South Africa

From June–August 2011, I conducted research in South Africa on HIV/AIDS after receiving an undergraduate research grant, traveling from Durban to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and back to Durban via bus. I stayed in hostels the majority of the time, met countless people, and interviewed doctors & journalists for my research project.

If you are interested, here is the archive of the blog I kept while in South Africa, starting with the oldest entry first. My most in-depth post is, predictably, The Deep Stuff. I know there’s a ton of material on this page, so I’d suggest just skipping to & reading that. But if you’re planning to stick around for a little longer, I think it’s interesting to see how the tone of my blog changed over time as I got to know South Africa better.

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April 18th, 2011: Preparations are Underway

It’s the middle of April, and I still haven’t fully grasped the fact that I’ll be in South Africa in less than 2 months. I lived in Okinawa, Japan for 3 years when I was young, so people get the impression that I’m well-traveled, but I’m not!

So my university has this incredible place called the Undergraduate Research Office populated by amazing people who are desperate to give money away to naïve undergraduates interested in dabbling in research. Thanks to them and to my faculty advisor who made the impossible conceivable when he asked the simple question “And would you like to go to Africa this summer?” A shout-out also to the patient grad student who helped me revise what I’m sure was a horrible initial research proposal.

The reason I’m going to South Africa is, of course, my research. The title of my project is “Talking About AIDS: Understanding the Discourse Between Journalists and Health Care Workers in South Africa.” It’s a fairly simple title—basically, I’m interested in how people discuss HIV/AIDS. Specifically health care workers and journalists—since they interact differently with the disease, do they subsequently talk about the disease in a different way? How do their perceptions/understandings of the disease differ? Throughout this school year I’ve been studying how popular U.S. media sources such as Vogue and Newsweek portray the South African HIV/AIDS epidemic. When I extended my analysis to South African publications such as Sarie and Sandton, I noticed that they talked about HIV/AIDS in a very different way than their U.S. magazine counterparts. I started to wonder where the divisions in dialogue began, and whether even within the same country two groups of people would have different ideas about the epidemic.

A few things I’m pondering at the moment: What kind of clothing do I pack? After all, South Africa, being in the Southern hemisphere, is on reverse seasons. By the time I get back, will I be fluent in Celsius? Is everybody going to have the same accent as the characters do in District 9? Because if so I’m worried and may need to watch the movie a few more times to get used to the speech pattern (darn). Will it be sufficiently warm (even during the winter there) so that I can go to the beach every day? Not that that really matters—I’ll be there every day anyway. Will I feel temporarily rich because of the $1USD = 6.7 South African rand exchange rate?

For now there is loads of paperwork to do and lots of shots that I have to get. The parental units are more excited than scared (thank goodness for sensible mothers & fathers) and hopefully traveler’s health insurance isn’t too expensive. Preparations are underway!

June 12, 2011: First Impressions

Durban backpackers

I left Chicago in a thunderstorm and arrived in Durban in a downpour. I’m still feeling dizzy from the 20+ hours I’ve spent in an airplane in the past couple of days. Even when I’m sitting down I feel as though I’m floating. It’s kind of cool, actually—they talk about “sea legs” a lot, but you never hear mention of “airplane legs,” which definitely do exist, let me tell ya.

Well, good news: I wasn’t robbed or kidnapped the moment I stepped off the plane. There weren’t gangs in the airport. I even took a shuttle bus to the hostel where I’m staying and didn’t die along the way. Success!

Though I do think I was maybe ripped off a little bit. I was trying to navigate the Jo’burg airport, and this guy wearing an orange vest that said “Porter” came up to me and offered to walk me to the check-in point for my next flight. Actually I’m pretty glad he helped me out—I’m sure I would have found my way eventually, but with his help I was through security in about 3 minutes. I said, “So I’m supposed to tip you, right?”

“Uh, yes please.”

I fished a 10 Rand note from my secret money stash hanging around my neck.

“Is this enough?”

“Um…” He didn’t take the bill.

So I ended up giving him 50 Rand, and I really don’t know if that was a rip-off, but I’m guessing that it probably was since I was definitely looking like a young, confused tourist in the middle of the airport when he offered to help me find my way. Oh well—it only translates to about 7 USD, so it’s not that bad for a first-time rip-off. Next time I am in the airport I will avoid the porters.

I got to the Tekweni Backpackers hostel about 20 minutes ago, a building surrounded by a low fence in the middle of town. And I’m in a dorm room, on the top bunk of a 10-person shared space. There’s no AC, but it’s only about 18/C, or 65 F, so it feels wonderful. The hostel is hard to describe—definitely touristy, definitely South African, and filled with people of all different nationalities. I wonder how many accents I’ve heard just today.

It’s strange how the small differences pile up. I was sitting in the shuttle when I realized, Oh yeah, drivers sit on the right side of the vehicle here, but drive on the left side of the road. And the exchange rate might be 6.7R to 1 USD, but I’m getting the uneasy feeling that everything is still priced such that it’s more or less equal to US prices despite the disparity of currency values. I’m going to post this tomorrow when I have internet access, and hopefully include a few pictures of the hostel.

But of course, no matter what I do tomorrow, it will be awesome because I’M IN SOUTH AFRICA!!!!!

June 13, 2011: Success!

barbed wire

5:25 PM Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa

I officially got started on my research today! This morning I walked about 15 minutes to the Durban North Medical Centre and interviewed a nurse. I had to wait about 4 hours for the interview, but other than that it was no problem. People have been incredibly accommodating—once I explain where I’m from and the purpose of my research, they are more than happy to grant me interviews. Tomorrow I am headed back to the clinic to interview a couple of the General Practitioners.

My second interview was with a writer for the E tv network based here in Durban. (see website http://www.etv.co.za/). He was also extremely accommodating and gave me a list of places I have to visit while I’m in the city. Tomorrow morning (early—before I head back to the clinic) I will return to the news site and interview a couple more of their journalists.

In other news, I got my days confused. Yesterday I was talking to the staff here at the hostel, trying to convince them that it was Monday (TODAY is Monday- I was a day ahead). It took them a while to persuade me that it was, in fact, Sunday! Thanks, jet lag.

Other differences I’ve noticed in SA:

-there are policemen EVERYWHERE! Crawling.

-There are taxi buses that cart people around. I usually see 10-15 people crammed into a single bus. (Though they are apparently cheap, I’ve been told not to travel in them).

-All homes and businesses are walled in, and glass or sharp pieces of metal top the walls. Most of them also have barbed or electrical wire.

-Billabong, Volcom, and Quicksilver are all incredibly popular brands here. And brands in general, esp. American ones, are popular. People with wealth like to demonstrate what they’ve got.

-Overall, the cars are much smaller. I’ve seen only 1 Ford truck and 1 Hummer (crazy!) but several BMWs, VWs, and Mercedes, as this is an esp. ritzy area.

-There are several American products here, such as Cheerios, but the packaging is different! Designed for a South African market, I presume. And some of the businesses borrow American names. There is a “Blockbusters” down the street—not a Blockbuster, mind you, but Blockbuster+s. I suppose this is how they avoid being sued.

The staff here at Tekweni is incredibly nice. When I lost my room key they just gave me another one, no problem. But I do think they have been eating my food…

June 19, 2011: Posts 4 + 5 combined

stadium in Durban

Hello again–I haven’t been able to post in a few days because the internet is acting up. Also, it takes forever to upload photos, so I’m going to try to create a photostream on Flickr, which I think might be a bit easier.

Here is the post from Wednesday:

“Durban, Morningside, 11:45 AM

Today is my 5th day in South Africa. Yesterday I successfully interviewed 3 more people—one, a journalist from the national Etv news station, and the other two from the medical centre I visited the day before.

I haven’t been taking very many pictures (bad, I know) but I do have a few general shots of Durban.  But yeah, I’m not supposed to walk around with a camera taking pictures, cuz that’ll label me “TOURIST” even more than the foreign accent and backpack do. So I have to wait until the street is quiet and the cars are gone, and then stealthily pull out the camera and snap a quick shot before zipping it up in my backpack once again.

Not many people can tell right away where I’m from! Apparently they think that all Americans have a deep Southern accent and talk like George Bush. I’ve had people ask if I’m Canadian, generic European, and even Italian!

Nobody told me this before I came, but the plugs here are different. They’re all 3-prong, so I had to buy a converter in order to charge my laptop. If you are planning an international trip, make sure you buy one of these before you depart. They’re only about $8 or $9. (at least that’s how much they cost here—probably you can get them cheaper at Wal-Mart.)

NOW, the post I wrote on Friday.

“Being a Tourist”

Written on Friday, June 17, 2:05 PM

Durban, KZN, South Africa

Well, it’s been a few days and there are a lot of updates! On Wednesday afternoon I trekked down to the public hospital, Addington Hospital, and asked about speaking to the workers there. I was re-directed three times and finally obtained the email address of the hospital manager. I have emailed him and will probably go back down to the hospital sometime next week.

But to be honest, I’m not looking forward to it. The private clinic where I conducted interviews was v. clean and could belong anywhere in the U.S. But the public hospital…it looks like an insane asylum from the Dark Ages. Never have I seen a hospital like it. One of the many examples of the huge divisions of wealth in this country…

On a lighter note, Thursday was a national holiday, so nothing was open and there was no chance I could interview anyone. So I decided to be a tourist! I went with a girl from Germany, two blokes from Britain, and an Australian mate (all from the hostel) down to the beach and went surfing for the first time in my life! It was insane. Much harder to do than it looks. But also incredibly fun and a good workout. I even managed to stand up a couple times, which considering that it was my first day, was awesome!

It’s super easy to meet people here. All of the travelers at the Tekweni backpackers hostel are friendly and easy-going, and eager to do mundane activities together like walk to the supermarket (South Africans call it the “spar”). I’d say the most common nationality I’ve encountered is British, followed by Australian, German, and then the U.S.

