Homecoming

I love to travel.  That much won’t be news to anyone who knows me, or has read this blog.  What may come as a surprise is that, in the most literal sense, I also love the process of travel.  Bustling airport terminals, never-ending plane rides, rectangular trays of airline food (minus the rage-inducing plasticware).  Nevertheless, there is a point on every return trip that I dread, when the reverse culture shock kicks in and when I realize that the adventure is over: the American domestic terminal.

Those first few steps past customs can be isolating and disorienting, even if colored with a modicum of relief.

Until this point, you have something in common with all the strangers surrounding you. International travel–exciting, uncomfortable, perhaps even mind-altering–forges a common bond.   But more than that, the shared experience of life in the same city brings you together.  Even the tiny things reflect converging worlds, a sense of camaraderie and understanding.  At the Cape Town International Airport, we could hold a conference about Stoney Ginger Beer, the best way to braai, and the pros and cons of Wellington Sweet Chili Sauce.

In Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 3, however, there is no one who I can nudge to communicate my appreciation of my first cup of Starbucks coffee in over a year.  I try to share with the barista, but receive no more than a blank look in response.  I pause in a row of seats with cold metal armrests to try and figure out what day it is, what time it is, and why am I so tired?  My neighbors–the airport requisite one seat interval between us–do not seem to have the same problem. The airline asks me to take a bump.  I explain that I will need to use their phone to inform my ride.  The attendant stares in disbelief: how can you be traveling, yet not have a phone?  “It’s in South Africa, with the rest of my life!” I irrationally want to shout at her.

But that’s too forceful, of course.  And untrue.  Home is glorious in its familiarity. Family that loves you.  Old, comfortable relationships. Places of (personal) historical significance.  The food and drink your taste buds were raised on.  The morning newspaper which looks the same as it has for twenty years.  The sports teams you grew up cheering for.  Even old clothing you forgot you owned.  Re-acquainting is joyful.

Yet, it can be a bit lonely when your world is different.  It is always with mixed emotions that I return home.  I have changed.  Home has changed.

In addition to relational isolation, returning home also involves, preeminently, a broader cultural disorientation.  Whereas on one hand, previously harmonized mates struggle to understand your context, on the other hand, it is more complicated to understand the now estranged cultural milieu.

Contemplating my relationship with home, the old break-up standard enters my head: “It’s not you, it’s me.”  And with that in mind, I refer you to Sarah Menkedick’s reflections on her recent homecoming, Encounters With Ex-Boyfriends, in which she compares the United States with a former lover. Bracing myself against that icy metal in a bustling O’Hare terminal, trying to figure out where all the snow came from, Menkedick’s article helped structure some of my beleaguered emotions.  If you get a break from your eggnog, give it a look…

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End of Year? Christmas?

Within thirty minutes of disembarking the plane, I was standing in Kirstenbosch Gardens in the shadow of Table Mountain, flanked by verdant flora and stunning proteas, with the sun caressing my skin.  After the chilly, wet day in Port Elizabeth, it was easy for me to see why people fall in love with this city so easily.  I almost began to regret my decision to leave—almost.  The venue for the summer concert series is second to none—in the entire world.

Writing the date in my journal shocks me—could it really be mid-December already?  I have to remind myself that it is Christmas time when I see people wearing red Santa hats with the white fuzzy ball at the top.  It will reach ninety degrees in Cape Town on Monday.

My only previous hot weather Christmas came in Venezuela on a resort island (spent romantically with my roommate, John Mac).  I layed on the beach and then had a fish dinner.  Despite the news of icy conditions coming from Europe’s airports, I am happy to be spending Christmas back in the United States.

My acting debut as a Wise Man came on Thursday in front of 5,000 people at Carols by Candlelight, a Kirstenbosch Rotary tradition held at one of the world’s most beautiful venues, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.  It is really special to see 5,000 candles waving in front of you with Table Mountain over your shoulder.  Yet, it won’t feel quite like Christmas until I trade my shorts and sandals for a heavy coat.

Returning to the (Real?) World

So I am now leaving the life of the township for Western habits and mores.  The transition is not automatic.

