It was with no small amount of trepidation that I set foot on the shiny tiled floor of O.R. Tambo international airport in Johannesburg. Don't get me wrong - I was really excited as well - I'd just set foot on my fourth continent this year (the sixth in my lifetime), and was anxious to start immersing myself in a different culture - one I'd only read about.
However, from all the guidebooks I've read and the people I've talked to, Africa, and Johannesburg in particular, is no joke. Here's a little excerpt from my Lonely Planet guidebook:
"Personal security in Jo'burg is the issue on the tip of the tounge for most travellers. And crime is a reality you might face. Violent crime happens here, regularly, and caution is essential. On arrival, take a taxi to your destination, and never advertise your wealth...
...Avoid the city centre on your first couple of days, at night and on weekends when the shops close and the crowds drop. Daylight muggings in the city centre and other inner suburbs, notably Hillbrow, are not uncommon...
...If you do get held up, don't be a hero. Give your assailants any posssessions they want, and try not to make any threatening moves.
Yeah. Nothing like that to instill you with some comfort. Still, I made my way through customs without issue, and was able to get some money out of an ATM with ease. Two steps in the right direction. Now, based on the glowing report above, and the advice of others, I set about finding a way to get to Pretoria - the capital of South Africa, which is just a short drive to the Northeast.
I'd read about a shuttle, but of course, once I got to the information desk, they told me it didn't exist any longer, and that I'd have to take a cab. Sweet. However, near the info desk, I found a relatively nice taxi driver named Moses (which actually made me feel better for some reason), who agreed to drive me to Pretoria - it ended up costing me about 300 Rand (a little over $40), but I really didn't want to stay in Johannesburg if I could help it.
The drive was actually really nice. The airport is located quite a distance to the North of the city, set against some grassy plains and farmland. It was early morning - around 8:00 or so, and the sun was poking through a few clouds which spotted the bright blue sky. I talked to Moses the entire way (as an aside - it was wonderful to walk through an airport and be able to understand posters and signs - I have a new appreciation for the English language), asking him about Johannesburg and Pretoria, about life as a cab driver and about the various buildings we passed along the way. It was the longest conversation in English I'd had for 3 months.
Moses was a good guy, and helped me avoid one hostel I had marked on my list from the guidebook, and took me to a suburb of Pretoria called Hatfield. There I found a nice Backpackers hostel where I was able to drop my bags. After a three-four hour nap (as I didn't get much sleep on the plane, I was "knackered" as the Brits say), I talked with the guy running the place about the basics - laundry, finding something to eat, how to find transport down to Durban, etc. 30 minutes later, I was walking toward the retail center of Hatfield, complete with a McDonalds, a News Café, a "Steers" (think Back Yard Burgers), Wimpy's (think Steak and Shake) various mom and pop shops, and a small shopping mall. It was there I found a little place called "CompuTicket", where I bought a ticket on a Greyhound bus (yes, they have a line called "Greyhound", just like in the US) to Durban.
You may be asking - Why Durban? Why not stay in Pretoria. I'm glad you asked. Let me take you all the way back to March 11-20. As you'll recall, at that time I was alternating between nausea and awe in the Antarctic. I met a lot of really cool people on that trip, including a trio of South Africans - mother and two sons. I struck up a conversation with them over dinner, and invariably, my trip came up as a subject of conversation. The older brother, Gielie (pronounced Hee-lee), said that if I was visiting South Africa, I must come visit. I warned him to be careful about that, because I was likely to take him up on it. He just smiled, and we traded contact information.
While in Buenos Aires, Gielie and I traded a few emails, and we discussed options for us to connect. In the last conversation I had with him (I unfortunately was out of internet contact for a few days during transit) we thought Durban would be a good meeting place. And, much to my pleasure, he invited me to stay with him and his family for a few days on their farm. I was absolutely thrilled. Reading what I had about Johannesburg, and Africa in general, it filled me with an amazing amount of relief to know not only would I see a familiar face, but that I would be able to spend some time with he and his family.
Anyway, back to the present - I secured my ticket to Durban, and proceeded to walk around the area a bit. For those unfamiliar with the politics in South Africa, Pretoria, not Cape Town, is the political capital of the country. The suburb of Hatfield is a nice place - very affluent, and apparently the home to many of the embassies to other countries around the world. As I walked around, I quickly realized (as I already knew) that I was in the minority. I'm sure I'll offend someone at some point in these writings, but understand it's not on purpose. It's just an interesting feeling (especially coming from Buenos Aires and Brazil) to walk down the street and be the only white person in sight.
