Monday, February 16, 2009

Partying It Up In The Townships

This afternoon I found myself talking to South Africans and going up to strangers asking them to teach me how to dance. Today was a day full of music, food, and dancing. Some of our “SOLmates,” our orientation leaders, took us to the popular Mzolei’s, a restaurant in one of the townships in the Cape Flats. We arrived early afternoon where we first went to the liquor store to by drinks to go along with our feast of meat. As I was standing there, amongst the sixty other Americans, I was wondering what lay ahead of us. I did not know what to expect from this township braai (barbeque) style restaurant. I had heard from many that Mzoleis was fantastic and the food was superb. When I told my host parents that I was going into the townships for a meal their mouths opened wide in excitement. They said that I was going to have so much fun experiencing something new, telling me that the townships was a whole different atmosphere. And they were right.
After everyone purchased their drinks, the sea of white people started heading over to the area where music was bumping out of the speakers. Many other people, six packs in hand, were traveling to the same place as us. From that point, I could tell that Mzoleis was a popular destination on a Sunday afternoon where people could get together, dance, and eat before the start of a brand new week. As we walked in, heads turned, not due to our unbelievable good looks, but because there were so many white kids, standing there awkwardly. As we stood there for a couple minutes, we all started to get our bearings and started to relax and feel the rhythm of the music. We all started to scatter from one another and wondered around this tented area that was Mzoleis. Some people started to dance, but I thought it was a good idea to start bobbing my head and awkwardly move to the music. My friend did the same. Not even thirty seconds later, a black South African came up to us asking if we were ok. I was having a blast, but I guess we looked like idiots trying to dance and fit in with the crowds. But with everything we do here in South Africa, we pretty much stick out like sore thumbs. And with the moves Mary and I tried to pass off as dancing made us look even more out of place. So we replied back that we were fine, but instead of walking away from us, he engaged us in a nice, long conversation. I came to the realization throughout this exchange that South Africans do not share the same concept of personal space as Americans. I am one who enjoys my “personal bubble,” but by bubble was defiantly being popped this afternoon. He enjoyed touching my shoulder, which I did not mind. But, it was when his hand kept on brushing up against my chest, I found myself saying This Is Africa. Due to the loud music and his accent, I was only able to get bits and pieces of what he was saying. He was talking about the differences of living in South Africa in 1994 to the present day. For example, in 1994 black people and white people were not allowed to touch each other. He proceeded to touch my shoulder as an example of this forbidden contact. And he touched it again to emphasize the fact that touching a white person was a new revolution in South African society. Even though I could only hear every other word that was streaming out of his mouth, he did say some very interesting things. At the end when Mary and I were going to go our separate ways with him, he said, “We will see each other again. Mountains cannot see mountains, but people can see people.” Than I began to think, people are not bounded to the earth like mountains. We have the ability to move and discover new lands. That is the beauty about the human race. We have the ability to move, discover, and converse to other people in order to discover the beauty in the world.
Mary and I said goodbye to our new South African friend and went over to the others laughing. We recounted our conversation with laughter. We then decided to explore this venue and we walked over to the dancing area, we saw this older man with some great moves. Since Mary and I have none, we decided to ask him if he could teach some of his. When we asked, he just looked as us, took out his dentures and cross his hands to form an x and smiled. My mouth dropped in bewilderment. I had no idea what this was supposed to mean so I just kept on walking.
The promoter at Mzoleis for that day was Jack Daniels. So an hour later, we found ourselves standing in a quie (line) to get a tour of the Jack Daniels bus. In the quie, I was able to talk to many different South Africans and even a white boy from Zimbabwe about life in South Africa. This was my favorite part of the day because I made friends with people much different from me that I will be able to learn from in due time. When the group left Mzoleis, I received a nice big hug from one of the South Africans I befriended. It felt really good to know that I am able to make a connection with people of all shapes and sizes and I am glad that people feel comfortable around me just in one meeting.
So enough talking about the people, the main attraction to this day was the food. We waited about two and a half hours for the food, so everyone’s mouths were watering as the bins full of braai style chicken, sausage, and lamb were carried to our area. Eyes grew wide as the meat was placed on the ground and everyone made a dash to the bins. I was able to slink my hand through the bodies and grab a piece of chicken that was covered in sauce. I went to the side and started eating. There was no lady-like way to eat this piece of meat. I felt like such a carnivore, ripping apart the chicken hungrily as the sauce stained my cheeks and lips. We all looked at each other with satisfied grins because the food was absolutely delicious. When I was finished I threw my bones on the ground and went for my second round. This was my first experience of eating and discarding the bones like an animal. For my second round I decided to try the lamb. It was pure ‘deliciousness.’ The lamb was dripping of sauce and it was so tender that my teeth just sunk in. Eating this meat caused clear nirvana after waiting three hours to eat, I was absolutely satisfied. In the end, I ate entirely too much. I have never indulged in that much meat before in my life, but I can truly say that I was my father’s daughter today, eating an exorbitant amount of meat. When I was finished indulging, I just stood there completely content and with a huge smile on my face. I was full, happy, and tired.
After we were all finished, it was time to leave this beautiful Mzoleis. But once I stepped a foot out of the venue, it was hard to get by due to the long quie that contained eager people ready to eat and drink. We came at the perfect time because hoards of people were lining the streets in order sink their teeth into Mzolei’s meat. As we drove through the township, I could sense the neighborhood’s atmosphere. People were braaing on the streets and dancing and conversing with one another. The sun was heavy in the sky, beckoning the moon to rise, but the party in this township still was not over. People were laughing and dancing. As my head was bopping up and down in tiredness, I looked out the window, watching in amazement the joy and life in everyone’s eyes as they came together in this open atmosphere to share their last hours of their weekend together. Even though they have very little, their lives are full vivacity because of their attitudes and pride of their home. I hope to spend many more Sunday afternoons at Mzoleis, dancing and laughing while making new friends.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our New Friend

