travel

Saldanha Bay

Table Mountain, CapetownWhen I got to Joburg I heard from Kris that he had rounded the Cape of Good Hope by himself (and lit a candle to the gods of the seas in thanksgiving for his relatively trouble-free passage through this exhausting part of the world’s oceans) and was waiting for me at a friendly yacht club in Saldanha Bay, a 165km. drive from Cape Town. I hurriedly bought a ticket to Cape Town, then jumped into a dilapidated Mercedes taxi, with a wonderful driver called James. The drive was long and fairly monotonous, except for the parts where we passed Table Mountain, or some animals appeared in the scrubby distance (lots of springbok round these parts). It would have been boring, had James not been a great guy with a fantastic sense of humour. We roared with laughter through the entire trip, which took nearly three hours through flat scrubby land punctuated here and there by rocky outcrops. We talked about jealous women and relationships, raising kids these days, dishes made with pap and samp (a traditional porridge or polenta made with finely ground maize meal…the staple food of South Africa’s Bantu), corruption in government, the importance of helping your fellowmen out and treating strangers with the same respect you accord your friends and family, how many ways there really are to skin a cat, and why anyone would want to skin a cat, in the first place.
marshland
He consoled me for the endless, flat highways and hours in the car with the promise that once I reached my husband, I could look forward to “kisses for breakfast”. It made the drive extremely fun, and James exclaimed when we reached Saldanha that he was sad, because now he would have to drive back the way he came by himself.
The long drive to Saldanha

Saldanha is a large industrial fishing port; it is also the site of a large steel and iron ore processing plant. The small township is dominated by a bare hill, with huge boulders poking out of it. Streets are very wide, clean, and the architecture is a strange hybrid of European A-frames, chimneys, and the worldwide vernacular style of cheaply built concrete cube housing. Nothing is over two storeys high. Sulfurous yellow street lights are everywhere, blazing up into the sky and lighting up the bare hill at night.
Baby seagulls on a neglected boat

It’s bloody cold. At least to me…I am a child of the tropics, and I will never love the cold. A chilly gale blows in from the South, Southeast, all times of the day, and windchill on the boat can sometimes bring the temperature down to 8ºC at night. Hundreds of seagulls wheel and shriek overhead, cormorants swim, their snaky heads above the choppy, white-edged water, and sometimes we see fat, unconcerned seals near the rocks, or across the bay in the Langebaan wildlife park. I wear two jumpers, and sometimes a pashmina scarf around my neck, when the locals are out sailing their boats in shorts and T-shirts! I sleep inside a sleeping bag, under two heavy blankets. Even so, by Monday I had come down with a cold. What a wuss!

A neglected boat

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photography, travel

Suburbia, Johannesburg

Sunrise over Madagascar
The moment it first really hit me that I was going to be in Africa, was 7 hours after leaving Singapore, at dawn. As the first blush of rosy light crept up from behind the horizon, we were soaring over the huge, seemingly endless island of Madagascar. What a rush! I wanted to squeal like a pig at the sight, but the oh-so-cool, very handsome 16-year-old boy beside me prevented me from behaving like a silly old goose.
At the airport I was preceded by a distinguished looking gentleman in a silk suit, and his retinue of plump, corporate-styled women. As we emerged into the vast arrivals hallway, a brass band like a small army struck up some rousing music, and a hundred people in bright clothes, beaded jewelry, and head cloths, surged forward to greet the man. I was stuck, smiling politely, behind this mob for about 20 minutes before I found a way, in the opposite direction, around them and out of the airport. My taxi driver, Albert, told me the dude was some homecoming preacher. Welcome to Africa!
Suburbian Lodge
These next photos are taken from around the lodge I have been staying at. You can’t really tell I’m on the continent of Africa, by these pictures…The Suburbian Guest Lodge is, as the name promises, tucked away in a respectable (read “white”) neighborhood of manicured gardens, gorgeous flower beds, high walls topped by razor or electric wire, and remote-controlled gates festooned with notices of the various armed response security agencies employed by paranoid owners within.
Suburbian Lodge
underneath a fig tree
I never expected the air to be so chilly. I set off on foot for the nearest shopping centre, on a mission to buy a universal adapter for my various gadgets and gizmos, and also a South African sim card for my brick phone. My hostess—who seems a nice lady, otherwise, and very helpful—gave me a street map with highlighted areas that she said were “black areas”, and told me to avoid them. She also told me not to carry my camera openly on the streets because of “the blacks”. How do you use a camera when it’s in a backpack? I set off, and noticed right away that I was the only “non-black” walking.
Frederik Street, JoburgFriedlaan, Joburg
But everyone I came across said hello, and when I stopped to ask for directions people were gently friendly and helpful, and whole gangs of construction workers or ditch diggers called out “Good morning!” I never felt threatened or unsafe.
shopping center promenades
shopping center promenades
The air was so dry and cool, it was a pleasure to walk the 4.8 km. to Eastgate, except that half the walk consisted of a very long, very steep hill going UP, and the other half was a very long, very steep hill going DOWN, and my knees and feet were killing me! I stopped to rest often at many beautifully maintained parks and promenades along the way…the Agapanthus lily was EVERYWHERE.
Agapanthus
At some point, I came upon Joburg’s Chinatown. I love Chinatown…it’s not a place, really, it’s a state of cultural being. No matter where one goes in the world, it seems, the Chinatown is essentially the same, and therefore a comforting, familiar place to be.
Joburg Chinatown

