Tag Archives: Travel

Aaaaaand scene…

…sort of.

Part of the challenge of this project was that I tried to write it in real time. While I was away, this meant that I took every second or third day to report on recent events, to catch you all up. And since I got back I have been writing “from Africa”, until the most recent post which closed the narrative part of the story.

Because of the way I took on the project, certain elements never found their way into the writing. My self-imposed deadlines required brevity and clarity, and some themes take their own sweet time to mellow into something understandable or interesting. So now I am back in Toronto, both in real- and blog-time, and I want to tease out some of those ideas. I hope you enjoy the autopsy, and I also hope that you will take the time to give me some input.

Yeah, you heard that right: I want input from you. Don’t think I didn’t obsess over my readership stats every single day – I know you’re out there: hundreds and hundreds of readers hitting my blog thousands of times. And though I heard from many of you both in the post comments and through direct email, I want more. What do you want to read more about? You can tell me. After all, I did take you to Africa.

And I was glad to have you there. No matter what the day held (usually puff adders, but sometimes more nebulous terrors like loneliness or self-doubt), coming back to my laptop to read your comments became a source of comfort… mostly. This kind of writing – so immediate, so personal – feels like running around naked. Online. With your parents watching. When one or more of you would take the time to respond I would feel light, the elation carrying me from room to room of the Kennaway. But there were times when I would post… and nothing would happen. These times were stormier.

After a while I began to pay attention to what kinds of posts elicited responses and which were swallowed by the void. You guys sure do like pictures! I could post about nothing at all (Ghost Pops) but you’d still visit for the pictures. And I noticed something else: the posts on race and class were widely read, but not widely commented on. At first I was irritated by this. Here I was tackling a terrifically complex and charged topic (and I must be honest – every time I would post on race I would be assaulted by anxiety), and you all just sat back and listened. But you didn’t, not really. I realized that these posts drew private responses. When I wrote about race I received many thoughtful, complex, and touching direct mails, so thank you.

Thank you, in fact, for all your input: the critical, the encouraging, and the downright odd. It was always appreciated. It helped me come to a very basic realization about myself: I am a writer, and like all writers I crave an audience.

I have a quote taped to my bathroom mirror. It was torn from a book of essays, author unknown, and it reads, “Writers are like those screamers who yell at you in the street, shouting the same phrases, the same words again and again and again, convinced that someone will stop and reply if they can only just get it right.” That you took the time to stop and reply made me feel like finally, I’d got it right.



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Out of Africa

Evan picks me up at the Johannesburg airport. I’ve got seven hours until my flight leaves for London and he’s decided to drive me to Pretoria, the place where he and Karin went to teacher’s college. Pretoria is one of the nation’s three capitals – Cape Town and Bloemfontein round out the trio. “I would have taken you to Soweto,” he says, “but with traffic I wasn’t sure we’d have time. It’s across town.” Sure enough, we leave the airport parking lot and are immediately immersed in a Joburg traffic jam. Pretoria it is, then.

The drive gives us time to talk, which is less awkward than you might think given that Evan and I have only known each other for an afternoon. Aside from really enjoying his company, I find him to be very interesting for two reasons: first, he comes from a conservative Afrikaans family but is not so himself; second, he is one of three South Africans I met (Mike and David being the other two) who have recently chosen to return after living elsewhere for a significant period of time.

I remember being quiet the day I met Evan, so totally overwhelmed by everything that I just watched and listened, trying to take it all in. There’s no trace of that now, and the little hatchback brims with spirited exclamations and observations. Our sentences are like puppies, snapping and squirming over one another in an excited pile. Evan is animated, almost tweaking in eagerness to speak about class and race, apartheid and politics. He tells me about his past few weeks which sound a lot like mine: endless political discussions and negotiations punctuated by moments of suffocating frustration and consuming intensity. We marvel at how the issue of skin colour is, itself, a skin over every interaction.

I ask him about his return to South Africa. I am so curious about this trend of repatriation. Evan is thoughtful, and tells me that after 8 years in London he felt he wanted to be in a more challenging place. Was his life good there? It was: he had a fulfilling job and a flat by himself on the banks of the Thames. “But I was dying of contentment,” he explains, and I swoon over his most excellent phrasing. Interestingly, his response is different from the two others I asked about it. In Mike’s case, it was this persuasive and persistent argument from his parents: you left for political reasons which have now changed; come back and participate (and vote) in your country. David’s reasons were more personal – his entire family is here. In all cases, the decision to return was the result of much consideration. There are no accidental arrivals.

