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!


Let me lay out really quickly why I've been away from this blog so long.

I'm in Africa. I have been since the 9th. Right now it's the 21st.

This place is crazy! I'll post more about it when I have time, but suffice to say, it is a bustling place.

I am living in a smallish cottage with one of my two bosses and another member of my team (Heather). Contrary to what I was told by my supervisor, the cottage doesn't have wireless. My bosses have equipment that hooks them up to the cell network, and that's how they access the internet; I don't have that luxury, so to even check my email I have to ask them. And it's expensive to check email via the cell network, so my time is very limited. There's no real internet cafe here either.

The first week I stayed in Johannesburg. There WERE internet cafes there, but I had very little time. Definitely not enough to write out a blog post.

My one saving grace is the sports bar just outside town; it's a combination bar/hotel/expensive golf resort, and they have free wireless everywhere. All you have to do is tell the people at the gate you're using the bar.

And yesterday I finally got the truck I'll be using for the rest of my trip. So now I can finally hang out long enough to catch up on posts. Expect another within a couple of days; I'll show exactly what I've been doing all this time. And I'll put up some photos!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Three Days

This post was written yesterday. I'm taking a day off because I've decided to have Valentine's Day a week early, so I can do something nice for my girlfriend. But I do have time to post this. See y'alls tomorrow!

Second-to-last day of class today. I had to write down what I'm going to do in Africa because we are all supposed to present it in class today in a two-minute speech. I jotted a couple of paragraphs down in my notebook, but I never had to present it. It jumpstarted me, though, to write it down here too. It's past time I laid out the real parameters of my trip.

The internship works like this. When I first started class this fall, we had a guest speaker who surprised us during lecture to tell us about a unique opportunity abroad. Her name was Lynn McMullen, she said, and she wanted to set up a team of students to do foreign aid work in South Africa. She told us all the gory details: her plan was to recruit a small team from the class. We'd live together near Johannesburg, and we'd each take an internship in any kind of field we wanted to; she offered to set up her team members with local NGOs in the area. She already had a few options for us to consider.

But the first thing she said was "if you're wondering what Africa really feels like, it's actually pretty close to the Wild West." I could immediately see the similarity.

There were a few internship options I could have taken right away: Humana, a childrens' education and gardening NGO, and CLAW (Citizens League for Animal Welfare), which is basically a pet clinic, were hungry for any interns they could get. In the end, though, I settled on what Lynn called the Advocacy internship. Advocacy is run by a tiny NGO known only as AIDS Hospice. I pushed hard for the Advocate position and wound up selected for it.
As an Advocate, my job will be to basically help out the AIDS Hospice ferrying supplies and patients from the little township I'm staying in to the big city of Johannesburg. One day a week I'll don a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt and spend a few hours in the local school, teaching kids English. I'm told I'll also teach some basic sex education. But my biggest role sounds a little peculiar: I'm helping AIDS patients get birth certificates.
Most of them don't have any, which prevents them from getting things like disability grants. So I'm going to jump around between local government and the people as their "advocate," helping them get the papers they need together. Then they can receive IDs and birth certificates, and hopefully get a government welfare check for their condition. It hasn't been ironed out much, but I'll figure it out when I get there, I guess.
So that's what I'll be working at. Later, I will lay out the academic side of things. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Four Days

When I got back to Olympia, I realized that I have too much to tell all at once.

For one, things are going too fast. My camera doesn't work half the time: I pull it out to photo my exploits and it's been draining its batteries in my backpack. I can't record anything I'm doing. Hell, the most I could pull up about Olympia was this lame picture off the web. (It doesn't even look like this, it's been 45˚ and foggy here. Yesterday it hailed. Typical late winter.)

Secondly, I've still got to go back over and fill in things I've left unanswered yet. If you've been reading this, you probably still don't know what I'll be working at in Africa. Or what my "senior project" will be (not that I know very well myself). Or how many trips I've made to Target buying travel gear, or how much I've packed.

