Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Back to the City of Gold

Note: this post is dated to the 27th of April. It's when I wrote down the post. I've been backposting in big chunks lately, so if you haven't seen much about my trip to Swaziland yet, check out the list on the right-hand side of the page! I just uploaded "Are You Local?" and "Traveler's Reviews" yesterday.

Jozi's sunlight glares down on the airstrip today. Inside at the boarding gate, though, it's a little chilly. It's hard for Africa to pull that off.

The city grew friendly only when my mood improved. My mood was working against the odds ever since the Baz Bus dropped me at my stop, smack in the middle of a razor-wired ghetto. That was yesterday. But this morning my shuttle window showed me only balding men sweating in tattered suits and young women walking to the shops, plastic floral umbrellas shading their faces from the sun. The sidewalks spilled over with bright dust, like each commuter had emptied the guts of a mango behind them as they walked.

When I crawled into bed last night and pulled my coat over my shoulders, shivering, I thought I was fucked.

A month ago, I booked a ticket to Cape Town flying out of the O.R. Tanbo International Airport, Johannesburg. I thought I had my vacation in the bag. The way everything lined up, I flew out on Sunday morning, the day after my Swazi trip ended. The return flight a week later dropped me back just a couple hours before I left for home. I was guaranteed a week of relaxation, followed by a day of easy traveling. All my tickets together formed a neat symmetry. They fit together like Lego blocks. It looked like the perfect high-powered holiday. Working holiday, anyway.

But I never printed out my Cape Town ticket. I never thought I needed to. I put a lot of trust in my computer when it comes to vital information — maybe it comes from spending my early adolescence as a tech geek.

So it took me until Saturday — yesterday — to realize that my ticket to Cape Town wasn't a ticket. It was an email saying my order was being processed. The ticket had never been sent. I hastily checked my spam filters for month-old, official-looking emails. No dice.

My brain ran on adrenaline for the next six hours. I wrote a politely furious email to Travel Consolidator, the agency I'd used to book. I left them my email address and cell number; in case they wanted to deal with someone in the States, I also left my parents' number.

Afterward, starved for something to do, I used my hostel's free internet (one small advantage to Gemini Backpackers' otherwise shitty off-season vibe) to search for another flight to Cape Town through the consolidator website. It was either that or change my ticket: I'd hitchhike home through Soviet Russia before I'd spend a week in Joburg again. I've hated the city ever since my disastrous orientation week.

All flights were at least $200US. A hard bill to pay on my $700 budget, but it was 2:00 in the morning. At that point I'd have done anything to get out. I tried to book my ticket, but the net connection skipped and the FlyMango site returned an error. I re-entered my info and tried again once, twice — I tried five times to book my ticket and every time Mango gave me an error. I finally gave up in disgust and fell asleep in my room, wrapped in my coat to protect against the 3-degree night.

So why am I now waiting for a plane to take me to the Mother City?

When I woke up, my mom was on the phone with the news that my original ticket had been booked after all. Somehow the big important information, like my ticket number, got lost in transit. But everything's in place now, since the impossible happened and my ticket does exist.

The only ugly side of this ordeal: after all my budget worrying, one of those booking attempts I made last night went through — unbeknownst to me OR the Mango website. So as I travel to Cape Town, it's minus almost 2,000 rand in my bank account — about half my budget for the trip. I won't starve, but I've got a useless plane ticket that, in the end, I didn't really want or ask for. I don't even know how it happened — I never completed the booking steps.

So now I'm calling every number Mango lists looking for a refund. It's not easy. They have an office for this sort of thing, but all the staff were gone today, and they'll be gone Monday too, as it's a national holiday tomorrow ("Freedom Day"). Monday is also the day of my bogus flight. So I might be screwed.

So my traveller's reviews for the day:

Gemini Backpackers' Lodge: accomodations are as crappy as Legends. Unlike Legends, though, they have common rooms, kitchens, and a small bar, all in good repair. Internet use is free and pretty reliable (unless someone else is hogging the single computer), and they have a 300-DVD library. Prices are cheaper than Legends, and it's the kind of place that would be bumpin' in the summertime when tourists are plentiful. If you don't mind a good hole-in-the-wall atmosphere or lots of other people, this is the place for you.

O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg: Nice, posh, as first-world as you're likely to get. A word of warning: going into this airport, don't carry any cash or valuables that you'll have to declare (you're required to declare any American money over about $50 and anything reasonably expensive, like cameras or laptops). If you need to carry them, don't declare them. There's been a scandal recently, and accusations that an organized crime syndicate is operating with connections in O.R. Tambo, targeting and hijacking tourists who declare inordinate amounts of wealth or valuables. No reason not to fly there; just don't declare valuables, and don't write your exact address on the customs card. Customs rarely check bags anyway.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Traveler's Review: Swaziland

I've just made it back to the blog after a stint away in the semi-tropical forests of Swaziland. Here's what I thought of the place.

Legends Backpacker Hostel: When I first got there, all I saw was a shebeen and a tiny courtyard walled in on all sides -- but with no gate. (A shebeen is an illegal bar, usually run and patronised by Zulus out in the boonies.) Not very encouraging. Then they charged me R90 for each of the three nights I was staying there. This was my boudoir for half a week:

No, I wasn't impressed either.

By the way, that guy painted on the bed above mine? His name is Leni, and supposedly he's a lidloti (a spirit) that haunts the place — and infuses travelers with the spirit of adventure. There are a bunch of references to him around the building, with signs, but that's as far as Leni goes. I never got infused with anything except small-town boredom.

When I walked into the bathroom, I was greeted by the shittiest shower I've ever seen. The showerhead was immovable, and it actually sprayed directly onto the bathroom floor if you turned it on with the door open. The bath's apparatus was, if anything, more intimidating, not unlike finding a snake in the tub:

I met some good people there, but guys: R90 is what you pay for a posh, upscale hostel. I'm paying R100 for my hostel in Cape Town, and it's located in a central and upscale part of the city, it's got duvets and towels included every night, daily cleaning, a cheap cafe and bar downstairs, the works. This was not worth it.

