Is South Africa a Good Side Trip (from Prague) – and Five Other Questions I Should Have Asked

Is South Africa a Good Side Trip (from Prague) – and Five Other Questions I Should Have Asked

Cape Town, South Africa

Taking the Long Way Around

I’ve never been the one to settle for the path of least resistance. When the director of my graduate school program informed my class that our two week residency would be split between Prague and Paris my classmates bubbled with enthusiasm. Many of them had never been overseas before and they immediately went into planning overdrive. What to pack, where to go, what to see, on and on. The planning focused intently on the free days that we were allotted in the schedule. Many of my fellow students started to plan side trips to Versailles, Normandy, and beyond. In a move of classic over-confidence supported by unjustifiable arrogance, I scoffed at their humble itineraries and decided to plan my own bold side trip, not merely to the French coast or some tourist trap, but to a more exciting destination, like Cape Town, South Africa. As I worked up my itinerary my wife had a good question, which turned out to be first of a series of questions that asked during my trip:

Question One: “Is South Africa really a good side-trip from Prague?”

There is an obvious geographic answer to that question, but at the time I felt that question was simply too obvious. My classmates looked over their fairly uncomplicated itinerary – Dallas to Prague with only one quick layover in route, then from Prague to Paris, and then back to Dallas. I decided to take my side trip at the start of the program. I would simply catch up with the class a little late. I had never been to Africa before and decided that this was a great time to visit a charity that I had been doing some work for. True, I had never really traveled that far alone before, but I was confident that the trip planning would be breeze.

The direct flight to South Africa was extremely expensive, so to save hundreds of dollars I booked my journey the long way around; a series of flights whose total mileage was technically longer than the circumference of the globe. Sure my route was a little longer, okay, a lot longer, but my side trip was much cooler than anyone else’s. My flight plan was still reasonable I thought: from Dallas to New York, New York to London, London to Cape Town, Cape Town to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to London, London to Prague, Prague to Paris, and finally Paris back to Dallas. I had ten days to complete the trip. Fortunately since I spent much of the time either on a plane or in an airport, I had a lot of time to ponder this one – let’s save the answer till the end of the trip.

Question Two: What are all of the ramifications of the exchange rate?

At DFW International Airport I made the decision to exchange some greenbacks for South African currency. I didn’t want to hit South African soil without adequate funds. I imagined myself landing without the ability to purchase a soda. My caffeine addiction got the best of me and set off seeking Rands. At the time the rand was fairly weak, trading about eight to the dollar. I found a money changer and passed over ten neat one-hundred dollar bills.

“South African Rands, please.” I said with a swagger, as if this transaction was commonplace in my life.

The clerk apologized for the small denominations in advance. Not fazed by this admission I watched in growing amazement as the clerk counted out a stack of twenty-rand notes. He counted. And counted. For a moment I thought of canceling the transaction, but I didn’t. He just kept on counting. 400 twenty rand notes later I grabbed the pile of cash and fled. I felt like a bank robber. At first the thought of carrying three pounds of currency was a bit cool – I had never actually carried this sheer volume of bills before. I crammed my wallet so full that I could hardly shut it. An hour into my flight I realized that I was sitting sideways because of the engorged bulge of cash in my back pocket. I had so many stinking rands weighing me down that I actually gave some away to children on the plane as souvenirs. Knowing the exchange rate is good, but some knowledge of the dominations is even better.

Question Three: If my watch says midnight at DFW what time is at JFK?

Next stop was JFK airport in New York. It took me some time to find the right gate because I read my tickets wrong. Quick lesson, issuing airline name does not always indicate which terminal to look for. I ended up on the wrong side of the airport. Realizing my mistake I sprinted back to the train and rode to the correct gate. I arrived only to find a crowd of people camped out. After considerable delay the counter agents informed us that the plane was being worked on, and that a replacement flight was being flown in. They said that our delay would be an hour, maybe three, possibly longer. At first everyone dropped where they were, eager to guard their reserved square footage of valuable airport gate real estate, hunkering down the long haul. I too was determined not to move until we boarded. After a couple of hours some people got hungry, left, and returned later with delicious smelling snacks. I weakened, and after midnight I wandered off to the snack bar.

