Wednesday, July 11, 2007

One step forward, two steps back... (Revised)

First off, let me say how difficult it is to find a good internet cafe in South Africa. Like both New Zealand and Tasmania, I think that the general assumption is that people have access to the internet at their home and, as a result, public internet access isn't the industry that it is in developing nations where people can't afford to buy their own computer.

The side effect of that is that Sarah and I probably won't be able to post as often here. And, when we do, we'll be rushing to get the blog up-to-date. That said, let's get you all up-to-date:

The last couple of days in India and our arrival in South Africa were marked by a series of lows and highs. No sooner would we have something good happen to us, then life would throw us another curveball we had to work out. Day after day, I found myself thinking "one step forward, two steps back."

First off, it has to be said that neither Sarah nor I were particularly excited to go back to Dehli. Our first visit there had been marked by confusion, frustration and we had the spectre of the Travel Agency hanging over our head. We knew that we'd have to visit them, if we were going to get our money back; but we also feared that it would become a battle to get it back. In addition, we had a number of small errands to run and some things to take care of before we departed India for South Africa. Namely, we needed to confirm our plane tickets with Gulf Air.

When we got to Dehli, we hired a confused auto-rickshaw with (what appeared to be) a broken hip. And, after shuttering around downtown in his jalopy, we finally stumbled across our guesthouse (1 Step Forward). Unfortunately, it turned out to be a cement cell with barely functioning plumbing (1 Step Back), but that wasn't a huge deal because it was close to the Gulf Air office...

...or, at least it was supposed to be. It turned out that Gulf Air's office had moved around to the other side of Connaught Place, the neighborhood we were staying in (1 Step Back). Roughly one sweaty hour later, we arrived at their new office. Unfortunately, because it took us so long to find the office, they were closing right as we arrived (1 Step Back). Furthermore, after talking to a representative breifly, it turned out that Gulf Air no longer flew to South Africa (1 Step Back). Finally, since they were closing and since the guy was sort of a jerk, he told us we would have to come back on Monday (the day we were set to depart)if we were going to get things figured out (1 Large Step Back).

At this point, Sarah and I were really frustrated. So, we decided it was a good time to visit the Travel Agency. We figured we could vent our anger at them, and maybe it would help us get our money back. As we stormed across Connaught Place, various revenge style scenarios and macho phrases rolled through my head. I was ready to kick-ass.

Unfortunately... or rather, fortunately, the people at the Travel Agency were really cooperative and downright nice. It turned out that the agent who had booked our trip and then dropped the ball on actually making arrangement for it had been fired. In addition, the father who ran the Agency seemed genuinely repentful. After apologizing repeatedly and asking us how our trip went, he dutifully counted out the money he returned to us. Then, shaking our hands, he said that if there was anything he could do in the future to make amends, he would be happy to. (As you can imagine this was 1 Large Step Forward)

After that amazingly pleasant surprise, Sarah and I decided to treat ourselves to McDonalds (this was, believe it or not, 1 Step Forward). There are only a couple of McDonalds in Dehli, and they're worth a visit if your an American tourist. Unlike in the States, where it is seen as a source of cheap and unhealthy food, Indian's see McDonald's as a novelty and a luxury. This is reflected in the fact that there is a security guard at the front door, and the place is almost universally packed with people. In addition, the menu proves to be entertaining since India doesn't serve beef or pork. Instead, you have a few chicken items and an array of vegitarian burgers. Sarah and I each ended up getting a Maharaja Burger (basically a curry chicken Big Mac) and a strawberry shake.

After that, we decided to treat ourselves to a Bollywood movie experience, and bought tickets to see Awarapan. We had expected to be jammed into a hot, dirty theatre with hundreds of shouting Indians, but the theatre ended up being nicer than most cinemas in the States. We had assigned seats that reclined, working Air Conditioning and the theatre was only about half-full. We quickly realized that the cinema we were in was sort of the Dehli equivalent of Cinerama, but it's movies were a bit more art-house (or at least as Art House as Bollywood gets). Awarapan itself turned out to a great movie... or at least what we understood of it, since it was in Hindi with no subtitles. At first I thought it was basically the Indian version of Micheal Mann's Miami vice, but with more singing... except there was only one real Bollywood style song and dance number. The rest of the music was actually really cool Indian-fusion music set to montage scenes that were used to break up the gunfire and kissing-free love story.

Though I'm still a little confused on the details of the storyline, I will say that I enjoyed it a lot (1 Step Forward) and still find myself thinking about it.

