Sunday in South Africa was a wonderful but strange day. I woke up at 8 so that I could go to church in a township. That’s right, I went to church, in South Africa, in an all-black community that was created during apartheid. Why? Well, I wanted to visit a township while in South Africa. It’s a cultural experience because believe it or not, beyond the sparkling streets of Cape Town, South Africa actually does have some poverty and non-Western culture. You don’t go into a township by yourself if you’re a tourist but there are plenty of tours that lead you through them. SAS has this little shoebox called the “angel box” where a person can leave a ticket for a field trip if for some reason they’re not able to go. The ticket is already paid for, so the idea is someone else gets to use it. I found a ticket in this box for a visit to a church and a luncheon in a township. I decided that I’d take the opportunity for the township and the churchin’ wouldn’t hurt me either. We boarded a bus and headed out of the city. I always think it must be a funny sight when an SAS field trip rolls into some settlement in Ghana or South Africa. These people are all black and most of them are not in cars, on foot, in fact, barefoot. Here comes a big ol’ tour bus full of white people, gawking out the window, snapping pictures. We soon arrived at the Khanyisa Church Centre. Turns out church there is contemporary in nature. I immediately regretted my decision to wear a collared dress shirt and long pants out of respect even though it was dang hot. The church was a “charismatic” church which I was told is close to America’s pentecostal church. The church member who was our guide told us that they even speak in tongues sometime. This I was interested to see.
I don’t know what got into me but I was actually really moved by the church service. The hymns were in one of the local languages but they were projected onto a screen so that I could sing along even though I had no idea what I was saying. We sang for an hour and then afterwards a member of the church gave a sermon I believe. I hate to say it but I’m not sure if it was a sermon because I slept through most of it. I think that as soon as I sat down my energy from singing evaporated and I just wanted to lay on the floor and close my eyes. After the service ended there was your typical coffee fellowship. After standing around for a little while a guy in a yankees jersey (52: CC Sabathia) spoke to me. What friendly people those associated with New York tend to be. The guy was from Zimbabwe. He’s an economic refugee who just finished his mechanical engineering degree but currently can only find work as a day laborer. He hasn’t been on the job hunt for more than a month so he still has hope. It’s tough though because just like in the United States, there’s informal labor that pays less than the minimum wage and it isn’t easy work. After a while we parted ways and I wished him luck. It was time for my SAS group to head to lunch.
Lunch was at a local restaurant in the township. We walked there so instead of being on a conspicuous tour bus we were just a herd of conspicuous white people. The streets were pretty empty. My guess is most people were still in church. I was insanely thirsty so I popped into a convenience store and bought a stoney ginger beer. I felt a little uncomfortable when the rest of the group was still walking on ahead and I was left in the township a block or two behind the group, but soda in hand I jogged up and rejoined the white mass. We crossed the train tracks to another part of town, walked a few blocks and we were at Mizoli’s. Mizoli’s is a pretty bizarre and insanely popular restaurant. One stands in line and selects meat from a butchery. This meat is then all barbecued for you and brought to your table in a giant metal pan. No one gets any forks or knives; you simply dig in with your dirty fingers and chow down. There are no vegetables either. There’s some sort of white starch that resembles mashed potatoes but is stickier and tastier, and white bread is passed around so you can sop up the grease and barbecue sauce. It was delicious and primal. Besides the food, the experience is what draws people to Mizoli’s. Mizoli’s is an outdoor restaurant with lots of card tables and plastic deck furniture covered under a large, corrugated iron roof. The place is big, probably only a little smaller than your neighborhood Applebee’s. I’m not sure if this is the case every day or only on Sundays, but there was both a live band and a DJ. The DJ played local South African pop music. The band was a traditional band with drums and wooden xylophones. The place was packed and everyone was eating, talking, and getting their drink on. That’s the irony of it. In America, after church, you go to Waffle House, Dennys, or IHOP for some pancakes. In Cape Town, you come to Mizoli’s, six pack in hand, and get ready for a barbecue.
