Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, sat up on the edge of my bed, and felt… disappointed. The curtains were tapping gently against the frame of the window. There was a soft, intermittent breeze blowing in through the room. The lights of Johannesburg shimmered behind the curtain. I could see the city through the cracks in the curtain when the breeze would blow. I tried to put my finger on the emotion, which reminded me of how it used to feel the day after Christmas when, as a kid, I would realize that it was almost time to go back to school. All the presents had been opened and the mysteries unveiled.
Sitting there, I suddenly remembered, a song that I used to listen to called “Africa”. I stood up and walked to the kitchen and tried to piece together the lyrics, which seemed relevant to my current funk in a middle-of-the-night kind of way.
When I was a kid and I was in a dark, run-away-and-never-come-back-sort-of mood, I’d listen to the song “Africa” by Toto over and over again and imagine myself leaving to go live in a foreign and mystical land far, far from home.
“I bless the rains down in Africa…Gonna take some time to do the things we never haaaaaaad….” (Toto)
And now I’m here. In Africa. And I’ve been here for two and a half months. I’ve traveled from north to south searching for those mystical experiences promised by the song, numerous documentaries, movies, and books. I didn’t come here with virgin doe eyes thinking that this was a place of magic and friendly tribal cultures. I read a book called Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles right before we left that primed me for some of the problems we’d encounter here, but I’m never fully prepared for the way these problems actually look when I lay my eyes on them probably because most of the problems aren’t blatantly visible. I feel them.
“She’s coming in the 12:30 flight.
Her moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me toward salvation.
I stopped an old man along the way,
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies.
He turned to me as if to say, ‘Hurry boy. It’s waiting there for you.’
I bless the rains down in Africa…” (Toto)
The song is lovely, but the experience has been hard. I’ve seen the stars twinkle in clear skies over moonlit wings at all hours of the night on this trip, always hoping for salvation: a positive life-changing experience that resonates with me. Instead, what I’ve seen on land in the hours after our arrival in any of the foreign places we’ve explored is only some facet of myself reflected back at me. I go with myself everywhere. And I find that I’m the same as the best and the worst the world has to offer.
Yesterday, we did our first African Safari. It was an activity I hadn’t planned for when we left Denver two and a half months ago. What brought us to South Africa was a last minute decision to steer clear of the oppression and instability in the Arab countries up north. South Africa is a place of oppression, but not against Westerners and terrorism is not one of the big issues on the agenda here. In summary, we left a place where we felt threatened to come to a place where we feel like perpetrators.
John and I didn’t really discuss the obligation we felt to go on a safari as tourists in South Africa after we arrived here. It was understood that this was an activity we would have to do. We decided to go to Pilanesburg to do a “self-drive” safari (because we hate tour groups). At 10:30 PM the night before, we still had not discussed what time we would leave the next morning. We had deftly avoided the conversation and thoughts of safaris as long as humanly possible.
“So what’re we doing tomorrow?” Lydian asked as she got up to go to bed.
I had been reading and I looked up. John had been working on his computer. He looked up. I sighed. There was no avoiding it any longer. “I suppose we should leave pretty early…” I said. Pilanesburg is a game reserve located about 2 ½ hours away from Johannesburg. We chose to go to Pilanesburg over Kruger because it’s closer and none of us were up for another Big Trip within this BIG TRIP. A day trip to a nearby reserve seemed like the best option for us.
“What time do we need to go?” John asked.
I didn’t want to say it… “5:30 AM, I suppose.”
I had been trying not to think about the next day’s safari. I didn’t really want to go and I was upset with myself about it. I wondered, how could I spend so much time as a kid dreaming of this place, it’s landscape, people, and animals and then, not want to go on an African safari? What the hell is wrong with me?
Instead of talking about it, I tried not to think about it. This trip has been so cerebral, my brain hurts. I don’t want to think anymore. I’m weary of soul-searching and trying to understand the craziness on this continent. I set an alarm, did some yoga for relaxation, and took two PM-pills to knock myself out at 11:00 PM. I woke up several hours later, at 4:58 AM. I showered quickly and put myself together in a cursory, half-hearted way. Like soldiers, our family left at 5:30 AM on the nose.
