Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dead ends on the way out


I've been in South Africa almost two weeks now. My only real problem is that I can't sleep.

But then, I couldn't sleep a full night in the U.S., either. And if I slept well at night I'd probably have nothing to wake up and write about. So I can't complain.

I had meant this entry to be a compilation of pictures with humorous captions, but my girlfriends camera has gone ill. Its only working function right now is a buzzing noise. Well get it repaired. The pictures will be up some time this week. Until then, a few observations:

1. The first thing you notice about Port Elizabeth is the wind. It's incredible. And this is coming from someone who lived the majority of his life in North Dakota and Minnesota, where there's nothing tall enough to stop the stuff ripping down from Canada.

At night in Port Elizabeth, you can lie in bed and listen to the entire outside of your house turned into a whistle. And when you're walking outside during the day, the noise of it whipping against your ears is deafening. You have to yell at the person walking next to you, and then you have to watch their lips while they talk. I'll need a hearing aid by November.

2. The second thing is the speed of life. No one's in too much of a hurry to do much of anything, except for us damn Americans, who can often be spotted passing the locals walking along the roadside. Here's a good example of the relaxed South African pace: the word "now" does not mean now. As in, "I'll be with you now," which means, "I'll be with you in a moment." Then there’s "now now," which is the extended phrase: "I'll be there now now," is more like, "Give me five minutes."

And just to mention another phrase that is uniquely African: When someone says something in the U.S. that you didn’t expect or that you want them to expand upon, you’d say, "Really?"--admittedly, not too clever. Here though, they ask, "Is it?" I assume this is shorthand for "Is it true?" I'll get used to it. But the first time I heard it from an otherwise highly intelligent person who has been speaking English since birth I wanted to say, "There's been an accident--get this man to a hospital!"

3. The third thing you notice about Port Elizabeth is the exchange rate. American money goes a long way here. A few South Africans have told my girlfriend, "Go back to the U.S., work for three years. Then come back and buy a house." Needless to say, it's being considered.

4. The fourth thing you notice about Port Elizabeth is the wind. Wait, did I already talk about the wind? WHAT? OKAY!

5. The fifth thing is a sad one: they play awful American music here. Just like in America.

6. The sixth thing that you notice as an American in South Africa is the faucets. Hot and cold water come out of separate taps. So if you don't want third degree burns or frostbite, you have to somehow make two streams of water that are four inches apart become one. I think anyone who can do this has magical powers, and should immediately be named President Mbeki's Minister of Health.

7. The seventh thing you notice are the taxis. There are "cabs," which we Americans would call "taxis," and then there are "taxis," which are more like shuttles. They look like they seat about eight or nine, but if you watch them load or unload you’ll see something similar to the clown car act at the circus. They zoom around one right after the other, and if you can stand the risk of sitting next to someone who smells like last Thursday, you can get most places in the city for less than 10 rand (about $1.25 U.S.).

As the taxis roll upon the endless stream of roadside walkers–-and count this lazy American among them-–they leave no ambiguity about their presence. The driver honks, and his partner, leaning his head out the window, yells "TOWN!" at everyone they pass. (I’m sure the driver thinks, "Why is he shouting? Can't he see that I'm honking?" And the partner thinks, "Why am I shouting?") They don't discriminate, either: say a taxi's going west, and someone is walking east--this minor detail does not stop the taxi from trying to lure them in for the ride.

I can't imagine the success rate on that kind of attempt is very high. I'm not sure many people think, "Well, I was going home. But those guys seem to be having a lot of fun. I'll go that way instead." I'll learn to drown these characters out now now, but for the moment they’re a nuisance. Besides, they drive on the left side of the road, which seems incredibly dangerous.

Okay, that's enough for now. I'll leave you with a letter I've written to Fred Khumalo, a columnist for the excellent Sunday Times, which is based out of Johannesburg.

Mr. Khumalo, whom I know to be sharply-dressed from the enormous picture at the head of the "Fred Khumalo Page" in last Sunday's times, has written a column about the bus tours that pass through the various townships. You can find it here. I’d ask that you read it before reading my response, if only to give some context.

As Mr. Khumalo's "MAILBAG" feature runs only a thin column down the left side of the "Fred Khumalo Page," I've decided to run my letter here, in full.

Mr. Khumalo -

I am a visiting American. I arrived only about 10 days ago, and I'm staying in your country for three months. I read with some interest your column about the bus tours that take visitors through the townships of South Africa.

