Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Weeks 6-7 - Cape Town to Port Louis

South African Penguin in a Rabbit Hole?!?

Trek up Table Mountain with SAS Friends

Videoconference with Pinelands Students

Videoconference with LoveLife, HIV/AIDS Education NGO in Langha Township

Visit with Pam and Friends at the Children's Devotional Gathering in Delft

Visit with Grassroot Soccer in Cape Town

Cape Town: “Mountains Beyond Mountains”


“I never knew a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy.”
–Ernest Hemingway

The title of this week’s blog seemed appropriate – it comes from a Haitian proverb to illustrate the many curve balls or challenges that are thrown our way in life. For example, once you scale the top of one mountain, you reach a view point where you can see even more hills and mountains much further away – i.e., there’s an infinite number of uphill battles and valleys of victories to experience in this life if we choose to try to make a difference in the world. I have often felt that way during this voyage, but I certainly don’t mean to be suggesting that I have made any impact on anyone during Semester at Sea. It’s more food for thought. However, I saw a lot of hills and mountains during my brief stay in Cape Town, so the quote came to mind.

“How’s it?” Thought I would begin this week’s reflections with a South African greeting. I loved every minute of my time in this city of stark contrasts. Cape Town is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. In fact, the Western Cape has its own unique floral kingdom, and I saw so many different kinds of flowers that are not found anywhere else. Also, it was interesting to see Calla Lilies growing wild all over the place! It’s interesting to note that these lilies are a ubiquitous part of wedding bouquets in the U.S. (including my own), but “Arab Lilies” are used at funerals in South Africa and Latin America.

Right now, we are sailing past Durban, South Africa. I am a stone’s throw from land on my left (less than five miles), and I saw a whale breaching to my right – amazing. I can see now why sailing is a passion for so many. I am in awe of the world’s oceans and its animals.
The theme of this first blog posting is “UBUNTU.” UBUNTU is a South African concept for “unity” or “community” that I saw and felt during my six glorious days in Cape Town. Since this was my third visit to this beautiful city, I could see how some things had changed, while others had remained the same since 2002. A friend on the ship described Cape Town like an onion with many layers. At the top layer is this beautiful, breathtaking, picturesque city with a spectacular waterfront that overlooks Table Mountain that could rival any other like it around the world. But, as you peel off this layer, you see how apartheid has affected this rainbow nation by systematically separating communities and families vis-à-vis the color line, and pushing the majority of South Africans into sub-standard, shantytown/townships (some are nicer than others, but I saw numerous tin-roof/cardboard houses). I had the immense privilege of visiting two different townships, which I will write about soon.

Even though apartheid ended in 1994, the effects are still felt today, especially since the population still describes itself in four different ways: Whites; Colored (Mixed-Race); Asians; and Blacks. People are integrating (namely via schools), but it is slow going. One thing that I find very interesting – and disturbing – is the mass exodus of the White South African Diaspora since apartheid ended. Over two million Whites have emigrated to the U.K. Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. (and elsewhere) for myriad reasons, but it has caused a huge amount of “brain drain” and attendant anger for the country, which has resulted in a higher rate of violent crime in certain parts of the country. I am not blaming anyone - it is not my right to judge, but it really hit me to hear those numbers. If I was in fear for my family's safety, I am not sure what I would do, if faced with the same circumstances. In fact, I personally know people who have been shot and murdered in South Africa, but it has not changed my love affair for the country one bit – crime, sadly, happens everywhere, since our world is so out of equilibrium on so many levels, especially with regards to an inequitable distribution of the world’s resources.

I spent my first few days in Cape Town exploring the natural beauty of this city on the Western Cape. I climbed to the top of Table Mountain (audible huffing and puffing was emitted by yours truly) ( on a clear, cloudless day, and could see the whole outline of the Cape from the top! The views were spectacular. I have not scaled many mountains in my lifetime, and I felt very proud when I reached the top! On the second day, I went cycling through the picturesque winelands (South Africa’s are world famous) on a mountain bike, and rode the equivalent of about 25 miles – both uphill and downhill. It was a great workout. I am happy to report that I was keeping pace with the students! I don’t think I have ever been on such a beautiful bike ride in my life! Even though I had visited twice before, I had never explored the countryside via cycling, so I was thrilled that I had time to do it. Nevertheless, I ate my way through Cape Town, so I hope my time as a “weekend warrior” paid off during the week!

