My semester at sea: South Africa

Martha Bawn/Courtesy
Sunrise on Table Mountain and Cape Town

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South Africa is an immensely interesting and unique country. I have been learning about its history, politics and culture in my classes on the ship and have found it to be one of the most fascinating countries I’ve ever studied or visited. I spent my six days in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, which feels not unlike San Francisco. It has a vibrant personality that gives the impression that it’s impossible to bored or unstimulated there. I enjoyed excellent food and memorable interactions with the local people, both positive and negative. However, Cape Town is certainly not representative of the less prosperous state of the rest of the country, and reading between the lines reveals the deep cultural and political problems that are still pervasive. It’s a very new country though, and I saw a lot of optimism around me while I was there.

South Africa clearly has an extremely tragic and unique history. It’s impossible to visit and not feel the impact of that. I was able to learn about it pretty in depth. Through one of my classes, I got to meet with people from the national Human Rights Commission, a woman who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as one of the authors of the South African constitution. All of this gave me a not-so-happy perspective on where South Africa is today. The problems that began centuries ago and had horrific consequences during the apartheid years have not gone away. South Africa still has the highest wealth disparity and the highest crime rates, particularly the rate of violence against women, of any developed country in the world. Issues of racism and sexism are still extremely prevalent, and the lack of education and economic growth is hurting the country very badly. Several of my friends visited townships outside the city, which are sites of extreme poverty not far from the extravagance of the Cape Town waterfront, where township residents are not allowed to enter. Even though apartheid ended more than 20 years ago, the society is still incredibly segregated.

After hearing about all that, it was important to keep it all in perspective and remember how far the country has come. I visited the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held under deplorable conditions. The tour was led by an ex-political prisoner who could tell us exactly what it was like to be there. It was an extremely moving experience but not just because of the sadness that surrounded the place. Everyone who talked to us there emphasized that the South African story is mainly about the triumph of the human spirit and its ability to endure and not let itself be destroyed. I think that’s the most important thing to take away from learning about all of this.

From my Safari at Aquila Private Game Reserve

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From my safari at Aquila Private Game Reserve

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If all of that gets too depressing, there is also endless fun to be had in and around Cape Town. I went on a safari in a game reserve about two hours’ drive outside the city and saw lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras and many other animals up close in their natural habitats. I also went cage-diving with great white sharks and got to see seven different sharks swimming right around me.

In the middle of the city is Table Mountain, which offers some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. There is a cable car to the top as well as a trail that takes about two hours to hike. Inside the city are gardens and markets and exciting neighborhoods everywhere. One of my favorite parts of my trip was an activity called Hint Hunt, which is an activity for small groups in which you’re locked in a small room and have to work out clues in order to get out in less than an hour. Apparently, these are becoming more popular in cities all over the world, and I can certainly see why. I can’t describe the energy of this city or the way it gets inside you and lifts your spirits.

The view from the top of Table Mountain

The view from the top of Table Mountain

I had a wonderful time in South Africa and learned so much. Exploring and interacting with the people, hearing so many different sides to so many different important issues (as well as some unimportant ones) have broadened my worldview perhaps more than in any other country. At the same time, I had some of the most fun of my entire life and felt closer to everyone who shared the experience.

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