I had a bite to eat, got some groceries, and proceeded back to the hostel. As I walked, the sun was beginning to go down, and a beautiful sunset appeared in the west. My first African sunset. I noticed that nearly every house, every apartment, every business had a fence around it. Some were brick, some were wire, and some were a combination of the two. Everyone who lived here was trying to keep something out. Nearly every façade was adorned with an ADT or some other security company's sign. Armed police officers walked up and down the main streets. It was an interesting sensation.
I sat down to read for a while, and as I did, I got an introduction to a true African backpacker's room. I looked up from my bed to see a spider with a "leg span" about the size of my palm (and yes, my palm is big) slowly crawling down the white paneled wall behind a weathered brown frame holding a cheap picture of an African warrior in the bush. After taking care of my friend, I settled back down to finish "the Lovely Bones" which I picked up on the M/S Explorer. For some reason, I looked down and thought I saw the floor move. Nah. A couple minutes later, I looked again, and this time saw a colony of ants marching across the beige carpet. Son of a... There were hundreds of them, apparently marching to the approx. 10 crumbs I brushed onto the floor from the cookies I bought. Wow. I told the guy they left in charge about it, to which I got this reply: "Oh, yeah... I'm sorry, there's really nothing we can do - they won't hurt you." Right. I went to the bathroom and grabbed the aerosol air freshener - Strawberry Breeze, I think it was - and proceeded to spray down the carpet. I figured they probably wouldn't like whatever they made that stuff out of. Turns out I was right - about 5 minutes later, there wasn't an ant in sight.
Anyway, I ended up having quite a long night. It was April 11. And, to those of you reading along in the US, you'll know that April 17 is/was tax day. Fortunately, I'd thought about this a bit. Before I left my job, I arranged to have my W-2 mailed to my folks' address in Neosho. Then, my technologically savvy mother scanned it in and sent me an image of it via email, which I had stored on my laptop, and on a little 2GB memory stick I carry with me at all times.
So, after everyone in the hostel had gone to bed, I jumped on the internet connection in the living room. It was about 1:00 am Pretoria time, but after an 8 hour flight to the East, my clock was screwed up anyway. I proceeded to navigate to a wonderful site called TaxAct.com - an online tax preparation and filing serviced that a friend of mine (Mr. Perry) introduced to me a while ago. Thanks to this little beauty, I haven't filled out a paper 1040 or seen a tax agent for years now. This probably also has to do with my simplistic tax liability. You have to understand - for a myriad of reasons, have basically been living like a nomad for the last three or four years. I really don't own "anything" - no land, no house, and no livestock; not even a dog. My 10 year-old truck is pretty much the only thing to my name. I say this to tell you that my taxes are really, really easy. So, in the course of about 2 hours, from an internet connection in a backpackers' hostel in Pretoria, South Africa, I prepared, reviewed and filed my 2006 tax return.
It's moments like this that make me think of what a trip like this would have been like just five or ten years ago. ATMs, email and online banking have made travel immeasurably easier than just a short while ago. For example, I booked my trip to Antarctica online. The first time I actually talked to someone in person about an expensive, ten-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula was the day we set foot on the boat.
I didn't even think about getting traveler's checks for this trip. ATMs are everywhere (and I mean everywhere) now - you can access your account from literally anywhere in the world, and get a better exchange rate than you would after taking all the hits with traveler's checks.
I've not mailed one letter. I've sent postcards, but all my communication is via email, primarily done through internet cafes or within the hostel I'm staying in. For about one or two dollars an hour, I can communicate with friends and family - sometimes even chatting with them real-time via Google, download the latest movie trailers, update my site, post some pictures and see how bad the Royals are doing.
Once in a while though, you'll run into a glitch - like that night. For whatever reason, I only had sporadic access to my Gmail account, which held an email from Gielie I wish I had received, which led to a few inconveniences later. However, nine times out of ten, everything works perfectly (if at times a bit slowly), and my adventures are better for it. I'll always be in the debt of Mr. Gore and his team of intrepid engineers.