Returning to South Africa, three years later

Man, it is so good to be here- and I’m not just saying that because our arrival puts an end to a two hour drive, two hour flight, three hour layover, nine hour flight, seven hour layover, and ten hour flight.

Seriously, if anyone would like to reassemble Pangea so all these places could be closer together, be my guest.

In the meantime, trying to take it all in through a sleep deprived state. The old faces. The new faces. Having Deanna see it all for the first time.

It’s been a very hard-to-believe-it’s-real experience.

Everything comes rushing back in the middle of this courtyard. Some things changed a great deal… Other things seem like they never will.

Today’s excitement was provided by Lloyd the dog. Some of these kids were more nervous around Lloyd than they were around lions.

Our first day was a mostly open one… A slow Saturday that allowed us to spend a lot of playtime with the kids. The perfect way to slide back into things.

This city has such a different personality from my own. Large, gritty, competitive, and opportunity driven. Honestly on paper it wouldn’t seem like a good fit.

This trip though, I’ve found myself simply thinking… Man, I love it here. Over and over again.

I’m thankful that this city is where my people are. And that this will be my home base whenever I’m on the African continent. Hope my next visit isn’t too far away!

On our first day and a half in Jozi, we managed to get groceries, bond with the kids, make new friends, meet with old friends, and get out to see some Jozi nightlife. It took me way longer than that to do all that the last time I was here.

So much has changed… And for the better. Uber works here now which makes it way easier to get around. Wifi access isn’t super-available, but I have much more than before.

It’s a fully different experience but I know that getting to do this with Deanna brings her into this part of my world, the one that taught me how to be present three years ago.

Our friend Max starts most of his days at four. By six he starts dropping the kids off at school. The first one is forty minutes away and he makes a total of five stops, which takes him close to two hours.

A bit after one, he begins the same process all over again to pick the kids up.

He admits it’s quite a sacrifice. He also does it to have a place to stay, since his actual wages are minimal. His hopes are to soon work in a business setting so he can save up and ultimately pursue seminary or theological studies.

I’m rooting for him.

Lately I’ve felt a whole lot of admiration for those who work hard for a purpose. It goes beyond work ethic. When I see someone put in the legitimate effort that it takes to put themselves in a good position to help provide for others, I can get behind that, and it’s something I want to be able to say I’ve done well within my lifetime.

Lindo and I bonded well when I was here last… Probably because he and I were very similar in high school. Spending more effort trying to get out of work than doing the work.

When I arrived here, I was bummed to find out he had aged out and moved away just a month prior. So close! I was looking forward to being reunited.

Then, yesterday, he happens to drop by. Much like the Lindo of old times, but also three years older like the rest of us. He definitely had his share of crazy stories over the past few years, which I got to learn about over the course of tea for four hours. Missed this guy a ton, but glad our paths crossed.

It’s been making me really happy all week to see Deanna hanging out around the center, helping with homework, and playing with the kids. Three years ago it was a place she knew by my emailed stories… Now she has stories of her own.

Honestly, I think that when a place or experience in your life shapes you so much, you’ve gotta let the people you share your life with see it. Even if it isn’t the same thing to them that it was to you, it will help that much more with understanding each other.

In the meantime, I get to enjoy sights like this for a little while longer. It’s been a good time.

I always like to say that my dream job is hosting a travel show on the Food Network (or a food show on the Travel Channel). Recently I discovered that I was doing very little to make that dream a possibility, let alone a reality.

So I made a list of recipes to master, dedicated myself to Foodspotting, and got these guys off today’s lunch menu. By the way, this isn’t even local fare here, just the strangest menu item I could find.

My take- it’s a lot like escargot… The knowledge of what you’re eating kind of takes away from the fact that there isn’t much taste and the texture isn’t exactly the greatest. It basically becomes a vehicle for whatever sauce it’s served in.

BTW, TV Networks, I can start work in February.

South Africa’s racial dynamics make being in this country a non-stop learning experience. It celebrates diversity while facing the reality that it’s people have never had an easy time coexisting.

