Saturday, March 23, 2013

Capetonian Rhapsody: Farewell!

This is our final blog entry for South Africa.  Our wrists are sore.

During our trip, we met and took photos of several individuals whom we either have not talked about, or feel we should have mentioned more.  So this is our last chance.

Deen Singh was the remarkable Project Manager for our construction project.  He is a really nice guy, with a warm heart, a penchant for astrology and a spiritual approach to life that can find application in any religion.

Deen gave us some good information on the history of South Africa and the impacts of apartheid. He taught us a lot about the challenges of living in the settlements.  He has a great concern for the safety of those around him, and showed incredible patience in teaching all of us how to spackle and perform other construction tasks.

And Deen LOVES these kids...

“Uncle Deen” with the kids in the library

Raymond (Ray) Hendricks was our go-to taxi driver.  By the end of our stay, we considered him to be a good friend.  Ray picked us up in the City Bowl area early in our trip, and we learned that he lived two streets over from our host family in Retreat.  So whenever we had a long-distance taxi need, Ray was our man.

Ray recognized John’s voice and said “Hi John” the second time we called him.  Talk about connecting with the customer!  We took 7 or 8 trips with Ray.  He was a cool dude with a lot of substance, and had some interesting cultural insights.  Not knowing what to expect from our visit to Mzoli’s in Gugulethu, we asked Ray to drive us over.  Sunday is normally his day off, but he stopped by our hotel on the way back from church.  That’s why he is dressed up in the photo.  A T-shirt, shorts, sandals and shades were Ray’s normal attire. He looked great either way.

Our favorite taxi driver Ray with his daughter Chandray

The staff at Derwent House guest house, where we stayed the last 6 nights, was outstanding.  This was our best hotel experience ever, by a factor of many.  The premises, the service and the food were all uniquely top notch.  Dene (rhymes with Renee) always had great suggestions for things to do, and took care of our every need.

Dene and Joselyn, part of an amazing Derwent House staff 

Below are photos of two ladies we liked at the Devon Valley Hotel in Stellenbosch.

D.V. front desk lady is psyched to go to the Kaiser Chiefs game 

This charming woman had a 1000-watt smile

Here are some other miscellaneous photos of likeable and amusing people:

Company’s Gardens guy earned a donation with his smile 

Shwarma showman at Community Chest Carnival

Richard from Cameroon (Inverdoorn driver) loved to talk soccer 

Mzoli’s security guard boogied to the hip-hop beat 

Waiter at Grand Café & Beach, not Georgia Bulldogs fan 

There are at least two individuals whose photos we wish we had taken, but didn’t.  One was Father Anthony, the 65-year old minister at the Jeftha’s church who looked like the Dalai Lama.  He was a character.  When we met him at the Jeftha’s house, Anthony made off-hand references to coaching some parishioners on their addictions to dagga (marijuana) and other bawdy sins.  Not exactly what we were expecting from the pastor.

On our final full day in Cape Town, we were walking down Kloof Street when we came upon a group of 10 construction workers digging up the asphalt.  Although their native language was probably Afrikaans, a couple of them were singing a few lines to Queen’s 1975 faux operetta song “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

John jumped in and did an impromptu duet with one of the guys:  “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?  Thunder bolt and lightning, very very frightening me!”  This was complete with demonstrative Italian hand gestures.

And then the grand finale, alternating baritone and falsetto voices:  “Galileo!  Galileo! Galileo! Galileo!  Galileo!  Figaro!  Magnifico!”  The duet partners gave each other a broad smile and a high five, and we then went on our way.  Brothers in Mercury.  No photo, but we’ll always have the memory…..

Friday, March 22, 2013

South African Culture

[Note:  The crowd photos included in this blog entry are only loosely related to the commentary, and are meant to break up the reading.]

The history and culture of South Africa have been significantly shaped by race relations. As such, we would be remiss if we completed our travel blog without mentioning this topic. It is an important part of the story.

We decided to wait until near the end of our blogging to write extensively about it, for a couple of reasons.  We wanted to continue to learn from our cultural interactions to gain a richer understanding of Cape Town, and we needed a little time to reflect on what we experienced.

We were in South Africa for only 6 weeks.  We know that hardly qualifies us to be experts. Our volunteer work did give us an opportunity to live and work in some communities to which we would have otherwise had much less exposure.  We are both naturally curious, and benefited from conversations with locals who opened up to us about their own views on the culture in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa.  We did not have to bring up the topic ourselves.

