Brian in South Africa

Brian Fennig, a lecturer in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, is traveling to South Africa in summer 2010: “Robben Island, Table Mountain, vineyards, car-jacking baboons, beauty, poverty, racial division and unity; not to mention the multitude of nations coming for the 2010 World Cup Soccer Finals. This is Cape Town, South Africa, and I’ll be sharing my travel experiences with you this summer.”

Lessons of travel

I’m camped at the airport in Amsterdam. After 12 hours on the plane and a six-hour layover ahead of me, I’m happy to find an unglamorous space to spread out and write the final blog entry. The Cup is winding down and most of the teams have gone home.

me%20airport.jpg I’m proud of the U.S. effort. Starting the tournament against England was no easy task, and they did well. It’s too bad they made such a quick exit after the first round, but they did make it out of their group in first place. Ghana had the sharper game in the round of 16, but I’m happy for the African countries; they made a much better showing than most had predicted. (PHOTO: me at the airport, left)

A few days ago, I walked down to the local grocery store early in the morning to pick up some cash for my remaining time here, and I noticed some repeating elements: the daily arrival of cleaning staff parading toward the rental properties, a woman wiping down a table at the local cafe, the recycling truck picking up its cargo and the smell of bread wafting from the exhaust vents of the bakery. If I travel for an extended period of time, what I miss when I return is what I had established: routine.

there%20shall%20be%20work.jpg I’ve been in Cape Town for almost a month and just as I’m settling in, it’s time to leave. It’s impossible for me to travel without asking the question “what is different?” When I spend a little time in another country I can’t help but notice the dissimilarity with home. (PHOTO: Graffiti, “There shall be work”)

Some things are obvious: traffic moves opposite to that of the States (folks drive on the left), you are constantly surrounded by a different national history as evidenced in the monuments, the city name, the townships and the people. The value of the currency allows you to buy more with your U.S. dollar, and I haven’t seen a single Wal-Mart type mega-store. I have seen two KFCs and two McDonalds, but they are less in number than the “take away” fish ‘n chips places that seem ubiquitous in this seaport town. Perhaps most striking was the broadcast of a morning television news show in three different languages: English, German and Xhosa.

district%206%20one.jpg These are the obvious ones, but I find many similarities as well. Again with television, local programming had the equivalent of Good Morning America and of course CNN has a 24-hour broadcast. I saw commercials about HDTV, dvrs and cell phones, while MTV had its own South African slant. The daily soap opera, “Generations”, displayed the drama of business, family and love relationships, not unlike the “Young and the Restless.” (PHOTO: District 6 museum)

On the streets I found friendly people, bad drivers, people not stopping at stop signs and plenty of folks texting behind the wheel. The local newspaper spoke of The World Cup, business, the BP oil spill, union strikes, poverty and corruption. While touring the Castle of Good Hope or the District 6 museum, it was easy to see in one camera frame: modern architecture, historical structures, mass transportation and the homeless.

statue%20garden.jpg I don’t consider coming home as a return to reality, just a return to mine. The beauty of travel comes from the realization that the myriad of people and worlds that I have encountered exist every day. When I arrive in Dallas and fall into another routine, those realities on the other side of the globe will still be there; changing, forming and evolving without me. (PHOTO: Statue Garden)

castle%20homeless.jpg It simply makes me excited anticipating the next moment when that certain song or smell, a forgotten article that falls from a book shelf, a receipt tucked in my wallet or dirt scuff on my boot nudges my memory. Something from this summer will send me back to a mountainous area in a small part of Cape Town. In my mind I’ll smell the bread, hear the language and begin a long walk up a steep hill. (PHOTO: Homeless outside a castle)

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Collective struggle

dwellings.jpg When you encounter a township, it’s difficult to write about anything else with touristic pleasure. I visited Imizamo Yethu today; loosely translated the name means “our collective struggle.”

My time there produced contrasts and questions. It was odd to make a scheduled stop from a tour bus to a small patch of land that holds thousands of impoverished people. Within a mile in either direction are luxurious houses, private tennis courts and more tourist sites; not to mention the towering, beautiful mountains.

store.jpg The township is visible from miles away, as the corrugated metal that makes up many of the houses reflects the sun. That particular area provides an odd sheen to the landscape of dwellings when viewed from the opposing hills. Our tour guide, Lovers, was a resident and seemed happy to share information and stories about the life of the people there.

Both crime and AIDS are rampant, and the small city necessarily has its own police building and clinic at its entrance. Some of the roads are paved; many are simply compacted dirt. One thing is for sure – it is filthy.

