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Friday, October 22, 2010

The beautiful people of South Africa…

So I arrived in Gaborone 30 minutes earlier than planned. My bus driver was awesome he got me there safely and early! What more could I ask for? When we arrived, I asked him if he thought there were still buses that were leaving for Joburg. He said that there should be and pointed me in the direction that the buses usually wait to fill up before making the 6 hour drive across the border. It was all the way across the parking lot so with all my gear, I made a mad dash for it. I would have loved to stay and see Gaborone but not only was it rumored that Gaborone was expensive, but the hostel listed in Arlene’s Lonely Planet was located about 10km outside of the city so…it would be a similar situation to this morning where I’d have to wake up at the butt crack of dawn, arrange a taxi to come get me and get to the bus stop early. I suppose I would also be able to take a later minibus but I was trying to get out of Botswana early because I wanted to spend as much time as I could in Johannesburg since it was already Wednesday; I was leaving on Saturday and wanted to try and have 3 full days there: Thursday, Friday and Saturday since I missed it coming in 2 months earlier.

So I ran across the lot and after hitting up a few wrong buses, found the last bus going to Johannesburg that night. So, if we left at 3:30PM (it was still 3:05PM)…I’d get in at 9:30PM. That was a decent hour and I could probably have Karen come and get me…that would have been a great plan if we actually left that early! We waited around for an hour and a half! I felt sorry for the family with 3 young children sitting next to me…they were there since 2:00PM! The bus ride was SAR180…which I had but wanted to get rid of my Botswana Pula…I tried to only withdraw the amount that I needed but I had BP30 and tried to pay my fare with a combination of Pula + Rand but the guy told me to change my money. So I found a couple of ladies sitting on the side who offered me money. I questioned why they gave me so little and I guess their math wasn’t too good because then they gave me extra money back; I took it and left. Paid my fare and waited for us to leave.

I think after my arrival, there were about two more seats that needed to be filled. In order to make these runs profitable, these minibuses or combies as they call them do not leave until they are completely full. So we waited. With each person that came, people’s faces started to brighten up because we thought we were finally leaving! But the whole waiting process took 2 hours!

I thought the kids next to me were so adorable and I started playing with them. The daughter, Vigilance (5), started to get very comfortable around me. We sat and talked and the father, James, was also very nice to me. We waited and waited and finally after saying ‘we’re leaving in 5 minutes’ like three times, we finally left at 5PM! And again, just as in all my other public transportation experiences, we stopped to get gas…why couldn’t they do this while we waited for 2 hours? Your guess is as good as mine…Do the math…we leave at 5:15PM (don’t forget the time it took us to fill up the gas); I wasn’t going to get into Joburg until 11PM! Okay, I am not sure if you have heard of Johannesburg before but it’s notorious for its crime, often times violent. Carjacking, gun shots, are common. South Africans often times get defensive about this claim and are quick to remind us of NYC, DC and other large cities…and yes, it is true that violent crimes happen often there too but I do think it’s a bit different. Of course there are places you can go and places you shouldn’t. The general rule in South Africa and many is that you don’t go walking anywhere alone by yourself after dark; even with others it is not advisable. In South Africa this is unheard of. Although I will say that in Cape Town, many people shared that because of the World Cup you could now walk on Long Street and I did feel comfortable walking on Long Street by myself at night. So, not ALL cities in South Africa…In NYC and DC this is not the case, at least I don’t think. There have been many times that I have walked in NYC after dark. Of course you don’t go to the ‘dangerous’ areas but you can still walk. But yeah, anyway, this is the city that I was going to be rolling up in at 11:00PM, so long as we didn’t run into any problems along the way.


By 10 minutes into the ride, Vigilance was now sitting on my lap. She was so cute and it was so amazing at how friendly and open she was and how she felt comfortable to sit on her new ‘aunty’s’ lap; I felt so touched. Vigil (3), her younger brother was not so friendly and was truly a daddy’s boy. Mom was carrying the youngest, Vision (9 months). We were a nice happy family. The bus ride was a bit uncomfortable with the hard seats and because I wasn’t sitting in the front as I normally do…

The Botswana - South Africa border was about 30 minutes away and when we got out, I walked together with the family; each adult with one child. We got to the border control office and I got stamped through fairly quickly. I helped James and Thandi with the kids and waited for them to get all 5 passports stamped through. We walked over to the South Africa side and I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t find our bus (the bus dropped us at the Botswana side and then drove over to the South African side) but I was with James and his family so I wasn’t too worried. We were the last ones to re-board the bus and it was another 5 hours or so to Johannesburg. Along the way, we did a quick stop to fill up again and I noticed a Chicken Licken chain around the corner and noticed that many of my fellow passengers were here. So I decided that I would go here to buy dinner for the 6 of us…I thought I was the last one to get back to the bus and felt bad that I had to make them wait but surprisingly, I wasn’t the last one…James was the last one! He came in with his own bags of KFC! He told me that he had bought food for us because he felt it wouldn’t be right if he bought food for his family but nothing for me. Then I told him that I had bought food for all of us too! So we had 2 dinners for the 6 of us! And boy was I craving fried chicken…I hadn’t really eaten any while in Africa even though KFC takes the cake for most popular fast food restaurant in Africa. Every city that I had been to, there was always a KFC in the area…even if it seemed that there was nothing there, there was at least a KFC! When I was on the bus ride from Maun to Gaborone, there were even people that would board the bus to see if anyone wanted to buy any of their goods. I saw some really finger lickin’ good fried chicken and french fries but I still had leftovers from my African-Chinese take-out from the night before so I refrained. So it was nice to FINALLY get the chicken that I was craving.

Once inside South Africa, my cell phone with South African SIM card was now functioning again. So I reestablished contact with many of the friends that I had met along the way to let them know that I was back in the country. I sent a text to Karen to see what we were going to do. At the rate we were going, I wasn’t going to get into Johannesburg, Park Station, until about midnight. I didn’t want Karen, SWF, to come in to get me especially if it wasn’t that safe, at that hour. She suggested that I take a taxi to her place but she said it would be about 45 minute taxi ride which would be…most likely more than I was willing to pay. So I thought about possibly trying to find a place that I could stay in Johannesburg…maybe a backpackers and I could meet her the following morning. I asked James what he thought…I had a few listings from Arlene’s book; I anticipated that I could get stuck in Johannesburg if I were able to catch a connecting bus the same night…there was a chance that I would get into town late. So I was prepared. I asked James and he exchanged a few words with his wife and then told me that if I wanted, I could stay with them. SERIOUSLY? After only a couple of hours on the bus, they were actually inviting me over for the night? Wow. Grateful. It was good that it was a family; otherwise, I don’t think I would have accepted. This is almost as good of a record when the Mossel Bay family invited me after just exchanging names. I was comforted to learn too that James had been in the security business for many years. He was a strong, well-built man so I felt safe. So, I texted Karen and let her know that I found a place to stay for the night so let’s meet up tomorrow.

I was excited about staying with James and his family on so many different levels. Firstly, they were a Black family so I would have an opportunity to see how they live. Up until then, I had been invited to stay over with several White families and one Coloured - which although it sounds racist to our American ears, is the term that they refer to people of mixed blood, hapas. Let’s not pretend that disparities do not exist; most times their economic and social status is strongly related to the color of their skin, sadly. I had been very fortunate to stay with many families that are very well off but it’s only a small percentage when compared to the actual population; and although James doesn’t represent all the Black people in South Africa, it was my first opportunity to actually see how a Black family lived. I don’t think Thandi was very happy though and as much as I wanted to be respectful to her, I really had no place to stay! So, I just made sure that I tried to be as polite and unimposing as possible.

That night, I shared a bed with Audrey, Thandi’s cousin. There also seemed to be someone else behind a sheet that was strung up to divide the room. But no one popped their hand from behind the sheets. Their house was modest and fairly nice; I got the impression that James was really working hard to give his family a nice home. It was kind of like a home that you would expect to see of a young new family, if that makes any sense? I slept fairly well that night and the following morning I woke up early to walk with Vigilance to preschool. One thing that made me admire James so much was how much he valued education. He was paying SAR700 (about $100) a month which is no small amount, to send his daughter to a reputable preschool. When we arrived at the school, there were many White children and a few Black children, all playing together. I knew it wasn’t easy for him to spend that much money on his daughter every month but he did because he thought it was important. When I gave Vigilance a hug that day when I left her at school, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I started to cry because I don’t know if I’ll ever see this little girl again. Besides the fact that my home base is half way around the world from her, would she even remember me years later? I couldn’t believe how emotional I got saying good-bye but I think I was just so touched by how closely she was drawn to me and that made me feel such a close connection to her.

Later, back at the apartment, they offered me coffee and I waited for Karen. James wanted to eat bread so I took out my new loaf that I had just bought from the store in Botswana two days earlier. They looked at my bread and said that it was old and said that I must throw it away. I thought it was really strange and I was a little bothered that they were throwing away decent food! They told me that bread was meant to be eaten the same day. Wow, such high standards? I eat bread until I see mold on it and even then, I usually just take off those bits…I had only eaten 2 slices from that loaf. James had to leave for work but before he left, I paid him SAR100 for letting me stay over. I thought that the money could help go to pay for Vigilance’s preschool.

Karen ended up coming to get me a couple of hours later and we were off. It actually worked out quite perfectly because she needed to run some errands very close (3 minutes) to James’ house. We also decided to go to the Apartheid Museum since that was one of the two things that I wanted to do in the city and that was also only about 5 minutes away. So everything worked out so smoothly.

The Apartheid Museum was as fabulous as everyone had described but there was just so much to see. I am the type of person that likes museums and doesn’t mind spending the entire day there. I like to feel like I have seen everything! I also almost always get the Audio Tour because I don’t want to miss out on any important information. By the time we got there though, I only had about 2.5 hours to go around which was really not enough time for me. But we had taken an hour break for lunch and Karen wanted to be on the road by 3:30PM because of traffic so in the end I probably only got to see a small portion of the entire place. The period of Apartheid is such a dark part of South African history and to understand what many non-Whites had to live through, you need to dedicate several visits there, and then, to only scratch the surface. So, this is something that I will have to do again if and when I make it back there.

A neat thing that the museum did was on each ticket, it labeled you, in much the same way that society labeled its people in Apartheid South Africa.  Depending on what your label was, more or less determined the rest of your life.  If you were blankes, White, a whole world of opportunities opened up for you.  Even if you had White blood but were labeled Black because of your appearance, opportunities available to you were considerably limited. My ticket was Blankes and Karen had Black so we entered the musem separately and were separated for the first 10 minutes.
Karen also took me to Maropeng which is believed to be the cradle of humankind, the site of some of the earliest human bones to be discovered. I would have actually preferred to see the actual site but instead she took me to the museum portion of it was just as cool. There was no way that I could have gone and done these things because it was far from Johannesburg and with limited time, I wouldn’t have been able to manage a tour out there. I was so grateful that Karen took time out to take me to all these places to be sure that I got to see all the places I wanted to see and more! Thank you Karen!

Karen also took me out to Soweto on Saturday, the day that I was flying out. Originally, one of Peter’s friends was supposed to take me out but that weekend, he already had plans…actually turned out that Peter was in Joburg that weekend for his brother’s bachelor party. Too bad I couldn’t see them! So, since we were without a guide, I suggested we just turn up there and see what happens. Then Karen had a brilliant idea! She decided to call one of her co-workers daughter, Kinilwe, who actually went to high school on the Big Island, to HPA…my college friend, Danny Endo’s alma mater! She didn’t really know the area either but she knew people who lived there so that was better than not having any clue! We also didn’t have too much time because I was on the internet in the morning and so we had a late start…Karen had to be back by 1:00PM to bring her gardener lunch so we had about 2 hours to see the area.

Soweto which is actually an abbreviation of South Western Townships is a predominantly Black area, many being forced to live here during the mining years and throughout Apartheid. It was also here that many of the significant events in the Apartheid struggle are rooted. So it was a special place for South African history and for its people. It was also home to two of the larger stadiums that were used for the World Cup! At first, due to my ignorance, I imagined Soweto to be something like an amusement park where you could go and observe and see infamous sites but it was nothing like that. It was a living, breathing function residential area. Although I haven’t really spent much time in Harlem, it reminded me of an article I read about the area because of the reinvention that was taking place there with the more educated and affluent young Black Americans.

Here in Soweto, it seemed to be of a similar evolution where I saw many very nice homes and cars. The streets were well paved and in the residential area, there were many shops and restaurants which were a bit weird to me. There are not many cities, where you will find shopping centers and restaurants in the middle of a residential neighborhood; it wasn’t uncommon here to see a restaurant snuggled between two homes. Since we only had about an hour and a half, we stopped at Nelson Mandela’s home where he spent many years with both his first and second wife and his children before and after his arrest. The house which is on Vilakazi Street, I believe, is the only street that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela. So there was a lot of history here!

Cute neighborhood kids in Soweto
After the museum and a quick walk up the street, we found a restaurant that was recommended by locals and did take-out from there. For R50, we filled our plates with the local foods. Since we didn’t have time, we went back to Karen’s house to eat. We dropped off Kinilwe and had our lunches at Karen’s home. I felt a little bad because we ended up being almost an hour late and the gardener didn’t get to eat until about 2:00PM.

Our take-away lunch from Soweto...good but not as good as the Chinese Botswana lunch in Maun
 After we had our lunch, I still had about 4 hours before I needed to get to the airport so we walked around to some shops that were run by Chinese (there are a lot of Chinese here!) and I was able to bargain for some cheap socks. I also bought Karen some shoes that she wanted for SAR50 ($7). She was surprised that I was able to get such a good price, I think I got it for 40% off! Well, what can I say, I love bargaining with the Chinese!

Got back to Karen’s house, packed up my things and made our way to the airport. Karen lives very close to the airport so it only took us about 15 minutes to get there. I couldn’t believe I was FINALLY leaving South Africa! It was already August 14 and who would have known that I would stay in Africa for almost 2.5 months! I never imagined that I would have such a great time here and that I would stay as long as I did! I spent my remaining time at the airport, trying to buy gifts for Steph and her family as well as try to call everyone who helped me while I was there. I met so many people that I literally ran out of time trying to contact everyone! Thank you to everyone in South Africa and all my friends who introduced me to their friends! This trip would not have been as awesome if it weren’t for you! You know who you are!
Dinner with Karen and her mother, Anne in Johannesburg, South Africa

Feeding Anne Sushi because she couldn't use the chopsticks!

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