Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas south of the equator.

To answer that rather annoying question posed by Bob Geldof, no, here in Africa I really don't know that it's Christmastime at all. I'm not sure whether it's the summer weather that's throwing me off, or that I'm so far away from family, or that shopping malls here simply don't make the effort to induce a shopping panic in their customers through twinkling lights and Mariah Carey singing about all she wants for Christmas, but this year the season has somehow slipped past me almost entirely. I saw a homeless person in a Santa hat in the Company's Gardens last week, and only realized later that he was actually more in touch with the times than I. This will be my first Christmas south of the Equator, and it won't likely be a particularly festive one.

We will be spending the holidayless holiday in Pretoria, as seen in the above photograph of that delicate work of art, the Voortrekker Monument. Yes, I can feel your envy from here. Not only is Pretoria swelteringly hot and strikingly dull, but even the locals use this time of the year as as excuse to get away from the city. But no matter-- we are staying somewhere with a pool, and I will be temporarily rescinding my pledge to drink less, and will be indulging in a good bottle of gin.

I'll be taking the time off from posting to sit by the pool and enjoy gin pahits. I'll be back in Cape Town around the 29th, hopefully with some notes to share from my visit to Johannesburg and Pretoria. Hope to see you back here in time for the New Year, and enjoy the holidays, if and however you choose to recognize any of them

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Round the South China Sea.

To follow up on my last post, I'm taking my own advice. We'll be packing up our little home in Cape Town, and heading back to Taiwan.

We're looking to potentially head back full time later next year, but in the meantime we're heading back on a short trip for the month of February. Things have been a little unsettled here as we get ready to leave-- I think the fact that three of my recent posts have been lists shows that I'm trying to make some order of these changes-- but we're unbelievably excited to be getting back to Asia. A year away has been far too long. We've managed to arrange our flights to really take advantage of this return... we'll be circling the South China Sea, stopping in Thailand en route to Taiwan, then returning to South Africa via Malaysian Borneo and Kuala Lumpur.

Meaning this here travel blog will once again feature some travel-- quite a novel idea, I know! It's been a long year of being settled, and it's time I got some new places featured on this blog...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

15 very specific reasons to love Taiwan.

When I left Taiwan in August of 2008, I planned an entry on PRIMITIVEculture to be simply entitled 'Go to Taiwan!' I had been skeptical about going at first, but once there I was continually blown away by what an incredible island it is. Taiwan really must be one of the most underrated destinations in all of Asia. Admittedly, the Taiwan tourism bureau isn't helping much-- their slogan 'Taiwan touch your heart' is about as effective as it is grammatically correct, and their magazine ads are often too full of text, and loaded with uninviting colours. This is an island with an image problem, and it isn't helping itself.

I'm not sure if I'll do it more justice, but I'll give it a go. So I've finally decided to give that entry another try, but rather than simply giving you the stock tourism reasons of why to go-- delicious food, beautiful scenery, friendly people-- I've decided to be very specific. So here are my 15 reasons why you should go to Taiwan, and why I think you'll love it. And yes, I'm aware most of these are food related. You should know this is how I work by now.

1) Bamboo
People who have never been to Taiwan might imagine a city dominated by cities, coloured grey from concrete buildings and factories. And ok, this is true of some of the cities... but outside of the cities, much of the island is in fact staggeringly green. There are emerald rice paddies along the coasts, verdant forests in the mountains, and lush betel nut palms in the tropical south. But much of the island's green comes from thickets of bamboo. Cool and shading, and they make a beautiful sound in a light wind.

2) Mango and Green Tea from Coco
Taiwan may not be located quite in the tropics, but you would certainly think so given how hot and steamy the summers get. Thankfully, the streets of Taiwan are packed with drive-up shops selling big, refreshing cups of juice or tea. Particularly good on a sweltering day is the Mango and Green Tea from Coco.

3) 4 AM Dan bin
Life in Taiwan has a 24-hour schedule, and if you're in a decent sized city, you'll likely be able to find something open at all hours. That can be quite a god-send at 4 am, after a busy social evening, when there is nothing better than a late night breakfast of dan bin-- eggs rolled in a thin pancake, and drizzled with sweet soy sauce.

4) Papaya Milk from 7/11
7/11 isn't just a convenience store in Taiwan, it's practically a way of life. They sell all the essentials, and they do it 24 hours a day. One of the best things about 7/11 is their fantastic selection of boxed and bottled drinks-- like this version of a Taiwan classic, creamy papaya milk.

5) Pigs on leashes
What a lot of people don't realize is that Taiwan is an offbeat place, where it pays to have a sense of humor. Buses in Hsinchu play 'It's a Small World' when you press the stop button, and garbage trucks island wide belt out music to alert people to come toss out their trash. And yes, you may encounter people walking their pet pigs by the leash.

6) Taroko Gorge
Of all the misconceptions about Taiwan, the greatest one is that the island is just a string of overpopulated cities and factories. Ok, that might be somewhat true of the west coast... but head to the east coast, and you'll be blown away by its natural beauty. Check out Taroko Gorge for the pinnacle of Taiwanese natural beauty-- a valley of green peaks towering over a rushing river, with delicate temples and shrines tucked discreetly into coves and nooks.

7) Dust masks
Considering that a large part of the typical Taiwanese day is spent on a motorbike, it only makes sense that a whole range of fashion accessories for biking would spring up. There are the obvious, like helmets, which can accessorized with stickers and designs, or even with wigs to be made to look like human hair. But there are also long gloves, worn so the ladies can protect their white skin from the sun, and dust masks, to keep out the smog from the road.

8) Neon plastic sunglasses
Taiwan has a very funky youth culture-- influenced by Japan, China, Korea, and the US, but put together in a way that is distinctly local. When we were there, the fashion focused on bright neon colours-- which are best viewed through a pair of neon coloured sunglasses.

