Johannesburg and Victoria Falls

Johannesburg was, unfortunately, a wash. We stayed at a hostel in Rosebank, a suburb of Joburg, that we chose carefully because it was very near to a post office (remember that we were waiting for Daniel’s credit card to come in the mail which his parents had very kindly posted). The tracking number showed it leaving the States and, for nearly a week, nothing. In the meantime, we talked a lot with the white Afrikaaner owners of the hostel about their country, race relations, crime and poverty; they had some very strong opinions that made me pretty uncomfortable, and plenty of rather paranoid advice about us going places in the area (whether this was well-founded advice, we’re not sure; half of all crime in South Africa happens in the Gauteng region where Johannesburg is). It was interesting and confusing to compare racism and race relations in South Africa to those in the US, and to see how apartheid history negatively affected everyone in the country, all races.

We took a guided tour of Johannesburg and Soweto, the township that was the site of a 1976 apartheid resistance uprising and riots. The catalyst was the death of a 13-year-old black student, killed by white police officers while participating in a peaceful march against the institution of a law mandating that all schools teach in Afrikaans. In the afternoon, our Zulu guide stopped on a little bend in the road in the “bad” part of Soweto: not, he explained, an especially dangerous place, just one where there is no electricity or running water. He asked a local lady if we could look inside her shack and I hesitated; to me this seemed like a creepy, voyeuristic intrusion. But we decided to go in after one of the older white ladies who was on the tour stubbornly insisted that she wouldn’t go in because, she said, “it’s just too depressing.” And it made me feel yucky, angry, elitist and racist to complacently agree with her by staying inside the tour van.

So we went in. Her home was one small room made outside of corrugated iron, lined inside with melamine pressboard, covered with bright, colorful ads and soda logos. She had a small dresser, on top of which was a stack of new, clean plastic tupperware; in the other corner was her bed, neatly made with a very plush looking golden duvet. She owned very little, but her home was clean and dignified. We gave her a few Rand for the inconvenience, and I backed out of the small door, nearly stepping on one of her neighbors on the way out, feeling extremely aware of my race and relative wealth, and of the fact that we hardly ever make the bed at home. To be honest, the whole tour was really strange, seeing everything from the confines of a vehicle.

The credit card didn’t make it in time and eventually we just decided to move on, buying a ticket to Zimbabwe. At the first of our many stops at this particular Post Office, the clerk stated she couldn’t tell us anything about the status of the parcel without the South African tracking number, and when we asked how to get that, she shrugged. On the very last day, hours before our flight, another clerk gave us the phone number to call with our US tracking number to get the South Africa tracking number (we were there hoping that maybe it was in the back room despite what the USPS website said). Daniel, defeated, said something like “but we don’t have time,” hoping maybe she could call for us. “Well,” she said blithely, “call when you get time.” Damn it.

This was the day I lost the painting by STEVE from the beach in Cape Town, running through the Johannesburg airport. Our first taxi never showed up to take us to the airport (after yelling at me as if it were my fault when I called). We got a transfer from the hostel we were staying at, leaving an hour late. Our driver seriously made an effort to make up for lost time, though, cutting through traffic, passing people at red lights, cutting over a dirt median, our own personal entrance ramp onto the highway. There were no seatbelts, and the bench seat of the windowless van seemed to not actually be connected to the van itself, vaulting a little each time we stopped. We made it to the airport, though, and with the help of an enterprising porter who saw us running in the wrong direction (clear signage is not the forte of huge OR Tambo International Airport), we made it to the tarmac just on time.

The flight to Zimbabwe was short but turbulent and followed up by a 150 kph taxi ride into Victoria Falls, slowing when we came to areas where wildlife tends to enjoy the warm asphalt. The road was long and slender, lined with dry green thicket and punctuated by paths that seemed to come from nowhere, people coming through the low trees to hail taxis and squat minibuses. Dry, red African soil clung to everything within a certain proximity to the ground.

In town, everything was stunningly quiet, people smiling and waving in that way Minnesotans like us can appreciate. In Johannesburg, people seem to keep their heads down, and we had learned to as well. People outnumber vehicles on the roads, walking softly in bare feet and worn sandals on paved roads and well-loved paths. The people we met were soft spoken and friendly, and even the dogs were mellow and relaxed. Kids leaving school for the day, boys and girls alike with short cropped hair, ran in groups across the streets and odd pickup trucks would slow and honk to shoo them off the road. They would wave at us and look amused or slightly alarmed when we waved back.

The scenery was fairly homogenous but beautiful: red earth, dry but green plants, pretty blue sky holding a hot African sun. Every now and then a tree housed a burst of pink or purple flowers or a hornbill toucan laughing at us from his perch. Toads were everywhere, by our tent, by the hostel’s pool table, in the shower or dried out and leathery by the side of the road. Baboons in little packs climbed cement walls and drank from fountains at restaurants.

