Monday, October 22, 2012

Cape Town, South Africa

I undoubtedly had high expectations for Cape Town, South Africa. When I first started talking about my Semester at Sea voyage, Cape Town was frequently the location that prompted the most envy from others. The natural landscape, opportunities for adventure, culture, people, and history certainly provided the potential for the best port on our itinerary. As our ship departed South Africa after 4 nights and 5 days in port, I felt as if Cape Town indeed emerged as one of the best ports of the voyage. I can’t particularly say what day was the best, although Day 4 certainly stands out, and I can’t particularly say what activity was the best, although the Lion’s Head hike stands out, and I can’t particular say what experience was the best, although the township visits stand out, but I can say that I fell in love with Cape Town, and the enthrallment started on the first day. Kim, Claire, and I went on a Semester at Sea trip to the Khayelitsha and Langa townships. In Khayelitsha we visited the Baphumelele orphanage. I was impressed to hear about the large number of volunteers from the township who help provide more direct care to each child. I was once again reminded of how small my problems seem upon viewing these children who faced a threatening risk of living a life without love or care if it weren't for the Baphumelele orphanage. We walked through the room of babies sleeping in their cribs, one of the houses where the older children live, and the school rooms where dozens of children were taking naps, some cutely cuddled up against each other. From the orphanage we went to the Langa township, where we rode bikes through the township, which was more fun than I can probably express. Our guide lived in the township, and as we rode our bikes we were greeted by smiles and what seemed like endless hellos from people he knew in the township. The township culture is lived outside. People don’t hide away in their homes, but instead live their lives outside with each other in a tight sense of community. As the sun started to lower behind Table Mountain in the distance, all the colors of the township came alive. We stopped by an area where a woman was carving sheep heads and cooking them over a barbecue  but I somewhat easily refrained from trying the sheep tongue. We also stopped at the Happy Feet Youth Project, an organization founded by our guide Siviwe in order to bring safety, joy, pride, mentorship, and empowerment to a rougher area of the township where he used to live, in shame as he said, since the area was associated with drugs, violence, and abandoned children. The younger children and teenagers performed a powerful gumboots dance, a type of traditional step dancing, which left us in awe of their talent. After the performance we played a fun and lively soccer game with some of the older kids. After the first game went to penalty kicks, we played 2 more games which also went to penalty kicks, most likely because scoring was difficult since we had to kick the soccer ball against a couple of concrete blocks in order to score a goal. The kids were talented and had good foot work, not a surprise given their dance moves. The little children were affectionate and often found one of us to hold their hand, hug them, or pick them up, and the same kids would always seem to find us again, quickly developing an attachment to us. They walked us back to our bus, all of them holding hands with someone. After we arrived back at the ship I went to dinner with a large group of our friends, but because the rain started to fall in between our outdoor umbrellas, a smaller group of us moved to another restaurant to seek more shelter. Kai, Brett, Henri, Kim, and I had a delicious dinner at the Waterfront, paired nicely with South African wine. Day 2 was unfortunately cold and rainy, but we made the most of it by going wine tasting in Stellenbosch. Henri kindly set up a driver for us, Faizal, who took us around for the day. Henri, Claire, Kim, Renee, and I spent most of our time at Spier, a warm and comfortable place where we tasted several wines along with meats and cheeses. We took our time and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of conversation, wine, and treats, while a hard rain fell outside. We stopped at one other winery before going into the town for coffee and food. We undoubtedly made the best out of day that kept us from being outside. Day 3 started with a walk to the Greenmarket Square with Claire, Kim, and Holly, where I found yet more bracelets, a common market purchase of mine. After lunch in the city center, we all went to the Waterfront before going different ways. Claire and I decided to ride one of the Hop-On Hop-Off buses. We went through the city, to the base of Table Mountain, and then over the other side to ride around Camps Bay and along the beaches. The drive was an enjoyable way to see more of Cape Town and end the day as the sun started to set, as the bay and beaches offer a beautiful coastline. The homes along the mountain descent of Camps Bay were a sight to see, and a sharp contrast from the poverty we saw two days earlier in the townships. The sharp contrast of rich and poor is clearly evident in Cape Town and isn’t always easy to process or accept. For the evening a large group of us went out for dinner on Long Street, and afterwards, Don, Erika, Jake, Holly, Kim, Claire, and her friend Marion visiting from Johannesburg continued the evening at Mama Africa, where we had drinks and listened to some fun live African music. Day 4 started with a church service back in the Langa township. Siviwe was once again our guide, and before arriving at the church we first stopped inside a home, where he explained to us how multiple families often live in one home. The overwhelming number of people sharing a small place is another explanation of why the township culture is lived outside. When we arrived at the church, the choir