Before I even left for the cruise of the Greek Isles on November 1, 2018, the temperatures in Europe were quickly dropping and it was raining in Rome daily. A few thunderstorms were so severe that streets flooded and trees were blown down, blocking roads all over the city. It had never occurred to me before that winter in the northern hemisphere is summer in the southern. Once I knew that, it was a no brainer that I should return to Cape Town to spend six of my last seven weeks with my new friends there before flying back to the U.S. Given the crazy weather, I went ahead and booked my flight back before I boarded the Norwegian Spirit in Citavecchia.
With Fibromyalgia, one is increasingly more sensitive to weather extremes, both cold and heat. Cold is downright painful, so the idea of returning to the chill and winds of the U.K. for the holidays was unappealing to me. After I returned to Rome, I stayed with friends for another week or so and visited my Italian kids (my first “Marea Poppins” family from 2016), then said my goodbyes and flew out at the end of November.
My host was the guide whom I had met my first day on Table Mountain. He is/was also the creator of the South African National Parks volunteer training program, which recruits young adults willing to commit to weekly Saturday training for an entire year and teaches them all about the parks’ services, how to locate and assist lost or injured hikers and tourists who leave the mountain’s authorized trails, fire and rescue on land and at sea, patrolling the waters to prevent abalone poaching, and organizing and executing beach cleanups. To receive certification for this program, the trainees must each do an oral presentation the month before graduation on one of the topics above, or something else specific to the natural environment of the region. I had the good fortune of arriving just in time to attend those presentations. It was a wonderful way to become educated about so many things I would have never had occasion to learn as a tourist! As they didn’t happen to have a photographer lined up, I was able to be of service in return for the privilege of being allowed to observe. It was a very stressful day for many of them, as it was their first time presenting. I felt great empathy for those who were shaking in their boots, as I myself have yet to overcome my fear of public speaking. These young women and men were truly inspiring!
The joyous after photographs were the most fun, of course, when they were all elated to have the pressure behind them! In the 5 weeks that followed, I accompanied them every Saturday on whatever outing was planned that week. One of the most memorable was baboon patrol, which involved chasing the wild baboons away from cars entering the park and guests who were trying to picnic. It was a HOOT, and, once again, I delighted in documenting the day for all of them. (Needless to say, they did the baboon chasing, not I.)
One Saturday’s event was hosting a Christmas party for orphans. That day was bittersweet, as, although 100 children were invited, transportation was only available for fewer than 30. None of the facilities could afford to hire a bus or multiple taxi vans. That was the day I was able to be most involved, as hosting parties is one of my specialities. It boggled my mind how everything came together within just a few days, as I am one to plan an event and coordinate details weeks or even months in advance. With hardly any notice at all, food and gifts for the children were donated, as well as bounce houses. It was incredible and heartwarming! It very well may have been the happiest day of most of those children’s lives. Everyone left delighted and exhausted.
Over the years, I have learned that just visiting tourist attractions is not my thing. Wherever I travel, I love to experience the culture, the food, and people as much as possible as the locals do, which involves befriending locals. This is how The Ambassador of Love Tour came about. I set the intention to be an ambassador wherever I go. No matter people’s preconceived notions about the U.S., my purpose is to connect beyond world news and politics, to be and share the very best that I can. This intention has been rewarded everywhere I have traveled with beautiful friendships that I hope will last my whole lifetime. This trip was especially rich and wonderful in the making-new-friends department.
After the youth in the volunteer training program, the next people I met where at a semi-formal Muslim Middle School graduation dinner. My host was the event photographer and I tagged along to take candids. Little did I know, I would be seated at the VIP table and welcomed by the Director and evening’s emcee as an esteemed guest from the United States of America. I have never met more gracious, kind, and generous people as I did that night. Whereas middle school graduations stateside are acknowledged, this was a truly sacred celebration. The children recited prose in at least seven different languages. The speeches were deeply moving. Every child’s parents were present (and no one arrived late or left early). I don’t know if or when I have ever felt more of a sense of community, of family. It was truly beautiful!
