Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Of mountains, mermaids, and more

In an effort to actually post this before it is too old, I’m going to forego the usual style and just expand on things I wrote in an email to some of you already. Apologies for the lack of creativity. I’ll try to get back on the ball soon.

Pictures on picasaweb.google.com/aj.kumar

The last few weeks were a whirlwind. Travel restriction ended and so we got our first chance to explore this country unhindered by job duties. I can already tell, there is not going to be enough time in the two years here to explore it all thoroughly (and still get some work done at site). I’m struck by the immense diversity and the sometimes disheartening disparities. Somehow both Phepane and Pretoria exist in the same country. Whites and to a lesser extent rich blacks, Indians, and coloured people (South African terminology), can live a privileged life in almost complete ignorance of what their country is outside of Joburg, Durban, and Cape Town. Poor rural blacks can go their whole life without knowing anything outside their village and without realizing there is anything outside of South Africa. But of course generalizations exist to be turned on their heads. Chatting with a few people in my training village of Motswedi, we debated the growing influence of China in Africa, mining rights, and how skills transfer was a more effective means of development than monetary aid. I had a wonderful experience chatting with an old English South African for two evenings on the mountain on topics ranging from how to tackle the challenges of AIDS and how to work within the village mentality to effect change in education. I met a Norwegian that had been a volunteer in SA a few years ago and had conversations that challenged many assumptions I held about education and development as well.

While Tera and I were closing out my camp in Tsoe, Stacy and Phil went down to Kimberly to rent a car and get a tent. Stacy had been kind of sick the day before but recovered just in time for Phil to get sick. The stayed at her place for the night and then made a trip to the clinic before coming to meet us out in Tsoe. We had planned on hiking out across the flat to camp out but Phil was in no shape to hike anywhere so we just had a lazy day and pitched the tent outside my house, where we were serenaded throughout the night by house music coming from some kid’s yard. The next day we headed out, dropped off Tera in Vryburg with the other girls to go straight to Pretoria and the rest of us proceeded to Motswedi, our training village.

Motswedi was absolutely gorgeous. When we had arrived for training, it was after a year long drought but now after heavy rains, the hills were blooming with everything; peaches, figs, mangoes, and amarula. Everyone was excited to see us. I chatted with my Ntate for a long time about my site, about what’s been happening in Motswedi, and about honey. The next day, I visited more people and Art came over for a little bit. While he was there, the son of Lucas Mangope came by and we had a chat about South Africa and development. We drew comparisons and contrasts to other African nations and discussed how China and India had succeeded in finding a fast track to development and foreign investment. Later, Phil came by and we played boggle with my visiting host sister who is in med school and discussed the medical system here. You go to med school for 7 years after finishing high school and they are going to try to compress it to 5 she said. A bit different to the way things go in the US. The next day, we said goodbye to our families again and packed into the car with Carmen joining us and sang Christmas carols on the way to Pretoria.

For Christmas, I was in Pretoria at a backpackers with about 15 other volunteers. We had a nice dinner provided as compliments from the owners. We talked a lot, catching up over the last three months. Then we rented our second car and began our real adventure in the mountains. We named the original red car Madi (blood) and the new white car Masi (milk). Our faithful drivers took us down long roads in these and got us all back safely, and for that, we thank them all greatly.

The Drakensbergs are an absolutely gorgeous range. The mountains are green and contrasts jagged spikes with rolling tops. It’s almost tropical hiking in the summer and I was covered in sweat in the first 10 minutes of hiking. We crossed over many streams and creeks too. We made camp at a place called Keith Bush Camp and met two groups of English South Africans. We also spotted several Berg Adders which made us antsy about stepping on more snakes. The next day, we went for the peak. It was extremely cloudy and the clouds descended on us as we ascended. Soon, we had to walk within 10 meters of each other so that we could see everyone. It also made it hard to gauge how steep and how much exposure there was to certain bits. But we carried on conservatively. The last big climb was up a boulder wash that reminded me of some ascents in California. It brought us out onto a beautiful mountain plateau at about 3000 meters high. There was a big river flowing over it. Apparently, Basotho herdsmen used to bring their cattle here to graze. We couldn’t see well so we picked out the nearest of several peaks and climbed it. We had meant to ascend Champagne Castle which is 3377 m but I think we ended up on top of a subpeak of about 3318 m. It was still quite beautiful and I think we may have accidentally walked into Lesotho since the peak straddles the border. We ate summit chocolate, took some pictures and headed back down to descend the gorge. As we started coming down the gorge, the clouds began to part. Rounding one corner, I saw a crag standing out with the valley in the background, and as the clouds cleared a bit more, I made out a stag standing on a ledge staring out at us from a distance. It was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve seen when hiking. I tried to take pictures but don’t think they capture the immensity of the scene unless they are blown up to be about 100 times bigger. As we descended, I think I injured my left knee and it gave me some trouble. I wrapped it the next day and got it checked out in Pretoria. It’s almost all better now. Back at the camp, I had some good conversations with an old man in one of the other groups. He has been a lifelong mountain climber and also a teacher in KwaZulu-Natal. He was also surprisingly understanding of black South Africans for a white guy.

The next day we descended completely and reunited with the rest of our party. With ten people total, the group could be unwieldy at times but it was nice to have a different crowd of people you could go to if you felt suffocated. We had a nice meal and then prepared for our adventure to St. Lucia the next day. We drove out over KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) which is a beautiful state. Villages dot the rolling hills which are freshened by the sea breeze rolling in from the Indian Ocean. The hills slowly give way to endless fields of sugar cane before finally succumbing to the sea. We went to Blythesdale Beach near Stanger and played in the water. I was shocked by the amount of Indians there. It seemed like half the beach was black and the other half brown. I’m sure the whites have a nice beach somewhere else… It was a little strange to not be noticeable. Even though my village is semi used to Indian guys because of the shops, I’m still a minority there and a topic of curiosity. The riptide was something fierce so we didn’t really swim. Stacy and I decided we should make a sand turtle and so we did while Phil dug a barrier to protect it from waves. Afterwards we wanted to bury someone and since no one volunteered, I ended up covered in sand and turned into a mermaid…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After that we washed up and continued north along the coast to St. Lucia. St. Lucia was a bit of a change. A tourist haven where the only non-whites you saw were pretty much those serving the food, it had all the trappings of a coastal American tourist trap. We had dinner and coffee and then loaded up onto a monster jeep to go for our night safari to find sea turtles. Our guide was a graduate student from the Wits (Witswatersrand University – one of the best in the nation) who studies the turtles. He vaguely resembled Ralph Fiennes. It was a fun ride. On the way into the park, we saw many types of bok, zebra, and even a white rhino with her baby. It was huge and had a matching horn. We finally reached the beach and drove along for 20 km on the coast looking for turtles. We tried to keep ourselves awake in the back by playing tour guide since we couldn’t hear the real one. The sea mist rolled over us while the moon reflected moodily off the waves as.

Alas, we saw no turtles but only the tracks of one. They looked almost like tractor tracks. The most exciting part of the night was when our tourguide ran off into the night after a more commercial tourguide who was trying to lure turtles out of the water with a spotlight to please his crowd. As our more environmentally minded guide had explained, the turtles will be attracted to the lights but will often come out, get scared, and race back to the sea, dumping their eggs. He came back after exchanging some harsh words with the other guide and puffed on his cigarette, which he had been comically careful to keep while he had run off.

After returning to St. Lucia, we slept in our cars for a few hours before beginning the drive back. We picked up lots of groceries and cooked a huge New Years Eve feast. We made voers (sausage) and steak on the grill (or braii) as well as corn (mealie). Others made tortillas, guacamole, salsa, noodles, vegetable stir fry, sticky rice, and butternut squash. It was quite delicious. I spent the night talking to some older volunteers and locals until midnight when we toasted the New Years and retired to our tents. As I got to my tent, I noticed the fireworks being set off at the local golf course.

The next day, some of us went on a day hike in another park a little south. We had hoped to see some San Rock Paintings but the main cave they are in was closed for the holiday. Instead we played on rocks and in a stream before heading back to the cars. As we got to the cars we saw a family of baboons. The male was busy showing off by climbing and peeing on cars. He did a little dance and rolled around on them too. It was pretty hilarious, since it wasn’t our cars.

The next day we started the drive home, going to Pretoria to drop off our cars. We went out for dinner and to a pub there and I came back early to get some sleep. There we met a girl from Wellesley on a Watson Fellowship to study anthropology around the world and a Norwegian teaching student, who had been a volunteer with a European organization 2 years ago. He was heading to Namibia the next day, so me and another volunteer, Phil, got a ride with him. Unfortunately we hit a pothole and got two flats. We waited in the bush for a few hours until the rental agency brought him a fresh car and we continued on our way. Since we couldn’t make it as far, I made some calls, and arranged lodging with a fellow volunteer, Arlean who graciously gave us dinner too. The next day we drove to my shopping town Kuruman and I caught the taxi back to my site. It was quite an adventure and it was lots of fun but it’s good to be home, despite the sweltering heat.


John said...

i am quite jealous of the growing list of animals you've seen in the wild. that, of course, and all your life-changing adventures. (but it's really all about the animals...)

Naveen said...

Wow, it looks like you had an amazing summer vacation. The landscape photos that you took are quite breath-taking (there's nothing like that in Singapore). It's great that you are meeting such a wide range of people in your travels.