Tag Archives: Culture shock

Duncan Village shebeen

Well, we’re kicking off my last week in Africa with an extraordinary adventure: Craig and I have been invited to a shebeen (tavern) in Duncan Village by Craig’s friend and colleague, Dumile. It is nerve-wracking and exciting, likely-dangerous, and a never-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The drive to Duncan Village is short and tense. I am thinking about the balance between caution and paranoia. Craig says that Dumile is very well-respected in his community and that as his guests we will be safe. Still, the townships in general and shebeens in particular are reputedly dangerous and violent places. I brace myself for an explosion of race politics. I am thankful for the opportunity despite the churning apprehension in my stomach.

Duncan Village after dark is… well, really dark. There are no street lights and in the charged excitement of a Saturday night, people are out walking, visiting, talking, and drinking in the moonlight.

Dumile meets us and takes us to Stella’s, a small shebeen near his place. It’s a two-room cinder block building. In the front, people are sitting and drinking. One woman dances in the doorway to music coming from a small stereo in the corner. We order beer through a locked grate; a girl fetches two large bottles of Windhoek from a fridge and passes them through the bars. We walk out into Duncan Village.

Dumile seems to know everyone, so we stop every few feet to be introduced to this or that person. He walks us through a crowd of people in suits and dresses. They are prepping for a funeral the next day. The introductions confound my tongue as I struggle to repeat them back. One guy assumes a high nasal voice and cracks, “Hello Peter, hello James.” Though the joke is at my expense, I think it’s pretty funny.

I recently found out that the firm handshake I am accustomed to giving and receiving is perceived as aggressive in this culture. It is better to offer a softer hand – and the shake has at least three grips, which I have only recently mastered. I am feeling quite chuffed with myself for the near-seamless handshake I am negotiating with Dumile’s mother when she throws me off by adding a finger snap at the end.

Next we go to Dumile’s place, a two room tin and wood shack with two beds, a beanbag chair, a fridge, a television on the counter, and three certificates taped to the wall. There are a few women there, drinking and watching soccer. I miss a lot of what happens next. The conversation is mostly in isiXhosa and I have to rely on Craig to send me cues. I spend a lot of time smiling and nodding like a dashboard Jesus.

It occurs to me that the word is out that Dumile has some unusual guests over because very quickly the place fills up with people. I chat with whoever is interested, but this ends up being only men – the women want nothing to do with me. Eventually a guy shows up who introduces himself as “the Mayor of Duncan Village” and hunkers down in front of me. For the next fifteen minutes we have a conversation that feels a lot like a job interview, in which I confirm that South African beer is good, that Canada is cold, and that their “big five” is better than ours (I suggest that ours includes moose, bear, goose, salmon and beaver – not bad, but they ain’t no lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino).

Finally, Dumile says he will take us to Oud’s – the best shebeen in Duncan Village. As we are getting up the Mayor says something to Craig and smirks, turning to me. “What’s that?” I say. “I didn’t hear what you asked.” The Mayor chuckles again and says, “Well, have you?” I’m no idiot, so I say with certainty and a smile, “Nope, I absolutely have not.” The Mayor winks and laughs heartily. At the car Craig tells me he had asked if I’d yet had a “taste of Africa”. “Dude,” Craig explains, “he thought you were a guy the entire time.” Uh-oh. Experience tells me this can be very dangerous territory and Duncan Village is the last place I want to see go all Boys Don’t Cry.

We pile into the car: Craig and I in the front and 6 passengers in the back seat. Oud’s is a larger building and outdoor space packed with people and loud (very good) music. We walk inside and every set of eyes is on us. I buy another giant Windhoek. A guy grabs my arm and pulls me close to his face. “We are wondering,” he gestures to a small circle of people seated on broken plastic chairs, “are you a boy or a girl?” I smile broadly, warmly, and reply, “I am a girl, but I am from Canada. We all look like this. Weird huh?” The guy grins back and we chat for a few minutes. Yes, Canada is cold, and South Africa has good beer.

