Sunday, August 14, 2016


 St Lucia is my next stop, I decide. Not on the original itinerary, but recommended as a place where hippopotamuses roam the streets and you better get out of their way, as they kill more people than lions and sharks combined do. One small issue to get there? Nobody has any information, as everyone seems to drive around in their own car, so simply have no idea. Finally someone seems to know something. "Tuba Tuba" he says. I guess he must mean the name of a bus. When I get to the taxi rank in Durban, I say 'St Lucia'. Only when I say Tuba Tuba, the guy gets what I am saying and puts me in the right taxi. When I say taxi, I mean a van that sits sixteen passengers and leaves when it is full. I am always the only white person on it. Actually, white people don't know about it, or will ask me if I am safe, telling me I am brave. The passengers are just people who have no car and are going to wherever they need to go to for a cheap price. It is one of those situations where I ask myself whether that is a racist question or not. The rich are overwhelmingly white. The poor are overwhelmingly black. Some poor people use crime to make a living and most people in big cities have had some experience (people of any colour), so people, especially whites have become extra careful, as the colour of the skin might create expectations on how much there is to gain.
When we arrive, I see dusty roads, people trying to sell things everywhere, a bit of chaos. I am a little surprised, as I see no tourists or hotels. The lady that sat next to me on the bus helps me out. I have arrived in the town of Mtubatuba. St Lucia is another taxi ride away. In fact, I enter another world: a long street full of hotels, restaurants, bookings agents... Too much of this kind, in truth. I check in at the cheapest place, which is a hostel that is falling apart, smelly and a bit spooky and the receptionist cannot give me any information on anything. I sign up for a game drive (you know the kind, you drive around and get out of the car to play scrabble, snakes and ladders, drafts etc. Just kidding. Animals!). The vegetation is different, as it used to be wetlands. Most animals I have spotted before: zebras, kudus, steenbok, buffaloes... It is just me and a couple, so a very chilled day. I, however do not spot hippos. Apparently, they walk the streets in summer, not in winter (which we are having here now), as that is too cold. Funny, if you think about it. They live in the water, because their skin is too sensitive for the sun and need cooling off all the time. They cannot swim though. I heard that about 800 hippos have died in Kruger park, due to the drought (in fact saw a dead one there). It is fine, as seen many hippos elsewhere.
Always on the go, I want to go to Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast, but as usual, nobody can tell me if there is a connection, including the hostel in Coffee Bay. Convinced that I can do it, I leave at 6AM looking for a local taxi to take me back to Mtubatuba. A car stops, thinking I am hitchhiking. The driver tells me to be careful, as I cannot trust those blacks. "Why not?" "they'd rape you" "white men don't?" (I know, not a great response). The minivan in Mtubatuba fills up after two hours. I chat a bit with other passengers and learn a few Zulu words, as in this region most people are Zulu. In Durban I am referred to one shared taxi, then another and I finally find my shared taxi to Mthata. Six hours of loud South African gospel music does not turn me religious, I learn. People always help me at arrival; someone will grab my backpack and walk it to the next shared taxi I need to take. As strange as it sounds, it has never worried me when they do, as they are just trying to make sure I get into the right direction. A woman helps me here and if I can please visit her at work, so that her colleagues can see her new friend. There is still some status to be had to have a white friend, or even better: a white girlfriend. Regularly, when I just ask for information, or just have a chat. people  (esp. men) will ask for my phonenumber. It doesn't matter that I am abroad they just "want to chat". I suspect there is a bit of surprise in my approach-ability.
Coffee Bay is not easy to reach, but has developed itself in some backpacker paradise. The hostels have a cosy atmosphere with bonfires, a bar etc. I meet people here that have been traveling for years (with rasta hair and a joint in their hand). Coffee Bay allegedly got its name when in 1893 a ship full of coffee beans shipwrecked here. Some of the beans did take root and grow, but the salty soil was not suitable for them.I get a warm welcome at the hostel, as they knew I had been trying to get there all day, and they upgrade me so I can get a good night sleep. This evening thee boys, aged 8-11 are dancing, moving their hips and behinds in a way that makes me jealous, I wish I had those moves! We are now in an area where the majority is Xhosa (please, the x is a click sound) and these boys are getting ready to go into the mountains for a month to undergo a circumcision ceremony. After that month they cannot dance like that anymore. I am told (by an outsider) they are collecting money, as they need to buy cows and goats for slaughter as part of the sacrifice, pay the circumciser etc. They will live in grass huts in seclusion and only eat certain things in that month. My narrator tells me they will eat their foreskin. I have however not found any other source for this (and he has never witnessed it). I did however found that boys have died or ended up in hospital, due to complications.
The hostel trains locals so they cam eventually manage the place themselves.
I meet a Scottish guy and we undertake a hike the next day to the 'whole in the wall'. As often, the destination is just an excuse to go on a long hike. The arrival point is a massive rock in the sea with a natural gate in the middle. The sea is far too cold and has strong currents, so swimming is not an option.
Early evening we cross the river and find a different Coffee Bay. An unpaved square with lots of male youngsters ready to get drunk. The shop is small and you cannot see anything from closeby, as the products are at a distance, behind bars.
I enjoy an evening with a few drinks, turn down the hostelmanager and get ready for another ridiculously early rise the next morning.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Slaying Dragons

