The grey clouds hovered atop the monstrous natural figure. Its flat form and staggered frame towered over the nearly 4 million who live in Cape Town. We made it to our last destination on the African continent, but far from our last eye-opening experience. A friend and I headed straight for the airport to travel to Johannesburg and it turned out that a couple of other students were on the same flight and staying at a local backpacker (hostel). The owner was picking them up, so we took the opportunity to tag along. On the way, the owner directed our attention to multiple townships off the side of the highway. Once we parked, he pointed a couple streets closer to the city to show how integrated the townships are with mainstream housing.
I ate cow tongue and spätzle for the first time and found it delicious. This taste, however, went somewhat sour when I spoke with the waitresses about their experience growing up in South Africa after Apartheid. Despite the desire to integrate, they felt that the government was making it easier to discriminate against white people. Specifically in the workplace. They brought up The Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 and the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2007, which were established to create more equality within the working class and bring a rejuvenation to all those who had been repressed by the Apartheid movement. The implications that resulted were an increase in uneducated and under-qualified employees and a brain-drain of educated and qualified individuals. The women mentioned that the government has not focused on building education and has more so focused on “legally” tipping the scales to favor blacks over whites.
Need for focus on education
Need for coming together as equals
As we drifted away from Cape Town, Table Mountain, and the entire continent of Africa, it was apparent that we wouldn’t see land for 12 days. 12 full days. Only ocean. But it was more than that. For those next 12 days, we grew closer as a community, embracing the relationships that were already sprouting. Some of us engaged in our very own, Atlantic film festival where we created an original video within the constraint of the crossing to Argentina. As we filmed, studied, and let our eyes drift across the constant horizon, it was apparent that we were a nation floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Need for companionship
Find wifi – not a constant goal of mine, but I hadn’t been online since Ireland. I touched base with my cousin who sent me the contact information for a friend of his who lived in Argentina. Within 5 minutes of emailing his friend, I received a response.
“I want to let you know that I live in Mar del Plata, city located 400 km from the capital, I have to travel to Buenos Aires the next week, but I could try to move that to the current week to be able to meet with you.”
Rather than meet him in Buenos Aires, I journeyed to the south to Mar del Plata. For the day and a half that I spent there, he took off of work and showed me his city, describing it as “the Miami of Argentina”. I was visiting a few weeks before beach season, so as we walked above the beach, he pointed and spoke about the busiest spots. He spoke in English, broken English, but in English. His goal is to learn how to communicate in English fluently so that he is desirable to U.S. companies.
“Because, the Argentinian Peso is not stable and when I work with U.S. company…eh…companies, I receive a stable U.S. dollar.”
Need for stable currency
Need for communication bridges
We crept into Rio de Janero’s Guanabara Bay as the sun grew from its blended reflection to the east. A plane flew over us and touched down on the landing pad that abutted the bay. Beyond the bridge, to the starboard side, we noticed a brigade of large ships. It was later found out that their purpose is to clean the pollution in the bay before the 2016 Olympics. (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/rios-olympic-waterways-full-trash-sewage-0)
Need for proper disposal of trash
Need for clean waterways
With Brazil to the south, we began our 11 day passage to Cuba, and at that point, we were accustomed to long-distance travel. Along the stretch, the films from the Atlantic Film Festival were presented in front of the entire shipboard community. The effort exerted to create each film was noticeable …except for a couple. For the following few days, “your film was great” could be heard as the video artists walked about the ship – they created a connection on the ship.
Need for creativity
Need for collective support
This was it. The point that seemed so far away when we were first accepted into Semester at Sea. The time that seemed as if it should never come.
Our last port.
It hit me as I walked down the gangway with news cameras recording each disembarking step. I immediately reverted to the first steps I had taken when arriving in St. Petersburg. How much had I grown? Was I more confident? Had it already been 3 months? Reporters swarmed us as we headed toward charter buses. As a requirement of our educational visit, we were to be taken to the University of Havana, to engage in a ceremony with the administration, and to sit through a lecture about Cuba.
As much as I enjoyed the interactions and frank conversations about Cuba, I soon developed a suspicion that made me question everything they were saying. We later found out that in order to meet with Semester at Sea students, teachers and students of the University of Havana went through training that would teach them how to act around us. Precautionary measures, right?
I went out to a bar the second night and saw a couple men looking at girls in my group. I decided it was best to distract them with my presence, so I approached them and introduced myself. I sat with them for over 2 hours (we were kicked out because of closing time) discussing the real life of Cuban citizens. A paycheck of 30 CUC – equivalent to $30 – per month denoted a high paying position, and they were in no position to receive that. The only reason they were enjoying one beer and smoking one cigar each was because it was one of the friend’s birthdays. They spoke of the lack of food they received from the government, the restriction to location on the island, and the limit to advancement within employment. They yearned to be free and to experience different walks of life.
Our last post-port on the ship brought out stories that helped confirm my suspicion. A couple of Semester at Sea students asked a store owner about a shop they were interested in visiting. The owner told them that he would show them the way, but to follow at a distance as to not tip off undercover officers that he was helping Americans. The undercover officers wore striped shirts and would detain citizens if they believed they were jeopardizing the state’s intentions. I remembered seeing these men in striped shirts periodically.
Furthermore, a group of students from the ship went to a gathering hosted by a man just outside the city. This man desired to enlighten his fellow citizens about humanitarian laws that were not being followed in Cuba. Subsequently, the students arrived in time to walk past the police barricades and witness this man being beaten and detained for his remarks.
Need for the adoption of many humanitarian rights
Need for freedom of speech
Needless to say, I have seen a great amount of need in the world. What if I choose not to act on what I have seen? What if I sit here letting my legs go numb? Would it be right to continue living my life like all my friends who accepted jobs in the megaplex of the D.C. area (no offense)? My future “vacations” will not consist of the typical tourist traps, but of action with the intent to build better communities. Is there a way to rid this world of the need that I believe should be changed? I don’t know. I choose to believe there is, so let’s see what we can do.
I am still traveling on this road have a deep desire to make all the difference. When stepping back onto American soil for the first time in nearly 4 months, I realized I had a need to act on my experiences. I will continue to chronicle the need that I see where I travel and offer suggestions and actions to solve the problems.