I hadn’t expected this first post about our family’s South Africa road trip to discuss anything but our travels; let alone politics. I’d figured we’d quietly toast our first female president at a remote bush camp, and merrily continue on our trip.
We hadn’t anticipated a contentious U.S. election moment. But, good or bad. It happened, and we weren’t able to really get the details until December.
Our flight departed for Africa in the wee hours of Halloween. Ballots were safely in the mail. Four weeks later, we returned home on November 30 to Christmas music and . . . President-elect Trump. We missed a giant in-between. And it wasn’t just Thanksgiving.
Like other travelers and expats the world round, we didn't have trusted friends or neighbors to murmur our concerns to. We missed the riots in our hometown of Portland, Oregon, and we skipped several stages of mourning.
We were in the African bush during the days of the election, with spotty internet and limited news. It was Nov. 10 (a full day ahead) when we heard the final call. We were parked in a chaotic little town to get road food and water. We were prepping for a bumpy, stormy six-hour drive that ended in - fittingly - a violent storm in the dark that brought our car to a standstill. Both of us adults, I think, just wanted get through the drive and numb out the news we didn’t want to discuss.
But, like many kids in the U.S., ours children were openly digesting the news. So, we parents did what other American parents were doing - as calmly as possible back-peddled on every apocalyptic thing we had said could happen under a Trump administration. We needed to convince them, as much as ourselves, that things would be okay.
Yet, the real task ahead was explaining our election to middle and upper class South Africans and other foreigners over the next three weeks. It would take all the red white and blue we could muster; and it would change our interpretation of the election forever.
We spent a week at my sister’s family’s isolated merino wool farm where she held a big Sunday afternoon party with about 50 local South African farmers from the Stormberg Mountains. South Africans are too polite to delve immediately into political talk - but throughout the day, as the wine and whiskey flowed - so too came the questions and commentary for the Americans.
Mostly, they wanted to liken our election results to Brexit, show their concern for the fall of America, and/or point out how “America, now too has a corrupt, dictator-like President just like South Africa” (Jacob Zuma). To which we felt incredibly defensive in our rebuttals.
While our friends back home were sure the world was ending, we were defending all of America, even (gasp!), the electoral system. At many points, we actually downplayed the entire office of the presidency.
These were some of the words that came out of our mouth:
“America will be okay. The president doesn’t actually hold as much power as the rest of the world, or some Americans, tend to think. Remember, we have three very important branches of the government . . . We have checks and balances.”
“There are systems that will keep him in check. He needs the cooperation of Congress.”
“One president cannot undo centuries of democracy in just four years.”
I think our confidence in U.S. democracy surprised us both. The more we said it along the rest of our 2,800 mile journey - the more we actually believed it. The U.S. would be okay.
And we truly did want to go home when the time came. Because, as beautiful as the people and landscape of South Africa is, it is still a nation where poverty, theft, violence, racism and classism still permeate every single moment of every day. Indeed, the U.S. has many of these same problems, but it’s not even close to the same scale.
We passed through Frankfurt on our trip home and re-boarded with five Afghan refugee families.
A lump caught in my throat as I watched these displaced people step onto a plane bound for Los Angeles. I asked one father if they were heading to the U.S. for the first time. He told me they all had Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. Government (i.e. translators and special assistants). I now understand they were being ushered in under the Obama administration’s extension of the deadline of this special visa to December 31. This was November 30. They were barely making the cut-off. I felt such relief for them; but also such hopelessness knowing this wasn’t even an option for most of the world. To so many global citizens, the U.S. - with all it’s scabs and crooked politicians and silly electoral system - was still a shining example of hope and safety.
Back at home, friends asked if we’d considered just staying overseas after the election. Indeed, we have been expats before, and we love travel, but the thought hadn’t even crossed our minds this time.
Travel writer Rick Steves considers travel to be a political act. I can’t agree more. We’ll always hold tight to the experience of being away from the U.S. at that exact moment in history and how it created a surprising outlook on a dark election for us. We’ll never forget the feeling of gratitude and guilt about holding our American passports or the freedom we have to choose to come home, no questions asked.
Because that is exactly what travel is all about: gaining and keeping perspective.