Travel in music: Chapter 36 - 2016, Travel Through BRICS (South Africa)

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2016 – Chapter 36 | In August 2016, our little family of four embarked on a journey we dubbed Travel Through BRICS. Two years prior, I had passed an exam to join Belgium’s international network of trade councilors. Since early 2015, I had been in a “recruitment reserve” and I was awaiting a vacancy to be assigned to a post somewhere in that network. A full year passed and the wait really started to weigh on me. I was incredibly excited to undertake this new career but I found it difficult to just bide my time. Predictably, as happened in every other previous instance when I had felt stuck in a rut, I started to daydream of a long road trip.


I shared this dream with Leanne, who was in a very different headspace at the time. She managed Cape Town’s biggest radio newsroom and loved her job as much as she loved her colleagues. In spite of that, either out of unflinching loyalty to me or because she found it alluring herself, she entertained this crazy idea. Slowly but surely, as we discussed it further, it began to take shape and turn into a real project. We needed to consider several things: the economic viability, the kid’s schooling and our purpose. We were adamant that it would not be a mere whimsical holiday. We wanted it to be educational. To a degree, you could argue that every journey is a learning experience but we really aimed to acquire a new perspective on the world, for us and, chiefly, for our kids. South Africa had joined the block of large emerging economies known by its ‘BRICS’ acronym just six years earlier but their association was loose at best. If these countries really were going to be tomorrow’s great economic challengers, would it not be interesting to know them on a deeper level? Therefore, when Leanne suggested exploring Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to dig beneath these vague economic ties, I screamed ‘genius!’ She had just found our trip’s theme.


From then on, BRICS became a near obsession. I took out collections of children’s folk tales from these countries at the local library. Bedtime stories became a prelude to the trip. The children excitedly immersed themselves in the NatGeo nature documentaries “Wild” on India, Russia and China. I built a comprehensive website and blog and we plotted our itinerary while further ideas sprouted. We sought connections between BRICS and ways to uncover them along the way. Leanne’s own heritage fit this objective, of course. Thanks to her great-uncles and aunts who still live in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we gathered anecdotes and traced her great-grandfather’s footsteps from Madras to Ladysmith, where he farmed a plot of land after his indentured service was complete. Gandhi spent 21 formative years in South Africa, witnessing British colonialism’s crushing violence at its apex. In every town and village, busts, statues or museums honor this Indian hero and we made a point of finding them and visiting them. We found improbable connections too, like the plaque commemorating the daring escape of the Russian sloop ‘Diana’ from Simon’s Town harbor, where the British detained it for 12 months during the Napoleonic wars or the Irma Stern museum, which displays a collection of Russian orthodox icons. We hoped to uncover more along the way.


The kids' education proved to be a minor obstacle. Their principal was extremely encouraging. He helped me sign Guy and Max up to online schooling and reassured me that, at their age, a trip of this nature would provide more learning than spending time in a classroom. We also vowed to visit schools in every country along the way and, perhaps, to ask if our kids could do presentations of parts of our journey and/or mini-lecture on BRICS. With that in mind, I devised playful quizzes and fact sheets for children their age.


By the end of July, we had rented our house, sold one of our cars, put our furniture in storage and decided our immediate and long-term itinerary. We would spend the first three months driving around South Africa in our second car and, with luck, sell it at the end of the loop, in Johannesburg. From there, we would fly to Brazil. Rather than swallow more asphalt, the idea was to stay put in a small village of the Bahia coast and learn capoeira and Portuguese until December. We would then meet my family in Brussels for Christmas and fly to Mumbai before New Year. We would crisscross the next three countries, India, China and Russia, exclusively by train, following the West coast of India southwards and going back up the East Coast before trekking through the Himalayas into Tibet and Western China. By train still, we would loop around this giant country to Beijing and onward to Vladivostok. The final leg would see us take the Trans-Siberian to Moscow, with pit stops around Lake Baikal and in the Urals. By the following summer, we hoped to know what posting the Belgian government had in store for me and to be in Brussels ready to take it up.


Enthralled by this perfect plan, we developed a few media contacts who were keen to publish articles as we progressed. From the road, Leanne wrote several pieces. She recounted buying a soda and a few cookies at Nkandla’s spaza shop (President Jacob Zuma’s fortress, built on public dime in his homestead, still featured one of his five wives’ convenience store). She analyzed the consequences of drought in Limpopo. For radio, she interviewed a young kid from Carnavorn about the science-teaching benefits of living next to the world’s largest radio telescope. On Heritage Day, she published an emotional piece about what her Indian heritage meant in today’s South Africa. Some sponsors agreed to barter services for blog mentions as well, so we were confident that the pattern would repeat itself along the way, easing the strain on our savings.


Of course, life is what happens when you are busy making other plans… A week before we effectively set sail, I got a call from my new employers explaining that there would be a vacancy within the next two months. True to their word, as we reached the eastern part of Limpopo nine weeks later, they called again to offer me a choice between Abidjan and Riga as the next destination for our family. We had driven about 5.000 kilometres through South Africa’s provinces already. We drove a further 2.300 over the next two weeks to get back to Cape Town and organize the next chapter of our life.


Although the BRICS dream was cut short by 4/5ths, we felt fulfilled. South Africa, at least, had unpeeled every layer of its complex beauty for us, as we sliced through its history, landscapes and people. We had explored early dinosaur fossil sites in Nieu-Bethesda and the battlefields of the Anglo-Boer and Anglo-Zulu wars. At the Cradle of Civilization, we had climbed into the bowels of earth in search of humankind’s missing links. We had followed the footsteps of the Voortrekkers fleeing British invasion and attempting, unsuccessfully, to carve out their own, independent republics (including the uber-weird modern-day Orania). We had traced Shaka Zulu’s own nation-building efforts through the glorious victories and ignominious defeats of his descendants. We had shaken our head in wonder at the vestiges of the Mapungubwe kingdom, displaying evidence of trade as far as India back in the 11th century. We had visited schools in the remote rural hillsides of the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, where Zake Mda’s imaginary characters from the novel “Heart of Redness” still struggle to reconcile tradition and modernity in real life. In Kimberly, we had caught glimpses of how profoundly the diamond mining boom had shaped the destinies of peoples and towns. Nature’s magnificence had also awed us with its incredible diversity, be it in the flowering Namaqualand desert, the unforgiving dryness of the Karoo, the steep slopes of the Drakensberg, the bushy savannas of the Kruger, the lunar, baobab-strewn landscapes of northern Limpopo, or the wetlands of Saint Lucia.


We vowed to visit the remaining four BRICS countries over the next few years, if possible (as I write these lines, almost four years later, we have already taken two amazing trips to Russia) and packed our bags for Côte d’Ivoire in December 2016. This welcoming West African country has been ‘home’ since but because I will not write about an unfinished chapter, this 36th one is the last installment.


(For the last, I've twisted the musical illustration rules a little. It's Cape Town band Beatenberg singing "Cape To Rio" but the images of the video, of course, are from our BRICS trip)

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