Month: October 2018

An Ode to South Africa

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.’

These were the words of the Afrikaans pastor at the Shofar church we decided to visit on Sunday, and it’s funny, in a way, how relevant they became for us over the coming days.

Whilst you could tell from the pastor’s emotion that he was talking about much deeper issues than those that plagued us (more on that in a moment), this petition to find joy among trials became somewhat of an ironic mantra as we spent three nights in our Tulbagh log cabin, accommodation #4 of this South African adventure.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when you have two plastic bags full of dirty washing and can’t access the sole laundry you will have on this trip because the door’s welded shut from the rain. Consider it pure joy when this trial means that the local farmer has to come over two days later and cut the entire lock out of the door so that you can get in.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when you’re at the end of a heatwave-induced 35°C day, have spent all day outdoors and have looked forward to a dip in the pool, only to find that the pin code on the gate has been changed and there’s no way you can access the inviting lagoon inside.

Consider it pure joy, my travellers, when the water goes ice cold mid-shower because you haven’t been told you had to turn the geyser on, or when a cute little dog follows you all the way home from the pool gate and ends up peeing all over the outdoor furniture.

These issues are trivial, no doubt – there will always be things that go wrong when you travel and indeed, I could write a book on that topic by now. But to hear these words – consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds – in a country that is plagued with a host of (sometimes well-documented, sometimes more underlying) issues meant that this imploration took on a new meaning for us this week.

For many who have never visited this diverse, indisputably beautiful and fascinating country, South Africa remains somewhat of an enigma. Most of what we hear at home (at least in Australia) is that the country is one of danger and crime, poverty and corruption. And it’s true – some places are dangerous, and you do need to be vigilant. There is a large gap between the haves and the have-nots and the variances in people’s living standards are clearly visible, particularly when you drive past the townships which adjoin most urban areas.

But what we don’t often hear about is the steadfastness of the South African people: their intense, deep-seated love for their country and its people and the hope they hold onto for change, despite facing what truly could be described as trials of many kinds.

Tyson and I have spent time – both on this trip and previous ones – with people from both ends of the spectrum. We’ve been in townships with locals – like when Tyson attended a housewarming party in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township a few years ago – and we’ve enjoyed absolute five-star tranquillity in luxury private game reserves. On this trip, as on previous visits, we’ve stayed in locally-run bed and breakfasts; something we believe gives you a priceless opportunity to interact with the ‘true’ South Africa, not to mention ensuring that the bulk of your money actually stays within the community.

All the while, we’ve spoken to local South Africans as much as we could about the trials this country continues to face: racial issues, crime, poverty, corruption. Some people have said that they’re fearful of what the future holds for the country, and many understand why their friends and family have emigrated to other parts of the world. But they have also said that they see hope for South Africa, and that something inside of them refuses to give up on this country – the rainbow nation, as so eloquently described by Former President Nelson Mandela when he took office after the end of Apartheid in 1994:

“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld […] – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Our prayer for this country – one that we love, mostly for its natural and cultural assets but also, probably, for its vulnerability to being misunderstood, is that light will triumph over darkness; that the future will bring great change for its inhabitants, regardless of their skin colour, and that the people who are the lifeblood of this nation will have the strength and resilience to consider it pure joy when they face trials of many kinds, because, as the scripture goes on, they know that the testing of their faith produces perseverance and that perseverance, when it has finished its work, will mean they are mature and complete, not lacking anything.

 

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

James 1:2-4 (New International Version)

 

 

What I learned about fear from a hike through leopard territory

I’m not brave.

That’s what my head told me as I walked across the wide-open plateau of fynbos, rocky mountains stretched up to my right and to my left like some kind of life-sized version of a monkey enclosure. There was a troop of baboons that inhabited those stony enclaves, we were told. Baboons, snakes like puff adders that don’t move when you step on them (they just bite and sit there gleefully while your leg inflates to match their namesake). Oh, and a leopard.

Yes, my friends. A leopard.

Now, you’d think growing up in Australia – with 8 of the world’s 10 most venomous snakes, sharks, crazy insects and all sorts of weird-but-not-wonderful creepy crawlies – I would be immune to the fauna-related frightfulness induced upon many less regularly exposed human beings. And indeed, when I’m at home, I’m pretty chilled. I know they’re there, but unless we’re talking about cockroaches and toads (apologies in advance – my weaknesses are all coming out today), I don’t usually lose my cool.

