A week in Durban

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The Durban waterfront

I have just returned home to Mama’s house after a week at the World Leisure Congress in Durban. Yes I study leisure. No it is not an oxymoron. My dad would prefer I tell people that I’m in the School of Applied Health Sciences rather than the faculty of Recreation and Leisure Studies, but here we are.

Anyhoo, the big bi-annual conference was last week and for the first time it was being hosted by an African city! My advisor strongly suggested that I attend, despite knowing that I have no social skills and would rather sit under a table than chat with the strangers sitting around it. That being said, I put on my big girl pants and made lots of really incredible and inspirational new friends.

I also had an opportunity to present on what I’ve learned in my work so far. Considering the fact that I’m still conducting interviews (I have two more tomorrow. I fly home the day after. I’m organized.), I really only had very preliminary ideas to discuss, but I did share the audio of the interview that I spoke about in an earlier posting. I think my presentation went well and there was lots of good discussion at the end. Two young South Africans asked about the age of the interviewee and when I told them that he was around 40, they assured me – quite strongly – that I needed to balance that with some young people’s perspectives. Of course I do. Why on earth did I not think to contextualize people’s perspectives based on their lived experiences? To be fair, I have done virtually zero analysis thus far, but I am so grateful to those young people for putting me in my place. The ‘born-free’ generation, those born around or after 1994 have their own perspectives based on their very different experiences of growing up in South Africa. White people were not the “bosses” in the South Africa they grew up in. Not legally anyhow. Now I just have to make sure that that comes across in my findings.

Although another conference attendee thought that might end up being a ‘for future study’ addendum to my dissertation. Another cited my new favourite saying: “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” 😀

At any rate, the conference was wonderful and I was able to attend a number of really thought-provoking presentations. It wasn’t all work though! I played hooky one morning and joined a new friend in a visit to an “authentic” Zulu village and reptile park, I strolled the beach a few times, I toured the oldest botanical garden in Africa, and I glommed on to a group of really eminent scholars in the field for their walk to the Moses Mabhida stadium. I mean eminent. One of the men wrote the textbook for the first leisure studies class I ever took. Durban is beautiful and warm and exciting, but I’m happy to be back to my cold and familiar Western Cape, at least for a few more days.

Tourists meeting Zulu performers, South Africa

Tourists and Zulu dancers in their natural environment

A Zulu woman demonstrating in recreated cooking hut, South Africa

A Zulu woman demonstrating in recreated cooking hut

The jinglers that dancers wear on their ankles are made from old soda can lids, South Africa

The jinglers that dancers wear on their ankles are made from old soda can lids

Leisure researchers at the beach, Durban, South Africa

A hard day’s work for leisure scholars

Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban, South Africa

Walking towards the Moses Mabhida stadium, built for the 2010 World Cup.

The Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban, South Africa

The Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban, South Africa

Botanical garden, Durban, South Africa

Cat dumping continues to be a real problem for the Botanical garden

The sunken garden, Botanical Gardens, Durban, South Africa

The sunken garden, Botanical Gardens, Durban, South Africa

South Africa the Great

I feel like I’ve been a bit of a sad panda on here lately, always writing about the really challenging cultural and ethical issues that I am grappling with here. Believe it or not, I am still having a whole lot of fun!

Case in point, I met a man at Amazink last week who is new to the city and really enjoys hiking. I also happen to enjoy hiking (when it isn’t hard) and I’ve been too paranoid to go out on my own. New friend! What could possibly go wrong with me agreeing to accompany a tall handsome stranger into unfamiliar mountains?bundy

Jooooost joking Mom and Sam. He’s a friend of friends and a total gentleman. He took me to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve for a beautiful hike, the highlights of which were two waterfalls. The only feasible way to get to the second falls was to strip off our shoes and clamber over the rocks through the stream, which was almost better than the payout at the end. I’m embarrassed at how sore my thighs are today, but it was well worth it.IMG_4507IMG_4510IMG_4514IMG_4519

I also had the privilege of meeting and spending some time with a man from Germany who plans to spend the next 1 1/2 years driving his nifty little suped up Suzuki from Cape Town to Dubai. He is a filmmaker and has already begun sharing episodes from his adventures on his Youtube channel. Sadly (for me) they’re still in German, but he promises to have episodes in English soon. One of the cameras he has along for his trip is mounted on a drone. I had never seen a drone before in the real world (I’m a terrible luddite), and had to restrain myself from being as excited as the local kids, who came running from all sides when he fired it up.IMG_4500IMG_20160624_173547076[1]

I also had the great good fortune to have attended every single one of the Amazink Live shows for something like 7 weeks, with last night’s being the final show. Yes, it was exactly the same show every single week. There aren’t a whole lot of Friday night party options for a Mlungu living in a township. That being said, I loved every minute of every show and felt a little gushy as the last show I’ll get to see finished last night. The cast was terrific, led by the awesome O’Ryan Winter, even though I suspect that they thought I needed to get a life (yes, I was there often enough to believe that this is true). I especially liked it when they played my all time favourite song by Paul Simon, which I shared as my favourite song when the Lady of the House asked us to at the Reconciliation Lunch one week, and explained that I learned about South Africa as child while listening to Graceland with my Dad in the ole Pontiac Parisienne.

