I was looking through my South Africa photos trying to decide on what to share next when I got frustrated. I didn’t want to just write a post about a safari or cool activity I did, I really wanted to share with everyone the feeling that I get when I’m in South Africa. It’s so much more than seeing a giraffe in the wild or eating some biltong; it’s an all-consuming spirit that I don’t think I’ve adequately portrayed. To try to get to that spirit, to the heart of the South African experience for me personally, I want to try a mental exercise. In this exercise I wrote down the first five words that came to mind when I think of South Africa and expounded on what they mean to me. With any luck, I will have achieved my goal of not just telling you what I saw, did and ate, but what I felt. And that, that feeling is truly the reason why the country is like a Siren, calling me back.
1. Golden – The Golden Hour is how I visually always remember South Africa, whether it is along Camps Bay or in the bush. The time of day just before sunset has always been a blessing for photographers everywhere, but in South Africa it is especially powerful. The soft, warm light embracing a zebra standing tall in the grass in Kruger National Park, ears alert for the slightest sound is heart stopping. The sun fleeing into the sea around Cape Town as massive tankers float by is nearly indescribable. Even the street signs in Johannesburg become more crisp and interesting. South Africa is a country of scenes, and all of them benefit from the golden hue the sun throws down as it begins its long walk into night. For me, this is always how I first think of South Africa and it always makes me smile.
2. Honest – South Africans aren’t typical, a fact I think they’ll happily attest to. Instead of hearing whitewashed stories of progress and change, I’m always thrilled to engage in conversation with them because they’re always honest. This is not something all countries share. So many times I’m fed politically correct BS as a foreigner, some people don’t want to share the foibles of their country with an outsider. This is not the case in South Africa. While they will gladly take credit for the great acts being done, they don’t shy away from the problems either. And they have an ample supply of both. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 20 years since the end of apartheid and the creation of a new nation. This is not a long time and yet the progress South Africa has made is amazing, shocking really. But there have been growing pains and still more will come. It’s a complex country that as an outsider is difficult if not impossible to comprehend, but as visitors we sense this complexity and respect it. Even more, I respect everyone I’ve ever met in South Africa for their unfailing ability to show me the best of their country, but to not fear the problems either.
3. Joyful – There are few places in the world where a true love of life is on display as it is in South Africa. I’m not sure if it’s a result of finally embracing genuine democracy or if it’s always been a part of the country’s soul, but everyone I’ve met has had a certain respect of and admiration for life. This shines through in every other aspect of the country, from the food to walking around town. It’s an infectious joy, one that is impossible to ignore and one that soon latches on to even the casual visitor and promises to never let go. What really amazes me is the joy on the faces of those who arguably have little about which to be happy; those who live on dollars a day and struggle just to survive. Yet their faces always seem to be the most joyful, as if they’ve been made privy to a special secret about life that eludes the rest of us.
4. Proud – I’m beginning to see a trend here; so far most of these words describe the people of South Africa and not physical locations or places. That’s entirely appropriate I think, and I’ve written about it before. The country is special, yes, but I think it’s not because of elephants, mountains or the sea. I am certain this feeling of awesomeness comes from the people who call South Africa home. I’ve been to many countries around the world and sadly, some of the people I’ve met don’t particularly like where they live. I have never heard those words uttered from a South African. Quite the contrary, everyone professes a deep love of their nation and even those living abroad pine for their homeland. This pride, this love is inescapable and clearly indoctrinates the visitor, as it has with me. It’s nice to travel in a country where everyone wants to show you something new and different; to show off and demonstrate to an outsider why they love living there so much. I’m used to being surrounded by that feeling here in the US, but it really is an all too rare occurrence around the world. If you don’t believe me just find the nearest South African and ask them what they love most about their country. If the conversation lasts less than an hour I would be shocked.
5. Graceful – I was surprised when this word popped into my head, but the more I reflected on it the more appropriate it seemed. The term means many things to me. It refers to the antelope leaping through the savannah as it flees the sound of the Jeep’s engines. But the next image that comes to mind is the rocky curves of Table Mountain and the peninsula as seen from Robben Island. Finally, it’s also how the nation carries itself, even through times of change and upheaval. South Africa overall has had a very dramatic history, one that few countries would be able to handle. And yet, here they are, alive and well and always looking forward. That takes great force of will, but also grace; grace of spirit, grace of action and grace of heart. It’s a philosophy bordering on fatalism, but with a positive twist. It’s as if that leaping antelope or elusive kudu has infected the rest of the nation, no, it has taught the rest of the nation how to move forward and how to best accept whatever comes next.