The B-52’s!

Music doesn’t always have to be serious. The B52’s are a great example! For years I only knew their biggest hit ‘Love Shack’ thanks to constant rotation on MTV back in the early 90s. Around 2008 I discovered more of their music after suddenly deciding to buy their greatest hits CD titled ‘Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation’.

Take for example the lyrics of the song ‘Strobe Light’…

Is that you baby? Yeah!

Got something to tell ya. Oh, what?

I wanna see ya tonight.

I want you to walk in the door.

I want you to lay on the floor.

Cause tonight’s the night.

We make love under a strobe light.

Underneath the strobe light.

Wanna make love to you under the strobe light.

Wanna make love to you under the strobe light.

Strobe light, wooooooah, strobe light, wooooooah, yeah!

Here’s the YouTube link:

Strobe Light

It is such a random, casual, quirky and crazy song and it nicely encapsulates what they’re about. So, contrary to what some people may think, rock music is not always about serious subjects and bone-crunching power chords or guitar solos! There’s a lot of fun stuff out there too.

Here’s another funny one of theirs called ‘Song for a Future Generation’:

Wanna be the ruler of the galaxy

Wanna be the king of the universe

Let’s meet and have a baby now!

Wanna be the empress of fashion

Wanna be the president of Moscow

Let’s meet and have a baby now!

 La! La! La! La! La!

La! La! La! La! La!

La! La! La! La! La!

La! La! La! La! La!

Song for a Future Generation

One song that I really like of theirs, which is not featured on the Time Capsule hits collection is ‘Revolution Earth’ from the 1993 album ‘Good Stuff’. Sure, it sounds more like a Kate Pierson solo recording but it is just so divine. She has a lovely voice!

Revolution Earth

More proof of her great voice can be found on R.E.M. songs like ‘Shiny Happy People’ and ‘Me In Honey’. I love it! This is my kind of music.

Hiking in the Drakensberg – Part II

Our tent

The next morning we woke up to another constant drizzle outside. The rain simply was not in any mood of stopping. As we made our way out of the tent to see how it looked like outside, we heard some shouting and commotion in the far distance. Immediately our guide also got out to see what was going on. Later he explained what we had seen. Apparently some of the locals regularly smuggle a weed called Dagga from neighbouring country Lesotho through the mountains into South Africa. And they often mistake hikers and tourists for cops. So, the commotion we had heard was them spotting our tents and then making a run for it. They don’t come and attack or anything, they just run as far away from onlookers as possible. So we had a nice chuckle about this. The guide also showed us smoke billowing out from some sections in the mountains where this weed was being smoked.

Dagga weed

Walking in the mountains is actually not as difficult as it appears to be when one stares at a mountain. All mountain slopes have wide enough paths that the locals have been using for years to cross. So we kept walking along the long and winding paths, up, down and around one mountain to the next. On the way we passed caves (where hikers usually take shelter and even stay the night), interesting rock formations, beautiful waterfalls, steep drops and lots of heavy mist floating up and down the valley, seemingly having a mind of its own. We were reminded of Tolkien’s misty mountains and many a Led Zeppelin song. The scenery was stunningly beautiful and the mist made it look even better, although we knew that the more the mist, the more the chance of the rain not stopping. But the rain did stop in the middle and we were actually somewhat hopeful of making it all the way to the summit.

With our guide

Finally when we were not all that far from Rockeries pass, the guide showed us how the mist was very heavy around the pass and that it may not be safe to cross if it suddenly decided to rain again. We were a bit disappointed of course but we thought it is better to be safe than over-ambitious on our very first trek. So we stopped right there for about half an hour or so and had some boiled eggs, an apple and some fruit juice. After taking plenty of photos in all possible directions, we started on the journey back to the base camp.

The rain started steadily increasing again and we could hear some thunder too from time to time. As we made our way back, there were a few places where either the mud was very slippery or there was hardly a wide enough path in front of us. So at certain times we had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountainside in order to not slip. Our shoes did a great job though! Just before this hike we had bought good quality hiking shoes and this return journey provided plenty of proof why it is so important to get hiking shoes and not try to manage using running shoes.

