This is the journal of my visit to South Africa.
> Later Journal Entries are on Page 2 >
3.29.04 Somewhere over the Atlantic...
I've been in the air about 2½ hours. Bahamas? I'm in the middle aisle and can't see anything. My personal television screen includes a map to indicate our present location but I can't understand how to make it work. I have plenty of time to figure it out. 12 more hours. I'm on a South African Airlines flight direct from Atlanta to Johannesburg. I left Las Vegas (home) 10 hours ago at midnightish local time. A sign at the gate in Atlanta informed me this leg is 8467 miles so the total must be about 10,000. Each way. And this flight is the quick one. It takes longer to come back. It's exhausting to contemplate. There is something vaguely sort of wrong about being able to travel 10,000 miles in 24 hours. And something also very wonderful.
I'm traveling with my friend and roommate, Bok, who is himself South African. He's actually on a different flight via London. Come to think of it, he may be in Picadilly Circus at this moment enjoying his 5-hour layover. Or he may be unable to leave the confines of Heathrow's International Terminal. I'll know pretty soon. Our flights are scheduled to arrive like 10 minutes apart. We intend to meet up and go through Customs together. I will appreciate that. Customs people make me nervous.
Then we'll be met by Bok's family. He hasn't seen them in 4 years. They're very excited. Bok is only 24 so you can imagine that he's very changed by the years and by his experiences in America. I picked up some Vegas kitch for them. An assortment of garish Vegas-themed items. I enjoyed gathering them last night - bought them on the actual Strip. But this morning I got to feeling that I needed something nice, too, so I bought a bottle of Kahlua at the duty-free in Atlanta. Gotta have gifts! We're staying 3½ months so I expect I'll be shown much of the country.
I hope to still get some work done on various web sites but this is such an irresistable adventure that my customers are probably going to be somewhat neglected. If so then I'll make it up to them somehow. I should feel more excited. I mostly feel tired because there's been so much to do recently and I haven't taken care of everything that I wish I had found time for. It will all seem 10,000 miles away soon. Especially after a good night's sleep.... trouble with that is; I'll arrive at 8:30AM local time and probably very sleepy.
"I'm on my way to Africa." It's so hard to get my mind around the idea. I've been to Europe and to Haiti, and the Republic of South Africa (RSA) has something in common with each. But it's AFRICA which is unique. Maybe by the time the plane lands I'll quit thinking back to all the loose ends I've neglected and instead ahead to the countless adventures that await me in this my trip-of-a-lifetime.
3.30.04 Southern Hemisphere?
It's 2:30PM in Vegas and night here. I've been flying for 8 hours of the 14.5 hour flight. They should tell us when we pass the equator I think. The map display on the touchscreen TV's definitely doesn't work. If I could see where I am now maybe it would help me to get used to the idea that I really am going to Africa. Maybe I'll see Africa from above the coast in a little while. I was told that these flights try to get back over land as quickly as possible.
I'm listening to music from RSA on headphones. It's nice. I wish I could sleep. It's going to be morning when I arrive with a whole day of adventures ahead of me. I hope I meet Bok before Customs.
3.30.04 On Land
I feel like I've been on this plane forever but 24 hours + 10 time zones later, my trip is over. I'm free at last! We take a bus to the terminal and I find Bok in no time. That's a relief. (He didn't risk leaving Heathrow during his London layover. I'm glad.) We separate because our luggage is arriving to a different area. I'm on my own at Customs. Happily, they pay me only cursory attention, ask me no questions, and I'm let into the country for 90 days. I need not have worried.
Everybody is waiting for me outside and I'm introduced to the family. The airport has a nice lived-in look about it; reminds me of the Montreal train station. The only really strange thing going on is we take off driving down the wrong side of the road. That will take some getting used to. I ask, "Where are the elephants?" and am told they're far away from Jo'burg. Hmmm. "You know, it was always either night-time or the windows were closed throughout my trip. I could be anywhere! and not know the difference. How do I know that I'm really in Africa? I'm going to reserve judgment until I see my first elephant." Playing the difficult American tourist. LOL.
I see some shantytowns along the highway. Bok thinks I should be shocked by the way that some blacks live here. But, after having seen Haiti, these look positively middle-class. Not good, certainly. But I've seen far worse.
We arrive at a lodge on a property owned by Bok's uncle, about three hours from the airport. It's a mix of densely-concentrated low trees, scattered trees, and open grasslands. "The bush." And surrounded by a high wire fence. We see some critters called waterbok. Mutant deer? Then suddenly there are a few dozen monkeys crossing in front of us. Ah, so maybe it really is Africa after all. LOL.
We see the uncle's house. It's quite fabulous. But they're away until morning. We find a worker here and collect the key to the lodge where we're staying. It's a big property so in the course of driving across it we see other African animals. Mostly mutant deer. Mostly something-boks. There are many types of boks. And some similar animals not called boks. I can't keep the names all straight. I'm promised giraffes. None are in evidence as yet.
The lodge is made of brick, with five bedrooms and a grass roof. It's very beautiful and spacious. Bok and I are going to sleep in the loft. (His mom has mentioned giant spiders a couple of times so I choose the narrow elevated bed and leave Bok the big mattress on the floor.) There is a fence surrounding us to keep the flowers and shrubs safe from the grazing and trampling of the animals. We make a fire in the backyard in a brick firelace. I can't believe that I'm still awake. Right after dinner I pass out.
I'm awake first. I listen to exotic birds calling from nearby. Then I hear a quite tremendous racket and think the rest of the household is awake but, upon inspection, it turns out to be monkeys. Big monkeys. On the roof and in the back. From the kitchen window I see one very close-up and he's magnificent. And a baby walking along the top of the fence. Very cool. This is a good way to wake up to Africa for the first time. It's so thoughtful of Bok's family to have brought us here first.
We have no particular plans today. We spend a long time just sitting on the porch and chatting. Bok's sister is bitten by an insect and it hurts a lot. Bok shows an alarming degree of alarm at the sight of another insect which he says is far worse than the one that got his sister and also far worse than an American bee. Bok's mother tells about a recent incident where a child playing in a garden accidentally swallowed a butterfly and died of poisoning. Africa, it seems, is dangerous. One mercy, they assure me that it's nearly 200 miles to the nearest reported malaria outbreak. Comforting.
