Thursday, December 05, 2013

Goodbye Madiba: How Mandela Shaped the South African TPD Episodes

“I was on my way out before apartheid ended,” Shannon said. “I was seriously on my way out with my children. My mother talked me out of it.”

I was sitting in a billiards hall on the outskirts of Durban in a predominantly Indian-South African neighborhood in April 2012, having a beer with the aunt of one of my documentary subjects. Shannon was one of roughly half-a-million South Africans of Indian descent and her family had been in the country for generations.

I was in Durban to film an episode of TPD focusing on Indo-South Africans using her nephew Sujan as my guide and eyepiece. Sujan is a member of the first generation of South African children to grow up post-apartheid and he, his brother, and cousins had an upbringing not unlike mine.

But Shannon and her husband Cliff spent the evening telling me their stories. Of life and the hierarchy of race under apartheid. Indo-South Africans enjoyed relative privilege under the system. They were allowed an education like whites; Cliff was a doctor and Shannon a schoolteacher, though she would’ve never been hired in a school that wasn’t in an Indian neighborhood. They could own land and were not subject to curfews like blacks, but weren’t allowed to integrate into white neighborhoods either. A middle-class Indian family would hire black South Africans as domestic help, as would white families, but there was no socializing with whites or blacks.

“You could be white, then Indian, then mixed-race, and then black,” Shannon said. She told me when apartheid ended everyone held their collective breath to see if war was going to erupt, but there was simply a jubilation, peaceful and uneventful.

It was a segregated life, certainly, but nothing like the horror stories I heard from black South Africans, like the man I met on a street corner who told me how he and his friends would be jailed for the night for not getting out of the city before curfew – but always beaten first.

Then I met Ravi, an Indian who gave me a ride one afternoon in Durban’s city center. He’d been tailing me in his car as I walked through a particularly gritty area by the docks while I was filming b-roll. He was very concerned and was watching out for me. Over another beer he told me that Indians were largely left alone unless they were anti-apartheid activists. He’d been very involved in the movement in Durban and he recounted the hospital visits, pointing out all of the bones in his body that had been broken in fights with police and apartheid supporters. He pointed to more than a few places.

It was originally Lawrence Anthony, the white South African wildlife conservationist, and his story that took me to the country. That was my second trip to SA to cover Anthony and his reserve Thula Thula in Zululand. He was one of the good guys. Vehemently anti-apartheid, Anthony spent much of his career in conservation using it a way to reach across racial divides and earn the trust – and eventually the respect – of Zulus and other tribes with whom his animal reserve shared land.

He had friends and allies in Mandela’s government who recognized that Anthony cared as much about protecting people as he did animals. When Anthony died in 2012, his old friend Dr. Ben Ngubane said, “Even in the days of apartheid, Lawrence would go and sit in the crawl with the Zulus, the Mthethwas, and partake of the braai meats. Sitting there on the ground. It was natural for him.”

Ngubane had been involved in negotiations in 1993 with the African National Congress on behalf of the Inkatha Freedom Party. At that time, of course, Nelson Mandela was president of the ANC. The next year, he would become president of the Republic of South Africa.

I’m proud to have seen South Africa after apartheid. It’s a country I love being in and a place I know I’ll go back to again and again. I’m honored to have shared moments of my life with each of the people I’ve met there, humbled and grateful that they were willing to tell me their stories. I’m awed that I’ve been in the same room with Ngubane and that Lawrence Anthony “loved” the episodes of TPD he saw before he died.

And it’s because of Mandela and the entire anti-apartheid movement and all its supporters that I’ve been able to have these exact experiences. Because of him, when it was all said and done, Shannon was able to look me in the eye that night in Durban and say, “I love my country.” Thank you, Madiba.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Head East, Then Look Up: High-rise Dining in London

I’m not a fanatic about tracking down the latest, greatest restaurateur’s culinary concoction in London. I don’t follow the life & style sections when I arrive like foodies do, planning their every move around a meal (though over the years I have acquired a taste for scotch eggs that will set me off on a hunt across the city in search of the best).

That said, I’m not a complete epicurean imbecile either. While I might not be a foodie-fangirl to the modern chef’s mad dash to banish bland, old English food from the city, I have my moments. I once dropped $120 on sushi for myself at Nobu in Old Park Lane and it was worth every penny. Then there’s my new obsession with eating my way down Brick Lane where you’ll find such intoxicating Indian food your nose will lead you in the right direction the moment you get off the tube. Then it will run the rest of the day after you’ve had too much spice.

So my not-so-finely tuned palette was piqued when I saw a top ten list of London’s highest restaurants—as in altitude—after I arrived for a real, honest-to-goodness holiday.

