Saturday, 30 June 2012

What Lies Beneath

"We are going to need a bigger boat..."
            We silently made our way down the street in the pre-dawn darkness while a light rain brushed our faces.  When we arrived at the Rose Bank Metrorail Station it was deserted save for one lone security guard sitting beneath the fluorescent lights above the platform.  He pointed across the tracks to platform three.   After a few minutes the 5:30am train squealed into the station and we boarded for our hour-long coastal journey to Simon’s Town, where we would be taken out to Seal Island to meet the world renowned South African Great White Sharks.
            After 45 minutes of nodding off between pages of our “Public Health in South Africa” assigned reading we began to hear the sound of waves.  We opened the sliding windows and were greeted by the moist, salty smell of the coastline.  Beyond the passing sand dunes lay the Atlantic, cold and frothing under the still black sky.  We kept our heads hung out like dogs on the open road until we came to a stop at our final station.  The rain had intensified as the clouds travelled down the nearby mountainside and we frantically jumped into a cab heading towards the pier.
            Rob, our Skipper and guide, met us at the end of the pier and beckoned us out of the rain and into the warmth of the Blue Pointer’s wheelhouse.  Here on the boat we met Naomi, a marine biology intern from Nova-Scotia, and RJ, a weekend warrior and amateur wildlife photographer from Johannesburg.  Two other crewmembers quickly unhitched us from the dock and Rob set course for Seal Island as we pulled out of the rainy marina.  We all sat in silence as Rob manned the helm.  During the thirty-minute ride out to the island we all wondered what lay ahead and what lay lurking under our boat…

Looking back at Simon's Town

            After awhile, the Skipper cut the engine and walked out onto the top deck.  It had stopped raining and we could now see a rocky outcropping in the middle of the sea in the dawn light.  We made our way out to the deck and were greeted by the barking of some 2,000 Cape Fur Seals, heckling us from their rocky perches.  
The Cape Fur Seals and Friends
Seal Island
A couple of African Penguins in the mix

Without a moment to lose Rob got back to the wheel and began circling the island for signs of “predation”– Great Whites hunting seals in their natural state (i.e. no chumming or human involvement).  Almost immediately we saw the first slash of a black dorsal fin and the ensuing white foam about a hundred meters of the starboard side.  As we raced to the scene of the attack the 4 meter long shark lunged again at the helpless seal and a brilliant red cloud of blood bloomed in the water as the shark dipped back below the surface, out of sight.  It all happened so fast that we could hardly believe we just saw our first great white shark­– it was unreal.  The pelagic sea birds were on scene to scavenge the few seal remains seconds after the first bite– the birds were natural signals of an attack.  After two more predation sightings and a failed attempt at dragging the foam decoy seal behind the boat, the crew prepped the cage.

Is that an over-sized lobster-trap?  No, that's the cage.


  After witnessing the sharks rip apart their breakfasts the cage seemed a little bit smaller and flimsier than before.  All of the sudden I found myself convinced that the cage’s steel bars were spaced too far apart.  Surely a one-ton apex predator could find his way in if he wanted to, right?   I shrugged the thought off as I squeezed into my dive gear and donned my weight belt.  While Matt and I suited up for the first round in the cage the others broke into screams of awe and delight from the back of the boat.  We dashed across the deck to find everyone gawking at a 4.5-meter shark circling the submerged cage.  Rob and the crew were going nuts! They were commenting on the size of the black monster that cruised just below the railing.  The white shark took one last passing glance at us and meandered off into the distance, its dorsal fin slowly sinking beneath the waves.  I could have sworn the thing winked at me… almost as if to say, “Don’t forget to close the cage door.”

            Matt and I strapped our masks on and walked to the port side where the cage thrashed against its rope restraints in the rolling swells.  

Naomi leaned over the rail and opened the top hatch.  She ushered us in with a big grin and Matt loped over and into the steel contraption with a dull splash.  As I stepped up to the rail I had the brief and unfortunate realization that it was possible to completely overshoot the cage opening.  I quickly readjusted myself over the middle of the cage and rolled into the cage in the feeble position.  The weight belt brought me straight to the floor of the cage and I sat there for a second in the cold and green.  I nervously sprang back up to the surface to receive my respirator that would provide air from a cylinder on the boat.  I took a few small, quick breaths to make sure the apparatus was working and let the weight belt take me back down into the unknown.

