Wednesday, April 15, 2015

is this africa?

they say south africa isn't like the rest of africa, it's more europe, or the states, a world apart. well the world i am in jo-burg is sadly, like something out of alabama or the saddest part of kentucky or neveada, or...i don't know.

usually, our meetings in the south africa region are always in delightful safari lodges in bostwana, log cabin things where you can do a morning safari before breakfast and all the staff are attired in khaki. meals are outdoors on the zambezi river with lots of bug spray and everything caters to the australian tourist.
well my people didn't arrange this meeting, someone else did, and they wanted something convenient, easy to get to, and what is more accessible than the holiday inn johannesburg airport? not much. 
and so here i am, 22km from O.R. Tambo airport in a desolate expanse of strip malls that doesn't look any different from M.L.K. highway in Durham, NC. every 2 and a half minutes a deafening roar rises from the east, shakes all the buildings and glassware, a top gun flyby, with a peculiar engine grinding, metal on metal, every plane sounds different, you wonder if that's what's normal. moments after the plane seems to clip the 70s looking palm trees, with a dark shadow of the plane cutting through every sunbeam. it's totally trippy david lynch. our hotel suddenly had no power, each hallway a cave of darkness. no internet, no hot water. i thought jo-burg was europe! 
so i took the shuttle to the local mall. which was across the street but we had to meander through these different 6 lane highways. i asked the driver what people who don't have cars do and he laughed. he dropped me off at this rusty decrepit looking shopping centre called the East Rand Mall, but the s was missing so it was Ea t Rand. I asked him if I was going to have the time of my life there. ha. 
the major attraction was the "liquor zone," a series of low-cost beverage stores. there was a supermarket called the "pick n pay" and a really sad arcade. felt like a time warp. it was a maze of hallways, all under construction, and no maps. it seemed everyone was walking determinedly somewhere, like this was just a passage. i didn't recognize any of the shops. Woolworth still exists?
i found a store selling billtong, the classic dried beef jerky stuff. it was run by a real nice old lady who apologized profusely when i ordered 6$ worth of biltong, but when she weighed it, it was worth 7$. she was super sweet and had long fake nails and let me taste all the flavors. when i said i wanted it vacuum packed she sent me to the sister shop a few complicated bends down into the mall. there, i arrived and met her tired husband, who said he was closing shop after 20 years, and that i was leaving the tastiest biltong behind: bacon biltong, which is the best thing ever. and it was. all best quality beef! where do they make this stuff, in their garage?
i ate a sad salad in the foodcourt in a coffee shop, taking advantage of some free internet and hoofed it back to the inn. every parking lot is ringed by high fences with barbed wire, so you can only go out the auto exit through the booth. several times i found myself cornered like an animal, thinking if i could actually fit through the bars. i would turn around and walk around a building to find the staff of fastfood restaurants taking their smoke breaks and checking their cell phones. ony guy had taken off his shoes and was picking at his blisters. 

when it came time to cross the street back to my hotel, i was at some awkward multi-way intersection. no crossing lights for pedestrians. it was like double dutch jump rope, you observe the patterns for your opening and then you just hold your breath and go. it took a couple of cycles, but then i had it. i was at the corner on this green grassy knoll where women in blue jumpsuits were picking up garbage and speaking in their dialect. every stoplight had its homeless guy, begging, or a dude with sneakers around his neck to sell, along with car cigarette lighter phone chargers. what cars still have cigarette lighters? across the way were even more guys with sandwich boards, selling phone credit or house insurance. human billboards. rock bottom was the guy with one shoe and a half torn cardboard sign offering "same day, pain free abortions." shudder. everyone eyed me cautiously, like what is this white girl doing here? like how in Durham the only people walking MLK boulevard were the mexicans. Maybe south africa really is america, but this isn't the part you would ever want to be in. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