Mizoli’s is BYOB. Semester at Sea doesn’t prohibit drinking so I asked one of my fellow group mates if he’d be interested in splitting a six-pack with me. He agreed, so after we were settled at our table, I went out in the street to search for the source of all Mizoli’s beer. The smart thing would have been to simply ask someone. Instead, I just walked off, alone, to search. I made it about half a block away from Mizoli’s before a young black guy in a polo shirt left the stoop where he was relaxing with a friend and started walking with me. This has already happened to me countless times on this trip. Usually they either want to sell you something or for you to straight up give you money. My policy is to acknowledge their presence but continue moving. Sometimes they let me pass. Most of the time they walk alongside me. Naturally this guy introduced himself and started to follow me. I told him I’m looking for some place to buy beer and he offered to guide me. I told him he shouldn’t abandon his friends; just tell me which way to go and I’ll be fine. He decided to accompany me anyway. Although I was in unfamiliar territory, it was Sunday in broad daylight so I followed him. We started walking and a minute or two later I noticed that there were no longer any white people around me. I felt slightly nervous and told my companion that this place was too far and I was going to walk back to the restaurant. He pointed to a building only a few yards further, so I continued. We arrived at what I believe was a liquor store. It was a building that had a small, parking lot in front of it. A wall surrounded the parking lot, connecting it to the building. There was a large metal gate into the parking lot. A man and a woman on the inside were selling liquor bottles to customers through the metal gate. The man and woman were speaking the local language so I told my companion I wanted a six-pack of castle beer. He relayed the message and I was asked for 35 ZAR. I agreed to the price and waited for the beer to appear. The beer didn’t appear. My accomplice told me I needed to pay first and then I’d get my beer. This felt shady. I wasn’t in a store, but clearly this was a place where alcohol was sold. I took out my 35 ZAR but held onto it and asked to see the beer. The lady and my business partner insisted that I give the money first, and then the beer would appear. I said no, that I wanted to see the beer. The lady persisted and I insisted; we reached a stalemate. I told my cling-on that I agreed to the price, I have the money in my hand, why can’t she show me the beer? He told me that’s not how they do it. I decided to take my business elsewhere. What was going on, I did not know. Would the beer have appeared if I gave the money? Maybe. Would I have been ripped off? Maybe. I mean, there’s no Better Business Bureau in a South African slum. I walked back towards the restaurant. The polo guy followed me and was upset. Why wouldn’t i just give the money? “Why wouldn’t she just show the beer?” Then, his true intentions showed through. He whined to me that now he wasn’t even going to get a beer. Aha! The motivation is revealed. Byron buys a six-pack and he gets a finder’s fee of one cold brew, eh? I walk back to Mizolis and ask the first patron I see where they bought their beer. They said the red shack immediately to the left of Mizoli’s. I, on chance, had originally walked out of Mizoli’s to the right. I departed a second time, and right there was a place selling beer. I asked for the six-pack of castle and was quoted 50 ZAR. I showed the 50 ZAR and she pulled a six pack out of an icy cooler. There was an even exchange and I was delighted; more than happy to pay the higher price, the equivalent of an extra $2 USD.
I reclaimed my seat at the big table around which the entire SAS group was seated. The food had just arrived and the styrofoam plates were being passed around. My drinking buddy told me he didn’t want any beer because the Dean who put him in the drunk tank was watching.
And now, a brief word on “the drunk tank.” SAS permits drinking on shore, however, when you come back to the ship you cannot be a danger or a menace to yourself or others. If you are perceived of being either, you can be pulled aside and subject to a field sobriety test that involves balancing on one foot. If you fail or refuse to cooperate, you’re seen by the ship nurse, breathalized, and then relegated to a conference room that serves as the drunk tank. Here in the drunk tank you will sit under supervision until you are deemed sober enough to rejoin society. Your punishment is not simply a boring conference room, though. You must meet with the dean of conduct at a later date to determine what further consequences await you. Everyone who gets tanked ultimately gets points. If one accrues enough points for naughty behavior during the voyage, they are redeemed for a one-way early ticket home.
I didn’t see the problem with drinking in front of the Dean. As I said, drinking is not forbidden; problem drinking is. But I kept my opinion to myself. I could drink the six beers if we were there for long enough, or I could donate the remainder to some fortunate soul if I couldn’t.
A few moments later while we were all eating, a girl from SAS who was not a part of our field trip appeared at the table. She was here at Mizoli’s with a couple of others and also friends from her home institution who are in Cape Town for the semester studying abroad. After I finished eating I walked over to their table, greeted the other SAS kids and introduced myself to the expatriates. I don’t know why, but I got a kick out of meeting Americans that weren’t SAS-affiliated for once. We spoke for a while and they told me that their plans post-Mizoli’s were to return to the University of Cape Town (UCT) and then head to the botanical gardens at Kirstenbosch for the Sunday night live concert in the park. Two of my good friends from UConn, Rebecca and Kimmi are studying abroad at UCT and although they were gone all weekend at a human rights conference, I knew they were planning on heading to Kirstenbosch. I told the expatriates at Mizoli’s that I would come with them to Kirstenbosch and hopefully find my friends. We agreed we would leave Mizoli’s together in a couple of hours and we exchanged South African phone numbers just in case. I returned to the SAS table and they were all ready to return to the ship. I signed a form stating that I understood if I didn’t want to come back that I was on my own, and not SAS’s problem or liability and took off into the crowd to mingle. We had a great time hanging out, dancing to the local music, finishing my six-pack. At one point a little dance circle formed in front of the band and certain brave souls jumped into the middle for a few moments to showcase their moves before blending back into the crowd. I tried jumping in and despite my slight fear of being mocked for being a white American trying to dance to traditional South African music performed on drums, I received applause and shouts of encouragement. It was a somewhat profound moment of racial harmony. When I was in Ghana I oftentimes felt that my presence was viewed by the locals as exploitive. They seemed to feel that the fact that we were there for a brief time meant that we came not to walk a mile in their shoes but rather just to gawk at them like animals in the zoo. That day in the township I felt completely welcome.
TO BE CONTINUED…