Joburg Chinatown

Joburg Chinatown
At the shopping center I found my adapter, but no luck with the sim card because I hadn’t thought to carry my passport with me, and you can’t buy a sim card without ID here.
I had a big breakfast and excellent coffee at a place called Nino’s. It was 8 in the morning and most of the shops in the mall were not even open yet, but the smoking area at Nino’s—a little glassed in room to one side—was packed with fat old Italian men. They were set out in twos and threes, at different tables ranged around the room, but were all engaged in the same conversation. I really had no choice but to eavesdrop, since they were shouting across the room at each other. The topic of conversation was one that fat old Italian men probably started in the 1600s, and have carried on with until the present: “Things just aren’t the way they used to be…back then, life was really good. Today’s world is shit, and nobody is doing anything about it. Italy, of course, is still the best country in the world…” I think someone should make a recording of this timeless, monotonous conversation, so that cafe’s everywhere in the world can play the track continuously, and save the fat old dons the trouble of opening their mouths.
I could not resist a few pieces of Zulu beadwork, for sale at the Bruma Lake flea market, and these were my only concession to the world of souvenir shopping.Zulu beadwork
Back to the lodge by 1pm, to shower, change, and share my lunch—a box of nectarines, some freshly baked loaves of dark bread, some nuts and dried fruit, a tin of sardines in olive oil—with this fine-looking fella here. He liked the sardines, of course, but also the roasted almonds. Lupo di delicatessen.
"Free wolf with every room"
After lunch, I drag a chair out into the courtyard, to sip a coffee and smoke underneath a small fig tree growing behind a garden gate that leads to the staff members’ quarters.
fig
That brisk walk up and down a mountain (that’s how it felt to me!) has tired me out and I will happily fall into my huge, soft, clean, fluffy white bed, to sleep through the nightly torrential downpour and mighty thunderstorms that rake across Joburg at this time of year.

Tomorrow I am heading, very early in the morning, back to the O.R.Tambo airport, for the last day of my journey toward Kris: a flight to Capetown, and then a taxi to the Saldhana Bay Yacht Club.

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travel

Johannesburg. Got here at 6 a.m., came straight to the little guesthouse I booked, and slept till 3 in the afternoon. We are a long way from the city (should’ve twigged when I saw the name of the hostel was “Suburbian”) in a quiet residential area of big houses, high walls, pretty flower gardens. I don’t see anyone walking, but I will try.

My taxi driver recommended “bap

Flying to Capetown on Friday, hopefully to see my love by the end of that day. Whew, this meeting has been 6 months in the making! Nearly there.

