Any Porto in a Storm

Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher. – Evelyn Waugh

We are back after our re-entry back to the States. We’ll have a number of updates and a few recaps of the year but look out for a few posts on Portugal where we spent September.  Here is our take on Porto.

We spent most of September in Portugal. It is a great month to visit as the weather is perfect. And although it tends to be a busy tourist time, it is not too hard to find plenty of spots away from the hot spots. Porto, for example, has a number of neighborhoods with hotels that are  only a kilometer or so from the city center but provide a bit more of a local experience.  We spent the better part of the week over two different visits in Porto (an easy 3 hour train ride from Lisboa) and enjoyed the city.  There is a lot of history, port wine production and waterfront to keep things interesting. The small streets with their colorful buildings, tiled mosaics and street art make exploring the back alleys a lot of fun. And the city is also extremely photogenic providing endless vantage points with unique views of the water, its six bridges and the historical monuments and buildings.

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Portugal’s cities are known for its tile work and Porto does not disappoint here. Tiles are used everywhere and are very popular on the sides of homes and buildings.

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Of course, one can not visit the city without tasting some of the port wine that is produced there.  Most of the grapes are grown in the Duoro Valley, and one can take a boat ride up the river to visit the vineyards as a day trip from Porto (our schedule did not allow us to make the trip this time). Grapes are barged down to the city to a number of port lodges that blend, bottle and age the wine.

img_4968img_4969img_4971img_5180img_3732Like many wineries, many of the port lodges (wine making facilities) are quite spectacular and designed to host visitors, Some include hotels and restaurants.  Here is a good list of some of the top ones. We visited Graham’s Port lodge for some tasting and a tour of their facilities.  Graham’s is one of the oldest lodges in Porto and blends some very good port; and was a favorite of Sir Winston Churchill.

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Port wine is a perfect way to start or finish a good meal. Production is quite different than most wines as it blended using up to 135 different grape varieties and then fortified with alcohol.  Out of the three types of port – ruby, tawny, and vintage – vintage tends to be the best and will age quite well. Port is available around the world, but it is worth grabbing a bottle during your visit here as the selection and pricing is quite good if you avoid the tourist shops. (Tip: once open, store your bottle in the fridge. Ruby will last for 6 weeks and the others up to 4 months).

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The Livraria Lello bookstore is a worthwhile stop while in Porto.  It is said to have been a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling during her writing of the Harry Potter stories.  She lived in Portugal for some time and was said to visit this book shop often. Its architecture as well as many of its student customers, donned in their school uniforms complete with capes, are familiar images to readers of those stories. (Note: the shop can get busy and due to its size it often requires waiting in a line outside).

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Navigating the city center is easy on foot, but streets can be hilly. It is definitely worth getting out of the center for a look around.  Directly across the river is the neighborhood of Vila Nova de Gaia, where there are a number of restaurants and port lodges and its location provides some great shots of Porto city.  Further afield, west along the river and north on the ocean provide some interesting perspectives of the city that are much less touristy.  You can take a tram out to the lighthouse to check out the beach or rent a bike and head along the boardwalk and chat with the local fishermen found up and down the coast.  We put on our running shoes and ran out to the coast along the river a number of times, and it was a great way to experience local life.

img_4883img_4898There are plenty of good eats in Porto, and we enjoyed a number of dishes.  Our favorites included the vinho verde – a young, bubbly green wine perfect for the hot days; bacalhau – salt cod that is prepared in many different ways including some tasty stews (the fish mostly comes from Canada and Norway nowadays, but the Portuguese now how to prepare it); and tripas a moda do Porto which is a bit like the Portuguese version of cassoulet.  Get out of the city center and off of Trip Advisor for eating in Porto. Take a walk down side streets or head west a bit and look for a crowded local taverna for a bite. (We found Uber the most efficient way to move about in the city).

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We would not recommend eating at McDonald’s here or back in the States but their location in Porto needs to be visited.  Zoning laws in the city require that the outside facade of original structures must be left as intended, and details inside historical buildings must be retained.  During a tough time during the city’s history, McDonald’s was able to purchase an old art decco building (there are a lot in the city) that was a very popular night club in the past.  The resulting restaurant is one of the most opulent McDonald’s you will ever visit anywhere in the world.

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The hype on Portugal in the travel industry right now is extreme and you can most appreciate it’s impact in the two large cities- Porto and Lisboa.  Development is booming. Historical renovations, public transport projects, boardwalks and waterfront land development projects are everywhere in the two cities.  It will be quite interesting to visit in 3-5 years when a lot of these projects will be complete.

 

Let’s Go Everywhere, Man

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-Medeski, Martin, and Wood

“When you’re tired of your toys,
And of your games, and of the television,
When you’re done with chores and homework
Then it’s time to make a big decision,
You might need a change of scenery,
It might be time to go
Over mountains, over oceans,
Through dark jungles down below
On an airplane, on a railroad
On a tall ship with the tide
All you need’s a little music.
Howzaboutit, whaddya say you buckle
up and we go for a little ride?
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
We’ll go to
Bombay, Taipei, Mandalay, Bora Bora
Deauville, Louisville, Whoville, Glocca Morra
Havana, Montana, Savannah, Varanasi
Bermuda, Barbuda, Or Yehuda, Tallahassee
Khartoum, Rangoon, Cancun, Saskatoon
Kowloon, Cameroon, Brigadoon, to the moon
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Cairo, Shiloh, Moscow, Chichen Itza
Krakatoa, Shenandoah, Mauna Loa, Tower of Pisa
Hamburg, Frankfurt, Beantown, Montecristo
Cayenne, Salt Lake, Cocoa Beach, San Francisco

