Monday, September 26, 2011

Cyprus in the Blink of an Eye

So, we all sailed off to Cyprus. It was on a whim actually – needing to get away, anywhere, anyhow, for even the briefest of breaks, Marlyn and I – and our close friends, Lynore and Neil Blum – decided to take a weekend cruise to Cyprus. It was one of those absolutely-not-to be missed deals, priced at way less than you can get a "tzimmer" in the north, and with the promise of being "chutz l'aretz" (overseas) that enticed us to book.
To make it a real adventure weekend, we decided to take a train from the Hod Hasharon station near our home to Haifa port. Good decision, we felt, because we got off the train almost at the gangplank; well, except for negotiating check-in, passport control and the duty free shops.

And there she was, waiting for us, moored to the Haifa dockside, our splendid craft and home for the weekend, the Golden Iris run by Mano Cruises. At just under 17,000 tons, not the hugest of ocean liners, but neat enough. Of course, Marlyn and I couldn't help initially comparing it to the Caribbean Princess on which we spent a week swanning about the Caribbean on a gifted holiday in 2007. 
But comparisons are odious. The Caribbean Princess was 10 times the size, three times the height and carried nearly four times as many passengers and crew. But then, what to do you really need for an overnight float across a short expanse of Mediterranean blue? Believe me, our Golden Iris was more than up to the task. Very comfortable air-conditioned cabin ( give it the correct term); excellent meals, and all the shipside diversions and entertainment normally associated with "cruising" – if you like discos, rather over-loud and quite honestly, mediocre cabaret, a raucous and smoke-filled casino and a crowded duty free shop somewhat like an Israeli supermarket just before a "chag". Did I mention that the ship was full? One thousand Israelis of all shapes, sizes, persuasions and origins; English-speakers, Russians, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Israelis...French-speakers, Spanish-speakers...just the sort of ethnic mix you would encounter anywhere in Israel. We were a floating microcosm of Israel, sailing off to experience a microcosm of Greece... 
The pleasure of the cruise for us was sitting on deck, in the glorious moonlight, cruising along at a decent clip on a glassy, smooth almost unruffled sea. We didn't get entangled with a single Gaza-bound flotilla, never encountered the Turkish navy, nor got within eyesight of an Israeli-Cypriot drilling rig. The balmy night air, the hypnotic view of the wake thrust aside by the ship's prow, the throb of the engines and an ever-so-gentle swaying put us in the mood for a good night's sleep. Early the next morning, we entered Larnaca harbor. My immediate reaction on viewing it out of the porthole was that we had turned around during the night and sailed back to Bat Yam...but that's a tad uncharitable. Larnaca, it turns out, was a somewhat pleasant enough city, gently laid back on a Saturday morning, with not too much traffic in the streets; which it turned out was a good thing because driving in Cyprus – courtesy of its colonial heritage – is on the left, like in South Africa and we had decided to hire a car for the day. 
Actually it only took a few minutes for us to do the "mind switch" and revert from left-hand drive to right-hand drive and call on our early driving education (sitting on dad's knee steering his enormous old Chevy...) But don't be fooled – driving in Israel for more than 20 years has left its mark – our car was a manual model and more than once I found myself trying to shift the door handle into third...
Once we collected our vehicle we met up with friends of the Blums', Sharon and Frank, who had moved to Cyprus from Durban 10 years ago. They offered to show us around the island for the day, and off we trundled, following them along the main highway up into the hill country towards Nicosia, to the village of Lefkara, famous for its fine filigree lace.
Lefkara Lace

The view from Lefkara to the sea

Believing that traveling independently of the guided tours ensured we would not be crowded out by the unwashed hordes, we found Lefkara charming, quaint and very quiet – until the tour busses loaded with our shipmates all sporting their red Mano Cruises baseball caps, arrived! So, we beat a hasty retreat from Lefkara back to the coast. On the way we took in the view from the heights down the valley towards the sea. Lefkara sits in a landscape much like the Jerusalem hills. The terrain is very similar to Israel (well, it's only 260 kms away...almost part of it, you might say) and the temperature was about the same – HOT!

