April 9, 2008

Back in the Saddle

I’ve returned to Mthatha following two relaxing weeks touring South Africa with my parents. Here are a few highlights.

We spent the first few days in Mthatha and Itipini. People in Itipini very warmly welcomed my parents and they hopped right into things, organizing some games and activities for all the students who were on a fall break from school. One night I invited Mkuseli, our after-school program director, and his family over for dinner. His wife and daughter got dressed to the nines in traditional Xhosa dress, which was neat, and we had a great evening.

Our next stop was Grahamstown where by a curious twist of luck three of my fellow YASC missionaries were – Matt, who lives there, Stephen, visiting from Klerksdorp on some post Holy Week R&R, and John, re-paying our New Year’s visit to Uganda. We had a great dinner together and caught up on all the news we don’t share on our blogs.

We’re not actually all the same height. We’re arranged just so on a ramp.

From Grahamstown, my parents and I took a circuitous route that took us through the elephants of Addo Park, the ritzy Garden Coast, the spectacular mountains of the Karoo, into the midst of an Afrikaner cultural festival, and down to the coast and Hermaneus, where we spent a night with Sarah Jackson, Matt’s roommate and a future volunteer in Itipini. In Hermaneus, I investigated just how much colder the Atlantic Ocean, fed by the Antarctic currents, is than the Indian. Answer: VERY! It honestly reminded me of a polar bear swim in Nome, Alaska. I also encountered Mthatha’s reputation among white South Africans. One representative guest house owner, upon hearing where I lived, asked, his voice dripping with scorn, “Mthatha! Who’d you have to kill to get sent there?” It didn’t endear him to me very much.

From there we headed into Cape Town, by this point pretty exhausted but enjoying the time together as a family. We hit several of the tourist highlights of Cape Town but skipped several others in favour of more relaxed events, like an afternoon at the movies (“Juno” for those of you interested) and an impressive tour of Parliament that almost didn’t happen because of some farcically bad directions and notably unhelpful security guards.

We also had a small reunion of people from St. John’s Northampton, the church in Massachusetts I grew up in. Linden, a family friend of ours, is studying abroad in Cape Town this semester, and we saw her for dinner. She’d brought a whole assortment of great gifts, including the local paper (now two months old but I still devoured it) and a parish profile they’re using to find a new rector.

On Friday morning, my father and I took a quick hike to the top of Lion’s Head, which has great views of Cape Town and Table Mountain.

On the way down from Lion’s Head.

After seeing off my parents at the airport that afternoon, I headed over to the movie theatre (“There Will Be Blood”) waiting for Linden to finish class. We met up that evening for another movie (“Michael Clayton”). There’s no movie theatre or video rental place in Mthatha; when I find myself near one, I’ve got to splurge!

On Saturday, Linden and I headed north, away from the tourist franticness of Cape Town and ended up at the seldom-visited West Coast National Park, which had a simply spectacular beach we spent the afternoon on, swimming and jumping off the sand dunes.

Bet you didn’t know I could do a handstand. Me neither.

I flew back to East London on Sunday to take a minibus-taxi back to Mthatha. John wanted to see Mthatha before heading back to Uganda and we had discussed the idea in broad generalities when we were in Grahamstown. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to get into specifics because John’s cell phone was taken from his car in Cape Town after he had helpfully left the door unlocked. I imagined we would meet at the East London taxi rank and ride up together. But as I arrived there, he called me and said, “I’m at the taxi rank” and I said, “Me too, where are you?” He said, “Mthatha” and I said, “East London.” Fortunately, saintly Jenny stepped into the gap and picked John up in Mthatha and entertained him for the afternoon while I rode up to Mthatha with the only taxi driver I’ve ever met who follows the speed limit.

I put John to work counting pills in the clinic. I’m not sure how much he enjoyed it.

Now I’m back to work in Itipini and happy to be back, sleeping in my own bed and returning to my routines. I’ve realized that being in white South Africa makes me decidedly uncomfortable for a number of reasons I haven’t quite pinpointed yet. Mthatha might be overwhelming and isolating but I’ve fashioned a kind of comfort and familiarity that is reassuring. I was warmly received when I returned to Itipini. They missed me!

One thing that has changed is the weather. It is quite cool, making me skip across my tiled floor when I get out of bed in the morning. It warms up during the afternoon but not to the face-melting heat we had earlier in the year. The sun is also setting noticeably earlier. Autumn has arrived.


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Kate said...

hey matt, jesse, stephen, and john!

looks like a wonderful trip jesse; i'm glad you got to spend some time with your folks and friends.

it makes me happy to see that picture of you all together! i miss you guys and am looking forward to a reunion of some type when we're all back in the states. keep me up to date on your plans! xo!