To Africa and Back
One of the greatest opportunities I received as a result of traveling alone was meeting so many new and interesting people. Solo travelers are much easier to approach, and many people are often interested in what you’re doing all by yourself. If you don’t mind explaining yourself (again and again!), and you enjoy meeting new people, traveling alone can be a deeply rewarding experience.
In South Africa, the wounds of apartheid are still fresh, and although you may not feel racism the way you might in the rural southern towns of the United States, it is definitely present. While blacks and whites get along and put on a smiling face in each other’s presence, I was keenly aware of an underlying uneasiness that existed almost everywhere, but most predominantly in the tourist areas. The recent end of apartheid and the absolute inequality in terms of jobs and pay is likely mostly to blame, but I’m sure some white tourists carry with them a bad attitude that deepens the negative feelings. However, once again, my status as a solo traveler seemed to help me transcend that barrier, and I was able to make some great connections with locals who might not otherwise have spoken to me.
I’m really very fortunate then to have had one of the best conversations of my life with a young man working at a restaurant in Knysna. I can barely pronounce his name let alone spell it, so I’ll call him M. (I think his name could have started with an M.) He was one of the most happy, cheerful people I have ever met, and he had a spirit that could never be brought down. He called me “Lady” through much of our interaction, I think somewhat out of respect, and also because we didn’t exchange names until a bit later. Whenever I saw M around the restaurant, he was so full of life and so happy even though he was at work. And remember, wages in South Africa are much lower than here in the States and not in a way that is even close to comparable to their cost of living. And here he was, a spring in his step wherever he went and dancing to the music playing in the background. He was an inspiring sight to see.
In the beginning, we spoke just a few small words back and forth. Although he was outgoing and brimming with happiness, he seemed to respect that he was in a professional atmosphere and conducted himself as such. We would make a joke here or there, and throughout dinner, I could feel the wall sort of melting away as we became more cordial in conversation. Finally, sometime near the end of my meal, he came up to me and said, “Lady, what is a beautiful lady doing eating dinner all by yourself tonight? In South Africa?”
I was both flattered and impressed with his blunt question. I was fairly certain that wasn’t typical employee conduct, and I was so happy for him to break the wall down. I told him, as I’d told so many others, that I had come to Africa to volunteer at a cheetah rehabilitation and was spending some time traveling the Garden Route since the trip coincided with my birthday. I told him I was here tonight because my birthday was the next day and I wanted to have a nice dinner and reflect.
He wished me a happy birthday and we talked about cheetahs and lions and South Africa and the States. We talked about my writing, about some of the wonderful far away places I’d like to see, and how I wanted to move towards travel writing.
Like National Geographic?
Well, of course that would be a dream.
“That’s not you,” he told me. I was really taken aback. Was he telling me I couldn’t become a travel writer? He continued with “You’re not like that, like other Americans.” I felt relieved.
“No? I’ve been told that.” I always consider it a compliment, considering the reputation Americans get in foreign countries. And from what I’ve seen and experienced, I understand why.
M told me stories about how badly American tourists often treated him and his friends and said that most Americans stick to tour groups, rarely leaving the “safety” of the group. He said he had had customers clutch their purses in front of him when he came to take their order, pointing out that he’d obviously lose his job if he stole from a customer. I was surprised to find that even African Americans had called him degrading racial slurs and treated him as a second-class human being which made him laugh. Again, I was so inspired by his persistent happiness.
We talked about many other things – movies, true friendship, the humor we as people find in the physical pain of others (he recollected a story about one of his friend’s getting hurt, laughing, then asking if he was OK) – but one thing really stuck with me in terms of travel and insight. As we were discussing how many American tourists are so scared and cautious because they are in AFRICA, I told him there’s probably nowhere that I wouldn’t want to travel, even if I was alone. I cautiously added that I might think twice about visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, however, because of the high rates of violence against women. Again, M amazed me with his brilliant insight.
Perhaps the reason this country has the highest incident of rape and violence against women is because it has the bravest women in the world. Maybe there is just as much violence elsewhere, but no one speaks up for it. Maybe their husbands are rich or powerful, maybe the women are scared. What if the women in the Congo are just the bravest women who are willing to speak up against the violence, and that’s why we know about it. You never know until you know who’s point of view you’re hearing.
Now I’m not saying he’s 100% correct, but I was just drop-jaw impressed by this perception that I had never before considered.
This young man was one of the wisest and most insightful people I’ve ever met. I won’t even belittle it by saying “for his age” – he couldn’t have been more than 19 – because I know many people much older than him who are far less insightful and experienced. I could feel my preconceptions of that place – and any other – just melt away with his words. It wasn’t quite yet my birthday yet, but that conversation was the best birthday present I could have ever asked for.
I had wanted to get a picture of us – or even just him – before I left the restaurant, but earlier that day my phone had been stolen. I told M; I said, “I hope whoever stole it did it for the right reasons. I hope they sold it and made enough money to feed their family for a long time. We had one last insightful conversation about stealing for the right reasons, and he even confided in me that in his community, many of the parents teach their children to steal, but only from the resort areas where the people have money. It’s not that I didn’t know poor children are taught to steal – go to any city in Europe, and you are advised to wear your money on a belt because of pickpockets and children who might take your money. What impressed me, again, was his absolute and endearing honesty with me. I was a total stranger, an outsider, a woman he had just met while bringing me dinner, and yet he was open and trusting with everything he told me.
Before I left, M put his stuff down and said, “I’m not allowed to do this, I’m not even supposed to touch the customers, but you. I have to give you a hug.” We hugged and both agreed it was a wonderful experience talking with each other. I wished him luck and he wished me a happy birthday.
The boardwalk was empty by the time I left, and I was one of the last guests out and about on that chilly night. I couldn’t help but feel a bit lonely walking back to my car, but as I walked, I thought about everything M and I had discussed at dinner. I smiled. Traveling alone is not lonely at all.