Archive for the 'Africa' Category

August 19th 2008

Posted under Morocco

A modern air-conditioned train delivered us to Fes and back into the madness of the medina. Casablanca’s gentle sea breeze was noticeably absent in the dusty desert air. The taxi dropped us off at the bustling Bab Bou Jeloud gate to the medina (because cars are not allowed inside) and we wandered into the stone labyrinth that is the Arabic old town. Our hotel was spartan but well-located and the hypnotic hum of the medina soon drew us into its chaotic colorful corridors.

We sat for an early dinner at an outdoor café near the Bab Bou Jeloud gate and finally sampled the tajine – a hot pot stew of meat and vegetables, cooked in a cone-shaped terra cotta baking dish. The meat was grisly but the vegetables were delectable and we sopped up every last drop of the rich olive oil broth as we had seen the locals do in Marrakech.

As we watched the crowds of locals and tourists shuffle through the medina, our attention was drawn to the occasional provocatively dressed European tourist – they stick out like a sore thumb among the modest jellaba-clad locals – and I was reminded of a conversation that we had had in Marrakech regarding the differences between Moroccans and Egyptians. I noted the gentle nature, the lighthearted smiles, and the seeming acceptance of Westerners by Moroccans in stark contrast to the Egyptians with their suspicious, judgmental eyes and fierce cunning. Aaron suggested that perhaps we (our perspectives, that is) are different after a year of travel, a notion I dismissed initially but now reflected upon as I studied the uncomfortable looks of the naïve young women with heaving cleavage, only vaguely aware of their effect on the ravenous, sexually repressed pack of wolves lurking in the shadows. I gazed upon the bouncing bosoms, spaghetti straps, and short skirts, asking the flesh-bearers telepathically, Look around you. Why would you wear that?

And then I remembered a walk that I once took in some nameless village along the Nile where the two strong men at my side were powerless to stop the scornful, penetrating stares of the Egyptian villagers or the rocks thrown by a gang of brainwashed young boys. The shock, confusion and intimidation of that experience preceded our understanding of Arab-Islamic culture. At the time, I was adamantly opposed to succumbing to the oppression of women that I so despised, and offended by the notion that I should conform or be treated like a whore on the street, but such is the way of life for women in Arab cultures. The women cover themselves completely, even on the hottest days of the desert summer because the men are like animals, like dogs in heat with uncontrollable animalistic behavior incited by the smallest visible sliver of feminine flesh. In this culture, the abhorrent behavior of men goes socially and legally unchecked – women are hissed at, cat-called, groped in crowds – and there is no recourse. Women are still second class citizens – equal rights are yet a distant dream. The people are raised from childhood to believe that immodest dress makes a woman undeserving of respect. Such is life in Morocco. But understanding this crude, archaic social more makes walking the streets of Morocco a different experience. My spaghetti straps have long since been retired and, in crowds, I attach myself to Aaron’s hip because a woman walking alone in a crowd is a target for anonymous gropers. In the thickest crowds, I walk with my arms crossed over my chest to avoid any “accidental” contact. When we walk through the medina, entranced by the sights, sounds and smells, I can easily tell when Aaron has fallen behind by the hawkish muted advances of the all-male shopowners.

I find this aspect of Arab-Islamic culture vile and reprehensible. But where once I (clad in spaghetti straps) vowed to take on the beast of oppression singlehandedly by setting an example of an independent woman who is treated as her husband’s equal, I now realize that education and economic prosperity are better swords to wield in that battle than my insolent bare shoulders. While I stand by my original generalization that Moroccans are gentler and more tolerant of Westerners than the Egyptians, I also see that our perspective is different, worldly, more educated. Understanding breeds tolerance.

