Thursday, June 11, 2015

Writer's Block


I have writer’s block. In fact I’ve had it for quite sometime. Almost a year if not more. Wikipedia, one of my go-to sites, defines it as a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer's block has been a documented problem.


The Wiki page also mentions that even the prominent writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Mitchell had writer’s block at some point in their career. 

Well, unlike the aforementioned literary greats, writing is not my career. It’s rather a hobby, not even a job. (although I have been paid for my writing works I can’t quite call myself a professional just yet)

I started this blog to practice writing. I love the creative process. Crafting an attractive sentence takes a certain amount of work and concentration. It’s fun coming up with my own metaphors, compound adjectives and phrasal verbs that make sounds or rhyming pattern. I enjoy working on the pace and flow of the piece till they are smooth and fluid while making sure that the reader catches a glimpse of my personality as well. Most of all, I like being able to reflect on my feelings and share my experiences through the art of writing.

In the first year, I made 58 posts but the number of blog posts have dwindled in the years that followed. Lately it seems my inspiration has run dry and I find myself writing nothing at all.


When I do try to write or force myself to do so, I usually don’t like the result and often I give up midway. I can no longer finish a piece at one sitting. I’d postpone and procrastinate. (It took five weeks to finish my last travel piece. It was less than 2000 words and I disliked it greatly) Currently, I have at least four or five travel articles unfinished. Wait, I lied. “Unfinished” means there’s a possibility that I would continue at some point and eventually complete it. Nope, not interested! I might as well file them under the chuck-it pile.

In order to write, I need to have something to say. And I should have a lot to say, considering that I am an avid traveler, I meet interesting people and have exciting experiences. But it seems I have lost my voice. Part of the reason, I believe is that I may have begun to take myself a little too seriously. Reading back some of my early posts, although I was experimenting with different styles and was writing about anything that gave me a jolt really, I can’t say I am proud of them. As I see more of my works published in magazines and on websites, I feel a sense of responsibility. But really, whom do I owe this to? And what am I responsible for? I am not quite sure. Could it be that I want to focus more on quality than quantity? Clearly I have become my own harsh critic.  But I do know that I want to be honest and I should be writing what I would read. 


Concentration is my other struggle. My mind travels. The planets and beyond. With a speed faster than light. I can’t quite stay long on one thing. What’s next is what I’m after, it seems. Even when I do research online for, let’s say, a travel article that I’m writing, instead of reading the web page till completion, I would click on hyperlinks I find in the text that interest me. I just keep on clicking and clicking that, in the end, I’d end up with 25 ongoing tabs on my Google Chrome. And I haven’t read any of them thoroughly either. Going back and forth in between these tabs, I’m reminded how shambolic I have been. That’s when I stop writing altogether. 


In addition to the windows and tabs I have opened, notifications from Facebook would distract me to no end. And I let it. I’m the one to blame. If it’s not from my Mac, it’s the ping from my phone coaxing me to spend more time on Facebook. To see what? Yet another cat video that a friend posted? A funny comment that I feel obliged to type “LOL” to? If it’s not the social media, it is Whatsapp or one of those apps that gets me tangled up in the World Wide Web, assuring an absolute unproductivity.  


Ideas come to me. They do when I’m least expecting them. The desire to write too stops by every now and then. I’d read an article that makes me go, “I could have written that” while sitting on the toilet bowl. Or in the morning when I wake up, still trying to gather up myself, or during a sleepless night, tossing and turning in bed. Or in gym when I’m working out in between sets. However, when I do sit at my desk and open up my Word document, the first thing that arrives - “wait, do I need more coffee?” Or if it’s at night, I’d have to go and pour some more wine. But the ideas have long fled by the time I’m back with a mug. An empty page is all I have left. 

Writing about not being able to write is whacky. Almost an oxymoron. But it’s certainly therapeutic. And I’m close to 1000 words. I’d feel so much better by the time I publish this on my blog. Yes, I still climb up and down between paragraphs. I have scratched some ideas and deleted a few paragraphs even for this piece. Still being a perfectionist but that’s ok, I guess. At least I’m writing.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Summerly things to do in Cape Town

Get outta town!

