Monday, May 16, 2011
Saturday, May 14, 2011
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
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
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
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
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.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
We are in Tsitsikamma Park, where we will be staying for the next couple of days. This park is in the middle of an indigenous forest with old-growth trees, on the side of a mountain, right along the Indian Ocean. It is so beautiful that it is hard to describe. The waves crash big and loud against the rocky shore, and the mouth of the Storms River is in the same bay, just a short walk away. The water get so deep so quickly at the shore that dolphins swim incredibly close. Whales too, although we are out of season for them.
We are staying in small and charming (and rustic!) little a-frame wood cabins near the shore. The sound of the waves is constant. We have a little outdoor kitchen for cooking, and chairs for sitting outside on the deck porches of the cabins. It's like a little village mostly just for us.
Students have had free time today to explore the walking trails and all the beautiful nature. Some walked up to the Storms River mouth and crossed the suspension bridge hanging over the river gorge. Lots of stairs on that path! Other students wanted to take the so-called 'Waterfall Path,' but began the trail a little too late. It was blocked with a sign warning people not to start after 1:30 PM for reasons of safety. It gets dark at about 6:00 PM, and there are no street lights around here. In fact, we had to walk a half-mile back to the main building from the cabins just to get the internet tonight. And it was pitch black, lit only by the stars and our flashlights.
The best part is that the weather has cleared up! While we haven't had beautiful blue skies to go with the beautiful surroundings, at least it hasn't rained. And it looks to be clear tomorrow too, for when we go forest gliding, after which some of our braver (crazier?) students plan to go bungy jumping. That should be fun to watch. From the sidelines. On solid ground...
Saturday, May 7, 2011
The unfortunate thing is: it's raining. Not just a little bit of rain, but a heavy and steady windy downpour. Some of us went to find some dinner, and in a 20 minute walk, we were complete drenched. So we are in this charming place, with a bit of free time, and there is a very strong disincentive to go out and explore. Such a shame.
It's even more of a shame that rain is forecast for the next few days, as we head off to the last remaining indigenous forest in South Africa, Tsitsikamma Park. We are spending a couple of days in Tsitsikamma to get the chance to experience this amazing forest, and we plan to go treetop gliding on Monday. Some of the students are planning on going bungy jumping from the world's highest jumping point. And it's supposed to be raining the whole time!
Hopefully, all will be well and we'll still have plenty of adventures in Tsitsikamma. We don't know if we will have internet there, so if we don't post updates for a while, don't be worried.
Friday, May 6, 2011
After we left Kruger Park this morning, we headed out the Phalaborwa Gate about 2/3 of the way down the park to the West. This gate put us out into the region that is often called the Panorama Route. The scenery here is incredibly beautiful, in part because of the Drakensberg Mountains, and in part because of all the river canyons. It is right in this area that the continental divide occurs, and we can actually see the rift as Africa is splitting apart. What? Yes, there is a giant tectonic fracture zone going down the east side of the entire continent of Africa, where the earth is grinding together as the continent slowly crashes and splits. In the Panorama area, we can see that there is almost a mile difference in height between the eastern part of South Africa and the western part. There is literally a giant cliff drop-off. We stopped to take some photographs and it feels like actually being as high up as the clouds, and we could feel the moisture in the air, like we were breathing clouds as well. It's very dramatic.
We also got to see the Blythe River Canyon, which, while smaller, reminded many of us of the Grand Canyon. The river has worn away layer after layer of rock, revealing a huge open canyon with painted layers on down the sides. We stopped to see a special rock formation called The Three Rondevals, which are rocks shaped like giant roundhouses. The view is amazing!
In addition, we had the chance to see the amazing river rock formations called Bourke's Luck Potholes. These are not actually potholes, but rather huge round holes in a river bottom as well as down the sides of the river canyon. The river has worn a deep and narrow groove into the earth (100 feet straight down but only about 30 feet across). But stones large and small were caught in the river current and couldn't move out of the narrow canyon, and acted as drills, making some very deep and round holes in the rock. The bridges crossing the gorge are narrow and offer some amazing views. We could also see a below-ground waterfall, which was fascinating. We got to walk all around the site and take some really fabulous photographs.
