Ode to Travel

Traveling is the soaring of zippers, the snapping of clasps, the whoosh of Velcro and the scrape of vinyl.  It is often chapped lips, sunburn, blisters, colds and dehydration.  It involves being alternately scintillated and horrified by prevailing scents and often being shocked at the smell of your own clothing.

Regretfully, it usually includes the building and abandoning of intense and intimate relationships.

You take uncertainty with your early morning coffee and gratitude with your afternoon tea.  By dinner, your world is larger.

Vulnerability, intentional deprivation, disorientation, insecurity, and bewilderment all nourish the tree which bears the fruits of humility, gratitude, and wonder. 

The great dividend is joy at simple things: a long-awaited hot shower, a Kleenex or real toilet paper instead of a scrap of newspaper, a chance to charge your camera battery.  Having basic needs met becomes a real thrill and life somehow feels differently, like your favorite sweatshirt fresh out of the dryer.


“How Great is They Messi”

Sbu told me later that it was a “prophetic” church.  It began with a litany of call and response hymns.  Foot tapping and soulful.  Then, a sermon which was long on time and long on humor.  As the sermon wound up, I began to stretch my legs and gather together my personal belongings.  Little did I realize that this was simply the prelude.  There were still three and a half hours to go.

It would have been appropriate if a microphone had descended from the ceiling and Michael Buffer had appeared to herald the main event.  “Let’s get ready to rrrrrrrumble!”  The pastor pointed at a woman in from at the back of the room and beckoned her to the front.  Combining the Exorcist and Law and Order, she began to interrogate the demon.  Instead of simply banishing it, or sending it into a nearby herd, the pastor was determined to bring to light all possible incriminating evidence.  There was no “good cop” to this scenario.

The woman in question, from the moment of her appearance on stage, ducked her head low and flailed her arms up behind her.  Her fingers were in constant motion and she spoke as if it were painful.  The climax of her performance included tight, quickening pirouettes and loud, high-pitched shrieks.  A video camera for the CCTV and a microphone were never far for maximum audience viewing pleasure.  These were not jobs for the timid, as “deliverance” is supremely a contact sport.

Nevertheless, our fearless (and somewhat cavalier) leader  was not easily distracted.  She hurled words like daggers: “Fire!”  In a crescendo, “Fire!”  Then, if it turned out that it wasn’t hot enough, “I increase the fire!”   “Out!”  “Bow down!”  Occasionally, she slapped the victim, and in the end, had the choir sing a hymn to complete the process.  The end goal was to cover the person in a purple cloth approximately the size of my travel towel (but hopefully not as rank).

After ratting on her boyfriend (by name), the woman finally listened to reason and fell to the floor.  Once the purple cloth had been placed, the pastor began to speak to the crowd about holiness or something, when, lo and behold, the woman was off the ground again, a whirling dervish, twisting in tight circles.  Apparently, the demons were legion.  Each was given the name of one of the townships were her lovers lay, Sandton, Alexandra, Soweto…

Once she was down and out, my friend Sbu handed me his glasses and cell phone, crawled over bodies to the aisle, and walked bravely to the front.  The pastor put her hand on his forehead and…but wait…the woman was up again!  Her demons were very determined.  The elixir had not yet been strong enough.  It took another hymn before she finally exited stage right.

Sbu hit the floor much more quickly.  As he lay face down, covered by the religious travel towel, I realized that I had a budding logistical problem.  What if Sbu was laid out for the rest of the night?  How long is one generally slain by the spirit?  Sbu had confided that the Friday night service often lasted until the wee hours of the morning, therefore, we would stay no longer than an hour.  He was now laid out on the carpet.  What is the etiquette surrounding religious experiences and getting home at a decent hour?  Do I pick him up and carry him to car, or leave him to fend for himself?  If someone is slain by the spirit, are they responsible for previous promises?

Ten minutes later, Sbu was back at my side and I scrapped my getaway plans.  Nevertheless, it appears that God had other plans for us besides leaving early.  When we walked out to the car, we realized that we had been blocked in.  It was absolute: we weren’t leaving until the service was over.

Meanwhile, the floodgates had opened.  Both aisles were jammed with people waiting to get to the front to be healed.  The queue was about fifty long on either side.  Sbu surveyed the room and breathed a sigh of relief.  “There aren’t many people here tonight.”  I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.

