The End of an Annum

Hey.

Howzit? You’re still here?

I probably would have given up waiting for that one last blog post by now. It’s been, what, a month? More than a month! What gives?

Ag, man…eish! It’s been hectic. In the past 30 days, we’ve driven across the US in a rented car, purchased a new car, moved back into our house, installed new carpet in our house, moved our stuff back into our house (which involved hoisting a sofa bed up through a third-story bedroom window), painted nearly every wall in the house, ordered internet service, cancelled internet service, ordered different internet service and a whole bunch of other stuff that required the focus of a blinkered thoroughbred…all while learning how to live in America again.

Sure, we’ve taken time out to enjoy time with family and friends, but until now there just hasn’t been a quiet moment to reflect on the past year, on the experiences we had, on the life we lived in South Africa, on that which was there but now is gone.

Truthfully, several quiet moments have likely come and gone. Instead of filling them with contemplation or remembrance, I played Words With Friends or watched a very sensationalized and very tape-delayed Olympic event. Shame on me. Loathe to admit in writing what I already know to be true, I’ve been putting off this task, as if not summarizing the past year would somehow leave the door open to a swift return to life in South Africa, as if these very characters would fashion themselves into nails and forever seal shut our portal to Pretoria.

As if the 8,000-mile, 16-hour flight didn’t do just that. That is, once we actually took off.

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Last Day Revisited

So, you’re right. It’s been quiet lately. These last few weeks flew by, filled as they were with farewell dinners, suitcase stuffings and what what what.

I feel like we haven’t been able to put a bow on the year.

But, if you’re looking for an eloquent tribute to the past twelve months of this wild and crazy life, I’m afraid this post will disappoint you.

I only have a moment to tell you about the rare opportunity we are now experiencing: the chance to have not just one, but TWO final days in South Africa.

See, even though we said our goodbyes, cried our tears, delivered our dog to cargo, checked our six bags, cleared immigration and boarded the plane, we never actually left the country.

Our flight was cancelled at 23:15 last night. Bad fuel valves. We were…stranded?

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Top 20 Non-Safari Photos

Three thousand, two hundred and fifty-six. That’s how many photos we’ve taken since we moved to South Africa in June 2011.

3,256.

The vast majority are not worth mentioning, let alone displaying. Many reinforce the trite stereotypes of Africa: lions in the bush, children at school, life in shanty towns. Some capture universal moments: birthday parties, weddings, holidays. Others fill the frame with great natural beauty: mountains, beaches, sunsets. Some defy categorization, decline comment, dare to be defined.

With such a large, diverse collection, one might think that at least a few shots would rise to the top, like rich cream in a bucket of Du Plooy melk. Certainly, some do. Choosing the best 20 of more than 3,000, though, is a difficult task. Particularly when excluding our favorite safari photos.

That’s not to say that all of the 20 photos below are amazing, or that they don’t fall into the stereotype trap, or that my idea of a good photo isn’t biased by a memory of the moment, or that there were so many candidates to choose from. In fact, I think I narrowed the choices from an original 39, which I tried to pull from a wide range of experiences and travels. Even so, a quarter are from Ethiopia — an obvious overrepresentation of the two weeks we spent there in relation to our year in South Africa.

Long story short, the photos below may not be the “best” for any number of artistic, technical or other reasons, but I hope you enjoy them and vote for the one that stands out for you.

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Some of the photos that didn’t make the cut live on my Flickr page.

Moçambique!

A ticking clock is a right good motivator. It prompts desperate online auction bids. It demands quick thinking on game shows. It signals that the bomb is about to explode.

It spurs last-minute travel plans.

It sends us sprinting to Mozambique.

Actually, the decision was much less dramatic. Sitting on the couch after dinner one night, Jenny simply turned to me and said, “Why don’t we just go to Mozambique for the weekend?” We looked at each other, in silence, each of us contemplating what should have been an outlandish question. Then for another hanging moment, as we shared the unspoken realization that only now, with our days in South Africa tick-tick-ticking away, could we even contemplate such a whim.

“OK, cool,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

From that point, the only real decision to make was whether to drive or fly. The capital, Maputo, is an easy, 6.5-hour drive on the N4 from Pretoria. But, driving from South Africa with a South African vehicle can lead to trouble, particularly in the form of informal road blocks, sometimes set up by legitimate police officers, seeking bribes, etc. Not only did that not sound like fun, we were concerned that something might happen that would jeopardize the pending sale of our car.

So, we decided to fly.

A 45-minute flight dropped us in Maputo, where we waited in a short queue for a visitor’s visa, complete with our photos on them. It was much easier than our ordeal in Addis Ababa (sorry, Melhik and Adem, Abeba). From there, it was off to the Polana.

