March 31st, 2005

rock shadow

Cape Town, part 1: the flight

I just returned last night from two weeks in South Africa. Our flight to Cape Town was asking for disaster: a four-hour layover in Minneapolis followed a measly one-hour layover in Amsterdam. When we arrived at MSP, the previous flight to Amsterdam hadn't even left yet - but alas, it was packed full, so we dawdled for another three hours until our flight was scheduled to leave. Half of our flight's passengers had boarded when the attendants announced that there was "a mechanical problem," and they'd update us in half an hour. Half an hour later, they delayed another half an hour. The desk told us that the plane's rudder was broken, gave us vouchers for airfare and food, and promised that when we finally took off, our missed connections would be magically fixed. The mechanics continued to put us off every half hour for over four hours; finally, everyone got off the plane and Northwest brought in a new one. The following flight to Amsterdam - the one scheduled after ours (and unfortunately just as packed as the rest) - had already been in the air for almost two hours when we finally took off.

Needless to say, we missed our connection, and the magic rebookings promised by the Northwest officials turned into long lines of three hundred snarky, line-cutting passengers. The handful of KLM Transfer employees in charge of rebooking our connections provided astoundingly inefficient, clueless service. They spent a lot of their time standing around staring at our now-missed tickets, and took a quarter of an hour or more for each passenger's rebooking. At least they gave us more travel vouchers.

Amsterdam only had one flight to Cape Town every day, so we were re-routed through London on British Airways flights. After a couple of hours of waiting, we boarded a rickety turboprop for the 45-minute flight, only to find that our next connection was also delayed for four hours. (At least they were up-front about the delay.) Though we only managed to eke €20 of food vouchers out of the recalcitrant British Airways employees, we were able to track down some Duplo (in an airplane-shaped carrying case, no less), rare in South Africa, for D's niece, and I also bought a nifty mini-Boggle game encased in a pen. We finally boarded just before midnight, leaving behind an eerily empty airport. I was hoping to have a window seat and see the lazy winding rivers and spotted landscape of central Africa as we passed over it like I had back in 2001 on my first overseas trip, but we just grazed western Africa during the night and then flew over the Atlantic the rest of the way, and I was two seats away from a window anyway.

We touched down midday on Thursday after 36 hours of travel, and about 12 hours after we expected to arrive. D's mum met us at the airport and took us to their place in Metterich (south of downtown and Table Mountain), where we spent the afternoon finishing homework, reading, and napping. David was able to make his afternoon eye appointment, though his morning consulate appointment had to be rescheduled for the next Tuesday. Perhaps due to the long travel time, our circadian rhythms were already more or less recalibrated. In the late afternoon D's sister J, his 19-month-old neice B, and his newborn nephew ü visited. B was scared by the fluorescent green stain that D's optometrist had used in his eyes (and the next few times she saw him she immediately said "eyes" before she settled on "uncle D"). We presented her with the Duplo - which she quickly spread across the kitchen floor and out into the garden - and taught her how to press the pieces together. Thursday evening we visited David's other two siblings and their respective SOs, starting with dinner at Balducci's Pizza with A and J, then a drowsy visit with S and V (whose wedding I had attended during my previous trip to Cape Town three years ago).

Over the next few days, I began to relax and not worry about what I was missing back in Berkeley. I read a lot: a book of essays by Kingsolver (some excellent), the last few months of National Geographic magazines, parts of Bill Bryson's latest book, and whatever else I found lying around. We also hiked a lot (most of D's family and friends are outdoors enthusiasts, so it's hard to avoid), visited Robben Island and Vrygrond Township, and socialized with lots of great, interesting people. I'm in the process of writing a more detailed summary of each day, so stay tuned!
rock shadow

Cape Town, part n: the flight back (and thoughts on research areas)

<aside> I'm skipping ahead to the flight back now, because I have it written, and most of it isn't about the flight back anyway. :~) I'll post more when I have time to write it. I'm especially looking forward to posting about our tour of the township and the discussions of African activism we had with one of David's friends. </aside>

We spent our last day in Cape Town shopping for wines and souvenirs (mostly gifts). We couldn't find the excellent Muratie Amber honeywine anywhere (the winery was an hour's drive away), but found the other bottles we were seeking. Then we visited raucous Green Market Square downtown, where we picked up a few souvenirs and were plied by skilled and dedicated salespeople with dozens more. Though I was fascinated by the arts and crafts that were on display and wished I could talk more to the sellers about where they were from and how they made or acquired them, I had to escape the hubbub after about an hour, completely overwhelmed and drained. (I dislike shopping in general, and pushy salespeople don't improve the experience.)

We refreshed ourselves with tea from a friend of D's who he had finally reached just that morning. She lamented that we weren't staying longer, since there was a big ballroom social that evening. Then we made one last visit to D's sister J and her husband R, and their two kids. I was wearing my Grace Hopper Google shirt, and before I left clever B had learned to say "Google!" We had a lovely dinner at D's parents', then packed our souvenirs in layers of clothing and headed to the airport.

Our flight back was thankfully not nearly as eventful as our flight out (except for a run-in with a mean immigration agent). We even shortened our six-hour layover in Minneapolis to two hours by flying standby on the flight before our scheduled one. (The travel agents D used sure didn't do a good job with the layover times.) In between fitful bouts of sleep and perusals of the last 259 blog entries on my "friends" page (which I had loaded into 13 tabs of Firefox right before we left; unfortunately, I still have three more days to catch up on), I found my thoughts returning to school and research.

As some of my recent blog posts describe, my recent thoughts on these matters are soured with feelings of frustration and ineptitude, and I'm struggling to identify just what's going wrong. After reading through nawl's grad-school choices, I couldn't help but question my own choice. Would I be happier if I had chosen to go somewhere else? What do I want to be working on, anyway? What would really get - and keep - me excited? I've been feeling pressure from advisors to narrow down my research focus, but I'm still at the point in my education (and don't currently see a way out) where many things sound somewhat interesting, but nothing sounds like a perfect fit. Should it be technology-focused sociology (my advisor's primary area)? Usability research? User-interface design? System design? Graphic design? Technology and poverty research? Information law and policy? Data mining? Technology in city planning and architecture? I can't even articulate what I want to do with it all: the academic life sounds grueling and insanely difficult to get into, and I'm not sure I'm even capable of life-long research (it doesn't feel like it in my current state of mind, though when I was less depressed and stressed I used to boil over with ideas). I don't seem to represent myself very well, especially in person, and especially when I know I'm being judged. How can I possibly develop skills that I actually want to utilize, and that someone would actually pay for?

Anyway, one thing that I've been wanting to do for a long time is to take some design classes, probably from somewhere other than Berkeley. Despite my marginal performance in the Introduction to Drawing class I took last spring (due to trips, conferences, and the usual issue of overcommitment - sort of like this semester ...), my TA said that I had "real potential" if I chose to pursue design. And it's something that I really enjoy, though I don't think I'd want to do it exclusively (much like everything else on my list of interests right now). The clothing design I've been doing recently has rekindled that desire.

Outside I can see the snowy peaks of the Rockies between puffs of cumulus. The captain says we're passing over Salt Lake City; from my window I can see patches of the Wasatch Front north of that between the clouds. Almost home.