I'll admit that I was a bit squeamish when I first heard about these tours. I thought, as your column alleges, that they sounded exploitative. Indeed, I first imagined zoo-like tourism destinations. ("Have you been to Coffee Bay? Oh, and you must go see the Sowetans.")

But now that I’ve been to the Walmer township in Port Elizabeth--where I'll be volunteering with an after-school program for young kids--I've changed my mind. Sure, I was made uneasy when a man in his 20s stopped working on his car to glare at me as I got out of the van. But that went away when a dozen kids surrounded myself, my girlfriend and another companion. They were full of questions. They wanted us to play with them. A couple of them just hugged and said nothing.

I cringed when I read your words about the animal attacks at game reserves. I get the comparison you're trying to make. But to me, it fails.

You see, I've also just been on a game drive. And I have to make a few points.

- The animals do not see a group of human tourists when the 4 x 4 rolls up alongside of them. They see a single, huge animal. So they don't feel exploited, they don't feel intruded upon. They just think, "There's that elephant-like thing." And, thusly, they are almost indifferent toward it. We sat about five meters from a pair of lions, and the big male didn't even stand up to welcome us. A rhino slept peacefully in our presence; a giraffe shuffled along in front of us before stepping off the road, only to turn back and cast a curious glance our way.
- The animals at the game reserve seemed totally content with their lives. They eat as much as they want, they roam around as they please, and they sleep well at night knowing they are completely safe from the poachers that would otherwise be hunting them to extinction.
- The story about Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who escaped being trampled by a bull elephant, was not a new one to me. These kind of near-misses happen all the time to naturalists, and in my experience, they say the same thing 10 times out of 10: “It was my fault. I did something stupid. God I love that animal.” Mr. Anthony was probably trying to check the elephant's health or attend to a wound or something constructive. Let's not imagine that he was standing over it, poking it with a stick.
- "Leave the animals alone," you wrote. "If you truly, truly want to understand them. . . ah, wait a minute. Why do you want to understand them in the first place?" I find this point silly, Mr. Khumalo. You see, I too, am a journalist. Younger, greener, dumber, and without the smart suit you sport in your picture--but a journalist nonetheless. And any journalist who doesn't know man's inherent curiosity to observe and understand. . . well, perhaps he should become an electrician.

Now let me tell you what stood out from my trip to the township. The first two girls I met, about six or seven years old, were bright, if a bit shy.

Then I was introduced to a young man named Bokke. Bokke was a very impressive boy, probably around 10 years old. His spelling was near-perfect. His math was better. He asked how old I was.

"I'm 21," I said.

"You were born in. . .1986," he said.

Then he asked what date I was born. July 29th, I said, and he told me he was born the third of May. Then I told him my dad was born May 5th, only, "a long time ago."

"How old is your dad?" he asked.

"He's 68," I said.

Bokke’s eyes rolled up a bit as he tried to find the numbers in his head. And then: "He was born in 1939."

All I could do was laugh out loud.

When my girlfriend told me later that Bokke was a bit of a hellraiser when he was with his friends, I realized he reminded me a bit of myself. (Only smarter, and with a cool accent.) Then I thought of all the things that could have – and in some cases, did – keep me off of a successful path in life. And I grew up white, in the center of America, with highly-educated and prosperous parents who treated me well and helped make up for my mistakes.

I know that in Bokke's case, there are a lot more dead ends on the way out of the township. I know that he has to chase down education and opportunity with more aggression than I ever have. And I decided, on my way out of the township, that I would keep in touch with Bokke as long as he returned my correspondence.

If the money from township tours goes back into the township itself, or at least funnels toward government programs that might help to make the life of the unfortunate better, I think it's worth it. If 1 or 2 of the 10 people on a township tour bus get off at the end and ask the guide, "Is there anything we can do to help?", then I think it's worth it. If 1 in 1000 passengers says, "You know, I'm a retired teacher; are there any schools around here I could volunteer at?", then I know it’s worth it.

I would be okay with certain safeguards put in place to insure the validity and the focus of these township tours that you don't like, Mr. Khumalo. I think the tour guides should have been born in the townships. I think the passengers should be allowed to get off the bus and talk to, and possibly dine with as many township residents as they care to meet.

And I think that the first time someone makes a snide comment, or someone takes a picture without asking permission, or someone takes a superior tone when talking about what they're seeing. . .

I think that person should be driven out, and dropped in the middle of Kruger Park to fend for themselves.

