Tuesday, February 28, 2006

You've Got to be Kidding

I'm sitting in the Marhaba Lounge in Dubai, slightly delirious. There was a screaming child across the aisle from me for about five hours, and the Italian middle-aged "gentleman" next to me believed it was his birthright to place his large arm over the armrest and into my rib. He then promptly fake slept all the while elbowing me more sharply. I love the Emirates flight attendants- most are porcelain-skinned with really dramatic red lipstick. They all wear tight chignons, although in an odd fashion choice, seem forced to wear red scrunchies. Upon departure and landing, they don red velvet pillbox hats with a white chiffon scarf draping one side of their face.

Enter Dubai International Airport. Gold palm trees. Flashing lights. Strange men sleeping on the floor. I feel feverish and delusional and have just finished "Under the Banner of Heaven." At this point in my exhaustion, I'm ready to receive a revelation from the Prophet Moroni (this book is fabulous and about Mormon Fundamentalism and the juxtaposition between religious fervor and rationale).

Two more hours until an even longer flight to Jo'burg. The Sunday Times (www.sundaytimes.co.za) claims that a prolonged electricity crash, maybe complete infrastructural breakdown, is imminent in South Africa.

I want to work but it is sometime in the middle of the night and the call to prayer is really loud. I tried to surf my favorite blog about interchangeable jappy chicks (http://ijc.typepad.com) but received this intimidating message on my browser:
"We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates." So sorry for my cultural imperialism...

Monday, February 27, 2006

My Life in Perspective

I am doing some dissertation reading and cannot stop my thoughts from spiralling out of context and out of bounds of the given tasks. Some days AIDS is my dissertation topic, the source of stress and a data logic complexity. Other days it feels like a calling. Some days I can write endlessly on viral treatments, other days the words refuse to come out. So today, I need to borrow from someone else--- someone more afflicted, more kind, more apt to literally scoop up dying children who everyone scorns, not just read about them.

April 2004, Sister Priscilla Dlamini, a 55-year old nurse of Gingindlovu, South Africa:
Sister Priscilla opened the Holy Cross AIDS Hospice because so many people dying from AIDS were being left in the sugar cane fields by their families for clinic workers to find. She reminds, "People come home from Durban and other cities to die. But relatives do not accept them. They chase them away or dump them on the edge of the sugar cane plantations and we go around picking them up and bring them here. Some of the dying children arrive at the hospice with nothing, not even identification documents. We give them a stone to hold before they die, and tell the children, 'your mother held this stone.'"

I want to tell a small white lie and give a dying child some comfort.

Intellectually, I understand how people fear disease and still believe, much against the face of scientific evidence, that HIV can be transmitted through the air or through sharing food or through hugging your child. But even if I was scared and ashamed, I'd like to think that I wouldn't abandon my child to die alone, starving, in a sugar cane field.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

That Is So Revolting

Much to my surprise, it's been confirmed that I acutally have some loyal readers on this blogosphere, including some long-time close friends and their mothers. So I will try to write within the bounds of decency and only shed light on interesting South African social phenomena. BUT... I am currently holidaying/working in Northern Italy (yes, I know, tough life) and thus the departure from regular African blogging. I'm sitting in an Internet Cafe near Torino watching in fascination as all these adolescent boys download porn in an open, public space. There is like no shame whatsoever involved with these transactions--- in fact, one appears to be sharing a computer with his sister. I am glaring at them and hence am the prude of the bunch.

OK, one funny story from Italy. A lovely friend of mine (lovely in looks and personality) is followed for a snow-filled day on the top of a mountain in Oulx by an Okie (Oklahoma resident currently residing in "Napoli"). He is totally lame but buys us hot chocolate. The night is crazy--- freestyle skiing cancelled in a lame move by the Olympics committee followed by a 4 km walk down a steep mountain in blistering snow. As usual, I am wearing totally inappropriate footwear and fall numerous times and am now bruised like crazy. So we all take the train post-refugee march down the mountain and we get to our stop sans the Okie. He wants to visit the lovely lady in New York but insists on a "sample" before logging onto Expedia. Well... you can guess the rest. We can't stop laughing for 24 hours. And now I can't stop saying sample. We guess he was asking for a "kiss," but it sounded like a saliva lab specimen. Back in Joburg on March 1st. Blogging will be resurrected, I promise.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Sweet Sixteen

We're at The Zone, eating pizza with mushrooms at Primi Piatti and sipping Rock Shandies (a South African delicacy- soda water with a touch of lemonade and a splash of bitters). The noise is deafening and the waiters are frenetic; like clockwork, they ask how I'm enjoying my dinner and ask for a smile.

