Monday, May 31, 2010

Down South

It's likely that the full details of the last few days, including a trip up Table Mountain, a pot-luck couchsurfing dinner, Eurovision madness and some pretty hairy cab rides will have to wait for a while. In the mean time I'll leave you with a picture from a trip today to the Cape of Good Hope with three couchsurfers who are living here. I'll have to lighten the water a little but given that it took me such a long time to get the panorama set up, I'm not going to do that just now, so here's an outrageously big panorama (this thumbnail is roughly 1/30th the size of the full size version):

The view from Cape Point national park

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A little light and magic

(written mostly on Sunday)

It's been a funny old weekend, and I'm pleased to say that after the last post I've spent a lot of time walking around the city with less worry, but almost as much caution, as I had before.

Saturday was another spectacularly sunny day and I made my way towards town in one of the local mini-buses, packed in with 25 others, as the driver tore through the streets and his friend called out and whistled to passersby seeing if we couldn't shove another half a dozen people in the back. We passed an area that I'd heard of before, so I called and jumped off the bus, and started wondering Woodstock, a pretty rundown neighbourhood, but one which I'd heard had hidden treasures. It didn't take long to find the old biscuit mill, which now, every Saturday, plays host to a fantastic food market, with delicacies made freshly but originating from around the world. I tucked into a great smoked salmon in rice paper wrap and wonderful seared swordfish with passion fruit and avocado. I also got the first decent cup of coffee I've drunk whilst in Cape Town before tearing my way away from the food tents and walking around the extremely artsy-looking home-stores, clothes shops and photography galleries.

bread at the biscuit mill
veg at the biscuit mill
old buscuit mill under table mountain
I took another treacherous journey in a local minibus (here called taxis) into the centre of the city and wandered around the rather unappealing looking streets until I found a nice square to bask in the sun, read a book and work out my next move.

Though they may seem overly touristy, I've started using the open-topped bus tours as a way to get to know a city if given only a short time in it. The two hour tour took me through most of the important districts in the city, including the infamous District 6, up to the cable station of Table Mountain and on around the beaches to the West where the rich and famous sun themselves. I took this from round the corner of one of the most exclusive areas to live in Cape Town:
Cape Town sea and mountain views
Getting back to the small but rather historic guest house, I met the owner and her daughter, whose boyfriend was there with an old school friend of his and his girlfriend. Soon another guest arrived, and on inspection I found myself to be in the company of an international rugby star, a world famous paleontologist and a TV star/top model/DJ. We chatted for a while and watched the rugby which was being played down the road, before I headed off to get something to eat in one of the local restaurants. I didn't manage to explain my thoughts on the holographic principle to the model, though I have no doubt that she would have been fascinated!

Sunday I headed off for a walk in the forest at the foot of Table Mountain which boasts one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. It's a really stunning area with such a variety of ancient flora (mostly being made of of a plethora of ferns) that you seem to be moving from one continent to another as you walk through the undergrowth.

Getting out of the forest we headed to Montebello's, one of the areas famed lunch venues and sated our appetites on a strange sushi rice based concoction, wasabi'd to perfection, before heading back to the guest house. I spent the afternoon getting on with work and chilling into the evening.

The rest of the week so far has been a push on the project which has taken a few u-turns but we have some concrete calculations to look at for now. Today was a bit of a break as I gave my talk on atmospheric optics as a departmental colloquium. I had a good reception and the number of questions after and display of photos with a variety of cloud formations and optical effects which people quizzed me with was a great sign. I'll be happy to give this in other departments in the future and it looks like I have one lined up for Chile in August.

In fact the weather played its part today as we had a rather lovely solar halo over the campus through the morning (and now a fine lunar halo). I played my usual part and pointed it out to random passersby who gave me a much warmer reaction than that which I've received in any other country. It's not the greatest solar halo ever, but it is the best timed!
UCT halo
This on the other hand is a mystery to me. As I headed out of the department on Monday I was greeted with a strange light around the top of Table Mountain which stayed pretty stationary, though faded as the clouds moved swiftly across the peaks. Within five minutes it was gone, but I have a feeling it was as much to do with the position of the sun as the cloud formation. My only guess is that there may have been two layers of lenticular clouds which let through a perfect sliver of light. Any other suggestions would be gratefully received.
Mysterious light over UCT2
Mysterious light over UCT1
This, by the way, is the magnificent campus view of Table Mountain (actually Devil's peak) directly behind the main UCT hall.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A strange mix

