Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Working in Bangalore and Singapore


I recently spent some time in Bangalore and Singapore on a work trip during the London winter. Its always good to travel to warmer countries during this time and Bangalore and Singapore were perfect for that.

Bangalore

I haven't been to Bangalore much even though I have heard a lot about the city for long, as a lot of my college friends went there on their first jobs. Since then, I've had a fascination for the city, always. Also, I hadn't visited India for some time, so on this trip both factors made me enjoy my time there a lot, even if it was short.

A view of Bangalore
The first thing I noticed about Bangalore was that it is so green. And when you drive around, you can imagine how beautiful it must have looked years ago. With the old stone buildings, small rock hills, all its green gardens and the lakes. But not much of it remains in the same form now. And what takes over is the negatives, the biggest of which is the traffic - with so many small roads and so many cars, its too much! There is dust everywhere and sound of horns in every direction. Going from anywhere to anywhere takes at least an hour, irrespective of the distance. Most of the buildings seem old and dusty. Also, from the top, it doesn't look that there are as many high rises in the city as you would think. There are small pockets which have high rises and the rest are quite normal.

The drive to the hotel made me very nostalgic. I passed by some iconic names and places which I remembered from my last trip to the city - especially DRDO offices. Also seeing all the billboards, names of schools, shops and so on, I just had that rushing feeling of being back in 'my' country. Its a feeling which never leaves you, irrespective of how long you have stayed outside your country.

View from the balcony
I was staying at the Ritz Carlton hotel and it was amazing. Being at a luxury place in your own country feels very different than being abroad. The service was top-notch, with the whole staff taking care of you as if you are royalty. And I must say, the suites in the hotel were outstanding (and quite reasonably priced too). The views from the hotel were beautiful, a panoramic view of the city till wherever the eyes could see. It looked so green from the top. Also, it had many different coloured flowering trees everywhere. Apparently, different coloured flowers bloom in the city at different times of the year - purple, yellow, orange and so on.

Art at the Ritz
The art in the hotel was also something worth talking about. Here are a few photos of some of the pieces. The hotel prides itself on the art collection and it was very clearly visible. And the Indian food, whether room service or on the terrace restaurant are worth dying for, especially the dal makhani, yum... A definite recommend from me.



Art at the Ritz
I spent a Saturday in the city and was amazed by the number of restaurants all around. And ta lot of them were open air terrace restaurants, so those were my preferred ones during my stay. On the weekend, I went to Brigade estate for dinner which seemed like a nice community, with malls, restaurants, offices, lakes and residential flats within the same complex. Living in India is so much more luxurious than London. On top of that, the weather was pleasant, the food was great and the service perfect. I really enjoyed the time I spent there on the weekend, especially the weather. And it was quite the opposite to my next weekend in Singapore.

I loved my short stay in Bangalore, especially the pleasant weather. It was so cool the entire time, its the perfect place to stay. Ola and Uber is everywhere, so its easy to get everywhere. And its quite a green city. People also seem chill, and there is an entrepreneurial feel all around. Most things about Bangalore are superlative, except of course the traffic which is the bane of the city. That's why most people prefer to stay near their place of work and places like Brigade estate are popular. But overall, loved my short time there and would like to go back there again soon.



Singapore

Ive been to Singapore a couple of times and this time I spent about three weeks there on work. To be honest, it feels almost the same as it was more than ten years ago that I had first visited the city. Its all about malls, shopping, restaurants, high rises and completely man-made living. There is very less vibrancy and liveliness underneath what you see and that hasn't changed yet.

View from the St Regis
I again stayed at the St Regis and the hotel surely is amazing. Great service and a magnificent view of a green Singapore which you never see from the street. It felt very refreshing every morning. Most of my time was spent between the hotel and office. And it was as usual efficient. I did spend one weekend there which was mostly about meeting friends and also exploring a little bit more than what I had done earlier.

Little India Diwali decorations
This time again, I went to Little India twice for meals at Kailash Parbat (which is awesome btw) and once for a movie. It had decorations for Diwali this time, as the last time - again nothing has changed since then. And then I went to Arab street which was a nice experience, sitting outside and eating spicy food. We also walked around there a bit and could sense the Arab influence everywhere. And of course I visited Dempsey Hill a couple of times for meals, always a good place to go.

Marina lighted at night
The Marina Sands hotel is a big part of the city. It has spas restaurants, hotels, shopping and just about anything else tourists would be looking for. In terms of restaurants, a good find this time was the Punjab Grill at the Sands which had very tasty food. And I saw a fountain show outside the Marina at night which was very impressive.

Bridge near Robertson Quay
The three new places I visited this time were the Pebbles Bay island where I visited a friend, Robertson Quay and the Botanical gardens. Pebbles Bay looks like a nice place to live, high rises with a view of the river and a long line of restaurants right across which are a nice place to sit and chill in the outside. And I liked Robertson Quay which was again located next to the river and had a few nice brunch places. I walked there during the day and enjoyed the calm and quiet there. The outside seating places in Singapore are definitely much better than the crowded mall type restaurants.

Botanical gardens
One of the evenings, I walked to the botanical gardens from the hotel as it was very close. Its a nice park in the middle of the city, with plants from all over the world and lot of landscaping done to make it look interesting. There is also an orchid garden which was closed that time but seemed promising for another time. I liked the gardens, its a nice place to walk and when you want to be away from the noise of the city. Have noted it down for the next time definitely.

The weather overall was too hot and humid, around 30 degrees max. It was always like that and there was no respite from the heat at all. We did have thunderstorms everyday though but don't think they did much to reduce the temperatures much. On the other hand it was extremely freezing inside, whether in the office or the malls. It was a bit of a downer as we would have liked to enjoy the warmer Singapore temperatures given we were trying to avoide the London winters.

Overall, the food was too expensive. The city has become a lot more expensive in the last few years. Its very very convenient though, especially the taxis and it is totally safe. There is also a lot of greenery in any of the free spaces. Even on bridges and under them, there is vegetation growing to increase the greenness around. But something is still lacking. And I noticed it even in the people - the locals don't smile much. I think the city really needs some life, something more real than what it has.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Nordic winter in Stockholm


This winter, I spent two very cold months (Jan to March) in Stockholm. My last visit to the city ten years ago had been quite uneventful even though it was in summer. And my view hasn't changed much this time either. As I was there on work, I was mostly confined to my hotel and office. But I did get a chance to see a side of the city which maybe could have been more interesting, if not for winter...

About the city

View of Stockholm at sunset
I mostly stayed in the central part of Stockholm, overlooking Gamla Stan, the old town set on a small island. The views outside the hotel were impressive, with huge majestic stone buildings perched on top of small hills all around and surrounded by water. Stockholm is composed of a lot of small islands dotting the sea and there are a lot of waterways and canals everywhere, which adds a dash of character to all views. And a lot of the buildings are colourful, at least by Swedish standards, making all the views quite picturesque.

