A Tale of Two Vendors

As Namibia is a country full of indescribable landscapes, it would be pointless to try to describe them. So we have lots of wonderful pictures of what we experienced, but the internet tubes in this part of Africa are not wide enough to fit them through. So for now, you’ll have to live with a few story posts and we’ll put some pictures up when we’re able.

We were walking down a street toward our hotel in Swakopmund when we passed two men leaning against a building. One of them sprang out to greet us and announced he was Victor, chatting us up with the usual “where are you from?” and “what is your name?” that usually gets us thinking “what do you want?” The scent of alcohol we caught as he approached us didn’t help our confidence at all that this was going to be a productive interaction. He proceeded to pull out of his jacket pocket a few carved palm nut keychains, the kind we’d seen in every curio shop in the country for 20-40 Namibian dollars ($2-4). Now these weren’t particularly inspiring carvings, but they were fine, and Victor discussed at length with us the carving process and how it takes him three days of work for each one. A large part of his sales pitch was how indestructible they were, as he kept violently banging them on the pavement. To his credit, they didn’t not break or even scratch. He kept handing me keychains until I had three, at which point I, mildly amused, asked how much he would want for one. He replied, “no, you take all three.” Not knowing what I would do with three carved palm nut keychains, let alone one, I insisted. But the price negotiation phase was arduous. First, he asked how old I was. At my response, he said, “ok, I am your elder, I am 39.” To us Westerners, this may seem insignificant, but in Africa a younger person is expected to respect the elder, and this was his not very subtle way of making that point. He leaned down and began to write in the sand, another technique of African negotiation. He started with a three, and I thought he would ask for his age in dollars ($4), which I probably would’ve done for the sheer story of it all. And then he added a zero, and I thought, 30 dollars, ok, even better. And then he proceeded to add a final zero and look up at me with a smile on his face. At which point I laughed. I don’t think it was the most “respectful” response I could’ve had, but I think it was the most appropriate. To my “no” he replied, “at least give me 100.” Laughing again, I proceeded to try to hand back his keychains but he backed off. Out of options, I placed them on the pavement and walked off. Victor got a little greedy.

Later on that same day, we walked down to the impromptu street market near to the beach. There were vendors there for Africa (a phrase South Africans use to mean there’s a lot of something) and we perused the many wood carvings, stones and paintings on display. We inquired about prices from a few and were shocked – people were asking 500 dollars ($50) for the same masks we saw in South Africa for 50 rand ($5) or less. Seems a lot of them had a little Victor in them. Discouraged, we went to leave when we passed by a vendor who opened up with “I saw you guys heading down the other side and was waiting for you to turn back.” Sure, a cheesy opener, but at least different than the “please support me, buy something” we’ve gotten accustomed to hearing, so we took a peek. He had a wide selection of colorful wood block like oil prints, some on white paper, some on a dirty brown fibrous paper we could place, so we asked. It so happens it was elephant dung paper. He talked at length about how he does the carvings and the prints how he was from Zimbabwe but learned this technique in Botswana. He talked about how he offered to teach art classes in the local schools but only the poorest school was interested (fortunately, some art supplies had been donated). As Swakopmund is a very “resorty” feeling town with few blacks in the center, we talked at length about the townships and darker side of the city and region. All the while, we sifted through his pictures trying to decide which we liked, and as often happens, finding it impossible to make an actual decision. After a while of this, he said “you are married right, I will give you one as a gift.” Now whether this was good salesmanship or a genuine offer may be debated, but it was quite nice of him, and we soon settled on getting three prints, negotiating a discount but refusing the free one. And we both walked away from the transaction happy.

Robben Island Experience

Some people compare Robben Island to Alcatraz, but I think that’s a very unfair comparison. Sure they’re both notorious island prisons, but the people sent to the two prisons were very different. Those sent to Alcatraz had, in most cases, committed some rather heinous crimes. Those sent to Robben Island, had, in most cases, only committed the crime of wanting an end to apartheid and equality for blacks. I expected that a visit to Robben Island would be much more similar to a visit to something like a concentration camp than a visit to Alcatraz. What I mean is not that I expected to find something physically similar to a concentration camp with its death chambers and such, but I expected the emotional punch to be somewhat the same.

