Photo credit: Diana Pratt. Diana is a photography student and one of my roommates here in South Africa.
East London is wonderful. I arrived Monday evening and have been very busy since then meeting the city and its people. Some highlights of the week, thus far:
Monday: As soon as I stepped off the plane I knew I would like East London. It was windy, but just the right kind of windy - the kind with the ocean in it. I am always happiest when I'm near an ocean. The humidity was perfect, the sky blue, the trees green, and the people friendly. And it was so nice to know I didn't have to visit another airport until November. I had flown from San Francisco to South Africa with Brit, one of my fellow Field Studies students; it had been a very long 35 hours. We were met at the airport by Diana, another student who had arrived on Sunday, and Macrae, our facilitator. Macrae has spent a total of seven months in EL so far, and officially graduated from BYU yesterday. We also met Kathy Thomas, our new host mom, who was very talkative and welcoming. She showed us out to the cars, laughed when I almost got in on the wrong side, and drove away. That first ride through the city was fabulous. It was rush hour, so people were jaywalking and hailing taxis all over the place. The area is absolutely beautiful, and I was stunned by the Buffalo River, which is wide and powerful and lined by incredibly green trees. Then it empties into the Indian ocean, which is an ocean, so of course it's wonderful. Downtown was bustling and the traffic a little frightening, but it was all beautifully real. Then we reached Kathy and Cornelius Thomas' home, where we'll be spending the next three months. The house is beautiful and tastefully decorated. The four of us (Brit, Diana, Macrae and I) have out own section of the house with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. We have everything we would at home, except for Wi-fi and a shower. I'll have to get used to taking baths again.
Tuesday: Macrae planned to take us around to familiarize us with East London: the taxis, the major streets, stores, culture. The day did not really go as planned. Diana had a meeting at 9am with a woman named Rachel from the East London Museum. Diana's project focuses around Oxford Street, one of the main streets through town, and she was using Rachel to learn some of the history of the street. Macrae, Diana and I went for the meeting and were told to come back at eleven. When we did, it was another hour before Rachel was able to talk with us. When she did she was very friendly. She showed us pictures of her recent hike through some caves at Nahoon, which were very interesting but didn't have much to do with what we'd come for. Then she showed Diana what she needed - books and pictures of Oxford Street's past. As Diana looked through them, Rachel shared stories and facts about East London's past and present, especially about the mix of cultural influences which have formed the city: English, German, Dutch, Irish, and of course Xhosa. Another staff member came in and talked to us about our projects. He talked to me about the incredible ecosystems within East London and along the coast, which survive largely on account of how inaccessible the coastline is. East London is unique in just how healthy these ecosystems are, despite the influence of the city. He said ecotourism is certainly a nice idea, but that it's all talk with no action; though he also said that the ability of tourists to add value to a natural area can certainly help to protect that area from development. And tourists, he said, are far less destructive than cement rollers. I was also able to talk to Rachel's boss, Geraldine, who said that the greatest thing about EL is that it has remained relatively undiscovered as a tourist destination. This has preserved its identity and integrity.
Thursday: We visited some of Macrae's old friends in Parkside: Auntie P., her daughter Janie, and her son Jaleel. Parkside is a coloured area, and apparently isn't a place you'd want to be alone or at night. Coloured people are part-black and part-white, and speak Afrikaans. The Thomas's are also coloured. This family was very enthusiastic about meeting us, and Auntie was quite talkative. I think I'll like them. I talked to J- about my project, and he scoffed a bit when I explained ecotourism. He said it couldn't work, where tourism would actually benefit the local environment and people. Auntie talked to us about the civil service strike which is going on now. So far it has included nurses and teachers, so many of the hospitals are horribly understaffed and the public schools have been closed. She said it has expanded to include some taxi drivers, and may spread to the police force as well. Auntie finds it very exciting. She's a teacher, and believes that it's an outrage how little they are paid. She sees this as a historic time, and that if people keep bonding together, striking and pushing their demands, the government will have to meet them. Her face got more and more excited as she talked about her part in the strike and the rallies, and her conviction that she was contributing to a changed South Africa. It was interesting hearing all this after talking to Kathy, who is also a teacher, about the same issue. Kathy hates the strikes. She thinks they will only hurt the students, and cannot accomplish anything for the teachers. The government will say they are willing to pay teachers more, but it will never happen, and the students will be left behind. She goes to work every day, is unable to do anything, and is sent home early.