Friday, August 29, 2008

Cape Town Recap

Apologies again for the slow updates at the tail-end of our journey in Africa. After returning home, I’ve been living in a haze, trying to readjust back into daily life. I often wake up at night frantically believing I’m still travelling somewhere. It’s the oddest feeling! I still don’t have my final thoughts wrapped concisely together about the entire experience, but I do want to share a bit about our time in Cape Town.

Cape Town is very truly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. Its incredible history, scenery, and biodiversity make it infinitely interesting. While it boasts some of Africa’s nicest neighborhoods and wealthiest communities, it also was home to the worst poverty we saw throughout our travels. The townships are packed tightly with over 50% of Cape Town’s 4.5 million residents. Here you’ll find homes atop of homes, each with wires connecting to the nearest electricity pole. It’s just so remarkable that less than 3 miles away, one can walk through posh beachfront communities featuring lavish homes housing some of the world’s most well-known dignitaries.

One traveler we visited with commented that he felt Cape Town was a combination of Miami and Denver. This comparison is apt as Cape Town boats coastline on both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, but is also nestled into a mountain range, most notably represented by the famous Table Mountain. This stunning topography helps make Cape Town such an incredible city.

While in Cape Town, Leah and I soaked in much of the city’s culture. The highlights including a drive to Hermanus for whale watching, visiting wine estates near Stellenbosch, riding the cable car up Table Mountain, and visiting the V&A Waterfront (which is like a superior version of Chicago’s Navy Pier). My highlight, though, was a trip to Robben Island, the infamous prison that housed Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. Beyond the breathtaking views of Cape Town from the sea, the trip was a great walk through hundreds of years of history and tragedy. On Robben Island, nearly all tour guides are former political prisoners or supporters of “the struggle” (which is how most South Africans refer to the fight against apartheid). We were blessed to see the island with a tour guide who was a leader in the PAC, a political party opposed to apartheid. He knowledgably spoke about the island, including connecting the history of Robben Island to the contributions of all the countries represented in our tour group. Later, we toured the actual prison with a former prisoner who was part of the MK, the armed militia branch of the ANC (Mandela’s party). To hear a formerly oppressed black prisoner talk about his commitment to reconciliation is beyond remarkable. I really hope everyone gets a chance to visit Robben Island and experience it for themselves.

The other top highlight of Cape Town was meeting Norman and Christle, two friends of Vicki Schmidt. Norman and Christle graciously welcomed us into their home and proudly showed us Cape Point and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. As volunteers in the National Parks, Christle and Norman provided insightful commentary about each location. However, the stories and hospitality they shared were far superior to any tourist attraction. Norman and Christle are “coloured”, an accepted South African term indicating mixed racial heritage. During apartheid, they faced many challenges because of this such as being spontaneously relocated when the all-white government decided it wanted only whites to live in their family’s neighborhood. However, in the years following apartheid, most coloured citizens have been left behind by the almost entirely black government. For years, they were too black, but now they are too white. This reality creates such an interesting perspective, and Norman and Christle were happy to share their views with us. Despite enduring many hardships, Norman and Christle have achieved so much in life. Beyond successful careers as a dockworker and teacher, they have raised two highly-accomplished children. Norman and Christle are proud to always welcome international travelers into their lives boasting friends from the US, Germany, Holland, Scotland, and many other countries. They are also wonderful “parents” to their adorable dog Smudgie. Norman and Christle are fascinating and lovely people with generous hearts. I can’t say I’m surprised, though. I wouldn’t expect anything less from friends of Vicki!

Friday, August 22, 2008

We're back!

Just a quick note to say that we successfully made it home on Thursday night after over 40 hours in airports and on airplanes. More impressively, all of our luggage made it home too! We are quite tired and still adjusting to the 7-hour time difference. Throughout the weekend and next week, we'll work to try to put our summarizing thoughts on paper to wrap up our African experiences. Be sure to check the blog periodically over the next 10 days or so for these thoughts and links to pictures.

Thanks so much for all your support. It will be great to see everyone!

Zac and Leah

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Growing Rainbow Nation

Perhaps more so than any other African country, South Africa is a fascinating place. It’s history intersects with nearly every other nation in the world yet has it’s own unique and often terrible story to tell.