The backpacking trail is very well laid out here. Every hostel has a small free book in which tips and hostels are mentioned; superhandy, as I can then call them on my way there. The Bazbus picks up tourists at hostels and delivers them at hostels in other towns. It runs at certain days and times, so one needs to book it a day ahead. I immediately decide to try to avoid this bus as much as possible, as it is almost as if we are not supposed to mix with locals. Also, it is more costly. Drakensberg is hard to reach on public transport, I have little choice. The pick up point is only a 15 mins walk from my host in a quiet neighbourhood in Johannesburg, but he insists I take an uber nonetheless. Safety above everything.
Two daytrips are undertaken here. Daytrip one is an all day hike into the mountains to the 'amphitheater' (natural shape of the mountain range). I can keep up, but struggle, like I always do with having to jump over certain gaps etc. The higher we get, the more snow there is and half the group (4) decides to turn back, because it is getting too dangerous on the slippery path along the steep slope. Four of us continue. The front man literally has to make footsteps in the snow in which we then step. It feels like a very long hike and when I think we are finally there, we still have to cross a snowy plateau, where with every step you don't know how deep your foot will fall. Half the time at least knee deep. I somehow manage to make it to the end, but now we still have to walk all the way back. I tell the guide sternly to stay with me. He and I arrive a good hour after the rest, which gives us time to chat a long time about life etc. and I receive an invitation to hang out together. Still a little naive, it takes me a while to realise it is the 'all night' type of hanging out (He was a lot directer with another girl in the group, he just asks her for a one night stand- so subtle to ask two women simultaneously). The hike was clearly too much for me, as I get sick on he drive back, but my stubbornness is stronger than my fitness!

The next day I take a trip to Lesotho, which is a lot more chilled. A quick visit to an elementary school, drinking locally brewed corn beer (disgusting), staring at vague rock paintings of the San people (first civilisation here), lunch on the top of a mountain, a visit to a traditional healer (sangoma-she does not heal me, but talks about her job and calling). 
Lesotho is poor. Not much electricity (a few solar panels), mostly self sufficient (a relative term) farmers, unpaved roads, high percentages of AIDS/HIV and only a third of the kids will be able to afford secondary school, keeping in mind that this daytrip was only slightly cheaper than one semester of schooling.
Lesotho has stayed independent and not suffered the apartheid regime. However, all the resources (the dam, diamond mine) belong to South Africans and the biggest export product are men who go and work in South Africa.
I would like to stay on in Drakensberg, but the connections are not great, and there is a lot more to see, so moving on. 

Durban is my next stop, but only for the night, last minute, I find a local host.

"Before we go anywhere, I need to stop by a flat to collect rent. Do you mind witnessing it?" asks my hostess. We go into a dump of an apartment block where I then watch her bark and point at a man for not having paid part of the rent. He naturally raises his voice to defend the accusations, to which she sharply comments that he shouldn't disrespect her and she will kick him out.
I don't know the backstory, but I do know this is a very uncomfortable situation. I don't see a landlord and a tenant. I see a white woman putting down a black man because she has power over him.
"Black men don't respect women" she explains in the car, when I say she screamed at him.
She obviously is no racist "but the country is going downhill, blacks think differently, we need to teach them how to deal with things" The phrase " I am no racist, BUT..." is one that I hear more often. Always convincing.
Well, she buys half a loaf of white bread and gives it to a black beggar. When another beggar comes along, she yells he needs to share his bread. He is clearly very hungry and I suspect mentally not together. He doesn't react. She grabs the bread out of his hands and divides it in two and gives both half. Of course, she is doing more than I do, but this is patronising of the worst kind.
Her whole way of talking and approaching things is abrupt, loud, blunt with an attitude as if she cannot be wrong.
E.g. "do you like walking and running?" Me: " I am not into running". "I SAID running AND walking."
"You want to see downtown?" "Sure". "No, you have to say: yes please that would be great, I am doing you a great favour, you are lucky, you know"
This is her nice side. At the house she orders the (obviously black) cleaner, Theresa and handyman Alex around in a way that is too much for me. She criticises Alex for not having worked for her on Tuesday. "You are working for someone else, aren't you?" He went to the hospital with his brother. "that does not take all day." Theresa explains the hospital is far away and waiting for a doctor takes hours. "I did not ask you, I need to hear it from him. And why are you sitting in the front?" She quiets down when I say that I had wanted her to sit in the front of the car.
I burst into tears when I am alone with the cleaner, as I have never experienced anyone talking to their staff like that. She tells most whites are like that- something which is confirmed by other blacks I randomly ask.
I am ashamed of my crying, as I am only witnessing this for a number of hours, these people have to live it.

I know there is no point going against my hostess as this is how she grew up here (I remark occasionally that one cannot generalise) and she won't accept any disagreement. I hate every minute of her, but
don't entirely regret this experience, as this is the face of South Africa that is still very much in existence. I have been able to avoid it, by finding black hosts and overall open-minded people. 
That is also a subjective term, as this lady would certainly count herself as one, as look how good she is to other people.

She is a bit worried about me.
"Do you realise you have a hearing problem? You don't always react when I talk to you."
" I don't think I do", I respond. I suspect that my senses are trying to protect me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

my way

Back to me

The group has been left behind, time for exploring South Africa my way.

Johannesburg is not pretty. I never quite get a feel for it, as it is stretched out and I move around by car or taxi. I stay for four days with three different people and enjoy my regained freedom. Busi picks me up and within ten minutes in the car we have a more enticing conversation than I have had with 24 people over eleven days. She tells me that about 25 years ago, me sitting next to her in the car could only have meant she was driving me around in my car. I notice straight away that everyone is being labeled immediately; white of British descent, white of Afrikaner descent, Jewish, Xhosa, Zulu, low status, high status. .. Busi wearing a headcloth (a doek) would make people approach her differently than when she does not.
At night she takes me to Freedom Station, a squat-like place where people from all backgrounds come together. I listen in to a fascinating discussion of the bookclub (did not know the book) and the excellent jazzband that performs. This is in Sofia town, a neighbourhood from which blacks have been removed during apartheid.
Most of my time in Jo'burg is spent thinking and learning about apartheid.
I take a four hours cycle tour in Soweto (South-Western Township), a neighbourhood to which the black population has been moved since 1904. I have read about apartheid and such over the years, but being in the actual place does bring up emotions. We see 'houses', which are basically a room made out of corrugated iron, but there are also bigger, more beautiful houses- often people don't want to move out, once they have made money. We were told there are about three million people living there, google claims about half of that. The saddest part is when we get to 400 newly built apartments, in which 400 families were supposed to be moved into, as part of a project to help the poorest, post-apartheid. At the last minute the council decided to rent them out, which was not affordable and therefore these flats have been empty for six years. Anyone who does try to rent a place, won't be safe and some broken windows are visible.

I visit the Apartheid museum, which displays the history of the nation. I need to leave after two hours, as I cannot take in more; I will never get my head round understanding why one group abuses another. I also visit the Voortrekkersmonument in Pretoria, which tells the history of the Boers that had settled in the Cape , but then moved to the interior of the country (1836), as they wanted to escape British rule. This is known as the Great Trek. This museum is interesting, as it tells the story of one particular group and just follows their narrative. It is not presented in an offensive way, but it is important to keep in mind that the history of the locals is ignored and these boers are the architects of apartheid.

It is strange we never learnt about this in school, as these first settlers are essentially the Dutch. They landed on the Cape in 1652 as a colony for the ships to refreshen. These people are known as Boers, which in Dutch means 'farmers'. They believed in slavery and used the bible to justify it. Descendants from these people are called Afrikaners, they still speak a form of Dutch called Afrikaans (which is very understandable for me-up until 1925 Dutch was an official language, then it became known as Afrikaans).There is no further relationship with the Netherlands or the Dutch, even though their religion for example is still Dutch reform. I have not gotten any negative press from anyone. Throughout history in South Africa, the Afrikaners fought the Zulu's and the British who had taken ownership of the great parts of the land. Eventually the Brits and Afrikaners came together to form the Union of South Africa and influenced by Nazi doctrine, apartheid became a fact. I realise this is a very poor summary, but the focus of the blog lies elsewhere.
I will however take an element of this to my classroom. In 1976 a serious student demonstration in which the black students demanded education in their own language, rather than that wretched language of the oppressor, was bloodily shot down. This was an important moment, ads more protests followed and the outside world realised something was seriously wrong when a child was killed by the police. Here you can see how language and identity play an important role. There are now eleven officially recognised languages. Nowadays some people are upset that Stellenbosch university is not 100% Afrikaans speaking, but that the government demanded that it teaches in English as well...

