A little more than a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Durban, South Africa with my family and it was one of the most unique travel experiences I have ever had. First, my family is not big on leisurely travel and this was the first true vacation we went on together in over a decade. Second, my sister's performance schedule and incredible South African hospitality gave us the opportunity to go to South Africa, which was not at all on our radar prior to this trip.
As always, I was so excited to go to a new place, not knowing what to expect, and not sure what I wanted to do or see. Reflecting back on this trip now, the sights we visited and my sister's concerts seem to pale in comparison to my memories of the culture, the history of the Indian families who are now locals there, and the fun times we shared with our host family. This post would be incomplete without honoring the Moodley family, without whom, none of this would have been possible. Thank you for bringing so much light and kindness into the lives of every person you meet and for showing us that we have family halfway across the world too.
I'll share some pictures here, but what I really wanted to write about in this post was the Indian culture in South Africa, which we learned in tidbits during our late night couch conversations with the Moodleys.
The very very beginning...
Indentured laborers were brought from Colonial India to South Africa in the early 1860s to help grow the sugarcane plantations. As the story goes with all marginalized communities, South Asians faced incredibly tough times as workers in these plantations, forced to struggle against adversity and their own identities of culture, religion, tradition, and lifestyle.
The modern South African Indian community is largely descended from the laborers who initially came as sugarcane workers, and settled primarily in the city of Durban, which is now the second largest population of Indians in a single city outside of India. We visited some of the barracks were the laborers stayed and worked and have been abandoned over the years.
The Indian Identity
In Durban, I met 5th generation Indian immigrants for the first time in my life. I don't know if I can put into words how amazing and culturally intense this was for me, because, in all my ignorance and bubble-mindedness, I had never encountered anyone who was so far away and yet so close, to what I thought it meant to be "Indian."
To say that South African Indians are above all, the most persevering bunch, would be an understatement. Among being forced into slavery on another continent that did not value non-Christian religions, surviving a brutal period of Apartheid, and being entirely cut off from the motherland, Indians in South Africa live with such affection and pride for their Indian identities. Here are a few practices I found that were different from what I'm used to:
1) Hindus in South Africa attend temple together on one specific day of the week, where strict dress codes and attendance are in order, a big offering is made to the gods, music is sung, and dinner is served. I was surprised to see that this emulated the practice of church-goers attending mass on Sundays. Ultimately, South African Indian Hindus have fused what they know to be true of their own religion with the norms of those in their surroundings. Perhaps some of these traditions were developed as the only way that laborers were able to keep their culture alive in a strange new land, and that practice has stuck for years. In comparison, Hindus in the U.S. attend temple on celebratory days, such as anniversaries, birthdays, new years, and sometimes even on a weekly basis, but most do not practice this level of continued discipline when it comes to temple attendance.
2) Over the years, I have found that my friends and I are more involved in helping our parents celebrate Indian religious holidays than we were as kids. I don't know that any of my close friends are particularly religious, but we do spend time with our families celebrating big festivals, such as Diwali, Navrathri, and go to temples on birthdays and New Years. Meanwhile, Indian millenials and adults in South Africa who have never even been to India before, set out on organized religious temple tours in India for a true journey of faith. It is hard for me to imagine anyone from my peer group feeling such a deep connection to religion and their motherland that they would go on a religious tour. Not in South Africa, though. Seeing this type of passion in them, I can't help but wonder where the 5th generation of Indian Americans will be? Will we go to temple at all or travel back to India simply to be connected to our roots? What will it mean to be an Indian in America 5 generations from now?
3) Last but not least, food is a fascinating way to learn about other cultures and people. South African Indian food, to me, is basically a cuisine all on its own! Modified from Indian food over so many generations, every meal was so different to me! For instance, idli is typically a savory rice cake that is eaten for breakfast in South India, with a side of sambar and chutneys (all spicy/ savory). Idli in South Africa, is a sweet rice cake topped with coconuts and sugar. How did that happen?