There was no opportunity for conversation in the car. John had to drive a stick shift on the left side.of the car, on the left side of the road and his ability to concentrate on words and thoughts was limited. Black South Africans walked along the roadways in various places along the journey. Their presence added to the difficulties of the drive because besides pedestrian traffic on the side of the road on fast-moving roadways, two lane traffic had been expanded into four lanes through the use of the shoulder and passing methods that made my ankles sweat and the hair on my forearms stand up on end. We’d read about carjackings, but we’d mostly dismissed the dangers of being ripped out of our car at gunpoint after having talked to our vacation rental owner, Luyanda, about it. (He said that it wasn’t a problem where we were going.) Still, John didn’t always slow to a complete stop at intersections where there were large groups of poor black people loitering in near stop signs.
I only saw one white man walking along the road the entire day and he looked unusual. Perhaps mentally ill. But black men, women, and children walked long distances along roadways resembling interstates in the U.S. Many of them carried bags on their heads, or pushed wheelbarrows.
Why would people want to live in a society like this? I wondered. And then I thought, We’re so lucky that our country has gotten past this level of segregation and discrimination. The problems in Ferguson, Missouri demonstrate that there’s still more work to be done in the civil rights arena in the U.S., but South Africa is in need of another revolution. A full-scale revolution. It’s coming. It will have to happen someday.
I’m glad that black people don’t have to walk down the interstate to get from place to place in the United States. I’m glad they own cars and go about their lives much like white people do. When a young black woman bagging our groceries at the local Pick-and-Pay asked me to take her with me to America, I knew why. One-in-six South Africans is HIV positive on top of all the other problems black people have here in South Africa. The government has yet to create educational programs to combat the rising threat of the disease.
It was 7:30 AM when we pulled into a gas station just outside of Pilanesburg to fill up with gas. Little wooden structures had been built along the roadside near the station and we speculated about their function.
“Are those houses?” Lydian asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “Maybe.” Each one had a roof and what looked like either a bed or a shelf. They were covered with frayed pieces of fabric that flapped in the wind.
At the gas station, a black man filled the car and then, with diligence, washed our windows with a squeegee. He rubbed the window with a soft cloth to get rid of streaks and then stopped at one point with a concerned look on his face, leaning into the glass to look more closely at it before passionately scraping a small fragment of a bug off of our windshield with his fingernail. I sat in the passenger seat underneath this man’s toil, inert but awed at how vigorously he worked on our window without ever so much as looking at me. I wondered how many times each day this Poor Black Man Caters to the Rich White Woman Window Cleaning Script played itself out at this corner gas station in South Africa. As he buffed our windshield with a soft cloth a second time, I wondered if this man was happy to have this job or angry that he could not himself afford a car like the one I was renting (I have two more of them at home). There’s something undeniably Godly in a man who can accept his poor circumstance and oppression without anger, but rather gratitude. But also something Godly in a man who is willing to die in a fight to make things better for himself and his children. South Africa is a place perched on the edge of a cliff. Gratitude isn’t always the right answer. These people should be angry. And the people who have disenfranchised them should be afraid.
Once our car had been fueled and the windows thoroughly cleaned, we headed toward the entrance of Pilanesburg to spend the day trying to spot wildlife.
It was raining. Through the distortion created by the rain on our windows, I could see shanty-towns as we passed by. Most had been built lovingly and carefully by native African people out of corrugated metal. No insulation. No flooring. Just wood and metal. Theirs were not the most destitute settlements I’d ever seen in my life, but this area was merely a small cross-section of the country that had, according to everything I’d read, made great strides in overcoming oppression. Some of the houses were painted and decorated, but all of them were basic beyond the imaginings of most Americans.
What really fascinated me was the lifestyle of the poor people in Africa. Actually, this is something that fascinates me everywhere we go. The idea that people can survive on very little and still find happiness is something that I normally try to look into with more depth once I learn enough of a language to be congenial on my own behalf to the people we meet. In South Africa, I knew the language (English), but the dynamic is foreign. Not long ago, for example, it was illegal for black people to walk on the sidewalks, which made sense of some of the weirdness I felt when John and I would jog down the sidewalk and encounter black people walking toward us in Johannesburg. Once we learned about this sidewalk issue, we made a rule to always move out of their way first. In South Africa, my whiteness makes me into one of the bad guys. It would be hard to gain anything but forcible entry into the private lives of the folks who have been seriously oppressed by white South Africans. I’m not sure how to cross the line without being misunderstood and possibly offensive.
I need to do a lot more research on South Africa before we try to get to know people, but what I’d really like to see is the inside of one of those little houses in the shanty-towns, (so to speak).
Ever since we’d decided to go on a safari, a little voice in my head had been saying, “This is stupid… why are you going to go into a game reserve to look for animals?” Then I try to think of reasons why safaris aren’t stupid and why driving around looking for wild animals roaming a fenced-in park would be a cool thing to do. I haven’t come up with anything yet.
Originally, I had booked a luxury tent in Madikwe Game Reserve further north near Botswana. One night cost $350 per person.
“I can’t think of any kind of entertainment that would be worth $1000 per night.” I told John. “I mean, what would our family have to get out of an experience for it to be worth $1000 for one night?” I had booked the cheapest tent I could find for the three of us.
“I don’t know.” John said. “I agree…it doesn’t seem worth it.”
Needless to say, I canceled the reservation.
South Africa is well-known as one of the cheapest places in Africa to do a safari. But still, I thought perhaps I was missing something. Perhaps safaris are amazing experiences. But in my experience, it’s the free stuff…the real stuff that entertains and inspires.
In a conversation with Luyanda, our black vacation rental who is a banker/real estate investor in South Africa, we learned that the best part of a safari is “the kill”.
“Don’t you want to see the lions going after the zebras?” He’d asked me.
“No.” I said matter-of-factly. “I know they make ‘kills’, but I definitely don’t wanna see it.”
He’d smiled at me and I’d furrowed my eyebrows back at him. “Is that what people really wanna see?”
He nodded enthusiastically.
“People like to see the smallest, sickest, weakest in a herd of helpless animals get pummeled and ripped to shreds by a predator?”
Initially, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this conversation with Luyanda bothered me so much. It reminded me of the Romans and how they would herd animals into their colosseums to tear each other limb-from-limb as Sunday entertainment for the masses. It also reminded me of the bloody spectacles of the French Revolution and how the oppressed turned into the oppressors without even the slightest blip of self-reflection. Indeed, the anti-Muslim sentiments by minority groups against Syrian refugees in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks has a similar flavor. The Kill happens. It’s natural but not the most admirable part of our existence. Why would anyone pay great sums of money or expend efforts to observe it? It’s always there. On the news. In the streets.
If The Kill was the pinnacle experience of an African Safari, I wasn’t interested. But I had to admit that there was no way to know for sure without trying it.
As we turned into Pilanesberg Park, a zeal of zebras, wildebeests, and some white Egyptian geese grazed lazily beyond the fence. We snapped photos, took some obligatory video footage, and then continued on. Later we saw more zebras, a warthog, some kudu, and a parade of elephants. The elephants passed the road right in front of us, which was cool, but not as cool as riding elephants through the jungle in Nepal.
Back in August, one of the elephant trainers in Nepal told us that African elephants have Africa-shaped ears; Indian elephants have India-shaped ears. As I tried to feel connected to the experience of watching elephants in South Africa walk across the road in front of me from the safety of my car, this fact occurred to me and I remembered watching the Tharu children leading elephants along the river outside of their villages in Nepal. The elephants were domesticated, but the people were still wild. And that seemed so much more natural than this.
For five hours, we searched for wildlife at Pilanesburg Game Reserve. We searched and searched. And we saw stuff. This is a place that had once been inhabited by South African natives. Some of the higher-ups in South Africa had realized in their infinite wisdom that it could be a great tourist spot for rich white Jozi’s if they could just clear out the natives and then herd a bunch of wild animals into it for safaris. To me Pilanesburg resembled a zoo except that the predators and the prey had full access to each other and the locations of the animals varied from hour to hour.
In between “sightings” I would accidentally drop off to sleep, waking suddenly when my head would fall or when someone in our family would say, “Speckled Pigeon!” or “Zebra!” Then, I’d resume scanning the environment for movement, stripes, spots, anything that would indicate the presence of another one of the Big Five. Quietly, within moments after a sighting, I’d be overcome by boredom again and drop off to sleep, mentally numbed by doing this safari-style variation of Where’s Waldo for hours and hours without reprieve. Later, John and Lydian admitted that they had both fallen asleep off and on too. Once, John said, the car had started jolting violently when he’d dropped off in low gear and then slowed down too much. Lydian and I probably hadn’t noticed it because, as we crept down the road in our little Ford rental, we were all asleep.
At 1:00 PM, we decided we’d paid our safari dues. It was time to head back to Johannesburg. We got back around 4:00 PM. We ate a nice dinner. We sat on a comfortable couch for a few hours. Then, we went to bed.
And then late last night, I woke up feeling disappointed.
Like I’d missed the most important part of something that really matters.