How to Charter Your Own Yacht

By Elisa Williams
June 4, 2005
Live out a Jimmy Buffett song, if only for the week

Meandering around the Caribbean in your own yacht sounds fantastic. of course, it also sounds expensive and complicated. The truth is, chartering a boat often costs the same as or less than a traditional big-ship cruise or beach-resort stay. With a little sailing know-how--or the assistance of a trusty captain-for-hire--anyone can rent a boat and cruise to secluded dive spots, rollicking bars, and hidden coves.

Dare to go bare: You need a driver's license to rent a Dodge Neon, but there's no official certification required to hire a 50-foot yacht. Instead, a charter company will ask you to list your experience, including sailing lessons and previous yachting trips, on a résumé. Based on that, and how you perform during an onboard briefing and Q&A session, the company will decide whether your group can handle the boat you've chosen (smaller ones are easier), where you can go (some places are tougher to navigate), and whether you need a professional captain. If two or three people in your group know how to hoist the main and get on and off the dock safely, chances are you'll get to man your own craft, also known as bareboating. If you've never sailed or your skills are rusty, the company might make you hire a skipper for some or all of the trip. The extra cost is around $150 a day. A good pro will bring you up to speed on the specifics of the boat and help you steer clear of dangerous reefs and lame restaurants; his or her presence should also help you relax. You'll still be the captain in terms of deciding where to sail each day, and whether passengers can start downing piña coladas at noon.

Choosing an agency: It's possible to charter a boat through a small company, but most people report a wider selection, fewer headaches, and comparable prices with a larger operation or an established broker. Sunsail and The Moorings are the Hertz and Avis of the industry, renting fleets throughout the Caribbean (and nearly everywhere else sailing is popular). Ed Hamilton & Co. is a trustworthy broker that arranges charters with hundreds of boats in the Caribbean. Before making a reservation, do some research and ask a lot of questions. Get client referrals, ideally from people who have sailed on the ship you're interested in. If you're hiring a crew, ask about the captain's credentials and personality. Also, inquire about the age of the boat, the sleeping arrangements, the amenities onboard--some come with hot tubs, kayaks, and DVD players--and the procedure if something goes wrong. (The main sail tears while you're at sea. Now what?) Make sure any deposit you pay is held in an escrow account until just before departure, so that in the event of a worst-case scenario you can get your money back as easily as possible.

Prices and particulars: Most rentals have a five- or seven-day minimum. Prices are determined by season (rates go up when temperatures in the U.S. go down) and a boat's size, age, amenities, and staff. Typical rentals range from about 32 feet (four to six passengers) to 52 feet (10 to 12 passengers). Fill the boat with friends and the starting price in spring or summer for a ship with a skipper and a cook averages out to about $200 a night per person, with food and drinks included. Bareboating can start as low as $50 per person per night, and the charter company will stock the larder based on your preferences--lasagna, quiche, burgers, veggie dishes, Heineken, Bacardi--for about $25 per person per day extra. Nearly all boats have barbecue grills, and fresh fish should be easy to come by.

Dropping anchor: Consensus says the best spot for a beginner to get his sea legs is in the British Virgin Islands, where the winds are consistent, the waters are deep and sheltered, and there's plenty to do ashore. With dozens of islands concentrated in a relatively small area, most sailors spend their days swimming, snorkeling, and exploring the bars, shops, and beaches of yet another small port. Over the course of a week, you can snorkel in the caves at deserted Norman Island, which supposedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island; check out the giant boulders at the Baths on Virgin Gorda; and lounge on white-sand beaches and sip Painkillers--concocted with pineapple and orange juice, cream of coconut, dark rum, and nutmeg--at funky joints such as Foxy's Tamarind Bar and the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke. If you're ever looking for advice on where to sail next, tie up for the night, or go bonefishing, use the time-honored tradition of sailors all over the world: Ask at the bar.

Don't drop anchor right next to another yacht--the whole point of a charter is privacy.

1. When someone waves at you from a nearby boat, he or she may be trying to tell you something. Don't simply wave back.

2. It's not so uncommon for a boat to be drifting halfway between Norman Island and St. John with everyone onboard fast asleep. Before you set out, be sure you've learned how to anchor properly.

