Out of Africa
I would like to tell you about my most recent adventure, a two week vacation to South Africa with my girlfriend, Sailaja (you'll hear from her later in this mailing). As you all know, South Africa has undergone tremendous change in the past few years. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became president in South Africa's first open election in a very long time. The regime of apartheid has ended, but South Africa's real trials are just beginning. Since 1994, crime has skyrocketed, unemployment is way up, and morale is way down. Some whites have left the country, but many who have stayed have erected high walls around their residences, complete with barbed wire, and a multitude of signs from security companies reading, "Warning! 24 hour immediate armed response!" There are still two very separate and unequal South Africas.
As if to underline this reality, our first (and really only) day in the Johannesburg area we spent on a tour of Soweto (see Soweto pictures here), a suburb in which all Johannesburg blacks were legally required to live during the apartheid years. Soweto was the site of the some of the worst political violence in South Africa, when countless blacks were killed during the 1960s while protesting the government's mandate that all education would be in Afrikaans, the language of white South Africa. Today, Soweto is still very much the black neighborhood of Johannesburg, housing approximately 8 million residents, including about a dozen millionaires, Winnie Mandela and Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. The other 99.9% of Sowetans live in poverty, ranging from bad to abject. Unemployment is well over 50%, and that figure only includes those capable of work. A great deal of the jobs that do exist are black market sales jobs: the good jobs (fresh fruits or handicrafts), the bad (drugs), and the ugly (guns).
Most of the houses in Soweto are government-owned, and rent costs the equivalent of about 50 US dollars per month. A huge number of Sowetans struggle to pay that rent. The houses are typically 3 or 4 very small rooms, with no running water--although clean and safe water can be obtained from taps outside, in the backyard. Despite the huge coal-power plant that has belched smoke into the skies of Soweto since the early 1930s, only in 1986 were Soweto's houses actually wired for electricity. (Before 1986, of course, all the electrical output from the plant was sent to the white areas of Johannesburg.) And even though most houses have electricity, many people can't afford small electrical appliances like lamps, much less a TV, VCR, or stereo system. And this all assumes you even have one of those houses. There are many Sowetans who live in the backyards of those lucky enough to have a government house, usually in ad hoc shacks made of corrugated tin stolen from advertising billboards.
But some Sowetans are even less lucky. The bottom of the Sowetan housing barrel is the dilapidated dormitories that are the temporary residences of many single men who come from the countryside, seeking work in the city. Put together dozens of hungry, desperate men from different tribal cultures (who often speak different languages) in a hot, cramped room they share with a variety of rodent life, mix in cheap alcohol, drugs, and guns, and you have a very bad situation indeed. The murder rate in these dorms is astronomical; the robbery rate is low simply because there's not much to steal.
Our tour guide was a black resident of Soweto. We asked him what the Sowetans thought of all these tourists, mostly white, driving through their neighborhoods and gaping at the poverty. He told us that the Sowetans didn't much like it, but tolerated it for two reasons. First, as long as we were with Sowetan tour guides, we were paying money--what seemed to us very little, but to them was seemed very much--right into the community. Second, the apartheid government of South Africa used to give tours of Soweto as well, but they would just show the houses of the millionaires, and tell foreigners that all blacks lived that way, and black criticism of the white government was unfounded. Needless to say, this tactic angered far more black Sowetans than it fooled white tourists. The current tours of Soweto at least showed the outside world the harsh realities of what 50 years of legalized oppression had done to the black population.
Hope for Soweto's future? Well, starting in January 1997, education is free and open to everybody, by government decree. However, government can't decree everything, and Soweto's public school children won't have their first textbooks until April 1997, at the earliest. There is hope, but it's a long way off. Most of the children were not in school, but were instead following the tourist vans as they drove around, smiling broadly and holding out cupped hands, asking for sweets.