9) Scallion pancakes
Taiwan is famous for its 'xiao chow', its 'little eats'. These are small snacks, which can be sampled at tea houses, night markets, or simply from street stands. One of my favourites was the scallion pancake, a flacky flat bread flaked with sliced green onion.

10) Avocado Shakes
The idea may sound gross to the uninitiated, but avo shakes are surprisingly delicious: rich and creamy, with a decadent flavour that isn't overly sweet. They're great to sip on while strolling through a night market.

11) Open, the 7/11 Mascot
Japanese 'cute' culture has definitely made its way to Taiwan, and you'll soon notice that nearly every major business has an adorable icon in its marketing. Not all of these are effective-- like Taipei 101's 'Damper Baby', whose shape is based on the counter-weight that helps keep the skyscraper from falling over in strong winds (sounds cute? no, it really isn't). But some, like 7/11's puppy faced mascot 'Open' really are kind of fun.

12) Chaiyi turkey rice
Every town in Taiwan seems to have its own local specialties, a dish or two that it's famous for, making it possible to take a grand eating tour of the island. Chaiyi turkey rice wasn't necessarily my favourite famous dish, but its humble flavours were suprisingly tasty, and rewarded being searched out.

13) Mango shaved ice
A Mango and Green Tea Slush might be the most refreshing way to counter Taiwan's heat, but a bowl of Mango shaved ice might be the most fun.

14) High Speed Rail
Taiwan's High Speed Rail is the perfect symbol of this country's modernity. It's plush, comfortable, and so fast that you can easily zip up and down the West Coast for a quick day out of town or an overnight trip.

15) Ghost month
And yet, while Taiwan is unquestionably a modern country, by no means have the reach for the future left the past behind. Ghost month is a great chance to encounter the traditional side of Taiwan, as crowds at temples surge, people gather outside to burn piles of paper money, and
parades of masked figures may appear unexpected on the street. It's a time for visitors to reflect on how much the little island can surprise you, and how it always seems to defy expectations...

And now that I've put this list together, I keep thinking of other things to add... pudding milk tea, random acts of kindness from locals, warm soy milk and soupy dumplings from a breakfast shop... But hey, these are really all just my reasons. But I think you should get to the island, and come up with your own.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Things that I'll miss about Cape Town.

Well, as you might have caught on from that last entry, we're getting ready to pack up and skip continents once again. I'll explain more about our next steps-- in short, we're heading back to Asia-- and maybe I'll share some of the reasons why we decided in the end not to dig our roots into South African soil. We're both much happier now that we've decided to leave, and really can hardly wait to get back to Asia. But while it's easy for me to think of all the things I'm looking forward to, I do have to keep grounded by remembering the things I'll be giving up in Cape. Here's a few of the major things I've been grateful for in Cape Town, and that I'll be missing once I'm gone.

1) Excellent, affordable wine-- Not only is causal wine drinking affordable in Cape Town, it's part of the lifestyle in the Cape. A glass of red at dinner, or a chilled bottle of white over a summery afternoon, fits in perfectly with the relaxed and casual atmosphere of life on the Peninsula.

2) Blue sky-- Ok, it was pretty gray for a lot of this year, but now that summer is here, I'm trying to spend as much time as I can admiring the clear blue sky over Cape Town-- I certainly won't be getting much of that in Asia. I'm really going to miss these brilliant, clear golden days, perfect for lounging at a sidewalk cafe, or getting a cone from a seaside ice cream parlour.

3) Cheese and bread-- While trading at the Neighbourgoods Market, we often get complaints from people avoiding dairy and gluten that practically all the food is based around bread or cheese. That does suck for them, but I can't say I'm complaining. South Africa has some delicious local cheeses and artisinally made breads. Combined with some wine (see #1), they make a perfect lunch for a lazy summer day (see #2).

4) Staying active-- The combination of sun, sea and mountain in Cape Town make it an ideal place for staying active. This lifestyle is made even easier thanks to Cape Town's small size, since hiking trails and public pools are always just a short drive away. You can hike Lion's Head before breakfast, or take laps in the Long Street Baths before work. Beyond that, the city's tiny size also means that practically everything is walking distance within the City Bowl.

5) Eating locally-- I believe in making an effort to eat locally, and Cape Town really can be paradise for a committed locavore. The wine, cheese, crusty breads I love so much... they're all available from local producers (even the wheat comes from the Western Cape). And with the help of Wild Organics, who offer inexpensive weekly bags of local organic produce, it's even easier to limit your food miles in the Cape.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


There are probably more strategic ways of announcing this, but I'm very excited to share that there will be some major travel in this primitive's future. I'll wait to fill in the full plans, but I will say that we're planning a stop in Sabah, on Malaysian Borneo. I know that perhaps modern day Borneo doesn't look much like the above anymore, but the name 'Borneo' is one of those words that will likely always trigger flashbacks to those childhood fantasies of distant lands that made me want to travel in the first place...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Secrets to a primitive world.

I was invited by Cate of the Caffeinated Traveller to share some of my travel 'secrets'. While I can't really say that any of these places I'd like to share are really secrets, these are three places that truly surprised me.

1. Islands of Trang Province, Southern Thailand
The story goes that all of Thailand's islands are already too commercialized, the sand boarded over with discount beach bars filled with tacky Western backpackers. But if you're willing to head beyond Ko Phi Phi and Ko Phang Nga, you'll find that there really are some fantastic islands left in Thailand, like the islands of Trang province. I was lucky enough to visit the islands on an assignment that required me to go to each and every one. Of these, I gathered a few favourites. There was Ko Libong, a wild island inhabited by hornbills and encircled by dugongs; isolated Ko Kradan, with one incredible place to stay in a palm encircled clearing right in the middle of the island, perfect for nurturing Robinson Crusoe fantasies; and Ko Sukorn, with its pastoral allure of rice paddies and quiet villages. But perhaps best of all was Ko Lao Liang, an unbelievably secluded island, hours from land by boat, so small that it can only fit one place to stay, an encampment of simple tents right on the beach. In short, everything you've ever dreamed of in a Thai Island.

