The summer of 2006 was not my finest hour. There was one light that I kept turning to over and over again during those difficult months – Nelson Mandela’s book Long Walk To Freedom. I bought it as I prepared for a class trip to South Africa with my business school friends the following March and it changed my life. From the moment I started that book, I committed myself to living my life as fully as possible in every single moment. I would never again say that something was impossible. He showed all of us that sheer will and the refusal to give up is enough to accomplish anything. Anything. To this day, that trip to South Africa is my favorite trip of all time. I knew when I left that I’d return there many times over in my life. It’s one of the very few places I’ve considered living if I ever live outside of the U.S. It is a magical country with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
When I heard the news of Mr. Mandela’s passing yesterday, I was home writing. My eyes immediately teared up and my heart felt heavy. Tears of gratitude mixed with tears of sadness. His light was so bright that I thought it would go on forever. And in many ways, it will. His light is alive in every person inspired by his actions and words. Against all odds, he shifted the world toward justice, acceptance, and fairness. Through his enlightenment, he enlightened all of us. How lucky we are to have had someone so good with us for so long.
Today I went to the New Museum of Contemporary Art with my friend, Allan. There’s a South African photography exhibit by David Goldblatt on display there that I wanted to see. On the third floor, the photographs are dire. “Is all of South Africa a desert, Christa?” Allan asked me. In the photos the land has been reduced to rubble, laid barren by years of struggle and negligence. “Where is the hope?” Allan asked.
We then made our way up to the fourth floor where there were a series of before and after photographs. Barren land had regrown some. South Africa seemed a little more green, not teeming with life, though certainly much improved. I felt a small flicker of hope.
I went to South Africa about 2 years ago and though I had a series of unfortunate incidents, I also had a set of really incredible circumstances that endeared me to that country and its people. I’m sure I’ll return some day soon. While there seems to be no hope in the structures of shanty towns that can be found throughout the country, there is a great deal of strength and ambition in the eyes of South Africans. They seem to always be looking up and over, at something brighter and better in the distance.
The handful of before and after photographs got me to thinking about how hope and life can regenerate without any outside influence. The first law of thermodynamics involves the conservation of energy and it states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. In Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, he reveals to us that while the first law of thermodynamics holds true, energy can transform into mass, and vice versa. As I viewed the photos of South Africa, particularly the before and after photos, I thought about Einstein’s theory and how it applies to broader circumstances outside of science.
It seems to me that the re-growth of life, mass, could be due to the fact that energy, hope, cannot be created nor destroyed. It just is, then, now, and always. While it may change forms and go into hiding from time to time, we can be sure that it is always there, available to us if only we have the insight to recognize it.
It’s early in the morning and I am up typing this article because the jet lag is still messing with me. I just returned on Tuesday from my first trip to South Africa. When I met South Africans and they asked how I liked their country I would say that I was struck by the similarity between Johannesburg and big U.S. cities. They would laugh sheepishly and say things like “not everywhere is like that” or “those are nice areas but that’s not the real South Africa.” For our own safety, we traveled from the five-star hotel to the tour bus to the immaculate office building to the five-star restaurant and back again. During the whole South Africa trip, I kept wishing that we could see the “real” South Africa.
Before I go throwing wishes like this out to the Universe, I should put qualifiers on them. Instead of saying “I wish I could see the real South Africa”, I should have said “I wish I could see the real South Africa surrounded by friends with my passport in hand.” On Friday the 16th, the day before my 31st birthday, I got my wish, unqualified. Somewhere between the Cape Town and Johannesburg airports, my passport was stolen, lost, or evaporated into thin air. When I got to the international departure gate in Johannesburg, the pocket where I kept it was unlatched and everything else was in that pocket minus the passport. I panicked. The friend I was traveling with kept counseling me to breathe. “Don’t worry, we’ll find it. It has to be here.” No passport.
I followed the irritated customs official around the corner where I met a gruff, unfriendly man who informed me that there was no way I was getting on any plane without a passport. This after I just heard him berating another woman who had apparently been in the country illegally, from Zimbabwe. “I’ll arrest you myself if you ever set foot in South Africa again.” Emotionally, she was in much better shape than I was. I pleaded my case and he said “I don’t even know you are who you say you are. You are not getting on that plane.” I couldn’t help noticing the irony: I wanted so much to go home and the other woman hoped to never see her home again. I asked about the possibility of being deported back to the U.S. to which he barked, “Go talk to your embassy.”
