How one South African township and a gentle tour guide from Zimbabwe changed me.

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From the moment we arrived at Spier Vineyard in Cape Town I was hyper-aware and very sensitive to the race and class divisions that are so glaringly and uncomfortably prevalent all around. I was humbled and incredibly excited to be able to travel to South Africa at all. I wanted to see and experience every remarkable thing and, from a typical tourist’s view, I did exactly that…only to return to Spier in the evenings and take note of the service staff at the end of each day who would hitch-hike for rides to their township homes. All the while during my time out on Safari, on bus tours, and being driven from one breath-taking place to another, I knew I wanted to visit a township. I couldn’t feel or properly grasp where I was until I’d put myself where over half the population of all South Africans live. I had seen the townships from the car windows. Metal topped shanty shacks sprawling for as far as the eye could see, existing right outside of what I can only describe as the immense wealth of inner Cape Town when compared.

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Khayelitsha Township, CapeTownAttractions.com

Township Tours are readily available and advertised as full day tourist group activities. The more I read the descriptions, the more wrong it felt to me. It felt like I would be gawking at the hardships of others with a group of people where none of us could ever know what true hardship is. Gawking was the last thing I wanted for anyone to feel I was doing – the idea of making another person feel on display made me cringe inside. I thought, maybe this wasn’t something I should be doing at all. What right did I have to take a “tour” through someone else’s impoverished life, snap a bunch of photos and then return to my own comfortable white life?


Racism is not on a piece of paper. Just because we vote it out, doesn’t mean that people stop being racist.

~South African Musician featured in Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown: South Africa 


Then came Arthur. Arthur was our taxi driver for our last few days in Cape Town. He became our willing tour guide, showing us places that no one else had and befriending us. He drove us to safari, and while he ate lunch with us (something no other taxi driver would do, even though I asked) he told me about his life in Cape Town. Originally from Zimbabwe, he came to Cape Town hoping for better opportunities for making money, but has found it to be very hard. He’s applied for a visa to come work in the U.S., but has been turned down. Now he has a wife and a new baby boy to think of, and only a year left before his working visa for South Africa expires. Arthur was very open and genuine with us in describing his life. His honesty and openness about living in a township himself gave me the courage to tell him how conflicted I was feeling. He asked why I felt that way, and I explained my thought process to him. He insisted it was not insulting for me to want to know about the world around me. He offered to arrange something for us outside of the regular group tours, but I was still unsure. By the end of that day, even though I still felt deeply conflicted, we gave Arthur the go-ahead, and he graciously arranged our visit to Cape Town’s oldest township: Langa.

Arthur pulled into the entrance and parked us right outside the community center which houses a new theatre built by volunteers, a pottery workshop, a music room and an art gallery. The community center is where they put on performances and teach pottery workshops and music classes.

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A row of divided shipping containers is home to hundreds of Langa Township residents in South Africa

As we walked under the burning sun and the stifling South African heat we were guided down the street past small businesses operated from tiny shacks to an open door in a row of beige wooden shipping containers, just off the small paved main street. Our guide, Antonio, leaned politely in and spoke in Xhosa to the woman inside. I didn’t understand his words, but I put together that he was asking her permission for us to look into her home. Antonio waved us forward to introduce us. Feeling sheepish, I only came forward enough meet her eyes and say hello to her as she sat on her bed. He explained that half of this divided shipping container was home to her and her 5 children, the smallest of which lay on the bed in front of her for a nap. Antonio gestured for me to come closer and have a full look inside. As I shrank back from his invitation he assured me that we wouldn’t be there if it weren’t ok – that he’d never invite me where I wasn’t welcome. I bowed my head and peaked quickly inside. She threw me a peaceful and welcoming smile as she sat there with her hand on her son’s forehead while he slept.

