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I'm just a stressed-out-perfectionist-not-so-average-cupcake-making-graduate-student-from-Kansas trying to find my place in this world.
Current Adventure: Interning for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life in South Africa

**I apologize for the delay in posting about South Africa. I got really sick after we left Cape Town, and I am just now recovering. I also had all of my midterm exams and papers due in the past few days. I learned so much though in Cape Town, so I hope you enjoy reading this post!

South Africa was a difficult port for me. Right outside of the ship was one of the most luxurious and upscale malls I’ve ever been to. Think: Frontenac in St. Louis. The stores ranged from Gucci to Louis Vuitton, and there were no budget options. Even the coffee shops charged upwards of $8USD for a latte. But most of S. Africa does not live like that. Most live in little “shanty town” townships on the outskirts of the city. The V & A Waterfront where the MV Explorer was docked is just a facade for the rich tourists and the small community of white South African elites.

One of the challenging parts for me is that I really did enjoy going to the mall and using their free wi-fi to skype Ben and instant message my mom. I’m sure you’ve all seen the new photo albums on Facebook, all courtesy of the free wi-fi at Myatt’s Chocolatier and CafĂ©. You should have seen me when I went into a grocery store for the first time in two months. It felt amazing. There were so many options. It was so good to just go and buy shampoo and granola bars. But the second I stepped outside the waterfront though, I did not want to go back to the luxurious mall. . . to the fancy and expensive meals. . . to our own luxurious ship where stewards make your bed and fold your clothes. I felt so guilty.

The first day in Cape Town was one of the best I’ve ever had. My friends and I got up at 4:00AM to watch the sunrise over Table Mountain as we pulled into the Cape Town harbor. It was beautiful. We all had to file through the faculty lounge one-by-one starting at 0545 to have visas issued. By 9:00AM we were cleared by immigration and ready to disembark. But then we had to listen, unfortunately, to the American diplomat in Cape Town who was such a jerk. He’d make comments like, “if you get into trouble, run and let them catch the Germans. It’s less paperwork for me.” If he would have said it once, it might have been funny, but he said it over and over and he was clearly not joking. One of my good friends on the ship is German and she was definitely not amused. He scared everyone to the point of not wanting to get off the ship.

Mackenzie and I braved it though to go get money from the ATM and meet the man who was going to take us skydiving. You probably don’t believe that I did it, so that’s why I made sure to upload some photos before we left Cape Town to my blog of my sky diving adventure. The man picked us up at 11:00 outside the Cape Town Aquarium. We were so nervous. Well, I was at least. Mackenzie seemed a little less nervous, and she managed to keep the conversation going between the driver and herself. I was just trying not to throw up. The place was about a 45 minutes drive from the port. I was a little nervous since their headquarters was just an old, dilapidated building in the middle of a field. But I signed my life away to them anyways. My tandem jumper’s name was Gerry. He hooked me into a harness and then suddenly we were walking towards this little plane. Gerry decided that he and I would go first, so Mackenzie, her tandem jumper, and her camera guy got in first, followed by me and my crew. There were no seats. We all sat on the floor between each others’ legs. On the 25-minute plane ride up to the 9000 foot altitude where we were going to jump, the pilot took us over Table Mountain and Robben Island. The view was breathtaking…too bad my breath was already busy trying not to hyperventilate, so I wasn’t able to take it all in properly. Suddenly, the pilot gave us a two-minute warning, Gerry started hooking me in, told me to sit on his lap and then he scooted us over to the door. He had me hang my feet out of the plane, tip my head back, he rocked a couple times and then he hurled us out of the plane. It was exhilarating. It didn’t even cross my mind to think that we were about to die. Our free fall was just under 40 seconds and then we had 5 minutes once the parachute came out to enjoy the view. Gerry let me control the parachute. We spun around a bunch. It was fun, but I was pretty nauseous on the way down. I actually landed on my feet, when we finally came in for our landing. But once Gerry disconnected me, he had to hold me up for a few seconds because I was shaking so badly. I think I’ll do it again though—it was amazing.

