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Homecomings

Homecomings

Despite hearing the question almost everywhere I go, I always shy away from picking a favorite country. Coming back to South Africa, however, I remember how much I love this one. I don’t have a single favorite country, but the Rainbow Nation is definitely one of the best.

Staying in Cape Town for three weeks back in 2005, I did all of the usual Capetonian activities. I climbed Table Mountain, I made the journey to Robbin Island, I headed out to Stellenbosch for wine tasting. All highly recommended, and if you’re making a life list of things to do before you die, spending a couple of weeks in the Republic of South Africa is probably as good as anything else you could put down.

Today I’m in Johannesburg, a city I’ve never really been to before. I’ve spent four months in East London, three weeks in Cape Town, three days in Pretoria, and countless transits through JNB airport – but until now I’d never been to Jo’burg, or Josie as It’s known here.

I finally made it, in between my Round-the-World flights to Mauritius and Namibia. I don’t have a lot of time here (I usually focus on countries that are new to me), but since it’s my first visit, I try to use the time well.

Specifically, I’m writing these notes in Nelson Mandela square, the heart of the upscale Sandton district. In the nearby shopping centre I pass by the Seattle Coffee Company at Exclusive bookstore. In the ancient year of 2005, Jolie and I sat at the same café (albeit in Cape Town), enjoying life in South Africa and unaware that Seattle would be our home one year later. Before another three year cycle ran out, Seattle is no longer home – but seeing the Coffee Company reminds me of several things at once.

For East London, I remember learning to run long distances. I ran a half marathon the year before, but until East London I didn’t think of myself as a serious runner. There wasn’t a lot going on there, and four months is a long time – so I started running every day. Forty minutes, sixty minutes, ninety minutes – I kept increasing the distance and going further out each time.

For Cape Town, I remember the equally vigorous experience of trying to visit every coffee shop in the V&A Waterfront over the course of three weeks. It was surprisingly difficult – the place is filled with coffee shops – but I managed to persevere. In between the coffee shop tour there was Table Mountain, the wine farms, and the job I was supposed to be doing during the day.

Here in Nelson Mandela square in Johannesburg, even though it’s technically new to me, I remember Pretoria, sitting in JNB waiting in transit to fly to Uganda, waiting to fly to the tiny kingdom of Lesotho, and waiting to fly to London to leave Africa for a long absence that began in 2006. Coming here again this week, I decide, is like coming home.

Other Homecomings

It’s not only South Africa – lots of cities feel like home to me now, but in different ways. In all of my comings and goings, I enjoy different things about each location. After a long journey, I typically watch the first day pass in a blend of nostalgia and confusion. In a haze of jet lag I end up taking the wrong bus, getting off at the wrong stop, or trying to pay with the wrong currency.

But then after a few days, I settle in. Hong Kong doesn’t feel like Taipei anymore. I stop trying to speak French in a Spanish-speaking country. The workings of the public transport system sink back into my brain. And then I leave again, but not before establishing a rapport with my temporary home.

For example, I’ve traveled in and out of Brussels more than 12 times now. Most of the time, I have at least one full day in transit due to the irregular flight schedules to Africa, where I’m usually headed next. Each time I have the ritual of getting lost while walking on the cobblestones with my bag, usually at 6:00 a.m. and often in the rain.

The first three times this happened, I got frustrated and angry with myself. The fourth time I expected it, so my stress level was much lower. By the time I lost count of my visits to Brussels, I had one miracle trip where I found my hotel with no problems. It wasn’t raining, and I even made it there at the decent hour of 10:00 a.m. Something didn’t feel right about not getting lost, so I was suspicious of Brussels for the rest of the day.

In Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore are my jumping off points. In Hong Kong, I stay at a 10th floor guesthouse in Kowloon for $50 a night, which is great for being in the center of everything. I was skeptical on my first visit – most hotels cost $150 or more in the same district – but it was perfect. I’ve been back three or four times since.