As we reached the camp site, our main guide said to us that a big storm was coming and that soon the whole area would be covered in snow! Originally we had planned to camp for one more night but we had to modify that plan. Otherwise we would be stranded in the snow for god knows how long. Also, we had some winter clothing but it was not quite enough for a storm of this size. And so almost immediately we started on the journey back to Mnweni Centre. Both guides folded up the tents and we packed our bags. The plan was to back-track the whole route and maybe stop briefly at the river where we had had our breakfast the previous day.

When we reached the river, it was overflowing. The rain was heavier now and the water flow was much stronger than before. So, instead of crossing the river and taking the same route as before, we took an alternate route. This route proved to be one of the most adventurous things in the whole trip! It went on and on forever and walking in the freezing rain was becoming harder and harder by the minute. To make things worse, we suddenly came to a part of the mountain where there was no distinct path at all in front of us. We literally had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountain side and slide down to the next faintly visible path below. It felt like we were going to slide down the mountain in a free-fall.

After what felt like an eternity, we finally got to some relatively level ground not that far away from the homesteads that we had passed on our way here. My legs were killing me at this point! Thankfully I did not have any sprain or fracture, though I did slip and fall a couple of times. But my knees, especially the right one for some reason, were aching continuously with every step I took. I think what had happened was, we got no rest whatsoever from the time we came back from the higher mountains to the base camp. As soon as we reached the camp, we had to start walking again immediately because of the approaching storm. So all this took its toll on my legs and I basically limped the whole way back to the Centre. My wife surprisingly seemed fine compared to the state I was in. But both of us were clearly visibly exhausted from the hike, the freezing temperature and the endless rain. Meanwhile, we saw our guides happily walking back with the same 20 something kilos on their back as if nothing had happened. I suppose that is what regular hiking in the mountains does to you!

As we walked back, we turned around to see that the mountains were now completely covered in mist. As we got further and further away and back on the road to the Centre, snow started falling over the mountainous horizon. What a sight it was! Every time we turned around to look, more snow had fallen on the slopes. They were getting whiter by the minute and it was getting easier to distinguish the mist from the snow. The place where we had camped overnight was now covered in white! We were thankful to the guide for having good judgment and saving us from the storm. But a part of me still wished that we had camped in the snow. Nonetheless, a brown and green landscape with snow-capped mountains in the horizon was the image lingering in our minds as we reached the Mnweni Centre.

So that’s the story. Sorry for writing such a long account but I wanted to describe our first hiking experience in detail. There are still things that I have left out but I could go on and on if I wanted to. The bottom line is that, despite the fact that we ran into unexpected and unfriendly weather which cut short our hike from 2-1/2 days to 1-1/2 days, we still enjoyed it very much. Even if we don’t head back to the Drakensberg for a while now, we want to start doing more day hikes in our own area. After all, it is a great way to stay healthy at a reasonable cost while also catching some lovely scenery along the way.

Hiking in the Drakensberg – Part I

We’d been wanting to hike in the Drakensberg mountains for quite some time, so we finally went and did it last weekend. This was our second time in the Berg. The first time though, was purely a tourist visit to Champagne Valley and Monk’s Cowl. My mom and sis were visiting at the time, so we did not want to attempt any hectic hikes. Ever since that first visit when we saw the stunning beauty of the area with our own eyes, we had been dying to come back for a proper hike. It finally happened in September 2012.

I took a Friday off from work and we set off on the road Thursday afternoon. It was roughly a 5 hour journey covering 450 km to the small town of Bergville. From there it was about 35 km to an area called Mnweni and this included 17 km of unpaved dirt road. After getting a bit lost (which seems like a normal occurrence now especially in the Drakensberg) we finally reached the Mnweni Centre where we met with our guide and porter. The plan was to stay the night there and then start on the hike the following morning. We had our dinner quickly, which consisted of sandwiches that my wife had packed for the evening and then went to bed in our rondavel (traditional African hut). Though there was no TV in the room and no plug points, it was good, basic, reasonably priced, self-catering accommodation.

