Sunday, September 30, 2007

South Africa: Impressions Upon Landing

What a difference a flight makes. Wow, culture shock. We land in Johannesburg, and it’s almost as though we’ve flown home. Fancy new cars. Strip malls. Billboards. Restaurant chain food. Lots of white people. It was odd. But first, a note about the flight, which was hilarious. We were jet-setty and flew, instead of taking the bus, as the price difference wasn’t that large once you factored in all the visa fees we’d have to pay as we passed through multiple countries on the 40+ hour bus trip. Meanwhile the flight was short, and cheap because we flew Air Malawi. This may have been because their inflight magazine discussed how they were well on their way to bringing up their safety codes to standard compliance. They had a ways to go, but they were making progress (gulp). They also noted how African airflight has the worst safety records in the world, but they wanted to do their part to improve this. No joke, this is what it said! Thanks and pass the peanuts.

In any case, we landed safely in Jo’burg and immediately noted the differences between South Africa and its eastern neighbors. Soap in the bathrooms! We were immediately whisked away to a backpackers by the crazy, tightly-wound, but charming owner whom we met at the airport. She raved about how her backpackers was so safe (everyone’s legitimate concern in Jo’burg) because it’s in a ritzy suburb near the largest mall in the southern hemisphere, and money equals safety, and everything we need is at the mall. Not exactly what we came to Africa for, but alas. We found ourselves crashing in what seemed like someone’s college apartment, with mismatched furniture, bad carpet, and even the requisite stoner plunked down in front of the boob tube, half asleep. Hilarious.

And indeed, she was right that everything we needed was at the mall. It was like being plunked down in a more racially-diverse Walnut Creek, California. We got our new cell phone SIM card, had chicken wraps at a health-food chain, watched a shirtless Elvis impersonator play guitar for tips in a steakhouse, searched for guidebooks, plug adapters, and groceries. Surreal.

We hightailed it out of Jo’burg and hit the open road. Our whole mode of travel changed in South Africa. Given the distances we wanted to cover, and the relative costs of transport, we had WHEELS. It was a crazy sense of liberating freedom to rent a car (once Eric mastered driving on the left side of the road, with the stick shift on the left). All of a sudden we were free agents. And the network of backpacker hostels and guest houses in South Africa is incredible. They are all charming, full of character, and boast self-catering kitchens. So we bought a cooler, wine glasses, a corkscrew and some silverware, and we were a mobile culinary, adventuring unit. It was quite fun and indulgent after months of eating whatever came at us through the bus window.

No comments: