Sunday, February 27, 2011

This one's for you Corinne

The only thing more remarkable than the vast quantity of poop on the streets of Bordeaux is just how many piles we see that someone has stepped in.  How many people are walking around this city with poopy shoes anyway??

These are pictures taken in the span of a single 10-minute walk on a single day.

Oh, and kudos to whichever dog managed this very impressive feat:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Yes, we get it, your wine cellar is cooler than ours...

Just an hour by train from Bordeaux is the charming city of St. Emilion.  It’s the oldest wine-producing region in Bordeaux (the Romans planted vineyards here in the 2nd century!) and its steep cobblestone streets conceal more than 173 acres of underground catacombs and ancient wine cellars. 

Julien, the negociant at Tant qu'il y aura des Vins, spent a couple of hours walking us through the various wine appellations of Bordeaux, showing us his oldest bottle (1865…worth a cool €22,000) in his catacomb cellar and generally sharing a fraction of his immense knowledge about wine with us.  Although, next time we see him we might question his advice to drink the sediment after you finish a bottle…

We dined at L’envers du Décor where the tables and walls were made from wine boxes and borrowed a key from the Tourist Office for a self-guided tour of the Clock Tower.  Oh how we love all these countries that don’t have tens of thousands of tort and personal injury lawyers.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wine + anything = fun

I suppose UNESCO already knew this since they’ve classified the entire city of Bordeaux as a world-heritage site, but this city is absolutely stunning. Where else is it possible to wander down a commonplace street and stumble upon the remains of a 3rd century Roman amphitheater?  Or a church built in the 12th century in classic baroque style?

Our 25-minute walk to class winds us through the heart of this city past the Jardin Public, Le Palais Gallien and numerous ancient building facades and fountains, our hands filled with *delicious*, fresh-baked croissants we pick up along the way.  It’s true the cold is a shock and violates our plan to only travel through hot to coolish climates, but aside from the fact that we look ridiculous to our fellow students with our matching jackets and five changes of clothes, we’ve found plenty of things to be thankful for:

One, despite our general misanthropy and married reclusiveness, we’ve managed to make friends.  That said, language students seem to have a curious predilection to want to make friends with anyone.  Perhaps to practice their awkward skills with whomever is willing not to dismiss them out-of-hand?  Ah well.  Anything to relive a youth spent in shisha bars and Spanish-themed dance clubs.

Two, due to some complicated issues getting mail sent to us, we’ve also befriended our neighbor, Michele, an aging Parisian widow.  Over a bottle of 2008 Chateau Le Gay, she taught us how to hold our wine glasses incorrectly, shared her political views on the Middle East and reminded us that even fairly progressive Europeans can be a little bit racist.  Our conversation on the snobby Bordelaise, corrupt Egyptian mafia, and her fondness for late night partying lasted, as you might expect, until very late in the night and made us fall in love with her curious eccentricities and abundant kindness.

Three, we found an excellent wine store near the city center and have started tasting every second label wine mentioned in the latest issue of La Revue du Vin de France.  Our studies led us to an evening of wine and cheese tasting where we met Brazil's lady version of Spiderman! Behold.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I am cheating on Juan...

…with cheese.  What can I say?  I’m in love.  I love you aged mimolette/stinky chèvre/bleu d’Auvergne/Bachelet/ashy Morbiér.  You complete me.

After 2 ½ months in West Africa, we have touched down in civilization again.  And not just civilization, but paradise.  We slept 25 out of the first 37 hours we spent in Bordeaux and then set out on operation drink and eat ourselves into a stupor. 

When we aren’t eating cheese and drinking wine, we’re avoiding poop (more on this later) on our way to intensive French classes at the Alliance Française. 

We you say…trés heureux.
First day of school!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Running on empty...

We did, at one point, have plans to see Ghana properly. That was prior to the two months we spent in West Africa…

We spent a few days in Accra complaining about the poor quality of the hotel we decided to splurge at (yes, we’re talking about you Afia Beach Hotel) and rejoicing at finding an ATM that took our Mastercard. We visited Nkrumeh National Park (although only from outside the gates as we couldn’t figure out how to pay our 2 cedis to get in) and met a crazy Kiwi who owns, of all things, an amazing sushi restaurant in downtown Ghana called Monsoon.