Until the mid-20th century, due to building height restrictions, London didn’t have towers to speak of. Its first “skyscraper,” built in the 1920s, only has 10 stories. But when the first construction that would resemble what Americans think of as skyscrapers went up in the 1980s, sky-high dining soon followed. I decided to do a little comparison-shopping and chose two from the list; both opened within the last year.

As a vacationer, there are not many obvious reasons to find oneself in the financial district of the East End. It tends to get overlooked as people bypass it for the Tower of London or Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market further east. But as I shot up the side of Heron Tower in a glass elevator to Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor, I gave myself an imaginary head smack (there were businessmen with me) for not having come here sooner—for the view alone.

Let’s get this straight: if you are afraid of heights, this is not for you.
Heron Tower, 110 Bishopsgate. 
Though the Duck & Waffle is open 24/7— a novelty for a high-end eatery—the main dining room serves in structured shifts. As I wandered in between lunch and dinner seating the hostess was happy to seat me in the bar with the others there for a drink and the spectacular cityscape. No biggy, there’s a light bar menu that has most of their good stuff on it anyway.

I was browsing the lengthy cocktail menu when said hostess slid up beside me and informed me that since I was on my own she’d checked with the kitchen: They didn’t mind doing a single cover, would I like to move into the dining room?

Does a duck like water? Truly, things like that are half the reason I love traveling alone.

Room with a view. The southeastern expanse. 

I was given a table so close to the window I could fog up the glass with my breath had the view not taken it away. I could almost reach out and touch the iconic Gherkin directly in front of me, and the red double-deckers rolling across Tower Bridge looked like a fairy tale dream. The roughly 300-degree view from the main room is broken by the kitchen, which is open, should you feel like peeling your eyes away from the panorama of the city to take in the action over the stoves.

The Duck's open kitchen showcases friendly cooks. 
The menu is European, collectively, and lists small plates eaten tapas-style and big plates “for the table.” I didn’t know what to expect, since frankly, the Duck could rely on its tower-top location to lure people in and not have to deliver that much in the way of cooking. I ordered small plates of roasted octopus with chorizo, bacon-wrapped dates (at the recommendation of the excellent waitress) and a French white. And bread. Oh, the bread. Handmade onsite, still steaming when I ripped it open.

I can say with certainty: view or no view, the food is incredible. If this place were in a bunker two miles underground with little to no lighting, I would still go to eat. It actually does take your attention—momentarily—away from the vistas. And that’s saying something.

The Duck's bacon-wrapped dates. 

After a second glass of wine and a smile from one of the cooks, I reluctantly pulled myself off of my thrown as the dinner waitstaff reset tables for the evening.

A short stroll due south across the Thames via London Bridge brought me to The Shard. Finished in 2012, it’s the newest addition of ultramodern 'scrapers to the city’s skyline and, for the moment, the tallest building in Western Europe. Earlier this year its answer to the Duck & Waffle was unveiled. Oblix (Ah-blicks) sits on the 32nd floor.

The Shard, Joiner Street, atop London Bridge Station.

Having already read a firmly mediocre review of its menu in The Guardian, in which the writer called it “International Fancy Hotel Safe,” I made up my mind to do coffee and dessert here after the scrumptious stuff at the Duck.

Like at the other place, Oblix was between seating, with dinner starting at 6:00. It was 4:30 so I let them shuttle me to the bar on the east side of the space, which was large and comfortable, full of business types in beautiful suits. No offer to let me swan into the big room here.

Oblix's mod bar. No food, but high-end mixology and coffee. 

I sat at the bar facing away from the view since all the fluffy couches around low tables lining the windows were reserved for groups. This is obviously the flipside of traveling alone. There was a small stage with a piano in the corner. This was the place to be after dark when the city lights were twinkling. Unless the fog settled in as it did. In a matter of minutes the scene north toward Heron Tower and The Gherkin, Tower Bridge and all was virtually gone, the one unavoidable drawback to sky-high hotspots here.

The consolation was the opposite view—of the bartenders—wasn’t too bad either. I felt like I was back in L.A., where drink slingers are often hired for their looks. Albeit these guys were nicer. Though the calf-skin butchers’ aprons they wore seemed out of place; a rustic touch in an uber chic setting. 

One seemed truly sorry when he told me there was no bar menu. No food service in the bar at all, in fact, unless I happened to have a reservation for lunch or dinner and asked to be served in the bar instead. He said I could ask one of the ubiquitous “res girls”—reservationists—floating through the space in black dresses for a spot for dinner.