I was a bit early and the hostess notices me staring intently at the skirts in the window of Stoned Cherrie- they are African chic but amazingly cut. The waistlines are low and hug your hips like a first embrace. The skirt bodies are full and voluptuous with swatches of metallics and amber.

I'm watching all the teens strut around and the girls are gorgeous while the boys are a bit awkward and gangly. The boys are using way too much hair gel while the girls are precociously hot in low riders and boob tubes. Still, they seem so well-mannered and orderly for a night of loitering. They are cautiously flirting, some holding hands, some touching thighs, but none seem like brazen American teens- loud, free, narcissistic, drunk.

We used to cruise around all night on weekends when I was 16. We'd roll all the windows down, feel the air whipping our hair against our face, play the radio at crushing decibels, and just drive. There wasn't really anywhere to go. Maybe IHOP, maybe Wawa, maybe Mir's house. Whatever. The fun was in the running away, the flicking of ashes out the window, the arriving home at 7:00 am with groggy eyes and flaked mascara. Mom wanted to know where we went. "Out."

I loved driving home from the beach with friends-- my legs coated with sand and sweat, my hair like strands of salty kisses, and bottles of Zima knocking against my flip flops. Summer was so endless, and school so far away, and tomorrow night was another night of driving, of feeling the sun, of dreaming. I remember the teenage me riding Amtrak to New York one Saturday night and seeing the woman I imagined as the perfect older me- long dark hair, reading Vogue, sipping sparkling water. Her manicure was perfect and she looked so smart yet so pensive. She met pulling into Penn Station with total indifference. Another cab to catch, another night of sushi, another bottle of wine. Would New York ever stop exciting me?

I feel badly for these Jo'burg teens. Everything is indoors, in malls, controlled. It's too dangerous to sit in your best friend's car in your best friend's driveway with your legs hanging out the open door talking about how cool you'll both be at 25. It's too dangerous to sit on the curb of 7-Eleven dripping Slurpies and eating hot soft pretzels with spicy mustard and waving to random boys. It's too dangerous to sleep outside in the backyard on blankets and wake up cranky and covered with mosquito bites. It's too dangerous to pull over on the side of the road and fix your eye make-up in the rearview mirror and chat nervously on the phone to your crush.
Only the patrolled and the secure are safe and comfortable, and even that comfort is tinged with the danger lurking outside the gates.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Squalking in Fear

It looks like the first reported cases of bird flu in Africa have hit the newstands- a Nigerian case has been confirmed, while reports of multiple Kenyan birds falling mysteriously ill have surfaced. Epidemics in their earliest stages make for interesting tests of human reaction capabilities- do we allocate the necessary resources, grow sufficiently worried, and begin difficult lifestyle changes to optimize our potential for later safety? Or do we read reports of bird flu on the Internet, sigh a bit, make a note to self to reduce chicken-sharing rituals with citizens of afflicted countries, and then get on with things? It's not an issue of stopping chicken eating, it's an issue of mustering the will to reduce the likely millions of deaths as this epidemic reaches pandemic status in record time. Epidemics center around the ability of viruses to transfer and multiply easily both amongst humans and between humans and other animals. Impoverished conditions- full with inadequate sanitation and refuse removal system; brimming with largely preventable diseases like TB, malnutrition, and parasitic infections; and relying on systems of small-holding agriculture, particularly poultry-based agriculture- drive the spread of disease. The rise and thriving of viral epidemics demonstrates the unacceptable level of poverty and unsafe living conditions across the world.

Anyway, off to a kugel birthday party tonight at Melrose Arch. I think I'll skip the chicken.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Picking and Paying

I'm cruising down Grant Avenue towards the Norwood Pick and Pay Hypermarket. The precisely descriptive "Pick and Pay" title aside, Hypermarkets are large Walmart-esque strucutres, about the size of Elkins Park and much loved in Jo'burg. I park and pay the self-appointed guard 3 Rand to "watch" my car. He is self-employed and payment for services rendered is required--- pay him 3 Rand and there will only be about a 25% chance your car will be stolen during grocery shopping. Refuse payment and you can be sure that the car will be off to an Alexandra chop shop or at the very least, tires slashed.

I'm having an American barbeque (what South Africans would call a braai) and I need kosher hamburger meat, parve chocolate chips, and about 25 bottles of Coke Light (Diet Coke). Since it's all kugels anyway, I could skip all the food and just serve Coke Light, but I need to refute the stereotype of Americans as non-cooking hogs. Today my Domestic Goddessness will radiate.

