Monday, April 6, 2009

The Sixth Addis Herald


In This Issue
A Room with a View
Thoughts in the Dark
Livin' La Vida Transitory
Where Kant Could

Hey guys! Happy April. Hope you got your taxes in. (I have a six-month extension. Woohoo.)

Well, it's official. I can't send everything about our trip in one newsletter without completely overwhelming you. So, I've decided to send a couple of trip vignettes (the first two items in this case) per newsletter for the next few months. (Well, a few months is all the time I have left in Africa anyway.)

This is a quick sketch of our trip: We flew to Johannesburg and traveled by bus to Mozambique late the next day. We went through Swaziland on our way back to South Africa from Mozambique. We crossed into Lesotho via the Drakensberg Mountains, crossed back into South Africa and then took a backpackers' hop-on-hop-off bus along most of the South African coastline to Cape Town. From Cape Town, we took another bus to Windhoek ("only" 26 hours). In Namibia, we hired a car and drove all over the country, which is twice the size of California. Then we took a bus to Pretoria (28 hours!) and finally made our way back to Joburg for the return flight to Addis.

In each sentence above, there is an encyclopedic story. (I will spare you. Don't worry.)

Here's a glossary for future reference:

Backpackers (people): slightly mad, often drunk individuals, usually in their 20's, who travel around the world for a year or two at a time with no apparent purpose other than to bungee jump and drink. (Can also be stretched to include people like Alice and me, who are "too old for this insanity" and have a little more life direction.)

Backpackers (place, singular and plural): hostels that are sometimes cockroach infested and shabby. The upside is they're about $10 US per night and (often) safe. And you can get virtually any illegal drug you want there, if you're in to that sort of thing.

Baz (rhymes with "has") Bus: the transportation choice of most backpackers (people) when in South Africa because it takes you to most of the backpackers (places)

Coast to Coast: a guidebook that lists almost all of the backpackers (places) in the southern Africa region

A Room with a View
I can't speak for others, but as a rule I avoid sleeping in places that display photos of half-naked women straddling motorcycles and wielding whips. Call me provincial, but this life decision has served me well. There are times, though, when rules have to be broken.

(Our first warning should have been that the mirrored bathroom ceiling was listed in Coast To Coast as a "stunning, experience-enhancing feature." But Alice and I were too hassled to notice when we made reservations. Besides, we had only two places to choose from.)

Every hostel, hotel, and mouse hole in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was booked because Celine Dion had come to wail "My Heart Will Go On" (and on and on and on). Twenty thousand people had hightailed it to town, and we were lucky to get a room at all. It was midnight when the bus finally made it through concert traffic and dropped us off. We lugged our packs to the battered front stoop of a Victorian house and rang the bell. We really needed a shower and sleep. Port Elizabeth was just a stopover.

Monique—ample, late-fiftiesish, red-haired, very busy—bustled up, gave me a hug though I'd never seen or spoken to her, and said (much too loudly) in an Afrikaans accent, "WELCOME! You must be EXHAUSTED!!!" Then her husband lurched down the hallway behind her wearing only a torn Speedo (men, no offense, but you need an aerodynamic reason to wear a whole Speedo, let alone a torn one). I knew things would go downhill, but not how quickly. As we walked upstairs to our room, one of the first-floor guests, a small, shadowy Eastern European man wearing pink leggings, offered me mushrooms—forget the salad kind.

I looked around for the rabbit hole I'd fallen down.

Alice (my traveling companion, not the character…) and I slept well despite Monique's 1 a.m. announcement: "BE QUIET! PEOPLE ARE SLEEPING!!!" The next morning, we actually felt somewhat rested. But when I wandered into the kitchen—a scary place with pictures of cartoon cats eating spaghetti, men wearing Halloween costumes and doing their thing at urinals, and, of course, said biker chicks—I freaked when more shadow people came out of dingy rooms and surrounded me, kinda like zombies. This time they asked if I had any money. I tried to look very Mexican, said, "No hablo ingl├ęs," and got the hayhook heck outta there, still hungry, but safer.

As Alice and I stood on the front porch waiting for (read: willing) the bus to pick us up quickly, Monique offered me tea. She wouldn't take "no thank you" for an answer. I held the cup she'd thrust at me and watched her toddle upstairs. She appeared on the second-floor balcony holding the sugar bowl she'd forgotten to bring down. She was certain that if I held my cup just so, she could pour it efficiently from there. I would have let her try it—hey, it wasn't any weirder than the rest of the place—but the cat walked by and she got distracted. Apparently, the cat speaks to her by winking. I am not kidding. One wink means he wants out. Two winks mean he's going over to the vacant house next door, where he spends much of his free time. (I would have been there, too, if I could have shimmied up the palm tree and over the razor wire fence.)