We walked up the main road and visited a number of families along the way. Several homes featured handmade goods for sale as most people did not have work. juggling%20ball-1.jpg One particular woman took old cereal boxes, cut them into slim strips, rolled and glued them into odd shapes, and sold them as jewelry. Others peddled wood carvings and crude musical instruments.

selling%20goods-1.jpg Most of the buildings were makeshift and asymmetrically assembled with scrap materials, but some had modern construction with a stucco finish, thanks to the contribution of an Irish philanthropist. It was unusual to see the occasional satellite dish mounted next to what was essentially a lean-to. A few of the cars lining the streets were late models, but most were dented, rusty or not running at all.

clothes%20drying.jpg At first I was concerned that my visit to Imizamo Yethu would be an intrusion; that I’d be perceived as the gawking foreigner paying his 50 Rand (about $7 US) to see the less fortunate. Instead, I was met with smiling faces, children playing and welcome conversation. Down one dirt road I found a few boys juggling a soccer ball, a woman outside washing clothes in a large bucket and a church with a service in progress.

three%20kids.jpg I estimate that nine tour buses stop daily at the township, with the number of people who actually brave the exploration varying based on the season and maybe simple desire. Our group had eight people, but Lovers said that sometimes there are around 100.

I don’t have any grandiose conclusions to make about my visit, but it’s easy to see how the cycle of poverty here leaves individuals with few choices in life.

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On top of Table Mountain

mountain%20street%20view.jpg Table Mountain is approximately six kilometers from our apartment and is illuminated at night by huge floodlights that span its base. If you simply look up from any part of the city, the entire mountain chain is hard to ignore. It’s called Table Mountain because it is long and flat, like a table. Also, the clouds that often cover it seem to slip off its expansive, flat top like a gigantic tablecloth.

cable%20car.jpg It had always been a part of our plans to visit and enjoy the views from the top and maybe even hike the trails to the 1,088 meter summit, but the local newspaper wasn’t wetting our appetites. Since we’ve been here, two people (tourists) have fallen to their deaths, and one was lifted by helicopter and taken to the hospital for injuries suffered while climbing. I read that more people have died on this mountain than on Mount Everest. We opted to take the cable car.

cape%20town%20below%202.jpg The cable car held 20-30 people and had a rotating floor that enabled everyone to get a quick peek of the view while ascending. I got a little shove from the winds upon exiting, and I began my walk. As usual, pictures can never deliver the perception of height or beauty that you see when you’re actually at a location, but the image from more than half a mile up was astonishing.

From the top of the mountain I could clearly see Robben Island, and the massive Green Point Stadium seemed no bigger than a spare tire. The recent cold front pushed most of the clouds away rock%20dassie.jpg and I could see the expanse of the ocean and coastline. It seems flat from below, but of course the terrain is very rocky.

I did find brush and flowers, but the highlight of living things was a little furry animal called a Rock Dassie. According to the signs at the top, the creature is the African Elephant’s closest living relative – go figure. They look like giant guinea pigs and they expertly traverse the rocks and crevices. Plenty of plant life is available for their food, and I can’t really imagine what predators might pursue them at these heights.

I completed a couple of “laps” around the top and spent at least two hours snapping pictures and clumsily stumbling into rocks and gaps that I probably shouldn’t have been exploring in the first place. It’s easy to see why people get hurt. The breathtaking view tempts you to get just one more shot from that perfect rock or ledge. I happily descended at the speed of a cable car, rather than the terminal velocity of a falling object.

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Trip to Robben Island

I had the privilege of visiting Robben Island on Wednesday and discovered a history that is broader than I could have imagined.

cape%20town%20from%20boat.jpg The tour began with a 25-minute ride on a large catamaran as cabin video screens provided a brief history of the island. Shortly after docking, we boarded a large bus and began the tour, although the outing was both disappointing and enlightening.

The down side was that we spent almost the entire time on the bus and stopped only twice for photo opportunities. Lonely Planet reviewed the trip as crowded buses and “woefully short,” and they were right.

The enlightening and perhaps most impressive aspect was that our guide, Sedick Levy, was a former political prisoner – one of thousands who were unjustly sentenced. Levy told personal stories, shared the hardships of his imprisonment, and humorously described how, when initially offered a job in public service, he was attracted to the position without first knowing that it would mean returning to the island.

The small period of time away from the buses allowed us to wander around one of the many compounds and actually enter an old prison cell. Inside a barrack, the guides described the various ways in which daily life unfolded. Prisoners were beaten, some were placed in solitary confinement for years, and of course many were forced to do hard labor in the lime quarry.main%20road.jpg

A major focal point of the tour involved the tiny cell that held Nelson Mandela. The mass of people in our group moved slowly down one of the hallways to the infamous space. Most folks stopped to take a picture, and although you couldn’t actually enter that particular cell, others were unlocked and open. With little time to walk around after leaving the compounds and courtyards, we walked to our starting point and boarded the boat that took us back to Cape Town. (Photo: Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, left)
mandela%20cell.jpg

While names like Mandela and Sobukwe necessarily draw attention to the recent struggles of South Africa, the history of Robben Island spans thousands of years. The island was also an infamous home to the mentally ill and lepers and served as a defense station in World War II.

