Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On "Africa" and Blogging

On Africa

The idea of Africa is perhaps far more powerful than the location or the geography. At least I think so. There is this psychology about being as far away as Africa is, or in as remote a place as Africa should be. There exists some strange exoticism about the continent, even when you're there.
Woman carrying load on her head in Massinga, MozambiqueIn Massinga, Mozambique.

Quotes such as these pop up:

"TIA: This is Africa."
"What do you expect, you're in Africa now."
I'm going to study abroad in Africa. -- "Are you going to come back alive?"

You quickly realize that Cape Town is actually quite European in nature. Many preconceptions are skewed if not incorrect, but you also find some things true. A search for the real Africa begins, I guess. In my project about blogging, we talked about the effect that student blogs can have on these perceptions, both positive and negative. In one sense, students probably contribute to the exotic nature of the country, as they travel and highlight the different, the crime, the corruption, and general lack of organization.

On the other hand, I'm of the opinion that most of what students write about "Africa" is fine. It will probably be better or at least challenging to what most people think. And the truth is, there is no one Africa. The continent is obviously immensely diverse, but beyond that... it is full of contradictions. South Africa is a constant dichotomy between luxury and squalor, the modern and traditional. Sure, its true that Africa has expensive cars, beautiful beaches, some great universities, some world class hospitals, TV channels, cinemas, etc. However, it is also true that people still live in huts in many places, there are still piss poor governments and poor countries with rich governments. There isn't a hospital in Mozambique that I would trust with my life, baboons can often be seen on the sides of rural roads, and you can still travel and see women walking with enormous cargo loads atop their heads, often with no hands to support them. Circumcision and other initiation rituals still take place among Xhosa men at around age 20, and many other elements of Traditional African Religion are alive and well, often mixed with Christianity or Islam.

I guess what I'm saying, then, is that one of the overarching themes of being abroad in Africa is simply Africa. Specifically South Africa, but that gets lost in the shuffle. As one black South African student remarked in one of my classes, "We are a colonized people. Our language, our movies, our music. Even Africa isn't African anymore." Looking back, I just wanted to share that, in as much as it may make sense. How about you, has reading this blog surprised you at all about Africa?

Johannesburg, South Africa Vodacom Building
How I will remember Johannesburg.

On This Blog

When I began this blog in January, I certainly didn't have a strong idea of what I was going for. I did, however, set a few ground rules for myself from the beginning. First, I would write for anyone that wanted to read. This meant explaining things that weren't immediately obvious, and generally avoiding inside jokes and lots of specific stories about people that readers didn't know.

More than anything though, my intention was to bring you along. Instead of just telling you what I've been doing, I wanted to capture the places, the stories, and the progression as I blogged. I've made maps, hoping not to assume that you knew where I was going, and also made a point to write often and in a way that reflected the changes that I felt happening for me.

In a way, keeping a blog is a lot like reporting the news. Tons of stuff happens everyday, you see things while walking to class, you have interactions with new people, you witness things in the city. Every so often there is a big event that requires a post, but generally... the most important stuff is hard to articulate. "Shifts" happen within as you stay longer in the country, make realizations about how things "really are", and perhaps get a better sense of where you are and the people you are around. I don't know, I hope I was able to capture some of that. It will be fun to reread my posts when I'm missing Africa.

Anyway, to these ends, I hope it made things more enjoyable to read. Lastly, I doubt anything profoundly exciting will happen in the states when I get back, like pilot whales beaching on the shores of Lake Mendota or hills completely going up in flames, but I may still blog about my adjustment back to the States.

Aukland in Africa

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Farewell, South Africa

As you can imagine, the three days that I had remaining between my return to Cape Town and my ultimate South African departure turned out to be rather hectic. It was filled with recovering from my Joburg/Soweto/Mozambique trip, sorting through my bedroom, having a large amount of clothes cleaned and packed, seeing people that I really needed to see, and preparing for leave everything behind. This even included packing for another trip in Germany. As a result, I didn't have a chance to blog. I'm a bit sad about this, and still hope to share the highlights of my travels in a future post.