I could leave because I had a secret weapon – a steady stream of email updates on my Blackberry that were giving me the status reports on the plane. The last email said the plane had an estimated departure time two hours away. With time to spare I found the snack bar. I allowed many people to pass before me in line because after all I had two hours. After I ate I looked at watch to realize that I still had another hour to pass. I then realized that I had not set my watch to New York time, which meant that my plane was boarding. Running like a maniac through a near empty airport I was a welcomed site to the bored security screening crew, who took their time checking me, my laptop, my shoes, tickets, cell phone, all followed it all up with a wanding for good measure. As I entered the home stretch I could hear the lovely British accent “Final call for passenger Charles Gillis.”

Question Four: Do I really understand the importance of the public address system?

I barely made the flight to London, but I did make it. In Heathrow my anticipated six hour layover was cut to just over an hour thanks to the mechanical problems in New York. I ate a quick meal and located my connecting flight on an information board. A quick scan of the area revealed a strategic location, under the giant illuminated information boards and fairly close to the shops. I would sit and watch the information board determined not to be late for this flight. Soon my mind wandered. Engaged in people watching I ignored pretty much everything else, including the continuous chorus of “your attention please…” As my flight time neared I walked to my gate by could by found the hallway roped off. Assuming there was small delay I sat back down in my seat and waited. My flight time arrived and I still could not get to my gate. I heard another announcement and actually listened this time. “Your attention please. Please be advised that due to a technical malfunction the flight arrival and departure boards in the main lounge are not functioning properly. Please check with a gate attendant for information on departure and arrival changes.” Of course my departing gate had changed to a different gate and I was forced to do yet another mad dash to catch my flight.

Question Five: What should I carry in the carry-on?

On Top of the World in a Borrowed Sweatshirt - Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
On Top of the World in a Borrowed Sweatshirt – Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
After a 14 hour flight I found myself in Africa. The visit was brief but very enjoyable. My hosts felt under pressure to show me as much as possible in 48 hours. My last day in Africa was memorable. Atop of Table Mountain overlooking the ocean I felt utterly unprepared as my athletic hosts bounded from rock to rock on the top of the thousand meter plateau that pierced the clouds in the center of Cape Town. After loaning me a sweatshirt, one of my hosts followed the trail, more or less, to a pile of rocks on the mountain called Maclear’s Beacon. It was a wonderful place high in the clouds. From our vantage point we could see Robbin Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many years. Eventually we realized the time and sped for the airport. We had no time to stop and clean up. I boarded the flight sunburned, covered in mud, with wet shoes. I was taking a bit of Africa home with me. This is only a guess, but I imagine that I did not smell well either. At the gate there was a brief question of whether or not my luggage would be joining me on the next leg on my trip. In the washroom a muddy, sunburned face stared at me from the mirror. My carry-on held beef jerky, my iPod, and a lot of papers. At that moment I realized what a luxury a fresh change of clothes would have been.

Question Six: Just how big is Heathrow?

When in doubt, you should ask for directions at the airport. Back in London I did not, which is not terribly smart if you have very little time to reach your connecting flight. Prior to our arrival the captain announced that a slight hydraulic problem might cause some minor discomfort in the landing. He also said that the emergency vehicles waiting for us were a standard operational procedure in such circumstances and were nothing to be alarmed about. The plan hit the runway like a meteor and screeched to a halt. It had to be moved by a tow truck. My connecting flight took off in 30 minutes. Several nice people offered to step aside as I crawled out to the plane, perhaps out of sheer goodness, or perhaps because of my odor. I made it to the concourse and ran down the first corridor I saw, like a rat following the illusive cheese. I came to a fork in the corridor. I almost stopped to ask for directions, but instead I followed my instinct and the crowd down the hallway to the right. I ended up in a line which I later learned was for customs.

“Sir, may I ask why it is that you want to come through customs if you are in fact taking a connecting flight?”

“Don’t I need to be here?” I asked.

“No sir, you need to be at your connecting flight.”

Which lead to another mad dash.

With the trip over I had to ask myself the final question:

Back to Question One: Is South Africa really a good side-trip from central Europe?

To be honest I would have to say no, not really, not unless you are either mentally imbalanced or perhaps in possession of an over-developed sense of adventure. However, this trip did pay unexpected dividends. I now feel well prepared for any traveling challenge. To survive a trip like this one was liberating and educational to say the least. Well planned or not, the trip was an incredible learning experience. At the very least before I take the next trip overseas, I’ll ask myself a few questions first.