Electrical wires were draped from container to container to provide them with power. There was only room for her bed, a small refrigerator, what looked like a Bunsen burner for cooking, and a small side table with a TV. The faucets for running water and the toilets were elsewhere. The toilets are non-flushing and are only sometimes attended to once a week. Many are forced to use the polluted river that runs behind the township. At night, while she and her smallest child sleep on the bed, her 4 other children sleep on the cramped floor space no more than 4 and a half feet wide. She is on the wait-list for government housing, a wait that will last 15 hot and cramped years. Her demeanor in the face of this seemed accepting and patient, at least in that moment. I remarked to Antonio that 15 years is such a long time to wait to which he replied, “Yes yes, it’s a long time, but it will happen.”

We continued walking between the rows of donated shipping-container homes, past other families with open doors and windows, and down the dirt pathways into the depths of the poorest part of the township. I was slapped in the face with the eye opening reality of what sits just behind Cape Town’s thin veil of white-washed tourism. Reading the history of Apartheid in a book or watching the documentaries about it on television in no way prepared me for standing right in the middle of its far reaching and blatant effects. Apartheid ended 20 years ago, except that in so many ways it didn’t. Not really. To undo it seems like an unattainable goal at best.

Antonio explained that even within the townships themselves there are upper (which they call “the Beverly Hills of the Township”), middle, and lower class dwellings. Upper class houses are owned by occupants who have higher paying jobs and can afford to live outside the township, but choose to remain near their friends and families. Middle class housing consists of hostels that have been converted into duplexes which are then rented by clerks, nurses, etc who make a decent living, but not enough to leave the township. Lower class housing is made up of predominately shanty shacks built from wood, plastic and metal, which tend to leak in the rain and catch fire easily.

Top left: Langa residents ask to have their photo taken. Top right: Arthur, our tour guide and friend. Bottom left: Left over maze after the brewing process. Bottom middle: Boarded up shack. Bottom right: One of several pieces of wall art throughout Langa.



I found a sense of comfort in their sense of community as we passed the tiny makeshift pubs made of plastic and cardboard where they brew their own beer (called mqombothi) from maze. Every sense of comfort I felt was consistently met with a sense of guilt about not being more acutely aware of the world I exist in. I felt small in the face of its bigness. Small in the face of so much unfamiliar. It brought me to tears, which I instantly hid from view. I only took a few photos, only one of which included the people of the township, and I took that one because they asked me to. Taking too many photos was a boundary I felt I shouldn’t overstep.

As we made our way through the winding paths where laundry was strung across the roofs and water puddled on the ground under the public faucets, Antonio asked me why I came to see the township. I told him it was because I needed to see how the real South Africa lives. He told me it was the right reason to come.

As we walked along to see the hostels, Antonio said something to me that I will not soon forget. He looked at my phone with its fancy camera lens, and in his thick accent he explained that I could feel confident and protected in Langa. He explained that if someone were to steal my phone or bother me in any way, they would be chased, mobbed and possibly even beaten to death. He said that in Langa, they took the law into their own hands. He meant, in his own way, to make me feel safe. Instead I felt terrified at the prospect of someone being beaten to death on my behalf. He explained further that if arrested at all, a thief or a rapist might spend a month or two in jail only to be released and commit these crimes again. Rather than take that chance, certain members of the community take it upon themselves to enforce the law in their own way.


The townships have a sense of community in so many ways, but they also have drug issues, gang violence, taxi wars, and they’re forced to have to work against government corruption and not enough police presence. Some will say they feel forgotten and that things were better under white rulership. Some will say the politicians within the African National Congress (the ruling political party of South Africa) spend so much time fighting that nothing gets done. Meanwhile, within the townships there is fighting between its colored and black occupants as to who deserves what from the government first.

South Africa, Langa and Arthur’s gentle patience with my persistent questions have given me a sense of awakening that I can’t compare to any other experience. Our visit to Langa and our stay in Cape Town have left me in a state of deep, penetrating thought and a visceral need to become much more seriously involved both in my own community and abroad whenever and where ever I go. I will, from now on, commit to feeling and experiencing what’s around me no matter where I am. Next year when we’re in Cape Town again, I will plan ahead and volunteer my time to whatever community project needs me the most in the townships. From now until then and beyond, I will actively volunteer my time here in my own community.