Driving down the coastal highway we passed through Limasol, taking a brief glance at the beachfront residential area – looks like a great place for an extended stay – and headed for Aphrodite's Rock – a legendary tourist  attraction almost at the far western end of the island. In mythology this is the birth place of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, (know by the Romans as Venus) and is the stuff of legends and superstitions. According to our guides, this was the ancient forerunner of Viagra; it is claimed that any man swimming around the rock, will be bountifully endowed. Neil, Frank and I agreed that none of us needed to take a swim, and off we went for lunch...
Aphrodite's Rock
Overlooking Aphrodite's Rock from an airy restaurant on the hill above the beach, we tucked into a delicious local lamb stew (at least we were told it was lamb, and we took their word for it, ignoring the goat herds in the vicinity...). Soon enough it was time to make our way back to Larnaca, return our car, and board the ship for the overnight trip back to Haifa.
It had been a magical day in Cyprus, and we had only one glitch – that was when we stopped for petrol right next door to a local branch of Marks and Spencer's - BIG MISTAKE. Marlyn and Lynore leaped out the car, with promises of "Just fill up and we'll be back..." The car was filled and the clock was ticking as we hung about for what seemed hours, waiting for the wives. The garage attendant started giving us strange looks and I swear she was on the verge of calling the local constabulary to check out these two weird looking guys, hanging around the gas pumps.  
Neil decided to mount a one-man search party and resolutely plunged into the store. I know what you're thinking – why not just call them on a cell phone? Well, it turns out that none of us had thought of setting up international calling facilities, so we had no reception...and besides, Marlyn had left her phone in the car. Eventually Neil staggered out of the store, totally bewildered. He had searched all five floors, and nary a sight of the girls. Had they been abducted by M&S staff, intent on holding them hostage until they bought thousands of Euro worth of goods? So, we waited – and I had visions of us missing the ship, being incarcerated in a Cypriot prison as illegal aliens, trying to explain to the children how their mothers had been engulfed in the bowels of M&S, when they appeared, smiling and – joy of joys – not a package between them (credit cards had been mercifully left in the car!).We made it back to the ship in time, took a nap, met for dinner and then settled in for the night cruise back to Haifa.

We arrived early Sunday morning, having been away for around 48 hours – and as we stepped off the Golden Iris and headed for the station and the train to take us back to Hod Hasharon, it really felt like a week. Until we got on the train – remind me, never, ever to take a train from Haifa (or anywhere in the country for that matter) between 7:00 and 9:30 in the morning. It was already packed with commuters and soldiers heading back to their bases – so full in fact that Neil and Lynore sat on the steps and I stood the entire 1½-hour journey home....still, we'd been to Cyprus, we'd been "chutz l'aretz" for the weekend– albeit in the blink of an eye – and it was worth every single micro-second – even standing in the train all the way home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jacob’s Ladder Festival – 35 years of Music, Camping and Family Fun

Hans Theessink Blues Workshop-Abrams Brothers closing the festival

Given its location, the artists and the ethnic make-up of the audience, Israel’s annual Jacob’s Ladder Festival could be considered one of the most unique music festivals in the world. The location – on the edge of the Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee to those outside Israel) is magical;  and the selection of top class artists from around the world and an audience of mainly Anglo immigrants from all the former colonies, gives this 35-year-old festival an uncommonly distinctive character.

Every year thousands of lovers of folk, blues, Blue Grass, country, Irish music and more, congregate to enjoy a weekend of music, camping, chilling out and taking in the “good vibes” and general camaraderie that this festival engenders. And many an aging – let’s rather say “mature” – hippie from the ‘60’s, finds this an ideal opportunity to revisit those long-gone days of their youth…

We still “let it all hang out” – some of us rather more than we wished – we still “groove”; no longer quite as late, or as early in the morning, as we used to; and “get high” on the music and whatever else takes our fancy –  nowadays it’s more likely to be a good Scotch or bottle of fine wine than anything vaguely herbal.

Because Jacob’s Ladder was almost exclusively patronized by Israelis of Anglo heritage – certainly in the early years – it is known in Israel as the Anglo-Saxon “Mimouna”,  in comparison to the joyous Moroccan festival held at the end of the week of Pesach, epitomized by song, good food and celebration.

Having just attended the 35th Jacob’s Ladder festival at Nof Ginosar on the shores of Lake Kinneret in mid-May, I can tell you that the festival has lost none of its charm. There were more than 3,000 or us this year with a healthy percentage being kids whose own parents were hardly thought of when Jacob’s Ladder kicked off with its first gathering  back in 1976. This was when Menachem Vinograd (festival director) and two friends from Kibbutz Machanayim, just north of the Kinneret and  then largely inhabited by immigrants from the UK and US, started a folk club to quench their longing IMG_1603for the folk and protest songs they had left behind them in their native countries. The name “Jacob’s Ladder” was chosen to reflect the Kibbutz’s supposed link to the biblical story of Jacob and the fact that “ladder”  in Hebrew (“sulam”) also refers to a musical scale.

We went to our first Jacob’s Ladder in the late 1980’s, a year or two after our arrival in Israel. Our three kids were still littlies and camping was a new experience for us.  We had bought a new – and to us then, a very expensive – tent which we all shared…together with our faithful Corgi. Believe it or not, we STILL have that tent, and still use it – it’s an identifying beacon for our camping crowd: “look for the Butchins’ tent – that’s where you’ll find us…!"

