Sunday, December 21, 2008

Earth Leakage and the last three months...

So. I know this blog is admittedly lame. I really don't have an excuse other than my first thought isn't running to an internet cafe to tell you about the gory details--some might say drama--of my wacky days. I'm sorry. The last three months have been...full. I am so aware of the things and people that have come into my world in glorious ways. I am also so aware of my humanity and limits and my needs. It can be an uncomfortable, but seriously lively place to live. I do have some stories, like the day I really pissed off one of my crafters by asking her repeatedly if she was mad. 'Are you mad? If you're mad at me, we can talk about it. You are acting like you're mad.' I must have said 'mad' 8 times...until she yells, 'I'm NOT crazy!!' at me in front of all of our co-workers. Oh? You thought I was telling you you were crazy, not well in the head when all I was doing was trying to iron out our little work conflict. Beautiful. I will say that, for the most part, I am surrounded by about the most endearing people one could hope to encounter in the world--for instance, there's Linda, who's a man and a witch doctor. Beat that.

Also, I have discovered that our fuse box has a fuse for 'Earth Leakage.' Now, I'm sorry, but that's damn funny. I have asked about the definition of earth leakage and got a half-formed answer. When South Africans say something is 'earthed,' it's like when we use the word 'grounded,' like the third prong on a plug. Ok. This I get. I don't get how that could leak. Thus, the comedy that presents itself to me every time I walk out the door.

It's nearly Christmas and I am joining my flatmate in northern Natal. In fact, I should be packing right now. I hope you have the happiest Christmas, your families are near, and that you have much peace for the day and into 2009. Hi Mom!

I call this picture: Monday. Seriously.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Wake me up when September ends

My (American) friend Drew is leaving the country. He’s a writer (and a reader for that matter.) Recently, he checked out my blog and informed me that there is very little blog-gy about it. He thinks it reads more like well-edited essays than blog material. Without knowing it, Drew managed to nail the story of my life.
Life lesson #6389 learned in South Africa: In all things, Write more. Edit less.
Thanks, Drew.

Also, I got my haircut and am facing, what I consider, a significant layer problem. It’s almost mushroom cap-like and so not funny.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hectic Re-centering

At my old job, a long time ago, in an office far away, I traded precious metals on a computer screen. (To the observer, the whole experience could easily have been confused with playing video games all day.) I watched a visual representation of a metals market, displaying the bid/ask prices and quantities of the current market. It was a long and lean, red, blue and gray display that reminds me somewhat of a cribbage board, but not. Anyway, the screen is in almost constant motion, reflecting the market activity. There is a horizontal line at the current trading price, at the intersection of the bid and offer. With the double click of a mouse or by tapping the space bar, I could center the line/current price right in the middle of the screen. Either because of my nervous stomach or OCD or boredom, I was obsessive about having the current price right in front of my face. I couldn’t tolerate it being an inch off center. However, there were days, when the markets were really moving that re-centering wasn’t possible. The prices were breaking or rallying so fast, the horizontal line bounced around like a soccer player juggling the ball. Then there were times when the horizontal line would just suddenly disappear one direction or the other off my screen, accompanied by a wicked medley of, essentially, ringtones—bells, alarms, and sometimes, yes, squealing pigs, meaning that I had a position in the market. As exciting as that was, I always felt better once the line was back in its happy middle. Since no personality or behavioral idiosyncrasy was too small to be part of the constant commentary in our office, I was, ‘Newman,’ in the play by play, ‘with the hectic re-center.’ In a sometimes silent room, with a little or a lot going on, you could hear me almost continually double clicking to re-center my market.

After about 5 weeks in my new land, I have finally been able to re-center my market. I have been hectically, but completely unproductively, trying to get a hold of the current cross. It’s been a bit brutal, as I have desperately tried to gain perspective—feeling disconnected with myself as I learn where the best place to re-place a broken baking dish is when there's no Target, learn Xhosa names and introductions, share a car with my dad (that portion is over,) mediate between witch doctors who object to Bible study at work and missionaries, remember that the right lane is the fast lane, not the left, think in Rand terms, and wonder what I’ve done in coming here in the sense that this is just a life and not some gauntlet that’s been thrown down—or is it? Now that I’ve felt my center click back into place, it all seems like, of course I would have felt those things, but at the time I felt so in it, my face submerged underwater and not able to lift it up to see the sun shining. I’ll try and use this better feeling I am having to relate some of what I’m seeing and doing around here—which according to my Aunt Sissy is what she’s been waiting for—some good letters from me.