I had a cappuccino; although I was worried they might not do coffee at the bar either. It wasn’t half bad, compared to most of the coffee I’d had in London, which was pretty crappy, really. (As far as I’m concerned good coffee is the only thing missing from this city.) I watched the barmen cut large ice blocks down to cubes by hand with a long-toothed hacksaw, the newest bar fad everywhere I go.

The north view back to the financial district. Heron Tower
in the far background left of The Gherkin. 

As the movers and shakers drifted in and out, I sipped my coffee, had a nice chat with a handsome Danish bartender, and headed out as the fog began to clear.

London fog: clearing. Tower Bridge and city hall (right) in Oblix's
eastern vista. 
Though the staff was very kind, the level of service came nowhere close to Duck & Waffle. It may be worth going back to the bar at Oblix sometime after dark for live music and twinkly lights, which I was told were very twinkly. The views from each restaurant are similar, although Oblix is much closer to the river. But as for culinary concoctions, zooming the extra eight floors to the top of the Heron are worth it.

Duck & Waffle


Friday, May 31, 2013

Virgin Atlantic Fails to Wow

Author's note: The advertising campaign referenced in this post is that of Virgin America. 

My God, it’s Miss Brahms.

There’s a young blonde speaking into the public address handset with a high, thick, twang-y cockney accent. Her uniform is neat, hair coiffed and makeup just so. OK, it isn’t Miss Brahms, the sales assistant on the old British sitcom “Are You Being served?” but it might as well be. Except this isn’t Grace Brothers department store, it’s an Airbus A340 and Miss Brahms is a flight attendant.

In fact all the flight attendants onboard sound like they’re from south of the Thames. These are not the posh English accents of British Airways. This is my first time flying the much-hyped Virgin Atlantic, and my expectations are suitably high. In the States, Virgin has launched an enormously costly advertising campaign to promote its image as an urbane, chic, highly stylized experience—if you will—for its customers.

This experience as projected in the outdoor billboards in Los Angeles seem to tout air travel for the sake of air travel, forget wherever you’re trying to go. Fly VA and you’ll have your own touch-screen television, electrical outlets at your seat so you are never, ever unplugged, your teeth will be whiter, your hair glossier, clothes hipper, hips narrower, and you’ll be at least three inches taller.

After the impossibly mod Miss Brahms gives us the standard spiel, I realize that I have not grown three inches, nor are my teeth whiter. But then I’m in economy class with the rest of the poor schlubs. The beautiful people must be in Upper Class. Yes, I mean Upper Class. Not first class, that’s too pedestrian. Any middle-class cad can now and then afford first class, after all. VA calls its premium seating cabin Upper Class. Actually, according to their website, it’s the Upper Class Suite. The word cabin is apparently too blasé as well.

That’s also where all of the electrical outlets are it seems. No one back here in steerage has one. We also don’t have a walk-up bar, either. No matter, I like having an excuse to turn my phone completely off, I tell myself. Actually, I really do, so it’s not that big a deal. I guess I just didn’t read the ads closely enough.

I console my gadget-less self by taking the entertainment system for a spin. I poke the screen. Nothing happens. I poke again. Still nothing. I glare at the screen. That doesn’t bend it to my will like I had hoped, but it does make the lovely young lady sitting next to me point to the remote latched into my armrest. Fine.

Remote? Seriously? I mean, I remember flying JetBlue when they came on the scene and they had touch screens. And that was when Jesus was a boy. Even the airlines I love to loathe have touch screens on the planes that offer individual TVs. Come on.

But at least I’m not the guy behind me. Dinnertime rolls around and the special-ordered meals are passed around first, as with most airlines. The kosher, the low-sodium, the vegan—vegetarian is a standard issue option as with a majority of carriers now. I overhear the man directly behind me quietly call Miss Brahms after the regular meals have been delivered. Everyone on the aircraft is horking down the no-better-or-worse-than-any-other-airline food except this guy. He tells her he requested his vegan meal when he purchased his ticket. She goes and checks. Nothing. She says she’s so sorry and tells him though the chicken option is gone now, there’s beef stew and the vegetarian—pasta with cheese—option left, what can he eat? He answers, “No beef and no dairy.” The attendants manage to find him a couple of pieces of fruit from somewhere and that’s all he eats during the ten-hour flight. I bet he’s pissed about the touch screen, too.

For all the hype, I’m underwhelmed. Like most other airlines, VA charges extra for more legroom, extra bags, exit row seats and whatever else they care to. Here in economy class, I can tell no difference between vaunted Virgin Atlantic and any other carrier I’ve flown in the past ten years. The days of getting to splurge (reasonably) on an upgrade to an open first class seat are gone too. It would take a further $1,500 today to mosey on up to the fully-extended, flat beds, real bar with real bar stools, power outlets and—I bet—touch screens in Upper Class.

