Wednesday, March 30, 2011

the bus: seat mates

Next time you are looking for an interesting place to go, get on a bus. It doesn't matter where you are going or which bus service you use, it is the bus trip itself that is so interesting. I travel on the Wits bus sometimes, and it is usually crowded. It was unsurprising that today there was only standing room for me. As the bus took off (like a space shuttle! I wish...) I happened to look down at an Indian girl typing an sms. She was a little round, but prettily so, with long dark hair falling thickly over her shoulders and dull-gold eyeshadow accentuating the slanting shape of her eyes. What caught me however was her rapidly changing facial expressions as she typed the sms. Her face was flirting. She gave little half-smiles and her lips formed words sometimes. Her fingers moved rapidly across the keys, and the clear pleasure at saying something clever and attractive and a little naughty was so plainly written on her face I couldn't help but be fascinated by this intensely personal exchange that was happening - strictly speaking - with the cellphone clutched between her fingers. People - for me - are always interesting, even if I never exchange a word with them. Admittedly, seat mates are not always pleasantly interesting. I sat next to a man once who carefully decanted brandy and coke into one glass after another as he steadily became more talkative and intrusive. Even in sleep he intruded on my space as his body sprawled outwards onto my seat, pushing me into the aisle. I spent the night fitfully, eventually pushing his partly comatose form back onto his side. The most important etiquette on a long bus trip is to give the person next to you their space. Unless it is impossible, as happened on a Cityliner bus trip I was on once during the Translux strike. The seats were so small and the bus so packed that the black woman sitting on the aisle seat had to strap herself into keep from falling off. It was so uncomfortable, we could do little more than dose, and woke frequently in the night to have long conversations I don't remember now. Not all intrusions are an affront. A blonde, handsome teenager sat next to me on his first bus trip and after asking me what grade I was in (not the best start) turned out to be really friendly and a biltong-maker. After a long chat (and an attempt to buy me some food from one of the garage stops) he said he was going to sleep and promptly settled himself on my shoulder. He clearly had no idea one doesn't sleep on strangers' shoulders in buses. I felt strangely protective of this naive boy who happily placed his sleep (such a vulnerable activity in a public space) in my hands. Foreigners (I've discovered) love to act with chivalry (or something) and often buy me food despite my numerous and vehement protestations. A sweet, silent Mozambican returned from the garage once with a coke for me without us having exchanged more than a few sentences. Another foreigner (I think he was Nigerian) bought me a jar of Lays Stax and offered me a job working in one of his uncle's clothing shops after a lengthy conversation about the nature of business in South Africa. There was another girl - friendly and self-assured - who spent most of the bus trip telling me how wonderful being a Jehovah's Witness was, and probably trying to convert me. We got on so well (chatting over her well-thumbed bible) that we even exchanged numbers but neither of us ever kept in touch. Some passengers want your number for no good reason. There was a large black man from Durban who I spotted talking to the only other white girl on the bus when we stopped for a midnight break at a garage. She left, and he then started talking to me. Quite early on in the conversation he asked for my number because he said he wanted to be my friend. I managed to convince him that although he looked like a friendly person, I am not in the habit of giving out my number. He finally gave a great laugh and said that he would ask me again when he got off the bus in Durban. I half expected him to follow through, but thankfully he left without a murmur in my direction at Durban Station. There was also an over-confident, thin white boy from Grahamstown who tried to get my number and get me to commit to going out with him after we got there. His pick-up line logic needed a little work. He began by telling me that he believed beauty was on the inside (no really, he did believe it). Only a little later (after he discovered I have a boyfriend) he said sadly, "All the pretty girls are always taken". I was flattered but almost disappointed at the ease with which his lines were shown up. I've had to entertain a little red-headed eleven-year old (thank-goodness I've seen the Twilight movies or I would have been in trouble) for a whole day while her mother kept her satisfied with one snack after another packed with refined sugar; I listened to a mentally slow white racist rant halfway from Maritzburg; and listened to another white, sporty teenager tell us (a group of us sitting near the front of the bus) her entire life story, including the intimate details of her mother and sister's sex lives. Perhaps the most interesting conversation happened in the throes of Joburg traffic. I was talking to a Nigerian Cage Fighter about religion and anger management. He was suffering the most excruciating head pains from being on the bus for too long, and I was trying to keep him distracted by chatting. He said that he was a religious man, but also a hard-core cage fighter, and that he had issues with road rage. He said he actually got so far as to get out of his car once to remonstrate with someone but stopped himself before it was too late as he said he didn't want to cause any damage. Towards the end of our conversation, he smiled at me and said I was a good person. Sometimes truth really is stranger (and more fun) than fiction. P.S.- for some reason, my "enter" button refuses on register on the Wits server. Apologies for the whack layout.

Monday, March 14, 2011

promotheus (self-inflicted)

Emotion spills, gushes and congeals in corners, in clumps like tumours. I could - instead of my usual constructed arguments and careful blend of personal and social anecdote - throw out words like blood spatters, emptying out my too-painful entrails so that I would no longer need to bear the weight of them moving in my breast. They would make chaotic violent spatters, pulpy and odorous, sticky to the touch deeply and almost ridiculously red. How can I tell where one emotion begins and my thoughts end? Perhaps I will pull too much out by mistake, perhaps cause an explosion. My central skeleton would shatter, sharp fragments of bone thrown outwards to embed themselves in the page, the soft tissue of my lungs indistinguishable from the bloody mass. I would be left not only free of the pain but unable to breathe, a ghost unaware of the terrible, fibrous hole between the breastplate and the pelvis.

But by the time the words are read they would be the mundane colour of rust, dried out and flaking off. Crawling creatures in need of such vital sustenance will have consumed the more substantial clots, only a sour smell and something metaphorically insidious and intangible would remain.

I cannot feel whether it would be a relief to be rid it (how can it be qualified) or whether my internal organs would grow back in the night, excruciating and raw, ready to be torn out and mounted once again for display.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

astronomy lessons

Last Tuesday night, I made my way across to the Johannesburg Planetarium for the first "Introduction to Astronomy" course. I thought it would be about the same size as my Latin class at Rhodes: an older person who always wanted to learn this but never got around to it, some really smart students, maybe the odd science student dabbling in astronomy and me getting all misty-eyed about the awesomeness that is the Planetarium.

The courtyard was swarming with people: couples, students, solitary people trying not to look awkward in the throng, pensioners, married people holding hands as if the kids just left home and me, staring wide-eyed at the long queue in front of the registration table.

The course has been completely worth it. I have learnt about constellations, planets, eclipses (bookmark the 15 June, 2011. There is a total lunar eclipse and it is happening between 8pm and midnight), an idea of how big the universe is and how to find out when satellites will be crossing the sky. We also get to see fun little snippets NASA videos. There was one of a man trying to explain what zero gravity does to playing basketball (he could do five spins in the air before getting the ball into the basket. Which is actually quite tough in space as the ball just floats upwards out of the basket). There is another video about the different areas they could land their next Mars explorer: a robot called Curiosity. My favourite fact was that the wake-up call for astronauts on the space station is the Star Trek theme song. Life imitating art?

Sometimes, Astronomy even makes me think about other things that the stars and planets could teach us about life in general. What completely blew my mind last night was a little lesson on perspective and how two people can have a totally right, totally different answer, depending on the different places they are standing. If a person stands in the Southern Hemisphere, "looking up" (so to speak), the earth is spinning in a clockwise direction. If another person stands in the Northern Hemisphere, "looking down", the earth is spinning in an anti-clockwise direction. In other words, which way the entire earth is spinning depends on which part of the earth you are standing on. Learning this is - for me - one of the best examples to explain how the world is full of vastly differing yet almost all valid opinions: they are right from the perspective one has according to where one comes from. How can two people have different answers about which way the earth (the huge (compared to us) planet we live on) is spinning and both have the right answer? It is mind-boggling.

One has to say "almost" though. Every society or cultural group always has one or more (metaphorical) equivalents of the flat earth society. Some things can't be right no matter where you stand because the place where you think you are standing doesn't exist.

"Introduction to Astronomy": Learn about everything. No, really. Everything...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

on book lists

One of the things that always fascinates me is what books make it onto "those" lists: those lists that send you scurrying away feeling mortified that you never read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. I suppose I don't have a problem with most of what is on these lists: the books I have read were brilliant (except I couldn't finish The Lord of the Rings or Catch 22. Yes, that does make me a cretin). And books like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code sneak into one or two of them. Sigh. The problem - for me - is what they leave off those lists.