On the drive out of Soweto and back to the hostel, one of the women on the tour, a young Australian backpacker, asked the tour guide what I think was the stupidest question I've ever heard. "So are the people of Soweto basically happy, or unhappy?" Our tour guide turned around and stared at her so long I was convinced we were going to crash. "The children don't smile at you because they are happy. They smile at you because that's the best way to get sweets from you. They all would get out if they could. But they can't. Even the ones who can afford to leave and attempt it are driven back by the racism of the white communities."
The next day, we set out to rid ourselves of 1st world guilt by starting our four day safari. We set out with our tour guide, Ben, a white South African who had spent several decades as a police officer. Ben been trying desperately his whole life to reconcile his heartfelt and honest Christianity, which held that all people were equal in the eyes of God, and his native-bred racism, which held that blacks weren't even human. Such attitudes were just part and parcel of growing up in white South Africa-much less enforcing its rules as an officer of the law.
The first day of the safari was mostly just getting away from Johannesburg and to the wildlife reserve in the Eastern Transvaal, which would have been a drive of 5 hours, if we didn't stop every ten minutes to look at scenery and buy handmade souvenirs from street-side salesmen. At nightfall, we finally reached the safari lodge, which so nice and comfortable, it instantly dispelled any images we had of sleeping in the wild--it's hard to act like George of the Jungle when the maids put chocolate mints in your room.
The next day, we awoke at 4:30am, so that we could enter the reserve before 6. Kruger National Park is huge, roughly the same size as Vermont. The northern half is closed during the African summer, due to rampant malaria and extreme heat--even in the southern half where we were, it was well over 90 degrees F, and reached 104 the day after we left. (This was Christmas day, and to Sailaja's great annoyance, I couldn't stop whistling such happy Christmas tunes as "Let it Snow," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Winter Wonderland.") It was so hot that we had to stop every hour or so for refreshment, and at every possible stop, we drank many liters of water and juice. As much water as we drank, our two guides drank even more beer, starting with our first rest break at 7 am. Frankly, I'm surprised they were able to see the elephants, much less tell us that the bird flying 500 meters away was a red-tailed ledbetter. Then again, they might have just been making that up.
We were able to see many animals, including zebras, giraffe, kudu, and dung beetles, but description is impossible. (See safari pictures here.) Suffice it to say that we saw a bunch of baby elephants, and Sailaja beams every time she thinks of it. Whenever I say something stupid and she gets mad at me, I say, "Hey, Sailaja! Remember how we saw baby elephants?" She gets all dreamy and smiley, and stops being mad. Hopefully, this tactic will work for years to come, but somehow, I doubt it.
The third day of the safari was reserved for sightseeing, and South Africa boasts some rather impressive geological scenery--they call one mountaintop view "God's Window," and not for nothing. (Remember here that I have some basis for comparison other than flat, dull, Tokyo; I would place South Africa's natural beauty right next to the Colorado Rockies in terms of awe-inspiring sights.) The "Potholes" are a series of natural wells, developed over millions of years by water rushing from a river into a natural depression of rock, until erosion causes the natural depression to be a narrow hole in the rock several hundred meters deep. Very impressive. (See sightseeing pictures here, and also pictures of waterfalls.)
The highlight of the safari came that night, as we drove further north into the Northern Transvaal region for our nighttime safari. We set out just before sunset, watched the sunset over a natural lake (populated by hippos), and then roamed the private game reserve in an open jeep, armed with a huge spotlight. Someone in the front of the jeep moved the light from side to side, and when we could see the animals' eyes glinting in the light, we would shine the light on them. They would freeze in the light (like deer in headlights), and afford us a spectacular view. The only animals that did not freeze were the lions, who went on causally eating their dinner, without caring much about us. I guess you can do that when you're a lion.
The next day was just travel back to Johannesburg, and the day after that was travel to Cape Town. Cape Town is on South Africa's Atlantic coast, but as the name implies, it is near the Cape of Good Hope, the point at which the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans are said to meet. We stayed the next week in a suburb of Cape Town called Stellenbosch, an exquisitely beautiful town in the middle of South Africa's wine country. The University of Stellenbosch, which has one of the most gorgeous campuses I have ever seen, is the oldest University in South Africa, and the producer of many of South Africa's greatest apartheid-era leaders--a rather mixed legacy.
I then spent the next three days arguing with people as a form of recreation, but since that would be incredibly boring to describe, I would now like to hand the narrative over to Sailaja for her description of those three days:
Stellenbosch is THE single most beautiful college campus I've ever been lucky enough to see. There are these really cool purple flowering trees all over the town-sort of like cherry blossoms, only lilac instead of pink. They're called jacquarandas (although I don't think they're spelled that way) and they framed mist-shrouded mountains behind our inn.
Our inn, the Fynbos Villa, was worthy of a small essay in itself. It was a little white Victorian guesthouse--actually, we stayed in the owner's residence next to the main building. The daytime receptionist, Melissa, is a goddess. Every morning, I would pop in with some bizarre request (I want to go to the Japanese Embassy. I want to go horseback riding. How about those wine tasting tours?) and ten minutes later she would call me in the room with the arrangements. This is how I wound up cantering on horseback lakeside in South African woods (twice), going on a six-hour scenic drive that took me to Cape Point (where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet) among other places, and getting deliciously toasted at four different vineyards.
Most of the time Jason was debating, I wandered around Stellenbosch, scoping out which restaurants we could dine at for under $20 (drinks, wine, appetizers and main course included). This was no insignificant aspect of our vacation. It was the first time in months that I've eaten decent, let alone tasty, Italian food. (If the thrill of dining on Italian food in Japan has eluded you, suffiice it to say that Japantalian food involves tunafish and corn. Ugh.)
The rest of the time I washed and folded Jason's laundry.
Apparently, I get another chance to fill you in on my adventures later on in this mailing, so I'll sign off for now. But I want everyone to know that Jason wrote the following line about my being the better writer BEFORE I even wrote my part of this newsletter (an act of faith? or undue pressure?)
This is Jason again. I am stealing the narrative back, mostly out of jealous self-defense: if I let Sailaja, the clearly superior writer, continue to write, you all will never want to read my stuff again.
As I mentioned before, Stellenbosch is nestled in the middle of dozens of South Africa's best vineyards. As fans of wine of good quality and large quantity, Sailaja and I visited a few of the vineyards for wine tastings. We learned how to look at wine, and we learned how to sniff wine, and how to swish it around a little in our mouths. We also learned why you are not supposed to swallow every drop poured in your glass, and by the third winery, we were really, really appreciating the wine. Despite its lackluster reputation compared to France, Italy, and even California, South African wine is actually quite good, and we recommend it highly. We bought a bottle of wine at every vineyard we visited; five bottles of South Africa's finest wines. Total price: about fifteen US dollars.
At this point, I headed back to work in Tokyo, whereas Sailaja got to spend three days in Hong Kong, thanks to the holiday rush of people like me that had to get back to work stealing every available seat into Japan. So, I hand the narrative over to Sailaja again...
Hong Kong is COOL. It is an actual, bonafide Asian city. Hong Kong is Taxi Driver where Tokyo is Pretty Woman. There's some sort of rule that people can cross the street only on the Don't Walk sign. Men wheel around carts overflowing with chicken carcasses (personally, I witnessed this and felt vindicated in my vegetarianism). And of course, you never pay the ticketed price for anything. Being an obvious foreigner (not because I'm Indian; there are plenty of us in HK, but because I'm American), shopkeepers would only lower their prices so far. Hey, to me, U.S. $23 for a rolling carry-on suitcase was still plenty cheap. I'm sure a native of HK could have talked the price down further.
