From Ipanema Bar to Ipanema Beach

When we were dating, Sandeep and I had a bunch of friends that used to hang out at the bar at Ipanema Restaurant in New York. The bartender was a friend who kept us fed with garlicky chicken wings and empadinhas and watered with endless rounds of caiparinhas. Then the casual bar got a stuffy makeover and an even stuffier bartender and our nights in Ipanema ended. Under the influence of cachaca we conjured up fantasies of the real Ipanema. We imagined blaring music, great food, copious alcohol and a  unrelenting energy.

Today we finally made it to Ipanema and its famous 2 km long beach. The long beach is marked by postos, each having a unique character. Posto 8 signals its flavor with a large rainbow flag, Posto 9 is known for its alternative vibe and gorgeous people, and 10 for its beach sports scene, which includes everything from beach volleyball to tight rope tricks.

This clip from Anthony Bourdain gives a good sense of Carioca culture at Posto 9.

I thought I would be intimidated in a beach full of Brazilian babes in fio dental (dental floss). Ipanema has long been known as the trend starter for swimwear, including the male g-string and the beach graces many a list of World’s Sexiest Beaches. It turns out that the crowd in Ipanema is quite assorted. Old and young, fit and flabby, everyone engages in their own forms of sun worship. Little kids were drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, couples were running with their dogs, parents had kids at the back of cycles, and plenty of beach goers like us were just ambling about to take in the scene.

In case the people watching isn’t enough, the vendors that roam the beach in portable stores provide food, drink and everything from suntan lotion to bikinis. As I was watching this action (and our bags, since we were warned of rampant pick-pocketing on Rio’s beaches) Sandeep and the kids played in the water. Within an hour they came back several shades darker, although Ava and Kayan were disappointed that there weren’t enough shells on the beach.

We were trying to figure out what would make a gal buy a bikini on a beach. Would it be a wardrobe malfunction? And it’s not as if she can try it on for fit. Interestingly enough we saw plenty of bikini tops under this guy’s umbrella, but no bottoms. Maybe that’s when you head to the pharmacy for more floss.

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Indecent Children Songs and Our First Day in Rio

In preparation for our trip to Rio we downloaded the song Copacabana. One of our nicknames for Ava is Lola and the kids have an imaginary friend named Cobana, so they’ve both been in a delighted frenzy exclaiming, “Her name was Lola! She was a showgirl! With Cobana!” to everyone from Cape Town to Rio. That song is only a close second to Katy Perry’s wisdom about California girls in bikinis. No wonder we get strange looks everywhere we go.

Rio de Janeiro was not part of our original itinerary. We had a few weeks left during the tail end of our journey and couldn’t decide where to go between Cape Town and New York. A deal on Emirates gave us the idea to make this stop in South America. What should have been a 3,800 mile trip took us 12,100 as we had to fly through Dubai. We survived the 25 hour journey and have been revived by Rio’s vivacious personality.

Sandeep and I have had a long interest in things Portuguese. Ava’s first flight was to Portugal when she was a year old. Goa, where my father is from, was a Portuguese colony until 1961. The portuguese culture, from its food and wine to its music has always fascinated us, so a trip to Rio seemed fitting. Sandeep was excited for Brazilian coffee, I wanted to see capoeira and samba and we all looked forward to some warm weather and beach.

Wanting to balance safety with atmosphere, we struggled to decide where to stay in Rio. In the end we rented a house in Santa Teresa, a bohemian artsy area set in the hills above the city. We spent most of today walking through the narrow and steep cobble stone streets, which remind Ava of Istanbul. The churches, all screaming colonial Portugal, transported me back to Old Goa.

It’s probably a perfect mix of warm weather and a social culture that brings Cariocas (people from Rio) out to the streets. Every neighborhood has a church and accompanying square, whose personality changes by the hour. We live on one such square, Largo des Neves. At 6:30 A.M. (yes, our jet lag had us up at that hour), a bread truck come bearing freshly risen loaves. Ava and Sandeep ran out to get our breakfast.

In the morning, kids shuffle to school. Outdoor action quiets down in the mid day sun, save for a few vans proclaiming things in Portuguese from very loud loudspeakers. Once the kids are back from school, the square fills with gossiping mothers, kids practicing capoeira and giggling teenagers. Night continues to be a trans generational affair, with people sipping on caipirinha made to order at one impromptu table and others nibbling on various assortments of grilled meat and cheese for sale at another pop-up vendor. Here is the same square at 9 PM.