We drive around the property looking for giraffes. We find all sorts of boks. And a group of wart hogs. I love the way they run, it's so bumpy and funny. Very much in contrast to the impala with their long soaring jumps. And then -behold- there is a giraffe! And a little one close by. And then another one. The young one was born here. It's a giraffe family. They're wonderful! We all stare at one another for a long time.
We visit the aunt and uncle in the big house. We go into town grocery shopping where Bok gets a little carried away in the bake shop rediscovering the flavors of his childhood.
This is an Afrikaans-speaking area (derivitive mostly of Dutch) whereas some other towns are English-speaking. I'm trying to notice how blacks and whites interact. Apparently they simply avoid all non-essential interaction. I think of the Deep South where I traveled some as a teenager in the late 70's. In the small towns of Arkansas and Mississippi the older black men had clearly been strongly conditioned to be deeply afraid of white men, and they showed me extreme deference. It was so unnerving to me. Here, everybody just goes about their business. It's almost like each group doesn't see or register the existance of the opposite color - except as needed. Shadows. It's a hypothesis. I'll keep observing and see if it holds up.
Blacks who work for whites, meanwhile, are like part of the extended family. Bok's mom tells me of one houseservant who worked for her many years and who died of AIDS some months ago. She cried for weeks. At Bok's uncle's house she coos over the baby of another servant and tells me how much she enjoyed buying boatloads of baby clothes when this one was born. They don't fit anymore so she's planning some more shopping. It all reminds me of the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which makes much of the way pre-Civil War Northern whites loved blacks as a group and loathed them as individuals, while Southerners held precisely opposite attitudes. In the book, Southern whites typically formed deep relationships with black individuals even while scorning them as a group. (Meanwhile, the Northerners had all kinds of sympathy for blacks at a distance - but were totally unable to relate to them as individuals. It was weird.) So I have another hypothesis. I want to notice if Afrikaners' attitudes seem to resemble those once prevelant among whites in the South.
In the late afternoon we all hop aboard a Land Rover built for safari'ing, and take another drive around the property. This time we see the giraffes from much closer. And many more types of boks. And two groups of wildebeast. I love the wildebeast. They're so very strange looking. This is such a great place! Bok's sister points to the spot where she once saw a green mamba - a big snake. Please only show me native wildlife that has legs. I don't like the other kind at all. Sorry.
I'm watching for monkeys. Bok's mom tells me they're not here, they're all back in the house tearing up our stuff. Didn't we lock up when we left? Nobody is quite certain. She seems worried.
Just as it's getting dark, we return to the uncle's house. There are some more boks and wildebeast right in front of the fence surrounding the house. We visit in his private bar. It's got a pool table and a very big TV, next to the swimming pool. It seems to have been built with parties in mind. A couple of white contractors doing a job at the house join us. We're having a grand time. I accept a black russian (my favorite drink) and a few sips make me tremendously sleepy. The uncle is disappointed and wants to know when I'll be ready for serious drinking. I suggest 7AM and he says he'll be over with a bottle. LOL.
He tells me that these animals were all purchased and brought here. Except for the young ones born here, of which there are many. The giraffes are the most expensive. The wildbeast have lost a lot of value because of some particular disease that's going around. The uncle tells me that it can spread to cattle and so if cattle down the road happen to get sick he may be held liable. He likes his wildbeast less than I do. At one time, he thought of including water buffalo but they're very expensive and, like elephants, they can tear up the property. So he has neither.
The property, and particularly the lodge where we're staying, may be made available to tourists but he doesn't seem to be in any great rush to pursue that. Because of these "game farms" there are now several times more of these kind of animals in South Africa than 100 years ago. Eco-tourism has caught on! Actually, most of the tourists are from Jo'burg and not foreigners at all. Urban folks getting in touch with their African roots a week or a weekend at a time.
I drink some coffee to hold myself together. We go home to the lodge - no monkey damage is in evidence - and we enjoy a simple dinner. I excuse myself to go to bed as soon as possible.
I wake up first again. 6AM. I spend some time at my laptop. We brought along an adaptor so that I can use the electricity here. But I lack Internet access so I'm limited. We don't even have a phone here, other than cell phones.
I can make out some boks at the feeding trays in front of the house just before dawn. I don't know what it is exactly that's left for them there but it's a kind of treat, and it brings them close to the house where I'm able to watch them. These look a lot like American mule deer. They keep a wary eye on the house so I need to be discreet watching them. A tray for monkeys is in back. I can see our leftovers from yesterday's breakfast. They have not been here at all. These monkeys are shy. Too bad :(
The uncle explains that the monkeys and pigs are wild. They roam at will and so, unlike the other animals, he didn't pay for them. I figure out that monkeys must be thought of as especially smart racoons. There are bars on all the windows, just as in Haiti. Only here they keep out two species of burglar, not just the usual one.
We are offered a choice of going to a natural warm spring or to a bird sanctuary. I'm from Idaho, which is chock full of hot springs, so my choice is easy. Exotic birds. It's nearby. We pay a fee at the gate (slightly over R100 for our group of seven "locals" - international visitors pay more I think).
We all watch very closely for interesting little birdies. Then through a break in the trees is a group of several black ostriches! Never saw those before I think. I like them. But they're aggressive. The uncle doesn't want them anymore after an incident recently where his daughter's mother-in-law was forced to escape up into a tree. And she couldn't get a cell phone signal from that spot. So she had to wait three hours for it to go away. How awful!
We spot some boks as we drive along so its not only birds here. We find a parking area and step outside. We stand at the edge of a marsh and notice all sorts of brightly-colored birds, especially some VERY bright red and black ones whose name nobody knows. They're chubby and about the size of my fist. And something similar that's a bright yellow with black.
