Saturday, October 17, 2009

Miscellany

There's really nothing terribly interesting to report here, but since it's been a little while since I have written anything about Life in Beijing, I thought now would be a good time to do just that. Since we got back from South Africa we have been blessed with pleasantly cool temperatures, and though the skies were initially rather grey and unattractive, they have since turned blue and gorgeous, almost as blue and gorgeous as they were in South Africa. This has meant that we have been able to trot out our leather jackets that we had a leather tailor make for us in April or so, just as it was getting too warm to wear them, and I have to say, they look great! I even got a compliment on the one I had made for myself from some stranger on the street last week!

The dogs are doing very well, and after our return they have been even more lovable and attention-seeking than ever. In fact Ivan, our new Sheltie puppy, has turned a big corner during absence, it seems: whereas prior to our trip he was prone to having accidents in the house, since we're back he has not had a single one, and he makes sure we know when he needs to go out. What a good boy! Now he's not just cute, he's smart, too!

Just before we left on our trip I decided to trade in my old indoor rowing machine for the Rolls Royce of the rowing world, a Concept 2. I managed to sell the old one on line through one of the expat bulletin boards, and place an order for the new one through the distributor in Shanghai. Sending a bank transfer from Beijing to Shanghai was a real test of my patience (though it was nothing compared to the difficulty I had sending a hotel payment to the place where we stayed in South Africa--sheesh, that was hard!!), but it worked, and sure enough they delivered it the Friday after we returned. It's a beaut, too! Not only is it nice and smooth, but you can connect it to your computer and upload your results to a website to track your progress, compete with other users, and play games. I love it!

We have also resumed our "Alphacise", of course. A number of new clients have signed up with the gym, and Alpha is now going to Chengdu twice a month to train some personal trainers out there in how to use his system. This means we have to adjust our schedules somewhat, since he tends to leave Saturday night and return Monday morning, but it's not that disruptive and he seems to enjoy it a lot.

In really exciting news, I have spent part of today going through my pantry to take stock of all the stuff that I have in there, since I am tired of finding that I rebuy the same things over and over again, resulting in my having loads of couscous and dried chickpeas. I'm also trying to use up the older things, which explains the proliferation of bean dishes that we enjoyed this week with our grilled chicken breasts and flank steak.

We have been enjoying several new shows of the fall TV schedule back in the US. In particular we really like Glee, Community, Modern Family and Cougar Town, and since it has the word "vampire" in it, J2 also likes The Vampire Chronicles. I'm still on the fence on FlashForward, but it might have potential. And of course I'm watching the new Amazing Race, which is hands-down my favorite reality show.

This past week we had our company midyear review meeting, which was just about the best one we have had in my memory. It's been a good half so far this year, and things look very promising for the rest of the year. I also attended my first HR conference, which I found very interesting, and which even vindicated having a non-HR guy running a company's HR function (as I'm doing). So, very useful!

I think that brings you up to date on our exciting lives. Keep those comments coming so I know what you're interested in hearing about!

Photos from South Africa

Oh, no, I completely forgot to post the link to my photos from South Africa! Here they are.

The new galleries are the ones of Porcupine Hills, Elgin, and Cape Town Area. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 8, Cape Town to Dubai

The Vineyard Hotel’s breakfast made up for the dinner experience the previous night; their buffet was extensive and the eggs benedict were very good, though what they call
a bagel is but a sad shadow of the actual thing (another business opportunity for me!).

The weather had turned a bit grey and gloomy overnight, which put a bit of a damper on any plans to do something fun while we waited for our flight at 6pm. We started off by visiting the Cavendish Square mall to check out the wedding magazines to get a sense of what sort of places are advertising as wedding venues, since Rockhaven and the other Elgin area B&Bs make a huge portion of their money hosting weddings and we’d like a chunk of that action. In fact Mike and Liz of Rockhaven had said they would direct people whom they cannot accommodate (chiefly smaller weddings of around 50 people) to us, as would the people at Gabriëlskloof, so we have even got a ready supply of referrals. Unfortunately, the only bridal magazine we saw was in Afrikaans, so we gave that a miss.

We now found ourselves with nothing much to do, but suddenly hit on the idea of going back to the Constantia Valley wineries, which we visited on our first trip in May but that was before we had any understanding of South African wines. We started off at Constantia Uitsig, which is one of the bigger wineries in the area. Until we got there we had not realized that we had been there before, but in contrast with our visit in May this time we had a much better sense of what wines to try (whites rather than reds) and we enjoyed them much, much more. And their Muscat d’Alexandrie dessert wine was a particular favorite, though at R395 per 500ml bottle it was a bit rich for our blood.