It is easy to get the sense of the power of nature in this area of South Africa.
We are now staying overnight in the little town of Graskop, which used to be a frontier town back in the gold rush days. It actually looks a little like an old frontier town in the American west, with low wood buildings and raised sidewalks. Now it is a bit of an arty town, with a number of local artists selling artwork, and lots of beautiful crafts for sale. We arrived just in time for about an hour of sightseeing and shopping, and I believe some lovely gifts are headed home with some of our students.
The highlight of the day, perhaps because we were all so tired from such early safari mornings (4:15 AM starts!), was our happy and delicious dinner at Harrie's Pancakes. This old time dutch pancake house serves only pancakes served the traditional Boer way, thick but with savory or sweet fillings. Somehow this seemed to be the perfect end to this portion of our trip.
Tomorrow, we fly from here to Johannesburg, change planes, and head to Port Elizabeth on the east coast and much more to the south. We'll see the Indian Ocean and be on to the next phase of our adventure...
Kruger Park is vast, approximately the size of Israel. Named for late nineteenth century president and Boer War hero Paul Kruger, the park was established in 1898 as the Sabi game reserve to protect animals from well-off sport hunters who were in danger of hunting certain species to extinction. The Sabi Reserve was expanded and became what we now know as Kruger National Park in 1926.
We entered the gates of the park in the late morning on Wednesday, 5/4. We proceeded slowly, using our bus as a makeshift safari vehicle until we arrived at our stop for the night, Shingwedzi Camp just prior to 4pm. We just had time to get situated in our rooms before it was time for our game drives and bush walks. Because we are a relatively large group, we were split into three groups, the intention being to allow each member of our group the opportunity for a game drive an a bush walk.
These are two very different experiences. Participants in a game drive find themselves in back of an open-air safari vehicle and proceed to spend the next 2 1/2-3 hours slowly traveling the roads of the park in search of wildlife. The highlight of the first night's drive was surely a group of hyenas, one of which decided to gnaw on the tire of the safari vehicle! The next morning, groups set out again, this time at 4:30am (this was a brutal wake-up time for many of us, some of us more than others.) It gets quite cold in these open-air vehicles, especially before the sunrise, so much of our energy was spent trying to keep warm. Luckily, the trucks are outfitted with plenty of blankets just for this purpose, so we were able to concentrate on game viewing (as long as our eyes didn't get too heavy, of course.) Highlights of this drive included baboons and two female hyenas with two babies, again right by the roadside (but no tire-gnawing this time, thankfully).
Bush walks are very different, as one might imagine. While participants in game drives typically see more animals, walkers are able to experience the bush in a way that simply isn't possible if one simply drives through it. Each bush walk is led by two experienced guides armed with rifles, to be used on animals only as a last resort (I'm happy to report that none of the guides had to resort to the use of these weapons on our walk; they are an important safety precaution but rarely used). These expert guides are able to interpret the bush for the walkers, showing them things such as the bones of a snake or elephant dung. On of our walks included fresh lion tracks and dung, but no encounters with lions (this was probably for the best, but still...). While one sees more on a drive, walkers are able to experience the bush using their other senses, hearing and smelling the bush in a quiet way that isn't possible from the inside of a diesel safari vehicle, even an open-air one. I think everyone is happy that they were able to experience the bush in both ways.
Thursday morning, we proceeded slowly once again, riding in our bus safari vehicle until we reach our night's lodgings at Oliphants Camp. Animal highlights include hippos, elephant herds (including some really cute babies); birds such as vultures, Bateleur eagles (named for their wobbling flight pattern which resembles a tightrope walker--bateleur is French for tightrope walker) and gorgeous Lilac-Breasted Rollers (see photo above); countless Impalas; giraffes; and crocodiles. Doubtlessly the highlight of our animal sightings occurred Thursday night on our way to our Bush Braai, when we were lucky enough to spy a leopard in the underbrush.
Bush Braais are wonderful. Similar to a barbecue, except that it occurs in the brush under the stars. After a short 10 km drive, we arrived at the site of the braai. The cooks had been busy preparing a delicious feast of lettuce and pasta salads, chicken and steak, grilled vegetable stew, and pap with tomatoes (pap is a maize porridge, similar to polenta), and brownies with custard for dessert.
Participants in the game drive on Friday morning were delighted to find a Kori Bustard. Students had been anxiously seeking out this bird ever since they learned that our guide remembered my name (Corey) by recalling the name of this bird. They were understandably thrilled to have found one; in fact, this was likely more exciting than the rhinos they saw on their ride.
We slowly made our way out of the park and bid farewell to our guide Traugott. He was a great guide, since he had grown up among the Venda and was truly passionate about the people, their heritage, and their land. He has encyclopedic knowledge of the various game in Kruger Park as well, a great guide.
The answer books will help prepare students to pass these exams. We initially thought we'd just drop the books off, but the principal and assistant principal had assembled all the students and teachers for an official ceremony. In the end, it turned out to be quite moving. Traugott, our guide, greeted those gathered in both Venda and English, stressing the importance of education. Two students from our group volunteered to briefly discuss the vital role that education had played in their lives, and I wrapped things up by again stressing the importance of education.
For an American audience, these would have been mere platitudes, things they'd all heard before ("stay in school," etc.), but for the students gathered there I believe that it struck a much more meaningful chord with them. Part of the reason is that we were perhaps the first outsiders that had visited the school, certainly the first Americans. Even the teachers and administrators at the school seemed to be taken with the fact that we had come to the school to present them with this very practical gift. We hope that we can continue to work with the students of this school and the people of this area in the future.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
After the marketplace, we didn't have enough time to walk out to the waterfall, so we went straight to the tiny village where they are trying to build an arts center. The local chief has allowed this village of about 20 houses to build a one-room building that will hopefully someday become a place to showcase the beading work of some of the local women. They use tiny seed beads to make intricate patterns, especially on belts. The local beading pattern of the women from this village is a scene from the Domba dance (the dance that moves through the life cycle of women; girls become women once they learn the whole dance). Our bus couldn't get us all the way into the village because the packed dirt road was so bad. We walked in, and as we got there, we saw that this building they were so proud of was basically a small square (maybe 25 by 25 feet) with a tin roof and windows on each side. There were some additional low brick walls that were being constructed, but this building was in no way nearly finished. (We learning that they are slowly raising money, and that construction has been going on since 1998; they build as they can pay for it).
We had brought paint and other materials, and our plan was to spend the afternoon helping the people work on the building. So that's what we did. It was a warm sunny day, and we were way way way out in the country. The kids of the village came by to watch us (they were much shier than the kids yesterday, although a few of them would smile and wave at us from a distance). We got to work scraping the iron frames on the windows, taping on the glass, and painting the metal a bright happy green. There were a lot of small panes of glass, so this took pretty much the entire afternoon. We also had the chance to help with some brickwork. None of our students had ever done anything like this, so the group that was working on the bricks was actually learning how to do basic concrete mixing and brick laying. First they picked through the pile of bricks looking for the best ones. They chased out the giant spiders and other scary animals (judging from the screams). They stacked the bricks, and mixed up some concrete in a big wheel barrow. Then they started laying the brick, using a level and a lot of concrete to get the walls straight. They actually got a fair amount of brick put down.
We brought our own lunch to the site, but for dinner, the ladies of the little village cooked us their specialties. We were fed stewed chicken in spices, a green vegetable mix that had been stewed and the slightly dried, some very spicy beef, some grits (dry and thick, which they call 'pap') and of course, a big bowl of roasted and spiced mopani worms! These mopani worms aren't actually worms at all; they are caterpillars. And they are big and fat, almost the size of a pinky finger. They are black and grey, and they are eaten whole, complete with heads and legs. A lot of our students sampled them, as did the professors! There was some drama of course, but most of us agreed that they tasted kind of smoky, a bit like chicken, perhaps with a bit of spinach. And they were both crunchy (that exoskeleton!) and soft and chewy. They did not taste bad, but the chewing had a bit of the sensation of crunching on a piece of shrimp with the shell still on it. A bit off-putting indeed, but a real experience!
The most amazing part of the day, however, was the singing and dancing. Betty, the healer and religious leader we met yesterday, came to the arts center and brought her choir with her. They were all teens, both male and female. The girls were wearing long white blue skirts with white trim, white blouses, and a wide blue cloth collar with embroidered designs. Their hair was covered in white scarves. The boys were wearing white lab-style coats with blue embroidery. All of them were wearing heavily decorated sashes with the name of the church on it. They were very serious when they first arrived, and quite shy as well.
First, before the choir sang, it was traditional to let the hosts from the local village welcome us. The children of the village (from about age 2 to age 16 or so), brought out their drums, which they played by sitting on them sideways. As they drummed and sang local songs, each kid took a turn doing the dance that went with each song. They clapped for each other, and we clapped with them. The kids were so enthusiastic, and it was so much fun to see it. Then the choir sang for us, and it was AMAZING! They sang incredibly beautiful songs with multi-part harmony, and the experience was almost trance-inducing in its power. They danced slowly as they sang, and they played a few instruments, including a giant skin drum and some maraca-style shakers that looked like they were made out of cans with handles stuck on. After they were finished singing us a number of songs, some of the local village kids asked if they could dance, and suddenly all of the choir kids and the local kids were singing and dancing spontaneously. Some of us were pulled up to join them (yes, our two guys, Brendan and Rashan were quite popular! Kasey and Megan and Sarah got in there pretty well too). The whole thing was filled with such joy and fun, with everyone laughing and singing and dancing, it was such a powerful thing to be there and get to experience it! It was really a once-in-a-lifetime event, something that could never have been staged.
On the bus on the way back, we gave the choir a lift home and packed the bus full. The choir kids started to sing on the bus as we drove through the dark night of the countryside into the lights of the city. It was really lovely.
This truly was an amazing day.
Monday, May 2, 2011
Our bus bounced around on a red dirt road pitted with holes and bumps, beeping away cows and smaller vehicles. The houses around us were very small, mostly one room brick or stucco homes, and we began to see more and more roundhouses with thatch roofs (rondevals). The rondevals are the traditional homes of people in this area, and people still make them out of local mud, by hand. Most of the houses were actually clustered into small compounds, about the size of an average yard in the city of Elmira. In one yard, we might see a small handmade fence for chickens around the perimeter, packed red earth for the yard, with corn and other plants or flowers in a small garden. In the yard might be two or even three one-room houses, right next to each other--perhaps two one-room rectangle houses with tile roofs, and one rondeval. I guess this is the modern way to live traditionally.
We made our way deep into the countryside to visit a very important traditional Venda potter in the tiny town of Mukondeni. The potter, Sarah Munyai, is a very old woman who learned the traditional methods and designs of Venda pottery from her own grandmother when she was a girl. Sarah, who didn't speak a word of English, demonstrated how to make a traditional pot. She first put down a special mat in her yard (again, the yard was hard packed red dirt). On this mat, she set out her materials, each in a special spot. Then she sat down with her legs straight out in front of her, with her traditional woven skirt hitched up. Before she began working the clay, she ululated quite suddenly and loudly! It was a striking sound, almost like the call of an animal. It is part of the pottery ritual, a sound of celebration and anticipation. This is how every pot starts out. She built the pot right in front of her on the ground, by hand, using a special scraping tool to help make it rounded. When she had the shape of the pot right, she quickly, without even seeming to think about, etched perfectly sized lines into the design. She then took her finger and dipped it into watery graphite and painted the graphite onto the pot design using her hands. The graphite will turn black. She also used her fingers to paint red iron oxide onto the pot design. When she was finished, she said a ritual prayer to the ancestors, to her home, to her family, and to the pot. From ululation to prayer, that's how a traditional Venda pot is made! Later, after we left, the pot would be fired in a very hot fire (no kilns here).
