Sunday, December 06, 2009

South Africa, Day 2

Ten hours later, the lovely chirping birds had morphed into the annoying loud birds that could wake up anyone not ensconced in a soundproof chamber. A quick shower/bath resulted in a generally soaked bathroom, but a sense of humanity had mostly returned.

I turned on my computer to check on the world’s happenings only to be prompted for a password. A quick visit to the front desk resulted in a password that allowed up to 5Mbytes of data transfer – about half the size of a normal work email. So, any Hitachi people reading this, that is why I did not download or read any of your email this week – all of the internet plans are based on usage, not time. That is also why there are no photos posted yet.

By the time I returned to my room, however, the wireless connection was completely hosed up. Another call to the front desk revealed that, yes indeed, the routers were hosed up – and the IT guy is in Europe. The entire time that I spent in the hotel, I had a reasonable wireless connection for a total of 30 seconds. Having no cell or internet access feels very isolating. I don’t know how the pioneers survived without them. Fortunately, a colleague let me borrow his 3G modem for most of the week and I was at least able to connect to the world and read about the latest Tiger Woods scandal.

Breakfast was quite nice and very European with muesli and grilled meats. There are, apparently, only two other people staying in the lodge, so the service was impeccable.
The day started auspiciously when I received a call that “my ride is here” and I went to the lobby and promptly attempted to give my room key to Gerrie, my contact from the University. He looks a lot like the hotel staff that I had been dealing with trying to get the internet working, something that Gerrie did not believe as the staff had turned over and the desk attendant was now about 18 years old. It’s important to make a good first impression, no? This was followed by the first of many times that I tried to enter on the wrong side of a vehicle.

Firmly established as an ignorant American, Gerrie (pronounced closer to Harry than to Jerry, yet another gaffe) drove me to the UP campus and was very nice and never mentioned the fact that I not only mistook him for hotel staff, but that I also had called him by the wrong name on numerous occasions.

The University of Pretoria campus is beautiful. There are gardens and green spaces all over the campus, and most of the buildings look perfectly designed for an natural African university setting. The room where we met had air conditioning, but we turned it off in favor of opening the windows. Throughout the meeting, beautiful little birds flitted outside the window (not nearly as raucously as the hotel denizens).

I won’t bore my blog reader(s) with details of the business meeting. Suffice it to say that it was very productive and interesting and certainly worth the trip. The people that I am dealing with a brilliant, talented, dedicated, and very friendly and I hope to work with them more in the future.
After the meeting ended and a light lunch (chicken pot pie) was served, I was given a campus tour. It’s a very large campus with very few students during the summer break. However, it was easy to envision students lying about in all of the green spaces and under the many trees. Unlike, say, Georgia Tech, UP has departments ranging from botany to drama to music to engineering – and facilities for all of them. I can imagine that it is a very stimulating place to study for three years (they don’t do the US standard 4 years). The campus is expanding and there are building sites all over, which is exciting for the faculty. For some reason, there wasn’t a large football stadium, although there were many fields where something called “rugby” is played.

I was dropped back at the lodge around 5 and promptly fell asleep until time for my dinner pickup around 6:30. Mid-afternoon naps should be mandated by law.

For dinner, Gerrie generously volunteered to take me to a traditional South African restaurant on the other side of Pretoria, close to his home. Driving out, we could see storms building in the distance and impressive bolts of lightning streaking across the African sky. It was beautiful, as if nature herself was intentionally trying to impress me with the wonders of this country.

A note about “traditional South African” food. “Traditional South African” means meat and lots of it. As I was told, chicken is considered a vegetable (although apparently the blacks eat it more often). Beef, springbok, and other hoofed species are served, and in large quantities at every meal. Lamb is probably the most popular meat, and South Africans – even South Africans living in the US – don’t understand why we don’t eat lamb outside of the occasional lamb chop or Moroccan restaurant. South Africans talk of coming to the US and being served a meal without meat and not understanding when the real meal will begin. This carnivorous lifestyle was not objectionable to me in any way, and I’m sure to have gained multiple kilograms during the visit.

The restaurant was in a private enclosure and looked like an old farmhouse from the inside. I understand that they operate a bit like a B&B as well as a restaurant, and people can rent rooms inside. The service was impeccable, or at least I assume so since most conversations were in Afrikaans. At least they seemed polite. While the menu was intriguing, Gerrie suggested that we go for the specials instead, which was a terrific idea except that our waiter didn’t appear to know what the specials were and had to find someone else to explain them to us (in English!). Despite the initial confusion, the meal was wonderful, with a very flavorful springbok carpaccio to start and a blue-cheese stuffed steak main dish. Sides included beetroot and a starch made of corn whose name I cannot remember but which is a staple of South African meals. They also let me sample a traditional side of wheat, served like rice, and were surprised that in the US wheat is only served in bread or as a shredded cereal choice for breakfast.

Just as we were finishing the appetizers, a huge thunderstorm came up, rattling the restaurant. No one else seemed to notice, as apparently this was a minor thunderstorm in South African terms. When the power went off, however, everyone noticed but no one paused for long in their conversations. Power outages are not common, but can occur probably just slightly more often than in Atlanta in the summertime. The candles at the tables were quickly supplemented with lanterns placed around the restaurant and service continued unabated. They even placed lanterns leading the way around the outside of the restaurant to the bathrooms (in the bar area, not outhouses) and in front of every “wet floor” warning.

For dessert, a traditional South African pudding with cream was suggested, but unfortunately could not be prepared without electricity (the ovens were needed for baking), so a fabulous second alternative meringue and chocolate mousse dessert was substitutes. Fortunately, no one else could see the pieces of meringue shooting across the room when I attempted to cut into the first bite. Or at least no one mentioned it.

The power came on just as we were ready to leave, which made credit card processing much easier (we had been warned that tallying up manually was going to take a while), and Gerrie returned me to the hotel around 11:30pm. After another 30 minutes or so getting ready for the next day’s meeting – and finally downloading some email thanks to Gerrie’s loan of a 3G USB modem, I crashed around 12:30 expecting to sleep well until time to awaken at 7 the next day.

The rest of the story:

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