Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Gallivanting Around Cape Town

Again, I’ve neglected my blogging duties for too long and this update is well overdue. So, let’s catch up.

Last weekend I went to Durban and my South African friends showed me around their hometown. Durban is on South Africa’s east coast, on the Indian Ocean, so the weather was much nicer than in Cape Town and we were able to spend a day at the beach for a family picnic. I didn’t get to see much else of Durban that weekend but a definite highlight was watching Durban’s rugby team, the Sharks, secure a place in the Super 14 playoffs. We also went to uShaka, South Africa’s take on SeaWorld. The aquarium was great because there were a lot of local marine life that I had never seen before. Even though it boasts the tallest waterslide in Africa, the waterpark section was disappointing, though our South African friends loved it—I guess I’m spoiled from growing up a few hours away from Wisconsin Dells—and I promised to take my friends to Hurricane Harbor if they ever make it to America.

I know many of you have seen the headlines about the xenophobic violence here in South Africa, which has just recently permeated into the Townships of Cape Town. I assure you that I’m safe—there are bad neighborhoods everywhere and I’m avoiding any area where my safety may be compromised. In recent weeks some South Africans have become militant against immigrants, particularly from Somalia and Zimbabwe, who threaten their economy by taking jobs and reaping welfare benefits. Coming from Texas, it seems analogous to the American immigrant crisis, albeit without all of the violence. It’s incredibly sad that these immigrants who risked their lives to escape the horrific conditions in their home country are now met with such animosity and hatred. It often seems antithetical to what most South Africans took to heart after Apartheid, the messages of Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who preached about a “Rainbow Nation” of inclusion. What’s worse is that little has been done to curb the violence and few South African figureheads have publicly condemned the violence. TIA—this is Africa.

On a lighter note, I’ve finished with classes and I now have four finals interspersed with three weeks of nothingness. I’ve made a list of things I’d like to accomplish before leaving Cape Town on the 16th and I have been working diligently to cross things off the list. This weekend I visited an African crafts market before doing a sunset climb up Lion’s Head, a mountain with a panoramic view of the Cape. Yesterday I visited the National Art Gallery and the District Six Museum, a collection of personal effects to tell the story of forced removals during the Apartheid era (I also stopped by the Jewish Museum but didn’t make it past their cafeteria). And there’s much more on the itinerary for the weeks to come—restaurants, tourist attractions, even a tour of Parliament. I’ll keep you posted, and I promise to upload some more pictures soon.

Of course there is a downside to wrapping things up in Cape Town. I had to say goodbye to Nasiphi, the little girl I’ve been tutoring for the past semester, which was difficult since we’ve become close over the past few months. There are so many things I’m going to miss about this country, but I’m simultaneously looking forward to getting back to the familiar. I’ve made a mental list of the things I’ve missed most since being abroad—Mexican food, YouTube, and NBA playoffs top the list.

Also, congratulations to everyone who graduated over the past couple weeks—yay adulthood. Look forward to speaking to you soon!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spring Break, Round 2: Namibia

I’ve just finished my round of malaria pills, which means I’ve been back from Namibia for a week. Classes were cancelled last week because of three civil holidays, so two of my friends and I decided to take off the whole week to do a little exploring.

We left on Sunday morning, traveling due north through the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces. The Northern Cape is supposed to be gorgeous and covered in wildflowers, but I guess we were a few weeks late as winter has just started to arrive. We got to our little inn in a charming small town called Springbok much earlier than we anticipated, but nearly everything was closed because it was a Sunday before a holiday. We found one small grocery store open and we cooked a nice dinner (my end-of-Passover celebratory meal) before settling in to watch a show about bear hunting and South Africa’s version of “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” We got up early the next morning to cross the border into Namibia.

Namibia is a large, sparsely populated country with its own developmental issues. I learned in one of my lectures that the country’s population is around 2,000,000, but only 130,000 pay income tax. Because of the small state revenue, there is virtually no infrastructure; there are only three paved highways in the entire country and we only used them on our first and last days of our trip. Namibia was first colonized by the Germans, who later lost their stake to the colony after World War I. The German influence is still greatly apparent on the descendents of colonists and indigenous peoples alike. Many of the native Namibian groups, such as the Himba and the Herero, assimilated German cultures into their own, while their women dress as late 19th Century German women would have. Many people still speak German and practice German culture, making Namibia a popular destination for German tourists. Another weird fact about Namibia: many of its towns share their names with places in Israel. Some that I noticed on the map were Rosh Pinah, Rehoboth, Berseba, and Nazareth. I found no answer for this coincidence.

