A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: alsandiego

Day 3: Orange and Blue

All the way to the Cape of Good Hope...almost!

After a long Friday night, Saturday started on the late side. I had agreed to make a Spanish tortilla for breakfast and, in spite of getting up later than just about everyone else, pulled off a decent version of go-to classic dish. Since I was cooking for 9 people, though, I used 10 eggs and had some trouble getting the whole thing out of the frying pan in advance of flipping it.

Our planned activities for the day were to watch the Oranje (The Netherlands' team) play Japan and then head down to the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of the Cape Peninsula and a must-see for any visitor to Cape Town. The people who run the house rental agency that we used are Dutch, and they told us on the night we arrived that everyone congregates at the Holland House near Mariners Wharf in Hout Bay. I should have known that there would be a Holland House here...those of you who've been following this blog since its inception at the 2008 Summer Olympics may recall my description of the large facility in Beijing that had been swathed by Heineken in orange. The version, at least what we saw, was much more subdued: a second-floor bar with a large, covered balcony. It just so happened that virtually everyone there (aside from our group) was Dutch. Seven of us, however, were wearing orange so we fit in perfectly in spite of not understanding the conversations going on around us.

I've always marveled at the legions of Dutch sports fans who faithfully traverse the globe to support their teams. They were in full force at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, though I didn't spot many of them since they were all camped out in Richmond, BC, near the long-track speedskating oval (of course!). I knew they would be here as well, given the daily non-stops from Amsterdam (and various other European cities) to Johannesburg and Cape Town, plus they have linguistic and ancestral connections to the Afrikaans people in South Africa. To most people, myself included, Dutch and Afrikaans sound like they're the same language. I know that the Afrikaans lexicon includes more than a few words that don't exist in modern Dutch, and the grammar is supposed to be relatively easier. So I wonder how Dutch people feel when they encounter an Afrikaner. Is there some sense of shared identity? Does the stereotypically progressive-minded Dutch person maintain a safe distance from the even more stereotypically bigoted Afrikaner? I wonder.

Anyway, it was a decent match to watch - nothing out of the ordinary, but enough for The Netherlands to pull away with a 1-0 victory. Afterward we took a short walk around the dock area, passing craft sellers who were packing up their wares for the day. Regardless of where I am in the world, I always encounter people plying mass-manufactured items that normally don't have any appeal to me. While I find it a bit sad watching multiple sellers offering the same exact goods at pretty much the same exact prices, I have to admire their pluck and optimism, that someone is going to stop at his/her stand for whatever reason and buy something.

From there we got back into the cars and headed south towards the Cape of Good Hope, about an hour away. The first part of the drive was along Chapman's Peak Road, which follows the coastline and is a close relative to Highway 1 in northern California, due to the striking views of the sea and the mountain crashing down to the shore. Again, I took on the role of navigator for both cars (one following the other) and got us to the front gate of the park, right across from the Cape Point Ostrich Farm. By this time it was already 4:50pm, and we were instructed by the guard that we needed to be out by sunset (5:43pm on that day). How ironic that we were at what's traditionally been known as the southernmost point in Africa (though Cape Agulhas National Park to the east of Cape Town looks like it's further south) on one of the longest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Oh well...a small price to pay for amazing views, beautiful blue skies, and interesting vegetation.

Rather than race to the Cape Point Lighthouse and back to avoid the R500 fine for being in the park after closing, we decided to head up the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula along False Bay. At Simon's Town we saw some signs for penguin watching and spontaneously turned off to the right at Boulders Beach, one of the main nesting sites for African penguins (commonly called "jackass penguins" due to the braying noise they make). Sure enough, there were penguins by the time we got to the wooden boardwalk-type path set back from the beach. When we think of penguins, they're often fully exposed to the elements - on a rocky ledge in Antarctica or somewhere. These penguins, however, like to nest underneath bushes that may provide protection for their young from predators. We spotted quite a few chicks, noticeable for their gray, fuzzy coat, hiding in the branches. What surprised me was how the only barrier separating these birds from human onlookers was the wooden railings. You literally could have reached over, plucked a penguin from the sandy soil, and taken it home.

