Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Continent #6: A RADIKL South African Journey: Part 3 of 3/Johannesburg

Sunset on the panoramic tour from Kruger to Jo'Burg
Sawubona! (This means, "I See You," in Zulu)

Jo'Burg's transit system
(Note: We returned to New York 2 and half months ago. Sorry for the delay!!)

We haven't stopped traveling since we got back, so the 3 weeks feels so much longer. A part of me wishes we could take more than souvenirs and even memories from South Africa. These entries and the pictures will always hold special significance in my mind and heart along with the life changing lessons.  Join me as we complete an unforgettable journey...
On the Freedom Tour

Our last leg in South Africa concluded in Johannesburg, the equivalent of New York City (Manhattan). Jo'Burg as most residents and natives call it, is SA's big metropolitan city. They even have a newly built, underground rail system that we rode called the Gautrain. It reminded me a lot of the tube in London. It doesn't come as often as NYC's subway and still has a limited service line.

Jo'Burg was the perfect ending to our trip. Here we took in the history of South Africa and learned much about their first Black President, Apartheid, Soweto, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the 1976 uprisings, and more. Up until Jo'Burg, all except the mugging, the trip was peaceful and fun. While Jo'Burg was fun too, we needed to walk away with a deeper sense of the historical events that made South Africa unique. This leg of the trip was the bowtie and addressed some of the pain still felt by the people, the land and the culture. 

We arrived in Jo'Burg around 8pm, after a 12 hour Panoramic Tour between Kruger Park and Jo'Burg. The tour was amazing. Our guide kept us on a tight schedule and made sure we saw all the important sites. He was the most gracious and humble person I'd ever met. In order for him to drive us the whole way, he stayed over night in Jo'Burg at a hotel not far from ours. Our parting was bittersweet. He had been a fixture in our exploration for the last 3 days from sun up till sun down. His storytelling and description of everything brought the journey to life. Once we checked our utlra modern, loft like room at the Radison Park Inn, Richard and I said our goodbyes to Robert and began the last leg of our excursion. 

Our day started around 6am and we were sleepy. We opted for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Our server had a great wit and his jokes were well received by us. At this point we were blown away by the outstanding service on the entire trip. In NYC, we may not have entertained off beat humor from our server, but we totally embraced

Kids in Soweto
We stayed in a suburb of Johannesburg, called Sandton. It's one of the more wealthy and considered "safer" areas. Interestingly, we were warned over and over about our safety in Jo'Burg. People in Capetown made Jo'Burg sound very dangerous. We were told we shouldn't keep our big camera in plain view; we should never go out alone at night; always take a secure car when we travel--all sorts of precautions. While most of these we followed (not all), we were never mugged. Not saying that it couldn't have happened, but compared to Capetown, that it happened in the much safer of the two places was very ironic. 
Mandela Museum

On our first full day we visited Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton's big landmark mall. You could easily get lost in this mall. There were about 12 eat in restaurants surrounding the mall and almost 100 stores. I enjoyed looking at all the different fashions. My friends know, dresses are my thing. I LOVE dresses! All kinds of dresses and I'm not ashamed to play dress up in my own dresses and in stores, just because.  The dresses in store windows were so extravagant and ceremonial. It almost seemed strange to see a regular, simple dress. It's also my custom to buy at least one dress from every international city I visit. This trip was no different. I scooped up a cute sun dress that I got the chance to wear in sunny Florida. We took pictures in front of the almost 3 ton bronze statute of Nelson Mandela. As a side note, Nelson Mandela is revered as a King in South Africa. I'll get to that a little later. 
Happy Birthday to me!!
My King!
Future dinner for residents in Soweto
Taxi Ranks in Soweto

