Welcome to the blog site for our Elmira College travel class to South Africa. We will update this blog regularly with posts about our travels and experiences. We'll upload photos when we have the chance. Check back regularly to follow our adventures!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Back in the United States

This is just a quick update to let you know that we have arrived in the U.S. safely, soundly, and sleepily. We are in the Detroit airport with a 5 hour layover, waiting for our last flight. We should end up with about 39 hours total in transit home. It's been pretty epic, and it's been a wonderful class. I guess it's time to be home, though.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saying Good-Bye to South Africa

Today was our last full day in this beautiful and fascinating country, and it is sad to have to say good-bye. We had a free day today, and everyone tried to pack as much in as possible. We had a large group of students (half the class) who went shark cage diving, getting up for a 5:00 AM pickup. All reports indicated that it was an amazing experience. All limbs appear to be intact, although apparently some of the students were pretty seriously sea-sick. We had another group of students head out to one of South Africa's best beaches, although it was a bit too cold for swimming. Reports from that excursion include climbing on some big rocks, poking at sea detritus, walking along the ocean, and, sadly, losing a camera and wallet. A third group of students went the upscale route, heading down to the Waterfront development and shopping for some nice presents for people at home (and perhaps for some fun things for themselves). I can report that quite a few lovely presents are heading home for loved ones and family members.

Most of us had dinner tonight at an African restaurant (Mama Africa's), and we all tried the delicious African food. There was live music with African drums, marimbas, sax, and vocal. We kept hearing strains of American pop songs on the marimba, which was fun. The restaurant itself was decorating in beautiful modern African art, and it was a nice place to end the class.

We do have part of the day tomorrow before we leave for the airport at 2:00. I have already heard of plans for last minute shopping for those all-important gifts. I think we are all really starting to get into the mindset that this amazing experience is drawing to a close. It's sad and it's hard to leave. But it also feels like we have been here for a really long time; it's hard to believe it has only been three weeks since we left Elmira College. What an amazing adventure we have had!

We get back to campus really late on Monday night. We will try to post more photos from the last part of the class on the slideshow on the blog within a few days.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cape Town Culture

We had a really full day of fabulous cultural events, starting with a visit to Langa Township. One of the reasons why Cape Town is such a beautiful city is (sadly) part of the legacy of Apartheid: there is no poverty in the city because all the poor people live in townships like Langa outside of Cape Town. We drove to Langa by crossing behind Table Mountain, leaving behind the ocean, the plush landscape, and all the beauty of the city for the desolate, sandy, scrubby terrain where the townships are located. Langa is one of the oldest townships in South Africa, and the different phases of history are clearly visible. Old dorms built to house working men, shacks, informal shanties, small one room houses, modern small homes with electricity and plumbing, and new condo buildings are all jumbled together. It is a stunning contrast to the beauty and order of Cape Town.

We began our day with a visit to a woman who brews traditional Xhosa sorghum beer. We were invited into her tiny shack made of corrugated metal, where most of the space was taken up by large plastic fermentation barrels. She showed us the sorghum meal she uses to make the beer, which is apparently quite healthy (it's not brewed and it doesn't use yeast). She used a huge metal jug to scoop out some beer for us to taste. Traditionally, the Xhosa people kneel down to drink, so we knelt, and those who wanted a taste tried it. I think most of us thought it was an acquired taste, but it was certainly an interesting experience.

From the traditional brewer, we went to another community, not formally a township but housing many former residents of other townships. This is a newly-built community called Mfuleni, filled with small neat one or two-room houses built since the end of Apartheid. Housing continues to be the greatest need for this country, with so many people still needing homes with running water and electricity. The scope of the problem is amazing and absolutely apparent when we were visiting this huge community sprawling for miles in each direction.

In Mfuleni, we got to visit an elementary school to meet a champion children's choir. The school was built so quickly that it was basically a sandy unpaved courtyard ringed with classroom trailers. Dogs and kids wandered through the courtyard. When we met the choir, they sang for us the songs they were using for their competition (they are the regional champion choir and will soon be competing for the next level). They sang several songs in the Xhosa language, in multi-part harmony, dancing as they sang. Then they sang a song for us in English: Eidelweiss, although they used African harmonies in their arrangement. It was amazing! Those kids were fantastic. Clearly, they were poor, wearing patched and worn uniforms, but they were so incredibly talented! Before we left, they asked us to sing for them, so the students started snapping their fingers, and we sang Simeon Benjamin. I don't think it really compared, but the kids of the choir seemed to enjoy it and they gave us a big round of applause!

We then were treated to a performance, in Mfuleni, of a Xhosa dance group. This mixed-gender group was wearing such an interesting costume: they had traditional cloth skirts (both the men and women), with traditional colorful long fur belts, bead work on their necks and around their waists, and small bells on their belts. But it was clear that traditionally, this dance would have been performed shirtless, because the traditional costume was only for the bottom half. On top, they all wore random colorful t-shirts (including one who was wearing a bright green Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirt). It was an interesting blend of old and new. And the dancing was great (again, it was mostly from the waist down as well, with very precise footwork; they didn't really use their arms at all to dance, although they carried large ceremonial clubs).

We left Mfuleni for another large and dynamic township, Kahyelitsha. Here we visited a woman who started her own bed and breakfast in the one room house she owned in the middle of the township. After the end of Apartheid, she was a believer in the new South Africa, and began taking in guests. She has now expanded (upward, as there is no space in townships to expand outward). She can host up to 12 guests at a time now. She is a real dynamo and she told us about the projects that she runs for the local children. Many of her guests contribute to the projects, such as helping feed local children who often don't get enough to eat, giving out pencils and pens for school, etc.

After we left Kahyelitsha, we visited the largest township in the area, Gugulethu. This township is huge and as we entered, we could see the mix of the old and the new. The entryway is the home to a huge modern supermarket, along with open air stalls selling huge pieces of meat for barbecue, along with women cooking the meat over open flames. Kids, dogs, broken-down cars, brand new BMWs, taxi-vans, and people walking everywhere: it was incredibly stimulating, and you could feel that this township had a lot of energy in it.

In Gugulethu, we first stopped to visit a traditional healer. This was fascinating. The healer had learned his craft from his relatives, passing down traditional herbal recipes for everything from headaches to the treatment of food poisoning to treatments for getting the one you love to love you back. We had to split into two groups to visit his tiny shack (built in the back 'yard' of another shack). Most of the space in the room was taken up by a single bed. Along one wall was a set of shelves filled with various dried herbs, many just bundled into newspapers, some in jars. There were bits of animal skins, and there were several buckets of rather unsavory-looking concoctions. One larger metal bucket on the floor held some kind of liquid with a thick foam on top, almost like egg whites. We were told that someone who was unlucky might use this liquid to wash themselves so that they would get luck. Another dark brown fluid in a smaller pot was for acne. The healer asked if anyone had a headache and wanted to try a remedy. Both Meesh and Brendan volunteered to try (although neither had a headache). They were given a jar with powder in it and told to stick a finger in and then sniff or snort a bit of the powder from their finger. Meesh started sneezing quite intensely. No ill effects, though. And it would have been interesting to know if it would have worked on a real headache.

We ended our time in the townships with a really fascinating experience for lunch. We went to a thriving bar-bq restaurant called Mzoli's, where you first stop at the butcher counter to pick out your cut of meat. They toss the meat into a big metal bowl, dust it with their special spices and sauce, and then you take it back to the rear of the restaurant, where they cook it for you over an open flame. No vegetarian options here, just beef, pork, sausage, chicken, or mutton. We ended up with a giant delicious bowl of meat (they mixed it all together) and we ate it with our hands (no utensils here either). Thank goodness we had napkins!

In the afternoon, we headed back to Cape Town for a quick visit to the District 6 Museum, which memorializes the destruction under Apartheid of a thriving intercultural neighborhood which was just literally razed with very little notice. This had been a very old neighborhood in Cape Town, and it never was built on again. In fact, it still sits empty in the middle of the city.