Here’s the quick South Africa history lesson: The San (Bushmen) people were the original inhabitants here, and possible Earth’s earliest humans. Fastforwarding to the Age of Exploration, Portugal first laid claim to the Cape with such infamous explorers as Dias and de Gama being among the first Westerners to see South Africa. Eventually, the Dutch colonized South Africa when Jan Van Riebeek settled here around 1650 in the Cape Town area. After intermittent skirmishes with the British (usually referred to as the Anglo-Boer Wars), the Dutch dominated South Africa and formed what’s known as the Afrikaaner culture. With the discovery of gold and diamonds here, the Afrikaaners displaced and enslaved many black South Africans. Eventually, in the mid-1940s, the Nationalist Party rose to power promising a system of apartheid that would codify racial segregation between whites, blacks, Indians, and coloureds (an acceptable local term for those of mixed racial heritage). Most in the West are vaguely familiar with the horrors of apartheid that extended for nearly 50 years until the great Madiba (the way South Africans fondly refer to Nelson Mandela) rose to power after his lonely 27 years in prison. Now, South Africa is working hard to escape the shadow of apartheid and move forward with new leaders now that Mandela is 90.

So far, the new leadership has had mixed success at best. Current president Thabo Mbeki is plagued by charges of corruption and indisputably poor leadership. Clearly, it’s been hard to follow in the footsteps of Mandela, but Mbeki has been a near-disaster for South Africa. Worse yet, his heir apparent is the current African National Congress (ANC - the political party Mandela led) president Jacob Zuma who has at various times been prosecuted for rape, fraud, and corruption. With this forthcoming election to happen sometime next year, politics is at the forefront of many South African’s minds. Everyone I’ve talked with so far, including blacks, whites, and Indians, are not excited about a possible President Zuma.

In it’s years of power since the retirement of Mandela, the ANC has struggled to achieve the promises it made. Poverty and unemployment are almost as endemic as HIV/AIDS. With 43% unemployment, it’s not hard to understand the recent xenophobic attacks against Zimbabweans and Somalians in the country as these foreigners come here to take jobs at lower pay. President Mbeki, though, has welcomed them with open arms because these African countries did the same for the ANC when it was forced into underground exile during the height of apartheid.
However, South Africa has harkened back to it’s post-apartheid rallying call of reconciliation to calm the xenophobic outbreak. Reconciliation is a marvelous testament to the human spirit. Inspired by Dr. King and Ghandi, Mandela realized that a generation of South Africans, his generation of South Africans, would have to stand still and not seek revenge against their former persecutors. Championed by other leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu, reconciliation brought whites and blacks together in the post-apartheid era to cast light into the shadows of apartheid, but offer a spirit of forgiveness and a commitment to move forward past the terrible history of apartheid. This concept seems almost inconceivable, but it is truly a powerful force in South Africa.

Today, I saw the power of reconciliation firsthand on our visit to Robben Island, the prison where Mandela and other political prisoners were held for three decades. Once we got to the island, we were escorted on a bus ride by a former leader of the PAC (the Pan-African Congress, a rival party to the ANC with similar anti-apartheid goals). This Indian man not only recalled his encounters with anti-apartheid leaders like Madiba and Robert Sobukwe, but also intertwined the stories of his passengers countries into the struggle to end apartheid , showing each of us how our nations played a key part in ending the curse in South Africa. Later, we toured the political prison with a former member of the MK, the armed militia unit of the ANC that tried to end apartheid through sabotage. This prisoner was stuck in Robben Island for 7 years under extremely harsh conditions, including torture. However, he vows he would treat his former torturers as friends if he’s meet them today. I don’t know how to properly emphasize how remarkable this is.

Today, I saw that the Rainbow Nation of South Africa will succeed more and more as it continues to grow. Most realize it will never have leaders the caliber of Mandela, but not every president is Lincoln or Roosevelt either. However, South Africa deserves better leadership, and I hope that it’s current crop of leaders will realize that an either step aside or step up to be those better leaders.

In 2010, the soccer World Cup comes to South Africa. The country will use this as a chance to shine on the world stage, much like Beijing is doing in the Olympics right now. I truly hope and prayer that the world will see the South Africa I’ve seen. It’s a country with vast resources, the foremost among these being it’s amazing land and it’s more amazing people. However, without more done to tackle extreme poverty, helping the working poor, and continuing the fight against HIV/AIDS, the glitz and glamour of the World Cup will only hide the truth behind the Rainbow Nation.
Just a programming note before I bid farewell...Leah and I head home on Wednesday. We are looking forward to our over 40 hours in airports and on airplanes. Nothing like spending a work week in transit. Hopefully before then we'll both find time to right again. If not, I promise we'll both post some sort of post-trip synthesis after we get home.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Durban highlights

Sorry for the long delay in posting. Our internet access lately has been limited. We've left Durban and just finished our first day in Cape Town. It's a great city so far. We saw our first rain in 6 weeks today though! Zac's planning to blog about South Africa politics and Zulu culture soon, but for now here's the higlights of our week in and around Durban.

