Thursday, August 28, 2008

Live Blog: Nobel Peace Prize Winner and former Vice President Al Gore

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 28 — Former Vice President Al Gore took the stage tonight at Invesco Field ahead of Barack, leading off by arguing the 2000 election did matter, and that if he'd won, we wouldn't be bogged down in Iraq because we would have pursued Bin Laden until we caught him.

8:47 EDT On McCain's recent shift to supporting Bush policies: "The same policies? ... I believe in recycling, but that's ridiculous."

8:50 EDT On Global Warming: "We are facing a planetary emergency, which if not solved would exceed anything we have experienced in human history."

Gore also drew attention to the crisis in the Arctic, noting that the polar ice cap may be totally melted in summer during the first term of the next president.

8:56 EDT On the similarities between Obama and Lincoln: Gore noted that before President Abraham Lincoln took office, his experience was eight years in the Illinois state legislature, and one term in Congress — equal to that of Barack Obama.

"Inconvenient truths must be acknowledged if we are to have wise governance."

"His life experience embodies our motto: E pluribus unum — out of many, one."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Live Blog: Barack Surprise

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 27 — In Denver, Barack surprised and delighted the Democratic National Convention, showing up after Joe Biden's acceptance speech.

"At the start of this campaign," Barack said, "we had a very simple idea, which is change in America doesn't start from the top, down, it starts from the bottom, up."

Live Blog: VP Candidate Sen. Joe Biden (Go Orange!)

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 27 — Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat from Delaware, took the stage in Denver tonight to accept the nomination as the Democratic candidate for vice president. It's a good choice — for Delaware, for the Orange of Syracuse, and for the country.

10:34 PM EDTChanging the Tenor of the Vice Presidency: "Let me make this pledge to you right here and no... no longer will you hear the the eight most dreaded words in the English language: 'The Vice President's office is on the phone.'"

Repeated throughoutTag line: "That's not change, that's more of the same."

Live Blog: Former President Bill Clinton (a.k.a. Hillary's Husband)

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 27 — Former President Bill Clinton, following in his wife's footsteps after her speech in Denver Tuesday, committed himself in his speech to doing everything he can to elect Barack Obama as our next president.

9:16 PM EDTResponsible Exercise of Power: "People have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Live Blog: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Convention

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 26 — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in what was to be her coronation as the nominee, instead seems to be channeling Otto the Orange — a good thing, in my mind.

Bright orange pantsuit, and Central New York is running through her veins, or at least her closet.

"Now is the time to unite as a single party, with a single purpose," she said.

"We are on the same team, and none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. This is a fight for the future, and it is a fight we must win together."

"No way, no how, no McCain."

Nice. Bring it HRC, bring it. The senator from Arizona doesn't know what he's gotten into now.

Live Blog: Former Gov. Mark Warner's Democratic Convetion Keynote Speech

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 26 — Former Virgina Gov. Mark Warner took the stage in Denver tonight to give the keynote address at the convention — succeeding Barack Obama in the role. He describes this campaign as "the race for the future."

"The race for the future is on, and it won't be won if only some Americans are in the running," Warner said.

Running for the Senate, Warner suggested that President Bush has failed to tap into the nation's most valuable resources — it's human resources.

9:49 PM EDTChallenge as an opportunity: "America has never been afraid of the future, and we shouldn't start now. If we choose the right path, every one of these challenges is an opportunity." Energy is an example -- suggesting that within 24 months, with the right investments, we can have a 100-mpg hybrid vehicle.

9:50 PM EDTScience: "In just four months, we will have an administration that actually believes in science."

9:52 PM EDTLeaders and Bipartisanship: "We need leaders who see our common ground as sacred ground. We need leaders who will appeal to us ... first and foremost as Americans. . . If an idea works, it really doesn't matter is it's got a D or an R next to it."

This election is "about the future versus the past."

9:54 PM EDTObligations: "We're blessed to be Americans, but with that blessing comes an obligation to our neighbors and our common good."

"We're all in this together. That's what this party believes, that's what this nation believes, and that's what this nation believes, and that's what Barack Obama believes, and that's what Joe Biden believes."

10:00 PM EDTClosing: "The race for the future will be won when all partisanship gives way to new ideas, when solutions replace stalemate..."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Out of Africa, but still at Cape Town International

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 15 — I’m at the end of my visit here, and I’ve technically departed the country already, having cleared passport control. I write as I site at the wi-fi hot-spot in the international terminal at Cape Town International.

