Category

Africa

Africa, Culture

How to Pour Tea, It’s Out of our Hands, and Other Lessons from the Moroccan Coast

View of Taghazout from one of my favorite cafes.

We watch the waves crash against the cliffs beneath our table, the spray catching the sunlight over and over again.

Our tea arrives—the classic combination of Moroccan mint and strong green that everyone drinks, but without the usual pound of sugar, per my request. A simple silver teapot with a long spout. Two small glasses (not mugs, but glasses).

I lift the teapot and pour, starting low, then lifting higher, and higher, and a bit higher, steam rising up from the cascade of tea and a slight froth forming at the top of each glass.

(If I wanted to mix in sugar, I would pour out glasses of tea and dump them back in the pot several times to avoid using a spoon—bad luck, I learned later. But I don’t, so I only pour once.)

I can’t remember where I first learned to pour tea—properly. I think it was in a Senegalese village when I was 16. Everyone laughed at my first attempts, of course. Even today I spill more than any veteran tea pourer ever would. But I know the technique, and I can make a few bubbles.

It’s a small thing, arguably, pouring tea well, and yet drinking tea proves such a fundamental aspect of so many cultures that I think it’s important, too. Worth learning. Worth sharing.

***

Let’s drink tea together tomorrow!

Inshallah.

You should open a cafe there—you would get so much business!

It’s a good idea. Inshallah.

Are you moving this week?Inshallah.

When does the high season start?

Things will get busy next week—inshallah.

Inshallah (also written insha’Allah). If God wills it. God willing. Used throughout the Arabic-speaking and Muslim world—and often. At times my plan-making mind gets irritated by the ceaseless string of Inshallahs spoken and exchanged each day.

Is nothing certain?

Well, no, it’s not—is it? To visitors from outside cultures, I think this nonstop Inshallah business can seem like a cop out. Noncommittal. But I suspect (I don’t know nearly enough to say for certain) that it stems more from a different perspective.

Everything—everything—is out of our hands. Maybe. It’s probably a good brain exercise to consider the possibility, even if you disagree. Living here, then, is like a daily mind workout.

***

Every day I learn here.

I learned that until the 1950s there was a small Jewish settlement alongside the Berber ones in the mountains behind Taghazout. I visited a new friend’s home in those mountains, and I could feel the history in the ground under my feet.

I learned that Friday is couscous day and that soup is a summer food.

I learned that no length of fabric will cover my foreignness here—no matter how Mediterranean I like to think I look.

I’ve learned that if you sit long enough in one spot it is really possible to see every person you know in this town, and that if you start walking you can spend a whole day just stopping in for chats with old and new friends.

I’ve learned how to roll under a wave with my surfboard, and that lip sunburn is real.

I’ve learned to count to ten (though I’ve forgotten at the moment), and how to greet.

There’s no other message today. There are lessons everywhere, every day and in every culture; I hope you’ll go find some!

***

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Africa

Taghazout, Morocco: 10 First Impressions in 10 lines

First impressions aren’t everything, but they are something. After nine days in the small town of Taghazout, Morocco, I’d like to offer a (first) glimpse into my experience.

When people greet, they touch their their heart after shaking hands. For some reason, it reminds me of my brother. I like it.
The air is cool—cold even—after dark. Fog rolls in at dusk and wraps up the boys playing soccer on the beach, the tourists strolling to dinner, the shouts and drumbeats floating in the air.
Blue tiles everywhere—in bits of mosaic, in staircases. Blue paint, too—on houses, on boats laid out in dozens on the shore.
A population explosion of cats and dogs. The dogs follow me on my morning run, a pack at my heels—I just hope I’m the alpha. The cats seem determined to ruin my clothes—and my laptop.
Narrow streets, all leading to the sea, all quite clean, except for that one path that smells like sewage.
Where are the women?? I wonder. The cafes are full of men. The streets, too. And the beaches. The few women I do see don’t seem like they want to be my friends. The little girls, yes. (That’s true everywhere.)
Tagine every day. Layers of chicken or fish, potatoes, carrots, spices, olives, citrus—slow-cooked until soft in a clay pot with a conical lid. Fragrant.
I’m going to get good at surfing; I’m determined. For now, though, I’m focusing on wiping out. The water is muddied with sand most days. Photographs come out in gradations of blue-brown.

