Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mandela's Cell

The door to the cell block in which Mandela was imprisoned (KK)
The moody weather seemed fitting, and the boat passengers—some of whom had earlier shrieked and laughed at the big waves—became more subdued as we approached Robben Island. We were with more than a hundred people of many colors and nationalities, all taking the short trip from Cape Town to the place where Nelson Mandela and many others were incarcerated during the apartheid era.

Despite the gray skies, the island at first glance looked more like a resort than a prison. Along the coastline was a group of small buildings and a white steepled church, with a lighthouse on a slight rise above them. But then we came into the harbor, where thousands of black cormorants stood on the jetties like witnesses waiting to give testimony. Grim stone buildings lined the wharf, and the sign over the gate in the high prison wall was a disturbing vestige of the time when the prison was built. In English and Afrikaans, it said “We Serve with Pride.” 

Many of the sights we saw on a bus tour around the island were unexpected—World War II gun emplacements, flocks of guinea fowl, some springbok grazing in a field. Most surprising of all was a primary school, and we learned that quite a number of people now live on the island and work at the museum. The school is for their children.

Near it, we passed a medium security prison, now empty, that our guide said was built to keep those convicted of such crimes as murder or rape apart from the people the authorities clearly considered to be the real threat. The political prisoners were the ones sent to the maximum security prison.

Maximum security. (KK)

We got off the bus there, met by a man who himself spent seven years in one of the prison’s 40-person cells. Until the Red Cross intervened in the 1970s, he told us, the prisoners there slept on mats on the floor. Forty men shared one bathroom with a few sinks, a few open stalls and a few showerheads. But at least they had access to a bathroom after late-afternoon lockdown, he said. Prisoners in solitary cells, like Mandela, did not.

The prisoners here were all male and none of them were white. How the men were housed and how many letters and visitors they could receive a month depended on the guards’ assessment of their behavior. What they got to eat depended on their race—black prisoners got skimpier rations than Asian and mixed-race prisoners. One thing they shared equally was hard labor. They all worked in the rock quarries with hand tools all day, five days a week.

Our guide, speaking with admiration of Mr. Nelson Mandela. (KK)

On the way to Mandela’s cell block, our guide paused to note that South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, was also once imprisoned there. So was the current vice president. So was the minister of justice and a whole list of other officials in the present government. I thought about my friend in Montevideo who described the current president of Uruguay as a former terrorist. Times change, prevailing views change, and in both these countries, people who once tried to overthrow the government now run the government.

The demise of South Africa’s old system is unquestionably good, and Mandela is rightly revered for leading his country toward peace, justice and reconciliation. But even though the formerly outlawed ANC is now in power, neither our guide nor the museum tried to oversimplify the story. The exhibits don’t gloss over the fact that Mandela advocated armed resistance to the apartheid regime. And the man who showed us around said frankly that he himself had been one of those who at least intended to fight violence with violence. 


I had trouble understanding our guide’s accent and so missed part of his story. What I did get was this: in the early 1970s, when he was 21, he decided that nonviolent protests were ineffective. He went to Angola to train for armed struggle. He came back to Soweto—and I didn’t catch what happened next.

I wish I had understood all he said. He may have committed crimes or he may have been wrongfully imprisoned, I don’t know. But if he did engage in violent acts, he did so in reaction to the horrifying system of apartheid. And so his story—like the museum—raised the age-old question: When, if ever, is violence justified?

It raised the question and left visitors to answer it for themselves, and that impressed me greatly. Just standing in the prison yard thinking these thoughts deepened my respect for South Africans, who have wrestled with such difficult, emotionally charged issues for decades. They have reinvented their country since Mandela’s release. They talk with justifiable pride about the rainbow nation and about South Africa’s wide-ranging human rights legislation. They acknowledge their country’s shameful history while insisting all that is behind them. “We’re united now,” they say.

And to a great extent, that seems to be true, though the scars of apartheid are still visible. The townships are still poor, segregated places, and the gap between metal shanties and lavish seaside homes is wide. Cape Town’s District Six is still mostly overgrown fields, all that remains of a once-vibrant neighborhood bulldozed when the city was declared a place where only whites could live.

