Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Weird, Cool, Unexpected

Ever had anything really weird but really cool happen to you? Like taking your best friend's girlfriend to the prom (guilty), but more unexpected? I just did. As the capper to my amazing SA experience, I found myself in a grocery store with two packets of Raman in my hand and caught in an endless debating between two pieces of bread, at a price difference of just over a rand ($0.12). It was a sad sight.

Then, out of the blue, a South African women with dark hair walks up to me. She says, "Can I give this to you?" A hand outstretches with 20 rand. "Why?" I asked. Saying I was confused would be as big an understatement as saying that Brett Favre comebacks are annoying. "I don't know," the woman replied, "something is just telling me that I need to give this to you." My jaw was laying on the ground. I didn't know what to say, and I'm not even sure if I said anything. With that she turned and left, and was out the door in no time. I think I said thanks, but who knows.

For the next five or so minutes, I looked really awkward, walking around the supermarket, looking for nothing in particular and just replying the scene in my head like a rejection by a girl who was out of your league to begin with (also guilty). I probably looked like I was lost. Or a little slow. I just kept asking myself, "Really?" Do I look famished and hungry? Homeless? Did she steal something out of my bag at the front and feel bad about it?

After checking out, instead of listening to my planned "This American Life" podcast on the long walk home, I just walked in silence. I thought about what had happened; how nice the people of South Africa had been to me. I thought to myself: "Wouldn't it be absurd if someone offered me a ride?" 30 seconds later, without me even trying to flag anyone down, a white BMW pulls up. "Do you need a lift?" said the female driver, just a few years older than I. My jaw had broken off at this point. This is stupid absurd. But, looking back, it was about par for the course after the amazing hospitality I received while in the SA.

To me, it's amazing the amount of impact you can have on someone for the price of $3. Not only did I immediately become a life-long fan of South Africa, but I also felt something really unexpected. I felt ashamed. Ashamed that I had never done something like that for a stranger, at least not that I can remember. Was I too selfish? Was I too busy to think about others? Or, was I in such an insecure financial position that I never considered just handing out money?

That was about two weeks ago (yes, I'm now back in Mozambique). I didn't really think about the occasion too much since then, until just yesterday. That movie Pay It Forward got in my head somehow, and while I've never seen it (I think that little kid is kinda creepy), I understand the concept. So, I took the 20 rand now converted into Mozambican meticais, divided it three ways, and added a little to make it substantial enough. And I started handing out money. It's not as easy as it looks...try it and you'll understand...but it's great fun. And even more fun to wonder what they're thinking. I already gave out one of my three sums, and I'm waiting for the next two opportunities to arise. Something will tell me when the time is right.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hitching in Mpumalanga

Not only is Mpumalanga one of the coolest names for a province (ma-pu-ma-lang-a…I couldn’t stop saying it…was just randomly blurting out for no reason), but it is also home to some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Beautiful scenery is good and fine in and of itself, but I like to experience the scenery, not just look at it. Hence, I took to hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, swimming, rock sliding, running, and hitch-hiking my way through the vast province. And I ate my way through province too, which is known for its pancakes (see the pancake filled with pork and peaches in Graskop) and biltong, the fatty dried meat that makes your veins pulse with grease.

After leaving Siphiwe and all the others in Soweto, I headed on an overnight train, on which I was pitched a poetry book by a Nigerian missionary (he was very nice, though). Over the next week, in Waterval Boven, I lived with Alwyn, his wife Reetha, baby son Luke, and quasi-neighbor Armand (he's basically part of the family). They took me in for 5 days and cooked me hot meals, gave me a bed, and let me mooch off their internet and other facilities. During the day I would rock climb on some of best climbs in Southern Africa and kayak and do other things, like hiking through the ruins of a lost civilization. I called Waterval Boven a small town, but Alwyn corrected me with "village". Conspiracy theories were big - 9/11 came up and shape-shifting reptiles in US public office was a topic of conversation.

From WB I hitched the rest of the way, first to Sabie, a pancake-laden town known for its mountain biking trails and waterfalls. Accordingly, I biked about 50 km the next day, stopping for swims at the various falls. Next I found myself in Graskop, which I planned to use as a base for a three-day hike in Blyde River Canyon, the third biggest canyon in the world. Unfortunately, the canyon was closed for "upkeep"...which sounds as ridiculous to me as it does to you. If I got caught without a permit, I could be arrested. So, instead I biked and hiked my way around the beautiful area...just a thought: don't try to hike 25 km without socks. I'm a moron.