To us, coming from staid and conservative South Africa, Jacob’s Ladder was the closest thing to Woodstock we had experienced. Nothing remotely like it in size or scope you understand, but the free and easy atmosphere and rocking to the legendary Libby and her hard-core band belting out earth-shattering blues at four in the morning, took us to new heights. We were also convinced that most of the audience were gently floating about a foot off the grass …. the Friday night music marathon would always end with Libby leading a raucous rendition of  "Goodnight Irene" … just as the sun rose.  Since those heady early days, we have attended nearly 20 festivals – with a few misses over the years. Migrating from Horshat Tal – that magical camping site on Israel’s northern border with its ancient oaks and icy water tumbling from Mt. Hermon, we followed the festival to the steamy surroundings of Gan Hashlosha in the Bet Shean valley; then to the shores of the Kinneret where we picked it up again at Karei Deshe, just a few kilometers north of its present location at Nof Ginosar, which offers hotel, “Zimmer” and camping facilities.

IMG_1575While the present day audience it is still  predominately made up of Anglos, there is a growing number of native Israelis attending. Many of them the spouses of Anglo “Olim” children who have grown up in Israel and represent the second generation of “Jacob’s Ladderites”… now bringing THEIR children – Jacob’s Ladder’s third generation – for a shot of rhythm ‘n blues and the fun of camping out, barbequing and running free. Our group this year was a microcosm of this little bit of festival anthropology: we were a crowd of 27 altogether, 10 “1st generation”;  10 “2nd generation” and seven “3rd generation”  –  with three more 3rd generation future festival fans on the way!

The Jacob’s Ladder festival is marveled at by the Israelis who attend. They remark at the open family atmosphere, the friendliness and respect that everybody shows and that when packed up, the campsites are left clean! There is very little mess around the many stages and music venues now a part of the Jacob’s Ladder scene – this is as much due to the vigilance of the festival staff as to the natural instinct of Anglos to clean up after themselves. But whatever the reason, it makes it all the more pleasant for festival-goers not to have to wade through mounds of rubbish.

From it’s early single night roots, Jacob’s Ladder has grown substantially and now runs for two nights and two days. It is now held in mid-May, instead of late August, providing much cooler weather than in earlier years. A round of applause must go to the festival directors, Menachem andIMG_1592 Yehudith Vinograd and their team of volunteers, stage managers, security people, sound and lighting engineers, caterers, and – perhaps most important to the campers – the team providing the amazingly efficient, clean and pleasant ablutions (after many years of having less than rudimentary facilities), with piping hot water showers at any time of the day or night.

This year’s festival was rated one of the best ever: the organizers compiled a program featuring high quality music, talented performers and other fun entertainment – from prominent international Bluegrass/rock groups such as the Abrams Brothers from Canada (now on their third visit to Israel), to Blues “meister” Hans Theessink from Holland, to local harpist Sunita with her specialty Irish and Jewish melodies, folk/rock duo favorites Larry and Mindy and Irish groups and continual pick-up jam sessions wherever there is an open space.  This year’s program featured workshops, storytelling, Balkan dancing, Square dancing, tap dancing, Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Kung lessons to name a few…a well-rounded program catering to the entire family with much aimed at little ones.

And this year, the old tradition of singing “Goodnight Irene” was revived again, with the large crowd – not a dry eye among them – joining in the chorus at the closing of the festival late on Saturday afternoon.

So Jacob’s Ladder moves towards it’s 36th year with the knowledge that a sound tradition is being passed on from generation to generation – it’ll be a blast to still be around for the 70th anniversary!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sailing, Sailing over the bounding Main...

We’ve recently come back from a cruise – we almost didn’t come back because we very quickly became accustomed to the life of sheer “looxury” we experienced aboard the Caribbean Princess. But we had to come back to reality eventually, so we reluctantly followed the captain’s orders and slunk off the ship after 7 days and 7 nights of absolute bliss.
OK – let’s begin at the beginning:
The Caribbean Princess is currently the largest cruise ship operated by Princess Lines out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is a beauty, built in Italy only a few years ago and weighing in at 116,000 tons, with capacity for 3,100 passengers and 1,200 crew.
And we were fortunate enough to be invited to join the other 3,098 seafarers in a dream cruise around the Caribbean at the beginning of October.
The fact that it was the start of hurricane season didn’t deter us one bit, as we boarded the ship at Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades at the start of our dream holiday.
The boarding procedures were incredibly efficient: we had been assigned our cabin on “Emerald” level, so when we eventually got to the head of the long line snaking out of the customs house, we knew exactly which well-marked counter to go to. That’s where we were given our shipboard credit card “...there’s no cash on board...just use your card...”, our luggage was whisked away by invisible porters (it appeared again in the passage - er, sorry, companionway, outside our cabin an hour later); and then we boarded the vessel, negotiating a bevy of photographers “Have your picture taken at the start of your holiday...” and the incredibly tight security arrangements.
But these security checks were far more more efficient and pleasant than anything you’d experience at an airport. I suppose it’s because the people in charge of security are from the ship’s company and actually treat you as paying CUSTOMERS, instead of just one more obstreperous traveler.
It’s at the entrance to the ship where you could imagine a huge container, emblazoned with a sign: “Drop your brain here – collect it after your cruise...” Because for the next 7 days and 7 nights, all you had to think about was where and what to eat, when to eat, when to go back to eat some more, and how long until you could eat again. It's no wonder they wanted to take your picture BEFORE the cruise – it’s so you can compare it to your picture AFTER the cruise. They say you enter a cruise ship as a passenger and leave it as cargo.
Just do the math – if the ship takes 3,100 passengers, each of whom put on at least 5 kg over the week, then you’d have the ship’s displacement being increased by ... oh who cares? But she was definitely riding somewhat lower in the water when we reentered Port Everglades a week later.
OK – on with the cruise. Our route took us from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas, then to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the coast of Mexico and back to Florida. We would bypass Cuba – which we could actually see off the starboard bow. Most of the traveling, except for two days, was at night. We would dock (or drop anchor at those destinations where the harbor wasn’t deep enough) early in the morning, and have the entire day to go ashore, tour, walk around quaint Caribbean port towns and shop, shop, shop. Or you could just stay on board and eat, eat, eat!
The first morning, after being ferried to shore aboard one of the ship's tenders, we stepped onto the sparkling sands of Princess Cay - actually a private Bahamian beach owned by the Princess Lines, exclusively for their guests. The beach was nice, lined with little blue canvas cabanas to protect you from the Caribbean sun, with crystal clear water and muggy weather. After an hour or so of swimming and mucking about in the gentle surf, we agreed that a beach was nothing really new and different for us (we lived in a coastal resort for years, so there was no real novelty in that): right - back to the ship - let's go see what they've got for lunch! Not that after our amazing breakfast we were remotely hungry, mind you - just curious. And you can't really investigate something without experiencing it, so...curiosity fattened the cat.
Dinner that night (am I talking about food again?), was in one of the ship's exquisite restaurants and was the first formal evening of the cruise. When I say "formal" I mean REALLY FORMAL. Dinner jackets and long flowing dresses, suits and ties if you don't have a tux; and some Scottish brethren even wore their formal kilts and sporrans. This was the captain's official welcoming party to all his guests. Champagne was flowing in the atrium, where most of the passengers gathered to hear the captain's welcoming speech; It was all like being spirited back to a gentler, more leisurely and far more decorous age - and thoroughly enjoyable. A quick word about teh food - it must eb quick because I could devote an entire chapter to the food alone: just unbeleivable - five star, haute cuisine, every day, every night...amazing.
There were two formal evenings during our cruise. On other evenings you were allowed to dress "smart casual". The description of "smart casual" in the ship's guide was "wear whatever you would to a reasonably smart restaurant in your home town..." Well, for an Israeli, that means jeans, t-shirt and sandals: but my better half gently persuaded me that I would not be accompanying her to dinner dressed like that, and so I had to follow a far more sober dress code.
After a full day at sea, early morning on day 4, found us docking in the Jamaican port of Ocho Rios! Yah mon! Here we were, unbelievably, in the heart of Rasta land, ready to move to the beat, hum along with Bob Marley wannabe's and commune with the common folk. Well...while dreams are often far removed from reality, we weren't that disappointed. The little town of Ocho Rios reminded us somewhat of any small town in Southern Africa - they even drive on the same side of the road (being formerly British, you understand); and the townsfolk were pretty similar to those of any small town we were accustomed to.
The group of schoolgirls gathered outside a supermarket in the main street could have been standing outside any supermarket in any main street in any Southern African country town. The market in Ocho Rios was fun: craftsmen carving gorgeous parrots out of wood, arrays of "Bob Marley" masks, steel drums, women offering to convert your hair into dreadlocks, and ice cold Red Stripe Jamaican beer.
The arts and crafts are quaint, ethnic and appealing and after much bargaining and Middle East-style haggling, we eventually purchased a new addition to our meagre collection of original art. It's a beautiful little painting of a typically Jamaican scene; a ramshackle bus, careering down a dusty road, a young boy on racing by on his bicycle; passengers hanging from the sides, the roof stacked with bags and sacks...all in bright primary colors. It's gorgeous and it now occupies pride of place in our salon. When we eventually took it to be framed, we were asked, "Ah, Drom Afrika?" So the similarity wasn't just in our imaginations.
Day 5: Grand Cayman - formerly known as Tortuga (anybody who has seen Pirates of the Caribbean, will recognize the name!). Quite different from Jamaica - more pristine, more orderly, very nicely laid out town with all the major financial houses lined up along the sea-front promenade. Of course,m there are dozens of shops: some just offering the usual tourist fare - trinkets, t-shirts, caps, key rings, but some of a more, shall we say, up-market nature. A store selling Harley Davidson motorcycles, another offering exquisite Lladro porcelain, designer stores, and lots and lots of jewelry.
We settled for a common old liquor store, bought a few bottles of rum and the yo-ho-hoed back to the ship.
Day 6, was to be the most exciting day of the entire cruise: We were now off the coast of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula to be exact. We took a ferry onto the mainland and then took a long bus ride to the ancient Mayan city of Coba, believed to be one of the largest Mayan cities and once home to more than 50,000 inhabitants, set deep in the Yucatan jungle. This set of ruins, originally discovered in the 1920's has only recently been opened to the public. The site covers nearly four square miles and is surrounded by beautiful lakes. It features a ball court where the deadly game of “Poc ta Poc” was played. Legend has it that the captain of the winning team was put to death - sent to the spirits as his reward. other stories claim it was the losers who were put to death: either way, it was not a game for sissies. The central attraction is Nohoch Mul, a pyramid with 139 steps. It doesn't sound much, but each step is double the height of a normal step, so if you have stamina, and a head for heights, you can climb it. I got half-way up, decided that the air was a bit too rare for me at that height and inched my way down again.
The husband-half of our travelling companions and hosts, Larry and Blair Belkin, is an archaeological architect who was instrumental in restoring such ancient Israeli sites as Bet Shean and Tzipori, couldn't resist the challenge of climbing to the top of the highest pyramid in the Yucatan. For him, the site offered a very different set of stones and ancient monuments from what he was used to in Israel and a totally enthralling experience.
After a full day exploring these fascinating ruins, it was back to the Caribbean Princess for our sixth night on board and a day of sailing ahead of of us.
Our final day at sea gave us a good opportunity to really get to know the ship. It is a magnificent example of modern naval architecture. It has 19 floors - that's right, with the Skywalkers night club perched on the 19th level, literally hanging out over the stern of the ship, with nothing but the ocean below you. It is a floating city: shops, a casino, an incredible 1000-seat theater, lounges, libraries, reading rooms, art galleries, bars, cafes, restaurants, more restaurants and still more restaurants. The ship's company, both the "sailors" and the "hotel staff": as they are know is made of people from the four corners of the earth. The gym is run by two South Africans; one of the dancers in the chorus line was from Harare, waiters from the Philippines, India, Greece, Italian and French chefs, stewards from Thailand; receptionists from New Zealand, Australia, the US; entertainment managers from the UK, and even a number of Israelis.
We were fortunate enough to be invited on a tour of the bridge and to get a real feel of how this amazing vessel operates.
And so, like all very good things, it had to end: one week and an inundation of experiences later, we docked again in Port Everglades, the cruise port of Fort Lauderdale and reluctantly dragged ourselves ashore, leaving our temporary floating home for others to enjoy. Ahead of us, four days in and around Miami ...but that's another story.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