Wait, what? The must-do list in Cape Town begins with a tip to go out of town? Well, yes, the go-to attractions of this naturally blessed city are scattered, but luckily not so far from one another. From its sensational coastline, enchanting wineries, cute colonial towns to panoramic lookouts, take advantage of fine weather and cruise down the Cape peninsular.


Starting with the obvious tourist temptations, The Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the two over-the-top rocky capes, both are part of “Table Mountain National Park”. Contrary to the popular belief, neither one is actually the southernmost point of Africa, where the cold Atlantic Ocean and the warm Indian Ocean collide. In fact, the two oceans’ meeting point fluctuates along the southern and southwestern Cape coast, usually occurring between Cape point and Cape Agulhas, which is about 150 km from the Cape of Good Hope. 

 

Put on your comfy sneakers, wear your sunscreen and carry no more than a bottle of water and your camera, as there is a lot of climbing and hiking involved. You may want a jumper too if you are going to catch sunset there as the winds are strong. Andkeep your eyes peeled for the cape citizens, especially those awkward ostriches. (I saw one that sashayed down towards the beach without a care in the world)




On the way to the capes, have a stopover at Chapman’s peak. A dramatic mountain on the western side of the peninsula and only 15 km away from Cape Town, is known not just for its breathtaking viewpoint that overlooks the magnificent Hout Bay, also for the unique road, hacked out of the face of the mountain in the 1920s, a major engineering triumph back then. The surreal backdrop of nature attracts bikers, hikers and runners to enjoy their sport activities here.

Simon’s Town is an ideal pause for lunch. Enjoy fish and chips at Bertha’s, a waterfront restaurant with spectacular views of False Bay, yacht club and the South African Naval Base. Stroll around the historical center after an espresso or two to catch a glimpse of all things nostalgic. Head towards Boulders beach for calm shallow water and white sandy beaches to further digest your lunch. If you are lucky, you might get acquainted with the famous locals, the colony of African Penguins
.

A glass or two ... or ten!
South African wines are some of the best in the world and Cape Town has more than a handful of wineries to visit once you are done pursuing panoramas. Consider a day of driving around wine towns to keep you busy and boozy, well, as long as you are not the one driving. 


Franschhoek is considered one of the most beautiful wine valleys in the world, with award-winning restaurants, galleries, auberges, boutiques and of course vineyards founded by the Huguenots from France, hence the names of the farms, streets and shops bear their original French names to this day. Stellenbosch, on the other hand is a much larger commune, also a student town, as the Stellenbosch University is one of the leading ones in the country. Typical Dutch style houses, world-class wine estates such as Stellenbosch Hills and Bottelary Hills, trendy caf
és, eye-catching craft shops and countless numbers of oak trees and green spaces in the town make Stellenbosch a must-visit spot in Cape Town.

I had a lovely meal by accident at Laborie wine estate in Paarl, the third oldest town and European settlement in South Africa. After driving around the wine region, I realized it was way past lunchtime. Simply ignoring the winery recommendations from friends and instead following the order of my growling tummy, I dropped in at Laborie, the nearest and the most convenient choice. Their elegant terrace restaurant offers both South African and international cuisines with impeccable service. Plus I fell in love with their interesting blend of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir, which was aromatic, rich and refreshing that I bought 5 bottles to take home.

On the waterfront

Even if you are not into retail therapy and maddening crowds annoy you, you must at least save a day to experience the V&A Waterfront. It reminded me of the harbor scene in Sydney, Australia. But this is way much wilder! The chaos, madness, street performers, merchandises, bargains and activities, this is a total tourist turf. 


  

It is also perfect for inexpensive seafood restaurants (Check out “Balducci’s” and “Ocean Basket”, two of my personal favorites), people watching, souvenir picking and shopping both local crafts and international brands. Not to mention, the cinema complexes, a world-class aquarium and two museums that could keep you entertained. If you happen to be a romantic kind, take your lover and hop on to the giant observation wheel, which offers 360-degree vista of the vibrant harbor scene, the spectacular views of Table Mountain, Robben Island and the Cape Town Stadium. Boats of many kinds; whale watchers, city explorers, nature discoverers and sunset cruisers, oh, you name it; take off from the jetty here to experience the city from the water. Of course if you can spare a few hundred bucks, what’s better way to see the city than from a helicopter. 