From Constantia Uitsig we continued to Steenberg Winery, at the end of the valley road. This is a beautiful estate, and turns out to be the first farm established in South Africa (way back in 1685 or so), and by a woman at that! She was rather star-crossed, though, having moved to SA from Germany as a 22-year old widow, only to get married to a guy who got stabbed on their wedding night, only to survive to be killed by a lion a few days later (the wife supposedly then went out on horseback later that day and killed the lion). She then remarried, but that husband was killed by local tribesmen, and then she remarried again to a guy who got stomped by an elephant. Only her fifth husband managed to survive her. Anyway, they had some very interesting wines, including a very nice red blend (named after that original female owner of the farm, Catharina) that we bought to fill our last remaining slot in our wine shipping box.

For lunch we decided to eat at the Steenberg winery’s restaurant, also called Catharina. This is a beautiful restaurant, overlooking the farms and the mountains, with a very interesting menu. All the dishes we ordered were outstanding, though once again, J2’s main course of Chalmar beef with gnocchi was the best dish, though I also very much enjoyed my springbok, though I was not really hungry enough to eat the whole thing.

Lunch was over by around 1:30, which still left us a lot of time before our 6pm departure time, so we decided to head back down to Simon’s Town for a visit with the African penguin colony down there at Boulders Beach. In contrast with our visit there in May, this time there were far fewer penguins, no babies, and those that were there were mostly just hanging around doing very little. It turns out that the reason for this is that it’s molting season, and during this time the penguins’ feathers are not waterproof, so they cannot swim for food and thus do what they can to conserve energy. Still, they are very cute, and they’re just right there next to the boardwalk, making for very good photos.

We were done with the penguins by 2:30, so we figured we’d head to the airport, and a good thing, too, since there’s no good route (that we could find) from Simon’s Town to the airport, and it was nearly 4pm by the time we got there. However, as it turns out, the flight was delayed several hours, so there was no real need to be there so early.

As we were checking in to the flight, I got an SMS from our estate agent, asking me to call her urgently. We took our time doing so, though, so as not to seem too desperate. Sure enough, when we phoned we learned that she had called the sellers to ask if they really were happy to have us walk away from the property in the wake of their increasing the price. And sure enough, they were not. However, they asked if we would consider leaving them a small portion of land that they could use to put up their own weekend cottage, suggesting that they might do it in an area that now is home to some derelict workers’ cottages. This was something I was thinking of, too, so I think it could be a workable option. We told Nicole we’d consider it and get back to her (no need to rush, we figure). But this meant that we spent the flight from Cape Town to Dubai reading up on the care and feeding of olive trees and how to set up a successful tourist venue in the Western Cape.

Because of the departure delay we landed in Dubai two hours late, but since we had a five hour layover, this was not a problem. Best of all, when we finally went to check into the flight, we learned that we were being upgraded to business class! After the cramped seats on the first leg, this was very welcome news indeed!!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 7, Elgin Valley to Cape Town

On our last morning at Rockhaven we had an early breakfast since we had an 8:30 meeting at a bank in Somerset West to learn about mortgage terms in SA. The drive from Elgin to Somerset West is not long, no more than 30 minutes, and while Somerset West would not be terribly appealing to tourists, for Elginites it is the shopping place, being home to a lot of useful stores, a large mall with some very good anchor stores, including a Pick n Pay grocery and a Woolworths (the latter being in South Africa a very upscale grocery store).

Interest rates in South Africa are very high, though we later learned that they have actually come down quite a bit. Still, with our being non-citizens, the prospect of taking a loan out is pretty unappealing, so we’ll have to find other ways of financing our property purchase.

After checking out Somerset West we headed into Cape Town itself, a further 20 minute or so drive, heading to The Vineyard Hotel and Spa for our overnight stay. This is one of Cape Town’s oldest hotels, located in the southern suburbs in the shadow of Table Mountain. As soon as we checked in we immediately headed out again to go in search of the local Chinese grocery, located not far away. We were happy to find that they have a lot of the things we would need/want, including Sichuan peppers, fresh tofu, and the like, though their supply of fresh vegetables is rather poor. We therefore started to plan to plant a Chinese garden with all the vegetables and herbs that we cannot reliably procure here, like asparagus lettuce (wosun), Chinese chives, and lotus root.

