Journal

In Summer 2010, I spent three months travelling across South Africa. This is my travel journal, which explores the many experiences I had in the country and gives some context to the project.

Ramadan – END

It’s been over a month since I used my own laptop to write my blog. How apt then, for it to be the last I write in South Africa. Leaving Heathrow on the 25th May, I’ve been here for 87 days. That’s 2 months and 26 days, more than 12 weeks and some 2088 hours! In that time I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life. Breathtaking sights, heart-warming moments, adrenaline rushes. Meeting people who I’ll treasure forever, this trip has likely been the best 3 months of my life.

Staying in around 18 different places – be they hostels or people’s homes – I’ve had the chance to gain a greater perspective on life. Blessed with incredible hospitality, this trip has been almost too easy. I’m so happy to profess an ever increasing optimism in humanity, looking to find the common bonds that unite us rather than those which divide. “We put the ‘SA’ in ‘USAYD’,” were the words of one friend from Joburg. I never expected that I’d leave this country with such an attachment.

There have been many challenges here. The juxtaposed minority first world with the majority third leaves me with a conflicted mind, finding myself enjoying luxuries that so many here couldn’t even perceive. The contradictions of this society only exemplify the reality of the world in which we live – perhaps the visible difference being a matter of mere proximity. Either way, I know that I’ll be returning to the UK with a refreshed sense of vision and purpose, motivated to see that I contribute to making the world a more balanced place.

The wind and rain hits my face as I leave the Mosque. “You’re being sent off with a real Cape winter,” my new ‘host dad’ says. “You’re going to be lekker depressed when you don’t see the mountain,” were the words of his wife yesterday. Looking to my endless list of quotes I crack up, remembering the ‘you had to be there’ moments. I’ll leave you with a true South African joke, courtesy of a friend in Joburg: “Do you think that there are superstitious cats that think it’s bad luck when black people cross them?”

Thank you – from the bottom of my heart – to those who have helped to give me such a fantastic experience. If you’re reading this, then I’m talking to you. It was a pleasure to meet you, spend time with you and to be your guest. For the roof over my head, the food in my belly and all the rest. One of my friends said she’d “never seen me smile so much!” That, for me, is a good enough reason to have been here. All praise is to God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate.

   

Ramadan – Gauteng II

“Poverty is not something people impose on themselves for want of effort and community organisation. It is constructed by divisive and discriminatory laws, inflexible organisations, acquisitive ideologies of wealth, a deeply-rooted class system and policies which serve privilege in the short term and destroy society in the long term. Poverty is caused by private monopoly, landlordism, employerism, ownership.”

“Don’t worry, the maid’s coming tomorrow,” he says as I start clearing up. “The maid? Is that what you call her? How much do they get paid anyway?” I’ve not yet felt comfortable to ask the question, but this is one guy I’m not shy around. “R100 a day, plus R100 at the end of the month, so less than £10.” There is a bill – the Domestic Workers Act – outlining the rights of the estimated 1.5 million domestic workers in South Africa. It says that for those working more than 27 hours/week in an urban area, the minimum wage is a meagre R7.40 per hour, for those working less, it’s R8.74. Just like in the UK, the minimum wage is far from a living wage. Many domestic workers have their entire families dependant on them, which can force them to ‘live to work’ at their ‘employers’ – usually in a shack in the garden.

This is a short documentary film about one South African domestic worker who lived with a white family, bringing up their son whilst her own child grew not knowing her. If it asks for a password, just send them a message and they’ll give it to you.

I write this at the campus of UCT, the University of Cape Town. After being showed around, the radio station, varsity newspaper etc, I went up to see the Rhodes memorial (will never understand the glorification of a colonist). The university is blessed to practically be set on the side of Table Mountain, giving it fantastic views and a very unique feel. I arrived in CT last night after almost a week in Johannesburg. I have to confess that, despite previous remarks on the excessive use of domestic flights in this country, I did fly. It was by far the cheapest and quickest option – costing me less than train ticket from Manchester to London and taking the same length of time.

I did like Joburg. I was told of many of the cities ‘ills’, such as having the highest crime rate in the country, but my experience bore little relation. I generally like big cities for one reason – the sheer number of people. I met some awesome (yes, you) people there. During my time there I managed to visit some 7 different Mosques and get a feel for the great variety of culture. I went to Soweto, gaining some perspective on the struggles that took place and feeling inspired by the youth uprising. We visited the Hector Pieterson Museum (a powerful place) as well as the Freedom Charter Memorial in Kliptown. The Museum there asked some challenging questions, such as “What is Freedom?”

I actually met a friend on the new batch of Platform 2 volunteers (there is a project in Soweto) in the mall there. She told me about their restrictions – 13 people living in one house, their only ‘excursion’ is a weekly visit to the mall. I asked what time their curfew is, “We have to be in bed by 10pm,” she said. “Oh that’s not so bad,” I replied, “So where can you go?” “No, we can’t leave the house.” I was amused, it’s actually worse than I’d thought.