Sarah herself was fascinating. She was 86 years-old, and very traditional. She was wearing a bright pink turban and a traditional woven dress over a yellow polo shirt advertising the ANC (from some previous election). She wore a black cell phone case around her neck like a necklace. Around her wrists and ankles, she wore traditional Venda coiled metal bracelets which had been given to her by suitors when she was a young woman. Traditionally, Venda girls go through three ritual steps of adulthood, culminating in learning all the parts to the Domba dance, where the women all link arms like a snake and dance the parts of the life cycle. After becoming an adult by learning the Domba, a Venda woman become marriageable. Her suitors give her the bracelets as a proof of their devotion, and no matter who the woman ends up marrying, she wears the bracelets for the rest of her life. Sarah had quite a large number of bracelets; she must have been quite a young woman! Nowadays, she's even more amazing. She not only raised her own children, she now raises 6 young grandchildren and is responsible for the welfare of almost her entire family, sending the kids to school and feeding everyone. As one of the few traditional Venda potters, her work is in much demand, but she refuses to leave her tiny town.
After Sarah showed us how to do traditional Venda pottery, we had the chance to try ourselves. Many students did try, although some were distracted by the very cute and friendly small children who were trying to get our attention. These kids were speaking to us in English, with limited vocabulary, but were thrilled that we would actually talk with them. Some of our students started taking pictures, and the kids began to clown around. Our students began to clown with them. Pretty soon it was a giant playground and a lot of fun.
We had brought a picnic lunch, and we shared the food and drinks with all the people in Sarah's compound. It was fascinating to see the strict order in which people ate. First was the host, Sarah, and then the guests, us, and then each person according to their age. The children came last and picked through the remaining food carefully looking for the best remainders. In our culture, we typically feed children first, but not here. In poor communities, this has been a terrible problem, in fact, in that children often eat the least in any given family and sometimes come to school so hungry that they can't study.
After we left Sarah's house, we bumped back down the roads towards another small town, Itsani. This town is slightly less rural than Mukondeni, in that there were a few shops and some of the roads were paved. In Itsani we went to visit a spiritual healer named Betty. She has her own church and followers, and uses the power of prayer, along with healing herbs and the ability to communicate with the ancestors, to heal people. When we arrived at her church, a one room brick building with open holes for windows, we sat down and waited for Betty to arrive. When she came in, she was wearing a white robe with a large blue cross on the back, and a white wimple. She looked like she was about 40. She went down on her knees to great us, crawling one by one on the floor to shake each hand. This was a sign of great respect that she was showing us. It was an astonishing thing to see!
Tonight, we were at our guide, Traugott's, house, up on a hillside at Thoyandu. Some of us helped him make African-style pizza (tomatoes, cheese, sausage, oregano and banana! etc). Others of us sat out on the veranda looking down over the lights of the city. It was gorgeous, and the food was amazing, and it was a really nice evening. We are all back at the hotel now, getting ready for bed and ready for tomorrow. We have some more exciting things planned, including working at an arts center to help get it ready to open for a women's craft collective. We will also get a private concert and dance lesson from Betty's church choir, who will also be cooking dinner for us. Before we do any of that, though, we will have a hike through the bush.
It was another amazingly lovely day in Africa today!
By the way, before I go, I wanted to mention that we have all heard the news about Osama Bin Laden. Just so you all know, we are perfectly safe, as there doesn't seem to be any kind of local feeling about this even one way or the other.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Mapungubwe is situated along the Limpopo River which forms South Africa's northern border with Botswana to the northwest and Zimbabwe to the northeast. From the top of the site, we could see across the river and into Zimbabwe. Due to political and economic instability in Zimbabwe, this part of South Africa must deal with an influx of Zimbabwean immigrants. This is an acute problem, since unemployment in South Africa is thought to be 45%, although no one knows for sure exactly how many people are out of work. It's clear that while things are much better here now than they were twenty years ago, South Africa still has a long way to go. This is a lament that we've heard more than once on this trip.
After an all-American lunch of burgers and fries, we piled into the bus and proceeded to Tshipise. The resort we're staying in tonight is known for its hot and cold natural springs which are thought to have therapeutic properties. We arrived here around 4:30 pm, but stopped along the way to climb a lookout rock that provided us magnificent views of the surrounding area.
Tomorrow we continue our wonderful time in Venda with visits to a traditional healer and artist. We will also soon be sampling Mupani worms (said to be good in stew) as well as termites (apparently a good movie snack, similar to popcorn I suppose). Stay tuned!