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I never did manage to get a good photo despite many, many efforts. You should probably just check out my German friend’s Youtube channel, as he filmed the whole show last night 😉

And now I find myself living at the Durban Hilton (what??!) for the next week for the World Leisure Congress. It’s a tough life. I’ve only been in Durban for a few hours, and it was dark when I landed, but the best part so far? There are lots of Indian people in Durban. Know what that means? Vegetarian food. Enkosi 🙂

 

The power of PhotoVoice

Bead work made by women in the township, Cape Town, South Africa

Beaded jewelry made by the women at the women’s center is sold to the tourists and the income generated is then used to support the other initiatives of the center, including providing hot food to others in the community and helping people with HIV/AIDS access medication.

I am in the process of transcribing the audio recordings from my interviews at the moment. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing this special form of hell, I envy you. For those of you who have told me about your own tortuous run through this mill, I now feel you.

That being said, the cool part of transcribing is that it allows you to really, really hear what people are telling you, free from the distraction of thinking forward to your next question or wondering if any of what a person is telling you is actually going to be helpful in the end. Helpful for me of course, because as researcher it is my universe that is central :-/. It is amazing to me how much I have missed of what people are actually saying to me because my head has been wrapped up in other gunk.

Thank goodness for transcribing.

As I listen to my conversations, I wonder if I have actually spoken about my research methodology on here. I learned something cool about my chosen methodology the other day, in conversation with 6 women involved with a women’s skills development program in the Township. My methodology is PhotoVoice: I ask participants to take photos related to tourism and then to tell me about why they took that particular photograph. Here is one that was shared with me the other day:

Tourism photography in the township, Cape Town, South Africa

Taking photos of ‘tourism’ in the township

I looked at this and said “Is she taking a selfie?” and everyone laughed. The woman explained that she took this photo because to her it represented all of the opportunities to learn new skills and have new experiences that tourists bring. If I hadn’t come on tour and met them, they would not now be having this chance to participate in my research and get to develop their photography skills. Pretty cool.

This is the neat thing about this methodology. I looked at this picture and thought, meh. Then I got the story and it took on a whole new meaning, a whole new life. Likewise, the photos open up avenues for conversation and understanding that I would never have known or thought to pursue without their being introduced via the photos.

This is a car wash:

Car wash, township, Cape Town, South Africa

Car wash in the Township

The lady who took this photo explained that a tourist came to visit the Township and met with the young guys who were trying to get their car wash business off the ground. He went with them and bought a secondhand vacuum, the zinc siding, and a shipping container to store everything in. Now they have a successful and sustainable source of income. Long-term impact of tourism.

One of the people I spoke with gave me the old ‘hand-up rather than hand-out’ analogy. Tourists are in a position to give people a little, or a big, nudge that can help them get their initiatives off the ground.

Bead work, township, Cape Town, South Africa

A Mama doing bead work at the women’s center

The lady who took this photo explained that she posed this woman doing bead work out front of the women’s center because she wanted to represent how she had once been, sitting out front of her house beading with no job and no prospects. Then an American tourist came and created the women’s center (which, incidentally, is home to the groovy community garden I wrote about earlier) and now she has a job and a place to go and be with friends and give back to the community every day. Big impact.

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A lady cooking sheep innards at her home in the Township

The woman who took this photo explained that this lady, her neighbour, doesn’t have a job and is trying to support herself and her family by cooking and selling sheep innards. She wants the tourists to come to her home and buy her food, to have a unique experience to try some local food and help her make some money. As much as I’m *enjoying* my adventures in meatland, I don’t think I’m quite ready for that one, but maybe some others will dig it.

For the women at this center there is no downside to tourism (I asked). The tourists give them an opportunity to learn new skills and have new experiences. And there is always the possibility that one tourist will offer to pay for a child’s school fees or help buy the tools to help get one’s business off the ground. Tourism will always involve imbalances of power, I don’t think there’s any way around that. Maybe, for these women in this community, tourism is filling a gap that their government has not been able to fill in terms of helping to provide pathways out of poverty. Maybe.

Children's library in the township, cape Town, South Africa

Donated children’s books in the women’s center. It was explained to me that this lady likes to keep the books neat and tidy so that the tourists will see that they respect and value their donations.

