You Got Questions, We Got Answers

Inquiring minds want to know. In our last post, we asked you to ask us…anything. A few of you did, thank you, and we have some answers.

See below for our responses to questions ranging from what it’s like at our jobs to gender differences to fruits, trees, haircuts, politics, what we will miss the most and more. Hope you enjoy!

What does business attire look like in the downtown area? What are the gender differences in clothing?

Ryan: Honestly, we’re rarely in the Central Business District (CBD), so I can’t answer this question specifically. But, if we’re talking business attire at the university, I’d say it’s more relaxed, but that’s true of most academic environments, I think. Except at the stuffier business schools…

As for gender differences, it seems that, as usual, women dress much better than men. Even the students follow suit: the female students are most often in cute little dresses, or at least well put together; the guys are sportier and wear more denim. And the white guys wear waaaaay shorter shorts. That whole “rugby thing.”

Jenny: I like how work attire for women is more flowing and cool, i.e., appropriate for 80-degree weather, yet still dressy here. There is a bit of a girliness here to women’s styles that I’m not completely down with though—lots of lace, ruffles, and floral fabric. Sometimes I think women seem as though they’re headed to a garden party rather than the office.

What was your experience from a working perspective?

Ryan: Well, though I do spend the majority of my “work” time in the offices of the Centre for Human Rights, I’m really a volunteer, so I don’t know if I can truly capture a “working perspective.” However, I will say that in many ways I find the work culture here more relaxed than in the States. That’s not to say that nothing gets done; it does. The Centre has been a well-respected academic institution and international NGO for 25 years…they’re doing something right. In fact, you should go ahead and Like our Facebook page.

I suppose the biggest difference I’ve noticed in my small work world is that there seem to be fewer meetings here. Or, at least fewer scheduled meetings. There are ad hoc get-togethers, but not the kind of regular, block-your-calendar team or staff meetings to which I’m accustomed. It could just be a difference in how this place is run, though.

Jenny: As far as office climate, people don’t hesitate to make time to be social here. Right away, people made the effort to get to know me, and that felt great. Teatime is a must, both mid-morning and mid-afternoon. My Type-A personality has a hard time with this, but I think I’m getting better at putting the work aside for a few minutes per day. Ryan would say this experience will serve me well back in the States.

How do men treat Jenny?

Ryan: Pass. No, wait! … Sorry, definitely pass.

Jenny: On runs, they are noticeably silent when Indie is with me. (She’s a commanding force!) But when I’m running sans dog, there are more whistles and puzzling comments—more like what sometimes happens in the States.

Describe in great detail all of the trees that you have seen.

Jenny: That’s a tall order. The flora here is a passion of mine. See Ryan’s previous post about the purple jacaranda trees for which Pretoria is famous. I also love the fever trees with their lime green trunks and round, yellow flowers, and the leopard trees with their namesake bark, acacia-like green leaves which turn red in Spring, and spiky yellow flowers.

Babobabs

But maybe my favorite is that decidedly African tree—the baobab. They can live up to 3,000 years (this is true!), and can grow large enough for 40 people to sit beneath one. They look like they’re upside down (their shape looks like their roots are in the air). The story goes that some African tribes believed that, at the beginning of time, the baobabs were upright, and too proud, and that they lorded over the lesser trees. This angered the gods who uprooted them and thrust them back into the ground, but this time with their roots upwards. Now evil spirits haunt the sweet, white baobab flowers, and it’s said that anyone who picks their flowers will be killed by a lion.

Ryan: I don’t see trees; I see forests.

Do you both wear shoes less?

Jenny: Actually, more in the house: Our floors are usually dirty from having the windows open 24/7. But funny you should ask—the Afrikaner children (even some college students) don’t wear shoes, even at the mall, the grocery store, and to class. “No shoes, No service” is not a credo here.

Ryan: Hmmmm…no. About the same. I suppose if I wasn’t going to “work” most days, I would wear shoes less. The weather, since September, has certainly been accommodating enough.

What habits have changed in your daily hygiene?

Jenny: I wash my hair less often.

Ryan: Nothing major. I smell Jenny’s hair less often.

What is Indie afraid of that is strange?

