It’s like California in the 1950’s, he told me. But, I didn’t quite get it until we landed. Stepping from the plane to the tarmac, a warm, slightly humid breeze blows. On Sunday afternoon, the city of Port Elizabeth looks deserted. As we head out of town, I reflexively jerk repeatedly, not yet used to driving on the left side of the road, right side of the car.
The city gives way to nearly empty highways, happy cows chomping on lush grass, and small tidy farms. Not exactly what I was expecting, but then, what was I expecting? The chaos, sounds, and colors of India perhaps? Different continent, different hemisphere, but I think that’s what I thought South Africa would be like. Instead, it feels like a lush, warm, surfer’s Europe, the vestiges of colonialism still evident.
I have a habit of traveling to places having done almost no research, becoming fascinated, and then reading anything I can about the place while there. I begin to read Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime about growing up in South Africa in the 1980’s and 90’s, as apartheid was crumbling. The intricacies of this country are fascinating!
I am mistaken for Afrikaans repeatedly and stare blankly when people speak to me in that language. I learn a bit about the English and the Dutch legacies and how each changed the country. I read about the townships of Soweto and Alexandra and learn that there are eleven official national languages in South Africa. We are invited to a braai (a bbq) and served fresh calamari, caught that day. We stay at a house on the beach and listen to the waves at night. The sand is covered in shells.
Way down here, at the tippy tip of Africa, overlooking the Indian Ocean, everywhere and everything, from viruses to elections, seems very far away.