South Africa Trip 2023
As I write this update, I am recovering from jetlag after one of the most memorable trips of my life. Having spent nearly three weeks in South Africa, I agree heartily with those who say that travel is life changing. The trip involved time ministering at Paardeberg Mountain Retreat, attending the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival, and sightseeing around Cape Town. Below I’ve summarized the trip in roughly chronological order with some pictures to help you visualize it for yourself.
Paardeberg Mountain Retreat (PMR)
Following a 14-hour flight from Atlanta, I arrived in Cape Town and was driven by missionary Holly Gilbert to PMR. Here is a Google Maps view for reference.
Arriving at night, I knew that we had driven up a mountain, but I was not prepared for the sheer beauty of the scene before me when I awoke the next morning (see the image carousel below)! Situated in wine country, the mountain sits above a vineyard, and everywhere you look, there are more mountains. The sky is constantly changing with mountains covered in mist and cloud for a time until the sun comes out and reveals the mountains in all their glory. Being in the southern hemisphere, June and July are both winter and the rainy season, so many days were cold and rainy, especially during this first week.
PMR is similar to Christian summer camps in the US with games, services, and devotional times. However, camps in South Africa are held in the winter because the heat of the summer would be unbearable. Temperatures went into the 40s Fahrenheit, and sleeping arrangements were without heat during the entire trip. Never have I ever been more thankful for blankets!
Most people I met in South Africa were bilingual, or trilingual. I learned several new words both in English and in Afrikaans. The English words I learned first hand were “load shedding,” their term for planned electrical blackouts. No one enjoys them, but they are a way of life. The times are different every day, and there is an app that tells you the load shedding time(s) for the upcoming days. Load shedding was around 2 hours per day during the majority of my stay, increasing to 6 hours a day during the last few days in the country. Last year at this time, the load shedding lasted for up to 11 hours each day. At night everyone pulls out their “torches” (flashlights) to make up for the electricity being out. We ate in the dark, played in the dark, showered in the dark, etc. Never will I take electricity for granted again.
Campers and staff moved in pairs when outside for multiple reasons. South Africa is not the safest place in the world, and gang activity has been creeping nearer the camp. In addition, a group of baboons lives near the camp! Baboons can grow very large and are known to steal things left lying around – even small children! I did not see any baboons until my last day in the country, but I did see their finger smudges on the glass doors and windows!
I helped with the music at the camp, and at a church in nearby Paarl on Sunday. After every service, the youth came up asking questions of the speaker. Seeing such eager and receptive hearts encouraged me. One camper made a salvation decision the week I was there. Praise the Lord! Following PMR, the next leg of my journey took place at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival.
Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF)
My hopes were high, and they were not disappointed. The days were full of nonstop activities, often beginning at 7 AM and finishing after 10 PM with a faculty concert. Speaking of the faculty, they were astounding! Just among the cello faculty, three countries were represented in David Cohen, new principal cellist of the London Symphony Orchestra, Boris Andrianov, on faculty at the Moscow Conservatory, and festival director Peter Martens of South Africa.
252 students arrived at the Konservatorium at the University of Stellenbosch from at least 10 different countries that I counted. Events included coachings with faculty, evening faculty concerts, Q & A sessions, masterclasses, and orchestra and chamber music rehearsals. It was as close to musical heaven on earth as I could get for 10 days. Concerts were livestreamed in the magnificent Endler Hall with a generator keeping the lights on during load shedding!
My favorite Afrikaans word that I learned was lekker (pronounced similarly to “lacquer”), means something to the effect of “nice,” “cool,” “neat,” etc. It is treated almost like an English word (“That’s lekker, man!”), and I think I will add it to my everyday vocabulary. One highlight of the festival was substituting for a cellist on a movement of the Kapustin Piano Trio. Learning the challenging part overnight for coachings and performance was exhilarating!
How was the food? I’m glad you asked, because that brings me to another favorite Afrikaans word, biltong. Biltong is a dried meat similar to beef jerky with many options for spices and flavorings including the distinctly South African spice peri-peri. A new friend was kind enough to take me out to get some biltong, and I enjoyed it very much. However, I’m told that to get the best, one must visit a butcher. Maybe next time!
After saying goodbye to many new friends and colleagues who I miss dearly, a few days remained for sightseeing.
Sightseeing also included some great food with world-famous fish and chips at Hout Bay, which at one time was its own country. Holly Gilbert was a wonderful tour guide and told me of another South African spice named “mother in law.” Mother in law gives food its “kick.” If you get too much MIL, balance it out with a little sugar!
The top of the iconic table mountain offered a bird’s eye view of of Cape Town, a few of the other mountains, and Robben Island where Nelson Mandella was imprisoned. The sun was shining during all of sightseeing, and the view of dusk was indescribable. The pictures below have no filters or color correction. I’ve seen pictures thinking they must have been enhanced in some way, but the country is truly beautiful with colors changing by the second as the sun sets.
There is another side to South Africa. Despite the beauty of the land and the natural resources of gold, silver, diamonds, and other precious stones, great poverty still lingers. Holly insisted on showing me some of the settlements, cities of small huts made mostly of sheets of tin. Nothing can describe the sinking feeling that accompanies seeing such conditions for the first time. I had seen pictures of this in grade school, but part of me felt like conditions would have improved. Trash was disposed of by tossing it across the street in some settlements, with the largest settlement, Khayelitsha, spreading out for miles (kilometers) in each direction. Priorities are evident as one of the pictures above shows rows of satellite dishes outside one of the settlements!
Back to a more pleasant topic, South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, I am told. In addition to being the native land for flowers like calla lilies and protea, many animals also live here. Among the animals I saw were penguins, ostrich, seals, and on the final day of my visit, a family of baboons!
I am so grateful to everyone who made this trip a reality. To everyone who donated and prayed, the fact that I made it through the trip safely and with as much energy as I did is a testament that your prayers worked! I am indebted to Holly Gilbert and the PMR staff for letting me jump into the work and for showing me around the sights and sounds of Cape Town. The SICMF was so well run – impressive on every level. This trip was truly the trip of a lifetime. Each day I felt like I needed to pinch myself and wake up because of the unbelievable grandeur of it all. Thank you.
p.s. For those who have asked if I got my shirt back, ironically I did not. Cornel who has my shirt was actually working on a cruise ship and was not in the country. What are the chances?