A few months back, almost a year ago now, I went to visit my sister in Johannesburg in the Republic of South Africa. It had been ages since she and I had spent a chunk of time in the same city, and a few weeks away sounded great. Plus, it was probably the fourth time she had lived in Africa– the second time in South Africa specifically. Even though I’d never had a desire to travel to there, she kinda threatened to disown me if I didn’t make the trip. So… I booked my ticket and hopped on a plane.
Traveling to Johannesburg from the Bay Area is not so easy. Bring your ebooks and your mp3 player. It took 20 hours plus a 4-hour stopover, plus customs, and then travel into the city. At first, I comforted myself knowing that I could lord it over my sister: “I traveled a whole day just to come see you!” And then I arrived. All previous notions were erased. It was late when I got in, and we had eaten before going straight to bed. The next morning, though, I awoke to this:
This is the yard of my sister’s home, a view from the window. She lucked out. Quaint and cool, right? I had had no illusions that Jo’burg would be “roughing it”. I was born in a bustling developing country city (Kingston, Jamaica) and South Africa, having more wealth over the centuries, has cities at least as developed as that–if not more so. I had also been to Tanzania years ago, and I knew the typical vision of the Dark Continent was a misnomer. But I wasn’t prepared for just how thriving Johannesburg would be. Friends recommended that I travel around. See the sites, they said. Visit the Kruger National Park, Victoria Falls, etc.
I’ve never been that kind of traveler, though. Typically I take a few weeks and try to get to know a place rather than visit several places. There’s nothing wrong with the super-tour; it’s just not for me. Plus, I wanted to see the city. My little sister–quite an awesome woman–had picked herself up to live there. She since decided to move back, but she had been considering migrating. Jo’burg had to be at least a little bit cool.
And so it was! The local scene is amazingly fun. Funky shops, fun markets, hipster hangouts! Interesting local fare, as well as international cuisine. Like most major cities, Jo’burg has a thriving live music scene. I’d argue that the music is pretty unique though, with a blend of local cultural harmonies and international tones. Jazz, acoustic melodies, pop, rock, street music. Take your pick. And, being a relatively wealthier nation among its neighbors, each time we went out we were surrounded not only by English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa, but also French, Dutch, German, and much more. Take a gander at my pics of the urban part of this trip. And check back soon for more on the feast of gorgeous urban design that I saw while there.
But that’s not all. As you must know, this country is steeped in a difficult history of apartheid and reconciliation. My sister has always been the “save-the-world” type in the family. She encouraged me to go to Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, Mandela’s home in Soweto, and other notable sites, even though she knew they would be emotional visits. It was disheartening to see how misguided people treated other human beings, though encouraging to see how the country has been rebuilding since reconciliation began. Much like visiting a museum exhibit on slavery or segregation in the Americas, but much, much more present since it has only been about 20 years since the end of Apartheid. Barely a generation. Relationships are still quite tense, but they are reconstructing them through discourse, culture, and policy. The trip wasn’t all rosey, though. One evening on the way home, we were waved down for a “routine” traffic stop–which involved threats and bribery in the dark of night. Just a little reminder that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
And then I realized that I couldn’t just leave without seeing a bit of the natural environment. Road trips are fun when in the right company, and my sister and her friends did not disappoint. We traveled to a private game reserve touching the Kruger, just over 4 hours drive from the city. Think Yosemite or Yellowstone with more dangerous animals, and far more of them. And just as gorgeous. Just don’t go for a hike unless you’re ready to meet a lion, hippo, or giraffe on the trail. We saw no lions, but we heard them just beyond our camp at night. One day we woke early and head off in search of elephants, only to find them hanging out in the watering hole behind the house. They spent most of the day there, and in turn we spent much of the day watching them eat and bathe in the water. What a treat!
I must have taken hundreds of photos on each week of that trip. Talk about thrilling vistas. You can find my urban photos here, including both Johannesburg and a short hop to Soweto. Pics of the game reserve trip are here. Check back for images and discussions of the many ways this trip inspire me and my artwork. I’m already working on a few pieces to add to my travel bug collection, including this one.
If you haven’t yet been to South Africa, go. But don’t just go to fancy Capetown or majestic Victoria Falls. Spend some time in cities like Johannesburg. Get to know the place. Meet some of the locals. Then, rinse and repeat.
And feel free to share your own stories of travel to Johannesburg. Or South Africa. Or anywhere, really.