She breaks all gender stereotypes and has proven that whatever a man can do, a woman can do just as well (if not better). Sonia Gonzalez is beautiful with long, curly hair. She is also the perfect example of a woman making her mark in what is often considered a ‘man’s world’.
The Ballito resident arrives at our meeting on her sexy motorbike. She removes her helmet and releases her long, red curls. The motorbike, I learn, is a Bonneville Salt Denim Fat Bob Harley Davidson – a special and quite rare ride that Sonia bought in Bloemfontein last year.
“I wasn’t allowed to get a bike growing up because my dad is a plastic surgeon and often saw what bike riders looked like after they had an accident, if they survived,” says Venezuelan-born Sonia. But that didn’t stop her from sneakily completing her motorcycle licence while living in France many years later and buying herself a Honda Shadow. “Being on a motorbike is total freedom for me. Knowing that your life is in your hands and just going for it is a real adrenaline rush.”
While she was nervous to get a bike in SA, Sonia couldn’t resist the Fat Bob and now enjoys slow cruises through the Midlands and long, scenic drives to Clarens with her partner, Jacob. “Being on the open road really allows the bike to work. You feel the power of the machine in your hands and there is a direct connection to the engine…it’s such an energising feeling.”
But it’s not just her passion for these powerful steel horses that sets her apart from the ‘average’ woman. Her job is definitely non-traditional for the fairer sex. “I have loved machines from a young age. Understanding how they work fascinates me. Growing up, I always took things apart and basically destroyed everything,” she laughs.
When Sonia matriculated at the age of 16, she went on to complete her degree in mechanical engineering and obtain a diploma as an aeronautical technician. Then, she set off to England to do her masters in aerospace proportion and gas turbines. She landed a job with an oil and gas company in Europe and travelled the world working on oil rigs.
Working in such a male-dominated industry meant Sonia was always met with surprise, regardless where she worked. “For Europeans, it is curious to see a woman in this job. Often, when I arrived on site, they would look at me and tell me they were waiting for the mechanical specialist. They were always shocked when I told them I was the specialist! Latin men are quite ‘macho’ and expected me not to be able to handle the job. Working in Africa is also different. Here you have to earn the men’s respect.”
Being the only woman also meant she felt more pressure to perform, as her colleagues
often expected her to fail. At times, she had to get creative to keep up. “Guys are stronger physically, so I got a mechanical system that multiplies your strength to help me work with the heavy machinery. When they saw how much easier it was to work with this system, they all wanted my tools!” Her male colleagues also know how difficult it is to resist a pretty lady. “The guys would send me to go flash my eyelashes to get a job done faster! We joke about it, but it works!”
Sonia had her first taste of South Africa in 2004, when she worked on a platform offshore of Mosselbay. While she only got to see the shore of SA, she was intrigued and wanted to return. As fate would have it, she fell in love with a South African and moved to Ballito four years ago. With both she and her partner working in the same industry, being on call 24/7 for four weeks at a time and working all over the world, Sonia decided to take a much-needed sabbatical a year and a half ago. “I miss the adrenaline rush of working on the oil rigs. Always solving problems and working against the clock, as time is serious money. We work under a lot of pressure because the smallest mistake can end in catastrophe. Now, I’m keeping busy with less stressful things.”
With the luxury of having more time, she hopes to also travel more on her bike and explore the country. “I would really like to do the Garden Route, cruise around the Western Cape and maybe even go up to to Namibia. It is such a big, beautiful country and I hope to see a lot more of it soon.”
Text: Elana Wagner