To top it all off, it is right next to a small tourist complex with an overpriced cafe, a few knickknack shops, and a tour service with a monopoly on anything remotely fun. They've got rafting, hippo watching, a few full-day safaris. I hear the big stuff is pretty nice, but I wouldn't know. All I did was rent a mountain bike and go biking through a game park. The bike's seat wouldn't stay clamped, and my butt continually slid down until my knees hit my chest as I pedaled.

Final Review: Shitty building, maintenance, location and vibe. Overall, nothing much. I heard from a Dutch girl I kept meeting on the Baz Bus that she had stayed in a place called Sondzela Backpackers, and it was quite nice. They offer horseback and vehicle safaris, nightly braais, good accomodations — if I was to go back that is where I would stay.

Are You Local?

"So are you local, or SA? Mozambique?"

I started babbling mid-question because I knew what the answer would be, and I didn't really want to hear it.

"Local." Thoba said it with a long-suffering grin. He twisted off the bottlecap on a Foundry Cider and slid it across the bar. "But my dream is to go to the States. Get a good job, make some money —" another grin, this time more Oceans Eleven " — change it into rand. I come back and I'll be driving a BMW."

Thoba is a bigger man than most Swazis I've met in the town of Mbabane. He dresses in striped sweaters when he tends bar. His bar, though, is too small to hold his bulk most nights: when I met him, he'd barely handed out beers before he invited a Finnish friend and I to a game of pool. He's showed me the town the last two nights I've been here. We've talked trash, rugby, travel, politics, and women*. But his personal story, his dream for the future, is something we both steered away from after that first conversation. It makes him uncomfortable, I think, because his dream is not dissimilar from my life. Or maybe it's me: it makes me uncomfortable because I've heard that dream from almost everyone I've talked to. If I had a rand for everyone who's told me they'll go to America someday, I'd quit school, move to SA and bribe Oxford for an honorary diploma to hang in my new Dutch mansion.

The conversation, at its most direct, runs something like this:

"Uhlala eStates? When are you going back?"
"Going back? Sometime in May, I guess."
"You should take me with you."

This is what people say word-for-word, often as not. All the most enterprising people I've met in Africa just want to get out.

It's depressing, mostly. I don't know how to react to it. What do you tell someone? Words of encouragement are hard to muster, and it's not something you can brush off. They know full well how great the place is just from seeing you. Some people bring up their country's problems, as if to make the point that life is hard there too. What American problems are you going to talk about, though? Obesity? Affirmative action?

When I'm sitting outside an ancestor house with malnourished village kids while my boss tells their sick grandmother how to take her tuberculosis tablets, I know that I'm not the one with problems.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Road to Swaziland Epic, Part Three

Note: I have pictures of the wildcat reserve, but my net connection is too shaky to add them. I'll add them later in a new post. In the meantime, make sure to read Parts One and Two of this travel story, below!


Morning: The baz bus is one hour late. I hope it shows, because I don't want to spend another night here.

It won't stop raining — it's been drizzling nonstop, and it's cold to the point that my washing is still wet. Had to beg a nausea pill off the hostelkeepers. Despite my stomach's best attempts, I didn't manage to vomit properly this morning, and I'm not interested in succeeding on the bus.

Evening: Arrived at the hostel. Still raining. Feeling less nauseous except when I try to eat. Accidentally left my laundry on the bus, and I only realized it when I gathered up my dirty clothes for the laundry services. Oops. Can't say this hasn't happened before, but now I don't know the person I left it with; no chance of getting anything back.

So — I'm down to three shirts, two boxers, one pair of shorts, and a couple of impractical, dressy outfits. (And more socks than I'll ever need -- I could give them away like tourists give away candies.) This ought to last me approximately three days if I stretch my wardrobe; that's just enough time to pick up some pants in Swaziland and make do.


There's a minute lizard scampering past my bare feet. His steps look just like involuntary twitches, so I feel like I'm watching him have an epileptic fit from one end of the sundeck to the other. He's one of my few entertainments in this nearly-deserted hostel.

Last night was easier than I expected — I just stole a few extra blankets from empty beds. The dorm was empty of guests except for me and a dude from Mexico, so there were plenty to go around. Still not 100%, but I'm thinking and talking more clearly. Good signs. And this morning the rain stopped and the sun winked to life.

Yesterday, as planned, I arrived at the Isinkwe Backpacker's Bush Camp near the local Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Isinkwe is a lot more comfortable when it's sunny and dry. The swimming pool is usable, you can braai your own food on the communal grill, and the dorms and showers, lacking in insulation or walls as they are, feel quite comfortable. It clouded over for a few minutes, so I'm writing from my room right now, in fact:

There's a bar by the cafeteria, though I wouldn't call it full — I'm confident I could count their bottles on my fingers and toes. Regardless, I'm still sick, so I'm ordering fantas only (which are delicious in this country).

My roommate — a Mexican fellow named Paco — and I went to see the wildcat reserve at their evening feeding time. We both had the same problem: we'd arrived too late for any of the big game safaris, so we had a long stay at the hostel with nothing to do. The wildcat reserve was as far as we went, but we managed to see a couple of amazing creatures.

Sadly, I think that will be it for game parks here at Hluhluwe. I'd rather save my money for sharkdiving in Cape Town. But there are still plenty of opportunities for excitement in Swaziland, so stay tuned! I can't promise on a day-by-day update because Africa is thin on net cafes. I'll let you know as soon as I can, though, just what a tiny African dictatorship looks like.

The Road to Swaziland Epic, Part Two


Arrived in Durban Sunday afternoon around 4. Found myself with nothing to do: it was the perfect time to find a club, and I had the number for a jazz venue from my last trip to the city, but it was a Sunday. I tried to call the number anyway, in case it was the kind of Westerner-catering club that's open on a Sunday, but an automated voice told me it was disconnected. So that left me back at square one.

Finally decided I was spending my evening out no matter what. Remember that casino from my last trip to Durban? I grabbed a shuttle there and grabbed a curry from a little Indian place. If I wasn't going to experience the city that night, I was damn well going to experience its cuisine!

Fell sick that night. Had the chills and shivered all night, and finally had to pull my coat over me; later, got too hot and sweated into it in my sleep. Had a bad bout of sleep paralysis, which hasn't happened since I was a little kid. The way my parents tell it, I used to wake up screaming when I was three or so, and it'd take almost an hour to calm me down.

