Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Langa & Khayelitsha

The Townships


So I missed the dumb bus. Not a big shocker… let’s be honest. (Frankly, it was about time I bolloxed something on this trip – we’re over a week in). But a major bummer, none the less.
I was supposed to meet the township tour bus in the lobby of my hostel at 8, but I was told they’re usually late… Just a tip: never, ever tell me something is usually late because I will sure as sunshine use up those extra minutes with extraneous crap I think I can fit in. I hit the lobby at 8:05, after jam-packing my enormous bag and storing it in the hostel’s luggage room (I was spending that weekend in wine country with a family called the Smiths - much more to come on them soon…), and the bloody tour had left already without so much as a peep. Turns out they thought they’d collected everyone because the guide asked if there was anyone else, and some Sweeds decided to jump onboard in my place. This was just the beginning of certain white-blonde people ruining my day. Sorry Sweden, but it’s true.
A very nice woman from the tour company eventually came to fetch me and dropped me with the group just as they were finishing the District 6 museum (good thing I did it on my own the day before). As I boarded the bus, I said hi and introduced myself to the group. In accordance with every other group experience I’d had so far in Cape Town, I assumed they’d all bonded already and I needed to fold myself into the party. Yeah… not so much. Ok… good for you. Sit down so we can go, said their faces. I hadn’t missed the party; there was no party. This was a smile-free zone. At least until we’d have something horribly sad to take a picture of… but I’m getting ahead of myself again.
As we drove to Langa, the oldest Cape Flats township, our local guide pointed out the sad, empty grassland that is the old District 6. All that pain for nothing… just grass. Black Africans make up an overwhelming majority of the population in South Africa and, thanks to the legacy of apartheid, an overwhelming number of those citizens still live in the townships today while places like District 6 lie barren. Under apartheid, the white government physically, mentally, and socioeconomically relegated people of color to the margins of society, which was believed to be their rightful place (and sure as hell where they needed to stay to ensure the white minority’s jobs and safety). An uneducated, sedentary people are an easily controllable people… or at least so they thought.
Once in Langa, the guide explained that, contrary to common perception, the families who were forced out of their old neighborhoods by the Group Areas Act weren’t actually sent into the streets or even into the shacks you see lining the highway now. Actual “homes” were provided, but they were tiny and decrepit and didn’t offer enough space for the average township family, which tends to include extended aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We pulled up to some the original brick structures, sitting one absolutely right next to the other, and he pointed out the makeshift shacks that had been constructed in the small space behind each – this was where the overflow of family members would sleep and where the shantytowns we know today were born.
As we exited the bus, my stomach began to churn. This was partly due to the sight we encountered as our feet hit the dirt – in front of us lay rows of tables covered in severed, fly-infested sheep’s heads… mouths agape, eye sockets empty. The overwhelming smell and image of dried blood on matted wool will probably stay with me forever. But it wasn’t just the sheep. What I found almost as upsetting was my sudden comprehension of the nature of the group I was with on this tour. After really taking us all in as a unit, I was at first concerned and then mortified. Everyone in our group was white, and not just regular white, but as pale as a sheet and blonder than Barbie. As my eyes followed their camera straps down their bodies, I realized that most of them were dressed absolutely to the nines – black silk mini-dresses, diamond Rolex watches, Hermes scarves. Almost as a simultaneous thought, they all reached for their enormous DSLR’s and began shooting. (Though I have one myself, it was sequestered in my bag, as I’d been warned that taking pictures of these people’s lives would feel a bit like taking photos of a deadly car accident). My tour-mates zoomed in on the severed heads and posed next to them, smiling or pretending to chow down. Holy crap.
I tried to regain my composure as we were greeted by “Blacks”, our next local guide. With glee, his predecessor explained why they call him by that name: Because he’s so damn black, man. Look how dark he is! Blacks smiled and welcomed us to Langa, his home. Feel free to take as many pictures as you like. We enjoy it. Great… Please follow me. Though I appreciated his warm welcome and looked forward to hearing all he had to tell us, I felt a bit like I was stepping into a funhouse as he lead us down a dirt alley to our first stop. I didn’t really want to see what we looked like in the mirrors.
Blacks took us first to a Langa shebeen (or informal local pub). It consisted of little more than a shanty shell, a single lightbulb, and men waiting patiently in their seats as two women brewed beer over a small fire. Their faces held no expression, and they stared off into the ether as we piled inside. Blacks explained that drinking in the shebeens is very much associated with cultural rituals brought to the townships from the villages. Men are sent away as teenagers to learn the ways of their ancestors and be circumcised before being allowed to come drink. Women are apparently just for brewing. Beer is also used, along with slaughtered animals, to satisfy the ancestors on important occasions. As he spoke to us, I finally pulled my camera from my bag. His wide, honest eyes and glowing black skin beneath the single light were beautiful. I decided I was allowed to take pictures of the things I found beautiful and interesting. Just not sheep heads. Eventually, Blacks took the first sip from the bucket of freshly brewed beer and passed it around to the rest of us. The brew tasted bitter and thick – Guinness is probably the closest thing I could compare it to… though I found the experience a little different from sipping in the big factory in Dublin. When it was time to leave, we were encouraged to drop spare change to support the local people sitting with us – they remained expressionless; we all reached for our wallets.
On our way to the next site, we passed women doing their washing in large buckets in the alley, sleeping babies slung on their backs. They continued their conversations in Xhosa clicks and only glanced up at us during a convenient breath. Blacks told us how to say hello and thank you in his language: molo (for one person), molweni (for more than one), and enkosi (for gratitude). I wondered how to apologize. When we rounded the bend, another group of extra-white people walked by, all wearing matching red t-shirts with the logo of some tour company on them. I closed my eyes, inhaled long and deep into my lungs, and thanked God we weren’t wearing matching red t-shirts.
Just before we reached our next stop, Blacks pointed to some large steel holding containers – like the ones you’d find at a refuse center for compacting trash – turned on their sides. Several people were standing outside the entrances to the containers, jamming to Jay-Z, which was blaring from a busted stereo. Those are the containers for people waiting for the new housing, Blacks explained. Wait, people are living in those containers? Yes. Their shanty houses have been demolished to make room for new housing. So they stay there while they wait. In response to the look of distress on my face, he continued, At least they have three walls and a floor made of steel… a shanty shack is not so good. An emaciated dog with sad, sagging teats trotted out from behind one of the containers and stared up at me as she went by. Wipe that look off your face, baby, she seemed to say.
Next Blacks took us into one of the hostels, originally built for men from the villages who had travelled to the city for work, often in dangerous mines. These buildings used to house one man to a bed, several men to a room, but after the revocation of the ID paper requirements in 1986, the hostels soon became flooded with entire families from the rural villages who came to join their husbands and fathers. Blacks brought us into one of the rooms, about the size of a modest walk-in closet, and explained that at least two or three families lived there, often with around 10 kids each. As there were only two beds, he said most of the children would sleep on the cement floor of the entrance room we’d just walked through. And this housing is not free. They must pay twenty rand per month or be forced out. This is not an easy sum to come by with an unemployment rate through the roof, jobs being taken by illegal African immigrants, and the good jobs located primarily on the other end of a long, costly taxi ride to the white suburbs.
After showing us the buildings considered the next rung up on the housing ladder, in which only one family resides with a few rooms to share, Blacks walked us through the hostels towards the “expensive” part of town. As we rounded a corner to duck between buildings, I felt the air seep out of my lungs like a lost balloon – small children with tight black braids and unaware smiles were walking on either side of a dead dog, petrified legs in the air, lying in the middle of the ally. All bones and matted fur, flies swarming. The children stopped to beam up at us and one of my group members ran up next to them, turned to face his girlfriend’s camera, and swung an arm around to pose over the fallen canine. Other group members followed suit, zooming in on flies chasing each other in and out of nostrils. I pushed past the morbid party and turned the corner so I could no longer see. Blacks sauntered up next to me and smiled his wide, white smile. It’s ok, you know. Pictures are ok. We like you to take pictures. About to launch into a deep sea of a rant, I took a step back and settled for a pained smile and shrugged shoulders instead. He landed a swift pat on my back and walked on.
We re-boarded the van and drove through the “Beverly Hills of Langa”, which consists of slightly nicer one family houses, mostly owned by people who do things like work for the government. These houses can only be purchased flat out for 400,000 rand. That’s equivalent to about $58,000. Big bucks in Langa. But there is no animosity here, Blacks explained. There is no animosity between the people who live in the hostels or the shanties and the people who live here. It is beautiful. While that was nice to hear, it was hard not to notice the large cement walls and barbed-wire fences protecting these more costly houses from the rest of the community. Maybe not animosity, but still a healthy respect for reality.
As we drove to the shanty side of town, you could hear American pop and rap blasting from somewhere on every street. I couldn’t help but laugh as I heard a group of women belting along to Kelly Clarkson. We passed barbershops, phone shops, and fruit stands – all housed in tin shack creations, all with brightly colored signs. The shops and homes are made from whatever materials can be gathered when a family arrives from a rural village with nothing. Most of them come to look for work and to provided their children with a fighting chance to go to school. Though the life here is no picnic, at least there are roads for ambulances and supply cars and school isn’t a 10km walk each way. The shantys are free for them to live in, though they pay for electricity (yes, most have electricity and even a tv). Generally only one family lives in each, as opposed to what we saw in the hostels. When we reached the shanty living section itself, we were allowed out for about five minutes to check out the 50 electric lines coming from a single pole to power the surrounding shacks, the rows of porta-pottys, the water pick-up location, and the inside of one of the homes. Then we were ushered back onboard. Not quite the walking and talking to locals tour I was envisioning.  
For the last leg of the tour, we were driven to another township called Khayelitsha, the newest and largest one outside Cape Town, holding around 1.3 million people. We passed miles and miles of colorful shanties along the highway – Xhosa-speaking black townships on one side, “nicer” Afrikaans-speaking coloured townships on the other, explained the driver. Coloured peole are what Americans would consider mixed-race, and their lighter skin was given preferential treatment under apartheid. As we drove, Blacks told us about the biggest problems his community faces today, problems that have probably been faced by nearly every impoverished community since the beginning of time: alcoholism and domestic violence. It’s a vicious cycle. People make little to no money and live in despair; when they (usually men) do get a bit of money, they often spend it on ways to make the despair go away; when their family asks where the money went, they lash out in hopeless violence; the cycle begins again, never-ending as the sea of metal roofs we’re passing.

In Khayelitsha, we visited the township’s B&B, named after and run by an amazing, larger-than-life woman named Vicky. She told us that the locals were confused and upset by her business in the beginning, but they have now embracedit and so have the tourists. The B&B has been very successful and Vicky has been given many awards for her achievements in the community. Her business bridges the racial gap, gives outsiders a more accurate picture of township life, and provides locals with money from tourists who purchase their wares and services. She also runs a charity organization for local schools, providing students with much needed supplies and field trips to reward achievement. All in all, she’s pretty badass.

The best part was when she asked where we were all from. I was at the end of the line, and everyone before me answered Sweden! …Obviously I hadn’t gotten the memo. I tried not to form a big prejudiced bubble around Sweden in my mind… not sure how well that worked.