The Polana Serena Hotel

The Polana Serena Hotel is a colonial era structure long considered to be one of the finest hotels in Africa. It took a beating and endured neglect during the conflicts that engulfed the country through the eighties, but has been restored recently to reflect its past, but with some decidedly modern touches.

That afternoon, a Friday, we left the hotel on foot to explore a bit of the city. We walked down Avenida Julius Nyerere (named for the first president of Tanzania), along Avenida Friedrich Engels, through a park and on to a little sidewalk café, where we ordered a platter full of grilled prawns and a small pitcher of sangria. Then, another. Mozambican seafood was living up to its billing.

Saturday, we had bigger plans. Well, not really. Vacation, after all. But we did start after breakfast with a tuk-tuk ride down to Avenida Guerra Popular and Mercado Central. Before I wisely take a break and let the pictures do the talking, do yourself a favor and look up a map of Maputo, just for the street names.

Tuk-Tuk Taxi in Maputo

Sidewalk Vendor on Guerra Popular

Mercado Central

Mercado Central

Mozambican Foosball

[more market & street photos here]

Despite visiting a number of hard-sell markets like the ones in Maputo, such as at Merkato in Addis, Thamel in Kathmandu or Silom in Bangkok, I still find the experience to be exhausting. “No, I really don’t need a dirty jar of nuclear-hot piri piri sauce, thanks. I just paid twice as much as I should have for a t-shirt…I think I’m done.”

To the hotel pool, please.

Dinner on Saturday night was at a restaurant called Zambi. Nice garlic bread, white sangria with what seemed to be a cinnamon sapling in the bottom of the pitcher, and pretty decent TG prawns and langoustines. Nothing to write home about. We should have gone to Costa do Sol. Next time.

Sunday: Jenny jogged, we ate breakfast outside with a nice view of the Indian Ocean, then we walked to a permanent craft market across from the hotel. In addition to the usual stuff – tribal masks, cloth dolls, beads to make beads, wooden elephants that “my blind uncle just carved yesterday, my brother” – there was a young dressmaker displaying some really incredible work. Jenny was hooked.

Dressmaker in Maputo

Speaking of hooked, after the craft market, things got a little fishy. A lot fishy, actually.

As to be expected at Mercado de Peixe – the Maputo fish market.

Tubs of lobster and prawns at Mercado de Peixe, Maputo

The real attraction of the fish market is that you can shop for fresh seafood – LM prawns, lobster, snapper, you name it – then take your catch to one of the restaurant stalls behind the market and have it grilled on the spot. After negotiating prices for a nice lobster and three LM prawns, we paid, sat and waited for lunch to arrive. Decadent.

Fish Market Lunch: Grilled Lobster & Prawns

Yet, even as we pulled bite after delicious bite of succulent, white meat from the shells, we could hear the clock ticking. Tick! We must hurry to the airport. Tick! We must finish our projects in Pretoria. Tick! We must pack our bags for home. Tick! We must leave our life in South Africa.

And it just keeps getting louder. Things are about to explode.

Top 20 Safari Photos

With just over four weeks left in sunny South Africa, we are beginning to face facts. Our days on safari are (likely) over. At least for a while.

But, we still have the memories … and the photos. Hundreds of them.

I narrowed down my favorite safari shots to the 20 photos below. Now, we need to pick the best one(s).

Which one is your favorite? Which one says safari to you? VOTE NOW!

Check out the slideshow, then choose your favorite in the poll below. Larger images are available by clicking the thumbnails at the bottom. Thanks!

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Sawubona and Kunjani: Welcome to the Magic Kingdom…of Swaziland

“Which African country are you visiting this weekend?”

An absurd question, it would seem, though one I’m asked regularly. It’s become a bit of a Friday ritual at the Centre. Jenny gets similar treatment in her department. Is that really our reputation?

Well, with trips to Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe (sort of), Ethiopia and Djibouti under our belts, I suppose we’ve become a bit notorious.

Nevertheless, faced with a dwindling number of weekends remaining, we’ve been motivated to squeeze in as much travel as possible. There’s still a lot on our bucket list: Namibia, Tanzania (can you climb Kilimanjaro in a weekend?), Mauritius, Mozambique, Garden Route, Lesotho … Where to go?

How about a small, landlocked kingdom known mostly for big rocks, witch doctors, polygamy and one of the world’s last absolute and most criticized monarchs? How about Swaziland?

Even better, why not make it a group outing?

Along for the 350km (217 mi.) road trip was fellow American and Fulbrighter, Ryan (sheRyan), and South African, Micah. Thanks to the scenery, the conversation and a lunch stop at a place called Wimpy in a town called Carolina (where Jenny proceeded to be “that girl” by ordering her fries “extra done, almost brown”), the drive was a cinch. Before we knew it, we were in the capital city, Mbabane, checking into our guesthouse, Ematjeni.

