Sala Kahle, KZN!

I now find myself where my journey through South Africa first began…at the Johannesburg airport!  It is difficult to believe that an entire month has passed, but I am incredibly grateful for the amazing opportunity I had to study abroad this summer.  I would like to thank Larry and Katherine Jennings, the Dietrich College alumni, the Office of International Education and the Undergraduate Research Office at Carnegie Mellon, and everyone at Interstudy Study Abroad for making this unbelievable experience possible.  I am excited to continue my academic research on South African culture and hopefully visit this wonderful country again someday!

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Happy Birthday, Madiba!

I am happy to dedicate this post to the honorable Nelson Mandela, who turns 94 today!  The month of July is known as Mandela Month in South Africa, and today has been declared a national holiday.  In the spirit of the humanist Ubuntu philosophy that he subscribed to, Mandela asks that everyone dedicate 67 minutes of their time to helping others, with each minute signifying one of the 67 years that he spent in prison.  Helping others can be defined in a variety of ways, and IOL News provides 67 great suggestions for how South Africans can lend a hand on this national day of service.

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Lessons From Shiva, Science Fiction, and Sangria

After bidding an emotional farewell to the adorable children at Edith Benson, we took a final day excursion to the Shree Ambalavaanar Alayam Temple, the first public Hindu temple established in Africa.  We were welcomed to this beautiful temple by an informative guide, who was eager to show us around and introduce us to the detailed and fascinating history of Hindu cultural practices.  He initially told us that one could find many animals on the temple grounds, including mongoose, roosters, and nonpoisonous snakes.  He explained how all creatures coexist harmoniously at the temple; animals are the friends and brothers of humans.

Our guide proceeded to show us the mother’s temple, which was dedicated to the goddesses.  Like the ancient Greeks, the Hindus recognize a number of deities for elements that include energy, fire, love, prosperity, knowledge, etc.  This particular South Indian temple is an Ambalavaanar temple, which means it is dedicated to Lord Shiva.  One could see this by the predominate number of colorful Shiva statues throughout the temple, in addition to a giant statue of Nandi, the bull that is Shiva’s mount.  I find Shiva to be an especially fascinating deity because he is both a creator and destroyer.  In this sense, he is the purest god who fully embodies the birth, death, and rebirth ideal that is so central to Hinduism.

Finally, our guide showed us where a few unique rituals take place at the temple.  The first was a large firewalking pit, where 8-11 tons of wood are burned for an annual rite of passage ritual.  Next we approached a small altar featuring a statue of Lord Ganesha, where prospective suitors participate in a special ritual that will ensure them a prosperous marriage.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the beautiful statues and altars that make this temple such a unique place to worship, and I am eager to learn more about the complex and intriguing Hindu religion.

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Following our tour of the temple, we watched a film for class called District 9.  I remember seeing this in theaters a few years ago and feeling physically shaken by the brilliant yet chaotic visual effects.  This time wasn’t much different in that regard, but I did appreciate seeing this movie again after visiting the townships in Johannesburg where this was filmed.  It was difficult to watch the Afrikaner officials nonchalantly present the “literal” aliens in the city with eviction papers before transporting them to District 9, as this is exactly what happened to a lot of non-whites that I met here in South Africa.  When the protagonist contracts an alien STD after undergoing an operation, he must fight for his life as his health deteriorates and the government tries to track him down to virtually use his body as a medical experiment.  In this instance I am reminded not only of the evident struggle against AIDS in South Africa, but also of the individual character struggle that the protagonist faced in Tsotsi.  Both characters begin as archetypes of the callous anti-hero, yet as their stories progress they become more sympathetic towards the victims of their cruelty.  In the end, the fate of both characters is left ambiguous – just like the fate of the South African nation itself.

After an exciting day of spiritual and philosophical reflection, it was nice to wind down at Taco Zulu.  This Florida Road favorite features unique menu options that include pizzas the size of tabletops, staple Mexican dishes of every variety, and the most extensive cocktail list I have ever seen in South Africa!  We were excited to dine out with the new American arrivals who enrolled in our same study abroad program for a semester abroad at Howard College.  It was great to share our favorite experiences from this trip and learn more about what they hope to explore during their four months in Durban.  I can’t wait to keep in touch with them and hear all of their awesome stories!

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Film Reflections and a Farewell to Amsterdam

Our last Monday in Durban was definitely an eventful one.  After completing our service learning work, we explored the Glenwood Village shopping area for a bit, tried some authentic Indian curry, and finally met later that evening to watch Tsotsi as a part of the film component of our coursework.  Adapted from the only novel written by renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard, the story depicts the moral struggle of a young Johannesburg man nicknamed Tsotsi (“Thug”).  After shooting a wealthy black woman in the head and stealing her car during a typical night of senseless crime, Tsotsi finds a baby in the backseat of the stolen vehicle.  From this moment, Tsotsi begins to make the surprising attempt to open his heart and take care of this child.  This gradual change in character certainly provokes the viewer to question whether even the most seemingly heartless people are capable of humanity.  Tsotsi is the product of a brutal apartheid regime that contributed to his life of abandonment and moral depravity, yet he cannot bring himself to force the same outcome upon an innocent baby.  This semblance of pity does not ultimately redeem him from his criminal past, but it nonetheless makes the hopeful suggestion that the victims of the apartheid may someday be able to begin anew by choosing to help others rather than resort to violence.

After the film, we attended the open mic Monday event at Amsterdam Bar and Grill for the final time.  We always see a lot of familiar faces at this popular place where bohemian meets grunge.  Every Monday night, Amsterdam hosts an open mic event that showcases the best local acoustic talents.  Most of the artists perform original songs in addition to covers from a variety of popular folk, rock, and country artists.  Paging Mrs. Eastwood, because I’ve already found a few fantastic South African singer-songwriters that I want to bring back to America!

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Rounding the Peninsula

On my last day in Cape Town, I took a wonderful Cape Peninsula tour.  My tour guide was coincidentally from Drakensberg, and he knew of all the hiking trails and cave dwellings that we saw while we were there!  Others on the tour included a Dutch student pursuing her doctorate in psychology and a Mexican student pursing his engineering degree at a Texas university.  It was a great group to chat with about global travel, language, and culture!

One interesting detail we learned on the ride along the coast was that there is a major controversy regarding the large presence of Australian gum trees (a species of eucalyptus) in South Africa.  Because of South Africa’s generally arid climate and landscape characterized by grasslands and savannas, the British began importing many varieties of beautiful Australian trees, including gum trees, during the mid-nineteenth century.  The gum trees were especially favored because they were believed to drain mosquito infested marshes and would therefore eliminate malaria.  In addition, these trees grew quickly and could produce strong timber for telephone lines and scaffolding.  Despite these apparent aesthetic, ecological, and commercial advantages, it has become evident since the 1930s that the gum trees are responsible for soil erosion and the drainage of a considerable amount of river water.  As global temperatures continue to rise, these trees become a more considerable threat to the local ecosystem for a number of reasons.  First of all, they drain water from the supply shared by other indigenous flora and fauna, and this results in the decline of biodiversity as monoculture plantations of gum trees replace the forests that were once filled with a variety of local species.  The trees also affect the human population, as the trees drain water that is needed to sustain many rural communities.  Due to these concerns, the ANC has passed new laws and created programs that are dedicated to protecting indigenous flora while removing a number of invasive foreign plants.  For more information on the debate over the presence of Australian gum trees in South Africa, please read this dissertation by Brett M. Bennett and this article featured on the Climate Change Media Partnership webpage.

Our first main stop on the tour was Cape Point, the famous landmark that offers a spectacular view of the ocean.  We saw firsthand why navigator Bartolomeu Dias named this point the “Cape of Storms” in 1488, as the rain and mist prevented us from seeing most of the landscape.  Nonetheless, it was great to explore what we could of the area, and we did have some success in viewing the scenery from the renowned Cape of Good Hope!  It was unbelievable to stand at the point where Portuguese explorers Vasco de Gama and Bartolomeu Dias first set foot!  While along the route, we also had great views of Table Mountain, False Bay, the Hottentots Holland mountain range, and even some wild zebras!  These zebras looked camouflage and extremely still during this chilly winter day, and they faced the opposite direction of the wind current so that the wind would predominately reach only their backsides.  It was great to see such beautiful animals and landmarks, even in the dreary weather!

