Just another fish out of water story.

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6 & Out

It has been a long journey. In case, y’all have been wondering about the radio silence for the past month, its because nothing has happened. With May came the cold and rainy winter that I didn’t believe was ever going to happen.

Sure we did a few of those touristy things that had to be gotten out of the way: Robben Island, Mzoli’s, but this past month has been some major chill time. Studying, movie/TV watching, copious internet usage. We settled into our routine.

And now, almost at the end, I’m finally putting up the the color film from Afrikaburn. The black and white film, which comprises the majority of what I took at Afrikaburn and throughout this semester, won’t be ready until I get back. Though a lot of it is developed thanks to the UCT darkroom and my efforts impersonating a UCT Art student, I ran out of money for scanning. Oh well.

Here’s a couple of my favorites. The rest are on the Flickr.

 

 

FreshlyGround, Organically Grown


Freshlyground, the popular South African Afro-pop group, is a band that is constantly being pushed into boxes by the suits above. And like their eclectic brand of music, they keep popping out. From their burst on the international stage with their World Cup collaboration with Shakira to their multi-cultural roots, they are a band that has come to represent their country, whether they like it or not.

Forming in a place where politics and race are omnipresent issues, drummer Peter Cohen tries to convince this journalist that, for him, and for the rest of the band, its really all about the music. Everything else has just been pushed onto them.

“We don’t really think about that stuff too much,” says Cohen. “People still—and not only in South Africa but all over the world—-people like to see something mixed and working because I think there is Apartheid in music, just by virtue of taste.”

Freshlyground has emerged as the type of band one might expect to arrive in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Its members hail from all over the continent, from Mozambique to Zimbabwe to Johannesburg. The band is like a snapshot of the place in which it was formed, Cape Town, with its bright mix of cosmopolitan pop fusing with the many styles from all over Africa. Their songs exhibit a cacophony of languages, mixing English, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

One can imagine a big wig recording executive listening to one of their albums, looking at a promotional photograph of the band, snapping his fingers, a light bulb flashing on in his head. “I know how to market this,” he would say. “They are the Rainbow Nation.”

Cohen is wary of such a reading of the band, recognizing that what some may view as a gimmick, simply did not start that way.

“We never had a selection process when we carved out Freshlyground,” says Cohen. “There was no criteria…it just happened—a very organic process. I guess that’s why it worked. There is a certain amount of honesty…Some people might think that it was really thought out—you know let’s get this [person] and let’s get that [person].”

Organic is a word that keeps coming up when talking about Freshlyground. What seems now like a packaged marketable brand of music began, as most bands do, as simply a few musicians jamming together. Freshlyground formed in 2002 when keyboardist Aron Turest-Swartz began jamming with flutist Simon Attwell, violinist Kyla-Rose Smith, and guitarist Julio Sigauque, according to the Washington Post.

The band was far from the multi-colored group it is now. It was not until Turest-Swartz spotted singer Zolani Mahola in a musical stage performance at the University of Cape Town—and later invited her onstage at one of the unnamed band’s early gigs—that the band found its identity. Turest-Swartz is no longer in the band, replaced by Seredeal Scheepers.

But Cohen speaks little about the formation of the band, mainly because, he was not there for it. Though Cohen joined the band early on, before any record releases, he ended what must have seemed for the band, like an endless carousel of drummers. Cohen was the fourth (and final) drummer the band used.

Like most things with Freshlyground, Cohen’s entrance was more chance than calculated decision. Bassist Josh Hawks brought Cohen in as a session musician to fill in for their drummer at an upcoming gig. After the gig, Cohen stuck around and what began as a temporary arrangement became more and more permanent over the following six months.

Hawks and Cohen are the two oldest members of Freshlyground and stalwarts of the South African music scene from the days before Apartheid ended. Hawks played bass guitar for Johnny Clegg, one of the few South African musicians to cross over into the global market.

A white South African, Clegg, headed one of the few multi-racial bands in South Africa during the ‘80s and ‘90s,Juluka and Savuka. His bands were composed of primarily black musicians and he was interested in Zulu culture, often performing in tribal garb.

Cohen enjoyed stints with other important South African bands of the time such as Bright Blue—famous for the struggle song “Weeping”—and Mango Groove, another band noted for its multi-racial members and fans.