I was given Archie’s phone number as the recommended cab driver to use whenever I needed to get around the city after dark. When I received this number, I did not realize that I was gaining a friend and confidant in a fifty-something year old taxi cab driver. Archie spends his days as a paramedic and his nights as a taxi cab driver. He has experienced hardship and heartache, but welcomes each day and night with a smile and a song. The first experience we had with Archie was a magical experience because we all were singing songs that were familiar to us while the opened windows allowed for the wind to blow back our hair as the ocean smell filled our scenes. The song that danced through the speakers was ‘I Kissed A Girl’ by Katy Perry and Archie’s voice sang above the others. Even though he was incredibly off tune, he showed no care in the world as he smiled and laughed with these American strangers.
As we experienced another night with Archie, the singing stayed the same, but his easy personality allowed for an easy flow of conversation. His welcoming tone gave way to a comfortable atmosphere in this foreign town. The music was playing, but there was more conversation about life and relationships. There was sharing on both sides, but what I enjoyed learning about the most was his childhood. He was born in District 6, the integrated neighbor that was broken apart by the white government in order to turn District 6 into a white only homestead. He spoke of his life in District 6 and his life as he and his family moved out of the neighborhood before the government forced them. He told us that his father caught wind of what was to happen to their beloved neighborhood, so they moved by their own will. This foresight of District 6 was very insightful because the next day I took a day trip to the District 6 museum with a group of friends. It is a small building, situated not far from the late neighborhood. The building comprised of a map on the floor that allowed for the previous residents of District 6 to locate their old home and to stamp their mark on such a historical time during apartheid. The man who gave us a tour of the building was born in District 6 and bore the pain of watching as the swift movement of a bulldozer destroyed his house. He was a man of Indian descent; therefore he was classified as a coloured man. He spoke of the spirit of the neighborhood with such vigor as if he was still there, walking through the streets and greeting men and women of all different colors. This harmonious way of living was broken up because the white government was nervous for its own well-being. Therefore, in the 1970s, the government moved all of the coloured people to the colorued townships and all of the blacks to their respected black townships. All this time I was thinking about Archie, the coloured man I had befriended the night before and wondered if he had the same experience as this man standing before me.
On a lighter note, District 6 is in the process of being restored as the neighborhood that it was once remembered by. Our tour guide plans on moving back and the excitement in his face and the sparkle in his eyes illustrated the regained hope of this country that is working hard to dig itself out of the hole of racism and separation. But even though this beautifully diverse country is working out is societal kinks, there are still little reminders of separation. For example, for the duration of the train ride, I was in third class. Third class in for blacks because the tickets are cheaper. First class is predominantly white. When I told my host brother (I am living with a white South African family) that I rode third class, he looked at me in a quizzical manner and asked why I rode third class. I found his question incredibly interesting and this question is a clear example of the fact that there is still separation. I am not saying that my host brother is racist by any means, but since he grew up in a time where blacks, whites, and colours were separated, there are still small traces of that mind set even though it might not be perceived as such by a South African.
This country has gone through many changes in the past decade, but each day I am learning that the charm of this town is so much more than the looming mountain or the aqua beaches, but the people. It is easy to strike up a conversation with an African and they have so much to share and to ask. The people of South Africa have seen pain, separation, and violence, but they have so much hope for the future. That is the beautiful and breathtaking characteristic of this country, the hope in everyone’s heart.
News Update- I have a flip flop tan!!!!!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Amazing Ride

