Not quite Sharknado

I learned I was claustrophobic in a narrow cage – about two people wide and nine people long – tethered to a small boat anchored somewhere in the Indian Ocean, while men chucked buckets of slimy fish overboard in hopes of attracting a great white shark or two.

Small spaces don’t make me claustrophobic. It was the mask that covered my nose that did it, stopping me from breathing naturally and forcing me to gulp down air through my mouth. I’d also been the first one to enter the cage, with a weight slung across my chest and the goggles tightly fastened to my face by the dive master. Moments before sliding into the icy water, I’d gasped and exclaimed upon seeing the first shark’s fin peeping out of the water as the shark gulped down fish entrails. Then I was in the same water, feeling it seep into my too-large diving shoes and turning to watch as my friends, Dejan and Nicole, moved down the cage to join me.

“Can you breathe? I can’t breathe, can you guys breathe?” I must have asked some variation of that question about 50 times while our bodies were submerged. We held on to the bars of the cage in front of us, waiting for a command from the dive master to take a deep breath and push ourselves down when a shark approached. I think we were in the water for 20-25 minutes; that command came about three times. The first time I looked the wrong way, but the next two times, I saw the sharks body swimming past the cage, an eerie dark mass moving silently past us and swallowing fish and seawater. Seeing the sharks’ massive, glistening bodies moving underwater was incredible, but I think that the glimpses we caught of the sharks from the boat rank higher on my personal list of greatest sights.

Then finally, I’d had enough of not being able to breathe and asked to get out. Most of the eight people in the cage followed immediately. In our dripping shoes and wetsuits, the three of us climbed up the ladder to the top deck on the boat, where we had a perfect view of the people in the shark cage and of any sharks that showed up for a snack.

Twenty or 30 minutes passed without ceremony, and just as I was getting a little bored – and more than a little seasick – a shark showed up, swimming around the cage and battling with the fish head being cast out by one of the workers on the boat as bait. And it was somewhere in that moment that I realised how much I’d hate to come face to face with one of these massive beasts without the safety of bars or a boat or some sort of retreat. Its jaws tightened around that fish head, ripping scales and flesh away (and giving the boat worker’s arms a good workout), it thrashed its own head around in an attempt to break the fish away from the hook, and then finally, it swam away.

And that 30-second spectacle is probably one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen. Totally worth the claustrophobia discovery and seasickness and even the waking up at 2:30 am part (we were picked up from Cape Town at 3:30 for the drive to Kleinbaai).

It’s an experience that can’t be replicated with sharks in captivity. And it’s an experience that may not exist in a few decades if people keep insisting on shark fin soup or whatever other reasons are given to justify killing the species. Let sharks be, and enjoy them in their own habitat. Diving with sharks beat looking at them in a Dubai shopping mall by a hell of a long shot.

PS: Sharknado is an awful movie and I highly recommend it

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Real life

This beach is real, guys. And it's probably my favourite

This beach is real, guys. And it’s probably my favourite

Yes, I know. My last proper post was on Sept. 25. A few posts ago, I told myself I wouldn’t let more than a few days or notable events go by without blogging, and that’s clearly not happened.

But I think I’ve got an explanation for that. It’s much easier to keep a travel journal like this blog is turning out to be when everything still seems foreign and new and every encounter and experience demands at least two paragraphs dissecting it.

Slowly, living in Cape Town has started to feel like real life. I have a schedule and I know where to get groceries and I have a grip on public transport and I take my iPhone out with me and there’s a group of friends I regularly hang out with and my apartment on Roeland Street feels like home. Walking out of my building to be greeted by a view of Table Mountain is a daily thing now, though no less impressive. And marching through a barrage of cars that never slows or swerves has almost become habit. And somewhere between Aug. 27 and Oct. 14, this stopped feeling like more of a suspended reality free from school and deadlines and real life.

I’ve been critical of people who treat study abroads and volunteering opportunities as a reason to go crazy because it’s not real life, it doesn’t count. Being in a new country isn’t an excuse to get wasted or high or both every night, to break laws because you convince yourself they don’t apply to you, or to insult local culture because you feel yours is superior. I hope I’ve managed to avoid all that.

