Throwing Up On Whale Sharks in the Indian Ocean

The title isn’t a lie. That did actually happen. But let me give you some back story first…

We arrived in the country of Mozambique on the night of 5 September and moved into the most gorgeous little lodges located right on the beach in Barra. Our whole trip was located in malarial zones so in addition to the medication I took (and have to continue taking for 3 more weeks), bug spray and long pants were vital at night when the bugs are most active. My bed had a beautiful mosquito net draped over it, and it was the first time in my life where I’ve actually used the canopy for a purpose other than it being cute.

The next morning a group of girls and I decided to go on an “Ocean Safari.” And boy did it not disappoint!

We were fitted for snorkels, masks and fins and hopped into the boat. We were on the Indian Ocean and it was quite a rocky ride getting our boat into the water. It involved lots of screaming, holding on for dear life and getting soaking wet. My friends and I all live in the same building in Cape Town, so it was a great bonding experience! We were all laughing and have an amazing time cruising our new, warm waters.

Suddenly our guides stopped the motor and pointed. We found our first whale! It was tiny, and I didn’t believe our guide when he said it was a Humpback… until the momma whale splashed her tail right next to the baby. It was a beautiful sight to behold as we sat in our boat probably only 20 yards from the creatures.

And this is where I start to feel sick.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I get major cases of motion sickness. Of course my stomach wanted to keep with that trend. Rocking with the waves on the ocean in a TINY, inflatable boat isn’t exactly what I’d call “smooth sailing.” Once we turned the motor on and started moving I would feel a lot better… but as soon as we saw a whale we’d stop so we could watch for a while. We saw A LOT of whales. So there was A LOT of stopping. And yes, A LOT of throwing up…

My friends love to recall the sight of me throwing up over the side of the boat, crying out in delight at seeing a whale breach, and then go back to throwing up. What can I say? I wanted to be a marine biologist in elementary school and had an encyclopedia of dolphins and whales… I wasn’t going to let a little seasickness stop me!

After a seemingly endless array of humpback whales, we found a whale shark!!! We all scrambled to put on our fins and snorkels and were so desperate to hop in the water that my friend Brooke straight up belly-flopped. However, that did put her in perfect position to view the gorgeous whale shark right up close. I can’t describe the feeling I had when I saw the whale shark underwater for the first time. First of all they are humongous. All were much larger than our boat (which isn’t really saying that much). They also have gorgeous white spots all over their backs, which is where they get their name in most languages (in Madagascar the name is “marokintana” meaning “many stars”).

Unfortunately after my initial, and most wonderful, encounter with the whale shark I needed to get back on that boat. My tummy cooperated just enough to let me have my moment and then decided I was done. After that I sat on the boat with my head over the edge to search for more whale sharks… and throw up some more. At one point it came directly under me and the boat… and right into my line of fire (hence the post name). Oops.

I made it all the way back to the shore in one piece. But dang I was happy to be back on land. If any of you have seen the Vin Diesel movie “The Pacifier” where the girl runs out of the car after he drives like the maniac and screams “LAAAAND!”… that is exactly what I did.

Would I do it again?

Of course!! Every minute was worth it. How many chances do you have in your life to get so close to humpback whales and literally swim with whale sharks? Not many.

PS: Sorry if I talked about throwing up too much for your liking in this post. I find the story hilarious… I hope y’all did too. It was too good not to share all of the details!!

Swaziland: The Last African Monarchy

My trip began with a long drive from Johannesburg to Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland. After many delays (we were definitely on “Africa” time… aka everyone is always late) and a fellow traveler losing her passport at the airport, we made it to Swazi after dark on Saturday, 3 September.

We set up in our tents in the dark and had the first of many delicious meals cooked by our guide Bruce. We camped inside of Hlane Royal National Park, which is Swaziland’s largest protected game area. The park used to be a private reserve for the Swazi royal family but is now held in trust by King Mswati III for the nation.