All snowed up
Stockholm is old, yet very modern and efficient in how its infrastructure is setup. And everything works fast and like clockwork. In fact, its one of those countries where its very easy to catch your flight even if you leave just an hour earlier - I tried it many times and it always worked. Also Sweden, is a low cash country and everyone accepts credit card. I spent three months there without ever seeing a Swedish Krona!

Its easy to get around the city, there are trams, trains and buses. We used taxis quite often and they were easy to find. One thing to note is that different cabs charge different rates for the same distance, so its important to book one in advance, preferably the cheaper ones😊. Overall, they are very expensive as is the rest of the city. Regarding food, there are amazing restaurants in the city and food is really yummy and its easy to be a vegetarian. But as expected, its very very expensive.

Touristy stuff

One weekend, I decided to stay back in the city and explore some of the places around. It also turned out to be the week when the Beast from the North was hitting Europe. So it was -23 degrees that weekend, definitely not the best time to explore a European town. As expected, I did get to see some of the city, but it wasn't as much as I would have wanted.

Narrow streets of
Gamla Stan
One of the days, I walked to the Gamla Stan which was very close to my hotel. I first passed by the Houses of Parliament which was am imposing building with lion head gates. And then into the old world charm of Gamla Stan. Even though the weather was cold, there were loads of tourists around. The whole area was full of cobbled pedestrian streets with lot of colourful buildings and small alleys everywhere. The streets were lined with small quaint cafes, boutiques and handicraft shops on both sides. They were fun to explore and I could see it being a lively place in the summer but for now, it was a bit of a struggle walking around in the biting wind and cold.

There were a few popular buildings nearby to visit too. The cathedral was quite well decorated inside and had some exquisite pieces in gold, especially from the last coronation. Next to it was a grand square and the Nobel museum. And the Royal Palace next door was huge and had great views against the setting sun. There were also loads of museums everywhere. Stockholm is known for its many museums, but I wasn't as interested in them. So I continued walking around and taking in the sights and feel of things around.

Views of Stockholm
While walking back to my hotel, I saw other parts of the city and it looked very enchanting. With old grand colourful stone buildings visible from a distance on top of hills and waterways with boats all around. It was a nice enjoyable walk, but I couldn't stay out for more than 2-3 hours in the cold, so I had to soon come back to to the hotel for the warmth of indoor heat.

The next day was even colder, if that was possible! So I chose to visit the Vasa museum and it turned out to be a good idea. Vasa is the name of a ship from 400 years ago, with almost as tragic a history as the Titanic. It was supposed to be the pride of Sweden, decorated with 1500 wooden sculptures and big enough to house 400 crewmen. However, it sunk on its maiden voyage within a couple of hundred metres of its launch and lay at the bottom of the seas till it was taken out after 400 years on the ocean floor. And the best part is that even after being in the water for so long, most of its structure remained intact. And it now gives a good insight into the lives of people 400 years ago.

Mast of the Vasa
The museum is setup on multiple floors and has lot of displays linked to what they found in the Vasa and how it was recovered. For me though, it was the actual ship which was the most interesting of all. The wooden mast with all its sculptures is majestic and a sight to behold. Imagining how it would have looked in its glory, all painted in bright colours with the Roman Gods and the lions and other sculptures is fun, it would have looked quite magnificent sailing in the sea. And you can now imagine how Sweden and other colonial countries would have impressed and conquered the worlds at that time with their huge and dominating ships.

The Vasa
There was a lot of history related to the ship which was quite revealing to me. It was interesting to know that the Swedish and Polish had years of wars because of differences in faith - Protestant and Catholic. I never knew that earlier. It was also ironic to see, that an imperfect ship which failed in its purpose has a museum to itself now πŸ˜‚. The ship drowned because it was not constructed properly and then survived 400 years to be in a museum today! How ironic is that?

That Christmas-y feeling
As soon as I came out of the museum, I ran into a view right out of paradise. There was a white river with bridges across it and the beautiful coloured houses of Stockholm, up and down the streets. With the sun setting, there was light music playing in the cafe and the Christmas lights started to light up. On the other side of the road, there was a huge park which had a frozen river. I just sat there outside the cafe for some time and enjoyed this view. No one had mentioned this place to me and I am glad I found it. Though the cold ensured that I couldn't stay there long enough, but I would have loved to...

Then I walked to the neighbouring park and tried walking on the frozen river. It was an exciting but scary feeling. I knew that nothing would happen to me, but still every step I took was very very carefully placed. Again it was so cold, I could not stay out too long and after accomplishing the feat of walking on frozen water, I went back quite quickly to my hotel.

During winter, skating on ice in the lakes and water bodies is quite popular. You can do it in Hagapark, Hellasgarden or Millesgarden. However, given how cold it was, I was not in the mood to do anything too action oriented and so missed out on it. Also, there are many other parks and small castles around which are good to visit, explore and enjoy.  I went to one small old castle very near the central city which was lovely. It had great interiors and a view of a frozen lake outside, again dotted with houses in white around it, all very captivating views. And of course, in summer, the most touristy and popular thing to do is rent a boat and explore the islands around by yourself, stopping at some of them and having a picnic in the sun. But that's for another time.

This one weekend when I stayed back in Stockholm and explored it a bit, I finally found that it is actually a beautiful city. With its waterways and hills and scenic buildings. But it takes time (and better weather) to explore it to find the beauty that lies there.

Weather

Zipping through the snow
The weather in Stockholm in winter has to be one of the worst I have ever seen. Its so dark and cloudy the whole time and there is no sunlight at all - its not a joke, it is actually that bad. All the waterways are frozen and always white. And its always snowing. Apparently February is always the worst month and then slowly it starts to get better, so I saw it at its worst. It is quite dark most of the day, with limited hours of light and I found it quite depressing.

One of the weeks I was there, it snowed continuously for 3 days in a row. And everything turned white. There was many feet of snow outside. Initially I thought I would play with the snow, but it was so cold to just be out, leave along trying to play in it, I never got to do it. But I did learn that it doesn't make sense to wear heels at all in such weather. It could get very slippery very quickly, so boots was the way to go the entire winter.

The temperature when I was there was below -10 most of the days. But when the sun came out for a bit, the whole city looked a lot brighter and cheerful. One of the days when the maximum temp was 6 degrees, people actually thought it was hot and were regretting why they wore a jacket πŸ˜‚. Not for me though, I was just happy to see some sun and some sunlight, even if for a few minutes. Maybe that's why museums and eating out is quite popular in Stockholm; there isn't much you can do otherwise in the winter.

People and culture

Swedes are said to be quite reserved people and don't mingle well with people who are not Swedish. And I heard this so many times while in Stockholm that I would assume it to be true 😜. I also heard that Swedes almost behave like different people in summer and winter. Apparently they become more open and friendly in summer and clam up in winter. I don't know how true it is, so can't say. But I did find them to be quite distant even if friendly in the few interactions I had. Overall, Swedes are not very religious - they say they are 'culturally Christian but not religiously'. Its also a very non-hierarchical society and you can see it for yourself very easily.

