Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Sorry for the long delay in updating my blog- for whatever reason, I was relatively uninspired when it came to writing during my time in South Africa.  It’s not because my month here hasn’t been thought-provoking- actually, it’s the exact opposite.  It’s a huge country, incredibly diverse, in what and who it contains, which makes it difficult for an outsider to completely understand and/or describe.  After traveling South Africa, I quickly realized nothing about this country is simple.  When it comes to employment, whites complain that affirmative action initiatives make it impossible for them to find jobs, blacks complain that their opportunities are limited because whites still have the highest paying positions.  The Apartheid and accompanying Bantu Education act (which prevented blacks from getting an education above what was needed for them to work as laborers) weren’t that long ago.  The xenophobic attacks on new African immigrants are an ongoing issue, and generally speaking clashes in the townships amongst people cramped together but all coming from different places, different values and different ways of living.  It’s a country with first world infrastructure (deceiving at face value) but third-world politics, with a significant amount of corruption.

Colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town, a neighborhood for "coloreds" (people brought over from India, Malaysia as slaves way back when), good image to symbolize this vibrant and colorful place.

Colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town, a neighborhood for “coloreds” (people brought over from India, Malaysia as slaves way back when), good image to symbolize this vibrant and colorful place.

Since it’s my last morning in this crazy country, I have two extra hours before my plane takes off, I decided to down a second cup of instant coffee and write something.  That being said, yesterday was a crazy adventure and my mind is a bit fuzzy and still recovering.  After two days of severe food poisoning, I made an ambitious attempt at recovery: a damp, cold 12 km hike/rock scramble in the snow-covered Drakensburg Mountains.  I was dropped off alone at a smoky pool bar where I shared a beer with the South African equivalent of rednecks then spent hours in the cold drizzle waiting for a bus that was two hours late.  Around midnight, I successfully made it to Johannesburg Park Station just in time for insane adventure trying to find a hostel, hidden between industrial buildings.  Thankfully, my cab driver was the sweetest man who didn’t dump me on the streets of the city and eventually we were able to penetrate its fortress gates (he even offered for me to stay at his place if our efforts failed) so I’m leaving South Africa with my warm, fuzzy feelings about the country restored, even if I’m not happy about the atypically cold temperatures that make me a little delirious, as well as sleep deprived.  You are forewarned.

Mural outside Johannesburg Park Station- a bit sketchy during the day... not some place you want to be at midnight

Mural outside Johannesburg Park Station- a bit sketchy during the day… not some place you want to be at midnight

For a bit of (boring but necessary) background about this journey that got me here.  I came to South Africa because I was offered a post-doc research position at the University of Johannesburg, looking at teacher training workshops in the famous Soweto township.  I was recruited by an enthusiastic but vague Brit retired professor who had been involved with the South African Institute of Physics.  Although I accepted the position after my defense in March, I was a bit skeptical that it was even real when they failed to produce a contract or provide me with useful information in the five months prior to my arrival.  But with some skillful flight coordination for my teaching gig in China, I was able to arrive in the country without paying a penny.  I figured I wanted to see South Africa anyway so what did I have to lose?

Rock Climbing near Pretoria with my Workaway buddies

Rock Climbing near Pretoria with some Workaway buddies

“I love Johannesburg.  Every time my plane comes in to land, circling over the scruffy yellow mine dumps, the thin, thrusting skyscrapers and glinting glass of central Johannesburg, the snaking motorways encircling the city, the turquoise spangles of swimming pools and psychedelic splashes of bougainvillea in suburban gardens, the serried ranks of new township developments mushrooming out to the open veld, and the rashes of untidy squatter settlements, my chest tightens with excitement.  Jo’ burg is in your face, and overfamiliar from the moment you touch down” -As old as history itself, Sue Armstrong

I arranged a workaway, tutoring 10th graders math in a township near Pretoria so I was close enough to check out the situation at the University but not tied to a sinking ship, so to speak.  I loved the area immediately.  I loved the subtle beauty of the grasslands- boring and barren at first glance, but containing a rainbow palette of warm hued vegetation.  Even though I haven’t been on a “real” safari yet, I’d encounter zebras, springboks, wildebeest on “average” hikes through nature reserves or private property.  I adored listening to lyrical melodies of Zulu and related African languages, laughed at the local slang (they call traffic lights “robots”) and the dainty accent that made me feel like adding “Cheerio!” to the end every conversation. I loved the spirit and spunk of black audiencess- we saw a musical where the audience hooted and hollered like they were at a high school play, supporting their best friends.  I appreciated the way it was so civilized and livable (chunky peanut butter, bananas and salads available in unlimited supply and so cheap!), but at the same time, unpredictable and insane (with the high crime rates) that kept my heart beating fast.