Namibia's take on Table Mountain

creative marketing while crossing the border

Soon after crossing the border, we drove to Fish River Canyon, which—depending on your sources—is either the deepest or second deepest canyon in the world. Either way, it was pretty spectacular.

no fish, small river, big canyon

photographic proof that I was at the FRC

look how geometric the mountains are. geology is awesome.

We had booked a place to stay in Aus before we left Cape Town and we thought we were lucky to make it there just before dark. We had arranged to stay in a small cabin on a the property of an upscale hotel complex. When we arrived we were told that our accommodation was called Geisterschlucht, which apparently means “ghost cabin.” This was no joke, because it took us nearly half an hour to reach the Geisterschlucht, only to find it infested with bugs and mice. When we arrived at dinner back at the main lodge soon after, the hotel manager took pity on us and gave us an extremely generous upgrade to one of the hotel’s suites.

wild horses couldn't drag me away

mountains near our hotel

Aus is famous for its wild horses, so we made a special stop to see them before continuing our journey north into the Namib Desert. Despite the treacherous roads, the drives in Namibia are beautiful. While driving through the desert, we would see mountains on one side of the road and sand dunes on the other. We also saw a lot of animals on our journey. We often saw springbok, kudu, impala, and ostrich in the middle of the road. Despite our negative experience with a Namibian cabin the night before, we decided to spend Tuesday night on a small German farm next to Duwiseb Castle, an old German fortress. The farm had no electricity, but the cabin was lovely. Mr. Schultz, the proprietor, invited us to lamp-lit dinner with a German tour group, which was an experience unto itself.

admission inside the castle was too expensive, so that's all I got

We continued our journey the next morning to Sossusvlei, home to Namibia’s highest sand dunes. We weren’t able to say long but they were unbelievable to see.

assorted dunes and mountains pictures-- enjoy

We knew we were in for a long drive up the coast to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, so we were surprised to find ourselves stopped in the middle of the desert road not too far outside of Sossusvlei. We had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the sign is a popular photo opportunity.

yay for crossing made-up lines!

We made it to Swakopmund before dark so we were able to explore the town for a while and make reservations for the next day. Swakopmund is a very quaint beach town with a distinctly German feel. We went to bed early as we planned to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to see the sunrise over the dunes. When we woke up, we found that it had rained during the night and our driver admitted that the fog was too dense to see anything that morning. We were disappointed, but we were lucky that the weather had cooperated up until then.

i know these look as fake as a Microsoft Windows background, but I really did sandboard on them

After a short nap (and game of Jenga) we met a guide who drove us out to the dunes. The weather had cleared up by then and we were able to go sandboarding—sliding down the dunes on a piece of cardboard (a “Kalahari Ferrari,” as the guide called it)—which was a definite highlight of the trip. The guide had a radar gun and tracked me going 74 kilometers an hour down the dunes (I was the fastest of the day on one of the rides). We ate a quick lunch before shuttling off to Windhoek, the capital, to fly back to Cape Town. We barely made our flight because our driver was unaware of the fact that the airport was 50 km outside of Windhoek proper (I’m pretty sure we broke 100 flying down a busy highway once this was discovered). I made up a sad story at the Air Namibia ticket counter and got the agent to hold the flight for a few minutes while we went through customs. This was right out of The Amazing Race. Namibia was on my “To Do” list before coming to Africa, and I’m so glad I was able to pull it off.

This semester’s winding down. I’ve finished all of my papers for the rest of the term, but I have two more tests before exams begin on the 29th. On the bright side (literally!), the blackouts have ended, allowing me to write this post. It’s also winter here now, which means I haven’t seen the sun since the middle of April. It’s a good thing, too, or else I would never want to leave…

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Me and Bobby Mugabe

Note: I've tried to post this a few times this past week, only to be prevented by a series of blackouts. Here are my post-Spring Break reflections, with lots of pictures.