We ended our day with a stop in the area called the Bo-Kaap, with beautiful and colorful old houses built along the hill up to Lion's Head Mountain. This was an area that was originally settled long ago by the slaves from Malaysia and Indonesia that had been brought by the Dutch to Cape Town hundreds of years ago. When the slaves were freed, they settled the Bo-Kaap, eventually joined by some of the Indians who had been brought to South Africa by the British. Not only is the architecture of the houses distinct, but the culture is distinct as well. It's now called Cape Malay, and much of it is influenced by Islam. There is a distinct cuisine, and we had the opportunity to visit a woman who opened her house to us to show us how to cook Cape Malay food. We got to help her make roti bread, which was a lot of fun (and also delicious!). She made us samosas filled with cheese, onion, and curry spice, and she cooked a chicken curry that she served us with the roti that we made. She gave us fried pepper bites, and made us a hot pudding-like dessert that was similar to a tapioca flavored with cardamom. The students were covered in flour and having a lot of fun cooking and eating, and it was a fabulous way to end our day.

Tomorrow we have a free day, and students have many plans. At 5:20 AM, our shark cage divers are being picked up to go out to the ocean and look for sharks for the day. Another large group of students is heading to the beach and hoping for some sun. A small group is going out for another look at the craft markets. We leave on Sunday afternoon. It's hard to believe that our wonderful time here is soon coming to and end.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Robben Island

Today we took the boat out from the waterfront to the famous and foreboding Robben Island. This is a large flat and deforested island far out into the bay at Cape Town. It took about 40 minutes in the rolling ocean to get to the island, and when we landed we had a tour around the place. There was a constant windy mist, and even though the sun was out, it was damp and cold. The island is made of limestone, and the glare in the sun hurt the eyes. It is a place that just feels a little unpleasant. Of course, Robben Island is the home to the famous prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. In fact, all of South Africa's male political prisoners were kept on this island during the Apartheid years.

Our guide in the prison was a man named Benjamin, who was himself a former political prisoner. He told us about life in the prison, and the ways that the political prisoners secretly tried to organize and improve prison life. Many of the prisoners were not educated, and secret schools were created in the quarry while the men were working. The educated prisoners taught the others, from basic literacy to advanced socio-political analysis. Benjamin told us he was convicted of High Treason after he was caught trying to blow up a fuel depot; when he told us he was on the U.S. 'No-Fly' terrorist watch list, you could have heard a pin drop. His story was fascinating: he had been in school in Soweto when the police fired on unarmed students who were protesting. His pregnant girlfriend was shot in the head and died in his arms; he escaped from South Africa to Angola, where he was politicized and trained as a resistance fighter. It was hard to imagine a time when this kind of politics was the norm. But as we visited the former cells in the prison, we were able to see photos and read interviews of former prisoners. It was a very powerful experience that really drove home the wrongs of Apartheid.

We got to see Nelson Mandela's former cell, which was very small (he apparently couldn't sleep without curling up). The cell was bleak and the bars were striking. It must have been a deeply terrible place to have been incarcerated for so many years.

After we got back to Cape Town, we had lunch in the huge development called the Waterfront. This area has a blend of new buildings along with renovated wharf buildings. It is filled with shops and restaurants, and the area is a lovely place to walk. Some of the students plan to head down there for dinner and shopping on one of our remaining evenings.

We had the opportunity to go part-way up Table Mountain, to the observation deck. Table Mountain is the famous flat-topped mountain that rises up behind the city. It's a visually striking landmark, and the view from the observation deck was amazing! We could see down over the whole city and out to Robben Island. Some of the students took the cable car all the way to the top, which gave a 360 degree view over the whole area, and which took us up above the clouds. A couple of students, Brendan and Meesh, are thinking about actually trying to climb Table Mountain on our free day this weekend. (!)

Shark-cage diving has been scheduled for our free day on Saturday!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pie Land and Penguins

Today was our long long bus ride. We had to get the 7 hours from Oudtshoorn to Cape Town, and our bus got pretty tiring after a while. Fortunately we broke up the day with stops at craft stores and coffee places (many of which are weird blends of, for example, motorcycle shops and coffee cafes, etc). We stopped for lunch at a place called Caledon, and many of us went to a funny little place called Pie Land, which was, as you might expect, filled with many kinds of pie. Only here, when South Africans refer to pies, they mean meat pies. Not a sweet or fruit one in sight. We got our pies and sat out on a bus stop at a corner and ate and ate and ate.