The next morning we woke up early to get ready. A light drizzle had started outside. After having a quick breakfast of oats we started on the hike with our guide and porter. We had found the guide from the internet and he arranged the porter, a local from the area who also acted as a guide as well. Both my wife and I had backpacks weighing 5 kilos or so and these guys had huge backpacks weighing maybe 20 kilos each. They brought everything for us, food for the journey, cooking utensils, tents to sleep in, sleeping bags, air mattresses and so on. At around 8:30 am, we headed from the Centre on the dirt road towards the mountains.

This was my first time out on a proper hike. I had done a few runs and walks before but they were all on level ground. This was in the mountains. Makes a big difference! After walking about 5 km or so I was already tired from the weight of the backpack and the uphill road. Thankfully we stopped every now and then for 5 or 10 min and took photos and stuff. So it wasn’t too bad. The scenery got better and better as we reached closer to the foot of the mountains.

We passed several settlements and homesteads, all sporting the typically round huts, a rooster and some cattle. It was interesting to see how the locals lived in this area. One thing that was funny to see was that some of these homesteads, no matter how rural and impoverished they looked, had visible satellite dish connections. I guess that’s the scene in a country which is both developed and developing. Also, our guide explained that these people get utilities like water and electricity as well as other things like education and medicine all subsidized by the government.

After about 11 km or so of walking, we stopped for a quick brunch by the banks of the Ntonyelane river. The guide prepared some buns with cheese and tomato and gave us 2 hot mugs of coffee. That was a much needed break.

Then we headed on towards the area where we would camp for the night. The path was really interesting and the mountain scenery just kept getting better and better. Since it was in-between seasons, we saw plenty of brown and green. In a few areas in the mountains, the demarcation between dried brown grass and lush green grass was striking and this made it look beautiful from a distance.

Finally we reached a relatively flat area where our guide decided to put up the tents. It was a lovely spot with more scenic mountains ahead of us and a cliff to some distance to our right overlooking the same river that we had crossed earlier. Actually we were going to camp even further along the route but the ever increasing rain and the fact that we were inexperienced hikers made the guide decide to stop where we were, even though it was only around 2 pm now. For the rest of the afternoon and evening we spent our time in the tent, reading books, sipping on coffee or tea, having noodles and generally staring at the rain and wishing for it to stop.

Staying in a tent overnight was quite an experience! As the sun set, it got pitch dark outside with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional growls of baboons high up in the mountains. Our guide assured us that these baboons do not come down the mountain towards humans, unless we specially attract them with fire or food. So we were not that scared or anything but it was still a bit unnerving sleeping on a grassy mountainside out in the wild. The one thing that we missed dearly was a starry night sky. The relentless rain had covered the sky up with clouds. That’s the thing with the weather in the Drakensberg. They say it can change in a matter of 5 min. Anyway, since we were in a well-protected tent, we did not get too wet or anything. Plus, we had raincoats. In the middle of the night if we had to pee, we had to go outside the tent in pitch dark, quickly finish the job and scurry back in. And of course, twisting and turning around on the thin air mattress did give us its share of back pain. But one can’t complain too much. That is what you get if you want to experience sleeping in the wild.

The Early 90’s – an exciting time in music

When people get nostalgic about music, they love talking about the pure carefree pop of the 50’s or the experimental psychedelic rock of the 60’s. While I do enjoy a lot of music from those eras, nothing beats the early 90’s for me. It was the start of my teenage years, the growing-up years. We got satellite television in 1991 and I was suddenly exposed to a ton of interesting music videos on MTV, back when it was still music television! So here’s a list of some of my favourite albums from the early 90’s…

1991:

U2 – Achtung Baby

Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes

R. E. M. – Out Of Time

Guns n’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II

Michael Jackson – Dangerous

Pearl Jam – Ten

Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger

Nirvana – Nevermind

Metallica – The Black Album

 

1992:

R. E. M. – Automatic For The People

Annie Lennox – Diva

Deep Forest – Deep Forest

Alice In Chains – Dirt

Bon Jovi – Keep The Faith

 