After our penguin adventure, we continued up the M4 highway a bit and stopped in the town of Fish Hoek. We decided to have dinner there and found a restaurant right on the beach that served local fish and seafood. Not anything inspiring but decent food with sizable portions. When we sat down the restaurant was empty aside from one other person (also clad in Dutch orange), but it eventually filled up - this allayed my concerns that we had stumbled into a tourist trap and would end up with less-than-mediocre food at exorbitant prices. I had a meaty whitefish called cob paired with grilled calamari, both of which were quite good (especially with the trio of sauces served on the side: garlic, lemon, and chili).

I guess I didn't go into much detail about how beautiful the scenery was on this drive down the Cape Peninsula. It seemed oddly familiar, especially since I had been on two different stretches of Highway 1 in California over the past eight months. The one main difference was the type of rocks and the shapes of the cliffs...if I were a geologist I'd be able to explain them better. I also wish I knew more about botany so I could identify more of the plants that make the fynbos ecosystem (a very unique and well-studied one) surrounding Cape Town so renown among ecologists. A missed career opportunity, I suppose.

Posted by alsandiego 16:22 Archived in South Africa Tagged events Comments (2)

Day 2 (Continued): England vs. Algeria

My very first FIFA World Cup match is...well, less than inspiring.

Although we've been here in Cape Town for only three whole days, I feel like it's been longer due to the amount of things we've packed in. There's still much more to see, of course, but I'm very satisfied with what we've been able to do so far.

Let me backtrack to Friday evening, when we went to the first of three World Cup matches. We had decided to watch the first half of the U.S.-Slovenia match at the rental house and then go into Hout Bay to catch the second, after which we'd get on the coach bus that would take us all the way to Green Point Stadium for the game. It took us a while to find a suitable bar with a large-screen TV, but we quickly settled in for what turned out to be an awesome rally in spite of the disallowed goal by the referee. I was just glad that the U.S. didn't lose, however that third goal probably would have given us the win and four points in Group C instead of two. Sigh.

We parked the cars on the grass playing fields of Kronendal Primary School and boarded one of the buses. Most of the other riders were decked out in red & white, though it wasn't obvious if they were English or South Africans of English descent. A mere five or so minutes after we had departed, an enterprising young American guy interrupted everyone to peddle handmade scarves with attached caps - they had been knit by a waify blond woman who seemed slightly embarrassed to be walking up and down the aisle trolling for sales. The whole scene instantly reminded me of the little Bolivian boys who would get on an inter-city night bus ("buscama") and rattle off a well-rehearsed story about how they were trying to stay off the streets and would appreciate passengers buying small pieces of candy from them. Except that this dude certainly didn't look like he needed any charity. One of the members of our group bought a scarf in the English colors, and I do have to admit it was pretty well-made. And not that expensive either.

Once we arrived at Green Point, you could feel the pre-match excitement building. There were several large corporate sponsor stages where fans could dance along to tunes, have their pictures taken, get their faces painted, etc. The Coca-Cola stage seemed to be the most popular, especially when that song by K'naan came on ("When I get older, I will be stronger...") and the hired dancers shifted into a routine. We also checked out one of the fan shops but were somewhat disappointed with the selection - the official World Cup gear wasn't anything exciting, and at least half of the merchandise was directed at fans of England, Algeria, and The Netherlands (some of the teams yet to play matches in Cape Town).

While walking to our seats, I felt like I was in the UK and not far-away South Africa based on the number of English fans I saw. Sure, there were pockets of Algerians wrapped in their shiny green & white flags, but they were a drop in the bucket by comparison. What struck me was how creative spectators get with their costumes - way more so than at the three Olympiads I had attended (combined!). The most hilarious was a group of five or six Brits decked out in outfits straight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" as The Knights Who Say Ni, complete with chain mail helmets and coconut shells that they clapped together as they trotted. Hysterical! I even stopped two of them to snap a photo.

Walking into the stadium was quite a sight. Not only is the structure itself beautiful, but it was a sea of red & white. I lost count of the number of English flags festooned to the railings below each tier level. One thing I noticed was that almost all of the flags had letters printed or glued to them, usually to proclaim the specific hometown or home region of the fans who had hung them up. A few had more general messages like "Come On, England!" and one even extended recognition to South Africa for being a great host to the World Cup. It dawned on me that you would never see an American flag with such adornments. Would it ever dawn upon you, Dear Reader, that someone would paste felt letters spelling out "Wisconsin" or "Washington State" on to the Stars & Stripes? Interesting to think about how flag etiquette has evolved in different countries.

