African Aid

June 27, 2007

Boy drinks waterI have been hunkered down working on a new start up, that I’ll tell you all about shortly, but in the mean time I have been reading Marc Andreessen’s blog. It is mostly about entrepreneurship and start ups, but he featured an interview about African Aid (and what a disaster it is). The interview really captured everything I saw in my 4 months in Africa. It is highly recommended reading.

Masking, my Problem.

April 2, 2006

Three masksTwo days ago, on my way back from Soussvlei and Swakopmund, we stopped at a crafts market and I was unable to resist the urge to buy yet another mask. Having shipped all of my previous purchases home, I figure it wouldn’t be too much trouble to carry just one more mask with me (my eighth of the trip).

However, today, my last full day in subsaharan Africa, I could not resist the urge to buy two more masks. Now I’m trying to pack up to fly from Windhoek to Johannesburg to Paris to Marrakesh tomorrow and of course I have no room for the three masks, but I’m sure I’ll be glad to have them when I get home.

The Vocabulary of Pleasure.

South African smileThere is no place easier to get pleasure from a beautiful woman than in South Africa. All you need to do is thank her.

Almost with out exception, all South Africans respond to “Thank you” with “Pleasure.” Occasionally you’ll hear, “It’s a pleasure,” but usually they just give you “Pleasure.”

Adding to the thrill is that they say it in a way that makes it sound deliciously dirty to my American ears. First you have to put the accent on the first syllable and say that syllable as slowly as possible, then you need to clip the second syllable. The pronunciation is like the alternate pronunciation of leisure. The best I can offer is something like: Pleeeeh sha.

The only word that can offer anything that approaches the same amount of linguistic pleasure is the widespread use of robots. Robots are more common in South African than in Japan, the country that created a frenzy around a robot dog. There is a robot on practically every corner directing traffic, here in South Africa.

Robot is the local word of choice for traffic lights. Ask a local for directions and you’ll hear something like: “Go straight till the second robot and take a left.” Say thanks and you’ll find a bit a pleasure.

I have a sinking feeling about this sink.

March 26, 2006

A sink with separate taps for hot and cold water.I have been meaning to write about this for sometime, but then I saw Paul beat me to the punch, from his recent writing on New Zealand:

Who the hell does this? separate hot and cold water taps? kai and i have seen this phenomenon _everywhere_ in new zealand. check it, kiwis: by combining hot and cold water into one faucet, one is able to achieve a wide variety of water temperatures. _why do they do this?_ hot water conservation maybe?

They do the same thing all over South Africa and it makes it awfully hard to was your hands with hot water and avoid getting burned. I really don’t get it either. Maybe it is just a southern hemisphere thing.

I’d like to add my own little sink using observations. There are some conventions that are so deeply engrained in me that I was completely unaware of them until they were defied in South Africa.

The first is that the hot is always on the left and the cold is always on the right.

The second is that taps marked in red are hot and those marked in blue are cold.

Both of these conventions hold true about 80% of the time in South Africa, or just often enough to lull you in to a false sense of safety before you scald yourself. I have waited forever and a day for my shower to get hot before I realized that it was “backwards”.

The Wine of Helicopter Blades

Helipad sign

When we arrived at Haute Cabrière for a Champagne tasting we were immediately greeted by the huge helipad. The helipad sits literally on top of the wine cellar carved into the mountain. I couldn’t decide if it was more like the secret lair of a movie madman or “lifestyles of the rich and famous”.

We entered the helipad / secret lair / winery and enjoyed a tasting of Sham-pagne. Sham-pagne? It seems the unofficial tag line of Haute Cabrière is: “It is just like champagne, but, you know, we can’t call it that…” since I heard this phrase uttered no less than four times. In fairness they use the traditional French process and buy all their oak barrels from France, but still it was funny to hear it repeated like a mantra. Their sparkling wine was pretty good, but the other wines were unexceptional. The brief tour was informative and the helipad was unusual, or at least I though so at the time.

When our “just like Champagne” buzz had worn off, we set to work, if you can call it that, on our other goal for our visit to the winelands — great food! Forget the Lonely Planet, we are going Frommer’s. Under Soyan’s epicurean direction we set out to sample the best from Grande (Grande Provence) to Petite (La Petite Ferme).

Parking right, Helipad straight a head sign from Gran Provence We arrived for dinner at Grande Provence wine estate. I discovered the parking lot was right next to the helipad. Two helipads in two days - I should have rented a chopper instead of a car.

We settled in for dinner and found the formal service a little stiff and the food utterly “whelming”. Not overwhelming, not underwhelming, just sort of present. Their famous “Angel Tears” wine was in my humble opinion barely drinkable. Helipad or not, this meal was certainly not going to take flight. I vowed that when I came back with my helicopter I’d find another place to land. As it turns out that would not be a problem.

