Monday, March 5, 2012

Back in April

With precious few weeks remaining until I leave South Africa, and a healthy backlog of journal entries waiting to be turned into blogs, I have decided to put posting on hold until I return to Canada so that I can remain fully in the moment as time winds down on this particular adventure. There are stories to be told, though, so please check back in April.

In the meantime, I highly recommend Longreads for, as they accurately put it "the best long-form stories on the web."

See you in a bit.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Checking In and Setting Out

Continued from here.

With visions of Johannesburg squarely in our rear-view we started making our way out of Gauteng province and through Mpumalanga, towards Kruger National Park. As multi-hour car trips go, this one has to rank among the most underwhelming in my life. The landscape was flat, vast and unchanging. The only notable breaks in the monotony were nuclear power plants at regular intervals and a packed, very Westernized shopping mall in perplexing proximity to absolutely nowhere.

We had booked a guided sunset drive at Kruger to start at 5:30, and as the afternoon stretched out and the drive took longer than we had anticipated, we started watching the clock a little more closely. We pulled into the parking lot at Kruger's Crocodile Bridge entry gate at around 4:00, and with only one other family in the office getting their permits and paying their entry fees, we thought we had plenty of time. We were wrong.

The long rectangular office was sparse and silent, with three largely uninspired South Africa National Parks employees sitting behind the counter. Dated posters hung on the walls, while brochure racks sat empty and ceiling fans waged a futile war against the stifling afternoon heat. The simple act of paying our entry fee for the week and confirming our in-park accommodation and pre-booked game drives turned into an hour-long ordeal thanks to the woman who was “helping” us, whose attitude could generously be described as disinterested.

As we were getting sorted out, a mini bus crammed with fifteen or so native South Africans pulled up, its passengers excitedly spilling out while a few spokespeople came into the office.

“We have come to see the animals!” one of the group excitedly declared, while others stood next to the vehicle and sipped liberally from bottles pulled out of the cooler they had with them. More than one of them were unsteady on their feet, and the park's employees didn’t seem too keen on letting them in to the park.

“You don’t have enough time to come in on a day pass,” the most senior among them explained. “The gates close in ninety minutes, you can’t get across the park in that time. And besides, you have been drinking.”

“But we paid a lot of money and came a long way. We just got lost.”

“You should have looked at a map.”

Some of the passengers were clearly drunk and not bothered, while others were disappointed that their adventure to Kruger seemed to be ending at the entry gate, especially after they had shelled out for the mini bus ride and come some distance. South Africa is full of born and bred locals who have never seen its most iconic sights. It is rare for someone selling animal sculptures in one of the country’s towns to have seen the flesh-and-bone versions of the cheap, mass-produced likenesses they are hawking. I thought it a shame to see this group of residents get turned away.

“OK, we will come back tomorrow,” said one especially deflated young man. That prospect seemed dim.

By the time we finally had our accommodation and permits sorted out and drove to the dusty and seemingly post-apocalyptic free-for-all camping area, we had less than ten minutes until our guided game drive was set to start. I threw the tent up in record, frantic time (with no assigned campsites, we needed to assert our space) and we each took a quick bath in bug dope after donning our long sleeves - malaria being a bitch best avoided.

We sprinted the hundred meters from the campsite to the meeting point for the game drive, on the wide swath of road in between Crocodile Bridge rest camp's modest gift shop/restaurant and even more modest two-pump gas station. We arrived frazzled and sweaty. "Slow down, you're in Africa," a fellow guest told us. "You're throwing off the balance." Realizing that we were in no danger of missing the boat, so to speak, we both took a few sheepish and calming deep breaths as we climbed into the back of the game vehicle: an oversized, deep-green pickup with a canopy over several rows of benches in the bed, an aisle running down the middle, and no glass behind the cab. We plunked ourselves down on the right hand side, halfway back.

While they are an added expense, guided drives are a near-necessity in Kruger. Park roads are closed to private vehicles before sunup and after sundown (at nighttime, overnight guests are confined to Kruger's rest camps, which are the only parts of the park that are fenced in), so the guided drives are the only way to get around the park at those times when the animals are most active.

Our fellow passengers consisted of three small groups of people. One was led by a wordy forty-something mother who would wear two different hats over the course of the drive, each of which perfectly matched her club-ready teal tank top - a garment which left little doubt as to the volume of her two most prized assets. She was adamant that she ride in the cab of the truck next to our driver and guide (whom she insisted move his rifle so that she could sit down), rather than in the back with the sinners and gluttons. She made it known almost immediately that she had become bored with the large number of lions she was seeing in the park, and she came equipped with a novel and iPod, I suppose in case we suddenly changed course and decided to take a family road trip to Des Moines rather than spend the evening wildlife watching in Kruger.

