THE FINAL CHAPTER OF OUR ADVENTURE

We were so fortunate to have been welcomed by Rhoda Toker on the first day of our trip and then to spend the last three days of our trip at her home in the Johannesburg suburb of Benoni.  She was an exemplary host!  We chuckled as she insisted on paying for our first dinner, “after all you fed my daughter Kim for three months!”

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Rhoda has been living in a condo since her husband passed away 6 years ago.  She also provides a private room and living area for Lucy, a black woman from the township of Ladysmith who has been working for Rhoda for 27 years.  It was obvious that there is a special bond between these two warm and caring women.

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We were privileged to  morning walks around the bird sanctuary reservoir a few blocks away from Rhoda’s home.

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Rhoda arranged a “Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus tour of the Soweto township including Nelson Mandela’s home.   Our daughter Laura told us that there was an Honorary Degree conferred to Nelson Mandela from Northeastern University Law School, and indeed we found it!  It was conferred in 1988, before Mandela was released from prison in 1990.  Mandela served 27 years in prison because of his involvement in the African National Congress, which opposed the Apartheid policies of the Afrikaans government.

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At Maropeng, we briefly visited The Cradle of Humankind Museum where we learned  about archeologists’ discoveries confirming that all humankind originated in Africa.  The visit Lesedi Cultural Village gave us a chance to learn about traditional cultures of South Africa.

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In Soweto we went to the Hector Pietersen Museum.  It is a memorial to the shooting of 13-year-old Hector, who was part of a large peaceful student protest on June 16,1976.   The protest began as a demonstration opposing the Africaaner government’s implementation of a rule requiring English and Afrikaans would be the only languages taught in all schools, regardless of locally spoken language.   Afrikaans was viewed by black Africans as “the language of the oppressor,” according to Bishop Desmond Tutu.  The arrival of police provoked the riot, as police fired tear gas into the crowd. and Hector was one of the students killed by police gunshots.  The photo shows Hector being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector’s sister Antoinette walking beside him.

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As always, Linda appreciated the local crafts.   Alex is one of the craftsmen, whom Rhoda knew. He creates animals from beads.  Linda is wearing the Zulu jewelry given to her by Buhle, our exchange student.

In 2006, we hosted two other South African students in Vestal for three weeks through a Binghamton University Leadership Exchange Program.   When we began planning our South Africa trip in November 2017, one of the exchange students, Buhle Dlamini proposed that she drive the four-hour trip from her home in Ladysmith to see us in Benoni.  We are very grateful to Rhoda for hosting Buhle, her fiancé Mlungisi Gamede and their three-year-old son Melo Kuhle Dlamini (he is holding the gifts of two monkeys that our grandchildren Hannah and Samuel picked out for him.)

The warmth and special connection we felt previously with Buhle was reinforced in our conversations.  She is a life sciences secondary school teacher and Mlungisi teaches elementary school.   They each have over 60 students in a class and 4 classes a day, plus homework to correct.  This is exhausting work for not much pay, and long hours.  She is now considering going back to school to study radiology, a natural fit for a science teacher.  The pay would be better for fewer work hours.

We also discussed the Zulu custom of a man giving a lobola, or traditional bride-price, to the family of his betrothed.   The lobola is a monetary equivalent of 11 cows.  Mlungisi has paid for half of the lobola, but their main focus has been on building a house so they can live together.  The lobola is traditionally allocated for the wedding costs.

The time with Rhoda and with Buhle’s family helped us in understanding South Africa’s rich cultural diversity.   The entire trip was deeply moving and a profound immersion in the people, the history and the natural beauty of South Africa.    Let our adventures continue!

 

 

THE INCREDIBLE ANIMAL KINGDOM

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We started small. Throughout Africa termites prosper (50,000 born at once), although tiny they build huge termite mounds, some are hundreds of years old. Termites actually contribute to the biosphere. They have a defined social structure, from Queen to workers and they are agriculturalists, growing specific fungi in their mounds. Other larger animals profit from this farming, and will forage nutrients from the mounds.

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At Boulders Beach, near Cape Town, we viewed a large colony of the resident African Penguins in their protected environment. They were so still that we at first thought they were decoys.  We enjoyed their tuxedo-like outfits and their quaint waddling walk.  This penguin is unique to Africa and is the northern-most species with special characteristics. It is also known as the “Jackass Penguin” because of the male’s donkey-like mating call.   Penguins mate at around 4 years old and are monogamous for the rest of their 10-15 year lifespan.  They are an endangered species in Africa especially because all other penguin species live in more remote areas with less human habitation where they are naturally more protected from human intrusion.  In Africa, centuries of human contact have led to a reduction in the penguin population.

