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13 posts categorized "Travel"

03/08/2011

From Philly to Cape Town

7,835 miles, or to be politically correct, 12,609 kilometers. That is the distance from Philadelphia to Cape Town. Sometimes these numbers feel exaggerated. Sometimes, no measurable distance seems large enough. 

Take a virtual plane flight with me. Don’t worry, there is no need to remove your shoes or undergo a full body scan. We board British Airways somewhere on the east coast. Let’s just choose Philly for convenience. It is 35 Fahrenheit outside, and the season’s 13th snowstorm bolsters Al Gore’s inconvenient truth.  Skip ahead 20 some hours, a stopover in London, and the continuous stream of neck straining movie watching aboard your 737; welkom in Kaapstad (Afrikaans courtesy of Google translate).

When I got off the plane in Cape Town, the first thing I did was visit the WC. You can always tell if an airport is nice by the quality of its bathrooms. Let me tell you, Cape Town already felt like a nice city. I couldn’t imagine that my friend studying in Tanzania would say the same upon arrival. That glistening portrayal of the city continued straight through immigrations, and into the back seat of my airport pick up.

I came to Cape Town about a week prior to the  start of the CIEE program, and spent my first night at the Portswood Hotel, adjacent to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. I could just have easily been staying at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Perhaps it is the American style dinner, boasting 50’s styles milkshakes that hint of globalization. Don’t get me wrong. It is an amazing waterfront. But it didn’t feel like Cape Town, or offer any expected welcome to the African continent.

Maybe the flocking tourists and their Nikkon DSLR cameras had something to do with that feeling. So at this point, I’m thinking that my read of the airport bathroom was pretty spot on, and that Cape Town is a rocking city enjoying a first world life at the tip of a mostly second and third world continent.

I did not travel to Cape Town to relax with fellow tourists. I wanted to go exploring, to see what the city had to offer, hidden behind the veil of posh stores lining the cruise-docked bay. Just a few miles away from the Portswood, I no longer felt at home. My Nikon speaking louder than my American accent, I immediately became the target of Cape Town’s poor. Beggars lined on city streets asking for a loaf of bread, offering pictures of their children, hoping empathy might spark donation. I am not the type to give money to a stranger on the street, but I often try to provide food. At home, when I offer food, many of those who scream of hunger refuse to eat, as desires fade with the dimming prospects of booze money or a pack of Malboro. Not here. There is something sincere about the desire for a muffin, or a bottle of water. You can tell in an individuals face when they are desperate, and sometimes, it is hard to resist.

I bought a muffin for one woman from a market vendor. I have no doubt that she was grateful. I was, however, unprepared for the onslaught of requests that would come from those who witnessed by donation. Maybe 10 or 15 people rose from the evening shadows, hoping to turn a tourist into a soup kitchen for the night. If I were to give to all, I would be broke. If I were to give to all, who is to say more would not follow in line. At some point, you realize that you are a long ways away from the 15 dollar appetizers of the waterfront.  Uncomfortable, and with a lot on my mind, I thought I should return to my hotel. Little did I know my walk would feature an unwelcomed escort, who for 15 minutes, continued to beg me for food, letting me casually know that he did not want to resort to crime.

Cape Town is a city of dissonance. While there is a contrast between the haves and have-nots in the States, rarely do they merge onto the same block. I cannot walk to the supermarket without being asked for food. And when you come back from an upscale dinner, it often pains to feel full while seeing others hungry. You can’t stop your life because others suffer. What I have realized is that sometimes, the way in which I live my life is purely wasteful. Why do I need that extra slice of pizza? Why is my trashcan filled with partially uneaten portions? To what extent do I live beyond my satisfaction level, wasting what others yearn for?

 My dissonance is living that first world Cape Town life with second world neighbors, and knowing I don’t or even can’t always do enough to help.

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DSC_0064_2 Michael Pasek is a student from Bates University.

03/01/2011

Robben Island: Check!

Cape Town, at least to the international visitor, is definedby five famous landmarks: Table Mountain, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Point, the Castle of Good Hope and most famously, Robben Island. A small percentage of Cape Town residents will only have seen one of those things - most will have seen none of them. To people who live here, it is a constant process of postponement. Come on, Table Mountain is not going anywhere is it?