3. If anyone within eyesight appears to be offended, put your swimsuit on.

4. Always remember to tip the crew--in cash.



  • Sunsail 800/797-5310,

  • The Moorings 800/535-7289,

  • Ed Hamilton & Co. 800/621-7855,
  • Lodging


  • Foxy's Tamarind Bar Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke, 284/495-9258

  • Soggy Dollar Bar Sandcastle Hotel, White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, 284/495-9888
  • British Virgin Islands Tourist Board Road Town, Tortola, 284/494-3134,

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    Africa, to Me

    "In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be." -- Karen Blixen, Out of Africa The last cab driver I had was a Tanzanian named Onesmo. The soothing sound of his Swahili was enough to transport me, and as we sped through New York City's Central Park in the early morning hours near the sprawling green of the Great Lawn, I lowered my window, let my eyelids fall, and for about a minute and a half the birch became baobab, the Labradors leopards, and I was on safari again. If I don't touch down on African soil at least once a year, I panic. It has cost me a lot in vaccines and at the photo shop, plus a shattered laptop, and a nasty clash with customs over a pair of impala horns (which I found, darnit!), but I have, at last, owned up to my addiction: I am an Africa-holic. Somewhere across the years, at some intangible point, I have developed an obsession with the place; with the honest simplicity of its people, its wide-open spaces, and its vast herds of untamed creatures whose mere existence reminds us that there are still settings where the world lives quite peacefully without us. I suppose that I have, in a way, chosen Africa as my second home. And I have felt, with a sort of humble pride, that Africa has accepted and, in its inscrutable way, chosen me, too. When our post-9/11 country asked, "What is safe?," Africa, a destination toward which Americans have historically looked askance, answered. For, as South Africa approaches the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid and Kenya welcomes its first new government in 40 years, Americans are visiting in record numbers. Despite current global problems, the World Tourism Organization forecasts that international tourist arrivals to the continent will more than double from 20 million in 1995 to 47 million by 2010. So even in the face of poverty, corruption, and the AIDS epidemic (by 2010, there will be an estimated 20 million AIDS orphans on the continent), there is hope in Africa, and it is a hope worth witnessing. "I have never known anyone to return from my homeland unhappy," says Maggie Maranga, an African-born New Yorker who has sold safaris for over a decade. "Like any place, it has its issues, but it is striking and it is alive and its contrasts will seep through your skin and stay with you." I had always been an animal lover and an outdoorsy type, but still I had concerns before my first trip to Africa. Would I fall prey to monster-size mosquitoes and be stricken with untreatable malaria? Would I be stalked by hungry lions with no Denys Finch Hatton in sight to save me? Or, worse, would I be gripped with grief by the preponderance of AIDS? Was I, in short, tough enough to hold out for weeks on end in-of all places-Africa? My introduction involved a two-week immersion in the northern Serengeti. Here, I walked 15 miles a day, shadowing the wildebeest migration across the low hills with a Masai tracker, my Scottish guide, and a pair of Brits who had safaried some 30 times each. I was the baby Simba of the bunch, and they my hardened mentors. I learned how to fend off body odor with a leaf, brush my teeth with a twig, shower using just one (not two) buckets of water. At night, we lived by gaslight and by the campfire, and in the wee hours woke to the sound of branches being ripped from trees by the trunks of elephants, as well as to the occasional lion's roar. This was Africa at its wildest. You and the Big Five game and nothing but a piece of cloth in between. As it turns out, I more than survived; I reveled in it, and I have returned seven times since. Each visit reveals something new. There is beauty in overnighting for a mere $10 in one of the campgrounds of the national parks, or in a five-course feast of Indian fare for eight for under $100. In addition to an excellent exchange rate for the U.S. dollar in almost every African country, the budget options will keep you closer to the ground, the people, and the culture. The tourist boards of many African nations now target consumers who want to travel on a shoestring. Africa's issues come closer to being solved when tourist dollars are injected into local economies. The money that indigenous people earn from tourism-the responsible kind-helps alleviate poverty and enables them to maintain their way of life. These funds are also used for valuable wildlife research, for conservation, to build AIDS shelters, and to recruit qualified medical professionals. Wherever you can-in addition to your tips for guides-give something in exchange for your experience that will have a lasting impact both on you and on the destination. Last year, I spent an afternoon assisting a team of conservationists in the Eastern Cape as they darted a leopard with tranquilizers and implanted a tracker in its belly (I held the legs during surgery!). The exercise was part of an ongoing project to restock the region with indigenous game that had been killed off by hunters. On my next journey, I'm toting a bag of books for a class of rural schoolchildren in Kenya, arranged through the Bring a Book Foundation, brainchild of former Peace Corps volunteer-turned-philanthropist Marcia Gordon. "It's a simple gesture, which becomes an unforgettable event for these children, many of whom have never owned a book," says Gordon. During this insular time, when Americans are wary of taking the road less traveled, Africa is one road well worth taking. Anyone who visits this stark wonderland will likely discover, as I did, that they are overcome with an urgent longing not just to enjoy it but also to preserve it. As the pace of life hastens and the space for life recedes, we temporary tenants of Africa's wilderness are keenly aware of the privilege we enjoy. Kristan Schiller is the former Africa editor at Travel Agent magazine.


