Marking 100 years since Mandela's birth, celebrating International #MandelaDay, and hearing Barack Obama's speech in Johannesburg this week had me reflecting on marrying into a South African family and my lessons from "Madiba"...
Before this post, please read: Part 1: Mandela's 100th Year & the Postcard View We Shared
My First Visit: The Week The World Lost "Madiba"
The first time I visited South Africa was in December 2013, just days after Nelson Mandela died. I remember this so clearly because he passed away on Shane's birthday (December 5th), we flew on my birthday (December 11th), and the funeral was on the 15th. We took off from Heathrow Airport in London, where we were living, and aside from the pit-in-stomach sensation of getting off an 11+ hour overnight flight to meet my then-boyfriend/now-husband's family for the first time, I was also touching down to a nation in mourning.
It turned out to be a beautiful tribute week. Everywhere we went, I felt the energy, the emotion, the spirit of Mandela. I collected newspapers that week. They've been in a box in my closet (along with all of the ticket stubs and brochures that I will "someday scrapbook"), but I pulled them out this week to revisit for the first time. Mandela was known as Tata Madiba to his people. Some of my most vivid, and perhaps oddest, memories from that trip were the shopping mall tributes (it was already strange enough for me being in flip-flops in December; it was my first Christmas away from my own family – I usually flew from London to snow-white Connecticut). Here's some of the photos I took:
My perspectives of South Africa come as an outsider, and I am constantly learning. This blog will have writers who actually grew up in South Africa, and who can speak about their own home. My experiences are the stories of a newcomer, someone who married into it, a temporary tourist [sidenote: with that said, I’m a really "good" tourist in South Africa and I'm asked to send 'Must Do's' to people nearly every week. Part of the reason I started this blog was to force myself to put together more formal travel itineraries instead of forwarding scattered emails!].
I do my best to adopt and adapt in South Africa. I've not (yet?) lived there, but I've now visited on four extended trips, including a few months in Cape Town before our wedding. I’ve gotten up the courage to drive on the other side of the road and know that "robots" are traffic lights. I "braai" instead of BBQ. I can think in Rand (local currency). I watch rugby and root for the Springboks. I recognize the cords of the beautiful national anthem and feel a knot in my chest when I hear Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. I’ve driven Route 62 and the stunning Garden Route [part of our honeymoon: post to come!] and jumped off the world’s highest bungy bridge there. I know that when South Africans say they are doing something “now” (immediately), it is not the same as “now now” (soon), or “just now” (later).
"May Your Choices Reflect Your Hopes, Not Your Fears"
I find it hard to describe South Africa to people who haven’t been there. It's a place you must experience for yourself. The air feels different. The landscape looks unreal, like you're inside a painting. The sunsets are exploding balls of fire. The wildlife is majestic. The winelands are breathtaking. There is a calmness and peace there...and yet it is tense.
South Africa is an incredibly complicated country. Mandela's work toward a unified, peaceful, and prosperous nation has not yet been fully realized; the happy ending in the movie Invictus wasn't the end, and those who succeeded him have not necessarily carried on his values or vision for the greater good (in fact, Jakub Zuma resigned as president in February 2018 after years of corruption scandals and charges). 20+ years later, the current situation is unstable and uncertain for all [topic for another post], the fallout of painful history. Shane and I moved to the US from London two years ago, and we have both come to understand so much about our own countries by experiencing each other's, particularly at this polarized time in the world. We've been surprised to find comparatives between our two countries that are more apparent to us after living in Europe for many years (Shane lived in the UK for 12 years and I lived there for 6.5 years).
Family and friends have asked me if they should be afraid to visit South Africa – and this is not without reason; poverty and desperation mean crime rates are high, break-ins are often, and you are on a low-level of alert at all times. For someone who lives there, gates and walls and constantly setting alarm systems is just the norm – but for me, it is always a daunting adjustment. On the flip side, it is difficult for me when fellow Americans express fear about traveling to South Africa, or really anywhere outside the United States, without recognizing the irony. After all, my friends and family who are not American, including many South Africans, have asked me if it is safe to visit my country – and this is also not without reason (could I get caught up in a shooting at a concert or movie theatre or near a school?). This has been one of the lessons of my travels – seeing my own country from an outside perspective. Perspective is all relative.
My response to anyone who lets fear hold them back from leaving home is best summed up by Mandela: "May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears." By all means, see the world, if you can. Travel has made me less fearful and more hopeful, because the "unknown" has become beautiful places I never would have seen, new and unexpected friends I never would have met, delicious meals shared that I never would have tasted, and stories I never would have understood.
"Look Back On The Distance I Have Come"
I’ve now visited more than 50 countries. I've dealt in many currencies, used many SIM cards and plug adapters, secured many visas, and crossed many borders. The logistical stuff. More importantly, I've met unforgettable humans, with life experiences so different than my own. We've shared laughs and drinks and stories...and realized how much we also have in common. I've become so acutely aware of how lucky I am, among the world's 7.6 billion. I have been humbled and developed understanding and empathy so much deeper than I ever could have if I had never left home. I am a very different person now than the naive young woman who set out backpacking almost a decade ago.
There's a reason Mandela is revered by people around the globe. He was a self-proclaimed flawed man. He did not pretend to be a saint. But he believed in hope and humanity, education and empathy. He persisted when his spirit should have been broken. He chose unity and forgiveness, above all.
I'll never forget my first visit to South Africa during Madiba's funeral week, and the inexplicable connection I felt to a stranger I understood so little about...the connection you may feel to him, as well. He is a symbol of hope from a nation and a layered history we may not fully understand, yet we know that what he stood for was greater than all of us.
I'll be writing a lot more on South Africa. But for now, in circling back to Part 1, I leave you with a quote from Mandela – a reminder to appreciate every mountain view that you are free to gaze upon:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter;
I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after
climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
I have taken a moment here to rest,
to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me,
to look back on the distance I have come.
But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities,
and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”