Life in Cape Town can so far be described as paradoxical. It is a beautiful city, with stunning scenery surrounding it, great food, great wine and some of the friendliest people I've met anywhere, but juxtaposed with this is the constant fear of violent crime. You just don't go out on the streets at night. Some people would even consider going round the corner a risk, though the woman running the guest house told me not to worry as I cautiously crept around to the main street this evening to get a take-away - a meal I would normally have eaten in the restaurant, but by the time I would have finished it would have been completely dark and the park along which I had to walk seems rather notorious. I hurried home, steak and pate in hand.

The dichotomy is further confused when I try to compare the lifestyle here with that of Santiago, one of the safest places I've ever been, where women don't think twice about walking home alone at any time of the night, even in the most remote parts of the city. However, as I tried to find some jeans which go all the way to my ankles (no easy task) in a nearby shop earlier today I was amazed when the woman behind the counter told me that she was getting off work soon and if I could wait she would drive me somewhere that they might have my size (no such luck in the end). Still, the idea of someone opening up so quickly to a stranger in Galicia is not something I've ever come across before.

Later this afternoon (the work hours are shifted here, partly to take into account that you don't want to be getting home after dark and so people often work from 7am -5pm or so) a taxi driver told me of the horror stories in his part of the city (I shan't repeat them here) that have taken place over the last couple of days.

The cafeteria in the university adds more to the confusion, as signs flicker up on the walls asking you if you've secured your valuables, know where your bag is, have seen any suspicious behaviour, etc. etc. in blinking red dots. This added to the panic buttons placed around campus make this feels like some futuristic horror. These signs, I have little doubt, add more to the sense of paranoia than to people's caution levels - a subtle differentiation which I think is very important.

This all being said, one of the researchers here regularly heads into the townships to the bars where he has a great time and hasn't ever encountered any problems. It seems that the streets around the university which are empty at night are the perfect place to prey on the one or two students who happen to be coming home alone (several students murdered in this area recently - out too late after a party, or starling a burglar).

But people seem willing to adapt their way of living to deal with such things if they get to live in such a wonderful city and indeed the attitude of the people is easy going and extremely friendly, and right now they are all really looking forward to the month long hiatus which is going to mark the world cup coming to town.

Anyway, so I sit here in my guest house again this evening finishing off some notes on the current work, unable to venture outside. I'm hoping to meet up with some Couchsurfers in the next couple of days (I've already bumped into a Norwegian Couchsurfer I met in Seoul two years ago, while 'enjoying' a coffee on campus - enjoying is a bit of an overstatement, given the insipid brown fluid which you get when you order a coffee), and given a firm destination I should be able to take a taxi to meet people outside the confines of the street I'm staying on very soon.

I'll do my best to update shortly.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Anticrepuscular rays over the Western Cape

Rays coming out from the point of the setting sun are a common sight, as the light is blocked by clouds, but as these rays diverge over the zenith they can sometimes be seen to reconvene at the antisolar point. These less common rays are described as anticrepuscular and as we went for a walk on the beach this evening after work we got a wonderful display of them:

anticrepuscular rays
The shadow of myself and Jeff and Amanda to my left can be seen heading off in the same direction.
These same rays can be seen above the kelp which had washed up on the beach and was being bounced around on the tide-line:
and in this photo (click for a huge version) the Eastern edge of Table Mountain can be seen to the right with the clouds literally spilling over into the bay:
Capetown panorama
and a little colour to end, from the beach huts looking out to the shark-filled waters:

I'll be giving my first talk here tomorrow morning. It's the same talk I gave in Santiago a week or so ago which seemed to go down pretty well. The crowd here is a combination of string theorists (who know a huge amount about what I'm talking about - they have written some wonderful papers on this work) and cosmologists who have a pretty good idea about AdS/CFT and are likely to ask lots of great questions. It should be fun, but I'm not expecting an easy ride!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Arrival in Cape Town

We come to the end of the craziest week in some considerable time, as I sit in the 'tree' (only by name) apartment in a self-catering guest house a short walk from the University of Cape Town and in the shadow of Table Mountain.

