Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The End of Africa

(The end of Africa. Indian Ocean on the right, Atlantic on the left.)

Cape Town, the end of the journey. I'm here. Forgive me if I get a bit nostalgic.
I retired from my illustrious career in aid work on January 1 with the goal of traveling until I either reached Cape Town or ran out of money. On Monday, April 19th I pulled into the city limits of the southernmost city of note on the continent. Three and a half months, nine sovereign nations and roughly 11 thousand kilometers over the road. I spent most of this time not really thinking about the bigger picture of where I'm going or doing any significant planning. The map in head rarely extended much past the next town, and decisions were pretty exclusively made on a day to day basis.

(Cape Town and Table Mountain as seen from the V&A waterfront.)

The one constant, however detached, has been the symbolic destination of Cape Town. It's been my Mecca and I haven't turned away from it many times since I left Uganda. Having made it, I've kind of been at a loss with what to do. I guess I'm done now, whether I really want to be or not. I suppose I could just turn around and go back up to Namibia- like Forrest Gump when he walks across the country, reaches the Pacific and just turns around for the Atlantic because he doesn't know what else to do. As much as I try to live a life in emulation of mentally retarded shrimp boat captains, it just doesn't seem like the right move this time.

So having reached the end of the road and finding that I don't really have much else to do, I booked a ticket back home. So that's it, I set a date and the clock on my life has resumed ticking. Everyone asks me if I'm sad to be leaving and the funny thing is that honestly I'm not. As distasteful as the idea of getting a real job and reentering productive society is, I'm not really scared of it anymore. It's time to be an adult and do adult things.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to take a year plus off and take a good look at what kind of life I want to live and what I'm willing to do in order to get it.

(The Cape of Good Hope, so called southernmost point in Africa)

I stepped off a plane over a year ago with my brother in a very third world country in Africa with little more than a couple phone numbers and an expense account. No lifeline, safety catch or do-overs, we had to either build a life and company or fail. It was trial by fire in the best and scariest sense. I was homeless for a day in a town that was basically one big refugee camp not five years earlier. I learned to bargain my ass off for everything from a tomato to rent. I got hoodwinked by a no-good Rasta, and I made some amazing friends that changed my entire perspective on Africa. Just when we established some order and I thought I had things straight, everything got turned upside down.

From the sky fell a staff of volunteers who were eager, hard working, and just as clueless as me. Over the next several months all the things I thought I had figured out were tested as new sets of eyes saw every problem in a new way. I was now a manager attempting to direct a group of coworkers with a combined zero days of relevant experience (myself definitely included) in an organization with few rules, structure or vision. I also became Mr. Police Man- at least on paper- and as the only person who knew my way around had to keep a bunch of party-hungry college students alive in a region of Africa blacklisted by the US State Dept for insecurity. If that weren't hard enough, I had to do this while spending 24 hours a day living with that group of people I was supposed to be bossing around. I was not much of a manager, probably not even for a day, and I lost my grip on things pretty immediately.

Over the next few months as everything spiraled out of my control I became stressed, then depressed and finally completely disillusioned. I gave up trying to control the organization that had done more or less exactly what I wanted for the entire two years of its history and allowed things to just happen. In short I stopped caring and decided to just live my life for me. I ditched out and started wandering. Completing the descent into gypsyhood I pulled up my roots and set off for whatever the world had in store for me. Hitchhiking, buses, whatever; the only constant has been the hot sun and the pack on my back. Since then my life has been one long recess: scrabbling around in the sand with dirt on my knees and chasing girls; I just substituted kickball for drinking.

A few months later it's all coming to an end, it's time for me to get back to the world. I've been thinking of taking it full circle by visiting the University of Pretoria Center for Microfinance and giving them the same silly pitch I made at Makerere University Business School over a year ago. Part of me really wants to, but I just can't seem to get my fingers to write the email. It just seems dangerously close to working, and truth be told I still just don't really care. Luckily, I'm in Cape Town and there's plenty to distract me.

