Friday, February 17, 2006

Comfort, Africa and a few random things

Discomfort is such a maligned word. Since I have made my peace with it and started to realize that awkwardness is usually a symptom of change and often an invitation to be real and give up one’s insecurities, I seldom suffer from it at all. I was surprised how little culture shock I felt in Africa. Though I can be known to be somewhat shy and quiet, I think I did pretty well for meeting tons of new people on an almost daily basis and managing to say at least a few intelligent, and hopefully the odd meaningful, thing. The two things that did affect me the most were the level of security one has to live with (at least in Pretoria) and the stifling sense of cultural conservatism in the church which reminded me just too much of my own repressive Mennonite upbringing. Don’t get me wrong, I am not dissing either the African church I attended nor my childhood church, but let’s face it, we all have our trappings, and I am simply mentioning one that I have spent a lot of my life trying to get over and to encounter it again…well, it was uncomfortable. But in that very place of awkwardness, I turned to God and said, “Teach me,” and when I stopped focussing on the people around me…a most profound and personal encounter happened. I still can’t really talk about it because it was so personal, but maybe someday.

Anyway…the security issue. I can’t say I enjoyed always looking behind and around me, locking everything, bars and gates and security cameras all around your property, scanning the area for suspicious behaviour whenever you are out, keeping a careful hand on all my belongings, closing my car window at a robot, not trusting the pizza delivery guy, driving past your own house instead of turning in because there are a few people walking by, feeling a little apprehension every time you use a bank machine, and hearing gunshots in the neighbourhood. No, I don’t miss that at all. The only place you feel really safe is in the relative prison of your own home and I believe this contributes to the isolation and lack of community people might feel there. On the other hand, I made it a point never to be alone anywhere, so in that way, perhaps it fosters community, I don’t know. But it is the way things are and you do what you have to in order to be safe and alive. I don’t know what the solution is to their incredibly high crime rate but the discreet and wise acts of kindness that I witnessed my friends partake in left an impression on me.

And now just for fun…random facts about my trip:
- the jet lag going there was wicked (I woke up at 3 am and just lay there for hours listening to every noise and wondering when they would fix that squeaky bed!), coming back it was almost non-existent
- going out to eat was incredibly reasonable. One fast food place that my friend took me to had fresh and healthy meals like wraps, sandwiches, smoothies, etc. all for under $3!
- though I did miss Diet Dr. Pepper a bit, the fresh fruit, rusks, butternut soup, and coconut rice more than made up for it.
- I could probably have taken the car for a spin around the block and done okay (one of my friends offered to let me drive a bit), but I was hesitant to try it in a busy section of town where I would have had to deal with driving on the left side of the road, a manual gearshift on the left, having to look left first when entering traffic, finding my way around, AND lots of others doing the same at relatively high speeds!
- I still have some sort of rash on my back and front that developed at the end of the trip. I am trying to narrow down what could have caused it – some say it is food related (I ate meat everyday which is kind of a big deal for a long-time mostly vegetarian), others say it is likely topical and could be the soaps, water, chlorine, or some hideous bug I came in contact with! Any insight?
- What did I miss the most while I was there? Besides my husband (and the cats, sorry guys), not much really. I would find it easy to live there (every place has its frustrations but the few things I did encounter were not a big deal), and I especially enjoyed the climate and the food and the artwork and the little kids I met.
- Things move much slower there. We in the west are so used to rushing everywhere and being efficient. Though there is something to be said for our drive, there is an enjoyment of time and a lack of stress in Africa that we could take a few lessons from.
- While many things here are moving towards self-service and automation, there almost every area of your life is serviced by someone who needs the job. You have a housekeeper, a gardener, someone who pumps the gas into your car, someone who checks your oil and cleans your windscreen, someone who finds a parking space for you, someone who watches your car while you are away, someone who guards the bank machines, someone who will sell you a globe or backpack or a watermelon or a box of peaches on the side of the road, someone who will open a gate for you, someone who will put things into bags for you, someone who will supervise someone fixing something, and if you don’t have someone to do something you need done, then you head to the designated street corner where willing workers arrive early in the morning and hang out in the hopes of finding someone looking for an odd job to be done.
- Wakeboarding was not as hard as I thought it would be.
- Breathing was harder than I thought it would be.

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