Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Now in Southern Africa

I think we need a break from social and political commentary. So, let's take a moment to explore the concept of time. I promise you it'll be less dry than these first three sentences, so you can wake up... now.

I like to tell people that, in my experience, there are three kinds of countries. There are countries that run on time, like Germany, Japan, or Singapore. Then there are countries where being on time doesn't matter so much, and most things are chronically late, like Mexico, Syria, or Thailand. Then there are countries in Africa.

I first heard the term “now now” in Zambia. Foreigners had taught locals the meaning of the word now. The problem is, Africans kept using it like the foreigners would use the word “soon.” This gets confusing when your question is something “when is this bus leaving?” So the foreigners invented “now now” to mean not soon, but now. Same thing happened to that as happened to “now.” For example, I was one sitting in a truck and told that we were arriving at my destination “now now,” just was we passed a sign saying it was 40 kilometers away.

So I should've been prepared when I went to catch my Greyhound bus from Umtata to Durban. 3:00 was the scheduled time, but my hostel in Coffee Bay told me it could show up anywhere between 2:30 and 3:30. So when I stepped off the 1 ½ hour shuttle from Coffee Bay to Umtata at 2:00, I wasn't too concerned, even as I saw a Greyhound bus pull away in front of us. At 3:30 though, I started to wonder. By 4:00 I was getting concerned. At 4:15, long after all the other companies' buses had left, I called my hostel. They gave me the Greyhound bus telephone numbers for their offices in Umtata, East London, and Port Elizabeth, plus a national call center I was told only to use as a last resort.

I called Umtata first. No answer. I called East London. No answer. I called Port Elizabeth, got a confused woman with a lot of static on the line who, after asking me to repeat my question four times, asked to call back in twenty minutes. I waited twenty minutes and then called back. No answer.

I called the national call center and was told the number didn't exist. I tried a few different combinations. Same result. I called Port Elizabeth again, twice, and finally got the same woman and static telling me they still didn't know and asking me to call the Umtata office. I told them they weren't picking up, and she said they should be there and answering their phones. So I called Umtata again. This time I heard someone pick up and an immediate click. They had hung up on me. I called again. No answer. I called a third time. This time I got a man who didn't know where the bus was because the driver and crew weren't answering their calls, and would I please call back in ten minutes. Nine minutes later, just before 5:00pm, the bus arrived.

The speakers were picking up engine noise, and a lot of the more elderly passengers were complaining about the lack of bathroom stops (despite the bathroom on the bus). The bus also played the same Will Ferrell movie twice (one I'd never heard of but that seemed to be a two-hour excuse to shoot a five minute scene where he gets into a shouting match with Mike Ditka). But, though over two hours late, we did make it to Durban.

In Durban, my friends explained the African concept of “just now” (roughly translates to “in a minute or so”). I asked them what you said if you wanted to say now the way foreigners meant the word. They said they couldn't think of a way to do it. Apparently it doesn't come up that often.

My advice if you find yourself in a place like this? Just go with it. Don't try to fight the system, you'll just make yourself angry.
Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Travel Tip: How to Plug in Your Electrical Gadgets in Another Country

So, you've brought something electric from home into another country. Most travelers do. Cell phones, digital camera, maybe an mp3 player. These things need charging. To charge them, you need to plug something into a power outlet. So you've got to find a power outlet, and that's when the fun starts.

See, not every country in the world uses the same shape plugs. I've heard of about thirteen distinct sizes and shapes of electrical plug. Worse still, some countries have outlets that put out about twice as much power as others. So even if you managed to force the wrong shape plug into the socket, that hair dryer might just explode. And that's no fun.

So, what's a traveler to do? The answer has two parts: plug adapters and voltage converters.

Read this next line carefully and remember it: you might not need either of them, and even if you need one, you might not need the other.

A lot of people make the mistake of bringing too many gadgets to make their devices work abroad. It doesn't hurt to be cautious, but some of these things just weigh you down. The most common mistake is to bring a voltage converter when you don't need it. But I'm getting ahead of things-- first I'll explain what these things do.

An adapter is the thing you use to make the plugs from home fit in the sockets of the country you're traveling through. So if you have a flat, two pinned US plug, you stick it in a little adapter with a round, two pinned European plug sticking out. Voila, European power to your American device.

