Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Visit to Zwelihle – An Inside Look at a South African Slum

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I knew a little about the slums or “townships” of South Africa. Remnants of the apartheid era, townships were the segregated, underdeveloped settlements created for non-whites to live in, usually on the periphery of the cities. Through movies and general apartheid knowledge, visions of tin shacks on dirty streets filled my mind and something I wanted to understand first-hand on my trip.

Since my shark-driven tour of Hermanus proved fruitless, I signed up for a tour of Zwelihle, a township within Hermanus of about 22,000 Xhosa people.

I did the tour with my new friend Sara I’d made at the hostel. Neither one of us was sure what to expect and wanted to be sensitive not to treat this community as a tourist attraction, but our guide Willie made us feel right at home. Short, round and jolly, Willie’s ebullience was infectious. With a bright smile on his face, he walked us through Zwelihle, proud to show us anything and everything.

To me, the township looked basically how I thought it would from what I’d seen in the movies. Away from the charming seaside of downtown Hermanus, Zwelihle lay flat in the middle of field, surrounded by an occasional hill in the distance. The roads, some paved, some dirt, were lined with tin shacks built within feet of one another. The houses stood on dry, dusty grounds on which lay sparse patches of grass and litter. Some of the homes had fences, even barbed wire. Others had brightly-colored laundry airing. Many had satellite dishes.

Most corners had a Spaza Shop, a Coke-themed tin shack which Willie explained meant “unregistered,” essentially a convenience store where people could buy food, drinks and general household items. Men gathered at these Spaza Shops to chat and laugh, women did chores outside the homes, kids played on the street. Willie smiled and greeted them all.

Willie explained there were different types of homes within the township. Many people, such as himself, rented the shacks for 200 rand a month (about $12.40). Those houses had running water and electricity, he said. Further within the township were flimsier shacks with no running water or electricity and public shared toilets. Willie told us these were free but available only to the disabled or elderly, or single mothers who qualified.

Though apartheid ended more than 20 years ago, the income discrepancy between white people and non-white people was clear, and the demographics of the township I saw appeared to be the same as it did when the township was formed.

Willie said finding work was difficult in the township, especially, he said, because of an influx of immigrants from poorer, surrounding African countries taking many of the jobs and keeping wages low. He also said the government was building better quality public housing on the land directly across from the township.

For me, I am grateful for the opportunity for the glimpse into a world so entirely different from mine and the warm hospitality in which it was experienced. I don’t know the future of South Africa, but I am curious to see the developments ahead.

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An Ode to Hermanus – My Favorite Mistake

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I’m a planner. The minute I confirmed my South Africa trip, I immediately purchased a guide book to research and get organized. But one of the best things about travel is that you can’t plan everything. And oftentimes, it’s the unexpected which makes for the most memorable experiences.

Like Hermanus. Hermanus is a small coastal town outside of Cape Town, on the way to, but not quite on the Garden Route. I had stumbled upon it in my reading as the South African destination to whale watch. Unfortunate for my whale-loving heart, I was several months off-season. On the other hand – there was one other sea-related aspect of Hermanus that caught my attention: shark cage diving.

Shark cage diving is fairly unique experience limited to only a handful of locations throughout the world. The excursion involves taking a boat out into the ocean, being lowered in a cage a few feet under water and watching as sharks attempt to eat the chum located just outside the cage. You know, a few feet from your head.

Now, aside from the random bungee-jump excursion, adventure tourism is really not my thing. And while I liked the idea of being able to have said “I was sort of almost eaten by a shark,” my fish-phobic self didn’t know if this was something I’d actually have the courage to do. Additionally, time was limited, and my friends wanted to head straight to the Garden Route. It was looking like I’d have to give it a miss.

But somehow after a couple days in Cape Town, this voice in the back of my head saying “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” got louder. The morning of our scheduled departure date I made a snap decision: I was going to Hermanus. And as my companions didn’t share my adventurous sentiments, I was going to approach these sea predators alone.

