Saturday, February 26, 2011
All Around in Cape Town
So, I just left Cape Town, South Africa and I am the most sad I have been this entire trip. Cape Town was incredible; it was one of the places I could really see myself living one day. The city itself is gorgeous and has everything you could want in a single place. It kind of reminds me of LA mixed with a posh European harbor city like Copenhagen. The view itself is just stunning; towering above the city are massive mountains and at the outskirts are tropical beaches and beach towns. The city center is filled with amazing restaurants, shops, and clubs of every kind. The city is full of hip young people so the nightlife is crazy and busy. The people of Cape Town are from all over the world; I met citizens from New Zealand, Scotland, Switzerland, and the Bahamas. It’s really refreshing. Basically, the city was full of a vibrancy and beauty that almost masks the aftereffects of the apartheid that existed only a few years ago.
Brief History: I’m sure most of you know this stuff so I’ll be quick. South Africa was colonized by Britian in 1806. Up until 20 years ago, South Africa was in what is called Apartheid. This basically means that the black populations were kept completely separate from the white populations. Many Blacks were relocated into “townships”, crowded disheveled neighborhoods outside of the city with horrible health and sanitation conditions. Even though now the apartheid has been abolished, the aftereffects are apparent just under the surface. For example, I met one guy who told me that he had not ever talked to a black person until the World Cup. Many blacks still live in the townships because they lack the resources to migrate. I saw predominantly white people in Cape Town.
Day 1: We were supposed to dock in South Africa on the morning of February 17th. However, when the ship arrived the night before, the weather conditions in the harbor were terrible. The wind was howling and our ship was rocking so violently that our drawers were constantly sliding open and slamming shut, and things were flying across the room. The entrance to the harbor is extremely narrow and the port alerted the ship that it would not be able to enter until the winds subsided. We were told that they had no idea when the ship would be allowed to enter, but that they would keep us updated. So, the next morning we awoke eagerly awaiting our next port, but instead were subjected to beautiful views of the city as we drove in circles for hours. We thought that we would be able to dock at any time but the weather never improved and we were stuck on the ship all day and night. It was horribly frustrating especially because many of us (but thankfully not me) had planned activities for that day or expensive safaris that started that day, and were not able to go or even be refunded. But, I guess it taught us that really anything can happen when you’re traveling around the world via a huge boat. The unofficial motto of semester at sea has always been “be flexible and patient”, a motto I only recently came to really understand. On the bright side, this port was worth waiting for.
Day 2: In the morning, we were still driving in circles. By this time, I was extremely frustrated and ready to get off the ship. Thankfully, before it was 10 AM, an announcement was made saying that she ship had been allowed access into the harbor. Once we arrived, the process had just begun. First, the ship had to be cleared by South African officials who boarded the ship and searched the whole thing. Then, one by one each student had show the officials their passports and be checked off a long list. It was a very tedious process. Then, the students were all let off depending on who had trips that were leaving first. Finally, it was my turn and I set out into the harbor with a group of friends. The harbor itself was really beautiful. Crowds of sea lions lived in the water right next to our boat and they splashed and played and arfed at us. The streets were lined with little fancy restaurants and shops and groups gathered around local bands who were lounging around playing in the sunshine. My friends and I spent most of the day exploring the city on our own. We had lunch at a nice place and realized how different the currency is. For every price in South African rands, we had to divide by seven to find the price in US dollars. Therefore, everything looks massively more expensive than it actually is and I almost had a heart attack looking at the prices on the menu. That night, we headed to Long Street which is where all of the city’s nightclubs are located. We went into a few that looked very much like the clubs in the US, but in one we were approached by a group of locals who invited us to their table. They were young, our age, and we spent a long time talking about what differences they have seen in their country in the post-apartheid years. They explained to me that racism is still widely prevalent. And not only racism against black people, but many hate crimes committed against white people by the black communities who are still (understandably) bitter about the past injustices. “However”, one guy said to me, motioning around the club, “look at this. Black people and white people and colored people all partying at the same club, sitting at the same tables, dancing together. 10 years ago you would never see this. We have a long way to go, but we’ve also come a very long way.” So, I got the feeling that the people of Cape Town are pretty optimistic about the future of their country.