After a late Thursday night in Cape Town with my friend’s family, I left my dorm at the crack of dawn on Friday to catch an early morning flight to Johannesburg. There, we boarded our overland bus and began our trip to the Botswana border, which we reached just before border control was to close. We continued our drive the next morning and arrived in the town of Maun in the early afternoon. Don’t worry, the trip (and my subsequent blogging) was about to get much more exciting.

The next morning we boarded a truck that took us to an opening of the Okavango Delta. The ride took us through rural Botswana, where nearly all of residents eagerly waved to our passing vehicles. This was interesting as I initially wrote it off thinking that tourism was a significant part of their livelihood, but upon further consideration I wondered how much these rural farmers actually received from our presence.

Botswana is an interesting case study in modern African politics. Though its small, landlocked population is primarily rural and focused on mining, Botswana has one of the strongest economies on the continent—Botswana’s currency, the Pula, is worth about 1.3 times the amount of South Africa’s Rand. In speaking to various people, it seems that the country has also successfully managed post-colonial race relations. My guide in the Delta told me that Botswana’s national animal is the zebra because it is black and white together, and for the same reason, their national bird is the eagle (asked him if their national cookie was the Oreo, but I don’t think this joke transferred well). Due to these favorable factors, Botswana is receiving an influx of refugees from other countries seeking asylum, much to the disapproval of many of the natives. The downside is that unfortunately Botswana also suffers greatly from the HIV/AIDS pandemic that plagues much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

When we entered the Delta, we packed our luggage into the mokoros which would take to our campsite. A mokoro is a traditional wooden canoe which is the chief means of transport in the Delta. The driver has a long wooden stick which he uses to propel and steer the canoe. (My driver, Chris, let me to try to drive the mokoro, but I couldn’t figure out how he seemed to position the stick on the floor of the river, so I used the stick like a kayak paddle. Hilarity ensued.)

Orchids in the Delta

chillin' in the mokoro

Once we got to the campsite, an island in the middle of the Delta, we swam in the river before leaving for a nature walk in the afternoon. Though we didn’t see any animals then, our guide, Saulo, showed us the poop that denizens of the Delta had deposited as we watched a beautiful African sunset.

I don't know what happened with this picture, but I think it's pretty cool

sunset pictures never get old

Somehow one of the guides had convinced us to sleep outside that night (while they themselves had put up tents). It was pretty miserable with all of the mosquitoes– thank God for Malarone!—and all of the other Delta critters, but at least we were already awake for our early morning walk. It was soon obvious that Saulo was quite good at manuevering around the Delta and finding animals. We were able to spot tons of elephants, giraffes, and springbok, and beautiful fauna. It was also unbelievable that Saulo knew exactly where we were in the fields of the Delta, to which he likened to us being able to navigate ourselves in our hometowns. I have a feeling it’s slightly different.

AEPhi giraffes

We took another mokoro ride deeper into the Delta that evening. That night, we had a campfire with our guides who insisted on putting on a whole musical production and made us play some childish games. Needless to say, it was a great night, in no small part thanks to my return to tent-dwelling.

just incredible.

I told you-- sunset pictures never get old, especially in the Delta

In the morning we said goodbye to our guides and returned back to the campsite in Maun where we had stayed before our Delta excursion. We stayed there just long enough to take our first shower in three days and eat lunch before leaving for another day on the road. We arrived at our campsite after dark after a delay at a pointless Hoof-and-Mouth Prevention checkpoint.

We woke up early the next morning for the drive up north to Chobe National Park. The ride to Chobe was beautiful and along the rural roads we were able to see more elephants, giraffes, and springbok close to our bus. But that’s where the fun stopped, as somewhere along a rural highway, our engine blew and our bus broke down. Because there was no cell phone reception, one of our guides hitchhiked to call the other bus in our group. We ate lunch on the side of the road as we waited for the other bus to return. We were rescued a few hours later and were taken to Chobe where we took a pontoon boat ride down the river. On the boat we were able to spot a family of elephants—including my first baby elephant—and impala and had our first hippo encounter. Contrary to the movie Fantasia (a staple of my childhood which featured dancing hippopotami in tutus) hippos are actually very ferocious and aggressive, so we kept our distance, though I was thrilled to see so many of them.

elephant family!

no tutus, no dancing

On scores of souvenirs and other Southern African merchandise, one is likely to find “The Big Five,” a collection of the region’s most dangerous game animals: lions, leopards, water buffalo, rhinos, and elephants. So when I woke up for my game drive in Chobe the next morning, I was determined to cross some of the Big Five off my list. As we got in the vehicle, the guide reiterated that he could not promise that we were going to see any game. We started the drive on the banks of the Chobe River where we ran into another pack of hippos and throngs of impala.

hungry, hungry hippos

good morning, springbok

Coincidentally far from the water, we passed this herd of water buffalo.