In Singapore I stay at the YMCA and walk superstitiously around the Starbucks across the street. The last time I was there, the YMCA was booked up. Later on I passed by it on a long walk up Orchard Road. I stopped for a moment and looked inside. All of a sudden I remembered a ton of details from my last stay more than a year ago: what the breakfast voucher looked like, the kid in the elevator, the wifi password, and so on. That’s what home is like, I guess. Or maybe I just remember strange things.

Back in South Africa

When writing about travel, I try to stay away from stereotypes, positive or negative. Regardless of whether the stereotypes are rooted in fact, using them to exaggerated effect is a sure sign of a novice writer. That said, it’s hard to miss the obvious fact about where I am: South Africans are certainly among the most friendly and hospitable people in the world. This, my friends, is just the way it is.

You don’t ask for something here without greeting someone and being greeted warmly in return. “Welcome back to South Africa,” the transit guy at the airport says over and over to each arriving passenger, and it sounds like he really makes it.

Here in the city I order a cappuccino, but nearly forget to greet the server in the proper fashion before asking for it. Better fix that before traveling onwards, Chris, because being friendly is a value that many people here refreshingly choose as one of their highest.

Thanks, South Africa. You’re a good place to come home to. I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long.

Where is home for you? Does any other place feel like home — even if you don’t live there?

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Nelson Mandela Square Image by Srippon

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23 Comments

  • Dee Wilcox says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Chris! I haven’t been to any of those places, but reading about your experiences there make them seem more real to me. I feel that way about many places in the US, and I hope to one day feel at home in so many places across the pond.

  • Man… a whole bunch of places feel like home to me 🙂

    I live in Dundee, Scotland; but Edinburgh is also like a home to me – I used to go there twice a week for years and I know parts of it really really well.

    As far as foreign places go – maybe Las Vegas and Seattle – I love both of ’em 🙂

  • Jude Boudreaux says:

    Vienna. Without a doubt. Arriving there was like a homecoming and walking around the lovely city and countryside were invigorating. Sitting at a coffeeshop I immediately felt like this was a place I could live the rest of my life. If I got a job offer in Vienna, it would take me 24 hours to be packed and ready to board a plane.

  • Audrey says:

    Having been on the road for the last 2+ years without a “home”, I appreciate returning to places I already know for that feeling of familiarity and sense of belonging. These places currently include Prague, Czech Republic (lived there for five years), Tallinn, Estonia (served as a Peace Corps volunteer) and Bangkok, Thailand (visited a dozen times and always stay at the same place).

    In these cities I don’t have to use the map for every turn, can hop on and off public transport without fear of getting lost, know a bit of the language (with the exception of Thailand), and already have a favorite restaurant or cafe. It’s the little things that make that feeling of home.

  • Phil says:

    I lived in South Africa 1977-1984 in a town called Germiston just outside Jo’burg (I was 10 and left when I was 17). At the time apartheid was still official and it showed, it didn’t seem a friendly place a lot of the time and the racism didn’t make sense to me and my family who were English were racism hadn’t been officially been government policy since the 50’s.

    I have never been back even though one of brothers stayed in South Africa when we returned to the UK. I did miss the sunshine , etc but I could never be comfortable with the underlying racism. My brother embraced it and has a black african maid who is ‘lucky to have a job’ in fact his children were raised by cheap labour. This is not a slight on the maid because I had lots of friends raised by these women and they were truly beautiful people (the maids not the friends).

    I later went on to study racism and apartheid in particular at university . The phrase ‘slegs blankes’ will always come to mind, it means ‘whites only’. I do think about visiting my brother but the country gets bad press in terms of violence and crime (stories from my brother about being carjacked) have put my wife off going.

    We moved to New Zealand in 2000 and it is a truly a beautiful place where the historical grievances of the past are being addressed and whilst the system isn’t perfect it is much better than most former colonies.

    This is just my personal experience and I know South Africa has many beautiful places and people and don’t wish to put people off having their own experience.

  • Diana says:

    San Diego. I was born in San Diego but we moved away by the time I was two. I swear I remember mission bells from when I was a baby, and the smell of the salt air.

    Even though I have returned regularly over the years, the best memories I have are before I could speak. Warm sun, salt air, the quiet! (this was 1953-55), and the Pacific ocean. Born just blocks from the ocean, I remember its pulse as if it were my own heartbeat.