This time wasn't so drawn-out, but for some drawn-out time I was awake and convinced something was sitting on me, grappling my arms and pummeling my chest. I finally remembered that the way to stop sleep paralysis is to try and scream, so I yelled —and like I'd flipped a switch, the dorm was dark and empty except for my roommates. My big worries returned to my stomach and spinning head.

My only consolation was that it was 4/20. Odds were some of my Evergreen schoolmates would have even worse nights.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Road to Swaziland Epic, Part One

Sunday: rain came about an hour before I left behind Winterton, the Drakensberg Mountains, and Sofi's farm that sat between them. I was sitting in the local Zulu church. A visiting pastor was giving a sermon; the main point seemed to be that if you supported the church his God-granted power would cure you of AIDS. The storm showed up as he was speaking and as his voice rose, so did the rain. Soon you would have thought it was hail, though it was just drops — the biggest drops I've ever seen.

I had washing on the line that I'd done by hand at six in the morning, hoping that the early sun would dry it some before I left. It was soaking when I packed it. It still is now; I just managed to hang it on a covered clothesline when I got into my family-run hostel. Now I'm attempting to dry out.

There's really not much else to tell. A couple days before I left we blessed a couple of creches; it felt very odd to be standing in a preschool building that would be condemned back home, while
the others sung and shook their hands and prayed. They just don't use faith for this kind of thing where I come from.

I said goodbye to everybody I'd met in the Berg. I wanted to get a gift or two for Sofi and Betsy, my hosts (and very gracious ones), but all the shops were closed on Sunday. I'll have to send pictures instead. I wonder how easy I could send prints back to SA?

By the way, so you can track my progress more easily, here is the outline of how my last two weeks in Africa will go. My internship is over; I'm on my own. I doubt everything will work out as scheduled, because it's Africa, but it will be a great trip anyway.

The Gameplan:

4/20: Hitch Baz Bus on the first leg of my Swaziland Trip! Arrive in Durban around 6:00 PM. Party or something. Get to bed - bus leaves early next morning.

4/21-22: Get up early and grab the bus out again. Spend two days in Isinkwe Backpackers near the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Try to see the Big 5 of African animals.

23-25 Apr: Another Baz Bus ride. Heading for SWAZILAND! Just like South Africa, except that everyone tells you it's what Africa is really like. Travelling out of KwaZulu-Natal, whose biggest music festival is American country-genred, I'm hoping it will prove true.

26: Grab Baz Bus once again and ride it into the sunrise, etc. Destination: Johannesburg. Spend the day working on my research paper and the night socializing.

27: Grab a flight to Cape Town. The place where things happen:

Final week: Finish work. Write something for Evergreen's campus newspaper, maybe. Other plans include a hike to the summit of Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Many big-city adventures in between.

4 May: Plane back to Seattle and the luxuries of home. Must get tattoo before this date so everyone knows that I've undergone X Y and Z life-changing overseas experiences.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Before I Leave The Township

.. I've got to show you all some photos of the place. Here are some random shots of characters around the Berg. I leave tomorrow (!) and I'm trying to get good shots of everyone before I go.

Miya, Sofi's daughter, bouncing around to Paul Simon on the stereo.

Sofi's son! Lungelo. I like this one, don't know why.

Lungelo and Miya, along with a pair of visiting kids.

My sweet, sweet truck.

The toolshed outside where I work when I need electricity.

Miya again, wandering around. This was at a creche (preschool) we visited
while it was being blessed; it just opened the middle of the
township, and people have high hopes for the neighborhood now.

Opening day, same creche.

Pabel, left. Sofi (my boss), right. These are our
biggest-hearted home-based carers in the Berg.

More photos coming soon! Now I have to jump on a ride back to my farewell barbecue. It's gonna be sweet.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

We're Churning Again!

What did I write last time? Something about being on hiatus because my camera was nicked?

No? I see. Well, that's okay, because I found said camera (it was in a pocket of my backpack I thought unused; those who know me well are laughing now). So now that I'm free to shoot and blog, I'm gonna do so with gusto. First of all, check out my full write-up of meeting a sangoma on my academic blog.

Second of all, I have been taking pictures all over the place and I'm itching to post them, but I've got no time right now. I'm in the last three days of my internship. I'm leaving the Berg in three days! So I'll post something cool tomorrow. In the meantime, tide yourself over with a little occult scholarship.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

And For Less Disgusting News

I saw an iguana the other day, a baby, no more than four inches from beak to tail. He was taking a long hike across one of the muddy, rutted roads near my house. I'd never seen one before, so I spent at least five minutes crouched beside it. I watched it bob as it walked. It watched me, too, from eyes that bulged but were almost closed in the sun, like miniscule camera lenses. I started to feel the rhythm after a while. Even with those legs — like humans, iguana babies' limbs are little Popeye imitations — its beat was consistent.

All the pictures of adult iguanas I've seen make them look like mud statues. Their swirls of dirty color or their crumbling pebbles of skin — none of it ever endeared me. But this little guy had pink spots on its back, fluffy ribbon-pink, and for a moment I saw past the road's red dirt and thought he could have been an Easter Peep, dyed and wrapped up in a plastic box. I wanted to see the price sticker. When I tried to pick him up, he turned bright green and scampered into the grass. The spell of his legs broke; the animal, I guess, is not physically restricted to its zigzag saunter. He galloped away like a salamander.

I also went to a Zulu church last Sunday, and I think I'll go again. I felt like Margaret Mead fresh off the plane. It was the biggest, loudest Cultural Experience I've had since I came. Riding in a Zulu taxi and stepping into my first pitch-roofed ancestor house never came close. I still haven't written anything on it (I probably should just for the sake of an interesting journal), but it's still fresh in my mind. I'll throw up an account of the morning on this blog in a day or two.

So I'm planning my last two-week stint through Southern Africa! That's something else I'll have to relate in more length later. But I'm only two weeks away from the end of my internship, so I need to start booking lodgings now. I just decided to go to Botswana for a few days, but I'm having trouble figuring out how to get there. There's a bus that heads to the capitol from Johannesburg, but I can't find any times or bus fares online. I'll have to call around. If I can't go to Botswana, I'll have to realize my dreams of a week-long hiking trip somewhere in South Africa. Bleh.

I've only been here two months and I already want to leave again. If I'd been born into money, I'd have drained it all years ago on backpacker's buses and trains.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What's Worse Than Earwigs?