We have done a fair amount of reading on the topic of Cape Town and South African culture, and our own observations are generally corroborated by what we have read.  The thoughts expressed here are based primarily on our own experiences.  They may not all be statistically significant, and one's perspective always depends somewhat on the individuals one happens to meet.  But we hope you will find them to be interesting.

In the U.S., discussing race relations openly is usually challenging.  This may be related to our own national history, prior to the civil rights era.  In an ideal world, skin color (or any other way of categorizing people) doesn't need to be discussed.  Being color blind means you don't even notice.

In South Africa, at least in Cape Town, things are different. Many people of all races talk pretty openly about skin color, and broadly categorize themselves as coloured, black or white.  At first, this seemed to us to be purely an unfortunate aftermath of apartheid.  We thought that since people had been oppressed, they perhaps weren't sure how to un-label themselves once the ANC took over and a new social order was established.  It's been twenty years since apartheid ended.  For some individuals, this perspective may be accurate.  But it can run deeper than that.

For many others, for example Rodney the shop owner from Mitchell's Plain, they identify themselves foremost as coloured or black as a matter of great pride.  The isolation imposed by the apartheid system likely strengthened bonds beyond those normally seen among oppressed groups in other countries, since groups of people were not allowed by law to leave the boundaries of their own communities.

A sense of pride is particularly evident among many members of the coloured community, among whom we lived and worked.  The word "coloured" encompasses a myriad of ethnicities in itself, based on the history of South Africa dating back to the 1600's.  The ancestry and related cultural influences include Europe, West Indies, Madagascar, Mozambique, other African nations, India, Indonesia, China, Malaysia and The Philippines. It still seems strange and uncomfortable for us to use a term like "coloured," but it's a matter-of-fact thing for the members of that community such as our host family.

The demographics of Cape Town are quite different from South Africa as a whole. Population statistics for Cape Town show a breakdown of 48% Coloured, 31% Black, 19% White, and 2% Asian.  For all of South Africa, the breakdown is 79% Black, 9% Coloured, 9% White and 3% Asian.  The demographic differences manifest themselves somewhat in voting patterns in Cape Town.  The diverse population also blurs the line between majority and minority, and allows for a particularly vibrant, eclectic culture.

We had an overwhelmingly positive cultural experience in South Africa.  We felt very welcome in the vast majority of situations.  The only negative feelings directed at us came from a small sub-set of the white population, most of whom were middle aged males. It was pretty obvious, and happened several times.  We can only guess that these are people who knew we were Americans, and as such are citizens of a country whose government helped put pressure to end apartheid.

Otherwise, anti-American sentiment was less evident in South Africa than in other countries we have visited.  Capetonians seem able to get to know most Westerners as individuals, independent of their nationality or any other classification.  The only exceptions may be the nationalities that they perceive to be directly involved with instituting apartheid or historically supporting any sort of ethnic cleansing.

Despite the open-mindedness towards many foreigners, there are some tensions between ethnic groups in Cape Town.  These are often expressed openly.  Some residents of coloured townships resent that the South African government built formal settlements for the black townships, with more permanent structures in addition to the tin shanties common in many townships.  Some members of the black community still resent the fact that under apartheid, coloured people were by law given preference for employment opportunities.

Within the black townships, there is some animosity toward immigrants from other African countries. They are viewed as competition for scarce resources.  And there are undoubtedly still some older whites who maintain the attitudes prevalent under apartheid, but are forced to keep their opinions more to themselves than in the past.

Our host family explained that in their view, any judgments across various groups are not endemic to South African society.  They are the direct result of the apartheid system that began after the National Party was elected in 1948.  The policies were formalized by legislation such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, the Population Registration Act of 1950 and the Group Areas Act of 1950.

From what we heard, prior to apartheid, most people in Cape Town were pretty color blind. They intermarried and they enjoyed the rich community relationships that are the result of many different people sharing their lives with each other.  District Six was a good example of this, as was our host family's original neighborhood.

Once the ruling white party introduced segregation, color became an issue.  The government told the various groups that they should and must focus on color.  The consequences can still be felt today. When our host family was younger, their church included members of all races.  Today, long after apartheid ended, the congregation in their current church is much less diverse, as a perhaps unavoidable outcome of forced separation.

The cultural dynamics are complex, and South Africa only recently emerged from the ideological system that created the current degree of race consciousness.  For all the hardship endured, Capetonians are incredibly resilient.  In just a short 20 years, many people set aside their personal feelings of losing their homes, their jobs and their communities.

