Sunday, November 5, 2017

South Africa - Part 2 - history and final thoughts

No trip to South Africa can avoid the harsh realities of its troubled racial history. You are confronted with echoes of Apartheid all over the country.  Coincidentally back home, there were Nazis marching in Charlottesville and one domestic terrorist drove a vehicle into protesters, killing a woman.  Knowing the US racial history and the undercurrents of systemic racism still present in our society and the latent racism emboldened by our white supremacist embarrassment-in-chief, Trump, I couldn't help but wonder about similar latent racism and hostilities in South Africa.  It also gave me pause about the moral implications of our kids learning and speaking the language (Afrikaans) of the historical colonial oppressors.  We ended up just speaking English, which is the most widely spoken language.

Cape Town itself was explicitly designed by the Apartheid regime to segregate the physical space along racial lines. You can see this still in place today just driving around the city, but you can see it even more clearly from the air.
“Points of contact invariably produce friction and friction generates heat and may lead to a conflagration.  It is our duty therefore to reduce these points of contact to the absolute minimum which public opinion is prepared to accept.”  -- T.E. Tonges, 1950
We never got to personally tour any of the townships, but we drove past several and the difference from the white, affluent neighborhoods was stark and saddening.  The biggest contrast was seeing a pilates studio and upscale boutiques, cafes and food shops directly across the street from one of the townships.

Imizamo Yethu Township near where we stayed
Soon after arriving in Cape Town, we made a trip to the District Six museum to learn about some of the horrors of Apartheid.  This was something we were really interested in understanding more.  I only knew of it a little from my childhood when the protests were going worldwide in the final years of the Apartheid regime. You hear first-hand from someone displaced by the Apartheid policies from District Six about what it was like.  She was just a child and her family held firm for many years before finally being forcefully evicted and moved to somewhere they didn't know with very few worldly possessions.  Her mother died very shortly after losing their home and she still attributes it to death of a broken heart.  There were actual artifacts from the Apartheid era and lots and lots of personal stories of what life was like in the District before everyone was forced to move out.  It was moving to read about how vibrant the community was prior to forced relocation.  There was a local cinema where people would gather and even bring in their own food to eat during films.  There was a public bath house where people gathered to do the wash.  A lively jazz scene and other signs of normal community life that were destroyed by Apartheid.

One especially moving display were actual signs and benches that were "whites only"  We had similar things in parts of America during our days of segregation, but I had only seen pictures of those in books.  To me, they had been merely a black and white photo in a school history book about a long ago time, far away from where I grew up in Washington state.  To see them in-person and from oppression in another country, it was impossible to avoid a sense of what life was like for the oppressed in those dark times.
One of several tapestries former District residents wrote messages on, now preserved by embroidery. Some quotes below.
"Happy Days District Six living was cheap, life precious. Now in Hanover Park, living's expensive and life is cheap." 
"I'd love to come back. I remember the love of my friends and family. We don't have that where we stay now." 
Hopeful message on a map of District Six before forced relocation

Hopeful quote on an exhibit at the District Six museum

Europeans (whites) Only Bench

For Use By White Persons sign

Robben Island is an island off the downtown shores of Cape Town that has a sordid past.  It had been used for hundreds of years as a place to banish political prisoners, the sick, lepers, mentally ill, and other undesirables.  The Apartheid government re-opened it as a maximum security prison for its common criminals and growing list of political prisoners, most famous of which was Nelson Mandela.  Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 years of his sentence.  Touring the island and prison was another way we were hoping to learn and teach the kids more about Mandela and the impacts of Apartheid.

The tour was given by an actual former political prisoner, so you heard first-hand what life was like and heard some stories that reminded me of the show Hogan's Heroes.  Mandela had used the courtyard (pictured below) to bury portions of the manuscript of his famous book, The Long Walk To Freedom.  We also heard about how they would play tennis in the yard and secretly toss the ball over the wall to send messages to new inmates (the ball had been cut open to hide messages inside).

