Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Soweto Township

We began our tour of Soweto, Johannesburg's largest township, at the top: what our guide called the richest part of the enclave that home to four million souls. The homes were made of brick, had tidy and attractive landscaping, and new model cars parked out front.

Eric, our guide, himself a resident of Alexandra township, pointed out an interesting difference between this upscale section of Soweto and other neighborhoods around the city - and around South Africa. The homes were surrounded by walls, but lacked the barbed wire, electric fences and barred windows found in nearly every other place we visited.

The reason, Eric said, is that the area is considered much safer than other residential areas of Joburg, or Jozi. Neighbors in this area band together and respond to any type of crime en masse, sending the criminal packing or maybe giving him a beating.

We had expected to see abject poverty on our tour, and we saw plenty of it, but we had not anticipated the upper-class area, which Eric said is populated with retired sports stars and business executives.

Across a small ravine from this pleasant neighborhood - where streets are blocked off most weekends for weddings, funerals and parties - were the bleak row homes called hostels, where whole families cram into single rooms that don't have running water or electricity.

We learned about Soweto's role in South Africa's democratic transformation. It was there that in 1976, students protesting the government's education policies prompted harsh retaliation from the police, and a 13-year-old boy was shot to death by an officer. That incident sparked a popular uprising that spread across the country.

Later on our tour, we drove past Soweto's middle-class area, which included small four-room brick houses. We also saw the former home of Nelson Mandela, and the current home of his ex-wife, Winnie Mandela, and the home of Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu.

So much history in such a small geographic location.

Perhaps the most moving part of our tour came when we visited a shanty town of tiny, tin-roofed shacks. Residents working for tips show visitors like us around, and we were also brought inside one of the shacks to talk with the woman who lived there.

The woman was in her 50s, and lived in the shack, no more than 10-by-10 with two daughters and several grandchildren. The family cooked on a paraffin stove, and had a coal stove for warmth. A bed took about half the space.

The woman said the problem facing her country is a lack of jobs, and she spoke somberly, in a low voice. While the family doesn't have to pay any rent for its shack, they are barely able to scrape together enough money for food and cooking fuel.

The residents get their water from a central spigot, filling up plastic five-gallon buckets and hauling them back to their shacks.

When I asked the woman whether she is better off since Nelson Mandela was elected as the country's first black president in 1994, she said that although people are glad to be rid of the oppressive apartheid government, economically things haven't changed much.

Our last stop of the day was at the city's impressive Apartheid Museum, where the displays of photos and videos chronicled the rise and fall of what one British politician denounced as an "evil, repulsive" system.

To us, the museum conjured similar feelings as the Holocaust museums we have visited in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. - disbelief at the cruelty people are capable of inflicting on each other.

The Apartheid Museum is across the street from a mega-casino, and next to an amusement park. As a condition of approval for the casino and amusement park, the developers were required to pay for design and construction of the museum, and to cover operating costs for two years. They did a first-class job, and the museum is well worth a visit by anyone coming to Johannesburg.

Today is our last day in South Africa, and to kill time before our evening flight, we went to the movies. We saw Leon Schuster's "Survival Guide to South Africa," a candid-camera style flick on a World Cup theme. Very funny and highly recommended if it is available on Netflix.

That's all for now, as we head to Oliver Tambo Airport for our 15-hour flight to Atlanta!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Photo album

Salome; a giraffe feeding at Kruger; the Three Rondevals at Blyde River Canyon

Photo album

Joe with the jawbone of a hippo that died after a fight with another hippo; the hippos are watching; Ava, Salome and I with our guides.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What to do if you're attacked by a wild animal

On our bush walks in Kruger National Park, our guides, who carried loaded rifles they jokingly referred to as "walking sticks," advised us not to run if an animal charged toward us. That's right, we were not to run from an angry lion, leopard or hippo coming right at us.

"If you run, the animal will chase you, because animals instinctively go after something that runs," said Vusi, our guide for a river walk at Olifants Camp. "If you run, we will not be able to protect you."

Instead, the guide said, we should hide behind a bush or drop to the ground, depending on his instructions.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we never had to test this advice, because on our walks, we never came face to face with any large animals. As we walked along, I did wonder to myself whether I would be able to control my impulse to run, even while knowing I could never outrun one of the above-mentioned animals. But it never came to that.

On one walk, a wary wildebeest tracked us from a good distance. We also observed elephants feeding maybe 100 yards away. We did get very close to hippos submerged to their eyeballs in a river, and had a nervous staring contest with them. I say nervous, because they were all looking at us, and we were certainly watching them, especially after Vusi told us hippos will sometimes charge from the water.

Actually, the best glimpse we got of the big cats - lion, leopard and cheetah - came during a wildlife film shown one evening at Skukuza Camp. (We did get a very good view of a male lion during a sunset wildlife drive.)

We have now left Kruger and are staying in Graskop, a town in the Drakensburg Mountain escarpment. For those in the San Diego County area, think Julian. Graskop is a mix of the rustic and touristic, with lots of cozy lodges and bed and breakfasts, and plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops.

This morning, we drove north on Route 532 to God's Window, a ridge with splendid views of the pine-covered hills rolling away in the distance, and the Sabie River winding far below. We also visited natural rock formations called Bourke's Luck Potholes, named for the man who found gold there in the 1800s. We also drove up along the Blyde River Canyon, with has magnificent rock formations hewn over the millenia from rust- and copper-colored rock.