If I leave you with anything at all, I leave you with two bits of advice:

ONE: In the short term, if you don’t know what Apartheid is, who Nelson Mandela was and how the effects of Apartheid coupled with government corruption are still affecting South Africa today – I implore you to embrace any opportunity to educate yourself on it. Start by watching “Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown: South Africa”.

TWO: Travel. Go and see the world. I believe whole heartedly there is no other way than to actually experience being somewhere.

We’ve made a friend in Arthur; a connection that will stay with us. I will never forget you, South Africa. Ever.

Penguins,Ostriches and Owls, OH MY!

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Flickr albums coming soon – follow JezzabellGem on Instagram to see more photos.

Every day in South Africa is more magical then the day before, and everywhere you look is even more beautiful then the place you looked before. It’s actually not that expensive to hire a driver for a day, so that’s what we did. We visited the penguin sanctuary at Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good Hope. We saw ostriches and baboons – not together, of course. We ended the day by driving the mountain road along the coast.

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African Penguin at Boulders Beach, S.A.

Boulders Beach

Boulders Beach is home to over 2000 tiny and adorable (also endangered) African penguins. I spotted the first ones as we walked down the board walk, and I must have taken 10 photos of them, because I somehow thought those few might be the only ones I would see…since wildlife is not always willing to accommodate us. When we reached the beach they were there in droves. Some were waddling down to the beach for nesting twigs and waddling back to hand them off to their penguin partners. Some were sitting on eggs and some had tiny fluffy punk rock penguin babies tucked under their bellies. A few of them were so close to the boardwalk I could have touched them. Unfortunately my penguin euphoria was violently interrupted when a horrific nature scene unfolded right in front of me. A seagull swooped down and stole an egg from a nest where the penguin had left to go down to the beach. The surrounding penguins were sitting on nests themselves and could do nothing but loudly protest. We gasped in horror. A sad moment, indeed.

The Cape of Good Hope

The walk up to the lighthouse was a steep one and well worth the view all the way up. I encountered a sign that warned of dangerous baboons, but I saw not one baboon the whole time. Apparently baboons here are like bears at home; they’re attracted to food and they’ll break into your car to get it. After the walk, we ate at the restaurant half way up that provided fancy food and a beautiful panoramic view of the ocean. We didn’t have reservations and it seemed that we were frowned upon for not calling ahead, but the experience was still quite nice.

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The view from near the top of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa


Ostrich Farm

On our way to the coast we happened upon an Ostrich farm, so of course we pulled over and met the majestic Bonny and Clyde; two ostriches who were mated for life as ostriches do. Clyde was incredibly attentive and very attracted to the shiny accents on my bag. He even went after Amy’s camera, because he’s an ostrich and he can . He also had quite the soul stabbing stare and he was a complete ham for the camera. The farm itself was beautiful with its vast fields in front and the mountains behind.

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Cape Point Ostrich Farm

Upon leaving the ostrich farm we got a shock. For all the baboons we didn’t see at the Cape of Good Hope, it was made up for when we spotted a whole group just hanging out on the side of the road. They were on Amy’s side of the car, so I’ll need to get copies of those photos, because… Baboons!

Driving the Coast

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Spier Eagle Encounters Bird Sanctuary

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, every where you look in South Africa is spectacular. The drive along the raging and windy coast on the side of the mountain is like something you’d see in a James Bond movie. It’s long and winding and very high up with the ocean spreading  out wide and crashing down below.

Biking the Grounds of Spier

This wine farm is expansive. A river runs past it with beautiful bridges across. There’s a spa, 3 restaurants – one of which is farm to table, wine tasting, the vineyards, a craft market, a conference center and amphitheater, 2 lakes and a bird sanctuary. I spent a lot of time there, because you can pet all the owls. I repeat…YOU CAN PET ALL THE OWLS. As an aside, we have an owl friend who likes to hang out on our porch during the day. It’s hella awesome.

