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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

South Africa : Winter 2005

Well, I'm squeezing in a few minutes to write here from my "backpackers (hostel), Zebra Crossing in Cape Town. Table Mountain looms overhead and I'm waiting for my ride with friends of friends (who also have a guest house...this would be like in Calistoga...NICE) to the gorgeous wine country. A word to the wise, if you ever travel internationally, ask everyone you know for all their contacts - I haven't done that much in Cape Town yet, except go to private dinner parties where I get to sit around and talk with all these amazingly diverse folks about what they do, the future of the country, race relations and gay marriage. Oh yes, gay marriage is a hot topic here as a lower court just ruled in a gay man's couple to have marriage rights - queers are a protected class and now the constitution will be reinterpreted to reflect all the changes to marriage laws, property laws, etc. Imagine, it will be Norway, Sweden, Canada (and a few others??) and South Africa that has all the protections.

It's wonderful weather here and I've mostly been wearing sun dresses but love seeing the fog sit on Table Mountain. I have recovered from jet lag after the 27 hour flights and am anxious now to get out of the City and see all the flora and fauna that await me. I did visit the world class Kirstenbosch Gardens and was a amazed by the diversity but also how much plant life the Bay area has in common with this area. It was sort of like Golden Gate Park meets Mt Diablo with the tended gardens set against Table Mt. We can thank the repressed homosexuality of Cecil Rhodes (this I learned from my friend and guide Sharone). Now I want to know more about him but my immediate reaction is that because he had no heirs, (and being a gay man, a heightened appreciation of beauty) he donated all the land plus all the land that Univ of Cape Town is on. Of course, I'm sure he was a total amoral asshole like Roy Cohn, etc (note the name Rhodesia) but he did have big ideas and I'm glad the gardens are here.

ok, but back to what I do best - inviting myself into locals homes. I went on a walk on Christmas to where else - the Muslim district of town, Bo Kapp and met an older woman who invited me into her house where I met 3 of her sisters, a bro and a couple of inlaws. This is the famous Cape Malay population who were brought here by the Dutch in the late 1600's as indentured servants. They speak their own Malay language but also English (more or less depending on education level. After having tea they invited me to stay for their Malay (braiis) BBQ. Very educational and we joked alot, they calling me the reporter since of course I asked a 1000 questions. I have some great photos of them and may come back and party with them on Jan 3rd for the Cape Minstrel Parade (commonly called the Coon Parade - yes, they use that word...lots of whiteface,etc) It is the equivalent of Carnival with local troupes of musicians and dancers competing for prizes. The Malay are part of the "coloured" population and see themselves as perpetually between black and white - one man described it graphically as saying before apartheid, it was white on top, then coloureds, then black. Now black and white have traded places. But when I pointed out that the whites still control the country financially, he had to agree.

Anyway, as Sharone says her friends taught her - Cape Town is not Africa (wealthier, whiter, Afrikaner) and South Africa is not Africa. But someone like me who is fascinated by the many ways racism raises its ugly head and how to build a true multicultural society, South Africa seems to offer the best hope of how a country might go from the most repressive regime to something else (what is currently being determined??) in the least amount of time. The Cape Malays I met thought it would never happen in their lifetimes and several folks I've met comment on how they were able to achieve true legal non-discrimination without more massive bloodshed. Anyway, there are clearly SO MANY problems here with terrible poverty, AIDS, etc but for now, I'm enjoying the positive steps I see. One of the weirdest things is that more blacks than whites speak Afrikaner - it's a trip to hear them in the street, etc

Just had a nice breakfast with Abigail, an affable young 30's mixed race, bisexual AIDS community trainer with masters in public health. I hope to connect later with her and her queer community and go to a club.

Well I have so much more to relate but will save it for later. Nancy, I found the bird book and seen Egyptian geese (very common) but a start and think fondly of you all. Will see the African penguins in next few days. I hope you all get to go to the place of your wildest dreams - it's a wonderfully complex world out there.

Jan 5th
Have just spent the last 2 days camping at De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. Yesterday, by 8am, I had seen a large turtle, a herd of greybok, bontebok and a baboon in my campsite - they had a posting about this particular male - sounds like the problem bear in Yosemite who loves to look for food. De Hoop feels quite pristine and removed. You have to drive on about 40 miles od dirt roads to get here and there's a big payoff - the endangered mt zebra, tons of baboons, bontebok (antelope family) and lots of amazing birds. Yesterday, I went off to the large lagoon where I found some serious birders. I knew this immediately by the scope as well as all the provisions - coffee, ground cover. They invited me for my new addiction - roiboos tea (actually Sonia had introduced this to me a few years back but now I'm a real addict) and fruit cake, then we got down to business - hundreds of greater flamingo, snipes, greenshanks, plovers, red knobbed coots, ruffs - most of which I'd never seen before. Then all the flamingos flew into the sky in a burst of pale pink that would make the Gay Parade envious as the ever dreaded fish eagle made its rounds.