At the Spiritual Center of Afrikanerdom

Last night I ventured into the heart of Afrikanerdom to observe a long-standing tribal ceremony with all its attendant ritual, symbols and zeal.

The “temple” I visited was the Loftus Versveld stadium in Pretoria – the spiritual home of Afrikaner Rugby and the place where foreign teams come to the slaughter.

And what a slaughtering it was last night; as the Blue Bulls (the team formerly known as Northern Transvaal) led 15 bewildered Australians to the alter and in 80 minutes, literally massacred them, 92-3...a score almost unheard of in the annals of South African rugby.

The faithful started gathering in the environs of Loftus in the late afternoon, bringing out their symbols of faith in the power of the Bulls – braaivleis (Bar-B-Q), boerewors (fat sausages) biltong (dried meat – delicious for the initiated); boere musiek (Afrikaner music) blaring forth from massive speakers...and everybody, like ancient Druids, slathered in blue woad – faces, hair, beards, stomachs (some rather larger than the national average) to affirm their allegiance to their team: the Blue Bulls. Many wore helmets adorned with bull horns, some had bull horns fixed to the front fenders and hoods of their “bakkies” – powerful utility vehicles used for farming, building and deliveries.

By the time we arrived, the pre-sacrifice fervor was well underway. Thousands of the faithful were streaming into the stadium; those that weren’t moving into the stadium were still partying in anticipation of the blood-letting to come (I’m not sure how many of them actually made it to the game...). Vendors were doing a roaring trade in blue t-shirts, blue hats, blue flags and handing out posters which read: “Ons Bloed is Blou!” – “Our blood is blue!”

I was fortunate to have been invited to sit in a reserved box, with a grand view of the floodlit gladiatorial arena, and a constant flow of beer and biltong; the fuel that keeps the fervor going.

By the time the game was ready to start, the stadium was filled to capacity – around 50,000 of the faithful, a veritable sea of blue from end to end. Flags waving, music blaring over the massive sound system, giant screens flashing advertising videos, the electronic scoreboard lit up and raring to go.

The unfortunate Aussies didn’t have a chance even before they set booted foot on the manicured field. They were defeated even before the whistle went – the sheer overpowering support of the locals was enough to demoralize even the toughest of opponents.

First blood actually went to the Australian team – known as the Queensland Reds – when they scored a penalty kick in the first three minutes: but this was to be the last time they were ever to see the goal posts. Perhaps the Blue Bulls felt it was fitting to give them a modicum of dignity in their demise.

