During my program’s last week in Brazil, we had the week off of classes. It was wonderful to have the executive power to choose where to go; I settled on spending five days on an island named Ilhabela off the eastern coast of the country. I and twelve other students booked rooms at a hostel on the island right on the beach. With the moon still bright in the sky, my friend Alex and I left our house at 4:00 a.m. to catch the 6:00 bus to São Sebastio. We took the train from our local stop, Vila Madalena, to the bus depot. Partygoers from Friday night were still up and about, some waiting to take the earliest train of the morning (the stations all open at 4:30) back home.
We arrived at the station at 5:30 along with our ten fellow groggy-eyed companions, and boarded the bus fifteen minutes later. In a semi-conscious state, I glanced out the window to see the landscape transform. One moment we were traveling through the cement sprawl of São Paulo, and moments later, it seemed, we found ourselves high up in the mountains as we descended upon the coast. Every now and again, I would catch a glimpse of the beach and the sparkling bright blue water between the trees. The man sitting next to me was wrapped in a brightly patterned shawl and smelled strongly of marijuana. He spoke some English and I later saw him editing a video on his computer. Classic stoner/documentary filmmaker.
Upon arriving in São Sebastio, we hopped on the first ferry we saw. While there was no indication of its destination, it seemed that there was nowhere else it could possibly go but the island of Ilhabela, situated directly across the water. As we approached the island, we saw huge clouds enveloping the mountain chain that stretched along its center. The water below us was blue and sparkling as the sun broke through the thick clouds overhead. After arriving on the island, which indeed was Ilhabela, we took cabs to the hostel, which totally exceeded my expectations. It was beautifully decorated with courtyards, gazebos, and a pool overlooking the ocean.
The closest beach to the hostel, while supposedly not comparable to other beaches on the northern and southern coasts, was beautiful with views of São Sebastio across the bay. On our second day, we ventured out on the island’s public transportation system, which was confusing at best. After hours of uninformed walking, we found the entrance to the national park. We did a quick loop of the major trail, which led to beautiful waterfalls and natural pools. The park, a national preserve, was all dense rainforest with a thick canopy of leaves.
The next day, we rented bikes and rode along the beach in an attempt to reach the northern coast. We didn’t make it. The bike path along the water quickly turned into local roads, which were hilly and hard to navigate. We ended up finding a small beach along the way with spectacular views that was virtually empty. Alex and I consistently bought calabreza (sausage) pizza from the nearby supermarket and cooked it in the oven at the hostel. It was the equivalent of about US$5.
Our third night on Ilhabela, Caio came to visit and brought his guitar and some drums. We bought some local beer and sat on the beach singing for most of the night. He knew just about every Smith’s song on guitar, and we probably sang about twenty songs before moving on to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The following day, Caio offered to drive me back to my homestay in Vila Madalena before I headed to the airport for South Africa.
The trip to Africa was incredibly long. We flew out of São Paulo at midnight and arrived in Johannesburg at 8:00 a.m. with a five-hour layover. We eventually made it to Cape Town at 2:00 the following morning (Cape Town time) and stayed in a hostel. The next morning, I decided to climb Table Mountain, which we could see dominating the horizon from our hostel. I went with four other students (Chris, Zoe, Alex and Louis). If we had done more research, we probably would not have attempted the three-hour climb, culminating in below-freezing winds and icy waterfalls. Once we reached the top, however, we had some of the most amazing views I have ever seen. In one direction was the Atlantic, with no landmass until Antarctica. In the other direction was the coast of Cape Town with grassy hills and bright blue water. On the top of the mountain sat a beautiful café literally overlooking the end of the earth. I had an Irish coffee to warm up.
We were hoping that a cable car would be operating to take us back down the mountain, but the winds were too strong. Thus, we made our way back through the jagged ridges and under the freezing waterfalls until we descended back into the open valley at the base of the mountain. A week later, my thighs are still sore.
Later that weekend, Chris (my new roommate, we have a different one for each homestay) and I were picked up by our host family at the Bo Kaap museum. Bo Kaap is a Muslim community of primarily Cape Malay descendants. It is known for its colorfully painted homes and beautiful backdrop of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Our host mom, Meryl, was very sweet and very conservative. She picked us up in a bright pink headscarf and dress, sharing with Chris and I many examples of some of the awful behavior she’s received from study-abroad students in the past. She then proceeded to show us the numerous letters of praise written to her by students she had hosted. It was very clear that she valued her reputation in the community very much and wanted us to know that she was important and respected. Her house, 39 Jordaan Street, is always busy with family and friends passing through.
It has now been almost two weeks since we first met Meryl (who we now refer to as “ma”). She has opened up a lot, and I have had many interesting discussions with her about everything from religion to travel. She is 69 years old, a widow, and very involved in the Bo-Kaap community. She is very caring and although she makes her opinion known, she is open to my opinions even if they question her own. We talk about the value of keeping one’s home clean and the importance of being hospitable. But she sometimes presents some questionable perspectives. She often blames black Africans for many of the problems that her community and the city at large are facing. As a Malay woman with a very mixed-race background, I find it peculiar that she is so quick to blame another minority group for social ills. Even though her ancestors were from Malaysia (like much of the community), she considers herself very much South African.