There is no atm in this town. No bar (welcome to Morocco). Surf hotels, corner shops and small cafes abound, though. Everyone knows everyone, too—and that’s not just an impression, I think it’s really true!

Every house has a terrace. Every terrace a view of the ocean. Every view meets the sound of waves crashing on shore, and I am content to sit and listen.

***


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Africa

“Don’t go to Morocco Alone.” And other Fear-mongering you should Ignore.

A rooftop terrace in Taghazout, Morocco.

Me: “I’m thinking of going to Morocco.”

Everyone: “Awesome! Just don’t go alone.”

As you may have guessed, I didn’t listen to everyone, and here I am: in Morocco, very much solo, and so far quite pleased about it.

(For the next month, I’ll be living in Taghazout, a small town on the Atlantic coast, teaching some yoga, learning the fine art of surf bummery, and generally winding down after an overly hectic few months. And I’ll have time to visit a few Moroccan cities afterward, not to worry!)

There is a saying here, which a new friend taught me:

One rotten fish can make the whole bucket stink.

For those who work in the tourism industry, that rotten fish (in the form of robberies, political unrest or an isolated attack) is the proverbial boogeyman. Just a whiff of danger and foreigners will cancel their flights. An act of terror (as occurred while I was living in Kenya)? Total disaster for the industry—and, by extension, a great many people’s livelihoods.

I digress somewhat. I don’t to tell you what happens to the tourism industry when the fear-mongers win. I want to tell you why you shouldn’t listen to them in the first place.

Every country- or city-shaped bucket has a rotten fish—often many.

In my opinion, those rotten fish are the reason why people will tell women not to travel solo to India, Zanzibar, Turkey, fill-in-the-blank-with-your-country-of-choice. “It’s not safe.” “Men don’t respect women there.” “It won’t be pleasant.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And sure, there’s a good chance I will encounter an asshole or two before I leave Morocco in six months’ time. I’ve spent time alone in all of the aforementioned countries, and I’ve had occasional negative experiences in all of them (though always far outweighed by the positive). But do you know where I’ve encountered the most assholes? On college campuses in the U.S. In Parisian metro stations. Walking down the street in Boston.

So what can we learn here?

***

Well, for starters, check your assumptions. Are you giving more credence to warnings of danger or disrespect because the destination in question is “over there”? Keep in mind that nowhere is perfect, and nowhere is particularly “safe.” I have yet to investigate, but I’ve heard Morocco may be one of the statistically safest countries in the world. Chew on that.

Second, ask yourself if you’re discounting cultural differences. If so, you may be falling victim to the understandable yet problematic epidemic of Western ethnocentrism. That is, judging another culture purely by your own values. Quick tips for women wishing to avoid harassment while traveling alone: cover your hair, cover your shoulders, and cover your legs (generally, follow cultural codes for modesty and behavior). Oh yes, that’s problematic in its own way, and I take issue with it sometimes, but we don’t get to make the rules when we visit someone else’s home.

Lastly, choose your devil, because there is nowhere—nowhere–you will be utterly and inalterably at ease.

***

I (and just about every woman ever) learned since birth to fear. Fear attack. Fear violence. Fear bad men. Fear everything, right? Society teaches us that.

And it’s true. Of course it’s true! The world is a scary place. Especially for women. We’re working on it, but we have a very, very long way to go. Change, however, has never happened when we stick to the status quo. Fear-mongering doesn’t keep us safe; it keeps us the same. So if you want something different, you have to ignore the fear-mongers.

There’s a lot of space between reckless risk-taking and bubble-girl-style caution. Here’s what you may find there:

> Deserted tropical islands where you can run naked across miles of sand, because you are totally, beautifully alone.

