Monday, 26 February 2007

Fourth Post from Cape Town

Hello everyone,
'Tis another week, and another chronicle. We had some more balance in the past few days. Or, put more frankly, school started and life is getting a lot more mundane. Lectures are beginning, societies (i.e. clubs) are meeting, I even have a group presentation on Thursday. Even so, the days of sitting on the beach have not gone out with the tide. I still went to the beach this week, I just brought along my course readings.
What clubs did I join, you ask? A slew, I answer. To date, I belong to Habitat for Humanity, Varsity (the biweekly student newspaper), the History and Currrent Affairs Society (all the cool kids are doing it ;) and SHAWCO, a huge student group that for 60 years has run welfare programs in the townships (it's a great organization - see For sports, I did the surf club (!) and the soccer club.
The soccer club met on Thursday and, whew, did those guys serve me up a reminder that I hadn't played soccer in nearly a decade. It was largely a mishmash of European graduate students and African undergrads, and then, there in the corner, the pasty, bespectacled American in running shoes, me. As they mentioned positions that didn't exist when I played and did tricks with the ball that had previously appeared impossible, I felt like an anachronism, as out of place as a brussel sprout in a fruit salad. Nonetheless, once Uup from Holland lent me an extra pair of boots (i.e. cleats) and we started playing, I began to speak the language once again. I wasn't necessarily fluent, but I fell into a groove of sorts and held my own, even registering an assist. I give it another go tomorrow when tryouts begin for the premier team (ha!).
The overarching reason I bothered joining the soccer club was the same reason I went to church last night - the experience and the community. In my first e-mail nearly a month ago, I said something to the effect of 'I'm a bit impatient, but I'm looking forward to settling in, kind of sinking more into some of the culture and the consciousness of the area and the country.' Time has that effect, but initiative also helps, accelerates the process even. Vacations, which this essentially is, just a 4.5 month one, are made up of memories, which are based on experiences. When enough time goes by, any experience - regardless of whether the actual event/incident was positive or negative - becomes a fond memory (or at least something to laugh about). That's why my general mentality here is to have as many experiences here as possible. The soccer club and church - a relatively new, non-denominational Christian one nearby - were not worthwhile simply for what I did while I was there - pull my groin and sing songs in different languages, respectively - but for whom I did it amongst. Both activities were shared with people of all different ages and races. That's not always the case here, not by a long shot. When I had dinner and a movie at the mall Tuesday, I was almost exclusively in a white audience. When I went to a braai (i.e. BBQ) Thursday, I was almost exclusively among American study abroad students. When I went to high tea at the Mount Nelson hotel Friday, I was almost exclusively among white, upper-class tourists. All events were enjoyable, but if I simply hopped around town from white spot to white spot - which one could easily do here - I wouldn't be fully experiencing Cape Town and South Africa. So I hit some of the black spots, too, so I can at least be a dalmatian and not a yellow lab (a dalmation has black spots - get it? Get it?! :).
I'll talk more about race in subsequent e-mails. It's a fascinating topic, one that is surprisingly and refreshingly openly discussed here, and one where I think you see a lot of personal backgrounds coming into play. But before I digress completely or bore you utterly, I'd like to close with the tale of Noma. (Her full name is Nomandla, but the 'ndl' is not as easy to pronounce as you think - her name is Xhosa, one of the 'click' languages). Anyhow, Noma is in my Policy and Administration course. On the first day of class, she asked me some basic question and then, simply to extend the conversation, I asked her what book she was reading. It was Harper Lee's 'To Kill A Mockingbird.' I'd also been reading a book (yes, without the New York Times around, I've had to resort to books - blah!) and she asked me what I was reading. It was Nadine Gordimer's 'July's People.' I was struck at how a South African student was reading an American author and an American student was reading a South African author. We talked after class, and do so every day now. It's the favorite part of my day. I'm not in love, now, now, and I know my anecdote must sound eerily similar to something out of a Hugh Grant movie. But she maintains no pretenses and is disarmingly honest. (The first time we talked she said she was scared to go to America because it was a "ticking time bomb" and she believed she was much safer in South Africa (at which I couldn't help but laugh). Sometimes we talk about how laundry was taken, sometimes we debate whether Americans are as self-centered as we are perceived to be. The conversations aren't profound, necessarily, but they're pure in the sense that a young South African and a young American, who heretofore had been living completely separate lives, are realizing that just because our lives were being led on different tracks doesn't mean those tracks weren't parallel. Our ages, races, sexes, nationalities, mother tongues, they're all different, but our interests and values are similar, and they bring us together. (Maybe church actually got to me!)
Alrighty, that's all for now, folks. Thanks for sticking with me and reading and replying. It's great to hear from each of you and maintain the ties to back home. They're not quite as nourishing as the brownies my mom sent me (delicious even south of the equator!), but they're very satisfying nonetheless. :)
Take care,

Picutres have been added. Instructions are below.