We find a path into the bush and notice what I believe are weaver birds. I remember enjoying a documentary about them. They build big nests full of compartments inside of thorny trees. Bok points to a thorn and reminds me of a story he has told me about how as a child he got one in his foot. The thorn is over two inches long. Nasty. Africa is so full of perils.
The path ends at an elevated "hide" and we all squeeze inside to watch the birds swarm about. Lots more of the red and yellow ones and some assorted water birds. Printed guides tacked to the wall inform us that most species of birds have migrated to Europe as winter approaches here.
We drive around some more and spot the usual boks, wildebeast and zebra. But not many more birds. We joke that this is not so much a bird sanctuary as a sanctuary from birds. I guess we should have stayed at the marsh. We go into town for more groceries and more booze and go home to our lodge. Tonight we're barbequeing steaks. They call it brie, as in "brie some steaks on the brie."
It's a big dinner because not only will there be our group of seven, but also the aunt and uncle and the same two contractors. We have a grand time. The uncle enjoys taunting me with threats of offering me a dinner of sheep's head. "Good meat." An Afrikaner delicassy. I'm nauseous at the thought. He especially wants to offer me the eyes. Sometimes he alternates with trying to get me to go hunting jackals with him. But I've never fired a gun. And there are snakes out there so I don't relish the idea of trampling through tall grass in the dark.
A lot of the conversation is in Afrikaans but they switch to English sometimes for my benefit. I'm starting to pick up more Afrikaans words but it's a slow process. Sometimes I can actually follow the general idea of what's being discussed because scattered words are so similar to English.
The Afrikaners, as you might expect, are not real happy with the way the country is being run these days. Their view is that many of the blacks just want the government to take care of them and they should not have to work. Some land was taken away from whites and given to blacks with result that the land was neglected and eventually abandoned. The animals were all slaughtered. No seed was saved for planting the following year, and also no money was saved with which to buy new seed. No thought of the long term. Disaster. I don't know much about agriculture but even I can understand that it's of fundamental importance to invest in the future.
But they do make a distinction among the tribal groups. The Zulu are better thought of as being more industrious, ambitious, and productive than the other tribes. At the bottom are the illegal immigrants who are believed to come here mainly in order to commit crimes. Reportedly, a pattern emerged where the criminals were deliberately getting themselves arrested shortly before Christmas with the expectation of being deported to their home countries just in time for the holidays. So the RSA delayed their deportation for a month this past Christmas. LOL. They swear to me this is a true story.
I also hear complaints about government-built schools being burnt down. I ask, "Why would they do that?" Nobody has the slightest idea. And the murder rate here is extraordinarily high. The tribes dislike one another and, at the individual level, if somebody makes you angry it's natural to resolve the problem with a murder. To whatever extent these are literally-true accounts, they do not make for a solid foundation upon which to build a prosperous and stable society.
I have no personal experience of any of this, of course. I'm just repeating what was told to me. The blacks do seem to be kind of a mess here. I don't want to think that but it's kind of inescapable at least on the surface. ...another hypothesis. I go to bed later than ever, near midnight. I think I'm fully adjusted to the 10-hour time change.
4.2.04 Is it 1880?
We're beta testing this lodge so it's not a great surprise when the lock gets stuck in a door and the washing machine is found to have a rubbery pipe chewed through by a rat. Dealing with these is how our day begins. Happily, Bok's dad is an experienced "Bush Mechanic." South Africans have learned how to do whatever needs doing, he explains. Americans are too reliant on specialists. He thinks we've gone soft. His brother visits a little later and since it's his property these are ultimately his problems. They're talking about the leaky pipe so I shrug and suggest buying a new washing machine rather than fixing it. The American way!
Later we go into town to replace the pipe and stop into a bar. It's so simple here! Cement floor. Home-made wooden furniture. Sheep right outside the back windows. Kenny Rogers on the sound system. Steaks and "buffalo wings" are on display in a freezer. Bok's dad smiles and points to somebody behind me at a table. He's sitting with his arms folded in front of him in just such a way as to cause the pistol in his holster to be displayed most prominently. I'm really shocked. I've never seen this before. Have I accidentally arrived in the Wild West?
I'm told that this is normal here, one just needs to go and apply for the proper permit. There is a lot of crime here. The murders are mostly black-on-black but a lot of times older white people are robbed and maybe also murdered. It makes some people cautious this way. Bok's dad is more of a fatalist - he doesn't dwell on what might happen and just carries on without excessive worry about his personal safety. He almost never carries a gun.
He also explains that in the event of the murder of a white farmer in RSA, all of the other farmers in the area will pool their resources to catch the culprit - including the use of helicopters and other vehicles. Nearly always the killer is caught within two or three days. He says that in nearby Zimbabwe many more white farmers have been thrown off their land but here there've been many more white farmers murdered. And yet the government is considering cracking down on the farmers as vigilantes. As the police are almost always useless - and not above comitting property crimes themselves, even loading stolen sheep into their police cruisers - the crime situation might get even worse here.
We have a curry dish for dinner. Indians have been living in this country for a long time and, as I experienced in London, Indian cuisine has thoroughly embedded itself here. Then I'm in bed by 10:30 perfectly exhausted. Every morning I think that surely now I'm fully adjusted to the time change and every night I go to bed earliest unable to function at all anymore.
4.3.04 First snake sighting
And next morning I'm up earliest, and I find wildebeast gathered at the feeding area out front. They're my favorite. So ugly and fascinating. More slight than I had expected. The zebra, OTOH, look so meaty. Watching them run away from our van as we drive in and out I can't help thinking how tasty those thick buttocks must appear to a lion.
We go for a drive in the afternoon and stop at a much larger private park for animals. This one includes some or all of The Big Five - elephant, lion, bufallo, leopard, rhinocerous. These you cannot keep on your property without a special permit and lots of electric fencing. But it's too late in the day and it costs too much to go inside. So we put that off for another time. I spot a poisonous snake by the road. It's dead. Bok's mom thinks it's a puff adder. I hate snakes.
We see a gang of monkeys crossing the road just in front of us. It's so funny because there are towns and farms all around. They really do seem to fill the same niche as raccoons in American cities.
