Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Today we toured Johannesburg. Siphiwe, our guide took us to the rich north side Houghton area, the formerly rich area of Hillbrow that is now mostly home to illegal immigrants from other southern African countries,  downtown, the Apartheid Museum, and Soweto. By the end of the day we have a much better understanding of life here both before and after the end of apartheid in 1992 and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. 
Downtown Joburg

Downtown Joburg
Several times Siphiwe talked about Joburg’s reputation as a violent and dangerous place. This shows itself in the gated homes in north Joburg and the absence of whites in both downtown and Soweto. According to Siphiwe, Joburg is not significantly more dangerous than any other large city as long as you don’t put yourself in dangerous  situations. 

After driving through downtown to see all the unemployed and the streetside shops typical of other large cities in poorer countries, we rode the elevator to the Top of Africa at the Carlton Center. From there we got great views of the city and environs although just like looking at New York from high up, you really can’t see but a part of it. Joburg has a population of over 8 million, 3 million of whom live in Soweto. Yet we could not even see Soweto from the 50-story tower because it is behind a giant hill of gold mine tailings. We could see, in addition to the crowded streets, three hotels that no longer accept guests. Today there are no hotels in downtown Joburg. While the deterioration of downtowns is a common occurrence today, I’m not aware of another one that has lost all of its hotels. 
Entrance to the Apartheid Museum
 From there we went to the Apartheid Museum. Paid for by a nearby casino, the museum opened in 2001. The temporary exhibit on Nelson Mandela covered his life from birth. Most interesting to me was the story of his father. The family story is that his father had refused an order from the local magistrate to explain a land decision he had made as the official responsible. Further investigation showed that his father had not refused the order and had been removed from the office over a dispute over an animal where the father had used his influence inappropriately. 

The permanent exhibit leads attendees through a maze that begins with rock art and leads viewers through the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Before entering the museum everyone is randomly chosen to be white or non-white who then go in separate entrances. The final stop is a contemplative park. 
Soweto Today

Soweto was a big surprise for me. I have seen pictures of narrow alleys amongst the tin shacks. Those were pictures from the apartheid era, so things have changed , but the truth is also that the pictures I saw had to have been an incomplete picture. A township of over one million must have had more than just tin shacks, especially since black South Africans were forced to live in designated areas such as Soweto.
Mine Worker Hostels - Not much larger than a bedroom.
Soweto at its Worst Today
 The shacks we saw today were spread out in the lower wetland areas. Siphiwe showed us this area along with hostels built for mine workers and some upper and middle class areas of Soweto. These homes would be nice middle class homes in any city in the US. He also took us past Winnie Mandela’s home. Easily identified by the African flags, Winnie’s home is well protected by bullet-proof glass and cameras. 
Hector's Memorial

Hector's Memorial

We also stopped by the memorial to the youngest child (Hector Pieterson) killed by the police when the students of Soweto protested  the new rule that half of all classes would be taught in Afrikaans, even though most did not speak it and there weren’t even enough teachers who could speak the language. 
Minibuses Ready To Go
A couple of other highlights include the cell phone trees, cell phone towers built to look like trees, and the 20,000 minibuses that take the place of bus lines and taxis for the poorer segment of the population. They do run regular routes, but hold only 16 passengers crammed in.

Monday, February 27, 2012

New, New, New

After 16 hours on a plane, we were ready to step on solid ground, get through immigration, and meet our driver to get to the hotel for a shower. We made it out to the waiting area in about 30 minutes. Lines were short and our bags were already circulating. Our driver recognized us and after a stop for some money we were off to the hotel – about 45 minutes away since the evening rush hour had ended.

During his descriptions of the area we passed through, our driver said that they think of themselves as a country only 18 years old which dates to the election of Nelson Mandela in1994. Based on what we were seeing, however, one could say it is only two years old. The airport and surrounding hotels, the high-speed rail line we watched speed by us on its way to Pretoria, and much of the road we traveled were built to be available for the World Cup here two years ago. One bridge we crossed opened one week before the games began. 

Our Hotel
 High-speed rail reminds me again of how far behind we can be when it comes to new technology. Traveling at over 100 mph, this train is only matched by the Acela on the Eastern seaboard. I remember that Wisconsin and Florida turned down federal dollars to work on their own versions of this. California is fighting about whether to start the project they have been planning for years. The upside of this is that Washington was able to pick up more dollars for the Portland/Seattle route. 

Our hotel is in an upscale neighborhood next to a huge mall named for Nelson Mandela. We are about two blocks from the Radisson Blu where Michele Obama stayed when she visited. We passed several gated communities. They used to be all white, but now are open to anyone. The division is becoming more rich/poor with people of all races in each group.
Entrance to the Nelson Mandela Center
We were met at the hotel by Jim and Marcia Rinta, our traveling companions for the next 4 weeks. They arrived yesterday so had time to buy wine and glasses for a lovely evening before we crashed. Our first outing will be to visit the Apartheid Museum and have a tour of the area.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Martin Luther King Memorial

Friday evening Linda and I watched the show on NBC with Blair Underwood. That same night I read the first third of The Help. Today, we spent most of the day at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Atlanta. Tomorrow we leave for South Africa. I am sensing a pattern here. 

