Cape Town, South Africa
10.09.2010 - 12.09.2010 22 °C
This trip was originally planned for a long 4-day, 2-holiday weekend during the first week of September, but riots over bread prices and subsequent security issues stimulated the U.S. government to confine me and the rest of its employees to the city limits. I was initially saddened by the prospect of not getting to see Cape Town while in the region, but then I remembered what my glassblowing teacher, and surrogate mother, had once taught me. Whenever I was working on a piece that seemed hopeless because of incurred mistakes, she would exclaim, "We fix!" - and after 5 minutes of her magic and dexterity, we would be back on track. I applied this maxim to my travel plans, and after talking to individuals for 4 different bookings, I only incurred one change fee of $57. We fix!
That was only the first of a series of unexpected events. When I landed in Cape Town, I tried to withdraw money from an ATM without success. I called my bank, and they verified what I thought was going on - my debit card had expired. I explained my situation, and after 3 different representatives, the message finally registered that there was no way to solve my predicament. I tried to call my credit card company to see if I could use it at the ATMs. They told me that I just needed my pin that I used to set up the card. Since I had never used a pin with a credit card, I had no idea what it was.
"We can send you the information in the mail," the representative said.
"I'm in Cape Town," I logically reasoned.
"Well, we can send it to your address in the U.S., it will be there in 10 days, and then someone can call you with the information."
"I'll be home in 10 days."
The conversation was clearly not going my way. After two banks the next day, and one very melodramatic phone call to the credit card company, I got those magic words, "okay, give me 4 numbers that you want as your new PIN." Hallelujah! I thanked the individual for being my guardian angel, promised him my first born child, and presto, I had 1500 Rand in hand.
After I realized I wasn't making significant headway on the aforementioned issue the first day, I immediately dropped my stuff at the hostel and scouted out the waterfront. I walked quite a bit before darkness hit, and played tourist taking pictures of all objects unique. When my legs couldn't take it anymore, I went to an amazing deli down the street from the hostel that had been recommended by my friend, Taryn. I talked with a group of South Africans until about 12 AM, and then I promptly passed out.
My first full day in South Africa was spent just outside the town of Kleinbaai, a town about 2 hours South of Cape Town. This township is famous for its proximity to Dyer island, an area known to have the highest concentration of Great White sharks in the world. On the drive over, I met a few cool people including an Australian businessman, a couple from Saudi Arabia, and a scientist from England named Kayleigh. Kayleigh and I discovered we had a common penchant for crude jokes and extreme sports and hit it off famously.
The boat ride out to the spot was relatively short. Apparently, the Great Whites congregate more towards the shore in the summertime and hang around the island during the seal pupping season in the Winter. The captain found a good spot, we anchored, and we were given a safety brief on how to enter the shark cage and precautions on how to not get eaten. They commented that there was a possibility that we may not see any sharks, and everyone started to frown like children who had been brought to Disneyland only to find out that all the fun rides were broken. Luckily, on that day, their disclaimer didn't apply.
Within 15 minutes after the safety brief, Great Whites had been spotted in the water. Kayleigh and I were in the first group, and we were told to put on our wetsuits, boots and weights. 5 of us slid into the cage and watched as the sharks calculatingly swam by to observe us and reap any food rewards that awaited in the periphery. The water visibility was amazing, and I was momentarily upset that I had forgotten my underwater housing in the states. Nevertheless, I was struck with fascination while observing these beautiful, ancient creatures.
After 20 minutes, we were told to switch out with the next group. I was allowed to go back in since there were only 3 in the next set, and I occupied the outside left corner for the second dive. The viewing initially seemed less eventful as it appeared the sharks' interest had waned. At one point, myself and the guy next to me were watching a shark slowly swim by when the shark suddenly jerked to the left and opened its jaws. I watched in fear as the shark propelled itself directly towards me, and I threw up my hands just before the jaws reached the cage. The shark latched onto the cage literally 6 inches in front of my body. I was terrified at first, but I quickly remembered the barrier and just watched the shark in amazement. It stared at me intently for 10 seconds, its left eye fixated on my terrified exterior. I looked back with an odd mixture of respect, fear and curiosity.