Our final tour stop was to Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach, where we saw a large number of African penguins!  Many of them were hidden near rocks or plants while trying to keep their shivering babies warm.  Perhaps most interestingly, these penguins are famous for their vocalizations that strongly resemble a donkey’s bray!

Once the tour had ended, we decided to spend our last few hours in Cape Town in the city center.  We saw St. George’s Cathedral, where Desmond Tutu famously led many sermons that promoted resistance to the apartheid regime during the mid-1980s.  In addition, we saw the Cape Town City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his first public address just hours after being released from prison on February 11th, 1990.  Finally, we explored Greenmarket Square, the well-known open market where one can barter with a number of individuals who are selling paintings, crafts, garments, and other handmade specialty items.  I particularly liked the art pieces for sale that incorporated recycled materials such as soda cans, as this style reminded me of the unique fashions we saw at the Durban July!  It is great to see how creative and resourceful many of the local artists are.

I am sad to say farewell to Cape Town this evening, but I hope that this was only the first of many trips I will make to this wonderful city!  I cannot wait to make the most of my last week abroad in South Africa.

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Bonne Bastille!

Wow, this has certainly been a holiday to remember!  Today I went on a full-day tour of the Cape Winelands, and what better day to enjoy exquisite food and wine than on Bastille Day?  I was pleasantly surprised to learn from Reuters (via that the sixth best Bastille Day celebration takes place in Franschhoek (“French Corner”), a small wine valley just outside of Cape Town that was originally settled in the late 17th century by French Huguenots.  I was so anxious to see the celebrations, especially after our tour guide indicated that we would have the chance to spend more time than usual in Franschhoek so that we could take part in the festivities!

Before taking advantage of the Bastille Day celebrations, we stopped at a few wonderful wineries along the way.  During the ride to our first destination, Stellenbosch, I acquainted myself with the most incredible tour group I’ve ever traveled with!  The first couple we picked up was a pair of young honeymooners from San Francisco.  It was really interesting to hear their take on how Cape Town strongly resembled Northern California in terms of the landscape and local culture.  They even mentioned that they would doze off at some points when we hit traffic during the tour and would wake up thinking they were back in California when they initially looked out the window!  I have never traveled to San Francisco before, but if the city is anything like Cape Town, I think I’m going to have to plan my next vacation there!

Next to board the tour bus was a woman who was treating her sister, Christine, to a birthday celebration in the winelands.  But Christine was certainly no stranger to South Africa – she served as Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant for many years!  She shared with us a wealth of incredible stories about her time with her friend Madiba and other global figures such as Jacques Chirac and Prince Charles.  It was such a plus to have her on this tour guide because she informed us of the detailed history of the winelands that we visited in Stellenbosch.  Along the wine route, we learned of Langverwacht (“long awaited”), a wine estate that the Dutch East India Company originally granted to Jean le Roux, one of the first French Huguenot wine farmers who fled from France in 1688.  In the 1930s, the land was also used for tin mining, in addition to wine farming.  Today the winery is called Zevenwacht, which means “seven expectations”.  Christine proceeded to tell us that she was forcefully removed from her land near this wine estate during the apartheid regime and taken by truck to live elsewhere in a part of Kuils River.  Her original land was subsequently confiscated and given to farmers who were POWs of the Second World War.  Although she and other non-whites who were stripped of their land claims during the apartheid do have the opportunity to apply to reclaim their land today, many are not even bothering because it takes years to simply process all the necessary paperwork to apply.  There is no doubt that justice for her and other non-whites in South Africa has been long awaited.

