Lesedi Cultural Village

After an incredibly enlightening but very sobering visit to Soweto and Johannesburg yesterday, today we enjoyed an uplifting and joyous visit to Lesedi Cultural Village. Victor, our wise and knowledgeable tour guide, provided amazing insight and information about African history and culture on the three-hour round-trip ride to and from the village. We felt so fortunate to be able to talk with him about his experiences growing up in South Africa.

Located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, the Lesedi Cultural Village is composed of traditional homesteads inhabited by the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Basotho and Ndebele tribes who live according to tribal folklore and the traditions of their ancestors. Nelson Mandela was a member of the Xhosa tribe. Young men in tribal dress greeted us with song and music as we entered the village.

Before going to the villages, our Zulu guide gave us a brief African tribal language lesson and history of the tribes. Zulu and Xhosa languages incorporate a clicking sound which made it a bit challenging to repeat the words he taught us.

The Zulu village was our first stop. The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in Southern Africa and were known as a powerful people. Our Zulu guide demonstrated how visitors would safely enter a Zulu village. After we received permission to enter, the gates were opened and we went in and toured the village.

In each village, tribal members in native dress demonstrated daily activities like weaving straw mats, grinding corn and carrying water in head-top containers.

In one of the villages, we went inside the one of the dwellings.

A traditional African dance show was a powerful ending to our delightful visit.

 

Soweto and Johannesburg

First stop today was Soweto, the black residential southwest townships of Johannesburg. Soweto has a population of 1.3 million with 99.5% black or coloured.

The area was larger and the homes more diverse than I expected. There were small homes crammed closely together.

And signs of despair.

But there were also lovely homes with well-tended gardens. Winnie Mandela’s home took up an entire block.

On the Main Street of Soweto, a group of young men entertained us with a peppy song and dance routine.

A young woman gave us a guided tour of Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto.

In 1976, the students of Soweto protested the requirement that all education be delivered in Afrikaans, the language of the government but not the people of Soweto. Fifteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was one of the first students to be shot and killed by the police. The picture of the dying Hector being carried away by his sister and friend became the symbol of the Soweto uprising.

The Soweto uprising brought the fight against apartheid to the world’s attention.

After visiting Soweto, we went to the Apartheid Museum. It was a somber visit looking at the history of apartheid in S. Africa.

It was an afternoon of contrasts as we first drove through downtown Johannesburg, which  has boarded up buildings because so much business and commerce have left the city center for the beautiful nearby city of Sandton. Beautiful modern architecture, clean streets and new buildings on almost every other block confirmed what our guide told us about the decline of Johannesburg and rise of Sandton.

My experiences in Soweto, Johannesburg and Sandton today left me troubled by the reality that a city of more than nine million people could be building beautiful new office buildings but not provide a public transportion system so people would not need to walk miles to get to work. Life is hard for many of the people here, but in spite of the hardships the people were friendly and welcoming. I think it must be true that people visit Southern Africa for the animals but return for the people.

 

Welcome to Johannesburg

We are here! I am amazed at how great I feel after a fifteen-hour flight, the longest ever for me. Here’s my explanation- a long flight provides more uninterrupted time to sleep than a seven or eight-hour flight.

We had  great arrival-our luggage all made it, customs was welcoming and our smiling transfer driver was waiting for us as we entered the airport lobby.

Larry, our transfer driver, shared his enthusiasm for his country as he drove us to the hotel. He told us that that there are twelve official languages in S. Africa; he speaks six of them. His step-father was a visiting lecturer in African studies at the University of Illinois. When he learned we would be here a few days, he said we could not leave without visiting Soweto. After planning a visit to Soweto for the next day and hearing from people about how unsafe it was, I was thrilled to hear his recommendation.

After settling in to our room, Jeanne and I had a wonderful dinner of stuffed black mushrooms and S. African wine.

Off to Africa

The day is finally here-I am leaving for my dream trip to Africa.  Almost two years ago, my dear friend, Jeanne Asakura, said, “Sure, I’ll go to Africa with you.”  Since husband Paul’s business requires him to have reliable internet access, I was thrilled to find an enthusiastic travel buddy who could go “off the grid” with me. Fourteen months ago we booked the last two places on our Overseas Adventure Travel safari and today we start our adventure. Packing for this trip was a bit of a challenge. OAT advised us to wear muted earth tones, not black or blue which attract tsetse flies, or white or bright colors which have traditionally been used to keep animals away. Not much in my closet is beige, khaki or olive.  I did a little thrift store shopping and now have an adequate safari wardrobe of earth-tone clothing.

We begin our adventure with a couple of days in Johannesburg to see the sights, visit Soweto and recover from our fifteen-hour flight. Then we connect with the fourteen other members of our  group and fly to Victoria Falls to meet our tour guide, Phanuel. From there we travel by small planes and motor vehicles to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana. Our last stop will be a return to Victoria Falls to explore and then back to Johannesburg to fly home.

Most of our accommodations will be tented camps in national parks. I loved canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota, so I know I will be just fine with my lodgings.  The tents are pretty luxurious with en-suite bathrooms and electricity and I have heard that the food is excellent. Some of the camps are solar powered and the amount of available light and power each day will be affected by how sunny the day was.

Internet availability will be scarce in the camps, maybe non-existent.  I plan to write each day, but I will only be able to post when I am somewhere with WIFI.

So much about this trip excites me-viewing the animals in their natural habitat, being in a place that is so different from what I know and meeting people from different cultures. Because I traveled with OAT to Peru and Ecuador, I know there will be wonderful opportunities to interact with local people and learn more about how they live.

Let the adventure begin!

Leiden, Netherlands

Yoga in the sun room  of our charming little row house was a perfect start to our perfect day in Leiden, our last stop before going home. As we walked into the town center we noticed all the people enjoying the beautiful day on the canals. The Old Rhine and the New Rhine rivers meet in Leiden and after Amsterdam, Leiden has the most canals of any city in the Netherlands.

A tour boat ride on the canals gave us a different view of the city.  Operated by Rondvaart, the tour, narrated by a Leiden University student, lasted about an hour. Our guide conducted the tour in both Dutch and English, but as we were the only English-speaking people on the tour, I don’t think we got quite as much information.  There are a number of boat tour companies, and some of them may focus more on English, but we enjoyed our tour and our guide and learned a lot about Leiden.

It was interesting to learn about Leiden history and architecture.

It was fun to learn some of the quirky things about the city.  As we passed the beautiful new library at Leiden University, our guide told us that the university had recently renamed the library “Leiden University Library” to better reflect their international focus. Unfortunately, no one anticipated that the name change would become a bit of joke because the acronym, LUL, is a Dutch word for penis.

All over Leiden people were sitting outside, enjoying the beautiful day. We found an outside table at a little corner cafe for lunch.

Nothing on the menu looked recognizable to us, but we saw a great-looking dish go by and asked the waiter for two of those. Our surprise lunch turned out to be a wonderful open-faced sandwich with speck, brie, honey, walnuts and thyme.

After our delightful lunch, we visited the Leiden University Botanical Garden, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Begun at the end of the 16th century, it was originally established to benefit medical students. The beautiful garden winds around one of the canals and was the perfect setting for an afternoon walk.

I especially enjoyed the Traditional Chinese medicine herb garden.

As we arrived home, the two neighbors we met the night before were sitting outside. We had a great time talking with them about traveling, bicycling, and local culture. Having the opportunity to meet locals is one of my favorite benefits of staying in home-sharing rentals.

For dinner we had the best Thai food I have ever eaten at Siri Thai. Like many other businesses in Leiden, they did not take credit cards. Our waiter told us that was pretty common in Leiden to only accept cash.

We loved our time in Leiden and hope to return. The beautiful canals, winding streets,  bicycling culture and friendly people reminded us of Amsterdam, but Leiden is quieter, slower and quainter.

The following day we used the few hours  before leaving for Amsterdam to fly home to take one last little stroll to the Leiden center. The quiet atmosphere on a cloudy Monday morning was very different from the vibrant activity of the sunny Sunday afternoon the day before. We stopped for lunch and Paul had a final local beer, Texels which is from the Dutch island of Texel.

We had a great time talking with our young waitress. She recommended that we visit de burcht before we left.  We took her advice and enjoyed our visit to the 11th century structure in the center of the city. Formerly used for protection, the site is now a park and the views of the city from the top were lovely.

 

Mechelen, Belgium

Today we said “good-bye” to Lille and left for Leiden, Netherlands, our home for the next two days. On the way to Leiden, we stopped in the lovely town of Mechelen, Belgium, just south of Antwerp. As we approached the square, we saw the dramatic St. Rumbold Cathedral Tower and heard the beautiful bells ringing the hour. Mechelen is the home of the Royal Carillon School, the first and largest carillon school in the world..

We had a great time exploring the quaint town. It was a beautiful, sunny market day. We saw some people eating this yummy looking fish at the market and decided to try some for lunch. The people next to us were also drinking a yummy looking beer with their fish, so we got some of that as well.

The most delightful young man helped us choose cheese from his choices of young, old, older and oldest.

Since we were in Belgium, I had to buy more chocolate. The most helpful woman at Gauthier Chocolate helped me choose some wonderful chocolates.

Our few hours in Mechelen went much too fast, and it was time to be on our way to meet our landlady in Leiden, Netherlands.  Our adorable little row house in Leiden is in such a friendly neighborhood. I went outside to take a picture and two women next door introduced themselves and we had a great little chat.

The best part of this house is the enchanting back yard. I am looking forward to having my morning coffee there tomorrow.

Brussels and Beer

We had a great day in Brussels today-took the high-speed train from Lille, walked from the train station to the Grand Place and joined a guided walking tour.  The Grand Place is one the most beautiful i have seen; so many of the building are embellished with gold.

Our walking tour guide was from Scotland but did a great job leading us around Brussels. The popular symbol of Brussels, Manneken Pis, a small sculpture of a little boy urinating was one of our first stops.

We saw the first mural of the fifty murals on the Comic Book Route which honors Belgium’s role as a leader in comic arts.

