The Left Side of the Road

There’s something to be said for going into a new situation with the expectation that everything will be horrible.

 I’m not saying this was my mindset going into South Africa in general, but I definitely prepared myself for the what I knew would be a terribly stressful first week of figuring of finding a phone, finding an apartment, figuring out if I absolutely have to rent a car, then figuring out how to rent a car, figuring out how to get around, figuring out how to get furniture/internet in my apartment, then eventually starting work and figuring out how to basically just live in this new place. I realize these are all basic things that most people eventually have to figure out regardless of where they live, but the whole having to figure out how to do all these basic adult things for the first time while being basically on my own in a different country without the ability to get around easily and about to start a new job in a matter of days is kind of just a lot to deal with. 

But you know what, thanks to my expectations of everything being horrible, I can at least say that these first 2 days have not been all that terrible. I still have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE what I am doing and how I am going to find a place to live, much less get around without a car to even look at those places, but I am soo fortunate to have my second cousin here. With most of my dad’s relatives living in Ethiopia and my mom’s side of the family who knows where, I’ve never really experienced what it’s like to actually be close to relatives. It’s still hard for me to get used to someone I barely know going to so many lengths to help me out as much as he can, not to mention him calling up his friends who don’t know me to do favors for me as well. It’s kind of funny how in my initial South Africa experience, I feel like I’ve immersed myself more into Ethiopian culture. With most of my cousin’s friends and wife only speaking amharic, it’s been pretty interesting trying to connect with people I can’t even talk to, who I can tell are really nice but unfortunately can’t do anything but awkwardly mess up the number of cheek kisses in our greetings (which, believe me, can get pretty awkward).

I’ve also had an interesting glimpse into the lives of Ethiopians in South Africa. A lot of them come here because it’s easier to open up their own businesses – anything from little kiosks to sewing and tailoring shops like my cousin owns. It seems like a lot of their business is done through an informal sector where they all make their own schedules (my cousin works from like 6 in the morning to 7 in the evening…) and that, due to the corruption of the cops here, it’s easy for someone to get by for 6 years without an actual driver’s license (said the person who offered to give me driving lessons around the city). Good to know.

My cousin’s friend also informed me that I should “never ask the blacks for directions” after we had gotten lost driving to my office, since they will make up things and lie to you unlike the whites. …this coming from a black person. He later proceeded to tell me some of his other views on another ethnic group that I’m pretty sure could be considered racist. I’d been warned that some of the racism here is more overt than the kind we have in the U.S., but it was just interesting to me how casually he made these statements. He also seemed like a really nice and friendly guy which made it all the more jarring, so I’m really curious now to learn about race relations in general in this city….especially as a city made up of a large number of immigrants and various ethnic groups that came here many years ago.

Anyways, besides my newfound bits of knowledge about the city from the point of view of a few Ethiopians who live here, my first impressions have been scarily close to what I expected they would be. Namely, that Johannesburg is honestly not that different from a city in the U.S.  With it’s mountainous landscape behind clusters of tall buildings and slightly arid looking terrain (probably just because it’s winter now), I’d say it’s a lot like a larger version of El Paso, Texas. I’m sure for a lot of people moving to a new country, they’d be pleased to find a place so similar to what they know, but in a lot of ways, I honestly think this place will be way more challenging to get used to than was Madagascar for me. The challenge lies in the fact that there still are differences, and plenty of them, but they are subtle – which make them all the more disorienting. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, people walk on the left side of the sidewalk, the money’s different, the English is distorted by any number of unidentifiable accents….and, in the end, this is still Africa. I feel like a huge brat for even feeling this way, but a part of me still longs for that feeling of being immersed into a place where nothing is recognizable, where you don’t have to worry about things like money and cars and apartments but can simply throw yourself into a different way of life where your main concerns are getting to know the locals and learning the language. With my fair share of stalking all the other fellows’ photos of their countries, of gorgeous African landscape you would find in a stereotypical guidebook of the continent, I can’t help but feel a little like my experience will not be the same “African” experience they prepared us for in orientation. I’ve been drinking the tap water since the day I’ve arrived and my stomach shows no signs of distress. Mine is simply an experience of a college grad moving to a new city and starting their first job.

And I think my greatest challenge still will come down to this whole driving issue. So far, I’ve come to realize just how isolating it feels in this city without a car, and it is probably a large contributing factor to the way I feel now. The sense of independence I’ve always felt in big cities with well-developed public transportation systems that could get me anywhere is for the most part absent here. And I honestly don’t know if I will be able to overcome my fear of driving (not to mention on the left side of the road in a big city where I could get stopped by a cop who will then realize I’m a foreigner and probably throw me in jail for a day till I give him a bribe or something! …I’ve heard stories) to the point where I’d ever be comfortable enough to really do anything more than drive to work every day. In response to my inquiry as to the feasibility of taking public transportation instead of renting a car, my boss’s reply consisted of “It is not safe to walk alone anywhere…at anytime.” and something about there being a high rate of violent crime and HIV here and that while the chances of it happening to me may be small, the consequences are high.

So yeah, like I said in my last post, everything will be an adventure. Part of adventures are challenges…and at this point in my life, a big city full of highways and malls with surface similarities to the U.S. and differences that gradually make themselves known to me will probably be a much more challenging adjustment than a rural village with almost no similarities to the U.S. But maybe that’s why I’m here. The greatest challenges make for the greatest opportunities to grow, right?

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