After a simple lunch at a local South African style pub, we returned to our hotel, used the surprisingly nice gym, and just relaxed until the evening. On Monday nights the hotel hosts a free wine tasting, so we sampled the wines of Meerlust winery (very nice) before having a proper drink to drown our misery over our apparently not getting our property sorted out during this visit, and waited for friends to arrive. The friends are people whom I met through Chowhound as I was preparing for our May visit to South Africa, a gay British couple who, like us, came to South Africa on a holiday, fell in love with the place, and returned a few weeks later. Ten years later they are still here, and seem to have a really great life here. We learned today that what they left behind in the UK was the stunning Rothes Glen castle-hotel in, of all places, Elgin, Scotland!

Our friends could not stay for dinner, so we wound up just eating at the hotel’s restaurant, which came highly recommended. My starter of crocodile with beet reduction and arugula salad was very good, as was J2’s of warm beef and gorgonzola salad, but my main course of grilled gemsbok with creamed spinach was so salty as to be inedible (J2’s gnocchi were also a bit salty, but nothing like my dish). Mine was so bad that I just had to say something to the waiter, much to J2’s consternation. The waiter brought it to the chef’s attention, and the chef came back to me to confirm that the dish was way too salty, owing to an error by a sous chef in preparing the spinach. In compensation, he took the dish off the bill (he offered to replace it, but I just wanted to get to bed at this point), and offered profuse apologies.

Return to the Cape, Day 6, Elgin Valley

We woke up to another breakfast of farm fresh eggs with Liz and Mike before Nicole came to pick us up for a drive up to Porcupine Hills for another look at the property. When we got into her car, she gave us all sorts of materials that she had prepared for us, including information about the new developments in the area, facts about olive growing, etc., and then she dropped the bomb--the price had gone up 20%. This was unacceptable, of course, and we debated whether to bother looking at the property again, but in the end decided that this may just be a ploy and that it was worth the drive.

Sure enough, the property looked fantastic. Unlike the previous visit, this time the owners were not with us, so we could look around more freely. We also managed to look into all the various buildings around the property, including the rondavel (a round house that is near the entrance that is currently unused but that could serve as a nice guest house) and the other guest cottages. The place has amazing potential, much of which has gone unrealized under the current ownership.

When we were done looking at the property we drove down the other half of the access road toward the Bot River side, stopping along the way to look at the Luddite Farm (great name!) from the road, and for a wine tasting at Beaumont wines, where they had a really nice port and noble late harvest dessert wine (both of which are coming home with us). We also had a fantastic lunch at the South Hill wine estate, a relatively new estate with a phenomenal restaurant and wedding venue. The meal was exquisite, and the owners came by (they’re friends of Nicole) to chat with us.

We got back to the inn and had a bit of a rest before dinner, during which we discussed the new price with Mike and Liz, who were as shocked by it as we were. We spent the evening strategizing with them over a great frittata that Liz made, along with not a few glasses of wine. While we may not have solved our problem, at least the idea of having such great friends as these in our new place is really appealing.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 5, Elgin Valley

After another great breakfast we headed out over the pass again toward Franschhoek, dropping off two of our inn’s colored workers (trust me, horrible as it sounds to an American ear, this is a perfectly acceptable and correct phrase) in town along the way. The drive was once again stunning, with the views of the mountain in full wildflower bloom coming one after the other in languid succession, and each more beautiful than the last. We were surprised to see dozens of people biking along this very mountainous road, which gave us the idea to try to attract mountain bikers to Porcupine Hill, perhaps driving them out to the Franschhoek side so they could then bike back to our place. Could be a good business.

Once in Franschhoek we headed to the Franschhoek Health Center to check out the fitness options here. This place is much nicer than the facility in Hermanus that we visited a few days ago, with nicer machines, towels provided, and a more pleasant atmosphere. When we arrived, the girl at the reception desk said that Mario (one of the two guys whom we saw last night) had been by earlier and told her we might be coming around, so she let us right in without a hitch.

After our workout we began to hit the wineries, starting out with Graham Beck toward the far end of town. Graham Beck’s sparkling wines are remarkable for the fact that they were served at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, and also at Barack Obama’s this year (and it’s a rather sore point that Jacob Zuma did not serve it at his inauguration, preferring to serve French champagne, for which he earns much scorn from the Franschhoek vintners). We did not care for it enough to want to buy any, but we did like their syrah very much and their muscadel dessert wine, so three of those are in our box to go back to Beijing. We also stopped at L’Ormarins, a very old winery not far from Graham Beck where they are now trying to grow Italian grape varieties like Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. The wines were OK, but nothing really special to our tastes, and the nuisance factor was significant--to get to the tasting area you first have to park your car at the main entrance and then take a little shuttle bus sort of like those that they use at Disney to take you from the parking to the gates. This means you have to wait for the shuttle to return to your car after your tasting, which seems to take forever.

