Joberg

I was sitting on the grass at a community pool watching Frank swim and smiled to myself as group of cute young ‘tweens posed for selfies. As they waited for their guest of honor to arrive for a surprise party, I engaged them in conversation. They were extremely friendly and inquisitive, wanting to know about the US. Like any kids, they were excited to talk about school and their dreams for the future. Their enthusiasm darkened a bit when I asked them what it was like to live in Johannesburg. “It’s so dangerous.” “You can’t walk around with a cellphone because someone will just grab it.” “When you are driving in your car, you have to keep the windows closed and hide your purse and phone because they will grab it.” “If you don’t give it to them, they might have a gun.” They also told me they never walk around at night. And this was a very nice, upper middle-class neighborhood. It really made me sad that these young kids had to live like this but it wasn’t the first time we had heard about all the crime in Johannesburg.

Frank and I had talked with a lot of people and I don’t think one person said it was a city worth visiting. I pictured it as a chaotic dystopia, similar to that of Hill Valley in Back to the Future II. “Crime is rampant,” Businesses are leaving in droves” and “No one goes there except to fly in or out of the airport.” But we like to keep open minds. Having a few days post safari, we decided to see for ourselves.

From afar, the city looked modern and quite nice. Unfortunately, as we got closer to downtown, we found the area pretty much as described – crowded, filthy, traffic jams, with lots of pretty unsavory-looking characters. Even our driver wasn’t very complimentary, saying he had lived there but “got out because it can poison you.” We questioned the trash in the streets or the throngs walking in front of cars and he’d say, “That’s Johannesburg.” He pointed out areas even he avoided because they was full of drug dealers and “bad people who slept during the day and came out at night.” But you can walk around parts of New York, Chicago and other cities and think the same thing. Was there more to the city than this?

We were pleased to find out that there was. We dropped off a young “safari couple” in an area that they assured us was safe and a little artsy. We saw several restaurants and a lot of young people. We discovered that although many businesses had moved out of the CBD, five major banks and some other companies remained committed to the area. This resulted in at least half of the CBD being cleaned up and relatively safe. Other areas are slowly being gentrified, attracting young professionals and new businesses. And, like any other city, there are many nicer surrounding neighborhoods (like the one by the pool). Although the perimeters of the homes had those tall walls and electrified security systems, the homes themselves were lovely. We stayed in an area called Sandton, just north of the city. Many of the major businesses have moved to this area and there are a lot of fancy hotels and upscale shopping centers.

But like all metropolitan areas, the CBD is the beating heart. And Johannesburg will need to step up. New businesses won’t locate there if their workers feel unsafe. And if businesses don’t come, unemployment, unrest and crime will continue to multiply. It will take a major investment in security. (We heard many accounts of local police who didn’t respond to calls, traffic police on the take, and jails that were full so many criminals continue to walk the streets.) Who wants to move to a city where you have to fear going out at night and live life behind walled compounds? And who will want to stay there? I know those bright young girls I met – Johannesburg’s newest generation — dreamed of escaping to other places. And then what happens?

Awesome, awesome animals!!!

Our days: 5am wake up call. 5:30 3-hr morning drive. 8:30 breakfast. 9:45 bush walk. 11:00 nap/read/watch hippos. 2:00 lunch. 3:00 nap/read/watch hippos. 4:30 3-hr afternoon drive. 8:00 dinner. 10pm sleep. Repeat.

Load Shedding (and new pics)

As an addendum to my previous blog, “48 Hours in Zululand,” here are the accompanying photos.

At various times during our trip, we joined with South African residents in experiencing rolling blackouts or “loadshedding.” Traffic lights were inoperable. Lights and air conditioning went off — one side of a shopping mall was dark — although some stores still allowed customers in(!). ATMs were out of business.

The current infrastructure, much of it in disrepair, simply cannot keep up with the demand for electricity. Although these outages are “scheduled,” it doesn’t always go according to plan. It’s hurting businesses, many of which have been forced to use generators. But generators are expensive and most small businesses cannot afford them.

