Adolescents, Imperialists, and Penguins

It has been a bit since I wrote. I have not succumbed to ebola (turns out they don't have it here in South Africa...) nor have I fallen off the wagon, left the reservation, given up the goat, or any other idiomatic downfall for this intrepid student.

I am working on a write-up for this site about the madness that is the registration process at UCT. That will hopefully come up soon.

I am registered for classes, have attended week one, and am wrapping up a relatively quiet yet eventful weekend after the official start of the semester.

The week was a bit rough to start with. Students at this university (varsity, as they abbreviate here, somewhat less than the Australian "unie") are in an intensive three-year course of study. In smaller departments, such as molecular biology, they are most likely in small groups that take all their classes together. This creates cliques that are very difficult to navigate. I am someone who just naturally feels like an outsider. I have always been a bit of a weirdo. I am older than most of these students, in some cases double their ages. I am an American. Couple that with cliquish and generally clueless young people (I was not too aware of other people at that age, myself), and it was a lonely start to my time at UCT.

The campus is also a very compact unit. While it is beautfiul, it is also very crowded now. Imagine a small European mountain town, where everything is paved or cobbled, and the alleys are stairs going up to the next terraced level of buildings. Now flood it with more than 20000 students. Traffic flow of large groups of youths was not carefully considered. On top of that, there are numerous promotional events going on during the first week of the semester (thanks Coke and Mountain Dew...) that further constricted the movement across campus. While the food options on campus are pretty meager (and incredibly chaotic when the sea of humanity wants food), I have found a pleasant place to escape and enjoy a sit on a non-paved surface. Just off the north end of the campus, there is a small reservoir with an amazing view.

According to the security guards, I just need to be cautious about sitting too close to any of the taller grass, as cape cobras and "rattlesnakes" might be around. The group with whom I take my weekly walk in Kirstenbosch gardens laughed. For starters, there are no rattlesnakes here. Secondly, most snakes would not actively seek out someone sitting on the lawn to accost. Regardless, I am grateful for the general serenity achievable here in relation to the rest of campus.

My academic advisers at UCI helped me discover that I should not be in the structural and chemical biology course I registered for. This now means that I am taking a marine ecosystems course, an archaeology course on the early human hunter and gatherer populations of stone age Southern Africa, and an introductory intensive in Afrikaans. Some folks I have met in Cape Town get a kick out of that. They want me to share with them what I have learned. At this point, I know some personal pronouns, how to say "Ek is 'n a student aan die universiteit van Kapstaad"and a portion of the alphabet. It is sort of like when elementary Spanish students learn to say "?Es Maria en casa?" and "?Donde esta la biblioteca?" only less phrase-book useful. It is entertaining and holds the potential to be useful for something else I am doing on campus.

In the midst of my exhaustion, confusion, and loneliness I have found refuge in a student organization called Ubunye. They act as an umbrella organization for three student initiatives that offer mentorship and tutoring to disadvantaged high school students in the townships. They also have a debate league they started among the township students that has gone on the compete at the national level here.


Twice this last week I got to pile into a van with other TeachOut students to drive out to the Cape Flats to work with township high school students on their math and English. Due to scheduling issues, some of the schools cancelled their sessions, so I worked at a local yabonga (a community health centre). While the students were shy (many also do not have a good command of English, mostly speaking Khosa at home), I was thrilled to work with them and watch them in the course of an hour go from near-silent to laughing, solving problems, and giving me and each other hi-fives. I believe that these sessions, my Friday nature walks in the mountain above Kirstenbosch, and my time at meetings will provide the necessary soul-nourishment for my time here.

On Friday, I only ended up having one class meeting, which meant sleeping in. That was super-welcome. Then, Paarth and I decided to take the trail right above my lunch-lake to the Cecil Rhodes Memorial. We have been continually amazed at how revered the man is here in Southern Africa. While we do not learn much African history in school in the States, the general thing we do learn is that Cecil Rhodes ran the British colonies for the economic interest of the crown and was an imperialist dick who had a nation named after him (now Zimbabwe). Here, he is regarded as the great man who brought infrastructure and progress to the cape. He donated the land that the university sits on as well as numerous parks throughout the area. So, his memorial sits on the slopes of Devil's Peak just above the UCT upper campus. It is a monstrous Etruscan/Roman/Greek slab of columns, stairs, and metal lions overlooking the Cape Flats. Still, it has stellar views.