By this point we were hungry (and a bit tipsy) so we headed to Grand Provence for lunch at their restaurant, as recommended by our host Michael over breakfast. Just as he told us, the meal was exceptional, with very creative dishes and an almost whimsical approach (their menu is not divided into starters, mains, desserts, etc, and they encourage to eat the three, four or five courses that you select in any order you like). My “starter” of seared scallop and roast quail was extremely tasty and beautifully presented, as was my “main” course of braised lamb neck with roast baby vegetables. And my “dessert” of a traditional cheese selection included several very nice and contrasting cheeses. J2 meanwhile had a terrine of game meats for a starter that was just delicious, and a dish of roast blesbok with springbok sauce that we both liked a lot. Unfortunately his coconut sorbet dessert was a let down.

We had originally thought we’d continue our wine tasting after lunch, but we were both finding ourselves rather sleepy and on the verge of having too much alcohol, so we instead decided to return over to “our” side of the pass to check out the town of Villiersdorp, which is the next town to the north of Porcupine Hill, the town of Grabouw, which is the south-east of PH, and the surrounding areas. Villiersdorp is a basic little town with a main street of shops and a few dining establishments, most of which did not appeal to us. I stopped into the local outlet of the Spar grocery chain to see whether they would have things I would need on a regular basis (yes, for the most part) and into a Chinese-run “bodega” (at least that’s what I’d have called it if it were in NYC) to see if they had any Chinese groceries. Since none was initially visible, I decided to blow the owners’ minds by asking them in Chinese about the availability of Chinese produce. I tried first in English with one of the kids working in the back, but he clearly spoke no English, so I switched to Chinese, which took him a second to realize was a language he also understands. Unfortunately, he’s not very smart, so he told me to talk to the boss up front. There were two Chinese people up front, though, so I could not tell who was the boss, so I asked, in Chinese, “who’s the boss?” which again took them some time to process. Eventually the woman said it was she and I asked whether she has tofu, Sichuan peppers, etc for sale. Turns out that they buy all their Chinese goods in Cape Town’s Chinatown, which we plan to visit on Monday. But when I told her we might move to the area she got very excited, since she said I could help them learn English. Perhaps another business opportunity.

We also stopped in at the Theewaterskloof Golf Club, which is on the shores of the Theewaterskloof Dam (aka reservoir) which figures prominently in the local topography. The club is very nice, and includes an expensive-looking housing community, but the clubs’ services are only available to residents, other than golf, which is of no interest to us. Maybe our guests would be interested in it, though.

Grabouw is a much more promising town for our purposes than Villiersdorp. It’s got a SuperSpar to start with, with much more selection and nicer ambience than Villiersdorp’s Spar, and a little shopping mall with a cafe, pizza parlor, bike shop, etc, as well as Nicole’s real estate agency. There’s also a nice farm stand that we later learned is quite a destination in its own right, and a country store that has been a fixture on the Cape Town to Hermanus route for decades.

After our little excursion we returned to our inn to play with the dogs and have a rest before dinner. Around 6pm or so, Michael and Liz started to work on dinner, so we went into the main house to chat with them and enjoy a glass of wine or two. Michael is quite the amateur chef, with a collection of cookbooks that rivals my own. He also subscribes to the New Zealand cooking magazine Cuisine, of which several copies were lying around. It’s a very nice magazine, nicer than most of the US cooking magazines, and our dinner, a pork and spinach paella, was to come from a recent issue. Liz is also an amateur chef, and we learned that she often caters the weddings that take place at their inn. (She told us that the chef Jamie Oliver and Sir Richard Branson were recently guests at a wedding she catered.) I peppered her with questions about how you go from being a home chef to a caterer, and she happily offered her assistance to get me off the ground doing the same sort of thing, since she believes it’s all about organization and planning, the cooking needs no formal training, so I should be in good shape. Another business plan develops.