Surprise, surprise, my flight to JFK via Dakar, Sengal, is delayed. Scheduled time, in South African time format: 18h00. Now estimated time of departure: 21h15. Could be better, but it could be much worse.

The international terminal is, like so much of Cape Town and the surroundings I have seen, a study in contrasts. Townships with tin-roofed shacks line the main route to the airport, but the government plans to build high rises along the road to hide the crumbling homes from view in time for the 2010 World Cup. Who knows whether they will make it with that goal, along with others in preparation for hosting the world. But I digress.

The terminal itself is gleaming and beautiful, with construction going on all around to make more space, also in preparation for the World Cup. I’m sitting just across the white-tiled concourse from the Out of Africa shop, which carries a lot of tourist-trap items, but some nice local crafts also. Just down the concourse is the sport shops selling Springboks (the national rugby team) gear, and a handful of other shops, including a book shop with a couple shelves labeled “Africa.” Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Solider” plays over the Out of Africa shop’s stereo. It followed “You Can Call Me Al,” Toto’s “Africa” and an assortment of more local, or at least African, music.

From my various perches today, I’ve encountered chatty Americans, also traveling on my delayed flight, a handful of very eager service personnel, most of whose services I’ve declined, save the gentleman who seems to have taken it upon himself to lay out paper towels in the men’s room for each hand washer. I handed him a couple rand as I left the toilets (the men’s room) because it seemed unavoidable and rude not to give him a little something. I think his counterpart in the arrivals hall, before passengers claim their bags and change dollars, euros, pounds, and other currency to rand, is likely to bring in more income — I gave him two American dollars on my way out when I arrived, which is the equivalent of about 15 rand.

The flight is delayed not because of any problem on this end, as far as I understand, but because of weather in New York. My New York travel travails follow me to Africa.

There’s an expression I’ve heard frequently during my brief stay in the Mother City (one of Cape Town’s nicknames), used to explain delays, frustrations, foibles, and the like here: “This is Africa.” It’s often abbreviated TIA. Maybe it’s offensive, maybe it’s too blunt, but it’s said so often, maybe it’s accurate.

New York, in my experience, needs a comparable expression. Capetonians I’ve met seem to handle the blips and cock-ups of everyday life in a major city better than New Yorkers do. Instead of fuming into a rage, as I often do when the subway makes me crazy with its “track work,” Capetonians might shrug their shoulders and say, “This is Africa, it’s a different place,” as one driver told me this week. (He happened to say it in the context of the country’s presumptive future president, Jacob Zuma, now president of the African National Congress, ANC, facing possible criminal conviction but remaining THE contender for the country’s top office, but that’s another story — one to be told on my return to the States.)

So, without further delay (except for my flight delay, which I hope isn’t any longer either), here is a new, or perhaps recycled, expression for New Yorkers, in the hope that they too might shrug off the blips on the radar screen when necessary. “This is New York” ¬— to be abbreviated TINY.

So, I’m going to shrug, and sign off, explaining this flight delay to myself by saying This is New York (or at least its fault), and in the meantime, This is Africa, so enjoy it for a little while longer.

Stay tuned for more, including highlights of my African stomach bug and visits to a game park and Robben Island, upon my return to the States.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Up in the Clouds, At the End of the Earth

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 9 — I asked a cab driver today, “What is your favorite part of South Africa, besides Cape Town?” He cut me off before I could spit out the modifying clause, exclaiming, “Cape Town!” He’d only visited a handful of other places, but he also had little desire or need to see much else, he said — Cape Town has, at least in terms of landscape, anything that visitors and residents alike could want.

An older, white South African woman on my flight from New York shared similar sentiments as we both paced the aisles during our stop in Dakar, Senegal.

“We’ve traveled a lot,” she said of her and her husband, explaining that they were avid hikers. “But every time we fly in to Cape Town, we’re glad to arrive, and we see again why it’s home.” She lives on the mountain above the village of Simon’s Town, a bit south of the city on the Cape peninsula, she said, but she can walk down to the beach in 10 minutes.

Today, I saw the evidence that supported the claims from these and other Capetonians. Early-ish this morning, we called a cab (Excite Taxi — reportedly, according to the Obs crew, the cheapest and most reliable fleet — enjoy your free ad now before I start charging!), and jumped in with our jackets packed.

“Dispatch, dispatch,” the cabby called over the radio, “pickup in Obs, headed up the mountain.” Cruising along Lower Main Road through Obs to Main Road, we hit City Bowl at least twice as quickly as we did in the kombi on Friday.

