Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Fear is temporary, regret is forever."

I strongly recommend you watch this video before reading the rest of this post. Trust me.

How can I express in words the most thrilling experience of my life? Fear and adrenaline running through my veins as I sit in anticipation. I tried to psyche myself up for it, and the techno music helped a little. The nervousness was still there though, like a constant pressure. It took every effort to fight off the thought. Then the moment finally came: they called me forward, straped me up, and helped me to the edge. As I tiptoed forward, my brain was instantly flooded with thousands of thoughts: don't look down! keep your arms out! remember to bend your knees! jump up and outward! oh, and on your way down, remember to "take it all in" as the attendant told you.

Holy crap. What am I doing?! I’m about to jump off a bridge that is 216 meters (708 feet) off the ground, fall straight down at 120 kph (75 mph) with a freefall lasting 5.5 seconds, then get ripped back up to do it all again. And again, and again. Are you freakin serious??

But before I could even think twice, my toes were hanging off the edge, my feet bound together and tied to a giant rubber band, and all I heard was "5... 4... 3... 2... 1... BUNGEE!" Suddenly I was falling through the air, the wind was rushing past my face, I couldn’t even breathe enough to scream, and my stomach was clenched like in a vice. In fact, I was pretty sure I had left my stomach back on the platform, actually.

"You just jumped off of a frickin bridge…" was about the only thought I could muster. The entire world was nothing but a blur. My freefall, which felt like 5 minutes instead of 5 seconds, began to end as the cord caught me. I saw the rocks of the riverbed getting closer and closer as I suddenly slowed, stopped, and shot back upward again. For a brief moment as I reached the apex of the second fall, I was weightless as gravity fought to reclaim its hold over me. Then I was plummeting earthward all over again with the thrill continuing to surge through me.

Everything around me was swirling, swaying, spinning and upside-down. Despite all this, though, I noticed the world was completely silent. Not a sound reached my ears. From blaring techno pump-up music just second before, to the beautiful stillness that is nature. I looked around and saw trees, mountains, cliffs, a meandering river below me and a spanning concrete bridge above me. Off in the distance I could see the deep blue Indian Ocean framed by two sides of the ravine. I suddenly realized how beautifully picturesque the setting was, even under the current circumstances.

But as my head began to throb from the rush of blood to my brain, I asked myself, "where the heck is this guy who's supposed to come down and get me?!" With nothing else to do, I hung there limply and tried to take in the scenery. I couldn’t help but think how odd it was, though, to see everything upside-down as I bounced hundreds of feet off the ground. Finally, the guy came to secure me and brought me back up to the bridge. I was more than a little grateful to have my feet back on solid ground as I reached the platform. My adrenaline-induced high was still going strong, and I couldn’t do anything except smile and high-five everyone around me.

"How was it?" someone asked. "Incredible" was all I could think to respond.

Words can't do it justice, but I just tried. Never bungee jumped before in my life, and for the first one, I decide to do the highest in the world. Smart. Well, it seems like everything else now will be pretty weak. I mean, how do you top the highest in the world (off of the third highest bridge in the world)?? You pretty much can't. The only thing left to do now is to start jumping out of helicopters. Heck yes. This was still pretty awesome though. And as a bonus, here are some pictures from the experience.

(By the way, the title of this post comes from the T-shirts they were selling in the store at the bungee place. I thought it was apt, if also a bit cheesy.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"So... where did everyone go?!"

Last week I went on a field trip with my Service Learning class up the west coast to Saldanha Bay. We took a two hour bus ride north to the Military Academy. That's where we stayed the first night in huge tents. It kind of felt like summer camp, I'mnotgonnalie (yes, I am proposing that that oh-so popular and overused phrase be made into one simple, convenient and beautiful word). We aslo had a braai with some wine accompanying (naturally... I mean come on, would this still be South Africa if we didn't?).