The elephant in the room—Apartheid—is impossible for any South African—white or black—to ignore. It is an event experienced so universally and yet so individually that to skirt the issue does a disservice to the story being told. This is especially true for Cohen, whose history, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, hinges on that elephant in the room.

His own realization of Apartheid’s skewed morality came, interestingly enough, not from a South African but from an American, Stevie Wonder.

“I remember being 11 or 12 and hearing Superstition [by Stevie Wonder],” Cohen tells me. “That was the first time for me when I started thinking, if this man was in South Africa, my country, he wouldn’t have the right to vote. It started me down that path. I got fed up knowing everything was wrong.”

Cohen admits that the multi-racial nature of the bands he has been in was not his primary reason for getting involved. However, the experiences have had their effect on him.

“Its some way of finding my own identity in South Africa,” says Cohen. “Its been a very cathartic experience for me to get involved in African music. Obviously, with the Western influences that I grew up with, its hard to make those two types of music sit together [Western and African]. Its not easy.”

Freshlyground has a story similar to many bands that “make it.” Their success is some magic combination of luck, talent and being in the right place at the right time.

Cohen confesses that the members of the band didn’t think that Freshlyground would last more than six months. Now, eight years later, they are on the verge of international superstardom, due to their now unavoidable collaboration with Shakira, “Waka Waka (This time for Africa).”

The band’s collaboration with Shakira, made famous by its prominence during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, may seem like one of those forced partnerships conjured up by recording executives—a move designed to combine the global marketability of Shakira with the local flavor of a South African band. However, the collaboration was a happy accident that Cohen describes as “typically Freshlyground.”

The band had been mixing their most recent record, Radio Africa, in New York—a record which achieved Gold status within two months of its release and is now nominated for four South African Music awards. While they mixed the record in an upstairs studio in Alphabet City, producer John Hill—noted for his work for such global acts as Christina Aguilera, Kings of Leon, and M.I.A.—worked downstairs on the now ubiquitous Shakira song.

Knowing little about the band but hearing of their South African roots, Hill introduced himself and asked them if they had any ideas to add to the song. Hill left the band to play with the song and returned several hours later to listen to what they had come up with.

Cohen confesses that while Hill told them that he liked the material and to record it all, no one in the band knew what to make of his reaction.

“He never sounded excited. He’s kind of low key”” says Cohen.

After the band gave Hill the recorded material, in typical big-shot recording producer fashion, Hill told the band, “You’ll be hearing from me.” The band never did and it was not until a few weeks before the beginning of the World Cup that the band received an innocuous email from Sony Music Entertainment informing them that, not only had the track made the World Cup Official album, it was also the official theme song of the tournament.

While Freshlyground’s work with Shakira was no more than being in the right place at the right time, it is too easy to chalk up the band’s success to such conditions. Freshlyground is first and foremost, like most South African musicians, a working band.

By the time the band had their chance encounter with John Hill in New York, Freshlyground, like most South African bands at the time, had spent more than a little effort trying to exploit the media coverage that was coming to South Africa for the World Cup.

“We were up to our eyeballs in World Cup stuff,” says Cohen. “We were starting to feel like an Ad band, pitching to [Sony].”

Freshlyground is a band that’s aware of the expectations that surround them. Because of their wide popularity in South Africa and the mixed nature of the band, corporate and government public relations workers often try to use them champion causes or draw attention to events.

Cohen says the band feels far from exploited though. In fact, he would go so far as to say the band exploits those situations. In a country where those in the music industry struggle to make enough money to forgo their day jobs, Freshlyground takes work where they can get it.

“What I mean is that if work comes our way for those reasons, its not a good reason not to do it,” says Cohen.

This past March, the band headlined the Concert and March for Quality Education in Cape Town. In 2005, the band performed at the opening of the South African Parliament in a ceremony celebrating ten years of democracy. More recently, they have been involved in the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. They, very publicly, took part in the Tutu Tester, a project aimed at testing more than a million people for HIV in South Africa.

While Cohen feels it is important for the band to use their public profile to spread positive messages, he is also wary of the band spreading itself too thin and diluting their influence.

