Four-time swimming All-American and economics major Mantim Lee finished his academic career at University of Chicago on the water as part of the Semester at Sea® program this spring.
Lee spent another six days in Cape Town, South Africa, with independent travels in the capital city, and a safari tour at a private game reserve. Excursions included Boulders Beach (featuring penguins, a skydiving trip, Table Top Mountain, District Six Museum, a city tour, South African National Gallery, and Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
“Some areas in Cape Town are very developed and expensive with clean streets,” Lee said. “ There is so much to do there in a city with a rich, historical background from culture (art museums) to nature (Table Top Mountain, Lion’s Head, Cape of Good Hope, and botanic gardens) to wildlife (penguin islands, ostrich farms, cheetah projects, and safaris). For an adrenaline rush, bungee jumping, skydiving, and shark cage diving are all available.”
Lee, as he had always wanted to do, was stepping on Afrcan land for the initial time and added another first — skydiving. “Once we got to the skydiving site, they had us signed something that said they would not be liable for our lives. They fit four people into a really tiny plane. I saw a guy jump off first and was shocked (with my mouth open) because even though it was a professional and a perfectly normal dive, it looked like he literally just fell off the plane in a free fall with his body spinning in the air,” he recounted. ”I turned around to look at my instructor, who I was then attached to with belts, and asked if we could have a more elegant fall than that.”
“It was now my turn. The door opened and I was sitting on the lap of my instructor. We were attached with belts on the edge of the plane with my feet hanging in the air,” Lee continued. “The wind was so strong, it felt like my legs would detach and be blown away, and I had no control of my own movement.” He had a pretty clear picture of the moment in his head. “Some weird thoughts came across my mind, including being thankful I bought travel insurance if the parachute malfunctions.” he quipped. ”Once I jumped, my head was going down first while we spun in the air. I couldn’t even scream because the strong wind was hitting me right in the face. When the instructor finally opened the parachute, we were upright and I was trying to wrap my mind around what just happened. It was such a fantastic, incredible experience that I almost hoped the parachute didn’t open so we could free fall a little longer, or even go all the way down. Might as well utilize the insurance to its fullest!”
Lee and his friends went on a safari, taking a pair of three-hour game drives per day with long meals and time off in between. The guides would drive the students around searching for animals, stop at a close distance once a horde was spotted, and talk about that specific animal. Along with other species, four of the Big Five animals were spotted: elephant, lion, rhino, and Cape buffalo with no sighting of a leopard. “When we saw the lions, the guide explained that a lion’s maximum speed is about 20 meters per second. I whispered to my friend next to me that we were fewer than 40 meters away from the lion, and we kept counting '1…2…'” Lee laughed.
Photo: Lee on African safari lion walk.
One of the most memorable parts of the entire voyage for Lee was seeing lions fight. “Our guide mentioned that he worked for a couple of years and had never seen it happen until that day,” he recalled. “Even the roar in the video was so loud, not to mention when we saw it live. ”
In spite of the great adventures in Cape Town, Lee quickly recognized that apartheid is still alive and well there even if it is not “official” any longer. “It was obvious that racial inequality still exists in Cape Town and that the income inequality situation there is severe.”
Photo by Johnny Miller (https://www.millefoto.com) depicting income/racial inequality in Cape Town.
Lee’s four days in Ghana were spent travelling in Accra (the capital), Cape Coast, and Torgorme village. There was a lot of ongoing construction and multiple abandoned homes. “The initial feeling we had was that as travellers, we were invading another’s place. That was the first country we visited that I felt that way.” Lee remarked.
Photo: Lee with children in Ghana.
The hotel in Cape Coast did not have hot water or air conditioning with construction going on next door. Lee’s group of four booked the hotel for $15 USD per person per night and arrived past midnight after a five-hour bus ride. “When we checked in, there was just one guy at the reception desk and he asked us to pay upfront, but didn’t even check our passports,” Lee said. “It felt a little suspicious at the time, but we were so tired that we didn’t pay much attention to it. The next morning, a lady from the reception desk asked if we had paid. It turned out the guy from the previous night took our $60 USD and fled. I felt bad for the hotel, but at the same time was shocked how much $60 USD must be to for a local who would abandon his job for the money.”
The group visited Cape Coast Castle, which used to house slaves in its dungeons. “The conditions were terrible,” Lee said. “When we walked into the compartments, the tour guide at one point said, ‘we are now stepping on where feces, blood, and vomit were centuries ago.’”