            I found the hand and foothold extensions at the bottom of the cage and made sure none of my appendages or digits were hanging outside.  After I nestled down I turned to find Matt casually sitting on the floor of the cage, looking around him like a toddler in the park.  His relaxed and curious demeanor made me feel unjustifiably tense in comparison.  I rolled my shoulders back and took a slow, deep breath from my respirator sending a cascade of bubbles towards the surface as I exhaled.  It was cold and quiet.  I could see the boat’s twin propellers slowly feathering in the current, but beyond that it was nothing but the green iridescence of the sea all around us.  All of the sudden a rhythmic thumping began to emit from the bottom of the boat.  It was RJ hitting the deck with a two by four in hopes that the acoustics would attract a curious beast.  I couldn’t help but think he was summoning the kraken.
            RJ continued to send sound waves out into the greenness until he stopped all at once and the distorted sound of shrieks from the group made me turn my head.  There it was, the thing that had haunted my dreams ever since I started watching shark week as a kid, the bleached white belly of a Great White Shark.  The shark was about 4 meters long and swimming perpendicular to the surface as it struggled with a tuna head attached to a rope.

I hurriedly tapped Matt on the chest and motioned for him to turn around.  The shark, seemingly sensing he was being watched, quickly leveled off and swam out of our view.  Matt and I looked out after it with our breath held, but it never came back.

After about ten minutes of no movement we jumped back to the surface and climbed out.  My initial nervousness had faded and we both took off our masks hooting and hollering about what we had just seen.  The group was ready for their turns;Allen and Ling suited up and jumped in soon after us.

Not five minutes after they entered the water then a 4.5-meter shark began feeding on the bait directly in front of their cage.  The shark made multiple passes within feet of the cage and from the deck we could make out every detail of the beautiful animal.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before– this shark was huge.

This behemoth continued to put on shows for everyone in the cage.  Matt and I jealously and patiently waited for another chance to get up close and personal.

            Meanwhile on the upper deck we began to learn about Rob and his knowledge on these predators.  Seal Island is one of six Great White hot spots worldwide and though they are abundant in the right seasons certain aspects of their migratory patterns and reproductive behavior are still virtually unknown.  The majesty and mystery of these animals has kept him in this business for 16 years and counting, and has also attracted a number of notable celebrities including Tiger Woods, Jeff Corwin, the Myth Busters crew, BBC’s Blue planet crew, Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth Crew, and a failed visit by the Wild Boys.  Unfortunately when Steve-O and Chris Pontius revealed to Rob their plan to jump off the boat, over the great whites, and into a cage he had to refer them to another charter company, one that would have as little common sense as those two.
            After a good laugh or two it was time for Matt and I to get redemption.  We donned our gear once more and plunged into cage.  The seas had become choppier during our wait and we bounced around like helpless lobsters in a trap.  We hunkered down at the bottom of the cage and waited patiently for the 4.5-meter beast to give us one last adrenaline rush.  After ten minutes it seemed the shark had left us waiting in vain and Matt and I searched hopelessly all around.  Just when I had begun to climb to the surface I saw a flash of grey below my feet.  It was the behemoth… and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Matt and I watched for five minutes as he gracefully circled the boat about 2 meters below us.  As Matt and I sat there in trance by the tranquility of this ferocious predator I couldn’t help but feel like this animal knew what we were.  It was as if he knew that he could break our cage in two and eat its contents, but he simply did not have a craving for public health majors.  Suddenly, he made one last loop and gently careened off into the great green sea…
Though it may seem small in this picture
this shark is about 13 feet long and weighs
somewhere around a ton...

            Once again we sat in silence as we rode back to the shelter of the marina.  I do not think it was quite believable what we had just experienced.  The whole excursion was surreal.  What I do believe is that we all have a new and profound respect for these animals, and all of the majesty they possess.  There is an immutable feeling that is engendered through an encounter with something that has the capability of taking your life.  I can’t say it is humbleness, but rather reverence.  Whatever the feeling was, it rose into us much like the sun rose over the clouds on our train back home.

Written by Tyler Woods

(Photography courtesy of Audrey Leasure and Tyler Woods)

Township Tours!!!