A little while ago I got such a list on facebook. Apart from the annoying way they made "(36)The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" and "(33)The Chronicles of Narnia" and "(14) Complete Works of Shakespeare" and then "(98) Hamlet" like they were mutually exclusive; it is the assumption that those books are the measure of a person's intelligence or erudition.

In some way, they (yes, "they" and "them": like the hegemonic publicity team of Exclusive Books who publish a must-have list at the end of the year that you have to pay to be on) are trying to tell me what to read. If I just followed those must-read lists, I would miss out on SO much. So I am going to write about some of the books that aren't on this list that are really worth reading (in my opinion. Not telling you what to read, I promise. Except for Country of my Skull. Hypocrisy can be worth it to say you have to read this book).

1.) Beloved - Toni Morrison

I picked up this novel one afternoon at about 3pm as I had bought it second hand at a flea-market I went to with my friend Marijke. I put the book down again at 11pm after having devoured every word. I was shaking with the powerful emotion and raw beauty that this novel of slave-era USA communicates. It is phenomenal because it describes the events in a way that left me deeply moved (I could say it rocked my foundations) and brought me to an awareness of the legacy of suffering that forms part of America's present.

2.) Poetry. by almost anyone. 'cause there is nothing on the list.

I am more of a prose girl myself. One of my biggest problems studying Wordsworth's The Prelude was that I kept falling asleep over it. I would - however - never cut out the poetry I have studied. Byron's Don Juan is a comic and satirical work of genius. Admittedly you have to know the background before you can appreciate it, but it is bawdy, sophisticated and beautifully written all at once. I am also sure Dr. Margot Beard had no small part in making it so wonderful for anyone who studied it.

Then there is the madness of William Blake; the quiet sublimity of William Carlos Williams and Sydney Clouts and the infinite sweetness of e.e cummings. Tennyson's "Maud" was a recent find for me: melancholic and densely evocative. Then there are those sticky Shakespearean sonnets and the holy trinity of metaphysical poets: John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell.

I'm sure you get the point: how can one leave out the poets???

3.) Country of My Skull - Antjie Krog

As I read it (for the second time) this past week, I couldn't help thinking that every white person should read this book, and possibly every other person in South Africa too. Krog weaves fictions about her own life and research and philosophical musings (at times agonised questionings) around the facts and stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order for the telling of this story to be true, and the result is that each piece of narrative is like a beautifully wrapped parcel. I learnt so much about our country. Like the wages of black workers didn't change at all between 1911 and 1970. In fact, wages for black miners were less in 1972 than they were in 1911. The terms "minimum wage" takes on a whole new meaning after that. And when some black, female farm workers came to register to vote for the first time in 1994, they had no fingerprints because their hands had been worked smooth. It also shed some light on the sad state of the Eastern Cape:
1.) Queenstown had the highest number of necklace killings.

2.) Mdantsane is the second-biggest township in the country (bigger than the city it feeds, East London) and yet it has no library (that wasn't from the book. That was a scary fact from my old opera coach, Mkhululi, resident of Mdantsane).

3.) All the crazily-violent ex-army men (black and white) who came back to the country from service in Africa were hidden away in the Eastern Cape to work there. As a result, some of the most senseless torture and killing occurred in this area.

The book is a heady mix of violence and depression; anger and futility; hopefulness for the future and a complex exploration of everything surrounding guilt, complicity, reconciliation, compassion and fear. Most of all, what is a common thread is the importance in the healing proess of people being given a voice to tell their stories. I will leave you with the closing words of Lucas Baba Sikwepere from the Eastern Cape. He was shot many times for approaching the white van of a policeman and asking what was going on. He still has bullets lodged in his neck and face: some of them visible. He was a big man before he was shot, but now he has numerous ailments including excruciating headaches and has "lost all [his] body". He does not really know what he looks like now though, because he is blind.

"I feel what - what has brought my eyesight back is to come back here and tell the story. But I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn't tell my story. But now I - it feels like I got my sight back by coming here and telling you the story".