Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Adventure in South Africa

Most of my friends and acquaintances know that I like adventure. I like interacting with nature and hanging from cliffs over deep canyons and diving around reefs in the ocean. Maybe I should amend my joy of adventure to only natural adventure, because I obviously don’t like the kind of adventure we ended up taking in South Africa.

My husband, Maurice, excitedly applied for his international driving license before we left the US. As we packed and prepared for our trip, Maurice and I perused maps and discussed driving from one township to another during our 2-week visit to South Africa.

Upon arriving in Johannesburg’s airport, we went to the car rental and retrieved our Kia minivan. We stuffed our bags in back, got my mother and kids situated in the middle, and climbed into the driver’s and passenger seat on opposite sides of the car from what we’re used to doing in America. We were fine until we looked down…

“Is this a stick shift?” I asked him cautiously.

“Uh huh,” he answered me tentatively.

It’s not that he couldn’t drive a manual shift, it was simply the odd feeling of shifting with the left hand while also getting accustomed to driving on the left side of the road that was concerning us. So he spent a few minutes playing with the gears, adjusting his mirrors and getting his mind right.

Eventually, he looked at me and we held hands for a minute – he said a prayer for our safe travels. Little did we know how much we would need that prayer before the night was over.

Tentatively, he put the car in first, released the clutch and we crept forward a few inches. We turned into the left lane and slowly started to move forward. Maurice and I smiled as he successfully maneuvered out of the rental parking lot.

“Stop by the booth and grab me a map, Maurice,” I said as I played with the GPS monitor.

“No problem,” he replied.

Problem number one: no booth to check out; therefore, no map.

Okay. No problem. The GPS was working and Maurice was handling the road well. We followed the road signs onto the “motorway” and onto the various side streets indicated by the GPS. Thirty minutes later, we were at the Holiday Inn Express just outside Johannesburg.

We unloaded, unpacked and changed to prepare for the United States vs. Ghana FIFA match in Rustenburg, a nearby city. The game was scheduled to start at 8:30 pm. Maurice had timed the drive from Johannesburg to Rustenburg to be about 2 hours. So, at 6:00, we piled back into the van, Maurice programmed the GPS and we pulled out of the Holiday Inn’s parking lot.

Everything was fine for the first 30 minutes until Maurice realized we were avoiding the motorway N4 that he had seen several times and we were on several streets with lights. We stopped, reprogrammed the GPS and agreed to take tollroad N4, which would be a direct route into Rustenburg.

Problem number two: toll roads in South Africa are not like toll roads in the United States.

We drove for several minutes, then smiled and congratulated each other as we merged onto the N4. Immediately, we saw a pair of highlights headed straight for us. Uh oh.

“Maurice! You’re not in the lane! Go left, go left!” I shouted.

“I’m in my lane, I’m in my lane!” he shouted back, but he swerved out of the lane and the path of the oncoming car.

We rode on the dirt shoulder, spitting up dust for several yards while large trucks and miniature cars zoomed past us in the lane where we originally were.

“Get over Maurice. This isn’t a lane.”

“I’m trying! I can’t get back in now!” Maurice yelled back at me in frustration, as he leaned forward over the steering wheel. I could see the intensity in his face.

Maurice was gripping the gearshift so hard, I could see the skin stretched over his knuckles. My palms were moist with perspiration and under my arms was suddenly wet. The spot on the inside of my elbow where my nervous rash pops up when I’m stressed started to itch. My mother began giving directions and suggesting things from the middle of the back seat.

Eventually, Maurice was able to get back in the lane and we all calmed down a little. We nervously giggled and joked about the confusion of the lines on the road as we moved forward.

Suddenly, a slow moving truck swerved to the dirt shoulder, kicking up rocks and dirt onto the windshield. Oh $#!&.

“What’s he doing?” I shrieked. Maurice started gripping the gearshift again and sat up straight.

“I think he’s letting us pass,” Maurice whispered, more to himself than to me. He swerved quickly around the car, and as we looked back, the truck smoothly moved back into the lane behind us.