1993:

Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

U2 – Zooropa

Depeche Mode – Songs Of Faith And Devotion

Enigma – The Cross Of Changes

 

1994:

Alice In Chains – Jar Of Flies

Soundgarden – Superunknown

Tori Amos – Under The Pink

Live – Throwing Copper

Oasis – Definitely Maybe

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

The wonderful world of Tintin

I love Tintin. I always have. It was my favourite comic book growing up! I remember our local library in Madras, India had loads of Tintin books that we used to borrow over and over again. I swear I have read through each of the 24 adventures numerous times. The thing that I love most about Herge’s art is the fact that his drawings are so realistic and vivid. Whether it is a night scene at a harbor showing a drug smuggling ring in operation or Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy hijacking a steam train across the Wild West, the stories really keep your attention. Reading a Tintin book to me is like watching a movie. I remember that I used to love Herge’s drawings so much that it inspired me to create my own comic book, though of course it was no way as good as the original. But I used to draw a lot as a kid, quite nicely if I may add. And it was largely inspired by Herge.

Last year when Steven Spielberg came out with a Tintin movie I was very excited. And it turned out to be a really entertaining watch, though it didn’t quite compare to the wondrous world showcased in the books. But nevertheless I was happy that characters like Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the Thompson twins were once again in the public eye after several years. Some people were discovering these characters for the first time and others like me were reliving their childhood memories. Watching the movie made me miss the books. So I went out to a local bookstore and bought a Tintin comic book, ‘Tintin In America’. I also chanced to notice this book titled ‘Tintin: Herge & His Creation’ by Harry Thompson. Quickly flipping through it, I saw that it had chapters on every single of the 24 adventures. It was not new… first published in 1991, but nonetheless I decided to buy it.

I have just finished reading this book and it is a fantastic read! The author starts at the very beginning in the early part of the 20th century and describes Herge’s childhood in a conservative family in Brussels. Georges Remi was his real name and he started drawing Tintin for the national newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle and later a publication called Le Soir before bringing out the books that we know now. The book wonderfully chronicles his journey from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and talks in detail about what went behind the making of each and every adventure. The author also throws light on how major happenings like World War II, Nazi fascism and the Cold War influenced Herge’s thinking. The Shooting Star in particular is one book for which Herge was unfavorably judged after the war. The author even talks about how the characters developed as the stories went on. Tintin’s dog Snowy talks a lot in the early adventures but not so much later on. Captain Haddock’s personality also changes as the years go on. There are several other fascinating aspects concerning the attention to detail that Herge gives to each of the adventures. But I will not spoil it for future readers by discussing them here. All I can say is that for serious fans of Tintin, this book is a real treasure to read through.

The Best and Worst things about living in South Africa – Part II

And now for the not-so-nice things about living here as an expat…

The Most Frustrating Things about SA:

The impenetrable job market: Foreigners have a tough time finding employment here through the direct application process. There is a dearth of skilled labour in several major fields and yet SA Immigration/Home Affairs makes it extremely difficult for people to find jobs. Employers know this and so do not want to take any chances in hiring somebody that does not already have a work permit. The person could be qualified to the high heavens but without a permit they hardly stand a chance. And without a job offer, one cannot get a work permit. So it is a frustrating catch-22 situation. It seems that one needs to have a contact or friend in a company in order to get through… meaning that the employer must be interested enough to wait through the tedious process of securing a work permit. I understand that the high unemployment figure here of 25% in combination with the Black Economic Empowerment reservation system is what is causing this disinterest towards hiring foreign labour. But I wonder… how does a country progress if it closes its mind to skilled labour, whether local or foreign? Just take a look at the US of A. The country has been brought to where it is now, thanks largely due to immigration. And I don’t get the whole argument of “previously disadvantaged hence automatically entitled”. This BEE policy is not that far removed from the caste-based reservation system in India. I know that some races and communities were discriminated against many years ago. But if we want to start again at square one, we must have merit-based equal rights for all, surely!