The next day, I was fortunate enough to join a small group of students, faculty and staff that went on a private tour of Robben Island ( (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) with a noted peace activist named Terry Crawford-Browne ( He is has been at the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation efforts in South Africa. His wife has been the personal assistant to Archbishop Desmond TuTu for over 20 years, so Terry also has a close relationship with the Archbishop. I told him of my brief encounter with Desmond Tutu, and it made him really happy. The title of the tour was “A Pilgrimage to Robben Island.” Terry helped to spearhead the refurbishment of Church of the Good Shepherd on Robben Island. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Anglican Church has committed itself to peace and reconciliation in a post-apartheid South Africa. What made it special was that we went over to the island with the staff ferry before it officially opened, and then we got a personalized tour with Terry. We read quotes, based on religious themes, at different points during the tour. Then a tour guide, who was an ex-prisoner on the island, gave us a tour of the prison, and we saw the cell where Nelson Mandela lived for 18 years. Very sobering experience. The island is one of the most eclectic and unique places I have ever seen. For example, rabbits were introduced to the island by the British in the 1700s, and now they number over 30,000! Rare African penguins also inhabit the island, so two vastly different animals live practically side by side, like a weird sci-fi film. Unfortunately, the rabbits and penguins are also competing for the island’s resources, and the rabbits seem to be winning.

As always, a prominent highlight of my all-too-brief stays in these countries are the interactive, cross-cultural videoconferences. Cape Town was so exception. Global Nomads Group (GNG) worked with an awesome high school called Pinelands, one of the first fully integrated high schools in post-apartheid Cape Town. The students were phenomenal! Soooooooo sharp!! They certainly kept their American peers on their toes. Topics of conversation ran the gamut, from fashion to politics and everything in between. To illustrate, a South African student asked about how human trafficking is practiced in the U.S. She explained that a lot of girls and women are being trafficked for the Soccer (Football) World Cup in Cape Town next year. On a lighter note, a girl from a high school in South Florida asked how young people date in South Africa. Two students, a young boy and girl, from Pinelands (who happen to be a couple) went up to the microphone holding hands and declared, “This is how we date.” However, the South African girl then went on to say that her beau’s parents were a bit bothered by the relationship because they thought that the girl might be too big of a distraction for the boy. This answer elicited laughter from the Floridian students. Afterwards, a girl from Pinelands came up to me and said, “These conferences have changed my life.” It’s so fulfilling to play even a small part in someone’s coming-of-age to find their place in the world.

The second day of videoconferences was spent in Langha Township with an HIV/AIDS NGO called “LoveLife.” ( We were fortunate enough to meet an awesome AIDS educator who was sailing with us for a week on the ship named Bulelani, who works with this NGO. He arranged for us to meet his colleagues and some local peer educators from the township. It was an awesome conversation between the U.S. and South African students and staff from LoveLife. We hosted it in one of their Youth Centers. What struck me the most was the sheer honesty that was shown amongst the students from both countries, which is always some of the best education – self-actualization. At one point, a student from a school in southern Florida asked one of the students from Langha about dating and peer pressure. The guy responded by stating that he would not be considered a “real man” by his friends unless he was sleeping with his girl. Another South African girl admitted that she was proud that she was still a virgin, but was nervous about how long she could remain that way. I did not hear such remarks from the U.S. students – perhaps they had never had the opportunity to be that honest and open in a public setting. This is one of the great lessons that I have learned from my short stay in Cape Town – the gift of voice, amidst life’s trials and tribulations. Silence equals complicity which can equal death, especially in the face of HIV/AIDS.