“We get approached nonstop [to take part in charities]” says Cohen. “You got to be careful with that kind of stuff. You can’t try and do a million things and not really get any of them right.”

Because HIV awareness is one of—if not the—most important causes in South Africa, Cohen and Freshlyground felt it was the cause that made the most sense for them to put their focus on to get right.

If 2010 was a hectic year for Freshlyground—with the release of their fourth record and all the promotional work required by the World Cup—2011 has been quieter but just as busy.

The band has found themselves back in their old digs in Cape Town, juggling gigs and a loose recording process unlike any they’ve experienced before. For the first time, the band has rejected the traditional trajectory of recording a record—writing phase, recording phase, and mixing phase.

Instead, the band has decided to work on songs more casually, recording and writing simultaneously as they work things out, a move that Cohen feels has been dictated by the changing music industry.

With the proliferation of the internet and a music distribution system that encourages single songs, Freshlyground is taking an approach echoed by many in the music industry, South African and American.

“We’re recording but we’re not setting out to make an album anymore. The industry has shifted and we feel with an album…you only get a shot every two years. If we record a song every two months and put it out, we’re doing a lot more casting of our lines. It seems a more efficient way to work these days.”

Like all bands, Freshlyground is always trying to evolve, with the changing curve of music and their own maturity as artists. But, with a sound as eclectic and diverse as Freshlyground’s is, Cohen finds it hard to pinpoint what direction the band’s music is going with their new approach to recording.

The inability to pinpoint their style (above some general Afro-fusion pop moniker) is a sticking point with marketing and recording executives. They are a band whose music, though sellable, would be hard to slide into a specific rack in a record store.

“[Record executives] want a tagline and…I don’t think we’re every going to reach that place,” says Cohen. “It’s going to be the life of us or the death of us. Let’s hope its the former.”

Freshlyground will be touring in the United States this summer from June 20th through July 11th. They will be featured on the Central Park Summerstage on June 26th in New York. More info available here.

[This article was written simultaneously for my music journalism class, hence its more formal tone. Hope you enjoyed it.]

John Lennon’s End of the World Party

So I’m a little late on the Afrikaburn recap. The late semester work squeeze has got me up late at nights and only just enough time to procrastinate and write blog posts. So here we go.

Afrikaburn is a five day festival (if that is the right word) that celebrates art, music, and a certain amount of peace, love and harmony. If this all sounds a little Woodstock to all of you, then you are not alone.

Afrikaburn, like its inspiration, Burning Man, is the sort of drugged-out brainchild conjured up by leftover hippies who took the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” a bit too literally.

The Burn is a cultural wasteland. If, in your travels, you wondered what became of the free-lovers, the acidheads, the New Age-ers, and the Zen Buddhists, then at Afrikaburn is where you will find your answer.

Your loopy uncle that spends his life huddled in a dusty beige RV, stoking campfires while he spouts aphorisms like a stoner-Buddha-prophet? He’s built a forge for blacksmithing that sits in the heart of Tankwa Town.

Your artsy friend from college that still lives in a one-bedroom flat and occasionally stars in an acting workshop presentation of Romeo & Juliet set in an asylum? She’s a performance art piece, dancing naked over bonfires and rollling in the stof (Afrikaans word for dirt, ground and the theme of this year’s festival).

And your slightly-off nephew that has a penchant for burning through his savings purchasing tickets for jam-band concerts and road trips under the guise of artistic expression? He’s here too, building a wooden photobooth, so that not a second will be forgotten (or underexposed).

Afrikaburn’s (and Burning Man’s) two defining characteristics are, what they call, radical self-expression and radical inclusion. The Burn aims to create a community that is organic, free-flowing and constantly changing.

Its philosophy recalls a Montessori school: provide subjects with a safe open environment and a set of tools and see what they come up with.

While many call Afrikaburn a festival (and in many ways it is), it is not one in the sense of Woodstock or Bonnaroo or that Wine & Cheese Festival you attended last month.

Outside of the administration necessary to provide basic services (toilets, security, fire safety and first-aid), the event is unmanaged.

At the center of the festival is Tankwa Town, a massive expanse built around the blueprint of a clock, the only road being the one around the rim (so that you can indicate where you are staying by saying 8 or 10 o’clock).