The next day the fun started. And what sort of "fun" does one do on a Service Learning field trip, you may be asking? The garden-planting variety, of course. As a group of twenty-two students, we got to work digging up eight plots and filling them with "compost" (it was really just bagfuls and bagfuls of shredded-up paper, like someone had gone to town with the paper shredder for a couple weeks). We eventually finished up the garden, having planted eight neat little plots of carrots, cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes, etc.

The reason we were planting the garden, we were told, is that the nearby AIDS clinic realized that people had been coming in to receive their anti-retroviral treatments on an empty stomach, which totally messes everything up. The problem is the community is too poor to afford food. So they decided they would start providing food to everyone who came in (a nice soup or something) so that they wouldn't be on an empty tank when they took their meds. Good idea. So in we stepped and plopped a lekker garden right on their doorstep. We just hope it actually grows stuff (not ink-contaminated from the sketchy "compost").

After that, we went to Middelpos to do some work in the township. For any of you who don't know, townships are South Africa's ghettos where, for centuries, the whites stuck everyone else into slum-like living conditions. Seeing inside of one, even for just a day, was definitely and educational experience, if nothing else.

So as we were dropped off outside the "safe park" in Middelpos where all the local kids came for after-school care and playtime, we looked around and didn't see much around us. Most townships I've seen are on the outskirts of towns, but this one seemed to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere. So as five of my classmates and I walked up and were instantly taken in by all the kids, we turned around and saw that our whole group had completely vanished. Poof. Driven off to some other place. No words of advice or instructions, just "hear ya go, play with the kids, see ya later!" Naturally, when we realized this we were a little offput and confused. But actually, we (as a group of six white American college students dropped off in the middle of a township in South Africa) took the situation surprisingly well. Even considering all the language barriers (everyone spoke isiXhosa) we seemed to manage pretty okay for the time we spent there.

Well anyways, when I said earlier that the kids took us in as one of their own (almost), I meant it. We noticed that they had one of those mini spinning "merry-go-rounds" that are so common on playgrounds. But on a piece of playground equipment that should actually only be supporting about ten kids, there were about twice that many jam-packed on there. So we decided it would be a good idea to help spin them around. Fast. Really really fast. Only we soon realized that kids were starting to fly off or fall down underneath the thing and have everyone's flailing legs in their face. Not a good situation. So we decided we'd cool it and not break some kid's neck.

But the kids were not too keen on the whole "playing it cool" idea and instantly starting shouting the Xhosa word for "faster! faster!" Add to that, they picked up chanting the phrase "one more time!" from Corey, and you got twenty kids on a spinny thing that just wanted to be spun. So, by the wingéd feet of Apollo, they were spun. Fast. Really really fast. And even though kids were flying off left and right, they were loving it. And they were having to hang on to every inch of me in order to stay on, but I was loving it too.

And then something that our instructor had told us earlier suddenly hit me. Sixty-percent of these kids have HIV. And most of their parents have AIDS. How's that for a mind blower? And the fact that it suddenly came back to me, after I had forgotten it for an hour and had been having so much fun with these kids made me realize something else: it doesn't matter. At least not in terms of how I'm gonna treat these kids, or how I'm gonna see them as beautiful children of God just the same as everyone else. I guess you could say I had a spiritual realization right then of what it really means to love others as Christ loves us, and what our calling as Christians in this world really is. Playing with those kids for the afternoon was about as close as I've come yet during my time here to seeing the Kingdom of God become real. A pretty gnarly experience.

(Left) Laura and I with the kids on the spinny thing. They loved it. Greg is behind us playing soccer, and behind him you can see why I say "middle of nowhere"
(Right) Me a little overwhelmed. Oh well. One More Time!

Two Middelpos boys with Laura. (Yes that's a boy on the right).

(Left) Jamie posing with the kids. They were also in love with having their picture taken.
(Right) They really wanted to braid the girls' hair.

The Middelpos Hair-Braiding Salon in full-swing.

