Sunday, April 17, 2005

SAS Email 9 - Brazil

Hey everyone,
Greetings from the Atlantic Ocean, it's nice to finally be back on
this side of the world. First off I want to send out a belated happy
bday to my long-time friend and future legal representation, Harrison
Whitman… And to those of you who've written me in the past week or so
(you know who you are), thank you so much for keeping me updated on
your lives, you have no idea how nice it is to hear from those of you
back home that I've missed… We're now only a few days from Venezuela,
and 9 days from returning home to Florida. Today is our "study day"
before the next two days of finals, so the answer is yes to all of you
that ask if I have classes. I just figured most of you would be more
interested in my in-port experiences than the lectures I attend,
although some of them have been really great… But I digress, now onto

There's a unique vibrancy to the nation of Brazil that's unexplainable
to those who haven't been there but incredibly palpable as soon as you
touch Brazilian soil. The culture and people are just so rich with
life, and it's a truly contagious feeling. We docked in the city of
Salvador, which is a pretty diverse place of development and lack
thereof. The first morning I walked around the Pelhourino area, which
is the more traditional, older part of the city. Imagine cobblestone
streets, small cafes, great little restaurants, art shops everywhere,
a few street vendors selling handmade crafts… I felt like I was in
Spain somewhat. Crime is a pretty big problem in most of Brazil (a
friend of mine had his camera stolen out of his hand within 30 mins of
getting off the boat) but I was fortunate that I never encountered any
of it. So I walked around with a few friends, through this great
market called the Mercado Martel, saw some Capoiera (the sweet martial
arts fight-dance of Brazil), ate a great lunch, and did some solid
shopping. The prices are relatively cheap in Brazil, but not quite
like Vietnam, China or India… after that morning spent taking in
Salvador, we went to the game.

We were so lucky in our timing, because the morning we arrived there
was a huge soccer game between the state of Bahia (where we were) and
Vitoria, two of the top teams. A bunch of us paid this tour company
$15 for a ticket, transportation and a beer. At the game, beers were
75 cents each… a real stretch from the $6.50 at MSG or Fenway. So
needless to say, we got pretty liquored up, and made our way into the
heart of the craziest Bahia section we could find… I have some videos
of it that I'll show people when I get back, but let's just say it was
bananas. The first half had no scoring but I still had so much fun.
The second half though, we (Bahia) scored first and it was absolute
madness… Our section was going crazy, drums playing, shirts swinging
over our heads, everyone jumping, chanting, singing, it was just
awesome. Vitoria struck back though, but soon after that we scored a
sick goal that led to the biggest eruption I've ever witnessed at a
sporting event. These guys around me seemed happier than they'd ever
been in their lives… I swear some of them woulda given up their first
born for a Bahia goal. Unfortunately, Vitoria scored in the final two
minutes of the game and it ended in a tie, so the Bahia fans weren't
too happy with the conclusion, but the game as a whole was one of the
true highlights of my trip… A Brazilian soccer game was one thing I
didn't think I'd get to experience, but sometimes things just work out
in your favor.

The rest of the night was spent having a great time in Salvador,
crashing at the Hotel Ibis, and the next morning I did some more
shopping and chilling. I ate a great meal at this beachfront café,
and watched the sunset on the sandy beach be low. The view was
slightly obscured by the two 50 year-old guys in speedos who decided
it was time to do their callisthenic stretches and pushup sets. Just
try to picture this beautiful Brazilian sunset in front of you;
patched clouds with pink and white hues, sounds of Portuguese
conversations and samba music, a group of guys playing soccer-style
volleyball to your right (volleyball with no hands, only feet, chest,
head, etc), beautiful women in thongs to your left… and two hair dudes
in speedos doing hip swivels for fifteen minutes right in front of
you… Ahhhh, Brazil.

