Chilean Chronicles, Part 101: Memories of South Africa at the End of the World

Even though close to 20 years have passed, I still remember the moment I first saw the exact point of land that marked the southernmost point in Africa, the place where the Indian and Pacific Oceans converged.

The Cape of Good Hope.

It was October 1995, and I was participating in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program at the Uthongathi School, one of the nation’s first private, multi-racial institutions.

Kay Wise, one of my colleagues at the school, and her partner, Suri Chetty, had invited me to spend our 10-day break with them driving from Durban, where they lived and just south of the school, which was in Tongaat.

In so doing, they gave me a gift that continues to enrich me.

I had already taught about the European sea exploration and the quest for an all-water route to Asia for years.

Seeing and standing on that place where Vasco da Gama had built on the knowledge generated by his countryman Bartholomeu Dias to be able to essentially round the corner and start to head up the other side of Africa changed my understanding of what history meant to me.

Part of the appeal of the discipline, stretching back to eighth grade in England, had been the memorization and alignment and interrelationship of names and dates and people and places. I could still rattle off the success of kings and queens who ruled in England during the 17th century, with the notable interruption of Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundheads” that I had learned in Pete Noll’s history class in Oxford, England during my eighth grade year close to two decades earlier.

But standing on the Cape of Good Hope, thinking about what that moment had been like for da Gama and his crew, changed things for me.

It allowed me to place myself in history and to begin to integrate my understanding of what had happened so many years ago with where my life in the present.

I had been drawn to South Africa by what I had perceived as the unalloyed moral clarity of apartheid, and that moment, and that unanticipated lesson, have stayed with me since.

Fast forward 18 years.

I am no longer a single young man, but a middle-aged husband and father who is now the same age Mom was when she and Dad had their near-fatal car accident in February, 1986.

Whereas that year, shortly after our Cape Town visit, I turned 30 and finally felt in my bones that I was no longer 12 years old, now I am far more aware of life’s finitude.

Yet the memory of that integration of place and history and possibility has stayed within me, acting at different times as anchor and spiritual North Star, reminding me of what has happened before and thus what can be true again.

The power of that experience has surfaced again in recent days, when Dunreith, Aidan and I traveled to Punta Arenas, one of Chile and Latin America’s most southern places, before driving to natural marvel Torres del Paine, a place of staggering, unsurpassed physical beauty and wonder.

When we called about getting GPS for the car we were renting to drive north to the park, the gentleman on the other end of the line informed me there was no such option for the cars in their office.

There’s just one road here, he told us.

He wasn’t lying.

The green road signs from Punta Arenas heading north have the word, “Route of the End of the World,” near a white star.

A couple of nights ago, Dunreith and I walked for about an hour along a boardwalk.

We passed a basketball court with three netless hoops in a row at the ocean.

A father watched his young son ride his bike back and forth on the middle court.

Although it was close to 10:00, the light was still strong.

A rainbow traced an arc over a boundless, cloud-filled sky.

The blue water of the Pacific Ocean whipped with a wind that stung our ears.

As with South Africa, the main pull for me of going to Chile had not come from wanting to see that place, but from a desire to witness the people of a wounded land move into that enduring pain during an extraordinary moment in that nation’s history.

Yet the fact of being so far from my original and adopted homes mixed with the joy of being with my family, the increasing appreciation of precisely how special each moment is, and my memory of the earlier time of being in a different part of the end of the world.

The sun finally started to fade, and Dunreith and I started to walk back toward the cabin where the three of us were staying.

The wind danced on her forehead, brushing aside her hair just for a moment.

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