already had the room filled with life and several people greeted us and guided us to open seats. Many students who attended said that even the liveliest of Baptist churches back in the United States weren't as vibrant as this church in the Langa township. We also had time to visit the Happy Feet Youth Project, and since this was my second visit, I recognized several of the children and had fun talking with them again. The older and younger children both performed for us. Instead of playing soccer afterwards, we spent time with all of the kids, who were always looking for hands to hold and people to hug. All of the children are surprisingly affectionate and comfortable bonding with us, asking us to pick them up and throwing their arms around us. Upon returning to the ship, Henri once again arranged for Faizal to drive us on a ride down to Cape Point. Faizal first drove Henri, Claire, Marion, Jake, and I to Simon’s Town, where we had coffee and muffins before walking around to view the penguins cutely bobbling around upright on two feet. From there we went to Cape Point for a stunning view of the ocean from on top of the cliffs. I had previously seen aerial views of Cape Point, and to stand on top looking around at the panoramic view definitely breathed life into me. Our drive somehow became even more scenic in an embarrassment of riches as we went to the Cape of Good Hope, where waves crashed up against the rocks, the sun began to set along the horizon, and we joyfully walked around on the rocks that make up the coastline. I pictured myself on a map, thinking about where I was in the world, and felt a tangible sense of wonder at awe at the experience I am currently living. I am obviously blessed to visit numerous countries and all of the beauty this world possesses, and I felt grateful to be alive and witnessing such beauty. We also saw wild ostriches directly in front of us as we drove along the road, switching lanes to make room and stopping to see them up close. The road then led us along a hillside, looking across the water at Hout Bay while the fading sun started to shift Cape Town from day into night. The buildings at the foothills of Hout Bay magically came to light as the sky grew darker, creating a brilliant contrast of the rolling dark mountains and the twinkling lights. I stayed there as long as I could to watch this transformation, once again feeling a tangible sense of life. I will forever be drawn to sunsets and the drastic change of light that occurs. A memorable day ended with a memorable dinner in Hout Bay, at a charming seafood restaurant where we took our time eating and drinking, being present with one another and fully living out our day together. The next day, our fifth and last day, Claire, Marion, and I hoped to take the cable car up Table Mountain, but strong winds despite the clear day, once again closed the cable car. Instead, we decided to hike Lion’s Head, a brilliant decision, after a lunch on Long Street. The Lion’s Head hike is one of the best hikes I have been on, as you hike in a circle around the mountain, getting a complete view of Cape Town, including the city, Table Mountain, the Twelve Apostles, Camps Bay, the beaches, the ocean, Robben Island, the townships, and the mountains surrounding the city, allowing us to look upon the country we began to fall in love with during the past 5 days. The hike to the summit was definitely a workout on a hot day, but the view provided a beautiful reward. Before heading back to the ship we went to the Waterfront for a drink, a nice ending and sendoff to quite possibly one of the best ports on our itinerary. I now clearly understand why people were envious of my visit to Cape Town, and their envy should inspire them to visit a country rich with history, inspiring people, and beautiful scenery. As we watched South Africa slowly fade away as the MV Explorer departed to cross the South Atlantic on a 10-day crossing to Argentina, I thought about how far we had come, from Canada to Europe, through Africa, and now on the way to South America, and I didn't quite believe that this whole experience was really happening.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tema, Ghana

Our arrival in Tema, Ghana was my first trip to Africa. Walking off the ship for the first time presented me with a stark contrast to the European countries we previously visited. When Claire and I visited the local market on the first day, I clearly noticed and felt that I was in a country unlike any other I had ever visited. I looked around and saw the industrial port area, the streets with huge potholes and crazy traffic, the dirt roads with clouds of dirt kicked up by speeding trucks passing by, the various people along the street, some working and others watching people pass by, and locals carrying their goods by balancing them on their heads. The market was unlike any other I had seen before, with an endless maze of narrow alleys in an enclosed area of shacks and stands within, where locals were selling huge piles of bananas, dried fish, drug store items, clothing, huge pieces of raw meat, and various other products. Some shop owners were sleeping on the floor, others called out at us, but the majority kindly watched us pass by. I undoubtedly had an acute awareness that I was a white tourist among the locals. All of my senses were heightened by being in such a new environment. I was also very hot, and I was aware that I was a foreigner sweating like crazy, even though I was wearing shorts while locals wearing pants were barely breaking a sweat. After passing through the market, Claire and I wandered around the town, visiting the church where the Prime Meridian is located, allowing us to immediately step from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western Hemisphere. We walked along a street where larger goods were sold, like couches, televisions, and refrigerators, all lined up on the side of the street. We wandered back to the market but got a little lost. We asked a woman for directions and she directed us in two ways, a longer path along the road, or a quicker route zigzagging through a slum, which we took. Although seeing poverty is difficult, the residential area was visually stunning, with narrow alleys, clothes hanging on lines, food cooking on fires, and a diverse array of shacks. I refrained from taking photos or video since people were walking around or looking out from their rooms, and filming seemed like an invasion of privacy. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of footage from Ghana for this reason. For a little while we enjoyed the walk through the slum, but our enjoyment waned when our luck of finding smiling faces ran out and we were followed by a man who didn't seem pleased to have us walking around. I definitely felt uncomfortable and we quickly walked out to the main street. The next day I traveled on a Semester at Sea trip to the village of Torgorme, for an overnight stay in the village. A large number of children ran up to the bus to greet us, and we then proceeded to shake hands with the village elders, who were dressed in their ornate clothing. Everyone happily greeted us, especially in the naming ceremony where we all received our African birth names, written on a clay pot made by locals in the village (my name is Kofi Worlanyo, which I believe means I was born on a Friday and that our maker is good). Our Semester at Sea group watched from our seats, with a large group of children in their school uniforms on the right side, the queen mothers on the left side, and the elders at center stage. The ceremony also involved music and dancing. The unique dance moves of the people from the village were much more graceful than our attempts to follow their moves. We also witnessed an honorary queen mother ceremony during the middle of the event, as a Semester at Sea alum that was with us received this honor after the work she has done with the village. The queen mothers dragged her away to dress her in the colorful and ornate clothing worn by queen mothers, and upon presenting her, all the queen mothers let out a loud chorus of singing and dancing. Afterwards, we met our host families and after lunch they took us around the village. First I drank coconut water and ate from the coconut with my host family. I was also with 3 other Semester at Sea students since our family included a large group of brothers who lived together in one section of the village. We listened to stories about the role and importance of the village elders, and then proceeded to walk down to the river and run and play with the children as the sun set along the river. I was able to talk to a few of the older brothers who spoke better English, and heard about the sacrifices they make to get through school, walking a long distance to get to a university. The primary schools in the village are in rough shape, with few supplies. Despite the poverty the people face, their spirits are incredibly high and their happiness is certainly apparent; which is not to say that they don’t have needs, for they undoubtedly deserve clean water, electricity, access to education, and various other resources, but overall, they are not in need of the material things we possess, as we so often look for a happiness that evades us, but yet exists in this poor village. I didn't feel sorry for them as much as I felt sorry for myself, that I complain about such silly things sometimes, that I offer up stupid prayers to God, like for a Celtics win over the Heat, or for love in my life as if I don’t already have an overflowing amount of love, and that I don’t realize I have everything I need, and more importantly I’m in a place where I should give and not receive. I also learned how much more I should open up my life to others, as the locals gave us some of their nicest rooms in the village, and when I say nice, I don’t mean a mattress and air conditioning, but at least a platform upon which to sleep, a pillow, a fan, and a faint blue light of the little electricity they could add to the room. After our dinner we went back to our host families, where the younger children performed some hilarious dances in the dark underneath the straw hut in the center area surrounding our rooms. After our breakfast and a clay pot making demonstration, we proceeded to the Shai Hills Game Reserve, where we walked right up to the baboons that wander around the reserve. They hesitantly accepted bananas from us and peeled and ate each banana in less than 3 seconds. We also went on a short hike through the expansive plain with rocky hills where tribes used to live in caves. I bravely walked into a crevice where hundreds of bats flew above me. I was in almost complete darkness if it weren't for the narrow strip of light from far above, as I listened to the stunning sound of bats flying back and forth above my head. On the last day in Ghana I went on a trip to a private Catholic school, which provided an interesting contrast to the village I saw the day before, as this school had relatively modern facilities, with a science lab, media room, basketball courts, church, and library. The librarian I talked to was envious of my library gig on the Semester at Sea ship! Mostly all of the students spoke English, and a frenzied game of tag broke out among dozens of students who were close enough to tag someone else throughout the entire playground area. On the way back to the ship I once again witnessed the terrible traffic in Ghana, with broken down cars, huge potholes, dirt roads, long traffic jams, and various people selling goods to people as the cars slowly moved up the road. I grew more and more comfortable in Ghana during the four days, from the first day of sensory overload in a new country, to the last day where I left the country with memories of new Ghanaian friends and an inspiration to live my life with a more resilient sense of focus and happiness.    

