Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Rooftop That Changed My View

Here's more of that time travel past/present tense writing I warned against: I wrote this when we were on the plane from South Africa to Namibia.


It was the kind of evening about which every political junkie dreams.  Perfect weather, a rooftop restaurant complete with bonfires, and friends discussing and debating foreign policy and political strategy.  It was even more perfect since it occurred in Johannesburg, South Africa.  We’d only known our politics-loving friends for two hours, at most, and not a single one of them could vote in an election in the United States.  Those factors did nothing to diminish the camaraderie and respect for each other’s insights, however, and it may have even enhanced it.
 
We’re halfway through our ACYPL trip and South African will soon be a memory since we take the adventure to Namibia tomorrow.  But what a memory it will be!  Our three days of meetings have given me a semi-impressive understanding of the intricacies of South African politics so I delve into the debates, questioning Democratic Alliance party leaders about their grassroots strategies and discussing American foreign policy with the prickly but kind elected official from the African National Congress.  We never did agree on the foreign policy details but no one involved seemed to mind too much. 
 
It was these two hours that cemented my conviction that programs like ACYPL really can change the world.  Not only was I included in discussions with these leaders, each of whom aspired to be a high-level government official at some point in the future, but our presence brought them together as well.  The good-natured ridicule of party divides, the jokes about differences between the seemingly countless local African languages, the flirting over firelight and food…it all suggested a years-long friendship between these South Africans.  It was only at the end of the evening that I was stunned to learn that gatherings like this do not occurr: the ANC and DA Youth Leagues do not openly socialize together.  It was only the invitation to spend time meeting with an American delegation, and daily reminders from Brandon, the outstanding Political Officer at the U.S. Consulate, that got them to that rooftop.

I’ve enjoyed every moment of our trip so far but as we head to Namibia, I go forward with a true belief that the impact we leave behind in South Africa will not depart with us.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Learning to Live with Joburg

The best thing about group travel, as I learned this summer, is that it lets you get out of a "slump" much faster.  When you arrive in a new city that doesn't exactly throw out the welcome mat for you, or that annoys you in countless small ways, it helps a lot to have friends to help you shake it off and move past it.  (Perhaps I would have had a whole different experience in Verona, Italy if I'd had a group with me?  I'll never know...or want to know. I loved that solo trip.)  A new day dawned in "Joburg," I dined on a ridiculously large plate of fresh guava with my breakast companion Laura, and left the hotel with a renewed determination to give this city a chance.
 
The first Favorite Thing I found (besides that plate of guava!) was this advertising/news contraption that is placed along the middle of the main roads in Johannesburg. 
 
 
It was hard to tell if the news was current because the headlines were all for insiders and didn't feature world events. This one from The Star read "Hawks' Polela in Papgeld Pickle." It wasn't until I got home that I learned it was, indeed, very current: McIntosh Polela is a spokesperson for the Hawks, a special unit of the South African Police, whose "pickle" was craeted when the mother of two of his six children recently publicized his failure to pay child support (called "papgeld" in South Africa). He complained about the public inspection of his private life in an interview recently, saying it is "an orgy of voyeurism." Not even Hollywood celebrities get that creative in their complaints!  Now I really wish I had jotted down that headline about the minister's toilet!  (On second thought, that one probably wasn't as entertaining as Polela's papgeld - the toilet thing is serious.)
 
Does someone place various newspapers in the middle of the street every day? Every week?  I have no idea but it's a fascinating concept.  Perhaps the Arizona Republic should print headlines like this that make people want to know the news instead of charging to read their articles online? Just a (bitter) thought.
 
 
When I saw the schedule for our time in South Africa, I was most excited about this: a tour and meetings at the Gauteng Provincial Legislature.  There are nine provinces in South Africa, and they're similar to our state governments; Johannesburg is the largest city within the Guateng Province, and the region is an economic powerhouse of the country.  (The term "economic capital" is often used...perhaps because Joburg is bitter it didn't achieve political capital status?  There are actually three governmental capital cities in Cape Town: Cape Town is the legislative capital, Bloemfontein is the judicial capital, and Pretoria is the executive capital.  Our tour guide in Parliament quickly mentioned a study the government had done to determine whether the legislative capital should be closer to the other two but that the results hadn't been published yet.  No one, he assured us, has ever considered moving the other capitals closer to Cape Town.  I'd judge, but Arizona deliberately moved its capital from the close-to-perfect Prescott to the hot-and-hectic Phoenix so clearly we're not the leaders in logic on that point.)
 