Speaking of townships, a few of my SAS friends and I had the honor and pleasure of attending a children’s multi-faith devotional gathering in another township called Delft. It was arranged by the local Baha’i community. I have to tell you, Facebook is amazing!! I re-connected with a beautiful “old” friend named Pamela who I had not seen in more than a decade (at least), and she invited us. She piled us into her small VW, along with her three children, and we arrived to find ourselves swarmed by 100s of children who wanted to play with us and be held. At one point, I was holding a girl on each hip, and they were clinging to me for dear life. I could have held them for hours – had I been stronger! This particular township is mixed (both ethnically and religiously), but the Hindus and Muslims were not getting along. The children of different faiths used to throw stones at each other and try to beat each other up when they would pass each other on the street. But, the Baha’i community started hosting these simple devotional gatherings and related virtues classes, and the children are now getting along and are friends! They eagerly look forward to these weekly gatherings, and it is usually the only time they see people from diverse backgrounds. It made me cry, the power of spirituality, from wherever it may come. If only you could have been there – well, you would not have fit in the tiny, two room house, but you get my point. The children from the neighborhood, ages 3 – 12, were singing, drumming and dancing to prayers from different faiths – without any of their parents present. It was a very powerful experience.

The last day, we briefly visited another wonderful NGO called Grassroot Soccer ( that uses soccer to help teach AIDS prevention to thousands of students in several African countries. It was started by professional soccer players. In fact, they will be working with many of these soccer players during the FIFA World Cup in Cape Town next summer. Global Nomads Group hopes to work with them at some point in the future. Wow, what an amazing week – an understatement.

Okay, then – on to Mauritius, a beautiful, volcanic island in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar (I was hoping to see some cute lemurs with Disney music in the background, but I saw monkeys and turtles and beautiful birds instead – I don’t think the lemurs ever made it to Mauritius, but the penguins could have flown them – he, he – I loved the Madagascar films). We only stopped there for few days, but I will write more after I FINALLY post this blog from Cape Town. I could have written A LOT more – Cape Town is just one of those places – and South Africa in general – that takes your heartstrings and your soul – twists them inside out, and expects you to make sense of it later. I do know that South Africa may be on its way to racial healing and true reconciliation far sooner than the U.S. – because people are choosing to talk about it and deal with issues in an honest and open manner, despite the “mountains beyond mountains” of difficulties that they continue to encounter in the process. Please remember; these are only my own personal views, built out of my reflections. I know that others may feel differently.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sailing the Seven Seas - Week 5 - Tema/Accra to Cape Town

Begging to Become a Shellback at King Neptune Day!

Participants and Teachers at GNG Videoconferences at GIMPA
(Distance Learning Center in Ghana)

Cape Coast Slave Castle

GNG Videoconference with Kwesi at Cape Coast Castle

Plaque at the Cape Coast Slave Castle

God is Good Electrical Shop in Accra

Accra, Cape Coast and Tema – A Life-Changing Sojourn

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
-Maya Angelou

AKWAABA to Ghana!

This word, that means “welcome” in Twi, one of the several languages spoken in Ghana, was uttered by the wonderful Ghanaians that I met during my short time there. I was treated like family by so many amazing people that the word is very symbolic of how welcomed and cared for I felt during my entire time in Ghana. AKWAABA was also written on all of the billboards that announced President Obama’s visit last July, so it seemed appropriate to begin this week’s installment with this great declaration:

AKWAABA to my blog!

