Confronting My Own Misguided Beliefs about South Africa

Thanks to the Facebook feature that shows you photos and posts from this day in your past, I awoke to vivid photos of my 10-day South Africa trip that happened two years ago. Because this trip was a vacation, not a travel job assignment, I hadn’t thought to write about it. But looking back, I’d like to share a few thoughts.

Recognizing and Overcoming Stereotypes

My first few days in South Africa were eye-opening in a somewhat embarrassing way. I learned a lot about the country and its diversity of people, culture, and languages. But I also learned something about the American lens that shapes the way I view other countries. As I prepared for my trip, people warned me of how dangerous it would be. I was going with my best friend, who is a bit of a trouble maker when we’re together, and many of our friends feared that we would be kidnapped immediately. But while it was never explicitly said, I realized upon arrival that all of these warnings, and most likely other descriptions of African countries I’d encountered growing up in America, had painted an image of an uncivilized country in my mind.

Once I got to Johannesburg, I drove past a thriving downtown area and into suburbs where a single road could separate beautiful gated neighborhoods from massive slums. The wealth disparity and segregation of these communities was jarring, but it wasn’t barbaric. And it wasn’t necessarily unfamiliar. Many U.S. cities look this way to an extent. Cleveland has several neighborhoods where rundown apartment buildings clash with wealthy, tudor-style mansions. I needed to avoid dangerous situations in Johannesburg the same way that I would need to in any big city—by paying attention and using common sense. But somehow I’d been carrying the notion around in my mind that I would be facing some kind of “other,” as though people here wouldn’t be acting on the same moral code that makes us all human beings.

In fact, I learned that South Africans are very proud of the progress their country has made since instilling democracy, and many expressed to me that they wanted tourists to visit and leave with a good impression of their country and their people. This showed when I actually did become the victim of a crime in Cape Town. My boyfriend and I were using outdoor ATMs, when these men in suits come up and start entering numbers on our screen. I didn’t know what was happening, and I wasn’t sure if they were bank tellers or random strangers. They stole mine and my boyfriend’s debit cards, jumped into a car, and gunned it out of there. Immediately, people in the street started yelling after them and to each other, “They stole their cards! They stole their money! Stop them!” Our cab driver beckoned us back into his car, and he chased the criminals’ car as fast as he could, but eventually lost them.

That cab driver was so upset. He was so sad this had happened to us, and embarrassed as though he was somehow responsible for it. Despite the fear I felt for what had just happened, my heart swelled with compassion for him and for the people on the streets that had yelled for us.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that Americans have ignorant stereotypes of other countries, especially African countries. That isn’t a surprise to most people. Rather, I want to emphasize that I didn’t even realize I had this false image of South Africa in my brain until I was there. I think this is why travel is so important. When we picture the people of South Africa, most of us don’t even question that we’re not imagining business men and women commuting to work, parents taking their kids to school, or people getting their grocery shopping done. We often think nothing of our brains jumping to racist, backwards ideas of tribal Africans or lions and elephants.

Jacaranda Trees Johannesburg South Africa Pretoria

When you picture downtown Johannesburg and you’ve never been there, do you imagine billboards, restaurants, and museums? You probably aren’t thinking about streets lined with bright flowering Jacaranda trees, thousands of brilliant purple pedals pooling at the edges of dark pavement. But that’s actually a pretty iconic image of Johannesburg, and when I encountered it, my thought wasn’t just, “Oh this is pretty.” My gut reaction was also, “Wow, this is surprising.” I’m not at all proud to admit any of this, but it’s important to acknowledge. And I’m humbled to say that, through my travels, I’ve at least garnered a better understanding of the world, and of the American lens through which we see it.

So with that out of the way, I want to follow this post with a few others about my favorite highlights of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Stay tuned.


Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau

One of the only disappointing moments that occurred during our cruise through the Alaska Inside Passage was crab night on the ship. Despite what you might think, the crab on the ship was just a rubbery and tasteless vehicle for butter. Thankfully, however, our experience was redeemed by the freshest, most delicious crab I’ve ever tasted in Juneau.

Stumbling upon Tracy’s King Crab Shack was kind of an accident. We had spent the day hiking to Juneau’s enormous Mendenhall Glacier and only had about an hour left before we had to get back on the boat. The crab shack looked cool, it was basically an outdoor biergarten with an open kitchen “shack” right in the middle and a gorgeous backdrop of mountains and glaciers (pictured with a cruise ship blocking the view).