That night I jumped on a small tour at the last second to a Candomble
ceremony… Candomble is a religion only found in Brazil, it's similar
to the Santoria of Cuba… it's a hybrid of Nigerian animism (brought
over by the slaves to Brazil) and Catholicism (many missionaries were
sent to Brazil from Portugal and Spain)… The ceremony itself started
off pretty boring, as everyone there was wearing white (including our
small group of students) and we just watched these 20 women and one
man do simple dances to the intensely rhythmic drums while slowly
walking in a circle. After literally an hour of these small dances,
they took a break… I will admit the drumming was pretty intoxicating,
but I was hoping some men would come out and do some more exciting
dances or something… when the women and one man returned after a 10
minute break to do the same dances I was pretty disappointed, and then
after about 15 minutes of the dances, it happened. The guy got
possessed! He started shaking, convulsing, had to be held in place,
then his eyes closed and he started doing the dances but with this
incredible passion. And when one of the drums or bells would be
rattled he would stand erect and convulse in this eratic dance (think
a combination between Elaine from Seinfeld and Carlton from Fresh
Prince). It was really crazy, because his eyes were shut he almost
crashed into us seated around the main floor a few times, and then all
the sudden one of the elderly women (she was probably 75) became
possessed too! She started shaking also, her eyes shut, and she began
the dance as well. We all just sat there in awe, and then after 15
minutes of watching them dance, there was a stirring in the audience…
About half of the 40 people watching the ceremony were locals, and one
of the local woman got possessed too!!! Her head was down, her arms
shaking uncontrollably, and a few other local woman had to slowly
escort her out of the room. We left after about two hours, with my
mouth wide open in half shock, half awe. Unlike my roommate Jaret
(who told me he'd had the Holy Ghost enter his body and spoken in
tongues before), I'd never seen anything like it. My brother and I
sometimes watch BET on Sunday mornings for fun to watch the preachers
touch people's foreheads to make them go nuts, but seeing someone get
possessed in person and especially in a Candomble ceremony was
something that just blew me away… Some of the other students were
skeptics, and although my personal religions beliefs don't lead me to
believe there were orixas (Candomble spirits) actually entering their
bodies, I don't doubt that they entered a trance like state and that
they're physical reactions were geniune… The whole event just
reaffirmed my feelings about the incredible power of our mind, and how
our bodies are merely slaves to the incomprehensible powers of the
mind… After the ceremony I quickly packed a bag and headed to the bus
station with 10 friends to catch the 11:30pm bus ride to Lencois.

Okay, now I know in my last email I said that Capetown was my favorite
city in the world. But as any of that know me well know, I have a
small habit of referring to everything as the greatest, best,
favorite, etc. So, I have to make a small amendment to that statement
from the previous email. Lencois equals Capetown in my eyes, although
they couldn't be more different places. I've decided this is how I'd
put it: If I could live anywhere for a few years it would be
Capetown, but if someone told me I had just one month to spend
anywhere in the world it would hands down be Lencois… The six hour bus
ride there from Salvador was a great start to the trip, as it was a
perfectly clear night and the dark sky out the window was blanketed
with beautiful stars. With that omen, I knew Lencois would be
special… We arrived at 5:30am, and went immediately to a small hospeda
(Hospeda de Arvoles… basically a small hostel) where we napped for a
few hours… Lencois is a very small town in the heart of the interior
of Bahia (Northeast Brazil). There are only a few small main
cobblestone streets in the center of the town, basically no crime, and
the people are so great. They're all kind of like Brazilian hippies;
completely fun, kind, loving, all do capoeira, hike, rock climb, and
basically enjoy life… The entire town even has its own handshake too,
how sick is that!