 

I have had other thoughts about tourism in the townships! If you’re interested in reading more about me trying to understand this particular brand of tourism, check out Touring the Township (and playing Andrea)Reflections on Township Tourism II, and Reflections on Township Tourism III. I’d love to know what you think!!

Playing with a different set of rules

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Township view

Ever feeling like you’re trying to play a game with the wrong set of rules?

When you go abroad through various programs, often you are forced privileged to participate in pre-departure cross-cultural awareness training. One of the games that really stood out for me was one where you would get all the students to sit together to play a game of cards. Each student is given a different set of written instructions for how the game is played, and they are not allowed to speak to one another as they play.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

It was interesting for me to see some of the students lose it when others failed to play according to their rules. This is a training session people, obviously there’s a larger objective at play. But I digress…

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Sunday chill at one of the original Township houses

My Dutch friend and I have been talking about the rules. Specifically, that we don’t know what they are. And everyone knows this about living and working and studying internationally. Everyone knows that culture shapes the way we perceive and interpret the world and our expectations and norms and blah blah blah.

It is still so, so frustrating.

There is so much that I don’t understand. And I know that I keep coming back to race like a broken record, but believe me when I say that it colours every aspect of life here. For me it is an awareness not of being one or the other, but of the ways in which it frames relationships.DSC00035

I have now had 4 or 5 people tell me, unasked, that tourism is good for the Townships because it improves racial relations. That it means so, so much to be seen by white people, to have an opportunity to interact with one another, especially for kids. There are two sides to this, according to my friends: one, that being acknowledged by white people means to a resident of the Townships that you exist, that you are also a person, and two, it provides an opportunity for black people in the Townships to see that white people are not monsters or deities, but that we are all just people who are equal.

I believe that both of these things are ‘true.’ I also believe that both of these things are at cross-purposes. How can the touristic encounter work towards a establishing a common humanity, while at the same time affirming another’s humanity simply by deigning to acknowledge them??

But this is by now a somewhat familiar frustration coming from me, no? I am still confused, but trying to wrap my head around it with the help of my Dutch buddy has been wonderful. It makes you feel less insane to be confused and frustrated with a friend.

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Essentials of the Sunday chill: box o’ wine, fuzzy slippers, and menthol cigarettes (they’re not mine Mom)

Other cultural confusions? My Afrikaans friend told me that many of her friends would be shocked, shocked to hear that I am living in a Township, going to shebeens, and joining in for Sunday chill. Not that they would find it weird. I think we can all agree that I’m comfortable doing weird things. But that they would be incapable of understanding why I would ever choose to do such a thing.

Also, I am struggling with how best to deal with two undoubtedly common frustrations: people hitting me up for cash, and people ‘falling in love’ with me. As to the former, I have resolved to ‘lend’ friends a small sum and let it be known that that is the limit (until I’m repaid at least, which has yet to happen). As to the latter, I (think that I) say very clearly that I am only interested in being friends and have no intention of engaging in any other type of relationship while I am here. People are still surprisingly persistent.

This is where we come back to the rules of the card game (you thought I forgot about that one, didn’t you?). I feel as though I am communicating as clearly as I am able (I also learned years ago that being coy gets you absolutely nowhere). And yet I find that some people persist, and I really can’t understand why. Also, being a Canadian, and being on the reserved and shy side even for a Canadian, I am amazed at people professing their adoration or asking for a sizable sum of money of a virtual stranger. I just can’t see one of my Canadian friends telling a girl he or she met an hour before that they are in love with her.

I’m not complaining – I know that I will be sad on the day that I realize I have become too old for persistent marriage proposals. And I am certainly not complaining that I am in an understood position of financial privilege, and I would be happy to share beyond what I do if I didn’t think it would create even more of a divide in my friendships. I’m just confused. It’s one of those cultural divides that I don’t know that I’ll ever quite understand.

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Beautiful view of the Township and the landscape

 

 

Reflections on Race

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Homes in the informal settlement in the township

I’m feeling very conflicted about what I’m coming to lean about tourism in the townships. I still feel that it’s wrong somehow and I can’t shake that. But all of the people that I’m working with are telling me how good it can be for the community. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the stereotypical notion of tourists embarking on a bus and riding throughout the township with their noses pressed against the glass is wrong. Several people have made reference to the zoo analogy. And yet it seems that everyone feels they are involved in some other form of tourism – that they are doing it properly and in a way that is good for the community.

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A rooftop garden. Income generation, nutrition, and education all rolled into one, funded by the NGO that is funded by tourism.