Poster commemorating President Obama’s visit to Ghana
(This one does not say AKWAABA)

So many things about Ghana made me happy, namely the many marvelous Ghanaians that I met. However, I particularly loved to read the placards for the local businesses during our numerous road trips in Ghana. I saw similar signs in Tanzania, but Ghana won for the most businesses named after Biblical references (I even took a picture of the “God is Good” business, as seen above). Some of my favorites were:

- God is Good Electrical Shop
- The Blood of Jesus Sewing
- The Lord is My Shepherd Auto Parts
- He has Risen Bakery
- God’s Grace Beauty Salon

Goodness, we are nearly at Week 6 at Semester at Sea (SAS), and I am just getting caught up on Week 5! So much happens, both on the ship and in port, that I don’t think I will ever truly be able to adequately describe all that has happened, but at least I can try to provide some highlights, especially for those who have never visited Ghana (or been part of SAS). My mother is so funny – she wrote and told me that I fall in love with every country I visit! I guess that’s the “curse” of global citizenship – a gift that my parents gave me at a very young age. My first teddy bear was named U.N. (I got it at a U.N. Children’s Day) – go figure! Sadly, I lost him in Costa Rica, but I am over it. The same held true of my time in Ghana. I leave part of my heart in every place that I visit, and gain so much more in the process.

Before I start sharing some stories from my time in Ghana, I’d like to write about some cool and crazy things that I did on the ship this week:

Last Saturday morning, we crossed the Equator, and celebrated King Neptune Day, where the Captain of the ship, dressed as Neptune, gave us permission to become shellbacks (pollywogs who have crossed the Equator), after going through a nutty initiation ceremony. It consisted of a slimy pink/brown concoction that was poured on my head (which was supposed to resemble sea sludge, but looked more like the slime at the Teen Choice Awards), after which I jumped into a disgusting swimming pool filled with said slime. The last two initiation rites were to kiss a dead fish and be “knighted” by one of the King’s Sea Knights before kissing the Queen’s ring and bowing before King Neptune (i.e., “Dean Bob” from the University of Virginia – see the photo above of my humble pleading to become a shellback. Dad, you should have paid for the drama lessons – I still don’t have an adequate place to put my ‘hamness’ – these poor SAS’ers!! Bro, maybe you can help, but probably not! I think my hubby could, actually.). Normally I don’t follow the pack mentality (especially if you had seen the pool when I jumped in), but it was an old maritime tradition, and 100s of SAS faculty, staff and students were doing it, so I thought, “Why Not?” As you can see, it was great fun, but kinda gross! Some of the girls were so into it that they shaved their heads! I know you only live once, but you have to have a really nice-shaped head to shave all of your hair off, in my opinion. To each her own!

Another cool thing that happened this week is that I got a tour of the bridge of the MV Explorer. It’s a very sophisticated operation up there. The ship often runs on auto-pilot. I was fascinated by all of the equipment. I even got to sit in Captain Jeremy’s chair! Don’t worry – he did not look like the Incredible Hulk that day!

A third experience that I’d like to share is that I heard a talk by one of the Living/Learning Coordinators (i.e., Resident Directors) called “Hurricane Katrina: A Survivor’s Story.” The woman who spoke is a disaster relief specialist with a background in public health. She and her parents had to take refuge in a church in Mississippi during the hurricane. It was so moving to listen to her – she is an incredibly good speaker. It’s one of the best talks I have ever heard in my life, hands down. I learned a lot more about the aftermath of the hurricane and how people lived (and are continuing to cope) through such a harrowing ordeal. Sadly, this woman lost everything from her home in New Orleans, and had to start over in many ways. I feel privileged to know her.

Now I am blogging from one of the signature courses at Semester at Sea called Global Studies. The professor has tried to distill countless facts and figures from several countries down into hour-long lectures. I think he has done a good job – what a challenging task! Actually, I would love to teach a global studies course one day – right up my alley. Today, in preparation for our arrival in Cape Town on Saturday, the prof spoke about South Africa in a post-apartheid age. He shared a very cool personal story with us. He co-taught a course with a South African member of parliament named Barbara in the mid-90’s. Well, during their teaching, Barbara had heard that newly-elected President Nelson Mandela had picked someone for a cabinet post that she did not agree with at all! So, during the course of their joint lecture, she proceeded to call President Mandela directly, and told him how she felt! The professor was amazed, as you can imagine, that she had a direct line to Mandela! He assured her that this person needed to be there, as they had been a large part of the African National Congress movement to end apartheid in South Africa.

Now I’ll share a personal anecdote from one of my favorite experiences at Teachers College. In 2003, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was speaking at our Masters’ graduation ceremony. I was honored to be asked to pick him up from a private airport in New Jersey and personally escort him to the campus. Well, when the driver and I got there, we arrived at the wrong hanger, and I had a short panic attack. I did not want to call the External Affairs office to tell them that we had lost the Archbishop!! So, finally we located him at a different hanger. When I met the honorable Archbishop, I was quite nervous, but he reached out and gave me a big hug and thanked me for coming to get him! I asked him if he would be my grandfather, and he told me “Yes, I have many grandchildren around the world.” We rode back to campus, pretty much in silence, but he was kind enough to ask me about my life, family and schooling. I did not ask him much in return, because I could tell that he wanted to sit in quiet contemplation. We did not even play the radio during the hour-long drive. It is an experience that is very dear to my heart that I shall never forget.

As many of you know, South Africa is one of the most diverse, multicultural countries in the world with a tragic past and, at times, shaky present, especially with the advent of the AIDS pandemic. One of the South African students on the ship gave a workshop called “1 in 3” – meaning one out of three South Africans has most likely contracted HIV. I have been to South Africa twice, and was enamored by the striking geographic beauty of Cape Town, as well as the amazing people I met. I was laughing to myself, thinking about a story that an old American friend shared with me when we were roommates in Cape Town in 2002 for a graduate course.

It went something like this:

Roommate: “You won’t believe how clueless some of my friends are! When I told them I was going to South Africa, one of them asked, ‘Is that a country?’ Then, another friend told me to have fun and try to pet some baby Bengal tigers, like Sigfreid and Roy. I told them that tigers are found in Asia, and lions are found in Africa.”

Me: Dead silence. I was too shocked to say anything. Then I said, “No way!” Then we burst out laughing.

We were not making fun of anyone, but it was pretty funny the way she relayed it to me! I am sure I have had many moments of cultural incompetency like that in my own life. Actually, I used to call Afghans “Afghanis,” which is the local currency. I was kindly corrected by an Afghan.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my time in Ghana.

The Tema port was quite far from the main port gate, and Tema is about an hour from Accra, so we spent a great deal of time in taxis and buses getting to and from the videoconference programs (which were held near the University of Ghana), some of which are local mini-vans called “tro tros.” The tro tros reminded me of the mini-vans in Tanzania – I am sure that many African countries have similar modes of transportation. It was great to ride the tro tro. We were certainly a source of curiosity for many of the Ghanaians, but we wound up having great conversations as a result. In fact, even though Ghana is in the West, and Tanzania is in the East, these two nations have some things in common, especially with regard to fabrics. Case in point, I was wearing a Tanzanian blouse made out of kitenge cloth, and one of the Ghanaian teachers gave me a big hug and thanked me for wearing a Ghanaian top! I told her it was Tanzanian, and she smiled even more, learning that many of the dyed cloths were the same.

Speaking of videoconferences, the cross-cultural conversations that were shared by the U.S. and Ghanaian youth were some of the most powerful I have ever witnessed in my short tenure at GNG. Since English is spoken quite fluently by most Ghanaians, the students really understood one another. They went beyond formalities and connected at a much deeper level. Students spoke of racism, globalization, immigration, popular culture, among many other topics. Students even sang their national anthems for each other! I told the U.S. students that we had a lot to learn from the Ghanaian young people, because the rendition that the American students sang was in about 10 different keys, and the Ghanaian students sang as one, and sounded like a beautiful choir. The final videoconference, between a high school in New Jersey and a high school in Accra was truly remarkable. The Ghanaian students took the time to write down the names of the students from New Jersey so that they could ask direct questions of individuals. A Ghanaian student even asked about cheerleading and popularity, because she had seen cheerleaders in American films. The cheerleader from NJ was shocked that her Ghanaian peer remembered her name that it took her a moment to answer. She was so touched that it looked like she might choke up. A Ghanaian young man also spoke about President Obama’s visit, and how it changed his life forever, along with millions of African youth. He said that he believes now that he can accomplish just about anything, if he works hard and applies himself.

