Saturday, January 29, 2011

On "missing" home

A couple of my friends (and my grandpa) are having a hard time dealing with just how much I loved my US visit.  It's like everyone just assumed I would be missing home something terrible!  Well to be completely fair, while I didn't miss home that much I did actually miss a couple of things from home:

Jackie the dachshund.  She's 12 years old, dumb as a box of hammers and loves barking at all hours during the night and jumping into my bed with muddy paws.  I missed her so much!  Wouldn't you?  I mean just look at her, she's adorable!

Afrikaans.  I never expected that I would miss my mother tongue so much.  I missed speaking it, hearing it and reading it.  You'd think that would be obvious but I speak a lot of English and even when speaking Afrikaans people tend to mix languages so I never thought it would matter much to me.  It did though.  Not hearing the language you think in spoken outside your head is a strangely lonely feeling.

Chips of many flavours.  This one surprised me since in the US there seemed to be so much variety and flavour in just about everything.  Yet, when I walked down the chip isle at Wallmart I was shocked by the lack of selection.  Lays had a couple of nice flavours but for the most part the selection was pretty monotone.  Here on the other had I can expect to find flavours like: Tomato sauce, Salt & Vinegar, Mexican Chili, Smoked Beef, Cheese & Onion, Fruity Chutney, Creamy Cheddar, Spare Rib, Snoek & Atchar, Masala Steak Gatsby, Peri-Peri Chicken, Lightly salted - and these are just some of the potato chip flavours, I'm not even counting the corn chips, puffs etc.

VAT.  Normally I wouldn't list our local tax system as a good thing but it did have one feature I really missed when shopping in America - getting to pay the price you see on the pricetag.  Maybe I'm just being silly but I hated seeing something advertised for let's say $9.99 only to have to pay over $10 when I get to the cash register.  It felt like I was tricked somehow.

User friendly money.  As much as I loved walking around with dollars in my wallet, using it was a little awkward at times.  Do all the bills really have to be the same size and colour?  Is there any good reason why they can't just stamp an actual number on the coins?  When you have to hunt around for the value of the money you're holding then something is wrong!

Gingerbeer.  Not Ginger Ale, Ginger beer, the stuff that tickles your throat when you swallow.  If I was staying any longer I would have brewed it for myself!

Biltong.  I had heard that jerky was pretty much the same thing as biltong.  It's not by a long shot.  Jerky was a deep disappointment, it doesn't even kind of compare!

And yeah, that was about it...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Zen Surfing in the First World

The other night in bed, as I was trying to dislodge a flying insect who seemed incredibly determined to climb down my ear canal, I realised for the umpteenth time that I really miss the USA.  I really had the time of my life there and to list every little thing that I enjoyed there would be very hard indeed, but just off the top of my head, here (in no particular order) are some of the American things I really miss:

Free drink refills.  Such an amazing thing and yet it seemed like I was the only one who really appreciated it!  I tried my darnedest to have my own body weight in soda refills everytime I ate out.  Sure, I had to pee like Seabiscuit for the rest of the day but it was so worth it!

Rootbeer.  I am forever grateful to my cousin who told me to try rootbeer.  The stuff is like nectar of the gods and it breaks my heart that it's not sold in South Africa.

Beer.  Now make no mistake, South Africa has no shortage of beers to choose from but it tends to be pretty straightforward stuff, lagers and pilseners mostly.  The US on the other had gave me a dazzling array of interesting beers to choose from.  I loved everything in the Sam Adams collection and the first time I saw 20 different beers on tap in a restaurant I think I blacked out for a few seconds!  Special mention to Harvest Moon pumkin ale.  If someone said, "here, try this pumpkin beer" I would have been all "no thanks!", but I accidentally tried one at a party and boy was I pleasantly surprised!

