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.
(False) Starting the Marathon
As you may remember, we had a bit of a stumble out of the blocks. After another chance to have a laugh with and say goodbye to Ephney, Kate and the rest of our pals, we returned Indie to South African Airways cargo, rechecked our 300 pounds of luggage and settled into enjoy our consolation prize for enduring earlier madness: a spacious pair of exit row seats.
Those seats + a late meal + red wine + exhaustion = actual sleep on an airplane. And we would need it. Once we hit the ground at JFK, Operation Cargo Freedom commenced.
After we cleared Immigration, we split up. Jenny went through Customs alone, with only her backpack, while I waited for our six, massive checked bags. I stacked the 5 duffels like Jenga blocks (Lincoln Logs?) on a trolley, which I pushed with my right hand, and tugged Jenny’s wheeled suitcase behind with my left. Only sheer adrenaline, a reserve of strength built up from eating wildebeest biltong and a careful mix of assertiveness and timidity enabled me to maneuver that Holy Hell onto the Air Train and into the rental car facility.
Meanwhile, Jenny went directly outside to catch a cab to South African Airways Cargo. The idea was to have her start processing the paperwork necessary to free Indie from her crate as quickly as possible. After all, the poor girl had been in there for more than 20 hours, not counting the seven the previous day when our flight was cancelled. One small problem: Indie wasn’t there.
There had been a mix-up somewhere between the plane and the warehouse, and the personnel inside had no idea where Indie was. We were certain, though, that she was on the plane…after all, we watched as they loaded her on (that’s her crate on the left side of the pallet in the video below).
Even after waiting in line at the rental counter, loading all the bags into the car and weaving my way through the spaghetti that is the JFK Airport road system, no dog had been delivered. Jenny was uncharacteristically calm. I became anxious. It was getting hot. I unzipped the legs from my trek pants, even though the resulting shorts were Afrikaner short. And equally khaki.
Jenny waited. I paced.
Finally, we all decided that I could take Indie’s paperwork over to the Customs Building, some 8 million miles from cargo, to get that part done. We figured it would be like how when you’re waiting too long for your entrée at a restaurant: just go to the restroom and when you get back your food will be on the table. It worked.
She made it! The inside of her crate was a bit…icky…but she was happy and free.
Our job now was to not collapse in a heap, to not celebrate victories, to not lose focus. We mentally prepared for this day the same way we prepared to trek to Everest Base Camp or to summit Jebel M’Goun. We knew that just because we made it to the top – in this case, rescuing Indie – doesn’t mean the work is done. Getting down the mountain can be more difficult than climbing up.
Getting down for us meant driving from New York to Jenny’s parents’ house in Gridley, IL.
As we had on the way to South Africa last year, we decided to spare Indie another flight and another several hours in the crate by driving to/from New York. For some reason, the Google Maps directions I printed out in Pretoria routed us by way of Brooklyn, across the Williamsburg Bridge and through the Holland Tunnel. It was easy sailing until we hit Manhattan. At one point during the hour it took to drive the, like, eight blocks from the bridge to the tunnel, Jenny actually got out of the car, went into a corner store, bought a Diet Coke and hopped back in before I crossed the next intersection.
Once through the tunnel, though, it was an easy drive to Allentown, PA, where we holed up for the night. We only had three basic needs: Mexican food, dog bath, and sleep.
Early to bed, early to rise…early to Denny’s, where we were somehow shocked that any human could eat so much fatty food. We had forgotten everything. Did that woman really just order the “Lumberjack Slam?” What are “Pancake Puppies” and why do they need cream cheese frosting?
Let the road trip, and the mind trip, begin.
Drive on the right. Drive on the right. Drive on the right. Drive on the right.
Drive on the left, right? NO! Drive on the right!
That’s right! We’re back in America! Not just any America, though, Coal Country America. Western Pennsylvania. Eastern Ohio. The America that’s not on TV. The America we don’t often see. The America we don’t often acknowledge. If our remarks and feelings could be packaged as a giant South African retail store, we’d be shopping at Culture Shock Hyper.
Somehow, we had enough energy and patience to drive the fourteen hours from Allentown to Gridley, where we pulled into Jenny’s parents’ driveway at 21:30. Breathe. Eat. Relax. Sleep.
Strangers in a Strange, Customer Service-oriented Land
Of all the noticeable differences between SA and the USA, the one that hit us the hardest was the intensity of customer service delivery. A generalization:
Q: Hi, will you be open this weekend?
A: (SA) I don’t know.
A: (USA) I’m not sure, but I can check with a manager. Is there anything in particular you need this weekend, or will you just be visiting?
Sure, sometimes you don’t get this pleasant treatment in bigger cities, but since we were in central Illinois, buying a car, getting new phones, going to restaurants, and just generally being alive came with almost heavenly customer service.
It still didn’t feel like home.
Beyond trying to shift gears with our left hands, we just couldn’t get a grip on this American life. It was both familiar and foreign. Something was just out of reach.
