"South & East Africa 2011" story # 1

Koppies, Free State, South Africa           February 19, 2011

Four months in Michigan (a break from traveling) preceded my first-ever trip to Africa.
     In my Michigander hometown buried under snow and forgotten by the sun, again, many of the sunniest surprises came during Grand Rapids' Original Swing Society's weekly dances. I thanked the stars for the opportunity to dance with: a small girl who created pirate novels, and who followed my lead as if she were the tide and I were the moon; a full-legged, full-eyed, full-lipped gymnast, who blurted her laugh out as I complemented her pea-green or navy dresses and the white bows in her hair; a pale girl who seemed meek but defied gender norms by frequently asking me to dance, indicating self-drive and determination; etc. Brass instruments and drum cymbals clashed, with a hopping 1940s' style, and guys could be seen throwing girls into the air all over our dance floor.
     A swing dancer named Zach became my biggest inspiration for self-improvement. The owner of a fine arts private education company, he began a successful experiment to get rid of his cell phone - which he likened to a drug. He hosted a New Year's Resolution Party. (My most life-changing one was: Resolution # 11. Look in the mirror only while shaving.) And over matches of Chinese Elephant Chess, this college philosophy dropout and I imagined taking women on "Silent Dates", or played with the idea of observing a "Week of Blindness" or "Week of One-Armedness".
     Instead of offering to teach Elephant Chess at Zach's school, I worked at Little Mexico Cafe, where the hispanic staff treated me like family. Rigo, the buff dishwasher with rugged charisma, sang Spanish ballads while he worked. Our milky-dark hostesses, with their clavicles and upper backs showing above poofy white blouses, could smile sweetly or threaten sarcastically. The bartenders, fun Diego and Pancho, cheated during the "musical chairs" competition of our Christmas party - but still lost.
     And Hector, a perverted cook, tried convincing me that rhinoceroses just loved to sneak behind tourists and violate them with their horns. "No te vayas a Africa, jue!" (Don't go to Africa, man!)

Even without Hector's shocking warning, I had plenty of concerns while planning my trip to Africa:
     Killer mammals.
     Mosquitoes and disease.
     Questionable hitchhiking.
     Visa requirements.
     Police roadblocks.
     A lack of luxurious toilets.
     Oh, my. Maybe I should just stay home and get my kicks from a "Week of One-Leggedness"? Swing dancing would surely be difficult!
     No. Instead, I did some research into this place they called Africa. I questioned people who'd been there - many of whom had been born there and amazingly survived until adulthood, without ever being snuck up on by a single rhinoceros.
     An optimist, I naturally cherished the advice of people who said things like, "You'll be fine!" and "You'll have the time of your life," and "Just go there, kid. Leave me alone. Stop pestering me. Wait a minute ... you heard rhinos do WHAT?" And I ignored any warnings and all negativity.
     So, without wasting any money on a single vaccination or malaria tablet, with all $640 of mine stashed firmly somewhere in my bag, I bought a ticket to Africa.

Thanks again to my friend who's retired from an airline, I paid $365 for a "buddy ticket" to Johannesburg, South Africa. I touched down on February 12th.
     A real African airport. Exotic! It looked like pretty much any old airport, actually.
     I asked a local white girl if Johannesburg was a fun city to go out in. In a hard singing accent, she said, "Well, if the music's lekker, and the beer's good, and your friends are there ... then, it's real lekker!"
     "What does that mean?"
     "I don't know what 'lekker' means."
     "Oh? 'Lekker' just means it's really good."
     We stepped outside the airport, and a bird whistled overhead. "Whoa! I never heard a bird like that before," I told Kyra.
     Yep. We were in Africa.

I stayed three nights in Ghandi Backpackers Hostel - a place that was not "lekker". I didn't go out much. Johannesburg, pop. 5.7 million, possibly the world's most dangerous city, pretty much terrified me.
     There, I met up with another local woman - one who'd long ago gone to Eckerd College in Florida with me. She owned a pediatric clinic. The past Wednesday, it had been broken into and robbed of "computers, knifes, forks, couches, everything". She repeated a common sentiment, "Johannesburg is a TERRIBLE place!" and a common reason for being there, "It's where the money is."
     Walking around a bit, I found gorgeous side streets. Modest homes wearing art-deco colors opened to porches which opened to buzzed lawns which were securely fenced in. Pineapple palm trees and orange rose bushes decorated the lawns. Elephantian trees with drooping branches leaked yellow-green light upon the quiet roads. The neighborhood smelled of purple lilacs.
     Most or all of the houses belonged to whites. The painting and yardwork duties belonged to blacks. Many reliable sources were telling me the blacks of South Africa didn't like whites too much.