What was NOT very interesting was the game itself. Really...it was that boring. England looked like it was asleep for the entire first half and barely awake in the second. Algeria, though not particularly inspiring either, managed to keep the Three Lions at bay with good defense, quick passes, and sheer grit. I'm not going to try to dissect the game since I'm a casual soccer (yes, they say "soccer" here in South Africa rather than "football") fan at best and therefore don't have a grasp on the finer points of the game. Rather, I'm more than happy to defer to various sports Web sites to get a play-by-play. The highlight actually was seeing Princes William & Harry in the stands and David Beckham on the English bench through the lenses of my otherwise not-so-powerful binoculars. The two princes appeared fairly vexed by the lack of discipline exhibited by their team.

After the game ended, we picked our way through the dispirited English throngs, smiled at the joyous Algerians, and got back to the bus heading down to Hout Bay. Had England actually won, the picture certainly would have been a lot different. Well, this World Cup is turning out to have many surprises, though I have to feel almost sorry for fans from countries whose national teams have been hyped up so much. They have such high expectations and many of them (aside from the Brazilians, Argentines, and Dutch) have been severely disappointed.

On a final note, I was surprised by how many spectators at the match carrying the flags of their respective home countries. Not England, Algeria, or any other country represented at the World Cup for that matter. Among others, I saw Colombians, Russians, and even two people from tiny Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Lots of Americans here too, though I didn't see anyone actually bearing a U.S. flag.

Posted by alsandiego 14:13 Archived in South Africa Tagged events Comments (0)

Day 2: Adventures in Cape Town....to a Supermarket

Initial thoughts on South African society from the eyes of an intrepid supermarket shopper

sunny 72 °F

It's early afternoon here in beautiful Hout Bay. We arrived yesterday evening after a two-hour flight from Johannesburg - I was on South African Airways while everyone else flew Kulula (one of the newer low-cost carriers) so we met up at the Cape Town airport, picked up the two rental cars (no power steering), and made our way down to Hout Bay. I got to play the role of navigator, which those of you who have road-tripped with me know I do pretty well...if I say so myself. The drive took only half an hour or so, but we got a glimpse of how the "other half" of South Africa lives. Large, modern houses surrounded by high gates, some with barbed wire or electrified fences. The topography in this area is quite hilly so there are great views.

The house where we're staying is perched on the back end of Table Mountain National Park. which extends south past actual Table Mountain (the mesa-like massif that forms a striking backdrop of Cape Town) itself. We have a view to the east of the northern side of Hout Bay town as well as Imizano Yethu, the black township that sprang up in the early 90s and currently has about 33,000 residents. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Cape Town has a brief section on Hout Bay and describes the community as a miniature version of South African society, with the whites living in one area, the blacks in another, and the "coloureds" (people of mixed race - in Western Cape province that includes the Cape Malays, descendants of slaves brought from modern-day Indonesia by the Dutch) in yet another part of town called Hangberg. Since we just got here I haven't seen much, but it's not unlike Latin American cities whose socioeconomic barriers often coincide with skin color or tone.

A couple of weeks ago the Dutch people who manage the vacation rental properties asked us if we wanted to employ the services of Cesar, the woman who is the housekeeper for the family that lives here (they apparently have no interest in the World Cup and therefore went to Botswana on holiday). Although none of us is used to having such a luxury, we decided in favor of it - one of the reasons being so that we could contribute to the salary that she was already receiving from the house owners. We met her this morning and immediately took a liking to her. She's originally from a city near Durban in KwaZulu-Natal (KNZ) province on the Indian Ocean, lived in Jo'berg, and came to Cape Town because her husband "works on the sea" as she said. Our breakfast consisted of multi-grain bread, sausages, sliced tomatoes, cut fruit (including papaya, which I devoured since virtually no one else would eat it). and these biscotti-like things called "rusks" that had pumpkin seeds, currants, and some other things in them. Really good, so much so that I might have to buy a box and take them back to the U.S.