I noticed some small things while there which are definitely part of their culture, even if it cannot be defined as such. First, they have a lot of holidays. Everyone gets full 6 weeks off in summer, then one week sports week where they all go skiing in the mountains and then Christmas. That is quite impressive.

Also, Swedes all like to eat lunch at 12, almost like clockwork. Everyday the cafeteria used to be full at 12 and empty completely if you go at 1230! While I was there, they had a festival of eating semlas (a kind of pastry) which are traditionally eaten on the day. They are not very healthy and neither very tasty, but everyone around was excited to eat semlas on the festival day 😊. Also pancakes Thursdays seems to be a thing there which I haven't seen elsewhere.

They do have some funny traditions too. One of which is jumping into ice cold water in frozen rivers after a shower and then running back to the indoors warmth. And this is taught and practiced in schools! Very interesting...

Service quality overall was quite poor. The worst example was my hotel - even though they were a 5 star chain, they would not send water or come up to my room to give my passport. They rarely helped with the luggage. You ask for a taxi and they ask you to come down and call for it yourself. I also once got almost scolded for calling the carpenter to fix my door lock! Its a very do-it-yourself country which I found worse than some of the other European places I had visited.

In the last few centuries, Sweden and other Nordic countries used to be quite poor. They only recently became richer. And because of this history, there are thousands of Swedish people in US who had migrated there when conditions were difficult. And now Sweden has a lot of migrants coming in (and consequently migrant problems). I didn't see it much when I was there but heard it being talked about quite a lot, plus a lot of my friends asked me if I saw it. Once asked, I started noticing it a bit. All taxis are now driven by migrants. And a couple of times when walking in Central Stockholm at night, I saw some people standing around and creating a ruckus on the streets which made it look less safe than I would expect. Things seem to be changing even in this country which for years has been quite isolated from the world...


One view I always remember of Stockholm and Sweden is a view from the air when flying out one of the weeks. It was dark as usual, and I could see the clouds below me, stars above and some house lights below. And all through the route, the clouds shone because of the lights below... It was the perfect example of finding beauty in small things, where you would not expect. But it hasn't happened for me and Stockholm yet. People love the city but I haven't figured out yet why. I have been there many times and I still think its an average city. It does have a lot of museums but something is missing. But maybe there is something in its beauty which I am missing?


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Skiing in Kitzbuhel, Austria


This year I revived my annual skiing trips to Europe and so went on a long weekend to the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbuhel. It was a fun vacation and we had a great skiing experience in the long and tough slopes of Kitz. The weather was awesome and made the whole experience even more enjoyable, definitely a place to return again.

View from the slopes
We flew into Salzburg from London on a Friday and then drove from there to Aschau at night, the village where we had booked our airbnb. The drive was on a bright moon night, amid the mountains and the fog and it felt almost surreal. As we started there was white fog all around. And then the shapes of mountains emerged, sometimes dark, sometimes with the shape of green trees on the peaks and sometimes shining white with the moonlight reflecting on the snow. And sometimes the hint of lakes and streams on the sides, reflecting the moon and sometimes completely dark.

The temperature was quite cool outside and at times we saw the star filled sky. We passed by loads of villages on the way which would have looked very picturesque during the day. The roads were amazing, the drive was comfortable and the view outside so enchanting! With Indian music in the background, the whole drive felt almost uplifting and was the perfect start to the vacation.

I thought we were driving fast given it was mountain roads filled with snow, with a lot of turns and no light at night. But we kept on getting overtaken all the time. So clearly not! We did drive a bit faster after that but not as much as the others for sure. It took us about 1.5 hours till we reached the town of Kirchberg. We could see the night ski slope all lighted up before we got there, and the sense of going skiing became more real! While we drove through the village, people were drinking and partying after skiing, and it felt very alive.

View of Aschau
We reached our airbnb at night and quickly settled in. We were staying in the village of Aschau which was a very small one with maybe less than 50 huts. Our airbnb was an alpine apartment very comfortably decorated, and with everything you would need. Out of our window, we could see people come skiing down the slope right next to the apartments! Next to us conveniently located was a hotel where we had breakfast the first day. Overall the apartment was very convenient for the stay, it was a bit of a drive from the ski slopes of Kitzbuhel but totally worth it.

The next 3 days we drove to Kitzbuhel every morning, skied there the whole day and came back to our village at night. The drive till there was about 30 mins, through the village of Kirchberg and a few others. As expected, the drive was pretty picturesque passing by typical alpine views. With huge white peaks all around and the wooden hut filled villages, with the church spires peaking from in between. I never seem to tire of the view of the Alps at all, isn't it?

Skiing in the sun
The infrastructure while skiing as expected was amazing. There were multiple hills to ski on. We always started from Kitzbuhel and went up that way. And then of course, there was a network of lifts and slopes up on the mountains to spend the whole day there. The snow was good but not fresh as it hadn’t snowed for a couple of days, at places it was also a bit slippery. The slopes were long (including the 16 run which is supposed to be one of the longest blue runs in Europe) and well maintained, but I think they were tougher than usual. There were also lot of moguls on the first day but thankfully they vanished the next few days. And even when slopes were blue, they felt steeper than what I was used to.

The ski slopes were not very well linked though if you wanted to go up and come down all the way on blue slopes. I had to ski a bit of red slopes sometimes to come down. Also the bottom ski slop (No 20) apparently was red earlier but was converted to blue when people complained that there was no blue slope to come down! But overall, skiing there was fun and challenging.

We went up the top of the mountains a couple of times and could see a lot of the snow covered peaks all around. Almost felt like you were on top of the world. You could see the village of Kitzbuhel and panoramic views of the valley from many places on the top, with some green but mostly covered with white snow..

One of the Jocheburg slopes
One of the days I also went to the Jocheburg area to ski there which was amazing. It had great blue and red slopes which were quite wide and a pleasure to ski on. The views of the valley from that side were also very enchanting. We also saw some people para sailing and many hot air balloons in the air too - so there are things to do for those who don’t want to go skiing too!

The weather on two of the three days was absolutely fantastic! It was 10 degrees and sunny! You could see the sunlight slowly come into the valley and stay on some of its slopes. It made the skiing easier and warmer. The days were still short and it would get dark by 530 pm or so. By the way, we once saw the moon and sun out at the same time - it was quite a scenic view.

View of Kitzbuhel from the slopes
I have been to Kitzbuhel twice before on a work trip but this was the first time I went skiing and I saw a different side of the village. One of the days we were looking for a place to eat in the centre and it turned out all the restaurants were either booked or closed. There were only few restaurants around (but a lot of high end shops). It got quiet very quickly too. And the supermarkets closed very early by 5 pm, so you needed to be careful and buy food beforehand.