Fun facts about Swazi:

  • Swaziland is the last remaining monarchy in Africa
  • It is landlocked by South Africa
  • Very small country – only 120 x 80 miles
  • The Swazi king picks a new virgin wife every year. The current king has 14 wives and his father had more than 70
  • The exchange rate between SA Rand and Swazi money is 1:1 (so roughly 1:7 USD)

Our stay in Swazi was all about seeing animals. Our campsite was within a 2 minutes’ walk to a popular watering hole in the park and I took every opportunity to sit on a bench and watch! At any time of day I could find hippos, warthogs, white rhinos, elephants and impalas.

White rhinos are very popular in Hlane as all rhino species worldwide are becoming endangered. The rare black rhino is in danger of extinction in the next few years due to poaching. Last year poachers killed 330 rhinos, and this year an additional 230 have been killed already. As you might have guessed, rhinos are hunted for their horns. Unlike elephant tusks, rhino horns are not ivory – they are made of a hair-like substance – and in order to get the full horn out the rhino must be killed. Some reserves saw off rhino horns so they become less attractive to poachers (don’t worry they grow back in about 3 years). Rhino horns are most often sold in Asian markets where they are used for herbal purposes, such as erectile dysfunction.

By far my favorite animal sighting was a herd of 5 elephants! They were absolutely beautiful and one walked really close to our vehicle. Elephants are such fascinating and intelligent creatures, Bruce taught us so many new facts about them. I love that herds are led by the oldest and wisest elephant (male or female), not the biggest or strongest. Elephants remember things based on their scent – one female elephant led her herd on a very long migrating trail 50 years after taking the trail as a calf. They also use their large ears to ventilate their body when the big African sun gets unbearably hot. Elephants only have a 1 chamber stomach, so their digestion system is very inefficient. They use their large teeth to grind and break down their food, but their teeth decay as they get older. You can tell how old an elephant is by how broken down the food is in their poop. So if there are lots of twigs and leaves in tact in the poop, it is a very old elephant. (I know more than I ever wanted to know about animal poop now.)

Later that night a large group of Swazi people asked if they could dance for us. We watched them perform by light of the fire (there was no electricity in the camp). They were mostly dressed in a more “traditional” manner. The women draped beautiful cloths around their body with a picture of the Swazi king on it. A group of men played the drums and the men and women would sing along and take turns dancing. Their type of dancing was unlike any I have ever seen. It consisted mostly of a series of high kicks that looked incredibly exhausting. I don’t think I could do that!

We only spent one day in Swaziland before we headed off to the Mozambican border. But that night I fell asleep to the sounds of LIONS. It wasn’t scary… it was actually so incredible! I tried to strain my ears as hard as I could all night for their roars (human ears are weak in comparison to most animals I encountered) and would smile in delight if I heard anything. Those sounds helped solidify the fact that I am truly living in Africa right now. Sometimes in Cape Town it’s easy to forget I am half-way across the world… but when you lay in your sleeping bag listening to lions hunt… I know I am a far way from home…

The Best Trip of My Life: An Overview

Hello again everyone! I am finally back from the most incredible vacation of my life… that is if you don’t consider my life here in South Africa a vacation in itself! I went with Nomad Tours through a 10 day trip in Swaziland, Mozambique, and Kruger National Park in South Africa.

There is no way I can ever describe all of the amazing things that happened during this trip, so I will briefly give y’all an overview in this post and then write more detailed accounts of my favorite parts later on.

Below is a map of all of the places I traveled to! If you click on the blue markers it will tell you information about the location.

My favorite part was by far the amount of wildlife and beautiful scenery I was able to see! I saw dozens of animals and drove through many different eco-systems.

The above collage is a very, very small sampling of the animals I saw! In total I saw 27  different species (that I can remember!). I found them not only in Kruger, but every spot we stopped at.

Here is a full list of my animal sightings in order of when I saw them (without repeats):

  1. monkey
  2. impala
  3. goats
  4. cattle
  5. ostrich
  6. hippo
  7. white rhino
  8. kudu
  9. warthog
  10. nile crocodile
  11. elephant
  12. wildebeest
  13. water buck
  14. vulture
  15. humpback whale
  16. whale shark
  17. fish
  18. baboon
  19. giraffe
  20. cape buffalo
  21. ground hornbill
  22. spotted hyena
  23. daika
  24. zebra
  25. turtle
  26. lion
  27. honey badger
Here is a video of my most exhilarating animal encounter:
I can’t wait to share more about my trip! Next post: Swaziland, the last remaining monarchy in Africa.