A few moments later we ran into this gorgeous animal which I swear was either called a buku or a kubu, but now I can’t find any mention of it on the internet.

We saw some jackals, which are less frightening than I had imagined and more like puppies.

definitely cuter than my dog

After seeing these wild dogs, we needed to see some wild cats. Our driver received word on his walkie-talkie that there were some lions deeper into the park and we caught them just before we had to return to the campsite. I was so excited; I felt like the lion paparazzi. Here are some of the best of the bunch:

three Nalas, no Simbas

After our game drive, we packed into our replacement bus, which was unexpectedly smaller than our original vehicle. It wasn’t a long ride before we got off to hop on a ferry to cross the river into Zambia. We soon arrived at our campsite in Livingstone on the banks of the Zambezi River. In every American camping experience I have had, the biggest worry was keeping loose items away from raccoons. However, in Zambia, I took similar precautions to keep my things away from baboons and vervet monkeys, as even though they are adorable, they are conniving little creatures and the campsite was practically infested with them.

After lunch we headed to Victoria Falls. These pictures and my blog ramblings cannot convey the sheer magnitude of Vic Falls (half of my pictures didn't even come out because of all of the steam and water). You cannot even observe the Falls without getting soaking wet. I was stunned by the enormity of the gorges and the volume of the Falls. It was a truly awesome spectacle.

The next few days were left free to explore the area around Victoria Falls. Over the course of the trip we had befriended our cook, a Zimbabwean expatriate, who encouraged us to cross the border into his old country. I was unconvinced that I really needed to visit Zimbabwe having heard horror stories from my own family of Zimbabwean émigrés, especially the day before the “elections” I’m sure you’ve all heard about. Soon we were set up with the cook’s brother who ran a booth in the market a few feet from the border post. He reassured me that tourists are highly valued in Zimbabwe due to their severe economic problems and that I would be completely safe. I grabbed a few things to trade at the market and crossed the muddy no-man’s-land into Zimbabwe.

The atmosphere across the border was eerie. Though Victoria Falls is a tourist town, it seemed more like a ghost town. Since the beginning of the Mugabe regime, the life expectancy of the country has plummeted to around 35, and in retrospect, I cannot recall seeing anyone much older than that during my visit. Inflation is around 100,000% and currency is printed with expiration dates. The roads were unpaved and few buildings had electricity. I cannot believe that the international community would sit idly by as one dictator ran his country into absolute poverty. This is destitution and insolvency at its worst.

We began at the market where the vendors were more interested in goods than actual currency. I traded a few t-shirts, a few pairs of socks, some hair ties, and a Bic ballpoint pen for some artisan crafts, and I tried to include a few dollars or rand in each deal as a charitable contribution. I could tell they truly valued this bartering; nearly every one of the shopkeepers was wearing a shirt that they had obviously received in such transactions.

As we headed to the Victoria Falls Hotel for lunch, I have never seen such a stark difference between dearth and excess. The hotel is a bastion of a memorial to colonial rule; you can just picture old white men in their safari jackets sitting on the lawn. The walls are adorned with pictures of a 1946 visit by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to Rhodesia, portraits of King George V, and other memorabilia of English colonialism. A clear reminder of the economic crisis is a sign at the hotel’s restaurant: “All non-Zimbabwean citizens must settle their bills in a foreign currency.” While leaving the hotel, I paid a small boy a few rand cents for some of his expired Zimbabwean dollars and picked up the strangest piece of political memorabilia I may ever own: a promotion poster for ZANU-PF and Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Their slogan: Builiding Prosperity Through Economic Empowerment. (Clearly.) But my day in Zimbabwe wasn’t entirely depressing—I did see a warthog crossing the street.