Dumile leads the three of us outside, and a small group of other curious folks follows. Craig takes me aside and whispers in my ear, “I’d say this is going quite well… except for the guy who just threatened to slit my throat.” Looks like part of the fun is to wind up the white people – or at least that’s the explanation Dumile gives, apologetically. Craig’s teeth and eyes flash. “It’s not a funny joke,” he asserts and Dumile shakes his head: he knows.

We socialize for another fifteen minutes with a little dude in oversized Nikes who keeps calling Craig “nigga”. They swap lingo: in South Africa his shoes are “takkies”; in the U.S. they’d be “kicks”. A guy approaches me and says in my ear, “We’re going to slit your throat and steal your car.” The additional detail in the threat is almost funny – like the next guy will say something like “We’re going to slit your throat, steal your car and piss on your corpse” – but the overture makes me angry. I swing my body around to face him and ask, “Hey, what do you think my friend Dumile would think about your ‘joke’?” He’s contrite: he was kidding, he says. We leave in a display of a righteous indignation which is better, I guess, than leaving in a flurry of white panic.

In the car on the way back to his place, Dumile repeatedly apologizes. There’s a shadow across his handsome face and his welcoming smile is gone. I turn around in the seat to reassure him – we are fine – and I can see his discomfort. He is embarrassed and I feel terrible for him, for me, for everything the incident suggests. We drop Dumile at his place and then Craig and I drive home, crack open beers, and process the hell out of the whole thing.

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Anarchy and patience

Here’s something I’ve noticed: South Africa has almost no rules. In fact, so few things are disallowed here that I am shocked when anything at all is prohibited. In some ways South Africa is all anarchy, which raises an interesting question about the innate goodness or badness of people. If folks are free to do as they please, how do they behave?

I found a really sweet example of people’s goodwill in South African traffic customs. Many of the roads here are single lane, and the painted lines really only seem to indicate suggested safe passing zones. People tend to pass at any time they feel it might be feasible. This could result in extraordinarily treacherous highways but instead, the custom is for the slower vehicles to drive on the extreme left shoulder (remembering South Africa is left-side drive) to allow faster cars to blow by. Then, when the manoeuvre is completed, the passing driver flashes his or her hazards once (Thank you) and the driver behind flashes his or her high beams once (You’re welcome). Très civilized, and much less road rage than I am accustomed to.

On the other hand, the lack of structure can create laughably frustrating situations. Renting a DVD can become an almost insurmountable challenge (the tag says it’s in but it’s not, or it’s misplaced, and so on) – and when you finally succeed, you will not be surprised to find the disc scratched and unplayable. Things meander. There are no two-minute exchanges; everything from highways to conversations must take the scenic route. This is no place for brevity or efficiency. Patience is more than a virtue; patience is, perhaps, the true currency of South Africa.

There is an intersection with race here too, of course. Everyday life in South Africa is a salad of difficulty and ease, harmony and violence, and a main indicator of how you will experience this is race, and by extension, class. Most times, if you’re white, you’re going to have an easier time of it. Sure – there are all sorts of petite difficulties (i.e. Downtown Cape Town has limited street parking) but if you have the means, you can circumvent the rules (pay that guy to watch your car, parked in the tow-away zone). Need your car cleaned and you’re hungry? Pay that guy to wash it while you eat. Need your pants hemmed, your shirts ironed, or a paper fetched…? Make no mistake: “that guy” is black. It is easy after a while to get comfortable with this, to begin to rely on it. It sure is nice to have so many options all the time. And it’s not like you’re asking them to do it for free. Right?

Evan may have summed it up best. “South Africa is a mind fuck,” he said matter-of-factly, the candlelight illuminating our steaks and red wine.

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Arrival in Cape Town

If Johannesburg is L.A. and East London is Detroit, Cape Town is San Francisco: naturally beautiful, diverse, and colourful.

