On an almost regular Monday morning at work, one which just happened to be wedged between the Christmas and New Years holidays, a time of routine disruption, stilted productivity and general disorganization, a coworker wandered over to my desk and out-of-the-blue asked me an eight word question that instilled me with immediate and absolute terror: “Do you want to go to South Africa?”
“What do you mean?”
Like a bullet in the gut. My company was sending a team out there for a work assignment. As it were, my team needed representation and I was the most senior high-voltage expert available.
I use the words “senior” and “expert” carefully, as I am neither. But here I was. The prospect of having immense responsibility on a (very expensive) trip to a far far away place was considerably frightening. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, despite my relative lack of confidence in my expertise.
So I went to lunch. As soon as I stepped out of the office into a beautiful sunny December mid-day, the opportunity began to sharpen into focus. As I said before, I’d never been out of the
country continent United States and Canada before. Suddenly, it was to be my reality in barely a week. So many more realizations entered my head as I walked to my car and drove to a nearby restaurant:
I wrote last summer that I’d never been to the Southern Hemisphere and had yet to experience the mind-blowing solar shift that is life underneath the equator. That was happening.
I’d never been to Europe. My connection to Johannesburg was to be Frankfurt, Germany. I guess all that German practice was finally of some practical use!
I was going somewhere no one in my family had yet been, the southern end of Africa. I feel rarely a trailblazer in my bloodline, so those chances I’m given I’m sure to take. It happened in 2011 in Seattle (sort of), among numerous other occasions.
In retrospect I couldn’t believe I was having doubts.
As the day of departure grew closer, I made sure to prepare for the experience as best as possible. I acquired myself multiple power outlet adaptors, since South Africa oddly uses their own standard, as well as purchased new work boots and safety gear for the site.
I was unsettled though. South Africa has a terrible reputation for crime, violent or otherwise. I interrogated those coworkers who’d made the same trip for tips and reassurance. What I got was a mixed bag, first-hand stories of uneventful days, others of petty crimes. I researched, hoping for the results to align with my pro-safety prejudices. Some of them were encouraging; it seemed to appear as though the most dangerous areas were elsewhere than our itinerary. Still, I am not one to take chances and made sure to remove all non-essential valuables from my wallet, work bag, and luggage.
On the morning of, I collected my passport, work equipment, lightened luggage, and headed off across the bay to San Francisco International Airport. I felt lost as I navigated the International Terminal. Merely acquiring my boarding pass seemed to be a chore, and my itinerary required official assistance from an agent, for some reason. Once with both passes to Frankfurt and Johannesburg in hand, I slowly progressed to the gate area. Security was incredibly lax compared to the domestic US flights I’d been accustomed to and it caught me offguard. I didn’t even have to remove my shoes. Odd.
At the gate sat a Boeing 747. Once upon a time this was the largest commercial airliner ever built. It was by far the largest plane I’d ever been on, having flown mostly 737s and other assorted small birds within the United States. The United 747 had ten seats across, two aisles with three seats on the outside of each. I was in a window seat behind the wing with a decent view. This was to be an eleven hour flight; I was absolutely ready.
We departed San Francisco headed for Frankfurt at about 3pm, Sunday, January 4th. We were going to arrive around 11am on Monday morning. I wasn’t sure how to tackle my jet lag. Accommodations awaited during the day in Germany, so I decided it best to stay as awake as possible during the flight. I remember everything. We hit one of the roughest patches of turbulence I can remember over Colorado or Nebraska. As the sun set, I attempted to identify American cities by lights only. I succeeded in noting Milwaukee, thanks to the Lake Michigan coastline. As the plane continued up and over Atlantic Canada, I dived into episodes of the The Wire on my laptop. I knocked off five before my battery was nearly drained, and I maintain that as one of the absolute best ways to pass time on a long flight.
As the last episode came to an end, it was already lightening outside. Thick clouds blanketed the land outside, which might have been anywhere between the UK, North Sea, the Netherlands or Germany at the time.
And soon the clouds broke and I laid eyes on Europe for the first time. The land was a mix of snow and green, rolling hills dotted with villages. Scattered around were the occasional cluster of wind turbines. It was somehow exactly as I’d imagined it might be.
The plane descended through patchy ground fog into Frankfurt on time. I excitedly powered on my phones to notice they were now served by Vodafone.de and it was somehow ten hours later than my body felt it should be. As I watched the buildings grow closer, adorned with, shockingly, mostly English signage, the crew suddenly all spoke German. I shot as much as I could out the window with my camera, every single occasion of German writing. I was beyond excited to step off the plane into the airport and absorb it all.
Before long, the passengers disembarked into Frankfurt Flughafen and I forced myself to be as nonchalant as possible. Act like you’ve been there, they say. Wholly lost in this strange airport, I grappled immediately toward the numerous signs in the gates. They were all German-English bilingual, which is great for me since I could not only read them, but I learned a bunch of new words at the same time! It was a long walk toward passport control, through a long long terminal wing to an empty immigration station. I greeted everyone with the standard German “guten Morgen” and left with a simple “dankeschön,” despite my American passport. I was ill-equipped to respond to anything beyond basic German, unfortunately. Story of my trip, really. I’ll get there.