The week started off with my first Tango lesson, which passed without too much bloodshed or too many twisted ankles. Sadly as I'll be traveling pretty constantly for the rest of the year, this is only going to be a very occasional occurrence but I'll see if I can get in a couple more lessons before going to Buenos Aires in July.

Tuesday saw my first ever performance on the Geiger Counter at the quantum music festival in front of a crowd of several hundred

videos to follow. While Wednesday and Thursday evenings saw music courtesy of Emir Kusturica and some fine blues players in Dado Dada.

Friday the fun began for real.

Friday afternoon I headed over to Paris to meet up with a good friend from Beijing, who, five years ago got me involved with the Couchsurfing scene. I've since hosted well over 100 people in my place in Santiago, thanks to this connection and it has been a fantastic aspect of life since then, getting to know people from all over the world and, something which has been an added bonus, to be able to explain many aspects of my work and science in general to a huge audience of people who are interested but generally come from non-scientific backgrounds. Being able to share the passion of what I do is a real pleasure and in return I find out about cultures from every corner of the world, usually accompanied by some fine local cooking.

Anyway, so I spent the night in Paris, going out to a few bars and meeting a very international crowd in the Richard Lenoir and Oberkampf districts, before getting up slightly woozy headed on Saturday, making my way to CDG airport and flying to Istanbul. I was advised by the air stewardesses that I wouldn't have time to go into the city but I got the name of a good restaurant from them and, with newly acquired visa in hand, I took a taxi to the banks of the Bosphorus to the site where the first light house sits, on the inlet from the sea of Marmaris as the river makes its way into the city.

I sat watching the sunset and had an excellent meal (though outrageously overpriced - had I had more time I would definitely have gone somewhere a lot, lot cheaper) before heading back to the airport and waiting for another four hours as the flight was delayed (in the mean time I bought the most expensive cup of coffee I'd ever bought - at over 5 euros I thought I must have been mistaken but sadly it was already in my hands when I discovered that this was truly the price!

From Istanbul I flew with Turkish airlines (who served some of the best in-flight meals I've ever had) to Johannesburg where we waited for an hour to refuel before coming to Cape Town where I sit now in a beautiful apartment and wait for sleep to roll over my tired eyes.

It's going to be a very busy couple of weeks here but I'll do my best to update when possible.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Africa beginnings and endings

Tomorrow I head to Paris for the night, followed by a mammoth trip via Istanbul and Johannesburg to Cape Town where I'll be spending a couple of weeks working with researchers and friends in the UCT who specialise on topics in applied AdS/CFT and especially the area of emergent geometry. This is something that I've recently started working in and is a fascinating topic.

I thought that, even if only briefly, I should try and finish off the stories from the Africa trip last month before starting a new adventure.

Last I wrote we were on tofu playa, near Inhambane, a few hours north of Maputo in Mozambique where we had arrived after a 19 hour non-stop road trip. We'd swam with dolphins and attempted to do the same with whale sharks, some with more success than others, and we'd been generally chilling in the wonderful beach hut, sampling the local fish (from the outrageously overfished waters) and getting ridiculous tan-lines as we did it (despite the constant applications of factor 50).

30 seconds in the life of six travelers and expats in Mozambique:


On the third day we headed into one of the main populated areas to grab a bite to eat in a black metal shack in the middle of the day where we quickly became far hotter than the food (which was pretty hard to compete with, having been doused in firey piri-piri sauce!). The fan which was brought to the table when it became clear that we were probably going to pass out from the heat failed to turn, but we were told for 10 minutes to have patience (and possibly faith) and that in its own good time it would start working. Indeed such patience was met with the help of a guy sitting at a table next to ours, who, on seeing our plight, came over, removed the safety cage from the fan and cranked it up by hand - a beer was duly sent his way to the applause of all at his table.

A game of petanque outside a French bar saw in the dusk as we spoke Spanish with others talking in Portuguese, with reasonable success.
It has been a while since I was in Portugal but I find the Mozambiquan Portuguese much easier to understand than that of our Iberian neighbours. The slow lilt of it is rather similar to Gallego and once you understand the basic mappings, it's pretty simple to understand for a Spanish speaker from Galicia.
Anyway, having spent a few days chilling on the coast we made our way back down to Maputo, to stay with our friends (from South Africa and Galicia) who have been living in the city now for a few months and who were the primary cause of this trip.
Some sights on the way back:
The seven hour trip down passed with far less terror than the trip up that we had made through the night and we arrived tired by happy in a buzzing Maputo. The promise of a great apartment, and, especially noteworthy, a fully functioning elevator, was only half fulfilled as we trudged up 11 flights of stairs with our fully laden backpacks, only to collapse at the top and quickly make our way down again to get some food in one of the most famous restaurants in the area (Piri-Piri's). The piri-piri chicken was spectacularly hot (perfect for me), though I was rather ashamed when the dessert arrived and I simply wasn't able to manage the whole slice of chocolate cake, which must have weighed in at well over half a kilo: my first culinary defeat since at the age of 12 or so, a giant sea snail had shocked me into submission.

