Lessons from South Africa...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when you travel you’ll feel that you have gone just about as far as you can go before circling back around again on the other side of the globe.  My recent trip to South Africa was exactly like that---16 hours on the way there, 18 hours on the way back.  Between the many hours and changes of time, and days that turn to nights and then back to days again, you end up wondering where you really are anyway.  And this time around it was such a blur---so many hours seem even more when you end up on the ground for only four days.

But four days is still plenty of time to make observations, and in South Africa, you can make a lot.  Of all the places I go to for work, South Africa is by far and away my favorite.  Maybe precisely because it is so far.  I'm hoping that one day soon I get to come back all of this way, perhaps even one day with you, to stay in this beautiful country for a bit longer, so that I can really get to know this part of the world that I otherwise have so little exposure to.  In the meantime, I've taken these things home with me:

  • Always stop for a sundowner: the first time I really saw this was during my first trip to South Africa when I went on safari (all by myself no less!) No matter where we were driving, when the hour for sunset came, the South Africans were always insistent that we pull over the car, stop what we were doing and have a drink.  This trip, when I was mostly at the hotel and meetings, it was no different.  I was alone again, but seemingly everyday, people were having a moment of their own, usually over a glass. I don't know if it is meant to celebrate a day passed, or whether it is intended perhaps as a moment of gratefulness.  But I've come to love this small acknowledgement of another day that we have been lucky enough to have.
  • Anyone can talk about the weather: When you're in a place that's different, and other potential topics plucked from the news or the social fabric might be perceived as unwelcome when broached by an outsider, you can never fail with the weather.  In Johannesburg, it rained every late afternoon when I was there, right around the same time.  A conversation about that day's rain, how it compared to the previous days, whether it would rain again tomorrow always seemed to fill any conversational void I had, no matter the person or their relation to me.  When in doubt, bring up the weather.
  • Galleries somewhere else can inspire you: I didn't have much time to do anything other than my work on this trip, but I was lucky to have a few well-known galleries as I was out and about town in meetings.  The great thing about galleries is that they don't take long to see, and they're free. So while I didn't have the time to be a full-on tourist on my trip, I did make time to squeeze in twenty minutes here, half an hour there to pop into galleries.  You can learn a tremendous amount about art from a place, the topics its driven by, the way media of art differs just by taking a few minutes to look.  And chances are, you'll leave inspired to see things differently.
  • Every city has a quiet corner: Any city that you don't know, Johannesburg included, can grow to be overwhelming when you don't know your way around.  It's true everywhere.  Sometimes cities give us the opportunity to blend in seamlessly, almost as if no one sees us.  But sometimes cities draw attention to us---in my mind, I can sometimes see a myriad of red arrows pointing at me, screaming to others that I don't belong and I don't know where I'm going.  But any city has a quiet spot---it might be a garden, it might be a coffee shop.  If ever you feel like you don't belong, just find your quiet spot, and recompose.  And every city always looks quiet from up above---if you can't find anywhere else, just go to the highest spot you can find.  You'll always find quiet there.
  • Together is better: I had so many people say this to me on trips I've made to South Africa.  In a country that is still working through so many differences that history has left them, when people tell me that despite everything, "together is better", then it serves as a good reminder to me to make sure that I apply that principle in my own life.

All my love,

Mom

Ps  - And in case you might be wondering...no, that's not a real hippo.  It's a hippo I saw at a gallery!