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.