Have You Seen the Taal Kraal?

Yesterday, one of my colleagues, a young woman from Zimbabwe named Joy, asked me about ten gallon hats, cowboys and John Wayne. While her inquiries were clearly in jest – the mock-galloping gave her away – I really wasn’t surprised by the questions. As strangers in a strange land, we’ve become popular targets for interrogation.

This is despite the fact that (the very best of) American culture is regularly imported here by way of B-grade Hollywood films, sitcom reruns and Royales with Cheese. The opportunity to grill a real, live American about anything from the supposed superiority of Starbucks to driving on the other side of the road to “Why do your Republicans talk so much about ‘freedom’ when they insist on taking it away from women/minorities/immigrants/gays?” is often too difficult to resist. Shame that we still don’t have good answers.

Without conducting the scientific research necessary to confirm, I’d say that the two questions we get most often are these, and I quote:

  • “When are you people leaving?”
  • “Have you seen the rugby?”

The first question, you must understand, is not meant to be rude. We like to think of the phrase “you people” less as an arbitrary, disdainful lumping and more as a term of endearment. As if the word wonderful was accidentally omitted. Still, we’ve been getting the question for the better part of six months now …

As for the rugby question, until recently, we could not supply a satisfactory answer. While we became avid supporters of the Springboks during the Rugby World Cup last year, we couldn’t see one of those matches in person because, well, they were all in New Zealand. Now, however, all attention is on the Super Rugby league, and we have our own team here in Pretoria: the unfortunately named Blue Bulls.

It was time to see the rugby.

Thanks to the gracious organizing efforts of Quintus and Christa Smit, their daughter, Marni, and Marni’s boyfriend, Giancarlo, we scored tickets to a Bulls v. Crusaders match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage. Blue Bulls & Crusaders preparing for a scrum.

Loftus during Blue Bulls matches is informally, yet fittingly, known as the “Taal Kraal.” Taal is the word for “language” in Afrikaans, and kraal is the word for “corral.” In essence, by going to a rugby match at Loftus, one is effectively surrounded on all sides – corralled in, as it were – by Afrikaans. And I mean Afrikaans Afrikaans. The Boers love themselves some rugby! And they love to talk about it. In Afrikaans.

Don’t get me wrong, we understand why people like the sport. I enjoy the strategy, something I learned to appreciate while watching and discussing World Cup matches. (As it happens, the match we saw featured several players from the Springboks side, as well as the All Blacks, as the Crusaders are from New Zealand.) Jenny, bless her, loves the muscular men with the thick thighs. When she spotted Victor Matfield, I thought she might rush the pitch and hurl herself into his arms, nuzzle his werewolf beard. Never mind that he is actually retired and his appearance was as a business-suited sideline reporter.

Blue Bulls & Crusaders players compete for the ball during a lineout. (not pictured: Victor Matfield)

But, the point is, rugby – especially Blou Bulle rugby at the Taal Kraal – is a white thing. I think fellow American Ryan Brown said it best:

… don’t let Invictus convince you otherwise: rugby is whiter than a Wilco concert and always will be.

So it is. And, so what? So is ice hockey, eh?

At least we got to experience an authentic slice of modern Afrikaner culture. At least we got to openly and enthusiastically support men with Blue Bulls … jerseys.

At least we people got to see the rugby before we left.

Into the Wind

It’s calmer today. The wind that whipped us up and down the Cape Peninsula yesterday – from Kalk Bay to Boulders Beach, all the way to Cape Point and back to Noordhoek and Cape Town – is just a pleasant breeze now. At times it’s barely noticeable, but the fresh sea air it carries is so clean, so subtly salty, so perfect, I find myself constantly wishing for another gust.

The sun, paying no heed to the weatherman’s forecast of cool temps, is its strong, African self. Its warmth is matched only by its brightness.

It’s a beautiful day in the Mother City.

It’s also overwhelmingly blue. In the mid-afternoon light, I am surrounded on almost all sides by vast blueness: the shimmering, marine blue of the ocean; the shadowy, gray-blue of the mountains beyond; and the sharp, infinite blue of the sky above. Only a scattering of wispy clouds, now tinted pale orange in the west, offers a counter-chromatic.

If Cape Town was a house, I would be out on the front porch. Behind me, Table Mountain serves as a majestic living room wall, a feature in and of itself, upon which no piece of art is worthy to be hung. The family room, at the V&A Waterfront, is like no other: it has a Ferris wheel. Adjacent, the home office has shelves full of skyscrapers. Tucked away quaintly in the back is the wine cellar of Constantia. The curb appeal here is high.

Table Mountain from the V&A Waterfront

As I sit, sipping a cappuccino, watching dolphins and seals frolic in the bay, I realize, more clearly than ever, that I am ruined for real life. I remember 9-to-5 jobs, draconian vacation policies, gapers’ delays on the Ike, real winters. These memories loom. What happens when they once again become reality?