From there I started hitching my way back south to Nelspruit and then to the border. The entire experience was extremely relaxing and liberating - definitely what I needed after being cramped up in an office. You lose your humanity. Some of my best times in the past several months came on this bout of hitchhiking. There was Alan, who bought me a Coke and then took me on a tour of the sugar factory to which he sells drives and said that if it was a week later he'd take me to the others he sold to. And there was "Hippie Dan", as I call him, who picked me up in his beat up work truck just as he was cracking a Black Label, continuing to explain to me that he tried to get a few beers in on the way home because his daughter didn't like him drinking at home. Apparently he wanted to get a cigarette or two in as well, as he was rolling them on the steering wheel as he drove. At the same time, I was holding a sheet of glass because the back was full with his tools and a couple of his black workers. I was quite lucky to catch him at the beginning of his journey. Hippie Dan also told me that he hadn't paid taxes in 12 years - the "stupid" government was too inept to come after him in his home in the hills that didn't have electricity.

It's hard to explain the freedom you feel standing in the bed of fruit truck, traveling 50 mph through the curvy roads that cut though the mountains and low-lying clouds. Wind in your hair. All your belongings in your pack. No laptop. No cellphone. No responsibilities. No idea where you will be staying once you land in the next town. At that moment, life seems to make sense. It really makes you ask yourself, "What am I doing with myself?" It makes life in the office, student loan payments, that latest report that was due, and the next project, seem pretty insignificant. For that moment, it is insignificant. I get nostalgic when I watch movies like Into the Wild, where people are just living with no worries but their bed and the next meal.

Part of me wants that life, to leave this constant obsession of thinking about my next move in life - what company to work for, which people to network with, how to target my resume. But I think the daily hassles and "career" stress that I'm sure are not unique to just me are what make this freedom so significant. If I lived like Hippie Dan (minus the job, hence even hippier) every day, I bet it would lose its luster. I think I'm the Type A crazy who needs to be busy or I get bored - I need to be producing something, having some impact. At least this is what I've found so far. Some people can change the world "spreading love and peace" and disengaging from mainstream society. That's great. I don't think I'm that guy. At least not yet. Give me some more months tramping around Africa and South America and I'll get back to you.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Shacking Up in the Slum - Pt. III of III

The next morning Siphiwe (pictured) and I met at the shebeen to go to church – his invitation. Most of his friends were there already, having a Hansa. They gave me the local handshake like we’ve known each other for years, and I didn’t really feel much like a tourist anymore. It was an odd sight: Siphiwe and me, in our clean church clothes drinking Lemon Twist, and the others in the clothes from the day before, passing a bottle of Hansa between them.

On the way to church, children tugged at the leg of my pants and women looked out from their homes, concerned that I was leaving for good. I admit that some people did just see me as a walking pile of money, but as the days went on this seemed to dissipate. People were starting to accept me.

The service was good. Being there was like gasping for air filled with hope, in an atmosphere filled with so much futility and negativity. Over the days I’d learned a bit about Siphiwe, and on Sunday we talked more. About a month ago he pretty much stopped drinking. With a sense of sadness, he is now trying to distance himself from his friends. He explained to me, “These guys (his friends), they have no hope. They don’t think they will achieve anything in their lives.” Talk with most slum dwellers in Soweto, and all you will hear is “no jobs” in refrain. But most of them aren’t looking, says Siphiwe. Instead, they expect jobs to just fall into their laps, and often jobs for which they’re not qualified.

Siphiwe is now going to church regularly and has joined a weekly Bible study group. He has recently started a small tourism outfit, after leaving another one that also operated in Motsoaledi. He had a dispute with the owners, who only wanted profit, while Siphiwe wanted it to be a community project to help the children. Siphiwe is trying to get out.

As I went to leave Sunday afternoon, I stopped by Patricia’s to say bye, just as she had vehemently demanded the night before when she was, quite frankly, hammered. Laying on her lawn, nearly passed out, she barely acknowledged me, not even getting up. This was coming from someone who had said that our simple stop by the shebeen on Thursday made her want to cry.

