We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
Click here to have future picks e-mailed to you!
Hi, Mom - We're in Jail! (or - Welcome to South Africa)
After five months traveling throughout Latin America, you'd think our team would be prepared for
anything. But our arrival in South Africa was enough to stop even the most experienced traveler
in their tracks - literally.
Everything began normally...
Sunday, June 6, 5pm
We check in for our 8pm flight - Malaysian Airlines with service to Cape Town, Johannesburg, and
Kuala Lumpur on Sunday evening.
The flight is delayed, but we're seasoned travelers now, used to problems like this. No hay problema!
Hakuna matata! Finally, after a 1/2 hour delay, the pilot tells us, in Malay, Spanish, and
English, that we're ready to take off. We rise up and over the brightly lit city of Buenos Aires
below. Good-bye Argentina!
Monday, June 7, 9:30am (But only 8 hours after we left Buenos
Aires because of the Time change! Get it?)
|Click image for larger
We are descending into Cape Town and from the window we can see beautiful views of Table Mountain. The
plane touches down in South Africa. YAY!!! We arrive in Cape Town with huge grins, having
finished the first stage of the World Trek and now beginning on the second stage.
A few moments later, at the immigration counter, the trouble begins. The immigration officer
asks what she thinks is a routine question - she wants to see our return tickets - tickets out of
The problem is - we don't have any! Part of the Odyssey is that we're going overland as
much as possible AND we're traveling for two years, so we don't have air tickets out of the
continent of Africa at all!
It's not that we were unprepared. Before leaving Argentina, we had checked with the South African
embassy in Washington D.C. and they told us not to worry, that we could get our visas on arrival.
And nobody mentioned anything about air tickets out of the country.
Hi, Mom! Mario Brothers
at 28,000 Feet (or, The ANC Awaits Us)
We have these incredible digital screens on the seatback in front of us. We can listen to
16 channels of music ranging from Latin love songs to smooth jazz to Hindi pop -OR- play mind
games like chess and arcade games like "Super Mario Brothers" -OR- read about world
headlines and watch movies. Kevin and I proceed to spend the entire flight playing with the
digital screens. I watch "A Bug's Life," a Malaysian kung-fu/CIA movie, and "At
First Sight," then start playing "Super Mario Brothers--The Lost Levels." At one
point, from 4am to touchdown, I become deeply engrossed in this anagram game where you unscramble
the names of places in the world against a 20-second timer. These stumped me at first (solutions
below): SAA MD ASLERA, BSLANAACCA, and, go figure, ETANNIRAG. Kevin plays chess.
I alternate between reading about the new Star Wars movie and the June 2 elections in South
Africa while I eat chocolate. Thabo Mbeki, the leader of the African National Congress
(Nelson Mandela's Party) won the elections by about two-thirds of the votes, with both the
Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party and the conservative Democratic Party garnering about 9% of
votes apiece. In this election, the much-beloved "Madiba," (a term of respect and
familiarity) Nelson Mandela, will step down, and foreign observers have given the process high
marks for fairness: the day itself was closely watched for any signs of abuses. Five years ago in
April 1994, South Africans held their first democratic election, with the ANC taking 62.5 per cent
of the national vote and 252 of the 400 seats in their national assembly. These numbers, however,
were less than the two-thirds the ANC needed to be able to write a new constitution without
consulting the other parties; instead, the ANC, the IFP, and the National Party constantly argued
and the political future of the country was in disarray. Now, with the ANC's clear majority, we
should be on the watch for new developments.
Now, back to Mario Brothers!
DAR ES SALAAM is in Tanzania
CASABLANCA is in Morocco
ARGENTINA is where we just were!!!
South Africa's recent stability and natural wealth draw a lot of foreigners to this country to find
work - and apparently many try stay in the country illegally. Now, the border guards are wary -
they need proof that you have "sufficient funds" and don't plan to stay in South Africa.
That proof includes outbound air tickets.
So the immigration officer doesn't care about any of our reasons or explanations. We're offered two
options - to pay a "deposit" of 4500 Rand apiece (about $800) or to buy plane tickets to
Zimbabwe. Otherwise we will be put on the next plane back to Argentina, or to the United
While we try to figure out what to do ("Do bus tickets count? We could go and buy
those..."), another flight arrives, and one guard asks us to "please wait upstairs while
we deal with these other passengers."
