Lost in South Africa: Arriving in Jo’burg

Bus, Health & Safety, South Africa — By on September 25, 2009 at 6:00 am

All this semester, LG intern Courtney Brooks will be sending us reports from the field in Johannesburg, South Africa. Got a question about what it’s like to live and work in Jo’burg-a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world? Send us an email at lostgirlsworld@gmail.com.

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I arrived in Johannesburg in the beginning of July, a week before I was to start my internship at an international news wire. It was freezing – July is the middle of winter here and in Johannesburg means temperatures dipping below 0 degrees Celsius – and I was more than a little nervous to be living in a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world. So I pulled my usual stunt when arriving in a city where I don’t know anyone: fled somewhere I had friends.

Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and characterized by giants malls, posh suburbs and world-class restaurants, as well as townships and slums brimming with shacks, government housing and the millions of people still left without decent housing or jobs 15 years after the end of apartheid.

My friend Shannon was interning at a law firm in Durban, a five-hour drive away, and had invited me to come visit for a weekend. The flights were upwards of $400 and I didn’t have a car. After a moment’s hesitation I booked a bus ticket. In most countries this is not a big deal, but in South Africa public transportation is generally unreliable and often dangerous. The bus station was also located in a notoriously crime-ridden area of the city.

I solicited advice from South African friends. One in Cape Town told me to have a local escort me to the bus station, or at least ask the taxi driver to walk in with me. She also advised me not to flash money around or in general “act like a bloody tourist”. The next morning I woke up early and carefully stowed my money, debit card, and cell phone in different pockets.

A cab drove me to Park Station and dropped me off outside. The only time I felt even remotely threatened was walking through a creepy little alley into the station where a man rather aggressively asked me for money, but inside there was plenty of security.

The bus left around 8:30 am and was supposed to arrive at 4pm. To cut a very, very long story short it broke down three times, the air conditioning wasn’t working, they ran out of water and we didn’t get to Durban until 9pm. I arrived sweaty, exhausted, dehydrated and generally miserable. But I also had had great conversations with people sitting near me about the “new” South Africa and made friends with an adorable four-year-old Zulu boy named Jambulo. He didn’t speak English, but kept talking to his mother about the “mlungu” (“whitey,” more or less) on the bus.

It may not have been the easiest bus ride of my life, but it was one of the most interesting. And if I hadn’t taken it I wouldn’t have made it to Durban.

Living in a city like Johannesburg, and a country like South Africa, is a constant exercise in balancing staying safe and experiencing the local culture. There are South Africans in Johannesburg who have never been to Soweto, one of the largest townships in Africa, which is only about twenty minutes from the swanky suburb of Rosebank where I lived. In my line of work I have covered protests, strikes, shootings, floods and fires, and in my personal life I have made sure to venture beyond the gated communities of the suburbs.

My top five safety tips when traveling in countries with high crime rates:

1. If possible, go with a local friend who knows the area when venturing outside of your comfort zone.

2. Always keep your cell phone, GPS, and any other electronics charged.

3. Don’t carry a large or open purse, and don’t carry it on your outside shoulder if you are walking with someone else. Try to keep some change in your pockets so if someone asks you for money and you feel intimidated you can give it to them without having to open your bag.

4. Night is not the time to be adventurous. Always either drive or take a taxi, unless it is a very short walk in a safe area.

5. Try to look like you know what you’re doing and don’t act like a “bloody tourist!”

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