As many of my friends know, if they have an account in Facebook that is, we ended up spending our spring break in the US. The South African consulate in Lagos made it next to impossible for me to get a visa. When my husband went back on the collection date he had to wait outside the gate for two hours before they let him in. Then he had to cool his heels for another couple of hours before he was called. They handed over all our documents, including my passport minus the visa stamp. He asked them what was wrong. They said they needed our boss’ mobile phone number. Puzzled by this requirement my husband went back to the entrance where they kept all mobile phones, to retrieve our superintendent’s number. But when he returned they closed the window and refused to entertain him.
We informed our superintendent, and he tried to call the person in charge. He was told that I should re-apply, which means get back there and wait in line again for 6-8 hours. We were also informed to provide a paper ticket … but our travel agent was adamant that South African airways only issues e-tickets now, which is what we submitted in the first place. To make a long story short we decided to call off the trip — we knew that I will never be issued a visitors visa to South Africa on time anyway: not without a paper ticket, and less than a week from our departure date. We cut our losses, including the cancellation fee for the plane tickets and non-refundable full payment for our week-long accommodation.
And we had a ball in Atlanta and Mississippi instead — yeah! Since I have a 10-year visa to the US and Delta has a direct 12-hour flight to Atlanta, we figured this was a good opportunity to visit our relatives and friends in the South. During the Easter weekend we brought James to the Children’s Museum and Georgia Aquarium. He went crazy over the sharks, Dory, and Nemo! We had dinner with Brian’s cousins and brunch with Scott, a former colleague from Pakistan who now teaches Special Ed. Then we drove six hours to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to visit our alma mater. While there we brought James to the zoo. The irony was not lost on us that we had to travel all the way to Mississippi so our son can see real zebras when we live in Africa.
Driving along highway 90 of the post-Katrina cities along the Gulf Coast was a surreal experience. I had trouble remembering where things used to be, there were so many vacant lots. What happened to the lovely antebellum homes facing the beach? How many casinos are still in business? Where are the colorful souvenir shops? Where is Olive Garden, where my husband and I had our first unofficial date?
Becky and her family welcomed us back with open arms. Her home felt familiar and friendly, even though it was heavily damaged, too. Her two grandchildren were visiting and this made our stay even more enjoyable. James got to play with them and with their toys. It would take another two weeks after this visit for us to fully realize that Biloxi has not recovered from Katrina yet, when it announced that it was closing three schools, including the one where Becky has taught for about 20 years.
What’s a visit to the South without enjoying good ol Southern cooking? So we pigged out on cholesterol-rich dishes we missed after being away for 8 years: po boy sandwiches, deep fried catfish, étouffée, and crawfish, washed down with iced tea. We continued our foodtrip/roadtrip to Albany, Georgia where my grad school classmate/dorm mate Robert was more than happy to take us to his favorite restaurants. One was the appropriately named “Nothing Fancy” restaurant where I enjoyed a basket of deep fried oysters, hush puppies, sweet potato fries, catfish strips, and boiled shrimps. But the real reason (sorry Robert) for our visit to Albany was a place named Brusters — and they make the creamiest homemade ice cream in the world. Our favorite was turtles — buttermilk ice cream with generous doses of pecan nuts and caramel syrup!
As we made our way back to Atlanta for the flight back to Lagos we swore we will not wait for another 8 years before we visit this part of the world again.