I initially mistake the reflections of sunlight on the polished metal bench at the Port Elizabeth Airport for insects crawling around my couch back in Riemvasmaak.  Chairman once said to me, “you know the insects personally and they know you.  This one knows when he sees you, ‘that’s the owner of this house.’”

One of the many things you learn in the township is how to wait—often, for nothing in particular.  I have adapted.  The initiative and ambition that is so valued in the Western workplace has taken a backseat to endurance and perseverance.  I will have to realign myself.

Scarcity and transience causes a particular mindset: better to do it now—there may not be another chance.  I notice a peculiar, but now familiar anxiety as my phone charges in the outlet at the airport.  I must get as much as possible now, before it goes away.

My withdrawals from township style living are now being overcompensated with overindulgence.  Long hot showers, hours of surfing the internet, oversleeping in a full size bed with clean sheets, sitting on the couch and wasting time watching TV.

Goodbye #2

Leaving Port Elizabeth involved a second set of emotional goodbyes.  During my stay in Riemvasmaak, I spent about 5 nights per month in the “volunteer house” where a group of constantly shifting Dutch volunteers stayed.  I had come to treasure my relationships with the Ready 4 Life (the NGO I worked with) volunteers almost as much as those in Riemvasmaak.

There were two other volunteers leaving the same day as me, so we did the South African thing and had a braai.  It’s a nice “go to” tradition; you don’t have to wonder or worry about how to mark a special occasion.  It’s standard: you braai.

We all stayed up late, ate a lot and drank a lot.  The evening ended when the electricity went out while we played “Hearts.”  In South Africa, you have to keep careful watch over your electricity meter, as it works on the debit system.  You have to buy wattage in the form of vouchers at any supermarket.  If you run out in the middle of the night, like we did, you’re out until the next morning when the store opens.  An ancillary effect is that the alarm doesn’t function, another South African no-no.

I gave everyone photos with a message written on the back.  As I left, Frank told me, “You’ve made me change my mind about Americans.  I used to hate them all.”   It underscores the impact of meeting people and forming individual relationships.

Port Elizabeth will always hold a special place in my heart.  It is a place of unique opportunities, if also anxiety over sharp changes of plan.  Yet, everything that went awry turned out better than could possibly be expected.  Without my car breaking down there on the way to Mozambique, I never would have spoken to the PE Rotary club.  Without speaking to the PE Rotary Club, I would never have met Marieke.  Without meeting Marieke, I never would have heard about Ready 4 Life.  Without Ready 4 Life, I never would have had the opportunity to live in Riemvasmaak and become part of the community there.

Riemvasmaak Goodbye

My closest friends on the committee had a braai for me on the day I left.  The food was lekker, but my departure time of 16h00 came fast, with Pastor counting down, “thirty more minutes in Riemvasmaak!”  After eating, I said a few words about what a privelege it was to spend time with them.  Chairman responded, “you are no longer an outsider, you are now one of us.”  Later, they gathered around to pray for me.  Pastor, one of my dearest friends, said he didn’t want to pray so he could avoid crying.  Another man prayed in Afrikaans, or at least it sounded like he prayed, I wouldn’t know.

Before leaving, I visited my neighbor’s homes to bring them photos I had taken.  Lozelle hugged me tight and claimed it was the nicest gift anyone had given her.  I told her she must be crazy.  Clara came to the door in only a bra.  Her husband described how happy because they didn’t have any photos of the youngest child.  They asked if I had any of the neighbor’s 2 year old son who had died two weeks ago.  At Christina’s home, 2 year old Mawethu said thank you (the first words I’d heard him speak) as he tried to eat his photo.

Zola was the most emotional.  I brought him photos of he and his 12 month old daughter.  He shoved me in joy as he saw me approaching with the photos.  He was so excited that he began swearing.  When I informed him that this was my last day in Riempi, he turned away for a long period.  I thought he was going to cry.  I tried to distract him with another subject.  He paid me one of the most meaningful compliments I’ve had here, “When I see you walking, I don’t even see you as white anymore.  You’re black, like me.”  His parting advice was to buy Spice Gold rum for the plane.