Traveling along the Garden Route, in Mooriplaas, we visited an ostrich farm where we learned more about the world’s largest bird species.   The penguin and the ostrich are two flightless birds, yet uniquely special in the world. While the penguins are protected, the ostrich are bred for their eggs, feathers and meat. In the early 1900’s Oudtshoorn was a booming center of ostrich feather commerce run by Jews. Most popular was the use of the feathers for hats. When automobiles became popular especially convertibles, the feather market was blown away!

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On our 4-day safari, we learned about the elaborate social structures that exist in the animal kingdom from the insects and birds to lions and elephants. Antelope and other species sometimes herd together for greater safety from predators. There is a lot of cooperation, collaboration and collective protection that happens in the animal kingdom.

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The optimum times to go on safari are the hours just before sunrise and sunset. We would get up at 5 a.m., be on the road in our two Land Rovers by 5:30, returning to our camp for breakfast at 8:30. Midday was a time to relax, have lunch and then “High Tea” at 3:30, leaving for our evening safari at 4:00. Each Land Rover had a spotter and a guide and each group of 8 went on separate roads through the bush. The guides on each car would stay in touch and the two vehicles would gather together where animals were spotted. It was a hunt without guns!

Vegetarians large and small included termites, giraffes, elephants, antelope, and others. The carnivores were the predators: primarily lions and leopards.  Leopards were the most elusive, sometimes hiding in trees for the attack, or resting in trees with the prey they would drag up with them for a leisurely meal.   We drove within 40 feet of a group of six lions resting in the grass. So long as we remained still, and did not stand up, the lions remained calm and simply glanced up at us.

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We watched as a daddy rhino bathed in a muddy pond while mommy and child waited ashore. When he waddled out, mud-covered (a natural bug repellent), all three headed away from us. Giraffes would reach high into the trees for their preferred leaves. Occasionally we would spy an elephant knocking over a tree with a heavy push and loud crash so it could munch on the out-of-reach leaves.

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Zebra herds often crossed around us. Every moment was a chance for discovery and learning: each zebra’s stripes are unique, like a human fingerprint. In some game preserves, the zebras have all been identified and given unique names!

Winning the most beautiful, unique prize was the web of the Garden Orb spider. Most eccentric was the dung beetle, pushing a ball of dung 10 times its size. We saw many  birds, including two different eagle s.

On our safari, we learned about the South African animal kingdom from Aarvark to Zebra. From tall to tiny, massive to miniscule. Our experience was enriched by our physical proximity to their natural habitat and by our guides’ extensive knowledge.IMG_0004IMG_0102IMG_0363IMG_0093During our sunrise and sunset safaris, the silence and calm of the jungle was mesmerizing.  It was all so fresh and mysterious, never knowing what might appear, what we might see or hear.

PATHFINDERS

9818ACFD-6097-461E-AB9B-8FD88CBFA5A2ED2FD94A-9899-4AAE-BCAC-017AD9906FFCWe continue to enjoy getting to know the other ten members of our tour group.Helen Malisan, is our cheerful, knowledgeable, and caring 24/7 tour guide. She is from South Africa, was a flight attendant for 12 years and now enjoys working for several weeks and then has several weeks off to return home to enjoy her two dogs and care for her aging parents. Sue, Bev, and Mary were elementary school friends in Minnesota. Sue and Mary brought their husbands along and Bev brought her friend, Rosie. A trip to New Zealand was their first time traveling together. This group although friendly tended to stick together. Fortunately, there were two other couples that we thoroughly enjoyed. Genevieve and Norman live in Saskatchewan, Canada. Norman is a retired law professor specializing in indigenous (Native Canadian Tribe) law. Genevieve retired from her work with the Canadian Human Rights Commision and now teaches English as a second language. Andrea and Dave live in southern France. However, they were both born in the UK, moved to California in their 20’s to work for engineer companies. In their 50’s they retired, bought a boat and navigated the rivers and canals of Europe for 5 years. Together we were pathfinders discovering the riches and history of South Africa.

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Continuing our pathway along the Garden Route we stopped at the Grootebos Reserve experiencing the contrasts of nature, high end architectural design, gourmet food, and a training program for future garden workers  The Green Futures Life Skills College trains unemployed and unskilled people from the surrounding villages in the science of horticulture and preservation of the fynbos vegetation.  Our group planted a tree to promote friendship and future growth.

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Traveling in the heart of South Africa’s wine country, Stellenbosch, provided a picture of entrepreneurship by mainly white Europeans. Contrasted with our visit to the township, our wine tasting and culinary experiences felt like we were in California’s Napa Valley.