The view from our most excellent guesthouse in Mbabane: Ematjeni (“The Place of Rocks”)

Except, that’s not entirely true. First, there was the whole issue of the border crossing. In Oshoek, on the South African side, we parked the car and went inside the border post to obtain departure stamps. The process didn’t take long, but as we each checked our passports, proud of another entry, we noticed that the immigration officer’s stamp was dated not for the current day, May 11, but for March 11. Somehow, instead of 2012-5-11, we all had 2012-3-11. As if we had left South Africa two months ago.

Should we say something? Is it better to risk the awkwardness of a doomed-from-the-start customer service encounter on this side, or a denial of entry on the other?

Resistance is futile. Press Your Luck. Back to the car! On to Swaziland!

Welcome to Swaziland. Where you must guess what to do next.

Sure enough, on the Swazi side at Ngwenya, the highly disengaged immigration officer, after placing perfunctory stamps in two of our passports, finally realized that we did not have a recent departure stamp from South Africa. Fortunately, we were able to explain that her counterpart simply used a bad stamp. She rolled her eyes, put ink to rubber to paper, and waved us through.

We chuckled our way to the car, buckled in, and drove 15 feet to the final checkpoint, where a woman sitting on a stool, not in uniform of any kind, flagged us down.

“Where is your receipt?” she asked.

“What, receipt, mama?” I replied, showing respect for her age and position, assuming it was an official one.

“Road tax,” she said. “You were supposed to get it inside. Park over there, go in and pay 50 rands.”

“Uh, OK,” I said, confused. There were no signs or indications inside that a road tax was part of the deal.

I drove off the asphalt roadway onto a short, dirt path and parked on a rocky incline. While the rest of the crew waited, I grabbed a R100 bill and went back into the border post. There was a counter window with a small sign that read “ROAD TAX” to my left, so I hurried over to stand in the queue. Of course, it turned out that the people in the queue were trying to pay for something else, a baggage fee, so the ROAD TAX lady told them to move on. Suddenly, I was at the window.

I slid the R100 bill under the plexiglass. The woman behind the counter just looked at me. “For road tax,” I confirmed, as if she hadn’t just made it perfectly clear that road tax collection was her only job.

“Fifty or a hundred?” she asked.

My instructions were to pay R50, which is what I planned to do, but I found it odd that she would offer a choice. Wouldn’t most people choose the smaller amount? Wait, did she think I was driving a tractor-trailer? Do I have that look? Was the Official Deodorant of the Springboks failing me?

“Mmmm, fifty,” I said, confidently. She asked for the vehicle registration number, which I provided, then she provided the all-important receipt, and we were off.

Then, before long, we were at the guesthouse, enjoying a view of the mountains while sipping tea and eating chocolate cake with Nutella frosting. Swazi sweetness.

Later that night, we met up with our chomies Anna and Nellie, more smartypants Fulbrighters, for dinner at the pride of Mbabane: Malandela’s. Oh, and every other expat in Swaziland seemed to have the same idea. Did we avoid the 15-top table of Americans seated out on the patio? We can neither confirm nor deny.

The next day was meant to be an inspiring hike to the top of Sibebe Rock, a 3 billion-year-old granite dome that Lonely Planet ranks as the #2 thing to do in Mbabane. Most of the other things seem to involve eating. And, as it happens, most of the things we actually did that day involved eating, as well. Instead of hiking, we went … shopping.

Anna chasing a peacock at Ngwenya Village

Micah and I tried to retain our Dude Factor while the others wandered in and out of the shops at Ngwenya Village. After visits to and purchases at stores like Quazi Design and Gone Rural, we regrouped and bought chocolates. Our review: Amarula truffles, yes; super spicy chili sauce chocolate balls, no. (My fingers are getting heartburn just typing the words.)

Then, the day became completely African. Or, at least completely eSwatini.

First, we drove to the Finnish Embassy, not to ask them why their names have so many vowels, but to peruse the art gallery and gift shop within. Then, we went back to Malandela’s, or more precisely to the flagship Gone Rural store, adjacent to Malandela’s. Finally, and this is one of those things you have to see to believe, we went to dinner at a restaurant inside the Italian Consulate.

Yes, Casa Mia and the official representation of the government of Italy share the same address. At the consulate’s security gate, if you just tell the guard you’re coming for dinner, he will let you right in. We tried it. It worked.

The Consul General himself was our sommelier. His ex-wife was our waitress. Their homemade tagliatelle was amazing.

Casa Mia, or, more accurately, The Italian Consul’s House

While carbo-loading at Casa Mia, we decided that the next morning, Sunday, would be better for a hike. With a long drive ahead, though, we opted not for the famous Sibebe, but a more relaxed trek around the mountains behind Brackenhill Lodge.