Once beyond passport control, I got lost navigating baggage claim. It was nearly empty and all of the signs seemed to loop around to each other. I found a non-descript set of doors centrally located on the opposite side of the baggage claim from which I entered, and upon traversing their threshold, I was in a different world. The terminal was flooded with thousands of people, there was movement and life, and light. I had emerged on the ticketing side of the terminal and joined the flow of humanity in search of a check-in kiosk and my hotel.
The third flight on my itinerary, from Johannesburg to Kimberley, South Africa, was in less than 18 hours and I was looking to print my boarding pass as soon as I could. The Lufthansa Star Alliance kiosk didn’t work. I attempted to find a booking agent to assist, but they were reportedly at the ends of the queues labeled “Ticketed passengers only.”
Resigned, I took the long walk from the airport entrance across several bridges to The Squaire, a beautiful office building / train station on the northwest of the Flughafen. Skipping up the stairs, I found my hotel. The woman at the desk greeted with a delightful “Hallo!” I eavesdropped nearby conversations to my best ability. German is really a beautiful language. It’s just misunderstood in this country. Thank World War II and seventy-years of pent-up anti-Germany propaganda for that, probably.
My hotel room was beautiful. It took a second to figure out how the lights worked. (First switch in the room powered all of them, which I missed on first walkthrough…) The bathroom had a fogless mirror, heated floors and a tub with a drain in the middle (?). The view out the window was of the airport to the southeast. Nothing really to speak of.
As soon as I could, I went to the desk in the room. I found a built-in power strip with standard European plugs, as well as ones for US and UK plugs. I made sure to get some use out of my adaptor and shoved my universal into the UK slot, while powering my computer off of the regular one. I got onto the hotel Wifi and did some internetting, catching up on the last 13 hours of my world. I then realized that, sitting there, I was the farthest north I’d ever been on land. Take that, northern Vancouver, Frankfurt Flughafen is at 50.05°N! I was also my farthest east, but that wouldn’t last for too much longer.
I tried not to spend too much time on the computer, as my stay was limited and I needed to catch up on sleep. I scuttled over into my bed and tried to nap. I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited that I was actually in Europe. It was truly unbelievable.
My alarm rang. At some point I must have drifted off. I staggered over to the bathroom and took a shower. I freshened up, but put on same clothes I wore yesterday. When did society decide that we have to change and wash a t-shirt after every individual use? If it’s not dirty, I’m gonna wear it! (It was dirty. I’d just worn it for an eleven hour flight. I chose to because I’d miscalculated my number of outfits I’d need for the trip, short by one. I blame the ever-changing timezones for that oversight.)
Once ready again, I went downstairs and coordinated the boarding passes for my Kimberley flight with my co-worker. After checking-in, I went over to neighboring hotel business center to print them on an open computer.
I sat down and opened up my Gmail. Except I mistyped my email address because Germany uses the QWERTZ keyboard. Upon looking down, I found several keys to be missing, as well as new ones in their places. For the longest time, I just could not figure out how to type a # symbol because it had been replaced by §. What is that even for!? Then there’s the @ symbol, which was below the Q on its key, like some kind of down-shift. The button with the down arrow above left shift (which was denoted with an up arrow) was actually Caps Lock. Huh? I was completely lost. Eventually, I figured out some combination of buttons that got me my @ symbol (as well as the #, located on the bottom of the ‘ key between Ä and Enter). I don’t remember what I did.
Boarding passes in hand, my coworker and I wandered over to security. The agent greeted me in German and asked me which languages I spoke. I told him English and German, and when he spoke to me in German, my eyes glazed over. I know the words, I really do, but I cannot keep them straight with natural accents, fluency, and normal volume. He regressed to English, to my appreciation.
After a thorough search by a nice (I think) German security agent, I continued onward to the gate. We ended up at one of the Lufthansa Gold Lounges, which I was able to enter because my coworker has miles or points or something. Let me just say, this lounge was amazing. Tons of free food and drink, a smattering of people from all different cultures, speaking and reading their own languages. It was incredibly clean and looked brand new. (It was renovated relatively recently). I made haste in grabbing dinner before the flight. Delicious Indian rice and Frikadellen, German meatballs, was enough for me. They also had pretzels, which I hope were authentically German, but I didn’t have one. I drank some kind of Fruchtsaft, fruit juice, however its name was a much longer single word. It was pretty good.
Once again, we scurried over to the gate for our South African Airways flight. It was a short wait in the queue and as folks funneled up into the single passport line, I squeezed in relatively close to the gate. Now, this South African Airways plane wasn’t really that nice. It was an Airbus A346, a little smaller than the 747, but generally older feeling. The crew appeared to be mostly Black African, yet most of them I heard speaking German. That was bizarre.