Another South African delicacy is called bunny chow, basically a bread bowl with beans and gravy inside and is sort of a roadside treat for a nice, cold day. Interesting how the same foods have their own iterations around the world. And you can bet that the singular most uniting characteristic of Indians anywhere in the world is our love and care for food.
Picture of bunny chow, courtesy of Jimmy Moodley's Facebook:
Personal lessons learned:
Most Indians I grew up with in the Bay Area were the same as me - parents who were born and raised in India, highly educated and moved to the United States to pursue graduate school or work for one of the companies of booming Silicon Valley. All my peers grew up entrenched in Indian culture and traveled to India to visit relatives regularly. We all shared the same "Indianness," whatever that means. And with all of the abundance of culture that we are privileged to have and that our parents work so hard to make a part of our lives, it was cool to not show off your Indian identity, to shun your culture of sorts, while growing up. It wasn't cool to wear bindis or take your homecooked lunch to school.
Meanwhile, South African Indians are thirsty for their Indian identities, constantly exploring what it means to be a South African of Indian descent, from an economic, religious, political, and social perspective. South African Indian practices and lifestyles are so different from what my parents taught me growing up, yet it is no less "Indian." For if they can prove one thing, it is that our identities are what exist within us, define our very being, and keep alive our faith and belief, rather than what we may choose to eat, pray, or practice.
Now that I have bored you all to death with my careful observations, here is the fun part. Pictures of all our sightseeing and exploring! Hope you enjoy this collection of snaps:
All things African
Girls and boys dance teams practicing for an African dance competition in the parking lot:
Visited this little African commune/ village and toured these huts:
Streetside markets with gorgeous beadwork handicrafts, art, and jewelry!
Paying our respects to Gandhi
Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa, where his experiences shaped him into the legacy we know today. He initially went to South Africa as a new lawyer, on an assignment, but was so appalled by the racism and injustice he saw there, that he decided to stay, building his home and practices of nonviolence. After being thrown out of a train en route to Johannesburg simply for being a man of color, he started building his philosophy of Satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance. In Durban, we visited Sarvodaya, his original home, which was destroyed during apartheid, then rebuilt.
South Africa's biggest tourist attraction is visiting game reserves, where we take a jeep out into the forest and view animals in the wild. *Cue Lion King music* South Africa has what they call the Big 5 Game, which includes Lions, Elephants, Buffalos, Leopards, and Rhinos. The Big 5 were so named because these are the toughest game animals to hunt, but are also the most popular/ dangerous animals to view on your trip. There are multiple game reserves and there are laws restricting how many of the Big 5 can be housed within any single reserve. Game reserves also have animals other than the Big 5, which we caught some views of (see pictures below). There is something simply so cool about seeing these animals up close and in their own natural habitat.
Prag and I in the jeep during the safari tour:
You would think that it is super easy to spot a giraffe, given how tall they are! But they are incredible at camouflaging themselves amongst the trees! We didn't see them until they were literally RIGHT in front of us and our tour guide told us that the key to finding them is to look for the whites of their ears.
Baby giraffe sighting!!
Rhinos! Our tour guide told us that the rhinos were super aggressive and sensitive, so we had to be careful about getting too close. They also fight among themselves to establish dominance, especially among adult male rhinos. They had one male that was so aggressive and was continuously killing all the baby male rhinos that were born, so that he could continue to be the alpha of the pack. They had to eventually move him away into another facility with more security to protect the young.
While we were driving from one area of the forest to another we found a huge group of deer just prancing around. It was so wonderful to see them free and roaming. Just look at them having a ball:
We had to visit a lion park that was completely separate from the game reserve in order to see this guy. It was actually a little sad because the lions weren't really being left to roam freely in their own world, rather they looked like they were being kept in captivity and not being fed well. We had to stay in the car with windows closed at all times and just got close enough to take these pictures through the window. After a couple of minutes, the lion started charging at our car and nearly ripped off the bumper, before we raced out of there. They were probably super hungry and could smell us in the car.
Bits and pieces
We literally woke up and found this guy in the backyard:
My sister and her bodyguards at the concert, backstage:
Gorgeous South African beachside resort:
This was a lengthy post, but hope you all enjoyed it!