Our seven day tour started with us being picked up at backpackers hostel, which served as our home base during this trip. When we were picked up it was only Zac and I plus one other traveler, Steeve (yes, with a double E), and our driver, Petros. Here’s the highlights of the tour:

Day 1: Drove to St. Lucia and did a half day game drive in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi (pronounced “shloo-SHLOO-we im-FOLE-oz) National Park.
- On our game drive we saw several rhinos thus completing our ‘Big Five’
- Before supper Zac was not feeling well so he went back to our room. During supper I was able to get to know the other man traveling with us. Steeve is a very interesting man who originates from Montreal. He has been traveling throughout South America, Asia, Antarctica, and Africa for the past nine months.

Day 2: Morning estuary cruise, Zulu craft village, big cats rehabilitation center
- On our estuary cruise we were able to get up close to both hippos and giant crocs.
- The Zulu craft village was pretty expensive but it was fun to look around.
- The big cats center was very unique. It was located outside of St. Lucia and was composed of individual pens that housed cheetahs, african wide cats, caracals, and servals. Most of these animals were still very completely wide and while we were there they did the evening feeding. After our guide feed the cheetah we got to go into its pen and watch it eat its food. This was much more intimidating then it sounds.

Day 3: Complicated
- I have titled day 3 complicated because we were suppose to go on an all day game drive from 5:30 am to 5:00 pm. Zac had not been feeling well, and we had not enjoyed this game park as much as the one in Botswana so we decided to skip this event and stay in St. Lucia for the day. This ended up being the best thing we could have done because at breakfast I ended up not feeling well. After resting for awhile we went hiking through some nature trails that led to where a river met the ocean. Before beginning this walk we befriended a small dog that ended up following us for a couple of hours. We named the dog Lucy and I had started to plan how I was going to bring the dog home with me. Luckily we found the owner. We also visited local shops and had a nice relaxing day.

Day 4: Zululand (for this second lag of the trip it was only Zac and I with a tour driver)
- After leaving St. Lucia we traveled to a remote Zulu village. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire trip. We spent the day walking through the village with a guide. Our guide was born and raised in the village and educated us on every aspect of life there (religion/beliefs, sacrifices, celebrations, healers, etc.) . One of the things that we were fortunate to be apart of was a pre-marriage ceremony. In the Zulu culture, when two people decide to get married there are 4 payments to be made. 1. The man must give the girls family 11 cows. 2. The woman must shower the man’s family with gifts (and I mean hundreds of gifts). 3. The brides’ family makes a list of the things they want and the groom must fulfill their wishes. 4. More cows plus some goats to be used for the wedding, again paid by the groom’s family. We were able to celebrate the third payment with a bride’s family. As gifts everyone received a variety of fruit and we were each persuaded to dance the traditional Zulu dance (infront of everyone).
- I would have to say the best part of this experience was that we spent the night at a local family’s house. That night we joined them for supper, sitting on mats and homemade benches, around a fire. We talked about the differences and similarities of our cultures and this was enjoyed by everyone. We slept in the traditional Zulu rondavel which I must say was absolutely freezing. However this was all part of the experience.

Day 5: Drakensberg Mountains
- Zac and I were picked up from our Zulu home and spent the first half our day driving into the Drakensberg mountains. We did stop along the way to hike down to the base of a waterfall.
- When we arrived at our backpackers (which was a ranch in the mountains) we were able to get settled and then we departed for a horseback ride through the hills around our accommodations.
- Our horseback ride was amazing. The scenery was breathtaking and our guide taught us how to trot. We stopped at a waterfall halfway through our ride for a tea break and then continued the second half our ride as the sun went down. By the time we got back to the ranch the sun was down and the stars were out.

Day 6: Drakensberg Hike
- Today Zac and I completed and all day hike up into the Drakensberg mountains. We were lead by a guide to Bushman paintings (much like caveman paintings) found on the rocks in the mountains. These paintings were 10,000 years old.
- After our hike we were exhausted and decided to spent our evening relaxing at the backpackers.

