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,

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