Suburbia (not quite what I had in mind)

Aside
family, life, philosophy

a secret garden & a weedy patch

Mom's weeds

Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.
So it’s like a stone

Silence goes to sleep under every tree
I was your shadow
I burned your letters but I keep

the ash*

mom's weeds

I’ve had Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel, Surfacing, in my mind all day. Amazingly, one of the things that I liked most about the book—last read over 8 years ago, so my memory is hazy—is never mentioned in any of the current online reviews of the work. After the protagonist has “gone mad”, and purges herself of humanity’s psychosis by reverting to an animal state, she searches her childhood home—a log cabin on a remote island in Quebec—for “clues” (really guidelines on how to live, how to return from a modern life that has gone awry, how to regain one’s self) that she believes her dead parents have left for her. Whether the clues she “finds” were actually left for her, or she is merely projecting the messages she needs to hear onto random objects in her parents’ home, is beside the point. The discovered oracles function in much the same way that tarot cards do: they are keys that provide her with a means of gaining access or understanding things about her past, her psychological wounds, and what she must do to heal herself. I concede that it really isn’t the focus of the story, though I found it the most wonderfully surreal part.

Mom's weeds

Today I went looking for my mother in this deteriorating house. Not because my own life has gone terribly wrong, but in the hopes of establishing a connection with the individual that she was (and maybe understanding why she had seemed so disappointed, toward the end, by her life?) She was a secretive and somewhat distant person. She spilled a little of herself, here and there, with different people, but no single child, friend, or relative really knew who she was, deep down, nor understood her completely. I remember her as someone who had locks installed on her desk drawers and never let the keys out of her sight; sometimes she used cryptograms to write in her diaries, and locked herself, for hours on end, inside a little room (formerly the housemaid’s) that had been converted into a library and study. I still remember the advice she gave me on relationships when I started living with Kris: She was adamant that “a woman should not tell her husband everything”, that it was “not good for him to know too much”, that “there are some things you should keep just for yourself”, and that it was good to “maintain the ‘feminine mystique’,” —a statement that had me sputtering in disbelief, given that Friedan’s 1963 book of the same name described the feminine mystique as “the widespread unhappiness of women…despite living in material comfort and being married with children.”

Mom's weeds

These days my mother’s drawers are unlocked, her private room lies open, and her many notebooks and journals (mostly made by me) line two shelves in my father’s room. But I wasn’t looking for anything so blatant as her diary entries…I do not trust the written word. I know only too well how journal entries can be inaccurate, fanciful, censored, or composed for an audience (and therefore a performance). The author/narrator/protagonist is far too unreliable. It would be just like my mom to write things with a posthumous readership in mind.

Mom's weeds

Instead, I looked for her actions among the debris of her little room, and found her in 7 or 8 rectangular biscuit tins, each one packed with pressed leaves, flowers, and common weeds, organised by kind, each layer carefully spread upon card and wrapped in a plastic sleeve, or interleaved with sheets of parchment. I recognise my own love of humble weeds in  her patient gathering, pressing and sorting. I remember how she would stop the car along a busy expressway to harvest the weeds growing on the verge, and explore a hill or empty lot in the hopes of finding something different.

On her bookshelf, the pressed weeds were echoed by the silhouette of a fern on the cover of a leather journal. I made this book for her, maybe 10 years ago.

weeds on a journal cover

On the title page she had written: “Things my family should know. January 2012″ I turned the page with some trepidation…what sort of secrets did she have, that she felt the need, two years before her death, to set it down in a journal like this?

The next page was blank. And so were all the other pages in the journal. Even at the end, she could not unclench that secret fist. Mysterious till the last. And that is just so typical of her. I laugh. That old devil, the Feminine Mystique.

And so I have found her, in her unwillingness to be found.

It will have to do…it doesn’t actually bother me all that much. She was an individual, I am an individual; blood is the common thing we shared, there is no need to load that simple connection—a fluke product of two humans meeting, mating—with melodramatic emotional baggage. I do not feel the need to know more than this: that her family was not meant to know more.

I tore the page out of what is now a perfectly good, unused journal. To quote Eckhart Tolle: “I do not have much use for the past.”

My family should know

I, on the other hand, have always been a gabby talker, a blurter of intimate things, a spiller of beans, a revealer of my innermost secrets. I found a box in mom’s drawer, filled to the brim with letters and postcards that I wrote to her, from the different places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve always told her about everything…from dope and crystal meth experiments, to who I was going out with that evening and whether I intended to sleep with him or not. Sometimes she would respond with outrage, but would simmer down again when I asked her whether she’d rather I concealed things from her. Poor mom, what a daughter!