By the time we arrived in Fes, the atmosphere of the medina, with its mosques and medersas, had lost a bit of its luster. While we engaged in the requisite aimless wandering, we found ourselves seeking quiet refuge from the hustle and intensity of the streets. When you have the sponge-like desire for the sensory overload of Third World culture, the Moroccan medina delivers an explosion of colorful produce stalls, freshly butchered carcasses hanging in shop fronts, enchanting Arabic music, donkey carts, street hustlers, savvy rug dealers, burqa-clad women peering out through their narrow eye-slits, the constant engagement of shopowners beckoning you inside for a look, dark clandestine corners, aromas of fresh mint and cilantro filling the air…all in a buzzing kaleidoscope of stimulation. Even the sidewalk cafés are fair game for amateur tour guides, beggars and street performers. When you are weary of the chaos, you must find oases on elevated terraces, in high-end hotels and quiet internet cafés.

In the medina, daily life is dictated by two things: religion and the sweltering heat. The notion of “nine-to-five” has no place here. The morning begins around 5 am with the muezzin’s resonating call to prayer. Laborious tasks begin early before the oppressive heat makes them unbearable. Shopowners begin the daily ritual of setting out their displays while restaurant owners make the day’s purchases from produce sellers. Men huddle around outdoor tables, drinking green tea with springs of fresh mint. In the sizzling afternoons, they can be found snoozing away in shady places. From dusk until dawn, the streets of the medina are most alive with bright lights, music and non-alcoholic revelry. Small children roam the streets at all hours of night, an initially shocking sight that quickly melts into normalcy. The street noise jolted us from sleep at all hours of the night until the muezzin’s call signaled the break of day and a new cycle of working, socializing, napping. Such is life in the medina. It is a different world, a world from which we are now eagerly anticipating our escape.

Morocco has been a sideshow on our European home stretch. The truth is that we are weary of the Third World, weary of the emotional albatross that is poverty, weary of the discomforts and the hustle. Morocco is interesting because it seems more like the Middle East than Africa. The people have a stunning golden complexion, similar to Iranians, and their language, style of dress, cuisine and mannerisms are characteristic of Arabs. But often enough, a “T.I.A.” moment reminds you of what continent you’re on.

My praise of the Moroccan train system was perhaps a bit premature, as evidenced by our final train ride from Fes to Tangier. Tickets were sold for an air-conditioned ride but the vents inside the cars blew only a whisper of cool air. If you held your arm three or more inches above the vent, you could not feel the air at all. In the blazing mid-afternoon heat, the train filled to capacity at the main junction near Sidi Kacem and sat there delayed for almost two hours while the passengers perspired together in the uncirculated hot boxes. Also at that junction, the train was oversold and many unfortunate passengers, including mothers with small children, were forced to sit on the floor between cars. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll just mention that the restrooms were utterly vile without going into my usual level of grotesque detail. T.I.A. This is Africa.

The locals all seemed to bear the discomfort and inconvenience with grace, as if this level of service was standard or perhaps because they understand an important truth: there are many worse things to bear in life than a little physical discomfort and inconvenience. Sometimes a petty difficulty, when put into perspective, can be a healthy reminder of the many blessings in our lives.

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August 16th 2008

Posted under Morocco

The real Casablanca is nothing like the movie. The movie wasn’t even filmed there, in fact; it was filmed in Hollywood and based on a hotel in Tangier. Casablanca is Morocco’s most cosmopolitan and industrial city. A taxi driver proudly informed us, “Casablanca is not for tourists. Casablanca is for business.” We arrived by train from Marrakech, a comfortable three-hour ride through the desolate Sahara Desert; and, upon reading that Casablanca’s restaurants serve up excellent seafood, we splurged on fruits des mer and another impressive bottle of Moroccan red wine at a French Provencal place near our hotel.

The French have left a lasting mark on Casablanca and much of Morocco in the form of language, architecture and infrastructure. After their native Moroccan Arabic, the locals speak fluent French, passable Spanish and bits of English. Our “functional French” seems to be better understood (or at least better tolerated) in Morocco than in France. Casablanca’s Art Deco facades, wide boulevards, public parks, sidewalk cafes, and efficient railway system are all French additions from the early 1900s when Casablanca was declared a French Protectorate.

