Tuesday, May 31, 2011

South Africa! part 1

South Africa! Suid-Afrika! land of Springboks, Die Antwoord, District 9, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Biltong, Droewors, and Nelson Mandela! Racially tense and stunningly beautiful at the same time!

My first international adventure was a great success! I was a mixture of excited and nervous about traveling to South Africa because of various things I heard about the country. I had heard great stories about how beautiful the country was and how awesome the South African accent is but also some scary stories about how dangerous and unsafe it is over there.

In reality, I am very lucky that I was even able to go. My boyfriend Chaz's sister Katie's best friend is from South Africa and her wedding was May 21. At first just the immediate family was invited to come but then the bride was very gracious and invited me to come too. Words cannot express how grateful I was to be there for her wedding and how privileged I feel to be able to come and visit the country! It was one of the best experiences of my life so far.

So begins the journey! my flight itinerary was like this: Dulles (DC) - Amsterdam - Johannesburg.

The first leg of the trip was surprisingly smooth. Chaz, his family, and I made it to Amsterdam around 2am East Coast time, 8-9am Amsterdam time. the flight over was 7 hours-the longest I had ever flown at that time-but the ride was great! we flew KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and had excellent food and service on the plane!

the next leg of the flight started off a little strange as we had to go through security again at Amsterdam Schiphol. It was a bit frustrating to be patted down and screened again but we made it on to the plane with no major problems. Again, we flew KLM and it turned out that the flight was half empty so I was able to stretch out my legs and nap with an entire row to myself for a bit! After ten hours of flying we landed in Johannesburg.

To say that our experience in Johannesburg was bad would be a huge understatement. Various factors contributed to it being a very unsettling experience and you would have to tie me up and throw me on a plane to ever get me back in that city again.
We arrived in Joburg around 9pm - not a very safe time to arrive in most scary places. As we zipped through customs, got our passports stamped, and grabbed our luggage it was very clear we were not going to have a smooth time getting out of the airport. 

Not two seconds after emerging from International Arrivals we were heckled by a wide range of (black) men aggressively asking if we wanted a taxi. Obvious scammers ready to overcharge or bribe us. At currency exchange my boyfriend and his father almost got cheated out of getting their moneys worth in South African Rand. I almost lost my passport as well and by some stroke of extreme luck my currency exchange teller was nice enough to hold on to it for me. All this and we weren't even out of the airport!

Our hotel taxi picked us up shortly after I relocated my passport. By now it was probably 10 or 11pm. We met our driver and he was a nice (white) older South African man with a very thick accent. On our drive to the hotel we passed the deserted city streets of Joburg and all our driver could talk about was how horrible the city was and how corrupt the government of SA was and how things were different and better in his youth (during apartheid). After telling us what to watch out for and who to watch out for he ended the conversations by telling us how wonderful a country South Africa was.

Our stay in the hotel was the best experience out of our Joburg stay. We were greeted by the wife of our taxi driver and offered juice or wine. This seemed strange as I am used to being asked if I want water -  especially after a long plane ride. We learned throughout the trip that water is scare in some parts of South Africa and tap water is undrinkable so you have to ask for bottled water if you want any at all.

The hotel was more of an Inn and our rooms were very spacious and comfortable. Familiar aspects were around but it was obvious we were in a very different country on a different continent. This fact was driven home even more when we woke up and had to start the next leg of our journey.

Breakfast was delicious and it gave us time to sit and relax. We even met a man from Alaska that was going solo on a game hunting expedition somewhere in the country. Not my cup of tea at all but it was interesting to hear an American accent again.

The view of Joburg in the daytime on our drive to the airport wasn't much different from our view at night. the streets were littered with trash and debris and although we passed by some nice looking homes all of them would be better classified as fortresses. Every single house was surrounded by a thick wall of concrete topped off with a row of barbed wire or spikes or both. To complete the impenetrable fortress feel some houses had electric wire on top of the spikes just for the occasional extremely desperate burglar.

Once we arrived at the airport we thanked our amazing hostess and headed inside. Inside Johannesburg airport we thought we would get by unmolested but unfortunately we ran into two men insistent on "helping" us. When we wouldn't let them carry our bags they "lead" us to a check-in station for our flight and then demanded cash. My boyfriend and his father were smart enough not to get out their wallets and even though the men were pushy and desperate we got away and through security with all of our money.

Our flight from Johannesburg to Durban was much nicer and so begins the exciting and fun part of the adventure! The experiences from here on out were much better than Joburg by far.

Mango airlines is a South African airline that offers cheap domestic SA flights comprable to flying with Airtran in the US. On our flight to Durban my boyrfriend sat with two local South Africans from Johannesburg and had a very good conversation with them all about things to do and see in South Africa. They told him not to go running around in sugar cane fields because poisonous snakes thrive there, they also had awesome accents.

Arriving in KingShaka airport in Durban (especially made for the 2010 World Cup) was a refreshing change from Joburg Airport. The airport seemed smaller, cleaner, and friendlier when we passed through our gates and after renting a car we were ready to head to our hotel for the night.

With renting a car in South Africa comes the strange experience of driving on the left hand side of the road (in my case, sitting passenger side on the right side of the car). Seeing Chaz drive on the left side of the road was a strange and scary experience at first as you have to adjust everything you knew about driving all in short amount of time, and on the highway. Luckily we made it safely to our hotels an hour and a half outside of Durban.

The area we stayed at was where Katie's friend Donna was having her wedding. The area was a bit of popular beach vacation spot and the beaches we saw were absolutely beautiful!

After checking in to the hotel and going to visit the wedding venue/hotel (also absolutely beautiful!) the plan was to grab some food from a restaurant and then have a relaxing evening full of wine and conversation. The restaurant we went to was more of chain along the lines of Red Lobster but our food was very good. Our waitress had a bit of hard time understanding our accents and we threw her for a bit of a loop when asking for ketchup with our french fries (in SA, ketchup is just called tomato sauce and french fries are called chips).

We encountered an empty parking lot when we exited from the restaurant-which was strange as it was only 7pm. As we were about to drive away Chaz saw a man outside our car with a reflector vest coming toward us, he looked strange so we peeled out of the parking lot as fast as we could. Later, we learned that that man was probably a car guard coming up to us for a tip. It is common for most parking lots in SA to have car guards because car break-ins happen frequently-tipping the guards is common too.
We learned that the area we were staying in was fairly safe, yet not safe enough to warrant walking to a liquor store to get some booze.

After a relaxing night of conversation and wine it was bedtime to get ready for the wedding the next day. The next post will be from the wedding onwards! to be continued...

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