Prior to living in South Africa I had never really given much thought to the concept of race. Maybe more than most privileged white people in Southern Ontario, maybe less. Here it seems to be all I think about. Why oh why did I spend so much time reading about postcolonial theory and not a word of critical race theory (that was for Rich 😉 )? Not that CRT would really help me wrap my head around the complexities of race here. I could live here a lifetime and never really understand, not from a white person’s perspective nor from a black person’s. So comes the question that I’ve begun to ask in my research: Is township tourism good or bad for racial relations in South Africa?

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Tourists and seniors interacting with one another at the seniors’ center in the township, also funded by the NGO

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The man I met with yesterday, who is a tour guide with an NGO that uses tourism to fund dozens of community development initiatives in several townships, believes that the answer is an unqualified Yes. The tours bring people together to share their humanity and learn about one another. This value is so central to what they do in his organization that over the holidays in June and December when many, many people return to visit family in the Eastern Cape, they don’t run any tours at all. Their tours are not about shacks and squalor, but about people learning about one another.

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A tourist from France with the daughter of one of the tour guides. He told me that he always brings the tourists to see his home because they are curious about what it is like to live in a shack.

Another tour guide told me that while his tours do not directly support the community, many people who learn about the township through the tour will return as volunteers or will start NGOs or will make donations to the community. One German couple sent back many thousands (if not millions) of rands to transform the tinshack educare (pre-school) center into a multi-story facility that would not be out of place in my home community in Guelph. And who can forget the ‘sheeps’ head lady‘?

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Her life and the lives of hundreds of others are changed for the better in a very real way because of tourism. So why is there still a bug in my butt about it?

I ask about dependency. What does it do to a community to embrace tourism because the white people who come might give them stuff? I’m told that people believe that since the tourists are in a position to help, and they want to, why shouldn’t they?

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A tourist wanted to help out after visiting the seniors’ center. He contracted another organization in the township to make blankets for all of the seniors to help them through the coming winter.

And yet…

I went to the Africa Day celebration at Amazink yesterday. My friend Bongani led the singing of the national anthem, because his “friends from team Canada”  were present 🙂 And there were lots of speeches, lots of which I didn’t understand. But again the anger shone through, loud and clear. The anger and pain of the elders as they spoke about their horrific experiences under apartheid. And I mean horrific – reading about it in no way prepares you to hear firsthand about what people had to endure. And the young people are angry about the lack of change that they see having been accomplished since 1994. In these black spaces I truly feel that no matter what is being said or presented or even believed, learning about the Other will not be enough to undo the damage that has been done here. The distrust and the hurt just run too deep.

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My neighbour the barber. He was given a donation from a tourist to buy the shipping container that now houses his barbershop

I’ll keep digging at it. As I said to my friend yesterday, if these things were simple or painless they wouldn’t make much of a study. I feel that my head and my heart and my imagination are hardly big enough to contain all that I am learning and struggling to understand here, but I’ll keep at it.

Coming home is going to be very difficult.

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*As before, please be aware that all of the photos published on this page were taken by the study participants, and the participants and the people who appear in the photos have given full informed consent to have their photos published and used for the purposes of this study. I would respectfully ask that other people not reproduce these photos for other purposes.

Reflections on Township Tourism III

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I have finally begun collecting some data from my participants (yay!), and as expected (once again) nothing has gone as expected. I thought that I was being clear in asking participants in the study if they would take pictures in the community, with the cameras that were given (and once again, many many thanks to all you beautiful folks who donated your cameras!!!), of what tourism is and what tourism could or ought  to be. I’ve left the question deliberately open-ended in order to allow for a multiplicity of responses and perspectives that I could not have anticipated as an outsider to the community.

The first woman I met with arranged for me to speak with several people in the community who had experiences with tourists, including the ‘sheeps’ head lady,’ a man who sells arts and crafts to the tourists, and someone who lives in one of the old residences. She also brought along her friend to photograph me as we made our way through the township. Hm. I was really just going there to give her a camera, but we can roll with this.

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The ‘sheeps’ head lady’ tending her fire

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Interviewing the ‘sheeps’ head lady.’ She told me that a couple from ‘Swederland,’ a couple that she does not remember meeting, decided to pay the school fees for her two children after having met her on a tour. Her children have been attending private school now since 2011.

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The front room of the apartment of the man who sells arts and crafts to the tourists is crammed to the ceiling with his wares.

The second man I spoke with took it upon himself to conduct a full community survey. I really hope he didn’t think I asked him to do all that work, but awesome! He conducted interviews with dozens of people around town, and sent out opinion polls on Facebook and What’s App that buzzed with responses the entire time we spoke. He had even typed and printed out four pages of responses from the interviews that he conducted in the community! Again, really not what I was anticipating, but so cool!