Soccer vs. Rugby: An Analysis of South African Sports

Just like everything else seems to be in South Africa, sports are also racially charged. So far during my trip I have attended both rugby and football (soccer) games. The crowds and atmospheres could not have been more different.

First things first: while watching the rugby game, I felt like a “girl” at a sporting event for the first time in my life. I understand the basic rules of rugby, but once the players try to get a little fancy I was completely lost. I am trying my best to become more of an expert, but even lifelong rugby players have trouble explaining the rules.

The game was between Western Province and the Sharks. And it was pouring rain. Thank goodness our seats were under the overhang, or I would have been the most unhappy girl. The rain kept away most of the fans, so the stadium was pretty empty. However, this meant that when the rain stopped we were able to move to the front row! It was really crazy to see all the intense action up close.

As I mentioned earlier, sports in South Africa are divided along racial lines. Rugby is predominately a “white” sport. This was also reflected in the demographic at the game. There seemed (to me) to be a definite air of privilege throughout the stadium, and the crowd was overwhelmingly white. Although there were some blacks and coloureds in attendance, it was definitely not the norm. The crowd clapped and cheered at the appropriate times, but did not seem too crazy. Maybe the lack of pizzazz was due to the yucky weather, but I did not have the feeling that being a crazy WP fan was normal. It was a very strange feeling to be surrounded by white people, because it is such a rare experience for me here in Cape Town. Working to understand the racial divide is something I struggle with every day. (Oh, WP lost… see how the mega sports fan in me was lost during this explanation?)

Football games could not be more different!

I have now been to two football games, both between the Kaizer Chiefs and Ajax Cape Town. I attended my first game in Johannesburg at Soccer City Stadium and the second at Cape Town Stadium this past weekend, both stadiums were made for the 2010 World Cup! The only word I can think to describe the games is CHAOS. You can seriously hear the vuvuzelas and other noise makers before the stadium even comes into view. Everyone is decked out in their teams’ gear and cheap merchandise can be purchased every 5 feet.

At both stadiums, there are general seating tickets. So each ticket costs the same (R40 or ~$6 USD) and you have your pick of any seat in the house. Soccer City was surprisingly empty… but that doesn’t mean the vuvuzelas weren’t absolutely insane. My group of friends seemed to be the only white people in the entire stadium. We were basically another spectacle besides the game for the other members of the crowd. We all decided to support the Kaizer Chiefs, so fellow Chiefs fans continuously came up to us, took our picture, wanted to take a picture with us, or just shout their support. The Chiefs PR department actually asked to take a picture of our group to put in their marketing programme to prove that they have white fans. Despite that awkward experience, I really enjoyed how welcoming the crowd was and becoming part of the Chiefs fan base.

The game was part of a series between the Chiefs and Ajax Cape Town and ended in a tie 0-0. Little did I know I would be seeing the final game of the series in Cape Town a week later…

On Saturday we decided to attend the football match at Cape Town Stadium in celebration of my friend Sally’s 20th birthday. But we didn’t realize that there are no ticket offices at the stadium. We were standing outside the beautiful stadium, surrounded by the noises of the vuvuzelas and crowd inside… and had no way of getting in! We were determined to get in. After trying to buy off extra tickets from fellow attendees, a security guard called us off to the side. He offered to let all 7 of us into the game for R200 (corruption at its finest). Obviously we took up the sweet deal and ran inside the gate before he changed his mind. There were easily twice as many fans inside Cape Town Stadium than Soccer City, which led to an even crazier South African football experience. Somehow the game ended in a tie yet again, this time 2-2, but the Chiefs managed to win the series overall by this point. The celebrations outside the stadium afterwards were ridiculous! We had to walk all the way to Long Street just to get out of the traffic.

