Tuesday, April 30, 2013

hopping on and hopping off along the Garden Route

There are few things that can be done in a short 2.5 week visit to South Africa. But I knew traveling the Garden Route had to be one of them. That brought out the following questions and concerns:

1. How will I travel it?
2. How much would renting a car (plus gas) cost?
3. Is driving in South Africa as a single female even safe, after all the horror stories I had heard?
4. Would taking a public bus be any better?

Then a former colleague told me about the backpacker's bus, which solved everything. The caveat being they only picked up and dropped off at backpacker hostels in each city. But I was willing (for the most part) to sacrifice my sleep in a dorm room with snorers as long as I didn't have to stress about logistics.

It was the amazing locations I was able to see made it all worth it.

Port Elizabeth

Saturday, April 27, 2013

why settle for once?

In 2010, when I first stepped foot on African soil, I spared no expense on having what I considered a 'once in a lifetime' safari experience. Little did I realize, once would never be enough!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Be the change you want to see in the world."

The majority of South Africa's Indian community reside in the greater Durban area and are descendants of indentured laborers, pulled from their homeland, to work on sugar cane fields.

In 1893 a young Indian lawyer travelled to South Africa to provide legal aid. During his initial weeks in the country, this young lawyer, a Mr. Mahatma Gandhi was treated poorly due to the color of his skin. Gandhi's turning point was reached on a train in Pietermaritzburg where he was thrown off after refusing to leave first class.

From that moment, what was supposed to be a short stay in South Africa turned into a 21 year quest of equality, justice and human dignity. Through peaceful protests and immense personal suffering for the cause, he changed the lives of millions.

It was Gandhi who established the Phoenix settlement I stayed in with friends. The homestead he lived in during his years in Africa is a 15 minute drive away, now located in an African township. Amidst wooden shacks dotting the landscape and the hustle and bustle of the daily life of people who do all they can just to scrape by, lies a serene oasis comprised of a printing press building, a lecture hall, a few monuments and a home. Walking onto the property where Gandhi resided is like walking into another world. There's a peaceful air about it.

The walls inside his replicated house are lined with quotes of others in regards to the man Gandhi became along with his own quotes and tidbits about his life.

Natasha, Micky and Val in front of Gandhi's house
Val, Natasha, Micky (who had never been, although they live just minutes away) and I were all moved by what we saw and read.

At one point I turned to Natasha and said "it's amazing the change that one man can make in the world."

"Yes. We highly underestimate ourselves," she replied.

 If only we would see our true potential, what amazing feats we could make.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

a pot of cultures that doesn't melt

The Apartheid in reverse. That is what South Africans are calling the situation in their country now.

As I'm getting my hair washed by a stylist today, I mentioned my stay with a friend's family in the Indian settlement of Phoenix, just outside of Durban.

"You stayed with Indians?" she asked in near disgust. I didn't need to see her face to imagine how scrunched up it was.

I was the odd one out while in Phoenix. The settlements are hard pressed to find anyone from a culture other than their own. As we drove around town I was constantly stared at.

"Is it a bad thing?"

"Well, here in this region we still don't trust other cultures. The Apartheid was long ago, but still close."

'This region' is the Western Cape, inhabited by a large number of Afrikaners (of Dutch origin). Races, or cultures as it is referred to in South Africa, do not intermingle in this area. But they didn't intermingle in Durban either.

Blacks hung around Blacks, Whites around Whites and Indians around Indians. There was no mixing. I vocalized my observations to my friends as we returned to their settlement after a day-trip away. We were the only group I had seen that included more than one race. It struck me as odd: a country with so many cultures, but no unity - nearly 20 years after the Apartheid.

My observation opened an entire conversation on the state of how things are going now.

During the Apartheid the Black and Indian cultures worked together to gain equal standing with the Whites. But, so I was told by both Indian and White cultures, once Mandela left the office the equality shifted. Today the Black culture is "taking over just because they're Africans, not having earned it". I was told stories of how the Africans do the bare minimum at work but get paid more than even the White man. How a brilliant young Indian student with all honors and a full scholarship didn't get into a prestigious university because an African student from a township, with half her qualifications, was chosen instead.

I questioned each bit. I wondered how life was in the United States in the 1960's and 70's. Those pivotal years where we overcame racial segrigation. But, as I was rightly told, that too is different. Blacks in America are still a minority in population compared to Whites, whereas Blacks in South Africa are the majority. And that affects the melding process in this country.

My Indian friends didn't know where it will leave them, once things shift and settle. Only the future will tell if they'll be kicked out of the country, like a few rumors have stated. They thought they'd be on equal grounds now, but it is not so. They are looked down upon by two cultures - although it appears as though the Africans might still be too.

While the stylist was still massaging my head our conversation moved to Johannesburg. I informed her of where I was staying after she asked.

"With your Indian friend's brother? Do you even know him?"

"Not yet, but I will in a week," I replied.

"NO! Don't do it. He's Indian!" She was rather agitated at the thought.

"I'm sure he's a nice guy if he's anything like my friend," I reassured her.

"Yeah, but you know how things are - serial rapists, et cetera."