Then, up the base of Table Mountain we headed, to the lower cable station, at approximately 300 meters, for the five-minute ride up the to the top at about 1,000 meters.

On our arrival at the upper cable station, the temperature was considerably cooler, at about 45° F, and I pulled on both a fleece jacket and a skullcap.

We picked this morning because the skies in Cape Town looked clear from Obs (and our vantage point of Lion’s Head, a 600-some meter outcropping adjacent to Table Mountain, and before our ascent, the mountain was clear. Almost as soon as we exited the cable car, however, almost as if we were dinner guests arriving for the party, the mountain began to retreat under its Table Cloth, a blanket of cumulus that forms atop the mountain when the warm air off the southern Atlantic hits the cool temperatures at altitude and condenses.

A few shots into our photographic record of the visit, the clouds closed in, and we were all but shrouded in mist. A walk around the plateau at the top nonetheless revealed a handful of remarkable views before the clouds cut visibility to zip, including a couple guys preparing to repel, or abseil, as is the local parlance (I overhead one watcher say that Table Mountain is the highest commercial abseiling site in the world), from the top, seemingly into thin air, with the city behind them 1,000 meters down.

The flora are stunning, even in winter, and the fauna showed themselves a couple times, with a little chipmunk-looking creature darting behind a rock after I photographed him, and a pair of birds hoping for Starburst from my girlfriend as we sat on a stone step to write a postcard, before depositing it in the post box outside the mountain-top gift shop for transit to the States.

After chilling ourselves almost to New-York-winter temperatures, we headed down, and the mountain, as if it knew some of its guests were leaving the party, began to remove the Table Cloth, clouds parting for our final glimpses as we headed for the cableway, and out of the clouds.

Back at the lower cable station, we called a Rikki for the trek to the end of the earth — Cape Point (here’s another free ad — Rikkis is a company that provides cabs by the hour instead of by distance-time meter, and they have 16 London-style black cabs, some of which are decked out in Rikkis’ decals and World-Cup preparatory ads). Our Rikki driver, whose name we never picked up, unfortunately, shared his stories of life in Cape Town — born and raised there and never spent much time outside it, he said — as we headed south to the capes.

Yes, capes, plural. At the southern end of the Cape peninsula are Cape Point, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern most point of the African continent. The drive down to the capes is itself spectacular and warrants an essay unto itself, but time is short and the Internet here is painful, so I’ll give you the highlights.

Cape Point is marked, at its most touristed spot, by a lighthouse, and a view of the point itself, after which the next land is Antarctica. Awe inspiring, to say the least, and neither words nor photos do it justice.

In a small-world moment, after asking a tour guide to take our photo, one of the guide’s tour-group members asked if we were Americans, surely based on our accents. Yes, we said, we are. Turns out she lives on the Upper East Side, and her former husband is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law, and I heard him speak not too long ago. Almost 8,000 miles away, and the City lurks.

Back in the Rikki, we made a quick stop at the Cape of Good Hope for some more spectacular views and photos at the end of the earth. (Either spot is arguably the end of the earth, and they’re only a mile or two from one another, so really, the point is somewhat moot.)

On our return to the park’s main road from the point, we spotted a gang of baboons hangin’ out by the side of the road. Baboons, just chillin’, except for the one eating popcorn from a bag, while guarding a bag of clementines.

If you told a South African about the baboons, he probably wouldn’t be too surprised — they’re around the capes often, especially on warm, sunny days like today. But if you told a South African about the popcorn and clementines, then you might get a classic quizzical response, “Izit?” — as in, is it true? Really?

Yes, really, it is.

A Combination of What?

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 8 — Take a New York City Transit bus, add a New York City cab, preferably of the mini-van variety, throw in a pinch of dance remixes from the late 1990s, an incessantly hooting hooter (yes, hooting hooter — it’s not a honking horn here in Cape Town), and about 15 people, including a crazy driver and a “caller” hanging out a special side window, and you get a minibus taxi.

The minibus taxi, or kombi (possibly also spelled C-O-M-B-I) is a kombi-nation of eccentricities, all brewed into one* of the most commonly used forms of public transportation here in Cape Town.

Callers, who sit in the seat closest to the sliding, curb-side door, often hanging out the window (or half-window that has clearly been designed into some models for this purpose) whistling at and calling to potential passengers, are apparently unique to Cape Town, but “this whole concept of transportation in that form is African — it’s certainly not anything we have in the States,” my girlfriend explained.

The caller works for passengers, works the door, and sometimes works the money, except for the occasions when the front-middle-seat passenger gets stuck playing change maker.