Four of the guys formed an entourage to walk me to catch the jigaleza (public taxi).  I tried to tell them that they needn’t waste their time, but they insisted on coming.  It was touching.  After so much solo traveling where I’ve departed by myself and arrived to the blank faces of strangers, it meant a lot to me (except for my wonderful parents, who have always been there to take me to the airport, no matter how early in the morning).  As opposed to kwaito or house music, the soundtrack for my exit was Phil Collins and Queen.

How do you keep in touch?  The vast majority of people don’t have email.  International phone calls are wicked expensive.  They have no address for “snail mail.” They could disappear and be erased cleanly from the system.  They have no permanent marks outside of relationships.

Riemvasmaak Big Events

Solar Oven

I posted previously about efforts to encourage solar cooking in Riemvasmaak.

The Rotary Foundation has a Sutainability Trust which encourages green projects to benefit the poor.  They have partnered with Solar Cookers International in an effort to equip township residents with solar ovens.  The advantages are: 1) Sunshine is FREE! (yearly savings of R500?) 2) Safer and Healthier (prevent fire, disease), 3) Green, 4) Cheap to build

Last month, I gave a presentation at the PE Rotary Club, and they agreed to sponsor the materials to build eight solar ovens.

Two days before I left, I held a workshop with eight people in the community, discussing the advantages of solar cooking and teaching them to build a solar oven out of cardboard and tin foil.  Despite my lack of experience, the community members were excited and passionate about the opportunity, three women even showed up early—unheard of.  Several mentioned the opportunity for job creation, building the ovens and selling them to other informal settlements.  Others were ready to have more workshops and teach more people.  This is the key to development projects, I’ve learned—local ownership.  It was fun to see how much fun they had and how many innovative plans they “cooked” up (no?  well, I thought it was funny).

Fun Run

the Fun Run winners with their medals

The day I was scheduled to leave was the culmination of months of planning by the Riemvasmaak committee, the Bethelsdorp Police Department, and the councilor: a 5K Fun Run “Against Crime.”  Sixty people ran, at least half were under the age of twelve.  I finished first in the “American Division” (created by yours truly), 24th, and practically last of the adults, overall.  The Committee was very happy with the results.  Getting anything like this off the ground in an informal settlement is quite a success.

I prepared for the run in an unorthodox way.  It came out in the Solar Oven workshop that I had never had “umpokoqo,” or African Salad, so one of the women invited me for dinner that evening.  I had heard so many wonderful things about the dish.  Many people told me it was their favorite African food.  I was excited about the opportunity to try it and had already convinced myself I would love it.  I was not adequately prepared.  Nandi emerged from the kitchen with a giant cauldron (seemed so to me) about the size of four normal soup bowls.  Huge.  When you’re trying something for the first time, “huge” is not ideal.  Pokoqo is made of dry flaky pap mixed with sour milk.  The last ingredient should have been enough to temper my expectations.  The first bit was quite a surprise.  I immediately began praying that I could somehow finish the massive bowl in front of me.  It’s basically sour mush, and I’ve got a King Kong bowl in front of me the night before a 5K.

I almost tried to sneak some to the puppies, Two Face and Bling Bling.  I took small spoonfuls at each bodyslam of WWE on the television.  An awful variation of a drinking game.

Eventually, I turned to Nandi, horrified by my lack of cultural sensitivity, and told her I didn’t think I’d be able to finish.  Her brother laughed and said he was just telling her it was too much.  Apparently, pokoqo is notorious for killing an athlete’s fitness on gameday.  Then, they offered me beer.

A Quiet Street in Suburbia

A few weeks ago, I visited a friend to a black suburb, not terribly far from my home.  I was immediately struck by a sense of freedom.  I breathed deeply  in an effort to experience it fully and, perhaps, save some for later.  It was a few minutes before I realized what it was unique about the neighborhood, causing these feelings.

I scanned the street.  There were no fences or gates, only a door onto a lawn.  There were open doors onto open sidewalks.  There were warm streetlights and pedestrians strolling around—at night!  There were empty lots filled with green grass instead of dirt and glass and rubbish.  My soul breathed.

For the first time, I realized explicitly the effect of the constraints that are an everyday part of life in South Africa.  White areas are clean, but protected from danger like compounds.  In a squatter camp, rubbish is everywhere and you must constantly look over your shoulder.  In Kwanagxaki, at least on this street on this night, I felt liberated, and my soul rested for a brief moment.