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united states

tree branch in snow

2Winters: Colorado Snow

It’s boiling hot in Joburg this week. But I’m in a winter wonderland in Colorado.

My view out the kitchen window this morning.

My best friend Claire lives in Colorado Springs and I’m visiting her, between visits to Washington D.C., Baltimore, Taos, Santa Fe, and Middlebury. It’s a long trip, happening right as autumn changes to winter, which means this year I’m kind of having 2Winters instead of 2Summers.

It snowed a few inches this morning — my first snowfall in nearly a decade — and it was the prettiest, fluffiest snow I’ve ever seen.

Colorado Snow

I went outside and discovered a soft, silent, snow-white utopia. Falling snow somehow makes sub-freezing temperatures feel less cold — I crunched around comfortably despite the 17° Fahrenheit (-8 Celsius) air. I had the best time taking photos.

Snowy street in Colorado Springs
Snowy street.
Next-door neighbor's house in the snow
The next-door neighbor’s house.
Snow and stream
Snow and stream.
tree branch in snow
It was beautiful.

My mom and I took a walk into town. The snow piled up on the colorful little Craftsman-style houses in the most delightful way.

I almost want to move to Colorado Springs just so I can buy one of these houses.
Green house and snow
Green house and snow.
Tiny house
Impossibly adorable tiny house.
Mom in front of a house
Mom in front of a Halloween-decorated house.
There were icicles.
Heather in snow
I was so happy.

I’m not usually crazy about winter weather but this beats the Joburg heat wave. I’m returning to summer next week.

Culture section of National Museum of African American History

From Africa to America: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’ve just returned to Joburg after two weeks in the United States. I spent most of the trip trying to stay warm (this was my first dose of American East Coast winter since 2010), running errands, and spending time with family and close friends.

I didn’t have much time for cultural pursuits, but I did achieve one major Washington D.C. tourism goal — a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and CultureThe National Museum of African American History and Culture (I’ll call it the African American Museum for short), located prominently on Constitution Avenue right beside the Washington Monument. The museum opened in September 2016. Read more about the museum’s award-winning architecture here.

I feel it’s important for me to write a post about this museum, as it links the two halves of my life together in a couple of ways.

First, the African American Museum was designed by acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Hallmark House building in downtown Johannesburg. I stood in the same room with David at the Hallmark House media launch a few years ago but was too shy to talk to him. I regret that now, as I’d like to be able to say I met the guy who designed one of America’s most iconic and historically significant museums.

Second, the African American Museum provides a profound link between the histories and cultures of my two homes: Africa and America. I can’t overstate the significance of it. The history of African Americans is much more than the history of one particular cultural or ethnic group; it emcompasses the history of the entire world.

My Visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I visited the African American Museum with my dad, on a weekday afternoon in mid-January. Unlike the other Smithsonian museums, you cannot simply walk into the African American Museum — there are some rules to be followed about how and when to go. I’ll provide more information at the end of this post.

Lobby of the African American MuseumThe lobby of the museum.

Escalators inside Nation Museum of African American History and CultureInteresting shadow-play between museum floors.

Dad and I spent four hours at the museum and managed to see a little less than half of it. There is no way to see the entire museum in one day, and we knew this. We decided to focus our time in two sections: The Culture Galleries on the top floor, and the Slavery and Freedom section of the History Galleries — covering the years 1400 to 1877 — on the lower floors. (View a map of the African American Museum here.)

We didn’t even make it all the way through the Slavery and Freedom section, as we ran out of time (and energy) around the Civil War period.

The Culture Galleries

This is the “fun” section of the museum, covering the history of African American culture, including music, dance, art, sports, and film. Dad, who grew up in the rock-and-roll era and loves African American music and dance, was most excited about this section. So we went there first.

Chubby Checker's Cadillac at the African American MuseumChubby Checker’s Cadillac. Chubby is best known for doing the Twist.

Culture section of National Museum of African American HistoryDad shoots photos of a Diana Ross film costume. The museum provided an occasion for Dad to tell (several times over) his all-time favorite story — of how he wandered into a San Francisco nightclub in 1969 and caught a live performance of Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes. He was just inches from the stage, he claims, and may have caught a few of Ike Turner’s sweat beads.

Music section of culture gallery in African American Museum
My favorite section of the Culture Galleries, where visitors can peruse different records and put songs into a queue to actually play over the sound system.

The collection of costumes from famous musicians blew me away. Highlights included James Brown‘s spandex jumpsuit with “SEX” in huge letters across the mid-section, a rainbow suit worn by Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson 5, Little Richard‘s sequined baby-blue jacket, and an elegant red ballgown featured in En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” music video.

Music section in African American MuseumA glimpse of the musician costumes. The maroon suit in the middle is from Gladys Knight and the Pips. The Jackson 5 suit is just to the right.

