Monday, September 2, 2013

SA: To South Africa and Back

Editor’s Note: The fall semester really got away from me this year. Between traveling, writing deadlines, committee work, auditing an East Asian history of science course, and recovering from all those things, I never found the time to write about my week-long conference and sightseeing trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, in early September. Finding some time over the holidays (between editing Chapters 2 and 3 of my dissertation) I have finally composed a series of posts designated SA in the title. They are back-dated to appear on the blog when they “should” have been published, but I will still receive any comments you leave.

One of the more sensational details about my trip to South Africa was my travel schedule. On the hottest day of the summer, we drove four hours to the airport--without air conditioning. The ride was made marginally more tolerable with a Sherlock Holmes story or two. Having dropped off a friend to help his brother move, and unable to tolerate the thought of more traffic, Dear Husband and I left the car and took the lightrail the rest of the way to the airport. We had hoped to eat dinner together, but there was nothing on the near side of security, so we said our good-byes. On the other side I bought dinner (and helped a German-speaking traveler!)…and talked to my father on the phone for an hour while rain delayed our departure. Three hours later, the plane finally took off. I got to New York at midnight, took a cab over to Queens, and crashed for the night. There was evening and there was morning, the first travel day.

Young and Old Nelson Mandela
Mural at Freedom Square, Soweto
The next morning, after breakfast and on my way to the hotel shuttle, I pulled a muscle in my back. It was so bad that I could hardly stand at first. I swallowed some pain killers and with the help of the shuttle driver made it to the airport, where I was handed over to the wheelchair brigade. I just didn’t think I could handle a suitcase, my heavy backpack, and taking off my shoes. And yet, when we arrived at security and they found out I was (technically) ambulatory, the TSA officers asked me to stand in one of those scanners! I always opt-out on principle, but even if I didn’t, I do not think I could have gotten my arms over my head.

Past security, I asked the the guy pushing me to stop so I could purchase a heating pad from a massage stand. It was one of those snap-activated gel packs that I could wear under my shirt once I boarded. I was the first one on the airplane, got help stowing my bags, and then settled in for a looong flight with my new heating pad. You see, there are two options for getting to Johannesburg: one is a “direct” flight from Washington DC through Dakar, Senegal, the other a 15-hour flight direct from NYC. Other graduate students warned me away from the former, however, since something could always go wrong once on the ground, so I opted for the former. The ticket even turned out to be slightly cheaper.

You might think a 15-hour flight would be intolerable, but I did not find it so. When flying to Europe, it always seems that by the time the plane has ascended, the stewards have served dinner, and you’ve finished your movie and are ready to sleep, there are only a few short hours until they wake everyone up for “breakfast” at 4-fricking-30 in the morning. I’m forever sleeping through breakfast and having to ask for a cup of orange juice while I inhale my yogurt and croissant during descent.

With such a long flight, there was plenty of time for watching a couple of movies, doing some work on my laptop, and getting a good night’s sleep. Well, it would have been a good sleep if my back hadn’t seized up when I changed position every couple of hours. The greater danger than lack of sleep though was dehydration. That’s a long time to be breathing filtered air and to have one’s skin exposed to it. So the stewardesses came by twice with bottled water. I took but didn’t drink it, not wanting to have to get up to pee on account of my back. I stayed in my seat the whole time, and my back felt better for the rest, but I was dry as a leaf and had to drink extra water once on the ground again. There was evening and there was morning, the second travel day.

At O.R. Tampo International Airport*, wheelchair services dropped me off at the Gautrain station. The Gautrain (pronounced “How-Train”)--named for the province of Gauteng ("How-teng")--is the “lightrail” that runs from the airport to Johannesburg and the capital of Praetoria. From the picture you can see why it reminded me of the newer German S-Bahn trains. Because the trains to other parts of the country, like Cape Town, have a reputation for not being safe, I stayed close to Jo-burg.

* Oliver Tambo was Nelson Mandela’s law partner, a fellow freedom fighter, and long-time president of the African National Congress.

I had planned to take a Gautrain Bus to my dorm, but it turned out those don’t run on weekends. Not entirely sure where I was going, I asked a tourist bus operator for instructions. He pointed me in the direction of the main campus, suggested I ask again at a shop or restaurant, and cautioned me not to talk to men on the streets at all. I asked at several different places, finally coming across a security guard who was also a student, who used his badge to let me onto the campus.** I asked around again to find the campus shuttle that would take me to the dorms. It worked like a charm, depositing me in front of another gated compound. Once I had gotten settled in, I took another shuttle to a local mall for groceries and other things. There was evening and there was morning, the third travel day.

** Most properties in Johannesburg are enclosed with fences. This is a relic of the crime wave in the 1980s and 1990s. Locals assure me it has abated, but nevertheless I had been warned to leave my best jewelry (i.e. diamond engagement ring) at home. Fences are not common in other parts of the country.

I’ll tell you about flying back in this post, too, since there only thing to say is that the return trip was less comfortable, since it required a red-eye flight from Johannesburg to Frankfurt am Main. The flipping airline never turned the lights out, so it was difficult to sleep, even with a sleeping mask. I generally don’t have too many problems with jetlag going from Europe to North America, but that is because I am used to waking up from a good night’s sleep in Germany and then flying all day. Not so much this time. However, I did manage to watch both of the new Star Trek movies and an original Star Trek episode, so at least I was in a good mood for all my tiredness. DH met me at the airport, and we drove home to conclude another two-day travel adventure.

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