South Africa

(March 28 — April 2, 2014)

A view of Cape Town from my room

*Note: this was originally published via email on April 8, 2014*

As I journey on with Semester At Sea, in which I travel around the world via a floating university where classrooms are next to swimming pools and seasickness is a legitimate excuse for missing class, I tend to forget I’m technically in school. Right now I would be back in Bloomington, IN, freezing cold with Little 500 on my mind (and maybe finals) and I would be sharing with you all how I spent my spring break somewhere in Florida. Instead, I’m telling you how I spent my unofficial spring break week in Cape Town, South Africa, an international paradise where I climbed a mountain, swam with sharks, went on safaris, and met famous musicians.

Compared to the extremes of India and the language barrier of the Far East, Cape Town’s culture shock came to me because I forgot what it was like to walk around shopping malls and see other white people and not instantly assume they’re SASers. Compared to India, in which I was dodging traffic in the streets filled with begging children, dead bodies, and sacred cows, Cape Town was a place to spend money and unwind and, as the bartenders on Long Street would tell us, let the music and sun take over. Though I enjoy exploring new lands and being challenged by the unknown, it was nice for a change to sit at a restaurant along the ocean and listen to music and being able to drink the water and go to bars. For the first time on this semester at sea, I felt like a normal college student.

But we’ve been trained to read between the lines (or, in this case, look behind Table Mountain), and I discovered that this first-world city still has a very present third-world undercurrent.

Cape Town a paradise that requires the buddy system, our Executive Dean told us at pre-port. We were warned of the high rate of theft and rape and that 25% of the South African population was HIV+, the highest percentage in the world. By the numbers, Cape Town was technically the most dangerous port of our voyage, especially for women. I personally did not encounter any issues concerning safety, with the exception of being ripped off by taxi drivers every now and then, but, like traveling in any other major city, I kept my wits about me and was fine.

Day 1 — My “Let’s Explore Cape Town And Not Worry About Being Tourists” Day

We docked in Cape Town in the wee hours of the morning and watched the sun rise over the city while eating breakfast. The sun crept up behind Table Mountain, the natural landmark of South Africa that loomed over the entire city and our ship, and I could hear it calling out to me saying, “Brady, you need to climb me for sunrise tomorrow.” I kept the mountain’s words in the back of my head, but I first wanted to get acquainted with the city.

Because our ship was docked in a far away industrial shipping area, and because we didn’t want to spend money on a taxi, we jumped into a shuttle provided by SAS that took us to the Waterfront, another popular gathering place in Cape Town that included a shopping mall and all sort of restaurants in which well dressed people would gather and where I had my first good hamburger in a couple months. This was also where the ferries to Robben Island left from, and tucked away in the small alleyways are small travel agencies that helped us organize outdoor activities such as safaris, shark cage diving, and skydiving. The Waterfront would become the central meeting place for all our events, and it is a twenty-minute walk from our next destination — Long Street.

Long Street is the main road of Cape Town where all the bars and nightlife resides; think Bourbon Street with African street performers filling the streets with music. We would get to party there later, but for now we would explore the street during the day, which was still busy with people coming in and out of surf stores and seafood restaurants. We walked down the street to find the famous bars that we wanted to go to later in the week — Joe’s and Dubliners were popular with the ship’s crew — and we ate lunch in an open-air café that was next to a popular intersection for street performers. We were serenaded by a trio of guitarist and drummers covering The Beatles and Bob Marley, and a saxophonist stopped by and did a few songs.

At the end of Long Street is a little side road where we found Mabu Vinyl record store. To most people, this humble little record store that only sells used vinyls and CDs released before 1983 might not seem like much. However, if you’ve seen the documentary Looking For Sugar Man, you will know that this music store played a very important role in the finding of Rodriguez, the Detroit musician from the 70's whose music bombed in the United States but became more popular than Elvis in South Africa. Rodriquez’s music sounds like Bob Dylan’s early acoustic folk songs if Dylan could actually sing, and his protest songs about being poor, broke, and out of work spoke to the anti-Apartheid movement of the 70's and 80's. I was compelled to buy Rodriquez’s classic album Cold Fact and I checked off my CD for South Africa (I buy a CD in every country that reminds me of my time in the country, and so far I’ve bought everything from One Direction to Bollywood soundtracks to neo-80's metal pop).