Saigon, Amman, Dijon, Yokahama
Tijuana, Grand Bahama, don’t forget to call your mama
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Xi’an, San Juan, Pusan, Sri Lanka
Chambertin, Canton, Avalon, Casablanca
Warsaw, Aqaba, Shangri-La, Transylvania
Nome, Rome, Stockholm, Lyon, Mauretania
Hong Kong, Guangdong, Haiphong, Tonga
Salamanga, Rarotonga, Cucamonga, sing-a-long-a
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Xanadu, Kathmandu, Timbuktu, Santiago
Tasmania, Slovenia, Rumania, Pago Pago
Sedona, Pamplona, Daytona, Patagonia
Winona, Bologna, Barcelona, Caledonia
Bangkok, Sliding Rock, Antioch, Tuba City
Sun City, Cloud City, Emerald City, ain’t it pretty
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.”

We’ve Got to Split (Croatia)

When planning our visit to Croatia, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Split.  Located in the Dalmatian region of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea, Split is one of the oldest cities and the second largest (~200k people) in a country of roughly 4 million.  Its history, coastline, access to many stunning islands and its architecture including a 1700 year old walled city make it an interesting spot. The city is a hot spot for tourists, a hub for ferry traffic within Croatia and to Italy and a stop for the cruise ships.  Off-the-chart yachts and charter boats line the harbor. It is teaming with people, and the vibe is very festive.

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And yet, it was not that long ago that Croatia was involved in a war for its independence with the former Yugoslavia.  In 1991 (along with Slovenia), Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia.  During the War of Independence, there were some incidents in Split which resulted in some minor damage; however, Dubrovnik, further south in Croatia, sustained more damage during the war.

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Given Split’s proximity to some islands and its coast, we knew Split would be a great base for some cycling. So we booked a cycling trip with Meridien Ten, an active travel company based in Split, to work out 5 days of routes and a cycle hire. (Many US-based companies use Meridien Ten for their Southern Croatia itineraries.)  We chose to stay in the city for a week at the lovely Hotel Slavija and  did cycle loops back to Split each day.  Located within the walls of the Diocletian’s palace, Hotel Slavija is the oldest hotel in Split and a great spot.  The hotel was actually built above the western Diocletian baths. Today, the hotel is protected under UNESCO.

In addition to three island rides, we had a chance to experience a few rides on the mainland outside of Split, and one led to two interesting spots to check out in the Split area.

1. Marjan Park which is just a few kms from the old town area of Split set on a hill that provides great views of the Adriatic Sea and the city of Split.  If you visit Split, you cannot miss the park as it is a thickly, forested peninsula that is easily visible from the Riva. Originally used as a park by the citizens as early as the 3rd century, today, it is heavily used by locals and tourists alike and offers numerous beaches, jogging trails and bike paths all surrounded by a pine forest and the Adriatic Sea. It is a relatively short 20K out and around but has some climbing and there is enough to see that a couple to few laps will extend your ride and keep things interesting.

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2.The Ivan Mestrovic sculpture museum at his former home is another must when visiting Split. Mestrovic was a popular Croatian sculptor who was imprisoned in Zagreb for political reasons until the Vatican assisted with his release. After his release, Mestrovic moved to the US and taught at Syracuse University and Notre Dame.  When he died, he left his work to his home country, and it is now on display at his beautiful home outside of Split.  It is only a couple kms outside of the city and on the way to the ride above.

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For those that are interested in biking vacations, there are many different models to chose from depending on where you are traveling.  There is the stationary model like our stay in Split where you can do loop rides from a base.  There is, also, the bike trip model cycling from one location to the another like our bike trip from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City.  And then, there is also a boat and bike type model which we also tried when we were in Croatia. You can also choose self-guided options which allow you to control your schedule and mileage every day or a guided option which tends to be more social and is also required in harder areas (such as Cambodia and India).  But in general, Europe is filled with fantastic bike routes with designated routes and good markings so we think the self- guided model is perfect.

All models are fun and interesting with pros and cons depending on the type of experience you are looking for.  More on our Croatia boat and bike experience in a future post as well.

Amazing American Engineering in Panama

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat. —THEODORE ROOSEVELT”

From Cartagena, Colombia, we flew to Panama City for six days.  A key objective was to check out the Panama Canal, a fascinating feat of American engineering, human spirit, and resilience.The complex engineering problems combined with the  immense hardships of the environment and living conditions of tens of thousands of worked created an almost insurmountable challenge.  Indeed, the French tried before the USA and gave up.  Many risked their lives and died from malaria and yellow fever.  From 1904-1914 mostly under Teddy Roosevelt’s leadership , the US began and completed a lock system canal on the Isthmus of Panama.  100 years later, 5% of the world’s shipping traffic continue to use these locks on an annual basis. The Panama government took control of the canal in 1999 and continue to invest in its infrastructure.  This spring, they will open a larger set of locks that, incredibly, will allow ships that can hold as many as 13k containers to pass (The current Panamax tankers have a capacity of only 5K twenty-foot units or TEUs).  China has started work on a competing canal in Nicaragua (originally one of the sites considered before building the Panama canal) but have recently stopped digging, and Nicaraguan support for the project seems to be decreasing among many.

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When visiting Panama City and the canal, there are at least two key places to visit:

  1. The Miraflores Locks
  2. Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum

The Miraflores Locks are about 40 minutes from downtown Panama City.  At Miraflores, there is a short (10 minute) movie about the canal, a small museum and viewing decks to watch the boats passing thru the Miraflores Locks. The viewing deck is the key reason to visit so that you can watch the super tankers and cruise boats squeeze through the channel.

