Sunday, June 3, 2012

New Report

Hi readers,

Hope those of you that enjoyed my previous blog about experiences in Thailand might continue to enjoy hearing of times and adventures in South Africa this summer. Yes, I am back in Africa! I will be spending about 10 weeks here working and learning from an international NGO. To avoid to any shady or controversial writing, I will just refer tot that organization as NGO and talk about my work in general.

I am sitting here in my digs for the 9 weeks (I have already been here a week) waiting for coverage of the Queen's Jubilee celebration to come on TV and reflecting on my time since my arrival. Wow, its been a bumpy ride. The first surprise or stumbling block for me has been realizing that South Africa, and thus Johannesburg, really is in the middle of winter! Yes, I knew this before arriving, but I didn't realize how much it would affect me! The sun sets at a very early 6 pm and because of safety precautions that need to be taken here, that means everyone needs to be done walking around the streets or going places in a car. Since I have no plans to drive or buy a car while here, that means I am tucked into my house and all locked in at 6 pm every night! Luckily I have plenty of experience filling the long evening hours with entertaining things to focus on from my time in Thailand. Thanks Peace Corps!

After about 5 days, I was finally feeling over my jet lag and the overwhelming anxiety of being in a new city. I clocked in a few days at my office, mostly either reading about the history of the organization and related topics or reading the New Yorker as I am still awaiting my work computer. I met most of the staff and am starting to figure out how things work around there.

I take a mini-bus taxi to work everyday. Each morning, I walk about 12 minutes to a busy intersection to flag down a mini-bus full of people that is on a set route that passes right near my office. Once you hop in, you pass your fare up through the passengers and eventually someone hands you your change. Apparently its one of the most honest everyday dealings one can have in South Africa and the system works flawlessly. Really interesting and lovely if you ask me. I return from work in the same fashion. Though the previous description may sound like a piece of cake, one must remember that this is Africa and something different has happened on each of my commutes so far, causing some laughable moments and some that are more anxiety ridden.

Safety has been on my mind a lot here in Jo-burg and to be honest I have felt a bit scared or lonely at times. I expect I will adjust just fine, especially once I have some work to throw myself into. Honestly, I do not see myself exploring or going out into the city that much because of lack of transportation and a lack of a companion. The only person besides my co-workers that I know here is a classmate who will only be in town for two weeks, leaving next Saturday. Thus, we took advantage of having each other around by going on a city tour this Saturday. Or tour was about 4 hours with only 2 stops so it was mostly driving. Our first stop took us to Constitution Hill, described by Lonely Planet as:
"a development with a focus on South Africa's new Constitutional Court, built within the ramparts of the Old Fort, which dates from 1892 ad was once a notorious prison, where many activists, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatama Gandhi, were held. Ruling on constitutional and human-rights matters, the court itself is a very real symbol of the changing South Africa: a lekgotla (place of gathering) rising form the ashes of one of the city's most poignant apartheid-systems monuments, with cases heard in all 11 official languages".  Our tour began with a walk through the old prison cells that was quite moving, disturbing, and shocking, followed by an inspirational walk through of the new courthouse that attempts to move out of the horrible past into a hopeful future with its thoughtful design. Here are a few pictures:
Entrance to Constitution Hill
Foyer to courtroom, designed to mimic the trees in South African villages that elders sit under to make fair and just decisions
"power to the people"-prisoner graffiti
Solitary confinement cells
Blanket sculptures designed by former prisoners to represent their lives there

Beautiful courtroom used to try cases with constitutional matters with room for all 11 judges (one for each of SA's official languages)

Next our tour took us on a drive through the Johannesburg neighborhood of Hillbrow. Now, before coming here, all I had read told me to avoid this space for safety reasons, but in fact these blocks and city streets are the real heart of the city and show how life really is here. So I was excited for a chance to observe within the safety of a locked car with an experienced guide and driver. I learned that these days, Hillbrow has a reputation of pure lawlessness, but in the past it had been the nation's first "Gray Area", or a place where whites and blacks could live side by side. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of my own because our guide didn't what to call attention to ourselves but here is pic from the web:
The tour continued with drives through the University of the Witwatersrsand that is home to the studies of over 20,000 students, a drive past the SABWorld of Beer (no, we didn't stop!), over the new Nelson Mandela Bridge (2003: connects parts of the city that had always been separated before, and ended in the city center with views of city hall and a stop at the "Top of Africa". This euphemistically named destination is the top floor of the tallest building in Africa, the Carlton Center which stands at 50 stories high. From the top we were able to get a better orientation of the city. I noted several rugby and football stadiums, one sponsored by Coca-cola, a horse racing stadium, the Gold Reef City (an amusement park and casino), several universities, and several tree-filled neighborhoods that are apparently the more wealthy parts of town.

Here is a pic of me and my classmate at the top:

After the tour ended, I had a chance to check out Melville, a nice suburb where my friend is staying, enjoy a late lunch of pizza, and a good chat session in my friend's guesthouse before heading home by taxi to lock myself in before dark.

All in all, Saturday was a great end to an interesting, scary, stressful, crazy, lonely, fun, tough week! (Can you tell it was an emotional roller coaster?)


  1. Wow! What wonderful experiences you are having.
    Soak up as much as you can, but still be cautious.

  2. you are so brave and amazing. thinking of you with love!