Lately I've gotten into the habit of checking under toilet seats for spiders or other creepy crawlies. I haven't had any bad experiences, exactly. Except one.

At Cosmos Farm, our toilets are built like outhouses, except they're positioned above a six-foot pit. They're never emptied, either, so most of us to do our minor business behind a bush somewhere. Otherwise the stench gets too unbearable to go near them, let alone sit for twenty minutes.

Not long ago, the whole Berg sweated in a weeks-long hot spell. It was around early March, right at the start of autumn. The mosquitos got so bad at night I would barely wait until dinner before diving under my bed's bug net.

In the middle of one night I rolled out of bed and went to use the longdrop. I flipped up the lid in the dark; I didn't feel like wasting power for a flashlight, but the night by now was tar. Thinking I'd avoid a few bites while I sat, I shot some mosquito spray into the hole under the seat.

The buzz from that hole was so loud I thought it was in my ears. And then it was: a cloud of flies erupted from under the seat.

I didn't use that toilet for a week or so. I went out a lot to cafés with nice plumbing.

Friday, March 28, 2008

While We Squawk About OUR Health Care...

In case anyone is wondering what I've been up to, take a look at this article from the New York Times. I haven't been around the patients they talk about, but it's a good write-up of the kind of attitude doctors take to health care around here.

It ranges from pushing someone out the door if you can't help with a Panadol prescription, to acting like the country's about to collapse.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Car Trouble

You may or may not know that as part of our internships, Heather and I were given a car. Owning a vehicle is the only way to get around here; hitchhiking isn't easy, nor is it exactly safe. I've only done it once and Heather refuses to, as she probably should. Lynn understood this, and she was kind enough to get us the sickest ride I've driven around here (or, probably, ever), pictured above. Normally I'm too eco-prejudiced to feel good with SUVs, but you can't do much better than a big, invincible truck out here.

For our car fans, that is a 2007 Toyota Hilux Raider. No four-wheel drive, but it does have diff lock, a sweet set of tires, room for six or seven passengers, and a stereo system that I ought to be engaged to. That's not us in there; weirdly we have no pictures of our car. I don't know why; it's been our best friend out here in the boonies.

And as of today, we've taken this car into a repairman twice in the last two weeks. We've gotten in no accidents, per se; Heather and I haven't gotten that Big Man rush and started crashing into holidaymakers. In fact, nothing that's happened has been our fault. But still we're shelling out cash to keep this beast alive.

What wild stories are we telling, you ask? Here's the point-by-point:

1. First crash: the beast rear-ends a smaller car at a busy intersection. It was being driven by a fellow employee, whom Heather was teaching to drive. Our right fender was dented, the headlight in pieces. Even though we're insured, we couldn't find the insurance papers and wound up signing an affidavit promising to shell out 1,000 rand for the other car. No one's fault, sure. These things happen.

2. Second crash: taking the car in to be serviced, I park in town to get directions. Backing out of a parking lot, I overlook the poles that, by law, have to flank driveways in this country. Possibly didn't see because they look exactly like flimsy road markers from the States. My damaged fender found out they're actually made of steel. No worries, no extra damage, and the building's owner was glad, because he'd always been afraid of hitting it himself.

3. Third stupid incident: A slow-moving car full of holidayers, weaving across the road as we try to pass, runs partially off the pavement and hits a stick. They're unharmed, but the stick flips up from their tire and spins, like a knife, up toward the windshield. For a split second I almost ducked, but the stick drops low and sticks into our grill, quivering. It stays in until we pull it out on the roadside. Thirty minutes later, Heather drives into the busiest intersection of the local township. She pulls up at the stopline and, under the hood, the radiator explodes, billowing smoke and splattering red coolant everywhere.

Now the car is in service again, and it looks even more expensive than last time -- at least R5,000. Who those drunk holidayers were, I don't know. It didn't seem serious at the time. It was actually pretty funny at the time, passing trucks and tractors with a stick hanging there in our grill. If I could find those partiers now, I would be playing a different effing tune.

More news to follow. As of yesterday, I've reached the halfway point in my trip. I have four weeks of internship and research. Following that, I'm travelling for two weeks around South Africa. My plan for now is to bike into Lesotho and maybe catch a ride to Botswana the first week, then spend my five days in Capetown. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anthropologists Dream Exotic

It's been a while. It's hard to pack everything I've been doing into a short post. Most of it's been networking anyway. There are a lot of people up here with really cool ideas for improving the communities. One woman I know is finishing up her Hydrology degree, and she wants to start a fish farm that recycles its water into a commercial garden. Another wants to start a farming program that teaches villagers to farm with organic seed, so they don't have to buy other people's seed every year.

Lynn said when she first came to my class to pitch Africa to us 76 students, "more than anything, Africa is really like the Wild West." I heard that and knew where I wanted to travel. And — this surprises me more than anything — she was right. It's just like the Wild West. Roads are wide and dusty, weapons are cheap, the law's arm is long enough to scratch his armpit. And an entrepreneur can carve out a paradise for himself, or for lots of other people.

Anyway. In real news: winter's pretty much here, which means sun and chilliness. I started working on my paper and I like how it's shaping up. I helped fixed my house's solar panels last week with this guy:

Introducing Hlo, a nephew of Sofi and the only fellow teenager in the Ntshalintshali household. He's going to college in Pietermaritzberg for a degree in pro chefery. For the last couple weeks he's been away at school, but the Easter holiday lasts almost a month here, so in a couple days he'll be back pretty much to stay, as far as my sense of time is concerned. It's been a while since I seriously examined what I'll be doing next month.

What else have I been doing? Well, yesterday I drove a health worker to Pietermaritzberg to pick up a deaf kid for the holidays. On the way back, over a mid-trip dinner of burgers and shakes (their McDonald's here is called "Wimpy's") I mentioned that I'd like to find time soon to talk to a Sangoma — the Zulu name for a local shaman-healer. For a caste who supposedly serve the Zulu community, it's disconcerting how much everyone fears them; they have a reputation for making people who don't like them die or disappear, and extracting incredible payments from people who want their services.

I figure not everyone gets to wander around a country where shamanism is still practiced. In fact, it's an anthropologist's wet dream. Why not take the opportunity to meet one?