The hymns progressed from “Standing in the need of prayer” to “Holy Spirit, fall down, fall down, fall down on me.”  While some worshippers crashed to the ground immediately, some took more prayer, while others simply took a few small steps backwards and retreated back to their seats.  Two or three people were assigned to crowd control and stationed behind and to either side of the action to catch their fall.  If they were acting, it was quite the trust fall.

I entertained myself by assigning style points to the fall.  It was much like the old Nintendo game Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.  Some went down like Glass Joe, swaying from one side to the next, while others went hard and fast like Bald Bull or Soda Popinski.  Bodies were strewn about like a battlefield.  At one point, I closed my eyes, and it sounded like the best moments of my recent safari: howling, groaning, whistling.

As the number of people in the aisle diminished to zero, we all looked around us, wondering what could cap off the evening, when down one of the aisles, came the  whirling dervish.  If the service was a symphony, this woman was the reprise.  It turns out, in addition to her demons of lust, she also had a spirit of witchcraft.  We were all amazed and beamed at one another.  What an encore!

The evening seemed to be coming to a close, and I again started to gather my effects, when the man to the other side of me was called to the front and returned to tap me on the shoulder.  “The pastor wants you.”  He can’t be serious, I thought.  I studied him with wide eyes and then turned to Sbu.  “Go.  She wants you,” he said.  I shook my head firmly.  No way.  “I’m not going up there,” I replied resolutely.  “Go,” Sbu repeated, as if there were not an inch to question, “the pastor wants you.”

Suddenly, everything changed.  I went from a sometimes amazed, amused, and/or horrified observer to a participant.  Regardless of what I action I took, there were now repercussions to my presence at this service.  Time began to move very slowly.

For someone who has done his share of preaching and speaking in front of people, when it comes to being a congregant, I try to blend in.  I’m Tribe Called Quest’s Mr. Incognito.  I don’t even like standing to introduce myself as a newcomer at churches.  Much less walk to the front before 300 people at the most bizarre service I’ve ever attended.  Nevertheless, I’m in a tough spot.  I’m a visitor, I’m a foreigner, and I’m one of the few white people this church has probably ever seen.  I want to help build good relationships; I definitely don’t want to offend the pastor.  If I go to the front, I risk disrespecting her and her church by not falling to the ground.  I don’t want to make a show of the fact that I harbor doubt about these occurrences.  But if I don’t go the front, I flaunt her authority, which is obviously strong.  What do I do?  I didn’t have any choice.  I faked a heart attack…

Alright, I didn’t fake a heart attack.  I reluctantly walked forward, weaving my way through an aisle that was much narrower than it was at the start, feeling every eye burning into the back of my head, my bright yellow Bafana Bafana jersey announcing my location like a blip on a radar screen. I noticed with dismay that my heart was beating hard and fast.  Why did she choose me?  It was a fact that I didn’t exactly blend into this Soweto crowd.  Was I the only one that hadn’t been to the front to be healed?  Is she going to rebuke me?  I braced for the worst.

We met each other at the center of the stage.  She reached out and put her hand to my chest.  She must be able to feel my heart pulsating deeply—did I just run wind sprints?—but continued to press.  Her eyes flitted closed (in prayer?) and then open again, determined (for what?).  Full minutes passed.

In the first wedding at which I played groomsman, the wedding planner had harped continually about not locking your knees.  She had me fearful that I would collapse into the organist at any second.  The admonition popped into my head as my weight tilted backwards underneath the pressure of the pastor’s hand.  I had a sudden image of the whirling dervish pirouetting onto the stage behind me, but stood firm, looking intently into the pastor’s eyes.  Would she use me as an example—he has not enough faith—and lambaste me in front of the crowd?  How long she would keep it up?  I was now the Grand Finale; would she give up before I fell?  It was a battle of wills.  We’ve almost hit the five hour mark, should I make like Arjen Robben and take a dive?  She pressed and prayed, prayed and pressed and it seemed like the minutes entered double digits.  I held my ground, though wobbly were my knees.  Finally, she leaned over to me and said, just above the music, “You have lost much.  But stay with the Lord.”  I responded, “Thank you, pastor,” and walked back to my seat.  The service ended soon after, and we found our way out of the blocked parking lot.