We stop at a market and look at a lot of handcrafted African objets d'art. I love it. Mostly wood carvings and tiny metal sculptures. These are not the best quality nor the best value, I'm told. There will be opportunity to buy on other occasions.
We had discussed driving across the border to Zimbabwe today and in the context of discussing bringing home souvenirs I suggested maybe we could give each of our friends a bag of "Zim dollars." Robert Mugabe's insane government has made them next to worthless, several thousand to one against the $U.S.
4.4.04 Lucky Day?
If I were at home, I think I'd put a dollar in a slot machine. On account of the lucky numbers of today's date.
We're invited over to the main house for tea at 11AM. Only Bok's parents and I will go. I meet an American tourist from Chicago who's staying in the house. He's shot a wildebeast this morning and he's having the head mounted.
And the uncle has killed a cobra this morning right outside of the front door. The doors are always left open here, by the way. I'm amazed that they can live like this. Literally! I'm amazed even that they're actually still alive.
Bok's uncle invites me to go for a ride. He wants to show me some more of his property. It lies across the road, reaching to the Nyle River (no relation to the Nile River far to the North). He's only bought it six months ago and it still holds cattle which belong to a neighbor. Eventually he will put the game animals in here. It's so muddy and we could get stuck, but I have confidence in him. I need to have confidence because I'm barefoot and wearing short pants. We have a black man with us, one who works for the owner of the cattle. He gets out to open and close the gates as we pass through.
We slip and slide in his pickup through up-to-knee-high water and marshes alternating with relatively dry land. It's beautiful here and there are lots of birds. When we get stuck it's on relatively solid land. Pretty soon the right front wheel is about two feet deep. Hopeless. Usurprisingly, the cell doesn't work from this particulat spot but we have a CB radio. He gets somebody, a neighbor I guess, to respond to him and phone his house. Bok's aunt arranges for Bok's dad and some others to come with a tractor.
The man with us has rubber boots that are so torn that I hardly see the point of wearing them at all. The uncle promises me that he will buy him new ones to compensate him for his trouble today. This leads to a wider discussion. He tells me that at a time when he had about 30 or 40 men working for him on his farm he raised their pay well above the normal rate. Instead of using the extra money to better their lives they spent it all on alcohol. In the end, all of them had to be fired. What a sad story!
He relates that some people come here from outside and say, "Oh you must treat the blacks better. It's terrible the way you mistreat them here." But then after a few months these same people are much more exasperated by them than are the Afrikaaners.
He believes that the fundamental problem with the natives here is they don't ever think ahead to tomorrow and beyond. Only today. He tells me about one of his workers whose wife had a baby. And only after the baby is born did he begin to think, well, I should get the baby a bottle. I should get a blanket for the baby. It never occurred to him to give any attention to these things before the baby was born! Well, I can see the blacks here really are in a rather sad state. And the Afrikaners have been showing them civilization for about 400 years without much notable success. A difficult situation.
Still, South Africa's government, for all its problems, is far the best in Africa. He is not too worried about the future. He feels that the government may do whatever it likes as long as it doesn't interfere with him too much. "This far and no farther." If pushed too far, he feels that the whites will withold cooperation and refuse to pay taxes. This will keep the government its proper place. There are two or three million whites and the government cannot put all of them in jail, after all. He pays millions of Rand in taxes, as do many others. The government cannot function without their cooperation.
I tell how in my own home city of Boise, Idaho there were almost no blacks at all when I was growing up but now there are a lot. I have noticed that when I see blacks there nowadays invariably they are in the company of the white husband or wife. Or else, they're adopted black children with their white parents. Never once did I see an entirely black family in Boise. Of mixed-race families, he says that will never happen here. But then immediately he backs off and says maybe the young people will come to that way of thinking. Older whites cannot change and he cannot change. He's not bothering anybody and only wants to be left alone. That sounds plenty good enough to me.
I mention a wealthy black American who wants to come to visit Bok here next month and be shown around. He's a millionaire who's traveled the world but he won't be allowed into Bok's uncle's house. I find this just so utterly bizarre - and I tell him so. But it's his house and I would never think to tell him whom he must welcome there.
I mention Apartheid specifically and he says that it really did go too far and that it went on for too long. I mention my favorite writer, Thomas Sowell, and how in one of his books he talks about how backward the English were in the time of Rome. Later, they ruled over much of the world. So peoples' cultures can change, rise and fall, over time. I say, well, whatever the merits of Apartheid for a particular time it's wrong to use the law to lock a society in place and say, this is the way we want it to remain forever. He agrees with me emphatically! I think he's a Libertarian at heart.
Here comes our rescue tractor. Yay. But just as it comes into view it also gets stuck. Sigh. I am not inclined to walk barefoot through the snake infested march and so wait alone at the pickup while they go up to lend a hand. It gets dark while I'm alone. I have no idea how we're going to get out of here! In Las Vegas, it's Sunday morning right now, the second day of the Nevada Rodeo. I had expected to be there but instead I'm stuck in an African swamp. LOL.
The sounds of frogs and insects increases dramatically as the sun sets. It's a profound experience to be alone with such sounds in such a beautiful setting and under a full moon. I do love this. After a while they give up on the tractor and Bok's dad, his uncle, and his young cousin, a boy of about 8, come down to the pickup to join me. We have about an hour of being attacked by swarms of mosquitos before the second (larger) tractor arrives and pulls us out. The first tractor is also freed and now all three vehicles make their way home. We do get stuck once more but eventually it's all over. And Bok and his mom are preparing a barbeque, err, brie dinner back at the lodge. It was a good day after all. I feel lucky that I didn't have to sleep in the back of pickup.
The truck is SO muddy now. I'm told that in Johannesburg there is a service which will apply mud to your vehicle to achieve this affect. City folk trying to look like they just got back from safari. A way to pick up chicks?
I only hope I don't get malaria.