For all his great deeds, the great Rhodes looks stricken with ennui.
Had I not walked up to Upper Campus twice already that day and known that I would later be on my usual Friday nature walk, Paarth and I would have braved the ascent further up Devil's Peak. There is apparently an old fort that is pretty cool as well as undoubted awesome-er views. As it was, we were pooped and just looked up at:

Later, I met my mad pack of botanists and birders at Kirstenbosch Gardens for my favourite Friday tradition. We walked up the mountain and along a couple nature trails, where people were constantly examining different plants (the parasitic white-black ink flower, and a particularly beautiful orchid growing along one of the small waterfalls) and spotting avian life. As the sun set, we sat out on the lawn and shared a picnic.
Sunset on the wrong side of Table Mountain.
Saturday was spent catching up on sleep, reviewing my notes on marine ecosystems, studying my Afrikaans, and cooking. I caught a cab into the city to a meeting. I also discovered that my friend Michael is in the show Black Sails which is being filmed here in the Cape. I have not seen it, nor do I know anyone who has. I am interested in checking it out and hope that my friend continues to get steady work. He is hopeful, as he does not play a pirate (who have very short life-spans).

Sunday is for penguins!

Remember that my small group won the best presentation during orientation. Our reward was a tour to see the penguins. There is a small colony of African penguins who apparently decided to move in on Boulders Beach in Simon's Town.

Simon's Town is the home of the South African navy. The town was apparently home to a mischievous dog named Just Nuisance, who befriended local children and sailors and is commemorated with a statue in the village park. The penguins are protected by fences that keep them from being too accosted by humans (and vice versa... frequent signage reminds everyone that penguins bite). Still, they spill over into the surrounding areas. Had we more time and had the weather been a little warmer, we could have swam with some of them.

Ta da! When you're not a world power, you don't care if people photograph your navy base.

Monkey being a nuisance on Nuisance

It wasn't a rock. It was a rock lobster!

Splendid view across False Bay.

With Mandolyn and Paarth.

The strong wind knocked Paarth's hat into the penguins.

Penguin with a view.

Oh, what's the point?

Shimmering seas

As a bonus, we got to see more of the cape wildlife than just its Antarctic colonisers.

A large-spotted genet. So adorable. Related to the mongoose.
A hyrex (or dassie). Super adorable. Related to the elephant.
 While the boulders of the beach made it particularly enticing, the water was pretty cold and we did not have sufficient time for a dip. My housemates and I have decided that some weekend soon we will take the train out to spend a day at the beach.

The famous waves of Muizenberg beach on our drive back.
I walked to my Sunday night meeting and heard an excellent talk on the effects of alcoholism on children. Ahh, I really do live the wild life.

Tomorrow, it is back to the grind. I am not always one for living for the weekend, but circumstances may warrant a re-assessment. Despite some of the social and academic frustrations, I am grateful for the amazing opportunity I have to be here in Cape Town for these months. I look forward to more adventures. I also hope to soon have some more informative posts about the mechanics of studying at UCT for future study abroad students to reference.


Zimbabwe and Botswana (with a technicality on Zambia and Namibia)

My housemate Paarth and I are sticking to the story that we visited four countries. Sure we return to South Africa with stamps from only two nations. We individually only made brief footfall on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River with no passport check, which bypassed certain grey areas of the world's designation of that nation's risk of Yellow Fever. True, we only touched territorial waters of the nation of Namibia while cruising down the Chobe River in Botswana. Whatever, we made four!