For South Africans, it’s a major issue, often resulting in violent protests. For us, it was a minor inconvenience, particularly in that the outages play havoc with the already slow internet. Signals bounce around the sky and routers reboot. Thus, my photos were nearly impossible to upload but here they are now…

 

Kwazulu-Natal

Frank and I spent more than just “48 Hours in Zululand.” The home province of our dear friend Magugu, Kwazulu-Natal came highly recommended for its stunning beaches, soaring mountains and great weather, as well as for its cultural and historical significance.  In addition to our visits to the Simunye Zulu Lodge and the luxurious Cathedral Peak in the Drackensberg mountains, we explored the city of Durban and relaxed for several days at the Zimbale resort. We had a car and the area was very easy to navigate. We discovered many fun neighborhoods and had some of our best South African meals. Not far from the metropolitan area is the Midlands Meander, an area of rolling hills dotted with artist studios, unique shops and cozy restaurants. All in all, we were not surprised to find out that Kwazulu-Natal is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

48 Hours in Zululand

It has been the most interesting 48 hours, illustrating the incredible contrast that is South Africa. We began in ‘heaven,’ amidst the flowering landscape and attentive service at Cathedral Peak resort– gourmet dining, poolside pina coladas, speedy internet, spa, lawn bowling(!) – all within the backdrop of the incredible majesty of the Drakenberg Mountains.

Our guide connected with a resort employee, Moses, who agreed to bring us to his home in the mountain village. We set off and after a short ride, were asked to park our car along the rugged dirt road and walk up the hill to a cluster of four small, clay thatch-roofed buildings. Three were square and one was round. Three goats and a half-blind dog wandered around the dusty plot of land. There was a grapevine terrace (a spot of cool shade!), and a small vegetable garden with maize (corn) and some cannabis(!). We were introduced to a middle-aged woman, who invited us into the largest of the square structures. We sat on small stools. Two more men, evidently the woman’s husband and another, joined us. They explained the kitchen, the roles of men and women and the process of making beer, which we tasted.

Next, we went to the round hut. The men were directed to one side of the room and the woman (me) went to the other. We were told how the purpose of this building was to honor and connect with the ancestors. Before any celebration, meat and beer are presented first to the ancestors. On bended knees, the men light and inhale herbs, calling forth the spirits as they seek advice and guidance. Evidently, women aren’t allowed inside unless all the men are gone. Then it’s the responsibility of the oldest woman relative.

I was somewhat disappointed that there weren’t any children around. They were all at school. During our travels, we had seen so many kids on the road, all in uniforms taking the often long walk to school. In the late afternoon, they’d be alongside the roads waving at the cars, hoping for some “sweets.” I was excited to find that our next stop would be a rural school. After getting permission from the two teachers (who didn’t speak English), we went into the classroom of forty three to four year olds. The kids were adorable and very well behaved. They were extremely curious about their visitors and many were afraid because they had never seen a white person before. The classroom was sparse yet tidy. Like any preschool, letters were written on the blackboard. But unlike the schools I am used to, there were few books and toys. We asked some questions through our guide. The kids learn through their own language for the first few years. They begin wearing uniforms in first grade. Meals are often provided to the kids through a social worker. Before we left, we were treated to a little song and dance! The language may be different but the enthusiasm and smiles were like any group of preschoolers. We left candy with the teachers and took down their address so we could send some coloring books when we get back home.

As we approached various villages, we encountered colorful crowds. Today was Pension Payday! Once a month, the government goes around to all the villages disbursing pension payments to those 65 and older — IN CASH! Over 16 million people are eligible for these pensions. In the rural villages and towns, markets pop-up selling produce, clothing and other goods. It’s a vital component of the South African economy. One of the towns we went through was Greytown. Juxtaposed with the crowded and chaotic town center was the wealthier side of town. As we lunched at the country club golf course, we watched local soccer moms speeding along in their SUVs after picking up their kids from private school.

Far away from town, we came along a large pile (cairn) of small rocks just off the road. Our guide Paul told us there were two explanations as to what it represented. The first was that we were entering a Zulu tribal area and anyone passing through had to spit on a rock and add it to the pile “to ward off ill luck and propitiate the spirits.” The other was directed at their enemies. As they passed the cairn, they were given two hours before they would be hunted down – yikes!

Our next encounter involved rocks, as well. The police had set up a roadblock to warn drivers about trouble in the next town. He suggested we turn around as citizens were violently protesting the lack of services (water, electricity). Paul was familiar with the roads and said he knew of another road just before that town and so we proceeded. There was no protest (“Only believe half of what you hear in Africa” – Paul) but just before the NEXT town, rocks appeared in the road, then a tree, then a few more boulders. We kept driving and dodging until Paul flagged down a heath services truck coming in the opposite direction. They informed us that the road ahead was blocked and that the locals had taken out the bridge. Needless to say, we had to find an alternate route. We were fortunate Paul knew the backroads and before long, we were back on track.

