Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ten Thousand Miles From Winnipeg

I think I am going to have to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. This may seem like a bold undertaking, but after spending the past week flying from Yellowknife to Calgary (three hour layover) to Ottawa (three days) to Frankfurt (12 hours) to Johannesburg (60 minutes of sprinting and cursing) to Cape Town, the thought of getting on a plane ever again is enough to make a grown man weep. A first world problem, to be sure, but at this point I'd sooner try to hitch a ride on a dolphin than endure one more fellow traveller's attempts to colonize my leg room by reclining the seat in front of me when it's time to head back to Canada in March.

The journey started in Yellowknife, a place that's tough to get to and even tougher to leave. I was choked up as I flew over the rocks and reflected on a year that seemed to alternate between the stereotypical and the unpredictable. Sure, there were pond hockey games, midnight sun swims and trippy late nights spent gawking at the Northern lights. But there were also art openings, multi sport races and French cuisine. Throw in landlords and neighbours who took us in as their own and redefined community, as well as professional challenges that were both inspiring and heartbreaking, and I found myself on the YZF tarmac saying goodbye to what was a beautiful and complicated year as an articled student. But this was my second tour of duty in the North, and I take great comfort in knowing that, with friendships carved in permafrost and stories that will be high in my cocktail party rotation for quite some time, Yellowknife will remain a part of me whether I want it to or not.

Ottawa was a much briefer stop than I had hoped for, but with professional obligations in Yellowknife and South Africa leaving a very narrow window, I had to deal as best I could. I have reengaged with Ottawa over the past few years, since shifting my operations from my childhood home in Nepean to my sister's house in Westboro (where the script tells me I am supposed to be hanging out, what with my beard and penchant for micro brews). While it is not the hometown of my youth, my new relationship with the city has me excited for visits home in a whole new way.

Sarah had left Yellowknife before me, so we met up on Wednesday afternoon in Ottawa before grabbing a bite with our respective (and supportive) families and heading to the airport. We hopped on the red eye to Frankfurt, which allowed for a few inconsequential fits of sleep, but presented us with twelve daylight hours of a Bavarian layover.

We found a train into the city for a modest round trip price, although we soon figured out that tickets don't get checked and we could have saved some bread. Either way, we arrived in the center of town at around 10:00 and set out to explore. I couldn't tell if the archetypal European architecture was a natural part of the landscape or as legit as Whistler Village, but that's what downtown Frankfurt looks like, so I chalked it up to authenticity as we strolled amidst the coffee shops, bars and offices. By mid afternoon and with no sleep for close to 30 hours, we were both thoroughly exhausted to the point of disorientation, so we strolled over the River Main (mine) and found a patch of grass that hadn't been laid claim to by the resident goose population. We laid our heads down and drifted off, so tired that the busy drone of the city on all sides of us served as soothing white noise.

At around five o'clock we dusted ourselves off, crossed a bridge pierced with thousands of love padlocks and boarded the train back to the airport. Upon emerging from the train, we were met by a boozy man who asked if he could have my ticket (which was good for the whole day). Sensing that I was being used as a middle man in the underground economy, I offered to sell it to him, and collected a few Euro before we were on our way. He tried to cajole Sarah's from her "for my family," but we opted to pass hers off gratis to a less intoxicated passerby who wasn't going to resell it. We found our gate and boarded South African Airways, bound for Johannesburg.

We had to clear customs in Jo'burg (he said, pretending to be a local), which proved a slightly less rigorous process than buying beer in Ontario. Customs was such an unencumbering experience that I assumed there was another checkpoint deeper in the airport maze. There wasn't. What we found instead were ten different answers to the question of where to re-check our bags, and the only people really eager to help us were the porters who work for tips (we passed). After zooming around the airport like two pinballs with checked baggage, we blasted through security and made our gate with literally not a minute to spare. On the bus from the gate to the plane I chatted up locals in rugby shirts about the World Cup, and was the recipient of numerous high-fives thanks to Canada's upset of Tonga that day. When the subject of hockey came up and I told them that I played a little, there was adulation for being involved in such a rough and violent sport. Tired as I was, I didn't bother to explain the subtle nuances between the professional game and the brand enjoyed while drunk on the rink in front of my buddy's house boat in Yellowknife.

The flight from Jo'burg (try to keep up) to Capetown was mercifully short, and we were greeted upon arrival by my boss for the next few months. I will be working with Lawyers for Human Rights, a pan-South African NGO with a self-explanatory name. I'll be stationed in Stellenbosch, about a thirty minute drive inland from Cape Town International, working on the Security of Farm Workers Program. Near as I can tell, I'll be doing a mix of legal research, client visits in the townships and anything else that will make me useful. It's a six month internship organized through the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Program, and I look forward to being able to recommend it to my peers once I've actually started working.

Stellenbosch is a complicated city of about 200,000 in the heart of South African wine country. It is by turns a vibrant university town, elitist tourist spot and cluttered, fast-talking African urban area. It is my hope to be able to connect with each of theses sides of Stellenbosch's reality, and embrace the city for all of its beauty and inequality. We shall see.

We have spent this first weekend perusing the town on foot, with highlights being a sidewalk cafe for lunch and following our ears to a smoky shoebox of an attic bar on our first night, where university bands laid down some heavy blues grooves while we sipped on R10 (10 rand, or about $1.40) Jack Daniels. We stopped at one apiece, but it's nice to know that a little snake bite at the end of the week will be doable even on an intern's modest stipend.

I have done my weekend's exploring through the mixed lens of tourist and transplant. I will certainly only ever be a visitor here, but the initial excitement of being in this new, strange place is tempered slightly by logistical residential chores of having to buy groceries and aggressively seek out a place to live. And there has been some of the mundane and grounding as well, despite the new surroundings. The dog shit I stepped in while out for a run tonight was no more endearing than the myriad piles I would find at the end of my driveway on Bryson Drive in Yellowknife, in the shadow of the treehouse I called home. I have not, of course, been here long enough to shake a feeling of disorientation, and said to Sarah tonight that I wish I could see a live shot of us walking down the street from outer space, all the better to comprehend our new co-ordinates.

So now it is Sunday night. Spring has been late this year, so it feels more like October in the Adirondacks than September in Stellenbosch right now. There's a fire in the common area of our temporary abode, and I am listening to The Weakerthans sing about their hometown. Winnipeg's greatest contemporary rock and roll exports have me missing a city in which I have spent all of about 18 hours in my life. Funny how when you are far away from anything familiar, every sensory experience can be a Trojan horse for an unaccountable nostalgia. Naturally, I am looking forward to creating my own sense of place and routine here in the days, weeks and months to come.

Work starts tomorrow.