No Taxis.  Allow me to clarify, by "taxi" I refer to the South African minibus taxis - overloaded, poorly maintained, unroadworthy deathtraps that speed along our streets with zero regard for the law or anyone's safety.  They stop where and when they want, turn whenever they feel like it, are constantly honking their horns to attract customers and tend to take traffic signs as mere suggestions. 

Geen donnerse sokkie gatstamp treffers nie!!  OK, non-South Africans won't get that but trust me, if you knew how horrible popular Afrikaans music was you would have been happy to be without it for a bit too!

Snow.  I wrote a whole blog about it, do I really need to say more?

Silent nights.  OK so this one is not so much something I miss about the US in general, it's something I miss about Sparks, Nevada.  I loved the quiet of the high desert.  Here I have to cope with a nightly chorus of crickets, frogs, dogs, cats and birds (and the occasional alarm going off somewhere on the block).  There I only had blessed silence.  Also not once did any bugs try to violate my earhole and I really miss that!

Being foreign.  Being a stranger in a strange land was great.  For a month and a half I got to be exotic and interesting and all I had to do was be myself.  Over there, my accent was actually considered sexy.  *Sigh*  I miss that...

Variety.  I am a big fan of variety and the US offered me more than I could take.  Americans take a lot of flak from certain groups for the fact that they like everything bigger and bolder but really, screw those guys!  I loved the living crap out of American muchness!  I thought Wallmart was incredible and I loved Costco!  I loved standing in a grocery isle or in front of a fast food menu in a state of shock and awe.  Why should there be 5 kinds of Vanilla Ice Cream to choose from?  Who cares?! It's fantastic!!  If variety is the spice of life then America gave me a flavour overload - and I loved every second of it!

Mexican food.  What could be more American than Mexican food?  I loved it so much but sadly it is virtually unheard of around here.  If I want taco's I have to make it myself - if I can find the ingredients that is.

Junk food.  Fine, we have plenty of our own junk food here.  We even have American junk food here - McDonalds and KFC - but what we have here simply does not compare to the delicious madness of actual American junk food.  In the US, I got to experience food with the safety off, where the only question you have to answer is "Are you a fan of delicious flavour?".  This is food at its orgiastic pinnacle - uninhibited, wild and joyful!  It's food as it should be in other words, the kind that makes your eyes roll back in your head while your tastebuds go zing!!  Chicken sandwich made of chicken?  Pizza with 3 kinds of bacon?  Would I like cheese with that?  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!!

Law abiding citizens.  I wrote about this in my previous blog, it was great to live in a place where the law was not treated as a suggestion.  Cars stopped for me at crosswalks.  Security guards didn't treat me like a would be shoplifter on general principle when I walked into a store.  I didn't see any litter (though with a $1000 fine for littering, that made total sense!).  When a traffic cop pulled you over he doesn't expect a bribe.  It was... refreshing...

Climate control.  Yes, we do have air conditioners in South Africa but no one I know of can boast that the temperature of their entire house is controlled by one thermostat, yet in the US it seemed pretty standard (it's only in office buildings here).  Having your house permanently set to t-shirt weather, regardless of the weather was pretty darn sweet!

Good internet & TV.  In the US I got to sample a couple of the great websites that are not available those outside the USA, like Hulu and Pandora.  Furthermore not only was there a dazzling array of channels to choose from (I currently have 4) but I got to see all my favourite shows hot and fresh - not a season late (like on SA TV) or even a day late (if I download the episode).