The drive to Venda took us closer and closer to the Soutpansburg mountain range and the Limpopo River. From miles away, we could see the mountains purple against the horizon. We had to drive through them, on winding roads with spectacular views, to get to Venda. As we drove we saw literally hundreds of baobab trees, perhaps even thousands of them. This is the area with the world's greatest concentration of these giant trees, some of them more than 4000 years old. Baobabs have giant stubby trunks with only a few smaller branches (like hair) coming out their tops. Some of these baobabs have leaves right now, and some don't. The ones without their leaves look almost spooky, dark and strong against the skyline. The older trees have trunks that are 40-50 feet around, if not larger. The bark is shiny and smooth and gray. They are really powerful trees, and seeing so many has been an amazing experience!
After we arrived at our lodge, we immediately went out on a game drive before it got dark. These large game lodges own huge amounts of land, and manage herds of wild animals that live there. (In fact, the reason we had a last minute switch in the lodge where we stayed was because the lodge where we had a reservation just recently changed its policies to cater to large game hunters and had apparently packed the place). The Dongola Ranch, where we ended up staying, was much quieter.
After the game drive, which culminated at a small river dam, we had the chance to walk around and explore a bit out in the bush. We had to be careful not to get too close to the water because of crocodiles (!); thank goodness we didn't see any (or that they didn't see us!). As it got dark, we sat out in the breeze watching the stars and smelling our dinner cooking on a huge grill. We had an amazing meal out there, lit only by stars and fire. They served us typical South African food, lots of meats like lamb and chicken and beef, some great salads and vegetables, wonderful homemade bread and, oddly, some very delicious toasted tomato and cheese sandwiches. They even made some special food for our two vegetarians.
Sitting out under the stars was an incredible experience. We got to watch the stars emerge one by one as it got dusky, and slowly, as it got dark, the sky became carpeted with an amazing number of stars. It was so clear, and there was so little light pollution, that I'm fairly certain I've never been able to see as many stars in the sky as last night. The sky looked like it does in photos from the Hubble Telescope, and we could even get a sense of the Milky Way! We found Orion (he's lying down on his side instead of standing upright down here). And we found the Southern Cross on the opposite side of the sky. Our guide told us how to find out where true South lies using the Southern Cross (and I have to say it's much more complicated than just finding the North Star back home). It was absolutely a wonderful evening last night.
A little after we got back to our rooms, the power went out! South Africa has a serious power shortage, as they have not been able to keep up with increased demand for electricity and the power grid isn't expanding fast enough. Under Apartheid, most people who lived in South Africa didn't have electricity at all. Since 1994, the government has extended electricity to most people, but can't keep up with demand. The lodge came around and gave us all candles, and we had asked everyone to pack flashlights, so we were OK. Some of the students played cards by candlelight, while others read or journaled or just sat and talked. Some of us sat outside in the lovely night breeze, looking at the stars, and just feeling lucky.
Saturday, April 30, 2011
I should let you know that we are staying in a different lodge than was listed in our itinerary. Our new lodge is called Dongols Ranch Lodge, and the contact information is: dongols@iafrica. com, or 015-533-1068 (in case of emergency).
The land as we drive past is filled with bushes and small trees, very green but sort of scrubby. The soil here has a high mineral content and is alternately very red or very gold. The gold soil is that color because of the actual gold content. In fact, the Johannesburg area is focused on gold mining, and is South Africa's largest industry. Johannesburg is the largest city in the world not built on a water system, and exists (and thrives) from mining.
The highways are excellent, and look much like European highways. There are regular rest stops and scenic pull-offs. While the land is mostly flat, there are some rolling hills off on the horizon. As we get farther north, we'll start to see the mountains in the distance. There are also some very large high hills that look like ridges, with very little vegetation growing on them. These hills, which are quite dramatic, are fairly frequent along the side of the road. They are mine tailing dumps, some very old. As the gold veins are mined, the remaining soil is piled and packed to create these hills. Even 100 years ago, they were concerned with erosion, so the tailings are piled almost squarely, which leads to the dramatic look of the hills.
