Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This weekend I went to the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town on the Waterfront. It was pretty great... turtles, sharks, giant crabs, penguins, and some of the weirdest fish I have ever seen. Lots of whale shout outs too. This weekend I'm hoping to either shark dive or do a homestay/ lunch thing in a township.

LAWCO is going to be interesting. As I said before, it's a pilot program so nobody really knows what to expect. We are going to be presenting workshops to high school kids about the South African legal system, including human rights, family law, etc. I'm skipping a lecture every week to do it, but I know it will be worth it. We start learning the curriculum on Monday.

On that topic, I went to an intro meeting for this group called the Social Justice Coalition. Everyone there was South African, and people seemed really inspired. I felt a little out of place because I don't have the knowledge or passion necessary to contribute to this group, but I did learn a lot. They talked a lot about the corruption that darkens all of South African politics, and how this election (in April) is one of the most important in SA's history. It's pretty exciting. They spoke about many of the injustices that persist in this country, the enormous social divide, the racism, the massive inequalities in education between townships and urban areas, the fact that a 'spirit of volunteerism' has been lost. It was certainly motivating, but the fact that I am here for such a short time left me feeling pretty powerless when it comes to these issues. It's nice to know, though, that there are people who care, who are demanding accountability and responsibility in government.

I am joining a social squash league that plays every Thursday. We play in teams (mine, Team America, has three Americans and a couple South Africans) and dress up in crazy outfits and drink/ play squash. It seems incredible.

I also signed up for a camping trip mid April to Botswana (where we will see a massive quantity of elephants) and to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It's going to be amazing.

Classes are very, very different here, and I'm trying to adjust. This university is just so BIG. It really makes you appreciate Bowdoin, where you can email and meet with your teachers whenever you want, where you know everybody you walk by. It's nice though to do something different, to be anonymous for once.

Anyways, I'm off to class.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

So it’s been a little while. I’ve been busy getting classes and groups settled, and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with it all. This weekend was incredibly fun. On Saturday I went to an organic market in the morning that had the most AMAZING food like organic pizza and honey an pastries and fruit and everything good in the world. The only thing I bought though was a six pack of Whale Tale Ale, which was great. I didn’t really care much about the taste, it was the whales that sold me. Later on I went to Kirstenbosch and we found a nice spot on the grass and passed out for a couple hours. That place is just gorgeous. That night Will snuck into a party and someone ran into Michael K Williams who plays Omar on the Wire. What the hell was he doing in Cape Town?

This week I have been running around for classes and interviews and whatnot. My time here is beginning to take shape. I’m taking a class called Conflict in World Politics (the teacher is really scary…she told us if we came to our office on Fridays she would throw us out the window), an African literature class (which has started out really well), a Sociology class on poverty, development and globalization, and a once a week music class that teaches us to play African instruments. There are a lot of lectures and you have to go to weekly discussion groups called tutorials, so there is actually a lot more class time than I’m used to. Classes are ENORMOUS (usually around 300 students). It is so incredibly different, which is hard to adjust to. There isn’t much discussion during lectures and it’s pretty easy to zone out.

There are a lot of service-oriented groups on campus that target the townships (which, of course, are very close by). I interviewed with a mentoring group that helps high school students figure out their options post-graduation. The girl who interviewed me was really enthusiastic about the program and really seemed eager and motivated to make a difference. I also interviewed with LAWCO (which I’m leaning toward doing), a new program that is trying to spread legal awareness and knowledge to township teens. The program seems pretty similar to the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and I’m excited to see how the two compare. I’m going to have to skip a lecture every couple of weeks, but I really don’t mind. Classes are definitely important but when I think about why I came to South Africa, it wasn’t just for classes.

All of my classes have some relation to South Africa, so I am looking forward (along with my service group) to really getting to know the area and region and learning about the people and the problems that this area faces.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

So when we first got our cars, Will and Aaron spent two hours learning how to drive stick in the parking lot of the travel agency. One of the workers was nice enough to give them some advice (and let them practice with her car while we were waiting). I honestly did not think we were going at first… standard just seems SO much harder than automatic and this is a foreign country with different traffic laws. AND they drive on the left, of course. Luckily, as soon as we left the parking lot they seemed to be getting the hang of it. And except for a few badly timed stalls in the middle of the road, they did a really good job with it.

As soon as we got on the highway the townships appeared. It really is hard to understand the amount of inequality in this country; literally five minutes outside the beautiful city of Cape Town are these sprawling, dirt poor towns. What is strange is that the areas don’t become poorer gradually. They literally just appear, right next to strip malls or on the side of the highway. They are typically fenced in and there are rows and rows of colorful but dirty and beaten down shacks. Dirt roads wind through them, and usually kids are playing in the streets. I found myself wondering what it was like to live in one of these towns. I feel like we are so closed off from that side of South Africa, and I don’t know how I feel about that yet.