    When I go there, I am home.

    You are truly lucky to have so many memories return to you as you travel.

  • Mo says:

    Hi Chris,

    as a SAfrican who actually lives in Johannesburg,its nice to encounter a positive opinion.It has its charm. We have no ocean,no table mountain to entice the tourists but my gosh,we have plenty of spirit.

    I say this sitting in a cafe, in Cape Town,loving life by the sea.

  • CathD says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Chris – not least because I’m a South African currently away from home. Even though my husband and I have chosen to be nomads for a few year (or as long as we enjoy it), there’s still a sense that South Africa is home! And you’re right: in spite of our crazy history (or maybe because of it), the people in SA have a wonderful, genuine warmth.

  • Angela says:

    Hi Chris – thanks for your post. While you’re in Jo-Burg, find out about the awesome Roundabout PlayPumps which deliver free clean water through children playing – founder Trevor Field and the first factory are in Jo’Burg – we visited to find out more and loved SA as much as you do. The Case Foundation, founded out of Google, love the PlayPumps too and are supporters, as are we.

  • moom says:

    I’ve never been to South Africa – only African country I’ve been to is Tunisia and it would be great to visit one day, especially to see the national parks. I don’t doubt that most people are very friendly but one always hears about violence and crime in connection with South Africa including from South Africans who no longer live there of whom I’ve met plenty in Israel and Australia. Is this really an issue for people just visiting the country?

  • Chuck says:

    Thanks for the information on South Africa. It was never really a place I thought about visiting. This is going on the list now!

  • Karen says:

    Nice article! South Africa is definitely on my list of places to visit. In terms of feeling like home, I think that places start to feel like that once you’ve been somewhere maybe 5 times? By that time, you kind of know how mass transit works, remember the customs, and stuff like that. I live in Portland, OR, and places that feel like home are places I’ve lived (Calgary, Ottawa), and places I’ve traveled to frequently (Tokyo, Paris).

    To Audrey, I went to Tallinn last summer, and I loved it!!! I had higher expectations of Helsinki, but I like Tallinn way more.

  • Carl Nelson says:

    Montreal still feels like home to me even though I haven’t lived there for over a year. I am going back for a few days in March and it’s probably the most exciting thing to look forward to.

  • Chris says:

    Hi all, I have almost zero internet access this week (going to Swaziland, etc.) so I can’t really participate in the comments — but feel free to continue the conversation as you’d like. Have a great week.

  • Michael says:

    Home? Good question as the closest thing I’ve had to an address is my XX@YYY.

    At least in Asia, I’d have to say home is Taiwan. Perhaps because it was the first taste of life abroad. Not just visiting, but living in vivid, what have I gotten myself into technicolor.

    I’ve just returned after five months on the mainland. The differences are profound. The mainland is all corners and elbows, aggressive and impersonal. Taiwan; even the subway is like a synchronized school of fish. Things may move fast (especially on two wheels), but without brittle aggression. Here in Taiwan the thread that connects is palpable.

  • Nuno Marques says:

    Also in 2005 I spent 4 months in Cape Town, and I understand your feelings about South Africa. It’s great! Last month I was in Australia, which I also recommend.

  • Kate says:

    It’s always the place that I’ve settled in currently that’s home for me. Presently, that would be China. Whenever I step off the plane and come back to my own apartment, I breathe a sigh of relief and amidst people whose language and culture I never fully understood, I say, “I’m home.”

  • Peter Levin says:

    I am originally from Ukraine, I feel home as soon as get off the plane. I don’t know if that always be like that, but I am planning my next trip for July and will see how feels this time. Totally enjoying the feeling of coming back to the place I was born.

  • Hi Chris,

    I was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, but have been living in South Africa since I was 10 (I’m 40 this year so for nearly 30 years).

    I really enjoy your blog and its one of only three I subscribe to. Following your world travels I was sorry to see you had been here already as I would love to have had the opportunity to meet you. Like most of Africa this country of ours is such a kaleidoscope, a dichotomy in so many ways.