Then, very early this morning  the Australian mate (name Tim) and I went down to the Moses Mabhida stadium. It’s humongous and gorgeous and was built specially for the 2010 World Cup. Now it doesn’t get used much, and they’ve turned it into a tourist spot.

I jumped from the top of the stadium.

Yes, don’t worry, I was attached to a harness! And I will try to get photos up if I can. I’ve never done bungee jumping or anything of the sort before, so it was incredible and I basically thought I was going to have a heart attack, I was so nervous. But those 2 and ½ seconds of free fall were unforgettable.

June 27, 2011: City of Gold

City of Gold

On Friday I left warm, beautiful Durban for its sister city 6 hours north. The ride up was fairly uninteresting, and for nearly 4 hours I was the only person on the Baz Bus (the only other rider, a girl from Boston, stopped in cold, mountainous North Drakensburg to do some serious hiking).

Johannesburg was founded as a mining town, and even today it supplies some 80% of the world’s gold—hence the nickname. But either a select few got control of the gold money or the revenue from the precious stuff was spent elsewhere, because Jo’burg is not a city that glitters.

I’m on the nice side of town, Edenvale, some 20-30 km outside of the city center. I’m staying at Bob’s Bunkhouse, a cozy place run by a v. nice and endearing older couple. The first day I was here I walked to the Pick ‘n’ Pay supermarket just up the road, and boy—the scenery is not pleasant. Not to mention that it’s FREEZING here—the power went out on the first night because of the overstressed electrical grid, and I slept in my sweater with socks on my hands.

Ah, my suffering! (haha)

In other news, the search for interviews continues. I phoned about 30 clinics and medical centeres today asking if I could speak with the workers there about HIV/AIDS. I got 1 positive response (!) and several “What’s your number, I’ll call you back.” Tomorrow I will have to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road (!!) to the clinic for the interviews. Crazy to think that my Texas driver’s license is valid here!

To keep myself occupied, I’ve been reading “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and eating butterscotch instant pudding. When the girl from Holland who I’ve made friends with returns next week from safari, we’re planning to go out on a few tours and see what the City of Gold has to offer.

June 29, 2011: Taxi Fares

Edenvale

Yesterday I took a taxi down to the Kloof Road Medical Centre and interviewed one of the General Practitioners there. I know in my previous post I mentioned that I was going to rent a car, but it turns out that renting an automatic car costs R370/day (about $55), so taking the taxi, in spite of the ridiculously expensive fare, was cheaper. (Yes—the vast majority of cars here are stick-shift, so I can’t drive them. Mom, you were right! I should have learned how to drive on a manual transmission).

South Africa is in many ways like the U.S. from the 1970s. Tons of people smoke—apparently the whole healthcare backlash against carcinogens and tobacco hasn’t happened yet. Every time I step outside someone’s offering me a cigarette. “Wouldn’t you like a cigarette?” “Oh please, you’re young!” “Everybody smokes—it’s a social thing.” Etc., etc.

Luckily it’s warmed up a bit since the first night I arrived in Jo’burg. I don’t have to sleep with socks on my hands, which I consider a great improvement. And if I sit outside in the sun and the wind takes a reprieve, for about 10 seconds I can pretend that it’s not chilly. I can’t imagine what 100+ degree San Antonio is going to feel like when I arrive there in the middle of August…

Today I’m heading back to the Kloof Medical Centre to interview another of the doctors there, and then I’ll walk back up the street to the grocery and buy some Cadbury chocolate that’s so popular here…Not very exciting, but ces’t la vie!

A final note: For the past 5 days that I’ve been here, the radio has been set to the SAME STATION. I’ve heard that awful Selena Gomez song 100 times.

July 1, 2011: Excitement

interior of hostel

Edenvale, Johannesburg, South Africa

Well, the most thrilling thing that happened today was when I received a phone call from an unknown number.

“Hello?” in a thick Indian accent.

“Yes, hi?”

“He-LO?”

“Yes, HI, who is this?”

“This is the Church of Scientology of Jo’burg. Are you Janice?”

Needless to say I hung up shortly after that. This past week in Jo’burg hasn’t exactly been thrilling. I don’t have a car, so I can’t really get anywhere, and taxis are incredibly expensive, and the only “shopping center” is a mall up the street that is now half-vacant, with a Pick ‘n’ Pay undergoing remodeling.

I called several of the medical centres again today—the majority of them did not call me back as promised (big surprise). It was kind of hilarious but several of the receptionists would wait until I’d explained my reason for calling them before pretending that the connection was bad and yelling “HELLO? IS ANYBODY THERE?” at me for about 10 seconds before hanging up. But perseverance works, kids. I have 2 appointments for next week and I am going to successfully interview at least 2 more doctors.

The old couple that runs this place is super nice as I’ve said before, but they’re also totally crazy. They didn’t like the price of electricity, so they go on some sort of “pay-as-you-go” system, which translated means that the power goes out almost every night. It’s been off since around 11:30 AM today, which luckily was after I got a chance to check my email and noted that none of the hospital managers had returned my entreaties. I sent reminders. They don’t get off that easily.

I stayed up last night until 3 AM finishing “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo,” and consequently slept in very late—about 10 AM. Usually I get up around 9, which makes me the sloth of the backpackers lodge. I think Joan, one of the owners, thinks I’m incredibly lazy. I don’t really have much of an argument against that, but tomorrow I’ve resolved to get up earlier (circa 8, perhaps?) and visit the Dutch bakery that I found down the street.

July 4, 2011: Scratching the Surface

man walking

I had a wildly successful interview today with a sister (I think that is their name for nurses here) from the iKhambi Care center in Kempton Park, Jo’burg. (iKhambi means “herbal” in Zulu. (Zulu is the most widely spoken language in South Africa, followed by Afrikaans and then English. Though that was according to a census from several years ago and I have a feeling that English might have surpassed Afrikaans by now)).

Anyway, the extremely nice sister talked to me for nearly an hour. Some of the doctors/journalists I’ve interviewed here are in a hurry, you know—they only want to spend about 10 minutes talking to me.  By now, after doing several interviews, I’m beginning to realize that I’m only scratching the surface of the HIV/AIDS problem in South Africa. There are so many facets of the epidemic that can be explored—the division between the public/private health center, the issue of cultural practices, traditional medicine, condom usage, ARV crimes, interrelation of disease and poverty, etc., etc., etc. The paper that I eventually write will take some powerful pre-planning and organization.

In fact, I get the feeling that in every respect I am merely scratching the surface. I’ve been trying to listen to South African music and read South African books and learn a few phrases in Zulu and educate myself about the origins of Jo’burg, but there is so much to learn! Not to mention that to get to the “real” South Africa I have to wade through the deluge of American influences everywhere—half of the celebrities on magazine covers here are from the U.S., and I’d say 4 out of 5 songs on the radio are American. Or Australian. Or from the UK. When I hear Adam Lambert belting out “If I Had You” it feels familiar, but in a strange way—here I am, halfway across the world, and they’re playing the same music on the radio as I’d hear driving down loop 1604 in San Antonio.

For the first time on Saturday the silence between myself and the Portuguese kids staying here at the hostel was broken. I just seem so odd, hanging around here at the hostel by myself all day, which I think is why they didn’t approach me before. But they’re incredibly nice, of course. They’re doing a service project in Soweto (on the other side of Jo’burg) as part of their International Baccalaureate program. And they speak English with an American accent, which struck me as odd at first, but on second thought, not so much.  Actually, lots of the people here have trouble understanding me, which makes me wonder—after all, all of the movies in the cinemas here are American, and so are the bulk of the shows on TV. So they’ve definitely heard the accent before. Portuguese sounds much different than I thought it would. Since Portugal shares the Iberian peninsula with Spain, I always thought that Spanish and Portuguese would sound very similar. Not so. It sounds closer to German? Swedish? I don’t know. I’m not that international yet.

Well this is a rather long post, so I’ll sign off. But a funny story to close out, as always. Bob and Joan’s (the hostel owners) granddaughters were here yesterday, and I entertained them by letting them give me a “makeover.” They were delighted by my purple, blue, and black eyeliners and proceeded to draw all over my face. It was quite the work of art.

July 5, 2011: Terminology

KFC

Spent most of today hiding from Bob’s granddaughter, who yesterday stalked me for 10 hours until her dad came to put her to bed at 12:15. The little fiend (named Hannah) kept insisting on jumping on beanbag chairs in the garage, running laps around the pool, doing yoga poses in the backyard, drawing on my face with black eyeliner, and playing the Britney Spears’ song “Crazy” over and over again on my computer.

While hiding under the bunk bed, I managed to finish my first South African novel. Entitled “Spud,” the book is a hilarious (but surprisingly tear-jerking) account of a 13-year-old in an all-boys private school. It’s wickedly clever and full of lots of dodgy stories (as the narrator would say) and I hope I can find the two sequels to buy before I leave (as I doubt Barnes and Noble keeps them in stock).