We finally ate at La Gondola that day which was very tasty food. One of the other days we went to the Pavilion, an apres ski place near the bottom of the slopes, and it was full of people after skiing. We didn’t do much apres partying overall but it looked fun for sure. There were loads of British people everywhere, on the slopes, in the village, tourists as well as instructors. Clearly Austria is very popular with British as a ski destination.

Three days there felt quite short. But it was a very enjoyable trip and a lovely place to go to, worth going again for sure.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Impressions and experiences in South Africa


In this article, I want to share some of my experiences from my long stay in South Africa, almost 7 months in 2016 and 2017. I had a great time in country travelling around on weekends but surprisingly I enjoyed staying back on Joburg also as much. There was always a sense of warmth and liveliness which I felt every time I landed there, which is difficult to describe.

This article is not a comprehensive view of the country by any measure - I don't think its especially possible for SA given how complex it is. This is more of me putting together all the things I noticed and heard which were interesting but don't fall under any of the other travel headings.

I must say though that what I have seen is only a small portion of SA but it is some SA at least. Its not the real South Africa though, that is in the villages and townships where I never visited. So I don’t know how 90% of the people actually live. But I can say that the part I saw, the better part – I liked tremendously.

About the Cities

There are a couple of big cities in South Africa where a lot of the population is concentrated – Joburg, Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria, and after that the cities are below a million people. These cities are quite modern and look quite similar. They could be in Europe for all you know, with not much of local African touch in the cities left nowadays. All of them have English names, English roads, English parks and so on.

The cities do have their own short history, like Port Elizabeth, East London and so on. But they are missing the history of the local people. You can find an Oxford Road or Cotswold street or a Hyde Park everywhere, but there are barely any local names in these cities. What all these are, are some posh areas with beautiful bungalows and malls, and the rest of the population staying in townships which are tin sheet covered small houses crowded with each other. After the fall of Apartheid, it is all changing but it will take decades before this difference vanishes and for now, it stays as it is.

The rest of the country is quite spread out, with some more towns and then small villages all located very far from each other. At least I have heard that there are villages, but I haven't seen any.  When you are driving in the countryside, you see huge farms on both sides, some of them being farmed but a lot of them completely empty. Someone mentioned anecdotally (and there is no way I can verify this), the whites own all the farms and a lot of them have migrated out of SA. However, they still own them and chose to not farm them rather than give it to the blacks for farming. And so vast land lies uncultivated but for giving the benefit to the blacks.

The farms that still do have farming, its always the blacks working there. And when you are driving in the countryside, they are the ones who sit along the road asking for lifts, in the sun. Its never a white guy ever asking for a lift.

People

I think the people of South Africa are amazing. I love their zest for like, their liveliness and general happiness – it is quite in contrast to the Europeans I must say. I did interact a lot with the blacks, so maybe my view is biased. The accent, the enthusiasm in the voice – its all very infectious.

People are very polite and everyone says hello to you, and smiles at you. Also, everyone will always ask you ‘how are you’, expect an answer, expect a 'how are you' from you, answer it and only then start any conversation. I found this tough to get used to initially but now when I use it in London, people look at me weirdly 😊.

Also another interesting thing is that the locals address a woman sometime as mummy (if you are older) or sister. The sister part is fine, but I think mummy is too funny and weird! I was thrown off by that many times.

Dance and music is a part of the people of the country. Its very common to see people break into an impromptu performance when there is music. Whether its on the streets of Cape Town or Durban, or the airport – you should never be surprised to see music playing and some people joining in to join the fun. As I said, dance and music is in the air, and the genes!

African women’s hair is also very complex. I was initially impressed with how long everyone’s hair was and my friends turned up in different hairstyles every few weeks. Till I realised that it was fake hair and carefully braided in the different styles! It takes hours for each of the hairstyle, but is quite impressive that one can change their hair and their look so suddenly at any time. I do wish though that people were more comfortable with keeping their natural hair rather than having to straighten it to meet Western standards.

Rules are quite important in the country. Everyone follows them to a fault. And customisation is not the name of the game, which I used to find frustrating sometimes. Also, funnily they don’t allow driving licenses as ID for domestic flights. Only passports work – something I learnt the hard way!

Culture

The culture in SA is quite a mix of the original African culture and Christianity. Though I think a lot of the original culture is lost, especially in the young people.

Also in weddings, the family of the boy has to give gifts to the girl’s family! Earlier it used to be cows, but now you can pay cash instead of cows. Apparently, there is one ceremony which is basically the negotiation between the families on the number of cows that will be given! Also, nowadays, weddings have some 4-5 events including an African traditional wedding, a white church wedding and an official wedding in the court. So it ends up being a long multi-week/month affair.

There are some 10 or so main tribes in South Africa – Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Swati and so on. They all have some of their own cultures but now there is a lot of mixing and differences have reduced. The status of women in the society is not too bad either. They work, drive and lead an equal life, at least in the cities.

The two most powerful tribes of SA, the Zulu and the Xhosa have quite a difficult relationship till now. Apparently, they had a different view of dealing with the Afrikaners and that has led to long-standing differences. Even now, there is a lot of politics between the two tribes, so much so that even today, in the state of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where the Zulu are in majority, they would not treat a Xhosa with too much respect. I heard anecdotally that in the state hierarchy, it’s the Zulu on the top, then Indians and even the Whites and Afrikaans people comes above the Xhosa. I found that quite funny but sad too, that till today the people of the country are divided in some ways, which ends up benefiting some of the outsiders.

I heard a very interesting tit bit which I am not very sure of but wanted to share anyways. One of the Venda tribes has a surname which matches one of the Jewish surnames of the lost tribe. And this tribe till today follows some of the traditions which are similar to the Jews. So could they be one of the lost tribes of Israel??

The Indians from SA are different from the Indians from India. After being away from the country for centuries, they have developed their own culture. Most of them live near Durban and a few in Petermaritzburg. They have a typical South African accent, and speak ‘Durban’ as my friend put it. And have developed a local Indian dish called ‘Bunny Chow’! They also have some names which are not that common in India, like Chetty, Moodley and so on.

However, they still follow the festivals and culture from India, celebrating festivals like Holi and Diwali, Navratri, wearing Indian clothes for weddings, watching Hindi movies and some of them even speak Hindi even though the younger generation does not. Its interesting to see how as an Indian, you would connect in some ways and in some not be able to with people who left your country so long ago.

You can see the influence of Britishness everywhere, especially with the names of streets and the number of parks in the cities. The British as well as the Dutch made the country their own, and you can see which were the British and which the Dutch spheres of influence. Also because of that I think, there is the same fascination in SA for London and the UK as I see quite often in India. The rest of the world on one side, London and UK on the other😊.

Politics and business

South Africa has one of the most complicated histories and complications. I must say I have read the wiki page a couple of times but I still get confused with the whole British and Dutch interactions, the Boer wars and how Apartheid came across. So am not going to write about.