    The Wonders of South Dakota

    Mistakenly believing that it's hard to reach, many Americans fail to visit the greatest human monument in all the nation, chiseled into the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's called Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and (for Americans) it's on a par-artistically and emotionally-with the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. It's also only one of many wonders in the southwest corner of the state. They include the otherworldly rock formations of Badlands National Park, the burgeoning bison herds at Custer State Park, the dramatic Native American history and culture at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the Crazy Horse Monument-the world's largest sculpture in the making. There couldn't be a better time to visit these grand landmarks, in an area of the country where lodging, food, and sightseeing costs are among our nation's least expensive. A Swift Visit to Rapid City Though Sioux Falls is the state's largest town (and airport), you are much better situated for the drive we suggest by beginning the trip in Rapid City, five-and-a-half hours to the west (and thus much nearer to The Badlands and Mount Rushmore). Delta, Northwest, and United Express all fly into the quiet Rapid City Airport (usually via Denver), with United Express tending to be the cheapest of the three. Low-cost car-rental companies at the airport include Thrifty, Budget, and National. Most tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore speed through Rapid City without stopping, but this neat, clean, and historic town is worth at least a full day's exploration. With well-tended gardens, historical signs everywhere, and interesting shops and restaurants, the city is a standout. And the downtown landmark you won't want to miss is the Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth St., 605/342-1210,, a 75-year-old, ten-story tower with chalet motifs that somehow fit in. Pick up a walking-tour brochure that describes the property's ornate lobby, woodwork, chandeliers, and artwork. And why not stay here your first night? Doubles start at just $59 in winter, $89 in summer. If it's full, try the modern Microtel Inn & Suites (1740 Rapp St., 605/348-2523,, where rooms start as low as $57 in winter, $82 in summer. Take time to see the rest of the downtown, with its boutiques, Indian arts stores, and western shops. One store not to miss is Prairie Edge (606 Main St., 800/541-2388), which showcases remarkable Native American arts and artifacts like drums, pipes, jewelry, herbs, and clothing; it's free and interesting to browse, even if you don't buy a thing. Then have lunch or dinner around the corner at the Firehouse Brewing Co. (610 Main St., 605/348-1915), housed in a former old-time, brick fire station whose huge meals-like Hyperventilation Wings and Rings of Fire Fightin' Nachos-sell for only $7.95. You'll see real-life cowboys with Stetsons and tight jeans stuffed into their boots, sauntering about just like in olden times. Even if you don't stay in Rapid City, stop by the Journey Museum (222 New York St., 605/394-6923,; $6) before heading on. Recently opened amid much controversy (it went way over budget and is in an awkward, hard-to-find location), the collection here is nothing short of first-class, with all kinds of multimedia and interactive displays on Native American culture and history-everything you'd want to know about South Dakota history, geology, and mythology. Good times in the Badlands Now, from Rapid City, head east along Interstate 90 for roughly 60 miles to the famous town of Wall. With billboards and signs for Wall Drug (which began by giving away ice water for travelers during the Depression) stretching from here to the South Pole, the town has become a running joke for cross-country motorists. The actual Wall Drug store (605/279-2175, is a huge souvenir emporium taking up more than one building, offering mostly tacky but fun ashtrays, mugs, and fake bows and arrows, as well as singing mannequins and historical photos of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Annie Oakley. If you're hungry, Cactus Cafe & Lounge (519 Main St., 605/279-2561) in downtown Wall serves up Mexican food, steaks, and seafood in a down-home atmosphere for rarely more than $10. From Wall, head south on 240 until you reach the Pinnacles Entrance to Badlands National Park. The $10 car entrance fee is good for seven days ($5 for cyclists or hikers), and you'll want to spend at least two days at this magical outdoor U.S. attraction, rich in visuals and atmosphere. How did the Badlands get their name? The French Canadian fur trappers called them les mauvais terres ... traverser, or the "bad lands to travel across." The Native Americans' name for them, mako sica, also meant "bad lands." The reference captured the imagination of the American pioneers who had to traverse this unrelenting terrain in the 1800s. Named a national monument in 1939 and a full-fledged national park in 1978, Badlands, with its rock spires of different hues, is a mystical experience for intrepid domestic travelers. It's a place of intense