The menu is pretty simple: king crab legs, local Dungeness crab legs – all of it fresh, none of it cheap. If you order the king crab bucket, it comes with a few rolls and all of the melted butter and slaw you could ask for. I love shellfish like crab, lobster, oysters, and mussels because I really enjoy food that involves some work on your end. Mastering the art of hammering open a lobster claw with a wooden mallet and prying out the meat in one slab was something I learned at a young age from my Boston-bred parents. When eating requires that a skill, I’m always up for the challenge.

Tracy's King Crab Shack Alaska

Without knowing, we found ourselves the best seats in the house at Tracy’s when we sat right at the counter of the open kitchen shack. If you ever get the chance to go here, SIT AT THE COUNTER. The crab on the menu is expensive, though worth it, but the chefs give you more bang for your buck when you sit at the counter by throwing you any scraps of hot crab meat fresh out the pot. We must’ve gotten 4 or 5 pieces, and I’ll never forget the first tantalizing bite I took into the crab meat that seemed to melt in my mouth without the aid of butter. Yummm!

Being a foodie doesn’t always mean finding the most elaborate recipes and intriguing flavor combinations. One of the great parts about food in Alaska is its simplicity – the food coincides with the pure beauty of the surrounding wilderness. When it comes to a meal in Alaska, the focus is freshness. Fish caught that day, jam made from fresh berries, smoked reindeer sausages in a bun are a few staples that seem simple enough, but taste unlike anywhere else in the country because of the environment they come from. That was the lasting impression Tracy’s crab left me with.

The Oldest Jazz Pub in New Orleans

Anyone visiting New Orleans knows to hit up Bourbon Street. And if you’ve ever actually made it there, you’ll know that it’s a total shit show every night of the week. Bourbon Street is one of those magical places where the streets smell like piss, there are tons of people around you at all times and everyone is drinking outside, and yet you still somehow feel like a celebrity as people yell down to you from balconies and throw beads your way. I can’t even imagine how crazy this place is around Mardis Gras time, but I have heard stories. Tip for going to Bourbon Street on Mardis Gras – wear shoes you don’t care about, because they will get destroyed in 2.5 seconds of walking.

As you walk down the street, there are people standing outside of every jazz bar paid to solicit you into the bar, whether with drink coupons or just sheer southern charm. If you haven’t done your research, it’s pretty easy to get enticed into nearly any spot on the street. But my recommendation to you is to keep walking until you get about 8 blocks down, where you’ll find Fritzel’s, the oldest jazz pub in New Orleans.

In any other city, Fritzel’s would be considered one of those grimy yet charming hole-in-the-wall joints with a charming French-style, twinkle-lit brick patio in the back. But of course what takes it to that next level is small stage placed smack dab in the middle of everything where jazz players from all over the country congregate and jam together, without any preparation ahead of time. Unlike the other jazz pubs, the music in Fritzel’s is not a performance, it’s an immersive experience. We just happened to be shooed right into the front row, but even three rows back you would still have that trombone right in your face.

Being so small and intimate, Fritzel’s is the place to go to really experience good jazz music. The players often take recommendations from the audience, as they’re mostly just picking songs as they go anyway. And halfway through, there’s an intermission where everyone grabs a drink and you get a chance to sit and chat with some of the players.

Richard Scott Pianist
Photo Cred:

My fiance and I sat with the pianist, whose fingers were like fire moving so fast with the music it was hard to look away. He turned out to be a pretty famous jazz player of both the piano and trombone, Richard Scott, who told us all about how he was born in Virginia and started playing piano at age 4, and traveled all over the place to do shows. He was actually only in New Orleans for the weekend and explained to us about how musicians just signed up for different nights of the week if they wanted to play, and then whoever showed up was your band for the night.

“The beauty of jazz,” he said, “is that once you know how to play it, you really can pick it up and play together easily even if you don’t know what song you’re playing.”

I loved hearing about this, and actually took the liberty of looking up “jam session,” only to find out that it originated from jazz music in the 1920s (sorry Phishheads). The term came about when white and black players would congregate after their regular gigs to play the jazz they couldn’t play in their “Paul Whiteman” style bands. When Bing Crosby would join on these sessions, people would say he was “jammin’ the beat” as he clapped on the one and the three beat. Thus, jam sessions were born and became more and more popular, especially in New York during World War II.

And now, after hours in New Orleans, you can find jam sessions happening every night of the week at Fritzel’s. If you want a really good experience of jazz music, I urge you to check it out.