As I wring the last piece of clothing that I’ve just hand-washed from the bathtub of my Durban hotel room, I find myself grinning from ear to ear, and say under my breath, “This is South Africa.” No, it’s not because I’m hand-washing my clothes or because I’ve finally finished washing every single piece of clothing from my suitcase, but rather what I hear.
Out of the open window of my 12th-floor hotel room (which could never be open like that at a hotel in the U.S.) at the Southern Sun Elangeni I hear a bevy of sounds that come together like a sweet harmony. Directly below me a group plays djembe drums and horns. Just beyond them is a group of teens I hear engaging in a game of cricket. Adjacent to them are a number of skateboards rolling up and down the same promenade which I had seen vervet monkeys running down just the day prior. And on the other side of the promenade, waves crash on the shore along Durban’s Golden Mile.
The last week has seen me hosted by South African Tourism with a group of bloggers from around the world. Our group of eight bloggers traversed the Western Cape, from one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town, through the famous Garden Route and to quirky towns, like Matjiesfontein, considered one of the most haunted cities in South Africa. And all the while I’ve been asking South Africans one question: What’s the one thing that you would tell travelers about why they should visit South Africa?
This question of why someone should visit South Africa demands an answer now more than ever. It was just weeks ago that a concentrated area of Durban were seeing xenophobia crimes, where foreigners were being attacked. I received calls, emails, and texts from friends, and even my bank warning me about travel to South Africa. Yet I found myself on those same streets just a couple nights ago breaking bread and drinking wine with new friends from India, Spain, France, Holland, Australia, and everywhere in between with pop-up restaurateurs, Zak and Tonic.
And we haven’t been shielded from the reality of the current affairs of South Africa, which is evident by the location of that rooftop dinner in Durban, and the numerous low-income townships we’ve driven past. In fact this dialogue and interaction with these parts of South Africa has been encouraged, though it was on our own time to visit Durban’s Muthi Market (near where the attacks originated), which exhibits Zulu’s traditional African healing and medicinal practices that many people never see. I, however, did not go, after local Durban members of our group visited the market and reported the feeling of intensity and hostility they felt when doing a quick walkthrough.
While there haven’t been any recent xenophobic attacks, there maintains an air of hostility as a result of the recent crimes. Thus, I don’t recommend travelers visiting the Muthi Market right now, though my Durban friends Dane Forman (pictured above) and Andy Carrie would be happy to tell you about the pulse of the area when you’re planning a trip to Durban.
Yet I stand by my belief that there’s never been a better time to travel to South Africa. The biggest expense for many people, are flights, which from the U.S. start at $1,000. Once Americans are in South Africa, however, they have the luxury of a rand to dollar rate that is currently 12 to 1. That means you can eat a full meal for only a few dollars and a glass of South African wine for less than $2. You guys, they were advertising sangria at Cape Town’s Old Biscuit Mill for a $1.25. A $1.25! Hotels, too, are at a premium, with four-star hotels available for as low as $50-$100.
But as much as South Africa is a “value destination,” its true value reaches beyond just a price tag. Back to the original question; every time I asked a South African why people should travel here, the answer has been different. For one person it’s diversity, for another the vibe, for another the deep connection to a place, for another the landscape, and for another the culture. And in that way, South Africa is the be-all destination. It’s one of the rare destinations where it takes all of the best parts of the best destinations from around the world and puts it in one place.
South Africa is all at once majestic yet laid-back. It’s joyful, yet honest. It’s beautiful, yet edgy. Renowned South African activist Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” That encompasses South Africa for me. These little bits of good in the people, culture, landscape, food, and drinks that overwhelm me every time I come. I only hope that you, too, can experience a bit of that goodness and astonishment when you travel here yourself, and be able to say with me, “This is South Africa.”