The Slavery and Freedom Galleries

The Slavery and Freedom Galleries are accessible via a massive elevator, which takes visitors underground on a literal journey through time and space to pre-colonial Africa.

I didn’t take any photos in this part of the museum. It’s dark down there, which I think is intentional — the history of slavery is very dark indeed. Photographs were allowed but I felt too sombre to take any.

I’d read quite a lot about slavery before this visit. But the African American Museum cast this horrible institution in a whole new light for me.

What struck me most was the realization that the institution of slavery created the concept of race. In the 1400s there was no such thing as race in the world. There were simply people with different colored skins from different parts of the earth, doing business with each other (and fighting each other) as relative equals. Slavery existed but it was usually a byproduct of war and had little to do with skin color. Also, enslavement was generally temporary.

That changed when Europeans and Africans began trading in human lives, buying and selling human beings in exchange for currency. The slave trade was the dominant economic force in the world for centuries. Slavery became a hereditary state, passed down from parent to child, based on skin color.

And that’s how race was born.

Photos from the Culture GalleriesWhat is race?

Tips for Visiting the African American Museum

Tickets: Although admission is free, you need a ticket to visit the African American Museum. Tickets can be difficult to obtain, especially during the summer and on weekends and holidays, so it’s important to plan ahead. The different ways of procuring tickets are listed here.

Dad and I got our tickets as weekday walkups. We arrived at the museum at 1:00 p.m. (the appointed walkup time) on a weekday and were granted immediate entry. This method is not 100% reliable; if you happen to show up on a busy day then there might not be any walkup tickets available. We happened to go on a very cold weekday in the middle of January, when crowds were light. I’ll probably use the same strategy next time.

Visiting: As I mentioned before, don’t expect to see the whole museum in one day. It’s impossible, both physically and psychologically. Pick a few sections that look interesting to you and save the rest for another day. Ask advice from the museum staff, who are all extremely friendly and helpful.

Walking: This museum is HUGE and there aren’t enough places to sit in my opinion. Wear very comfortable shoes, bring a bottle of water, and be prepared to walk a lot. Pick up a map at the information desk because you’ll probably get lost.

Eating: Allow time for lunch at Sweet Home Café, the cafeteria at the African American Museum. Sweet Home Café offers African-American-inspired dishes from various regions of the United States. I can personally vouch for the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Note the food isn’t cheap — a generously portioned main dish with two sides costs about $20.

Graffiti in brooklyn

2Summers in New York City

I took an Amtrak train from Baltimore to New York City.

Upon arrival, I climbed from the depths of Penn Station up into the forest of skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan. I walked to the taxi stand and told the first driver in line that I needed to go to Brooklyn.

My cab driver, a friendly young man named Mark, was a New York City original. Mark told me about his troubled childhood, how much he loves the bible, and how he “used to be gay” before discovering Jesus and starting a new life as a straight man.

I learned all of this, and more, within 90 seconds of getting into the cab.

“Can you hear me back there?” he called, peering in the rear-view mirror. “Move over a bit so I can see you.”

Mark spent the remaining 30 minutes of the drive imploring me to read the bible. My guess is 99% of his passengers shut him down rudely (which I was tempted to do), or simply ignore him (which I was also tempted to do), and he was excited beyond belief that I was even listening (I was being polite, and maybe a little curious).

I wasn’t sure how to respond to Mark. Luckily I could hardly get a word in, even if I wanted to.

“I was meant to meet you today Heather, I know it,” Mark said as I hefted my bags from the trunk. “Read your bible, okay? Just read your bible.”

I thought: New York is so much crazier than Joburg.

Graffiti wall in Bed-StuyGraffiti in Bedford-Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I stayed.

Although I grew up only a few hours from New York City, I’ve regrettably spent very little time there. I hadn’t been there at all since starting this blog. So on my most recent trip to the States I made a point of scheduling a couple of days in the Big Apple. I spent an afternoon in Manhattan with my father and aunt soon after flying in from Joburg, then two days at an Airbnb in Brooklyn two weeks later before flying out.

Images of New York City

I dreamt of leaving New York with a beautiful, iconic set of photos to share in this post. But I feel strangely dissatisfied with the pictures I shot. Despite being a visual and sensory bonanza, New York is harder to photograph than I expected. Maybe I just need to spend more time there on my next trip. Or maybe I’ll never be able to visually capture this befuddling, bewitching city in the way I actually experience it.

Anyway, here are my favorite shots.

Brookfield Place in New York City, lower ManhattanDad, my aunt Jinx (who lives outside New York City in Westchester County), and I visited lower Manhattan on a freezing early April afternoon. It was my first time visiting the area since the September 11th attacks in 2001, when this whole section of Manhattan was basically destroyed. Everything feels eerily brand-new now. This is the view from a massive office and retail complex called Brookfield Place, which is across the street from the new World Trade Center.

