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 caf├ęs with nice plumbing.