“Can you please sign your passport?” the TSA official asked, handing it back to me with a pen. I chuckled, thinking that it was an appropriate start to this trip—I had not even left New York before I’d made it very clear that I was a newbie to international travel. Yes, I’ve been to all the Lower 48 states and parts of southern Canada; yes, I have hiked more than 20,000 miles in, around, and across these regions; and, yes, I was named “Adventurer” of the Year by National Geographic Adventure in 2007—but this trip to South Africa was indeed going to be a new experience for me.
I boarded the daily 17-hour South African Airways flight from JFK to Johannesburg. It departs in the evening, stops in Senegal, and arrives in Johannesburg around 5pm local time (11am East Coast time), which may make it difficult to fall asleep the first night. [Hint: Fall asleep as soon as you can on the plane, and then stay awake until you reach Jo-burg.]
Most flights are uneventful, and besides one passenger suffering a medical emergency immediately prior to take-off, this one was too. (The fate of the passenger is unknown; a stroke was suspected. The plane returned to the gate, emergency crews removed the passenger, and then we took off.) Must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the guilty pleasures of business class travel, including the bottomless glass of wine, the post-dinner and post-lunch cheese plate, and the seat that leaned completely flat. On domestic flights I usually stare out the window and dream up new trips, but the view during an overseas flight is sadly monotonous—even if there were some exciting 50-foot swells on the Atlantic, you can’t see them from 40,000 feet up.
In this first blog I’d like to address the question “What drew me to South Africa for my first international trip?” First off, I know very little about the country—my history classes virtually ignored it, and so too does the American media—and I strongly feel that there’s no better way to learn than through personal experience. Second, I was drawn to both the romance and the risk of traveling through Africa—while I hoped to see lions on a hunt and to interact with locals in remote bush villages, I was also cognizant of the crime, poverty, and political instability that seems almost standard throughout the continent. This is definitely not Europe or Down Under; however, it’s also not Zimbabwe or the Ivory Coast—it is one of the wealthiest, most advanced, and most stable countries in Africa, for what that’s worth.