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The December great trek

By Janet Lopes

As the December holiday approaches every year South Africans across the country begin to prepare for the new great trek. The pack-up and leave-home drive is almost primeval in its urgency — a ritual of pilgrimage embedded in our subconscious since we were children.

In South Africa, the first and probably the largest group of travellers are the working-class people who visit their families in far-flung places, often rural areas. This visit is shaped by stressful financial pressures — the need to take gifts home to those who have little, the need to demonstrate that the visitor is successful and prospering in a distant world. There is a particular poignancy in seeing labourers and domestic workers at the roadside with giant bulging plastic bags at their side waiting patiently for buses or taxis to ferry them long distances to a familiar world at home that has changed somehow during their absence.

Gallo
Gallo

The second wave is the lemming-like rush to the coast of people trapped in inland cities who travel to enjoy sun, sand and surf with their children and get away from it all. Thinking about it, many of us feel the rush of excitement we experienced as youngsters, we remember the deadly dreariness of the long drive and the taste of the warm egg mayonnaise sandwiches and warm cold drinks in the back seat of the car as we argued with our siblings and longed to arrive.

The third group comprises the rather more well-heeled travellers who head for overseas destinations. Some of these people travel for the sheer pleasure of visiting new places, hearing strange languages and eating even stranger foods. Increasingly, these overseas travellers are drawn by the South African diaspora — the visceral need to visit parents, children and grandchildren who have emigrated and scattered across the globe from London to Lima and from Berlin to Buenos Aires. I know that when I arrive in England every December in a flurry of unfamiliar winter coats, scarves and boots and my seven-year-old grandson runs pell-mell into my arms calling with a whoop “It’s grandma!” I feel a surge of emotion that grips me by the throat and silences me for a moment.

To me, the last and saddest group are the would-be travellers — the immigrants, often from neighbouring African countries — who are trapped unwillingly at home. They are both legal and illegal immigrants tossed by the winds of fate. Many of them lack the money, the documents or the confidence to leave South Africa to go home and visit their families and loved ones in the DRC or Malawi or Mozambique in case they place their return in jeopardy. I see my local car guard at the shopping centre, thin and hollow-eyed but always friendly, giving me a cheery greeting in French-accented English, masking his sadness. “My mother is old, she is over 80,” he says. “Her health is not good. It hurts my heart that I will never see her again.”

One thing is certain. When January comes around and we all return to the familiar routines of school or home or work, a pervasive sense of relief sets in as we recover from the joys and sadnesses of the holiday rituals and return to our mundane everyday lives for the next 12 months.

Janet Lopes is a skills development consultant and freelance journalist with a passion for languages and travel.