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.