When I walked up to the customs agent, I didn’t think twice. After all, I have crossed twelve borders in the past four months and have experienced all kinds of procedures, questions, and paperwork checks. He reviewed my proof of immunization sheet and said, “This is not signed.” I cheerfully picked up a pen and offered to sign it. He responded by asking me to follow him. That didn’t seem like a good thing, but when a customs agent asks you to do something, I think it is probably best to comply. We ended up in a clinic where the nurse reviewed my paperwork and told me that while she believed I recently had one, I would need another yellow fever shot to clear customs. Ugh! As a kid, I was the one who started screaming and hiding whenever the doctor pulled out a needle. As an adult, shots don’t bother me. What did bother me was the fact that the shot at home cost me nearly $300 which my insurance did not cover and now it was money down the drain. I think it is crazy that they will not cover immunizations but would cover the cost of treatment if I failed to preplan and caught malaria or yellow fever. Plus, that cost difference for the same prepackage shot really irked me. I guess those large pharmaceutical incentives and parties really do cost a lot of money. But, I digress. The nurse was nice…I got the shot…I walked into South Africa.
I had read travel blogs about Johannesburg and many people did not like it much…calling it an unsafe and dirty place. Me? I kind of liked it. I spent most of my time exploring on foot and everyone was friendly and kind. The Apartheid Museum was powerful and disturbing, but also left me with a hopeful message of forgiveness and reconciliation. My favorite part was the Nelson Mandela exhibit because I am reading his autobiography now. The impact of institutional racism and segregation can still be felt in the city. Being here gave me a good idea of what it feels like to be a minority in a city and to have people judge me by skin color. This also made me very responsible for being kind to everyone. One little girl told me that I was the only nice “English” person she had ever met. I am sure there are many nice people, but it made me sad that she felt that.
Like everyone else, I watched in agony the first reports of the shooting in Newton from my hotel room in Johannesburg and was horrified with each new detail. There is something very lonely about watching a tragedy at home from a distance. It feels isolated and it is hard to gather news from the minimal sources. People talk about hugging their families and there is a sense of collective mourning that provides small comfort. I had such a mix of emotions ranging from terrible sadness…guilt over living this dream…awkwardness about talking about my trip….questioning how I would have handled the situation…fearful of what could possibly happen next…despair for that community…and just general disbelief.
Before I left, I knew I wanted to experience different church services throughout the year, but somehow, my Sundays have always been travel days or I have lost track of the days of the week. Last Sunday seemed like a good time to start so I looked online and found one in Johannesburg. I took a taxi and was surprised to find that we entered a very suburban area where houses and stores look very similar to back home. When I walked into the church, my heart was a bit disappointed because this was clearly not going to be the African experience I imagined. Everyone seemed to be either a British, Aussie, or US expat who had created a church that felt exactly like being home. Now to me, this is weird. If I were relocated to another place, I would immerse myself in the culture and not bring mine from home. Anyway, I was a bit let down, but the pastor’s message was relevant-focusing on the faith of Mary during the most unexpected moments of her life. It felt good to be there and next week I will look for another local place of worship.
I left Johannesburg via train and headed to Durban…a resort city on the coast which is my first stop on the way to Cape Town. The ticket agent said the sleeper cars, which I had never considered, were full and sold me the $13 economy seat on the overnight train. When I arrived, all of the cars were full except the second to last that was half full and the last one that was empty. As I boarded, the quiet last car was appealing, but I didn’t want to separate myself from everyone else. I thought it might seem like I was segregating myself away from others…that Apartheid Museum was really on my mind. I boarded the second car that was half-filled with women and kids. After just a few minutes, I was sharing cereal and a few of the girls had their hands in my hair. It was a lively group and soon the conductor came by and made an announcement that I didn’t understand. The girls said we had to move to the last car, so I picked up my stuff and headed over. What I think he really said was that they should move and have a car to themselves, and I just crashed their party because when I walked in the car, some of the woman hugged me and thanked me for joining them. I was in for a good time.
As soon as we got moving, the girls were enjoying singing along with Adele and Beyonce on my IPod. The boys played an ABC game on my iPad, and every once in a while, someone new would come over to comb my hair. One of my favorite travel companions was a two year old named Doony. He was precious as he walked around the car visiting each seat to share a smile, grab some food, or have his belly tickled. A few times, he would come to sit on my lap and he captured my heart when he leaned back while sucking his thumb, rubbing his hair, and grabbing my hand to make sure that I was touching his cheek. Oh, Doony was certainly a charmer.
After a few hours, the real party began. The women started singing Zulu songs and the kids sang along. Suddenly there was dancing in the aisles and I was pulled up to dance along…with people laughing so hard that they were crying. They sang a song that I assume was a name game because I heard my name being chanted and felt everyone looking my way and waiting for me to notice. The dancing and singing lasted for hours. It was such a beautiful experience and I really felt the concept of it taking a village to raise kids. It was hard to tell which kids belonged to which mom because they were all encouraging, feeding, and when necessary, mildly redirecting or scolding all of the kids. I learned that they were all teachers on a holiday heading to the beach for a few days of fun. I was jealous of their time with friends and wished for my own, but I felt blessed by those few hours of girlfriend bonding. It was one of my favorite travel moments
When we first boarded the train, the conductor passed to tell everyone to be very careful at our night stops. He said, “sometimes bad people get on the bus to do bad things and then get off quickly.” He said we were lucky because the police office was right next to our car. At each stop, four armed officers stood guard over the train. I felt very safe.
I enjoyed my first day in Durban. There are beautiful beaches, a huge beachside swimming pool, a skate park, a casino…a regular resort town. I am looking forward to my few days here. So far, I love everything about my time in South Africa.