Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crossing the Street

I've been back from South Africa for three weeks now, and for the most part have entirely readjusted to good old American life, with the exception of one thing: crossing the street. This is one thing that is so vastly different between American and South African culture that I just can't get used to it. First there's the issue of the cars driving on the wrong side of the road. It took me ages to get used to cars driving on the left in SA - having to look right, left, right before crossing, and getting into the passenger seat of the car on the left side. Since I spent so much time convincing myself that the direction of traffic that seems right is wrong, now I'm just confused nearly every time I get to an intersection. In the end I just look each way several times and expect cars to come at me from every direction at once. It seems like it would be so easy to figure out, but it confuses me endlessly as I walk and bike through town.

Then there's the actual crossing of the road. In East London, you can't just walk up to a crosswalk, watch the cars slow and stop for you, then take your time walking calmly across. It doesn't take long living there to realize that the pedestrian right-of-way does not apply. Cars will not stop for you, under any circumstances. If you're in a parking lot and walk in the way of a car, it will not stop and let you pass. It won't even slow down to give you a chance to get out of the way; instead, it will most likely speed up, honk, and you'd better be out of the way before it hits you. If you're on one side of the street and decide you want to be on the other side, you have to wait until there's a gap in the traffic in the lane nearest to you, rush across, and wait on the line in the middle of the road until there's a gap in the next lane. I spent a lot of time worrying about my toes, standing in such close proximity to so many speeding tires. If you're at an actual crosswalk, and the cross traffic has a red light, you have to make sure you're entirely across before the light turns green, because they will go whether or not you're in the middle of the lane. And you always have to be watching in every direction, to make sure no cars are about to turn into you as you cross. It makes crossing the street a challenge, often a terrifying one, but it certainly keeps things interesting.

In King City, California, cars will always stop. They stop for me before I even reach the crosswalk, and just wait. They don't creep forward or honk, or suddenly hit the gas when I'm right in front of them. They just wait. I honestly don't know what to do with them. Every time I cross the street, after having my mental debate about which direction the cars are going, I keep watching the traffic, waiting for someone to make a move in my direction, ready to jump out of the way at any second. But they never do, and I never have to. You'd think it would be a relief, but instead I just get that eerie feeling when things are just TOO easy or TOO quiet, like all the cars are plotting something. It's really quite unsettling.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


They tell us that Field Studies are difficult, but they don’t prepare us for the things that are the hardest. In the prep course I learned about culture shock, safety concerns, project challenges, susceptibility to disease, traffic accidents. They warn us that we’re set up to fail: that almost none of the projects that students plan and prepare for actually work as anticipated, and that we just have to be flexible and willing to accept changes and failures. We were cautioned not to take on too many class credits for the time we’re there, because it will be far more difficult than we think to get everything done, and we don’t want to spend too much time on class work when we could be out interacting with the culture or spending time with our host families. We’re told to be prepared for challenges in our living situations, to be clear about our roles within the host family, and to communicate with our group members, to avoid disagreements or harboring grudges while living in such close quarters for so long. So I left the United States prepared for all of these possible setbacks and difficulties, but not at all prepared for East London.

Almost none of the issues that we covered in the prep course affected me, at least not to a degree worth mentioning. The second I landed in East London I knew I was going to love it. I’d just suffered through 36 long, sleepless, nervous, uncomfortable hours in airplanes and airports, fretting the whole time about what I was getting myself into, worried about my project and being on the other side of the world. In the airport in Johannesburg I felt exhausted and isolated, distant from anything and anyone I knew and loved and unsure of whether I’d make it through the following months. But a couple hours later, stepping off the plane at the East London airport, staring around me at the incredibly green trees and breathing in the salty coastal air, everything felt right. It was such an intense and unexpected sensation after so many miserable hours travelling, but I knew then and there that this was exactly where I needed to be. I never lost that feeling in my entire time in South Africa. I missed my family and friends, but no more than I ever miss the one when I’m with the other. I faced frustrations with my project, but never anything I couldn’t work around. I had my disagreements with roommates, but never over anything very important, and never anything that lasted. None of the problems I had been warned about and had prepared myself for showed up as problems. Nearly everything was perfect.

In my first week I wrote a post to this blog, in which I described some of the first people I’d met, how they shaped my impressions of East London and South Africa, and how they welcomed me immediately into their lives and families. Later I wrote about how even the ocean and the forest seemed to offer me an invitation accompanied by total acceptance, willing to take in this total outsider. Everything and everyone that I saw and met in South Africa welcomed me and shared with me. So many people were happy to help me with my research, and then so often wanted to do more, to share their lives, their culture, their friendship and their country with me. I was able to spend so much time with incredible and inspiring people and organizations, learning so much from them constantly, and learning just as much about myself in the process. The people of South Africa really did shape my whole experience and make everything I did possible.

