Prosper & Xavier

My final blog about this trip will be dedicated to the brave African men who showed us around for our 2-week adventure. Prosper was with us for the entire duration of our trip, and Xavier joined us when we got to Cape Town. I quickly learned that Prosper was a deep-thinking 26-year-old who, like myself, had gained much wisdom and perspective as a result of overcoming heartache. We shared very similar philosophies about life, and both seem to choose an optimistic outlook to move through our respective worlds.

Along the way, Prosper would drop some nuggets of wisdom that I jotted down. With his permission, of course, he said that I could include them in my blog. You will notice that they begin empowering, and then take a slight comedic turn…

“Past is not a place of residence; it is a place of reference.” –Prosper (my personal favorite)

“Don’t fight for victory, fight from a place of victory.” –Prosper

“I’m doing better than I deserve.” –Prosper

“You look like trash; can I take you out?” –Yes, still Prosper. (Failed pick up line he used on someone. Her loss.)

“A friend who gives you food is a friend for life.” –There you are, wise Prosper.

“Don’t steal my joy away! Now I have to try to look sad!” –Prosper (Cannot remember the context, but it was hilarious.)

On his Instagram, Prosper frequently hashtagged “winning,” which we found hilarious. We also assigned him the hashtag “humble”…..yeah, humble. Ain’t nothing wrong with self-confidence, Prosper!

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The picture of Prosper with the suitcases is proof of him stalling at the airport…no one needed him to take a suitcase…he was just trying to prolong saying goodbye 🙂

Xavier was not foolish enough to say as much to us as Prosper did. Maybe he had true wisdom, if wisdom is that one can learn from the mistakes of others. One defining characteristic of Xavier was his laugh, and fortunately he laughed a lot. He always had a welcoming smile and showed genuine interest when talking to him. He has a comforting demeanor about him. We lucked out big time with these guys.

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Our final day…Horses & Gold

Monday, January 16, 2017

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Today was our final full day in Cape Town. The town we stayed in is actually about 25 minutes outside of Cape Town, called Noordhoek. We stayed at the Team House which is right on Noordhoek Beach.

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On our second day at the Team House, we decided to investigate the beach. Silly amateur, tourists that we were, it was natural that we wanted to take the trek over the long beach to dip our toes in the ocean. We wore shorts and flip flops to the water—duh, that’s the attire of any beach, right? Little did we know that we should’ve worn long pants. The herculean wind whisked piercing sand at our bare legs. It felt like a free, unwarranted acupuncture session that wouldn’t end. As American women, which is synonymous with strong and independent, we boldly endured the needle-like sand shower, laughing that it would take more than 70mph mineral bits flying in the air to prevent us from reaching our goal.

Finally, we reached the water. Satisfied that we had overcome the piercing sand to reach our ultimate objective, we triumphantly advanced into the water. In a split second, five brave American women frantically ran shrieking from the water. This was a type of cold I had never experienced before. This was different. This was special, in its own league of cold. Arctic, bitter, freezing, and any other frosty adjective that I could come up with does not begin to describe the shocking temperature of that water. It was so cold in the split seconds my feet were in there that it actually hurt. The cold was painful. So, yeah, it was a little cold. Lesson learned. The water is pretty to look at, but, that’s about it. I really wish I would’ve gotten a video of that whole undertaking…I imagine that it must’ve been pretty comical to witness.

Now, back to our last Monday in Cape Town. We started our final day horseback riding on the beach. I was paired with a sweet horse named Chelsea. The lady who introduced me to Chelsea said that she does not like her reins to be held tight, to hold them loosely when walking. I knew immediately that Chelsea and I had a lot in common—we both were stubborn red-heads that did not react well to our reins being held tightly. Got it.

We got acquainted, and headed out on our journey to the beach. We made our way over some uneven terrain and through a lagoon before reaching the astonishingly teal waters with mountainous landscape in the backdrop. The wind was strong and my sneakers wet from the lagoon, but nothing could dampen the aesthetics that nourished our eyes. What an experience.

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Our next venture was lunch. I had probably the best salad that I recall ever having—spinach, goat cheese, parmesan, sundried tomatoes, butternut squash crisps, and pumpkin seeds. Oh my wow. It was awesome.

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After packing in the afternoon we headed to our farewell dinner at a restaurant called Gold in downtown Cape Town. When we were walking to the door I casually noticed a large character sitting by the door. That sucker started moving as I was walking past! Apparently I am a screamer. Good to know.