During dinner, I was gently told that it is customary in their culture to eat with one’s hands, rather than with a fork and knife. I respectfully explained that, as a professional photographer myself, I had to keep my hands clean and ready to handle equipment at all times. Then, within moments, there was a battery and lens change, which required my help, and they saw why I could not eat as they were, and it was clear that no disrespect was intended. The same couple that had educated me about their eating customs later proudly told me about their poet daughter, Ayesha Orie. I said I would love to meet her and we promised to stay in touch. A few weeks later, we reconnected after she had been interviewed and performed her slam poetry on the radio. We brainstormed about possible opportunities and venues where she might perform her writings, not realizing that the establishment we were in was trying to close for the night. When we explained that this was a one-time chance for us to spend time together, they were very kind and accommodating. Ayesha did an impromptu performance of “My Shoes,” the piece she had performed on the radio, and the waiter, an aspiring musician, provided a backbeat for her. What a remarkable young woman she is! The poem she performed was powerful and thought provoking. I see a bright future ahead for her. If I can talk her into making a YouTube video, I will post the link at a later date.
I had so enjoyed reading story books to my first Airbnb host’s Kindergarten/1st grade class back in October that my host arranged for me to read to a few more classes in the local school where I was staying in Athlone. He also reached out to a librarian friend in nearby Mitchell’s Plain who agreed to allow me to read to the children who routinely hung out at her library after school. She surprised us all by turning the tables on us after I’d read 3 or 4 books. I told the kids I’d be happy to continue reading, if they wanted to go collect some more books. When they returned, however, their amazing and clearly beloved librarian, Hadjira Sydow, said that I would read no more. They themselves would read the books they had selected aloud to me. They were very shy and reluctant at first, but eventually, with encouragement, they rose to the challenge. Somehow, in the conversation that followed, “The Sound of Music” came up. Although we had never met before that day, Hadjira and I burst into song together, as if we’d rehearsed together a dozen times. It was one of those rare moments of connection that are so special and memorable, demonstrating so beautifully how we are all truly more alike than different. Having grown up in different cultures on opposite sides of the world from one another, we both shared a love of music and singing, especially along with that particular film. After we sang snippets from various songs, the kids became restless. They weren’t into it nearly as much as we were, so Hadjira put a film on for them to watch. As we were in a musical mood, “Grease” was agreed upon. What fun it was to watch these children be exposed to a bit of 1950s/60s Americana! Anticipating that my host would be working late that evening, I was looking forward to going home with the librarian to wait for him, but, alas, I was collected earlier than expected. To quote another song, “It ended much too soon!”
For all of my foodie friends, you can check out Hadjira’s Facebook group, which features amazing photos and recipes of traditional South African dishes. You might even have fun learning a bit of Afrikaans at https://www.facebook.com/groups/411624309787987/
For the majority of my six weeks there, I stayed in a predominantly Muslim suburb of Cape Town. Although I felt perfectly comfortable, I was told that it would not be safe for me to venture out on my own, neither on foot nor on public transportation. This was a shock to me, as (prior to Johannes-burg) I have never been restricted by safety concerns anywhere I have traveled. This was very eye opening for me, highlighting what a life of white privilege I have lived. My first three weeks there, while my host was working all day, I was stuck inside, feeling for the first time in my life what it’s like to be a minority and contemplating the injustice of racism around the world. It magnified the importance of us all doing everything we can to overcome prejudices and build bridges between people of differing beliefs. I have always believed that we are one global family, the color of our skin no more important than the color of our eyes or the hairstyle that we wear. It sickens me and makes my heart ache that there is still so much hatred born of ignorance. I may be but one person, but I will devote my life to extending respect and unconditional love to all I encounter everywhere I go. I hope that you will too!
The Christmas season in Cape Town was as mellow as throughout most of Europe. Pretty lights adorned the city streets, but there was significantly less commercialization and bombardment by marketing pressuring people to buy, buy BUY for the holidays. That was refreshing to me. The only actual Christmas entertainment I attended was a sing-along concert at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. It was a bring-your-own event and I packed a wonderful picnic for the occasion. I had been yearning to sing, as that is my favorite holiday activity and pretty much the only tradition I care about observing anymore. I desperately miss “anti caroling” with Omaha’s Aetherplough group! With kids no longer at home, singing is the main thing that brings me holiday joy.