But it’s certainly taken me a while to accept that oh my god I actually live in Cape Town. I was born in Switzerland. I think I moved to the Netherlands before I could walk. From there my family moved to Pakistan, and on the flight back, I asked if I could go out and play. Then almost a decade was spent living first in Norway and Switzerland, then Austria and Denmark. My first move alone was to Boston for university, though my mom came to help me settle in. Moving to Boston felt much different than moving to Cape Town did: I’d already visited, I’d be living on campus, the culture wasn’t too different, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed. Cape Town was my first move on my own – new country, new continent, new job, new life?

So for about the first month, this new life didn’t feel real. I’d interviewed for a job I wasn’t sure I would get. Once I got the offer, backing out wasn’t an option because I think the international co-op office at my school would have crucified me. And then one of the women who hired me sent me my ticket and all of a sudden it was real. After an awful visa application process and an equally shitty time looking for an apartment, I had my visa, I had a flat, and I was at Logan Airport walking through those TSA body scanners that hide nothing. Then I was on a plane and another plane, then I was disembarking and going through customs. And then I was in Cape Town.

The first few days were filled with new faces and names, but slowly, all of the people in my programme and I began to settle in. We explored – and are still exploring – Cape Town together, piecing it together to make it feel familiar. And through that process, this all became real.

And real seems harder to write about, but I guess that’s a cop-out because it’s an opportunity to dig deeper for topics. Instead of writing about what I did on a given day, I’m going to try writing about the impressions of South Africa that I’ve formed over the past six weeks. This post is a first attempt at that, and this time, when I say there will be more to come, I mean it.

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Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in quotes

These minuscule red picket signs were scattered throughout the Garden of Extinction at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. My trip there was on Sept. 15, so these pictures are a little overdue.

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Amy Biehl

Amy Biehl didn’t come to South Africa to die. But she did tell her parents that in case she did, she hoped to be a number, not a name, because when black people died, they were written up as “15 people died today.” White people were given names and biographies and lives that, on paper, were given more meaning than any black death could ever be bestowed.

When she was killed, her name and biography was in headlines and ledes around the world.

While dropping a friend off in Gugulethu township outside Cape Town on Aug. 25, 1993, Amy ran into a mob returning from an anti-apartheid protest. They saw a white face, a symbol of apartheid oppression – not the 26-year-old woman who’d come to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar to further the anti-apartheid cause, and to help black voters register for upcoming elections.

And so they pulled her out of her car. She ran, but not fast enough or far enough. And then they stoned her and stabbed her. Four men were arrested, and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

One of those men, Easy Nofemela, showed me, Lingling and Michaela around the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust this morning.

All the men were pardoned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They served four years of their sentence. And when they pleaded for amnesty, Amy’s parents attended the hearings. More than that, they supported the four men.

After their daughter’s death, Linda and Peter Biehl visited South Africa to experience the country Amy came to help. They met the killers’ families, and grieved with them. Through that, they began to understand the circumstances and lifestyles that bred the hatred that made every white face the enemy. I think it was around that point that forgiveness became viable for the Biehls.

Amy was going to fly back to the US on Aug. 27. Her boyfriend was going to propose to her.

Ntobeko Peni, one of her killers, sat next to Linda during a CNN interview. In that interview, he said that apartheid taught him whites were his enemy. And that night, students took to the streets bringing everything down. He says that while he did have some choice when it came to killing Amy, it wasn’t much of a choice – he was at a point where he was willing to kill or be killed for the cause. And so he killed.

Then he applied for amnesty. Then, when they were out of prison, he and Easy asked to meet Linda and Peter. The Amy Biehl Foundation Trust was set up in 1994 to empower township youth. Now, Easy and Ntobeko were trying to organize activities for township kids. The Biehls conceded to a meeting

Today, both Ntobeko and Easy work for the foundation.

When we met Easy today, Kevin Chaplin, who runs the foundation, told us he’s been asked a lot of times why they hire Easy and Ntobeko. We didn’t meet Ntobeko, but Kevin told us Easy is a great man, a good husband and a good father.

And as Easy walked up and down the narrow corridor in the foundation’s office, introducing us to absolutely everyone as his good friends, we could see how much he loved being there. In the interview we watched, Ntobeko said that being released from prison gave him the chance to be a new person. Part of the reason they were pardoned was because they said their actions were politically motivated, and because they showed remorse.

Linda said in one of the videos that reconciliation goes far beyond forgiveness. And it was apartheid that killed Amy – it was the oppressive, violent regime that brought these young men to the point where murder was something doable.

Reconciliation seems tough though. But I guess that’s what must happen in a country where the various populations existed so differently and so separately for decades. And Amy’s story is one of a white person being killed by black people. I can’t even imagine how high the number goes for black people killed by white people under apartheid.

Reconciling those populations is going to take more than the 20 years that have passed since the end of apartheid. The Biehls’ story is remarkable, but I’ll bet it’s just as rare as it sounds. There’s a lot of resentment and inequality that still need addressing – I’ve yet to see a single white person sleeping rough in a park or outside a building.

Their story is amazing. Rather than want nothing to do with South Africa after Amy’s murder, Linda and Peter set up a foundation that gives kids in the townships something to do, whether it’s dancing or sports or working on literacy. There are programs in Gugulethu, where Amy was killed, and in several other townships. Apartheid is over, and now they’re working to continue the job Amy came here to do, because ending the regime isn’t the end of the story – now they must make sure youth in townships can rise up and out. They’ve given Easy and Ntobeko that opportunity too, by taking the angry men out of the townships and then sending them back as mentors. And now they bring volunteers to South Africa.

It’s highly unlikely – probably impossible – that the new volunteers will meet Amy’s fate. There’s still more changes to set into motion though, and a lot more reconciliation to go.

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A different world

Written on Sept. 21

Taylor and I walked through Company’s Garden, along Long Street, and ended up in Bo-Kaap today. You can see it from streets away – the bright hues of the buildings give it away. I stepped into a convenience store and finally found garam masala, so now I have everything to make daal according to my mom’s recipe. Almost everything, actually. Still missing the daal, because I can’t find the specific kind I want. #struggles

Daal woes aside, Bo-Kaap was adorable. The steep hills lead to amazing views of Table Mountain, framed by the blues and pinks and purples of the buildings. It’s apparently a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. I’m used to blocking out the azaan – call to prayer broadcast from mosques – after years of living in and visiting Pakistan, where it gets progressively louder each time I’m back, but Taylor pointed it out while we were walking around today. The store where I stopped had pictures of the Saudi Arabian kings in it, and an old Iraqi banknote with Saddam Hussein on it.

We walked around for about 15 minutes, then headed back to Long Street where we caught a cab to Camps Bay and were later joined by Gwen. Idiot that I am, I accidentally left my swimsuits behind. Today was too sunny, the sand too warm and the waves too inviting not to go for a dip though, and I ran in wearing my dress. No regrets at all, though the water was freezing cold at first, before subsiding to the sort of numbness that vaguely burns.

Then at night, Taylor and I went over to the Labia cinema to watch A Hundred Foot Journey. $4 for a movie – craziness.

Things I found cool about A Hundred Foot Journey:

  • They used a Muslim Indian family, which I haven’t seen much in the mainstream – they don’t come out and explicitly say the family is Muslim, but all the kids have Muslim names (Hassan, Ayesha, Mansour), they eat bœuf bourguignon, and you never see them handle pork even though the movie is set in France
  • The writers and director didn’t shy away from showing the racist side of France, and how it affects real people. The family’s restaurant wall is defaced, Hassan’s hands are badly burned, and parts of the restaurant are lost to flames. But then we also see Madame Mallory, who owns the French Michelin star restaurant across the street, scrub the wall clean in the rain, and fire the chef who helped orchestrate the attack
  • They also show how success is colour-blind – after Madame Mallory’s restaurant gets its second star, Hassan is courted by Parisian restaurants and revolutionises the kitchen he ends up in

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Over my head

I’m sort of sad that my first concert in South Africa was an American band, but they had an excellent South African opener, so I guess that mitigates it slightly. Gwen, who just got here last week, and I went to see The Fray at the Grand West Arena on Sept. 20. They were good but not great – I think I’d have preferred the show in a much smaller venue. – 5,000 cap. would have been great. Nonetheless, they put on a decent show. I first heard “How To Save A Life” years ago on the Man of the Hour Hour, a podcast hosted by Patrick Langlois and Simple Plan guitarist Sebastien Lefebvre, and seeing that live was awesome. I’ve got video that I’ll hopefully be able to post at some point, wifi permitting.

The opener, a guy (band?) called Jeremy Loops, was awesome – I’m adding him to my list of people I want to interview for ABScream Media, and I hope I can get that sorted out before I leave Cape Town.

The arena was part of a giant complex that also housed a casino, hotel, food court, and ice-skating rink. Naturally, we went ice-skating after the show, which was so much fun. I haven’t been in ages, but after a few metres, it felt like I was back in Switzerland at the rink where my sister and I took figure-skating classes every Wednesday. The biggest difference was that I was in South Africa and it wasn’t winter – it’s spring.

Then we headed to the casino, wandered around, lost some money, took some selfies and then hailed a cab home.

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Birthday in Cape Town

My sister is super sweet

My sister is super sweet

I try to measure how much fun I had at an event by counting the number of pictures at the end. My theory is that the fewer pictures I have, the more fun I had. Some things, like the penguins at Boulders Beach, demand that picture after picture be taken, so those aren’t measured to the same standards. But birthdays are. I have maybe six photos from my birthday, plus a few videos that Shelby and Vinaya took on my phone as the waiter recited a birthday poem to me and as I blew out my candles.

Needless to say, my birthday was fun.

We went to Sgt. Pepper for dinner, where I realised when looking down the table that I know a lot more people in Cape Town than I thought I did. Fun fact: their cranberry Long Island iced teas are delicious and probably lethal, because they actually taste like candy. 10/10.

We ended up with the same waiter who’d surprised Cath with a poem last time, so naturally, I demanded a birthday poem. He gave it a few tries but I think he kept forgetting the lines. He made up for that with a birthday shot, which I think was Kahlua+rum. Super good.

Then the cake was brought out and I made my wish, blew out the candles, and made a mess of cutting the cake into more than 20 pieces. Thankfully, Simone took over after I’d decimated the cake into about 12 pieces.

A few of us went to Beer House across the street after dinner, then an even smaller group went to Fiction, a drum and bass club that a woman at Beer House insisted we go to. Here’s the thing about the music there – it never drops. It keeps going and going and going and then returning to the same loops, but never releases. So people are jumping and shaking the entire time, but there’s no end. Which meant that there was a metre radius around everyone as they shook their arms and legs, looking a lot like they were in the midst of seizures. Definitely not heading back there any time soon, but there are so many places to explore that I don’t think that’s an issue at all.


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Soundtrack 4

When I move to a new city, I plug in earbuds, put on whatever music feels appropriate, and go for a walk. Here, I’ve been advised against walking around with earbuds in, probably because it makes me more vulnerable to mugging because it makes me seem unaware of my surroundings and makes it obvious that I have either an MP3 player or relatively fancy phone on me. I’m still going for walks when the sun is out, and I’m slowly putting together a basic map in my head. But my walks, especially the morning ones to work, feel empty because there is no soundtrack. That also means that there won’t be songs I’ll hear years from now that will remind me of the geese in Company’s Garden, or of the crooked and uneven sidewalks that I navigate each time I step out, or of crossing the street looking right and left and right and left to make sure I don’t get run over by cars that never stop or swerve. I’m stuck with my own thoughts, which I guess isn’t a bad thing. But sometimes, you just need a singer and a drummer and a guitarist or two and a bassist playing as you explore. I’ve been listening to WALK THE MOON and Bleachers on repeat in my apartment, but that doesn’t solve the problem of access to music in the great outdoors. Maybe it’s time to invest in whatever the South African equivalent of a mariachi band is, and have them follow me around?

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Another day, another adventure. I’d been so nervous about coming to Cape Town, and now I’m certain that I made an excellent decision when I chose to intern here.

Well. A mostly excellent decision. On our way to Cape Town Station to board a train to the Old Biscuit Mill this morning, we stopped at an ATM so Shelby and Tsion could withdraw some money. Shelby got hers just fine. Then it was Tsion’s turn. She barely had her card in – a bright red Bank of America debit card – before a man butted in. He reached for her card and she stopped him. Then he took it, and she thought he stuck it into the ATM. She started trying to enter her pin code, then a woman who had earlier asked me for the time jumped in, telling Tsion to hold one button down while entering her pin code. She did her best to hide the pin code, and Laura also jumped in, shielding the woman’s eyes. We finally managed to get rid of the woman then, but Tsion’s card had vanished. We assumed the machine ate it and got a bank teller to help us. No card in the machine.

Ten minutes later, we made it to the train station where Tsion got wifi on her phone and logged into her bank account, only to find $1,000 gone. Luckily, at that point, the bank had blocked her card for suspicious activity, and she called the bank to tell them what had happened.

If that had been me, I’d have been a total wreck. She kept a straight face through it, and didn’t let it ruin her day.

We got onto the train to Woodstock and wandered around Old Biscuit Mill for a few hours, where I ran into Nick from work and an old acquaintance from Denmark who also goes to Northeastern. I got some amazing salad and falafel there – who said being vegan would be impossible here? And then later today, I had the best passion fruit sorbet ever. Today was a total win for food.

After Old Biscuit Mill, we got back on the train to go to Simon’s Town, which I prefer to call Penguin Land. The train ride there took us past gorgeous beaches with white sand and clear blue water. As we trundled past Muizenburg, we oohed at the colourful huts set up on the beach. And we saw natural pools built into the ocean, bordered off with rocks. The water was a pristine blue, and it makes me wonder what shark cage diving will be like, and how far we’ll be able to see when holding our breath while submerged underwater, peering around for great whites.

After ages, we made it to Simon’s Town and began the long march to the penguins. One winding path took us along part of the penguin habitat, covered in green shrubbery and protected by a fence, where every few metres tourists would be stopped with cameras out, photographing penguins. We definitely saw two penguins practicing the art of mating. We also came across a shy one who stared down at his feet as we stared across at him.

Then we paid up 55 rand – just over $5 – to go down a boardwalk that took us to a point overlooking the water’s edge, where penguins sunbathed and swam, squawking loudly. I saw a mother sitting atop her chick, and there were several awkward chicks, still covered in grey fuzz, stumbling around like tiny old drunk men.

On our way back, we stopped at market stalls where beaded jewellery, scrapbooks and other souvenirs. They also had masks for sale. My dad used to collect masks and had a huge collection hanging on the wall along the staircase, and I was hit by a random moment of really missing him. Funny how that stuff catches up with you, even years and continents away.

Now I’m at home, pleasantly exhausted and ready for another round of exploring Cape Town tomorrow.


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Conversations in Cape Town

Written on Sept. 13

Yesterday, I met up with Melanie at the waterfront. Well. I got hopelessly lost before she found me, but that was bound to happen at some point. We got lunch at a restaurant on the pier, where we discussed the outcome of the Pistorius trial with our waiter. The day before, the two of us had watched part of the verdict in a restaurant, before the judge called it a day. Our waiter yesterday thought that South Africa would go to deliberate lengths to make a spectacle of him because the whole world is watching. Luckily for Pistorius, he got his bail extended and his sentencing will be relatively soon on Oct. 13. I’m curious to see how the rest of this unfolds. And then once this high-profile case is done, it’s time for the Dewani one, which will also be interesting. So much legal drama, so little time.

I spent rest of the time wandering the waterfront with Taylor and James. We wandered through a food market where we’ll definitely return, and a crafts market filled with items just begging to fill my suitcase as souvenirs. One stall had gorgeous handmade dresses – one will find its way into my bags before I leave.

As we were walking back, we passed a free gallery that advised parental guidance because of nudity and distressing images. Naturally, we walked straight in. The pictures involving nudity were interesting – not because of the nudity, but because it was white people painted or photographed in traditional South African garb. It was different to see pale skin underneath the colourful prints and beads and piercings associated with African tribes.

Then Taylor and I had a long conversation with the curator, who is an American who fell in love with Cape Town eight years ago. It was thought provoking to hear her opinions on the streams of America students pouring into the city as study abroad-ers or interns and behave in ways that would never be acceptable back home. I share that sentiment – amid all the warnings we get about how dangerous it is here, I try to remind myself that this is home to a vast population, and they all survive. And I guess that the fact that this is home for many is often forgotten by people here for just a short period and who treat their time here as a reality suspended from “real life” at home.

She also shared my apprehension about township tours – she called it “poverty tourism,” which is a phrase I really liked. I’m uncomfortable with the idea because it’s just walking or driving into a poor area to see what poverty looks like and snapping pictures with an expensive phone or camera. If I get to a township through a less manufactured method, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. But if not, I won’t be upset that I didn’t get to go gawp at one. I think I wrote something similar after my first time tutoring at the foster home – at the end of the day, I get to leave. And if my presence there serves some purpose, like I hope the tutoring does, then that’s great. But if not, then I don’t want to intrude on someone else’s life so I can feel bad for the duration of my visit before going back to playing Candy Crush as soon as it’s over.

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