Day 1 – February 15th
I woke up at 7:47 AM to my cell phone alarm. The sun is just rising over Michigan and it is freezing. I am filled with that nervous exciting energy you get on your first day of school and I really don’t know what to expect from this trip to Cape Town. I have only talked to the family I am going to be staying with through email exchanges and Facebook and I have never seen Africa except through National Geographic TV programs and history textbooks. My dad said there would be lions roaming through the streets.
I am dropped of at Detroit Metro Airport and get my ticket. Everything is normal as I make my way through security and onto the first plane leaving from Detroit to Washington D.C. Even though have done quite a bit of traveling in my life I still get anxieties when I find myself in an unfamiliar place. I am well within my comfort zone as the plane door closes, the plane lurches across the snowy runways, and takes flight. It’s so bleak outside, and I am leaving it all behind.
We land in D.C. and I navigate the airport easily. Gate B this way. Take the escalators. Take the tram. I pass by all the little shops selling Washington D.C. souvenirs and Time magazines. It’s all so familiar.
Wait, there’s something I need! A currency exchange. I talk to the small little man behind the counter and I exchange $200 for Rands, the official currency of South Africa. He looks at me funny and tells me it will be an even 1200R if I give him an extra $9. I suddenly realize I have no idea what the hell a Rand is actually worth and he could be totally be ripping me off. I give him the benefit of the doubt. I hand over a ten and he slides back a handful of bills with brightly colored lions and water buffalo on them. These brightly colored pieces of paper are my first real sign of the world to come.
I make my way to Gate B and have a long time to wait until I am in Africa. I watch the sun set while drawing comic pages at the food court. Eventually I see that my gate has crowded with people and its time to go.
The numbers speak a lot louder than the memories of the actual flight. I have a 5 hour layover in Washington, followed by the 17 hour flight to Johannesberg’s Trambo Airport (with a 1 hour stop to refuel in Dakar, Senegal). I watch three movies on the way there, eat three in-flight meals, go to the bathroom twice, and squirm into about 25 positions to try to get 2 1/2 hours of sleep. I am seated in a center aisle so I can’t really look out at the ground passing me by. As far as I know I am sitting in a time machine; the sun setting outside and magically rising after 8 hours only to set again 8 hours later upon disembarking in Johannesberg.
When I finally arrive in Trambo Airport I am in another world. It is an airport, but not an American airport. I don’t recognize the brands or the stores I pass by, and the people have a very different energy then where I have just come from. They seem to have a swagger or a dance in their stride. There is a lot more energy, or at least a new kind of energy. It’s hard to describe, maybe its just the difference of everyone here being alive in the prime of summer over the dead of winter.
I pass through customs easily, get my South Africa stamp, and head for the last gate before Cape Town. I am getting worried now, the trip is gaining reality by leaps and bounds. I don’t really know the people I am flying to meet, and I have no idea where the hell I am really going. After getting on the last plane I finally find a window seat and watch a thunderstorm flash on the horizon. The land below is dark and only becomes revealed by brief flashes from the storms and the light of what look like campfires. Why is the land so dark? The plane taxis across the runway and proceeds to fly me deeper into South Africa. Where are all the lights down there? What the hell have I gotten myself into?
As we approach Cape Town 2 hours later the familiar orange lights of a major city appear below. The plane descends and it glides through mountains of shadow lined with snaking streetlights. I can see the outline of dark no-mans-lands that appear to be shack housing amid the urban sprawl. The plane touches down kind of crooked, swinging a little left and right in the wind.
I only brought two carry ons and I grab them, check for ID, Passport, Rands, and Cell Phone. That’s all that is important. I disembark the plane and make my way through the winding airport. Ground transportation, this way. I come out on the other side of security and see a long line of people waiting with signs. Amazingly I recognize two faces in the crowd. It’s Michelle and her husband Johnny, the South Africans I am staying with. They both look just like their photos on Facebook.
“Michelle? I’m Erik” I say. I think both parties are anxious to finally meet.
“Hello, yes! How was your flight?” she says. I give her an awkward hug and her husband shakes my hand. “This is Johnny,”
As I walk with them to their car we share small talk about the flight and the differences between the weather in Michigan and Cape Town. There is a slight breeze but its a gorgeous summer night out. It puts me at ease, and I have a feeling that everything is going to be perfect, despite my lack of planning. I try to get in their car on the right side, but Johnny stops me. “Are you driving?” I forgot, they drive opposite here and that means all their cars are reversed as well. This place is going to take some getting used to.
It’s close to midnight and with darkness all around I can’t see much beyond the lighted highway. We pass by some of the dark shacks I saw from the air and I am informed that area is a “township”, a cluster of shanties built from scrap wood, metal, and furniture. There a few situated all over the region and some have government housing within them. They are neighborhoods with no water, electricity, or well-kept roads. If you have seen the movie “District 9” the townships pretty much resemble that, only with people living there instead of buggy aliens. I ask where the mountains are and Johnny points out a line of shadow high above the city. It looks like a string of cloud cover, but is in fact a mountain range that makes up the city bowl; a range that encircles downtown Cape Town. I can’t wait to see it in the daylight.
We talk about our families and what is different between America and South Africa. It’s always funny by how much ends up being the same when you talk about what is different. We talk a little about Survivor and if Michelle and Johnny have been able to travel as well. The lights pass by the car and I roll down a window to get a little more of that beautiful breeze outside. I can tell there is an ocean somewhere nearby.
As we pull into their garage I am introduced to my new home. It is beautiful and after chatting a little more and being introduced to Michelle’s mother I ask for a bed to sleep in. They have everything arranged (they have an extra bed and bedroom all set aside!) and I shower as quickly as possible and fall into bed. From chatting with Michelle and Johnny on the ride from the airport I conclude that I am with really good people and feel very much at home with them.
I have taken a gamble traveling so far from home to stay with people I have never met, but so have they. I could be a crazy person, you never know these days! It’s too late to think about all the what ifs and I resolve to sort this all out in the morning. I lay flat on the bed, grateful to not be trapped on an airplane, and drift off to sleep.
Its February 17th and I am in South Africa!
To be Continued…