(Africa. Atlantic on the left, Indian on the right.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Oh Cape Town

It's all but obligatory to rant and rave about Cape Town. It's one of those cities that everyone who visits loves. It's beautiful, laid-back, warm (so I've been told, I'm freezing) and definitely happening. The clich├ęs come pretty fast around here, the biggest being "it's not Africa, it's Cape Town." I hate to buy into it, but it's the truth. Cape Town is a world apart from Africa, even more so than the rest of SA is. It's full of beautiful architecture and parks, classy bars and restaurants and tourists galore.

( The Company's Gardens, basically the Central Park of Cape Town. The white building is the National Art Galleries.)

In short, Cape Town is great, with a surprising amount of things to do in close proximity of such a big city.

(More Company's Gardens, museum of natural history in the background)

The other day I took the opportunity for a visit to the cape of Good Hope and it's resident penguins. Visiting the penguins is pretty much exactly what you would expect, but for some reason infinitely better and lamer than that. More than a couple times I've heard a girl squeal when they hear about the penguins: "They're so cute in their little suit and tie!" "Have you ever seen March of the Penguins, they're so cuuute!" and of course, "Did you know that they mate for life? They're like little people; so cuuute!" A stationary penguin, I'm sorry to say, is not a great draw. A penguin sitting on the beach is basically just a black and white duck, all dressed up with nowhere to go. After a few minutes I was about ready to mark off the penguins as "just another bird" like the ostriches and go away disillusioned and sad when a group of penguins got up and walked to the beach. That changed everything.

(Three Little Birds)

A walking penguin is awesome, I don't know why it just is. Trundling around like a baby in a suitcoat, wonking their flippers around and everything. I didn't squeal or anything, but I can't say there wasn't a little voice in my head saying "aww." In short, penguins rock. If you get the chance to see them and they aren't doing anything, throw a stone or a fish or something at them so they get up and walk around.

(Quack quack)

Also on the peninsula is the Cape of Good Hope, incorrectly billed as the Southernmost tip of the African continent and the spot where the icy waters of the Atlantic coming straight up from Antarctica mixes with the bathwater warm Indian Ocean which followed me down from Kenya. Actually the southernmost tip is several hours east, but "the most southwesterly point in Africa" just sounds desperate. I hiked around on the point for a few hours and checked out the lighthouse, all in all a great time. We decided to have a little picnic and strayed off onto a side road to find a nice spot, little knowing we were about to be accosted by a pack of ferocious wild ostriches roaming around looking for a fight. Although I ain't afraid of no damn buzzard and would fight one of those buggers in a second, my companions weren't so brave and we took off. All for the best since I have heard told that ostriches will attack anything that glitters and my shine blocks out the sun.

I also climbed Table Mountain of course, it was a great hike with beautiful views of the city and ocean. A few museums and a nice park, pretty much it was like being home. I'm glad I did this trip in this order and not the other way around, I think I'm pretty much readjusted to the developed world now.

(The Bay as seen from Table Mountain. Note the World Cup stadium on the top left)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Just call me Feather Baron

I seem to constantly flip flop back and forth between whether I want to on the beach or in the mountains. Honestly it's probably the enduring struggle of my life right now, which is a crystal clear indication of just how lucky I am. It's a clear cut case of the grass is greener: the beach is too easy and homogeneously beachy, everywhere else things just seem to go awry. After leaving the Drakensburgs after a great and very fun- if slightly ill fated- hike, we decided to stick to the beach for awhile and tour along the Wild Coast and Garden Route. The garden route and Wild coast are classic tourist brochure material, as the names would indicate. Perfect beaches, beautiful indigenous forests, amazing flora and fauna resulting from unique ecosystems created by the meeting of the icy Atlantic and balmy Indian oceans. On the beach is world class surfing, just back from the beach world class hiking. It is as great a travel destination for all ages as you're likely to find anywhere.