So we got our guide Luan that morning, and she took us on a 9 hour
hike. We just set out walking from the center of town outwards to the
trails, and the hike consisted of really diverse terrain, beautiful
vistas, lots of lush green, waterfalls, huge boulders, stopping and
swimming in the river/pools, and a few stops to rock climb (as in
harnesses, clips, ropes… real rock climbing). It was a great day that
neither words nor pictures can really describe, and that night we had
a ridiculously good meal… In Brazil most dishes at restaurants are 2-3
people, so when I saw chicken parmesian (which I hadn't had all trip)
my eyes lit up. Luan told me to get a half order, and then when my
own full plate showed up with 4 chicken parms she bet me I couldn't
eat the whole thing (Mom you woulda def laughed at that one). So I
proceeded to eat all four chicken parms, had room on the side for some
steak after, and won a nice gift from Luan on the next day's hike.
After dinner though, we went to the small main street in town and
bar-hopped between the two tiny bars, drinking on the street and
listening to some great music. I had a few conversations with some
locals and other international travelers in
Spanish/Portuese/Spanglish, which was cool as hell. Around 1am almost
everyone had gone back to the hospeda, and there were 20 total people
left out on the street when this local guy began singing and playing
the penny whistle. He led us in clapping rhythms which he'd sing,
play and dance over… it was pretty funny but had such an authentic
feel to it… again just a really cool thing I was able to be a part of.

The next day's hike was really tough. It took about 10 hours, and
consisted of some incredible waterfalls, rainbows, natural pools,
boulders, trails, jungle-feel, etc. The first long leg ended in this
huge waterfall, which is supposedly the biggest in all of Bahia. We
did some cliff-diving too, and I had a really cool meditation with two
friends on this small rock ledge about 50 ft up directly across from
the waterfall. We tanned on the rocks, ate lunch, and headed back.
After the hike all the way back we continued on to the natural rock
slides… The one slide we went to had a few places to cliff dive, where
of course we jumped off. The rock slide itself was this natural slope
with fast-flowing water over a rock formation. We would walk up the
side of the rocks until we were about 100 ft up, edge our way onto the
middle of the rock slide, sit down, and go for the 100 ft ride that
ended in the pool below. A few people bruised up their butts, but all
in all it was incredibly fun. After an hour or so on the rock slides,
we headed back, had a nice meal at a streetside café, and then took
the 11:30pm bus back… Luan and her boss offered me a job to return and
become a guide, which I doubt I'll take at but I know I'll definitely
be returning to Lencois at some point for a longer period of time.
They have this one 5 day hike where you sleep in caves every night,
and one cave is inside a waterfall! So if any of you are in Brazil,
definitely make your way to Lencois 

The final day was spent doing more shopping and touring of Salvador
and the Pelhourino area. I got two cool paintings, and walked alone
through three museums briefly (Museu Udo Knoff, Museo Eugenio Texeira
Leal, and the Afro-Brazilian museum). After one final delicious meal,
we headed back to the ship. I can honestly say I would have loved to
have spent another 2-3 weeks in Brazil, and if you're spending time in
South America you should make it a top priority to see Brazil… the
vibe there is just unreal.

Brazilian Observations:
- Brazil imported 3.5 million slaves during the slave trade era,
that's 7 times as many as the USA… so the people of Brazil have a
strong African heritage, influence, and look.
- There's all this hoopla about the women of Brazil and how gorgeous
they are… its not true… they're actually even hotter than people say.
- This was the country where language was actually the biggest
barrier. Everywhere else English was spoken by many, but here it was
all Portuguese and some Spanish… thankfully some of Senorita Sbrizzi's
lessons came back to me.
- Brazilian women are, in the words of Pat Powers, "fireballs"
- Men in Brazil don't really find it necessary to wear shirts in
public or on the streets… and they're tan and many have longer dark
hair… I swear I thought I saw Jesus jaywalking three or four times.
- According to my friends who went to Rio, it's like "Manhattan on steroids."
- They love the samba in Brazil, and the inability of white Americans
to do the samba is probably why they love it so much.
- I hate to say the same thing multiple times and be redundant and
repetitive, but Brazil has pretty women

