The Serpent in the Garden of Eden

The Sargo crew took a break from Penobscot Bay sailing for a two-week trip to South Africa!  I was honored to be invited to race at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship Race in Nelson Mandela Bay and simply couldn’t say no! It was certainly an experience of a lifetime.  For an overview of the trip you can check out some videos we made and posted to YouTube

South Africa is a country of contrasts. As a tourist it would be pretty easy to gloss over the troubles and challenges this country has much to offer those with Euros or Dollars to spend. The impressions below are in no way meant as a deterrent for anyone from someday traveling to South Africa; but rather a reflection of the reality that there is always two sides to every story – a lesson even more important in today’s highly divided culture.

The first thing most people asked us when they heard we were going to South Africa was “But isn’t it dangerous?”  The US State Department labels South Africa with a Level 2 travel advisory; suggesting that travelers exercise increased caution due to crime, civil unrest, and drought.  Upon arriving in Cape Town, we immediately noticed two things: barbed wire fences and spectacular scenic vistas.  Coastal South Africa is spectacularly beautiful.  The mountains, the oceans and Mediterranean climate immediately invited us to imagine hikes, mountain biking, beach combing and generally roaming around outdoors.  However, the constant reminder of the barbwire fences lurked at every turn making us wonder what was “safe” and what wasn’t. In Port Elizabeth, we rented a private family home in the “suburbs” and never once saw a single person simply out for a walk.  In the end, we mostly kept to tourist areas and never had any issues but were left with an overwhelming sense of awe by South Africa’s beauty and sadness for those who live there under the shadow of fear.

The next trip highlight was the food!  Friends had told us the food was great – and they were right.  Even the airports in South Africa had good food to offer. So much better than the expensive processed foods sold in the US.  We were particularly impressed with the “kids meals” that were simply smaller version of adult meals that shockingly – had flavor, color, and a variety of real food ingredients.  To top it off, the food prices were less than HALF of what we are used to spending eating out in Maine.  An excellent cappuccino was about $1.50!  We never spent more than $120 including VAT tax, and tip for a dinner for 6 people that included beer and wine!

It was SUPER CHEAP if you had US dollars to spend.  But if you earn Rands (South African currency) food isn’t so cheap after all.  Here’s a simple example: That $1.50 cappuccino to a South Africa costs about 20 rand. Which also happens to be the minimum hourly wage.  Using that quick benchmark- that would be the equivalent of a $7.25 foamy hot beverage – not so cheap after all.  If you adjust the cappuccino price with the average household net adjusted disposable income in the US ($44,049)  vs. South Africa ($10,872) the relative cost of the coffee goes from $1.50 to $6.08.

Another revelation we had around food in South Africa was from a comment our safari guide made.  He quietly listened to us wax poetically about the wonderful food in South Africa and when we were finished said “sure – but you have food security, I’m constantly worried that our entire agricultural system could collapse at any time.”  He was referring to the current political debate about how to redistribute productive farming land help by white South African in an attempt right the wrongs of the Apartheid system. Currently there has been talk about implementing expropriation without compensation due to what many South African feel is all too slow progress toward equality.  Most nuanced news reports on this topic point out that the idea of simply taking away land from white farmers is just “talk” and political posturing but it understandably has many people worried and feeling scared especially in the historical shadow of what happened in Zimbabwe under similar circumstances.

We were treated like Kings and Queens in South Africa.  The extreme inequality in wealth sadly, yet acutely benefited us.  Our private house rental came with the family’s daily housekeeper, and gas stations are FULL service – your car is surrounded by 6 men who clean the windshield, fill up the gas, and inspect the vehicle.  One stop at a gas station SAVED OUR BUTTS BIG TIME – as they found a nail in our tire and fixed it for about $2. At the Ironman race venue the porta-poties had an entourage of attendants who kept them clean between uses.  For anyone who has done any sort of racing – you know how NASTY those race port-a-lets get – this was a nice touch!  All of this high end service was really, really nice – but looking a little deeper into what makes it possible left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth.  First, remember the minimum wage is the equivalent of $1.58 – and for what I heard many people (with black skin) aren’t even paid that “under the table.”  The unemployment rate is something like 26% so it’s not surprising that people are willing to work those $1.58/hr jobs that made our life easier.  We visited (on a tour) a few of the black “townships” - flooded out shanty towns with houses made out of scrapped junk where 12+ people live and sleep with intermittent stolen electricity, no running water, and bucket toilets. It was not a pretty picture: 60,000 inhabitants (that’s the population of Portland, Maine) with one – single room medical clinic, classrooms with 90 students per teacher, and a main source of food being the dump. These experience certaintly made us feel lucky for all that we have and hopefully a bit more empathetic for those who do not.

Please don’t be discouraged from visiting South Africa!  We would go back in a heartbeat.  But if you do go I encourage you to take the time to look a little deeper to see the serpent in this Garden of Eden. We felt luck to get the insights and thoughts from many different facets of the South Africa society, including but not limited to: Our black South African tour guide who grew up in a township made famous by Nelson Mandela, our white South African safari guide who sleeps with an automatic weapon under his bed, and the Zimbabwean caretaker and host at the Safari lodge we enjoyed.  All these people had very different experience and ideas of South Africa and the hopes for the country’s path forward.  We feel very lucky to live where we do here in Rockport, Maine but also hungry to set sail next September in Sargo to explore and learn more about our World.