After a few days though, it was just boring. I have spent the better part of three months on the beach, virtually all of them much warmer than these. The beach is great, but a beach without blasting sun and warm water just doesn't do much for me these days. I'm used to swimming in bathwater-warm ocean and spending 48 hours at a time in no more than shorts and flips, so anything less just isn't quite it. We decided to venture once again into Africa, and take the old highway through the Little Karoo desert rather than the old coastal highway the rest of the way to Cape Town (I would never disgrace myself to take the new unscenic highway).

First stop of real note was Oudtshoorn, ostrich capital of the world. The story on this little town is an odd one. In the 1930's or so when ostrich feathers were the fashion, Oudtshoorn capitalized. South Africa became the world's biggest exporter of ostrich feathers, with Oudshoorn in the center of the action. Peppered around town are numerous serious mansions and estates of the former "feather barons." Then, predictably, the bubble burst and a town on the fringes of some serious desert was left with like a 2:1 ratio of ostriches to people and not much else for opportunities. The town rebooked itself as a tourist destination, with big birds at the center of the action. Touch an ostrich, kiss an ostrich, ride an ostrich. Fun for the whole family! But, as my friend Tomas put it, "an ostrich is really just a big bird. I'm not going to pay 60 rands just to see a big bird." So instead we checked out the Cango caves. The caves were just some pretty big caves, with some Khoisan bushman artifacts thrown into the bargain. As we are quite adventurous, we chose the "adventure route" so we had to squeeze into some tiiiight little spaces. There's not a lot to say about the cave tour. It was fun and interesting, but it was kind of exactly what you'd expect.

After Oudshoorn we took route 62, the old highway through the desert and mountains. Again, cool and gorgeous scenery but nothing particularly exciting. We arrived in Stellenbosh, wine capital of Africa, ready to do some tasting and class the joint up a little.

Monday, April 19, 2010


South Africa never ceases to surprise me with random reminders that I'm in a different world than I started in. Not to be a broken record, but South Africa really is not your grandfather's Africa of bumpy buses and mzungu mzungu. Yesterday I was driving down the silky smooth highway at the speed limit of like 90 mph, in itself a pretty huge contrast to East Africa. Then cars started whooshing by one after another. I took a closer look at what kind of machine could possibly be that much faster than the wicked matchbox car we had rented: 16 Ferraris, one after the other. I guess they were going for a little Sunday morning cruise session. Don't you fellas know that if you rounded a corner and found a herd of goats in the road at those speeds, eh!

To continue with the theme of where the hell am I: On Saturday, seeing as I was in Stellenbosh, the wine heartland of Africa, I went on a bicycle wine tour with a couple friends. It was a nice day (which around here means a nice cloud cover and not deadly sunny) so we ate our delicious porridge, rented some bikes and set out for a sophisticated jaunt in the countryside. South Africa wine country is ridiculous, it's like a shopping mall of wineries packed one after the other. Turn down a country lane and you'll find easily 3 or 4 beautiful wineries, all eager to pour alchol down your face no matter how wobbly your bike is. South African wine is also pretty cheap, though not Africa cheap. It depends on where and when, but it seems to be about $3-4 for a series of generous tastings and $10-15 for a pretty good bottle of wine. Not bad. Aside from one small skinned elbow obtained under semi-mysterious circumstances, adequate dignity was maintained and we had a blast. Unfortunately I scuffed my top hat, but hey, TIA.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Man vs Mountain (who do you think will win?)

The journey continues, the clock ticks on. I woke up yesterday and realized that I only have two or three weeks left in Africa. After being here for so long and having no real timetable for most of the time, the return of a sense of time is not altogether welcome addition to my life. This is the first time in which time has had a significant effect on my life in quite some time. I've developed a disdain for doing anything that could be considered racing against the clock, anytime I hear anyone say the words "hurry" or "schedule" I kind of go glassy eyed. But on the other hand I have finally stopped wasting time. Not having anything to do other than exactly what I want to when I want to, I have no need for "killing time". I'm doing my best to live every moment, and since there's no one but me to judge me for the ways in which I choose to do it, I spend virtually every moment doing what I want. I have finally gotten over the idea of doing what I think I ought to be doing and instead just dong what makes me happy- namely hammocks and gummy worms. In other words, not having a job is nice.