This part of South Africa is quite dry, and we are at a very high elevation. In fact, we are higher up than Denver right now. As we drive toward the east, we will hit the continental divide, which is marked by a dramatic mile-high drop-off. Literally, the continent of Africa is slowly splitting apart and has been for millions of years. If you look at an elevation map, you can see, the whole length of the continent, along the eastern side, a chain of lakes, mountains, and rivers, which mark the divide. The far eastern part of Africa is not only at a much lower elevation, but the whole ecosystem changes as well. Up high in this part of the country, it is drier and dustier and grassier. In the east, it is warmer, moister, and greener. The plants and animals are different as well, as we will soon see.
As we've been driving, we've been seeing lots of political signs. The region we are in currently is having a state election in mid-may, just after we leave. Many older South Africans are not fully literate, so the political signs use a lot of photographs and symbols. We have seen Jacob Zuma's face everywhere! While he is the President of South Africa, he is also the head of the ANC (African National Congress), the ruling party. People here don't vote for individuals, they vote for political parties. So Zuma is not himself on the ballot, but his party is. Actually, when we were in the Apartheid Museum, one of the last exhibits before we left was a framed first ballot of the free and democratic South Africa in 1994. The Apartheid regime had made most competing political parties illegal, so when South Africans were finally free, the ballot, with all the parties, was highly symbolic of the new democratic nation.
Zuma is a controversial president. Both Mandela, the nation's first real democratically-elected president, and his sucessor, Mbeki, were highly educated resistance leaders from the small Black middle class. They were both also from the Xhosa ethnic group, but highly influenced by Western culture and ideals. Zuma is a Zulu chief, a former mining union leader, with four years of formal education in grade school. He also has many wives and children. He is highly influential with many South Africans, not only because the Zulus are the largest ethnic group, but because he is very charismatic and speaks like "an African." He has used this influence to help with workers wages, but he has also used his influence in controversial ways. For example, he has publicly stated that if a man is circumcised and takes an immediate shower, he can't get HIV from having relations with an HIV positive woman. This is now known as 'The Zuma method," and as can be imagined, it is very controversial.
Most of the students are sleeping on the bus right now. We'll be stopping for a quick lunch in an hour or so. We've already given them their first pop-quiz (with a bonus question!). We haven't graded them yet, but we are fairly optimistic!
So far, so good...
Friday, April 29, 2011
After tea and biscotti, we learned more about this research as we toured the site. The fossils found at Drimolen and other nearby sites were formed as a result of sedimentation processes in vertical caves extending around 50 feet below the surface of the earth. The Austrolopithicus specimens found at the site date back approximately 1.6 million years. One of the most exciting finds at this particular site include the nearly intact skeletons of six newborn babies. This is rare because infants' bones are not fully formed, and thus rarely become fossilized. Of course, it's not all hominids here; there's plenty of microfauna as well (those are the bones of mice and other small rodents, preserved thanks to two million year old owl pellets).
After a lovely picnic lunch at the site, we proceeded to spend the afternoon in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. The main attraction here was the Vortrekker Monument. This monument memorializes the struggles of mainly Dutch South African farmers called Boers to subdue the local Zulu tribes and carve out a home for themselves, a process similar in all its bloodiness to the American pioneers as they moved further into the American West.
Our final stop for the day was the lovely Gardens of Remembrance, which is another memorial of sorts, this time to South Africans who gave their lives in the two world wars of the past century. A lovely end to a lovely day. On our way out of Pretoria, we drove by the home of Peter Kruger, the rough and tumble President of South Africa from the mid-1880s until the end of the Anlgo-Boer War and the American Embassy. Tomorrow: a day of driving as we make our way to the Venda territory in the far northeast corner of South Africa.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
It was hard to get out of bed this morning after such a long trip, but we all made it up by 8:00 AM for breakfast and then onto the bus. Our guide for the day, Robin, a historian, took us first to the Apartheid Museum. This museum is a world-class modern museum dedicated to preserving South Africa's history of racial divisions, violence, struggle, and reconciliation. Throughout our time in the museum, Robin talked about his own experiences as a white "European" English-speaker. His family roots went back to 1842 in South Africa, when his ancestors came with other British farmers to settle land in the West Cape. He was very open about how he was born before the formal racial separation of Apartheid became the law, grew up under Apartheid, and supported it for much of his adult life. It was only after the end of Apartheid, he told us, that he began to see how racial divisions had harmed not only his country but so very many people. Since Apartheid, he has dedicated much of his work to helping people who live in the township of Alexandra, one of the oldest and poorest townships in the country.
