Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pictures from the safari and Table Mountain hike


The safari wasn't all that impressive in terms of animals, but it was still a nice day. We drove about 2 or 3 hours out of Cape Town to this reserve, and had tea before the safari and lunch after it. The safari itself was comparable to San Diego Wild Animal Park, but I had to see some of the traditional animals while in Africa. The album is a little bit boring, a ton of repetitive shots of animals that I didn't feel like weeding through. But enjoy anyway!

Table Mountain

Jaime and I went one afternoon to hike the easiest path up Table Mountain. We went with Angelique, an older volunteer from Detroit, and Katie, who has since hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. Jaime and I were pretty slow going up, stopping every ten minutes to admire the view and take pictures of the City Bowl. (Driving at night the view of the City Bowl reminds me of the view of the San Fernando Valley from Mulholland Drive or the 405 North on steroids). So there's a ton of repetitive scenery shots in this album, but I just couldn't resist taking out my camera. We finally made it to the top after about 2 hours. I rejuvenated myself with some water and a bag of pretzels and bought a Table Mountain beanie as a souvenir. And then we hiked back down it at dusk racing the Sun all the way.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Russian cultural excursions (old pictures)

Here are some old pictures and quick descriptions of different cultural trips we took in Russia. Because in the past I've had trouble linking to every specific album, this time I'm just going to link to my Picasa page and I trust that you'll be able to find the corresponding album. http://picasaweb.google.com/alpert.david

As part of the cultural component of the three-pronged program (culture, volunteering and independent free time) CCS took us on weekly Wednesday trips. The village trips typically consisted of us driving an hour away, eating a nice home-cooked lunch at the home of some local and then touring whatever churches and museums were in the area.


While the trip to the banya (Russian bathhouse) wasn’t technically a cultural excursion (we went on a Thursday night and we had to pay around $12), it was still with the CCS staff and fit enough that I thought I’d include it here. We drove somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, the roads were even less paved than usual and we were surrounded by forest and no city lights, and found our little banya cabin.

Unfortunately, the almost frozen pool outside of the banya was out of commission so instead, between trips into the steam room we dumped cold buckets of water on each other. It’s also customary to rub a mixture of honey and salt all over your skin to help exfoliate. Finally, there’s the strangest part of the banya- the thicket of leaves that you beat each other with. (Insert your own crude joke here).

One person lies down on the hot wood benches with a sheet or towel to protect themselves, and another takes the leaves that have been pre-soaked in water, sprinkles a little water on the victim’s back and proceeds to hit them all over with the leaves, first harder and then softer. Combined with the overwhelming heat, being beaten was one of the more intense feelings I’ve ever had. And it was so hot that standing up and moving around to assist in beating Jaime was too much for me.

Valentina Tereshkova Museum:

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to enter space, completing her mission a full 20 years before (Westlake alum) Sally Ride left the earth’s atmosphere. Tereshkova is a Yaroslavl native so the museum dedicated to her and to Soviet cosmonautics in general, is located just a half hour outside of the city.

Gavrilov Yam:

This small village is located an hour outside of Yaroslavl. The name comes from Gavrila (Russian version of the name Gabriel) and Yam, meaning station. Gabriel’s Station sprang up as a convenient place to rest one’s horses on the ride between Yaroslavl and Moscow.

Felt boot factory and Museum of Music and Time:

These were our last two cultural excursions and our worst two by far. The felt boot (valinki in Russian) factory reeked so strongly of sheep and wool, it became hard to breathe. And there just wasn’t much to see there. It was a factory, and there were women operating assembly line machinery. And that was it. We left pretty quickly.

The Museum of Music and Time was at least amusing if not interesting. It was opened in 1993 by John Gregoryich and was one of the first private museums in Russia. The museum consisted of three rooms, one with all different kinds of clocks and old record players, another with collections of old Russian irons, bells and records, and the third which was part souvenir shop and part bell collection. We found out later from the translators that the main appeal of this museum is that it’s one of the first truly interactive museums. (If you so choose, you get to play the bells and strange hybrid piano/accordion). But there was just no coherent idea behind the museum.

We did get the honor of meeting egocentric Mr. John Gregoryich himself, and it was one of the more awkward conversations I’ve had in Russia. He told us about relatives that he had in the States and how he might move there because between them they have $2000. (Small chance something was lost in translation there). And then he urged us to go to his other two museums that he had in the complex and when we said we’d go later and tried to make our exit he presented us each with a gift; a $100 bill bookmark with his face replacing Ben Franklin’s. Altogether strange.


This was our first cultural excursion to the nearby Golden Ring city better known to Russians as Rostov the Great. Located on the shores of Lake Nero, the city was founded in the 9th century and was once a lot bigger than its current population of 36,000. (For comparison, Yaroslavl, the unofficial capital of the Golden Ring, has over 600,000 residents.) Rostov is now most famous for its enamel- little vibrant glass paintings that are burned multiple times during the painting process to give it that eternal just-finished looked. We had a really fascinating conversation with our tour guide over lunch about the then upcoming presidential election and Russo-American relations in general. When I get around to writing my election post, I’ll fill you in on that.

Big Salt:

At Big Salt, so named because of the salty river it was built next to, we had a fascinating lunch with a family of artists. They had rooms full of art all made by one of the four family members. Lunch, among other tastier options, involved a pickled apple. I tried it out of a sort of morbid curiosity and never plan to again. Apples are meant to be sweet. If you want to preserve them, try making a sweet apple jam. Pickling them defeats the purpose of enjoying a nice, crunchy and sweet apple in the first place.

Pyotrpavelskaya (The Russian village I wrote “Village of sweetness” about):

This was our second Wednesday trip and it really touched me deeply as you can read about in my 3 part post in October called village of sweetness.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Summertime and the livin's easy

With just over a week to go, I thought I’d write a little about the CCS Home Base and what living in Cape Town has been like.

Our house is located on a small side street named Hermitage Ave. (reminds me of the world famous museum in St. Petes, Russia) in a neighborhood called Rosebank, right by the University of Cape Town. And I’m not sure what CCS’ deal is about being near trains, but like the Russian Home Base, we can hear and see a train rumbling right on the other side of the fence in our backyard.

I sleep in the top bunk, above Jaime, due to my childhood reasoning of the top being the safer choice in the event the bunk bed collapsed. But I’m getting rather sick of having to climb up and down a staircase to get into bed, and not having a place to sit in the room when I’m not sleeping. We have two other roommates, who share another bunk set, but the room’s gotten a little crowded and messy of late, so Jaime and I are going to move to an empty room upstairs.

One of the house’s many bathrooms is right next door to our current room, and we’re also right across from the kitchen and dining room. I’m always running in and out of the dining room grabbing a snack- either a granny smith apple, a pb& j sandwich, or a bowl of corn flakes cereal with warm milk. (They have this long-lasting milk here that is left out of the fridge. Takes a little getting used to, but it works fine).

Our house is located a quick ten minute’s walk from a commercial district named Rondebosch that has lots of shops and restaurants. There’s my personal favorite, Nando’s the Portuguese chicken place, our gym, Zone Fitness which I frequent a few times a week, and a fast-food burger joint named Steer’s which has incredible Dairy Queen-esque chocolate or caramel-dipped ice cream cones.

We call CCS’ recommended cab company, Excite!, to get around anywhere. We’ve heard from some South Africans that their prices are a little steep, but we also know they’re safe. The rand, (South African unit of currency) is pretty weak against the dollar. The current exchange rate is about 10 rand to 1 dollar. A movie here costs around 30+ Rand ($3), an half chicken, drink and side order meal from Nando’s is only about 50 Rand, and a 15 minute cab ride won’t be more than 60 Rand.

And of course, living in Cape Town there’s the security issue to contend with. Our house has 24 hour unarmed security guards whose job is to intimidate would-be thieves and if that fails, call the police in an emergency. Our house is also surrounded by electric fencing. We have to sign in and out of the Home Base and we have a curfew that isn’t really observed by anyone.

Outside of the safety of the Home Base, I’ve heard a few shudder-worthy stories. When we got here, we were told that the nearest underpass on the walk to Rondebosch is not safe. We were later told that this was because two former female volunteers who used that underpass alone at night were once held up at gunpoint. But it’s not like the city of Cape Town isn’t trying to make itself more secure. Check out this sign from outside the underpass.

Clockwise from the top left: No automatic weapons, no axes, no knives and finally no bringing along the equally creative and lethal combo of spear and spoon. To me the sign is both really funny and scary. I wonder which city official approved it thinking it might do anything.

I’m a little unclear about the details, but a volunteer who just left and was Jaime’s and my roommate when we first got here was also apparently held up at gunpoint recently. But supposedly it was right after he had spent almost all he had on souvenirs, so he had no money on him. The muggers thankfully were not interested in Cape Town trinkets, so they let him go.

Jaime and I also had one pretty close call, although we didn’t find out about it until a few days later. We were in a near-by neighborhood named Obz, short for Observatory, and we had just finished shooting a couple games of pool at Stone’s, one of our favorite bars. We called a cab and were just milling about the well-lit, decently busy for a Sunday night area, when we saw another bar called Rooster or something like that. We peered inside but decided to stay outside and wait for our cab. Later that night there was apparently an armed robbery at the bar that left two people shot and one dead. Spooky stuff.

But don’t worry about me. Just one more week here, (so excited to come home!), and I plan on keeping safe. I’m working on typing up my log of our amazing five day trip to the Eastern Cape and our hike into the African wilderness, so I’ll try to get that up soon.

It should be a pretty fun last week. Tonight we plan on going to the gay pride parade, which is supposed to be one of Cape Town’s best parties. Tomorrow night we’re going to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden for its weekly concert in the park, followed by dinner at an amazing set-menu, all-you-can-eat restaurant named Africa CafĂ©. No real plans yet for the week, except Jaime and I have two tickets for a comedy show called Three Wise Men (featuring Christian, Jewish and Muslim comedians). And for Christmas I think we’re cooking for ourselves like Thanksgiving. Jaime and I plan on the afternoon of Christmas Day on the beach, lounging around and throwing a Frisbee.

Bonus! How to speak South African

Considering South Africa’s British roots, South Africans generally speak the Queen’s English. You have your fair dose of “bloody,” “mate” and other British words and phrases. But South Africans have also developed their own uniquely South African phrases. Here’s a random sampling of stuff I’ve picked up:

Robot- Traffic stoplight (Nobody’s been able to tell me how this one got its name)
Howzit?- How are you? (Answering “how’s what?” makes you look like an idiot. Trust me).
Izit- Oh, really/ You don’t say
Okes- Blokes/ guys

That’s all for now!
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Friday, December 5, 2008

About to go to Jo'burg

Cab should be coming any minute to take us to the airport. Should be a nice weekend. We're staying at a bed and breakfast owned by a fellow volunteer's friend's dad. It it supposed to rain so we'll make do.

Had a good week. Finished up my first volunteer placement at a school for the mentally disabled, which was really challenging. Spent Thursday and Friday at Jaime's placement messing around with little kids, which was a lot simpler and more fun. Next week, I'm going to start being a camp counselor with another 18 year old volunteer from San Fran.

Hope everybody has a great weekend!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

And I ran, I ran so far away

Just got back from the 10k. Finished it in 299th place at 52:20. I had wanted to break 50 but it was really hilly so it's ok. There were a few runners who were barefoot for the 6 miles. And there was broken glass at more than one intersection.

The best part of the race was definitely the ending. There was a full brass band playing close to the finish line and they were cheering like crazy in addition to playing their music as I finished. And then we went to Nando's a healthy fast-food chicken restaurant, like CA Chicken Cafe but better, for a massive feast.

I will sleep very well tonight. And be extremely sore tomorrow. But it was fun to race, and we're going to look into more races while I'm here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Much delayed final impressions from Russia

I wrote this at around 3 in the morning on my last night in Yaroslavl and never got around to posting it. So better late than never, here are my final impressions of Russia.

In no particular order here are some of my final thoughts as I prepare to leave Russia, and some random tidbits that never found their way into other posts…

Russia seems to be a country torn in two different directions. On the one hand there is the illustrious history and culture and the accompanying desire to preserve and respect both, and on the other there is this frantic desire to catch up with the West. It’s been 17 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and 20-odd years since Gorbachev instituted glasnost and perestroika, but I still sensed this pressing urge in Yaro to show the world that despite its near thousand year run, the city can be just as modern and hip as any of its European neighbors. Whether it was the Mario’s pizzeria or the posters for the weekend’s clubs and parties posted on a wall that separated the street from a cathedral that was a couple hundreds years old, I felt this strange dichotomy all the time here.


Russian drivers are that scary. There are practically no lanes on any roads, and also no recognition by most drivers that they are powering a massive machine of metal, gas and rubber and us pedestrians are not. They weave through crosswalks and people as often as possible. Between us, Jaime and I had somewhere around 10 close calls. With that there comes this healthy dose of panic (“I don’t want to die in the middle of a street whose name I can’t pronounce in a small city in Russia nobody has ever heard of”) anytime you step off the sidewalk.

There are also two fun little variations on the traditional red, yellow, green stoplight. Green flashes before turning to yellow, giving drivers the heads-up they need to really floor it to make it through the intersection. And before red turns to green, there’s the intermediary warning of red and yellow, which most drivers seem to see as green regardless of whether you’re still in the sidewalk.


For the largest country in terms of area, you might be surprised to find out that there’s only about 10 Russian names. Seriously.

For guys there’s Vladimir (Volva for short), Ivan (Vanya), Alexander (Sasha), Dmitry (Dima), Pavel (Pasha) and Nikolai (Kolya).

For ladies there’s even less options. There’s Ykaterina (Katya), Anya, Asya, Maria (Masha).

Honestly, 90% of the Russians I met were named one of those above 10 names.


Russians always seem to be getting married. Whenever we went out to a museum in Moscow or St. Petes, or even out in Yaroslavl on the weekends we seemed to encounter at least one large, traveling marriage party of twenty people following around the happy couple. We’d go somewhere and there would be a man in a tux and his bride in a white wedding dress taking pictures on the steps of the Hermitage in St. Petes, or laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. And this is in November! I can’t imagine what it’s like in the peak wedding months.
Another note on romance. Anytime I stepped on the escalator in a metro station in Moscow or St. Petes, I was able to find at least two lovebirds in what I nicknamed, the couple pose. The couple pose consists of the woman standing as one normally would on the escalator with the man on the step below, risking life and limb to face her and stare into the eyes of his beau and occasionally steal a kiss. I watched bemused as couples young and old stepped onto the escalator and automatically assumed the position. I worried about the ones who rode the escalator normally.


We were told by Nadia that Russians spend something like 80% of their income on clothes and fashion accessories. And you can tell. Woman almost always go out for any errand in the city wearing high heels. And I was turned away from a casino in Moscow because I was wearing “sport shoes.”

Megan pointed out that there’s this big discrepancy between the quality of what people wear and the quality of their buildings and cars. At least once a week we saw a car that did not fit with the image of its owner break down in front of our hotel. And every apartment building in Yaroslavl had boarded up balconies and other signs of outward wear and tear.

In that vain, it seems like half the buildings in Yaroslavl are being renovated, reconstructed or repaired. There’s a long way to go, but should be interesting to see what this city looks like when they make some improvements.


It’s really strange to know that I’ll be saying goodbye to Russia in less than 12 hours. When I thought about the gap year, I got excited for each and every stop, but it was hard to look past that initial two month stay in Yaroslavl, and accordingly most of my preparations seemed to be focused on it too.

And now, it’s over. I’m done with the first stop out of five, and almost a quarter of the gap year in terms of weeks abroad.


So as promised, here’s what’s coming up next. At noon, Jaime and I will leave Moscow for New York. We’ll spend two days in New York. I’m staying with my sister Michelle who lives there and works as New York Teaching Fellow. Jaime’s mom and older sis are coming to town so he’ll stay with them in a hotel. I’ll probably be pretty jetlagged from the 10 hour flight, but I have the rather ambitious plans in my 49 hours in the Big Apple to go to dinner with Michelle and my cousin Brian, see friends at NYU and Columbia, visit Michelle’s 4th grade classroom at Public School #1, and unload all of my winter clothes on her for her to take back to LA during her Thanksgiving break.

Tuesday afternoon, Jaime and I are headed to Cape Town, South Africa for five weeks! We’ll be doing our second and final CCS volunteering program there. The program doesn’t start until Sunday so we’ll be staying with family friends of a South African friend (Daniel Ozen) until then.

Random side note about South Africa. Whenever I told my people I was going to Russia, the response I got almost unfailingly was somewhere in the neighborhood of “Wow. Interesting.”

Cape Town seemed to generally net the different response of “How fun!” I’m curious to see how close that expectation comes to reality. I had a ton of fun in Russia. I enjoyed my time here, met some great people and would love to come back. But I also am not the average Russian tourist.

I have been fascinated by Russia since I did a non-fiction book report on the history of the Soviet Union in 5th grade. And Russia was included in Jaime’s and my gap year largely due to my urging.

So it’ll be interesting to see how much fun South Africa is compared to Russia. I’m also curious to see how I’ll find the culture and history in the upcoming four countries compared to that of Russia, since I’ll have had no prior interest in them. Promise to keep you all updated.

Ok. Now it’s time for me to go to bed. Have to leave the hotel at 5 am for the five hour trip to Moscow.

Da Svidanya Rossiya!

Playing Catch-up from Cape Town

I’ve gotten lazy. A ton has happened since I last checked in, I’m on a different continent in a brand new hemisphere and I’ve crossed the Atlantic twice just for starters, and maybe because of that I just haven’t had much of a desire to write lately. But it’s time to catch you all up, so I’ll do my best to keep this a manageable length….

New York

I was ecstatic to land at JFK in a way I can’t really describe. I didn’t really feel all that homesick in Russia, so it was a good, unexpected kind of happy when I touched down on American soil. I exchanged pleasantries with the not too pleasant customs agent and made small-talk with a woman waiting next to me at baggage claim. I really missed the ability to strike up a real conversation with a stranger, which I think is one of those big little reasons that Russia never felt like home. New York felt like home instantly.

I headed to my sister Michelle’s apartment and while she distracted me with my American cell phone, my parents burst through her door, my dad filming my reaction to their surprise just like he’s done for every other potentially meaningful moment (and countless trivial ones) since the day I was born.

My mom didn’t believe me that I was surprised, but I swear I was. I knew Jaime’s mom was meeting him in NY for the two day layover, but I personally thought it would be a little ridiculous for my parents to fly all the way across the country and back just to see me for two days. But they also missed me a ton (and I missed them right back) and made it a bigger trip, getting to see Michelle too and stopping to see my sister Karin in Michigan on the way back.

I was real busy over my two days in New York. I got to have some real ethnic food for the first time in almost two months, specifically Mexican (Chipotle!) and Indian food. I worked out in a gym, saw a close friend at NYU twice, and even observed Ms. Alpert’s (Michelle) 4th grade class at PS 1 in the Bronx.

She’s part of this amazing program called New York Teaching Fellows. It was surreal to watch these 10 year olds addressing my sister only four years older than me, only a few months out of college as one of the main authority figures in their lives. I’m so proud of her and her subway e-mails chronicling the highs and lows are a real source of inspiration for my writing.

Watching Michelle, excuse me, watching Ms. Alpert (we got in trouble if we called her Michelle in front of her class) also got me thinking about how fast life goes, how quickly sheltered (at least in my privileged case) student life ends and endless real-world responsibilities (jobs, bills, etc) begin. (Excuse all those parentheticals).

It was really hard to say good-bye to my parents and sister, and harder still to get myself excited for South Africa. But the ticket was booked, so I checked my baggage and my little boy homesickness and boarded the plane for my 17 hours of traveling.

Getting into Cape Town and the Barnett Family

Our CCS South Africa program wouldn’t begin until Saturday and we arrived Wednesday afternoon. So in the meantime Jaime and I stayed with the Barnett family.

After Jaime and I had signed up for the program we debated going back to LA for a few days, but both decided it’d be too short a period to be home for, and it’d be better to get a little used to Cape Town before our program. We were left with the problem of finding a place to stay. Luckily one day, the South African mother of our friend Daniel volunteered to help us out and connected us with the Barnetts. There’s a good few degrees of separation, but Mr. Barnett, the brother of our friend Daniel’s mother’s friend, was willing to host us and that was good enough for us.

