8/3-4: Today I started my trek back to the land of milk and honey. It is really a testament to my overall absentmindedness that it took me as long as it did to realize my culture shock started at the airport. Let me back up. So I had already been travelling for ten hours when I got to the airport. In my overwhelmed daze I circled the terminals not once or twice but three times. And let me tell you it’s not a small circle. It involves multiple elevators and a seemingly endless stretch of ramps. I was so distracted by being plunged back into a sea of white faces and neon lights that I literally couldn’t concentrate. I’m known to not be too directionally savvy so if my problems ended there it wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But they didn’t. Shockingly nobody in my village owns a scale so it was only at the check in desk (in my second time through the line around the corner) that I realized my bag was overweight. I walked into the airport already soaked in sweat from being crammed into someone’s armpit for a full day but I was now a walking circus act. I literally saw people pointing. I ended up carrying on a down coat, large grass mat, and two bulging bags filled with books that got booted from my checked bag. How they let me on the plane is anyone’s guess. I somehow made it to London carrying my body weight in books and went through immigration twice when I never really had to go in the first place. I then cried to the baggage guy that I couldn’t find my bag and he politely steered me to the right baggage pick up area. I needed to re-check my bags in London because I failed to tell the check-in lady in SA my final destination. It was a genuine miracle I made it back here relatively in one piece (I looked like a homeless person) and with all 27 of my bags.
8/4-24: Being home was amazing. I blocked out all thoughts of SA which allowed me to enjoy my time guilt-free though only prolonging the inevitable culture shock later. I saw almost everyone I wanted to see and gained at least my goal of five pounds in greasy food. It was perfect.
8/25: So I purposefully scheduled a 12 hour layover in London so I could enjoy a day there. It was only when I got off the tube carrying my carry-on luggage that I realized it was pouring down rain. So I made it my first order of business to buy a glamorous plastic poncho. Bizarrely enough it took me three people before I found someone who spoke English. This involved a lot of circling because not many people were on the streets due to the monsoon. Once I was thoroughly soaked to the bone I found what I was looking for. Though cold and wet I was determined to sight see. I asked several more people where Kensington Palace was only to find they too didn’t understand me. Doesn’t anyone in London speak English anymore?! I finally asked a tourist with a map and he pointed me in what turned out to be the wrong direction. I found that out after about 20 minutes when I realized I was surrounded by houses. Thoroughly shivering, I had already tried to wait out the rain in a coffee shop and there were no signs it was letting up. I finally resigned myself to failure and went back to the airport where I wrung out my skirt and hair and slept for several hours.
8/26-30: By some miracle I was able to find an airport shuttle from Jo-burg to Mbabane, the capitol of Swaziland, so I took that when I went to the Umhlanga Reeds Festival. This is an annual event where 60,000 half-naked virgins parade in front of the King in traditional dress carrying 10 foot high bundles of reeds in the hopes he will pick them as his next bride. (He currently has 13). It was really quite beautiful.
There were four very different types of dress worn signifying the four regions or tribes of Swaziland. Dress varied from poufs of brightly colored yarn worn around the waist and shoulders to the more demure cloth tied across the shoulder in a toga-esque style. The elderly women perform ‘checks’ on the girls before they’re able to participate in the two week ceremony to confirm they are indeed a virgin. (These ‘checks’ are also done periodically in my village by the female elders). If they pass, their virginity could be held in question once again if one of the reeds they’re holding breaks or falls.
The members of the royal family are identified by the red feathers in their hair. The closer your relation to the king the more feathers you have. So there were several girls with a full ring around their face which means they are daughters of the King with his first born pinning two full rings of feathers in her hair. If the King is more of a distant cousin you might have only one or two feathers.
The first day the girls are divided into groups of about 50 and are singing while carrying their reeds. After several hours all 60,000 girls have made it into the clearing where they will give the Queen Mother their bundle of reeds. The reeds are saved until December when the male teenaged virgins have a ceremony of their own of equal if not greater size where they use the reeds to repair the King’s large compound.
The next day the girls are all gathered in the arena where they are singing and dancing all day. There was even a Zulu group there from South Africa who danced individually. The Zulu dancing with large drums and tons of high kicks was a huge crowd pleaser and made me incredibly proud to be considered one of them.
All in all it was the perfect way to transition back to life in Africa.