It all stated back in late 1993 when my friend Keith left for a year in South Africa, with a grant to study education reform in post-apartheid South Africa. At his going away party he invited -no, challenged- all his friends to come visit him while there. I was single, working at a restaurant, with no real commitments to speak of. I thought this could be the opportunity of a lifetime. So I got myself a second waitress job and spent all my time working and staying home, saving every dollar I could toward realizing this dream. Hell, I even became a “human lab rat” and did pharmaceutical experimental trials to pay for the plane ticket. And so it was that on May 1st, 1994 I boarded a plane, hungover to hell, bound for Johannesburg.
My home-base was in a neighborhood called Kensington, where I was lucky to be accepted as a guest of a motley group of South Africans and Texans who shared a home known as “The Texas Embassy.” There were four of us Texans and three South Africans living there, plus the occasional friend who came from somewhere else to crash the pad. It was so much fun.
Not two days after my arrival, I was recruited by our friend Divvy to help count votes, an all-nighter me an my best bud Lee Miles pulled together. At first it was awkward, but by sunrise we had mane a bunch of friends and saved a small town’s vote from being thrown out! Our reward was to be able to attend Nelson Mandela’s Presidential Inauguration in Pretoria. I have done cool things in my life, but this still has to be the #1 coolest thing I’ve ever done.
Although I had limited funds, I was able to travel around the country a bit. I caught a ride with my roommate Michelle’s friend Roy, who was heading down to see his family in Wilderness, Northeast of Cape Town in an area known as the Garden Route. We drove south through the ochre plains of the Orange Free State, carefully avoiding the hundreds of meerkats that would cross the road in front of us. We stopped at a wonderful swimming hole in a canyon, away from anything and everyone, and the ice cold water woke us up to keep driving on. As the night fell, we ended up spending the night at a hostel in Bloemfontein, the only place we could find. Back then it was still pretty weird to see a white young man looking for a hotel room with a “coloured” person (that was the term they used from non-white non-blacks) but our luck could not have been better: the owners wife was from Tyler, Texas!
The next day we set out for the city of George and the smaller settlement of Wilderness. Nothing could have prepared me for the beauty I saw all around me.
Roy’s family were fun and generous to let me stay a few days at their home while Roy and his friend Andrew showed me the sights. What a time. I felt freer than I have ever been, so relaxed, so happy, so full of life. During the three days I spent there our motto was “Because we can” whenever we wanted to do something, anything. I loved the time I spent with them and I thank them from afar. I then left for Cape Town to meet even more of my friends’ friends. Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story.