Thursday, March 12, 2009

Penguins, Tennis, and Mandela

Thanks to the Doctor we had an extra day in Cape Town. Rather than join the main tour group for a visit to South Africa's wine country, we joined up with one fellow guest (Tom) to visit Robben Island.

The island is most famous for its prison, which held Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners for many years. But its history goes back much further, including stints as a leper colony and as a gun battery in World War II (although the guns weren't actually finished until after the war). The island was much larger than we anticipated -- the official tour involves circling the island by bus before visiting the prison itself.

The island tour is striking for the contrasts. At one moment you are looking at the limestone quarry where prisoners worked in stifling heat. And the next moment you are gawking at penguins, rabbits, deer, sea birds, and the other critters that call the island home.

For the prison, our guide was Glenn, who was a prisoner there for more than six years. Needless to say, he provides a uniquely informed view of how the prison worked. From the cells to the menus to the routine, Glenn gave great insight into prison life. Most surprising to us was the importance of tennis. Each cell block had its own tennis court, and prisoners took advantage of that opportunity for exercise (they also played soccer). Of course, the prisoners also looked for ways to put the tools at hand to good use. One method of illicit communication: slitting a tennis ball open, inserting a message, and then flinging it over the wall to another cell block.

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