This is where the problem arises, the one that the prep course and all my preliminary research and preparations could never have prepared me for. I had to leave. After all of the connections and unbelievable people and experiences I found in and around East London, after putting all of myself into making these connections and getting to know these people and seeking out these experiences, after finding my niche in this community and feeling entirely whole and accomplished and ready to live life and make things happen with all of it together, I had to pull the plug and fly away, leaving all of it behind.

Standing in the East London airport the second time was so much the same, but in such a bittersweet way. I could feel so strongly that same sensation I felt on my arrival, the feeling of welcoming and rightness, but twisted on itself, because this time I was going in the wrong direction. Glancing back from the waiting area I could still see the crowd on the other side of the security check, my huge extended family that had come to wave and cry and say goodbye. Why was I leaving again? And then I had to breath my last breath of East London and step onto the plane. I don't know where those three months went, but they weren't nearly long enough.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Trouble with Interviews

No matter how good interview methods might be, they don't do any good without people to interview. This was the biggest challenge I faced in my project, and was a huge issue, because a study on people is worthless unless you have people to study. The main reason that this was so difficult for me was that my population was too broad for me to find them easily from one organization or location. I wanted to interview men and women between 18 and 30, from various backgrounds and education levels, to give me an overall perspective from the up-and-coming generation - those who will have the most control over the near future, and who have lived most of their lives in the New South Africa outside of Apartheid. It seems like it should be easy to find a bunch of people around my own age, which is what I thought initially, until I tried to actually do it.

My first batch of people came from Fort Hare University, where I was able to pass around a sign-up sheet to a couple classes for those students willing to be interviewed. It wasn't hard to find some people who were happy to participate, but I had some serious challenges actually meeting with these students - mostly scheduling issues. There were a number of them who I tried to meet with many times, setting up a time, checking multiple times to make sure that time worked, arriving at the agreed-upon meeting place and then finding out that they had to change the time . . . over and over again. This got old very quickly. Another problem was the method of contacting. I quickly learned that email didn't work well, since a lot of people don't check their emails regularly, if ever, but I spent a lot of time making calls before I figured out that texting was the way to go. Most people respond pretty quickly to texts, and written no one has trouble understanding another's accent through text. Those people I did manage to meet with from Fort Hare were great though, and some even connected me with other people to talk to, which was a big help.

Unfortunately, Fort Hare does not have a very diverse population - everyone there is educated beyond high school, and the majority of the student body is black. Also, once exams started in October, there were no regularly scheduled classes for me to pass sign-up sheets around in, and it became more difficult for students to find time for interviews. So I had to turn to other sources.

An easy fallback was always members of my church, since I saw them twice a week, but I didn't like to abuse that population too much (or introduce that additional bias into my data), and one of my fellow students interviewed most of the women (17-29) from our church for her project. I felt it would be too much to ask of them to be interviewed again, and it seems wrong to have exactly the same study participants, so I kept my church-gathered population to a few of the men.

Other than those two sources, my participants came from random acquaintance or referral. I interviewed one worker from the internet cafe I frequented, two men who talked to me on the street, two friends/acquaintances of men who talked to me on the street, one co-worker of someone from church, and a number of other very diversely gathered people.

Besides the issue of finding participants and working around schedules, the biggest problem I met was in communication. Most people I interviewed had a first language other than English, and though they were usually fluent enough that it didn't pose any problems, occasionally I found someone who just couldn't quite understand me, or who I couldn't understand, and that would lead to a very awkward and usually painfully short interview. It also made it more difficult when I wanted to ask questions having to do with environmental issues or conservation, because my participants were unfamiliar with a lot of the terms I wanted to use in these questions (like conservation, or environmental), and it was hard to see whether it was the terms or the concepts that people were unfamiliar with. For all of these issues, I just had to do my best to work around them, and try to learn something new from every interview I completed.

The Evolution of Interviews

A huge part of what I was doing during my time in South Africa was interviewing young adults to determine their perceptions of tourism and natural protected areas in South Africa, and particularly the Eastern Cape (piece 3 in Shaping my Field Study). I initially wanted more of a central focus around ecotourism (defined in A New Direction or the TIES website), but very few of the people I talked to knew about ecotourism (outside of those people who are involved in some way in the tourism industry), and even fewer had very well-formed opinions about it. In fact, bringing ecotourism into the equation, even if I tried to explain it simply and thoroughly, usually just confused my interviewees and made them less confident in their answers to my following questions. So, after the first few interviews, I shifted my questions to more general tourism, with a focus on community benefits/consequences and nature-based tourism. I also moved from asking about their opinions for the whole of South Africa and centered in on the Eastern Cape, the province East London is in and the poorest South African province.