The legislature was not outstandingly grand, though it certainly looks it in this photo.  It's in the middle of an urban city, where buildings are close together and many have beautiful European architecture like this one - both a tribute to and reminder of the colonization that wreaked havoc on this continent for so many years. 

A state legislature and a columned building? Just another happy day at work for this girl.
 
The time we spent at this legislature far exceeded even my high expectations, and overall was one of the most fun meetings we had on our whole trip.  A deputy speaker determined to insult and offend everyone in the room even while smiling, a brilliant team of staff who nervously watched every time the deputy speaker attempted to insult and offend, two lovely representatives of the opposition parties who laughed off any insults, and an official photographer so determined to capture professional portrayals of our meeting that I began to feel like the paparazzi had arrived.  We learned a lot (but not enough - I have more research to do!) about the role of provincial legislatures and local governments, and got to see both the strong friendship and pent-up venom that exist between members of opposing political parties here. 
 
In the middle is the Deputy Speaker, Uhuro Moiloa
 
One of my favorite people in all of South Africa: Glenda Steyn, the Whip for the Democratic Alliance in this legislature.  She's Scottish and proved to be feisty, very smart and dangerously funny.

Lydia Meshoe is a preacher, and I could tell after exactly 30 seconds of talking to her - this woman is entertaining.  She didn't talk much but when she did she never stopped smiling.  Google her and you'll find videos of her preaching - now THAT I wish I could have seen in person!  Lydia and her husband founded the African Christian Democratic Party, and he serves as an ACDP Member in Parliament.  Lydia singlehandly represents the party in the Gauteng Legislature but there are other members of the ACDP elected across South Africa.


 
All three of these elected officials - and some of their staff - accompanied us on our tour of the Legislature, much to our delight and the chagrin of the tour guide who repeatedly lost control of the group as we wandered behind the officials rather than the guide.
 
The floor of the legislature clearly demonstrates both the history of the region and the enormous number of elected officials in this governmental body.
 
If we didn't have the Consulate staff there to keep us on schedule I'm pretty sure we would have stayed here all day - we left amidst good-natured accusations from the opposition party members that Mr. Moiloa had deliberately toured only the ANC offices and not their own.  I was sad to leave, especially when I discovered that we were there on "information day," when groups set up in the lobby to provide information about the legislature and important issues.
 
I would have been eager to get on the bus, however, if I'd known what the rest of the day would bring our way - this was the day that helped me understand our presence really could make a difference, and that brought friendships I hope to continue despite the ocean that keeps us apart.
 
We started at the University of Johannesburg.  I've reached the age where I feel old on college campuses, and being there in a suit didn't help matters at all.  I loved being at the University, though, which has approximately 50,000 students (divided between several campuses) and a lot of enthusiasm.  We filed into a conference room filled with the kind of awkward silence that exists at the beginning of a meeting...but the silence didn't last long.

 
I loved these students.  Many were elected to the Student Representative Council, others were active in a political party - all of them were engaged and well-informed.  The room quickly filled and it wasn't until after the meeting I learned that some waited in the hallway for over an hour to meet us because the room got too crowded.  "Humbling" doesn't even begin to describe it.
 
The students' questions covered many topics and varying levels of understanding of and resentment toward American elections and foreign policy (I'll cover the questions we received in another post).  It's hard to summarize a great discussion, but I'll give it a try: we all learned more about each others' views and convictions in a very short amount of time.  Then, as new friends, we ate finger foods and continued our debates until the Consulate staff had to drag us out again to keep us on schedule.
 
One of my absolute favorite moments of the trip...and if you look carefully, in the background you can see Michael convincing a student that Republicans aren't evil.
 