Finally, my time spent in Lencois involved a lot of personal
reflection. When you're on a 9 or 10 hour hike, you can't help but
collect your thoughts as you walk the trails. Obviously this happened
to me, but as I was rummaging through my various thoughts on the
second day's hike I realized I was staring down the whole time. I was
looking at my feet, rarely up at the trail. Part of that comes from
my paranoia about further damaging my ankle, but most of it is just
the natural reaction to hiking. That realization got me thinking
about the concept of hiking on a trail, and how analogous it was to
walking the steps of life… I was missing the views around me because I
was so concerned with planting my foot on solid ground. Maybe I
needed to look ahead of me instead, enjoy the surroundings, and trust
my feet to guide me to safe footings. That concept in itself I could
write about for pages, but then I also started thinking further… Many
people explain their personal ideas about fate by equating life to a
trail with roadblocks, forks, obstacles, etc. "We are walking on the
path of life". "I'm on the path to enlightenment" and "There are many
paths to choose from…" are all common phrases when describing not a
hike but life as a whole. So that led me to start considering the
fact that thousands of people had probably done the same hike that I
was on at that very moment. They had walked the same grounds, sought
the same destination, but no single person had taken the same exact
route as I had. And if they had taken the same route, maybe it was
the very step I was taking at that instant that was separating my
route from theirs… So every single step, no matter how small or large,
could be the one distinguishing step that defined the rest of my hike…
And on the hike we found moments of beauty in the rainbows, moments of
fatigue when we thought we couldn't take another step, moments of
solitude, reflection, social engagement, laughter, elation, boredom,
and frustration, but each of them could have been determined by any
one of my earlier steps. No single step was any more important than
any other, just like how each of life's moments is no more important
than any other. They are all so interconnected that no one can happen
without the others… We only look at the bright light bulb that's
illuminated, but equally as important are the thousands of tiny wires
leading the electricity to that light.

Then at one point we came to a river crossing, where we had to walk
through the water on wet stones. It was pretty hairy, but in order to
cross we took off our shoes and socks… To make sure I wouldn't slip, I
needed to grip and feel the rocks with my toes. When the river got
deeper, we removed our backpacks and shirts… So when we came to a
major obstacle, when the path was no longer clear and uncertainty
permeated the air, we changed our current state by removing the
excess… we let go of the physical materials we thought we held dear,
and were stripped to the bare essence of our bodies… it was so
blatantly symbolic that when we faced that obstacle, we let go of what
we thought we held dear and only relied on our true selves… At the
end of the long hike there was the huge majestic waterfall, a reward
well worth the hike. But then it dawned on me that it wasn't the
waterfall that made the hike special… if I had stepped outside my
front door to see this waterfall, it wouldn't have been such a great
experience. It was the hours of hiking that was the true treat… like
my mom told me before I came on this trip, "Life is not about reaching
the destination, it's about experiencing the journey." I don't think
she could have been any more correct.

And for my final piece of advice: To alleviate suffocation, breathe normally.

We arrive in Venezuela tomorrow, and then I'm back in the states at
the start of May… I can't wait to see you all.

Be safe and stay classy,

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

SAS Email 8 - South Africa

Before I begin to explain my experience in South Africa, I need to preface this email with a celebratory note- LIKE I’VE BEEN TELLING EVERYONE ALL YEAR, MY UNC TAR HEELS WON THE NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP! ALL YOU DUKE FANS (including my future Dukie sister and bandwagon father) WILL BE HEARING BOUT THIS ALL YEAR LONG. GO HEELS.

Also, I have a ton of April Birthday’s that I’ll be missing, so let me just say now to John Chernin, Big Sam, Liza, Dad, Noah “Well-well!” Marwil, Tedaldi Nation, Patty Goo and anyone else I’m forgetting, HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, how can I begin to describe South Africa… The land of Nelson Mandela, apartheid, Afrikaners, Capetown, “The Power of One”, Johannesburg, and the passionate artist/architect/mango-fruit simply known as Richard Moss. I assume most of you know a little about the apartheid situation there, which was officially ended in 1994 with the release of Mandela from a 30 year imprisonment and the African National Congress taking over the government. While the situation is clearly improving, there is still so much progress that needs to be made. The contrasting white and black worlds of Capetown were plainly evident to even the common tourist, with some parts seeming so modern/developed and others out of a remote 3rd world nation.