That's when I changed the subject.

Monday, April 15, 2013

a country within a country

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a 3.5 hour drive from Johannesburg. Not long ago, though, the borders of the landlocked country were a lot closer to Johannesburg and extended all the way to the Indian Ocean. The battle to reclaim the land continues to this day.

But the most beautiful section of the land remained within Swazi rule with a mixture of mountains, savannas and rainforest.

As we neared closer to the border a cow stood firm in the middle of the road.

"You can tell we're nearly there," a girl seated behind me stated, "we just reached a Swazi stop light."

The country is ruled by a king. A king who currently has 14 wives, which is nothing compared to his father who had more than 125. To be king, one must be the youngest, only son (child) of one of his royal father's many wives.  The other children leave to lead their own lives.

Two days isn't enough to do more than get a taste of what the country has to offer, but it was definitely worth the detour.

dying fibers for weaving  
craft market

male Swazi dancers
traditional beehive houses

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New beginnings

In January and August of last year I went to New York and Southern California respectively. Along with the main purpose of those trips, the underlying one was actually the most prominent. The goal was to feel them out; see if I would be OK with living in either place after life in Europe.

Although I had been to both locations before, I had never gone with the intention to move there. My focus was different. And as I wandered the dark, residential New York City streets alone one night, I felt a bit uneasy. Coupled with the cost of living, New York was wiped off the list.

That left California. I assumed it would be the logical place for me to go. Sun, warm weather, beach living... it really couldn't get much better. But then I'm flying over Los Angeles, looking out the window at the brown landscape beyond the hazy pollution and think, "Ew. Why did I want to live here?"

Driving in LA traffic after riding a bike for 5 years didn't help either.

After returning home I got to thinking. Maybe I was willingly finding faults with both places. Maybe I was doing so because I just wasn't ready to return to the US. And then it hit me. There was no law saying I had to return. In England 18 year olds take a gap year between their High School and University studies to travel the world. Couldn't I take a gap year between jobs as a 32 year old? What better transition between Europe and the US than the rest of the world?

So here I am. Newly arrived at a beautiful hotel room in Mbabane, Swaziland. The weather is warm and the landscape inviting: welcoming me into great start to my year-long, around-the-world, adventures.

(Although I'm now considering the idea of a gap decade...).

Friday, April 5, 2013

Packing up memories

With the amount of activities I knew I'd have going on my last few weeks in Amsterdam I thought it wise to begin my packing early.  Each time I placed an item in a box though, a piece of my heart would break. After almost tearing up, two months before I was set to leave while boxing a few things up, I realized the packing process would need to wait.

My paper-thin walled apartment, with its holes in the walls and floor that let mice in until I filled every last one up with insulation foam and its drafty single paned windows, was home. Actually, it represented more than that. The 700 square foot space on Derde Hugo de Grootstraat I was packing up represented every last experience I had in the past 5 years. My growth as a person was defined while residing within its walls - more than any other place I've lived.

When my 2 week designated packing time arrived, I was surprisingly calm. Otherwise I was too stressed out trying to fit everything I wanted to do in with what I needed to do to get emotional.

But after every last item of mine was masterfully squeezed into my mother's VW Golf so I could use her home as storage, my heart broke completely as I walked through the empty space one last time. And when I shut the door to the building, locking myself out forever, I cried.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Five years later...

A friend recently told me that every expat goes through the same cycle in regards to their new home. First is the honeymoon phase. Second comes the major dip where everything is awful. And finally a plateau is reached - a love/hate relationship of the location, but it’s home. 

As he mentioned it, I looked back on my 5 years in Amsterdam and wondered who had been spying on me to come to that conclusion since it couldn’t have rung more true. 

During my first two years in the country, everything was beautiful. Everything. I even chalked up the bitter winters to experience. I returned home after a trip away as equally happy to be back as I had been on holiday. 

The following year and a half, though... those were the hardest. Prior to living in the Netherlands, I had moved (at the maximum) every two years since 1998. My body was used to it. Craved it even. 

I remember coming home from a Doner Kebab shop in a mild panic attack after the attendant became the third person in a week to tell me he only had the intention of living in Amsterdam for 3-5 years when he arrived a decade prior. While sitting down to eat my kebab I replayed their stories in my head until I had difficulties breathing. I could NOT let that happen to me. 

Seasonal affective disorder also hit me hard at that point. I was no longer giving winters a quick sidewards glance. Then again, winters weren’t giving me any consideration either. Nor were the summers by then. My eyes glazed over when newly arrived friends would point out the beauties of Amsterdam. 

I was ready to move. 

Thankfully I didn’t. Thankfully I stayed long enough for my feelings to level off. I reached a point of content that I never thought I’d achieve during my down years.  More than any other place I've lived, I consider Amsterdam my home - amidst the good and the bad. 

As easy as it would have been at this point to stay though, I would not -I could not- allow myself to be an increasing statistic. My vagabond blood, the intrinsic wanderer inside me, the very core of my being stood firmly against it.

Which only lead to this solid conclusion: in the end all the plateau did was make it that much harder for me to leave.