In Johannesburg I stayed with an acquaintance of an acquaintance. About two years ago I met up with someone I had briefly worked with on a couple of projects, and I mentioned that I was planning to move to Senegal. He put me in touch with an Irish woman (whom he had never met but with whom he had somehow conversed in an online artists community, maybe?), who also worked with non-profits, had moved to South Africa a few years before, and was perhaps a kindred spirit who might advise me on my journey. I Skyped with her from New York, she was wonderfully supportive and helpful, and before we hung up she invited me to stay with her and her partner in Johannesburg if I ever made it that way. At the time I joked, “Sure, why not travel from one end of Africa to the other? See you in a few months!” But in the end, that’s exactly what happened.
I arrived on a Sunday night, just in time to head for their standing Sunday supper with a few of their good friends. There was a roast!
And the woman who made the roast and owned the fire pit was also a star motorcycle rider who picked it up as a hobby a few years ago. I was somewhat enchanted by the Johannesburg people and lifestyle I was being presented with… This was also the night of the Botswana safari conversation (which, if you are reading this, Riona and Chris, I am still very much ALL ABOUT).
After that, I hopped on to a Soweto tour that covered a ton of ground in just a few hours. I hadn’t realized that the township is vast, with more than a million residents. First they took us to walk around in one of the poorest neighborhoods, ostensibly to interact with the townspeople, but it felt too much like gawking poverty tourism to me and I was glad when we left.
From there we visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which is dedicated primarily to commemorating the Soweto Uprising and its victims of apartheid brutality. It was sobering, to say the least.
Then we walked down Vilakazi Street, on which both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tuti once lived. Tutu’s house in not open to the public (it was having work done on it when we passed by so I took a quick peek in)…
…but Nelson Mandela’s is, and the biggest disappointment of the tour was that there was no time to visit it. I thought this tour company had its priorities a little out of whack, because that was what I thought was most worth seeing.
Instead of going into the house we sat down on benches not far from it to eat supposedly classic South African street meat-type fare and drink Jo’burg beer.
For the first time in my life, I was happy to be gluten intolerant because it was a great excuse not to drink the sour, fermented-smelling stuff, which everyone else gamely tried but no one seemed to like.
But then they took us to the last stop, the Apartheid Museum, and my annoyance seemed completely petty and inconsequential in the face of the task ahead. It was not easy to bear witness to one of the most heinous and lengthy affronts to human dignity ever committed. We had three hours in the museum, but it would have taken three days to go through it all thoroughly. Rushing through things felt too disrespectful, and so I spent two hours and fifty minutes deep in the trenches of human despicableness before I realized my time was almost up. Then I had a measly ten minutes to skim through the section about the dismantling of apartheid and the post-apartheid era, the only uplifting part of the whole place. So it’s no wonder I came out of there feeling like there is no point to life and we are all horrible and disgusting creatures. Lesson learned.
A nice antidote to my nihilistic feelings was the book reading where I joined Riona after the tour. An American author, Garth Greenwell, had this very lulling quality to his voice, and it was so quiet and peaceful in this cozy little bookstore… Until we got up to leave a few minutes early and started a chain reaction that ended in a woman shattering her wine glass into a million pieces.
We had to leave early to make it home in time for the braai that I had been looking forward to my entire time in South Africa. I am a fan of barbeque in pretty much any form or fashion, and braai was no exception. It was a little too dark to adequately show you how the meat turned out, but trust me that it was delicious.
I had only a half a day left and I spent it having coffee on the main street of Riona and Chris’s charming neighborhood of Melville, walking around the trendy neighborhood of Maboneng Precinct (which was one of the places people said not to walk alone but which felt positively staid, and where I did walk alone, so who knows…), and rushing to a mall, yes a mall, to do some Western-style shopping before heading back to a country where capitalism is not yet out in full force (and thank God for that).
And that was that. Headed for the airport, and after one month and an eight hour flight, I was back in Dakar.
P.P.S. Riona and Chris were about the most amazing hosts you could ever ask for. Cape Town was all about connecting with strangers and exploring a foreign place together. Johannesburg was all about connecting with strangers and basking in their generosity as they showed me their home. Both experiences made South Africa feel like the easiest place to visit, even though I went there thinking it would be one of the hardest. So, if you’re headed to South Africa I suppose my advice would be to find yourself a hostel, or better yet do like I did and invite yourself into friendly strangers’ homes!