I couldn’t help but think of my host brother Tristan during the games. If you remember from my earlier post about Ocean View, he told me that sports in South Africa are “racist.” He wondered how it was possible that all of the soccer players were black, and not like him (coloured) or like me (white). He was right. All of the players on the soccer field were black, except one. All of the rugby players had been white, except one. How is it possible? Do these teams really represent the “Rainbow Nation”? The deeper I delve into understanding racial issues in South Africa, the more confused and troubled I become.

Do you think our sports teams in America are divided racially too? Do our Olympic teams really represent the diversity of our country? I’m curious to know what everyone thinks.

Jo’burg Day 2: Fight For Your Rights

During my second day in Johannesburg we spent most of the day in Soweto, which is the most populated black urban residential area in South Africa. Soweto stands for “South Western Townships” and is home to more than 1 million people that live in 34 different suburbs (the term “suburb” is used very loosely here, because it is a much different place than the connotations the word has in the United States). The township was created in the late 19th century to house black labourers who moved to Johannesburg to work in the mines or other industries. The government reserved the city centre for white populations only, so blacks were forced to live in separate communities farther outside the city’s bounds.

Even though we were in Soweto on a Saturday, the roads seemed to be unusually congested. Alina, our tour guide and native Soweto resident, explained Saturdays are the most popular day for funerals because people don’t have to work. There are usually between 30-60 funerals a day on the weekends and are most often for young people who died of complications from HIV/AIDS. It is tradition to kill a goat in honor of the deceased and share the meat with family and friends. We saw several processions of cars going to and from the cemetery.

Our first stop in Soweto brought us to Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. On 26 June 1955, the Freedom Charter was adopted by the African National Congress (ANC), with more than 3,000 delegates in attendance in the square. The Freedom Charter was created by and for the South African people in order to achieve a democratic government with a “one man, one vote” policy for all. There are 10 main pillars to the charter, which were represented by 10 large pillars in the square and enshrined in a memorial at the center. They declare:

  • The People Shall Govern!
  • All National Groups Shall have Equal Rights!
  • The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!
  • The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!
  • All Shall be Equal Before the Law!
  • All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!
  • There Shall be Work and Security!
  • The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!
  • There Shall be Houses, Security and Comfort!
  • There Shall be Peace and Friendship!

These tenants may seem like common sense to us now, but at the time in South Africa they were very radical ideas. (You can read the entire Freedom Charter here.) All throughout the square the motif of an ‘x’ was repeated in order to represent the first free election in South Africa in 1994.

While standing inside the memorial of the charter two young boys came in and started playing. They were tracing the letters of the charter and chasing each other happily and smiling at us. I couldn’t help but be struck by the power of the situation. Where would those boys be without the Freedom Charter, its leaders, and the anti-apartheid movement? Where could those boys be if apartheid was struck down earlier?

We then walked from the square to the city of Kliptown itself. Kliptown is home to more than 48,000 people, but only has 70 water taps. We walked with a guy about my age named Thabo (which means “happiness”) on the streets of Kliptown and he explained to us the history of the city and the places in it. I felt uncomfortable walking in a group of 23 white Americans taking a tour of an obviously poor black community. People were talking about us in their native languages and I can only imagine what they were saying about us. It makes you wonder, why do people come to Africa and tour townships… but nobody comes to America and tours Anacostia or the Bronx. It is simply not done. I tried to turn my outlook on the tour to one of deepening my understanding of the country and my future work in development instead of focusing on the differences between the people of Kliptown and my group. I believe that pity is only another form of oppression. I do not look down on the people who live in the townships. Instead, it makes me think critically about the government systems and institutions that have allowed these instances to occur. It is not how people live that way that it is curious, it is why they have become forced to and the cycle that continues even after the end of apartheid 17 years ago.

We spent the remainder of our time in Soweto visiting famous historical sites. We briefly drove by the house of Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s second wife and an activist in her own right, and actually saw her in her car! We then walked through Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, the only street in the world home to two Nobel Prize winners: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Mandela moved to 8115 Vilakazi Street in 1946 with his first wife Evelyn. After their divorce he was joined by Winnie, who continued living in the home after his arrest in 1962. He returned to the home after his release from prison in 1990, but only stayed for 10 days due to the thousands of well-wishers who surrounded his house on a constant basis.