The last week or so has been pretty whirlwind actually, fit in around my busy schedule of wall staring. I rented a car with a couple Danes I met in Mozambique, and it has opened up possibilities like only having a car can. After Durban we went to Saint Lucia National park for Easter weekend. It was advertised as a place where you'll bump into hippos on the street at night if you aren't careful, so it seemed like a pretty kickass place for an Easter-egg hunt. Alas we saw no hippos up close, though we saw plenty out in the river. It was in any event an incredibly beautiful place with great beaches and great hikes. The hiking in South Africa is a reality check, it makes you reassess just how rugged you want to be. It would be similar to hiking elsewhere- beautiful scenery, solitude, hills big and small- except that there are also big scary animals roaming the parks. Before setting off I would have said that this makes it way better because you have the possibility of seeing leopards and elephants around every corner. But, as anyone could have predicted, big animals are scary. As soon as we stumbled upon our first beast, a ferocious wildebeest to be exact, we were so terrified that we turned back. I'd like to say I would have continued on if the girl in the group didn't chicken out, but truth be told I only had probably one encounter left myself before I'd run away shrieking. Being spooked away from hiking we decided to instead chill by the river and drink a few grown-ups' sodas. It was all well and good until a crocodile came out of nowhere and damn near bit my nose off. Jesus, this Africa is no joke. So we retired to the couch where nothing could harm us. I think it was then that I protracted fleas.

After a brief tour of Shaka Zulu's stomping grounds and a canopy tour/ birdwalk on an elevated board walk 20 meters high, we set off for the Drakensburg mountains, and Lesotho.

The word on Lesotho is it is amazingly beautiful but equally impressive in its difficulty to access. Without a car, I had heard, it is not really even worth doing. We had a car, so I was ready to tackle Lesotho. Now would be a good time to mention that Lesotho is at very high altitude- I think like 15,000 feet, and therefore it is very very cold. Did I also mention that our rental car was a hummingbird with wheels? The plan was therefore to take a .8 liter engine matchbox car fully loaded with clueless people and gear designed for tropic heat into possibly snowy mountain passes. How could we possibly fail?

The entire mountain experience proved to be a pretty exhaustive exercise in failure and unpreparedness. We set off for an overnight hike in the Southern Drakensburg mountains to see the Giant's Castle. The brochure mentioned «hike-in sleeping huts ». Given that I now have a sleeping bag but no tent after the Malawi disaster, a hut sounded perfect. I had my hiking boots- a little loose in the sole area after a run in with concrete in the Dominican Republic but repaired with the assistance of my ever crafty Mother, my sleeping bag and Masai blanket and a backpack full of random food- mostly bread and peanut butter. It seemed like enough to survive a night. How hard could it be? I'm from Oregon, home of the hiking people for God's sake. I could have rethought things when they told me the huts were nothing more than a roof and four walls with boards to put your camping mattress on, seeing as I own no camping mattress. I should have rethought things when I had to sign a waiver at the gate attesting to my mountaineering prowess and possession of snow gear and emergency rations. Instead I plowed ahead. Things went great on day one. It took about 3 hours to hike 10 km up to the hut at 2500 meters elevation, beautiful views the whole way. We got up to the hut in time to eat some rations before nightfall. Then things took a turn for the should-have-known-better.

1. It was really really cold, I could just almost see my breath. Keeping in mind I've been in effing Africa for the last year, this felt like the rough equivalent of the inside of a freezer in the Arctic tundra during a blizzard. I swear I saw a polar bear rifling through my flip flops. I was quite literally wearing every piece of fabric I brought up the hill, and just barely not shivering.

2. After getting soaked in Malawi and -in hindsight- clearly not drying properly, my sleeping bag was covered in a fine layer of mildew. Nothing to do but power through it.

