Travel memoirs of a proud South African
I am a proud South African. I adore the country I live in, and try to explore as much of it as I can. I love the endless beaches along the east coast, the drama of the mountain ranges along the escarpment, the massive skies of the eastern Free State, the tranquility of the bushveld and the uplifting energy of my home city, Johannesburg.
Of course, I also love to travel abroad. There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a foreign city and then finding your way back to where you started. Poking around in little side streets, tasting local cuisine and chatting to locals are what holidays are all about for me. Over the years, the side streets and the cuisine have remained consistently interesting. Chatting to locals, however, has changed radically. So many more people know about South Africa than they did 20 years ago, at the dawn of our democracy.
Soon after our first democratic elections I went on my first big overseas trip. I remember having a conversation with a woman in an airport queue that left me rather surprised. After breaking that initial awkward ‘smile, smile back, check that it’s me you’re smiling at, smile again’ line-dance, one of us spoke first (I can’t remember if it was her or me). It was established that she was going to Louisiana, which is where she spent her vacation time every year.
'What’s in Louisiana that makes you keep going back there?' I asked.
'Nothing really,' she said. 'Just the swamps.'
Pause. Awkward smile.
'You’re not from around here,' she said.
'I’m from South Africa,' I told her.
'Oh, I don’t ever want to go to Africa,' she said. 'It’s always raining there.' (I imagine she was referring to the Toto song, Africa.)
'It’s really not like that,' I said. 'We have lovely weather all year round. Great for safaris, lying on the beach, visiting local communities and attractions. Even when it rains, there’s a lot to do. Museums, galleries, aquariums, shopping...'
'And spiders,' she cut in. 'Too many spiders. I don’t like spiders.'
Conversations about South Africa have changed significantly since we embraced democracy 20 years ago.
'No spiders in Louisiana, then?' I asked.
'Nope,' she said. 'I’ve never seen one.'
'Alligators?' I asked.
'Oh yeah,' she said. 'But they don’t come in the house.'
I am pleased to say that in the past 20 years, as South Africa has developed and been reintegrated into the global community, conversations in airport queues, taxis, restaurants and shops in foreign countries have changed significantly.
Most people you meet these days have either been to South Africa or know someone who has – and they all have nothing but fantastic things to say about our country. The climate, the scenery, the shopping, the wine, the animals and the people ... everyone has a positive story. It makes me proud to have been part of this miracle.
Will I carry on travelling abroad? Yes, of course – it’s exciting going to places that take you out of your comfort zone. But I will always be happy when I get home – and I will always try to encourage more people to visit us in South Africa, even if they are scared of spiders.
PS: I have subsequently visited Louisiana, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t run into the lady from the airport queue, however, or have any contact with alligators.