Craig’s friend Mike lives in the Cape Town Central Business District (CBD) and has generously offered to show me around for the weekend; Craig will join us on Sunday. Mike begins his tour on the way home from the airport. “This is called Cape Flats, because, well, it’s flat.” He gestures to a plain cascading out from under the skirt of Table Mountain. For 15 years I lived in B.C. – I know mountains (mossy rainforest mountains laced with ropey roots; great soft giant hills like slumbering elephants in the desert; alpine mountains crashing together in hectic ranges), but Table Mountain is something else. Table Mountain juts like Dick Tracy’s jaw, solo and masculine. A company of pines stand at attention on the base, shadow off a comic artist’s pencil. Deep canyons slash the sides, fingersful of clay dug out and pushed into the sea, and then the top, capped suddenly. A ledge, a lookout, a tabletop. I want to go up there.

Mike is pointing out the window to a barren stretch flanked by the bustle of industry and commerce. “To your right is District 6. It used to be a mixed area and when the Group Areas Act came into effect they tore everything down. It’s prime real estate, but no developer has touched it since. Nobody wants it – the ground is toxic with human blood.”

The next day, Mike takes me to lunch at a friend’s. On the drive over he tells me a bit of our host’s story: her husband was shot to death during a break-in and robbery a few years ago. One of the best travel tips I ever received was to read fiction of a place while in a place, and so I have been engrossed in Lewis DeSoto’s A Blade of Grass. It’s a serious read (and one I can recommend), but there is something old fashioned about it. Now that I have been here for awhile, stories about violence against whites seem antiquated, paranoid even. Listening to Mike speak, I realize I still don’t know anything about this country.

We arrive and I immediately fall into a conversation with Mike’s friend, Laurie. Laurie is a priest who has helped set up and administer a safe house for gays and lesbians in the townships. As we sip wine and our host prepares a three course meal of salad, vegetables, and coq au vin, we discuss the relationship of homosexuality and the church, gender politics and Caster Semenya, and the repulsive and savage practice of “corrective” rape. By the time we’ve set the table Laurie and I have made a plan for him to drive me to Gugulethu to see the facility and meet the staff.

The meal is excellent and the conversation lively, engaging, varied and passionate. And then one of the guests begins to speak about the hardships he faces as a white man in this country. It is an argument against what we in Canada know as “affirmative action”, and there is a collective contraction: shoulders tense, breath is held. This sensation of tightwire suspense is becoming familiar to me. I am beginning to see that it coats everything; it takes only the hint of a sympathetic ear to puncture the protective membrane and let it all come spilling out. Voices are raised; cheeks flush. We leave hurriedly, our feelings gushing forth in flustered exhalations unable to be held one moment beyond the latching of the front gate.

Africa is a demanding place. The vast African sky, the endlessness of the horizon, the playfulness and diversity of the wildlife… I can’t just look; I work to see, to understand. I chew on it. Africa is biltong for my brain, and the difficult things are as dizzying as the divine. It’s my fourth week here and if anything I feel even more bewildered by the politics of race and class that leave their imprint with such certitude on this country.

As a traveller here I am constantly buffeted between conflicting impulses. Dare I judge a South African who says things to me that are racist? Or do I do as the Romans, when in Rome?

The best answer that I have come up with is to listen rather than speak. I am here to learn and I can’t do that with my mouth open. I find this path enormously challenging. In South Africa, the topic of race (and by extension, class) arises in nearly every conversation. I am often offended, saddened, frustrated, appalled – and ultimately, I am exhausted. For the good and the bad, this mother country can be a mother of a country.

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Mdantsane soccer

This morning we are heading to Mdantsane Village, and Craig is looking forward to the drive. “It’s really interesting,” Craig tells me. “You’ll get to see so many different kinds of places on the way.”

Informal settlements are like tent cities in Canada. They are illegal, mostly… in some rare cases people own the land but aren’t able to afford a house so they build a shack there. Generally, people are squatting. The informal settlements are groups of shacks made of tin and scrap wood, and are extremely crowded. There are also RDPs (Reconstruction and Development Program areas) which are government housing. The houses here are small but have basic amenities. In some areas you will see an RDP home with one or more shacks built adjacent to it. This is where people have attached illegal structures to an RDP home or plot so they can share the toilet and running water.