I am just going to mention a few things I noticed. One of course is that corruption is a big part of the country though it has not been accepted by the people. They still protest against it, unlike India where it almost been accepted. The whole Zuma - Gupta scandal is quite popular anyways. I credit Indians to have exported such levels of corruption to the country😊.

But there are lot of other aspects which are already there. For example, to get out of a traffic violation, you need to give the cop 50 ZAR and that is good. They even have a service at the airport where you can get faster through the immigration queues. But it does not seem like a valid way – it feels more like the employees know everyone around in the airport and just take you to the front of the queue! Its definitely convenient but basically shows how you can get around the rules in the country.

And there is something about getting a SA visa which makes you feel that they think the whole world wants to get there and never leave!! It takes a month to get an appointment at their visa center, and they give only 3 month visas at a time! If you want to get an extension, you have to get a detailed medical examination done - all of which I found very surprising.

Also, there is a lot of entrepreneurship in the country, or at least was for many years. There are lot of companies which have a global presence but are headquartered in SA. The reason for that is during the sanctions of the apartheid times, given how isolated they were, there was a huge drive to build companies to service its needs. And when the sanctions lifted, all these countries looked outwards, did acquisitions and flourished.

Racism

Racism and talk about it is such a big part of South African life, its surprising. Specially coming from the western world where you have to be politically correct the whole time, it was quite uncomfortable for me initially to talk about it.

Racial differences very much exist in the society. Even though everyone seems to have mixed in well together, it is going to be decades before it becomes truly mixed. The Blacks are still mostly poor and live in townships which are not the best parts of town. The whites have the massive bungalows in the posh parts of town, multiple holiday homes along the sea and Kruger and Garden routes and so on. They still have the best jobs and own all the assets in the country.

Joburg being a working class city still seems a lot less but I have heard that Capetown is a lot more racist even now. A few black colleagues of mine mentioned that if they would call a restaurant, they would not get a booking. But a white friend of theirs calling at the same time would! I can’t even imagine how it would feel to live in your own country like this. But I think still the positivity around is very impressive.

I also heard a lot of people stating their views that they thought the whites should have left when they got freedom. They should not have stayed on, owning all the assets. It is almost as if they have freedom only in name, but definitely not any economic freedom.

To anyone visiting SA I would say, it’s a lot more open place to talk about race and racial differences than any other place I have visited. And people make fun of themselves as well as the others. I have heard people say about themselves – this is how you recognise a black person’s house, this is the typical furniture he would have and so on. But it seems a lot more easy to talk about it than it actually would be, and sometimes it is easy to not see how much pain there would be underneath this positive exterior.

Living in South Africa

Living in SA is grand and luxurious if you have the money. Good infrastructure and roads everywhere (and I must say one of the cleanest public toilets I have seen anywhere!). Huge houses with pools. Beaches and wildlife and mountains and greenery. Its got everything. To top it off, there is the awesome weather which is great the whole year around.

There is a lot of beauty everywhere you do. KZN and Durban beaches, Limpopo with its mountains and Kruger, Garden Route with the mountains and the sea. It all sounds so heavenly. There are enchanting vistas wherever you go, and sometimes its so tough to capture it all in words or in pictures either.

There are also a lot of activities everywhere, whether its bungee jumping, para sailing, shark diving, quad biking and so on. Anywhere you go, there will be a few things to do in the outdoors. I think its because of the great weather that people love and can be outdoors a lot more than other countries.

People here love to enjoy life, chat and gossip. And generally smile and be happy all the time. Braai’s are quite common, to sit outside in the good weather, make food, and eat and chat. Isn’t that the idyllic life all of us want? Of course, there is a lot more underneath. But at least on the surface, it’s the ideal life.

Safety

Safety is definitely not the best point of SA. If you are careful enough, lock your cars when you drive, keep your purse in the boot, not go to unsafe areas alone or at night, you should generally be ok. Unless of course you are unlucky. But overall, its not as bad as is made out to be. In fact some statistics also say that Paris is more unsafe than SA, but I need to check that to confirmπŸ˜‰

That being said, I did once see a direction for a gun safe in a hotel, so I do think there is something to the bad safety reputation SA has but it is not as bad as it is made out to be. In fact I heard that this image has been created by a lot of the rich South Africans who have been leaving the country since Apartheid fell. And they are rich and influential, and creating this image of SA as a massively unsafe place not fit to live. It is nowhere as what I imagined before I went there. In fact, I know of a lot of stories where expats did not want to shift to SA, but once there, they and their families love it so much that they don’t want to leave it anymore. So as I said, it is definitely unsafe but not what its made out to be.

Driving

I was very impressed with the driving in SA. The roads and infrastructure was very modern and well kept. And the driving sense is amazing, people drive without aggression. Public transport is limited though, we rarely saw buses on the highways, and most people drive. A lot of the driveways accept e-tags which makes it easy to drive. I did notice an unusually high number of broken cars on the highways though, all the time. It might be the sun and the heat, and old condition of the cars, but something I noticed.

Tips for travelling in SA

I have already mentioned a lot of the tips in the countless articles before. A few here overall for travelling around the country

1) Rent a car and drive around. The infrastructure is great for driving. And the drives make you see a part of SA you would never see otherwise, the bare lands and the rich bungalows, the green and the desert, and so on
2) Whenever visiting the national parks, stay inside. You can book through the Sanparks sites. The site isn’t great, but it’s the best place to stay
3) The cities have much less to offer than the countryside. Stay outside the cities to enjoy the real life. Even in Cape Town, stay somewhere near Pringles Bay. You will experience much more that way than otherwise
4) For vegetarian Indian food, go to Raj. The restaurants has branches everywhere touristy and the food there is lovely!
5) Be careful how much food and drinks you order, the restaurants love to serve huge portions all the time!

I gush about SA so much that it might appear that I love it more than London. And that’s the part about home. I miss the politeness of SA and the weather all the time.  But as much as I may love it, it is always nice to be back at your own place. Of course the fact that you don’t need to watch your belongings 24*7, and you can walk out of your house and walk wherever you want to does help. And London is still home, and as they say – home is where the heart is...

Monday, February 19, 2018

The green (and purple) city: Johannesburg


I had visited Johannesburg for a month in 2013 and had a nice time there. But this time when I went there again and stayed for a longer period, there was something I found very different in my experience there. And it was so different that I totally fell in love with the city (and the country too!). Maybe it was because it was spring and summer this time, rather than winter. Or maybe I was not as scared as I had been the last time (people need to stop listening and propagating horror stories about SA). Or maybe it was something else, but it felt a lot more welcoming and fun this time around. And I totally enjoyed my stay there.

I spent a total of almost 7 months in 2016 and 2017 in the city, and a few of the weekends too. I got a chance to explore more of the city, see what it had to offer and thankfully did not stay limited to Sandton this time, which I think brought the city more to life for me. I loved my time there and am sharing some of my experiences for anyone else planning to visit Jozi.

