South Africa – Have I fallen in love?  

I fall in love easily when I travel. I had numerous crushes in my previous travels – with places, with countries, sometimes with their people.

I always try to blend in as a local as soon as I get myself oriented in a new place. Then I get familiar with a certain neighborhood, and with some locals. I grow into affection with the place and its people, and soon develop a connection. Sometimes I find myself immersed so well that I start to feel that I have become a part of their community, and would long for some relationship with that place in a more intimate way, like, to really become a local, and to belong to that place forever.

‘What if I move here?’ I imagine myself staying in the place I have fallen in love with, not as a visitor, but as a long-term resident. I would let my imagination go freely to think what life would be like if I become a real local.

Admittedly, the thought is quite romantic, impulsive and irrational. But it is exactly what love is all about, isn’t it?

**********

I never truly felt that South Africa would become a country on my bucket list. I am not keen, to say the least. It is far. It lacks character. It does not fall within my definition of ‘exoticism’. I would love to understand more about the disgraceful history of the Apartheid, and how, against all odds, the country came out from the dark towards reconciliation. But that alone does not constitute sufficient reasons for me to book a trip there. Most important of all, it is not safe. So I heard. Everybody said so.

So even I myself could not have imagined an SA trip would happen in my life that soon. But chance sometimes intervenes our life decisions, even when it comes to traveling.

I was planning a three-week vacation. All the long-haul destinations that I wanted to go were booked out. All, except Johannesburg. I really wanted a getaway, so I quickly confirmed the ticket before it ran out, rather recklessly. But I soon panicked. I had absolutely zero idea on what to do with a ticket to Johannesburg for three weeks.

I needed help. I sought out my friend in Namibia who quickly agreed to take me as his guest for ten days.

Then came the rest of the trip. I asked my friend in SA. I needed to fill out the other days, with safety as the primary concern, above all else. ‘SA is okay. Cape Town is wonderful. You can also spend a few days in the mountains, where I live,’ he said, ‘but I would avoid Johannesburg as a city.’

Ridiculous enough, Joburg would be the place where my flight would land. But I had no reason not to take heed to the safety advice of a local. So my plan was to purposely avoid this city, flying out of Joburg as soon as I landed, and would only return to the city a day before flying back home.

My focus now rested on my time in Joburg, however short it would be. Even for a stay of one night, I had to find out which neighborhood I should stay, which places I might go, and how I could travel safely within the city – those practical things.

The internet brought me information from different sources, both visitors and locals, on what I should expect in Joburg. Here are some of the things I gathered:

● The safety challenge starts right upon landing at the airport. There are numerous reports on theft, pilfering and loss of luggage. Prospective visitors keep repeating the same question on travel forums: ‘what is the best type of luggage to avoid theft in Joburg Airport?’. Most locals make it simple: ‘Don’t pack anything you are not prepared to lose.’

● It is not completely true to say that Joburg is unsafe everywhere. Good neighborhoods do exist. Locals agree on a handful of neighborhoods where people can stay safe. But it also means that apart from the few named, people should generally avoid setting foot in the rest.

● People are frequently reminded not to walk alone in the streets after dark.

● There are roads in areas notorious for high-crime and gang violence that those in the know dare not drive through. Some robbers stop a vehicle in the middle of the highway, rocking the vehicle to make everybody out, and take everything valuable. Robbery and hijacking at gunpoint on the road is not uncommon either. Victims were physically harmed in some cases.

● Tourists are strongly recommended to join tour groups if they want to visit some townships. They are told to never go alone.

As I delved deeper, I found that what I was wanting to know were no longer simply the practical things about my own short stay there. What I truly wanted to know was what it is like to live in the city. From what I gathered, Joburg has everything that makes it qualified as a ‘Sin City’. I became curious as to what it would be like if I were not just a transient visitor, but a real citizen of the ‘Sin City’.

**********

My flight arrived in Johannesburg as scheduled. I took it as a good sign when my suitcase sat safely on the conveyor belt, untampered. I decided to leave the airport and visit the only site that I truly felt a must-see in the city – the Apartheid Museum. I arranged an official taxi to take me there and back.