Well, I'll fix that now. I'm gonna sketch out how much I've done, and what the gameplan is over there.

Here was my list one week ago:

  1. Call clinic for malaria pills
  2. Get $100 in traveler's checks
  3. Get mosquito netting
  4. Grab camera, start taking pictures
  5. Photocopy IDs
  6. Update Student ID
  7. Condoms, crayons
  8. Digital Recorder, hiking boots, laptop case, clothes
The clothes and recorder and such are bought and sitting in my room. (Cost me an arm and a leg). There are two boxes of condoms sitting next to the boots, but I'm still short on crayons. IDs are all photocopied. My camera has social issues, so it's tough to take pictures when I want to: I'm constantly charging the leaky batteries. Traveler's checks turned out to be a rip-off. You can't get them in $20 chunks anymore — smallest denominations are $50 checks — and banks will only sell you $150 worth or more. I feel a little too poor for that, and I'd rather use my debit card anyway. I'll probably wind up paying for that.

My search for malaria pills is an epic on its own. Two months ago, just after Christmas, I went to an appointment at the University of Washington clinic in Seattle for a consultation on vaccines. I wasn't sure what to get vaccinated for, you see. You hear about so many diseases and parasites in Africa, it's hard to know which to protect against. A lot of the vaccinations are expensive, and my budget is sadly finite. Before the consultation I was warned by friends about typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, malaria, a litter of Hepatitises, rabies, and traveler's diarrhea. And some people warned me about the hundreds of worms and parasites — mostly people who were thinking of the Congo or some other jungle, not realizing most of South Africa looks like this:

In the end, I got shots for polio, Hep B and the flu (it was that time of year anyway). I got prescriptions for typhoid, traveler's diarrhea and malaria. My problem was with the pills: my typhoid and diarrhea went through without a hitch. Except when the pharmacist assumed diarrhea was a chronic condition of mine, and told me very loudly how to take them "whenever you get your diarrhea." But the malaria prescription? Never filled. I handed them everything, I thought. I must not have gotten a prescription after all: I'd spent twenty minutes arguing with my consultant about whether or not I needed them, I thought she might have had lingering hard feelings. I spent two weeks calling my clinic back, asking (more and more angrily) where my malaria prescription was. They called me back once while I was in class, then stopped returning my phone calls. I was ready to give up. Then yesterday, I found a paper in my medical files stamped DOXYCICLENE. It was my malaria prescription. Yesterday, Paul proved to the world and his doctor that he is an idiot.

On the bright side, that was the last thing on my list. Now, my only list is for packing. Also, I got the malaria pills filled at Costco. I thought it would take a few days since it's kind of an exotic treatment, and I was even afraid I'd have to convince them I was worth the extra effort to have it ready before I left. But they filled it in half an hour. All world travelers: fill your prescriptions at Costco! They take most insurance policies, and they keep everything from typhoid to malaria right there in the store. It's ridiculous.

That's all for now. I'll post later today and finally disclose my internship.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Seven Days

Well, it's only been a day, but it feels like it's been two or three. I've been exhausted lately — even for me, who routinely hits the sack at around 2 or 3 AM. I'm not sure why. It might be the fact that I can't sleep in lately, even on weekends. There's too much to get done. And too many people rattling around in the kitchen I sleep right next to. That's the price you pay for being the fourth guy, and the one who's always out, in a three-bedroom house.

I have not made much progress as far as preparing to leave. I'm at my parents' house over the weekend. My younger brother is getting confirmed at his church tomorrow and he wanted me to be there. Or rather, our parents did, he doesn't seem to care a ton one way or another.

While I'm in my hometown, I've been going out shopping for little necessities: socks and underwear that aren't years old, ties to wear when I teach at the local South African school — I'll teach some English and basic sex ed as part of my internship — a book or two to read on the plane and so on. It's all kind of boring for today. Except for the ties, according to my Dad; I rummaged through the bins at Salvation Army and picked out (without knowing what they were!) a classy designer tie and two Grateful Dead ties. Or actually, one Grateful Dead tie. My brother picked out the other one. I'm okay with it, it may have a bitchin' label but it looks roughly like this:

Yeah, I wasn't too enthused about it.

