Cape Town – in which country are we, again?

Cape Town is like a parallel Universe. It looks like Anytown; Auckland, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Boston. The city is clean, organized and modern – it doesn’t even have a unique smell . But beyond the brilliant surface it really is South Africa, the Rainbow Nation.

Our trip started two days ago with a 20-hour flight from New York to Cape Town via Johannesburg. Arriving in Cape Town, Eduardo’s first comment was “It doesn’t look interesting.” And it doesn’t. The personality is more British/Dutch than African, with its terraced Victorian houses, boxy gray office buildings and glass-walled high-rises. They even have a Waterfront shopping center that looks like a larger New York South Street Seaport.We could just as well be in New England, and all the Africans on the streets could be immigrants.
On the way from the airport, we passed by a shantytown with thousands of plywood huts with corrugated tin roofs, which sadly is more what we expected South Africa to look like. But downtown Cape Town, cowering beneath the impressive flat-topped Table mountain, looks more like a brand new doll house.

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up reading white South African writer Andre Brink’s books about (and against) the apartheid era, but it’s hard not to notice the divide between the rich, mostly white people who own businesses and the poor, mostly blacks and coloreds (an accepted name for the rest). It just seems unfair. With only 20 years since the dissolution of apartheid, large steps have been made, and there’s a definite respect between the different groups. But I guess I just wish the power would lie with the original countrymen.

Thank heavens for the World Cup! Because with the World Cup all South Africans seem to come together in their support for Bafana Bafana! Go South Africa!

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Arriving by Police Escort in Nelspruit

Nelspruit may not be on everybody’s must-see lists when traveling, not even those traveling in South Africa. But besides the non-existent scene, this town sits on the threshold to Kruger National Park, and hosts four matches of the 2010 World Cup, so it is on the map, and yes people do come here.

Eduardo and I ended up in Nelspruit after driving (sometimes in circles) from Johannesburg through dense fog, heavy rain and through a rainbow arch. Reaching the town well after dark, and not seeing a single sign pointing towards the town center, we decided to ask for the way at a gas station.

“Sorry, no, I don’t know Van Wijk Street, but I’ll take you to the police station, and you can find out there.”

Incredibly typical for South Africa – everyone’s nice. Everyone’s beyond helpful. So this South African gentleman drives has BMW ahead of us to the Nelspruit police station and asks the policemen to assist us. I’m not sure if there’s no crime in Nelspruit or the policemen were just bored, but they actually escorted us through the town to Van Wijk Street (Van Wyck, for us New Yorkers).

And we arrived at our hostel by police escort…

The Swaziland Football Team

Unfortunately, they did not qualify for the 2010 World cup.

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Lesotho – Mis-Adventures in the Mountain Kingdom

A lot of people were discouraging when they heard we were going to Lesotho. “There’s nothing to see there”, “The South African side of the mountains are much more beautiful”, “It’s so poor”, etc.

And really, Lesotho itself seemed to discorage us from visiting – it presented us with a huge pothole that blew one of our tires within our first half hour in the country. Unable to fix the tire in Lesotho, we returned to South Africa to get a new tire, and so crossed the South Africa/Lesotho border three times in one day.

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We barely made it to a guesthouse before sunset, and slept in a mudmade rondavel hut in a tiny village. The only thing going on in that place was a football match between the local boys, and a store that only sold canned beans, crackers and cigarettes.

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The next morning it was raining hard. But when the rain subsided, we continued up the mountains. I was set on making it to the highlands, the part of Lesotho that is supposed to be the most dramatically beatiful.

Eduardo swore. The whole way. Those roads are not for sissies. It was like driving on a roller-coaster ride, the hills are just as steep, and the curves just as sharp. Me, in the passenger seat, held my breath and hoped the brakes would not fail.

On one of those sharp and steep curves, a tanker had broken down, the cargo too heavy for the truck to pull. And it was just as impossible for the driver to back up, so he was stuck there. For hours. Maybe forever.

When it started to snow, we decided to give up. No matter how fantastically beautiful these mountains were, and how cool all the people were, it wasn’t meant to be this time.

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Dakar to New York – Going Home

4 months, 10 countries and, 49 cities later, we were on our way home. Partly reluctant, partly just yearning for normalcy, less stress, fewer insects and food cooked without Maggi.

On the plane back home, we tried to summarize the trip. Apart from the difficult moments and screaming matches, it had been a fantastic trip that we would never forget. And it had changed us.

Somewhere along the way, in Ethiopia, I had decided that I would never complain again. It seemed ridiculous to grumble about deteriorating subway cars, expensive food and tight living quarters when so many people have so much less. We had met people who had nothing. Children who would never have a chance in their lives, because they were born into a family of twenty, with the only purpose of bringing in extra income to the family.

Then we remembered the unbelievable hospitality of the friends we had made in South Africa and Nigeria.

And we talked about the fascinating tribes in the Lower Omo Valley with big ceramic plates inserted in their lips, and the churches that were dug out of rocks in Lalibela.

We reminisced about the Tuaregs in Niger, who a few weeks after our visit kidnapped five French people in Arlit. Well, maybe not the actual Tuaregs we had met, but perhaps their friends.

People had said that West Africa is the most difficult place in the world to travel, and after this trip we could only agree. It’s a tough place with tough folks. There are no sights to speak of, and the public transport had to be the worst in the world. We had met so many aggressive, angry men and women. But it had also opened our eyes to how poverty, perhaps understandably, can bring out the worst in us all.

We also knew that through these experiences we had grown a lot closer as a couple, knowing that we would always stick together no matter what.

It’s funny, as I was looking through the window on our drive home from the JFK Airport, New York City actually looked clean and organized. Well, that was a first!

And when our friends and family ask; was it worth it? There has to be a resounding yes. It was totally worth it. But would I ever do it again? Never.

However, after a few days of rest we couldn’t help but start thinking of our next trip. What’s next? Asia perhaps.