Life was very hard at the prison.  Many were required to do forced hard labor in dangerous conditions that ruined their eyesight and lungs.  The most dangerous (to the white establishment, i.e. famous and powerful) political prisoners were kept inside the courtyard and crushed rocks there all day long.  Many endured conditions that violated international standards of prisons and when inspectors came, all had to put on a good show to pretend things were better than they were.  International inspections and pressure did result in some prisoners getting beds so they didn't have to sleep on the floor.

I asked our tour guide afterward whether there was any justice for those who were responsible for Apartheid and he told me about the Truth ad Reconciliation Commission that attempted to pave a way forward and air out in the open the wrongs and provide a process for prosecuting the major offenders, but also for amnesty of some. It sounded too good to be true, and it appears as if the results were controversial.

The tour ends poignantly a ways from the prison exit so you get to experience for yourself your own "Long Walk to Freedom" through the gates that many prisoners were eventually fortunate enough to experience as international and local pressure chipped away at Apartheid.

Yard where political prisoners spent their days on Robben Island and covertly communicated and hid manuscripts

Nelson Mandela's Cell On Robben Island
Income inequality is impossible to ignore in Cape Town and is one of the biggest contrasts with the backdrop of such amazing beauty of the countryside.  Everywhere you go, there are people performing all kinds of even menial service jobs for the prospect of a small tip.  Parking lot attendants, car guards, gas station attendants, etc. were everywhere. Some were sanctioned (with official safety vests and everything) and others were more--opportunistic or entrepreneurial.  You would park on a city street for free and have someone essentially shake you down for small change for watching your car when you leave.  This was something that we never really got used to.  It must be a constant reminder to any local residents with any heart about the differences between the haves and have-nots and how much more needs to be done to address these problems.  Cape Town's unemployment rate reached a staggering 14-year high of 27.7% this year so it is not surprising many were finding creative ways to make ends meet.

Establishments trying to avoid being part of the tipping culture pervading South Africa.

A popular tourist location in Hout Bay trying to avoid predatory car guard entrepreneurs.
I couldn't help but imagine Seattle heading in the same direction as Cape Town.  Housing has gotten so expensive in Seattle that it has pushed lower-income residents out of the market. And Seattle happens to have 51% of residents making $50,000 or less.  The city is trying to address the problem with a new tax on wealthy households that will fund low-income housing.  We certainly don't want Seattle to become a place only for wealthy tech workers.

One troubling thing we saw a lot in South Africa were children performing for money.  We saw them at Camp's Bay Beach and other popular, upscale locations.  The picture below was taken where our Bo Kaap tour started.  The kid dances were entertaining, but I couldn't help but worry about them being trapped in a cycle of poverty if we supported them.  It was worrying enough that we saw the sorry state of the South Africa public library.  No Wi-Fi access, but at least they had computers with Internet on-site.  And really a lack of variety of books.  The books that were there had seen better days as well. It made us appreciate our Seattle public library all the more.  But it makes me sad to think about the impact on literacy and education that such a lack of reading material availability presents and that this may further keep many in the population from reaching their full potential.  Hopefully, school libraries are better stocked.

One of many groups of kids and mothers we encountered dancing to earn money.

A township we passed along the garden route drive.

Bo Kaap is a picturesque part of town whose name is Afrikaans for "Upper Cape"  It also has a rich past.  Its residents are primarily Muslims and it is home to a 216 year-old mosque and many others.  The ancestors of many residents were freed slaves and laborers that had been brought to South Africa from all over (east Africa, Sri Lanka, the Dutch East Indies) but retained their culture and heritage and keep a lot to this very day.  It is the home of the wonderful and famous "Cape Malay" cuisine, but it's a misnomer to refer to the residents as "Malay" since they were brought from all over.  The colorful painting of the houses is a relatively recent evolution that ties to the region's Muslim heritage.  We found that some of the colors were actually a kind of code.  Purple houses were places where cooking classes are held, for example.