It comes as no wonder then, that few of us (those of us that live here) have ever taken the time to explore the Mother City. Financial restraints aside, there are quite a few things for the eye to see, the nose to smell, tongue to savour and mind to experience. Nevertheless every person that is bound to stay in Cape Town for more than a year always delays the experiences, always thinking that there will be a tomorrow. Like I said, Table Mountain is not going anywhere. At least we hope so.

I am one of those people. I am sad to admit that my Cape Town to-do list  stretches to eternity and back again. I can proudly state that my track record is way better than most people's; I have hiked Table Mountain numerous times, I have been to the Gardens whenever I have a Sunday to spare, I have visited the Castle once and plans to see Cape Point are in the pipeline. Concrete plans - not the airy fairy plans that I used to dabble in when I first arrived in Cape Town in 2007.

The most embarrassing confession with regard to my bucket list though, is the sad fact that I had never been to Robben Island before joining CIEE. 

Shock! Horror! Yes, I know. A Cape Townian who has never made the small trip to Robben Island. Sad but very true. 

It was a small miracle that an outing was arranged for CIEE students currently studying abroad in Cape Town to visit South Africa's most infamous prison. I finally had no excuse not to go - I would once and for all tick Robben Island off my bucket list and die in peace. 

The history of Robben Island is famous the world over. It's not new to anyone per se. The world knows that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life imprisoned there during the Apartheid era - that is about all everyone knows about it. Few know that Robert Sobukwe (founder of the Pan African Congress) was held in solitary confinement there as well. Even fewer will know that Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other famous South African politicians were held captive on the famous prison island.

I admit that I did not know all of the above. Sure, I knew more than most people, but I would not be winning any quizzes if they asked me about the immediate history and importance of the place. Needless to say when the trip was in progress, I was learning as much as all of the other foreign students from the US and the other tourists that had come to visit it. 

2011-02-20 - Robben Island

"It is safe to say that without Robben Island, there is no South Africa as we know it." - Thandie, Robben Island tour guide

Above: Table Mountain, seen from Robben Island. Picture by: Rémy Ngamije. 

It is strange how much history there is around in Cape Town. It practically oozes from every pore - you do not have to go far to find a window to South Africa's past. It is everywhere. There is a reason why this place is called the Mother City. Everything that one needs to know about South Africa is right here. Robben Island, along with the District 6 Museum and a host of other cultural and heritage sites around the city are a small fraction of the places where the history of South Africa is somewhat permanently ingrained. 

But therein lies the crux of the problem - history is not permanent. I think it's more vague and unpredictable than the future. It sounds strange, but it's true. The past is subject to revision, rewriting re-everything that can be done to a historical text. Dates change, things are renamed, people are erased out of history. History is shaped by the people who have played a role in it and who record it - whoever follows is merely a slave of their interpretation.

Going to Robben Island highlighted the issue: time changes things. Robben Island is not the same place it was 20 years ago, it was not the same it was five years ago either and in a year's time...who knows? It has fresh paint on the wall, the roads are tarred,  all of the prison cells are clean. There is no...well, there is no Robben Island in the same way that people think about it.

And that is the danger in putting off experiences, I guess. Doing them later might not hold the same sense of adventure or history - a delayed pleasure is not always sweeter. I am not sure whether I would have gone to Robben Island, had I not been in CIEE this year. All I can say is that I am glad I did. Who knows what it would be like in 10 years time when I finally decided to go. In most ways, I admire all of the CIEE students who have chosen to study abroad here in Africa. It's an experience that I am sure was thrown around for a while, scratched onto a list of things to do before the old ticker ticked its last second. But they are actually here. Now. Not tomorrow.

If anything, the gist of this post is that the future will not leave you behind, history will. Live for the memory of right now.

Remy's Bucket List

  1. Mount Everest: Pending.
  2. Explore Amazone Rainforest: Pending.
  3. Robben Island: CHECK!
  4. Great Wall of China: Pending.

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DSCN4736---1

Rémy Ngamije

University of Cape Town: Postgrad LLB (Law)

Resident Assistant

 

02/24/2011

Travelling Without Moving

It is a well known fact that travelling involves moving from point A to point B. There is some kind of distance that is traversed - something or someone moves around. In the end, there is some kind of change in geography that occurs - where you started is not where you end up. That is travelling in the text book sense of the word.

Travel

Packed: It's never about what you take with you, only what you bring back.