This particular place, named after Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria, attracts 23 million visitors a year. Definitely more in the future as the R500-million redevelopment project which will feature a state of the art contemporary African art museum is expected to complete in 2016. 

Up to the mountain

Hikers will be thrilled to tackle the icon, Table Mountain that stands majestically at 3,558 feet. But don’t worry, if you are not a Bear-Grylls type, there are two cable cars that can make your journey to the top as comfortable as possible, although the queue, especially during summer time, is extra (extra!) long and the wait seems forever. (Well, this is when your smart phone comes in handy; read news, watch YouTube, Facebook, edit photos to kill time but make sure it’s fully charged

 
  
However, the view from the top is worth boredom and agitation that you suffer while waiting in line. Really, it is an understatement to say it takes your breath away. In fact, you need some time to stand still and compose yourself. I, for instance was caught off guard by the sheer beauty of this natural being, I couldn’t decide which direction to take; I wanted to run amok all over the mountaintop so flat that it was more like a theatre stage, taking in the impressive views of the city under from every possible angle and corner.

  
  

The lion’s head, the neighboring mountain peak at 2195 feet, sits formidably like a sphinx guarding the city, which lies flat at its foot and before the sweeping waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Table Mountain is seen, oftentimes covered by orographic clouds, locally known as, “table cloth”, from every corner of the city and vice versa, you can see just about anything from the top; a sprawling city that houses nearly 4 million habitants.  

               
Flora and fauna enthusiasts will have an opportunity to view unique plants and flower species here, many of them, endangered and rare. As for me, a family of Dassie, the rock-climbing hyrax, was quite amusing to watch. The rat-like herbivores were nimble, jumping from one edge of the cliff to another at the height of over 3,000 feet. High-flyers indeed.

The warning though is that it took me nearly two hours waiting for the cable car in line to come down. So if you have anything planned afterwards, such as dinner in the city, you might want to be flexible.

Be the Beach bum


People flock to Camps Bay for its insanely white sandy beaches even though the water is freezing cold. With trendy bars, hotels, restaurants and activities, this well-known place is busy with locals and tourists alike. Clifton on the other hand is Cape Town’s affluent neighborhood. You will see million dollar homes on the hills overlooking the sea. There are four beaches, named simply from 1st to 4th, and the 3rd is quite popular with gays. Play beach volley ball, laze in the sun, a day of family picnic, stroll on the beach dotted with granite boulders or just simply catch sunset with your loved one, Clifton can’t be missed.  

    
I was told that the water was not as cold in False Bay but hey, the warmer water usually means sharks!!! And there have been a few attacks recently. As I walked along the Clifton 3 at sunset, I put my feet into the water. It was definitely not swimmable unless you put on a wetsuit. Although it’s one of the world’s top 10 beach destinations and it is SUMMER, you don’t have to swim, really. There are just way too many things here that you can appreciate. For example, I truly enjoyed my leisurely beach walk admiring the12 apostles, a small group of mountain peaks that run along the coast, change colors as the sun went down. The unique postcard-like spectacle is going to be forever tattooed in my memory.

  
                


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My First Safari



I’m not an animal person. I find them very unpredictable and I must say, my previous animal encounters have been somewhat unpleasant. A neighborhood dog, for example, traumatized me throughout of my childhood. A friend’s adorable Persian feline scratched me till I bled. An allegedly gentle horse ran away neighing as I tried to caress his mane. Even when I swam with dolphins, I got bitten. Twice! No one would believe this story but that’s okay.

So…when I get to travel the world, the idea of safari or camping in the wild ranks not very high on my wish list. I have instead chosen the history and cultures of Europe, the urban energy of the United States, the fascinating fiestas of South America and the alluring gastronomic scene of South East Asia as priorities.   

Here I sit anxiously, comfortable yet confined, on a ten-seater bush plane that travels across Botswana’s Okavango delta that stretches over 16,000 km2. A15-minute flight, from the tourist town, Maun, is flying me into a safari camp. The small Cessna is jumpy at times and very stuffy inside. Sweaty palms and feeling tense all over, I begin to play I Spy game in order to distract myself from advancing nausea. It is difficult to spot any animal from 1200 feet. All I could see is an intricate patchwork of earthy-hued savannahs, swamps, lagoons and woods.