Shortly, we were in the air again. Since we were flying south, I made a note to look out for Zürich, the city on top of my next-to-visit-in-Europe list. Turns out, Europe is tiny. By the time I thought to look out the window for Swiss cities, we were already out over Italy. Checking the flightpath after we landed, I discovered that we flew directly over Zürich probably around a half-hour into the flight. Darn.
As the land began to darken into the Mediterranean sea, I looked out over to the west and saw a cluster of bright lights. The live flight map confirmed this to be Monaco, the most densely-populated and one of the wealthiest per capita nations in the world.
Over the sea, we were served dinner. Along with broccoli and chicken, there was, wait for it, spätzle! Of course there was! To my surprise, it tasted exactly like the kind I make. Good recipe, eh?
Night over Africa was dark. I followed the coastline of Tunisia, which led into nothing but sparse lights scattered in the Sahara. Some of them looked almost like fires. I posit they might have been, but since flight data isn’t tracked over the majority of Africa I haven’t a clue where we actually were. The pilot noted that we were to fly around Libya, as it is a restricted no-fly zone, so I would venture these might have been somewhere in Algeria at the time.
To pass the time, I listened to music for a little before diving in to more Wire. It served me until the pre-dawn hours.
Flying south is odd. We launched from Germany after sunset, and the moon had risen in the east sometime shortly after that. It was a full moon the night before. As I was occupied with The Wire, I occasionally charted the moon’s progress from the first time I could see it above the plane out my west-facing window. It crossed overhead to my right and drifted toward northwest as night went on.
The sun rose over Africa as the moon disappeared below clouds and haze. Gradually, green and red blotched terrain was revealed below. We flew not far what I believe to have been Gaborone, in southern Botswana, a moderately developed border city with a clearly visible international demarcation on its edge.
Now over South Africa, we slowly began to descend into metropolitan Gauteng. As the city features came into clarity from the sky, I spotted for the first time a highway with cars driving on the left side. It would get weirder once we landed.
The area around Johannesburg was hazy in the summer morning. I unfortunately never saw the skyline from plane, as O.R. Tambo International Airport is not really that close to downtown. We touched down mid-morning on Tuesday, January 6th, a long-ass time since I’d left San Francisco.
The sky out my window from ground-level was dusty. The trees with their bright green foliage contrasted with the orange dirt around the runways. It was super hot for 9am, but again, it was mid-summer.
Upon disembarking into Tambo, I noted the terminal was completely empty. The arrivals concourse was darkly lit with yellowish-green fluorescent lights, and was totally adorned in colorful tiles forming vertical stripes on the walls. It was very old-fashioned, as if it were constructed sometime in the 1970s. Aside from a baggage claim, there was nothing else.
Harried due to the brevity of my layover (40 minutes), I picked up the pace to get to passport control. Following the signs for non-visa nations, I somehow ended up in the wrong queue. Already nervous and tired and hungry and out of my element, I shrugged and jumped the short barrier into the correct line.
At its end was a thermal sensor checking arriving passengers for a fever. The Ebola outbreak is geographically closer to Paris than it is Johannesburg, but they were taking no chances there. After less than a minute to check and stamp my passport, my coworker and I decided to step it up to a jog through to the domestic terminal. We had maybe 15 minutes left before boarding the connection to Kimberley.
The domestic departure concourse was bustling and very modern looking, in stark contrast to the previously described international arrivals concourse. There were countless check-in kiosks, bag checks, security lines, and ticket counters. At the far end was another security check for the gates. This one was incredibly short. There was no line, few safety regulations, and the security personnel were very nice, cheery people. Once again, all of Black African descent.
Once down at the gate, I was flummoxed to find a bus there. Handing my ticket off to the attendant, he joked that the bus was our way to Kimberley. We shared a laugh, an occurrence much more rare in the United States.
As I stood on bus for several minutes, a South African colleague randomly introduced himself. He was shuttling from our Johannesburg office to site on the same flight as our American team. Wonderful! The plane we were taking was tiny, perhaps the smallest commercial flight I’d taken. The final flight of our long cross-planetary sojourn was soon underway.
It did a short loop around Johannesburg. I was seated on the wrong side of the plane to snap pictures, but I did see the skyline briefly through the window across the aisle. And then nothing. The green and red mottled landscape stretched for as far as I could see, interspersing waterways and reservoirs occasionally. It was a quick flight over African prairie, done in what seemed like less than an hour.
As we landed over Kimberley, I spotted out my window the famous “Big Hole.” Quite impressive from the sky, but more on that later. The airport in Kimberley is very small, consisting of two perpendicularly laid out runways and with a fun-sized terminal. A short walk from the plane on the tarmac into the back door, maybe fifteen meters of terminal, and then out into South African freedom.
We were ready for an adventure. But first, we needed a ride.