Hm. Okay. We got it. There was only one lane going in both directions, so if you were going slow, you pulled over onto the shoulder and let a faster car pass you. Cool.

Problem number three: There is not enough room on the shoulders of the N4 for a car to pass without going into oncoming traffic.

Considering the fact that there was not enough room on the shoulder for a car to pass without heading into oncoming traffic, your pass had to be timed perfectly. This wasn’t easy on a toll road as busy as GA400 in Atlanta.

How much longer would we have to be on this road? I glanced down at the GPS. 89km. What?! Oh no, I wasn’t going to make it. It was pitch black, the road was packed with cars, and my husband was determined to get to the Royal Bafokeng Stadium to see the kickoff of his team, Ghana, against my son’s team, USA. He swerved around a slow-moving 1984 VW Golf barely missing an oncoming minivan. This was going to be a long trip.

Problem number four: wild fires are purposely burned intermittently along the roadsides of streets, motorways and toll roads throughout Johannesburg and the surrounding cities.

About 20km down the road, Maurice sees a faster car coming up behind him. As he decides to pull onto the dirt shoulder to allow the car to pass, he sees one of the wildfires up ahead. At the same time, a line of cars is coming toward us.

I’ll spare you the details of the remainder of this trip. Just know, we eventually made it safely to Rustenburg and found a parking lot several kilometers away from the stadium. I scrambled from the van, thanked the Lord for our safe arrival and happily joined the other people walking toward the shuttle bus.

Problem number five: after the match, 35,934 people had to take shuttle buses back to their cars all at one time.

At the end of the game, my mother, husband, two children and I left the stadium in high spirits. We’d had enjoyed the game, made friends with people in the crowd and danced in the stands. We continued to be excited as we filed out into the field outside the stadium gates. We were still feeling good as we moved past crowds of people to the gate marked M104 North. The happy feelings ended as we queued up with about 800 other people to get through one small opening big enough for about 5 people to pass at once.

We were pressed tightly together with diverse people speaking many different languages, some drunk and high. Others were angry that the US had lost. One group of men started arguing with another group of men about whether it was nicer to live in America or England and why. 45 minutes later, my family squeezed through the opening and made it onto one of the shuttle buses.

I was happy until I remembered – we had to drive back home.

Thankfully, God heard my prayers. The GPS brought up a totally different route to return home. Even better, it allowed us to bypass all of the stadium traffic that was completely stopped on the N4 (remember it was only a one-lane road with toll booths). We could see it from the access road we were coasting on.

Just as we were getting comfortable with the drive, we noticed the road we were on was winding, twisting and going up.

Problem number six: South Africa is a mountainous country with small windy, unlit roads that go on for 100s of miles.

I have a problem. My problem is that I love to drive. I love to drive because I like to be in control. In control of when I go and when I return. In control of how fast or slow I’m driving. In control of which lane I’m driving in and when I’m going to switch. I love driving fast and weaving in and out of traffic on freeways.

This is a problem, because when someone else is driving, I feel like I have no control. And I didn’t have control over how Maurice was driving on this dark, winding, hilly road. Sometimes, I felt like he was driving too fast, or passing unsafely, or too close to the left side. I kept telling him, “you’re not in the lane.” But I’m not sure he was really listening to me.

Earlier that day, a brick wall was right on the line of the left shoulder. I tried to tell Maurice that he was too close, but he wasn’t listening to me and… grumprhhhtwphhh. The van slid along the brick wall. I didn’t have to tell him again after that.

But now, we were way up in the South African mountains at midnight. And all of a sudden, we were heading straight down, coming out of a curve at the same time, and there was a huge body of water lit by the moonlight in front of us. I couldn’t help but yell out.

“Oh my God! Maurice, you’re making me so nervous!”

Maurice yelled back at me that I was making him nervous by yelling at him that I was nervous. He wanted me to BE QUIET. So, I sat on my hands, prayed, and bit my lip for the next 1.5 hours. I have never been so happy to see a Holiday Inn Express in my life.

