Thursday, September 3, 2009

Port Elizabeth is like Detroit

When I am asked to describe Port Elizabeth, the first thing that comes to mind is that PE is like the Detroit of South Africa. An immediate reaction to that statement would probably be one of repulsion, but Port Elizabeth has a lot more beauty than one would expect, and I think that it is an overlooked city. I compare it to Detroit because PE is a struggling industrial city, with smokestacks and a large conglomerate of the South African automotive industry based here. We pass GM, Volkswagen and others frequently, as their centers are based in PE.

But, there is so much more to PE, in fact that is just what you see initially. We have been able to run on trails near our house, called the snake trails, which remind me so much of Southern California. The wafting smell of Eucalyptus, the dry heat, small branches and twigs and palm trees make me feel as though I am in Laguna Beach. Even the road to enter Port Elizabeth reminds me of the curving entrance to Laguna or other southern California towns. At the top of a hill on this run, you can look out over the city, see the ocean and see mountains in the distance. We literally have the best of all worlds.

When we drove out to Jeffrey’s Bay last weekend, about a 40 km drive west towards Cape Town, it felt like I was in the countryside of Europe. Every place we go has a different feel, the valleys and winding roads, along with gorgeous pastures and amazing mountains in the distance had such a European feel, then we would pass a hugely deserted plot of land, with dry, dead looking trees interspersed, and I would remember that I am in South Africa. The variety is quite incredible.

I have gone running down by the beach, and the feeling there is also reminiscent of California: large homes decorate the edges of the sand, and the beach seems to go on forever. It also feels a bit like Delaware beaches, with the tall homes right along the road, looking out onto the channel that drops the water into the ocean. It’s hard to believe that I can see all of this within two minutes from my house.

Then, if we drive for about 15 minutes we are taken to the townships. The township where I will be working this year, Motherwell, is in the opposite direction from where our office is, in a township called Zwide. Motherwell sits on a hill looking over PE, and is much more organized, clean and wealthier than Zwide. It doesn’t feel as much like a township, although all it takes is a cow crossing the road for you to remember where you are. Tonight, for example, even in our swanky neighborhood of Blue water Bay(we live in a nice, suburban part of town, but we call it the ghetto compared to some of our neighboring homes), two donkeys ran across the road in front of us! Donkeys! Near the gas station! It was hysterical.

I think what has surprised me the most, and also frustrated me when talking with other interns who are scattered about in Zambia, Namibia and Malawi, is that South Africa is a developed country. While I was well aware of this upon arriving, I was still excited and waiting in anticipation to see what Cape Town looked like outside of the airport when I arrived. Interestingly enough, we did get to drive through the townships of Cape Town, some of the biggest in the world, before we entered the city, but I was surprised at the infrastructure. After all, the only other experience I have had in Africa was the trip that I took to Senegal while studying abroad in France. Senegal and South Africa are two completely different countries, so expecting to see what I saw in Senegal in South Africa was a bit of a leap. I was talking with another intern who studied in Senegal about the differences between the two, we both remarked that Cape Town did not really feel like Africa, it had more of a European feel. In Senegal, a still developing country, there are is no real order on the roads, many roads are not paved(or if so it is a poor job); in short, there is no infrastructure. In South Africa, driving down the street to the grocery store feels the same as in New York, California or Vermont. However, the townships in South Africa make me feel as though I am not at home. On our drive to work, we pass miles upon miles of tin roof shacks scattered across the landscape as far as the eye can see, every different color. These house families of eight to nine, and sometimes more, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents all living together under one roof at a time. On rainy, cold days I stop and think about what it must be like in those small shacks, with little insolation or protection from the outside. The roads in the townships are dirt, lined with garbage and sewage, stray dogs and goats milling about, mixed with children running around and women selling fruit along the streets. People are, as I have so often found, so friendly, outgoing and optimistic considering the obstacles they face on a daily basis. The other day we were leaving the townships and we saw a man get tackled on the street by security officers as well as locals, because he was trying to steal from a woman’s fruit stand. So, it’s nice to know that people are still looking out for one and other, when you could so easily be consumed with looking out for yourself.

