Don’t get deported It was my first flight in a month and I couldn’t figure out the airline’s luggage policy. When I arrived at the Athens airport I was pleased to find out I would not be charged 45 euros for checking my backpack. The relief didn’t last when the airline attendent asked me about proof of onward travel, a requirement for entering South Africa. Without it I risked being deported and paying an exorbitant fine of 5,000 euros. That made the extra baggage fee look tiny. I was led to a different counter to book a cheap flight that I would cancel after passing through customs. After an hour of frantic Googling and a quick call to Swaziland, the airline accepted an unpaid bus reservation from Johannesburg to Mbabane (capital of Swaziland) as sufficient, fabricated proof that I would leave South Africa. I boarded, relieved to be on the flight but still worried I wouldn’t pass the Joburg customs. As we descended I tried to keep calm, passing through border security while sweating and hyperventilating would not help my case. I handed the customs officer my passport, trying to act natural. He looked at it, said something to his friend, stamp stamp and I was through. I spent two nights trapped in Joburg. I had read too many cautionary stories of people being mugged, carjacked and worse in Joburg so I stayed close to the hostel. The streets nearby were ordinary and suburban surrounded by barbed wire or electric fences, and decorated with pictures of ferocious dogs. I walked to the grocery store and to my surprise all of the signs were in English. For the first time in five months I was in a country where English was one of the eleven official languages. “When are the stars going to align again to form this perfect constellation of people” I escaped on the Baz Bus, a backpacker shuttle that runs from Joburg to Cape Town, and headed to Durban with my new Italian friend, Federica. We walked to the beach and strolled through the market of traditional herbs, roots, and animal skins. After a brief misadventure getting to Port St Johns, involving a late bus and an absent shuttle driver, I reunited with Fede two days later in Coffee Bay. I had planned to stay for three, maybe four nights. Seven nights later I finally left. It was silly to leave when the stars brought such wonderful people to one beach, so I kept extending my reservation. It was a blissful week of daily surf lessons, sitting around the fire, cooking dinner with new friends, and hiking to a famous Hole in the Wall. I was heavily scratched and bruised but I could stand on a hardboard. I was sad to go but I know I’ll see my Coffee Bay family again. Travel like the locals One overnight bus ride later and I was back where I started. At the Joburg bus station one of the women said “I’m scared here”, and I agreed that it was dangerous at the station. I taxied to the hostel and headed out again, this time in a kombi. A kombi is a white cargo van that serves as a major form of public transportation around Africa. Usually twenty people are crammed in while the drivers swerve into the shoulder of the road to pick up more passengers. The seats rock from side to side on turns and slide forward and back. But more dangerous than the precarious driving or condition of the vehicles are the threat of muggings. I prepared by leaving most of my cash, passport and all electronics in the hostel. I spotted other women putting money in their African purse so I also stuck a few rands in my bra to fit in with the locals. There is a complicated system of hand signals to broadcast where you want to go, but all I needed was to put my pointer finger up to go downtown. To get off at the next street on the left, you say “short left”. The next righthand street is “short right”. But the most common is “after robot”. I quickly learned that a robot was in fact a traffic light. After bumping and sliding through the city I arrived to the mall safe and more savvy than before. I knew Joburg was dangerous so I treated it with caution when I arrived, but I was ready to break free from the sterile tourist experience. One of the best side effects of travel is facing your fears and finding that there wasn’t much to be afraid of in the first place. Leaving South Africa I was proud to have braved all forms of transportation, waves and roads, and come out in one piece.
Categories: South Africa