Well, that comment was a mistake. That health worker I was driving halfway to the Indian Ocean turned out to be born-again. For almost forty minutes she warned me to stay away, or at least please be very careful around them, because of course you should never fear them because I can tell Jesus Christ is with you, but if you aren't quite clever one of the dead spirits in a Sangoma's house might attach itself to you.

She never told me what happens if I wind up with a spirit following me around, but I'd imagine she didn't look on it as pleasant. And here I was just planning to find a medicine man who was out to make a buck.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

If It Feels Good, Do It?

I spent today in and out of schools. I met a principal who's terrified that if his school shows students how to use condoms, they will start having sex with everyone they can find. Then he complained to me about teen pregnancy rates.

Schools here would get more done if the teachers demonstrated how to unroll a condom and the nurses treated everyone's syphilis. Teen pregnancy and transmission of HIV would both drop. There. Now everyone knows my politics.

It just occurred to me that I've chosen the least sexy way to study sex. Alfred Kinsey was one lucky mother.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Local Creepy Crawlies

Lately I've started to find small, toothy-mawed worms in my bathtub right as I'm about to step in for a shower. I'm beginning to suspect these things are leeches. Everyone I mention it to says they probably aren't, but come on: they're small, gross, striped, and they're all tipped with those little circular parasite-mouths. That fits my criteria for leeches. It's happened four times now; they must be getting washed into the farm's water source (which is usually quite clean) by all the rain we've gotten. The ones I find are all dead so far, but I'm getting more squeamish about the bugs around here because of them.

So I thought I'd make you guys squeamish too! Here are all the bugs I've found living around the house:

Earwigs. I used to think these guys were gross as hell. Just their name is bad enough. But I've gotten a lot more used to them lately. When I showed up at Cosmos Farm, Betsy told me that they'd infested the dried-grass thatch in the roof. I quickly discovered that almost every night, a few of the buggers fell out of the thatch and wound up squirming around our food supply by morning. I tell myself you're always going to eat a bug or two in your life as I munch on the fruits and veggies we leave out on the counter. What's the point of worrying about how many insects have touched your food before it got to you?

Earwigs are mostly annoying 'cause they're almost as tough to squash as roaches. I don't bother killing them. But they're not nearly as gross as the

Houseflies. They're everywhere here! It must be the season for them, because at any one point there'll be eight flies buzzing around the kitchen, watching for the golden moments when I leave my food untended. They've hatched eggs in our outhouse, too. Science tells us they carry more diseases than roaches. I certainly hope not, because they are fearless about landing on us humans and drinking some of our sweat.

Grasshoppers. These are the weirdest. They've infested our bathroom — but I don't know why they'd want to. I've found them crawling up doorjambs and clinging to the shower curtain. I think they're starving to death in there. They're freaky just because they're big (almost as long as a pencil) but otherwise they don't do much.

Mosquitos. No trip to Africa would feel complete without them. They probably carry the deadliest diseases out there. Malaria is the most notorious one; luckily for me it's rare in these parts. But the bites are still painful at times. We all sleep with nets over us out here.

Daddy Long-Legs. You hear all kinds of things about these enigmatic li'l guys. Supposedly they aren't really spiders; supposedly, too, they're more poisonous than any spider in the world, but their fangs are too small to pierce human flesh. Back in the States it was a fun little fact to give out because they looked almost clownishly harmless. Here they are sizeable and striped along their legs. They're also everywhere, and I try not to touch them. I don't bother them, though, because they're great at killing the flies and earwigs. My room is kind of a living collection of these spider-like things, with their leftover dinners dangling from webs.

Enjoy. And if any part of your body starts to tickle or itch, SLAP IT BEFORE IT BITES YOU.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Modest Retraction

So it was just pointed out to me that the link I posted to my academic blog was broken. Oops. Here's the real thing. It has all five of us posting to it, not just me, so you can see what the rest of the team is up to.

Oh, and I just posted my mid-project review over there. If you had any questions at all as to what I was doing for school down here, that monster ought to both inform and depress you. Or maybe it will spur you into compassionate action! That would be a lot cooler. If you wind up so moved that you hop the next plane to SA, let me know. I've got all the contacts now to hook you up with a sweet vacation, followed by years of commitment to hellish social justice work.

Oh, and I posted some thoughts on my project and the evangelicals, too. Check it out! I'm kinda fond of that one.

Also, in case you passed over it, I just jazzed up the blog with a new navigation bar. It's just under the title picture. I made it so that newcomers to the blog (what's up, D Dorm!) don't get bogged down by the unwieldy premise of this trip. You can check out the posts where I lay out the whole trip, the people who came here, the internship, and the class project respectively. It also has a link to my academic blog so no one has to dig for it. Last but not least, I dug up the link to Greener in the Bush's RSS Feed! It's the last link in the navbar. Subscribing to that bugger involves clicking the link and bookmarking the page in your browser; that way you'll know when I make another shotgunish round of posts.

I don't have anything else to say. Ciao? Have a good night (morning)?


Sunday, March 9, 2008

He's Such an Englishman Sofi's Daughter Called Him "Daddy" and He Blushed

Here at Cosmos Farm my bosses hold a Bible Study every Friday. I'm not always comfortable sitting in — most of the members are very conservative. And I haven't considered my own spirituality since I moved away for college; appreciating what some call Creation is hard enough when you're running on deadline after deadline, gulping coffee like a fish (or burning through half a pack a day, like some of my friends). But I keep joining in around the edges. It's the only time during the week the whole white community gets together here. They're a very diverse group: some are quiet seekers of God, some are friendly missionaries working in local schools, some are loud, fire-and-brimstone evangelists.

But one guy in particular stood out when I met him. Andy is from England, and like me, he's working on a thesis for school here. In his case he's working on his PhD. Also like me, he's been trying out and scrapping subjects for his academic Magnum Opus.

Right before I met him, I settled on a subject for my school project that turned out similar to his. That's right! I finally know for sure what I have to do to graduate this year. Here's a sketchy version of the proposal:

Topic: the Zulu perspective of the AIDS pandemic ravaging their community.

Framing Questions:

- Why, after almost twenty years of AIDS education, have the numbers of infected spiked in this area of KwaZulu-Natal?

