I am back

Well, after a mammoth 18 hours of travelling, from 4pm on Saturday, when I boarded my flight in Cape Town, to 11am yesterday, when I landed at Heathrow,  I arrived back in a rainy and freezing England yesterday. After a shower, cup of tea, takeaway curry and a good night’s sleep, I feel that I have now returned to my normal self and I just plucked up the courage to check my google reader – *gasp* – well over 500 posts to catch up on! This will take me some time!

In short, I had an amazing time. Absolutely amazing. South Africa is a stunningly beautiful country and waking up in the morning to blazing sunshine IN MARCH is enough to make any English person quiver with excitement. Leaving the airport I had my first experience of the real South Africa – a township, stretching as far as the eye could see, runs along the side of the motorway for miles on the way to Somerset West, where my friend lives. I couldn’t believe that in a country that appears so Westernised, there are literally millions of people who, just because of the colour of their skin, are living in shacks made of whatever they can find, mostly corrugated iron and bits of wood, huddled together in such close quarters that personal space must be an alien concept to them. The poverty was eye opening, and humbling, and really rather painful for me to confront. My friend works in a township school, and for the first five days of my stay, I went with her into a more local township where the church she is part of started a school ten years ago. The children in her class were absolutely beautiful, and so bright and excitable. Though many of them are orphans and live in conditions I would find unbearable, they all turn up for school every day, well turned out, with their little rucksacks and big smiles on their faces, ready and willing to learn and have fun. They are so affectionate and lovely, coming up for cuddles, and to play with your hair, and to look at your things, and write you little cards – they are really just the loveliest little children. I was so thankful to have the opportunity to spend time with them and learn from them just what the most important things in life are; certainly not material objects, but having hearts filled with love for other people, and an infectious spirit of fun and enjoyment in life that isn’t hampered by difficult circumstances.

Other than working in the township school I did do a number of touristy things. A local old Dutch house with stunning gardens was a favourite place; it’s called Vergelegen and was rather like a National Trust property, complete with cream teas, which I indulged in twice, despite the use of whipped rather than clotted cream which usually I find unforgiveable. Their saving grace was that the scones were excellent and also very big so I could accept the inferior cream in the face of such good scones. I was also very fortunate to be able to visit Robben Island, which is where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were kept from the 1960s until the 1990s, and is the third biggest penguin colony in the world, apparently.  It’s a short ferry ride from Cape Town and I was just totally blown away by the place. We were given a tour by an ex political prisoner who was imprisoned for seven years in a room with forty people and was forced to sleep on a mat on the floor – no beds were issued until the 1980s – and his account of life there was so moving I nearly cried. It humbled me so much to meet a man who cared so much about justice and gaining freedom for his people that he was prepared to spend seven years on Robben Island to gain it. He said it was worth it to now be able to live where he wants, sit where he wants and go where he wants in a country that is no longer segregated by race and hearing that really hit it home to me how demeaning and painful it must have been for black people to literally be prevented from moving freely around and even talking to people just because they were born the ‘wrong’ colour.

I never think about race because I am fortunate to have never come across it as an issue in my own life, but being in South Africa and seeing how racist and segregated the country still is, despite it no longer being an ‘official’ policy, really made me appreciate how much racism is still an issue in the world, and how far we have to go to achieve even a measure of equality of opportunity and treatment for people of all skin colours. In Somerset West where I was staying, there are so many gated developments where rich white people live, literally cut off in a little island of safe wealthiness where they are protected from the ugliness and poverty of the outside world. Streets away is the local township where black people live in squalor, and black people from this township work in the gatehouses of these gated developments, protecting the inhaibtants from intruders. The irony of this disgusted me, and I certainly couldn’t live so hypocritically, with literally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. For me, it is such a strange way to live, and yet for them, I suppose, it is just normality.