Monday, October 1, 2012

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands

Unfortunately Semester at Sea had to cancel our trip to Morocco because of the anti-U.S. protests that were taking place shortly before our arrival. Everyone was disappointed but we all understood that our presence raised significant security concerns. I had been looking forward to the drive through the Draa Valley, stopping in Ouarzazate, Marrackech, Mhamid, Zagora, and the Ait Benhaddou, with camel treks in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, sleeping in nomad tents, but it was not meant to be. The cancellation allowed us more time in Spain, and a trip to the Canary Islands, to the island of Tenerife. At first, I felt as if I ran the risk of letting this port get away from me. I was tired from a fast paced journey through Europe, with little time for rest in between countries, and I was slightly in a bad mood that we weren't in Morocco, as snobby as that may sound. My state of body and mind set me up for a pleasant surprise. On the first morning, a large group of us walked around an endless market, which was interesting more than it was useful. In other words, it was a lot of junk, but we had fun walking around. Kierra, Keith, Annalyn, Jacques, Emily, Kate, Brett, Lisa, and I spent the rest of the day in Puerto de la Cruz, a black sand beach town that looked more like the island I had in mind compared to our port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. We took two taxis which drove next to each other until our driver, while listening to house music, decided to put his foot on the gas and book it into town. As a result, our taxis dropped us off in different locations and we couldn't find each other. After walking along the coast and sitting out in the sun, we eventually found each other a couple of hours later when we were putting our feet in the ocean as we watched the hang gliders fly above us. After a few laughs about losing each other our groups merged for a Chinese buffet while overlooking the ocean during sunset. We then walked the streets, where I found cool bracelets and delicious coffee and gelato, and Brett and Annalyn found a pedicure of fish nibbling on their feet. After listening to an impressive drum circle along the beach, we walked back along the main street to take a taxi home. The next day provided yet another pleasant surprise with a hired car tour through Teide National Park. The landscape was surreal, at times resembling a west coast desert, a northwest rain forest, other times Hawaii, and sometimes Mars. We drove through rain until ascending above the clouds to sunshine, which was a surreal experience. We drove through a vast and changing landscape formed and shaped by El Teide, the 12,198 ft. volcano, which we drew closer to as we drove through the park, stopping at the most scenic areas to walk around. The silence was strikingly powerful. The sound of my lens cap opening or my foot pressing down on the pebbles seemed to echo through the entire park. At such a high elevation, with nobody around, the air was powerfully fresh and clear. After traveling through Europe, being in Teide National Park was drastically different, and all my senses took in this welcome and satisfying escape from civilization. Before boarding the ship, I went into the city to spend the rest of my euros since Tenerife was the last European stop. I enjoyed frittatas, bocadillos, and red wine, boarded the ship somewhat last minute before ship time, and went to the 7th deck to join the barbecue we had before disembarking during a gorgeous sunset with all of my friends gathered together. As we left for Ghana I was pleasantly surprised by a fulfilling trip to the Canary Islands, despite our detour from Morocco.