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.

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