Letters from Cape Town: August 3, 2014

Greetings from Cape Town!

I woke this morning to the smell of fresh baking bread. Fresh baked bread? Oh my. It confirmed that we have left the so-called third world behind. The smells of smoke from burning garbage and cooking fuel has been replaced with fresh bread and coffee.

We decided to end the Africa journey in Cape Town this year. Why Cape Town? This is a big wealthy city, often compared to many European cities. It doesn’t need health brigades. It has well-stocked hospitals and many physicians. All true. We’re not in Cape Town for global health. We’re in Cape Town for our own mental health – and to scope it out for friends and family.

Both Maria and I often have friends and relatives who express interest in going to Africa but who want to avoid the risk of infectious disease that comes with traveling in Tanzania and other sub-Saharan African countries. At the southern tip of Africa, Cape Town has no malaria, no worms, no yellow fever, etc. You can drink the water. Heck, you can even get sparkling water! There are luxury hotels with consistent hot water and western toilets. You can find Mexican food, Thai, Italian, Sushi, etc. There’s wine tasting, spas, and whale watching. But there are still safaris available for those who want to do a true African safari. This may be how I finally get Don to come to Africa!

Traveling during an Ebola epidemic is interesting. Thank you to all of you who have expressed concern. Maria and I are paying close attention to the spread of Ebola throughout West Africa. We monitor the news daily, and take it seriously. Airlines and South Africa are also taking it seriously. On an Emirates flight and a South African Airlines flight, the entire cabin was sprayed with disinfectant – with all the passengers on board. They told us to cover our nose if the smell was too much for us, but it was a precaution they were taking. And when we were in the line for customs in Johannesburg, there was a “Feverscanner” – a screen that projected infared images of people’s body temperatures. There were also men wearing “health worker” vests who were scanning the crowd for sick people. They looked more like CIA or beefed-up bar bouncers than mild-mannered health workers… but who am I to judge? Maybe all of the health care workers are body builders in this country.

There was a time, back when I was considering post doc options that I was offered a job working with Ebola at NIH. Considering how accident prone I am, I decided working with a virus that causes a deadly hemorrhagic fever wasn’t a good idea, and turned it down. Also, working in a setting where I’d be in a haz-mat suit in a bio-safety level four lab all day wouldn’t be good for someone as social as I am. Occasionally I make good decisions. Nevertheless, I did a lot of research when I looked into the potential job – it means I know a lot about this virus, and the risks associated with it. I think it’s good that Maria and I are leaving the country soon, and the students who planned to be in Ghana this summer are acting wisely modifying their trips. It’s disappointing for them. But this is an AWA moment. (Africa wins again.)

The city of Cape Town has not been a surprise as we knew it would be beautiful. What has turned our heads, however, is the number of health food stores, yoga studios, and Thai massage shops. And the shopping is wonderful. After four weeks in the same three T-shirts, I feel like they could go in the incinerator. Thus, replacements are necessary. There are lots of boutique stores on Long street, and I think we’ve been in every one.

Maria and I have decided that we keep going on honeymoons together. We consistently find ourselves in some of the most beautiful places in the world. And today, we stumbled on another one. We had decided to go to wine country, and then finish the day with a massage at a Thai spa. So we rented a wee Hyundai and practiced our left-side of the road driving as we cruised out to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. And in Franschhoek, we found one of the most spectacular valleys I’ve ever seen– and I’ve seen a lot of valleys. Jagged mountains framed green pastures with horses and cows; rows of white grape blossoms accented the vineyards against the mountains and the bright blue sky… It was truly breathtaking. This place was so amazing that the cows weren’t eating grass – they were eating lilies. There’s probably a market for lily-fed cows in Portland, don’t you think?

We tasted wine at Moreson Vineyard, and chatted with the vintner, Gunther, who is a Simpsons fan and would love to come to Portland. Gunther has a dog, a Weimaraner named Molly – and supports guide dogs for South Africa. Molly has a whole line of wines that have labels designed for blind people, with Braille words and textured pictures. Amazing place – and the wine was fantastic. You probably know that I’m a lightweight, and I can’t drink much wine. But that allowed Maria to taste to her heart’s content.

We dined in a vineyard called Le Petit Ferme, which was on a hillside that overlooked the wine valley. A fire smoldered in a huge stone fireplace as we ate Moroccan chicken with dates and orange, and filet mignon with truffle mashed potatoes and caramelized onions. As I contemplated the beauty, I decided that NUNM needs a satellite campus in Franschhoek… I’m volunteering to run it. Maria has volunteered to be the faculty – the entire faculty, if necessary. It will no longer be the National College of Natural Medicine, it will be the International College of Natural Medicine…! I’m just kidding. Sort of.

Speaking of natural medicine, apparently there’s an association of naturopathic physicians in Cape Town. Our goal is to touch base with them before we leave. That’s about our only goal beyond taking some more pictures – maybe at the Cape of Good Hope…

With the beauty and lightness of South Africa comes the darkness. Today we saw a township outside of Cape Town – there are several, but we saw the largest one called Kayelitsha. Do you know what “townships” are? Townships were a result of apartheid – it’s where non-whites were put to keep them out of the city. In the US, we would call them a slum, but they’re an extreme form of slum. The houses are usually built with cardboard or large chunks of metal – and multiple houses share walls with each other. There’s no sewage, streets, or any other services. Kayelitsha is enormous, at over 16 square miles, and housing over 500,000 people! And this is just one of three townships of Cape Town. Seeing places like this make me so sad, because they’re so unnecessary. Can you imagine be forced to live somewhere because of the color of your skin?

And in the travel brochures, Kyelitsha is a tourist attraction. You can pay a white guide to take you to Kyelitsha. So… people are making money showing off other people’s poverty. You can even hold their children for photos. UGGH!

It’s difficult to see Kyelitsha first hand. I studied apartheid was I was in college, and I had imagined how bad it was, but seeing the immensity was sobering. In order for my soul to survive in moments like these, I have to concentrate on being fully present for each moment. If I dwelled on things, it would break my heart. As we were driving back to Cape Town after a day of total decadence in wine country, we passed Kayelitsha again as the sun was setting over the mountains. The sky was pink, and Jeff Buckley was singing Hallelujah on the radio. As he sang the lyrics “It’s not a cry you can hear at night. It’s not somebody who has seen the light. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,” I got chills. Isn’t that the truth? There is a lot broken in Africa.

I had mixed feelings about coming to South Africa. While people raved about it’s beauty, the history is so depressing. I didn’t know if I wanted to patronage a country that suppressed and abused an entire population. (Of course, our history in America has its own demons.) Maria and I decided that we would come here and do our best to support the people that we met – choosing places that treated their employees well, listening to the stories that people had, building relationships…

There’s another song that helps me process places like this. It’s called “Nothing More” by the Alternate Routes. The chorus goes like this:

“We are love. We are one. We are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are peace. We are war. We are how we treat each other and nothing more.”

Enough said.

I’ll be home in a few days, and this is likely my last letter for this trip. Hard to believe. I lose track of the space-time continuum when I travel. I don’t pay attention to dates or days of the week. Going back to a calendar will be challenging, but I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again.

Thanks for listening to my stories! Let’s catch up in person soon…