Instructions to find photos
- Go to (no typo, there's really no 'e')
- Click the link in the top-left corner that says 'Already a member?
Sign in' (I know you may not be a member, but proceed anyway)
- You will most likely be prompted for a Yahoo! ID. Enter saphotos.
The name has been created specifically for you to view my photos. The
password is photossa.
- Sign in, and then click the down arrow next to the search link in
the right-hand corner. Choose Flickr members.
- Enter lowebrendan into the search field.
- My number of photos (80) will appear next to the word photos. Click photos.
- My photos will appear. If you want more organization, click the sets
on the right-hand side of the screen.
- From there you can see photos from Stellenbosch, the wine region 30
minutes outside of Cape Town, and Clifton Beach, one of the nicer
beaches within the city limits. (Note: the photos named 'Khayelitsha'
in the Stellenbosch section are of the townships the proliferate
around the city)
- Enjoy!

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Third Post from Cape Town

Hey everyone,
A week has passed since our last contact, and I'm happy to report
that that time has been robbery-free, though at one particular point I
did feel like a piece of live bait about to be tossed into a frenzied
school of barracudas. But we'll get to that.
University only began in earnest today, a watermark that symbolizes
the transition from a very exciting, fun, sensory pleasing lifestyle
to more of a placid, intellectually stimulating existence
(hopefully!). Both should be enjoyable and worthwhile, though to mark
the sadness of having our free time tied up in classes - courses here
tend to meet 3-5 times a week, as opposed to 1-3 in the U.S. - a
friend and I today booked two trips for March: one to Johannesburg and
one along the Garden Route, a particularly aesthetically pleasing
stretch of coastal highway (including a place to go ostrich riding!)
in the southwestern part of the country (we're renting a car).
I know, I know, it's a very difficult life I'm leading down here.
Last week I had the chore of grinding out the following schedule:
Monday: Dinner and a movie (Little Children w/ Kate Winslet - very good!)
Tuesday: Beach, where we were supposed to take a surfing lesson but
the current was too strong and the shark watcher had poor visibility
(that's right, they employ people here - and have an entire
color-coded flag system a la the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security's
colorful chart - to monitor the whereabouts of sharks off the coast)
Wednesday: Spectacular day trip of wine tastings through Stellenbosch,
South Africa's Napa Valley
Thursday: Take a breather (by watching Sweet Home Alabama, which was on TV here)
Friday: Professional soccer game
Saturday: Hike Table Mountain
Sunday: Afternoon concert at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Pity me, indeed.
A few notes, in reverse chronological order. The concert setting was
spectacular - in a huge botanical garden on the side of a mountain -
but the music was subpar. Not only was the bank playing punk rock, but
they were singing in Afrikaans! Loud noise just becomes a cacophony
when produced in a foreign language. As for hiking up a mountain: in
case you haven't noticed, my family has never been featured in Field
and Stream. We're an urbane bunch, more inclined to hike across (as in
city blocks) than up (as in mountains). Admittedly, I was slightly
petrified of hiking up a mountain. That may or may not have to do with
a distaste of heights and poor balance. Alas, my fears were allayed by
a trail that was steep, but not the type of
narrow-path-along-the-edge-of-a-cliff nightmare I'd envisioned.
And finally, the barracudas. While still in the States, I decided I'd
like to attend a match of each of the big national sports here:
cricket, rugby and soccer. The Cape Town Ajax (soccer) happened to be
playing Friday night, so we got together eight people and took a
minibus to the stadium. Little did we know that a) the stadium was in
the projects and b) no one arrives early to soccer games. Most folks
operate here under 'African time,' which is much like 'Lowe time,'
that is, a wee bit late :) So the minibus driver, a saint named Al,
stopped the car in front of a gate near the stadium. Outside the
minibus, about a dozen teenagers swarmed. One, who (I kid you not) had
one eye, came up to the driver's side window begging for money. The
eight of us simultaneously started begging to be driven home. It's
difficult to convey the tension that hung in the air. Perhaps my crime
antennae are now hyper-alert. Perhaps the teens just wanted a small
handout to get into the game or for a meal. But there seemed to be a
particular desperation about them, a sense that they, shall we say,
didn't always limit their actions to those which fall within the legal
boundaries. I feel more confident asserting such an opinion since the
driver took it upon himself to talk to the security people (he spoke
another language, but the word 'Americans' was definitely used),
thereby allowing us entry to the stadium through the players' gate.
The driver then proceeded to park the car, escort us to the ticket
booth and then to the gate, whereupon we were given the kind of
frisking by security personnel that would have the ACLU filing a
lawsuit within the hour. As Al predicted, we were safe inside the
stadium. The only other white person in the stadium was the Ajax
goalie, but no one bothered us (mostly because the stadium was 70%
empty and the fans in attendance were too busy alternately smoking
massive amounts of marijuana and incessantly blowing plastic horns.
How their lungs manage both, I do not know.). We even made a friend, a
fan named Charlie who we talked to about soccer and crime and a whole
range of things.
Now that I've taken up the rest of your Monday, I'll bring this
missive to a close. Do know, however, that I've put some pictures
online. More will be added in the days and weeks to come, but it's a
start. Instructions on how to find them are below.
Hope this e-mail finds you well, perhaps still basking in the
afterglow of Valentine's Day (which they do, believe it or not,
celebrate here in some quarters). As long as you're basking in some
light - I hear it's freezing there! Thanks for all the correspondence
in return. Feel free to send any questions or suggestions for
exploration. I'd be happy to take them up.
Take care,

