Wednesday, July 16, 2008

South African Impressions

We’ve been here for about two weeks now but I’m beginning to suspect that no matter how long I stay here, I’ll never be able to understand South Africa or its people. It’s just too complicated and with a mentality that is totally different from that of Canada. Coming from the rest of Africa, I’m even more confused, disgusted and dismayed by what I see. There are just so many contrasts. What am I talking about? Mostly the racism and the social structure. The very complicated and bitter history seems a bit much for me to grasp, especially since I don’t belong to one of the sides involved, but from what I’ve been reading (I just finished a book covering part of it) it reads more like the American Wild West than anything else. Cowboys and Blacks, and a rapid expansion leading to the wholesale slaughter of numerous tribes who vigorously fought back. Throw in the British fighting the Boers (the earlier Afrikaans settlers) and Apartheid and I’m tempted to give up on these people. I have been surprised with what I’ve seen and it’s been very interesting and enlightening but I’m just going to get myself into trouble commenting on it all.
With its highways, supermarkets and stripmalls, skyscrapers, super gas station stops, ranches and meat-eating obsession (which IS really tasty), mixed black and white population and landscapes reminiscent of the American southwest, we are constantly thinking we are in little America. It gives me a whole new meaning to the term “African-American”. Since arriving we’ve been enjoying the luxury of an organized system. But it’s a system that is organized differently from what we’ve been used to lately and for the first time in a long time (though we saw the first traces of it in Windhoek) we find ourselves in a place more generally hostile than before. “Wait a minute.” you say “What do you mean ‘more hostile’? You just came through the dangerous central African countries. Now you are in a developed country”. Well, that’s exactly the problem. It’s just like the Europe or at home in that the day to day interactions are more aggressive and hostile. There is more road rage and people honk at us a lot more for being slow, have a tendency to complain about the little things more and are generally a lot more impatient. That’s probably a lot our fault though because we are so used to not having any rules that we’ve become a public menace. You should see the way Kees drives in town and how the rest of us line up in shops. The crime is a huge concern here obviously and we are constantly told to be careful, but at the same time it is also the little things mentioned above that make a huge difference.
Maybe I am having a psychological problem not being identified as a tourist immediately anymore and treated as such. Because there are so many local whites living in the country people have a tendency to think you are one too and so will start off conversations in Afrikaans and not English and just generally assume you should know what you are doing. I think I like the feeling of being lost and having people help me actually. Now, the whites talk to you but the blacks don’t. Before it would be obvious that you were a tourist but now we could be local and because of the racism, when you say hi or wave to blacks they just sort of ignore you or scowl a lot of the time, especially near cities. Not our usual warm welcome! That’s very annoying. It’s why I liked our 24 hours in Lesotho because the black people there would welcome you more. Maybe that is a stupid thing to say and I’m worried that I’m developing a complex of needing attention and being treated like a celebrity. I don’t know that I’d do too well if I came home right now…
At the same time people here can be very kind if you get out of the touristic areas. On our first night after leaving Pretoria, somewhere north of Lesotho, we randomly asked an old guy coming out of his farm’s driveway if we could camp on his property. He said sure and then brought us fresh eggs and milk in the morning. Local whites seem to love the truck and when we are fueling up or parked somewhere they will come over and start asking questions and want a tour of the ins and outs of it. They wave or give us a thumbs-up as they drive by and people have voluntarily offered to lead us to the hostel we’re looking for when we enter a new town. Very kind, but these same people will complain about the blacks and the system and warn us in so many ways that their country has gone to hell if you sit and talk with them for a while. As an example, we saw so many HIV awareness signs in West Africa but now that we are down here in southern Africa, which has the highest rates in the world, I think I’ve only seen one sign. Also, with all the wealth and development down here it is really sad to see the huge townships on the outskirts of even small towns where the poor blacks live in obvious poverty. It’s one thing to see it in a poor country where everyone but the corrupt government officials is screwed but here it is so out of place and not really getting any better. No wonder crime is so high. It’s also disgusting to me that these townships are considered a tourist attraction and I heard one of the biggest money making tours overall in this country so tourists can go gawk at these people and feel like they’ve been to poor Africa. I doubt if the township residents profit from it at all and we certainly have no desire to visit one.
Like I said before, apart from the guys working at the hostels, we really haven’t had much interaction with the blacks. It’s like they have a different world. In Windhoek I went into a dentist office to have something done and everyone looked at me like I was totally crazy or lost. Maybe the whites have their own dentists they go to. I swear some of the shops are like that too. Of course we aren’t following these unwritten social rules and although most of the time we don’t realize we’ve broken them, when we do, it’s awkward in that we don’t care because we are not as racist as the locals and that’s probably where the tourists run into the most trouble. We just don’t think about these things or take them as seriously as the local whites will tell us to. Even the whites are messed up, as the Afrikaans are quite different from those of British descent. Actually, I can’t tell one group from another, I’m just relaying what I’ve heard. There’s even the “coloured” group which are those people in the middle of mixed descent. Mo gets it the worst down here I think because he is “coloured” so the people initially treat him like one rather than as the British foreigner he is.
Kees is getting a little bit of a kick out of the language because the earliest settlers were Dutch so Afrikaans (the main language) is like Dutch from a couple centuries ago and Kees claims it sounds like baby Dutch. He claims to understand about 90% of what is written and 50% of what’s spoken in Afrikaans but I’m sure that it has changed meaning in many cases. We’ll be driving down the street and he’ll just start cracking up after passing a sign along the highway. He’ll then tell us that it just gave a direction for “unknown” or “far away” or something very, very rude that I can’t repeat here. Obviously we would never’ve known without him. Knowing the language definitely gives you a much better experience and perspective in an area.
After leaving Lesotho we continued south, driving beside empty land protected by fences until we got to a village named Hogsback.
Hogsback is now a very touristic mountain retreat not far from the coast and one of the few spots in the area that actually has a forest. The climate seems to be such that all the time as we are driving we keep hitting different vegetation and looks. The area is still semi-desert but the mountains along the coast create streams and microclimates that can support small forests and farms. Hogsback is one of them and it was quite busy with tourists that come up to hike in the woods and see a handful of small waterfalls. It was extremely windy (the tent next to ours was destroyed), but the hike through the woods reminded me of home more than anywhere else since arriving in Africa. After that we finally made it to the coast and met up with Ben and Alex at Jeffrey’s Bay. Bre was thrilled, and it was good to have another reunion. We were annoyed at being in one of the top surfing spots in the world on the day before a major competition started to find cold, wet weather and crowded hostels. Only Alex ventured out into the water for a surf lesson and we moved on the following day to hopefully quieter destinations.
Our schedule seems to be getting slower and lazier as we are no longer in a rush. Ben and Alex are also headed to Cape Town but since we have entered the Garden Route, the most touristy and popular in the country there is lots for us to see and do and since nobody has to be in Cape Town until the end of the month, we may just take our time getting there. We just hang out in the mornings and take our time getting up before finally moving on a short ways down the road to the next stop, arriving just in time to set up camp in the dark yet again. Not the best system but the one we’ve gotten used to. We continue to camp despite the cold but I don’t think it matters much because the buildings here were not built with the cold in mind at all. The doors are always open to common areas, the windows are not double-paned and a lot of the heat from the wood fires just disappears. Rain has not been too big a problem but we have unanimously decided that we have come at the wrong time of year. It would be fantastic in the summer here. Lots more to come when we get better internet access but that’s enough for now I think.


At 5:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just learned from reading your blog a lot more than i knew, but the first thing i noticed about SA was the hostility. i couldn't wait to leave it and get back to "real" africa.


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