It seems that everyone knows each other and at first we weren’t sure if we were crashing a family party. Then the crowed grew to the point that we realized no family (not even an Indian one) is that large. It’s now 10 PM and we’re jet lagged and trying to sleep. A Samba band has just started outside and the party doesn’t show any signs of dying down. We came to Brazil for coffee, capoeira, samba and sunshine. We didn’t realize we’d get it all on day one. Viva Brazil!


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Cape Town Carves a Place in Our Hearts

Our departure from Cape Town to Rio  is symbolic because Cape Town is our last real “base”. We consider a base to be anywhere we spent at least a month. Our bases (Chiang Mai, Kerala, Goa, Istanbul, Vouliagmeni, and Cape Town) allowed us to set a slow pace of discovery and time to integrate to local life. We designed our trip to have several bases, a luxury we had given the extended time of our journey. In each of our bases we adopted coffee shops, found babysitters, filled SIM cards, frequented grocers and playgrounds, and got to know our neighborhoods. Our mindset was different than during our quicker stops, which we approached more like vacations. When we only had a week or two in a place we tried harder to see the sights. In our bases, however, we lived regular lives and never felt rushed to work through a list of must do’s.  Rio will be the last stop of our journey. We will be there for only two weeks, so it will be more like a vacation as opposed to a base. From there we will head back home, where, due to our routine lives and limited time-off, we’ll be taking only vacations.

As we packed yesterday, we sifted through a house that fast become our home for shoes under couches and clothes in closet corners. There was a tug at our hearts as we packed. Was it because South Africa is the penultimate country of our around the world journey and we know the end is near? Was it because we are leaving a few relationships that we started without the chance to see them grow? Perhaps because Amma just left for India and we’re going our own way to Brazil? Or is it due to the many things that make Cape Town unique among anywhere else we have been?

At the beginning of our journey we were surprised how quickly our family adjusted to each new place. Our short term rentals became home within a few days and we made neighborhood friends quickly. The routine of packing, flying and settling in to a new country now seems so natural. Cape Town has been the longest stop of our journey and given how quickly we settled down, it’s all the harder to leave. During our last few hours of Cape Town sunshine, we took one final walk around the familiar streets that guided us out for adventure and pointed us back home.


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Our Last Day in Cape Town

Today was our last full day in Cape Town. We started saying our goodbyes in various ways. The kids have formed bonds in their school and had to say goodbye to their friends. We had a little cookie party for them but Ava and Kayan left insisting that they would see their friends again. We are finding that the world is a small place, so perhaps they will.

The day was even more meaningful for the kids as they made their own lunches for the first time. We had our final lunch at the place where we had our first Cape Town meal seven weeks ago. The restaurants offers kids cooking projects and Ava and Kayan made pizza. They could have chosen cookies, but this would have been a caused a severe sugar high after their school cookie party. The pizza was not only edible, it was actually really good. Now we’ll have to figure out how to get Ava and Kayan more productive in the kitchen while we sit back and wait for our meals.

We tried to absorb Cape Town as much as we could today. We walked the kids back from school in the sunshine with Table Mountain as our backdrop. In true Cape Town fashion the weather changed and enjoyed our last rainy evening by the fireplace, which Sandeep has become a pro at lighting. Sandeep’s mom has been with us the past few weeks. She’s been almost a constant travel companion on our journey, seeing us in Thailand, Malaysia, India and South Africa. Scrabble has become somewhat of a ritual when we are together, so we played a final game over another bottle of South African wine and sweet chili biltong.

Even though our activities were triggered by this being our final day, in many ways our last day in Cape Town was like any other. We enjoyed the city, we spent time with family and new friends, and we had new experiences. It’s the best way we know how to say goodbye.

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Souvenirs From an Around the World Journey

One of our routines in Cape Town has been a weekly trip to the vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschoek. We tried to ship a few cases of our favorite bottles but the import laws for personal consumption in The States make this a daunting task. We thought these wines would be the few souvenirs we collected on our trip.

As I was packing our two duffle bags for our Wednesday departure for Brazil, I was struck by how similar their contents are to when we left home on November 1, 2011. Despite the colorful markets and unique items we have seen around the world, our bags are generally devoid of souvenirs. We left with two bags stuffed with clothes and shoes and are returning home with the same. Some of the clothes are different, since the kids got a change over mid way through our trip when our families showered them with gifts in India. That worked out well since they’ve been growing at such a rapid rate. Sandeep and I bought a handful of clothes along the way, generally to replace something that was wearing out.

We have been pretty strict about wanting to complete our journey light, with the same luggage that accompanied us out of New York. That has meant that we have not accumulated much by way of material goods. We have restricted ourselves to two mementos from each country. The first is a Christmas ornament. Ever since Sandeep and I started dating, we have been collecting ornaments from every place we travel. These aren’t traditional round glass ornaments, but rather something we can hang on a tree that reminds us of where we have been. They range from a Thai hanging elephant to a wooden South African flag.