We pull into the parking lot of the Blue Crane, a restaurant located in a bird sanctuary. “The food here is very good.” Evan leads me to the door. “But I must warn you – the place is staunchly Afrikaans.” It seems like everywhere else to me: black workers serve white patrons. We take a seat on the patio overlooking a small lake and I watch the last of my African sunsets. I will miss these vast, explosive bedtime stories.

It falls dark and we hit the road. My last image of Africa is of the soft hills smouldering in the darkness. Summer burning has begun.


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Good-bye East London

I wake up early and finish packing. Craig is at work and it’s impossible not to tour the flat at the Kennaway without whispering good-byes. Though the  past weeks have been full of jocular assertions that I will return – certainly for the World Cup in 2010! – I don’t know how realistic that is. Good-bye jacuzzi tub, good-bye Dennis Fistofassholes, good-bye depressing penguins at the East London aquarium.

I have a couple hundred rand left in my pocket. It’s a grey day, windy and spitting rain, but the vendors are out on the waterfront. I buy a wooden spoon from a woman who asks me to take her to Canada. She is out here every day beading bracelets and carving pieces of wood into mantle-sized elephants and baboons. Good-bye waterfront vendors.

The local Spar (grocery) is not very big but they have what I am after. O.B. tampons cost about 2 bucks a pack here; I clear the shelf, and throw in five tubes of Sensodyne. The checkout woman does a double-take and I wonder what kind of affliction she is imagining I labour under. I walk back through the parking lot.  Two men are asleep, spooning on the grass under the sign for the fitness centre. Good-bye.

Though Craig is not scheduled to take me to the airport until early afternoon, he shows up at the Kennaway at 11am. “D’you wanna go for lunch before we head out?” We load my bags into the BMW and grab a bite at the Red Tree Tea House, a cafe that’s full of antiques and really weird art. Normally we’d indulge ourselves and skewer the misshapen Jesus with six fingers… but there’s not a lot left to say, now. I hate long good-byes. We pay up and drive to the airport. Good-bye Debonairs Pizza, good-bye parking lot guys, good-bye magic bank machine (you were the only one in East London that would give me money).

Craig parks and comes inside, claiming that he wants to make sure my bag isn’t overweight. Liar. I check in (good-bye 1Time) and we walk to security. Awkwardly, Craig thanks me for coming to visit and we hug. I turn to him abruptly and say, “I don’t want to make this a big thing…” God, I can be lame sometimes but there it is: Good-bye, Lady Kennaway.

Click on a thumbnail for a closer look:


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Ndevana Ladies FC

In some ways soccer brought me to Africa, so it seems fitting that my last full day on the continent will be spent completing a soccer-related task.

Let me begin at the beginning. For the first 35 years of my life sports meant absolutely nothing to me. Nobody in my family cared a lick about physical fitness; there was never a game on T.V. If anything, sports were an irritant. I grew up with two and a half television channels and thought it appalling that every few years CBC would be hijacked for entire summers or winters to show people skating, or running, or working the pommel horse (though I can admit now that this event held my interest; make of that what you will).

And as a queer teenager, the doors to the gymnasium were hardly flung open in anticipation of my athletic contributions. Indeed, in these years I learned who I was – and I was an artist. This realization lead to a lot of swanning around (a habit I have not yet kicked), and to smoking cigarettes (one I have). Also, to wearing of capes.

So, when at 35 years old I joined a co-ed soccer league, I was a little surprised and a lot delighted to discover that I enjoyed playing the game. League strategists wisely put me on the defensive line and used mnemonic devices to improve my performance: when in DOUBT, kick it OUT! And I realized that everything they say about sports is true: it teaches confidence and leadership and teamwork. I travelled to several international tournaments (where I met many outstanding people, including Lady Kennaway himself), and took on a leadership role within the league.

Then, in 2006, the league decided to host an international tournament of its own, and fourteen of us put together a women’s team to compete in the women’s division. I use the term “compete” very loosely here: that first year we sucked hard, ultimately staggering bloodied and bruised to the middle of the dusty pitch to be photographed as the last place finishers. Sports also teaches you about exhaustion, defeat, and humiliation.

Thus galvanized, we prepared for the following year’s tournament by practicing regularly and learning how to play as a team. We were gratified to earn silver in the finals. I could not have been prouder when my team went all emo and refused to choose just one MVP. The honorary game ball was accepted by the 18 of us, and it was quickly decided that teammate Kim Atlin would travel with it on her upcoming trip to Zambia where she would donate it to the kids at the orphanage she’d be visiting.