Some of Africa’s most brilliant black leaders gave their best years to Robben Island. When they could have been contributing who knows what to the world, they were locked in cells so small that I am not sure Jeff could stretch out across them or crowded into large rooms like cattle, not men. They had their every word listened to and their every bit of writing censored. They spent their days toiling at a quarry, their work not for any purpose but to break them. They contracted TB from the terrible working conditions, lost eyesight to the dust, and became old before their time. It’s heartbreaking.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t come across very well on a tour to Robben Island. Instead, it does feel a bit like the tourist trip to Alcatraz. Half the trip is sent on a boat making your way the 12 km out to and then back from the island. Once on shore, you board a bus where you’re driven on a loop around the island, a guide pointing out various features that range from the animals that live on the island, to the church attended by lepers kept on the island before it became the apartheid-era prison, to the school attended by children who currently live on the island, to shipwrecks off the coast of the island, to, oh yeah, the buildings that housed political prisoners.

After the bus tour, your group is joined by a former prisoner, who leads you into one of the prison blocks. This part bears the most emotional weight as the guide tells you about his life and his experience in the prison. But then it’s look here in this cell, where you see nothing but a few bunks and lockers, and then walk quickly past Nelson Mandela’s cell, which contains a few blankets and a chair. That’s it. After that it’s back to the boat and back to Cape Town.

I don’t know what I expected. I don’t want morbidity for the sake of morbidity. I understand and appreciate that former prisoners have declared that they want Robben Island to be, not a monument to the evils inflicted by one man on another, but rather a monument to the power of the human spirit and the triumph of good. Yet, I think that could be accomplished in a much less sterile manner. I want to know about more of the men who were kept on Robben Island. I want to see photos of them. I want to know what they did (or were accused of doing) to end up there, what they did to maintain some level of sanity while held there, and what they are doing now. Who are these people, how did Robben Island shape them, and what have they gone on to do with their lives?

The Nelson Mandela Gateway, for where you board the boat to the island, is a museum containing some of this type of information, but once on the island, it’s seriously lacking. visiting the actual island felt a bit like stepping into a boxing ring, watching a serious punch fly at your face, and then feeling nothing but the wind of it missing by a few inches. It feels almost sacrilegious to say so, but if you’re in Cape Town with limited time, I’d maybe check out the Nelson Mandela Gateway but skip the actual island visit. And if you can find it, take in the recently produced documentary about soccer on Robben Island. We happened across it one day on the TV here, and we both felt like it was, sadly, much more meaningful and interesting than our prison visit.

The Otter Trail (and Otters!) at Tsitsikamma National Park

Tsitsikamma National Park is known for its famous Otter Trail, perhaps the most popular hiking trail in South Africa. It runs along the jagged coastline for 42 km along the well known Garden Coast. Climbing over boulders walking a split between a roaring surf crashing onto the rocks and 200 foot high cliffs on the other side, it is not an easy five day hike. Unfortunately for us, we did not have five days, nor did we book the trail a year in advance as is usually necessary.

Fortunately, though, there is a four hour day hike that “tastes” of the Otter Trail–the first 3 km–that anyone is allowed to enjoy.The sight that never gets tiring during the whole hike is to watch the waves crash into the rocks. The spray flies in all directions. The sound is intense, especially echoing right off the cliffs behind us. The seafoam in the tidal pools attests to the ferocity of the whole experience.

Our endpoint is a waterfall, although with the drought currently going on in South Africa (we’ve yet to see a river really “running,” they all seem to be dry or sitting still) it was more of a water drip.

And on the way back, the trail lived up to its moniker. It may seem surprising given all the incredible animals Africa has to offer, but I think I may have a new favorite. The African clawless otter. Surprising, huh? We saw one sliding around the rocks, which I was convinced was a seal until we saw the whole family. These live in both fresh and salt water … which I shockingly learned when they swam deftly out into the roaring surf.