Baby giraffes running at a small local park near Pretoria

Baby giraffes running at a small local park near Pretoria

“If it is true, as Buddhist sages maintain that materialism coarsens the spirit and that life itself is an illusion, Jo’burg is a fine place to pursue enlightenment.  Theft is so common that its hardly worth mentioning.  Everyone knows someone who was murdered.  You either allow the danger to poison your psyche and deaden your soul, or you learn to be brave, and laugh at the prospect of your own annihilation.  It’s not necessarily kin to wisdom, but it’s a fine quality anyway.  I love Jo’burgers.  They’re loud and vulgar, and the worst of them will shoot you or embezzle your trust fund if you don’t watch your back but they all have something the Boer poet Breytenbach calls ‘heartspace’.  It comes from living on the edge, which is, of course the intoxicant that keeps us here or draws us back if we try to escape.  Foreigners think we’re nuts, coming back to a doomed city on a damned continent, but there’s something you don’t understand.  It’s boring where you are.  You’ll probably live longer than us and acquire more possessions but there’s no ferment in your societies, no excitement, no edge.   Your newspapers are bland and your politics are inconsequential, so many storms in teacups.  You want crises?  We’ve got real ones: AIDS, forty percent unemployment, the highest rape and murder rates on the planet and a government that wants to put blacks on our rugby team, just on principle.  We’re thinking about stuff that’s worth really fighting about, with real fire in the belly.  We’re talking about a country where life is an insane gamble that’ll end in blinding light or darkest disaster, there’s absolutely no way of knowing which.  We yaw between terror and ecstasy.  Every day is an adventure.  The only constant is the weather, the African sun that beats down our backs as we potter around in the garden, digging up rich African soils all red with oxides and squirmy with earth worms.  Our tomatoes are fat and red.  Our Swiss chard grows like trees.  Towards evening, we walk the dogs up the old stone path to the crest of the ridge to watch the sun go down.  Flights of sacred ibis cross the sky.  Lions roar in the zoo nearby.  Police chase hijackers on freeways, sirens screaming.  We’re in the wild hear of Jo’burg and it’s a pretty good place to be” -Jo’burg love song, Rian Malan

On with the story…. when I first checked out the university, I had a lot of hesitations. Some of them involved living in Johannesburg: as much as I loved the vibe and exciting potential of the city, I wasn’t sure how I felt about living in a place where people drive or take cabs everywhere because they were afraid to walk on the streets, a place of barbed wire and gated apartment complexes, a place where all your change goes to paying parking attendants and where “caution: high hijacking zone” signs line the highway. I also had doubts about the feasibility of the research project itself: how was I supposed to evaluate workshops when I hadn’t seen what instruction was like because the workshops, the workshops themselves and when I was so unfamiliar with all the situational factors that inevitably impact teaching in townships. But the people at the university were friendly and convincing and when I was there in person, they were surprisingly efficient at getting things done. In addition to getting many of my concerns about transportation and housing resolved, the partner of my workaway host was physics faculty at the University of Pretoria so I quickly built a network of over a dozen postdocs, students and academics so I felt I had a supportive community to handle the inevitable ups and downs of the job.  Someone even offered to sell me their used automatic (score!) car and recommended a cute apartment to rent.

Streets of Joburg.

Streets of Joburg.

Everything seemed to be falling in place so I was about to bite the bullet and sign the contract. We headed to the international office where we were informed that I would have to return to the United States and wait approximately three months to get a work visa, or find myself in the situation as the other American postdoc I had been talking to: blocked out of the country under “undesirable person” status. Flying back to the United States, especially considering the current exchange rate, meant 10-20% of my already-tight salary would be spent on flights before my job even started. And I felt that it was an ominous sign of the impending disorganization I would face if I took the job. So I decided accepting that position probably won’t happen.

Craft market in adorable Swaziland.

Craft market in adorable Swaziland.

Meanwhile, I connected with a couchsurfer for a short trip across the border to Swaziland. Swaziland had a lot of the beautiful scenery, wildlife, opportunities for outdoor activities and hospitable people that I loved about South Africa without the  crime. Although the small size of the country might make me claustrophobic, we stayed at an AirBnb with American ex-pats who made it clear that there was plenty going on (potlucks, cowboy parties, yoga…). Because of the high rates of AIDs, there is a huge percentage of humanitarian organizations so there’s a large ex-pat community filled with the type of people I love: idealistic adventurers who forsake modern conveniences, hoping to make a difference. On the way to a hike, one of our hosts pointed out a prestigious International boarding school with a worldwide reputation. It sounded interesting and I had a good feeling about the country so when I returned to Internet access in South Africa, I emailed my CV to the school with a brief note. I didn’t hear anything for weeks and didn’t think much of it. Suddenly, I got a reply that there was an opening in math and they wanted to interview me the following day. I’m still waiting to hear whether I got the job, but it is pretty interesting to think that a failed job in Johannesburg, a side trip to Swaziland, staying with some locals and an explicable good feeling could land me a job in a country that I never expected to visit, never mind live.

