Saturday, December 28, 2013

A little r&r at -8 fahrenheit

I'm in Indiana for a little holiday and family R&R.  I wasn't sure I was going to be able to leave Johannesburg last Wednesday. Delta passengers were informed that the airline computers were down and we would be checked in using a manual check-in process

"Manual check-in process" translates to three hours waiting in line to confirm your seat, show your passport, drop your bags, answer security questions, and visit with other passengers. In the space of three hours, I met a safari guide, an oilman from Pensacola, Florida who has alternated five week stints in Angola with one week in Florida for the last three years, and a travel group of "birders."  The oilman informed me that fracking has been going on since the 1950's and the birders invited me to dinner. It is always amazing what you learn when you look up from your devices and chat with people.

"Manual check-in process" also means you get a "check" next to your name on a dot matrix print-out of passengers, handwritten luggage tags, and no overweight charges on baggage given that the scales were not working. I was very excited about the latter as I was carrying an extra bag for a South African couple sending gifts to their daughter in the US. Now if Delta had thrown in a few free drinks and use of the airport lounge life would have been sweet.

Touched down in Indianapolis to family (human and canine), friends, and Christmas cheer. We headed north and spent a few days in negative Fahrenheit temperatures on my parent's farm in north central Wisconsin. For my Celsius readers, note that -8F is -22.2222C. There is something decidedly cheery when the sun is shinning brightly and one thinks to oneself, "Wow it is much warmer today even though it is only 14F." Especially when the near sunrise pictures look like this. These views tempt us to buy land every time we visit.

I've grant reports to prepare, articles to map out, work meetings to schedule, and annual assessments to write before heading back to South Africa. But today, well today, is for family, friends, and the Flat 12 tasting room at 5:00 pm. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

A room with a view.

The LRC Library is on the 16th floor of the Bram Fischer building. My desk is tucked in beside a window. As a result I have a spectacular city view. I also have amazing views of incoming storms as well. The sky goes from bright blue to grey with terrifying lightning patterns, monsoon rains, and hail in just minutes. 

I went up on the 17th floor to take some photographs because it was such a gorgeous day; or at least until 3:45 in the afternoon. As you can see, Jo'burg sprawls out. The city's official population is around 4.4 million. It is likely higher due to the homeless and all the illegal housing in abandoned buildings. 

Candle burns for Mandela

The hills in the distance are actually mine dumps which are causing many environmental issues.

These last two photographs are for my father, and the handful of other cigarette smokers I know. This is the building's 17th floor smoking lounge. Not to shabby, I might consider taking up smoking if I had this idyllic spot. 

Smoking Lounge: sit, smoke, and take in the views!

Monday, December 9, 2013

nelson mandela 1918-2013

Being a visitor in a country in mourning is an indescribable experience. The news of Nelson Mandala's death was released here late on Thursday evening. South Africans immediately started gathering in places of importance in his life and memorial spaces here in the city of Johannesburg and its suburbs.

His home in the suburb of Houghton is a short drive from my guest house. I went early Saturday morning to pay my respects. Flowers, tributes, and burning candles were already creating an informal memorial. 

I went back in the early afternoon. The number of visitors had substantially increased; and there was a spirit of celebration. There was chanting and dancing. At one point the crowd started singing the national anthem and there were visible signs of emotion on many faces. 

I stopped back to Nelson Mandela's home late on Sunday afternoon. By now the flowers were waist height, eight feet deep, and spanned the entire street. 

On Sunday the number of visitors outside his home was reported to be in the thousands. There is no way to describe or define the crowd, other than to say that in the spirit of Nelson Mandela all knew they would be welcomed and thus, all came. In the crowd, I heard a multitude of languages. In addition to English, I heard traditional African languages, French, Afrikaans, German, and some languages I didn't recognize. Every race and creed came to lay flowers, light candles, leave tributes, and celebrate a life.

As a visitor there is a pressure to bear witness - to transfer the experience of this world event to photographs and words for those that are not here. I am in no doubt that the hundreds of the members of the national and international press corps that are here will have better photographs and more eloquent words. But for those that asked, here are a few words and images. 

I overheard a mother respond to her child's question regarding the purpose of the flowers and candles with these words, "We want to celebrate that Madiba is at peace with the ancestors." In the end, that is perhaps the best description of the events taking place here in South Africa this week. We are celebrating the legacy of a life selflessly dedicated to the advancement of a country and its people.

There will be time next week and in the months that follow to discuss and determine how this 20-year old democracy will fare when Nelson Mandela's iconic role in the anti-apartheid struggle, powerful message of forgiveness, and charismatic personality begins to distance from the current day African National Congress. The struggle continues here and there are many days when it is not certain that the South Africans will have the will to carry on the work of Nelson Mandela and the many other freedom fighters. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Great Equalizer (a/k/a the public beach)

After a day of meetings on Friday, I had a Saturday to explore Durban, the second largest city in South Africa. Durban retains a colonial feel, with wide boulevards and palm trees. The city stretches along the coast of the Mozambique Channel/Indian Ocean and is home to the largest concentration of people of Indian descent outside India.

The public beachfront nestles against high-rise buildings. 

All are welcome on it: 

the devout,

the surfers and swimmers who brave the chilly water and dangerous current,

the artists,

Note the copyright marking!
the skateboarders,

and the tourists and beach strollers.

Late afternoon I headed north to my hotel near Umhlanga Rocks (about a 25-minute drive up the coast). The storm that was brewing all day was still brewing and it made for a dramatic and windy early evening walk on the beach.

Umhlanga Rocks is one place I'd like to come back to some day.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Bibliophile's Dream: Losing Money Eloquently

I often joke with friends that I have outlived my dream; the dream of owning an independent bookstore. Age, technology, consumer preferences, and financial obligations, all seem to have conspired against me. Perhaps that is why I never pass up an opportunity to visit and support independent bookstores. I admire the talent, cleverness, and business acumen of independent booksellers and the uniqueness of their shops. 

Here in South Africa I've stumbled across two amazing bookstores, one in Melville, a suburb of Johannesburg, and the other in Durban.  "Love Books" is part of a rehabbed and re-purposed service station in Melville (the trendy, fun, college neighborhood).  

The building has been converted into the Bamboo Center, a series of connected shops, including, among others, the Service Station Café, a children's store, design gallery, spa, art gallery, Black Coffee, which features South African couture, and a resale shop with some extraordinary items.

Every weekend there is a rooftop organic farmer's market. Just follow the flags. No boring green tents here -- all the stalls have colorful fabric side panels and roof tops.

Love Books opens to the Service Station Café. So you can stroll through with your coffee, pull up a chair, or park yourself in one of the tucked away chairs.

Out of habit, I browsed the young adult section and found many favorite authors.

I found Ike's Books & Collectibles in the Lonely Planet Guide to South Africa. I had a day to spend in Durban and wanted to stay off the beaten tourist path. After a stroll along the beach which included dipping my toes in the cold, repeat cold, Indian Ocean I headed off to Ike's. 

Ike Mayet opened Ike's Books in 1988, becoming the first South African “Africana and antiquarian” book-dealer of colour. He taught himself how to restore books and began the restoration of the rare books in the Gandhi Library located in Durban’s “Indian Quarter." I recently read that Gandhi developed his philosophy of non-violent resistance (Satyagraha) in Durban and Johannesburg during the anti-apartheid struggle.

The bookstore was a meeting point for many activists during the anti-apartheid struggle. The current Florida Road location was officially opened in 2001 by South African author J M Coetzee. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003..

I spent a bit of time talking with one of the current owners. She herself restores books and we sympathized about the lack of appreciation for the talent and time the work takes.

Ike’s had a steady stream of visitors on the Saturday that I was there. In addition, the bookstore hosts book launches on its lovely second floor balcony and has an internet site as well. 

Despite this, her partner noted the life of a used bookseller can be summed up as one of “losing money eloquently.”

I buy the occasional lottery ticket to keep alive the possibility of "losing money eloquently." In the meantime, I keep shopping at my Indianapolis favorite independent bookseller, Big Hat Books, where Liz Houghton Barden makes everyone that walks in feel like an old friend.