The next day we did the tour of the city, the atmosphere of which is still very much influenced by the colonial buildings from the Portuguese era. We visited the train station, designed by Eiffel, and also his ingeniously useless metal building, which may be perfect for a more temperate clime, but in the heart of Africa is truly a folly of unrivaled proportions.

In Mozambique it's quite common to ask someone waiting by the side of the road to look after your car as you go into a restaurant or a shop, and to give them a few Meticals afterward. Normally you get a few offers of such a service wherever you stop.

As we stopped in front of the old parliament building, nobody was around to provide such a service at the time, so we dropped the car off and headed to look at the old fort and a few other local points of interest.

On arrival back at the car however, a man almost too drunk to stand up came up to us and demanded that we pay him for his vigilance as we had made our tour. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that he didn't have a leg to stand on in terms of his claims as our car was no longer in possession of its wing-mirrors. They were presumably already sitting in a market stand somewhere nearby, or allowing some guy to have his morning shave.

Given that we didn't have more than 24 hours in Maputo, going to the police was not going to be an option (the bureaucracy in Mozambique is some of the fiercest in the world, and the queues are those that any Englishman would be proud of). We drove around extremely carefully, aware that the police are legend at catching you for the slightest infringement, but made it back to the flat without encountering any cops on patrol.

In the evening we headed to a local bar and a Thai restaurant, to have our last meal out in Mozambique.

The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn, breakfasted on local fruit and bread and took off back towards the border that had given us so many problems on our way into Mozambique.

The other way round (Mozambique to SA) turns out to be much much easier and we were in and out within half an hour, heading back on the much more comfortable roads of South Africa on our way to Johannesburg.

We arrived safely in Johannesburg and attempted to go to the Apartheid museum, curiously placed on the grounds, so it appears, of a theme park. Unfortunately the museum had just closed so we went straight to the parents of Ben, with whom we had been traveling and staying in Mozambique, for a spectacular dinner and several hours of fascinating conversation, before hitting a couple of bars nearby, returning before it got too late, and rising early again the next day for our flights, leaving time to explain to the car hire company what had happened to the wing mirrors!

It seems that had we not pointed it out, the car hire company probably would not have noticed the lack of mirrors, but having confessed and explained our lack of police statement there wasn't much they could do. As they looked up how much it would cost us, we were somewhat taken aback when they quoted us a little over 500 euros for the pair! Pleading with them (though knowing that the insurance for the car didn't cover glass, wheels, undercarriage, or any incident in which another car was not the primary cause), they suggested that we explain to the police in the department at the airport. We went along and stated our case only to be laughed at, quoting, unsurprisingly, that whatever crimes take place in Mozambique have nothing to do with them.

Cutting a long story short, the car hire company very helpfully got the police to write an affidavit which was apparently enough documentation to drop the cost to us to less than 200 euros and we department a little poorer but happy given what the possibilities could have been!

The flights from Johannesburg back through Dubai were uneventful but painful given the lack of emergency exit seats and I passed most of the night stood up at the back of the plane.

On landing in London we headed to Bethnel Green where we spent an enjoyable few hours wondering this area, which I'd never explored before, met up with a few friends for lunch and dinner and crashed out before a 4.30am start to catch the bus back to Stansted on our way to Spain.

I've never had a holiday on which I've risen before 7am for so many days (I think that we only slept in past 7 on two occasions on the whole trip) and on returning to Santiago I was refreshed in mind, but not in body! Since then I've kept up with the swim routine I'd promised myself in Mozambique and have been swimming 3 km every week since then. I'll see if I can continue while in Cape Town.

I'm not sure there will be much of a chance to blog for a while, but this depends largely on the internet situation in the guest house I'll be staying in for the next two weeks.

I'll let you know....