Cape Town itself very much reminded me of New York; lots of skyscrapers, wide streets, and new development, but it has the added beauty of being surrounded by mountains and the sea. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city, that doesn’t appear to be quite real, somehow; the tall skyscrapers rise up against the backdrop of Table Mountain and I just kept thinking it was all superimposed. No other continent but Africa could have such a city, I think!  The V&A Waterfront is where most of Cape Town life appears to happen; it’s a complex of shops, restaurants and hotels by the harbour and they’ve done a great job of converting all the old Victorian shipping warehouses to create an aesthetically gorgeous space that is buzzing with people and music and dancing and ships coming in and out; it’s a really magical place. I could have sat there watching the world go by all day,  listening to the groups of African traditional singers and musicians and being baked by the scorching sun.

I also travelled round the coast to Cape Point, the southernmost point of Africa, which was beautiful, and I visited Boulders Bay, home to a colony of adorable little penguins and HUGE boulders you have to climb across to get anywhere; as I am far from athletic I now have a big scab on my leg to prove that I climbed them! The beaches there are so clean and white and empty; they stretch on for miles and have a wonderful pale, bleached light about them. I also saw some amazing old towns filled with 19th century colonial villas with clapboarded walls and ornate iron verandahs and balconies;  I could almost hear the sounds of horses’ feet and the swishing of ladies’ skirts as of olden days.  My favourite seaside town was Kalk Bay, where I ate the BEST BREAD EVER from a place called Olympia Bakery, and I also really liked an old Afrikaans town called Stellenbosch, which has excellent local wine and beautiful colonial houses. Plus, I went to an amazing bookshop by the beach in a small town called Gordon’s Bay, where I found a couple of old 1930’s Dorothy Whipple books as gifts for people for 10 Rand each (about 6p)- it just goes to show, you can find the most unusual things in the most extraordinary of places!

South Africa is a country I will definitely be going back to; I barely scratched the surface and I would love to explore more of the landscape and to meet more of its people. It’s such an interesting place to be; on the one hand, wild and untamed, with mountains dominating the landscape and acres of uninhabited veld and empty beaches straggling along the coastline, and on the other hand, streets of quaint Victorian colonial houses and newly built boxes vying for space alongside townships and shopping malls. I just couldn’t ever quite get my head around it. I was sad to not have time to do things like go on safari, or go hiking up a mountain, or sleep out under the endless star filled African sky; one day, I will have to return to have some more adventures. Despite its unpleasant sides of racism, poverty, and crime, it is still a wonderful, beautiful and vibrant place, filled with passionate and lovely people who adore their country and want to see it changed. It inspired me, enlightened me, and encouraged me and I don’t think I’m the same person I was two weeks ago before I went. As my friend said when I arrived – this country gets under your skin. It really does.

Photos will follow at a later date; unfortunately I had my camera stolen while I was there, and so I am waiting for my friend to send me over her photos. Thankfully it was stolen on the second day of the holiday so I didn’t lose many photos and I have so many I’d love to show you! Images I have used for now are just stock ones from online. I also read a few books on the plane so some reviews will be coming over the next week or so too. Now I have to go and catch up on all your lovely blog posts over the past two weeks!

27 comments

  1. Welcome home, Rachel! It sounds like you had a FABULOUS trip. I’m so sorry about the camera. I often feel that is the worst thing to steal from a tourist😦 So unkind and very personal.

    I hope you also link us to where all the pictures are, not just the ones you post here!

    1. Thanks Aarti! I did indeed have a fabulous time and I can’t wait to be able to show you all my photos – I will make sure you can have access to them all!

      I know – it was quite upsetting as I had photos of my nephews on there that I hadn’t downloaded yet but it’s not the end of the world and I’m just glad it happened early enough in the holiday for me not to lose too many photos.

    1. It was – Robben Island is amazing, and it’s even more amazing to see just how tiny the cells were. I saw Nelson Mandela’s, where he spent 18 years, and you barely had space to extend to your full height on the floor. I can’t imagine having to be confined to that space for so long. I now want to read his autobiography.