    Its at once one of the most wonderful places to live, and one of the worst. The people are indeed friendly and warm and we truly deserve our “Rainbow Nation” moniker. As a South African I love nothing more than to show visitors a good time and the “real” SA. I have also travelled the world a fair bit, working and visiting, and its hard to beat our lifestyle.

    But there is also the frustration of the mix of first and third world. Much of our population is unemployed, poorly educated, and living very close to the bread line. This is partly, maybe mostly, the result of apartheid which actively sought to keep large parts of the population uneducated and disenfranchised.

    But that is not all of the picture. Zimbabwe was returned to the indigenous peoples a rich nation with a well educated population. Look where it is today. Throughout Africa there are many “Zimbabwes” of various concentrations.

    Its also the result of tribalism, and individualism. Its about poor selection in government leadership. Like most of Africa we can be our own worst enemy. Corruption is rife and individualism often takes precedence over the needs of our fellow citizens. We have beautiful parks and wildlife sanctuaries and yet I often see wealthy people in expensive cars toss empty fast food cartons out of the window both in midtown and in the country.

    South Africans will give the shirt off their own back for a needy person, and kill someone for a cell phone. We elect popular over capable people and suffer the consequences.

    Its hard to explain but I keep thinking of the phrase “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. South Africa is the best place on earth to live and visit, and the opposite too.

    I am waffling on but I am passionate about this country of ours, how great it is, and how much greater is could be. It truly could be the best place on earth to live and so nearly is.

    If any of your readers ever visit they should drop me a line. I live on a private game farm in Zululand and would love to show them the real SA and “all it can be”.

    Enjoy your travels.

    Richard Howes
    African to the core

  • Sista says:

    Ahhh… Swaziland, now that’s a gem. Aids and Poverty Problems yes, but beauty and incredible culture and people, yes yes yes.

    Thanks for your post on South Africa. It’s a very special country.

  • Carl Muller says:

    I live in Pretoria, land of braaivleis and Chevrolets. I support the Bulls, but was born near Kimberley.
    I have left Pretoria 4 times and came back because it is home. The other place that is home away from home is Jerusalem.
    Presently my daughter lives there working as a volunteer.
    I plan to go and live in the countryside on a farm as I get older. I grew up one.
    But Pretoria is my home. I work here (from home) and enjoy the area tremendously.

  • K.Koena says:

    Hi Everyone.

    Thanks Chris for the great post, really enjoyed it.
    I’m sitting here in England just 3 days since my wife, son and I came back from our 2 week visit from South Africa. Since we arrived we could feel the difference in the atmosphere, the busy lifestyle of the English, the mind your own business attituted, the depressing wet and cloudy weather. I’m South African, my wife is from Eastern Europe. It was not long when we were sitting at the exact spot you were sitting, even taking a picture with the Nelson Mandela statue.

    The best part of it all was arriving to South Africa, feeling the plane touching the African soil, seeing a lot of people hard at work getting ready for the 2010 visitors. When we walked out we were greeted by 3 guys at the door, smiling and saying “welcome back home”, that made me smile. Through customs the lady was soo friendly unlike arriving to the twisted and bitter staff of Heathrow, while she was checking our passpost she was reminding me of the local food that I have missed and after chuckling with my son we were on our way out. We were then greeted by the Warm weather outside and a chance to see what’s been happening while stuck on traffic on our way home. The roads were being done, the rail track for the Gautrain was being done, upon entering Soweto we saw the newley buit FNB Staduim that’s been done to a Wold Class standard.

    I am Happy to say that I have seen a HUGE difference that’s been made in South Africa, people are still as vibrant as ever warm and welcoming, the crime has dramatically decrease too as jobs have been created, criminals in jail and the corrupt gervenment officials have now also been put down. It’s just a few years ago when South Africa has been freed from the past apartheid and from where it’s came from, I think it’s done pretty well but even so there is still quite alot to improve on.

    I’m proud to be South African and South Africa is where I will settle, I only see England as a place where I work, even so…for a short while now that I’m ready to come back home and make a difference to improve our Country.

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