2. The Karoo, South Africa
I first visited the Karoo in between one destination and another, having little idea at the time that it would become my favourite part of South Africa. It's an evocatively desolate landscape, of golden dusty desert and shadowy valley towns. The best way to enjoy the region is to visit some of its town, whose sedate avenues of early twentieth century homes are steeped in retro charm and soaked with Afrikaner culture. Some of the best spots to visit are Barrydale, a suprisingly artistic community with an offbeat gay vibe, Prince Albert, with it's storybook houses and untamed surrounds, and Nieu Bethesda, home to the Owl House, a surreal museum to one local woman's mania. These are all great places to try real South African cooking, as well: succulent grilled lamb, creamy milk tarts, and artisinally made cheeses, breads, and preserves. Karoo is certainly not a secret to South African travellers-- most of the region's more attractive towns are well set up to accomodate visitors. But the region mostly remains just off the maps of most international visitors to South Africa, who are more interested in visiting Cape Town and Kruger National Park. A shame, because to visit the Karoo really is to visit the heart of South Africa.

4. Taiwan
Ok, clearly Taiwan isn't a secret place-- everyone who lived in the '80s saw the name printed on the bottom of their plastic products, right? But what seems to be a secret is that Taiwan is an unbelievable, unforgettable destination. It's a quirky island, whose sometimes bleak cities are brightened up by frenzied night markets and funky local fashions. Packed in within the confines of this tiny island, there are an astounding array of different places to go. Fast-paced and fashionable Taipei, engaging Hsinchu, romantic and sultry Kaoshiung. And amazingly, the island also has incredible natural beauty: the low areas of rice paddies give way to towering peaks cloaked in bamboo; on the east coast, the scenery is even more spectacular, epitomized by the dramatic valleys and mountains of Taroko Gorge. People are friendly, the food is fantastic (every city and region have their own delectable specialties to search out). And with the high speed rail draped along the whole west coast, getting around the island is easy, comfortable, and incredibly fast. But really, I'll be saving more about Taiwan for another entry coming up in the next few days or so...

Any of you willing to share your secret destinations?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A flight gone wrong.

While we're on the subject of air travel, let's talk about airlines. Air travel should, I feel, be somewhat glamorous. Being lifted from one destination to another, the glitz of the jet age, and all that. Yet it so rarely is. There are all sorts of things that can go bad on a flight: uncomfortable seating, poor quality entertainment, inedible food, bad service from attendants. And sometimes, all of these things go bad on one single flight.

Last year in the US, Bordeaux and I took flights on a variety of US airlines, most of which were rather poor in quality. They charged for everything short of water, flight attendants were unfriendly and disheveled (what's with the US airline custom of having flight attendants wear factory-reject jackets with giant shoulder pads? who does that look good on?), and the airplanes were often rather unclean-- we once found tissues waiting in of our seats, and an old pair of socks in the other's. Yet really, none of that prepared us for our United Airlines Flight UA940.

The flight was shared with a European airline, the flight attendants of which grudgingly greeted us as we boarded the plane. The first thing Bordeaux did as he sat down was to adjust the tiny movie screen in the seat in front of him-- and its plastic cover immediately popped off. Bordeaux laughed awkwardly, and the flight attendants laughed with him-- and then did nothing to help as he tried in vain to get it back on. That tiny screen was of very little use anyways, as we soon found out we had only three movies to choose from, none of which were even remotely watchable. I believe 'Wild Hogs' was in the mix. Something to drink usually helps a lengthy and boring flight, and it would have helped here-- unfortunately, United Airlines charges for alcohol on flights between the US and Europe, even wine.

By the time our meal arrived, we were starting to see the humor in how bad the flight was. Which helped, as when pulled back the little tinfoil cover, we were greeted with a pile of tomato sauce glop that even after eating I still couldn't identify. Was it cannelloni with cheese? Lasagna with chicken? On the side was the obligatory white bread roll (freezing cold and rock hard), and a side salad that literally was composed of shredded lettuce, and not a single other ingredient.

We were quite happy to leave this flight... until we got into the airport. I should also mention that this flight was followed by our layover in Frankfurt, which meant we got to follow an awful flight with an awful airport.

Air travel can still be rather attractive, I should point out. I've had great experiences with South African Airways-- decent meals, good entertainment, and a fantastic and free-flowing selection of South African wines (their customer service off the airplane, however, is another matter). I have good memories of Air Tahiti Nua, where the fantastic crew (and their heavy hand when pouring drinks) made us feel like we were already in the South Seas from the moment we took off from LAX. Perhaps the best flight I've been on recently was with Air Asiana. At meal times, which always included some Korean options, the attentive and professional staff accented their already stylish uniforms with embroidered aprons-- a really fantastic touch to add a little more style and character to the flight.

What have been your best airline experiences? Your worst?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

First Thanksgiving.

Currently, there is a turkey roasting in our oven, releasing the sharp scent of rosemary into our apartment. Meanwhile, two pumpkin pies are cooling in our kitchen, their smooth golden-orange surfaces flecked with traces of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger.

This might sound fairly normal, it being Thanksgiving and all, but it came as a bit of a surprise to me. For the weeks before, whenever the mention of Thanksgiving came up, I shrugged it off with little thought. I haven't celebrated the holiday in five years, the last time I spent a November in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, I've spent the holiday traveling in Syria, studying in South Africa, working in Thailand, and stuck in the Incheon airport in Seoul; never once did I consider trying to celebrate the holiday abroad.