The next day it was finally time for our long standing reservation at La Petite Ferme, an incredibly popular lunch-only spot. The setting was beautiful and the service excellent with out being stuffy. The food was good but overall the textures and mouth feel were superior to the flavors. For the foodies in our readership I took some photos and made some quick notes as we ate.

Let’s start with the starters we shared:

Avocado 'Ritz' - avocado pear filled with shelled prawns marinated in ginger, soy, zesty naartije and garlic Avocado ‘Ritz’ - avocado pear filled with shelled prawns marinated in ginger, soy, zesty naartije and garlic

The prawns were acceptable, but not excellent, the meat was very dense. Brining them would have helped. While the sauce was excellent with both good flavor and texture, the avocado was underripe.

Fresh Saldanha Bay mussels in coconut milk infused with ginger, lemon grass, garlic and a hint of chili

The mussels had a slight fishy flavor that was undesirable, but the Thai style coconut milk was an interesting variation of the steamed mussels classic, but because of the mussels themselves the dish was again only fair.

For our mains (entrees) Soyan tried their signature dish while I tried the calamari with prawns (since I had not tasted the starter when I ordered the main):

Whole oak smoked Franschhoek rainbow trout, deboned and served warm with spaghetti gallette, asparagus draped in fennel and naartjie aioli

Whole oak smoked Franschhoek rainbow trout, deboned and served warm with spaghetti gallette, asparagus draped in fennel and naartjie aioli

The texture of the trout was exquisite, but the flavor was mild to the point of being bland. The spaghetti gallette had a nicely crunchy exterior but the interior was a little mushy. Overall a nice dish, but surprisingly lacking in “WOW” for their signature dish.

Grilled calamari in a tomato and garlic marinade with tiger prawns on a bulgar wheat and rocket [arugula] saladGrilled calamari in a tomato and garlic marinade with tiger prawns on a bulgar wheat and rocket [arugula] salad

The prawns throughout South Africa seem to be mushy and these were no exception, but the Calamari was “WOW”! The outside was slightly crisp with a hint of caramelization and had delicious flavor. The inside was tender and not chewy the way calamari frequently can be. The bulgar offered a nice contrasting texture and the rocket (arugula) was fabulous, fresh, crisp and flavorful, not at all bitter.

For dessert we shared the following:

Morello cherry and pear crumble with a basil and lemon possit

The dessert arrived with an incredibly enticing pear and cherry aroma, but the crumble was too damp and mushy to be much of a crumble at all. While the fruit lived up to its scent, the disappointing crumble was hard to get past.

Chocolate mousse sundae with almond praline, Amaretti biscuits and coconut milk ice-creamChocolate mousse sundae with almond praline, Amaretti biscuits and coconut milk ice-cream

The coconut ice cream had a delightful and surprising texture with crunchy bits of coconut and praline in just the right size and quantity. There was also a terrific authentic cherry flavor, rather that the maraschino cherry that often tops a sundae.

While we enjoyed our meal very much, a helicopter landing on their helipad (oh yes they have one too) would have been necessary for us to be “blown away”.

It is not that either of the prestigious places were bad, they just weren’t spectacular. The French Connection, located right in town, was not only the best value of the three, but it had the best food. Sadly, they have no helipad.

Apparently in South Africa’s wine country if restaurant doesn’t have a helipad it is just not top notch… And if it does your food is just not top notch.

Table side gambling… Your bill is free!

March 24, 2006

Since July of last year wireless gambling has been legal in Vegas, but here in South Africa I stumbled across a more subtle and insidious version.

Soyan and I had a coffee and a light breakfast at Caffe Magnifico. When I got the bill, the folder was adorned with an ad both inside and out. It read:

Check if this is a free bill.

I like free, but as I well know there is always a catch… I read on:

Sms the code “12396″ to the number 36706 and receive your SMS reply

It went on to say:

Call your waitron now!
Show your winning sms!
Your bill is paid!

R5 [about a 85 cents US] per SMS
Terms and conditions apply
Maximimum value of Free Bill is R500 [About $85 USD]
FBSA may contact you with information via SMS

Powered by itouch

Now wait a minute, for a bet of about a buck, I could get a “free bill”. Even at the maximum bill size I had better win at least 1 in 100 times to break even. Given the size of my actual bill I better win more like one in 10 times. Oh yeah, and by the way I have to agree to get “information” via SMS. I wonder what kind of information, ads perhaps?

While this doesn’t seem like a good deal for the consumer, it is an interesting little business idea. I have to admit I was almost taken in. I asked the waitress if anybody ever wins. She said she had not seen anybody win a free bill, but she had seen people get a prize / coupon for free coffee.

This is an interesting little business if you can get the cell phone companies to bill for you, avoid being classified as gambling, and find resturants to play along. I went to the Free Bill web site to investigate.

