Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Grinding teeth

The other day, as people were filing out of the day's Mathematical Problem Solving session, Aurélie from Congo came to me with a crumpled up tissue in her stretched-out hand. She didn't seem happy, and it quickly became clear why: the tissue contained a sizable chip of one of her molars.

The Ghanaian tutor seemed completely undisturbed, while us two Europeans immediately got very agitated. "Did you do that in class?!" -- "Oui oui, just now." "What happened?" -- "Ah, I bit my tooth and it split". "Does it hurt??" -- "Mmm", nod. "You have to go see a dentist!"

I've never seen anything like that happen; where I'm from our teeth are usually so well-preserved that in our early twenties they don't just split in our mouths. But what happened then is even more unbelievable for someone from a country with public health care.

I managed to overcome the Ghanaian inertia and sent her off with another French speaker in one of AIMS' cars. Our secretary called up the dentist asking if the girl could come by that day with her split tooth, and whether this particular dentist would accept her insurance. "Sure, but she might have to wait for a while." When they got there though, Aurélie was told she had to pay for her treatment up front. Then she'd have to get reimbursed by the medical aid. Our students haven't gotten paid yet, and even when they do they only receive the equivalent of about EUR100, so paying for whatever it takes to fix a falling-apart tooth was not an option. And no, they couldn't just write her a bill.
So they went on to the next dentist, another 20 minutes driving. By the time they got there they were informed that "the Doctor has gone home, there are no more appointments today." And came back with Aurélie, member of a proper South African medical and dental plan, still in pain, with the crumbles of her tooth in hand.

She got an appointment for the next morning, when she could go back in and get the tooth -- extracted. Age twenty-something, one down, thirty-one to go.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

African dance party

One of the Egyptians decided there would be a dance party. Girls only, 16:00 on a Sunday afternoon. She was very insistent that the female tutors attend as well. Come the end of lunch today I wasn't really feeling in the mood for a very sober dance party in the ladies' wing, but it ended up being nothing short of epic.

When Scottish Emma and I showed up in Doaa's room, she -- a very rotund Arab -- had already gathered some followers, all of whom had dispensed with their headscarves and long dresses for the event. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts and cheering on the host doing some very impressive belly dance moves. She was ridiculously good, moving graciously and decisively despite the considerable mass she was moving around.

One by one Malagasy, Ugandans, Zambians and Basotho arrived, and the Egyptians, showing off their beautiful long hair, made us all dance. Even me. Cheering and clapping, tying scarves around everyone's hips and waving colorful headbands in sync (I assume there is usually some sort of proper dance accessory that is used for this, but alas, you make do with what you have).

No photos of the female dancers - instead, two of my fellow
tutors demonstrating Congolese dancing in the office.
The Moroccans joined in the belly dancing. The Nigerian rocked out, stepping and clapping and swinging her elbows. The Mosotho was stomping and swinging her hips. The Zambian, super shy sweet little girl, gave a show of textbook crazy African dancing, shaking booty and doing something with her knees that seemed to come straight from the 70s -- we all looked like frogs when we tried to imitate her. The Malagasy did a cute couple dance, standing behind each other, both facing the same direction,  holding hands and shuffling forward to traditional music. The Congolese taught us something that seemed very close to an African version of Macarena.

One of the Moroccans ran off to have a bath in the ocean, at about 12 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately there are no pictures, because my Muslim students absolutely refused to have any taken -- it was lovely to see their hair open though. And 1.5 hours of vigorous dancing it a) superseded all my expectations and b) made my workout for the day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Settling in

After 3 weeks in Muizenberg, I'm starting to feel like I'm getting the hang of the town, finding out about things to do and places to go. Funny, the first few days I felt like I'd been dumped in the middle of nowhere, isolated from civilization, and that's sort of true -- but there are redeeming factors.

One of the first things I picked up was going to the catholic church choir in St. James. One of my students located it. It's rather small, and full of old people, and requires going to catholic church. They even have a special mass before practice on Sunday!
But: the choir leader is part of a proper large choir in Cape Town, and took me along this Monday. They're doing Brahms' Requiem, and I was impressed with both the size (roundabout 120 singers) and the quality of the choir (everyone was sightreading, and really well at that; their German pronunciation was impeccable). People sing everywhere, in South Africa too! It's unclear that they have room for another alto, so I'll see if I keep going.

The next thing I tried to find was a judo club. On the internet -- which isn't really a thing in South Africa; coverage is very, very limited -- I found the phone number of a Judo club supposedly located right in Muizenberg, and rejoiced. Unfortunately it turns out that they moved 15km away, so out of range for me. But eventually I found a dance studio in town, where they have capoeira twice a week! I decided to check them out, the teacher lives above the studio and seems really nice. The first capoeira class is happening tonight; I'm really looking forward to it.

