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July 28, 2009

Monday morning came too soon.  I heard the clank of the front gate, and the click of the second.  Then the three beeps as the door opened.  Pearnel’s jovial voice carried through the hallway.  Shoot.

10 minutes later five of us piled in the van, me holding the yogurt container I had dumped some granola, honey and cinnamon into moments earlier.  We sat in silence as we drove along the now familiar route out of Cape Town.  “We’re going to drop Charlie and Domonique off at their sites ya, before we go to UWC ya” Pearnel answers our unasked question.  We steer off the N2 and begin to wind our way through Nyanga and into Gugulethu.  While it’s no longer shocking to drive through the townships, it is still stirring.  Women stand in the yards outside of the shacks hanging the wash in the morning sun. Children too young to go to primary school run along the streets or are strapped to their mother’s backs by blankets.  The men walk in the streets, and talk outside the spaza shacks (grocery place).  The women begin to set out beadwork and sewing they have done on the tables in the center of the township, and heavy smoke pours into the sky from the braai market (somewhat equivalent to a BBQ).  Tables are set out in front of homes, stacked with goat heads for sale, and people wait at the side of the road to catch a public taxi to work in the city.

It would be easy to say they are the most impoverished.  Statistics run lists in my head: 70% unemployed, 63% never matriculate, on average 5 murders per day, ramped alcohol and drug abuse, rape, molestation, child abduction, all daily events.  And yet, the faces of the children and women show love.  There is laughter, and friendship and warmth.  Great pride is taken in some of these homes, and in their families.

On our way back from UWC, we drove back through to pick up Brian and Nora from their schools in Gugulethu.  The windows were down, as it was nearly 80*, and I hung my arm out of the small green Toyota.  As we passed people, I tried to imagine what their days looked like.  Most of them likely drug on in an endless monotony.  They live somewhere outside of formal time, yet trapped in the confines of social depravity.  As we pull through the gates of the school, the children, all dressed in uniform, wave and smile.  While we wait the girls laugh, and come up to the window saying: “Molo Mama!” waiting to see whom we smile and wink at first; some sort of small competition for affection.  It’s a place I don’t want to stay, and yet I don’t want to leave.  We are as blessed to come in, as they would be to get out.

Later this afternoon riots broke out in Nyanga in response to the nurse’s strike.  Gunfire, tires slashed and burned, fear and rage created mass chaos in the streets we drove today.  Hearing this community rocked by such overt violence makes the effects of apartheid all the more repugnant.  Who first thought it acceptable to teach these people that their lives were disposable, and that violence is the road to freedom?

“We are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road.  For to be free is not to merely cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” –Nelson Mandela 1994

I have discovered why superhero’s wear spandex. It is not because it is an easier material to sew a large letter to the front of, nor the variance of neon colors it is available in (thanks to 80’s pop fashion).  Rather, when covered in synthetic rubber that suction cups to the skin, you feel impervious to all but two things: discomfort and heat.

The 15 of us stood around in our wetsuits and helmets, waiting for someone to either laugh or tell us what to do.  The drive up had been stunning.  Though there were six of us crammed in the covered flatbed of David’s (our landlord with a history in trail guiding) truck, and our butts were numb, it was rather enjoyable.  The Palmiet river lies about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Cape Town.  The road curves around the coastline, offering beautiful views of the cape and mountains.  Then the road turns in, heading into a gorge carved out by the river.  The landscape is a mix of lime green, emerald, white and grey from the granite, and cloudless blue.  The mountains jut up out of the earth like they were caught in Zeus’s clap, and the Palmiet runs amber with rust.

Thank you --Sorry there are no original pictures from this day guys. Unlike me in a wetsuit, my camera does not have white water rafting skills.

“Two to a boat” the guide said.  Terry smiled at me. “We are going to carry the boats up this path to the pool up there. Right above that big rapid. Usually one person carries the oars, and the other carries the boat over their head.”  I looked at Terry.

“Cate, you want to carry the oars?” He offered.

“Thanks Ter-bear!” I beamed back.

As we headed down the sandy path, the bushes came up over our heads.  Is this why they were called the bush people, I muse absent mindedly. It was easy to imagine someone walking down to the river, 7,000 years ago, and thinking they had found eden.

We get up to the pool, plop in our boats, and proceed to row upriver.  “Ok, now we are going to practice flipping the boat.” The guide said.  So we row up, catch the fast moving current and pull in one direction, until we capsize.  The water was shockingly cold.  We came up sputtering and struggling hard to get out.

It is at this point, no sooner, that I began to reconsider my decision to go rafting.  Me, who avoids pools because I dislike being wet. Not that I don’t know how to swim (I was a lifeguard one summer), but would rather just stay dry if that’s an option.  But as I previously explained, in a wetsuit you are impervious almost everything, including dislikes.  And, being in the possession of such power, discomfort was a small price to play.  I am also happy to report that the only other time I was thrown from the boat was not an act of the river.  Rather Terry’s idea of a joke, as I lounged sideways in our raft while we floated in a gentle section.  In truth, I had a hard time not laughing as I pulled my way back into the boat to inform him that we were now, “In a fight.”

It took us a few rapids to understand how to properly move the boat through the river, between the rocks and away from the trees.  Once we got the hang of it, it was like an unpredictable splash mountain without the singing figurines.

All too quickly we were pulling our boats out of the water, and carrying them back up to the main road.  As we piled our wetsuits, booties, and helmets in the grass, and returned to our pedestrian clothes, David passed around a bottle of Sherry. “To make the ride back a little more comfortable” he explained jokingly.  But after a day like today, what were a few awkward positions and tingling knees?

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