The township tours have been one of my top experiences in Cape Town thus far.  We visited townships in Soweto, Langa, and Heideveld.  It’s fascinating to see how different one township is from the next and to learn of its culture.  The township tour in Soweto was by far my favorite; I think because we were actually living in Soweto while we did the tour so it felt like we were one of them.  And the workers at Lebo’s Backpackers are phenomenal!  They crack jokes with you and hang out with you next to the fire at night; they know almost everyone in their community and are well respected.  What’s also interesting about these townships is how close they are to their nice urban area counterparts.  It crazy because one minute you’re on campus at the University of Cape Town and just a 10 minute drive you’re at the township of Langa.  This shows how great the inequalities are here.

The township tour in Soweto was awesome.  All we had to do was go across the main road with our awesome bikes and we were in the poorest township in all of Soweto.  The best thing about the township and all the other townships was the sense of community you witnessed.  Despite the hard living and financial conditions, people still had smiles on their faces and little babies were running around laughing and the elders were drinking beers and conversing.  The township we visited used to be a hostel during the Apartheid years.  Men were forced to live there away from their wives and family.  They would get to see them maybe twice per year.  This separation helped increase the rate of HIV transmission because men would have sex with men and with sex workers in Johannesburg.  The coolest part about the visit to the township was tasting the traditional beer and learning the history behind it.  One of the older men of the community explained the technique of making the traditional beer.  They use bread, corn, and some kind of material to squeeze out the beer.  He explained that any event that occurs, whether it be a party, gathering, meeting, etc., must have traditional beer.  It’s more for the older folk because that’s what they’re used to drinking.  He also but on this headgear thing on some of the guys and jewelry on Lisa and Chantel.  It was really beautiful.

                                                       Ndu and his awesome headgear

                                                   The materials for the traditional bear and
                                                         the beads Chantel and Lisa wore

Another township tour we did was in a black township in Langa.  This was another form of separating the different races during Apartheid.  I found it somewhat intriguing that even today the townships are separated; although I’m sure it’s because of tradition and not because of government laws.  The township in Langa was like any other.  There are parts where the homes are basically trailers and you have areas where the homes are made of more durable material.  The first place we went to was a lady’s home that she turned into a restaurant.  It was beautiful.  There was African art everywhere, cool statutes, inscents and a balcony.  Her and her son were explaining the culture of the township.  Basically your family isn’t just your mom, dad, and siblings.  Your family is considered as anyone who is in the same tribe as you.  They started speaking their language called Xhosa which has clicks in it and is hard for many people to master.  It was funny because we asked the mother and his son to carry a conversation and the son kept laughing because he said “it’s funny because it sounds like music to you.”  It was interesting because the way the mother did her clicks were much harder than her sons.  I didn’t know how much variability there was.  The mother also explained how much of a community thetownship is.  No one locks their doors at night because they all trust each other.  The tight knit community feel is one of the main reasons many people enjoy living in the townships.  Currently there’s a slow process of moving some people out of the township to better homes funded by the government.  But the people who move find it very lonesome because their neighbors aren’t family, they’re just people next door. 

 The tour of the colored township was very interesting because we visited a “daycare”.  The reason for the quotes is because it’s technically not a daycare that’s recognized by the government.  There are some regulations that haven’t been met such as the number of windows so cross ventilation is made possible.  The reason this regulation can’t be met is because each wall of the house is bounded by another wall of someone else’s home.  So technically there’s no possible way to have two windows even if she does make one in the roof.  I really admire the lady in charge of the daycare.  She explained that it first started off as a few parents dropping off their kids at her home while they went to work or something of the sort.  They all trusted her and soon it gradually grew to 30 kids that she has today.  There’s a very small room where the kids lay and play.  She has 30 mats that she places in some unique configuration while the kids nap; very innovative.  Some of the kids that go there are from dysfunctional homes whether it be drugs and alcohol, abuse, neglect, etc.  And it’s unfortunate because she can’t accept all the kids because of the limited amount of resources and money she has.  But how can she turn away a child in need?  The only money she receives is the fee from the parents and her own money.  She doesn’t get any money from the government.