Finally, we were taken into the primary school behind Vicky’s place and given a show by the many tiny students. Their miniscule classroom had no desks or chairs, only room for them, 40 or so in all, to sit around the outside edges. They remained absolutely silent as their teacher spoke to us and then let loose a torrent of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “If You’re Happy And You Know It” on her signal. They screamed the songs at the top of their lungs and focused intensely on getting the hand motions correct. Big practiced smiles painted their faces, a toughness and intimacy with survival lay behind their eyes. A show of familiar white songs for the unfamiliar white people.
I smiled as I watched them, and took photos and gave them hugs in the chaotic aftermath of the performance, as they grabbed, pinched, and tugged, desperate for attention. But I felt all the while that my sense of humor had been sucked out of me somewhere along the way. I couldn’t just roll with it and laugh and sing with the kids crawling all over me. My camera felt like a weapon, my smile like a big fat lie. I felt a bit like being sick or crying, not necessarily because of how and where these children live, but because I had been paraded through their world like someone on safari. Please keep your hands safely inside the land cruiser as you take pictures of the wild animals.
As we drove back into town, I felt grateful for the experience, but saddened by the way it went. I realized that it’s not poverty or hardship that upsets me in the end – it’s feeling like an outside, rubbernecking observer of it. I don’t like being rolled through it in a big glass case. I’d rather walk around all day with a local I trust or even do a homestay. I’d rather talk to people and hear their stories. I’d rather be closer to it. I’d rather feel it on my skin.
I don’t know if it’s just the miles of colorful shacks and roaming animals, but I find the townships really beautiful. There’s something about them that is incredibly photogenic and entrancing. I’ve always thought the same thing about pictures of the crowded streets in India. It seems that in these places where life is supposed to be at its roughest, the intensity of that existence forges order and beauty in the fire. I could have watched those metal roofs pass by, imagining what was happening under them, for days.
But I still hope they’re nowhere to be found when I come back to South Africa someday. An animal extinct.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On My Own


I’m kind of freaking out right now.
I’m freaking out because there’s a crazy man limping around the square in front of me , dispensing very loud advice about snakes. The snakes, man. The snakes. If you meet one of these snakes, Mr. Squirrel, don’t you try to fight it. It will win and you will lose. What kind of snake will kill you, you ask? Well, there’s the King Cobra. That fucker will kill you dead, my friend. Dead. He’ll rise up like this (raises his arm slowly, wrist cocked) and BAM! (strikes). And that’s it, man. Show’s over. Ok, I’m moving benches now. I can’t handle this. Thanks for the nightmare material - as if I wasn’t terrified of African snakes enough. 
I’m also freaking out because I yelled at someone today. I mean really yelled. I never yell, and I yelled loud enough to stop a whole street’s worth of activity. This man on Darling St. started following me in front of city hall, asking me for money and telling me what a beautiful, sexy girl I am. I ignored him and kept walking (as I do to all men who compliment me) and, undeterred, he ran up close, swung his arm around me, and started pinching my side. This immense terror and rage suddenly filled my lungs as I threw him off me – DON’T TOUCH ME! I screamed. It came out of me with a force I couldn’t control. Everyone else on the street stopped dead in their tracks and stared at us; he just threw up his hands and laughed. I turned and walked away as fast as I could. What’s a spectacle and a joke and shaking all over? Yours truly.
I’m also freaking out because a bunch of American tourists are taking pictures of a squirrel in front of me right now. There are squirrels in Oklahoma, guys. Go home. You’re embarrassing the rest of us. Also, the skinny jeans trend should really be applied with much more careful consideration. Just a thought.
Most of all, I’m sitting here freaking out about what I’ve gotten myself into with this trip. Since I’ve been on my own, minus an adopted family or Australian distraction, I’ve found that I get these little mini heart attacks at least once a day. I am having a great time so far – Cape Town is amazing and I’ve met even more wonderful people – but I just have these moments of completely losing my shit. And unfortunately I’m having one right now. A typical session goes something like this:
What the hell am I doing here?  What is the point of this whole insane idea? And how am I going to do this for a year? Ok so I can get through today, and probably tomorrow or even this week, but what was I thinking with the big world tour thing? And how am I so disorganized and unprepared and indecisive? Who let me do this on my own? I can’t decide what to do next. There are so many options. There’s so much to see and so much to do and I don’t have enough time or money or organizational skills to do it right. Someone else would do this trip so much better than me. They would have a plan and a goal and clue. And more money. Oh god, the money. I should have saved up for like 10 years before doing something like this. I’m going to be broke before I leave Cape Town. And I should have packed better stuff. And less stuff. I have so much stuff! And I should have had an inkling of what the hell I was doing before I jumped on that plane. How am I going to figure this out as I go? I’m already locked in indecision – everyone I’ve met says I have to see this and that and everything under the sun. Do I do the Garden Route or the Wild Coast or Kruger Park or Namibia or Tanzania or Victoria Falls? Should I change my ticket? Should I do an overland trek? Are you kidding? You’re not equipped for that. Why the fuck didn’t I equip myself for that? Or for anything. I mean, sure the hostel I’m staying in now is great and clean and safe and Cape Town has been easy and lovely, but I’m just getting spoiled. Everyone here speaks your damn language. The rest of this thing is going to be excess baggage fees and bed bugs and losing your passport. Did you really think you’d just be able to find the visas and the money and the constitution for all this waiting for you by the side of the road in South Africa? Even if you make it through Africa, you’ve got 4 more continents to go. Holy crap. And what are you going to do when you’re done with all of it? You’re just going to be another year behind everyone else without a job or a dollar or once again a clue. Oh Jesus.
Yeah. Really fun, huh? And oh so productive.
