Hello old friends! Y’all may have noticed I haven’t blogged in, oh, two months or so. Europe was not awash with daily new experiences the way Kyrgyzstan was, and I think I ran out of steam a bit. I’ll try to backtrack and write some posts about what I was up to, but my primary concern is this: AFRICA.
Yep, pals, McKenna is in Africa. I bought a plane ticket on a Sunday, I flew out on a Thursday, I arrived on a Friday. At each of these stages I mused, “But surely I won’t actually make it. Like, there’s no way I’m actually going to Africa.” But I made it! More specifically, I made it happen! (Happy dance ensues.) Let me catch you up to date on my time in the biggest city in South Africa. Its population is around 3 million people, or as I have been thinking of it, the ENTIRE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI. The horror!
I arrived to Johannesburg (which I call Joburg like everybody else, and some people call Jozie) and was wiped out from 24 hours of international travel. It took no time at all to get from the plane through immigration. Learning from my experience in Ireland (where I overshared and was barely let in the country) I answered the question, “What is the purpose of your visit?” with one word, “Tourism.” A lie if I ever told one; I regret nothing. Once I got where a driver was supposed to stand holding a sign with my name and saw none, I found an ATM and was unable to take money out of my debit card. No matter, I have a second. That failed also. Well, never fear, for I have a secret weapon, my so-called “Emergency Credit Card” from Dear Old Dad. Which, frustratingly, also was unable to work. But I am an international traveler, and I always have a plan! That’s not true. I rarely have a long-term plan, but I do have mad problem-solving skills. I took the last of my US Dollars to a counter and swapped them for just enough South African Rand to get me to the hotel. That is, once I found my pre-arranged taxi driver.
I tromped over to the payphones where I would call my hotel and ask where he was. If I could only get the damn payphone to work….! I had to ask for help in interpreting which of the numbers were required when dialing a South African number from inside the country. Payphone: 1. McKenna: zip. I got through to reception and they had my taxi driver call the phone I was standing at. He said he was wearing a red shirt and jeans by the Christmas tree. I found him and introduced myself. Walter, as he’s called, has brilliant white teeth that stand out against his dark complexion, and eyes that dance. We talked and laughed the whole thirty minutes it took to drive me to the hotel. We discussed his taxi business and how he lived apart from his fiancé for a few months before insisting she move to Joburg with him. He has two girls under the age of 10. Considering that’s more personal information than I got out of most of my colleagues in Ireland, I began to suspect I would like it here.
Once at the hotel I met the receptionist, Angelique, and crashed in my room. I finished a hat I’d been knitting (which is useless, as it’s 85° outside), watched too much news about the hostage crisis in Paris, and ventured out for food (once my parents fixed the problems with my cards – it’s so nice to have boots on the ground). A gentle rain started out the window. I did the only sensible thing and played this song for myself.
Walking past reception after eating my takeaway dinner Angelique called out to me and said, “Do you think money can buy you love?” I said, cheekily, “It depends on your definition of love.” She asked, “Do you think money can buy you happiness?” Sensing this was a more serious conversation, I said it can certainly buy peace of mind, but happiness is another thing entirely. Angelique continued to explain that people who dress well are treated with respect in shops, which she equates to love. She also pointed out how insulting it is that people like Angelina Jole and Brad Pitt have adopted children from Africa instead of their own countries. Angelique’s mother took in “stray kids” as she called them, and Angelique would complain that with too many kids over for dinner she didn’t get enough to eat. Her mother would reply, “You are bigger than they are. You can have more for breakfast,” and never turned away a child who showed up at supper time. There I was, minding my own business, not even operating in Nosy Anthropologist mode, when this amazing woman starts a genuine philosophical conversation with me. I went to bed very happy to be in such a friendly place.
After completely sleeping through my alarm for the first time in my life, I visited a friend with the same scholarship who is working at a lab in Pretoria. My taxi driver on the way to the train station and I discussed the typical tourist paranoia and fear of walking places even around the hotel which is very safe (hence why I picked it). My comment was, “I am a woman, and I am traveling alone. I have to go out by myself, it’s just a fact. But I don’t have to go out by myself at night.” Her response was, “Oh definitely don’t do that! You aren’t stupid!” It’s so nice to have my common sense validated, and by a local too. The train to Pretoria, which is the administrative capital of South Africa, was uneventful. Lunch with Alison, however, was not. We sat outdoors at a Greek restaurant with a bottle of wine to share and ordered our food. After it arrived, half a dozen bees descended upon us. Alison was the president of the bee-keeping club at Hendrix; I am deathly allergic to bees. At first they were just buzzing around us and I was aware but not panicking. Then they were on my food and I left them alone. It was when two landed on my hand that I squeaked, “Alison, help…!” She carefully scraped them off me and onto her, all the while analyzing what would be drawing them to our table. What a scientist, what a friend, what a gal. We were left in peace once we finished our food. I am not ashamed to say there was definitely an extra glass of wine I hadn’t planned on drinking in order to cope with the situation.
That afternoon we walked around Pretoria and discussed what our different travel styles and experiences had been like. There isn’t much to look at except statues, old colonial buildings, and a market we stumbled upon. Since Alison has been in Pretoria nearly three months I used her as a resource of the two main white groups here and asked, “Do we read as English or Afrikaans?” Her reply was perfect, “No, McKenna. We read as tourists.” Sensible shoes, quick-drying clothes and small backpacks… Touché. I really enjoyed catching up with someone else who has been in travel mode for six months like I have, even if she has been looking at mushrooms instead of horses.