The converter is an extra box that goes between your cord and the outlet to make sure you're getting the right amount of European power to that American device. European power outlets for example, give out twice the voltage of their American brethren. So something designed to handle half the voltage could be fried. The converters take care of it by either cutting the voltage down or raising it up depending on a little switch on the back.

Most people get this far on their own. Here's the stuff not everybody gets on adapters and converters:

First, with adapters, yes, there are tons and tons of different kind of plugs you can get adapters for, but no matter where you go in the world, you only need three. There are four basic kinds, and your devices almost certainly already have one of the four, leaving you with three you'll need adapters for. While the outlets might be different in thirteen different ways, one of these four plugs will almost always work. They go like this, as pictured above from right to left: Two thin, flat, parallel prongs (North America, most of South America and Asia), Three chunky rectangular prongs (the UK and most of its former colonies in Africa), two round prongs (continental Europe, a small chunk of South America, most of the Middle East and northern Africa), and thin, flat prongs at diagonal angles to each other (Australia and New Zealand). I've traveled with these four in all of these places, and while I occasionally find an outlet that I can't plug into, I can usually find one in the same room that I can. South Africa, Namibia, and India, for example, all use three round prong plugs, but so many devices are sold in these countries with European plugs, that almost everyone has at least one euro adapter lying around. So even if you don't see it in the wall, a euro plug will get you by just fine.

Second, converters. If you're packing only electronic devices (cell phones, iPods, laptops), you probably don't need a converter. If you're packing more basic electrical plug-in stuff like a hair dryer, you probably will need one. Look at the power cord for an A/C adapter. It'll be a chunky thing at the end or in the middle of the cord somewhere with a sticker or writing etched into the side. Here are the magic words you're looking for: "Input: 100-240V" If it says this or something a lot like it somewhere, it's designed for travel and doesn't need a converter. If there's nothing like that on the plug anywhere (i.e. it's just a cord with a plain plug on the end) it will need a converter.

In my opinion, if you need a converter to use it, you shouldn't bother packing it. Converters are big, heavy, and cost a lot more than a simple adapter set. I don't carry anything that needs a travel converter.

Finally, if you've got a little bit of extra cash, consider going solar. If you look online, you can find compact solar arrays for basic electronic devices like cell phones and iPods. I have one for rechargeable AA and AAA batteries (though it does also plug into the wall). I've met other travelers who have the ones for other devices, and they have been quite pleased with them. Obviously they're only really good for charging batteries where you have some sunlight or fluorescent bulbs, but sunlight is often a lot easier to find than a free electrical plug.

Enjoy, and be thankful I'm not ending this with a stupid pun on the word 'power.'

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Pot Calls the Kettle

To a lot of people Cape Town must feel wonderful. To me, it felt like the twilight zone.

A lot if had to do with the first 24 hours there. I came in on a very comfortable overnight bus run by the Intercape company with video programming called Intertainment (hardy har har). The video programming stated that it the company was proud to provide quality service and to glorify God. It then went on to advertise Christian feature films as if they were the only feature films in existence, imply that evangelical gatherings could cure HIV/AIDS, and pause to tell any potential advertisers that the company could broadcast their message on Intertainment to an audience that was 65% white and 35% "other." A gentle reminder, we are in Africa. Does anyone else see what is wrong with how that statistic was written?

I got to my first hostel in Cape Town, The Penthouse on Long, and asked them to sell me on the place; to tell me why I should stay longer. They told me that they "had great facilities, clean private showers, a nice bar upstairs and a rooftop terrace, that they didn't allow any locals to stay"-- pausing upon seeing my facial expression to tell me, 'that's a good thing.' I asked why. They said they don't want poor people hanging around long term, not paying their bills, and that they were a security risk.

They then tried to sell me on one of the more popular backpacker establishments in South Africa-- something called the Baz Bus. It's selling point is that it picks you up at your hostel, and drops you off at the next hostel you want to go to. Which is great. If all you want to see is hostels and the inside of a bus full of backpackers. I will admit, the place was very comfortable and had great facilities. I did not stay a second night.

