Monday, August 31, 2009

National Restrooms.

In looking through the archives of photos I’ve taken, I often see recurring themes develop. Often I’m conscious of these trends; I like to take photographs of certain colours, say, or of modernist architecture in unusual places. Sometimes, however, strange themes occur within my work without my having been aware. Like, for instance, these images of National Park toilets. Looking over them individually, I can recall why I took each individual photo: I liked the offbeat composition of the outhouse and boulders in Joshua Tree; I was caught by the pattern of light inside men’s room at My Son; I was amused by the way the ablutions at Great Zimbabwe were made to mirror the historic architecture of the ruins—but looked at as a recurring theme, it comes off a little strange. This isn’t exactly a regularly recurring subject of mine (there are, after all, only five such photos between a period from 2003 to 2008)—yet still frequent enough to warrant notice. The best explanation I can provide is that one of the larger themes I explore in my photography is the more mundane aspects of travel and tourism—and thus these images of themed National Park restrooms have found their way into my collection. Does that make it seem any less odd?

Pictured (from top): Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria, South Africa; Joshua Tree NP, California, US; My Son, Vietnam; Tikal, Guatemala; Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe.

Friday, August 28, 2009


In a recent entry on Girl in Asia, Saigon based blogger Liz described some of the differences between her life in Asia and life back home, in Australia. She compares the standard of living in the two locales, citing things she misses back home, but noting the things she’d miss if she returned. I think it’s simply part of the innate difficulty in being an expat—unless you left your home because you really couldn’t stand it there, there are likely lots of things you miss. I have to admit that I kind of have a continuous inner monologue that runs “but in LA we had…” Really, it’s gotten to the point that I’ve probably given Cape Town an inferiority complex. That wouldn’t be fair-- because really, this is a pretty fantastic city too. So as an exercise in being happy with what I have, I’ve listed below a few of the things that Cape Town has over LA.

1) The Neighbourgoods Market at the Biscuit Mill—LA does have some great farmer’s markets (not just the big touristy ‘Farmer’s Market’, but also loads of little once a week neighbourhood markets)—but none quite compare to the market at the Biscuit Mill. It’s a combination specialty food market, gourmet food court, and young designer shopping centre. There are always delicious foods to try, fun new food products to take home, and beautiful people to watch.

2) Shopping vintage—I never got too into second hand shopping in LA; I don’t know if I just had bad luck, but I always felt like I was never actually able to find anything good. It seemed to me that the second a handsome vintage item hit the Goodwill or a flea market, it was snapped up by a designer to be marked up and put in his shop on Beverly Blvd. Add to that the fact that the better markets, like the Rose Bowl, charge a steep entrance fee, and that prices for goods seem kind of inflated. So it’s with some relief that I visit the Milnerton Market here in Cape Town, where I always go home with a few fantastic items, and all for next to nothing. My latest finds? A giant metal biscuit tin decorated with a 70’s painting of impala, a set of 4 retro French dessert bowls, and a stream-lined footstool that is now acting as a magazine stand in our living room.

3) Independent businesses—One frustrating aspect about LA is that if you go to different shopping neighbourhoods around town, you’ll likely find the same shops: Restoration Hardware, Gap, Pottery Barn, Barnes and Noble, and of course, Starbucks. Great independent shops and cafes do exist, but the city is definitely dominated by chains. I’m not always opposed to the chains (I wouldn’t be adverse to an Ikea, a Target, or a Peet’s Coffee opening up on these shores), but it’s refreshing how in the absence of chain store monopoly, independent shops, cafes and restaurants have been allowed to flourish in Cape Town.

4) Cape Town really is a Town—I’m not exactly sure about this, but I’m fairly certain you could fit the entire area of Cape Town within the dimensions of Candy Spelling’s Hollywood estate. So basically, where LA is massive and sprawling, Cape Town is tiny and manageable. This does have its downsides—less to explore, and I sometimes feel the small pond thing-- but it has some major advantages, as it makes everything within the city so much more accessible. While LA also has beach and mountains nearby, I almost never took advantage of them because with the traffic, distances, and crowds, it seemed like too much of a mission. If I felt like going to the beach, it would mean packing up, getting in the car, struggling for two hours on the freeways, parking a mile from the waves, and then squeezing into a space on the sand between two other families’ towels. Here, we often do make the impulsive decision to go to the beach or take a picnic up the mountain, because it’s always less than twenty minutes away.

But just for fun, what does LA have over Cape Town? Trader Joe’s, the milder winters, cheap Ethiopian restaurants, the jasmine scented air, taco trucks, art museums, palm-fringed hills, gorgeous 1920s architecture, Zankou… ok, I need to stop again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Colors of Phnom Penh: Green and White.