This week also marks my first demonstrable professional accomplishment. After a cold-calling experience last week, wherein my colleague (and by colleague, I mean hilarious Zululand, been everywhere selling used cars and advertising friend) Darren and I went to tour bus companies, encouraging tour operators to make a stop at our retail outlets because we really do offer something unique right on their way to significant tourist attractions, I followed up and actually got one company to commit to regularly stopping at our strip mall—with the promise of financial kick back, of course. Aside from the new, immediate business this brings us, it brings me hope—for more jobs to offer to the people group we work with and for myself. There’s a lot to the discussion about what good, if any, non-profits do around the world. Moments occur where I wonder if we are contributing more to problems than helping to solve any. (This isn’t good for my morale, by the way, but it’s an undeniable possibility.) On the flipside, when there are 12 people in the room and 9 of them are HIV positive, running to the grocery store for them seems like a positive no-brainer, and I can't think of a more practical way to help someone. In the midst of all of this, I want to apprehend hope--that Goodness is at work, regardless of my circumstances.

I’ve been reading this book about the importance of knowing one’s life story in understanding how to participate in your own future life with God. The following is a quotation (taken from a second source about screenwriting) from the book.

“But then there’s an event—in screenwriting, we call it the ‘inciting incident’—that throws life out of balance. You get a new job, or the boss dies of a heart attack, or a big customer threatens to leave. The story goes on to describe how, in an effort to restore balance, the protagonist’s subjective expectations crash into an uncooperative objective reality. A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with these opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions, take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth. All great storytellers since the dawn of time—from the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare and up to the present day—have dealt with this fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.

Good stories tell about the intersection of desire (‘subjective expectation’) and tragedy (‘cruel reality.’)”

So there are a ton of things I see and am experiencing right now that I would characterize as an absolutely uncooperative objective reality—I use this term with a glint in my eye and laughter close behind because I think the last five weeks of watching my subjective expectations—which were refined to the point of gold and highly protected by me—collide in slow motion, epic, movie style bombs going off is, now, just damn funny and UOR is just a really academic way of saying life is hard. Desire and tragedy make life really good, hope necessary, and my story mine.

That’s what’s new with me. You?

The pictures: #1 Clouds coming over Table I'm standing on it
#2 My edgy, urban pictures of our jewelry, that we're not using on the website
#3 Mandy and I in our two layers of wetsuits when we were the NSRI's Women Overboard Dummies in like 14 feet swells

Sunday, August 17, 2008


So, apparently this blogging business isn't coming as naturally as I thought it might. I just want everyone to know I'm doing well!! Mom said I'm not writing her enough information in my emails. This is true. I seem to be just a minute late all the time and showing up to the grocery store just after it's closed EVERY TIME, EVERY DAY. (I'm not going to the grocery store everyday, but I'm just trying to tell you I'm always a bit out of it and definitively a foreigner in my botching up of things.) It's not that there's nothing to share...quite the opposite. I just don't know where to start, how to sum up, nor have had I time to process half the stuff that's coming my way. (That's the view from my flat to the left.)

My first week at work was fairly a disaster, but the second and third have improved mightily. Tomorrow I'm going to downtown Cape Town to visit tour bus companies in the hopes that they might visit our strip mall on their way to major tourist attractions...our little store is located right in the middle of everything, but no one seems to see it. We're hoping this might be a way to get some more business. I had a cool experience on Friday where I was (briefly) forced to go it alone at the store and although I was nervous none of the crafters would understand me or care what I was saying, I discovered they speak much better English than they let on and they know my name! I was thinking they didn't even know that yet. We communicated and almost completely achieved our goal for the day (for an order that was due yesterday.) Anne, my American boss/missionary, is so vocal in her appreciation of me and that is very encouraging. She's been doing the work of at least 4 people for a few years now.

I live with the busiest person I know and she's nice enough to include me in a lot of things...but sometimes I'm busier than I would like to be. When I was in Malawi, I could journal about the taste of an egg for hours (not that I did that) because there wasn't a whole lot else to do and here there's enough going on/to do that I'm quite rushed and more scheduled than I had thought I might be. I've done a bunch of the tourist stuff that I somehow didn't get to in my time here last year--Table Mountain, climbing Chapman's peak (kind of), a wine tour. I thought I might space this out over some months, but I've made a new friend from NYC who's only here for a month, so when she asks me if I want to do something, I say, 'Yes.' Everyone else I hang out with has done that stuff 100 times. My reference to halfway climbing Chapman's Peak deserves further explanation...but I think I have to write it in complete form. Let's just say, next time I think I see someone too far out in the ocean, I'll think twice before I call the NSRI (the SA equivalent of the US Coast Guard.) One helicopter, 4 boats and 1 truck later, we were damn embarrassed.