Day 7: Sani pass and Lesotho
- This morning we joined two lovely people from Pretoria and a guide for a drive up the Sani pass. This pass is basically a rough mountain road that leads into Lesotho. It is the third steepest pass in the world. The pass can only be safely traveled in a 4x4 vehicle. Along the way we passed frozen waterfalls and spent sometime in a Lesotho village.
- The village was quite different from other places we have been. It was composed of about 10 rondavels. The landscape is so barren that when building these rondavels they need to buy trees from South Africa.
- After having lunch at the highest pub in Africa we ventured back down the Sani pass and headed back to Durban.

After these exhausting days, it's been great to relax in Cape Town. More to come about our African adventures...


Saturday, August 9, 2008

A touch of homesickness

Besides me actual illness (I've slept about 20 hours combined the last 2 nights), I'm feeling a bit homesick now. Honestly, I’m about at that point in my travels where coming home seems great! It’s a really nice feeling to crave going home, but good to still have a bit of time left to enjoy Africa and learn from my experiences here. In honor of my slight bout of homesickness, here’s a list of what I miss most from home. Of course, family, friends, and pets are obviously also part of the list:

Ranch dressing
Fountain soda with free refills
Consistently safe-to-drink tap water
Free internet
Using outlets without converters
Driving on the right side of the road
Cable news
Using my cell phone without having to figure out sim cards and international phone numbers
Skinless, boneless grilled chicken breasts
Enjoying staying awake past 10:00 pm and sleeping in past 7:00 am
Ketchup – not this knock-off "tomato sauce" that has an awkward cinnamon taste
The letter Z being pronounced ‘zee’ and not ‘zed’
Faith Lutheran
Listening to the radio
Being able to wash and dry my clothes in a washer and dryer
Box springs
Not having to negotiate prices on goods
Driving my own car (an automatic transmission since I'm so sick of manual)
Variations in weather
Did I mention news and the internet? I don’t know how I’d survive if my mom didn’t send me the daily news files from home.

I’m sure I’ll make a list of all the African things I’ll miss when it’s closer to the end of my time here, but these creature comforts from home have me craving Aug. 20!


Sports and the sport of curio shopping

Just a note - We are currently traveling around kwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Tomorrow, we're spending a night in a rural Zulu village, so almost certainly won't have internet for the day. Then we head to the Drakensberg Mountains before another day in Durban and off to Cape Town. I'm posting 2 entries tonight, but no promises about future entries until Aug 13.


Before I left for Livingstone, I was really skeptical of the sports and coaching project African Impact offered in Zambia. I just couldn’t understand why time and money was spent on such a frivolous thing when the country was so poor. However, after my time in Zambia, I really believe this aspect of African Impact’s work there is among the organization’s best contributions to Livingstone.

When Leah and I arrived, several coaching volunteers were working hard to start up the program in Livingstone. Though often frustrated that a sports program didn’t really exist upon their arrival (as they had been told by African Impact), these great volunteers worked hard to start up football (soccer) and netball (like basketball without dribbling) teams in the community schools. The power of sport in these impoverished areas is amazing as kids looked so forward to football matches with rival schools. These organized sports experience would not have happened without the hard work of AI volunteers.

In our final week there, the organization began partnering with a group called SCORE, whose mission was to train football and netball coaches within Livingstone to start their own clubs. This partnership was one of those "feed a man a fish/teach a man to fish" scenarios because AI volunteers could have spent time coaching their own youth teams, but instead devoted afternoons to training coaches who will live in Zambia and contribute positively to their own community. I really hope this partnership grows and continues.

I have no great segue into curio markets, so let’s just talk about those lovely markets huh?
Coming to Africa, my only experience in a "market" was along the Riviera Maya in Mexico. Quite honestly, I’d prefer to shop in places where everything has a barcode and price tag. Leah, though, really enjoys the bartering over goods and is a star at it. While other volunteers were hesitant to visit the curio market in Livingstone, Leah anxiously awaited her turn to shop.

Just walking near the market, one is bombarded with phrases like "How are you my friend?" and "Come browse my shop. Looking is free. You choose what you like." For many weak-willed shoppers, these invitations will result in them buying the first curio they see. For Leah and I though, we muscled past this heckling and only visited shops with attractive merchandise.
When you finally choose an item or two you’d like, the seller will generally quote you a ridiculously high price to start off the negotiating. It’s important to let the seller open the bidding, though, because you can never come down from your first offer. Next, it’s the buyer’s turn to open with a similarly ridiculous low bid. The negotiation continues for a bit as sellers come down and buyers go up in price. If successfully negotiated, the buyer should end up paying a bit less than half of the sellers’ original asking price. Sometimes you have to get tough in negotiations and put an object down, walk away, or insist the seller add other curios for his high price. Only once in our entire shopping time did we encounter a seller who wouldn’t do fair business with us in which both the seller and buyer end up with a happy deal.