I have a complicated personal history with Phnom Penh. I have been taken sick on both of my visits to the Cambodian capital, so that some of my strongest memories of the city are of lying in bed in pain. And my first night there was spent feeling exhaustedly overwhelmed: by the traffic of motorbikes, the maimed beggars, and the clash of new development with destitute poverty. But in the end, it’s still one of the cities in Asia I think most longingly of. For somehow, despite its suffering history, its lingering ills, it’s a city where hope seems almost to be sprouting from the cracks in the pavement.

So maybe it’s fitting that the colours I associate with Phnom Penh are of green and white; of new growth an optimistic brightness. These colours flourished in the seasonal monsoons, succored in the cool shade of the city’s leafy sidewalk cafes, and gleamed in the verdant hues of its markets’ produce.

Friday, August 14, 2009

culturedPRIMITIVE/style: Out of Africa.

I don’t get to out check other blogs too often, so I was grateful to have happened upon this entry on Design Sponge. As part of a new series about taking decorating inspiration from films, editor Amy Merrick put together this amazing collection of images to recreate the style from the movie ‘Out of Africa’. She did an incredible job, and found a beautiful mix of pieces that capture the mood and era portrayed in the film: folding canvas chairs, hamman towels, woven African baskets. I used to be really big on African Colonial, so I sort of wish she’d have put this collage together for me when I was in high school. Seriously, the above is what my bedroom ten years ago would have looked like if I’d had any sort of budget.

Hmm… with my current taste, where would I be looking for inspiration now? Wong Kar Wai’s ‘Days of Living Wild’ for retro subtropical Hong Kong? ‘Indochine’ for chic French Saigon? Disney’s 1954 '20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ for Undersea Victorian?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Colors of Hanoi: Empire Red

Hanoi’s colour palette tends toward the discreet: a mix of smoky greys in the medieval old quarter, pastel sherbet hues on the new French boulevards. This makes the sudden bursts of vibrant red that dot the city all the more intense. Red in Hanoi is an imperial colour. It flashes in Chinese shrines, in paper lanterns and packets of incense, and on carved temple doors. The colour was used again more recently with another Empire; Soviet influence in the Communist capital sparked a revival of the hue, where it was used to bold effect for official signs, on government buildings, and in propaganda posters.

Missing: Asian Style.

At the start of this month, without my even noticing it, we hit the six-month mark of being back in South Africa. And though I was unaware of the date itself, I have become aware of the growing length of our stay here, as I’ve increasingly been thinking back to my previous home, and what I miss about it. And what I’m missing most from Asia is its ‘style’-- a word and a concept with countless failings, but the best I can come up with. By style, I do not the stodgy images of ‘Asian Style’ that generally fill decorator’s hardcover tomes on the subject: pristine teak wood houses, oversized ceramic vases, gilt encrusted Naga heads. Rather, I’m missing the unique substance of everyday living in Southeast Asia: hip ironic graphics on the wares of a Chatuchak t-shirt vendor; Fanta bottles gathered at the feet of a hallowed shrine; gleaming labels in a modern department store, paralleled in the bags for sale on the sidewalk outside; green plastic chopsticks gathered next to a stack of matching green bowls at a street-side noodle shop. I miss the incongruous mix of ancient, contemporary, high-end and low budget that made my life in Asia vibrant, colourful, and always a little unexpected (and, as readers of Primitive Culture, it’s ok to admit that you miss seeing that here too).

I’m mostly very content with living in South Africa now, but I certainly don’t want to be done with Asia forever. With Piesang, we’re hoping to bring some elements of Asian style to South Africa. And the long-term goal is that eventually we’ll be able to start making return trips to Asia, to seek out new flavours, do some shopping, and re-hone our senses of taste. And along with that, there will be new bursts of Asian style on the pages of Primitive Culture.

Illustrated: Asian Style Cities, from top: Bangkok, Saigon, Taipei.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Captain Nemo's garden.

While stopped below the dramatic seaside cliffs of Tsistsikama National Park, we discovered a treasury of small rocks and shells covered in bizarre aquatic growth. Some of the fronds resembled elaborate feathers, others looked like alien flowers, and they grew together in the strangest collections, like tiny gardens raised from the bottom of the sea.

Night drive.

Before heading to Addo, we booked two drives: one for sunrise, and another for just after sunset. Our sunrise drive went well, and we saw loads of elephants, herds of buffalo, and several lions, along with two cubs. When we showed up for the night drive however, we were practically warned off by the driver. He had just taken another group around for a sun-downer drive, and had only seen two kudu. Plus, it was looking like it might rain. And if it rained enough, we’d have to turn around. We discussed it, and in the end decided to go out—if nothing else, it would be nice to be out in the bush in the dark.