One of the first lessons I learned in my interviews was that the less I talked, the better. I had a list of questions I wanted answered, and initially I would focus in on this list, asking the questions one at a time, with awkward attempts to transition from one to another and little deviation in the order. I usually found what I wanted, but the interviews were choppy and there was too much pressure to stick to the topics and points that I'd selected, without much room for things that might be more interesting to them, which is really much more important. In the end what worked really well was for me to just ask, "What do you think about tourism in the Eastern Cape?" and let them take it away from there. I still had the same main points I wanted to hit, having to do with community, positive and negative aspects, environmental effects/sustainability, challenges, and so on, but when I let them start the direction of the conversation, I was always able to find a natural place to fit those questions in, and a surprising majority of the time they brought up these issues on their own, without me having to ask. Asking such a general question also allowed for the interview to stay at much more of a conversational level, shaped by each individual and free from the pressure to have the 'right' response that can become such a problem when asking specifics. My first few interviews were really stressful, and initially I tried too hard to get the answers I wanted (in some cases I really wanted to get a 'for' or 'against,' when really they just didn't care), but once I was able to relax I genuinely enjoyed hearing each person's perspectives and opinions.

There were some challenges with the actual gathering of the interviews that always kept things interesting (and frustrating), which I'm going to address in my next post.

Stylistic Imitations: Conrad

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad proves himself a master of creating intense moods through his strong imagery and detailed descriptions. In this way he's able to drag the reader into the Heart of Darkness the title refers to: both the literal depth of the jungle and the figurative darkness at the heart of Mr. Kurtz. I took a short passage from this novel and closely imitated it for two different situations. I enjoy this kind of imitation, though it was difficult to get the same single-minded direction Conrad achieved while combining separate images like this.

Original: from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, page 14.
A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stones, imposing carriage archways right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to.

Imitation 1 (Oxford Street taxi):
A rickety and crowded taxi in a busy street, dirty windows, seats filled with sweating bodies, a jarring racket, groceries crammed beneath the seats, fat laughing mamas on every side, cracked windows introducing blessedly breathable air. Another man ducked through the open doorway, struggled past the obstructive and vocal occupants, as immovable as the seats themselves, and squeezed into the largest space he could find.

Imitation 2 (Near Nahoon Beach):
A wide and smooth beach in bright sunlight, clear water, expansive sky without a cloud, a stinging wind, shells scattered across the sand, confident gulls strutting just out of reach, barely visible footprints pensively shifting shape. I stepped into one of these footprints, followed its fellows on a winding and hurried path, as unpredictable as the surf, and sought the child who had walked there.

Stylistic Imitations: Hemingway

Another author whose style I experimented with in my writing was Ernest Hemingway, after reading his journal/memoir Green Hills of Africa. In this book Hemingway often employs a somewhat rambling stream-of-consciousness, creating a meshing of his actions, the setting around him, and the thoughts or emotions he has to create one emotive portrait of a scene. The following passage is an example of this from page 58 of Green Hills of Africa.

So in the dark, following this ideal line, we descended into steep ravines that showed only as wooded patches until you were in them, slid down, clung to vines, stumbled and climbed and slid again, down and down, then steeply, impossibly, up, hearing the rustle of night things and the cough of a leopard hunting baboons; me scared of snakes and touching each root and branch with snake fear in the dark. To go down and up two hands-and-knee-climbing ravines and then out into the moonlight and the long, too-steep shoulder of mountain that you climbed one foot up to the other, one foot after the other, one stride at a time, leaning forward against the grade and the altitude, dead tired and gun weary, single file in the moonlight across the slope, on up and to the top where it was easy, the country spread in the moonlight, then up and down and on, through the small hills, tired but now in sight of the fires and on into camp.

Again I didn't closely imitate this particular passage, but I did try to implement some of the same stylistic methods Hemingway used in my post The Trouble With Africa, especially in the portion below:

Though the city may disguise them, the big open spaces are here as well. Drive six kilometers to the beach and you’ll find yourself on giant cliffs embedded with ancient life, coated with recent life, crawling with new life, overlooking huge untamable waves crashing in from an endless blue ocean which, far in the distance, touches an equally endless, arching blue sky. Drive an hour inland through the dry, cow-spotted fields and you’ll find yourself suddenly surrounded by a thousand shades of green, climbing over immense moss-covered boulders beside towering waterfalls, staring toward ghostly canopies floating in a near-impenetrable mist, becoming engulfed by the hums and clicks and warbles and shrieks and croaks and drips and whoops that create the symphony of the forest, feeling small and foolish standing there with your worn tackies and half-filled pack and diminishing fantasy that you could conquer all this greatness, realizing the indifferent acceptance and quiet invitation that the land offers you and losing the feeling of self-importance with which you entered the forest.
I'm not sure that the resemblance is very clear, but my stylistic inspiration for this post was definitely Hemingway. This is a style I like a lot; I have a lot of fun with long, multi-directional sentences and the liberal use of commas and semicolons. The image is part of the scene in Hogsback that I was trying to describe in this passage, photographed by Britt Smith when we were hiking there together. It's really an incredible place, which I described more in another post.