history and controversy, which continues as Native Americans keep fighting for their land rights in this unforgiving land. Recent sit-in protests by activists postponed the digging up of ancient graves at Stronghold Table, a sacred area claimed by both the Lakota Nation and the National Park Service. With pointed, jagged peaks made from water-sculpted, crumbling rock, stark canyons in yellow and red tones, and frequent thunderstorms (legend says caused by the mythical Thunder Birds) creating a dramatic purple backdrop, it's amazing it took so long for the beauty of this area to be appreciated and accepted on its own terms. The Badlands lie 62 miles east of Rapid City, on I-90. Turning west on Creek Rim Road after the Pinnacles Entrance, you'll begin to witness the distinct badland formations and see some of the last virgin prairie land in the U.S. Five miles west from the entrance is Roberts Prairie Dog Town filled with mounds of earth dotted with peeking little heads of dogs. A vital member of the ecosystem due to their soil churning, the irresistibly cute prairie canines are endangered by ranchers who would rather see them all gone. Their natural predator, the black-footed ferret, once thought extinct, is still unusually rare. Badlands is one of the few places left to see such amazing creatures. The one main road east through the park is the Badlands Loop Road, which takes you through most of the park's natural wonders. A must-do is a hike along the Castle Trail near the Interior Entrance to the park. The Mars-like terrain will seem like the setting for a science fiction movie. Ranger talks are free during the summer, on topics ranging from fossils to prairie dogs. More information: 605/433-5361, Near the park entrance are the only lodging facilities in the park at Cedar Pass Lodge (Cedar St., Interior, 605/433-5460), with individual cottages and a decent diner (under $10 for most meals) and gift shop. Doubles start at $55. You can also try the Badlands Budget Host Hotel (Hwy. 377, 605/433-5335), just outside the park entrance and open from May 1 to October 1. The 21 units start at $46 per double. Camping in Badlands National Park is available at two campsites. One campsite is free, the other charges only $10 a night (14-day limit). Call 605/433-5361 for information. And for your meals, try A & M Cafe (605/433-5340), just outside the park on Highway 44 in Interior. It's a very local diner where you can witness real cowboys and Indians munching on fried chicken, homemade pies, and Indian tacos, all under $9. The place feels like a living room. As you drive west back out of the park on Highway 44, you can take in the wide-open vistas of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (which, unfortunately, has no buffalo on it but is leased to cattlemen for somewhat destructive grazing by livestock), adjacent to the Badlands National Park. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee A visit to Badlands wouldn't be complete without a detour south to Wounded Knee. Located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (second largest in the U.S.) about 60 miles south of Badlands National Park, this unassuming valley masks a horrific history-it's the site of a genocidal massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indian men, women, and children by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890 (including the Sioux leader Chief Big Foot). A somber graveyard marks the spot, and there's a friendly little visitors center affiliated with the American Indian Movement, with information on current-day Native American politics and the tribes' rough handling by the federal government. (The long, brutal history of Native Americans in this country can be read in the classic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.) Obviously weary of outside government intervention but extremely friendly to guests, the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation welcome respectful visitors to their famous Sun Dances and powwows-cultural events not to be missed. To witness the ancient rhythms and colors of these Native American rituals is to fall in love with our great country and its land and people once again. For an event schedule, go to, or call 605/867-5821, and also check out the political site There's no place to stay within the reservation, but if you choose to spend a night in the area, do so just south of Pine Ridge near the Nebraska border at the charming Wakpamni B&B (605/288-1868,, a family-run farmhouse getaway amid cornfields, with tepees to sleep in if the spirit moves you. Prices start at $60 for a double. You're soaking in it Heading northeast from the town of Pine Ridge on Highway 18, you'll begin the ascent into the Black Hills. One of the first towns you'll encounter is delightful Hot Springs, a turn-of-the-century resort with over 50 buildings built from blocks of pink sandstone. The warm-temperature Fall River goes through the heart of town, and you can bathe in the healing thermal waters at Springs Bath House for only $8 for the entire day (146 North Garden St., 888/817-1972, Whether or not you do have a soak, get out of your car