                                                                 The cute daycare!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Bo-Kaap - uniquely Cape Malayan, delightfully colorful

On Saturday 16/6/12 (I'm still getting used to this way of writing the date), we toured Bo-Kaap, another neighborhood in Cape Town that is full of history, rich culture, and friendly people. Bo-Kaap is a mainly Cape Malay community, where the people are descendants of the Southeast Asian slaves that were brought over to South Africa during the Dutch rule. The term 'Cape Malay' is kind of misleading, as the slaves were not only from Malaysia, but also from Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. Since we have been in South Africa, we have visited many different townships and communities. Though each has their own culture and history, a connecting thread between all is that the people are very close, warm, and welcoming (even to loud, foreign American students!).

The iconic colorful houses of Bo-Kaap.
This is 1 of the 50+ pictures I took of them.
Ilyas, our tour guide who was born and still currently resides in Bo-Kaap, first took us to the slave lodge museum, right next to Parliament. The slave lodge was where the slaves resided; Ilyas also showed us the area where slaves were sold (it is now a busy, urban street corner). We then walked up to Bo-Kaap, which is located on the slopes of the mountain above the city center. Thank goodness it was a warm and sunny day, otherwise I am not sure I would have made it up those steep streets.

We first visited one of the numerous mosques in Bo-Kaap. Way back in the day, there was only one mosque in Bo-Kaap. Because everyone in the neighborhood went to that mosque, the community was very tight-nit. Today, there are numerous mosques, so the sense of community isn't as strong as it once was. Visiting the mosque was a great experience, as I have never been in one before. It was quite beautiful. As we left the mosque, we witnessed a wedding that was taking place outside. It really reinforced the sense of community of the neighborhood.
One of the many mosques in Bo-Kaap. 
The carpet faces toward Mecca. 
We also visited the Bo-Kaap museum, which is converted from a house that dates back to the 1760s. Before we began the real walking part of the walking tour, Ilyas took us to a corner market, which smelled AMAZING. Since I really love Southeast Asian cuisine (Indian is my favorite), standing in the market and smelling all of the wonderful spices was so much fun.
I wasn't as keen on the pigeon food however.
Armed with bottles of water, we began walking through Bo-Kaap. All the houses were so colorful! Ilyas told us that the Cape Malay people think of painting their houses in the same way women consider picking out a dress to wear to a party; no one wants to wear the same dress. So, no two houses can be painted the same colors. This was especially significant during apartheid, when the government placed restrictions on the Cape Malay people, who were classified as Colored. Painting their houses was a way they could express themselves. Bo-Kaap also participates in the Carnival street festival that takes place on January 2nd. This carnival allows every community in Cape Town to celebrate their individual cultures and unique music.
Unique Cape Malay culture is even reflected in the houses' steps.
Ilyas, our tour guide, showing us drawings.
Though Bo-Kaap is very different from the other townships that we visited, such as Soweto, it has its own culture that is truly fascinating. Not to mention, the houses are absolutely beautiful. I hope to return soon, especially to that spice shop that was unfortunately closed. I just can't get enough of spices. 
Beautiful Bo-Kaap houses and Table Mountain.
Christina Li

Friday, 22 June 2012

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed-- Stories from Soweto

SOWETO- upon arrival, Lebo’s Backpackers was not what I was expecting when initially told we were staying in the largest township in Johannesburg. After 38+ hours of travelling, the party lights, bonfire, tree house lofts and bar scene at Lebo’s created the perfect oasis for our group of tired American students in what seemed to be an unbounded land of third world living.

Our time at Lebo’s was well spent getting to know each other (in close quarters, might I add), the locals of Orlando West, and the neighborhood vibe of Soweto. In Soweto, we experienced our first true South African meal of pap (a grits-like cornmeal pronounced “pop,” which we would eventually be having far too much of), cow cheek and tongue, and the iconic Black Label brew.

Pre-lunch snack of unidentifiable cow head pieces
The restaurant
Our actual lunch, "Bunny Chow." Yes, that is a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with french fries, an egg, cheese, and meat slices. It's times like these that make me glad I'm vegan.

 The staff at Lebo’s made us feel like locals in Soweto and brought to life the sense of Ubuntu that South Africa is so famously known for. However, it was not until the bike tour on our first full day that we realized how much character, force, and spirit the community of Soweto boasts in its estimated 4.5 million residents. 

