After a short commuter train ride from the airport, I emerged from the underground and found myself in a square at a busy intersection. At least 50 school children, all clean and in pressed uniforms, were lining up to get train tickets. Other South Africans moved confidently around me. I looked at their faces and saw dark-skinned, smiling people, many with fashionable hair-dos. I realized to my core that I was in Africa again. It was a joyous feeling that was similar to seeing a great painting from a far-off gallery I had enjoyed years before and now had the fortune to see again. I took off my pack, sat down on a bench to breathe and take my bearings to find my hotel. A huge poster of Nelson Mandela grinned down at me and clearly welcomed my return to this continent.
After a decent night's sleep, a backpack-toting anomaly in my fancy hotel, I was intent, as my dear friend Jim, another veteran traveler, recently reminded me, to go out and "hone my edge". This means making the effort to find experiences which bring a person closer to the reality of the place you are visiting. It means avoiding vestiges of traditional tourism, which are filled with well-to-do folks who aren't local and where the service people who are, usually act and speak artificially, according to proscribed protocol, since they are expected to do so while they are at work.
It took little time for me to uncover, several blocks away, a small enclave of street vendors who were unpacking their wares. I knew that this was the place I had sought and would stop there after making an obligatory visit to the "famous" Mandela plaza and shopping mall. Upon my return I began chatting freely with several sellers, one in particular, who pulled up a plastic crate for me to sit. He told me of his family and himself, gave me his Zulu name, related various prurient adventures, and then willingly let me take his picture. Then I pulled out my sketchpad and captured his likeness. This attracted the attention of other hawkers who joined in on our conversation. I drew another who suffered the laughter of his comrades who chided him about his big nose.
After a while, a food cart opened several stalls away and, needing lunch, and against what would be considered sound judgment and the advice of many of you, I ordered local chicken, potatoes and spinach in a hard-to-describe sauce. From my rickety outdoor table, I snapped pictures of various customers and the ladies cooking behind the counter.
I was happy and felt like I had TRULY begun my journey to Africa. Tomorrow I fly to Madagascar and hope that more quality days will follow.