There is so much to see in this beautiful country of Africa. One summer is surely not enough. My trip to South Africa began in July 2003 from Newark Airport (New Jersey). Newark is like any other airport. I met up with the students that would be my classmates for the next three weeks, the dean and his wife, and a little old lady, Mrs. Rappaport (who happened to be the wife of my then mentor, Marty). There was nothing spectacular about this part of the trip.
First to France
I was ready to GO! And finally, we are boarding…a flight to France. I get to spend an entire day in France! We landed in Paris after about 12 hours in a giant, two-level plane and wonderful “French” food (the menus were ALL in French). I get my passport stamped for the first time. I was more excited than I think I should have been. Here comes the problem. They didn’t want to get my wheelchair from under the plane so instead of giving me an airport wheelchair for the day, I get stuck in…you ready? AN AISLE CHAIR, also known as a straight back. Honestly, these chairs are only about 12 inches wide. I am more than that. It’s not safe no matter how wide you are or aren’t. I put up a fight and complained especially since we were going to have a three-hour layover. No way was I staying in that chair for three hours! They gave me an airport chair.
My class decided to kill some time and tour Paris, France. The first stop was a tour bus. We rented two taxi-van and had the drivers give us the grand tour. We did the whole tourist thing. We drove under the Arc, around the Champs, and visited the Parliament buildings and an old music academy. At this point, everyone got out of the vans to tour on foot. Everyone but me. This is where being a wheelchair traveller becomes a setback for me. The reason I stayed in the van is because I didn’t HAVE a wheelchair. See, the wheelchair I had belonged to the airport and I couldn’t take it with me. So once I was in the van, I was stuck. It’s okay, the driver was very nice and he stayed with me. He gave me the run-down of France from his point of view. I specifically told him to speak as if I were a student, not a tourist.
South Africa Journey
Finally, we all head back to the airport and take the 6-hr journey to Johannesburg, SA. South Africa is not what TV would have us think. It’s very modern and very Americanized. We stayed at a hotel near the airport and a stone’s throw from Caesar’s Palace Casino! Yes, we took FULL advantage of that. This was also my first time having Indian food. I fell in love with it right away. No gambling. This is also my first time going to a club and drinking. We were treated like VIPs. We were “The Americans” lol! During our week in Jo-burg, we visited the Apartheid Museum (somewhat accessible) and the Nelson Mandela Museum (not accessible at all).
We also visited Mandela Park, a Shantytown. It was Sunday and we were invited to go to church with a family and see an Episcopal confirmation. It was a lovely ceremony. After that, we went to the local bar in the shanty and spoke with some locals. I had an impromptu jam session with a man with a guitar and a woman singing alongside him. Michael W. Smith songs were on the playlist. On our last night there, one of my classmates managed to get us VIP entrance into “Monsoon Lagoon.” The VIP section is upstairs and no elevator. One classmate and two security guards carried me up the stairs to the section. But get this! The bathroom was fully accessible! Ha!
The next morning we flew to Cape Town where we’d continue our classes at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape. First of all, the scenery is beautiful! Table Mountain, Lions Head, and the surrounding landscape are breathtaking in person. A USA summer is a South African Winter so it did get cold at times. We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express on Long (or Short) Street. Our room was NOT accessible but it was manageable for me. I am pretty mobile for a wheelchair-bound person. To use the bathroom, I had to get on the floor and crawl in. The showers, while not a roll-in, were no different from those I’ve used elsewhere. I’m used to it.
After about a week, we moved on to another hotel which was a dorm at one point for Univ. of Cape Town. I liked this place. Once again, inaccessible. Even getting to the cafeteria to eat was a bit of a pain. But the scenery around it was gorgeous. I couldn’t be too upset. These bathrooms had tubs. High-walled tubs. I had to first get on the floor and crawl into the bathroom. Then I had to climb onto the toilet and transfer into the tub. Safe? No. New? No.
While we were there we linked up with a family who showed us around. The first stop was a zoo. Then we went to a national reserve for a “safari.” This was completely inaccessible but, since I’m Tiara, I made it work! The safari trucks sit high off of the ground out of the way of animals. However, there aren’t any raised platforms to help you get in so, I had to be semi-lifted into the truck. This was okay until we had to transfer trucks mid-way on the safari. The second truck pulled up next to us and we all got out. I had to be lifted by two classmates. One on each side. I became a part of the safari as other travellers began taking my picture! What could I do other than smile for the cameras? Have to make the best of any situation.
We spent our final weekend at the home of the family who hosted us and their neighbor’s home, who was away. The girls in one house; the boys in the second. Somehow we ended up in the same home anyway (haha!). It was cool. We slumber partied and watched TV. Pretended to do our assignments. Again, since it was a private home it was not accessible and I had to make it work.
The campus: UCT was accessible. The campus is fairly large but everything seems to be within walking distance. Univ of Western Cape was semi-accessible. In my opinion elevators and ramps were too far out of the way. But, it was more accessible than many American campuses I’ve been to.
Transit: From what I could see around Jo-burg and Cape Town, transit is not really that accessible. South Africa still has the type of system where you get on as fast as you can or get left. The rented van we rented (btw: it was a Mercedes. It seems everywhere but in the US is the Mercedes Benz a standard non-luxury car) did not have a lift. No problem. I can “climb.”
The ferry to Robben Island was not accessible. Robben Island vans were also not accessible, but the airport was accessible.