Nevertheless, I was treated well, as I was basically the only white person who: rode a public-transport van into the city; walked through bustling urban streets next to the transit station; and rode a train third-class to the south. I did this during daylight hours, of course.
     When I left the train, I was in Afrikaaners' farm country. In the town, poor Afrikaaners (whites of Dutch origin) lived in run-down houses beside blacks, and their yards weren't fenced in. I walked past them and pitched my tent in a field. I was fairly certain no lions lived around here. But, every time I heard a noise that night, I wished I was 100% certain.
     I began hitchhiking south, towards Lesotho, in the morning. Wealthier Afrikaaners passed me on the way to their farms, carrying their black laborers in the backs of their trucks. I was on a small road that would eventually become unpaved.
     A white man picked me up and said he worked in "Farmers' Safety". He said there'd been attacks on white farmers, especially elderly ones, and thirty-three such murders in the country this year. He dropped me off, and then a friendly farmer stopped to chat.
     I asked if he thought South Africa was becoming a better place. He didn't want to talk about politics, but he lamented that 40,000 Afrikaaners had been killed in an English-Boer War sixty years ago; if not for that, their current numbers would be stronger.
     He regretted that he had a meeting to go to with his financers. Otherwise, he'd invite me to come see his farm, including his two lions that had lived in his house as cubs. Neither he nor many people were going in my direction.
     Fields of tall, fluffy grass and the occasional stout, shaggy savannah tree surrounded me. Though the summer sun was branding, I put on my hat and started walking. Though I carried two bags, I enjoyed the walk. Amazing birds lived here.
     Yellow cardinals had black beaks and beards hairy like bumblebees; in their favorite trees hung bunches of human brains - the cocoons they lived in, made of pink twigs. Bright red-orange birds (the color of a retro girl's lipstick) bore black breasts. A bird, with curved tail plumes thrice the length of its body, resembled a hovering "Z" and moved across the countryside like a phantom.
     A clicking bird made sounds in the sky like a person smacking his teeth together.
     And, beside a swampy algae pond, in two willow trees, ibises (white, flying kiwis) with black faces roosted in such numbers that I expected the willow trees to collapse. They yipped and hooted and wholloped.
     A black man named Jerry eventually picked me up. He worked in IT in Johannesburg. He said the racism was less there - where people's attention was just focused on making money.
     He needed money. At age thirty, he was about to marry a black girl. He explained that, before blacks can get married, the groom's uncles must negotiate a price with the bride's uncles. Sometimes, the bride's family would want cows. Jerry had arranged to pay 40,000 rand ($6,500) for his fiancee.
     Pointing to the surrounding countryside, he said the white farmers had especially maltreated the blacks during apartheid. For example, blacks and whites had had to enter the supermarket through separate doors.
     Pointing to me, he said my travels were motivating. He said, "You're really brave.
     "You live on faith."
     I liked how he said that.
     He dropped me off. Over the next two days, three other cars would give me rides. They were driven by: 1. a friendly Muslim businessman, 2. three attractive black girls; 3. another black guy.
     I reached the town of Clarens, in the Drakensberg Mountains near Lesotho. And I began to feel very comfortable in Africa.
     A large, former rugby coach named Kobus (pronounced: Quibus) invited me to stay in his family's house. A very spiritual man, Kobus rolled his R's like a Scotsman, and we began to get along well and talk a lot.
     The next morning, when I shaved and therefore looked in the mirror for the first time in three days, I noticed I had a squashed bug on my forehead. It had probably been there the day before, when I'd applied at an all-black school to give a presentation.
     I explained that the presentation would be on the countries I'd visited, hitchhiking and camping my way around the world.
     Manakga, the cute secretary, responded to this and said, smiling: "I like whites because they aren't afraid of anything."

Live on faith.
- Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Steven; Jerry; Mohammed; Beyone, Joline, & Shamesha; and Elliott for rides!
Much thanks to Kobus, Adrianni, & Ben-Roo for the place to stay!
And a big thanks to my family for always being there when I go home!

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