Speaking of kids, no trip is complete without my befriending some local children. Just before Xmas, I spent a delightful day with a couple of cuties and their mom Joleen, a S. African naval officer and wife of one of the park rangers. We visited World of Birds in Hout Bay. I am about as bird crazy as anyone can be, so, for me, it was the perfect Christmas gift to myself. Marcus, age 3, and I spent the day in awe, pointing out one wonder after the next to one another. His little brother Andrew (age 1) enjoyed the comfort and luxury of the stroller. There was even a monkey enclosure, where Squieral monkeys climbed all over us. Some would pick your pockets, if you weren’t careful.
Between Christmas and new year’s, we visited Bontebok National Park a few hours away. Our mission was to take pictures to be used in marketing materials in the year ahead. There were campgrounds, some lovely fully equipped cabins, and a couple of lakes. I was grateful we were able to stay in a cabin. We each shot images of the sunsets, the amenities, and the wide-open spaces where we went driving in hopes of spotting some wildlife. We saw some wild zebras in the distance but only ONE Bontebok, which we observed for quite some time, but we were too far away from him to get any decent images. It was just a wee bit disappointing. When we went kayaking, I spotted a beautiful bright green snake swimming just feet from my kayak, which I managed to get a few shots of. Later, when I showed them to one of the park guards to ask what kind it was, his eyes got big and he informed me that it was a very deadly snake. For me, the most fun part of the kayaking was being able to drift under the many hanging Weaver nests along the shore. The male Weaver courts his mate by building 5-6 nests for her to choose from. She selects the one she likes best and lays her eggs there. The others serve as decoys, keeping them safe from predator birds. As our time in the park came to an end, I had pretty much accepted that we weren’t going to be able to contribute any images of the park’s namesake. Then, our last morning there, I went to the kitchen to raise the blinds and let the glow of the sunrise shine in. Lo and behold! There was an entire herd of Bonteboks right outside of our cabin and wandering throughout the grounds. I was ecstatic! I spent more than an hour walking among them. They behaved as if we (humans) weren’t even there. It was the perfect ending to our visit!
On our way back towards Cape Town, we stopped in Franschoek, a darling town in the wine country. On a whim, we looked for a place to stay, but, as it was new year’s eve, everything was booked, so we just had lunch, then continued on toward home. We called ahead to some of the volunteers and pulled together an impromptu n.y.e. “braii” (a S. African BBQ) with two of the young women, then we all drove up the mountain to watch the fireworks over Cape Town from Signal Hill, which the park rangers and their friends and families had exclusive access to for the occasion.
Cape Town welcomes the new year with a “Klopse” parade on January 2nd. Minstrel troupes from all around the city compete, drawing crowds of between 60K-100K. This tradition is the biggest cultural festival in Africa and has been delighting locals and visitors to the Mother City for more than 110 years. There was no way I could stand for hours on end to observe the spectacle, which goes from noon to 10pm, so I snagged an outside table at a restaurant and our small group enjoyed the festivities from the comfort of a food-laden table, taking turns standing on the curb to interact with the colorful performers.
At least once a week, through the six weeks I was there, my host and I would drive to the beach at the end of the day to watch the sunset and the kite surfers. I had never heard of kite surfing as a sport before and the acrobatics performed by the surfers blew my mind! Cape Town is apparently one of the best, if not the best place in the entire world for it, combining the perfect wind and waves for the highest lifts. I wish I had learned about it when I was young and still had the strength to learn it! My only surfing adventures were learning to windsurf on a beautiful lake in Garmisch Partenkirchen in Germany when I was 18 and one traditional surfing lesson on Maui with my children when they were about 9 and 10.
As my time in Athlone came to an end, I had tentative plans to return to take a tourism course and see if I might be able to get a work visa to partner in a multi-lingual tour guide business or find a B&B to help operate, but, as is so often the case in life, those plans changed. By the time I was ready to leave my home in Nebraska in the fall of 2019, the Universe directed me to Costa Rica instead.
I will be forever grateful to my host, Aslam Levy, and to his family and friends—especially Hadjira, Joleen, and Shaakira and Nashfa—for welcoming me so warmly and making my time in the Cape Town area so very enjoyable and memorable.