One World Trade Center in New York City
Looking up at One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. It was cloudy that day so we decided not to go to the top, although now I wish we had.
 The Oculus New York CityInside the Oculus, the new public transport terminal next to One World Trade Center.

Exhibit in the Cloisters in New York CityFrom lower Manhattan, my aunt drove us up to the far northern tip of the island to visit the Cloisters. The Cloisters, which is part of the Met, is a fascinating museum dedicated to European Medieval art. The museum was funded by John D. Rockefeller and built using actual excavated pieces of ancient French monasteries and abbeys. (Learn more.) 

Jinx in the CloistersMy aunt chills out with some five-century-old statues.

Tulips in Central ParkI was back in the city two weeks later, when the temperature was mercifully warmer. The tulips were just starting to bloom in Central Park.

James, Ted and Heather in Central ParkMy two Joburg friends, James and Ted, each happened to be in New York while I was there and I got the three of us together. We took a walk through the park and I felt kind of left out being the only one wearing a shirt.

New York City subway artI loved riding the subway in New York. I’ve always felt intimidated by the subway on previous trips, but it really wasn’t as complicated as I thought (although I made a few mistakes). This is the 14th Street station and I think I wound up there accidentally, but I’m glad I did because this is my favorite picture from New York. I don’t know whose artwork this is — I didn’t see anything like it in any of the other stations. 

2Summers in Brooklyn

I was pleased with my decision to stay in Brooklyn (one of New York City’s five boroughs) for a couple of days. Brooklyn has such an interesting mix of cultures, and while it’s definitely still part of the big city it feels more liveable than Manhattan does. Depending on where you stay it doesn’t take long to get into Manhattan via subway. I stayed in Bed-Stuy, near the Myrtle-Willoughby station on the G line.

Hasidic man in Bed-StuyBed-Stuy borders South Williamsburg, where thousands of Hasidic Jewish families live. I was fascinated by the beaver fur hats Hasidic men wear — in fact I was fascinated by everything to do with the Hasidic community. It was Passover so everyone was dressed in their holiday best. Unfortunately this is the only shot I got of a Hasidic person. I spent lots of time wandering the Hasidic neighborhoods but I was (uncharacteristically) too shy to approach people and ask to photograph them.

Rastafarian Church in Bed-StuyA Rastafarian church in Bed-Stuy.

Graffiti in WilliamsburgBeautiful graffiti in Williamsburg.

Old car, WilliamsburgOld car, Williamsburg.

Street art and hanging shoesStreet art, hanging shoes, and one upside-down teddy bear (look carefully).

Plastic gardenLast, but certainly not least, an electric blue house with a rainbow plastic garden. Blooms year-round.

Until the next trip to New York, when my quest for the perfect Big Apple photo will continue.

American flag at Dulles Airport

My America: A Gratitude List

It’s 1:36 a.m. and I’m at my desk, staring at my computer. This never happens. The reason it’s happening now is because: 1) I’m jet-lagged; and 2) I’m sad. I doubt I’ll be sleeping for a while so I might as well do something useful.

Two days ago I caught a flight from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg. It was the night before the American election. I arrived in Johannesburg a day later, Tuesday, while the election was still in progress. I couldn’t stay awake late enough to see the results — South Africa is seven hours ahead of the American east coast. But when I switched on my phone this morning, Wednesday, there it was:

“Trump looks set to win presidency.”

It’s weird that this happened just after I returned from a trip to America. I was shocked beyond belief at the headline above but I think the shock would have been greater — perhaps heart-attack-inducing — if I’d been living my normal life in Joburg for the last two weeks, with my head in the sand regarding U.S. politics.

Even though I was there in America, watching hours and hours of news coverage and talking endlessly with everyone about the election for two straight weeks, I did not see this coming. When my friends and family expressed concern that Trump might really win, I laughed dismissively. Not possible, I said, over and over. Never in a million years.

American flag at Dulles AirportThe American flag at Dulles Airport, just outside Washington D.C.

I apologize, family and friends, for laughing dismissively at your fears. You were right and I was so very wrong.

I could go on about my shock and outrage, my bewilderment, my despair, my embarrassment and shame, my abject terror about the future. I could rail against Trump’s bigotry and misogeny, his nastiness, his lies, his ugly orange skin and expensive fake hair. I could express optimism and hope. I could try to convince you (and myself) that things aren’t as bad as they seem. I could implore us all to process our feelings and move on and work together, sing kum-ba-yah, etc.

