Ben’s trip to Cape Town started as you would expect. I ran to hug him as soon as I saw him outside of baggage claim, he insisted I didn’t recognize him immediately, I told him I couldn’t see as far as he could, and he blamed me for my poor vision that he was lucky enough to never have had the opportunity to inherit from our mother. Once that was out of the way, we were back in action like Mario and Luigi.
Over the next two days, I took Ben on a jam-packed tour of Cape Town using a carefully formulated itinerary that fit the most fun into the shortest amount of time. We shopped at craft markets. We frolicked in the botanical gardens. We walked around downtown. We stuffed our faces at the famous township braai, Mzolis. We hiked Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. And now for the most shocking event of them all, Ben actually watched me play in an ultimate frisbee game! It might have had something to do with my two attractive roommates also attending, but I’ll take it.
Tuesday and Wednesday of Ben’s trip were almost entirely spent driving on the beautiful Garden Route so that he could also do the world’s highest bungee jump. I was worried that doing all the touristy activities all over again would be boring for me, but it was surprisingly enjoyable experiencing everything for the second time with my brother. There are little things about Cape Town that I never would have noticed if it hadn’t been for him. He taught me that the little pink flowers that grow in the medians of the roads are not just little pink flowers, but amaryllises. He taught me that if you eat six meals a day instead of just three, you actually discover twice the number of delicious restaurants around town. (Basic calculus.) He taught me that your body has attitude that’s not just the good or bad kind when you jump off a bridge. He even taught me that I may not be as skilled as I think I am at driving on the left side of the road.
And of course 21 years has proven that our relationship is usually reciprocal. I finally had the opportunity to share my joy of traveling and exploring with my brother, and he finally understood the excitement I feel to leave a comfortable place, see new sites, and meet new people. After the success of this trip, I think it’s safe to say that the Mellman siblings have been put on the map!
Infecting the City is a Public Arts Festival presented by The Africa Centre in Cape Town. It takes place over the course of five days in the streets of Cape Town, using the most unlikely spaces for unbelievable artistic performances. I was advised by my African Studies professor to check it out, and so I went on March 9 to follow the “orange route,” which began at a concourse in the downtown train station. When I arrived, there was a full costumed ballet happening in the middle of the station. There were a considerable amount of people in the audience who were there intentionally for the festival, but the best part was watching the reactions of the regular train-goers who had no idea why there were ballerinas dancing around them while they were just trying to get home from work on a Friday afternoon. After the ballet, everyone followed a few festival workers holding big orange dots down the train concourse where we waited for a flash mob. Now I know a scheduled flashmob sounds like an oxymoron, but it actually was a surprise because the singers of the flashmob were completely mixed in with the rest of the crowd waiting for the flashmob. Anyway, it turns out that the singers were the UCT acapella group, and they did an amazing job singing over all of the broadcasted train announcements. We then followed the crowd down to a grand piano, where a pianist was playing pieces written by Cape Town classical composers. After this performance, the festival took a turn for the weird. But weird in a good way. It was seemed like the more I asked my self what the heck was going on, the more I couldn’t take my eyes off of the performance. We watched an acrobatic performance on the roof of the train station which really made me nostalgic for my circus camp days, and after that I couldn’t tell you what play I watched for a half an hour but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in English.
“Public art has always been part of who we are on this continent and in this country. The interconnectedness of the African “us” has often been impeded however, throwing people apart and far away from each other, creating a physical and psychic separation. Infecting the City is a small attempt at igniting this interconnectedness through artistic expression, making public space public.”—The Africa Centre
The weekend of February 24-26, we had homestays in Ocean View, the “colored” community that we had visited on our first tour of Cape Town. I stayed with a Muslim family that had two adorable young daughters, and we spent the weekend hanging out, coloring, watching movies, and singing karaoke for what must have been a record breaking number of hours. Beyond the interesting conversations and culture shock from both ends, I think the most valuable part of my homestay was simply being with a family for a weekend. I spent most of my time not just with my immediate host family, but their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, too. The last day of our stay was also my birthday, and so my host-aunt baked me beautiful cupcakes in the shape of a 21!
On Sunday, our house took a trip to Robben Island, the famous prison that held political activists, such as Nelson Mandela, during the apartheid. After taking a ferry to the island, we explored the jail under the guidance of a former prisoner. He described to us the environment of the Robben Island prison, which seemed unique because it housed only political prisoners rather than criminal offenders. The leaders of the anti-apartheid movement were kept in secluded cells so that they wouldn’t be able to pass on information to the other prisoners, but our guide emphasized that there was a general spirit of brotherhood in the prison, especially in prisoner education. He described the meal portions that were allocated by race, the mail that was cut up and censored, and the protests that the prisoners would organize to end this type of discrimination at Robben Island. It was a unique experience to have a guide who was a former prisoner, however we didn’t really get any personal memories about his experience as a political activist or as a political prisoner. This idea didn’t strike me at first, however after reading an article about post-apartheid memory for my African studies class, the notion of a former prisoner “on display” and sharing his story multiple times a day seemed a bit problematic. The goal of the museum is to convey an authentic memory, however there seems to be a formulated, tourist-oriented, public narrative that masks some of the reality of the prisoners’ experience. Here is a passage of the article that outlines the potential conflict between personal experience and national memory at Robben Island:
“The major question I ask here can be phrased as follows: Between the hegemony of the narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle and the role of Robben Island in it, on the one hand, and the discursive economy of the heritage industry and global tourism on the other, is there a space for the truly personal lives and subjectivities of the ex-prisoner tour guides to emerge in their narratives and memories of their time on the island? In short, can personal, private memories be produced and narrated against the grain of the public, collective memory in this instance?”