At the end of the session (that went much too quickly) students from New Jersey asked the students from Accra what they might like for a gift, and the Ghanaian students responded by saying that although they might like a lot of things personally, they were representing their school, so the gift should be sent to benefit the entire school. Students from Accra asked the same thing, and a student from New Jersey asked for some local Ghanaian “high life” music. I believe that the students will try to stay in touch, and we hope to facilitate more virtual conversations with them soon.

As powerful and positive as those videoconference sessions were, our visit to the Cape Coast Slave Castle hit me to the core of my soul and I found it difficult to breathe. I cried and mourned with tears that would not come, which has never happened to me before. It’s because my soul was sobbing from the inside. When I was down in the male slave cell, I saw a bunch of wreathes that were placed to honor the ancestors. I can’t tell you how I felt when I saw the Obama Family wreathe. Our tour guide told us that we were walking on the remains of our ancestors, which I physically felt. I won’t be able to write much about the effects it had on me personally – being in those cells, because there is too much to wade through on so many levels, especially emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I do know that social justice – in all of its forms – is at the top of my list. Suffice it to say, I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that every American, at some point in their life, either virtually or physically, should learn about these Slave Castles and make their own sojourn to see them. The reason why (in my opinion) is that each person experiences their visit to the Castles in such an individual way, depending on their background and history. Since every American was affected by 100s of years of slavery, either directly or indirectly, these Castles – and their role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Route - should be spoken about much more in high schools. I know sooooooooo much is lacking in U.S. history courses, but hopefully things are changing. I regret that I did not learn more about the Slave Castles earlier on in life, other than hearing about them briefly in school and from friends who had been there. None of them could really talk about it, and I can now understand why. I believe that America’s future could be brighter if every American took it upon themselves to learn more about our collective history, with the Castles acting as a catalyst or symbol of a devastating and painful past. It was hard for me to hear when I heard later from some SAS’ers that they had felt nothing by being there, but I am not going to judge. Sometimes it takes a while to grasp the profundity of a situation – some people have to take a step back in order to reflect upon things. That’s the beauty of being human – no two people experience something in the same way.

Regarding the Cape Coast Castle, GNG was honored and fortunate enough to broadcast a live videoconference from the Cape Coast Slave Castle with a brilliant museum educator named Kwesi. He had given the Obama family their own personal tour of the Castle when they came in July. I asked him how it was to meet President Obama, and I really liked his response. He said that he had read “Dreams from My Father,” to learn about Obama as a man, and not just as a President. Therefore, they had a lot of heart to heart conversations because Kwesi interacted with him at a much more personal level. What an insightful man. Let me tell you, this videoconference with Kwesi, a school in New Jersey and a school in Canada, was in the top 10 of all videoconferences ever hosted by GNG. Kwesi is an erudite scholar who has been giving tours of the Cape Coast Castle for 10 years, and has even written a book about it. So, you can imagine that his responses to the students’ questions just blew us all away. We had a clear shot of the castle via the satellite, which made it all the more real for the students. Their questions to Kwesi were right on point as well. We could have gone on for hours, but the satellite cut off after only about a half hour, much to our chagrin. We’ll post a link to the conference soon on GNG’s videoconference archives so that you can view it. The Director of the Castle told us that he was inspired to see how they might get a virtual museum education program off the ground in the future, as a result of watching the students interact with Kwesi. It really was a surreal experience to spend the day at the Castle and with Kwesi. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same, but I can’t tell you how I might change, because I am waiting for my soul to catch up to my heart and mind in order to fully process the experience.

Here is a link to the Castle Museum:

Phew - not sure if I should write anything more. I do wish I could have stayed in Ghana longer! I think I will end here with my writing and just leave all of us to ponder the following plaque that I saw at the Cape Coast Castle - which is found at the top of the blog.

We arrive in Cape Town on Saturday, October 3rd.