That night I went with a group of girls and guys from Bible study to Hillsong S. Africa. It was amazing. Considering how recent Apartheid is, it was so awesome to see people of all races worshipping together. There were at least 5,000 people in the auditorium, a huge worship band on stage, and we heard sermons from 3 different pastors. As soon as the songs started though, I was a huge sobbing mess. Something about not having church for almost two months and being there at 7pm which would have been right when my family was at church in Kansas just made me super emotional. They were really good sermons though—very pertinent to our trip. The people were so welcoming too.

Lonyae, Mackenzie, and I went out to a very nice dinner afterwards. It was Italian food, but since we still had a week left in the port, we felt that it was okay to skip out on the South African dishes and go for some delicious pasta. We were especially celebrating the fact that we had jumped out of airplanes and survived. ☺

Day two was also an amazing day. Kate, Lonyae, and I went up to the top of Table Mountain. We took the cable car, which was $30 well spent. Some people hiked to the top, but you have to pay a guide or else you are really risking getting mugged somewhere a long the way. It is a four hour hike up and then four hours down, but we did it in 4 minutes up, an hour at the top, and four minutes down. The cable car spins as it goes up to the top so that you get a panoramic view of Cape Town. Desmond Tutu had told us to raise our hands at the top of the mountain and say a prayer since Apartheid is now over, so we did. The view at the top was breathtaking.

The three of us came down about lunchtime, so we found a fish and chips restaurant to eat. Lonyae and I had to be back to the ship at 3pm so that we could leave for our home stays. The township where I stayed was Tambo Township. It was much more upscale than some of the ones we passed on the way. In this township, everyone had a brick home and electricity. Not everyone had running water, but the family that I stayed with did. They did not have a water heater though, so they heated water for baths by boiling it on the stove. They had electricity, but they only turned it on at night. 

Mama Irene was my homestay mother for the night. She was the wisest, funniest, and most amazing woman. She told us all about South African life for the black communities. She told us about the injustices of Apartheid—she was never allowed to learn to read, she was forcefully displaced from her home and relocated to a township where they slept in an old box turned home. Something that I noticed right away going into Tambo Township was the distinct lack of men. I asked Mama Irene about it. She said that the young and middle-aged men never had proper role models, nor were they encouraged to become upstanding citizens, since to the government they were third-class citizens, so they all left. They drink. They get the girls pregnant. They leave them. They eventually contract HIV/AIDS. They die. Mama Irene says that she never wants her daughters to marry because that age group of men are horrible. So, all of her daughters live with her, unmarried, with all of their babies (two were younger than a month old).

Mama Irene used to run a daycare for children who had lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS in the townships. She was the township mother and spent a long time nurturing all of the children. One of her daughters is actually a dancer who runs a non-profit organization, which keeps the kids off the streets and away from drugs by teaching them dance and giving them one square meal after school everyday.

Mama Irene cooked each of us a huge plate of bean stew with a hunk of some sort of meat in the middle. She said she killed it in the field. Yum? We drank lots of rooibos tea and for breakfast, we had big steaming bowls of porridge.

Three of the granddaughters latched onto me, and they dragged me around from house to house to show me off to their friends. Mama Irene gave them a couple rand to take us to the little tuck shop on the corner to get popsicles. In the morning, Mama Irene woke us before the sun was up to say goodbye to all the grandkids before they left for school. She kept saying that the “school bus” was coming. Turns out, the school bus is actually a pickup truck and all the kids from the township just pile in the back.

I didn’t want to leave, but eventually I had to. That afternoon Mackenzie showed me the spot where she had gotten wifi. I decided to go for a few minutes, but my mom was on the chat, so I ended up staying for several hours to chat with her. I got a few pictures uploaded, did some journaling on my township homestay and got to bed early.

Wednesday was a busy day. I volunteered at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright Scholar who had gone to South Africa to help in the struggle against Apartheid. Unfortunately, she was murdered in a riot by four men who did not realize that she was there to help them not oppress them. They just saw her as the enemy for being white. Her parents did an amazing thing though. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which Desmond Tutu started, her parents came to South Africa, forgave the young men, asked for their release from prison, and then started the foundation, which reaches thousands of youth and families daily in the townships. They have music programs, they run schools and orphanages, and they run feeding programs. Two of the men who murdered Amy now run the foundation, and they were our guides for the day.