> Kind shop owners who will invite you inside for tea, show you pictures of their wife and children, and invite you to stay with their family if ever you return to their country.

> Fascinating strangers on trains, buses and trails, in hostels, campsites and smoke-filled restaurants, whom you never would have met if you hadn’t been traveling solo.

> The best meal of your month, discovered only by following your nose and your intuition (yours alone) through a labyrinthine bazaar.

> And last, but unavoidably, rotten fish. It’s part of the travel bucket. But hey, it’s part of every bucket, and you can’t avoid them all.

I hope, if nothing else, this will make you think—maybe reconsider. Please share your thoughts in the comments if so inclined!

***

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Africa, Nature

De-Nile, and other Ugandan States

Last week, I visited friends in Jinja “Source of the Nile” Uganda and stayed with them at the lodge they manage.
Between playing sharks and mermaids with their two beautiful children, drinking excessive amounts of African tea laced with ginger, feasting on their restaurant’s famous ribs (had to be a bad Jew for a day before heading to Israel for Passover!), practicing yoga poolside and working full time, there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.
So, for my last day in town, all of us—plus a few extra kids and friends—hopped on a boat to check out Lake Victoria, some wildlife, and the infamous source of the Nile.

Jinja lay claim to an impressive 5-meter column of water springing from the river’s start at the edge of Lake Victoria. The world class rapids along this following stretch attracted droves of adventure seeking tourists, fueling an industry of rafting and whitewater kayaking.
On August 3rd, 1858, an avidly adventurous Englishman named John Hanning Speke “discovered” the source of the Nile, although it wasn’t until after his death that his claims were finally verified. Our guide, however, pointed out the exact spot from which Speke first spotted it.
A few minuscule drops of rain excepted, it was a perfect afternoon for a boat ride. We observed vibrant-hued kingfishers and bee-eaters, ungainly pelicans and a particularly ugly vulture-type bird whose name I’ve forgotten, monitor lizards, otters and more.
When we neared the source of the Nile and our gaze followed our guide’s finger between two small Islands, I already knew what to expect:

The construction of two hydroelectric dams downriver in 2012 quickly turned the wild origins into the Nile into the still lovely—but rather more staid—river that meandered past my tent:

The full ecological (and economic) implications of this shift remain to be seen.
In classic irony, we had to run generators at the lodge for nearly two days when the power cut out. (Rumor has it Uganda is selling all that juicy new electricity from the dams to neighboring Kenya.)
The car ride home hosted a 45-minute game of “I Spy,” in which I participated as a laughing spectator to the shenanigans of three rowdy kids (two small, and one grown up). Back in Entebbe airport in Kampala the following day, I studied a bevy of glossy banners promoting the #PearlOfAfrica’s lush green landscapes, diverse wildlife and smiling inhabitants.

Juxtaposing those lustrous landscapes and straightforward hashtags, I am struck now—as I so often am—by the depth of the gray space between simple facades and complex realities. Fraught with tensions, ironies, vibrancy and intensity as they are, I’ll always choose the latter.

***


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Africa

10 Hours in Nairobi (Airport!)

Final Destination: Jinja, Uganda—the mouth of the Nile

Tuesday, 12 April, 2016—Nairobi, Kenya

The New York Times may have all the tips for how to spend your 36-hour weekend in Nairobi, but you only need 10 hours to enjoy all the delights of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport!

It’s going to be a long day, so wear comfortable shoes. The following is only a sample itinerary—feel free to craft your own.
5:50 a.m. Early bird gets the worm and all that. Arrive at Nairobi airport from whatever your previous port of embarkment may be. Drink in the fresh morning air (but please, not the water) and stumble toward your connecting flight. 
(Note: This is best enjoyed on minimal rest, so try not to sleep too much on your red eye.)
7:15 a.m. Pole pole (slowly), friends. Delays are normal, especially with Kenya Airways. The Avanti Cafe on the ground floor has reasonably priced tea and friendly and sympathetic staff. (They’ve heard your story before; don’t bother.)
Savor your mediocre latte and partake of the only free wifi in NBO. Don’t miss the sights: Watching disgruntled tourists aimlessly milling about in growing impatience is one of the unique pleasures of the airport experience.
8:15 a.m. Board your flight and prepare for take-off. Don’t worry, your day’s not over that quickly—we’re just going for a quick aerial tour of the beautiful city of Nairobi.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view on your 10-minute cruise above Kenya. “Technical issues” are just an official way of saying, “please don’t leave yet, Nairobi airport has so much more to offer.” 
9:35 a.m. Make good use of an hour on the ground before deplaning, and get to know your fellow adventurers. Enjoy a stale, rubbery apology croissant, courtesy of the airline, too. You’ll need your fuel; we still have 6 hours to go! You may also like to observe the unloading of your luggage, which was heading toward your final destination just minutes before.
10:50 a.m. Experience extreme disorganization first-hand. Join the pack, and wander confusedly from gate to gate, really getting to know the twists and turns of the Nairobi airport. Intimate knowledge like this is rare for the average tourist; you may even have time to peruse the least authentic curio shops in all of Kenya.
11:25 a.m. Head to Table 49 for a classic airport dining experience. As you sample your chocolate-cardboard muffin and piping hot tea, you may appreciate the opportunity to practice your Italian, French, Swahili or German language skills with some of the other diners—this is an international airport, after all.
12:10 p.m. Wave goodbye to some of your new friends as they head to the next (now fully booked) flight, then get to know some of the airline staff as they place you on the next one—5 hours later.

12:45 p.m. Why not head back to the unsurpassed Avanti Cafe for another visit? After all, no one has given you any free water, and you’re probably thirsty. Browse through Facebook, and daydream about arriving at your destination before dark.

1:25 p.m. Stroll upstairs to Table 49 for another complimentary meal. Totally edible chicken, rice and spinach, and a bottle of water to boot! Enjoy getting to know the remaining stranded passengers from the morning, and observe the effect that sleep deprivation may have on your conversational skills (hint: they improve).
2:55 p.m. Meander down those gray, expressionless airport terminal hallways one last time before you have to leave. Join the desperate crowd at gate 15, and since you’re early, why not finish up your conversations with your new friends.
3:50 p.m. Get on that plane, friends, it’s time to fly. Cross your fingers that your checked baggage makes it on with you, and settle in for a nap—you’ll need it. Safari njema (safe travels)!

***
In complete seriousness, as desperately long and painfully disorganized as my unplanned, extended layover in Nairobi was, I don’t think I’ve ever had as many conversations, in as many languages, with as many strangers, in one day. We were all looking out for each other, united in common misfortune and misery—which, miserable as it was, was also pretty cool.
And, it’s always better to laugh. Running on 3 hours of sleep and very disappointed to be spending my day off in an airport—instead of with friends in Uganda—I quickly found the entire situation completely absurd, and I had to laugh.
You have to laugh.
Frustration is useless, especially in airports, and a bit of humor can make a bleak day far more bearable.

So, enjoy your next visit to the Nairobi Airport, and let me know if you want any more tips—I’m probably an expert now.

***

Update: In Jinja, Uganda now, visiting some friends I haven’t seen since a year ago in Kenya, and enjoying some much-needed R and R. My checked luggage, if you were wondering, miraculously made it here, too!

***

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Adventure, Africa, Nomadism

Journeys All The Way Down

Goes into the post office to mail home some books… 30 minutes and 90 stamps later ^^

Once, a great guru came to a small village. 

He gave a long speech and held forth on many subjects, and he claimed that the world rested on the back of four elephants. These, in turn, stood on the back of a turtle.

After the wise man had finished talking, an old woman came to ask him a question.

“Guru-ji,” she said, “You say the world is held by four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of a turtle. But I want to know, what is the turtle standing on?”

The man’s eyes sparkled as he answered, “Why, it’s standing on the back of another turtle.”

“But what is that turtle standing on?” asked the old woman. 

He smiled and said, “Madam, it’s turtles all the way down.”

The above is an amalgamation of a dozen versions of one of my favorite philosophical tales (variously attributed to Eastern and Western lore). It comes to mind today as I slowly, dare I say reluctantly, pack my things and prepare to leave Cape Town.
Why, I’m not exactly sure, but I think its suggestion of infinite yet symmetrical unknowns appeals to me in this moment of transition.
As I clear out the fridge, eating my last grapefruit, savor my last coffee at my favorite cafe, enjoy a last (unseasonably hot) afternoon at Clifton Beach and write a “last blog post” before shipping off to my next destination, I seek a clever way to avoid the “lasts” altogether.
An enigmatic symmetry and circularity have entered into my travels lately. Returns and revisits abound, and endings, more often than not, prove to be intermissions.
And so as I peer into the infinite unknowns ahead, I suspect there is more circularity in my future. Journeys bending and spiraling in on themselves in unexpected ways.
After my last coffee, I go to the post office to mail home a few notebooks’ worth of extra weight. Thirty minutes later, I leave behind a medium-sized envelope impressively plastered with 90 stamps.
The scenario is comical and exaggerated; together, the post office teller and I systematically paste rows of stamps onto the package.
I’m reminded of other boxes and envelopes I have shipped from other locations—usually filled with items whose monetary value falls far short of the cost of shipping. (Of course, you can’t put a price on memories.) Often accompanied by absurd postage situations.
Circularity and symmetry.
No “lasts” in sight.
If I were to ask a wise man to surmise my future, I think I could guess at the conversation:

“What comes after today?” 

“It’s another journey ahead for you, of course.”

“And what comes after that journey?”

“Why Madam, it’s journeys all the way down.”


Journeys all the way down…

***
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coffee, slow food
Africa, Culture, Food, U.S.

Coffee Culture, Slow Food, and Why Cape Town Has Both

cape town coffee culture slow food

A side alley off Buitenkant Street, Gardens, City Center, Cape Town

The first sip is bitter, sour, almost acrid, before my palette adjusts and the taste mellows into a more complex configuration of nutty, earthy, sweet and rich.

This is good coffee.

I’m sitting at my favorite Cape Town cafe, Deluxe Coffee (also called YARD, the Dog’s Bollocks and the Bitch’s Tits), where motorcycle parts, vintage bicycles and canvas sacks of wholesale coffee beans make for original decor.

I’ve occupied this stool at the counter for well over an hour now, and nobody cares. Par for the course.

Cape Town has an exceptional coffee culture. (The reason I’ve consumed more coffee in the past three months than probably the last three years prior—well, that, and the fact that a cappuccino costs a bit more than a dollar.)

What is “coffee culture”?

Well, to answer in negatives, the U.S. does not have a coffee culture—or a cafe culture, to be more precise. A coffee culture does not “run” on coffee (like Americans run on Dunkins), but rather stops. Sits. Stays. Connects.

And when you stop to taste your “cup of joe,” quality matters. Deluxe Coffee may be my favorite spot, but easily half a dozen others tie for second. There is a lot of good coffee in this city.

To-go cups are more rare, too, and at least among my friends, “going for coffee” is an hour(s)-long undertaking—not a five-minute quick fix.

Cape Town generally moves more slowly. Less rush, less stress, none of the high-powered, shiny, corporate velocity of New York, London or Hong Kong. None of the humorless, chain-brand cafes, either.

Starbucks hasn’t made it to Cape Town, yet, but I hear it’s coming. When it gets here, I hope Cape Townians will put it out of business.

In a cafe culture, independent roasters, brewers and purveyors of coffee thrive. Character and personality matter—or maybe that’s just me.

And I think there’s a common denominator between coffee cultures and Slow Food. Shared values. An appreciation of quality, and a willingness to wait for it.

Many of the cafes where I go to do work have some of the worst service I have seen anywhere in the world. Friendly, but extraordinarily slow.

But, good food. Good coffee.

See the connection? I do.

I am more than a little bit enamored of the Slow Food movement—and of Cape Town’s coffee culture.

I like the pace, the time for detail, the space for real connection. This is what a cafe should be, in my opinion.