In the evenings I go to the theatre with Elliott. The plays are about post-apartheid South Africa, one is interesting, but somewhat boring with unconvincing characters, whike the other (mooi street) hits all the right notes-even if I dont get all the references.
Elliott is a theatre maker and a critical thinker and we speak for hours about politics and history. He states that apartheid might be over, there is still a strongly social economic apartheid. The rich are overwhelmingly white, the poor overwhelmingly black. It is harder to create new businesses or grow ideas, if you have no money to invest, while the ones that do have money can keep growing. A lot of people still hold on to the mentality that working for a white person is better.
The last person I stay with is an Afrikaner. I have noticed that a lot of Afrikners are blunt and at times unpleasant. Dwayne is the opposite of this; he is welcoming and generous. He works as a psychologist to bridge cultural differences at work. Unfortunately we dont spend enough time chatting, but he believes in a brighter future.  His friend ttells me that due to positive discrimination he cannot find a job as a white male in his field of geology,  so will have to lesve the country. Dwayne sees it in perspective "it is a negative on a personal level, but hopefully helps to reset the balance."
We hit the pubs and we bump into the Elliottt and co. Small world after all.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Help! I am in a group

Botswana is hard to travel through without a car and every activity is expensive. I find an overland tour that takes me to the places I want to see and seems a bit less expensive than doing it by myself. I am a bit nervous about it, as I am very used to travel by myself and at times let myself be taken to places by locals, while here I will be stuck in a group for eleven days. It might however be nice not to have to arrange everything and I might meet some cool people. Unfortunately all my worries come more than true. The group consists mainly of Australians (and kiwi's) who have come mostly in two's and click together- at times I feel like I am in highschool again, but not in a good sense-. They have no interest in me and barely evoke any interest from me, with hardly any chances to talk to locals. We have to put up (and down) our tent every day and the big drop in temperature, for which I am not prepared (so so cold!!) means that I feel unwell from day two onwards, but hardly anybody seems to care. In short: I am not quite myself and from day one I am counting down towards the end of this part of the trip.

We visit the Chobe National Park, where we drive around in jeeps, trying to spot the wildlife (game drive) and I see giraffes, elephants, zebra's... Actually more enjoyable than that is a boat tour we take early evening, from which you can see buffalo's, hippo's and other animals feed themselves on the waterfront. This lies at a meeting point of Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe and they have fought each other for it, as it is such an attractive tourist destination.

The highpoint of Botswana is the Okavango Delta, wetlands with a lot of wildlife. We are transported in mokoro's, canoe type of boats in which you sit with a second person and a so called 'poler' moves the boat forward by standing in the back and pushing a pole through the water. It is pleasant and beautiful, we camp on an island and in the evening the polers come together and sing traditional songs and dance humorously to it. This is the highpoint, as we don't see that many animals on our three hours hike through the dry savannah, but we admire the hippo's from the water. I spend a significant amount of time talking to Dreamer, one of the polers (both here and in Zimbabwe names as Always, Rejoice, Comfort seem to be the norm).                                                                               It is amazing how we have brought our tents, our own food and have each paid a whopping $160, but the polers still have to live of tips and use their own boats. Dreamer tells me about his life. He had a girlfriend with whom he had a baby, but the baby died after five months. I tell him that we have few baby deaths and it is very tragic. He says it was sad, but that it happens to others as well, so that made it easier. His girlfriend also suddenly died, leaving him with another child, that is now being raised by his mother and one of his sisters. He has never been to school, but his daughter does go to school and if she does well on her exam when she turns twelve, she will probably go to secondary school.

We then carry the trip on to South Africa, where we make a few panoramic stops (but it is incredibly misty) to then arrive at the famous Kruger park. We engage in a full day safari, spotting four out of the so called big five (lions, rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo - we miss out on the leopard, but we also see impalas, hyenas, zebras, wildebeests, kudus, baboons....). I enjoy this, but with an old crappy camera, my pictures are quite disappointing, but well, life should not be lived through a lense!