It’s complex here, and there are so many categories and subcategories of races and tribes and heritages. It’s definitely challenged my imagination of what constitutes something like race.

Of course, I like to return the favor and offer a challenge of my own. Many South Africans haven’t met a Filipino-American before. In 48 hours I’ve been:

• A cute white guy who might know how to rap
• China (Not Chinese, the entire country of China)
• A Tanzanian warrior
• Yankee (accurate I guess, but the baseball team turns me off to the label)

We celebrated our friend Bongi’s birthday. Ever since she introduced me to Arts On Main on my first visit three years ago, she’s always been my informant on what’s fun in Joburg.

This visit has been no exception. She’s been a great source of help to Deanna and I.

I had a blast celebrating tonight in Braam. And I have the fatty bruise on my wrist from a collapsing table to robe it. I never thought I’d say this, but I now know what it’s like to be the whitest guy in the club.

After a week and a half here, I took Deanna to the airport. Unfortunately her work schedule doesn’t allow her to stay as long as I get to, but I’m so glad she got to be a part of my second visit to South Africa and see some of the kids I’ve kept telling her about.

A few things this trip has really helped me appreciate;

1- Deanna’s willingness to come along for the experience. I know getting to visit Africa was a lifelong dream of hers, and I’m glad I got to see it happen.

2 – Uber. It makes life easier in the states, but in South Africa? It’s given me an easy and affordable way to get around I could only dream about on my first visit. Plus I’ve had the most fun conversations with my Jozi drivers.

3- Getting around way more easily. My first trip was much more confined. This time, I feel like I have way more access to the city. It’s more than just the Uber thing too. I feel more directionally oriented. I know the culture much better. I feel at ease in a place where living isn’t usually easy.

“My name’s Ivin, but I was originally named Basil. Or perhaps it was Basel. Anyways, when I was registered for school there was a spelling error and they called me Baryl. I thought it sounded like a girls name so I changed it to Ivin.”
Ivin the security guard is quickly becoming one of my most favorite people in South Africa. He kind of reminds me of my stepdad, and he’s been making me lots of curry.

While at the center, I like to imagine who the staff members and characters would be if it were Hogwarts. Ivin is definitely Hagrid.

Lemme introduce you to Max. One of the guys I’ve really had the pleasure of getting to know on this trip.

This guy works hard and sends so much of what he earns to his family. He’s also brilliant. He’s given me more insight into inter-tribal dynamics than anyone else. He’s also a great role model for the guys at the center, which can’t be over valued.

I’d bring him back to the U.S. if I could. He’s kept me informed and enlightened with many great chats about race, politics, theology, and food.

The funny thing about being back at the center after three years is that if something has drastically changed, it’ll amaze me. Also, if it hasn’t changed at all, it’ll amaze me too.

When I was here last I taught Sifundo how to use my camera, and while we were playing around out front I had a moment of taking it all in and being fully there.

Then a couple days ago, I was hanging out with Sifundo atop the teenage dormitory and just like old times the camera came out and we started taking pictures in the sun.

“The goal isn’t wealth or poverty but contentment.”
—Ross Lester
Went with some of the group to a nearby church on Sunday and actually really connected with what was spoken. Trying to learn to see things through the lenses of generosity and contentment and learning how to make the most of both seasons: thin and plenty, and the in between.
South Africa gives such a unique vantage point into the economic disparity that exists in many spots around the world. I’m staying in Hillbrow which is the most densely populated mile in Africa. At night I can stare out towards Sandton, a bright light in the distance that represents the wealthiest mile in Africa. I spent most of my day in the township of Alexandria… These informal settlements are a whole different world.

This trip is teaching me so much about the complexities that come from such a disparity. Having a lot makes you susceptible to greed and having little makes you susceptible to desperation. Contentment is a good remedy on both ends.

I’ll miss these kids a lot every day.
I hope it isn’t too long before another visit to some of my favorite people in South Africa is imminent.