From what I’m told, one doesn’t really “get” the kombis until riding them, or at least one. So, without further delay, a brief riff on my first kombi trip today.

Walk up the hill from Obs to Main Road, careful to look right when crossing the street. (Main Road, as you might figure, is the main surface road running into Cape Town, and the kombis run both ways, hooting all the way, crossing multiple lanes of traffic to pick up of and drop off passengers. I tend to look both ways as an extra assurance against being flattened by a stray vehicle, but I’ve still had a couple close calls.)

As we hit Main Road, the hooting starts, or, rather, the callers eagerly seek us out. “Wynberg, Wynberg?” one asks before we even cross the street to the lanes going out direction. He’s inquiring whether we want to jump in the kombi on the corner bound for Wynberg, at the other end of the line (if you can call it a kombi route a “line”). No thanks, she says, shaking her head, and we dart across the street to the opposite corner, just below the Grute Schur hospital, home of the first heart transplant, and still a transplant center for Africa.

Several kombis roll by, and she waves them on. “Too full,” she said of the first couple. “Too empty,” she said of one with no passengers. “It’s no fun if there is no one in it!”

Five to seven minutes later, a bright yellow model with tinted windows rolls up, and before I realize what’s happening, we’re boarding. “This one’s a nice one,” she whispers over her shoulder. The passenger closest to the curb-side door in the second row of bench seats, the seat over which everyone must climb to get to the two back rows, climbed out, and we climbed in, headed for the back two middle seats.

Wallet safely secured in the zipped, inside pocket of the messenger bag, along with the nice sunglasses and the cell phone, which I’d been warned against having accessible during the ride, I fished a five-rand coin out of the coin pocket of my jeans, and passed up the rest of the money, enough for three to Cape Town, including our seat mate in the back.

Dance remixes vintage 1997 blare through the relatively nice sound system. “Do you want it all, or nothing at all…” The LCD screen in the front of the passenger section is dimmed, but I half expected it to light up and for a strobe and disco ball to drop from the kombi’s ceiling. Songs continue, “… it’s now or never …”

Bombing along Main Road, the caller, head and left arm hanging out the half-window, whistles, calling to potential passengers, “Cape Town! Cape Town?!” A black woman shakes her head no, ignoring the driver’s hoots. At this point, I realized the hooting and calling are not at all coordinated. The caller calls somewhat routinely, but the driver hoots randomly, sometimes to help passenger recruitment, other times to warn pedestrians and other vehicles on the road that he’s about to cross three lanes of traffic to load or unload.

A passenger disembarks from the front seat, and jump-seat man, the one in the second-row-door seat, jumps out and into the front so he can avoid climbing out and back in every time we pick up a new rider. We cruise a few more blocks as the dance remix fades from one dated song to another — I know they’re dated because I know all of the songs (if not the remixes), and I know I’m not up on current music, nor have I consistently been since the late ‘90s. Jump-seat man, bald head and all, jumps out of the front a few blocks later, and a black woman with braids hanging to the bottom of her shoulder blades jumps in, riding for a few blocks before bailing and hiking up a cross street.

Soon enough, it’s clear that we’re close enough to city centre that no more guests will join this kombi party. The party-goer to my left is wheezing and hacking, not quite in time with the music, and I’m clutching my messenger bag on my lap, hoping it’s not something contagious.

We pass through some of downtown Cape Town, and onto the roof of Cape Town Station, the train station. The minibus taxi terminus in the City Bowl, as downtown is also known, is on the roof, overlooking the train yard and the Golden Arrow bus station (more on the buses to follow). To appreciate the kombi station, it helps to imagine the yellow cab holding lot at JFK — hundreds of cabs and their drivers waiting for a dispatch to the airline terminals for the big $45 fare to Manhattan, hoping not to get screwed with a short fare to Queens or Brooklyn. The Cape Town kombi terminus is comparable. Replace the yellow cabs with minbus taxis of all makes, models, and colors — Toyota and VW seemed to be the most prevalent. There was even a fuschia-colored kombi with a Reebok decal in the back window. Somehow I don’t think that means Reebok was once in the vehicle-manufacturing business.

Over some speed bumps, rather roughly, especially in the seats over the back wheels, and into a clusterfuck of kombis, passengers, drivers, and attendants (although it was entirely unclear to what they were attending). There are some stalls off to the right, perpendicular to the entryway where we’re stuck, where the kombis queue for the return-trip from Cape Town to all points outside town, and they sit queued until they are full. My girlfriend always opts for a sedan cab back to Obs from the City Bowl instead of waiting in the madness.