Today, as I was trapped and stood motionless on the train coming back from the beach, I started to laugh to myself and think This Is Africa; this is why I choose to study in Africa, to experience something so far away from my comfort bubble. During part of the train ride, I was flat up against the boy behind me and elbows were being driven into my sides, all the while I stood motionless from the many bodies holding me perfectly still as the train sped past the South African landscape. As the train stopped at each station, I witnessed people shoving their way through the non-existent space. But with persistence and elbows being thrown here and there, I watched in amazement as people wiggled their way in and out of the train. As I witnessed the technique that was needed in order to wrangle yourself from the web of limbs and sweaty bodies, I wondered to myself how I was ever go to achieve this feat that laid ahead of me. I kept a constant check of where my orientation leader was standing because most of us had no idea when we were supposed to get off. He kept on winking at me with reassurance, but all I could do was laugh. In this moment, I had finally felt like I was in Africa and allowed myself to be free of any worries that would have previously stricken me. I was in an environment where I was finally a minority and I was completely comfortable in my own skin. There was not one point during this trip that I felt uncomfortable because of my pale, porcelain complexion. Maybe I felt uncomfortable when my chest went numb because it was being used as a backrest for the person in front of me, but at no point did I feel like I was being judged by the color of my skin.

So there I was, getting hotter and hotter as more and more people began to push their way onto the train. I looked towards the door and there it was wide open as people’s limbs and part of their bodies were hanging out because of the over-crowded interior. Thapz, the orientation leader, turned me and smiled, asking, “so how does it feel to be the minority?” I stood silent for a quick moment, trying to ponder that question. Until that moment it had not occurred to me that physically I was the complete opposite then most on the train. It had not crossed my mind before because I was being treated like everyone else, being pushed and shoved in order to make the smallest free space into occupied space. As I was being shoved and uncomfortably having heads and bodies lean on my shoulders and back, my mind wondered back to my subway experiences in Beijing China. Like Cape Town, pushing and shoving was a common place, but the two experiences were completely different. In China, I was able to push my way through because most were as tall or shorter than I. They easily moved out of your way as you through in an elbow here and there. But as I was trying to find my way to the door, to freedom, the Black Africans around me were unmovable. Their legs acting as roots, planting themselves firmly to the ground, they could not be bugged. For some reason I thought a little “excuse me” would be the secret password in order to open a pathway to get through. But as to be expected, that failed terribly. I was the leader, trying to pave the way through the crowd as six other Americans behind me were waiting for me to move. Then, the men and women around me starting saying, “just push, just push.” So there I was, a little white girl, pushing my way through a crowd of very large black Africans. I finally saw the daylight and I started pushing harder and I finally broke through and made it onto the platform. I immediately started to laugh. It was such an exhilarating experience. With out delay, I turned to my friend Mary, we grabbed each other’s hands and just started smiling and saying over and over, “oh my gosh, that was crazy.” So I am happy to say that I tried something completely new and what an experience it was. But that is what study abroad is all about, going to an unknown atmosphere where the tastes and sounds are completely foreign and experiencing everything with a smile and a laugh.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

