Monday, September 22, 2008

The View from Dala Hill


Victor said...

You've got a story going with those pictures. Great collections and we can rightly call that HISTORY!!

Anonymous said...


OK: my last trip…here goes…Johannesburg, SA… this may sound a bit whacko because I’m still recovering from jetlag

AIR FRANCE: ….to die for. What an incredible airline; what incredible service – they served great meals [2 per leg of the trip, for 4 legs, 8 meals in total] and at each meal except breakfasts they served wine, beer, champagne, hard drinks [G&T], and even after dinner drinks [cognac, etc]. And this was in economy. All complimentary. You could have as much as you wanted – wine + champagne, and so on. The food was good too.

The plane staff were wonderful, always smiling, happy to be there, helpful, etc, etc, etc….and they were genuinely delighted if you did something unusual, like order Poir William as your after dinner drink [which I did] because it is such a unique and uniquely French liquor [and tastes yummy too – cold with ice].

We flew 747s on all legs. Economy seats were a bit tight, esp for someone with a full-bodied ass like me, but I was lucky enough that on 3 out of the 4 rides, there were only 2 of us in a 3-seater. So a bit more room.

I don’t think I would have liked the business or first class: they were those personal pods. They didn’t look too comfortable – claustrophobic and cave-like. I suspect I would not have found it any easier to sleep in one of those than I usually do on any flight. And, no, I did not sleep on any of the legs of this journey [or am I just whining because I traveled economy this time -- nothing like "pod envy"]

And to think all of this cost under $2,000…….but now for the negatives……

TENSIONS GALORE…..What a hell of a long trip! As we approached Toronto on Friday, my ass was killing me; my back was killing me; my shoulders were killing me….and this after I did stretches and walked around the plane a lot. Over 10 hours between Paris and Johannesburg, and over 7 hours between Canada and Paris……+ stopovers at airports. Inhuman.

Despite the fact I was delighted to fly into Paris at dawn on Saturday, Sept 20, I will never ever try to make a connecting flight that allows for only 90 minutes of connection time. No, no, no, no….and I don’t give a damn what the airline “guarantees”. It doesn’t work. Yes, I made the connect, but at a price that almost got me thrown into jail.

We left Montreal on Friday night late [another story….see below], and arrived in Paris late, whittling away about 20 minutes of connection time. Charles de Gaulle is a zoo, as all airports are. We did not arrive at a gate but had to be bused to a gate [another 15 minutes]; we arrived at terminal F, but left from terminal E…about 400 miles away walking/running. And the constant construction you see at all airports does not help one scintilla……

…..huffing and puffing my way to the point of departure found me faced with security check in [why I don’t know] and the line was at the very least 1 hour long….but I only had 10 minutes to get to the gate and board the plane. So I screamed my way through first class security, and almost got arrested. I will never ever get on a flight that has less than 3 hours connection time….ever again. We [royally harrumphing like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland] do not run or huff or puff or scream our way through security!

THE CONTINENTAL WAY TO BOARD A PLANE. Interestingly: Air France actually holds the plane for connecting passengers, which surprised me since I was always told it is against the law for them to do so. But voila, we are French….so there!

Which leads to the story of why we were late….it’s a continental, and probably quintessentially French thing….no one boards planes in any particular order; there is no “cueing”, no “row/seat number” calling; no "old/infirm" or "people with kids" going first. You simply gang up at the gate and elbow your way to the front of the mob, knocking over old ladies [who are actually worst offenders with those sharp pointy boney elbows], getting there first, despite the fact you have an assigned seat.

And when you arrive in place, you stand in the aisle to chat with your colleagues, friends, family, associates, and generally anyone willing to talk with you….without moving to allow anyone else to pass by you. This adds a certain chaotic ambience to the boarding process. It took an extra 45 minutes to board in Montreal, which was whittled down to our late arrival time. There’s a certain joie de vivre about all this, but it took some getting used to. By the last leg [Paris to Toronto], I was a seasoned fussballer…..elbowing with the best of them. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead…….hey old lady, get outta my way!

CDG SECURITY. Are they kidding? Are they for real? We arrived in Paris from Joburg at 6 AM on a Friday morning after a very long 10-hour flight. Chaos reigned almost at once…with the bus from plane to terminal, with the bus from Terminal E to F, which disgorged us [as in threw us up] into a crowd of loonies crisscrossing their way to the ends of about 1000 security lines, each of which went to a different set of gates.

From this gene pool of multi-cultural French speaking passengers who all looked like refugees of some sort or another, you got directed to the right security line by harried AF ground personnel. Then you found yourself on a line that was 2 miles long, totally disorganized, with only 2 functioning security stations at the end [why would you have more!]… took me 2 hours to go through security in order to get to the gate for the flight to Toronto. I was so angry and sweaty and frustrated that all I could do was sit and stare for about 45 minutes before I took a breath and a long walk around a very ugly terminal. The stores were crap, and I was not in any mood to shop.