Alice, by this time, was the strangest shade of pink I've ever seen a human being turn. And she was shaking. Small bursts of air seemed to be coming out of her nose. Then, when we could stand it no longer and were sure Monique had ventured back into the depths of the house, we erupted like crazy people. In the history of laughter, I think we made the Top Five of those who laugh so hard they risk spontaneous combustion. Then we started to call to the bus: "Here, Baz. Here, Bazzy, Bazzy. Save us from this perverted Victorian nightmare! Please!"

Monique came downstairs, with sugar bowl, to see what was happening. I was practically on the ground. She must have thought we were insane, but she tried to make small talk. "What do you ladies do?" she asked warily, probably checking to see if we were asylum escapees.

"We're teachers," Alice choked, still trying to get air.

"Oh, that's just super!" Monique cried, as if we'd cured cancer. (Side note: I don't know how much experience you have with British and British Commonwealth accents—my deepest apologies to friends from these parts, and you personally are not guilty of this—but some of them enunciate the word "super" in such a way and register that makes me want to slap myself, let alone the speaker: "Seeeoooooopaaah!!")

Then Monique asked if we had traveled very much. She didn't hear a word we said, though. She just launched into a laundry list of travel tips, though she has been only to England, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Item 8 was "Never let the blacks do anything. They'll just ruin your trip. They think they're clever, but they're not." (Apartheid lives on in her generation, but more on that in a later issue). Item number 9 was, "When traveling with your cat, South African Airlines offers the best rates." Item 10 was, "Always keep your socks dry."

I thought about saying, "Wow! I've been to 14 countries on four continents in the last two years and I've never even considered sock malfunction!" But Alice looked like she'd lost control of her torso. I was worried about her spasms.

The bus interrupted Monique just as she started on item 11. I'm not sure what it was. Though I'm sorry I missed it, it was probably better to escape while we could. She was kind and hospitable, but she and her menagerie were more than we could handle that morning.

A cat costs 800 rand to transport, by the way, if you want to take Kitty from Johannesburg to London. I could give you the name of Monique's travel agent.

Thoughts in the Dark
I was five, but I remember it like yesterday. Mrs. McQueary towered above me one morning at St. Francis's kindergarten (as did the enormous bun on her head—I still think the thing housed small birds and should have had its own zip code). She asked me sweetly, as she'd asked all the boys and girls before me, "And what is your favorite color and why?" (Cue big smile and bounciness.) The other little girls had answered pink, purple, yellow, light blue. They'd squirmed and smiled shyly before they'd given a reason: "Because yellow is happy," "Because blue is pretty," or "Because Mommy made me a pink dress." Mrs. M had said, "Yellow is terrific, Jessica!", or, "I like pink, too, Heather!"

No awkwardness there. Perfect social acceptability and ease. But I had to open my big mouth and say point-blank, looking up unflinchingly at her, "Black. Just because I like it." (I rarely understood any woman who cooed at me and seemed to think we were all thick. Mrs. M, in turn, seemed not to know what to say to me sometimes.)

Black is still one of my favorite colors (and were I to see poor Mrs. M now, I'd assure her I'm not a psychopath). As an adult, I can articulate what I could not as a five-year-old: Apart from black's mystery, elegance, and depth—not to mention that I, as a Winter, look good in it—it makes a fantastic backdrop to set off whatever is laid across it.

I thought of this in Namibia.

We'd been navigating vague, washboarded gravel roads for 10 hours on our way to Sosuss Vlei, the Namib Desert's red sand dunes park. We'd had a punctured tire, witnessed a horrible car accident, crossed hairy mountain passes and a flooded river, and stupidly gone all day with nothing substantial to eat or drink (but hallelujah, I have found another place where McDonald's does not exist). We didn't know exactly where we were going or why, but we were going there as fast as possible on the left-hand side of the road. We were lost, tired, dusty, and irritable. (FYI, if you've already been traveling hard for more than three weeks, bumping up and down all day in the official Middle of Nowhere is pretty stupid. Take a day off already!)