Ryan: Well, she continues to be afraid of thunderstorms, aluminum foil, trash bags, etc., which some may consider strange. The thunderstorms here, by the way, are at a professional level. Chicago thunderstorms are bush league, in comparison. The lightning strikes and thunderclaps are so sharp, so piercing, so percussive that we humans are often jolted.

Jenny: Can I talk about what she’s NOT afraid of? I’m delighted that she’s assertive enough to go after mongooses, cats that wander into the yard, and giant birds with long beaks called hadedas (that are not well-loved here). She’s come into her own in Africa!

Indie is NOT afraid to lie in the bushes outside our flat

What fruit have you had too much of?

Ryan: Ah, this is the beauty and (mild) frustration of SA: It’s difficult to find a fruit when it is not in season. We once asked for limes at a very nice produce shop and they looked at us like we were aliens. “We will have limes in three months, when it is time for limes.” Roger that.

Right now, the mangos, nectarines and Cape peaches are impossibly delicious.

Jenny: Again I want to answer a different question; sorry. I’ve had too many Greek salads. They’re on every (and I mean every; this is not an overstatement) menu.

Ryan: If feta cheese was a fruit, it would always be in season.

What will you miss the most once you return?

Ryan: Everything. The people. The lifestyle. The proximity to outdoorsy activities. The proximity to awesome animals. The weather. The excitement that comes with a young democracy that seems very close to either getting its shit together or falling off a steep cliff.

Jenny: Stella Nkomo, the wonderful woman I work with. Mangoes every night after dinner. 80 degrees every day. Eating dinner outside. The stars in the southern hemisphere. Biking with zebras. Toads hopping around on my kitchen floor. Never having to make my own bed, change the sheets, iron, or do the breakfast dishes. Buildings with hallways that are open to the outside. Our housekeeper cleverly and subtly putting us in our place.

What was the most striking generalization that you had about SA before you left that has changed?

Ryan: We won’t have to sleep in a tree house? There are no lions in the streets?

I suppose that since we had been here before as tourists, we had something of an idea of what we were getting into. Still, I suppose I thought it would be “harder” to live here. I didn’t think we would have as many creature comforts or opportunities to explore as we have had. I think I was naïve, in a sense.

Jenny: That most white people here were in favor of Apartheid.

Do you stay out of politics in conversation?

Ryan: Ha! No. Jenny probably wishes that I would. Early on, I would introduce the topic just because I was still trying to figure out the players and the histories and the positions, etc. Now, it’s interesting to hear where people fall on the spectrum, what they would change, who they support, whether they harken for the “old days” and what what what, as they say here.

Of course, you often can’t talk politics without talking race. That’s where things can get fascinating. What words do people use? Syntax says a lot, even when people are trying to talk politely or in what they think is a PC style.

I like, for example, when a white South African begins a conversation with a statement about his/her own status as an African, someone whose ancestors came to the continent multiple generations ago, then later refers to black people as “Africans.” Wait…just a second ago, weren’t you all Africans?

On the flip side, many black South Africans seem to be holding on to old stereotypes about whites. See how that white person is dressed? He doesn’t like blacks. White people don’t know how to do things. Good times.

Back to politics…I’d say we have enjoyed many good conversations about the state of affairs here, from discussions about the ANC, President Zuma, Julius Malema, opposition parties, elections, service delivery, etc. And, as you may imagine, having an American president by the name of Barack Obama has prompted a number of exchanges, as well. He would certainly win reelection here.

Jenny: No. See Ryan’s comments. He takes the lead on this.

Were the things that you were fearful of, now just common daily occurrences?

Jenny: Driving stick-shift in a right-drive car. Negotiating prices. Getting people to understand my American English. Walking somewhere.

Ryan: Yeah, driving. Sure, I had driven on the left side of the road in a right-drive car before, including on the narrow, windy “roads” in Ireland and Wales, but Pretoria is a the poster child for suburban sprawl. I’m from Grid-System Chicago, dammit! Don’t give me curlicue streets whose names change from robot to robot!

I was also nervous about Jenny traveling to campus alone everyday. Crime is a big concern here, especially gender-based violence. Fortunately, we live on the education campus and there is a shuttle that runs frequently to the main campus. Even if I wasn’t also working on the main campus, I would feel secure knowing that Jenny had safe transport.

Barbershop experiences?