After the "safe park" (which, ironically, was just about the least "safe" park I've ever been in, considering the play equipment was either broken or not fully installed, there was broken glass and rusty metal all over the place, and ticks were everywhere) we walked through the township to the main care center to serve the kids a meal. Adding to everything that had already happened, walking through the streets of the township with kids on our shoulders and holding our hands as they sung traditional Xhosa songs was doubly gnarly.

Then after serving them a little dinner, which proved to be pure chaos and mayhem (with about 100 kids, only 40 bowls, and 6 of us dishing it out), they sang us some songs of thankfulness and parting. It was mostly in Xhosa, except for one which included parts of the Lord's Prayer, but despite my lack of understanding, it definitely brought some tears to my big manly eyes.

Then we finally got picked up by our group, drove home, and I slept for about twelve hours. All worth it, though. And if I had been feeling somewhat encapsulated by the "Stellenbosch bubble" before, this experience definitely popped me out of that sentiment.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Radio Story

Well, I thought I would now take the opportunity to devote a whole post to the sharing of what has come to be known as “The Radio Story.” It all started last week when I was visiting Réunion. It was Wednesday, and I had the whole day to go exploring with my friend who was hosting me, Béné. We left early in the morning to go see some beaches on the southern tip of the island. While driving, though, we realized that the last remnants of Cyclone Lola were making weather conditions less than ideal. It wasn’t anything big, just a little rain and clouds. So Béné decided it would be a good idea to turn on the Réunion Island radio station, Radio FreeDOM, to listen if they would be giving out information about where there was good weather on the island.

So as we drove around for a bit, we listened as the host answered phone calls about everything from people asking questions about politics, to people putting out requests for returning lost pets. As Béné told me, the station is very popular on the island and almost everyone listens to it. She once called in when she lost her car keys and someone called the same day saying they’d found them and wanted to give them back. It’s a very “small island” kind of thing.

We continued listening as we drove, and I noticed that Béné was on the phone with someone, but thought nothing of it. Suddenly, the radio host answered another call and, to my astonishment, I heard Béné’s voice on the radio. Completely shocked that my friend had just called in and was put directly on the air, I look at her and all I could say was “QUOI?!”

Quite naturally, she started telling the radio host how she had this American friend who was visiting the island for a week and wanted to go do something where there was good weather. But as soon as the host heard that I was American, she launched out a barrage of questions asking “Where is he from? … What, Los Angeles! The City of Angels? … What, he can speak French? Is he there now? Well put him on!!”

Suddenly having the phone thrust upon me, I had no other choice but to start talking to the radio host (in my badly-accented French) about how I came to be on the island and how much I was liking it so far. It would seem that finding a tourist who wasn’t French was such a rare and exciting event that it had thrown this lady into a complete state of hysteria. After asking me a second barrage of questions, we posed our question again (which had, in fact, been the purpose of the call) asking whether there was something we could do on the island where there was good weather.

Hanging up, we listened and waited to see if anyone would call in to respond to us. Sure enough, three minutes later someone called in to respond to “Carl l’Américain” telling about how it was gorgeous over on her side of the island and that if I came over I should go to such and such restaurant to eat a traditional Réunionais Créole dish. Three minutes after that, someone else called in saying that it was great weather in St. Pierre and that I should come over and they would take me around and cook me food. And for the next hour, honestly no joke, dozens and dozens of people were calling in excitedly proposing things for Carl l’Américain to do. Each time someone would come on saying “What? Is there really an American on the island? Fabulous! Well he should come over to my place and do so and so and eat such and such!” we would roll with laughter.

Eventually, we made our way up into the mountains and got out to have a little excursion. After having a lengthy walk around the village of Cilaos, and a nice lunch (of traditional Créole food in a restaurant), we got back into the car three hours later, turned on the radio and heard “Oui, ça c’est pour Carl l’Américain…” Not knowing how this whole business could still be going on THREE HOURS later, we just looked at each other and laughed our heads off. It seemed that the radio host had taken up our cause with great determination and for each caller that called in, regardless of what they were talking about, would ask if they at least had a few words of advice for Carl l’Américain.