Due to the popularity of the area, real estate prices have surged.  And our tour guide told us about efforts to prevent buyout from outside investors or wealthy individuals that would result in destroying the cultural heritage of the neighborhood that is actually a core reason for its popularity.  It's a tricky problem though because it reinforces the segregation of people and cultures into separate districts that is already endemic by design in Cape Town.

You can see why this area is so popular. Great views of Table Mountain as a backdrop for technicolor facades.

Cape Town is steeped in history but we only began to scratch the surface. It is still a victim of its own past and trying to right some of the wrongs by providing millions of new houses to those on the low-income scale, but this may still perpetuate racial divides as well,
But these have come with their own problems: despite the improvements in individual living conditions, there is a growing realisation that the RDP housing programme has reinforced apartheid era segregation, continuing to consign the poor to ghettos at the furthest edges of the city [1]
They have only had a couple decades to turn things around though. Hopefully they can continue fighting for solutions that will enable everyone in South Africa to participate fully in society and enjoy the beautiful country as much as we did.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Safari Pictures

A Safari in Kenya

Hanging out with zebra in Buffalo Spring Reserve

Many, many months -- maybe more like years ago -- we started dreaming about our travels and going on a safari was always one of our top priorities.  We hemmed and hawed over where and when to go.  Then one day Jason said he absolutely wanted to see the wildebeest migration.  The what???  I had no idea what he was talking about.  But he quickly convinced me that seeing thousands of wildebeest cross the Masai Mara during their annual migration was something we needed to see.  We were put in touch with a friend of a friend and planned our safari in Kenya for mid August.  Seeing the migration became a cornerstone for our travel planning timeline.

Our safari van!

Let me start by saying our safari was flipping awesome.  If you ever have a chance to go on one you should jump at the chance.

We had an awesome guide who was with us from the moment we landed in Nairobi until the day we left.  He was incredibly informative about everything we could think to ask about Kenya, the people, politics, the landscape and of course all the animals we saw.

We each had our own wishlist of animals to see.  I wanted to see a family of elephants with a baby.  Aside from the migration, Jason hoped to see animals being animals, maybe a little hunting and attacking.  Adele most wanted to see elephants and zebra.  And Spencer hoped to find a cheetah and a baby giraffe.  We were fortunate to see all of this and so much more than we had ever anticipated.

Family of elephants we spotted up on a hill.

They walked right by our van!

Our first stop was 2 nights in the Samburu National Reserve.  We did game drives in the Buffalo Springs Reserve and had our first glimpse of zebra, orick, warthogs, gazelle, ostrich, impala, giraffe and elephants, just to name a few.  All of us were caught up in the excitement.  Every new animal we found, the kids quickly looked up in our guide book and shared facts about them.  We made an ever growing list of every single creature we came across.  And the thrill of spotting the next animal never got old.

Balancing on the equator.  It was quite cold here, not what we expected.

Our second destination was Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  This place is a gem and, on reflection, was the absolute highlight for me.  This place started with lunch and one of the ugliest birds we'd ever seen.  This stork casually watched us eat nearly all of our meals.

Marabou stork at lunch.

Here we met Baraka, a blind black rhino, and learned the difference between black and white rhinos and about the struggles that keep them on the critically endangered list.  We were even fortunate to see the last 3 northern white rhinos in the world.  Turns out, rhinos are neither black nor white, both are a steely gray color.  The name "white" was derived from a mistranslation of the dutch word for wide: wijd.  The white rhinos are distinguishable by their wide mouths.  Then the other species was named "black" rhinos for the sake of differentiation.

Baraka the rhino loves his sugar cane!

After meeting Baraka, we explored a small but informative museum where learned more about animals in the bush, the circle of life and conservation efforts.  It was a great hands-on exhibit for the kids!

