On the third day, I slept. But not for long. There are too many “firsts” to experience. And this is a country so complex that I know I cannot ask enough questions to understand it. I will only be here for 11 days.
I am on the African continent for the first time. South Africa. I see the Southern Cross for the first time in the night sky, near Orion’s belt. A baboon crossing the street. Shining a flashlight into the darkness, face to face with a tired giraffe, who rolls her eyes like a teenager before rising out of the grass for a quieter spot. Ducking below the roll-bar on a Land Rover tipping dangerously only feet from a curious male lion. Sitting in a pool with a cold glass of chardonnay, watching a family of warthogs at a watering hole below in the brush. Then a family of moneys. A wildebeest. They seem to have a schedule by species.
We are on safari near Kruger National Park. Driving along the highway from Johannesburg to the Lodge, I feel tricked into thinking South Africa is just like home. The acres of cornfields could be Nebraska. Cows. A McDonalds near the highway. Lays Salt and Vinegar potato chips at the rest stop. Sprite.
And when we ask our driver about life in South Africa, his words could be those of someone in the U.S. He is patriotic. His country is a melting pot of colors and 17 languages. He feels conflicted about Affirmative Action. He talks about failing schools that are overcrowded with too many kids who are not learning to read. He complains about the unions. He worries about the growing gap between the rich and poor. He claims that South Africa’s reputation for crime is overblown. He is concerned about a constant flow of immigrants looking for jobs where the unemployment rate is already nearly 30 percent.
Yet he wouldn’t live anywhere else. He says the people are leaving the horrors of Apartheid behind. It is a beautiful country. There is forgiveness.
But he is too young to remember Apartheid. He is white.
You drive past the townships with closet-size shacks made of scrap metal clustered together in a field of dirt. You hear later about HIV rates of 70 percent, 50 percent of the school children. Many have to choose between food and uniforms, because while the government will waive school fees, it will not cover the cost of required school uniforms.
If I asked the barber braiding hair in the township to describe his life in this country, would he speak of patriotism and the beauty of the countryside? Or the grandmother who opens her home to “29 or 35” children in need of a safe haven? Or the couples who disappear, abandoning their children, when the signs of AIDS first appear because the stigma is still so great? Have they climbed to the top of Table Mountain and seen how the cliffs meet the ocean? Have they witnessed the ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope?
Nearly 20 years after Apartheid, I realize that I was only a few years younger than our driver when the U.S. was at a similar point in its history post-desegregation. And I will never comprehend fully what that time was like in my country. The extreme poverty and contrast in communities here remind me how close they are to their past.
Then as I try to understand something I cannot, because I am only a tourist, a rhino with no horn steps out from the brush.
I am a long way from home.