Seeing that I was still a main topic of conversation on FreeDOM, we decided to call in again. This time, we got on even easier than last time, and all I had to say was “Bonjour, c’est Carl l’Américain” and the radio host was going crazy over me all over again. “What? How was Cilaos? What did you do? How did you like it? What did you have for lunch? Was it not too spicy?” For some reason, she was very keen on asking if radio stations in the US were like this one, to which I said “Of course not! Radio FreeDOM is the best radio station in the world!” which seemed to bring her great joy. But honestly, I could not imagine a station like this in the States that has tens of thousands of listeners being this easy to get on by calling in. Nor would people use it as a lost and found, or announcement board, which are cool uses for a local radio station.

With this second call in, we asked whether it was good weather in the south in order for us to go and see the waterfalls of Langevin. Again, it didn’t take long for someone from Langevin to call in saying that it was beautiful and that I should definitely come down and see the waterfalls. So we did, but sadly didn’t find anyone to take us in to their home to offer us more Créole food.

But it did seem that my “celebrity status” had spread at least a little, because even a few days later, an old woman was talking to Béné about how she had heard on the radio there was this Américain staying on the island. “Yeah, and he’s even staying at MY house!” she responded. At this, the woman insisted that she make me some traditional Créole soup and gave it to Béné to give to me.

So yeah, THAT is how I got to be on the radio and became famous.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mid-semester Update

So, let me just start off by saying sorry to all of you who have been looking forward to my posts, only to be disappointed by my lack of updates. But, worry no more, for I have finally decided to shape up and write a summative update of my semester so far.

Well, as I was reminiscing today about my arrival in South Africa, I realized that those blissful days seem like they were ages ago. It really is crazy how much can happen in two months. I’ve seen penguins, parades, presidential motorcades, private concerts of popular Afro-pop bands, and professional rugby matches played in Cape Town. I’ve been on top of mountains, seen sharks up close and personal, and been on more wine tours than I can count. These things have all been part of my experience here so far, but they are by no means all of it.

I’ve also had the chance to connect with South Africans, to serve them and hear what their needs are. My classes have really given me a unique perspective to see my time here. My core class, Service Learning in Community Development, is focused on both the service and the learning aspects of community development projects. It has allowed me to learn a great deal inside and outside the classroom, which in my opinion is the best way to learn. As part of the course, we are all assigned to volunteer six hours per week at a local social-welfare organization. This gives us the chance to apply in the field the theoretical concepts we learn in the classroom, and also take our field experience back to the classroom for reflection.

My site placement is at a place called Horizon House, which is a residential and therapeutic care center for the mentally-disabled. It is located in a suburb of Stellenbosch, and has 108 residents ages 19-68 with all different types of mental, physical and psychological disabilities. While I work with adults, the intellectual age of all the residents is between 6-10 years old.

I have been blessed with the chance to work most of my time one-on-one with one of the residents who suffers from bi-polar depression disorder. We have been assigned various jobs to do outdoors, with the ultimate goal of planting a vegetable garden and making a compost pile. Working with Rudi has taught me a lot about working with people different from myself, as I am confronted with language, cultural, and developmental obstacles, only to name a few. As we’ve started to become good friends, I can see that sometimes a community’s needs aren’t necessarily materially-based, but relational and represent abstract needs such as affection and dignity. And to break down the communication barrier, Rudi and I have made a sweet deal: he teaches me words in Afrikaans, and in exchange, I teach him how to woo women in both French and German.

