My best cup of coffee in South Africa was similar to my experience in Namibia. I was in Mfuleni, a township outside of Cape Town, sipping a cup of instant coffee while sitting on the front stoop of a house there, talking to a man named Rasta about South African politics and economics. It was my birthday, and we were taking a break from putting up roof tiles on a house across the road. I also had coffee a couple of times at a place called Melissa’s—first a cappuccino, then a black coffee, both made from Kenyan beans—but that first one was by far the best. South Africa is a place of contrast. There are skyscrapers and 17th century fortresses, shopping malls and shanties, the kindest hospitality and the most critical crime rate of all the countries I have visited so far. It was amazing.
The first day I went on a Semester at Sea City Orientation. We first stopped at the Castle of Good Hope, a fortress built by the Dutch when they first came to South Africa. The Dutch settled in Cape Town in order to provide vegetables to passing ships, and this fortress is where they lived and grew some of their crops. I spent most of my time walking around the fortress on top of the walls surrounding it, looking out over Cape Town. Cape Town is so beautiful. It sits in the cradle of a U-shaped bay with Table Mountain—a huge, completely flat-topped mountain—flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head Peak as its backdrop. After the Castle of Good Hope we visited the botanical gardens and had rooibos tea, a staple in every South African home, and biscuits with jelly and fresh cream. Our last stop was the Iziko Museum, a natural history and rock painting museum. There was an exhibit of nature photos taken all over the world that I spent the majority of my time looking at. That night some friends and I went out to a restaurant called Rafiki’s to hear some live reggae. They had amazing calamari! We got it fried, but it was so good we ordered another batch, this time grilled. If you ever go to South Africa, go to Rafiki’s and get the calamari. Not. Kidding.
The next day was a big one for me. I went on a Semester at Sea tour called Cape Town, Apartheid, and Robben Island. This tour basically took us around Cape Town to all of the most important places having to do with the apartheid era. We started at a museum dedicated to District Six. Apartheid—basically extreme segregation—split the South African people into three groups: black, colored, and white (it is not considered politically incorrect to refer to people in South Africa as black, colored, or white). District Six was a neighborhood inhabited by mostly black and colored people. It was a poor neighborhood, but the people had a really cohesive, colorful community. They may have been poor, but they were relatively happy. Then the government decided they wanted District Six to be a white neighborhood. They forcibly removed thousands of people from their homes and relocated them to the outskirts of the city. Then the whites decided they didn't want to live in District Six, so they just demolished everything. The museum is dedicated not to rebuilding District Six, but to preserving its memory and its culture. We drove through District Six, and today it is just this massive expanse of nothingness and rubble. All of this happened in the recent past, in the 1970s. The saddest part is that every single city and town in South Africa has a “District Six.”
The next step on our tour was the townships. The townships are... huge. Townships are impoverished, make-shift homes and communities. The "houses" are built out of scrap wood and scrap... whatever they can find. The lucky ones get running water and electricity. Fires are common in the townships during the dry season, often devastating entire towns in a matter of days because the houses are so close to one another they are impossible to stop. And the townships, at least what I saw, cover a land area larger than the city of Cape Town, and Cape Town is not small. It's nicknamed the "Mother City" in South Africa, partly because of its prominence and partly because it takes about 9 months for anything to get done there. We were driving on the interstate for about an hour and the townships stretched out on either side of the street for as far as I could see the entire time. The townships they leave you speechless and hopeless and depressed, until you get in there and meet the people. They have such a strong sense of community, they are educated, and they love to talk about their country. We visited a prospering bed and breakfast in the middle of a destitute township started by a woman, Vicky, who lived there and just had a vision for her life and wanted to spread the knowledge of township life. We visited an organization started by a local business owner that teaches residents of the townships how to make pottery and other crafts so that they can start their own businesses and support themselves. We ate lunch at a restaurant that was a woman's dining room. Her name is Sheila and she just loves to cook for people. And she's good at it! Sheila has lived in her home since 1960, so she lived through and survived the apartheid era. She also helped launch a marimba band's career by letting them play at her restaurant and raise money to make a CD. They performed for us while we ate and played a mixture of traditional South African songs and Bob Marley.