Into the Hypermarket. Dodge the Chabad lady to the right. Make sure the shirt is not too low-cut-- the travelling rabbi's (he caters to distant African Jewish communities with a Torah and ark belted onto the carriage of his truck) large stomach and long beard is visible in Aisle 6. Shereen is manicuring at the back of the Hypermarket. The kosher french fry stand is booming--- I want some chips with vinegar and garlic salt but the cool frum girls are lined up three-deep.

How hard can it be to find the kosher meat anyway?

Aisle 1: Golf Equipment
Aisle 2: Bacon Products
Aisle 3: Kosher Chicken Feet
Aisle 4: Ribbon and Streamers
Aisle 5: Yogurt and Chocolate
Aisle 6: Tin Muffin Pans
Aisle 7: Garden Furniture

I think this Hypermarket was designed by the Minister of Planning and Transportation.

Oh No. I'm going to be here all day. I have a report due in 24 hours and Pick and Pay is totally out of kosher hamburger meat-- only chicken feet remain. A sheitel to the left grabbed the last hamburger pack in a low blow to the right, and I'm left totally unruffled. Phone Bev. She'll know what to do.
"Sweetie... try Feigels, or Shirleys, or Shulas. They'll have it. But you're late! It's already Thursday afternoon-- why didn't you go on Wednesday? That's when all the kosher meat is cut."
"Bev, how do I get to Feigels? I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed."
"Sweetie, darling, make a right out of the Hypermarket and go for about three or five robots (traffic lights). I'm not sure which. Then make a right where Mr. Cohen's pharmacy used to be. I'm sure you'll see it."
"Uh... Bev, you know I didn't grow up in Jo'burg. Remember?"
"I know darling, but we don't do street names in Johannesburg."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

South Africana

Ricky tells me, with a smile, that I am "so American" for ordering a skinny latte. Actually, it's so South African. Americans say "non-fat latte" or "skim milk latte"-- opting for a more purely descriptive order. South Africans like to load up a whole bunch of superlatives and expressives on the verbal train and unleash a saccharine-sweet torrent. The salesgirl calls me "angel," while the petrol pump attendant thinks I am "his darling." The middle-aged kugel calls the slightly dowdy girl "utterly revolting" while the slighly attractive chick is "divinely stunning." Two years ago, Mervyn kept pinching my cheeks during meetings and calling me "honey girl" and now he is running for mayor.

Of course these superlatives are intoxicating and I'm now prone to calling every American acquaintance "my angel." So, all my sweeties and darlings, I miss you. This distance between us is utterly revolting.

I was working at Sandton City (www.sandtoncity.co.za) yesterday and always leave Sandton slightly sickened but pulsating with the feeling of history in the making. Sandton is a bloated office park with mismatched architecture jabbing the polluted air for attention. Look, to the right, a Berliner chrome structure... oh, to the left, are we in Tuscany? Are those turrets and that moat imported from the Renaissance? This is kugel country and Mercedes SUVs hog the fast lanes and almost render the begging children on the side of the road invisible.

About six weeks ago, the Sunday Times (www.sundaytimes.co.za) ran a feature on celebrities' wishes for Christmas presents. Aside from the usual wailing for a new Ipod Nano and a BMW 330d, the Gauteng Minister of Housing revealingly mentioned her keen desire for another Gucci or Louis Vuitton (these are the only two true designer boutiques in Jo'burg to date) bag to add to her already overflowing collection. Hello, stop the presses, I would think. Gauteng is a province with MILLIONS of individuals living in tin shacks with sewage coating their entranceways, with six children sleeping on one bathroom-sized floor, with shack fires igniting an entire settlement like a sixteen year-old pyro, and with tuberculosis running through sewage streams. Thank you Ms. Minister for your insightful and empathetic public comments. I am sure Gauteng will fondly remember your Gucci collection as shacks multiply throughout Alexandra like amoebas.

I do think that public servants are entitled to consume and enjoy luxury goods like anyone else but I find a public persona shaped around conspicuous consumption, particularly when you are failing miserably in your charge to house millions in structures fit for human inhabitation, utterly revolting. And, please, if you are going to waste millions of Rand on inflated and non-performance based public servant salaries, at least don't choose the 1997 Gucci with tarnished hardware.

Today is freezing. In Jo'burg terms, it's about 65 degrees. I may have to wear socks for the first time in weeks.