On the social front, we discovered the Blue Bird Garage, a local food market that happens weekly, in an old garage just about 3 minutes on foot from our house. Since we only got paid last week, it was the first time I had non-AIMS food in weeks, and it was lovely. I ate falafel, tom yum soup and samosas, and drank a lot of delicious South African wine. The crowd is full of locals, and it's one of the few places I've seen blacks and whites mixing and mingling -- although it's of course yuppie and, consequently, predominantly white. People are also very friendly and amenable to a little chat, a rare thing here.
A sort of sister-business to the market is the vegan cafe in town, whose existence I am quite excited about: they have pastel painted walls, wooden chairs and tables, lovely coffee, and home-made veganaise.

Then, one big thing to do in Muizenberg: surfing! They say this is the best learners' beach in all of the Western Cape: the bay protects in from rough weather, and the shore is very flat, so you can have long gently waves, or something like that. Clearly this is an opportunity not to be passed up, and Emma and I ventured to the surf school on Sunday afternoon. We were put into wet suits, handed surf boards and tried for about an hour to walk out into the waves, lie down on the board and get up on it. It's not easy. I sort of managed to get up a few times. Emma managed, after 20 minutes, to get the board between herself and the incoming waves, almost got hit in the face and snapped her thumb so bad that she's unable to use her hand for now. It's a lovely Scottish blue.
We are, however, not discouraged, and I'll be going back for more later this week... Practice, practice, practice.

Finally, we went to visit the penguin colony in Simon's Town, further down the cape. It was amazing: little penguins everywhere! They have a "penguin protection fence", but some of the nosy creatures obviously didn't mind at all, circumvented the fence and were poking their beaks out from under the boardwalk we were standing on -- they were incredibly cute. Sadly I don't think they'd make very good pets: they also smell very bad.

All in all, it looks like this might be an alright place to live for the year. And that's probably true of most places. Maybe this is my lesson to get out of living first in Waterloo and then here: even if somewhere looks like it lacks everything you want in a home town, over time you find your niche.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


1.) In the ocean. My colleague and roommate Emma and went running along the shore almost every day in the past two weeks. (Trying to stay in shape despite the not-so-healthy food at AIMS, this is the best thing we've come up with so far.) She's been spotting whales all over the place, and telling me about it excitedly every time. I haven't. I think they hide from me. But yesterday, finally, I got lucky: We were jogging along together when we noticed a lot of people pointing out into the ocean. And lo, there was a whale there! Really close, maybe 50 meters out from the furthest out rocks. We stopped to watch it, and noticed that there were two of them, a big one and a very small one. Now whales are actually very difficult to observe, because only small parts of them stick out of the water at any given time, and they look mostly like very flat, smooth black humps in the sea -- but we think it was a mother with her baby, possibly even giving birth right there. 

As if that wasn't enough, we managed to spot another two or three whales at other points in the bay. And just as we were about to head back home we saw a seal flitting through the water just about 10m away from us. All that was missing for real excitement was a shark...

2.) In my office. I've actually started work now, including grading. The other night I brought some graded  problem sets over to the other tutors' office and was just about to put them in the box when I was greeted by an old friend: A cockroach, wiggling its legs and feelers at me merrily from inbetween the assignments. I let him (or her?) be, I'm getting used to them.

But then, this morning, I'd been awake for at most half an hour, I got to the office and produced my travel mug from my bag in preparation for my morning coffee. I open the lid, and who's there, already wide awake? A cockroach! They're invading my private space now. So this one went down the drain, followed by a lot of very hot water which I used to clean out the mug -- enough is enough.

3.) At work. We went on a few trips this past week. Much like 8th grade class trips, remember those?

Taking 50 students for a hike is a lot like herding a flock of reluctant cattle, even though they're mostly older than me.

Yesterday the group went to visit Stellenbosch University, one of the universities they are registered at as students, and the same thing happened again. Us tutors were set up in different strategic locations inside the building and near the bus, with checklists for the students and phones in our hands, trying to get everyone there on time. I can now empathize with my own teachers from way back -- strange feeling!

On Saturday, we decided to walk up Muizenberg Peak, just about five minutes from the institute, scheduled departure: 9am. I showed up at 8 and waited, with a cup of coffee, for everyone else. The French-African students started appearing at breakfast around 8:50. 5 minutes later, a bunch of still fasting members of the Arab league. Some of the signed-up students had to be retrieved from their rooms, bathrooms, the table tennis table and other places around the building. A pattering pulsating crowd slowly formed in the lobby, and about half an hour after our declared departure we set off for the mountain.