I have to say, I was feeling a little dismayed at what I perceived to be a lack of criticality regarding the socio-cultural impacts of tourism among the people I spoke with. Maybe this was due in part to the fact that one of my main methods of meeting participants was through engaging with the tours myself as a client? Or maybe I am completely wrong-headed about the whole thing – the financial impact of the tours is very evident, and maybe this is enough to make them be wholly valued by the communities? Maybe I’m just being too pushy with my own perspective that the tours can be harmful?

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This man, who has a physical disability, spends quite a bit of time outside the local liquor store, which is across from where many of the tourists park their cars. He has taken it upon himself to protect the cars, chasing away would-be robbers and vandals. For this he receives no ‘tip-out’ from the tour guides, and the tourists have no idea the role he plays in keeping their valuables safe.

But, then I heard another tourist say that ‘Everyone back home should go on a tour like this’ and I felt all of my insides clench. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get on board with the notion that we all ought to go look at other people’s poverty for our own edification. And I saw repeated examples of both tourists and the guides reinforcing negative and harmful stereotypes about the Township residents, for instance that young African fathers are not present in their children’s lives. I went back to my proposal in search of a little guidance and grounding, and re-encountered this gem of a video:

Camps Bay Reverse Township Tour

So it is not just me.

One man told me that people in the poorer parts of the Township really want tourists to come through because it means so for much for them to have ‘superior’ people walking through the same streets that they walk. When I prodded for an explanation, he told me that the white people are the superior ones, and that some people feel that to be seen by white people, to have a chance to interact with them, means that you are a person too, it means that you exist. Holy Fuck. Please bear in mind that is this (hopefully obviously) not what I think, nor is it what he thinks, but rather what he thinks other people think (I think). Tourism is not responsible for the racial disparities in this country, but hearing stories like that doesn’t make me think that it’s helping a whole ton either.

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This lady owns a shebeen in the Township. She doesn’t like seeing the white tourists walk past, because her pub is unlicensed and she is afraid that one of them will report her to the police

Another told me that some people will come to the Township to film their music videos, because it makes them look edgy and ‘fresh’ – that they pay the residents a paltry amount of money to act a certain way for the cameras – ‘thuggish’ – and that to him this was exploitative and abusive, as many of the people did not know what they were consenting to, they just saw an offer of money. Some musicians, like Skrillex for example, have come to the Township and have stayed and mentored young local artists, but to my young friend others just come and take and perpetuate negative stereotypes about the people who live there.

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The residents of the Township gathered to take part in a music video.

Lots of the people that I meet in my day to day tell me that they are studying tourism – I mean lots and lots of people. It’s a bit astonishing to tell you the truth. But then you see how much more money those involved in tourism are making than many other people in the community. And in parts of the community where many people struggle to make a living, you can imagine how divisive and political these imbalances can become.

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This young lady is studying tourism at her high school. Like many people I have spoken with, she views tourism as a field in which she has the potential to make a very good living.

Please keep in mind that I have only formally interviewed a handful of people, and have casually chatted with many others, so don’t take anything that is said here as some sort of conclusive statement about the ‘Truth’ of Township tourism – only a few early observations that have stood out in my mind. I would love any feedback from others’ experiences or opinions on the matter!

*Also please be aware that all of the photos published on this page were taken by the study participants, and the participants and the people who appear in the photos have given full informed consent to have their photos published and used for the purposes of this study. I would respectfully ask that other people not reproduce these photos for other purposes.

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Recycling in the Township

 

Interested in reading about some of my earlier musings about the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out Touring the Township (and playing Andrea) and Reflections on Township tourism II. Thanks!

Travels with Dad

I have been a little more remiss than usual of late in posting to the blog. My dad is visiting from Canada and we have spent the past week touristing it up to the max. So far we have visited Table Mountain, Robbin Island, the V&A Waterfront, Camps Bay, the Cape of Good Hope, penguins(!!), Camps Bay, the Slave Lodge, the vineyards of Stellenbosch, the aquarium, and all about Cape Town’s wonderful city center. We are both exhausted! The weather has been wonderful, apart from one day where we had a kick-ass storm that truly demonstrated the power of winds that blow unimpeded across the ocean from Antarctica.

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The view from Table Mountain

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Dad at the aquarium

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Nobel Square

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Mandela’s cell, Robbin Island

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Trying to avoid killing the penguins

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The Cape of Good Hope, from Cape Point

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Standing at the edge of the world

Our travelling about the city has also included some time spent in the Townships. I was eager to get back to reconnecting with people after my segue in Thailand, and Dad was curious to learn about the places that I was aspiring to work in. We arranged to join a tour that was being offered through a local not-for-profit organization. This was the first tour that I have encountered here that was a side project whose stated objective was to support the community building efforts of the NGO, as opposed to being primarily about tourism. The tour took us to three different Townships and four community projects: a community garden, a women’s economic empowerment collective, a creche (pre-school), and a senior’s group.IMG_4138IMG_4143

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The kids really enjoyed Dad’s bionic knee

IMG_4148 This is the audio of the senior ladies singing us out. I thought we were going to have to drag my Dad out of there.