However, I'm getting behind! Yesterday, I woefully said goodbye to a number of great friends and packed my life into 2.5 suitcases. After sixteen hours of traveling, I arrived this morning in Germany. More on that later.

On a plane, leaving South Africa
Leaving, on a jet plane...

The purpose of this post, though, is to reflect on something that our group was told when we first arrived in Cape Town. I began tuning people out as speaker after speaker tried to talk about their part of UCT at orientation. However, a certain Deputy Vice-Chancellor caught my ear. Prof. Thandabantu Nhlapo, a very kind looking older man, stood at the podium and softly said, "Welcome, welcome, welcome to Cape Town. Let me first say that above all things, you students are very welcome here. You add to the diversity of our campus, and we appreciate you adding your perspective to our institution." Or something like that. He then went on, "South Africa is one of those countries that tends to get... under your skin. I hope your time with us is special, and that our beloved country touches you all in some way."

I've been thinking about that lately, because it certainly has. As I sit in my German coffee shop, quenching the thirst of intermittent, slow, and costly internet access over the last month, I'm struggling a bit to put this feeling into words, but the uniqueness of the country and my experiences consistently became more complex as the months went on. I'll perhaps write more about that later, but in the meantime... here's my final slideshow. It's a short video of my favorite photos, both in terms of scenery as well as capturing certain moments that I really savor.

Enjoy! And I'll see all you Wisconsinites real soon.

It's best to watch in full screen and HD.
Click here to watch in HD!

And as a reminder, here are my travel plans over the next week. I will be home on July 1st, one week from today.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Two Weeks of Traveling, and Back To Moz

School's. Out. For. Winter.

This means that I have 18 days until I depart the shores of South Africa, and I have crafted an intense itinerary to keep me busy until that time. It is only now in the wee hours of the morning, as I gaze upon the amount of packing that I need to do that I realize how hectic the next four weeks of my life will be. I won't be still for very long! Not only will things be restless, but probably expensive as well. This is study abroad, though, so that's to be expected. It's time to make memories.

Shaun's June Travels
For scale, this distance is like driving from Milwaukee to Key West.

During this time, I will have limited access to the internet. I will be bringing my laptop, but I'm not sure how often I'll get the net or if I'll be able to do blog posts. Nonetheless, I've created the nifty illustration above to show where I'll be going.

Here is my rough itinerary. I write this not to bore you with the specifics, but rather to let you check in on where I might be, barring any major itinerary changes or typical Mozambican unexpectedness.
  • June 6: Carsten and I will drive his truck to Johannesburg, with our sights set on the lands of Moz. It takes a full day, so leaving at 6am will have us there by nighttime. We'll stay at a backpacker's in Joburg.
  • June 7: We'll depart Joburg, headed toward Kruger National Park. This is the internationally famous reserve, noted for its big safari animals like lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and water buffalo. I'm intent on seeing these things before I leave, and this will be the perfect opportunity. We'll hopefully stay in the park on this night.
  • June 8: Depart for Mozambique, with particular attention paid to avoiding riots at the border. My passport will hopefully not be in a lion's stomach, and more hopefully I will not be either. We will drive all the way to Tofo, Mozambique on the coast, which is the place I stayed last time.
  • June 8-June 10: Staying in Tofo. Perhaps I will buy more Mozambican pants? I was already shouted at by my mother for not getting her a pair.
  • June 10-June 14: Sean will fly up and meet us. We depart for his dive center in Morrungulo, Mozambique, which is about two hours north.
  • June 14: Goodbye Mozambique! No chicken bus this time, I'm flying back to Johannesburg via a small plane! Anneli will meet me in Johannesburg, and we will begin our South African adventures. (Well, resume them to be more accurate).
  • June 14-19: Anneli and I will do sightseeing and have fun in and around Johannesburg and Soweto. We'll be staying in a few backpackers, maybe we'll rent a car. The Apartheid Museum? Youth Day Celebrations? Who knows where the wind will take us!? (Or the very cold nights in Joburg).
  • June 19-June 20: We've decided to take the train back to Cape Town! It's tourist class, so we'll have a sleeper cabin and a dining car. It feels like Darjeeling Limited already. I can hardly wait. Which is good, because the trip takes 26 hours. Waiting will be important.
Upon return, I will have three days until I depart South Africa. I'm already tired typing it, but moreover tired from packing. Clothes for warm weather, cold weather, rainy weather, boring weather, this will be varied.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to finish packing. The drive to Mozambique is the same distance as Milwaukee to Key West, but on worse roads. I need my beauty sleep for this one.

