A Travellerspoint blog

June 2007

Travel Blog cum Soap Box

Warning, this is long, and disjointed, and semi-preachy, and potentially without a point, but perhaps still worth thinking about

(Sorry, thought I posted this long ago, never clicked publish. Will update soon on Zambian exploits and get some photos uploaded, I promise. Internet's slow in these parts, be patient. Also on a side note, as you've undoubtedly read being the loyal blog followers you are, my dear friend and one time travel companion has returned to the states. I've till got another month or two in Africa before I too will be forced to throw in my hat and return to those pesky responsibilities of normal life, like earning a living. I'll do my bet to keep up my end of the bargain over here in blog land but I can't make up for the burning vacancy we all feel in our hearts at the loss of Lauren's contributions, so just bare with me.)

I left South Africa with a mixture of incredible relief and incredible loss. As I said before, the country as a whole is ridiculously beautiful, but more than that, it's unbelievably complex and interesting. It's pulsating, it's dynamic, it's growing, and yes, it's dangerous. The job as it turns out, wasn't for me, and on May 23rd I hopped on a plane to paradise on the coast of Mozambique and left Johannesburg's cauldron of crime, its opulent suburbs, its vibrant sprawl of tin shack townships, its intoxicating sense of a city where anything can happen, behind. Before officially waving goodbye to South Africa though I had a one night return to the country to catch my flight to Zambia. I took advantage of the extra time and rented a car and headed west across the city in search of the Apartheid Museum.

After hours lost on the massive highways intersecting across the city, passing endless miles of townships without a single off ramp (one of the many legacies of the apartheid gov't is their carefully, maliciously calculated infrastructure designed to restrict movement by the black majority. The result is that many townships still lack access to the major arteries that would allow them to travel to other parts of the city), I finally arrived at my destination. Upon arrival I was surprised to see that the museum's parking lot was completely empty, but I was immediately happy I had come. The building is a beautiful modern design with interesting use of lines and water, once inside inside the design and presentation never failed to impress.

When I entered the museum I felt prepared for what was to come. I had read Mandela's book, I had had countless conversations with South Africans of different races and political opinions, I had mulled the facts over with fellow travelers, I felt that I was in a good position to process and handle the history that the museum would present. I wasn't. To say it was appalling would be a grave understatement. To watch the interviews with apartheid government officials as they lamented the hardships of having to "care" for black africans, claiming that without the white minority there, the people would run themselves into the ground. They waxed on and on about about how useless it is to give them education which they'll never use, "Why teach them math if God didn't intend that they should ever use it? Once they understand that their lot in life is one of servitude, once we teach them to value hard work and understand their place, they'll be much happier" they claimed.

Of course, what was worse than the mindset of the white minority was the way that it was acted upon. The savage abuse, the absence of rule of law, the complete lack of humanity that existed in that regime, it makes one question the entire idea of a common understanding of right and wrong. I saw video footage of police men with whips beating men, women and children during protests, beating them with so much hatred, so much unbridled animosity, it was terrifying. When I walked into the cells that were used to put political prisoners in solitary confinement - windowless cells just big enough for someone my height (5'5") to lie down on the floor, but not to spread my arms out - I got chills. That humans put other humans who had committed no crime other than believe that they are equal to those of other skin tones in such conditions is unfathomable. That this happened so recently and the world let it, that my own government refused to impose even economic sanctions until the 11th hour, is just too awful.

I left the museum feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. Of course there are modern and historic atrocities on far larger and more destructive scale, but the length of time this went on, the systematic approach, the maliciousness of the planning, and I guess the familiarity of South Africa's social culture to my own, somehow made this part of our living history harder to swallow.

On my way back from the museum I drove for hours, lost in Johannesburg trying to find a place to stay. At one point, I took a wrong turn off and found myself scared out of my mind at a stop light, at night, in one of the worst parts of the city. I kept thinking of a description I had heard that compared driving into downtown Joberg to "crawling into the belly of the beast." There's no better way to describe it. As I compulsively checked and rechecked my doors were locked, gripped my pepper spray, and prayed frantically under my breath for the light to change, I was looking around me thinking about the people that have to live there in that environment, mostly immigrants from nearby countries, people who are fleeing their own country's terrors, thinking about how unfair it is. Thinking about the fact that I could guarantee that in a 5 mile radius I was sure to be the only white person stuck in such a dangerous situation, thinking about all the other white people, sitting cosily behind their electric wire fences and guarded security gates, sitting in large homes with beautiful shade trees on quiet streets, thinking about how completely unjust it all is. I was angry I was there, angry I was scared, angry that the people who in many ways deserve to feel fear, rarely have to face it.