I’ve been keeping a running list of some of the terminology I’ve encountered on my travels. Here’s a partial list in case you’re interested. I do realize some of the terms are self-explanatory and I’m naive for not knowing what they meant beforehand, but still.

gherkin = pickle (this one makes sense because, as someone pointed out to me, lots of foods are “pickled” so it doesn’t make sense to grant the vinegar-soaked cucumber the sole privilege of the label)

chinas = friends/buddies

petrol station = gas station (Duh, but this is also a bit more logical, since gas should really be used to refer to natural gas. Can’t wait to spring this on people once I get back to the US and get weird looks).

braai = barbeque

salads = vegetables (e.g., at the Subway counter: “Can I have all the salads, please?”)

torch = flashlight (this one I think is quite dumb. In my experience flashlights are usually quite feeble, and whenever someone says torch I still picture a group of cavemen holding flaming sticks)

grabbing = kissing

college = university = uni (I don’t use the last abbreviation, “uni,” because even though I know it means college I can’t help but picture a lecture hall full of people wearing unitards).

hospital ward = sanatorium = san (boring but useful?)

bogs = toilet area (ha! v. accurate)

jersey (South Africa) = light sweater/jacket (US) = jumper (UK)

packet = plastic bag (don’t be alarmed when the checklady asks if you need one)

biltong = beef jerky (people rave about it but it just tastes like beef jerky)

crazy/mad = stark raving crackers

I do get annoyed sometimes when I walk down the street because people have the tendency to stare at me. Occasionally I feel like shouting, “YES, I am a YOUNG WHITE GIRL walking down the street ALONE. Holy mother of Jesus TAKE A PICTURE.” Not to mention that every other day some guy twice my age comes up to me and says “Hello, you are so beautiful, I love you, please give me your number, I will be the best boyfriend ever.”

Tomorrow I have to get up at 7 sharp so Joan can drive me to the Edenvale Medicross where I’m sure loads of doctors will fall over themselves at the opportunity to be interviewed by a persistent university student from the US.

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July 7, 2011: Overload

Today I did a combined tour through downtown Jo’burg, Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum, and the Apartheid Museum. Information overload! My guide was an extremely well-informed guy named Jabu. He’s a big guy, so I felt v. safe, though I was not prepared when he drove up to the shack settlement and told me to step out of the car for a volunteer-led tour.

But let’s start at the beginning. The tour kicked off with a tour of downtown Jo’burg, which in some areas looks strikingly similar to downtown Chicago, minus the thick layer of fruit, art, and miscellaneous merchandise vendors that line the streets. After I explained to Jabu the purpose of my trip in South Africa, he parallel-parked on a busy street and told me he’d show me the Museum of Men and Science—which is less of a museum and more of a traditional healers shop. I’ve read articles (US articles) before coming to SA about so-called traditional healers and their bone-throwing remedies, and have been told that such articles defame the modernized South African healthcare system. Yet in the heart of the central business district of Jo’burg was a shop manned by sangomas (the Zulu term for traditional healers) selling bones from all variety of animals, various weapons including metal and wooden spears and large clubs used for bashing the skull (the best place to strike is right behind the ear, according to Jabu), herbal and other remedies, and my personal favorite, the complete skin of a baboon. My point is that acknowledging traditional healers isn’t wrong, since they are in fact an integral part of life in SA, and many people consult both “Western” doctors and sangomas.

Jabu, a proud Zulu, spoke of the wonderful beer that they brew in the large clay pots—very strong stuff, apparently. He also showed me the bracelet of white fur he wore around his right wrist. He obtained the bracelet as part of an annual ritual in which a goat is sacrificed in a celebration of life, and he held the bracelet up for me to smell since after 3 days it “still had some smell of the goat.”

I don’t mean to portray Jabu as an archetypal traditionalist, the kind that is so often represented in literature and movies as a simple stereotype. The man drives a Toyota and was wearing an American-brand jacket, and his bulging belly was proof that he profits very well from his tourism service. My point is: Jabu, like so many people I’ve met here, is a wonderfully eclectic blend of several different cultures and influences. You can’t just label him “traditional” or “modern” and be done with it. It is the combination that makes him who he is.

Anyway, time for me to get off the soapbox. From downtown Johannesburg we drove to Soweto, the largest township in all of South Africa with a population of 4 million. (Soweto is now technically a part of Jo’burg). We passed through the rich area first, where Jabu said that house prices can go as high as 6 million Rand (nearly a million USD). They are expensive because of their proximity to Jo’burg—but keep in mind that none of these houses would fetch the same price in the US, except perhaps in California where house prices are grossly inflated. (Not much bang for your buck.) He also pointed out that the grassy areas in between the houses have all been burned in an attempt to keep away squatters.

After trolling through the rich section, we drove down the central road in Soweto, passing by the largest hospital in the world. It stretched for I don’t know how many meters—all I know is that we kept passing intersection after intersection and there was still more hospital accompanying us.

Then came the infamous shack/informal settlement, known in Zulu as imijondolo. I had assumed that we would just be driving through it. Jabu told me to get out of the car so that a volunteer could lead me on a tour. Being a stupid scared American, I decided to leave my bag in my car because I was sure I’d get robbed. Ha! Eric, my tour guide, was incredibly nice. He gave me a brief tour, demonstrating the daycare center (newly built) where working parents can leave their kids during the day as they commute to jobs in Jo’burg. He very happily showed me paintings of a giraffe and hippo that adorned the side of one of the buildings, which he said were painted by schoolchildren. Equally happy was the demonstration of the water spout, from which several children gathered water in buckets and empty yogurt containers during the course of our conversation. Eric pointed out that the spigot was made of plastic—the previous metal one had been stolen and sold for money at the scrapyard. In addition, one house boasted a satellite TV dish—for 2 litres of petrol a day, you can watch TV in color.

By this point I was feeling pretty stupid (the only attempted “robbery” was by a 3-year-old girl who came up and hugged me and then patted the pockets of my jacket looking for change), so I went back to the car and asked Eric if I could take pictures. He conceded, let me walk back down the dirt road, taking pictures of shacks and the daycare center and even the water spigot. I also got a picture with him, and he gave me his email address, asking if I and some friends from the US could help him with the cost of university tuition. (He is halfway through a degree in journalism, but had to quit because he didn’t have enough money to pay for school and take care of his kids at the same time). I asked him how much a year in university cost here, and it’s not much at all—I’ll see what I can do once I get back to the US. (Yes, I realize that everyone wants help from US tourists, but this is the person who happened to ask me. I guess I figure, Why not?)

When I was done taking pictures, an old woman sort of grabbed me and didn’t let me go until I bought a statue from her. I only had 110R on me, so that’s what I paid her. Ah well, I haven’t bought any souvenirs up to this point, and I suppose I won’t ever forget the embracing figures cast in stone that I bought in an imijondolo in South Africa.

Across the street from the shack settlement was a brand-new KFC. The juxtaposition was incredible.

The saga continues: We drove for a bit, then Jabu stopped the car and announced, “That’s Mandela’s house.” I sort of did a silly gasp. “That?? That’s Mandela’s house?!?” No longer afraid of looking like the tacky tourist, I snapped several photos of his (current?) dwelling. (I never checked that Mandela actually lives there, though Winnie Mandela still does, according to Jabu).  BY THE WAY, all Americans mispronounce Mandela’s name. We say Man-DEH-la, when in fact the correct way to say it is Man-DAY-la. Next was a busy street where we passed the Nelson Mandela museum (where, HA, Mandela actually only lived for 11 days before moving to evade political danger) and the spot where, in 1976, Hector Pieterson was shot during the Soweto schoolchildren uprising. A bit confused? So was I.

Luckily the next stop was the Hector Pieterson museum, where I learned about the details of Hector’s death. In the 1970s, the apartheid government decided to implement Afrikaans as the official school language—all lessons were now given in a language that virtually no black South Africans understood. Outraged by their falling marks and the linguist imposition of the government (black South Africans associated Afrikaans with apartheid, since Afrikaans was the language which the ruling Dutch used), the schoolchildren in Soweto planned to march to the Orlando Stadium, where they would compose a document demanding the re-installation of English as the mode of instruction in schools.

Unfortunately, the protest soon turned violent, and over a hundred schoolchildren were killed by police wielding tear gas, dogs, and guns. Hector Pieterson became famous because of the iconic photograph in which Hector’s bullet-ridden body is carried through the streets by Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector’s frantic sister running alongside both of them. Today, the 16th of June is a national holiday in South Africa known as “Youth Day,” which is held in order to commemorate those who died in the Soweto uprising. I was here on June 16th, but I didn’t understand the significance of the holiday until today when I visited the museum.

Up next was the world-famous Apartheid Museum. I spent almost 3 hours in the museum—there is so much to read and so many images to stare at. First I went through the special exhibition on Nelson Mandela, which convinced me that I know shamefully little about the charismatic leader and need to read his autobiography The Long Road to Freedom immediately. Crazy to think that he didn’t become president of South Africa until he was in his 70s because of the 27 years he spent imprisoned on Robben Island (now a famous site in Cape Town). What can I say about the rest of the museum? It’s incredibly well put together, and everyone should visit it during their lifetime. I couldn’t help but notice that the bulk of the museum visitors were not black, but white, Asian, or tourists from Europe.

I also learned a few other general knowledge tidbits. “Johannesburg” does not mean “City of Gold” like I said in one of my previous posts. The name “Johannesburg” is derived from the names of two of its founders, Johannes Meyer and Johannes Rissik. Jo’burg’s alternate name is Egoli, the name that actually means “Place of Gold” in Zulu. (Zulu, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa—there are a lot of languages to keep track of!) Jo’burg got its start when gold was discovered in the late 17th century, after which a mass influx of miners and settlers flowed into the soon-to-be city (similar to gold rush in California). The name of the South African currency, the Rand, is also derived from the gold mining in Jo’burg. The low range of hills through which ran the huge vein (aka reef, aka rand) of gold and fountains was known as Witwatersrand (Afrikaans for “the ridge of white waters”).  So the currency is named after that huge vein of gold which became the basis of the entire economy of South Africa, the Rand.

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July 14, 2011: Cape Town!

Damn military time. I took the South Africa Roadlink bus from Jo’burg to  Cape Town on Monday at 11 AM, and my ticket said “arrival 4:30,” which naturally I thought meant in the afternoon. I rolled into Cape Town at 10 minutes to 5 AM, feeling very grumpy and in need of several cups of coffee.