Downtown Cape Town felt like downtown Sydney to me. Buildings were all a similar age and style, and the ethnic breakdown appeared to be about the same. But in Australia, White people make up the vast majority of the population. Most people I ask around here put the white population of South Africa lower than 10%. That first night, I went out with some people I met to a punk rock show at a bar downtown. It was only a few blocks away, but on the hostel staff's advice, we took a private cab to get there and back because "it wasn't safe" otherwise. I still don't know whether that's true. I do know that we were looking around at the show and were only able to spot one non-white person there. He was collecting empty glasses and bottles and cleaning the tables.

Apartheid is over. Isn't it?

The thing that's most striking to me is just how much fear there seems to be in ordinary middle class white people in Cape Town. There are so many things they say that "aren't safe" or are "bad areas" that you don't really know what is and isn't safe anymore. For example, I stayed with a friend in the college suburb of Stellenbosch for a few days, using the train system to get between there and downtown Cape Town. The trains had the irritating habit of leaving about ten minutes ahead of schedule, meaning I would miss them even if I arrived early, but aside from that seemed to comparable to the El in Chicago or the subway in Rome. At one point in downtown Cape Town, one white guy told me I should I only take the trains if I was brave, saying that was a taste of "the real Africa." I don't even know how to start unpacking everything rolled up into that statement.

As far as I can tell, white people live in central Cape Town, and everyone else lives in these settlements called "townships" on the outskirts. A couple of these aren't that bad. But several I saw as we drove by made tiny villages in Tanzania and Malawi look prosperous. Everything was made out of sheets of corrugated metal. I was lucky enough to stay a couple nights with documentary film makers who were shooting a movie about artists in the townships. You could hardly believe they were filming in the same country.

We're in country which seems almost unique in its mixed-race heritage, this large population of colored (once again, that's the polite term here) people, that you don't find in other parts of Africa. I for one would like to learn something about their culture. It's just a tiny bit irritating to be told that the only "safe" way to do this is to go on a tour of a township with white tourists paying money to white tour operators so they can point cameras at locals like they're animals in a zoo.

Right. Enough venting. I will say that the times I've stayed with people here have been great- first with friends which is always good because you're with friends, and second with couch surfing with the filmmakers, which was the closest I felt I could get to what was really happening in town. Both were fantastic hosts and I had a great time with them. I also got to spend a day in Cape Town on bicycle, which I highly recommend-- riding from Observatory across the foot of Signal Hill to the waterfront was a beautiful ride, especially since the day I did it, I was able to sneak back to the Company Gardens for a free concert by the Hip Hop Collective. A great last day in town.

I'm not in Cape Town anymore. I'm in a place whose actual name is Wilderness. It's a nice little place. The people staying here are great. There is a working farm with a vegetable patch guests can take stuff from for free. There are all kinds of activities in the nearby national park or the beach you can go do. So far, on the hostel grounds, I have seen one black person. She cleans the kitchens. Nobody seems to talk to her, except for one Afrikaaner I overheard asking if she had any family members they could hire to do some cleaning.

The worst part about it all is how familiar it feels.

I went to a college that whose student body and faculty was by the vast majority white, and whose working staff was almost all black. I may complain about people here confusing "different" with "dangerous," but where I went to school was known as a "nice neighborhood" surrounded by "bad neighborhoods." I knew people who would frequently complain that to get to anywhere in the city took forever because you had to take a bus or train across "bad neighborhoods." I myself spent four years in this town, and I can remember walking around these neighborhoods only once, on accident.

I've heard some people say that the faults that annoy us the most in others are the ones we see reflected in ourselves. Maybe, as someone who lived almost fours years in Chicago, that's why these things about Cape Town bother me.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Between Sand and the Skeleton Coast

Halfway up dune seven, I asked my host something to break the silence. He didn't answer. I looked back and found he was sitting down about thirty feet below me. It was a hot day, and he wasn't twenty-three anymore. I'd been walking everywhere, but I didn't object to a break myself, so I paused, letting my feet sink in sand up to my ankles.

The dogs ran circles around us. Chester, the barrel-chested black lab mix, had the odd habit of staying right in front of me and then stopping, blocking my path, his legs half buried in sand, until I'd scratch his haunches. Bobby, the russet cocker spaniel, was always either coming up or going down. Up and down. I figured by the time us humans reached the top, he would have scaled the dune about five times.

Every step forward in the loose sand was another half step back, and would loosen up the sand up to shoulder level, just to bury your feet. I had instant shifting sand arch-supports within minutes. It was noticeably easier to climb where someone else had left tracks, only slightly compressing the sand.

At least I wasn't carrying a snowboard this time. The morning before, I'd gone sand boarding, after a five or six year hiatus from snowboarding. I relearned that I was way better at heel turns than toe turns, accidentally switching from goofy to regular stance twice, and then falling down. It was fun, but I found myself really missing chairlifts.

This time it was just us scaling the dune. The tracks I'd been using ended about twenty feet from the top. Swell. I slogged up, a step at a time, watching the sand at my eye level collapse with each foot placed directly below it. Then I hit the sharp ridge.

The setting sunlight left the side I'd been climbing in shadow and the other side bathed in yellow light. I clambered a foot over and sat down, reaching for my water. Chester hopped up and sat there, panting. Bobby leapt up and over to the other side, then ran all the way to the bottom on that side in about thirty seconds, leaving new tracks on the fresh sand. Then he turned around to look at us. I can't read minds, but I could pretty clearly get the 'now, what did I do that for?' from Bobby and the exasperated 'you idiot' from Chester, watching his companion slowly climb back up through the sand on the hot side.

The other bipedal member of the party joined us a couple minutes later. I handed him my water. He thanked me, but only took a sip.

"You climb that every day..." he panted "and you'll be... really fit."

We sat and watched the sun go down over the Namibian dunes in front of us. You could just see the reflection of the ocean in the distance.

"Last time I climbed this was..." he paused, "Thirty-nine... no, forty years ago."

Bobby made it back up at this point. I started snapping pictures.

"What was the story?" I asked.

"You ever heard of a forty-day party in the army?"


"It's a party you have forty days before your service ends. We call it the forty day party. It's a real drinking party. I woke up early the next morning when one of my friends shook me and said let's go board down dune seven. So we did."

From the dune-boarding instructor the day before, I knew that before seven years ago, dune boarding had meant going down headfirst on a dune, riding a waxed piece of thin wood like a sled. Some said you could hit 80 km/hr this way.

"I dragged my hung over body up this thing twelve times that day. Went over a rock and it left a mark. Still have it" He pointed to a white mark above his hip.

I grinned. "I bet there are a lot of guys with 39th day marks and scars." No comment. We'd both been distracted by Bobby deciding he wanted to go back to the bottom of the dune yet again. Poor dog was no longer running. He slowly and sadly walked back up, step by step.

We spotted a car in the distance, in the middle of the flat sands. Sure enough, it was stuck. The sun was about to set, and the driver would have a tough time getting back to town in the dark on foot. So we slid back down the cool side of the dune to where the car was parked, next to some palm trees that had been half buried by the sand drift, and drove out to the stranded car. After discussion in Afrikaans and some digging and tire deflation, we pulled them out before the sun set completely.

We headed back to Walvis Bay, the second biggest city in Namibia. Since the entire country has a total population of about two million, Walvis Bay still felt like a small roadside town to me, sandwiched between the desert and the Atlantic Ocean, the roadsides peppered with red and white triangular signs with a big exclamation point in the middle and the word "sand" underneath. I was still getting used to the country. Clearly more developed than its neighbors to the north, it used to be a part of South Africa, after it was wrested from Germany following the first world war. German city planning prevailed. Ninety degree angles, wide, long, empty streets. I still haven't seen a building taller than three or four stories in the entire country (though I haven't yet seen the capital).

The other thing that's taken some getting used to is meeting citizens of my own race. There are a small number of white Zambians and Zimbabwaens, but before that, anyone who saw me immediately assumed I was from Europe or the US, the distinction was a little hazy. At least two people I met seemed to think London was part of the US. But here, people occasionally come up to me and try to talk in Afrikaans or German. I still don't really look like a local, but I'm close enough to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Aside from the white people, the other group I've met here are of mixed race, the polite term for which here is still actually "colored." I'd been wondering why I hadn't seen more of this in so many former European colonies. In Latin America, the people took a lot of pride from their mixed race heritage. Namibia is the first place I've been in Africa with a significant mixed race population. I guess it shouldn't be that surprising. In a region where you can still ask most local people what tribe they belong to, interracial marriage must seem like a very big step. But not here.