There is a noticeable difference between the people in Casablanca and the people in Marrakech, particularly in the interactions between the sexes. More women, especially in the 20-30 age range, wear Western clothing and men and women socialize more freely in public. That said, there are still plenty of cafes frequented by locals at which women are unwelcome or too intimidated to patronize alone. While the medina hums with old Arabic traditions and lifestyles, the increasing opportunities and affluence in the port city are a catalyst for modernism.

The crown jewel of Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, set on a rocky outcrop of coastline. Completed in 1993, the world’s third largest mosque (after Mecca and Medina) is a decadent display of Arab-Islamic art and architecture, incorporating modern amenities such as a central heating system for warming the marble floors in winter, a retractable roof, and a laser beam that points toward Mecca at night. At 200 meters in height, its minaret is the tallest religious minaret in the world.

The only way for non-Muslims to see the inside of the mosque is through the pricey guided tour but when we gazed upon its stunning marble exterior, we knew it would be worth the price of admission. I am fascinated (obsessed, my husband might say) by Islam and I was pleased with the explanations and demonstrations offered by our English-speaking guide. Our tour began in the Prayer Hall, the most magnificent room in the mosque with its grand arches, elegantly carved stucco, rose granite pillars, Italian chandeliers, gleaming Moroccan marble floor, and carved cedar retractable ceiling. A balcony on each side of the hall was designed for women to pray, protected from the sinful gazes of men, behind a wooden lattice screen.

In Islamic communities, the muezzin sings a hypnotic chant over a loudspeaker, calling the faithful to the mosque for the five-times-daily prayer. Before each prayer, Muslims must wash their feet, hands, ears, nose and face to spiritually cleanse themselves for the ritual. Underneath the Prayer Hall, the Ablution Hall contains 41 marble fountains for performing the ablution, or spiritual cleansing. Interestingly, if one does not have access to water at prayer time, he can imitate the movements of washing his feet, face and hands and it is thought to achieve the same spiritual result. Our guide kneeled beside one of the fountains and demonstrated the ablution with the thoroughness and precision of lifelong practice.

Our tour concluded with a tour of two hammams – a Moroccan hammam and a Turkish hammam. A traditional Moroccan hammam contains four rooms, each kept at different temperatures. The bather begins in the hottest room to sweat out all of the toxins and works his/her way to the coolest room. The Turkish hammam, or Turkish bath, was a large, dimly-lit room almost entirely encompassed by a shallow pool. Unfortunately, the pool had been drained for cleaning, which detracted from the ambience. The hammams at the Hassan II Mosque are not working hammams; however, it was easy to imagine both bathrooms full of the steamy conversation and heated debates that are so characteristic of Arab men, huddled around an outdoor table or under a shady tree.

While Casablanca was nothing like the movie (and not exactly brimming with tourist sites) our visit to the Hassan II Mosque made the trip worthwhile. Most mosques are closed to non-Muslims so we were fortunate for the opportunity to view a work of such remarkable craftsmanship and to gain personal insight into the world’s most media-hyped religion.

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August 15th 2008

Posted under Morocco

After the decadence of the French Riviera, the parched Moroccan desert was a climate and culture shock, even for us. The arid desert air made us miss Arizona. We had booked three nights in a riad – a traditional Moroccan home – near the kasbah in Marrakech. Janice, the quirky English owner, gave us a warm welcome and was a wealth of information about Morocco. Three well-appointed guest rooms occupied the ground floor of the riad, surrounding a tiled open-air courtyard. A Spaniard named Juan was staying in one of the other rooms and invited us out for an evening walk in the Djemaa el-Fna, and although we were overcome with exhaustion from the day’s travel, we could not resist the allure of one of the world’s greatest spectacles.

The Djemaa el-Fna is a huge open square in the medina (Arabic old town) that explodes with colorful chaos at dusk. Open air food stalls serve up escargot, fresh seafood, skewered meats, tapas and tajines (traditional Moroccan hot pot stews). Diners squeeze in wherever there is room among the long, crowded picnic tables. All of the servers are male, a reflection of the 99% Muslim population.