Stylistic Imitations: Chatwin

As part of my Travel Writing course, I've been experimenting with different styles of writing and recording experiences, partly through imitations of the literature I've been reading. One of the first books I attempted to imitate was Bruce Chatwin's What am I Doing Here, a collection of Chatwin's various travel experiences. The interesting thing about this collection is that Chatwin expresses his experiences through the conversations and interactions he has with people: very heavy on dialogue and description but without a lot of his own thoughts or impressions, thus leaving the reader to come to his/her own conclusions based on Chatwin's observations and dialogue. Rather than choosing a specific passage to imitate, I took that dialogue-rich and personal commentary-free style Chatwin uses to record a number of my own experiences and interactions in South Africa. The first of these was Conversations, my first post in East London, in which I recorded a few of my initial interactions with South Africans. At the time, it had seemed extremely strange and almost unsettling to me that total strangers, who I didn't know and didn't expect to see again, were so immediately friendly and talkative. It was these conversations with strangers, and even the fact that strangers were having conversations with me, that really stuck with me from that first day. This was also my first experience with Africa Time: Diana had an appointment with Rachel at nine, which at nine (when we arrived) was moved to eleven, then we had time to hear the life story of a random man in Rachel's office before she was actually ready to see us. She wasn't being rude, she was just busy with other people too. That flexibility with time and schedules was something that took some getting used to.

I used this style again to about the same effect in the first half of my post on Friends and Sindiwe Magona, where I recorded a conversation with the owner of the cafe Friends. I ended up going back there a number of times. Also, interestingly enough, this conversation was also the result of a last-minute schedule change. Coincidence?

The final Chatwin-esque post I wrote was Library Boys, about some boys who came to talk to me one day in the library. This conversation had a lot of really interesting elements to it that I thought were worth drawing attention to: themes that I encountered daily, and that I think say a lot about South African culture. First was the obvious fact that I stood out wherever I went, as a white American, which motivated these boys to talk to me in the first place. Then the unending friendliness of everyone, and their eagerness to make conversation, no matter how inappropriate it may seem in a given setting or situation (like a library). The language barrier was there as well, something I had to wrestle with daily, and conversely the impressive multilingualism of many South Africans: this boy spoke 4 languages fluently (I met another young man from Zimbabwe who spoke 6: 5 African tongues and English, with plans to tackle Afrikaans next). Two more subtle elements to this conversation were the racial awareness that is always there in South Africa - this boy explained to me that he was coloured without my asking, as he considered it an important enough part of his identity that he included it in even this casual introduction - and the concern that people always expressed for my safety, especially when I was traveling in non-white areas of town (as he left he told me to be careful on the public taxis). To have all these elements thrown into this conversation without accompanying analysis and explanation I think is a far better representation of the way they exist in the cultural context of South Africa. Things like the racial awareness are constantly there, but not in such a way that it's shocking or calling attention to itself - it's just there and it feels natural.

The difficult thing with writing in Chatwin's style was the dialogue. I haven't used dialogue in my writing since my last creative writing course in 7th grade, and it's far more difficult than I expected. I had a very hard time making the conversations sound natural, and it was impossible to capture the unique accents and different ways of speaking that these people had. It would be much easier if I could say, "Read with a black South African accent, strong fluency in English" or "Read with a British white South African accent" before each line. I certainly have a new appreciation for writers of novels and other dialogue-rich literature.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sublime and Ecotourism: Richard Bangs

Apparently I'm not the only one who's been making connections between ecotourism and the sublime. Richard Bangs, an old man who's called "the father of modern adventure travel" by, has produced a TV series called Adventures with Purpose in conjunction with KCTS (the Seattle PBS station I grew up with), and in one segment of this show he traveled to Switzerland in search of the sublime. Though I'm a little bitter that he stole my idea shortly before I came up with it, this trailer is a nice overview of the sublime side of ecotourism. He even brings in Percy Shelley, who I quoted months ago in my exploration of the sublime. I'd be interested to see the whole video.

Experience through Wordle

Wordle: Experience Africa
I've compiled all the text from 26 randomly chosen travel brochures I picked up in gas stations, tourist information centers and park offices from East London to Cape Town and put them into a Wordle to show the most common words found in these brochures. The big winner? 'Experience,' which was used 45 times in these 26 brochures. This was closely followed by 'game,' at 41. Some other top scorers: Africa (27), African (21), safari (22), unique (20), free (19), forest (15), nature (14), enjoy (13), wild (13), wildlife (12), great (12), and conservation (11). The top animals were elephant (17), cheetah (15) and ostrich (14).

This is a very small sampling of brochures, even out of my own collection, but I did find it interesting that the top word was Experience. They're not advertising just to see or do things, but to experience them. There is also clearly an emphasis on game and nature based tourism, which greatly dominate the mainstream South African tourism industry.

I'm sure there must be a way to make this Wordle image bigger without it looking blurry, but it's not working for me. If someone knows the trick, please share. As is, you can click on it to see the full-size image.

