Tuesday, October 15, 2013

So, I was wrong - South Africa and São Paulo

Madikwe Game Reserve, 3 1/2 hours from Johannesburg

Many of my friends who read this blog know that I was in South Africa for the last 10 days. It is my fourth visit there in four years; this time I brought my twin boys, age 6. The flight is around 8 hours going east, and 10 and a half going west (those are some killer head winds!). We spent three days in Johannesburg and six days on safari, and one travel day.

On night one, a wonderful meal with wine (the latter not for the young sons) came to the equivalent of US$70.  Yes, it was in a weird casino restaurant with a view of a replica statue of David. Yes, we got the butt view. Yes, my kids took at least fifty photos of it.

The price tag and excellent service (and the two glasses of wine) prompted the Brazilian husband to exclaim "this is the Brazil of 10 years ago--cheap, great, and friendly." I somewhat agree with this. We had decided to go to South Africa after being quoted US$10,000 to visit the Pantanal in Brazil for 5 days. We paid only slightly more for 10 days in South Africa (3 flights on miles, 1 paid), including 6 days of safari.

I won't bore you with my vacation stories (though I will highly recommend Madikwe, particularly Impodimo Lodge,  if you like things like cheetahs, lions, leopards, elephants, excellent food, great service, beautiful days, etc etc) but I will probably harp on this trip for a few days (travel from Brazil in my eyes will be the subheading). I have to because not only did I learn that elephant poop is light brown and white rhino poop is dark brown, and that elephants are not endangered in South Africa but rhinos are in big trouble, but I reviewed a most valuable lesson.  

What is that lesson? You don't know a country or its people, not one little bit, until you visit (and of course you can only truly know it by living there). We should all be prevented from making statements about countries we don't know personally. This means Tunisia, all of the Middle East, and all of Asia (among many others) are out of my league now. Russia, you are safe from me, even though my college degree is in Soviet Economics, I never visited.

Many years ago, I knew a South African who I didn't like. For many reasons, most of them having to do with her treatment of a mutual friend.  And I met her brother and I didn't like him either. So, with my sample size of two, I wrote off South Africans and South Africa. Yes, I was a teenager at the time and one tends to see things more in black and white then. That expression is deliberate: those were the times of apartheid, and I thought I knew everything about right and wrong. At college the next year at a liberal East Coast school, I idealistically and naively joined the protests blockading the school to encourage the administration to divest from South Africa. 

What did I know then about South Africa? Very little. I still know very little, but much more since reading Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, several other books about the country and visiting several times. You cannot know even the least about apartheid until you have visited Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum. And cried. And wondered at the man who is Nelson Mandela. 

I count it my great good fortune that I got to go to the World Cup (a coworker of my husband had to back out due to pregnancy), because I would never have gone to the country and never would have known how wrong and biased I was. Judging a country on one person, and without knowing her well enough to know what she was escaping or how her life had been in South Africa during a civil war, is something I hope I will not do again. I shall make my peace with her someday. In the mean time, I shall become the biggest South Africa tourism advocate I can.

So what is this to do with Brazil? I am going to talk about that more tomorrow. Two countries that had radical changes in their histories in the late 1980s/early 1990s. One painful and bloody. One painful with hidden wounds. Two countries that deserve a second look. Two BRICS. The only two I know (one only as a tourist).

And my other point: think about your own biases about Brazil, if you have never lived or visited. Hopefully, I have not caused too many of them. It is a complex place with a tangled history. It is wonderful, sad, joyful and scary. Like any country. 



  1. I met President Nelson Mandela back in August of 1994, it was his first 'official' overseas visit, he came to Windhoek - I will tell you about those two days someday over a good bottle of SA wine, nah make that two. I will tell you that he is warm, loving and he radiated love, yes, love and when he hugged me and kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear - in Afrikaans (no idea why as I spoke English) I fell in love. He along with Mahatma Gandhi are my two heroes of my life time. The came, the conquered and the have left us their legacies. Now if we could all just be a little like them.

    1. The more I read about him (I just read a book written by his autobiography co-author called Lessons Learned), the more I am amazed that a single man could have shaped so much a country's "re-birth". And in such a positive way. His lessons on forgiveness and co-opting your rivals are riveting. And I agree, I think the world would be a better place if we could all be a bit more like him.