The driver and guide she cozied up next to was named City (yes, City): a tall, young, black man, whose crisply pressed, short-sleeved khaki uniform billowed off of his slight frame. City was soft spoken and to the point, but it was clear to see that he loved his job, and he would prove to be as passionate about the park's animals as anyone we would meet over the coming days.

On the first row of benches in the truck's bed sat the busty mother's similarly-endowed daughter, and the daughter's camera happy boyfriend. A few rows behind them were Sarah and I, while a couple similar in age to us was immediately across the aisle on the left. In the back was a family of five. Near as we could tell, we were the only foreigners on the drive.

City rose in the cab and turned to address the passengers, giving the stock "hands and feet inside, no littering" speech that is common to roller coasters, school buses and, evidently, sunset safaris. The excitement welled in Sarah's eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks as City listed the animals we could expect to see, speaking matter-of-factly and without a pandering enthusiasm. He then fired up the engine and took us slowly through Crocodile Bridge's towering gate and out onto the silent roads of the park, while the fading sun feebly breathed the day's last warmth onto the stunted landscape.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

CSI Jamestown

When our landlord saw the smashed car window and noticed that our front door was hanging wide open in the still summer morning, he thought we'd been killed. He knew, of course, that we'd been robbed, but when you live in a country as prone to violence as modern South Africa is, you quickly accept the petty theft and begin to rationally fear for the worst. He scurried down the backyard hill from his house to our cottage, calling out to us with panic in his voice.

"Sarah and Hart?! Sarah and Hart?!"

It wasn't our typical seven AM wake-up call on a Sunday morning, so we knew something was up. I said a groggy hello as I jumped up and made my way to the door.

"Your car's been broken into," he said, "and your door was open. I think they came into your house, too. They probably took your computer."

By this point I had pushed past him to look at the car, but Sarah was still inside.

"Yup," she said. "Harty, the computer's gone."

I walked around the back of the cottage, knowing what I would see. Or rather, what I wouldn't see. My bike had been stolen.

Son. Of. A. Bitch. (That is the family-friendly version of what I actually said).

It would seem that the thieves came up from the river out back, hopped the locked, chest-high gate and approached the rental car that sat beside our cottage. Sarah's parents are visiting for a couple of weeks - though they aren't staying with us, due to a lack of space - and the car is theirs. The thieves smashed the driver's window and then reached in and rolled down the other ones, so as to have access to the goodies inside without tripping the alarm by opening a door. And what goodies were inside, you ask? An iPod, two pairs of binoculars and some smaller odds and ends. We have been vigilant about taking everything from cars inside at night, but when we'd returned home late Saturday night, exhausted after a day of wildlife viewing in and around Table Mountain National Park, we omitted to bring some things in.

After helping themselves to what was in the car, they tried our front door and found it unlocked - again, we'd been tired and complacent after a long day. I have previously posted about the size of our one-room cottage (comparable in area to your basic kitchen/living room combo in a small apartment), so for someone to have come in while we slept is as brazen for them as it is unsettling for us. Once inside they made a quick sweep and did quite well for themselves: laptop, camera, another pair of binoculars, my shorts (including, as a special bonus: cash, credit cards, my driver's license and passport) and our jar of change which had swelled handsomely in the past few months.

Apparently the white noise from our fan drowns out more than just our neighbour's rooster, and neither one of us heard a thing.

After cleaning out the apartment, they grabbed the bike and a pair of my trail runners that were sitting outside (kindly leaving me with my dirty socks that were inside them), hopped the fence out back and made their way across the river and through the lemon grove on the other side.

Obviously, there is some self-blame here, as we'd been told to always keep our valuables out of sight (something that falls squarely in the "common sense" category) and my landlord had explicitly told me to keep the bike inside. "It will get stolen" he had told me. But bringing the bike into our modest digs made things just a little too crowded, so every so often I deliberately forgot to bring it in. Truth be told, we had just gotten a little too comfortable. Our neighbourhood is friendly and people of all stripes - shack dwellers and those in gated single family homes alike - have welcomed us with open arms. A quick walk down the street always involves stopping to chat with people we may or may not have met previously. Amid all of this warmth, it was easy to rationalise easing up on the exhausting level of vigilance which we had been warned to exercise at all times.

The police came relatively promptly, and took quite a while following the bike tracks on the other side of the river until losing them at a paved road. My shorts and passport were found down by the river, as was my bike helmet (gee, thanks) and the empty change jar. The police then spent over an hour taking detailed statements, before a forensics officer came and lifted prints from the car window. I am aware that most of this was an effort in pacification, but to a modest extent, it worked.