Bad, bad customer service on the part of AF…..and don’t tell me it’s security’s fault. AF, like all airlines, can pay the price of having more than 2 functioning security stations in order to keep their customers happy….but why would they consider the paying customer over cost-savings?

And to make matters a bit worse, I ran into something I never ran into before: I could not carry my passport or boarding pass with me through the security check. I had to put them in a bin to go through Xray, and was told it was against the law for me to carry my passport through security… hell it is!

I told them no one had the authority to force me to put my passport in an unsecured place like an Xray bin, and rent-a-company security wonks in particular do not have that authority…..they insisted and I fumed, but this time I didn’t want to scream or get arrested.

SOUTH AFRICA: what can I say! I arrived around midnight at Joburg Airport and then had a 2 hour drive to Sun City with two delightful black African drivers. We howled and laughed and told jokes and so on. What a hoot.

When I made hotel arrangements in Sun City [which is a cross between Disneyland Africa and a set for a Tarzan movie or Indiana Jones meets Whacko Design Corp….more to follow], I chose a cheap room in the Sun City Hotel [there are 4 hotels in Sun City]. The reason is that I was at a conference and as usual only needed a room for functional purposes, like sleeping.

What I didn’t know is that Sun City Hotel is also where the casinos are located….a whole ground floor lobby of slots and tables…..the room was comfortable, even if the bed wasn’t, but the bathroom was to die for. Wow, what a design: round, glass corner shower; full, deep tub with feet; square porcelain sink…..tiles and granite….pecan wood trim, soft lighting……really really nice [even sexy]. And the food was good too: as with many hotels worldwide except in North America, room fee includes breakfast. And on Sunday morning the buffet breakfast was quite nice.

Since I had no idea where I was in relation to the rest of the conference locations or my colleagues for that matter, I took a long walk on Sunday throughout the complex….yes, Sun City is a contained complex of entertainment, hotels, gambling, conference centre, golf courses, gardens, an man-made sandy beach with wave pool, and so on. No shopping worth writing home about [I did all my shopping at the Joburg Airport].

That’s when I discovered two other hotels: the Cascade, which is surrounded by artificial waterfalls and is shaped like a cascade [dumb architecture], and the Palace of the Lost City. The fourth hotel is the Cabanas – which looked like private villas, and the condos I never saw up close because it was a gated complex.

Palace of the Lost City looks like a set for a Tarzan movie – everything is big and outrageous and grandiose. There are open courtyards, different wings named after animals, rooms and suites, dining rooms and dining areas, waterfalls, swimming pools, spas, etc etc etc……almost unending. Nothing is small or human scale.

Only residents are allowed free passage in this towered/ domed “palace”, but tour buses come through constantly starting after buffet breakfast at 10. On the Sunday after I arrived, after spending a night at the Sun City Hotel, the conference organizers insisted I move to the Palace. I’m on the board of the cohost of this conference and so they wanted all directors in the same place so they could take care of us [actually, so none of us got lost]. So I moved into an “ordinary room” at the Palace – all of which was so extraordinary as to die for.

Dark woods, coffered ceilings, crown molding, big space, lots of room….with double sliding glass doors out to the balcony overlooking the waterfall and natural pool [well, artificial pool made to look natural – there was nothing real in the whole complex]. Double sliding doors of heavy carved wood separated the bedroom from the “service area” – as you walked from wall-to-wall onto clay baked tiles, the pink marble sink was to your left and the double-door mirrored closet was to your right. A big sink-into bathtub was in front of you, a stunningly beautiful tiled shower was to the left of the tub and the toilet was in a separate room to the right of the tub. And this was an ordinary room!

Towels were rich thick and luxurious. Soaps were aloe pure. The terry robes wrapped around softly. The bed was turned down each night, and a nougat candy sat on my pillow waiting for the final touch of the day before I sank into incredibly deep deep sleep [after several bottles of wine each night sleep was indeed deep].

Since I had not made these arrangements, the conference organizers paid the difference between the Palace price and the price I paid at the Sun City. Not a bad deal.

EATING AT THE PALACE: there are two major dining rooms, one bar and patio BBQ areas. The crystal room is immediately in front of you as you enter the lobby through the 30 foot carved bronze doors. It is called the crystal room because of the 15 foot crystal chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling close to 30 feet above floor level. All outside walls are of glass with lots of open doors and windows. Sometimes you had to fight for crumbs at your table with the birds that flew into the room.