Quite a heady time and then later went to the Indian Ocean to see the black oyster catcher (only 5000 left) and way later, a perfect sighting of the spotted eagle owl at dusk. The stars were absolutely magnificent - it's wonderful to see the summer constellations in a cloud of Milky Way. I don't know if I've ever seen so many stars.

I'm learning to drive on the left side of the road - it's amazing what one can adjust to although I did miss my first left turn and had to make a rather embarrassing retreat...

Jan 19th
Okay, it feels like ages since I've been at the computer and I can't say I've missed it. Hear it's great snow in the Sierras and that means rain in the Bay Area and I am sitting here admiring my golden tan....However, it is lightly raining now but in that pleasant tropical way where it cools everything off and keeps the dust down. I also went through an amazing thunder and lightning storm on my flight from Capetown to Joburg and only reached my destination before a deluge with thunder that woke me up periodically for hours.

The last week has been one of the highest of highs after a rather low day and a half. I started off on a week long safari with a Nazi type guide who was mainly sexist but I'm sure horribly racist if we'd really gotten into it. He told us (a woman Australian and 2 British blokes) the most disgusting joke about maiming women that put me over the edge. I called his superiors at the safari company and asked to be transferred to a new group which they were able to do inside Kruger National Park - the premiere safari park for game and bird viewing. The new group was a breath of fresh air. We were 8 folks with an amazing guide named Harry who had formerly been a fire fighter. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the animals and especially the birds (which many guides don't have) so I spent the next 3 days in the front of the cab of the bus learning so much and having the trip I had fantasized. I also had a soul connection with a 25 year old nice Jewish man who is from LA area but has been getting a masters at London School of Economics. He is a political junkie (like Matt or Paul) so we totally hit if off and spent a lot of time cracking ourselves up and giggling to the consternation of our fellow travelers....to the extent that we made up a Kruger Blues song (he had brought a travel guitar) and sang around the campfire - -with that and our safari fashion show, we once again demonstrated that Americans are loud, confident, funny, even if we can be overpowering in a group....I even was inspired to write a fable using American film titles for the closing bonfire about our guide called When Harry Met Sally... but back to the safari itself. Ever one of you will be subjected to my "slideshow" when you visit me in the next month as I LOVE my digital camera. I'm still not the best taking some shots but the movies are pretty incredible. Here's the list of what I saw in Kruger: 2 chameleons in the road, 2 sightings of lions sleeping (which they do for 18 hours a day), a leopard (quite difficult to see during the day - spotted at 5:30am), many elephants, hippos, white rhinos, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, a pack of jackals, one of hyenas, at least 20 vultures (3 different kinds) feeding on a dead impala - -the most common kind of antelope that pervades the park - -and maybe 30-40 species of birds that would have had Nancy and Michaelle dying in amazement. My favorites were the saddle-billed storks, the woodland kingfisher and 4 spotted eagle owls.

After camping for 3 nights at Kruger and getting up every morning at 5am (the first at 3am with the Nazi guide), I was happy to enter the rarefied air of the game lodge where we stayed the last night of our trip. We took a sunset guided tour in the private game camp on an open-air small 4 x 4 that could go off road and had the game spotting highlight of the trip. First a small herd of elephants passed nearby. Then I was looking down at the tracks beside our jeep (on the guide Harry's suggestion. He asked me what I was seeing and I said it look liked some type of cat.) Just as he said you're right, I lifted my head to see that we were 15 feet from a lion pride with 2 female lionesses and 6 cubs. My body felt the electricity of surprise, amazement and fear - yes, I admit it, I felt that we were too close for comfort as everything you hear on these trips is that the female does all the hunting and she usually only attacks when she fears for her cubs. One lioness was lying down, panting as three cubs suckled on her breasts. The other was also lying down but raised her head and barred her teeth at one point, a little warning sign I suppose. I looked at her and felt her cool stare looking back, directly at me, or was it my imagination??

We watched for at least 10 minutes but it seemed to go on and on until finally another jeep arrived with a camera crew that was taking promotional shots. They were stationed much farther away than us but the lions aren't used to having people stand up in the jeeps, much less with a large camera. Suddenly the cubs got up and the one lioness retreated. The other who had been the nursing one, stood up and looked at the camera man and made a light snarl and growl (I think or I may have imagined it). Then she regally walked away and we let out a collective sigh of relief.

But if that wasn't enough, we soon saw 3 cheetahs - the only 3 cheetahs in the park and they hadn't been seen for a month. Now cheetahs are day hunters and they like to climb to the highest point in a landscape, although they can't climb tress like leopards. We watched them for a long time in the setting African sun with a light shining on their spots as they seemed to enjoy looking west.

Next a rented a car and made my way down through Swaziland which has been an independent country since the 60's after previously being a British protectorate. They have a corrupt monarchy but it really feels very different that South Africa as there are very few folks other than blacks and the people are very friendly and laidback. I met a 27 year old man who became my guide for a bike ride at one of the national parks. We went out for dinner and dancing last night and had a little kissing session, even though I'm old enough to be his mother. But, it was all sweet and my usual dalliance into the straight world when I travel alone - -only I'm getting older and these adorable buff men seem to stay the same age....am occasionally picking up women and girls who are hitchhiking as it's hard to pass them by....picked up a young 26 year old today and she rode with me for about 2 hours, stopping for lunch with me at a nice restaurant where she had a Greek salad for the first time in her life (although they serve them everywhere). She's an orphan living with her elderly uncle and can't find a job. I did a lot of counseling with her about how to get a job, her relationship with her boyfriend (he always uses a condom - I told her to have her own stash...) one of the traveling moments that I'll always remember....