Our other collection is coins. We have gathered two coins from every country, one for each of the kids. We used these currencies every day, yet when the kids grow up they may not exist in their current form (the Euro as an example!). The kids also started an impromptu collection of stones and sea shells. We’re not sure how the kids will decipher the origins, but they feel very attached to their selections.

It would be wonderful to fill our new home with things that remind us of this journey but it’s impossible to materialize memories. How do you carry the experience of climbing a Himalayan mountain or eating at a hawker market? We can’t bottle the Greek sea air or travel with a Turkish hammam. We’re so happy to have our stories documented on this blog. Each post will take us closer to where we were. We’ll reminisce extra every Christmas as we look up at the tree. We may forget where each shell came from, but hopefully not the  happiness we felt as we collected them.


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Our Culinary Journeys Around Cape Town

One of the first things we sought when we arrived in Cape Town was local food. After weeks of eating and asking we have come to the conclusion that there is no “typical” Capetonian food. Rather, the cuisine of the area is as complex and lively as its history.

Indigenous local African cuisine tends to center around fluffy sorghum or maize porridge (pap), consumed with stews and roasted meats. We found it near to impossible to get our hands on authentic indigenous cuisine. It turns out that the new generation prefers the convenience and taste of  fast food, resulting in KFC and McDonald’s success among populations that a generation ago ate more local cuisine. Some restaurants in the Townships still serve indigenous fare, but we were advised not to explore them on our own. Those in the city that serve pap and stew tend to cater to the tourists (like us) who seek local food in a safe environment. These establishments come complete with staged music and curios (not our scene).

We turned our search to more recent history. Around the 17th century, European cuisine arrived with settlers from Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Britain. In our opinion, the greatest culinary contributions of this time were wine, brought by the French Hugenots, and koeksisters, Dutch honey-soaked fried dough.

Around this time came biltong (cured and sliced meats), a staple that weathered well and satisfied the tastes of both the indigenous and settler population. Biltong is most often made with beef, but any game from kudu to ostrich is fair game. One can’t walk too far in Cape Town without stumbling across Biltong. It’s available in every mini-mart and gas station, Biltong kiosks grace every mall, and there were several biltong stalls lining the path to the rugby game we attended yesterday. Capetonians consume biltong at rugby games with the same joy as Americans consume hot dogs during baseball.

The settlers brought slaves from South Asia and with them came the influence of spices and peppers. Fish was used in interesting new ways in pickles and stews and meat was turned into exciting dishes such as bobotie, sweet and spicy minced meat baked with an custard-like topping. The collective influence that slaves had on the cuisine of the area is now refered to as Cape Malay cuisine, and the best place to experience Cape Malay food is in Bo Kaap, previously known as the Malay Quarter.

Under apartheid certain racial groups were forced into demarcated areas. Ba Kaap was for Cape Muslims. Today Bo Kaap is a colorful maze of painted houses lining cobble stone streets.

The Muslim influence is strong in the area’s mosques and culture.

And the food is divine. We ate at Bismillah, one of the oldest restaurants in the area. The food here has a heavy Indian influence, albeit much more toned down on the spice level and sweeter. In Penang we learned that the Indonesian-influenced food is generally sweet and we tasted the same flavorings in the Cape Malay dishes.

With the oceans lapping around Cape Town, it’s hard to miss the fish. Our lunch today was at Die Strandloper, which offers a set ten course seafood feast on the shores of Langebaan, a small town an hour north of Cape Town. This course is crayfish braii – traditional South African BBQ.

Whether European, African or Asian, or a little bit of everything, the meals we have had in Cape Town have been great. Even the grocers seem to have higher quality wares than what we get at home. Given the climate and availability of land, vegetables and fruits tend to be fresher. Grass-fed cows and free-range chicken are ubiquitous in restaurants and stores.  When you have good ingredients and a rich cultural history from which to draw, it’s hard not to get great results.

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Tolerating the Outdoors During a Cape Town Winter

We planned the order of our around-the-world trip largely based on weather patterns. We were in Asia and Europe during their mild seasons when it was warm enough to spend months in short sleeves but cool enough to avoid suffocating humidity. Our itinerary brought us to Africa during its winter, the best time to go on safari as the animals have to travel and gather around scarce water sources. Here is what July has been like in Cape Town.