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I certainly didn’t want to be the only person frightened, so I asked our guide who missed the scare, Xavier, if he would pose for a picture with the character. As hoped, the character moved, Xavier freaked, and I was no longer alone! If you look closely, you can see someone’s face in the chest of the character—pretty creepy!

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Before dinner we enjoyed in a drum lesson from the restaurant entertainers. Each of us had our own drum and attempted to follow the leaders’ instructions. We all gave our best effort! It was quite an arm workout, too. A fellow classmate and I opted for face painting.

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Check out our adventurous dinner menu that included Cape Malay and African cuisine. I’ve now eaten ostrich. Not bad.

Spirituality & Humanity in Kayelitsha

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Not a religious person, I went to a church service for the first time in many years in the Kayelitsha township outside of Cape Town. Driving out to Kayelitsha was especially striking to me because it was located so far removed from Cape Town, similar to the distance of Soweto outside of Joburg. The time it took us to drive out there gave me time to reflect on the purpose of the distance—the blacks had to be kept at a “safe distance” from the white-washed city.

We finally arrived at our guides house where we went in for a few minutes before heading to church.

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The first thing I noticed when we entered the church was how few people were there. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I suppose I thought more people would be there than what we saw. There were probably about 30 people there. Many of the church audience were female.

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When we entered, the audience was on their feet moving to gospel music that was blaring from the speakers. People from the congregation began hugging and came over to welcome us to the service. It was heartwarming. There is nothing sincerer than a warm welcome. We grooved a little more and then the preacher took center stage. His sermon included much talk about fear and encouragement to let go of the past, move forward, and to let people learn from you. His message was very uplifting. He strongly encouraged education and the importance of learning. I loved when he said, “Books, here I come!” Not sure why, but that statement really resonated with me. Develop a hunger for knowledge. Become an active pursuer of multiple perspectives and ideas. One of my favorite books says to “make use of where religious people are right.” I was happy to enter the church with that perspective and be open to what I could learn. To not close my ears and my mind simply because I don’t agree or subscribe to a particular faith. I sought to compare in, rather than compare out. It was a moving experience.

The preacher had me all the way until the end of his sermon when he began preaching about money and how a guy from the township had become a millionaire. While a success story can be inspiring, this message caught me completely off guard due to the materialistic measurement of “success.” As many people learn the hard way, money and “things” do not create happiness. In my mind, success is more of a mindset and more synonymous to happiness, than to things. The whole of his sermon inspired me, so I chose to focus on that.

The service ended with a musical performance by young men playing xylophone type instruments. More dancing and hugging!

Following the church service, we went for a walking tour around Kaletisha. One of my classmates asked our guide what she thought of Mandela. This question was also asked in Soweto and was met with resounding love for Mandela from all of our hosts. Our guide Colette, in Soweto, in describing the people, said that, “We all have little Mandelas inside of us.” What a neat statement! Throughout our travels Mandela was portrayed as a hero and pioneer to the people.

In Kaletisha, however, the question about Mandela interestingly invoked a different response. Our guide’s perspective about Mandela was of disappointment and that he “sold us.” It was quite fascinating to hear an opposing view of what we had witnessed the rest of the trip. Her comment reminded me of some of the information I came across prior to our trip—that once in power, the ANC did not fulfill their promises and worked closer with the previous regime than many supporters approved of. While I wasn’t at all surprised at the predominant support for Mandela, I knew the opposing views were out there and was actually surprised to come across it on one of our final days. While Mandela was a champion in many ways and a phenomenal human, no one is perfect. And it is impossible to please everyone. Multiple perspectives are healthy for society. I’m glad to have had that experience.

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Throughout our tour we stopped in a few places to get a brief look. We stopped in a barbershop where several men were hanging out and a young boy was getting a haircut. It felt kind of odd when we were all crammed in the small building together. It felt as though they were on display, as were we. A few introductions were made and we headed down the road.

We came across a bike repair shop that is used as a place to teach the children of Kaletisha how to repair bikes. The guy who runs the shop hopes to keep children busy and out of trouble while teaching them a valuable skill. Pretty inspiring. He’s doing great work.

We next traversed through the narrow alleys and stopped in a couple homes that were friends of our guide. She wanted us to have a realistic view of the inside of the homes and the people that inhabited them. That they were real, normal people living normal lives in their homes. Real people who were forcibly removed and placed far away in these townships based solely on the color of their skin.

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With apartheid over now for a couple decades, economic situations have prevented many people from being able to leave the townships. Coming back to the distance of the townships from the city, the menial wages they are paid in the city have to also pay for transportation to shuttle them back and forth to their home and job.