and stroll along the Freedoms Trail, a mile-long sidewalk that follows the banks of the river. You'll also want to stop by the Mammoth Site Museum in Hot Springs (1800 W. Hwy. 18 By-Pass, 605/745-6017,; $6.50), a mass graveyard of over 100 mammoths and other prehistoric animals where you can watch paleontologists work on the bones. Now you'll want to head north on Highway 385 toward Custer State Park. The hills become forested as you approach Wind Cave National Park (605/745-4600,, one of the world's longest and most complex cave systems (they still haven't found the end of it). Cave tours of the intricate box work, "cave popcorn," and flowstone formations cost only $6. Just north of Wind Cave is the superb, 73,000-acre Custer State Park (605/255-4515,, which is surely as impressive as any national park. These green, rolling hills are home to one of the largest bison herds in the world (at 1,500), as well as an 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road full of pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros that often come right up to your car. The Needles Highway (Hwy. 87), which snakes through the northwest corner of the park, is like a visual fairyland, with thin rock spires magically jutting up above the forest canopy. A must for outdoor types is a hike up the 7,242-foot Harney Peak, a sacred mountain for the Sioux, with breathtaking 360-degree views of the Black Hills from a stone watchtower on its summit. Seven-day passes for the park are $12 per vehicle in summer and $6 the rest of the year. All the lodges in Custer State Park are impeccably run and world-class-you will definitely want to spend at least one night here. One special recommendation (for which you'll want to make reservations) is the historic stone and wood State Game Lodge and Resort, which President Calvin Coolidge used as his "summer White House" in 1927; its rooms start at $75. Another you can opt for is a full-fledged modern log cabin with a double bed and sleeper sofa that can comfortably sleep four for $99, booked through the Blue Bell Lodge and Resort. Info for either property: 800/658-3530, or The heads of state We finally arrive at the grand finale of the trip: overwhelming, majestic Mount Rushmore National Memorial (605/574-2523,; $8 parking fee). One of those phenomena that needs to be seen to be believed, the four stunning, 60-foot presidential heads were built between 1927 and 1941 by the eccentric genius Gutzon Borglum (with the help of 400 workers, of course). An excellent visitors center shows films and houses displays of little-known facts and artifacts, like the large, cave-like shrine that is half built behind Lincoln's head, the original plans to also carve out the upper torsos of the presidents, and the controversial decision to include Borglum's friend Teddy Roosevelt in the sculpture. Schedule at least half a day to take in this human achievement that Borglum proclaimed would stand over 10,000 years from now (and no one doubts it). Nearly every visitor to Mount Rushmore makes a pilgrimage to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial (605/673-4681,; $9) off Highway 385, which is also home to the comprehensive Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center. Be sure to see Mount Rushmore first, because it will pale in comparison with Crazy Horse, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when it is finally completed (heaven knows when). The carved-out mountain of Crazy Horse sitting on his horse pointing outward is a three-dimensional monument so enormous that the four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit inside of Crazy Horse's head alone. At the request of Native Americans, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began the project in 1948, and his family has since kept the blasting and carving going, relying entirely on private funds. Avoid the touristy area of Keystone, where everyone stays in cookie-cutter motels while visiting Mount Rushmore (but check out the fun President's Slide, where visitors plunge down a long mountain on a toboggan run for $8-605/666-4478, Head instead to more secluded areas of the Black Hills for accommodations. For instance, the Harney Camp Cabins (605/574-2594), located on a creek four miles south of Hill City, are only $45 per double, and that includes the use of a sundeck and hot tub. Or mosey north to Deadwood (800/999-1876,, a historic town and National Historic Landmark popular for its Old West casinos and 1800s buildings. After a gold rush in 1876, prospectors, Chinese laborers, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok all converged on the town to make it one of the most colorful spots in the West. By all means, try to get a room at the historic Bullock Hotel (633 Main St., 800/336-1876,, the first real hotel in Deadwood, opened in 1885 (before then, the town had only been full of flophouses and bordellos). Refurbished and full of character, it's the place to stay in Deadwood ($74 a room; slightly higher in summer). Or try the Deadwood Inn (27 Deadwood St., 877/815-7974; rooms start at $69), once a feed store and now a 19-room Victorian hotel with casino.