One of the most enduring rituals at Loftus Versveld is that whenever the Bulls score a try (now worth 5 points by the way, not the traditional 3), the opening bars of the hugely popular Afrikaans song “Liefling” (My Love), something of an anthem, is pumped out over the powerful sound system, as the crowd sings along in unison.

Liefling” was to be played 13 times that night. As a local radio DJ quipped later in the evening: “If I hear Liefling once more, I’ll blow my brains out!”

And so the devoted masses celebrated time and again as their gladiators, huge men with shoulders as wide as ox yokes and thighs the circumference of oak trees, pounded their way to victory and literally “donnered” (mauled) the visiting Aussies into the bright green Loftus turf.

But what was really happening here? In an incongruous yet even appealing way, this was a clear demonstration of the more successful aspects of the new South Africa. Wait, you may ask, wasn’t this pure tribalism, the mass psyche of superiority which characterized to the worst excesses of apartheid?

The Blue Bulls (“Die Blou Bulle”), which was always the nickname of the Northern Transvaal team in the old days, is now a totally racially integrated team. There are four blacks on the team and they are cheered and adored by the crowds as much as any Afrikaans boy might be. The team has a squad of eight gorgeous cheerleaders, The Bulls Babes, who parade around the perimeter of the field, dancing, doing flick-flacks and generally exhorting the crowd to even greater cheers. Three of these girls are black.

After the game, the crowds gathered in a parking lot where a beer tent and braaivleis area was set up together with a gi-normous sound systems blasting out the latest popular rock song to get the Afrikaners swinging: a number by a leading black artist from Soweto – the township south-west of Johannesburg.

So here we have what was perceived in the bad old days of apartheid, as the hard core of racialism, embracing other South Africans unreservedly and enthusiastically in a spirit of good natured openness and acceptance which has come to epitomize the new South Africa.

At the same time, we have a specific community group, Afrikaners to their very marrow, asserting the best of their heritage loud and clear: “We are Afrikaners, we are proud to be Afrikaners – and we are proud to be NEW South Africans.”

What an amazing demonstration of the way this country has adapted and accepted the momentous changes which were wrought without bloodshed just over a decade ago.

Now, all they have to deal with is crime, graft, corruption, cronyism, public servant inefficiency....

But who cares about that when rugby still rules, ja!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Riding the Iron Rooster - or, How to use a "Squat" on an Indian Train....

NOTE: With sincere apologies to Paul Theroux for the use of the title - but it's SO appropriate.
EXTRA NOTE: If you are squeamish, have a sensitivity to graphic descriptions of bodily functions or are of a delicate nature, do NOT read this!

One of the first things you learn when traveling at the level we did in India, is that bodily functions are generally performed in a "squat" - a euphemistic term for a toilet without a seat and on which you have to perch somewhat precariously in order to fulfill your needs (not "wants" - just "needs").

There are three main senses you need to draw on to use a squat:
* A sense of balance
* A sense of adventure
* A sense of humor

All your other senses - sight, smell, taste (even hearing), you can safely tuck away - if fact, the further away, the better.

By way of description, (moving from the general to the specific):

We spent a good deal of our traveling time on trains. When you are on an Indian Railways train for 27 hours (between Kolkata and Jaipur for instance), the chances are you are going to need to visit that swaying little cabin between the coaches on at least one occasion - and your visit will in all likelihood be to perform what you usually do sitting down (of course this is written from a male point of view).

The "squat" is a hole in the floor , through which you can see the ground underneath the train rushing past. On either side of the hole are corrugated footrests - one left, one right. They are uniform in design, to ensure that each foot (shod of course) stands neatly on the rest, no matter which direction you are facing (again, the male point of view). The male standing function is fairly easy to achieve: you mount the footrests, the corrugations ensuring that you don't slip, aim in the right direction, and there you go...

As long as there is no updraft, you will probably leave the loo in the same dry state you entered it.

Now: to perform what you would normally do in the sitting position (ladies, this is also for you), you need to take stock of your situation before advancing...your sense of adventure is useful here.

Look around carefully - note the position of the grab handles on the wall - they are sometimes at a rather uncomfortable angle at which to hold on for dear life (do you get the picture?). Secondly, ensure that you have an adequate supply of toilet paper with you. Oh, did I mention that Indian toilets (as a general rule, not only on the trains) are not overly generous with such luxuries? To make up for this lack, there is usually a cute looking water spout situated strategically in front of you.

This is activated with an interesting combination of movements - push up the spout with one hand and contain the resulting powerful spray of water with the other. How you achieve this without letting go of the safety handles is where your sense of balance becomes quite useful.

The newer trains have a shower arrangement which, to the novice, initially looks inviting: showers on a train, my goodness! Er...NOT. These "showers" are designed for a specific purpose. Shower or spout, you better work this out or you will find your popularity with your fellow passengers plummeting.