Before I sign off, a very happy 92nd birthday to Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president after years of the oppression of apartheid. While not an official public holiday (although it may become one) today, Sunday, July 18th, is a day when South Africans are encouraged to spend 67 minutes doing public service, in honor of the years that Mandela spent trying to better his country.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wild Beasts and Braais

Well, it has been a long time since the last post; no Internet access for more than a week. Of course, the world watched as Spain beat first Germany in the semi-final in Durban (which we attended), then finished off the Netherlands on July 11 to win the championship. Congrats to Spain fans.

We have been in rural areas of South Africa and Swaziland since leaving Durban on the 8th. First, a stop in St. Lucia, a small resort town on an estuary where hippos lounge on the beach and occasionally take a stroll through town. (We saw the former, but not the latter.)

Then, to Big Bend in Swaziland, where farms and small ranches line the road, which is definitely less well-maintained than in South Africa. Very nearly busted an axle on our Fiat rental car on a few of the yawning potholes.

We reached Kruger National Park on Sunday, and have been feasting our eyes - and bellies - on wild game since then. Today we completed our "Big 5" sitings when Ava spotted a leopard while driving on a dirt road. (She is the best spotter of our bunch.) I saw a flash of beige, and poor Salome did not see it. But we still have two more days!

The other Big Fivers include rhino, elephant, buffalo and lion, all checked off, thank you. Plus hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, baboons, vervet monkeys, lots of birds and many, many antelope and deer.

The bush walks were especially interesting, although we didn't see a lot of game up close. But the warnings of the guides, who carried loaded rifles, kept us on our toes, and we definitely felt out of our element.

Our experience with African game has included mealtimes. We grilled wildebeest skewers on our "braai" or barbecue at our bungalow (very tasty, and similar to beef) and the restaurant at Oliphants camp served roasted impala last night, also delicious. (We felt a bit guilty when driving by a herd of impala this morning.)

ASAP, we will post new photos.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Photo Album

Here are some more photos: Spain vs. Portugal match; Cape Town botanical garden; Addo Elephant National Park; settlement near Mthatha.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Durban at Last!

We finally made it to Durban this afternoon following five days on the road and about 1,800 kilometers. The weather here is warm and breezy, and we are staying in a funky boutique hotel behind a popular restaurant and night spot called Bean Bag Bohemia. (The hotel is called La Bordella and was once, reportedly, a house of ill repute.)

Reaching the hotel was a bit harrowing, as we pulled off the freeway and found ourselves in the midst of a crowded market where hordes of people just walked on the street in front of cars, lots of honking, shouting, etc. We felt like we had been transported to a street in Delhi.

For the past five days, since leaving Cape Town, we have had a chance to see many small towns and large cities, rural areas, coastal beaches and steep mountain passes. We followed the N2, a national highway, the entire route. The highway went from six lanes down to four, down to two, and back again along our route. We contended with people walking across and alongside the road, along with sheep, cows, goats, slow-moving trucks, careening mini-buses, and sudden turnoffs with minimal signage.

In many cases, the road passed right through towns along the route, and we got a glimpse of the lives of Africans outside the big cities. Some of the town names were Grahamstown, Mount Frere and East London. The towns looked rag-tag, with unpainted storefronts, cracked pavement and trash strewn in the gutters and on the street. But they also looked prosperous, with people flocking to supermarkets, small shops and streetside stalls, carrying their purchases any way they could, from bundles on their heads to carts they pushed in the street.

The views along the route were often incredible; looking off into the distance, we could see farmland, pristine river valleys and forests.

Along the way, we stopped at Addo Elephant National Park, where we drove our small rented car along the park's paved and dirt roads. The park's 500-plus elephants were on display all around us; drinking at a watering hole just a few feet off the road, and feeding on the abundant greenery. Many of the females nursed babies as young as a year old. Also on view were many warthog families, and different species of antelope, such as kudu.

During a night drive on an open bus with the park's rangers, we saw porcupines, different varieties of fox, jackals and an owl. Unfortunately, we didn't spot any of the park's 10 lions, or its buffalo, but we are hopeful to see more wildlife when we visit Kruger National Park next week.

Yesterday afternoon, following a drive of about 150 miles, we arrived in the medium-sized city of Mthatha, which doesn't have much in the way of tourist interest, but was a convenient stopping point along the road to Durban. Unfortunately, our road atlas isn't much help when we arrive in a city, and we are roughing it without GPS. No one answered when we tried to call our guest house, which was a few kilometers outside the city center in a residential neighborhood.

We stopped at a gas station to ask directions, and several people came over and conferred with me as I tried to figure out which way to go. One of the people, a man in his late 20s or early 30s, said he was heading in the general direction an we could follow him. He ended up leading us around the neighborhood for 20 minutes or more, stopping to ask directions several times, and finally led us right to the door of the guest house. We were touched and gratified by his willingness to help.

We are looking forward to our third and final match on Wednesday night, the semi-final between Spain and Germany. After all of the surprises in the quarter finals (Brazil and Argentina getting knocked out, Uruguay's outrageous hand-ball to block Ghana's sure winner), we are ready for anything!

People here are quite upset about Uruguay's blatant foul, and the players' celebration afterward. One newspaper headline called it "Hand of the Devil."

Anyway, Salome and Ava are rooting for Germany, but I'm sort of on the fence right now. I will root for Holland over Uruguay in Tuesday's semi-final, however. And I'm pretty sure the winner of our match on Wednesday will prevail in the final. But of course, we shall see.