Saturday, October 16, 2010

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 caf├ęs. 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.

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