Sweet Home Chicago
Returning to Chicago marked a return to reality, and was supposed to mark a return to “normalcy.” For the first few weeks, though, it was mostly a return to realty, as we had a number of projects to accomplish in the house, some planned, some not.
When we did go outside, into the neighborhood, we felt like visitors on our own streets. Everyone had strange accents and spoke rapidly! Worse, our Chicago knowledge was buried in mothballed sections of our brains.
There was a moment one day when I nearly felt the space-time continuum buckle under my feet. I was walking Indie down Fillmore street, just a block from our place, and noticed that the grass on either side of the sidewalk was dead and choked with nasty weeds. Litter, in the form of takeout wrappers, broken beer bottles, whiskey flasks, newspapers, etc., cluttered the landscape. Was I in Chicago, or Mamelodi? The Second City, or the Third World? I shook my head. “I must be in Chicago,” I thought. “Mamelodi is much cleaner.”
Reflections on an Annum in Africa
This part is going to make me cry. That’s stupid, though. It shouldn’t. Not only is crying such cliché conduct, it represents the wrong emotion. Thinking back on our year in South Africa, and travels in other parts of the continent, should make us incredibly happy. We should still be amazed. We should have smiles as wide as Victoria Falls.
At times, we do. And, at times we are overwhelmingly sad. We learned so much, felt so much, did so much, ate so much, drank so much, scratched our heads so much, laughed so much, experienced so much, were so much that we can’t help but feel an almost inconsolable loss. Even in one short year, we forged a blood bond with the people, animals, landscape, cuisine and culture of South Africa. It was truly home. In some ways, and for some time, I’m sure it will continue to be.
I’d like to think that our year in South Africa “did what it was supposed to do.” Jenny made great progress on her research, gained a terrific mentor, developed deep personal and professional relationships, represented the Fulbright program with remarkable class, and learned how to make a mean malva pudding. I got to live life on unique terms, choose interesting adventures, meet and work with extraordinary people from across Africa, and eat some mean malva pudding. If the year was also supposed to change us in profound ways, it was successful at that, too.
Some changes are difficult to describe. We know our outlook is different, certain priorities are different, some “needs” are different. Other changes, to habits, diet, interests, are more palpable. We try to be more active, eat healthier, remain engaged in the world. I’d like to think the past year helped with that.
As I look back on our 100+ blog posts – from a pre-departure announcement to wide-eyed chronicles of our first days and weeks in Pretoria, from money misery to Mystic Monkey to Mandela Day in Mamelodi, from buying a car to going on safaris to biking in Groenkloof, from solemn anniversary to somber eulogy, from language to library, from Cape Town to Durban, Ethiopia to Djibouti, Swaziland to Mozambique, and countless adventures in between – I marvel at what we’ve done. Throat: lumpy. Eyes: misty. Still, I find it nearly impossible to think about it as “the past.”
Call it a cop out, call it hyperbole, whatever, but I can’t adequately articulate what our year in South Africa meant to me, to us, because it’s not just the past, it’s the present, and it’s the future. It’s still salient, and will undoubtedly continue to influence our lives in immeasurable ways.
At the risk of parody – the kind that comes with all the exchange student trappings of native dress, nonsense colloquialisms and tribal artwork – we feel African now. Not fully, of course, but we feel a distinct kinship that we hadn’t expected when we left Chicago. No, we don’t mean that we can legitimately relate to the histories and lives of Africans broadly, South Africans in general, or even white South Africans specifically. We have been different, are different, and will be different peoples. However, we felt an acceptance and a congruence, a peace, that enveloped us and altered some core part of us.
Perhaps we can borrow, and paraphrase, the famous line from Kwame Nkrumah: We are not Africans because we were born in Africa, but because Africa was born in us.
Finally, a heartfelt word of thanks to you, our readers. The idea behind this blog was never to become famous or attract a million hits. Indeed, we didn’t come close on either count (we only had about 20,000 views). We simply wanted to share photos (especially of animals) and a few other things with you that you could read, if interested, and comment on, if you liked, hated or wanted to challenge. I hope it worked.
It was fun to write, to try to post regularly and with some originality. It was fun to read what Indie had to say (even when she was grumpy). And, it was fun to see all the ways people found us: Aside from the couple dozen friends and family members who read everything, we had visits from complete strangers who, no doubt, just clicked the wrong link. Actually, most came searching for NBA player Kendrick Perkins, info about diplomatic bag services, or angry birds. Some wanted to buy a donkey, others wanted a light bulb. A lot of people were looking for handsome rugby players, especially Victor Matfield. A handful of people thought they’d find a “hot lioness” or “men in panties.” At least three people wondered about the “giant toaster in Pretoria.” Whatever your reason, we’re glad you came.
So, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing. Most of all, thanks for supporting us on our adventure. See you around.
Ke a leboga. Baie dankie. Siyabonga. Thank you. Sharp, sharp.
Ryan, Jenny & Indie