Forcing Drama on a Story

Glimpse has re-published my first piece that was earlier featured on Matador.  Day to day in Riempi: Life in a South African township.  Same essay, different name.

Additionally, my editor from Glimpse has chosen that essay about living in Riemvasmaak for her column detailing the editorial process.

Check out the Glimpse Editorial Blog.

It’s a bit embarrassing to have a first draft published with mistakes highlighted and discussed, but it is indicative of the struggle I went through with this piece, and Sarah’s perspective on the other side.  She has invited me to post a response, which I hope to do in the near future…


“Notes from RVO 337” published at Matador

I don’t use Twitter, so maybe this happens to everybody, all the time.  To me, however, it is unique: I have never been tweeted about (at least that I know of), or done anything of note that someone felt must be known–at 140 words or less–immediately.  I’ve never had twitter significance…er…twitter-ifigance .  Until today.


writing from places ppl romanticize or ignore, anything but having the balls to go live: Notes from RVO 337

The editor of Matador, an online magazine for independent travel writing, just published one of my pieces.  And I learned about it from a tweet.  I feel uber-hip.

Click here for the story…

Special thanks to my Dad for final editing.


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…

Money Troubles

Riemvasmaak has been labouring to start a crèche for local children to give freedom to the mothers to work during the day, while at the same time creating jobs. Recently, the teacher quit over a money dispute. She accepted R 150 for each child and spent the money on supplies (or so she says). The problem is, she can’t produce any receipts documenting the use of the money. Better record keeping could have prevented the dispute, and possibly sustained the project.

Last week, the accuser in the crèche case staged her uncle’s death. Xhosa tradition dictates that family members each contribute an established amount of money toward funeral costs. Patricia amassed over R 1,000 by spreading the word that their uncle, who lives in the Transkei, had passed away. Her plan was foiled by her ignorance of the bus schedule, telling family members she was travelling on a non-existent route. They pooled money to call the Transkei, realized the uncle was still living, and drug Patricia to the police station.

Perils of Fire in Informal Settlements

The danger of shack fires is well-documented. I have witnessed several. Last week, I was present from beginning to end.

We called the fire brigade at 11:53am. They arrived with the truck at 12:10pm, after the fire had been contained by residents. (In other settlements, I’ve seen the residents hurl stones at the fire truck in anger when it arrived.)  Initially, people stood and watched, frozen. Eventually, people were scurrying about, searching for a way to control the fire. It was the same old story: access to water was not substantial enough. Seven people waited in line to fill buckets at the water tap, about 30 meters away. A water chain eventually formed, but it just wasn’t enough. The fire spread to each side, eventually consuming three homes before the people miraculously got it under control.

While some struggled with water, others used the only means they had to combat the flames. Some used planks of wood to swing at the structural poles while others used stones to throw at the sheets of plywood—all in an effort to break the materials to the ground and prevent the fire from spreading.

The fire was started accidentally by a young man smoking dagga in his shack. He was brought before the community as if before a jury. In tears, he mouthed, “I’m sorry.” His face distorted in agony. Expecting some kind of mob justice, I waited for the beating to begin. Yet, to my surprise, they let him go, collapsing into the outstretched arms of a woman I took to be his mother.

Looting began while the embers were still hot, older boys carrying away metal grating.

A Spaza Blessing

The Spaza shop is the only real place of commercial activity in Riempi, so the energy is a welcome distraction,

plus, I enjoy visiting Farouk, the elder statesman of the family-owned business. Farouk is a former Golden Boot rugby star, a devout Baptist, and has a joy-inducing laugh similar to Dr. Hibbert from the Simpsons.

As I arrived, a young boy of about eight steps up onto the blue, plastic milk crate, dirt overflowing its crevices. “One Chicago, please,” he says, the black sweater and grey slacks of his school uniform baking in the afternoon sun. Farouk hands him the discount cigarette through the grates of the spaza window, holding it between his large thumb and forefinger until the child will answer his question, “How was school today?” “Fine,” the child finally responds and Farouk releases the booty. The boy walks off, his shoes crunching the pebbles on his way to a) give it to mama, or b) smoke behind the church.

My mission today was to get airtime for my phone. Buying airtime is a bit like putting together a puzzle; it comes in pre-packaged amounts, so it’s a quest to put together the right combination of cash denominations to get nearest to your sum without going over. I told Farouk I had R20 to spend and prepared myself for the negotiation of numbers.

He informed me that the he only had vouchers of R12, then shocked me by telling me to take two R12 vouchers and he would pay the extra R4. Embarrassed at the prospect, I began to search my pockets earnestly for leftover coins. When I happened upon a R5 coin, I handed it over, relieved. Farouk replied, “You don’t want to be blessed this morning, hey?” followed by his world famous chuckle.

The man behind me drug a large flour bag full of dusty liquor bottles to exchange. He pulled them out one by one andhanded them over. Farouk clasped them to this chest and returned with four cigarettes and a bag of Nik Naks, a local chip that resembles a Cheeto. A strong burst of wind kicked up moldy dust and hot gravel, carrying it through the streets and spraying it noisily, rock on metal.




While I may seem a paragon of stability and courage in my blog posts (at least, I write them to sound that way), I have begun to feel the effects of living in an informal settlement. While culture shock is familiar and, indeed, present, I’m reacting to my environment in ways I haven’t experienced before.

I am beginning to understand why clean, orderly shopping malls are so popular with people in developing countries. When your living situation is chaotic and inconsistent, even polished tiles and humming fluorescent lights are calming.

My uncertainty has manifested in physiological issues. I experience a latent sense of insecurity and anxiety. I’ve noticed a consistent shortness of breath; filling my lungs is like trying to fill a mattress that has a hole in it. Nothing is ever sure: time, people, weather, transport, food, health, job. I’ve been experiencing an emotional shift toward people and surroundings.

I am sleeping on a mite-infested couch and being consumed on a nightly basis. My lack of power to make a change to my environment, gives a sense of how health, hygiene, and poverty interact. It doesn’t help that I am unable to clean myself properly. I haven’t had so many dermatological issues since I was thirteen. I looked at myself in the mirror recently and realized just how scrappy I look. In contrast, it is amazing how polished Themba’s appearance is, consistently.

Our dishes are never cleaned, just rinsed out. I try to use hot water when to rinse them when I can. It’s no wonder I have an eternal cold.