I need to take a big, deep breath. Sitting on this bench and having a silent little fit isn’t getting me anywhere. It is, however, teaching me things about myself that could use a little work while I’m out and about this year. Turns out I’m just a little more neurotic than I’d hoped… and just as indecisive as I feared.  Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in New York. I need to get back in touch with my inner Vermonter. Or Capetonian, for that matter. I need to focus on all of the fantastic things I’ve seen so far and all the lovely people I’ve met. I need to be present in South Africa – right here, right now. I need to chillax.
So far Cape Town really has been divine. It’s about as chillax as a city can be (minus the quasi-constant worry over crime and safety). Everywhere you go, people smile and ask you how your day has been. Everything around here is done at a relaxed pace (sometimes much to the annoyance of the locals, apparently) and the city never really feels like a city. Everything is governed by the beautiful natural surroundings; it just wouldn’t make sense to rush through life here (note to American self). Cape Town is unbelievably gorgeous, no matter what the weather, which is good, seeing as though the weather is different from one minute to the next. Table Mountain alone is an ever-changing goddess. She’s not just a mountain. With a rolling blanket of thick white clouds spilling over her beautiful, rocky face, she provides the most stunning background everywhere you go. She follows you all over the city. She watches over you. I’m pretty sure she’s the one reminding me to take a chill pill right now.
I spent yesterday finally really getting to know the layout of city. I wandered through the peaceful Company Gardens and marveled at the photography exhibits in the National Gallery – some of the most amazing snapshots of the human experience I’ve seen. I navigated the streets of the City Bowl and walked to the lovely V & A Waterfront, despite everyone I asked for directions regarding me with a quizzical stare… Why would you walk to the waterfront? Everyone just takes a taxi. It’s really not far at all. I honestly have no idea why they don’t walk there - apparently that’s the one instance in which Capetonians are not totally physically active. The waterfront is pristine and pleasant and tailor-made for tourists. You can eat and shop and take great pictures of Table Mountain from its docks. My mom would be a big fan. I had lunch at a wonderful little garden cafĂ© nearby and wrote for a while over a bree and avo and bacon sandwich to die for. That part of town feels like DUMBO in Brooklyn – cobblestone streets and great little shops leading down to the water. I was in heaven.
Today I went to the District 6 museum, which tells the story of the old Cape Town neighborhood from which Natives (blacks), Coloureds (people of mixed race), and Indians were displaced under the Groups Areas Act of 1950, declaring it a whites only zone. While the history of District 6 that’s housed in the museum is affecting enough, even more astounding is the actual area itself, located behind the museum, which is almost completely empty and devoid of development. The white minority rule removed thousands of people from District 6 with the intention of making it an all-white neighborhood, only to level it and leave. They just never got around to turning into anything. All of those people were shipped out into the extreme poverty of the townships, literally for nothing. Hard to fathom.
The museum itself is truly special. It lives inside an old church building, with creaking wooden floors, and gorgeous stained glass. Every inch of the walls there is covered in stories and photographs of the lives of the exiled residents. The history of District 6 and the entrenchment of apartheid in South Africa is written on revolving panels, complete with examples of real identification documents people were required to carry: White, Coloured, Indian, Black. Get caught without it and you’d be arrested on the spot; get all of your friends to walk into a police station and destroy it simultaneously to clog up the jails, and you get Mandela’s revolution. A beautiful white sheet, embroidered with the names and comments of ex-residents, hangs from the rafters and a map of the old District 6 is painted on the floor. In the back room, the heart-wrenchingly beautiful words of District 6 residents who wrote during the years of apartheid, or lived to write about it in the aftermath, make up a mosaic of poetry-covered tiles called the “Writing Floor”. Their work took my breath away.
Tomorrow I’m going on a township tour, to the shantytown areas where those displaced and disenfranchised South African families were forced to move. I’ve been told it is an amazing and moving experience. I hope my heart can handle it... Not that walking through certain areas of Bed Stuy in Brooklyn is all that different – I’ve seen those children and heard Emma’s stories from teaching them, and America is not as much better as we’d like to think.
Almost more impactful than the things I’ve seen, are the fabulous friends I’m making here. My hostel, Ashanti Lodge, is a fantastic place to hang your hat – if you’re ever in Cape Town, look it up. I can only hope the rest of the places I stay will be half as great. Ashanti is this big, yellow mansion of a house, with a pool, a bar, a deck with views of Table Mountain, a travel desk, clean rooms, and nice, hot showers (numero uno backpacker priority in my opinion). And the people there are lovely – the staff is super helpful and the crew of travellers revolving through the rooms is awesome.
I’ve fallen in love with a British girl named Marnie (or “Maahnie”) who hauled her equally enormous backpack (yay!) onto the bed next to mine earlier this week. She just finished a stint as an animal conservation volunteer at one of the national parks near Port Elizabeth and she’s heading to Australia for a year after doing South Africa coast to coast. She’s tiny, and looks maybe 22, but has apparently just come face to face with the big 3-0. After ending a very long, serious relationship earlier this year, she decided to “fuck all” and jump on a plane to South Africa. She loses at least 1 belonging on a daily basis, does what her heart tells her, and makes me nearly pee my pants laughing. My kind of girl.
Aside from Marnie, there’s chic Mathilde from France, chill Tom from Holland, worldly Jo, also from Holland (the local language, Afrikaans is baby Dutch, so Cape Town is crawling with them), lovely Fiona from England, and spunky Dee from Germany… all with their own travel plan, interesting history, and reason for being in South Africa. Some of them have already left or are leaving soon, unfortunately, but all have offered me a place to stay in their home country – and most of them will actually be there by the time I arrive. The whole experience of this hostel is a lot like college, without the studying, or camp, without the rules. Everyone’s pretty much on the same daily schedule and everyone’s there mostly to have a good time. Sounds terrible, right? It makes a ton of sense that I’m spending a good portion of my day freaking out, huh?