The taxi driver was good-natured, and I asked him things about himself and his city. I wanted to know about his life, with a hidden agenda – I wanted to verify from a local the dreadful safety threats that I read so much about this city, and what he thought about it.

‘This is the CBD,’ he doubled as my tour guide as we passed by a cluster of old, grey, plain-looking buildings and some unassuming shops along the streets. ‘There is an old CBD and a new CBD. This is the old one.’

‘This place is busy. Do you go out here after work?’ I asked.

The taxi driver gave me a dry laugh, as if about to state something too obvious. ‘I would rather not. If I have to, I drive. Walking here after dark is not safe.’

Fact check completed. It was the same warning appearing time and again in travel forums. I thought I had already grasped a pretty good idea on how bad the safety in Joburg could be. Still I was a bit startled when the driver told me the CBD was not any safer. It might be an unfair presumption, but I had always believed that CBD is the safety zone in every city, because CBD means ‘central’, and means ‘business’. Every city government is supposed to have a duty to make sure the CBD is free from crimes and dangers. Here in Joburg, it does not appear to be the case. I quickly stole a glance at the driver. First of all, he was not joking. Second, he was like any other local, and he was a big guy. In other words, he was not a petite spot-on stranger of this city, like me.

‘There are a lot of people wandering around after dark, those homeless and jobless,’ he explained. ‘If we go out at night, we always drive. Walking out at late hours is senseless.’ I looked out at the car window again, in a new light. I had a vision of the busy street turning into a ghost town after dark, with people dragging their bodies around, as I saw in those zombie-mania TV games.

Soon the driver brought me back safely to the airport, and I flied out to Namibia. This glimpse of Joburg was definitely far from enough to solve all my mystery about what a citizen’s life is here. The conversation with the driver, though, seemed enough to testify at least one thing – crime is part of the everyday life of the Joburg people. To live and survive here, people find ways to get around dangers, avoiding to deal with them head-to-head. It must be tough life to have to fend for one’s own safety every second, every day. I felt it tiring even just to imagine it.

But the Joburg people still choose to live here. Sure there might be people who have no choice, but there might at least be some people who find real merits of living here in spite of all the daily safety threats they have to face. I wish I could find out more when I would return to this city on the last day. Perhaps I would find some merits of the city that I would fall in love with it and never want to leave?

**********

I enjoyed a worry-free vacation in Namibia for ten days, with my local friend taking care of me attentively on all fronts. I soon fell in love with the country, and felt belonged to the Namibian people. My departure means the special connection with this country would be lost for a while, but I had a feeling that it will be reconnected again.

Then I returned to South Africa, landing in Cape Town.

While my time in Joburg was immaterial to speak of, I, like the European treasure-seekers centuries ago, took Cape Town as my first gateway to get to know a continent and a country I had barely travelled.

I soon found out Cape Town is not typically ‘African’ in the broader sense. The blood that runs along the veins of the city is predominately European.

Strolling along the V&A Waterfront, I found a marked resemblance with the casual, relaxing vibes of Sydney Harbour. With its great restaurant scene, blossoming coffee culture and the crisp autumn air, I could cheat myself to be vacationing in some seaside city of Europe popular for holiday-makers. People in general are surprisingly posh and good-looking. The city looks affluent. It is very livable and vibrant. I saw some particularly pretty residential neighborhoods. I imagined I could maintain a good standard of living here, without the need to make great adjustments to my usual lifestyle. ‘What if I live here?’ The question ignited like a little flame in my head again.

While my SA friend vouched for the safety of Cape Town, I took my entire stay roaming freely to wherever my feet took me, without feeling too stressed-out to care about personal safety in general.

But around the neighborhood where my hostel was, I vaguely felt that some darker side of Cape Town exists. That something was not so obvious as to put me immediately on the alert, but I could neither dismiss its existence altogether.

I picked to stay in the neighborhood for its convenience. There are cool art galleries, shops and cafes dotting the crisscrossed streets, while the main street that spans across the neighborhood is packed with restaurants and bars. The neighborhood is lively throughout the day, and busiest after dark. People stream in the main street at all hours. From my hostel, I walked along the main street every day, several times a day, and at different times of the day. Since the first day I was there, I noticed some people standing or sitting on the street sides, sometimes loitering a little, all day long. They become part of the street scene. I was fully aware of their existence. I just maintained the same usual level of caution. I would not expect to cross paths with any of them.