After the shark had been affixed to the cage for about 5 seconds, I saw a finger come out from my right peripheral vision moving towards the shark. I looked incredulously over at my cage mate in order to silently question this bold move. He wanted to touch the shark. Then we heard voices from above yell, "do not touch the shark! We will take you out of the water!" I thanked them silently for their verbal reasoning, and the guy next to me backed off. I was a bit shaken up when I got out of the cage, but double counted all my appendages and decided I was fine. Once we got back on shore, the adrenaline quickly wore off and fatigue set in. The van dropped me at my point of origin, and as I was walking back to my hostel, and I saw a sign that I felt was fitting considering the days events (see below).
Sunday was an equally active day. I walked to the Nelson Mandela Pier and took the short ferry to Robben island. I was met by a tour guide which took us around the island by bus and explained the history of the prison. It started as a penal colony in 1631 and was used by various occupying powers until South Africa built a maximum security prison in the 1960s to house its political dissidents. It would house major members of the Pan African Congress and African National Congress, including Nelson Mandela.
Prisoners at the institution were not referred to by their names but instead by their prisoner number. The code consisted of two numbers separated by a slash. The first number represented the chronological number of the person sentenced for that particular calendar year, and the last two digits indicated the year of the sentencing. Nelson Mandela was the 466th person sentenced in 1964, he was known as 466 / 64.
I was unprepared for how seeing Mandela's cell would affect me. I will never truly know what the man went through, but seeing his cell made me begin to realize how amazing of a person he was for preaching reconciliation upon his release after 27 years of incarceration. The guide who gave us the tour was an ex-prisoner and had an amazing story himself. After observing his pregnant girlfriend innocently shot by police during a peaceful demonstration, he joined the militant arm of the ANC. He trained with resistance fighters in Angola and East Germany, and upon return, his first mission was to use a bazooka to blow up a government petrol truck. His team miscalculated the shot, and they were discovered, tried and convicted for high treason. He spent 11 years on the island and was among the last of the political prisoners to be released in 1991.
He also described the harsh punishments that the prisoners would sometimes have to endure. The most vile among them was when the guard instructed them to dig a hole, only to remain in the hole and subsequently be filled up to their neck in sand. After some time, the guards would return to urinate on the head of the trapped prisoner. I came away with a new respect for those who think for themselves, question the established order and refuse to be the victims of oppressive and unjust tyranny.
After a long walk back to the hostel and a lot of reflection, I took a cab to the trail head of Table Mountain. This iconic feature defines the skyline of Cape Town as it encloses the city with the breaks of the Atlantic. I was told the hike would take about 2 hours to the top, but I of course resolved to complete it faster than the average time - see "Y chromosome." The trail was straight up and was definitely not what I would classify as an easy trail. It seemed to progress endlessly, and I would periodically rest under the guise of observing the view up to that point in the trail as more intrepid individuals passed.
After 72 minutes and a waning water supply, I reached the top of the mesa and marveled at the panorama. I was unexpectedly even more fascinated by the different types of flowers that graced the top slopes. I looked more like a botanist with my camera than a tourist, but there were so many unique species that I couldn't stop taking pictures. Since I was unable to find the names of the flowers via the internet, I decided to name them myself based on their characteristics (actual names also welcome).
I took in the sites for about an hour and decided that I preferred not to punish my knees and take the cable car down. The car to the base took about 5 minutes, and I suddenly felt quite slothful about the time I had been previously proud of. I returned to the hostel, had a burger and chronicled my exploits to my fellow travelers. I went to bed with only the regret that I didn't have more time there - if you find yourself in this part of the world, Cape Town is a must!