In the summer of 2006 I was introduced to a culture I never knew existed. Whilst living in London an American friend had befriended a colleague who invited us to a South African bar in Leytonstone called Zulus (now unfortunately the Red Lion). It seemed like nearly every South African in London flocked to East London where they could bunch up 12 people in a 3 person flat and pay cheap rent – so Zulus was perfectly situated.
Zulus was a hole in the wall where Afrikaans from across London would meet regularly, braii (BBQ) next to the sand volleyball courts out the back, and sip on Savanna’s. Downstairs was a pub decorated in African trinkets with zebra fabric and wooden statues. Upstairs the club got too rowdy for my liking. At Zulus, you’re more likely to hear Afrikaans spoken over English. And it became our world.
From there slowly but shortly my close friends and I became dear friends with a household of South Africans. There were 6 guys and 3 girls living in poorly reputed Forest Gate in East London, and about 45 minutes west on the Tube sat our sad dwelling otherwise known as the Crack House on the cusp of posh Maida Vale and decrepit Kilburn Park. We were similarly 5 girls and 3 boys shacked up into 4 bedrooms.
Nearly every weekend we made the trip east, or vise versa, and became immersed in their South African customs. Days were spent laying in the sun, braiiing over wood boards in the backyard and learning how to say Afrikaans sayings like Hoe gaan dit? and lekker. At night, it was off to Zulus where we would be a select few American girls trying our Afrikaans out on foreign boys and dancing the traditional, ballroom-esque dance of langarming. Other weekends a handful of them would shack up at ours, bodies sprawled out on couch cushions haphazardly on the floor after hosting our traditions of an American BBQ with red Solo cups and beer pong.
Christmas 2006 was my first Christmas away from home. Although sad to be away from friends and family, my best friend Emily and I couldn’t have had a better second option spending Christmas in Forest Gate amongst a plethora of South Africans who cooked us a traditional feast before heading off to Zulus and dancing the night away. Just 5 months later our Visa’s had expired and we had to head back to the States. Saying goodbye to our colleagues and closest American friends was hard, but saying goodbye to the South Africans was equally as depressing. We swore one day we’d make it to South Africa to see them again and experience their culture in their own country.
Prior to meeting them I had encountered a few South African whilst living in London in 2003 and Scotland in 2005, but experiencing the Afrikaans culture was very new to me. Friends and family at home curiously questioned when I told them about my new friends whether they were black or white. The ignorance of white African’s living in Africa was not assumed. Do they make clicking noises when they speak? I had never before heard of Apartheid – how is it that us Americans have been so sheltered from far-off monumental global affairs? I don’t recall my high-school history class going into detail about Nelson Mandela and the race struggle that is still so apparent today.
Since returning from London, both myself and my good friend Jaime have ventured overseas nearly every year continuing our travel legacies. This past November was the year, and Jaime and I prepared for our trip to South Africa. With only 16 days to make the most of an enormous country we planned and detailed our route. We’d spend a handful of days in the cosmopolitan of Cape Town, where mountains and sea create a unique city like none I’ve experienced anywhere before. From there, we’d drive to the wine lands to meet up with our old friends the boys, before road tripping the Garden Route on the Eastern Cape and ending with a 4 day safari in Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park.
Prior to arriving I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was told Johannesburg was a dangerous city, ranked 50 on the global scale and even walking around during the day was unadvisable, so we chose not to spend time there. A ranking of 50 is bad, but my college city of Baltimore is rated worse. Carjacking and mugging is common in general apparently, and the police are corrupt. You’re better off paying off a cop to avoid a night in the slammer then facing what’s on the other side.
