Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Sorry for the long delay in updating my blog- for whatever reason, I was relatively uninspired when it came to writing during my time in South Africa.  It’s not because my month here hasn’t been thought-provoking- actually, it’s the exact opposite.  It’s a huge country, incredibly diverse, in what and who it contains, which makes it difficult for an outsider to completely understand and/or describe.  After traveling South Africa, I quickly realized nothing about this country is simple.  When it comes to employment, whites complain that affirmative action initiatives make it impossible for them to find jobs, blacks complain that their opportunities are limited because whites still have the highest paying positions.  The Apartheid and accompanying Bantu Education act (which prevented blacks from getting an education above what was needed for them to work as laborers) weren’t that long ago.  The xenophobic attacks on new African immigrants are an ongoing issue, and generally speaking clashes in the townships amongst people cramped together but all coming from different places, different values and different ways of living.  It’s a country with first world infrastructure (deceiving at face value) but third-world politics, with a significant amount of corruption. Since it’s my last morning in this crazy country, I have two extra hours before my plane takes off, I decided to down a second cup of instant coffee and write something.  That being said, yesterday was a crazy adventure and my mind is a bit fuzzy and still recovering.  After two days of severe food poisoning, I made an ambitious attempt at recovery: a damp, cold 12 km hike/rock scramble in the snow-covered Drakensburg Mountains.  I was dropped off alone at a smoky pool bar where I shared a beer with the South African equivalent of rednecks then spent hours in the cold drizzle waiting for a bus that was two hours late.  Around midnight, I successfully made it to Johannesburg Park Station just in time for insane adventure trying to find a hostel, hidden between industrial buildings.  Thankfully, my cab driver was the sweetest man who didn’t dump me on the streets of the city and eventually we were able to penetrate its fortress gates (he even offered for me to stay at his place if our efforts failed) so I’m leaving South Africa with my warm, fuzzy feelings about the country restored, even if I’m not happy about the atypically cold temperatures that make me a little delirious, as well as sleep deprived.  You are forewarned. For a bit of (boring but necessary) background about this journey that got me here.  I came to South Africa because I was offered a post-doc research position at the University of Johannesburg, looking at teacher training workshops in the famous Soweto township.  I was recruited by an enthusiastic but vague Brit retired professor who had been involved with the South African Institute of Physics.  Although I accepted the position after my defense in March, I was a bit skeptical that it was even real when they failed to produce a contract or provide me with useful information in the five months prior to my arrival.  But with some skillful flight coordination for my teaching gig in China, I was able to arrive in the country without paying a penny.  I figured I wanted to see South Africa anyway so what did I have to lose? “I love Johannesburg.  Every time my plane comes in to land, circling over the scruffy yellow mine dumps, the thin, thrusting skyscrapers and glinting glass of central Johannesburg, the snaking motorways encircling the city, the turquoise spangles of swimming pools and psychedelic splashes of bougainvillea in suburban gardens, the serried ranks of new township developments mushrooming out to the open veld, and the rashes of untidy squatter settlements, my chest tightens with excitement.  Jo’ burg is in your face, and overfamiliar from the moment you touch down” -As old as history itself, Sue Armstrong I arranged a workaway, tutoring 10th graders math in a township near Pretoria so I was close enough to check out the situation at the University but not tied to a sinking ship, so to speak.  I loved the area immediately.  I loved the subtle beauty of the grasslands- boring and barren at first glance, but containing a rainbow palette of warm hued vegetation.  Even though I haven’t been on a “real” safari yet, I’d encounter zebras, springboks, wildebeest on “average” hikes through nature reserves or private property.  I adored listening to lyrical melodies of Zulu and related African languages, laughed at the local slang (they call traffic lights “robots”) and the dainty accent that made me feel like adding “Cheerio!” to the end every conversation. I loved the spirit and spunk...

Ecstatic Dance, Microbiotic Eating With Hippies in Middle-Of-Nowhere Belgium

Ecstatic Dance, Microbiotic Eating With Hippies in Middle-Of-Nowhere Belgium

“Help wanted: building an ecological project and humanity with permaculture and children playing in the gardens and trees, giving people a peaceful place for drinking tea, relaxing and community sharing… free energy, communication, natural food and consciousness… We welcome people with a positive mindset, believe in a sustainable world and are motivated to help this project thrive and shine”. “I like nature, peace, tea and thriving and shining.  Vegan meals won’t be a problem for me”, I thought, then promptly connected with and accepted an offer to volunteer at this eco-house in middle-of-nowhere Belgium. Since the host was new on workaway, I had very little idea what to expect- goats, farmland and moderately liberal hippies was my best guess. I arrived at the tiny train station, wondering where Nancy could be hiding on the small platform and hoping she could find me with my backpackers gear since I had no idea what she looked like and my cell phone was buried deep in my pack. Fortunately, she popped out behind a pillar with purple leggings, brilliant blue eyes, youthful but with the weathered skin of a gardener. She steered me to her enormous white van and clanged pots together as she made room for my bag in the backseat. Her very bouncy Sheppard appeared to me looking at me curiously, his half-black, half-white face angled for examination but he was too busy leaping around to really figure me out. Fortunately, “Mitch” liked me enough to share a seat with me on the ride home and Nancy told me that contrary to what his puppy energy suggests, Mitch was actually 30 years old. “He eats all macrobiotic like us, beans and rice and pea soup and vegan dog food with no sugar. He ate a piece of normal toast once and was so sick for 5 days that the vet thought he may die”, she explained solemnly, “I gave him love and miso soup and look at him now!”. Indeed, Mitch was the poster child for a macrobiotic diet, with his shiny fur, mischievous eyes and speedy legs. The ride to her house only took a few minutes, past suburban looking houses and flat farmland. We pulled up to a modern A-frame house with lots of skylights and large windows, whose modernity surprised and relieved me. “At least I wouldn’t be spending the winter in a rural love shack,” I comforted myself. But then I walked in the door and a colorful, semi-abstract painting of a nude, elderly and slightly rotund couple greeted me. As I got the grand tour, I started to learn hippies are far from free either. “We don’t eat sugar and we ask that you don’t bring it in the house. Our last workawayer loved to eat sugar and pasta. He didn’t follow that rule and it didn’t work out,” she clucked disappointingly and appeared to be praying for the salvation of his soul. “We shut the doors, especially the toilet door, to promote the flow of feng shui. We don’t like electricity and wifi waves messes with our brain. It just makes my energy go….”, she buzzed her lips and flapped her hands around frantically. Her tables were covered in crystals, dried, flowers and children’s art. I spotted a toy house in the corner and asked whether she had a kid. “Yes, Iaaz was my golden boy but he died”. She spoke about it so warmly that I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly through her accent until she directed me to a shrine in the corner of the room covered in old photos and a candle. “He died in a swimming pool. In May. I love to talk about it”. I wasn’t sure how to react so I passed along my condolences complimented her on what a beautiful boy he was and how happy he looked in the photographs. All of a sudden, the plastic playset in the background, which stood abandoned except for bunnies hoping around its base, seemed to lurk ominously through the morning mist, kind of a depressing thing to look out at when you wake up for morning breakfast. The thought of staying in his old room seemed even stranger. Macrobiotic Eating “Are you hungry? My partner Bernard will soon be joining us for lunch”. And sure enough, he arrived on cue. A tall, thin man with Beethoven hair and plaid bellbottom pants just a tad bit too short. He evaluated me with piercing blue eyes and didn’t say much throughout the meal except to help Nancy with occasional translations or clarifications. As she dished out assorted vegetable-based dishes, she explained some basics of macrobiotic living....