If I close my eyes, a stream of images races through my mind, awakening all of the moments that I feared were slipping away as each day passed. In seconds, I flip through every face I can recall; each one front-of-mind just in time to crack a smile before the next one fills the space. The images shift into landscapes, streets, and buildings. I navigate through my neighborhood in Cape Town as we do a Google Maps street-view. I am just about to remember another distant memory, but I’m tapped on the shoulder and the vibrant scene in my imagination retreats.
Suddenly, I’m unaware of how long I was spacing out for. A friend I haven’t seen in months embraces me, plunging me back into reality, back into the moment, back into Eugene, Oregon.
I didn’t expect that it would be easy to regenerate all of my experiences to those who ask how my trip to South Africa went, but I guess I thought that I would be better at expressing it all in words. Instead, I only feel that I can accurately be intact with those experiences when I drift off into a place in my mind where the memories are stored – stuck in perpetual motion, continuing to exist in a non-linear time zone. While the landscapes and scenery of this magnificent place instilled an everlasting sense of awe in my memory, my neighborhood, daily routine, and the incredible people I met are what continue to inspire me today.
It was the fall of 2015 in South Africa, and I lived in a neighborhood called Observatory – Obs for short. Obs is alive with students, working-class families, and small businesses. A strip of coffee shops and restaurants around the corner from my house became my sanctuary. Each day on my walk to work, I would lock up my house’s high-security system – every window and door was barred due to constant attempted robbery in our part of town – say hello to the neighborhood cat and join the other men and women on their way work. We all walked in the middle of the street as if joining a parade or social movement. I quietly observed the colorful clothing and conversation surrounding me. I was comforted by the clicking sound of the Xhosa language, the laughter of friends, and the sight of a flirtatious couple that stood in the same place every morning saying a prolonged goodbye. We would all part ways once we reached the main road where the majority of them would flag down a minibus for a ride. Minibuses are essentially white party vans with one manic driver and one caller who hangs out of an open sliding door to shout the name of the destination they are headed to. They honk, whistle, and yell over the roaring bass of a catchy pop song and somehow avoid collisions while pulling over every few seconds to pick up another passenger. I am reminded of the hustle and bustle of the streets of Cape Town when trying to dodge bicycles and scooters at the 13th and University Street intersection here in Eugene.
In Cape Town, every day after work, I would go to a family owned bookshop-café called That Place. The walls were lined with literature and the space was always full of people working or catching up. The owner and I became friends in a rather odd way. My roommate and I were working on a video project that involved finding random strangers to speak to us. Bram, the owner of That Place, was one of them and he immediately sparked my interest: He emerged from one of the studious espresso tables of adoring customers and shook our hands warmly, promising to do everything in his power to help. His aura was soft and colorful. I was left intrigued, yearning to know what makes a person so friendly and present with a stranger. I began spending a lot of time at That Place, doodling, reading, writing, and swapping stories with Bram.
Once, I mentioned to him that I had traveled to Cuba earlier in the year and shared some of my favorite memories with him – wandering down the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, playing soccer in a local abandoned swimming pool and standing under the warm tropical rain surrounded by salsa dancing silhouettes in Varadero. All of the sensations of that trip live in a beautiful box in my memory that glows with dusty golden light rays. It is stuffed with the beats of Afro-Cuban music, the rumble of diesel engines, the flow of Spanish conversations and the breeze of ocean waves. Sharing these moments with Bram, I felt as though I was adding whimsical imagery to his passionately political perspective of the stifled beauty of Cuba. Bram had a wealth of knowledge about socio-political movements and I loved to watch him get excited about his fervor for equality.
One day Bram asked me to join him outside where he had something to show me. He led me to the back of the café where he was constructing a patio area so that he could have braais, a South African term for barbecue, on Sundays. He grinned and swirled his hands upward in presentation of the sight before me.
There, covering the entire wall of this outdoor patio was a mural of the Cuban flag.
I was slightly baffled that here, all the way across the world, I was connecting with someone about Cuba, a place that has such an important and special place in my heart. It turns out that Bram’s relative had started the Friends of Cuba organization in South Africa, a non-profit solidarity organization that aims to advocate for Cuba’s liberation through a dialogue that encourages the sharing of information and the networking of support for Cubans among the South African community. His family has personal experience with perceived CIA threats and acts of violence related to their support of Cuba in relation to the liberation of Angola from South Africa. He cares very deeply for the country and wants to travel there more than anything.
Most South Africans that I met in Cape Town have never left the Western Cape or seen much of Africa beyond nearby southern countries. International travel isn’t an option for most, especially since when I left, the conversion rate was 15 Rand to 1 U.S. Dollar. Born-and-bred Capetonians are proud of their homeland and are satisfied with making the best of life with what they have. This optimism often reminded me of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to travel and see the world, while more than a few people I met said they would die happy if they just got to see snow.
Bram was just one of the people I met in Cape Town who had a lasting impact on me. There were others, such as the consignment shop owner who travels alone to different countries in Africa in his old-school safari SUV, powered by cooking oil, in order to immerse himself in new cultures and collect one-of-a-kind hand-crafted items that are then stored in his attic for years. He was particularly incredible because he never finished primary school or learned to read or write properly and yet has more appreciation for history and culture than most South Africans.
And I’ll never forget Mama Rosie, the community-oriented change-maker who started the Sakhulwazi Women’s Project and Philippe Hub, a center for sustainability, beading, and entrepreneurial education. Her community garden, located in the township Philippe, is a hub for aspiring men and women to learn a craft, such as growing veggies or making beaded jewelry, and proceeds to educate them on how to handle their finances and start their own business.
Now back in Eugene, I realize that you don’t have to travel the world to be inspired by the people around you. Every person, business owner, bus-stop dweller and Über driver has a story and a passion; all you have to do is say hello and an infinite world of possibilities and connections will unfold. Inspiration is all around us and the power to inspire others lives within us; extroversion can be what connects us to others at home and across the world. Say, “hello.”
To read Lorin Anderberg’s first dispatch on her time in South Africa, click here.