Nicole, Liz’s son Andrew and Andrew’s girlfriend joined us for dinner, which was a raucous affair. The food and wine were excellent, and the conversation was tremendous. Mike and Liz are wonderful people, and I imagine we’d see as much of them as we can when we become fixtures in the community. Nicole brought along a 1987 bottle of dessert wine that she was given in 1987, and while it had gone a bit flat and lost some of its edge, it was a lovely gesture, and went pretty well with the dessert Liz had made, a hazelnut meringue roll with apricot and cream filling. Truly exquisite.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 4, Elgin Valley

Our hosts prepared a nice breakfast for us with eggs taken from their chickens moments before being cooked, and gave us some recommendations for places to stay in Cape Town on our last night in the area. Eventually Nicole showed up to take us around to see five more farms, with some other stops along the way. All the farms she showed us were smaller than Porcupine Hills, more expensive than Porcupine Hills, and not nearly as beautiful as Porcupine Hills, so everything just made us more and more sure that Porcupine Hills was the place for us. We also stopped at the Iona winery, the second highest in South Africa at 420m above sea level, where the wines were truly delicious, and where she gave us a bottle of their Noble Late Harvest dessert wine, since she knows we’re big fans of that sort of wine. We also made a stop at her own farm where we met her parents, who are visiting from Joburg, and had a piece of milk tart (a South African specialty) and some tea.

On the way back to our inn we stopped at two little shopping centers in Elgin, one of which has the local tourist office (where we picked up all the brochures we could) and the office of a local architect who had done the design work for Nicole’s house, and the other of which is a converted jailhouse where there was a space for rent that we could use to set up a gym if we decide to do such a business here. Along the way we met several people, all of whom were extremely nice and welcoming, and one of whom runs the local newspaper. I asked him if he needs any editors, thinking of a possible opportunity for myself, and sure enough he does....

We were originally going to have lunch with her at the South Hills wine estate, but we decided to put that off until Sunday, preferring to use our time to check out the driving time between town and the Porcupine Hills and from there to Franschhoek. Also, Nicole had a closing to get ready for, and we thought it would be better for her not to have to be stuck eating lunch with us. So after getting our car we returned to the shopping center with the information office for a bite at a little restaurant where we had very tasty burgers with monkey gland sauce and then headed on our way.

By our reckoning, it would be a 20 minute drive from the town to Porcupine Hills, and about 30 minutes from there to Franschhoek, all very reasonable distances, we think, especially if a guest were to stay with us to visit the wineries and other sites in both towns. Also the drive to Franschhoek, which goes over a mountain pass, is stunningly beautiful, with incredible views over the valley.

Once in Franschhoek we walked around a bit to check out the shops and the whole “vibe”. It’s a very nice little town, with loads of upscale shops and eateries, though apparently ten years ago it looked much like Elgin does now, a bit run down and in need of a little TLC, which Elgin is only now starting to receive. We also made a stop at the Boekenhoutskloof winery, which we visited last time we were here in May, to pick up two bottles of their Syrah, which they did not have in stock back then. By the time we were done there it was nearly time to meet some friends of friends for drinks and dinner.

The friends of friends are a gay German couple who have been living in South Africa for around 20 years, initially coming here for their jobs but eventually giving that up to open a restaurant and inn in the town of Robertson, in the Klein Karoo, which they ran for 11 years before moving to Franschhoek. Their house is stunning, with beautiful decor and fittings, and a wonderful back area that is open to the back garden where they have a plunge pool and a big fireplace. Like everyone else we have met they were very encouraging of the idea of moving here, sharing their experiences and thoughts on the whole plan. Coincidentally a friend of theirs had just recently been describing Porcupine Hills to them, saying that he considered it an undiscovered gem in the area, so they were particularly excited by the idea that we might buy it.

After having some wine with them we walked over the Le Bon Vivant restaurant for an exceptional dinner, prepared by a Dutch chef who has run it for around 10 years. My gruyere and chevre starter was wonderful, as was my main course of roast duck with duck confit, and the presentation was beautiful. We had two bottles of wine with our meal, and still the bill per couple was only around $75--very reasonable in my opinion.

The drive back along the mountain pass from Franschhoek to Elgin was a bit slower than the drive over, since some low clouds were obscuring the road and my unfamiliarity with the road made me take the trip a lot slower than I felt comfortable doing in the light. But it still only took a total of 50 minutes to get to our inn, and once we got back we immediately fell into a deep sleep.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 3, Elgin Valley

