My accent gives me away.
People then leap to the assumption I am American, which I quickly correct before they ask if this trip is my first time in the country. My response immediately induces a smile and the understandable question: “So how do you like South Africa so far”?
With a sheepish grin I confess to having seen very little beyond the boundaries of my hotel, a handful of government buildings, their internal workings and whatever sights observed through the window of the vehicle transporting us between locations in Pretoria. For these past five days in May, my experience has been limited to meetings and conversations within the confines of business rooms, hotel restaurants and the adjacent bar. The sun drops below the horizon by 5:30 in these winter months, when the working day is over, further reducing the opportunities for sight seeing. Save for the people themselves, I could have been in any small city in Europe.
There are some differences, systemic and quirky. Driving on the left hand side of the road, for example, confounds me every time I step into the vehicle. As a passenger, I find the ride disconcerting. Of course the driver navigates the streets with ease while I cringe thinking he is proceeding into the wrong lane and we are going to crash. Right turns appear too wide; left turns feel as if taking a short cut. When it is the only car on the street, I assume it is a one way; and I startle whenever another zips past in the other direction, on our right. Perhaps I would acclimatize more quickly if I were driving myself. Or not!
Had I been at the wheel when the blackout started, my response may have been questionable. On two occasions, retuning to our hotel after dark, the power kicked out across the city without forewarning or apparent cause. The South Africans did not blink an eye. Another day, another power outage. Moments later a scattering of buildings and business flickered into full illumination because they had invested into a generator for these regular occurrences. The street lights and the traffic lights (‘robots’ as per one colleague) remained unlit as drivers proceeded, traversing each intersection as a four way stop. No fuss, no horns, just carrying on. Slower movement and some longer waits, all in keeping with the expected norms. Eventually power is restored. The next day, at almost the exact time, power went out again on our trip. Yawn.
Some of the quirkiness was noticed at the hotel, my home for these five days. It operates as a small conference center with numerous public bathrooms. The set up is familiar, the bathroom signs were not.
I smiled when my search for the facilities uncovered them. Perhaps the designers were remembering their experience in meetings and conferences where coffee is consumed one after another after another out of habit and availability. All that liquid needs to be released at some point.
The predominance of instant coffee in Africa is amusing. During my time in Tanzania and again here in South Africa, instant coffee is common. And not just your regular freeze dried version, but powdered as well, all flavoured with chicory specifically for the continent.
My African colleagues recalled how the testing by large purveyors of coffee products had shown African’s preferred the additional taste and consumed it in larger numbers.
The days had been melding together and then Friday happened. At four o’clock I was officially “off the clock”. One colleague had family in Pretoria and we were invited for dinner consisting of oxtail, stump pot, roasted vegetables and salad. We left immediately to the home situated above the city to catch the sunset for the first time.
We had a very enjoyable evening of drink and conversation, exchanging stories and laughter from each of our respective countries and perspectives. Indeed, everyone with whom I have encountered has been welcoming and warm, genuinely interested in my well being and comfort. Sure there is an element of novelty, someone from Canada tends to prompt a number of questions about geography and weather, economics and politics. The interest is also in you, as a person, ensuring your time in their city, their country is enjoyable.
My remaining time will include sightseeing in Johannesburg and a one day safari, the standard itinerary of international travelers here. In these 5 Days in May I have enjoyed my interactions with the people of South Africa and with them have come to learn a great deal more of the country, one where I would excitedly return.
How will you ever know
The way that circumstances go
Always gonna hit you by surprise