We had expressed an interest in going shopping with Cesar so five of us piled into one of rental cars and headed to Pick n Pay in Constantia, a neighboring town to the east famous for its wine estates. The supermarket was in a large strip mall-type of complex obviously catering to the well-to-do. The parking lot was really crowded and we barely found a space. The government extended the school holidays for the entire month of the World Cup, though the reaction was not all favorable as I read in a local newspaper on the flight down from Jo'berg (largely related to the additional costs of child care). Many cars had a South African flag attached by a suction cup to one of the windows, and a few were flying a second flag. Prior to arriving, I read somewhere on-line that the 2010 World Cup may have the same effect as the 1995 Rugby World Cup but on the opposite population. Soccer in South Africa traditionally has been the favored sport of the blacks, whereas rugby is dominated by whites - both in terms of players and fans. If you've seen the Clint Eastwood-directed moving "Invictus" with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar (the captain of the South African rubgy team, aka the Springboks or just "Boks" in English and "Bokke" in Dutch-based Afrikaans) then you understand how rugby started appealing more to the black population. The same thing hadn't happened with soccer, however the World Cup seems to be changing that. Inside the supermarket I spotted a few whites, including an Afrikaans-speaking boy, wearing the national team jersey.

You can find lots about race relations in South Africa in other sources, both in print and on-line, and I'm not going to proclaim myself as anything close to an expert just because I made the long trip down here for a ten-day stay. As you can imagine, there are many schools of thought on race in this country - you can ask ten South Africans of all colors about race and you'll probably get ten different answers. But having been exposed to apartheid through the international media, I as a foreigner can't come here and not think about, be intrigued by, or wonder about how South Africa has changed since the transition to a multi-ethnic democracy. As a non-white American I also am intrigued by how people here may perceive me. Our group is quite diverse: four whites, two Latinos (the younger two Clasens were adopted as infants from Guatemala), and two Chinese-Americans (the other being the fiancee of the eldest Clasen child). I was joking with Cesar at the supermarket that we ourselves are a "Rainbow Nation" - this is a nickname coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the new South Africa. She had remarked earlier in the morning that she was a bit confused by our racial make-up. Pretty funny.

The Pick n Pay was packed (how's that for alliteration!) with shoppers, virtually all of whom were white. From what I saw, all of the employees were either black or colored. Most of the whites were speaking English but I heard some Afrikaans as well. The only non-black and non-white people outside of our group were one man of Indian descent picking through the potatoes at the same time I was, and a hijab-wearing woman who was our cashier. I can't say I was expecting anything different, but seeing it with my own eyes was, well, eye-opening. And that's really all I can say - nothing of note happened while we were there, other than our stuffing the shopping cart with R2720 (about $360) worth of food, which for nine people probably won't last more than a few days.

One of the items in our cart was a package of dry mealie (corn) meal, which is used to make pap. Pap is a stiff porridge that forms the base of meals for black South Africans. I'm guessing it's like the ugali that I ate in Tanzania back in 2002. While driving to the Pick n Pay, we had asked Cesar if she could cook some typical South African food. She assumed we wouldn't be interested in what black people eat, but we told her we were so she added that to our shopping list.

Later this afternoon we're watching the first half of the U.S.-Slovenia match here at the house and then will head into Hout Bay town for the second half. From there we'll catch a bus (free with a game day match ticket) to the stadium at Green Point, just south of the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Waterfront downtown, for the England-Algeria match. Kick-off is at 8:30pm so it's going to be a bit windy and chilly, though not nearly as cold as when I landed in Jo'burg.

A final observation: at an intersection near the Pick n Pay there was a black man dressed up as Michael Jackson, complete with a white sequined glove. We saw him dancing for tips - moonwalking an all - on the way to the store and again on the way back. It was a hoot, but it also reminded me of kids I've seen in some Latin American cities who dress up as clowns and juggle in front of cars stopped at stoplights. In countries with huge gaps in income distribution as well as high rates of unemployment, making an extra buck (or, in this case, rand) sometimes comes with a dose of ingenuity and creativity.

Posted by alsandiego 05:07 Archived in South Africa Tagged events Comments (0)

South Africa!!

Al Sandiego on the loose at yet another global sporting event...the 2010 FIFA World Cup


Hello, gentle readers! It indeed has been a while since my last post, but from the very beginning the purpose of this blog was to report on vacations taken overseas and NOT work trips! Canada doesn't count, otherwise I would have blogged from Vancouver in February (at the Winter Olympics) and Montreal this past Memorial Day weekend.