Then something extraordinary happened. One late afternoon, I made my way back to my hostel, a takeaway box in my hand. In the interval of that same few hundred metres’ of walk, I was stopped by three people – each one of them popped out from the very people I typically saw idling on the street every day. In two instances I was stopped by some guy who wore fluorescent vests on top of their outfits. Would they actually be some sort of road workers or street cleaners resting during their break, I did not know. ‘Hungry!’ they uttered in a low voice, then tried to catch my attention by rubbing their stomachs animatedly or pointing at my takeaway box. In another instance, a teenage girl tagged along for a few ten metres. She told me she was hungry. She asked for the lunchbox. She asked for money. At the end, she said ‘please’ pleadingly, palms pressed together.

I slipped past each one of them without stopping. I might have hesitated a while, but soon I decided against stopping or doing anything.

The fact is, I did not know what to do. It was not panic. I was pretty sure they would not do me any harm in broad daylight. The real reason I dashed away was I felt struck. I had no way to have predicted the difference that a takeaway box would make to a walk I took every day. I did not understand why the tall big guys would ask for the tiny lunchbox in my hand, assuming that they might actually be engaged in some paid jobs with their fluorescent vests on. I did not know if something good, or bad, might happen if I handed out my lunchbox, or maybe some money, to any one of them.

All I did know was that when I finally got back to the hostel, I felt bad. Would I do something differently if I actually live here and know what and why this happened? I thought.

In any case, I would not believe that anyone would care to ask for a stranger’s lunchbox if they have enough to eat. Something is wrong in this city.

**********

In Cape Town, I met a new acquaintance. Born and grew up in my home town, she started a new life in SA for about ten years now. She likes her life here. She likes its low cost but high standard of living. She enjoys a good work-life balance. She loves the proximity to nature without the sacrifices of the conveniences offered by a city. Her social circle is mainly a group of Afrikan friends, and her own family. She likes it here so much that she encouraged me to move to Cape Town, together with her other family member still living in my home town. ‘Both of you should quit your jobs and move here’, she said.

When I first hanged out with her, I had an impression that she does not seem to bother about personal safety too much. But I later observed that a higher-than-average alertness is actually always within her. This alertness has become a natural part of her that it is not so noticeable. She was not particularly surprised when I mentioned the ‘lunchbox’ incident that happened to me. She did not give any comments at all. I reckoned it was not something very extraordinary to a resident here.

One day my new acquaintance took me on a side trip to the wine region in Western Cape, where centuries ago the religious refugees from France made this area their new home, bringing along their great wine-making traditions. While I was there, the Western Cape had been threatened by a prolonged water crisis. In one of the wineries, the owner told me gloomily that the water level in the tank was just enough for three weeks’ worth of water consumption. Seeing workers reap beautiful fruits and vegetables in the well-tended farm, I felt bad for the owner. We might not see the same thing in one month’s time.

This time my new friend had something to say about the water problem. In fact, all the people I met in SA said the same thing about it: the crisis should not be a crisis in the first place. It was predictable. It could have been well avoided if the government did something and did that earlier.

Poor governance might be what the SA people really wanted to say.

But I felt that poor governance might not only be causing this water problem in Cape Town. It might also have something to do with my lunchbox incident, or the crime and violence in Joburg. People might complain about poor governance, but people would not choose to flee a country because of poor governance, on the condition that the other aspects of their lives are sufficiently good to compensate. Or would they?

**********

I left Cape Town feeling like I was finishing a vacation in Europe. Then I traveled into the mountains in central SA where my friend lives. It is an extremely scenic region. People living here live with nature. In the hotel where I stayed, I woke up every morning with the sight of the great bluish-grey mountains in the distance, the lush green plain lying flat right in front of me. Then I watched the colours of the scene change every minute while the sun worked its magic. It is serene and quiet. I imagined myself waking up with a view like this every morning.