Finishing Projects and Exams at UCT

In terms of school, the last few weeks have been very busy! I had a number of major projects that were due for my courses, two of which were based on research projects and included a presentation to the class on my findings. One was a group project, and the other I did solo.

For my African Studies course (Race, Culture and Identity in Post-apartheid South Africa), our group did the project on blogging! I started out in a different group, but actually switched when I saw how Blogging in South Africarelevant this topic would be for me. In fact, I had already done most of the research on the specific topic that I wanted to explore, which is the state of social media, blogging, and web 2.0 in this country. I'm practicing it! We each used our own blogs as spring boards to the issue we were tackling, and I chose to do a case study on my blog post about Devil's Peak.

You'll notice that I have my most visited blog posts listed on the right sidebar of this page. My Devil's Peak post sits comfortably at the top, because once the mountain went up in flames I saw a marked increase in traffic to my site. There was lots of linking happening, or "Link Love!", and in some ways this blog became part of the South African online media. I was honored to have people stealing my photos, reposting them, and claiming that they took them! So this was the basis of my project. Since it counted for half of my large seminar course, the project alone was worth like 4.5 US university credits. Wowza!

The number of visits to this blog.

Blogging in South Africa CAS4005F
One of the slides from our presentation. Look familiar?

I did my other project for African Traditional Religion by myself. My research was to look for the role that music historically and presently plays in The role of music within African Traditional ReligionAfrican religion, specifically within ritual, healing, initiation, and storytelling. This was probably one of the most interesting projects I've ever done, since I was able to hole up at UCT's music library looking through books and their vast CD collection. Since UCT is a very old university here in Southern Africa, there is a unique collection of recordings of tribal music from the 1950s and 60s, among other nuggets. I copied many of the CDs to my computer, so perhaps I'll share with you sometime. It was an awesome project, and I did well on the presentation and paper and all that.

Then, all my "production-based" work was finished. I had my last lecture at UCT on June 28th. The full week following that, or last week, we had off as time to study. I suspect that the university hopes we'll forget the material from class during this week. Yes, I realize that we're supposed to study, and legend has it that many people do... but let's be realistic. I did study, but this long amount of time only served to make me forget things. With exams being typically worth 40% of your final grade... you want to perform well.

We'll see how I did, but I finished both of them this week. And yes, I'm done with school for the summer finally! (Well, winter here.)

Shaun is stressed
Stressing about exams.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fifty Pilot Whales Beach Themselves in Kommetjie

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Sitting with them.

On Saturday morning, I received this text message from Sean: "Dude apparently 20 whales have beached at kommetjie and they are looking for volunteers to help are you keen to go?"

The answer was yes, and I set about finding more information online. There was one article up already, citing that it was actually around 47 and that more were coming ashore. It was now around 11am, and they had beached just before sunrise at about 7:30am. I saw that one had already died, and that the National Sea Rescue Institute was now inviting people with wet suits to come help them back into the water. Since it was a cold day, I set about getting some warm clothes along with my camera, and ran to meet up with my ride.

We stopped on the way and grabbed wet suits from the diving trailer, and then quickly realized that half of Cape Town was driving there to see the whales. Equipped with a long time Capetonian and GPS unit, we found a bit longer and mountainous, albeit much faster and less congested path to Kommetjie. Score.