But what Craig is saying to me now is something different. “That was a black township and we’re coming up to a coloured township.” Of all the things I have had to try and understand about race and class since I arrived, the black/coloured distinction is the one that has surprised me most. “Coloured” refers to mixed race people, and their communities are separate from black communities and Afrikaans communities. I find the term “coloured” to be extremely distasteful – evocative of the language of slavery – but I am also aware that I am applying Canadian sensibilities to South African history and culture. It is one of the major challenges of being here and it is so tangled that I find myself avoiding writing about it, avoiding the political landmines…

With 2 million residents, Mdantsane is the second most populous place in South Africa after Soweto. The village is divided into areas, historically called Native Units (NUs). The term NU is now considered offensive so the areas have recently been officially renamed zones, but the roadsigns still say NU (as in NU 13 or NU 6, with an arrow) and our directions are to go to NU15. We are looking for a soccer field, where we will meet Craig’s friend Sandile.

Craig’s work sometimes takes him into the township but he’s not been to NU15 and we quickly become lost. The vibe in the village is electric: crowded, loud and bright. We pull into a gas station to fill up and ask for directions. Craig has become quite skilled in isiXhosa; I am impressed. As we leave, three little girls in bare feet spot the BMW and come to the window to ask for rands. Craig hands them some change.

We drive; we get lost. Craig pulls over to ask some women selling clothes at a crossroads for direction to NU15 and they point down the road the way we came. As Craig turns the car around I notice another stall at the roadside with an open fire and dozens of goat heads in a pile.

Eventually we surrender and call Sandile who meets us on the corner and jumps into the car to direct us to our destination: the incongruously-named Winter Rose Sports Club. He instructs Craig to drive inside the gates… then onto the playing field itself where a game is in progress (Sandile claims we are being stared at because we are the only white people but I have to wonder if piloting the BMW over the corner flag might contribute), and past the goal line of the adjacent field. We park behind Sandile’s car and get out.

Sandile coaches a men’s soccer team called the Mountain Birds. Knowing that I am interested in soccer, Craig has arranged for us to attend their game. When we arrive, they are warming up. Listen up, Sweet Cleats: we’ve got a new warm-up routine.

Sandile explains that he coaches both the Mountain Birds and an under-15 team. They have one set of kits, which are shared. After todays game, the jerseys will be given to the under-15s so they can wear them for their game the following day. As well, all players are responsible for providing their own cleats. One player doesn’t have any so he is warming up in his sandals; he’ll try and borrow boots from a player in the previous game when they finish.

Sandile (bottom left) and Craig (bottom right) with the Mountain Birds.

Sandile (bottom left) and Craig (bottom right) with the Mountain Birds.

Me and Craig with a couple of the under-15s.

Me and Craig with a couple of the under-15s.

I am frustrated because I know for a fact that many of my friends have closets full of unused soccer gear that would be happily donated and put to great use here, but the logistics (cost of shipping, hold-ups at Customs, packages arriving empty) of getting it to Mdantsane are prohibitive. Craig is going to carry back equipment after his trip home in December but that is hardly a sustainable or long-term solution.

The Mountain Birds are fast and the game is aggressive and fun to watch. At the first whistle Sandile transforms, shouting and waving his hands. “I am not yelling at them,” he turns to Craig and I. “I am encouraging them to play better.” Then he faces the field and begins yelling again. “They are good, Sandile,” Craig says. “You will win the championship.” We must leave early because we are off to Addo that afternoon. We shake hands with the players on the sidelines and the under-15s and hop into the BMW.

#4 controls the ball in borrowed cleats.

#4 controls the ball in borrowed cleats.

The linesman.

The linesman.

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Ghost Pops

I was in a petrol station and saw these Ghost Pops. So many questions – I had to buy them.

See how they float in mid-air? Spooky.

See how they float in mid-air? Spooky.

They make some pretty bold claims on the back…

A mouth quivering experience.

A mouth quivering experience.

…and they’re all true. Just not in a good way. So what do ghosts taste like? A bit like ketchup chips puffed and rolled in bacon grease. Kind of corpse-y, actually, and I am sincerely hoping that’s not their marketing angle.