(Harry Garuba, Museums, Mimesis, and the Narratives of the Tour Guides of Robben Island)
There’s something about studying abroad that makes you feel a bit like Superman. Whether it’s learning a new sport, a new language, or a new skill, there is something about this experience on another continent that makes you feel like you can do anything. And if you think you can’t, then your friends will peer pressure you enough to make you try anyway. My guess is that it has to do with the idea we all had freshman year of college- that we’re all given a clean slate because nobody knew us in high school, or in this case, in college. I’ve had several Superman moments already in Cape Town. I did the highest bungee jump in the world. I sand-boarded. I’m taking an African Studies graduate course without having taken an African Studies undergraduate course. I’m learning to play pool. I’m learning to cook with more spices than salt and pepper. Now this isn’t to say that I’ve been hugely successful at any of these things, but the beauty of being in a group of strangers in a strange country is that we’re all challenging ourselves personally with the support of a group who may or may not know that we’re worried or nervous or frankly, scared shitless.
My most notable (failure of a) Superman moment probably has to be my attempt at surfing. Little did I know before coming here, Cape Town beaches are famous for their waves- or rather their “swells.” So on Thursday when I didn’t have any lectures, I went to the beach for my first surfing lesson with my roommates Esther and Kelsey. None of us had surfed before, so we shared a beginner lesson with Alfie, an amateur surfer barely over five feet with bleached dreadlocks and a face full of sunscreen that he neglected to rub in. I knew I was in for a challenge from the moment I was handed a wetsuit. It was like squeezing into skinny jeans and a turtle neck that were five sizes too small. Carrying our surfboards to the beach was another struggle, because it was windy and we were given the longest boards possible to give us the best chance at getting up on a wave.
Then came the moment where I was transported into the scene between Jason Segel and Paul Rudd in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” We learned how to properly stand up on the board, and after repeating it only once, we dove right into the ocean. Alfie pushed us onto waves, and we tried again and again to get up on our boards. He offered us that goodhearted but frustrating advice like “Just let go!” or “Don’t worry, you’ll balance!” I tried channeling my inner Superman, and just when I felt like I was going to finally stand up, I got stung by a jellyfish. Twice. And the only thing worse than getting stung twice by a jellyfish is having a surfing instructor who is more scared of jellyfish than you are. The jellyfish stayed wrapped around my foot until Alfie stopped jumping around and finally rolled his wetsuit down over his hands to get the thing off of me. All in all, it was a memorable day, but surfing just might be my kryptonite.
This post is for everyone out there who thinks I’m in South Africa for five months just to bungee jump and sand board and go on safari. Contrary to everything I’ve blogged thus far, I actually go to school here. I take real classes (granted, only three), I have a real UCT student ID card, and I even purchased books this weekend. So maybe I only had class on Monday and Tuesday of this week, but I thought I would share my schedule so we can all breathe easy knowing that I’m actually studying abroad.
ELL3005F MODERNISM: THE CITY AND ITS STRANGERS
Seminar: Faulkner and Hemingway
ELL2007F AFRICAN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE STUDIES
Seminar: On Censorship and South African Literature
We left the festival on Sunday and traveled the rest of the way to Mossel Bay, where we stayed in the Santos Express Lodge, an old train that was converted into a hostel. All 15 of us stayed on bunk beds in train car 7, and therefore referred to ourselves as Bunk 7 for the rest of the trip. We didn’t do much in Mossel Bay that night because being the alternative study abroad students that we are, we decided to drive all the way out to Port Elizabeth the next day and do the Garden Route in reverse. The itinerary was as follows:
Monday: Night in Port Elizabeth
Tuesday: Beach Day at Jeffrey’s Bay
Wednesday: Bungee Jumping in Storms River and Night in Knysna
Thursday: Caving in Oudtshoorn
Friday: Game Drive at Botlierskop
Saturday: Sandboarding in Mossel Bay
Note: In South Africa, “hectic” is a word used to describe a situation that is wild, extreme, exciting, and enjoyable
Friday marked the end of our UCT orientation, and the beginning of our week-long holiday before classes began. Although we had just settled in, we were encouraged to use this time to travel on the Garden Route, a scenic drive along the Southern coast of South Africa that runs from Mossel Bay to Port Elizabeth. We had a group of 15 students who wanted to make this trip, and so that Friday afternoon we managed to rent two cars and book hostels for each stop along the Garden Route.