We left a friendly, crowded room to meet with quiet, not-yet-friendly glances from members of the African National Congress' Youth League at the library in the Consulate. 

 
These men were activists who dedicated their lives not only to politics but - in a way I don't think most Americans can totally understand - to one political party. To be a leader in the ANC you publicly prescribe to all of the party's positions on issues - no picking and choosing like we opinionated Americans.  "You cease to be an individual," summarized one. These men serve as local elected officials in various areas around Johannesburg for the ANC and are heavily involved in the ambitious ranks of national party leadership.
 
The ideological walls that divided us at the beginning of the meeting dissolved a little throughout our discussions. They learned that not all Republicans carry machine guns into foreign countries and that we don't actually have dollar signs in our eyeballs; we learned that under their tough façade they are fiercely loyal men who work for what they believe is best for those around them.  (For the record, though, I'm still not satisfied with transparency standards for ANC finances.)
 
The amazing woman on the right joined us late in the meeting and I wish I could have visited with her for a week - she was just as devoted to the ANC as her male counterparts but had a friendly, caring vibe that mixed with her amazing intellect.
 
This was the one time I did not mind when the Consulate staff had to end a meeting to move to the next, because all our new friends came with us.  We continued our conversations while we walked to a nearby rooftop restaurant that overlooked one of the most amazing sunset views I've ever seen.  (Lesson learned: I like Joburg only from a Spiderman-style viewpoint!)
 
 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cloudless Skies and A Trip Across South Africa

September 11 began with a beautiful dawn and not a single cloud in the sky.  We'd been unable to do tourist things like Table Mountain and Robben Island because of stormy weather...so of course the day we had no time for such things, perfect weather gleamed at us from every turn.  Travel days like this are like fate's stand-up comedy routine...so we just settled in to enjoy seeing the top of the mountain as we drove to our first meeting.
 

Our meetings were more impressive than a view from the mountain would have been, anyway.  The Parliament we visited today was completely different from the quiet, aloof building we're toured yesterday - today, people rushed from one room to the next with papers in hand, and journalists awkwardly pulled cameras through security screening machines (there was a big hearing on fracking in South Africa in a committee that morning).  TV screens above the elevators broadcast scheduled committee meetings and locations, and voices and laughter echoed through all the hallways.

I'd looked forward to our meeting with Lindiwe Mazibuko since the first moment I read about her - this woman is impressive.  She's my age (or younger, depending on whether you trust Wikipedia or other sources) and is already a dynamic force in South Africa's opposition party despite the fact that she did not start her youth with a political focus.  Her college studies started with music and through a fateful combination of boredom, travel and academic research, she ended up here...as the Democratic Alliance's Parliamentary Leader.
 
I'll never forgive myself for blinking in this photo!

We were also honored to have our meeting crashed by Wilmot James, a long-time member of the DA and the national chairman of the party.  He casually mentioned that he got his post-doc from Yale (doesn't everyone?) and then sat in on our meeting.  He was humble and funny and lovely.
 
 
Our meeting wrapped up too soon because we had to head to the ANC's floor of offices to meet with the beautiful Joyce Moloi-Moropa, a high-ranking leader in the ANC though she is a member of the South Africa Communist Party.  (Multi-party systems never cease to provide confusion and amusement...in addition to really good clues about a coalition's goals.)  This meeting, especially in comparison to the meeting with Lindiwe, helped me better understand the ANC-DA dynamic in this country.  Joyce is older than Lindiwe and is from Soweto, an area with a long history of poverty and racial oppression.  Unlike Lindiwe, most of Joyce's life was directly impacted by apartheid and it shows in her conversation.  Joyce focused on talk of the past, and the ANC's role in liberating South Africans from a horrific race-based societal structure; Lindiwe spoke of the future, and the need to consider whether the government can provide everything it promised to South Africans during the transition out of apartheid.  These conversations would be played out repeatedly during our time in Johannesburg.


We didn't get to see any soccer or rugby games while we were in South Africa, but I did manage to catch this shot of the edge of one of the stadiums build for the 2010 World Cup.  That's it in the distance, behind the guarded hotel wall. 