There was a brief downtime in our orientation schedules. Prudence might have dictated that we spend the time further preparing for registration, getting to know our way around the UCT campus, and settling in here at Grotto Road. However, we felt more inclined to use the time to have a little adventure and tick off a couple of the items in our travel want-lists. So, with much hassle, we planned a quick trip (on three different budget air carriers) to Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls, one of the wonders of the natural world. The small town of Victoria Falls is almost on top of the falls, which made it easier for us than the larger yet more distal town of Livingstone, Zambia.

We managed to book into the quietest of the three backpackers in Victoria Falls. Neither of us being party animals, we wanted to steer clear of the usual hippie/frat-party vibe that often prevails in most hostels. While Victoria Falls Backpackers was an extra 1-1.5km from the falls, its remoteness turned off the drinking-til-4am types. We enjoyed the funky atmosphere, manicured grounds, and local artistry. They also had a little pond stocked with those fish that will nibble the dead skin off your feet. It was an odd sensation, more so for the ticklish Paarth. Sleeping in bare twin beds under mosquito nets took some getting used to, but Paarth, Monkey, and I managed.

They request that the first photo one takes on the grounds is with Doofus, the giraffe.

Paarth and Monkey on the swingset.

We used that first afternoon to take a stroll through town and then trespass on the grounds of a posh nearby safari lodge to watch the sunset over the Zimbabwean bush.

We had pre-booked some additional activities, to pack in as much as we could to the visit. We passed on some of the popular activities (helicopter tours, sunset river cruise, zip line...). I had figured I would try the bungie jump off the bridge spanning the gorge between Zimbabwe and Zambia, but it turns out they have a weight limit. I was over that limit. Oh well. It was a whim and by no means a long-held dream.

Paarth's first morning involved a whitewater rafting trip on the lower Zambezi River. He had a terrific time. While he was off doing that, I took a long morning stroll through a portion of the national park (the town actually sits in the middle of the park) leading to the falls. After the mild bustle of desperate Zimbabweans attempting to sell tourists their now-defunct currency and oddly uniform craft items, the quiet road through the park and along the river held a much needed serenity. Besides the possibility of spotting some game on foot, this track boasts a giant, ancient baobab tree. This one is massive and upwards of 1500 years old. I heard an elephant and spotted a crocodile down by the river's edge. Mostly, though, I encountered baboons and birds.

The appropriately named Big Tree, though difficult to capture scale.

Tranquil morning along the Zambezi.

My favourite of the baobabs.
 Ultimately, Monkey and I made it to the Victoria Falls park. It was $30 to get in, but by golly it was worth it (I ended up returning for a second visit with Paarth). There are lots of debates on the internet about whether that side or the Zambian side is better for viewing the falls. We decided on visiting the Zimbabwean side, as it was easier for us to plan for. I heard, from an Australian family staying at the backpackers, that the Zambian side is indeed amazing. Oh well.

The park stretches along the gorge opposite the falls on the Zimbabwean side. All along there are viewing spots to see the falls. They start out at one extreme end, called the Devil's Cataract. As you go along, you get progressively wetter. The sheer quantity of water dumping over the edge kicks up a mist that creates a perpetual precipitation in the immediate vicinity. While I was in dry scrub just before entering, the edge is a rainforest in the truest sense of the word. By the end of the falls, I had my rainjacket on and felt as though someone was spraying me with a hose.

Oh, right...the falls are truly stunning. Easy for me to forget the emotional response. It is an immense power and beauty.

Managed, somehow, to not ruin the camera. Yay!

Monkey and me at the edge. The right side of the picture, behind me, is the Zambian side.

Monkey waves in front of the bridge to Zambia.
That afternoon, Paarth and I got to participate in an elephant-back safari. It was a short, 45-minute affair, but we got to ride on elephants through the bush, watching impala, warthogs, and a plethora of birds. The elephants seemed well treated, and the drivers were great guides to the area through which we trekked.

We treated ourselves to a meal of vegetable curry and sadza (a thick cornmeal porridge) at a local restaurant. Then off to bed.