The camps closest to town are the most well-planned—there are massive art installations like the San Clan (the large wicker man set on fire during the night of the Big Burn) or a life-size white heel strung with neon lights (that doubles as a slide).

There are camps that double as chic cafes, providing coffee and snacks (or in the case of the “Whisky and Whores” tent, whisky and poker and a Wild-West attitude).

For those more inclined to dancing, there are an almost infinite number of areas providing live and DJ-ed music, including a fleet of independently and uniquely decorated “art cars” that bring the vibe to the crowd.

The festival is a testament to self-reliance. If you were forced to spend five days in the desert, what would you bring to entertain yourself? What would you bring to share with others?

There are no vendors at the event. Everyone brings enough for themselves and a little something to share, whatever you can or feel so inclined to. There was a camp that spent a day making vegetable curry to feed more than 100 people. Who those people were, they had no idea until they showed up.

There was a tent in the center of of Tankwa Town, built of driftwood and colorful translucent fabric where three female buddhists taught meditation to passerby, harmonizing eerie tones of “Om.” Hey, whatever floats your boat. Right?

If you come to Afrikaburn (and this applies doubly for Burning Man), be prepared to encounter the weird and the crazy. Imagine Afrikaburn as a sort of Mad-Max end of the world set up, except instead of Mel Gibson and crazy Australians trying to kill each other for oil, everyone is trying to work together to make the best of what’s there.

The end of the world is a trippy carnival, one piled with the wreckage of society’s hangers-on. Afrikaburn is the land of forgotten toys—a desert of bright colors and infinite playgrounds.

To enjoy it, you have to buy in to its conceit—pretend you are a kid again and let yourself be filled with wonder.

Burning Suspense

For those of you that have been hanging on my last post’s cliffhanger for far too long, this past weekend I attended Afrikaburn, a music/arts hippy fest in the same tradition as Burning Man, held in the Nevada Desert every year. While I’m still working on my write up of that, check out a couple videos from this past weekend. Enjoy.

What am I doing this weekend?

Supplies:

(1) 5-6 rolls of thick clothesline

(2) 8 Boxes of Clothespins

(3) 300-500 sheets of Photographic paper

(4) A small photo printer capable of printing 5x7s

(5) A power adapter to connect to a car

(6) 2  5mx1.5m cotton white sheets

(7) 1 2.5mx1.5m courderoy black sheet

(8) 5-7 small cans of paint (different colors)

(9) Canvas paper

(10) Pens, pencils, colored markers, pastels,

(11) 8 2.4m wood stakes

(12) 34 rolls of film

(13) 3 cameras (1 film, 1 point and shoot, 1 Digital SLR)

(14) a hammer

(15) a shovel

(16) 3 pairs of safety goggles

(17) 2 cowboy hats

(18) 3 red bandanas

(19) 3 tennis balls

(20) 1 can of gold spray paint

(21) 1 package of bubbles + bubble blower

Find out after the weekend.


Girls gone wild: Namibia

This recap of Namibia is coming a little late to you guys. Blame the parents, blame the brother, blame the schoolwork. Certainly don’t blame me.

When we were deciding where we should go for our South African Spring Break (or Fall Break if you want to get technical. It is the Southern Hemisphere), we were naturally thinking somewhere warm and sandy with plenty of access to alcohol. We figured there has to be a place like that in Southern Africa.  So where is the Daytona Beach, the Cancun, the Paradise of Southern Africa? The answer, my friends, is Namibia, home to the world’s oldest desert (the Namib) and the 6th lowest population density in the world. Sounds like a party, ammiright?

We took a trip packaged for students by STA travel and run by Nomad Adventures, a local South African tourism company committed to helping tourists discover the “adventure and magic” of Africa.

Our trip was a ten-day whirlwind tour of Namibia, a country dominated by a constantly changing and often harsh geography and not much in the way of cities or monuments.

We drove in a converted Mitsubishi Fuso truck, a shipping transport rebuilt like a transformer to house thirty American students and their backpacks, cameras and an assortment of camping gear provided by Nomad.

As we were informed on the first day by our guide Steven, the trip is an adventure tour, thus we should not expect all the amenities of other accommodated tours. I assumed that we all knew what we signed up for, but, as I watched a few of our fellow travelers frustratingly attempt to assemble their tent, I knew that this was likely not the case.

