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...

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