We also stopped pretty much at the bottom of the whole continent of Africa to see a penguin colony. These African penguins (also called Jackass penguins for their bray) are little guys, about a foot tall, with wide black and white stripes, and pink stripes near their eyes. The colony is protected, and we walked out on wide boardwalks to look at the penguins while they nested (this is nesting season). One of the male penguins showed us the egg he was hatching, and we did see some rather large chicks covered in grey down. The colony is in a bay surrounded with high black mountains, with large rocks tumbled down the the shore. The smell of the ocean was very strong, and, I must say, the smell of the penguins was even stronger...

Fortunately Kasey brought out her iPod with a rather large mix of 90's music. The iPod was linked into the stereo system on the bus, and most of the students sang along for much of the ride. The professors, who were actually alive in the 1990's, barely survived another tour of the decade. But we made it.

And we are now in gorgeous Cape Town. We rode into the city about dinner time, coming over the mountains and down into the main part of the city right with the rush hour traffic. Table Mountain, with its long flat top looms over this city, and some of our students have rooms in our hotel that will let them wake up to a view of the mountain in the morning. Just after we arrived, a huge rainbow formed down the mountain into the city, sparkling in the twilight mist.

More adventures begin tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


We left Tsitsikamma early this morning and headed for the ostrich farm and caves of Oudtshoorn. On our way, we had a lovely rest stop in Knysna, a lovely town alongside an estuary formed by the Knysna River. Well-caffeinated, we headed to our next stop, the town of Oudtshoorn and its ostrich farms and caves.

European settlers began hunting ostriches in the 1760s, but it took a drought some one hundred years later for people to began farming them for their feathers. Ostrich feather hats were all the rage, and wealthy farmers began raising the ugly birds for their feathers. At the height of the fashion craze, a kilogram of ostrich feathers was worth the same as a kilogram of gold. Each ostrich yields 1.5 kg of feathers, so these farmers were soon sufficiently wealthy to begin building what came to be known as feather mansions. As with all fads, this one came to a quick end. Sadly, society ladies were unable to fit their large stylish hats into the new craze called an automobile, so the hats quickly became, like, so last year. Predictably, the bottom fell out of the ostrich market, and many farmers ended up bankrupt. Post-WW II saw a revival in the ostrich market, but this time ostriches were sought not for their feathers but instead for their meat and skin. MMMM....ostrich!

We had a great time at the farm. Twelve of our crew rode the ungainly birds, which are in reality quite fierce. Your fearless blogger watched from the sidelines.

Back on the bus, we had a sing-along to some lovely Disney hits from yesteryear until your humble blogger would have given anything for a pair of earplugs. Mine was the minority opinion on the bus, however. At least I had the good sense to have dictated a vuvuzela moratorium on the bus, but I honestly could not have anticipated the Disney sing-along. I can report that a good time was had by most everyone on the bus.

After the ostriches and a lunch break, we headed to the Kanga Caves. These amazing limestone caves were formed millions of years ago when the area was more tropical than it currently is. While the rivers are gone, the caves remain, and they're really quite an amazing sight.

We spend the night in Oudtshoorn and then head to Cape Town tomorrow.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Adrenaline Day!

Today the bus didn't leave until 9am, so we got to sleep in a bit. This turned out be a good thing, since this was an action-packed day of adventure. We drove to Stormsriver, just outside the park, for our canopy tour. This was an 1-1/2 hour tour of the forest treetops along ziplines, which we all decided would be a great way to travel. Of course, by the time I finally got the hang of things, the treetop tour was over. A wonderful time was had by all!

In many ways, this was just the warm-up act for what was to come. After a quick lunch, we were off to our next stop: the world's highest bungy jump! We had seven intrepid souls who were up to this challenge: Tia Van Winkler, Megan Grout, Rachel Plass, Brendan Sanders, Diane Boileau, Laura Weingates, and Mary Corey. Everybody did great, although Brendan candidly described it as the most frightening thing he'd ever done. Speaking as someone who was too afraid to jump, I'm inclined to agree.

After this adventure, we returned to the natural beauty of Tsitsikamma Park. Laundry, hikes/walks/strolls, and a lovely sunset awaited us after this exciting day.