Better question: How can I shape my new reality? What options will I have? What opportunities will exist? What traditional boundaries will confine me?

I’d like to say that this year (will have) taught me to think differently, to define life unconventionally, to choose my own adventures. But, until the true test comes, I can only aver.

In the meantime, we will enjoy our final weeks in fantasy land, a place not perfect – particularly for those whose eighteen years of political freedom has yet to yield any significant economic freedom – but certainly out of our ordinary. A place where a fresh, fall day feels like a sunny, Chicago summer. A place where I can be a full-time volunteer. A place where Jenny can have straight hair and Indie can live her dog life.

Today, it’s calm. The winds will pick up again soon, though, and carry us in a new direction. We should, I suppose, welcome another gust.

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 3: That Time We Crossed into Zimbabwe Illegally

By now you know that when we say things like, “Hey, we’re going to Victoria Falls!” what we really mean is, “Hey, we’re going to jump off a cliff!” or “Hey, we’re going on safari in Botswana!” So, I suppose it’s fair that you read the title of this post through skeptic’s eyes.

But, is it true? Did we actually enter Zimbabwe, home of Bobby Mugabe and 9 bizillion percent inflation, illegally?

Well, yes …

On Sunday morning, our fourth day in Zambia, we woke late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then left the hotel compound en route to the bridge that spans the Zambezi River below the falls – the bridge that spans the divide between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Our initial and, honestly, only goal was to view the falls from a different angle, from more of a distance, from a new perspective, from a place not so wet. We were rewarded.

Victoria Falls from the bridge on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border

Jenny, ever impatient with my photo taking, began to wander further across the bridge, and even managed to skip over its single lane and integrated railroad tracks to chat with the fellas at the bungee jump. You know the one …

Just beyond the tangle of (new, very new) ropes, we saw this:

You are now entering Zimbabwe

We paused. Ahead, just after the bridge ended and the rocky soil began, was an armed soldier standing outside an army green canvas tent.

Intimidating? Deterring? Not for this dynamic duo. We marched on.

Growing up in Illinois near the Mississippi River, I had crossed bridges into neighboring states millions of times. Crossing into Iowa meant dealing with Iowa drivers. Crossing into Missouri meant dealing with … well, Missouri. Could crossing into Zimbabwe be any worse?

Our confident steps disguised our cerebral concerns and before we knew it we were across the bridge, past the armed guard and into Zimbabwe. In a way, it was just like crossing from Fulton, IL to Clinton, IA – except this part of Zimbabwe smelled much better than Clinton.

The road carried on around a curve and up a small incline, where a short queue of tractor-trailers waited to cross the one-lane bridge into Zambia. For smaller cargo, the much more efficient mode of transport seemed to be the humble bicycle.

Bicycle couriers on the road between Zambia and Zimbabwe

Now that we were in Zimbabwe, we thought we would just keep walking to the very colonial Victoria Falls Hotel, which looked to be about another 2 km further along the same road.

… and, no.

As we rounded another gentle curve, we found that our courageous, clandestine crossing was none of the above. What we saw now, some 500 m up the hot, asphalt road, stopped us in our tracks. It was the official border post.

So, while we were technically on Zimbabwean soil, we were not officially in Zimbabwe. No passports had been stamped. No bribes had been taken.

Jenny thought we should create a diversion and run through the boom gate, past the armed guards (it worked at the bridge, right?). Or, maybe we could stow away under the nylon tarps covering cargo on this flatbed…

In the end, we decided against crashing the gates, against hitchhiking. After all, we couldn’t afford to be detained in a Zimbabwean prison all day, we had to get back to the Royal Livingstone for high tea.

As one does.

Fortunately, we had a guide to help us get back into Zambia:

Tiny monkey friend

High tea at the Royal Livingstone was everything you might expect. And, a whole lot less. While the whitewashed buildings and elaborate interior decorating placed you squarely in the charming(?) period of Colonial Africa, the whole experience seemed a bit too contrived (for us) and a bit too rote (for the staff). Awkward.

We didn’t spend much time loitering. We were on to the next event: massages on the banks of the Zambezi River. Nice.

Post-massage, we retired to the bar on the veranda on the river’s edge. After the stress of an unlawful border crossing, a massage and a cocktail seemed appropriate. Besides, what better way to watch the sunset over Victoria Falls?

Post-massage drinks at the Royal Livingstone

Sunset above Victoria Falls

And, there you have it. Our “trip to Victoria Falls” in a somewhat rambling, three-part nutshell. Of course, we omitted a few details, like how much time Jenny spent in the gift shops at the Zambezi Sun, the baby monkey that wanted Jenny as its mom, me getting completely soaked walking the knife bridge, and other stuff. Oh, and we didn’t tell you how much we enjoyed cruising the Zambezi River on the African Princess, but you can find proof of that enjoyment here and even more photos from our adventures here.

Up next: a visit from Jaimie & Zach!