- Mike Mullen

Friday, August 10, 2007

A clear image. . .into my mind's eye

I've landed in Port Elizabeth, alive and jet-lagged. More jet-lagged than alive. So jet-lagged, in fact, that I'm writing this in the middle of the night. I slept a few hours to repay a bit of sleep debt, but then I awoke and rolled around for an hour or so until deciding that I had enough of an idea to put out a few words.

My flight from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg, and the subsequent Johannesburg-Port Elizabeth flight were each remarkably unremarkable. Nice take offs, nice landings, no crying babies.

When I first boarded in D.C., I noticed that a woman, whom I would later find out was from Botswana, was sleeping in my seat. I decided I'd take the next one over, but then a nice American woman walked over and told me I was in her seat. At this point a nearby flight attendant asked to see my ticket.

"Perhaps you are mistaken; maybe you are in first class," he said, smiling, to the tired-looking boy wearing sweatpants and standing 50 rows away from first class.

I smiled back and produced a crumpled stub from my pocket, one that indicated that I belonged in the seat of the sleeping woman, who had since awakened. The flight attendant asked for her ticket, which actually gave her a seat one row back.

"Ma'am, you are in his seat. Is it okay if he takes your seat?"

She nodded. He turned to me.

"It's okay with you?"

It was, and without further incident I was in 57A.

This was my first taste of South Africa, and it was not lost on me. I know the frazzled state of airplane travel in my country, and I'm quite sure that on an American plane this kind of mix-up would have resulted in both of us being detained. I would eventually have been released, and sued the FAA, and the sleeping woman from Botswana would probably have been shackled and sent to Guantanamo for further questioning.

But here, on South African Airways? We smile and joke and switch, and it's over.

It was one of several differences I noticed on the flight alone. The most startling would come from the flight attendants: three pretty young women, and four men, three of whom I'm quite certain were not gay. I'm not saying that it's better to have pretty young women--okay, it is--or straight men serving you on a plane. It's just different.

But what was different and decidedly better was the attendants' attitude. For 15 straight hours, they smiled at passengers and laughed with each other. And they didn't laugh like the American, where's-my-Prozac, I'm-only-laughing-to-keep-from-crying kind of fake laughter. More like, "Did you see that guy in the Hawaiian shirt in 78D? He might as well wear a hat saying, 'PLEASE, TAKE MY TRAVELER'S CHECKS.' " Which I suppose is the kind of thing you can get away with when you speak a native tongue.

One of the guys was even nice when I blanked on a regional phrase. He came around with drinks and I asked for water.


What do you mean, 'still?' I thought. I just asked for it. I stared up at him for a second, and he realized my confusion.

"You want sparkling or still?"


The older gentlman sitting next to me downed a miniature bottle of red wine, and I struck up a conversation. It turned out he was originally from Uruguay, but had been living in D.C. for 20 years.

We talked off-and-on for a while, and he told me he was visiting a friend outside of Johannesburg. His friend had been running a construction business for some time in South Africa.

"It's a rich country, South Africa,” he said. “You know? They have a lot of gold and diamonds."

Because there was a language problem--and of course the problem was, this fellow didn't speak my language as well as I wanted--I held back.

I would have liked to say, "Ricardo, I believe your friend has misled you. A few people, like your friend, have done very well. Many more are struggling."

Instead I smiled and, like an idiot, said, "Yeah."

It's probably best I pick my battles.

. . .

So, back on solid ground, what then?

Being greatly concerned by race relations, I was immediately alarmed when I saw a thickly-accented white South African berating a black airport employee in Johannesburg. He was jabbing his finger in the guy’s face.

"Don't you fucking smile at me!"

I was relieved when later I saw the guy giving the same business to a white employee. Apparently someone had lost his bags, and no race, color or creed would be spared his wrath.

A black gentleman was standing right in my way after I passed through customs.

"May I take your bag for you?" he asked.

I wasn't quite sure how to get to the domestic flights, and I could've used the conversation, so I accepted.

He explained to me that we had to walk outside because they were rebuilding most of the airport. I had seen this. When I looked outside my window upon landing to discover three different cranes in operation. I'm not sure the typical crane-to-person ratio, but I assumed they were doing a massive overhaul, and he confirmed this.

"They are building the underground train, too," he said. "It's all for the World Cup."

Ah, there it was. The thing that I had come here for, the thing about which I have a thousand questions, had in fact found me.

Because to me, this is the story of the 2010 World Cup. Will South Africa be ready for it? What will that look like? And most importantly, what will this country look like when the games have come and gone?

After all, if South Africa builds subways and fix roads and expand airports and do all kinds of infrastructure work that had heretofore been beyond its government's reach or desire. . . well, after the World Cup is over, all of those things will still be here.