After a lovely cellar tour and wine and cheese tasting at Zevenwacht, we visited another Stellenbosch wine estate called Saxenburg.  This estate was particularly fun because we were greeted by a wide variety of grazing creatures that included guinea fowl, wildebeests, zebras, springbuck, and ostriches!  There was even a house cat inside the winery who socialized with us during the tasting.  Christine also shared with us an interesting history of how the wine industry in Cape Town gained momentum from the sailors who settled in the area.  Furthermore, it was the early Portuguese immigrants who introduced many culinary staples to South African markets, including an old fashioned fish and chips recipe adapted from the British!

Once we had finished our tastings, we took a brief stroll through the beautiful town of Stellenbosch.  The newlyweds aptly remarked that the area greatly resembled the quaint city of Santa Fe.  The old church, contemporary art galleries, and the nice cafes that lined the streets definitely brought back memories of the stunning architecture and art of New Mexico.  I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to attend Stellenbosch University and live right in the heart of this lovely town!

After waiting in a long line of traffic heading toward the festival, we finally reached the historic town of Franschhoek!  We enjoyed an excellent meal and wine tasting at Rickety Bridge, where we were excited to see that many of the patrons donned blue or red berets in honor of Bastille Day!  It was also interesting to learn a bit about the history of the town.  Even though it was a bit rainy, we had a chance to take part in all of the wonderful festivities in town.  The food and wine marquee tent offered a wide variety of delicacies, and one could find many unique handmade items at the craft market stalls.  Live folk music played from the street corners and the pubs.  Best of all, the art galleries featured a number of new and unique works on display.  My program coordinator recommended one great gallery called is art, where his friend Tom Clark was showcasing his intricate spiral design piece constructed of wood, aluminum, copper, and viscose thread.  The piece is titled 1.618/1, which references the ever-elusive Golden Ratio that the design adheres to.  According to the artist, who dedicated about a month to constructing this work, “The design of this piece is based on the cross-section of the Nautilus shell.  With the use of straight lines (a universal symbol for masculinity), do we find the formation of the Golden Ratio, and thus creating curvature (a universal symbol for femininity).”  Sounds like we may have found the next da Vinci!

On our final stop along the wine tour, we visited an unbelievable wine estate in Paarl called Laborie.  This was without a doubt my favorite tasting of the day, as we tried several unique wines and spirits that included a fantastic champagne, pinotage, brandy, cabaret sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc.  Laborie succeeded in perfecting tastes that were never too sweet nor sour nor oaky.  This was a perfect way to end a most wonderful tour of the Cape Winelands!

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Cape Town, We Have Arrived!

After a short flight, I have finally arrived in the Western Cape!  Even though we have only been here for less than a full day, we have already seen a number of fantastic sights.  Our first stop was to the gorgeous V&A Waterfront, where hundreds of wonderful shops and restaurants are situated along the harbor.  I was stunned by all of the unique establishments I saw inside the mall, including caviar à la carte, an exclusive club-members only espresso bar, Marlboro Originals clothing, a variety of male-only salons, and even an old English shaving shop that looked like it came straight out of Sweeney Todd!

Once we had successfully perused through a large part of the shopping area, we stopped at the famous Nobu at the One and Only Hotel for sushi!  The entire staff shouts out a welcome in Japanese whenever a new customer arrives, which is really unique.  It was definitely a night of firsts, as I tried hand roll sushi (basically a cone-shaped sushi roll) and eggplant tempura for the first time!  I believe it was Madonna who said that “You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if Nobu has a restaurant in it.”  So far, Cape Town is looking pretty fun! 🙂

Speaking of fun, we concluded the evening by venturing out to Cape Town’s trendiest street, Long Street.  Here we saw a lot of great hostels, restaurants, and shops.  We decided to visit the vibrant Mama Africa for a late night bite, which was an incredible experience!  We were treated to excellent live music by the house marimba band while we dined.  The menu featured a number of game dishes that I have never seen offered in the United States, such as crocodile kebabs and venison sausage, in addition to steaks of the springbok, ostrich, and kudu medley.  Not exactly my cup of tea, but I did enjoy a meal of the butternut squash variety, which is one of my favorite South African staples!  We also tried a delicious dessert platter that included the famous South African confection, Malva pudding, and a variation of banana’s foster called banana flame.  It was an exceptional first evening in Cape Town, and I can’t wait to continue exploring the city tomorrow!

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