The woman on Bloubergstrand.

Whenever I meet people who, like me, have lived in both New York and Los Angeles I always ask them which city they prefer. The answer seems to tell me so much about the personality of the person i’m talking too.

I had heard so much about Cape Town for many years, it’s stunning location, Table Mountain, the beaches, the penguins, the white sand and oceans. Cape Town seemed to have everything. So, why, as I walked across the City Centre did my heart seem to sink? I guess for me it was a matter of energy, chemistry and Cape Town didn’t have any of them.

I kept thinking back to Johannesburg, how people had warned me never to walk in downtown alone and how in the end I had gone against their advice and in doing so discovered Johannesburg as exciting, gritty, raw, edgy in the same way Manhattan can be. Quite simply Johannesburg had been fabulous. After a few hours walking around Cape Town I felt the city and it’s lack of energy stifling, too European, too claustrophobic, too neat and pretty. This is a city I decided where people exist but don’t live. I took one look at the Waterfront, the new development around the harbour and promised myself never to walk there again. After my seperation my soul felt vulnerable, I didn’t need pointless materialism and glass and chrome buildings to crush it further.

As for landscapes, Cape Town really does have them in abundance, probably one of the most beautifully located cities in the world matching Rio de Janeiro for sure. As I stood on Table Mountain and looked down on Cape Town I realised it could never be as visually stunning as say Hong Kong from Victoria Peak. I had planned to stay in Cape Town for a week and after the first day realised it was going to be a struggle to get through it. I wondered if it was me and if I may be just another jaded traveller.

Days were spent visiting various beaches all the while searching for penguins and seals. One day I had made my way down to Cape Point by helicopter, the coastline marvellous. Another place I truly loved was Kirstenbosch, the cities Botanical Garden nestled into the side of Table Mountain. Kirstenbosch was for me the most beautiful Botanical Garden I have ever walked through and a real pleasure to explore.

I did manage to find real meaning in Cape Town though, life changing meaning. It happened one morning as I walked along Bloubergstrand, a beach on the Atlantic with sweeping views towards Table Mountain. It was here on this beach that my life took on a new course.

Flying down the coast of Africa.

Since May 2015 you could say I had, I guess, existed mentally in some sort of parrallel life to my own. Not quite a part of my own self. I was still me ofcourse, still Grace, but I was living in denial, denial that my relationship was over, denial that I had lost the love of my life. It was on Bloubergstrand that morning that this denial stage of my lost relationship ended.

It had something to do with the ocean, the feeling of sand between my toes, the noise of sea gulls, the crashing sound of breakers hitting rocks, the Atlantic itself with it’s hints of endless possibility, the laughter of children and in the distance Table Mountain looming under a perfect blue sky. It dawned on me that the life I was living, that part of me that wasn’t in denial, was living a pretty darn incredible life, and that in that moment I was looking at Table Mountain, the iconic horizon recognised the world over.  A few months earlier I had lunch somewhere across that ocean on Corcovado, and before that had hitchhiked further out alone across the High Andes. The day before on a whim I had chartered my own helicopter to take me to where a continent ended and two oceans met. I reminded myself that I loved human beings in all their forms and they seemed to love me too, that life was incredible, that our planet was beautiful.

I took a photo of Table Mountain that morning seen from Bloubergstrand.  When I got home I framed it. It hangs on the wall of my kitchen to remind me that life goes on, to remind me that I’m lucky to live the life I lead, that in ways our planet with it’s most famous vistas have been handed to me on a silver platter. It was in South Africa that I found the ability to let the past go, to reach a turning point in my life.

That very moment on Bloubergstrand!

I had decided on that morning that, while I was incapable of falling in love again, at least for right now anyway,I would try to go on dates again and to be open to the idea of having a relationship, atleast in theory. It had been 16 months since my relationship had ended, girlfriends had reminded me that I was good looking, they had even set up blind dates in the hope I would move on with my life. It’s not you I had confessed, it’s me. In the haze of denial I had been aware that men had asked me on dates but I had been closed, they had just been holograms and nothing more.