The company may try to separate itself from the herd with glossy advertising and all kinds of high-end perks for high-end clientele, but when you’re just one of the herd back in economy, the cute accents don’t help.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

More to Cancun than Spring Break - Part 2 of 2

After three nights at The Mayan, the well-reviewed hostel in the perfect spot in the city center next to the best park in Cancun—well away from the dreaded Hotel Zone—I start to itch.


I recognize the flat, round red blotches. I’ve been attacked before. This isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel hostel. Neither was the hotel wherein I got nibbled on in another country. It just happens. They don’t carry disease; nonetheless, I’m a little tired of my five other roommates in our six-bed dorm—not counting the bugs—so I decide to splurge on an upgrade.

One block east and three north on the main drag, Avenida de Tulum, is Hotel Meson de Tulum. I blow an extra $18 per night, for a grand total of $28 for a private room, though I’m sharing a women-only bathroom.

The building is newer than The Mayan, the facilities are modern and well-kept. And it seems that nearly all of the other guests are Mexican. Score. Which is why it seems so incongruous that I find myself playing the night away in a place called Plaza Hong Kong.

The two-story strip mall located in the plaza is home to the cavernous Grand Mambo Café. It’s a pleasant 20-minute walk down Avenida Yaxchilan from the new hotel, though the green-and-white cabs are everywhere. I’ve joined a few people I know from The Mayan and we spend the evening salsa dancing with locals while the tourists pack the clubs in the Zone.

Like most spots in Cancun, there is an open bar for a small-enough cover charge, though the drinks get weaker as the night progresses. That turns out to be a blessing however because the dancers are excellent and I could easily get dehydrated from all the exercise.

The members of the eight-piece salsa band look like a cross between Nsync and the cast of Jersey Shore, but no matter. They’ve got chops and keep everyone on their feet on the ample but crowded dance floor.

Grand Mambo is a staple of local salseros and just when I’m feeling rather proud of myself for keeping up with my leaders, I have a fatal failure in judgment. I accept a dance from a stranger, not realizing he’s had more from the open bar than most. We make it halfway through the song before he trips, tumbles backward and takes me with him. Everyone around us scatters like mosquitoes in bug spray leaving me to scramble up off of my bruised knees in plain view of the whole room. There goes my pride.

“Playa Delphines; that’s where we go,” said Oscar. “It’s a longer ride, but that’s the best beach.” I’m searching for a place to relax and recover from the tumble the night before.

“We” means Cancun natives. Oscar works the front desk at Meson so I take his word for it and hop on the R1 right outside the hotel on Avenida de Tulum. Cabs are great for buzzing around the city center, but the bus system is just as good and easy to use.

The R1 runs the length of Tulum and the Hotel Zone ‘round the clock. A ride costs about 80 cents. I take Oscar’s advice and head toward the south end of the Zone, past most of the big hotels and their beaches to Playa Delphines—or Dolphin Beach.

I step onto the sand with some trepidation. I know it’s going to burn my skin off when the grains pop into my sandals. But it doesn’t burn. Though warm, it’s not hot even though the day is a scorcher. It’s comfortable and soft. Brilliantly white against the aqua and sea-foam of the endless Caribbean Sea. I have the beach nearly to myself in the middle of a Wednesday. There’s a light breeze blowing as I settle into the sand and doze the day away. 

I ask Victor, my new friend and owner of El Callejon in Mercado 28 where I should spend my last evening without the possibility of a heavy workout like at Grand Mambo.

He steers me to Avenida Yaxchilan, a couple of blocks from the hotel. Yaxchilan is a middle ground of sorts; a place where the townies mingle happily with the tourists now that they aren’t serving them in hotels down the way. The avenue is lined with restaurants, sports bars and clubs for karaoke—a pastime that is wildly popular here. I choose La Parrilla, a large restaurant mostly for its atmosphere. I can hear the ubiquitous mariachis crooning away from the street.

However, I’m thrilled with the food. In just moments there’s a huge, simple margarita in front of me, followed by a platter of tacos. Real, honest-to-goodness, Mexican tacos: fish, shrimp, chicken, pork and beef. I couldn’t decide which kind I want so I end up with one of each. I’m going to vomit tonight; I know it. Just like the drunken spring breakers down in the Zone.

I order a song from the band, and surrounded by blaring trumpets and tinny-sounding violins, my waiter waltzes me around the softly lit floor wearing a big, kind, toothy grin.

