“We accord a person’s dignity by assuming that they are good, that they share the human qualities we ascribe to ourselves.” – Nelson Mandela
If you haven’t thought about South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994 (or since you learned about it in history class), it’s time to take a closer look at this lovely nation. Its diversity is clear in both its geography and its culture, with 11 national languages! Did you know it has beaches, deserts, forests, farms, mountains, valleys, wetlands, and urban areas, both large and small? And a mix of native Africans along with Afrikaners of Dutch and German descent as well as immigrants from India, Asia and England?
First, a safari: Cheetahs! Lions! Elephants! Giraffes! Zebras! The guides and hosts were good stewards of both the environment and the wildlife, and we felt we were observing them without interfering.
Another must-see is Robben Island, a former leper colony that was a political prison during Apartheid; this is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and one can still visit his cell and get a guided tour from a former prisoner or guard.
Semester at Sea also provided several opportunities to visit townships. Townships are living communities outside a town’s periphery, historically without indoor plumbing, electricity and even windows. Here is a SAS description: “Townships in South Africa came about as a result of apartheid city-planning policies. These policies excluded non-white people from living in the suburbs of the city. Families were forcibly moved to areas on the edge of the city, where they had to live in harsh conditions and cope with extreme poverty. Although apartheid may have ended in 1994 when all ethnic groups were allowed to vote, many people still face harsh conditions as a consequence of poverty. Despite these conditions, a strong sense of community, vibrancy, and faith fills the townships. There is a growing sense of hope as many redefine their futures.” Our visits provided an opportunity to see community gardens, anti-gang and anti-drug programs, dance troupes, an orphanage, schools, and daily life from the perspective of locals. It was inspiring to see brick houses being built to replace shanties with the help of state money, and entrepreneurs starting cafes with family collaboration.
A common theme throughout our stay was a dire water shortage. Let this be a lesson for the rest of the world. Climate change, increasing populations, development, and an administration distracted by politics. Sigh.
chakalaka (a vegetable, bean and spice dish), pap (a maize porridge), fish, curries, and yams with a variety of desserts such as malva pudding and melktert.
And then there was my foodie tour. Off we went to Stellenbosch, the second oldest town in South Africa, famous for its Dutch and Victorian buildings, its historic streets full of shops and cafes, its university, and hundreds of trees and flowers in full bloom (it’s just the beginning of fall here). Oh, and its food. We started at a local coffee company for fresh roasted brew cooked with chocolate and cardamom. Second was a stop at the local biltong shop with many varieties of this dried salted meat similar to jerky (but made from antelope). Next was lunch and wine at a refurbished mill that is a designated farm-to-table hot spot while quaint and friendly at the same time. Lastly, dessert at a locally owned café where they served us homemade nougat and cakes. It might have been a bit much but we walked at least 3,000 steps between stops, taking in the historical sights and people watching.
St. Pope John Paul II, who was a vocal opponent of apartheid, would be pleased with the progress that has been made in South Africa, and would likely encourage us all to continue to work towards dignity for all, as Nelson Mandela expressed so well.
Next stop: Ghana
“Nature is our eldest mother; she will do no harm.” - Emily Dickinson
After many days of classes and ship activities, our Semester at Sea family docked in Mauritius. This gorgeous African nation is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 1000 miles off the continent’s coast and east of Madagascar. It is actually a republic of several islands. Tropics! Beaches! Lagoons! Coral! Dodos! No, not really, since these little guys are extinct, but there are tributes to dodo birds everywhere.
Mauritius is multicultural, multilingual, and multiethnic, and the United Nations has cited it as an outstanding example of how to handle diversity. We were here the day before Independence Day (they won freedom from the UK in 1968), and were lucky to observe colorful decorations and pre-festivities.
We ate lunch at a restaurant full of locals (always a good sign) and experienced a blend of Indian, Chinese and French cuisine. Chicken and pepper kabobs, Mauritian chicken stew, fried rice, paratha, pickled vegetables, and guava and mango juices, followed by tapioca and pistachio ice cream.
We spent the afternoon at the Vanille Reserve des Mascareignes, a former vanilla plantation that is now a nature preserve. It’s a tropical rain forest and home to giant tortoises, monkeys, lemurs, deer, bats, wild pigs, crocodiles and more. We were able to talk to the workers about conservation efforts, climate change, and the importance of biodiversity.