- The Zulu community of KwaZulu-Natal has responded to the AIDS epidemic with a remarkably fatalistic attitude. Is the atmosphere a reflection of the Zulus' situation with the disease, or does it also reflect pre-existing values in their culture?

- What obstacles face the AIDS patients of KwaZulu-Natal? Can they be surmounted without outside help?

- Are NGOs really helping AIDS patients get treatment and manage the stigma of their disease?

Living in what's called the AIDS capitol of the world, I'm well-placed for the job.

The research has been going well so far, except that I've done a terrible job documenting it. I have an Academic Blog where I keep readers up to date with the gritty details of my research. I'm working a lot of catch-up right now to finish the couple of entries I missed. (But by the time you read this, they'll be up. I update my academic blog every Sunday, so keep checking back if that interests you.)

Basically, that's all I know about my own subject. I've got a few leads -- people to discuss my project with who might point me toward something interesting.

Andy is the first of those leads. For his doctorate, he's designing a new kind of education program. It's supposed to be more effective at deterring the spread of AIDS. The program is called "Crossroads," and I don't know much about it except that it sprung out of a research paper on the Christian Church's AIDS education. Like a true Greener, as soon as I heard the word "Church" I caught a whiff of a possible train wreck, especially since it's also supposed to "teach Zulus modern values and responsibility." But it should be interesting. And Andy is a quietly married Englishman. He seems too gentle to be wrapped up in weird, sexually frustrated Jesus Camp doctrine.

I'm working on getting to sit in on a Crossroads lesson, and I'll do a full write-up of it once I get myself in there. For three weeks now I've been reading about AIDS and the Zulus, and I've been working with AIDS patients. I've seen enough sick people for a crack team of medical anthropologists.

Crossroads is definitely my next step. Maybe it'll turn out to be exactly what this place needs. I can hope so, anyway.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Introducing... Our Cast

Well, I realize I’ve been talking a lot about people you’ve probably never heard of before. Hopefully this will clear up some of your confusion. Feel free to point and exclaim if you recognize these people from a blog post.
I realize I should have done this sooner. I just had to dig up some good pictures. Of course, they're all copyrighted to David Sosnow, 2008, all rights reserved.

The Team


A transfer student to Evergreen from some university in Walla Walla. Emerged from a hazy church background. Went to Kenya a couple years ago and now she's back for more, albeit with more reliable plumbing. Only one of the team with previous Africa experience. We used to call her "Mom" with joking affection, but when she started dating our buddy Evan, we decided that would be weird and promptly began treating her like a teenage sister. I tease her a lot because she's there. Takes life and work very seriously, never laughs, and is a finalist for a prestigious scholarship in Oxford as a result. She has no nickname currently; instead, we say her given name as weirdly as possible. She is interning with a local MICROFINANCE effort and living with Paul on Cosmos Farm.


Our intrepid hero. Good at talking to little kids and authority figures. Brought far too few clothes to Africa. Named the chillest member of the team because of his long silences all through the first week. Unfortunately, his chillness early on was mostly jetlag, and he may prove to just be the weirdest. Spent his early adolescence homeschooled and then enrolled in the Running Start program, which makes him, at 19, the youngest in the group. Interning with a local ADVOCACY program, badgering local government into giving its citizens welfare checks, IDs and medical attention. Nicknames include "PG-13" and sometimes "Parental Advisory Warning." Lives with Heather on Cosmos Farm.


A rugged, handsome outlaw. Honest by nature. Popped out of two relatively mellow parents, speculated to be pretty well-off with the moolah. Became a relatively mellow dude. Now he is going to Africa to see new and fascinating sights. He is interning with HUMANA and CLAW in Johannesburg, doing gardening and caring for pets. Was going to live in The Joburg Pad with McCully and David, but he is currently staying in a hostel owned by two aging hippies who hold down a band. Has proven resistant to nicknames. His last name is weird enough for us.

(No picture, she hates it
when we take them)
Truly the chillest of the chill. McCully entered the team wrapped in a gauze of tie-died nirvana, and has proven adept at rising above the stress of travelling and working with a semi-psychotic supervisor. Oldest member of the team at 31. Somewhat of an enigma. She is interning with CLAW, an animal care center in Joburg, doing kickass stuff like nursing an emaciated greyhound's muscles back to life. Must be called McCully, lest she be confused with our other Heather. Lives with David at The Joburg Pad.

Came late to the team, but came with a video camera in tow, so it's all good with us. Recently returned to Evergreen after a long hiatus of working freelance on video and graphics design. Decided to shoot a film documentary for his trip abroad. Always dresses classily, and did not bring shorts to Africa. Convinced the class faculty to let him in a quarter late, so we didn't meet him until four weeks before we left. Has travelled extensively in the past. He is interning with CLAW and shooting a documentary about them for his project. Lives with McCully at The Joburg Pad.

Living Place

Nestled in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains. Owned by a middleaged Englishwoman named Sofi and her partner (in crime) Betsy. The two run a hospice/welfare/home-based care/informal taxi organization known only as the AIDS Hospice, although it covers much more than just AIDS patients. In fact, Sofi and Betsy are known for their service to the entire community. The farm is home to the two social entrepreneurs, five small children, and our interns Paul and Heather. The farm runs on solar power. Its residents run on six hours of sleep, max.
Still a place of mystery to us in the Berg. Apparently it's fully furnished, and includes a TV. It has no internet access, which disappoints David and McCully. (What I would kill for good running water.) Still, the place is classy and should provide a good launch-spot for many adventures on the streets of Johannesburg.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

News from the Township

I hate to post so sporadically — it bumps the pretty photos down. If you haven't seen the second batch of Durban pictures (or the ones of my house-sitting), check 'em out below!

I wrote this letter to a friend about driving in Durban:

"Oh, and I took to left-side driving like a catfish to cooking oil -- it's been a delicious time. It took me half an hour to adjust, and I'm good at navigating the cities without getting nervous -- people here drive like bipolar thespians on the run from body image disorders. The police do nothing unless they think you'll give them money. Right-of-way in this country is legally whichever car is bigger. It's SO MUCH FUN."

Bad news from work the other day. One of our people is dead. Sofi and I called an ambulance for the woman as soon as we found her lying in her bed. It was my first day of work, February 18th. She had all the symptoms of menengitis. I didn't know much about it at the time, just that Sofi had left a note for the meds asking for a Lumberg Puncture to test.