In the end, the drive was unbelievable. The rain settled over us, but never enough to send us back to camp. And perhaps out of enjoying the rain, the animals came out too. We saw black backed jackals, trotting through the scrub landscape. We saw several spotted hyenas, including two young cubs that gave in to their curiosity and prowled around our vehicle. We saw a porcupine, its massive coat of quills shimmying as it scurried to get out of the spotlights glare. And we even came across a herd of elephants, staying out long after their bedtime; they passed by close enough that we could practically touch their bristly skin.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Gasp of Fresh Air.

Since arriving in Cape Town in February, Bordeaux and I had only left the cape once: on a short weekend trip to Waenhuiskrans. Other than that, we had slept at home, in our bed, for every night since February. A period of almost five months. Nearly half a year. A strange record for two people so used to constant travel. Just before leaving Thailand, Bordeaux and I had worked out the staggering number of beds we’d slept in since moving to Asia; with our arrival in South Africa, that number dropped to one. So when we left town again on a short trip, it felt like finally taking a gasp of fresh air.

It was a short trip, not long enough, but the taste of life on the road again felt great. Within a period from Sunday to Thursday, we were able to take in a wide variety of environments and settings. We started out by watching elephants among the scrub landscape of Addo National Park…

…stopped briefly to admire the canyon at Storm’s River…

…and continued on to crashing waves and stormy coastal cliffs at Tsitsikamma…

…before spending a night on the placid lagoon in Knysna.

Then we headed up to the Karoo, where we first dined on ostrich burgers and duck liver pate in Outdshoorn…

…then spent a night at a thatched roof inn in the chilly Victorian mountain town of Prince Albert.

Yet even as I report on the fantastic scenery, outstanding meals, and amazing places we visited, I’m aware that the real pleasure of travelling again had very little to do with any of that. In some ways, it was the most mundane aspects of the trip-- sleeping in new beds, taking breakfast in a hotel lobby, waking up to a view of a different ceiling—that felt particularly refreshing and comforting. Like I could feel the sense of escape strongest at its root, at the most basic elements. Which makes me wonder what it is about travel that I miss so much. Can movement in itself be a requirement for peace of mind?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Report from the Field, August 2009.

Doing: August is for getting things done.
August is my birthday month, and my first month as a married man—as such, it seems like a good month for getting things accomplished. I haven’t been giving too many updates about Piesang here, but I will gratefully report that things have gradually been going better and better—we’re gathering more repeat clients, getting some word of mouth, and we even had a small mention in a South African magazine—our first press! Most importantly, we’re growing into our roles, and figuring out what we’re doing. But now we’d like to expand Piesang beyond the Saturdays only market. So this month our primary goal is finding a space for a full time Piesang Café. We’ve started looking around and noticed that finding a rental space isn’t easy—so this may take some work. Let us know if you spot any attractive 30-70 sqm properties around Cape Town!

Eating: Pork Belly.
I may be about a year and a half behind world food trends, as I’m only now opening up to the wonders of pork belly. Admittedly, I had previously developed a taste for fatty porcine meat in Bangkok, where five-spice pork knuckle was one of my favourite street foods. But its only recently that I’ve gained an appreciation for the cholesterol-rich deliciousness that is pork belly. I made a delicious braised pork belly on rice, and have been finding excuses to add streaky bacon to salads, stir-fries and pastas. Have any good recipes using pork belly or bacon? I’m listening… I’ve also been experimenting with dim sum lately (along with the new found appreciation of pork, maybe there’s a general Chinese food fascination happening?), so I’ve got a plan for a Thai pork belly steamed bun in the works…

Enjoying: Signal Hill.
A recent bout of warm weather in the middle of what should be winter gave us the chance to enjoy some of Cape Town’s natural charms. After the depressing grey of winter (and I used to think I liked rain…) it was fantastic to be outdoors again and feeling the sun. A quick visit up to Signal Hill just before my family departed reminded me of what might be the most beautiful spot in Cape Town: surrounded by ocean below, a perfect view of the City Bowl to one side, and watched over by Lion’s Head. So a few days later, Bordeaux and I returned for a picnic on the hillside, with boerewors and chutney rolls, jars of ginger lemonade, and lemon meringue cupcakes to complement the stellar surrounds. It was the kind of afternoon that reminded me why, despite all, I am lucky to be living in Cape Town.

What’s on your mind and on your plate this August?