My Semester at Sea: South Africa

Setting foot on African soil for the first time was a feeling I won’t soon forget. When I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, it all seemed to hit me at once – the rich, mutual history of man, the land that binds us together and reduces our differences down to one, untenable,unchanging, common truth: our humanity. I reveled in the creamy accents of the passersby, clapped along to rowdy street performers, and let my cheeks freckle in the noon sun that gives the city an unparalleled vibrancy. I relished in this country that seems to be born again every afternoon.

However, my first day in Cape Town was not spent lapping up the sunshine like the chubby seals peppered along the waterfront. I left the shoreline via a crowded ferry boat and found myself where so many had been before me: floating further from where I really wanted to be, the outline of Table Mountain just visible beneath the buttery fog. My first day was spent on Robben Island in an ancient prison that once held thousands of inmates, including former South African president and human rights advocate, Nelson Mandela. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used as a dumping ground for unwanted, discarded individuals: prisoners of war, lepers, convicted criminals, and, most recently, outspoken dissidents of the apartheid system.

Between the ghostly, overgrown sports field at the front of the prison to the stale air in the barren and the stone cells where Mandela once spent 18 years of his life, the system of racial separation and persecution was tangible around every corner of the island. I could hear the whispers of the inmates in the abandoned lime quarries littered around the island, where constitutions were once drafted and spirits were broken. I saw Table Mountain across the water, both within and without of reach, a maddening reminder that freedom is only four miles of ocean and another world away.

The next five days in South Africa were drenched in brilliant color and savored as aged wine. I breathed the same air as lions, rhinoceros, and elephants while on a white- knuckle safari buggy, (accidentally) conquered the most challenging route to the top of Table Mountain, and jumped out of a plane at 11,000 feet. I giggled with simple joy while watching the Boulder’s Beach penguin colony waddle to the waves in their glossy tuxedos, and buried my nose in an expensive wine glass, commenting on the “nice legs” of the house pinotage. I encountered something new, something vivid every single day during my stay in Cape Town; but, oftentimes I found myself right where I started. Returning to the shore when the sun took its nightly bow, I found myself looking for the Robben Island lighthouse that once burned so steadily amidst so much darkness. My visit to Robben Island served as a crucial foundation upon which to build my South African experience simply because it taught me the power of remembrance. I may not be able to undo the horrors of the apartheid era, but I can show respect to the people who suffered just four miles away in my own way– by seeing them, really seeing them, after so many years of being invisible. I found myself scanning the bay while on the summit of Table Mountain, squinting and searching, and imagining a time when there might have been someone looking back.

Images courtesy of: Stephanie Harris