By the way — ever heard of a Lumberg Puncture? If you've ever watched House, probably. All I knew about it was the massive needle they stick into people's spinal columns to drain fluid. But as it turns out, the fluid they take tests for many things (and Lupis is only one disease among 'em). One of them is menengitis. It's supposed to take half an hour to test the fluid once it's out of the spine.

Well, in the US it takes half an hour. This is South Africa; and the local hospital she was taken to is among the worst. It took them two tests and nine days to get any results, and then the nurses tending her didn't bother to check them. They put her on anti-retrovirals (for her late-stage AIDS), which took two days of training before they could treat her. The first day of training went fine; the second, they complained that she was "too sick to train" and sent her back to her bed. So after ten days, she died in hospital of menengitis and AIDS. We just found out Monday.

The news hit Sofi hard. She knew the woman; I didn't. I'd barely seen her. But Sofi railed for hours. In the States, negligence like this would be impossible, but here they probably won't even investigate it.

That doesn't, of course, mean we're going to try. Sofi and I are writing a case study now; we'll send it to the government, and if they don't do something promptly, we've been talking about sending it to the newspapers.

But it's hard to write about; we're still too much in shock to remember dates and facts. It's really too twisted.

Swankier Sides of Africa

I spent last weekend house-sitting for a hippie/evangelical Christian couple. (It seems like everyone here is an evangelical Christian. I really have to watch what I say -- I'm afraid I take religion with a little too big a grain of salt for them. What's a sense of humor, after all, if you can't apply it to your deepest beliefs?)

Anyway, their house is nice and very peaceful, and I enjoyed being able to charge my laptop without having the lights flicker. So I took the chance to work on my camera mojo.

Fiddled with the camera's timer a bit.
These are my new, classier clothes from Durban.

The dining room.
No one's getting in that window.

Chickens and I watching a sunset:

Sunday, March 2, 2008


I've got updates! First of all, I am alive. I consider that important. Also, nothing has threatened my life lately. Although I did smash my toe under a couple of loose windowpanes. But nothing serious, I'll live!
I am realizing my true lack of cooking practice. Everything here is made with corn, beans and potatoes. But I am an Italian-style culinary dabbler. I must adapt quickly! Quick: everyone post back with recipes for mashed potatoes (and pancakes too, I've been drawing a blank on that recipe). You'll be my hero.
Now the real news: a couple of days ago, Sofi and I gunned the car back to the farm at 130K. We'd gotten a call that there was a man who had wandered up there and was harrassing the nanny and the kids, and Sofi was freaked. Apparently the nanny, Dudu, was in tears; he'd left, but she wasn't sure whether he was hiding nearby.
For the record, this is no fortress we live in. It looks like this:

We have spotty running water, solar electricity, no bars on the windows, and certainly no family gun. I even lost my pocket knife. So I don't know what we were planning to do.

Anyway, we jumped out of the car and the kids ran up to us, totally calm and grinning from ear to ear that we'd come home so early. Dudu was washing clothes in a basin. Sofi set about trying to figure out what had happened. Dudu was stony.

What happened was this, as near as we can figure: a man showed up and started asking questions about who owned the farm and when they'd be back. Supposedly he didn't threaten or touch anyone, or do anything really terrible at all. He could have just been looking for Sofi, wanting a ride to the hospital. But something set Dudu off; we just don't know what.

But now Heather is freaked out about staying here. The other morning, when I walked into the kitchen, she started talking about moving out. "I want to find alternate housing," she started. "I know you won't understand, because you're a guy."

It looks like she's going through with it, too. Right now she's completely moved out and she's staying with a couple from the local Bible study group. Have to admit I don't really like it; we've already had trouble since we only have one car between the two of us. Living across town from each other won't help get things done.

Her rational is that she's not as big a risk-taker than we are. But to me, it doesn't make much difference where you live around here: it's friends that take care of you, and they do it much better than a house.

The Best Durban Photos

More from Durban!

Sam's aura of quiet:

.. And the sweetest of the art we saw:

... And then afterward, our march through Durban back to the car.

A group of ladies running to catch the bus:

And that was it. A great time was had. Durban: ridiculously classy.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Durban's Palms

The Players
HEATHER Africa team member, Paul's partner in crime
PAUL Africa team member, Heather's partner in crime
EZEQUIEL MABOTÉ Local Durban artist, internationally acclaimed
LYNN MCMULLEN Supervisor for the Africa team
SAM SCHRAGER Head professor for the Africa team's class

The Play
Heather and Sam got time to bond while I drove. It was a little awkward having Sam in our cars and sitting with us at restaurants at first, but we'd quickly gotten used to it over the last four days of his stay in the Berg. I had the wheel. Driving on the left side of the road is disconcerting at first, but I got used to shifting gears with my left hand after half an hour of practice.
Lynn was making a noble attempt to hold the maps in the passenger's seat, but she admits she's not good with directions. And she's a lot worse than she'll admit. I was fine driving down the highway, but she got flustered the minute we pulled onto our exit.
We followed Lynn's friend, who was putting her up for the night, into Westville. Lynn has some well-picked friends: this one lived in one of the richest parts of Durban. We sucked up to her a little (because she had donated the truck I was driving) and left to drive Lynn to a meeting in the city.
She threw the maps around, tried to remember landmarks she didn't know. She introduced us to Ezequiel, who makes woodcuts and pastels and is a very chill guy. We turned around at least ten times. I stalled the car twice in busy intersections. We finally dropped her off at her friend's place; we could feel the extra room when we got back in the car.
So cut, instead, to this:

Sam had booked us what he'd described the day before as a "little cottage." We were happy because the college was paying for it. We weren't expecting something so posh. I'm pointing to the front door there.
So yeah, things improved a lot once it was just Sam, Heather and I. We crashed at the cottage and ordered in pizza. The proprietors, Pat and Keith, were extremely hospitable. "They sort of make us part of their family," Sam said late that night. Exhaustd as we were, nothing interesting went down. I shot a photo of my bitchin' shades. (They actually belong to James.) Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night after a day of driving. At least, not bad if your teacher is present.

The next morning!

Oh, and the day before, Ezequiel took us to a cool little café on the waterfront near his workshop. Heather was impressed by all the cranes. We were both impressed by the murals.

