First Impressions of Africa

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A continent I’ve always wondered about, and now I’m in it!

I land in Johannesburg over an hour late and race off the plane to make my connection for Cape Town. Several other passengers are jogging with me because we all have roughly an hour to collect our bags, recheck them for our next flight, and get to the gate in time for departure. Our fast pace is abruptly stopped by an airport security guard. We are ordered to put our hand luggage against the wall and wait. We wait until the corridor is full of passengers, and all bags are against the wall opposite from us. From the far end comes another security guard with a sniffing dog. The dog is really cute. I break into a light sweat wondering whether the coca leaves I have from Peru will land me in detention. Happily, the dog passes by after a light sniff of my bags. I’m about to pick them up when a second guard starts up the line with a second dog. This dog is very slow and deliberate in his sniffing. Those of us with connecting flights are beginning to be concerned. By the time the third dog is queued up to start smelling all the luggage you can feel the tension is about to snap. I’m incredulous that all three dogs have not considered my coca leaves to be a risk. We’re finally given the nod of approval. I grab my bags and make a run for it….I recheck my bags and make it on time to my next flight.

First view of Cape Town.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

Upon arrival into Cape Town I’m greeted with a stunning view of Table Mountain and take lots of photos from my window seat. After landing I go to collect my luggage. One bag doesn’t make it. I report it to the South Africa Airways desk and they learn it never left Johannesburg. They make arrangements to deliver it to my hotel. I exit baggage claim to meet my driver and realize I’ve left my iPhone at the lost luggage claim desk. I figure there’s no way in hell someone hasn’t walked off with it, but I have to see. After quite an adventure getting back to that desk, including trying to run back through the open door towards baggage claim and getting yelled at by a security guard, I find it safe and sound. My driver is lovely and about an hour later, I’m checked in to my hotel on Greenmarket Square.

“A truly different experience assimilating fears, perceptions and judgments with the reality in front of me.”

One of the first things I notice is that, for the first time in my life, I stick out like a sore thumb for being white. I’m used to standing out for having different hair and eye color, speaking a different language, or having differently-shaped eyes, but never in my life has the color of my skin been the determining factor in why I look different than everyone else. I find it humbling as I realize this must be what it’s like for many, many people in the world when they are surrounded by white people and make a mental note to hold compassion for this experience. Over my time here, skin color will be a major theme. More in future posts. 

Beautiful Table Mountain in Cape Town.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

I’m in a city surrounded by beautiful mountains and sites I want to explore. However, I’m told, firmly, not to wander around alone at night. In fact, when I ask directions to walk to the Waterfront, during the day, about 20 minutes walk, I’m told in an adamant tone, to take an Uber because, even during the day, the walk would be too dangerous, especially alone. I find this a bit ridiculous, until I walk three blocks from my hotel, in the direction of the Waterfront. The neighborhood suddenly changes. I notice a man checking out my necklaces as if he’s trying to guage whether they have any value. I zip up my sweatshirt and head back to my hotel. Each day, several people ask me for money. I’am told not to give it to them, so I do not, but I feel awful that so many need it. One evening I can’t finish all my food at dinner, so I ask for a takeaway box. I leave, hoping to find someone in need of food, but that one night, nobody does. Most of the stores have an actual metal gate covering the door. I ask one shop owner why and learn that armed robberies are fairly common. I find it surreal because I don’t witness any of these things, but all the local people, the ones that live there every day, talk about these dangers as a normal part of life.
Since I like to learn the local language before entering any new country, I study a bit of Afrikaans, thinking this is the language most people will speak. I learn that South Africa has 11 official languages. In Cape Town, Xhosa is much more common than Afrikaans. I delight in learning new words and phrases from the staff at my hotel and beyond. My day starts with “khun jhani?” (how are you?) to which I reply, “Endipilayli” (I’m good.) I love exchanging these phrases and trying to learn the clicks as I meet new people throughout Africa.

In the United States, I’ve always felt on the outside of this racial divide. It’s one I don’t like because I don’t consciously want to be divided, but my skin color makes it so. I know I “don’t understand” but have often wished someone could explain the experience to me rather than just highlighting that I’m ignorant about it.  In Cape Town, I visit the Slave Lodge. I cry. This is the first time in my life I have any explanation about slavery. I thought it was about bondage and doing work against your will. I learn that it’s about loss of identity, changing of names, loss of rights, and so much more. And that’s just the beginning. I learn more about apartheid which, until now, is a term I learned in school along with small memories of segregation. Learning about the government displacing people from their homes and classifying people in offensive ways to determine how they’re treated disgusts me. I cannot believe something like this ever happened. I’ve read it, I’ve seen photos, I’ve visited townships. I still do not understand how any of this was allowed.
I spend part of my time in the Greenmarket area of Cape Town, and part of my time in the Bantry Bay area. The interesting tradeoff is that in Greenmarket, it’s more dangerous, it’s dirtier, but the sense of community is astounding. I make friends with the hotel staff, a nearby restaurant owner, the biltong store guys, and a woman I did a free walking tour with. Bantry Bay feels cleaner and safer, but completely lacks that sense of community. 
I’m learning that Africa is much harder to solo travel than everywhere else I’ve been the past year and a half. I get mixed reviews of public buses. Safaris are convenient, but come with a shockingly high single supplement fee, making them out of budget. Flights to other places would seemingly have me camped out in a big city doing day trips or safaris as well. My takeaway is that I will return to Africa, but am making a mental note to come with someone, or bring one bag!

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