Culture was everywhere. Every detail had a story and every local knew the story. Something as unobvious, as say, a wall outside of a house, symbolically harbors enough history to be the subject of a textbook (during the apartheid, they used these walls to hide from the cops when they were out past curfew). These fences now represent the community’s transition into the middle class and symbolize prosperity. Ironically, we caught sight of a man walking out of one of these fences who happened to be a living textbook himself. This man was a student in the 1976 revolutions; he not only lived through the apartheid, but also was a part of the movement that helped bring it to an end. It is the presence of people like him that keep the spirit of action alive in Soweto. 

Tasting the traditional brew

Tyler busting a move 
In Soweto, stories like this man’s were created and are kept alive through song and dance. Our guide taught us dances and chants performed by the masses during the uprisings to help unite the people. Although I can’t say all of us had the best rhythm, we all had fun reliving Soweto’s revolutionary history. We visited the former house of Nelson Mandela and one of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s houses, both of which are centrally located in the heart of Soweto.

 In a sense, Soweto is the ideal embodiment of living history. It tells a story that can only be fully captured through the people and their culture. This kind of knowledge is not found in any textbook; it is constantly changing, forming and growing, just like the history of South Africa as a whole that we are on a journey to discover. In all, Soweto gave us an introduction to this country’s raw power, kinship, and unyielding strive for progression. No one can wait to see what else South Africa has in store for us, but we all agree we are off to a fantastic start.

Peace, Love, and Happiness (in true Sowetan fashion),
Audrey Leasure and The Orlando West Crew.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Johns Hopkins takes over Parliament!

Tuesday was our visit to Parliament! I felt so official. It was amazing to experience history. You could literally see the transformation once we walked from the old building (it was more Victorian style because it had LOTS of British influence under colonialism) to the new building built in the 90s. We visited all the rooms where Parliament sits and the tour guide did a great job of explaining how the political system works. I'm still trying to grasp the ins and out of the way parliament works but I'm sure when I get back to the states I will have a better understanding.

The shield consists of the sun at the top, the protea leaves, the drum and the constitution.

These gates illustrates the security we had to go through to gain access. But Johns Hopkins is pretty resilient. We made it.

These two above pictures are of the Keiskamma Tapestry. It was 112 meters long and 70 cm high. It was made by the women of the Keiskammma Act Project. It shows a history of South Africa and begins with the earliest inhabitants of the region, the San, the Khoi and the Xhosa, continues with the coming of the settlers and their interactions and moves through the 19th century and 10th centrury (apartheid and ends with the first democratic election in 1994).
This room was beautiful. It had a heavy Victorian feel to it.

One of the meeting rooms. I don't know the formal name of the room or what exactly goes on in here. Honestly we went through a lot of rooms!

The detail in the panels!

Parliament consists of 2 houses: the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. The National Assembly makes laws. They also elect the president. The National Council of Provinces represents the provinces (9 provincial delegations).
So the people vote for a political party, which is usually the ANC or African National Congress because it emerged as the “new government” after apartheid was thrown away. The problem today or as a contemporary perspective is the social distance between the people and parliament. There are so many coalitions and alliances within the ANC and the ANC holds a lot of the electoral power.
The people have raised expectations of the ANC, they thought the party who they THOUGHT was the reason behind apartheid ending would gain power and do right by the people but the same people living in shacks in the 80s are living in them today. So you might ask can’t the people just overthrow the ANC?
South African flag
That’s where it gets complicated. The ANC has tons of electoral power so even though there has been declining levels of support, it still won’t be enough to change anything. The ANC is eroding and fragmenting because of the levels of inequality has put pressure on the ANC to deliver. 

This is one of the newer rooms that was built in the late 90s. Compare this room to the other one with the detailed panels. We witnessed history!
An old robe that members of Parliament would wear.

I think there will probably be a change in the future (not soon though) though because most of the voters now (young unemployed people) don’t have any attachments to the ANC because they weren’t alive to witness apartheid and the whole transition to national liberation. People have these rosy dreams of the ANC as uniting the people as the ‘rainbow nation’ but the fact remains that South Africa’s economy and social systems are still effected by the apartheid regime.

Another room. 

Can't escape the view of mountains.
Guest blogger: Chantel Fletcher