Political apathy: After Nelson Mandela was freed and Apartheid ended in the early 90’s, it was amazing how people of different races came together in order to move the country forward. One still wonders how SA did not slip into the total chaos of civil war. Now about 20 years after Apartheid, the ruling party African National Congress (or ANC) seems to have taken a lackadaisical approach to everything. They were persecuted by the white regime for many years, so now they want to enjoy all the riches and play a game of tit-for-tat while the country goes to hell. From President Zuma’s many personal jets to the ineffective corruption-riddled policing on the roads to a textbook supply fiasco that is part of a worsening education system, it is clear that these guys are more interested in getting rich than getting things right.

Essential services failures: Unfortunately due to a general electricity shortage and a growing water problem, there are a fair amount of power outages and water supply issues every now and then. Initially we were trying to move from one housing complex to another in an attempt to dodge these problems. But later on we found out that it is a general problem and can occur anywhere in Johannesburg. The thing is, these kinds of problems can occur anywhere in the world, even in the so-called developed countries. It is how fast the concerned authorities respond to the problem that makes the difference. It is often close to impossible to get through to the Johannesburg Water complaint phone line. And the main electricity provider Eskom had to do load shedding a few years back in order to combat the electricity shortage. They do try to educate the public through adverts, talking about how one must turn off all unnecessary lights in the home, turn off the geyser when not needed or use less water in the bathroom etc. So that’s a good thing.

Internet: South Africa has still not fully caught up on telecommunications. There are a handful of wireless internet providers and each of them offers limited, capped bandwidth at not-so-cheap prices. Uncapped internet is still very expensive for the average computer user. Of course, one can get uncapped ADSL through a home telephone line for a somewhat decent price. But the terrible state of telephone lines provided by Telkom makes this option more difficult to choose, especially in newer suburbs and neighbourhoods where there are simply no phone lines installed. And getting a new line installed would take several months if not years!

Bad drivers: I see an increasing number of bad drivers on the roads every day. Either they drive way too fast (160 kmph in an 80 zone) or they just do not know the rules of the road – that one must indicate before changing lanes (not just for turns) or that one should keep a safe following distance etc. The omnipresent minibus taxis cause the most accidents with their reckless driving and careless abandon for any kind of rule of the road. The lack of proper policing only makes this problem worse. Thankfully there are initiatives like Lead SA which continuously try to educate people on civic sense.

Crime: No matter how much crime has reduced since the Football World Cup, it is still there. Of course if one uses their common sense and takes adequate precautions, nothing untoward happens. But we still hear about things like burglaries, cable theft and gang rape, the latter being mostly in townships or poor neighbourhoods. But I have to say that I’m not all that surprised. With an apathetic government, high unemployment and pathetic policing, it is no wonder that there are people out there who would rather resort to crime than struggle from day to day. All that said, the South African crime problem is way overblown in foreign, especially western media! It is really not all that bad. If one exercises reasonable caution and avoids certain areas after dark, one is generally safe.

Indus Creed – Back with a bang after 17 years!

When I heard that the premier Indian rock band from my teenage years had reunited and were going to come out with a new album called ‘Evolve’, I could hardly contain myself. I was so happy that I messaged friends and family on facebook about the good news. I even went to their official website and listened to an interview of lead vocalist Uday Benegal in the hopes of getting clues on what they were cooking up on the new album. Then the release date came and of course, the CD was not available in SA… no surprises there. Wife to the rescue!! She was making a short trip to India anyway, so I begged her to get the album for me. Hence it has taken me a couple of months to physically get this album and listen to it, in case anybody is wondering why I am writing this review a little late.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the music. When I listened to that interview back in April I heard Uday saying that they were listening to a lot of Porcupine Tree and that ‘In Absentia’ was one of his absolute favourite albums. Now that I have listened to ‘Evolve’ at least 3 or 4 times, I see where he is coming from. Opening track, ‘Fireflies’ sounds exactly like something Steven Wilson would come up with. From the haunting melody to the subdued echoed vocal style, it is obvious that these guys love Porcupine Tree to bits! And of course the fact that Tim Palmer (mixing engineer for the likes of Pearl Jam, U2 and Porcupine Tree) worked on this album only makes it even more obvious. That said, ‘Fireflies’ is a lovely song and I would like to think that they were going more for ‘inspired tribute’ and less for ‘blatant rip-off’. Track 2 truly delivers with the epic-sounding and anthemic ‘Dissolve’. There are several qualities to this song that I really enjoy – the offbeat percussion in the verses, the guitar solo after the second chorus and lyrics like “No more to run, I am one with my destination” and “the ocean is calling… I dissolve into the blue”. After that enjoyable 1-2 punch, track 3 ‘The Money’ goes into somewhat experimental territory for Indus Creed. It starts with a very unique-sounding electronic beat followed by interesting drum rolls and has Uday singing about somebody stealing money, shaming the whole community and what not. The lyrics here are fairly mediocre and quite repetitive. But it serves as an interesting diversion before returning to full form on track 4. ‘Take It Harder’ has a fantastic opening and build-up that explodes into an easy sing-along chorus. This medium paced rocker has great atmosphere and guitar.