 
Hours of suitcase-laden travel and transitions, hurrying only to wait in another line until we arrived in Johannesburg just in time to experience that international phenomena that brings us all together under shared trials: rush hour traffic.
 
 
I'm glad we arrived when we did, though, because it was very interesting to see this moment in the life of Johannesburg: crowded streets, people walking to and from work and getting on and off buses.  It was hectic and urban and somehow, just a little oppressive in its impersonal vibe.


My relationship with Johannesburg did not improve throughout the evening, though I was grateful for my travel pals who created a lovely evening despite incompetent and rude hotel staff, grouchy taxi drivers and a consistent sense that people will go out of their way to be mean in this big city.
 
I'm grateful that we did not have the chance to verify the reports that we'd heard about Johannesburg being unsafe at night, though it meant we spent the evening at the much-overtouristed Nelson Mandela Square.

 
The people were unfriendly, but I did bond with the stuffed animals at The Butcher Shop.

 
And, after all, the minor irritations of travel in an unfriendly city were dwarfed by the reminder that this was September 11.  The movie with Nicholas Cage played on TV that night and our group shared somber memories of where we were when we learned that our country had changed forever.  I eavesdropped on the conversations of people walking on the street below my hotel window and wondered what the next day would bring as I enoyed the peaceful look a city has at night.

 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Justice and Education for All

Our tour of Parliament perfected our walk-and-talk skills (yep, that's another shameless West Wing reference) so I was grateful the next stop used two of my well-developed talents: sitting and eating.
We dined at Mint, a lovely hotel restaurant with big windows onto the shop-heavy walkway of St. George's.  The view was beautiful but distracting, since the people-watching was superb.  My brain was getting fuzzy by this point in the day so it took a few moments and a "Coke Light" (Diet Coke's South African alter-ego) before I fully engaged in our discussion with represeentatives from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. 
It was at this point in the trip that I understood that "reconciliation" is South Africa's equivalent of Cuba's "to resolve."  It's a built-in part of the psyche as people march on, dealing with the complications of their past and hoping for a better future.
The Institute was established in 2000 after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrapped up its daunting work of processing claims of abuse and unjustified loss under the apartheid regime.  Through scientific studies, the Institute gauges citizens' sentiments about how far reconciliation has come, and through targeted activities it works to enhance those goals.  I was especially interested in the discussions about the Afrobaremeter: basically, Africa's version of Gallup.  My interest was mostly because the polls provide insight into a fascinating variety of South African issues, and partly because the woman who implements the polls for the Institute is an American who has lived and worked in South Africa for 14 years.  I never got the story on that but you'd better believe I wanted to...I think expats are the most interesting people on Earth.

We had far more questions than we did time, and it was at this point that I accepted our meetings would always end this way: quickly clasped hands, apologies for rushing to the next meeting, paper cut-inducing exchanges of business cards with attendees, and sincere promises that more questions and answers would be forthcoming via e-mail when we got home.

There’s nothing that reminds you of the optimistic, idealistic college version of yourself like optimistic, idealistic college students of today, and we were reminded of this in our final meeting of the afternoon with five students who were stars of the University of Cape Town's South African Washington International Program.  The Program identifies intelligent future leaders and provides them with training and a six-week internship in Washington, D.C. and let me tell you, these kids were fun.  The designated topic was U.S. elections and voters – a broad category that allowed our joined group to discuss just about anything any of us wanted.  Voter ID requirements, international relations, main factors in turnout for the upcoming U.S. election and mechanisms of change for South African elections…it was all debated and discussed and we didn’t even notice that our time was up until 45 minutes after the meeting was to have ended. 
The bad news was that we missed our chance to visit Table Mountain before the cable car closed; the good news was that we came away with a certainty that the leaders of the future had their country in good hands…and that freshly-studied college students make a debate very challenging to win.
Photos still to come when my group finds a way to share the thousands of photos we collectively took - I'd left my camera in the van after our tour of Parliament. 
In a tribute to that odd time-travel writing style I warned you about, I must now confess that I already wrote about my relaxing, solitary evening that followed the rush of this long day of fascinating meetings and conversations.  This was when I took my turn as "lone wolf" (the title transferred between friends throughout the trip...no one who knows me will be surprised that I earned it first) and spent the evening on the Waterfront, drinking tea and talking politics with South Africans in the shops.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Peering into Parliament

Our next stop was a trip through Nerd Paradise: the South African Parliament.