With that said, I absolutely loved Capetown… It’s now my favorite city in the world, and I hope to return there for an extended period of time after I graduate from school. The waterfront where we docked was absolutely beautiful and full of life- shops, cafes, fine restaurants, a mall, jazz bands, all-male African township choruses (like the group Paul Simon popularized, “Ladysmith Black Mombazo”), musicians of all backgrounds, a performance amphitheater, an aquarium and a market all adorn the waterfront. The city then ascends up the small hills to the base of Table Mountain, which towers majestically over the entire city with its completely flat top. There are gorgeous beaches, extreme sports of all kinds, towering peaks, marinas, various faiths, friendly people, and pretty much everything I could want from a city. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to a lot of places in my life, and no waterfront area that I’ve seen has been as contrasting or beautiful as in Capetown.

This stop was also the first country we’d traveled to where most people spoke English, and had a similar feel to anything back home. After disembarking, I immediately set off with my five closest friends on the ship to hike Table Mountain. We went up a trail through the incredible Botanical Gardens, which if any of you are ever in Capetown is definitely the route to take. The hike itself was one of the most diverse I’ve ever had; over 5 hours we encountered a jungle feel, rock climbing, dirt paths, ladder climbing, gardens, face scaling, flat plains, pebble hopping, small wooden steps, and other terrains. Upon completing our ascendance after 2.5 hours, we all climbed this massive irregularly shaped rock that was just so cool it can only be described with a picture. We chilled on top of the rock for a while, and watched in hysterics as two of my friends feared for their lives when climbing down this one tiny face. They were literally screaming in fear about a 4ft drop because they couldn’t see the small landing beneath them. Unfortunately the Cable Car wasn’t running because of the wind conditions, so we had to book it down the mountain by foot. After walking across the entire length of flat top of the mountain, three of us basically ran down the Platticup’s Gorge trail, which was a steep gorge with rock steps. We covered several thousand feet of vertical in 45 minutes, so my legs have been damn sore for days since.

That night I went on a SAS field program called “Township Music.” It was pretty cool and fun, the highlights included playing in a 60 person drum circle with locals, a homecooked meal at a township restaurant called Masande, and visiting a township’s pub where we drank, danced, and chilled with the people of the township while a great local band played a mix of funk, jazz and soul. From there we went to Long Street, which is where most of the bars are, and met up with some friends at a bar called Cool Runnings.

The next morning I jumped out of a plane at an altitude of 11,000 ft above ground. Yea I went skydiving in South Africa, and it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. The place we did it though had two small planes, one with room for 6 people (3 tandem jumps) and one with room for 4 people (2 tandem jumps). I went with three buddies, so we put out the odd finger to see who would jump with whom, and as usual it was me and my friend Dennis stuck together. When it came time for us to go up, we went to the end of the runway to wait for the plane, and as we walked out there Dennis looked at me and said “Hey if the parachute doesn’t open at least it’s a painless death, and that’s the worst case scenario”…. Nice confidence builder… When the plane arrived the pilot jumped out and started mumbling something about how he’d never fly the damn plane again… They took it back to the hangar for repairs, and we waited for an hour in suspense… Now my confidence was just sky high- I think I nearly sharted. Finally the plane was ready and we went up, I ducktaped my camera to my hand to take a video, yelled “Cannonball!” into the lens, and jumped out of the plane for a 30 second freefall. I won’t even waste time attempting to describe the feeling, I’ll just say you have to do it to yourself to understand the ridiculous rush.