As is always the case when things like this happen, the biggest losses are the things that can't be replaced. Among other things, a good chunk of our once-in-a-lifetime pictures from our recent stint in Kruger National Park are gone. Beyond that, we lost all of the pictures from our post-Kruger country-wide road trip, and most of our other pictures from the past couple of years (the recent pictures were on a memory card in the camera, while older ones were on the laptop's hard drive). Sarah gets a real joy from the pictures she takes along the way, and they help to frame her memories, so they are a major loss for her.

As for my community of Jamestown, I still stand behind it as a great place to live. Our neighbours have been all too willing to help us out, with one of them anonymously naming names of likely suspects, while another helped the police officers follow the bike tracks through the lemon grove on Sunday morning. One of my friends in low places has told me that he knows exactly who to talk to in the neighbourhood about stolen electronics, and offered to check into it even before I asked him to. I choose to define my neighbourhood not by the tiny minority of people whose desperation manifests itself through bold and frightening criminal acts, but rather by those who stop and offer us rides on sweaty walks home from the grocery store.

That being said, my anger runs deep. More than once over the past four days I have circled my neighbourhood in a car, looking for someone riding my bike, with visions dancing in my head of shoving it so far up his ass that he has handle bars coming out of his ears. But below the violent anger - well below, but rising ever so slightly each day like a persistent, compassionate tide - my heart goes out to the people who did this. These are people who are likely addicted to methamphetamine, or tik, as it is known in the townships here. It is a drug with a grip so tight on a segment of marginalised South Africans that when people run out of things to sell to support their habit, they will part with beloved pets for a pittance just to get their next high. Tik has made its way into Jamestown, and property crime has followed.

And even if they are not addicted, we are talking about people who come from a set of circumstances so drastically different from my own that it would be absurd for me to pass judgment on them. Naturally, if they had the same access to education, social services, family support and other opportunities that I have been presented with throughout my life, they would not be taking the immense risk of waltzing into someone's house in the middle of the night in the hopes of getting a few dollars richer. And notwithstanding the heartbreaking sentimental losses and the fact that I currently lack the resources for material replacement, it's tough for me to rage about the loss of material goods when every day I am surrounded by people living in shacks. Surrounded by people without running water, reliable health care or the means to turn their lives around. Surrounded by people, all too often, without hope. And while impoverished South Africans are not a meek and helpless people to be pitied, circumstances such as these help to explain - though not excuse - what happened to us.

At the end of the day, when I look at the dire circumstances of literally millions of the people around me it is very difficult to feel sorry for myself. I hate what happened to us and wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I hate the Petri dish of injustice that breeds these sorts of crimes even more. And while solutions are complicated and hard to come by, my resolve to work towards them - personally and professionally, in Canada and abroad - grows unabated.

More road-trip posts coming soon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Gates of Johannesburg

If travel is supposed to be about opening doors, then this was not a good start. Nor was it an apt metaphor for breaking down barriers or crossing some sort of symbolic threshold. No, by any analogy this did not bode well. Less than 24 hours into what was supposed to be an epic, three-week pan-South African odyssey, and there I was in Johannesburg with a metal security gate just having t-boned my mint condition rental car. I stepped out to assess the damage, while the apologetic wince of the woman who had her hand on the gate's open/close button did little to smooth things over. I was not feeling pumped.

The trip had started smoothly enough the day before, with Sarah and I driving from Stellenbosch to Capetown and then flying from Capetown to Joburg. There, we picked up our rental car: a shiny, scratch-free four-door silver hatch-back with just enough bells and whistles to make me feel extravagant. The plan from Joburg was to drive to Kruger National Park in the country's extreme northeast for a week of wildlife viewing, and then take a two-week drive all the way back to Stellenbosch - in South Africa's bottom southwest corner - via the coast, covering a significant chunk of the country's bi-oceanic waterfront in the process. Previous lessons having been learned, the car was rented from a trusted international agency and at no point did I have to meet a suspected dope runner in a parking lot to trade vehicles. Movin' on up.

Before making the 6-hour drive to Kruger, we spent that first night of the trip in Joburg, enjoying dinner on a quaint second-floor patio and drinks at a buzzing two-room bar with fellow expats who, like me, are a part of the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Program. My social life in and around Stellenbosch had been uncharacteristically quiet to that point, so it was a real treat to see some familiar faces and compare notes at the halfway point of our South African experience. Funny, though, that at a table full of human rights lawyers working abroad, the conversation more than once turned to concern about the human rights ramifications of new legislation being passed back home. But while the topics weren't always pleasant, it was nice to be able to talk Canadiana with actual Canadians, rather than trying to piece together the current national consciousness by reading comments below articles on the CBC website (an exercise which can lead to no other conclusion than that we are a confused nation whose public school system eschews grammatical instruction in favour of name-calling and the indoctrination of politically extreme schools of thought).

