I have recently returned from South Africa, where I had fallen in love with the country's natural beauty, especially its stunning coastal walks, fun and hospitable people, great and affordable food and wine. I also felt overwhelmed by South Africa's history and politics, which are painfully complicated. This travel experience taught me to count my blessings and made me appreciate my upbringing in the Soviet Union. It also made me think differently about simple things like commute in London, something I usually regard as "a pain".
I grew up in the Soviet Union where a poor person was just one black Volga and a seaside dacha behind the super rich one. In other words, inequality wasn't a big issue. The Soviet Union was a deeply flawed economic system which had no chance to survive beyond its 70-year history, yet in some important ways it was the model of modern society as I see it. Education was free and while it is true that someone who knew someone could get their children into a well-regarded school, a child living near that school would be enrolled there too and receive the same start in life. We all lived in flats in fairly similar apartment blocks, and while some had three bedrooms, colour televisions and even washing machines, there was never such a stark contrast as living in a secured villa with a swimming pool and the help in Camps Bay vs. dwelling in a shed in a Cape Town township. Well-connected or not, Soviet Russians had plenty to aspire for: anyone could afford to go to the opera, and people did.
Women in the Soviet Union were encouraged to work and state enterprises subsidised or provided free pre-school care. I didn't grow up thinking I'm meant to breed and look after children; I have never thought about some sort of glass ceiling career women in the West are only now beginning to punch in earnest. I'm not saying that Russians aren't sexists but curiously while a Russian woman is stereotypically considered a "bad driver", there is nothing at all unnatural about a woman being an engineer or a chief executive. My point is that travelling to places where women are struggling for equality, where opportunities for different genders are so horribly asymmetric, I realise how fortunate I am to have been brought up without prejudice.
I returned to London narrowly missing the tube strike. That's lucky, but my experience in Cape Town made me think that an occasional strike is a small price to pay for the privilege that we have here. If you travel to Cape Town, make sure you go and explore its magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. One caveat: public transport doesn't go there, so you must either drive, get a taxi/Uber or jump on a sightseeing bus. If you live in London, can you imagine a public park or any public venue in London that you cannot get to by tube or by bus? I don't think so. It is one thing that we take for granted (and complain about extortionate fares, congestion etc.). In Cape Town a regular Joe cannot take his family to botanical gardens on a Sunday. For me, this is where inequality can and should be tackled effectively, because without aspiration township kids won't go further that their parents.
It is on the tube from the airport that I made another startling discovery. Londoners on the morning train looked gloomy and tired with most of them glued to their smartphones. That's not what surprised me though. It was the diversity of people on the tube - they came from the Far East and Eastern Europe, Bangladesh and the Caribbean, Western Europe and Australia. It's hard to believe, but South Africa with mostly blacks and blonde whites looked homogenous in comparison! Despite the early hour, the grey sky outside, it felt incredibly uplifting that I call London, this cosmopolitan, mixed hotpot, my home. Even anti-globalisation politics, which is having a bit of a moment today, isn't going to change that because London and Londoners wouldn't have it any other way.
So you see, while I'm already hatching plans to see more of South Africa and while I miss the spontaneity of travel, it is wonderful to be back. Travel doesn't just broaden horizons, it helps to zoom into ourselves and our habitat and find gratitude for things we have always taken for granted.