After my exhausting experience the previous day, I elected to spend my last day of Spring Break as a true Spring Breaker—lying by the pool. The poolside bar had a TV set, but there was little news about the “elections” so the bartender flipped the channel to VH1, which was apparently devoting its entire broadcast to the music of George Michael (to which I hypothesized that in a desperate move for power, Robert Mugabe had killed the former member of Wham!). After another sunset cruise that evening, I said goodbye to Zim, Zam, and the Zambezi. It was an incredible Spring Break, one that I could never replicate and one I certainly will never forget.

A quick, semi-related note to conclude—since arriving in Africa, I have been on high alert for mistakenly pre-printed sports apparel (that is, shirts that hastily declared the Patriots World Champions before the Super Bowl was ever played) as it is a known fact that much of these items typically end up in Africa. While I have been less than successful in this particular pursuit, I’m pretty sure I saw a brand new Charlotte Hornets hat in Zimbabwe...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Quick Update!

I apologize for neglecting my blogging responsibilities, but I have been absolutely swamped with schoolwork—I’m sure you don’t want to hear about my paper on the Human Development Index. I’m currently weathering UCT midterms as roughly about 75% of the work I have this entire semester is due within this two week period. I just have to get through to Friday…

I started tutoring a sassy little eight-year-old, Nasiphi, at the children’s home where she lives. Together we’re working on her reading skills—last week we read a traditional African story about a man who saves his marriage by planting sunflowers. To get Nasiphi to read, I have to promise her a piggyback ride at the end, which is probably just as much a reward for me as it is for her. I’m very excited to see her this afternoon because I truly felt a special bond with this child even after only one visit.

I spent this past weekend participating in a homestay with a Coloured family in Cape Town’s Ocean View community. Ocean View is a product of apartheid policy, as Coloured families once located on the beachfront area called Simons Town were forcibly relocated to less desirable properties (despite its name, Ocean View has no view of the water). My family consisted of a grandmother, her four grown daughters, and her eight grandchildren. One of her daughters and two of the grandchildren lived on the property, and the two women welcomed us in with open arms. The grandmother spoke to us about the tight-knit community of Ocean View and taught us swear words in Afrikaans. Her 12-year-old granddaughter was obsessed with American pop music and the Disney Channel and was very impressed that the three American girls staying with her had all visited Disney World. On Saturday the mother and her daughter took us shopping in a seaside area called Kalk Bay and brought us to meet some friends in Fish Hoek. Despite their Muslim faith, the mother and her sister took us out to the reopening of a bar after its renovation Saturday night. Throughout the weekend, I was constantly being fed delicious home-cooked meals and sweets. I had a fantastic weekend and I hope to get a chance to visit the family again before I leave.

I’m sorry this entry is relatively short. This will be my last post before I leave for my mid-semester break in Botswana and Zambia, so my next entry is sure to be filled with pictures and great stories.

On a separate subject: I’m trying to figure out my summer plans, but nothing has panned out so far. If you know of anything that may be available for me or if you’d like to play around with me in Africa, please let me know!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


*that's 3, for those of you who've forgotten how to count in Afrikaans

It’s been a crazy week here in Cape Town. First, my 21st birthday was by far my best birthday in recent memory. After a day of small celebrations, my friends and I went to the Waterfront for a great sushi meal. We moved the party to a bar that was having live African music, which was the perfect end to a fantastic day. For those of you young enough to have Facebook, my friends have posted pictures of the evening's festivities.

On Friday I had my first surf lesson at Muizenberg, Cape Town’s famous surfing beach. I’ve only surfed once before—years ago in Maui—but I was able to get up and catch a few waves. I’m hoping to surf on a regular basis this semester and I'll update you on my progress. After surfing we rushed to a professional rugby game, the Stormers vs. the Crusaders. Regardless of what I may have previously posted, I have given up on rugby as a sport entirely (this declaration might be viewed as blasphemous to some South Africans as the national rugby team, the Springboks, are the reigning world champions). Besides from being a lopsided game (the final score was 22-0), there were no announcers to keep the stadium interested, and there was not nearly enough violence on the field to keep my attention.