When things are happy, the circles we run feel not like ruts but like a series of closures. Pieces fall into place and next steps are clear and met with anticipation. So it was that when the team won gold this year I was already booked for Africa. Of course I would take the game ball and I would find a team of girls to give it to. For this, I went back to Sandile, the coach of MDAFA team Mountain Birds.

And so it came to be that I am sitting in the front seat of a VW hatchback, its sides rattling and warping in the G-force of 180 kilometres per hour squeezed out of this shitbox’s tiny, shrieking engine. My last day in Africa would not be complete without one final dose of DANGER!, I think to myself, trying to push mental images of manglement from my mind. The bladder of the ADIDAS ball is flexing against its seams, so tightly am I gripping it between my knees. Sandile sits in the back seat, chatting casually in isiXhosa with the driver, who – terrifyingly – keeps swinging his head around to make eye contact.

Finally, mercifully, we pull off the highway and with the help of several locals, navigate down a dirt road into the village of Ndevana. Ndevana looks the part of a small African village: many of the houses are round with thatched roofs; chickens and children run in the roads. Sandile laughs as two teenaged boys crane their necks to stare into the car. “I don’t think they’ve seen a white person before,” he chuckles.

I am not sure what to expect of this. On the drive here Sandile told me that the Ndevana Ladies FC is sponsored by ABSA (a major South African bank) and that the team has had an impressive season. Suddenly, it occurs to me that this is all wrong: I see myself standing in front of a group of Olympians, holding my paltry offering. Oh God, what if they want to scrimmage? I break into a sweat.

We pull into the parking lot of a school and I am introduced to Gqibile Jacobs, who flashes me a wide and surprised grin when I pronounce his name correctly. I will see that same look on his face in 20 minutes when he realizes I am a soccer player. As we walk to the school room, he tells me the girls are expecting a visitor but he did not tell them who it would be. I step through the doorway and all poking, tickling, giggling, chatting, and horseplay abruptly stops. Twenty-odd curious faces turn towards me, silent. One girl falls off her chair, literally. Well this is awkward, I think.

I haven’t prepared a speech so I just launch into the story: I am from Canada; I know that soccer is not supported as much for girls as it is for boys; I have brought them a ball as a gift from my girls’ team (cue dawning surprised look from Gqibile); I hear they are a very good team and I wish them luck in the coming season. Silence. Sandile speaks in isiXhosa and I realize he’s translating. When he finishes the girls clap and stare at me. Gqibile says, “So… you are a player?” This guy is giving me a complex, I think, and I suggest we go outside to take some photographs.

Me and the Ndevana Ladies FC

Me and the Ndevana Ladies FC

Gqibile tells me that the next time I ask after it, the ball will be “destroyed”. I approve, and bid them farewell. Goooooooooo Ndevana Ladies FC!


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Do-goodery: engaged

Great news! Remember this post about Unakho, the women’s group in Mdantsane Village? Well it generated some notice from my Canadian friends, and today I am taking an envelope stuffed with donations to Mama Celia.

As Craig and I jump into the car, he flashes his cheeky grin. “Do-goodery: engaged!” he exclaims, and throws the BMW into reverse. I am a little numbed by the realization that this will be my last trip to Mdantsane… That, and the diabolical hangover perpetuated by too many oversized Windhoeks at the Duncan Village shebeen last night. These final days are reserved for all the important pilgrimages that I have not yet taken, and despite feeling like turds on toast I am excited about today’s mission.

The forty minute drive feels like a week and a half as I spend it directing my laser-intense attention on a spot on the dashboard while the car bucks and rolls over the speedbumps of NU13. Sending Craig as my ambassador was out of the question, African Tick Bite Hangover or not.

Mama Celia’s house is an RDP with a small yard in front and a larger sloping garden in the back where she grows vegetables to feed herself and the people in her community. Inside, the place looks a lot like any number of homes I have been in, with the exception that the couch cushions are bedazzled with hand embroidered appliqués that reassure: “God is Good”. We sit, and I give a very short speech and produce the envelope.

There is something about Celia that does me in. I noticed it on our first meeting and now again, as I stand hugging her compact body I feel a little overwhelmed. She’s older and calm and powerful and warm. I am so pleased to be able to bring a gift, but I also feel certain that she will continue her work with or without my help. This, after all, is the women who inspired me to recognize the hand of god.


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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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