Now I would live, things would be very different from now on. I would completely transform my appearance, I would wear dresses and dye my hair blond, I would wear the strongest red lipstick I could find, I would never wear denim again. As a broken human I promised myself that I would try to be attractive again. I promised myself that on Bloubergstrand that day, a morning when I had hardly looked in the mirror getting ready, that my hair had uncaringly been put into a pony tail, a morning when I had wore jeans and sneakers. The woman I was on Bloubergstrand would never be allowed to exist again, she would fade forever. I promised myself that.

Two weeks ago as I walked through the main train station in Cairo I felt like what seemed the eyes of a thousand men on me. I faintly remembered that woman on Bloubergstrand in her jeans and sneakers, dressed in her sad smile, how it seemed she had lived in another decade while South Africa had only been nine months ago. In the meantime I had truly transformed myself, I can’t remember exactly where or when I had took on my new form only that the woman I’am now is not the same person. As the young Egyptian taxi driver struggled to keep his eyes on the road, telling me over and over how amazing I look and asking for my WhatsApp I realised that I do seem to have something appealing right now. They will never know the broken woman I had been, how the pain I had felt in 2015 and 2016 had been totally off the scale of what I was ever capable to processing. They just see me at face value and I like to think that is where my secret lies, in my eyes, a certain smoldering pain and rebirth, a contradiction. I know what it means to live now.

They say you can never live, to truly understand what life means until you experience pain or heartbreak. I believe this to be true. If you ever find yourself going through a tough patch then do not try and rush your emotions or sweep them away but embrace them and the life lesson they carry. It may take a day, a week, years but your life will go on, you will become strong again.

 

 

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Life’s lessons in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg

 

As the final call was being made for the flight to South Africa I still had to show my boarding pass. I was in tears talking to my friend Sonja on the phone who was demanding that I must, no matter what, get on that flight, that I must get away from Amsterdam and everything familiar for a while and most important I must break away from the emotions that had been consuming me for the past months.

My parents had died when I had been 22, and as tough as that had been, this pain was different. Ever efficient, I like everything to run like clockwork, with precision like a Swiss watch that’s why love has the power to destroy me as it has no form, no definition, no rules. It’s formless intensity was so overwhelming in a way I felt I was being crushed from the inside. I realised the summer of 2016 had been the toughest time of my life, devestated could describe my feelings, only magnify that word tenfold.

A few weeks earlier I had ended up in hospital suffering from anorexia, a side effect from the turmoil I was going through. I had lost a third of my body weight, convulsing alot I had been unable to eat. How could love or the demise of it affect me in such a way? Somehow I had managed to keep going to work but it had been hard, every single thing I had done that summer seemed so unbelievably hard. I took Sonja’s advice and stepped on the plane and before I knew it we were approaching the coast of Africa.

Johannesburg

Johannesburg, the city of what could have been

Being on long haul flights are a time when I normally reflect on my life, my actions. I had thought about my trip to Romania, how I had loved it there and of Peru and the beauty of the Andes. I realised that on those trips and the months between I had just existed but was not living. The problem was that my emotions and the fact I was unable to let them go, that these emotions were preventing me from loving life. I needed to be my old self again, the person who is endlessly sweet, so polite that your grandparents would adore me, who genuinely likes everyone when meeting them.

I know the exact moment when my life got better and that the summer of 2016 began to fade into a distant memory. I had found a movie on the in-flight entertainment system called The Danish Girl, a story about Lili Elbe, one of the first women who had had gender reassignment surgery. This movie was in a way groundbreaking for me. In the movie there were scenes where she tries on her first dress, learns to walk and move and in a way I was reminded of my own transition many years before when I too had taken the exact same steps to become a woman physically. I had forgotten about those years, the energy I had put into it. In a way I had forgotten I had been anything other than female physically. It dawned on me that I should be immensely proud of my life now, that I was sucessful, most of all it dawned on me that I should not let such a thing as love destroy me. Self worth.

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a photo of me November 2016, the woman I became

Although the drive into Johannesburg was a bit scary and downtown felt sinister at night I still knew I was going to like this city. Johannesburg was the city of what-could-have-been as in my early twenties I had been offered a job in South Africa but in the end had rejected it. Now I was seeing Jo’burg for the first time and wondered if I too, in this city, would have suffered during a painful seperation or if this city would have been kinder to me than what Amsterdam had been.