This class has also given me a slightly different outlook on what my role is here as a student on study abroad. Being engaged in community service, and studying theories of community development, poverty alleviation, and transitional empowerment approaches has allowed me to learn, apply, and also observe the reality of the situation around me. It is my firm belief that South Africa, in a way, represents a microcosm of the world and all of the problems it is facing in a 21st century context. There is incredible cultural diversity, the clash between the developed and developing worlds, racism, violence, crime, corruption, environmental degradation, economic exploitation, massive inequality, and pandemic diseases all in one country. It certainly does not make life boring, being in the midst of it all.

Realizing that I’m also a little behind on telling stories about things I’ve been doing recently, I thought I’d now take the time to talk about my recent trip to the Karoo. The Karoo is South Africa’s dry, arid, deserty area with rolling mountains, almost no trees, and lots of ghost towns. It’s pretty much their version of Arizona, minus the golf courses and retirement communities. Well, we (as the CIEE group) had the opportunity to spend the weekend there two weeks ago on an old farm. We stayed in these very quaint, homey farm houses that had no electricity, but had oil lamps and antique raindrop shower heads. Needless to say, it was a very slow, relaxing and calm weekend away from the city. The farm we stayed on grew mostly figs, but had other fruits and some animals, too. It was a five hour drive from Stellenbosch, and was located in a beautiful valley with a river running through it. The nearest “town” was a 45-minute drive over a rough, unpaved, hilly road through the country. We ate HUGE farm-sized meals (all of which contained figs in some form), and lounged around all day. It was a much needed break from hectic student life, and even made me think that living on a farm wouldn’t be too bad. We went on a game tour and saw some antelope, zebras, and little deer-like creatures called “duikers.” Our last evening there we went on top of a hill and took in the (stormy) sunset while drinking our “sundowners.”

(Left) The CIEE dudes with a stormy Karoo sunset
(Right) A few antelope and zebras we found on our game tour

(Left) "Hey Carl!" *click*
(Below) The mid-westerners import Euchre to the Karoo

(Left) Here's the full CIEE Stellenbosch group, with Bradley, our most awesome director, on the far left (p.s. I don't know what I'm doing)
(Below) As part of our group bonding we all got fake tatoos. I got a pitbull on my wrist.
(Left) This pretty much sums up what we did the whole weekend.

Having complete isolation from civilization, lots of delicious food, beautiful scenery, rustic but homey living conditions, and game animals is pretty much my idea of a good vacation.

And as I finish describing my last vacation experience, I will now start telling you about my upcoming adventure for Fall Break (a.k.a. Spring Break for you northern-hemispherers). I will be going to Reunion Island for one week to stay with a family friend from France who now lives and works there. This is going to be a dream vacation, in every sense of the word: a beautiful French-speaking tropical island, with volcanoes, palm trees and coral beaches. And despite the airfare costing a price that only monopolies can charge, at least I’ll have a nice place to stay for free, and a local to show me around. My plans for the week are: 1) be a beach bum, 2) fit some time in to relax when I’m not beach-bumming , 3) take lots of hikes up the volcanoes (yes, more hikes!), 4) take lots of awesome pictures, and 5) more beach-bumming.

T-minus six hours until I depart on the trip of a lifetime… and don’t worry I’ll let you all know how it goes. Bye for now!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Doesn't Carl Do Anything Other Than Hike?

The answer to the above question would obviously be no. After going on my third, and by far most enjoyable/exhausting hike, I thought it merited at least a brief post. So, this one will try to feature more wonderful pictures for you all to look at.

Well, on Sunday I decided to go back up Mt. Stellenbosch with three other friends; only this time, we would try to go up all the way to the top. So after gathering at Seven Eleven (yes, they have those here only it is more like a small grocery store) to pick up some food and water, we set out at 8:00 am from campus. We wandered around for a bit and eventually found the right trail head. It wasn't at all hot yet, so leaving early seemed to have worked out well for us.