Hiking Brackenhill

Surveying Mbabane

We made it! (Actually, we’re not even close…)

Then, faster than you could say, “Is that guy watching us pick ripe guavas from his orchard?” it was time to say goodbye to Swaziland, without so much as an audience with the king.

Next time, Mswati. Next time.

“Yes, you can check the boot” and other things I never used to say

It started early. Our first visitors, my mom and my Mike, commented that our vernacular and inflection was changing. We were adapting to life in South Africa. It was survival.

It was October.

Now, after nearly 11 months living, working and playing in Pretoria, it’s like we speak a whole new language. Just ask Jenny what human-like noise hyenas make.

Every once in a while, we’ll catch ourselves speaking full-on South African, sometimes for good reason (like when naïvely hoping for a smooth customer service transaction), and sometimes not (like when it’s just the two of us in the kitchen). These moments inspired me to make a little list of things I never used to say:

  • Howzit? – One of the first pick-ups upon arrival in SA. It will undoubtedly take me another year to stop saying it. Apologies in advance, Chicago.
  • Izzit? – I do love this one. I’ll most likely keep this one under wraps in the US, except as a private joke. (I’m looking at you, Anna Alcaro.) In case it’s not clear, this phrase is a version of “is it?” but South Africans use it as an interrogative even when the words is and it do not apply to the context. (Example: “We drove to Swaziland this weekend.” “Izzit?”)
  • I’ll come fetch you just now. – OK, there are so many things wrong about this phrase. First, only southerners use fetch, and my four years in Kentucky don’t qualify me. More importantly, though, is the just now part. I know what “just now” means in Africa Time (anywhere between five minutes and five hours) and I still use it. I must stop.
  • Let’s keep an eye on it, hey? – I honestly can’t remember which of us used this one first, but I know Jenny has said it, too. The whole idea of tacking on a “hey?” is unusual … a bit Canadian.
  • It’s hot today, neh? – This is the ebony to hey’s ivory. White people say, “hey?” and black people say, “ne?” Adjust accordingly.
  • Do you stay this side? – I’ve said this a few times, and what I’m asking is where a person lives. This wording is interesting to me because it’s another one that can show differences in language use by different races. I’ve often had black friends or colleagues in the U.S. ask me where I stay. I feel like the use of stay is primarily along racial lines here, as well, but I know it’s a term used by South Africans in general. Same goes for “this side.” Nonverbal gestures are necessary to indicate “sides.”
  • … and what, what, what … – A multi-purpose tool. It can mean “and whatever.” It can mean “and so on.” It can mean “and whatchamacallit.” It can mean “blah, blah, blah.” It can mean “I forgot what I was going to say.” I’m just starting to use this one more, consciously or not, so it might be with me for a while.

The above are the more common, stylistic speech modifications that have crept into our lives. But, simply by virtue of where we live and where I work (most of the time), there are a host of other sentences I’ve uttered this year that I never could have imagined. For example:

  • We had a delegation from South Sudan in the office today. – Working at the Centre for Human Rights provides opportunities to meet people from countries all over the world, including the world’s newest country. Very cool.
  • So, let’s geo-target specific users in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and Senegal. – Creating Facebook ads may never be the same.
  • The crazy thing was, we had to think about what would happen if the former president died on South African soil. – I can’t even begin to explain…
  • Sorry, can’t play basketball today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is in town. – I know I’ll never say that again … basketball should always come first.
  • It’s in Tembisa. – I’ve said this many times. It comes up when people learn that I’ve been involved in some projects in the Ivory Park township. People have heard of Ivory Park, but often don’t know where it is, even those from Pretoria or Joburg. It’s in Tembisa.
  • Did you see that guy at the robot with a holographic eagle poster in one hand and a bunch of USB drives in the other? – Variations of this sentence are produced weekly, at minimum. There’s always somethin’ crazy at the traffic lights.
  • Full tank 93, windscreen, and 2 bars in the tyres, please. Oil and water are sharp. – So many things, but it’s just a routine stop at the gas station (aka “garage”). Here it is, translated to American: “Fill ‘er up! 93-octane unleaded. Can you please wash the windshield and fill the tires to 29 psi? The engine oil and windshield wiper fluid are fine.”
  • Yes, you can check the boot. – A daily mantra. Every morning we go to work, and every afternoon the guards at the main campus ask to look inside the trunk of our car (the “boot”) to make sure we’ve not stolen a computer or what, what, what. Like robots (actual robots, not stoplight robots), we say, “Yes, you can check the boot.”

And there you have it. I’m sure there are more as we likely don’t recognize all the changes in our speech patterns. Either they’ll be with us for a while once we move back, or they’ll be washed down with the first swig of Starbucks.

Let’s keep an eye on it, hey?