Thursday, April 28, 2011

“The Most Important Things in Life Aren’t Things”

Link to Photos on Facebook

I just had what may be the most unconventional Easter break I will ever have in my life.  Last Thursday at 5 am, a group of my housemates and I were climbing on to a huge bus with 20 (ish) other American students from Stanford and Northwestern Universities to drive north to the Orange River.  The river is the border between South Africa and Namibia and we spent the majority of our 5-day trip on the river- in two countries at once, or not in any country, if you think about it. 

We spent the whole first day driving through northern South Africa, which is pretty barren except for a few tiny towns scattered around, and finally crossed the border into Namibia later than afternoon.  
Border Crossing

We reached our base camp, Amanzi (meaning water) River Camp about 45 minutes later and set up camp for our first night sleeping outside, under the stars, with nothing but a sleeping bag, thin mat and a teeny fleece blanket.  I spent the night shivering because I definitely did not dress correctly for the night-time temperatures, but the night of poor sleep was overshadowed by the beautiful colors in the sky as I woke up with the sun the following morning.  

View from Base Camp

We then packed our lives for the next few days into dry bags, checked to make sure our rafts were inflated properly, had a tutorial on the rules of the river from our landlord/ river guide, David, and we were off.  After about 30 minutes on the river, David told us it was mandatory swim time and we all jumped out of our boats and floated down the river next to them at a pretty speedy pace, it was incredible.  
Alena and I in our "Croc" named Bertha

Floating Down the Orange River

We spent the day in and out of our boats, alternating between swimming and rafting and eventually made landfall at our temporary home for the night: a big stretch of sandy beach on the South Africa side of the river.  We had a huge dinner cooked over the fire and then laid down to look for shooting stars in the crystal clear sky, unaffected by light pollution. 

1st Campsite on the River

The next day was much of the same, rafting and swimming with spectacular views all around us.  We stopped on the Namibia side for a desert hike to an old fluorspar mine, which has since been decommissioned.  David told us to collect some of the crystals, and later that night, when the fire had died down he put some on the hot embers and they began to pop and spark with brilliant green and blue colors.  We spent another night under the stars, and at one point I woke up in the middle of the night and thought someone was looking at me with a headlamp because the moon was so bright.   

Fluorite Crystals

 On Sunday we woke up for our last full day on the river.  After an hour or so of being awake I realized that it was Easter and I was shocked that I had not realized it earlier, but that was probably because there were no Easter baskets or decorations hanging around our camp that morning.  We packed up our stuff and paddled for an hour or so before pulling over for a hike on the South Africa side.  David had told us that it was going to be strenuous, and he wasn’t lying.  We hiked/climbed up this mountain with loose gravel and slippery smooth rocks underfoot for the better part of two hours.  When we reached the top, we saw the halfmens plants that we had come for.  These plants are very slow growing desert plants, only growing at 1 cm every 100 years, which were now taller than me, showing that these guys had been around for quite some time.  We headed down, which required much more concentration than going up because both gravity and momentum wanted to send us flying down the steep rocky slopes, but we all made it down and got into our boats for our final paddle of the trip.  We got to our haul-out site and unloaded the boats, then got into a big bus than brought us back to base camp where we had our Easter dinner.  We each got our own steak and potatoes, grilled over the fire by our wonderful guides and we all sat together as one of our housemates said Grace, bringing some amount of Easter ritual back into the day.  Instead of sitting with my Montauk family around the dining room table looking over Fort Pond, I was sitting with my Kimberley House family around a picnic table, looking over the Orange River and I was perfectly okay with that. 

Sandy Sleeping Situations

Our K-house Family with an Old Tree

I learned so much on this short extended weekend trip.  The main thing was that I am perfectly happy with a small dry bag carrying everything I need, and that none of the things I need in life require electricity.  The guides were telling us that they often called the fire the “bushman’s television” because it is a major source of entertainment for people in the bush, but during the weekend I began to think of the sky and the stars as the television.  Every night after eating dinner we would all go lay down and look at the sky and I was just mesmerized by the clarity of the sky and the thousands of stars we could see.  Waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the progress of the Southern Cross as it moved across the sky reminded me how far away I was from home, yet for some reason I felt as comfortable as if I were camping in my own backyard.  In a way I guess I just feel at home in nature, traveling through new areas surrounded by beautiful sights and even more beautiful people.  To quote from the book Into The Wild: The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” 