Our last stop was Robben Island. Robben Island is an island off the coast of Cape Town. It used to be where they would put all the people with leprosy in order to quarantine them before they learned that leprosy could be cured. It's a sad story... for years they just sent the lepers there without doing any research on how to cure the disease. Robben Island is better known as the prison where they sent political rebels during the apartheid era, namely Nelson Mandela who ended up spending 27 years in jail but still initiated a peaceful transition from apartheid to freedom. He also became the president in 1994, the year of liberation. Robben Island was a pretty brutal place where they used both physical and mental torture, kept prisoners in solitude, and would bring prisoners as close to death as possible without actually letting them die. If any were to die, because they were such prominent political leaders, the white wardens feared revolts and revolution back on the main land. So they imprisoned them and tortured them but kept them alive. We were given a tour of the island by a former prisoner. Former prisoners and former wardens alike work on the island together. Someone asked my guide how he feels about working with the former wardens, and he gave a surprising answer. He said that although the wardens tortured the prisoners, he could forgive them because it was their job. They were brought up to believe in the apartheid system and thought they were just helping to keep order. They are still decent, moral people.
That night I spent along the VA Waterfront, a strip of five star hotels, shopping malls, and restaurants, not different from some places in the United States. It was strange to be there after seeing all I had seen that day.
The third day was my birthday, and it was the best birthday I think I have ever had. I mean, how many people get to spend their birthday—their golden birthday—in South Africa? This is when I went to the Mfuleni township to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. The walls were already standing, so our goal for the day was to build the roof, patch up the holes in the walls with cement, and paint. Some highlights of the day were when Rasta, my site manager, had some girls from the township sing happy birthday to me in Afrikaans when he found out it was my birthday. The woman across the street, the one who gave us the coffee and some sandwiches also, had a cake for us, so I even got a “birthday” cake! Aside from talking to Rasta about the standard of living in the townships, how best to improve the poverty problem, and illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, I also had a great conversation with a man named Pless. Pless lives in Mfuleni and has a beautiful voice. He sings opera with an orchestra in Cape Town. He told me that, if he had the means, he would love to get out of South Africa so he would actually have the opportunity to make it somewhere. He said he wishes he also had the means to learn to play an instrument. It about broke my heart, because in the United States we take the opportunity to learn to play an instrument so lightly. In fact, most people don’t even like taking music lessons. He didn’t ask me for money or help, but only asked that I remember him. So I will.
I’ve already written a few examples of South African hospitality, and on my fourth day in South Africa I received the best hospitality of my life. South African people are so open, kind, and giving, and Mark and Belinda Lindhorst are no exception. A friend of mine on the ship has a roommate back home whose father, Mark Lindhorst, owns a vineyard in Paarl, South Africa. We went to visit his vineyard and were taken on a tour of the entire facility, from the fields to the tasting room. We saw the wine making process in action, the cellars filled with rows of barrels stacked to the ceiling, and Mark’s own personal wine collection. We even donned sarongs and—get this—stomped grapes with our bare feet! Mark filled two huge blue buckets with freshly picked grapes and we just climbed in and started stomping. All I could think of was I Love Lucy the whole time. The process takes quite a while, because once you stomp the grapes you have to pick out all of the stems. We tasted the grape juice (I know, gross, but you would have done it too), and it was seriously the best grape juice I’ve ever had. Must have been the toe jam. After we were all cleaned off, Belinda, Mark’s wife, made dinner for us all. We had a braai, or barbeque, of lamb and garlic bread covered in this amazing sauce called sweet chilli sauce. I don’t know if we have sweet chilli sauce in the United States, but if we do, you need to go out and buy some now. It is so good. I learned so much that day about wine, but I learned even more about South African hospitality.
I spent the last day in South Africa around the waterfront. I had so much to think about and to process, I just wanted to relax. I grabbed some coffee at Melissa’s and did some souvenir shopping before getting back on the ship. I could write about South Africa forever. This post is only the tip of the iceberg of everything I did, saw, and learned while in Cape Town! If you ever get the chance to come to South Africa, take it. It is beyond worth it. I truly hope I get to return someday. And if you want to know more about South Africa, ask me about it! I’d love to tell you so much more!
I know I am quite a bit behind on my blogs… I have been to Mauritius by now too, and am docking in India in just a few short hours! But I hope to be caught up soon. I hear India is even more life changing than South Africa, so I am bracing myself for quite an experience.
I also wanted to let you know my email address onboard the ship. Initially I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to answer emails from everyone so I only let a few people have it, but I love getting news from home and receiving emails! I still don’t really have time to answer all of them, but I make time.