Eco-Schools (LOVE)

One of the most exciting things I was able to find in my time in South Africa was the Eco-Schools Programme, an international awards program for environmental management, certification, and sustainable development in schools, clubs and education centers. It is overseen by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) in Europe, and implemented in South Africa by WESSA, so in my short time volunteering with them I was able to get a glimpse into this wonderful program. As a whole-hearted, vehement supporter of environmental education in every shape and form, I think Eco-Schools is exactly the kind of program that should be in schools around the world; and frankly, that's the direction they're headed: as of October 2009, the program was being implemented in 47 countries around the world, involving 30,000 schools, 8 million students, 400,000 teachers and 4,000 local authorities (according to Eco-Schools USA). The U.S. is a new-comer to the program, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation since December 2008, with about 380 participating schools. South Africa has been involved in Eco-Schools since 2003, and has nearly 1,150 schools participating.

Here's an overview of how the program works, according to the Evaluation of the Eco-Schools South Africa Programme, prepared by Eureta Rosenberg on behalf of WESSA, WWF-SA and C.A.P.E. (Cape Action for People and the Environment):

In South Africa, schools which register with the Programme must:
· Audit environmental conditions and resource use at their school
· Implement projects to improve their environmental conditions and resource use
· Conduct environmental education lessons; and
· Report annually on their progress to the Eco-Schools coordinators, who convene panels of experts to assess the schools’ work.
Lessons can be conducted in any subject and topics include wise use of resources, habits for healthy living, and caring for each other and the earth. Popular projects in rural and urban areas are food gardens, bringing back indigenous biodiversity, wetland - or soil rehabilitation, recycling and measures to conserve water and energy. Each environmental improvement must be maintained, even as new ones are introduced in subsequent years of registration.

I had the opportunity to help evaluate some of the Eco-Schools portfolios to help determine whether they merited an award for their work throughout the year, and I was really impressed by the efforts some of these schools were making toward environmental sustainability and awareness. One small, rural school I evaluated had done a project focused around a river which ran alongside their school. The water from this river was gathered by some people for drinking or cooking, but women also washed clothes in it and some students were spotted using it as a toilet, while pollution and litter were inhibiting the water's flow and causing stagnancy. Teachers in the school recognized the health risks the current state of the river could cause to the students, wildlife and the whole community, and they decided to use the Eco-Schools program to do something about it. The students took a field trip to the river and worked together with teachers to identify pollutants and their sources, then determine ways to reduce pollution and rehabilitate the river and its habitats. They incorporated lessons in biology, math, health and other subjects to take an interdisciplinary approach to the problem, and then the students took what they learned home to their parents, and as a result to the whole community. This becomes so much more than a school lesson or a quick project by a few community members: it spreads awareness and reform through the entire community and makes real, tangible change a possibility.

That's what really makes me excited about the Eco-Schools program: it teaches environmental education through practice. It shows students, schools and the community that taking steps to help the environment actually helps themselves, by saving money, improving health, and allowing them to become more self-sustaining. It encourages students and teachers to undertake projects themselves, giving them ownership and increasing the likelihood that the projects will continue for years to come. It requires commitment and drive from all those involved, but has really amazing benefits for those who are willing to do the work.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints

In my perusal of Aidan's collections I paid special attention to nature brochures, and found a number from the 1970s or '80s advertising nature reserves. Two carried the tag-line "take only pictures, leave only footprints," which I've found in a number of modern pamphlets and brochures, including one for the Nahoon Estuary Nature Reserve ("take only pictures and memories, leave only footprints") and which is even mentioned in my Ecotourism and Sustainable Development textbook by Martha Honey as a "catchy phrase" often used in "mainstream ecotourism" or "ecotourism lite" (page 62). These kinds of phrases invoke a feeling of preservation and of having a low impact, but without actually committing to anything specific. It brings up a common issue that arises in nature tourism, which is distinguishing between the organizations and facilities that sound green and responsible, and those that actually are. This doesn't mean that all organizations using these "catchy phrases" should be immediately mistrusted - the Nahoon Estuary has done a really great job, for instance - but they also shouldn't be immediately labeled as shining examples of sustainability. I'm going to address this issue more fully in a future post.

I kept my eyes open for anything that might be classified as ecotourism in Aidan's collection, but other than some "ecotourism lite" like that mentioned above I didn't see anything. The emphasis on community benefit, involvement and empowerment which is so essential to ecotourism is something that even today can be difficult to find in marketing materials, and environmental effects and efforts beyond general nature conservation (which is essential for the survival of nature tourism) can be difficult to determine.