If we go according to that definition, then today I will have travelled to at least 800 different places; I went from the bedroom to the bathroom, bathroom to bedroom, bedroom to kitchen, kitchen to bedroom, bedroom to gate, gate to street, street to campus...You get the picture. If we use the normal definition of travelling, I will have visited more places today than some of the greatest explorers of all time. Jacques Cousteau  and Sir Edmund Hillary better watch out.

But that is not the case. Travelling is not simple geographic displacement - it is not moving from the the couch to the kitchen to get a cold one or a peanut butter sandwich. Travelling, as I have come to realise, does not even involve moving - travelling is simply the act of immersing oneself in different cultures, social issues, language and discouse. If you have done any of that today, then you have travelled.

The reason I bring up travelling is because I wake up everyday tired without a plausible explanation - it's not like I scale mountains everyday (although some of the hills in Rondebosch do put your glutes through their paces) and the last time I checked, I was not racing in the Tour de France. So why the fatigue?

I think it is primarily because since I became an RA (residence assistance) I have been travelling to Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St Louis and many other places in the United States day in and day out. In some instances, I can go from New York to LA in the space of five minutes. The Concorde and Superman together could not beat me for speed if their mothers' lives depended on it.

So what shady ways do I have of traversing such great distances in the blink of an eye you might wonder? It's called conversation.

It is not expensive and stressful; no booking queues, no worrying about accommodation, no worrying about what creep I will be sitting next to - none of that. Just good old fashioned word exchange. It's amazing - in just two weeks, I have seen a baseball game live, I have been to the Superbowl, I have been to Times Square, I have bumped into Kanye West in a high end fashion boutique, I have had to brave ten feet of snow in Chicago, I have been tackled in a game of football and best of all, I got to go to a high school prom.(I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have always wanted to go to one. I narrowly lost out on kissing the prom queen though...Oh well...)

I did all of this without even moving out of my house.

Tumblr_lftrv6tyzz1qg4ejuo1_500_large
Direction: The places I have been to when I speak to people cannot be found using all the compasses and maps of the world.

The reason why I have been in and out of the United States without Homeland Security screening my passport is because the US came to me. Literally.

A few weeks ago, the Spring Program of CIEE Cape Town brought students from the US over for a five month exchange program that would see them living, studying, playing and experiencing life on this side of the world. When I was interviewed as a potential RA, I was asked all of the usual run-of-the-mill questions: What are your interest? Are you outgoing? How are you with people? Do you have sober habits? You know, that kind of thing. No one ever told me that I would be travelling each and every day. If they had led off with that, I would have given them one heck of an interview! Suffice to say that I was chosen as an RA and a month ago, my CIEE life began.

I call it my CIEE life because it is so different from anything I have ever done that it deserves its own reference. I think I died and came back as an RA. Boy, am I loving it.

The past three weeks have been what I would call the true meaning of travelling. I have met and bonded with people from a foreign culture with different mindframes and planes of social and cultural reference, I have heard some interesting stories of the US, where they live, what they do for fun, what their dreams for the future are, how the see Africa, what their parents are like, what their friends dress like - all of it. I have been to the US without even leaving Cape Town.

Travelling, or at least the practice and reason for travelling is often misunderstood. Anyone can buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world - most people often do. But it takes an observant person to come back with a changed world view a more intimate knowledge of how other people live and make sense of their lives. Travelling involves moving outside of onseself - not just outside of a country.

Travel commercials often sell countries short - they show the geography, they never show the experiences, the lessons, the change and the thrill that comes with being in a different place. The idea of travelling has in some ways become so convoluted that travelling to a different town or suburb cannot be counted as such. It seems in today's high flying, fast paced world, anything less than 10 ooo kilometres will not count as a journey.

And therein lies the trouble. Because travelling is not about moving; it is about trying out peanut butter on apples even though you think it is a despicable idea, it is about learning the difference between coloured and black, it is about packing a small VW Beatle with a million people, it is about not having internet for three days and still finding other ways to entertain yourself.

That's travelling. I have not been to the US, but I can honestly say that in the past three weeks, I have learned more about the country and the people than I have in all of the articles, newspapers, websites and television programs combined. It has been an adventure thus far...and I am just getting started.

"So forget your passport, honey. Leave the sleeping bag and suitcases behind. Just pack up your mind and let's go. "

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DSCN4736---1 Rémy Ngamije

University of Cape Town: Postgrad LLB (Law)

Resident Assistant