Loss.  The great theme of human life and religious longing.  Universal, and yet it functions with a kind of relative deprivation effect.  Have I experienced loss?  Sure.  Stay with the Lord?  Good advice.  The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a horoscope reading—true enough, to a degree, for anyone.  Yet, true, nonetheless—and so prophetic, indeed.

“You can stay in Soweto; you know how to drive.”

I would recommend that everyone visiting South Africa first visit Johannesburg to learn about and experience the history of the country.  It gives context to the rest of the country.  I spent my first semester in Cape Town without seeing the rest of the country, and I am worse for it.

Johannesburg’s museums are extraordinary.  I learned more about South African history in five days than I did in my first five months, including study at the University of Cape Town.  The Apartheid Museum, The Hector Pieterson Museum, Constitution Hill and Prison number 4 paint a vivid picture of the nation’s struggles and triumphs.  Add to that the South African Brewery’s “World of Beer” and you’ve got a mess of stimuli.

Living in Cape Town to experience South Africa is like going to Louisville to try to learn about the South.  You may be there, but you’re missing the reality.  Jozi has culture: museums, theater, energy and identity.  Cape Town, in comparison, is a bit soul-less.  Its identity lies in non-cultural aspects like Table Mountain or surfing.

Cape Town’s most famous township, Khayelitsha, is isolated and (most would have you believe, a no-go zone.  Johannesburg’s Soweto, on the other hand, is safe and oozing with opportunities to experience South Africa.  Walking the same streets as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisilu, Steve Biko.  Tracing the steps of the Soweto Uprising.  Visting the sight where the Freedom Charter was penned.  It is uber-rewarding and the perfect capstone for this leg of the journey.

Best. Hitchhike. Ever.

It was the only day in a full week of early rises that I overslept.  In fact, I believe it is the first time since I moved to South Africa that I missed an alarm, despite not even having a watch.  I frantically began to herd my belongings into my backpack, patting around the entire tent floor in the muggy darkness.  “6:00 am!” I kept repeating.  “How could it possibly be 6:00 am?!”  Whenever I am required to rise early in the morning, my internal clock goes bonkers, waking me up multiple times in the night and usually resulting in my being awake 45 minutes ahead of time.  But today–6:00 am!  I was supposed to meet 5 other guys for a taxi at 5:30.  The last bus for Gabarone leaves at 6:30 am.  I scurry around , wadding up clothing and stuffing it into remote nooks of my increasingly large backpack.  I can’t see a thing, and can only hear the ruffling of vinyl and buzzing of zippers above my own self-rebuke.  It’ll take a miracle to get to Gabs now.  What am I going to do?

Half an hour later, I’m sitting in the cockpit of a Cessna Centurion T210 (T for Turbo) climbing to 11,000 feet.  The yoke twists in front of me as if controlled by a ghost.  Gauges and needles spin in a flurry on the dashboard as the engine hums and the Okavango Delta disappears behind us.  The air is cool as flight control dictates instructions in a code language of numbers and abbreviations.  On my left, Adam responds in kind, adjusting the rudder, nuancing the fuel mixture and commanding the yoke (causing its reciprocal action in front of me).

I have never been in a prop plane before, much less a private jet.  As I stood by the side of the road in Maun, waving at every car that passed, the most I hoped for was a quick lift that would get me to the center of town in time to catch a lift at least part way across the country to the southeast.  Best case scenario was that the bus left late and I was lucky enough to experience the 11 hour nightmare of a ride.  I picture sweat, chickens, 30 people in an 18-seater, fat people squeezed into skinny seats with holes and no padding, Nigerian gospel music, and potholes that rival fault lines, making your head well acquainted with the ceiling above.  Instead, I’m sitting in a cushioned chair high above the Kalahari sands and the raving minbuses, with only the combination of cabin pressure and my sinuses to worry me.  I have hitchhiked on 4 continents, but never have I found my way onto a plane.

After 15 minutes waiting for someone to stop, a beat up Land Cruiser purred up the road from which I’d come and paused beside me.  The driver motioned me to the passenger seat and introduced himself as Adam.  Adam runs a safari company in Maun and was heading to Johannesburg to pick up his family.  When he found out where I was going, he asked if I wanted to come with him.  I expressed interest, but was under the impression that he was flying.  “That’s right,” he said.  “I am flying.”