I just arrived a couple of hours ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, after an eleven-hour British Airways flight from London Heathrow. O.R. Tambo International Airport is much bigger than I thought it would be. I'm sitting across from the food court where there are various restaurants, the only familiar one being Subway. There's a fish-and-chip shop, an Indian place (lots of Indians here, especially in Durban), a burger joint called Wimpy, and a well-known chain called Nando's that specializes in piri-piri chicken. I headed for the Fournos Bakery and got a shrimp "rissole" and a veggie samoosa (yes, that's how they spell it here). The rissole looked like a South American empanada but was deep-fried, and inside were two or three shrimp surrounded by a very salty, thick gravy-like mush. I couldn't decide if I liked it or not, but there are very few things that are deep-fried that I will not eat.

Most of you were aware already that I'm here for the FIFA World Cup. This trip has been almost two years in the making, and it's hard to believe I've finally arrived. I've wanted to come to South Africa ever since the early 90s, right around the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the country came out of the darkness of the apartheid era. I almost had the opportunity in 1998 when I was working at the World Wildlife Fund in D.C. I was helping to plan a conference of African wildlife & conservation experts in Cape Town but left to go into the Peace Corps before it actually happened. The temp admin assistant in our department took over that task and got to travel. She sent me a postcard, saying what a great time she was having. I was pissed! So I've waited a good, long time to make this journey and am thrilled to be here.

I still have six hours before my connecting flight on South African Airways (a Star Alliance member = more Continental OnePass miles!) to Cape Town and am not sure what I'm going to do. I have to pick up the tickets to the three Group matches that we're seeing (England vs. Algeria, Portugal vs. North Korea, and The Netherlands vs. Cameroon) at the kiosk on the lower level of the airport, but other than that I just need to wait. The Clasen clan is on its way from London via Nairobi - we're on different flights to Cape Town and may just meet up at the airport there. For those of you who don't know them, the Clasens are a family I befriended in Milwaukee when I lived there. Mary Pat introduced Alterra (my former employer) to the Kulaktik cooperative back in 1998, and when I started working there in early 2001 I took over the communication and management of that relationship and got to know her and eventually her entire family. The four kids are spread around now, and Mary Pat and her husband Tom have sold their house in suburban Milwaukee and currently are based in San Francisco. In August 2008 I met up with them in Sisters, Oregon, where Tom's twin brother lives. While on a hike Tomas (the third of four children) expressed interest in going to the World Cup, Mary Pat told him it wouldn't happen unless I planned it. So that's the back story on how I got here.

We're renting a large house in Hout Bay, a community south of Cape Town right on the Atlantic. It looks pretty sweet from the pictures I've seen on the Web site, and being in a house will give us the opportunity to eat in and not have to go to restaurants for every single meal. Even though it's winter here (it was -5 C when the plane landed at 8am earlier this morning) it's still mostly sunny. Plus it should be warmer in Cape Town than Jo'burg. We have the rental for nine nights, after which everyone else will fly back to London - I'm staying an extra night and will meet up with my good friend Monica's older brother, Paul, who just happened to overlap with me by two days. The media has reported on multiple occasions that the U.S. had the most World Cup ticket orders of any country other than South Africa, and I've already heard that there are a handful of people I know who trekked all the way over.

I fortunately had three days in Europe before last night's marathon flight. Just getting there required two flights on Air Canada (Seattle-Toronto and Toronto-London) and a third on Lufthansa (London-Cologne/Bonn). I went to Bonn to visit my friend Michaelyn B. and her family who just moved there this past March after having spent a zillion years in Central America. She works for Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), the governing body of Fair Trade. I hadn't been to Germany since a month before I left for Bolivia and felt an odd desire to re-immerse (and prove to myself that I still could get by in German). It was a very short visit - only two nights - and I spent a good part of it sleeping off the jetlag, but I was happy to be back there. On Sunday night the five of us went to the central pedestrian zone in Bonn to watch the Germany-Australia match. We ended up at the Salvatorkeller, a restaurant/pub operated by Paulaner (one of the six main breweries in Munich). They had one of my favorite Bavarian dishes, leberkaese, and Paulaner Weissbier is also a thing of beauty.