It looked so relaxed and romantic when Meryl Streep and Robert Redford did it in “Out of Africa”.

The first animals sighted are the two baboons monkeying around on the runway as we land. We receive a VIP welcome upon our arrival at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, with the entire staff members singing and dancing, which makes me blush a little. We are then briefed about the lodge, Safari programs and most importantly security. We are advised not to roam around on our own at night. The guides will be on standby if and when we need to go out of our tents as wild animals such as hyenas and hippos could be out and about.

      

Make no mistake! It’s far from camping. Not in a traditional sense at least. It’s rather glam-ping, I believe. The property operated by Belmond, formerly known as Orient Express Ltd, offers luxury thatch-roofed tents complete with four-poster bed, en suite bathroom, fully-stocked minibar, air-conditioning and this has got to be my favorite part, a private deck with easy chairs and a hammock.


Four elephants are grazing just right in front my tent.  Not long after, I receive a visit from two gorgeous Giraffes. It truly feels surreal to see animals that large hanging out a few meters away from me as I sit and sip my first glass of champagne on my porch, watching sunset.  
 

Soon begins my first safari ride. Just as the jeep leaves, we come across a small group of impalas right outside the gate. They are African antelope, elegant and nimble, which reminds me of Bambi. Minutes later, Sile, our safari guide, shows us a baby giraffe in the bush. The little one is still learning to walk, wobbly and awkward, clearly frightened by us, visitors. Sile notes that the nursing mother cannot be too far away considering the size of the infant.

  

Sile doesn’t smile very much and in fact has a stern, serious look at times. But he’s expert in wildlife and always rises to the occasion whenever questions are raised. Although he had warned us beforehand that the chances of animal sightings may vary and that it was, understandably, all up to the nature, we have so far seen zebras, antelopes, eagles, cranes, giraffes, elephants, baboons and warthogs. Being a safari guide is not an easy task. Not only must they be expert drivers but also possess discerning eyes. For example, Sile has just seen a leopard sitting on a tree about 100 meters away while driving through a muddy bumpy road. How is that possible? Search me. As excited as I am, Sile, flashing a rare grin, drives us closer to the cat. He too hasn’t seen a leopard in three years in this camp. 


Admittedly, I’m nervous as we go closer. My mind races with questions. First of all, we are on an open-air jeep. What if the animal jumped on us? Could there be others, (its relatives perhaps?) waiting to ambush us? Are we allowed to shoot if and when we get attacked? 



This is my first encounter with a wild animal, a predator that is not caged like in zoo. Sile chuckles at my is-it-safe? question.
He assures, “Animal sees the jeep as one unit. As long as you don’t get out or stand up, you are perfectly safe”

What a beautiful beast, so agile and ethereal. Admiring it up close makes me understand why mankind has always wanted its majestic fur. The sound of jeep engine is obviously disturbing.  The cat strides down swiftly and hides behind the tree before creeping into the grasslands with its spotty tail pointing out to the sky.  

“He’s not on hunting mode. You can tell because he’s flipping the tail over his back revealing the white underside. He’s not seeking prey”, explains Sile. 


Well, I’m glad.

       
Bush walk, the next morning, gets interrupted due to heavy rain. But Sile leads us into the woods once the downpour dashes. It’s eerily quiet apart from a chirpy orchestra of winged creatures. A trio of cranes is looking for worms or bugs that now cannot fly away, soaked in the rainwater. A kingfisher is drying off its wings on a tree nearby. An elegant baobab tree, a common species found in the region, poses jubilantly, looking rather like a feather-clad Vegas dancer. For an hour or so, we continue savannah strolling while taking a crash course on various plants, herbs, animal behaviors and fascinating past Safari experiences of our guide extraordinaire. Zebras and impalas are everywhere but they do not like us too close. They would run off in synchronized manner, only to pause at a distance, turn their heads dramatically, looking back at us in unison. 


Do y’all know what that sound is? Sile challenges us. It surely sounds like that of a giant but I can’t answer the question. Following Sile,I hop on a hill that overlooks a river where a group of hippos, approximately 20, are swimming, submerged in the water. Weirdly enough, their snorting sound resembles starting of a car engine. Such gigantic animal but their graceful manner makes me want to dive in there and pet them on their back........... until I learn that “hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other large animals”. 