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We visited the Miraflores Locks before the museum due to some logistics, but recommend visiting the museum first in Panama City.  The museum and movie at Miraflores is more fluff than information or data on the canal and is poorly done, in our opinion.  The main attraction  is clearly the locks and the viewing platform that allows you to view the operation. Be sure to check the the locks operation schedule for best viewing time of the boats though because there is limited boat traffic from 10am-2PM when they change the direction of the traffic.  We visited from 1-4:30 pm and the boats started coming thru around 2 pm including three private sailboats, two tankers and a cruise ship.  Intrigued by the engineering of the locks, the process and just watching the boats, we could have stayed longer.  Our current home city of Seattle also has a set of locks that work on the same principal and during the summer months, can be very busy and also worth a visit. So the empty Panama locks were not all that foreign or interesting to us initially, but when the enormous tankers started to enter that changed.  The size and scale of the boats passing through the Panama locks are quite incredible.

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In the Casco Viejo neighborhood in Panama City, the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum has better details on the history starting with the French failed attempt to the American undertaking of the building of the canal to the challenges in the 1960’s when there was fighting between the US and Panama to the signing of Torrijos-Carter Treaty (one of many) signed in 1977.

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The architecture of the building (inside and out) housing the museum makes a visit worth it.  The building was built in  1874 and served originally as the headquarters of both the French and U.S. companies engaged in the construction of the canal.

Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside the museum, but we did get one shot of the stunning lighthouse beacon designed by Gustave Eiffel (you may have guessed that he designed some other things as well)  It was to be put on top of a lighthouse had the French completed the Panama Canal but they abandoned the project and the light was never used.

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A friend recommended The Path Between the Seas to us for more information on the building of the Panama Canal. We are currently reading it so stay tuned for our book review.

Panama and Panama City were a surprisingly, fun visit and a good stop when in Central America. The diversity of the flora and fauna so close to a large city is quite amazing.

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Road Tripping in Uruguay

“We’re the best of friends.  Insisting that the world keep turning our way.
And our way is on the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again”

Willie Nelson – On The Road Again Lyrics

NY Times article  on Uruguay more than 5 years ago piqued my curiosity on the country, and I have been longing to visit ever since.  I am not sure if it was the description of its coast as a down to earth, natural and unspoiled place or the gorgeous beaches or the lulling sounds of the ocean, but after the last few months, mostly in cities, it sounded like the perfect place to spend some time exploring.  So we rented a car and headed out from Montevideo for a 10 day road trip to La Pedrera, a tiny, surf town with a gorgeous stretch of beach and Colonia del Sacramento, a small, historic town and UNESCO site on the “other” coast of Uruguay.

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Uruguay is a small country about 175K sq kms and 3.3M people with roughly half of the population residing in Montevideo, the capital.  The vibe is slow and casual with a bit of a European feel.  One gets the sense, things have not changed much in the last few decades. Out on the coast, it is even more slow and sleepy.  And the cars are even older than the ones in the city.   At one spot on the coast where we stayed, the owner’s only transportation was a Studebaker that was decades old.

And nothing happens quickly here – especially out in the country side.  If you go, check US efficiency and speed at the border. When checking into hotels, there is paperwork. Checking out at supermarkets takes a long time, and older people are moved to the front of the line (which is a nice gesture that we saw frequently). Dinners are late and lengthy, and servers will never bring you your bill.

Driving is also laid back and slow in Uruguay. After driving in South Africa and not even considering  it in India and Vietnam, we enjoyed being the most aggressive drivers for awhile.  Driving is slow, courteous and passive.  It is similar to Seattle but in some cases, Uruguayan drivers are even slower and more passive than Seattlelites – which would have been quite hard to image if we had not experienced it.  On the rambla in Colonia del Sacramento, 20 mph was the standard speed (despite the limit being close to twice that).

As we drove out of Montevideo, the scenery quickly got rural, and  Chris and I found ourselves to be only two souls out on the road.  It was bliss after spending a month in the second most populous country in the world just a couple weeks ago.

The roads were in great condition too.  While the drive to La Pedrera should have only taken about 3 hours, we took a slight detour to Punta del Este.  We knew La Pedrera was pretty remote, and there were no major food chains, no major supermarkets and no big box stores.  (Exactly the way we like things.)  So in addition to wanting to check out the “St. Tropez of Uruguay”, we wanted to stock up on some vino and snacks. We also stopped at an ATM for some pesos suspecting that there would be limited options at our destination.  As we stepped out of the ATM, we encountered 6 security guards sternly staring us with sawed- off shotguns and full riot gear waiting.  Apparently, they were just there to refill the machine, but it definitely gave us pause.  Although there was a nice stretch of beach, Punta del Este had its share of high-risers.  Seeing the high-risers off in the distance, we were both glad our destination was La Pedrera.

La Pedrera is a beautiful, seaside village of only about 225 people and 750 homes on a gorgeous beach at the end of Calle Principal (the main road in town). It is a surfing and kite-boarding hot spot and a popular spot for backpackers and cycle campers. There looks like more than a few gypsies out there living off the grid baking bread and making pasta for sale to tourists.

The beach appears to go on for miles and was a beautiful place to run every day.  The town itself consists on one main street with a handful of restaurants and tiny places to stay. Most people come here to surf and kite board although we arrived at the end of the summer down here so the kite-boarders have all left town.  The surfers were still hanging for a few more waves.