Finally, the door pops open, and passengers poor out, into a gap maybe two-feet wide between our ride and the kombi chillin’ against the curb. We quickly snap a photo or two, deftly stepping around the man who’s decided to relieve himself along the concrete barrier marking the edge of the lot. From there, we cross a pedestrian bridge whose metal panels give a good three inches toward the street every few steps we take, and we head down some rusting metal steps, past the bus station and into the bustle. This is Africa.

*There seems to be some debate about whether the kombis or the Golden Arrow buses carry more people to and from work in Cape Town on a daily basis. One of my girlfriend’s colleagues at the NGO where she worked suggested that despite the buses’ larger capacity, the kombis probably carry more people daily because there are many more of them than buses. Another took the polar opposite position, suggesting that the capacity of the buses must more than make up for the greater number of kombis. If you’ve got more insight, please share. As for me, I’d like to throw another wrench in the gears of this transportation question. What about the trains, which run up and down the peninsula and from the Cape Flats, the areas where the townships area, into Cape Town Station? They surely bring people to work and return them home in the evening, but I’m not sure proportionally how much traffic they comprise.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Big Sign that “reconciliation” is part of the lingo, even when used trivially

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 7 — After resolving my first traveler’s dilemma upon landing in Cape Town, and setting off in a cab for Obs (short for Observatory, as in, the neighborhood where lots of young people and students live, not a building housing a telescope), a sign with the word “reconciliation” caught my eye. It turned out to be an ad for tax or accounting services, from what I imagine is the South African equivalent of H&R Block, seeking customers in anticipation of the upcoming filing deadline.

Somehow, despite the accounting connotation of the word “reconciliation,” the usage didn’t seem quite appropriate, given the starkly different, and probably more frequently used, connotation of the word here in South Africa — as used in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the process it fostered.

But perhaps the word’s mere inclusion in the vernacular — in a billboard ad, and splashed across the inside pages of the Mail & Guardian and The Cape Times ¬— suggests that it is ingrained enough to be trivialized. While I suspect that few South Africans, if any, would claim that post-Apartheid reconciliation is “complete,” and in that respect trivializing the process with an ad arguably hurts it, anything that keeps it at the top of people’s minds are perhaps not all bad.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Welcome to Cape Town

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 6 — After more than 10,000 miles and more than 48 hours of traveling, including a brief overnight stop in New York to shower, sleep, and repack, and after risking my luggage for my own stupidity, I arrived in Cape Town on Monday afternoon.

First impressions are telling, unfair, and subject to change, but they're at least a starting point, so here are a few.

Cape Town International Airport is surprisingly small for a city of about 3.5 million people. The airport is growing, with major construction ongoing now in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup and crowds the tournament will draw to the city and the rest of South Africa. For now, however, the limited capacity means that our Delta flight landed at a distant edge of the runway, and shuttle buses carried us to the terminal. Passport control and customs were relatively empty and moved quickly.

In my haste to get out of the airport and to Observatory, the neighborhood where my girlfriend has been living since June, I forgot to change my American dollars, and I jumped in a cab without any South African rand. Before the driver pulled away, I remembered I needed cash, and I asked him to wait, creating the first of what might be many traveler's dilemmas on my first African trip.

My bags, save my carry on with my laptop and most important essentials, were already in the back of the station wagon cab, but I needed cash before I could leave the airport. So, choose your own adventure: you can either leave your bags with the driver, hoping he won't drive off, leaving you will no clothes and only the bare essentials for two weeks in Cape Town, OR you can rudely ask the driver to open the trunk, drag the bags out and back into the terminal, and find the currency exchange.

I stupidly but politely opted for the former, almost pleading the with driver, whom my instincts said were trustworthy (but those instincts have failed me before), to stay and wait for me, as I raced back into the terminal for cash. I even asked him where the currency exchange was. "The bank," he replied. Of course. The bank. I should have known.

He could sense my nervous, I'm sure, and as I headed back to the terminal, glancing over my shoulder every few seconds, praying he wasn't racing out of the airport taxi lane, he climbed out of the cab, locked it, and followed me to the terminal. Intentionally or not, he reassured me, and I quickly found and ATM, and told the cabby, "I'll just get some here." I withdrew some rand as he waited, and we headed back to the cab.

"Observatory," I told the cabby, pronouncing it ob-zerv-a-tree, as I'd been instructed.

Relieved my bags were still intact and ready for a ride, I relaxed as we pulled away from the curb, riding toward Cape Town.

More to follow...