I like the sunny spot in which my rampant, weedy life grows—open to wind and rain, knowing nothing of closets,  skeletons, nor locks on doors (within or without). Anyway, I hate the deadweight of a bunch of keys.

letters to my mother


*excerpted from the very long poem Intimate Letters, by Rosanna Warren

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amazing people, life

Blumen im Winter…

UntitledEin alter Mann, der lächelt, ist wie Blumen im Winter

(An old man who smiles is like flowers in the winter. -German proverb)

The Charleston Shuffle

Tried to catch dad doing the Charleston Shuffle, but his arms were too fast for my exposure, and vanished!

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

A display of energy like this is rare from him, these days, but he had perked up considerably after a big breakfast together on the verandah.

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

Also done by this father-daughter pair on Saturday: swapped files, showed each other our Flickr photos (with background story narration), watched one of the BBC’s Planet Earth DVDs., shared a visit from friend and artist Ace Polintan, had halo-halo ice cream with leche flan on top (decadence), took selfies with the camera’s remote control, and watched the sky for rain.
Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

Of course, after all this (plus his stunt on the dance floor) he had to take a nana nap. :)

Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

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windswept
My dad, our family friend Mae, and I went driving for the day to the Tanay foothills of the Sierra Madre—the longest mountain range in the Philippines. I tried shooting from the moving car, so as not to disrupt the trip or annoy my father’s driver too much, but didn’t meet with very much success. The shot of these windswept, grass-covered hills was the only one worth keeping. The bare hills are a testament to the locals’ charcoal-making activities for many decades, and the painter John Altomonte responded to my photograph with some lines of poetry, which I will include here because they help make the photograph seem better than it actually is…

Weeping winds, a broken hearted land…
gone the children- the trees, her winged troubadours?

life, travel

The Sierra Madre with dad

Image
amazing people, photography

Eats, shoots, and leaves a tremendous impression.

Had such an inspiring meet-up with the brilliant street photographer behind WordPress blog Malate, Elmer Valenzuela, last night. In a bar overlooking an urban crossroads, filled with young people in ridiculous hipster getup, throbbing with live music and strobed with laser lights, we sat over a dozen beers and a sizzling plate of that classic Filipino drinking snack known as sisig (it’s minced pig’s face, now doesn’t that sound lovely? Perfect foil for lots of booze.)

It was so great to finally meet Elmer Valenzuela in person, and to find him every bit as genuine, artistic, and nice as he seems on his blog. He’s incredibly modest, insisting that anybody could do what he does…the sign of real passion. “No, not everyone,” I assure him…my reluctance to pull a camera out of my bag, not to say point it at someone on the street, borders on neurosis. I carry my DSLR in a backpack everywhere…the streets of Singapore, the streets of Manila…but it’s pretty usual to come home having taken not a single shot. Terrified of street photography.

Back to Elmer’s blog, where he disses would-be street photographers who shoot from the safety of their cars (Eeep, that’s ME!) and worry about something happening to their cameras (Again, a raw nerve, goddamit). In his post Shadow Selfie: Overture to Street Photography, these words from Robert Frank sit, emphasized, centered, and pointing an accusing finger at me:

If an artist doesn’t take risks, then it’s not worth it.

We parted ways, but not before we aimed our cameras across the table at each other. I don’t know how his shots went, but mine were absolute crap in the low, low light, and I deleted them in disgust. I sped home through empty streets at 2 in the morning, stopping at a 7-Eleven to pick up a cheap pack of smokes and a couple of balut (fertilised and partially developed duck eggs) from an old lady out the front. Local wisdom says that balut gives you, er, staying power, stamina, or spunk. I’m running out of time in Manila, but if there’s one thing I would love to do before I go, it’s take Elmer up on his invitation to go for a street photography walk around Intramuros, the oldest district and historic core of the City of Manila. Maybe those duck eggs will work their magic, and I’ll master my fear of the fascinating, inscrutable street.

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