The first home we entered was smoke-filled and had several men sitting around drinking beer and listening to music. We were shown the small bedroom that was big enough for a bed. We said our “thank you and nice to meet you’s” and were on our way. We stopped at a couple more houses to grab a peek inside. Like the barber shop, entering a couple of the homes felt somewhat intrusive, and like the inhabitants and the visitors alike were on display. As a person who tries to see what can be learned from a situation, I was able to move past my discomfort and experience the humanity that permeated all of Kayelitsha. The community spirit and interdependence on each other revealed a rich culture and warmth among the residents.

Table Mountain & Cooking in Bo-Kaap

Saturday, January 14, 2017

We began today by riding the tram to the top of the notorious Table Mountain. If I ever make it back to Cape Town I would love to hike to the top. I hear there are baboons on the hike up…if you ever make it to South Africa it is strongly warned to not feed the baboons—they will fight you! Fortunately, our one baboon encounter in Cape Point was just filled with cuteness and zero hostility. I was not prepared for a baboon brawl and I doubt I could run fast enough to escape one.

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The top of Table Mountain was awe-inspiring. We were overlooking Cape Town, got a great view of Lion’s head which we hiked a couple days previously, and could spot Robben Island off in the distance.

Following Table Mountain, we headed to Bo-Kaap which is a predominantly Muslim Cape Malay neighborhood in Cape Town. Like many other neighborhoods in the metro areas of South Africa, Bo-Kaap is becoming another victim of gentrification (article about Bo-Kaap gentrification). Many people are flocking to the neighborhood due to the location, the vibrant, colorful properties, and the cobblestone streets.

The gentrification is causing conflict within the community as some residents do not agree with “selling” their heritage and community buildings for profit; they want to maintain the cultural significance and authenticity of the neighborhood. Other residents see selling their property to the highest bidder as their chance at a financial windfall and chance at a new life.

In this situation, I can see both sides…but as a romantic for culture (side note: I’ve developed a fear of losing richness of culture through globalization), I have to be a proponent for the safeguarding of the culture in the community. Typical of gentrification, trendy boutiques and services are being built in the culturally rich neighborhood; places that the lower-income residents will not be able to afford.

For a visual, the colorful houses are lower-class, a little higher is the middle-class, and the highest homes overlooking the rest is where the upper-class residents live.

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Most of the older residents of Bo-Kaap descend from the Muslim slaves that were brought to the area by the Dutch during the 1500-1600s. Slaves were brought from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, and other places in Asia to the Cape to provide services and entertainment for the Dutch. The Dutch intentionally brought artisans, specialized workers, and scholars to the community to provide the specific services they needed. The Cape Malays, as they became known, helped contribute to the shaping of culture in the neighborhood and in Cape Town.

One (of many) cultural characteristics that is seen today is the parade that regularly takes place through the streets of Bo-Kaap. The music and parade was created to entertain the Dutch and has maintained and evolved its place in the lively culture. Lucky for us, our tour happened to coincide with the parade.

Another obvious symbol of the past history is the presence of several mosques in Bo-Kaap. The Dutch did not forbid the Islamic people from practicing their religion, but they prevented them from building places of worship. Eventually, the first mosque, the Auwal Mosque, was built in 1811, with several mosques to follow.

Recent flair has been added in the form of murals along a couple of the streets.

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Our final stop of the day was at Jasmina Davids house for an authentic Malay cooking class. Jasmine was a former resident of District Six before relocating to the Bo-Kaap neighborhood after the forced removals. It was an honor to be welcomed into her home. She welcomed us into her kitchen with a glass of falooda, which is a drink concocted of takamaria seeds, vanilla ice cream (yum, ice cream), milk, and rose syrup. It was delicious.  Jasmina and her daughter showed us how to navigate the ingredients to create a delicious meal—chili bites, samoosas, flat bread, and chicken curry.

Wow. Popping with flavor and texture. The chili bites were reminiscent of hush puppies, but better. The samoosas were quite challenging to fold (think rubik’s cube! Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating), but delicious to eat. For dessert we had the traditional Malay koeksisters.

The experience of sharing a meal in the township in someone’s home, and the cooking class, were both activities that I don’t think I would think to do on my own when traveling. Seriously, there is no better way to soak up a culture. Despite all the other fun we had on the trip, the cultural immersion experiences will probably leave the most lasting impressions in my mind. There’s something remarkably special about being welcomed into someone’s home and learning about their culture through their eyes.

Lions, Elephants, & Zebras—oh my!