Also take a cake of soap or a leaf of "paper soap" - a fragrant little square of soap-impregnated paper, which must rate as one of the best inventions ever to come out of the sub-continent.

A word of caution: make sure that your toilet paper is accessible and easy to reach at the appropriate time - more on this later.

So, to the actual performance: you are on a train, remember, belting across the Indian countryside - yes, they do move quite fast once they get going. Trains tend to bounce and jounce around, and this is where those grab handles prove their worth as life preservers.

Depending on your preference - and of course wishing to ensure that your clothes remain unsullied - you can either strip down completely and hang your slacks, shorts, or knickers on one of the hooks provided; or you can roll said clothing items up your thighs as high as they will go, while still allowing you to assume the required position: feet flat on the footrests, knees bent double, legs jutting at 45 degrees to the rest of your body, and everything else free and easy in the breeze billowing up the disposal chute.

You grab the handle in front of you with both hands, take a deep breath (if you dare) tell yourself: "I can do this - I HAVE to do this...!" and let nature take its course. Pretty soon, you get the hang of it - picture a skier behind a speed boat - and there you are riding along in perfect unison with the swaying of the train, like a bizarre ride at the Lunar Park - faster and faster, you ride this Iron Rooster and the freedom is exhilarating!

Eventually all good things come to an end, and you will have to finish up. This is where life can get complicated. Remember my earlier injunction to ensure that your toilet paper is placed exactly where you can reach it? A lack of planning in this department may result in the following potentially embarrassing scenario:

If you have stuffed the paper into the back pocket of your shorts or slacks and somewhat naively hung these on the back of the door, you will find that they are just three inches beyond your immediate reach. Hanging on to the grab handle with one hand, stretching for your clothing with the other, leaves you in a dangerously vulnerable position. You dare not let go for fear of sliding into the oblivion beneath you. If your shorts etc. are rolled up your thighs, you will soon find out whether you are actually double-jointed or you may even put your back permanently out of whack.

(Hylton got himself into this situation and we nearly had to send the plumbing rescue team in to extricate him) .

But once your session is completed, and you rise to your full height again in one fragrant piece, all clothing in the same, albeit slightly more rumpled condition in which you entered the booth, you will realize you have a huge grin on your face. Returning to your compartment, your fellow travelers welcome you with victory cheers and slaps on the back. One more achievement to chalk up to experience.

Of course, you can always use one of the Western-style toilets provided on all trains - but then, why deny yourself the fun!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pix Update

Top: Street Scene, Jaipur; Udaipur - hotel in the lake,
Interiors Beth El (left), and Maghen David Synagogues, Calcutta

Update 4: Udaipur - Delhi

We trained overnight from Jaipur - a beautiful city, with everything abuzz ahead of Divali. We visited the Amber Fort on a hillside (choosing not to take the elephant ride up, mainly because we felt the elephants we not particularly well treated). Later we did some shopping in the crowded main street, dinner on the roof of our hotel with a view of the city and then to the station to Udaipur.
How can I describe Udaipur? Heaven, Paradise, Garden of Eden, Little Switzerland? Actually all and none of the above. It is quite exquisite and I do not use the word lightly. The lakes are full for the first time in many years after good monsoon rains. The palaces and hotels on the island dotted around Lake Pinochola sparkling in the morning sun, turning golden at sunset. If ever there was a place to rest up after a weary, grimy and totally exhilarating tour of India, this is it.
The town is clean and quaint. There are tailors working in literal holes in the wall, food shops offering cooking lessons (we are going to one this morning); a music shop offering tabla lessons (this afternoon)...restaurants offering superb fare and the market stores are alive, buzzing, entrepreneurial, assertive...
The past two days have been crazy, with Divali being celebrated with fireworks and bangs, music and dancing - every few seconds there is a huge "bang" and then a volley of crackles, whizzes, whoozes, swishes and cracks. In the evening, rockets shower sparkling stars over the lake...amazing.
Udaipur takes much pride in having had a James Bond film (Octopussy) made here a number of years ago, and you can take in a showing at one or other hotel every night. There are palaces and temples, museums and gardens. It is without doubt a jewel in the crown of Rajasthan.
I won't go into much more detail now; there is so much to tell and so many pictures to show: all that later. We leave (sadly) tonight for Delhi - one day, a short evening and then on the plane to Istanbul and eventually home.
It's been amazing...'nuff said for now.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Blog Update 3