Having had a history class on South Africa, I thought it would be beneficial to see the Apartheid Museum the next day to jog my memory. Down at reception I asked Angelique to call me a cab to take me there. When I first walked up she said, “Yes ma’am,” and ducked her head respectfully which completely threw me off. I jumped and said “I call YOU ma’am, you don’t call ME ma’am! You’re older than me! That isn’t how we do it at home!” She rolled her eyes and I realized I may have accidentally entered myself into a complex racial scenario without a road map. The moment passed but I still felt awkward. Angelique suggested I take a tour of Soweto (which stands for South-West-Township, one of the poorer areas). I had already decided that I was not interested in poverty tourism as I saw it, and tried to politely point this out. I would not want tourists of Mississippi to flock to the Delta and ride in air conditioned cars, looking at the impoverished conditions safely outside their window before being driven back to a cushy hotel. Apparently I have it all wrong. She passionately told me that Nelson Mandela lived in that area, the Soweto uprising took place there, and it is so full of history that, “Nobody comes to South Africa without going to Soweto.” I was convinced, and she arranged for a tour guide to take me for a good price.
Alfred picked me up at the hotel. We chatted on the drive to the Apartheid Museum where I had about an hour and a half to wander around. There wasn’t particularly anything that was new to me considering the semester I spent studying, but it was definitely a good idea to visit. I think more than sadness, my primary emotion was anger. In one room there were screens with different apartheid-era politicians (white, of course) who were justifying the system of racial segregation and oppression. I would spend a minute or two in front of each one and then walk away in disgust. I have heard all of their arguments before (I can’t even write them here, they make me so irate), and it sparked an interesting comparison of segregation in Mississippi to apartheid in South Africa with Alfred when I returned to the car. His advice was, “It is in the past. We must not forget it, but it is in the past.”
In Soweto I saw Mandela’s house, closed mines, a tall building used for bungee jumping, the largest hospital in South Africa, where Winnie Mandela currently lives, one of the soccer stadiums built for the World Cup, and Hector Peterson square. Hector Peterson was a 13 year old boy who was killed during a student protest against learning Afrikaans, which was seen as the language of oppression. The iconic photograph of an older boy carrying his body gained international attention. Alfred also, spur-of-the-moment, drove me to his own house because we were nearby. We turned off a partially paved road onto splitting and cracked dirt road which was full of potholes. As with all of the other houses I’d seen in the area, there was a large fence around his property. Nobody was home so we just drove past.
On the ride back to the hotel, our discussion ranged from children’s obsession with McDonald’s (including anecdotes from him about how his grandkids love it, and various nicknames for the chain around the world), to which culture group “owns” English (I’ll give you a hint: my answer was not Queen’s English), and the tragedy of Africans who were shipped as slaves to the Americas. The last conversation made him even angrier than our talk about apartheid. There was a brief burst of passion as he said one day he was thinking about it and wanted to go find some white people to hurt, but he didn’t. That wasn’t awkward for me at all… Alfred quickly switched back to his subdued yet chipper self as if nothing had happened and I humbly agreed that it was a terrible fate. Before I let a kind and understanding black South African get away from me without me doing some anthropological digging, I asked him if I had offended Angelique by protesting when she called me ma’am. He said that, since she works in the service industry, that is probably how she addresses everyone. She was likely surprised by my protest, but she would get over it. Score, I didn’t put my foot in my mouth too badly! I enjoyed spending a few hours with a resident of Soweto (he was surprised and impressed that I knew what it stood for) and I’m glad Angelique insisted that I go.
Before I leave you, friends, let me get you up to date on the number of marriage proposals I have had in my life/this year: three. Bek told me he wanted to marry me, conveniently leaving out what that would do to poor Chris my “fiancé” *cough cough.* I had to block him so that he cannot call me anymore and regretfully inform him that we are just friends and I wouldn’t be talking to him for a while. A European man in a hostel in Portugal who has spent too much time in India asked “Are you married?” when he’d known me for mere hours. I later told him that my mom has said I should find a cat-man who can cook for me – but I said this as he was cooking for me. He slyly looked at me and said, “I think you should know… I like cats.” How do you shut that down? He was already cooking me Indian food!
And last but certainly not least, my South African proposal. I was eating dinner alone at the restaurant next to my hotel, as one does. (I told Michael one time “It isn’t eating alone if you have a book with you.” She laughed at me. Apparently that doesn’t count.) A clearly drunk man wandered over to my table holding two beers and set one down. Within two minutes of chatting, he said, “You look like my next wife.” I was dumbstruck. How forward can you get! He asked for my phone number, which, luckily, I didn’t have one yet. My phone was in my lap so he thought I was lying to him. Failing that, he asked me to, “Come to my office tomorrow, where we can talk about EVERYTHING.” I politely declined, saying I was getting on a plane to Bloemfontein the next day. (No matter who I tell, this triggers the reaction of, “Bloemfontein? Why? What the hell is in Bloemfontein?” It is a rather rural place…) A few minutes later he begged me to visit him at his office, clearly having forgotten my VERY GOOD and VERY TRUE excuse that I would be leaving Joburg. We went through this cycle a few more times over the next 20 minutes. I pointed out that “My fiancé *cough cough* is in Arkansas. He is very tall. And strong. And, need I mention, would not approve.” (Thanks Chris!) This did not deter the very drunk man. Instead he said, “You are beautiful, and very smart. In my culture, you would be worth many cows.”
Not bad for my third day in the country, eh? I might have peaked too early. Whatever happens next, it was definitely worth coming to Africa in order to get a compliment like that. Over and out.
McKenna, She Who is Worth Many Cows