Friday, January 13, 2017 

Is it possible to go to Africa and not do the typical, predictable tourist safari? Yes, but I would not recommend it. Aside from the steep cultural submersion we had in a lady’s home in the Soweto township, the private cooking lesson of Malay food in Bo Kaap (upcoming blog), and the church service and walking tour in the Khayelitsha township (upcoming blog), the safari was definitely near the top of the South Africa “to do” list.

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Our guide, Kensington, was super animated and it was entertaining to listen to his descriptions of the animals. He said he had taken a group out in the morning and they did not see any animals, so we lucked out big time. I couldn’t imagine not seeing anything! That would’ve been a bummer—I am grateful!

Our first animal sightings from a distance were a mother and a baby rhino and two blue wildebeests. Then we passed a body of water where there were several submerged hippos. Next we saw the elephants—magical! They came so close!

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Next, we entered the lion enclosure in which our guide had to get out of the vehicle to open the gate, and again to close it. In the lion enclosure. Out of the truck. He said that the lions see the vehicle as one large object and are not interested in it. However, he noted how quick the lions are to approach if someone gets out of the vehicle—he witnessed this when a past client dropped a camera out of the vehicle and he went to go retrieve it for them.

Our timing was perfect as when we entered the enclosure we were able to witness a male lion strolling to the top of the mountain (look closely at the first pic below). Around the corner we saw three lady lions (technical term) catching some shade under a bush, and then got to witness 2 of them get up and head to the cooler cave. They are pretty thick creatures.

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After the lions we made our way over to a couple of thirsty giraffes drinking some water. We stopped to have champagne and grape juice near the giraffes and were able to walk closer to them for better pictures. Also in this area were a few oryxs, another blue wildebeest, and several gazelles.

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If the giraffes and everything else wasn’t exciting enough, we came upon a harem of zebras—wow! Magnificent creatures. Like fingerprints, no two patterns are identical.

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After our safari three of our group members (myself included) went and had 90 minute massages at the spa. Why not, right?

Parliament, District 6, & Lion’s Head

This morning (Thursday, January 12) we went to Parliament in Cape Town. There are technically three capitals of South Africa: Pretoria is the executive capital, Bleomfontein is the judicial capital, and Cape Town is the legislative capital. Joburg is the largest city but is not technically a capital. We toured the building and were shown the main sites where meetings, such as the congressional hearings, youth parliament, women’s parliament, the ANC caucus, and staff meetings take place, to name a few. There are cameras in the main assembly rooms that provide a primary stream to the public as news media is not permitted inside. We saw what was referred to as the Apartheid Chamber in 1948, and has been called the Old Assembly since 1994. Each of the 9 provinces in South Africa has 10 delegates in the senate.

 After Parliament we went to an Eastern Food Bazaar for lunch. I had a tasty Mysore Masala Dosa, which is an Indian dish. And, of course, no meal is complete without gelato to wash it down.

After lunch we headed over for our tour of the District Six Museum. The museum pays tribute to the 60,000 people who were forcefully removed from the inner-city, racially mixed, vibrant District Six community during apartheid. Our guide, Noor Ebrahim, was a former resident of District Six. He wrote a book called  Noor’s Story: My Life in District Six. Noor shared with us the spirit of the community and how it was a wonderfully diverse place to live where people of many different religions (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, etc.) and cultures lived in harmony. He noted specifically how they celebrated each others’ holidays and respected each others’ traditions.

Fortunately before District Six was bulldozed someone collected and kept the street signs which are displayed in the museum today.

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As noted in previous posts, the apartheid regime was threatened by racial mingling, and on February 11, 1966 deemed the racially diverse neighborhood a “white’s only” area. 1966, however, was actually not the beginning of the forced removals as Black South Africans were being moved out in the early 1900s due to a hoax threat of the Bubonic Plague made by the government. The Group Areas Act of 1950 enabled the government to complete the eradication of non-whites in District Six, forcefully removing the residents from their homes and then razing the whole area with bulldozers to create an upper-scale, white neighborhood.

People were split up and sent to townships and areas set up specifically based on race—Indian, coloured, Asian, and Black. For this reason, families were split up between different townships and would have to get a permit to visit their families. For example, a Black man separated from his Indian wife in a different township would have to get a permit to visit her in her township. These townships were separated by “buffer strips” consisting of freeways, polluted rivers, strategically placed military land, and golf courses. I was dumbfounded listening to Noor describe the removals and the separation of families. Again, I have been repeatedly inspired by the resilience, resistance, and humanity these humans exhibited in the face of evil. Despite being stripped of everything else, they refused to be fully stripped of their humanity.

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Following the museum, we stopped in a swanky coffee shop called Truth Coffee Roasting for some caffeinated rejuvenation before our hike at Lion’s Head. The coffee shop had very stylish décor, delicious lattes, and good music—from Billy Idol to Jimi Hendrix.