"Upstairs" is a tiny room with two beds and bars on the windows and doors. The guard
ushers the five of us into the room and locks the gate behind us. Inside, it feels
unquestionably like a jail cell.
We're exhausted from the trip and in a state of disbelief. There's something about carrying an
American passport that makes you feel like you have a safety bubble around you - like something
like this couldn't happen to us. But it did.
I thought of the many activists against apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning, "the state of
being apart" and the state policy of separating black and white people) who were jailed,
without a trial, for years. Just an hour off the coast from where we were, on Robbens Island,
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1963 for leading demonstrations against the "passbook
laws". These laws required all black South Africans to carry a passbook and allowed them
into exclusively-white areas for no more than 72 hours at a time. I felt a certain sense of
appropriateness that we were locked in here, "upstairs," after our first 10 minutes in
South Africa - just so give us a tiny taste of the multiple, unfair imprisonment that took place
in jails throughout the country.
Abeja and Kevin are eventually let out to make phone calls. They immediately start making collect
calls to banks, our friends in San Francisco (where it was 2:30am!!!), parents, the credit card
company, the embassy, anyone who will listen to us!
|Click image for larger
Meanwhile, Shawn, Kavitha and I try to pass the time. We take turns using the bathroom, where, for
the first time in our trip, we can actually flush toilet paper down the toilet bowl! We amuse
ourselves by doing this over and over again. We also read a message from Nelson Mandela in the
"Explore South Africa" visitor's brochure which says "...I would like to extend a
personal invitation to you to come and see for yourself the splendor of South Africa. I know
that my people will be delighted to welcome you and I think you will be enchanted by their warmth
and hospitality..." We giggle hysterically. "Enchanted by their warmth and
hospitality....IN JAIL!" we kid each other, then turn somber. This isn't fun.
|Click image for larger
|Click image |
We've been locked in this room for over an hour and our options have now gone down from two (pay money
or buy air tickets) to only one - buy air tickets. The border guard is telling us they'll deport
us back to Buenos Aires because we are taking too long to decide. "You can't stay here in
this room wasting time," she says, while we try to explain that "banks in the U.S.
aren't open yet. It's 2 in the morning there." The temperature in the room and the volume of
people's voices rise and wake me from my nap.
We finally conclude that there's nothing we can do but buy airplane tickets - on Malaysian Airlines
from Johannesburg, South Africa to Harare, Zimbabwe. It's going to cost $1500US total. That's
more than any of us spend in a month! But by now it seems like a small price to pay for getting
While Kevin goes downstairs to pay for the tickets with his credit card, the Malaysian Airlines
employees, Abdul and Sian, who are trying to help us work our way through this mess, come back
and tell us that "it's ridiculous that you have to spend all this money. Don't you have ANY
proof that you're leaving the country? We'll see if we can convince them." They return a few
minutes later saying that the immigration officials' supervisor (oooooh, now we're speaking to the
boss, that's probably because our friends back home finally got through to the US Embassy on the
phone, and the US Embassy people have been talking with the officials!) will accept a lower amount
of cash for the "deposit", which we can redeem at any South African embassy outside of
the country (to prove we left!). I am leery that we'll never see that money again, but we decide
to pool our cash and pay up the 5000R (about $850US) total that the boss is asking. Only now we
discover we're 105R short! Double-arrrrrgggghhh!
|Click image for larger
Waiting. Huddled. Conferencing.
We get the good news - the boss will accept what we have! Cheers all around! The door is
unlocked, we get our backpacks on and scurry out of there!
We wait for the receipts for our cash, as well as our passports...
...which finally come back to us--with South African entry stamps! We make it out of the border
control and set foot on South African soil, hungry, a little sleepy, and more importantly,
relieved at having survived our first African adventure! We made it!
Stay tuned for more adventures as we spend two weeks in South Africa and then go on to our next
site visit for six weeks - Zimbabwe!
Monica - Apartheid, The State of Being Apart: An Outsider's
Kavitha - Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa
Meet Monica |
Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests
Teacher Zone |