Our destination for Tuesday was Hermanus, a town that has incredible land-based whale watching. We took a route called the “Whale Route” which travels through the mountains along the coast from Gordan’s Bay to Hermanus. This was easily the most stunning drive of my life. The road winds through these beautiful mountains and rock formations and it is literally right on the cliff. The sea is absolutely gorgeous…deep blue green. It is impossible to describe this drive and do it justice. Even pictures can’t really do it. You just have to see it.

When we got closer to Hermanus we drove more inland through a pretty desolate looking area. It reminded me of the badlands and except for an occasional house in the hills, it was pretty deserted. When we got into Hermanus we checked into Hermanus Backpackers, which was a really cool place. It was my first hostel so I don’t have much to compare it to, but I was impressed. The guys who worked there had dreds and were really awesome. There were some people from Norway and Australia staying there and it was fun hanging out with them that night. The place was colorfully painted and had shark and whale posters all over the walls. The hostel had a small pool, a bar, and a pool table. The town itself was nice but since whale season hasn’t started yet, there wasn’t too much going on. From June to October, the Southern Right Whale comes to Walker’s Bay (where Hermanus) to breed, so during that time the bay is literally filled with whales and you can see them right from the shore. They have this guy called the ‘whale crier’ (my dream job) who runs around and blows a horn to tell people where the best whale watching is. It was disappointing not to see any, but I did get to sit on a bench shaped like a whale’s tale.

Today when w e woke up we just kind of walked around the town. We left around noon to go to Crystal Pools (the point of the whole trip). The pools are supposed to be incredible…it’s a short 45 minute hike into the mountains and then I guess there are these natural pools with waterfalls that you can swim in. Sadly though it was really really windy despite the sun, and the lady suggested that it might be too dangerous to make the hike. Since we had time we decided to stop at a beautiful secluded beach with really white sand, but the wind was violently blowing the sand around and it hurt like hell, so we left. We drove to Stellenbosch (a huge wine town) and walked around the town a bit before getting dinner. The town is really pretty and is pretty much build around the vineyards. The architecture is Dutch and there are a lot of cool shops and restaurants.

On the way back we saw the sun setting for the fist time. It was the strangest sunset I have ever seen; the sun was blood red and looked absolutely enormous as it slid behind the mountains. There was also a huge fire so a lot of Stellenbosch was covered in thick smoke. We saw springboks, ostriches, and zebras on the way back running in a big fenced in field, which almost made the whole trip worth it. Overall it was fun, although going to Crystal Pools would have made it a lot better. Now it’s time to get ready for school to start.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gardens and Dolphins

Not too much to update. I’m just getting better from a sweet 5 day cold, so all I’ve really done in the last couple days is go into town a couple times and go to the beach. The other day at Clifton Beach was literally one of the hottest days I have ever experienced. But the water is so damn cold. Another contradiction. I’m beginning that that is what South Africa is all about. I can’t overstate how amazing these beaches are. Everything is just beautiful… the mountains leading directly into the sea, and enormous rocks, and blue-green water. When we first got there we went for a walk along the strip, climbing rocks along the way. There was one set of rocks that kind of jutted out into the sea, and one that you had to jump to. The waves were crashing violently against it, so standing on the rock meant you would get sprayed until you were soaked. It took me a while to stop hesitating and just jump to it, but it was worth it. We even saw a pod of dolphins (of course thinking they were sharks at first) as the life guard was kicking us off.

The other day it rained for the first time in three weeks, or a least since we’ve been there (I’m sorry Emily!). Anyone that was left on our street decided to run out and dance in the rain, even though there was lightning and thunder. You would think it would have been refreshing, but the rain was as warm as bath water.

Yesterday a big group of us went to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens for a concert. The gardens are absolutely stunning. Everything is perfectly green and it is one of the most biodiverse spots in the entire world. The concert was fun, but it was just so oppressively hot!