Mr. Barnett picked us up from the airport, gave us an impromptu tour driving around the city and then back to his house. I really didn’t do my research before coming so I was surprised to find that Table Mountain is in the middle of the city. Mr. Barnett told us it was once three times its current size, but the winds slowly leveled it so it is now much smaller then it once was and its summit is now completely flat.

We got to the house and Jaime and I were shown to our rooms with our very own bathrooms, a luxury I hadn’t had since September!

The Barnetts were our South African Brady Brunch. The Mr. and Mrs. are two divorcees who met through their sons at school. Between their two previous marriages there was a dizzying array of sons and daughters, belonging to one or the other constantly coming in and out of the house. And the house itself was gorgeous. It was located in one of the more posh areas of Cape Town, Camp’s Bay, nestled between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head Mountain with picturesque views of both. (The latter is named because it slightly resembles a lion lying down. At the opposite end of the mountain is lion’s rump, aka Signal Hill, where right below a cannon called the Noon Gun is fired everyday at, yep, you guessed it, 12 noon).

We went out our first night with one of the many Barnett kids, only mere hours after landing. The only real note of interest from that first night out is our discovery that our impressive first-hand knowledge of the English language isn’t nearly as impressive in an English-speaking country as it was in Russia. So while we are no longer instant celebrities the second we open our mouths, we do now get to have real conversations.

We spent a ton of time during our stay with the Barnetts at a seaside mall called the V&A Waterfront, sometimes going there twice a day. We had lunch while watching the African dance performances, wandered around book stores and strolled (arm in arm) by the ocean.

One of the daughters also dragged us out of bed at 6:30 in the morning to go down to Clifton’s Fourth, one of Cape Town’s many amazing beaches. She was training for a triathlon and was scheduled to do an ocean swim. The beach was absolutely deserted, and the sand was really clean. The Atlantic was damn near freezing so she and I decided to pass, but Jaime ran in while we watched. Just watching him got me cold. But the weather on the whole is really nice. They talk about there being four seasons (rain, wind, sun, and way too hot) in a day, but even the occasional sudden shower beats the constant freezing of Russia.


Saturday afternoon we were dropped off at the Home-Base. First reaction, very intimidating and overwhelming. And it stayed that way for much of my first week. As irrational as it was, Jaime and I couldn’t help ourselves in imagining CCS South Africa to be CCS Russia in Cape Town complete with South African versions of the same volunteers and staff we got close to in Yaroslavl. And from everything from the weather to the house to the people, we quickly found out that Russia, this is not.

Between Sunday and Saturday I went from the Hotel Kotorosl in Yaroslavl, Russia to my sister’s apartment in New York, to a posh house in Cape Town, to a packed house in a not-nearly-as-nice neighborhood of Cape Town. And there are 17 volunteers here! 17! The most we ever had in Russia was seven and that was only for my first week.

Everybody’s pretty interesting, and it’s fun to find out everybody’s reasons for coming to Africa. We range in age from 18-41 with a bunch of us on the younger side. There’s one girl who also went to CCS Russia and another who plans on organic farming (WWOOFing) in Europe like Jaime and I after the new year. Among the three Canadians and 14 Americans, a bunch are college-aged and are either taking time off during school or just not ready to start.

So after recuperating from being in three continents in four days, and four different beds in six days and meeting everybody, there was a whole new city to explore! And we’ve been doing our best at it. Already in the two weeks since I’ve gotten to Cape Town, I’ve been to Robben Island, hiked up Table Mountain, went on a pseudo-safari, went to a holiday lights street festival and went to St. George’s Cathedral for World AIDS Day.

And Jaime and I are now busy planning a trip to Johannesburg (Jo’burg here) and a five day hiking trek along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. Pictures and stories to come from all that sooner or later.

I think it’s now getting time for me to wrap up this first dispatch from the Rainbow Nation. Tomorrow a bunch of us are going to run in a 10 km race (around 6.2 miles) at night, so I need my rest. It does seem a little silly to say it, but everything here is very different from Russia. And different of course takes some getting used to, but I’m really enjoying myself. Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving wherever you were! We made dinner here at the CCS Home-Base ourselves, and (with a ton of help from one of the cooks) my garlic mashed potatoes came out alright.