Wow! It’s been 5 weeks since I wrote my last post from the depths of the Peruvian jungle. It was an unforgetable experience and I have just updated the post with some pictures so you can have a look.
Since then, I have crossed borders into Brazil (with a 35-minute coffee break in Colombia) and spent a week in their love-it-or-hate-it capital Brasilia. The city would deserve a separate post, but at the rate at which I’m producing them I just can’t afford one. I did however post some pictures on Instagram, which I think show the essence of the city.
It’s all about modernism and strict minimalism and not so much about the actual people living in the city (how I craved a sidewalk…). It’s a beautiful utopian dream with faint Brave New World undertones sending an occassional chill down the spine. But then it is still Brazil – you have a caipirinha, go to the afternoon party du jour, and life’s suddenly all colours, smiles and joy. Tudo bem! 🇧🇷
From Brazil, I left South America behind and crossed the Atlantic to start the second leg of my trip in Africa. While I haven’t been posting any stories, I am actually surprisingly good in updating the map with my location so you guys can see where I’m hiding.
I chose to visit South Africa mostly because GRU-JNB is one of the few flights connecting the two continents. I did not have specific plans and did not quite know what to expect.
It turned out to be a country of contradictions, a country I loved visiting and disliked at the same time. Let me try to explain.
South Africa is a country of breathtaking nature. From the fields just outside Johannesburg, to the savannah in and around the Kruger National Park, the lush forests of the Drakensberg mountains in the South East, the windy Cape, the wine region around Stellenbosch and the sleepy Garden route with its forests, rivers and endless empty beaches. It’s not only beautiful, but also relaxed, easy to travel around, safe and cheap. At times, it gets almost too cosy and starts feeling like any other place back home. A bit of extra adrenalin wouldn’t hurt.
This being said, and here’s the first contradiction, the 5-day drive in a rented car around the Kruger National Park was perhaps the most exciting thing I have done on this trip so far. The park turns you into a 10-year old kid, jumping with happiness at every new spotting of a cheetah, a funky giraffe or a lion with cubs. Driving into a herd of elephants, turning off the engine, pulling down the windows and staying with them, alone, for almost an hour, was the most calming and humbling experience.
On top of all the nature, Johannesburg is a place that deserves a couple of days. The Maboneng district has gone from “too dangerous to enter” to “hipster level: WB to the power of Berlin” in just a few years. The place is swarming with galleries, cafes, food markets, design shops and the most elegant people to have ever graced this earth. If you go, stay at Curiocity just down the street from all this extravaganza.
On a different note, Jo’burg is also worth a visit for its overwhelming Apartheid museum. Plan to spend an entire day in its endless rooms and learn an aweful lot about a period that is long gone yet still so present. Expect to get depressed, hate humanity, cry, and leave feeling empty, shaken and sad.After a week of safaris, I spent New Year’s in a whole different kind of safari – Cape Town. Imagine St Tropez lifted from the Mediterranean coast and thrown between impressive mountains and the deep blue ocean at the tip of Africa. Surround it with suburbs that put the city on the list of top 10 murder capitals in the world and then fill one part with white, latte-sipping crowds and the other with all the support staff. Now enjoy the “summer in the middle of winter” holidays! Did you know we’re also in the same time zone as London? “So practical for conference calls and – no jet lag!”
If you manage to ignore this, Cape Town is actually idyllic. The sea is of a light bright blue colour (makes sense since we’re in the South of France), the beaches covered with white sand and the surrounding mountains create a unique atmosphere and views. Also, the vineyards are just a few kilometres away.
The Cape of Good Hope is one of those rare places where nature makes you lose the words and you just observe it quietly, in awe, the waves of the Atlantic pounding against the cape from one side and the Indian ocean gently hugging it from the other.
Amid all this beauty, there is, however, something rotten in this land and you can feel it on every step. It made my visit much less enjoyable but, in a way, also more thought-provoking.
Most of the past century South Africa enforced a system of racial segregation and, later, of stricter apartheid which only ended in mid-1990s. I was expecting to land in a post-racist country where the citizens are embracing their new-found equality and indulging in everyone’s freedom. Instead, I found a stark opposite – a land sharply and openly divided along the racial lines.
South Africans still see and talk about each other by referring to racial categories instituted in the apartheid era – “white, black, coloured and Indian”. The references are banal but pervasive. “Have you seen the coloured girl at the reception? I know that she looks down on me because I’m black. All coloured people do.” As if this is not precise enough, there is also a need for subcategories as well. “‘Cape coloured’ people are different – you can tell by their looks but also by how they behave.” In South Africa, sentences like this pass without anyone taking note of their nature.
Beyond constant references to skin colour, deeper discussions on almost any topic also invariably circle back to the question of race. It’s a constant “us versus them” and it is almost always worded in absolutes and extremes. I’ve heard assurances that all white people are rich and hateful and similarly delusional insistance that all black kids are placed on an equal footing with everybody else. In my one month in South Africa, speaking to dozens of locals on these topics, I have not spoken to one that could give a balanced and unhurt account. I have also not seen many restaurant tables that would not be either exclusively white or exclusively “non-white”. Removing the racist laws from the books was clearly not enough for the nation to heal and grow.
Two specific conversations will linger in my mind for a while. The first was with a guide, a black guy from Durban, who showed me around the Drakensberg mountains. It was just me and him and lots of rain so we were not too eager to actually walk around. Instead, I asked some difficult questions and, after some initial reluctance, he opened up. He told me of a time, during the period of black-on-black violence in the early 1990s, when the chief of his tribe ordered him to kill a neighbour because he was rumored to have voted for the wrong party. With a gun held to his head, he tried doing it but the neighbour escaped.
We talked about the more recent years and how he and his friends lived. As we walked down from a hill, me following him on a narrow path with no one else in sight and with rain still pouring on us, he suddenly stopped and turned around “You know… we only feel human in this country when we speak to foreigners like you.” As if ignoring the weight of what he just said, he turned back without a pause and kept pacing through the rain.
The second conversation was with an Afrikaans woman, a restaurant owner in the depths of the wine country. She was married to a French guy and spent a large part of her life in Europe. She felt like a refreshing breeze of tolerance and liberal views, acknowledging the exising issues, the faults of the past and the immense challenges lying ahead. She was doing her part – personally and at work – by being inclusive and supportive of the diversity in the community. The restaurant had long closed and we were about to finish the bottle of wine while the husband was doing the dishes at the back (I’m telling you – my kind of person!). And then out of nowhere, with two sentences, she burst the bubble “There is one thing that will never change however. No matter how much we try and pretend, it is normal that every person will always trust and support more the people of their own race.” Right. Check, please!
After decades of being forced to live in one of the worst regimes the planet has known, it makes sense that the people of South Africa have not yet managed to process it and move onto a better path. It’s understandable. But it is still sad to see how far from anything acceptable they remain after 25 years of trying. A regime can clearly untie a society’s fabric for decades. Are four years enough to cause comparable damage?
But also – beautiful beaches!