South Africa leaves an indelible impression. During our three month stay we fell in love with it for a multitude of reasons, but frequently felt uncomfortable. The answer I came up with, again and again, when asked by locals how we like it: “South Africa is a beautiful, complicated place.” Very complicated.
In the “pro” column, landscape is diverse and magnificent. We joked on our first road trip- a couple of thousand kilometers from Richards Bay to Johannesburg and then nearly to Botswana and back again- that every few hours, it looked like a different US state. We went through parts of Montana, Kansas, western Massachusetts in succession.
Even arid stretches of the Karoo held beauty (not to mention, greatly expanded our list of critter sightings: the favorite, meerkats!). Right, the Karoo, the horizon to horizon stretch of desert plains to the north. See, plans are a dangerous thing for cruisers…and because our plans to get to Cape Town in time for the arrival of relatives from the US were thwarted by weather, we made an impromptu road trip clear across South Africa. But few thousand miles of driving really is nothing, to see loved ones.
So that was interesting, and mostly awesome, except for having the gas siphoned out of our rental car while it was inside the locked gates of the guest house where we stopped on the way. Although parts of it might have been more interesting…
…but others were really unforgettable, like the delicious dinner at a kind of Ethopian-expat-community-center in Phuthaditjhaba.
Or the sweet guesthouse in the cute town of Kestell that sent us to that Ethiopian feed, and is a true gem of a hideaway in reach of the Drakensberg and Lesotho. We felt so welcome, and are still enjoying homemade jams from their orchard.
But the mega-miles were essential for family time with my cousin, her husband (who we had on board back in January last year, in Thailand), my aunts, and a pile of new South African in-laws to meet (cool!). Aside from precious family time, we had the all-important regional competition of POCRT (Pan Oceanic Chicago Rummy Tournament, which we have now hosted or participated in across FOUR continents).
Driving across the country hammered in a few other aspects of South Africa, like how broken the transportation system is. On highways in the middle of nowhere, people walk everywhere, because that’s the only option they have. Small towns were 30 to 50 miles apart.
The road etiquette took some getting used to, but mostly worked. A tremendous amount ofgoods are trucked on the two-land roads across the country, and we had to shuffle the limited space right there with them. That, and animals on the roads, prompted us to limit driving to daylight hours only.
And the sailing? It was OK. We did get to chalk up our biggest 24 mile run on Totem, a whopping 242 nautical miles, but there was a pretty big assist from the Agulhas current (we were running under genoa only) so it doesn’t really feel like a “record.” Mostly, the sailing in South Africa was about waiting, sometimes for weeks, until we were pretty sure wouldn’t get smacked by the weather. With the reputation for drama along this coast we had absolutely NO interest in taking chances.
There were some fabulous quirks. Our kids’ favorite is the vibrant kelly green color of cream soda. Who decided THAT? And yes, it tints the tongue a lovely shade of moss.
Or the fact that you can buy just about anything from a mobile vender at an intersection. All kind of random household goods (I think this guy is selling coat hangars) are present.
Or were the roadsigns. How often to you get to see signs like this?! Right.
Or the fact that you can wander through suburbia, and might encounter ostrich, or penguins. CRAZY
What I’ll always take with me from the three months we spent in South Africa is how wonderful people were to us. It started from the very beginning, with the welcome at Zululand Yacht Club in Richards Bay, where we met the family of the catamaran ‘Goody’ and got to hear about the circumnavigation where they left as a family of 3, and returned as a family of 5. Or the extended family of US friends (thank you Mowerys!), who welcomed us as their own when we arrived in Durban. Or my cousin Maeve’s in-laws near Cape Town, who made us family. Over and over again, the friendliness, hospitality, warmth, and embrace of South Africans was something we didn’t expect at all: we thought that would be one of the more difficult aspects, to be honest.
But hanging over the beauty, and the friendliness, and the funny quirks, there was an overarching weight. Apartheid technically ended in 1994, but the country is still pretty well carved up by race. You see things you don’t want to understand at first because they visually spell out how much bald racism remains a fact of everyday life. It was horrible to realize how differently we were treated by non-whites in South Africa AFTER they realized we were visitors, not Afrikaaners, most of the time: from avoiding engagement to pleasant chatting.
It was weird to have white South Africans warn us about the great dangers of their beautiful country loaded with generalizations about the racial nature of whatever problem they were cautioning us against. It is a country with real crime problems, but often the message was not that there are good people and bad people, but rather, that black people are the danger. Some whites pressed the idea that things were better under Apartheid. Um, for better who? As a country, South Africa is spectacularly dysfunctional, but Apartheid was most certainly not “better,” and it’s jaw dropping that anyone could think that way. The fact that people could even lead a conversation in that direction (or otherwise feel justified in espousing racist ideas, also heard repeatedly) is shocking. And as if this needed a physical reminder, walled compounds with razor wire or electric fences on top are the rule.
South Africans will say we can’t understand, and I have no doubt that’s true, but it’s impossible to skip over how broken it is and not wonder at the history that leaves so many either inured to or perpetuating injustice. I don’t mean to suggest all the South Africans we met were racist, because it’s far from the truth, but it’s a fair generalization that many seemed comfortable with a despairing acceptance of the status quo.
It takes time, some will say. The USA still struggles with racism, and it’s been a long period of “equality.”
I don’t like to end this on such a negative note. We enjoyed our three months in South Africa. It was a country for which we didn’t have many expectations, and it blew us away – mostly in ways that leave wonderful memories. Overwhelmingly, it was about time with our family- both Jamie’s aunt & uncle, who live in Johannesburg, and my relatives from California who came to visit- and about positive experiences in a beautiful place. It’s just…complicated.
Totem is somewhere in the Atlantic, hopefully getting close to Barbados by now. See how we’re doing: our current position and speed here! We will get comments at sea, so add a little interest to our day out in the big blue. We’ll be able to respond after we hook up to the interwebs again in late April.