Who knew the didgeridoo could put me in a dance trance.

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I woke up yesterday morning to the sound of birds I’ve never heard before; the kind you might imagine only hearing in Africa (go figure!). While Cory was still waking up, I opened the curtains to find the source of the unfamiliar bird noises and was surprised to find that we have a really cute view from the little porch outside of our fancy room. After our lovely breakfast, Cory went off to work and I walked the grounds. The view from all around this wine farm is really beautiful. The sweeping expanse of land with flattop mountains off in the distance seems otherworldly, I suppose because it is. Every single bit of wildlife here, down to the last tiny bird is different than anything I’ve seen at home. That makes me appreciate every single thing I see all the more. 

After my walk my new travel companion, Amy and I were picked up and taken into Cape Town where we caught a hop on hop off tour bus, because it was the easiest way to get to all the places we wanted to see yesterday. If our travels have taught me anything it’s that hop on hop off tours are very useful. Cape Town is quite the bustling little (or not so little) place with music and markets everywhere. Seeing ostrich and warthog on the menu was a unique experience for me. I have yet to find the courage to try those things, so I stuck with curry chicken.

The first place on our tour list was Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. The beauty of this place with the mountains as a sky filling backdrop is breath taking. The view from the boomslang that reaches out above the tree canopy is spectacular. It’s the seventh most beautiful botanical gardens in the world, and I can certainly see why.


Next we hit Hout Bay. Hout Bay is a small bay that packs a windy visual punch. I thought the Mediterranean Sea was a beautiful blue, but the Atlantic ocean off of South Africa is a shade of blue I’ve never seen before. We waded in a bit and cold does not begin to describe the temperature of that water. From the bay you can take a boat out to Seal Island, but we were on a schedule so we didn’t. The last stop for us was Camps Bay. The roadway to Camps Bay is on the side of a mountain. The view from that high up was something to behold. It was incredibly windy, and the ocean was very rough so the waves were constantly crashing. The mountains swept down almost straight into the ocean – it’s just incredible. We climbed out onto the boulders where the view of the turbulent ocean was like no other. The wind blew so hard that I felt like I might be swept away at any moment, but that didn’t stop me from standing there.


When we arrived back at the market in Cape Town we shopped around a bit while we waited for our cab. Out of nowhere I heard the unmistakable sound of someone playing a didgeridoo, so you might well imagine that I had to find my way to wherever that sound was coming from. I stood there in complete awe at this woman who played this instrument like I’ve never heard it played before. Who knew the didgeridoo could put me in a dance trance?

The rest of the evening was spent back at the wine farm drinking wine and waiting for Cory to come back from his work dinner. All in all I think it was the best day ever… until I experience today that is.

 

The Long Journey Begins Today!

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All of my lists have been checked and I’ve paced back and forth going over everything a million times, just like I always do before we leave for a big trip. We’re at the Gainesville Airport – all checked in, and eating food that’s entirely too expensive for it’s quality. Cory is excited, but nervous. This is all fun and games for me, but for him it’s a work trip; his first trip with his new title as Team Lead. *you got this, baby!*

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My trusty stuffed bat companion. 🙂

I’m prepared for a lot of airporting and plane riding for the next 24 hours. Books, earbuds and gaming apps are now my friends. It’s always good to have things to do on the plane, and lucky for me the bullet journaling notebooks I ordered came in just in time! I’ll certainly have enough time to get that going for it to be useful to me while I’m on the trip.

Here are all the ways you can keep up with our South Africa adventure:

Click here for JezzabellGem Does Earth
This blog, of course! I’ll being writing a post accompanied with photos every couple of days.

Click here for JezzabellGem on Instagram
Instagram is how I’ll be sharing up to the minute photos each day, because it’s the easiest and most immediate sharing method.  Just in case anyone new pokes their head into my blog – know that when I’m not traveling – I’m a cosplayer, so my Instagram feed is full of costuming, cosplay and comic con mayhem. Beware!