    Choosing the Rebel Tour

    The flashy downtown office of Cape Town Tourism had racks of brochures advertising every type of tour in Western Cape Province . . . except for the one I wanted. I went to the official-looking agent sitting behind the desk, ears covered with large headphones. "Have you heard of Western Cape Action Tours?" I asked him. "Oh, them," he snorted. "They aren't sanctioned by the tourism board. Why not take another one of the tours?" motioning to the stacks. Perhaps seeking out a leftist guerrilla tour operator wasn't such a great idea after all. Western Cape Action Tours (WECAT) wasn't exactly your average sit-in-a-bus tour operator complete with lovely-looking guide and a fixed restaurant stop. No, this Cape Town-based non-profit organization was run by former soldiers of Umkhonto We Sizwe, or MK, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), who fought against the old apartheid regime of South Africa. WECAT's Sites of Memory tours take visitors to places that most white South Africans, aware of rising crime rates and a history of unrest, would never dream of visiting. Places like the Cape Flats townships, a sandy stretch of land on the outskirts of Cape Town, where the majority of the city's residents make their home. During the turbulent 1980s, this area--along with Soweto in Johannesburg--was known as the heartland of resistance to apartheid. It was this side of South Africa that I wanted to see, no matter what the tourism board said. The book, Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, had captivated me. It is a reporter's account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings that took place throughout South Africa during 1996-98. The book includes word-for-word testimony of many of apartheid's victims, including a young man named Yazir Henry, a former MK soldier who co-founded WECAT. Perhaps it was my Jewish heritage that me curious. In some ways, I equated the Holocaust with the horrors of apartheid. When I was young, I watched my grandmother suffer from losing 42 members of her family to the Nazis. To this day, I have struggled to forgive the Germans. By exploring the past in the new South Africa, through the people that actually endured apartheid, I hoped to gain a better understanding of "reconciliation"--one of the seven pillars of the country's new constitution. I thanked the agent for his suggestion, but explained that I really wanted to find WECAT. He removed his headphones, huffed, and begrudgingly provided me a phone number. Meeting the guides A few days later, a red minivan carrying former guerrillas pulled up to my Cape Town hotel. Out jumped two guides from WECAT--Mxolisi "Thabo" Mbilatshwa and Vuyani Mamani Ka Sobethethe. A sweet old man poked his head out the window and introduced himself as the driver. "I'm Desmond," he said, smiling. "I'm Yazir's father." We were joined by two Americans. We drove in silence for a few uncomfortable minutes before stopping at an open field of lush overgrown grass by the highway. We all got out of the van, and I noticed both Thabo and Vuyani were roughly my size, which was average. Thabo had more command of English and was a bit more confident and savvy. Vuyani had softer eyes and there was an undeniable sweetness about him. Thabo explained that this vacant area was known as District 6, which was once Cape Town's most vibrant community. Africans were the first to be "resettled" from the District back in 1901, long before apartheid became the official government policy in 1948. By 1982, 60,000 had been forcibly removed from the District, their homes destroyed by bulldozers, and relocated to a barren outlying area called the Cape Flats. Thabo and Vuyani told us they were both raised in the Cape Flats and were recruited as kids to be soldiers for Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK). "In 1985 many young people--including myself--left South Africa and went into exile, in search of arms," said Vuyani, who looked more like a reggae singer, with his hair in thin dreadlocks, than a gun-toting guerrilla soldier. "This is the year we as young people took the decision to not only be prepared to die--for a cause we believed was just--but also to kill for the cause." Both Thabo and Vuyani were sent to Angola, where they fought alongside Cuban soldiers ("Our compadres!" Thabo said) and against the South African-backed UNITA rebels. Thabo got his military training in East Germany ("Good times . . . hot baths!"), while Vuyani was sent to Tanzania. When the ANC achieved power in 1994, some MK returned from exile and joined the national army, but many others (like Thabo and Vuyani) didn't. They faced manifold challenges in adapting to the new South Africa, including psychological alienation, post-traumatic stress and chronic unemployment. "We remained unemployed not because we didn't want to work, but we didn't have the skills necessary for a satisfactory job," Thabo said. "We had participated in the struggle from the time we were 13, 14, 15, 16. When we should have been in school, we took up arms." WECAT was founded in 1997 to address the hopelessness that faced former MK guerrillas. Its Survivor Support Initiatives are directed at using tourism and education programs to promote job creation and training in the most impoverished townships. "We want to use our history as a tool to teach the youngsters," said Thabo, a WECAT co-founder. "We try and give you something the tourism board doesn't normally talk about. They don't talk about it because they don't know." Remembering the martyrs Back in the van, Desmond drove us southeast toward the Cape Flats. We passed through the last white suburb before the townships. It was pointed out how the walls outside the homes got higher and higher as we closed in. There was barbed wire everywhere. We passed the power plant that was used by the former government as a border between white and black neighborhoods. The