South Africa: Johannesburg

In Johannesburg, we visited a dear friend from UCLA, whom I lived with in Washington DC.  We used a combination of intuition and “Carmen San Diego” detective skills to find Hanni’s house without GPS or a map.  The minute we decided to make a trip around the world, I let Hanni and Gavi know they were on the map.  We traded emails for months as we determined when, exactly, we would be coming to Africa.  Finally, we nailed it down.  We only had a 5 day window to visit before they were expected at a wedding, so we took advantage of it by arriving shortly after they returned from a work trip.  We spent 7 days and 3,000km to get there.  They hadn’t even unpacked their suitcases.

Johannesburg is a huge city.  It’s not easy to get around.  It’s not especially pretty, either.  For us, it didn’t matter since we were there to visit Hanni and Gavi.  We did two extremely memorable activities while in town, however: a bicycle tour of Soweto and a visit to the Apartheid Museum.  We ventured into Soweto (the South Western Township), the largest township in South Africa.  Our guide, Thomas, introduced us to several key areas on bicycle.  With more than 4 million people, it was a daunting destination, but we felt the love during our entire ride.  We shared traditional beer (purchased in a milk carton) with locals, we remembered the student protesters at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and we saw where Nelson Mandela lived.

Every child we passed said hello, wanted a high five…or ten and asked if we would “shoot them,” meaning they wanted their picture taken.  At one point, I had children holding both handles of my bike, running me down the street.  I told them they should be in the Olympics.  It was an incredible experience, not like the Soweto we may have read about in the newspaper.

Our trip to the Apartheid Museum was too short.  There is no way a person could take it all in during a single visit.  We were able to get a good understanding of the originations of the system and the political ideologies of those who created the rules, but it is impossible to take in all the history, emotion, and human rights abominations in just one afternoon.  To truly appreciate the resistance efforts, Truth and Reconciliation Committee and the present day situation would have required a Day Two, which we just didn’t have.  The experience was audio, visual and experiential.  As you entered, you were assigned a race: black, white or colored, based on a random lottery…your first few minutes spent experiencing times as that “type” of person.  It was incredibly thorough and truly touching.

All of our activities were scheduled by Hanni…she took us everywhere, assisted us in getting our passports sorted, Malaria medicine, mapping out future destinations and, of course, she fed us.  In general, Hanni and Gavi acted as our lifeline to success…good thing because the tourist office (closet) was mysteriously closed at all times of day.

It was our trip to Pretoria for Mozambique visas where things went sour.  Hanni sent us on the Gautrain, an over-ground speed train.  We made it to the Embassy with no problems.  We took the three hour Visa waiting period to search for food.  Walking to the town mall, we heard cracks and pops and saw people running in our direction.  Not knowing what had happened, we ducked into a parking garage.  We took the stairs to an above ground mall in search of food (and safety).  All the stores were closing their gates…we couldn’t figure out why…maybe lunch?!  As we walked a little farther, the situation escalated.  A large scale protest was taking place outside between the street hawkers and police.  The protesters ran through the mall and started to destroy everything in their path…called “toy toy” (riot).  I was pulled into a store, and a security guard locked the front door.  I couldn’t find Joshua.  He was still outside.  I started screaming for the guard to let him in…he probably looked like a protester running towards the door, banging for them to let him in.  They must have thought I was going to blow a gasket, screaming at the top of my lungs.  They finally unlocked the door for him…we were ushered to the back of the store and told to wait.  We asked a woman working in the store what was happening…the protesters were destroying everything in their path.  It was the second day of the events (too bad we didn’t see the front cover of the Pretoria newspaper than morning until afterwards).  Employees and guests had been locked in the store for three hours the day before.  I was losing my mind!  After 15 minutes, the store owners didn’t want us in there any longer.  They shooed us out, and they told us to get as far away as possible or go to the movie theater to see a movie.  We left the store…my legs moving extremely fast in escape.  It’s funny, I always walk a few steps slower than Joshua, but today I had to beg him to keep up.  As we were headed away from the violence, another woman stopped us.  “Are you tourists?” Yes… “Please get out of here quickly.  Keep walking until you pass Nelson Mandela Street.  Don’t stop!  A protest is coming this way.”  So we half ran for blocks.  We hadn’t eaten.  We had two more hours until we could collect our passports.  We sat on the lawn of the government buildings.  As we approached the Mozambique Embassy, my heart had finally stopped VISIBLY beating in my chest.  We made friends with a South African getting a Mozambique Visa, as well.  Our new friend Lucky drove us to the train station…before too long we were back safe in Johannesburg…never thought I would write that!

Hectic in the words of any South African.

3 thoughts on “South Africa: Johannesburg

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