Moving on. This city is absolutely incredible. Being able to see the ocean, the mountains, the sandy beaches, and the bright blue sky all at once is breathtaking. Last weekend, I took a trip down to the Cape of Good Hope and saw whales, baboons, ostriches, penguins, flamingos, and zebra. The cape itself was incredible. It is the most southwestern point of Africa, facing Antarctica in one direction and the South American coast in the other. The story of the penguins is an interesting one. About twenty years ago, a bunch of them decided to swim from Antarctica, making it to South Africa and establishing a colony here. They now swim in the bright blue water of the African Atlantic and nest on the beach. It was quite a sight: hundreds of penguins waddling around the beach and into the water.
The next day I went to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for eighteen years. I found it difficult to decide what I thought about the commercialization of such an awfully racist and corrupt period of history in South Africa. As people pushed past one another to get a picture of Mandela’s cell, I waited and talked to the tour guide, himself a prisoner during apartheid who served time in the same prison complex as Mandela. I couldn’t imagine being back in a place in which I had been forced to live for multiple decades, let alone giving a tour to a bunch of European tourists leading very privileged lives (including me). There was a man very eager to keep the tour moving and as the tour guide waited for everyone to gather around him, the man said “Can we get a move on? This shouldn’t be taking so long.” I turned to him and gave him the most disgusted scowl I could and said “Mandela was her for eighteen years, I think you can deal with it.” Comments like these made me very wary of the entire enterprise.
School is going well, but there are days during which I have so much stimulation that I really can’t commit anything to memory. We learn about the history of the country from lecturers and through documentaries. When we stay in the township of Langa, which was a very explosive area for protests and violence during apartheid, we will be privy to some of the entrenched inequality we’ve heard about. Maya, one of my fellowees from Vassar last year, has a cousin, Yaz, who lives here. I’ve met up with her a few times so far. She has an apartment that she shares with fellow students from the University of Cape Town. Last night I brought some friends from my program, IHP, over to her place and we went out to Long Street (aka party central). I bought a bottle of wine for Yaz, but the process of getting it out of my homestay was a bit tricky. There are two other guys besides Chris and I staying in the same homestay. Artur is from Angola and Wassid is from Turkey. Artur has been here for a few months already and speaks English, but Wassid’s is virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, Artur was out of the house. I brought Wassid into my room, where there is a small balcony overlooking the street below, and spent about ten minutes explaining to him that I wanted him to throw it off the balcony to me once I was outside. And that he did. Once I was outside, he threw the wine straight off the balcony and I had to leap into the air and catch it before it smashed right outside of the living room window, where Meryl was hosting a bunch of family.
This weekend, we transferred homestays to the township Langa. I think we’re staying with some of the wealthiest families in the area, but it’s nonetheless a huge departure from Cape Town. Many families still live in informal shacks, and the standard of living is very low. My family is really great and while our host mother (grandmother, really) can be wary of our presence (I’m in a homestay with two other guys from the program, Jake and Mandeep), our host brothers Chuchu and Ife are both adorable and eager to spend time with us. Last night I played Michael Jackson and they both came into my room and danced with me. Chuchu, who is seven, has MJ’s moves down from all of the music videos that he watched growing up. Every morning in the homestay, I am woken up by the sounds of Xhosa, which is the indigenous language of the Western Cape and the primary language of the black townships, of which Langa is part. Xhosa (pronounced *click – osa), is a click language that evolved, I am told, from hunters who used clicks to communicate in order to avoid scaring away wild animals. My host mother always has family over for coffee at 7:00 a.m., and they animatedly discuss current events in Xhosa in the living room.
We have classes at a nearby community/tourism center, but for the past few days we have been working on projects that require us to commute into the city. There is a very large network of informal minibus lines that function as commuter transport for people living outside of Cape Town. I think it is a very efficient process and a surprisingly successful balance of formal and informal procedures. There is a bus depot in Langa where the buses all pick up passengers. They hold about fifteen people each and have their destinations written in the window. Once the travelers find the line going to their destination, they pile in. Once inside, they work out payment other passengers and pass the bills to the front of the bus to the driver. It costs us R8 to get into the city ($0.80). The Cape Town depot is huge, with hundreds of busses navigating through the mass of human traffic and informal vendors. A vast majority of those who use the busses are black and some coloured (these are the terms that people use in South Africa, not my own description), but there are virtually no white users. Entering the city through minibus, you really experience the “black” side of Cape Town and only once you enter a wealthy neighborhood away from the station do you begin to see white people again.
Right now I am in the most beautiful house I have ever seen in the most scenic location I have ever experienced. My friend Nicola invited me to her aunt and uncle’s beach house in the nearby wine lands of Benguela Cove. We are in a modern mansion right on the water with views of magnificent mountain chains and lush grassy plains to either side. The swimming pool snakes along the wooden patio surrounded by the beautiful indigenous fauna fynbos (a plant species found only on the southern tip of Africa). As it is early spring, all of the plants are flowering with brilliant yellows and purples attracting all sorts of colorful birds I have never seen before. Last night, we barbecued and watched the sun set behind the mountains. Once I got the surround sound speaker system working, we (Nicola, Jake, Alex and I) opened up all of the glass walls to the patio and made breakfast. Alex drove us here yesterday in Nicola’s uncle’s convertible (we’re not supposed to be driving, so don’t tell anyone). He got used to being on the wrong side of the road quickly and there were thankfully no accidents along the way.