That was all on Saturday, and since we basically had nothing to do until monday morning, Sunday ended up being a bit of a wash. We did some shopping (including buying an MP3 disk of music, featuring the Awarapan soundtrack) and arranged a hostel for Johannesburg. Johannesburg has a bit of a reputation as a rough town, and Sarah and I didn't want to arrive in it late at night with no place to stay. Arranging the room turned out to be a bit of a trick though. The power in Dehli is a bit fickle, and every time we tried to swing by an internet cafe or call center, things seemed to be on the fritz (1 Step Back). Still, eventually, we were able to do an internet search and find some names and numbers of hostels in Jo-burg to call. Unfortunately, the first one we contact was full (1 Step Back), but luckily the second one had a room for us (1 Step Forward). So, having booked a room we celebrated with a fancy dinner at the Zaffron, a nice restaurant the travel agency had taken us to our first time in Dehli (1 Step Forward).

The next morning we awoke early to go do battle with Gulf Air. Luckily, when we got there, the lady that helped us that time was as cooperative as the Travel Agency had been (1 Step Forward). She arranged us a new flight. It meant that we had to leave the following morning, as opposed to Monday evening (tiny step back), but at least we knew we'd be airborne soon.

Tired of our run down guesthouse, we decided to switch to another one (1 Step Forward)... one with A/C and a shower that didn't bonk your head every time you used to the sink.

After that, since we had the afternoon to spare, we did a little shopping for trinkets before getting to bed early.

The next morning, we awoke early (like, 2:45AM early), and caught our flight. From Delhi, we'd fly to Bahrain where we'd change planes and fly to Dubai. We had a short layover in Dubai, and from there flew to Johannesburg. The plane leaving Delhi was late, so when we arrived in Bahrain we were literally sprinting to catch our plane. But, safetly on it, we quickly found ourselves in Dubai.

That's where things we bad, for me at least. It all started with four simple words from Sarah: "Tyler, where's your hat?" And, like that, I realized that my white hat was missing. Thinking hard, we quickly realized that I had left it in the restaurant where we had eaten dinner our final night in Delhi. I was devastated (1 Big Step Back). Now, losing a hat might seem like a little thing, but it was a big thing for me. After Sarah, that hat had become my constant companion and best friend on the trip. And, poor Sarah was stuck consoling me in the Dubai airport as I moped and mentally abused myself. For a bit, we thought we might be able to contact the restaurant and have it mailed to us, but that option would later prove to be unrealistic. My hat was gone, and I was in a mood.

The next major set back came when we reached Johannesburg. Because our connection had been so tight in Bahrain, our luggage didn't arrive in Jo-burg with us (1 Step Back). To make things worse, South Africa was in the middle of a cold snap... and I was just wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sandals (1 Step Back). So very, very cold.

Emirates Airlines, who we'd been transfered to from Gulf Air, gave us a case number, said they'd be in touch and sent us out into the cold. The following morning, we awoke in our guesthouse (the nice, yet drafty Backpackers Ritz), and started harassing Emirates about our bags. They still had no idea where it was, but told us it was ok to buy some "basic needs" and they'd pay us back. Sarah mentioned to them that I was only wearing a T-shirt and sandals, and they said shoes and a sweater would count as a basic need.

So, we went shopping (1 Step Forward). I never found some good cheap shoes, but picked up a sweat shirt (or "jumper" as they are called here) and we also got a change of underwear, socks, T-shirts and some toiletries. Also, since we had no idea when they'd find our luggage, we decided to book a safari for the following Saturday... since who needs clothes for a safari, right?

That night, we went to bed still not knowing where in the world our luggage was.

The following morning though, we had some hope. Sarah got on the phone again, and this time someone from Emarites confirmed that they'd found our bags and would be arriving that afternoon (1 Step Forward). So, with that good news, we decided to tour Soweto, or the South West Township, but I'll talk about that more below.

Needless to say, even though they didn't arrive until late that night, we were finally reunited with our bags that night (1 Step Forward).

...Now, if we can just get Emarites to refund us for the money we spent on the close (1 Step Back).

A few quick observations about South Africa

Since we are in South Africa, I feel obligated to address the giant elephant sitting in the room. And, I'm not talking about the elephants we saw on safari, i'm talking about the shadow that lurked over this country for many years: Apartheid. Racism. Race.

So, let me just tackle it head on and make one observation: The white people here are really white. I mean, their complexion is so pale and their hair so blond that they make Sarah look like she's from the Mediterranean. In addition, they are very... well... preppy. The standard male outfit is a sweater over a white dress shirt, which is in-turn tucked into a pair of Dockers. The women are fans of pleated skirts and sensible shoes.

