Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cape Town, South Africa

"Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." –- Miriam Beard

The Lonely Planet travel guide for Cape Town notes that the city is a “a fool’s paradise”—a city that is so modern and enchanting it’s easy to forget the violent and unstable country in which it is based. Our ship was docked at the V&A Waterfront Mall where Lacoste, Gucci and Prada were just some of the stores within a few feet of our cabins. Executive Dean Gaither told us the night before our arrival to “look beyond the mall.” Beyond the mall, I realized, is the real South Africa: the 50% who are below the poverty line, the 30% that are unemployed, the 1 in 5 that have HIV/AIDS, and the South African who on average will only live to age 45. Like most places, seeing the highly developed world and the undeveloped world at the same time is confusing. But while South Africa’s economics weren’t in synch, its people were. The typical South African is an honest and reliable person with a joke to tell and a story to share. If you ignore the statistics, there seem to be no worries, no problems and no evils in or around South Africa.

On the first day in Cape Town I headed to Robben Island. Robben Island was most recently used as a place for those who spoke out against the apartheid government. It is a powerful place with a lot of history. After a bus tour, we walked around the prison with an actual apartheid prisoner kept at the same time as Nelson Mandela. It was amazing to explore South Africa’s history, especially because that “history” is as much a part of today as it was 15 years ago. In a lot of ways apartheid still exists, and by visiting Robben Island it’s like visiting yesterday. That night, we headed to the hippie-trendy area in downtown Cape Town along Long St. for dinner. I downed a plate of ostrich over some live music, then we headed out for drinks for the night.

On the second day, I went on a trip to the Amy Biehl foundation. Amy Biehl was an American college student during the apartheid years who decided to become an activist, but was later killed. Her parents forgave her murderers because they were only rebelling against racist injustice they face every day. It is an unbelievable story or forgiveness. Anyway, our guide was one of her murderers (now working for her parents’ non-profit). We visited their office headquarters and talked with the staff there. Then we went and ate at a restaurant in a township and visited 4 elementary schools to see the after-school programs the Amy Biehl foundation sponsors. The kids showed us their crafts, music, dances, etc. I was sort of confused by the whole day. I couldn’t forgive Amy’s murderer and I had no interest in “touring” schools—I am not a tourist, I am a traveler!

That night was a full moon and the night of a lunar eclipse. Me, Bob, Matt, Sara and Sydney went on a late-night adventure up Lion’s Head (the mountain peak next to Table Mountain). The hike was about an hour and we couldn’t have done it alone had we not befriended some University of Cape Town students who knew the trail well, even at 9pm. The view at the top was amazing. I have never been so high above a city at night before in my life. We spent hours at the top with a bottle of wine and took it all in. We didn’t get down from the mountain until 3am. It was an amazing adventure that is better than anything a “tourist” could ever do. We were driven back to the ship by some kids we found. Nice people…everywhere!

I didn’t get to bed until 4am that night, and ironically when I woke up there was more hiking to be done. At 7am thirteen of us took off with a nature guide who took us 4-hours, 4 miles, and 3,000 feet up over the Twelve Apostles Mountains and across to Table Mountain. The hike seemed to bring us where human foot had never touched before. Some of the fauna there is some of the most unique in the entire world. We were in the middle of nothingness, and the view throughout the day was outstanding.

Now with two hikes and less than four hours of sleep under our belts, Bob, Sara and I decided we would embark on an adventure. We dared ourselves to run away from the ship. We didn’t want to eat on it. We didn’t want to sleep there. We didn’t even want to see it. We had no reservations and no expectation but to see what was outside of Cape Town. We arrived by taxi to a small college-town set in the winelands called Stellenbosch. We secured the last room in a “backpackers” (aka hostel) and checked into it. When we opened the door, the doorknob broke away from the door. But the big problem? We only had this room for one night because it was booked for the rest of the week. We couldn’t—just couldn’t—go back to the ship!

In search of a 2nd night’s lodging, we found ourselves in front of a Cape Town Tourism Center. That’s when we met a South African Dutch woman named Matilda. Matilda wore glasses and sat at her desk with a warm smile and an interest in our travels. Of course, we told her our life story (the “I go to college on a ship” speech usually takes about 10-15 minutes). She called a few places of lodging for us, but the Celine Dion concert the next day stole all the rooms in the area. Then Matilda extended an offer characteristic of the sincerity and trust of any South African we had met that week, “Well, why don’t you just stay at my house? I have a few extra beds I suppose.” Free lodging? A possible cultural experience? SOLD.

