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?