We had breakfast at the farm (home made bread and jams, along with yogurt and fruit salad) and we played with their dogs, including an enormous 11-month old Brazilian mastiff named Balthazar, then Nicole arrived to show us around the property with Murray. The farm is absolutely ridiculously beautiful, with hills all over, criss crossed by little trails and paths and studded with fynbos (native wild plants) and cultivated areas where they grow olives, artichokes, fruits and vegetables, as well as flowers. They produce olive oil and artichokes for sale, while the rest is mostly for their own use. The property stretches over 220 hectares or so, has plenty of water from underground aquifers, and is part of a Cape nature preserve, which helps them to remove invasive non-native species in exchange for preserving the native habitats. They are home to countless types of birds (including a rare breeding pair of African Black hawk-eagles), mammals (including of course porcupines, but also leopards, antelopes, and other interesting animals) and are considering reintroducing zebra to help with keeping the weeds and grass down. In addition to the cottage where we were staying they also have four or more other rentable units, one of which is even suitable to rented out as someone’s home (or maybe used for my mother if she chooses to live with us). They are nearly all booked out through the summer, and have guests coming through the property for nature walks, bird watching, bike trips, etc. If we had the downpayment on us we’d probably have just handed it right over, the place is so amazingly beautiful and workable. As it is, Murray and Fiona would not let us pay for our night’s stay (which we fully expected to pay for), saying they wanted to encourage us to move to the area so that they’d have another fun and interesting couple to hang out with here. Very nice people.

But we have other places to see besides this place, so after our visit Nicole led us out of their toward the town of Elgin, where we’d stay for the next two nights, stopping along the way at the Gabriëlskloof winery and restaurant where Nicole dropped us off so we could have a tasting of their wines, a tour of their cellar and lunch at their brand-new yet fully booked up restaurant. Indeed, the wines were very good (they only have two thus far, a sauvignon blanc and a Bordeaux blend) and the olive oil was excellent. Their cellar is brand new, with gleaming stainless steel tanks that employ the gravity method for moving the juice from tank to tank, so they are suspended in three levels with the final process taking place at the lowest level.

Lunch at the restaurant was fantastic, starting with a very flavorful spanakopita and then followed by an aged sirloin steak for J2 and roasted duck with duck risotto for me. I had originally thought I’d have some cheese, too, but we were too full even to consider it.

From Gabriëlskloof we headed to our inn for the night, the Rockhaven Guest Farm, just outside of Elgin. When we arrived we could not find any evidence of the owners for quite some time, but eventually one of them turned up, showed us into our room, and told us we’d have dinner with them at 7:30pm, giving us plenty of time to head to Hermanus to visit one of the fitness centers in the area.

Hermanus turned out to be a 50 minute drive from our inn, and the gym was at the farther end of town. It was a pretty nice gym, with a good range of cardio machines, weights, and the like, and a very helpful, enormously muscular trainer who showed me how to use a few of the unfamiliar machines. I don’t think we’d ever want to make this gym our regular place to go to, since it’s a bit far from where we’re looking at farms, but it’s nice to know it’s there. Unfortunately, we realized only too late that they don’t provide any towels at all, and of course we had not brought any of our own...

We returned to Rockhaven after doing a few errands for SA friends back in Beijing who had given me a shopping list, arriving just about in time for dinner. Surprise! Nicole had brought some mussels to the owners here, too, who decided to serve them to us for dinner, rather than have them for their own lunch as she had intended, so we had the exact same meal as last night, though with the addition of a very nice broccoli risotto and a few bottles of Oak Valley Sauvignon Blanc wine. Rockhaven is owned by a very nice couple, Liz and Michael, who took a keen interest in our plan to move to the area, and, like everyone else we met in the Elgin region, expressed their willingness to help us in any way they can to get us settled in and involved in a social network when we arrive. Michael also turned out to be a dentist with a surgery on his property, and a practice that could accommodate J2 if he chooses to keep practicing after moving. In fact, he was telling us that he has a lot of overseas visitors coming to see him from Europe to take advantage of the higher quality of care and much lower prices. We also met Liz’s son, Andrew, who used to work as a game warden but who is now “between assignments”. The three of them thought our plan to have the farm and maybe also open a gym in the Elgin/Grabouw area would be a very reasonable thing to do, adding that the area desperately needs a gym, since there is none at the present. I see a business model shaping up in my mind...

Return to the Cape, Day 2, Dubai to Villiersdorp

We had arranged a car to pick us up at 6am for the ride to the airport, so that we could be sure to be there on time for our 8:30am departure for Cape Town. The roads are empty at that time of day, and the airport check in desks were pretty uncrowded, so we were past security and on the airside of the airport by 6:45 or so, giving us plenty of time to do some duty free shopping and grab breakfast. The only duty free purchases we really planned to make was to buy some incense, which was easily accomplished, and then I decided to buy a spare pair of sunglasses, since they’re so expensive in Beijing (for good ones).

The flight from Dubai to Cape Town is a bit less than 10 hours, and it seemed that the seats were a bit less comfortable than on the previous flight (it might be my imagination, but I find that 777s are just not that comfortable in comparison with A340s). Unlike the previous flight, this one had on-demand movies and TV shows, so we had a lot of fun picking movies and shows to watch. Among those that I can recall seeing were “Winged Creatures” (which Liz told us specifically to watch so that we could discuss it with her when we see her on our return flight through Dubai), “Moon”, “The Proposal” and a few episodes of “Arrested Development”. What a civilized way to pass 10 hours!