I also appreciated getting a take on the city we were in from a semi-local group of people. While this is always something I seek out while traveling, it was especially appreciated here, because at first glance I had a hard time getting past the architecture of violence which pervades Johannesburg. By any measure, crime is an atrocious problem in South Africa: over 30 murders per 100,000 people annually, and sexual violence (most rapes per capita in the world, according to the United Nations), assault and property crime occurring in equally jarring numbers. Being the country's major commercial, cultural and industrial center, Johannesburg is also a lightening rod for criminal activity, and the towering security walls, spike-topped wrought-iron gates, and super-charged electric fences that fortify even the tiniest swaths of residential or commercial real estate in the city - many of them topped with gleaming coils of razor wire - serve as constant reminders of that. (I should note that tall gates and razor wire are common in Capetown and Stellenbosch as well, but the walls seemed that much thicker, taller and sharper on even the prettiest of Joburg's streets). As such, hearing my colleagues wax enthusiastic about the city and its people served to remind me that the fortresses the city's residents build for themselves do not tell anything close to a complete story of life in Johannesburg.

Owing to those security concerns, once our post-dinner drinks had wrapped up and I was ready to make my way solo back to our room (Sarah had called it a slightly earlier night than I did), I took the locals' advice and flagged a cab to get me the four blocks back to the guesthouse where we were staying. A walk home in the summer breeze is usually a highlight of warm-weather nights out for me, but apparently for an out-of-towner in Joburg it is a dangerous luxury best not undertaken.

When I returned sober after only a handful of evenly spaced Coronas, Sarah was still awake. I was glad for that, as our room was quite lovely and I wanted to enjoy it before falling asleep. Character furniture was scattered throughout, including a sizable, ornately carved armoire with mirrors on its doors. A bricked-over fireplace with plush chairs facing it and a nearby antique writing desk oozed a classical energy. I felt like I should have been dipping my quill in an ink well and signing the Declaration of Independence as I sat at the solid wood desk next to the armoire to make my day's journal entries, and the en suite bathroom with sunken tub only added to the room's aura. In the daylight hours, birds chirped in the garden outside the room while the resident cat chilled on the roof.

Up early the next morning for the included full breakfast (a nice surprise, and something that didn't seem to make sense given the reasonable rate we were paying) and then out to the car with Kruger on our minds.

The parking area of the guesthouse was tiny: a barely functional patch of brick that gave just enough room to complete a nine-point turn before exiting through the solid-metal security gate. I opted to back out at an angle rather than turn the car around. Apparently, the employee with her finger on the sliding gate's controls thought I should have moved a little bit quicker, because I was only halfway out the gate - moving slowly so as to avoid a tree on the sidewalk - when it started closing in on the car with the sort of slow-motion inevitability usually reserved for B-grade horror movies.

The gate hit the car with a hybridized crunching noise that can only be described as the sound of a trip to Kruger being postponed.

Sarah and I both swore in a way that can only be described as yelling.

I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car to survey the damage, while the woman who had been operating the gate's controls stood back and let the manager deal with me. Christine, the manager, was a large, soulful woman with whom I had developed a rather jovial rapport during our 19-hour stay.

"What happened?" she asked, not yet seeing it necessary to rise from her chaise lounge next to the pool which was down a small, grassy hill from the parking area.

"Well, your gate hit my car, and I don't think I should have to pay for it," I responded, in a friendly but to-the-point tone. I hoped that she would agree with me and that we could all remain on friendly terms with good vibes prevailing.

Christine rose to her feet and ambled over to take a look, her relaxed attitude helping to keep the situation mellow.

Mercifully and owing the design of the gate, the only nick on the car was a circular scrape about the size of a South African five rand coin (or Canadian toonie) just above the rear passenger wheel well. A crowd had gathered and one bystander taught me the useful trick of buffing out scratches using a corner of t-shirt soaked in the car's hydraulic fluid. Still though, the scratch remained. If it was my car I probably wouldn't have cared too much, but I wasn't so sure that the good folks at the rental company would share my laissez-faire attitude, so Christine and I negotiated a modest cash settlement on the spot. With that, Sarah and I were on our way, cash in hand, with the scratch quickly becoming not only an endearing birthmark on the visual surface of our trip, but also a helpful way to tell our car apart from the many others of similar size and colour which populate South Africa's roads.

Kruger National Park, here we come.