We spent no less than four or five hours driving every day—there was a lot of ground to cover. Namibia is slightly larger than half of Alaska and covered in mostly dirt or gravel roads. We were encouraged to sleep during the long hours driving between the sights but with a driving experience like this:

It was nearly impossible. The majority of time was spent listening to each other’s music on iPod speakers, playing charades, or freestyle rapping (if you are Miriam, Yolanda or Alon).

Our time awake was spent either walking around sights (such as the Orange River or the Sossusvlei Dunes), sleeping on the bus, or eating (which we did a lot of). The food was excellent. Our tour guide’s second-in-command, a Zimbabwean named Prosper, is the son of a chef from Johannesburg and thus cooked a variety of African dishes for our dinner meals. What made this more impressive was the camp cooking set-up, the fact that he was cooking for thirty people and that he cooked from ingredients that we picked up in between camp sites (which was not easy considering the lack of stocked supermarkets or towns along the route we took).

Lunches consisted of cucumber, tomato and cheese sandwiches, which grew on us much in the same way a kidnapper grows on the kidnapped via Stockholm Syndrome. By Day 3, we had accepted the sandwiches. By Day 5, we looked forward to them. By Day 7, we were craving them.

By the time we reached Swakopmund on Day 6, we were relieved. We had camped five nights in a row, in varying degrees of climate (the desert is cold at night), had braved two severe lightning storms and slept in more positions than a Tantric attempting to complete the Kama Sutra.

Swakopmund was like the towns we saw on the Garden Route, clean beach towns with interesting people and architecture torn straight from Belmar. Swakopmund, more than any other place in Southern Africa yet, reminded me of America, this time of the Jersey Shore. There was pizza and ice cream, camera stores and touristy activities, people vacationing and restaurants beach-side with sand trailing into the dining areas and no restrictions on shoes and shirts.

After Swakopmund, we drove home. 36 of our last 48 hours of the trip were spent driving on the bus.  At least on the way back, we made it onto the major highways, which made it considerably easier to sleep. But that doesn’t tell half the story. I think this story is better told in pictures (and a video). So here’s one from each day.

Day 1: A traditional Khoisan loin cloth

Day 2: Buying supplies for the long trip ahead

Day 3: Canoeing down the Orange River

Day 4:  Camping during a Storm

Day 5: Sunrise at Dune 45

Day 6:  Swakopmund: Jersey Shore in Namibia

Day 7: Sand is exactly like snow

Day 8: All day driving

Day 9: Back at Felix Unite and the Orange River

Day 10: Kidnapping kittens on Alon’s birthday

Americans doing typically American things, Part II

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So you’re going to Africa, right? Well, you have to go on safari. It is the land of the lions and elephants and tigers. Wait, no tigers—that’s India. Monkeys, hippos. Everyone wants to pretend like they are in Out of Africa. Well, we Americans are no different. But I gotta admit I’m pretty safari-ed out.

Big Party Safari

The safaris began a little over a month ago when Interstudy took us on a little weekend excursion (if you recall, our first installment Americans doing Typically American Things, Part 1). We were taken to a safari about twenty minutes from Touws River, a place called Aquila Game Reserve (advertised as only 2 hours from Cape Town and Malaria-free!).

The grounds were like putting greens of matted grass (what it must have cost to keep the grass so green I cant fathom). There was a rock swimming pool and a deck with chairs and cushions. The main lodge had twenty foot ceilings with walls covered in hangings of game and antlers and a large ominous fiery red pastel painting of a lion.

The food was…well I’m going to need a whole paragraph to describe it. A large buffet of many different African dishes—bobotie, lamb shanks, steak. There was a selection of five or six salads (these are like American BBQ salads like Potato Salad or Pasta Salad, lots of mayo lots of vegetables and a grain). There was a cheese platter of no less than seven cheeses (blue cheese, goat, cheddar, Gouda, etc)—also crackers, many types of breads plus a potato dish and a rice dish. Coffee, several pies, tiramisù, ice cream and chopped fruit topped off dessert. Breakfast the next morning was just as expansive with all the works (eggs, bacon, sausage etc).