Next up, Kumasi, the seat of the Ashanti King. Did we make an appointment to meet the King? No. Did we see West Africa’s largest market? Yes, but on a Sunday. It was still impressively labyrinth-like and full of women surrounded by giant vats of peanut-paste so maybe we still have street-cred?

Finally: Cape Coast. Our visit to the Cape Coast Castle was the sad and depressing experience we’d been expecting (but didn’t get) at Ìle de Goree. Underground chambers that held thousands of slaves standing in their own waste and a long tunnel stretching to the “Door of No Return” where they boarded ships bound for the Americas. Really depressing. Although, ironically, our guide seemed more excited by the plaque presented by Barack and Michelle Obama during their visit in 2009 than he was by the fact that he works at a beautifully-restored 17th century slaving fort full of history.

As we leave West Africa, I feel a little bit like I did when I left Egypt. I’m glad I came but I secretly hope I don’t ever have to come back again…don’t tell Juan.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

We really need to get those "sucker" stamps washed off our foreheads...

Collectively breathing a sigh of Anglophonic relief as we crossed the Togo-Ghana border, we were immediately intercepted by a moneychanger who, when told we had already converted our francs to Ghanaian cedis, advised us that we should wrap our larger cedis in smaller ones because the police would ask about it when we exited the border area.  Thinking that we might not have been allowed to change cedis outside of banks (Venezuela and Morocco both had similar currency controls), we pulled aside and quickly tried to cover our stack of 10 x 10-cedi bills with 1-cedi bills (provided by our new “friend”).  Despite trying to be discreet and blocking him out with our backpacks, our friend became very insistent and grabby, telling us we were doing it all wrong.  Tia pulled away, insisting we were fine, but he persisted, all the while attempting to pacify her by saying, “My sister,” in a bruised voice as Tia continued wrapping the bills herself.

He objects again to how she’s doing it and next thing you know he seizes the stack of cash!  Aaah!  We both inhaled an extra gulp of air, quietly panicked, and locked our eyes onto his hands.  No point in pushing and grabbing now because money could be lost in a scuffle.  He calmly shows her the best way to wrap each side, smacking cash for emphasis, before handing it back to her, in its entirety.  Convinced that we saw nothing out of ordinary, we speedily exited the border area (borders are stressful) and hopped on the first bus to Accra.  It wasn’t until we were settled in our hotel that we realized our stack of 100 cedis had become 50…  Yeah.  He Copperfielded half of the money while we both watched him. 

Despite reassuring ourselves that it’s just $33, we’re still pretty enraged whenever we talk about this border magician.  We’ve probably managed to avoid dozens of scamsters over the past seven months either through mental immobility or sheer ignorance; ironically, English worked against us because we otherwise would have just smiled and sauntered by.  And it’s true that constantly having to haggle for a fair price every time we walk outside, to shake our head at every guy selling belts or coat racks draped on his arm, to stone-face every hiss to get our attention (Tia particularly hates this) has truly begun to exhaust us…  It’s time for us to meet at the muster point for leaving Africa.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cheapest tattoos ever...

The 5-hour Kpalimé/Mt. Klouto tour we did with Guillaume was the highlight of our 5-day stay in Togo.  He showed us around the grounds of an old German settlement (i.e. hospital, prison, cemetery) and shared his plans to get the government involved in restoring the buildings so that tourists can come stay directly on the mountain with great views of the valley.  At the age of 29, Guillaume speaks seven languages, has started his own local association that raises awareness of eco-tourism and helps local farmers plant renewable crops, and conducts tours of Mt. Klouto and the surrounding areas as demand dictates.  Um, how old am I again? 

Mt. Kouto itself is stunning – full of lush greenery (from nutmeg trees to mini pineapples), hidden waterfalls and swarms of butterflies (which Guillaume was a total ninja at catching).   Guillaume also has an intimate knowledge of each plant that produces natural dyes.  As the tour progressed, he’d stop at a completely ordinary-looking plant and next thing we knew he’d have bright red fingers or a yellow palm, which he employed as an artist would a palette.  The result?  A new butterfly tattoo for me (included in the tour price).  Another tattoo favorite:  the “tattoo fern”.  Pick a leaf off this fern, lay it on your skin and slap it – what remains is a perfectly shaped, white version of the fern.  Amazing.
You can contact Guillaume at: