Musings from Africa
I have Internet access but only on the couch in the lobby in a hotel that is surrounded by razor wire and electric fence that you’re not supposed to step outside of after dark. They keep the pool across the street but otherwise it hasn’t been much of an issue for me seeing as I fell asleep at 5:30pm last night—only to wake at 2 am.
Then I stared at the ceiling for a while in the dark. I lost interest in the ceiling. I checked my phone. Some texts had come through but when I tried to access them the phone hid them away again somewhere, not fully downloaded. One mace it through, though. My aunt wanted me to know that my grandma broke her hip, she’s stable, surgery scheduled in the morning. This is bad for two reasons. 1. My grandma broke her hip. 2. Grandparents who break hips statistically go downhill fast in the six months following the break. I learned this in a death and dying class when I was 19, right along with the Kubler-Ross instructions on how to properly grieve. I can’t do anything about it from here but when I think about it I realize I couldn’t do anything about it from there either. I can just document my feelings on it—step one should be denial
Up until now I’ve managed to scrape through life with four perfectly intact grandparents, healthy aunts, uncles, cousins, parents. My sister got chicken pox at age 3 and that was the last time anyone worried. I’m impressed but not entirely thrilled that my beta fished has lasted so long.
But that got me out of bed and onto the Spanish tile of the floor, slow and barefoot, cold soaking through to the bone. It felt like home back when home was my grandma’s. I washed my face in cold water and dried off with what smelled like a line-dried towel, like it was scented by the same fruit tree that hangs above my grandma’s with the sun bleached wooden clothes pins and the sagging rope. The difference is she wasn’t stirring hot cocoa in the pot on the woodstove when I walked downstairs and I found myself wandering around the hotel with a skeleton key to my room hanging from my fingertips as I looked through the keyholes of other rooms to check for light. Nothing stirred and no one stopped me. The security guard was too busy facing the street.
I’d given up on Internet service until I sat down on the lobby couch and magically a bunch of little notifications popped up on my screen, alerting me to a connection for the first time in two days. I caught up on emails and spread the grandma news among other family members and then one of the girls who works here started moving around to prepare breakfast and I cornered her and begged for coffee. She said the kitchen was locked while I watched the keys on the master set swing from her pocket. Like most situations here it’s a little more complicated than that.
But then Stoya woke up and wandered in and also needed coffee, and she doesn’t take no well, and now we had the added power of numbers. We walked to the kitchen that was very much not locked and talked to the women who were standing inside of it. Then we had coffee.
(this is a real picture of Stoya getting us coffee)
And the sun still wasn’t up. We waited for it. We needed to go places—to the Cradle of Humankind, to the Origins Center, the Apartheid Museum. I needed to form opinions passively, blog about it later. It is the way of my generation. I would tell my friends too and my family. My sister especially with her textbooks thick with anthropology and her favoritism for what she refers to every time as the non-human primates. She says they are better things, speaks in rudimentary French. For my birthday she sent me a genealogy kit with little vials and things to swab the inside of your cheek. She said they would trace my origins back 100, 200 thousand years. Said it was a worldwide project for the greater good. She said to send her my results because my results are hers, and this is really for her.
Monday I made friends with a wart hog living wild on the game preserve who ate French fries from my hand. At least he tried to. I wasn’t sure how far in his mouth he kept his teeth so I kept dropping them. He let me pet him, scratch him behind the ears. I could see the eggs glued to the wiry strands of his hair where the lice had left them. I borrowed a wet wipe from Stoya.
There were baboons. They jumped from branch to branch and made the trees look alive and a herd of bok stood underneath and socialized. They all stopped for a moment to watch us intrude. There were rhinos walking along in pairs and other little dog sized bok that the tour guy called rare. A yellow mongoose ran across the road but it might have been a ground squirrel. Stoya commented on the marketing genius that made rats vulgar and squirrels loveable. By then we were looking for lions as we crept along a dirt road at 20 km an hour scanning the hills that were the same color they would be, looking in between the trees, the rocks, along the banks of the watering hole, hoping they’d just cross the road at the right time and we could be on with it. Zebra began scattering frantically and mixed in with a group of gnu. Stoya got excited and leaned out the window for a better view of whatever predator was large enough to spook them. She wanted to see a kill and she wanted a lion pelt. She wanted to pet a lion too. Maybe not the same one she got the pelt from.
The herd settled back down and my soul fluttered with relief knowing I would go another day without seeing a member of the equine family torn to pieces in front of me. I’m off animal products these days. I’m drinking my coffee black. We found another place that kept large cats in small pens, said they possibly had a connection on Stoya’s lion pelt and disappeared to make some calls. They sent us in with a six-month-old male and two younger females at our own risk. We were told not to pet their mouths or their claws. The new tour guide had one whited out eye and a scar down his face that ended with a permanent chunk missing from his upper lip. We balanced that observation out with the half eaten chicken carcasses starting to rot in their pen. At least they weren’t hungry. We took video and Stoya offered me another wet wipe.