The safari was underwhelming. You are taken out on these large tour bus/safari vehicles like converted Humvees (built for 20-30 people) and driven into the separate gated reserve area. The land is devoid of most vegetation and it is entirely too groomed, not natural. The animals are all grouped together in separate areas as if it is their predetermined spot. This suspicion was somewhat confirmed when we were taken into the separate fenced lion area, perhaps a ⅓ of the area of the first area. The lions crowded around each truck, clearly irritated, glaring at us. They even followed the other truck around as the inexperienced driver tried to do what our guide said is the exact wrong thing to—drive away faster from the lion. The lions, we learned, are fed a percentage of their meat intake by Aquila. We were told that percentage is less than ten percent but I’m just saying I didn’t see any prey in the lion area.

The little huts along the property each had an outdoor and indoor shower, very comfortable beds, down blankets and pillows, many outlets and a coffee maker.

There was an ostrich walking around the main lodge all day who seemed very comfortable with people. Highlight of the trip was following that bird around.

Its good to be the King

The next safari adventure came this past week when the family came to visit. As is customary on all twenty-first birthdays in South Africa, we went on safari. This time to a place around an hour and half from Port Elizabeth called Blauwbosch Game Reserve. The reserve is in the middle of farm country, the beginning of the South African Karoo (semi-desert, lush after rainstorms, dusty and grey in droughts).

Blauwbosch is actually situated on a converted sheep farm. The owners bought other land in the area that had fallen out of use for farming purposes, connected the numerous properties into a vast empty land with the natural curves of the geography (hills and massive rocks with a few rocky fields in between).

The main lodge has the typical warm safari, African feel to it (think Jumanji). There is a fire place and large armchairs and board games in leather cases. The reception room leads out to an open air room containing the bar (featuring numerous local wines plus beer and spirits), a dining room, and a seating area with leather bound photography and nature books about the animals and African landscape—great during the 6am coffee wake up. The seating area is open to the outside, looking out onto the grass lawn and pool and the wide open hills and fields as the backdrop.

We arrived around 3pm, a group of hungry (and ere go angry) Americans. We were immediately informed that it was 3pm tea time, which meant a variety of puff pastries, a pecan pie, fruit, iced tea and lemonade. After eating all of the beef filled pastries and half eating a quiche, we were taken on safari.

We introduced to our soft-spoken guide Billiard and the tracker, his brother whose name escapes me. We were taken in low-to the-ground trucks that on a full week would carry 9 people or so but because we were the only people staying there (its the off-season, we were told), it was only four of us plus our guide and the tracker, who sat on a chair attached to the front of the truck—I’m guessing he was lion bait. The roads were more like foot paths that we drove over—that truck could handle anything. Our first game drive saw rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and the ever present springboks, impala and oryx. The night led into a lightning storm and a multicolored sunset like something out of The Lion King.

When we got back and I finally took a second to look at our room, I knew that I was the king, if not The Lion King. High ceilings a large king bed with feather blankets, a large bathtub, indoor and outdoor shower and a bed on the deck outside, which was secluded from all the other huts—and to think it was all wasted, having to share it with my brother. Mark this place down as a honeymoon destination.

The food was excellent if a little too fancy for its own good. The cuisine was likely French-inspired with lots of sauces, game meat and a heavy emphasis on presentation (seriously, these dishes looked like something out of a cookbook). It was nice to go out on a game drive, see some impala, see some oryx and then have it for dinner that night (there were also more pedestrian options such as chicken and beef dishes but really, if you’re gonna go on safari, how can you not eat the game meat).

The second day (my birthday), Corey fell ill with a stomach virus and was MIA for (I hate to make him feel like he missed stuff but) our best game drive. Billiard took us all over the property, tracked down the missing lions (they had not been seen for several days) and we watched from a far, a lion family picnic in the sun. This was followed by a birthday brunch on top of a mountain with mimosas, a cheese and charcuterie platter, yogurt, granola and fruit. Not to mention a full plate of eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, mushrooms and a roasted tomato. With wicker chairs, a sun umbrella, table clothes and some fancy cutlery. On top of a mountain. Its good to be king.