I joined the Mountain and Ski (read: Hiking) Club hoping to get some exercise while seeing South Africa’s stunning sites, so when the club planned a hike up Table Mountain this Saturday, I was really excited to participate. However, mid-hike I realized that as an out-of-shape asthmatic with bad knees, I probably wasn’t going to be the Mountain and Ski MVP (not to mention I was getting over a cold and still sore from surfing the day before). I was misled into thinking that the hike would be a brisk stroll up the mountain, but I could not have been more mistaken. The first part of the excursion was a steep walk up a windy path, which was intense in itself but the easiest part of the hike as a whole. The next section was more of a crawl over large boulders, while the last leg of the hike included legitimate vertical scaling of cliffs. There were some parts of the route that were—at most—2½ feet wide. Let me add that there were no path markers and we traveled by the mantra “when in doubt, go up.” My legs were so cut up by the vegetation that I have started to tell people that I was in a knife fight with a midget. I promise you that I am in no way exaggerating the extent of this expedition. The hike up took over 5½ hours, while the hike across the summit to the cable car (you better believe I took the cable car down) took about an hour. When we reached ground level my friends and I recovered at the beach for the rest of the afternoon. Despite all of this, I had an amazing time—the views from every stage of the hike were breathtaking—and I can’t wait to go on another Mountain and Ski adventure when I can move my legs again.

**Update: Apparently we came in contact with a plant called the Blister Bush during our trek, resulting in bubbling blisters across our legs. The website we checked out said that there is no remedy for the blisters, and that the effects of the bush only present themselves on Caucasians. See, even the plants here are obsessed with race.

It’s almost surreal that I have been in South Africa for a month already. I’ve accomplished so much that I set out to do, and there’s so much more on the horizon. I leave for Botswana and Zambia in just over two weeks, and I’m already trying to figure out how to plan a trip to Madagascar or Namibia in a week during South African civil holidays. Yesterday I visited the children’s home where I will be volunteering and the kids were adorable. So watch this space… much more to come!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Numero Dos (because I can't say 2 in Xhosa)

Since I last posted, I have been consumed with classes-- WashU is making us take 4 classes, which is unheard of at our level of study as I am taking almost 20 hours of classes a week. I'm enjoying the lectures, though the amount of work is more than I anticipated. I guess I'm still trying to find the balance between study abroad and living abroad. Needless to say, I have much of my experience to look forward to. I signed up to tutor students in a children's home once a week, which I will start next Monday, and I have finalized my spring break plans to travel to the Okavango Delta in Botswana and to Victoria Falls in Zambia. And, most importantly, yesterday I attended my first rugby match in which the UCT Ikey Tigers KILLED the University of Pretoria, and though I only sort of understood what was going on, I am planning on going to more games in the future.

Last Friday we attended UCT's RAG Big Bash, which is analogous to WashU's WILD, except for the fact that it actually is wild. Someone told me that it is the largest party in the Southern Hemisphere, which sounds true and probably is. It was held at an amusement park and had three stages for the performers, who apparently were top African performers. One of the bands, Goldfish, appeared to be just a guy with a trumpet and a guy a with a turntable, but our newly-befriended South African insisted that they were hectic("hectic" is this ubiquitous word meaning crazy/cool/ridiculous, in a good way... I think). The Big Bash was crazy/cool/ridiculous, in a good way and it was probably the first time I felt like a member of the student body instead of just an outside observer.

This weekend our program took us to Stellenbosch for wine tasting at one of South Africa's vineyards. I had a great time (I think we were purposely over-served), and afterwards my friends and I arranged to spend the night in a hostel in town. Stellenbosch is a quaint, sleepy town about 45 minutes outside of Cape Town with many art shops and an African market. Because of its prominent university, Stellenbosch turns into a college town after dark, and we enjoyed meeting new people and exploring a very different part of South Africa as most of the people we encountered were white and spoke Afrikaans. In Cape Town, we have to take taxis everywhere after dark (and pre-approved taxis, to make sure we will not be ripped off or worse), but in Stellenbosch, it was safe to walk around at night, even without male escorts. It was refreshing but also quite sad as it made me realize and how segregated South Africa still is and analyze the inequality and poverty problems which plague the country. A couple of the kids we talked to made some offensive and racist statements, which I do not condone but understand why they made such comments. The students my age are unique in that they have lived in both an apartheid and post-apartheid eras. It will be interesting for anthropologists and sociologists to study these people as adults to see how the political empowerment/disempowerment affected them, especially within race relations, as I can already see the effects in these students in their twenties.