Still, the most moving part of my visit came from Sedick Levy, the former prisoner- turned-tour guide. Sedick%20Levy.jpg Throughout the excursion, he spoke of reconciliation, forgiveness and nonviolence against the people who had both hurt and oppressed him for years. His hope was that at the very least, people would recognize the humanity in every person they meet; it was amazing to see this much faith and compassion in a person who had suffered so much. (Photo: Sedick Levy, right)

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‘Ayoba, ayoba’

stadium%20night.jpg Saturday night found the U.S. team facing international rival England in the Johannesburg stadium. We, however, watched the game in a tiny little place called Uncle Jack’s Pub.

Three-fourths of the people watching were U.S. born and raised (not a surprising find for this type of event), with the remaining supporting the English. The atmosphere was mostly friendly, with plenty of singing and yelling (mostly the English doing the singing, the U.S. folks yelling), and the game ended in a stressful, nerve-racking draw. Not a game for the faint of heart if you are a true fan of either team.

aquarium.jpg We hit the refurbished waterfront on Sunday, where we found lots of shops and friendly people to welcome us. Got directions from the cashier at the local market; she told us to go past the third “robot” (traffic light) and go right to find our destination. We saw a large group of schoolchildren at the aquarium, and in typical fashion, they marched in an organized mob from one display to another, giggling and screaming at the oddities they had never seen.

empty%20street.jpg Many of the highway underpasses around town have fences with razor wire blocking off their spaces as traffic is re-routed and the main thoroughfare is once again shut down hours before the next match.

vuvuzela.jpg Walking down the streets, at the stadium or viewing a match in a pub, it is often difficult to hear one another over the ever-sounding vuvuzelas. FIFA is considering banning the horn from future matches if they are played during national anthems or thrown onto the field; I predict an unenforceable ban.

Being somewhat of a veteran World Cup attendee (this is my fourth Cup), I must add that the organization of entering and exiting the stadium has much to be desired; coming or going, the stadium crowd is just one loud “bang” away from a panicky, stampeding horde.

We’ve vowed an earlier and safer route to and from the stadium to see Italy vs. Paraguay. Ironically, hundreds of security personnel protesting wage discrepancies walked away from their posts just before match time, creating more long and slow lines. We arrived two hours early (which proved to be a smart move) and were greeted by more schoolchildren chanting “ayoba, ayoba”; another small treat that makes long lines worth the wait.

For the followers, Italy and Paraguay tied 1-1; an upset in any circle. One unanticipated find at the stadium was the abundant and free availability of condoms. Both the men’s and women’s restrooms contained bins with a hefty supply. The fight against aids in Africa is blatant and communicated everywhere.

Barring high seas and heavy rain, we’ll head off to Robben Island in the morning.

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A tie for the home team

IMG_0762.jpg Writing about this experience is enjoyable, though the best spot for wifi is in the garage of the apartment that I’m renting. As usual, the first travel lesson is one of convenience. At home I usually have 3 kinds of data/media working at once. Here, I’m excited when the “bars” go up and I can send an email. I’m not planning on using my cellphone for the entire month; a challenge I know my students have accepted before (though maybe not for a month).

The first day of the World Cup brought a surprise for the hosts as South Africa’s “Bafana Bafana” produced a 1-1 tie with team Mexico. Leaning out the third-story window of our apartment, I could hear Cape Town erupt when SA scored the first goal; even a draw for the home team was quite an accomplishment.

IMG_0760.jpg The city is packed with international travelers, and more than a mile-long stretch of highway was closed tonight to foot traffic only. I’ve seen this many people on the streets before while traveling, and it reminded me of the Shibuya train station in Japan, but this can be expected for any city that hosts a World Cup.

The country is concerned with football right now, but win or lose, when you look away from the pitch, you still see the ocean, the ships and the sentinel-like Table Mountain.

Next stop for my group is Robben Island.

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Bound for Cape Town

Made it to JFK tonight with little problem negotiating New York traffic.

IMG_0643.jpg After a $10 hamburger, we boarded the plane. Forty years of flying have not erased the novelty of a hundred tons of metal and people leaving the ground. It would have been the case this time as well, had there not been a delay due to weather and long runway lines. The engines stopped, the plane parked, and perhaps a hundred people bound for Cape Town panicked about not only missing their connecting flight in Amsterdam, but more importantly, missing the opening game in the new Green Point stadium.

It’s amazing how 90,000 lbs of thrust per engine can make up for a two-hour rain delay. Relieved, passengers smiled big when our big plane landed a little late, but with plenty of time … to run to the connecting gate. The reward for 20 hours on three heavily populated jets will hopefully be a glimpse of Table Mountain at night.

Next stop: Cape Town International Airport.

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