So! Sunday morning. Sam swum around, Heather slept in, I read some, started this post and talked to a few other guests. I met a guy from Israel who told me he'd divorced his wife a couple of years ago and lost his job. This led him to start dealing in African diamonds. I was curious what he thought of his own profession, so we chatted for a while about diamonds, men with guns and his kids. He urged me to go back to school and to visit Israel for the beautiful women and the "bubbly" culture.
Since we only had about six hours before we needed to go, we decided to park our car at the big white hangout, the local casino. We got directions and I drove across the city; when we got there, we found out that not only was it a very popular place for the tourist upper-crust, it was hosting the A1 Grand Prix. So there were even more TV cameras and over-wealthy Silicon Valley blondes than usual.
The casino had that celebrity mix of vulgar and classy that I've never experienced before. (Well, I wasn't experiencing it then either — due to a problem with all my clothes being washed as I left, I had only one change of clothes for the trip, and in the humidity and heat they were already smelly.) It's hard to describe exactly what it was like, and I never thought to take pictures. But this is pretty much the whole place encapsulated.
We met a couple of kids trying to get in to see the races, but we didn't have tickets; we mostly stood around and hear engines whine past. So we got through there as quickly as possible and walked from the beach out to the streets of the real city.

We caught a bus to the Indian market. The driver was big on all the zoos and tourist areas and stopped the bus in the road twice to pitch them to us in a loud, jovial Afrikaans accent ("You ever seen a New Zealand duck? A Russian duck? They have all kinds of ducks at Mitchell Park!" "Don't waste your time at the casino. You must go to the Land of a Thousand Mules!")

The Indian market, as it turned out, was closing. The shopkeepers were still willing to sell us stuff; in fact, we were there only targets, so we got hounded half to death by a bunch of lean mustached dudes trying to show us postcards and figurines. We left within ten minutes, found the mall that all the locals went to. I bought a fresh set of clothes like the good capitalist I am, made sure it was nice a light and billowy, and we headed for the Apartheid museum. Got lost. Wound up in an art museum.

To be continued... because this post is way too long. More photos soon!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Vacation

Yesterday I drove to Durban, a famous port city on the Eastern coast of South Africa. It's a crazy place! I was expecting lots of interesting sights, but the number of mosques around here surprise me. The city is very Muslim. Yesterday, driving everyone into downtown, I saw a sign that said "Read Al-Quran: The Last Testament."

This place is cool. I can't post any photos yet, but I will tonight. Right now it's 10.00 AM.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Photo of a Lion

I took a picture of a lion for you, Riva!

So for the last week — from the 10th to the 17th — I took my first week, dubbed "Orientation Week" by my supervisor Lynn, and roadtripped with my team. Mostly we ran around Johannesburg for the first couple of days. Let's see if I can remember what I did; through the haze of jetlag, it's hard to recall everything:

Saturday: 23-hour plane ride,  counting one dazed layover in Washington, D.C. The last stretch, almost 16 hours nonstop, was pure hell. Heather and James, one team member on either side, were all that made it bearable. Heather talked to one of the stewardesses behind the main cabin and managed to get her number and a promise of a braii; we both teased her about her lesbian magnetism. (I'm not sure whether she is, in actuality, a chick magnet.) Otherwise, nothing happened to speak of.

Sunday: Got off the plane at 3:45 PM. (15.45 if you believe what this country's clocks tell you. Resist, my fellow Americans!) Lynn met us past the security checkpoint, which was ridiculously lax. I guess no one has ever wanted to bomb the place? I can see why; the place is no Sea-Tac, there was no over-polished floor and no Starbucks. No real ceiling either; mostly it was just rafters and plastic tarp. We got settled into our hotel, which looks far more expensive than anyone but Lynn would have chosen. Went out to eat at a nice Portuguese restaurant. I had the smoked salmon pasta and the house dry white, for a comfy price of $9 US. Drew some jealous stares. That was the last time I got any pleasure out of them; I've attracted way more than my share since.

Monday: Visited an anthropology museum. Saw zero skulls that were news to me after my phys anth class in sophomore year. Felt like an elitist. We all spent the evening riding shirtless through a popular game park. Saw zebras, rhinos, gazelle and one jackal. I was disappointed in my constant scanning for lions.

Tuesday: Went on a short tour of Soweto, the biggest township this side of South Africa. The tour guide wasted a lot of effort trying to turn aside any questions that strayed from Soweto's admittedly noble history of fighting oppression. We wanted to know about conditions of life there; she didn't want us to know. Kind of hung out the rest of the day. All us guys stayed up late that night, complaining about how much Lynn was babying us with her choice of tours, and how cagy she was being about the money we'd payed her. Small potatoes, compared with what we'd soon be going through. Along the way, we decided to throw a braii (South African slang for a barbecue) the next day.

Wednesday: Went to the mall to stock up on supplies. Somehow, while David and I grocery-shopped for a barbecue that evening, James got himself lost in the very small mall. We spent an hour looking for him. Eventually found him in the security office, arrested by the mall cops. Heather and David, who had found him, decided to stay and help him out. I drove back with Lynn and McCully. The others didn't get back until late. James spent the night in a holding cell.

Thursday: Many efforts to break James from jail ended with him out on bail by midafternoon. We mostly wandered around town; all plans were cancelled because of his situation.

Friday: James had a court date. We visited a pet shelter where David and McCully would later spend their internships, then threw our bags in Lynn's car and headed off to the Berg. Along the way, the friend who drove us to the shelter drove his Landrover under the hotel gate and scraped a few chunks of concrete off its overhang. In retrospect pretty funny. At the time, annoying, then a little shakes-inducing. Later during the cartrip, beautiful sunset in the mountains. Heather and I stayed in the cabin where we'd be spending our internship; the other three stayed in a nice hostel across the valley.

Saturday: Spent the day doing touristy stuff around the Berg. Didn't actually fill up much of the day, although we found the posh bar that has free wireless.

Sunday: Everyone left, leaving me alone in the Berg. Relaxation at last!

After: The start of my internship.

More to come on the arrest of one of our groupmates, and the details of how my internship is shaping up. Catching up on a week and a half of travelling means a lot of writing, so bear with me! Also, I posted a lot today, including one post from before I left that was moldering in my outbox. You should scroll down and read it!