Nature aside, the small mountain town is self-sufficient and convenient enough to maintain a good standard of living. The community looks compact enough to be possible to form a good, close relationship with neighbours, and with time, to be possible to be accepted as part of the community. It is ideal to be a place to pursue a peaceful life.

One day I met a very respectable gentleman in the mountain town. He chose to move from a city in SA to live in the mountains after retirement – for the nature, and for the quietness. He had been very happy living here for five years. Then for some reason our chat moved to his family. He had a complaint, not against his quiet life in the small town, but against something far bigger. He has a very brilliant son working in the banking industry, who had been groomed to take up a top position in the company. One day the son was told that the position had to be awarded to a less brilliant non-White peer. Within one week, his son’s partner, an outstanding academic in her field, failed to fight for a fellowship in the university. She was offered the same reason for her failure. The gentleman apologised for burdening me with his family’s unhappy encounter, but how it could happen had been troubling him for some time. Many years after the end of the Apartheid and the beginning of the era of reconciliation in the country, he had been wondering: what a country should be like if it means to create equal opportunities for every citizen, irrespective of color?

I remembered what I saw in the Apartheid Museum on the very first day of my trip. When the first fully democratic Parliament drew up the country’s new Constitution, it made sure guarantees of equality are contained more extensively in SA than in anywhere else in the world – democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom. They are all written in the Constitution.

Then I thought about myself. Would I have to bother about equality if I live in this country, having a skin color somewhere in between? Or, would the answer be different if I live in a city, or live in this mountain town? Based on my previous love affairs with places, the feeling of being accepted is quite deciding to make me fall in love with a place. With the preferential policy, I could not be sure if I would be warmly embraced by this country at all.

*********

Soon it was almost the end of the trip. I flew back to Johannesburg for my very brief stay of one night.

I stayed in one of the ‘good neighborhoods’ that locals considered as safe. My taxi passed through the surrounding area. Nice houses neatly line the streets of this typical middle-class neighborhood. It might not have any character, but one would not have any doubt on its safety.

When I met the host of my B&B, she helpfully and efficiently gave me information on how to get around, and offered a few highlights on safety without my asking. She said I would find no problem walking to the restaurants just around the corner in the evening, especially it was a Friday. I could also take a taxi to do some shopping in the malls in the other ‘good’ neighborhoods. When I was not going out, I could lock up the glass doors of my room leading to the garden if that made me feel safer, although she remarked that the garden has actually been safely enclosed within the walls fencing off the street. I dismissed it as unnecessary, but I was sure she suggested this because she must have met some guests who were anxious about safety even within a walled-in house.

I took a short taxi ride to the adjoining neighborhood to see the shopping mall. It was a nice big shopping mall, perfectly neat and safe. But soon I found no fun. I felt like I was a pet goldfish being kept within a pretty glass bowl.

The next morning, I took a short walk to a huge beautiful park in the same neighborhood of my B&B. Residents walked their dogs and jogged around, enjoying the green lawn and the lake. Life looks nice here in this neighborhood.

Soon I left for the airport. I resumed my favorite activity in a taxi ride – chatting with the driver. On the way I told him I found the neighborhood nice. He concurred that it is a nice neighborhood, but just a few streets away was the boundary of this good neighborhood, and came the not-so-good neighborhood beyond that point. Our subject of discussion continued to centre around the safety of Joburg. While I had already heard about how people would not walk in the streets at night, this time I came to know that there is yet another thing that the locals would not do in the streets. ‘I would not play with my mobile phone while I am walking,’ the driver said. ‘People will snatch your phone and sell it to some black market right away.’ The same mischief might happen if he opens the car window while talking on the phone, he added. He always keeps his phone in safe custody.

If I were to move to Joburg, the first thing I have to learn is to stop using my mobile phone in public.

**********

I arrived at the airport, saying goodbye to the driver, leaving South Africa behind. On the flight back, the big concluding question flashed in my head:

‘Have I fallen in love with this country so that I would love to live here, if I had a choice?’

I dismissed the question right away. I know not enough this country to answer the question properly. In my two weeks here, I heard and saw a lot – the good things, the bad things. But the more I heard and saw, the more I could not decide if I really love this country.

I am surprisingly rational this time. So, perhaps, there is not enough love after all.

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