Johannesburg

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Johannesburg is still dealing with the effects of apartheid (the system of institutionalized racial segregation that began in 1948 and lasted until 1991), and many residents live in conditions that no one would be living in if this were a just world. However, we’ve seen worse situations in Mexico and the Philippines — and even parts of the U.S. — so I’m not sure why Johannesburg (“Joburg” or “Jozi” to locals) has such a bad reputation. Out of the five cities on our trip, Johannesburg was the one in which we felt most welcomed. The people we interacted with were proud, full of love for their city but who had a frank relationship with it, as well.

Before our trip to South Africa, I had only heard negative things about Johannesburg — the poverty, the crime, and, of course, apartheid. I had wanted to skip it and fly straight into Cape Town instead, but our safari was closer to Johannesburg, and Anthony was eager to visit (he did study the apartheid, after all!), so we decided to start our trip here. I did not expect this city to touch my heart the way it did.

When we arrived at the airport, our guide, Mthandeni, was already waiting for us, and he started his tour immediately. In fact, by the time we were exiting the airport parking lot, we had already practiced some Xhosa pronunciations and learned how mineral-rich Johannesburg is, with its abundance of diamonds, gold, and platinum. I’m not always a fan of hiring private tour guides, but Mthandeni was exactly what we needed. He gave us an honest insight into the history and current situation of South Africa.

He drove us past townships (what we could call slums), which were created on the outskirts of the city so that nonwhites could work — but not live — there. Blacks originally lived in the center of Johannesburg, but once the city became more developed, a specific apartheid act decreed that only certain races could live in certain areas. Entire black populations were forced out of their homes and into townships. Mthandeni reminded us that just a couple of decades ago, as foreigners, we would not have been allowed to be in his car.

We drove to Soweto, which stands for South Western Townships. This area is famous for the Soweto Uprising, the mass protests during apartheid that erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans (the language of the Dutch colonizers) rather than their native language. Police opened fire on 10,000 students, killing 23 people. The impact of the Soweto Uprising reverberated across the world, leading to economic and cultural sanctions.

The first stop was on our tour was the Apartheid Museum. It was a well-designed museum, with some heartbreaking reminders of apartheid, such as footage from the Soweto Uprising, and a huge Casspir in which armed policemen used to ride through black neighborhoods at night.

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The entrance of the museum
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More segregation signs
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Imagine this roaming your neighborhood at night!
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Me, for scale

Soweto is also famous for being home to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Trevor Noah. After the museum, we stopped by Nelson Mandela’s house, a small four-room “matchbox” house common in Soweto. It still has bullet holes in the walls and scorches from Molotov cocktails.

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Outside Mandela’s House, now a museum

While most tourists seem to come to Soweto just for the Apartheid Museum and Mandela House, Mthandeni led us to a nearby restaurant where we had a lunch buffet with a stylish black crowd and tried mieliepap (or “pap”) for the first time. This traditional cornmeal porridge is a working-class staple of South Africans. We were familiar with pap because we’d watched Anthony Bourdain eat it on his No Reservations episode in Johannesburg, but the show had not done it justice. Pap is delicious! We tried three different varieties, topped with a rich tomato and onion sauce.

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Eating pap and various meats with our tour guide, Mthandeni

Toward the end of our tour, Mthandeni asked if we wanted to meet a South African family living in Soweto. We were hesitant at first, reluctant to partake in slum tourism, which turns poverty into a form of entertainment. He convinced us, however, when he explained that these families look forward to when he brings tourists because they benefit greatly from the small tip we are expected to leave at the end. We met Princess, a mother who kept an impressively tidy one-room, tin-roofed home, where she slept on a small bed, her children slept on the floor nearby, and a paraffin stove stood in the corner.

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Walking through Soweto
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Princess in her home
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Checking out the parrafin stoves until I hear something outside
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Look at these children! The kid in the striped shirt stole my heart

In the end, our tour did take us to the negative things I’d heard about Johannesburg. It would not only be impossible, but also disrespectful, to avoid them. The people of Johannesburg take pride in their resilience. They speak bluntly about their past, which is honestly more than I can say about Americans.

My favorite part of our time in Johannesburg was watching Black Panther at the mall next to our hotel. It’s always an interesting anthropological study to watch movies in another country, especially a movie as significant as Black Panther, in a country as relevant as South Africa. One thing we noticed was that the commercials featured more blacks than I’d ever seen on screen.

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Crowd outside Black Panther

While waiting for the theater to be cleaned between showings, a group of teenagers who had watched the previous showing asked us if we could take a photo of them. They stood with their arms crossing their chest and shouted, “Wakanda forever!” Black Panther was inspirational to me, but I can’t imagine how even more meaningful it was to these South Africans. It was heartwarming to hear the excitement of the audience when they recognized their language in the film. Additionally, many of the actors are from South Africa. It’s not that South Africans necessarily need a movie like Black Panther to inform them of how powerful they can be; it’s that now there’s hope that maybe the rest of the world will finally see them as the resilient, culturally- and minerally-rich society – despite the undeniable poverty and lingering segregation.

In South Africa, there’s a term called “ubuntu”. It means humanity toward others, or the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Ubuntu reminded me of one of the vendors who was closing up his shop on the side of the road. He greeted us when we got out of the car and called me “sister” – perhaps the greatest honor I’ve ever received. Ubuntu reminded me of Princess, the mother in Soweto who let us take photos of her home and children for a tip so that she could take care of the very home we entered and the children we met. I cannot think of a better word to describe my experience here.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Hire a tour guide. Even if you don’t usually hire guides, Johannesburg is a place you’ll want one, as sites are somewhat spread out. While we had done lots of South African history research before this trip, having a local offer first-hand knowledge and anecdotes is invaluable. I highly recommend Mthandeni.
  2. We stayed at the Monarch Hotel in Rosebank because everyone told us to stay in a suburb. While I can’t attest to whether or not the requirement to stay in a “safe” suburb is justified, we loved our hotel, which was conveniently located to the airport via train, and walking distance to Rosebank Mall. Our booking came with a lavish breakfast that included both a buffet and a la carte items, and when our driver was running late the next morning, the staff at the front desk went out of their way to help us contact him.
  3. Tip everyone, from your tour guide (R50 per person), to the hotel staff (10%), to the family you visit at the township (R100). R10 = less than $1, so you won’t even notice your tips.
  4. If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet for some reason, watch it now.
  5. Understand that people around the world are more alike than different. South Africa may have dealt with apartheid, but the U.S. is also guilty of institutionalized racism, and if you looked at most neighborhoods in America, you’ll notice how segregated we are, too. If anything, South Africa is just more honest about its racism, and our society would benefit greatly if we practiced a little more ubuntu.

Iceland

Iceland was a challenge. Photogenic, yes, but a challenge nonetheless. I could tell we were going to struggle as soon as we entered Europe’s most sparsely populated country. We landed at Keflavík on time, but due to traffic congestion on the tarmac, we were stuck on our plane for nearly two hours. While trapped on the plane, we encountered our first experience with Icelandic weather. Usually, when it’s really windy, you can tell because the trees might sway a lot. From my little porthole, I could tell it was windy, not because of swaying trees — there were no trees nearby — but because I could literally see the wind. Like a horror movie, ghostly streams of air glided across the terrain. We could feel the wind, too, as our plane rocked side to side.

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That was just the beginning. I’d been able to easily get in touch with our Airbnb host, who helped us move our dinner reservations since we were running late, but then I received an email from our tour company, Reykjavik Excursions, explaining that due to weather conditions, tomorrow’s tour was canceled! For those of you who’ve read my previous post about our time in southern Italy, you’ll know that I’m not the best at allowing outside forces to ruin my perfectly prepared plans. Fortunately, Reykjavik Excursions seemed to be a pro at handling these situations and let me switch our tours around so that we could still fit the three I had scheduled for us. Phew.