There were many people from the airlines to the police officers to random travelers who saw how upset I was, who tried to help me. The bottom line was my flight was going back to the States with my friends and my luggage, and without me. At this point, the only people who could help me get home had just left the U.S. Embassy for the weekend and I’d be on my own, or so I thought, until Monday morning at 8am.
After finding hotel accommodations, I collapsed into bed, very tired and very lonely. The next morning, I set out to get passport photos to take to the embassy on Monday morning. The front desk at my hotel had no idea where I could go so I toddled down the road ways and found another hotel, much more expensive than mine, and asked the front desk there if they could help me.
They directed me to Hans, a very kind, 9th generation South African, who owned a studio in the very back corner of a shopping center about 15 minutes away. He ran the studio with his son, Whimpy, and they were both very interested in my life in America and how I ended up in Pretoria. Hans was thrilled when I told him that my name is Christa, the name of the first woman he ever fell in love with, and that I was from New York, a city he has always dreamed of. Actually, he’s been dreaming of Hoboken because he idolizes Frank Sinatra. I didn’t want to disappoint him by telling him that Hoboken is actually in New Jersey and that I had never actually been to Hoboken, so when he asked if it was beautiful and if everyone there looked like Frank Sinatra I said “of course!” He was delighted to hear this.
Hans and Whimpy show me pictures of their family and then Hans asked to see my left hand. “A nice girl like you, not married? Why not?”
“I just haven’t met the right guy yet.”
“Good. Better to wait for the right guy than marry the wrong one. That would just be a mess.” I nod in agreement.
“How old are you?”
“Actually, I’m 31. Today.”
“Today’s your birthday?”
“And you are alone in South Africa?”
“Whimpy, come on, we’re taking Christa to lunch.”
They gave me my passport photos free of charge and off we went to lunch in another shopping center close by where I would also be able to pick up a few changes of clothes for the weekend. Hans quizzes me some more on New York, telling me about all the books he’s read on the topic. “You should really come see New York for yourself,” I said. “You’d love it.” “No, no. I can’t,” he replied. “Why not?” “I like the way New York looks in my mind and I don’t want to be disappointed.”
I was sad to hear this, though I understood his point. I thought about all the times that I had been disappointed by a place or a person or an event, though I have also been surprised an equal number of times to find that some places and people greatly improve upon acquaintance. After lunch, I told Hans that I hope someday he gets to Hoboken and meets a lot of people just like Sinatra. They wished me a happy birthday again and went back to their car while I went shopping.
After what now seemed like the two longest days of my life, Monday morning rolled around and I was off to Johannesburg in a hired car that the hotel arranged for me. After about two hours in rush hour traffic, I got to the main gate of the embassy. The guards outside informed me that because I had a laptop and a digital camera, I was not allowed on consular grounds. They couldn’t check the items for me either. My frustration reached its pinnacle and I plead my case with a sense of urgency that surprised even me. A kind American couple in line behind me offered to hold the items for me in their car, parked just across the street.
Kathryn and John Grabowski have been in Africa since 1983. They met in the Peace Corp and now live in Swaziland where John works for Save the Children and Kathryn is a school teacher. With them, is their 9 month old adopted son, Zahkele. In Zulu, Zahkele means “to do something useful with one’s life.” Zahkele’s mother died from AIDS and was turned over to the state. At the time, Kathryn was volunteering in the orphanage where he was being kept, and noticed that he was losing weight rapidly, not eating, and not making a sound. He was near catatonic, and Kathryn decided that she had to take him home. He tested negative for HIV and she and John began the very slow, painful, expensive process of adopting an African baby.
In the two hours that we were all at the embassy, I learned about their Peace Corp days and their adventures living in Africa. Little Zahkele played and laughed, keeping us entertained as we waited for our respective sets of paperwork to be processed. Zahkele has gained back all the weight he lost and then some, now alert, smiling and crawling around at a rapid clip. It was amazing to me that a little love and nutrition could save a life. He was one of the lucky ones. There are many more babies just like him who aren’t lucky enough to find their own Kathryn and John.
After leaving the embassy and retrieving my laptop and camera, Kathryn and John helped me find a cab and negotiate a price to the airport. “If you ever want to see Swaziland, please stay with us.” I promised I would. On the way to the airport, I thought about all the kind people I had met on this side-trip that I never intended to take. I felt so lucky to have met them, even if the original situation had caused me so much distress. I got my wish – I got to see the real South Africa – and it was more than worthwhile. A quote from Scarlett O’Hara ran in my mind over and over again. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”