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Fifteen years ago today, I wrote the following email from Cape Town, South Africa (It’s already the 11th there). It was the year after my dog Oreo died. I had just moved from Chicago after selling everything I owned, and was just traveling without a home. A lot has changed in the past 15 years. I did not even own a digital camera in 1998. There was one Internet cafe in Cape Town that I used to send this email. I had just set up my first crude website as a tribute to Oreo, and had recently purchased my very first cell phone! I could never in my wildest dreams, have imagined that in 2013 I would be living in Los Angeles and have websites that allowed my photos to be viewed by thousands of people all over the world every week. Not to mention, that America would have a black president and he’d be attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
Sent: Friday, December 11, 1998 10:48:15 AM -0800 GMT
To: Undisclosed Recipients
Cape Town alone is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. It rivals Rio de Janeiro in natural beauty, and Sydney, Paris and even Chicago(!) in urban splendor. Though it is a small city (the second largest in South Africa at about 4 million) it has all of the amenities of the great western cities of the world.
I have traveled extensively during my time here, from the very southern tip of the continent at Cape Agulhas, to the fabled Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, to the lush wine country of Stellenbosch, home to some of the finest wines on the planet. I have toured Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his nearly 30 year prison sentence. I have photographed stunning sunsets from the slopes of the most famous landmark in the country, Table Mountain, whose flat “table top peak” is often covered with a thin layer of clouds the locals refer to as the “tablecloth”. I have encountered penguin, baboon, springbok, ewald, zebra, dassy (related to the elephant), tortoise, and many strange birds and insects. I even went whale watching in Hermanus, the best place in the world for land based whale watching, but alas it was too windy the day I was there to see any Southern Right whales.
A friend of mine from Switzerland was staying with me here for a week, and then some friends from Johannesburg came down to revel in the glorious beaches of the Western Cape for five days. I have made many wonderful new friends, as all of the people here are extremely friendly and love to hear what it’s like to live in America. This country is startlingly “new” to democracy. Their constitution and bill of rights is not even two years old. They have been struggling with the demons of years of apartheid since 1990, and will unfortunately never be able to undo much of its damage.
This is a country wrought with paradox. People who live in the cities shop in huge Western style malls, with all of the latest fashions and designer names. Everyone, young and old (as in Brazil, Australia, Japan, and Europe) has a cell phone. They watch the latest Hollywood movies in large 14 screen cineplexes, yet they only have four television stations, and there’s no such thing as cable. They watch Seinfeld, Friends and of course Oprah everyone knows about Chicago!! Thanks Oprah!)
Travel just outside the cities however, and it’s a completely different story. When apartheid was first introduced, blacks in the cities were sent to “townships” to live. These shantytowns, with no electricity or plumbing, are still homes to millions of “Africaans”, and they are indeed appalling.
On a drive home from the southern coast, I stopped for gas at a Shell station. The gentleman who pumped my gas, asked me in very broken English if I could give him a ride home, as his shift was over. I agreed, as he had already won me over with his friendly (though toothless) smile when I pulled up. As I was unsure about what type of gas my rental car took, he was very helpful, and extremely polite. As he directed me towards his home, I soon found myself entering a foreign world like no other, only a few hundred yards off the main highway. Fires burning in barrels, chickens, goats and dogs running wild, naked children playing with tin foil balls, and thousands of make shift “homes” made with whatever material was available. I have seen slums before. The favelas of Brazil, the projects of American cities, but nothing I have ever seen was like this. As impoverished as it was, it was a vibrant community. A community of people, all of whom have a distinct role. A community full of pride, from the elaborate colored headdresses worn by the women, to the impromptu artwork painted with whatever colored material was available. As I dropped my new friend off, he simply said, “God Bless you, Merry Christmas.”
There is a huge movement underway to register people to vote in next year’s presidential election. Unfortunately the drive is so unorganized that even President Mandela went to the wrong place to register. The result is record low registration, and it is feared that the election will be fixed by the African National Congress, and that an unpopular and bitter candidate will win the majority. Though there is much respect for President Mandela, there is great rift between the the black, “coloured” (a term describing those Africaans who are mixed with the large number of Malay and Eastern/Indian people who populated this land when it was originally a colony of the Dutch East India Company in the 1600′s) and white population. I have spoken with many people, black, white and
coloured, and there is a huge fear among the white minority (the country is 75% black) that a huge “reverse discrimination” movement is underway.
What happens in next year’s election will be integral to the future of this country. There is so much potential here, it is mind boggling. A wise investor, could do quite well in almost any city in South Africa. I look forward to returning in the future to see the growth and change of this infant democracy.
Next week, I depart for Madrid Spain, to meet my friends who are converging from all over the world. I will be spending New Years in Seville, with many of the people I spent Christmas with last year in Brazil. I am really looking forward to seeing everyone. It won’t be easy however, to leave “Mama Africa”. Table Mountain has cast its spell on me. The crystal blue (though cold!) Atlantic beaches will surely be missed. The climate here is incredible. No humidity, and about 83 degrees every day. There has only been one stormy day since I arrived. (But what a storm it was. There were devastating tornados in the Western Cape that nearly killed the President!) I watch CNN every morning at 5:00 (when I get in!) and am following the latest news from Iraq, as is everyone here. Despite the modest Muslim population here in South Africa, (75% of the population is Christian) everyone I have met, is very much in favor of the United States action against Iraq. They do however, laugh at the fact that we are impeaching our president over something so silly.
I was thrilled to see how many people have logged on to the “Oreo” website after receiving my Christmas card before I left the States. It is indeed amazing how our ability to communicate has changed so vastly in just a few short years. I trust this message finds you all happy and healthy. I wish you all a blessed holiday season, and am sending warm thoughts to all of you from this magnificent continent.
So excited to watch “The Sound of Music” Live this Thursday. Marcelo is even trying to learn Do Re Mi on the guitar!
Hung out with Perry today. It’s his 49th birthday. Hard to believe we’ve been friends for 30 years! Check out his photography at: www.petermcnameephotography.com
Downtown Portland Christmas Tree Lighting with Rob, Marcelo, Christine, Drew, Emily and the boys.
When I left LA today it was 75 degrees. It’s 32 in Portland tonight!
Free screening of “Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom” last night and a Q&A with the director (which was fascinating). The movie was incredible. I wasn’t expecting much, and it really delivered. Idris Elba was amazing as Mandela.
A Cougar, Ready for His Closeup!
Cougar takes the Hollywood limelight
Hats off to National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, for this fantastic photo of a cougar perfectly placed in front of the Hollywood sign.
NatGeo has the full story, including 14 months of waiting for a perfect shot, here.
Photo: Steve Winter / National Geographic