That night I had such a good dinner at this great Italian restaurant called Hillenbrande’s on the waterfront (still relatively cheap though), and went to The Houseparty. I capitalize those words because we didn’t attend a houseparty… we threw a houseparty. My friend Jason had been talking about renting a house by the beach in South Africa since the start of the SAS voyage, and by emailing rental agencies was able to find one at a reasonable price. We had it for three days, and about 20 people chipped in $50 per night that we planned on staying there so we could pay for it all A big party was advertised for the 2nd night in the port, with drinks, a dancefloor, pool and live DJ. When I arrived at the party though, there wasn’t a DJ spinning the usual American hip-hop I expected. Instead, in the kitchen there was a live South African marimba band of locals! Hahaha, it was incredible, Jason had seen them(a bunch of guys about 20 years old called the St. Michael’s Marimba Band) playing on his township visit earlier in the day and offered to pay em to come and play that night at our party. There were three marimba players (huge wooden xylophones), some bongos, conga drums, and shakers. They were seriously jamming out; the music was so cool and energizing, as everyone was dancing to the melodic sounds. I realized they had a set of big conga drums that weren’t being used, and the lead player (he was insanely talented) motioned for me to join them, so I went up to play a little and ended up becoming a part of the band… I played with them for an hour and a half, until my arms felt like they were gonna fall off. Finally around 1:30am we stopped playing, the DJ began spinning, and the party felt Americanized… but all in all that night was one of the most fun of my life.

The next day was pretty relaxed, I spent some time at the mall and waterfront areas listening to the jazz bands, trumpet players, marimba groups and male singers. As dusk fell I was able to attend a nice service at a local temple, and converse with some locals for a while. That was followed by a great seafood dinner with about 10 friends, and the night ended at The Green Dolphin (jazz bar) watching a jazz quartet. The following day was a busy one. We found a relatively cheap day tour company that took four of us with a private driver to Cape Point and the Winelands. We stopped at Seal Island to sea a few thousand seals lying on rocks, saw a lot of the unbelievable coast during our drive around Chapman’s Peak, found out tons of cool info from our local driver Andre, saw where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet at Cape Point, chilled by some penguins in the beach, toured the quaint wineland town of Stellenbosch, took a wine club tour of the refinery, had a wine tasting (ate my first piece of pure cheese… it’s still gross) and then returned to the waterfront. After a quick shower, we went to meet up with others to go to Vicky’s Bed and Breakfast.

For me, the experience at Vicky’s was the highlight of the entire SAS voyage thus far. Bathing in the Ganges was unforgettable, the sunset in Hawaii was breathtaking, the techno club night in Beijing was entrancing, being taken into the woman’s home in Vietnam was so moving, the red carpet in Hong Kong was a blast, but the night at Vicky’s exceeded each of those in some indescribable way. Perhaps it was because I had no idea about what Vicky’s really was beforehand, maybe it was because I experienced the very best and worst of South Africa at Vicky’s, I honestly am not sure… but it was something I wish everyone could go through. I’ll finish the email with a few stories from Vicky’s, but first let me finish detailing the last day.

After my night at Vicky’s I returned to the waterfront, where I sat in contemplation for a while. I showered on the ship, then went to the Two Oceans Aquarium alone where I walked around for a few hours and sat in front of the massive predator tank for a solid hour and a half. Listening to music, zoning out, thinking, napping, writing, I loved every second of the serenity in watching the tank. From there I went to the Capetown Synagogue, which is the oldest temple in South Africa, and was able to attend a Friday night Sabbath service… the service was really interesting because the cantor was accompanied by a powerful male choir of men and young boys, which was far more reminiscent of a Roman Catholic service than a Jewish one…. Clearly the European influences from colonization were still prevalent in all aspects of South African life… From there I returned to the ship, and decided I had to return after I graduated from college.