The best way to do safari, in my honest opinion, is not on foot or by jeep, but from a helicopter, well, if one could afford it. Four-seater chopper, including the pilot, is the smallest helicopter I have ever been on. Chris, our friendly South African pilot, very much aware that I’m armed with a big-ass camera, looking vaguely like a journalist, helps me with my photography endeavor. Always informing me about animals and what to spot ahead of time, he flies both high and low, which gives me a chance to photograph from different perspectives and angles.



As our helicopter comes near, a herd of elephants relishing a mud bath, run off to hide behind the trees. Little do they know their massive behinds are hard to conceal. The two large buffalos stare right at us, puzzled but unafraid, with a determination to charge at us if and when necessary. Wildebeests are shy but it’s truly magical when they run with their manes flaring in the wind. We fly above wetlands shooing away sun-tanning crocodiles on the riverbank and shrimp-hunting flamingoes amongst water lilies. It is an adventure so thrilling that an hour flies by so quickly.  

 
“We have arranged some hippos for you today”, jokes the lodge manager pointing at the bloat of hippos enjoying a douche in a distance. We have moved to another lodge, 30 minutes plane ride away from Eagle Island, called Khwai river lodge, also operated by Belmond. Our safari guide, Moses has the friendliest smile and very calm character. He would stop the jeep often to explain about the animal footprints, make us listen to the various sounds of birds - differentiating between stress-call and soft coo and entertain us with fun wildlife trivia. It feels like watching Animal Planet live.

While enlightening us about African stinking ants, Moses receives a radio message from one of his fellow rangers. He then announces joyfully,

“The lions have killed a baby giraffe”. Sad news such as this is clearly a delight to safari guides. 

Excited to see one of Safari’s big five (along with buffalo, leopard, rhino and elephant), we set out to the Moremi game reserve where a pride of 7 awaits. Moses believes that the cats are resting after the giraffe banquet. Their rounded tummies indicate that they have had a lovely meal. However, it turns out that the dead animal is a hyena, not a giraffe as previously reported.

    

 “Lions don’t eat other meat-eaters. It’s likely that the hyena may have come to steal their food, which in this case, could be a giraffe, kudu or zebra. I’m guessing that there are more lions, possibly a male lion behind this forest, still eating that animal. If we are lucky we might be able to see him today.” 

Eeeeeew! What a way to go! With its stomach wide open and the insides out, the hyena lies lifeless next to a napping lioness. Vultures are on standby on a dead tree nearby, waiting patiently for the leftovers. Two other lionesses languidly lounge on the bed of green grass a few meters away, babysitting their young. The four cubs are tossing and turning like fur balls, adorable and child-like, winning the bystanders’ hearts with their mischievous demeanor.




Nothing could prepare you for your first safari experience. Like many, I arrive here with expectations based on what I have seen on National Geographic channel or Animal Planet programs. However, in reality, it is a gamble, really. There’s no guarantee that you will see the big five or say, flocks of flamingoes flying fabulously as seen in “Out Of Africa”. There are days that we drive around for hours with not even a glimpse of animal. Also there are days that we keep bumping into the same animals; such as impalas in my case; they are far from extinction and will survive till the end of time, it seems. Five days is more than enough for Safari. Rainy season should be avoided if you intend to see lots of animals. Water is everywhere during monsoon, therefore animals are scattered all across the delta. There is no need for them to gather around a pond or river. July and August are considered the best time for Safari. Both our safari guides try their best and work really hard under given circumstances. Especially Moses, on the days we see less animals, he sounds very apologetic as though it is his fault.

  
I will definitely miss the natural warmth and effortless charm of Batswana people and the fragrance of wild sage that grows with reckless abandon all across the delta. Photographing animals in their natural habitat is both challenging and thrilling for me. Especially from a moving jeep. I learn a lot as a photographer as I am always on-the-prowl mode just like a predator hunting its prey. Not only must I be quick but also able to go for the kill when the opportunity presents.

But, no...unfortunately!  I didn’t get that iconic “Giraffe in sunset silhouette ” shot.