Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

Monday, 30 April 2012

Weather- again.

And, so once again, showing my British heritage, I find myself talking about the weather.

A friend said to me last year that Johannesburg has a climate whereas Cape Town has weather. This was never more true than today.

 We had been away for the long weekend to a farmstay near Montagu, around 2.5 hours drive from Cape Town. We had had ok weather (by the standards of the Western Cape- by northern European standards it was a stunning weekend weather wise- a bit of rain, some clouds first thing, burning off by mid-morning). The cottage we stayed in would have been perfect for a Karoo summer- searingly hot and dry- seeing as it was situated in a dip by a river and well-shaded. These attributes didn't lend themselves quite as well to a comfortable stay when the 2 days preceding our arrival had been rainy. Damp would be a good word.

 The world is cruel- in South Africa too it seems-and after 2 days of so-so weather, we pulled onto the highway, heading home in sunshine marred only a few tiny clouds. We knew the weather forecast for Cape Town was bad but nothing quite prepared us for what we- very suddenly- drove into.

The Western Cape is ridiculously mountainous and I always seem to be heading towards, away from or driving alongside a range of spectacular mountains, incredulous that the scenery here can still take my breath away. And so it was that I noticed that the day reflected in my rear view mirror was almost the exact opposite of what we were driving towards. Behind me, blue skies with a few smudges of clouds adorning the mountains. In from of me, the sky was darker and darker the further it went into the distance, the clouds menacingly swirling around the mountain.

 As we first drove into the rain, just outside Worcester and before the feat of engineering that is the Hugenot Tunnel, the temperature dipped 8 degrees almost in less than a minute. At first the raindrops were heavy, this was no gentle introduction to rain. Within no time at all, the word "raindrop"- a word that implies grace, sweetness and smallness could in no way be applied to what happened. Honestly, it felt like a giant blimp of water was perpetually being emptied onto the car. The wind smacked the side of the car incessantly with a vigour I have never experienced before and I was gripping the steering wheel tightly as a passing lorry splashed my windscreen with such an amount of water that for a petrifying second or 2 I simply couldn't see. The car was moving and I couldn't see. The rain was just sloshing on the road, falling too quickly to drain off and be absorbed.

 We reached the tunnel with some relief and enjoyed the stuffy, hot and airless 4 km more than one strictly should, knowing what awaited us on the other side. Predictably, as we emerged, the car was slapped with more rain than one would think possible existed at any given time int he world.

 The route home from the tunnel is via the N1, one of the main arteries leading into Cape Town. This road- this motorway- was struggling to deal with the rain and cars, including mine, were hitting puddles on a motorway at high speed. My husband commented that if this was the rain in the supposedly dry and barren northern suburbs, then our house was probably swimming- seeing as we live in the wettest suburb of South Africa.

 He was almost right, the area where we live was barely recognizable and the drains- unable to cope with the copious amount of rain- were bubbling over. Cars were taking turns to pass over thin strips of Tarmac in the middle of the road, eager to avoid to lakes forming near the overflowing drains. And Cape Town has pretty decent storm drains.

 The strangest thing about all of this is that Cape Town was not recognizable at all. Had you shown an outsider pictures of the city in the rain today, they would never have been able to tally that bleak picture with the Cape Town of tourist brochures. The storm- the rain and the wind-seemed to have such intensity that it had sucked Cape Town dry of any color. The sky was a cold, steely grey which seemed to have imposed itself on everything below. As we drove down the N1, visibility was so poor, you could only see 50m in any direction. No landmarks of Cape Town were visible, just ugly electricity poles and street lights which shone a cold white, failing to add any warmth to the washed out scene.

 The soundtrack to all this was from the film "Drive"- if you've seen the movie, you'll know the intensity of atmosphere. Today it didn't feel like I was driving through Cape Town at all, more like a deserted town, perhaps somewhere in the corner of deepest, darkest Russia.

 I drove to the supermarket when we got back. The sky was dark and the shops were empty. It was really quite eerie. The rain has now abated and we are predicted sun for tomorrow-I hope the city will start to feel like itself again.