After coffee we made the trek to Lion’s Head, which provides an awesome view of Table Mountain. I was finally being returned to my element—hiking mountains. The mountains are my church. My spirit feels at home. The views hiking up were awe-inspiring. We eventually left the walking path trail and had to climb a ladder when we reached the rocky part at the top of the mountain. There were a couple more ladders, rock scrambles, and foot and handholds drilled into the rocks for hikers to make their way to the top. The location is popular for full moon hikes and to watch the sunset. We went for the full moon, but decided to abort that plan and hiked down while there was still light. We were able to admire the full moon on our way down the mountain. It. Was. Fantastic. I was home.

There was rush-hour traffic on the top of the mountain, people trying to get to the top for the sunset, while others were trying to get down before it got dark. Some people exercised patience while others did not. All of a sudden I heard a woman yell “help” and looked over to see her falling several feet before she thankfully landed on solid ground. She had decided to take an alternate route to bypass the crowd. It could have been disastrous. She almost went over the edge. It was frightening. It reminded me to slow down in general; life is too short to rush, and to rush isn’t worth my life. Pause. Practice patience. Stay in the moment. I’m sorry I had to be reminded of that at her expense, but am grateful she was ok.

Capes, Baboons, Penguins, and Fire

Like Tuesday, Wednesday can be most accurately described in pictures. Here is a brief synopsis of the day…we began the day at the Cape of Good Hope, which is considered the most south-western point of Africa.

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Cape of Good Hope was originally called the “Cape of Storms” by the Portuguese explorer, Dias. The path around the Cape of Good Hope served as a trading route to India from the western coast of Africa, and because of the optimism surrounding the route, was renamed Cape of Good Hope. This cape has served as an important landmark for sailors over the years, and earned its own legend of the Flying Dutchman. It seems that different myths are circulated about the Flying Dutchman, preventing some from living to tell about it. Fortunately, we avoided any ghostly encounters that could have altered our fate. I imagine sailor ghosts are difficult to navigate socially and am grateful to have avoided that potentially awkward situation.

I hiked up a path to a lookout area which revealed rugged, rocky views overlooking the ocean.

 

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Our next stop was at Cape Point which is home to a lighthouse that was previously used by sailors navigating the Cape. The lighthouse, however, was too high and often covered with fog which prevented the sailors from seeing it from a short distance away. The ships would miscalculate the distance and navigate too close to the coast and wreck, like the Portuguese ship the Lusitania in 1911. Since then, a new lighthouse has been erected that is the most powerful in South Africa, and effectively helps sailors navigate a safe distance around the rugged terrain.

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I love history. I love reading about it, hearing about it, talking about it, writing about it—everything. But, I also love animals. We. Saw. Baboons. Running across the path. Wow! (Side note: do NOT feed the baboons, and YES they will fight you if necessary.)

 

And there was a lizard keeping lookout near the lighthouse (most certainly keeping watch for the Flying Dutchman)

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Now, I knew we were going to see penguins, but for some reason I wasn’t terribly excited. I was certainly looking forward to it, but unaware of the actual situation I would find myself in. I was totally unprepared for how cute penguins are! When they puff up and then shake, when they walk/waddle, when they sit with their mouths open, when they just stand there, when they look at and communicate with each other, when they do absolutely anything I couldn’t handle it. They were too much…too cute! Thank you for improving my life dramatically, penguins.

Another unexpected aspect of the day was the thick smoke and ash in the air in Simon’s Town where the penguin colony is located. Brush fires were spreading through the dry mountainside. We passed one area in our van and could actually feel the heat and see the fire. I had never seen or been affected by wildfires before, and it feels like such a helpless situation. The smoke and ash in the air was awful and was getting worse throughout our visit. It was very sad to see the homes at risk and to know the townspeople were stuck breathing in the smoke and ash. Fortunately, there were no deaths, but people were treated for smoke inhalation. The fire was also contained so that there was minimal damage done to homes.

 

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A quick, little turtle welcomed us home from our adventurous day.

 

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To top off our day, we had a local folk artist come and provide us with an acoustic show in our living room. Jennifer Eaves strummed her guitar and “spread the news” to us, which is how she described the purpose of folk music back in the day. Her lyrics and voice portrayed a vulnerability and honesty that encourages her audience to acknowledge and think a little deeper about the topics she addresses. In a couple of her songs she discussed humanity and acceptance, relationship struggles with her husband who suffered from depression, and a local kidnapping. This idea of music as a medium to spread the news provides a way to express culture and to encourage people to confront topics and bring awareness to things that are otherwise difficult to talk about. She spreads the word on important issues.

