I just returned from a much-needed vacation, and what an experience it was! Here are my reflections on my trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe.
I’ve been intrigued with Nelson Mandela ever since I was a grad student at Syracuse University in the late 1980s. There I belonged to a student group nobly called “People for Peace and Justice.” As a group we pressured the University to divest from South Africa’s apartheid government. And we advocated for the release of Mandela, who served 27 years in prison before his release in 1990. Later that same year, I was among the crowd at the Oakland-Alamada Coliseum in California, hearing the great man speak.
On day one in Cape Town, we boarded a ferry for Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Honestly, this was not the ferry ride I was expecting. In my mind I had the image of our local smooth-sailing Jamestown ferry. A few minutes after we set sail, I quickly realized that we were not in a protected body of water, but the Atlantic Ocean. A few faces turned green as we rode the swells on our 15-minute trip to the island.
This spit of land housed male political prisoners in modern times, finally closing in 1996 with the end of apartheid. Our prison tour guide was a former political prisoner. He shared how his political activism was awakened when he read Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest (affiliate link). When asked how he was able to cope as a prisoner, our guide responded,
You have to see it as a phase that will end – eventually. The ones that break are the ones who lose hope.
I felt emotional upon leaving the prison. The anti-apartheid movement had won, and the efforts of many led to freedom. And my first-world problems felt so trivial after witnessing the resilience of this former prisoner, who had been tortured and taken from his family at the age of 21.
It’s impossible to ignore the disparities of wealth throughout southern Africa. It was not unusual to see high-end luxury vehicles (Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar) speed by our bus. Yet not far from the modern high-rises and shopping centers of the Sandhurst area of Johannesburg, lay the tin-roofed shantytowns and community porta-potties in Soweto. While the sight was disturbing, I couldn’t help but think of all the homeless people in the United States who struggle to survive on the streets. The concentration of wealth is a global phenomenon.
When we crossed the border into Zimbabwe, the economy took on a very different turn. Just prior to our trip, the government had declared that the Zimbabwe dollar would be the sole legal tender in the country – Zimbabweans would no longer be able to pay for goods and services in US dollars. But there’s government decree, and then there’s local action. The fact is, we couldn’t find Zimbabwean money if we tried. The local shopkeepers, the resort, restaurants, and entire local economy wanted our American dollars. And they charged American prices.
In Zimbabwe, there was no such thing as a mortgage or auto loan. If you want a house or a car, you need to save up your cash. That’s a reality few Americans can imagine. Yet the economy did not grind to a halt – our tour guide pointed out several pop-up stands put up by locals who cross the border to buy goods and resell for a profit. It’s an economy that requires people to be industrious and innovative. But since there isn’t a social support network outside of the family, there’s no backup when disaster strikes.
For me, the main event was nature – from the Atlantic seaboard, to the Cape Winelands vineyards, to Kruger National Park, and finally, Victoria Falls. Spectacular.
One of my favorite stops was Simon’s Town, where we stopped to watch the Boulders Penguin Colony. The colony began with two breeding pairs, who moved onto the beach in 1982. The government chose to turn the area into a preserve and today, the penguin colony has grown to about 2,200. I was glad to see such conservation efforts.
Finally, on day eight, the moment I had been waiting for arrived – a game drive in Kruger National Park. I didn’t hear many complaints as we dragged our butts out of bed at 4:00 in the morning. Once aboard our safari vehicles, we were given life-saving instructions – never stand up in the vehicle (or you may be eaten) and keep your voice down. Elephants were our first sighting and we soon learned to ignore the bountiful impalas (a dime a dozen). We spent a fair amount of time watching a lion from a distance, and our lunch break featured a banana-stealing monkey. It was an amazing day, from sunup to sundown.
No regrets. That’s my motto. So when we were offered helicopter rides over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and I was told the price, I said “NO WAY!” Then I spent the night pondering my decision. When would I ever get the chance to do this again? Would I regret it? YES, I would. So I pulled out the credit card and took my very first helicopter ride. It was truly unforgettable and I’m so glad I made that decision.
For more than a week, I lived in a bubble. I didn’t have to worry about my no-income situation, or wonder what to do next on the marketing front, or fret about the future. It was a much needed escape. But it was also exhausting. I’m not sure I will join a group tour again, as I moved according to the itinerary, not my desires. And it was very expensive (fortunately, I had paid for the trip in full long before I lost my job).
As we left Victoria Falls for the long return to the United States, the stress began to weigh me down. But then I remembered the words of the former political prisoner – you have to see life in terms of phases. I’m still trying to get me feet on the ground and figure out this new life. This phase is just a door-opener to whatever comes next.
Did you take any great vacations this summer? I’d love to hear about it!