One booklet that caught my interest went into detail about a nature reserve's battles for conservation, their failures due to poor management, and their final victory through a collaboration of scientists, managers and community members. What it described was the same kind of environmental challenge being faced today by many natural areas in South Africa and around the world: struggles against development and poor land use, political battles for funding and recognition, fights to save endangered species and diminished/diminishing habitats, and efforts to get the community to care and to become involved. It's encouraging to know that East London was already taking such strides for conservation so many years ago, but it's also a bit discouraging to see how many of these same problems are faced today, and how many remain without solutions.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Aidan: A Link to the Past

Image source: This is a 1925 image of Orient Beach, which is adjacent to Eastern Beach. You can find more pictures like this at their website. I was unable to find any online images from the 1950s like the one I've described below.
Image 2: Eastern Beach in 1907
Image 3: a man selling candy on the esplanade above Eastern Beach. Source:
Image 4: Eastern Beach in 2008. Source:

I found Aidan one day when I was sitting in Wendy's Book Lounge, reading, writing and talking to Cornelius as I so often do. Cornelius introduced me as one of his girls, as he always does, and Aidan and I started talking about my research. As it turns out, Aidan is quite involved in the nature tourism industry: his family owns a tour operation in the northern part of the country and he's put considerable effort into following what's happening in it, and is even looking into starting some sort of a tour company of his own. We talked while he browsed the shelves around us: about how the Eastern Cape has a lot of under-utilized potential for tourism; how there's a lack of continuity between areas of the province, left over from the Apartheid-era homeland separation; and how the marketing in the Eastern Cape just hasn't been as effective as in other parts of the country. He also brought up the issue of safety, how many people still have misgivings about traveling to South Africa because of its reputation of being dangerous and crime-ridden -- though if you just take the right precautions, he says, it can be as safe as anywhere else. He had a lot to say and clearly could say more, so he told me I could stop by some day and talk to him again.

A week later I was able to go to Aidan's home to talk to him further, along with Diana, who had met Aidan independently, and wanted to see his collection of old postcards of Oxford Street. He invited us right into his home and introduced us to his wife and two children, the older of whom was 10, about my sister's age. Diana and I were offered tea and muffins as Aidan went into the back to find us what might interest us in his collections. He came back with books and boxes full of postcards and business information for Diana and travel brochures for me. These were really fascinating: pamphlets and brochures from the 70s, 50s and earlier, advertising East London and the surrounding area. The brochures for EL itself displayed a city drastically different from the one I've gotten to know so well. One brochure that looked as though it must have been from around 1950 gushed about the thousands of tourists that visited the city each year, drawn by what they termed "the safest beaches in the southern hemisphere," the "charming, bustling downtown," and the overall "family-friendly atmosphere." The pictures showed Orient and Eastern Beaches, beaches I've visited many times, covered with beach towels, umbrellas, and bikini-clad sunbathers, next to waters filled with laughing children and their proud and watchful parents. I wonder what those people would think if they were to see these places today. Eastern Beach is often covered with people, but they're mostly local and all black, except for the occasional white surfer or tourist from Sugarshack Backpacker's. This beach gives off the immediate sense of a party: everyone laughing and yelling, laying on the sand just in front of the surf and waiting for the waves to bowl them over, dressed in whatever they have at hand - jeans and t-shirts, dresses, underwear, once in a while an actual swimsuit. Tell-tale bottles and cans are typically strewn across the sand and boardwalk, signs of the last night's revelry and a preview for the upcoming evening. It's loud and eager and invigorating and alive, but certainly not the tame, tourist- and family-friendly site of 60 years ago. And not at all white like those picture-perfect families on the brochure.

I was also intrigued by the claims these brochures made about East London being a tourist hot-spot and favorite vacation destination for travelers from all over the world. Unless they were greatly exaggerating EL's popularity, something must have happened to take this city off the map. Or maybe nothing happened, and that's the problem - it just didn't keep up with the modernization and marketing happening in other parts of the country, and with nothing new or unique to offer, it eventually lost its draw. Now I'm curious to see the numbers for East London tourism. I've already tried to find them online to no avail, so I'll have to try emailing the tourism information office and see if they have anything to tell me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Journey to WESSA

Images: Above: Map of East London. Source:
Below: the Boxer taxi rank. Source:

Within a few days of emailing WESSA I received a message back from Catherine Andersson, their project manager for environmental education, saying that she’d be interested in meeting me. We set up a date and I went about finding the way to Beacon Bay, where their office is located. For this I was able to use the expertise of Matt, who was here last year and was one of our teachers for the prep course. He used to stay in Beacon Bay, so he knew its taxi system well, and sent me a really helpful Google Map with stops labeled. I plotted out my route from the nearest stop to the WESSA office, about a 20 minute walk, and went through the whole route on the map until I was sure I could work it. Just in case any of you ever need to find your way from Devereux to WESSA, I’m going to take you through the step-by-step directions. You can also follow along on the Google Map.