The new Ebenezer Baptist Sanctuary
Blair Underwood’s story was most interesting as he learned some things that were surprising. I knew that some African-Americans owned slaves in the South, and knew that one of the largest plantation owners was an African-American. What I did not know was that slaves freed in Virginia after about  1807 had to leave the state or they would be resold into slavery. The practical effect of this was that many of the African-Americans in Virginia who owned slaves actually owned family members that they had purchased so they could remain in Virginia. An interesting unintended consequence. 

One of Six Circular Displays
Selma to Montgomery
 The Memorial is an effective reminder of Martin Luther King, Jr., his life and his legacy. It is built in the neighborhood of Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin grew up and includes a mural of his life along with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and a Walk of Heroes.

The inside is small enough to be done in a couple of hours. The main exhibit consists of six circular displays chronicling his life and a life-size mockup of the March to Selma that allows visitors to join in. Many families took advantage of this to have their pictures taken as part of the March. Another building has rooms dedicated to Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Across the street is his tomb. 
Model of the Memorial to be in Washington, DC
Mahatma Gandhi and the Walk of Heroes
The neighborhood included both an upscale Middle Class section and a number of shotgun duplexes. Shotgun houses were probably called that because the central hallway led from the front door to the back. That meant one could shoot a gun through the open doors without hitting the house. 

King's Boyhood Home
Shotgun Duplexes in the Neighborhood
Tomb and Reflecting Pool

 As we walked through the exhibit, I was impressed by the number of young families there with us. I wish every American could visit this along with the museums in Birmingham and Montgomery I was able to visit a few years ago. We can’t be reminded of these events and their legacy too often as we continue to be bedeviled by problems or prejudice – not all of which are race-related.

Sanctuary - Ebenezer Baptist Church
Sanctuary - Ebenezer Baptist Church
 I was also somewhat surprised by how quiet the area is. We were there on a Saturday and there were lots of people, but the expanse spread us out enough that we did not feel crowded. The somberness of the story probably helped. 

I am convinced that any trip to Atlanta should include this visit, even after the city completes the new Civil Rights Museum in Centennial Park on the other side of town.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Isle of Arran

On our last day in West Kilbride, while most of the folks went to Glasgow for the day, Tim, Tina and I took the ferry to the Isle of Arran that we could see from the castle. The day began with beautiful sunshine that lasted most of the day. Late in the afternoon, the clouds rolled in and we managed to get caught in a downpour before ducking into a small pub as we waited for the return ferry.

We thought about taking the train to the ferry at Androssan, but it would have meant a change and an extra forty minutes. Fortunately one of the town's few taxis was waiting for a no-show, so we had a quick ride. We lucked out catching a taxi on the way back, too. The 55-minute ferry ride provided some great views of the West Kilbride countryside and the island as we approached Brodick.
Looking Towards West Kilbride
Approaching Brodick
A quick check at the visitor center got us on a bus to the other side of the island. (The Europeans do a much better job of providing tourist centers than we do.) The nice lady in the tourist center also showed us how much more was available if we had more time. The highlights would have been some Bronze Age stone circles and a Viking burial mound, but that would have meant both a longer bus ride and a bit of a hike.
Lochranza Castle

Our goals at the end of the bus ride to the village of Lochranza included The Arran Malt distillery, a castle ruin and a church. All were within a short walk when we got off the bus on the western shore. We were accompanied on the bus by some students on break. They were out for some hiking, a popular activity in Britain. The British are much more accepting of hikers than we are in the US. It seems like every time a group wants to open a trail in the USA, they run into neighbors who are positive that the hikers near their property are going to rob and kill them and even if they survive their property values will drop precipitously. It's too bad. Given our national obesity problem, it should be easier to create urban trails. In Britain trails are often along any boundary or hedgerow making it very easy to walk long or short distances.
The Arran Malt Distillery
Unfortunately the distillery was closed to visitors. The website shows a fancy visitor center, but it is only open four days a week in winter. This was as close as we got to a tasting room, so that was a disappointment.

The small church did have an interesting graveyard for Tina and Tim to look at in terms of the Halloween Haunt they do each year. The castle ruins were spectacular in the winter sun. I also ran into a fellow bird watcher who had a scope on the ducks. He pointed out a Goosander, which is just British for our Common Merganser.
An old house near Lochranza
We caught the bus back to the ferry, but got off before we reached town at a cheese factory that served lunch. On the walk back to town we passed the golf course and an interesting street sign before getting caught in a rain storm. Tina stopped in a small shop while Tim and I sallied on to a pub for an ale as we waited out the rain before catching the ferry back.
Arran Golf Course

Friday, February 3, 2012

West Kilbride

West Kilbride is a small town on Scotland's west coast. The unmanned train station is just below the castle, but it was still a good walk up the hill with our luggage. From the top of the castle we had a good view of the town and surrounding countryside, including the cemetery and the firth in the evening light. We also had a good view of the one housing development - one of the few places we saw with an American look to it. While we did see several single dwellings, most of them were older. Most of the residences and other town buildings are attached.
View From the Castle

Typical Street Scene

Since we had no tour planned for our first day, I was up early to explore and look for birds. I found several as I walked through the countryside to the firth. Most exciting were the wood pigeon, the great tit, and the woodpecker. It took some rethinking to identify the robin which quite a bit smaller and has a lot more white than the American robin.