Well, hiking in Africa is a different story, as I realised through my more-rapid-than-usual heartbeat and cacophony of negative thoughts that went something like this:

There is a leopard in these mountains. A leopard! That’s the second biggest African cat! Oh my gosh. Who the heck goes for a walk through leopard territory? This is a suicide mission! We haven’t even packed band-aids, let alone done any feline self-defence training. If I see the leopard, I will freeze. I will not know what to do, and since I’m walking at the back and I’m the smallest, it’s definitely going to be me that gets taken. If it’s not the leopard, it will be a snake – we’re walking through long grass – I was always told NEVER to walk through long grass. And these snakes don’t even move! Oh no and now I’m looking at the ground because I’m sure there are heaps of snakes but really I should be looking at the mountains because somewhere in there is a troop of baboons and I guarantee one of them is going to steal my water bottle. Why on earth did I agree to this?!?

In retrospect, these thoughts were ludicrous. Of course it was extremely unlikely that we would come face to face with the leopard, the snakes or even the baboons. Yes, the chance was there, but my fears were massively out of proportion with reality.

All of this got me thinking about fear: what it does to us, and perhaps more importantly – what it stops us from. Here’s what I realised:

  1. Fear stops you from seeing the full picture / the big perspective.

When I was hiking through the fynbos, head down, looking for snakes, I wasn’t looking straight ahead. All I was thinking about was what could go wrong – I wasn’t looking at the beauty that lay ahead – in my case, an extraordinary view over the valley.

Isn’t it sad that when we’re afraid of something, our vision somehow becomes minimised? What do we miss, by focusing on the problem at hand? And what’s the greater purpose to our current struggle? Does fire not strengthen the clay; do valleys of trial not magnify life’s peaks?

2. Fear steals your joy

Being afraid of leopards, snakes and baboons occupied so much of my brain space that morning; there was little room left for anything else. Along our hike, there were spectacular wildflowers all around us, there was beautiful, moon-like mountain scenery and a clear blue sky. I didn’t notice any of this until I consciously began to work on drowning out my negative thoughts.

How often do we let negative thinking control our brain when we’re faced with a fear, or confronted with a challenge we don’t know how to deal with? It seems easier, somehow, to focus on the bad than to turn our minds to what can bring us joy. We let ourselves get caught up in these negative thoughts and we miss out on the things that could lift us up. Are you letting fear steal your joy?

3. Fear stops you from being aware of the things that can help you.

As I marched through the long grass, my eyes barely wandered from the path ahead. If I hadn’t looked up and around occasionally, I would have missed the little stripes of blue paint on the rocks, guiding the way to our final destination. I wouldn’t have seen the little piles of rocks that others had left where the path was almost invisible, helping us to find our way back to the trail.

When we face difficulties in life, chances are, there’s someone else who’s been there. If you don’t know them, maybe they’ve written a book, or a blog post, or sung a song about it. Who is around you that could help you through the situation you’re in now? What resources are you not taking advantage of in this season of life, that could push you forward to a place where fear no longer has a place in your inner world?

Guys, I know you’ll be thinking that this blog is getting deeper every time you read it. I apologise, but I don’t. I like words – funny ones and kind ones, mainly – but also deep ones. If you know me at all you’ll know that I’d much rather a conversation about something that’s on your heart than a conversation about work or the weather (though my job and clouds both bring me significant happiness as well).

This blog was always designed as a way for me to share my reflections about the world around me – a way to open a door, if you will, to intrigue your senses so much that you’d want to come in and experience what I’m sharing with you for yourself. But it was also designed to be a conversation about important things, heart things. Things I don’t think we talk about often enough. So, thanks for sticking it out with me today.