I knew going into this trip that it would be an experience unlike anything else, but despite all my reading and prior preparation, I am still surprised by things I encounter. For example, I was unaware of how few people speak English, with most speaking Xhosa or Zulu and more speaking Afrikaans than English. UCT is clearly an elitist institution, but outside this bubble I have encountered many instances of a language barrier. Race is always a topic of discussion in every issue, from the energy crisis to the national soccer team. In the aftermath of apartheid, Blacks and Whites and Coloureds and Indians often still impose a self-segregation upon themselves, as I have noticed on campus and around town. Despite all of this, it is almost refreshing to hear people talking about racism, whereas in the US such relevant topics are rarely mentioned.

I am not sure how much coverage this is getting in the US—I had only seen one or two articles from CNN and the New York Times before I left—but there is a severe energy crisis in South Africa and blackouts are of real concern. The energy provider has become a national joke, and many are worried about how the crisis will affect South Africa’s abilities to host the 2010 World Cup (which, if you are counting like multiple billboards in Cape Town, is 830-something days away). Inevitably, the energy crisis has become a race issue with poorer Blacks suffering more than the richer Whites, as generators have become a hot commodity for those who can afford them. I have also heard that while Cape Town has only had one blackout since I have been in the country, Johannesburg has them more routinely. I am not too worried as I was given an emergency lamp when I checked into my dorm, but I do anticipate more issues in the future.

On our first day of orientation, our director aptly described South Africa as a First World country with Third World developmental issues. There are some moments where I feel like I am back at home; other times I feel so lost. I have found that it is the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that often makes this country so confusing. I realized this the moment I got off the plane at the stunningly modern Cape Town International Airport and traveled less than a few kilometers before driving past a township of derelict shanties. The government would rather spend millions on erecting walls that shield these townships from view from the highways instead of using the same money to invest in resources for the future of the townships. Because South Africa is not very industrialized, there are few middle class jobs available, resulting in a massive wealth discrepancy and resentment among the classes, and I have theorized that this is why I have had so many bad experiences with waiters here. I can only hope these are just growing pangs of the new democracy and that South Africans will elect leaders who can move the country in the right direction.

That's all for now. Thanks for all of the birthday wishes. I know it's really early in the States, but they're already coming in and it means so much to me.

And a happy Savior's Day to all of my friends in the Nation of Islam.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ayelet's African Adventures, Part I

I have been in South Africa for just over two weeks now, and it has truly taken me this long to digest all that I have seen and experienced. The country is absolutely gorgeous and simultaneously thought-provoking.

I arrived in Cape Town on a Wednesday morning after traveling two days on three continents in four airports. After some introduction formalities, we hopped on a bus to go to Table Mountain. Cape Town’s mountains are an exquisite backdrop to the city—especially behind the buildings of my new university—but Table Mountain is particularly popular as its flat summit makes it an ideal spot from which to view the entire city in a 360˚ panoramic view. Though some decide to hike up Table Mountain, we rode to the top in the revolving cable car, which in itself was tremendous. At some points we were higher than the clouds, and I got to watch my first African sunset before heading down.

view of Cape Town from the cable car

one of the only pictures you'll see of me on this site

On Saturday I moved into my “res,” Liesbeeck Gardens. I have a nice sized room with a great view in an apartment-style dorm, and I share a kitchen and two bathrooms with three roommates. I was paired with another girl from my program from LA who goes to USC and two African guys, one of whom is from Namibia and the other from Niger. I have had some good discussions with one of my roommates, who is an engineer and head of the Namibian Society on campus, and seems to be more open-minded and genuinely interested in learning about the US and American culture (his friend was amazed that I am from Texas, because that’s where Chuck Norris is from). I am looking forward to learning about Africa and African culture from these great ambassadors, and I hope they are willing to teach me.

On Sunday, all of the international students were herded onto buses for a tour of the peninsula. Though the weather at first did not allow us to enjoy the beaches, we were able to hike Cape Point, the mountain overlooking the Cape of Good Hope, before stopping to see the penguins on their protected beach.

Cape Point-- yeah, I hiked it.

Penguins! on Boulder Beach

We had lunch in a Coloured township, where we were entertained by a young woman who sang (badly) Celine Dion songs and watched a group of kids with some ridiculous (but slightly age-inappropriate) dance moves. My program has arranged for a weekend home-stay in the same community, so I will be writing more about this in the future. Later that night, we found a diner that was showing the Super Bowl on a projector screen (albeit with Rod Stewart blaring on the jukebox simultaneously). I watched the first half, which ended just before 3:00 in the morning. It was nice to find something that was familiar amidst all of the culture shock, and I had a good time explaining what was going on to all of my African friends.

