For all the time you can spend at home reading about a place, studying its history and customs, its people and culture, all you’re really doing is drawing the lines: you have to see it, smell it, taste it, and hear it to begin filling in the picture. Until you’ve actually been there, you really can’t know much about it all.

Even if just for a few days, and even if the perspectives gained are inevitably filtered through the sanitized lens of tourism, learning about everyday life in a foreign place is one of the great joys of travel. Talking to the people, eating the food and shopping in the local grocery, breathing the air, walking the streets, riding the local bus; sometimes we fall in love with the place, sometimes we vow never to return.

Loved or loathed, however, it’s the sum of the places we travel to and the things we take home with us that matter most. It’s how we unconsciously coax our worldview in new directions, how we faithfully develop different, sometimes surprising outlooks, and, ultimately, how we learn more about ourselves.

Before my recent visit to South Africa I admittedly knew little about the country’s apartheid legacy beyond the basics: it was a terrible, terrible thing, and steps towards abolishing it for good began 20 years ago. Only 20 years ago! In terms of world history, that was yesterday.

It’s no small feat that we’re now watching the World Cup, perhaps the biggest and most-watched sporting tournament in the world, unfold in a country once recently, rightfully, shunned and sanctioned by the international community. As I recently mentioned, it’s encouraging to see how far a country like South Africa has come in such a short time, but shadows of apartheid’s devastation still linger. More work needs to be done.

Like Something Out of a Horror Film

I may have never fully realized the scope and impact of apartheid’s terrors if I hadn’t spent an afternoon at Johannesburg’s impossibly moving Apartheid Museum. We’d heard that it was a must-see and knew it was important that we visit, but honestly, we were exhausted from an overnight flight from Doha and shuffling through a museum didn’t exactly strike us as an appealing way to spend our afternoon. We nearly skipped it in favor of a stop at the South African Breweries World of Beer; I’m so glad we didn’t.

Through a uniquely captivating collection of archival photos, newsreels, interviews, and exhibits, the museum unexpectedly threw my emotions for a loop. I entered with curiosity, I left fighting back tears. Tears for the brutalities and injustices South Africans endured for so many long years, tears for their remarkable strength in the face of hopelessness, tears for their hard-fought freedom.

Footage of former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, considered one of the most powerful and influential proponents of apartheid, describing apartheid as “a policy of good neighborness” was as chilling as it was incendiary. Similarly striking was a clip of a 1961 interview with 43-year-old Nelson Mandela: conducted from an undisclosed location while Mandela was underground, this was his first televised interview and revealed a fiery, combative side of a man the world has since come to know as a gentle uniter.

On the issues of education and non-violence, Mandela had at that time reached his boiling point:

“There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences in this stay at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate.”

Mandela also once said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In that sense, I probably won’t remember all the key dates, events, and people involved in apartheid’s 42-year history, but the 3 hours spent here will stay with me forever, and they informed my time traveling through South Africa in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

An Island of Disappointment

It was this powerful experience at the Apartheid Museum that later led me to a tour of Robben Island, located about 4 miles off the coast of Cape Town. Its history dates back to the 17th century, but it’s mostly known as the isolated prison where political “dissidents”, including Mandela and South Africa’s current Prime Minister Jacob Zuma, were held captive during the apartheid era.

With only four daily ferry trips to the island (9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm, weather permitting), tickets sell out fast and usually aren’t available on the same day, so we showed up a day early to get a guaranteed seat on tomorrow’s 11am boat.

I always feel a little dirty and irritable when herded like camera-toting cattle through uber-touristy tourist attractions, but given the somber subject matter and the historical significance I was willing to swallow my tour-group claustrophia, as well as the high 200 Rand (about $25US) admission fee. I wanted to see the limestone quarry where prisoners toiled daily, learn about the living conditions the inmates dealt with, and, yes, see the cell Mandela called home for 18 years.

Reading about Robben at the Apartheid Museum wouldn’t be the same as actually walking the same dreary prison hallways Mandela once did. Sadly, the magic of being there didn’t happen this time: my visit to Robben Island stands as one of the most disappointing tours I’ve ever taken and was the biggest letdown of my trip to South Africa.

We expected our tour to focus mostly on the prison and to be led by one of the former prisoners, but that part, by far the most intriguing part, was a rush job tacked on at the end. The bulk of our time on Robben Island was spent sitting on a bus for what was probably 45 – 60 minutes, but felt like an eternity.

We made stops every few minutes to listen to our guide, Yasien Mohammed, dumb the experience down and speak as if he was what we came here for, not to see the island and learn about its legacy. He came across like a bloated Shakesperean actor orating to a sold-out crowd at London’s West End Theatre.

Mohammed, a former secretary for the Pan-African congress, boasted that he’s the guide who entertains foreign dignitaries who visit Robben; I wonder if he tells them the same jokes he told us. Here’s the first one, which came after he’d wasted 10 – 15 minutes asking people where they were from, much like a stand-up comic might do after running out of material: “Ah, we have visitors from India. Does everyone know why Indians can never win a soccer match? Because whenever they get a corner, they set up a shop!” Hi-yo!

Later, when reminding the group to make sure they had their belongings before leaving the bus: “You wouldn’t believe how many camera sleeves we collect. But no cameras in them! So actually, do leave your cameras… me and my Indian friends will sell them on the street!” Oh, zing!

The irony of making casually racist jokes on Robben Island seemed lost on him (and the rest of the group, too, which laughed heartily at his indulgence of Indian cliches). This wasn’t what we came for. I felt he made a mockery of the whole thing.

Once we were finally let off the bus and introduced to our next guide, a former inmate, we were whisked through the prison grounds with haste since the ferry was departing in 45 minutes (our group was the last group of three to reboard the boat). We caught only a fleeting look at Mandela’s cell, but more disappointing, actually, was that we had no opportunity to get away from the group and to read and reflect on the heartwrenching stories posted within each cell, written by the prisoner who lived in it.

The Lay of the Land

We passed through small towns and ramshackle villages on an all-day drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, and traveled down the dramatic southwestern coast between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope before circling back up on the eastern side. We spent a lot of time in Cape Town, and a few days in the winelands of Stellenbosch, Franschoek, and Paarl. The landscapes stunning, the food fantastic, the people friendly, the fresh ocean air invigorating, the poverty heartbreaking.

And as we saw this fascinating part of the world, I kept thinking that it was amazing, truly amazing, to see black Africans, whites, and coloureds (people of mixed racial descent) really trying to put the country’s checkered past behind them. Tensions remain, and social injustices and inequalities are sadly still prevalent, but there is a growing tolerance and understanding replacing cruelty and ignorance. I wouldn’t call South Africa a melting pot, not yet, but there’s reason for optimism. It’s going to take some time.

South Africa, now, like so many other places is familiar to me. It resonates. It has context. And that is my joy of travel.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.