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BACK TO SOWETO: MUSIC, FIRE & POT

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on July 20, 2011 with No Comments

I have been traveling around Madagascar for roughly 11 days, but I feel as if I have been away from home for months. I spent little time with my friend and his wife in Antananarivo. They were my hosts during my brief stay in the capital. Yet I felt at home at their house and with them as if I was with family. I hadn’t seen my friend since the time we met in Caracas about two years ago, so seeing him again and meeting his wife was something I looked forward to. It has happened to me that sometimes I see someone from my past, and I not longer connect with that person. It feels awkward. It couldn’t be more different with my friend and his wife. It was as if time hadn’t passed since I last time saw him. I quickly connected with his wife as well. He is an American diplomat and she is a journalist from Venezuela. I was not only happy to see him, but also happy to see him happy with a family and see him making a difference in Africa from his post in Madagascar. I was really sorry I didn’t have an extra day, but while exploring a remote land, there is no time to settle. I am always in the move.

“He is here,” said my friend’s wife.

Jimmy was taking me to the airport at 7am.

I said bye to my friend and his wife, and thanked them once again for all the kindness and help they had given to me on this journey. I am used to travel to places where I know no one and I am completely fine with it, but having them there gave me a sense of security and comfort.

“Bonjour!” Jimmy said, showing his wide smile.

I jumped in the car, ready to head to the airport.

It was 7 a.m. on Saturday and the streets of Antananarivo were packed with people and full of activity as if it was a regular business day.

It took us an hour to get to the airport.

“Merci. Au revoir, Jimmy,” I put some money in his hand.

Jimmy wanted to come inside the terminal with me and wait at the airport until my flight took off. I insisted he didn’t have to stay, not because I didn’t want him around, but because I felt awful he would spend time at the airport when he could be spending that same time of the weekend with his family.

“Merci,” he smiled and left.

The counter didn’t open until an hour prior the flight. When I finally made it to the gate, I realized the flight was delayed. It was supposed to leave at 10am, then at 11:05am, then at 12:30am, then at 12:50am, then at 1:30am, then… then I didn’t trust the announcements anymore! Every single flight I had taken with Madagascar Airlines had been delayed. What was the excuse this time? “We are waiting for two passengers coming from a connecting flight”.

Dozens of disappointed and angry passengers, who had connecting flights in Johannesburg and were about to miss them for the delay, gathered to demand the departure of the flight. I didn’t have a connecting flight, but I did have a bungee jump scheduled for 4pm. I feared I would not make it, but at that point I just wanted to make sure that I arrive in Johannesburg today!

The flight took off at 2:30pm. We never saw the two supposedly passengers we were waiting for. The flight was 3 hours. We landed at 6:30pm and I had missed the bungee jump. I would have to do it next day before taking the flight back to the United States.

When I arrived in the airport in Johannesburg, I looked for the familiar face of Isaac, the driver from Soweto Backpackers. I didn’t see him. I ended up taking a taxi to Soweto. It was already dark. I was really tired and had to recover my energies because I would explore the township by bike the next morning.

“Hi Daniela, I am so sorry. We have had many power cuts in here and we haven’t been able to check internet so we didn’t get your message. I am sorry. Welcome and feel free to join us,” said Lebo, Soweto Backpacker’s owner.

Born and raised in Soweto, Lebo was about my age. Every time I saw him, even at my first visit in Joburg, he was welcoming and always with a smile on his face. At his age, he has become a successful entrepreneur and has made a big difference in Soweto, giving travelers an opportunity to have a real experience and appreciation of the township, while helping the community. He began working with tourists in 1999, when he sold crafts at the Hector Pieterson memorial. Later, he would turn his family house into a hostel. Years later, he started the now popular Soweto Bicycle Tours. Although most people have the impression of Soweto as a poor and dangerous place, I truly felt safe and at home at Soweto and at Soweto Backpackers. I have stayed in a lot of hostels throughout my life as a backpacker, and Lebo and Maria (his wife who is from Sweden) have done an amazing job hosting travelers around the world. It does feel like home.