With two night’s of lodging secured, we decided to go out to a nice seafood restaurant and then check out this so-called “college town.” We finally found where all the University of Stellenbosch students hung out. We sat down at the bar, and naturally our American accents automatically triggered a great interest in our presence in their city. We stuck around for a bit, eventually discussing the subject that everyone is talking about in South Africa: politics.

The next morning we were picked up from our backpackers by one of Matilda’s friends. She is a certified wine guide and would take us around the winelands for the day. After picking up a few more tourists, 6 of us in total were on our way to 8-hours of wine tasting and traveling across the South African winelands. The scene was remarkable. Rolling hills meet towering mountains. Endless vineyards give way to farms of zebra, ostrich and deer. Endless driveways lined with tall trees yield Dutch cottages. By the end, we had more wine than I can count, lunch in a small town, and even had time to play with some Cheetahs at an animal sanctuary. On top of all that, I actually could tell you a thing or two about wine.

We asked to be dropped off at Moyo, an African restaurant where one eats outdoors in tents, tree houses, or below giant trees. African drumming fills the air while others chant to the beat in their native tongue. Waiters and waitresses, dressed in their traditional clothing, offer their energy and African face paint brings us into their culture. The buffet was probably the length of a football field offering African cuisine. It was one of those places with enough good food and entertainment we could have stayed the whole night. It was very “Africa.”

Later, Matilda (still a complete stranger) picked us up at the restaurant and brought us to her home. Matilda is widowed and her children are all grown-up and married. She lives at the base of a mountain, her pool is surrounded by palm trees and has a waterfall. Her side-porch overlooks Cape Town, and her back-porch overlooks the winelands. Needless to say, Matilda is as appealing as her home. We spent time talking to her then eventually fell asleep in the rooms she arranged for us. She brought us back to town in the morning on her way to work, as we still wondered just how we managed to say in someone’s home that night.

Two-out-of-three nights of adventure-traveling, complete. One more day to go. Our next random adventure took us to a Bed & Breakfast which we managed to book a few days before our arrival in Cape Town. The bed & breakfast is not your average bed & breakfast. It is Vicky’s Bed & Breakfast—a shack made of scrap metal in the middle of Khayelitsha, the youngest and biggest township in all of South Africa. A township is basically a residential development for non-whites, established during apartheid. They are also the poorest and most AIDS-stricken areas in South Africa. The B&B is set among hundreds of scrap-metal shacks piled up on one another. These are homes. It is a situation somewhat risky for white Americans. In fact, without the accompaniment of a black native, Semester at Sea students were told not to visit these areas because they can be violent and harvest gangs. (South Africa is the most murderous country in the world, and has a crime rate 9-times the U.S.). So to sort-of satisfy SAS’s request we paid a native driver to drive us there.

Vicky has a lot of kids. With the money they’ve earned from their B&B, Vicky has begun to build a second floor and all the children sleep on what appears to be an active construction site. Some of her kids are just a few years, some are in their college years. We spend the day playing with virtually every small child in the neighborhood. I taught them all duck, duck goose and we all sat and played it in the middle of the dirt road. The kids, just 6 or 7 years old, took us by the hand and took us around the neighborhood. Shack after shack. We are literally in the middle of the poorest community I’ve ever seen in my life. We are the whitest people they have ever seen. It was surreal. People came up to us just to shake our hands. One man was ecstatic, “In all my life, I never thought I’d talk to a real American” he told me. I felt like a celebrity, but I didn’t want to be. They thought I was a superhero, but I didn’t know what super-powers I had.

As temporary residents of their community, we became a part of them. All the neighbors knew who we were. I had kids yelling my name from down the street. I wanted so badly just to ditch my American life and come live with them. They are simple. They appreciate life. They are blind to their own poverty, and they smile. And somehow, they thought I could help them. And somehow, I knew I could help them too. I was ready to abandon the ship and stay there and figure this whole thing out.