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Grapes in Solms Delta

We spent most of Tuesday at a winery called Solms Delta in an obviously beautiful area, of course (can’t imagine there are any “dumpy” wineries?) The scenery, like the few wineries I’ve been to, was spectacular. We toured some of the property, learned some
of the history (from what I could understand from our guide, and through my foggy lens of exhaustion.) My trip mates smelled and swirled some wine around their glasses, looking for legs and scrutinizing the body of each wine (that’s what you do with wine,
right? My fancy wine was only ever purchased from 7-11; “quantity at low cost over quality” was my motto during my very brief wine connoisseur experiment.) Anyway, while they tasted, I sat outside and breathed in the fresh air, took some photos, and read a
book that discussed a beloved Doctor’s Opinion.


I have a love for taking pictures from the ground. If I ever pursued photography I would name my company Ground Up Photography…or something. I haven’t put too much thought into it, just a far off idea. 

Things on the ground are often disregarded, stepped
over, or ignored. I think a view from the ground up provides the whole picture and an uncommon perspective. People often want to avoid the dirt and grime on the ground to focus on what is aesthetically pleasing. But life is both grime and splendor; it’s a
combination of both, not one without the other. That is precisely what makes life beautiful. That is the whole picture. It helps create character. So, when I noticed a broken wine glass on the ground, naturally, I was drawn to it. It is often in brokenness where I become confronted with my own humanity. I shouldn’t avoid the broken pieces, they should be inspected and accepted, and at least learned from. Its only from here can I grow. 

The pictures didn’t turn
out as I imagined, but they fall in line with the trope. From my perspective, the wine glass is broken and on the ground, forgotten, and symbolic of the connection between wine and broken dreams or promises. What does it mean to you? “Nothing, it’s silly” is
a perfectly acceptable answer. That is what makes art and expression unique. It is not bound to limited or limiting perspectives. 


Another perspective on ground up shots is as a reminder to take in the whole view, but to keep focused on what is right in front of me.


We then went and had a picnic lunch out by a stream on the winery property. We had to put in time and work for our lunch, we had to wait a while for our food due to a miscommunication by the winery, and had to take a hike down to our spot underneath a large
tree. Beautiful surroundings. Savory food. It was worth the wait and pretty magical. We sat under the tree and rested and chatted, enjoying some down time.




Then, we went home for some well-deserved down time. I exercised, ate, wrote, chatted, and went to bed.

Living History: Robben Island

On Monday we were taken to “The University,” as Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners called Robben Island, the prison where they were kept during the apartheid rule. This is where the head leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were sent after the Liliesleaf raid, and was home to any political activists who were found to be in opposition to the governments views and practices of separation. Political prisoners were often isolated and kept from reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and, in many cases, from talking to other inmates. These political activists needed to be kept off the streets, separate, and silenced as they were a threat to apartheid regime’s political agenda and way of life. Robben Island tells a story about human rights, perseverance, resilience of the human spirit, and doing what is right even when it is not easy.

 

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We took a ferry to the island and then a brief bus trip to the beginning of the tour where we met our guide, Sipho Msomi. Msomi was a political prisoner back in 1984 and was kept for 5 years on counts of being a member of the African National Congress (ANC), organizing and campaigning for the ANC, and for recruiting for military members of the ANC.

 

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One of the aspects of studying history is that the people who experienced the event or era are often not around to interact with anymore. I’m so terribly sad that all the greats who fought in WWII are dying off…the last Titanic survivor died in 2009. These are only 2 examples that I have personally studied, but you get the idea. Once these people are gone, there is no way to interact and learn directly from history, and we must then rely on only the reports and evidence left behind.

Fortunately for us, former political prisoners of Robben Island from the apartheid era are still alive. Even more fortunate, many of these former prisoners have (albeit sometimes reluctantly at first) have agreed to become involved in the Robben Island Museum and even give tours of the prison, like Msomi. Msomi was arrested in 1984 and was kept in solitary confinement for his first 5 months. He was disoriented and unaware of what day or month it was, typical symptoms of solitary confinement. (Below, Robben Island prison with Table Mountain in the background.)

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Msomi began by discussing some of the conditions of the prison and the methods of torture, such as beatings, electrical shock, waterboarding, chemical acid dripped on the tops of their heads, and humiliation practices (to name a few). Msomi said, “The word ‘loneliness’ does not begin to capture the reality of what we experienced. It actually minimizes the reality of the experience.” The prisoners were only allowed 2 visits per year and 2 letters per year. The letters could only be 120 words and were screened. The guards would count the words and make anything they did not want the prisoner to see and anything over 120 words illegible. Prisoners who died were often buried in secret under the prison and families were not notified. Food was provided based on race. The prisoners would use hunger strikes to try to improve prison conditions.