Away from the food stalls, the remaining area of the square is utterly consumed by the equivalent chaos of ten circuses operating simultaneously in the dark with crowds of spectators gathered around each one. The performers – all men – make music and dance, perform plays and acrobatics. Within a twenty foot radius, you can get henna-painted hands and feet, watch snake charmers, get a custom-mixed herbal remedy for whatever is ailing you, and pose for photos with a monkey on your head. The days are so oppressively hot that seemingly everyone comes out a night – old women, families pushing strollers, and young boys – to witness the grand festivities. The air is bursting with music, laughter and energy. Your heart begins to race along with the tempo of the drums. It is madness!

After dining in one of the food stalls and a lap around the circus, fatigue finally overcame us, hindering our ability to see or think straight, and we followed Juan back through the desert pink maze of unmarked corridors to our quiet little street. The breezy desert night had caked our already travel-grimy skin with dust. Too exhausted even for showers we washed our weary faces and fell into a deep sleep.

When we finally resurfaced around 9:30 the next morning, we lazed around the riad, lingering over coffee and long showers, and mentally preparing ourselves for the hassle and hustle of the Third World. As we have learned in our travels through Africa and India, you must be sharp. You must constantly be on guard for everything is a negotiation – everyone wants your money and they’re not shy about asking for it: beggars, hustlers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, and random people on the street who offer directions and then demand a tip. You must have your game face on at all times or fall victim to the hustle.

Hunger finally pulled us from our quiet oasis and into the streets. Walking toward the Djemaa el-Fna, we found a restaurant with shaded outdoor tables and a decent-looking menu and sat down for lunch. During our one-hour stay, no less than six elderly beggars approached our table with their hand out. Poverty is rife in Morocco with the average daily income around US$3.25, but the faces of the people – indeed the only visible part of the body through the traditionally conservative Moroccan dress – possess unexpected warmth. I had anticipated the fierce, penetrating, mistrusting eyes that dominate my memory of the conservative Muslim Egyptians but, in the eyes of Moroccans, I sensed none of the contempt or suspicion that made me feel so unwelcome in Egypt. Not everyone has the same experience however; a sweetly naïve young British girl on holiday with her boyfriend reported that a burqa-clad woman pulled aside her face-concealing veil and spat at her on the street.

We spent the afternoon checking out a few of the sites around town, the most fascinating of which were the Ali ben Youssef Medersa (aka madrassa – a venue for teaching theology, law, and Arabic literature) and the Musee de Marrakech, a beautifully restored 19th century palace turned museum. Both buildings displayed traditional Moroccan architecture with open-air courtyards and stunning artwork: Colorful zellij (mosaic tilework); rich woodcarving; linen-colored stucco carved into patterns of fine lace with Arabic calligraphy embedded in the designs; ornate arched doorways, water features, and opulent painted ceilings. The sights had a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Once you paid your admission at the entrance, there was no one inside but other giddy tourists, exploring the artfully decorated and extraordinarily photogenic nooks and crannies.

On our way back to the riad, we wandered into the souk – an enormous, maze-like bazaar adjacent to the Djemaa el-Fna – but quickly realized that we didn’t have the energy to get lost in that dizzying world of “Come look my shop! What you want? I have it! Special price!” Instead we walked “home” through the big square – a much tamer animal by day – and soaked up the quiet of the riad for a few hours before charging back into the irresistible madness of the Djemaa el-Fna for dinner.

By our third night in Marrakech, we had the medina and the main square pretty well figured out. We took in a few more sights around the kasbah and regrouped at the riad. We were joined by the young Brits whom I mentioned earlier and Juan who had returned from a camel safari in the outlying desert. Janice, our lovely hostess, had generously sent down a couple half-bottles of surprisingly delicious Moroccan wine which warmed our spirits for our final night out in the Djemaa el-Fna. Wandering through the intense revelry, I strained to memorize every sight, sound and smell. Clouds of smoke from the grills billowed through the night air, blurring the bright lights, burning my eyes, filling my nose with tantalizing aromas. The beating of the drums folded into one unified rhythm. It felt like a wild dream.

The five of us unwittingly sat down at the end of one of the long picnic tables edging the walkway between the food stalls. We ordered calamari, meat brochettes and greasy French fries. The foods are all prepared ahead of time, piled high under a big awning, so our order was delivered in less than five minutes. As we ate and conversed, young beggar boys approached, pointing at our meat. When we shooed them away, they snatched meat from our plates and ran. Across the walkway, I watched an old woman and two teenaged boys hungrily devouring the remains of someone’s tajine, sopping up every bit with bread. At the end of our meal, another old woman asked for the two rounds of bread left untouched on our table, which I happily gave. I had offered them first to one of the little meat thieves but he’d had a one-track mind. While our meal on the outer edge was more disrupted than in the buffered interior, we were reminded what a privilege it is to enjoy such a meal. Some boys endure their entire youths without ever tasting the luxury of meat outside of that which they manage to snatch from someone’s plate in the market. It reminds us to be thankful for what we have and gentle with those who have not.

To be honest, I was dreading this brief return to the Third World after indulging in the comforts of Europe, but Morocco has already begun to win my heart. From the art and architecture to the fantastic chaos of the Djemaa el-Fna to the muezzin’s five-times-daily call to prayer echoing through the stucco walls in the maze-like medina, Marrakech is full of life. With adventurous spirits and open hearts, we dove in and immersed ourselves in its wild, colorful, chaotic charm.

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December 27th 2007
Reflections on Africa

Posted under South Africa

After three short months exploring eastern and southern Africa, we’ve seen so much but most of the Dark Continent remains unexplored. We fell in love with Africa and her people, some of the most warm-hearted on earth. Frustrating and inspiring, informative and confusing, hot and cold; our brief visit left me tired and weary, yet not truly ready to leave. From the comforts of home during our brief stay in Iowa, I reflect on Africa; her grandeur, her beauty, and her immeasurable potential so often suffocated by primitive tribal culture.

Africa is expensive. For as poor as most of her residents are, Africa is incredibly expensive for visitors. After staying in more than thirty different hostels in nearly as many nights, we’ve discovered that the rooms are almost all uniformly basic and barely clean, but it still costs a local resident’s monthly wages for a single night stay. On average we spent about $35-40 per night for these Spartan accommodations, always staying in private double bedrooms but often sharing a bathroom with our fellow travelers. Western staples such as food items in supermarkets and meals at restaurants are often priced on par with similar offerings in the US. Transportation, even when traveling on the same buses and shared taxis as the locals do, is often more expensive than one would think because of the dual price structure; one price for the locals, a different, higher price for the mzungus. On many routes, there are very few (insert mode of transport here) traveling to the destination you want around the time you want so you are at the mercy of the conductor/ticket seller and the prices they charge.

Everything will take longer and be more complicated than it should be. Very few things in our experience were done quickly or efficiently or delivered exactly as we expected. Sometimes this seemed to be caused by the incompetence of our local hosts, or an obvious lack of motivation, and other times by a clear language barrier. This Is Africa. Enough said.

The landscapes truly are breathtaking. From the plains of the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania to the white sand beaches of Zanzibar to the majestic green mountains of South Africa’s Wild Coast, Africa delivers. Even the most uncomfortable, sensory assaulting bus rides are redeemed by the views afforded along the way. We could have taken a hundred pictures each day (but who wants to look at that many landscape pictures?) and still not been able to capture her beauty. Africa must be experienced to be appreciated. No National Geographic photo spread or Discovery Channel documentary can fully capture the diversity and scale or the unadulterated beauty of these surroundings.

The value of human life is different. Malaria. HIV/AIDS. Hunger. Auto Accidents. Murder. You don’t have to travel far in Africa to find a family whose loved ones have died by one or more of these tragic events. For many of the local people that we met or merely exchanged glances with, each day is a struggle for survival. HIV is a devastating epidemic, but Malaria still kills many more people, over a million, each year. Many Africans only eat one meal each day and it almost never includes a meat dish. Some people are unable or unwilling to work and they rely on the generosity of an able-bodied relative or kind-hearted stranger for their survival. The disrepair of most “road worthy” vehicles and the narrow, potholed roads combine with aggressive African driving to result in commonplace auto accident fatalities. Others are victims of sexual abuse or inexplicable violence that leave them irreparably damaged. These are life and death realities so far from most western minds that it is still difficult for us to fully grasp the magnitude of their impact. In the US, we all expect to live to a ripe old age, dying sometime in our eighties, most likely from “natural causes.” In Africa, just surviving childhood is a divine gift and most men and women will never celebrate a fiftieth birthday.

Our African adventure has changed us in immeasurable ways. We have witnessed the desperation of the struggle for survival. We have seen overpopulation, lack of education, illiteracy, lack of employment opportunities, laziness, oppression of women, children conditioned to panhandle, squalid living conditions and a society where stealing is a means of survival. We have also seen kindness, hope, faith, sense of community, expressions of beauty through music and art, political awareness, and a desperate desire to improve quality of life. As we head for India we know that new adventures await but we can’t help pondering our next trip to Africa. Africa is wild, raw and primitive in comparison to our Western standards but that is precisely what makes it so intriguing.

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December 19th 2007

Posted under Africa & South Africa

Johannesburg, our final South African destination, is reputed to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Our guide book warned “to be very careful of your personal safety in Johannesburg”. While we had already traveled to other notoriously dangerous cities, such as Nairobi, we were still apprehensive about visiting a city where the white minority confine themselves to suburban shopping malls and their homes which are so heavily guarded with tall walls, barbed wire, security bars and surveillance systems that you feel an eerie sense of criminality lurking about, whether real or imagined.

We had pre-arranged a ride from the bus station through our hostel and were picked up quite tardily by a young man in a white Mercedes van. During the ride back to the hostel, I asked the driver if Johannesburg really lives up to its dubious reputation. He replied that it is safe…as long as you stay within the areas that the hostel staff specifies. He then shared a story about two male travelers who had recently stayed at the hostel. The staff had warned them not to venture outside the “safe” areas but they chose to disregard that advice. The hostel manager received a phone call at 2:00am from the police department requesting that he come down to the station and pick up two young men in their underwear. The two had been mugged and the perpetrators took EVERYTHING but their skivvies! Thankfully, the two idiots escaped with their lives – some are less fortunate. Johannesburg records more deaths each year by murder than by car crashes.

As we rode through downtown Johannesburg in the safety of our vehicle, I couldn’t take my eyes off the streets. I recall thinking that it didn’t look that dangerous. My imagination had conjured up an entire Hollywood cast of unsavory-looking characters uninhibitedly toting guns, chains, brass knuckles and big knives, ready in a moment’s notice to wreak havoc on anyone foolish enough to present himself as a potential target. What I saw instead were poverty-stricken human beings living life in their own neighborhood. My first impression was of uneducated young men whose rough edges and disheveled appearance would likely preclude them from ever earning an honest living outside of the hard labor pool. But first impressions can be deceiving. Still, I wasn’t about to get out and ask them if they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal Savior.

The hostel was nestled deep within a labyrinthine complex of heavily fortified houses. We entered the complex through a narrow alley separating two rows of modest homes behind walls and gates with barbed wire so jagged and extensive that it felt like we were entering a prison. Most of the walls also displayed signage of one or another armed response company – privately owned armed security companies that, judging by the number of similar signs around town, are making a killing! No pun intended. One thing was boldly apparent – these people are serious about their home security!

