South Africa…So Much to Learn

At times, I have ridden on buses that felt like refrigerator cars. Today, I am heading from Durban to Port Elizabeth in a sauna. Hot air is blowing directly over us and the sun is glaring through the windows. People have started stripping down and taking off unnecessary clothing items. Unlike in Central and South America where buses would travel for at least twelve hours before stopping for a quick petrol fill up, this bus has stopped five times in the past 12 hours for fifteen minutes at a pop. Rest stops are just like those at home, filled with junk food that I really don’t need, but get curious to taste. I feel sweaty, greasy, and stinky right now. Luckily, the bus is not too crowded and I have a row of three seats to myself for lounging around.

Durban, South Africa was one of the more interesting stops of my trip. I guess I say that because there were unexpected surprises. I took a taxi from the train station to my hotel. Taxis are one place where I think I am cheated the most, but usually only on my arrival in a new city because I have no frame of reference for public transportation, local prices or distances. This especially seems to be the case in high tourist areas where people can set whatever rate they like and in my recent destinations drivers are not inclined to negotiate. At Iguazu Falls, I paid $10 to ride less than two kilometers. In Buenos Aires, I paid $55 for a ride into the city center…a bit of a distance, but still not sure locals would pay the same rate. In Durban, my ride was $11 to the hotel which I learned on my ride back should have cost about $3. I look for metered taxis and taxi stands when possible and try to ask multiple drivers for prices, but I still have that moment of disappointment when I learn I was taken…not necessarily because of the money as much as the principle of the matter.

My first unexpected surprise was the beach view from my hotel room. With a huge window, I enjoyed not only crashing waves, but also a beautiful morning sunrise from my bed. There was a lovely cafe at the hotel where I had one of the most delicious chicken tikka sandwiches of my life. I learned there was a very large Indian population in Durban and enjoyed the influence on shops and foods. When I left my new friends from the train, we agreed to see each other at the beach. I don’t suppose I realized just how long the stretch of beaches is in Durban. I walked along them the first day I arrived and was shocked by all of the activities to enjoy. There is a large and beautiful boardwalk for strolling, a skate park, multiple fountains and swimming pools, an amusement park, an aquarium built from an old ship, and many restaurants and novelties to enjoy. Big sand sculptures are always fun to see, but as an added bonus, artists here made them for people to enjoy while taking small donations for photos…no pressure for a certain amount…just whatever. I took a few pictures from the sand car and sitting on a heart seat. Cheesy, perhaps, but I like cheesy sometimes and am not opposed to touristy silliness.

The beaches were packed. I noticed that women were very modest in their dress and covered up with tshirts and shorts or pants. People were jumping and enjoying the waves with very few people sitting on the beach getting sun. I would say it was the most fun I ever saw being had at the beach. I just dunked my feet as I walked for miles enjoying the views and energy of all the jumping and cheering families.

People ask if it is lonely to travel by myself, and the reality is that there are always people to meet, sometimes, it is even frustrating when you would rather be alone. As I walked, a young man approached me to chat and ended up by my side for hours. I have a high tolerance for annoying but he wore me out with all kinds of stories that just didn’t add up and nonsense chit chat. At one point, at a cafe, he was across the table from me after I told him I was going to read. While I read my book, he read parts of the menu aloud to me. He was 25 years old and said be had worked in a ship for the past seven years and that ship was docked in Durban for a few months. When he told me he had not had a girlfriend or kissed a girl for that whole time, you know I must have been impatient because my brain didn’t even consider matchmaking for him. We parted and later in the evening, when I headed back to the cafe to use the balance of the Internet time I purchased, there he was again waiting to say hi and have a cup of coffee with me before he headed into a movie. I started to get suspicious of him, so I stayed on high alert walking back to my hotel and making sure to stay with crowds and watch that he didn’t follow me. Luckily, that was our last interaction.

South Africa recently hosted the World Cup so there are lots of cool remnants to see. My favorite so far is the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. Over the length of the stadium is a huge arch…St. Louis style, but crossing above the stadium from end to end. While the stadium continues to be used for sporting events, it is also financially self sustainable by being a tourist destination…not one of those horror stories about stadiums left to drain local economies with their maintenance needs. Visitors can purchase a ticket to take a tram to the top of the arch for a great city view. The cost is small, but the cars were full with money pouring in. On weekends, visitors can opt to clip themselves to the other half of the arch and climb to the top. I wish I was there on the weekend to try that. While waiting in line, I heard two couples talking about “that rounded steel sculpture in Chicago” and trying to figure out what it was called. I believe in taking Godly hints to connect with people, and that seemed like a shout out for us to start chatting. With that conversation opener, we were set for a day of bonding and fun. We took pictures at the top. They drove me to a grocery shop for bus snacks, and they invited me to drive down the shore with them where we visited a museum cafe. I initially assumed they were tourists, but they were all from the area with one of the couples currently living in the Detroit area.

It feels weird to talk about skin color, but in South Africa, with the recent history of Apartheid, people have very different life stories based on their race. In visiting the museum and reading Nelson Mandela’s book, I am learning so many details. I hope I am not being offensive when asking questions, but everyone I have asked has been open and patient. Under Apartheid rule, people were classified in four distinct categories as either Native, White, Coloured, or Asian and were given identification cards telling what they were. At times, people in the same families might be given a different category and varied rights based on things like skin color or curl of their hair. People who disagreed with their category had to appeal to a board who had the sole authority to make a change. Apartheid was horrible in the details and the atrocities were endless. There is so much to take in and try to learn and you really do feel elements of separateness here that are hard to explain, but I have also talked to people about the power of forgiveness and the non-profit organizations and people who are leading reconciliation efforts.

Anyway, when reading and going to the museum, it is easy to just assume that all of the white people here were bad, but then I met these lovely people who have their own multiple generations of family here and who are themselves Africans, who have contributed to society and share a culture. Then, I remember that their initial immigration here was no different than Columbus “discovering” America and pushing around generations of Native Americans. Apartheid was out of control, but did not represent the views of every white person here and in reading Mandela’s career stories before prison, he worked for many liberal bosses who defied those laws. There were many heroes in the anti-Apartheid movement and similar to the segregation in America, there are varied levels of understanding and involvement. Humanizing these stories always makes me aware that history is complicated and that caution should be taken when thinking that it is simple to understand.

Port Elizabeth is my last stop before Cape Town where I will spend Christmas Day. I have only heard great things about this city so I am really looking forward to getting there.

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