After Mabu we found another record store called The African Music Store (“Music heaven since ’97” its sign read) that specialized in just Afro-Pop music old and new. I enjoyed exploring the music and talking to the store owner about who I should check out. It was here that we met a local Cape Town musician, Donovan, who gave us some suggestions on music and even gave us a signed copy of one of his CDs. It was a fun encounter, but I didn’t think much of it — until later that night when we were walking past a TV and his band’s music video began playing on South Africa’s equivalent to VH1. Local favorite or national music star? I’ll never know.

For dinner we went to Mitchell’s, a go-to bar for many generations of SASers that lies on the Waterfront. They had a SAS flag that we all signed and we enjoyed beer tastings and pizza while trying to figure out the rules of Cricket. We couldn’t figure out the cricket match, but the beer was great.

After dinner we took a taxi to a soccer game played by the Cape Town team. We originally thought the game was at the World Cup stadium, but as we got our tickets we realized it was at the smaller stadium. It was a misstep, but we decided to go anyways and I still had a lot of fun at my first legitimate soccer match. The game itself wasn’t too great, we lost 0–2, but the crowd was dancing and cheering the entire time, and our large group of SASers was welcomed to join in on the festivities. We had no idea what we were chanting and I’m sure we acted ridiculous, but it made the cheering even more fun.

After some more exploration on the waterfront, I decided to call it an early night, because I had an early morning ahead of me.

Day 2 — My “I’m in Cape Town But Dammit I’m Still Going To Do Something Culturally Significant” Day

Table Mountain is the central figure, both figurative and literally, of Cape Town, and my number one priority in my week here was to climb it. Most people took cable cars to the top, but I wanted a challenge — I wanted to climb the mountain and watch the sun rise on the summit.

I, along with two of my very brave friends, left the ship at three in the morning and took a taxi to the base of the trail recommended to us by our driver. Around 3:45 am we began our ascent in the dark. We were far enough from the city that the city lights could not cancel out all the stars that covered our heads. That, and the single flashlight I had, was the only light we had.

The trail started off easy enough, though I was quickly reminded from my heavy breathing that I had gained some love handles in the name of exploring cultures through cuisines. But we pressed on and everything was fine, until we reached a fork in the road. Right or left? We couldn’t see too far ahead of us, so we decided to take a right. Turned out that going right took us an hour out of our way to the entrance of a harder trail that was marked by a sign that told us that this trail was for professional climbers only. We quickly backtracked and took that left.

Now was the hard part. The climb became more vertical and we began to see the light shades of blue — we were running out of time. Still, we pressed on, and we eventually made it to the summit. But we weren’t in the clear yet. The trail took us to the east side of the mountain, and the sun was rising in the west. Of course we wanted the best view, so we didn’t waste any time in beginning our sprint to catch the sun. It took us a full hour sprint from one side of Table Mountain to the other, and I can’t imagine how ridiculous I looked trying to sprint with my backpack bouncing up and down on my back. But we reached an elevated patch and we stopped to catch our breath. Then, over the mountain, the sun rose and illuminated the entire plain.

All I can say about the sunrise on Table Mountain was that it was one of those many moments on SAS when you’re face to face with the kind of experience you’re having and you’re reminded of how lucky and crazy you are for traveling around the world. “I’m in Africa…I’m in Africa!” I kept thinking to myself as I meditated for thirty minutes in silence. I thought about everything — where I had been, where I was, where I was going — and it was a joyous time. But soon the clouds started to come in (Table Mountain is so high up that the clouds just skim the top plain), and I couldn’t see anything past my arm. So I backtracked in the cloud to where we first came up from the trail.

