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Travels With My Aunt ... and Family

By Kristiana Helmick / October 27, 1994

Late in the afternoon not long ago, I walked home slowly from work, enjoying the final rays of sun. It was my last day before vacation; for two weeks I would leave the cement-paved city and smoggy streets. I was going to a new world; I was going to South Africa.

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This was a gift so immense I could hardly fathom it. My aunt and uncle, generous to the point of eccentricity, had invited me to join them - and an entire crew of our family that included my aunt and uncle's seven grandchildren - to see the newly democratic country. We would spend 12 days there, staying no more than two nights in one place. We would get a taste of everything.

What could I give them in return? I peered through shop windows, looking for a token of appreciation. Nothing was enough.

Ultimately, my feet steered for the nearest bookstore. It always happens that way. I end up staying for hours, leafing through whatever crosses my path. When I was small, I would sit on the floor in a corner and read and read, hoping no one would chase me away.

I smiled at the memory and thought I would bring a book for the grandchildren. It wasn't hard to find good titles; all my old friends stood in front of me. After painful deliberation, I settled on ``The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,'' by C.S. Lewis. Maybe a story about children finding a magic country in an old closet is too far-fetched for them, I thought, but threw it in my case anyway.

WE landed at Cape Town airport and immediately set off to see as much of the exotic land as possible. Would we ever have time to read? All our energy was spent looking at baboons, palm trees, and the stubby indigenous plants. For a little while the book stayed untouched in my bag.

We barreled through the countryside along the southern coast to Port Elizabeth, and then flew to Johannesburg. The parched countryside and ancient mountains pierced the turquoise sky, and I desperately took mental snapshots to hold on to the rough majesty.

But I soon realized that we wouldn't experience much of what the country had to offer. Our tour guides kept us on a tight rein, and the changes that South Africa's people had undergone remained a mystery to me. No hotels, streets, museums, or parks we visited gave evidence of the democratic elections that had captivated the world just months before, or the social unrest that had preceded them.

Only from a distance could I see the smoke hanging over the acres of corrugated metal shacks near Cape Town. Our guide referred to the huts as ``informal housing.'' I grimaced at the euphemism and later tried to ask her further about the country's social challenges, only to receive a reproach for buying into the biased media portrayals.

I settled for some souvenir key chains showing the new flag and quietly bought some more newspapers, considering myself fortunate to have had one real conversation about politics - with a park ranger at a game reserve we visited. He was a member of the Shangaan tribe and said he didn't mind working for days on end at the reserve because ``animals don't fight wars, and they don't cry.'' From him, I glimpsed an uncorrupted joy for life and a cautious hope very different from the hesitation I felt from my guides.

Even on such an engrossing tour, parts of our days were ordinary. Two seven-year-old relatives had been specially entrusted to my care, and food had to be found and beds had to be slept in. I stumbled through the first few days, trying to remember what it was like to be small.