Monday, September 27, 2010

Anna Banana turns 6

Miss Anna B finally had her 6th birthday! She is feeling quite mature and I am afraid she thinks she just turned 13. Anna celebrated her big day in Cape Town at the Two Seas Aquarium followed by a boat ride around the harbor. It was a treat to see the old fishing boats, massive oil tankers, and commercial cargo ships but the highlight of the tour was observing the sea life.  We were able to watch two seals swim around and others lay around lazily in large tires strapped to the pier. I thought that would be the most amazing sea life we would observe until Trent spotted two whales spouting water about a hundred yards from our little boat.  Even though it is whale season we were still pleasantly surprised to be able to witness two whales playing around so close to the harbor. After our quick boating excursion we ventured around the V&A Waterfront, which is a shoppers paradise! Before heading back to our cottage we stopped at a 50's style diner, Dodge City, for sundaes. Anna ordered the sparkling birthday sundae which included a lit sparkler! That was much more exciting then a plain old slice of birthday cake. It was a rainy, cold day but nothing could put a damper on her royal highness's celebration. I know she is truly my daughter as I can't count the number of times she said "but it's my birthday" as she expected every minute of the day to revolve around her!

Before we left for the Cape, Anna was able to celebrate her birthday with 21 of her classmates at school. Listening to them sing "Happy Birthday" was the cutest thing ever. Their accent makes everything sound better! Anna has made great friends at her school. Her best girlfriends are Cabu, Jess and Jessica and although she hates to admit it I see her playing with a few of the boys just as often as the girls. Anna took cupcakes to class along with goodie bags. I was greeted with huge hugs from each child when I showed up with their treats. You would have thought it was Christmas by seeing how pleased the children were with the sweets and gifts. Anna passed out the cupcakes to her patiently waiting friends and each child responded with "thank you Anna". It was a great little party and of course the best part was there was no clean-up or late stayers!

Because we are out of town for her birthday we let her open some of her presents before we left and she will get to open the rest when we get home. Nana gave Anna a real Barbie (which I refuse to buy here because they cost about $75.00) and she also opened up a mermaid doll and tea set.  All of our gifts were trumped by the $100.00 gift card that was sent by Grandpa Dan and Granny! Anna is so beside herself with the fact that she has R700.00 to spend her she can't decide what to buy first! She has even offered to pay for lunch a few times! All in all, Anna's 6th birthday will be one to remember!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Face to Face With Jaws

Everyone has experienced the reoccurring nightmare of a shark fin popping up out of the water as you enjoy a leisurely swim in the deep blue. I am in fact so terrified of this experience becoming a reality that I rarely venture farther out than waste deep when visiting the ocean. So how did I let Trent talk me into climbing aboard a boat heading for a well known Great White playground? Trent has been obsessed with sharks his whole life. In fact his favorite time for television is Shark Week on Discovery. Part of the reason I agreed to do this is I wanted to  support Trent while he fulfilled his wildest fantasy and the other part was probably due to my need to prove something to myself. I have let fear come between myself and opportunities one too many times and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least attempt this shark encounter. Plus I knew that even if I became overwhelmed by anxiety and refused to get in the cage I could still see the sharks from the safety of the boat!