I guess what keeps nagging at me about the South African situation is that somehow I had always believed that everyone has something inside them that tells them the difference between just and unjust, that what is "fair" is in a way intrinsic to us as humans. Even monkeys know when equal treatment is not being given and will routinely refuse food if it is not as good as the treats his neighbor is given. How is it possible that in our modern world, an entire population of people, a whole race if that's what Afrikaners can be called, came to be without an internal moral compass (granted there were surely those who did have objections, and of course if you ask now, there's not a single white person in South Africa who admits to voting for the apartheid government for its 48 years of power, but still). I just keep wondering how is it possible that anyone could drive from their mansion with lush surroundings and beautiful views past the disease filled poverty stricken masses in cardboard and tin shacks and think "this is right," how could anyone dare claim that there is a God that could approve of this? An Afrikaner woman I met told me with a smile on her face that during the apartheid era her grandfather used to always say that "Only the angels in heaven live better than the Boers of South Africa." She looked happy, remembering a lost era of grandeur. All I could think was "how could you?"

Since then I've been thinking more about this question. I recalled a British woman I met in S.Af who was married to an Afrikaner man. Starved for conversation with another foreigner she quickly released her frustrations about living in what she felt was an incredibly misogynistic and racist environment. She then asked a question that surprised me "Is America really as racist as it is here, is it as racist as we see on t.v.?" I was taken aback. I had been horrified by the continued segregation in South Africa, by the poor living conditions of the black majority, by the racist attitudes that the white minority - who in my opinion owe their lives in large part to the black majority who gave them undeserved peace and forgiveness following the transition. I had never imagined that my own country could ever be compared on the same level. My immediate reaction was "No! No, not at all. We're not like this. We're not racists. We're the land of equality, of justice. Even though there are racist people in America, society doesn't accept it as they do here..." The more I explained though, the less convinced I became. Am I treading along a well worn path of white liberal delusion?Am I kidding myself about the realities of my own country because none of my friends would ever judge someone on something as arbitrary as the color of their skin? I thought about who my friends are, how representative that is. I work with refugees, my best friends also work with refugees, or in inner city schools, or with people with disabilities. My family's not racist but then again we grew up in Vermont - there are no black people. It's not even a topic of conversation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how out of touch my world in America is from the reality.

Sure, people of color are not living in shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. And yes, our obsession with political correctness ensures that people do not express opinions of racist nature, at least not in public. And yes we've taken strides, we're making headway in our country in terms of race relations and representative government. But on the ground can we really claim to have a nation built on equality when the people building the nation, the people laying the cement, cleaning the floors, picking up the trash, providing domestic labor, washing the dishes, working in the factories, are all people of color? I live in a country where between 65% and 85% of the prison population consists of people of color, where in supposedly "liberal" states like California, a young black male is statistically more likely to go to prison than to a state college, where 24.7% of black families live in poverty (as compared to a mere 8.7% of non-hispanic whites). Knowing this, I am forced to stop asking myself "how could they?" and start asking "how could we?"

Now, I'm not entirely naive. It's not as though I've never thought about this before or that it's just now occurring to me that race relations in America are far from equal. I work with newly arrived refugees, I see this inequity day in and day out in my country, I've had countless conversations with friends and colleagues and fellow travelers about the ills of America, but seeing it through the foil of the South African context somehow showed it in a different light. I think for the first time it made me truly angry - not angry about a single injustice, a single racist joke, or single ill treatment of someone I care about, but angry about the entire thing. Angry I'm not doing something more to change it. Angry that the vast majority of white America doesn't feel a responsibility in anyway to do something to change it. I hope that if nothing else, South Africa has instilled in me a strong enough aversion to complacency that I use this anger productively when I return home to the states. And I hope that I, and other travelers traipsing about the globe learning about other people's problems and pitying their situations, remember from time to time what they say about people in glass houses, and look at how it relates to our own countries.

Posted by Ivory 02:10 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

The End of an Era

But. I. Don't. Wanna. Go. Home. Yet.

As it turns out...I'm being forced to go home today.

Last day in Paris...
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Ahhh "Charade." I really hope one or two of you out there get my references...
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Well perhaps not forced. I'm getting on a plane to go back home and see family and friends and start my dream job and all that jazz. But still. My bribing days are ending. And a huge part of me is just not ready to go. I suppose that's to be expected. After 9 months of gallivanting around the world doing whatever I damn well pleased, I must join you mere mortals. I have to go home, start work, earn a pay check, buy a cell phone, find an apartment, gather things to furnish said apartment with, get up everyday at 5am, earn a living, pay taxes, visit the dentist and work towards a more stable future.

But why the hell would anyone want to do a thing like that?

It's the end of an era. And in honor of this occasion, I give you my bribing numbers. Travel statistics, for the true blog nerds:

Journeys...
(Defined as two or more hours, intercity travel is not included.)

(I’m a woman of the sea, you know...) By boat: 3
Plane: 21
Train: 43
Bus: 44
Auto: 5

Countries visited: 20 (nothing like the Vatican to pad the stats...)
Cities/Towns graced with an overnight stay: 86
Days of Bribing: 260

Assorted bribing classics...
Kotor. Go to Montenegra. Really. It's the new...something.
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The hills are, in fact, alive.
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Ali and Beth at the Pantheon.
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Lost in translation...watch for children in bows?
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Petra, one of the lovelier places on earth:
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Doing the Titanic pose in Mcleod Ganj for unknown reasons:
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Hidden talent discovered while bribing:
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Bohinj! Always a crowd pleaser.
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Number of times forced to sing along drunkenly to “Me and My Bobby McGee” with a man who had no business playing the guitar: 4. That’s right. 4. In one night. No. Really.

Number of times threatened with Bulgarian jail as my sister screamed “corruption!” and “you are bad people” at said menacing cops: 1

Number of momos purchased for me in hopes that I get into the old lady nightie: 1 (Thank you Sarah. What are best friends for?)

Number of Ipods ruined by the travel gods: 3

Pairs of underwear that survived the journey: 3. It's been tough out there.

Song most played on our only surviving Ipod: “Night Shift.” Ahhh the Commodores. Say you will. Sing your song. Forever more.

Lives up to your expectations: balloon rides. The Great Wall. Japanese toilets.

Most depressing revelation: there are no dill pickles in Israel. Entirely a New York invention. It's a nation of sweet gherkins. Devastating.

Universal take-away: Doesn't matter what continent, country, culture, age frame, size, shape or mother-tongue...men everywhere are the most unmitigated shits when they put their minds to it. (Dear random hostile Canadian reader: don't get upset. Embrace said universal truth. I've got sketchy hissers in Egypt, molesters in India, essentially all older Western men visiting Thailand, pedophiles in France...really. Don't even get me started.)

Now, I could go into a sentimental ramble about beauty and truth and finding myself on the open road. I could quote Whitman and wax poetic about great life lessons and the soulless nature of American life.

But I don't want to be that guy.

I was going to reward you all with the tale of Pete the Parasite. That's right. Being loyal readers and loving bribers, I was hoping to grant you the E True Hollywood Story: The Rise and Fall (and rise and fall) of Pete the Perennial Parasite. Two things stopped me:

1. I was informed that perhaps it was in poor taste to put the sordid details of your sister's parasite protrusion on the internet for the world to see.
2. The comedic millage I'm going to get out of this story will last a lifetime. Alison's incredible discomfort is small potatoes considering the hilarity we can share with others. It's about spreading joy in the world. And I'm quite positive that this is a story that is best enjoyed in an oral retelling. (Which sounds dirty, given that we are talking about bodily functions, but isn't.) I am currently penciling people in...but it's filling up fast. Best to inquire as soon as possible. Can't underestimate how good this story is. All the comedic elements are there: parasites, rubber gloves, skittish doctors, language mix ups...classic.

In lieu of Pete, just a quick word.

So grateful to everyone who made this year possible. My family, for not only encouraging me but joining up along the way. Sarah for proposing it in the first place. Ali for all that she does...reading maps and fending off touts and hooking me on historical romance novels. The Flanigans for making me laugh so hard I choke. Beth and Crystal who joined us and were always ready for adventure. And to everyone else along the way who sent advice, provided much needed cheer, humored our linguistic deficiencies, pointed us in the right direction, gave us a place to stay and a bathroom to use or a conversation when we were just desperate to talk.

Attempted to write something that conveyed just how amazing the year has been. How much I've grown, changed, learned. Can't seem to do it without sounding trite and contrived. But I did find something in my journal, dated September 21st, the day the journey began. It read: "Scared to death. No idea what possessed me to do this. But I guess it's just going to have to be a leap of faith...not just in the world, but in myself."

