Waterfront, the most visited destination in all of Africa, you look past the lost-looking tourists to see a Cape Town that has hope. There might not be as many interracial mixing as one would look for in the ideal environment but it’s moving somewhere. We can only hope that time will heal the wounds… for my sake at least, because any city where you can see zebras on your daily commute into town needs to be the paradise it deserves to be.