Earlier in the trip near St. Blaize Cave we had an incredible seafood barbecue lunch (or”Braai” as it is called in Africaans). There were 8 courses starting with mussels, several other fish dishes, chicken and dessert. This Afrikaans family has created a perfect celebration and catering site looking out on the vast beaches with long slow waves lapping along the shoreline.

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Sometimes we had to change our Pathways. A planned trip to Table Mountain had to be cancelled because of high winds affecting the cable cars. Instead, the entire group decided to go to Kirstenbosch Gardens. We were enthralled with the unique varieties of plants native to the area and the layout conducive to enjoying the grass areas like Central Park.

Another “beginning” for our South Africa trip was in 2014 when we were in Lisbon, Portugal and we saw the sculpture commemorating the 15th century Portuguese explorers. In 2018 we found ourselves at the Cape of Good Hope where those explorers eventually landed – actually almost exactly 530 years ago. It was on February 3, 1488 that Bartholemeu Dias and Pero de Alenquer discovered what they originally named “The Cape of Storms”. On their return toward Portugal, they realized it would be wiser marketing to call it “The Cape of Good Hope.” Those explorers did not make it to the top of the Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town, but we felt like pathfinders as we rode the cable car to the flat-topped summit. From that dramatic vista, we saw beautiful examples of Fynbos flora framing tall sandstone cliffs soaring high above the vast expanse of ocean that reaches unobstructed all the way to Antarctica.

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We are struck by the contrasts in South Africa. This experience was heightened by our entry to Cape Town, a modern city with a lavish waterfront accommodating tourists. One day’s agenda was to drive to the Khayalitsha township. Townships are low income areas with mostly African populations. The housing situation is such that a person can be placed on a waiting list for years before they can get a government built two room house. Many people wait longer. Meanwhile they live in roughly built shacks, often without running water or electricity. These places are made with with corrugated metal walls and plastic sheeting for window covers. The houses are lined up right next to each other with shared outhouses. Yet, hope pervades as numerous non-profit groups have developed support and training programs. We visited three: a community garden, an arts and education center (with a roof top garden), and a preschool. Like Ella Mahlulo who took us on a tour a week ago in Knysna township, the groups in Khayalitsha township are also entrepreneurs whose organizations will benefit financially from tour groups like ours when we visit to learn about their efforts. Many of us in our group pledged to donate to their programs.

Recently, many entrepreneurial Africans have realized that educating and entertaining tourists can create jobs and income for the unemployed, which is near 40% of the population in Khayelitsha. Mzansi Restaurant in the Langa township is a radiant example of this. “Mzansi” is the Xhosa word for “South.” Its owner, Mama Nomomde, enthusiasticaly told us the story of the ups and downs of the creation of a restaurant business in her family home. The idea originally came from her mother, who died several months before the business began in 2008. We took our evening meal in her expanded home with 25 other tourists. We listened to a jazz group that played the throaty tones of xylophones, drums and a saxophone. They entertained us throughout the marvelous meal with unique South African flavors. The musicians, the cooks and servers all earn income from her business. Mama Nomanda caters to tour groups although some other individual guests had learned of the restaurant through Trip Advisor. In fact, the parting words from our escort was to be sure to write a review for Trip Advisor emphasizing that it is safe to travel to this area. We felt the spirit of being Pathfinders!

 

 

South Africa: Plants and People

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After two days in Johannesburg, our group flew to Port Elizabeth, on the south-eastern, Indian Ocean side of South Africa.  We began the “Garden Route.”  It is also referred to as the Fynbos Region.  Fynbos means “fine leaf bush” in Afrikaans.  This region contains the world’s most unique and diverse varieties of more than 9000 plant and flower species, 2/3 of which occur no where else in the world.

The Fynbos region is rich in tall seaside hills and mountains, deep gorges and a rustic coast.  At the Tsitsikamma National Park, we hiked along pathways to an area appropriately called “The Storms River Mouth,” crossing a suspension bridge that brought us to the water’s edge.  The roaring ocean, rolled onto seaside rocks and driftwood, creating nature’s own gnarled sculptures. It was at once a seaside symphony, ballet and opera: kayaks dancing in the rough waters, swooping birds soaring,  walkers chatting and watching in wonderment.

THE PEOPLE

In the morning, we visited a township near the town of Knysna. It is a region of one-room shacks and shanties interspersed with larger, newer, multi-room homes now being subsidized by the South African government. Townships were created during the Apartheid era:  Africans, “Indians” (people from India and Asia) and “coloreds” (people determined to be of “mixed race”) were segregated onto the poorest land so that the 10% white minority could claim and own the most valuable land.