After we got home from our climb, poor Chester just collapsed, panting. Bobby had some water and padded right along, looking for a little food and attention. We switched on the TV to a university rugby came between two Cape Town area schools. I noted out loud that almost all the players appeared to be white. Edith, my other host, said "well, they're from Cape Town." As if that explained everything. Maybe it does.

Where I come from, most people are scared to talk about race. Me included, I don't like offending people. But this is something I'm going to have to keep an eye on as I continue south.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meeting People

A face of the Nguni tribe. By pure luck, I passed their homeland on the day of their annual Nc'wala ceremony. When I'd got up that morning, I didn't know it existed. Thanks to a bored Zambian border patrolmen and some luck, I attended the ceremony with an official contingent from the Malawian national government's Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people there. The dress you see in this picture wasn't the norm, but there was plenty of it. Headbands from the skin of various big cats floated in and out of a crowd packed with grilled meat, drums, tents from various NGOs promoting health concerns, and big banners from the new sponsors, a big bank and a big cell phone provider.

There would be long speeches by bureaucrats, singing, dancing, free food and drinks for all, and then the main event: a bull would be slaughtered by a spear to the heart, and the chief would drink its blood. A security guard told me confidentially that it used to be a lion they killed, but with modern safety concerns for the crowd getting pics with cell phones and video cameras, they'd reduced it to a smallish bull tied to a tree.

The main ceremony happened in a compound with guards at every entrance. When one of the Malawian delegates tried to get in, he was stopped and asked for ID. But they waved me on through without any questions. I stepped in, and stopped when I heard another one of the delegates asked for ID. I turned to the guard and said "excuse me," loudly, about to ask some pointed questions about waving white men through and not others. But when he turned to me, I got a better idea. And that was how I found myself in the absurd position of telling security that, no, it's okay, they could let in the official delegation from the government of Malawi because, "they're with me."

After talking to a few people, I managed to get up close and personal by pulling out my camera and mingling with the paparazzi in the middle of the grounds. We moved around in a herd, getting the best lighting for our shots, and staying out of the way of whatever chieftain or group would be processing onto the grounds. I had to keep reminding myself to keep the camera out instead of just watching the performance. It was better than a front row seat.

It was a good day. On my ride out to the next town, I got to hear a lengthy debate on the future of the tribe. The appointed butcher had taken three stabs to bring down the bull instead of just one, much to the shame of the tribe. One man maintained this meant that "things had changed" and it showed the weakness of the Nguni. Another fiercely defended the tribe, saying it was just the one man, who would pay dearly.

It's been a show of how the last week or so has gone. Most of the highlights have been unplanned, and totally centered around the people I've met. I've been approached and shared afternoons with a huge cast of characters, almost all with legal first names to make you do a double take. I hung out with a private guard named Innocent, a 71-year old night watchman named Morning, a science law student named Advantage, and even a cab driver named Gift Master. All of them very eager to meet and talk a stranger from a far off place.

The big exception to all this, was one highlight that was very much planned: Victoria Falls. The rainy season is just ending, and the massive waterfall is at it's highest flow. There are three main paths in the national park. One is impassable at this time of year-- it's right across the top of the falls to an island. The next is a far-off trail with strategic viewpoints for photography. The third is right in front of the falls, across the rocks, and one long bridge. On the photographers one, you get sprayed with a lot of mist. Guess what happens in the close one.

I put my camera in two ziploc bags in my pocket, and my money and passport in another ziploc bag. Then I went in for some walking glory of water and wind. It wasn't a shower, it was a pounding. As I walked, across the green cliffs surrounded by white mist with the falls as a backdrop, a full circle halo of rainbow stayed around my feet for as long as the sun shone, moving with me as I walked, ran, skidded, and slid in the water I could breathe. Watching the water flying into an invisible whiteness, you start to get an idea what the sirens sounded like when Odysseus had himself tied to his boat. Very few things that deadly are that beautiful. 1.5 million liters per second go over that cliff around now onto some very sharp rocks. So you just lash your mind to the mast, and walk through the water and rainbows.

I think I'll miss this.

Check out this entry's Photos.