Sunday, August 4, 2013

Livin' the Dream

Cape Town is such a treasure. So much to discover, from nature and animals, to its art, music and food, to its history old and new, to its people of many cultures and races and backgrounds. Having a chance to come here for an academic study, definitely added to the value of this trip, and made it all even more special.

I keep thinking back about our trip and the great time we had and all that we learned, and I can truly say that almost every moment of this journey was great, but there are a few moments that stand out and our night at the Townships and at Mama Sheila's restaurant was one such night.

Townships are product of apartheid, and a reminder of society and human failure. We walked through them during the day and it is hard to believe living in such conditions, not temporary but permanently and for generations.

But life goes on...
at a so called butcher stop

from inside a dorm

We returned the next night for a trip to Mama Sheila's restaurant and if it is a part of townships that I want to remember for ever is that night... the Story of Mama Sheila and her restaurant is not about the living conditions in the township but story of human triumph and hope...

Mama Sheila worked hard for years and years to start her restaurant... She has a story to tell, how it all begun when she was working as a maid and one day found a receipt for wine and cheese for 42 rand as she was cleaning the bed, the same as her monthly salary, and how she decided that she has to do more for herself, how she put herself through school at night, started a used clothing shop, bought a car, traveled abroad to bring clothes, and eventually decided to start a restaurant... and gradually expanded it.

Mama Sheila telling us about the night's dinner

She cooked a feast that night and we ate so much. The food was delicious, but was was even better was the story and the company.

A group of young South African's played music that night. We danced. We ate. We drank.

I ate and cried. It was so beautiful. There was so much life. And there is so much HOPE.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

In Case You’re Still Considering, You Should Go to Cape Town!

I’m not sure I can think of any other place I would have rather spent my 2013 summer and birthday than in Cape Town. Though the preparation was overwhelming for me, the 2 weeks we spent studying in Cape Town were the best times I had at SIS (oops!). And so in case, like me, you were unsettled about making this trip, I hope you make the decision I did and explore the tip of Africa.

 Just a few things you should know:

University of Cape Town
Perhaps the most beautiful campus I have been to is the UCT campus. The beauty that surrounds this school makes you want to learn all day!

Learn to click
I’ve never heard as much clicks from one conversation than one that involves Xhosa. It’s such a fascinating language that people always admire your ability to click along.  

Climb Table Mountain
Anyone who tells you it is a hike is not being entirely truthful. Table Mountain is a CLIMB! And for someone who has never hiked, my bones were not expecting what it involved. But after hours, it was the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever felt. Not only did I meet so many people who chose to inspire me with a smile and an “You’re almost there”, but I realized how greatly this mountain brought together men and women from every part of the world. Even though I felt I might pass out a couple of times, I didn’t and it was truly a beautiful experience.

Observe the most beautiful African behinds.
Lol... Seriously, they were the most beautiful I had ever seen.

Hold a snake!
Yes, indeed you should, especially if you're afraid of one. Elisa was a pro with just one attempt. 

If you’re like me and your belly can take anything, explore all the food Cape Town has to offer. Mama Sheilah’s Lelapa restaurant is a must-go for food and music. Be ready to consume a lot of meat, though there are vegetarian options also. Also be ready to explore the different tastes of liquids ;)

Unfortunately, not all taxi cabs drivers in Cape Town are honest. Some of them notice your foreign accent and choose to take longer routes to your destination just so they can get more money off you. Once you get accustomed to the city, you can easily avoid this. Fortunately however, there are some good ones out there. And once you meet an honest one, be sure to get his personal number, not just the cab company’s number.

Pack up for some rain and winds, you will most likely get some.


Longmarket Street: South Africa's Immigrant Entrepreneurs

It’s almost impossible to experience Cape Town, and not seek a memento of your trip, or at least something with which to brag to your friends and family about. I may not have been to many cities in my life to judge, but I dare say that Cape Town is more beautiful than DC… :D. So when Lakeshia and Elisa told us they had stumbled upon a flea market where we could get African souvenirs at very affordable prices, I was very interested in visiting. I reminisced on my days in Lagos’ markets and put on my bargaining armor, ready to score some African trophies at the least possible price. I knew vendors loved tourists because they could always charge tourists double the price of their goods. I kept that in mind, and recalled that women were often easier to negotiate prices with.

Longmarket street is a plethora of artworks, jewelry, accessories, clothing and much more. Most shops carry the same or similar merchandise so it’s easy to find another vendor to compare prices with. It makes bargaining easier and keeps competition high. I expected to see South African women and men showing off South-African goods, but most vendors were from other African countries, like Ghana, Zimbabwe, the DRC and Senegal. After studying about the challenges most immigrants face with employment, I understood why entrepreneurship was a likely option for many. It was likely that Longmarket street was the only survival for these men and women.

I left the market that day with 3 beautiful necklaces, after over an hour of scouting and bargaining. As we walked back to the lodge, we showed off our new assets, also discussing how difficult it was to bargain with these folks. Unlike others, I felt no guilt from bargaining. Call me stingy or economical, but I’m always proud to show off a new accessory I acquired at a bargain. Nazgol explained how she had pleaded with a vendor that she was just a poor student and he should bring down the price for her. He had looked at her and said, “You don’t know what poor is”. At that moment, I felt a pinch of guilt. I thought of my new necklaces and wondered what value my purchase had over the value of the vendor’s sale. For me, it was just another souvenir to keep or give out, but for him, it probably meant another meal or rent.