We've come a long way baby.

Signing off for now. Safe and happy travels, wherever you are.

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"Ithaca is all along the way." -NM

Posted by lbassi 17:52 Comments (1)

Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men

and all that jazz...

I meant to put this up months ago, but what with traveling the world and all, I forgot. I know...I understand that you all spend your days alone in your cubicle, itching for new posts, hitting refresh at a veracious speed in hopes that the blogging gods might smile upon you. I'm also clear on the fact that I'm going back to said life in T-3 days and thus should put some good blogging karma into the world. Let's just say I suck and move on.

Anyway, on to the matter at hand. Sarah and I glimpsed hope for world peace back in February.

And we forgot to tell you.

I was going to let it go...but I watched CNN today. After 20 minutes of being bombarded with suicide bombings, bus surfing deaths, honor killings, refugee camps and the end of the world as we know it, I thought I'd put a little hope out there.

That's right my friends. I come to spread the good word. There can be peace on earth. Good will towards men. Teaching the world to sing, in perfect harmony. Taking it in my arms. Keeping it company. (Is that reference about 10 years before my time? Not sure.)

In Punjab, you can actually travel from Amristar up to the Pakistani border. If you time it right, you end up there at dusk, when the flags come down on both sides. Many people were nervous when they heard we would be visiting the infamous border. These two countries despise each other. On the verge of war from time to time. Who knows when we will wake up and find ourselves in the midst of a massive nuclear war brought on by these two countries...if America doesn't beat them to it, of course.

Thus, this optimism was entirely unexpected.

I now give you my own pathetic attempt to do this justice:

We arrived around 5pm, were offered chi, flags, video recordings of the event and other such treats before being herded along some barb wire. Suddenly were turned a corner and there it was...

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That's right. Bleachers. Huge, full-stadium bleachers.

I turned to my traveling companions. This was the India/Pakistan border, yes? Not a football or cricket match? I was assured that we were, in fact, at the right place. We took a seat and the pre-gaming began. A man with a megaphone, a powerful set of lungs and a dream began chants, songs and other throughly enjoyable activities. On the other side, Pakistan broke out their loud speaker and attempted to chant over my Indian compatriots. Within 10 minutes, refreshments were served in order to salvage the vocal cords that were being strained around me.

Then the flags were broken out. Not the official flag, mind you. Just a few that they handed out to strong, determined looking young men who were falling over each other desperate to be picked for flag waving/running honors. Careful selection took place. The fittest took their place. A roar went up.

They ran to the gate. The roar became louder.

They came back. It was deafening.

Repeat. 15 times. Then hand off flags to alternate eager fellows in the stand. Inspiring. Really.

Finally, the real show begins. Out come the soldiers with their strange uniforms and ridiculous hats. Baffling knee-altering walks commence. You might call it a march, but I think that's being generous. Soldiers from both sides waddled up to the fancy iron gate, both of which bear their country's flag. With precise coordination, almost complicity, a choreographed lowering of the flags begins. Literally. Millisecond by millisecond. Millimeter by millimeter. The most exact, equal movements of lowering. Indian soldiers jerk at their flag. 5 seconds later, the Pakistanis have countered, the same motion, same distance. It's like a border ceremony for the anal retentive.

(Found a few videos of it for your enjoyment. Thoroughly entertaining stuff if you have a free moment...)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FhFNKtjWEc
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5407119265552473297&q=indian+pakistan+border+ceremony&hl=en
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8pisv0i9bE

An awkward acknowledgment. The flag is handed off. At the exact same time, equal numbers of soldiers from both sides waddle back to the stands.

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Crowds cheer. They stand. Smile. Wave. And file out to their cars and rickshaws to go home. Peacefully. Happily. Quietly, at least for India standards.

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(Please zoom in on the small sign in the background. That's right. It says "Welcome to India, the largest democracy in the world." Hmmm...)

For being one of the more absurdly executed ceremonies I've ever seen, it was orchestrated with the full intent of being equal, coordinated and absolutely without incident.

Now really. If these two nations can end each day with a ceremony that has less animosity than your average Yankee/Red Sox series, I ask you...

Is there not hope for peace on earth? Goodwill towards men?

Sweet dreams everyone. No fear. These young fellas are on the job.
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Posted by lbassi 15:38 Archived in France Comments (0)

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