Lots of photos

Lots of stops
It was supposed to take about an hour to climb the mountain. But we didn't quite anticipate some of the drag forces on our trek: first, our students love to take pictures. About every 10 seconds someone stopped to snap a photo, or pose for one. Then, some of them are not in very good shape -- one of them asked me "So this trip, is it for going for a walk, or for exercise, or for taking pictures?" The fasting faction grew weaker as the sun grew hotter, and some of them were threatening to collapse about halfway up. Two of us tutors went in the front, two in the back, trying to keep the forty-some students together, but to no avail -- only about three quarters actually made it to the top, and did so one by one, spread out over a surprisingly long period of time. The last people made it up around 2 hours after our departure.
Muizenberg from above

But so what, it was beautiful anyways. At one point you could hear the gurgling of a little mountain stream mixing with the distant sound of the waves; fantastic.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Train ride

Between Cape Town and False Bay (the bay Muizenberg and AIMS are located in) there runs a famously scenic railroad. Aside from being pretty at least on parts of the line, it is also our only means of public transportation out here, to move along the shore or into the city. This week I took the train for the first time, with two of my co-tutors: Emma from Scotland and Gordon from Ghana. At the train station, you have to buy a ticket, and decide between first or third class. Back in Germany, pretty much no one rides first class on trains, except for old and rich people; Everyone rides second, there is no third. Gordon picked up third class tickets for us, and it quickly became obvious that the situation is quite different here: black and colored South Africans travel third class, presumably the whites all got into the first class parts of the train -- Emma and I were the only white people on the train as far as I could see. What I started to realize last weekend and what has become more and more salient throughout this week is that Apartheid was abolished what seems like a long time ago, but its aftermath is far from over.

The first thing we noticed upon mounting the train, aside from our own exceptional whiteness, was a sign for "D.r. Sam, same day Penis enlargements: get Ur lost lover back" posted above several of the doors of the compartment, with a Cape Town phone number. The trains here -- at least in 3rd -- are the type with long benches running along the side of the interior, with lots of standing room inbetween; when we got on all seats were already taken but there was still plenty of space. While we were still joking about Doc Sam, a man's voice started sounding from a speaker in the overhead baggage holder. For a second I thought it was some official announcement, but no: from that speaker a cable ran to a dolly, belonging to a big guys standing just a few feet from us with something like a netbook in one hand, and a microphone in the other. "I will be riding to Cape Town, and if you are riding with me today, you will hear God's word." And he started preaching, at a volume that was just a bit too much for my ears.

At the next stop, the first candy vendor got on our train. These guys carry big bags of sweets and savory snacks, sometimes baskets as well, and go through the trains selling the miniature-sized lollies and packs of chips for a few Rand. Some of them are more vocal, some of them just quietly and slowly walk by and wait for you to call on them. We had a new one on our train about every 2nd stop, and I'm not sure how they make a living, since I only saw about 3 transactions happen on my roundtrip. But they must, I suppose.
More people started getting on as well, and things got a little more crowded; The preacher got louder. He alternated between a motley mixture of Christian-type music, and rather incoherent babbling about God and the Devil. He addressed the passengers as "my sick neighbor" in every sentence, and while I appreciate the fervor of the faithful in Africa I had to wonder if that was the usual address down here. Everytime our friend turned up his volume, he had to turn over the speaker to get to the controls at the back, and point right it at the poor guy sitting underneath -- completely unapologetically. That one put up with it a couple of times, then moved through the now considerable crowd to the other end of the train.

As we were being informed that "every tattoo on my body is a covenant with the Devil", beads of sweat now forming on the foreheads of many, some young colored guy standing near me found a pretty effective way to get some ventilation: he just held open the doors of the train as it was driving from station to station. It scared me a bit at first, but then I appreciated the breeze. After about 40 minutes, the sermon now much too loud for us to communicate verbally, we arrived at Claremont, our destination, and Gordon motioned for us to get off the train. We squeezed past people and heaps of chips and candy and jumped off, me holding my ears and quietly cursing the bearer of the good news.

Our return trip was a bit quieter, but the crowd on the train still depressed me quite a bit, and got me thinking. People's faces are empty, often sad (one of my students from Morocco asked me the other day: "Why do the people look so unhappy here?"). Presumably we were riding with the near-bottom of society in our area, those unable to even afford a car -- everyone here has cars. At least in my imagination their lives were reduced to mere survival, without any of the free time, glitter and dedication to enjoyment that characterize my own. These train-riding South Africans seemed more wretched than any Canadian I've seen. I bet some of that impression can be blamed on my state of culture shock, and feeling out of place to begin with. But the idea of living day in, day out just trying to make a living scares me nonetheless.