It's a busy, pushy city that's overtly material. I don't mean materialistic--it seemed to me that shopping wasn't as important in HK as selling, bargaining--the transaction, the act itself, meant more than the item for sale.
I was only in HK for three days--not nearly enough. It's a great city to walk around, at 6 a.m. or 12 midnight. And the views of HK Island and Kowloon from the Star Ferry were spectacular. Buildings seem to rise right out of the water.
There were some less-than-wonderful things about my stay there. Because 1997 is a big year for HK, it's virtually impossible to find a hotel. I got lucky the first two nights I was there and stayed at a nice, relatively cheap hostel. But the third night, I couldn't find a respectable hotel for less than U.S $80, and I didn't have that much money left (it was Jan. 7, and I blew all my money on Jason's birthday presents). So I spent the night at the least respectable hostel I hope ever to see. It was disgusting. The bed--and mind you, I'd already grown accustomed to sleeping on the floor here in Tokyo--was a thin pad on a wooden slat on a bunk bed frame. The blanket was scratchy. The toilet and shower were in the same small room, no bigger than an American bathroom stall. Let me rephrase that: the toilet was IN the shower; there was no door or floor separation between the two. There was no toilet paper, and no provisions for it (no spindle) and the door didn't reach all the way from the floor to the ceiling, so anyone else in the bedroom could...hear your business. Oh, the room housed about a dozen people, male and female. I survived the night just fine, but I'm writing this as a cautionary tale: BOOK BEFORE YOU GO.
With my newfound appreciation for my futon in Tokyo and HK$11 (U.S. $1.40), I bid farewell to Hong Kong and headed home to Japan. Jason appreciated my presents, which included sexy underwear in hard-to-find sizes.
Hmmm...after talk of my underwear, I think I better steal the narrative back from Sailaja before she gets even more disgusting. Let's turn from that horrifying topic back to politics, and a summary of our trip.
Where will South Africa go from here? Virtually every South African we talked to, black or white, agreed on one thing: Mandela is a man of peace, of lofty words, of noble ideals, and a lousy president. The whites, of course, blame Mandela for ruining their country, even if they can respect his ideals. The blacks are angry mostly because as one black South African told me, "I can go into any store I want now, but so what? I can't afford to buy anything." Many blacks are upset that Mandela's political party, the African National Congress, had promised them the world-better housing, education, and jobs, and they haven't delivered. It's been just over two years now, and things have not gotten better for black South Africans; they've gotten worse. It's going to take time, everybody knows this, but nobody is too patient.
We asked our Soweto tour guide about his hope for the future. He told us, "You can legislate against apartheid, but you can't legislate people's thoughts. It's going to take a long time to change, decades, maybe centuries." He thought for a minute, then said, more optimistically, "No, probably just decades."
Ben, our safari tour guide, said that South Africa had "gone to hell" since Mandela took over. But he said things will change for the better, eventually. Maybe in 10 or 15 years. His hope was that the former ruling party, the newly integrated National Party, would be re-elected. They have the experience to rule, he said, but they just need to not be so racist.
Raoul, the man who ran the horse farm where Sailaja went riding, said that things in South Africa are going to get worse before they get better. But they will get better, he said-probably in 6 or 7 years. We noticed a definite trend here, that whites thought South Africa would get better sooner than blacks did. Perhaps the blacks are cynical. They would certainly have good reason.
If one image of South Africa sticks in my mind (other than baby elephants), it is one I saw at Cape Town's Waterfront, a luxuriously renovated harbor/shopping mall roughly five times bigger than the Baltimore Inner Harbor. In a place where just three years before, a black would have been arrested for loitering without permission, there was a merry-go-round, and in one car, a little black girl and a little white girl were enjoying the ride, laughing together. It's an image that would be perhaps trite in America, maybe a Kodak commercial or something, but in South Africa, it served as a powerful symbol of what can happen before people are indoctrinated with hate. I hope this is the future of South Africa, and I hope it doesn't take centuries.