We finally stopped at a small retreat center hundreds of miles from anywhere. We felt like we were still moving. It was dusk. I poured myself into a deck chair outside by the pool and didn't make it till dinner before falling asleep. A few hours later, I awoke to something I hadn't paid attention to in years: the night sky. It was so disorienting, I actually gasped. A hundred million diamond stars accentuated by a jet-black universe. The Southern Cross looked close enough to reach. The Milky Way was a pale river from horizon to horizon. Occasionally, a meteorite shot across and I made a silly wish. The sky was moonless, but the stars were light enough. It was so all-encompassing and deep that I felt dizzy and lifted up into it.

I'm drawn to cities and probably always will be. If I have one regret about urban areas, though, it's that the night sky in New York, Hong Kong, and even Colorado Springs just isn't the same as in Podunk, Kansas. But nothing will ever compare to Namibia. Even the memory makes me want to sing Psalm 19. Nights like that were why it was written.

As for the rest of the country, Namibia's landscapes are so surreal I felt like I was trapped inside a Salvador Dali painting. I kept looking for a watch or a pointy mustache draped over one of the weird mountain ranges that cropped up out of nowhere. In a day's drive, we saw ocean, savannah, mountains, absolutely barren sand, and the flowering Kalahari Desert during rainy season. We also saw gemsbok (gorgeous), springbok, a fox or two, and meerkats (unbelievably funny and annoying).

Swakopmund, a coastal town of about 25,000, is a popular site for adrenalin junkies who come to ride ATVs, bungee jump, deep-sea fish, or windsurf. Alice and I, however, only wanted to hang out for a day or two. It's a nice enough place, "more German than Germany," as Lonely Planet puts it (Germany colonized the country during WWI). But it did remind me vaguely of my cousin's Barbie Dream House when I was growing up: artificial, pretty deserted, and definitely a place that will stretch your appreciation of pastels. Most buildings were painted pink, light blue or green, or yellow (Mrs. M would have loved it). And most locals were uncommunicative (sort of like Ken). But we enjoyed shopping, poking around, and eating Wiener schnitzel and red cabbage even if people didn't have much to say.

They call the northern Namib Desert the Skeleton Coast because, in earlier days, any ship's crew stranded there was as good as dead. It is the strangest, most unsettling scenery I've ever experienced. On one side of the highway (I use this term loosely since it's mostly salt road), you have the Atlantic Ocean crashing in. On the other, fog and massive, barren dunes that stretch out as far as you can see. I felt trapped between two impossible environments. For a city girl who really does like skyscrapers and traffic, this juxtaposed, dreamlike scene was unnerving. It was good to visit, but I was happy to leave.

And as we eventually drove into the desert on our way back to Windhoek (nondescript, kind of like small-town Midwest USA with palm trees), every couple of miles there was a triangular "SAND!" sign. (Like you're gonna forget you're surrounded by it and think Oops. I thought I was in the Everglades.)

But I will say, for as weird, difficult, and occasionally disturbing as the country was, it was beautiful. Well worth the trip. I'll post pictures when I can.

eHarm Anyone?
The other night over french fries at Kaldi's, Jamie and I talked about men--and why some are attracted to you and why some aren't. She told me about how Microbiologist Dude and I are too genetically similar. How my immune system is too much like his. How romantic chemistry really does involve biological chemistry, and that's why he's not that into me. Blah blah. (I swear. I have never hung out with so many health professionals in my entire life. I miss English teachers. They would just quote Tennyson.)

When she finished the biology lesson, she told me she's thinking about going on eHarmony (this, despite my warnings and the fact she knows even it can be a vast dating wasteland). Since I couldn't talk her out of it, we started crafting really stupid profile statements:

"I would never buy you cute slippers."
"I hate to shop."
"We would never have to discuss our relationship."
"I prefer the lid up."
"You would always be right (when you agree with me)."
"Disease free with minor baggage."
"Not bipolar. Never have been. Probably won't be."
"I am Catherine Zeta-Jones' body double."
"ESPN rocks! Please! Watch it!"
"Dude. I am the perfect supplementary income."

With lines like that, I think she has a chance.

Livin' La Vida Transitory
As I've said, overseas life is full of transient relationships. Social circles can change every few months, and dynamics sometimes do a one-eighty overnight. This can be good and it can be bad. Currently, to put it bluntly, it bites. Sunday night used to be a haven. Everyone had something in common, and we all talked and had fun for hours. Not so much lately. Because people have been traveling or have left altogether, and because new people have come in, for the past month it's usually been four younger men, one very busy woman with small children, and me.