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Linens ‘n’ things

I am in the Debonair Pizza (award-winner, Best Name Ever) with a perfect personal round – extra cheese, meat lover’s: hopefully kudu or blesbok or warthog – and I have finally pressed the combination of buttons on my loaner Nokia celly that will turn it on. For the past several moments I have been sitting at the plastic table, turning the thing over and over in my hands, eyeing the edges, manipulating it like a monkey with a typewriter (which is really all I am after all so I suppose I shouldn’t feel so sheepish under the stares of the kid across from me). I dial Craig. “He-eeey,” he sing-songs. “Holla!” I cry back. “Um, yeah. So Craig, I am in the Debonair Pizza on Oxford Street. The store I was in was just robbed and their credit card machine is down. I don’t have enough money for the shirt I want and the ATMs aren’t on speaking terms with my Scotiacard. Any chance you can pick me up and take me to another bank machine? In Joburg I was able to use the ones in gas stations – the aftermarket kind.” Silence. “You’re on Oxford Street?” I can hear the stress in his voice. “Yeah, in the Debonair Pizza,” I reply breezily. “A block down from the Biko statue.” “Give me ten minutes and I’ll come get you.” We hang up and I sink my teeth into possibly the tastiest and certainly the most dashing slice of pizza of my life.

It all started with Ryan Lanyon and the dodgy Levis. Heeding the advice of my friends, I had been relentless with myself in packing for this trip: No more than two pairs of jeans!, I had berated myself, psychically spanking myself with a wire hanger. Well, we all know how that turned out, and add to it that it’s bloody cold here on some days. No two ways around it: I had to shop.

I went to East London’s Oxford Street, a busy shopping thoroughfare with lots of pedestrian traffic in and around the shops and street kiosks. Oxford Street is medium rough. The stores are pretty low end and the streets are jammed with people selling sunglasses, vegetables, wallets, Crocs, belt buckles, CDs, and cheap jewelry. A block away, on Buffalo Street, is the Buffalo City Mall, where I was headed when a distinct change in vibe – from ‘colourful’ to ‘treacherous’ – sent me back to Oxford. I was the only white person which was unnerving but also probably really good for me. I mean, that’s a meaningful experience, right – to be the only one and to have to go about your business. It’s palpable. Everyone should do this a least once, I was thinking self-righteously as I tried to be purposeful and aware and not overly paranoid.

I was also preoccupied with avoiding the vehicular traffic. Cars here don’t stop for pedestrians so when I had to cross the street I would shadow someone until they traversed, essentially using them as a human shield. This worked a charm but every so often put me squarely in the middle of a jostling crowd doing something I had not foreseen, like hailing a cab. There is no public transport. People get around by driving, walking, hitchhiking, and taking cabs. The cabs are minivans that drive up and down the streets, endlessly honking (when I first arrived I kept turning my head and pointing to my chest as if to say, Who, me?). The driver leans out the window, and in an unforeseen twist, hollers where he is going; if you are going there too, you launch youself in and undoubtedly onto the lap of a fellow passenger. The cabs can hold around ten people.

It was with some relief that I walked into a store called Identity. It was familiar enough, like Urban Behavior meets Primark, which is right around my price point. I found a couple of shirts and a pair of shorts to try on and I headed into the change room. I was stripped down to my smalls and pulling a shirt over my head when I heard a crash and someone shout something in a language I didn’t understand. (DANGER!) A half-second passed and then there was this great swelling of increasingly urgent voices, all yelling. I couldn’t understand a single word and that was definitely the worst part. My imaginaton quickly and efficiently filled in gun shots, hostage-taking, rape and murder. As if all that is necessary to knock over an Urban Behavior, but that’s where I was going with it in my head.

I began dressing, fast. I was pulling my own pants back on when I caught sight of myself in the full length mirror. I looked utterly terrified – and I was. I was blinking rapidly and my hands were shaking as I buttoned my fly. Quickly I was dressed and then I just stood there, staring at myself in the mirror. I met my own eyes and let out a nervous little noise. I was trying for a laugh but my throat was too dry; it was more of a bark. Stay calm, I told myself. This will make a great entry for the blog.

When a few moments had passed without any screaming from the front room, I unlocked the change room door and poked my head out. The store was in disarray and people were milling about excitedly. I grabbed my bag and the shirt I wanted (a nice little linen number that I haven’t stopped wearing since – I worked for this shirt!) and I went to the cash.