I’ve always respected my husband. He’s a wonderful person, man, son, husband, and father. But after the death-trip of SA2010, I hold him in a new level of esteem.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Travel to World Cup - Day 1

How is it possible for a 16-hour flight to be more comfortable and less boring than a 5-hour flight to Vegas? My mother and I chalked it up to the days of mental preparation we’d put ourselves through for the non-stop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa’s international airport.

As my family and I got comfortable in our seats, I struck up a conversation with a lovely Afrikaan family from Durbin, SA who told us about their trip with their grandchildren to Disney World. They asked us about our trip and gave us tips and pointers about traveling in Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls. We talked with people who were natives of the US East Coast who had simply packed up everything and moved the whole family to suburbs around Johannesburg. The diversity and pleasant lifestyle were reasons they gave for the move. I couldn’t help but wonder about the possibilities of relocating my family here. What would schools be like? Would there be opportunities for Maurice and me in our chosen industries? What about the post-apartheid relations among the various South African races? I can’t wait to explore and find out more.

3 good meals, 2 deep sleeps, 4 movies and 16 hours later, we were coming into view of the southern tip of Africa. As we began our decent over the edges of the continent, the sun was beginning to go down, even though it was only 11:00am back home in Atlanta. Vibrant golds, fuchsias, oranges and pinks fused together over the outlines of mountains, ocean and grassy flat lands. I don’t know what I expected the city to look like as we descended closer to the airport in Johannesburg, but looking at the city below looked just like flying over central Florida – homes evenly spaced on flat land with tiled roofs and blue pools enclosed in back yards. Busy highways showed traffic slowly crawling through rush hour traffic. A van had flipped over and smoke was swirling into the sky as cars piled up behind it and snaked into the single lane left open.

Tears came to my eyes as we landed on the runway in Johannesburg. I don’t really know why – I can’t explain the feeling that came over me, but it was definitely palpable.

In the Johannesburg airport, a lively group from Germany drunkenly hugged each other’s necks as they sang the German Futbol fight song. South African porters and airport staff joined in. It was one big party of different languages and ethnicities united by the sport of futbol.

We’re currently on a South African Airways flight to Port Elizabeth along with several people from Uruguay, some Americans that now live here, and native Afrikaans and Africans. I’ve used more Spanish here already than I've used in the past 3 years.

I couldn’t help but have a flashback to pre-9/11. It was a breeze getting through security (I got to keep all my clothes on!). And they still serve full meals on all of the flights – whether your flight is 16 hours or 1.6 hours. And the food was actually good (or maybe I was just hungry?). In fact, my mother and I enjoyed delicious complimentary South African wine during our short cross-country flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth.

I can’t wait to experience life outside the airport and on the ground. Stay tuned for my updates and some photos...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Big Secret Surprise

I love surprises. I love keeping secrets about surprises for other people, and I love to be surprised. I'm always disappointed when a surprise for me is spoiled.

For instance, when I got married, I told my husband to keep where we were going for the honeymoon a secret.

"Just take me to the airport blind-folded. Don't tell me a thing!"

But days before the trip, the travel agent called me to confirm our trip to Trinidad & Tobago. Sigh...

Or what about the time my husband (then boyfriend) tried to throw a surprise birthday party for me when we were in college. I decided at the last minute to throw my own party and called the DJ to see if he was free.

"Yeah, I already discussed it with Maurice last week. I planned to get there around 9:00 to set up," he said, without thinking that I may not have known about the party to begin with. Sigh...

Anyway. This is isn't about me, it's about the biggest surprise EVER for my kids. A secret surprise that almost killed several people in its enormity. A secret surprise that got out a little too soon.

When the world starting getting exciting about the World Cup soccer tournament taking place in South Africa, I remember talking with my husband and saying... "wouldn't it be cool to go there and take the kids?" A year later, my husband announces that he's in the pool to get tickets to a match in Johannesburg. Huh?

For months, he had secretly been working on flights and hotels and travel between South African cities for the kids and us. When he explained the whole thing, I thought to myself... what a fantastic secret surprise. I didn't tell anyone. I started strategizing with him on how to make the trip well worth the expense, time and energy. By April, everything was finalized and we told our parents and my brother. First mistake.