So I’m going to take a big, deep breath. I’m going to take some pictures around this beautiful garden I’m sitting in. I’m going to let everything I’m experiencing seep into my bones. I’m going to pull off this trip half-cocked because that’s how I go into everything, and it’s all turned out ok. I’m going to decide on a plan and just go with it. I’m going to get in touch with my inner Capetonian. I’m going to chillax.

Monday, November 8, 2010

With the Aussie

The Australian

So it took me all of about 30 seconds into life on my own in South Africa to break the cardinal rule of solo female travelling: Don’t get into a car with a strange man you’ve just met… Whoops.
I met the Australian as we were both checking in to my new hostel downtown. We exchanged Nice to meet yous and Where are you froms and then headed off to our respective rooms to settle in, only to emerge into the lobby again at the exact same time.  I was on my way to buy groceries and a proper converter plug (thanks for nothing STA office) and he was dying for some lunch. He asked if I wanted to grab a bite together before heading our separate ways, and I said sure – what’s another couple of rand (SA currency) out the window for lunch with a nice Aussie guy?
During lunch we bonded over our mutual love of photography and travel - it only took us a few minutes to get over our instant Nikon (or “Nickon”) vs. Canon rivalry. Turns out he’s a security software salesman who travels all over the world for work and spends his free time abroad staying in hostels (to meet people) and snapping amazing photos. We talked about his experiences riding in South American buses, my uncle’s stint as a pro basketball player for his hometown team (The Brisbane Bullets), and how annoying American tourists can be (myself not included, of course). After lunch, he said he had rented a car and was planning to head down the coast to Simonstown to check out the penguin colony… Did I want to come?
I thought about it for a second. This could definitely be one of those Pollyanna moments where I trust someone I barely know, like the country bumpkin that I am, and end up sold into sex slavery. If my parents could make only one request of my trip, it would be that I not do this exact thing right now. Mom would have a coronary: For the love of God, at least go with some other girls so you have half a chance in hell of getting out alive together… He seems very nice and normal, though. And this trip on a group tour will cost me a couple of hundred rand… Guess I just better not tell Mom about it until after I get out alive.
Ok then, sure – thanks. And we were off, in his little white rented Ford (yeah, super lame SA rental car, I know), headed down the M4 to False Bay. Our little detour felt like exactly the kind of fun, adventurous happenstance situation I’d been hoping to run into on this trip, much to my parents’ dismay. And my gut-instinct alarm remained silent as we drove – which certainly didn’t prove I hadn’t just made a huge mistake –  but something told me this Aussie just wanted my company, not my vital organs in a cooler.
We stopped at an amazing kite festival in Muizenberg, discussed polarizing lenses as we took beautiful beach photos in the village of Fish Hoek, and hopped the fence at the Boulders Penguin Sanctuary in Simonstown… It was closing time when we finally arrived, but we figured the penguins didn’t automatically disappear into the ocean when the gift shop closed. It was supposed to be their mating season, but there was sadly no penguin porn to be had – turns out they do it with the curtains closed. We did discover, however, that they have no qualms whatsoever about taking a simultaneous giant white dump right in front of your lens as you’re about to take a photo. We got the message: The gift shop is closed for business and so are we – piss off.
After Simonstown, we drove back into the city and found an Italian restaurant in Green Point (by the big, new soccer stadium) for dinner – they were having a special of two entries and two glasses of wine for R99 ($14)! As we twirled our very un-South African fettuccini around busy forks, we dove straight into “the big five” (as they call the major safari animals here), as if we’d known each other for years: we talked about life, death, happiness, sex, and our biggest fears.
He explained that I’d find him very different from the average Australian guy when I finally make my way to Oz next summer. Rather than going to college, he’d spent years exploring alternative methods to achieving one’s best possible self, his idea of happiness is balance (with plenty of introspection), and he’s worked as a hotline counselor for troubled youth back home. He’s even considering a career in relationship counseling in the future. The average Aussie guy likes beer and sport and automatically considers him gay, and the average Aussie girl doesn’t know what to make of him. I explained that he would probably encounter much the same thing in America, and the rest of the western world for that matter - we’re not so good with men who don’t stick to one end of the gender role spectrum. His big fear, after years of learning to objectively analyze emotions (his own and others’), was that he’d become too rational and detached to ever be able to feel real love for someone. Mine was that I love all the wrong people. We were quite the little pair.
Back at the hostel, we exchanged numbers and said goodnight. I thanked him for letting me tag along on his adventure and for not trying to kill me. He thanked me for not being a standoffish American and saying yes to his offer, and as for the murdering bit, he explained today was just about buttering me up for the big event tomorrow: Sleep well, Wesley – most likely kill you in the morning. As you wish, I replied.
The next day we headed down the peninsula again in the little white Ford, which we were grateful to find still in one piece outside the hostel. This time we drove down the Atlantic on the M6 to gorgeous Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Noordhoek. That area is the Amalfi Coast of South Africa – amazing cliff town after amazing cliff town, culminating in the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive. Thankfully, everyone drives about 100 mph less on CPD than they do on the winding cliff roads in Italy – you actually get to enjoy the incredible scenery without wanting to toss your cookies the whole time. We stopped about every five minutes to take pictures and spot dolphins in the bay – turns out two photographers on a trip does not a speedy journey make.
