Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Photo album

Hello. Been a while, and I'm sorry. Today I have pictures. (Click on any picture to see a larger version.)

My girlfriend went to the Red Location museum, which is a testament to the local anti-apartheid movement. Red Location was the first black township in Port Elizabeth. (For more information, go here.)

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This is the plaque that introduces you to the museum, and I just like the phrasing of the last line--". . .to portray a feeling of awkwardness, ambiguity and complexity." As a rule I'm for any exhibit that says, "We have no problem making you people feel uncomfortable."

(Note: I don't think my girlfriend would have taken pictures in the museum had there not been a shockingly frustrating situation: the power was out in some parts of the building. She was taking pictures so that the flash would hit the wall, and then she could look at the picture to see what was on there. I could not have come up with a more striking metaphor than a museum that illuminates the struggle against oppression, with the lights off.)

This next picture shows the government's official tactic of dealing with uprisings in the 70's and 80's. They’d round up organizers and well-known opponents of apartheid and "interrogate" them until they died under murky circumstances. Hundreds of bright young men were shot, stabbed or beaten to death while in the company of a number of policemen. Other prisoners conveniently fell or jumped to their deaths. Apartheid sent one generation of leaders to Robben Island, and the next to the grave.

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There are a couple other pictures my girlfriend took at the Red Location, but I won't be publishing them. They were of two speakers that they had, a couple of older men who were themselves residents. I won’t put them up because I wasn't there to ask their permission. But I should mention that these two guys found time to smile and laugh with their visitors while talking about the darkest days of their country’s history. I seem to harbor more bitterness about apartheid than most of the people who lived through it. They're very forgiving. Me, not so much.

Now I'll show you the beach, which is about a five minute walk from where we live. This is the part where I confess that I don't give a damn about beaches. I just don't get it. Even Zanzibar, with its famed white beaches, holds no appeal to me. The beach part of the beach is just sand.

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I do understand man's fascination with water. In Port Elizabeth, you'll often catch someone lost in the oncoming waves and their own thoughts.

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Next, we'll look at drainage. One day when it was pouring rain, I noticed this coming up under the wall of our place, courtesy of the neighbors. How thoughtful.

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And here's a picture to illustrate my last post, where I talked about the lack of a front wall. The two guys sitting on the right were responsible for taking down the rest of the wall, before a few others joined them to rebuild it. Again, this hole was there for a month.

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Now, just a couple of pictures from the game drive. We’ll start with the least interesting animal, which was the sleeping rhino. Looking at a sleeping rhino is a lot like looking at a rock. (Note: the head in this picture belongs to Sergio, another passenger on the game drive. Sergio actually took all of these pictures, except, I assume, this one. Nice kid.)

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Next we’ll see the immeasurably goofy ostrich. This odd bird came walking right up to the truck, where it became fascinated by our guide’s car keys. With its curious eye, craning neck and frazzled hair, it seems to be the nosy-old-lady neighbor of the animal kingdom. Can’t you just imagine her asking, “How’s that boy of yours?” with a smoke hanging out of her beak?

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When I first saw a giraffe close up and moving in the wild, I immediately thought of dinosaurs. I know there's no close relation between the two. They just don't look like they should still be walking around on my Earth. This one trotted down the road in front of us before ducking off into the brush.

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And then, with the sun setting behind it, the giraffe took 15 seconds to remind us we weren't the only curious ones.

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Now the real reason to go on a game drive. Lions. The park we went to happened to have a rare white male, and on this day he was relaxing with one of the females. (You'll see in one of the pictures that she eventually decided to come check us out, probably getting within a 10 feet of the truck, at which point the guide decided to put some distance between us.)

You've seen pictures like these before. And you can look at the lions in these pictures, but you'll have to go find your own. These two are just for me. I get why Hemingway's Old Man could not get the lions out of his head.

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I know, I know.

- Finally, in sports, here's something that just came up on my TV screen. It's your update on South Africa in the Cricket World Cup. The score at the time was SA 154-8 Overs 20. I have no idea what that means. It looks like coordinates on a map. On the right hand of the screen, this competition was identified as the World Twenty20 Super 8. Right.

Look, what they're doing seems very athletic. It reminds me in principal of baseball. But the scoring is weird, the batter wears a beekeeper's uniform, and matches go on for six weeks. I find it highly coincidental -- if not outright suspicious -- that a sport called "cricket" has something in it called a "wicket." (There are no zolfs in golf and no clasketballs in basketball.) I can't quite say why, but this bothers me.

Also, judging by "Twenty20 Super 8," I think this tournament is taking place 13 years in the future at cheap hotels. I think I like cricket the insect more than cricket the game.

And in rugby news, rugby is awesome. Very watchable, often very hardcore. It's American football without stops and pads. Thrilling. 40 minutes, halftime, 40 minutes. No commercial breaks. I dare any American football fan not to be caught by it. In the second half, play stops every few minutes and doctors run onto the field. They seem to help six or eight players at a time, most of whom are bleeding from the head. When they show replays, the announcers say, "Let's see how exactly the rest of them didn't get hurt."