Jenny: It’s crazy fun. You have the run-of-the-mill gay men, and the young women who can give you tips on everything fashionable. But here you also get all the free lattes, bottled water, and wine you can drink. And they are quite entertained by our accents and try to imitate them. My stylist works hard to try to teach me Afrikaans, and writes on her mirror with a marker so I can see the words spelled out. It makes for a fun afternoon. I try to go as often as I can.

Ryan: That’s what she said. No, really, she said that. And, I agree.

Does the cape really look like CA? If so, in what way?

Ryan: Um, yes? I can’t claim to have a lot of exposure to the California landscape (I think I’ve been to LA once, San Diego once and the Bay Area twice), so I can’t say for sure. But, the juxtaposition of green, rocky mountains/cliffs and blue, shimmering ocean waters seem quite similar. Some call Cape Town “Africa’s San Francisco” because of shared qualities like fog, relative tolerance, scenery and the island prisons off their coasts.

Cape or Cali?

Do Ryan’s jokes work in SA?

Ryan: Do they work anywhere?

Jenny: Big no.

Are there stray cats, I only recall you mentioning dogs.

Jenny: We have one in particular who likes to come into the yard to taunt Indie. She’s a dirty, matted white Persian who we’ve nicknamed Nasty Tinkerbell. She boldly drinks from Indie’s outside water bowl when the sliding glass door is closed.

Ryan:

What does an average bookstore look like?

Ryan: A lot like US bookstores, except more expensive. Trade paperbacks are easily a time-and-a-half more than US prices. I think we paid almost twice as much as we should have for a Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia, for example.

The bookstore-with-attached-coffee-shop model is popular, especially in malls. The biggest chain (I think) is Exclusive Books, and they sometimes have a Seattle Coffee Company next door. The biggest differences are that the stores here often will have a significant Afrikaans section (not sure about other official languages) and an insignificant periodicals section. I take that back…the section is big, the selection is not.

What about an art museum, art scene?

Ryan: Yes, there are a couple on campus, but I can’t say that we’ve done a lot of exploring. We have been to some live stage performances in Joburg, at the Market Theatre, and plan to see a production of Phantom of the Opera in the coming weeks.

It’s Not Mytrekker, It’s Not Yourtrekker…It’s Voortrekker. And, it’s Freedom.

OK, I admit it: I learned most of what I know about the world by watching SportsCenter.

I learned, for example, that games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside television sets. I learned that if a person is unfazed by pressure, he is as cool as the other side of the pillow. I learned that if a man is motivated enough, he Could. Go. All. The. Way.

I also learned that the legendary Lithuanian basketball giant is not Myvydas, not Yourvydas, but Arvydas Sabonis. Knowing this, it makes sense that the giant, toaster-looking shrine to Afrikaner history on Proclamation Hill, overlooking all of Pretoria, is not the Mytrekker, not the Yourtrekker, but the Voortrekker Monument.

At least, I think that’s how it goes. But, since all the photos below were shot with my iPhone, maybe we should call it the iTrekker.

Regardless, Jenny and I set out last Saturday morning to visit the Voortrekker Monument, as well as the newer Freedom Park, which was designed and built as a tribute to democracy and the South African and continental leaders who fought for independence and self-determination. Some say it is the yin to Voortrekker’s yang, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

First, a bike ride.

And, my first ride since I spilled at Nkomazi.

On the "Intermediate" trails at the Voortrekker Monument

It wasn’t exactly the confidence booster I needed. See, the grounds around the Voortrekker Monument have three kinds of mountain bike trails: 4×4 track, the easiest; single track, for intermediate level riders; and black diamond, for crazy people. We tried to stick to the single track, but with the tall brush and minimal signage, I think we sometimes found ourselves on the wrong rock-hopping, ravine-spanning, cliff-jumping paths. And, did we mention that Voortrekker is on Proclamation Hill?

Looking UP towards the Voortrekker Monument from the bike trails

Knackered and sweaty from our ride, we set off to see what was so hot about the toaster. With tight hamstrings and burning quads, we faced the first of the Voortrekker’s many staircases.

