Friday, December 6, 2013

Fragments of South Africa

After spending the majority of a day crowded on a plane, rocketing south, across a terrain of latitudinal and longitudinal grid, our party arrived in Johannesburg, gathered to celebrate the imminent wedding of a mutual dear friend. I was the youngest, in both years and experience; it was my first time to this wild and vast continent, rife with violently beautiful history, the land-loins from which sprang our species. I was flooded with these trite emotions. Mitochondrial Eve, sauntering with sass and trepidation on her two legs. An ancient and ancestral land. Immediately, we began jocularly alluding to the acclimation to African time, more than a slowing pace, an entire philosophical shift that I did not entirely comprehend. I feigned. The air was dry and warm and I gulped it in greedily; it seemed older and more pure than the frenzied winds of developed home.

After coffee and air, we rented a car at the airport; our companion Peter, white-haired, seasoned, British South African returning home, drove, navigating the seemingly infinite stretches of black tar pushing away from the center of the city. He warned us of the dangers of the road; racing speeds, rhomboid Volkswagen buses jammed with a cacophony of bodies, the convenient and cheap commute from the corrugated iron communities to work. Many of the people travel hours to and from, he explained, risking their lives in these tenuous jalopies. When a tire blows out, a frequent occurrence, the numbers left dead or ravaged is horrifying. There are those piled deep in the vehicle, other vehicles swerving to avoid collision, slowly ambling pedestrians everywhere. We should not drive much past dark, we are warned.

Eventually, as we leave the city limits in our dust, the highway thins to two lanes. Two black lanes stabbing across a tableau of stunted rolling mountains, tree and rock meeting the sky in asymmetrical patterns. Rock formations and vegetation foreign to me, a phylogenic cousin to the hills of the American west. Exhaustion dissipates, the weight from almost fifteen hours in a cabin in the sky gone, as I gaze out the window. Each new place, new city I visit brings this type of fascination with it; here, the visceral excitement was a deluge. Amidst the natural beauty, the gas stations, the scattering of hand-built communities, wooden taverns, naturally unnatural with the green background of forest.

In this province, the economy is tourism and paper; there is a spread of quaint bed and breakfast farms, including one belonging to the uncle of the bride, and, deeper in the hills, a menacing paper mill. While touring the day after the wedding, alcohol-groggy but rested, we pass this industrial encampment, spewing noxious fumes that permeate the area and loom in our nostrils for miles. In those speeding death-trap buses, the people head here, this epicenter of employment for the locals. Across the road, a bar, dark and old.

The societal division is so stark it is painful, almost surreal. Born and bred in a place of diversity, in every sense of the popular moniker, I found this gap unpalatable. Things are so much better now, many commented. I believe them, but I cannot fathom this before they so happily move beyond, this history unforgettable.

 A pharmacy in a tiny town, joined by a single restaurant, a single grocer, a chocolate boutique, and a bizarre art gallery; here we stop to stretch our legs and buy more insect repellant. My fear for the mosquitoes turned out to be greater than the actual threat, the chemicals purchased back home at a sporting goods store unused. On one wall, a series of photographs were taped and labeled: Snow, 2005. A sprinkling of white barely covers the grass. 

 Anthony, a young and shy man, waits on his for dinner and breakfast at the small inn. His movements are steady, slow, assured, but modest; he has bulk and could present and clear the dishes with an opulent prowess if he so chose. I believe him to be a boxer. Anxious to learn more about him, I attempted a few questions, inane and common, before deciding to follow suit, fall silent, relish the cool air of the evenings. 

After the wedding, we spend some days on safari, living ruggedly glamorously in the bush, romanticizing the open expanses of untouched habitat, seeking animals like cheap thrills. One night we spend, backs arched, necks craned, gazing into the abyss of stars, looking for the Southern cross, disagreeing, unsure, each of us connecting rhinestone dots in the sky to draw one of our own.

(image taken from The Daily Mail)

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