Moving on to the second half of the album, ‘No Disgrace’ talks about the perennial mad race to be first at everything in life. This is a topic that is very relevant in India especially and I can think of at least 2 instances where it has been discussed – the song ‘Jame Raho’ from film ‘Taare Zameen Par’ and the central theme in the movie ‘3 Idiots’. Incidentally, both films were products of thought-provoking actor director Aamir Khan. Anyway, musically ‘No Disgrace’ is very progressive. There are influences from the likes of Rush and Dream Theater all over the place. Took a while to grow on me but now I totally enjoy this track. I particularly enjoy the lines “Did they take away your dreams? Douse them all in kerosene. From the crowd you watched them burn. Maybe someday this world will learn… that there’s no disgrace in losing the race”. Track 6 ‘Come Around’ is lovely, has a very unconventional structure to it but seems to drag on a bit at the end. Nevertheless, it’s a nice melodic ditty towards the end of the album. The next song is a slightly funny one titled ‘Bulletproof’. It changes the pace a bit with rapid fire vocals and a rocking rhythm. Not my favourite but not bad either. Finally, the closer on this seemingly short 8 track album is the aptly titled ‘Goodbye’. This song has just the right qualities for that nostalgia-tinged feel-good farewell.

Overall, I have to say that I’m quite impressed with this effort despite some obvious influences from other bands here. Also, I appreciate the fact that they mixed things up nicely and did not strictly follow the “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-guitar solo-final chorus” formula. And more than half the album is filled with songs that are longer than the average 5 minute length. There is equal parts experimentation along with their classic style of late 80’s/ early 90’s rock. A job well done! Here’s hoping for more music in the future.

Rating: 8 out of 10

The Best and Worst things about living in South Africa – Part I

Got this idea from another blogger’s post on the most frustrating things about living in Germany. So I was wondering about what they would be for me. But I’ll start with the positive…

The Best Things about SA:

Natural Beauty: It is a beautiful country with vast stretches of open land, majestic mountains and never-ending blue skies filled with fluffy white clouds. The sky here is a sight of its own! I have not seen so many different colours and pretty cloud formations anywhere else. The gorgeous reddish orange sunsets are simply to die for! The thunder and lightning also present quite the spectacle with huge menacing bolts from the sky or as we saw in the Drakensberg, continuous flickering over a mountainous horizon making it look like God’s light bulbs are going out. Road trips are a must here for any traveller, no matter how short or long the duration of stay.

Road Infrastructure: Speaking of roads, they are some of the best in the world. Sure, you would find potholes on narrow country roads but the highways and most of the roads in major cities like Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town are world class. They have been like that for many years, although recently many of the major highways were redone for the World Cup in 2010. Also, since most of the country is mountainous there are a lot of ups and downs in the landscape. This gives a lovely look to the highways in combination with the beautiful blue skies.