We were privileged to meet an African resident of the township, Ella Mahlulo, who greeted us with her charismatic energy. She wore traditional African dress, jewelry and make-up. [Look at her photo]. She told us she had her first child when she was 17 and experienced a lot of trauma until she was mentored by members of a Baptist church. Over the years, she has opened her home to abandoned children, so she now has 16 children living in her home. She also has established a church in her home and runs a support program for recovering addicts. We toured the township with her and she described how the township is changing.   Pointing to areas studded with empty concrete pads, she explained that the new, larger homes promised for area residents never got built because former President Jacob Zuma’s corrupt government never came through with the funds promised for their construction . Ella cautiously expressed her hopes that the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, will begin to address these problems.

Ella brought us to a local pre-school, where the children greeted us with energetic singing. She introduced us to one of the children who now lives with her.  We then visited Ella’s home, and met in the separate one-room structure that serves as her church. She gave us a brief lesson in pronouncing Xhosa – her native tongue, known as the “click” language for the ways that certain words are pronounced. This was followed by drumming and singing led by her and several of the men who work with her in the church.

Later at Ysterhoutrug, one of the Garden Route National Parks, we were guided through a forest preserve by Hardy, a woodsman full of stories about how the earliest Dutch and other European settlers cut down the native trees for construction and industry.  The result was a period when parts of the landscape became barren of trees.   As a result, non-native trees have been introduced, reforesting the empty lands and renovating the lumber industry.  At one point, Hardy hugged a gigantic yellowwood tree, declaring “I am now hugging the national tree of South Africa.”  Then he joked “I am a true treehugger!”

 

 

JOURNEY TO SOUTH AFRICA

Dear Family and Friends:

Our South African adventure began in 1991 when we hosted Kim Toker, a Rotary exchange student from Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg SA. Over the wsubsequent 27 years we have been communicating with Kim and her mother, Rhoda, by letters and Facebook. Our dream came true when we landed in Johannesburg February 17 after a 14 hour non-stop plane trip from New York City.
Within hours of our arrival, Rhoda Toker visited us at our hotel. She was enthusiastic and welcoming. We enjoyed connecting about our families and our life journeys. We also made final plans for visiting at her Benoni home for 3 days when we complete our Road Scholar tour (March 2-5).
Again our travels coincided with a significant world event. Back in December, 2004, we arrived in Goa on the day a large tsunami affected much of India’s southern coast. While we were not affected, our back-home friends and family were worried. This time the tsunami was political: three days before our arrival in SA, Jacob Zuma, who has multiple criminal corruption charges against him and his government, resigned as South Africa’s President. Newspaper headlines declared: “Zuma must be held accountable.” The next day the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, promised to rebuild confidence and trust in the government. An editorial said Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation speech “pacified a nation that has endured disappointment recently – a country that has failed to reach its full potential since the halcyon days of Nelson Mandela.” Rhoda and our Road Scholar tour guide, Helen, both expressed joy and hopes that Ramaphosa would indeed bring needed change.
On the first day touring we visited the Apartheid Museum which was created in consultation with the designers of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. We became immersed in a fuller story of the lives of Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders who led the struggles to end the repressive Apartheid era policies. We viewed newsreel accounts of the protests and violence. We heard the voices of the people and their leaders. We saw many parallels with the United States’ struggles with racial injustice – from the days of slavery to today. The ANC went through many phases since its establishment in 1912. Mandela and other leaders first followed Mahatma Ghandi’s principles of non-violent civil disobedience. When the Apartheid government became more intransigent and repressive, Mandela and other ANC leaders embraced armed struggle to end the system of apartheid.
An afternoon visit to Liliesleaf Farm provided more details of the ANC. Liliesleaf was where ANC leaders clandestinely met to plan their strategies. Apartheid government officials raided Liliesleaf and ANC leaders were arrested and imprisoned as a result. Of particular interest to us was Mandela’s acknowledgement that his 27 years of imprisonment at Robben Island helped him develop emotionally and spiritually so he could achieve the seemingly impossible task of negotiating the end of apartheid with the white minority government.
When our group met for breakfast the next day, several of us talked about how we had sleepless nighttime moments of upset as we recalled the vivid images of the tragedy of the Apartheid era. We realized the added value of traveling in a group is being able to share our experiences with others. Through out the rest of our journey we will continue to learn about the rich cultural history of South African people and their varied traditions. In addition we will be experiencing the unique natural beauty of South Africa.