Johannesburg or Joburg or Jozi as its called is in the middle of the country in the state of Gauteng. It is a commercial city, now the business hub of the country. In earlier days, it was a mining hub and hence quite densely populated with a huge working class staying there. It is less touristy than a lot of the other cities like Durban and Cape Town, and has limited nature tourism options too. The heart of the city, CBD has now become less posh and the big companies have all shifted towards Sandton. It is known as an unsafe city globally, but its reputation is definity lot worse than it actually is.

The look and feel of Joburg

Overall, the city is very spread out, and so green that its unbelievable. Driving from one place to another, its very easy to forget that you are in the middle of the city. You always feel you are in the wild suburbs, with the green tree covered lanes, small hills covered by trees and houses peeking through them and a lot of empty space everywhere. Its so unlike any other city I have seen and is one of the things I love about it.

Jacarandas in bloom
The colour of the city changes during the year. When I went in October, it was all dry because of winter. Then it turned purple during the spring, and from December to March, it was all lush green as it was summer. The purple colour in spring is due to the jacarandas bloom all around - trees covered with purple coloured flowers which abound in the entire city. It feels like the entire city is rejoicing and celebrating summer 😊.

Driving towards Sandton
And the city is full of small and big hills everywhere. When driving on the highways, you see them all around. In fact, while working in my office, I could see hills outside, with small little houses built on those and surrounded by trees. The view itself was so charming that it made the whole experience of working also so much more pleasant πŸ˜‰.

Joburg believes in huge houses. There are only a few upcoming apartment buildings in some locations but there are mostly independent huge palatial houses. They all have huge gardens and swimming pools within each of these places. And huge driveways coming in. Its almost like living in a very luxurious world, of course within the safety constraints of the city.

Areas within Joburg

There are many different areas in the city. Sandton is the new and modern city centre. The CBD is the original city centre with high rises which have fallen into disrepair and is not too safe anymore. It still has a lot of museums, theatres and markets from old times which are being renovated and done up now to encourage more visitors.

Zoo Lake next to Joburg zoo
Then there are all the old posh areas of Rosebank, Parktown, Westcliff etc. where all the rich people stay. All of these areas are collectively known as the Parks. There are huge bungalows everywhere and it was my favourite part of town, somewhere I used to love driving around every time. In fact, once I drove around a lake, which came out of the blue as a surprise! Later I realised it was the Zoo lake near the Johannesburg zoo. One day I even went to the lake, it was bright green and lovely during summer with geese walking around and people enjoying a nice day out in the sun - the perfect place for a picnic, and the kind of place which reminded me of UK. The whole area is very green and the roads are all lined with huge shady trees on both sides. Clearly, it was built by the British in the olden days.

And then the areas of Morningside and Illovo are also very popular nowadays which are great places to stay and eat out. Given how huge Johannesburg is, it has many such different places to hangout, each with their own characteristics, making it quite fun to explore. Most of these places are quite new though, so they are full of malls which are the preferable places to hangout.

My route to drive from the hotel to the office used to go through some very beautiful residential areas, with small hills full of houses surrounded by trees everywhere. And I encountered many a scenic views on the way, with dark clouds and the sun playing games a lot of times. It almost made the journey to the office enjoyable and something I used to look forward to everyday. Sometimes while driving, I also crossed many nice areas which I had never seen before, like Bassonia, near Landeria where there were picturesque houses on hills in between vegetation all around. Clearly Joburg is never short of surprises!

There are also two other cities nearby, which are not really part of Joburg but almost run almost continuous to it. One of them is Pretoria, which is the capital of South Africa and about 60 kms from Joburg. Its not really a touristy place and mostly has a lot of government and historical buildings. Though its quite residential too, and a lot of people stay there and commute daily to work in Joburg. And then there is Midrand which is located between Joburg and Pretoria. It is again mostly a residential area, feels almost rural and very far (in spirit) from Joburg. In fact people who stay in Midrand feel that Joburg is the big bad city and never want to go there! Even though they are just 30-40 kms away 😜.

Local markets to visit

Market on Main
There are three local markets which are quite popular with tourists and locals alike. They are the Neighbourgoods market in CBD on Saturdays, Market on the Main in CBD on Sundays and the Fourways market near Montecasino, again on Sundays. I went once to the first two which were good fun. But my favourite was the Fourways market which I loved and visited at least 3-4 times. Though different, all of them are a great way to spend a lively weekend afternoon outside, eating, dancing and enjoying the music in the sun.

Art in Market on Main
Market on Main is a local market that comes up every Sunday in the CBD, where tourists go to enjoy the food, the music and the local art and handicrafts. I must say that driving there was a bit scary. I got off the highway too soon and then drove through the CBD for a couple of kms. It was almost like my heart was stuck in my throat till I made it there. Of course once there, it was a different world all together.

Art at Market on Main
There was a floor full of art shops and new artists selling their paintings. Then there were foods from across the world, people enjoying shopping, sitting outside in the sun eating and drinking, listening to the live music playing and generally enjoying the vibe - it was total relaxed bliss there.

Outside at Market on Main
It felt like a whole different world, with everyone sitting outside and enjoying the weekend, unlike most of Joburg where people prefer to hangout inside. I spent some time there and then walked outside the market towards the local street where you could buy a lot of local African handicrafts. The market runs for a couple of hours in the afternoon but shuts down quite early, around 3-4pm.

Local handicrafts

Neighbourgoods Market
And one of the other weekends, I visited the Neighbourgoods market finally, after having missed it the last time in 2013. This market is held only on Saturdays and is open up to 3pm. It was similar to the Market on Main and had a full floor of local food stalls.

Music on the roof
On top, it had another floor where they were playing live music and people were dancing the whole time. When I went there, it was a sunny day, so a great time to be outside.



Fourways market
My favourite market of course was Fourways, which was near Montecasino, every Sunday from 10-4pm. It is setup in the open in a huge ground and quite spread out. It was such a cool place to spend a weekend - there were a few musicians playing live music and all around were hundreds of stalls selling handicrafts, food and drinks. And everyone was sitting outside, just chilling in the sun for hours. I went there three times and enjoyed every time. Its a definite recommend.

Other things to do

Most of my weekends in Joburg were spent visiting the local the markets as I prefer to be outside as much as possible. But there were a couple of other experiences that I enjoyed, a majority of them indoors though.

Gold Reef city
Montecasino is a nice resort town located near Fourways market. It is like Kingdom of Dreams in Gurgaon and has a nice row of restaurants inside, plus a couple of activities to keep you busy - a garden with exotic plans, a casino and so on. It is quite a grand resort, well constructed and would be fun to explore. I never did that though but heard good things about it. And similar to Montecasino is the Gold Reef City near the Apartheid museum which also seems fun, again a place I didn’t explore.

There are loads of eating places to explore if you are a keen foodie, mostly in Illovo, Morningside, Melrose Arch, the Parks and Sandton. Among these areas, Melrose Arch is a great place to hangout. It is an enclosed residential complex with a few restaurants, piazzas, malls and open areas to walk around - one of the few places in Joburg where you can walk around safely 😊.

