An Asian in Africa

A travelogue submitted January 2012.

CAPE Town does not at all look African to me. Then again, when I think of Africa, I realize my mental picture of this faraway place is inadequate. I could tick off a short list of things that come to mind when I think of ‘Africa’: dreadlocks, world hunger, extreme poverty, scorching hot weather, dark-skinned natives, long-necked women. Add in the African-themed movies: The Lion King, The Wild Thornberries, Madagascar. 

It does not naturally come to mind that in the continent of Africa lies a rich nation at its southernmost tip, aptly named South Africa, bordering the Atlantic and Indian oceans. I suddenly realize, I do not know much about Africa at all.

It was my dad’s idea. “How about we go to Africa?” he asked us one evening. I cast him a strange look and asked, “Why there? We haven’t even gone to many other Asian countries yet. Why not those first?” This is absurd, I thought, Daddy’s being very spontaneous again. What can we do there apart from going on a safari? 

Now we’re here, I thought. We are going on a family vacation for twelve days, in a place hotter-than-Manila, in AIDS-stricken Africa. What are we getting ourselves into? I felt I lost my usually excited and enthusiastic self when it comes to traveling. Thankfully, it was not very long before she came back.

South African Airways brought us safely to the other side of the world on April 14 last year. Long-haul flights have never been an issue to me though, with my books, iPod, and interesting people around me to keep me company. I sat beside my quiet sister, who peacefully falls asleep in the middle of watching a movie. My favorite part of every flight lasting for more than twelve hours? Adjusting time on our watches. In this case, I travelled across six time zones, technically meaning I get six extra hours of life.

When we arrived in Cape Town, everything looked normal, yet everything felt different. It was the wind that gave a first sign that I am already someplace different. After leaving Cape Town International Airport, the whole tour group—22 of us—rode a bus and were brought to a mountainside and saw the view of the second-largest South African city. Right after getting off the bus, we were greeted by a strong South African breeze. I have never felt gusts of wind this cold and strong before. We could not take proper photos of each other with our hair flying all over the place. Being typical eager tourists, we took plenty of shots anyway.

Since the travel agency did not send a local guide to accompany us, I was made the South African tour guide’s assistant throughout the whole trip. My job entailed announcing wake-up call times, collecting tips, listing down which dish they prefer for lunch and dinner. I didn’t mind the additional tasks at all since I like interacting with people. Nevertheless, this was a new experience for me, especially because apart from my grandmother and former Chinese teachers, I do not get many chances to interact with those belonging to the senior age bracket. In our group, the gap between the oldest and the youngest tourist is 74 years. Four of us were below twenty-one, four in their forties (including my parents), and the rest are above sixty years old. Two of them were pushed in wheelchairs after we got off the plane. Lourdes, a woman in her forties, owns a chicken farm in Bulacan, and was traveling with her best friend Carol. I am often astounded by how we lead such different lives, yet we can be similar in many aspects too, such as yearning to experience the world for all its worth. Maybe being with elder people isn’t so bad after all. 

The following morning, we went to Table Mountain National Park. We rode a glass-bottomed boat to see Seal Island, filled with, well, seals. Hundreds of them. It was such a blustery day, and we did not get any decent shot of us again. The boat ride also gave us a quick view of Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of South Africa. We were all already in the boat when Lola Jessie told us that her companion Lola Nita was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, our tour guide was alert enough to spot her walking among the crafts vendors along the harbor. After a seafood lunch in Seaforth Bay, we learned about the life of ostrich, took photos of ostrich, and bought products made from ostrich at Cape Point Ostrich Farm. For dinner, we went to the twenty-first floor of The Ritz Hotel, to a rotating fine dining restaurant, wherein the perfectly circular floor achieves a full rotation every ninety minutes. We saw breathtaking views of Cape Town from every angle, but my family became even more captivated by Lourdes and Carol’s amusing stories of misadventures in their recent trips around Asia. We were served frozen lemon sherbet, bread basket, salad, a dollop of rice with fish fillet served on a plate with zebra-patterned rim, and sparkling champagne. A woman passionately played classical music on a grand piano as we ate.

In the evening, we went to Boulder’s Beach to see African penguins, also called black-footed penguins or jackass penguins. We sat at the beach waiting for little penguins to show up and amuse us with their funny waddles. Only a few did. People around us were complaining about wasting money for this, but I could not care any less. I was sitting at the tip of the African continent facing the South Pole, feeling the freezing cold winds, and seeing the full moon unusually big and bright. The things I saw and felt that night were worth infinitely more than what we paid to see herds of tiny penguins.

The next day we rode a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, a flat mountain overlooking Cape Town. Presently, Table Mountain is the newest seventh wonder of the world, together with the Taj Mahal (Agra, India), the Great Wall of China (Beijing), and the Christ the Redeemer statue (Brazil).

After going down the Table Mountain and failing to buy a FIFA World Cup football from a vending machine at the cable car station (the ball got stuck in between the glass and the shelf), we visited a tanzanite factory. Tanzanite, a rare deep-blue gemstone, is said to be more expensive than diamonds in the future, as it can only be found in the East African state of Tanzania.

The next stop was Seidelberg Wine Estate, where we had lunch that comprised of an ostrich salad appetizer. I surprisingly, guiltily liked it, though I vowed not to eat the poor bird ever again. We then toured the sprawling wine estate and learned how wine was made. I began to appreciate wine for all its exquisite flavors and the amount of work needed to make one bottle, from the picking of fine green and purple grapes under the scorching sun, to maturing the grape juice in expensive oak barrels, to its bottling and corking. At its wine and cheese tasting place, we tasted about six types of wine and cheese each. I did not know that there were specific kinds of cheese that complements specific types of wine.

Even though we each have a copy of the tour itinerary, I could never remember most of the pre-planned places we are going to visit. Therefore, every time the tour guide announces the next stop, I get even more excited. Perhaps this goes for the rest us, except for Lola Nita who seemed to know the whole schedule by heart. I then did not expect that the next item on the list is a one and a half hour champagne sunset cruise on the Atlantic Ocean.

On the sailboat, I spent half the time gazing at a young Western couple who clearly were on their honeymoon and fervently wished I could travel here with my own future husband. The other half was spent tinkering on my camera, finding the correct settings to capture the perfect sunset shot, the perfect lighted Ferris wheel shot, the perfect angle of the Cape Town skyline, and the magnificent colorful skies dotted with a full moon and sprinkled with flying birds. Mere pictures could not seem to capture the stunning views we had seen and how we felt during the whole ninety minutes—this had to be the most magical sunset in the world.

On the fourth day we were off to a two-day stay in Sun City, a luxury casino and resort in North West province, two hours’ drive from Johannesburg. To me, it is an elegant version of a jungle and a wilder form of Disneyland, with huge forests and animals all around us. We went on a walking safari: we saw meerkats, porcupines, leopards, white lions, and tigers up close. The next day we had gone on an hour-long African elephant ride. That elephant ride was like a blessing to us since slots were already filled up when we got to the ticket counter—a family had cancelled their reservation minutes after we inquired.

Our tour also included a three-day visit in another African country: Zambia. It was in Zambia (population: 13 million, official language: English) where we got to see another natural wonder of the world: Victoria Falls, nicknamed ‘the Smoke that Thunders.’ The mist coming from the waterfall can be seen miles away. Fresh water falls nonstop and the sight of thousands of liters of water falling at a height of 108 meters is indescribable. At 1,708 meters wide, it forms the largest sheet of falling water in the world. We got to walk past a wooden bridge, crossing about one-fourth of the waterfall and back while wearing green raincoats. A rainbow can always be seen over the falls.

On our free time in Zambezi Sun Resort, my dad, sister, and I rode Segways, an electric scooter that changes direction according to subtle hand movements, while my mom decided to stay behind. We circled the whole resort with our Segways, led by a guide who also told up where to stop to take pictures. Inside the resort, we saw zebras crossing the street, antelopes, running around in front of the guest houses, monkeys jumping on breakfast tables, and giraffes elegantly walking on the grasslands.

We went on a cruise along Zambezi River the following afternoon, in between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the fourth longest river in Africa. Because of this, I can get to cross out one more item on my life bucket list: be in two different places at once. On the boat, we got to talk to an African girl server. We found out that she is just my age and already working. I asked for her email address and a photo of her. We rode a 15-minute helicopter ride over the falls the next day, called the Flight of Angels.

Back in the hotel that evening, something worthy of a Tweet and Facebook status update happened to Lourdes and Carol. They both got locked outside the balcony of their hotel room in the freezing cold weather, wearing only their pajamas and slippers. My dad fortunately was standing on his suite’s balcony, next door to them, and heard them shouting. He immediately went inside their suite and unlocked the sliding glass door. “Good thing I was outside and heard both of you, else you’d be staying outside the whole night,” said my dad. Lourdes and Carol then gave my mom several packs of Kopiko instant coffee a few minutes after the brief ordeal. When we got back to Manila, my parents still kept in touch with them.

We also visited a little Zambian community called Mukuni Village. Perhaps if I could name the most unexpected thing in the whole trip, it would be getting to see little African children up close, talking to them, taking pictures with them. Many of them were asking for sweets, and I felt remorseful for not having brought anything in my shoulder bag to give them, except for a tiny box of orange-flavored Tic Tacs. My sister gave a couple of men 40 Philippine pesos. They cringed and demanded for US dollars.

When we flew back to Johannesburg, we rode the bus for another four hours and finally arrived in Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in the continent, where we stayed in beautiful wooded lodges in Hazyview, a quaint town beside the park. People go to Kruger Park to hunt for wild animals all day long, shooting them with their expensive DSLR cameras with giant zoom lenses. In this wildlife park one may spot the so-called Big Five: elephant, leopard, rhinoceros, cape buffalo, and lion. Apart from these are hundreds of different species of flora and fauna. We began the safari at dawn, and ended mid-afternoon. We only got to see elephants, rhinoceros, baboons, warthogs, monkeys, giraffes, wild dogs, hyenas, and a few birds. The walking safari in Sun City was a dozen times more enjoyable. If only we had giant binoculars and rode a green safari truck instead of staying inside the bus and searching from behind our windows, then we might have had a more authentic experience. Nevertheless, we got to experience a true African safari inside the world’s most iconic reserves. I could not have been any more blessed that day.

Our final destination was Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center in Mpumalanga Province, where we got to touch a cheetah, a rhinoceros, and a sable antelope. It’s an overwhelming feeling that the things I still haven’t even imagined doing are unexpectedly happening. I never thought I would get to feed a large piece of raw steak to the biggest vulture (in terms of wingspan) in the world, for instance.

Traveling in Africa is everything I did not imagine to be. South Africa is definitely a place I would go back to. Zambia? Being around wild animals for a couple of days is more than enough, but I would not mind seeing those wayward zebras, silent elephants, elegant giraffes, and prideful-looking meerkats either, and to give African girls in Mukuni Village the sweets they were asking from me, and to try to take a shower beside the Victoria Falls. It is because of this trip that I learned to like wild animals and to fell more in love with nature’s magnificent wonders. Do not get me wrong though, I maintain my sheer reluctance to own any kind of pet at home.

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