I said goodbye to my friends, rented a car and headed east to the Hermanus Backpackers Hostel to await my sea fate. Nervous, I went to check in and book my excursion. I had come all this way, damn it, this was going to happen. I knew not to expect whales, but it didn’t dawn on me that the sharks would be anything but excited to meet me as well.

To my dismay, I learned that not only were there no whales, but there no sharks. In fact, there had been no sharks for weeks, despite it being a year-round occurrence and “why didn’t you call ahead?”. Since the trip cost about $100 and was only exchangeable for another trip if there were no shark sightings, the hostel recommended I explore something else in Hermanus.

No whales, no sharks and no time to catch up with my friends, I looked at my options: a visit to the local township and a wine tour. While not my original plan, I signed up anyway for the next day and headed to town for dinner.

Despite being in a coastal town, the hostel was not actually located on the coast or even visibly close to it. Nestled in a quiet residential street, the same was true for its visible proximity to the downtown. As I followed their map to the city, I really had no idea what I was in for.

And then I saw it.

Straight ahead, green and blue ocean that stretched for miles with white waves crashing against faded orange cliffs all along the shore. To my left a sleepy yet charming seaside town full of restaurants and shops. A small green mountain guarded over everything.

I was in love.

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The day was fading, so I quickly found a lovely seaside restaurant featuring fresh seafood, local wine and stunning views. The restaurant itself was mostly full, so I opted to dine alone outside and enjoy the view in the cold. As I sat down, I was greeted with a complimentary glass of local sherry and a blanket and immediately began to relax. I ordered the shrimp meal and a glass of pinot grigio, something Hermanus is famous for, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful, delicious and relaxing meals I’d ever had.

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The next day proved to be equally as incredible as my first impression to the city, with the disjointing experience of a South African slum on the one end, followed by an afternoon of wine tasting and fine dining on the other, a fascinating experience showing both ends of life in South Africa. (Stay tuned for more on that).

As I returned to the hostel, relaxed, slightly tipsy and ready to leave for the Garden Route in the morning, I heard the morning sea report from the staff: they had seen sharks after all.

While I didn’t have the time to wait another day, I decided I didn’t care. Stunning views, incredible food and an eye-opening look at South African life, my spontaneous trip to Hermanus ended up being one of the best mistakes I ever made.

For the sea life, I’ll just have to return :).

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Chasing Away Detroit’s Red Dwarf at the Marche Du Nain Rouge

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Venice has Carnevale, New Orleans has Mardi Gras and Detroit has…the Marche du Nain Rouge? While not a pre-Lenten celebration, Detroit’s Marche du Nain Rouge is a carnival-like celebration with a unique Motor City twist. The relatively new annual festival banishes all of the bad from the city while celebrating all of the good with a distinct Detroit pride.

The Marche is based on an old legend surrounding Detroit’s founding. The story goes Detroit’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, was tormented by images of a little red dwarf, the “Nain Rouge.” Cadillac approached a fortune-teller who told him the Nain was a representation of his ambition, anger, pride and envy – all of the things that would hold him back from truly becoming great. And while she foreboded a great city, she warned of a series of setbacks and personal misfortune if Cadillac were to provoke this Nain Rouge.

Of course, Cadillac did go on to found the city, but legend has it upon encountering the Nain in person, he chased it away with a stick – setting off a series of troubles for the city to come and, perhaps, contributing to Cadillac’s own misfortune – returning to France penniless after founding the city.

Though Detroit’s troubles have been well-documented, its history is that of a city of resilience, one that continues to overcome, fight back and thrive in the face of adversity – and that is exactly what the Marche is all about.

Now, every March around the time of the vernal equinox, revelers gather to march along Detroit’s Cass Corridor to chase the Nain and all of the negative things it brings out of the city. Costumes act as a disguise and protection from the Nain, preventing it from extracting person revenge. The day ends with a series of parties across the city in a true celebration of good over evil and a hope for better things to come.

If anyone has any doubt about Detroit’s comeback, the Marche du Nain Rouge is a true embodiment of the spirit of the city that can only be experienced in person.

For more information visit www.MarcheDuNainRouge.com.