With blacks as the majority they rule the country. But did that mean we necessarily should have something to fear? Many acquaintances we met along our travels were bitter – with the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program stating that those disadvantaged by Apartheid are given preference for jobs before a white person – our friends fled to London in their 20s claiming there was no work and earning the pound allowed for a solid sum to send home to their families. In South Africa, a black person is black, a mixed person is colored, and Indians and some Chinese are classified under this rule. Saying your black or white isn’t taboo. You don’t look over your shoulder wondering if someone overheard and thinks you’re being racist. It is reality and government decisions are based on race. With that said, many question current policy leaders.
The reality for us then constituted, what is safe? Are we supposed to tip toe around and fear everything and everyone? What happened to giving the benefit of the doubt first, and judging second? This was a topic Jaime and I discussed in detail every night before we went to bed. Even locals say they fear walking the streets. Is this all a bit of paranoia or is it really as bad as they say?
Amongst the various travelers we met on our journey, from a middle-aged Afrikaans couple, to Irish sweethearts, a young South African miner to random people on the street – it was always a topic of conversation. “Two young white girls like you have to be careful.” “Don’t stop for anyone, lock your doors every time you get in the car, and hide the GPS.” “Take a taxi, even though its two blocks, always take a taxi.” Ultimatley, we opted for better safe than sorry. But I still question, is that a way to live? We felt it from the bottom of the country all the way to the top. In the end however, the people we met from tour operators to restaurant owners to taxi drivers to people in bars, the South Africans provided a warm and interesting experience.
On our fourth day we rented a car in Cape Town and headed to Cape Point, one of the most southerly points in Africa. I let Jaime do the driving at the onset and played navigator often providing friendly reminders about being on the other side of the road despite the GPS as we headed south. By the time we reached Cape Point the fog and rain had cleared and we hiked to the top of the lighthouse, weary of the Beware of Baboon signs sticking out from the bush. The guys had warned us to leave early, the 3 of them calling throughout the day pressing how horrific Cape Town traffic could be. But at this point, we were already late.
Driving out from the Cape Point lighthouse traffic was a stand still. Would you believe it? Baboons! A truck was stopped just two cars ahead and had baboons hanging off its passenger side. Others aimlessly walked in the road, then scurried into the bush with a baby clinging to its chest. We sat there for about 15 minutes, snapping photos and admiring the vulgar, aggressive animals. Yup, we were definitely going to be late.
Finally, hours later we arrived at our old friend Cedric’s house in Paarl, situated in the center of the beautiful wine lands. Standing in the driveway awaiting our arrival with a beer in his hand, I nearly cried when he picked me up and spun me around. “I know you like beers,” he said, and we went inside.
After a bit of catching up, we were desperately late arriving to the braii at Jacques after 8 pm. Then again, we were on South African time. Being with Ced and his wife Althea, Jacques and Felicity and their new daughter Mackenzie, and Derek and his girlfriend felt like old times in London. We sat for hours reminiscing about the these times – each of us remembering different stories in a variety of detail. I even thanked them for speaking English with us around, as it is their second language. By the time the braii got going, and man do South Africans like their meat, it was after 10 pm on a Tuesday night. They say South Africa comes second to Argentina when it comes to meat consumption.
Since leaving London at some point over the past 6 years we’ve all grown up a bit, but it still was as if none of the important stuff had changed. The guys are all married now, in their mid-thirties, and Jaime and I despite our cubicle-life, Ced’s right, we do like beers.
The following morning Ced and Althea took the day off of work to tour us around the wine region. From Paarl to Stellenbosch we took our time sampling wine and cheese from 4 different wineries, while Ced kindly did the driving. I was delighted to be introduced to pinotage, a South African red staple, which a bottle from Rhebokskloof Estate had to come with me.
That evening, we sat around the braii in the front yard as Ced cooked the snoek, a common fish found in the southern hemisphere and we had another late dinner relaxing in the summer breeze. The next morning, saying good bye was sad, it all went so fast. From here on out we were on our own in South Africa again, and Jaime and I began our road trip on the Garden Route, just her and I on the open road.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on Cape Town, the Garden Route, and our African Safari.