I think Dad had a really great experience in the Townships, and has been talking a lot about how startling it is to see these communities and the degree of poverty that is visible as you drive down the highway from the airport, and then to contrast that image with the warmth and welcoming nature of the people that we met.

For me, it was great to get a chance to reconnect with the people that I hope to work with over the next few months, and I was able to give five cameras to people who have agreed to take photos in support of my research project! Back in Canada, friends and family donated ELEVEN digital cameras to me before I left to give to people in the Townships. People are so awesome 🙂 The idea is to ask Township residents to take photos of their experiences of tourism in their communities, both good and bad, and then tell me about the photos they have chosen to take.

I am VERY excited to see what people will choose to share with me. I have explained my objectives as clearly as possible, I think, while also trying to not proscribe what I want people to tell me, and I’m trying not to stress about ceding control of what information gets produced.

One young man said to me the other day, “I wonder what they [the tourists] think about us.” This is exactly what I wonder too, only from the other side!!! We are going to have some fun chats he and I. Can’t wait to see where we go from here.

So, only a few days left with Dad, and then back to work full time. We’ve been cooking a lot in the Mouille Point apartment that Dad rented for his visit. Tonight’s dinner consisted of an oddly-gendered beer (am I allowed to enjoy it, seeing as how I am neither a champion nor a man?), South African staples of samp, spinach, and sausage, Dad’s dessert, and a sunset over the ocean 🙂

A detour within a detour: Addis Ababa edition

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What’s life without a little drama? After a very long delay in Bangkok with a broken plane engine (take all the time you need with that one), I arrived in Addis Ababa 30 minutes after my other flight left for Cape Town. *sigh* This has never actually happened to me before. So I stood in an unmoving line for a lifetime, remembered how to use my elbows, witnessed some very undignified adult male tantrums, sat in a shuttle van in the parking lot for another lifetime, then arrived at my (comped) hotel only to wait for my room key to be fixed and for someone to know how to connect to the wifi.

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The view from my hotel room. I enjoy the bus.

But yay! I was sad when I booked my flights and saw that I would not have time to get out of the airport and explore, so surprise trip! The guys in my hotel are awesome and they connected me with a taxi driver/tour guide who would drive me around and show me the highlights. He’s a pretty cute young guy, if I may say so 🙂

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My new friend and his Lada taxicab. I have no idea how he keeps it running.

I tried to explain to these guys that what I would really like to do is to go to some central part of the town (my hotel is near the airport) to just be able to wander around for a bit, maybe have a bite and some coffee, and actually feel like I spent some time in the city, but I don’t think this translated very well. I decided to just roll with it – there’s something to be said for learning about what people think you want to see, after all.

My young friend kept taking me to these wonderful Orthodox Ethiopian churches – which I had had no idea was a thing – and while they were beautiful, enough is enough with the church thing. Outside of one he stopped next to a vendor and asked if I would like to have a Aksum cross. I awkwardly mumbled a ‘no thank you’ and we started to walk on, but after a few steps he turned back and bought me one! I was so blown away. That’s when I realized that his showing me the churches isn’t about the buildings (I think), but rather about trying to share with me how much they mean in his life. He must have thought I was a proper heathen because everyone else seemed to make quite elaborate gestures of respect and genuflection upon entering not only the church but also the church grounds, but I did behave myself.

We also visited the bones of Lucy in the drab little national museum and I was again struck by how much he wanted me to learn about his culture and history. To me the museum was dull – I would much rather sit in a bus station all day and watch the people go by – but I might be a weird tourist like this.

My favourite part of our interaction this afternoon, was how often my host asked to take photos. At first I thought he was asking me to take photos, when I wasn’t taking the requisite tourist shots, but then I realized that he himself wanted to be taking the pictures! He has a wonderful eye and we spent a bit of time talking about how the camera works.

He also caught this video, which I love. The little fella at the end was so curious about the camera and I was hoping to let him play with it for a bit, but my new friend thought I was looking for someone to take a photo, rather than looking to let that specific kid have a go.

Then, at the end of the afternoon, my host asked if he could take me out for dinner and a beer! Yay! We went to the cultural center, which reminded me very much of the restaurant where we had the conference gala dinner in Chiang Mai – lots of ‘traditional’ artifacts and ‘traditional’ dancing and LOTS of tourists, and it was a wonderfully fun evening. The dancing completely blew me away. This is me embracing the liminal ‘third space’ of tourism, lol. And shiro mmmm. I embraced lots and lots of shiro!!