Yet it was a white South African who told me about the travesty perpetrated in District Six. You see multi-racial groups and inter-racial couples out and about in Cape Town—not a lot of them, but some. And much of the rhetoric that preceded the recent election here seemed to be a competition about which party was the most inclusive, the most broadly representative.

Problems clearly remain. Like the United States, like every country created by human beings, South Africa is a work in progress. But its citizens’ frankness about the past is impressive. And the degree of recent progress is striking.
That came home to me on Robben Island when it was my turn to look through the bars at Mandela’s prison cell. I had seen pictures, and it was as tiny and bare as I expected, a small, stark rectangle with a sleeping mat, a wooden stool and a bucket to use as a toilet. One barred window looked out on the concrete prison yard, the barred door into the long, bleak corridor of other cells.



I marveled as many have before me at the spritual strength it took to spend years on end there and in other prison cells and come out advocating reconciliation. But what struck me even more was the fact that Mandela’s time in this cell was not really that long ago.

It gives me hope to realize what tremendous changes can take place in less than a lifetime. If a system as repellent as apartheid was so entrenched just a few decades ago and is now gone, what other horrors might we one day be able to eliminate?


Our guide, a former political prisoner, leaving the prison at the end of the tour. (KK)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Language Barriers

After four months in South America—where often my Baby Spanish had me struggling to ask simple questions, much less express a complex thought—being in an English-speaking country feels like a mental vacation. Many people in South Africa speak Afrikaans or Xhosa or other languages, but everyone we’ve encountered so far speaks English too.

Shopping and asking directions are suddenly simple matters, and I can do things like amble over to the guy in the Baboon Management Team shirt, ask why his colleagues are chasing that pair of baboons up the hillside, and actually understand the answer. (It turns out that baboon raids on garbage and gardens are a big problem around here, for the animals and the homeowners alike, and the company these guys work for was encouraging a wandering troop to go back into safer territory.)

Still, as we know from our Canadian childhoods, the English language is not necessarily the same the world over. People here speak more formally than most people in the U.S. They say “How do you do?” on meeting someone and “Good afternoon” instead of “Hi.” Other common phrases are different too. The response to “Thank you” here is “My pleasure” or just a lilting “Pleasure.” And today when we wandered up to the plant nursery at the nature reserve, we enjoyed the sign on the locked door:

But even after noticing these differences, I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be to read the newspaper. South Africans across the country go to the polls tomorrow to vote for local officials, and I decided to read up on the issues in the Cape Times. It was clear enough that the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) are running opposing candidates, but determining their stands from the quotes in the articles was quite a different matter.

“It’s no good voting ANC on Wednesday and toyi-toying on Thursday,” the DA leader announced. That party’s candidate for Cape Town mayor promised that, if elected, she would roll out services to all backyarders, a constituency new to me.

It wasn’t just the DA that had me scratching my head. On the other side of the ballot, the ANC youth league president said of the DA leader, “The madam is now running the show alone.” Clearly he was being critical, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on what the madam is thought to be up to.

Political rallies have quite a different flavor here, according to the papers. At the ANC’s big Cape Town rally on Monday, their candidate for mayor was reportedly set upon by a group of elderly women who embraced him and knocked him off his feet. Then he was lifted onto the shoulders of several men and paraded around the stadium. Not to be outdone, at her rally the DA leader “danced with party followers at length after taking to the stage.” Local elections in the U.S. might get better turnouts if our get-out-the-vote events were this entertaining.

But the political reporting here can be less than riveting. A radio news broadcast we heard the other day began with the news that such-and-such a group had presented a memorandum to some government official or other. I can see my editor at the newspaper where I used to work rolling her eyes over such a yawner of a lede and sending it back for revision.

Then again, the presenting of memoranda—dull as it sounds—seems to be a big deal around here. The newspaper quoted the DA leader telling folks at one municipality, “I thought that President Zuma might have done something after I delivered your memorandum to him.” Whatever the issue is, whatever I’m missing by not quite knowing the language here, there’s no mistaking the acidity in that statement.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Passage to India

Travel is exciting. Travel is broadening. And sometimes travel is a real pain. Take last Wednesday for instance, when Rie and I planned to meet in Buenos Aires for a night flight to South Africa.

At 6:45 that morning, Rie was a good way down Argentina’s coast, where she’d been traveling with her son Zach. She planned to fly from the little town of Trelew to the domestic airport at Buenos Aires, then cross the city and meet me at the international airport.  

But her morning flight was cancelled due to a strike. At first the airline dangled the possibility of an afternoon flight, but then they cancelled that too. The agent told Rie another airline had a flight from another small airport, Puerto Madryn, 55 kilometers away. The agent didn’t have their phone number, but she directed Rie to the airline's office in Trelew.

In the office, Rie learned that flight, her last hope of getting out of Patagonia that day, was full, and she started to worry about both getting to Africa and reaching me. But then a little kindness changed the course of events. When she asked the agent where she could access WiFi, he said, “Just sit here” and gave her the airline’s own password. So she was still in his office when he got a call saying a passenger had cancelled. He called the Puerto Madryn airport, gave them her information and said she was on her way.

Which she very quickly was, in a taxi, in a plane to Buenos Aires, then in a taxi from one airport to the other. But heavy traffic slowed her down, and she watched the long buffer she’d given herself before our Africa flight tick away.

Meanwhile, I was trying to get from downtown Buenos Aires back to my B&B and then out to the international airport. Three separate street demonstrations clogged the avenue—at one, policemen in full riot gear lined the street, though nothing particularly dramatic was happening. Then, at a stop light in about eight lanes of traffic, my taxi broke down. Either that or it ran out of gas--I didn't know or particularly care which. While sitting there,  I realized that because the slow journey had pushed the meter higher than I expected, I needed to get more cash to pay for my airport cab.

Fortunately, we were only about ten blocks from the B&B. So I paid the hapless driver, wished him luck getting his car going again and got out. Miraculously, an ATM appeared on the corner. I got my money and made it to the B&B before my airport ride vanished. But even when Rie and I reunited—much relieved—at the airport, our troubles weren’t over.

We both know that countries can refuse to let you enter unless you can show you have a ticket out—and that airlines, aware of this, can refuse to let you fly. We both know this but somehow we forgot, maybe because when we entered Ecuador, Perú, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—all border crossings at which we had proof of onward travel in hand—no one ever asked for it. But at the check-in counter for Cape Town, they did.

The agent was patient, having clearly come up against this many times before. No, we couldn’t buy a ticket from him. Go to the internet lounge, he said, and buy ourselves any old ticket out of South Africa. “Maputo in Mozambique is often the cheapest,” he added helpfully. 

He directed us upstairs, where we found nothing but a café and the entrance to the boarding gates. We trudged back down to the information desk.

“Oh no,” said the woman there. “There’s no internet lounge. Go back up to the café. There’s WiFi there. Buy a drink or something and they’ll give you the password.”

Back up the escalators. We ordered and I asked for the password. “Oh no,” the waiter said. “I can’t give you the password.  Go downstairs to the telecommunications center. You can buy an access card there.”

Back downstairs, find the telecommunications center. “Oh no. We don’t sell cards. You have to use the computers here.” I longed for the days when you bought tickets from actual human beings at actual ticket counters.

Upstairs again. Get the food to go, get our bags, trundle back downstairs. By now, we were starting to worry about making our flight. So when we finally got online, we worked fast. We could buy a ticket to Maputo, true, but we had no idea whether we’d ever use that, or when we’d use it if we did. And we always planned to go to New Delhi in the fall. We didn’t have a firm date in mind, so we chose our grandmother’s birthday more or less out of the air—though it is a Tuesday, often a cheaper day to travel. We found a fare that seemed reasonable and with no more planning than that, we booked a flight to India.

There was one last snag—the booking engine came back with a message saying we’d get confirmation by email within 24 hours. 24 hours! We needed it right then! But then Rie figured out how to access the transaction record and soon we had the crucial booking number to take back to the check-in desk.

By then, the line had vanished, and security and passport control were a breeze. The flight was smooth, the food wasn’t bad, and the view of Cape Town’s mountains from the air more than made up for the stress and hassle of getting there. And now we’re in Hermanus, with a hilly nature reserve on one side of us, rocky seacoast on the other. Already we’ve seen whales breaching and blowing just offshore and baboons scrambling through the bushes. And once again, all this travel seems like a good idea, these four months in Africa an exciting prospect, and our unexpectedly definite passage to India something to look forward to down the line.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Saturday Afternoon in Montevideo

The other day, I had one of those moments of pure gratitude just to be where I was in the world. I was sitting in a riverside restaurant in Montevideo, outdoors at a wooden table painted bright red, looking over a broad green playing field where a dad with his jeans rolled up kicked a soccer ball around with two young kids. Beyond the field, the wide Río de la Plata stretched to the horizon, Argentina invisible on the far shore. On the river, dozens of little white sailboats tacked into the wind, and on the shore, near a thin white line of surf, about twenty white gulls rose in a flurry against the blue sky.

I had come to Uruguay on my own. For the first time in four and a half months, Rie and I aren’t traveling together, though we will reunite in a few days to fly to South Africa. After my daughter, Annie, flew home to Boston, Rie and her son Zach headed south to Argentina’s Peninsula Valdés. I took a ferry and then a bus to Montevideo to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in almost 30 years.

Way back when, Rosina designed Cornell Cinema’s monthly calendar and I wrote the film summaries. We used to sit in a little office upstairs in Willard Straight Hall, Rosina at her drawing board, me at the typewriter, laughing, giving each other a hard time and agreeing that our joint productions were works of genius. When her husband finished vet school and they moved back to Montevideo, we exchanged a few letters and then lost contact.

But now there’s Facebook and it was easy enough to find her email address. And when I got off the bus, it took us just seconds to recognize each other. She wrapped me in a huge hug, lit a cigarette, and sat us down right there in the bus station so we could lose no time catching up. She had choir rehearsal that night—her youngest daughter will get married next month and she and a couple dozen other members of the family will sing at the wedding. So we talked fast--our families, our children, our work. Then Daniel called to say he was coming to pick us up.

“I love that man!” she said, kissing her cell phone. “He is so nice!”

They drove me through dark streets—palm trees, plazas, nineteenth-century mansions—and dropped me at my hotel. The next morning, when I called, Rosina said hoarsely, “I thought you were going to sleep in.”
“I did.” It was maybe 10:30. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I’ve been up for an hour. I’m sitting in bed knitting.” These days, she has a small business designing and making clothing, pillows and other things.

She picked me up and drove us east along a curving beach lined with apartment buildings, through a leafy neighborhood of low houses, and then out to see the new air terminal east of town, a white swoop of a building, gleaming and graceful.

She smoked and drove and filled me in on Uruguayan politics. She described a recent vote to keep a law giving the military amnesty for misdeeds during the junta of the late 70s and early 80s.

“Why?” I asked, fresh in my mind the museum in Córdoba that memorialized Argentina’s disappeared. I knew there’d been abuse and torture in Uruguay during that era as well.

“First of all,” she said, “those who did the worst things are already in prison. There was a provision in the law that they could prosecute those there was a clear case against. And people don’t want to remember that time. And they recognize that we need the militars, even if sometimes they go too far. In every country, the militars go too far. What they did, they did in response to the actions of the terrorists.”

She had already told me the president of the country is a former terrorist—and that there’s a shopping mall where once a prison held guerillas. The president wants to revoke the amnesty law and the U.N. Commission for Human Rights wants it gone too.

“But our national government should come before an international government,” she said. “And the people have voted to keep the law.”

“Uruguayans love democracy,” she said at another point. “It is a passion.”

We pulled into a green park in front of a big stone mansion that’s now an art museum, its cupola haunted, local legend says, by the mad daughter of the mansion’s former owner. Inside was an exhibit that used newspaper ads from an 80s-era propaganda campaign to say something—neither of us could figure out exactly what—about those times, about violence and memory. We gave up trying to parse the artist´s meaning and wandered out to the Japanese garden out back, but it was closed for repairs.

