I was told to be a canvas before I left for South Africa. For various reasons, this country had been haunting me for a while. So I lifted up my twenty something kilos backpack and walked unsteadily to the metro station – I needed some time before getting used to my new posture and felt ridiculous. But the thought of being on the plane kept me mounting up the hill.
15 hours later with one stop in Cairo and absolutely no sleep at all, I was landing in Johannesburg and somehow got carried to the Rosebank Station by the Gautrain. Funny how one finds the way after all, I thought, conscious but feeling as if I were moving in a dream: two days before, all these actions were mere plans that caused me panic attacks.
The same day, I was attending a baby shower party (after I managed to take a shower myself), talking and making friends with people I was seeing for the first time, discovering dishes I never ate before, being driven around and wondering when I would just drop like a stone. After 31 sleepless hours, I finally did.
Next day, SJ tried to wake me up at 8 a.m. to no avail. When I woke up it was already midday. I was sure I would be alone in the flat because I knew SJ and Adrien had left for work, but on my way to the bathroom I cross Brilliant. She works for SJ and she would prepare breakfast and coffee for me. While I was listening to the number of things she could do for me (Coffee with milk, no milk? How many spoons of sugar? 2-3? Do I need a fresh towel?) it hit me: I was in South Africa. This was the moment to be a canvas. It was right there that I truly started to record the differences that would pile up as I would make my way into the country.
Brilliant is from Zimbabwe and for her, South Africa is an extravagant place. But there is nothing like home, she says. SJ called a taxi for me and Brilliant accompanies me downstairs with her baby girl: she brought her because she was ill, for which she apologizes. I urge Brilliant to go back with the baby; I can wait by myself for the taxi. Her answer comes vehemently: “No, no, no, I am not leaving you alone in the street.” I will not argue; I already did for my cup of coffee that I insisted to wash myself. Brilliant tells me “We chase white people, but they are smart”. Her sense of difference comes out so strong and I try to wipe it off a bit: “No, they are not smarter”, I say, as if I were not part of the category, “they have more access to information.” Clumsy and meaningless. Either way, when she hugs me goodbye, there is no difference and we do not belong to worlds apart. We had only been discussing theories.
The taxi man is also talkative and friendly, same as the two guards who kept me company at the Rosebank Station while I was waiting for SJ after I landed. I do not feel the threat of the city yet, but that’s probably because I do not wander around on foot. But I notice SJ’s very natural reflex to close the car windows and lock the doors every time we stop at the red light where black people “sell” newspapers. I read that Mandela is in hospital. She also points to the high walls and barbed wire that clog the beauty of this city.
Apart from that, the gates to any buildings we’ve been into (home, workplace, a friend’s house) are always kept by a guard. Men in uniform are part and parcel of the daily landscape, to the point that locals do not find this striking anymore. On the first day of my overland tour with the Drifters, the sight of a guard patrolling a regular gas station with a rifle on his back in full daylight caught my eye. Two gas stations further, it had become common sense. Another friend in Durban walks with a 9mm Glock in his money belt. Freedom has a different meaning here. And it is paid in a different currency.
SJ drops me off at the Drifters lodge, the starting point of my South African adventures. I watch the sun setting over Jo’burg and wish I could enjoy a long, quiet, eventless walk. Maybe one day. For the moment, it’s just wishful thinking – the city is not ready for this yet.
Beginning and end blend together but I have no time to realize either. The gate opens at the Drifters, I am greeted and invited to go in and meet the other travellers. “Hakuna Matata, welcome to Africa!”. I give a smile to the man with the “Lion King” formula and move on to the dining room.