I think that the combination of lives that I am living is one of the best experiences about living in Port Elizabeth, because myself and the other interns whom I live with are all experiencing so many different worlds. We get to interact and meet Afrikaners in our neighborhood(I will get into more detail about the segregation still present), we get to mingle with tourists down by the beaches, and we get to work and spend majority of our time with blacks in the townships. I still cannot get over the feeling of walking into schools in the townships to the stares of hundreds of kids, fascinated by your color, your clothes, your accent. Having the respect of the people in the townships is the most important thing to me, because they look at most white people with such distain and hatred, so once they know that we are a. trying to learn xhosa, and b. not an Afrikaner, they usually treat us much more in a kinder and more civil manner.

Let me give you an example of our split lives: Last Friday, we finished work at about one thirty, after meeting with all of the coaches(there are 40 in PE), discussing the upcoming week and making sure of all them were paid correctly. So, after work, the three people that I live with were famished, so we decided to go to our favorite braai(BBQ) place just down the road in Zwide, the township where we work. They have the most incredible meat that I have ever tasted. What you do is you walk in to this little deli/store, order the meat that you want(we always chose beef and lamb), they pour their spice concoction on it, you buy whatever else you want to buy(we choose cokes and a loaf of whole wheat bread, in an attempt to feel a bit healthier), then you bring the meat around to the back of the building where grills and outdoor seating is set up, and the men back there grill your meat to perfection and bring it over to you, on thick brown paper, and you gnaw, rip and chew at the meat in any fashion you want, as long as it does not involve silverware or napkins. It’s a riot. And, it’s great to be in the thick of it all, we have already become friends with the grill men! So, we ate there, went home, hung out for a bit, then went down to the boardwalk by the water for the evening. There were a few soccer games on that we wanted to see, so we decided to have dinner down there as well. The boardwalk has a casino, a movie theater, bowling alley and lots of cute little tourist shops, it feels very much like florida or any resort spot. We ate at this cool little restaurant with house music blasting all night, and sipped on wine and mixed drinks while watching the game. One of my house mates commented on the drastic difference between our two meals that day, one in the township and one in the city: literally like night and day. It’s a great combination though, because not only do you get to experience both worlds, but it is nice to have a place to come back to that can bring you out of the intensity of the townships, as thinking about it over time gets me incredibly overwhelmed and sad.

Before I forget, I guess I should give a more proper introduction of the people whom I live with. I live with two guys, Mike and Dominic(Dom), and Rosie. Mike is from New Jersey, is 23 and just graduated from Boston University with his masters in Public Health. Super laid back, funny, surfer dude with a great attitude, he is going to be working in Monitoring and Evaluation in our Port Elizabeth office, which basically means he will be running focus groups talking to children, monitoring data and running his own sort of “experiments” here out in the field. He is responsible for recording a ton of data and the quizzes that every graduate must fill out, so as we are expanding,his work is going to get heftier and heftier. But, he has a lot of great ideas and he is beyond competent, so I know that he will rock at what he is doing.
Dom is from Massachusetts, and is also one of the nicest people that I have ever met. Really, the group of people whom I live with is unreal! We all click really well and each bring a different outlook and perspective to the group dynamic. Dom just graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, and is good friends with my friend from home who also went to Bowdoin, Lindsey Schickner. So, we immediately had that connection. He played soccer at Bowdoin and is super funny, positive and such a daredevil! Also a big sox and pats fan(everyone in my house is, so that’s great). Dom is working in Programs with me, which entails working closely with our coaches who implement the curriculum at schools, coordinating their schedules at schools, making sure they are paid on time, but also helping with logistics like our new street league, which is a tournament style league for kids to play in after school, and getting other things up and running. The two of us have been driving around to schools a lot, seeing graduations, participating in some of the activities in our Skillz curriculum and doing other random things. It’s been really awesome, and it is so cool to get to know the coaches and see them in action.
Rosie is from Maine and just graduated from Colby College in Maine. She also played soccer there and is a riot! Subtle humor, positive energy, this girl cracks us all up. She is a little bit more quiet than I am(shocking, I know), but once you get her going there is no stopping her! She and I get along really well, and it’s a nice balance to have two guys and two girls, so the guys can go and have “guy time” while the girls can also go and have “girl time”. We played Pictionary the other night, girls v. boys, and we won by almost ten points...just goes to show that girls rule! ha.

Well, I hope that everyone is doing well, it is great to hear from people about what is going on in their lives, so please e-mail me( at any point to check and or just say hi! I would love to hear from you. Much more to come, I have a few other blogs in the works.

All my best!


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