3. I forgot to bring both flashlights.

4. I guess I got a little overzealous in packing light and didn't think to bring a book or ipod or anything. Night fell at about 6pm and I had nothing to do but literally stare at the wall. Except it was so dark because the hut had no electricity that I couldn't even see the wall, so I just stared into nothingness for a few hours.

5. With nothing to do and freezing my matookes off, I decided to just go to sleep. I had no mattress, so that meant curling up in a ball on a wooden plank, arms sucked into my sleeves and breathing toxic mildew fumes all night. A new low for me.

6. I woke up with the sun the next morning ready to put as much distance as possible between me and my complete and utter failure at "roughing it," so I set off to hike down the hill asap. No breakfast no nothing. Things were going wonderful for about the first 200 meters, then the problems started. As it would seem, the glue used to repair my boots wasn't as waterproof as advertised. In fact, when exposed to the morning dew, and perhaps as a result of being in extreme humidity for a year, the glue all but melted. The soles of my shoes literally fell off 1% of the way into my treacherous descent. Great. I'm nothing if not just clever enough to delay the inevitable briefly, so using some rope- the only smart packing decision I made- I tied my shoes back together and continued down the mountain. In the end I made it, shambling into the campsite like some kind of Hooverville Sherpa with one shoe tied together and the other a sad little soleless moccasin.

After giving my complete submission to the mountains we decided to scrap Lesotho and head back to the beach where things are easy. And there I shall remain for awhile.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cash or card?

I am in South Africa. I have made it, more or less, to the end of my journey. I never really thought I would make it this far, not at the beginning nor in any place along the way. Certainly when I booked a ticket to Uganda I didn't think that I'd by flying home from the other side of the continent, and I had a plan for how to fly home from every country I've stopped at. It's been a long and interesting trip, and luckily it's not over yet. Next up for me is lots of hiking in the Drakensburg mountains and possibly Lesotho, depending on whether our little car can handle it.

So I'm in South Africa, obviously. At the moment in Pietermaritzburg, a medium side city in the middle of I'm not sure where. I spent a few days in Durban, a big city (4 million or something) on the coast. No qualifiers about it, I am squarely back in the developed world. No more Japanese- Tourist pictures of the tall buildings or street-scapes, it looks like any other city you've been too. Creepily so, actually. So far, South Africa is a weird approximation of home. Decomposing inner cities where all the action is and soulless suburbs where the white people hang out. The main difference is that there is a second set of poor-poor suburbs called townships (the whole Apartheid thing) that are full of black people, I imagine that is where the Africa I remember lives. But yes, I said "full of white people." This country is full to overflowing with white people: old ones, young ones, rich ones, homeless ones. It took much less time than I expected, but I'm reasonably reacclimated to the world of freeways, traffic and credit cards. I can't say I didn't go a little bit cross-eyed the first time someone asked me "cash or card."

There's not much more to it really. Durban is a lot like Portland actually, and the suburbs of the two are basically indistinguishable based on my memory of home. Now is not the time for me to make my assessment of White South Africans, though I really want to. I'm going to be slightly responsible and refrain from judging an entire nation based on one fairly backwaters region. I'll just leave it at this: 1. the uniform seems to be board shorts, crocs and cammo hats, 2. beef jerky and obesity are both incredibly popular, and 3. I read this described as the most violent and dangerous society in the world- including most current war zones. In a bizarre twist from my post last week about hanging out with locals, I've found that I have no real desire to fraternize with the locals- the white ones at least. If I wanted to spend an evening chewin terbakky and making racist jokes, Oregon holds plenty of opportunities. Probably Cape Town will prove to be entirely different. I sure hope so.

South Africa is beautiful though, very much so. It's as beautiful a country as I've been to, and unlike the other countries I've been to it has the developed infrastrure to fully enjoy it. It's not so damn hot now that I'm no longer in the tropics, are there are gorgeous beaches and mountains. I will spend the next couple days hiking way way up, there may even be some snow. When I get back, I'll post some pictures from the last week or so.