Three days, while not sufficient, is much more revealing than 15 minutes on a tour. You get to see people more for who they really are. Sadly, Patricia and most of the others, it seems, are just passing their days with the help of alcohol. A rare few I met, like Siphiwe, are trying to claw their way out. As Siphiwe helped me into the minibus with my bag and said goodbye, I handed him some money, unsolicited, and promised to stay in touch. Hopefully in the future I can help him in bigger ways. It’s people like him who really need our encouragement to keep moving in the right direction.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shacking Up in the Slum - Pt. II of III

The next morning, minutes after 7:00, I was woken by blasting reggae music. I staggered out of Patricia’s and saw a huge black Miller truck at Nessie’s shebeen. But that wasn’t the source of the music. Half asleep, I bumbled over. Tobekho (with the dreads on the right), Nelito, and the other regulars had already gotten the day started with some Hansa. First, who’s up at 7 am on Saturday? And second, who’s up at 7 am on Saturday and drinking heavily?

The rest of the day I hung out at the shebeen, passing the time like anyone else in Motsoaledi would on a Saturday. I also interviewed some people, one of whom was Sandy, a gregarious woman who always seemed to be wearing a smile, and her husband Victor. Sandy operated a shebeen, a fact confirmed by the 10 or so people sitting almost silently in a room in her home, drinking – an odd sight to say the least, but typical of shebeens. Music's not necessary. I asked Victor, the inebriated electrician, how many kids he had. 33. Only four belonged to Sandy, the others to mistresses, he said with a smile. Sandy was standing right next to him. “He’s a womanizer,” she said. I remarked that she was still with him. “What can I do?”, she implored. Plus, she said, he’s “a good man.” Personally, I have no illusions that men, especially in the slums, sleep around, but that it is this blatant was appalling. I’ve heard this especially in Mozambique and now South Africa, which accordingly has the largest HIV population in the world.

Later that evening, Siphiwe grabbed me and tells me we’re going to a party. My dinner goes cold on the table. When we get there, we find a space jump and hoards of kids, grilled chicken, beer, and dessert. In no time a drink and slice of cake are shoved in my hands. I'm a big celebrity, pulled in every which way by people. Siphiwe says I have a few admirers in the group of women I talked to when I entered. And who is there? Sandy and Victor (with the blue shirt and jeans in the second picture), the latter of which is even worse than before and now basically physically harassing me. Major man crush. Siphiwe, meanwhile, drinks Coca-Cola.

That night we found ourselves at, you guessed it, Nessie’s shebeen. There was a soccer match, and I split the bottle of wine gifted to me by a neighbor. Again, amazing hospitality from the South African people. Patricia hated the strong taste, but had a second and third glass because, she said, “I can’t afford any Hansa…I have to drink this.” She talked as if it was punishment, yet she drank more than anyone else. I thought this was terribly rude, and her drunkenness seemed a bit in appropriate, especially for her age. But, this is all learning for me, so you accept things as they are. After all, I am intruding on their lives, so I'm probably not one to talk about rudeness. The whole night Siphiwe had a glass of my wine, but otherwise, nothing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shacking Up in the Slum - Pt. I of III

If I went home today, I would have to tell you that my fellowship has been a failure, as amazing as it has been. Maybe “incomplete” is a fairer evaluation. I think I am getting a pretty good handle on the tools – sustainable or not – to fight poverty. But in terms of my other goal – to understand poverty – I score a big incomplete. What good is understanding the instruments available if you don’t have a grasp of the problem?

I want to know what it’s like to be poor, and the countless interviews and endless readings I’ve done only get me halfway. The best way to close the gap, I think, is to live with the poor, but this far I’ve found this very difficult to arrange. Our social circles generally don’t overlap, and language is a considerable barrier.

That’s why it was very fortunate that I met Patricia (pictured), who I met when we stopped for drinks at a shebeen (an unlicensed neighborhood drinking establishment). I remembered from our conversation that her mother had passed away and she had an empty room. So, on Thursday, in the pouring rain, I walked to her front door, full of trepidation. God I was nervous. This was the first time I’d invited myself over to someone’s house since my best friend in middle school. Okay, high school. She wasn’t there. I went to Nessie’s shebeen across the street, where we had hung out the day before, and found her there. She agreed to my offer of 70 rand a night, which is what a hostel would’ve cost me. For the next three days I got to live with the locals, doing pretty much what they did. Doing my laundry, bathing the "South African way" (bucket of water and washcloth), sharing meals, and drinking…a lot.

