Sunday, March 27, 2011

Well, that was stupid.

We open this entry with an apology to our worry-wart parents, siblings, and friends. We’re fine, just dumb.
South Africa is turning out to be different than we expected, mostly due to a series of poor decisions on our part, and the fact that prices went up during the 2010 World Cup and never went down. We arrived on Wednesday evening and decided to get a SIM card for our phone at the airport to make coordinating logistics easier.  In some ways not getting one there was smart – the guy was charging us 100 times the actual price. But the reason we didn’t is that a Dutch Harbor SIM phone does not work with a South African phone. Ooops. Got cheap phone and card the next day, but now stuck with other phone, too….
Our hostel the first night in Johannesburg was skeezy and the only other occupants seemed to be a drunk couple that we never met having loud sex and a grumpy traveling sales man.  We decided to relocate to Soweto. In route we spent hours trying to understand apartheid at the city’s exceptional museum. (Though the museum was inexplicably attached to an amusement park/casino…)

Soweto is a black township created outside of Jo-burg during apartheid and is actually safer than Jo-burg itself. We camped two nights at what was touted as one of the best hostels in South Africa. Turns out the “campsite” is a patch of dirt under a very bright light next to rooms full of loud Germans and around the corner from the loud party music and bonfire. Are we getting too old for the backpacker scene??
While in Soweto we took a rather nice bicycle tour of the historic sites where the student uprisings took place, musicians’ homes, Nelson Mandela’s old digs, and other local “color.” The guide and the history were great. Lunch was pleasantly bizarre. It consisted of a slightly hollowed out chunk of bread filled with cucumber salad, chili sauce, French fries, an egg, and a slice of cheese. The other local color was visiting a shabeen, or a tin hut with benches around the edge where people sit and drink (very similar to the mud huts where people sat and drank in Tanzania). We were herded into the shack with six other tourists to “meet the locals” and drink the local beer.  The two old men in the room seemed uninterested in meeting tourists, and submitted unenthusiastically to having their photos taken. (Wouldn’t you for a free beer?) The entire encounter was so contrived that it was more embarrassing and awkward than culturally enlightening. Other than that bit of stupidity, the bike tour was nice, and we learned a good bit about the oppressiveness of apartheid.

Here’s where our own stupidity came into play. When deciding where to go next we found out about a cool trail system with huts through the mountains with a fun-sounding backpackers reasonably close by. We were completely done with the city, so this sounded ideal and our hearts were set on it. Not being sure we could get bus tickets to the region, we didn’t book huts and just focused all of our efforts on getting tickets out of the city. We were told we had to pay for them that night, so we hopped a minibus to Park Station in downtown Jo-burg. Then it started to downpour. Then we got stuck in traffic for over an hour. By the time we got to the bus station it was getting dark in a not-so-safe part of town. Oops. We got to the ticket counter safely only to find out that their computer system was down, and we could not purchase our tickets that night anyhow. Using our cell phone, since their phones were also down, they called the office elsewhere to extend our purchasing deadline. Next we went to the information counter to find out where to catch a minibus back to Soweto. Her answer was straightforward, “Don’t be stupid. You’ll get mugged. Take a taxi.” So we did. (So much for a daily budget.)

The next morning we were extremely grateful to have spent the money on a cab. While walking to the bus station from where the minibus dropped us (three blocks away), we were constantly approached by people seeing if we wanted help. One particularly insistent “helper” was with us for almost an entire block, mumbling the whole time. He was much closer to Jeanette, who was having trouble understanding him and just tried to ignore him. At one point, however, his words penetrated, and it became clear that he was saying “Give me your cell phone and wallet. I’ll shoot you. I’m telling you I’ll shoot you.” Jeanette kept replying, “We’re fine. We don’t need any help,” and pretended not to understand. Anne had no idea that this was going on, just that Jeanette grabbed on to her elbow and started walking faster. He eventually stopped following us. Thank goodness he didn’t really have a gun.   

We made it to the bus station, got tickets, and got the hell out of the city. So here we are in our lovely humid mountain backpacker getaway with no public transportation, no promised pizza oven and hiking trails (stupid free guide book), no way to contact the trail office on a Sunday, and information from another guest that the hut system is full and had to be booked three weeks ago. Ooops. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get some good news from the trails office, otherwise we’ll day hike and head out of here soon. Limpopo region is very beautiful and we’d like to explore more, but it’s very difficult to navigate without a car. However, we’ve learned important lessons about planning ahead, and it’s still really nice to be out of the city. Also, South African vegetarian sausages are really good, which is great, since we’ve had them for three of our last four meals.    


  1. If you get down to the Cape Town area, I can put you in touch with some really great folks who won't rip you off and will be able to help you meet real people, not contrived tourism. (I'm Jane/Gigi's friend, and have traveled in South Africa for years and have good friends there).

  2. That would be awesome, Suzassippi. Thanks!!! Are you in South Africa now?

  3. I will arrive May 16 and be there until June 4, so if you are "in the neighborhood" I'd be happy to have you join us for some of our excursions. I work with people who live in the area townships and are doing social development work. (I've even danced in a shebeen, accompanied by a local police officer on one of my trips.) I can probably even arrange a place for you to stay at least part of the time if we are there at the same time. Send me an email through my blog if you want to talk about possible options! I just love what you are doing! I've been trying to get Jane and Rich to go with me sometime; she owes me after I went to Peace Farm with her. :)

  4. After not being on the computer much the last few days, am just catching up. Sounds like you are having big adventures already. Remember, Rich told you to be careful!! Definitely take Susan up on her offer(s) if you can. Hi, Suz!

  5. Wow! Again, I can identify with your Joburg adventure. (Sorry, I'm just now catching up on your entries in reverse). We got carjacked in a bad section of Joburg and, luckily, only lost a small bag of clothes. I'm glad you and Jeannette are safe! Be careful! If you make it back to Joburg at the end of the trip, we have American contacts who live in the city and may be able to accommodate you in some way.