Volunteering at a township near Cape Town- helping feed, de-flea and heal the dogs of the area

Volunteering to help pet dogs at a township near Cape Town

The rest of my time in South Africa passed similarly. I came to Cape Town expecting to spend two to three weeks helping a man develop a website for his safari operation but upon meeting him, the whole arrangement made me feel very uncomfortable.  I checked into a hostel and started being a tourist a few weeks earlier than expected.  That allowed me to wander the streets of the colorful Woodstock neighborhood with a local street artist, sampling springbok shots with a bunch of engineers from a local university, take care of puppies at a very poor settlement and visit a professor at University of Cape Town who invited me back for an all-expenses paid week of giving talks and networking with local schools.

How does all of this come together? Very soon into my travels, I realized that it’s best to approach life with as few expectations as possible. Usually, I have found that the places that disappointed me the most (San Francisco, Lisbon, Vietnam…) are the ones that everyone raves about and so they didn’t meet the high bar that everyone set. I entered South Africa with an open mind, clear of those kind of expectations, but I still had a vision of what my time there would look like. My plans quickly turned upside down replaced with better opportunities than I could have imagined.

This relates is to what I observed happening in South Africa because the whole society seems to revolve around racial stereotypes and expectations for people. Even before arriving in South Africa, a friend of my mom’s oriented me to the country, explaining the history and culture with the aid of maps, picture books and Youtube video clips. Of course, he started by explaining the main racial groups, because that still seems to dictate everything: the kind of transportation you take, where you live and more.

During my time in South Africa, I spent considerable time with black South Africans, ex-pats conservative Afrikaans, liberal Afrikaans and people who spent a significant traveling the country.  All the time, people were talking about what they should or shouldn’t be doing based on race.  For a sample of what I heard, “I don’t drink coffee.  Back people don’t drink coffee”, (from a black instructor helping tutor in the township) “The students think I speak too much English for a black person”, (from a black South African) “I’d never date a black South African because they’d expect me to drink beer in the pubs on Saturdays and not think the way I do.  I only date foreigners or foreign blacks”, (from a self-proclaimed liberal Afrikaans) “I could never marry an Afrikaans man.  They still have very traditional expectations for me to stay in the kitchen, etc.”, (from a black South African) “No I don’t want to pet any lions!  What would all my friends say if they saw me taking white people pictures?!?”… The list goes on almost indefinitely.

Painting in Maboneg Precinct, Johannesburg which is the one place I saw races mingle most freely.Painting in Maboneg Precinct, Johannesburg which is the one place I saw races mingle most freely.

Painting in Maboneg Precinct, Johannesburg which is the one place I saw races mingle most freely.

I’m not criticizing any of these comments by any means, because each of these groups is proud of their unique history, cultural, language and traditions, all of which should be maintained.  In some ways, it’s refreshing to come to a place where people can discuss this openly because in America, racial stereotypes have a strong impact but people feel uncomfortable talking about it.  As a foreigner, I was able to experience the country from all sides and that’s what added richness and depth to my travels here.  Many of the locals here don’t experience the country so freely, instead restricted by all these racial and societal expectations.  It seems diversity is at the root of what makes the country great, but also why it has so many problems.  I think if people can let go of expectations and just embrace the different opportunities that diverse influences bring, this country could be unstoppable.

Johannesburg “was a strange city when you thought about it- constantly redefining itself, shifting its communities and the character of its neighborhoods.  In firm hands, it carried its stocks and cell phones.  Yet, she felt, it was still large enough in its unpretentious hear to hold the colors of Shangaan turbans, the bustled trade in saris and silk, the sizzle of street-fried boerewors and pavement comers in tomatoes, china dogs and junk.  And just fifteen minutes drive back toward the suburbs she came from, fingers stretch for acrylic extensions, for Earl Grey tea and carrot cake.  My friend stayed longer than she intended, caught in the edgy energy that made it seem, at times in this city, that anything were possible- great good and great evil, brilliant success and abysmal failures.  There was a strange urgency to people’s partying, as though a natural disaster were to occur in an hour’s time, with a lifetime’s worth of ardent mingling to fit in before then” -Collecting beggars, Jo-Anne Richards

Anyway, that doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch…  I know having expectations for your life and having to deal with racial stereotypes imposed by society are two different things, but I still think it’s valuable to think about.

I am currently finishing this post from Zambia, about to embark on a three week trip through East Africa with my future still largely undetermined.  As for now, my best plan is taking each day as it comes, letting go of expectations to embrace unexpected opportunities.  Wish me luck!

Song of the Moment: Basil– Jeremy Loops (South African Artist from Cape Town) & All My Days– Alexi Murdoch

Suggested Reading: From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories about Africa’s infamous city.  Edited by Heidi Holland and Adam Roberts & The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from A Hidden War by Greg Marinovich & Jao Silva

Next On My List: Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser

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  1. Lucinda
    Sep 9, 2015

    Great article – loved it! My old boss was from Jo’burg – I can see why he loved to visit but always returned to the gold ol’ USA! I look forward to hearing about the safari – don’t kill any lions!

    I’ll keep you posted re the Caymans. Until then, On! On!

    Sending lots of love and hugs, Aunt L xoxo


    • Katie
      Sep 13, 2015

      I think I feel the same way about Joburg! Haha you’re worried about me killing lions? I saw some last night but I think I’d be no match!