(Note: In the US the term “colored” is a derogatory name for a black person. In South Africa, however, it is the term used for people who are neither black nor white, mixed descent. Its not a bad word at all and people use it all the time.)
Day 3: In the morning, Moriah and I woke up early and decided that we wanted to take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. Table Mountain is a massive mountain that overlooks the whole city. The top is completely flat, like an enormous plateau. The mountain is so steep that it takes 7 hours to hike to the top, and half of the hike is basically rock climbing. I know many semester at sea kids who attempted to climb it and had to turn back after three hours because it was too difficult. The cable car was much more my style. Skipper, Moriah, and I took a taxi ride to the base of the mountain which is about 20 minutes from the city and purchased a ticket for the cable car. The car itself held about 20 people at a time and the floor of the car actually rotated around so that, without moving, every person could see the stunning view from every angle. The ride itself only took about a minute but because of the height of the mountain and the angle of the car, it was a lot like a fair ride. Once we reached the top, everyone unloaded and we were all free to wander around for however long we wanted. Being up there was one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. First of all, the views were unbelievable. We could see the city and the beaches from every angle; we even had a great view of Robbin Island (the island prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years). But, fantastic views aside, the top of the mountain was like an alien planet. A huge cloud had gathered on the top that poured over the sides of the mountain like dry ice. We were literally standing inside of a cloud. The plants on the top were like nothing I had ever seen. It was like some strange kind of tundra, lots of low down shrubs and prickly bushes as far as the eye could see. I did recognize some of the plant life, I had seen it once before in the “ancient species” section of the DC Botanical Gardens. Vibrant flowers bloomed bright red and purple in the midst of strange rock formations that we climbed and explored. Small fat birds hopped around on the rocks, but they were the only animal life apparent. The wind was powerful and icy, almost unbearable. We could only stay on the top for about an hour because we were all dressed in summer clothes and the temperature up there was frigid. When we returned to sea level, we decided to hit up a beach we had seen from the top. The beach, Camp Bay, turned out to be the most famous beach in Cape Town. A huge rock formation jutted out into the sea and we climbed on the rocks and played in the icy water. We stayed at the beach for the rest of the day, and would return there many times during our trip.
Day 4: My earliest morning, I found myself awake and showering at 430 AM in preparation for my day long safari. Skipper and I were zombies and eating breakfast at about 530 and boarded the bus at 615. The Aquila Game Reserve was about 2.5 hours away, and during the drive (the parts I was awake for) I was treated to views of massive mountain ranges surrounded by valleys that were filled with vineyards. The winelands stretched out for almost the entire drive, row after row of grape vines weighed down with bunches of fat grapes, red, white, and every color in between. When we arrived at the game reserve, our guide explained to us that all of the animals who lived within their 45,000 acres were rescued from poachers and were completely protected within the boarders of the reserve. We ate breakfast in the reserve’s resort and, mom and dad, we have to go back and stay at this place. It was gorgeous. The lawns of the resort span out into the land of the reserve and ostriches and elephants wander around freely as you eat breakfast on the patio. All of the guesthouses are little chalets located far from each other on the mountain, so that you have a perfect view of the wildlife from your hotel room. After breakfast, our group was split into three different sections and we were each loaded into a separate open-air jeep. Our guide explained to us that South Africa is famous for what they call their “big five” the five most prevalent and famous of their indigenous animals. They are: elephants, zebras, buffalo, lions, rhinos, and leopards. He said we were not guaranteed to see all of the big five, but that we would see some of them. We set out on our safari (in Swahili “safari” literally means “a journey to the wild”) and I didn’t really know what to expect. Within 10 minutes our jeep came across a massive herd of zebra. (The guide told us that, actually, a herd of zebra is called a “dazzle”!) At first, they were far away, but the guide had cleverly parked our jeep between the dazzle and the watering hole, and the zebra passed directly in front of us. I think I took a million pictures. About 20 zebra passed right next to me, including about 5 tiny baby zebra. It was really intense. We were about two feet away from them. Throughout the whole safari, we saw all of the big five very close up. We also got to see warthogs, crocodiles, antelope, giraffes, and spring bok (South Africa’s national animal, like a little adorable deer. Incidentally, I ate one the next day in a restaurant and it was delicious.) The lions were majestic. We were a few feet from them and let me tell you, in pictures or behind the bars of the zoo, you get a good impression of their power and general bad-ass-ness, but nothing really compares with standing a few feet from them. All in all, the safari was a huge success. I loved it. And if you actually stayed at the resort, you could do the safari on horseback or on a 4 wheeler, which would be so amazing (hint hint mom and dad!) After the journey into the wild was done, we had lunch back at the resort. The ostrich had lunch with us too. He was gobbling down bunches of cigarette buts out of an ashtray like they were some large-bird-delicacy. It was gross.