Vicky made us dinner that night, then we hung out with her kids. The kids couldn’t get enough of 5 white American college-kids (me, Bob, Lindsay, Becca and Sara) all staying in their small home. They were enthralled. The girls did each other’s hair or made fun of me because Britney Spears was evidently my girlfriend. I don’t think I will ever forget Wanda, the 18 year old son. Almost emotional when it was time to leave that morning, I felt like Wanda was my best friend. We spent the whole night talking about everything. His future, my future, his country, my country. It took me 15 minutes just to convince him that America has homeless people; that we too have people sleeping on the sidewalks begging for money. His perception of America was from MTV.

Staying overnight in Khayelitsha is something above and beyond any experience I thought I would ever have. I still try to make sense of it. I kept saying “I’ll be back.” I don’t know if I meant this literally or not, but somehow I knew what I was really saying is “I will never forget you.”

Our last day in Cape Town, Bob and I went to a museum for an archaeology assignment, then went to the mall to eat American food. Then I went and uploaded photos at wireless coffee shop, then drank some wine as I watched the sunset, and sadly, boarded the ship. A pretty typical “last day” in port.

Now, Mauritius.... (African island off the western coast, next to Madagascar)


Laura Wells said...

I LOVE IT!!!! It made me cry. I'm glad you're having an amazing time, and the fact that it took 10 minutes to explain the college-on-a-cruise-ship thing cracked me up....so true.

Anonymous said...

I am incredibly jealous of your travels, and am truly enjoying reading about them. I really wish I had the money and the courage to do what you are doing.
WHS '05

Anonymous said...

Way to go Kevin. I could barely finish the blog after reading about your time with Wanda. The tears made everything blurry. I promise to never again take forgranted all that we have here. Love you.
Aunt Jen

Anonymous said...

Your African experience sounds amazing. By you writing it, with so much emotion and detail, its like we can experience it also. I have heard that South African wine is very good, I will need to get your recommendations. Be safe and take care.

Karen Thibodeau (Kelly's mom)

Susan said...

Hey Kevin...
I can see why you enjoyed so Africa so much. You are amazing at making sure you get an authenic experience.
That said, please don't eat ostrich .....or anything you can't identify!

Love, Mom

Marsea said...

Hey Kevin -
I'm really enjoying your blog - your insights and authentic, articulate writing are fascinating. I check it even before the blog parents alert us to a new posting.
I know firsthand that Vicky is quite the special person. She provides so many opportunities for the children of Khayelitsha. I visited her on SAS Spring 02, then my son and his fiance spent Christmas at her B&B in 04. For their engagement party, Katie and Dave requested people donate cash for Vicky and her work. I had the honor of returning to visit her on SAS S05 and brought her their money, safely tucked in my money belt. I also brought photos of them they had taken with the children in Khayelitsha. With great excitement she called the kids in from the street to see themselves and their American friends. She also showed me photos of Dave and Katie in a composite picture from that Christmas on her wall. Dave is 6'6" and played Father Christmas, handing out the gifts Vicky had bought the kids with money from previous donors. It felt wonderful to be even a small part of such an amazing woman's selfless work in that community.
I'm so happy you met Vicky and Wanda and had an opportunity to see the ordinary and the heroic lives in Khayelitsha. You, too, will figure out how to respond to what you saw and learned there.

Good luck and keep writing!
S02, S05, S09

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,
Wow! You are an awesome story teller!!!! Thank you for sharing your experiences with others. If you get a chance to find and meet my son...Michael Hanakahi...I would greatly appreciate it if you could encourage him to journal on his site that I created for him. Have a safe trip!
Chris Hanakahi

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of experiences I have been looking for when I read blogs...in all your blogs I never see the word FUN...as while this is fun, it is supposed to be more than FUN.


Kristin Smith said...


I have been reading your blog since you started writing it, and I am so excited that you are learning so much and really realizing how big the world outside the states is. that is definately something that i learned while i was in europe last spring, and now there is so much more that i want to see and do. i really look forward to reading your new entries everytime you post, because i am learning vicariously through you.

we all miss you over here. cant wait to read more and catch up when you get back!

love, Kristin

Kathleen said...

WOW! Kevin your blog is so wonderful! You are such a great storyteller and I could picture you there in my mind. I'm so happy you're having a great time! Those experiences sound amazing and definitely don't compare to anything in the US! Keep living it up around the world and keep telling your wonderful stories!