The next day guessed it, MY BIRTHDAY! I got up early, said my prayers, gazed out the window for a while and hit the gym. The gym had a great view and it made the workout even more enjoyable. Afterwards, Richard and I had breakfast and made our way to the craft market. No different from China Town in NYC or Shanghai, China, the sellers were aggressive, but there was a difference that I had not experienced before. This time the sellers worked together. If one merchant had an item we liked, but the merchant next door had an item we wanted, the merchants would negotiate together to sell us the item. It was pretty cool. We got shopped for family and headed back to the Mandela Square for our dinner reservation at a super swanky restaurant. The only thing missing was cake. The only thing I love almost as much as dresses is cake. Before we dined, we bought a birthday cake from a store that stayed open just for us. While that made us feel special, it wasn't nearly the end of the special treatment on this new decade. The restaurant Richard chose was designed so modern and artsy. The main colors were white and black with a huge spiral staircase connecting the two floored eatery. When we sat down, we sat outdoors under the heating lamps, our main waiter took our cake and kept it in the refrigerator. We enjoyed our meal and when it was time for the cake, our waiter did something neither of us requested nor expected. It took him a little while, about ten minutes to return with the cake. For most of the night he was very prompt, so this instance felt longer than it probably took. When he returned, he explained why his delay. He had gone back into the mall to get candles for my birthday cake. Whoa...Richard and I were stunned. Up until now, the service in South Africa had been far beyond our expectations and definitely above anything we were used to in America, sad to say, but true. Even with all the outstanding service, this was over the top! I don't think we'll every forget that royal treatment. From there we went back to our hotel and packed for our last day in South Africa. It had come to an end. This was by far the best international/continental trip I had ever taken and leaving would be bittersweet but it was time to go home.
Taking notes in the Mandela Museum
Our tour guide Percy explaining a medicinal plant in Soweto

On our last morning in Jo'Burg we took a Freedom Tour. Up to this point, our trip was pretty lofty and leisure even with all the physical activity and sightseeing, minus the mugging. We needed and intended to make that connection to South Africa's history.  The Freedom Tour was exactly the anecdote. The tour started on one of South Africa's most famous streets - Vilakazi street. The only street to house two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Vilakazi street, we visited the Nelson Mandela Museum. The museum is actually Mandela's former house that is now serves as a historic site. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about everything regarding the Mandela family highs, lows and details of the house and its original use. It was such a heavy experience. Walking in the same house that the Mandela's lived in and raised children and began their dual freedom fighting legacy was such an honor.  

After the Nelson Mandela Museum, we visited Soweto, which is short for South West Township. The area is split amongst chanty towns, match box houses and more affluent residences. The residents in the chanty towns and matchbox houses are known to steal electricity. Even more ironic, the power plants and grids are on the side of Soweto that doesn't provide service. 

Richard on the Freedom Tour
Hand signs for the taxi ranks
We toured the markets, taxi stands called "taxi ranks" and open air butcheries with our guide Percy. He lived in Soweto with his family. The taxi stands were most fascinating to me. The taxis are vans (similar to the dollar vans in Queens, NY) that take off from the stand once they're full of passengers. Patrons use specific hand signals to let drivers know where they're going. 
Richard and a store owner in the Soweto Mkt

Our next stop was the grievous and intense Hector Pieterson Museum, a memorial for the 13-year-old boy who was the first killed when police opened fire during student protests in 1976. The students were protesting against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language in schools, and started the beginning of the Soweto Uprising. This controversial picture captured a classmate carrying Hector's lifeless body, away from the violence. The picture sparked so much discord, the author went exile and his family never heard from him again. He and the young classmate carrying Hector could been killed for their actions during the protest.

Before the last stop on the Freedom Tour, we had lunch at the famous African experience, Moyo.We ate outdoors and feasted on a succulent buffet of African cuisine. To truly make it a one of a kind dine, I got my face painted while we ate.

Iconic picture of Hector Pieterson's lifeless body being carried
Shortly thereafter we hit the last stop on our tour, the Apartheid Museum. Here we learned of the many years of segregation, more the Soweto uprising, ANC history, Nelson Mandela's young years as an attorney, solitary confinement, rule as President and birth of a new democratic country. We received entry cards based on our skin color and entered through steel gates specifically designated to us. We visited for about 3 hours and it still wasn't enough time to cover all the museum. The entire tour was a lot to ingest. We were silent for a while afterwards processing all we had read and experienced. It was indeed the perfect way to say goodbye to South Africa. 
Outside of the Hector Pieterson's Museum

We head to the Jo' Burg airport enriched and enlightened from the experience of a lifetime. My trip to South Africa was a spiritual journey like no other international trip I had taken. Sure I turned 30, but more than that I connected with my ancestors and their humble, courageous fight for freedom. I connected with my husband and gained new appreciation for the value of our lives. I disconnected from our wired world to listen, breathe and inhale the peace and nature God created. Everything small or big was eye opening. 

My first trip to South Africa is to be continued. The exploration and discovery has just begun...

I hope it was worth the wait :)


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