The brie is real good. And I'm shown the Southern Cross star constellation. Never saw it before! I can see Orion in the North but all the other stars are unfamiliar. I'm talked into trying a drink which includes the Kahlua I bought in Atlanta. Pour into a very small glass 2 parts Kahlua and then, very gently (because you want it to float on top) 1 part Amarula, a creme liqueur - available for U.S. sale at www.african-tradition.com. - Drink all at once. Swish for a bit and swallow. Yummy!
Today we visit the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg and so everybody is up early, though not as early as me as usual. I watch the monkeys from the front porch.
Bok drives us and he nearly always remembers to drive on the left side of the road. The rest of us hang around the Killarney Mall across the street and drink lots of coffee. Bok gets some things done and is supposed to come back in about three weeks to do more paperwork for his visa application.
When we get back to the property I am the first to notice an impala loose on the road that leads to the gate. So we herd it to the gate with the van and open the gate with the remote so that it goes inside. Hey, these are valuable animals. I can use this to answer Bok's uncle when he says (jokingly) that I must make his web site for tourists for free in exchange for my having stayed in his lodge for free! Bok plans to ask him how much I must pay to shoot an impala, and then he'll name a high price, and then Bok will ask for that much money for getting him a new animal, and then we'll just call it all even. Yay. LOL. That's the plan anyway.
Well, he's got over 300 animals here and he only wants $110 from me to shoot an impala. We thought it would be more. Nevermind, I say. I won't give him the impala after all. I'll just hope that he he won't charge me too much for letting me keep my impala on his property.
Now what shall I name it? I lean toward "Chevy."
We see jackals right from the front porch right before dark! OMG. I've been told that they're easy to hunt. One just puts a red filter over a big flashlight. They cannot see red. It sounds strange to me but that's what they say. Anyway, I'm not going out there! Some of the snakes live in trees and drop onto passersby. Uggh. And right now I'm watching one of those ferocious biting insects walk around on the floor near me. I'm still very worried about the giant spiders though I've yet to see one. Will I survive Africa?
We might go home to Bok's family's farm tomorrow. Or we might not. I MUST get some time on the Internet ASAP. I haven't even seen a newspaper in a week. Is it so much to hope for? This is making me kind of crazy. I feel isolated at the bottom of the world. All I need is Internet in order to get relief.
4.6.04 Home on the farm
I'm up first and enjoying the gentle rain from under the grass roof on the patio in front. The animals are nowhere to be seen today. The rain is marvelous. The others are beginning to wake up and then we'll pack soon and go to Bok's family's farm. Bok misses it - and there are grandparents there for him to see. In a couple of hours we'll have been in the country exactly one week.
Before we leave we hear that there's a big snake been spotted inside of the uncle's garage. Not a cobra but some other kind that spits poison. If that gets into your eyes you'll be blind. I'm curious but it's a big garage and they don't want to move everything looking for it. I would have liked to see it but we're leaving now. We agree that I can keep my impala here for a mere $4/month. A bargain, surely. ;)
So now we're leaving the region of Modemolle (pron. MOH-dee-MOH-lee - say it aloud, it's fun!) where we've been all this time and pass through Johannesburg toward Bok's hometown. On the way we see Soweto from the highway. There are miles of houses built by the government, per the promises of Nelson Mandela. They've built about 1 million and they do try to catch up to the demand but it's impossible - especially with millions of illegals flooding into here. The houses are simple and inexpensive, and hundreds of times better than most Haitian so-called homes. There are paved streets and street lights - which are problematic even for the wealthy in Haiti.
Beyond Johannesburg are more miles of homes but these are built of garbage. Ah, these do look like Haiti. Well, I've been expecting to find it and here it is. The odd thing is, these people are mostly from other countries and they are here because this life is better than what they had in their own countries. And this was always so, even under Apartheid - which is why I always thought the anti-Apartheid arguments were overblown. At its worst, Apartheid provided a better life for blacks than did the black-run dictatorships in the rest of Africa. Western liberals had their priorities screwed up, as usual. Years ago, I wrote a letter to my local newspaper to make the point that while, yes, South Africa's government may be just as bad as its critics contend, should we not first look to all of the neighboring governments that are by every measure far worse? South Africa is better now but life in the other coutries is at least as bad as ever. And the liberals pay as little attention as ever.
We arrive at Bok's family home. It's big and very nice. Corn has been good to them. Later we drive around the town and I laugh at how small it is. I was actually born in a town very much like this - Sunnyside, Washington - but that town has changed through the years. ROFL. Later, we watch a movie on a projection TV with surround sound. We had nothing like this back home in Sunnyside. Nor back home in Las Vegas, for that matter.
It's my birthday. I woke up in "The Fairy Room." Servants are washing my clothes. Life is good.
It's a lazy day. We work out a little better Internet connection here and it will get much better next Tuesday when somebody is scheduled to come by and install something. I didn't catch all the details. It's complicated. Something about a shared antenna. We'll see.
We're a dinner party of 11 tonight and most of the other 10 want me drunk. Through the course of the evening I hear more about what a nice country Zimbabwe was before the name was changed from Rhodesia. And before President Mugabe trashed the place.
I also learn that elephant hunting is unsporting and unsatisfying, while Cape Buffalo hunting is much more fun and more dangerous. It is alleged that elephants can get drunk on fallen amarulla berries. I have no idea. They tell me wild stories here sometimes so it's hard to tell. Anyway, Amarulla is a popular liqueur here and it does feature a charging elephant on the label if that counts for something.
Bok's dad and I get to discussing the idea of selling shares in a game farm to a small group of wealthy Americans. It would be something like time-shares and something like a business. It seems perfectly reasonable. It would be up to me to provide the web site. We like the idea of going primitive: A cluster of huts on the perimeter and in the center the public area including the kitchen and campfire. The manager would rent it out when none of the owners had claimed a time slot. There would be no representatives from the Big Five as those are far more dangerous, complicated and expensive.
Through the evening there is some more discussion of South Africa's past and its future. It is generally agreed that when the older generation - whites and blacks alike - have passed from the scene the country will become much more stable and happy. This observation may have been prompted by the presence of a certain elderly gentleman at the party. He says the MOST shocking things. I don't even want to repeat it. His wife shrugs and says his attitudes are typical of the period of the Boer War. That was 100 years ago.