There were other cats. Pumas, tigers, jaguars. Some smaller spotted thing that Stoya saw a pelt in again. She thought they were precious. There were jackals and hyenas, Tamarin monkeys. The female tried to pee on me while she held my hand through the wire. Each cage we passed I wanted to fling the doors off of and run, short circuit the electric fence, carry out the cockatoo with the missing tail and wings in my shirt. Instead I pressed my palms up against the cage and tried to send something calm to the other side. Every time I want to save something it’s either out of my reach or hard to schedule.
The sky got lighter and we moved from the couch to the breakfast room, discovered the humor and the panic in being two foreign girls in a room otherwise filled with a team of soccer players from Ghana. They were ready to pop from the internal pressure caused by being equally polite and testosterone-fueled. They sat next to us, across from us, brushed behind us and turned our water cups upright so they could fill them. They introduced themselves and left the surrounding tables empty. Stoya joked in a low voice about how common such a scenario actually is for a porn chick. We chose not mention to them that we were porn chicks.
The apartheid museum was strange. It felt like it had documented a time farther away than it was. We we’re given tickets that classified us as white or non-white like a lottery drawing. I pulled a non-white with our guide and Stoya pulled a white. We get separated at our separate entrances, walked down our respective paths looking at the passes lining the walls, the things people had to document on themselves to be allowed out. Stoya got frustrated and climbed through the divide at the end of the hall, another testament to her incompatibility with the word no. The first exhibition was dedicated to Mandela and his life, his education and his values, his prison cells and dead children, his prison chef in the later years, his gifted Mercedes on the way out. The change he brought. One gets the feeling South Africa will be exiting a golden age when he’s gone. Maybe because it says that somewhere in big plain letters on the wall. By the end of the exhibit I kinda loved him. I thought he had a character face. I decided he was more huggable than Gandhi. I wanted to run up behind him when he least suspected it and attack him with little hugs, then maybe one long one at the end like a fireworks show. I followed the fantasy through and realized he probably gets that a lot. I wondered if it became more or less creepy for him. Maybe he recognizes it as a good thing that he’s a world leader who needs bodyguards to keep people from showering him with physical attention instead of bullets. He seems to be a glass half full kind of guy. Outside of the exhibition we got lost and exited through the gift ship. Reviewing the map on the way to the next place we realized we missed most of it.
Then we wound through the caves with the bones of a child from the bipedal species before us at the back end of an 8th grade field trip. The guide called him Little Foot as he gave a pamphlet sized lecture on evolution. He jumped from the Big Bang to Pangaea, asked how many continents there were today. The 8th grade class guessed everything but seven. He finally answered for them but when he rattled them off by name he forgot Australia and replaced it with India. We had a mild epileptic fit on the inside. And in closing he shook his head at the Little Foot monument and asked that God rest his soul. Underground, the 8th graders giggled and whispered, pulled out their phones, sent us into a more external round of epileptic fits with the sudden burst of rapid light bouncing from the cave walls when they snapped their pictures. I had to crawl on my hands and knees through the tunnels and ease myself down the steeper drops. The guide told us to lick the rocks to see if they are fossils. He said that bones would stick. The soap wouldn’t dispense in the bathroom. Stoya offered me a wet wipe.
We went to the Origins Center at Wits. We fingered the eyeholes of molded skulls and commented on their brows. We wondered why their teeth were so straight and where we went wrong. Then we watched videos on the art and extermination of the Sans people with two classes of third graders and of the three groups ours had the hardest time sitting still. We tried to buy the priceless nickel plated Gnu skull in the gift shop display window and Stoya turned away from a book that would be otherwise knowledge packed if the title weren’t so god damn offensive. She hung her head in sadness. We walked through Mandela’s house and drove past Winnie’s and realized the most peaceful place we’ve been in years is the dining patio at a restaurant in Soweto. We passed out at 7:30 in the evening with no cash left and no energy for anything else.
I keep thinking about grandmas. Mine of course, and everybody’s. Mine came to visit last week and I raced around the house stuffing current issues of Time magazine in front of the Penthouses, the Hustlers, Cheri. I shoved the awards in the shoe cabinets, the mouse pad in the drawer, changed the background on my desktop. I hid Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins behind Orwell. I know their tastes.
And when they got there my grandpa studied my bookshelf. The history teacher in him approved. My grandma looked in my fridge, my vitamin drawer. The nurse in her approved. They pet my rabbits and told me about their theories and their children and I asked questions and I laughed. We stood to leave. I’d promised them something organic for lunch, all natural, farm fresh like they used to pick in the gardens. My grandma went white. She grasped at something in her chest, dropped her chin and lost the strength in her knees. Then she was on the floor and I was on the phone with 911. Her face was frozen. The paramedics came, ran their tests. She refused to let them take her when they left.
That night I thought I could help things. I thought I’d get her a bird, maybe send her a ticket to join me on my next trip, spread the wealth on all of these once in a lifetime opportunities that grandmas didn’t have. I’d told her she needed to see Europe soon, and by soon, I’d meant while she still can, though I’d kept that part to myself. Instead, I’d doodled notes on a post-it and looked up cockatiels. Then I’d jumped a plane to Africa and figured I’d take care of it when I got back.
The Kubler-Ross model fails to appreciate that numbers begin at zero. Zero is probably this stage, where you go on just the same as if there’s always time.