Once on the actual trail up the mountain, the most grueling stretch of rocky incline lay before us, at the top of which was the ridge that we had decided to make our stopping point last time. It was obviously not "easy going," but I think the combination of the cool morning weather, and mental preparation made the climb up to "The Lion King Ridge" a little easier to handle.

"Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom."

From that point, the trail transformed into a much more winding, and gently rising route through fynbos (shrubbery) and over large boulders. Although it was a long way up to the top, and it was getting quite hot as the day approached noon, this was by far some of the most enjoyable hike I’ve been on yet. We were jumping from boulder to boulder, leaping over crevices, skirting along cliffs, and generally feeling like hardcore mountain men (slash woman). Eventually the trail completely disappeared and you just have to keep going up any way you can. This allows for one to be creative and innovative in choosing how to surmount obstacles such as rock outcroppings, cliff faces and the like.

Here is a shot of a crevice that we jumped over. If our attempt had not been successful, we would have become quite intimate with the thorn bush thirty feet below us.

We got to the top, completely exhausted, and had nothing but spectacular views and thin air all around us. After eating lunch, which consisted of smashed sandwiches and granola energy bars, we took some pictures and then started the dreaded descent.

You see, what had been so enjoyable to go up, was not so much fun going down. It is much easier to scramble up rocks versus sliding down them. Also, as there was not much of a trail, we did wander a little too far off course and found ourselves in some especially thick and prickly fynbos. It was slow going through that, and not so much fun.

Anyways, long story short (only not really that short), we got down off the mountain and headed home, coming in at about 6:00 pm. So obviously, after a 10 hour endeavor, we were pretty much pooped. Dirty, sweaty, dehydrated, sunburned (despite four applications of sunscreen), cut up, and hungry, we settled down in Metanoia, ordered some pizza and put on some Arrested Development. It was a nice ending to a pretty tiring day. I also noticed that we got so high, my empty water bottles that I had closed when we were on top of the mountain had compressed and were being crushed by the change in air pressure once I was down. I don’t know about you, but I found that pretty cool. There is a lot of word play I could do right now with the phrase “getting high,” but I won’t. So let me just tell you that today, one day after this formidable undertaking, my legs are just about as dead/sore as can get. But it was SO worth it.

Ok, well that does it for my latest hiking adventure. I promise it will be the last hiking-related post for at least a month. I’ll try and find something else to write about that has equally fun pictures and stories.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Some Points About South Africa: Language Edition

So for my language edition, I thought I'd include a few anecdotes from my time here so far. Although this country has eleven (yes 11) official languages, the ones most spoken around these parts are Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa. By the way, to say the last one you have to say it as "Kosa" but make a click sound with your tongue when pronouncing the "k." It is obviously not an easy language to speak. But it does sound incredibly cool. It's like tongue gymnastics every time I hear someone speaking it and it just leaves me blown away that someone could make all those sounds with their mouth.

Anyways, getting back to the matter at hand, I've had quite a few interesting experiences with the language barrier so far. Not only must we struggle with the obstacle Afrikaans poses for our daily lives, but South African English is not always completely intelligible either (the accent is very charming and I can see why girls dig South African guys).

To give an example, I went into town the other day to do some shopping and when I was at the till (checkout counter) and the attendant said something to me (presumably in Afrikaans). I told her I didn't understand, so she said it again, only this time it was equally impossible to understand. So I asked if she spoke English by any chance. "I AM SPEAKING ENGLISH!!" she responded. Wooooops. Sorry. So yeah, that just goes to show that even though it's all English, American and South African are sometimes two different languages.

Some of my favorite words I've learned so far in South African are "chunder" and "over share." Chundering is the process of blowing chunks, upchucking, or saying hi to your friend Ralph. It's pretty hilarious to hear South Africans describing their wild escapades around town and hearing things like, "Well, the night was going pretty well until I chundered all over the police car." Needless to say, the accent makes it way better, but the word itself is quite spectacular on it's own as well. OH, and this brings me to my next point. South Africans, almost universally, will say the phrase "as well" as more of an "AS well". The emphasis on the "as" not the "well." It might not make sense unless you hear it, but picking it up all the time in people's everyday parlance is a constant reminder that we're not in Kansas anymore, Todo. Another phrase that I've had fun with is "over share". I stumbled upon it one day talking with my South African friend, Joe, who was telling me a story. At one point, he shared a little more than I was interested in hearing, so I said "TMI dude!" Having been around enough Americans, he understood what that meant, but explained to me that in South Africa, they don't say TMI (for too much information), they say "over share." I don't know why but I thought that was hilarious. So yeah, over share = TMI.

Moving on to my experience with Afrikaans, which has been pretty limited since I've only been taking language classes for two weeks now, I just thought I'd share a funny story. The other day in class I was introduced to the longest word I've ever seen: "grondboontjiebottertoebroodjie." HA! Are you serious? Yes, I am. Well, unfortunately that is the word for "peanut butter sandwich," which is sad only for the fact that I eat so many I'm going to have learn that word down pat pretty quick. But apparently, I was already complimented on my pronunciation, so maybe it's the Dutch blood in me helping me out. Oh, and that also reminds me, even though my name is already as Dutch (or Afrikaans for that matter) as they come, I was given a new Afrikaans name for my language class: Gert Gerber. What is funny is that the "g" sound in Afrikaans is probably the most repulsive and guttural sound of any language, so my name having two of them is just ridiculous.

Alright well that's all I can remember for now. I'm sure there are more things I'm forgetting that will have to be worked in to future posts. I hope you all can forgive me for the lack of posts recently (and pictureless post this week). Thanks for reading, and until next time!

And for your YouTubing enjoyment:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

“I didn’t know we were climbing up a f****** river!”

Today I climbed up a river.

Up a mountain, on a trail that was hardly a trail at all. It was supposed to be a nice day-hike, but it turned out to be a sopping wet, hand over hand struggle up a trail that gushed water and mud. By the end, we were climbing much more so than hiking. As we scrambled over slippery wet rocks, we wondered how we had gotten ourselves into this. Well, let me tell you.

(For reference, here is a shot of Botmanskop, the leftmost peak of the Jonkershoek Range. I took this on my hike up Mt. Stellenbosch last week.)

It was a hike organized by the International Office of the University to go up Botmanskop. I had heard it was a good hike with great views, so I decided to go. Seeing that the weather was overcast today only further convinced me that it was a good day for a hike since the temperature was 15 degrees cooler than it had been recently. As I was packing my things this morning for the hike, the thought occurred to me, “Should I bring my rain jacket? Nah! It probably won’t even rain today. I can see some blue sky through the clouds anyways. And even if it does get rainy, I would rather get a little wet than get all sweaty in this humid weather with my jacket on.” Ohhhh how I would later regret that decision…

We set off this morning, and this time I thought I was well prepared. At least much more so than last time. I had lots of water, sunscreen, and food for lunch, so I was gonna be all set, right?

Even though it started to drizzle about an hour into our hike, right as we were reaching the base of the mountain, I didn’t think much of it since I don’t mind the rain. In fact, it was welcomed as it made for much cooler hiking up the steep slope. As the weather started to get a little more “moist” (I’m only throwing that word in because I know how much people love the way it sounds), I thought it would be smart to put my camera and cell phone in the plastic bag I had brought along in my backpack. See? All prepared like the Boy Scout-dropout I am.

We got a little higher, though, and started going through the clouds. It’s a pretty exhilarating experience to find oneself in the middle of a cloud that is passing through, around, and over you. At a little break point, we had some nice views of the area around Stellenbosch that the rain (which had started to let up) was nice enough to let me photograph.