The Parliament was in its legislative session but we arrived on a Monday – the day of the week designated for committee work – and the halls were quiet and empty.  I didn’t realize how quiet and empty until we saw the building under its normal circumstances (sneak preview alert!).  The hallways around the Welcome Center looked like any government halls: boxes of copy machine paper stacked against a wall, young staffers strolling out for a cigarette break or rushing from one meeting to the next.  The one very unique sight was a makeshift ballot box labeled "Parliamentary Choir Executive Elections Box: Only For Parliamentary Choir Members."  It was complete with a photograph of penguins.  My curiousity continues on the mystery behind that one.
 
Our guide was wonderful – his office was responsible for overall public outreach of Parliament, as well as tour groups.  He’d taken a break to lead our tour but returned to a huge task after we left: organizing a national tour of Parliament, who traveled (once a year, I believe) to hold hearings in regions of the country.  I think there would be a rush on tar and feathers if Congress ever decided to implement a similar outreach idea. 
 
The tour began in what we later learned was the old Parliamentary chambers.  Yes, that old Parliament - the one that made apartheid into law and established the most horrific racism in government I can even imagine.  I felt guilty about rushing to have our photo taken until I learned that the room is now used for good things, like caucus meetings and - only weeks before our arrival - a national tribute to the miners who were killed at the Marikana mine protest.  The room was also the site of an assassination in 1966.  A man disguised as a Parliamentary messenger stabbed Henrik Verwoerd during proceedings on the floor; our guide said no motive for the murder had been found, but since Verwoerd is considered the "architect of apartheid" (he once described it as "a policy of good neighbourliness"), I'm going to take the liberty of forming my own theories on motive.

 
My favorite part of the Parliamentary tour was the members-only library tucked into one corner of the beautiful building.  Because we were there on a slow day we got to spend time in here, looking at newspapers from across the country and - in my case - swooning over the details that make up any legislative process like journal records and ancient bound books of laws enacted by long-dead leaders.  I wasn't able to satisfy my curiousity about where that gorgeous spiral staircase leads, however.


 
The South African Parliament is made up of two chambers, similar to the U.S Congress.  The National Council of Provinces, which replaced what used to be called the Senate, was established by the new South African Constitution in 1996.  Wikipedia has a great summary of the details of the rights and responsibilities of this chamber.  It focuses mostly on domestic issues and the topics addressed by provincial and local governments across the nation.  Before the end of apartheid, this chamber served as the "coloured Assembly" because those in power actually established three "wings" of parliament so races would not mix.  If this angers you, you're beginning to understand why I got fury-related headaches every time I learned much about government and society under apartheid.
 
I picked a seat in the front row of the media's spot in the gallery...partly because I wanted to see it from their perspective and partly because our guide joked that we kept looking like a one-party government by often sitting on the same side of any aisle.
 
The NCOP doesn't get much media coverage, according to our guide, because they deal with the more routine issues that impact day-to-day life of South Africans.  The hot topics are usually covered in the National Assembly, and the media focuses their attention there.   Given the enormous size of the Assembly's gallery, I'm willing to believe it.

 
One particular moment of media coverage occurred here that no one can ever forget: this little announcement by former President de Klerk that he was ending apartheid and releasing Nelson Mandela after a 27-year imprisonment.
 
 
My favorite part of Parliament was the translators' booth, though it was rather boring and we only saw it through a window.
 
 
Though everyone we met in South Africa spoke fluent (and amazingly accented!) English, there are 11 official languages of the nation.  I wasn't able to find out how many translators it takes to make Parliament operate, but our guide summarized it easily: "it's a lot."
 
 
Click here for more photos from my tour of Parliament.

