Thursday, January 8, 2009

I didn’t fall of the face of the earth

I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I did, however, fall into a place with more than 10 miles of road, more than 1 hour of daylight and more than 5,000 people (Ilulissat, Greenland), which is backhanded way of saying that there have been many reasons not to sit at this desk J. I am in Cape Town, South Africa. I am living in a ‘suburb’ called Observatory. It is considered a bit alternative, young and hip (you know, just like me). It’s only 3 train stops or 10 minutes in a mini-bus from the city centre and is really more like a residential extension of the city than a separate suburb.

A view of the city from Table Mountain.

Cape Town is full of stunning natural beauty, perfect beaches, amazing people, a certain amount of tension and unbelievable examples of contrast. Incidentally, it is also full of avid holiday-ers, who take three weeks off when Christmas and summer collide and explode into one, big, barbecueing, firecracker-lighting, late-night drumming and dancing, beach-going vacation. My lifestyle here laughs at my Greenland lifestyle (coming home from work at five and knitting until midnight). I also laugh. I hope you do as well :) I no longer feel like I’m 80, but I do feel like I should occasionally refuse a social invite, cultivate a bit more self-discipline and at least do some reading during this dead period, when everyone I want to interview for my research is at the beach. Formal research happens occasionally, but spontaneity has led me to new ideas, new friends, new research and a new confidence in the value of spontaneous decision-making …

Last weekend, a friend with a car (one of the best kinds of friends :) took us to the beach. Francois, the driver, is from Mauritius. He is white, with long, dirty-blond hair and thick, black-framed glasses. He studies film, if that gives some insight. He is eccentric and truly happy, which makes him (and his car) the best partners for a seaside adventure. Across the reggae-blasting radio from Francois sits Valerie, munching on potato chips, swaying with the music and yell-talking in Creole and French with Francois. Valerie is from Reunion Island, which is a country. I didn’t know that before I met her. Maybe you didn’t know it before you read that sentence. It’s near Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Madagascar ( It’s French and volcanic and beautiful and yes, I think we should all meet up there. I have no plans in March (kind of)… Anyways, I am accompanied in the backseat by 2 broken windows and Jafar, a 29-year-old, self-proclaimed nomad from Cameroon and the Fulani tribe – “the cowboys of Africa”, he says. According to Jafar, Fulanis are the second most populous tribe in Africa AND they don’t dance, which is lame, I say. He asks what “lame” means and after a stumbling and giggling explanation, he returns to the French, car conversation and I stare out the window, choosing the speed and beauty and smoothness of the landscape over the beauty of the language I have always wanted to learn. I crane my neck to look straight up at the trees as we wind through Eucalyptus groves that remind of Hawaii and of how much I like trees (and missed them when I was in Greenland!). Soon enough, we wind down the mountain and into a small beachside town. My window-view is now interrupted by visions of wire and spikes mounted on 15-foot stone and plaster walls - turning beautiful, Dutch cottages into fortresses that spoke more of fear than of the quaintness and comfort usually evoked by cottage architecture. These walls are standard architectural elements in and around Cape Town – my house in the city has an iron gate and fence, as well as metal bars barricading every door and window (I need 3 keys just to get in the front door). That’s already absurd, but I could not understand why, in this little town of white-sand beaches and white stucco cottages, people felt the need to erect the same protections that we had in the city. And then I looked left. Literally across the road, the same metal that, in spike form, kept people out of the houses on the right, housed people on the left, in sheet-metal form, constructed to create small shacks that dot the dusty hillside. Tarps, plywood, sheet metal, old doors, old windows and shipping platforms were creatively combined to form one- or two-room shacks for 3 or 5 or 8 family members. Women sat outside on overturned buckets, laughing and talking and not worrying so much about the kids, who played together at whatever game they could create. “ajaaaaaa’ (Greenlandic for ‘ooooooo’ or ‘whoa’ or what in South Africa would be ‘shit, man’) was all I could say.

In my very limited experience of Cape Town, I have noticed this element of extreme contrast everywhere. Mountains tower over city buildings, exposing nature and urbanity, then dive into the sea, in a vertical/horizontal, immense/sublime contrast. People say that in Cape Town, you can experience four seasons in a day. I’m pretty sure I’ve been whipped through the city streets by four seasons in a matter of minutes: kissed by the sun, chilled by the rain, batted by the wind and pissed off at the clouds :) The brightness of day often brings warmth and the dark of night is cold enough to merit the fleece I wore in Greenland.