 I suppose this is what it's like to live on the tip of Africa, with nothing between you and the Antartic. The weirdest thing of all about today? Both my children slept through the above, only my 3 year old emitted a shriek of displeasure when the car crashed through a puddle on the motorway. How rude of the storm to interrupt her nap.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The politics of begging

The thing I get asked about most often is cultural differences: are there any? If I think about it just for a second, I'd be inclined to say there are not, absolutely none. Short-ish flight, same language. It's not like there's a secret handshake, a secret nod or like you have to squat to go to the toilet. However, if I think about it for a little bit longer there are lots of little things- like the fact that some ethnicities don't understand your accent, the way food is prepared... In fact, there are about 100 blog posts I could write about these almost hidden differences.

It won't surprise anyone when I say that the difference between rich and poor in Cape Town can be very stark. Please don't go all tabloid on me and start imagining villages of corrugated iron shacks surrounding vast mansions. There are dwellings and people in between millionaires, palaces and destitutes and cardboard houses and it's not like shacks and the mansions share a common driveway. The distance between one and the other is great both metaphorically and physically.

Where there's poverty, there's begging and there is more begging in Cape Town than in London where I last lived. It's a different kind of begging. In London begging is more passive- generally its homeless people with signs, at most they might ask you for money in just above a whisper. Sometimes they'll have a dog, in extreme cases- baby (although that's more likely in mainland Europe).

In Cape Town, begging has a different style and is more prolific. Again, please don't imagine that there are hordes of beggars walking the streets in Cape Town, reminiscent of the Michael Jackson "Thriller" video. It's not like that. Like in London, beggars here tend to choose a spot and because they are very active, and sometimes very entertaining, you tend to notice them especially if you drive the same routes often ( they will choose a set of traffic lights, although never the same ones as the hawkers selling everything you could possibly need in addition to all the things for which you have no need or desire). And they will notice you and get to know you- and depending on whether or not you are a giver, they may or may not approach you.

Due to the number of people begging, I think, you simply cannot give money to everyone- and some people, as a matter of principle do not give money to beggars at all believing it is much better to give it charities that can constructively help, like U-Turn for instance.

And, interestingly, most people do seem to have a philosophy on this! A friend of ours says that having thought long and hard about it, he has decided to give money to whoever asks him directly. He has change in his car (and in South Africa you need change in the car for tipping anyway- car parking guards, petrol station attendants etc) and if they ask, he will give them R2, or whatever- because, not all ask, you see. He also says that he always buys the new Big Issue from the first person he sees selling it and displays it on his dashboard, replacing it with a new one when appropriate.

Others I know refuse to give any money at all, saying that's not the way it should be done. They claim that a lot of beggars beg rather than working as, according to some reports, it can be rather lucrative. Apparently, a person with a good site can hope to beg around R200 a day (which by the way, is above the average daily wage of a domestic worker and about the average of a gardener). They say that some "beggars" bus in to claim their "spot" in wealthier areas as it can be  financially rewarding.

I'm not sure where I stand on the issue. The reported unemployment rate in South Africa for the last quarter in 2011 was 23.9% which is a lot and some say that that is understated. The unemployment is mostly among unskilled workers of whom there is no shortage, a factor that has been exacerbated by almost uncontrolled immigration to South Africa from neighbouring countries, some of whom, like Zimbabwe are very troubled and therefore experiencing somewhat of an exodus. All that adds up to a lot of people with no income who may have to option but to beg.

Having said that, I know there are some wise guys (and gals) out there. And so I feel I can't give to everyone who asks. So I find myself doing these horrid little assessments on beggars- a quick check to see if he really does have one leg amputated at the knee or whether it's simply tied back (I've seen it!). Is that man really blind or faking it with sunglasses and a friend holding his arm? (again, seen it happen- the guys weaves between cars with ease, yet tries to do a Stevie Wonder Impression at the car window). I refuse to give money to beggars who are better dressed than me (OK- they could have got lucky at the second hand shop, but still). The guy who has been been at the same lights since I moved here, at all times of the day with a tatty sign saying: can't find a job. I keep wanting to tell him it might be an idea if he actually tried to find one, rather than hanging at the lights. My personal favourite is the guy who claims to be blind at the lights in one of the wealthier areas of Cape Town. Him and his friend are always very well dressed and recently have been displaying a series of laminated, printed signs which say things like: "I can't see all the beautiful things you can see.". Full marks for poetry my friend, NUL points for authenticity.