Coincidentally on the same day we were planning the trip, I happened to find out about a music festival taking place in Swellendam, a small town between Cape Town and Mossel Bay, and so we decided to make that our first stop on Saturday. We bought tents, burned CDs, packed up the cars, and hit the road- five in the Nissan Micra, and ten in the Toyota Quantum. (If you don’t know what these cars look like, I would advise doing a google search to get the full effect.) Luckily, our drivers adjusted to the manual cars and stayed on the left side of the road, and we made it to Swellendam in about 2.5 hours.
After navigating off the highway down several unnamed and unpaved roads, we came upon a field of tents, and arrived at Up The Creek music festival. The setup of the festival was far from any concert I had ever been to before. During the day, everyone was at the river, floating on inner tubes and pool toys, and listening to music at the riverfront stage. At night, everyone made their way to the main stage, where there was a grassy field for dancing and eating and drinking. The festival was small and intimate, but every act was entertaining and covered a wide range of musical styles. Rather than trying to describe each band, I’ll leave you with some audio clips of my personal favorites!
Sunday was our orientation to Cape Town with all the international students at the University of Cape Town. It was an exhausting but unbelievable tour, just a short glimpse into the extensive landscapes and unique cultures of this city. We started out by driving through Bo-Kaap, a neighborhood made up of rows of colorful houses and buildings. We learned that this area was settled by freed slaves who did not know how to read, and so rather than labeling each house or store with a sign, they labeled each one by job or trade with a different paint color.
After stopping at Maidens Cove, the first of many gorgeous beaches of the day, we visited Boulders beach, where the penguins live! I’ll have to let the photos speak for themselves for this spot as well as our trips later in the afternoon to Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. To get to Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope we had to enter Table Mountain National Park, where we passed many warning signs for wild baboons that I unfortunately never got to meet. We hiked up to Cape Point and then back down to Cape of Good Hope, which is the most southwestern tip of all of Africa. (I’m still not sure what that really means.) Just when I thought Table Mountain was the most amazing sight in Cape Town, I was blown away by this landscape that lay behind it. Each spot was incredible in its own way, and with every step you could appreciate the scenery from a different angle.
In between the hikes, we visited Ocean View, a “colored” community in Cape Town. Ocean View was established in 1967, after a proclamation that forcibly removed all non-whites from the neighboring Simon’s Town. The “colored” community of South Africa is a minority group of mixed descent, with ancestors coming from Europe, India, and Africa. The brief history that I learned sounded similar to the Creole people of New Orleans. In this particular community, people came from diverse backgrounds but were forced to forge a common culture because they were removed from their homes and placed all together. Ocean View residents primarily speak Afrikaans, and as we found out from our time there, many are extremely talented in the arts. We saw wildly entertaining performances from singers, break dancers, ballroom dancers, and very unique crews of theatrical dancers.
Saturday was the day we had all been waiting for, when we could finally settle into our houses for the semester. I was assigned to the Penrose house, which in my completely objective opinion is the best house you can get on this program. It’s a huge Victorian close to campus with a church on one side and a grocery store on the other. I live with 19 other people including my roommate Esther from Belgium, and my RA named Shalom from Kenya.
HOWZIT! It’s been four days into the program, and this is the first time I’ve had a chance to get on my computer, which says a lot about how busy they’ve been keeping us during this orientation week. I arrived on Tuesday, flying on South African Air from DC to Senegal to Johannesburg and finally to Cape Town which took about 20 hours in total. The most significant part of the trip over had to be the enormous victory of my bags not being overweight! For that I would like to thank my cousin Renee who made me leave behind half of everything I wanted to take, and my friend Kerry even more for letting me put some of it back in.
When we arrived in Cape Town, we were greeted by all of our RA’s for the program, who were singing and dancing at baggage claim and made us feel immediately welcome and comfortable. For the first few nights, we stayed in the dorms at University of Cape Town where all 200 of the program participants could be together for the orientation lectures. On the first full day, we got to walk around Cape Town in our orientation groups, and get a sense of the popular areas to hang out and the sometimes frightening public transportation the locals use to get to these areas.
Every place we went to was beautiful. Every view in Cape Town seems to be defined by Table Mountain, as if there is a postcard hanging behind every building. You can see it from the dorms, from the waterfront, and from everywhere we walked downtown. That evening we took the cable car up Table Mountain to see the whole city at sunset, but not before our bus stalled out and started slowly rolling backwards down the road to the mountain. It reminded me of when our van would lose traction on the icy hills in Vermont, except that there were no snowbanks to break our fall. All was well in the end, as we jumped off the bus and did a little bit more hiking than expected but finally made it to the cable cars. The view from the top was incredible, and we got to enjoy the lights of the city at night on our way down.
The next day we had a scavenger hunt around the UCT campus, which turned out to be just as beautiful as the rest of the city, although we didn’t have much time to take it all in because our team was determined to win the first place prize of a fancy dinner. As it turned out, we got fifth place, but my teammates complained enough that the RA’s awarded us the “Adversity Prize” and gave us those annoying blow horns that caused everyone to mute their TVs during the latest World Cup in South Africa. We finished our day with a traditional South African barbeque called a “braai” and then checked out the bar scene on the famous Long Street in downtown Cape Town.1/