Pressing onward and upward, at this point a couple hours into the hike, none of the fifty people with us wanted to turn back. Eventually though, as we passed through and exited the forest of eucalyptus trees, we found ourselves on a steep and narrow trail that looked totally engulfed in the “fynbos.” For those of you who don’t know what fynbos is, it means “fine bush” in Afrikaans, and is basically the low-lying shrubbery and bush that is common (and unique) to the Cape region. It is dry, prickly, thorn-covered, occasionally poisonous, and generally unpleasant to be in. And THAT is what we had to go through now.

It was also at this point that the leader of the hike informed us that there was this certain plant that we should be especially careful not to touch, as it had spines that if they got in your skin, would cause swelling and itchy irritation for a week. The only problem was that he was so vague explaining which plant it was (and I was so far back in the line of people) that I had no idea what he was talking about. Probably not a good thing to be confused about, but he just kept going, so I thought whatever.

So as we hiked up this steep, prickly trail, the rain continued to fall and increase in intensity. As we neared the summit, which was a huge outcropping of exposed rock, the venture quickly turned from a “hike” to more of a “climb.” And as I climbed hand over hand up the staircase of jagged, wet rocks, I thought, “Hmm, this is probably not safe. But that is what makes it fun, after all.” The last thirty minutes of our 3 ½ hour ascent to the top was pretty agonizing, but the thought of getting to the summit kept us going. The relief of finally getting there, though, was short-lived.

The summit of Botmanskop is pretty spectacular, or at least it would have been had it not been completely shrouded in fog and mist. Basically, we were all thinking “Boy, this view would be incredible if we could actually see anything.” The visibility was about nil (except for the five seconds during which I took the above photos). To add to that, the rain soon turned from a gentle mist to a torrential downpour. The heavens had opened up and were literally drenching us to our bones. The wind, rain, and fog made the experience less than enjoyable (especially after hiking up a mountain for hours), and our one-hour break at the summit had to be cut short because soon lightning and thunder entered the scene and increased the danger level even more. So as the group stood on this exposed rock, at the summit of a mountain, in the rain and fog, with the roll of thunder in the distance, someone still had the sense of humor to say, “Don’t stand next to the tall people.” Everyone immediately stepped back from me. Gee, that was a good feeling, to know that I am pretty much a human lightning rod at the top of this mountain. Wunderbar.

The decision to go down was quickly made, and we started our decent after only a short rest. The way down, however, did not lend us the same “ease” that we had had on the way up. The trail, which before had simply been wet, was now transformed into a gushing river of mud and rainwater that flowed down the mountain and over the rocks creating waterfalls and muddy slopes galore. “This probably wasn’t a good idea, in hindsight” said the hike leader, laughing to himself. And as miserable and tired as everyone was deep down, a sense of humor still was present, at least on the surface. Suddenly, someone shouted, “Sh*#, I didn’t know I’d be climbing up a f****** river!” To which everyone responded with uproarious laughter. Maybe it was because the exhaustion and sheer ridiculousness of the circumstances had made everyone delirious, but the whole way down, people were cracking jokes and at least trying to find amusement in what was, in all senses, a pretty awful situation.

BUT, I must say I did have a lot of fun. And it is definitely these kinds of experiences that one fondly remembers years later. So all in all, I wouldn’t say it was a bad day for anyone. Except maybe for the guy who, as we were hiking down the fynbos part of the trail, decided to just run because “it would be easier and quicker,” and to everyone’s enjoyment (except his own, most likely) could not stop his momentum and ended up flying head first into a huge pile of thorny, prickly, and painful-looking bushes. And as we found out as we helped him get out, it was this bush that our guide had previously warned us not to touch. So much for that. That dude is NOT gonna have a pleasant week ahead of him, that’s for sure.

Well, I hoped you enjoyed the story. It’s probably much more enjoyable to hear about than to experience firsthand, but even if I had been told beforehand what was going to happen (although I would have brought the rain jacket) I wouldn’t have opted out. That’s life, and you gotta live with what it throws at you. And that is my cliché moral for today.