1. Leave the house a couple hours before your appointment. Walk from home to Devereux street, wait until you see a taxi or hear one honking and point toward town (to the right). Listen for them to yell “Townie.” If they say “Mdantsane,” it’s going the other way. Don't get on that one.
2. When one pulls over, hop in. You may have to give the mamas a chance to shift over if it’s one of the smaller taxis; just squash in alongside them.
3. Pass up 6 rand to the yeller if you’re in a van or the driver in a car. It’s best to have exact change. If you’re in the back, just tap the person in front of you and they’ll pass your change forward.
4. The taxi takes you along Oxford Street. A couple streets before Gladstone, around City Hall, call out “Absa 2” or “2nd Absa,” and they’ll stop at the corner of Gladstone, next to an Absa bank. Cross Oxford and head down Gladstone until you find a store called Boxer, surrounded by taxis going in all directions. This is the Boxer taxi rank.
5. Right across from the Boxer there’s a parking lot with a few rows of taxis. If you stand there for a moment, someone will ask you where you’re headed, or you can just go up to one of the men who are yelling and pointing authoritatively. Tell him Bonza, Bonza Bay, or Beacon Bay (or a combination of the three until he gets what you mean), and he’ll point you where you need to go. It should be the van nearest the street. Jump in and hope it fills quickly. Avoid the vendors trying to sell you sweets, sunglasses and cell phones.
6. Once the taxi starts moving pass up your 6 rand, then just enjoy the trip. You’ll cross the Buffalo River, which is nice. When you’ve been going for a good while the caller or driver will ask something about Pick n Pay or Spargs, and you’ll want to say Spargs. Keep your eyes open for a retail park or mall with the sign that says Spargs, with a Super Spar inside it. This is your stop.
7. Cross the street to Spargs then continue in the direction you were driving until you reach Beaconhurst, then turn right.
8. Walk a while. This is a relatively quiet residential area, so you may feel uncomfortable after spending so much time on Oxford and Devereux. Just try to relax and enjoy the walk.
9. Turn left on Blue Bend road, and you’ll see the sign for WESSA, within the Nahoon Estuary Nature Reserve, which is called the Dassie Trail by most locals. Tell the people at the booth that you’re going to WESSA and you won’t have to sign in. You’ve arrived!

My meeting with Catherine went very well. I immediately felt at home in her office, surrounded by environmental messages and recycling bins. Unfortunately most of their activities are finished for the year, since schools were busy with exams, but she had a few things I could become involved with, including assessments of the Eco-Schools portfolios. She also got me in touch with Jakob and Paula, two young German volunteers who are working on setting up an environmental club at Inkwenkwezi High School in Mdantsane. I left very happy, but again wishing that I’d found WESSA sooner.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Discovering WESSA

Image credit:

I was walking through VP one day, minding my own business, when I saw a glowing radiance in front of me, in the form of a booth that WESSA, the Wilderness and Environment Society of South Africa, had set up. It was covered with beautiful posters and pamphlets about environmental education, stewardship, alternative energy, ecosystems, green efforts . . . all the things I love the most. I stood for a few minutes just admiring the booth and soaking up all its environmental goodness, so proud of VP for holding something so beautiful and wonderful, then gathered up a variety of newsletters and pamphlets from the table and set out to enjoy them. This is when I learned about all the great conservation efforts that WESSA is involved with, including the Eco-Schools Programme, which encourages and helps to fund environmental education and sustainability programs within local schools. I had no idea that such a thing existed here in South Africa, but I immediately decided that I wanted to get involved. So I stopped off at the internet across from VP and emailed the local chapter of WESSA to show my interest, then went to their website to find out more.

As it turns out, WESSA has been around since 1926, and has the vision "to achieve a South Africa which is wisely managed by all to ensure long-term environmental sustainability" ( They're involved in all kinds of projects from wetland protection to beach clean-ups to environmental education, and produce publications for adults and children which spread environmental awareness and give ways to get involved with community actions. It really is a wonderful organization. They're not small, either: there are 52 WESSA branches across South Africa, the nearest one in Beacon Bay, which is in East London just past Nahoon. This is exactly the kind of organization I'd been looking for since before I arrived in South Africa, and it just makes me so happy to know that one really exists, and has an office so close to where I stay. I only wish that I'd found them earlier.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Political Dealings

Image: Zero Mostel as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

There are a lot of things that are very similar between American and South African culture, but one thing that is distinctly different is politics. It’s always a challenge to understand what’s going on in politics in my own country, much less in other parts of the world, but I’m always eager to learn more about South African government and politics, and as such was excited when Kathy and Cornelius invited us to a meeting of the Unity Movement, a political movement they’re involved with. They have their issues with the movement, believing that they’re not moving anywhere, and will never get anything done unless they drastically change their approach. I’m not entirely sure about the principles upheld by this group, or what makes them different, but they are a bit socialist, and are against government corruption, inequality, and so on. When we arrived they told us that we were going to start off with a movie on slavery, so I quickly steeled myself for intense documentary of human trafficking, or History Channel special on the slave trade, or something heavy like that. Instead, when he put in the DVD it broke out in loud, cheesy music. We were watching A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical. Not at all what I was expecting. It does have to do with slavery – it follows a slave, Pseudolus, as he works out a wild plot to buy his freedom, and involves various people enslaved in different ways – in marriage, prostitution, and under the eyes of strict parents, as well as traditional enslavement. It was funny, though somewhat raunchy and terribly irreverent.