Once I also went for a standup comedy show at the Goliath restaurant in Melrose Arch and I realised how much race is a part of the jokes here. No comedy act is over without jokes on race in South Africa, and as politically incorrect it is, it is very tough to keep a straight face through the jokes. Though as expected, the blacks laugh at themselves and can get away with a lot more jokes on race than the whites.

Within Sandton, malls are quite popular, the biggest of course is the Sandton city mall. There are tons of shops all around for shopping and eating. There is also a popular square there called the Nelson Mandela Square around a a status of the great leader. There are loads of good eating places around here. I used to eat regularly at the Wanthai there as it had very tasty food and a great ambience overlooking the square - a definite recommend.

Then there is a street called Melville near the Parks which is good to visit for a nice meal. It is a nice long street lined with relaxed cafes and restaurants. Somehow it is not that well known, and I discovered it much later. But it seemed like a cool place to hangout and had a very European feel to it.

Graffiti in CBD, around Market on Main
Once I went to the Market theatre in CBD, which is located in a newly developed area called Newtown. It felt little unsafe to drive to CBD at night. But once there, it felt like a lively part of town. There was a nice mall behind and a relaxed cafe inside. The play I saw - the Meeting - was based on a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and quite interesting. The theatre was also a nice one, it felt quite cosy with everyone sitting around the stage. But I felt something very British about the whole setup, very un-African…

I also visited the town of Midrand a couple of times. Once I went to the Sayani race track in Midrand where you can race cars on the race track. It sounds like a fun thing to do, though I did not get a chance to do it that time. I also once went to a country pub in Midrand on a Sunday, a totally off the beaten track for a tourist. It was a nice little place, very rustic and relaxed where the locals come and chill in the evening, and have been doing so for decades. It had a trampoline outside and was so chill, it felt like a very different world altogether. When I was there was when I started feeling almost like a local, no more a tourist in South Africa 😜.

Somewhere in Joburg
I also once went to a hair parlour called Fugo. It had a nice garden outside to sit and wait for your appointment. It felt so luxurious and green - its tough to do things so luxurious in London but was much easier in South Africa. And my favourite spa was the Renaissance in Sandton Mall, again a luxury much more expensive to enjoy in London than in SA. It had a rooftop pool overlooking the city which felt very luxurious. I also wanted to shop for local African print dresses in Joburg but never got a chance to do it. But if I ever go there again, I know where I need to go - the Rich factory and Maude street. Hopefully I might find something interesting next time for sure…

And lastly, if you have a South African friend, you should get yourself invited to a Braai at home. Its South African for a barbecue and the perfect way to spend nice warm evenings outside, cooking food and gossiping. I visited a friend of mine for Braai and she had a huge house with a huge garden and swimming pool outside next to which she cooked the food. It felt so perfect for a lazy summer afternoon, I kind of understood why Braai’s were so popular in South Africa 😊.

Indian experiences

There is a huge Indian community in South Africa from a long time. Even though they are concentrated in the Durban area, its easy to find Indians and Indian experiences in Joburg, whether it be movies, food or places of worship. There are many theatres in Joburg which play Hindi movies. I saw most of them at the Zone in Rosebank which is a huge mall right in the middle of the city. The theatres were always full and it felt almost like watching the movie in India, with so many South African Indians there. I also found the Rosebank to be a nice open mall and enjoyed spending time there, watching movies, eating out and shopping for African handicrafts.

I also used to listen to a local Indian radio while driving in Joburg which was quite a surprise. However I soon realised that the hindi songs played on the radio were very different than what I am used to. And later I figured out that because of local regulation, it was all locally created South African Indian music. It was very different from the Bollywood music we are used to, almost like a a similar mood being expressed in a different accent 😝.

Gurudwara in Sandton
I also once visited a Gurudwara and a Mandir in Joburg. The Mandir was near Melrose Arch and had a South Indian theme. It was in the middle of a residential area and had a nice garden outside. There were even some exotic birds walking around in the garden, sights so common in South Africa. The Gurudwara was in Sandton, again located in a residential area and had an awesome langar. Apparently, they run the langar everyday for free. And the food I had there was amazing and so tasty, one of the best and simple Indian meals I might have had in the country.

In terms of food, there were many Indian restaurants everywhere but by favourite was Raj - one of the most popular Indian restaurants there. And it had many franchises too, I by myself had been to ones in Sandton Mall, Montecasino, Melrose Arch, Gold Reef City, Sun City and Cape Town. Its an absolute recommend and one of the best Indian food you can have in South Africa.

People

People in Joburg are quite mixed and multi-cultural. You will see whites, blacks, Indians, Europeans and so on everywhere. Though the percentage of whites in the posh areas is definitely higher. And Zulu seems to be the popular language after English and Afrikaans. Also people in Joburg generally wake up too early for my comfort. A lot of Joburg residents actually reach office by 7 am and hence traffic peaks before 830 am! After soon after that, the roads are all empty.

People are quite used to following rules everywhere. They find it difficult to break rules and do something different - you can easily get blank stares when you ask for customisation of food dishes! Also overall, service is generally very slow and inefficient all the time. The intention is all right but the skills, not as much.

Weather

The weather in Joburg is neither too cold nor too hot. Summers are sunny with highs of generally in the mid-twenties and sometimes low thirties. It rains a lot during the Oct-Nov period. Just before that, it was very dry but then when the rains come out, the jacarandas all come out, covering the city in purple. The skies also become quite interesting when the clouds come out. And then winters are not too cold though locals love to complain about it all the time 😁.

Driving

Driving through the inner lanes
There is not much local transport within the city. There are some white taxi vans which take people from one place to another. But otherwise everyone has to have a car to get around. Driving in Joburg is a pleasure even though the locals love to complain about it all the time. There are wide roads everywhere and driving discipline is amazing. The inner roads are all quite wide, lined with green trees everywhere and it feels like you are driving outside the town in the open. In between the city, there are wide highways to get from one place to another so you can actually enjoy driving while going to work. The highways do get blocked during peak times but they are a pleasure to drive at most of the other times. Also the roads have a lot of English names, like Cotswold road, Oxford Road and so on. South Africa is clearly an ex-British colony given all the road names.

People drive in such a disciplined manner that it feels quite safe all the time. Also, an interesting thing I noticed was that when the red lights were not working (which was quite often), the cars cross in a very disciplined manner, with two cars crossing and then waiting while the others cross and so on. It is a sight I have never witnessed anywhere else. And its definitely not possible in India! I also felt so much safer driving around than I did in India. I had rented a SUV for two months and had loved the driving around the city during this time. There are a lot of poor people though begging at the traffic signals all the time - a sign that the overall luxuriousness of the city is just a facade, not the real thing.