We flew into Cape Town Friday, September 24th. Friday was a holiday in South Africa (Heritage Day) so we took advantage of Trent’s one weekend off to visit what is supposed to be the most beautiful part of South Africa. Although, we have only been here two days I would agree with that assessment. The Western Cape is a perfect postcard location! The beaches are incredible and there are quaint villages scattered all over the coast and everything is surrounded with lush green landscape and mountains. We have already seen quite a bit of the Cape as we drove about 2 ½ hours up the coast to the town of Gansbaii to board The Great White diving boat. About 15 minutes off the coast of this town is Dyer Island and home to the infamous sharks. On the way there I commented that it was a perfect sunny day to be at sea. Boy was I wrong. Although, it was sunny it was extremely windy and the water was ROUGH. The guide warned us before we got on the boat that it was going to be a bumpy ride, but I felt prepared for whatever lie ahead as I had taken Dramamine. The ride out to the dive spot was rough, and I felt a bit queasy, but it was manageable. It wasn’t until we anchored down and the boat began to rock violently back and forth that the slight queasiness turned into full blown nausea. As X-Man (the chummer) began to throw out the fish guts to attract the sharks I was concentrating so hard on not getting sick that I hardly noticed the dark shadow that began circling our boat. I was definitely not consumed by fear as I had presumed, but instead only mildly intrigued as I took slow, deep breaths and attempted to focus on anything other than the motion of the waves. I prayed that I would not get sick and when I realized that prayer was going to be denied I prayed that Anna (who gets motion sick in any moving vehicle) would not get sick. I could suffer through the experience but I knew it would be unbearable for Anna. I was so grateful that both her and Aiden not only did not get sick, but enjoyed every minute of the experience and behaved so incredibly well that I was able to focus my complete attention on myself.

Refusing to allow the sea sickness to completely ruin the experience I somehow managed to pull on a very tight wetsuit. The guide told me that I would probably feel better once I was in the water. Willing to do anything to feel better, I jumped into the cage without any hesitation. I was the first out of our group to get into the cage and it did not even occur to me until after it was over that I was alone in that cage for quite awhile before the other divers joined me. In a way it was a blessing to be sick as I was so completely focused on not puking that I had no available resources to encourage fear. Being in a cage in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was an interesting experience. There were bars above my head and inside to hold on to but I was to short to hook my feet on the bar below. My only positional options were to put my feet on the bars in front of me, which meant having my toes poking out of the cage or to let my feet dangle. It was a little disheartening to realize that my toes might become shark food if they drew any attention. We were fortunate enough to have 6 different Great Whites snack on our bait. When the sharks would come in close to the boat the guides would yell “down” and tell us which direction to look and we would dive under and hold our breath. It was eerily exciting to watch these predators swim by or chomp on bait right in front of our face, occasionally crashing into the cage in their attempt to remove the bait. While I did feel slightly better for most of the time I was in the cage, it was not long before the swaying cage got the best of me and I realized I was going to be sick. I could not believe that not only was I going to vomit but I was going to do it in a cage with 4 other divers, including Trent and my mom! Fortunately for all of us I was on the very far side of the cage and I was able to chum the water myself without getting it all over everyone! At one point one of the guides yelled down “are you going to be okay, do you want to get out?” and I remember saying, “I don’t know just yet” right before I lost the rest of my lunch. After it was over I was able to see a couple of more sharks underwater before calling it quits! I spent the rest of the trip, inside the boat trying to hold down any other stomach contents I may have left. It is sad to say but I was relieved to know I was not the only one that the sea got the best of. This poor guy that came with 3 of his friends spent the whole time holding on to two bars with his head over the boat. I felt so much empathy for him as he clearly looked like he wanted to die! You know someone is sick when freezing cold water is splashing all over them, their entire body is shaking uncontrollably but they can’t move! He wasn’t even able to move out of the way when my mom began launching her lunch up over the side of the boat and the direction of the wind forced the contents right onto the poor guy! That immediately triggered him to throw up again and then all three of us were hanging over the side of the boat! What a picture that must have been!

Even though we were sicker than dogs my mom and I agreed it was a worthwhile, once in a lifetime experience! Because so many of the divers were sick, Trent had a lot more opportunities to be in the cage, so he was thrilled! The very last shark sighting of the day included a 3.5 meter female smashing into the cage right next to Trent with her mouth wide open! Trent said it was so close he could literally count all of
her teeth! Everyone agreed that it was a great way to end the trip and we headed back to land. I was so excited to get off the boat! But even after feeling so miserable it was fun to watch the video and see myself disembarking with a big smile and both thumbs up!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Only White Boy on the Bus

While my inability to drive myself anywhere is frustrating (and pathetic) it has not made a significant impact on my overall enjoyment in being in Johannesburg. I admit I feel a bit claustrophobic at times and completely dependent on the goodwill of others but I am able to get out of the house enough (thanks to my friend and chauffeur Mandy) that I have not forced Trent to buy me an automatic car YET. There have been some occasions in which my manual transmission ineptness has left me feeling helpless and anxious and I frantically searched the web for an affordable and reliable automatic.