A brief detour to Thailand

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I realize that I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been in Thailand for the past 10 days and I have found it difficult to find the time. I realize that this is meant to be a blog about my experiences in South Africa, but it’s also a travel blog so what the heck. It’s also my travel blog, so I think I should be able to do what ever I want with it 😉

I am here for the Tourism Paradoxes conference, which is a small gathering of people who like to think about tourism and the ways that it shapes our world. I presented about my work in South Africa which was very well received and I got lots of great questions and suggestions for how to engage with shame productively in my work. And Hazel Tucker was there! Hazel Tucker came to my presentation – eeeep!!

It has been a wonderful experience travelling around Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It is funny because I have had very little interest in travelling in Asia in general – I have been too smitten with Africa in recent years, but also because I feel as though Thailand has been ‘done’ in a way. Like, it was the hip happening place to trip to when I was about 20, but it’s been done (even if – like myself- you’ve never actually been before). And of course there are lots of implications of this. What happens to a place when everyone and their brother decides that it is the ‘it’ place to check out, and then, in turn, what happens when that same demographic decides that that scene is played out and they move on to a newly discovered locale?

At any rate, I have had a wonderful time checking out the temples, I have had a borderline obscene number of massages, I have eaten myself silly, and I have loved reconnecting with old friends and meeting thoughtful and inspiring people who share a real passion for changing the world for the better (Salut Emmanuelle!). The scenery and the people are beautiful and warm (actually, the weather has been hotter than the seventh ring of hell) and I have thoroughly enjoyed my vacation.IMG_3647

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I have thoroughly enjoyed the signs:IMG_3848

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And  I am also getting a kick out the phone booths. They’re like a funky blast from the past:

I am less enjoying all of the middle-aged white men accompanied by young Thai women. Although it is possible that my Western feminist perspective is imposing a lack of agency on women in the developing world, constructing them as being less empowered than myself :-/

I will say that something really did surprise me about this conference this week. Despite the fact that everyone there is involved in the study of tourism and most, if not all, are concerned with social justice and the impacts of tourism, the touristic activities that we participated in were very much run-of-the-mill. Take the location for our gala dinner, for instance. This was a beautiful outdoor restaurant and the food was wonderful, but over the course of the dinner we were entertained by ‘traditional dancers’ performing specifically for our group. There is nothing wrong with this, I don’t think, but seems to me to be exactly the sort of commodification of culture that we theorize about so extensively.

Likewise, the following day a group of us loaded up into a large coach bus and went on a handicrafts tour. At each site (an umbrella making site, a silk making site, and a silver shop) we descended from the bus, were trouped through to see how the products were made, and then bought the handicrafts that were on offer. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – income is created for local people and we learn something about local craft skills. And I also want to say that I in no way wish to critique the organizers, who planned this entire event from multiple different countries (not Thailand) in their ‘spare time,’ and the experiences were lots of fun. I just found a bit of a disconnect between what we research and critique, and then what we choose to do when we gather as tourists.

We did also have a brief visit to an organic farm, where some local guys had a good laugh, presumably at Juliane and her melon:IMG_3804

“I carried a watermelon?!” came up frequently after this 😉

The other thing that sort of blew me away was that there was a stack of pamphlets with tour options for us to sign up for on our free day, and one of the conference participants approached myself and another woman and showed us an ad for a tour featuring stops at 5 different tribal villages in one afternoon, including a stop to see the so-called ‘long-necked’ Karen people. Again, we’re critical tourism scholars. Both myself and my friend were a little horrified that this person would be interested in participating in such a tour, as these kinds of tours don’t allow tourists to engage with the people they are visiting or share in any kind of mutual exchanges, but seem to involve little more than descending on a village, snapping the obligatory photos to show the folks back home, then loading back onto the bus. It is particularly troubling in the case of the Karen whom, I am led to understand, have little (if any) legal status in Thailand, do not have access to passports, and many villages have seen a significant exodus of younger adults who do not want to be part of the tours (if you’re interested, check out Malia’s great blog posting about having visited the Karen and reflecting upon it afterwards on Twenty-something Travel). Again, I’m not trying to be judgmental or tell people what they can and can’t do as tourists, but I think that it is often easy to get swept away in an exotic new locale and forget that there are real people who are impacted by the choices that tourists make. And elephants. And tigers. I found a good resource, if anyone is interested, for how to try to make sure that your visit with tribal people is done in a respectful way at All Thailand Experiences.

And because I hate to end on a negative note, the food here is marvelous (as if there was ever any doubt!). I’m participating in a cooking class tomorrow morning and then (hopefully) jogging back to my hotel room afterwards.