This is Cancun.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

More to Cancun than Spring Break

This isn’t Cancun; this isn’t spring break. These people are all sober. No one’s sunburnt, weaving or throwing up on the sidewalk. It’s peaceful and quiet. There are kids running around with ice cream cones. It seems safe.

Except it is Cancun, and as for safety, “Cancun is one of the safest places you can be in Mexico,” said Victor Garza. He owns El Callejon, a bar in the massive shopping district in the city center, Mercado 28. “People here really watch out for the tourists because [tourism] is our only industry. There’s nothing else here.”

But there is something else—a city of more than 600,000 people. For travelers, Cancun is oriented in terms of the 14-mile-long strip of immaculate sand and corporate-chain hotels on Cancun Island, also known as a tourist trap, and the real city to the north.

Which is where I am, not down in the adult playpen called the Zona Hotelera—Hotel Zone—where even in September, there are still plenty of people drunk and sunburnt.

Cancun’s reputation for being the college-kid party capital of the Western Hemisphere precedes itself. Each spring semester, thousands of university students from the U.S. blow their hard-earned cash to fly to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, check themselves into one of the mega-resorts and spend five days frying in the Caribbean sun.

All I’m saying is there’s more to the fabled spring break mecca than booze and nefarious romantic encounters.

In the 1970s the Mexican government decided to create a Caribbean resort destination to mirror Acapulco. It chose the little fishing village of Cancun Island and developed housing facilities at the northern end for thousands of workers who would staff the hotels in the Zone.

“Everyone here is from somewhere else,” said Garza when I caught up with him over coffee one afternoon. “They’re from Mexico City, Merida, Monterrey. We say the true people from Cancun are in their 30s.”

I want to see these people. Talk with them in my broken Spanish. So I avoid the Hotel Zone—and its higher rates. I’ve opted for a bunk in a dormitory at The Mayan. It’s a well-reviewed hostel adjacent to the evening people-watching hotspot Parque de las Palapas in the city center. At about $10 per night, it’s the best deal going. The crowd is young and eclectic: Australians, Czechs, Israelis and Swedes embarking on their Central and South American romps. So much for locals.

I escape and find myself in the middle of Mercado 28 where I meet Garza. Sure, I could be down in the Zone surrounded by cheering gringos while a waiter pours tequila straight out of a bottle down my throat as he blows a whistle and wears an oversized sombrero. But the market is the best place to start my exploration. It dominates the giant octagonal block in the dead center of Cancun, the bull’s eye on the map. 

El Callejon, or The Alley, is one of a handful of bars and restaurants scattered throughout the shops and stalls that sell everything from cheap Chinese imports to exquisite handmade Mexican art, jewelry and crafts. Vendors try politely but persistently to commandeer my attention. Plenty of natives browse in the crowded maze. The sweltering afternoon heat in the open-air market is held at bay by the covered walkways. A small number of tourists wander through, brought to the market by cabs that charge them more than locals simply because they came from the Hotel Zone where the standard rates are higher than in the city. I paid the same rate as the townies.

I’m not a shopper, but I am drenched from the invisible clouds of humidity pushing through the updrafts of heat coming off the sidewalks, so I break down and by a fan, a pretty orange one. The man selling it to me wants $20. We chat in English though he claims not to speak it well.

“My language is Mayan,” he said. Wait, I thought those guys were extinct.

They aren’t. The truth is there are plenty of Mayan descendents still living in the Yucatan. As many as 6 million from where I stand through Central America. And there are dozens of languages in the linguistic family known—conveniently—as the Mayan languages.

“Cancun was destined to be a tourist resort,” Garza said. “Because this was where all the Mayan kings used to have their vacation palaces.” This gorgeous stretch of the peninsula is known as the Mayan Riviera, after all.

A couple of hours later I’m standing in the shadow of Mayan temple ruins on the site of one of these ancient resorts. On the south end of the Hotel Zone, nearly unnoticeable except for one humble sign before the entrance, stands El Rey. Or what’s left standing. It’s a 700-year-old village, one of 47 that dot Cancun Island. From my viewpoint, I can see the enormous resort directly across the highway built in the shape of a pyramid.

And that’s how it goes here. One side of the Zone is lined with international conglomerate hotels, the other with 1,000-year-old sites like El Rey. Mexico’s archeological institute protects them, and this one, at least, is empty. Well, not quite. One other nerd like me is here poking around. The resorts are full of people who will spend their week across the road with no idea that this exists.

Now of course, spring break should be fun and exciting. And I admit, my idea of fun is a little off center. I will do my share of sunbathing and playing, but the history and everyday encounters with the people who live their whole lives here is too much to resist.
And the fan only cost me $10.