We went right away to see Victoria Falls, one of our longstanding travel goals. Known in local language as “the smoke that thunders,” you can see evidence of the falls from far, far away: a cloudy plume rising from above the trees like haze from a wildfire. As we approached the falls park, the greenery became notably more lush.

It was incredible, really. Because of the volume of water constantly careening over the falls into the gorge, the mist is shot high into the air, which is why you can see it so far away. The water in the air catches the sun, and brilliant rainbows are everywhere: over the falls, draped from tree branches, on my sunglasses. I have never seen so many double rainbows in my life. And, naturally, what goes up must come down. As you walk along the full expanse of the falls (5604 feet—that’s more than a mile wide) you get wetter, wetter, wetter, until finally the fine mist falling around you has evolved into what feels like a torrential downpour. You can’t see the sun since you’re essentially standing inside of a cloud, and the rain and wind are whipping at you and pushing you around, daring you to walk up to one of the slippery rock face cliffs without a barrier. As we got closer to the end of the path, the “rain” let up, dripping off the overgrown leaf cover, and we came to the bridge that leads to the Zambian border where we planned to cross in a few days. Pedestrians crossed on foot, soft-topped semi trucks crawled along, and then, down from the bridge’s skeleton fell a bungee jumper, arms outstretched and screaming loudly enough that we could hear her from where we stood, far away. Walking back, we saw women with shower caps on to protect their hairstyles and couples laughing and posing for photos with plastic bags on their heads, puffed up like transparent flat tops.

We were drenched. The ponchos we rented were mostly useless, but just enough to keep the camera dry, and we had smartly enclosed our passports and all of our money into ziplock bags within our moneybelts. Teens in groups had the right idea, walking the path in their bathing suits, a few clutching waterproof disposable cameras. If we went again, I would have worn mine.

Mister Thirty Five and the Box Cutter Kid

The Shosholoza Meyl train in South Africa does not check passengers’ passports. We learned this when we went to buy tickets from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Excited and nervous for our first overland trip leg, we went to the train station. It was clean and cool, with fruit vendors outside and little stands where you could buy shoes, belts and power converters. Inside the station, there was a kiosk offering free, while-you-wait HIV tests with a long line; scary because it reminded us early on of Africa’s high rates of HIV/AIDS, for which we would come to see many hand painted public service announcements in the following weeks, but heartening that people are getting tested and self educated on risk and prevention. A nurse hollered out as we walked by, “Number thirty five, your results are ready!” I crossed my fingers in my pocket, hoping for negative results for Mr. or Ms. Thirty Five.

As we gave the clerk our information, she typed in Daniel’s last name for both passengers. Thinking it might be like an airline where if your name doesn’t match your ticket, you miss your plane, I asked if it would matter that we have different last names. She shook her head and after we had paid, she explained that no one would be checking our identification or, raising her eyebrow and laughing a bit, our marriage certificate.

In Cape Town there is evidently a high demand for couture models. Every few blocks we would see fashion shoots happening—on pedestrian bridges, parking spots on the street (with four tires aligned as though they were once attached to a vehicle, the models in casual business attire were to feign surprise at the missing car), on the steps of official looking buildings. The subjects, dolled up and unaware of passerby, stood still while the passerby walked into the middle of the shoot, equally unaware.

Car guards stand on each block in navy blue jumpsuits and blaze orange vests, shooing away idle thieves looking over their noses into backseats. People begging for money haunt the tourist area, one discreetly flashing us his box cutter while asking for/demanding a hundred rand (about fifteen dollars), careful to keep his shoulder to the public safety officer standing nearby, falling back when we ignored him.

We did some touring of the surrounding area before leaving Cape Town, going to Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens, looking at plants that haven’t evolved for millions of years, strange turkeys with blue wrinkly heads and paisley-like feathers, and giant, paper-flat spiders in the public restroom. Some kids on a school field trip, totally uninterested in the plants, played rugby with a water bottle for a ball in a nearby field. We took a tour bus along the waterfront to Hout Bay Marina and Camps Bay. On the water, so blindingly glittery in the setting sun, were huge oil rigs far out on the horizon, looking a bit like the Eiffel Tower balanced on the surface. On a whim, we bought a black and white painting of some elephants from a painter who introduced himself as Steve from Malawi; on further inspection in the hostel, we discovered that he had covered the original signature with a permanent marker and re-signed it, simply, STEVE. I later lost that painting in the Johannesburg airport, running to catch a plane.

We went to the Cape Peninsula, which was definitely worth the embarrassment of being seen on one of those awful buses full of tourists. We got to see seals, birds of all sorts, dassies (the nearest living relative of an elephant, but it looks like a groundhog), lizards and penguins, making up for the dearth of penguins at the South Pole.

We hiked over the ancient looking, cellular, striated rocks of the Cape Point, past stretches of earth that looked like lines of cayenne and curry powder, looking down on great white sand beaches, shockingly beautiful—clean, green sea, white breakers, menacing rocks just under the surface. The Cape has claimed hundreds and hundreds of vessels seeking shelter from storms.