Each room was completely dark other than a tiny window that provided the only source of light. Tour guides explained that many slaves were so used to the dark that they couldn’t deal with sunlight and would go blind when they finally went outdoor. The ventilation was very bad and slaves needed to fight for food. Many slaves did not survive in such deplorable conditions and some other died on the ship on the way to another country.
The dungeons were difficult for Lee and his friends to see and hear about, and yet another strong reality was a homestay in Torgorme Village, a tour organized by Semester At Sea®. The village was about one hour outside of Accra. They had pipe water, but would still frequently use river water, showering in an outdoor area with a brick wall providing the only source of privacy. With very little electricity, villagers would usually go to bed after dinner (around 9 p.m.) and wake up around 5 a.m.”
“The village was probably the most unforgettable experience I had in changing my perspective and reminding me of how privileged I am,” Lee stated. “It was definitely an educational and transformative experience getting to interact with the villagers and experiencing, at least partially, how their normal life is.” That night, Lee shared a mattress on the ground, which was all his room had, with his friend. They decided not to shower to avoid using the villagers’ pipe water.
“There was no technology or electronics for the kids, but they were very close to one another and happy. In leisure time, they would play soccer, run around the village, and swim in the river. Despite being so poor, the kids were easily satisfied. I was chatting with a kid at night outside his house when he heard a mango fallen from a tree, sprinted to grab it, and came back with a big smile. These kids were also very hopeful about the future. I asked one boy what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he told me confidently he wanted to become a doctor.”
Photo: Children in Ghana.
Lee noted that the villagers and children were also very welcoming. “My host insisted on giving me a coconut even though I repeatedly said ‘Nah it’s okay.’ The kids were so happy to see us that they would come over and hold our hands as we were walking. They would also look at me with curiosity, and compared the color of my hands with that of theirs. I still remember the moment when a kid pointed at me and said, ‘He is a Chinese man!’”
Lee’s host was a 24-year-old woman who explained she had finished high school and was working to save up for college. Tuition for college in Ghana is around $650 USD per year. “Before I left, I stuffed all the cash I had with me (about $100 USD) in her hand and gave all my Ghana currency to the kids,” Lee said. “They looked at me gratefully and the smiles on their faces were simply priceless. It was the least I could do for them.”
The last port on the trip was in Casablanca, Morocco, and Lee joined a Semester at Sea® tour to visit Marrakesh and the Sahara Desert. Around half their waking hours were spent traveling on the bus, with the total ride time of 30 hours over four days.
“Once we finally arrived in Sahara Desert, we rode a camel for about an hour to reach our campsite,” Lee recalled. “We stayed one night in the tent before heading back the following morning. In spite of all the travel, it was still a nice and unique experience in the desert.”
Photo: Camel in Sahara Desert.
Because it was nearly a full moon at the time the group visited the desert, not a lot of stars were in view, which is generally a highlight of the site. “We did get up early in the morning to catch the beautiful sunrise,” Lee remarked.
Photo: Sunrise in Sahara Desert.
With a free morning in Marrakesh, the group visited Medina of Marrakesh, which served as the capital of the Almohads from 1147 to 1269 after being founded by the Almoravids in the 11th century. Various monuments stand there as a testament to the importance it played in the Muslim world for many years. In addition, they also visited the Ben Youssef Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Marrakesh.
“Joining the voyage is one of the best decisions I have ever made. The experience has given me so much in terms of personal development, widening my perspective, and allowing time for reflection to see the world differently,” Lee explained. “I even found myself really interested in photography during the trip, and have been exploring the hobby since then.”
“A lot of us were very sad in the last few days of the voyage after our final exams, realizing that the wonderful journey was finally approaching an end and that friends would return home scattered around the world,” Lee recalled. “It’s a strange feeling—my friends and I have met barely for three months, but with all the conversations and beautiful memories shared, it felt like we have known each other for years.”
“My friends and I still keep in touch, a lot actually,” Lee said. “After all, the deep friendships built with people who have traveled around the world together are some very special ones.”
“One of our deans on the trip said, ‘If you have money, buy verbs, not nouns,’” Lee stated. “I take it as prioritizing experience over pure material pursuits. As cliché as it sounds, travelling is one of the things you buy that makes you richer.”