Since Trent started leaving for work earlier in the morning, we needed to figure out how to get Aiden to school. I spoke with the secretary at school and his teacher and they referred me to a driver that buses kids from all over the area. He has been in business a long time and came highly recommended. Buses here are not actually buses. They are mini-vans and the drivers are infamous for being horrible drivers. I was assured that Krish's transport service had a fine reputation and it would be perfectly safe. Before agreeing to use his services, Krish came by the house and we were able to ask him questions and Aiden was able to meet him. I prayed and prayed that we were making the right decision and although I would prefer to be able to drive him myself, I felt that this would be a safe alternative.

Aiden didn't say much about his new transportation method. We of course asked him if he would be okay with it and he said he was. That first morning of pickup as we were walking down to meet Krish at the gate of our complex, Aiden began to look anxious. He asked if all the kids on the bus were going to be black and I could see some fear in his eyes. I told him I wasn't sure but that it was a huge possibility, as the majority of white people have cars and drive here while many black individuals take public transportation. Aiden's lip began to quiver and although he tried to fight it, he started to cry. My heart ached as I watched my beautiful son cry with fear of the unknown. We stopped walking and I told Aiden that I would never do anything that would put him in danger and that I was sorry for the situation we were in. I promised him that if he did not feel safe or if it was an unpleasant experience I would do whatever I had to do to find him another way to get to school. While holding back my own tears I put on a brave face and tried to convince him that this was going to be a new and exciting experience. He was going to be one of the only American children I knew who traveled to school by mini- van in a foreign country with foreign friends! We then took the opportunity to strengthen our testimony of the power of prayer and asked Heavenly Father to help Aiden feel comforted and to know he was safe. Aiden stopped crying and we walked the rest of the way to wait for the bus. A few minutes later it pulled up and as I expected, carried only black children. Aiden climbed in, gave me a quick pleading look, found a seat and waved goodbye. The minute the bus pulled away I began to sob. I cried all the way back to the apartment. What had I just done? Not only did Aiden have to go to a new school in a foreign land but then I couldn’t even provide him some security by taking him myself. I waited about 20 minutes and then called the school to make sure he was okay. I was relieved to learn that not only did Aiden arrive there safely but that he was happily playing with his friends on the playground. When Aiden got home that afternoon he said that everything was fine and that he was perfectly okay with taking the bus. What an amazing and brave child I have. I envy the resilience and innocence of children.

Aiden has now been taking the bus for the past 2 weeks. He assures me that the driver is cautious and that he has made plenty of friends. A few days ago as we waited for the bus to come Aiden commented how much nicer it is that everyone talks the whole way to school now. He then said that the first couple of days no one said a word. When I asked if he meant no one talked to him or no one talked at all, he said no one talked at all! They all just sat there in silence! I couldn't help but laugh as I pictured the stunned look of all the children when my little white boy climbed onto that school bus the first day! Aiden was not the only one that experienced something new that day!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Receiving the "oh you stupid American" look

In some ways I am very careful and almost paranoid and then in other ways I am way too naive and trusting. I am finding it very difficult to choose which behavior to exhibit and when. Overall, I feel very safe and I love the people here. They are kind and helpful and I feel a wonderful energy from everyone I have met. I encounter so many people on a given day from the lawn guy, to a neighbor, to a grocery clerk and I am always amazed how guarded they are initially until I smile and say "hi, how are you?". Then in return I receive a huge smile, a warm "howzit" and a genuine connection is made. There is clearly still in invisible line between not only races, but classes and cultures here.  I am trying desperately to appear as if that division does not exist in my mind and that I live in the la-la land of equality and integrity! But that being said being charitable and kind can also be interpreted as being stupid and naive and I am ever weary that I might be taken advantage of.