Each game drive was great, with different animals seen each time—though by the end of it, I’d seen enough zebras, springboks, impala, gemsbok and antelopes. The lions were terrifying (the male gave us a little roar, kind of like a Boo!). The monkeys were hilarious, shouting and screeching at each other. The elephants lazed around eating prickly pears all day on top of the mountains like a bunch of Dumbos. Our guide originally had some trouble finding the elephants on the property. The manager apologized for the trouble but Ell told him, “If you feed us anymore, you wont have to look for the elephants. They’re right here.”

Safari-ed out

The next day we left Blauwbosch after a final morning game drive and drove to Addo National Elephant Park. Its odd how much Addo feels like an American national park, from the brown or beige trail signs to the folded park map handed with every ticket that has pictures of each animal with a checkbox next to it so that you can mark off the ones you’ve seen. You can drive in whatever car you bring—the roads alternate from dirt to paved but never require 4×4—or you can take a guided tour.

We opted to drive and followed a friendly driver’s directions to the Gorah Loop, where in a field, stood no less than sixty to eighty elephants. Pretty incredible. There were also many zebras, antelopes, birds and a lot of Timon and Pumbas (meerkats and warthogs, respectively). We also came within fifty feet of a Rooircat/Caracal, which looks somewhat like a bobcat. Also who could forget the infamous Dung Beetle, which we were reminded to watch out for on the road (ie don’t drive over the elephant dung, which there is lots of).

We drove for about three hours through the park and that was more than enough. There are lions on the park but as they are free-roaming, so you are unlikely to see them.

Phew. Never ask me to write about a safari ever again.

America invades the Cape

The plague has descended upon the Cape—and by plague, I mean family. Just kidding.

Mother and stepfather have arrived on the scene in South Africa, no worse for wear, safari hats in hand, panicked looks on their faces as I told them to keep their iPhones and iPads and diamond earrings out of sight, lest they attract unwanted attention from the faceless robbers and hoodlums that must surely be lurking in the shadows of Cape Town.

If I did not walk off the runway in South Africa wearing a sign that said AMERICAN in bold black letters, these two surely did. I could see looks of puzzlement and a bit of fear and anxiousness as we rode the taxi from the safe familiar confines of the airport (as a rule, airports are generally built with the intention of looking identical so as to reassure travelers that they are home) to the expanse of Cape Town, the tin-roofed lopsided shanties of the townships passing us as we drove.

Their arrival has brought an eerie sense of reality to life here in Cape Town. I have begun to think of what my perception of Cape Town and South Africa might have been like had I merely gone on a two week family vacation here. Their perceptions of the country—grounded by the information I give them—are surely warped by their short time here, by the impossibility of trying to understand a place when the majority of their time is spent focused on squeaky clean tourist attractions, high-end dining, and, of course, the real reason they came, me. It is all too easy to view a country you visit on vacation as a Disneyland, a tableaux stuck in time like an insect fossilized in amber.

After they arrived at the hotel, settled down, unpacked their bags, I decided it was time to take to them to where I live in Rosebank. My first instinct was to hail a taxi from the street. Then thinking better, I had the hotel bellhop call one for us. By this coincidental change of heart, we were introduced to Shafeik, a combination taxi driver and tour guide, who quickly endeared himself to us. Like Don Quixote had Rocinante to guide him through his epic quest, they had Shafeik to guide them through their three days in Cape Town.

From Shafeik’s comforting voice—almost British in his inflection—explaining Cape Town to them from the confines of a Mercedes SUV [Correction: Ell informed me that the car was actually a Toyota SUV. My bad, they look similar from the side], I saw a parallel vision of Cape Town. It was the vision I ignored—of cable cars to Table Mountain, of wine-tastings in Constantia or Stellenbosch, of seafood dinners at Moulle Point or the V&A Waterfront.

It is a wonderful vision of Cape Town—the one I’m sure the South African government hoped to perpetuate in the wake of the World Cup. I’d say that their version of Cape Town is one seen through rose-colored glasses. That may be true, but is mine any different?

[side note: I’m writing this as we travel on the Garden Route (the second time for me). We’ll be going on safari for two days this weekend. When I get back next week, expect full reports on that and last week’s trip to Namibia. Lots more to come. Stick around]

The kids are all right

I was looking over the crumpled piece of paper our orientation leaders from Interstudy handed me back in January. The sheet contains a series of rules, regulations and advice to follow to ensure that we have a safe and fun time living in South Africa. One of these regulations that I supposedly agreed to when I signed that paper was an agreement to not take part in political marches, rallys or other forms of activism.