Note to self: everything will work out in the end.

At least that’s what I had to tell myself just a few hours later, when I was hunched over the toilet at our Airbnb, throwing up my dinner. It was a shame because I had enjoyed the meal: fresh bread with caramelized maple butter served on a rock (is that an Icelandic thing?), rich seafood and bean sprout soup, spicy crab cakes with remoulade, and thickly-cut sweet potato fries. Fortunately, after throwing up, I immediately felt better and went back to bed, hoping that this would be the end of our struggles in Iceland. I was wrong.

The next day, we woke up early and walked a few blocks to Hotel Saga to get picked up for our first tour. At 9 am, it was still pitch-black when a shuttle bus transported us to BSI Bus Terminal, where we transferred to a larger bus for our ten-hour South Shore Adventures tour. This was my favorite tour of the trip. We drove along the southern coast of Iceland, first stopping by a crystal-blue glacier called Sólheimajökull. Then we drove just ten minutes to Reynisfjaraa black pebble beach with stunning cliffs of basalt rock columns, and tried not to get blown away by the winds. Our third stop was a beautiful waterfall called Skógafoss. We then strolled through the small Skógar Folk Museum before ending our tour at Seljalandsfoss, one of the most famous waterfalls in the country. Apparently you can walk behind it into a small cave, but in the winter it’s too dark and slippery.

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The best part about our tour, though, was our guide — a hilarious woman who told strange anecdotes and random facts about Iceland. Anthony and I were so amused by her that we typed out some of our favorite quotes on our phones to remember them forever. Here are some gems:

  • “Our first settler was from Norway. He killed a man so he had to leave Norway. So he came to Iceland.”
  • “On our right, you can see storage rooms that the American army used to store bombs during World War II. Now, Iceland uses them to store… potatoes. Because we love potatoes.”
  • “Please be back on time. Otherwise I will assume you fell in love with a troll or a fairy.”
  • “If you want to have a good destiny, support your wife. Whether she’s right or wrong. Support your wife.”
  • “This song is about two tourists who got killed in the area.”
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With our tour guide

Unfortunately, our friends were feeling sick the entire day, so I don’t think they could appreciate our first tour as much. They were too sick to eat dinner that night, so Anthony and I picked up some instant Thai noodles at a convenience store and ate at home while watching “Land Ho!”, an awful, misogynistic comedy about two old American men visiting Iceland.

The following morning, we began our second tour called Gulfoss, Geysir & Langjökull Snowmobiling. Our first stop was Þingvellir, a national park that lies in a rift valley, marking the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is also where Iceland established its national parliament in 930, making it one of the oldest parliaments in the world. We got there just as the sun was rising, and the view over the snowy park was like an oil painting. Our second stop was at Geysir, where we watched Strokkur erupt over 60 feet high every few minutes. Geysir was the first geyser described in a printed source and, thus, is the reason we have the word “geyser,” which means “to gush” in Icelandic. After a quick lunch at Geysir’s upscale cafeteria, our tour group headed to our third stop, which was Anthony’s favorite. We boarded a huge military tank that took us way out onto Langjökullthe second largest ice cap in Iceland. Once there, each of us was given a black snowsuit and helmet to wear, and then we partnered up for snowmobiling. This was probably one of the scariest moments of my life. After listening to dangerously brief instructions on how to operate a snowmobile, I hesitantly sat behind Anthony, wondering if I was either going to freeze to death or fall off our snowmobile and be lost on the glacier forever. Despite my terror, I couldn’t help but appreciate the view — an endless white expanse under a dreamy, pastel sky while the sun slowly set — as we drove in a single-file line across Langjökull. After about half an hour, our group stopped for a rest break. It looked like another planet. It also felt like another planet, as I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold. I was wearing gloves, but they were no match for this climate, and I began to ponder how tragic my life would be without fingers. Finally, we made our way back, but this time the view wasn’t so breathtaking. Those Icelandic winds returned! I don’t know how Anthony was able to see through the storm, but somehow we made it back, and I was happy to get rid of my bulky snowsuit. I’m definitely made for beachier climates. Our last stop on the tour was Gulfoss, a wide waterfall that turns in multiple directions so that it looks like a flowing staircase.