We recently visited Hartbeespoort a beautiful town built around a massive dam (probably one of my favorite locations near Johannesburg to date). While we were there we went to a great flea market with African crafts. Trent and his friend Chris took Anna and his daughter Emily to walk around while me and Chris's wife Mandy and Aiden walked into the market and started browsing. Immediately, we were approached by a man, who having been trained in the art of sales, began convincing us how wonderful each item we looked at was and how we must have it! "Oh, you like this picture it is made from banana leaves", "look at this elephant it is made from ebony and is solid as a rock", etc. He then promises a fair price for all the items you may have touched and the negotiations begin.  My favorite part was after they give a price, which is obviously outrageous, and you say "no, thank you", then you get the "how much would you like to pay" or "how much do you think it is worth". After the price is settled and the money is paid another man suddenly appears and takes your goods "to wrap them" and now you have no choice but to follow him to his little section where the high pressure sales begin all over again.  The part that makes all of this even more unsettling is they are clever enough to have told you their names and asked for yours. A relationship is established and some small talk is made. Then the heart wrenching sob stories begin about how the giraffe mask was carved by his own two hands and this is his livelihood. And that is when I feel the looks of the 5 other sales people waiting to take me to their booths. They are all smiling and laughing with us and in their eyes I see desperation mixed with cunningness and that can be a painful combination for someone with a bleeding heart like myself. I so badly want to treat these people as fellow human beings. They too are just trying to make a living to survive in this world. But then there is this part of me that thinks "I am not a sucker,  I will not let you take advantage of me". So what do I do. I compromise. I buy the giraffe mask, which I know Toe-mas (this is how he pronounced his name) did not make with his own two hands because it has clearly been mass produced, for a slightly inflated price and then head towards the exit only being convinced to stop at one more place on the way where I buy a bowl! Fortunately, I love everything I bought but the experience of buying it was overwhelming and left me feeling swindled and anxious. My friend Mandy, having the same experience, jokingly said "if all my shopping experiences were like this I would be cured of shopping!".

I received the "oh you stupid American" look just a few days later while I was shopping at the local Pick N Pay (their version of Walmart). I placed my purse in the front part of the cart where a baby would sit, as I always do when I grocery shop (I know, I know). While I was trying to find Lipton Onion soup mix, which they do not have here, a man came up behind me and said "excuse me". I wasn't sure if he was talking to me so I hesitated before I turned around. When I finally did, I saw that he was in fact talking to me and he was an employee. The man introduced himself as security and then said "your purse". My heart started racing. My initial thought was he thinks I have stolen something. I responded with "yes, you can see my purse." He then said in his thick accent, "you need to keep your purse on you, I could have easily taken it". I was both relieved and alarmed at the same time. I wasn't being accused of stealing but I was being accused of being a moron. I saw the look and felt about 2 inches small. I hate that we live in a world where I can't leave my purse in the cart while I shop. I know I shouldn't be so foolish but I like to still believe that people are inherently good.  I guess the fact that I am surrounded by electric fences and security men at every store entrance and in every parking lot should be an indicator that this is just not the case!

This incident and others have made my skepticism rise. I do not like the ever increasing feeling of hardening inside my chest. When my house cleaner tells me her husband has lost his job and she is supporting the family, I want to believe she is telling me because we are now friends, not because she knows I will give her a bigger tip. When the man on the corner asks me for any amount of change I can spare because he is hungry I want to believe my money is going to feed him. And when my kids play in the park with some of their new friends I want to believe that they are making an impact on these future adults that we are not stupid Americans, but genuine, caring individuals who believe the best in people.