Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cape Town – The beginning of the journey home

Our last stop in Africa.  The second to last adventure before our journey to the US.  We’re ready to be in our own home and at the same time we have a distinct sadness that “our year” is almost at the end. With a melancholy heart, we enter a beautiful, complex city to begin the last 9 days of our worldly exploits.
DSC05464 DSC05495 Nestled up against the famous Table Mountain, Cape Town is as gorgeous as we’d been told.  It is surrounded by ocean, has sandy beaches, whales and dolphins swimming by, an eclectic mix of people, colorful architecture and a convoluted history.  What else can one want? DSC05596
DSC05483 DSC05486 DSC05516 DSC05826 The ancient seafarers established the area to resupply their ships with food and fresh water, as they made their journey around the Cape of Good Hope and onto India and the Far East.  Many of them fell in love with the area, hopped off the boat and never left. We understand why.
DSC05506 The city has a laid back vibe with a marvelous harbor, ocean views from everywhere, and a thriving downtown area.  Table Mountain sits majestically above it all and is instantly recognizable for its incredibly flat top….hmm, like a table!  It is a mecca for tourists and has a great year-round climate to attract sunshine worshippers from far and wide.  Few North Americans make it to Cape Town.  It is really a long way for a one to two week vacation.  Many Europeans find the Cape area very appealing for holidaying however, so we fit right in.
DSC05641 DSC05850 DSC05644 Of course, not everything is perfect.  Townships, aka slums in US vernacular, favellas in Brazilian Portuguese, are on the doorsteps of Cape Town.  These communities of the poor were started during the Apartheid era when people were displaced from their homes, and forced into very crowded living conditions.  More than 1.5 million people are estimated to call these jam-packed townships home.  Any material that can be salvaged is used for shelter – wood, bricks, cinder blocks, metal, boxes….you get the idea.  Even though the ANC (SA’s government) has put forth some efforts to incorporate and improve these areas, large numbers of illegal immigrates continue to build new townships and keep them well populated.  In them schools, churches and restaurants have been established.  It’s hard for us to get our head around this as there is absolutely no (legal) utility service to these communities. They are going without or tapping into power through some scary means.  It blows us away that township living is a better way of life for so many.  As in all countries, there are no easy answers on how to help the ultra poor.
DSC04796 We stayed in the Northern part of the city with an incredible view of downtown Cape Town.  Kite surfers were everywhere and we spent many hours fascinated with the “big air” that these adventurers were getting with the strong winds that blow off the ocean.
DSC05544 DSC05605 We were told to make sure to go to the top of Table Mountain when the weather is clear, as the views are amazing.  If the clouds are in it can be freezing cold.  For 4 days we watched as fingers of clouds drifted over the mountain (we couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the fog that often consumes the Golden Gate Bridge), shrouding it in what the locals call the “table cloth”.  It was a spectacular sight to see the weather change right before our eyes, but it kept us off the mountain until………we got a picture perfect day!  We immediately took advantage and rode the cable car to the top and hiked around the area for hours and hours. The views were stunning …..
DSC05764On another day the Cape of Good Hope, the most south western point of Africa, was our destination.  The beaches along this stretch of the coast are wild and gorgeous.  When we got to the Cape, the wind was whipping so ferociously that we literally had to power our way up to the lighthouse. 
Although for us it was difficult to fathom, we contemplated the centuries of commerce that passed through this area from many European countries to the Far East.  Thousands upon thousands of ships have used this passage.  What merchandise hasn’t been transported through these waters?    DSC05742DSC05920     DSC05925 One evening we were honored to have dinner with a new friend of a new friend.  Our Slovenian friend, Magedie, whom we met in the Galapagos Islands, introduced us through email to his best friend, Kevin.  Kevin is a US Citizen from the Seattle area and now lives in Cape Town.  It was nice to meet a Yank who knew the area and was willing to share his experience of being a local.  Kevin is working for the University of Cape Town, and helps teachers in the local schools to embrace and learn new technology which they can incorporate into their lessons.  We wrote about the Brain Drain phenomenon happening in South Africa.  And although the country is losing more intelligent and resourceful people then it attracts, there are a few brave people willing to go against the tide and migrate to South Africa to try to make a difference.  (And by the way, I just learned that my cousin who is educated in International Business, is living and working part time in SA.)  We had a very interesting conversation about his work in the townships and his theories of when and how to teach young people English.  His ideas were mind opening to say the least.  Ask us about it sometime.DSC05612
About 8 months into our multi-continent journey, we altered our itinerary so that we could spend more quality time in South Africa.  We didn’t want to rush a country full of cultures far different than ours and one with political issues that make ours seem pale in comparison.  Plus SA has big game and lots of small birds.  It was a really wise decision.  We started our trip promising each other not to rush, to spend time in each place and to get off the tourist path as often as we could.  By making the tough decision to slow it down and not include Australia and New Zealand, we kept our word and felt more relaxed.   
DSC05673The four weeks we spent travelling in South Africa was the best mixture of nature, culture, history and adventure.  If you want a highly diverse destination, South Africa is it.  As we board our flight for the first leg of the trip home, we have an amalgamation of feelings.  Sorrow that it’s mostly over, giddiness that we are about to spend 24 hours in Dubai, disbelief that we have to start thinking about jobs and absolutely, positively NO REGRETS!  Goodbye SA and Cape Town; we’re better off for spending time with you!  But Dubai awaits.  And then on to the good ole US of A.  Sigh.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Brain Drain