South Africa Observations:
-While English is the predominant language, in the townships and squattercamps they speak Xhosa too… which is one of those great languages with a clicking sound in the middle of many words
-Capetown and Johannesburg are huge rivals… it’s like Boston to NYC
-Descriptions of wine are the most absurd and ridiculous things I’ve ever read… “This quaffable mint julep rose petal arouses the senses in a zesty chocolate and banana-peel dream”… What the hell is this, fermented grapes or sex in Willy Wonka’s Factory?
-Even those who live in townships or squattercamps are very proud of their one-bedroom shacks as homes
-The music of South Africa is so great, everyone should try to get some CD’s of their music
-South Africa is the 2nd most murderous country in the world, and has more reported rapes than any other

Now onto my stories and insights. Obviously a lot happened at Vicky’s Bed and Breakfast, so I’ll explain what it is first. Vicky’s is “the smallest hotel in South Africa”; it’s really just a woman’s home in a township (therefore it’s basically a scrap metal shack) with two bedrooms for guests. She takes guests into her home, which is in the heart of the Khayalitsha township (1.5 million people in shacks, the largest township in S. Africa, it has a 50% AIDS rate). She’s rallied her community around the effort to ensure the guests’ safety, and when we arrived it was like a full community event. Children immediately ran up to us and asked our names, played with us, wanted to show us their homes, etc. We were in the epicenter of the place we’d stopped by earlier in the day to get a picture of because it was such a ridiculous sight to see hundreds of thousands of metal shacks so congested, and were welcomed so warmly by the locals. We all thought we’d be going to a small bed and breakfast hostel, probably near or even in a township… No no no, this was a normal shack in the middle of the township…. We were served a homecooked meal, drank and talked with locals, and spent the night bonding with young children, guys our age, and several elders. We taught each other handshakes, played each of our cultures’ music (some kids had brought guitars and small hand drums), and stayed on the unlit streets until 2am. The guy I had spent an hour laughing with as I taught him handshakes, ended up steeling some of our beers. The women of the community scolded him sharply although he never admitted to the crime, and I began to see past my initial naiveté. As four SAS students and four 18-20 year old local boys, we sat on a bench drinking and sharing stories all night. One local man then attempted to rob my friend, and again I saw the best and worst of the townships. Our group banded together to walk my friend home in the dark so he wouldn’t come under harms way, and then the local boys walked me back too.

When I returned to my shack where I was to sleep in a room with Dennis (so typical, Vicky randomly selected from the group of 20 and we end up in a room together) on a double bed with pillows that were embroidered with the words “Romantic”, there were four boys around 10 years old sleeping in blankets on the floor. We’d spent the evening with them, and told them to sleep on the bed while we took the floor. They smiled in appreciation, packing all four across the double bed. In the middle of the night I heard a zipper move, decided to get up and move my backpack closer to me. When I arose at 7am for breakfast, the streets were silent except for the local woman sweeping. Soon the children were everywhere, I spoke to Vicky about her situation for some time, and Dennis came to talk to me. In the night, the very boys who we let sleep on the bed, who had spent the entire previous night with us, who were to take us on a walking tour of the township and nearby squattercamp that morning, had stolen the cash (just $5) he had in his money belt. He was understandably bothered, but we didn’t tell Vicky because we knew how much trouble they’d get in. More than that though, I didn’t blame them… it was a product of their situation. A few people are murdered every single weekend in that township; survival is more than a catch-phrase for them, it’s truly a way of life… and taking $5 from the perceived rich white Americans is a part of that survival. It’ll be a long time before the problem is truly rectified, and it obviously begins with education, but they lack the educational resources. How many intellects are willing to teach or start a school in a township with almost no money and an AIDS rate of 50%? Vicky told me they had a library for 5400 families, guess how many computers were available to those 10,000+ people? 1. Until people are willing to extend a true helping hand to these people, I can’t find fault in some of them acting in that way… I would probably do the same if I was in their shoes. For us $5 is a sandwich at a local deli, for them it’s a full family’s meals for several days.