Ascending to the Voortoaster

The whole idea of the monument is – and I will quote the official website here so as not to incite the volk with a misinterpretation – to commemorate “the Pioneer history of Southern Africa and the history of the Afrikaner.” I suppose it does that. It certainly does relate a history. But, as those who have some familiarity with the history of the Afrikaner, both ancient and modern, can attest, the story part of that history has many sides. I’m not sure how many were presented inside the Voortrekker Monument. I think I’ll leave it at that.

What I am sure of is that the monument is much more interesting, and much less like a kitchen appliance, up close than it is from a distance. The façade, while fashioned from a relatively drab stone, has an incredibly intricate detail and multiple, subtle lines. Its hulking frame stands firm, but it also strains upward toward the heavens, as if appealing for divine blessing. The sum of all these parts evokes senses of strength, pride and reverence. Of manifest destiny.

Voortrekker, stretching into the heavens

For each emotion conjured on the outside, the inside invoked three more. The true purpose of the place became instantly blurred. It’s a church. It’s a museum. It’s a mausoleum. It’s the Halls of Justice. It’s a secret lair. It’s a…

It’s everything. It’s visual history of the Great Trek. It’s flags of former territories. It’s a sunbeam on an empty tomb. It’s panels and dioramas. It’s mannequins and oxcarts. It’s guns and knives. It’s Boers and Bantus. It’s battles and bloodshed. It’s spices and spirituality. It’s sculptures of serious men.

Inside the Voortrekker: The Historical Frieze and Belgian glass windows

It’s time to leave.

After a short spell overlooking the city from the parapet near the top of the monument – we spotted the grassy field on campus where we walk Indie every morning – we grabbed a snack and lit out for Freedom Park.

Freedom Park is…well…a lot. Again, just to stay relatively neutral on all this, I quote the official website: “Freedom Park is the creation of a memorial that narrates the story of South Africa’s pre-colonial, colonial, apartheid, and post-apartheid history and heritage, spanning a period of 3.6 billion years of humanity, to acknowledge those that contributed to the freedom of the country.”

All things to all people, ne?

Officially opened in 2007 (from what I can gather), Freedom Park is a beautiful, thoughtful, peaceful and, on the day we visited, deserted place. Though there was another car parked in the lot, Jenny and I didn’t encounter another soul up there. (Except for the gardeners, whose weed whackers sometimes shattered the otherwise serene atmosphere.)

We meandered along the curving walkways, around the S’khumbuto (a siSwati word meaning “place of remembrance”) and Wall of Names, which serve as memorials to the conflicts of South Africa’s distant and recent past.

The S'khumbuto at Freedom Park

Inside the S’khumbuto is the Gallery of Leaders. We wanted this to be more. As it is, the only exhibit consists of ceiling-to-floor banners depicting African leaders who fought for national independence and racial equality. Oh, and Che Guevara. Perhaps for his role in Angola.

However, with no one around to explain things – granted, we did decline the tour guide – the park was kinda mysterious. Well designed. Important. But, somewhat elusive.

And that brings us back to the question of whether Freedom Park is the intentional antithesis of the Voortrekker Monument.

Eish. Not for me to say.

If I had to say, I’d say this: Some of the accounts offered at the Voortrekker could use a counterbalance, methinks, but Freedom Park does not necessarily serve that purpose. Nor should it. There’s already enough tension still hanging in the air, even up in the hills atop which the parks are perched, about history and its revisions. Freedom Park plays a different role, one that it will hopefully grow into over time. And one that, hopefully, more people will pay to see.

Otherwise, the next engraving on the Wall of Names will be that of Freedom Park itself. Except no one will care enough to bring flowers.

Flowers at the Wall of Names, Freedom Park

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and … Hey! Look at that Lion!

Well, here we are. 2012. The beginning of the end, so they say.

But, if the curtain really does come down this year, assuming the Mayans didn’t just switch from stone tablet calendars to e-tablet calendars, the opening act was better than Broadway.

Our new year popped open at midnight with a bottle of Cap Classique and a dazzling display of fireworks, flares and flashes of lightning over the Pretoria skyline. Standing on the upper veranda at the home of our friends Yvonne and Danie, we watched as the city celebrated with gushing Roman candles, floating Asian lanterns and soaring distress flares. From the CBD to Sunnyside, back towards the Union Buildings, across to Loftus Versfeld Stadium and beyond the university campus, the night sky was alive with explosive revelry.