  2. Welcome home! That sounds like a wonderful and moving trip. I can’t wait to see and hear more about it as well.

  3. You sound like you just had a visit to Heaven! I understand the poverty of Africa since I see the same things here in my country, though not as harsh and as bad as in Africa. Racism really got me while I was reading your post. It’s sad to say you know, that even I tend to get scared of Black people in my church whenever one or two visit. I don’t hate them, please don’t get the wrong idea. I just don’t see them everyday and so I feel awkward around them. I wish to get a few days in Africa too and be changed as you have.

    1. Oh it really was lovely, yes. It is easy to feel intimidated by people whose culture you don’t understand or experience often, don’t worry – I understand what you mean. There is definitely hostility between races in South Africa and that made me feel quite uncomfortable. I hope you get to visit Africa one day!

  4. Welcome back!!! Sounds like a beautiful trip! How lucky you are to have been able to go there. I’d love to go someday but oh it’s so far away. And wow those 1930s Whipples are definitely a fabulous find! I’d love to see the covers. Can’t wait to see more pictures from your trip!

    1. Thank you! It really was! I was so lucky – I wouldn’t have gone if my friend hadn’t have moved there…and if I hadn’t have got a nice bonus in January which paid for my plane ticket! I know, they were – I was so excited! Photos will be posted as soon as I get them.

  5. Welcome back Rachel sounds like you had an amazing time, apart from the awful camera incident that is. What an amazing trip. Well done of the Whipple finds too… 6p what a bargain!

    1. Thanks Simon! Yes the theft was a bit of a disappointment but I didn’t let it ruin my holiday! The Whipple finds were the icing on the cake – I was so surprised to find them in such an out of the way place.

  6. Welcome back, and very sorry about your camera! Ugh. Otherwise sounds like a great trip, and I’m looking forward to seeing your pictures.🙂

  7. Welcome back from your adventure! I can just picture you surrounded by those school children, them playing with your hair and you with a big smile! It’s a wonderful thing to have been touched in such a way by a country and its people and I look forward to more stories and pictures.

    And the books, the scones and the bread…oh my!

    1. Thank you Darlene! You are so right – I have a photo of me and the kids just like that! It really was wonderful and such a great experience – I got so much more from it than a normal holiday. I look forward to sharing more photos with you!

  8. As I listened to the news this morning about South Africa, I thought of you and was glad to come here and find you are home (the mother in me!). It sounds like there may be trouble after this latest incident. A beautiful country indeed, but I cannot bear the disparity between the rich and poor.

    1. Oh bless you Nan! Thank you for thinking of me! I know – trouble is always simmering under the surface and it is a difficult environment to live in. I know I certainly couldn’t make it a permanent home because of it. The way they live is so alien to my sense of right and wrong.

  9. Glad you had a wonderful time while away (except for the camera, it can really colour your impression of a place when you get stolen from there). Penguins are probably the one thing we didn’t see while on safari, how cool, I had no idea there were any in Africa.

    What I found so hard to comprehend until I visited Kenya was how hard it is for kids to get to school because so many of the schools are private organisations where the kids families have to pay fees. We drove past some beautiful Catholic girls schools in various areas, but many kids never have the opportunity to even think about going there. Apart from tourists we never saw any white people, as we drove through a lot of townships and it seems rich, white people never need to venture outside their gated communities. Very odd set up.

    1. Thank you! Yes they’re special hot weather penguins – small and cute!

      I know – that’s the problem. Most poor kids can’t ever get an education and so the cycle continues and they never get out of poverty. African society is set up to keep people where they ‘belong’ and that is what is so frustrating – black people have to fight so hard for what should be basic human rights and it’s hard to know where to start to get things changed and people in a position where they can help themselves get out of poverty once and for all.

  10. Sounds amazing – I am deeply envious of your Whipple finds! Definitely seem to be some serious issues there despite the abolition of Apartheid. Makes me realise how fortunate we are.

  11. I’m also far behind on my reader, and I don’t even have the excuse of having been travelling. It sounds like an incredibly wonderful trip, in all kinds of ways. I’m also looking forward to seeing more photos.

    My sister, who is a minister, spent two years as a missionary in Uganda. Her letters and emails home always made me take a closer look at my own circumstances, able to see how unbelievably fortunate I am. It’s humbling, isn’t it?

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