When we arrived, I realized how spread out the problem was. There were whales all up and down the beach, each with a group of 3-7 people sitting with them. We headed down to the site, and met up with some friends that had already been there for a few hours. It felt like a disaster zone, with people running around with buckets, and volunteers passing out blankets, food, and drinks for those that had been there a long time. The beach was littered with emergency vehicles, everyone from the neighbourhood watch and the local police to sea rescue and disaster management.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  It was like triage, whales all over.
It was like triage. Whales all over.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Handing out towels.
The towel lady. That's just what I called her, though.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Rescuers
They were getting ready to turn the whale upright.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Rescue Workers.
One whale was already dead when we arrived.

And despite all these officials and being several hours into this ordeal, there was very little organization or instruction for the people that were there to help. After taking some photos, I ditched my camera and clothes when I was asked to help pour water. I shuttled between about ten whales dumping water on them, especially on the dorsal fin to keep it cool. I felt a few, and they were getting very warm. The challenge is that not many people knew how to best take care of the whales, and there was not much direction coming from the officials on the beach. Generally, they were keeping the whales comfortable and keeping them upright so as not to rest them on their side organs or their side fins.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Pouring water on one.
Keeping this one comfortable. Note the water bucket.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Pilot whale close up

So.... I continued with my bucket operations. I asked if there was a plan, and got wild responses like, "They are calling in the navy to help. Whether it be a helicopter or boats or what not, we're not sure, but I hope someone comes." This came from a man that was busy digging sand from the sides of a whale, while splashing water on it and attempting to keep it upright as it rolled. I asked someone else and they remarked, "They are supposedly bringing in some trucks to transport them via road to the bay in Simon's Town near the naval base." I looked around as not much else changed. I wondered why nobody was walking around giving directions, why I hadn't heard anything over the loud speakers on the emergency vehicles, or why nobody seemed to know the plan.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. Panorama of Spectators.
Lots of spectators flocked to watch.

At this point, I saw a few people trying to move one. I had already heard that any whales that were pushed back to the ocean were turning around and swimming right back in, but also heard that some had gotten back out. They were likely going to die on the beach, so why not try? We sat with one for about 45 minutes as we used periodic waves to move it further into the water. It was about 12-15 feet long, and probably weighed about a ton or more. Let me tell you, although it probably can be assumed, pushing a whale is hard work. It gets very tiring. For the whale as well.

We did it though, and managed to get this one into deeper water. Donning our wet suits in the icy water, we walked her out into deeper water, as far as we could. We struggled to keep her oriented toward the ocean, but she was turning back for the beach, partly because of the current. The waves were crashing pretty hard and it felt like she wouldn't get very far without be guided out past the waves. Yet this quickly becomes a dangerous ordeal when you're swimming with a stressed whale in the big waves. I was getting these huge waves crashing into me while I held onto her, getting thrown a few times and swimming back to her dorsal fin. And eventually I realized that this was becoming more dangerous than I was comfortable with, and the prospect of having a sideways whale tossed into me by the huge waves wasn't one I was ready to contend with. To complicate things, the tide was pulling me further out, so I decided that I'd go in. It wasn't worth it to risk the lives of five volunteers for a whale that was turning to rebeach anyway.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Swimming one of the whales out.
A few volunteers swimming with one of the pilot whales.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  About to get hit by a big wave.
The breaking waves were pretty dangerous.

I swam back, and later found out that some people made bigger risks earlier in the day. One person needed to be rescued from a near drowning in the surf, another suffered either a broken leg or a fractured knee (or they were different people), and a third may have had broken ribs from being pinned under a rolling whale. So, I kept my safe distance while sitting with them, and decided not to swim out too far. Pushing them out was seemingly futile anyway, since any that were returned to sea were rebeaching a bit further or swimming onto the rocks even further down, causing more problems like cuts and lacerations.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Close up of one of the pilot whales.
I think this is the one we were sitting with.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.
Working with the whale on her own.