I've been running on the beach, which is my happiest place, and doing a 'Pilates on the Ball' DVD in my flat--this is as hilarious as it sounds, but a good workout! Today I went surfing for the second time. Actually I just got good and smacked around by the waves, but I donned a wetsuit and 9'2" board and expended a lot of's a stretch to call this 'surfing,' but I choose to.

I haven't seen one moment of the Olympics. I mostly don't know what I'm missing, but from everyone's Facebook statuses and the Yahoo homepage, I know there's big stuff going on. It's weird to be out of the country and not watching. You know I love musical montages. My (American) friend Amanda watched the Opening Ceremony, narrated by BBC announcers. Apparently, after very respectful, panning shots of heads of state as their countries were marching out, when they got to GB, the announcers said, 'Here's a face we all know.' Interesting. One of my favorite things to do is talk to South Africans. About anything. It's just fascinating to hear what's on their minds and their opinions about world politics. On Friday night I met a South African woman who lived in Chicago for two years--in 1960!! She was hilarious--a bartender--and asked me, 'Do they still have that intersection, Rush and Division?' I laughed, looking at her a little sideways, and said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Can you believe my boss took me there? I was young and green and a little plump and he took me to the intersection of Rush and Perversion as soon as I got off the airplane.' I laughed and may never refer to that intersection the same ever again. There is just a lot of chatting that goes on and I wish I could do a better job of recreating it for you, because it's interesting, stimulating, and hilarious most of the time.

Now you know that I'm still alive. Just not as articulate or over-thinkery as normal. Miss you.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The agony and the ecstasy...

That's a movie or something, right? Right now it's my life. It's my own personal evolution in the sense that each hour, I feel a little different or know a little more than I did the one before. (I've re-written this like three different times because it's outdated faster than I can approve my own content ;)

On the whole, I probably should have been a little wiser to my own impending adjustments from Chicago to the western Cape, but somehow I didn't see any of these conflicting feelings coming and I'm road kill--splattered, inside out and wishing I'd turned a different direction. There's probably no way I could return to somewhere I've been without having some expectation of what it would be like, but Sun Valley is different than I remember it--maybe it's because I'm staring down a nine month long barrel? It's winter and rains sideways some mornings; I don't quite know as many people as I thought I did; I don't speak the same language as 97% of my new co-workers; jet-lag did a nasty number on me and I've completely lost my voice (don't know if I'm actually sick or just hoarse, but since I'm working with people who have suppressed immune systems, I can not risk getting them sick) when I have heartrending loneliness, I can't even articulate it. I'm just alone in it.

Yet, there's the ecstasy part too. Blessedly, it keeps surfacing. I am convinced I am where I should be. I've gone surfing for the first time and have an excellent flatmate. And the sideways rain only lasts a few moments before the sun comes back out and there are riotous rainbows all the time. When I am welcomed, I am welcomed full stop, as they say. I am glad this is just a single entry in what is to be a long time gone.

Lord. That all sounds so that I'm just back from brunch (my favorite meal out) and ice cream on the beach, in the middle of winter. See? Perfect example of the ecstasy part.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It'll be our little secret

I've just come from the dentist's office. No cavities. Hurrah! One of the professionals at the office and I had the following interaction:

Me: Yes. I'm leaving in a week for South Africa.
She: Do you know where in south Africa you will be? Kenya?
Me: I'll be near Cape Town.

How do you politely tell someone South Africa is a country? 

There are worlds about southern Africa I know nothing about. (Confession: I once asked if I should take items to barter in place of cash to one of the African countries I was about to visit. At the time, I had access to really nice coffee and flip flops. Turns out not only did this country have its own coffee and flip flops, but they had cash and skyscrapers and their own questions about my country and how people like me can find our way out of a paper bag.) Borders in all of Africa are often changing, although the lower bit is mostly decided. However, with the Olympics coming up and our generally, how shall I say, vague understanding of The Rest of The World, I want people to know to watch for South Africans, who are different from Malawians, who are different from Namibians, who are different from Kenyans and Congolese. South Carolina is a state, while south of Chicago and in the The South. I asked my mom how I should have told my health professional that South Africa is a country. She said, "Nicely." Well. Having said nothing during this morning's opportunity, I'm gently saying now, "South Africa is a country." If you didn't know, I'll never tell. Also, please don't ask me if it's Burma or Myanmar because I'm not sure.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The faint of heart?

This is actually happening. I am returning to The Continent in less than 5 weeks. I am ready and freaking out simultaneously (a normal state of affairs for me.) I've taken a hello/goodbye tour. I've held my new niece, and I'm ready to rock on.

