Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sublime South Africa: Hogsback and Cape Point

Photo credit: Britt Smith

My second brush with the South African sublime, after Nahoon, was in Hogsback, a portion of the Amathole mountains. Driving up the rough road to the trail I planned to hike, the trees on either side of me were leaning in almost as though they wanted to reclaim the road for the forest, and I realized that that was exactly what they were someday going to do. Men can clear trees, build roads and structures, and attempt to control all aspects of nature, but in the end none of it can last. Tree roots break through cement or asphalt, new plants grow up in the cracks, and with time all evidence of the road will be covered with fresh soil and life. Considering the war we are constantly waging against nature with our factories, pollution, buildings and machines, it is incredible that so much of it still survives with such perfection, not fighting but simply existing, strong in its own will and rightness. Hogsback is one of those places that fill you with absolute peace and tranquility, because unlike the city, these forests belong here, and they are exactly as they should be: eternal, self-renewing, and perfectly balanced. As much as we like to think it does, no land can ever belong to us like it does to itself, and Hogsback makes that clear. Walking in that majestic, powerful forest made me realize just how separate nature can be from ourselves, how outside of our control, and how indifferent to us. These mountains don’t care about me and my friends, or about the city nearby. It has itself figured out, and it runs perfectly without any outside help or intervention. I think the sense of the sublime that I felt in this place came from the recognition that no matter what we may do, we can’t affect the spirit of this forest, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t replicate the perfect balance and serenity that exists here. It is the world exactly as it’s intended to be.

The third was simpler, but no less sublime. At Cape Point, I found the most beautiful views I had ever seen, from the sharp cliffs directly beside me to the rough African coastline extending in the distance and the expansive ocean surrounding me on three sides. It was just perfect and beautiful and immense, and the air was sharp and fresh and invigorating, and it was hard to believe that something like this could just exist, but there it was. It was sublime because it was wonderful, one of those places that, once you've seen it, is always somewhere in the back of your mind.

Sublime South Africa: Nahoon

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.
-Edmund Burke, "On the Sublime and the Beautiful"

At the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve the sublime sense I felt was aided by the information I found in the reserve’s visitor’s center. Here I read about the millions of years of life and death collected in the cliffs at Nahoon, the evidence of ancient creatures and humans embedded in the rock which had once been sand. A few minutes later, standing on those cliffs and imagining all of the years and lives that were collected into every inch of stone, and looking out into the ocean, focusing on the distant point where the sky and ocean seem to meet, but knowing that they both continue on, I couldn’t help relating the time and life collected beneath me to that constant and endless ocean and sky: so much happening in every square inch at every second, but all blended into this great, unreachable, forever blue-on-blue. It was a very powerful and overwhelming experience, one that made me feel tiny and insignificant, but also somehow greater because of my tie to this incomprehensible vastness, a vastness that I still can’t reason through and clearly can’t describe. I think that's the passion Burke described, where "the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it."

Finding a South African Sublime

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.
-Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful

In the early days of this blog I put considerable time and effort into my exploration of the sublime, looking at the various definitions of the concept, discovering ways others have experienced and described it in writing and media, and drawing connections between the sublime described in Romantic-era literature and the idea of the modern, technological sublime. Now I’ve had the opportunity to explore the sublime in a physical sense, through my travel to truly sublime locations in South Africa, while at the same time looking at how this concept relates to my project on ecotourism. In my next few blog posts I’m going to focus on these sublime experiences and connections, beginning with my experiences at Nahoon, Hogsback and Cape Point.

On the Road to Cape Town

Photo Credit: Above: my own. Below: Britt Smith. Further below (Kathy, Cornelius, and the students): Macrae McDermott.

