I got back to Botswana Tuesday night, exhausted from a long, but absolutely wonderful mid-semester break. I left last Friday morning, meaning I was gone for 12 days! I can’t even begin to describe how amazing this trip was, especially considering its perfect timing. I was in a little bit of a rough spot a few weeks ago, but I now feel refreshed and ready to move forward. I traveled with a group of about 8, though it grew larger as time went on and other CIEE kids joined us.
We started out traveling to Windhoek, Namibia. It was a 13-hour bus ride, but it wasn’t all that bad. I think we spent a total of 3-4 days on buses. Not my idea of fun, but a great way to save some money. I had a great first hostel experience at Chameleon Backpackers. I was impressed by all of the hostels during our trip. I really had no idea what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t hot showers, comfortable beds, a kitchen, a bar, a pool, and some very interesting people. When we arrived, we were starving from the day’s bus ride, so we ventured to a touristy place called Joe’s for some dinner. My friend Christina got a game platter of zebra, ostrich, crocodile, kudu, and onyx. I wasn’t quite so adventurous. The next morning, we took a guided tour of the city and township. Windhoek is a cute, German-influenced town. I found it interesting to hear about the slight racial tension between the Germans and native Namibians. Windhoek was just a really nice area; it was actually named the cleanest city in Africa. There were modern shops and nice restaurants and tall buildings, a nice sight after a few months in Gabs. We saw the parliament and its attached park (GRASS!), the city museum (oldest building in Windhoek), the beautiful Lutheran church, and the view of the city from the top of the hill. We then headed out to the Katutura Township, a super poor area where the government has built housing for some of its residents. There were rows and rows of tiny tin numbered houses, most of which looked too small to even fit two people. It was heartbreaking. I felt so guilty snapping pictures out of the window. We also went to a local market, which ended up being mostly a meat market. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say I left feeling pretty nauseous and thoroughly creeped out.
Next, we headed to Swakopmund, a 4-hour shuttle ride. Swakopmund almost seems like a little beach town in Florida. There were bright colored houses, a few local restaurants, and a beautiful beach. I haven’t been to the beach in a few years, so I was quite delighted. We could cross from our hostel to the other edge of town in fifteen minutes. On Sunday morning, we headed out to the sand dunes. It was exactly how I had imagined Namibia. We went quad biking on the dunes, which was quite possibly one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. We made wide turns and maneuvered large hills on our own bikes! I was a little nervous at first, but the absolutely breathtaking landscape around me was enough to calm me down. It was one of those many surreal moments. I also rode on a camel- a definite item crossed off my bucket list. The ride was bumpy and my camel refused to follow orders, but I didn’t mind. I just wanted the pictures! The cold weather actually came as quite a surprise. I had expected it of Cape Town, but not Namibia. We spent the rest of the day shopping and took a night train back to Windhoek. A 4-hour shuttle drive became a 12-hour train ride (complete with Jesus films, my favorite). We spent Monday enjoying the craft market and lounging around a park, playing cards. At this point, we hadn’t spent the night at the same place more than one night in a row. I don’t know how people do it! This led to extreme exhaustion and an intense desire to reach Cape Town. Though the weather was quite chilly, I somehow got so sunburnt that I began to blister all over my face. It freaked me out not being able to run to my mom for help, but with the help of a nearby pharmacy, I was healing within a day or two. We took an Intercape bus that night to Cape Town, a 22-hour ride. The Intercape buses were surprisingly spacious and comfortable. We had to stop at the border crossing at 3am. The police decided to randomly check certain luggage, so we got held up for awhile. Also, the bus was FREEZING. I’m talking so miserable it was impossible to sleep. We eventually begged the bus driver to turn off the air and we were able to get some much-needed sleep before arriving in Cape Town Tuesday afternoon.
We stayed the first three nights at a hostel on Long Street, a famous street with bars and restaurants, lively among the young population. I was just thankful to be in one place for three days, but this was the best hostel yet! There was even a rooftop bar and we were on the sixth floor! Cape Town was a little bit like a shock to my system. It was like what I experienced in Windhoek, but times one hundred. There were restaurants of every ethnicity (I ate WAY too much food), skyscrapers, and people of every race (I loved the British accents). I forgot what it was like to have toilet paper and soap in the bathrooms and to be able to stand up and shower! And not being stared at for what I look like was such a nice escape. It was the little things that made me so incredibly happy. Mostly, I think it was the fact that it felt so much like home. I don’t think I would have wanted to study abroad there, but it was such a nice place to visit. By the end of the trip, we had conquered Mexican, Japanese, Thai (twice!), Indian, Italian, and seafood. Cape Town itself is such a diverse city. One side is the beach, one side is the mountains, and one side is the historic city. In ten minutes, you feel like you’re in an entirely different place.