I got to London on Tuesday afternoon and stayed with my friend John S. whom I had met in Milwaukee. He's lived in London for 6-1/2 years now and took me to two pubs and a great little restaurant. Although it was my fifth or sixth trip there, I still don't feel like I know the city all that well. I have been to all of the major sights but can never seem to get my bearings...which is rare since I pride myself on having a great sense of direction. Even so, I find London to be fascinating and could see myself living there someday.

One final random story before I shut down: there was quite a scrum at the baggage claim but in general people seemed to be pretty mellow (probably tired from the long flights to get here). Out of nowhere someone down the hall blew a vuvuzela, that long, plastic horn that's gotten a lot of media attention during the World Cup because of the annoying (for spectators) and distracting (for players) din that it creates. Immediately people started laughing because we were barely off the plane before someone greeted us with this trumpeted noise. I happened to have earplugs and definitely will be taking them to the three matches that we're seeing. As I type this, I'm hearing other vuvuzelas in the atrium below...better get used to it.

Posted by alsandiego 00:52 Archived in South Africa Tagged events Comments (1)

I Could Have Been a Lounge Singer...

Al Sandiego discovers the cult of karaoke

I always find it interesting meeting and getting to know Chinese people from other countries. While we all share a common ancestral homeland, culture, and certain traditions, we are also the products of the countries in which we were born and raised. Having just come from Malaysia where the Chinese community is quite large and visible, I wasn’t sure what to expect here in Indonesia. I had heard and read things over the years, and last summer while in Beijing for the Olympics I spent an afternoon with a Chinese Indonesian woman who is a friend of my cousin and his wife. She told me that she had to learn Mandarin once she arrived in Beijing (her American husband also works at the U.S. Embassy) because she never studied it during her childhood in Jakarta. It wasn’t a matter of her not being interested. She and all of the ethnic Chinese in the entire country were officially banned from even speaking it during the years under the Soeharto regime.

In the lobby of the J.W. Marriott I had passed small groups of people whom I’m sure were of Chinese descent but were speaking Bahasa Indonesia. I spotted more on the streets and in the restaurants where we ate. They seemed to be fully integrated in Indonesian society, whereas the Chinese in Malaysia generally seemed to segregate themselves. On Thursday evening, I met with two representatives from the Jakarta office of M., a large multinational corporation that has been assisting Atlas with sourcing, logistics, etc. I had been referred to them by the head of M.’s U.S. office just a week or so before I departed Seattle. It turns out that these two had flown up to Medan just to meet me and introduce me to several exporters.

That evening we had dinner at a very nice Chinese restaurant with the son and daughter-in-law of the owner of the largest coffee exporter in all of Sumatra. One of their employees was there as well. All six of us at the table were Chinese and eating Chinese food, yet speaking in English. The next day the two guys from Jakarta took me to visit three exporters, the first one being the one who had hosted us for dinner the previous evening. We spent a couple of hours there, first cupping coffees processed four different ways (fully washed, semi-washed, natural, and unwashed) and then seeing the milling operations.

From there we went to a smaller exporter whose facility was practically empty. The owner, a man in his 50s, seemed to know quite a bit of English but was more comfortable using Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin. So I managed to communicate using Mandarin even though my proficiency is probably at a second grader’s level. He took us out to lunch at a Japanese restaurant inside the Cambridge Plaza, which is the fanciest shopping mall in Medan. Fancy, indeed! I ended up getting chirashi zushi which is what I normally order at Japanese restaurants in the U.S., but while I was eating it I began to question the wisdom of ordering raw fish in a developing country. I hadn’t given it any thought when I ordered, yet I pictured myself getting stricken with a bad case of food poisoning and having to cancel the trip to the Gayo Highlands. Fortunately nothing happened and my mostly strong intestinal system prevailed once again.

The last visit of the day was with yet two more ethnic Chinese exporters, one of whom is based in Jakarta. We did a quick cupping and the obligatory warehouse tour, but the entire time I feared what might come later that evening. The exporter from Jakarta had invited us to dinner at an informal restaurant specializing in seafood. I had been forewarned about him, his fondness for whiskey, and his tendency to push the whiskey on others. My guides promised to shield me from any uncomfortable situations, especially since I had a 7am flight the next morning. The dinner itself was great. I was served a grilled prawn so big that I thought it was a lobster. I ate an entire deep-fried pomfret fish, bones and all. I drank the refreshing liquid from a huge coconut and squeezed some lime juice into it.