First Days in South Africa

Happy Birthday Mom!
I have finally arrived in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa. After thirty-six long hours of sleeping on planes and pacing up and down Terminal 5 at Heathrow, London airport, I can now say that South Africa will be my home for the next five months. After being here for a week, I constantly keep pinching myself in disbelief and waiting for the moment I open my eyes and I am lying in my bed back in townhouse 124 at Fairfield University. But my life is far from a dream and I am starting to learn the ins and outs of the city and the cultural importance of race in South African society. Today we traveled to a township in the Cape Flats, where shacks were spread on the South African soil as far as the eye could see. There is a railroad separating the two townships, being the solid dividing line between coloured people and black Africans. There is a distinct difference of the quality and condition of the houses. For instance, many coloured people live in two story apartment buildings with shacks acting as makeshift porches. All the while, the black Africans live in shacks that could not provide shelter to a family any better than a cardboard box. Even though apartheid is more than a decade old, the issue of the color of your skin is still an ever-present factor in South African culture. For instance, the coloured and the black Africans, who are divided by the rail line, do not cross the threshold into one another’s townships. Moreover, the color of your skin is the symbol of your culture and language. Therefore, many African Americans are commonly approached on the street being greeted in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages. My one African American friend has had this happened to her at least twice on Long Street and she politely smiles and responds with a hello. With that said, Cape Town is fair from the atmosphere that I have been exposed to for the majority of my life living in Pennsylvania and Fairfield University. Even though it is different, I enjoy learning about other people’s cultures and the interesting life stories that have helped them to define who they are and who they want to become.
I am still trying to digest the splendor and the beauty of this very diverse land. Table Mountain is a ubiquitous force in the city that watches all of the movements below in Cape Town. The University of Cape Town, where I will be studying for this semester, is located on the highest point of the mountain. The ivy-clad buildings capture the beauty of the silent, grand mountain that looms over the UCT students. Even though the upper campus, where all of the classrooms are located, is an up hill hike, I would not trade the scenery I see walking to class every day. Hopefully when I come back to the States I will have buns of steel and muscular legs, one can only hope. This coming Friday is class registration and I have now learned never to complain about Fairfield registration. I still cannot believe that I use to fret about picking classes and pushing a button online in order to be registered for the next semester. UCT registration is much more old-fashioned, well for me anyway, since I am growing up in a country and time where high speed Internet is a social normalcy. Today, I had to walk around to different department heads in order to be approved to classes and Friday I will be waiting in line in order to register by hand with the rest of the humanities students. For a person who needs to learn that patience is a virtue, a semester in South Africa will defiantly teach me the importance of slowing down and enjoying life. Coming from a society and mother who stress being punctual and being trained as a little girl to always be early so you are never late, this will be a day by day learning experience. Well, if I leave early to arrive someplace in South Africa than I will be waiting for a very long time. Nothing here starts on time and everyone is so laid back and takes their time. This will be some getting used to, but slowing down and not rushing will allow for me to take a deep breath and appreciate where I am and the sacrifices that my family have gone through in order to send me to this beautiful and diverse country.
So I am going to end here with a few final words. My skin is doing something that I have not witnessed in a while; it’s getting some color. Therefore, the South African sun is turning me less into a ghost and my hair is drying wavy. So watch out, when I come home in 5 months I will be a completely different person, maybe.