Of course, just 15 years after the end of apartheid, the light/dark contrast draws lines between more than just night and day. I spend most of my time here with a few African guys who live just ten minutes from my house, in a one-story cottage that has 7 bedrooms and 7 nationalities: Congo, Italy, Angola, Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mauritius. At any given time, one of these guys is not working, which means that I have an adventure partner for a trip to the beach, a museum, a penguin sanctuary… Usually we take the third-class train, which almost inevitably makes me the only white person around. And if we go to a nice beach or tourist site, the guy I’m with is almost inevitably the only black man we see. EVERYONE sees us – or so it seems. At first, I didn’t notice, wasn’t bothered and was honestly surprised at my own ‘color-blindness’. But in a few weeks time, I have learned to see color. It’s a little disturbing, but it also begins to explain why this society works the way it does - trying not to trip as it stumbles over the remnants of apartheid that have become a (sometimes) subtle part of public consciousness. I expected to come to South Africa and feel as aware of my whiteness as I did of my American-ness in Greenland. I guess I do feel white, but more than that, I am oddly aware of my friends’ blackness: uncomfortable for them when I am given the bill at lunch, when people on the hiking trail mumble and don’t make eye contact, when they get asked things like “so do people live in houses in your country?”. At the same time, though, our mixed pairings get us into places we otherwise might not go: I have escorts to the African market and the local fish and chips shack, while they have a reason to sit on the nice beach or stroll through the botanical gardens. And meanwhile, we can just laugh at everyone else’s discomfort and curiosity.

Victor, a friend from Angola, with South African penguins!!!

It was my own curiosity, in fact, that delivered me to one of the best places on earth, right here in Cape Town. Well, it’s about 30 minutes outside of Cape Town – pretty distant from affordable public transportation, jobs, the mountains, the beach, etc. It is called Symphony Way and it is a shack community in one of Cape Town’s largest and most distant townships. On my second day in the city, my only friend here (at the time. Now i have lots of friends. Tons. I'm probably the most popular person in this city) was going out there to do some interviews for his research. I still hadn’t changed or showered since arriving in the city, but spontaneity beat out my sense of hygiene and I asked to tag along. We drove out of the city, through the township, over the sidewalk at the corner where the old man sells fruit, onto the bicycle path to avoid the road block and then back again onto Symphony Way. The road is officially closed here and the roadblocks are unofficially erected and enforced by Symphony Way residents, who nonetheless cannot stop the police from driving through regularly.

Symphony Way ladies, strolling the road with me. I'm pretty sure I was teasing the girl on the end about having a crush on my friend, Emilio.

This is the edge of the township and the edge of a sandy bush area that boasted a healthy, green ecosystem before this township was built in the early 1990's. Now, the unstable sand whips down the street and through the tarps and plywood that residents have nailed and wrapped and leaned and constructed into houses that line this border between town and desert. On this border, this edge, this battleground of contrast and conflict between people and their government, live 120 families. These families, many of whom have been on the public housing waiting list for 20 or 30 years, illegally occupied government houses in December of 2007. They were evicted in February and rather than move into the government-provided shacks, they collected what they could of their belongings in the scramble of the eviction and set up across the street, on Symphony Way (check out their website at They have lived here for 11 months, through winter and summer, an hour’s walk from school and jobs, without electricity and with one communal hose for water. And despite these incredible hardships, Symphony Way is one of the healthiest, most amazing communities that I have ever encountered - I would like to live in a place just like this. There’s no TV and no electric light, so most people draw amusement from strolling the road, visiting neighbors, sitting on makeshift porches and shooting the shit, talking politics, or organizing for the next demonstration. “It’s really a wonderful place to live,” one man told me, “because we all come from different places and have different stories, so we have so much to learn from one another.” Amazing. Almost as amazing as the children of Symphony Way, who, given their life situations and my own prejudices, I expected to be like those poor children in the Christian Relief Fund commercials (you know, give a penny a day and relieve the guilt of spending 100 times that on your morning muffin…). Not even a little bit like that.

Jafar (a friend from Cameroon) is holding Beyonce, the happiest child in the world who only occasionally likes looking at the camera...

On my first day in Symphony Way, I met the happiest child in the world. She came and crouched next to me on the curb and just looked into my face until I broke into a smile. She broke into a giggle and for the rest of the day, I carried this three-year-old on my hip, making eye contact and giggling with her every 30 seconds. We played jumprope, rugby (girls vs. boys, obviously), hopscotch and three sticks (line up three sticks and jump over them – you get creative when resources are limited) with the other kids until dark. Girls showed me their dance moves, sang the latest Rihanna hit and told me about their favorite colors, favorite school subjects, and dreams for the future. As the sun set and people rolled their makeshift, open-flame, gas canister/stoves outside to make dinner, we started a bonfire and drumming dance party. We left at 2 AM, promising to return for Christmas (a huge contrast to my other Christmas invite – of a 6 course dinner with some friends from work, which I just realized has been completely omitted from this post. Oops). I didn’t stop smiling for days and have spent many of those days trying to figure out how to incorporate this place into my formal research – something about religion and social movements, perhaps …

Making dinner. The little boy is Frankie. The last time I was in Symphony Way, he fell asleep on my shoulder when I was carrying him around.

In all of this contrast – of economic positions, of landscape and weather, of color and my own expectations – I am realizing that in every example, there are two distinct sides, with a bold line that divides and defines their borders. Maybe there is some way to twist this metaphor into a lesson about living peacefully with difference or appreciating the difference in contrast. I’ll work on that. But for now, I am simply trying to walk across those lines, boldly and smiling.