This is how coffee should taste. This is how life should move.

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Africa

Playing Tourist—Because, Penguins

More tourist-ing on the way to the Garden Route.

Sometimes, it’s fun to play tourist in your own town—or, you know, any town.

Funny, coming from me, the anti-tourist. I know.

And sure, I believe the following to be true:

1) There are no “have to’s” in travel. (No must-see’s, no can’t misses. Things are only as meaningful as the value we ascribe to them.) 

2) Tourist traps are just that—traps. (You want me to pay how much to play with a tiger? Which, by the way, I’m pretty sure has been drugged.)

3) There’s nothing better than simply being wherever we are. (Sitting at my “local” cafe all day reading? Check. Wandering aimlessly through a new city? All the time.)

Still, once in a while, the tourist things call.

Because, well, penguins.

Need I say more?

Tuesday before last found me and a friend driving south out of Cape Town, bound for Boulders Beach and Simon’s Town.

Boulders Beach, if you didn’t know, is home to the largest colony of African penguins in town. They come for the slightly-warmer-than-icy water, and stay for the spectacular turquoise water and blinding white beaches.

Oh wait, that’s us. The penguins just come for the warm water. Thousands of them.

Flop.

And yup, they are adorable.

So there we were, one local and one wannabe-local standing on the viewing platforms along with dozens of other camera’d, sunblock’d and visor’d observers, utterly entertained.

Funny, because the penguins seem committed to accomplishing as little as possible during their stay at Boulders Beach (the ultimate beachgoers). I watched one duo (African penguins mate for life) for a solid ten minutes, and neither moved a muscle.

“Do you wanna do something else?” “No.” “Good, me neither.”

They are also brilliant waddlers and unrivaled loafers.

Afterward, we ate fish and chips, wandered through beachside shops oddly reminiscent of New England charm, and reviewed our pictures.

These are our happy penguin faces.

Sometimes, it’s fun to play tourist.

You get to see penguins, climb spectacular mountains or window shop on streets overflowing with “custom designed African culture.”

Shop on Long Street—my favorite street for tourist-ing.

Fun. Nothing more, maybe, but nothing less, either.

Many penguin acquaintances were indeed made.

***
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Africa, Culture

Cape Town Snapshots

Street art near Assembly, Cape Town.

Are these snapshots I share so often an exercise in lassitude or creativity?

I’ll admit I write them when I can’t think of a full article I want to lay out. At the same time, I think they might capture more of life in fewer words than any other format. I hope they serve to inspire your imaginations and whet your appetite to form your own snapshot memories of these places.

Cape Town Snapshots:

***

Two long-legged, long-necked birds cross the road near the Civic Center. One, then the other. Each looks both ways, takes a few steps, stops, looks, and steps again. Traffic flows around them. Their mother must have taught them about looking both ways.

***

The wet sand along Long Beach, Kommetjie reflects the mountains in the early morning light. My friend’s golden retriever, a streak of ocher against shads of blue, plays in the surf.

***

Saucer-eyed children materialize around the outdoor table off Long Street where my friend and I have just begun to eat our vegan lasagna and salad. Plant, the restaurant is called. The danger of sitting outside to eat in Cape Town: the reality of the city is on the same side of the window as you.

***

The white-haired sales clerk at the Simon’s Town boutique is more interested in conversation than sales. “Nobody really needs any of this,” she confesses, “but sometimes you just have to buy something nice for yourself!” She laughs. When she hears my friend speaking in Afrikaans on the phone she says excitedly in her high, soft voice, “You have an Afrikaans friend! She’ll be your friend for life.” We all smile.

***

Heaps of fresh fruit in every supermarket. Most (or all) of it grown here. Mangos, avocados and pomegranates, oranges, peaches and nectarines, papaya, apples, plums and grapes. I am spoiled for choice, wish I could buy some of everything, but know I couldn’t possibly eat it all fast enough. Choose just one or two each time I buy my groceries.