There are three generations of Afrikaners present and it's easy to see there's been a huge amount of positive change. The certain older gentleman, I suggest aloud, might belong as a display in a museum! A relic of South Africa's past. I'm sure it's hard for individuals born into one set of attitudes to change totally but people here have changed a lot. And they look to the next generation to complete the journey after they themselves are no longer a factor. It's rather astonishing to hear people suggest that their country will be better off without themselves! Change is good. RSA is a remarkably forward-thinking society, including both its white and black components.
Apartheid seemed to a lot of people here to be the best solution to a difficult situation. I am constantly being reminded by Afrikaaners of how America's founders mostly exterminated the natives and so never had to face the same problems the Afrikaners have faced here. And they are proud of their accomplishments, of bringing mordernity to their corner of Africa and also of how well they held up against international sanctions. The Rand was stronger than the $US during Apartheid whereas now it's about R6.5 = $1. They developed all kinds of technology to get by without international trade. They even built nuclear weapons.
But when they figured out that there needed to be some fundamental changes they tossed it all away (including the nukes) and bravely handed power, and their trust, over to a former prisoner. Now they look to the next generation with the hope that they will be able to combine the positive accomplishments with more enlightened attitudes and create a new South Africa. The whole story is astonishing and, of course, it's still going on. There are national elections next week.
Unfortunately, a lot of young people are leaving the country. As are a lot of the best doctors and engineers. They have numerous complaints. Universities and medical schools are graduating students with ever-lower qualifications because it's the easiest way to achieve the desired number of black professionals. Even the rugby teams must have a certain number of blacks regardless of whether they're any good. There were two black players in particular who were exceptionally good and everybody was more than happy to have them. It's the Affirmative Action players and Affirmative Action doctors to which Afrikaners object and some of them are getting fed up. (This is what they're telling me. It seems entirely credible but I have no direct knowledge of these matters.)
I see lots of political posters along the roads because of the upcoming elections. They mostly promise more jobs, the usual big government nonsense. Only one was surprising. It said: Whites Unite. Don't Vote.
4.8.04 Lazy Day
We're planning to go to the private club tonight, of which Bok's dad was until recently president. I'm told they mostly drink, play pool, and complain about the sad state of the current rugby teams. It's a good place for Bok's birthday party tonight. Or, at least, the best place for it here in Wesselsbron (pron. VESSEL-sbron)
I am surprised how many of the streets here are not even paved. It's not an impoverished town, particularly. It's just a very low-tech uncomplicated place. Drinking and gossiping are, I'm told, the principal forms of amusement. It seems that the primary news item du jour here is that Bok has returned home from Las Vegas.
Bok and I go out a couple of times to buy things for the house. He asks me to help to remind him to drive on the left side. HA! Like I would notice any problem if he drove on the right. At the grocery store he nudges me and points. Somebody is walking to the meat section with a whole big hog over his shoulder. It's been skinned and its throat is cut wide open. I don't believe you'd ever see that in an American grocery store.
Later, I get some work done on web sites while Bok is at the Club. When he gets home it's time for his birthday cake! :)
4.9.04 - 4.11.04 Easter weekend
The entire town is shut down for the long holiday weekend. We visit Welkom (pron. VEL-komm) which is a bigger town nearby. It has no stop lights and no parking meters. Odd even for RSA. There are gold mines and we're expecting to go down into one while we're here. Two or three miles deep!
At a party I meet lots of people and they tell me the mines are better integrated than some other places. One white guy tells me his supervisor is black and it doesn't bother him at all. I'm glad to hear it. Another tells me they have developed a new language, a sort of South African Esperanto: a mix of Afrikaans, English and assorted black languages. I forget the name as soon as I hear it. Something like Fandango only different.
I also meet an engineering student who is anxious to leave RSA, preferably to America. He asks us many questions about America. BTW, they all say that here. America. Never "the USA" or "the States." And they always roll the R from the front of the tongue. They make home sound exotic. :)
Somebody else tells me that most of the towns are bankrupt under black governance. Too many perks for themselves. Too little attention to revenue collections. It occurs to me that if the blacks had been permitted to participate in the government in earlier years, then they might be better at it by now. But that would only invite more anecdotes about how uncivilized the blacks are. Whites in rural South Africa have such low expectations of blacks. I don't know if they're right or not. I stongly tend to think not but they're very insistent. I really need to find some English-speaking black people to talk to!
4.12.04 the Farm
We go out to visit the farm itself, nearby outside of town. It looks about the same as farmland everywhere I suppose. Lots of corn. Have I mentioned that South Africa boasts 85% of all of the tractors in Africa? I am shown a few of those. I find the weirdest insect I have ever seen. It's big and it looks like something you'd use to base a new armored vehicle design upon. Or maybe a new space invader game or movie. I need to get a picture of it. Very spooky.
I see the farm laborers' homes close up. Some of them have been working for Bok's family for three generations. The homes come with the job. They're very simple. There's a law passed by the ANC government to the effect that if you live in an employer-provided house for 10 years then even if you're fired you get to live there forever for free. - There are some white people who got homes with their government jobs, too. And that was apparently a surprise to the government. Unintended consequences can cut both ways. - Very naturally, because of these and myriad other laws, employers are now less apt to hire new employees and to provide them with free housing - even while the ANC keeps on promising more jobs and housing for everybody! Big government cannot get anything right.
Bok and I go for a spin around town on the four-wheeled ATV. This town is really strange. The white people always smile and nod hello to me and to other white people. But they ignore their black neighbors entirely as far as I can tell, other than across a sales counter. Many blacks live in what you might call the black suburb. It looks like temporary housing thrown up in a field. Bad. But, as always, it's a lot better than Haiti. I have remarked a few times about this and similar housing that at least they have electricity here! The response is always the same. "We must pay for that." Well, they can't be using very much electricity after all.