Cape Town is a fascinating place that we absolutely loved visiting.  We met wonderful people throughout the trip, and we would not trade this cultural experience for anything. In fact, we would like to stay involved in some small way in the ongoing positive changes that we know will continue in Cape Town.

The blog is not quite done yet!  We have one more blog entry.  We want to show some individual photos of some other great people we met, reflect on our building project and mention one or two other things.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kirstenbosch Gardens Concert

After surviving the overwhelming sensory experience at Mzoli's braai on Sunday, we headed over to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens for a late afternoon concert. The laid back environment was the perfect complement to the earlier chaos.

Kirstenbosch is located on the opposite side of Table Mountain from the City Bowl, about 30 minutes from downtown in an affluent residential neighborhood.  The 5000+ capacity hillside venue is absolutely gorgeous, rendering the quality of the performing artists almost a moot point.  But they get some pretty good acts.

The mountain is the star of the show at Kirstenbosch 

The funny-shaped hill slopes down and to the right

In between Mzoli's and Kirstenbosch, we briefly stopped by our wonderful boutique hotel, the Derwent House.  The staff provided a blanket, a picnic basket and two lawn chairs for us.  After walking to a Kloof Street grocery store and buying some wine, cheese and crackers, we had everything we needed to enjoy the concert.

A fun crowd, but not quite representative of Cape Town

We saw a performer named Jeremy Loops, a likeable 29-year old guitarist and folk singer. Jeremy had a sizeable and loyal local following, and was playing in front of the largest crowd of his career.  The main feature of his act is that he lays down some background tracks early in the set, e.g. crowd chanting and his own falsetto voice, then loops the tracks back in layers to create a full sound without needing any accompaniment.  Hence the name "Jeremy Loops."

Jeremy uses his left foot to do the loop thing

Early in the show, Jeremy mentioned that he had woken up that morning in Johannesburg and discovered that he had lost his voice.  Talk about bad timing!  After chugging honey-laden beverages all day, his voice had recovered sufficiently to sing the first couple of songs pretty well.  However, after that, it was clear that his vocal chords were nowhere near 100%, as his voice cracked even during the banter between songs.

He’d have given the guitar off his back for a full voice

Luckily, the crowd was on Jeremy's side, and he improvised well to adapt to the situation. For his birthday the previous week, one of his friends had given him a children's musical toy that played various ditties such as "Row, row, row your boat."  He brought it with him, and had the crowd sing along to create one of the loops.  Everyone had fun, and the background tracks helped cover up his weakened voice.

We won’t be surprised if she’s on stage in a few years 

The crowd poses for a photo taken by the performer

Jeremy also had a few musicians backing him up, including a hip-hop singer with good energy and personality.  When he plays smaller venues, Jeremy is probably a one-man show, so it was fortunate for him that he wasn't going solo that day.  In any case, with the expectations properly set and the weather and scenery ideal, everyone had a great time.

The band begins to hit its stride 

Including the warm-up act, the concert only lasted from 5 - 7 PM, due to local noise ordinances.  Unlike most music venues we've been to in the world, the majority of the crowd stuck around for a while after the concert ended.  There was still enough light for another hour or two of Zen on the lawn, so no one was in too much of a hurry to leave. We stayed until well past 8 o'clock and finished up our bottle of wine.

Another view of Table Mountain

The next time we visit Cape Town, we plan to hike the trail from Kirstenbosch to the top of Table Mountain.  We ran out of time on this trip to complete the quest.

"Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Random Fun Photos

The last blog entry was exhausting.  We'll keep this one light, breezy and pithy.

The water is calm.

Still life with tanning butter, at Grand Café & Beach

The surf is up.

Surfers wait for the perfect wave at Muizenburg Beach

The tide is in.

Halle Berry shot a scene for “Dark Tide” on this Simon’s Town pier

The tongue is out.

Tiara showing us how her tongue is the same color as her shirt from eating candy

The beer is cold.

Another rhino photo, on the boundary wall at the cricket match 

So is the Chardonnay.

Window view across Kalk Bay train tracks to Brass Bell 

The food is great.

Our last Sunday brunch with the Jeftha’s:  fantastic food!!

The crowd is happy.

Back at &Union, with cyclists from Cape Argus Tour 

Sarah is happiest.

Sarah buys handmade one-of-a-kind shoes at the Old Biscuit Mill

Their bladders are full.

Even Supermen need to use the loo 

Matteo is buried.

Day care kids pile on Matteo in the library 

Everyone we know is in jail.