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After our tour, we hung out at the BSI Bus Terminal because we had another tour: The Northern Lights! Much to our delight, our tour guide was the same entertaining woman from yesterday. The bus took us through a long tunnel that goes under a fjord. Once we arrived at a secluded enough area, our driver shut down the bus and ushered us outside. Spoiler alert: If you’re like me and are expecting colorful dancing lights, you will be disappointed. You will not see what you’ve watched in those heavily-edited videos. When we got there, I was patiently waiting for the Aurora Borealis and whispered to Anthony, “It’d be nice if they were like the geyser, appearing every six minutes, yeah?” He looked at me oddly, and that’s when we both discovered the sad truth. I hadn’t realized that we had been staring at the Northern Lights the whole time! Instead of bright pinks, purple, and greens gracefully fluttering across the sky, the Northern Lights were just a faint, horizontal stroke of green. Oh, technology, you’ve ruined me.

Fortunately for people like me, our tour company provided a photographer who took photos of us with the Northern Lights in the background. He was clearly a professional because, unlike the rest of us, pathetically trying to capture the lights with our phones, he did some fancy camera work and created photos that looked stunning. So, my friends, that is what it takes to produce all those photos you’ve seen of the Northern Lights.

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On our last full day in Iceland, Anthony and I went to the famous Blue Lagoon. After hearing somewhat mixed reviews, I was skeptical about this place, but it ended up being one of my favorite parts of Iceland. Though our entrance time wasn’t until noon, the front desk let us in an hour early, giving us lots of time before it got too crowded. We were given wristbands that allowed us to lock and unlock our lockers, claim our complimentary drinks from the in-water bar, and get silica and algae face masks from the mask bar. It was like a Disneyland for adults. The locker rooms are some of the fanciest I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to some pretty swanky locker rooms at boutique fitness studios around New York). After you rinse your body sans bathing suit, you can enter the lagoon, which is the perfect temperature, unlike American hot tubs. The lagoon is huge, but after about two hours, we were ready to head back to Reykjavik.

15894433_10211113845298568_6214969326597568501_n15781608_10211037816757902_8257301265600650462_nBack in Reykjavik, we looked for lunch, which proved difficult since it was New Year’s Eve and apparently Icelanders take this day very seriously. We ended up at a surprisingly good pizza joint, then breezed through the Icelandic Phallological Museum before it closed. Yes, we saw a lot of penises.

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Sperm whale penis

As we made our way through pretty Reykjavik to meet up with our friends for a show, we noticed that my phone stopped charging. I have a waterproof Galaxy S7, so bringing it into the Blue Lagoon earlier that day should have been fine, or so I thought. It wasn’t until we were back in New York that Samsung would have to replace my entire motherboard (for free, at least!). Being in such a photogenic place without a phone is probably the worst kind of torture you can put a Millennial through, so I was not terribly thrilled about being in a country with apparently no Samsung stores for the rest of the afternoon.

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Not a Samsung store

We arrived to our show early, which gave me time to explore Harpa, perhaps the most stunning building in the country. Unsurprisingly, this concert hall was designed by a Danish architecture firm and heavily inspired by the landscape of Iceland. The walls of hexagonal glass tubes evoke Iceland’s basalt rock formations. The colored and mirrored panes on the glass reflect and fragment light, so that during sunlight, the foyer is completely illuminated, while in dim lighting the building gleams. Meanwhile, the balconies and staircases are dark concrete like Iceland’s lava fields.