There were a few weeks when it was raining a lot and everyone drove much slowly then. Apparently flash floods are very common on the highways during the rains. I was also once caught in a traffic jam and a distance of 30 mins took me more than 2 hours as the traffic was just jam packed the entire time. The entire Sandton area became gridlocked for 3 hours that time! It was one of the toughest drives I would have ever had and I finally had to park my car on the side of the road and walk to the office. Its an experience I would never forget nor want to experience ever again.

Uber has now become quite big in Joburg and is quite a safe way to travel. The driver’s past is checked and only then they can drive an Uber. Also they wear ties and are very friendly with the passengers. They also drive BMWs quite often. Apparently, its quite an honour to drive Uber in Joburg - very different from a lot of other global cities. The drivers also sometimes wait for you to go back and just wait outside your location so that you can book them again. So all in all, very helpful and convenient to get around, I still prefer driving though 😊.

There is a Gautrain network too which is a local metro train linking some main areas like Rosebank, Sandton, Pretoria, airport etc. I used it a couple of times to get to the airport and and its very convenient, if you don’t want to get stuck in traffic. But it is definitely not enough and there is a need for more public transport in the city.

Hotels

View from the View restaurant
Four Seasons
I stayed in a lot of hotels in the city and can easily list out all their pros and cons πŸ˜† - the Radisson and Hilton in Sandton, the African Pride in Melrose Arch and the Four Seasons in Westcliff. My favourite was the Four Seasons and I have to say that it is one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in. It is pure luxury. We shifted there for just a week but then decided to stay there for the rest of our stay 😜.

The Four Seasons at sunset
It is a spread out hotel with cute little buildings going all the way up a cliff. All the rooms are within two-three floors, have a balcony overlooking a panoramic view of the Parks and the hotel rooms are very tastefully and luxuriously done. The hotel also twinkles from afar while driving on the highway, as it is located on a cliff covering its one side. I never was able to photograph it, but you will never miss it if you are driving past it..

You need to walk 10-15 minutes to get up to your rooms, all up the cliff. There is lot of landscaping done within the hotel and they have golf carts to take you to your rooms if you don’t want to walk. Apparently it has 4-5 restaurants, but I barely got a chance to even see them all or go to the Spa for that matter.

Breakfast at Four Seasons
Of the restaurants, the View is an open cafe with a view of the city beyond. And it was this view which made me fall in love with Joburg the first time I think πŸ˜„. I had gone there once for lunch and in front of me was a panoramic view of the green and lush city. During spring, it becomes all purple due to the jacarandas. Apparently, they used to serve tea in the afternoon at the Westcliff earlier, just like in the British times, but that doesn't exist anymore. It is a truly luxurious hotel, and I loved the picturesque sunset views from its many balconies and restaurants. The only con of this hotel though is that it does not have any loyalty points which is a big drawback. But still worth a stay...

The African Pride in Melrose Arch is a SPG hotel and hence I thought I would try it. It was quite bad and the rooms there were terrible. Of course its location is amazing, within Melrose Arch where all the restaurants are located just outside and the whole area is a great place to walk around. But its definitely not a place I want to stay in and would suggest the same to everyone.

Waking up with the sun
The Radisson in Joburg is a multi floor hotel which has quite average service but I ended up staying there the longest as it was the most convenient in most other aspects. It had a great view overlooking a green city and that is a view I can't ever forget. Also, its a great feeling when you wake up in the morning and the sun hits you in the eyes - its the best way to wake up!

Mushroom Park
There is also a small park called Mushroom Park right in front of Radisson which is very well landscaped and is used by locals for evening walks. There is a also a Hyundai balloon there which apparently can take you for a ride in the city. I didn’t try it yet, but surely on my to-do list for the next time.

Lounge view
The lounge on the 23rd floor is an absolute delight to work in and the 3 floor gym is one of the best in the whole of Africa. And it has an indoor and outdoor pool overlooking the greenery around. So all in all a great hotel except that it does not have any open and green areas within the hotel, you feel constrained within the multi-floor building which I don't enjoy much. Also the food in the hotel is average. But on most counts, it turns out to be a convenient hotel. Lastly, the Hilton is a neighbouring hotel and has a nice garden and pool outside. It is still being renovated, and has old rooms, so wasn't as fun when I stayed there. But that is also a popular choice with a lot of visitors.

Airport

I made so many visits of the airport, I almost know it like I know London Heathrow πŸ˜‰. There are generally long queues at security and immigration in the airport, so its always better to go there in time. Also, the airport takes sometimes even up to 1.5 hours in security and immigration every time you come in. Though there is a way of getting fastback entry through the immigration lines if you sign up for Bidvest services. I found that quite fishy though but at least there is an option. I found that a bit surprising that SA is so particular about their visas. They take a long time to give visas and give only 3 month ones at a time. Quite painful overall.

Safety

There are lot of views around safety in Joburg which are prevalent outside South Africa, not all correct. People think Joburg is so bad that everyone is mugged there all the time! And that is not the case at all. Its easy to explore and be there, you just need to be careful. You need to lock your car and keep your belongings in the boot. And not go to unknown unsafe places alone at night. Other than that, I never felt unsafe anywhere I drove. But people definitely are careful all the time. Once, my colleague dropped me 100 metres to the Gautrain station from my office! I thought that was the height but being careful never hurt anyone.

Of the people I know, I hadn’t heard of anything major happening to anyone I know except one incident. A colleague of mine did get mugged once when she left 5 mins before me on the same road! But she had kept her purse on the seat of the car. And the mugger took that away. Other than that I once heard about a shooting and car jacking at Grayston which was very near Sandton. So such things do happen, but if you care careful, it should be ok. I also once saw a burning car on the highway. But I don’t think that is linked to safety 😜.

Townships

Townships is a name given to erstwhile areas in South Africa where the blacks used to live. During the Apartheid times, they were not allowed to live anywhere else other than the townships. These still exist today and are quite densely populated. They present a version of South Africa more real, but very different from what I have talked about till now.

There are two major townships in Joburg. One is Soweto which I had visited the last time. And the second is Alexandra which is located right next to Sandton. I didn’t visit either of them this time, though I drove through Alexandra sometimes when driving to the airport. Its while driving through such areas that you realise again that the South Africa and Joburg we all know is superficial and fake! The majority of the country lives and tells a very different story altogether…

I don’t know how much of the article was able to portray the city, but it is truly a very unique city. Developed and underdeveloped. Green and crowded. Fast and slow, a city that never fails to surprise you and offer a lot more than wht you expected. I don’t feel I have still explored it all yet, below is a list of more things things still remaining for me to check out, maybe in the next trip 😜...

Other places to visit

- Walter Sisulu botanical gardens
- Monument Polkruger in pretoria
- Hot Air Balloon in Mushroom park
- Constitution hill
- Ultra music fest
- Danceforumsouthafrica.co.za
- Stanley avenue - Oakland place
- Hartebeespoort dam
- Magaliesburg and Muldersdrift
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