I would probably miss it at home, but South Africa is one of the most Rugby-crazed countries in the world. (Though SA's mascot, the springbok -- a dainty little deer thing -- isn’t exactly intimidating.) The overriding theme of the Rugby World Cup at this point is the dominance of the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa huge over England, Argentina over France, New Zealand crushing Italy.

And I'm sitting in a country that just made itself look like the second pick behind New Zealand, with its scary Haka pregame ritual and even scarier speed. This could get interesting for me if South Africa go deep into the tournament. Bars are going to be on fire, maybe literally if they win.

Meanwhile the cricket thing is actually here, in South Africa, and I'm not going. Well, maybe in a few days if I still can't get a good night's sleep.

That’s all. I'll write again soon.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Let go

You can't sleep.

The wind is blowing. Somewhere in the house there's a door that's not shut, and it's creaking and banging and rattling, and you might as well get up and try to get the words out.

About a month before you came here, a woman, drunk and suicidal, drove her car into a streetlight pole just down the street from the house where your girlfriend stays. Then, apparently upset to find herself still alive, she backed-up and accelerated right through the wall in front of your girlfriend's house, right up to the door, where she was stopped by the front steps.

She survives, and you assume she is arrested, though you do not know. She is not heard from again.

It took a month, but the wall's back up. Everyone's got a wall here. A month without a wall in front of your house in Port Elizabeth is a month without a front door in the States. Everyone's got a wall, and everyone's got something on top of the wall: little spikes, electrical wire, something. A lot of them have something behind the wall: hulking, ferocious guard dogs that bark at everyone they see.

The house's backyard walls have the spikes, and your neighbor has electric wire that runs above the spikes. You are completely protected from your neighbor breaking into the house.

The front wall of this house, now freshly replaced, has nothing on top of it. It's about six feet tall. Yesterday some punk kids were tossing a rugby ball around and one of them threw it over the wall. One kid, about 13, just boosted himself over the wall, grabbed the ball, and went back over it. He didn't mean any harm, but it's not making you sleep any easier.

Nor is the woman who came by earlier this day. She looked nice, and she had a clipboard. ("Normally I have a laptop," she said, oddly, more than once.) She asked your girlfriend some survey questions about radio stations or music or something.
Then there were other questions.

"How many TVs do you have in the house?"

"How many laptops?"

"What about other electronics?"

The girlfriend said, over and over, "Oh, no, we don't have any." Smart. You're stupid. You'd have said, "Oh, there's two TVs in here, but most of us watch movies on our laptops."

You can't sleep. Some house down the street had its alarm go off last night, when you couldn't sleep. A minute went by and they didn't turn it off. You remember when you heard that 99 per cent of the time home security alarms go off by homeowner error. "Not here," you think.

The alarm wailed for five minutes. Then five more, and five more after that. The homeowner is either deaf, dead, or out of town. The alarm finally stopped, and yet you were not comforted.

There was a free shuttle bus that just started to take students from around where you stay to the campus and back. It ran a few weeks. The taxi drivers--the one's you'd seen as funny characters, written about them jokingly--were not happy. A couple days ago one of them walked into the road in front of a free shuttle. When it stopped, the taxi guy crooked his finger and thumb so that they looked like a gun, and pointed at the driver. The free shuttles stopped running.

You can't sleep because a couple weeks ago, when you and the girl were off on your little safari trip, some guys walked through the non-wall in front of the house and took a baseball bat to one of the girl's windows. Then they left. They were probably just drunk kids, vandals, though you don't know. They are not heard from again.

Another alarm goes off tonight, somewhere down the block. This one stops after just a minute, and you wonder what that means.

Wind whips against the house. The birds make the most haunting noises here, and light raindrops can sound so much like footsteps.

. . .

You try to let go.

There's not much difference, really, when you look close. You drive through an all-black part of East London and you look close. The old men sit down and look tired, and one lights the other's cigarette. The young guys stand on corners and stare at you over their shoulders and try to look hard. The girls show a mile of leg and laugh, hard. You've seen all this, more or less.

You try to let go of "normal." First world, third world, the developing world. . . There is no juxtaposition, just position.

The BMW drives by the goat farmer who lives in a little aluminum rectangle. And maybe the driver thinks "Poor bastard," and the goat farmer thinks, "Rich bastard." Or maybe the driver thinks, "I wish it were that simple," and maybe the farmer thinks "I'd rather have a Lexus."

Maybe you just think too damn much and they're both thinking the same thing: "Beautiful day, inn'it?"

Let go.

Let go of the fact that the best piece of local nonfiction you've read since you got here was a stunner of an essay in the Sunday Times by a journalist who's paranoid because a few years ago someone showed up at his bedroom window and shot at him and his wife. And he was a local, a native, a lifer here.

Could you really--do you really think that, as you've said a number of times in your own head and maybe even once out loud--do you really think you could move here?

Yes, you think you could, and you think you could let go.

You can't sleep because there's something blowing in your head, and it'll keep banging and rattling until you get up and get the words out.