Instructions to find photos
- Go to (no typo, there's really no 'e')
- Click the link in the top-left corner that says 'Already a member?
Sign in' (I know you may not be a member, but proceed anyway)
- You will most likely be prompted for a Yahoo! ID. Enter saphotos.
The name has been created specifically for you to view my photos. The
password is photossa.
- Sign in, and then click the down arrow next to the search link in
the right-hand corner. Choose Flickr members.
- Enter lowebrendan into the search field.
- My number of photos (80) will appear next to the word photos. Click photos.
- My photos will appear. If you want more organization, click the sets
on the right-hand side of the screen.
- From there you can see photos from Stellenbosch, the wine region 30
minutes outside of Cape Town, and Clifton Beach, one of the nicer
beaches within the city limits. (Note: the photos named 'Khayelitsha'
in the Stellenbosch section are of the townships the proliferate
around the city)
- Enjoy!

Second post from Cape Town

Hello again everyone,
Class hasn't started yet, so the last week has provided enough
adventure to garner another e-mail. Once 'varsity,' as they call it,
begins, perhaps I'll cease these weekly chronicles. Hopefully you
enjoy hearing about the experience as much as I enjoy sharing it (and
if not, we're a bit out of luck, as these don't come with an
unsubscribe option :) Forgive my indulgence...
In any case, the last week has provided highs and lows. I went to the
beach one day, a gorgeous plot of sand at the foot of a mountain. I
drove through townships, the shantytowns that ring (and imperil) Cape
Town, and took a walking tour through the city centre. I registered
for classes (three politics courses and a sociology course - Poverty,
Development and Globalisation) and did some research. Many of you
replied to my last e-mail with queries about the nightlife here, and
so I complied by going out three times in four nights. One night there
were fire jugglers performing on the sand pit that is at the center of
a bar called Cool Runnings. Another night people danced on the bar at
Jo'burg (perhaps not surprisingly, my feet stayed firmly planted to
the floor. I subscribe to the Sam I Am theory of dancing - I will not
dance in a club, I will not dance on a bar...). And the third night I
hung out on the balcony overlooking Long Street, the Bourbon
Street-esque area downtown (without as much of the debauchery). So,
needless to say, the nightlife here is alive and well.
As for the lows, alas, Cape Town is both a gorgeous, luxurious
playground of the rich and famous (Madonna has a home here) and a
poverty-stricken breeding ground of crime (the word you hear
frequently in describing the city is 'complex'). The two worlds, which
traditionally (but increasingly less so) have been inhabited by whites
and blacks, respectively, seldom mix. Most homes (including our
cottage-type home) have concrete walls surrounding them and gates in
front. Some have barbed wire or razor blades on top. Almost all have
'ADT Armed Response' security signs out front. I have four keys to my
There are ways to minimize the threat but not to eliminate it. I
learned as much Thursday. A friend and I took a bus downtown to see
the city centre and Bo Kaap, a Muslim area with brightly colored homes
that overlooks the city. We had extra time, so we decided to find
parliament. As we walked in front of the provincial legislature
building around 2:30pm, a man took hold of my arm and, to make a long
story short, told me to give him my money. At first I was shocked,
half expecting Ashton Kutcher to pop out of the bushes and tell me I
had just been punk'd. Something so brazen as a mid-afternoon, downtown
robbery was incomprehensible to me, but he (as well as the man behind
him and the alleged four others he claimed were watching me) was quite
serious. I gave him about $17 and left unharmed, ultimately more
shocked than scared. The shock turned to anger on Saturday, when
another pair of men tried to rob my friend and I as we walked to the
Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. In both instances I took numerous
precautions to safeguard myself - wearing plain, raggy clothing,
leaving my map and camera behind, etc etc. Perhaps my glasses (they're
rare here) and accent or sunburn gave me away, or maybe I was simply a
random victim. The incidents have certainly put me alert. I'm not
going to stop going downtown - I didn't come here to sit in my prison
cage of a home - but I have to find ways to reduce the risk I face. Of
course, some people have lived here for years and never had an
incident, so my 1:1 downtown visit:robbery ratio will hopefully go
down soon.
That's all for now. Time to figure out tonight (likely a movie -
'Rocky Balboa' is really big here right now). Wednesday is wine
tasting, Friday classes start and Saturday morning I hike Table
Mountain. Should be fun.
Hope all is well back home for each of you. I've heard it's quite
cold in the States. I've also heard we're edging toward war with Iran.
Perhaps a robbery is not so bad. It's all relevant, I suppose.