Along the way, we encountered a group of rowdy teenagers on a secluded beach who wanted to know how long we’d been married and whether we were going to put them on TV in America. Ooo, ooo pick me! Pick me!, they shouted. As they got closer and started reaching for our cameras, we decided we had filled our idiot tourist quotient for the day and should exnay on the beachstay before getting ourselves rightfully mugged. It’s amazing how a beautiful place can make you feel safer than you really are and lead you to do dumb things. It’s also amazing how remembering that a place is known for danger can make you assume everyone who gets a little too close is a threat.
A little further down the coast, I spoke to a very sweet man selling curios by the cliff side. He, too, was from Malawi and had come to South Africa to find work among the mass of tourists. He encouraged me not to get lost in the easy western beauty of Cape Town and South Africa. Cape town is not Africa, he said. If you want to see Africa, you must go deeper into the continent than just here. It’s very easy… you can fly. This time, I knew he wasn’t talking about the universal “you”. I can fly. I thanked him for the advice, and dreamt of East Africa as the Aussie sped us down the coast.
Despite our pit stops, we still managed to make it make it down to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve before dark. Following a tip we got from the travel desk at our hostel, we turned off the main road that leads down to Cape Point to follow a side road, rumored to be the hangout spot for the few zebra, baboons, ostrich, and antelope that populate the reserve. Much to our luck, that little offshoot provided us with a lot of animal sightings, including our first zebra! We also got to hang out with a pack of baboons on a beach for a while – after seeing warning signs about their dangerous behavior all over the cape, we were happily treated to a hilarious round of hide and seek all over our car by a bunch of babies. The Vermonter in me wanted to reach out and touch them; the New Yorker in me decided to keep all my fingers. 
After extracting several monkeys from our windshield, we continued down to the Cape of Good Hope point, where Diaz rounded the tip of Africa, and I nearly crapped my pants trying to get down from the adjacent mountain. I climbed up at the urging of the Aussie and got down holding onto him for dear life. It felt a lot like the time a group of older boys talked me into riding The Comet rollercoaster with them at The Great Escape park back home. Never again, never again. Thankfully, the Aussie did a good job hiding his judgment of my pathetic meltdown on the mountain, which made it all a little less distressing.
Before leaving, we took another detour to the west coast of the reserve to watch the sun set into the ocean. Very cool, but no pictures, unfortunately. We decided we’d never be able to capture it, so we gave our cameras a much-needed break and just enjoyed watching the African sun slowly bleed away into cold Atlantic waters.
The Australian left the next day, but not before giving me his contact info, an assurance I had place to stay in Brisbane, and a giant bear hug. It had all turned out ok. I was in procession of all body parts and my freedom. Not bad for a potential Pollyanna moment.
 A lot of things seem harmless but aren’t; a lot of things seem dangerous but aren’t. Unfortunately, especially here in South Africa, we often seem keen to recall the former and forget the latter. I guess it’s really about living somewhere in the middle… Or at least living somewhere as beautiful as this, where you forget the whole damn thing and just live.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Gersons

This is all just waaaaaaay too easy. There must be a catch. I was honestly kind of hoping the other shoe would just hit me in the face on the way off of the plane so that I wouldn’t have to wait for it later. But it hasn’t really worked out that way.
I was expecting to be miserable and riddled with cramps after the epic flight from New York. I was expecting to be hassled by immigration about my plans to eventually exit the country, and customs about whatever the hell I packed in that ridiculous bag. I was expecting to have to lug my crap across Johannesburg international airport, only to be told that I’d need to pay an extra $100 because my bag weighed over the limit for the domestic flight to Cape Town. I was expecting my international cell not to work, thanks to its demonstration of moody unpredictability back in the States. I was expecting to have a rough time getting from the airport to the home of the people I’d be staying with for my first few days in Cape Town, people whom I’d never met or even talked to.
Let me tell you, low expectations are the way to go. Get what you figured or be pleasantly surprised… or maybe even get the most incredible view of your life, the most generous hospitality imaginable, and a seriously kickass shower. No kidding, this shower was the shit.
The Gersons are fantastic. They literally took me in on a day’s notice after my aunt, Paige, who’d met Lani Gerson on a beach in Connecticut a few years ago, emailed them to ask if they wouldn’t mind hosting me as I got my Cape Town bearings. She and my mom couldn’t stand the idea of me landing in some sketchy hostel in a foreign country on day one – they needed to know real people would catch me as I stumbled into Africa. In true South African fashion, the Gersons said sure thing.
Their house is unreal. They live on the main road up to Table Mountain from the city, in a beautiful, super modern home they built themselves, with a view to die for. Just from the window in my room, I could see the entire city, the ocean, and Table Mountain. The view from the front wall of their home, which is made entirely of glass, is just ridiculous.
I arrived at their house while the whole family was out and about, and was let in and shown to my room by their housekeepers, Winnie and Fred. All I wanted in the world after 20+ hours of travel was a nap on a real bed and a hot shower, and it became clear very quickly that I had hit the weary person’s jackpot. Unfortunately, I was half way through said luxurious hot shower (in my own personal bathroom!) when I realized I was flooding the place. Two hours into my stay with a family I’d never met and I was destroying their home. Excellent.
I went out into the house to find brilliantly red-headed and super-hiply dressed Lani, who assured me that it was no big deal – they’d been having an issue with it for a while. She apologized for not having Winnie and Fred tell me; they would work on fixing it tomorrow. Crisis averted.
After that, I met her teenaged son, Josh, and husband, Barry. They were all incredibly warm and inviting, and I was treated to an unbelievable homemade vegetarian dinner as we discussed the totally drinkable water and utterly confusing socket converters here in Cape Town. The city below us had turned to glowing light and Table Mountain stood as a giant silhouette against the night sky. It was stunning. I was really here.
