It was an interesting point in time, that was for sure. South Africa was, quite literally, the midpoint of our voyage. My itinerary for last spring’s Semester at Sea voyage had us sail from the Bahamas, south to Brazil and up the Amazon River 600 miles, then back out and over to Ghana, before coming down to the southernmost tip of Africa, where I found myself a little over a year ago today. Everything about South Africa screamed different. It is (arguably but commonly viewed) the “most European” of the African countries, and I know after the culture shocks of Dominica, Brazil, and Ghana, we needed some comfort.
I remember that at the time, I was just ready to tackle another country. I had heard from SAS alumni that South Africa was one of the more fun ports, lots to see and do, plus it had a relatively familiar party scene. Certainly, it was safer than the middle of the Amazon rainforest. And it was supposed to be gorgeous. I had big plans and new best friends. Looking back, I realize now that it was the tipping point for when I really became a global traveler. South Africa was just familiar enough to help me realize how much I had already grown, yet just different enough to give me a sweet taste of something new. But after we left South Africa, it was onwards to India and another five countries across Asia – we could no longer hide from the culture shock. We were told to appreciate the familiarities of South Africa, because after we left, we’d be on our own.
It’s impossible to pick my favorite country out of everywhere I went. I usually end up assigning superlatives – place that changed me the most, best people, place that “put things into perspective”, best Great Wall, best markets, best food, best scenery, etc. (India, Vietnam, Ghana, China, Singapore, India, Vietnam- I was a big fan of Asia.) But my usual answer to the question of “if you had to pick, where would you live?” is always answered with South Africa. I can’t explain why. Embarrassingly, it might be because it’s actually pretty familiar. I would argue that it was the most America-like out of everywhere I went, so imagining myself there in thirty years with a family and a job isn’t too far-fetched. I don’t think it would be that hard to assimilate myself into that culture. For goodness sakes, the waterfront had a huge mall with a H&M and a Haagen-Daaz. And a Ferris Wheel! Everyone spoke English and wore clothes that looked exactly like ours. African desert, this was not.
And yet, the social issues facing South Africa today are fascinating. One of my classes discussed domestic violence for each country we visited, and the recent social upheavals with the end of apartheid and a new government structure has thrown the country in social turmoil. I was lucky enough to spend two days/one night in a township, and I came away from the experience haunted. How could a country with such a beautiful, Victorian, modern waterfront have tiny shacks built of tin and with no electricity literally just minutes away?