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

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