By the way, this mini-tragedy was just reported on news radio (www.702.co.za)- 2/8/2006 3:15:37 PM Around 40 shacks have been destroyed, after two trees keeled over in an informal settlement in Rodepoort on the West Rand. The massive blue gums fell onto homes in the Princess Informal Settlement this afternoon, leaving almost 100 residents homeless. Emergency Services says at least two people have been injured, but their condition is unclear at this stage. Emergency Services' Malcolm Midgely says heavy rescue teams are on scene. "Informal settlement" is code for a whole bunch of shacks (likely with about 5 people in each) sprouting from a fixed spatial configuration- normally an "established" township or juxtaposed against a frontier town. Besides a whole host of other indignities, shacks are notoriously flimsy and homelessness is a real and constant threat.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Running Out of Wood

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation is achieving status as a major ecological challenge. The uprooting of trees occurs less for firewood but more for coffin production. Simply put, capacity- both for trees and for funeral homes- can't keep up with demand. The numbers of dead are rising too quickly and funeral rituals are adapting to keep up with the constant turn-over in life. Quickly, cardboard coffins are replacing hard wood and cemeteries are expanding much like the outer satellite towns growing from the Johannesburg core.

The lingering glance of AIDS is everywhere, even in sprawling Johannesburg, with its shady jacaranda trees and suburban matrons posing in late-model BMWs. The waxing lady grows noticeably more skeletal in between bi-weekly appointments and my manicurist from two years ago has already died. The receptionist relays the news without much emotion.

The Johannesburg General Hospital is decaying and at moments, feels truly terrifying. In the course of an afternoon, I'm pressed to find one functioning toilet- one with toilet paper or a bowl not streaked with excrement. Inside the wards, you can almost smell the AIDS. AIDS mixed with lesions from gang rape, AIDS mixed with gunshot wounds, AIDS mixed with a decaying city center, and AIDS mixed with men migrating to the City of Gold who insist on feeling "flesh to flesh" and shun condom use. HIV normally first hits the margins of society- the extreme poor, the abused, the migrants, the addicts. Here, though, the margins cut through South African society- into the purely heterosexual, into the drug-free, into the mother with child- and render over 5 million afflicted.

Fifteen minutes away, in Melrose Arch, I ponder a ten-page winelist and shift my IBook around in semicircles for the strongest wireless connection. BEE titans cruise the urban-esque fortress in Range Rovers looking for the hottest chicks and the best cuts of fillet. Men throw their cell phones on the tables, and finger their key rings, ensuring that the BMW and Audi logos are visible to all surrounding. My car sucks, but at least my clothes are desired. No one seems too impressed by budding AIDS experts- the PR girls have better jargon. My accent goes a long way though and so do my colleagues from London. When my hair is straight, the kugels love me but they can't understand the curls. I had breakfast with Kugel #1 last weekend and she told me that I need to leave the house every morning and put on more make-up- that I can't be one of those people who walk around "plain." I tell her it's not the biggest priority on deadline days, but she disagrees- it's about "self-respect."

The weather is perfect- no humidity, the brightest sun imaginable, but still not too hot. You can wear a tank top everyday or a sweater. Either is fine.

The waiter smiles and we order ostrich carpaccio and fillet. The total bill, shockingly low for New York restaurants, is likely more than his food expenditure for two weeks. I bump the tip up to 12% instead of the normal 10% but it still feels measly. I turn on my laptop and feel like a museum exhibit.

I'm on the highway right before the Alexandra township turn-off. You pass rows of shacks and ribbons of corrugated iron walls before reaching Sandton. My friend tells me about a store in Sandton that sells Chloe and Balenciaga handbags for less than 50% of New York prices. Kugels here, though, only want Louis Vuitton or Gucci with screaming logos and thus drive down the price of more understated luxury leather goods. I turn into the Sandton City parking lot while avoiding a minibus taxi crowded with at least 13 people and nursing faulty brakes. For most of South Africa, transport is a daily battle--- contending with unregulated and uninsured taxis, avoiding attacks on Metrorail trains, and having no direct route from Rosebank to Sandton (a trip that is normally 15 minutes by car). I've never seen a white face in a minibus taxi or a Metrorail train.

94.7 is the best radio station ever, and it's behind the wheel, trying to own the road, that South Africa feels so beautiful. So does sitting in my friends' gardens, eating Woolies rotisserie chicken and salad made with avos as big as mangos. The pool is glistening and the air smells like pine with a tinge of incense. Mosquitoes are resting on my ankles but I don't mind so much. We drive to the garage and buy some black liqorice. The man working at the counter tells me Celine Dion's song "I Drove All Night" is his favorite, but he can't figure out what she is saying. I order a latte to go and so does the guy behind me. His is out on the server first, so I pick it up and drink from it. His is with whole milk, and mine with skim. The ladies don't want to remake the lattes so we smile at each other and give the guy his latte with my lip-glossed lip imprint on the rim. He doesn't seem to notice.