After the movie finished we had a long discussion about the themes it held and how they can apply to the members of the group, as students and professionals living, gaining an education, and working in South Africa. I was actually really impressed with the heavy themes and connections they made from this ridiculous movie, extracting very serious ideas about gender, enslavement and inequality from the most obscure scenes. The main idea of the discussion ended up being about how they as non-white South Africans face a kind of enslavement through the limitations that government, culture and even their own perceptions and psychological limitations have placed upon them. The conversation ranged from the definition of freedom within a democratic society and the question of whether personal freedoms have to be sacrificed for the good of the whole, to specific issues like the low quality of public education and health care, the ever-present issues of government corruption, and the need for bank reform. One of the men talked about how even though Apartheid had ended things had not necessarily improved – huge problems still exist within the government and people still don’t have equal opportunities, but the sense of community is lost. During Apartheid people came together in their protest against the government, unified and driven, but today they have become complacent, and simply accept government inadequacies rather than rising up against them. What I wanted through all of this was to hear the solutions, which is the same issue that Kathy and Cornelius have voiced about this group. Anyone can name off the problems that exist within government, and there are always plenty to choose from, but it doesn’t do you any good unless you have solutions to those problems, or alternatives that would lessen these problems in the future. And once you have those solutions and alternatives, you need to get them outside of your own group and into the public eye, so that you have the possibility of actually creating change.

After the discussion we moved into the other room and split up into separate tables, the official meeting over, though the conversations all around were still coming off of the same vein. I ended up talking to Cornelius and another man about American politics, describing the major differences between Democrats and Republicans but explaining that, in the end, we’re always in essentially the same place. It was a long night filled with a lot of heavy discussion – we had arrived at 7:30 and didn’t leave until midnight. I really enjoyed it though; I always like to talk politics.

Chicken Livers?!

Image credit: Above: Chicken livers. Source:
Below: Freshpak, the least expensive and best rooibos tea (and the kind Janie bought).

One night we went out to see Auntie P. in Parkside, as we often do, and she made for us her specialty: chicken livers. It was one of those nights when I was very happy to be vegetarian. Actually, I have a lot of those nights. She heated a bit of vegetable curry for me while she cooked the livers. They’re not such an uncommon ingredient here in South Africa, and come in a plastic container like cottage cheese. AP poured a few cups of vegetable oil into a frying pan then added the reddish meat, letting it soak up the oil and slowly fry as she chopped up the pieces with a spatula. I didn’t watch too closely; I’ve never liked meat preparation. It makes the actual identity of the meat much too clear. A few minutes later, after constant stirring and simmering, she scooped the oily brown meat into bowls – a solid bowlful for each person – and set them on the table, along with a loaf of bread. Everyone got to work, scooping the juicy mince onto bread and eating it in big mouthfuls. I followed suit, eating my curry in the same way, though its soupier texture made it more difficult, and I occasionally resorted to a spoon. It took a good five or six slices of bread for each person to finish off their whole bowl, and of course it was not an option to leave any food behind. I was happy to have vegetables in my meal, instead of pure bread and protein. As we ate we talked about other ‘unique’ South African meat dishes: walkie talkies, made of chicken feet and heads, and smiley – a sheep’s head. Apparently when you cook it, the lips spread into a grotesque smile. Again, I like my vegetarianism. Some people say I’m missing out on important pieces of South African culture, but I say there are some aspects of culture that really aren’t necessary to experience firsthand.

Later in the night, Janey, Macrae, Auntie P. and I had a long discussion about 7 de Laan, which has seen a lot of intense drama the last few days. It’s pretty useful being caught up on South Africa’s most popular soap opera. And, of course, we have a special connection to the cast, after meeting them at VP. It’s nice to sit there in the uncomfortable stools at the tall counter in AP’s small kitchen, just chatting and laughing and arguing about who’s stalking who and whether so-and-so is too old for Annelie.

We had a brief intermission as I went with Janey to the corner shop to get more Rooibos tea. This shop is on the next corner over from their house, and has all the basic necessities. A dog and a small crowd of kids were standing in the doorway, the dog being shooed absentmindedly by a distracted-looking woman, though it clearly wasn’t going to move. It’s a small shop, maybe 20x20, with all the merchandise stacked on shelves behind a metal cage and a woman sitting at the counter within the cage, behind a gap just big enough to pass parcels through. A couple very small kids were buying individual cigarettes, for parents I’m sure, and a few other women were standing in the open area and chatting. Janey went up to the counter and asked for rooibos, which the woman pulled down from a shelf and handed to her in exchange for a 10 rand note.

After tea, which is a must for any visit (with anyone), we all cuddled together on the well-worn, comfortably sagging couches and watched a bit of SA’s Got Talent in the TV room. The TV is a new addition – Auntie P talked about how, a year ago, they all got on without any TV and would just sit and talk together, but now they can’t survive without it. We all sighed over an incredibly talented 14-year-old boy flawlessly singing Alicia Keys, and stared open-mouthed at the young woman singing a song she had written entitled “The Pain,” complete with some lyrics in the language she invented herself. That poor girl, so sincere but so misguided.