Before I left Joburg we visited the Origins Centre, the origins of man in Southern Africa, and the Mai Mai ‘Traditional Healers Market’, another very interesting place. Interspersed with heavy conversation ranging from ‘getting in touch with ancestors’ to the power of writing, it was a pretty awesome way to end my stay in Joburg.

Now I’m about to travel to Stellenbosch in Cape Town’s rain. Wish me luck!

   

Ramadan – Gauteng

“In my art, I enter my dreamings with my nose tracing scents of my footprints down arid avenues of time spent in exile, leaving trails of artworks that speak where words failed. I carry echoes in my eardrums, memories in my mind and visions in the retina of my eyes – my struggles to remain sane in foreign incubators whilst my country burned and my people were frog marched by racist bigots. I still carry fragments of dreams of those bleak days and nights of struggles that I must turn into new dreams of peace in my land.”

The potent words of Pitika Ntuli, an internationally known poet, artist and academic. I found this on his exhibition at MuseuMAfricA in Newtown, Johannesburg – where I was yesterday afternoon. In the morning, I was lucky enough to be greeted by a friend of a friend (my whole South African story in summary!), and we went to see Constitution Hill. An Old Fort, it was used as a prison and housed numerous political activists including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Now it is home to the Constitutional Court of South Africa, aiming to ‘protect basic rights and freedoms,’ a powerful progression from injustice to justice (at least in theory).

Exploring Johannesburg’s CBD was cool, I always enjoy the buzz of a capital city and this is no different – market places roaring with life, inner city parks littered with people. The Johannesburg Art Gallery was another cool place – with two prominent exhibitions – one exploring Borders and another, the Cuba’s African Heritage.

In the evening I was taken for my first ‘Tarawih’ Prayer (Night Prayers given in Ramadan) in a beautiful Mosque called Mayfair Jummah. The first night gives a great sense of the spirit of the blessed month, and praying here felt incredibly powerful.

The day wasn’t over yet! After a few prayers, we left for Soccer City Stadium. I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to watch a game there, and who better to watch than South Africa vs. Ghana! It was pretty cool (and cold!), I can now say I’ve watched games in two of SA’s Stadiums!

This morning I was picked up nice and early, after waking for ‘Sehri’ (eating before sunrise) at 5AM, I left the house before 8. Our first stop was the University of the Witwatersrand, or ‘Wits’ for short. It felt pretty nice being back on campus, I was incredibly surprised to see so many students at such an early hour. I guess priorities differ, as my friend put it: “For most people here, there’s a lot riding on their studies.”

After mixing with some students, we drove (everything is driving here) to the Apartheid Museum. A telling story, this place was definitely worth visiting. If there’s one thing often downplayed about apartheid, it’s the brutality, violence and killings that took place by the government and it’s forces (police, assassins etc.), and just how much non-violence and passive resistance was exercised by dissenters before they took to arms.

We went into town to check out the ‘art sector’, a free space being invested in for art projects and creatives. It was pretty live, definitely a jamming spot. On the way through town we were stopped by Police twice – the first time they pulled us into the dedicated bus lane, searched the boot etc – the second time they stopped us and asked why we were in the dedicated bus lane.

This evening was great, breaking the fast with some friends with some good food, we headed to Mayfair to a Somalian Mosque. The recitation of the Qur’an there was beautiful, slow and melodic. To expose me to yet another culture, I was then taken to a Turkish Mosque nearby. The practice slightly different, fantastic nonetheless, thoroughly enjoying the collective Dhikr (remembrance) after the prayer. Of course, to finish off the day, what better than to enjoy some Turkish tea in the Mosque’s cafe and the company of some nice Turks?

I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to get into the spirit so far from home, but in a home away from home, this is proving to be a truly uplifting experience – All praise to God.

   

Backpacking – Graskop

Sat in a half-full combi to Nelspruit, it suddenly starts rolling forward on its own accord. The women at the back get excited, something between amusement and concern. I, too, am highly amused at the situation. Being the nearest to the controls, I lean forward and attempt to tug at the handbrake. The driver appears and gives it a crank, adjusting the gears: “Thanks my friend for that handbrake – the car was supposed to go down there,” he says, pointing into the bush.

This morning was a mission. Temperamental sleep didn’t help with my aims to rise at 6am, combined with the freezing cold. I managed to shower, shivering as I quickly dressed and gathered my things. Donned with my two backpacks, I headed towards town.