We spent Wednesday and Thursday using the hop on-hop off bus to see the tourist sites of the city. We started with Kirstenbosch, a beautiful botanical garden. Then we went on the Constantia wine tasting tour. I didn’t participate (my taste for wine still hasn’t arrived), but I enjoyed seeing my friends have fun and seeing the beautiful scenery. By the time we were halfway through the second estate, my friends were getting a little rowdy and I was starving, so I took off to find some lunch. Shiyang and I ended up at Hout Bay, where we saw some vibrant boats and the stunning water and got some delicious food from a little stand. On Thursday, we saw St. George’s Cathedral, the Castle of Good Hope, a diamond tour at Jewel Africa, Green Point Lighthouse, and a few other attractions. My favorite was the Bo-Kaap colorful houses, which were originally settled in by freed slaves. There was less to do at night, but we still managed to have fun. We wandered out to the Waterfront, a touristy area with restaurants and shops and I finally got some long awaited Thai! This was probably my favorite area in Cape Town. Bar hopping was always an option, but that’s not quite my scene. We also made our own version of Apples to Apples, which provided a lot of laughter and entertainment. It was difficult to roam too far because cabs are expensive and crime is still high. One of my friends got robbed by a shopkeeper!
On Friday, we moved into the house we rented for three days. It was located in Camps Bay, so we could see the ocean out of one window and the mountains out of the other window. It was one of the nicest houses I have ever seen. There were white tile floors, shiny appliances, translucent showers, and beautiful wall art. It’s hard to even explain how nice this house was, especially coming from our homes in Gabs. It just felt so homey and comforting. We cooked pesto pasta one night in the kitchen and though it didn’t turn out so great, it was a lot of fun. The house had a washing machine, but it faded some of my clothing. My neon pink shirt is now light pink. It was a little upsetting, but at least my clothes are finally actually clean. We spent Friday night at a market with food stands and more Westernized shops. I got a pesto Panini, some dumplings, and a lemon meringue pie. Yum! Saturday morning, we went to the Old Biscuit Mill, which was essentially a farmer’s market. We then spent the day traveling down to the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of the African continent. We stopped at Simon’s Town on the way there to see some penguins up close and then continued to the cape. It turned out to be a little underwhelming, just another rocky beach. But it was still cool to take a picture with the sign and to know I was at the bottom of the continent! We also took a cable car up to the top of Table Mountain and were able to see the entire city from above. It was breathtaking, especially being on level with the clouds. It was such a cool experience.
We spent Sunday at Robben’s Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 29 years in prison. We took a ferry out to the island and took a bus tour of the village. Our guide showed us the low and medium security prisons and then the nice houses, sports courts, hospital, post office, and bar for the guards. About 250 museum workers now reside in the houses. The prisons were originally used to house leprosy patients in isolation. Later, the medium security prison was for criminals, while the high security prison was for the political prisoners. After the bus tour, we took a walking tour of the high security prison. Our tour guide was actually in jail with Mandela! Knowing he was there added so much weight to his words and really intrigued me. He told us about his arrest, life in prison, and his release in 1991. We saw the limestone rocks where Mandela did his work and the prisoners held secret political discussions and helped each other better their educations. We also saw Mandela’s jail cell. I still can’t believe that is the exact location where he spent his 29 years, just for trying to fight for the rights of his people. I really enjoyed the tour, which was a little surprising considering how much I usually dislike museums. It inspired me to want to learn more about Mandela’s life and about apartheid in general.
Lastly, I visited the South African Jewish Museum. I had tried earlier in the week, but it was closed for Jewish holidays. The museum was small, but very informative about South Africa’s role in Judaism. Most of the Jews came from England or Germany, many to seek refuge. The museum had extremely high security and was run by a few Jewish old ladies. We also saw the synagogue, which was the first in South Africa. It is now a practicing temple for Cape Town Orthodox Jews. It was absolutely beautiful. I just love stained glass! There was also a small holocaust exhibit, which was sad as usual. I really enjoyed the museum. It definitely rekindled my connection with my religion and made me proud to be Jewish. I certainly didn’t expect to be visiting a Jewish museum in Africa!
We left Cape Town at 3 on Monday and arrived back in Gabs at 9pm on Tuesday. Another long ride! I began developing a cold, so that made the bus ride a little miserable. I think it was the abrupt change in weather. I had a wonderful break, though it was extremely busy, as I’m sure you can tell. It’s still hard to convince myself that I just traveled to South Africa. If you would have told me I’d be here when I was little, I may have looked at you like you were crazy. I loved South Africa so much! I want to go back some day and bring my family. I got so close to the other CIEE students on this trip. I’m already getting sad thinking about the program being over and us being all over the United States. I’m a little bummed about being back in Gabs. It’s going to be a little difficult to re-adjust to school, the food, the weather, etc. With that said, I’m thankful for this fall break trip because it showed me just how proud I should be of myself for braving this semester. I don’t regret coming here at all. I know I’ve already grown so much and I still have half of the time left! I can’t lie and say it isn’t difficult, but it’s just another challenge I’ve provided for myself.