I’ve always enjoyed road trips, and as evidenced by my August post Road Trip Wisdom, and my more recent trip to Fort Hare, I take quite a lot of them. My recent trip to Cape Town was really wonderful, and just as enjoyable and enriching as the town itself was the journey there and back. We left just after five in the morning, so the sun rose as we drove, gradually changing the pitch darkness into shadowy outlines of hills and buildings before the world was brought into clear focus. The landscapes in the Eastern Cape change quickly, from city to field to forest to coast, interspersed by small villages and scattered herds of cattle and goats. As we crossed to the Western Cape, which is more developed than the Eastern, we started to see more of the expensive coastal properties where the wealthy vacation, live and retire, and the heavily touristic cities crawling with Bed and Breakfasts, modern boutiques, and expensive cafés. It’s easy to see why the tourists are drawn to the area: it’s naturally astounding, with perfect views, unique flora and interesting wildlife like baboons, ostriches and various antelope and birds. Outside the cities are signs pointing to game parks and reserves, which appear to be at every turn. Just a short ways inland, though, the rural farms and villages continue, unaffected by the heavy tourism on the coast. On the edges of the larger cities are the same types of shacks and lean-tos that collect in Duncan Village and the outskirts of Mdantsane; patchwork shelters of scrap wood and metal, barely sufficient for a family’s shelter, but often topped with satellite dishes. You can live without running water or indoor plumbing, but not without Oprah and 7 de Laan.
The really wonderful thing about traveling with Kathy and Cornelius is that it’s never a passive experience. Throughout the 14 hours to Cape Town (and back) I was able to learn an incredible amount about South African history, culture, and politics while watching the country pass me by through the window. Cornelius knows the history of every city that has a history, and as he drove was constantly sharing notable facts and stories about each place we passed. From him I’ve learned the diverse origins of the inhabitants of the Eastern and Western Capes, from German, English, Dutch, Indian, Malaysian, and of course African backgrounds, and of the shifts of power between them that have resulted from wars and political upheaval. Cornelius always pauses for questions and has answers for even those questions we don’t ask. Kathy keeps us updated on politics and the state of education, and fills us in on gossip (which can tell you quite a lot about culture). As a teacher, she constantly has to deal with strikes, corruption and under-funding, and has an insider view on where education is falling short. She is also very politically aware and active and has her own firm opinions, which aren’t necessarily the most popular, but are founded in fact and reason. For all of the problems that she sees and deals with daily, Kathy never gets discouraged, and is one to look for solutions, not just complaints. All of these hours spent with Kathy and Cornelius have given me such a better understanding of South Africa than I could have found on my own.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Library Boys

I was sitting at one of the tables on the second floor of the East London library, writing in my field journal, when three boys, aged around 12, 15 and 17, came in and sat down at the table in front of mine, two facing me and one with his back to me. As in all of downtown, I stand out in this library: other than the librarians and the occasional old man or woman looking at the genealogical books, no one in this library is white. As I sat writing I could feel eyes on me, and when I glanced up I saw the oldest of these boys quickly looking away. I went back to my work, but could hear whispering from the table in front of me. The middle boy, who was sitting with his back to me, turned around, then quickly back to his work when I looked up. More whispering and twittering. I could feel the oldest watching me again. I looked up and this time gave him a little smile, to say, “Why are you looking at me and whispering?” and was rewarded by more whispering and twittering. The middle boy turned around once more for a quick look, then suddenly moved around to join his fellows on the other side of the table. They kept up the glancing-whispering game for a bit, and I had started to successfully block them out when I heard a “Ssst!” and saw the middle boy, clearly the bravest, waving at me.
“Pencil?” He mouthed, pointing to the pen in his hand, which had apparently (conveniently) run out of ink.
I nodded, rummaged through my bag, and pulled out a pen, which he ran around the table to take from me.
“Thank you!”
He flashed me a winning smile and handed the pen to the youngest boy, who was writing in a notebook. They went back to work for a few minutes, and I was just starting to think they’d given up on me when the same, middle boy appeared by my side. His friends were still at the table, waiting with hushed, watchful anticipation.
“Can you tell me where the toilet is? I’m not from here; I haven’t been to this library before.”
I pointed him down the hall and around the corner to where the bathrooms were, and he thanked me and walked out. His friends watched him go, clearly giving each other mental high fives. It was at least ten minutes later, as I was getting back into the swing of my writing, when I started to hear more noises other than pen scratches from their table – first coughs, then “Ssst!”s, accompanied by barely restrained laughter. I finally looked up when I couldn’t ignore them any longer, asking with my eyes what they wanted. The brave middle boy asked, in a low whisper,
“Why are you so quiet?"
That was a funny question for anyone in our situation to ask.
“It’s a library. That’s the point.”
He smiled sheepishly and shrugged, then quickly, before I could look down again, asked,
“Can I sit there?” He was pointing at my table.
I pointed at the seat next to me with a facial question mark, and when he nodded eagerly, shrugged and mouthed “Sure, why not,” then returned my attention to my notebook. A couple whisper-and-laughter-filled minutes later, he was pulling a chair up close to my side.
“What’s your name?”
“Katherine. And you are . . . ?”
He said his name, and those of his friends. I’m horrible with names, and forgot them instantly.
“We’re brothers. He’s the oldest.”
He pointed to his taller brother, who ducked his head shyly with a grin. I waved hello to the two still at their table, and shook the hand of my new friend.
“Nice to meet you.”
“So, Katherine. Where are you from?”
“America. Seattle.” I’ve stopped saying Washington State, it’s more confusing than helpful. I’ve been asked enough times whether I know Obama.
At the mention of America he made a funny kind of a gasp-jump, became really excited, and scooted his chair even closer, stage-whispering “America!” to his brothers. Their jaws dropped comically and they started hurriedly gathering their papers together. A moment later I had three eager boys at my table, leaning in close and staring at me intently. I laughed at their eagerness. The youngest now started to talk to me, trying to suppress a nervous smile.
“Did you always live . . .” He broke off into somewhat hysterical laughter after the example of his oldest brother, who was half falling out of his chair. The middle boy, who I could now see was the only one very fluent in English, shook his head exasperatedly and muttered, “They’re a little crazy.”
“It looks that way.” I said, shaking my head at all of them. The middle boy looked at his brothers and started to grin along with them. The conversation continued in this vein for near an hour, the middle boy, now their spokesperson, talking to me and occasionally translating for his brothers, the littlest starting the occasional question but never managing to finish before breaking into giggles, and the oldest grinning goofily in between fits of falling-over laughter. The speaker, who managed to keep his composure far better than his brothers, told me that he was from Cape Town and was coloured, which, he explained, means he is partly white and partly black. I thought it was interesting that he included that in his introduction of himself. He also told me that he speaks Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, and English, a very impressive combination. I told him I just spoke English and some French, so of course they asked me to speak French for them.
« D’accord . . . Des garçons étranges parlent à moi
dans la bibliothèque. Je ne sais pas pourquoi. » Some strange boys are talking to me in the library. I don't know why.
Eventually, after everyone else on the floor had given us exasperated glares, the boys handed me back my pen and headed out. They warned me to be careful on the public transportation, and said they hoped to see me around. I replied in kind, with sincerity: they really did make my day more interesting, though certainly less productive. That’s the fun part about standing out: you can make a lot of random friends where and when you least expect.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