Like restaurants in Leicester Square in London, I suspect the wise guys rely on passing custom rather than return visits and, hey, I guess it's a business strategy of sorts isn't it?

But still, in place where there are a lot of "have-nots" compared to the "haves", a person with any humanity is constantly confronted with the choice of who to help and how. And you can't help them all. Everyone has a strategy, even if they haven't articulated it fully even to themselves.Some people help everyone who asks a little, others ask charities to help them help others.

And, cynical though it may seem, some of us do a quick business viability, strategy, sustainability and ethics test subconsciously on beggars every time we're stuck in a traffic jam.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The unseen depths of South African men

South African men generally do not get great press. Even in South Africa. The prevailing view is that of macho men, once virile and running after a rugby ball, now gone to seed eating and drinking too much of the good South African stuff at their infamous braais and yet still favouring a game of "touch" on the beach, just to show they still got it. These men will, legend has it, weep copiously (in private) if they do not spawn a son at whom they can yell: "C'mon, m'boy" as they hurl a rugby boy at a toddler that can barely stand. I must say that I personally do not count any such specimens as my friends (nor, indeed, can I honestly say that I have encountered many), but it may be that they don't consider an opinionated female expat to be their ideal choice of braai mate. My point is that these gentlemen are not credited with being the brightest.
But I have discovered that they are actually very clever- bordering on sly, even.

I have before bemoaned the parents of the school across the road from me, with their scent of hairspray lingering as the monster truck dashes off.

Anyway, I have been led to believe that part of the revolting parking practises are to be attributed to the ongoing erection (and I use that word deliberately) of a Pavilion in their grounds. The building of this thing has been going for so long that I feel it's been going on my whole life and apparently it has messed with their car park.  I deliberately use  a capital "P" because the promotional material surrounding it, suggests to me that they would want the reverence that a proper noun gives.  This thing is huge and, according to my husband, along with the Great Wall of China, is the only thing that can be seen on earth from outer space.

I must say that I have been slightly mystified by why they needed to build this thing. I looked pavilion up in the dictionary and got the following: "a light, usually open building used for shelter, concerts, exhibits, etc.". That still didn't really help me because the school already has great facilities. It's not my concern how they spend their money, you understand, I am just being a nosey neighbour.

So they had the "grand opening of the Pavilion" the other night which looked and sounded like it might be a very genteel affair- a string quartet played and you could scarcely catch the gentle burbling of conversation and laughter. How terribly civilised. But I still didn't  understand why they need it.

And then, last night, it became obvious. It was a warm evening so we ate outside and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see TV screens flicker to life in the Pavilion. A few of them. All showing sport. And then the raucous, exclusively male laughter.

It is now clear: the fathers at this school have conned the school and their wives into building them a members only sports bar. In the name of educating and improving their sons. They must have endured the opening terribly, their hands twitching to use those TV remotes. But they kept their cool knowing that their turn would come. Their moment to shine.

I think, for the first time, my husband wished he had a son and, boy, you can be sure if we did- he'd be going to the school across the road.. Hell, we'd give our driveway as additional parking if required. It's amazing, secret man-to-man marketing: fathers will now want to send their sons to this school not for educational benefits, but for access to this Pavilion. It is my prediction that this school will now be even more over subscribed as husbands imagine: "Hey, Babe- I'm just off to the school for a couple of hours, OK?". And Babe will feel so proud  that daddy is so involved. But she won't know. Only their neighbours and the men will know.

It is my personal theory that one of the former Springboks (for the rugby illiterate- this is someone who used to play for the national rugby team, not someone who used to be a deer), paid for the Pavilion in order to screen recordings of his days of glory to other reverential fathers. My theory is grounded in nothing but solid evidence: through squinted eyes I could make out they were watching rugby and I know there was no live rugby on last night. Cast-iron case or what?