“Thank you Lebo. I will drop my backpack in the room and come out,” I wanted to crash in bed, but felt bad not to join the group.

A bunch of Soweto natives and tourists sat around the fire outside while Lebo made a barbecue.

I went to my room, the same one I had stayed out on my last visit. I couldn’t help but think of Helgel.

I wondered where in the world he was, what remote land he was exploring…

“Hi guys,” I joined the people, sitting around the fire.

“Nice to meet you. My name is Karla, where are you from?” a beautiful young girl with blue eyes, blond dreads and pale skin asked me.

“I am from Venezuela. How about you?” I asked.

“I am from Germany,” she said.

Soweto

I started talking to Karla about her travels. She was only 21-years-old. She had worked as a volunteer in Kenya. She had traveled all the way from Egypt to South Africa, crossing Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia all on her own.

I wished I had had –when her age- the opportunity to do something like that, to just take off and travel for two years. I was never able to do that. I always had to work hard at home so I could pay my travels. I always had to travel for short periods of time because otherwise I would lose the job that paid my trips. For many years while living in the USA, I couldn’t take off because if I quit my job, I would lose my work visa and therefore the green card process. To take off a year to explore has always been a dream of mine, but there has never been the right time.

“I think that what you are doing is great Karla. I really admire what you do, especially at your age. I wished I have had that opportunity,” I shared with her.

But the more I talked to Karla, then more I realized that she was one of those young backpackers who use traveling not as a way to learn about the world and experience a culture, but rather to do what she couldn’t do at home: spend days smoking cheap pot and live a lazy life without much effort or much money.

I have never taken drugs either at home or while traveling. I have never had the curiosity to even try it. It has never been my thing although I respect the people who do it. I somehow worry about Karla. She was young, traveling solo, she was beautiful, and she was high.

She would sing the same reggae song over and over again while she sucked the marihuana into her lungs.

It was sad for me to see someone so young and so free spirit with such potential wasting away an opportunity many people of her age would dream of. Despite that, I had to admire her because she definitely had some balls to have crossed Africa completely alone at her young age.

“I would like to go to Madagascar, but I am not rich,” she said. “And besides, I need more than 10 days to travel,” she said.

“Well, I am certainly not rich. I am positive you could travel around Madagascar cheaply if you do it on your own and from what you tell me about you, I have not doubt that you can do that,” I said. “Regarding the 10 days, well Karla, I certainly don’t have the time many backpackers like you have. But I will give you an advice after more than 14 years of traveling solo and more than 60 countries visited. It is not only about how much time you spend in a place, but what you do when you are in that place, how much contact you have with the locals, how much you truly experience the place, how much you know about the place before you visit and how much you get into that culture and make sense of what you previously read by experiencing it first hand,” I said to her, hoping that she would think about it.

She nodded and looked at the fire. I don’t know if she didn’t care or was too high to understand.

Sitting next to me was an older man. He was probably in his mid 40s. His name was David. He was from California.

“I am an American. I work as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. It is a horrible place. Not fun, but pays well, so I can spend a few months traveling. I earn a lot of money and I can do what I want with it,” he said with arrogance.

Although David doubled Karla in age, he seemed just as lost in his life as Karla did. He was living “his dream” yet he sounded so bitter about life at home and life in general. If you are truly happy, there is no bitterness in you. I imagined he was probably running away from something at home, and this job and this travel were an escape from that thing that bothered him so much back in USA.

Karla and David were the two people sitting next to me. I wished Helgel was there. He was positive, funny, open minded, well-informed, interesting to talk to and to listen to… a traveler who travels with a purpose not for the sake of traveling, as a way to escape from reality or for saying “I have been there.”

“Well guys I have a long day tomorrow. I’ve better go to bed,” I was indeed tired but mostly I didn’t feel motivated to hang out around them.

At that precise moment, some Soweto locals who also sat around the fire, started signing and playing the drums. I sat down again to enjoy the performance.

“This song is about love. It is about mother earth,” said the singer to me.

It was beautiful and a fresh air before going to bed.

I returned to my room, lay in bed. Tonight Soweto didn’t feel as romantic as it did 12 days ago…

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