Side trip to Swaziland

Whenever I mentioned to my South African friends my plan for a side trip to Swaziland, they all seemed pretty interested in letting me know as much as they could about the king. My friend Max in particular gave me plenty of anecdotes about King Mswati III, the absolute ruler of Swaziland. It became apparent early on that the king has a reputation for polygamy. He’s currently at fifteen wives and counting, and in recent times has been criticized for taking a few teenage wives.

Swaziland is a pretty easy country to miss on the map. It’s a little bit smaller than the size of Delaware and is predominantly rural, agricultural, and mountainous. On a more technical note, it’s also one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, the last one in Africa, and the last one that exists for reasons beyond religious ones.

While South Africa was being colonized, Swaziland was able to hang on to a lot more independence, so while tribal cultures and kingdoms were once the norm all across the region, Swaziland became the one piece of the map where it was able to survive into modern times.

I had the chance to go last month and man… I missed the fact that it is also an extremely gorgeous country. I haven’t seen views like the ones I got to enjoy in Swaziland for a long, long time.

It was also a bit of an adventure to get there, but the above quote from The Martian is finding much more relevance to my life than I would’ve ever imagined while watching that movie.

Made it! An unpredictable journey over from Joburg and taking chances on unnamed dirt roads led to this rewarding view.

Swaziland is one of the last remaining true kingdoms in the modern day and I can understand why… I feel like the number one activity to do here is to stand on a tall rock, stretch out your arm and shout the word “behold!” That and hiking.

This country had me impressed from the get-go with its mountains. If this is how green it looks in a severe drought, I can only imagine it’s normal state. Cheers to country number thirty-nine.

Being led out on a hike by a bunch of Swazi boys in the middle of some mountain that I’m not sure even has a name.

Stopping at each of the fruit trees to pick and taste their unfamiliar produce. Sitting on rocks and staring into valleys for hours on end.

Johannesburg, in all of its chaotic fullness, is where I have people close to my heart.

There’s so much to process after this visit, that is for absolute sure. I have had so many powerful conversations, so many talks with different people, and so many things to challenge my assumptions. I’ve realized needs here that I wouldn’t have before. Things like the older kids being able to make the transition to adulthood once they leave the center. Things like the center being able to adapt and make changes as its circumstances demand.

It’s been one heck of a visit, and one I’m still mulling over a lot since my last day. I’m extremely happy I had the chance to go back, and I made the most out of this past visit. I don’t know how long it will be until I’m able to return, but I look forward to it, whenever that is.

When I left South Africa the last time, I knew I really needed to come back. For starters, I thought about all the people who must have visited before saying that they would come back, only to never have that trip materialize. I decided I needed to make good on that intention. Also, I was super aware of how quickly kids grow up and figured I didn’t want it to be too long before my next visit.

One of the most eye-opening things about this trip to South Africa has been how much could possibly change in three years. It’s nuts to see some of the kids who were really young last time much older, and several of the older ones now living out on their own. Then again, I’m the one who is now married and came back here with my wife.

So “Dragon’s Den” is basically your South African version of Shark Tank. Inventors and entrepreneurs toss their ideas at investors and defend their products.

Every week, a nearby church throws a social youth night for the kids at the centre, and to my surprise, they were hosting a Dragon’s Den Jr. contest… A really great idea, especially to introduce business concepts, etc.

This is what the guys came up with… A fully functioning speaker with a plug and auxiliary cord made mostly out of cardboard and scotch tape. Also, this thing is Bluetooth compatible and has a multicolor flashing LED light at the top. Genius!

Had a blast last night going out to dinner with my small team. Yay for Nando’s.

Hard to believe that I’ve reached my last full day in the city. I don’t fly out till late, so at least there’s still half of tomorrow, but wow, it’s never easy to leave this place.

It’ll be a bummer to leave Jozi. I’m extremely excited to be back with Deanna, but I’ll be missing everyone here too. At least this trip has assured me of one thing- my connection to Joburg, it doesn’t end here.

The boys wanted me to show off muscle… Instead I went with farmer’s tan.

This place will always be one of the hardest places to leave.

Already missing the boys and girls and staff. It was so tough having to answer “I don’t know” to everyone who asked when I’m coming. “But I’ll be thinking hard about it.” Every day that goes by is another day closer.