First post from Cape Town

Hey everyone!
It's somewhat surreal to type this, but I'm in Africa! Internet is a
bit hard to come across here, so I'm in an Internet cafe in
Rondebosch, the university town a 5/10 minute drive outside of Cape
Town. And I'm very happy/proud to be able to say that I'm here. Life
sure isn't easy down here, not even if you have some money to make it
easier (one of the many differences between here and the U.S.).
The beginning of the trip proved as much. The flight out of the U.S.
was delayed four hours, so I missed my connection in Johannesburg and
spent my first night in Jo'burg. The silver lining was a bunch of
other students were in the same boat, so we got to know each other in
that awkward I-don't-really-know-you-but-we're-going-through-the-same-radical-experience-so-let's-small-talk
way. Or something like that :)
I live in a house a 15 minute walk from campus with four Americans
(from McCalister College, Vassar, Univ. of Illinois and Yale) and
three Norwegians (one of whom goes to school in Paris). Our neighbors
include a German student, and many of the Univ. of Cape Town students
are from outside the country (predominantly Zimbabwe, it seems) so I'm
certainly being exposed to other cultures, which is the point, of
course, and my favorite part of the experience so far.
Cape Town does appear to be gorgeous (I've only been here a few days,
so definitive conclusions should probably be kept to a minimum). The
city seems nice, on the smaller side, quaint perhaps, but the area
surrounding it (the Cape peninsula) is just spectacular. Think the
French Riviera/Amalfi Coast/Pacific Coast Highway, just a little more
rugged. We hiked to the Cape of Good Hope yesterday and it was
unbelievable (so were the penguins we saw on the beach!).
Speaking of rugged, I was told many times before I left how
developed/western/white Cape Town is, and I don't doubt those people's
assessments. But without a proper frame of reference (i.e. experience
in any other African city) it's hard for me to agree. For an African
city, Cape Town is most likely more developed, Western and white, but
compared to San Fran or Chicago or Paris or anywhere I've been, it's a
whole new ballgame. Sometimes that's really exhilerating, sometimes
it's a bit daunting. The longer I'm here and grow accustomed to it,
the more comfortable I'll become and the more exhillerating it will
be, I suppose.
So there are some preliminary observations. Everything is off to as
good a start as it possibly could be. Sometimes I feel like a college
freshman, as you may imagine. But the longer I'm here (and the more
patience I muster) the more I'll get to know people, the better I'll
get to know them, the more places I'll be able to see, the more
experiences I'll be able to have, etc.
I'll get pictures out soon, hopefully, as they're much more
captivating than any words. I hope everything is going well for
everyone - I think of each of you more often than you may think.
Take care and feel free to write back. I'll do my best to respond in
short order and it will be good to hear what everyone is up to in the