But a few weeks ago, Bordeaux begun to suggest more seriously that we celebrate it; primarily, I expect, because he was curious to try roasting a turkey. So I changed my mind. We have a good sized group of friends here, we know someone with a beautiful house who can host, and in the end Thanksgiving gave us a good chance to have a party and further develop our cooking skills.

Not the traditional reasons for celebrating the holiday, basically. But then something happened in our kitchen to change the feeling just a little bit. With Bordeaux in charge of the turkey and stuffing, and most of the side-dishes doled out to friends, I was put in charge of making two pumpkin pies. It wasn't exactly a seamless process-- our kitchen got too hot to properly make the buttery crust, and I misread one of the liquid ingredients and had to chuck in some baked gem-squash to even out the mixture (those are soft, edible gem-squash seeds you see in the pie below, as a note). But when I took the first pie out of the oven, I was hit by the warm buttery scent of nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. It was the exact same scent that would greet me on Thanksgiving morning as a child, when I would go into the kitchen and smell the baking pumpkin bread. And, unexpected to me, filling my own kitchen with this same scent made me feel a lot better than I would have expected it would.

Only after our planning got under way did I realize that this will by my and Bordeaux's first Thanksgiving spent as a married couple. And though I hadn't thought it would matter to me, I'm actually rather glad that we're not just letting the day slip by. We're filling our home with the fragrances of spice, butter, and roasted turkey, and tonight we'll share a staggering meal with our friends. And though I can't say with confidence that I think the pumpkin pie we have for dessert will be 100% perfect, I can at least relax knowing that we'll have lots more Thanksgiving to develop a better one. Which is something to be very thankful for.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I rather like airports. I like the clean, modern international style they often share, and the exciting energy of people moving around the globe. With that said, I don't really want to spend eight hours or more in one. Especially if it's a bad airport.

On a too-long layover, the quality of airport makes all the difference. Is it a mild irritation having to wait, alleviated by having enough to do, see and eat; or is the whole layover spent counting the minutes until you can get back on a plane?

Two of the worst:
1) Pictured above is LAX in Los Angeles, which, I'm embarrassed to say, has one of the worst international terminals I've been to. Lots of places to sit down, but almost no where to eat, shop or hang out, and the whole place just seems a bit faded and run down. Los Angeles is rather good at self-mythologizing, and investing itself with a good show of glamour-- so why does the airport fall so short? It could be a great place to show off the city's food, shopping, and style. Imagine if they had a foodcourt with dining options from the famed Farmer's Market, or shops selling work by local designers?

2) On our way to South Africa this year, we had a depressing ten-hour stay in Frankfurt. I could have left the airport, but as a South African, Bordeaux would have needed an expensive visa. There was very little to do at the airport during that time, and worse, almost nowhere to sit. The airport had wifi, but at a ridiculous price, and despite our searching we didn't find one outlet to plug our laptop in. We ended up spending nearly the whole day in the McCafe, which is about as good as it gets in Frankfurt. We did go elsewhere for lunch though-- the rather glum Cafe Goethe, where we got a somewhat gray sausage with a pile of tired looking sauerkraut. What luxury it felt to board our South African Airways aircraft and actually have a seat, movies to watch, and be provided with something to eat (the bottles of South African wine helped to relieve the memory of the Frankfurt airport).

On the other side, I had a rather pleasant stay at Incheon in Seoul, South Korea. The airport was bright and clean, there were some decent places to get some kimchi or a latte, and not only was there free wi-fi, but they would lend you an adapter so you could plug in your laptop.

What's the best airport you've ever been to? And the worst?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Walking out of a restaurant.

Last weekend Bordeaux and I decided to get out of town for lunch, so we drove up to the Winelands to have lunch at a wine estate. We'd done a little research, and picked a place that came recommended in some eating guides. But when we got there and looked at the menu, we were a little disappointed. The menu seemed a bit pretentious, trying too hard. The most succint problem with the menu was that there was something with 'wonton cups' in the appetizers-- and while I obviously have no problems with Asian food, I find it a bit tiresome how frequently restaurants in Cape Town add one token Asian-inspired item to their menu just to show how wordly and sophisticated they are.* Basically though, we were after a simple, delicious, lazy Sunday lunch, and this obviously wasn't the place for it.

So anyway, we walked out. We drove a bit to Fairview, a winery and cheese farm near Paarl, which we have visited often and always enjoy. We shared a massive platter of their hand-crafted cheeses (pictured above), which included a mature and flavourful la beryl, creamy camembert, and an incredibly rich and dessert-like cream cheese with cranberries. We ate it with crusty bread, a bitter preserved orange, slices of cured meat, and a chilled bottle of wine. Perfect for a late Sunday lunch on a very warm afternoon.

A few years ago, I never would have been able to walk out of a restaurant. I will admit it's a little tacky maybe, and I probably would have been a bit embarrassed about what other diners would think. But now I actually find something-- in an odd way-- satisfying about walking out of a restaurant. I suppose I've gotten to the point that I really care much less about what other people think, and I've also come to really appreciate the value of a good meal spent with someone I care about. I don't think it's worth wasting time on mediocrity, or settling for something less when there are much better options around. Admittedly, we could have been surprised. There's a chance that had we stayed we might have ended up liking what we ate, but we also just knew that we could have a much more enjoyable meal elsewhere. It's about realizing that enjoying the limited time I have is more important than worrying about my pride.

With all of that said, my grandparents used to walk out of movies that they found morally objectionable. I think their morals got stricter and movies more crass to the point that they would usually leave the theatre about five minutes in. So maybe it's actually just genetic, and I'm on a very dangerous road?

*And yet, good, straight-forward Asian food is very difficult to find in Cape Town. More on that some other time, perhaps.

Friday, November 20, 2009

culturedPRIMITIVE/stockist: Pinotage.

The global guide to stocking your pantry.