After putting my bags up at Patricia’s (whose real name is Nomthandazo, or Thandi for short), I joined them back at Nessie’s for some Hansa, the beer of choice for Motsoaledi, the slum I was in. A little later Siphiwe, the tour guide from the day before and local resident, took me to three of his favorite bars. It was the beginning of a friendship. At the bars I found instant celebrity. I was introduced to all of Siphiwe’s good friends, and it seemed like there wasn’t a minute when less than two people were trying to talk to me at once. Giving the incumbent pool shark a run for his money didn’t hurt my reputation either. Siphiwe, I noticed, didn’t drink the entire night.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


How have things - race relations, poverty, the economy - developed since the end of apartheid? To answer this question, it's impossible to avoid Soweto, the name which became an amalgamation of "South Western Townships". Established in 1904, Soweto was the epicenter of black resistance during apartheid. Its Vilakazi Street is the only street to boast two Nobel Peace Prize winners - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

I wanted to get a feel for what life was like there, and ended up with something closer to groping. You'll better understand why in the next post, but first I need a short lead in.

I tagged onto a couple people at my hostel who happen to disdain museums and just want to interact locals. Perfect. Did I mention I love hostels? The tour was informational and a good start, and led to an important lead which I'll discuss in the next post, but the short hour in the slum wasn't overly revealing. The end, though, led us to Kliptown, the oldest section of Soweto and the birthplace of the 1955 Freedom Charter.

Here we were led to the Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) center. When we entered, some 50 children were doing a coordinated dance and song, the power of which gave me goosebumps and send shivers up my spine. It was amazing to see such happiness amidst gripping poverty. I think about this often - the smiles on the faces of poor that seem to trump anything I've seen in the States. Perhaps it's just because I'm analyzing things closer here, and perhaps these smiles are just mirages of frustration and sadness that they won't reveal easily, but still I was impressed.

As I am traveling uninhibited during these two weeks - no laptop, no certain places to lay my head, and no upfront plan, I brought my bag along with me, looking for a place to stay somewhere near the slum. Finding out that SKY allows people to stay, I jumped at the opportunity. Concerning the cost, I asked Bob, the director and easy-going Rastafarian who I swear is the reincarnation of Bob Marley. He said, "It's not about the money; it's about the soul connection." At that moment "No Woman, No Cry" started playing the background and the faint smell of ganja could be detected in the air.

For the rest of the night I hung out with all the children (and young men/women) learning about where they came from and SKY. The interesting thing about SKY is that they are more famous abroad than in Soweto. Take for example their ties with the NBA. Every year for a week they host the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Dikembe Mutombo, and Dwight Howard. Victor, who I talked with, starred in HBO movie named Ithuteng and is pals with Chris Tucker.

The next morning, shortly before the breakfast of white bread and French fries (I said I wanted local, and that's what I's best to put the fries in the bread, topped with cheese and ketchup, and consume like a sandwich), there was bathing time. 10 minutes after asking about a shower, Wise Man, in whose bed I was sleeping, plopped down a plastic basin of water. I asked if I should take it into the bathroom, which left him perplexed. We were both looked at each other like dumb freshmen in a graduate level course. Pretty confused. When I finally explained I thought I would be using the "bucket method" (which would've been luxury), he said no, "you can learn to bath the South African way." The "South African way", I learned, is basically a bucket of water, always in your room, that you use with a wash cloth as you stand naked. How you are supposed to rinse your body with the same water that rinses the wash cloth I have still yet to figure out. Washing (and properly rinsing) is light years beyond me. I asked Wise Man if he had a wash cloth, and as if he or anyone else had never taken a bath, he starts searching through the dusty boxes of donated clothes in his room. A couple minutes later he came up with a small, dirty rag. It would do, though I can't tell you if I actually got cleaner or dirtier after that exercise. Next, on to the real immersion...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

South African Sidewalks

Packed into a seat next to a passenger overflowing into my seat, I endured the 9-hour ride and a Madea Goes to Jail movie that was on repeat, finally arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa at about 3:30 in the a.m. I'd been on the fence about going to South Africa because of the high standard of living (I didn't want to be back in the US), but the political and racial history and how it relates to poverty was too intriguing to pass up. (The pic, by the way, is nuses seen in the apartheid's blurred because the museum workers were yelling at me that pictures weren't allowed...whoops...and I was pulling away, but I think it's kinda stylistic as it is)

My good friend and former cross country teammate Thomas Davis, in a wonderful article, points out the many different definitions of poverty, and how insecurity from high levels of crime can serious affect standards of living. Having more money probably doesn’t mean as much in a place where your mobility is curtailed, where you fear being robbed every time you go out. Hence my decision to skip Cape Town - which is further away and a place I’ll probably visit in the future - and start in Joburg, the crime capital of the world. I’ve heard too many stories of cloned credit cards, car jackings, and warnings just short of “You will die.” Sounds fun.