I got Africa news from a friend of mine the other day! Thanks, Julian, for the info. It seems South Africa's electric power is running lower than a flashbacking Vietnam vet. The government forgot to tell anybody, though, until the country was having outages that lasted half a day in a display of federal wisdom that only the post-Mandelan regime could have slapped together. And oh, that display got some noise from the crowd. You could almost call it pyrotechnic if it weren't the exact opposite.

Now I'm worried about driving a car through those blacked-out stoplights. I've heard the drivers in South Africa are terrible. For them, if I'm to believe friends who have been there, four-way stops are hardly cause to tap the brake. One more thing to watch out for.

I will be back tomorrow with pictures, if I can get 'em. I'll slap a real To-Do list together too, so I can check stuff off over the rest of the week. I leave a week from today, it's past time to get that laid out in black and white.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Eight Days Until Summertime

About the Trip

"At the end of last summer, I teamed up with four of my classmates to take internships in the small towns of South Africa. The trip starts ten days before my plane takes off from the misty li'l Pacific Northwest. It will stop at the tail-end of summer in the Johannesburg International Airport, South Africa. What happens in between, my only real plan is to wing it."

In class yesterday, one of my friends found out I was going to Africa within a week. She was taking an internship here in Olympia around the same time as I'd be gone; she'd be spending Washington's rainiest months, she told me, in the shadow of our Evergreen State College. She asked me, "aren't you going to the Southern Hemisphere?"

"Yeah, it's South Africa," I said.

"Badass," she remarked. "So it'll be summer there and everything." And until the moment she said it, I'd been planning my trip — or just daydreaming it out in my head — like what she said was true. But it isn't. South Africa will be at its tail-end of summer when I get there. It'll get colder as I stay, the leaves might even be starting to turn. So much for that enviable and exotic traveler's tan.

I know there will be at least a few people who know me and what I'm doing, and if you've managed to find your way here, welcome. For the rest, here's the story behind this blog:

At the end of last summer, I teamed up with four of my classmates to take internships in the small towns of South Africa. We were taking the same class at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA.  The class is called "America Abroad"; it's a choose-your-own trip abroad deal, where every student can form a group to go to a single country, or they can just go on their own. Our teachers don't control what we do once we leave the States.

Why are they so hands-off? Actually, that attitude is pretty typical around the Evergreen State College. They're big on self-motivation here. And we're big kids now.

Within three months of traveling, my friends and I only need to fulfill the simplest of requirements to pass our class. We need to turn in a twenty-five page paper on the subject of our choice — since it's my senior year, the paper will need to be impressive, but at least it's my last! — and we need to complete our internship work. The internships are full-time, but they don't last the whole trip.

Beyond those two things, I'm free to do anything I want. I can take a train to the big cities for cheap, or hike across the Drakensberg Mountains; I can hitchhike to Namibia and walk through the first real desert I'll have ever seen, or I can travel to national parks and see the kinds of animals who leap through nature documentaries. Only one thing is stopping me.

I don't have a plan. Of any kind. I don't even know what to write for the 25 pages of my last college paper ever.

As I write this, it's eight days almost to the minute until I step on the plane to Africa. For me, who has barely been to a place without a flushing toilet, it's a big step. I'm starting this blog well before I leave so I can show everything that leads up to that plane — anyone who has planned long trips knows that the countdown of days and hours are just as important as shoving your luggage in the compartment and buckling up for takeoff.

If I'd been smart, I would have started this a month ago. As it is, if you're reading this now, you came in at a good time. I'm excited to leave, and I've got way too much left to do in the next week. So keep checking back, because I'll have a lot to show you before the countdown ends.