One of the pleasures of the Cape lifestyle is that wine is plentiful and affordable. However, while we very much enjoy a regular glass of wine at sundown, we're really not proper wine drinkers. We mostly buy bottles on whim rather than on research, we drink out of whatever glasses are at hand, and on the off chance we buy a bottle that isn't a screw-top, we pull the cork with a well-travelled swiss army knife. But maybe that's why we're so fond of pinotage.

Pinotage is a distinctly South African wine. Not only in its origins (it was first cultivated in Stellenbosch in the 1920s), but in its character as well-- this isn't a delicate wine. It has an earthy smoky flavour flecked with hints of tropical fruit. It's a full-bodied combination that makes it ideal for pairing with heavy meats, game, and spicy flavours. In other words, you can serve it at your braai, and it will actually complement your boerwors.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

View of Lion's Head #12.

And while I'm up there, I'll include this view of Lion's Head, taken near the top. It's a strange view of the mountain, the rocky head almost slouching as it looks down over the Atlantic. When's it's been a rough hike, this is the point on the trail where I generally feel rather sick; I just have to remind myself that I'm almost there, and that the view of the whole city below really makes it worth getting to the top.

around town/cape town: Climbing Lion's Head.

I really don't like workouts. My own mother goes to the gym just about every day, while I haven't visited one since I made a brief effort in college. More than the actual physical labor, I just really get bored with monotonous routines, repeated reps of the same dull activity. But when you eat like I do (last night's burgers and chocolate buttercream cake a good example) you have to do something. Thankfully, we've got Lion's Head.

Lion's Head is not only an iconic figure of the Cape Town landscape, it's also Cape Town's most attractive gym, where both local citizens and visiting travellers gather on the trail. It might be the ideal workout. The rocky path requires concentration, so it always stays interesting. And rather than spending that time in the sealed-off space of a gym, that time is spent connecting to the city in a very physical way.

We try to get up early (very early, the closer we get to the middle of summer), so that by the time the sun rises and starts heating the city, we're already it most of the way up the hill. The path circles the whole of Lion's Head once, so along the way it looks out over all the corner's of the city. We can peer down at the seaside villas of Camp's Bay, still sleeping in thick purple shadow, to the high-rises of the CBD, which have just begun to blush in the morning's light. The fynbos and flowers along the path change so much from one season to the next that the hike never gets routine or dull-- having taken a break from the hike due to the winter rains, we were surprised to find our once wide open path now crowded in with bushy shrubs and towering pink flowers. And when we reach the top, we get to have a moment to refresh in the cool breeze, to rest before starting on the way down. It's also the perfect moment to look out over the whole of Cape Town, just as the sun rises over Table Mountain and fills the city with light. It's an incredible feeling, being at the top of the city, seeing it all set out, curving below our feet.

And, hopefully, it goes some way toward making up for that cake last night.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Turkey and crisco.

I think sometimes I give the impression of being a food snob, or of only being into 'exotic' foods, but really that's hardly the case. I really just like simple food well made, in whatever form that might take. And I'm certainly not one to turn down something tasty from my home-country. Last time I was home, I had some incredible American meals in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Chicago. Ok, I might be more interested in the eating cultures of say Vietnam or Thailand, but now and then I really get a craving for a familiar American classic.

Like donuts. I can potentially count the number of donuts I've actually eaten in the past decade on one hand, but for some reason, the craving hit me recently. I don't really feel a need to justify this-- a well crafted donut (not from the above retailer, which was included for mere thematic purposes) can be a beautiful confection. Take, for example, these apple cider donuts I just spotted over on Smitten Kitchen. The warming aroma of apple, spiced with the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon-- it sounds like a brilliant celebration of an American classic. I'm trying to eat a little healthier* after too much baking lately, so this recipe could be a rather dangerous find, were two of the central ingredients, shortening and apple cider, not so tricky to get a hold of in South Africa. I've actually attempted to make donuts once before; last time I was in Albuquerque I took my stab at it, and came up with some rather dark and overly chewy donuts with a too-strong lemon flavour. Even with that to discourage me, I might still consider attempting these when I get back on American soil...

We've also been discussing American food recently over the topic of Thanksgiving, as Bordeaux and I debate whether we'll actually celebrate it. Bordeaux is curious to try roasting a turkey, but given Cape Town's climbing temperatures, I'm more inclined to play around with the holidays a little and have an evening with a barbecue and some root beer floats. But this afternoon I found myself poring over New York Times articles on preparing Thanksgiving dinner for some reason, and was left actually wondering if we shouldn't actually take a stab at a big Thanksgiving dinner.

Anyway, perhaps I will get something of a fill tonight, anyway, as we will be eating American for dinner. We're hosting a friend's birthday here, so we'll be having hamburgers, with home-made buns, no less. Though, well, I should point out that they're ostrich burgers. And we'll be enjoying them with South African red wines. I'm not really helping my point, am I?

*(after tonight, when I'll be having a piece of Bordeaux's double layer victoria sponge cake with chocolate buttercream frosting, that is)

around town/cape town: Bo Kaap.

If you're ever craving a good shot of colour while in Cape Town, a quick walk up the hill to the Bo Kaap should do the trick. The Bo Kaap, which literally means upper cape, has traditionally been home to the Cape Malay community. And while the area is experiencing the first pangs of gentrification, it is still a predominantely Muslim neighbourhood, where pastel coloured minarets of the mosques poke out above the houses. Aside from a scattering of shops and a few historic buildings, there aren't too many attractions in the neighbourhood other than simply strolling the cobblestone lanes. But while you're up there, it's worth seeking out a bite of Cape Malay cooking; a meal of bobotie at Biesmiellah restaurant, or chicken grilled right on the street, or a simply a warm koesister from a corner shop.

Monday, November 16, 2009

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Beskuit.

Eating the world, one bite at a time.

No proper South African tea is complete unless attended by some beskuit. Known in English as a rusk, beskuit is the Afrikaans equivalent of biscotti: a biscuit that has been twice baked to dry it out and harden it, making it ideal for dipping into a warm mug of tee or koffie. Though classic beskuit have a relatively simple ingredient list (mainly flour, margarine, and buttermilk), they can be further enhanced with added seeds, dried fruit, or cereals. Pictured above are anise beskuit, made with self-raising flour for a more pillowy texture, and flavoured lightly with anise. If you're curious to try beskuit in South Africa, give the boxes in the grocery store a miss, and seek out some proper home-baked beskuit from a farm stall, a church bazaar, or a neighbourhood cafe; it will make all the difference for enjoying your tea.

For further reading, or to attempt some beskuit of your own, check out this recipe on Marita Says.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Season of change for PRIMITIVEculture.

We're in a season of change here in Cape Town-- the gray drizzle of winter and the clear sunny days of summer caught in a tug of war that has us constantly confused about how to dress for going out. Pictured above is the rose gardens at Cape Town's Company's Gardens, with the regal Centre for the Book in the background, on one of our nicer recent days.

And in some ways, there seems to be a lot of change taking place among blogs these days.

My husband Bordeaux has decided to discontinue his old blog Marita Says, and launched a new one at Itinerant Bordeaux. The blog continues his writing on home-ec style projects like cooking, baking and sewing, but has also expanded to cover travel, literature, topics in gay culture, and of course, his itinerant lifestyle.

Similarly, my friend Tim has completely redeveloped his blog I am a viking. He started the blog several years ago as a teacher in Japan, and it initially covered local Japanese food culture. He's recently moved to the UK and begun work selling Danish beers, and fittingly has relaunched his blog to cover Scandinavian culture, food, and beer.

In a more subtle way, there are some changes taking place here at PRIMITIVEculture, as well.

Regular readers will have noticed that I basically stopped writing midway through this year-- I had one entry in June, and not many more in May or July. Though there were several factors for this, I basically reached a point where the theme of my blog was running counter to the theme of my life. I was very settled in Cape Town, and more than that I wasn't really getting out much even in Cape Town, which made it difficult to write a blog about interacting with the world.

In starting up writing again, I really had to reconsider what PRIMITIVEculture is about. It is a blog about travel, but since travel is not it's sole narrative, it isn't exactly a travel blog. And it is a blog about food, but since it is not entirely devoted to food, it isn't a food blog either. The best way that I can put it is that PRIMITIVEculture is really a blog about lifestyle, about recognizing that the world is in amazing place, with an incredible range of experiences to be had. Whether it's travelling to foriegn cities, or seeking out a delicious meal, or admiring the style of a local designer, it's all about ways of seeking out the full breadth of what the world has to offer, hopefully with a little style.

In essence, this won't really change the content of my blog very noticably. There might be some new topics explored, some focus given to my patterns of writing. And I've started to organize my topics a little, so they can be explored through the menu of categories on the side-bar to the right. This is a work in progress, so there will be minor tweaks and changes along the way. Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll continue to join me for whatever changes this season brings.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Keeping dry in Taipei.

Our rainy Sunday was not an isolated cloudburst; Cape Town is still trapped under a low ceiling of cloud cover and steady drizzle. But after living in Asia, really, this is nothing. No one does rain like Asia.

We had quite a few experiences of being trapped by a sudden downpour. Like the walk home from work in Bangkok, where Bordeaux and I had to just give up on the idea of trying to stay dry, and ran home, sloshing through knee-high puddles. Or when we were visiting Phnom Penh and got caught in a downpour; luckily we were trapped inside Chocolate, a little cafe selling delicious baked goods and warm lattes. Or the first day of our road trip in Northern Thailand, where less than half an hour out of Chiang Mai we had to pull over to seek cover.

Through all of these incedents, for whatever clever reason, Bordeaux and I were generally without an umbrella. Most often this meant we had to wait it out, or we just got soaked.

Once, however, this ended a little differently. We were in Taipei, and had just visited the National Palace Museum. And just as we were walking through their gardens, the sky opened up and it began to pour. We got trapped, rather unconveniently, under the eaves outside of the restrooms. The rain had no sign of stopping, and we could have been stuck there for much longer, but a Taiwanese couple spotted us, and handed us one of their umbrellas. We tried to co-ordinate getting to the next spot dry with them, where we could give them back their umbrella. But no, they explained, we could have the umbrella. I'd often experienced that people in Taiwan were friendlier than average, but this went beyond. And thanks to their generosity, we got home dry.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Activities for rainy weather.

On Sunday we woke to the sound of a steady rain drenching Cape Town. Thankfully, we'd had a busy Saturday, so it gave us the perfect excuse to spend a lazy Sunday at home. But we did need to buy some groceries (and to rent a DVD), so we had to make one excursion out. Outside, the air was oddly warm, yet not muggy. And everything looked beautiful slicked with rain, as if everything was just a little more lush and green.

This might seems a bit of a stretch, but somehow that feeling really reminded us of being back in Southeast Asia. Particularly, of being in Northern Thailand. In 2007, Bordeaux and I took a motorbike trip through the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, from Chiang Mai to the city of Mae Hong Son, and back. The trip was not without its share of missteps: we ran out of gas in a tiny village without a gas station (thankfully it was in a village), we ended up sleeping in towns where we had very little luck finding dinner, and shared rooms with giant spiders and terrifying cockroaches. And most notably, our trip took place during the rainy season, so we ended up soaked for most of the journey in torrential rainfall. We would get to a hotel, and the first thing we would do would be to unpack our bags to try and dry everything out. But despite our soggy luggage, it was an incredible experience. We found some fantastic meals, explored a bit of Thailand, and spent most of our time in awe of the unbelievable scenery of rain soaked cloud-forest, verdant rice paddies, and staggering mountain passes.

We spent our recent rainy weather rather differently-- returned home, had comfort food for lunch, baked giant cookies, watched a bad TV series over coffee, and a Japanese horror movie over dinner. Which rainy-weather activities I preferred, I really can't say. As much as I love what travel can bring, I also appreciate the value in a day spent happy and comfortable at home. I guess, for me, a balanced life needs to have a mix of both?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Cape Town CBD.

Every now and then, I like to go out and act like a tourist. I find that as a local, I have a tendency to grow so accustomed to my surroundings, that I don't really look around anymore. I stop noticing new things about my city, stop actively engaging with the world around me. And when I do see something interesting, I generally express the sentiment 'I should go check that out, but I'll go another time', which often results in never going at all. Exploring like a tourist is my way of correcting this; it means seeing everything as if it were new, exploring everything that grabs my interest right in the spur of the moment, and being open to experiencing the city in ways I usually don't.

Last week, on a particularly sunny day, we headed down to Cape Town's Central Business District (1) for a morning of sight-seeing. Actually raising my eyes to look around reminded me of all the unusual details in the architecture of the CBD, like this incredible carving of early Cape history on the Old Mutual building (2). We stopped and admired proteas in the Trafalgar Flower Market (3), which I've seen from a distance for almost five years, been curious about, but never been into. And in general we just wandered around, admiring the eclectic mix of architectural styles that make up Cape Town's CBD (4).

Our only real activity of the day was a visit to the Castle (5), a fort built by the Dutch East India Company in the late 17th century. We ended the morning out with a lunch on St George's mall (6), a leafy pedestrian street right in the centre of town. It's not somewhere I often think of going-- the cafes are mostly chains, and I'm not too into the stands selling paintings of townships or the big five. But it is an attractively green urban space, and I like the hum of constant daytime energy as people stroll through, meet for lunch, or stop for coffee. The crowd is always an interesting mix of locals and tourists, so as we ate our lunch we enjoyed some people watching, listened in on conversations in foreign tongues, and felt very much like tourists in our own city.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Early views of Table Mountain.

I am obviously not the first person to develop a fascination with capturing views of Cape Town's neighborly mountains. On Monday we took a visit to the Castle of Good Hope, a fort built by the Dutch East India Company in the early days of settling the Cape, where we found a fantastic collection of early paintings of Table Mountain. I love images created in the early days of exploration-- they're always such an interesting mix of science and fantasy. Comparing them gave a real sense not only of the history of the Cape, but of changes in how artists depicted the natural world. Here are a few of my favourites. (I've included a recent photograph of the mountain at the bottom, labeled for convenience. You may have to click to make it larger, unless you have super sharp eyes).

This rather early one was done by Aernout Smit, in 1683. It is a little odd for me to picture Table Bay swarming with galleons (they would later be replaced by whaling ships, later on by massive tankers of international trade). Though Lion's Head is looking a little bulbous, on the whole the city is depicted rather well. If you look closely, you can see how little of the city was developed-- just a few forts and buildings near the shoreline.

This one was painted about 50 years later, in 1730, by Samuel Scott, who I suspect may never have visited Cape Town. Not only is Lion Head here transformed into a steep pinnacle, and Devil's Peak is given a sloping hillside that fills up the whole of the city bowl, but the whole mountain is for some reason carved of a blue-white stone. It almost looks like some sort of antarctic glacier. A Table Mountain ice sculpture? Looking at this painting, one can really get a sense of what a strange and fantastical place the Cape must have seemed to people in Europe-- a settlement on a distant corner of Africa, in the far Southern reaches of the known world.

This painting by William Syme, done in 1850, uses light and shadow quite evocatively. The scale of the humans are miniscule, just a fleck of paint compared to the churning sea, the distant afloof mountains, and the broken, cloudy sky.

While I like the moodiness of Syme's painting, this view, painted by Thomas William Bowler in 1857, might be my favourite. I love how well he used simple, flat shapes to depict the different peaks of Table Mountain. Lion's head is particularly effective as just a dark shadow.

And here's my own view, photographed in 2006. A little less glamorous without all the wooden ships? If you click on the photo to make it bigger, and look very very closely to the right of Devil's Peak, you'll even see the three towers of Disa Park-- which look no less alluring to me from this angle.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Travel is addictive.

Considering the globe-trotting many of my readers do, I'm probably not shocking anyone with the revelation in this post's title. Most of us have found by now that the more you travel, the more you need to travel.

2009 was our year of giving up travel completely, cold turkey, for settled life. Oddly enough, it left us all the more unsettled, even vaguely depressed at times. So, seeking a temporary cure, we took our quick honeymoon in September. And it felt fantastic to get out on the road, even for just a few days. I didn't realize it at the time, but this little trip planted an idea in our head. It was meant to get us over our need for travel, for a little while at least; instead, it reminded us how great it feels to be traveling.

A few weeks after our trip, when Bordeaux half-seriously suggested we get back on the road, this cause-and-effect didn't come to mind. But looking back on it, I can see: a little travel can be a dangerous drug.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Would you consider these Cape Town buildings, known as Disa Park, to be ugly or beautiful? Around here they're generally regarded as one of the city's ugliest architectural blights-- though I have to say I rather like them. I do understand the point that they sort of hamper the view of Table Mountain (blocked out in this photo by heavy cloud-cover), but I find something about them elegant. I don't know, maybe it's some strange connection I've carried from childhood that round high rises equal glamorous living. What are your thoughts?

things make me happy: Living is better with Muji.

We have many reasons for wanting to get back to Asia. The food. The lifestyle. A need for travel. And Muji. Their pared-down clothing and accessories are simple, functional, and so straight-forwardly handsome. I'm browsing the site now in advance, and I wouldn't mind a new Muji bag, or a new Muji notebook (I filled mine up months ago)-- I'd even be totally unhip and get a pair of Muji house-slippers, if I could find them in my size.