I wanted to feel what it was like, and feel I did. After a first night at Diamond Diggers (DD) hostel, I went for a run to the left, heeding warnings of the hostel owner. DD has the unique position of being right on the edge of wealthy suburban Joburg and the poverty-stricken industrial center.

The first thing I noticed were the sidewalks – uncracked, unobstructed…a first since being back in the States. Manicured lawns and canopied streets were the backdrop for razor wire and electrical fencing, stark reminders of the criminal threat.

The next day I went right (I’m an ambi-turner). Skipping over potholed and half-destroyed sidewalks, I was immediately surrounded by liquor stores, auto repair shops, and abandoned warehouses. However, the people were friendly, telling me to “keep it up” and helping me with directions when I found myself lost. The next morning I went back for more.

After the run that day – Thursday if you’re counting – I rode a local minibus into the center of town, the “no-go zone”, to just walk around and chat with people. I had some breakfast on the street, watching people go by. I ended up talking with a legal street DVD seller named Jabu. I was excited to see this, and hear him rationalize to me that we need to support actors and producers. The 42 year-old father of five lamented to me that before he was a carpenter, but because of the cheap foreign labor, he has lost his business and no longer employs his two employees. Cheap temporary laborers from Zambia, Mozambique, and other nearby countries, he said, are willing to work at a fraction of the price of locals. That money will mean much more back home. “These foreigners, they’re killing us. They’re killing us,” he said. This job/labor problem would be a recurring them, I've found. After an hour of talking and striking up a friendship, I told him I would contact him when I was in hometown of Soweto, the historic apartheid township and my next stop.

So far, the South African natives have been extremely kind to me, and rarely did I feel insecure. Certainly, I was only in the center of town once, not a 100 times – something might happen then. And the racial matters seem to be quite improved from what I’ve heard from people. But something I just couldn’t get out of my head was that if we are always looking, walking - and running - the other way, never mingling, will racial differences ever be eliminated?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Out of Office Reply: Guess Where I'm Going...

Wow. The only thing going faster than time lately has been my cash on the weekends. After a long week of trying to pull every little thing together and countless edits (thanks to all those who helped), I gave my final presentation and handed over a 40-page report on my work. From what I understand, it went well enough, and they are pretty pleased (that's me with the head of R&D at TechnoServe, Higino...he's basically a rock star...just go to the mall with him and you'll see he knows everyone). When it gets finalized and released by TechnoServe, I'll let you check it out. Now, after a weekend of celebrations (but honestly, which weekend isn't?), and three months of pretty solid work. I'm ready to get out of this bubble.

The insight into aid-development, large-scale poverty alleviation, and business-based approaches I've gained has been amazing, but beyond all of this is the enormous detachment I've felt from the local population and what reality is for the majority of Mozambicans. Here I am staying at a three-star hotel, buffet breakfast, going AC-to-AC everyday with a driver, working 10 hours a day on a laptop speaking all English all the time. I've fallen into the (very small) expat circle, going to Sunday night local music concerts, and chatting ad nauseam about everything US and the good, bad and ugly of Mozambique. The only respite I get is when I travel in the local minibuses or go out to eat by myself, and since I'm pretty cheap I usually hit the roadside stalls. This kind of stuff is pretty much out of the question for most of my Western-wage-earning friends here.

Being abroad this long (8 months now??), you long for some stability or normal routine - somewhere that you know your footing. You want to know where you can grab a beer or some cheap good food, instead of going on a mad hunt everyday. But now, I'm tired of this stability. I'm ready to get dirty, be uncomfortable, and run into awkward situations (that's kind of the definition of my life, but we're going to try to take it to a new level). So I'm off. I'm not going to tell you where until I get there and find a computer, which could be in a day or two, so I welcome your guesses. Bonus points if you guess the city.