Despite a few days of rain, we have had minimal issues with the weather. However, every conversation with a Capetonian between the months of June and August will have them lamenting about the wet and the cold. Indeed the entire city goes into hibernation. Restaurants close for weeks at a time. Those bars that are brave enough to stay open shorten closing hours from 2 AM to 11 PM. Stores remain closed on rainy days when owners don’t feel like coming to work. It’s quite dramatic if you ask us.  For all the smack that Capetonians give their winter, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors here. We’ve lost count of all the wineries we’ve visited. Rain or shine, the views are beautiful and, perhaps due to the winter slug, the tasting rooms tend to be relatively quiet.

The few activities we saved for crystal clear days were a cable car ride up Table Mountain, a hike up Lion’s Head and a day trip to The Cederberg Mountains, which hold the world’s greatest concentration of bushman rock art. Our house rests at the foot of Table Mountain so each morning we would peak out and check on the sky. We decided to visit the 3km long plateau by cable car after we heard that more people have died climbing Table Mountain than Everest. We saved our hike for Lion’s Head, a rock formation adjacent to Table Mountain. The slopes along Table Mountain and Lion’s Head are blanketed with yellow flowers in the winter. The area forms the Cape Floral Region, home to over 2,200 species of flora. Despite this beauty, we saw a local shake his head and say, “Shame. You really should come here in the summer and see all the flowers.”

A few days ago we ventured up north, a road less traveled, and into The Cederberg Mountains and reserve. Millions of years ago, this range used to be connected with Table Mountain range, so much of the flora is the same. The reserve is comprised of many privately owned farms and we settled on Traveller’s Rest Camp given its seclusion. Until two years ago, the area was only accessible by gravel road. Most of the farm’s visitors tend to be people who come to boulder the massive structures in The Cederberg, carved by passing glaciers.

Hidden among these rocks is art left by San bushmen. As far as historians know, the San painted for religious regions. Many of their art depicts animals and human-animal forms. Some of the rock art in The Cederberg range is about 8,000 old. The bushmen believed that every rock contained a spirit. Even to us non-believers it was undeniable that each rock held its own personality, from unique size to striking color and varied texture.

As we hiked through the mountains, Ava and Kayan felt as though they were in a giant jungle gym, climbing rocks, dodging branches, and squeezing between tunnels. Apart from our guide, we didn’t see a single soul during our three hour hike, just broods of Dassie (Cape Hyrax), whose petrified poop is collected in bulk for the perfume industry.

Between wines, whales, hikes and ancient rock art, there has been little reason for us to complain about Cape Town’s weather. If we enjoyed winter this much, then we’ll just have to come back in summer to see what all the fuss is about.


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Capetonian Friendliness

We found ourselves defending Capetonians today. We were in Cederberg, an area three hours north of Cape Town known for its thousands year old bushmen rock art. While there, our guide said that she was happy she moved from Cape Town to this secluded area because she found Capetonians rude and always in a hurry. We were in vehement disagreement. We’re not just comparing Capetonian politeness to New York, we’re talking about politeness on a global scale. Capetonians are genuinely friendly and polite people.

We have dozens of examples of Capetonian friendliness, but let’s concentrate on the ones that involve cars. We’ll start with Capetonian driving manners. Once on highway road, drivers will move to the side to let speedier cars pass. The passing car will then flash its hazard lights in gratitude. Night driving around the city outskirts can be dark but every car we have passed turns off its high beams well in advance of our approach. A car horn is a surprise, even in the middle of the city.

A few days ago, a lady knocked on our door and asked for help to push her broken down car. We happily obliged (Sandeep with a little extra enthusiasm since he was about to get a work out) and moved her car off the road. The task took no more than a few minutes but, two days later, she came back to hand deliver a box of chocolates and a heartfelt thank you.

Not only are Capetonians friendly behind the wheel, they are as amiable when selling cars. We are in the market for cars so decided to visit two dealerships in the city. We let each one know that we would be buying our car in the U.S. but were interested in looking at the models. Any car dealer in the U.S. may have dismissed us. However, in Cape Town, the salesmen when out of their way not only to answer all our car questions but to give us lots of advice on what to do in their city. One had even taken a year off to travel in North America, so we instantly traded travel experiences.

Even the taxi drivers extend friendship. The norm here is to call a taxi company to arrange a pick-up. One particular driver now brings cookies when he knows he is about to collect Ava and Kayan from playschool. On the way home he entertains them with riddles.

The bottom line? Capetonians are friendly. Moreover, we’ve never been hurried through a conversation in Cape Town. We’re willing to bet that behind every burglar bar there is a friendly soul waiting to extend a Cape Town welcome.

