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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, I have just stumbled across your blog and marvel at the insight you have into my country! It is beautiful here, and you're right, we have our challenges created by apartheid, equilibrium issues and perhaps identity issues among the different race. It is interesting to observe the conflicts as the issues come to the surface to allow resolution, and even more interesting to watch the path chosen by those involved. More and more seem to be choosing the high road!

    I particularly love the idea of hosting video conferences around the world to bridge the international gap in our youth, and giving those involved the rare and golden opportunity of broadening their horizons at that crucial and delicate age.

    I'm also a sailor, and this is how I found your blog. I sail from Langebaan in the Western Cape, when I have the time to get away from work.