Why is it that when one system isn’t working, the pendulum typically swings too far to the other side?  Is it human nature to think that if there are problems the complete opposite is the solution?  With any sweeping change, the consequences of throwing the baby out with the bath water, usually takes a few years to become apparent.  We found no exception to this in South Africa.  The country still appears to be in transition from decades of apartheid and will continue to be for some time to come.

DSC05717There is no doubt that the end to this era is a good thing.  It shouldn’t have been made a policy in the first place.  And yet, we think that post apartheid South Africa, 17 years after Nelson Mandela helped negotiate his country to better times, has taken a good thing too far.  Today tribal mentality, reverse discrimination practices and government corruption are driving lots of young, smart, creative people of all colors to other parts of the world.  There is a common theme among South Africans – they  see no hope in the future.  (Can you imagine not feeling hope?)  The consequence is that hoards are leaving.  South Africa is being drained of it’s talent, vision, brains. 


During the course of our month in South Africa we had the chance to listen to many people’s stories.  They told of their lives under and after apartheid.  The issues are complex to say the least.  This is a difficult topic for non writers, like us, to write about, but we‘re giving it a try as we feel that it is important to document our feelings on this heavy subject; for ourselves if no one else.

DSC03976We learned that apartheid is an Afrikaans (the language of Apartheid) word which literally means separation.  From 1954-1994, the government of South Africa made discrimination a national policy.  A national policy!  In our life times!  The rights of the majority ’non-white’ inhabitants were curtailed and white minority rule was maintained.  Whites make up just about 6% of SA’s population.  6%!  That’s it.  And yet, they ruled the country and gave themselves every advantage possible. Non whites had inferior education, medical care, beaches, public services, etc.  Many non whites were forcibly removed from their homes and moved to neighborhoods deemed more appropriate.  Black people were even deprived of their citizenship.  They had to become citizens of their tribally based homeland, not of their country, SA.


We talked with one man who’s family was forcibly moved when he was a young child.  He was one of 60,000 people moved from just one area called District 6.  Before the mass removal, the District 6 neighborhood was considered cosmopolitan and made up of a mixture of races and religions.  Blacks, Arabs, Indians, colored (which we learned in SA means someone of a mixed race), Afrikaans and whites lived and worked side by side.  We learned that the people were happy and productive.  The government with it’s divisionist zeal, decided that it knows best.  They concluded that interracial interaction breeds conflict, necessitating the separation of the races.  Between 1968 and 1980 all of the families were relocated from District 6 to what is known today as Cape Flats about 25 kilometers away.  In our opinion it is a bleak area and is probably in worse shape then District 6 ever was.

