Lessons from my Travels: South Africa

“Some day in November in Africa.” That is the title of a section of my travel journal to South Africa. As I look back on that trip, this statement summarizes it perfectly. I wrote, “This trip has been odd. It’s been hard for me to find my bearings. I know that truth is a matter of opinion; shared truth being the way we know or recognize what’s real. But I’m having trouble realizing what’s true for me in—and about—South Africa.”

Sunday church service in Guguletu, South Africa

South Africa is a place of tremendous contrasts, and none are simply black and white, although that is there as well. It’s about poverty and wealth. Beautiful mountains and seascapes contrasted with container carton homes. An emerging vibrancy of culture and pride mixed with AIDS, tuberculosis and death. Great kindness punctuated by tragic violence. Joy and laughter interspersed with pain and sadness.

Through my travels there I saw all of that, and experienced so much more. It’s no wonder I felt so lost, so uncomfortable as I tried to assimilate what I was seeing with what I know and, at the most elemental level, who I am.

In the black townships of Capetown, our host, Kevin, took Mark, Paul and me to see the Sisters of Charity hospice center where patients of all ages had been dropped off to die, mostly alone. Babies with AIDS were three to a crib. Those who, in the final stages of dying, lay in their beds, having no one to shoo the flies away that buzzed around their faces and in their mouths. One little girl hugged me hard when we were leaving—she wouldn’t let go.

After we left we passed around the hand sanitizer—wishing it could also sanitize the images we had just seen from our hearts and minds.

A few days later in Stellenbosch, we visited wine farms with Niel, our guide. It was a delight to be introduced to so many fine wines and see the burgeoning South African wine industry as it was just gaining international recognition. At one wine farm, Niel wanted to demonstrate how to take the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword.

Now, Niel spoke Afrikaans as his first language. Since English was his second language, at times he would pause to think of the right word to use. Niel began, “I want to show you how to take the head off a…”

When he paused, Mark interjected, “A chicken? You want to show us how to take the head off a chicken?!?”

Wealth and poverty, tears and laughter—South Africa showed all that and so much more to me. To live like it matters happens only when you choose to really…live! It’s meeting life head on, seeing the bad for what it is and rejoicing in the good for what it is and is not. Life isn’t always one big joyride. If it were, you would stop growing, become bored and worse, be boring!

E.B. White wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Trying to understand that paradox is, I think, what kept me so off balance in Africa. It was hard to plan the day as I wasn’t sure if it would bring opportunities for improvement or enjoyment. Living with paradox is unsettling at times.

My lesson from South Africa is about embracing this paradox.

I hope you also can embrace this paradox, and that when you see the bad in the world, you are inspired to do something to improve it. When you see the good in your life, I hope you enjoy it.

 

Note: This post is part of a series of lessons from travels. You can also read about Italy, Alaska and Amsterdam.