Two weeks ago, I transcribed part of the new guys' conversation. They asked what I was doing, but I was Cheshire Cat-like as I scribbled. (Note: It might seem like it, but they really hadn't been smoking pot.):

"Dude. 'Anchorman' is the funniest Will Ferrell movie ever."
"No, dude. It's 'Talladega Nights.' "
"Dear, Baby Jesus! Help me, Baby Jesus! Ha!"
"Hey, has he ever made a zombie movie? That would be so cool."
"Dude. Can zombies run? There's like this big debate online. No one can decide."
"Dunno, man. Did they run in 'Shawn of the Dead'?"
"It's totally George Romero's call, dude. He's the expert, so zombies can't run."
"How do you kill a zombie, anyway?"
"Cut its head off and shotgun its brain."
"But, man, they're like, already dead."
"Doesn't matter. You can kill 'em again."
"Yeah, but if they're dead … wouldn't they just come ba— … but if they're already dead … they're not alive … but … DUDE, how does that work?" [Cognitive wheels smoke as he figures out this conundrum.]

[Now I can't stand it anymore. I have to speak.] "Um, guys. Earth to guys. Hi. Yeah, you know what? The real issue is zombies do not exist. So why worry about it?"
[Well, OK, I've seen "zombies" in South Africa, but please … they just needed methadone.]

Everyone stops. They stare at me and blink for a second. Then they blink at each other. Eventually, one guy says to the rest: "So, dude. You ever heard of the United Negro Fried Chicken Fund?" Shortly after this, their conversation turned to wrestling moves. Check out the Superplex and the Power Bomb. They totally kick butt.

Some of you might be saying, "DUDE!! These people are A-W-E-SOME!! How can I hang out with them???" But for me, it's not so hot. I know. I know. It's my problem. I'm not silly enough and I have zero clue how to relate to them. Part of me really wishes I could. But the much larger part just wants to run the other way.

Where Kant Could
Living in Africa gives a person a lot of time to think about things. Yeah, life here is chaotic, totally maddening, and occasionally homicide inducing, but in some ways it's more laid back than Western life. And days here are often so hard but so interesting that there's always something heavy or new to ponder. Since I don't have a TV—it blew up and I didn't get it fixed—I've been reading a lot. Even the philosophy books I loathed in college.

I'm not an Immanuel Kant fan (way too much duty), but he hit the nail on the head occasionally. Especially with this thought: "Give a man everything he wants, and at that moment, everything is not everything." Not that I have everything I want. (HA!! There is a man reeling from amputation who would verify this.) I've had many of the things I've wanted, though. And when I look back on the few things I've achieved, at the many blessings God has given me, or at countries I've lived or traveled in, everything is not everything.

I don't think this in a hopeless, depressed way, but in a realistic way that knows "this" is not what it's all about. There's more, and we'll never reach it on this side.

I guess the biggest thing Africa has been teaching me is contentment. If what I have is meager or lavish, pleasing or hurtful, I want to be content. Here I have learned more deeply that:

1. Life will never get easier.
2. Even if you get what you think want, it's never what you wanted. (Admit it. We all secretly think, If only I had X, I would be happy.)
3. No one ever arrives.
4. You will make a complete ass of yourself at least once a day (much, much more if you are a foreign teacher).
5. If you can't look at today and be content in its trials, however grievous, you will never be content. (Because remember: Life never gets easier.)

And if I think I have it hard, 67 million people in this country have it harder. So I'm slowly, painfully learning to look at today and say "OK" rather than "Oh, no" or "If only" about the future (If only he loved me, If only I could _____________, If only …). It's a gradual process, but my vision is improving. I just wish it didn't take so much upheaval and craziness to teach me this.

But where would faith come in if things were easy?

Anyway, be well. I am.


P.S. Lately this John Newton hymn has encouraged me when I've worried about my (completely unknown) future. May it encourage you, too. The language is archaic, but come on. This beats "Shine Jesus Shine" any day:

Begone unbelief, my Savior is near, and for my relief will surely appear.
By faith let me wrestle with God in the storm, and help me, my Savior, the faith to adorn.

Though dark be my way, since He is my guide, it's mine to obey and His to provide.
Though cisterns be broken and creatures all fail, the Word He has spoken will surely prevail.

Why should I complain of want or distress, temptation or pain, He told me no less.
The heirs of salvation, I know from His Word, through much tribulation shall follow their Lord.

Since all that I meet will work for my good, the bitter is sweet, the medicine food,
The painful at present will cease be 'fore long, and then, oh, how glorious the conquerors' song.

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