The peak summer season typically only lasts three months from December to February. We visited at the beginning of March, and we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.  The weather was perfect- 80+ degrees during the day and 70 degrees at night. La Pedrera was unbelievably peaceful, and the only sounds we heard for the five days were roaring waves, cicadas and some great music. They love their music down here in Uruguay.

We found two interesting places to stay: Pueblo Barrancas, a small, ecolodge with a private beach and Posada de San Antonio, a small inn on a gorgeous piece of property.  Both properties were unbelievably remote and made for some of the best stargazing we have ever seen.

The owner of Posada de San Antonio is a great cook too.  We ate at the posada two dinners during our stay.   It was like having a wonderful, home cooked meal, but someone else cooked and cleaned. We had the whole posada to ourselves until the last night when it was fully booked (all four rooms).  And we made a new friend, Olivia, a loving dog at the posada.  She followed us everywhere during our at stay- went on walks with us and slept at our door in the morning waiting for us to wake up.  We miss her already.

From La Pedrera, we headed to the west coast of Uruguay to Colonia del Sacramento, a small, UNESCO town of about 27,000 people.  Located on the Rio de la Plata, Colonia del Sacramento sees more tourists than even Montevideo. Most tourists take a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires for a day or two to visit Colonia del Sacramento.

Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, it is one of the oldest towns in Uruguay with interesting, colonial architecture.  The Portuguese and the Spanish were regularly fighting over this city in the 17th – 19th centuries until in 1826 when Uruguay took possession.

Uruguayans are crazy about their Yerba mate (aka mate) which is made from the naturally caffeinated, holly tree.  The loose leaves are put into a gourd which is filled with hot water (not boiling) and a straw is used to drink the mate.  (During our bike ride in Buenos Aires, the guide made some mate for us to try.  It has a bitter flavor.)  We saw folks walking around grocery stores or hanging out on the rambla from 6-8 pm in the evening hugging a thermos and sipping mate from a small cup. It appears to be a daily ritual here probably not unlike coffee for some folks.

Colonia del Sacramento had some gorgeous sunsets overlooking the rambla.  The locals congregated on the rambla to watch the sunset, drink mate and catch up with friends and family.  Our hotel,Costa Colonia, was right on the rambla which was great for runs and sunsets.  But we have not adopted the mate ritual, yet.

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After spending a few days in Colonia de Sacramento, we drove back to Montevideo (about a 2 hour drive) to catch our flight to trek to the Lost City. I have been reading a fabulous book titled The Last Days of the Incas and really looking forward to the trek to Machu Picchu. We will be back with the book review and details of the hike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Monte)video Killed the Radio Star

After our week of Spanish classes in Buenos Aires, we hopped on a ferry to Uruguay where the official language is…Portuguese.  But we quickly learned that there seems to be as much Spanish spoken here as Portuguese so it will be a good practice ground for us.

We took the Buquebus ferry which left from a port in Buenos Aires and delivered us to the heart of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in just under two and a half hours.  We rode on the Francisco ferry which is one of the fastest in the world. It holds 1000 passengers plus 150 cars and can reach speeds over 100 kms/hour. It is a massive ship with three different passenger compartments, and a duty free area that has to be at least 5000 sq. ft. filled with locals avoiding the high taxes in both countries.  There are 3 classes for passengers; we sat in economy class which is the equivalent of airplane travel with a lot more leg room and space, in general, for walking around on the boat. It was a great way to travel.

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Montevideo is a smaller city with about 1.3 million people and about 1.8 million more in the metro area. It feels a bit more run-down than Buenos Aires, and there is a lot less to see and do there. A friend who lived here for a couple years told us to expect older cars, generally older buildings, and people wearing older clothes.  It did feel a little bit like going back in time a few years.  We were also told before Cuba opened up Montevideo was often a stand-in location for Cuba for movie makers.

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The city and country is very progressive despite their choice in clothes.  It was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage and marijuana. It also has significant corporate tax benefits that attracts companies from all around the world looking for a location for a South American HQ. For example, both Dell and John Deere are based in Montevideo.  Uruguay is also the playground for the South American elite – although, they mostly travel to the coast to places like Punta del Este rather than Montevideo.

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Bumped into a taxi strike outside the Presidential building just when we were looking for a taxi.

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We enjoyed our visit to Montevideo. We found another small hotel, My Suites, in the neighborhood of Pocitos that had a number of small restaurants in walking distances and was only 2 blocks from a city beach.

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There is a promenade that stretches on for 20+ kilometers and offers a great place for a morning run or walk. The city is surrounded by sandy beaches with good surf and wind for kiteboarding and surfing, but the raw sewerage smells that we picked up on our runs had us wondering if you really want to get in the water here.

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We took a couple hours one day to check out the city’s sites – the Plaza Independencia, the old city, the Teatro Solis, and a museum dedicated to the survivors of the 1972 Andres plane crash (that inspired the book Alive).

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While here, we discovered a new (new to us) wine grape while visiting – the tannant – which is a full-bodied, fruity and a big red. It has paired well with all the grilled beef that is down here.  It is grown in the US and France, but Uruguay considers the varietal their national grape.  It is often blended (we had it with Merlot) but is also produced as a single varietal.

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Radio is alive and well down here. Montevideo did not kill it. US classic rock, and specifically Heart, seems to be popular here. At least, we have been hearing it a bit on the radio in taxis. We had a fun chance meeting with some young hipsters down here.  I blew their minds by turning them onto Shazam, and in return, they introduced us to a number of jazz and other musicians from Uruguay including Eduardo Mateo, Opa, Ruben Rada, Hugo Fatorusso, and Jaimie Roos. We are still plowing through all the back catalogs but Eduardo Mateo’s stuff is great.