We came down the mountain via cable car — too tired to hike down — and we found a cafe that had a sign promoting their South African breakfast. Of course we wanted what the locals were having, so we asked what a typical South African breakfast was. Our server laughed and told us that it’s an English breakfast.

We were still tired and didn’t feel like walking too much, so we decided to take the ferry over to Robben Island for the rest of the day.

Robben Island is a little island off Cape Town that once held a prison very comparable to Alcatraz. But while Alcatraz held gangsters such as Al Capone, Robben Island held political prisoners like Nelson Mandela during Apartheid.

The prison was marketed towards tourists as a symbol of the strength of the human spirit with Mandela as its mascot, but as we toured the prison we began to see the cells of other notable political leaders such as Robert Sobukwe and other unsung heroes of the anti-Apartheid movement. It was also clear that the island was intended to show to the world that Apartheid ended with the release of Mandela, but, as we later drove through the poor segregated townships that were scattered across the city, we realized that there was more work to be done; much like racism in America, Apartheid is only dead on paper.

Interesting fact about Robben Island: the prison’s nickname was The University because, in addition to holding some of the most influential men of South Africa, 20% of inmates were lawyers, 50% were educated at a university level, and the remaining 30% learned how to read and write from their fellow inmates and, when they were released, they were eligible for higher education.

Our tour guide was a former Robben Island prisoner and he explained life in prison and showed us his card, something the prisoners carried around that identified his number and race. On Robben Island, he told us, prisoners don’t have names but numbers, identified by the number you were imprisoned and the year (Our guide’s number was 56/83, and Mandela’s was 466/64). Our cards were our identities, he told us.

Our guide showed us around the prison, to the slipping dorms and individual cells, which weren’t as big as the smallest prison dog kettle, and we got to see Mandela’s cell where he lived for 27 years. We are the first SAS voyage in a post-Mandela world, so this cell, and all of Robben Island and South Africa, was much more meaningful for our voyage.

Eagle’s Nest

Day 3 — My “Hmm, I Wonder What A $15 Wine Tour And Tasting Would Be Like” Day

At dinner the night before, a friend had recommended to us a hop on, hop off bus that would take us all around Cape Town and to a winery for 150 Rand ($15). It was the most touristy thing we could have done, but Cape Town was our vacation port, and we didn’t mind being a tourist for a day. It was my friend Kiki and I who waited at the bus station early in the morning and jumped onto the double-decker bus that would take us around the city and to a winery.

To our surprise, we learned the most about Cape Town from our bus ride. Our bus ticket came with headphones that played recordings of the history of Cape Town near where we were driving. Every major stop on our route was highlighted as a woman who sounded like Betty White educated me on the significance of certain locations and the history of Cape Town.

One such location we drove past was District 6, a former township that was leveled to make room for a white neighborhood that was never made. It now is another reminder of the horrors of apartheid and was a direct inspiration for the political sci-fi thriller film District 9.

Finally our bus stopped at the Groot Constantia Estate, the oldest wine estate in South Africa and where we would have a wine tour and tasting for $15. In Constantia we again ran into Donovan, our famous musician friend, and we took a tour of the winery where we learned about the history of South African wine and the different process of making white and red wine. The warehouse where the wine was fermented (in “the kitchen” as they called it) was full of barrels of wine and you could get drunk off the heavy smell, and within this warehouse we were educated on the proper ways of tasting wine. Our guide assured us that the little silly things wine lovers do — swivel the glass, putting your entire nose into the glass — served a purpose and wasn’t pretentious. Thankfully I was already a wine expert thanks to my fraternity upbringing at IU (I am an expert on boxed wines and of the sport “slapping the bag,” a sophisticated wine activity that is only for the finest of wine lovers). The wine was fantastic and I felt like I actually learned something — And it was all for $15.