After this trip, I couldn’t agree more

Monday, April 18, 2011

Compassion can be put into practice if one recognizes the fact that every human being is a member of humanity and the human family regardless of differences in religion, culture, color and creed. Deep down there is no difference. -Dalai Lama

This weekend was all about discovering the little parts and communities of Cape Town that we haven’t had time to visit because of all our crazy adventures and trips.  It was a weekend of discovering the cultures that we haven't experienced and learning more about them.  This weekend was also a nice temporary break for the piggy bank to recover.  After our two classes on Friday, we went into Cape Town to check out the Book Lounge- a fancy, 2-story bookstore that had tons of books on the history and culture of South Africa and Cape Town.  I resisted buying quite a few because I know for a fact that I am already out of room in my suitcases.  After that we went to Camp’s Bay for a sundowner and returned home later to get ready for a night out in Claremont with our housemates.

On Saturday we walked to the Old Biscuit Mill Farmer’s Market and got a delicious brunch meal that would fuel our walk into Cape Town.  The walk took about an hour and we made stops at all the quirky shops that we had been wanting to stop into but have never had the chance.  Once we got into the city we visited the Castle of Good Hope-a huge castle right in downtown Cape Town that was built between 1666 and 1679 by the Dutch East India Company.  We hopped on a tour and walked to a few of the dungeons, one of them being a torture chamber that was used to punish slaves and workers who misbehaved or were caught stealing.  After our tour we were allowed to walk around the castle and we walked up to the roof, getting a cool view of the building and the rest of the city.  We visited the castle’s three museums, one of which has a table built to seat 100.  It was HUGE and we decided we just need to find 80 other people and we can rent out the room and have a fancy dinner party (or a huge game of 50 on 50 flip cup!)

Me, Dan and Alena at the Castle of Good Hope

Inside the castle with Table Mountain in the background

View of the courtyard from the roof

After the castle we visited Bo-Kaap, the area of Cape Town known for its vibrant, colourful houses and cobblestone streets.  It was a predominantly Muslim area during apartheid, but has gained popularity in recent years because its beauty attracts people from various races and backgrounds.  We visited the Bo-Kaap museum, which was so small and unimposing that we were standing across the street from it and still couldn’t find it, but eventually realized it was right in front of us.  As we were leaving the museum we heard the Islamic call to prayer ringing throughout the neighbourhood, and for a moment I was seriously confused where I was.  I felt like I had been pulled out of Cape Town and transported to a completely different continent, it was incredible.  The many cultures and colors of the people who make up Cape Town are truly remarkable.

House in Bo-Kaap

Cobblestone Roads in Bo-Kaap

I was again reminded of the diversity of Cape Town on Sunday when the majority of our house piled into kombi minibuses to go into the townships to go to the critically acclaimed Mzoli’s Meat.  We had all been told that we MUST visit Mzoli’s while we were in Cape Town and finally got around to going.  We drove through Gugulethu, past the tin shacks and run-down storefronts to a bustling area of the township with tons of white people milling around.  Seeing groups of white people in a township is a strange experience in and of itself because I have been in the townships twice a week for the past few months and I can count on my two hands the white people I’ve seen during my time there.  We knew Mzoli’s was a popular spot and didn’t know if it was going to be worth the hype but we figured we had to find out.  We piled into the butchery and each picked out our raw meat (kind of gross) and paid for it.  Then we brought it into the “kitchen” in the back.  The kitchen is a huge room with 8 wood burning grills that is smoky and smells like you have just stepped into a bonfire.  We dropped off the meat and they told us to come back for it in about 45 minutes, so we left and got a table and spent some time socializing and browsing the products that the local vendors had come to sell to the tourists who flooded the area every Sunday.  When it was finally time to get our food we picked it up and set about eating it with no forks, knives, or napkins and it was delicious.  Probably some of the best lamb and chicken I’ve ever had in my life- it was totally worth the wait.  After we ate we hung around for a bit and then went to another bar in a different township with some friends of our housemates before taking a kombi back to the house.  I had a ton of really great talks with people my age, little kids around six, and their grandparents and learned a lot about their lives and stories.  It was awesome to get out and interact with people off all ages and backgrounds in the townships while also enjoying some amazing food.  Needless to say, Mzoli’s exceeded all of the high expectations I had- it was another amazing experience of Cape Town culture at its best.

Part of our Mzoli's Group

Big Container of Raw Meat... (thanks Kristen for the picture)

Heading to Namibia on Thursday morning for a 5-day rafting trip down the Orange River during break.  More adventures to follow! Happy Easter!