Want to see the South African Parliament for yourself, without the 40+ hours of airplane time?  Check out this virtual tour.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Consulates and Equality

I promise that there are photos coming that will make this post more interesting; I was not designated photographer of the day so eventually you will benefit from Ardy’s great photography skills.  Also, I apologize in advance for the present/past tense of this and future blog posts.  Despite how it might seem, I was not traveling through time on this trip.  I tried to write each day but on days when the schedule got hectic, I'm filling in memories now that I'm back in the U.S.
 
Monday, September 10 kicked off early with a trip to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town.  They confiscated our cameras at security so there’s no way to prove that I actually went there, but as a former Foreign Service Wannabe, being in the consulate was a great way to start the day.  We met with the Consul General, Erica Barks-Ruggles, whose resume would never possibly fit on one page.  She was funny and informative and I could have listened to her talk all day instead of one hour.  I took pages of notes from the information she shared…rather than bore you with lists, I’ll work the details into future posts.  I’m here to sit in meetings and learn so you get the honorary Africa 101 degree as well!
The most important concept I learned from our time at the consulate was “born frees.”  This is the term used to refer to those South Africans born after the end of apartheid, those who never experienced the overt racism and hateful treatment at the hands of those driven by incomprehensible convictions.  This term is important because the societal trends could drastically alter as this generation comes into voting age and adulthood.
Another wonderful takeaway (literally!) from the consulate visit was Cynthia Brown, a U.S. foreign service official who had helped set up our meetings throughout Cape Town.  She hopped on our bus and made the trip so much better.  It’s amazing to think of the thousands of people like her who live their lives in one, two, or three-year placements, hopping from country to country to make things work more smoothly for our country around the world and, as we were all painfully reminded by the events last week in Libya, who put their lives at risk to do so.
Heads spinning with information, we rushed to our next destination: the Women’s Legal Center.  The offices are in a multi-storied building squeezed into a busy street in Cape Town, unglamorous despite the marbled lobby that gives off an air of being rather too tired to keep up appearances any longer.  The pretense of the lobby is sharply countered by the rooms of the Center; we were ushered into the catch-all room most offices lovingly call a library: a cozy, comfortable room with more tables than space and enough carefully labeled boxes, books and research notes to fill twice as many shelves.  The ever-present offering of instant coffee sat in one corner, next to a computer that – a sign instructed – was not to be used or moved to another room.  The informal atmosphere was perfect for an enjoyable, though disturbing, conversation with the Center’s director, Jennifer Williams, and two amazing researchers from the University of Cape Town.  The academic researchers specialized in research about the South African judiciary and, in particular, the lack of qualified female judges in the judiciary.  Jennifer was there to discuss the Center's amazing work to help women overcome really horrific situations of abuse and inequality; her comments were even more memorable due to her ability to throw in scathing comments about the idiotic things judges had said about women. Example: the time the judge said the husband shouldn't be punished for dragging his wife behind a car because "her bruises weren't that bad." 

This is not a feminist organization; Jennifer’s fight is just to get basic human rights and freedoms for South African women.  Prosecuting rapists, ensuring that inheritances go to female designees rather than being diverted to distant male relatives, preventing women from being caught in fights between father and abusive, unfaithful husband over whether the bride price, or “lobolo,” after she had the courage to leave the bad marriage.  I’m overwhelmed by the work Jennifer and her team must tackle, but her passion is not deterred by her daunting tasks.  She delved into a new case with a young woman before we had even made it to the door.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Published!

It was pretty thrilling to see my article posted on ACYPL's blog!  Click here to read my thoughts on the political dynamics in South Africa.

Our delegation meeting with leaders of South Africa's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.  Lindiwe Mazibuku (left) is the DA's Parliamentary Leader and Wilmot James is the Chairman of the DA Party.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

More Free Day Fun

Our day continued as much of the rest of our trip would: on a quest for food.  We drove through wonderful, quaint little areas while Michael and the Ardy App (so named because he had both the guide book and the amazing memory to retain and share details about places we'd visit) worked with Gladman to find the best possible place to eat lunch.
 

The Deciders were navigating us to where we'd eat lunch but of course this restaurant had my vote!