But everyone has said everything already. Every human being on earth with a Facebook account (including me) has already posted his or her own little blog post, or several, about the U.S. election and what it means to them. We’ve already had millions of online spats and love fests. We’ve screamed, we’ve sobbed, we’ve gotten drunk, we’ve blocked people from social media. There is nothing more to say, and maybe nothing more to do, at least right now.

Instead of saying all that, I’m going to write a gratitude list:

  1. I’m grateful I got to visit the U.S. one last time while Barack Obama is president.
  2. I’m grateful my sister is pregnant and I’m going to become an aunt for the first time this March.
  3. I’m grateful to have spent time with so many wonderful friends in America.
  4. I’m grateful I visited my mom in South Carolina, which was recently hit by Hurricane Matthew, and Mom is okay and her house wasn’t damaged by the storm.
  5. I’m grateful that both my sister and I happened to be with my dad this past Sunday, when he had a serious medical emergency and had to be admitted to the hospital. And I’m really, really grateful Dad is okay now and back at home.
  6. I’m grateful to be an American, despite the current situation, because America is still a beautiful country and my citizenship affords me many great privileges. Let’s hope it stays that way.
  7. I’m grateful to be back in Johannesburg, which is home to me now, with Ray and Smokey, who I missed terribly while I was away.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the trip.

Heather and Claire in Meridian Hill Park

My best friend Claire, who I’ve known since birth, and I in Meridian Hill park in Washington D.C. We were trying to take a selfie with the bad-ass statue of Joan of Arc in the background.

Bob and Heather in CharlottesvilleMy dear friend Bob and I at the Carter Mountain Apple Orchard in Charlottesville, Virginia. Both Bob and I went to college at the University of Virginia, which is in Charlottesville. This was my first time back in years.

Bob and Tim in CharlottesvilleBob and his partner Tim at their cute little bungalow in Charlottesville, where I stayed with them for the weekend.
 Donald Scott in CharlestonDonald Scott, who my mom and I met on the streets of Charleston, South Carolina. Donald sells handmade sweetgrass baskets and he gave me a great deal on one. Please look for Donald the next time you’re in Charleston — his email address is

Mom in Hilton HeadMy mom, Jeanie, on the beach in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Dad and SassieMy dad, Tenney, and his funny dog, Sassie, on the steps of my childhood home in Maryland.

Susanna and baby XMy beautiful sister, Susanna, and her unborn Baby X.

Leaves in MarylandChanging leaves in Maryland.

As President Obama recently said, the sun will still rise tomorrow. And with that, I’m going to bed.

Anti-Trump signs

2Summers Reporting From Washington: A Trumpkin Halloween

I’m in the United States just in time for Halloween, and also for the peak of American presidential election madness. (Don’t worry, I’ve already voted. I dropped my absentee ballot safely into a U.S. Postal Service box last Saturday.) It’s quite a circus. I’ve been watching CNN for the past hour and other than commercials, there hasn’t been a single second of anything other than Donald Trump coverage.

When my dad called this morning and told me Donald Trump was appearing at his new Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., I grabbed my camera bag and hopped on the Metro. I wanted to see some Trumpkins — the term Dad uses for crazy Trump supporters — with my own eyes.

Trump International HotelTrump’s new hotel is in the historic Old Post Office building, which used to house an eatery where I ate lunch back in the day when I worked in this neighborhood.

Ben Franklin in front of Old Post OfficeBen Franklin, America’s first Postmaster General.

Trumpkin ladyA Trumpkin from Manassas, Virginia. The sign in her right hand reads “Dogs for Trump”.

Americans for TrumpThe Trumpkins in attendance were mainly ladies.

Maryland for TrumpSorry lady, I don’t think Maryland is for Trump.

Lady for TrumpThis lady frightened me the most because she seemed really normal.

There were some male Trumpkins too. They were angry.

Angry man To be fair, this man is a homeless veteran and he has every right to be angry. And I’m not totally sure he’s a Trumpkin.

Angry anti-gay manThis man’s shirt reads “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Morals are Worse than Animals. Proof: The National Zoo”. I’m not sure why anyone would try to debate with a person like this. No surprise, the debate was going nowhere.

In actuality there were very few Trumpkins at this event. Most of the characters on the scene were anti-Trumpkins, picketing in front of the hotel waving signs and chanting “Don-ald Trump, rich and rude, we don’t like your at-ti-tude!”

Protesters in front of Trump hotelThe scene in front of the hotel.

anti-TrumpkinsPink Doc Martens and a paper maché Trumpkin head.

Paper mache Trump and pig snoutDon’t ask me what’s happening here.
 Arrest the GroperArrest the Groper.

For the record, she does not look very nasty. 

I never saw Trump himself. But I had a good time anyway.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a say in this election, get out and vote. And don’t forget to carve your Trumpkin in time for Halloween.

Pig manIt was a pleasure, Pig Man.