It was getting dark by the time we’d checked into our room and a heavy rain had begun to drench the city. We had spent over twelve hours traveling from Mozambique that day. Most people, me included, would relax, settle in, and go to bed early after an exhausting day like that. Not my husband! Instead, my never-do-tomorrow-what-you-can-do-today, can’t-sit-still-for-five-minutes, always-needs-a-project, sweet, adorable spouse gets this hare-brained idea in his head to walk to the grocery store. And worse…he puts on his best angel face to try to convince me to accompany him. I must admit that, after three years of marriage, I am still not immune to my husband’s charms. I strongly considered walking at least twenty minutes each way in the dark and pouring rain through the unfamiliar streets of Johannesburg! Granted, the store was supposedly in the “safe” zone but there was seriously nothing that we needed before morning. Thankfully, I came to my senses and tried desperately to bring Aaron to his. Perhaps it was my matted, greasy hair or my oily face from twelve hours of bus transit but my womanly guiles failed me. He was determined. I sent him off with a loving “Don’t call me to pick you up in your underwear at 2:00 in the morning from the police station. I’ll be asleep.”

He was gone for almost an hour and each minute of that hour felt like an eternity. I was sick with worry but tried to fill my head with positive thoughts as the rainfall crescendoed into an intense downpour. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then fear for your lover’s safety transforms you into a love-crazed maniac! When he walked through the door, soaked from head to toe, I squeezed him harder than the day he proposed.

The next morning, we decided to spend the day doing touristy things, namely a township tour and a visit to the Apartheid Museum. We made the arrangements through the hostel and were collected shortly thereafter by our tour guide. He had a very thick accent and was difficult to understand but he conducted our township tour with educational commentary and endearing enthusiasm.

Townships were created during the Apartheid era when oppressive European settlers, mainly from the Netherlands and Britain, displaced hundreds of thousands of native Africans from their centrally located homes to shanty towns on the outskirts of the city. Black people were allowed to come into the cities to work in the goldmines, as day laborers or in a servant capacity but they had to live in one of the established ghettos, called townships. “Soweto”, which is an acronym for “South West Township”, is South Africa’s largest township community and one of the largest ghettos in the world. Though the scars of Apartheid have begun their arduous healing process, the ghettos are still painfully overcrowded and, with few employment opportunities, many township residents still find themselves living in squalid conditions.

It was rainy that day and we spent the majority of the day viewing subdivisions of Soweto through the window of our van. Our guide was a resident of Soweto and provided valuable insight on the history, politics, education and living conditions related to township life. In one neighborhood, there had been a huge street party two nights prior and the residential streets were covered in jagged shards of shattered beer bottles. Scattered groups of men worked slowly to sweep up the glass but there was a good three block radius of unbelievable disaster zone. Our driver cringed as we listened to glass crackling under the tires.

As a part of the township tour, we also took a guided walk through one of the subdivisions of Soweto. Our driver stayed in the car while another local guide walked with us along a dirt road through rows of makeshift homes. Many had small vegetable gardens. One woman was sweeping diligently what might have been a front step but instead was the section of dirt road in front of her house. A group of little boys walked ahead of us, only mildly curious about two of what must be a parade of foreign tourists. Our guide explained that only about twenty percent of the township residents are employed due to poor education and lack of skills, proximity of the township to the city-center, lack of business opportunities within the township, etc.