The township experience at Vicky’s was something that opened my eyes so much. The people were so welcoming to us… I’d be naïve not to realize it was partly because we had money, but their kindness was still so genuine. In the morning the boys took me around the township, over to the squattercamp where thousands more lived in 10 x 10 ft shacks, one room, with no water, electricity, or heat. The preschool was a one-room shack, the teachers made a little less than $100 per month. The townships were created in 1948 when the Nationalist Party was elected into the government and instituted legal segregation and racial degradation… aka “apartheid.” 85% of the land was given to the 10% white minority. Blacks were specifically taught in schools to underperform and learned only unskilled labor, and the best place they could live in were “townships”, which were densely populated areas of minimal land that were in close proximity to the major areas of work. 10 years after liberation from apartheid, the townships are still growing and densely populated. My friend Welcome (yes that’s his name) from the township told me if I was to walk down the street at night, I’d definitely be robbed and maybe shot. I didn’t doubt him, but at the same time I felt safe being with him and the other friends I made around the neighborhood of Vicky’s… It was Vicky who created all of that, by involving the entire community, making the township experience available to travelers like myself, and speaking with her was really the first time in my life that I felt I was in the direct presence of a transcendent person. I don’t want to demean those who have inspired me before, but Vicky had a presence that was astounding. She radiated inspiration, and not in a didactic manner but through her passion and sincerity. It’s because of her, and the things I was able to experience during that night and morning, that the visit to the Khayalitsha township will probably be the ultimate highlight of my SAS experience. I can easily write about it for days, but when I get home I’d be happy to talk to any of you about it in greater detail.

Okay, the last thing I’ll describe was what I realized while sitting in front of the massive predator tank at the aquarium. There were several hundred fish in that tank, effortlessly floating in their underwater world. As I zoned out while watching, I began to notice tiny subtleties. I took in the gestalt (sorry I wanted to be a psych major once) of the tank, and it all started to make sense. The hundreds of small and large fish were all swimming clockwise, most of them at a moderate pace. Obviously this was no big deal, until I noticed that there was one species consistently not swimming in that direction. There were five large sharks in the tank, and each of them was swimming slowly in the opposite direction of all the other fish. The tortoise switched between directions, often going up to the surface too for air, but it was only the sharks that swam against the grain at all times. Although I was in South Africa, I still had the Eastern philosophies on my mind mixed with the symbolism in nature from the Kenyan Masai Mara, so instinctively began searching for the deeper metaphor in the tank. I came to an initial conclusion, which I think you’ve probably reached by now. If you haven’t come up with the analogy of how the tank’s species relate to human life, reread this paragraph until you have one before scrolling down:

Is it that something to the affect that the dominant sharks swim against the masses?… That it’s those in life who go against popular conformity, who dominate their contemporaries, who are willing to swim against the grain, that climb to the top of the food chain. Is it something similar to sharks representing leaders in life and how leaders are those who go counterclockwise when everyone else is going clockwise? That’s what I came up with at first too, and I was satisfied with that. I too wanted to be a shark in life… But then I got out of my ethnocentric Westernized view, and tried to look at the tank from an Eastern standpoint. Instead of individualism, I examined collectivism. Isn’t the shark probably very lonely? Yes, he can eat the rest of the tank and enforce his will on them, but what about the fact that they’re all swimming along with companions while the shark is in solitude? Which one would I rather be? Moreover, aren’t the other fish far more important to the tank’s success than the shark? If the fish don’t create a system of uniformly swimming in the same direction, there is no organization. The tank doesn’t flow with serenity; it’s anarchy… chaos with fish swimming in all directions. It’s the fish who should be venerated, not the sharks. Yes, the sharks have the courage to swim against the grain, but without the intelligence and organization of the fish there is no harmony, there is no grain. By conforming to the group, they formulate the tank’s successful balance. So who would I rather be, a fish or a shark?... I sat on that thought for another 20 minutes, until it struck me. The answer was neither. It was the tortoise. The tortoise swam in both directions, assisting both the harmony of the tank and still striking out on his own path when necessary. When he approached the shark from the opposite direction, he simply altered his trajectory slightly and glided above the shark with ease. He avoided conflict, maintained the balance, remained an individual, and most importantly… was the only species to periodically go up for air. Even in the active world below the surface, every so often, the tortoise left that world behind to alone travel upwards for some oxygen. He never lost sight of the most important part of his life, the ability to look upward for help and get that breath of fresh air. I wanted to be a tortoise.

Be safe and stay classy,