Now, my friends know I’m somewhat of squelcher when its comes to bets and contracts. As such, its probably not a huge surprise that when Miriam told me about the Concert and March for Quality Education on Human Rights Day (March 21st), it did not take much convincing to get me to go.

The march was a testament to the poor economic conditions that still pervade South Africa. The divide between the haves and haves-nots is never more apparent than in what type of education is available to its citizens.

To speak about public education in South Africa and America, one has to speak about the socio-economics of the area. They determine the quality of education almost completely.

According to Equal Education, in 2009, all Grade 6 students in the Western Cape of South Africa took standardized mathematics tests. Students in the Model C Schools (former all-white schools, now integrated) achieved a pass-rate of 60.2%. Only 2.1% of students in the African township schools passed the test.

If one has any doubts, think of the qualitative difference between suburban public schools —those in areas like Westchester, Rockland or suburban Massachusetts—versus the inner city public schools. Think of the difference between the charter schools and the specialized technical high schools. They all provide vastly different qualities of education.

The majority of schools in South Africa do not have stocked libraries and stocked computer labs. Many lack working electricity. Only one in four children finish school. South Africa ranks 9th out of 14 in literacy among sub-Saharan African countries.

This all begs the question: how can one affect change? The answer: mobilize the youth. Every revolution—and I’m using this term to describe decisive social or political change—requires the youth to rise up and demand change.

This was aim of the march. Equal Education, the organization that headed the event, drew students to the event with an always effective strategy—entertainment and free transportation on a school holiday.

The March began with an outdoor concert where the South African band Freshlyground called those in attendance to demand what they deserve: quality education, between popular songs such as “Waka waka (This Time for Africa)” and “Nomvula (After the Rain).”

Can you imagine this scene in America? 20,000 children shouting for quality education in the middle of Times Square, holding signs demanding textbooks, computers and internet access.

There were few adults in the crowd. In the sweltering heat, children between six and sixteen stood in their school uniforms, sweaters and khaki pants, ties and button down shirts.

The children are smart and self aware. One sign read, “The only way we can change our situation is if we change our education.” Another read, “We got seats reserved for us in the best colleges but not access to a quality education,” referring to the inability of affirmative action to help the South African situation.

The children shouted and ran to Parliament, their signs bobbing over their heads like cardboard Whack-A-Moles. They marched on the streets and on the highways—taxis sped through the throng like it was any other day at work in Cape Town.

Who knows how much difference it made. We were assured by volunteers that the event was being covered by numerous news outlets in Cape Town and South Africa. The South African media has proven it self unreliable however in covering dissent.

If Cape Townians did not see the march on their televisions or the newspapers, they surely heard it as the kids shouted and chanted in front of Parliament and towards the train station.

 

Long overdue video uploads

In case you didn’t know, internet is expensive here. I’m talking pay-per-megabyte and it isn’t cheap. So the other day, I sat in the campus center of UCT all afternoon siphoning off all the free internet I could muster so that I could bring you some long overdue videos from the Interstudy weekend excursion to the Touwsriver school and Aquila Game Reserve and some newer ones from the Education Equality March on Monday (which I’ll have a post up about tomorrow). I’m going to be in Namibia for a week starting saturday, so expect Whiteboy to be MIA for a little while. Hope all this stuff can help you last the week.

P.S. Family member #1 is currently en route to Cape Town. Let’s hope Corey’s five-hour layover in Jo’burg isn’t too much culture shock.

Without further ado, a few of my favorites from the upload:

 

A toothless resident of Touws River leads a Bob Marley sing-a-long until all the children decide they would rather turn the two blow-up pools into a slip n’ slide.

 

Zoe questions the German Safari guide on whether or not the lions actually hunt, confirming our suspicions that not only is champagne a priceless snack on a safari, but  the Aquila Game Reserve is actually a zoo.

 

South African Afro-fusion band, Freshlyground, plays their famous World Cup 2010 song, Waka waka (This time for Africa), at the Education Equality March.

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