It seems that we  underestimate the depths of the stereotypical South African male at our peril....

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Traffic Jams, Capetonians and Paris

This semi-expat thing is a constant learning experience. Just when you think you have everything sussed- BANG- you get blindsided.

Over the Easter holidays I learnt, amongst others, the following 2 things:
1. Capetonians and Parisians have a surprising amount in common.
2. There is such a thing as a traffic jam in the Western Cape.

Over the Easter break, we went away. Getting away when you live in Cape Town is incredibly easy- there are so many beautiful, reasonably priced places to go, just a short(ish) drive away.

Getting away is the done things at Easter, as I am told it ALWAYS rains at Easter in Cape Town (and actually it has the last 2 years). A friend of mine who stayed in CT over the Easter break, said that the city was like a ghost town, abandoned and spooky.

Leaving the city is all very well and good but, it seems that Capetonians- like Parisians- happily leave and return at the exact same time as one another- year after year. It's like they never learn. Perhaps Capetonians, Parisians and goldfish all have something in common?

In Paris, France, the city empties ritually on the first weekend in August, much like water running through a sieve. OK, that metaphor is way too fast, maybe a bit more like couscous (lumpy) going through a sieve. Then on the last weekend in August, the city refills and it id like lumpy, uncooked couscous trying to ram itself back through the same holes through which it came out. Angrily and aggressively, preferably on a sweltering hot day. It happens every year, no one ever learns that maybe the holiday could be more pleasant if it didn't start and finish in a bumper-to-bumper rage. Mind you, the French dont take well to advice and instruction.

And so the Capetonians, like the Parisians, like to enter and exit en masse- on the Thursday before Easter and return on Easter Monday.

I must say, I had heard fanciful tales of traffic jams from the natives but I had a tendency to dismiss them. Apart from traffic jams in the rain, of which I have spoken before, a Capetonian's idea of a traffic jam is if they can see another car on the horizon. Seriously, it's like how they complain about the weather when the sky has the audacity to have a cloud in it (although, I must confess that my definition of "nippy" has gone up a few degrees since I've been here).

I can't testify to the traffic on pre-Easter Thursday as I was long gone by then. However, sadly, I was there on Easter Monday.

Where Cape Town is more problematic traffic-wise than Paris, is that very little of Cape Town is accessible by road, as compared to its circumference. Go now, find a map of Cape Town...ok, see, it's basically a peninsula with 2 main motorwayss carrying traffic in and out. So when the entire population decides to leave, it like a test tube erupting. Which is easier than trying to cram everything back IN to the same, slim test-tube which is what happened on Easter Monday when the population returned.

We had been warned about the traffic but, based on the general driving hyperbole, we largely ignored these warnings, simply trying to leave early. For the first 3/4 of the journey we sneered and jibed as we coasted along- more cars than usual for sure- but doing a good smooth, speed. What's the big deal?

Then, over the Houw Hoek pass, the traffic slowed to a virtual standstill. 2 lanes of it. Without warning. For 2 km we went at about 5 km per hour. At this point, we were about 70km from CT, having already done 450km. I had never experienced anything like this is CT. London, all the time. Buenos Aires I think just is a traffic jam. But never before on the open roads of the Western Cape.

On the radio, it was apparent that the gridlock was also around Durban, Pretoria and Jo'burg demonstrating that all South Africans are actually Parisians. What really amused me though waster fact that the Minister for Transport had issued an emergency statement for broadcast on the radio urging people to be calm and stay patient. It was a very seriously delivered message- clearly the government was envisaging absolute savagery and rioting on account of traffic. And it made me think about all the coverage South Africa gets here and especially abroad, how every story predicts it will all go "like Zim". And here are South Africans being told to stay calm in a traffic jam, not to resort to road rage, not to fall into a "Falling Down" frame of mind. It's nice to think, in a way, that some of the problems in South Africa are commonplace in the developed world, that we're actually pretty normal here, in lots of ways.

How else are Capetonians and Parisians similar? They both have the arrogance to assert that they live in the best city in the world. And,I must say, they're both justified in their own ways.