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The show we watched was called “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes,” an entertaining, one-man comedy show that gave us another glimpse into the Icelandic psyche, and ended with a certificate to all audience members, proclaiming that we have officially become Icelandic. This country of 330,000 people sure is desperate for new residents. Perhaps they should increase their refugee intake? (Tens of thousands of Icelanders have generously offered their homes, but the government has inexplicably placed a cap of only 50 refugees per year.)

After the show and a satisfactory sushi dinner, we headed over to a New Year’s Eve party that I had found online, hosted by travel company Wake Up Reykjavik. The venue was ideal, with three different indoor lounge areas, a rooftop with a view of Reykjavik, and even a magician with dreadlocks who roamed around doing card tricks for guests. Reykjavik is a wonderful place to spend New Year’s Eve, as every Icelander seems to pop their own fireworks, lighting up the entire sky throughout the evening. Watching the buildup to midnight on our rooftop was a magical experience.

But, of course, nothing could go as smoothly as that. One of our friends was feeling sick so we rushed back home right after midnight. Later that night, I threw up again. I felt even worse than when I had thrown up on our first night, and I worried that I was experiencing the same strange sickness I had in Seoul. Why do we keep getting sick in this country?! Iceland, you win.

Our flight was the next day, so I was relieved when I felt much better in the morning. After catching a cab to the BSI Bus Terminal, we had some time before our bus would take us to the airport, so we stored our luggage and walked over to Hallgrímskirkja for some last-minute photos of the iconic cathedral. Hallgrímskirkja was inspired by, once again, Iceland’s basalt columns, and the immense brutalist structure took an impressive 41 years to build.

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Six hours later, we were back in New York, where, unlike Iceland, man has indisputably conquered nature. Iceland was probably one of the toughest trips I’ve ever been on, and if I ever return to the country, it will most likely be in the summer. Regardless, I’m glad we went. It was an otherworldly experience, and the sites we were able to see — or, in the case of the Northern Lights, the photos we were able to take — have changed my life forever.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. There are dozens of tour companies available, but we had a good experience with Reykjavik Excursions, the largest company in the country. They were organized and easy to contact. We used them for three tours, two airport transfers, and transportation to and from the Blue Lagoon.
  2. Stay at a hotel. I don’t know why I wanted to stay at an Airbnb in Reykjavik, since this is not necessarily a city in which I want to feel like a local. Plus, checking into a hotel is so much easier than trying to coordinate with an Airbnb host when your plane has been delayed for two hours.
  3. If you’re coming in the winter, please do not rent a car (unless you are from, say, Alaska). Stay in a hotel in Reykjavik and let the professional bus drivers take you around. On the other hand, if you’re coming in the summer, I suggest renting a car and staying at different hotels as you make your way around the island.
  4. Go to the Blue Lagoon early to avoid the frat scene that I’d heard so much about. Also, leave conditioner in your hair before you enter the lagoon or your hair will be stiff for the rest of the day. And even if your phone is waterproof, don’t bring it into the Blue Lagoon unless you buy one of those waterproof cases.
  5. Before you arrive in Iceland, download the Taxi Hreyfill app onto your phone. I don’t know how we would have survived this trip without it! While you do have to pay the cab fare with cash (so make sure you’ve arrived with some króna), the app is easy to use, there are always cabs ready to pick you up, you can request rides in advance, and all our cabs arrived right on time. I wish Uber worked this well!
  6. If you have enough time, book a food or bar crawl tour with Wake Up Reykjavik. The dining scene in Reykjavik is really hot right now, and this company knows their food. While we didn’t get a chance to join a tour, they did give us some restaurant suggestions and hosted an awesome New Year’s Eve party.
  7. If you plan to be in lots of photos, buy a red coat. I brought along my grey Canada Goose coat and wished I was wearing red the entire time. Whether you’re surrounded by snow-capped glaciers, standing on a basalt rock column, or waiting for Strokkur to erupt, a red coat stands out the best. Let’s not pretend you’re in Iceland and don’t want to be in any photos.

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