I later learned they also have opposable thumbs that they use to catch fish, octopus, shellfish … it seems the eat just about anything they can manage. Fish they eat head first, which I think is what this guy is doing. He came up onto the rocks just 20 feet from me, gave me a look with his prize, and then was swept off by a gigantic wave. Pretty sweet animals.

My Bay

I’m nothing if not generous, and so it would stand to reason that the beach named after me, Jeffrey’s Bay, has what have often been called the “most perfect waves in the world.”

Everyone’s favorite spot is “supertubes” or “supers” if you’re in the know, and it is jam packed. The beautiful beach disguises a rocky sea floor (the reason for all the great waves … and why its not a “beginners” surf spot). We stopped for a few hours, walked along the beach and took some pictures ourselves, but didn’t dare take on the cold, rough waters ourselves. You know, since we know how to surf and all.

Elephants in Abundance

Just a bit north from the coastline of the Eastern Cape, you’ll find a game park called Addo National Elephant Park. While it boasts of the Big Seven (adding the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark, which can be found in the park’s small coastal section, to the typical Big Five), it’s named what it is named for a good reason: elephants abound. After first spotting a solitary bull male elephant casually strolling down the road and passing by our car so close that I could have reached out and touched him (or, seeing as he was absolutely enormous, I probably could have driven our car under him!), we arrived at a watering hole, where we happily found a large family group of about 20 elephants, ranging from teensy baby elephants to full-grown adults.

Having just recently read a National Geographic article about elephants and the way they interact in their groups (September 2008 edition, I believe), we were very content to just sit and observe the elephants. We watched as one elephant stood watch, as the tiniest baby elephant hid entirely underneath her mother, as multiple elephants splashed in the water, and as a couple of juveniles playfully trunk wrestled. We heard them grunt and bellow and even trumpet. It was cool.

But that was just the beginning. Apparently an elephant meeting was scheduled for the day at this watering hole, because just after noon, a parade of elephants lead out from the trees, down the hill, and to the watering hole. It was a seemingly endless parade, elephant after elephant, one behind the other, dust flying, and the grey of elephants poking out over the trees for as far as we could see. By parade’s end, probably somewhere around 50 or so more elephants had peacefully joined the approximately 20 already there. It was incredible.

We observed for nearly an hour before finally pulling ourselves away. At that point, one of the groups was beginning to depart, but plenty of elephants were still joyfully frolicking in the water.

On the rest of our drive, we spotted a few other animals, some we’d seen before (zebras, kudus, leopard tortoises, ostriches, black-backed jackals), and some that were new to us (meercats, as well as the dung beetle, which, by the way, has right of way in the park, so please don’t run over the poo!).

We also found another watering hole, where another group of elephants was cooling off. Though not as numerous as the group at the first hole, they were still fun to watch. Somehow it never gets old. Even though I have now, at this point, seen literally hundreds of elephants in the wild, I don’t tire of them. They truly are magnificent creatures.

An Insider’s Look at Life in a Township

During the era of Apartheid, blacks in South Africa were forced to move from white areas into designated black areas, which came to be known as townships. The townships were crowded and poor, and the people, many of whom had come from nice homes and stable lives, were left to live in squalid and often hopeless conditions. (Though, unfortunately, many also lived difficult lives prior to Apartheid as segregation and repression were not new ideas; simply more strictly enforced ideas.) Pass laws required blacks to carry passes designating when they could enter white areas and for how long they could stay. For these people, who could rarely find work, who were not given good education, who were forcefully kept out of society, the future—and the present—was a bleak one.

With the end of Apartheid, change came to Africa, but as with all such dramatic changes, it’s realities came slowly. Today, nearly two decades into the “new” South Africa, many blacks still live in townships. Some still live there, despite opportunities to move elsewhere, because it is now “home;” many others still live there because they, practically speaking, have no other options. For those visiting South Africa, a tour through a township is almost a must, an opportunity to see firsthand how the majority of South Africans live. Soweto, the famous township in Johannesburg where the uprisings that eventually led to the end of Apartheid began, is the most popular place for a tour.

We, while interested in visiting Soweto, were also a bit turned off by the info we’d seen on the tours, as we felt it might feel too much as if we were treating the people and their neighborhood as a sort of “zoo.” You know, a big group of probably all white people, walking around, taking photos, and gawking. But we did want a chance to see a township and to learn more about life there. As luck would have it, we literally ran into the perfect opportunity. While walking down the streets of Graaff-Reinet, a man said hello and stopped to talk to us, asking about us, telling us about himself, and discussing the politics of the day (Presidential elections in South Africa are April 22, and the president of the ANC, the party of Mandela, was just that morning cleared of charges of corruption, though it seems he was probably quite guilty.).In the course of conversation, we learned that he was the guy listed in the Lonely Planet who gave excellent tours of the Umasizake township outside Graaff-Reinet. It seemed like fate, so we set up a tour with him.

It ended up being an excellent opportunity. It was just Jeff and I with our guide, Xolile Speelman, and he treated us like friends, talking to us with complete honesty. He didn’t sugarcoat life in the townships, but he didn’t dramatize it either. He didn’t make the people into martyrs, and he didn’t make them into sinners. He talked of their challenges (both others-imposed and self-imposed) and their successes. And being a popular guy in the neighborhood, Xolile (pronounced with a clicking sound as many of the words of the Xhosa people are) introduced us to many people, quite a few of whom asked us to take their photos (so that we could send copies to Xolile and he could pass them on, as many of these people don’t really ever get an opportunity to own a photo of themselves). We met an older gentleman out with his wife, women working in their yards doing laundry and preparing food (each house has water and electricity provided by the government), and a lot of children, a bunch who hammed for us while wearing Jeff’s sunglasses.

We also were able to get a close look at some of the houses, which ranged from shanties of discarded wood, cardbood, and tin roofs, to nice brick homes.

We saw the schools, which are getting better, but are still not great due to the past inequality in training of teachers as well as distribution of resources. We visited a clinic, where free health care is available to the population, of which 14% is known to have HIV/AIDS. But as we learned that number is probably low, because most people don’t get tested, and unfortunately the disease is still highly stigmatized (more on this in a later post). We talked about international aid and development, politics and voting, corruption and crime, employment opportunities and government handouts, the ups and downs of affirmative action, and the problems of poverty. It was eye-opening, interesting, and highly educational. We left the tour feeling as if we’d gotten a true insiders look at life in an African township, and were not left at all with the feeling that we’d imposed or treated the people as a tourist attraction. So if you’re ever in the area and want to understand a bit better how a huge portion of the population lives, look up Xolile (Irhafu Tours in the Lonely Planet).

Into the Great Wide Karoo

When we were first charting our course through South Africa, we asked at our hostel in Johannesburg whether the Karoo, an arid area that composes over 40% of South Africa, was worth a visit. The response: “Only if you like a whole lot of nothing.”

Well, apparently, we love nothing, as we bucked the advice, headed into the Karoo, and then stayed longer than we planned. Though on the surface it can easily seem like vast emptiness, it’s actually not at all barren, and the seeming endlessness of it all only makes its beauty more striking. Plains stretch out, flat as can be, until a mountain jumps up from the ground. Purple wildflowers break up a sea of golden grass. The sky is big and brilliant and blue, at least until sunset when it glows every shade of red, silhouetting the mountains and making you wonder if this is what heaven looks like.

If you love a sense of wide open space, it’s a perfect place. Mountain Zebra National Park, though not highly visited and not especially packed with game, is amazing. We didn’t see wildlife as up close and personal as we did in most of the other parks, but instead we saw them framed against magnificent scenery. It wasn’t just about the animals; it was the entire scope of life in the wild in Africa.

And the Valley of Desolation, inside Cambedoo National Park, left us feeling not desolate, but awed. Huge dolomite formations, some one hundred meters high, jut from the ground, while behind them the land stretches seemingly empty until the mountains on the horizon. Both Jeff and I were reminded of Meteora in Greece. To us, there’s something majestic about a place so stark yet so beautiful.

