Mallets in Cape Town: the beginning

After packing 11,000 pounds (according to Graebel) of our life into a truck, and a bit of error-correction necessitated by Graebel thinking our stuff should be sent to Pointe Noire, Congo, we left left Seattle on Tuesday, July 8th  and flew from Seattle to Dubai, on Emirates Airlines.

We left Seattle on the day of the history-making Germany-Brazil World Cup semi-final game (so historic it even has its own Wikipedia page already!), so I couldn’t watch that game. I did check the score on my phone just before we took off, when it was half-time, and at first thought the 5-0 score was a mistake.

The entertainment selection on Emirates is truly staggering. They have recent  movies, TV shows, music, and even video games. Christina and I had already decided that our primary goal for the trip was to get through it with as little kid-related stress as possible, so Xander spent pretty much the entire 14-hour flight from Seattle to Dubai watching movies and playing video games (he got pretty good at the equivalent of Galaga). I watched “The Winter Soldier” and “Snowpiercer” and got to see two very different sides of Chris Evans – turns out that in addition to having very accurate aim when throwing around his shield of vibranium/adamantium/whatever-ium, he’s actually a decent actor – “Snowpiercer” is a great movie.

Dubai was a trip. The DXB airport has ridiculously large halls, almost entirely empty, with 100-foot ceilings, random water features, and a talking hologram welcoming us to Dubai.

When we first stepped out of the airport, I thought we’d accidentally wandered into an exhaust of some sort, and then I realized that, no, it’s actually that ridiculously hot and humid outside (and I say this having grown up a mere 5 degrees north of the Equator) –  I broke a sweat in the 30 seconds it took us to load our bags into a taxi. Our hotel was about a 30-minute drive from the airport, so along the way we got to see some of Dubai’s crazy skyscraper architecture all lit up, which made for an entertaining drive.

Our hotel was ridiculously ornate, but it was actually very tastefully done. It did make me wonder how many interior decorators had worked on it, because the designs were so elaborate as to be practically fractal – curlicue upon curlicue upon curlicue. (Random side musing: maybe they used a variation of the Mandelbrot generator to come up with a design pattern for each surface and then used a 3d-printer to print it? I think I just found my startup idea …)

In an attempt to make the trip easier on the kids, we spent 2 nights and an entire day in Dubai. Practically, this meant that we got up the next day, had breakfast, went to the pool for a bit, and then everybody except me fell asleep for 4 hours in the middle of the afternoon. After several attempts, I finally got everybody up (which involved having to physically prop up Xander and pour water on him to wake him up) and out the door, and we went to check out the Dubai Mall, which houses the world’s (supposedly) largest candy store, boasting 10,000 square feet devoted to candy. You’d think that with that much space, they’d have a decent selection, like, say, the entire line of Haribo products, but, no, it was actually quite disappointing. On the way to the Dubai Mall, we also saw the Burj Khalifa, and Helena showed us what it feels like when you’re “balling out of control” in a Lambo.

On Friday, we made the Dubai -> Durban -> Cape Town trip, which was relatively uneventful. I did have one interesting encounter on the flight from Dubai to Durban while trying to rearrange some baggage in the overhead compartment to fit in a bag, when one of the other passengers abruptly stood up, shouldered me aside, grabbed one of the bags I was moving and growled at me not to touch his bag because it had his sunglasses in them and he didn’t want them crushed. I was a little taken aback by the aggressiveness of his approach, so the only response I could muster was to tell him that if he wanted me to be careful with his bag, all he had to do was say so, and that there was no reason to get aggro about it. This same role model of restraint and courtesy also got into a shouting match with another passenger when we got to Durban, so, drawing a straight line through my two data points, I will go out on a limb, extrapolate, and posit that he was just an asshole.

… and after one more night in a hotel, we finally moved into our house, in the Oranjezicht neighborhood of Cape Town.

A few observations after 3 weeks of being here:

The good:

– It’s fun to go to an entirely new grocery store and buy pretty much one of everything, both because your house is absolutely empty, and also because you want to try it out and see whether you like it. And sometimes you also discover gems of product naming, like:


– We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to beaches (although they’re not necessarily swimming beaches) nearby, as evidenced by the few that we’ve made it to so far, all less than a 30 minute drive away.

Muizenberg:

SeaPoint:

Hout Bay

– I’d heard many horror stories about the travails of dealing with Telkom, the local telco providing land-lines as well as Internet access via ADSL, but the two Telkom engineers who showed up to install our land line and ADSL were great. They spent several hours  the first day dealing with a screwy wiring situation, and then came back early the next day to finish the job.

– There’s lots of nature all around: we’ve been to a “bird of prey” rehabilitation center, where we got to have various birds of prey (mostly owls) sit on our hands and pet them; hung out with cheetahs; and watched baboons make a mess.