The area is going through a severe drought and many of the rivers are dried up. Every once in a while, we’d pass a cluster of large barrels. Paul told us that a truck comes by and fills them with water. At one point, a young woman was filling a container to take home. Her face was covered with clay (natural sunscreen!) and she cheerfully agreed to take a photo with me.

We passed through many more poor communities before approaching an opulent, gated area of countless uniform homes surrounded by manicured grounds. Our guide said the compound belonged to President Zuma who had built it to house his six wives and entourage. Several members of the current Congress were questioning its excessive price tag.

More driving lead to what would be the day’s final destination, Simunye Zulu Lodge, and another rock story. As we pulled up to the entrance, we were met by two young men in native costume. Lackie, the manager, said that recent rains and a tractor had taken out their road. Would we mind if we left our car at the neighbor down the road? Having no choice, we drove the half mile through the sugar fields and left the car. Frank and I crammed into the front seat of the pickup with Lackie. Paul, the other young fellow and our luggage rode in the back. It took forty-five minutes to drive 4-kilometers down a rocky, extremely rutted dirt road to reach the lodge! The rooms were nice so we settled in to freshen up. Unfortunately, our room had no running water. We had wanted a place that wasn’t too polished and this was it. No longer run by a major hotel chain, this “cultural experience” had been taken over by community through a government initiative. The grounds needed much work but the young people that worked there more than made up for it. They couldn’t have been kinder or more enthusiastic.

Curiously, there were no older people on the property. We were told that the “elder” was a polygamist and tonight he was with his “other” wife. The show was in a very warm room but we were happy to participate. Paul said the dancing was some of the most authentic and best he’d experienced. We greatly enjoyed it and followed the dancers to the dining area for the simply prepared food. There was only one other couple beside us (Danes) and we ate together. That night, we sprayed for bugs and tried to sleep.

Although they forgot to bring water for toilets before we went to bed, Lackie and Henry were outside at 7am with a bucket and sincere apologies. We had breakfast and learned more about Zulu ways and history. Frank tossed a spear and I ground some maize. In their interpretation, the round room was used to connect with the ancestors, but was also the home of the most honored member of the community, the grandmother. I took lots of pictures. The staff gathered around the camera after each shot to see them and I promised to send copies.

We packed up and headed back to the pickup. Somehow the Danes had managed to drive their car down(!) so they followed us out. It was a quiet, reflective drive back to Durban. “In Africa, always expect the unexpected,” said Paul.

He dropped us off at the Fairmont Zimbale, a sprawling 5-star resort along the ocean.

Garden Route (pictorial)

We took a 5-day road trip to explore South Africa’s Garden Route, 189 miles of natural beauty with a wide range of topography, vegetation, wildlife and outdoor activities.

Walking with the Lions

Five guards with rifles,  a few tourists (us), some chunks of red meat (so they wouldn’t want us!) and two REALLY big lions!!!

Cape Point and West Cape (pictorial)

Great. White. Sharks.

Cape Town Colors and Flavors

Cape Town is one of the most colorful places I’ve ever seen. Of course, you’ll be awed by the colors of nature – in the sea, the blue skies, the mountains, the gardens (private and public). But the city itself is colorful, too. There is a lot of public art in the squares and along the waterfront.

What tickled me were the colorful buildings. Many of these can be attributed to the ‘Cape Malay’ community, which has played a major role in shaping the history, culture and diversity of Cape Town. Their vibrantly hued homes and businesses (including many great restaurants) draw tourists to their Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Many of the Malays are descendants of slaves brought here by the Dutch from the Malay Peninsula and adjacent islands of Southeast Asia. Their culture has been strongly influenced by Thailand, Java, Sumatra and especially by Hindu India. The Malays were largely Hinduized before they were converted to Islam in the 15th century. Some of our best meals in Cape Town were Cape Malay influenced.

One of our “most interesting” meals was in another colorful neighborhood, at a place called Mzoli’s. Situated just outside Cape Town in the township (poor area) of Gugulethu, the restaurant, which is actually a butcher shop, is known for its diverse patronage and its signature meat. I had read an article about Jamie Oliver going there and contrary to our guide’s advice, I was intent on going. We (and he!) were glad we did. (see pics below)

Of course, there was never any shortage of seafood in Cape Town. We enjoyed some delicious fish (kingclip, gurnard and my fav, Cape sole) as well as South African lobster. They also did calamari as good or better than anyone.

All in all, Cape Town was a treat for the eyes, as well as for the tummy!