Breakfast consisted of a mile long buffet: fresh fruits, dried fruits, macerated fruits, cereals, 4 different kinds of yogurt, eggs/omelets, cheeses and meats, bacon/ham/sausage, pancakes and crepes, 10 different kinds of juices, pastries, Chinese breakfast, Japanese breakfast, even Peking duck and for the Brit prols: pork and beans! Service sucked, but coffee was spectacular. You could eat inside with linen table cloth and silverware, or outside on the patio with no table cloth but with silverware [a touch rustic in an upper class safari kind of way].

Dinner in the same restaurant was continental at its best: rack of lamb done to perfection; Ahi tuna pink inside; nicely turned veggies and starches [potatoes, rice, etc]; rich desserts…and the best of SA wines [and truly the best].

Dinner in the second major resto – the Villa – was Italian by candlelight…..and I must admit incredible indeed! I had gnocchi in a light cream/mushroom sauce so delicate as to float in my mouth.

HOW MUCH DID YOU SAY? I have no idea what the cost of a room at the Palace is because I paid the Sun City price, which was about $200 CDN a night [weekday rates are lower than weekend rates]. We may be talking $300 or $400 a night for the room I had.

One of our directors was traveling with his wife and they upgraded to a suite: she was a bit of a complainer and was looking for a room with a view. It turns out that my cheapo place had a spectacular view whereas theirs met the trees at tree-top: no view but leaves. But for the price of a night’s accommodation [I haven’t a clue how much] they had their own private butler and maid, champagne each evening before dinner with hors d’oeuvres, laundry service, stocked bar, and on and on. So you get what you pay for.

To give you an order of magnitude on pricing, let me go back to the two major dinners we had: on Sunday, 5 of us had dinner in the Crystal Room [rack of lamb, Ahi tuna, appetizers, desserts, coffee/tea and at least 5 bottles of red wine]. On the last night of the conference, 7 of us had dinner at the Villa – each had a 4 course meal including dessert and we had 8 bottles of wine [2 white and 6 red]…and this was after champagne and hors d’oeuvres in the suite without a view.

The total bill for both dinners [which I paid for and will be reimbursed on] came to 8,000 Rand. Converting Rand into Canadian dollars that makes it approximately $1,000 CDN, including gratuities and VAT. I don’t know about you but for 12 meals with 13 bottles of wine, that is damned cheap by Canadian, American and EU standards.

WOULD I EVER RETURN? I wasn’t too comfortable with the Palace. It was so grandiose that it was unreal – truly a set for a Tarzan/Indiana Jones movie, and definitely not the real Africa [well, maybe the Africa of posh movies]. And everything was outsized – from the statues of animals acting as gargoyles on the corners of towers to the gas-fed flaming torches along pathways and grand staircases leading through the “jungle” down to the lake shore.

Maybe it’s my working class background that feels at odds with so much luxury, but the place simply felt like a decadent haven for fat white over-fed Europeans and North Americans [mostly Europeans and predominantly Germans], surrounded by a subservient black serving class [polite, nice, friendly, hardly surly or bitter].

There was definitely a service-servant mindedness about the place, which I found creepy. For example, you couldn’t get an iron/ironing board to press the wrinkles out; you had to use valet service, and a "servant" came up to deal with that for you. No one knew how to turn on the flat screen TVs in their rooms except the ladies who turned your bed linens down each evening [there was a rumour it required a secret code that only the "servants" knew]. You didn’t really walk anywhere because there were shuttle buses that took you from one hotel to the next or from the conference centre to the hotel and so on. Everyone saluted you and smiled at you and wished you a grand day…….ooooh, leave me the hell alone, dammit!

If I was in need of grandiloquent lux pampering, and didn’t mind the fake facades and cartoonish architecture, then I would definitely return to the Palace, but that would be a rare moment indeed. If I had my “druthers” I would not choose to go to Sun City, the Playland of Africa. Not my style. I’m not a safari person and I don’t like golf, so that leaves out most of Africa. I wouldn’t mind a wine tour or visiting the ocean in Cape Town, but Joburg is out of the question.

Would I return to SA? Yes, in a heartbeat. Would I want to go to other parts of Africa? Yes, sign me up. But in the end, I don’t think I could spend 3 weeks on a safari or at a lux spa anywhere in the world…..I would get damned bored.

I look forward to the day when I can return to see the real Africa. The people I met from Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho, South Africa....were so wonderful. I learned so much from them.

Keep well...wonderful pictures... so glad to see the real Africa and real Africans, even if only in digital format. [Now there's an ironic twist of equating the real with the digital representation. Truely worthy of interpretation by a Gadamer or Heidegger or even a Barthes, Ricouer, Derida...I'm showing off again...sorry]