I am without words for the support that has been aimed my direction--in word, thought, and (financial) deed. I think I said this before, but letting peoples' words and kindnesses into you is something I wish for everyone.

A few excerpts from Fall 2007 follow for those of you who are new to my total cluelessness about southern Africa. They were written almost a year ago already and context might make them more lucid, but welcome to it anyway:

(Written from South Africa)
I endeavoured to get gas for the first time yesterday. One doesn't pump their own gas here, it's done for you and then you tip the attendant. Well, I left my house with R216, which, despite being just over $30, seemed like plenty of cash to fill up the (small appliance sized) tank, which needed about 3/4 tank. I gave R2 to Balthazar, the guy who watches my car in the beach parking lot while I run. (People make a living here watching cars in parking lots. It's a livelihood.) So I pull up at the Mobil, proud of myself for knowing how to unlock the gas cap and tell the guy to fill up the tank. He starts the pump and then says something about popping the hood, which I did not remember happening when I watched my dad get gas. So I say, "No. No. That's okay, I don't need that." He says, "Yes. Pop hood. Pop hood." I'm thinking he wants a bigger tip and am trying to insist this is all unnecessary. He ends up reaching into my car and popping the hood for me. I sit there and ponder how I'm being taken for all I'm worth and as he's showing me the dip stick, I turn around to see the pump at R214. "Stop. Stop," I say. By the time he stops it, and then tries to helpfully top off the tank, we're at R220 and in my flustered state, my two coins have gone flying under the seats and I can only come up with one. I have R212 to pay for R220 worth of gas plus tip. This makes me feel horrible and like a dumb out of towner. I produce my R212 and say, "This is all I have." "Oh," he says, "the cash is shot." "Yes," gas station man, "the cash is shot." So I have to drive home to get more money, promising I'll be back in 5. It was more like 12, but I went back to give him his money. What I still don't get is how that tiny little car could eat $30 worth of gas.

The pace of life here is quite different than at home. People take a full hour for lunch. Everyone leaves at 1 on Fridays, every Friday. People work a little and play a little and take their kids to the beach all the time. (Is this what California is like?) I'm mostly loving the pace, but the do-er in me sometimes rams her head into a be-ing wall and it hurts. Well, T.I.A. That stands for This Is Africa. We say TIA a lot. "You buy electricity at the gas station?" "Yes. TIA."

(Written from Malawi and part of a list)
6. i will be riding a bike as my main form of (independent) transportation. (i knew i relearned to ride this summer for a reason.) bikes outnumber cars where i am living 24:1 (estimated) and there is one paved road in my 'town.' my bike is not of the mountain or road's kind of what you think of when you think of what your grandmother might have ridden when she was a girl in north dakota in 1942 on a dirt road and red dust everywhere. please picture me on this bike, with a falling down skirt (i might have to find a button and sew it on) and add in the staring/waving/azoongu calling from item number 4. nice. i have seen malawians pile four people on these bikes. i'm not ready for that.

11. everything in malawi is negotiable--INCLUDING THE EXCHANGE RATE. I find this somewhat offensive. I find it hilarious that I hate the bartering as much as I do given my previous line of work, trading. Part of the problem is that ultimately, I'm trying to talk someone out of about 67 cents, and it just seems mean/unnecessary.

Many of you have told me to, 'Please be safe.' There is something about Malawi, and Africa as a whole, I think, that dwarfs a person. I've never felt as small as I do in Africa and never been so aware of the fact that I'm not in control...of anything. There is no pretense, illusion, or vague sense at any time that one is in control. (From things as small as reliable electricity and choices at the grocery store to the big ones like the irrelevance of time, the size of the sky and closeness of the sun and potential famine and disease that is more likely to kill you than not.) I've done things in Africa that I wouldn't in a million years do at home, because I deem them reckless--ride in a car with kids on my lap, hitch hike, eat goat, fly Air Zimbabwe next week ;). I'm being 'safe,' but as I know it here. I've discussed this phenomenon with a bunch of people and we all agree, the underlying current here says, 'There are so many other big, bad things that might get you,' or, 'Death is an intimate, immediate part of daily experience,' that I find myself abandoning, for the better, things that bind me at home that make me feel in control. I wonder, when I get home, if I'll remember the vast vulnerableness I feel all the time. I could say a lot more about the value we place on life in the developed world vs. not so developed, how no one will talk about AIDS despite the fact it's killing everyone, and what powerlessness breeds, but I'll save it for another time.

So. That was last time. Now there's this time...