When I got home, I looked at the necklaces, appreciating how beautiful they were, and deciding then that whoever received them would cherish them and not toss them aside. That day I learned that even though I maybe a poor student, there’s a poorer man at the other end of the merchandise.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Peace, love, and Apartheid: Cape Town's District Six

The conspicuous vestiges of Apartheid are woven into the fabric of everyday interactions in Cape Town. Seemingly benign street corners hold symbolic significance, and the raw emotions of a scarred and violent past surface readily and without warning. Few places capture this as well as District Six, the now empty plot of land that cuts through the city's heart. The neighborhood of District Six, once a bastion of multiculturalism  and an icon of inter-racial harmony, is a source of both pain and pride for South Africans. The District Six museum preserves the memory of this well loved neighborhood that was bulldozed by the National Party under Apartheid precisely because it blatantly represented everything that Apartheid was not: inclusion and the celebration of difference. Race, peace, and equality are complex issues in South Africa and it is this complexity, a violent trauma kept at bay by a ferocious hope in peace and humanity, that has made me fall for Cape Town. Despite a past marked by hatred, Capetonians are in many ways the embodiment of love, and although they may struggle to live up to their astoundingly progressive Constitution, their hope in a peaceful future seems unwavering. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dinner in Langa with Mama Sheila

We had first visited the township of Langa to take a tour of the community center and the surrounding town.  What I was initially overwhelmed with was the observation that everyone seemed to be incredibly upbeat and positive.  There were kids running around and playing and people seemed very willing to talk to us about their stories.

The next day we went into Langa again to go to Dinner at Mama Sheila's.  This inspiring woman owns a Lelapa restaurant in the township and over the years managed to keep expanding on her house and eventually buy her neighbors home until the restaurant is as we see it today.  Hearing this womans' story about how she ended up in the restaurant business was inspiring.  And I won't repeat the whole thing because my rendition couldn't do her justice.  But essentially she started out working as a maid in several peoples homes, until she ventured out and started selling clothes, and finally fell into the restaurant business as there became a demand for tourism in the township.  This to me is the most interesting trend that I've seen here is people's creativity and ability to create something out of nothing.  Even many people's homes that appear to be just little shacks on the outside are vibrant and quite homey on the inside.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bo Kaap

Already a week has passed and we have learned a lot from our lectures and activities, but there are still plenty of things to discover yet.  

Last Thursday we had a full agenda under rainy weather, but our stop in Bo Kaap brightened our afternoon.  This beautiful area is known to be the hallmark of Cape Town, with its rainbow streets and warm people welcoming you.  

Bo Kaap is a multicultural area; it is the center of Cape Malay Culture.  Bo Kaap offers a very nice experience for those who want to discover flavor in every sense!

The Cape Malay identity can be considered as the product of mixed identities through history.  Nevertheless, the Cape Malay started to form when the Dutch brought Malay slaves to work at the sugar plantations in the Cape. 

We took advantage of our location and did a complete photo shooting; after all we couldn’t miss the colored houses from the seventeenth and nineteenth century, as well as the many Mosques, including the first one built in South Africa.

We also passed the burial place of Tuan Guru, who is known to be the person that established Islam in the Cape and southern part of Africa.  He copied the Holy Quran from memory and established the first Muslim school (madrasah) in the area.

We could not finish our visit without trying the famous “Bobotie”, which we have been hearing since we all met back in April…

We were welcome by Yusuf, the owner of Bo Kaap Kombuis.  Bo Kaap Kombuis means  “Upper Cape Town Kitchen” in Afrikaaans.  Bo Kaap Kombuis specialized in home made cooking.

This is a wonderful place, with an excellent view of Bo Kaap and the city center. We were very pleased by the hospitality, especially by Yusuf’s gastronomy lecture on the origins of the Cape Malay food.  Yusuf told us that the creativity and exotic flavor of the food are consequences of the exchange of ingredients, when Malays, Dutch and Xhosa coexisted centuries ago.

I am looking forward to go back to Bo Kaap, as I will be moving there after the program finishes.  I am pretty sure I will have a great time!


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Table Mountain

As we begin our journey in Cape Town, there is one landmark that seems to follow us wherever we go: Table Mountain.  Whether we we are nestled in our comfortable bungalows, studying at the University of Cape Town, or walking the city streets, Table Mountain watches over us. 

On our first free day, all seven of us climbed the mountain to get a closer look at this new friend who watched over us.  We took the Platteklip Gorge Trail to the top.  It was strenuous, but well worth the effort.  There were stunning views the whole way to the top, and we met a number of friendly faces along the way.  I think our biggest challenge was remembering to stay left on the trail!

As we reached the top, we were greeted with a gorgeous view of Cape Town and it's surroundings.  We had views of the city center, Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Lions Head, Robben Island, and more.   We rested at the top, sharing snacks and travel stories, enjoying the good company and amazing view in front of us.  On one side of the mountain we found an animal called a "dassie."  It looks a lot like a hamster in appearance and size, but is most closely related to the African elephant! 

To get a different view of the mountain and give our legs a rest, we took the cable car down to the base of the mountain.  We were fortunate to have a clear and sunny day to visit Table Mountain.  Legend has it that a Dutch pirate by the name of "Van Hunks" used to sit a top a hill overlooking the mountain, contently smoking.  He was rumored to be the best smoker in the land, and when he came upon a stranger in black at his usual smoking spot, he challenged him to a smoking dual.  When the mysterious man lost, he revealed himself to be the devil, and vanished with Van Hunks into thin air.  Since that day, when the clouds ascend upon the mountain, the locals claim that Van Hunks and the devil are at it again!

Hamba kakuhle (go well in Xhosa)