Alina took us to her restaurant, which is located at her house, for lunch. It was absolutely delicious! Lots and lots of meat, potatoes, corn, vegetables, dessert, everything! After we ate some of the local kids in the neighborhood came and danced for us. In most neighborhoods I have visited the community raves about how the kids are such amazing dancers. They are usually pretty decent, but dang… these kids were really good! My favorite part was when other little kids heard the music and ran over to see what was going on. By the end there were probably 15-20 kids flocked outside bobbing to the music. It was the cutest thing.

Here is one of the songs we danced to! It is by far my favorite South African song and is performed by a resident of Soweto:

Our final stop of our trip was the site of the 16 June 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto. The Bantu Education Act was implemented by the Apartheid Government in 1953. The policy created a separate department for the education of blacks based only on the fundamental things deemed sufficient for them to learn. They were not encouraged to seek higher education because the white government believed they should not aspire to perform jobs they would never be able to hold; they were only capable of replenishing the black workforce. Black schools usually had ratios of more than 50 students to a teacher, who was generally not qualified. No new schools were built despite the increasing rates of enrollment. In 1976, the Department of Education declared that all classes be taught in Afrikaans. This was typically a “white” language and was rarely spoken by black populations. Alina demonstrated the gravity of this act by asking us to repeat a sentence in Xhosa heavily ridden with clicks. We had no idea what she was saying, much less any ability to replicate the sounds. She then said: “How would you like to learn maths, history, science, in a language you don’t know? That’s what happened to the children here.” The implementation of Afrikaans was the last straw. On 16 June, 1976, more than 15,000 students in school uniform marched in protest against the Bantustan education policies. They planned on marching peacefully, making their resistance heard, and then heading back home. However, the police, who were caught off guard, began shooting into the crowds. No one is sure of the death toll that day. Some reports are as high as 200 children, with many others wounded. The shooting caused a riot in Soweto. The site now serves as a reminder of the bravery of South Africa’s youth as well as a memorial to those who lost their lives.

Overall, it was a very emotional day in Soweto. It caused me to reflect on how lucky and privileged I have been in my short (nearly) 21 years… but more importantly, how have I stood up against injustice in my life? Would I have been as brave as the freedom fighters and youth in South Africa during the oppressive years of apartheid? When I see things I know are not right, do I always have the courage to fight for justice? I sincerely hope I do.

Jo’burg Day 1: Courage is not the absence of fear

On Friday morning I departed for a whirlwind weekend in Johannesburg. The city is one of the largest in the world and is the capital of the Gauteng province. Jo’burg rapidly grew in population during the Mineral Revolution in the late 19th century, as migrant workers moved to the area to mine for newly-discovered gold.

The flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg was less than two hours and a much different experience than flying in the United States. I didn’t have to take off all of my clothes and shoes or walk through an X-ray that violates my privacy. They didn’t worry about liquids. At the terminal everyone boarded at the same time and didn’t jostle like crazy in the line. It was the most pleasant airport experience! Makes you wonder how much good the TSA regulations are really doing…

My first impressions of Johannesburg made me really glad I chose to live in Cape Town. Jo’burg is… kind of ugly. There are mine dumps everywhere, the skyline wasn’t very enticing, and there wasn’t any foliage worth mentioning. Although I didn’t have a chance to explore downtown in the city itself, I can’t say that I am very disappointed about it.

We went straight to the Apartheid Museum after landing in Jo’burg. Upon entry you are issued a ticket that randomly declares you ‘white’ or ‘non-white.’ You are only allowed to enter the museum through the designated door for your race. It was quite a shocking experience. Inside we were physically separated from the other group by metal gates and bars. I can’t imagine living in a society that actively promotes segregation. I am the first to mention that segregation and racism still exists, but it felt very jarring to be confronted with it in such a forward manner.

For those of y’all who have visited a museum with me before will know I am very serious about it. I could spend days in museums where other people visit for only an hour or two. My experience at the Apartheid Museum was no different.

