The great pause settles in!
“10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 Blast off!”, the kids screamed aboard our Air Canada flight that would route us via Montreal to London for a 12 hour layover before our round-the-world journey officially began. Flying Economy class was a rude awakening and gave new motivation to my quest to slim down—significantly—as the kids’ width seemed a lot more appropriate for those seats.
While in London, we checked into the Yotel, a pretty cool pod hotel in London Heathrow terminal 4, complete with magenta mood lighting and rosemary&thyme scented shampoos (not the fir scent of the St. Regis, but a value second). After a power nap, we went into London to ride the Eye, eat some proper British food, and take some “Decker Decker” busses around town. All in all, we’re fairly convinced that the hassle caused by this routing was not worth the savings: not a good sign for our budget and travel style overall…
We arrived in Johannesburg, aka Jo’burg, in the early hours of the morning on Wednesday Aug. 14th. The kids were appropriately miserable in line for customs and apparently on their deathbeds for thirst. Some kind people let us jump the line, probably more to avoid the painful whining emitted from both Phineas and Eilir. After clearing immigration and customs, we were saved by the pre-arranged pick up from Jacob, the son of the owner of our carefully selected guesthouse, Ginnegaap, in Melville, a northern suburb of the city. Jacob, who wore extremely pointy cowboy boots, is a recent interior design graduate, and did his best to dispell common visitor’s concerns regarding crime/safety of his home town. Upon arrival at the guesthouse, we were greeted with brisk, fall-like weather, under a powerful sun. The Ozone is allegedly thinner down here, and I can attest at least to the relative strength of the direct sun versus the shade. At the guesthouse, we could finally relax in a beautiful courtyard and lovely one-bedroom apartment-style B&B accommodations.
For background: South Africa has many differences yet many similarities to the US. Possibly the largest similarity is the “melting pot” of cultures that constitutes the people, although close seconds are the history of European rule (in SA, first the Dutch East India Company followed by the British), and the history of slavery followed by formalized segregation. The most striking difference is its lengthy history of humankind, spanning from 25,000 (or possibly 40,000) years ago till modern day. As in our travels to Ethiopia a few years back where we visited with Lucy, we have been impressed to learn here that South Africa boasts, in its San hunter-gatherer peoples, the longest continuous culture known to man. The demographics are quite different as well: South Africa is 79% black, 9% white, 9% “colored” or mixed race, 3% of Indian descent. These demographics help set the context and historical understanding of Apartheid and the 23 years since its end. English is only the 6th most utilized language, ranked after Zulu (first language for 24% of South Africans), Xhosa (first language of 18% of South Africans, including Mandela), Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, and Tswana, although almost everyone we’ve encountered can speak English (it seems very multi-lingual, or perhaps where we are traveling this is the case). Some other facts that cast a shadow over the country are that South Africa has 5.6M people living with HIV or AIDS (17.8% of adults), and is indeed the country with the largest population as such, and as a country has the world’s largest reported incidences of rape.
Another obvious difference, much smaller in significance but cool nonetheless, and one that my own father really impressed upon me many years ago before my first trip south of the equator, is that the Coriolis forces are opposite in sign and thus cause water (such as draining in a tub or flowing down a toilet) to circle counter-clockwise instead of clockwise as in the Northern hemisphere. Partially in remembrance of Dad, I had told the kids about this many times so that we could perform the experiment ourselves. We proceeded to the bathroom first thing: it worked. Homeschooling is harder for us than for the kids, answering 5 whys about this one while peering into a toilet.
It was a mere 9 hours post arrival that we found ourselves face to face with a white lion pride. We took the kids a short hike out of Jo’burg proper to drive through a Lion reserve and interact with lion cubs. It was pretty amazing to be only a few feet away from lion prides in our little car. Being that it was the last hours of daylight, the lions were very active, pacing around and roaring (if you come to the reserve in the middle of the day, the lions allegedly barely move at all). The real draw was the interaction with lion cubs. Staffan and I thought nothing of signing up for that, loosely reading the small print on the signs that small (bite-size) children enter at their own risk. Upon entering the petting area, we were told to be firm with the lions. I happily pet one firmly who immediately turned, clawed my leg, and bit my arm. That was a shock which awakened some deeply suppressed mother-like instincts in me and I promptly told Staffan that this may not be the greatest idea we’ve had. Nonetheless, Eilir and Phineas pet a couple of lion cubs but we were on edge the whole time: Eilir was definitely of great interest to the cubs. They probably realized she was a perfectly sized lion snack, and one that even they could handle. As two cubs teamed up and approached from opposite angles, we whisked her up and left the enclosure swiftly, somewhat relieved that it was over. As we strolled over to the hyenas, a giraffe traipsed by us unhindered by the handful of people around. Definitely not the US.
On our second day we went to the Apartheid Museum. It was the major draw for us to come to Jo’burg. The layout and overall experience are well worth a long visit. Admittedly, I am not much of a history buff, so although I was well aware of the freeing of Mandela in ’90 and the end of institutionalized Apartheid in the early 90s, I found the history of its inception/formalization quite interesting and obviously painful, although when I relate it to the relatively recent history of segregation in the US, I should not be as surprised. I was reminded that Mahatma Gandhi got his start as a young solicitor in Durban, where he embraced and developed his methods of peaceful resistance to segregation and oppression and stood as the leader of the South African Indian population (most of who had been brought over as indentured servants) in the early 1900s. All in all, the transformation to the “Rainbow nation” must still be taking place all over: as we know globally, it is a relatively quick process to oppress and a far, far longer process to reverse the impact, no matter it be race, gender, orientation, etc. The ongoing effects of colonized rule and later formalized Apartheid can be readily seen in the drastic difference between the “haves” and the “have nots”, in the stark contrasts between the densely populated townships and the well off cities and suburbs that could grace the hills of any country in the world.
In the afternoon, we visited a wonderful cafe right down the street from the guesthouse in Melville,
Bambanani, for an afternoon coffee. It is a very cool environment with a massive 3 story play structure for kids, art projects, underground play house—the works. The menu and drinks—both coffee bar, full restaurant, and full bar—were impressive. We’ve seen coffee shops with play areas for kids before, but this place really took the concept to a new level, and was a welcome relief for Staffan and me to sit down and have a look at the guidebook to start thinking about Cape town and beyond. All our pre-trip planning went into getting the initial RTW tickets, and what to pack (we did bring the kitchen sink along with a pharmacy). Precious little time has been spent planning the trip at all, but this should be the joy of finally having the time to play it by ear.
As the evening crept up on us, Jo’burg went out of power. We stole the last minutes of dusk to find a delish Indian restaurant where we ate food by candelight. We then walked home through the dark streets to find a single kerosene lamp lit in our rooms, and although homey, it gave us a better feeling for how worthwhile the Unite-to-Light cause is! www.unite-to-light.org