We landed in Cape Town a bit ahead of schedule, and the bag retrieval process was pretty smooth. Everything was smooth, in fact, until it came time to get our rental car, since the Thrifty counter had no computers working so they could not search for our reservation and had to reinstate everything manually. While I took care of this I asked J2 to go to the mobile phone desk to find out why my SIM card that I bought on the previous trip was not working. Well, it turns out that the company we were using (MTN) had a 90 day use-it-or-lose-it period, and since more than that had transpired since we last used it the card was deactivated and my number given to someone else. So much for using MTN ever again! I instead bought a Vodaphone card that will last for two years.

Once in our car we headed straight for Porcupine Hills, one of the properties we are considering buying, located between Elgin and Villiersdorp. The drive from the airport to this area is incredibly easy--you just get on the N2 highway and keep going until you get to Elgin, then turn left a bit and before long you’re at the farm. The drive was stunningly beautiful--the clear blue skies with puffy white clouds contrasting beautifully with the green landscape and rugged grey-black mountains. The only downside was that we stopped at a gas station to get some drinks and when we arrived the car next to where we parked had just had its window smashed and a laptop computer stolen from inside.

We arrived at the farm before 7pm and were greeted by Murray, one of the owners. Our room for the night was in the “Cottage”, a lovely stand alone house with one large bedroom, a loft with two more single beds, and a nice bathroom and a little pantry area, done up with beautiful furniture and decorations. The owners had left us a gift bottle of locally produced strong apple cider (this is an apple growing area) and our real estate agent, Nicole, had left us a gift box with some preserves and a bottle of locally made wine. After a quick clean up we headed to the farm’s bar and had a drink with Murray while nibbling on some of his home-grown olives (delicious) while waiting for Nicole to arrive. When she did, around 8pm, we headed to Murray and his wife Fiona’s house for dinner. Fiona is American and met Murray while he was working in Botswana at the Okavango park (though he is a nice Jewish boy from near Johannesburg). They have had this farm for around 10 years, and have done a lot of work on it, though we would not see that until daylight. Nicole was a chef in Joburg who learned of the Elgin Valley while tasting the wines of the Oak Valley estate in Elgin at her restaurant; upon tasting the wines she decided to move down there herself, buy a farm and grow her own grapes (which she is doing; the real estate gig is a side business). Nicole made the dinner, consisting of freshly caught mussels in a delicious wine and cream sauce, while we provided the impromptu dessert--a box of Chinese moon cakes that we brought as a gift for Nicole, Murray and Fiona.

After a really lovely evening with the three of them we were just exhausted so we headed back to our cottage for a well deserved rest.

Return to the Cape, Day 1, Beijing to Dubai

For our return trip to South Africa we decided to fly on Emirates via Dubai, rather than on Singapore or Cathay. Emirates offers really good deals from Beijing to Africa and Europe, and it would give us a chance to visit our friends Rich and Liz, who have been living in Dubai for around a year and whose daughter, Alexandra, we had not yet met.

The flight leaves very early from Beijing, so we were up and out of our apartment by 5am, our poor driver showing no outwards signs of fatigue or distress at having been rousted at such an early hour. Having checked in on line we were able to avoid a very lengthy queue of slackers who had not bothered to do so, and who thus were thronged at the check-in counter. In the end we were through to the airside of the terminal in no time at all. There is next to nothing to do in the Beijing airport, unfortunately, and the powers that be have decided that lighting the passenger seating areas near the gates is a bourgeois affectation that has no place in the workers’ paradise so we were unable to do much other than listen to our iPods while we waited to board.

The flight was pretty much full, but it was not too uncomfortable, and they offered a wide range of films and TV shows to watch during the 8 hour flight. The meals they served were also not too bad, even in coach, and the service was very friendly. Definitely would fly with them again, based on this flight. Not long after take-off two ladies sitting near us got into a huge fight over I know not what, with them cursing each other out in Chinese like fishwives. I brought this to the attention of the crew, and surprisingly when one of the Arabic flight attendants tried to calm the instigator down, it turned out that she also spoke Arabic. I never did figure out what had happened, but that was it for excitement on this flight. I’m not complaining.

