Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   Southern Cross
Friday, March 28 2003

setting: Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa

Today Gretchen, Dina and I began a road trip eastward en route to Kruger National Park, a place where so many of the charismatic animals of Africa live. Our goal today was to drive to a lodge near the Blyde River Canyon at the foot of the Klein Drakenberg escarpment, the western edge of the African lowveld, home to such characteristically African things as termite mounds, baobabs, malaria, and cheetahs.
Early in the drive, the landscape could have easily passed for northern or central Ohio. Near Johannesburg large farms dominated and the land lay relatively flat. Farther east, though, landforms became gradually higher, steeper, and rockier. With the increasingly steeper relief, land use gradually changed over to large plantations of pine. After driving down many kilometers of pine-lined highway, I have to say I had no idea there were so many pine trees in Africa. It's not the first continent I think of when I think of the word "pine." But the climate here is probably not so different from central and southern Alabama, another place with huge pine plantations.
We stopped for lunch in a small town somewhere. Like all small towns in South Africa, the first people we saw were black. Many of them were sitting around waiting, waiting. Blacks in South Africa are endowed with plenty of time, much of which they are forced to expend waiting. Waiting for rides. Waiting for work. Waiting on tables. Waiting for the sun to go down. Waiting for it to come back up again. Waiting for things that may never come. Whites, on the other hand, are always busy and impatient. They view their time as valuable, but even for them it's nowhere near as valuable as it is for people in New York City.
A group of traveling singers was gradually assembling to load back into their tour bus when Dina intercepted them and convinced them to sing for us at the restaurant across the street, provided we could get the restaurant's owner to agree. This was arranged, and so the singers began to form a line to sing for us. At this point a security vehicle pulled up out of nowhere and its white driver impatiently urged the black throng to keep on moving. This was the usual order for any black people seen venturing too close to the cars parked along the highway. The restaurant owner had to come out and insist that it was okay, that these people were singers about to give performance.
There were other things that happened along the way, each of a vaguely Wizard of Oz nature, though we were never pursued by hordes of bad monkeys. I was interested in the difference between the poor urban settlements I'd seen in Soweto and the villages of people living in remote rural villages along the base of the Drakenberg escarpment, but from my cursory position the only obvious difference was the presence of cows and goats and the sweet wood smoke that comes from the burning of many small dry sticks.
As we came down into the lowveld, I began to see termite mounds and the occasional baobab tree.

Our destination for the night was a lodge called Rushworth's Trackers. Soon after we arrived, we sat down to the dinner that had been prepared for us. It was comprised mostly of slices of beef, though they also managed to scare up some overcooked vegetables for Gretchen. The woman who served us was dressed in a ridiculous old-school maid's outfit, though it wasn't exactly one of those fetishy French maid outfits either. It was a highly unflattering shade of pink, particularly for a black woman. I thought she was stumbling as she handed each of us our plates, but in actuality she was curtseying. Her maid's education had included the lesson that she must completely humiliate herself with every action. I suppose it was part of the colonial schtick of the place - the sun never sets on the British Empire and all that sort of thing. But Jesus, was the 19th Century really that ridiculous? It was a reminder that in many ways not much has changed with the coming of the New South Africa.
The guy who owns the lodge came out and chatted with us for awhile. He talked about a gig he once had up in Zimbabwe and another over in Australia. Then he lamented the increasing arrival of lights down in the lowlands, saying there were only 23 when he arrived here a long time ago. Most of the new lights had come in "the past ten years" - coinciding, then, with the end of Apartheid. Gretchen took this to mean that the lights came from newly-electrified rural villages, and thus she found the owner's lament insensitive.
I looked up at the sky and it was dark enough for me to have my first real view of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. There it was - the Southern Cross, everything I thought it would be and yet somehow even more. How odd that God would choose to place a cross-like constellation in a place invisible to all of Christianity for the first 1400 years of its existence! Wait - what was that off in the north? Gretchen said it looked like Orion but I didn't think so. Then I realized what the problem was. It was Orion, but it was upside-down!

We three slept in one big rondavel up the hill. Before retiring, I flipped through a copy of the Gideons Bible (New Testament only) that had been strategically placed on a shelf. At the beginning it had a section featuring the core axiom of Christianity ("For God so love the world that He sent His only begotten son...") translated into 25 or so "important" languages. One of these was Afrikaans, so I decided to compare how that sentence looked in that language with how it looked in the parent language, Dutch. It wasn't as different as I expected, but I could sort of understand the argument that the two are now separate languages. A few words had been eliminated in Afrikaans, and most of the spellings had changed. I'm unnerved by the fact that the Afrikaners isolated themselves from the rest of the world so completely that they managed to develop a new language over the course of only several hundred years.

See some photographs from the South Africa trip.

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