Instructions for where to get a taxi, I learnt, were useless: “No taxis to Sabie. You must hike.” The remaining taxis were empty – they weren’t going anywhere. And so, after wandering back and forth trying to figure out an alternative, I eventually joined the row of people hitching rides. There was a technique, I quickly learnt, to finding out where a driver was going. A hand signal to the right meant Pilgrims Rest, to the left was Sabie. After a few attempts of hailing a ride (I didn’t see a single white driver stop), I was successful, jumping in the back of a bukkie. I must admit, this was my first time hitchiking – ever – and it was quite exciting. Recalling long forgotten Platform 2 rules, I remembered the line “NEVER HITCHIKE.” Actually, in this area, it’s very much a system almost as efficient as taxis. After jumping out, I handed the guy a R20 note – assuming there was no ‘set fee’ for these journies. He handed me R10 change – making this R8 cheaper than a minibus taxi. Now i’m in Nelspruit, waiting for the Baz Bus to continue onto the last leg of my journey to Johannesburg.

Graskop is a very nice place, though quite touristic. I had to distinguish to Andre, the ‘Director’ of Valley View backpackers, the difference between a traveller and a tourist (not sure if I made a very strong case!). The reason Graskop is so popular is simple: it is home to numerous natural wonders. On our first full day, Yaron and I joined Andre on a 28km mountain cycle through the nearby forests. The trail, which had been designed and marked by Andre himself, was incredibly fun – despite the difficulty of massive uphill climbs. We went to two waterfalls – unscathed by tourists. We climbed over rocks, on different terrains, alongside rivers. It was one of the most tiring cycles i’ve done – and I’ve cycled pretty far! I’m inspired to get back into cycling now :)

The following day, after a very good nights sleep, we did the ‘touristy’ things. God’s window is a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding area – up a rockface which houses a rainforest at the top! The Lisbon & Berlin Falls are both beautiful waterfalls, one blown into three by gold miners. Bourke’s Luck Potholes is an entire stream of potholes made in the search for gold, with flowing water and bridges. By far the most fantastic was the Blyde River Canyon. The 3rd largest in the world, this is one fantastic view – as I described as “something out of Lord of the Rings.”

Three nights is longer than i’ve stayed in most places – I had a great time in Graskop, a fantastic place to end my scenic travels. I’m now in Johannesburg, looking forward to meeting some more cool people and starting the month of Fast, Ramadan, here. It’ll be my first time outside of the UK.

   

Backpacking – Encounters

The day started at 6.30am. Leaving on the Baz Bus roughly an hour later we drove from Swaziland (a country within a country!) to Nelspruit, arriving at 12pm. It’s now 3pm, and we’re in the third vehicle on our journey to Graskop from Sabie. Estimating to arrive in 30 minutes, we’ll have been travelling for 8 hours to reach our destination. Judging by the surroundings we now see, I have no doubt that it’ll be a worthy trip.

I left St. Lucia yesterday afternoon after taking a hike with Bjorn, a young guy doing his ‘game ranger internship’ at the lodge we stayed. We walked through a reserve which was home to African wildlife including Wilderbeast, Waterbuck Antelope, Zebras and Buffalo – apparently one of the most dangerous animals. Reiterating my feelings of the previous day, the sight of such animals in their natural habitat, including that of the skies and those crawing on the ground, really reminded me that I was in Africa. Seeing a ‘scarab’, or dung beetles in their various forms is just one example. We watched one come flying past, another crawled into a scorpion hole.

Now, i’m sat in a hostel called ‘Valley View’ in Graskop, Mpumalanga listening to 4 Israeli’s speaking in Hebrew. Which do I address first? Well, Graskop is home to some of South Africa’s most beautiful landmarks – notably the Blyde Canyon and ‘God’s Window’, coupled with panoramic walks, unspoilt waterfalls and more.

Now for the challenging part. As i’ve indicated at various points in the blog, I’m most certainly pro-Palestine, with a strong belief in the rights of the oppressed nation. I’ve met at least two other Israelis on my trip, and ironically everytime I meet them i’m wearing Latuff’s Che Guevara in a Kafiyyeh on my T-Shirt. The first thing I said to Yaron, after learning that he was Israeli, was: “Do you like my T-Shirt?” He laughed, looking at it closer before saying “ah, nice.” We found ourselves both waiting for the same bus, and so conversation ensued. The question of his stance on the conflict and Israel’s oppression was almost immediately raised, sharing thoughts from the John Pilger book i’m currently reading called ‘Hidden Agendas’. We discussed it further the next night in Swaziland, staying in the same backpackers there. Turns out, regardless of where you come from in the world, you can still be a balanced human being – a lesson I’ve been blessed enough to learn the last few months. And so, instead of hanging around in Nelspruit trying to find my bearings, I joined Yaron on a combi mission here, and already I love it.

Looking forward to mountain biking tomorrow, this is looking to be a fabulous end to my backpacking adventures :)

And to one avid reader (I think!), Happy Birthday for tomorrow.

   
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