Peace can be elusive, especially in a bustling city like Cape Town. It’s easy to become enraptured by the sights, the smells, the sounds. Especially as my time here dwindles, I feel compelled to race from one activity to the next in an attempt cram as much of the city as I can into the remaining four weeks. Recently, however, I’ve come to learn that the pauses between the big events can be just as meaningful as the events themselves. Pauses give you time to breathe, to think, to process.
Never have I heard a silence so profound as that in the Valley of the Red Gods this past Sunday, roughly halfway into the hike up Table Mountain. There were no tires screeching, no car horns honking, no cell phones chiming. It was just, me, a couple friends, and some of South Africa’s finest flora and fauna. In the silence, I heard everything that had been missing from my daily routine here. There it was, tucked snugly between two towering mountains: serenity. The sun beamed down with a constant yet gentle intensity, keeping us warm (and me, drenched in sweat) for the entirety of the hike. For a moment, we paused and simply reveled in unencumbered stillness. It was beautiful.
I hope the rest of my time here in Cape Town has as many meaningful pauses as it does exciting experiences. Each new story I hear and new place I visit brings about questions and contradictions, and only in the time I take to reflect on them can I begin to find clarity. On Saturday we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and other prominent political leaders were imprisoned. The island is an oxymoron. About seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, it offers a breathtaking view of Table Mountain. Yet, it also houses the vestiges of the apartheid regime, the darkest period of South Africa’s history. The Robben Island prison was a key mechanism used to disempower those who sought to dismantle apartheid. Political prisoners were treated inhumanely and forced to do hard labor in a limestone quarry, the detrimental health effects of which were felt for decades after their imprisonment. I stood on the edge of the island gazing at Table Mountain in the distance, majestic and blue as if painted on the skyline. Oddly, I felt at peace. And then I reminded myself of where I really was. I was standing on the bones (both literally and figuratively) of the people who sacrificed their lives and their livelihoods for the sake of freedom and democracy. How can the island be so peaceful but stand for so much violence?
Robben Island is a sort of microcosm for South Africa as a whole. Since I arrived, I’ve wondered how such a beautiful place can have such an ugly past. Unfortunately this question doesn’t have a conceivable answer, much less an answer I can find in the next four weeks. As I delve deeper into the city and its history, I am left with more and more unanswerable questions. Only by taking the time to pause, reflect, and unpack every jarring experience can I learn and grow from each one.