DSC04796The people we talked to about this think that the actual reason for the mass removal was due to the land’s proximity to the harbor, Table Mountain and city center; in other words prime real estate, and therefore more suitable for whites.    DSC05485District 6 was bulldozed.  Every home was flattened.  The only buildings that stand today are houses of worship and a small newly developed housing complex.  Most of it remains a scraped patch of dirt, undeveloped.  An eye sore.  So now there are two eye sores - the remains of District 6 and Cape Flats.


As you can imagine, there were lots of problems under Apartheid, including huge sanctions put upon South Africa by the wealthy nations of the world.  Not many countries wanted to be associated with South Africa and it‘s oppressive policies.   Finally the people rose up, the politicians saw the light and a new leader came into the fray (Nelson Mandela) and the end of the ugly era was negotiated.


DSC05700 Fast forward to 2010/11 and although the country has lots of great things going for it, underneath the extraordinary beauty are some real problems.  It’s by far the richest country on the continent of Africa.  The roads are smooth, wide and traffic free.  The cities in which World Cup games were recently played are modern and mostly clean of litter.  In a lot of ways it feels very western.  With it’s extraordinary coastline and glorious mountains, the natural beauty is second to none. 


We spent one month there and had a chance to look under the covers, talk with locals; get a deeper sense of the country.  We were shocked to learn that for people between the ages of 18 and 34, unemployment is 50%.  50% of SA’s young people aren’t working.  That staggering statistic leads to desperation.  Desperation leads to crime and drug addiction.  Therefore petty theft and car jackings are real threats.  We were always on alert and told to stay off the streets at night.  We didn’t, but we were ultra aware after dark.


We talked with one young employed Zulu man who shared with us his viewpoints of the issues.  He thinks that two things are at the root of the post apartheid problems: 1). The tribal mentality in which the chief (president) can do no wrong; and 2).  That black people see themselves as less then whites.


Coming from a black man’s perspective, we thought this opinion was brave, introspective and very honest.  He is worried about his country and is doing what he can to help other young South Africans understand that even though Joseph Zuma, a Zulu, is the current president (chief) of the country, government leaders of today are not the same as tribal elders of yesterday.  They should be held to a greater standard and not allowed to get away with some of the things Zuma is doing.  He also admitted to us that many black people are having trouble retraining themselves to think that they are equal to whites.  Too many of his fellow countrymen, still see themselves as servants and not as business people, doctors or lawyers.  They still limit their own potential and don’t take advantage of educational opportunities, etc. 


Fortunately there are movements afoot to drive some clearly needed changes in South Africa‘s government.  Several ANC (African National Congress) opposition organizations are making a concerted effort to bring balance to the country.  Zuma calls the groups poisonous snakes.  Unfortunately, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is seen as the party for whites.  It’s finding it very difficult to attract black people.  It knows it won’t truly make a difference if it only has white members.  But the group is having a tough time interesting blacks due to the deeply rooted belief that tribal chiefs are untouchable.  It’s a fascinating national psyche.  And one, that in our opinion, will take generations to evolve. 

In the meantime, South Africa, is loosing smart people of all colors.  Our friend Magedie, whom we met in his new homeland of Slovenia (via a postcard from Post Office Bay in the Galapagos Islands), is South African, a successful engineer, black, and can’t imagine returning to his home country other then to visit his family.


Barry and Francis, a dynamic, intelligent couple, whom we met in Peru and again in South Africa are in the process of leaving South Africa for good.  They are nearing the end of a painstaking process of becoming Canadian citizens.  (They’ll be our neighbors up in Vancouver, British Columbia!)  Although these are just two examples of the brain drain that is occurring, they are first hand.  We heard of many others as well - someone’s sister, son, best friend, etc leaving South Africa.  DSC04938As we were only there for one month and spent most of time with elephants, we think the problem is more then likely a systemic one.  No place is perfect and we wish our new friends lots of success in their new homelands.  For South Africans that can’t or won’t leave, it’s going to be a long while until that proverbial pendulum lands in the middle.  In the meanwhile, we are hoping that all of the positive change that is happening in SA will continue to progress one baby elephant step at a time.



Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Garden Route – The Road to Cape Town

“It’s one of the most beautiful and scenic stretches of highway in the world” we were told.  The 740 kilometers from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town on the N2 highway, was a “must do”.  We mapped our route and decided to spend a week or so to take it all in.


Named for the verdant and ecologically diverse vegetation and the numerous lagoons and lakes; we wanted to see if the Garden Route along South Africa’s south western coast lived up to the hype.  We are usually skeptical with any region that is heavily promoted as a tourist destination.  Sometimes it is much ado about nothing except relieving gullible visitors of their money.  (Ever been to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA?)  Anyway, the Garden Route was highly recommended by our new South African friends that we had previously met in a little town in, of all the places, the Peruvian Andes Mountains. 


We trusted them and altered our itinerary so that we could include many of the towns along the Garden Route.  Diverse is an understatement for the region.  Even though the little towns along the route are past their heyday, the scenic coasts, the lush forests, the dry Karoo, the penguins, meerkats, birds and the brandy did not disappoint.   Here is a sampling of our road trip through Western Cape, South Africa.

Tsitsikamma Forest and Storms River Region

DSC04811 DSC04820 DSC04874 DSC04887

The tallest bungy jump in the world - 216 meters or 709 feet – Too crazy for us.  Great White Sharks, yes, falling 709 feet, absolutely not.

DSC04917 DSC04932 DSC04933 Knysna area – amazing cloud fingers

DSC04944Oudtshoorn area in the Karoo (high desert)

DSC04976 DSC04985  DSC05000 DSC05005 In the 18th century, the Karoo region was the location of South Africa’s first commercial venture – the export of large flamboyant black and white ostrich feathers to the world’s weathly.   Although there is very little demand for the feathers these days, the area is still home to the planet’s largest number of Ostrich farms.  Today, we consume these birds for their meat and leather.   DSC05049 DSC05051We read that one of the fun things to do in the Karoo is to go on a meerkat safari.  A meerkat safari?  Get up before the crack of dawn to see wild meerkats in their natural habitat?  Of course we would go.  Cousins of the mongoose; they are highly social and have extended family groups.  They greet each new day by standing in the dawn sunlight to warm themselves.  Even they think it’s early (see the big yawn?).  

DSC05076 DSC05093 DSC05129

Betty’s Bay is the home of penguins that used to be called Jack Ass Peguins.  They (whoever they are) have renamed them to boring ole African Penguins, but they still bray like donkeys.  Hee haw, hee haw.  It’s hilarious and another must see and hear if you’re nearby.


DSC05306  DSC05337 Making new jack ass penguins…..

DSC05345  DSC05367     Stellenbosch – The Winelands!


And Brandy.  South Africa has been a premium brandy maker for eons.  When paired with chocolate and coffee it’s an unbelievable taste bud sensation. DSC05563 DSC05566 The marketing of any province, state or territory is very interesting.  As you can probably imagine, over the course of our travels, we’ve seen lots of attempts at creative advertising to entice people to an area.  Most regions have created campaigns, routes and attractions so that local and foreign tourists visit and spend money.  Think of the commercials in which California celebrities tell you why you should come to their fun and beautiful state.  Or the development of the wine country in Oregon.  It‘s all about tourism and money.  The small towns of the Western Cape needed a boost.  So, the region turned it’s sights to tourism and established and touted the Garden Route.

It was a smart decision, for us, to slow down the pace and not beeline it to Cape Town.  Our year of travel was coming to end and we wanted to savor the countryside and take in some of the less popular destinations in South Africa.  With it’s array of animals, plants, scenery and adventure; we were very wise to stop and smell (and taste and see) the Garden Route.DSC05580