Sunday, July 18, 2010

Nature's Beauty vs. Humankind's Scars

Greetings from South Africa. After catching up on some sleep, we awoke to an absolutely stunning winter morning that led to an incredible day in Cape Town—yes, it is winter here in South Africa. Today was a particularly special day in all of South Africa, as Nelson Mandela celebrated his 92nd birthday. Festivals were scheduled in many of the country’s cities, and we heard many times that when asked what he wanted for his birthday, Mandela stated that rather than any personal gifts, he wanted all of South Africa’s citizens to give 67 minutes of their time to a worthy cause today in recognition of the number of years he has been involved in politics on behalf of the South African people.

As we boarded our bus to head out for the day’s sights, the skies were bright blue and the temperature in the mid 40s with the cold sea air noticeable. The morning chill in the air turned to warm breezes as the day grew older, and by mid-afternoon, the bright sunshine and the upper 60s temperatures were perfect. This contrast between the chilled morning air and the warming afternoon breezes was a harbinger of the day’s experiences.

We began by visiting Table Mountain, a flat-topped peak that rises 3,500 feet above Cape Town and serves as part of a spectacular backdrop for the city. (Left: The leg-weakening views from the summit of Table Mountain looking down at Cape Town.) South Africa legend has it that a pirate in the early 18th century retired from his life at sea to live on one of the neighboring peaks to Table Mountain, and all day long he would sit on the mountain and smoke his pipe. One day, a man approached the pirate and challenged him to a smoking contest, and their battle lasted for several days until the pirate won. The man who was defeated revealed himself to be the Devil, and the two allegedly disappeared in a puff of smoke. In the centuries since and continuing today, it is common for Table Mountain to be covered on summer mornings by a shroud of clouds (the “table cloth”), that slowly work their way down the mountain as the daylight sun heats them. On this winter morning, the table cloth never made an appearance and the views of Cape Town, Table Bay, Robben Island, and the other mountains were incredible. To learn more about Table Mountain, visit

As we departed Table Mountain, little did any of us know what we were in for in the two remaining primary stops in the day’s itinerary. We proceeded down into Cape Town, headed for the District 6 Museum. The Museum is a powerful exhibit that memorializes the District 6 municipal area of Cape Town. During the Apartheid years, more than 60,000 residents of the District were forced out of their homes, which were bulldozed, to go and live in makeshift communities that were based on skin color and race. Our guide at the museum is a District 6 survivor, and his stories of his and so many others’ lived experiences left us speechless and just plain saddened. Yet for all of his and others’ suffering, his outlook towards that terrible time in South Africa’s history was amazingly positive, and on many occasions he talked of the power of reconciliation. (Right: My children, Katie and Ryan, were fortunate enough to meet and pose with Noor, our tourguide who lived in District 6.) We left the museum with new awareness of this example of humankind’s flaws. To learn more about District 6 and the museum, visit

After having lunch on the waterfront in Cape Town, we boarded a ferry for the 20 minute ride across Table Bay to Robben Island. Almost 8 miles out from Cape Town, Robben Island offers stunning views looking back towards Cape Town and its surrounding mountains, including Table Mountain. (Left: The beautiful but sad views experienced by Robben Island's prisoners, looking back across the bay at Cape Town.) That view, unfortunately, is one that thousands of prisoners and societal outcasts were forced to see during their incarcerations in the island’s prisons. Nelson Mandela spent nearly half of his imprisonment at Robben Island, and our guide, himself a former prisoner at Robben Island, brought us to view Mandela’s 8’ x 8’ cell. To learn more about Robben Island, visit

We saw some of Cape Town’s real beauty today, and we saw and learned about some of its unfortunate past. I have a feeling today’s experiences, with the range of emotions they brought on, are going to be a consistent element of the days ahead. We’re here to learn, and when we consider history, we must learn from the bad as well as the good. I’m already looking forward to learning more tomorrow, as we visit our first South African university. I’ll look forward to sharing more, tomorrow night.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Marc, I am glad this is going well. The sites are indeed stunning, as is the juxtaposition between viewing them through your lens and imagining the view from those banished to Robben Island.

    And: The kids look great--and I learned how to spell Teri's name. : )

    Enjoy, Tim