The next morning I headed down to their huge porch that looks out onto all of Cape Town to take some pictures. I got a few good shots, soaked in the grandeur, and then heard Barry tell Winnie and Fred to fetch me breakfast. What can we get you madam? Oh, err, um… I can just get it myself – don’t worry about it. Oh, no, we make it for you. Hmmmk.
Knowing that I was in a meat and dairy-free household and hoping not to make them do anything too involved, I asked for some toast. Well, I got four enormous pieces of toast, two with marmalade and two with avocado (or avo as they say here), plus a huge bowl filled to capacity with papaya. Apparently they think I’m nutrient deficient and lacking in mass. As I went to work on the heap of food in front of me, I asked Winnie if she had always lived in South Africa. I don’t live in South Africa. Oh… right, ok… then where do you live? I’m from Malawi. Three or four days by bus from here. Oh… ok. But you live here now? I work here. I go home to Malawi once a year for 21 days. 7 or 8 days is travel. My kids are in Malawi – 20, 18, and 15 years… You can take a plane there – it’s only two hours. Oh, do you do that often? No.Never. I mean you could take a plane there. She said all of this with a big, vacant grin on her face as each slice she made into a new papaya oozed orange onto her white cutting board. It was the kind of forced smile I used to wear as a bartender in New York, pretending to listen to whatever advice the business man sitting across from me was offering on how to survive in the big, bad world.
I felt a catch in my throat and just nodded. She looked at me like, Don’t waste your energy, darling. It was too damn early in the trip for this. I figured I could handle an “other side of the tracks” story, but “It’s 4 days by bus to see my children once a year “ was a little much for me over avo and toast. This wasn't just a South Africa problem, it was an Africa one. Maybe this was the other shoe – not having my passport stolen, but having my heart broken little by little by this beautiful continent.
Later that day, Lani took me for a drive and I was introduced to the South African shopping mall. Turns out everyone here lets you take home whatever you’re thinking about buying to try it out. Go show your husband these frames, this tank top, these curtains and see what he thinks – I’ll see you in a few days, I’m sure. South African trust seems amazing for a place with notorious people problems. Lani had forgotten something she needed in the car in the parking garage, and when I volunteered to go get it, I realized that I was walking alone for the first time in some place other than an airport here. I clutched her car keys between my fingers, ready to jab at eyes if necessary. But nothing happened. It was pretty much just like walking through a mall/parking deck anywhere else. I felt kind of dumb.
After picking Josh up from the American International School (which I’m imagining as a kick-ass place to work… note to self), we had another lovely veggie dinner together, this time joined by their friend, Avril. She and Lani have travelled a lot together and, as they’d been to several spots I’m planning to go, they gave me some tips. Regarding the super pushy Egyptian venders (a.k.a. everyone there, apparently): Just tell them to fuck off really, really loudly, they explained. You’re also going to get ripped off in Istanbul, just so you know. And always watch out for the water – that’s what will get you. Oh, and bring your own damn toilet paper! Most importantly, I was taught the Avril glare. It’s pretty scary, not gonna lie. She explained that one glance like the one she has perfected (a complete and total death stare) and you won’t have to learn how to tell people to fuck off really, really loudly in any language at all. The glare is universal.
On Saturday, Lani dropped me off on Long St., the main drag in Cape Town, to see if I could find myself a “proper backpackers” (so far all the new terms and phrases are my favorite part of travelling). I spent all afternoon going up and down the street, liking the vibe but kind of bumming over my hostel options. They were all nice and cheap, but generally kind of grungy and full of 18 year olds. I stopped to watch some amazing young girls sing in Greenmarket Square and read a bit of my Time Out Cape Town magazine (it’s everywhere!). They suggested the Ashanti Lodge, which was only a little bit further from the absolute center of town than the others. I made the trek over to Hof St. and found backpacker heaven. I immediately booked a room for the next day and relieved myself of feeling like I was taking advantage of the Gerson’s lovely hospitality. More about awesome Ashanti later.
Over dinner that night, I was given the rundown on the Black Empowerment system and xenophobic issues the country is facing. Barry likened Black Empowerment to America’s affirmative action and said that it mandated race quotas (generally reflective of the racial makeup of the population) for South African businesses. Because many blacks haven’t been provided the education necessary to succeed in the jobs they're given preference for under the system, a kind of unfortunate cycle has arisen. The policy has also pushed a lot of young, educated white people to look elsewhere in the world for a living, resulting in a major South African “brain drain”. At the same time, people from other countries (like Malawi) are coming here because it’s where the jobs are, and the locally underprivileged haven’t been taking it so well. In the past few years, a great deal of xenophobic violence has broken out in South Africa. Earlier that afternoon, while discussing the trouble she’s been having  getting the routine straight with their new housekeepers (Winnie and Fred), Lani explained that their last one had left the area after much of his family was brutally attacked – one of his cousins had his arm sliced open from top to bottom just for trying to go to the store. Not exactly the apartheid-free utopia everyone's hoped for. At least not yet.
On Sunday I thanked my host family again for their amazing generosity and took advantage of Lani’s very kind offer to drop me at my new place. My adventures in Cape Town were just beginning.

The Opposite of Home

For whatever reason, I keep thinking I’m heading home. I keep imagining that my family and my bed are waiting for me at the other end of this 15 hour flight. I look up from reading or sleeping, and suddenly something about the direction of the cabin forces me to feel the propulsion eastward and remember where I’m headed. I’m not going home. I’m going to the opposite of home. Not only have I strapped myself into this incredibly long flight, taking me to the other side of the globe, but landing in Africa in three hours is only the beginning of this journey. There are thousands of hostels and customs desks and exotic meals between there and home. I’m certainly at my leisure to stop the parade of new experiences any time I want, but you don’t fly yourself across the planet to hang for a few days and get sick of the whole gig. If my plan has its way, it will be a year of packing and unpacking the Green Monster before the big, long flight I’m on is leading me back where I belong. And maybe by then I won’t belong there anymore.
