From somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean (well, actually 24`58.0` S Latitude and 015`44.8 W Longitude)
It has been too long since my last update, and it is time to fill you in on the happenings of my five days in South Africa. I have very mixed feelings about this port; on the one hand, it filled me with wonder and excitement, and on the other, with horror and dismay. Whilst I have witnessed much poverty and destitution on this voyage so far, never have I observed it to such an extent, isolated and contained only a few minutes’ drive from skyscrapers, polished ‘downtown’ shopping malls and western white affluence in your face. Never have I been forced to acknowledge the complexities and social ramifications of the society that I live in, the commercial and capitalist center of the world. South Africa was definitely a place for somber reflection on my personal blessings….
Anyway, before I get too serious, let me tell you about what I got up to. We steamed into Cape Town after 8 long long days at sea. Traveling around the southerly tip of Africa, we experienced possibly the worst weather to date, with sea reaching 12-19 meters! We were banned from being out on deck, but I still sneaked out to grab some pics. It was necessary to hold on for dear life, the wind was cracking down and the salt was blasting into my eyes making it difficult to see. But what a sight. I’ll never forget it.
Thankfully, the morning we arrived – the sea was calm. I awoke at 4.30am to witness the truly spectacular sight of seeing the sunrise up over Table Mountain. Unfortunately, the mountain had its customary tablecloth of cloud enveloping its peak, but it was a spectacle nonetheless. It was a blessed relief to find the weather somewhat cool – not another intense summer going on. We actually could wear sweaters and long sleeves in the evening. On arrival, I immediately left for a two-day trip to a nature reserve in the Cedarburg Mountains called Kagga Kamma. The drive was over five hours, and the scenery we passed through was breathtaking. Initially, many of the towns that we passed through reminded me somewhat of England, winding streets, green hills, and the signature gray skies. But as we headed into the interior the landscape unfolded into a breathtaking sandstone desert of red mountains, and scrub land, with vast expanses of wilderness as far as the eye could see. Reminding me of North West Colorado, I immediately felt at home! The lodge we stayed at was privately owned, and represented civilization for at least a 200-mile radius. Which translates to middle-of-nowhere essentially. The lodge was surrounded by incredible rock formations of a rainbow of reds, yellows and golds. They are hard to describe, but any of you who have traveled through Western Colorado or Utah will have an idea what it looked like. Our rooms were either little thatched cottages, or actually caves built into the rock itself. It was very unique. What completed the experience for me were the sounds of the place. Nothing. Sheer and blissful silence. I immediately got on my hiking boots and went exploring over the rocks and caves. I saw some beetles the size of mice, and giant crickets of black and orange that could leap about 30 feet. I felt as if I were on another planet. That evening, they served a barbecue dinner in the outdoor restaurant, complete with campfires and music. The ambiance was terrific. We all bundled up with blankets and hot chocolate and sat around the fire for hours, eating and talking and singing a song or two ( well, I was there you know?) Later that night, we had a lecture on the astronomy of the southern skies, and got a chance to view Saturn’s rings from a telescope. At around midnight we left on a 4×4 game drive. Holding a spotlight out over the scrub land, (and freezing to death, wearing every stitch of clothing I had brought with me) we saw some eland antelope, zebra, ostriches and a gerbil! It was fun, but I felt like we were terrorizing the poor creatures that were confused by the shining lights.
The following morning we went on a 4-mile hike up to some ancient cliff dwellings where the San people used to live, and observed some San paintings. I was extremely reluctant to leave on the five-hour journey back to Cape Town, but the stop at the winery made the trip. I think I ‘tasted’ over eight glasses and was well and truly sloshed getting back on the bus, so needless to say, I entertained the rest of the less intoxicated all the way back. They must have been ready to shoot me (as most of you know, I’m readily shootable at the best of times, let alone when I’m inebriated.)
Back at the ship, I had the advantage of hearing all of the stories from other students who had already been exploring the past two days. Some of them had gone cage diving to get close to some Great White Sharks! One of them told me they’d even been lucky enough to view a right whale swim right under their boat and then breach the water, not 10 feet away. I wish I could have seen that. Unfortunately, there is only ever so much time in each of these ports, and each begs a return visit to sample the deeper experience. The following day, I booked a tour of the Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Point – which is popularly held to be the best place to view the crashing waves of the meeting Indian and Atlantic oceans. The drive was surreal, past these fields upon fields of blooming purple and yellow flowers, fishing villages, with sweeping bays and tiny inlets of crystal blue water. Cape Point itself was really a mountain with an enormous drop to the sea below. Before Cape Agulhas was discovered to be further south, this was the tip of Africa. I hiked up to the top and barely escaped with my life, for I felt sure I would launch off the cliffs in the hurricane force winds. Later we drove to Boulders Beach, home to a colony of penguins. I tell you, I could have spent a whole day with those funny funny birds, in fact, I think it should be widely published and taught that penguin therapy be the new wonder cure for depression. You can’t help but giggle till it hurts watching these creatures waddle around, squawk literally like donkeys, and play with each other.