Reflections on Township Tourism II

IMG_3000I have spent the better part of this week in Cape Town going on various Township tours. As was expected, my research has not been unfolding as expected. My contacts at the university have been (shockingly) busy with their own lives, and without their intersessions it is not possible for me to simply wander into the Township and ask people if they want me to research them (I’m being deliberately glib here – I can’t tell if that comes across to people who don’t know me – but that is obviously so wrong on so many levels).

So in the absence of local facilitators, I am trying to meet people by engaging in the tours and chatting with people over the course of our time together, and then asking them if they would be interested in hearing more about my work. Given my deep ambivalence and discomfort in participating in the tours, this has resulted in some pretty awkward moments.

Take this awkward moment, for instance:DSCN0015

Despite my active participation in the tours, I am trying to quash my impulses to recreate some of the more disruptive of tourists’ behaviours, such as sticking my camera in people’s faces and focusing my lens on the more egregious examples of people’s poverty. The lady who was conducting the above tour kept insisting that I take my camera out, finally resulting in this mess – my quasi-vegetarian self posing for photos with the local braai man, admiring his meat. The camera flashed repeatedly on this busy corner on a Friday evening, and a lady standing nearby kept remarking that I was afraid – nope, just profoundly uncomfortable. I’m already likely the whitest person for miles around – why call more attention to myself with a brightly flashing light?

Another moment of deep discomfort arose when our shiny white tour van stopped on a bridge to look at the poorest part of the Township – rows and rows of shacks erected in a literal swamp.IMG_3384

As we sat there with the 4-ways on, the guide came over and opened the van door, insisting that we take photos. In retrospect I really could have said no thank you, but in the moment I hurriedly did as I was told and put the camera back away. I wish I could express the contemptuous look I was given by one of the passersby on the sidewalk.

I can tell that my reluctance to take photos and perform my tourist’s role is upsetting the balance, and I’m trying to compensate for this by buying things that people are wanting to sell to the tourists and taking photos that feel less confrontational. I’m not sure if this is the right answer or not.IMG_3002

As I reflect on these experiences, and attempt to wrap my head around expressing some of this muddle at the Tourism Paradoxes conference next week, I find myself returning to the notion of shame in the tourism encounter. If you’re interested in a super fascinating (and not too academic-y) read about emotion and the postcolonial potentiality of shame in tourism (there, now I’ve made it sound academic-y, I can’t help myself. But trust me – it’s great!) take a look at Hazel Tucker’s article Recognizing Emotion and Postcolonial Potentialities: Discomfort and Shame in a Tourism Encounter in Turkey.  And I share this article in part because it theorizes about the potential positive power of recognizing the emotion and embodiment of shame. I want to be clear that this posting is not about beating myself up, but rather about exploring one’s emotions honestly and trying to learn from them.

I feel shame in having participated in the tours, in taking photos of how strangely the Other lives – for instance, did you know that many people in the Townships (and likely elsewhere in South Africa) consider sheep heads a delicacy?IMG_3369

There is shame in spending so much money on the tours – more than double the one guide’s monthly rent in her nice apartment in one of the new residence buildings – a one-bedroom that is home to 9 people. Even though I know that the tours are creating income for people in the community, the chasm between my way of life and Theirs – while not my fault, and not something I can feel guilty for – still feels inhumanely wide.IMG_3372

There is also shame in knowing that I share these stories and these photos, in part, because I hope that it makes me look cool and edgy, to explore a space that is so foreign to my everyday and that few people will ever have an opportunity to see.

I’m chasing another notion about shame as well. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, and maybe other people might have some insights about this. I think that there may be shame involved in this type of tourism – maybe only on my part because I’ve overthought it, but maybe for others as well – because I, as the tourist, would feel ashamed if I lived there and people were coming through to take photos of my poverty. It is as though I am imposing my shame on the community’s residents, or what I imagine my shame (and therefore their shame) ought to be. Because this is the whole argument against this form of tourism, n’est pas? That people living in the communities are being treated like animals in a zoo, and that ‘we’ would not like to have people taking photos of ‘our’ homes and passing commentary on how we live. But is this a fair statement to make, is it reflective of how people in the Townships feel? Not having done any real data collection yet, I can say that many of the people I have met have expressed pride in their homes, and are happy that people want to learn about their communities. Then again, perhaps this is just something that is told to the tourists, and is not reflective of their real feelings on the subject. I did have one South African friend warn me that people here have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to promoting tourism as a pathway out of poverty. Anyway, I’ll keep chasing this notion of shame and see where it leads me. Any feedback or thoughts on the subject would be most welcome 🙂

And now, for no reason apart from possible interest, here is a short (bumpy) video of what it looks like to ride in the front seat of a taxi-bus through part of a Township (keeping in mind that the Townships are home to millions of people and this only represents a very small fraction of the community).

 

Interested in some of my other musings regarding the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out Touring the township (and playing Andrea) and Reflections on township tourism III