Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reminiscing About South Africa


On Wednesday, I attended the Young Professionals discussion group. The discussion moderator has returned after a ten week work experience in South Africa for his Master's Degree. He stayed with a family in Cape Town and worked in one of the townships on the outskirts. Yeah, I was envious of his experience. He's an impressive guy (quite a few years younger than me) who has taught English in China, and has traveled to India, Australia, and Europe. It was great to hear about his experiences in South Africa and is a reminder of how long ago it was that I was there, myself (the photo is of the 22 year old me below the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first African president of South Africa approximately 100 days before).

In 1994, in my final few months in Italy, I decided to go on a trip of a lifetime. I had planned to do one "big trip" during my three years in Europe. I wavered between Moscow / St. Petersburg, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. However, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president in May 1994, I knew that I wanted to go and so I did. It was difficult getting permission to go, because I was working at the Palau Community Center during my last year in Italy. One of the conditions for working there (not my choice, anyway) was that we could not take leave. However, when a co-worker was allowed to go on the ship's underway period to Turkey and Israel while the rest of us picked up her workload, I used that as my rationale for why they should allow me to take a week's leave. I wanted to see Israel with the ship, too, but only one person could go, and it was for over a month. I simply asked for a week. My immediate supervisor denied my request. I think he was jealous, though. He was married to a woman with severe drama problems (she always caused problems at work). I felt sorry for him in a way, because he had to be married to such a lady. Of course he would deny my leave! I had complete freedom and he didn't.

However, my leading officer called me to his office on the ship and questioned me on the trip. He seemed impressed that I was interested in traveling so far away for vacation (very few sailors at my command traveled to Africa on leave; most actually went back to the USA to visit family and friends for the full 30 days while few stayed in Europe and traveled the continent). He also seemed impressed that I had researched the trip and had a plan in place (including what I would do if I found myself in trouble, since it was still not considered a stable place in 1994). So, he approved my leave. When I took money out of my account and transferred the dollars into Italian lire, I was a "millionaire" for the only time in my life (the exchange rate was about 1,200 lire for $1). I walked to the Italian travel agency and bought myself a South Africa vacation. Due to the fact that I had to change dates because my sister had come to France to visit the French family I knew and my parents wanted me to visit them, I was willing to give up my vacation to South Africa to see my sister and the French family. However, she got homesick and went home early and I lost my original date when I wanted to travel. I had planned to visit Kruger National Park for three days, to go on a real safari.

In deciding where in South Africa to go, the tour had various options. The cheapest week long trip was Johannesburg. Cape Town was about $500 more. They also offered Durban, but I wanted to go to the South Africa that I had heard so much about. Yes, Cape Town would have been ideal, not to mention gorgeous. Had they offered 3 days in Cape Town and 3 days in Johannesburg, I would have taken that trip. But, I had to choose one or the other. I figured that since the Johannesburg option offered add-on tours of Pretoria, Soweto, Sun City, and a diamond mine, I figured that I would see more on that vacation if I went to Johannesburg than if I had spent the week at Cape Town. Usually, when I visit a location for the first time, I think 3 days is a good number to get to know a city. If I don't like it, I move on to something else. If I like it, I get a taste.

After I bought my South Africa vacation, I became "the talk of the town"! One of the Italian ladies who worked the front desk at the barracks I lived in asked me if I was going to South Africa. When I asked her how she knew, she told me that she overheard someone talking downtown that a young American bought a trip to South Africa and how they were impressed because they thought I was rich! I love that story. Anyhow, the Italian lady at the front desk said that she thought it was probably me because the ladies knew that I was not like the other sailors. I didn't get drunk, I wasn't loud, and I was interested in traveling and other cultures. Man, you can't keep secrets in that small Navy community!

I've written on my blog about my trip to South Africa, so I won't repeat myself. Despite being robbed there, it was still the best vacation I've ever taken. Truly a trip of a lifetime. I wish I could make many trips like that. My ideal life would include one foreign vacation each year and three domestically. A vacation once a quarter! Anywhere from four days to two weeks is good for me.

I find it fascinating that when I traveled to South Africa in 1994, not many Americans had traveled there (there was a boycott during the 1980s, too). Now, quite a few of my friends have been there. Before, it used to be that all of my friends have been to Europe. Now, the new litmus test seems to be South Africa. "Yeah, who hasn't been to Europe? But have you been to South Africa yet?" Its the new measure of friends who are travel compatible. Not to be snobby or anything (I realize that its not that cheap to travel to South Africa, plus the crime rate is still pretty high), but in my last job, I learned that having foreign travel experience was the #1 factor in determining compatibility among co-workers. I did not purposefully seek this information out at first, but when I was trying to figure out what it was that made it difficult to get along with certain types at that office, every single person I had personality differences with had not been outside of the country. The ones who became friends have all traveled to another country.

The discussion moderator informed me about a South African film that was filmed in the township that he had worked in. It's called u-Carmen, which is the South African version of the famous opera, Carmen (the only opera I like). Wow, I had never even heard of it. Now I'm going to have to check it out. I asked him if he got robbed during his time there. He said that he came close once, but he actually didn't. Wow. Good job! He told me that people warned him not to go out at night, even to see a movie. It was simply too dangerous. That's exactly what I was told when I was in South Africa (but I did not listen). It would be difficult to live in a country where you could never go out at night, for fear of being robbed or possibly killed. How spoiled I am! If I could not be out at night in Portland lest I run the risk of being robbed, it would be hard to get to work and home again in the winter months. In a way, this fear of night is a prison sentence. I could not live in such a restrictive environment.

After the discussion group concluded for the evening, I noticed a display at the restaurant about winning a trip to Brazil. Of course I filled out the entry form. I would love to win a contest like that. I'm in serious need of a foreign trip and I truly want to see Rio de Janeiro and hike up to Cristo Redentor. I'd love to win that trip. A cousin of mine is good about winning trips from radio contests. I wish I had her luck!

The video link below is from my favourite film about South Africa: Sarafina! The Sound of Freedom. I consider that funeral song to be one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Unfortunately, it is not on the soundtrack album. I don't know why. All the other songs are. The eulogy is great, too. "They fear you because you are young! You are the generation that will be free! How powerful you must be..." Enjoy!

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