I first spent time in the temporary exhibit: “Mandela: Comrade, Leader, Prisoner, Negotiator, Statesman.” The section outlined the life of Nelson Mandela, supplemented by quotes from Long Walk to Freedom, friends and peers, as well as photographs and videos. It was fascinating to read the words from his auto-biography (which I had recently finished) and put a photograph with the event. The exhibit was very powerful and well made; I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed at certain parts especially as I recalled visiting Robben Island. The final section of the exhibit was by far my favorite. In the courtyard was a large display of famous Mandela quotes. There were five sets of three quotes, each set vibrantly printed in a different color. The sign asked visitors to choose which quotes impacted them the most, then select a stick in the corresponding color and add it to the interactive art pieces around the courtyard. There was no indication that one set of quotes was selected more often that others either; all colors were displayed proudly. It was such a great reminder of how Mandela has impacted all of us in different ways.

I learnt that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

The permanent exhibition of the Apartheid Museum begins at the very beginnings of Johannesburg in the late 1800’s up until present day. I ran out of time and had to be fetched to catch the bus. And I hadn’t even made it to 1980 yet! There is no way I can put into words the feelings I had while exploring the museum. The history of South Africa and apartheid are so complicated and deeply impactful, I could never explain it fully. Not that I even understand it in its entirety.

As a citizen in this world, I feel that we all must become aware of what can happen to a society after even the slightest segregationist policies are implemented. It is not an issue isolated to South Africa – there is segregation and racism in every country of the world. It is our duty to combat these evil societal forces so our children, grandchildren, and so on, never have to experience its horrors.

That evening we attended an opera/play called “Mandela Trilogy,” which outlined three main phases of Nelson Mandela’s life. During the first part of the play, all of the songs were sung in Xhosa (a clicking language and Mandela’s native tongue). I was impressed that the actors were able to sing opera and click at the same time! But I suppose if you are fluent it wouldn’t be unusual at all. The second part of the play highlighted Mandela as a womanizer. This shocked me as well. I had heard some rumors, but I didn’t know they were actually true! The crowd loved the mistresses and laughed hysterically. I can tell you that it was never mentioned in Long Walk to Freedom!

I will elaborate more on Day 2 of my Johannesburg trip tomorrow! Thanks so much to everyone who is commenting and reading this. I always look forward to writing about my travels, especially when I know someone is actually reading!

The Best Days Are Yet To Be

I have been in Cape Town for nearly six weeks now, can you believe it??? Time has been moving so quickly, and it will only continue to zoom by! Here are the things I am looking forward to the most:

  • Tomorrow morning I am leaving to spend the weekend in Johannesburg! We are visiting the apartheid museum, attending a play/opera about Nelson Mandela, spending time in Soweto, and going to a soccer game at the world cup stadium!
  • Spring Break is 3-11 September! My friends and I are staying at a hostel called Kruger View in Komatipoort. It is located just outside the entrance to Kruger National Park, which is one of the largest game reserves in Africa! We will be less than an hour’s drive from both Swaziland and Mozambique. We are planning to do game drives and safaris in Kruger and day trips to the nearby countries (gotta fill up the passport!). I am so excited…I can’t believe it’s only in 2 weeks!
  • In September I am planning on doing a weekend homestay in Khayelitsha, which is a black township outside of Cape Town.
  • My boyfriend Daniel comes to visit me in Cape Town from 13-21 October!! I am already planning activities for us to do and it is 2 months away :)

I am counting down the days until each of these events… but at the same time I want the days to go by slower. I’m not ready to be half-way done with my trip yet!

Above is a series of photographs I took of Cape Town last Sunday. Some of my friends and I did a sunset hike of Lion’s Head Mountain and then hung out at the top and watched the full moon rise. It was absolutely beautiful! This city never ceases to take my breath away.

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If you are looking for more updates from students around the world, here are the links to the blogs of some of my friends:

Daniel – Haifa, Israel
Tor – Dunedin, New Zealand
Erin – Copenhagen, Denmark
Eric – Cairo, Egypt
Lesley –  Melbourne, Australia/Glasgow, Scotland