I had an interesting conversation with a woman out for her morning walk. We talked a bit about birds and she answered my questions about the sheep. She explained that the burnt orange die was for showing the animals. She also cleared up the discussion we had the night before. Many sheep had colored rumps. The farmers apply paint or die to the belly of the males. When the male mounts the female, the paint rubs off on the female. This way the farmer knows which females have been mounted and can separate them.

The rustic path I took led me past the local links golf course on the way to the beach. Quite a few golfers were out on this cold, clear morning. The course was in good shape and looked like it would be fun to play. At the beach I saw beautiful mute swans on the water in the sun.

I also ran into Linda and some of the others. We walked back through town past the war memorial decorated for Armistice Day. The town had a memorial at the church earlier and a ceremony after at the memorial. We also saw lots of poppies in lapels. We don't see that much in the USA today, but I remember most men wearing them on Veterans Day as I was growing up. Obviously the memories of the world wars are stronger in Britain. I suppose that is partly because the loss was so much greater there and partly because we have our more recent memories of Vietnam and Iraq.

Food was a small challenge. There are really only two restaurants within walking distance. Chuchus, at the train station was quite nice. Linda ate there while I was off somewhere. The other, Romeo and Juliet, had just opened and was still working out the service protocols. We did have good meals there. Then there was the pizza and Indian take-out. We ordered out there one night with plenty of variety, although the aficionados of Indian food were not especially impressed.
Kilbride Tavern
We did enjoy the two pubs. Neither allowed smoking so that movement has crossed the ocean even though we did see a lot more smoking on the street. Darts was the sport of choice on the Telly although we never saw anyone playing. One evening we spent with three retired gentlemen enjoying their specially-ordered Scotch. They claimed it to be the best. The bartender did not agree, but he did stock it for these regulars. They said they would come visit us two nights later, but never showed. Too bad.
Cemetery and Memorial to 17th Century Mathematician Robert Simson

New Housing Development

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Castle Law

Look at that sign. We can upgrade to first class for $15 each. Let's do it. Not only will we get more room, complimentary water and snacks, but the wifi will be free for the six-hour trip from London to Glasgow, leaving only a short trip to West Killbride and the castle where we would stay for the next week. It was definitely worth the extra money. 

A smaller, older, and slower train took us from Glasgow to West Kilbride. Like other European trains it left and arrived on time. They are so dependable that people arrive at the station within a minute of the scheduled departure and walk right on the train.

Once in West Kilbride, we studied the map for bit before succumbing to the fat that we would have to pull our heavy bags up that hill leading from the station. At least the weather cooperated. Actually, the weather cooperated for the entire trip. We only had a couple of rain squalls and they were while we were riding or eating. 

While the castle is simply a large block of stone, it does look like a castle around the top and with its small windows. Inside it fits the bill even better with the spiral staircase, low doorways and drafty windows. The only thing it is missing a courtyard and moat. One would not expect to see Errol Flynn or Robin Hood swinging from the chandeliers. 

We learned that staircases spiral to the right to give defenders that advantage of using their right arms to fight. The short doorways are also defensive as they forced the attackers to bend over to enter a room. They were also effective in giving me a headache. We did not stay there long enough for me to get in the habit of ducking.
Castle Law was built as a wedding present for Princess Mary, eldest daughter of James III of Scotland. It had fallen into disrepair before being bought and restored by Dr. Anthony Philip Philip Philips in the 1980s. This was during a time when the British government provided tax incentives for restorations. Originally, the castle was for the family. Today it is owned by David and Mary Hutton who rent out to groups like ours and for weddings. One bride-to-be scouted the place while we were there. The charge would be $3500 for the day.
David Hutton looks the part?
The first floor had one bedroom and an utility room we used to store luggage we didn't want to carry up the narrow stairs. The main living area is on the second floor. Three floors of bedrooms rise above. The accessible roof offers a view of the surrounding countryside.
Main Living Room
The Kitchen Archway
The living area had a large fireplace with a bit of wood to get us started. The kitchen was partially hidden behind an arch about 5' high. The stove filled up half the space. For some reason I never understood, it is designed to be always on, perhaps because it then provides heat for the bedrooms above. We just used the kitchen for breakfast and snacks. Most of our dinners were on the road or in town.
Our Bathtub
Thankfully, Not Our Bathtub
Each bedroom had a fireplace we were not allowed to use. Bathrooms varied. The first floor was totally made of stone. On the upper floors, one room had a clawfoot tub; another had a shower with no lip on the floors so if you took too long a shower, the water would run into the bedroom and drop to the kitchen below. Enjoy the pictures.