Climate: The climate of SA really is one of the best in the world. The summers are hot but never get too unbearable. If you are around Pretoria, Johannesburg or Cape Town in summer it is lovely and not too humid. Durban can get quite humid in summer but it is absolutely beautiful and warm in winter. As for winters in Pretoria and Joburg, they get very cold only for a short duration in June/July. Cape Town gets rain in winter. But overall, it is a very mild and moderate climate. It hardly ever snows here which can be a bummer depending on how you look at it, sitting comfy at home staring out the window or struggling with your work commute. But the lack of snow is a somewhat small sacrifice for such polite and relatively unchanging weather throughout the year.

Cost of Living: The cost of living is generally cheap. One can find a decent looking 2 bedroom apartment here for about R5000 which comes to about 15% of the average salary for a skilled professional. So, one gets to save on a monthly basis after meeting all obligations. That is comforting when compared to many other countries where the house rent itself eats away at a chunk of the monthly salary. And since South Africa is sort of a combination of a developing as well as a developed country in many ways, good quality merchandise is generally available at moderate prices. My mum-in-law said it herself when she was here a couple of months back. She was able to purchase 2 heavy woollen coats, 1 light leather jacket, 2 pairs of leather gloves and a leather handbag, all for about R3000. That is not a bad deal considering the top notch quality of the material.

Ease of Exploration: The country is not very difficult to explore due to its manageable size. And there is a wide variety of landscapes from mountains to deserts and grasslands to beaches, all within a somewhat small to medium sized country. There is only one standard time zone here, so there are no issues of jetlag and other such inconveniences. Also, the domestic flights are quite efficient and many in number. There are low cost options available too such as Kulula, Mango and 1Time, in addition to the national carrier SAA.

Work-Life Balance: Generally I have seen from my own experience and from talking to people that there is a good work-life balance here. The number of ‘paid vacation’ days usually provided annually by companies is more than the average number in the US. On a weekly basis, people generally work much more during the week than during weekends. The problem with this of course is that it applies to the retail sector as well. So, shops generally close between 2 to 4 pm during weekends. But as long as we plan our shopping early, it does not matter. It is certainly a good thing that there is emphasis on weekend family time. The national pastime here is barbecuing or as it is called in local lingo, ‘braai’. When the sun is out, nothing pleases a South African more than hanging out on the lawn with friends and family around a smoking braai grill.

To be continued in Part II … Thanks for reading.

Smashing Pumpkins ‘Oceania’ – Brightly optimistic and reminiscent of early years

Billy Corgan is back! But I shouldn’t add “… with his band of misfits” cos that only applies to Axl Rose, right? Anyway, here’s a little bit of back-story. In 2007 he suddenly decided to bring the old band back together, but funnily enough he did not inform them. So, only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin came back. Nonetheless, the duo charged ahead with an album titled ‘Zeitgeist’ which tried very hard to bring back the rawkk of olden times. It didn’t quite succeed and aside from a few bright spots, the whole thing sounded like a formless mush of modern hard rock. The dream pop element that I loved so much was missing.

Coming back to 2012, Billy has recruited all new band members: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne and set out on an ambitious 44-song set called ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’ of which this first one ‘Oceania’ is just a part. Phew!! .. But bombast and delusions of grandeur are nothing new to Billy. Their most popular (double) album ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ could almost be compared to a sprawling art exhibition on a grand scale. Sure, there were fillers in there but I respected his vision for experimentation and art rock a la Pink Floyd. Those otherworldly qualities are thankfully back now.

‘Oceania’ is a bright and optimistic sounding tribute to their classic blend of heavy metal and dreamy psychedelia that they used to do so well! Right from the first track ‘Quasar’ it is evident that the old Pumpkins sound is back. The song is a delicious mix of crashing drums, distorted guitar and 60’s psychedelia. Mentions of Krishna and Om, plus an opening that sounds like a modern day version of ‘Cherub Rock’ only seal the suspicion that this is a celebration of everything ‘Gish’ and ‘Siamese Dream’. After that burst of energy, they deliver a second punch of delight with ‘Panopticon’ which does take a little bit more time to seep into you. Then come the strings of ‘The Celestials’, a lovely ballad which rocks almost as hard as it flows beautifully to end on a sustained solitary distorted note. As the album ambles along, there are many interesting sounds in tracks like ‘Violet Rays’, ‘My Love Is Winter’ and ‘One Diamond, One Heart’. When we get to ‘Pinwheels’ we are immediately hit with a gorgeously sunshiny opening that lasts for a good two whole minutes followed by soft acoustic guitar. Great stuff this!