***
We teach the students, all in their last years of high school, how to copy and paste, type in urls on a browser and do basic formatting in Word. I am helping my friend with the class he volunteer teaches on Monday afternoons in Masiphumelele, a township near Kommetjie. I never thought I had any computer skills to speak of—I realize I was wrong.
***

The train to the coastal area south of Cape Town emits a banshee screech each time it heaves to a stop. Pick a compartment with lots of people, and don’t carry valuables, I was advised. The train is full of everyday commuters and seems mundane and secure, but I’ve heard the stories and I know looks can be deceiving.

***

A cross between a motorcycle bar and a hipster cafe (my friend’s words, not mine) of my favorite cafes in Cape Town serves the best coffee and a morning’s worth of decorations to occupy the unhurried observer. No mirrors. In the bathroom, only a bare, framed cement square with black painted letters spelling, “You Are Fucking Amazing.”

***
Thick fog rolls down over Table Mountain as the sun drops and the air chills. The “tablecloth,” this misty white blanket is called. It covers and reveals, slowly, silently. The city hides and reveals, slowly, silently. Every day a new facet. Every day a new mystery.

View of False Bay from the southbound train.
[Penguins and beaches—lots of pictures on the way, just as soon as I get them onto my computer!]
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Adventure, Africa

Kindness as an Act of Radical Subversion

Where I don’t hitchhike. (C’mon, I’m not crazy!)
“I haven’t told anyone this yet—not even my business partner,” said Jack.
Two pairs of bluebell eyes stared at me gravely—Jack’s, and his infant son’s. Our Jeep sat in Cape Town traffic at the edge of the City Bowl.
Well, their Jeep, to be precise, since I was just the friendly neighborhood hitchhiker.
Jack’s secret? I’m not going to tell, of course But it had to do with life choices and changes and quitting one job for another.
Traffic began to flow, and the lush greenery of Constantia Nek blurred outside, then transitioned to cityscape as we entered Cape Town proper. Jack is hardly the first stranger to tell me his life story—nor, I suspect, will he be the last.
When a hitchhiker enters a car, we enter into a tacit agreement with our driver. We are storytellers, listeners and, most of all, amiable company. We may not offer gas money, but the goods we trade in—words—are far more valuable.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Jack mused as we neared my destination (Jack would continue on to the airport to pick up his wife), “it’s like you’re my unofficial shrink.”
Yes, we’re that, too.
As I found my way around during my first weeks in Cape Town I often walked or hitchhiked to get from point A to B. (I’ve since moved into the city, and do less of both.)
When I walk, I make a point of meeting the gaze of each person I pass (their responses are alternately inquisitive, friendly and mildly hostile), smiling and saying, “hello.”
When I hitchhike, I introduce myself and make conversation. Those with whom I temporarily share that journey meet my gaze, smile and respond in kind.
In the past couple months, I have met a fellow Bostonian, a Singaporean family, a young surfer and an aging contractor—just to mention a few. Each one unique. Each one kind enough to stop for me. Hitchhikers are rare these days, though my local friends tell me they were once common.
What does all this have to do with subversion?
I will explain.
In a world that expects the worst, I believe offering the best of ourselves is a fundamental act of radical subversion.
In a society that sees mal-intent, hate, danger and selfishness everywhere—with or without due cause—what is more rebellious than goodwill, love and selfless support of our fellow human beings?
I enjoy all manner of privilege and bias in my experience of kindness—as some will be quick to point out. A young white woman? Oh, yes, I enjoy more than my share of privilege.
This fact is somewhat irrelevant, in the context of this discussion, however (although I will freely accede to its verity). For while none of us controls what the world gives to us—hate, or love; malcontent, or goodwill—each of us decides what we offer in return.
Rebellion, sometimes, is a broad smile.
Subversion, maybe, is the wide open arms of anyone who chooses love and trust in this crazy world.
And in that case, what is more radically subversive than acts of kindness? What is more rebellious than accepting that kindness—with an optimistic smile?

You may choose your own acts of subversion, make your own revolutions, but this—kindness, trust and love—is the revolution I want to be a part of.

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