Usually in the course of the negotiations, the seller will try to tell some sort of sad story about his family and the poverty they endure. Without a doubt, some of these stories are true. However, one must also remember the seller is a shop owner in the tourist town of Livingstone. Most of them have quite nice clothes and business is almost always booming. I’d suggest most of the curio shop owners are nearing middle class, at least by Zambia standards. These sad stories, though, usually affect many buyers encouraging the shopkeepers to elaborate upon the truth in order to rip off an unsuspecting customer.

Leah is an expert at the aforementioned negotiating and not falling for the sob stories in the shops. She helped me perfect our good cop/bad cop routine, and she seemed to always get the best deal possible. Perhaps my favorite story took place at the overly visited (and thus overly priced) curio at Victoria Falls. Both Leah and I were tired and sick of being heckled in the shops. I did spot one item I looked, though, and made the mistake of popping my head into a shop. Apparently desperate for a sale, the shopkeeper told me to name my price. I said $5, and, after some feeble attempts on his part to raise the price, he agreed to this low figure prompting laughter from his counterparts at neighboring shops. Probably for the first time in Zambia, we did not get ripped off!

Negotiating over prices is a fun part of African culture. Some of our friends even bargained over shot prices at the bar! I’m looking forward to coming back home to the land of price tags, too. Just don’t be surprised when I start negotiating over the cost of my next purchase at Wal-Mart!


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Jo'burg and Durbs

Our time in South Africa has gotten off to a pretty darn good start.

The first 2 days, we spent some time in Johannesburg. Most people and travel books will tell you to get out of Jo’burg (or Jozi or Egoli as locals call it) as fast as possible. I’m sad to say, these opinions might be pretty accurate based on our short stay. One travel book I read noted that Jo’burg could really be plopped into any American state and look just like a sprawling suburban metropolis in the US. That supposition is absolutely correct. Jo’burg is kilometer upon kilometer of suburbs and winding freeways. There is not really a public transit system, so overpriced taxis are the only route to get around. We actually paid $40 one-way for one cab ride!

With nothing else to do, we visited a local mall and watched the new Batman film to pass the time on Monday. We were still trying to recover from the hectic schedule of Livingstone, so it was nice to have a day to relax, plus high-speed internet access to enjoy for a change! We hung around until Tuesday in order to see the Apartheid Museum, which isn’t open on Mondays for some reason. To be sure, the museum was remarkable (as far as museums go), but it might not have been worth planning 2 days around. However, I would have greatly regretted missing it. It’s "highlights" (not sure if anything apartheid-related is a highlight) included several startling photographs, a room filled with 131 nooses to represent those killed by the state during apartheid, and a wonderful temporary exhibit celebrating the legal unions of same-sex families in South Africa.

Late in the evening on Tuesday we flew to Durban. We used a "no-frills" airline called Kulula, which was quite a treat. Not only was the airline cheap ($75 tickets!!!!), but it had a fun atmosphere. The flight attendant mocked the safety demonstrations with wonderful sarcasm. "In the event of a water landing, we sure hope you can swim or are a quick learner," she quipped, her voice never wavering from the monotone flight attendant voice we’re all used to hearing.

The same book that compared Jo’burg to American Suburbia stated that Durban is South Africa’s most African metropolitan area. The city is a unique mix of African, Afrikaan, British, and Indian heritage. Both Ghandi and Mandela have routes here. As such, the city is an eclectic mix of Indian and African culture with mosques and Zulu craft markets sharing the same neighborhood. The white population here strikes me as quasi-Australians with similar accents and demeanors to the Aussies I’ve met in my day.

Once daybreak hit, we quickly realized we enjoyed Durbs far more than Jozi. Prices are affordable and people are friendly. We chose to spend our day frolicking along the Indian Ocean, whose warm currents make it swimmable year-round. After enjoying a curry lunch, I had a blast crashing into the waves in the ocean while Leah read on the sand. It was a great way to relax before beginning our tour into Zulu-land tomorrow.

More updates will be coming soon, although I’m not sure when we’ll again have internet access.

Cheers for now!