I'm thinking it's time for a little more Muji in my life.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

And a view of the other mountain, for balance.

I know I rather favour views of Lion's Head, but Cape Town's more iconic Table Mountain does offer its share of incredible views as well. This one on the intersection of Annandale and Upper Orange is one of my favourites, for the bizarre contrast it offers; a contrast that to me says so much about Cape Town. The stately Presbyterian church, looking like a scene out of an English hamlet, and behind it Table Mountain, clouds unfurling over it like a primeval landscape from the 'Lost World'.

View of Lion's Head #11.

Or, perhaps, a game of where's Lion's Head.

Monday, November 02, 2009

culturedPRIMITIVE/stockist: Rooibos.

The global guide to stocking your pantry.

I am generally a coffee drinker, but I do occasionally take tea. In South Africa, that often takes the form of rooibos, a brewed beverage indigenous to the Western Cape. Rooibos is of course known outside of its country of origin; it is perhaps one of the few products with an Afrikaans name to successfully branch into the international market. That name, by the way, translates as 'red bush', an evocative descriptor of the rusty-earth colour the needles take once they have been oxidized. It is available in many brands, in organic loose-leaf or chai flavoured tea bags, and even in an espresso like form, but I rather favour Eleven O'Clock Rooibos for its no frills tea, and its attractively vintage graphics. Outside of South Africa rooibos is mainly sipped by the health crowd (it is high in anti-oxidants and caffeine free) and is generally taken black, but here in the Western Cape we take it in the proper South African way: with a little milk and honey, and preferably, a crunchy buttermilk beskuit on the side.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Virtual Taipei.

From February to September of this year, I lived without home internet. And at no point did I have a 'life without internet isn't so bad! what did I ever use that for in the first place?' sort of revelation. No, I missed it every day, and having it again (albeit at the slow, expensive, capped megabyte version available in SA) I only appreciate it all the more. Because really, cliche as the phrase sounds, it helps open up the world.

Like, for example, when Bordeaux and I started discussing the idea of going back to Taiwan. Within minutes, we were able to open up a half dozen webpages, blogs, and photo albums to get a sense of what life in Taipei would be like. Here's some of what we've found:

The New York Times offered a list of what to do over 36 Hours in Taipei. It is, of course, a very touristy list-- visiting the observation deck at Taipei 101, or spending $100 on dinner aren't likely to be part of our regular routine. But the list does at least highlight some of the the diverse attractions available in what must be the most underrated city in all of Asia-- and the writer does deserve points for taking a moment out of the high-spending schedule to enjoy a bowl of shaved ice at Ice Monster.

For more general info, the Rough Guide's pages on Taipei are rather useful. The Rough Guide Taiwan was in fact the same guide we used last time we were on the island, as it was clear from the author's writing that he had a real love of the island, and was committed to sharing its best features. More importantly, we found that he gave much more info on eating than the Lonely Planet Taiwan did.

We also scanned Robyn's Taiwan entries over at Eating Asia. She seems to have a gift for finding incredible meals wherever she goes, like the oven baked buns she sampled in Taipei, or the egg and tomato she supped on in Hsinchu. We may have been the ones who tipped her off to visiting Hsinchu, but when we make it back there, we'll be following her tips on where to go eat once we're there.

By far the best guide that I've found for eating in Taipei is at a hungry girl's guide to taipei, a blog of restaurant reviews from around the city. The reviews are descriptive, It also covers food trends (like the abundance of Frozen yogurt shops popping up around town).

And of course, there are my own entries on the island on this here blog. Look over my entries, and you'll see as my low expectations were continually blown away by Taiwan's incredible food, friendly people, and unique local style.

Anyone have any good web resources on the island? Or any other sites you go to when you need a little virtual vacation?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Looking back, looking forward...

One of the pleasures for a traveller in keeping a journal (or a blog, as it may be) is the strange pleasure of looking back and seeing how much one's life can change in a matter of months. Just by opening this blog's archives to October's pasts reveals a strange succession of past lives...

I am currently a resident of Cape Town, working in a local market, more settled than I've ever been, yet looking back to Asia and the Americas for a possible escape...

One year ago, we were in Southern Thailand, writing guides for Travelfish on the islands of Trang. The setting was beautiful but the schedule was intense, with our task of one island per day requiring us to spend most of our time on boats and buses, rather than on the beach. We did at least get lucky now and then, like this incredibly generous meal of curry and rice that we shared with some locals on Ko Libong. We had already made up our mind to head back to America, and then on to South Africa, and were trying to make the most of our last days in Asia.

Two years ago, we were just getting settled in Bangkok, learning how to make the most of the metropolis, and recording our observations, like these mannequin legs we spotted in Patpong. I was still very new to teaching, hating the tie I had to wear, but loving the opportunity to explore Bangkok. It was a little hard for me missing autumn in a tropical clime, but I was constantly finding new foods to try, new sights to engage me, and new parts of the city to explore...

And it gets even stranger if we look back beyond this blog, to three years ago when I was living in Cape Town, working on my Masters in African Studies, still relatively new to my relationship with Bordeaux, and figuring things out. We had just made plans to head to Asia together, a new continent for me, and one that I could hardly imagine...

...and finally, to four years ago, when I was a recent college graduate, just about to leave Los Angeles. I was preparing for a trip through the Middle East, after which I would be on my way to South Africa. I had left my job, given up my apartment, and was preparing to say goodbye to my home, completely unsure of what the future looked like.

Anyone else notice a trend? Always moving, packing up, travelling. Always a little displaced. What sort of progress is made in this drifting? And is that even the point? It can't continue this way forever, surely, but right now I don't know that it can continue any other way. At the very least, all I can say is that I'm eager to see what the next year will bring, and the next...