An email I received was asking me to provide my most memorable travel experience. It was from the publishers of one of my books, Culture Smart: Switzerland. About to launch a new website for their global guidebooks, they were asking all their authors to summon up a favourite travel memory and say it in no more than a hundred words. The challenge for me was not writing a single memory in so few words but choosing only one memory. So, I didn’t. Instead I submitted a paragraph that described more than one trip and spanned a couple of decades. As you can probably imagine, doing that in 100 words was next to impossible but it has prompted me to flesh it out because somewhere in those scarce words, that implied so much, lay the thread that led me to the creation of a video and photo-sharing app that facilitates cross-cultural understanding for travellers and the culturally curious. Since Culture Dock is soon to be released, I figure it’s a good time to fill people in on its beginnings.
As a young woman in my early twenties, I sat on a university campus in Durban South Africa listening to an Afrikaaner band called the Kalahari Surfers sing songs of protest and saw South Africans line up under a marquis announcing a first showing of ‘Cry Freedom’, some five years after the rest of the world watched this film about their own country’s struggle. It was 1991, Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison and I was experiencing a country awakening as music and art (and political parties) were being unbanned. I was hooked enough to return within two years to work as a news photographer as South Africa lurched toward democracy. I spent a year holding my camera to marches and rallies and even an execution. I photographed Nelson Mandela the day it was announced he co-won the Nobel Peace prize with F.W. DeKlerk. I took pictures of a ninety year-old woman with crutches, heading to the polling station to vote for the first time in her life. There is no one memorable moment. They stack up, one on top of the other, each one breathing life into the next whispering ‘don’t ever forget this’; urging me to not ever stop learning more about the world around me.
But there is one trip that brought me to tears, not because of the beauty (or the horror) that I saw through my camera’s lens but because I’m now a mother and looking out at the world is never with a single gaze; it’s done with the knowledge our children too are taking this all in, learning from where we’ve been, what we’ve done and will be the ones that will eventually move this world forward.
In 2013, I returned to Johannesburg with my daughters, then age thirteen and fifteen. We visited the Apartheid Museum where they saw the country’s dark history on display and images of events I’d attended before they were born. I introduced them to the family that welcomed me with open arms, into their home in Soweto — to Tsholofelo who was around the same age as my daughters when I first met her and her mother and grandmother. We spent a day with my old friend, the photojournalist Victor Matom, who teaches youth photography in Soweto. With him, we wandered dusty roads taking photos, engaged with people as Victor reached out his hand and gargantuan heart to passersby who all seemed to know him. All of this, and the smell of coal burning stoves, the vibrant clothing worn by women, the explosion of colour as the sun plied its way through a hazy sky toward the horizon stirred memories that banged up against the moment I was sharing with my daughters.
To be there with my daughters could have felt surreal but instead it became one of the few times in my life when everything made sense. There were reasons I traveled, reasons this country seeped into my heart. I was showing my daughters a place that literally changed my life and the message to never forget this, to never stop learning about the world around us, was being amplified. Somewhere in all of that, the seeds of Culture Dock were born. At the time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a series of books, or a website, or the social media platform it’s ultimately turned out to be. What I envisioned was a space that encouraged curiosity about the world that would be relevant to today’s traveler. Through much trial and tribulation an app called Culture Dock has been developed. Its roots go back twenty-five years but took force in earnest three years ago when the idea of an app to facilitate cultural awareness first came into my mind. Through wrong turns, delays, technical glitches and a few other unexpected obstacles, the app will soon be rolled out onto what feels like a precarious world stage.
Despite all the crazy delays with the app, it’s helping me to now feel like I’m doing something productive, beyond liking a few posts I agree with on Facebook or feeling my temper rise with arguments that lack reason or empathy. You may be asking yourself who is this woman who thinks she knows what the world needs. I’m not assuming I do. I’m just someone who’s pulled the thread in my life and come up with a platform where I hope people will say ‘hey look what we like to do in our corner of the globe!’ Or, ask a question of someone who does something they may not understand. What I can say for sure is that I know my life has been enriched by people I’ve met who have grown up in parts of the world that are different than what I’m used to. I can tell you how my life expands when I’m curious about different traditions, customs and values.
One more thing, before I exit this expanded travel memory, it’s almost an aside but it happens to fit in perfectly with the points I’m making here. A few weeks into development of the app, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m completely healthy now but I’m not going to let a bitch like cancer knock me to the ground without saying I learned a thing or two. In this life, we need to focus on the healthy parts. Cancer may run through us, through society; we may allow toxicity into the system to kill it but at the expense of our own lifeforce. By focusing on and nourishing the healthy parts, the ones that by far outnumber the unhealthy, is the only way we can feel empowered when life gets crazy. This is how we keep the energy flowing, keep wanting to live for a better day and in the process, we learn just how strong and empathetic we humans can be.
So, who’s up for a global love affair?
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