Now this is by no means an exhaustive list, I could go on and on.  I had so many wonderful times and met so many great people.  I miss Taco nights, Doughnut Bistro and Jack in the Box's Steak & Egg burritos on Sunday mornings.  I miss Francesca the coffee maker, the gas stove and the dishwasher (OK so we have all those in SA too but I don't have them in my home so I miss them).  I miss Wednesday night poker, getting to try new things and experiencing so many things for the first time.  More than anything though I miss being part of a family.  The Meredith family didn't just let me into their home, they really opened up their world to me and allowed me to be a part of it.  I got to spend time with their kids (which I rarely do), even played with them (which I've never done).  They gave me so much more than a bed to sleep in and a dinner table to sit at and for that they will always be in my heart.  I haven't felt like part of a household for a very long time and it meant the world to me.  Guess that is why leaving Reno felt more like leaving home than leaving Pretoria ever did.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A New Normal

As I told a classroom full of 10 year old Americans the other day, Africa is a pretty dangerous place to live. For as long as there has been life on this continent it has been a brutal and violent place where survival depended on constant vigilance and even then there was never much of a guarantee that it wouldn’t all be over in the blink of an eye. It has always been that way, it’s that way now and it’s a fair bet that it’s going to be that way for the foreseeable future. The weather can be harsh, the diseases are terrible and the only thing that is more dangerous than the many carnivorous predators are the herbivores*. Then there are the bugs. Good Lord, don’t even get me started on the bugs! Not only do they kill more people than anything else, they’re annoying as hell.
Everything else however pales in comparison to the people of this land. Much like the land they can be great and breathtakingly amazing but some unfortunately mirror its brutality instead. Don’t get me wrong, in Africa you will find some of the finest people you will ever have the privilege to meet. It is a hard and dangerous place and that brings out the best in some people. Some, but unfortunately not all. Some people on this continent do things that will make you yearn for the soft, warm comfort of a SAW movie instead.
The thing is though, that if you grew up here then this becomes normal. You either accept it or you leave. For those of us who call this place home it becomes a way of life. You prepare for the worst, living with the constant reminder that you could become a victim at any time. So you turn your home into a fortress, you remain constantly vigilant because you know that those who forget where they are for even a moment tend to end up in the newspaper.
My old idea of normal: Walls, Burglar bars and pallisade fencing

Because of this, going to the US was a shock to my system. During my stay, four (unrelated) armed robberies (where no one was injured) in four weeks made headline news in Reno. Over here I doubt such a non event wouldn’t even make page 3 of the local paper. I remember walking around the neighborhood thinking to myself that I could break into any house on the street with minimal effort. It felt so surreal to live in a house with no fence, barb wire or burglar bars. Driving around without constantly being on the lookout for hijackers or walking around the inner city without a care in the world took a lot of getting used to. Being able to walk around in a mall without security guards checking and sealing your shopping bags felt almost wrong. In fact, it really did bother me. I worried that this soft and easy life in the US would make me soft, dull my edge, make me an easy target once I got back home. For instance in Reno, cars stop for you at a pedestrian crossing (that took a lot of getting used to!) – here you take your best shot, dodge traffic and gratefully thank the occasional motorist who obeys the law. Getting used to the safety of Reno would be hazardous to my health!

My new normal: A neighborhood where your house doesn't resemble a prison

I needn’t have worried though, once I got off the plane it all came back like it never left. Something was different though. The other night, as I was coming back to bed after checking out a suspicious noise outside it hit me – this is not how people are supposed to live. Back when it was the only way of living I knew it didn’t seem so bad. In fact I could even rationalize that it somehow made life more exciting, that less safe meant more adventurous. I can’t do that anymore. What I’ve come to realize is that wasn’t the American way of life that was weird, it was mine. People aren’t meant to live like this, it is the constant fear and paranoia and violence that should be foreign to me. Being safe inside your own home, being able to walk fearlessly down your own street, that is what’s supposed to be normal. Traffic signs warning you of hijacking hotspots and endless messages to be on the lookout for thieves at every ATM is not normal. We just got so used to it that we forgot just how abnormal it really is.
Now I don’t really know how to conclude this blog. I mean I made this realization but now what? This is my reality and realizing just how insane it really is, is not going to change it. I can’t leave here but for the first time in my life I actually want to.
*Hippo’s kill more people than crocodiles every year and I would keep my distance from Elephants, Rhino’s and Ostriches as well. Especially Ostriches. Damn birds freak me the hell out.