We were also invited inside one of the houses and, for me, this is when things got a little awkward. Our guide led us into a one-room shack where three young men were sitting and said “Okay, you can ask them questions and take photos now.” First of all, we weren’t about to start snapping photos of these people’s home like zoo patrons photographing the monkeys. Second, we didn’t exactly have a list of questions prepared since we were put on the spot so, after an awkward silence, we started asking whatever questions came to mind. The approximately three hundred square foot house was home to eight young men. A couch, love seat and television occupied one side while the other side held a large freezer and shelves stacked with miscellaneous household items. The freezer was non-operational but the bottom was lined with a layer of beer bottles covered with a broken ice block. The guide explained that the young men tried to make a living by selling beer. They had to buy a new block of ice every day in order to keep their product cold. The entire township is without electricity; most people use car batteries to power their small electronics such as televisions and radios. The house that we were in had a small generator which sat in the middle of the floor. When asked where they sleep, the young men replied that they have bedding that they take out at night. After about ten minutes of uncomfortable interrogation, our guide led us outside the house and back to our van but not before hitting us up for a sizable “donation” for which he suggested the amount. Normally, I am immune to this sort of request for a handout but my emotions were disturbed by my immediate surroundings and, without hesitating, I handed over the amount requested. He said that the donations are used to benefit the community but I suspect that he just pocketed it. The whole exchange seemed underhanded and I felt as if the chastity belt on my pocket had been violated. I have definitely suffered buyer’s remorse in my life but this was the first time for donor’s remorse. With a sour taste in my mouth, I hopped back into the van and we continued on with the next segment of our tour at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which commemorates Soweto children who lost their lives in protest against Apartheid. Apartheid, by the way, is an Afrikaans (language of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa) word meaning “segregation solely based upon race”.

We then took a brief tour of the house that Nelson Mandela lived in for almost thirty years with two of his three wives (not simultaneously). The modest house was quaint and cozy with many family photos, articles of Mandela’s clothing and shoes, rooms full of honorary degrees from esteemed universities, newspaper and magazine clippings documenting his political actions, gifts from celebrities and international leaders and letters of support and praise, including an interesting letter from the State of Michigan, apologizing on behalf of the United States for the CIA’s role in Mandela’s eventual capture and imploring then-President George Bush to issue an official apology which, of course, was never done.

The final stop on the day’s itinerary was the Apartheid Museum. We parted ways with our guide and spent the remainder of the afternoon inside the museum. With its extensive collection of photographs, video footage, interviews, and Apartheid-era memorabilia, the museum meticulously documents the history of Apartheid, lifestyles of native Africans in contrast to other immigrant groups under Apartheid, the propaganda used to market the idea of Apartheid to the European settlers, and the valiant, bloody fight to bring the long-time racial oppression to an end. We noted many interesting parallels between the persuasive tactics used to perpetuate Apartheid and those used to rally support of the Nazi regime. We were especially moved by a temporary exhibit on the life of Bantu Stephen Biko, a brilliant anti-Apartheid activist who was eventually arrested and allegedly died of head injuries sustained in captivity, though no one was ever charged with his murder. He spoke intelligently and passionately about the black people’s need to empower themselves by changing their self-image from the negative associations prescribed by their oppressors to proud and positive associations with their black heritage. He was only 30 years old when he died alone in a jail cell. We stayed at the museum until it closed and then called for a ride back to the hostel. It had been an intense day revolving around extreme poverty, oppression, martyrdom, child martyrdom and unjust imprisonment. We were emotionally drained.

In drastic contrast to our day of depressing tourist activities, we spent the next day inside a two-story haven of commercialism and muted Christmas cheer: the mall. As we walked leisurely through the bright and colorful stores full of pretty things, handsome things, baubles and gadgets – the very same things that once seemed important enough to spend entire weekends collecting – our senses were overloaded. The whole scene was surreal. I suddenly felt a belated jolt of liberation at having purged our ubiquitous stuff, sold the house that we worked constantly to fill with stuff, thereby alleviating any temptation to purchase durable goods aside of our daily necessities. I didn’t feel the weight of my possessions until it was lifted. I felt a subconscious rearrangement of priorities in my life. I would never go so far as to say that I don’t value material possessions. That would be absurd. Material comforts are…well…comfortable. These days, rather than drooling over a new purse or piece of jewelry at Nordstrom, my hopes are focused on health and happiness, family, friendships, love and triumphing over the bathroom challenges on this crazy adventure. I wonder, though, if I will fall back into that old familiar obsession with stuff when I am thrown back into the bottomless pit of suburban commercialism. Que sera sera, as the saying goes. For now, I’m not worried about the future. I’m just enjoying the simplicity of carrying my worldly possessions on my back for a while.

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