Monday, April 11, 2011

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”

So I guess that this is the point where I begin to fall behind on my blog… It was bound to happen at some point.  These past two weeks have been pretty busy and eventful.  My mom and Steve came to visit for a week and we did a ton of stuff in a short period of time- I think they saw the majority of the city and the main sights though.  We went up Table Mountain in the cable car one day, and the next day it was raining (one of the only times it has rained since we’ve been here) so we went to the aquarium and walked around there.  When we left the aquarium we saw a bunch of wild seals just sunning themselves on the dock outside, which was definitely cool.

Seals on the dock outside the aquarium

Then we went on a wine tour to Stellenbosch (my 3rd wine tour- I’m getting pretty good at drinking wine).  The next day we toured the Cape Peninsula, stopping at Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Simon’s Town- to see the penguins.  Then we went to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (the south-western point in Africa).  We stopped at Hout Bay for dinner on the way home, and then stopped in Camps Bay to watch the sunset over the water.  On Sunday we went to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens for the last concert of the summer concert series.  The performer was aKing, a rock band that was not really our kind of music so we left after a few songs and came back to the house and had family dinner with everyone in the house.  My mom and Steve had made meatballs and sauce earlier that day and it was so delicious- I missed my mom’s cooking so much!  After dinner they left to go back to their hotel and get ready for their 3-day safari in Kruger.  It was so good to see them and also really great to go out to delicious dinners every night instead of cooking!

On the Beach at Muizenberg

At the Cape of Good Hope

This past weekend was also incredible.  On Friday we had a guest speaker in our Theology class named Mary Burton.  Mary was a commissioner for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, founded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to address the atrocities committed during apartheid.  The mission of the TRC was to provide a venue for both perpetrators and victims of crimes to come forward and admit their wrongdoings in an attempt to establish peace.  Mary told us all about her life: she had grown up in Argentina, married a South African man and moved here with him.  She explained that she began doing charity work and then heard about a group called the Black Sash, a group of middle class white women who were fighting for the abolition of apartheid.  Her involvement with the group led to her arrest and made her the subject of police brutality, but she continued her advocacy, hoping to bring about change.  She told us that despite the fact that her husband’s business lost many contacts and clients because of her involvement with the group, he still supported her one hundred percent. 

At the end of apartheid, South Africa was fighting to patch together its citizens and address the issues that faced the country.  Archbishop Tutu recommended the foundation of the TRC, and Mary Burton was nominated by the Black Sash as a commissioner.  She was chosen to be a part of the 17-member committee over 300 other applicants.  She told us about some of the stories she had heard from both victims and perpetrators alike, and listening to her retell these stories and how they affected her was so amazing.

On Saturday the majority of my house piled into the van for the two and a half hour journey to the END.  This was not a trip to the end of Long Island, however.  This end was the end of the continent of Africa!  We drove to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa and the meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.  It was pretty cool to be standing in two oceans at once.  After taking some pictures we got some lunch and headed to the beach.  While we were walking down the beach we saw a HUGE jellyfish that had washed up on the beach- it must have been almost two feet in diameter and eight or so inches high.  As we continued walking we saw many more huge jellyfish all over the place, and we even saw a few while we were swimming in the Indian Ocean, but no one got stung thank god!  It was funny to me that Cape Town is only a few hours away and there is completely different marine life in the two oceans…magic- hence the quote today- I wrote it down when I saw it at the aquarium with my mom and Steve.

The Southernmost Point in Africa!

Sunday morning we woke up and called the paragliding guy to see if the conditions were okay to fly.  We had already had a reservation to go a few weeks ago and it was cancelled because of the wind, so I was really nervous to call the guy but when I called him he told me it was a perfect day to fly and my friend Alena and I met him at the bottom of Lion’s Head at 12:30 for the hike up the mountain.  We hiked up the mountain in the 85 degree weather and when we finally reached the launching point I was ready for a nap, but we had run off the mountain instead.  Alena went first and I followed, strapped to my instructor, who was in charge of flying.  It was a really amazing experience, we just kind of ran down the side of the mountain and then I realized that there wasn’t any ground underneath me and we were flying!  We flew for about 15 minutes before doing some corkscrew tricks in the air and landing on a big field right next to the ocean.  It was so cool.  After we were done, they drove us to the beach and we spent the rest of the day at the beach with our housemates- yet another fantastic weekend in the life of Katie B.

Ready for Take Off!

Flying Over Camps Bay