The next morning, we loaded into a car destined for Botswana and a day-safari in Chobe National Park. The car, which could only take us to the border, was driven by a man named Innocent (the English names in Zimbabwe are fantastic: Innocent, Blessing, Trust, Marvel...) who gave us a talk on the state of affairs in Zim. Once the breadbasket of the African continent, under the extended rule of Mugabe, the nation has languored. The economy collapsed some years ago, and following massive inflation (the men trying to sell us the ten billion Zimbabwean Dollar note should give a bit of a clue), the nation scrapped its currency and adopted the US Dollar. This has been difficult on the mostly unemployed populace of the country. While it still has a decent infrastructure, Zimbabwe struggles with its political isolation and economic stagnation. It is a real shame. The country is a beautiful place with 15% of its land dedicated to national parks and some of the friendliest people I have ever come across.

Anyways, on to the nature. Following the matters of border crossing (exit stamp on the Zimbabwean visa, entry stamp to Botswana, vehicle trades across fences), we drove to Chobe National Park.

The first half of the day was spent on the Chobe River, in a small boat (in addition to Paarth and me, there was our guide, a couple from England, and an Australian couple from Israel). We were in the region in a delightfully sunny period of the wet season. Dry seasons are usually preferred for safari, as limited water drives animals to watering holes where they can be more easily viewed.

The river divides Namibia and Botswana. It was a beautiful day of tooling down the river and watching wild life. From our ride, we watched a variety of birds, impala, monitor lizards, crocodiles, hippos, baboons, and a shit-ton of elephants. Recently, Botswana installed a moratorium on hunting elephants, resulting in a population boom. A cool byproduct of this abundance was that we could witness a lot of social behaviours. It became almost boring to see elephants. Their interactions with each other then stood out.

The Chobe River


Lillies on the water

Fish eagle



Lesser stork


Elephants in the distance

Grazing hippos with bird attendants looking for some bugs kicked up by the disturbance

Crocodile presences on the river

We got to watch this one elephant swimming across the river.

After lunch, we loaded into a jeep and then took a game drive through the park. In addition to what we had already seen, our group spotted buffalo, sable antelope, puku, warthog, giraffe, and zebra. Of course, my camera battery died part way through this day trip. Still, I got some decent shots.

Super cute baby hippo
So cute, even though it is grazing on elephant dung.

Our return included some small shopping at the open air craft mart. They are aggressive salesmen. I kept trying to find individual items (in the midst of the items that every single craftsman in the area appears to produce). Some small stone sculptures caught my eye. The key in Zimbabwe is that everything is negotiable. They are willing to barter for more than just money. I actually obtained one piece in exchange for one of my earrings. Another piece was procured for some AAA batteries. One man was after my belt, but backed off when I explained that my pants would literally fall off me in such a deal. They were peculiarly interested in pens, and one man tried to barter for Monkey (no deal).

Our following day was our last day. We woke up early so that Paarth could do the same walk through the park that I did on the first day. It was another amazing day of Victoria Falls.

Big Tree, this time with Paarth for scale.

Morning light on the Zambezi

Vervet monkey on the fence

Despite what was said about midday viewing producing the best rainbows, I have to disagree in the face of our morning experience.

Debra at Shockwave tours took a liking to Monkey as well.
We returned to the backpackers to shower and change. We had a few hours to kill and mostly hung around town before it was time for our transfer back to the airport.

When I lived in Guam, there was this expression "OOG" which stood for "Only On Guam." It was always a flippant comment made to humour oneself in the face of frustration due to the lackadaisical and often bemusing state of customer service, efficiency, bureaucracy, etc. on the island. Paarth and I wondered if there was some similar expression in common usage here. While most everyone is lovely, Africa time is a very real thing and customer service is not always efficient or warm. If there is not, we propose "Ahhhh, Africa!" in response to the slow and often frustrating state of affairs in whatever petty inconvenience we westerners find ourselves.

For example, the check-in for our flight out of Zimbabwe was driving many of the other passengers mad. The woman who finally opened the check-in counter after a large line had formed slowly and sullenly took care of producing boarding passes. The fun part...it is the first time in my life I have received a hand-written boarding pass.

Ahhh, Africa!
We returned home late. The next day consisted of the delights of course registration at UCT. More on that later.