In March 2010, I traveled to South Africa for three weeks. My main reason was to attend the Communicating Astronomy with the Public conference in Cape Town. After the conference, my friend Jackie joined me from New York and she and I traveled around the country for two weeks, from the southwestern city of Cape Town to the north east coast, and parts in between.
This will be my second visit to Africa. My first visit was to Morocco in 2004, the northern, Arab-flavored state sandwiched between the Sahara and the Mediterranean, but now I'm heading to the opposite extreme—the southern, European-flavored part of Africa.
I am not without concern. First, I have never driven a car on the opposite side of the road. Nor have I driven from the opposite side of the car. And, South Africa has one of the highest rates of automobile accidents in the world.
Crime is a national obsession, will I encounter any problems? As in any foreign land, I am always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, after all, people (or most people, at least) just want a peaceful, comfortable life. And, New York City is certainly good for sharpening my awareness skills. But, the economic disparity in South Africa is stark, and this makes a tourist ultra-conspicuous.
All of these weigh heavily on my mind, and I asked everyone I knew in the country how much stock I should put in these concerns. They were always reassuring.
My visit to South Africa confirmed my suspicions that the country has many similarities with America. It is culturally diverse and is a destination for Africa's immigrants and Europe's ex-pats. It is ecologically diverse, with tropical forests, arid deserts, and green pastures. It has a history, albeit more recent, of racially based turmoil and strife, with a dispossessed populace. While the culture of South Africa is unlike that of the U.S., I see many parallels between the two countries.