My dismal mood lifted as soon as I left the bus station. A girl I met in the station, who works as an electrical designer for theater productions, was kind enough to offer to split a cab with me. I’m so glad she knew the taxi driver—it took him ages to figure out where “Obviouzly Armchair Backpackers” was located since dim-witted me couldn’t remember the address. And he still only charged me 80 Rand for the drive! (Very inexpensive compared to Jo’burg taxis). I gave him 100 because he was awesome.

Cape Town is GORGEOUS. The central business district is clean and lively and full of vendors selling everything you can imagine—fruit, hats, jewelry, shoes, cigarettes, fake Rolex watches, Doritos and Fritos and Lays and chocolate. While I’m here I hope to locate some curios (souvenirs) for my family and friends! (If you have an idea of what you’d want, you can write it in the comments section below). I’m staying in Observatory (which everyone calls Obz), which is actually a suburb of Cape Town, but there are shops and restaurants everywhere, so I still feel like I’m in the city. I’m situated on the Main Road, and the Stones bar across the street was hopping last night until 2 AM.

But before I lavish more love on this beautiful city, I should summarize the events of my last few days in Jo’burg. I stayed a couple extra days so that I could interview journalist Fiona Z–, who of all the wonderful and fantastically nice people I’ve met in SA currently tops the list. She suggested that we meet at the Lion Park slightly north of Jo’burg, spend the day in the park, have lunch, and then do the interview in the afternoon. Of course I readily agreed!

So! That was the impetus behind me going to the airport to rent a car and drive—yes, DRIVE in the most dangerous city in the country on the LEFT side of the road—to the Lion Park which was about 30 minutes away. I had to visit 4 car rental places before I found one that had an automatic available (before the end of summer I WILL learn how to drive a stick shift so that this won’t happen on my next international trip!) The car was a little blue VW (very popular here) and I managed not to kill myself though I did turn the wrong way once at an intersection (thank goodness nobody was in the oncoming lane). After driving all the way down to Boksburg (in the exact oppositedirection of the Lion Park) I managed to turn myself around and with much self-encouragement (“Come on Alina, you are STRONG. You are NOT going to die!”) I finally reached the Lion Park 20 minutes late.

The rest of the day was a blast. I met Fiona and her mother at the café and we all had a small coffee before driving around the park where we oo’d and ahh’d and took an outrageous number of photos of the lions. One of the female lions jumped into the back of the bakkie (pick-up truck) in front of us and just sort of hung out there for a couple minutes before disembarking. I think the driver of the bakkie got quite a shock because as soon as the lion jumped out he sped away. We also saw cheetahs, hyenas, a giraffe, wild dogs, and then…(dramatic pause)…

Fiona and I pet the baby lion cubs. Don’t worry—they were insanely adorable and v. safe. (Children as young as 5 were also in the enclosures petting the cubs.) I did get pictures and all that, but will have to devise an ingenious way to post them online via my flashdrive…

My last day in Jo’burg, Sunday, was somewhat bittersweet. It’s difficult for me to travel everywhere and meet wonderful people and then have to leave them after only 2 weeks, knowing that the probability that I’ll ever see them again is extremely low. I suppose I will have to travel a bit more before I get used to the constant formation and subsequent dissolution of friendships.

But Cape Town! I’ve been here two days now, and as I said, it’s gorgeous and beautiful and wonderful and clean and vibrant. There’s an energy in this city that is much different from the energy in Durban, which is a holiday city, and Jo’burg, where people go to get jobs and earn money. I rode in a minibus taxi for the first time yesterday, which was a subliminal experience—I kept thinking “Please don’t crash, PLEASE don’t crash” but eventually forgot my worries as the taxi zipped down the street, crammed to the brim with 18 people in a 12-passenger van, blasting house music as it ran red lights and stop signs. I take the minibus because it’s several times cheaper than a regular taxi. To ride from Observatory down to the CBD costs 5 Rand (about 80 cents). But don’t worry—I haven’t been travelling alone.  Eddi from Zimbabwe (Zim, as he calls it) is also staying at the backpackers, and he figures out all the navigation. (I would not attempt to get into a minibus alone because I have no idea where it’s going).

After visiting 2 hospitals, 2 pharmacies, and a Medicross clinic today, I have my first Cape Town interview scheduled for tomorrow in Tableview (about 12 km south of the CBD). Then perhaps in the afternoon I will go to Table Mountain or Robben Island—provided that it doesn’t rain!

The staff here at Obviouzly is pretty cool. The girl working at reception when I checked in looked like Lady Gaga. Then there’s a guy here from the Czech Republic who grilled me on the research I was doing. And Faith, originally from Taiwan, is extremely sweet and answers all the email enquiries. The fridge here is broken, as is the wi-fi and one of the toilets and one of the two showers…but at least they make your bed for you!

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July 17, 2011: Boerewors

Written at 1:45 PM on the bus to Table View, 40 km North of Cape Town. (costs 10 Rand per ride- about $1.50)

Gosh—things move so quickly here that I have trouble absorbing everything. It’s hard to be articulate and put down a single day in writing.

I’ve cut down on my food costs drastically by buying meat pies from the spar for lunch and then boerewors (sausage w/ onion in a bun) for dinner from the vendors that line the street. It’s what everybody eats—cheap, filling. No more of those stupid little cafes that charge 18 Rand for a tiny cup of coffee and half a biscuit.

I got my first Cape Town interview today with a pharmacist who works at the Dis-Chem Pharmacy in Table View. She was lovely and offered me something to drink, as does everyone else here. She said she would put me in contact with her friend who works with an NGO. I know that she was being sincere, but still—I won’t believe her until I actually receive the phone call…

Yesterday Eddi’s brother, Simba, and his friend, Andy, joined us on the great trek to find Alina some interviews. While Simba & Eddi went to collect Eddi’s clothes from his (ex?) girlfriend’s house, Andy walked with me to the Medicross here in Table View. I tried to ask him why Eddi was willing to walk with me everywhere, but Andy didn’t really have an answer for me. (The best I could get out of Eddi was “Because my sisters, if they were alone in a foreign country—I would want to know that someone was helping them out, you know?”)

As for Andy, the reason he’s willing to help me navigate Cape Town is 1). Because Eddi is his friend (and so by extension I’m also his friend), and 2). Because he’s rasta.

Rasta means chill, like Bob Marley. (It literally means dreadlocks, or so I’m told). Rastas don’t worry or get stressed or impatient. Andy told me he doesn’t care for food much, but he likes to smoke as often as possible and just enjoy being irie. It’s a lifestyle choice.

Eventually we moved on to relationships. The conversation went something like this:

“So do you have a girlfriend?”

“Ah yes, her name is Nee-yah bonga. It means thank you.”

“Her name is thank you?”

“Yes.” (laughs) “She’s having my baby in August. She’s giving me a son.”

“Cool! So are you going to marry her, then?”

Smiles. “She’s my girlfriend.”

“So…um…what does that mean, exactly?”

“I will marry someone else, maybe. Nee-yah is my girlfriend.”

And that was all the explanation I got!

In South Africa, in order to get married, the boy has to pay lobola (bride-price) to the girl’s parents. Lobola usually consists of around 10-15,000 Rand in cash, plus 6 or 7 cattle. (If the girl is a virgin, she costs 1 cow more). In a country where the minimum wage is 10 Rand an hour, it’s a wonder that anyone can afford to get married!

I’ve actually heard about all of this before from the books I read about South Africa before coming here. But reading it in a book and then experiencing it in reality are two very different things! I mean, here I am, sitting at a McDonald’s having coffee with Andy, who with his striped beanie and dreadlocks and cargo pants looks as urban as he possibly can—and yet he still has to adhere to the tradition of lobola!

I feel like I see the world in layers now, or rather shifting planes of cultures that coincide in a single place. At Stones across the street from the hostel, kids from the University of Cape Town drink brandy and coke and listen to American hip-hop, but it’s still different from a club in the U.S. Everyone hugs each other, friends are quickly made—there’s no such thing as a “personal bubble” here—they’re all shaking hands in the 3-motion African handshake. I finally figured out how to do it—“Hey sistah, do you know how to shake African-style?” A huge grin as I demonstrate that yes, I do know how.

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July 25, 2011: Deluge

What I’ve been doing is so crazy that there’s simply no way to describe it except to put it down in the simplest terms.

On Monday I interviewed 2 health care workers, one from the Czech Republic who worked in a clinic here in South Africa, and another through my growing web of connections. It is, after all, all about who  you know here. Nepotism rules the day, but in a subtle way. A pharmacist I met told me that he procured his current job because he was Indian—same as the manager at his workplace.

Anyway, the lady I interviewed yesterday was—wait for it—the wife of the pastor at the church that the ex-girlfriend of my friend from Zimbabwe used to attend. Got it?

On Monday night I tagged along with two girls from Norway who I met here at the hostel (Haps and Emma) to Mercury to watch a band. We actually grabbed a ride with the band members and shoved 9 people into a 5-seater car. The band was called Ree-burth, a rock group from Soweto, Jo’burg. Their performance was great—tons of energy. Unfortunately, we didn’t get back to the hostel until around 2 AM…

On Tuesday I was supposed to interview a journalist at 8:30 in the morning, which meant that I needed to be up by 6:30 at the latest so that I could make it to the journalist’s office on time. I slept straight through all 5 of my alarms and was finally awoken at 9 AM when the journalist called me on my cell phone (still no idea how they managed to get the number). My irresponsibility cost me the interview, and that was definitely the worst phone call I’ve received in a long time. I still feel terrible, and I wrote an apology email, which the just about the only thing I can do short of sending a bouquet of flowers…

Nevertheless, despite the self-chiding that lasted several hours, by evening I was ready to stop moping around and go with the Norwegian girls to a friend’s house for dinner. Actually it ended up being several friends—a group of guys that all worked at a coffee shop together on Lower Main Street (same street where the backpackers is located). It was quite the venue—at first we all thought they were joking when they told us we were going to have to eat with our hands. But no! One of the guys walked around with a bowl full of warm water and we all washed our hands before digging into the delicious Zimbabwean meal they had prepared: cow meat stew with pap, a white mass that looks remarkably like mashed potatoes but is apparently made from corn, although it tastes more like rice than anything else.

Then today the girls from Norway invited me to hike Table Mountain with them. Before I continue, a short geography lesson: Cape Town is basically located in the basin of Table Mountain, which is called as such because of its flat top. Looking down from Table Mountain, Cape Town is flanked by Signal Hill and Lion’s Head to the left, Table Mountain from behind, and Devil’s Peak to the right. The Atlantic Ocean forms the final border. (If all this sounds confusing, just look up Cape Town on Google images and you’ll get the idea).

Well, that was definitely the best workout I’ve had in a long time. It took us two hours to hike to the top, where we rested and refueled. As we were trying to buy tickets for the cable car down the mountain, we were informed that it was closed for maintenance. Yikes! So we had to climb BACK down, which initially I thought would be easy but I have never been so very very wrong. All three of us would pause and gasp and stare in wonder at our legs that were shaking out of control.

Nevertheless, despite wearing full-length jeans and sweating buckets, I was perpetually amazed by how GORGEOUS the hike was. Cape Town belongs in another world. It bears almost no relation to Durban, and none whatsoever to Jo’burg. I’m not trying to say that those cities aren’t beautiful as well (esp. Durban, of which I’m very fond—and Jo’burg’s history is the history of a nation struggling to liberate itself)—they are just so different! Anyway, I took zillions of pictures before my camera died and will post soon.

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July 27, 2011: Misc

I’ve now joined the rank of people who smell their clothes before putting them on. Seriously. I rummage through my suitcase, pick out something I don’t think I’ve worn in a few days, sniff it a few times, and voilà…

After attempting to spend NO money for several days, I popped this morning. I went to the vintage clothing shop down the street that the girl with the silver hair at the backpackers recommended to me. I did at least have a reason for going—tomorrow night I’ve been invited to a jazz performance, and dress is fancy. So I had to find a little jacket and some shoes to wear with the ONE dress that I brought with me to South Africa. On a side note, I love the sizing here. (Sorry in advance to all the guys who read my blog; I know I’ve been talking about shopping for forever at this point.) Anyway, shoes are two sizes smaller here, so I bought a pair of tiny size 6 black ankle boots and felt like I had fairy princess feet.

And now, after several days of spending next to nothing on food, I’m spoiling myself with a full pasta meal at Narona, a restaurant which is also just down the street. (My very high-class meal is costing me 40 Rand—about $6).

Last night I went to a free film screening of South African short movies at the Fudgard Theatre downtown. I even received a free DVD of one of the shorts because I was at the end of the cue and had to wait ages in the Cape Town wind before they let me through the doors. Once inside, I realized that I was most definitely the only person there that had come alone. But that didn’t matter much, because I soon realized that I was sitting next to 3 girls from the States (same nationality = instant friendship). We all ended up exchanging numbers and sharing a cab back home.

South African currency can be quite frustrating. A quick lesson: they have 5, 10, 20, and 50 cent pieces (they were smart enough to eliminate the penny, at least) as well as 1 and 5-Rand coins. As for bills, they have the 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200. A nice meal costs 40 to 60 Rand (ZAR), a jacket about 300 ZAR, a new pair of shoes 350 ZAR, an iPod nano 1200 ZAR, a ticket on the Greyhound 400 ZAR, a samosa (dumpling filled with chicken or corn or pretty much anything) 3 ZAR, internet is 15 ZAR/hr, a ride in a metered taxi 80 ZAR, a ride in the minibus, 5 ZAR. But all the ATMS distribute money in 100 Rand notes, so that’s usually all anybody has. There is a serious shortage of small change in this country. Sometimes prices fluctuate by 5 or 10 or even 20 Rand if nobody’s got change.

You know, I’ve heard people in the U.S. say that it’s wrong to call ourselves Americans, since after all Canadians and Mexicans and the whole of the population that lives in South and Central America are all technically Americans as well. But people here in South Africa call me American. And they don’t seem to mind that we hog the label. Or maybe they do, and the “American” reference is a subconscious attempt to express disgust with the U.S. in general.

South Africa has apparently aged me. When I was in Durban, some kid I met from Duke told me I looked about 17. Then last night I met a South African guy who thought I was 25. Eight years in 6 weeks! Sheesh. At this rate I’ll be dead before I graduate from university.

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 July 28, 2011: Haze

I am fast running out of money. I have just enough for the next 19 days that I am here. BTW, 19 days! Oh my gosh. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in South Africa for nearly 6 weeks already. I’m going to miss the hustle and bustle of the Cape Town central station, the yelling of the minibus drivers, the beggars that heckle you on the street for 5 Rand change, the people of all different nationalities that I meet on a daily basis in the backpackers, the clouds of cigarette smoke that envelop me as I walk past pubs on the street.

I won’t miss the 2 Rand Chinese soup packets from Pick ‘n’ Pay very much, though.

WordPress was being temperamental for a few days, so I had to wait to post new blogs. As a result, I’m nearly a week behind on recounting my schedule & activities. A quick rehash:

Friday night, July 23rd: I accompanied Kate (who is originally from the U.S. but works as a professor at the University of Cape Town), Natalia, Sid, Hilary, Alex, and many many more people whose names I can’t remember to the re-opening of Mojo nightclub on Lower Main. That’s where the jazz band was playing. I was most definitely the palest person in attendance.

Saturday, July 24th: A kid from Pretoria (city North of Jo’burg) arrived at Obviouzly Armchair a few days ago, and the two of us bought tickets to the ferry that bumpily transported us across the Atlantic Ocean to Robben Island, the now infamous site of the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years working in the limestone quarry. The place is desolate and incredibly windy and very cold, and now I understand why it’s such a good place to build a prison.

The tour of the Island ended around 2 PM, so after that Pretoria (who has the most hair of any 19-year old I’ve ever seen) and I walked across the Waterfront to the Two Oceans Aquarium, where we took far too many embarrassing photos of jellyfish and crabs and eels.

Sunday, July 25th: A muf day, to be sure. I didn’t do anything much other than watch DVDs with Pretoria and Petr, who is one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met. He’s originally from the Czech Republic, but he’s been in South Africa for 4 years, and he’s been working at the backpackers for a few months now, I believe. One of the awesome characters you meet while travelling. Everything he says is a joke.

Monday, July 26th: My accomplishment of the day was getting my laundry done. That may not sound like much but after…well, I’ll spare you the details.

Tuesday, July 27th: Pretoria hadn’t hiked Table Mountain yet, so CRAZY me agreed to hike it AGAIN yesterday. Somehow between last week Wednesday and this week Tuesday I’ve become an insane, body-building fitness guru. Hiking the mountain was actually kind of fun and I don’t even feel very sore after my second trek up the rock stairs. I actually felt very energized, though that may have had to do more with the insane amount of coffee I’ve been consuming here. (I always hated coffee before—I had to come to South Africa to learn to appreciate it). Espressos, cappuchinos, black coffee galore!

Meanwhile, amidst all the madness the search for interviews continues…

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July 29, 2011: The Deep Stuff

It’s customary here for them to include a roasted tomato along with your eggs and toast. I’m not sure if this practice is unique to South Africa, or if I just haven’t been eating in very classy establishments in the U.S. Either way, it’s a lovely addition to a morning meal and makes me feel sophisticated, somehow.

Someone—a native South African—read my blog and told me that it was “impressive.” After reveling in praise for a few moments and indulging in some silent self-congratulation (“Alina, you are AWESOME”), I asked him why. He replied that I manage to be objective about his country, that I don’t try to analyze the political situation too much and assume that I know the inner workings of a country I’ve spent barely 6 weeks in. Instead, I just write about my personal experience. (I suppose pure description reveals more than I realized.) But I do have some observations about racism and the apartheid legacy and other tough stuff, and I think it’d be kind of a shame if I didn’t write them down at all. It is a rainy day, after all, and the weather is perfect for reflection. So, here goes:

There’s a lot of anger in this country, but it’s the residual kind, by which I mean that a lot of the people are frustrated by the state of affairs but that the flame of revolution has more or less died down. Of course, that’s not entirely accurate, because from what I’ve heard there are apparently loads of people in the townships and other regions who are ready to pick up a gun and shoot the government bureaucrats and the dik Afrikaaners. What I mean is that the average person you talk to on the street has a lot of complaining to do, and some will even go so far as to predict a civil war, but they’re not about to start a riot. They’ve more or less resigned themselves to acceptance.

Criticism of the government varies widely from person to person, but I would say that there are racial boundaries to the criticism. Some white people I’ve talked to reckon that the country is going to shit. They’ll complain about black people everywhere—I’ve heard horrible things like, “Oh, the reason the Pick ‘n’ Pay is in such terrible shape is because the blacks are running it now and they’re all just lazy and too stupid to re-stock the shelves properly.” Some extend that kind of thinking to the government and claim that the country was better off under apartheid rule. White people tell me these things because I’m white, and figure that because of our shared color we must share the same opinions as well. Sometimes I feel like yelling at them—“No! you can’t just SAY those sorts of things. Honestly, how can you think that?”

But to their credit, most South African white people aren’t quite that backward. Sure, they’re a little bit racist, but reasonably so considering the country and climate in which they were raised. Younger people tend to be less hateful. I think what people want now is just equality, plain and simple. They want an end to Black Empowerment, which stipulates that anyone who falls under the “historically disadvantaged” category (Blacks, Coloureds, Indians) must be given preference in job hirings. Affirmative action, same as in the States.