Reef Hotel

watching the sunset from the hotel lounge

The high point of Johannesburg had been the sunsets, sitting in the rooftop lounge of my hotel watching the red skies reflect in the skyscrapers. Although some men had tried to strike up conversations with me I had, as always, declined, opting to watch the birds fly in formation across downtown, just to stare out towards the city. In a way to be honest that was all I was capable of at that moment in my life.

Afternoons I would walk around downtown. The reception of my hotel had  pleaded with me to go everywhere by car and that the streets were dangerous. Now when you say that to me I will make a point of walking everywhere. Johannesburg dangerous? Actually along with the Lili Elbe movie, the sunsets from the hotel it was the people of Johannesburg who made something inside me click. Their energy, friendliness, their vulnerability gave me the first ideas of trying to live again, not to exist anymore, but to live, really live!

So that was that, the first moments of my true, pure rebirth. The Lili Elbe movie giving me feelings of self worth, of being a true survivor, of being unique and through everything to become the person I’am inside. The sunsets reminding me of the endless beauty of our planet and that there is alot more to our world than just emotion. Lastly the people of Johannesburg with their unmeasurable energy and drive reminding me to keep going, to never give up, to grab life by the horns and most of all….to survive.

 

Into Africa 16.09.2012

So, summer 2012 and things have been really hectic with my work and living in such a crazy city as Amsterdam. I’ve been having alot of fun going to art exhibitions and discovering new places to eat although it kinda sucks that I haven’t been able to travel as much as i’d like to. Reality bites I guess. The good news is i’m in the minority who can say that they love their job and sometimes working is more amazing than what the rest of reality has on offer. Find something you love doing and then find a way to get paid doing it!

Africa Africa. I can’t go through life without ever visiting. I had planned to go back to India but my boyfriend put a stop to that saying we should go visit other regions and not go back to Asia for a while. Uhmmmm, ok. Perception is a funny thing – throw two people into the same situation and they’ll both have completely different experiences. My boyfriend chose Africa.

I’ve always wanted to go there myself so it worked out for both of us. We were naturally drawn to Mali and Burkina Faso. We both agreed that for us those countries seemed to fulfill our ideas of Africa….sandy towns, mosques made of mud, the Dogon and Bozo tribes, vibrant markets, canoes on the Niger River. It just seemed right. I watched a (sometimes boring) film called “The Sheltering Sky” where some of it was filmed on location in the Sahel. Wow!…. then everything came crashing down as people fled Timbuktu and fighting broke out on the streets of Bamako. We scanned the rest of the continent. Senegal seemed like a dream…but only if you were fluent in French and was way over priced. Guinea Bissau had a coup. Amazing stories about the landscapes of Guinea but a nightmare logistically – add to that Liberia and Sierra Leone. One of my ancestors is buried in Sierra Leone, he died of Malaria in the 19th Century so that was somewhere with an emotional connection. The reviews about Ghana were equally as enticing until you read the requirements to get a travel visa – that killed it instantly for us. Nigeria seemed unstable. Cameroon again paradise on Earth but far too expensive for an extended trip. Ethiopia…how could you ever not want to go experience the Lower Omo Valley with it´s Mursi and Hamer tribes? Until you realise to get there involves renting a jeep and a ranger with a rifle from a number of companies who have a monopoly. $2200 per person per week? I think not.

Then came the southern African countries. South Africa, we had to decide long about this country. I’m not attracted to it at all as it seems far too western but it does have stunning landscapes and tribal villages and there are the nearby mysterious countries of Swaziland and Lesotho. Some of the photos of Johannesburg  just looked like London on a rainy day. Mozambique again fascinating with it´s Portugese looking towns but difficult logistically.

In the end we chose Malawi and East Africa. The attraction being the Rift Valley, the biodiversity, the transport infrastructure and the wildlife. The major cities don’t seem visually appealing but the people definetly are. Travel visas were easy to get and it’s possible to re-enter Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya on a single entry visa – that is if you are coming from one of those three countries mentioned. Another attraction will be the contrast between the fusion of the African-Arab Swahili coast and the journey towards the more Central African Christian regions. I will add videos and photos when I get back. I might update this blog from an internet cafe along the route, you never know. Until then…upendo maisha!