In the afternoon we did a beer tasting and brewery tour.  After tasting and learning about some of Belgium’s traditional beers, we toured the Cantillon Brewery, the only brewery in Brussels that makes Lambic beer.  Unlike most other beers that use brewer’s yeast, Lambic is fermented by exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria in an open vat.

We got to taste the  first stage of the Lambic beer.  Our guide told us it was quite a special treat to taste the Lambic, but we didn’t really like the sour taste.

In our nine hours in Brussels, we tried the big four culinary specialties of the city-frites, chocolate, beer and waffles.  We ate frites for lunch and drank Belgium beer in the afternoon. Before our beer tasting we had a Belgium chocolate chaud, a big square of chocolate on a wooden spoon stirred into hot milk.

We ended our Brussels adventure with the best treat of all, a Liege waffle. Our beer tasting guide directed us to Maison Dandoyher favorite place for waffles and told us what to order.

Low-Key Day in Lille

Today’s plan was not to plan but rather to see where the day led us. We strolled in a new part of Lille and discovered the charming Place aux Oignons, a little square tucked away from traffic and pedestrians. It looked so inviting that we decided to return for lunch at in boco al lupa.  The day was perfect for dining outside.

For the French, almost every day is perfect for dining outside. We are amazed at how the French tighten their scarves and dine outside on even the coldest days.

I was delighted to discover an Aux Marveilleux de Fred shop. The little Marveilleux cakes are light and sweet and luscious.  True confession – the first one was so tasty we went back and got another for later.

We visited the Musee de L’Hospice Comtesse.  In the 13th century Countess Jeanne of Flanders founded the hospital in her palace. Part of the palace became a convent for the nuns who tended the sick . The ground floor was furnished to look as it did when the nuns lived there. The English audio guide described the significance of the art and furnishings and the nuns’ lifestyle.

I especially enjoyed seeing the medicinal herb garden.  Little hedges defined each separate herb space.

After repeatedly passing le furet du nord bookstore on the Grand Place, I finally went inside. Seven floors of books and related items made me wish for a similar store where I live.

When we were in the organic market buying some fruit and cheese, a young American woman who is living in Lille this year overheard us and asked if we were American. She told us we were only the second Americans vacationing here that she had encountered. Her comment confirmed the sense we had that there were not many Americans in Lille.

We have enjoyed being in are area that is not tourist-oriented. The lack of English-speaking wait staff has sometimes made ordering a challenge because not all menu items translate well. We always get it figured out, and the people here are so, so friendly. And everyone seems to know the word “bye-bye.” So even when no English has been spoken, the last words we often hear are “bye-bye.”

Day Trip to Arras

Today we drove about forty-five minutes south to the town of Arras. A lovely little town that experienced loss and destruction during both world wars, Arras rebuilt each time and today is known for its architecture, history and culture. Our first stop was the stunning Town Hall and Belfry, location of the TI. We got a map and set out to explore the town.

I experienced a bit of French culture shock in one of the cafes.  The restrooms consisted of two urinals in a narrow hallway with a private stall at the end.  When I came out of the private stall, a man was using the urinal. Not sure of French restroom etiquette – wait for him to finish, say “pardon” as I walk by, turn my head-I looked straight ahead and quickly walked past his back.

After lunch we planned to do the Gardens and Monuments walking tour.  Unfortunately, the TI, where we planned to get the guide, closed for two hours during lunch.  Using our town map, we created our own gardens and monuments tour.

Just when we were questioning if our Arras experience had been worth the drive, we came to the Arras Memorial, which commemorates nearly 35,000 soldiers of the British, South African and New Zealand forces with no known grave. Most of those commemorated were killed in the Battle of Arras, fought between April 9, and May 16, 1917. Our experience at the memorial and cemetery made the trip worthwhile.

The grave sites of 2,650 Commonwealth soldiers and a few German prisoners are behind the memorial.

It was sobering to see the grave sites and all the names engraved on the memorial walls of those who had died in battle. In a matter of weeks, almost 38,000 soldiers died in the Arras region. There were a number of “Memorial Register” boxes with notebooks of information about the soldiers.

We finished our walk along the Crinchon river and ended up back at our car park.

I ate a vegetable tagine and Paul had chicken couscous for dinner at Le Souk, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant.

Lille Walks

Finding the best chocolate shops in Lille is a great way to start the day.   Guided by a “chocolate walk” app, we visited some scrumptious chocolate shops.

Jean Trogneux Chocolatier

Mid-chocolate walk, I got sidetracked by a beautiful patisserie.

Meert Patisserie, established 1761

Before we finished our walk, I bought both chocolates and pastries – for later, of course.

We packed a picnic and set off to hike in the the Parc de la Citadelle. Our route took us through the Jardin Vauban where we discovered a beautiful little fruit garden that was created in 1868 to teach the growing of apples, pears, peaches and grapes.

The Parc de la Citadelle is a large green space surrounding the Citadel, a pentagonal military structure built between 1667-1670 that is still used today.

Bridge leading to the Citadel

The park is a popular spot for runners and cyclists. We didn’t see any cyclists, but we saw tons of runners.  Sadly, it rained on us, so we had our picnic in our apartment.