The general feeling was, "What must we do?". Despite interspersed rumors of some getting back to the ocean, most of these 55 were either still on the beach, dead already, or much further down on the rocks with other volunteers struggling to free them. And as they became increasingly stressed and resistant, a few started finning and sent volunteers running as it thrashed around in the water. Perhaps it was presumptuous of us to assume that they wanted to live? I'm not sure.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Not sure what to do.
What to do?

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Standing clear of a fighting whale.
This one was fighting quiet furiously once it was in the water.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. Whale swims into the rocks.
Down the beach, on the rocks.

It was at this point that I stood next to a woman with a walkie talkie. I heard the instruction that all officials were to meet by the vehicles to make a human shield, removing people from the beach so they could all be euthanized. I went to my friends, still working with a whale, and said this was their last chance to send it out. I watched as officials told volunteers to now leave, give up on the whale that some of them had been sitting with for hours because it was not possible anymore to save them. Volunteers in turn were getting frustrated and emotional with the lack of coordinated response and direction, and refused to leave the whale. "This is a public beach, this isn't your whale, and we're still willing to try. You have no right to kill it." Indeed, many were getting stressed and tired, others seemed active and alert... yet it seemed very few people knew much about the whales or their chances. I didn't, for sure, so who do you believe? Emotions were running high.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. Police come to close the beach.
More police coming to clear the beach.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. SAPS Police Diving Unit
Making a plan, just before they told everyone it was closed.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.
The rest of the officials meet before euthanizing.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Arguing with an official.
Arguing once the man in the blue told them to leave.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Arguing with an official.
More fighting, pointing at the whale in the sand.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Last effort to save one of the whales.
Last ditch effort for this one. Calling people to help push.

I asked a police officer, he said, "The beach is officially closed." To me, this sounded like, "Boy, we really screwed this up big time, and since we're police, we are taking control of this scene and telling you to leave so we can shoot them all." It probably also meant, "We've been told that all that the rescue efforts have failed, and it's too late". Maybe both. I'm no expert, but the whales weren't very large, and I've seen how Cape Town responds to fires, with helicopters galore, and I also know how they can really screw things up as well. It seems to me that they weren't prepared, even the ones that were tasked with marine protection. There should have been boats involved, there should have been either trained professionals, more instruction, or no request for the public to come help. But... there wasn't, and the situation was regrettable. So, we complied and left.

I read another account from a volunteer online, and it seems things got very hectic after we left. Many volunteers tried desperately to free the remaining whales as the police started clearing the beach. Shortly thereafter, a police gunman with a rife, flanked by other officials, moved from whale to whale and put a bullet into each one to euthanize it. It was very sad to hear, and frustrating at how insane things got. Volunteers were still there, and officials are now recommending people that were disturbed by what happened to seek counselling. Should have thought of that before you didn't clear the beach and started killing whales.

All of this happened during the day. In the evening, I spent a lot of time online with friends trying to figure out all the questions I had from the day. Can whale rescue be successful? What was happening physiologically to them on the beach? How should we have been taking care of them? What could have been done better? Why did they beach all at once? Is it common?

First and foremost, pilot whales seem to beach pretty often. A few years ago Australia saw 140 beach at once on their shores, and were somewhat successful getting about 40 back out. I doubt very much that it was the result of navy sonar operations or global warming. In fact, the first recorded stranding in South Africa happened on the same beach in 1928, with 108 whales coming ashore. In that instance, whales that were towed deeper also rebeached, so even their behavior has happened before. Beachings have happened in other places of the world and other parts of South Africa since. So... pilot whales have a tendency to do this.

Why do they beach? No definitive cause has been identified, but the best guess is that they follow a leader onto the beach. These ones are also called false killer whales, since they are smaller relatives and travel in pods of many dozens, following a leader. If she is ill, confused, dying, or whatever else and heads for shore, they follow. Sorry to say it, but these whales may have received a Darwin Award on Saturday. The bottom line: these things happen, and a number of things could have been done differently. Beyond this, I've had lots of conversations and arguments with people about what could have been done, and I'm frankly tired of talking about it. The numbers are sketchy, and news reports keep changing on how many lived, beached, and died. It seems now that 44 were euthanized on the beach, and another ten or so died during rescue attempts. They probably didn't have a very good chance of survival once they came ashore in the first place.

I'd like to focus on the time I actually spent with them, rather than the outcome though. It was a very unique experience to sit with a whale. I sat with this one outside of the context of an aquarium, or some type of zoo... but rather in the wild, sitting with it, making my best guesses as how to support it and keep it well. I am glad I was at least able to help try.

It ended up becoming international news. Here are some articles: BBC News UK | Telegraph | Reuters | Associated Press
All photographs © Shaun Aukland

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Old Biscuit Mill Market

Just down the road from Observatory, there is a Saturday market very similar to Madison's Farmer's Market near the capitol. I can't decide which one I like more though. The market in Madison mostly has food, juices, and snacks. Yet it is next to the state capitol building, which makes it remarkable. If you took away the location, I'm sure the Farmer's Market would be far less attractive.

A vendor at Woodstock's Old Biscuit Mill Market

I recently visited Cape Town's Old Biscuit Mill Market, which is set on the grounds of an old converted... biscuit mill, surprisingly enough. The goods that they have are far more varied than I was accustomed to. The essential produce, flowers, and popcorn were around. But beyond this there were stands of smoothies, quiches, cheeses, ostrich and lamb burgers, crepes, fancy beer, brats, dried South African meats (biltong and droewors), pastries, cupcakes, curry, and more. As a reminder, I love food and trying things, so I was getting more and more overwhelmed as I walked around and saw all my options. "I want everything!"

Old Biscuit Mill Market Panorama in Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa
Seating space and vendors.

Fruit pie at the Old Biscuit Mill
I'd eat it. I didn't though. :-(

The smoothie lady at Old Biscuit Mill Market
The 'ol smoothie lady. That's just what we call her.

We had to decide on something though, so I put Anneli in charge. She chose for me a lamb burger with mild chili sauce, rocket lettuce, cucumber, and tsatsiki sauce (on a whole wheat bun, of course). It was delicious!

Cucumbers for making burgers at Old Biscuit Mill
For my burger.

Lamb burger
And yes, it was as good as it looks.

We also had one of the smoothies to top things off. After satisfying the urge to eat everything that I saw, we moved onto the other merchants. There was an art gallery, a bead store, a coffee micropress with loads of bean stockpiles, and an African themed store with shirts and crafts. I bought a shirt.

Coffee beans
So many coffee beans!

The fact that this place is situated in a factory complex was really cool though, since all the different areas are more split up and intimate. There are businesses on the upper levels of the balconies, shops down below, and various sculptures and artwork decorating the walkways between buildings and shops. I preferred it being more separated and compartmentalized rather than a big open market in the street... especially since it allowed for permanent shops as well as tables from people that bring in their goods.

The fountain machine at Old Biscuit Mill Market
A fountain in the courtyard.

Anyway, the place was very neat and I wanted to share. I'm disappointed that I didn't know about it when Erik and Jana were here. If you come visit me though, I'll take you here. And for a much less exciting adventure than actually coming, visit their website. It's horrific, yet whimsical. Lastly, here are some more photos that I took:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Nature of Study Abroad—Translation

Shaun at Breede River

Studying abroad is really overwhelming in some ways. Not in the personal ways of moving yourself, missing people and things, or dealing with money and that. Those things are true, of course, but it can also be overwhelming to find yourself in such an international context so suddenly.