Another means of repressing the exposure the political prisoners had to the outside world was by banning newspapers. Despite this, the prisoners often found means of confiscating newspapers, whether by stealing, sneaking, or from sympathizing guards. From the newspapers the prisoners would hold discussions and “classes” about the information they learned. Despite their varying political ideologies, cultures, and races, they knew they had to work together to survive. A common purpose has a tendency to keep people together for the greater good. Msomi said that, despite their horrific circumstances, they kept their sense of humanity and sanity by learning from each other, entertaining each other, and through laughter. Msomi referred to the bathroom as their “only free space.” This struck me for some reason. No matter how imprisoned a person can be physically, there is no way to imprison one’s mind if their spirit isn’t broken. (The graffiti below from Joburg, before it was covered up, said “I can still think.” Love this.)

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They had to keep their spirits up for the greater good. They used their “free space” to have political classes, practice political poetry and stage plays, and to practice stand-up comedy.

After hearing Msomi describe some of the conditions of the prison and methods of torture used to punish and get people to talk, it made me wonder how many people were broken during the process. It’s hard to know what one would actually do in that situation, but easy to speculate. I don’t think I could take it. Most of the prisoners kept true to their cause. Msomi mentioned how the prison officials would attempt to turn the political prisoners into spies. Curious, I asked Msomi how many people gave in and became spies. He referenced a broadcast in which the President said he would release political prisoners on the condition that they must denounce support and oppose the ANC. In that example, Msomi said that out of 800 prisoners, only 4 took the deal. Only 4 out of 800. I probably would have made 5…the admiration I have for those men is infinite. At every stop they sacrificed their own comfort and “freedom” for the greater good. They knew they had to stick together or perish separately. I thought the tour of Robben Island would be heavy and sad. Yes, of course, it was sad. But more than any other emotion, I felt inspired and in awe. It was an example of the resilience of the human of the human spirit when working towards a greater good, despite the personal consequence or cost. I can only hope to be even a quarter of what those humans were, and a quarter is probably a stretch. The experience made me want to be a better person.

The very nature of oppression and resistance often leads to contradiction of the oppressor. For example, the KKK supported and encouraged prohibition. In so doing, speakeasies were developed which became cultural and racial mixing grounds—the very thing the KKK was/is against. A similar thing happened on Robben Island with the prison practices and their motivations in how they housed the prisoners. They intentionally kept the political prisoners mixed in with the hardened criminals in an attempt to break their spirits; what ended up happening was contradictory to what the prison intended. Most of the political prisoners were educated and ended up reforming and educating the hardened prisoners. But it didn’t stop there. Many of the prison guards were also uneducated and were asking the political prisoners to teach them, as well. Wardens then began being rotated frequently to prevent them from becoming sympathizers.

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Below is a picture of the cell for prisoner #466, Nelson Mandela.

 

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Mandela and the other prisoners were often punished with manual labor. Much of their time was spent at a lime quarry (work which set them up for health issues with their lungs, eyes, among other things). When Mandela and other fellow former prisoners went to visit Robben Island, Mandela grabbed a rock and placed it next to the lime quarry. The others followed suit and placed their rocks in the pile. This became a symbol of remembrance.

 

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Side note: A church on Robben Island performs marriages every February 14, for anyone who may be interested!

As if Robben Island wasn’t enough awesomeness for one day, the evening consisted of a former political prisoner coming to our team house (on the beach) to have dinner and give us a talk about his experience. After dinner we all congregated in the common area (during the sunset) to soak in last rays of the day and the information Lionel Davis  came to share with us.

 

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Lionel was born in District 6 in Cape Town which was a racial mixing bowl at the time. Sixty-five thousand residents were force removed from District 6 during apartheid. He recalled how he first came to think politically based on an event that happened when he was 13-years-old. Lionel explained how he went to the store to buy eggs and milk, but the store owner thought he was there to steal. The store owner demanded to see inside Lionel’s bag, but Lionel refused. He knew he wasn’t stealing and felt offended that the store owner would make that accusation. Instead of letting the store owner check his bag, he threw an egg at the owner’s head and ran. It was then that he became acutely aware of the racial injustices and decided to fight back against the oppressing powers. He reflected how whites saw themselves as better than anyone else.