Tom (center) seeks a donation to break out of jail
Matteo was just captured by a group of kids as part of the Community Chest fundraiser

Krusher needs someone to break him out of jail

The baboon is...a baboon.

25 baboons were on the highway; this guy is hiding

This blog entry is finished.

District Six Museum

[Note:  Any of the photos in the blog can be enlarged for easier viewing. Simply click on them.  This may be useful for this blog entry, since the photos include artwork and small print.]

We visited the District Six Museum the Monday before we left Cape Town.  It was a powerful and worthwhile experience.  The vision for the Museum came from the former inhabitants of District Six.  The photos included here of the thoughts of the residents will hopefully bring this to life.

As apartheid expanded, such signs were coming down in the U.S. South 

District Six is a large neighborhood in Cape Town that has been mostly deserted for the past 40 - 45 years.  It leaves a big hole in the city map.  It is just east of the City Bowl and Gardens districts where we spent a lot of time, and just west of Woodstock.  There is not a train stop where one should be.

Beginning in 1966 and continuing for another 6 - 7 years, almost all of the people that inhabited District Six were forcibly removed from this area that sits below Table Mountain and near the waterfront.  This was to make room for whites who wanted to live there.  The ethnic composition of the neighborhood was mostly coloured, Indian, other Asian and Jewish.  Some 60,000 people were moved to a bleak, sandy area called Cape Flats, where they now live in informal settlements amidst a lot of gang violence.

These are bitter thoughts, which are quite understandable

To put this number in perspective, the total number of people forcibly removed by apartheid in all of South Africa over the years was 600,000.  We don't know the total for all of Cape Town, but it is likely that District Six comprised ~ 50% of the forced removals in Cape Town.  Other neighborhoods impacted included Newlands and Claremont, the areas near the cricket and rugby stadiums that are now leafy suburbs.

Based on what we read and saw at the museum and conversations we had with former District Six inhabitants, the neighborhood was run-down at the time of the forced removals. This was partially because the landlords intentionally let their properties deteriorate, as part of a government strategy to induce people to leave on their own.  It later gave the National Party an excuse to raze District Six, and move the residents to areas with much worse living conditions.

This narrative helped us understand the fear

More importantly, run-down or not, the lively social fabric of District Six was ripped apart when its residents were forced to leave.  By all accounts, it was a happy place where the impoverished conditions never got in the way of sharing good music, food and conversation.  When residents left, they often turned around to see their homes being bulldozed before they got to the end of the street.  An unfriendly world awaited them in the Cape Flats, where they were viewed as outsiders even without color differences.  They never saw many of their old friends again.

One of a series of 20 cooking-themed memories

Below is a series of 3 drawings by Lionel Davis, an anti-apartheid activist.  Lionel grew up in District Six and was incarcerated on Robben Island from 1964 - 1971.  He met Nelson Mandela during that time.

We talked to one 60-ish lady who was visiting the museum for the first time at the suggestion of her two 20-something sons.  It was clearly an emotional experience for her, and she began talking to us without prompting.  She mentioned how happy she had been when she lived in District Six, and how the government paid her family only 2000 rand (~ US$200) for her home when they were evicted. Sadly, many of the families later evicted received much less or nothing.

This perspective is particularly well articulated

The next day at an upscale shopping area near the V&A Waterfront, we talked to a friendly, humble shop owner named Rodney.  His family was removed from District Six shortly after he was born in 1971.  He mentioned that for many years after they moved to Mitchell's Plain in the Cape Flats, they never interacted with anyone outside of their own community.  Mostly because they weren't allowed to do so.

In fact, they were so isolated in Mitchell's Plain that they didn't even realize apartheid existed until a teacher pointed it out when Rodney was in the 8th grade.  Once Rodney's peers were informed about apartheid, they were suitably outraged.

Rodney is one of our favorite people that we met

After District Six was demolished, the plans to convert it into a more affluent neighborhood never fully took root.  This was partly due to successful efforts to stall development by organizations representing the interests of former residents.  A couple of nice churches were allowed to remain, and a few nondescript housing complexes closer to Table Mountain were expanded.  A large technical university for whites only was built in the early 1980's.  Otherwise, the area is a ghost town.

Memories of the past, and hope for the future

The end of the District Six story is yet to be written.  After Mandela became President in the 1990's, many older residents were able to reclaim the land they lost in the late 1960's. For others, it was more difficult.  The boundaries of some land plots overlapped the few buildings that had been built in the district.  Being the first to build in a now desolate area also involves money and risk.  There have been a lot of plans floated over the past 15 years, but not much has happened yet.  There is still hope.