To lighten the mood a little, I thought I’d share one of my favourite captures of our 3 days in the Southern Cederberg Mountains – the place where we went on the beautiful hike mentioned above. We had an incredible time there, actually. Once I got over my fears I completely relaxed, and by the end of our time at the Rooibosch Cottage I didn’t want to ever be anywhere else ever again. Nature’s silence – which is not very silent – was a magnificent alternative to the city hustle and bustle and the view of mountains will just never get old. I’m so thankful to have these opportunities to travel. But about that picture – and I apologise if it’s a crude way to end – here are, for your African animal photo collection, two dassies mating! You may not appreciate it, but appreciate the timing – these animals are SKITTISH, so to capture them at all is a feat. To get this intimate moment, well, we’re getting pretty close to safari-quality. And since Tyson and I aren’t doing any safaris on this trip, this is going to be as good as it gets. 😉

Speak to you soon!

Of flowers, flamingos and arriving

It always takes me a little while to feel like I’ve arrived somewhere when I travel.

It amazes me constantly, this weird duplicity that exists between home and away, between your normal and someone else’s – even when there are thousands of kilometres in between. When I’m at home, everything feels normal to me – life has its usual rhythm, that’s my everyday world. Yet when I arrive in a destination, be it a 10-hour flight or a 20-hour flight away from my little patch of the planet, life is normal there too – it has its usual rhythm, and it’s someone else’s everyday world.

Whilst I’m not really part of it, I’m suddenly plonked into this other world and can stay there for as long as I like (or can afford). In some ways, I’m an observer of this ‘other normal,’ watching with keen fascination the intricacies of a life so different to my own; but in many ways, really, I am a partaker in this other normal, living and breathing in the same way that all those around me are, going about my business as if nothing has changed.

It makes me realise that the world is small, and that although we are all uniquely different in our backgrounds and in our sense of what ‘normal’ looks like, existentially we are all the same – we are all humans, living on the same planet, spinning around the same sun, created (at least according to my belief) by the same master creator.

I know what you’re thinking: Gee, Lina, this is a little deep for a Thursday afternoon. You’re right, and you might be surprised to learn that no delectable South African wine has yet contributed to this second instalment of my 2018 Africa narrative.

But be rest assured – there is a point to my pondering.

As mentioned, it takes me a while to feel like I’ve arrived when I go somewhere. I know it sounds weird, but there’s no other way I can think to explain the feeling. It may be jetlag, lack of sleep, the number of Bloody Marys consumed since departing BNE International or an aggregate of the above, but whatever it is, I need time for it all to sink in.

Well, my friends. Let me tell you what helps with that:

FLAMINGOS.

Yes, you read that right. And don’t worry – I too thought that flamingos only existed in zoos and in the 1992 Disney classic, Aladdin. But they don’t! In fact, in South Africa’s Western Cape, flamingos exist on the side of the road.

Yes, I know. That’s not normal. But alas – here it is! In this particular instance of sighting the long-legged, pink-feathered, red-eyed wading birds, they were smack bang beside a normal residential road with houses on the other side of them, casually shuf-shuf-shuffling through the water, feeding on algae and shrimp like it was the most un-phasing thing in the world. And to be fair, to them it likely was. To me, on the other hand, it meant only one thing: welcome to Africa – I have arrived!

Ironically, it wasn’t the first time we’d caught sight of flamingos on this trip. We’d just spent two nights in Langebaan, a small seaside village about 120km north of Cape Town, and on our one-day drive through the adjoining West Coast National Park (in search of zebras frolicking in wildflowers – which we didn’t find – though we found LOTS of wildflowers), we had seen flamingos from far away. We got very excited then too, mind you – they were flamingos in the wild, no less – but it’s always going to be a bit more expected that you see weird and wonderful animals when you’re in a protected area, like a national park.

Anyway. We saw flamingos in the park and we saw flamingos by the road. In between these exciting and bucket-list ticking life moments, we ate copious amounts of seafood, discovered that ostriches also like wildflowers, realised that not all towns in South Africa are crazy about security and stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean. Oh, and I was told by a lady I had never met that I have such a cute face – like a doll! But those are all stories for another day, perhaps – or likely not. Mostly I’m just summarising because I know that since I mentioned wine, you’ve been dying to have a glass yourself.

I think I might join you, actually.

Cheers (to the wine, and for finishing this post) – and until my next ramble!

Why you should definitely go for a walk through Johannesburg’s dodgiest neighbourhoods.

‘Are you sure you trust me?’

