Friday thoughts.

You may remember that Elder Son did his semester abroad in South Africa back in 2005 (pre-blog) and that Younger Son and I visited him at the end. The death of of Nelson Mandela has made me reflect a bit.

To black South Africans, Mandela was George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and maybe Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all rolled into one person. I know that sounds flip, but it is the only way I can express how they seemed to feel about Mandiba. It is absolutely amazing to me that he enabled that country to transition from its brutal apartheid state to one one of universal political freedom without a bloody war. Has such a monumental transition ever happened peacefully anywhere else on the planet? It is as if the US had abolished slavery without the fratricidal bother of the Civil War. Elder Son pointed out that the price paid for a peaceful transition was that, although the blacks got freedom and the vote, the whites kept the money and property; political freedom did not equal economic freedom. The latter will take somewhat longer to achieve.

* * * * *

All this reminded me that I had recorded some random thoughts upon returning home from our trip to SA. You may find them interesting. (Hover over the photos for the captions.

  • If I ever take another six- (or eight- or eleven-) hour flight I will seriously consider upgrading to first class. Of the seven flights involved, four of which were of that length, only two were not packed to the gills. That makes it downright painful to sleep, no matter how tired one is or the time of night. (The cost is probably prohibitive, but I can always dream.)

  • There are a lot of things in South Africa that could be improved. However, it seems harsh to criticize a country for not requiring seat belts or banning open bottles in cars or not having discovered the advantages of really good guardrails on dangerous mountain curves, when the 11-year-old government is struggling to deal with an HIV-based health crisis where something like 30% of the adult population is HIV-positive.
    AIDS ribbon on building.
    Posters in the AIDS nursing home where Elder Son volunteered. Poster 2 Poster 3 
    Wheelchairs lined up in the nursing home.

  • Contrary to what I remember from grade school geography, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost tip of Africa. That honor belongs to Cape Aguilas, 100 or so miles to the east.
    I was surprised to find how hard it was to find a good map of SA online in 2005. Seems easier now.

  • It is a l-o-n-g way from Cape Town to Johannesburg when one has to avoid the interior, where it is not safe for white tourists. I took a wrong turn once and ended up on an unpaved road heading away from the highway; Elder Son, normally as placid as I, began to panic.
    The coastal route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is beautiful and called The Garden Route.
    UKZN (you-kay-ZED-en) in Pietermaritzburg is where he went to school.

  • Adjusting to driving on the left side of the road was easier… 
    Speed limit here in suburban Cape Town was 80kph.
    Driving. Please note the white-knuckle grip I have on the steering wheel.

  • …than learning to anticipate how quickly we would overtake humungous double-bottom semis laboring up long hills when we are going 120 kph and they are going about 5. My kids yelled at me more than once, “Mom! Watch out!”
    120 kph
    The trucks, in addition to being huge, were uniformly old and rusty.

  • The approach of Christmas is a lot more difficult to detect there than in the U.S. This is a good thing.

  • White South Africa bears a lot of similarities to Australia. I've never been to the latter, a fact of which I had to keep reminding myself.

  • Road kill happens everywhere there are highways and fast-moving vehicles. The only thing that varies is the species of the victim.
    image from
    Sometimes the grass is greenest right next to the highway. Sadly.
    Future road kill, perhaps.
    On her way to visit the neighbors, I guess.
    This cow? Not so lucky.
    This was actually in a wildlife preserve, but could just as easily have next to the highway.
    NOT road kill. Baboons run wild in Table Mountain National Park.

  • The idea of having a vacation home 20 miles from the Cape of Good Hope boggles my imagination.
    Also, the satellite dishes point NORTH!

  • It is easy and perhaps helpful to draw some parallels: Nelson Mandela seems to occupy the same place in people's minds and hearts as does George Washington in Americans’; apartheid South Africa bore many similarities to Nazi Germany, although without the explicit death camps, with the black Africans occupying the same role as the Jews; “homelands” or bantustans = reservations; townships = ghettos.
    Cape Flats
    Cape Flats 2
    Cape Flats 3
    Township homes.
    Shipping container homes outside Jeffreysbaai, a beach town beloved of surfers.
    Housing looked better in the rural homelands (bantustans. You can see a few of the traditional round houses with conical roofs.
    Township roofs on the way to J/burg. Far better in this one than Cape Flats.

  • The townships are not shown on maps — at least not on the ones provided to tourists — thus indicating that they did not really exist.

  • The history of this new nation is very, very recent and still fresh in people's minds.

  • There is a transcendent wonder and optimism among many of the black Africans we talked with and listened to. Not all black Africans feel that way, of course, but it was amazing to me how many did, or at least managed to convey that impression to a middle-aged white female tourist.