Despite our telling my mother this was a secret surprise for the kids, she announced the trip to her brother and his children who promptly sent me a Facebook post exclaiming... "World Cup?! When are you leaving?"

Since my older son and all of his friends are my Facebook "friends", I had to quickly delete the post, and send the first of several messages alerting the family that this was a secret surprise. Sigh...

Next, my brother, who has adult attention deficit and a very poor memory, asked the kids... "Are you excited about going to South Africa?" They stood there looking at him dumbfounded. My husband gave my brother the "shut up" face and the two of them made up some silly story to cover up my brother's faux pas.

My husband later reported that one of the kids asked my older son, "what's your uncle talkin' about? Are you guys going to the World Cup?"

My older son responded with a shrug and a, "I don't know what he's talking about." And they proceeded to play a game of soccer in the middle of the street.

As damage control, I waited until weeks later and, while we were watching an opening match on television, I nonchalantly said, "Hey, I talked to your uncle yesterday. Can you believe he thought we were going to the World Cup?!"

"Yeah! I know. He said something to me too!"

"Your uncle's crazy..."


As we got closer to the actual trip, it became important for me to share the secret with those I worked with and the babysitter and the neighbors. Imagine trying to get all of those people to keep such a huge secret from my kids when they see them every day. There were several close calls, and I grew at least 4 more gray hairs in the the 2 weeks before the trip.

Four days away and now I have to figure out how to pack for winter in Africa when it's 90 degrees in Atlanta. More importantly, I had to get the older child to actually try on jeans and sweatpants because he has outgrown all of his clothes and keeps getter taller every month. He hates trying on clothes. He hates shopping for clothes. His brother hates waiting for him to shop and try on clothes. Long story short - shopping was not fun. 2 more gray hairs. Secret still safe. (chalked it up to school shopping while winter clothes were on sale - yeah, I'm good)

Three days away - my family are at dinner with my girlfriend and her family. She gets excited and loudly exclaims to her aunt and uncles, "They're leaving for Africa on Wednesday!"

I punch her firmly in the arm, the table goes deathly silent, she drops her head, and my husband turns to stone. My older son narrows his eyes and surveys the scene. My younger son continues to play his DSi, completely oblivious to everything taking place. Sigh...

Deny, deny, deny. That's my husband and my motto for this whole fiasco of the secret surprise. We pretend like nothing happened at dinner and go about our business without comment.

The Monday night before the trip, I'm doing laundry and folding clothes when my older son nonchalantly asks me, "Why does everyone think we're going to South Africa?"

This time I literally sighed out loud and sofly said, "Oh, Maurice."

He knows how much I love secrets and surprises. He knew I was sad that the secret was out. He knows me so well, he didn't ask me anything else and completely changed the subject. I love that kid.

Last night, my mother - who is going on the trip with us - arrived from Miami with her car loaded down. And when my older son heard that my husband was picking up my father-in-law from the airport, the inquisition began. I received a sad phone call from my husband as he was driving home from the airport, "We have to tell them."

My husband checked to make sure the video camera was charged, then he nodded to me. We went into the kitchen, gathered our parents and the kids and made the formal announcement. My older son had the decency to look somewhat incredulous. However, our younger son really had no clue. He was truly surprised and the look on his face made it all worth it.

My older son began going through all of South Africa tourist books my father-in-law had brought with him and my younger son began interrogating me about flight time, accommodations, the language barrier, and his selective eating habits.

Even though we were unable to keep the secret, our children are just as excited as they would have been if they hadn't found out until we arrived at the airport. This trip is an adventure and memory that will last all of our lifetimes. What we experience as individuals and a group will be shared with family, friends and those who don't even exist today.

My motto has always been to live without regrets and do everything I can while I'm able. This trip has meaning on so many levels, I cannot begin to put it into words. All I can say is I appreciate my husband and the spirit that allowed this to be, and I can't wait to blog about the experience...