Right now we are trying to plan probably the most poorly organized trips ever. We want to go to the crystal pools, which are about an hour along the coast away from Cape Town. It is supposed to be beautiful. We are going to stay the night and then go to Hermanus (Whale Capital of South Africa) the day after. We have to rent cars to go out there, which would be fine except for the fact that the only cars available in ALL OF CAPE TOWN are standards and none of us drive stick. Will and Aaron are learning to drive stick as we speak (online). Should be interesting…

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Getting closer to real life

So I am feeling kind of sick right now (something has been going around to literally everyone on the program, so I’m not surprised). Anyway, good time to update. So I have had my first couple experiences navigating the University of Cape Town. As I have heard, it may be the best university in Africa, but it still operates in a third world country. Things are just so inefficient compared to American schools, and at times it is incredibly frustrating. On Monday we had to take a test to prove we can learn in English, and the woman ‘explaining’ how to fill out the test was infuriating. She wouldn’t listen to anyone’s questions, was incredibly unclear about everything, leaving the lecture hall full of students absolutely exasperated. The class registration process is even crazier… I spent 4 days trying to figure out what the hell a ‘pink form’ was, and after hearing 18 different explanations, I learned that you had to run around and get signatures from professors to get ‘preapproval’ for classes before the actual registration on Friday. The problem, though, is that course catalogs are not readily available, so finding out the teachers and times of classes is difficult. It really is absurd. Luckily I finished all of that, and am hopefully taking Conflict in World Politics, Povery, Development, and Globalization, and an African Literature class. Despite the craziness, I am trying to keep an open mind and accept that things at UCT just don’t run as smoothly as at Bowdoin.

A lot of the people here (at least those connected to the University) are really involved with and care about politics and world events. As one lecturer pointed out, this is a country of flux and change, and issues like housing, inequality, water, food, etc are very important to South Africans. So I am becoming less surprised when I find myself locked into a conversation on the Middle East with a soda vender, or looking at a flyer about a protest against governmental corruption handed to me by a student.

Today was a special day because we learned about SHAWCO and actually got to visit one of the sites located near a poor township. It reminded me a lot of Safe Passage in Guatemala. SHAWCO is involved with community development and serves as a sort of supplemental after school program for local children. It also provides services to the elderly, works on health and AIDS awareness, and teaches English. It seems like an incredible program, and I can’t wait to get more involved. This weekend I think I am signing up to do a homestay in a township, which should be very interesting. Hopefully I feel better by Friday.

The evenings here are so beautiful. As the sun goes down the weather is a perfect 69 degrees. I have loved running up to the top of UCT’s campus around this time because the weather and campus are just gorgeous. I also played soccer in a random park the other day with a couple people, which was really refreshing. Anyway, I miss you all!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I wanted to update tonight because orientation is going to be incredibly busy for the next week or so. So today we went on a bus tour around Cape Town and down the peninsula. We went with all the other ‘international’ students (which means 90 % Americans) and basically were an enormous mass of white people moving around together. It was pretty bizarre. The tour was informative… our guide knew a ton about the area, and it was interesting to hear about history, geography, culture, etc in greater detail. One of the few good things about Interstudy is that we have been here for two weeks, so we all feel pretty comfortable. The other students just got here a couple days ago, and I can imagine how overwhelming that is.

After leaving Cape Town we drove along the peninsula, cruising along windy, scenic roads along the coast. The country just gets more and more beautiful the more I see of it; literally all along the coast are beautiful beaches, majestic mountain ranges, and vibrant green colors. It is just gorgeous, and there is no way to really convey how beautiful it is. You really just have to see it. We stopped in Simons Town quickly where there is a colony of Jackass penguins (small African penguins). Apparently the penguins actually found the area themselves and it is now obviously preserved. But they were literally everywhere, lounging out on the rocks, waddling around. It was really funny, and I was so intrigued that I bought a penguin statue for 10 rand.

We drove along and suddenly found ourselves in Oceans View, which actually does not have anything close to a view of the ocean. This was my first true experience with a poor African township. The contrast is just incredible… this town literally borders wealthy suburbs occupied by mostly whites. Oceans View was actually established as a place for blacks to live when they were forced to move out of Simons Town during the beginning of apartheid legislation. The people are still very poor, but they have a lot of pride and a vibrant culture. We had a really delicious lunch and watched a group of young kids singing and break dancing. They really did seem proud of their town and of their people, and it was truly humbling.

Our last destination was the Cape of Good Hope, part of a huge nature reserve that stretches all the way to Table Mountain. The area is actually preserved rather well, and is in most ways exactly how it was before the area was colonized. The Cape was first named the “Cape of Storms” by initial settlers because of its gusty winds, but in order to make it a more frequented trade route, it was renamed the Cape of Good Hope. Here I saw some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. The water is a perfect blue-green, and the rocks and mountains jut out into the sea all around you. Baboons are supposed to run around all over the place there (they are pests in South Africa) but sadly we didn’t see any up close. Anyway it was an amazing trip, and it was good to talk to some of the other students in other programs. I am looking forward to getting to know the university a little better this week… hopefully it won’t be too stressful.