But I’m no dope. I’ve seen my country explain the side effects of big projects, and I’m trying to get better at taking the spin off of what I hear.

I know that one part of construction means deconstruction. I know that one part of revealing South Africa's developing culture is hiding its hideous past. I know that very near to the stadium in Port Elizabeth is the city's township, where steady work is rare and crime is common, and for some people the two are one and the same. I know that these people will watch tens and hundreds of thousands of foreigners pour into their country to go watch games they could not afford to see themselves.

I know you can't erase hundreds of years of poverty and prejudice in a couple of years. It's much easier to sweep those things under the rug when company comes over.

. . .

I lay in bed for some time, trying to organize my thoughts. But they were too far apart, and I couldn't get a hold of one of them for long enough to shape it into the written word.

After some time I saw it.

Usually when I'm trying to sleep, all I can see is the inside of my eyelids. When it's dark, they're black. When the light is creeping in it's those splotchy little spots and lines that I assume are blood vessels. But occasionally, a clear image sneaks out of my consciousness and into my mind's eye.

So here, in the middle of the night: a pair of dark brown eyes.

Even without a face to put them on, I knew they were the eyes of a child. I have no explanation for what they hell they were doing there. But I know where I can find them.

Somewhere in Port Elizabeth's township, or somewhere in the afterschool volunteer program, or on some street--perhaps as in this occurrence, when I'm not looking for them--I'll see those eyes again. Maybe I'll see them everywhere.

And that is where my story begins. Anyone who saw those eyes and didn't understand what they had to do with the 2010 World Cup is either a sports-obsessed creep or an insensitive jackass.

The question is not what those eyes, what this child means to the World Cup. The question is what might this World Cup mean to the child.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A bridge fell into a river

I'll be in Boston on Friday, and in South Africa next week. So I'm moving everything into storage. Every -- single -- thing.

I spent the entire day moving boxes, washing dishes, sorting clothes, and sighing. Around 5:00 p.m. I was ready to deliver a load at the storage unit my sister had picked out. I drove, following her directions, through stop-and-go traffic.

But after I took the exit, the storage place was not immediately visible. After a minute I saw a sign off in the distance -- not at all where she'd said it would be. I drove to it, and pulled up to the electronic gate. I typed in the numbers she'd given me.

CODE NOT VALID. I tried again. CODE NOT VALID. Well, she's dyslexic, maybe she mixed up that 1 with a 5; CODE NOT VALID.

With no cell phone, and with the office closed, I drove away. You can imagine the thoughts running through my head at this point, and every one of them contained a word I wouldn't say in front of my grandmother.

On my way back toward the highway, a sign caught my eye. STORAGE, it says -- right about where she'd said it would be. I must've driven right by it.

I pulled in. The code worked, and I pulled around to my spot. I went up to my door and used the key on the lock. But I couldn't open the door. It doesn't pull out, and these little levers don't move left or right or up or down... I stand there, helpless. Maybe if I really pulled -- my God, is everyone who stores there stuff here 6-5, 300 pounds? It wasn't moving an inch.

Again, I was ready to leave, and you can imagine my frustration. On a whim I tried sliding the lever one last time. Success. I was in.

I piled up boxes of books and DVDs and dishes and a bag of clothes. It wasn't a lot, but it would have been annoying to have made the trip back home surrounded by this crap and with nothing to show for my evening venture.

I began the drive back, and only a minute later that a voice broke into National Public Radio.

"We've got breaking news. We have a bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis on 35-W, at the University exit."

I'm sure you've seen the pictures, and if not you could find them easily. "Collapse" is the right word. A bridge full of cars fell into a river.

My frustration subsided.

If I had seen the storage garage right away, if I'd figured out the door, if I hadn't circled the entire compound looking for an exit. . . I'd have been on or damn close to that bridge.

I found out later that my sister had been crossed it about 10 minutes earlier.

If, if, if.

So what do you do when you've come close to something like that?

Do you think about all of the times you'd been on that bridge? Do you think about a life of bad luck with cars, a paralyzing fear of heights? Do you think about how since you were 15 you've always been 20 minutes late, for everything? Do you think about the time when everyone was talking about death, and how they might die, and you said, "You know, I've always had bad luck with cars, and I'm afraid of water..."

You think about all those things, and you look for some larger meaning. It's not there.

Instead you go out and buy ice and bourbon. You pour a drink with an unsteady hand. Then you sit down and write it out, and you hope that someday it makes more sense.