To be a Tourist

For the past week I've been in Cape Town with my South African family: Cornelius and Kathy Thomas, Macrae, Britt and Diana. This was intended to be a vacation for all of us, and an opportunity to see more of the country of South Africa, but I also was able to use it to build up my research. I spent the whole of the trip paying close attention and taking notes on tourism: my own experience, the things I noticed about other tourists, and what I picked up in conversations with locals. This constant awareness made it a very different kind of travel experience: instead of just seeing the sights, I was constantly analyzing my own actions and motivations, as well as those of the people I encountered. One thing I did was to pay attention to the advertising that parks and other tourism venues were using, trying in particular to find those that claimed or appeared to practice ecotourism, or that advertised their commitment to conservation and other environmental pursuits. I found two that were very explicitly committed to the principles behind ecotourism: Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours and the Aquila Game Reserve (details to come). These were out of the 40 pamphlets I collected and numerous billboards I passed.

Another thing that I tried to pay attention to was who benefits from tourists. One group of people who are a very loud, constant presence in the high-tourist areas of Cape Town are the street vendors, selling anything from carved wood souvenirs to cell phone chargers. I always thought that buying from these people was better than from a store, as it supports their mini-business and the money goes straight to locals; though of course you have to watch out for being charged "tourist prices," which can be more than triple what they charge locals. As it turns out my assumptions were very incorrect. Almost all of these vendors are Nigerians and other foreigners, and many are in South Africa illegally. The "authentic" jewelry and crafts (carved elephants, masks, bowls, etc.) are mass produced for cheap in Nigeria and other countries, then imported and sold for five times their value (or more) in South Africa. Buying these sorts of things thus benefits neither South Africans nor South African industries, and doesn't even get you a piece of traditional artwork or jewelry from the area.

One thing that really impacted me about Cape Town was the huge economic divide between people living in the city. This is a common theme throughout South Africa: this country has the world's greatest gap between rich and poor. Up on the mountainside and on the sea-facing slope live the very wealthy, and then the further you move down the mountain the poorer the people become. Within twenty minutes you can drive from the homes of millionaires, through the middle class, and into the very poor areas of Manenburg and Gugulethu. The tourists see Camps Bay with its picture-perfect, luxury beaches, which were so recently reserved for white people only, and they are told that now South Africa is a democracy and doesn't have the problems it used to, that now everyone has equal opportunity and everything is great. But they don't see the crime-ridden, gang-controlled streets only a few miles away. It's really shocking to go from such incredible poverty to such over-the-top opulence, and to know that most of the people who live in the huge mansions overlooking the picturesque views don't even realize the conditions people are living in in the shadow of their mountain.

Photo Credit: 1. Britt Smith; 2. Diana Pratt