We left Kolkata on Friday evening, which seems like ages ago. Since then we have traveled almost 2,000 kms across the country, through Utar Pradesh and Rajasthan and are now in Udaipur, a most beautiful city set on a lake: but more of that later, as I bring you all up to date on our experiences and travels since we had tea in Darjeeling.
Let's actually travel back in time (about a week) to the start of our Darjeeling leg. We had spent a day and a half in Kolkata, being fed and hosted by Helen's school friend Yvonne ("Goldie") D'Silva. We left on the Thursday evening on the train for New Jalpaiguri (three hours late and from a different platform and that was a story in itself!): arriving in NJP in the morning, we decided not to take the Toy Train as originally intended. Reasoning that it was a long trip with this mode of transport (8 hours!) we felt that it would be better to hire a jeep and driver and enjoy the reputed 1-hour ride up the mountain to the "Queen of the Himalayas" as Darjeeling is proudly called. The so-called 1-hour ride turned into a 4-hour mountain climbing saga; it was raining so we couldn't really see where we were going, which I suppose is just as well. The road curves upwards around mountains and bends, trucks, busses, cows, jeeps all coming down the mountain towards us, around blind curves, hooting, braking, other jeeps overtaking us around corners... but as we couldn't really see the sheer drop just beyond the rather insubstantial looking barrier, we had - as our Aussie companions would say - "no worries mate". We were enormously comforted by all the warning signs and homilies encouraging safe driving hewn into the mountain side: "Give blood in the blood bank, not on the road..." - "If you're married, divorce speed." Even more encouraging was the report from Gill who had been sitting next to the driver - a devout Christian with flashing icons of Jesus all over his dashboard - that he had been praying all the way up the mountain! Fortunately we only heard this AFTER we arrived safely in Darjeeling.
Darjeeling itself was a delight. It is a beautiful little town, set on the hillside with startling views into valleys and across nearby mountain tops to the peak of Mount Katchendjunza (sp!), the highest peak in India and third highest in the world. I have already related one of the highlights of this visit, but I must relate our experience on Tiger Hill, watching the sunrise spilling onto this peak at 5:00 in the morning. After two days of rain, we decied that should it be clear the next morning, we would take the ride to Tiger Hill, about 14 km out of town, to view the celebrated sunrise.
We were woken at 4:00 am, as promised by our receptionist if the weather appeared to be clear, and off we trundled in a tiny van (the little Suzuki mini-mini bus we used to call a "half-loaf" in Israel) to experience what we expected would be a couple of mad tourists sitting under a tree on a remote hill, watching the rays of the rising sun hitting the nearby peak. We arrived at the site, the last in a line of about 300 jeeps and busses stretching up the hill to the viewsite, where at least 3,000 people (this is no exaggeration) were waiting for the sun. As the sun rose, so did a cheer from the crowd, and Mount Katchendjunza rose through the clouds to present a magnificent spectacle. Even more exciting, was a view of the tip of Everest in the far distance. A memorable experience, as much for the crowds, as for the sunrise.
We had booked our trip down from Darjeeling with Raju, the same driver who brought us up, figuring he was good with Lord, and looking forward to his promise to take us on a tour of the tea estates and other places of interest. He was as good as his word, but unfortunately his prayers did not help with the weather. It was raining and misty all the way down and for eight hours the only view we could see was about four feet in from of the jeep. But we did visit the Mirik Tea estate and one of their factories, a fascinating experience. We also stopped at the Nepalese border and Nate was nearly arrested for taking photographs of the border crossing.
After an 8-hour journey down the mountain, we made New Jalpaiguri and booked into the Hillton Hotel (!), all in one room, to freshen up and await our train back to Kolkata at 2:45 the next morning.
Marlyn has already written much about our personal experiences in Kolkata, so I will not repeat those here, except for our last day there, which to us was one of the most memorable to date:
I mentioned in an earlier posting that David Nahoum, one of the last remaining Jews in Kolkata, who runs his family confectionery business, had promised us a tour of the two remaining synagogues in this city. The shuls were found in the back streets of the city, among the markets and beggars, the food stalls and fabric shops, the fruit vendors and Divali decoration sellers: but they are in perfect condition, having been declared national monuments, and are looked after by a dedicated small staff, with David Nahoum as the de facto gabbah or governor.
The Beth-El and the Maghen David (sic!) congregations worshipped mainly in these two beautiful Beitei Knesset. Helen's mother and father were married in the Maghen David shul, and her grand uncles and other members of there family were instrumental in founding the community. Built in the style common to Iraqi jewry (the origins of most of the Calcutta community), they are large, imposing, beautifully decorated...and incredibly sad. At its height the community, which was established in the first half of the 19th century, boasted more than 5000 souls and played a major role in the cultural and economic life of Calcutta. Today there are some 30 Jews left in this impossibly crowded city - David Nahoum and Auntie Maggie Meir (about whom Marlyn wrote earlier) amongst the last. But David and his dedicated colleagues still build a Succah at Maghen David every year...a continuing tribute to the rich past of this passing community.
On our return to David's confectinery in the market we bought typical delicious Iraqi "shabbat" treats and sweetmeats - cheese samoosas, sticky buns, kaka biscuits and date biscuits (who aid this trip was about dieting?)
Friday night, we left the damp, sticky heat of Kolkata on our 27-hour train journey across the country to Jaipur in Rajasthan (where we just missed the third cricket test between India and Sri Lanka by one day). And that is a totally new blog all on its own...
until next time:
Namaste...and Happy Divali!