They bill it as a “zero cost revenue-generating product for restaurants and retailers. FREE BILL is a staff motivational product, business development, marketing, free advertising and publicity tool. FREE BILL is a fun time concept and a database accumulator for restaurants and retailers AND a FREE loyalty program introduced to restaurants and retailers.”

I wonder what the restaurant’s cut is? I like the loyalty program bit. It sounds like it could mesh well with something like Mobile Lime, a US based service that “turns the cell phone you’re carrying right now into a quick and easy way to pay at stores, restaurants and more.” Mobile Lime is really a customer loyalty tool masquerading as a cell phone payment system. Of course, if you can get people to sign up by offering them a “free bill” that could be interesting too.

Funny Signs

March 20, 2006

I am fancy myself something of an intellect. I like to think I am a mature and thoughtful individual, above lowly bathroom humor, but for the second time in a week I guess I am proving that not to be the case. For some reason, I am just compelled to take pictures of establishments featuring body parts in their names. Let he who is with out sin cast the first stone…

Mr. Cock in Bariloche, Argentina
Mr. Cock in Bariloche, Argentina

Helados (Ice Cream) TIT in Calafate, Argentina
Helados (Ice Cream) TIT in Calafate, Argentina

Labia movie theater in Capetown, South Africa
Labia movie theater in Capetown, South Africa


March 19, 2006

Stretch LimoFive days ago marked our 6 month “anniversary” of being on the road. We went out for a fancy dinner in Franschhoek to celebrate.

OK that is not entirely true, we went out for a dinner in Franschhoek because it is the Napa Valley of South Africa. During dinner Soyan said to me, “Hey what’s the date?” and we figured out that it had been six months.

Nevertheless, it has been a fantastic six months filled with great adventures and we are looking forward to more, but we are going to make a visit back to the ole U.S. of A. in a month before we keep travelling.

We are arriving April 17th (Marathon Monday) in Boston. From the 19th to the 23rd I’ll be at an entrepreneurship conference. We will be around Boston for a little while after that, but we aren’t exactly sure how long we’ll be in the US or where we’ll be after Boston. That said, we’d like to see you (yes, you!) while we are there.

Thinking about our visit home has led me to think about things that I have missed most while traveling:

  • Friends and Family — Without a doubt it is the people that make a place. We have met lots of wonderful people on the road, but we miss everybody from home.
  • Media — I particularly miss reading the Wall Street Journal in the mornings. I also miss NPR, particularly: Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Marketplace. Of course I have been listening to the best radio show ever This American Life on my ipod and thanks to Audible I can catch up on what I missed when I get home. Finally while TV is evil I miss it, especially the Daily Show.
  • Food — I miss the great Sushi, Indian, Dim Sum and especially Thai food we used to get in Boston. While not strictly food I miss a good Grey Goose Martini since nobody seems to be able to make a martini outside the US.
  • Poker — I love playing poker and I miss playing it. I felt like my game was just starting to really improve when I left.
  • Internet Access — Fast, reliable, always-on Internet access with my own computer set up just the way I like it. What a luxury!

When I get around to it I’ll make a companion list of the things that I have liked most about travelling, because despite what I miss it has been great to be travelling for so long.

What do you miss while travelling?

Statue of limitations

March 18, 2006

Here are some pictures of the statues I wrote about yesterday. They would be amazing in my living room… So long as I have a big livingroom. No problem, I’ll just buy the house around the art. What do you think?

More photos of the Bangwa statues

Ostrich Riding and Ranching!

March 17, 2006

Jonathan on an ostrichIn Oudtshoorn we went to visit “Safari”, an ostrich ranch and show farm. Well, I say it is an ostrich ranch because they say they are an ostrich ranch, but a quick discussion with the tour guide reveals that they are as much a tourist destination as a ranch. Why not? If I could double my business by giving tours, I’d add a ticket counter next to the water cooler too.

Soyan riding an ostrich.They raise about 3500 ostriches a year that sell for around $300 each. They also get 4-5 giant tour buses of visitors a day at $7.50 a head for the tour, plus a gift shop and restaurant. Quick math reveals that it is a toss up which business is bigger, the ranch or the tour of the ranch.

It makes sense, because they run a good tour. I learned such vital information as, ostriches will eat anything: rocks, tools, glass, shoes and sometimes even foodstuffs! This is because and that they have no teeth and they need rocks (or whatever else they find) in their stomachs to digest the food they eat. Other factoids included important information like: an ostrich egg is as big as 24 chicken eggs.

Ostrich RacingI also got to meet their oldest pair of ostriches (Jack the Ripper and Susie the Stripper), stand on ostrich eggs to prove that they won’t break, and sit on on an ostrich. If you weigh less that 65 kilos (143 lbs) they even let you take a brief ride. The tour finishes with a pair of jockeys racing ostriches.

It was silly, it was touristy, it was so worth it!

See more photos of the ostrichs.

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