Saturday, January 1, 2011

Greatest holiday gift of 2010: a broadened perspective

mountain fynbos overlooking Kalk Bay
 I have enjoyed my holiday trip to Table Mountain National Park, near Cape Town, South Africa, in so many ways. As my holiday concludes and I move into the New Year, I’d like to share some of the gifts my Christmas holiday in Cape Town has brought me.

Of course, the greatest gift has been to see and experience the amazing Cape Floral Kingdom in Table Mountain National Park, and I’m posting here a few more pictures of this amazing, amazing flora! I feel so lucky to have walked along with the watsonias, the proteas, and the restios! To experience the flora has been nothing short of spectacular for me!

But perhaps the more long-lasting gift I have received from my stay in the park is a substantial increase in my perspective. I understand that people travel the world to gain wider perspectives, but I am not that world traveler, and my Peace Corps service is my first opportunity to travel abroad and encounter “another way” of living. While I’ve been living and working in the Republic of South Africa for well over a year, it has taken coming to Cape Town to better understand my life and work here in South Africa.

In meeting Capetonians, although they live in arguably the most beautiful city in the world (or at least one of them), of those I meet, many feel very, very sad that I have seen more of their nation than they have. Many of the people I meet here have never traveled any other area in South Africa and indeed, I have seen more of their country than they have. Now, I haven’t traveled as extensively as other volunteers and compared to most of them, I haven’t traveled at all! But I have been north, near the Zimbabwean border and have seen northern Kruger (to see the baobabs!!); I have seen South Africa’s great cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg; and I have ventured west through the Namaqualand to see the Atlantic coast. And now, of course, I have traveled to Cape Town. So I feel very, very rich in my travels through South Africa!

I have met and spent time with a true world traveler in my new friend and fellow park volunteer Raquel. She is from Spain, but has lived in Scotland, Guatemala, the USA, and the Canary Islands. She has helped me understand many things about my life in South Africa, my perceptions, and my attitudes.

Raquel’s home language is Spanish, of course, but she speaks excellent English. She speaks so well in English, in fact, and seemingly without any struggle, that I never for a moment imagine her as a person for whom English is a second language. One night, after a very busy day, we were chatting a bit and she commented that she was very tired, and her English in her head was “becoming all jumbled up and she was too tired to make any sense of it.” With this simple statement, I suddenly realized that, “Hey! Although her English is excellent, she is having to work much harder (than I am) to converse with me!” Finally, it dawned on me how much harder my counterparts and other friends in my village community have to work to speak English with me! No wonder they would rather speak to each other (and me!) in Setswana—to speak to me in English takes a great deal of effort!

And although Raquel has never, ever suggested it, she has helped me to see how arrogant I am as a citizen of the USA. I simply assume everyone will speak English to me, if they want to speak to me. It never occurs to me to learn, so I can speak with fluency, Afrikaans, Spanish, Xhosa, Sepedi, Zulu, or yes, even Setswana! I have come to the conclusion that trying to learn Setswana and gaining fluency is too hard and I’ve simply given up. In my haughty, , lazy, American way, I’ve decided that people must speak English to me if they want to speak to me. How arrogant is that??

Speaking of being an American… Again, Raquel has never, ever suggested it, but I’ve sensed unease in her when I referred to anything in my experience as being “American.” At one point, sensing her unease, I qualified my “American” statement as “American, as from the USA.” She was visibly relieved at this statement and went on to explain that yes, my experience was specific to the USA, because my “American” experiences wouldn’t apply to someone living in Guatemala (or anywhere else in South America). So, now I know to qualify that my experience is that of an American from the USA and will be careful to do so.

Raquel has also helped me become aware of my American (as from the USA) distraction with cleanliness and germs. She seems to disapprove of my desire to line the trash can with plastic as a harmful, unnecessary waste. (Indeed, I’m using brand new PLASTIC to line the trash basket and THROW AWAY.) I seem constantly concerned about washing my hands, brushing my teeth, etc., and she notices with an amused yet “am so glad I’m not like that” smile. Indeed, I’m reminded by a time in my village, that I refused the community cup, and my counterpart explained, “She doesn’t like African germs.” Similarly, I’ve become aware of my American (as in from the USA) distraction of hydration: Where are we going? How long will we be gone? How much WATER do I need to bring?

And lastly, for this trip, I brought along Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I read her book long ago, when it was first published, and understand that it has since (and rather recently) been made into a movie with the smoking hot, Spanish actor, Janvier Bardem. (OMG, is he not the most gorgeous man alive today?? And well, Julia Roberts-- she isn’t hard on the eyes either!) The book had been floating about in the “Peace Corps volunteer-shared-book-stream and I picked it up. I remember being strongly impressed by Gilbert’s account of heartbreak and despair following a painful divorce, and, well, having gone through one myself recently, thought Gilbert’s book might prove even more meaningful for me.

I laughed out loud when I realized the book is about many things, but mainly about a woman living in three DIFFERENT CULTURES, and it was her account of living in different cultures that proved the most meaningful to me. (And in fact, her account of her painful break up brought up another painful, sorrowful wave of grief for me.)

In one part of her story, she accounts for the Balinese and how they greet each other in Bali. My jaw nearly hit the floor when she relayed that the Balinese, each time they greet, will ask a series of questions: the first, “Where are you going?” the second, “Where are you coming from?” and the third, well, is “Are you married?” One of the first things I noted in my village life was that people would greet me in this manner and it felt invasive and rude to me: WHERE ARE YOU GOING? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? And I would think to myself, “None of your business—quit being so nosey.” But now, rather than being grumpy about this kind of greeting, I understand it better, having read Gilbert’s account of the Balinese greeting in the same manner in another culture. She explains that it is their way (of the Balinese) to mentally place their community members on a grid of understanding: if they know where you’ve been or where you’re going, they feel they know you better as a person and therefore, you better “fit” in their community. I guess my community members have a similar cultural understanding and I will be much, much more tolerant of it in the future.

So when returning to my village, after having spent time with fellow Capetonians, a woman from Spain, and Elizabeth Gilbert, I will better understand my South African community. The fynbos and a broadened perspective—what wonderful holiday gifts indeed!

Happy New Year everyone! May 2011 bring abundance and blessings to you and to yours!


PS: I spent my New Year’s Eve on the beach--tough job, but somebody’s got to do it! It’s a rainy New Year’s Day morning here in Silvermine and I’m enjoying the lovely sound of the rain on the roof, bountiful cups of very delicious coffee, and “talking” to you! I’m hoping the sun will pop out and the Cape winds will blow out the rain so I can revisit the beach for New Year’s Day. I found a lovely area along the point full of boulders, crashing surf, kelp beds, and protected pools that I’d like to show you pictures of. Until then!

view from my park "home"--that's the Fish Hoek bay in the distance

took this shot for the moon, which you see as a tiny white speck in the sky!

The light green is a lichen: old man's beard. I was introduced to this lichen in Alaska--it's usually found in the higher elevations and it will not tolerate any air pollution, so you know you're in really clean air if you see it.  The air is really clean in the higher elevations of Cape Town!


  1. It is seem that you had a very best time at holidays to South Africa. South Africa has many cities in it. Cape Town is one from them and it is most beautiful city in the world.The beautiful beaches the beautiful markets make your holidays more beautiful.