4.13.04 Television and bilinguality
There's an evening soap opera on TV here. The name is 7th Lane in Afrikaans. It's presented with English subtitles. It looks like just about all the Afrikaaners watch it. It's the usual stuff: illicit affairs, backstabbing, and so on. But still rather light and breezy compared with horrid American soaps. It's multi-racial but there was one scene I thought was interesting. About 12 people were practicing for some kind of dance performance and the instructor tells everybody to pick a partner and, poof, immediately all the couples are of exactly the same shade of skin color. Coincidence? I think not. The wider story has affairs going on all over the place, except not across color lines.
The national news program we watch is presented in Afrikaans without subtitles. What's interesting is that much of the time the people being interviewed or whose speeches are excerpted, will speak English. And this also is presented without subtitles. Afrikaaners are expected to be bilingual here. The soap has English occasionally, too. English is the language of the future here, I guess. Meanwhile they're very surprisingly comfortable using a mix of both languages.
When I listen carefully to people's conversations it's impressive how many English words and phrases are rolled into the Afrikaans. And some of the rest sounds enough like English to be understandable. I heard somebody ask for a sandwich and caught the words, "Skeep de mayoness."
4.14.04 Election Day
South Africa in the news. Mbeke is expected to get about 66% of the vote today. But not Bok's vote. I go with him to the polling station. I'm hoping for it to be somehow more interesting than an American voting site. It's a little different. I had wondered how they regulate the voting and now I see. First, everybody (presumably) has an I.D. booklet. Bok's is stamped. As a further safeguard, they put a small dot on his left thumbnail which is at least difficult and maybe impossible to remove.
The ANC ends up with 70% of the vote. Way too much, if you ask me. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is in second place and is now the most important white party. The New National Party is way down from the last election. The old National Party was the party of Apartheid. The only other significant party is the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Zulu party but they're very weak outside of the state of Kwa-Zulu Natal. I'm surprised that the former Foreign Minister and staunch defender of Apartheid, Pik Botha, endorsed the ANC as being best able to lead the nation into the future. This country and its people are full of surprises.
Today we've got business to attend to in Johannesberg. I sleep sometimes while Bok drives. Before we reach the highway there are lots of potholes. They have some infrastructure issues yet to deal with here. The highway is a lot better but it's not going to be mistaken for the U.S. Interstate. No fences to help keep animals off the road. There's even a path for the pedestrians next to the road. There are hitchhikers right on the highway and some of them are white! Traffic is awful.
In a shopping mall across from the U.S. Consulate I see not less than four security guards carrying automatic rifles. Johanessberg is infamous for its high rate of violent crime. The guns might be reassuring if only they were not being held so casually. ...these guards do not inspire my confidence in their level of professional training.
We visit another much-fancier mall on a hill in Sandton. It's very First World, this section of the city. And I like the way the businesses are set back from the road with trees in front. The city seems to have a more relaxed and pleasant atmosphere where American shopping areas would tend to be more urgent about promoting sales.
Adjacent to the mall is Nelson Mandela Square. There's a big statue of Mandela here and we admire it. There's a date on it just a few weeks ago. It must have been put here to commemorate 10 years of Democracy. There are a lot of such commemorations. It's a tiny bit odd to have a glorious statue for somebody still among the living but Mandela is very special so I guess it's all right. He is presented here as kindly and gracious. Also facing the stone plaza is a swank hotel and some elegant outdoor cafés. Free concerts are performed here. This is a good place.
We go have a look at the Soviet store in the mall. They have a lot of very stylish clothes. It's South Africa's (and probably all of Africa's) premier clothing manufacturer. Bok hopes to import their products to the U.S. If only the dollar were not so low it would be easier. www.sovietjeans.com
4.21.04 Clubbing in Wesselsbron
I think I mentioned earlier there's just the one bar in this town, and what a very lame bar it is! In addition, there is a members-only club, the Buita Klub. Bok's parents have been among their leading members for years and years. Somehow I had expected it to be more richly appointed... I am disappointed on that score. But people are all having so much fun!
Bok is circulating among his old friends, and so myself and another friend of ours who has come here with us, end up by ourselves. Until we meet one of the farmers. He says something to me and I reply, "What?" Immediately, he looks perfectly stricken by pain. No English. The friend translates and the guy is totally amazed that an American would find his way to this place. He's never traveled and he loves the life of a farmer. He says that I should buy a farm and stay here - and learn to speak Afrikaans. Not a chance! He's very much interested in getting me drunk. He wants me to learn to drink like an Afrikaaner. That also does not sound to me like a very appealing idea.
It occurs to me that this is probably the first time I've ever been into a "whites only" establishment. Of course, it's not legally whites only, but you can't come into the club except if you're with a member. And you can't become a member except on the recommendation of another member. If a member were ever to bring a black person here then something bad would happen to the member, I'm told. Maybe to the black person, too. This is all very weird to me but, that aside, it is a fun place. There's lots of dancing and hugging going on.
4.23.04 Drinking again at the Buitaklub
I'm back at the club this evening for a big party. Lots of people, lots of food, lots of drinking. My gosh some of these men are so astoundingly fat! So, it's not only American city people. That's a relief. As before, it's a very jovial group. And lots of people I've not met come up to me speaking English. Apparently, I'm a topic of conversation. But their English is too weak for me to get into anything meaningful. I only tell them that it's very beautiful and that I miss my high-speed Internet.
So far, I've only picked up a few words. Kok I got right away because I hear it a lot. It means shit. And the other very common word is Bloksom which is sort of multi-purpose. It means something like thunder and lightening and/or lightening strike. It can apply as an exclamation (Bloksom!) and a threat (Be quiet or I'll bloksom you.) Another word that's used very often is Lakker. It fills the place of Cool! Great! Awesome!
I complain that I haven't seen any lions and somebody tells me to wait until after midnight. He hold up his big glass of rum and tells me to wait around until past midnight, "You'll see a lion!" Afrikaaners are often proud of how much they can drink, I've noticed. And they like to party.
I meet the farmer from my earlier visit and almost immediately he's trying to get me to put aside my melted tepid black russian and down a shooter of tequila. I'm really not into drinking. Eventually, I suggest that I drink a green mamba instead while he drinks the tequila. Well, nobody knows it by that name. The green thing? Amarula and creme de menthe? Turns out they call it a springbok. Whatever. They sure do taste good, and only R6 which is about $1.