Day 5: Today, when I woke up, I was a little confused about what I would be doing. A few months ago when I had signed up for this trip entitled “Cape Malay Cooking Safari” I had thought it sounded cool, but for the life of me I could not remember what exactly I was going to be doing. I boarded the bus and the guide was not really helpful either. As we drove through the city she gave a brief generic tour, but didn’t talk at all about what the trip was. Soon, I found myself in a part of the city I had not seen before. We unloaded from the bus and it looked like we were on a completely different continent. We were in the Muslim quarter. According to our guide, Muslims had been exiled to this neighborhood in Cape Town and, over time, created their own community here. Now, a local woman named Zani met us on the side of the road. She was probably about 70 but was very skinny with long dark hair, and I could tell she used to be very pretty. She led us through the winding streets of the Muslim quarter where every house was painted a different vibrant color and there was a huge Mosk on every block. We followed her to a Muslim spice market so that she could buy the spices she would use in the meal we were to prepare together. The market was full of stuff I had never seen before, and full of smells that were foreign and strange. Zani picked up what she needed and we continued to a small shrine on the top of a hill where she explained to us that an important Muslim leader had been exiled here and had become a religious leader now revered by the whole Muslim community. The shrine overlooked the Muslim quarter and was a spot of serenity in the bustling community. Next, we headed to Zani’s house. As we walked, people stuck their heads out of their windows and called to Zani, cracking jokes, setting up times for get-togethers, and inquiring about all of her family members. Everybody knew eachother intimately and as we continued to her place, she constantly pointed at houses and said things like “my brother lives there” “my uncles cousin lives there, with his two beautiful daughters” “the grocer lives there, he needs to lose some weight”. Zani was extremely funny and outgoing, always making jokes and telling us stories about life in the small community. When we arrived at her house, she set about gathering all of her ingredients and setting us to work chopping veggies and stirring hot oil. Over the course of the next hour or two she taught us how to make some common foods from her culture. The food was basically Malaysian, but a bit less spicy. We made chicken Masala, “chili bites” (a puffy spicy deep fried appetizer), and ground beef samosas. Don’t worry guys, I got down all of the recipes so you can all try them when I get home. When the meal was done, we all settled down and ate together with Zani and her family. It had been a long time since I had a home-cooked meal and it was very comfortable to listen to her family bicker and to relax in a home like environment. The meal was delicious. It was really nice to be able to get a feel for how diverse South Africa is. I was expecting to be cooking African food, but this food was more likely (in my mind) to be found in India. It really gave me an idea of how smaller subcultures function within a totally different culture.
Day 6: Our last day in South Africa! The girls and I decided we needed to spend the last day relaxing so we headed back to Camp Bay. The beach area is one of the most posh areas in the city. The mountains that overlook the bay are filled with enormous beach front mansions that rival any house I have seen in Potomac. I gasped when a taxi driver told me that they are sold for about 65,000,000 rand. That is, until I realized that that was less than one million US, about a fifth of what such a house in my area would cost. So, I have decided that I will be relocating there one day. The beach is full of little shops and boutiques and fantastic restaurants. We lounged around all day and relaxed in the sun before we had to head back to the ship for an on ship time of 6 PM.
Once back on board, I felt pretty down. Even though I had really enjoyed all of the places we had been so far, I did not connect with any of them in the same way as South Africa. I really did not want to leave and it felt very underwhelming to be back onboard. I’ve been at sea for about a day now and I’ve been feeling better about it, but I am determined to return to Cape Town one day. Soon. You guys should come too.