I Like-a-inhaca

as much as you struggle for good hospitality in africa, sometimes it just works out.
on the last night of our workshop i sat next to abdul, from the university. he lives out at the research station on inhaca island. i was meant to fly to south africa the next day for a lovely weekend stay at the jo-burg airport hotel, but he quickly persuaded me to change my flight. inhaca is paradise!
a bit buzzed after half a bottle of vinho verde i called over to my colleague carl sitting at the end of the dinner table, hey wanna go to inhaca this weekend? 
i arrange everything, says abdul. 
far out.
on saturday morning we arrive skeptically at the fish port, i am half expecting this to fall through and am already scrolling through the number of tour operators and hotels i stored in my phone during my brief research of the island - which didn't bring much, mostly hotels closed for renovations and numbers with insufficient digits to make sense.
at the port we are escorted to our reserved seats on the vodacom boat. a clear better alternative to the rusting movicel vessel half sinking portside. 
we lounge in our red plastic molded seats and two hours later come upon the quaint, idyllic ilha inhaca. 
we pay the little reserve entrance fee, and a man comes and introduces himself, fernando, he will take us to our house in his land cruiser. we drift over the sand dunes and beach and through a small village, until we are shown a rather nice half thatch/half cement 2 bedroom house which is essentially what might call a "condo." replete with a living room and bar with 8 stools, fully stocked kitchen and a porch that lacks little but a hammock. the yard is under construction but there are satellite tv's and stone floors.
i ask when we need to pay and fernando says, "whenever."
we walk out to the beach and hike southward, in search of the university research station abdul raved about.
as soon as we are on the beach, various guys stop us and ask if we want to take a tour in their boat and we're like, nah, not really but ok we'll take your number in case.
we continue for a bit of a hike, we walk and walk and walk and i can feel the sunburn sink in, amplified by the terror thought that we are about as far from any restaurant at exactly high noon. 
finally we arrive at the research station, evidenced by a securty guard sleeping in a beached canoe. we enter the natural history museum of jars and preserves of all local beasts and animals and species, all explained by an eager portguese speaking tourguide. the specimens are in the same jars i make my pickles.
far out. 
i understand bits and pieces of his spiel, there was a leper colony, the island is 7km wide, which is the same distance we just walked, this is a 3m long python skin, the scorpion fish is bad news and here are lots of ants.  i ask to for the bathroom and the guide leads me to an outhouse - but first asks me to wait, as he inspects every stall for cobras. there is even a sign, please watch out for forest cobras. this is their home, he says. 
far out.   
at this point we have little desire to walk the 7km back to town and we are starving so we ask the fishermen there if they would take us back to town. they wince and shake their heads, so we call one of the guys who stopped us on the beach, flavio.
flavio says he can pick us up in a jeep or by boat, which do we prefer?
i say i don't know, which is cheaper and he says 1000 meticais either way.
boat or jeep, which do you prefer?
i say whichever costs 800 meticais and flavio says i come in the boat. 
it's low tide so we walk out in the really shallow ankle deep water to the channel's edge. i take pictures and am terrified of dropping my camera in the water, as well as stepping on sea urchins. 
we are almost 1 km from shore and i start to have my doubts about flavio. if the tide comes in we are essentially swimming back and i call him again and he does not answer. i figure, it's either a bad sign, or a good sign, because the boat engine is running and he can't hear the ring?
within seconds i hear the faint roar of an engine, and a speedboat racing towards us. carl says, "there's no way that's flavio's boat, it sounds way too fast," but it is. and we hop in. i complain about the lack of cold beer and flavio says if you had asked for beer i would have brought beer. 
flavio shows us his fancy tour guide id, which is just a laminated business card with rusty staples in it. carl remembers he has the lanyard name tag thing from the workshop. we put flavio's badge in there and i high five him. he is the happiest guy ever. legit. the crystal blue waters bow under our powerful engine and we are at the town in seconds.
far out. 
flavio takes us to some breezy patio where we eat the freshest calamari, doused with many beers. we watch the lazy village life before us, and then search endlessly for a beach but find mangroves, which aren't so bad because that's why we're here, afterall. 
after a sunset swim back at the dock we are discovering cold beer in the condo fridge when fernando finds us to say he needs two people to fill the boat trip to portguese island the next day and because it is split 10 ways it costs almost nothing. ok, why not? 

the best vacations are when you don't have to make decisions, the decisions just come to you.