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Ava and Mama Go on a Date in Cape Town

Seven months ago Sandeep and I were getting ready to go out on a date in Kuala Lumpur. As we were walking out the door, we saw Ava all dressed up and Kayan with his shoes on.  Ava announced, “Kayan and I are going on our own date to the playground.” Her interpretation of a date was spending time with someone she cared about doing fun stuff. That made us realize that kids need dates and special bonding sessions just like adults. Even though we love spending time as a family, Sandeep and I take opportunities to go on dates while we travel. We get some drinks, listen to music or catch some local theater, like this memorable clown play in Istanbul.

Ava and Kayan go on their own dates, often engaged in made up games.

We have found a lot of value in this one-on-one time and decided to implement dates with our kids. Ava and I had our first date today over haircuts. You may be familiar with Kayan’s haircuts around the world. Ava’s last trim was in New York but we haven’t felt the need for a cut since her hair just grows into tighter curls instead of gaining any length. Ava told the stylist she wanted a haircut like Kayan’s, but luckily I managed to convince her out of that. Her second request was, “Cut my hair straight.” Ava gets continuous compliments on her curls, but I suppose that she is like any girl in wanting what she doesn’t have. We enjoyed an hour of mom and daughter bonding, fussing over each other’s hair and talking about our trip with the stylists. As we walked back home Ava said, “When I get home I am going to write A-V-A so that Dada knows who I am, because I don’t look like Ava anymore.”

Without other distractions, Ava and I had great conversations. Now we’ll have to figure out date activities for other adult-kid combinations.


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Safety in Cape Town – Bars All Around

We have been in Cape Town for over a month but are only starting to get comfortable with the safety situation here. We knew that, as a whole, Cape Town is considered much safer than Johannesburg. However, the story behind the fabulous South African movie Tsotsi remained imprinted in our minds.

While Cape Town doesn’t have a massive car jacking problem, locals warn us about burglary and rampant pickpocketing. Even the South African tourists we met in Namibia warned us with all sorts of sordid stories. After our money disappearance in Greece, we wanted to be even more vigilant about our surroundings. Our first week in Cape Town we walked around with the bare minimum – a credit card, some money and a phone. I stopped carrying my camera unless we were driving. That explains why my posting frequency has dropped since arriving here.

As pretty as Cape Town is, one can’t miss the signs of danger. Almost every house and building is fortified with burglar bars. We are used to window bars designed to keep children in. It’s taken a while to get used to bars intended to keep people out. Despite an OPEN sign, this restaurant was locked. Notice the white bell to the left of the door – that’s what a visitor has to ring in order to be approved and allowed in. We spend many mornings at this cafe, whose interior is a stark contrast to the scary bars. The inside greets us with warm smells, country furniture and delectable $3 gluten-free cupcakes.

Almost every establishment, from stores to salons to my yoga studio has a gate.

The gate is locked at the start of every yoga class. This is why, unlike New York City where no one ever seems to be on time, I can never sneak in a few minutes late.

All of these precautions heightened our sense of fear. When Sandeep takes out cash from the ATM, he’ll cough up an extra 20 Rand ($2 dollars) to take a cab back home. He calls it an insurance fee.

This is how we have become comfortable with the safety situation after spending a month surrounded by burglar bars.

– Like any big city, Cape Town has its good and bad parts. We live and spend most of our time in a relatively safe area called The Gardens. It is well patrolled by security services and trafficked during the day. Incidentally, ADT seems to protect all of Cape Town, and their security cars are much more visible than police vehicles.

– Almost everyone drives, so foot traffic is sparse save for a few pockets around our neighborhood, the waterfront and the promenades. Signs of street life come to a virtual stand still when the sun sets so this is when things start getting more dodgy.

– There are very few areas where we are comfortable at night. Even then, we usually call a taxi to take us a few blocks home.

– When we rented a car, the company told us not to leave anything in it, including jackets. They even suggested we leave the glove compartment open so that potential thieves would know there was nothing to steal. We do as told .

– After nine months of wearing the same few clothes every day, we are looking a little worse for wear. The kids make so much noise everywhere we go that people run away from and not towards us. I doubt we are a pickpocketter’s dream.

Locals say that safety is improving in Cape Town. However, there is still a very stark economic divide. South Africa has the second highest income inequality in the world as measured by the Gini Index (source: Groups of men, who we can only assume to be unemployed and bored, can be seen lurking around parks, outside stores and at random corners. We usually take another route when we see this. We wouldn’t fall asleep on a park bench here, but we’re not scared for our lives either. After a month I’m more comfortable carrying my camera, albeit in a nondescript bag instead of slung around my shoulder. That will be until we get to Rio de Janeiro next month, a place that even Capetonians call dangerous.


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