I <i>worked</i> for this short.

I worked for this shirt.

When I stepped forward to pay, the cashier was shaking her head. “They hit us every week!” She seemed irritated. “What happened,” I asked. “I was in the back – in the change rooms…” “Yeah, I saw you,” the cashier laughed. “You poked your head out like this.” She gave me a decent impression of a big mouth bass gasping on the end of a hook, and we both laughed.

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Kennaway Court

Wanting to seem “cool” with the whole authentic experience (and to be fair, I think I am), I reassure Craig that whatever hovel he resides in will be more than adequate. He presses the issue. “I want you to understand what you are getting into.” I decide to be quiet.

We are driving through downtown East London and it looks a lot like the bad areas I am familiar with except that everyone on the street is black. “This is Quigney – your new home.” Stucco houses in pastels line the streets. It’s clear that in their prime they were part of a vibrant and colourful oceanfront, but heyday has given way to mayday in this area. Auto parts stores, bedding outlets, pawn shops and adult emporia are king. Even convenience stores are curiously absent; it is a relief to see  Crazy J’s Liquors as it is now ranked the number one place at which I might shop in my new neighbourhood.

We crest Inverleith Terrace (doesn’t that sound aristocratic?), our home street. I catch a glimpse of remarkable waterfront. Foamy waves bathe great grey slabs of rock that abut a pedestrian promenade. It is a vigorous, almost pugilistic landscape. Nothing is still and even the colours (sky, sea, street) remind me of bruises. The wind is relentless, even though it is a sunny day.

From the outside, Kennaway Court is a slightly run down and unremarkable building. On the inside, it oozes broken down gentility. Its history as an upscale beachfront hotel is commemorated in a linoleum mosaic in the lobby: white women in their finery picnic on the beach while black men in loincloths labour unloading crates under the watchful eye of white military men, some on horseback.

The modern material linoleum meets the ancient art of mosaic to create an ugly exhibition of an ugly time.

The modern material linoleum meets the ancient art of mosaic to create an ugly representation of an ugly time.

We get in the elevator and hit ‘5’. Though the lower floors are still reserved for the hotel, the top floors are now residences. At 5 we disembark and walk down an unremarkable hallway. Craig is at the door to my new home. He’s explaining that the locking metal grate (like a jail cell door that goes over your regular front door for added security) has been removed to be cleaned of rust. The skeleton key is in the lock, twisting and as it catches Craig is saying something, again, about squalor.

The door swings open effortlessly on its hinge. The apartment is easily three times are large as mine, and with its marble tiles, pristine steel appliances, and picture window overlooking the ocean, it is also easily three times as luxurious. “You bastard,” I laugh and Craig begins the tour.

Here is the toilet, separate from the shower and jacuzzi tub. I’ve cleared you two shelves for your toiletries and the towel on the left is yours. This is my bedroom. I don’t have a lot of personal space issues so you needn’t wait until I am out to go through my drawers.  Here is your room. It has wireless and I have emptied the desk because I know you will be writing a lot. The CD player is loaded with CDs of the hottest African artists – you should find it inspiring. The cleaner comes on Thursdays but this week it’s a national holiday so she will be here on Wednesday. Her name is Mandisa. Come to the living room – look out the window. In the mornings you can see dolphins and whales right here. Look for a dark spot under the waves and hopefully you’ll catch them when they breach...

    The view from our apartment, Kennaway Court, Inverleith Terrace, East London, South Africa.

The view from our apartment, Kennaway Court, Inverleith Terrace, East London, South Africa.

So this is East London – a place of extreme aesthetic disparity that echoes the class and race imbalances evident in the lives of those who live here. It is awkward, thrilling, and discomfiting. I get a slippery anxious feeling in my gut when I see myself flitting around East London in a BMW, retiring in the evenings to Kennaway Court,  and looking forward to Thursday when an amaXhosa woman will wash my laundry. I feel guilty.

I also feel exhilarated by the freedom. Here you go, have a few rand tip. It’s less than a dollar to me. I can eat what I want, buy what I want, do what I want. I can live, as they say, like a king.

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