What happened after dinner was definitely one of the most bizarre experiences of my entire life. My understanding was that we were going somewhere to have a drink, so I had a hotel bar in mind. We were driven to a different neighborhood and parked in front of an old building constructed during the Dutch colonial era. There were heavy, dark curtains on the windows so I couldn’t tell what it was. After we walked inside, the first thing I noticed was the colored lighting: very dim, but I recall a deep shade of red that was almost purple. We walked down a narrow hallway on the first floor, turned a corner, and then came to a staircase. At the top of the staircase was a hostess station staffed by two women in very short skirts and a man. One of the women seemed to recognize our host and immediately swiped a card that granted us access to the second-floor. Down another narrow hallway with black walls and doors, each with an electronic keypad mounted next to it. I started to wonder what was happening behind each of those doors. Was it a private strip show? On the flight from Seattle to Tokyo I watched the movie “Taken,” starring Liam Neeson as the father of high school-aged girl who gets abducted in Paris and sold into a sex slave ring. In one scene there are extremely wealthy men bidding on the daughter (who’s been drugged so that she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on), each one sitting in a darkened glass enclosure and pressing a button to place a bid. I thought of this scene as we were walking down these hallways.

Finally we stopped in front of a doorway and, with another quick swipe of the magical card, were shown insde. One of the other exporters with whom we had met in the third visit was already there with two younger women. It was a private karaoke lounge, and one of the women was singing along to a song in Bahasa Indonesia. I laughed. Mind you, I’d tried karaoke only once before in my entire life, and that was at a Mexican restaurant in Lower Queen Anne when I unsuccessfully tried singing along to Mana but ended up mouthing the words because I couldn’t remember the exact lyrics. But I never had personally seen karaoke like this, with a huge screen, a full menu of songs in multiple languages, and an enormous sound system.

I had promised myself that I would stay for no more than one hour. Magically two bottles of whiskey appeared, one being Johnnie Walker Blue Label. I can’t remember the other, but something liked MacLellan’s. I was asked to sample both and choose the one I liked better, and I ended up taking both glasses. Drink in hand, I started looking at the sub-menu of songs in English and felt bold enough to try my hand (well, voice) at “Summer of ‘69” which had been my favorite song during the summer of 1985. I knew the lyrics well, but Bryan Adams’ voice is at a higher register that mine won’t reach without straining. Plus I don’t sing well if there’s no one else with whom to sing.

The Jakarta-based exporter turned out to be quite good, even at his age, so we agreed to do Sinatra’s “My Way” together. I have only one CD but am a pretty big fan of Frank and can do a mean rendition of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” (just ask my former co-dwellers of Da Lower Mezz , aka the basement office at the old Alterra HQ). As much as I think I suck, I actually sang much better than I thought I could (again, it makes all the difference when I can match my voice with someone else’s). We got a huge applause from the three women in the room. Feeling flush with my sudden vocal prowess, I was ready for something more of my era. I picked Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and together with the assistant manager of M. we whipped out the air guitars and invisible drum sets and rocked that private karaoke lounge.

By this time I had passed my self-imposed one-hour limit. I wasn’t ready to hand over the mike, though…my flirtation with a singing career wasn’t quite done. Someone suggested The Beatles, and I persuaded everyone to do “Twist & Shout” which is probably the most un-Beatles song in their entire repertoire. Of course, I knew it best from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” having watched that 80s cult classic at least 75 times (I kid you not…”I’m very cute, and I’m very alone, and I don’t want my body to be violated in any way! Speak any English?!”). I threw in the back-up vocals and for good measure ended the song with a kick like Matthew Broderick does in the movie. Or that’s how I seem to remember it.

We were out of there by 10pm, and as I walked through the eerily familiar hallways of the club I felt a new appreciation for karaoke. It indeed is a lot of fun. You don’t even have to be drunk to enjoy it. I had consumed three small glasses of whiskey and barely felt the effects. Too bad that karaoke has become synonymous with seedy bars populated by lonely men and trashy women. While I wait for it to come back into fashion, I will need to take some singing lessons with my future brother-in-law, Justin, a classically-trained baritone. So watch out!

Posted by alsandiego 07:56 Archived in Indonesia Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

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