That said, everyone we've met has been almost unnaturally pleasant in a salty, off-color sort of way. The men who ran our guesthouse in Jo-burg (also affectionately called "Jozi") were the types of people who casually wove the F-word into every sentence the same way people on the West Coast use the word "like."

And what about the blacks? The other 80% of the South African population?

Well, as a white tourist, its a little more difficult to meet and get to know them. The closest analogy I can make would be to Latinos in LA. On an average day, you see black Africans but generally working in service positions - waiters, cooks, parking lot attendants, etc. There is a general sense that things have improved since the Apartheid, but for the most part whites and blacks seem to live in seperate, parrallel worlds.

Jo'Burg is a good example of the surreal, unofficial division that exists in South Africa. Basically, downtown Johannesburg is considered unsafe for tourists. There are no guesthouses in the downtown, and if a tourist wants to go there (to, for example, go to the museum) they hire a cab that takes them directly to where they are going and will bring them straight back. All the guesthouses are in the suburbs.

The suburbs of Johannesburg look a lot like Seattle's Eastside... except with more walls, razor-wire and electric fences. This is where the whites live, and is generally considered to be safe. For Sarah and I, coming from countries like India and Vietnam, the suburbs seemed amazingly similar to the States. But, the more you are there, the more you notice the weird added layers of security. At first they seem peaceful but there is a definite underlying layer of tension there.

Out beyond the suburbs you have the Townships, or which Soweto is the most famous. This is where the other 80% of the population lives. The townships were originally created during the Apartheid. At the time, the whites living in Johannesburg have a large number of blacks working for them, but didn't want blacks living around them. So, the government built the townships to provide the black servants a place to live.

Basically, the townships are made up of thousands of identical houses built by the government for the blacks. But, since at the time blacks were forbidden from owning land, they were rented out to them. They would then be buses and trained into Johannesburg each day to work. After the end of the apartheid, ownership of the houses was transfered to the families who lived in them.

(Note: I might have some facts messed up or generalized, but I'm just trying to give you a rough idea.)

On our second day in johannesburg, Sarah and I decided to do a tour of Soweto (or the South West Townships). Now, taking a tour to see Soweto (or any of the other townships) might seem a little, well, off. Sort of like turning Soweto into a Zoo. But, the tour was owned and run by a man who grew up in Soweto and still lived there, so at least we were effectively supporting the communitee. Plus, honestly, it proved to be one of the only ways to see more of South Africa than the white suburbia we'd seen up until that point.

We weren't sure what we expected, but we were also sure that it was different than what we expected. I tihnk we had presumed that it would be depressing and difficult. But, honestly, the main feeling we came away with was one of hope. The guide pointed out both houses that reflected the original living conditions in the township, but also pointed out a number of houses that had been rebuilt and built up since the end of the Apartheid. He also pointed out how the roads had been paved, and electricity and water had been put in. While there was still alot of poverty, there was also signs of improvement... which when you compared it with some of the more desolate slums we saw in India, was downright inspiring.

In addition, the Soweto tour took us by Nelson Mandela's old house, Archbishop Desmond Tutu's current house and a small musuem chronically student protests in the area.

The following day, we went to the Apartheid museum, which was a truly powerful experience. And, like Soweto, there was an undercurrent of hope and improvement. The museum did a good job of laying out the history and injustices of the Apartheid, but also left you realizing how much things have improved and how much disaster had been averted.

Anyhow, I'll end this entry now. I have to admit that I'm still trying to work out how I feel about a lot of the stuff I've seen and experienced. And, I'm sure I will be for a while. But, I do know that South Africa, like many of the other countries we've visited, is leaving me with a lot to think about.


Rick said...

Tyler, Here is an interesting foot note to your comments on the povery in South Africa. As you may remember are current neighbors are from Denmark and they took a road trip around the Olympic Pennisula. And one of ther first comments was..."they noticed all the poverty."

The General said...

One of the things I've noticed about poverty is how relative it ends up being. I'm sure that if someone came directly from the States to South Africa, the level of poverty would seem pretty overwelming at times. But, since we just arrived from India (and before that Southeast Asia) the poverty here doesn't stun us as much.

It was actually difficult to write the end of that entry because I was afraid it would seem like I was downplaying the poverty and the situation that the standard black South African person (which wasn't my intention at all).

I'm sure that if you get a couple drinks in me when I get home, I'll have all sorts of monologues and rants about this sort of stuff... but its surprisingly hard to put in blog form.