Montevideo was an entry point for Uruguay, and we are planning to take another road trip heading up the remote coast to hang out with the surfers and gypsies for a few days. We are both concerned about having the right color thongs for the playas.  We shall see this week – stay tuned.

 

 

Meeting the Paanwala and Friends in Pune and Mumbai

After a week of yoga and beach in Goa, we headed further north to meet up with some folks in Pune and Mumbai. We were looking forward to simply spending some time with friends, experiencing everyday living and continuing the wonderful food fest that India presents.

First stop was a visit with the Murtis (Gita and Raghu) of Pune.  Their son and daughter-in-law and granddaughters have been friends for 15+ years, and we have had the pleasure of meeting Gita and Raghu a number of times when they visited Seattle. We were looking forward to meeting them in their neighborhood.

Pune, “The Oxford of the East”, is a smaller town (~2M+) and an easy 3.5 hour train ride to or from Mumbai. Pune is filled with university students and IT workers from all around India. We were told by many younger guys during our travels that it is one of the hot spots for hipsters nowadays.  With its higher elevation and cool evenings, the climate is wonderful.

Gita and Raghu are special people and wonderful hosts. We very much enjoyed our morning walk through the agricultural college gardens, the Maharashtrian  thali lunch, meeting their friends, discussing the Donald, politics, books and the special order of red guava ice cream with paprika. My goodness, I have found myself daydreaming about this ice cream since we left.

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Early AM at the Agriculture College of Pune

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Yogis from around the world flock to Pune for this Yoga Institute
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Meeting the Murtis. Fantastic hosts!
After a reset in Pune, it was off on the Deccan Queen, an early morning train to Mumbai, for a quick day visit to wrap up our 29 days in India.

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Train from Pune to Mumbai. Basic but clean and cool and not jammed like a lot of the trains in the morning.
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In Mumbai, we had a chance to catch up with some other friends, Snehal and Falguni Shah. They are old colleagues from back in our Singapore days- 20 years ago. We had a great tour around Mumbai with them, followed by lunch, a stroll on Juhu beach and dinner with Snehal’s folks.

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The Taj

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Another shot of the Taj. One of the sites of the 26/11 terrorist attack and hostage incident.

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Gateway of India.Built for visiting British Royalty.
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Cricket in South Mumbai.  Some of the most expensive real-estate in the world.
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University of Mumbai

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More building and growth in Mumbai (and everywhere in India).
We also did a quick drive past Mukesh Ambani’s multi-billion dollar home in South Mumbai. We did not get any photos, but here is one from the interweb.

Mukesh home

While in Pune and Mumbai, we were introduced to even more new and great dishes including kadhi, undhiyu, khandvi, and the chikoo fruit. A highlight of our culinary explorations  was our visit to the Mucchad Paanwala for some post lunch paan which is a fantastic mix of sweet spices wrapped up in a betel leaf. (Some put tobacco and other items in there for a different type of experience.)

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29 days in India are up.  A special thanks again to Gita, Raghu, Snehal and Falguni for their warmth and hospitality.  We will cherish the memories!

We saw only a slice of the country, but what a fascinating slice it was. Travelling in India presents some challenges and not recommended for all. There are a lot of people no matter where you go – even out in the countryside, a lot of noise ( a lot of horns and dogs barking constantly), and it is not always easy to get around.  With ~ 1.2 billion people in India, the infrastructure is challenged. Power outages are not uncommon (although most hotels and larger businesses have generators at this point).  And with all the industrialization and vehicles on the road, there is also a lot of pollution.  We only had one or two “blue sky days”. The haze was thick nearly everyday, and by the 2nd or 3rd week, one could definitely feel it.  A tiered system exists for travelers which demonstrated itself in a number of  ways- e.g. foreigners usually pay more for tourist attractions and museums- not always, but it is usually the case. An art museum in Bengalaru was charging 20x the local rate.  On the flip side, foreigners (unfortunately, mostly Caucasians) often get faster service or are encouraged to go to the head of the lines (something we were never comfortable with).  For women traveling in India, one needs to be prepared for gawking whether in the cities of Bengaluru or in smaller towns like Munnar.  The gawking was harmless and likely just because we looked different but something one needs to get used to when traveling in India.  Women can also be overlooked at the dinner table at restaurants. The waiters often served Chris the remainder of the dishes on the table, and then Chris shared.  India is a fascinating country, but it is not for the feint of heart.  We enjoyed our visit because we had a chance to catch up with friends as well as gain somevknowledge and a perspective on such an important and interesting part of the world.  We are not done here by any means. We will need to make another visit to focus on northern India -e.g. Delhi, Rajastan, The Taj, Kashimir, the Himalayas and the Ganges etc. etc.

We are heading out of Asia and moving on the South America. Stay tuned.

Barmy Bangalore

We are a bit behind on our posts after touching down in India 17 days ago.  We were quickly swallowed up with the chaos of the cities, the beauty of the country and limited by the spotty and constrained Wi-Fi networks here in India.

Our entry point was Bangalore where we scheduled a few days to adjust to the new time zone, deal with jet lag and regroup for a bike ride from Bangalore to Cochin. We were flying from Cape Town which is only a 4 hour time difference but flew Emirates (nice airline) through Dubai on a red-eye.

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We quickly learned that there is very little relaxing in India’s large cities. Bangalore is India’s 3rd largest city and continues to grow rapidly fueled by its IT hub and international customers.  There is a beautiful new airport, road construction everywhere, residential and commercial construction projects and traffic that rivals the traffic jams of Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta decades ago. The honking and road noise is constant and makes Manhattan seem quiet and tame.  The horn is as important as the gas and break pedals for Indian drivers. It takes some getting used to, but after a couple weeks, you can become somewhat comfortable with it.

Navigating the city was a little tricky during our initial forays.  We got stuck in mad traffic from the airport.  The hotel recommended, auto-rickshaw driver for our first outing to an art museum tried to take us to three other locations and could not find our destination. We missed out on a booked tabla performance because it took us an hour to find a taxi willing to take us the 9 kms to the performance  – which ended up taking us another 90 minutes to drive to the location of the performance. Although, in the course of the taxi hunt, we met a lovely and feisty, elderly Afghani woman, Mrs. Khan, who reprimanded the young taxi drivers for 20 minutes for refusing to help us. (In hindsight, we cannot blame the taxi drivers given the traffic that night).

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So after spending 4+ hours in taxis and a few more in auto rickshaws in the first couple of days, we decided it would be best to stay local and walk for the remainder of our visit. We were staying only a few blocks from the MG Road area where there are plenty of good options for restaurants that are kind on visitors’ stomachs and a plethora of microbreweries – a relatively new addition over the last few years that has been driven by local entrepreneurs and the local government.  We were impressed and enjoyed visits to Arbor Brewing Company, The Biere ClubBrewsky and Toit. We also had an excellent meal at Karavalli – pricey by local standards but well worth it.

Walking is better than sitting in the traffic of Bangalore, but it is not without its challenges.  Walking is slow going- dodging the people, the cars, the scooters, the bikes, the cows and hundreds of other obstacles. Streets and sidewalks are often pockmarked with holes.  Stairs and steps do not always comply to standard sizes making them awkward.  Garbage is piled up on sidewalks, and often it is burning.  It is a bit chaotic and sounds a bit crazy but this is part of the charm of India; it is a full assault on all five of your senses!

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The biggest downside to walking is all the ogling. Given our limited wardrobe, Susan mostly has sport skirts and skirts are not very common here. A Westerner in a skirt is very uncommon and apparently quite the site.  The staring is constant, aggressive, and from males of all ages. (It has continued in the countrysides where a cycling western female in a skirt is extremely exotic but more on that later).

We have enjoyed the food a lot and are eating Indian 3 meals a day. There are Western options – the burger and pasta is often there – but the Southern India dishes are too good. We are mostly sticking with veg options so there is a lot of dahl, aloo gobi, paneer dishes of all types.  Dosas and idlis with sambar as well as tomato and coconut chutneys are our preferred breakfast. Bread options are fantastic with far more options than the standard naan in the States- e.g. parathas, parottas, chapaties, rotis, and more.  The range of pickles are amazing as well and tasty- mangos, limes, lemons, dates, papaya, garlic, bamboo!

Our visit to Bangalore was more about prepping for our cycling rather than sightseeing, but we did a little and visited the Modern Art Museum (where we were followed by security guards in every one of the 20+ rooms – I think it was Susan’s shifty looks), the Parliament building (beautiful),  and the oasis of calm that is Cubbon Park.

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During our last couple days and night, we found the neighborhood of Indiranagar that was a bit easier to tour on foot and filled with a bunch of interesting restaurants and shops.  We would definitely recommend this spot if you find yourself visiting this city.

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Bangalore was the perfect entry point. There was a bit of an adjustment period, but it has been fun jumping into the chaos, taking in some of the sights and enjoying the local dishes. Stay tuned for details on our cycle trip to Cochin.

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Reflecting on South Africa

Prior to arriving in South Africa, we were not sure exactly what to expect and received mixed feedback from people that had previously visited. People spoke of poverty, security, and the dangers of driving although more spoke of the diversity, scenery, and history.  It was not that long ago,  there was a regular state of emergency in South Africa and protests, riots and killings were a regular occurrence.  The 70’s and 80’s were terrible times here but even as late as the early 90’s, there was trouble.  However, in 1994, South Africa drafted a democratic constitution that helped facilitate a pivotal change allowing for the transition from apartheid rule to a democratic nation.  Nelson Mandela’s leadership, the end of apartheid and the 2010 World Cup (and many other factors) have had a significant impact on the culture here. Yet, one still feels the tension beneath the surface and the disparity among the population is visually apparent all over the country.

 

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After having spent five weeks in South Africa, in our opinion, it is a stunning and beautiful country, diverse is so many ways- e.g. landscape, population, weather, etc.- with a lot to offer travelers.  We spent three weeks in Cape Town and the surrounding areas- e.g. Cape Point, Stellenbosch, Hout Bay, Simon’s Town, and two weeks in the Karoo and the Garden Route.  We could have stayed longer in South Africa and Africa as a whole.  (We already want to return to the Western and Eastern Cape Winelands, spots missed on the beautiful Garden Route and Cape Town, in general.  Also, in terms of Africa as a whole, we plan to visit places like Namibia, Madagascar, Mozambique and St Helena, an island off the coast of Africa which is building its first airport and flights from Johannesburg to St Helena will start this year.)  We definitely suggest getting out there and visiting South Africa.  Not only is this a gorgeous country to experience and explore, but right now, the exchange rate is so favorable against the USD, once you get here, you can have a 5 star vacation at a low cost.

Security should be a concern and one needs to be aware at all times while walking in the city and driving in the country. Nothing should be taken for granted. Common sense should prevail.  But having said that, it is certainly possible to be comfortable and enjoy your visit.

When traveling, there is often the option to “go deep” in a region or “go wide”. We are certainly very thankful for having the opportunity to spend quality time in Cape Town and the surrounding region.  Here are some of our reflections on our visit:

  • The scenery is stunning between the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Table Mountain, Overberg Mountains, False Bay, Swartberg Pass.

 

  • Mountains dominate the Cape Town cityscape.  In addition to the well-known Table Mountain, one is constantly treated to views of Devils Peak, Lions Head, and the 12 Apostles – from everywhere, city center, on the coast, from the water, and on all of the inbound and outbound highways – it is wonderful.
  • Keep an eye out for the “tablecloth” that blankets Table Mountain on a regular basis.  Dense fog accumulates and spreads out quickly on Table Mountain.  We witnessed it several times, and Table Mountain never disappoints offering stunning views.

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  • South Africa has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world-e.g. Coney Glen Beach in Knysna, The Head in Knysna, Oyster Bay, Walkers Bay Nature Reserve in Hermanus, etc.  However, one needs to be careful of sharks on most beaches.  Sharks are so prevalent that a shark flag system is used and shark spotters are positioned on or near the beaches.

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  • Our new favorite phrase  is “Pleasure” (Pronounced Pleeeesure). It is the way it is pronounced as well that makes this word special. It is used in lieu of you’re welcome and much nicer, in my opinion. I don’t think we have heard it in London or Sydney as much.  We heard it all the time after we thanked someone.
  • “Just now”, a local phrase, not to be confused with right now as it could mean 5 minutes from now, 5 hours or 5 days and I think we experienced all definitions.
  • This is a car-oriented culture, and drivers are aggressive. Pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way. There is a limited bus and train system which we used very little.  Uber is great and very affordable for inter-city transit.
  • Although drivers are aggressive, they share the road.  When someone would like to pass, the driver in the lead pulls over to the side allowing the other car(s) to pass. If only the Pacific Northwest would adopt this practice.
  • Hitchhiking is very common here among the locals- women traveling solo, women with children and men are seen hitchhiking on the side of the road everywhere. Some holding cash in their hands to entice drivers. It is the non-official transport network.

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  • Constant attention while driving is required here.  It is not unusual to see people walking in the middle of roads, running across the road or on the sides of highways. (We have enjoyed living without a car.  The two weeks on the Garden Route was the first time we used a car in about 3 months.)

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  • Keep your eyes out for baboons in the road as well. We only saw baboons on the road twice during our time in South Africa but they are everywhere.  Think of them as the “raccoon of Africa” only with longer claws and sharper teeth.  They are after our food that we leave in cars, garbage cans, and along the roads.

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  • Be sure to stop at train tracks.  There are no blinking lights or automated gates to alert drivers to oncoming trains.  It is quite unnerving.
  • People are generous.  One morning we went to our car at a place we were staying on the Garden Route, and the young kid had washed our rental car for us.  (Although Chris thinks they may be more entrepreneurial and looking for innovative ways for tips)
  • Gas stations typically have not one but two or three attendants to service your car.  One to pump the gas and the other to clean the windshield or check the oil, water, air pressure.  It feels like the 70’s back in the States!
  • Open bars and “free mini-bars” are the norm in places along the Garden Route.  From water to wine to tawny ports, all are free and as much as want. It is very inviting.

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  • Personalized service on the Garden Route was a regular occurrence as well.  At one place we stayed in Prince Albert, the owner made dinner reservations for us in advance without asking us.  It was much appreciated since we arrived on a Sunday night in a sleepy town with not much open.  At another place, we had a gorgeous rose arrangement in the room.  (I thought they were fake roses, at first, but no, they were real.)                               IMG_3000
  • Security is everywhere in Cape Town and surrounding areas- e.g. security personnel at grocery stores, security gates to enter spas, 24-hour armed security at apartment buildings and restaurants, and aggressive barb wire is everywhere.  Even the vineyards, 50km outside of Cape Town, have barb wire surrounding the grapes.

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  • Wi-Fi is atrocious in this country.  It could be the geography and population, outdated telecom laws or something we missed. But it is awful. The free stuff is bandwidth-limited and most of it is not free.  It is very different from the most of the rest of the world, and the country would do well to address – both for tourism and more importantly, local growth and innovation.
  • Mandela’s vision was for a rainbow nation.  And while the sentiment is often quoted, as a traveler, we experienced something different. We were constantly confronted with two different classes of living standards.  It was most prominent in tourist areas. As example, wherever there was a scenic, coastal hamlet, you could be sure to find a township 10km down the road housing the workers that support all the restaurant and hotels.

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  • For carnivores, there are a plethora of unique meats to try here-  kudo, springbok, ostrich.
  • Ostrich farms in the Karoo area are plentiful.  The meat is lean and tasty.  And it is lower in fat and cholesterol as well as higher in protein, calcium and iron as compared with other meats. Maybe we should eat more ostrich in the States?  We really enjoyed all the meat but especially the springbok and ostrich carpaccio.

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  • Even the most popular snack is meat.  Biltong is a tasty, cured and dried meat much better than jerky, in our opinion. We need to figure out either how to make Biltong or get in the States.  It is super tasty.

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  • Bobotie is a favorite dish of Capetonians, the national dish of South Africa, and definitely worth a try.  It’s a baked dish of minced beef and lamb with curry spice, yellow rice and topped with egg custard.  Bananas, coconut, and chutney are served as sides for topping Bobotie.
  • Wine and wineries are abundant here with the oldest vineyards dating to the 1650’s. An incredible amount of it is sold to the UK and not available elsewhere but the industry growth is strong and the geography wide – we will see more South African wine everywhere in the future.
  •  Pinotage, South Africa’s unique varietal, is a grape that is a cross between pinot noir and cinsaut. It is our new favorite wine, for sure.