Click here for JezzabellGem on Flickr
My Flickr feed (linked in each blog post) is where the full photo albums will be posted. It’s also where all of our previous travel photos are housed, so feel free to check those out, too.

Money Belts, Travelers Insurance, Sim Cards and Booking Ahead for Fun!

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I should have been working on all of these things two weeks ago. Instead it all starts today, but thankfully it’s going smoothly so far. We’ve traveled to three places abroad successfully. While we certainly don’t know everything, we’ve learned a lot about how to pack for over seas travel (bring your own ear buds – they ones they provide in flight are awful) and what to expect out of a long international flight (neck pillows to the rescue), and how to get around effectively. Pro-tip: giant suitcases are a NO, trust me on this. If you could have seen us hobbling along with sore backs and arms on the trains and cobblestoned streets of Brussels with a gigantic suitcase in tow, you would have pointed and laughed. You would have been justified in doing so, because we looked as ridiculous as we felt.

Still, as learned as we are, we have yet to take what most would consider very important precautions. This time it’s the “better safe than sorry” approach.


 

sim-card-being-placed-into-a-mobile-phoneStaying Connected with Pre-Paid Sim Cards and/or “WhatsApp”
Pre-paid sim cards and rental phones are usually available in any airport from Vodacom. We used them when were in Malta, and frankly I don’t think we’ll ever look back. They allow us to stay connected most all the time which means that I can message via Google Chat, Facebook or really any online communication system I want. We still put our phones in airplane mode when we’re not using them to save data in case of roaming while at the same time saving our ever precious battery life.

Incase no pre-paid sim card is available and there is no wifi to be had for Google Chat or Facebook, there’s always WhatsApp. WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS – and believe me when I tell you that texting is ridiculously expensive over seas. That’s why WhatsApp is where it’s at, and why I’ll have it installed just incase.


RFID Blockers and Money Belts
In all of my research on traveling to South Africa, it seems that Cape Town is one of the safer places to go, however there is still the matter of frequent muggings, card scanning and professional pick-pocketing (not that these are not also prevalent in the states). This has prompted me to shop for and buy RFID blocking card and passport holders and a Pacsafe RFIDsafe 100 Anti-Theft RFID-blocking Travel Waist WalletWith these new purchases; as long as we’re careful about only using ATMs
inside buildings with privacy…and as long as we are mindful of our surroundings I think we’ll make out alright.


Travelers Insurance
I took it a step further this time around and also paid for basic travelers
insurance which helps in the event of lost luggage, cancelled or missed
flights, changes in schedule and some types of theft as well as emergencytravel-quotes medical issues. The top rated travelers insurance through Consumers Advocate as of right now is Allianz. For $192 we are pretty well covered for the length of our trip (11 days). That’s much less expensive than I thought it would be, and it’s much safer for us to have it rather than leaving things to chance like we’ve done in the past. I’ve never purchased any sort of travelers insurance before, so I’m not 100% sure I chose the absolute best insurance. I do feel strongly that I didn’t choose the worst. Let’s hope we won’t need to find out how good or bad it is.


Booking Fun Stuff Ahead of Time
While there’s a ton of really amazing “once in a lifetime” things to do in Cape Town that appear to be available with out pre-planning, there are a few things we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t miss out on. Today, while I sat with my coffee and a bagel, I booked us on the Marine Big Five Adventure from Cape Town which is a full day whale watching charter boat where we’ll hopefully see right whales, dolphins, great white sharks, seals and penguins. I also reserved spots for us on a full day chocolate, cheese, olive oil and wine tour through Stellenbosch. The vineyards in South Africa are plentiful and beautiful – we’re even staying in a hotel that happens to be on a wine farm! Those two things are our honeymoon gifts to each other.

I am beyond excited. Three days and a wake-up left to go!