Lionel was a part of the National Liberation Front who wanted to take arms against the apartheid government. He was arrested in 1964 for conspiring against the government. He spent 7 years in jail and 5 years on house arrest. On Robben Island, Lionel was classified as “coloured.” While still treated poorly, the coloureds thought they were better than blacks as all of the discriminatory practices were targeted specifically at blacks. Blacks were not given night clothes and often slept in the sweaty clothes that they had worked in all day, day after day. The prison was new during that time and still had wet concrete. The conditions, as mentioned by Msomi, led to eventual health issues such as arthritis and emphysema, among others.

Lionel emphasized the differences among the prisoners and that they were not just one homogeneous group that naturally got along. They were people who normally would not mix. They came from different cultures, races, religions, and varying political ideologies; some were Pan African Congress (Lionel) while others were from the ANC, to name a couple. (Whites were not kept on Robben Island.) Despite these differences, they all learned how to live together and had an unwavering passion to learn. Lionel had gotten in trouble and was sent to the B block where Mandela and other political prisoners were kept in individual cells. He reflected how after returning to their cells, there would be absolute silence—everyone was focused on reading and learning. Many prisoners left with degrees from South African University and went on to become lawyers, judges, and doctors after their release.

Lionel noted how Mandela went to jail as a military idealist, but came out as someone transformed, likely as a result of their experience on Robben Island. He learned that we have to break down the barriers and accept each other to work toward a common good—like they did on Robben Island.

History, in my mind, should always be examined from both sides. Lionel mentioned a prison guard who was very touched by Mandela, and they became friends. He wrote a book called Nelson Mandela My Prisoner My Friend . I haven’t read it yet, but just ordered it on Amazon.

If you like hearing stories from both sides, and want something from the German perspective during WWII, a former Hitler Youth, Traugott Vogel, wrote Under the SS Shadow , which was a good read.

 

 

Farewell Joburg…Hello Cape Town!

On Sunday we spent the remainder of our time in the Maboneng neighborhood of Joburg, at Arts on Main, before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Cape Town. Maboneng is a bougie (urban dictionary version, not the medical instrument) neighborhood that has been part of the efforts of the regeneration of Joburg. Also as in the U.S., poor-stricken areas surround the privileged area of Maboneng. Many of the surrounding local residents are unable to dine at the trendy restaurants that moved in when their old neighbors were pushed out.

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Outside of the sad consequences (such as gentrification) that happen during regeneration, Maboneng is a vibrant neighborhood rich with personality and art, and any visitor would be foolish not to visit. While overpriced boutiques make up some of the shopping terrain, there are plenty of places to find reasonably priced goods and souvenirs.

 

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There is a food market in the bottom of one of the buildings which had a gelato stand (holy wow, delicious), a crepe stand, a gumbo stand, Asian, Indian, Greek, and many other varieties of good eats. I went Greek and had spanakopita and falafel. For dessert, obviously, I had gelato—strawberry and chocolate.

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The food area used furniture and decorations that were created using random materials. The “chandeliers” were a work of art created from plastic spoons, chairs were overturned plastic crates, and couches created with wooden or plastic crates with cushions.

 

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Anyone who knows me personally, knows how much I love my dog, Romeo. More than any other vacation that I can think of, I’ve seen and encountered many pups. There was a small dog on my flight to Atlanta and fortunately the owner let me visit. Every dog I see I tell them I love them, even in passing. It sends a wave of endorphins or something just seeing dogs, especially while away from my Romey. I realize only dog people will get this…everyone else will just think I’m nuts (nothing new and I’m so not offended!) The guy pictured below followed my feet around smelling my shoes; he obviously smelled my Romeo. So cute.

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The murals and art around Joburg added to the character and emotion that inhabit the city. The only bummer, as discussed in earlier blog, is that much of the art is outsourced to artists from areas outside of Joburg. While still rich with meaning, I feel like we are missing out on the expression of those who are the lifeblood of the city. Does the city not want to hear from their inhabitants? I do not know that I will ever understand why they would not want their own culture-creators of the city to express what it is to be of the city…maybe they are afraid of what they’ll hear? Is it easier that they remained silenced? That, however, seems like the root of many protests—a stifled or ignored population gets tired of being silenced. The very nature of art though, as shown in the pics below, brings a message to the surface that can lead to important discussions.

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Next stop, Cape Town. Joburg was such a moving, important part of the trip. I am being changed. Cape Town will also involve heavy topics, but the beach vibe and mountains will provide an aesthetically pleasing environment and atmosphere to decompress and reflect. It’s a magical place. The pic below is from the place we’re staying and where we get to watch the sunset from every evening.

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