It’s the first question he asks us, and while there’s a twinkle in his eye, there is some depth to our guide, Gil’s question. We are, after all, about to walk into Johannesburg’s most notorious building – the 54 storey Ponte City Tower.

The round, hollow tower is infamous for lots of things – its nickname of ‘suicide central’ for all of the people who have ended their lives through its windows high above the Johannesburg skyline; its status as a hijacked building, run by gangsters, and the 14 storey high pile of rubbish that once filled its hollow core, created by the 10,000 people who once lived in the tower with no access to water, electricity or waste removal.

It’s a part of Johannesburg that has, until 2012, been totally off-limits to visitors, and many locals would still never dream of going inside. Surrounded by some of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods – Hillbrow, Yeoville and Berea – it’s a place that bears almost no resemblance to its former glory: in the 1970s it was Johannesburg’s most exclusive apartment building.

We learn all about its history from the 52nd floor – a three-bedroom apartment repurposed as an event venue for the local organisation, Dlala Nje (meaning just play in Zulu). Our guide, Gil, is a Congolese born South African, who moved to Johannesburg with his aunt when he was nine and spent much of his life living in the tower. Now he runs walking tours through Ponte and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the proceeds of which fund the Dlala Nje’s community centre on the ground floor, which aims to provide a safe learning and socialising environment for local children and youth.

“I am here to break down your preconceptions,” Gil says purposefully. He wants to know what we’ve heard about the Ponte tower, and then tell us the full story – from a local’s perspective.

It’s a trend that’s becoming more and more popular in tourism – real experiences, led by locals. To me, it’s a great example of responsible tourism*, and since this is both my passion and profession, it’s fantastic to experience it first-hand right here, in South Africa’s economic epicentre and melting pot of the continent’s cultures.

After being given the full Ponte rundown by Gil in the 52nd floor room with a view, we take a rather dark staircase to the rocky core of the building to get some perspective of how high the famed 14-storey rubbish dump really was. It’s repugnant to think that people living on the 12th and 13th floor had to go upstairs to dump their rubbish, as the space outside their windows would have already been blocked with waste. Even more revolting is our newfound knowledge that amongst the 14 storeys of rubbish were at least 23 human bodies, all of which were pulled out by hand – together with their decomposing surroundings – when the building was cleaned up to be liveable again in the early part of this decade.

Minds full of this knowledge and phones full of upward-facing selfies (the view to the top of the building from the inside is dizzying), we make our way back up to ground level through the underground carpark, where residents busy washing their cars greet Gil with friendly hellos.

Once outside of Ponte, Gil advises us to keep an eye on our belongings, as our walk from here will take us past many people who ‘work hard at being pickpockets.’ We walk through busy streets – Berea first, and then into Hillbrow, all the while being mostly ignored, but sometimes eyed off, by the suburbs’ many residents. It feels like rural Africa here, or a city less developed. Buildings are mostly intact but the streets are dirty; women walk by with their babies strapped to their backs and others stride past in uniforms, heading home from churches and from workplaces.

We feel safe with Gil and another Dlala Nje team member who has come along to keep an eye on things, and it actually feels like a privilege to be in this part of a city which often carries such a dire reputation. We’re taken through a local market and encouraged (but never pushed) to purchase some of the freshly washed and laid out vegetables, not because of any backward deals but because it will help the local community.

At the end of the tour we are taken to a local shebeen (pub), where we are sat down at a long table full of locals drinking beers and watching the rugby. We’re given beer bottles the size of which would make any German proud and a lunch pack wrapped in Styrofoam: it’s filled with delicious fried chicken, kale, slaw and a whole lot of other delicacies – the kind of food which tastes amazing and so foreign, you know you could never fully duplicate the flavour if you tried to ever recreate it elsewhere. As we leave, the owner of the shebeen hugs us all individually – the grin on his face, and the photos he asks us to take with him in them, speak volumes more than his words probably could. You can tell it means a lot to him to have visitors from ‘the outside’ coming to enjoy his generous hospitality.

As always in this continent, Africa’s heart beat is most clearly felt through the warmth of its people.

I love this continent’s energy, its contrasts and its vibrance. I am so excited to be back in South Africa – one of my favourite places in the world – and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us in these next 3 weeks.

 

*Responsible tourism is based on the idea of making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. More info here.