Our next stop was Eagle’s Nest, a small cozy cottage in the middle of the woods owned by Constantia that was converted into a winery. If the shire from The Lord Of The Rings was a place to drink wine, it’s Eagle’s Nest. There was no tour here, but we had some more wine and enjoyed the calm of this little peaceful house in the middle of the forest.

Camps Bay was our last stop, and the best was saved for last. Camps Bay is a series of ultra-expensive houses that lie right on the water with a perfect view of the South African sunset. It looks like the kind of place where the rich and famous live for the summer, because it was where the rich and famous stay for the summer — to have a house on Camps Bay means you’re doing alright. After coming back to the Waterfront and changing, we went back to Mitchell’s to drink and rally some SASers, and a group of us took a taxi back to Camps Bay to a friend’s rented house and we all went to the bars and had a great night.

Day 4 — My “Wait, Why Can’t I Bring A Rhinoceros Back To The Ship With Me?” Day

You can’t go to Africa without going on a safari right? So my friend Pia and I (everyone else was too hungover) booked for a day at Aquila Safari, which is a two-hour drive from the city and in the countryside of Africa.

During the safari we saw rhinos, hippos, springboks, zebras, elephants, ostriches, cheetahs, lions and crocodiles, all within a gorgeous reserve that could have looked like The Lion King. It was a nice trip for the whole day.

We came back to Cape Town late at night and I had an early morning the next day, so we decided to relax on the Waterfront (just like every other night) and had great burgers and beer and reflected on our safari and how lucky we were to be in Cape Town, South Africa.

I’m in that cage…

Day 5 — My “So These Sharks Aren’t Going To Break Through This Cage Right? Are You Sure? You’re Not Sure? Ok, Great.” Day

Our tour van met us at the ship at two in the morning to take us to do something I thought I’d never do in my life — shark cage diving. Because of the poor weather, our diving location was moved from nearby the city to Mossel Bay, which is a five-hour drive away. Sure we were all sleepy, but we got to watch the beautiful sunrise in the African countryside. I was fine with that.

When we got to Mossel Bay we had a light breakfast and our boat captain instructed us on how we would be swimming with sharks. Five of us would be put in a tiny cage that was no longer than the back row of my Toyota Corolla and the cage would go halfway into the water. When our instructor shouted “Down” we had to duck under the water and watch the sharks come towards our cage.

At the end of his speech, the captain spoke of his company’s spotless record of experiencing no deaths — yet. This wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear, but I was ready to swim with some sharks.

Our boat sailed off into the waters and soon we jumped into our wet suits. We went in groups in three and I was in the last group, so I got to watch my friends huddle into this tiny cage and wait for the sharks to come.

How the boat attracts the sharks is that one person attaches a large fish head on the end of a rope and throws it far into the water. As soon as he feels anything that could be a shark, he would quickly pull back the head back to the boat to attract the sharks. Sometimes the sharks would just swim by our cage, but many times the fish head slammed into our cage and the sharks would come at full speed towards our cage.

Soon it was my turn, so I jumped into the cage on the far right side, the “shark” side our instructor told us because sharks like to come in from the right. And sure enough, every encounter we had with sharks on my side first, so I was the one to signal to the rest of us group underwater that a shark was approaching. It was quite exciting, especially when the sharks would rattle on the cage and I was so close that I could reach out and touch it.

Day 6 — My “Wait, I Only Have A Month Of SAS Left?” Day

After a full night’s sleep after a fun night on Long Street, I woke up and only had the desire to sit by the Waterfront and enjoy one last meal of coffee and eggs before returning to ship food. I thought about everything — What SAS has been like so far, how much I enjoyed Cape Town, and my hopes for how Ghana and Morocco will be like. I also thought about Varanasi, a place I think about everyday, and I thought about how strange it was that these two very different places could exist in the same world.

Cape Town is a place I would love to come back to one day because there is so much to do. We’re about to head up the coast to the north, but this spring break in the south was much needed.