When I realized after watching the short informational clip that they had the volunteers watch that our guides were two of the men who killed Amy Biehl, I was a little uncomfortable. It was hard to figure out how to interact with people who murdered another human being—violently. She was stoned with bricks and then stabbed. But eventually, it got easier to interact, more comfortable. One of them showed me pictures of his two-year old daughter. Whenever we went to a different feeding site or school program run by The Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, the kids would flock to these men. According to most of the directors at the different sites, these guys have dedicated their whole lives to making Amy Biehl’s dream of a future for the black communities come true. It’s still weird to think about, and I’m definitely still processing everything that happened that day, but it was an eye-opening experience.

We went to three different Amy Biehl sites to do work. The first was a huge community garden at a primary school. Each child has his or her own plot of land, and they are helped to cultivate it and to grow certain vegetables. All the food goes home to their families. The second one we went to was an after-school program for kids to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. The third was another after-school program, which teaches dance, choir, and different musical instruments. The students performed for us; they were so talented!

Somethings that struck me as a little off key were the differences between the South African children and the Ghanaan children. I know that my experiences in both countries are not comparable at all, but the children in Ghana totally still have my heart. They were just so excited to be with us and thankful for the things that we brought with us. The kids at these programs run by the Amy Biehl Foundation must get a lot of tourist visitors because they were constantly demanding that we give them our watches, hats, cameras, etc. If we said that we couldn’t, they’d try to get us to give them money. Some of the kids would hit us if we said no. It was heartbreaking to see—they had to learn all of the violence somewhere. But it all goes back to what Mama Irene said about the lack of positive adult role models for the young kids because of the AIDS death rates, the lack of men in the community, the number of orphans due to anti-Apartheid violence. It is a vicious cycle.

Lunch was also good. We went to a local Xhosa restaurant where we basically just ate huge piles of braii (BBQ) meat with our hands. They do not use utensils there. . . or napkins. Of course, it was delicious, and thankfully, my stomach did not suffer any ill effects.

Thursday found me at the Inverdoorn Game Reserve about three hours outside of Cape Town. I highly recommend it to any one going to Cape Town who isn’t able to make it up to Kruger National Park for a safari. We left the ship before sunrise, got to the game reserve about 10AM. We had about a two and a half hour game drive. It was absolutely incredible—so, so, so amazing. I saw cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, lions, buffalo, spring buck, hippos, and many colorful birds and snakes. We had the most delicious meal I have ever eaten for lunch (quiches, fresh veggies, flatbread “pizzas” with caramelized onions and green olives, delicious dark breads and mango juice) before we piled back into the vans to go back to the ship. We stopped for a bathroom break at a rest stop and they were playing the Lion King soundtrack. . . it was amusing.

Friday was, sadly, our last day in Cape Town. Mackenzie and I headed over to The Green Market to buy some homemade crafts from some of our township homestay mamas. The walk there and back was so pleasant. We stopped for samosas and Milo (3 samosas and a big mug of Milo for seventy-five cents!). We basically just wandered around for the whole day. We ate a delicious lunch of these South Africa burrito/wrap things. They have braii (BBQ) sauce, pineapple, chicken, and cheese inside of them. I was starting to feel really sick, so we went back to the ship in the late afternoon, and the ship left about 6:00PM from the port.

I would definitely return to Cape Town in a heartbeat. It is a beautiful city. South Africa is a beautiful country. And the people are beautiful and full of so much resilience—especially all the women like Mama Irene. South Africa was really the first place where I had seen such great wealth and great poverty side-by-side. Of course, I was upset in Ghana when they took us to the nice restaurant after driving us through all the shacks, but South Africa is vastly different. South Africa has HUGE displays of wealth everywhere, yet they also have the poorest of the poor. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that South Africa is a wonderful country, but a divided country that is slowly progressing. I agree with him, and I also agree that things are changing—even Mama Irene said that they are, and she, of all people, would know.

We arrive in Port Louis, Mauritius tomorrow morning—the weather? lows of 75 and highs of 88 for the next two days! I’m headed to the beach first thing in the morning and then the next day, Mackenzie and I are going to an orphanage to do some cleanup work and interact with the kids.  I’ll be timelier in getting the Mauritius blogpost out, I promise! ☺

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