road divided more than just the affluent suburb of Pinelands from the poor township of Athlone. During the apartheid years, "there was no going across that line," Thabo said, "not even for a visit." Declared a mixed-race or "colored" area in 1936, Athlone was our first stop in the Cape Flats, and Desmond parked in an empty lot next to a roadside exhaust shop. Today this township functions as the commercial and social center of the Cape Flats. We piled out of the van and were addressed by Vuyani, who had been mostly quiet until now. In deferential silence, we listened to his story of the "Trojan Horse Massacre," which happened here in Athlone, during a time of unrest after the apartheid government had declared a state of emergency. "They sent police into places of worship and schools," said Vuyani. There were two officers, armed with guns, assigned to each classroom. In response the students organized a boycott and took to the streets. "This is one of those streets," Vuyani said, pointing in front of us to Thornton Road. An unmarked railroad truck with wooden crates in the back drove past the marching students. It passed once, Vuyani said, and back again. A child threw a rock, and the wooden crates flung open. Police jumped out and began using live ammunition. Three children were killed. "Their names are on the wall over there," Vuyani said. The crude memorial was across the street on a cement wall in faded spray paint: "Remember--The Trojan Horse Massacre: Shaun, Michael, Jonathan--1985." Years later the men who pulled the triggers were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also learned about another former MK soldier killed in Athlone. His name was Anton Fransch, and he was also mentioned in Krog's seminal book on the TRC. "I knew him very well," Vuyani said. "He was killed 500 meters from here." Along with Yazir Henry, Fransch had infiltrated from Angola back into South Africa. In Country of My Skull, Henry tearfully told Archbishop Desmond Tutu how South African police showed up at his front door one day, with a gun to his father's head. Yazir was arrested, beaten and ultimately coerced into revealing the whereabouts of his colleague Fransch. Police then swarmed the home and killed Fransch using a grenade, while Henry was forced to watch. "Our coming here," said Vuyani, his gentle voice cracking, "is to honor those who sacrificed their lives for our country to be free." With tears in his eyes, he excused himself and walked away, head bowed. During the afternoon tour, we visited makeshift memorials and other sites of interest in three more townships: Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town, established in 1927; Guguletu, where seven young men ("The Guguletu Seven" from Country of My Skull) suspected of being MK were killed by apartheid security operatives in 1976; and the infamous Crossroads, formerly a stronghold for ANC guerrillas. "This used to be Death Row," Thabo said. A cordial reception The townships were not much different from any other Third World shantytowns, with tin shacks, garbage-strewn streets and wandering livestock. But what's shocking about South African townships is their close proximity to such wealth. Travel back down the road and you're in the land of swimming pools, tennis courts and BMWs. Still the people in the Cape Flats were very friendly. As we stood outside Pinky's Restaurant in Guguletu, a bubbly older woman named Margaret, who ran a small shack-like store, called me over and introduced herself. She asked a favor. "Will you take my picture?" she said. "I want to be photographed by a white person." On our way back to Cape Town, which was only a half hour by car but seemed like a thousand miles away, we talked openly about the changes taking place in the new South Africa. Both Thabo and Vuyani expressed appreciation for what the new government is trying to do to improve conditions in South Africa, while pointing out their frustrations because big gaps remain between rich and poor. "Things are better than yesterday," Thabo said. "Today everything is more equal. We've got more schools, big hospitals, we've got water, and in some informal areas we have electricity. The only trouble is when we are unemployed it's very difficult. And that is true across color lines." By early evening, we were back at my hotel in Cape Town. I had only been away for a few hours, yet the city seemed completely different to me now. It was one thing to read about reconciliation. But it was quite another to venture into the townships with former resistance fighters, who believe that forgiving doesn't necessarily mean forgetting, and actually live that philosophy every day. South Africa is showing the world, and me, forgiveness is a powerful and obtainable human quality. Thabo told me that it wasn't long ago he thought "all white people were wrong, whether they were South Africans or Americans. But today I can look at you straight in the eye, without shaking . . . . By taking this tour, you are helping to cross the racial divide, where people can look at each other, not as black or white, but as human beings." I thanked him and Vuyani for the tour, said goodbye to the two Americans, and turned to Desmond Henry. During the tour's quieter moments, Yazir's father and I had discovered a common interest--that is, sports. Now as we parted ways, Desmond told me that if I returned in 2010--when South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup--I could stay with him in the Cape Flats. I'm not sure what the tourism board would say about that, but it sounded like a great idea to me. Along with Team USA and South Africa, maybe I'd even find it in my heart to root for Germany. If you go: WECAT runs half-day tours into the Cape Flats for about $35. Email for more information. Inkululeko Tours ( also runs recommended township tours in Cape Town. Hotel Fritz is at 1 Faure Street, in the Gardens district. Contact

