I imagine that anyone travelling to South Africa gives some thought to that country’s troubles.  For me, knowing that apartheid was alive and well during my lifetime I wondered how and if this recent history would be present in my travels and in the people that I would meet.

One of the things that disappointed me about the trip (though I feel bad even using the word disappointment when talking about such a “trip of a lifetime” event) was that we were quite isolated from real life in South Africa.  In general, I would say that I am absolutely not an “organized tour vacation” kind of girl.  In fact, I love travelling solo and moving about on local transport.  It’s easy to blend in that way and to really soak in the culture.  However, sometimes it’s just not that easy.  Sometimes it’s just not convenient to travel on your own.  Take India, for example.  I had wanted to go there for years but was had the strong feeling that I would get to Delhi, look down at the chaos in the street from my hotel room and say “Oh hells NO.  I’m not going out there!”  Hence the tour.  In India I chose company that hosted small tour groups.  There were seven of us, which meant that we could go to local restaurants and move easily about in the cities, activities that were impossible for people on the big bus tours.  For me this was a great experience.  I had the structure and safety of a tour, including having someone else figure out how to get me from place to place, but I wasn’t isolated from the people and the culture of the country I was visiting.  I thought that the same approach would serve me well in South Africa.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case with this trip.  We sped along highways moving from resort to resort, which allowed for gorgeous scenery and very nice accommodations but unfortunately very little opportunity to appreciate the real life and culture(s) of the place.  To be blunt, it felt very much like a White Person’s Tour, which wasn’t at all what I expected.

In an effort to experience a bit of the other side of South Africa, on my last day in the country I signed up for a tour of two of the townships near Cape Town.  Viewed from the highway, the township homes seem opressively sad, especially when juxtaposed against the beautiful homes of the city located just minutes away or the golf course right next door.

I’d had my reservations about going on an organized townships tour and they turned out to be pretty valid.  For example, I was concerned about the “poverty porn” potential of the whole thing and I must admit that it did get a little icky, from my perspective.  Here we are, a group of privileged vacationers, being taken into people’s homes and invited to take pictures, but on the other hand I didn’t think that I could leave South Africa without getting at least some perspective on how so many of its citizens live.  I also chose a tour that gives back to the communities that we visited, including through funding for kindergartens and women’s craft programs.

In the end, I learned a lot about the townships that I hadn’t known before.  I’m not sure why, but I was surprised to find that they were fully functioning towns, with not only homes but businesses – from take-away barbeques to hair salons to full-on supermarkets – as well as schools and churches (though not nearly enough schools to serve the 200,000 or so residents).  I also learned about some of the government initiatives to improve housing for people in the townships.  All in all, I wish that I had had the opportunity to have a more authentic experience to visit a township (as in with a local who could just show me around a little) but I’m glad that I did go.


About Debra Cowie

Debra is a photographer and visual storyteller based in Ottawa, Canada. She is an explorer at heart, whose passion for photography was born in travel and has been carried with her to more than 30 countries so far. Debra is also an avid cook and baker and much of her current work focuses on food styling and photography in her serendipitously beautifully lit kitchen. She has flirted with Polaroid and 35mm film photography but her true love is her DSLR (aka "Boyfriend Mark").
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