Travel Stories: Durban

Last week, I went to this climate change meeting in Durban they call the COP 17. There were at least 17,000 people there. Some drove but most flew in. The South African government did a fantastic job. This was one of the best organized international conferences on the continent. No offense Accra, I like you guys too but South Africa is on another level. Durban itself is like a small European town. It’s clean (at least the part where we are) with high-rise buildings and malls, well-paved roads, organized traffic and amazing gardens and greenery everywhere.

There was free transport that picked and dropped the participants anywhere and everywhere. The shuttles and buses were organized like an underground metro system with several stops before they returned to the hub at the International conference center (ICC). Access into the center required a badge with facial verification, which I thought was uber-cool. On the inside there were hundreds of meetings happening all through each day.

Then there were the South African volunteers, as polite and as helpful as they come; well-trained, eager to facilitate and actually quite helpful. I was incredibly impressed. The volunteers were mostly college students of black and Indian origin. I guess white South Africans don’t do this kind of thing.

The conference participants were a beautiful kaleidoscope of faces coming from everywhere and I mean everywhere. I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the midst of something special; a unique movement of people valuing and revering the earth and its resources. I find it difficult to appreciate the complexity and wonder of the world we live in without being in awe of God, its creator. It’s truly awe-inspiring.

Anyway, there is way too much to say about the conference so I shall limit today’s post to a random commentary on the out-of-conference travel-related happenings. Mostly because I want to hear if any of you have ever experienced a body search like the one I describe in the final paragraph of this post.

From the moment I got into the airport in Dakar, this trip was full of anecdotal experiences. Like the hour-long delay caused by Namibia’s first lady’s checking-in of 42 pieces of luggage that included an Ironing board!!! Surely, wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper for her to just buy one in Dakar, or don’t Senegalese iron their clothes too? Nkt.

Hanging out with my ‘bestie’ was a personal highlight. She pointed out to me one of life’s ironies. When we met in Nairobi a couple of years ago, her laptop password was ‘Manatee’. (A manatee is an endangered sea-cow found along West Africa’s coast). I remember rolling my eyes at her as I said “Mana-what?” I could never remember the spelling leave alone its meaning; it could have been an alien for all I cared. Well, fast forward 3 years later and I am now working for an environmental organization in West Africa that works on….you guessed right…. ‘Manatees!’ Not only can I now name all the 4 Manatee species in my sleep, I am working with my colleagues on several manatee publications that include a children’s book!:-) Yap, life does come around:-).

One evening too impatient to wait for the official shuttles, my friend and I decided to join another white couple that was getting into a public taxi. South African public transport consists Nissan shuttles, just like in Kenya, that they call ‘taxis’. The one huge difference is that they don’t have a tout. I didn’t know that. So the white couple had to explain to us how it worked. You tap on the shoulder of the passenger seated in front of you and hand them the money and they do the same until the money gets to the driver who calculates the change and passes the money back in the same way it came. If you want to get off you just shout/yell-out your destination and the driver will stop. I found the whole process quite fascinating. And, so did the white couple. They turned to my friend and made a remark oh how strange it was to have to explain to a black woman how to use a taxi. NKT (that very African sound of annoyance) was my very loud reaction. Kwani because I am black I instantly know how to use public transport on all parts of the continent? NKTEST!!

The black-white assumptions did get to us. I suppose it’s impossible to be in South Africa and not experience some post-apartheid culture. White South Africans automatically spoke to my friend in Afrikaans and black South Africans spoke to me in Zulu. I don’t know why we took offense but we did, it annoyed us. I kept saying that in Kenya we are better are recognizing foreigners and not burdening them with long awkward requests in Zulu. Ok, I admit our annoyance was mostly feigned.

Well all those small inconveniences pale when compared to the trauma of the South African airways security search. In all my traveling, I have never been hand-searched so thoroughly. The security lady stuck her fingers into every nook and cranny of my chest and nether regions, and I was in a skirt!! When she was done, my tears flowed freely. I was not alone. I don’t know how one can survive such public humiliation/violation without some emotional reaction. I know we are post-911 but there must be another more dignified way to ascertain security. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what did you do? Sigh. As my father says, travel is penance for the joys of new and wonderful places.

The song of the week is an all-time favorite testimony-song.
Rich Mullins – Hold me Jesus


12 thoughts on “Travel Stories: Durban

  1. As to South Africa’s hosting, let’s just say they did a great job with the logistics – I was less thrilled with the way they chaired the COP. But I heartily agree with everything else!!

  2. I am not an airport security agent anymore but this is a violation, to hand-search in public. if the rules did not change she could be fired. Such procedures are reserved for suspected terrorists or hijackers, i can’t get how you were profiled as any one of those two categories.

  3. ‘Ng’enda thi ndiagaga gia kuoya’ is a Kikuyu proverb now that you talk of travelling and handling cultural differences. You had an excellent teacher on handling culture including the the airport one. I had such an experience last October in Cape Town where any action I took was wrong and the plane was almost leaving. Another time I had worn an attire that a wrong impression of who I am. I was searched. every bit of hair searched , shoes until I spoke in my language and the whole searching team was like paralyzed. They expressed shock that I was not of the tribe they had assumed I was because of my dressing. My heart went out to that other group as imagined what they have to go through as they travel from one place to another. I think there is need to acknowledge that the airport staff have a had time figuring out who the would be criminals are likely to be. You must determine to be light hearted as you travel, forgiving and giving others benefit of doubt. My good friend, the more sunrises you see, the more diverse experiences you will be accumulating.

  4. A few clarifications….there are Afrikaans, white south Africans and blacks…the ones who spoke to Deb in Afrikaans are Afrikaans…..white south Africans are mainly British and other European dwellers. Anywho love your piece, brought about crazy memories……glad you had a taxi experience! I am not surprised they spoke to you in Zulu…..annoying just like the way kikuyu’s speak to everyone in kiuk…..annoys my Luo pals immensely!

    • Now that is too complicated for me. You are either white and south african or black and south african. The origin of your ancestors is too complicated for me. But actually we did notice that there were less Afrikaans speaking folk in Durban than in J’burg and CT.

      As for the body search…wololo!!!

  5. maybe what comes close is a similar search with the security officer even smiling as if to mock you (Schiphol) as they tell you to ‘raise you hands’ and even show you how, or another frisking you that thoroughly (Heathrow) and they are not even paying half attention, as they chat their colleague across at the next queue who is inflicting the same damage to someone else as they do their part to carry on the conversation. I so FEEEEL your NKTEST, agh!

    • Yeah….that sounds equally horrible although i dont ever remember being body searched in Schipol or Heathrow…is that something recent? Pole sana pia. I keep wondering what a correct response should be…should i just keep crying…or what?

  6. About body search,yeah,I was seriously searched at the Israeli embassy,as in the lady just went over by boobs yeah boobs probably wondering is they were real ( i looked at her like duh,i am from Africa) and by the time i got out,i was thinking ‘i would have preferred if a different set of hands ( if you know what i mean,biceps and all) were on my chest 🙂 🙂 That is on a light note he he

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