On the way, we talked about his experiences travelling Africa, interests in History and Anthropology, and the process of getting a pilot’s license.  He recently hosted Morgan Freeman on one of his safaris.

As I sat in the Johannesburg airport, I replayed the morning.  If I had woken up on time, or if one of the cars that passed before had stopped, of if the buses had left later, I never would have had this experience.  At the time, I lamented how unlucky I was.  My mind is too finite to understand long term implications.  It is humbling.  Sometimes, we have no idea what amazing gifts and opportunities can come out of seemingly awful luck.

Adam called it fate, I prefer to call it a blessing.  The chorus (from a song by the band I’m From Barcelona) going through my mind all morning, “damn, oversleeping again” , was transformed into hymns of joy.  Praise Jesus!

Zim Miscellany and On to Botswana

“These guys, they’ve got 100 ways to rig (an election), and they’ve only used 95 of them.  They’ve got 95 ways left.”

~Arthur, when asked about Zimbabwean politics.

It’s a sensitive subject in every culture, and you would think that Zimbabweans would have especially strong reasons to avoid the topic.  Yet surprisingly, Zimbabweans love to talk about politics.    You don’t even have to ask; they introduce the topic.

Zimbabweans have great names.  Well, they translate great.  I can’t actually pronounce the names in Shona or Ndebele.  Names like Vigilance, Evidence, Innocence, Happiness, and Blessing.

Currently in Botswana.  Not much time to elaborate here….Chobe, Moremi, Okavango Delta…. hitchhiking, wildlife viewing, gliding about in mekoro.  More on that later… Been fighting some kind of nagging cold for about a month now.  Convinced the pharmacist here in Maun to give me some Amoxycillin (sans prescription), so I’m hoping it will have seen its last days very soon. University to start back in a couple of days, so I suppose I should be heading back to Cape Town soon.  First, must pick up car in Port Elizabeth.  Hopefully, all is set on that front…

Feel it. It is Gone.

Six years of preparation have come and gone for South Africa.  I saw recently saw this blog’s title scribbled into a dusty windscreen.  It seems to represent a bit of disillusionment about the impact of the World Cup for everyday Africans.  I have heard the sentiment in many countries as I’ve traveled.  A freelance guide in Victoria Falls told me today, “the World Cup benefitted us nothing.  Only the government made money.  Not we indigenous people.”  At the same time, there was a strong spirit and vibe surrounding the festivities.  Africans were proud to have the world’s largest sporting event on their home soil, even if it was thousands of kilometers away.

I previously published about the games I was privileged to attend in South Africa.  I thought it might also make an interesting list to note the places I watched the games around and outside of South Africa.

Kick off Concert–Anna’s house in Cape Town

Bafana Bafana v. Mexico — Fan Fest, Grand Parade

GER-AUS — Mossel Bay Backpackers

NED-DEN  —  Storm’s River Bridge bungee jump bar

ITA-PAR, BRA-PKR  — Jimmy’s house in Port Elizabeth with Oreo McFlurries

GER-SER — Spur at King Shaka Durban Airport

USA-SLO — Anna’s house in Durban

BRA-CIV — Himeville Arms (Sani Pass away from Lesotho)

RSA-FRA — crouched behind the slot machines in Stanger (home of Chief Luthuli)

ARG-GRE — Zululand Backpacker’s in Eshowe

USA-ALG — Key West Bar in St. Lucia

–Sondzela Backpackers in Mlilwane Wildlife Reserve, Swaziland

Round of 16: USA-GHA –Amanzim’lotzi Bush Camp near Kruger National Park

Round of 16: ARG-MEX — Orpen Gate Rest Camp in Kruger

Round of 16: BRA-…  –Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, Kruger

Round of 8: ESP-POR — on the cell phone of the woman sitting in front of me on bus to Maputo, Mozambique

Round of 8:URU-GHA –listened to from dormitory at Bamboozi Lodge, Tofo, Mozambique

Round of 8: BRA-NED –Zoo Bar, Tofo

Round of 8: ARG-GER — STOP Restaurant in Maxixe, Mozambique as bus leaves us behind

Final Four: URU-NED — Cecilia’s home in Harare, Zimbabwe

Final Four: GER-ESP — Cape to Cairo, Bulewayo, Zimbabwe

Third Place: URU-GER — Boma Eating Place, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Final: ESP-NED — Panache, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe