I’ve gotten lazy. A ton has happened since I last checked in, I’m on a different continent in a brand new hemisphere and I’ve crossed the Atlantic twice just for starters, and maybe because of that I just haven’t had much of a desire to write lately. But it’s time to catch you all up, so I’ll do my best to keep this a manageable length….
I was ecstatic to land at JFK in a way I can’t really describe. I didn’t really feel all that homesick in Russia, so it was a good, unexpected kind of happy when I touched down on American soil. I exchanged pleasantries with the not too pleasant customs agent and made small-talk with a woman waiting next to me at baggage claim. I really missed the ability to strike up a real conversation with a stranger, which I think is one of those big little reasons that Russia never felt like home. New York felt like home instantly.
I headed to my sister Michelle’s apartment and while she distracted me with my American cell phone, my parents burst through her door, my dad filming my reaction to their surprise just like he’s done for every other potentially meaningful moment (and countless trivial ones) since the day I was born.
My mom didn’t believe me that I was surprised, but I swear I was. I knew Jaime’s mom was meeting him in NY for the two day layover, but I personally thought it would be a little ridiculous for my parents to fly all the way across the country and back just to see me for two days. But they also missed me a ton (and I missed them right back) and made it a bigger trip, getting to see Michelle too and stopping to see my sister Karin in Michigan on the way back.
I was real busy over my two days in New York. I got to have some real ethnic food for the first time in almost two months, specifically Mexican (Chipotle!) and Indian food. I worked out in a gym, saw a close friend at NYU twice, and even observed Ms. Alpert’s (Michelle) 4th grade class at PS 1 in the Bronx.
She’s part of this amazing program called New York Teaching Fellows. It was surreal to watch these 10 year olds addressing my sister only four years older than me, only a few months out of college as one of the main authority figures in their lives. I’m so proud of her and her subway e-mails chronicling the highs and lows are a real source of inspiration for my writing.
Watching Michelle, excuse me, watching Ms. Alpert (we got in trouble if we called her Michelle in front of her class) also got me thinking about how fast life goes, how quickly sheltered (at least in my privileged case) student life ends and endless real-world responsibilities (jobs, bills, etc) begin. (Excuse all those parentheticals).
It was really hard to say good-bye to my parents and sister, and harder still to get myself excited for South Africa. But the ticket was booked, so I checked my baggage and my little boy homesickness and boarded the plane for my 17 hours of traveling.
Getting into Cape Town and the Barnett Family
Our CCS South Africa program wouldn’t begin until Saturday and we arrived Wednesday afternoon. So in the meantime Jaime and I stayed with the Barnett family.
After Jaime and I had signed up for the program we debated going back to LA for a few days, but both decided it’d be too short a period to be home for, and it’d be better to get a little used to Cape Town before our program. We were left with the problem of finding a place to stay. Luckily one day, the South African mother of our friend Daniel volunteered to help us out and connected us with the Barnetts. There’s a good few degrees of separation, but Mr. Barnett, the brother of our friend Daniel’s mother’s friend, was willing to host us and that was good enough for us.
Mr. Barnett picked us up from the airport, gave us an impromptu tour driving around the city and then back to his house. I really didn’t do my research before coming so I was surprised to find that Table Mountain is in the middle of the city. Mr. Barnett told us it was once three times its current size, but the winds slowly leveled it so it is now much smaller then it once was and its summit is now completely flat.
We got to the house and Jaime and I were shown to our rooms with our very own bathrooms, a luxury I hadn’t had since September!
The Barnetts were our South African Brady Brunch. The Mr. and Mrs. are two divorcees who met through their sons at school. Between their two previous marriages there was a dizzying array of sons and daughters, belonging to one or the other constantly coming in and out of the house. And the house itself was gorgeous. It was located in one of the more posh areas of Cape Town, Camp’s Bay, nestled between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head Mountain with picturesque views of both. (The latter is named because it slightly resembles a lion lying down. At the opposite end of the mountain is lion’s rump, aka Signal Hill, where right below a cannon called the Noon Gun is fired everyday at, yep, you guessed it, 12 noon).
We went out our first night with one of the many Barnett kids, only mere hours after landing. The only real note of interest from that first night out is our discovery that our impressive first-hand knowledge of the English language isn’t nearly as impressive in an English-speaking country as it was in Russia. So while we are no longer instant celebrities the second we open our mouths, we do now get to have real conversations.
We spent a ton of time during our stay with the Barnetts at a seaside mall called the V&A Waterfront, sometimes going there twice a day. We had lunch while watching the African dance performances, wandered around book stores and strolled (arm in arm) by the ocean.
One of the daughters also dragged us out of bed at 6:30 in the morning to go down to Clifton’s Fourth, one of Cape Town’s many amazing beaches. She was training for a triathlon and was scheduled to do an ocean swim. The beach was absolutely deserted, and the sand was really clean. The Atlantic was damn near freezing so she and I decided to pass, but Jaime ran in while we watched. Just watching him got me cold. But the weather on the whole is really nice. They talk about there being four seasons (rain, wind, sun, and way too hot) in a day, but even the occasional sudden shower beats the constant freezing of Russia.
Saturday afternoon we were dropped off at the Home-Base. First reaction, very intimidating and overwhelming. And it stayed that way for much of my first week. As irrational as it was, Jaime and I couldn’t help ourselves in imagining CCS South Africa to be CCS Russia in Cape Town complete with South African versions of the same volunteers and staff we got close to in Yaroslavl. And from everything from the weather to the house to the people, we quickly found out that Russia, this is not.
Between Sunday and Saturday I went from the Hotel Kotorosl in Yaroslavl, Russia to my sister’s apartment in New York, to a posh house in Cape Town, to a packed house in a not-nearly-as-nice neighborhood of Cape Town. And there are 17 volunteers here! 17! The most we ever had in Russia was seven and that was only for my first week.
Everybody’s pretty interesting, and it’s fun to find out everybody’s reasons for coming to Africa. We range in age from 18-41 with a bunch of us on the younger side. There’s one girl who also went to CCS Russia and another who plans on organic farming (WWOOFing) in Europe like Jaime and I after the new year. Among the three Canadians and 14 Americans, a bunch are college-aged and are either taking time off during school or just not ready to start.
So after recuperating from being in three continents in four days, and four different beds in six days and meeting everybody, there was a whole new city to explore! And we’ve been doing our best at it. Already in the two weeks since I’ve gotten to Cape Town, I’ve been to Robben Island, hiked up Table Mountain, went on a pseudo-safari, went to a holiday lights street festival and went to St. George’s Cathedral for World AIDS Day.
And Jaime and I are now busy planning a trip to Johannesburg (Jo’burg here) and a five day hiking trek along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. Pictures and stories to come from all that sooner or later.
I think it’s now getting time for me to wrap up this first dispatch from the Rainbow Nation. Tomorrow a bunch of us are going to run in a 10 km race (around 6.2 miles) at night, so I need my rest. It does seem a little silly to say it, but everything here is very different from Russia. And different of course takes some getting used to, but I’m really enjoying myself. Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving wherever you were! We made dinner here at the CCS Home-Base ourselves, and (with a ton of help from one of the cooks) my garlic mashed potatoes came out alright.