That night I went to the Theatre to see a play written and performed by Greg Coetzee about the South African male psyche. It was titled Breasts. I really didn’t go in with any expectations, but I laughed so long and so loud, that I think I developed three new sets of eye wrinkles. One of my favorite lines was during a monologue where the character is talking to his dead mothers’ grave, about a hippie girl who had just left him, ‘Save the whales, shoot a hippie!’ – I know, you really had to be there to get a little context. Anyway, the performance was so compelling that I returned the following evening.
The following day I took it upon myself to climb the treacherous Table Mountain. At about 4000 ft, it was quite a climb. I went along with the assistant academic dean, so at least I can tell you that the conversation was never dull….! We started along the Skeleton Gorge trail, which began in the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens. We were quite happy at first, as the gradient was only moderate, until we turned a corner, to face a series of near-vertical ladders that we had to overcome. That was different, and somewhat scary, but we made it. Or at least we thought. When we reached the ‘top’, with glorious views over the coastline, we were told by several burly officers of the South African army, who laughed when we asked if we were on the summit. ‘Oh, no, mate – that’s about another five kilometers – just keep going, you should make it by 3pm…” Anyway, on we trudged, and whilst it really was beautiful up there, we really were not prepared with provisions for such a long hike. By the time we were about an hour from the cable car we were driving each other crazy talking about sipping a tall glass of coke with ice in it, and chewing on a juicy steak sandwich. When we arrived at the cable car station, we were ravenous and treated ourselves to a sumptuous meal. We took the cable car down as we were barely able to stand up. It was a great day, which was improved in greatness ten-fold when I discovered that they served trifle at the theatre that night before the play. I was a very happy bunny.
My last day in South Africa was much more serious. I took a tour, which went out to visit three black and colored townships on the outskirts of the city. The whole notion of going to visit where people are living in squalor, as a tourist, was very uncomfortable to begin with. I started asking myself what I was doing there, and what would I speak about with these people? My apprehension was not appeased when we stepped off of the coach to the sight of a lady seated at a table covered with blood, calmly chopping the last few shreds of wool off of decapitated sheep’s heads. We were taken to view a housing community where families of six shared a single twin bed, and each room had five beds. The stench was strong, and there were many young children running around without clothes or shoes. Many students were taking photos, but I couldn’t justify it, except when some of the kids indicated they really wanted me to take their picture. Many many women there were pregnant – it was the first time that fact had caught my attention to such an extent. South Africa in general has a 24% incidence of HIV, but we were told it could reach as high as 50% in these black living communities. We were then taken to a community college, which impressed me with the level of hope displayed by the students. Most of them were learning trade skills such as weaving, pottery or bricklaying. And they all sang while they worked. The music and quality of their voices were very moving, and I quickly purchased some items for sale, as I thought the project was extremely worthy in its ability to provide an economy for the community. I spoke with one of the lecturers, who immediately asked if he could come and visit me in the States. I was taken aback, but offered him my email address should he wish to correspond.
The last township, Crossroads, was more like a shantytown. Homes were built from bits of cardboard or corrugated tin and iron. I spoke with several people who mostly expressed an increased sense of satisfaction with their circumstances, (as compared to the residents of the 1st community) mostly derived from the fact that their homes were their own (they purchased them), and that ownership at least afforded them some privacy. Most of them were fully aware of the cycle of poverty they were living in, one woman I spoke with in her mid-sixties, was the sole income-earner for her family of 11, including children, their partners and their children. She explained how, someone has to earn enough money in order for them to be able to send their children to school (to pay for transport was the main issue – education is free to minimum level), in order that they possibly might learn English, or some other skill, which might increase their chances of finding employment some day. Even so, among the skilled, unemployment was roughly 80%. And despite the official end to Apartheid, the whites still control the labor market, and the opportunities for blacks are simply not there – with work consisting of minimum wage manual labor of some form.
I am still processing my feelings from that day. I do know, however, that if I were living in South Africa, I would struggle with my feelings surrounding my life of comfort, just a few miles from people who were experiencing a struggle every day for survival. I think it will also make me stop and think more about the problems of poverty in the US. I think I’ve been very blind to it. Many people spoke about the possibility of enormous outbreaks of violence, if Nelson Mandela should die. I could certainly believe this to be possible, if more measures are not taken immediately to move towards a more balanced social structure.
So I should end this letter soon. I apologize again for its length, but I hope you found it interesting. We shall be arriving in Salvador, Brazil in a few days. I can’t believe there are only 24 days left of this voyage, the time has flown past. I am excited about coming home, but also feel extreme trepidation as I know the country I left, will not be the same country I return to.
Yesterday we held the Semester at Sea Olympic Games. They were a lot of fun, and you could really feel a great community spirit on board. I had the honor of singing the Olympic anthem before the awards ceremony in front of the whole ship. I sang a song called “World in Union” based on a classical piece of music by Holst and adapted for song by the South African group “Ladysmith Black Mambazo.” I highly recommend their music.
So long for now. I will write again from Brazil.