 
Our van got stuck multiple times in the traffic surrounding the countless road construction sites we encountered - I kept expecting to see the South African equivalent of those orange ARRA signs: "your government at work." As we waited for our turn to progress inch by inch, numerous entrepreneurs peddled their wares by walking between lanes, tapping on car windows and offering a variety of all things both useful and ridiculous.  My favorite: ostrich feather dusters, which were large enough to dust a whole room just by spinning around.
 
Our lunch became a two-step delight when we were added to a 45-minute wait list at the restaurant.  We went next door to get appetizers (our first South African oysters!) and countless amazing interior decorating ideas (lanterns, colors and textures galore!).
 

 
More seals entertained us with their antics, though of course they ducked underwater every time my camera came out.
 

Our food in Africa was always a highlight of every day (more on that later...with photos!) and this was no exception - with full stomachs and sleepy eyes we piled back into the bus for the drive back to the hotel before 5:00, when our driver turned into a pumpkin...or something like that.  We did manage to squeeze in a too-short visit to one of the many renowned vineyards.
 
 
 
 
As you know if you've listened me talk about my great goals for life, I've always wanted to stomp grapes into red wine so I always have big hopes for vineyards.  No luck here (though I was within two hours of a vineyard that still does that, according to the documentary that played on the flight over) but we did have an enjoyable time exploring the cavernous tasting room, with paintings so good they looked like photographs:
 
 
And some of the vineyards, with leafless branches standing firm against the cold weather and rain driven by the wind.
 

 
We enjoyed the sleepy drive through the grey weather back to our hotel, then delved into the wonderfully walkable sidewalks of the Virginia and Albert waterfront.  I played xylophones, grew hypnotized by the accented descriptions of food by our waiter Joseph, and sleepily strolled back to the hotel to prepare for the full day the morning would bring.
 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Good Hope at the Cape

Our next spontaneous destination was one of the best places I’ve ever visited: Table Mountain National Park.  Vast expanses of African fauna greeted us as we left city crowds to enter a more peaceful adventure.
 
 
This is the African stereotype at its best: open space as far as the eyes can see, few people and even fewer cars.  Thanks to Michael’s attention to detail (or hunting skills, which I don’t really want to consider), we saw a herd of Oryx.   
 
Enormous rugged mountains peppered the horizon, and the ground-hugging foliage flashed from browns to purples to almost-neon yellows.
 
 
 
Experiences and places like this enable the imagination to consider what it must have been like for explorers finding these coasts for the first time.

Crystal-clear waters painted an ombre pattern of turquoises and blues, quickly turning to bright white when waves crashed against the rocks and cliffs of the beaches.  When I grew tired of gaping at the sight, I started The Climb.

The stairway alone was an international experience.  People from around the world gathered against the rock-covered walls to snap photos and marvel…or just to hide the fact that they had lost their breath on the steep stairs.  Each stop provided an increasingly better view of the ocean below.
 
Breathless both from exertion and beauty, we found this top-of-the-world landmark:
 An even rockier coast waited on the other side of the lighthouse,
With an amazing view of a whale lounging in the water far below.
 
I loved every minute on the mountain but the nature-loving overachiever in me was bothered by a seemingly unreachable trail that stretched along the narrow land of the Cape below the lighthouse, heading out to the point. Thankfully I had a fellow adventurer, and Michael and I wandered through small buildings (formerly housing for lighthouse guests) and even smaller gates to find it.

There weren’t any international friends here – no one else seemed to understand the deserted potential of this path except for the black lizards that congregated on sunny rocks.
The view here was even better, enhanced by the additional challenge and lack of humans. 
 
 
Old military foundations lined the walkway, suggesting a time when visitors were less welcome to the cape than the tourists are now.  In the distance, huge cargo ships slowly worked their way around the Cape of Good Hope toward the port of their destination.

We didn't walk all the way to the point of the Cape because the rest of the group was waiting, so I made the most of every moment on the walk back.  Birds singing, mysterious animal droppings littering the path (we hoped it was babboons) and the distant crash of the ocean waves below made it pleasant, to say the least.