(This is a guest post by Stephanie Walton)
South Africa has increasingly been on the radar of many globetrotters recently. With its exquisite wildlife reserves, beautiful beaches, and fascinating history, it promises a travel experience unlike anything else in the world. However, many people have heard rumors of the potential hazards of traveling to this “cradle of humanity”. Stories of crime and poverty have purported an image of South Africa that many Westerners want to steer clear of. But, while every location has its flaws, there is no reason to ignore this gorgeous country while on your world travels. With a few simple precautions, anyone can enjoy all that South Africa has to offer while still remaining safe and being sensitive to the cultural nuances.
Here are a few lessons I learned during my time living in a township in South Africa that will help you on your excursion.
1. Be smart and take the proper precautions before you leave
No one ever benefited from traipsing off to an unknown land without a plan. There is an important balance to strike between “adventure travel” and respecting the difficulties that can come with the unknown. Make sure to have a plan before you arrive. I would highly recommend looking into hiring a travel guide, at least for the first few days of your trip.
[Image source - Martijn Muneke at Flickr]
Pretoria and Johannesburg, while beautiful, can be somewhat overwhelming. It is immensely valuable to have someone show you the ropes. Also, while you most likely won’t have any problems, if your passport, wallet, or any other valuables happen to be stolen, you could find yourself in a pretty tight spot. It is best to get trip insurance before you go so that you can spend your trip relaxing instead of constantly being on your guard.
2. Show them you are trying to learn the language
No, it isn’t necessary to buy some really expensive language software and become fluent before you go. But if you take the time to learn just a few phrases in one of the many official languages of South Africa (there are 11 total!), not only will you show respect to the citizens, but you will be part of bridging a huge gap between ethnic divides. Even just extending a simple greeting in a local language can make a big difference. Take a look at the main languages spoken in the area where you will be traveling. Xhosa is one of the most difficult to learn, as it requires various clicking noises while speaking. But Sotho (pronounced soo-too) or Zulu has some easily learnable phrases.
3. Always say, “Hello, how are you?” before asking a stranger a question
When I was living there, I approached an attendant at the grocery one day and spouted “Excuse me, where’s the milk?” which I thought was perfectly polite (at least it would be in the US). The attendant quickly let me know that this is not how things are done. In South Africa, particularly in the less tourist-heavy spots, it is important to extend a full greeting before just popping out a question to a stranger. Say “Hello, how are you?” Allow them to respond and ask you the same. Then, ask them your question. In their culture, this is much more polite and by doing so, you will be showing proper respect. Also, if you are following the advice of point #2, it’s even better.
4. The taxi buses are safe. Just be smart about it
One thing you might hear people say is that you definitely should not take any of the public transportation, particularly the taxi buses. But I took a taxi every single day I was there and loved it. They are different than taxis in the United States in that you actually share it with a bunch of other people and the driver will most likely take an indirect route to your location in order to drop off everyone else in the bus. Actually, I was always amazed at how efficiently the driver could accomplish this. So don’t turn your nose up at it. Live like the locals live, and the locals take taxis. That being said, be smart about any valuables you might have, like jewelry or a camera. Don’t leave them out in plain sight. And for your first few times in a taxi bus, make sure to go with your tour guide so they can show you how it is done.
5. Visit a township
It would be very easy to spend quite a bit of time in South Africa and still not see the real way many people live or come to a full appreciation of the country’s history. Townships have gotten a large amount of bad press through the years and it is true that there are a few you probably wouldn’t want to walk through alone at night. But many, like Soweto, provide a fascinating glimpse into the tumultuous but redemptive history of the country. There are even half or full day tours you can take that will show you many different townships and explain the stories behind them. It is an enlightening and eye-opening experience and one everybody should have.
So by following these simple tips and being smart about what you are doing, it is easy to have an enriching and safe trip to South Africa. Hit up Kruger National Park for a safari, travel through Cape Town’s wine country, visit the beaches in Durban, and spend a day on Robben Island. There are so many things to do and rumors of crime should be the absolute last thing that keeps anyone away. Go and experience everything South Africa has to offer!