So we drove down a tree-lined avenue filled with dappled light to the anthropology museum in another old mansion, one Rosina remembered from her childhood, when it belonged to a friend of her father’s. The rooms had great high windows, hideous flocked wallpaper and a cobblestoned courtyard with an ornate fountain. The displays depicted bygone occupations, a tinsmith, a marble cutter, a knife sharpener, a man who made brooms. One showed a man with a bag of raw wool and a contraption with curved metal teeth.

“I remember that,” Rosina said. “Men would come around to your house and open up the mattresses along the seam, take out the wool, fluff it up again and put it back in. Afterwards, the mattress would be so soft.”

Her own neighborhood, Prado, was old and mainly elegant, but with the occasional surprising juxtaposition. The president’s mansion, where he lives when he isn’t at his farm, is a block away from some buildings used for cattle expositions. We drove into a park with a curving arroyo and a huge rose garden—very famous, Rosina said—and pulled up next to a memorial depicting the last five members of the Charrúa, an indigenous group hunted to extinction.

“We will visit them,” she said, spraying the smoky car with air freshener as we got out. “It’s a great story, a great story.”

Though there were only about 6000 Charrúa, they resisted Spanish domination for 300 years, she said. “Can  you imagine? 300 years.” They adopted only those aspects of the invading culture that appealed to them, including horses and playing cards. It was the playing cards that set Rosina on a year-long project researching them. Back in the late 90s, the company she worked for asked her to extrapolate the missing cards from a partial deck, made out of rawhide, that the people the statues depicted had left behind in France.

The last members of the tribe were in France because they’d been taken there early in the 19th century to be studied in some institute or other. When the scientists were done with them, they were sold to a circus. Two of the men escaped and were never heard of again. The other man and the woman had a child, born in a French hospital, the woman squatting on the floor and letting no one near her but her husband. She died soon after, but the man took the baby and escaped. He too was never heard of again.

“Isn’t that a great story?”

“A tragic story.”
“But so great that they held to their own ways for 300 years. They didn’t give in, even though it would have been an easier life.”

We went on to her house, the same house she lived in from the time she was 15 until she married Daniel. Her family used to live nearby when she was very young, and one day, she said, her father went out for a walk. When he came back, he said to her mother, “Guess what? I bought the house on the corner.”

It was in terrible repair then. Now, at about 180 years old, it’s a simple and gracious place, a large, square, flat-roofed, yellow-painted structure surrounded by tall, leafy trees and a high iron fence. Past the loose-stone courtyard out back is a smaller house where Rosina’s oldest daughter lives with her husband and cherubic baby.

Inside, the house had walls painted in warm colors, wood and tile floors, high ceilings and wooden shutters on tall narrow windows covered in lace. The décor was the appealing hodgepodge it takes several generations to accumulate—crucifixes, paintings, demitasse cups, family photographs, sea shells, a tray of maté gourds and thermoses. In the bathroom was the poster Rosina designed for the Antonioni retrospective that Cornell Cinema put on thirty years ago.

A few days and several outings-about-town later, we were back at her house, sitting in the living room eating the meat Daniel grilled for us in the fireplace, slices of chorizo, beef and pork on little rounds of bread. Earlier, I’d helped her sew together the brightly colored crocheted pillows she was making for a customer, and as we worked she smoked and we talked and teased just as we’d done so many years ago. When I told her I had finished my pillow she said, “You’re finished, OK. But is it good?”

I laughed. “It’s genius,” I said.

Now we were eating Uruguayan beef and sipping Uruguayan wine as eucalyptus wood popped loudly in the fireplace. My mind was pleasantly full of plazas, museums, cathedrals and recommendations for movies I should see, writers I should read. I was so glad I’d come to Montevideo—partly for all that, but mostly for the joy of finding that my old friend is much as I remembered her and that her life is happy and full.

Sitting in the riverside restaurant the next afternoon, I realized that though I’ll have a few more days in Buenos Aires, that cozy evening by the fire felt like the real end point to these four good months in South America. I can’t imagine a better finale.