The university has yet to adopt an electronic registration system, which means that a student has to get approval from each department for each course he or she wants to take, and then stand in line for hours, waiting for numerous signatures and for someone to officially register the student into the classes. There is also no posted timetable for the classes, and I had to go to each department to figure out my schedule. Much of the UCT orientation for international students was dedicated to preparing us for this and preparing us for the differences in class structure and grading procedures. One speaker even tried to tell us ways to hide our “American-ness,” which I found very insulting. But by far the best activity of orientation was an African drum lesson, and all of the international students got to play their own drum. I can confidently say that after this one lesson, I can play the drums better than the tenants above the Cognition offices.

Since there was a week between registration and classes, a group of my friends decided to travel within this period. We planned to do the so-called Garden Route, a beautiful coastal region on the southern tip of Africa. We first stopped in Knysna, a quaint town famous for its lagoons and waterfront. We did not see much of the town but we had an enjoyable stay at a backpackers hostel, where all of eight of us shared a dorm room with bunk beds. The next morning we had planned to spend the day in Jeffrey’s Bay, one of the top beaches in the world, but the weather was uncooperative. We were able to spend a little time there, enjoying the smooth sand and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. We also spotted some jellyfish and I collected some beautiful shells.

Jellyfish-- picture taken especially for Samantha

Jeffrey's Bay, or J-Bay, like the cool kids call it

We planned to stay in hostel in Port Elizabeth for the night, but we were a little uneasy about the safety of the city once we finally arrived at the hostel. We debated about continuing on to find a better place to stay, but the owner of the hostel came outside and was so friendly that we convinced ourselves to stay. On his recommendation, we spent the evening at a jazz club, and I can honestly say that this was one of my favorite nights of all time. The musicians were all so talented and it was a great atmosphere in which to become closer with the kids on my trip, most of whom go to WashU.

In the morning we drove out to Addo Elephant National Park, a protected area for the indigenous animals. We were able to see elephants, warthogs, ostriches, turtles, cranes, zebras, baboons, and vervet monkeys. We were so close to all of the animals and arguably saw more wildlife than we would have on an expensive safari. Here are some of my favorite pictures of the day, but I will soon be uploading them all:

hello elephant!

mama and baby warthogs

doesn't it suck when zebras cut you off in the road?

The next day we started heading back west and made a stop at the world’s highest bungee jump (over 700 feet). I needed no convincing at all to do the jump, and the operators sensed this and let me go first in our group. The freefall was exhilarating as I jumped into a valley between the mountains overlooking the ocean. I don’t have pictures of the actual jump, but here is the picture of the bridge:

After we all supported each other on the jumps, we left to eat dinner in beautiful Plettenberg Bay. There we met a crazy white woman who was smoking on top of her cute little dogs while reading the Bible. She was impressed with my friends from California but even more impressed with me, as she told me that Oprah told her that Arlington, Texas, is one of the top five cities in the US to find single men over 35, and elaborated on her plans to find an American husband. That night we returned back to the hostel in Knysna where we had stayed on our first night. We were supposed to do the entire route back on Wednesday, but there was a consensus among us that the trip would be incomplete without a day at the beach. The day was stunning and we stopped in Mossel Bay for a few hours on the way back to Cape Town.

When we returned, our program arranged for us to see a concert of a popular South Africa called Freshly Ground (I know they’re legitimate because we heard them on the radio while on the road). The venue was sweltering and the acoustics were terrible, so I was pretty disappointed. They sing a song about fat thighs and flabby arms and they are pretty good on CD if you ever get a chance to listen to them.

Today is my first official day of classes (they technically started on Friday, but nobody but the Americans-- including professors-- showed up), so I should get going. I have so much more to write, but this post is getting really long, and I want to save some stories for later (I even deleted some material, if you can believe that). So as I wrap up, I just wanted to thank those of you who are keeping me up-to-date with relevant news. I’m sorry I missed the All-Star Game, but at least I got to watch the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament for the past few weeks (Egypt won, FYI). Thanks for reading this opus! Much more to come...