I ask about my other favorite new drink here, Kahlua with Amarulla on top. He tells me they call that a blowjob. Really? Interestingly, his severely limited English does extend far enough to encompass that word. "Blowjob ess lakker" he tells me. LOL.
He shows me money with $10,000 something on it. I assume it's Rand at first (divide by 6.5 and it remains way too much money to bring to a bar). But then I realize its from Zambia. He tells me it's worth about US$1. So I pull out a dollar bill. He's never seen one before. I tell him I don't know about that weird pyramid eye thingie but that some people find it objectionable. He likes that the eagle is holding both arrows and olive branches. He asks if he can keep it and I say sure. I think now he owes me a blowjob.
Later somebody else tells me that it's not called a blowjob, it's really called a blesbok. How am I ever going to figure out this country if these people cannot keep their stories straight? By this time the farmer is dancing with his glass of rum perched on his head so he's not exactly the very model of reliability.
I'm invited to go kangaroo hunting by another new friend who's lived in London. He elaborates. Not real kangaroos but African miniature kangaroos. All right, they're actually hares. Ah. You go out at night and run after them in the tall grass which impedes their movement more than yours. I worry abut the poisonous snakes. He tells me that's nothing to worry about. After two or three weeks in the hospital I'll be as good as new, and with a really cool scar to show off to my friends in America. Well, I suppose he's got a point. Finally we agree that I can operate the big searchlight from the back of the truck. I'm looking forward to it.
I leave about midnight and there are lots of small children here playing pool. I mention this is not allowed in America. It's not allowed here either, I'm told, except this is a "family bar." Okay. Whatever.
4.25.04 Movie night
We watched "Mr. Bones" tonight. It's a South African slapstick comedy. So Funny! And it's got everything: Zulus, Afrikaaners, confused Americaners, villains, wild animals, romance, danger, even some Las Vegas. I want to buy this video and bring it home with me. I highly recommend it.
We go to the police station this morning for a form that Bok needs. It's so disorganized. No white people have confidence in the police. Blacks might simply be glad the police no longer harrass them (or worse) as they did up until 10 years ago.
It's always the same here in The Free State. The white people always nod to me and say something friendly in Afrikaans. The black people always ignore me or show just enough hostility in their looks to prevent me seriously considering saying anything. Chances are they don't speak English well enough for a conversation. If I ever do get to talk to a black person I intend to use the word Amerikanner right away. Maybe that will eliminate the hostility. (I'm not sure that it's hostility but it sure looks that way.)
I'm always seeing white people on the street here greeting one another with a kiss on the lips. Very, very common. Between men and women, that is. Lots of times it's two couples passing on the sidewalk and they stop. Man kisses the other man's wife and vice-versa. This goes beyond Haiti where their thing is always to brush cheeks, both on greeting and parting, and on both cheeks. No kissing. I got used to that in Haiti but I don't know about this kissing on the lips. Seems overly friendly.
4.27.04 Innauguration Day
It's inauguration day for President Mbeke. I listen to most of his speech. He seems to me to spend way too much time complaining about the past. Even going as far back as slavery (which was practiced black-on-black long before the arrival of white people. And Arab on black, too, for a long time before Europeans got here.) Aren't inauguration speeches supposed to be about future plans? Or, at least, about What have you done for us lately? He also seems to speak a lot about everybody's supposed "right" to housing and a decent standard of living. Nothing about their responsibilities. Nothing about the extremely high crime rates. I am not impressed. He's only pandering.
I think that if I were a productive hard-working citizen of this country I'd hear this speech as a threat to raise my taxes and to use all the money to buy votes; and none of the money to bring down crime. I think I'd try to move to a more sensible country.
We drive ½ hour to the town of Welkom in the evening. It's about 50,000 people and the commercial areas are pretty big because people all over the region shop here. Some areas look like America. It's nice. It even has a casino.
I'm shocked when, at the entrance to the casino there is not only a metal detector and guards (just like at an airport) but also a Gun Check. OMG. It looks just like a coat check except it's a place to leave your handguns and rifles on your way in. People who set off the metal detector are being checked with a metal wand. It's bizarre. We have nothing like this in Las Vegas. The casino is small but crowded.
Later we stop at an American-themed resaurant/bar called Indiana Spur. Their logo is an American Indian with a feather head dress. We were just going to have a drink but I notice nachos on the appetizer menu and I must try it. Only about US$3.00. It's horrible. The chips are all wrong. The waitress is the first friendly black person I've met since I've been in the country. Like the farmer, she is completely amazed to meet an American in this very out-of-way town. I tell her when she comes to America, be sure to order nachos and she'll see that ours are a lot better.
I read a NY Times article online, reviewing Mbeke's first term in office. It says his Health Minister believes that AIDS can be treated effectively with a combination of garlic and olive oil. Only an idiot would retain such a person and leave her with responsibility over the government's policy on AIDS. And this idiot got 70% of the vote here. White people have every right to be discouraged.
5.1.04 Weekend at the River
Saturday morning and we pack up the van (here they call it a combi) and hitch the boat and trailer to the back. We're going to Christiana, a town on the Fall River. We arrive at the resort. It's a simple place with maybe 100 chalets. Each of them is quite small, made of brick, and with a traditional grass roof.
There's also a pool, a spa with mineral water from a spring, and a bar. Basically, it's like a big park. After we get settled in, we drink a couple of brandy and cokes (definitely the most popular drink in these parts) and then go for an evening stroll around the grounds and down to the river. It's very beautiful here.
On the way back, we stop for a quick look inside of the small bar located upstairs in a small grass-roofed building overlooking the pool... we stay until closing.
We're sitting around on the brick patio under the stars thinking about going to bed when we hear lions roaring. OMG!! One more thing this place features is an adjacent game reserve. Besides the usual boks and giraffes, it's also got some rhinocerouses and some lions. Noisy lions! Apparently several noisy lions!! What a very interesting sound to which to go to sleep.