  • According to Elder Son, the deal Mandela made with the white government back in the early 1990's that allowed apartheid to end without a major armed revolution was that everyone would get the vote, but the whites would keep the land and the money. He deplores this; I find it amazing that the apartheid system was able to end without that armed revolution. In my mind, Mandela traded a quick and horrifically chaotic and potentially genocidal transition for a slower but peaceful one that will take generations.

  • The typical black man was about 5'7” tall and weighed about 120 lbs. Obesity has not set in yet, although we did see a number of black women whom Andrew’s friend Matagiza referred to as “big mamas.”

  • “Mama” is a term of polite respect, rather like “ma'm” in the US. “May I help you, Mama?” was what a [black] gas station attendant might say to me.Steet market, Port Elizabeth (I think).

  • Tipping like an American feels good. I saw one gas station attendant, after I tipped him R17, a bit less than $3, on a $30+ tank of gas, actually dance and clap his hands as we pulled out of the station, as he cried out, “Seventeen rand!” to his co-workers.

  • The gas station attendants pump the gas, check the oil and water, and wash the windshield until it sparkles. Tipping seemed the right thing to do.

  • My motto became Tip like you mean it.

  • Outside of downtown Cape Town, the 95% of the drivers (except for drivers of combis* and commercial vehicles) are white and 100% of the pedestrians are black.

* A combi is a ten- or fifteen-passenger van, usually a VW, which is a private version of public transport. The combi won't run unless it has enough passengers to pay for the journey, usually about four. As I said, the drivers are always black, and the only whites that ride them are the occasional foreign student.
Combi with typical passenger load.
Another often-seen method of getting to work.
Back of the truck

  • There was nowhere along road from Cape Town to Johannesburg that there wasn't at least one black pedestrian every mile, even when we seemed to be thirty miles from the nearest settlement of any kind. These pedestrians were usually carrying something, sometimes on their (her) head, and were often dressed as though on their way to work. Walking distances unimaginable in the US is a way of life among the poor who cannot afford combi fare.
    Guardrails here. Unusual.
    Middle of nowhere.

  • All the manual labor, including washing dishes and making beds in backpacker hostels, is done by blacks. One's name, honest to god, was Baby, even though she was obviously over 40.

  • Whites, even though they knew and sometimes expressed the belief that apartheid was very, very wrong, occasionally still yearned for that world.

  • That was when the rand was worth something was one way they expressed that feeling.

  • The white flight that Mandela wanted to avoid is now hampered by the value of the rand. In 1971 one rand was worth 71¢; in 1980, 75¢; in 1985 and 1989 up to $2.85; in 1990 38¢, and today (2005) 15¢.
  • Googling to find exactly how to spell Cape Aguilas, I found this*, which expresses in a far more articulate way much of what I saw and felt.

    * Srsly, go read this. He writes about what I am saying here, but far more eloquently and specifically

  • On a more mundane – but personally important – level, the meat in South Africa was much tastier than what we have here, probably because it is closer to free range and the animals are not subject to hormone and antibiotic therapy. The difference was subtle and hard to categorize; the meat just tasted meatier. The burgers were firmer, juicy but not greasy. The steak was excellent although a bit chewier than we are used to.

  • Calamari is dandy. Who knew?

  • “No Pepsi. Coke.” Fortunately, that’s my preference, too.

  • I may be young at heart, but my knees and feet and ankles are definitely middle-aged.

  • Spending almost two weeks with a couple of teenage boys made me appreciate how thoughtful my husband is.

  • The lunch counters in the Madrid airport serve large glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Yummy. Even the orange Fanta tasted like it contained real orange juice.
    Madrid airport.

  • No-smoking areas are not enforced in the Madrid airport.

  • Smoking is more prevalent, or at least more obvious, in Madrid and South Africa than in the American Midwest.

  • Iberia Air accounts for more baggage complaints than any other airline, according to the person (a British Airways employee) at the lost baggage counter at La Guardia. She said she refuses to fly Iberia even though she could have free flights. (Our fares on Iberia were dirt-cheap. That probably explains the lack of proper baggage handling and the crowded flights mentioned above.)

  • It is possible to get one's suitcase into the US without having it go through customs if the airline sends it ahead of one's flight. (This is illegal, by the way.) In this manner it is possible to get biltong (similar to beef jerky, but much tougher and made from, besides beef, kudu, eland, ostrich, and who knows what else) into the US. Customs officials apologized for having to confiscate the biltong in my other suitcase that came on the same plane as I did. Smokey loves beef jerky so I had bought him a wide selection of biltong wherever I found it. Biltong from hoofed animals is prohibited from entering the US because of BSE and hoof-and-mouth disease, both of which are present in SA. (I got to keep the biltong made from ostrich. No hooves, you know…)

  • No matter how far you roam, it's good to be home.
    Traveling provides unique images.
    Sunset at Jeffreysbaai.



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0 Responses to Friday thoughts.

  1. Kim says:

    Thank you for this. Extremely interesting and informative.

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