This all feels a bit like I’ve gotten on an amusement park ride that I don’t have the option to exit any longer. I avoid any and all rides for this very reason, this feeling of uncontrollable forward motion. It’s a feeling I can recall from a kiddie ride involving airplanes at the fair from childhood… a ride that taught me not to get on any others in the future. So I’m honestly in a bit of shock to find myself sitting here, barreling along through orange Namibian clouds, on this ride with no exit that I actively sought out. I’ve veered off the Magic Kingdom tour and onto Space Mountain, this time on purpose and with full knowledge of what that entails. And I’m kinda wigging out.
But watching the tiny digital plane traverse the screen in the seatback in front of me is giving me quite a thrill every time I see which African nation we’re flying over next. No matter what happens after this, I will have been to Africa. Africa. I will have a real zebra in my passport, not a painted one. So I’m slowly but surely wrapping my brain around the wind-up to Space Mountain. I can’t imagine ever buying a ticket for this, but I’m processing the shock of my apparent purchase and imagining the whole thing might grow on me. I just might like being this girl who wakes up on airplanes taking her to the opposite of home. 
As long as there are peanuts. Are there peanuts?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Untying the Ropes

This is all Emie’s fault. Well, it’s Lindsay’s, too. And Cherry’s… and Robert’s… and Ali’s. This trip is all their fault. But now that it’s really here, it finally feels like mine.
Emie was the one who asked me as politely as a best pal can to please shut the hell up about all the travel stuff… or at least go someplace really cool and call her from there about it. It turned out that I’d spent a good portion of every conversation we’d had since graduation (and there had been a lot of them) talking about all the world travel I wanted to do and what a bummer it was that I couldn’t really do that now that I was a New Yorker and six months… a year… two years out of college. My friend Lindsay was a frequent topic of these one-sided conversations. Emie would lovingly but exasperatedly roll her eyes on the other end of the line as I rehashed my jealousy of Lindsay’s global life. Have I told you about my friend Lindsay? Yes? Well right now she’s traveling on a cruise ship to Antarctica with her Australian boyfriend, who she met while living in New Zealand. How amazing is that? Oh, we’ve talked about that already? Well they’re on their way to Australia after that to live for a few years and then they’re going to backpack through Asia together. She has the most incredible life. Oh I said that last week? …This is all I ever talk about?
I had decided I’d missed the boat. I didn’t travel right after graduating because I had no money and didn’t think I was built to sling on a backpack and waltz around the world. I pack too much, I like hot showers, I don’t own zip-off pants. I’m no Lindsay. And it just didn’t fit into the puzzle of the adult life I was trying to build in New York – you don’t just pick up and do something like that. Move to San Fran, maybe. Travel the world like a nomad, not so much. It’s amazing what I had convinced myself of just by spending too many years on the straight and narrow. What would employers think?  How far behind the rest of the pack would my life be when I returned? How do you explain this kind of detour off the treadmill to a stranger? But it turned out that the friends I was (not so-) secretly jealous of were all showing me that it could easily be done. They were doing it. Lindsay in Australia, Cherry in South Africa, Robert in Israel, Ali in the Maldives.  And they were no different from me, just less willing to let opportunities pass them by, less scared. So Emie asked me what it would mean if I just decided to be one of them, decided to pick up and travel, in whatever way I saw fit. Just stop for a second and picture it. Imagine you’ve just decided to go. How does that feel?
It felt freeing. Regardless of the plane tickets and visas and packing and saving and trekking it would involve, I felt relieved. I was the only one lashing sandbags around my ankles and, in that moment, I started untying the ropes.
So here I am, starting the journey of my lifetime. One of the cool kids, with the spiffy green backpack and a one way ticket to the Motherland. Don’t worry – Lumpy’s pajamas balled up in my pillowcase are there to prove that “cool” is relative term.  And now that the trip isn’t just the concept it’s been for so long, now that I’m the only one getting on the plane and flying half way around the globe, now that I can see the tiny-ass seat on South African Airways flight 204 that’s going to take me there, the trip is really mine. It’s not someone else’s life I wish I was living. I’m the only one who really got myself here and the only one who’s going to get me back home (maybe). It’s all my fault… and it’s pretty fucking awesome.

PS: I suppose you might be wondering about the zebra thing. It’s sort of a philosophy I’m trying to follow while on this journey, and it was developed by the almighty mind that is my younger brother. When I first told him I was traveling, and starting my journey in Africa, he thought about it for a second, turned to me, and said in all seriousness, “Well, don’t paint your tent like a zebra”. At the time I just cracked up laughing, but the more I thought about it, the more his simple statement made sense to me in terms of the mindset I wanted to have on my trip. It’s sort of a great way of saying “Don’t be an idiot”, and a particular, special kind of idiot at that. Don’t be the idiot who thought she couldn’t leave a dumb job in the US, with no attachments or responsibilities except to herself, because that’s not what she was supposed to do. Don’t neglect to recognize when you’re going out of your way to do something unhelpful, superficial, and maybe even dangerous. Don’t let the big background blur while you focus on something small and empty in the foreground. Don’t be a walking American target in a wide open world – blend in with your body and mind. Don’t miss each moment of this incredible journey that you’ll never be able to repeat because you are too busy worrying about what sights you should be seeing, how much money the next thing is going to cost, what you should be writing, or what the next leg of your trip should look like. Don’t paint your tent like a zebra. That’s the plan in a nutshell.