Thursday, March 16, 2006

South Africa

Fragmented Tile Work Johannesburg

Some impressions from South Africa. Next 2x too.

Getting There

South Africa is far away. 10,000 miles and over 30 hours of travel to be exact. So far that I had to watch Walk the Line and The Adventures of Zorro over and over again to stay awake.

As a result I’ve got Johnny Cash's stage moves down. I’m pretty sure I could also de-pants somebody now with the flick of a rapier if I had to.

By the time I got on the ground in Johannesburg I was exhausted and running a 102 degree fever. Welcome to Africa.

High Contrast

South Africa is a place of striking juxtapositions.

As a native Californian and as somebody who now lives at the boundary of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, I’m used to high contrast.

In some ways South Africa reminded me of California. Some of the most beautiful country and coastland you'd ever want to see right next to butt ugly stretches of desert. Anybody who’s driven from the Pacific coastline across the Mojave Desert to Vegas knows what I’m talking about. You can go from coastal beauty to desolation in the course of a few minutes and miles.

Johannesburg and Cape Town are a lot like Los Angeles too. Lots of big scratch segregated from huge swaths of poverty. The swank neighborhoods of Joburg rival anything in California, but the townships make South Central look like a resort area. While America is racially and culturally segregated in so many ways, the segregation in South Africa seems almost complete. During the course of my ten days there I kept wondering how South Africans hold those kinds of disparities together internally.

Khayelitsha Township

But mostly, I was struck by the contrast between the hard challenges South Africans face on almost every front and their moving sense of hope.

Even domestic servants I talked to felt it was just a matter of time before the country got its act together. Hardly anybody seemed ironic or disillusioned.

I also heard a lot about the superiority of all things South African.

When I mentioned that I was originally from California and that I wanted to try some South African wine, one black waitress told me with a big smile--I think only half-jokingly--that California wine was "no better than warm spit.” Made me laugh out loud.

I normally don't like booster-ism, and as an American of a certain age, I’m suspicious of a lack of irony. But this time the true believers rung true. I'm not exactly sure why. I'll take a crack at that question in the next couple of posts.

How do you hold extremes of wealth and poverty and overwhelming challenges and hope together? Somehow, at least for the time being, that's what South Africa seems to be about. Those tensions give the place a tremendous creative vibe and energy.

King of the Road

I decided to rent a car during my time in Cape Town.

Public transport in South Africa is weak. So renting a car was clearly the best option.

Only a few problems with my plan.

The steering wheels of South African cars sit on the right hand side of the car instead of the left like ours. South African traffic moves on the 'wrong side of the road.' And South African speed laws exist only in the minds of bureaucrats. South Africans I talked to before the trip warned me against trying to drive there because "Americans get all bolloxed up on the road."

My first ten minutes behind the wheel after leaving Cape Town airport? White knuckle time. Forehead a little damp, moving along like a blue haired granny in an '85' Caddy or a lowrider in LA.

And yes, I made a fool of myself a few times too. Worst of all I got into the shotgun seat more than once while trying to drive away. The first time I did it a parking attendant got a good laugh at my expense as I sat there for about 30 seconds. I eventually swallowed my pride and got out and went around to the driver's side and got in.

But overall, I went dyslexic surprisingly quickly and got the ass backwards driving down.

The best thing about internal combustion at the tip of Africa? I could punch it up as fast as I wanted.

At one point while darting through a part of downtown Cape Town in my juiced little Altima I had an unworthy thought. Some of those poor pedestrians, many of 'em summetime tourists, probably thought I was a reckless local who would flatten 'em first and ask questions later.

The tables were finally turned in my direction after years of dodging crazy drivers on foot in the 3rd world.

This time I was behind the wheel and rulin' the road.

Sometimes, it's good to be king....:^)


Blogger limco said...

I have also wondered how South Africans hold the disparities of their land internally. To be a wealthy, white South African must reqire a great deal of justification that the situation is something you are not responsible for nor can you fix it. After living in poor communities in The U.S. as an educated white person I have felt some of this conflict. It is really hard to have so much more than the people around you. It isn't just material things, it is education, choices, the advantages that come with a white face. I struggle with this as I try to make a difference and to bridge this gap. It must be so much harder in South Africa. I am so encouraged that the attitude of the people is hope. I hope that someday I can go there as well.

4:24 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"education, choices, the advantages that come with a white face"

I'm fairly offended by that.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I'm hoping won't get into a major racial discussion in this thread but maybe it's inevitable since we're talking about South Africa.

I think your take is right on target, lim, if we're talking about South Africa.

In the US? Complicated. Whites and Asians in the US still dominate higher education and therefore have lots more choices and advantages.

I don't think that's what Jon is challenging.

The more relevant discussion is why some groups have more choices and advantages. That's not as easy to answer here these days as it is in South Africa.

I agree that hope is the key. The more the better when you're up against it.

8:44 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Much agreed with what you said Wordcat, and I'll be careful to not push the American side of the racial discussion any further.

12:39 AM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

I find South Africa interesting to say the least and I hope there is more posted here. I hope I'm not biased but I dont think anyone can be truly non-biased. My original post to this thread flew out into cyberspace somewhere so I'll ask again. Wordcat, how many times did you almost wreck that car driving on the wrong side of the road? :) As for the racial thing in the US, cant we all just get along?

8:13 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Believe it or not, I didn't come close to wrecking the car, 3. I've got to admit though that I tore up the front right hub cap on a curb while parking cuz it took me a couple of days to adjust my depth perception to the new arrangements.

10:57 AM  

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