What I mean is this—a new student to an area instantly tries to get a sense of where they are, how things are different, and how people are different. Not only are you presented with opportunities to interact with residents of the country, but you make friends with, live with, and become close to many international students at the same time. Meanwhile, you try not to make comparisons between things here and at home. Yet comparison is essential. We are translating currency amounts, measuring cups for cooking, temperatures, the meanings of words, perceptions of local issues and histories, explanations for global issues, and more. As this creature gets larger, out of nowhere, this person finds themselves sitting at a crossroads of different peoples and human difference in general, I think. At times just as a spectator, and other times as a participant. You're translating all the time in your head, and here we're both still speaking English!

I sometimes feel it would be easier to ignore all of this and become numb to the differences, but that seems like cheating and missing out. I often feel like I'm witnessing some of the most basic and common, and at the very same time intricate and complex, issues. It can small... like "How many times must we talk about my accent? Or Obama?" In this way, you learn to accept that you're a foreigner, people are interested, and you must be able to laugh about being American.

But take race, for instance. One can assume that in a country that has as horrible a history of racial oppression as South Africa, this concept would be quite important. And in a nation where apartheid was ridded, it is fascinating to still be confronted daily with its effects, and its legacy in a post-apartheid society. How people talk about it, how South Africans my age reflect on growing up, and how tensions still exist today. How they say that Cape Town is the city obsessed with race. These conversations may seem quieted at times, but it truly is like a silent noise within the city, something that doesn't go away and cannot be ignored. Or so it feels like to me.

And at other times, it simply explodes. Like headlines in the papers about "racist" polticians, or a recent Facebook group that was created to defame the new white, female premier of this province. It was instantly flooded by university age students, white and black, with thousands of terrible comments flying back and forth. Some were intelligent, but the vast majority were uninformed, juvenile name-calling and racist shouting. It was the vocalization of some of this silent noise that happens in this country surrounding race. And it is overwhelming!

Then my comparisons come in. I find myself looking for ways to draw parallels to the US. Of course we talk about race, and of course it is still an issue. African-Americans are historically and still disadvantaged in our country, and there still exist tons of debates surrounding racism, institutionalized oppression, and political policy as well. But, what if this is what race relations looked like in the US after the civil rights movement, or what some of the political conversations sounded like when the US was a young democracy? Unsure, developing, and somewhat fragile. More palpable. I don't know. This is where I kind of come to a stop, and say that I'm not entirely sure what I'm saying. And I admit that I've gone through this post several times trying to make things more cohesive and organized.

Maybe that's the point though. They often are not cohesive or organized. As a study abroad student, the longer you are here, the longer your mind tries to digest these things, and make sense of them. I'm not done, but rather feeling in this moment a little overwhelmed with doing so much internal translation, and feeling so often like a foreigner. That is also one of the points of this post, then. However, the spectator role allows you to start to see the truth of human nature, in an international and cross-cultural way.

There is also a bit of deception involved in understanding study abroad. Students aren't just visiting, they spend several months building lives in a different country. You seek out and build meaningful friendships that have trust, reciprocity, and some semblance of meaning. At least that's what I've been trying to do. You spend lots of time making your bedroom habitable, finding a social circle, and when things become manageable and comfortable... you pick up and disappear. Of course that is difficult. You literally leave a void, and people must even delete you from their cell phones.

Shaun's Cape Town Bedroom
My recently habitable bedroom.

This prospect is what has me feeling very uncomfortable right now. The fleeting and inevitable nature of this process has me weary of reaching out, and of getting attached to people. It is probably because I've never been very good at losing friends, in fact I am particularly bad at it. Especially when they've made an impact on me. Granted, this could all be avoided if I put less thought into things and just had fun... and I do this too, but it is not really my nature. I begin to ask myself "Why am I trying to build this friendship? I leave in a month."

I also don't like the idea of being part of the "study abroad cycle", where you know people that know you will leave. I'm often in contact with people that meet study abroad students a lot, or what I have dubbed the "student abroad machine". They know you won't be friends soon, and they're used to knowing Americans and watching them leave. I just don't want to be another person that comes and goes, I suppose. Oh well, perhaps I am.

Relaxing with friends at Breede River
Relaxing with friends at Breede River.