Jan 27
Well, it has to be done. I'm coming home tomorrow and I'll be paying the price for switching my ticket - something like 38 hours to get home....but this last week and half have been pretty magical.

I stayed for 5 days in my favorite place in SA so far - the area around St Lucia, the first declared World Heritage Site. St Lucia itself is a cozy little town of 800 set against the place where SA's largest lake meets the Indian ocean. The confluence of the estuary with the ocean creates amazing birdlife and there's VERY controlled development here. It feels somewhat like Pt Reyes in terms of size and wildlife only there are hippos, rhinos, crocs, monkeys, wildebeest, duiker and bushbuck instead of the occasional tulle elk, bobcat and mt lion. I've seen all of the above plus many fish eagle, trumpeter hornbills, purple crested lourie and many more species. I took a guided hike in the wetlands where my 55 year old guide carried a loaded rifle. He reminded me that hippos are responsible for more deaths than any other animal and that I should be prepared to climb a tree if worse came to worse. Sure enough we passed a hippo lounging in a mud hole but it was an old male that wasn't going anywhere.

My favorite birding experience happened in a totally surreptitious way when I drove to a part of the wetlands and discovered that there was no food available, very unusual here. I went to the only nearby place which was a very expensive game lodge where I decided to totally splurge (being my mother's B-day and Bush's inauguration and all). I slept looking towards the lake with the wind wafting through my room all night and got up at 5am for a truly amazing kayak trip down a nearby river with a guide that was phenomenal. We saw maybe 15 species I hadn't seen previously including malachite kingfishers and an African finfoot (as elusive as the clapper rail, Nancy) plus at least 10 green herons.

Another hysterical experience happened when I saw two boys collecting sea water early one morning at the ocean, As their English was limited, I got the idea that there was to be a cleansing ceremony in a nearby Zulu village, honoring the Zulu god of the sea. I decided to hire a local guide that I had used the previous day to accompany me. When we arrived there was one other white person - an older white man with that look of the colonialist who has never adjusted to a post-apartheid system. Sure enough he was the ward councilor for the area for the IFP (opposition party to the ANC). I guess he was elected with all the white votes from St Lucia. In fact the villagers were roasting an ox that the local council had paid for. THe man was upset that his fellow councilors had reneged on coming to join him to face this crowd of rather upset villagers. He asked my guide who is Zulu to translate for him and I could have been just about anywhere in the world as he tried to explain the local government's intransigence in providing water, electricity and paving of the roads. He kept saying he was "fighting" for them but it was up to the mayor and others and there would be subsequent meetings, blah, blah. It started to rain rather hard and I was fascinated by the dynamics of villagers pointing out that the government had been saying the same thing for 5 years and yet there was still no water, etc. One of the men accused the councilor of "not telling the truth", at least that's the way my buddy David translated it as he started laughing. The tone of the villager was more like, "you lying piece of shit." Afterwards, I suggested to the councilor that he pay my friend David for his translation work as he would have surely been in a quandry without him. He mumbled something, jumped in his expensive car and left. Later David explained that it was complicated because the government offered these same folks new houses and small pieces of land across the road in 1998 in an effort to expand the wetlands and many moved but these were the holdouts who wanted to live in the forest and have larger areas to graze. So he doubted the government would ever provide services. IN the meantime, I met the principal of the local high school that the parents built themselves and got to see the primary school, a one classroom building for 40 children that had desks but a sand floor. He was the idealistic and compassionate type of teacher/principal that is the glue of communities like these throughout the world. Later the white owner of the company that employs David told me that "these Afrikaners are impossible. They spend all the local money to pave the tourist streets of San Lucia and nothing goes to the villages who supply the labor force. It's amazing here how open folks are about their racial prejudices. I had a white B and B owner tell me not to go to a certain beach because it was an "Indian" beach and the same day an Indian parking attendant at the Hare Krishna temple complained that there are now so many "blacks" in Durban.

I've capped off my experience here in Durban by managing to find the local "La Pena" last night. It is an amazing cultural center on the waterfront here in Durban with about 2-3 times the space of La Pena with a huge art studio and amazing restaurant and bar. Every racial group was there, all getting along and creating culture together and it truly gave me hope for the new South Africa. I attended a drum circle led by an expert and laid back percussionist and about 20 folks showed up - equal numbers of white, black, Indian, women and men with the star woman pupil as well. I felt so at home and hope that we can have some kind of exchange through La Pena as there's also a big hip hop scene connected with the center and they have annual women's international celebrations, etc. They started the center 10 years ago with a large bequest and get some small grants from the City of Durban. The location is superb - it would be like a 8000 sq ft center at Jack London Square.
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