Next comes the epic title track which is like the Pumpkins’ version of ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ I guess. Took a while to grow on me but I really dig the prog rock tendencies of this song now. Halfway through, Billy stops singing suddenly and the song fades into a dreamy soundscape of distant drums and crazy guitar solos. After that comes the wonderfully chilled out ‘Pale Horse’. One of my favourites on this album, it is easy to get into and completely relaxes the listener. This whole album is just so happy-sounding… I love it! And none of it is cheesy. That’s the best part! As we approach the last stretch of the album, there are some tight rocking songs like ‘The Chimera’, ‘Glissandra’ and ‘Inkless’ which are quite enjoyable musically. These take longer to get used to though, than anything on the first half. Finally, the closer ‘Wildflower’ is okay. Didn’t like it all that much at first but now I can appreciate the music here, although Billy’s singing drones on a bit – a quality in his singing style I was never that big a fan of.

Nevertheless, colour me surprised! After their several tumultuous years as a changing band, I did not really expect or hope for an album as sunny and glowing as this one. Looking at their discography as a whole, nothing will probably top moments like the last 2 minutes of ‘Hummer’, the skipping sighing beat of ‘1979’ or the entirety of ‘Mayonaise’ but I can confidently say that ‘Oceania’ is one of their best efforts that I have ever listened to.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

An Endless Recession – Even the most brilliant minds on Earth do not know the answer… really?

All we hear about in international news today is Euro Zone debt crisis… and Syria, though the latter will probably (hopefully) get resolved soon with condemnation and action from all fronts. But there seems to be no end to the financial crisis that has gripped the Western world. It all started with the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. and then the 2008 financial system collapse and now the Euro Zone debt crisis.

What I don’t get is how the most powerful people in the world like Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy (or Francois Hollande if you want to be current) and the like cannot solve this problem. As it is, Finance is a bloody complicated field of study! The so-called financial experts and economics gurus have brought in so much jargon into the whole thing that one has to be a freaking genius to understand what is going on. I suppose that is one way that they protect themselves… from people who would otherwise easily see through their lousy plans. Anyway I admit I do not know much about financial mumbo-jumbo. I only know whatever I read in the news. But it is taking these experts more than a year to come up with a reasonable solution for Greece and other affected countries. Really?? In my book, that is terrible! For instance, if it takes me more than a year to come up with a cost-effective efficiency improvement in my manufacturing plant do I deserve to keep my job? I didn’t think so.

I realize that it is not as easy as I am making it sound. But sometimes you have to look at a complicated problem as if it were a simple household one. If Mr. X borrows money from Ms. Y and is not able to return it because Mr. X is clearly not saving enough money on a regular basis, the options are as follows: (a.) Take enough time to accumulate and return the money with interest. (b.) Borrow some more, severely cut costs in personal expenses and then return in time with added interest… aka the bailout option. Or (c.) Cancel the bloody debt and print some money! Obviously I’m talking about governments here and not Mr. X or Ms. Y. Now, I’m aware of the common belief that this causes inflation. But does it really, when you are so far deep in debt that you have to borrow again to repay that debt? Besides… seriously now, isn’t it time to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea already? All of this nonsense is man-made anyway. Money, currency notes, the whole system of Finance… everything is man-made. Surely, we should be able to start again at square one if we needed to.

What I’m getting at here is not that I have the ultimate solution. Of course I don’t. I’m just saying that if the people in power got together around the table with the super-intelligent economics geniuses of the world in some conference room in Brussels, it should be possible to come up with a decent solution – a solution that has the least amount of compromises. If they really wanted to, they could. I reckon this is where politics gets in. One person’s profit is another person’s loss. Come to think of it, how can a prosperous country provide the solution for a sinking one without digging its own grave in the process? I don’t know. I think I’ll go and have a beer.