Exciting as it was to welcome a new year in a new city with new friends, we could not afford to linger too long into 2012; we had a big day ahead. We were beginning the end at Nkomazi.

Early on New Year’s Day, with our bikes loaded on the back of the Rio, we drove east through the mountains of Mpumalanga for about three-and-a-half hours, pushing ever closer to the border with Swaziland, until we reached the beautiful Nkomazi Game Reserve. Inside the main gate, we met Heinrich, an affable Afrikaner and ranger at the reserve who helped us transfer our gear and bikes to the safari vehicle for the 30-minute drive to camp. Leaving our car at the gate was the first of many unique and rewarding aspects of our Nkomazi experience.

On the drive to camp, we saw most of the usual suspects: wildebeest, impala, warthogs (Jenny’s favorite) and zebra. But there were several more locals who came out to greet us, including blesbok, nyala, giraffe and white rhino. Sightings before settling in. Nice.

Several other staff members were awaiting our arrival as we approached the inner gate at the Komati Tented Lodge. Hopping out of the tall vehicle onto the sandy ground below, we were welcomed by name, offered chilled, scented towels and served a flute of cold ginger beer.

“Thanks, we’re just happy to be here.”

A view of the Komati River from Komati Tented Lodge at Nkomazi

Ulrich, a co-manager of Komati, along with his wife, Arline, gave us the lay of the land at the luxurious lodge. It was amazing. Don’t let the words tented or camp fool you – the place was five-star. But an incredible value.

Like most of the other tents in camp, ours (#9) opened into a richly furnished bedroom, which led into a generous bathroom area, complete with rain shower and separate dressing room. Outside, on the ample private deck overlooking a roaring stretch of Komati River rapids, two wooden chaise lounges sat under an umbrella at the edge of a triangular plunge pool. On the opposite end, hugging the tent to the right of the entry flap, stood a massive, claw-footed outdoor bathtub. We were spoiled.

We got used to it.

In fact, it was this kind of impeccable attention to detail – from knowing our names, planned activities and dietary preferences, to the bottles of water by the bed each night and other little things – that made Nkomazi special.

Over the next two nights and three days, we enjoyed delicious food, struck up stimulating conversations with friends old and new (our buddies Hannah and Bob, and their friend, Ann, were also at Nkomazi), had relaxing massages at the river’s edge, and explored the landscape and wildlife of the reserve – both in open game vehicles and on our mountain bikes (though, I did take a nasty spill).

One of the highlights of the game drives was our time spent watching two lionesses taunt a tower/kaleidoscope/journey (the official names for “herd”) of giraffe. Driving along a grassy path between two outcroppings, we saw four giraffe loping towards us before they stopped and turned their long necks back in the opposite direction. They were running from something.

Sure enough, from behind a lollipop-shaped thorny acacia tree came the self-satisfied saunter of a healthy lioness.

We stopped. She stopped. We stared. She stared.

Lioness watching giraffe at Nkomazi

As we sat in the stillness of the warm, African evening, a thunderstorm was brewing to the west. Lightning bolts pierced the sky above distant mountains.

The giraffe took baby steps away from the lioness, but another big cat appeared. Soon, both were lying in the grass, struggling to choose between chasing or napping. In an instant, it seemed that the feline closest to our vehicle would choose the chase. She sprang to her feet and darted directly towards us. Had she recognized us as human steak kabobs? Would she leap into the middle row, where Jenny and I had just broken one of the cardinal rules of safari by trading seats?

No, she was using the truck as a shield to surprise the giraffe from their left flank. They spotted her as she rounded the rear bumper and ran through a clump of small trees. They trotted safely away, for it was all just a game, anyway. While the lion(s) surely could catch the giraffe, they would need much more help to actually bring one down. These two girls couldn’t do it alone.

Still…it was an exhilarating moment.

From here, it’s probably best to let the pictures tell the story, but let me just say this: Our Fulbright Friend, Cynthia, allowed me to borrow her 300mm lens for this trip, so almost all of my photos show signs of my experimentation with how to keep such a lens in focus and the shots properly exposed, etc. In other words, they are not my best work. Fortunately, I think the magnificence of Nkomazi’s flora and fauna make up for my mediocre photos.