a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Thursday, April 1, 2010

out of africa

Stephen and I have been in the states for two weeks now. We have left one continent and moved back to
another one. And the transition has been strange. Even though we only spent 5 months living in South Africa (it seemed so long while we were there but now that we are back it seems short) we nevertheless kind of got used to a few things. Amsterdam was our reentry point to the first world and after living in the African bush for several months, the advanced technology almost felt space age. Our hotel was really a trip. Check-in was computerized and we could pay with our credit card. We even programmed our own room key cards! In South Africa we stayed in many different Bed and Breakfasts, nearly always paid cash and received hand written receipts. In Amsterdam, our hotel room at Citizen M was a Jetson's room! The first thing we noticed were the cylindrical doors for the shower and toilet (oh by the way we have to get used to asking for "the restrooms" again instead of "the toilets") and the overhead lights that changed to all the colors of the spectrum. The water for the shower turned on and off with the closing and opening of the shower doors. And the alarm we set not only had elephant trumpets but turned on all the lights in the room when it went off. Speaking of the alarm, it actually didn't wake me up for 10 minutes because I was sleeping so soundly. For most people that might not be that uncommon but for me it's almost a small miracle. And which made Amsterdam my new favorite city!

We had two 10+ hour flights to travel from Johannesburg to Portland, fortunately broken up by an overnight layover in Amsterdam. The flight out of Johannesburg took off after midnight. Both Stephen and I were tired from the long day but even more than that tired from 5 months of learning and negotiating a new culture. Once on the plane, Stephen relaxed from his hyper-vigilant state and promptly became sick. What we both needed was sleep so instead of touring a museum in Amsterdam, during our layover, we rested at our hotel.

Remarkably, all our luggage and the piano arrived safely in Portland. (Though we nearly didn't even get the piano on the plane out of Johannesburg. Stephen had to do some smooth talking to get them to allow the over-sized and way overweight digital piano.) The taxi ride from the Portland airport felt extremely slow and law-abiding. And when we took a walk later in the day, it was almost a shock how cars waited for us to cross the street and at quite a distance back from us too.

One of the first differences Stephen made note of when we arrived in South Africa was the small space bubble people had. When walking on the street or in the mall, I always felt like people were going to run right into me and then at that last minute they stepped sideways almost brushing against me. It was hard to get used to. People drove with this small space bubble too. A car passing people walking would zoom by with only a few inches to spare. Terribly dangerous in my view, but common practice in South Africa. But then, I think many people driving the roads in South Africa don't have driver's licenses. We learned in our last week that passing a driver's test is next to impossible. People fail multiple times before earning a license. One man took the test 50 times, failing all 50. So the South African equivalent of our DMV awarded him an honorary license, I guess for his persistence.

On our second day in the states, Stephen and I walked to the grocery store. For the first 30 minutes we just walked around sort of dazed! So many different cheeses! And baked chips! And salsa! And organic coffees! I bought Greek yogurt, Simply Orange orange juice, and chocolate milk. :) It just seems like all the food here tastes delicious! We are gaining weight by the minute. For about the last month in South Africa, I was almost living on sparkling water.

Of course with the time change we were exhausted by 6:30 in the evening and wide awake at 4:30am for a few days. Sunrise is so late!  In Tugela Ferry sunrise was about 4:30-5:00 so at 7am when the sun STILL wasn't up in Portland, it just felt so dark and odd. The angle of the sun is very different too. In Tugela Ferry the sun was so intense. And here in Portland even in full sun, the air can be cool. In Tugela Ferry I could already be sweating at 9am.

Our brief time in South Africa, though not as long of an adventure as we were expecting, was still a huge adventure. Living in a place sure is different from visiting. We were able to get beneath the surface a bit and see the country and its people in a little more 3-dimensional way. South Africa is a beautiful country but the people living there are facing many tough challenges. Shortage of medical staff and poor delivery of healthcare. Shortage of teachers and a newly adopted national curriculum not yet supported with resources and training. Infrastructure neglect manifest in pot hole filled roads and rolling blackouts. Extreme poverty of the majority juxtaposed against the wealth of the few, and the crime spawned. Corruption, at national and local levels.
So it's nice being home. Even though we are now in a new city and a new state, there is so much that is familiar. And now more appreciated than before we left. Like the speed of the internet! I can click on my Google Chrome and bam! it opens just like that! Amazing. And the cell phone connections sound so clear! And there aren't any goats or cows in the roadways. And ice water! And a clothes dryer! Our clothes are actually soft now and I don't have to slap the biting ants climbing up my legs while I hang the clothes on the fence to dry. And no more sleeping under a treated mosquito net that made Stephen's skin itch. And so many breakfast choices at a restaurant: shrimp scramble, crunchy French toast, raspberry pancakes, salmon hash...

Stephen started his new job today. He feels hopeful about the organization and the work he will do. Medical Teams International works in 30 countries around the world, 10 of which are in Africa. So it may not be too long before Stephen is back on the African continent. And I'll have more stories to tell about his adventures. :)

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