As for me, I don’t really like the idea of Black Empowerment (BE), but I do understand why it exists. It makes sense from a justice perspective—after all, for years and years only whites could occupy the top positions in companies, and whites held the advantage in every possible way. Even now, traces of the apartheid era remain. All of the taxis I’ve taken have been manned by black drivers. All of the backpackers have been owned by whites. All of the cashiers at the Spar are black, and all the construction workers I’ve seen are coloured. Whites still live in the best, richest and safest areas and have access to much better education. If it weren’t for BE, whites would be more qualified than their black and coloured counterparts in every job interview, every time.

I have met a few black people who won’t say anything bad about the government. They are, I suppose, the ones who idolize Mandela and the ANC, the political party that freed them from oppression in 1994. But I’ve met far fewer of these type of people than I anticipated I would. Most black South Africans are open and ready to acknowledge the corruption and information scandals that plague the national government. Some people say that the government is trying, that it’s doing its best, and that over time things will improve. Others lash out against Jacob Zuma, alleging that he really did rape that woman. There are also many who dislike Julius Malema, the ANC Youth Leader, and the multi-million dollar homes he has constructed in Soweto.

By far the epithet that’s closest to reaching a semblance of consensus is that the country is young. People of all colors will tell me that South Africa is only 17 years old, and that the United States has had over 200 years to get things right. In other words, bit your tongue, lean back, and patiently wait for the worst to pass. In the meantime, just mutter TIA (This is Africa) whenever something goes wrong.

Now you can see how difficult it is, amidst all these varying perspectives, to try to shape an opinion of a country where there are beautiful first-world shopping malls and millions living in houses of corrugated tin in the informal settlements. The division between the haves and the have-nots in South Africa is enormous, and while social mobility does exist, if you’re born into the wrong household, you’ll be hard-pressed to achieve a respectable socio-economic status. When I arrived in Cape Town, for example, I did a double-take when I walked down the street because I realized that there wasn’t a black person in sight. There are SO MANY white people here in this most beautiful city of all in South Africa. It’s because under the apartheid regime the entire Western Cape was reserved for white settlement, so even now, 17 years later, black South Africans and other racial groups are still just trickling in.

And of course I understand why some white people claim the country’s worse now that it’s under black rule. “No shit,” I want to say. “Of COURSE you wish apartheid rule were back. You were king of the jungle then!” But it’s true that there is corruption everywhere you turn, and that the ANC has a tight grip over the government. Once the liberating party, the ANC has morphed into something grotesquely misshapen by its own inflated power. As a foreigner, and an incredibly ignorant young one at that, my assessment is that it’s time for the ANC to go away. It’s almost not a democracy anymore—you have no choice but to vote for the party of Nelson Mandela. There’s the ANC and then there’s everybody else.

I need to read a few more of the cartoons by Jonathan Schapiro (Zapiro), who is South Africa’s most famous satirical illustrator. Maybe if I stayed in South Africa long enough I’d come to be as cynical as everyone else and just shake  my  head and whisper “Shame” whenever I read the news headlines.

This country’s racism reverberates in the air.  Not that the U.S. has the best track record when it comes to racism.  I’ve learned to tell people that I’m from Chicago, because then they’ll grin and nod their heads really fast and repeat it back to me as a long, drawn-out phrase that insinuates PARTY! in every syllable: “Ohhhh, Chi – CAH – go!!” Whereas if I tell people I’m from Texas they’ll just tell me how much they hate George Bush.

Yes, I suppose that South Africa is royally fucked up, but so is the U.S. and so is every country in some way or another. It’s not so bad that you can’t live here, and the people I’ve met have all been incredibly welcoming. Maybe they dislike me and whisper things about “that American” behind my back, but in general I’m fairly confident that I make a good impression, so I doubt that too many people hate me very much.

South Africa has a lot going for it. It’s beautiful and vibrant and a cornucopia of cultures & colors. Most importantly, it’s alive. I’ve lived in places that are dying, where the people move slowly and don’t think of anything beyond the next TV show and how they’re probably going to get married to their high school sweetheart in another couple of years. People here move around. Even the street kids who beg for money for their next crack hit weave fantastically improbable stories about homeless shelters and abandoned knocked-up sisters. I wish I could inject some of that vitality into the couch potatoes strewn across the U.S. and the wider world, yell WAKE UP and COME TO SOUTH AFRICA for a healthy infusion of culture shock and shake off that mantle of apathy that you’ve been wearing for far too long.

But I really haven’t been doing a good job of explicitly stating my opinions, other than to say I don’t think much of the ANC. (Or maybe I have been stating my opinions—at this point I’m not really sure). I wish I could transport everyone in South Africa to the U.S. just for a little while so that they could understand why I don’t find it strange to shove myself into a minibus taxi and willingly allow myself to be surrounded by a sea of black bodies. I wish that no one had to live in a cardboard shack, and I wish I could shoot the people who drive their Mercedes right past those people in the cardboard shacks and then have the nerve to call them lazy good-for-nothings. I wish I remembered every conversation and every bit of information that has passed my way in this country, and I wish I had money to travel forever and continue being a passive observer in every country across the world.

But I’m just an undergrad, a 20-year-old with eyes and ears who uses maybe 10% of her brain and has to fly back to safety, to family, to the States on August 15th. So I’ll just sit here and admire the sophistication of the roasted tomato sitting next to my bacon and try not to form too many half-informed opinions.

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July 30, 2011: Back to the Grind

Well, I’m officially on “Africa Time” now. I was supposed to leave for Port Elizabeth 4 days ago, but here I am, still in Cape Town. As long as I don’t miss my flight back to the States on August 15th I’m ok.

I moved out of the Obviouzly Armchair backpackers two days ago, and now I’m staying with Natalia, the friend of the ex-girlfriend of Petr from the Czech Republic who worked at the reception at the backpackers. Connections, eh? Since I’m running out of money, the arrangement is excellent for me. I tell you, Natalia’s entire family is stunning. Gosh. Her sister Dina is staying with her as well, and both of them are knockouts. On Thursday evening all three of us went to the Zula Lounge on Long Street, and an American boy quickly spotted Dina and wouldn’t leave her alone all night. I believe Natalia told me that her father is part Egyptian, and her mom is from Tanzania (though I’m less clear on that point). She grew up in Saudi Arabia and is anticipating the start of Ramadan, but she introduces herself to people by saying she’s from Zanzibar. And to think I thought my background was complicated!

I’ve now had the opportunity to hear countless Cape Town bands live. I’m excited by the prospect of hosting a special show on the student radio station to showcase all the South African music I’ve accumulated on my trip. I must give credit to Wihan from Pretoria for introducing me to his collection of Afrikaans music.

Yesterday, Friday, I finally summoned the courage to go down to the Central Business District of Cape Town by myself. I think I must have finally mastered the “fuck off” face, because only a couple of people bothered me for change. I have an interview with the health journalist from the Cape Argus newspaper on Monday and possibly another one with someone from the Cape Times as well. Then I walked to the Media24 headquarters and was able to interview the science & health care reporter from Die Burger. (It’s Afrikaans for “The Citizen” or something like that, or so I’m told.) I also stopped at the Memorial Hospital downtown since it was on the way to the train station. I have to return there on Monday as well and set up an appointment with the Human Resources manager before I can interview any of the nurses/sisters at the hospital.

On a culinary note, I am happy to report that Natalia has taught me the correct way to prepare 2-minute noodles. I now consider myself an expert on that and on buying cheap white wine to have along with dinner. It’s going to be a bit of a shock once I get back in the States. I bet the first time someone asks me for my ID I’m going to reply, “No, don’t worry—I’m over 18. It’s fine.” Then I’ll turn a bit pink and scramble out of the H-E-B as I remember that I’m no longer in South Africa.

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August 2, 2011: Solitaire

7:00 PM. Observatory, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa.

Heh…still hanging around in Cape Town, as you can see from above. It’s very difficult to leave such a beautiful city and free lodging. (Thank goodness for Natalia and her sister Dina—otherwise I would be out of money already, I think.)

I am now a PRO at minibus taxis. I know just which corner to catch them on, and I never ride in ones that are less than half full—that spells trouble and a mugging. I am very efficient and today it only took me 30 minutes to get downtown to St. George’s Mall, where I met and interviewed a journalist named Anso from the Health-e news service at the Vida e Caffe in Greenmarket Square. In fact, I even got there EARLY, a feat which is almost unheard of for me.

After the wildly successful interview (making a good impression by knowing what CD-4 and MSM and MDR-TB mean, check!) I decided to try to get to the SABC (South Africa Broadcast Channel) offices in Sea Point. Unfortunately, after buying the cup of coffee from Vida e Caffe, I had only R6 left, so I couldn’t afford to take a taxi there.

I went to three different “Tourist Information” shops before I finally found one that could give me directions to Sea Point. The conversation went something like this:

(Overly nice tourist information lady): “Hello, how may I help you?”

“Um…are directions free?”

She laughed and replied, “Yes, of course.”

“I’m trying to get to the SABC offices in Sea Point, at 21 Beach Road.”

She starts to pull out a collection of maps and spreads them out over the counter for me.

“Are maps free as well?”

She laughs again and says, “Yes, some things are free.”

So with my three giant foldout maps in hand, I bravely began the trek from the CBD all the way up the coast to Sea Point. I do think I ended up walking about 8 or 10 miles in total, but it was worth it because I got another interview scheduled for tomorrow with someone from SABC!! The receptionist at SABC, a v. kind older man, took pity on me, I think. Another golden conversation:

“Hi, I’mastudentfromtheStateshereinSouthAfricaonaresearchgrantcouldIinterviewanyofthejournalistshereatSABCaboutHIV?”

(I’ve really got that spiel down.)

“Yes, hello dear. Here is the extension for the lady who works in HR.”

After I called about 5 people on the phone in the lobby (I kept getting redirected) I finally figured out I was getting nowhere after someone in charge told me, “All the journalists are very busy right now with deadlines and really don’t have time call back tomorrow.”

I walked back over to the desk with a sheepish grin and said, “Well, at least I got a good walk out of it.”

But then the receptionist performed a miracle and asked one of the journalists who was standing in the lobby if I could interview her. And that was that!

On my way back from SABC I decided to take the long route around the coast so that I could get a good look at the Atlantic Ocean and at the giant World Cup stadium, since obviously I couldn’t see either of those things clearly unless I was right in front of them.

I ended my sweaty, solitary walk 2 hours later, grumbling to myself as I climbed the stairs to the taxi bay above the station. I was extremely bored walking for so long, so I took an obscene amount of photos. But then I got back to Natalia’s, made a 2-minute noodles, and am now content to type away on my computer.

I MUST go TONIGHT to the backpackers and book my bus ticket to Port Elizabeth for Friday. I can only take advantage of someone’s generosity for so long! (Tomorrow, though, I plan to make Natalia and Dina a chocolate cake—hopefully this will convince them that it was worth it to have me stick around.)

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August 4, 2011: Layering

Written on Wednesday, August 3, 2011. Observatory, Cape Town, Western Cape.

Well, I do think I’ve learned a couple of things during my time here in South Africa. I’ve realized why people ask me if I’m from Europe or Australia instead of from the States. A conversation I had a few weeks back:

“So where are you from?”

I pretended to be sneaky and instead of giving a direct answer, I replied: “Where do I sound like I’m from?”

“Ehh…Canada?”

“No, the States.”

After a few seconds of thinking it over, I asked the guy—

“Did you say Canada in case I’d be offended if I weren’t from the States?”

(laughs) “Yes.”

So there you have it. Apparently my accent is just as obvious as I’d always suspected.

I’ve come to the realization that I only have 12 days left in South Africa. It makes me a bit sad, actually. It’s wonderful to move through another world, feel out the layers of culture and the energy of a completely different country. A passive observer. I’ve started to write more blog posts (as you might have noticed) and take pictures like mad. Though I do want to clear something up. I’m afraid that I gave the impression that I was unhappy to be an American, or something along those lines. Not true—completely not true. If anything, the way I feel about being from the good ole’ U.S. of A is incredibly lucky, irrevocably blessed, showered with opportunities. I’ve stuck to the urban parts of South Africa for the most part, and I have only seen shadows of the hardships that some people have to cope with. And there’s a reason, after all, why nearly everyone I meet tells me it’s their dream to go to the States one day.

But enough of that. Today I went back to the SABC headquarters in Sea Point for the interview with Hazel, who runs a radio program for women in South Africa. She was jolly and joking around with her bright red sparkly beanie and stopped her colleague in the hall to ask if she’d grant me an interview as well. So I got two interviews for the price of one!

A word about the demographics of my interviewees: As I said, I’ve spent 95% of my time in urban areas, and subsequently all of the health care workers and journalists I’ve interviewed are “citified.” I’ve only interviewed doctors from private clinics, which is an extremely specific segment of the health care system here. I tried getting interviews at the public hospitals but was always turned down. So that has shaped the responses I’ve gathered to a large degree. I have, however, managed to interview people across the racial spectrum—black, white, Indian, coloured.

On my way back to the station to catch the minbus back to Obz, I stupidly pulled out my camera to take a photo of the flower sellers on the right side of the station. Stupid, because it was already getting dark and most of the sensible tourists had retired indoors already. This guy noticed that I was taking a photo and he stopped me and asked if I’d like my photo taken.

“Hello pretty lady, don’t you want me to take your picture next to the flowers?”

He directed me to stand by the tubs full of pink and orange roses.

“Ah yes, stand there, that’s very good.”

Before he pressed the button, the big female seller started ranting at him in a language I didn’t understand, chiding him for taking the picture of me, I suppose. She proceeded to splash a bottle of water over his head and chest. I tried not to keep from laughing.

“There’s your picture, you look lovely.”

I asked him if he was ok.

“Yes, yes, just a little wet.”

I guess letting a male flower seller take your picture next to the roses is not a good idea. You might peeve his female companion.

It’s a quiet night here in Obz. Natalia and Dina are Muslim, so they’ve done 3 days of fasting for Ramadan already. They are tired from that and from the fact that they have to study for their exams, which start next week at the University of Cape Town. So I’ve told them I’ll stay out of their way and not talk politics or U.S. foreign policy anymore with Natalia. It’s an evening of Gossip Girl for me!

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August 8, 2011: On the Road Again

Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

My last few days in Cape Town seemed to go by in a blur. On Thursday I pretended to be from Cape Town and went with Natalia and Dina to the UCT campus and attended 2 lectures: one on the workplace environment in SA, and another on Foucault. Apparently I blended in very well, because in the Foucault lecture the girl next to me leaned over and asked me about the book we were supposed to read. I mumbled something about it probably being on Google Books for free.

On Friday, my last full day in Cape Town, I went with Wihan downtown, where we walked around for a few hours, marvelling at the exorbitant prices for bracelets and beaded giraffes in all the “African” tourist shops. Before I left the States, everyone asked me to buy them something genuinely South African. Well, I can do that–buy them a ring or a chunky necklace or a ridiculous floor-length dress covered in zebras–and those things would be considered “genuine.” The problem is that nobody uses that stuff. No one walks down the street wearing a headdress or a scarf with a sprinkbok pattern. The mode is Western wear! All of this is to say that gift-buying is v. difficult.

On Saturday I went through my suitcase for the first time in 7 weeks. It’s amazing to discover things you’ve completely forgotten about, and remember that mug you bought here and that scarf you bought there. Then at half past five, after saying goodbye and many thank-you’s to Natalia and Dina, I took a taxi down to the Cape Town station and boarded the Translux bus to Port Elizabeth (I took the overnight bus to save on another night’s accomodation).

While on the bus I befriended Juanita, a sweetheart with 2 kids who’s been working as a nurse in Namibia for the past few years. I’m always afraid that I’m going to be deathly bored on the bus, but between chatting with Juanita about the sand dunes and Namibian currency and the 2 movies they showed (“Fireproof” and “Akeelah and the Bee”) I was happily occupied for the duration of the ride.

At 7 AM the bus rolled into Port Elizabeth (PE, as everyone calls it). Juanita gave me a ride to the Jikeleza Lounge, where I’m staying for the remainder of the week before taking yet another bus back to Durban. It only costs R90/night to stay at Jikeleza, which is the cheapest rate you can get at a hostel here in SA. Because of that, I was expecting Jikeleza to be a bit dodgy. It’s anything but! Jikeleza (which means “to wander around” in Xhosa) is probably the cleanest place I’ve stayed. Everything works–the fridge, the shower, the hot water–and there’s a nice patio out back where I can sit in the sun and chat with Martin from Germany, Helena from Australia, and the group of students from Jo’burg.

PE is nice, but it feels strangely empty. I’m used to crowds now, so when I walk down the street and I don’t see anybody it feels a bit eerie. But there’s always someone to talk to at the backpackers, like I said.

Today I walked down the street and inquired about interviews at the two private hospitals. I’ve been promised interviews on Wednesday. Tomorrow I’m meeting with a journalist from the newspaper here in PE for another interview as well.

It’s hard to believe I only have a week left in South Africa! By this time next Monday I’ll be sitting in the airport, having one last glass of wine before heading home on the 18-hour flight. Texas heat, here I come!

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August 11, 2011: Toward the End

Written on Wednesday, 10 August 2011. Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa. 

Just 5 days until I board the plane back to the States! Much as I have loved my independent travels in South Africa, I’m ready to return to home and the array of creature comforts there: washing and esp. drying machines, shoes that don’t have holes in them, worn through from traversing the city streets, central heat and A/C, bullet-fast Internet.
I finished up my interviews today. At 10 AM I met with an incredibly nice journalist from The Herald, which the Eastern Cape’s major English newspaper. Brian told me that The Herald has a circulation of approximately 22,000, but that they estimate 4-5 people end up reading each copy, so in reality their readership is much broader than the statistics suggest.
After that I met up with Juanita (the meeting point was the ever ubiquitous KFC), the lady who I sat next to on the bus from Cape Town. We took a minibus taxi to a hospital nearby, where, thanks to Juanita’s connections, I quickly procured an interview with one of the nurses. After that, having gathered all the necessary interviews, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. We spent the rest of the day perusing the odds and ends in the Green Acres mall. Whew! What a contrast–to get to the taxi bay, we had to walk through Durban road, which I think is safe to say is the busiest street in all of PE. Juanita explained that it’s the hubbub of Somalian immigrants. Which in turn explains why so many women were walking by in robes & headscarves. But to use a popular description here, it was a v. dodgy place. If I hadn’t been walking with Juanita, I would have been terrified. As it was I felt nervous. We moved from third-world Durban street to Green Acres mall in less than 10 minutes. Goodness, what a juxtaposition…
I seem to find myself in hilarious situations every day. The first day I was here in PE, I went straight to sleep after getting next to no rest on the bus. But I woke up when Lonwabo, one of the staff, was showing the new guy where he’d be sleeping.
“Here is your bed, and you can put your bags here.”
“Ok, thank you. And is anyone else in the room?”
Lonwabo (ostensibly) pointed me out sleeping on the bed. “Yes, there’s one girl there.”
“Ah.” He stopped for a moment, then asked, “But wait–is it a girl or a lady?”
Lonwabo paused. “A lady.”
“Good!”
Also, karma. I’ve started pinching butter to spread on the sad loaf of bread I’ve been munching on. Thank you to the owner of the Flora margarine in the fridge, whoever you are.
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August 15, 2011:T-8 Hours

Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. 12:15 PM.

Since today is my last day in South Africa, I decided to eat at Nando’s again. I ate there on the first day I was here, so it seemed fitting to complete the circle. I even ordered the same thing, chicken strips on spicy rice, to see how my tastes have changed. Well, I’ll say one thing—I’ve gotten used to the portion sizes in South Africa, which are much much smaller than their U.S. counterparts. I remember the first time I ate at Nando’s I was horrified by the tiny plate of chicken and rice that they served me, and ardently wished for more food. This time the plate looked huge and when I was done eating I felt absolutely stuffed. However, the real test was to see whether this time the spicy rice would turn my mouth to fire. Alas, it seems that I will never be able to adjust to spicy food.

I’m staying at Tekweni backpackers again here in Durban (“Tekweni” means “Durban” in isiZulu). I’ve been away for over a month, but it was so nice to come back to the same place. The staff all remembered me and greeted me like a long-lost family member. And they even gave me a much-needed discount on the room. Though maybe I shouldn’t say that as it could get a certain Zulu Guru in trouble…

Last night I hung out with a cool dude from Switzerland. The two of us, plus Dan from Duke University and one of the other frequents of Tekweni, basically just played pool all night and chilled for a bit in the Marley lounge. It was a relaxing evening and the perfect last night in South Africa.

My last few days in Port Elizabeth were certainly exciting. On Thursday I went to the Nelson Mandela Museum of Modern Art and saw a fantastic presentation by a female artist who constructs dresses out of cow hide. It was a gorgeous and haunting exhibit, but it smelled like a dog bone. I can’t imagine how bad her studio must smell.

Then, being stupid, I decided to walk alone in the park right next to the museum. (Future travelers beware! Do NOT enter St. George’s park in PE!) It was still daylight, and to me the park looked v. safe with its tennis courts and flowers. What really sold me, though, were the palm trees. When you picture a dangerous place, does it have palm trees? Exactly. Anyway, this kid about 16 or 17 noticed me walking alone and proceeded to mug me. He only got 25 Rand, (about $4) since that was all I was carrying, and my camera. I couldn’t care less about the camera—it’s basically a piece of shit anyway—but I lost all the photos that I’ve taken in South Africa that were on the memory card inside. Luckily I uploaded lots of photos to Facebook already, and saved about 20 more on my flashdrive. Afterwards I mostly felt angry at myself. If only I had bought some pepper spray! Or just punched him in the face and screamed and ran off. But what’s done is done, and I’ve learned from the experience.

On Friday, Mike from Jikeleza lounge offered to drive me down the Garden Route, which I was planning to see before I ran out of money. Mike delivers property newspapers throughout Jeffrey’s Bay and elsewhere, so I rode alone with him and told him how many papers to drop off at each Spar and Mini-mart along the route (I was in charge of the paperwork). The Garden Route is gorgeous, and if I had more time, I would have stayed in Knysna and Jeffrey’s Bay, both of which are fantastically beautiful places. I didn’t have my camera, of course, but Mike promised to email me some photos.

This morning I bought some last-minute gifts for my family. The chocolate in South Africa tastes the same as chocolate everywhere else, of course, but it’s nice to see the different packaging and languages on the candy bars. I’m also going to bring back some of Nando’s famous Peri-Peri sauce, and introduce my family to the best-tasting spice in South Africa.

In just a few more short hours I’ll be boarding the plane to Jo’burg, and then to Senegal, and then to Washington D.C. and finally San Antonio. It’s hard for me to summarize what I think I’ve learned in my 2 months here, so I’m going to give it a few days, turn over the memories in my mind, and then come back and write one last tragicomedy of a blog post.

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August 15, 2011: Bored in the Airport/Culture Shock

Geez, the TSA is absolutely crazy. Getting to South Africa was no problem at all. They checked my passport and asked if I had any guns and that was it. Before we could board the plane bound for the U.S., our bags were thoroughly searched. We had to remove our shoes and were divided into male and female passengers before being patted down by a security officer of the corresponding gender. Then, when we stopped to refuel in Senegal, security officers from the U.S. came onto the plane to search it. Everyone had to put their blanket and pillow in the overhead containers and hold all of their luggage on their lap. I had just managed to fall asleep about an hour beforehand, so I was extremely grumpy and almost yelled at the security guy when he threw the blanket and pillow back at me when I tried to put it in the overhead bin.

I think that South Africans are more friendly than Americans. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I think South Africans are more friendly than the rich, snooty Americans who can afford to travel internationally three times every year. I can’t tell you how many dirty looks I’ve gotten carrying around my plastic bag full of curios. Haha. Or the lady in the bathroom who gave me a super nasty look when she saw me brushing my teeth but then proceeded to do exactly the same thing! *Sigh.

I’m so glad to be dealing in U.S. currency again. It’s so much easier to know the relative cost of things and to not have to think, “Ok, that costs 50 rand. So that’s about $7. And that costs 15 rand. So that’s about $2. Is that expensive? Am I being ripped off? Would the store down the street have a cheaper xyz? Should I really buy this? Do I need it? Can I wait and buy it in the U.S.? How hungry am I? Is it worth spending 30 rand on a bowl of soup?” Etc., etc.

It was really funny to enter the airport and see all of the “America!” shops full of red, white, and blue t-shirts and flags and mugs and keychains. A perfect counterpart to the “Out of Africa” shops that littered the Jo’burg airport and were filled with drums and masks and “tribal jewelry.” It seems that any country can be reduced to a stereotypical gift shop.

I’m also incredibly glad to be in a country that’s full of people who sound like me. Sometimes I’d get so annoyed in South Africa—as soon as I opened my mouth they could tell instantly that I was foreign. And there was nothing I could do about it! Honestly, I tried as best I could to learn the South African accent, but it’s just too difficult a thing to do in just 2 months. I’m so happy that nobody’s going to look at me like I’m an alien or a freak or a strange sculpture in a modern art museum just because I sound American.

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In the Land of Ultimate Satisfaction (Posted sometime in September 2011)
(Otherwise known as the U.S.)

I’ve been back for nearly a month, and in that month I’ve felt all of the South African influences and idiosyncrasies that I picked up slowly slipping away. But every now and then, I’ll feel a pull in the back of my mind, and I’ll realize how different things are here in America with a sudden jolt.

The first time I went to the store with my dad, it had only been a day after my return. I’d gotten used to being alone in South Africa, but I guess I was more jittery than I realized. When my dad left me to go look for a particular item a couple aisles over, I felt nervous, scared, afraid for my safety. When I told my dad, he sort of laughed, then said that South Africa had really messed me up.

Which I don’t think is completely fair. I don’t want to make everyone think that South Africa is such a dangerous place that you’re going to go crazy and paranoid if you visit the country, but it’s sure nice not to be stared at all the time. I stuck out a mile, gleaming like a ghost when I walked down the street, walking too fast and carrying too little and looking generally too happy and naïve.

Here in the U.S. I’m back to what I’m used to: being invisible most of the time. I’m not going  to lie—I definitely prefer it. But sometimes it was nice to be recognized as a foreigner. Tons of people in South Africa were amazing and offered to help me find my way, walk with me to the store, give me food, let me crash at their apartment, etc. In the U.S., though, I blend in. When I talk, people understand me, and I understand them. I never got tired of giving the “Where I’m From & What I’m Doing Here” speech, but it’s undeniable—I’ve spent 20 years in the United States, and the United States is where I belong. I only just dipped my toes into South Africa, and it’d take a lot longer for me to really understand the country.

Not that people in the U.S. don’t stare at me sometimes. I didn’t realize how chill South Africans were until I was in the airport in Washington. I was trying to put in my contact and these two ladies sitting across from me were staring at me unabashedly. Eventually I put on a huge grin and said something along the lines of, “Hate these annoying contacts!” and they smiled back uneasily. I tried to explain the difference between South Africa and the U.S. to my mom, and she
actually managed to put it better than I could.

In the U.S., people put stock in rules. We believe that if you work hard and don’t break the law, you will be rewarded with wealth and a mini-mansion and maybe even a Ford F-150. So when anyone deviates even the slightest from the social code, their peers distrust and discuss their behavior. It makes us a pretty judgemental society, in my opinion. In South Africa, nobody cares what clothes you wear or if your bag is from Mr. Price or Louis Vuitton. If you choose to eat with your hands instead of a fork and knife, probably nobody will pay you any attention. (Imagine that scene in a U.S. restaurant-HA).

Moreover, in South Africa the rules haven’t necessary been beneficial for a large segment of the population. The apartheid legacy has had a lasting impact on the country in terms of respect for the rule of law and belief in “the system.” Where you can get a job honestly in the U.S. based on merit, in South Africa, it’s best if you know someone. If you go 90 mph on a country road in the U.S., the police WILL find you and give you a very expensive ticket. In South Africa, if you went 130 k in a residential area, you can probably bribe the cop out of a ticket by giving him 50 or 100 Rand. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in the U.S., the system works, so people believe in it, and society is very well-structured. In South Africa, things are a little more hazy, and people are perceptive enough to know that everything isn’t black and white.

But the biggest different between the U.S. and South Africa is abundance. In my house, we have 2 fridges, just because we can. It has nothing to do with really needing or wanting another fridge—it’s semi-convenient, and we can fill it with more food that will take us ages to eat. People buy 5-bedroom homes even though their family only contains 3 people, just because they can. When you drive down the street, humongous trucks and SUVs pass you by (keep in mind that this is Texas). Who needs a bush guard and a V-8 engine in the city??? Nobody needs those things. They have them because they can.

Because of all of the advertising and high wages and high expectations, the U.S. is the land of Ultimate Satisfaction. If anything is wrong or if anything is broken, it is your right to have it fixed right away. No discomfort allowed.

I love the U.S. and I love South Africa, but boy are the lifestyles different.

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