As we approached Dubai, and as the land became more visible, we were both immediately struck by one thought--why would anyone in their right mind have ever decided to call this place home? Surely when ancient hominids found themselves in the area of the UAE on their treks from wherever they were coming from to wherever they were going to, they must have thought to themselves “this place has nothing but sand as far as the eye can see; let’s keep going, there’s got to be something better a bit further along”. And yet, someone at some point clearly decided that this was good enough and opted to settle down. What a dusty, unwelcoming sort of place you see from your Airbus as you approach the airport! And what a contrast with what you see as you exit the airport and drive in air conditioned splendor to wherever you’re staying for the night! It’s a city built out of nothing in the middle of nowhere, with gleaming skyscrapers, lush landscaping (which, legend has it, is replaced nightly by unseen hordes of Sri Lankan workers, since there just isn’t enough water to keep the plants alive for more than a day or two) and throngs of expatriate workers enjoying the good life. 90-93% of the population of Dubai is foreign, and the 7-10% that is Emirati doesn’t do much of anything, other than complain about all the foreigners, and drive their expensive cars at too high a rate of speed along the city’s roads.

Interestingly, while our flight was pretty much full, only about 8 passengers from that flight actually were making Dubai their final destination, the remaining people apparently using Dubai only as a transit point. Thus our bags took no time at all to get off the carousel and we were out of the airport in no time at all.

On our drive from the airport to our friends’ place we noticed a silver Nissan 380Z sports car being drive rather erratically; as we pulled along side it we saw that the driver was our friend Rich, rushing to get home in time for our arrival. What’s the chance of that!?

We got to their apartment complex, the 2-kilometer long Jumeirah Beach Residences, shortly after 1pm, and had a quick change into lighter clothes more suitable to the 107 degree heat before going out to lunch at a place near their house, a Lebanese fast food chain called Zaatar W Zeit, where we had really excellent Middle Eastern sandwiches before hopping in their car for a bit of a look around.

Among our stops was the over-the-top Atlantis resort, located on the over-the-top Palm complex, an artificial series of atolls built on reclaimed land off the coast of the city jutting into the Gulf and that, from the air, is in the form of a palm tree with an arc of protective atolls in a sort of halo formation that provides protection from waves. The trunk is lined with apartment complexes, while the fronds (romantically named Frond 1, Frond 2, etc) are private residences accessibly only to owners and invited guests, and the arc is home to hotels, with the Atlantis at the pinnacle. The Atlantis is owned by the same South African Jew who owns the Sun City resort in South Africa and the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas (which I visited often while working there). It is home to an enormous Dale Chihouly glass sculpture in the lobby and a huge fish tank that is now the controversial home of a recently captured whale shark that the hotel argues it rescued after it was injured in the wild while PETA and Greenpeace insist that the hotel injured it while capturing it. Whoever is right the shark is an amazingly beautiful creature that does frankly seem pretty content in its new surroundings.

Rich had a meeting to go to so we decamped to the Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, a really beautiful series of buildings done up in local style with a modern souk (market) connecting the various hotel buildings. While he had his meeting J2, Liz and I sat down at a Costa coffee outlet (outside, in the 107F heat!) and admired the view of the Burj al-Arab 7-star hotel in the distance while chatting about Liz’s impressions of life in Dubai. She apparently moved there kicking and screaming a year ago but has come to really enjoy the lifestyle (what’s not to like about a place that is sunny 363 days a year and where domestic help is readily available and cheap?) while at the same coming to new appreciations of Gulf Arab culture that unfortunately have had the affect of causing her to dislike it intensely. Oh, well, you can’t have everything.

When Rich was done with his meeting we returned to their apartment (which, by the way, is on the top floor of their building, and has views down the beach and onto the Gulf), changed into bathing suits and headed to the marina to take their boat out for a little cruise. We had hoped to see the sunset but the sun sets very quickly here and by the time we actually got on the boat it had descended below the horizon, so instead we just watched the lights of the city come on while enjoying a bottle of wine before returning to town.

After returning to the city we did a quick trip to our new favorite Spanish clothing store, Desigual, to see if we could find some things to buy (we did), and then we had dinner at Sarai, a Syrian restaurant a short walk from the apartment along The Walk, a long shopping and dining strip that runs along the Jumeirah beach. Dinner was excellent, consisting of a selection of meze (hummus, mutabbal, stuffed grape leaves, etc) and some kebabs for main course, along with fruit cocktails to drink. We treated our hosts to the dinner (as well as to some wine that we brought in from the Dubai Duty Free shop on arrival, since they don’t have a liquor license and thus cannot buy their own wine), while they treated us to dessert at a newly opened gelato place along the same walk. Once we got back to their place we managed to stay awake until around 11pm before finally calling it a day and heading to bed.