– Judging from the number of people I’ve seen riding around in our neighborhood on mountain bikes, looking like they’re either starting or finishing a ride, I’m pretty sure there are trailheads for Table Mountain trails very close to our house, which makes me very happy. Now that (fingers crossed!) most of the initial settling-in and setting-up is done, we’ll hopefully get a chance to rent bikes in the next couple of weeks (since our bikes don’t get here until September) and go exploring soon.

Uber has made it to Cape Town, works pretty damn well, and is ridiculously cheap. After never using it in the US, Christina and I have used it a bunch since we’ve been here, and are big fans.

The unexpected:
– The whole notion of staying in Dubai for an entire day to help the kids cope better with the trip didn’t really pan out. This was further illustrated when we tried to go watch the World Cup final a couple of days after we got here. We didn’t yet have TV set up, so we drove around to a few restaurants to see whether we could watch the game there. Alas, every place we checked out was totally full, so we ended up just going back home; that said, it was probably just as well we did, because Helena was so jet-lagged that she fell asleep on the way home, after having taken a 3-hour nap in the afternoon … on top of sleeping 14 hours the night before. Another discovery: if you’re the only person in the family who isn’t jet-lagged, you’re still not going to get a decent night’s sleep because everybody else in your family will be up at 3am. Lesson learned.

– Before we got here, we pooh-pooh’ed the notion of a “winter” where it never gets below ~50F during the day. Turns out that when there’s no indoor heating, 50F is pretty damn cold, and you end up dressing warmly and trying (somewhat futilely, so far) to make a rip-roaring fire.

– The paperwork required to get anything set up is quite …. voluminous, including such fun things as needing a police-certified copy of my passport in order to get a phone installed, and 3 months of bank statements in order to get a cell-phone contract (that latter part being a little tricky when you’ve just arrived in the country and don’t have a bank account yet). At this point, I’ve filled out my passport number on so many forms in the last 2 weeks that I have it memorized.

– Hipster Farmer’s Markets have made their way to Africa: we’ve been to two of them, including one that’s a 5-minute walk from our house, and it blows my mind that I can find something as first-world-y as this so nearby. At the same time, since I’m also of the general opinion that the “artisanal, organic, shade-grown, hand-crafted-by-shimmering-elves-living-in-harmony-with-the-land blah-blah-blah” rhetoric that normally comes with a Farmer’s Market is a ridiculous affectation, it bugs me that such a thing exists nearby, especially given that the demographic that frequents it is so entirely unrepresentative of the majority of the country. (Which is, I suppose, true in the US as well)

The bad:
– We’re experiencing the joys of being the first residents of a house after an extensive remodel, and nobody living in it for a while. So far, we, or more accurately, Christina, have had to deal with the water heater not working, the stove not working (twice), a sewer filled with overgrown tree roots and not draining, a non-functional dishwasher, a non-functional dishwasher hookup, and all the associated visits by people coming to fix stuff.

– Lots of people in our neighborhood have dogs. Unfortunately, it appears that some of them have a somewhat cavalier attitude about cleaning up after their pets, so one has to continuously be on the lookout for squishy landmines while walking down the street.

– The neighborhood we live in is a bit of a bubble, in that it seems to be populated primarily by old, rich people; we’ve seen very few families with kids and pretty much the only non-white people we see are the ones walking to their job as domestics in the morning. That’s a pretty sharp contrast with our Seattle neighborhood, which was very diverse and had lots of families with kids – pretty ironic that we move to South Africa to show our kids what it looks like outside a first-world country and end up in an even more tightly-insulated bubble. So while it’s convenient for me that I can walk to work in 20 minutes, and the views from the house are pretty amazing, it’s entirely possible that we’ll move when our lease is up. In the meantime, we’ve been at pains to point out to the kids all the shantytowns that surround Cape Town, so that the lesson is not totally lost on them.

– In that vein, we also had an encounter that further illustrated the social complexities in South African society: we went into a stationery store to buy some paper, pencils etc because the kids wanted to write letters. I went to look at pencils/pens and Christina went off somewhere else; I hadn’t been in the store for more than 30 seconds when a (black) employee came up to me and asked me whether she could help me. I told her I was just looking around and went back to what I was doing, but then noticed that she was sort of lingering in the aisle I was in. I thought it was a bit odd, but didn’t really give it any deeper thought, until Christina came over to me and said something to the effect of “You realize she’s watching you to make sure you don’t steal anything, right ?” … and that’s when the penny dropped. I, frankly, didn’t really know what to do, but Christina, bless her heart, went up to the store manager and gave her an earful that I’m sure she won’t soon forget. And I, for my part, am now certainly more conscious of possible racial overtones in my interactions with people here.

So far, my take is that Cape Town is a unique blend of the first and third world, and I like most of the bits I’ve seen. That said, I also think we’ve spent enough time in the “first-world bubble” parts of it, and need to get out and start seeing the rest of the country.

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