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  • Cape Town is crazy busy during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. With Cape Town in the same time zone for most of Europe and easy overnight flights from most major cities in Europe, there are a lot of Europeans here during the holidays.  Plus many from Johannesburg travel to Cape Town for the holidays.
  • One can here a loud blast every day at noon in Cape Town.  Don’t fret as it is the cannon that has been fired for hundreds of years, initially for sailors to set their watches.  Today, local Capetonians still look at their watches to make sure it is set to noon.
  • Most of the geraniums purchased in the States and Europe originated in South Africa.
  • Protea, South Africa’s national flower, is a stunning flower with over 2,000 species. We admired these flowers everywhere we went.

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  • With the USD at an all time high against the rand (the finance minister was changed 3 times in a week prior to our arrival), hotels, restaurants, wine are super affordable.
  • There seems to be a strong undercurrent in the country for President Zuma to step down.  The changing of the finance minister three times in one week and the plummeting of the rand (local currency) seem to be driving this sentiment.
  • Despite the financial challenges for the rand, Cape Town seems to be going thru a bit of a renaissance.  Older buildings are being torn down and new ones going up.  This was especially prevalent in Green Point, one of the neighborhoods we stayed.
  • Cape Agulhas is where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, not Cape Point.

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  • Sports are huge here, especially cricket and rugby.  We went to a soccer game and cricket match.  Average cricket match starts at 10 am and ends around 5 pm.  You would have to love this sport to sit in the Newlands stadium, as nice as it is, for this long.

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According to a recent survey, 41% of Americans did not take a single vacation day and 17% of Americans took less than five vacation days.  Europeans, on the other hand, have four weeks vacation plus holidays and take their vacation seriously. If you do not have any vacation plans yet, take your vacation this year, and we highly recommend visiting Cape Town and the Western Cape region.  (Think Southern California but less people, more culture, better beaches and more stunning mountains.)  Cape Town is a gorgeous and very livable city with stunning coastline and mountains.  Maybe a good place to spend six months a year when you retire?

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A Little “Mother City” History

We have really been enjoying learning the history of the places we have been visiting.  Traveling provides a source of education difficult to get in school (and far more interesting), and Cape Town, South Africa has a fascinating history.  If you find yourself in Cape Town, here are a few historical tours and museums to check out.

  1. Footsteps to Freedom Walking TourHighly recommended.
  2. Robben IslandA must do when visiting Cape Town.
  3. District 6 MuseumJust OK but nonetheless interesting and informative.

Footsteps to Freedom Walking Tour was, by far, our most interesting experience.  A passionate and knowledgeable man, Ivor, led the tour.  Ivor was born and raised in Cape Town but left during the tumultuous 70’s and 80’s.  There was a plethora of information Ivor provided in the 2.5 hour walking tour.  Here are just a couple ( of the many) interesting facts shared during this tour:

  1. The tour starts at the Taj Hotel in downtown which is conveniently located near the Mandela Rhodes Place.  A partnership was established between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust of Cecil Rhodes (also the sponsor of the Rhodes Scholarships) giving full funding for up to a maximum of two years of postgraduate study for an African citizen under 30 years of age.

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2. The purple people of Cape Town:

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In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid activists took to the streets in Cape Town four days before parliamentary elections, police turned a water cannon with purple dye on them in an effort to halt the demonstrations and mark the protesters for identification and arrest. The plan backfired, however, when one protester hijacked the nozzle from a police officer and sprayed office buildings and the local headquarters of the ruling National Party.

Unesco declared Robben Island in the Western Cape a World Heritage Site in 1999. Robben Island is located in Table Bay about 30 minutes off the coast of Cape Town.  We were really looking forward to this tour and had read great things about it; however, the tour sadly did not live up to expectations.

Robben Island is the infamous place where Nelson Mandela would spend 18 of his 27 prison years.   Also, Robert Sobukwe was also imprisoned at Robben Island  (for a total of 6 years in solitary confinement and served a total of 9 years) after leading a march to local police stations defying the Pass Law.  The Pass Law was an internal passport system designed to segregate the population.  In my opinion, the tour did not do a great job of detailing the lives of these political prisoners who were instrumental in the end of apartheid.  Nonetheless, it is a must do when in Cape Town.

The tour is about 4 hours long and includes a 30 minute boat ride to Robben Island from the V&A Waterfront.  The boat ride alone makes the tour worth it providing amazing views of this stunning city.

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The tour also includes a bus ride around the island with commentary on the history plus a tour of the prison by one of the prior inmates.  Again, the tour could have gone into more depth on the political prisoners that were held here and seemed to be geared too much towards kids with not enough details on the facts.  (Suggest reading the Long Walk to Freedom prior to this tour.)

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District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.   District Six was a vibrant center in downtown Cape Town. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the process of forcibly removing non-whites from District Six to areas outside the city had begun.  This obviously caused significant hardship for folks as they not only had to leave their homes and neighbors but were moved to areas that required a significant commute to their jobs.

In 1966, District Six it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. More than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers.  The museum was established in 19904as a memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during the Apartheid.

The end of Apartheid (Afrikaan word mean the state of being apart) in 1994 and the drafting of a democratic constitution was an amazing event after nearly 40+ plus years of racial segregation.  It is a wonder that the country did not erupt in civil war during this time.   Today, despite the recent economic challenges.  Unemployment is around 40%.  Just before we arrived, the Rand plummeted and President Zuma, in the course of a week, changed finance ministers three times. Yet, despite these challenges,  Cape Town is vibrant place.  And outside investment continues to pour in with many Europeans buying holiday homes.  We were surprised at the number of cranes in the city and the amount of building happening here right now.