With Robin's guidance, we went into Alexandra to visit one of the social projects. First, though, we stopped for lunch at a shabeen, a sort of restaurant that under Apartheid operated secretly, but now is a vital part of the local community. For lunch, we had the typical meat-heavy South African food: spiced sausages, barbecued chicken, and marinated beef. We also had a form of grits, some chaka laka (spicy chopped carrot mix), and a pea and bean mix that tasted a lot like baked beans. It was delicious (to most of us, anyway!).
After lunch, we went to the social project, a school for orphans that our guide founded. Today was not a school day, and as our bus pulled in, children started running towards us, waving and smiling. As we came off the bus, children started coming up to us and giving us big hugs, or shaking our hands, or clowning around with us. Some of the boys were tumbling and doing flips in the grass. We had brought them some presents from Elmira College, so our students handed out soccer balls and Elmira College t-shirts to the kids (many of the kids were WAY too small for the shirts, but immediately put them on anyway). Some of the girls started bouncing the soccer balls as if they were basketballs, and a couple of our students started playing 'basketball' with them. Of course we were curious about these children, some of whom had been orphaned by AIDS, but those kids seemed to be just as curious about us. I think it's fair to say that the highlight of the day was the visit we had with these kids!
The township around us had many large shanty-towns and run-down hostels, mixed in with a few well-cared for tiny little houses. The people were all very friendly and even with the obvious and pervasive poverty they were very welcoming. Alexandra is a fascinating place, and it was a wonderful opportunity to have a chance to see a little of it.
From Alexandra, we went to Soweto, South Africa's largest and most famous township. This township was the former home of both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and we had the chance to walk past their houses (the former Mandela house is in the process of being turned into a museum). We went to the spot where Hector Pietersen was murdered by the police in 1976. During that time, young students were protesting new rules that required that all students of color in South Africa would be required to be taught in Afrikaans, the symbolic language of the oppressor and a language that most of the teachers and students did not speak. In fact, widespread protests lead to a mass boycott of the education system, which has had a terrible lasting legacy in that many middle-aged South Africans are barely literate because their families did not allow them to attend school at that time. The famous photograph of Pietersen, being carried by another child running away from the violence, was one of the most evocative images of the Apartheid protests, and brought world-wide awareness to the controversy. We had a chance to visit the monument to the student protesters who died in that uprising. The open courtyard houses a wide brick plaza, with a pool at one end that slowly drips water down its side, symbolizing the loss of blood during Apartheid. But the memorial is ultimately hopeful, as the water trickles down through the plaza, into a widening rocky stream, eventually literally passing under a bridge and out of sight. The memorial plaza is up on a hill, and from there, we had a beautiful view down over Soweto.
In Soweto, we also had the chance to visit the famous Catholic church that Desmond Tutu led. This church was the largest building in Soweto, and was the only gathering place not controlled by the government. Of course, this meant that the church was often attacked by the police, who would sometimes not wait until parishioners were finished with worship before they entered to break up the crowds. The church ceilings are still filled with bullet holes, which are being left as a reminder of those times. The marble alter has not been repaired, either, from where a corner of it was smashed off by an attacking police officer with a club. The officer missed the head of the person he was attacking, and was using so much force, he broke through several thick inches of marble. Just seeing it was chilling. In the Apartheid Museum, we had seen film of the police attacking worshippers with tear gas and batons. But seeing the real place was so much more powerful.
We are now back at the hotel for the night. Students have all eaten dinner and are hanging out (and of course, writing in their journals!). We start very early tomorrow morning, with a drive out to the so-called Cradle of Mankind, one of the most fruitful fossil sites in the world for early proto-human bones. We will also be visiting Pretoria, the very Afrikaaner former capitol of South Africa.