    Travel Tips

    They Want to Suck Your Blood

    What you'll find in this story: bed bug information, travel information, travel news, travel safety, hotel information They're a quarter-inch long and light tan to dark red in color, and at night they crawl out of hiding to look for warm flesh to feed on. When they find a host, they inject a numbing agent so that they can suck blood undisturbed. Most people never know that they've been bitten. After a half century during which they virtually disappeared from first-world countries, bedbugs are back. The National Pest Management Association says that bedbug activity in the U.S. has increased 500 percent over the past three years, and a few well-publicized lawsuits have some travelers paranoid. But what threat do bedbugs really pose? And what can you do to ensure that you sleep tight and don't let you-know-whats bite? The truth is, the chances that your room will be infested with the blood-feeding insects are extremely low (lodging owners say mice, ants, and roaches are far bigger problems, if that's any consolation). Still, it's possible to find bedbugs almost anywhere--skeevy motels and first-class resorts alike. There's no evidence that bedbugs spread disease or cause any serious harm to people, but just the idea of them can ruin a good night's rest. Here's what to do after you check in. Rip off the bedding: Examine the folds of the mattress and any crevices around the headboard area, where bedbugs have been known to hide out. Dotted brown-gray stains on the mattress can mean bedbugs are regular guests there. Examine the sheets closely: "Tiny blood spots on the sheets are their calling card," says Dr. Gary Bennett, a professor of entomology at Purdue University. Take a whiff: An infested room will have a sickly-sweet smell. Don't put luggage on the bed: Bedbugs spread primarily by stowing away in the baggage of oblivious travelers, so avoid helping them find a new home.