Adding to the wonder of the whole place is the fact that amidst all this natural beauty and so-called “nothingness,” there’s also a really fabulous town, Graaf-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa. It’s quaint, with a slew of Cape Dutch homes that have made the national registry, house museums, a tasty farmer’s co-op store, and a grand church. It’s also exceptionally friendly, as people said hello on the streets and shop owners took the time to ask where we were from and tell us about themselves or about all their favorite places in the U.S. We were so smitten that what was supposed to be a two-hour morning visit turned into a two-night stay.

For us, that’s the beauty of road trips: finding the unexpected and discovering that one person’s nothing might just be someone else’s everything.

At Long Last

Now that we’re in Cape Town, its the first time we’ve been able to access the website since arriving in South Africa. Though we’ve managed internet at a few places (and hence been able to send off posts to the “invisible hand”), our website, for whatever reason, is the only thing that never is able to load. We have no explanation except that Mochahost (our webhost) hates South Africa. But apparently they are fond of Cape Town, because here we sit, looking at our website for the first time in weeks. So apologies to anyone who asked something that may be buried in the comments by now, but we’re doing the best we can.

We also noticed that many links on the website were dead. We don’t exactly know how long that’s been, but we’ve fixed that up and all the individual pages should load fine now. If you’ve never had problems with this, maybe its just another Mochahost South Africa bias that only we are dealing with. But regardless, we’ve now not only accessed the website and fixed a few glitches, but we’ve also uploaded more posts, so be sure to check back regularly for stories about all our latest adventures.

As a first order of business, we have finally been able to upload the Country Summaries and Budget Summaries for both Peru and Ecuador, so go check them out. We also updated the Where Are We Now Page, so you can see much more clearly where our roadtrip has taken us and will be taking us in the next few weeks.

The Development Dilemma as Seen in Lesotho

Surrounded completely by South Africa, Lesotho is a tiny kingdom (30,355 square km) set high in the sky. It lies above the tree line, its landscape scrubby and barren but striking and beautiful, its lowest point higher than that of any other nation. Its people, all 2.1 million of them, are hardy and hard-working.

Life in Lesotho in 2009 is very much like it was 100 years ago. The majority of people live in basic rondavels, circular houses made of a mix of cow dung and sand with thatch roofs, the one room serving as bedroom, kitchen, and living area. People work the land, boys leaving home at 12 to spend three years as shepherds, many of them turning that into a life. Electricity and running water don’t extend beyond a couple of cities. Life is hard, but at the same time simple.

Yet change is coming. Bit by bit the country is getting on the grid. Our guide, on a day trip we took up the Sani Pass into Lesotho, told us of a rondavel he has been to in which the man of the house has already fitted a light socket and fuse box and screwed in a lightbulb in anticipation of the coming of electricity. In a country that already supplies South Africa with much of its water, running water will not be far behind.

On the surface this, of course, sounds good. To us, electricity and running water are basic rights. They’re certainly not something we should deny to anyone who wants them. But if you dive deeper into the issue, it’s not so simple. Right now, most of Lesotho lives in a world where there is plenty of time, but not much money. They have the time to cook bread on a stove on the floor heated by dung that they’ve collected. They have the time to go down to the river and collect water or do their laundry.

But if they are to get electricity and water, all the time in the world will do them no good. They’ll need money. And to get money, they’ll have to find jobs that pay instead of jobs that sustain, and these paying jobs are not easy to find. They’ll also have to find transportation to and from their jobs, childcare for the babies they can’t take with them, food to eat when they can’t go home for their traditional meals…

In short, modernization isn’t easy. It’s also not the black and white issue that many of us from the developed world see it as. With every gain, there comes a loss. With positives, negatives. What will happen in Lesotho I have no idea, but I am pretty certain that if I return in 20 years, I’ll find it be a different place than that which I visited. I can only hope that Lesotho remains the enchanting place that it is now, regardless of whether rondavels come with light switches or remain solely solar powered and whether toilets are indoors or out, flush or pit, straight up or falling over.