Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Hello from Cape Town

Hello everyone!
Yep, I'm still in Africa, still alive and well. Sorry for the gap in
communications – I know I mistakenly left some of you with the
impression in the last e-mail that I'd become deeply religious and run
off with a South African girl named Noma, and, well, I apologize for
that. To be clear, I'm still floating about in a religious-less
atmosphere, and still single. (And we won't return to those topics
anytime soon!)
Anyhow, the last few weeks have been full of fun events, exciting
and challenging, too. The most prominent event has been my first
vacation (can you take a vacation from a vacation?). Four friends and
myself rented a car and spent four days driving the Garden Route, a
stretch of beautiful coastal towns east of Cape Town. I was the
primary driver (most cars are manual here), which suited me just fine.
The whole 'left side of the road' situation really wasn't a problem,
mostly because we spent our time on freeways (and when we were in
towns, I had four backseat drivers screaming, 'LEFT!!!'). Our first
stop was in Oudtshoorn, or, as it's more popularly known as, the
Ostrich Capital of the World. We went for a midnight swim at our
hostel, which may have been very summer campish, but seeing as I never
went to summer camp and had never stayed at a hostel, was quite a
thrill for me. The following morning we had scrambled ostrich eggs for
breakfast and headed out to the ostrich farm, primed and ready to
fulfill the primary reason I came to South Africa – to ride an ostrich
(I kid, but not as much as you might think – I had really been looking
forward to this!). Alas, there had been some rain overnight (yes, it
does rain here) and the attendant said if we tried to ride the ostrich
it would slip and we would break our necks. As there was no indication
that she was anything but completely serious, we turned away,
heartbroken, crestfallen, and all those other sad compound adjectives.
All good things come to those who wait, however, so we traced back our
route to the outskirts of town to Highgate Ostrich Farm, where I
nearly achieved nirvana. We arrived in time to catch a tour, which
told us everything we'd ever like to know about ostriches (they live
about 40-50 years, lay eggs every two weeks during high season and
have two toes on each foot, fyi). Then we fed the ostriches, which
gave us an indication of their aggressiveness (if you thought they
were odd, imbalanced creatures with small brains who are incapable of
swift jabs – as I had – you thought wrong). Afterward we stepped on
ostrich eggs – they're 2mm thick, which means they don't crack (even
though you swear they're going to) – and readied ourselves for The
Main Event. Our guide, Emmanuel, led us into a 30 ft. by 30 ft pen,
which contained about 20 ostriches, four farm employees and a dozen
tourists. The employees grabbed an ostrich with a metal contraption,
and put a small cloth bag over its head (please don't tell PETA).
Then, one by one, my friends and I climbed a stepladder, grabbed a
wing, threw our legs over the ostriches' back and grabbed the other
wing. The farm employee pulled the bag off, gave the ostrich a smack
and – WHEW! – we were off! I've been fortunate to experience many
enjoyable activities over the years, but I can't say anything measures
up to riding an ostrich. I laughed (giggled uncontrollably, really)
the entire time, even when the ostrich decided to stop short and I
went flying off head-first. (Pictures on flickr) If any of you come to
South Africa in the future, please promise me: Highgate Ostrich Farm.
The rest of the trip was great, too (though by comparison, how can
anything measure up to ostrich riding?). We went on an adventure tour
of a cave complex that required you to walk sideways, crawl on
all-fours, shimmy on your stomach and slide feet first in order to
make it through (one poor guy got stuck, which was only quite funny
once we had pried him loose). We went ziplining through a forest – you
wore a harness, they connected your harness to a cable that was
secured around two trees, you stepped off a platform and pounded your
chest like Tarzan as you went flying through the forest to the other
tree. There were also unscripted times – encountering two dozen
baboons hanging out on a secluded highway, meeting various wanderers
at hostels who were hitching their way through Africa, frolicking in
the Indian Ocean – that provided great memories. I was fortunate to
have found a great group of people to go on the trip with, which made
the activities matter less because I enjoyed the company so much.
Back at university, life goes on. Lectures are beginning to lose
their appeal (the topics are fascinating, the professors are not), so
I've supplemented academics with activities. I went surfing one
afternoon with the surf club, which was a tremendous amount of fun.
It's harder than it looks, but it's just as much fun (or at least
that's what I took away from the split-second I spent standing on my
surfboard). I've also begun writing for the newspaper. I wrote two
stories for next week's issue, one on the women's basketball coach and
one on the chancellor at the university. I asked around during
orientation who ran the place, and no one seemed to know (even South
African students). This lack of awareness became a theme and so my
story idea was to crack the case. I found out the chancellor here is
much more of a figurehead than in the States – the vice-chancellor
runs things. So I decided to survey 100 UCT students to see if they
could name either the chancellor or vice-chancellor. Only 12 could
name the vice-chancellor, and 17 could name the chancellor, even
though she is Graca Machel, also known as Mrs. Nelson Mandela! I've
asked to interview both the chancellor and vice-chancellor, so we'll
see if anything comes of that.
At the top of my e-mail I mentioned there have been some challenges,
too (and while ostrich riding is tricky, I wouldn't quite classify it
as a challenge). Instead, I refer to the work I'm doing in the
townships (read: shantytowns) that surround Cape Town. My volunteer
work is minimal, once a week basically, so I'm not up for sainthood or
anything. But the time I've spent there has really been humbling and
provided a moral purpose for my trip. Every Wednesday morning I teach
a basic Microsoft Office class to 18-25-year-olds, some of whom have
never used a computer. Unemployment in the township, Nyanga, is around
70 percent, so it's critical for these young adults to attain some
basic computer proficiency so they become more employable. I've
developed quite an attachment to them, and we're making great strides.
Teaching is infinitely more difficult than I had believed, but when
Thulani types a paragraph, formats it and then cuts and pastes, well,
it gives me a great feeling.
The other township experience – and then I'll stop, I promise – was
being a guest speaker at a high school conference on youth and
democracy. I ran into a few women at the grocery store a few weeks
back who wore 'South African Youth Ministers Programme' shirts. I
asked about the program and was told it's a non-profit that hires
unemployed adults, trains them in citizenship and democracy and places
them in township high schools, where they advise the 'youth ministers'
who are elected by their peers (ministers in the governmental sense,
not religious). Anyhow, last Saturday was a gathering of 60 or so
youth ministers from various high schools. After exchanging a few
e-mails with the women about how I could get involved, I was asked to
be the guest speaker. I was the first American many of them ever met,
and so we had a great cultural exchange. I spoke briefly, they asked
lots of questions and then in the afternoon I sat in on a debate about
whether pregnant students should be allowed to attend high school.
Some students got really into it, standing on chairs and screaming in
Xhosa (a click language) against or for. It was quite an afternoon,
and I felt proud to have the rare opportunity to represent my country
in such a unique forum.
Alrighty, folks. Thanks for taking the time to read this behemoth.
I'll try to stay more on top of these so they don't get so long. Our
next e-mail will include descriptions of my joining the Zimbabwe
Students Society, this weekend's trip to Johannesburg and our fall
break trip, which is essentially a road trip through Namibia ('A road
trip through Namibia?! you ask. 'Yes, read the next e-mail,' I answer
Hope everything is going well back home. Feel free to clue me in on
what you're up to – even in digital form, your e-mails are a welcome
reminder of home.
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 the Garden Route.
- Enjoy!