When we reached the highest point, the peak of the tip of the peninsula where the old, out-of commission lighthouse stands, you could turn around and survey the land behind you. It is a place where, Daniel pointed out, you can see the resemblance of the terrain you’re on to the paper map in your hand, living geography.

When we finally boarded the train a few days later, we were ready to go; we’ve been discussing lately the importance of, while traveling, leaving a place while you still like it. The train itself was nice; we got a compartment to ourselves despite only purchasing tickets for two beds (I’m under the impression that this is normal practice, not special treatment). There was a little sink basin under a folding table between the bunks that even had a trickle of running water for hand washing, although it ran out of water a few times. We could order food and coffee from room service on scheduled rounds, or from a restaurant car that seemed practically new except for one completely shattered window – this made sense after the train was shot with a paintball gun by some jerk kid outside, giving us quite a start and leaving a slimy green blob on our window, slowly expanding in the wind.

The train ride presented us with stark comparisons of South Africa’s rich and poor, slammed up against each other in bursts of towns separated by vast stretches of land uninhabited by anyone but gangly ostriches. Squat cinder block structures, the homes of rural people, had corrugated metal roofs weighed down with large rocks or sometimes bricks. Poor black adults slept on sheets of worn cardboard, fifty yards away from whites exiting high-walled compound homes in their SUVs, followed by piles of plastic trash, followed by black and white residents playing golf together in knitted vests on pristine driving ranges, rounded mountains sagging in the distance. Numerous wine estates flashed by, their rows of vines neatly stitched into the earth.

Entirely rusted out skeletons of cars that seemed to be from decades ago stood in fields, and every now and then we would pass a disturbing relic of previous train systems: an entire line of train cars, derailed beside the track, coated in rust with plants growing over everything, trying their best to reclaim the material. We passed by many towns that seemed to be nothing more than a sign stating its own name, ensuring its continued existence. Some thirty hours later, outside of Johannesburg on Sunday morning, the train interrupted a group of six people conducting a church service in pristine blue and white robes, standing by the tracks amongst an unreal number of busted up TV set skeletons. And then, only five hours late due to a midnight engine swap (a conductor had explained to us that we had the “wrong” locomotive, which we assumed meant it was broken), we arrived in Johannesburg.


Cape Town: Glitter, Beggars, Mountains, Jazz!

We arrived in Cape Town on Friday morning after a brutal 32 solid hours of airports, airplanes and airline food. We were successfully able to check in at the Auckland airport without being asked for proof of onward travel (you may remember that I nearly missed a flight to Auckland because of this in 2009) and went through South Africa customs without a problem.

We were lucky to have accidentally chosen the weekend of Cape Town Fest for the date of our arrival, and were rewarded with a huge parade on Saturday night. People started queuing at the barriers on the sidewalk long before the sun set, donning sparkly feathered Mardi Gras-esque chintzy masks and drinking sour Castle beer from flimsy plastic cups, beggars with no teeth and mismatched shoes jingling handfuls of small Rand coins through the throngs of people.

Then, we watched as the streets lit up after dark, starting with huge foam puppet unicorns, giraffes, springbok, flying  owls, a kangaroo, gangly ostriches running circles around each other, a dancing tyrannosaurus rex. Church youth groups danced to intense drum beats, their elbows punctuating the rhythm around them, some in tribal costumes with glitter face paint, some in neon glowing pinstripe suits and bowlers with trumpets, kids with vuvuzelas tooting along to the beat from precarious window sill roosts high above the crowds. The hotpantsed moffies–gay men or perhaps simply in drag– doing casual backflips down the sidewalk or on parade floats (singing predictably to the Village People but attracting awe and attention nonetheless). Spectators lined the streets, oversized glitter bits clinging to their sweaty hairlines and cleavage, young men in skinny pants and vests, girls in short shorts or shiny leggings and gladiator sandals, fat older gay couples with button-up shirts and suspenders meandering along the movement of the street. Kids clung to lampposts with a certain borderline tantrum, too-tired-to-function-anymore look to them, right around when I started to feel the same way and we went back to the room to bed, too jetlagged to even be hungry.

The past few days we have been going to see jazz concerts in the garden park, eating tuna sandwiches and watching several different wedding parties stop for photos, radiant brides surrounded by bridesmaids in shiny gold or hot pink polyester matching dresses shooing away the pigeons before posing and smiling, Table Mountain in the sun behind them. Having coffee in little market restaurants, sitting in bright plastic chairs at bright plastic tables with bright plastic tablecloths covered in pictures of Barack Obama, yellow and purple cardinals holding a banner that says “Hooray for the President!”

The next step is deciding when to leave–we will take the train to Johannesburg or Pretoria, but without an agenda and being in a place we like, it’s hard to make that decision…