                 Elephant leg bone
Giraffe neck bone

At night we watched a herd of 17 elephants slowly cross the grassy field.  A baby and two adults stopped right in front of me to drink from the water hole.  We were close enough to hear their feet rustle the grass.  We heard the rumbling vibrations they make to communicate with each other (I thought it was a lions roar at first).  As dusk turned to night we watched until every last elephant faded into the darkness.  Magical!

Fading into the night.

We headed to Lake Elementaita next.  Here we saw hundreds of flamingos; so many the lake looked pink!  We watched them walk back and forth across the shore, then spectacularly take flight all at once.  On the beach we came across a herd of water buck.  They were quite skiddish.  As soon as they heard us, every last one stopped what they were doing to stare at us.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Then they took off running.

Greater and lesser flamingos taking flight.

A flamingo pink lake.

Sadly the most memorable part of this location was Jason's illness.  After about 5 days of taking a prescribed anti-malarial, it finally took a toll.  He was laid up in bed for 24 hours and we had to contact a doctor to check him out.  He got new meds and was back on his feet the next day.  We were very fortunate to have an amazing tour company and hotel staff to help us.  It wasn't pretty, but he survived.

Our final safari stop was the much anticipated Masai Mara.  This place is well know for big 5 animal sightings along with the migration.  We had one less day here due to Jason's illness, but we made the most of it.  We were able to check off several things from our "hope we see this" list.

This cheetah gave up his hunt and walked by our van instead.

Our guide kept in constant contact with other drivers and managed to get us front and center to see a cheetah pursue some gazelle.  But apparently they are lazy hunters and he gave up, walking right in front of our van!  This was the closest we got to seeing a hunt, so Jason didn't get his Animal Planet wish of seeing a successful kill.  But, we did catch word about a pride of lions finishing up some zebra for breakfast.  Yikes!  Sad on one hand and fascinating circle of life on the other (note to self, put Lion King on our watch list).

Lions having a little zebra for breakfast.

And on our last and final game drive, we set out for the all day adventure of trying to see the migration.  We knew going in it would be an 8 hour day, so we prepped the kids with activities and packed food to go.  We found a prime spot on one side of the river where we could see hundreds of zebra and wildebeest.  Several times we saw large groups approach the water, wade in and consider crossing.  But there were always hippos guarding the river and scaring them back up the banks.  There were 16 hippos in this stretch of the water and they lurked around, splashed, fought and intimidated the hopeful migrators.  At one point we saw a mom and baby zebra wade out well past half way, we were so worried for them.  They must have seen something, because they turned and high-tailed it back.

Mean hippo scaring back the zebra.

Hippos fighting for territory.

Hundreds more wildebeest gathered on our side of the river looking for a place to cross, unfortunately a number of safari drivers were blocking the parts of the banks that had access to the water.  So they just wandered around, would line up and then back off repeatedly.  We did see one lonely wildebeest cross on his own, I guess he was tired of waiting.  We were beginning to think he would be our only migration sighting.  One wildebeest.

Wildebeest gathering and gaining confidence to cross.

At 4pm, our driver said it was time to head back to camp.  We started up the hill with deflated hopes and "we gave it our best shot" sentiments.  Then suddenly our driver flipped a u-turn to another section of the river.  He had gotten a radio call that it started.  He found a spot to squeeze between other vans and we saw it!  A couple hundred wildebeest were crossing!  We could see them go across, up the bank and trail off into the bush.  I was so happy we saw it, after all our planning and dreams it would have been a huge bummer to miss.  Our guide was amazing, he kept saying to be patient and it would happen.  These animals are unpredictable and quite indecisive, which is part of their survival instinct.  Who would want to cross a river filled with crocs and hippos?

Finally, the wildebeest found a safe spot to cross!

Eleven hours later we made it back to the lodge.  The timing was perfect I guess, as this last day on safari marked our 11th wedding anniversary.  There is no one I would rather spend 11 hours in a van with or a year traveling the world with.

Happy 11th Anniversary to us!

Since this post is crazy long, I'll post more pictures separately and some safari related writing and drawings by the kids.