It was just one day, but a lovely one I will not forget!
Next stop: South Africa
Visiting India was a longtime goal of mine, and it didn’t disappoint. On the first day there, I saw elephants hanging out by the side of the road, goats roaming freely around town, and a lone steer making his way through the market stalls. Animals are usually the highlight of my day, so I could stop here, but there is so much more!
While some students, faculty and staff headed north to the Taj Majal on the other end of the country, many of us decided to stay in the state of Kerala, home to our port city of Cochin as well as an incredible history of architecture, religious diversity, socialism, plantations, markets, and the highest literacy rate in the world. Oh, and food unlike any I have seen in the U.S.
We began our trip with a visit to the original spice markets and pepper exchange. India has a strong history connected to the spice trade as well as serving as the original site of “black gold”, probably the freshest black pepper on earth. They say that Cochin pepper was found in mummies from 2500 BC and traded with the Portuguese as far back as 1341 AD. A stop at a spice store run by a women’s co-op topped off the outing; it was almost sensory overload with incredible scents, rows and rows of beautifully colored spices, and traditional Indian music playing in the background.
We kept up the spice theme with two separate outings to family homes for cooking demonstrations and lunch, complete with explanations of all the spices that were going into these traditional recipes. Kerala means “land of coconuts” and it seems there is a tree in just about every backyard. So, foods are cooked with lots of coconut oil, coconut scrapings, coconut flakes and coconut milk. Ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, curry leaves and green chilies were included in varying proportions in all of our dishes, which included chicken curry, vattals (dried vegetables), avial (mixture of veggies, yogurt, cumin and coconut), toran (root, stem and leaf of taro plant), pachady (side dish of melon, gourds and cucumbers), fish moilee (fish and tomato cooked in coconut milk), cabbage thoran (cabbage, lentils and curry leaves) and paladda payasam (rice, milk, sugar and ghee) for dessert.
Did I mention that curry is a mixture of spices and there are dozens of varieties? It’s not the simple spice we call curry in the West, but a blend of different amounts of turmeric, garlic, coriander, cumin, ginger and pepper, with varying degrees of colors and spiciness. In southern India, it is common to also use cardamom, mustard seed, and curry leaves. Yum!
A trip to the rural village of Nagala (the oldest village in India) took us to a local plantation where we were greeted with fresh coconuts (with straws to drink the cool water inside) and necklaces of jasmine flowers. Similar to the lei in Hawaii, it was a welcoming gesture with an amazing aroma. Thinking the plantation would be fields of one crop, I was happy to find out it was a family’s yard, about an acre of land filled with all the trees and plants they use daily for meals and snacks: mango, jackfruit, passion fruit, nutmeg, coriander, vanilla, ginger, etc. It turns out this is typical throughout the state and a point of pride; it made me want to go home and tear up my backyard to replace the grass with edible plants.
Another day we had the privilege of visiting St. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Center, one of over 600 missions throughout the world. This one is dedicated to taking care of girls and women with developmental disabilities. We were humbled and impressed with the care and love the nuns expressed, and enjoyed learning about volunteer opportunities stateside.
The busy part of Cochin offers malls and electronic shops and other modern nonsense, with rush hour traffic and expensive sari shops. A drive-through on the way to a different destination convinced me I didn’t need to spend time in yet another city. Instead, we spent hours exploring the smaller towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, both dating back thousands of years. Highlights included the St. Francis Church (built 1503), Dutch Palace (built 1555), Jewish Synagogue (1568), shoreline of sand and vendors selling more reasonably priced clothes and trinkets, and Chinese fishing nets, or Cheenavala, which were introduced to Kochi between 1350 and 1450, and are still used today.
Lastly, a trip to India would not be complete without a ride in a Tuk Tuk, especially since it seems to be safer to be in one rather than trying to dodge them on the street. Although walking through back streets and neighborhoods was really a treat, especially when locals would wave and call out “Obama” when they saw us!
All in all, I fell in love with the landscape and coastline of this beautiful state, not to mention the many flavors and colors. When I asked a local restaurateur what he wanted Americans to know about India, he said the sentiment throughout Kerala is Namaskaran, loosely translated as “I am your servant”, “I want to welcome you”, and “I honor what you honor”.
Next stop: Mauritius